One comes away from the listening and absorbing of Geoffrey’s latest offering Hemisphere as though well-traveled in one’s inner world….space-age technology combined with hallway voices, handclaps, blips, bleeps, smooth and sublime bass riffs, and a palette of sound that commands attention. And, in the case of “The Neighborhood Dubhouse” leaves little to the inspiration except to dance. Dub indeed a weapon here among the electronics (think early Thievery Corporation), as Geoffrey combines sounds of flute, flugelhorn, piano (a general basis for transition) and possibly a Moog or Minimoog thrown in there somewhere. The short-to-medium tracks capture the desire of the electronica fan most; the aforementioned “Dubhouse”, “Geology”, and “A Narrative Of Paradise”. The latter resembles a trip into an outer world, with gravity and time fairly suspended by the piece’s end.
I’ve played on a semi- regular basis for dance and movement classes since 1980, and and have spent the last seven years or so twice weekly at the Neighborhood Playhouse Theatre School working with actors. Over this period I’ve developed a number of quirky approaches in an attempt to amuse myself, the students and the instructors, and have engaged in some serious music making.
The seeds for these new pieces were captured live in Studio 4 of The Playhouse, February 2009, and this month I was playing piano, synth (Korg Poly 800 II) and a Roland Handsonic 15 percussion controller. The recorder was a Tascam DP 004, which records in 16 bit, using two tracks. Track one was a line in from the a Crate CA 30 amp, which handled the synth and the handsonic, track two was the sound of the room itself, i.e. natural reverb, chatter, feet, the piano, traffic, the sounds coming out of the amp, the clicking of keys and the thump of hands on pads. I then imported these 16 bit wav files into my Tascam 2488 (working on in 24 bit).
The performances were solo, so I was playing three instruments ‘simultaneously’. The way I conceive it is that I am playing one whole groove or piece, but only realising aspects of it at any one time. So, I may keep a rhythm happening with one hand on the handsonic and play melodies on the synth or piano with the other, or play ostinato on the piano and switch between the synth and the handsonic with the other. An idea might start on the synth but the run finishes with a flourish on the piano and handsonic. So on and so forth.
Once I began working on it at the home studio, I had two jumping off points. One, how to work with, accentuate, contrast, the sound of the ambient room, and two, how to judiciously fill in the rest of the piece, that had been hanging in the Playhouse air un-realised and un-articulated. I also had the sonic possibilities presented by having two relatively busy lo fi mono tracks as the foundation.
The stereo image became key. Sometimes the foundation tracks sounded good panned hard left and right, other times a core drum taken direct is dead centre with the ambient material flown off somewhere else. Most of the time I made just a few edits to impose order and began overdubbing right away, but there were a couple of occasions when I excerpted loops over which to lay fresh material, or ended up with an almost all new piece that incorporated only fragments from the original seed. Long codas of new work appeared after initial burbles of mono. I connected different takes of the same piece in different tempi via drones and written transitions as I became intrigued again by the natural breath and arc of music freed from the grid of loops and metronomes. I both obscured and teased time further by incorporating tempo delays that were sometimes in sync, but sometimes wafting close but not really within the rhythm at hand. One piece was left, unadorned, where it fell.
Making these pieces in a way was all about editing in the best bits, and then creating the right environments to show them off.
It’s ‘environmental’ music, an expression of the milieu in which it was created, as well as a sound available to complete the listener’s habitat. It has its own sonic presence, but sits comfortably within yours.
Inventive, engaging, and absolutely enjoyable. That’s my summation of Geoffrey Armes’ new CD, Hemisphere. Downright jazzy and spiced with world-beat overtones, Hemisphere is a unique experiment in music. The tracks here began their life as improvised pieces performed live to accompany a dance troupe’s performance, with Armes playing keys, synth and a Roland Handsonic for percussion. He then took the improv’d tracks into his studio and added to and augmented them, deepening the sound and truly enhancing the original ideas. Part of what makes this interesting is that Armes keeps the room’s environmental sounds in the tracks. Voices, applause, background sounds—they all become part of the experience of each song, a reminder of the stepping-off point. By and large, Hemisphere is a good collection of interesting blends of style. I like the pairing of an almost military-cadence drum with a techno feel at the beginning of “The Neighborhood Dubhouse” and the Blue Note-style cool that washes through “Light Fantastic Trip.” In some tracks (“Light Fantastic,” for example) it seems that Armes feels the need to add too much. These pieces lose their way a bit, but the elements are there, and solid. It just the sense of missing the mark by a hair. Conversely, when he hits it spot on, it’s an intense pleasure to listen to. “Endless Mansion” is such a track, with a strutting bossanova base and snappy Latin percussion. The hard funk of “Geology” is peppered with hard-charging guitar work, a meaty bass line and solid 70s-jazz electric keys. “With Clarity” is a great closer to the disc, deep and playfully uptempo with more of those background sounds adding character—particularly when it sounds like a little group chant! The best track here, though, is “Ancient Flow,” which pairs a swaying, drum-driven beat with a vocal sample filtered to sound like a didgeridoo. It’s simply hypnotic, a close-your-eyes-and-go ride. Hemisphere has proven itself to be a pleasant surprise across several welcome repeat listens. Armes’ construction is superb; there’s a lot of thought and soul showing through in the tracks here. I’m looking forward to more from him—and soon.
British musician Geoffrey Armes has a fascinating professional biography that charts his move from his earliest celtic, folk and eastern music influences in 1970s London to his embracement of electronic keyboards and a host of other techniques during his journey through Europe to New York City, where he now lives. This is a man to whom the music has a spiritual meaning: to him how he arrives is as important as where. As he says “what use is the note if it is laden with wrong action in its making”. It is, then, important to understand the context of this Hemisphere CD for the purposes of review.
Amongst the activities that Armes engages in to keep himself financially afloat is that of composing and playing for dance and movement classes: during the last seven years he has played twice weekly sessions for the Neighborhood Playhouse Theatre School, working with actors. Armes explains: “Over this period I’ve developed a number of quirky approaches in an attempt to amuse myself, the students and the instructors, and have engaged in some serious music making”. The backbone of these pieces on Hemisphere is tracks that Armes lay down during live sessions in February of this year, when he was playing piano, synth (Korg Poly 800 II) and a Roland Handsonic 15 percussion controller. Armes plays solo at the studio so he will use techniques such as setting up a rhythm on the Roland with one hand while playing a melody with the other. Later, in his home studio, Armes worked on “filling out” the pieces or editing them, as appropriate (one piece was left as he’d played it during the workshop), to create what we hear on this album. An interesting feature is that Armes has allowed some of the actors’ voices, heard quietly as they go about their work, to adorn some of the tracks.
Given this background it is perhaps not surprising that the album lacks the cohesion of the best electronic or ambient music albums, which often use variations on a central theme to hook the listener in to the album throughout its run. Not so here: whilst the individual pieces are pleasant enough, the album, at over an hour’s length, is difficult to listen through at one sitting. More so if you include the bonus disc (which is only available if you download the album from the artist’s website, not if you purchase the CD through itunes, cdbaby or elsewhere). Funnily enough, “Astin Place”, the bonus disc opener was the piece I found most satisfying; it felt to me as though it had been composed as a piece of music itself, rather than for the purpose of assisting actors with their movement. Its low backround hum was like a cosmic heartbeat, with ambient musical colorspainted on top: very effective!
Elsewhere, there are some high points that can be mentioned: “The Neighbourhood Dubhouse” had a catchy rhythm and you could easily imagine the piece being used for a “catwalk” model parade; “A Narrative of Paradise” was wistful and pretty; “Tuning a Soul” featured a reed synth that added effective textural colors; and “Geology” was pleasantly rockier than the rest. Of course, you might pick out different individual moments yourself, but the main point is that you are unlikely to find this as successful an album experience as, say, a Jean-Michel Jarre album. Or, perhaps, not even as successful an experience as one of his own previous albums: for instance, Noor received a favourable review from Richard Barnes on SoT last year.
Armes clearly has plenty of musical ability and imagination: if he can find the finances and time to focus on the music for the music’s sake, then his music will succeed in a fashion that Hemisphere does not. As it stands, it points to the qualities of the man, but it’s not the work that will make his name as a great composer. Track Listing:- 1) Endless Mansion (2:38) 2) The Neighbourhood Dubhouse (5:23) 3) Some Helpers (8:47) 4) A Narrative of Paradise (3:13) 5) Ancient Flow (4:54) 6) Light Fantastic Trip (7:18) 7) Friedrichstrasse (5:31) 8) Tuning a Soul (6:56) 9) Geology (4:24) 10) Clay Clusters (7:44) 11) Possibility (4:13) 12) With Clarity (6:46)
Bonus Disc Track Listing:- 1) Astin Place (3:58) 2) Goodness (5:19) 3) Requiem (2:54) 4) Dare Earth (5:37) 5) Las Americas (12:20)
Added: November 15th 2009
Reviewer: Alex Torres/SeaofTranquility.org