Posts Tagged ‘Christmas Music’

It’s Christmas. Projekt Gets Ornamental.

September 18, 2012

Various Artists – Ornamental (A Projekt Holiday Collection)

I just got in my first Christmas album of the season and the tree-topper has been set high with Ornamental, a collection from the Projekt label.  Best known for their dark ambient and Goth recordings, as well as great electronic releases from Steve Roach and Erik Wollo, this is their latest incursion on holiday music.  They had previously released a series called Excelsis, of which the first, A Dark Noel, remains among the most distinctive and haunting seasonal albums ever.   With Ornamental, Projekt expands their seasonal pallet in a double CD that ranges from electronica to goth, space music to shoegaze, medieval to mystical.

It launches with the corniest Christmas tune possible, “Frosty the Snowman,” but Paulina Cassidy turns it into snow shrouded  electronica dream.  It makes a perfect entry into the vertiginous holiday soundscape of Ornamental,  although she’s a little less successful on her other two entries.

Anji Bee & Ryan Lum of LoveSpirals

There are a lot of post-Cocteau Twins shoegazer ruminations on the album.  Autumn’s Grey Solace swirls sparkling snow flurries around “Through the Snowy Trees” and Ashkelon Sain & the Dorian Fields turn “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” into a moody  My Bloody Valentine-like ode to a bleak winter.  Unto Ashes delivers their post-Cocteau Twin’s sound upon “King of Frost” sounding like medieval shoegaze troubadours.  LoveSpirals, who had a couple of my favorite Excelsis songs, (“Welcome Christmas” in their Love Spirals Downwards edition and “Aspen Glow” as LoveSpirals) return with another evocative seasonal song, an original called “Happy Holidays” featuring Anji Bee, who sings it with sophisticated élan,  like she’s casting knowing glances over her shoulder against Ryan Lum’s chiming guitars.

The two discs of Ornamental are divided into the “Traditionals” and the “Non-Traditionals.”  The Non-Traditional disc opens with a song from the score of the ultimate Christmas album for hipsters, the “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” soundtrack.  But Ornamental goes deeper than the oft-covered title track and play “Forbidden Colours,” composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto and  David Sylvian.  Black Tape for a Blue Girl, the band headed by Projekt label head Sam Rosenthal, delivers it with their usual funereal, vampire dirge.

Some don’t make it.  Maroulis, Koehn and Mooney’s “Ave Maria” is ponderous gothic chant; Ego Likeness’ “What Child Is this” is clichéd goth spookiness; and The Last Duchess’s “Cradle Song” is a lot of echo and reverb signifying nothing. But there’s also the contrast of All My Faith’s Lost delicate, folk reading of “In the Bleak Midwinter” with KatzKab who take “My Sad Wishlist” on a girl-group romp somewhere between the Shangri-Las and The Waitresses.

Erik Wøllo in Echoes Living Room

Norwegian synth-guitarist Erik Wøllo pretty much drips icicles on almost anything he’s recorded over the last 3 decades.  Whenever he comes through Echoes, we always try to get a seasonal set out of him and he graciously obliges.  He does it here with a pair of sparkling “Crystal Bell’s that close Ornamental in a meditative fashion.

I’ve been begging for musicians to create a different kind of seasonal music besides the rote rendering of the same 25 or so holiday chestnuts over-roasted on an open fire.  Projekt has been fulfilling that since 1995 with ExcelsisOrnamental takes them in a slightly less gothic and doom-laden mode and makes it a likely pick for the best seasonal CD of 2012, if your tastes in seasonal music heads towards the abyss.

~© 2012 John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning Bring Christmas Under the Wonder Sky

November 30, 2010

Echoes December CD of the Month
Jeff Johnson,  Brian Dunning & Wendy Goodwin: Under The Wonder Sky

Your Christmas CD for 2010 has slipped down the chimney.

It’s been seven years since we had a seasonal album as our Echoes December CD of the Month.  That was A Windham Hill Christmas, Vol. 2. Not coincidentally, two of the artists on that album were Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning.

Like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning have forged an enduring, if not nearly as tumultuous or lucrative, relationship.  They’ve been together for more than 20 years, since they met in Portland, Oregon.  At that time, Johnson was a rising Christian artist while Dunning was in the popular Windham Hill Celtic fusion group, Nightnoise.  Despite the fact that Dunning now lives in his native Ireland and Johnson has moved to Camano Island in Washington, they continue to work and record together.  On Under the Wonder Sky they’re joined by violinist Wendy Goodwin.

Hear “Come Thou, Long Expected Jesus”

The duo has made some of my favorite Christmas music over the years, beginning with several tracks on Windham Hill Winter Solstice and Christmas samplers to their own albums like the haunting A Quiet Knowing Christmas.  With Under the Wonder Sky, they’ve thrown the log on the fire of yet another near perfect seasonal recording.

Johnson, Dunning and Goodwin take the schlock out of Christmas, with inventive song selection and arrangements that fall between the moody and the pastoral.  You won’t find any sleigh bells on this CD.  Although a bouncy rendition of “Greensleeves” opens the album, it’s the second track, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” that sets the tone.  A traditional Christmas hymn based on “Gloria In Excelsis Deo,” Brian Dunning trades off the melody with violinist Wendy Goodwin in a song that is at once yearning and wistful.

Many of the songs here are lesser known carols and hymns like “As With Gladness, Men of Old” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent.”  But even when they play a chestnut like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” Johnson & Dunning shear it of the corny sentimentality usually associated with that melody and turn it into a quietly classical chamber work full of atmosphere that seems to literally emerge out of a crystal night sky, wafting in luminous hues.

Hear “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”

Although “Away in a Manger” resists their attempts to turn it into a pastoral meditation, it’s hard to go wrong with “Wexford Carol.”  They give the Irish tune a deceptive opening with Dunning stating the theme on a deep bass flute over an ominous drone but then it breaks into a lively rhythm suitable for wassailing.

Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning-Echoes Concert 2004

Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning are wonderful composers and if this album has a flaw, it’s that there aren’t more of their  original compositions on it.  That’s borne out by Johnson’s lone contribution of the title track.  Loosely based on “I Wonder as I Wander,” Johnson opens with a solo piano prelude then shifts into a pensive two-note piano bass line  with Goodwin creating a gentle violin arc while he assembles sparse, echoing sampled and electronic percussion, followed by Dunning’s percussive flute.  A slow build crests the hill and opens up on a rolling panorama of strummed guitar and Dunning’s flute interweaving again with Goodwin’s lilting violin.

Hear “Under the Wonder Sky”

Brian Dunning’s “As the Child Sleeps” uses a rapid arpeggio guitar riff from Tim Ellis to set the mood before it slips into a wistful ballad with Dunning playing low whistle.

The album ends on a parlor music note in a trio as Johnson sits at an acoustic piano with Dunning and Goodwin on flute and violin.  But even here, Johnson can’t resist some electronic keyboard harmonizing of the sacred melody.

Whether you celebrate Christmas with spiritual intent or just love the quiet mood and reflective atmosphere of the winter season, Under the Wonder Sky is a perfect soundtrack.

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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