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Multiple reviews follow . . .James Johnson Silent Silhouette: Extended Loops for Cinema Some time around 2000, Sonic Foundry developed the Acid Loops software package. It is a music making and mixing program with simple procedures. It works primarily with "drag and drop" and "drag and fill" techniques. (They have since sold the rights to Sony and it is now called Acid Pro.) The program allows for the use of loops created by others specifically for this software. Many of the contributing artists have stated that they make more from the sale of their loops libraries than from their CD sales. James Johnson created a double disc library titled Silent Silhouette: Extended Loops for Cinema. It is his second library for the foundry and it is amazing! There are over 200 tracks (wave files) and all of them are beautiful pieces with deep textures and smooth timbres. There is not much thematic integrity as James created the works for others to use. It is, nonetheless, a cool listening experience. ~ Jim Brenholts
Perimeter II by "Vir Unis" and James Johnson "In the Bubble" Music, AtmoWorks 2003 http://www.AtmoWorks.com �Vir Unis� and his colleague at AtmoWorks, James Johnson, have released so much material in the last two years that it�s hard to keep up with it. First, the 2-CD Perimeter I in 2001, then �Vir Unis�� own Mercury and Plastic with its companion album Symbology in 2002, and now the 3-CD set Perimeter II in 2003, again by the Unis-Johnson duo. That�s 7 CD�s, not counting the other albums that AtmoWorks has produced in these years which have some pieces and participation by both Unis and Johnson. They�re busy guys! They have produced so much that I sometimes find it hard to tell whose album is whose. They either have a high degree of consistency of sound, or they are playing on each other�s albums whether they are credited or not. The same is true for Perimeter II, in which the �romantic� musical sound of lush synthesizer chords is paired with hard-edge electronic noises and computer-driven rhythms. Lavishly packaged in a folding plastic triple-case usually used for DVD�s, this multi-album has enough room to put all the variety that characterizes the �Perimeter� sound: fast, slow, hot, chilly, sleepy, robotic, and all very digital. Disc 1 has some of the same feeling as Unis� own Mercury and Plastic but with a lighter texture. The almost-melodic line, often played on what sounds like a fuzz-distort sustained electric guitar, is a signature sound for Unis and Johnson. Together with electronic beats and minor and modal harmonies, this ensemble looks back to the pioneering electronic rock of Europe in the 70�s, especially the German style. Disc 2 I consider the best of the three. It has the most variety and invention of the set: a celebration of technology and modern sound-processing and outright �computer music.� It abounds in special sound-effects, looping sequences, and �fractal� contours. But it is also an impersonal sound, driven by mechanical rhythms and a cool, sometimes even melancholy mood. Its melodies and harmonies are understated, at least in the early sections. It is music to code by, composed with computers, using sound generated by a computer, and played on the listener�s computer. Track 4, my favorite on the album, bounces along with a syncopated beat which is reminiscent of Perimeter I�s �Infinity Walk.� As the album progresses, though, the beats recede and the music turns restful and soft. Track 5 leads into a much quieter mood; it is also one of the more emotionally expressive passages in the album, reinforced by the drifting track 7. The titles, with names like �Mobius Polarities,� �Individual Circles,� and �Dimensional Vertices,� are highly abstract, in keeping with the emotional distance of much of this album set. Electronic chill reigns here. Disc 3, which is the shortest in duration of the three, features some of the more �romantic� sounds of the duo, that put the �soft� back into �software� with a sequence of gentler textures. The hard rhythms are put aside, and sustained synthesizer notes dominate. It�s romantic, but it�s still chill, its pretty floating chords wrapped in layers of shimmering sonic ice. Track 2, �Measuring Seasons,� is one of the best tracks of the whole 3-CD set, in which a repeating modal sequence anchors a glittering texture of zippy special effects; the whole thing has a kind of quirky sweetness. The last track, �Moving Language,� lulls the listener with a misty twilight of blue electrons. Perimeter II gives the listener a glowing screen-window into what the twenty-first century might hold for us in artistic expression, as our media become more and more dependent on artificial intelligences of all kinds. Hannah M.G. Shapero June 18, 2003
Seed by "Ma Ja Le" (Christopher Short and Paul Vnuk)and James Johnson Hypnos Recordings, 2001 http://www.hypnos.com "Ma Ja Le" is the entity responsible (along with "Vir Unis") for the excellent ambient album Imaginarium (1998, Mirage Records). They return for an equally surrealistic ambient trip in Seed, accompanied by James Johnson, who along with "Vir Unis" brought us the powerful double album Perimeter (2001). From this multi-connected group of talented sound adventurers comes an album which seems, musically, to look both backwards and forwards. Perhaps it's the wailing electric guitars and the strange percussion (listed as "shakerscapes, wavedrum, altered reality, and percussive drones" in the liner notes) that makes me reminisce back to the long episodes of improvised musical "space" in between the sets of a Grateful Dead concert. During much of this album, I can easily visualize the moving colored lights and smell that Special Fragrance which was so much a part of these concerts. There is definitely a nostalgic psychedelic feel to this album. (Have we grown so old that psychedelia is now nostalgic?) But there is also the layering of state-of-the-art synthesizing, creatively described in the liner notes as "melted machinery, prehistoric insect worlds, and ethereal texturizing" (someone had fun writing these notes!). The synthesizers and loop machines add a modern edge to the older, conventional rock-based sounds of electric guitars and drums. Though the instrumentation sounds popular, the sound is far from pop or rock � it is a slow, somnolent (after all, this is a Hypnos recording) procession through contemplative spaces. Johnson was a hard-driving technoman in Perimeter but here he goes for the ambient drift, not the power rhythms. The last and sixth track on this album is somewhat of a surprise after the dreamy tonality of the first 5. It's the title track, "Seed," and it is a spooky, thrilling plunge into "dark space ambient." It's also the longest track at more than 19 minutes. The rock band is gone, and we are in the eerie land of electronics all the way � atonal or microtonal notes, sinking and rising in that icy sea of reverb which makes spacefarers happy. If this is a Seed, it's a seed from outer space, the kind which might have brought life to Hannah M.G. Shapero 4/26/02
James Johnson & Ma Ja Le: Seed Hypnos www.zeromusic.net www.starsend.org/majale email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Seed is the long awaited and much anticipated studio collaboration between James Johnson and Ma Ja Le (Paul Vnuk, Jr. and Chris Short). The album is a natural follow-up to the y2k live CD, Live Under a Harvest Moon. The disc features a hybrid of two styles, neither of which dominates, both of which compliment. The new style is symphonic tribal minimalism. Ma Ja Le's tribal ambience interacts superbly with James's expansive and meditative minimalism. The artistes' mutual preferences for experiMENTAL sonic possibilities provide the recurring theme that holds the set together. The deep and ethereal ambience is absolute ear candy. There are distinct symphonic synthesizer echoes. Chris's "guitartronics" are subtle and powerful. James's "synthetic architecture" is gentle and dynamic. Paul's "synthscapes" are colorful and gray. At the time of this review, Paul, Chris and James were still looking for a label on which to release this amazing CD. That search should be a short one! (They found a label. It will be a Hypnos release. That is no surprise at all!) reviewed by Jim Brenholts
James Johnson and Robert Scott Thompson: Forgotten Places (CD, 59:51); 2001 Zero Music ZM92101 E-mail: email@example.com Website: www.zeromusic.net Fans of Harold Budd, Brian Eno, and Roger Eno piano with treatments works will enjoy this release. This, to date, is James Johnson's most mainstream, new agey, relaxation piano release. It will have a very broad appeal to those afraid of weirder-voiced ambience or highly synthesized excursions. As Michael Allison aka Darshan Ambient is one of the newer masters of melodic ambience so too I see Johnson has this ability in him to create compositionally. The dreamy and lilting pianoscapes of Johnson with Thompson's select embellishments and treatments are in perfect balance. This is a very pleasing listening experience that will serve to establish James Johnson as one of the genre's best. I knew this long ago on my very first listen to his Surrender releases which featured a delightful piano intermission betwixt a wall of drones. This is a 95% total relaxation release. Only on the 5:28 "Innocence Lost" does a tension surround the listener with ominous and mournful synths. This is gradually decreased by the careful entry of Johnson's piano and some wordless choir effects but there remains a sense of remorse and unresolved regrets throughout. Those folks who like a touch of environmental sounds courtesy of the Hand of the Creator will also enjoy nature's watery whispers here and there on "Low & Clear". Overall, this is a solid winner for fans of meandering ivories that drift in the airy heights of the soul's ascent to peace. This type of music re-affirms to my soul that Man is more than brain and brawn. He is a living soul with Mind and a spirit to hear the call of the Eternal One. And Death is but a door . . . ~ John W. Patterson, EER-MUSIC.com Personnel: James Johnson - synths, piano, samples, field recordings Robert Scott Thompson - synths, samples, computer music synthesis and digital signal processing Tracks: A Slow Return, Resonant Landscape, Stolen Moment, Then & Now, Innocence Lost, Mineola Bay, Low & Clear, Malay, Luminous, Endless
Perimeter by "Vir Unis" and James Johnson "In the Bubble" Music and "Zero Music", 2001 http://www.virunis.com, http://www.zeromusic.net Chicago-based "Vir Unis," the creator of the ambient masterpiece Aeonian Glow, teams up with electronic trancemaster James Johnson in the 2-CD album Perimeter. Like most music in the techno-electronic genre, Perimeter is in a minimalistic style, which depends on repetitive rhythms and harmonies, often multi-layered, in which small changes are constantly happening. Sonic elements appear and disappear, set against a steady, unchanging background. In this album, there are very few "acoustic" sounds; it is all electronic, often with a hard edge to it. There are sudden joyous moments of synthesizer swirl, and darker industrial whirrs and whines. As he does in his solo work, "Vir Unis" layers in ghostlike recordings of shortwave radio channel-sweeps and transmission fragments, which you can hear in the softer moments of many tracks. The fast-spinning virtual wheels of the synthesizer engines turn out rhythms that can be far faster than any human hand could play, as well as endlessly changing "fractal-pattern" pulses and tones that are mathematics put into sound. Unis and Johnson honor this theme by using terms from mathematics and physics for their track titles: "Magnetic Monopole," "Cartesian Plane," "Singular Integral," and "Geometry of Recursion." Like most 2-CD sets, Perimeter has a tendency to sprawl, but the longer pieces are sustained by the powerful, insistent rhythm. In my opinion one of the best pieces on the album is also one of the longest, the 15-minute "Infinity Walk" (track 7, CD1) in which microsecond fragments of pure vocal notes are interspersed into a shimmering pattern of moderate, dancelike electronic rhythm. My favorite on CD 2 is also long, track 5, "Cross Hemispheric Coherence," which swells in an impressive crescendo of focused sound. I detect an echo of Steve Roach's recent Core in this particular piece. In this track, as in other tracks, "Vir Unis" sometimes adds in another trademark of his: "tone clusters" which hover around a melody without actually settling down into it. This very independent album, distributed by the artists themselves, is at the esoteric edge of electronic trance-rhythm music. If you are used to listening to conventional music, with its melodies, harmonies, and forms, you will find "Vir Unis'" and James Johnson's work alien and almost impossible to bring into your listening scope. But if you have learned to be a connoisseur of this type of music, then Perimeter is an outstanding example of the genre, and a timely evocation of the electronic- cybernetic world which is so much a part of our lives in this new 21st century.
Hannah M.G. Shapero 1/13/02
James Johnson: Unity (CD, 44:01); 1998 Zero Music, independent release E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.zeromusic.net Ever since hearing Johnson's Surrender, which is in my top five fav ambient releases, I was eager to hear this earlier work. I can hear now, the proto-forms, faint traces and olde tracks that lead to his current ambient space excellence. This release opens with an incredibly similar sound to that found on the Eno release, paying tribute the Apollo missions. That Eno release was Apollo - Atmospheres & Soundtracks. "Forward" mirrors nicely the very best piece of that Eno release. The perfect mix of keyboards and synth embellishings are wonderful. I also hear that lush melodic ambience of Darshan Ambient here. With "Flow" we are treated to a 15:20 cut that goes deeper into the depth of distant space with Jonn Serrie-styled drones and enveloping "glurps" or "gulpings" of booming synths calling to mind Roach or Rich. Very, very relaxing this stuff is! "Return" has that Wendy Carlos feel of "Summer" from her first ground-breaking ambient experiment, Sonic Seasonings. I sensed a virtual heaviness of heat or a weighty, huge-winged fluttering of low-end, warping keys that pushed me "down" as if I was trying to walk on Jupiter. I also heard the drone- voicings that were like those used by Neil Nappe on his July release in the 80's. This track is a solid bridge into the final track. "In Then Out" carries those heavy and deep drones from the prior cut and adds echoing mid to upper range chordal, synth breaths. The high-end clarion synths, almost like chimes or upper-register notes, come strolling in like the gentle melodic waltz theme found in Vangelis' Antarctica. This 15:48 piece is like the perfect prelude to the bliss Johnson created on his later Surrender release. An excellent outro. I have but one regret and minor whine/complaint to voice -- and then praise to finish. Why is it that wonderful releases like this are under 45 minutes in duration? And also, why is it that splendid early artist releases like this one, and others of Johnson and even Roach, the well-known drone, which all hold such perfectly balanced restfulness and simplicity, are soon "forgotten"? What do I mean? It seems that early releases of many ambient space composers are near perfection. Then after two, three or more subsequent releases, things change, things are forgotten. Compositions get "cluttered", busied with percussives or other extra special effects. When what happens is, an original musical vision changes or vanishes. I see it over and over. Imagine a beautiful sunset with a few clouds reflecting the glory. Bliss! Then a few more clouds, and some trees in silhouette, and let's add a mountain range, and over here a little house. Ah, paint in a flock of geese, and . . . oh yeah, a big suspension bridge too, and add another cloud here and there and -- You see my point? With apologies to James Johnson, I will here restate, his ambience is some of the globe's very best. I am drawn to his simplicity and conservation of ambient compositions. Did I say minimalism? I am finding his work more pleasing to my soul than 90% of what is out there. I just hope Johnson never forgets the beauty of simplicity. Not all artists' "growth" and "change" is needful. Some careful "pruning" makes for finer fruits in the long run. ~ John W. Patterson, EER-MUSIC.com Personnel: James Johnson - all synths and programming Tracks: Forward, Flow, Return, In Then Out
James Johnson: Entering Twilight (CD, 66:34); 2000 Hypnos Recordings E-mail: email@example.com Website: www.zeromusic.net or www.hypnos.com I recently saw this release listed in a newsgroup as ambient music to fall asleep to -- I agree. This release of Johnson's evokes that moment when you are coming down from awe or an intense epiphany. I mean it conveys that sense of relaxed but fading wonder, the in-between places of undirected contemplation. The is a continuous play, one song, one composition, one mood piece. It has somewhat of a fade in, then weaves endlessly to nowhere and returns to the void of silence without fanfare. For those curious as to what this ambient miasma sounds like I suggest you find the works of Steve Halpern and early Jonn Serrie. Find the clear-toned notes that chime like bells or muffled gongs, that echo and vibrate resembling, those Spartan healing-keys meanderings of Halpern. Then weave in the passing drones, ethereally distant wailings of alien sirens, and vocalizations of angelic whales in a Serrie space music mode. Randomize it all into a gentle mix, adjust volume swells, carefully pan, and keep notes in a relatively restricted set of octaves. Assemble into an amorphous flow of sounds. Avoid spacecraft or cometary whooshing effects and lean towards picturing an otherworldly windchime store situated near an underwater train chute -- ahhhh yes, that's it. Recommended for not listening to -- but for general neuronal shut-down, snoring, and NDE recovery sessions. "Goodnight, Grasshopper. Please bring more rice paper for tomorrow. And quit playing with that gong already." ~ John W. Patterson, EER-MUSIC.com Personnel: James Johnson - all synths and programming Tracks: Entering Twilight
James Johnson: Surrender (CD, 53:31); Zero Music ZM3219, 1999 Zero Music, 27135 West Wilmot Rd. Antioch, IL 60002 USA E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Cyberhome: http://www.zeromusic.net Few, very few CDs I receive in the ambient genre, ever reach me as deeply as Surrender. Few, very few releases earn the right, to be called a masterpiece. Johnson's Surrender is a solid masterpiece. Ambient works collectors who desire to only collect the very best must have this release. Fans of Steve Roach, Brian Eno, Jonn Serrie, and Harold Budd will be right at home with this CD. I received this demo long, long ago and we have become fast friends. Some days at work, it played all day. Some lonely nights during my sporadic third shift stints it played endlessly, keeping me company. And those sleep-deprived drives home in painful daylight were eased by Surrender. There is much healing in this warm bath, this brain massage, and this quiet friend of Johnson's creation. I labored internally for months, vexed over just how do I review such a hugely successful creation. I am not a reviewer that can easily "rip off" a word here and there and slap it online when it comes to such a monumentally strong and visionary work. It is 5 a.m. and after staring at the blue LEDs of the bedside clock since 4:30, I have been, at last, compelled to write of Surrender. Here goes the epiphany . . . Expect three movements of grace, peace, contemplation, and dreams. First, "She Will Shift You" is 28:05 of Roach-worlds, drones, ebbs and flows, gentle but strongly pulsing currents of perfection, oceans of curiously relaxing and hypnotic synth- washes, tidal waves of pleasure cover you in elegant simplicity. Very much in the mood of Roach's Quiet Music and Structures from Silence but even more effectively done, honed to absolute clarity ~ blessed of Hypnos. Next, as an interlude, 5:47 of "Remembrance" arrives, stirring neurons to wakefulness due to synths leaving and a pianoscape meander of sustain notes wanders into the forefront. Very Eno, mirroring Budd and a nod to Tim Story. Well-placed night noises insecta and amphibian saunter in too. Cricket and frog ambience samples courtesy of Paul Vnuk Jr. adorn the ethereal piano. Lastly so, the 19:41 title track melts into being, bringing with it Vnuk Jr.'s environmental chirpings, subdued but at the edge of hearing, spilling over from track two. Overtop of this nature soundfield, Johnson returns to synth-breathings and loopings. Roach-styled, restful sonic influence is again heard but a Harold Budd feel pervades. I sensed that same aural space of Abandoned Cities and Serpent in Quicksilver here. Again, this track too, stands forth a superbly executed ambient masterwork. Supremely relaxing, mood-altering, calming, healing and an introspectively stimulating experience. This is a "sunrise-in-heavy-fog" or "dreamtime-with-nature" or even "lost-cities/ ancient-Mayan-temple-ruins" trip. You need to hear this yourself. Well, my epiphany has ended, the CD moves to silence yet once more and I am ready to go back to bed. Thank you James. Thank you, so very much for Surrender. Forgive me for taking so very long to approach your fine art with this review but you now stand shoulder to shoulder with the best. Someone please add Johnson's visage to the Ambient Mt. Rushmore. Highest recommendations on this one. ~ John W. Patterson
James Johnson: Linger (CD, 59:24); SpaceForMusic.com Records, 7528 2000 (MP3.com D.A.M. CD version release) E-mail: email@example.com Cyberhome: www.zeromusic.net This is a LIVE recording of James Johnson at Canada's Ambient Ping 2000 event. It of course is high quality ambience as Johnson seems to consistently crank forth. Things get rolling on the title cut with ambient thunderstorm sounds, deep drones, very, very minimal synthage and a progressive addition of deep-voiced bells, chiming and gonging in that Indonesian/Asian meditative mood. Good opening track. "Floating and Dreaming" opens up things a bit with louder walls of synths, coming and going, looping, overlapping, like ocean waves of sound, in a very space- music mode. This evoked a strong essence of Tangerine Dream's quieter moments and "trance" fugues. Serrie's early works come to mind too. It is a relaxing mosaic of synth- entities that drift by you in an immense presence. A deep power is felt ~ as if you are close to be trampled by massive sound-things grazing by your psyche. A fairly effective track, amorphous, wanton oozings of synth will no direction ~ works for me. "Riding the Fog Line" is a less interesting track to my personal taste palette. I found it structurally very similar to the prior cut ~ this time the voicing is set to synths and "synth voices/choral effects". What immediately "turned me off" was the arrival of sounds-like-Roach-n-Rich doing the tribal percussives thing. Johnson could've had a very strong track and left the distracting synth-percussives un-voiced. My bias of course. "Siren Song" is a pinnacle minimal moment of heavenly pianoscape with very quiet synth embellishings. Brian and/or Roger Eno, Harold Budd and Tim Story would instantly come to mind. Very "New Age" periodicity, George Winston, and all that but hey -- it will always be a beautiful thing for years to come when done like Johnson does it here. Bliss! "Frequency Shift" brings us back to ambient synth-land with blended washes and the breathings of infinity's echoes, slower, meditative, more serene overall than prior synth cuts. Space music textures and wordless choir phrasings evoke a streamlined Constance Demby sacred space essence. Johnson saved the best for last. A strong work, one weak moment of percussives that just didn't do it for this release's overall gestalt, yet a winner in the final moments of this LIVE performance that sounds like a studio release. ~ John W. Patterson Personnel: James Johnson ~ all synths and various cool elektronickel "what-nots" Tracks: Linger, Floating and Dreaming, Riding the Fog Line, Siren Song, Frequency Shift
James Johnson Linger James Johnson is one of the acknowledged masters of minimalism in the e-music community. He was also one of the first artists to take advantage of the MP3 D.A.M. technology to publish his music. Linger, a live recording, was originally on that format in 2000. As the feasibility of MP3.com has waned, many artists have discontinued their association with that organization. James has also been building his own label -- Zero Music -- and his venture with Vir Unis (John Strate-Hootman) -- Atmo Works. With all those factors looming, it is a natural for this CD to appear on the AW label. This set -- free from the constraints of MP3 compression -- has new life and vibrant timbres. It sounds fresher today than it did in y2k. James has also added a new track for the re-issue. It's always a treat to hear Jim's music. In this case, the treat is two-fold. It is great to hear new sounds next to "rescued" music. ~ Jim Brenholts
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