NORM CHAMBERS Sensory Margin (VCO Recordings, vcorecordings.bandcamp.com). In Norm Chambers we have in our midst one of the world's finest synthesizer players. Yet he remains a largely undervalued, overlooked figure in Seattle's sonic ecosphere. While Chambers is treasured by a handful of obsessive underground-music fans, he still performs to small crowds at tiny venues (except for that one gig at Q Nightclub). Decibel has shown him no love, nor Bumbershoot or Capitol Hill Block Party—though Debacle Fest has. Over the last four years, Chambers—better known as Panabrite—has been producing exquisite electronic music at a prodigious rate, releasing albums for respected labels such as Digitalis, Aguirre, and Bathetic. His new cassette/digital release for VCO Recordings, Sensory Margin, is one of his best.
Showing a heavier emphasis on rhythms than much of his previous work, Sensory Margin is still anything but earthbound. As he does in his output under his Panabrite handle, Chambers writes synth parts that evoke a feeling of constant elevation. Album opener "Index" is a case in point, its beautiful, celestial melody and tranquilly percolating percussion sounding like Cluster and Harald Grosskopf collaborating in 1978 Germany. "Luminous Technology" is an apt description of Chambers's music, its gorgeous plumes of synth and brisk rhythm that's like little hisses of air being let out of a bicycle tire evoke an exalted state of wonder. The majestic "Runner" is miles better than Vangelis's Chariots of Fire theme, and as a runner myself, I'm making it my new theme. The gradually blooming ambient radiance of "Purpose" is as splendorous as Mort Garson and Tonto's Expanding Head Band at their most contemplative. Sensory Margin's nine-minute epic finale, "Simulacrum," is a cauldron of burbling, glistening tones and comet-tail whooshes that's as grandiloquent as mid-'70s Tangerine Dream. This is how you conclude an album.
AMBARCHI/O'MALLEY/DUNN Shade Themes from Kairos (Drag City, dragcity.com). Quite a gathering of heavy friends here: Hometown studio wizard Randall Dunn plays keyboards for Master Musicians of Bukkake, Stephen O'Malley's day job is lending guitar gravity to Sunn O))), and Australian experimental guitarist Oren Ambarchi is a prolific, promiscuous collaborator who can drone or get pointillistic with the best ax manipulators on the planet, although here he mostly plays percussion. Their first release together, Shade Themes from Kairos sprang from a score for Belgian director Alexis Destoop's Kairos, a film about "an apocalyptic event that brought an end to linear time," according to Destoop's website.
Shade Themes will definitely mess with your sense of time—while taking up more than an hour of it over five tracks. But it's well worth the expenditure. The 13-minute "That Space Between" conjures the feeling of a humid, sordid sojourn through dense, lush terrain. Dunn and company keep you uneasy with eerie, crystalline guitar and mysterious animalistic emanations over stealthy, tumbling beats that recall the itinerant psychedelia of Grails. On "Temporal, Eponymous," fuzzed and sweetly stinging guitar get entangled in a thick, rolling rhythm, all redolent of doom. The album peaks on "Circumstances of Faith," a strange coagulation of minuscule sonic events that recalls the odd ambience pervading Byrne/Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Beats and distorted guitar enter halfway through and ignite hot rock action that flares up into some gnarly chaos that would straighten Sonny Sharrock's hair. The 21-minute "Ebony Pagoda" offers slow-blooming gray-black mushroom clouds of cantankerous guitar; it's the closest Shades comes to Sunn O)))'s distended doom drone symphonies. It's as if the trio decided to end this record on a marathon ultra-bummer and make everyone trudge out dejected. Nice.
VARIOUS ARTISTS Country Funk II: 1967–1974 (Light in the Attic, lightintheattic.net). Everything was funkier in the late '60s to the mid '70s—including that bastion of ungroove, country music. Seattle label Light in the Attic's second excavation of funked-up country jams follows in the first volume's vein: a strong mix of obscure ringers and famous figures not exactly known for getting on the good foot (Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Bob Darin). The hit-to-miss ratio here is outstanding: 15 of the 17 tracks can stand up to repeated listens, whether you're downtown or in the boonies. The only letdowns are Jackie DeShannon's cover of the Band's "The Weight" and Dillard & Clark's version of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down." The comp's climaxes come from Thomas Jefferson Kaye's "Collection Box," an ominous, low-slung bit of orchestral backwoods funk, and Jim Ford's humidly zodiacal "Rising Sign," which sounds like a Dr. John and Sly & the Family Stone super session. Combining country's emphasis on clever storytelling with funk's danceable/fuckworthy rhythms, Country Funk II should charm adventurous fans of both genres.