V/A :: Ultrasoft! Anthems 33 (Plastic Sound Supply)

A well-rounded mix of familiar names and new-to-me artists whose entries on this compilation inspired me to dive into their back catalogs…

soft-anthems33Despite the unusually-punctuated title and playful promo site, styled like a 1980s late-night TV ad, there’s nothing cheesy about Ultrasoft! Anthems 33, Plastic Sound Supply‘s 20th release. Instead of the pan-flute serenades the title might suggest, after tearing off the virtual shrinkwrap and perusing the digital liner notes, I found a well-rounded mix of familiar names and new-to-me artists whose entries on this compilation inspired me to dive into their back catalogs.

FOANS sets the mood with a beatless, chiming piece entitled “Pure Pensive Particles” that juxtaposes the twittering of a (real?) aviary against long sub-bass notes and reversed synth swells. “Momentary”, credited to Grenade Fountain, grabbed me immediately with deep dubby chords and a Pole-esque static crackle. This piece is strong enough that I immediately went searching for more material but either Google utterly failed me or the track introduces an accomplished artist under a brand new nom-de-guerre. Next up, Denver’s Pillow Garden collaborate with Jason Corder aka offthesky on the subtle, manipulated field recordings of “Stretches”.

I’m not sure what the point of the 65-second-long track “Attenuation” by Iuengliss is, especially when they’re capable of some phenomenal multi-media mindbuggery, but it’s a pleasant enough segue from the more acoustic “Stretches” into electronic-instrumented “Awareness” by Scaffolding and Ten and Tracer’s “Slap an Orphan Clap”. It’s great to hear craft and restraint in as full measure as Jonathan Canupp brings on this latter track; the play of melody against empty space and subtle sonic detail like stretched-out voices (and maybe…laughter?) deep in the mix is just delightful.

A couple of classic ambient tracks hold down the center of the album: David Last’s “Lemon Twin” would have nestled comfortably among the Em:t Records releases of the mid-90s and “Ceres II” by The Parallel Light digs even deeper with space traveller analogue washes evocative of Michael Stearns’ 1985 classic Planetary Unfolding. Frequent readers who recall the honey I dripped over Sean Byrd’s Always Was will not be surprised that I found his contribution here, entitled “Held Together,” to be the centerpiece of the album. A head-nodding beat that drops out and reappears just when it should, vast echoes, delicate pizzicato: four minutes and twenty perfect seconds in which to lose yourself.

Hollagramz kicks things up a notch with a spiky arpeggiated intro to “Chapel Perilous,” but the brief opening quickly succumbs to pipe organ chords and then the long sustenuto of Radere’s meditative “Overtaken by the Night” consumes it completely. Igloo fav Chase Dobson turns off the drum machine and shows his sensitive post-rock underbelly with the atmospheric guitar piece “Two Ghosts Before the Eye.” “Patter,” by Cacheflow, also leads with a little guitar line but surrounds it with a singsong bassline and effects that end up sounding a bit like a jug band who’s just discovered Max/MSP.

Fortunately, Jeffrey Wentworth Stevens returns some stateliness to the proceedings with “Alvin Smith Is a Hawk I See,”, whose title is presumably an obtuse reference to the Mormon founder’s brother and whose music progressively layers gentle glitches, percussive taps, morse code, strings and muted horns to build up to a lovely crescendo. “Some Birds Fly at Night,” or so claim Alien Taxonomy in a warbling, pulsating piece that perhaps is intentionally reminiscent of “Wildlife Analysis”/”An Eagle in your Mind”, which heralded Boards of Canada’s IDM ascendance back in 1998. And finally, Marcellus Lewis closes the compilation with “Castles Are Ghost Stories”, where a female voice informs us that “This is the new world.” A deep house beat thumps and the only sung lyrics of the whole compilation ask in heavily vocoded tones, “What were you going to say? Does it stay in the keep of your mind? Does it hide?” This song is fantastic and although the driving beat is a fair few BPM higher than anything else on the album, it’s a great closer that drove me to Marcellus’ Bandcamp page in search of more.

It’s a pattern with only two entries in the sequence: every tenth release on Plastic Sound Supply is a themed compilation from their roster of artists, local Denver musicians, and friends. The PSS010 release, Experimental Dance Breaks 36, brought together high-energy tracks and this release, their twentieth, escapes (mostly) from the dance floor to the chill room. What will PSS030 bring? Unknown, but with quality at this level genre distinctions are irrelevant: it’s worth every one of its nine hundred and ninety-nine cents.

Ultrasoft! Anthems 33 is available on Plastic Sound Supply.

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