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  • Writer's pictureSylvain Lupari

Mike Hans STEFFL Calaboose Islands (2023)

A very fine, sometimes complex, album which ages even better with each new discovery

1 Makronisos 8:54

2 Gyaros 13:30

3 Asinara 17:48

4 San Lucas 8:22

5 Con Dao 7:18

6 Pianosa 14:08

7 Alcatraz 4:46

(DDL/CD-(r) 74:46) (V.F.)

(Ambient Cinema Berlin School)

I discovered the music of Mike Hans STEFFL with the very good Successful Failure at the end of 2022. In the meantime, the musician-synthesist from Munich has released 2 rather avant-garde works with Theater Splinter and MiDaMi - Project One, also produced at the end of 2022. I was therefore hesitant before rubbing my ears to this CALABOOSE ISLANDS, a musical work inspired by the so-called ideal prisons built on islands around the world. I was expecting a musical universe more sonorous than melodious, more atmospheric and anguished than driven by electronic rhythms. These 2 visions are very much present on Mike Hans' new album, which attempts to recreate the troubled stories of these prisons; acts of barbarism, torture, mistreatment and inexplicable death, while conveying the innocent beauty of the islands that hosted these prisons. Once you've understood this context, you'll understand a little better the internal struggles in each track, which compete in atmospheric phases and rhythmic passages that teeter between electronic rock and the Berlin School of the 70's as well as the one of the 80's and 90's. The music is in perpetual motion, alternating rhythm and reverie, with a clear preponderance for the more atmospheric phases. Mike Hans STEFFL has a very melodic vision when working his keyboards, sometimes releasing passages that flirt with New Age. There are more creative passages that require more than a listen, while others are more easily tamed. All in all, what we have here is a fine, creative album that didn't justify my fear of approaching it with suspicion!

Makronisos comes to us with a very ethereal, even poetic opening, with trumpet blasts crooning over medium-dark waves. The synth is multicolored, with droning textures and orchestrations that serve as a bed for the airs of a trumpeter thwarting boredom under a misty sky. These floating harmonies oscillate between the signatures of Tangerine Dream, for their 70's sound, and Vangelis, for their cinematic scope. A delicate rhythmic structure emerges from the final rubbing of philharmonic strings just after the 4-minute mark. Although there are some tender ratcheting effects in the sequencer, the rhythm pulses with resonance, but with a rather atmospheric vision as it is surrounded by immense zones of mist. An evolving track, Makronisos offers a 3rd change in its ambient phase, with a livelier, a spasmodic flow of sequenced arpeggios that shine and flicker after the 6th minute. This last phase is more intense, both emotionally and musically, with synth waves vibrating around this stationary rhythmic axis where the opening's elegiac chants come to gather. Gyaros is conceived in the same mold. Its rhythm is just as stationary, at least in the opening, with a fusion of chords and effects that pulses like a broth living of its many sparkling bubbles. Arpeggios dance freely, creating a mathematical confusion on a synth layer haloed by poetic threads of seraphic voices. The synth makes rippling its bass layer, and the sequencer also elaborates this ratchet strategy with rhythmic beads that are deftly dribbled, until sliding into a passage where Gyaros undertakes its first transformation. The rhythm gets more musical after the 3rd minute, with arpeggios that shimmer and sparkle in symbiosis with their shimmering reflections. This lends a more pastoral vision to the track and its music, which remains, all in all, very meditative. Mike Hans makes good use of his pessimistic vision with floating shadows, creating a perfect balance between poetry and its sibylline side. The track evolves in conspiratorial phases over its first 9 minutes, before Gyaros completes its final mutation in a fine Klaus Schulze-style Berlin School. It's one of the many highlights of this album!

CALABOOSE ISLANDS' longest track, Asinara also evolves in long, metamorphic phases, where the sequencer momentums create very Berliner passages that are scattered by long, more atmospheric passages. The synths subdivide their metallic and telluric tones, while the keyboard defuses these aspects with melody lines that shine in this chromatic vision. Here too, these chords tinkle like a vague pastoral ode. It's very musical and reminds me of the New Age productions of the American label Narada Equinox in the 80's. At the 10-minute mark, there's a clean break, taking Asinara to the edge of a universe of astral winds and dusts. The synth layers hum as the winds whistle in an atmospheric phase out of step with the album's more honeyed textures. All this leads to a circular rhythm structure built on resonant sequences spitting of corrosive reverberations around the 12-minute mark. Percussions firmly anchor this rhythm, which rises and falls in a cosmic atmosphere born of good synth effects. A synth that throws in good solos, reminding us that Mike Hans STEFFL is as much at home in cosmic electronic rock as in his meditative phases. Like in San Lucas, with arpeggios that are as melodious as rhythmic, shimmering and humming like a symphony over a bed of heavy reverb. The rhythm is shaped by a combination of these arpeggios and chirping effects, if not coded dialogue. This structure, more in the atmospheric-cosmic genre, moves backwards and forwards, with a slight elastic effect that gives it a more stroboscopic shape, in an electronic setting that fuses its orchestral elements with buzzing reverberations and granite-blue synth waves. Con Dao is one of those tracks that explains the misunderstood charms of electronic music (EM). Everything is made from zero and develops in a slow spiral, with arpeggios imitating the sound of stars and synth lines scratching their contours. The ambiences drift towards the Cosmos and the lair of a black hole where the meanings of all sound forms can be a kind of dialogue between the stars and their inhabitants. Go figure! Pianosa stretches out over a long opening of astral nebulosity, giving it a hint of funereal melancholy. A delicate rhythmic structure emerges after the 9-minute mark, pulsating and dancing in a zigzag choreography with electronic language tones attached to the sequences. Ambiences are made up of buzzing waves and cosmic mists, where orchestrations radiate in symbiosis with distant harmonies whistled discreetly by the synth. The opening moments of Alcatraz activate our neurons, which go into movie mode for an invasion of the notorious prison just outside San Francisco. Bangs resonate in a particularly realistic cinematic envelope before Mike Hans structures an excellent electronic rock that flirts with an industrial approach. An excellent track!

Although there are a few lengths, which can be explained by Mike Hans STEFFL's desire to delve adequately into his themes, CALABOOSE ISLANDS is a very fine album that ages even better with each new discovery. The German musician succeeds in transposing into sounds and ambience the Dantesque visions of those prisons that were often the homes of political prisoners. In this respect, the work is more accomplished than Successful Failure, and wonderfully blends the phases of Berlin School with those of ambient music, plunging us into the lair of these prisoners' dread.

Sylvain Lupari (August 30th, 2023) ****¼*

Available at Mike Hans STEFFL Bandcamp

(NB: Words in blue are links you can click on)

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