Electronic Music, Writing, and Reviews

"Altocumulus" is my artist name for electronic music, ambient, and my writing about experimental music and related subjects.

Thu, 20 Aug, 2009

Ambient Master Vir Unis

"Vir Unis"'s real name is John Strate-Hootman, and he's based in Chicago. As with all ambient musicians, he makes his music available through his Website.You have heard his name before in collaboration with Steve Roach, but "Unis" has never really been a part of the "school of Steve Roach." His style is heavily dependent on synthesizers and the use of fractals and other mathematical patterning to produce a gleaming and powerful sound. If Roach is the voice of the vast open desert, and Rich the glurp of algae ponds and echoes of Islamic archways, then Vir Unis is the electric buzz of Midwestern powerplants, or the photon song of high-energy particles streaming from distant galaxies.

Vir Unis (which is fractured Latin for "one man") is a newer artist than Roach or Rich. During the 80s he was a drummer for experimental rock bands, but by the 90s he had moved into almost exclusively electronic music. He worked with Steve Roach in 1999 on the spectacular BODY ELECTRIC and later on BLOOD MACHINE. Unis' first major solo album was THE DRIFT INSIDE (1999), which as its title conveys, is a trancey passage of floating ambient with some percussion accents. In 2000, Unis released AEONIAN GLOW, which I regard not only as one of his best albums, but up there with the other greats I've mentioned as an ambient masterpiece. AEONIAN GLOW, composed all electronically (with many altered sample sounds) takes its inspiration from the ancient religious philosophy of Gnosticism as well as from science fiction and modern physics. With my own spectrum of interests, I couldn't ask for anything more! It's made of all sustained notes, with no rhythm. It features dissonant and chilling microtonal harmonies, accented by "Gothic" tone-clusters, icy water sounds, electronic special effects, and near-subliminal samples of half-heard, altered radio broadcasts, with occasional somber bell sounds. One track is called "Particle Path," perhaps evoking the power of the particle beams at the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago. The most powerful track on AEONIAN, though, is the central piece titled "A Night of Passage," thirteen minutes of some of the most dramatic, mind-altering ambient ever composed. This is not for the faint-hearted!

In the years after AEONIAN GLOW, Unis has moved into a much more rhythm-oriented type of music, collaborating with fellow synthesist James Johnson in the PERIMETER series, whose track titles are taken from mathematics: "Cartesian Plane," "Singular Integral," "Geometry of Recursion," "Intersecting Planes." There are also references to Kabbalah and Western esotericism, in titles like "Mapping the Four Worlds," and "Spherical Archetypes." The music on these albums, as well as on Unis' own MERCURY AND PLASTIC (2002), tends towards the mechanical, chugging along in industrial rhythms with electric hums, sparks, crackles, buzzes, and roars reminiscent of Chicago's elevated transit system. Melodic elements are sustained by a droning, somewhat distorted electric guitar sound, that gives these pieces a hard edge more related to rock than ambient.

Vir Unis returned to the non-rhythmic, sustained ambient style he worked with in his earlier albums, with his short album, EVERYTHING SEEKS BALANCE (2004). Releases in the last five years have included works in both a quiet, ethereal style such as RETURN OF THE LOCUST QUEEN, NOT EVEN THE RAIN, and HENRY HUD. The last two, "Rain" and "Henry," were composed in honor of his young son Henry, who was born in 2005 and is his father's pride and joy. The little guy is already picking up and trying to play guitars and other musical instruments. Other Vir Unis creations are less gentle, and are more in the realm of edgy beats and electronica, such as 2012 and TOKYO HIGHWAY, which were done in collaboration with his fellow artist "Elf Machine," and THE BOOK OF MUTATIONS. These feature the intricate "fractal" computer-generated beats which were also used in Vir Unis' collaborations with Steve Roach.

In the last few years, he has also been busy with his own record label and production company, AtmoWorks. AtmoWorks represents not only Unis' music but that of many other composers in different styles of ambient and electronic music. There are over twenty-five different artists to choose from in the Atmo catalogue, so ambient fans of all tastes should find at least something to like there. AtmoWorks also has a "music stream" on its website which offers an ongoing sampling of various artists' music. And just recently, Vir Unis started an AtmoWorks internet radio program, "Rabbit Hole Radio," late Thursday nights on the ambient channel, in which Unis plays a mix of pieces, sometimes playing two or three simultaneously and adding in sounds of his own, so that each program is actually a unique Unis "concert DJ" performance. In this way, this creator of very esoteric music is not only helping his own cause, but putting himself directly into the effort to keep this music available and encourage the creativity and freedom of those who make it.

Posted at 5:30 pm | link