After a slow start, typical winter weather finally arrived on the river south of Ottawa, Canada, sending me looking for some suitably restful music. Just as summer calls for songs related to open roads, surf, and sun, winter days demand ethereal sounds that carry me away.
Increasingly, one place I turn to is a composer who specializes in creating moods, such as Roger Eno, with whom I spoke a couple of issues ago.
Another sonic engineer whose work I enjoy is Joseph Branciforte, a multiple Grammy Award recipient. Branciforte worked in the recording studio with artists like Bill Frisell, Vijay Iyer, and Chick Corea before shifting his focus to his own label—Greyfade—which embraces minimalism like no one since La Monte Young and Steve Reich. As the label puts it, Greyfade focuses on “process-based composition, electronic and acoustic minimalism, and alternative tuning systems.”
Do I have to tell you that albums created by studio wizards like Branciforte sound great?
The label’s latest release is LP2 (Greyfade 006), the second collaboration between Branciforte and vocalist Theo Bleckmann. A German native, Bleckmann studied with pioneering jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan after immigrating to the United States, and has created a long series of fascinating projects during the past 25 years. Like Branciforte, I have been intrigued by Bleckmann’s work for some time; in his case, since the first time I heard him perform duets with adventurous percussionist John Hollenbeck.
Asked how LP2 stands apart from his first outing with Branciforte, Bleckmann replied: “This one is much more constructed and composed. LP1 (Greyfade 001) was all improvised, whereas here we started with certain ideas and built on those with overdubs and expanded orchestration. I’m using some looping, but I would say 60 percent of my vocals were recorded in real time with some low-tech distortion, like me singing into a tube or some toys.”
Branciforte sent me a copy of the new album. When it arrived, I cued up the clear vinyl LP on my Pro-Ject Debut Pro, which feeds through an NAD PP 2e phono preamplifier to an NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier. After several listens via my Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanding speakers, I couldn’t wait to hear the recording through some headphones. Some recordings just demand that.
Fortunately, I had just received a pair of Ollo Audio S5X 1.1 headphones ($539, all prices in USD) from Montreal’s Le Studio du Son. The latest product from the specialist Slovenian manufacturer, these ’phones are the next step up from the $399 S4R 1.1, which I reviewed in May 2022. In that review, I noted the company’s brand-forward, bespoke approach to design, which moves these relatively affordable ’phones into the same league as prestigious brands like Focal.
Like the S4Rs, the S5X headphones have walnut outer rings and thick earpads made from acoustic foam, artificial leather, and velour. The faux-leather floating headband expands smoothly as you slide the headphones over your ears. The impedance is reported as approximately 50 ohms, and the sensitivity as 106dB at 1kHz. The flat frequency response is designed for binaural/immersive mixing, for systems like Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio. A utilitarian, detachable 6.5′ Y-cable terminating in a 3.5mm mini plug is included, along with a 6.3mm adapter.
Although the Ollos are designed as studio and on-the-road workhorses (daily users will appreciate the replaceable earpads and stainless-steel headband, which can be serviced with standard tools), their unvarnished, neutral sound make them attractive ’phones for home use.
I plugged them in and cued up LP2 again.
The achingly slow build of the opening piece generated some genuine tension; like a slow unveiling of how the Ollos would handle the music once the volume reached maximum level. I’ll admit, I couldn’t resist, and jacked the D 3045’s volume knob a bit more. Both the extra volume and the mysterious nature of the opening drew me in, and when some electronic “robot noise” broke the mood, I reflected on something else Bleckmann had told me.
“The shorter interludes serve as palette cleansers for the longer-form pieces.”
After this break, Bleckmann returned in a natural voice, or at least as close to a “natural” voice as his gorgeous, rangy vocals ever sound. Even without external devices or electronic tweaking, he has an exceptionally pliable human instrument.
As some dark percussion began to dominate the soundstage and the layers of voice and electronics began to stack up, these ’phones revealed some exceptional depth.
The second side of LP2 begins with somewhat more typical approaches, with thumb piano (or something standing in for the traditional African instrument) mingling with Bleckmann’s voice and assorted percussion. As this side of the LP evolves, the sounds shift—from machine-gun electronic shards to various blips, beeps, and bleats—and the rising tension serves as highly effective staging for the final sweep of the soundscape: meditative, dark vocal tones over chimes and various electronic gestures.
As it ended, the piece left me staring out at the snow on the river. I felt perfectly in tune with the elements, which in turn took me full circle back to my conversation with Roger Eno and his belief that music can be closely connected to the environment in which you live.
As transparent as the S5X headphones sounded when channeling Branciforte and Bleckmann, I began wondering how they’d handle a recording as densely packed as LP2 is sparse. I turned to something I had just downloaded: the heavily publicized high-definition edition of Steely Dan’s Aja. That recording, released in 1977, has a special spot in my life; it was the first recording I reviewed, way back when I was in my third year at university.
With at least 11 musicians contributing, the album’s third track, “Deacon Blues,” exemplifies the sound Steely Dan help popularize during the ’70s. In addition to band cofounders Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker, the lineup features some veteran jazz musicians, including drummer Bernard Purdie, guitarists Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, and tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb, as well as a small handful of background vocalists. You can read much more about Aja and its sonics in my colleague Joseph Taylor’s recent “Pulse!” column on this site. In my memory, Aja will always stand out as a sonic landmark of its time: a massive drum sound; loud, highly distorted guitars; and a glossy sound mix. Unfortunately, being a landmark of the mid-1970s also means synths. Really bad synths.
Fortunately, there are no synths on “Deacon Blues,” which has always struck me for its hyper-arch lyrics about a saxophonist who believes he should have a nickname as hyperbolic as the University of Alabama’s football team and die in a car accident, à la Clifford Brown. The nihilism expressed in the lyrics reflects the tenor of those times and they drip with cynicism: “I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets / Make love to these women, languid and bittersweet.”
The first thing that hits you about the soundstage is how segmented it seems. True, with almost 50 years of listening behind me, the enormous soundstage can seem dated. That said, the harsh separation between instruments plays to the strength of these ’phones, particularly when Purdie’s drums begin to bite. As a former drummer, I’d love to know what original engineer Roger Nichols and any one of the nine assistants did to make Purdie’s snare sound simultaneously so big and so “dead.” (Steve Hoffman is credited with mastering the new reissue.)
As “Deacon Blues” played on, the Ollo headphones continued to reveal the wizardry of Fagen, Becker, producer Gary Katz, and that legion of studio personnel who lent a hand. Carlton’s guitar solo—one of the more restrained on the recording—and Christlieb’s charged tenor sounded marvelous, and as the song ended I heard details I hadn’t noticed in my countless previous listens.
Although they may have been designed as an essential part of a modern recording studio or the kit bag of a road-warrior sound engineer, Ollo Audio’s S5X 1.1 headphones would be an ideal addition to any home setup.
. . . James Hale