Archive | January, 2013

Album reviews – Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’ (“a kind of philosophical haunting”)

29 Jan

Érick d'Orion: ‘Koursk’

Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’

What becomes evident while listening to ‘Koursk’ is the kernel of oblique, detached anger which beads at its heart. The abrasive vigour of noise music – its refusal to comply to melody, to conventional narratives and aesthetics of order, even to most standards of beauty – can give it a predictable free pass into total self-indulgence. It’s good to hear something in this musical vein which hints at a moral core, at least for a while.

Recorded over a five-year period, Érick d’Orion’s baleful album mingles a stern, clinical brutality with unexpected gaps for breathing. A veteran of avant-garde noisemaking since the mid-’90s (via Napalm Jazz, morceaux_de_machines and entanglements with Otomo Yoshihide, Evan Parker and the like) Érick has based the core of his album on “the fatality of a place, or concept.” In effect, he’s created a kind of philosophical haunting.

Erick’s ground-zero meme is Koursk, out of which he plots and illustrates two fateful iterations. For those who don’t know their eastern European history, Koursk (or Kursk) is an ancient, iron-rich city and region of mid-Russia. During World War II, it saw the biggest and bloodiest tank battle in history, sprawling over a month’s duration as the Red Army ground itself to Pyrrhic shards and mince against the Wehrmacht. Under the spades of the defending Russians, the Kursk hills were gouged by thousands of miles of trenches and tank-crippling ditches, while Soviet air-raids pelted the Panzer supply lines. The Soviets triumphed and the Germans were halted, but at the cost of enormous losses of Russian men and machines – all thrown relentlessly into the meat-grinder by Marshal Zhukov and his colleagues in order to defend the motherland.

Fifty-seven years later (and nine years post-Soviet, in 2000) a second Koursk hit the worldwide news – a flagship Russian Federation nuclear submarine, named after the original grim victory. Following explosions in its torpedo chamber, the ‘Koursk’ plunged helplessly to the bottom of the sea. While the crew’s relatives panicked, the Russian authorities rejected international rescue assistance (on the grounds of military secrecy), covered up the disaster, bungled four successive days of rescue attempts and finally accepted help too late. Everyone on board the submarine was long dead by then. Initially, the Russian Admiralty claimed that the crew of the ‘Koursk’ had all perished within minutes of the disaster. It emerged later that many of them had stayed alive and conscious long enough to see the air run out and the water rush in, and that some of them had even had time to write farewell notes for their loved ones. The cause of the explosion was finally traced to a faulty, antiquated torpedo, retained for budget reasons. No one was ever punished or prosecuted – instead, the government spent most of its efforts on condemning the Russian media for negative coverage of the disaster.

Far away from these painful events, it’s easy to moon vacuously about the curse of Koursk, or to make similarly dimwitted puns. It’s also easy to discern a more accurate pattern – a coincidental collage of Russian bloody-mindedness, or of that contradictory mixture of material ruthlessness, fatalism and (in its conspicuous burn-up of lives and resources) jaw-dropping pseudo-potlatch that often characterised Stalinism and Warsaw Pact history. However much personal tragedy was involved, Zhukov and his comrades considered those thousands of burnt-out tanks and crisped bodies littered over the hills of Koursk Oblast in the summer of 1943 to be the necessary dues to be paid for protecting the nation. Given the attritional nature of Hitler and Stalin’s struggle for Russia, perhaps the generals had a point; even if the sheer scale of the death and appalls us in more parsimonious, less blindly patriotic days. It’s less easy to defend the fate of the submarine – first wrecked by institutional incompetence, then clumsily (and unsuccessfully) sacrificed to the public image of Putin’s Russian Federation.

With all of that considered, Erick doesn’t deliver explicit or directly moral judgements on either event nor on any continuum which they might share. Instead (bar that striking cover image of a half-submerged submarine in a welter of blood-streaked water), the details are in the sounds he shapes. Becquerels, for example, is a humming shroud: bassy drones hiccupping, a persistent drizzle of midrange noise. The noise drips and dribbles in, backed by distant grinds and rumbles, circular mechanical gnaws. There are implications here of badly-tuned mechanisms, of radiation slopping into compartments where it doesn’t belong. Chop-ins of explosive industrial drumkit noise become venting spurts; the engine-sounds periodically burst out in short-lived, ominous overruns. The last section is a beautiful warble, smashed into by bursting cogs. There’s no joy in the viciousness on display. There’s just a sense of carelessness being observed and documented, as Erick etches an acidic sonic portrait of breakdown which crowds out and overwhelms personal space, erasing people.

If Becquerels is a bitter salute to the submarine, the nine-plus minutes of Kursk Assault presumably pays tribute to the battle. A square wave tank growl, throbbing its way over random rises and dips and flats, becomes a wash of indiscrimate information leveled out to a crammed, rumpled buzz. Barely distinguishable behind this (in effect, crushed and obscured by the charging machinery) is a folk tune on droning pipes, possibly a Russian volynka. Throughout, scattered vocal syllables are chopped in like broken radio conversation. At the end, a tight cycle of looped pipes and data grind stutters round and round, like something trapped on a wheel.

As with Bequerels, there seems to be a moral edge to the noises here. It’s nothing to do with structured condemnation, nor with redemption. Instead Erick offers a baleful account in sound of the misery of people forced into combat, inside machines that they can’t trust to keep them safe, relying on other people who will let them down or spend them like poker chips. There’s an undercurrent of cramped and sweaty fear in these tones – men crammed into claustrophobic cockpits, waiting for the shells to burst through; men trapped in a crippled steel bottle, fathoms down, listening to the hull shear and the water gush in. The blattering sound also cocks a bitter snook at parade ground pomp. Here, war (and the Cold War) is just an impersonal, perilous sludge.

However, having registered his abstracted judgements, Erick retreats from his implicit moralism to explore different implications. The glitchy thud and staccato arpeggios of Steam And Speed suggest techno, as if Érick was building an impressionist, impasto sketch of a nightclub out of a mulchy bucket of cast-off industrial noises. The namesake being nodded to in the eleven-minute György is presumably György Ligeti, as vocal organum pitches move around behind radio whines and whoops and pell-mell machinery clashes, with disruptive cuts in the piece marked by static spits. After five minutes Érick folds a small choir into the mix, a sampled motet: after that, a man’s voice singing soft and deep and casual. The Ligeti references sift in as the piece moves on – the violent pitch shifts applied to the choir, mimicking Ligeti’s own unsettling choral runs: the deep-buried cosmic skitters buried deep in the mix in the final minutes, beneath the deep and pitchless drone.

Two remaining tracks reference a pair of lurid and controversial art-house films, both of which engaged in studies of morality and nihilism; but if Erick was intending to carry the studies over he’s done so in forms too obscure to plumb. The brief interlude of Man Bites Dog – a flat drone, a squeal and squiggle of static, a hint of hyper-compressed conversation – is straightforward but cryptic (or possibly encrypted). The ugly sibilant shiver of Bad Lieutenant – the album’s longest piece – is a dirty judder of mosquito hiss, behind which slow passes of electrophonica swell like slowed vox-humana organ stops slowed. A gentle pink noise churn runs through the piece, implying slow floods and propellers revolving; there’s a passage of steam-sound, tinny distorted vocal murmurs and dub echoes; an unsettling sweep of what sounds like electrified mice scrabbling and twittering. Later, birdsong echoes over a propeller churn like a shipwreck survivor’s memory – ordnance bangs and mechanical scurf play us out.

The last of this could be a recapitulatory visit to the ‘Koursk’s watery grave, or it might not. Bad Lieutenant has spawned a number of remixes that fail to illuminate a moral dimension: ignoring the context, they simply play with the noises. Martin Tétreault’s mix trims the piece down to a three-minute commodity , gaming it with a tattoo beat of drum-static. Of the two bonus remixes on the download version, Nicholas Bernier’s ten-minute effort retains more of the length but screebles everything with a silvery download skitter and needling, proggy synth cascades like a vintage Galaxians invasion. Robin Fox’s shorter five-minute mix concentrates on adding the missing rhythmatic elements: there’s a faint hip-hop influence in the thudding bass drum and the cut-up bursts of dynamic sound which feed its cat-walking impetus.

What these latter tracks and their reinventions don’t offer are any human conclusions. For a while, listening to this album opened up a window (a questioning and undermining of brute and impersonal power, itself expressed in brute power) which ultimately closed too soon. The noise artistry is impeccable, but I’m left feeling pulled up short: drawn in by a buzzing lasso to ponder a message which fades away too early under the racket.

Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’
Érick d’Orion (self-released, DOR 2013, no barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 21st January 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Érick d’Orion online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

REVIEW – Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’ single, 2013 (“a five-minute garland”)

22 Jan
Apricot Rail: 'Basket Press'

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’

Damn, but latter-day post-rock bands can be dour. Something renders so many of them dry, or scrunched up into a kind of passive-aggressive melodrama. Too many of them belong to the post-Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky faction – increasingly hackneyed building blocks of minimal, stilted guitar arpeggios, building to a fuzzed-up tumble of noise via a gradual crescendo. I’ve heard it too often now. It’s like watching the same slow-motion fireworks every night – every time, the same chilly histrionics.

Perth sextet Apricot Rail, trailing this new single for their second album ‘Quarrels’, manage to avoid that disappointment. As ever, they bring some of the original post-rock enchantment back as well as plenty of enchantment of their own. Admittedly, on a first hearing Basket Press is more conventionally post-rocky than their previous outing (2011’s ‘Surry Hills’ EP, in which whirring warmth and a sun-dappled shuffling of approaches gave their music the vivid craft of a beautiful set of handmade holiday postcards). The band have even returned to those pluck/build/fuzz/hallucinate ingredients I’ve just been savaging, and there’s less of the generous instrument-swapping that’s freshened their approach in the past.

In spite of this, Apricot Rail manage to avoid drabness and predictability. Basket Press is a five-minute garland of distinct and graceful stages. Part summery harvest-time music, part rippling classical suite, part affectionate conversation, it’s bound together with a palpable friendliness. First there’s a lone guitar sketching out slow American-folk arpeggios with a touch of echo (the chords, save for one crucial falling note, reworking the floating Pink Floyd melancholia of Us And Them). Then, as woodwind player Mayuka airs a fuzzy flute trail of sustained notes, there are three. Guitarists Ambrose, Jack and Justin strum, curl and gently chisel out firmer chords over a cosy fuss of drums, as if they were rounding off a carved scroll. From this, a move to that on-the-one post-rock downstrum – then, as two guitars mix a light picking of melody with pinging counter harmonics, Mayuka’s flute wakes into a twining, rising counterpoint. Bass and drums move in via a low dotting – a patter, and a dialogue.

All along, the feeling is of a mutual binding, of teamwork, all six musicians facing inwards to share the exchange. The music slips through phases like breathing, like the momentum of thoughts; like assured working hands shifting their grip on a gardening hoe. A rare and understated joy wells through it, passing hints. In many respects, all of this is moving to a similar pulse as that mid-’70s sweep of world-folk and chamber-jazz melanged into being by Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner and their colleagues in Oregon. As the lowest-pitched guitar stirs a new folkier rhythm into the band circle, Mayuka responds with sweet McCandless-esque clarinet curves. Upping the ante, a detailed guitar study – a Mediterranean sparkle – works its way in over rising supportive drums. Another guitar, sitting in the mid-register, embroiders sweet minimal rosettes of lazy cycling notes.

Eventually the band builds through a mass of roaring pedalwork and noise into the kind of land-sliding, sleeting mass of guitar-descend which we’re used to as that conclusive Mogwai-tradition flourish. This time, though: it’s been prepared for. Rather than the expected ragged glory of a ruined Sysiphus-bound downwards into gravity’s clutches, it’s a payoff – a burst of energy from what the musicians have put into the song and stored there.

For the curious – a basket press is a wine-making device, one used for over a thousand years. I can see the connection. Harvest arrives.

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th January 2013

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Apricot Rail online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

REVIEW – Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’ album, 2001 (“like a small corpse flattened onto a moving tyre”)

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

Maybe it’s due to simply not being on the right label (they’re homed neither at Warp Records nor at Rephlex, nor at any of the other established electronica houses who provide a credible passport to attention). Maybe it’s the frustration of continually bouncing, disregarded and unloved, off the defense radar at ‘The Wire’. Maybe it’s simply the usual difficulties regarding working on and playing an abstract, thickly electronic music with even fewer anchors than most of the buzzing, bleeping efforts in that particular field.

Whatever it is, while the mightily amorphous Darkroom should have been a serious avant-garde cult act by now. Instead, they’ve been in retreat since their initial late ‘90s rising and since those times when they brought their galactic rumble-and-wail to some of the artier club-nights around London. It’s dispiriting – but at least this has been a strategic retreat rather than slinking off, defeated, to lick their wounded diodes.

Darkroom remain active, particularly in their native Cambridge. They still haunt basements, galleries and art-house cinemas whenever they can, recording hours and hours of live material. They’re still more or less unknown: but they’ve been making the most of this anonymity. At least it allows them to continue to explore their own unsettling take on ambient music, unencumbered by the demands of the more familiar electronica clubs or by any micro-cultures other than their own. The ‘Fallout’ trilogy (of which this is the first installment) is the result.

These recordings present an unadulterated Darkroom, live and in the raw – a sound of boiling sea-stuff, of natural chaos, of expansively stewing noise. They’ve abandoned the song experiments and the more disciplined, streamlined aspects of their previous album ‘Seethrough‘ in order to embrace more of the chaotic, massy, polytextural wanderings that they touched on in their ‘Daylight’ debut. Each of the tracks on ‘Fallout One’ is functionally numbered: One to Seven. None are graced with any more of a name, nor indeed any more clues of any kind. There are no sine-wave surfing references, no snippets of French or intimations of disturbance, no jokes (unless you count the press release name-checking both Photek and Satan). There aren’t even any nods to the collective’s old Samuel Beckett fetish.

Darkroom don’t guide anymore. They drift remotely through their music with a mixture of utter authority and confusing haphazardness, stirring ideas in and spinning them out. You can’t place yourself with this music: you can only live with it. Any associations which you care to make are now entirely your own.

‘Fallout One’ also emphasizes an increasing musical dominance by Andrew Ostler, the keyboard-and-programming corner of the Darkroom triangle. Freshly returned from his solo project Carbon Boy, Os brings back plenty – he adds a glut of shortwave radio voices; he disrupts Darkroom’s light-footed beats and breaks them up into free-jazz stumbles. His relentless mutations of dense electronics regularly distort and destroy any settled landscapes that the group might have settled on. Lurking in the background, Michael Bearpark concentrates on turning his guitar into a slow-hand blur of inscrutable forbidding noise. When he’s not doing that he’s building up a succession of aquamarine loops, sounding like a coldly psychotic take on Michael Brook.

By comparison, singer Tim Bowness seems more displaced than ever. Already abstract, whenever his vocals appear now they take the form of shocked, drowning, incoherent whoops and keens, half-submerged in the swirl of choking ambience and psychedelic space echo which his collaborators are cooking up. As ever, the effect is similar to the contorted vocal tapestries of Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’. This time, though, Bowness sounds as if he’s gradually being sucked down a black hole, protesting all the way. It’s a far cry from the measured, beautifully-finished art-pop tones and diction of his day-job in no-man. Still, he seems to thrive on the chance to unleash this kind of utterly unguarded noise.

Caught as live as this, Darkroom’s music is more disorientating and disturbing than it’s ever been before on album. Though always too lushly endowed with timbre and detail to be unrelentingly hostile, it offers little in the way of chill-out calm or methodical reassurance. Even the gentler tracks such as Three or Four regularly see Darkroom’s more pastoral landscapes bent out of shape. A desperate, looping Bowness mantra of “say” will be overcome by data squirts and snippets of Gregorian chant; a hum of guitar will be scratched over by a violently juddering, reedy electronic screech; clicking needles will have a strange banana-boat yodel stretched across them.

Throughout, Os’ sculpting of the sounds induces sonic meltdown. Hiccups of sounds, whale song, a mutilated loop of geothermal Mellotron or a dignified broadcaster’s voice will all be sucked up, shredded and blown out, or brought round and round like a small corpse flattened onto a moving tyre. In their collision of the beautiful, the horror-inducing and the plain distorted, Darkroom offer nothing easy. ‘Fallout One’ is music for dissolving cities – a cool-headed, unconditional embracing of confusion.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’
Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 01 January 2001

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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