Archive | January, 2015

January 2015 – singles & track reviews – Hypenkrünk’s ‘Clitmatist’; Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love’s ‘Burrow’; Grayhound O.C.D.’s ‘And I Love You’; danny0’s ‘Fire’; Sea Change’s ‘Squares’

31 Jan

I finished with a sex rap last time, and I’m picking up with another one now, although the rich fantastical swirl which Appalachian crew Hypenkrünk indulge on ‘Clitmatist’ lies far over the mountains from Ardamus’ down-to-earth D.C.-based romantic farces. Forty years in, one of the joys of hip hop’s current universality is that anyone can wallow in its rich sea of roleplay. In this case, stocky thirtysomething white guys from Tennessee who look like pro wrestlers get to pose as love gods. “Keeping it real” was always a wobbly concept for hip-hop: let’s just go with the dance of masks for a moment.

We’ve had dirty South for a while. This is mountain-man smut, with a swirl of German oscillators. For much of the ‘Clitmatist’ video, rapper Realtree (pallid stony-faced expression, magician’s robe, and whiskers that are part kung-fu-villain and part backwoods outlaw) lovingly serenades an only-just-offscreen vulva. He’s armed with ouija board, hypnotist’s watch, and a lubriciously loaded tongue. Explicit promises roll off the latter in a drench of hip hop wordplay (“Stow that hidden treasure packed away upon a shelf / You could never reach it – I think that I can help… / I would have brought some flowers but I’m here to smell yours,”) and down-home Southern innuendo. The words crawl over a billowing duvet of mongrelised electronica: some whining G-funk synth, Hawkwind gizmo dabbles and an undulating mattress of Berlin School sequencer. A discreet psychedelic guitar glints and swells as part of the ensemble. While nobody’s looking it sneaks out a sitar impression, as if furnishing a ‘70s-themed shag-pad.

In between glimpses of Realtree’s cartoon crib, stoned shots of trees claw the sky. A second Hypenkrünker shows up as a Charon figure. As fat, bald and impassive as a Turkish masseur in a peep-show (and poling his punt down a misty vagina-pink Styx), he’s a living “man-in-the-boat” gag who, at one point, shares a raunchy topless man-massage with Realtree. The Hypenkrünk PR promises essay on duality, alternate worlds, evolved consciousness and animal nature, and the lyrics drop references to stargazing and meditating as well as mystic rides; but right now our potential guru (when not rhyming “Kundalini” with “bikini”) seems more concerned with urging his date to “spread it like a flying squirrel.”

OK, you’re probably snorting your drink out of your nose by now. All of this is a joke, at least on one level. The players are moonshiners and moonlighters, coming in from assorted east Tennessee electronica, prog and psychedelic projects as well as from hip hop; while both in and out of the video, there’s a tinge of good-natured, low-budget, storytelling porn (tacky costumes, audience complicity, and all). But even as they rip the piss out of slutty-Romeo raps, whacking-material traditions and cosmic posturing in sound and vision alike, (“I am the saviour / of your l-l-labia – / I’m gonna see you on your worst behaviour, freaky neighbour,”) there’s an authentic tang to both Hypenkrünk’s trippy vapours and their juicier ends. As a self-styled master of sex Realtree’s clearly devoted to the task – from end to end, the song’s entirely and exclusively about serving female pleasure – and as musicians Hypenkrünk sink themselves deeply, devotedly into every genre they love and pillage. Filthy, sweaty, trippy, and even tender… at least, this time round.

* * * *

Conversely, it’s the last time around for Derbyshire alt.pop brothers Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, but on their final single they’re speaking up for the bemused and frightened beast in people. Initially, ‘Burrow’ comes across like The Walker Brothers heard through a static storm, or like Phil Spector hauling My Bloody Valentine back into the ‘60s. Drums boom like warehouse crates, tubular bells are smacked: a cavernous crooning blur of backing vocals rides the swagger and swells like a sailor’s choir, while guitars shrug off a gluey sonic trail and a slow low-tide lick of quiet frying noise. Kelly Dyson’s vocals are nasal and poppy, while the words they’re singing are pitched between nightmare and compassion – “The weight of fears above the burrow, / of teeth and fur and blood / I clear my throat at a circle of sky / from the back of the hole I dug.”

It’s a singalong rabbit siege; a fatalistic, cowering gnash back at life’s terrors, a last burst of resistance before fate takes shape and takes hold. (“Maybe I’ll bolt out into the snare / from the back of the hole I dug. / And feel the cold metal wire tear / at the fur and skin and sinew around my throat.”) You can’t help thinking that the latterday Scott Walker, looking back over his own post-crooner gnarls of cruelties and complications, would tip his baseball cap in approval at the Low Low efforts, as well as the way they interweave animal behaviour and human anxieties. “I’ll lay and watch the long migrations / and envy the southward bound formations. /All the world performs the same motions / as I choke and wretch and spit and curse at my complications.” After the recording sessions were over, one of the Dysons immediately quit the band and Derbyshire, and lit out for London. Presumably he ducked the snare. Let’s hope he escapes the city predators.

The B-side, ‘Stop Spinning the Birdcage’ drops the fuzz drapes and the timpani booms for a brace of acoustic guitars and syrupy West Coast harmonies. Until banjo, bass and noisy lead guitar (all squeak and corrosion) work their way in (gradually sickening and splintering the song into disorientation) it sounds like an unplugged Byrds on the cusp of psychedelia, with the voices keeping their candy throughout. From the start, though, sunny, stoned-love-song intentions are hijacked by morbid distractions – “butterflies all around her eyes / I wonder when she makes up her eyes / if she draws blood?” – and its lazy and blissful carnality ends up hopelessly confused (“My eyes are carnivores / I’m thinking which bit of her face I should have first. / Little mouth or little nose? / I wonder, should I kiss it / or should I eat it whole?”).

Yet there’s no malice, no self-conscious weirdness to it: While a songwriter like Momus would have had a detailed and literate field day with this kind of polymorphous perversity, the Dysons are content to leave it as a passing blip. A sprained acid hiccup on a day for canoodling, a momentary surfacing of something more animal. A good, ever-so-slightly provocative note to go out on.

* * * *

There are no such peculiar moments (or quivering perspectives) with Grayhound O.C.D., despite their goofy name. They play straight modern rock throughout: the U2 root-note pulse in the bass, the sugar-frosted piano picking its way lightly through the chords, the choral synths. The guitars have that caressing thresh we know from Coldplay – gauze-wrapped shoegaze thunder, honed down from trance-inducer to aural duvet. Frontman Gray calls his girlfriend a “shining star” and – in the video – loiters theatrically at the tops of castles and by the side of lakes, staring meaningfully at imaginary horizons like a Thor-bearded Bono-in-waiting. He seems oblivious to the fact that the weather has seriously let him down (staying resolutely nice and clear when it could have had the decency to whip up a quick squall or dramatic cloud) or that maybe there’s another tour party waiting to squeeze past on the battlements.

In other words, everything’s in place but the actual drama, underlining how contrived and calculated the band are. I let Hypenkrünk off their own contrivances, thanks to their wit: I’m less inclined to do the same for a band apparently poised to snatch up any tour or festival gaps left by touring Anglophone acts. Yet for three minutes they almost have me. Maybe Gray wins his day pass simply because it makes a change to hear an inflated arena-rock package with a soft-sung German accent rather than a simpering high-volume falsetto. Maybe it’s the superb, sensual production that buffs everything up to the glossy, summer-storm sheen of mid-‘80s Simple Minds (a sound I’ve always loved, even when the mighty winds curdle to warmed-over gassiness). Perhaps its the simple pleasure to be had by hearing assured musicians hit their mark and keep the rhythm bounding – a perpetual mid-air freeze-frame.

I also suspect that none of my skepticism is going to stop boys from Hamburg to Vienna snogging their girlfriends to this one from now till early summer. They’ll probably also be breaking up and making up to the B-side, Alone – its dark-toned modal guitar figure offering a bit more of the meat and sours. Still, it’s not long before Gray is pledging to plunge into deepest seas and climb highest mountains. Pass, pal.

* * * *

Even while he’s working on bright young Los Angeles neo-soul with Idesia, or dipping into African fusion pop with Izinde, bass playing producer Daniel Oldham carries around a pocketful of other projects. When he’s nurturing his dance svengali side, he’s danny0, with a debut single pursuing a darker, more twisted side… or so he says. It’s co-written and sung (with poise and operatic smoulder) by Anna Delaria of Anna & The Static, who – like Daniel – seems to be looking for the diva-frowns and broody depths that her day band doesn’t seem to offer.

It’s almost a pity that ‘Fire’ is so cute – a slinky haunch of electronic R’n’B hanging from a fingersnap and great stomping blocks of fuzzy synthesizer. There are probably too many songs with that particular title (a magnet for posturing and duff lyrics). True to form, some of the words here wobble as Daniel and Anna toy with images of flames, menace and insouciance, some of which slip through their fingers. Anna, however, never loses her step. Strutting and ducking through the keyboard slams, she sells the song like a haughty Liza Minnelli.

Daniel’s production seals the deal. He seems eager to confess a debt to Rich Costey and Kimbra, but in truth this is his own beast, full of glowing slithering detail, ghost-orchestra arabesques and some subtle rug-pulling. Like the massive pixellated orange explosions in old video games, two-dimensional blossoms of blurred expansive sound belly out in great fan-dancing puffs, covering up a few shortcoming as they go. ‘Fire’ isn’t perfect, but as Anna rides it around the dance floor on its fat hairy tentacles, trailing a veil of flickering embers, you could easily forget that it isn’t.

* * * *

Even on her singles, Ellen Sunde (a.k.a. Sea Change) doesn’t showboat or swagger. Instead, she deliquesces. The blooping bedroom-pop of ‘Squares’ is both epic and introverted – a small constellation of freezing glows and vapours and the impatient blat of cheap drum programmes, with her small, sighing sob of a voice nestled at the heart of it, a warm breath on ice slurs.

In some respects Ellen resembles her fellow Norwegian, Anja Garbarek, working within a modest, birdlike sound and a haunted sketchbook, grappling with ghostly nervy ideas. In other respects, she’s whittled down the ideas of Kate Bush’s jarring, demonic ‘Get Out Of My House’ from primal screams to a flinching dodge. You could call it dream pop if it wasn’t so wide awake and bug-eyed. Far from heavy-lidded narcosis, this is dream-sharpened wakefulness and sometimes it hurts.

‘Squares’ is neurotic, fearful and ultimately brave. At times it sounds like an existential crisis wrapped in fairy lights (“just go inside, oh just go inside me / There’s no-one here”), but it’s mostly a crisis of confidence (“If I go there with you I will not be safe / All that lives inside me, all that you can see./ If you knew what I was – a frozen me, / what grows inside me – / then you’d let it go.”) Batting aside help, Ellen’s her own haunted house, her own jailor. Also, it seems, she’s her own salvation, instinctive and unpredictable, ready to burst shackles and flee without plans. “So don’t look back, don’t look back. / Out of this place, out of this house – / ‘cos if I don’t go there, / oh then my feet run, my feet will bring me there / My feet will run all they can.”

Trying to grasp at the song seems to melt it – it won’t keep a solid shape, it won’t provide a firm conclusion. Is this about self-hatred or about fervid, elusive independence? Resolving one’s own terrors, or bolting from them by panic and chance? “Save yourself first,” advises Ellen, towards the end of the song. She could be addressing a loved one, or herself: it could be nobility, or a covert brush-off. Sea Change offers transformation of circumstance and state, but also a fluttering ambiguity. Nothing is mapped out. I’m alarmed. I’m fascinated.

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’
El Deth Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 28th January 2015)

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’
Audio Antihero/Other Electricities (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only pay-what-you-like single (released 26th January 2015)

Grayhound O.C.D.: “And I Love You”
Khb Music/Timezone Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download single (released 16th January 2015)

danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria)
danny0 (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 27th January 2015)

Sea Changes: ‘Squares’
Sea Changes (no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only single (released 20th??? January 2015)

Get them from:

Hypenkrünk: ‘Clitmatist’ – stream from Bandcamp or YouTube, or download from Bandcamp, iTunes or Amazon as part of ‘Lords of Rap, Volume 1: Just Da Tip’ album.
Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love: ‘Burrow’ – Bandcamp.
Grayhound O.C.D.: ‘And I Love You’ – iTunes or Amazon.
danny0: ‘Fire’ (featuring Anna Dellaria) – stream-only via Soundcloud.
Sea Change: ‘Squares’ – stream-only via Soundcloud.

Hypenkrünk online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp YouTube

Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

Grayhound O.C.D. online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace YouTube

danny0 (Daniel Oldham) online:
HomepageSoundcloud

Sea Change online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

Stumbling through 2014 – a year in flashes and in review (part 2 – the undercurrents)

28 Jan

I’m setting up for 2015 now. Part one of the review of 2014, the musical side, has been written and posted and is being read (if you’ve not seen it yourself, it’s back here). New singles reviews have been drafted and mostly written; blog navigation has been improved (look over to the right and down to see the reworked category and tag clouds); and the thorny matter of scheduling has been addressed. I’m looking into a Soundcloud page as well, for playlists and occasional sound postings. Technically, ‘Misfit City’ should be better this year.

But before that… I’ve got a confession to make.

Recently, I’ve been visualising this blog as a cartoon beachcomber – something gawky and distractable which blends its enthusiasm with pathos. Blundering along the foreshore to see what’s washed up this week, it jams its head into little rockpools to take notes about the small details, and loses track of time. Overhead, the real events roar and rumble in storms which are mostly ignored. Sooner or later, there’s going to be hail; and I’m going to be caught napping.

I’m not talking about me missing coverage on big releases, or failing to ride Twitter trends effectively. Both of these come with the territory of preferring more out-of-the-way artists with less immediate recognition; and also with intermittent blogging around real-life demands of family, work and life outside of music culture. Independent solo bloggers – unless they’ve caught a wave of interest or are particularly good self-marketers – are ultimately small creatures. We’re talented amateurs, in the most positive sense; people whom, if we’re fortunate or persistent, can make our little marks and (as in my case) maybe help a musician to be known and understood and moved a little closer to a potential audience. Small stone markers; pricked-up ears; a little bridge built for people to cross. Those kind of achievements.

What concerns me at the moment is culture-bunker syndrome – when a person hides within a habit of art, closing off the parts of the world which they don’t like (or wish to be disinterested about) by developing an obsessive focus on small creations. This could be external: an account or summary of someone else’s performance or crafted object. It could as easily be internal. Becoming obsessed with one’s own lively, assertive prose or photography, for instance; or with one’s ability to get the word out quickly – to be, for a brief and flashing moment, the medium, as well as simply making use of it. For music writers, some form of this syndrome often becomes habitual and unavoidable. It’s part of the excitement, to the point that you don’t recognise your writing as being a flash-bang which ultimately only explodes inside a very small box.

At the end of the first part of my 2014 review I mentioned that in spite of my initial feelings of having gone through a “shrunken” year, in retrospect 2014 seemed to have had remarkable musical richnesses; also, that the only thing that really seemed to be missing was me. What I meant by that was that however involved with the music I was (and even when I managed to turn out a decent, or even acclaimed, review), I had a parallel feeling of disengagement. None of this was the fault of what I was listening to. None of it related to what eventually emerged and was posted on the blog. Neither did it reflect the many things which I wanted to cover on time but didn’t (or still haven’t).

What it was like… well, imagine that, while you’re working away on a project, there’s something just over your shoulder, not quite peering and not quite looming. Something that’s… there. Perhaps it’s not actually over your shoulder: it’s just that that’s where you expect it to be. The half-recognised key or clue. The bit which you’ve missed. The missing chunks of the puzzle; the provider of the voice which carries the rest of the answer. You feel, sometimes, that you could turn around and take hold of it; slot it in, make a completeness. You don’t really understand what you’ll actually have once you’ve done it. There’s just an itch. An urge to include it.

I concluded, eventually, that there wasn’t actually anything there. What was actually preying on my mind was a gap – something which I myself had allowed to grow, wilfully ducking the significance of why I’d let it happen in the first place. What I was missing was the rest of the world – and the reason why this was important was that the world was violently changing. Plugging my headphones in and looking away, I’d ostentatiously pondered music – going through recordings and concert track-by-track and song by song, meticulously tracing the emotional responses and the drawn-out meanings, and catching and writing down sparks triggered off in me by the listening. Meanwhile, the landscape which I was ignoring was darkening. Almost everyone whom we, as citizens, had put in place or allowed to prosper had at best failed us. At worst, they’d betrayed us or were predating on us.

To many people (including many bloggers and commentators) this is an old, old story, and doesn’t even exist as a dilemma. Protests and counter-action against the iniquities and inequalities of the modern world are already part of their long-standing, lifetime’s battle; and plenty of commentators on music who draw it into their perspective. At the very least, it becomes an integral part of their involvement with the world. In my case, this hadn’t happened for too long, and 2014 was the year when my avoidance of this fact finally cracked.

For me, perhaps, the evasions had been natural and habitual. I tend to feel that hitching music, on principle, to a particular political agenda (and dismissing that which falls outside it (or which fails to fit a particular set of value signifiers) blinkers the vision and creates an urge to provide answers first and then distort the art to fit them. I don’t join political parties for much the same reason that I don’t join churches. For a doubter like myself, the creeds are always too hard to swallow; too often an excuse to comfort and close the mind. There are other reasons. I was too young for the first wave of punk, and too disassociated (also, perhaps, too personally comfortable and accommodating) for the following waves. Also, when I started to explore beyond basic popular music as a teenager I found my way into weird mid-‘70s Vangelis albums, assorted textural boilings, bounding prog epics and post-punk blurrings rather than grinding riffs and blunter challenges. What I mean is that when I dealt with art, generally it didn’t look or sound much like a hammer. In retrospect, perhaps I should have schooled myself in delivering some more telling blows.

I can’t say that I don’t recommend the softer, more textured path which I took; but it was often short on the kind of immediate sociological content that spurs a person into asking certain questions. Having said that, a detailed reading of ‘Misfit City’ will reveal that I’m not exactly apolitical. There’s been coverage of LGBT artists and some outspokenly political musicians such as Ian Crause, Atona and Des de Moor, as well as certain sharper asides in other reviews. That “listening to women” tag which crops up in numerous reviews is also an example of the blog’s political grain – a quiet attempt to redress the male domination and thoughtlessness within the music industry by acknowledging and drawing attention to the women who strive within it as well (be they singers, writers, architects of sound, all three or more).

However, rather than being a good soap-boxer, I’m a good reflector… or an immersionist. Most of the time when I’m engaging with music I choose to gently unzip it and to clamber inside – to experience it through its innards and associations. As an excuse for other disengagements, I don’t know how well this works, but it’s how I’ve tended to operate. The problem is that – in its way – this approach is just as solipsistic or reductive as if I’d tied all of my tastes and my statements to a political stance, and it’s just as reductive. Blinding yourself to the world by hiding away in prettiness (or, indeed, fetishised ugliness) is ultimately not an answer. If you’re not careful, it can become no more significant than slopping some extra gloss onto the decorations.

I should also confess that another reason for my lack of fuller engagement with the world came from the conviction that an over-complex, diverse and dissenting world was impossible to summarise or act upon. Over the weekend, I was reading an interview with the documentary film-maker and audio-visual collagist Adam Curtis which refutes this. Among other things, he comments “I believe that it’s possible to make the world intelligible – however complex and chaotic it is. That is the progressive job of journalism. The other reaction – which is to say, ‘Things are just so complex and unpredictable that you can never make sense of them’ – is, I think, one of the main motors that supports the conservatism of our time.”

Though this statement briskly upends my own comfort zone, I’ve got to agree with Adam. In a national and global environment in which governments, businesses, the powerful and the assertive have rarely seemed so nakedly wicked and corrupt – at least during my own lifetime – my values (and, in many respects, my family) are increasingly threatened, and my stances are changing. Tipping point? Perhaps. All I know is that I feel that keeping silent on these matters leaves a hollow space at the heart of this blog, and that I need to do something about that.

If I am going to head in a more engaged and more political direction, it’s important that I don’t do so under the pretense of heroically filling any yawning gaps in musical and political writing. Even a cursory wander around the blogosphere will reveal the seethe and ferment of existing discourse, all of it surviving quite happily without me. During 2014, many of the hard questions and righteous ragings were already being covered by music-related writers much better suited to the task than I am – among them Neil Kulkarni, Lucy Cage and Taylor Parkes. Alongside the excellent, animated and eclectic criticism which has seen it rise to preeminence in the last few years, The Quietus’ has continued to provide broader reflections on the world. The vigorously argumentative, assertive and punk-spirited ‘Collapse Board’ seeks out debate on just about everything it covers or discovers. Forums blaze everywhere.

Steve Lawson

Steve Lawson

(As an aside, though – it’s debatable that punk culture should always claim the high ground in political and social debate. For several years now, Anil Prasad – the superb ‘Innerviews’ interviewer best known for conversations with prog, jazz and country musicians – has been delivering blistering critiques of the warped and exploitative practices within the record industry, and while he might not have the sheer acid bite of Steve Albini, he’s not that far short of it. Arguably the most continually politicised and socially articulate musician whom I heard from this year was Steve Lawson, best known for family-friendly spacey instrumental loop-jazz and eccentric fashion choices (plus the playful sense of humour that makes him the Ross Noble of virtuoso bass playing). In between releasing three albums, he kept up a stream of online posts and tweets this year which eviscerated inequalities, business hypocrisies both in and out of the music industry, Offline and onstage, wherever appropriate, he’d also put up rather than shut up.

Steve’s role as unlikely advocate (coming from a musical quarter from which few people are expected to have or to express streetfighting social opinions) was also a reminder that this year we lost Charlie Haden, the inspirational jazz bassist – a fearless musical advocate of human rights since the 1960s, and and from a current perspective as square-looking a gent as you could hope to meet. Self-satisfied pop theory be damned. Sometimes style and substance just don’t match up, and the former shouldn’t automatically take pre-eminence.)

End of aside.)

So, where does this leave me? This post could be a blip – just a lumpy expression of personal doubt and responsibility qualms before I pick up the usual threads and carry on as before – or it could be the start of something more involved. 2015 may see a darker blog, or I might simply continue to whistle against the darkness. The outcome partially depends on whether people keep sending me slabs of contextually blank noise music or self-entitled “look-at-me-and-make-me famous” rock gobbets. Speaking for myself, I’d prefer to have something to write about and around, rather than simply write on.

Yet ultimately I’m responsible for carrying out any kind of constructive re-engagement between the world and myself. I suspect that my 2015 is going to be full of missteps and stubbed toes, some of them self-inflicted in public. So it goes. It ought to be worth it. If I’m going to do this, it will have to come from personal effort and personal learning, something which leads towards writing which is more deeply grounded and more expansive than it has been before.

Statement of intent. Let’s see where it goes.

Meanwhile, the ‘Misfit City’ show continues. I’ve got some single reviews to be posted up in the next day or so. I’ve already had some other interesting reviewables come through. Some of them are suggesting questions and ideas which I might like to pursue – not necessarily the questions and ideas which you might expect from reading my musings above, but the kind of questions which at least put a shot of adrenalin into my weary mind and keep me going.

And – to end on a completely self-indulgent note – this is a fantastic-looking piano.
 

The Bogányi piano (photo © Támas Bujnovszky)

The Bogányi piano (photo © Támas Bujnovszky)


 
 
 
 

Stumbling through 2014 – a year in flashes and in review (part 1 – the music)

18 Jan

photo-dann-01-15Looking for a little authority? I have as little as anyone.

However, in a year in which I personally failed to keep up with many things – developments, any number of fast-flying cutting edges, review promises – I can still offer a set of personal snapshots. I can’t tell you what was best, in terms of music – but I can tell you what I heard and saw, and how it affected me.

Embarrassingly, few of the recordings and events covered below actually made it into the blog on time as reviews. Many of them haven’t even made it in now. You can expect to see me working proper 2014 reviews into the blog during 2015, adding some belated tassels to the kite’s tail. For now, though, I hope that these retrospective mentions make up for my lack of effectiveness at the time; and there are so many playable tracks and videos embedded down there that it looks like a Tumblr account, or a drunken quilt. Enjoy.

* * * *

So… my 2014 as listener and attender, then…

Time-poor and money-poor in London, with heavy family commitments, I had to watch gig after gig slip by. In many respects the year has been defined by what I didn’t get to see. I missed Prince’s secret gig at the Electric Ballroom; I missed Steven Wilson, St Vincent, the Loose Tubes reunion and The Wolfhounds; I missed Henry Fool, Imogen Heap‘s Reverb, the Crimson ProjeKCt and the London Jazz Festival. I missed that shaky, defiant Henry Cow reunion at the Lyndsey Cooper memorial concert in November. I missed all of the TuesdaysPost gigs and the Drill Festival in Brighton. I missed #TORYCORE’s visceral jazz-doom-metal rage assault on the cruelties of government policy, a short bus ride away at the Camden People’s Theatre. Perhaps mostly painfully, I missed all of Kate Bush‘s ‘Before the Dawn’ shows. I missed the bands that I should have seen, and I probably missed the bands that you caught; and who knows how many classical concerts I didn’t even know about?

2014-live-variousWhen I did have the money for a concert, it was generally one which was off at the sides, but disproportionately rewarding. For instance – in a side room at the glossied-up Roundhouse, sandwiched in between Stars in Battledress and Arch Garrison (more on whom later), I saw Prescott. An unholy and hugely enjoyable alliance of Rhodri Marsden (currently with Scritti Politti, previously everywhere), onetime Stump bassist Kev Hopper and South London experimental drummer Frank Byng, they played a rolling, feinting game of improv-rock handball, like a post-punk take on Miles Davis groove gumbo.

On another evening I hung out underground in Dalston down at the Servant Jazz Quarters, dodging stuffed weasels. Slicked in purple light, I watched cuddly misanthrope Benjamin Shaw lay into Prince George, his girlfriend, his job, himself and most of the world, and then – from out of his cloud of slaggings – give his chuckling audience the doe-eyes to make sure that we still loved him. Also on the bill, Jack Hayter and son whittled us keen, humane songs out of musical driftwood, and the Superman Revenge Squad turned detailed geek-angst into pin-sharp bedsit art.

In October, I had reason to thank the five-quid standing ticket tradition at the Proms. Having joining a shuffling ticket queue that snaked from the Albert Hall past the Royal College of Music and practically to Queen’s Gate, I got into the concert by the skin of my teeth (the very last ticket) in time to see the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra deliver a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth which was so good that it made people in the audience literally scream with joy. Getting to hear Friedrich Cerha’s ‘Paraphrase’ (an eerie and nebulous deconstruction of the Ninth’s opening) as a companion piece was a delightfully sour cherry on the cake.

photo-oscar-the-butcherOut of sheer necessity, most of my journeys out into live music were via free gigs – generally, Ben Eshmade’s Daylight Music concerts at the Union Chapel on Saturday afternoons. This was a lifeline which I often shared with my wife and my three-year-old son Oscar, who continues to make his way into any resulting reviews as companion, unintentional critic and occasional disruptor (You’ll probably be hearing more from, or at least about, Oscar during 2015 – assuming that he gets over his current hatred of live music before I disown him). Yet I shouldn’t complain too much about being stuck with Daylight Music as a default destination. Every one of their gigs featured at least one act which traipsed out of Ben’s address book and won me over.

2014-daylightmusiclive-1As a result, I have plenty of Daylight memories. It was a good place to see instrumentalists (such as Dean McPhee and his smoky Yorkshire-via-Morocco loop guitar) and if you wanted to see a harp mixing it with a laptop or a percussionist moving from steel drum to typewriter – but still expected a tune – it was the gig to go to. The Ida Y Vuelta Ensemble offered explosive London flamenco and brought on a live, quick-changing dancer whose heels hammered hell out of a tabletop. The immaculately arty odd-couple duo Bitch ‘n’ Monk came with Yoko Ono’s endorsement, sang soprano, screamed flute, and offered us a melange of Colombian punk-jazz and beatboxing. Cross-cultural, mixed-instrumental families Flux and Digitonal took assorted cinematic, acoustic and electronic elements and blew them up into glowing paper lanterns, or drowned them five enchanted fathoms deep.

2014-daylightmusiclive-2Daylight was also a great place for songwriters – Clémence Freschard, keeping a chapelful of fans happy with a still, small, studiously cool performance; Daniel Marcus Clark telling us song-stories, muffing up a third of the verses, corpsing with rue and being warmly forgiven; Rachael Dadd skipping and clapping her band onstage and then capering from instrument to instrument to play her skittery folk. Via a soft-breathing, barely-there chamber-pop vision of strings and tantalisingly unfinished stories, Emily Scott unrolled her introspective vistas and promenades of solitude and reflection, like a James Joyce belle with a ukelele. Johnny Lynch of The Pictish Trail shed his lo-fi blip-boxes and courted us with a chalk-and-cheese mix of stand-up comedy and terrifying folk songs. Anchored by deep Pentangle-esque double bass, the Vespers trio offered three separate songwriter’s takes on the perils of loving.

Louis Barrabas plays Santa...

Louis Barrabas plays Santa…

And there was more… Robert Glover from epic45 turned up with his Field Harmonics side project, drowning pop songs in a bushy welter of chiming electronica. The Middle Ones travelled from separate ends of the country to gush, clang guitar, giggle, squeeze an accordion and deliver smart, unorthodox kitchen-sink songs of commitments, bicycles, romantic flutters and the interweaving of different generations. Franky & The Jacks charmed with smart suits, great barbering and a hot-jazz/Southern balladeer take on rockabilly; and while Crayola Lectern weren’t new to me (their debut album was a humble highlight of 2013), it was here that I first got to hear their waterlogged, beautiful Edwardian-esque melancholy in the flesh for the first time, complete with cornets, whispers and gentle lysergia.

Still, my attendance record was nowhere near perfect. I missed Bird to Beast‘s acid folk, Richard James, the classical triple-whammy of Oliver Coates, James McVinnie and Liam Byrne (complete with viol da gamba), Showman’s Wagon, and I’m sure that my old ‘Misfit City’ mate Vaughan Simons will be disappointed that I missed Louis Barabbas’ Christmas show – although I’ve now seen Louis’ Santa photos, and reckon that Oscar will probably thank me for not dragging him along to that one.

2014-mainstreamBack in the world of pick-up, plug-in-and-play music, I paid little attention to mainstream releases, but occasionally some things did get through to me. With ‘Unrepentant Geraldines’, Tori Amos left behind much of the heraldic esoterica that’s swarmed in of her work in recent years and turned out her most intimate and engaging collection of songs for ages. Back at the tail end of 1991, she’d made me cry, gasp, yearn and fall over myself when I first heard Silent All These Years: in 2014, she did the same thing with Invisible Boy. Another album which I’d looked forward to inexplicably failed to connect. Usually, Elbow’s Guy Garvey can sing about middle-aged men strolling through Manchester suburbs and make it sound numinous and heartfilling. Fuelled by the foundering of a long-term romance and by Guy’s inspirational sojourn in New York, ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ took Elbow to the top of the British charts. Yet even as Guy sang about the magic of Manhattan, and invited us into dark metaphorical dreams of a coracle-frail love swallowed up in the Atlantic, all I could think about was how flat and grey these grand emotions sounded – and how Elbow’s gift for illustrating the extraordinary wonder of ordinary sights (and driving them up into the hearts and singing voices of arena crowds) seemed to have deserted them.

This was odd, considering the fact that quite a number of the albums which did touch me also mirrored my own greying state and the sometimes unsettling rollout of new perspectives that comes with it. Building workable compromises with age – or simply fucking it all off and being as honest as possible in what’s no longer, in truth, just a young man’s game – clearly had its own dignity, even its own triumphs. With ‘Double Chorus’, Michigan punk-poppers Kenny & The Swordfish delivered a semi-autobiographical record from hard giggers turned to compromised family men. Still holding to their noisy guitars and ska chops (like a two-man fusion of Fishbone and The Clash) they raged against the loss of youth’s freedom, shivered with the chill of fading targets and opportunities, and struck uneasy bargains with the new state of affairs, but never gave up.

A little extra gristle and grizzle also suited The Scaramanga Six and their ‘Scenes of Mild Peril’ DVD. Banged out rough and filmed live in a Brixton studio and in a commandeered Bridlington golf lodge, their cartoon-limned, carefully overblown tales of brooding everyday fury, murderous emotion and self-inflicted bruises were stripped of the elaborate visual wit of the band’s promo videos. Instead, they were gifted with an extra, claustrophobic grain; and as ever, the band kept up their reputation as the other kind of Yorkshire Gothic.

On a similar tip, as well as nursing a reissue of 1987’s ‘Unseen Ripples From a Pebble’ reformed C86 post-punk survivors The Wolfhounds slung out their first new album in twenty-four years called (with a sour, proud prod and a wink) ‘Middle Aged Freaks’. If I’m going to listen to clanging, sneering garage rock, I’m going to listen to some that’s been made by weathered old dogs like these: men with plenty of miles on their clocks, a bloody-minded attention to texture and the world’s complications, and a collective bellyful of acid-dipped wit whether they’re turning out disturbing precises of current day morality, mocking their own deluded shadow-selves (“you’re a tough old tenderised piece of meat / and your sage advice is on repeat… / A line of charlie while the kid’s asleep. / A chopped hog Harley with a baby seat,”) or soothing the frustrations with sympathy and stoicism. (“Sometimes in each life we all must fail – / but those weren’t the words of your father. / And into each life must fall some hail. / You know – like rain, but harder.”) Amongst the harsh punchy guitars, a whisper of samples even recalled front Wolfhound David Callahan’s other old band, Moonshake (another of my ‘90s favourites).

Moving into his fifties and making the best of an enforced band hiatus, no-man singer Tim Bowness pulled together some of the project’s stalled work as well as sundry other personal musings and ideas and come up with ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, an album of brilliantly-lit and beautifully played art-pop spanning muscular to delicate and dealing with personal histories, mid-life stock taking and the choices and chokes which go to form people’s lives. Many of the songs (while not quite Morrissey-esque tirades) had an underlying seethe of north-west English non-conformance and grit: a quality which perhaps had lain a little too softly on his previous work, and which now finally put the lie to the recurring (and unfair) Bowness reputation as a solipsistic crooner. Beyond these more plangent stabs, there was space for moments of peerless spiralling romance and even a spot of Northern classical-fusion collaboration with Andrew Keeling.

‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ also spawned a brace of animated videos, including this one for rattling lead-in track The Warm-Up Man Forever. (For me, it suggests that in later life that skinny little candy-striped computer-graphic guy from Dire Straits’ old Money for Nothing video thickened into an embittered and flat-capped folkie; his polygons bloated, and Pixar never returning his calls. See what you think…)

I might have ignored – or simply missed – the pop music which most people were listening to this year but I found in other places. Bailey Cremeans – a teenaged keyboard balladeer from Missouri – offered me rapturously sad songs on ‘Celestial City’. On ‘Two Magpies’, hyperventilating clink-and-murmur Londoners Quimper burrowed into the toybox and assembled a manic play of fairy-tale shadows, fuzzy-felt and sexual menace. Stretched between America’s East and West Coasts, New York roots-polystylist Mama Crow and Ecuadorian player-producer Daniel Lofredo Rota teamed up as Liminal Digs – arriving with the playful and slightly scary ‘Dragonfly’ EP, which flitted between Latina acoustic acid-folk and electronica with wantonness, a wandering and salty female wit, and an occasional flash of teeth.

record-anawan-aTwo bands from Brooklyn, in particular, caught and held my enthusiasm. With a song called High Time, from their debut EP, Legs earwormed their way into my affections. It wasn’t that they were particularly new-sounding. That celebratory-sounding disco-pop – packed full of skatting, singable keyboard hooks – was pure ‘80s; part Prince, part Talking Heads, partly smooth Donald Fagen awkwardness (circa ‘The Nightfly’). So too, was their preppy shirt-and-tie look. But their songs were adorably infectious and cleverly layered, with lead singer Tito Ramsey sketching out a picture of a New York party scene raddled by insecurities, uptight resentful dancing, panic attacks, and unstable summer romances eaten away by drug habits.

Elsewhere in the borough, Trevor Wilson maintained his rickety, compelling psych-folk Vocal Ensemble by transforming them into a partnership of equals called Anawan although it was still his startling, deer-nervy songs that propelled them. If the renamed and, slightly repurposed band lost a little of their eerie incantatory fall-apart quality, they made up for it by strengthening their West Coast-inspired harmonies and sun-spattered glint. Imagine Syd Barrett directing The Mamas & The Papas and you’re partway there, though Anawan’s joyous mewl and trip-triggering song swerves are entirely their own.

One strand of music that I particularly enjoyed in 2014 was the sound of women, looping. There was Howlet, illustrating grand and dreamy obsessions on ‘Afraidarck’ by draping cavernous recording space with layered but minimal spider-silk vocal lines and the barest of beats. There was Georgina Brett, working with voice only to improvise spiralling spring-paths of call, response and return or detailed masses of counterpoint on-the-fly. Yasmyn Hendrix pursued the same method to decorate and festoon a capella pop songs, whether she was creating her own or working out a clever, rainy-day cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’.

Possibly the most outstanding for me was the spellbinding singer-songwriter-cellist Laura Moody, equally skilled at daredevil string playing and pyrotechnic performance-art vocal. She didn’t actually make use of looping technology; but her meticulous wreathing patterning, embedded minimalism and elastic poise suggested that it had had a strong impact on her anyway. Surprisingly, Laura’s ‘Acrobats’ album (released quietly in November) didn’t go for the same witty, barnstorming élan as her earlier work, condensing and reining in those extraordinary performance skills in favour of elliptical nu-folk songs: innerspatial and introspective, no less compelling.

In Seattle, the remarkable Kye Alfred Hillig pumped out two albums for free (‘Real Snow’ and ‘The Buddhist’), adding to an ever-growing catalogue coursing from genre to genre (this year it was synth-pop, alt.country and bare-bones sadcore). Unlike many of his sloppily prolific contemporaries, all of his work emerged diamond-clear, fully-formed and packed with striking, pungently-emotional songs. A better blogger than me would have been yelling about him all year: I suppose that I’d better be that better blogger in 2015.

record-va-cnpudOn another tack, it was good to see one of 2013’s lesser-known losses (that of promising Belgian art-punk Floky Pevée) commemorated and soothed by the multi-artist album ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Un Disque’. Here, the five songs which Floky recorded with his band Kabul Golf Club were restored and then revisited, turned inside out by eight different bands and a host of different treatments: indie-country, hardcore, electropunk, sludge metal, funk and post-rock. There was humour, but no cheap laughs; there was craft, but no sanctimonious genre purity. Instead, everyone involved did their best to show how far Floky might have gone, and just how much diverse potential already existed in the songs beyond the pummel and screams. It was the best of tombstones.

record-2014-psych1As has often been the case with ‘Misfit City’, much inspiration came from English psychedelic rock. Not in the shallow, easily-hyped mould of TOY or Temples (with their skinny young limbs, cloaking haircuts and by-the-book cribs of The Stooges, Hawkwind and Can) but in the high-and-low, the sidelines under the radar, the semi-secret pockets. Often, it came from men and women who’d already done several decades of growing-up away from the general public.

With little more than a nylon-strung guitar, a pair of archaic-sounding keyboards and a soft cracked voice, Arch Garrison’s ‘ I Will Be A Pilgrim’ delved into folk-baroque and folkways simultaneously. With equal amounts of airy beauty it unearthed and merged ancient English journey-ritual and personal soul-searching, its warm psychogeographic songcraft leaving the listener with nourished heart and aching feet.

Arch Garrison’s rarely-spotted cousins, Stars in Battledress, also broke cover; emerging under their own name for the first time in over a decade. With ‘In Droplet Form’ they provided an engaging, sometimes sombre record of pre-weathered, fully committed Englishiana, knitted together from the sound of antique wireless songs, bell-rounds, the water-dampened mustiness of old institutions, and eerie garden-shed-drones. Richard Larcombe’s cunning and tragicomic lyrics were the weft in the weave – feinting, bleeding, mystifying, bitingly literate and frequently hilarious.

2014-psych-2Descending from the same psychedelic cloud, Knifeworld’s ‘The Unravelling’ delivered flagrant horn-drenched excitements of guitars, tingling Rhodes and double-jointed rock punch, but was also drenched in hauntings and mournings which stayed with you long after the fadeout. One of Knifeworld’s members, Emmett Elvin (already a journeyman for innumerable other projects including Chrome Hoof) went on to build on the triumph of ‘The Unravelling’ with his own audacious ‘Bloody Marvels’ album, in which his own dazzling compositions built monkey-ladders to the stars and back. No less ambitious was Trojan Horse‘s ‘World Turned Upside Down’, in which four musically ravenous young Salfordians baked themselves a gigantic layer-cake of prog, psychedelia, hi-concept funk and Northern rock, laced it with history and hallucinogens, shared it around and then ate the rest, all with noisy gusto and generosity.

2014-psych-3If after all that you really and truly just wanted the motorik, you could always opt for the big, bluff, quaking noise of ZOFFF (a late-in-the-year Brightonian supergroup of grizzled sprites and younger heads with assorted Crayola Lectern/Dark Star/Electric Soft Parade connections). And having seen him spend much of the previous year creating an exciting, crabbed and roaring punk-prog with The Fierce & The Dead, it was still good to see that irrepressible loop-strummer Matt Stevens back in the solo saddle with ‘Lucid’, maintaining his upward progress with a set of instrumentals peppered by multiple looped-and-lashed guitars and with guest stars and influences drawing from black metal, prog and jazz. With ‘Curious Yellow’, airy Bristolians Hi Fiction Science delivered a near-perfect Krautrock-blended approximation of West Coast acid rock and English acid folk (not to mention being a big hit with Oscar, who’s dubbed the entire band ‘Ladyhorse’ on the strength of their cover artwork). From Rome, still pegging away at his winning fusion of light-touch prog and fuzzy Britpop, Sterbus offered a little in-between-albums grab-bag in the shape of ‘A Wonderful Distrust’. From Florida, Scott Miller and Anjie Skaya sent over ‘Liquid Days’, a spontaneous song-album of cracked, wonder-struck voice, wandering guitar and Russian violin which (in its own humble, crumpled-loons way) evoked the Incredible String Band, Van Morrison and The Bathers. A compulsive scattershot releaser of albums, Scott reckoned that he was onto something better with this one; and he was right.

2014-smith-reissuesTwo revenant records from another psychedelic hero loomed in the background. Six years gone from music, and still an invalid, Tim Smith continues to command a tremendous love from the surprising number of musicians who continue to claim him as a key influence. His presence haunted several of my favourite albums of this year; those by Knifeworld and Arch Garrison in particular. Two opportunities to listen back to the fatherlode came with a reissue of ‘Extra Special Oceanland World’ (Tim’s lone, wounded-sounding solo project from the early ‘90s) and with a grand double vinyl reissue of Cardiacs’ multiple-personality magnum opus ‘Sing To God’ (in all of its kaleidoscopic, childish inspiration).


Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Rita Novikaite/Keith Burstein: 'Keith Burstein: Symphony 'Elixir' & Songs of Love and Solitude'Apart from my encounter with Beethoven and Cerha at the Proms, my dips into classical music were few and far between. However, they were often pretty memorable. They began with Keith Burstein‘s evening at the Lithuanian Embassy on January 29th, at which the stubborn, stalwart neo-tonal iconoclast (veteran of numerous spats with both the musical establishment and the press) played and discussed the new Naxos recording of his ‘Elixir’ symphony and ‘Songs of Love & Solitude’ cycle. Despite ‘Elixir’s initial roots as a lambently romantic London concerto, Keith eventually had to make a long train journey to Lithuania and an appointment with the Kaunus City Symphony Orchestra in order to get the two works performed and recorded in full. He was rewarded for it. The KCSO’s velvety sound brought out fresh depth in the symphony’s lush nerviness (a nostalgic Brahms-in-Vienna majesty undercut and expanded by more contemporary slithering tonal planes and disruptive rhythmic upheavals) and the lingering, opulent reveries of the song-cycle (for the latter, see below). Keith Burstein’s life and work tend to be filled with metaphysical rumblings, whether sought out and attracted. This Lithuanian voyage, too, was suffused with both wonder and shadows as Keith reconnected with his own Baltic Jewish family history while stepping carefully around the last vestigial snags of Stalinism which once engulfed Lithuania, still haunt some of its old guard, and may have added to the darker tones in the recording.

More metaphysics were stirred up in May when Olga Stezhko released her ‘Eta Carinae’ album. The Belarusian pianist’s performance of idiosyncratic early-twentieth-century works by Alexander Scriabin and Ferruccio Busoni wasn’t just a set of vigorous and individual interpretation: it was a philosophical exercise, and a multi-layered education in itself. Olga’s programmatic intent (and her intriguing sleevenote essay) mapped the pieces onto the explosion of knowledge at the time of their composition, from mysticism to astrophysics, from the development of human reason to the first pryings into the heart of the atom.

Another marriage of the scientific and the numinous arrived in June, when Markus Reuter (best known as an art-rocker who makes evanescent experiments on electric touch guitar) asserted his own entry into orchestral composing. ‘Todmorden 513’ (performed by the Colorado Chamber Orchestra) was at root a cycling, shifting, algorhythmic curtain of mathematical haunts and oblique manipulations. Emerging into the concert hall, it transformed into something greater; far more moving and psychologically suggestive than this dry, blackboard summary I’m offering here.

It was also wonderful to see a long-overdue release compiling music by Richard Causton, whose underrated, thoughtful and mercurial composer’s catalogue remains treasurable to a growing number of music directors but still mostly secret to the public. It deserves more. On the NMC release of ‘Millennium Scenes’, some of this imbalance was redressed. The Hallé Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group provided stunning interpretations of selected Causton works – the queasy alarm and anger of the title piece (which offered a stern critique of millennial triumphalism even as it set the cat amongst the party pigeons), the dense vigour of the Chamber Symphony, the nightscapes of Notturno, the suspended fever-dream of The Persistence Of Memory and the bright-flickering septet colourings of Kingfishers Catch Fire. It was an overdue reminder that (especially when set against the sleight-of-hand of much modern classical composition) Richard Causton’s vivid, surprising compositions have both a rare accessibility and a rare integrity.

Wedding music...On an even more personal note as regards classical music… in October I was best man at the Anglo-Irish-Japanese wedding of Michael O’Callaghan and Yukiko Kondo, which sprawled happily across north London between Islington, Holloway and Highgate. On its own, this would have been an ambitious and inclusive event. The reception made it even more of a remarkable occasion, becoming a loose-limbed, semi-spontaneous classical concert (with various incursions from pop, ukulele cabaret and jazz). Assorted guests, most of them members of The Learning Orchestra, stepped up and played – taking turns to deliver assorted solos, duets and trios by composers including Borodin, Elgar, Mozart, Puccini, Fred Godfrey and Swedish traditional sources. It was a welcome jolt – a reminder to me (so often the lone, semi-detached listener) that music is not just something which we purchase, drip-feed into our ears by speaker or bud or sit in front of; but something that lives and lifts in our own hands, a natural expression of community. Part soiree and part shebeen, the evening’s final coda was a nifty and playful French horn solo by Jim Rattigan in which he fused Charlie Parker, Wagner and Miles Davis, with Donna Lee merging into the Siegfried Horn Call.

Jazz, 2014Jim Rattigan’s own gigs (with variously-sized ensembles) were apparently one of the joys of London jazz life over the past year. Sadly, I played far too little attention to jazz in 2014. I was delighted to hear about the return of Loose Tubes (reconvening to blow up a juicy brass noise for the first time since 1990) but that was yet another one of the gigs I missed. A particular highlight on record was Billy Bottle & The Multiple‘s ‘Unrecorded Beam’ – a sumptuous, slightly Canterbury-flavoured extrapolation from Henry David Thoreau poems which drew on an inspired, solid-yet-shifting ensemble including Kate Westbrook, Mike Outram and Roz Harding (Producer-engineer Lee Fletcher added a stunning extra dimension to the album, weaving and whirling the listener’s perspective into and around the band, as if he’d fitted his microphones to a darting bee). Other than that, my encounters with jazz were fitful. There were downloaded dates with the cinematic torchy musings of Slowly Rolling Camera, and with the bouncing vocalese and spilling piano salad of the Lauren Lee Jazz Project‘s ‘Makebeliever’, but otherwise it was all about old records, or appreciated stolen licks appearing in other genres. I should have done better.

Hip hop, 2014I prefer hip hop when it questions, weaves and converses rather than just constantly retreading a set of brags. With the megalomania and Renaissance man posturings of the main players reaching delirous levels this year (and consequently leaving me cold), my hip hop experience was sidelined. In spite of that, I had my favourites here as well. I enjoyed Ice Cold Sophist; and El-P and Killer Mike’s second album as their continuing Run the Jewels team-up, in which their occasional lyrical brutality was counterbalanced by their quick-shifting skill and invention. Animator and DJ JayMcQ‘s ‘Tales From My Parent’s Spare Bedroom’ was another hit for me: a cheeky turntable mash-up from behind a Philadelphian white-picket fence.

Surprisingly, assorted efforts by Christian rap collective Humble Beast also rode high. Speaking as an atheist (however gentle) if anyone had told me that one of my favourite rap albums of 2014 would be Propaganda’s ‘Crimson Cord’ I’d never have believed them. Still, there it was: a wise, profound, slam-poetic album in which Propaganda’s religious faith never snagged his flow, articulacy or questioning mind but proved to be an integral part of his compassion, positivity, social responsibility and outspokenness. Beautiful Oddity’s lively, omnivorous production style (from shimmering respiring ambience to rock-guitar-edged corner-slams) proved to be the perfect frame.

Overall, however, I didn’t pay enough attention to hip hop. Similarly, although the density and discursive potential of contemporary R&B genuinely appeals to me I heard little that I actually liked this year. As with jazz, I heard a few things bubbling away in assorted underground strata, a world away from perfume-deal hyper-commerciality or from the constipated melismae being squeezed out on TV talent shows… but all those songs were from before 2014. I’m clearly not listening in the right places yet. I must do better this year.

Experimental releases, 2014In contrast to shortfalls in my hip hop and R&B listening, I did get to hear and engage with plenty of noise music, ambient material and post-rock. Although I’m not convinced that ‘Misfit City’’s avant-garde credentials are that predominant, I did receive a lot of music submitted from those areas, containing its fair share of gems. From Trondheim, there was the ferocious cosmic mood-rock of SVK’s ‘Avernus’; from Helsinki, the jazz-noise duo-roar of Good Romans’ ‘Open This Door, Never Look Back’. The far-flung Sontag Shogun collective made a virtue of each of its members being footloose on different continents; on ‘Tale’, they offered an aural world trek piecing together field recordings and accompaniments into a collection of pieces which pursued their playful “lullanoise” concept and also offered an essay on listening.

Experimental and noise releases, 2014From New York, Sufjan Stevens revisited 2001 and reissued his extraordinarily diverse album of poached’n’tossed electronica, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’. Back in Britain, Darkroom steered their flowing, beautifully etiolated landscapes of eerie guitar and airflecking synths into film soundtracking, via ‘Rhombus’.

If you were after purer noise experimentation, you could look to the overwhelming nuclear blatter and power electronics of Cthulhu Detonator ’s ‘Sucking The Blood Of Celestial Bodies’, the fuzz, breath, dazed piano and radiophonic space echoes of Con Rit‘s ‘Drawing Down Of The Moon’. One slice of noisiness which particularly appealed to me was the Herhalen label’s triple-artist cassette ‘Bourgeois Kerb Stomp’, which was split between the bouncing distortions, little mechanisms and samples of Splashy the Blame-Shifter, the torrential drum-machines-and-feedback onslaught of Lenina, and the downbeat Salford dole-life sound-paintings of Ship Canal (one of which was a lo-fi, dirty-Proustian ramble through the artist’s old takeaway food bills).

2014 - Fluttery Records, Hidden Shoal, Silber MediaThe enthusiasm and productivity of certain labels was inspiring. The longstanding wing-and-a-prayer avant-gardeners Silber Media were heroically popping out a little gallery of albums every month, of which ‘Absolut Gehör’ (Origami Arktika’s collection of scutter-and-drone Norwegian psych-folk) was a standout. So too was the gigantic ‘QRD – The Guitarists’ four-hour virtual box set, with no less than fifty-five tracks of experimental cross-genre players buzzing, strumming, droning, looping and mashing their instruments, accompanied by nearly two thousand four hundred pages of interview. (Talk about writing the book on something.)

Fluttery Records bombarded me with assorted post-rock promos during the year, including the expansive Anglo-Scandinavian sonic portraiture of Row Boat‘s ‘In Between’ and the mongrelised techno-rock of AL_X’s ‘Shunt’. Hidden Shoal continued to stake their claim to be releasers of some of the broadest, most accessible art-pop and avant-garde recordings. Some of my favorites were Markus Mehr’s ‘Binary Rooms’ (assorted interferences floating over majestic found sound) and Chloë March’s ‘Nights Bright Days’ (an art-pop songwriter cycle with a Eurydice twist).

Labelless, 2014The label-less and the isolated continued to prove themselves at least as good as the feted and celebrated. From deep in Sussex, Coriaplex offered an ice-dewed trip into space-rock with ‘One Way To Forever’. Perpetually unappreciated outside of certain small arty enclaves in Poland, David Hurn continued to prove himself much more than a London sadcore murmurer. His ‘Museum of You’ EP might not have contained a single syllable of his disillusioned and waspishly compassionate songwriting, but its eerie spacious chamber instrumentals impressed in other ways. Dank with air-driven keyboards, rattles, distant cellos and musique concrete samples, they rumbled like late Talk Talk or Bark Psychosis struck voiceless. Maybe it’s a coincidence that David lives in the East London regions, north of the Thames and east of the Lea, that spawned some of the best British post-rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; or maybe something’s rubbing off.

Another graduate of those particular times and places (former Redbridgian Ian Crause, once the creative force behind Disco Inferno) turned out one of the most outstanding experimental records of the year. Inexplicably snubbed by indie labels and small art endeavours alike, battling indifference and occasional homelessness, he gritted his teeth and completed ‘The Song of Phaethon’. We’d heard an early version of this piece back in 2012, but 2014 saw the whole uncompromising vision flood out as an EP. Like Chloë March, Ian drew on Greek myth, but in a far more immersive way. Using the legend of Apollo’s bastard son (whose sense of entitlement saw him wresting control of the sun-god’s chariot and carelessly scorching the earth before a thunderbolt brought him down) he wove it into a scathing metaphorical critique of neo-liberalism and the Iraq war. His “picturesound” technique melded a trudging bardic chant with a flooding rush of illustrative samples, the biting lyrical fable illustrated and orchestrated by the sound of screaming jets, whinnying horses, munitions, news broadcasts, snatches of other musics from Greece and the Gulf. The artful,vicious coda (Phaethon, lying prone and dying in the wreckage he’d created, still blithely justifying himself) was spiced with samples of Blair bluster. Slap. (Incidentally, right at the end of the year, and just when he seemed to have burnt himself out for a long time, Ian unexpectedly resurfaced with a couple of bright-sounding muttery pop singles, one of them in Spanish…)


* * * *

I seem to have started my look back across the year with a sense of shrunkenness and frustration. Getting to the end of it, I find that even in my own small subjective sliver of 2014 there’s a remarkable richness – and that’s comforting. All things considered, it was a surprisingly good year for music. Frequently, the only thing that really seemed to be missing was me. But more about that next time…

January 2015 – singles & track reviews – Nocturne Blue’s ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’; Doldrums’ ‘Hotfoot’; We Are Kin’s ‘Home Sweet Home’; Swim Mountain’s ‘Love on Top’; Ardamus’ ‘At Least I Got Laid’

15 Jan

In the sensual slo-mo video for ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ a long-limbed, model-glossy woman rotates on a rope swing, or inside a net. Circus glamour, catwalk slink, passive heat – Nocturne Blue is clearly aiming for all of these things. The musical sideline of video artist Dutch Rail, it curves and strokes its own well-toned musical hips, a perfect solipsistic pearl. I don’t know whether to admire its sheen or to stay quiet and watch it stalk – slap-bang – straight into a doorframe.

Though it’s honed for club play, there’s a strong affinity for the more polished, aloof side of art-pop here – and despite Nocturne Blues’ Los Angeles origins, the project rapidly settles into a European home. All is textural – there’s a sultry, light-stepping beat; there’s bass rumble, silk-vapours and distant, tearing fuzz. Left to themselves, parts build and crystallise. A lone, calculated antique synth pyrographs a wheeling electronic line – a ‘70s nod to psychedelic German sequencing, or to Pink Floyd’s ‘On The Run’. There’s a little echo of centrozoon’s evasive, bumpy pop phase in here: appropriate, as Markus Reuter guests on stacked layers of touch guitar, building himself a stepped, dissolving tower of bluesy bass growls, ambient hums and looped Europop trills. There’s a pinch of Summer-and-Moroder disco trance, as well as a dash of Bowie’s Berlin.

‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ also bears a passing, slowed-down resemblance to ‘Only Baby’, no-man‘s criminally-ignored dance-floor symphony from 1993. Yet where no-man blazed with an urgent sexual heat beneath their violins-and-cream sophistication, Dutch prefers to sit alone crushing grapes against his palate and murmuring rapturously to us about the taste. Both songs sing about breath and imply transcendence; both involve a shadowy other around which to wrap emotion (in one of his purpler patches, Dutch asserts “the sweetest flowers bloom late at night / but you and I were born to break free into the light..”). Ultimately, however, the Nocturne Blue trail is a solo journey, with Dutch dreaming of an explosive transformation while describing slow, langorous circles around his own stalled obsession. “My eyes may never see the sun / Paper-thin, don’t know where I’ve been / Sleepwalking circles into what I might become,”, he murmurs.“My darkest deeds, my secret needs / A thousand fingers feeling every possibility. / I was crawling down, digging around, / diving deep to dreams within my dreams.” But he emotes so softly, with so much of an immaculate and poised façade, that he makes any dirt and frustration feel as smooth as patent leather.

* * * *

Doldrums are equally club-bound, but far more ostentatiously fucked-up. Their sound is twentieth-century pre-millennial angst of the kind that just won’t go away and get smoothed down – a Montreal hybrid of dirty warehouse techno, KAOSS pad tangents and the spattering, visual-art-inspired synth-pop of Grimes and co. ‘Hotfoot’ is a knocking bit of electronic rabble-rousing, filled with splurging ripped-speaker synth-bass, sundry distortions and barking vocals. A couple of tussling rhythm tracks battle it out in stop-time. The main riff sounds like a plastic bottle, tuned to baritone, being kicked around in an elevator. Rather than an elevating rush, the breakdown is a numbing blurt of hooting overload. In its dull, hopeless tyranny, it could be the klaxon announcing that another reactor has just hit meltdown.

Meanwhile, tousle-topped frontman/turntablist/sound-smearer Airick Woodhead drawls on about “keeping up an unnatural pace”, “sleeping in, in the age of unrest,” and “vampires who can’t compete.” Watch your back. While ‘Hotfoot’ does send you careening around the room in a wild spurt of dance energy, flailing your elbows and heels, it’s also manic and asocial. “If I can’t pull myself back up, I’m gonna go deeper down in the mud,” warns Airick, scribbling himself notes which he immediately shreds and tosses. “Hey problem, spin around. / Don’t stop smiling ’til you hit the ground.”

It’s not just his punky sneer which gives the song its edge. It’s the death-disco sentiments: a party gone sour, nihilistic, borderline cannibalistic as Airick spits “my best friends all see me drown / my best friends all – c’mon – talk about it.” Halfway through, he’ll implore “Lady, won’t you come and swallow me?”, as if he’s courting Death for a final blowjob. Certainly he seems resigned to the fatal gravity well he’s worked himself into. “Guess I can’t pull myself back up, / I couldn’t grow deeper down any further / Fit right in, make some friends…/ fall asleep in the deep end.” He’s going to go down dancing, or nodding, or with some kind of hopeless swagger.

* * * *

After that, it’s something of a relief to change gears with some elegant Manchester progressive rock, courtesy of We Are Kin. Though it’s easier to be prog now than it used to be, those bad old off-the-peg snarkings about adolescent hang-ups on fairies and hobbits still sometimes hang around like a bad smell. I’d argue that what prog (especially British prog) actually tends to get hung up on is Victoriana. Shuddering flamboyantly on the cusp of romanticism and modernism, it often lolls back into the former, taking comfort in or shape from the trappings of an industrious imperial world in which even the mass-produced now seems to have to hearkened back to hand-craftsmanship, and in which running your hand over an antique street railing in the here-and-now triggers a kind of time-travel.

We Are Kin seem to fit into the same latterday Britprog school as Big Big Train – nostalgic for a history drawn from dips into books and museums and bits of folk history while quietly assembling its meaning on their own; building flesh around paper skeletons and guide pamphlets and tales handed down from elderly relatives. This isn’t as immediately credible as rattling history’s cage with upfront arguments about the present, but although it’s a gentler approach it’s not automatically naïve. Emblems and preoccupations of Victorian times still wash back and forth through the Western psyche in slicks of gold leaf or grime – empires of one kind or another, ideas about the deserving or unworthy poor, innovations and the turnover of new elites.

Prog musicians, like novelists, sometime lie on the wash of this wave and see where it takes them. ‘Home Sweet Home’ seems to be an overture to just this kind of journey. We Are Kin’s superstructure might be 1970s antique (a stately, tuneful Genesis sway of velvet-curtain Mellotrons, small bridges of jazz chording, the bowed and angular interplay of shifting time signatures and guitar escapements) but their intent might not be. Over three brief, lilting verses, singer Hannah Cotterill and lyricist Dan Zambas are describe three settlements – plains village, sea town, valley city – each with its own character and rhythm, its own buildings and way of life. In another sense, they might be describing the same place, or at least the same culture, swelling as history passes. Its buildings grow larger, casting greedy looming shadows. The ease of sustainable trade metastasises into a grotesque over-stimulated scrabble.

All right, the language is, ever-so-slightly, fairytale Gothic – but fairytales and fables work because they pare down the vital into simple, memorable lines. Through the fountains and courtyards (and the stone houses, with their “dwellers”) you can still see us, you can still see now, rocked by the same currents and the same shocks. If twenty-first century austerity really is 1930s repression revisited, and we’re sleepwalking back into repeating old history, prog’s retrofitted antiquarian stylings might have a place in telling the old stories and delivering the new warnings. If this is a taste of a longer tale, I’d like to hear more of it.

* * * *

London/Angeleno good-time band Swim Mountain also retrofit, but in an easier, breezier way. They cover Beyoncé’s ‘Love On Top’ like someone flirting under a blanket, musical lines and instrumental parts wriggling under the surface like coy, excited limbs. As he showed on the debut Swim Mountain EP last autumn, head Swimmer Tom Skyrme is very good at disguising fairly limited resources under a swelling, lucid-dream production style. He claims to have put this one together on a whim, belatedly falling in love with the song’s bravura modulations and ‘80s-inspired peppiness.

Personally, the Beyoncé diva-juggernaut leaves me cold. Despite her well-honed skills and precision vocals, much of what I see is branded, sub-Madonna acquisition and media powder-puffing (if she is the twenty-first century Madonna, we’ve all gone beige) so it’s interesting to hear the song outside her wind-tunnel of glamour. Tom’s lightly buttered, lysergic popcorn-soul take makes no attempt to match the ceiling-bumping, helium balloon assertiveness of the original. The pace is agreeable ‘70s midtempo; the wah-guitar plays peekaboo; the boinking bass comes sheathed in a tight reverb. The phaser button adds a gentle, sexy yawn; Tom’s warm nasal drawl (just on the likeable side of bland) dawdles amiably on the swooping paths Beyoncé cut, making no attempt to match her commanding calisthenics. A cloudy puff of keyboards fills the gaps, like a lazy pink smoke-bomb.

Previous Swim Mountain stylings have mostly recalled the stoned, sleeting Byrds guitar of ‘Five Miles High’: this one sounds like what Arnold Layne might have become if Syd Barrett had drunk deep on Memphis soul before he rolled another one, or like a more nappy-headed tie-dyed version of the Clarke/Duke Project. It’s all a little throwaway (despite the unexpected ending, which scrambles down an unexpected dip and clunks like a plastic lyre) but it’s lovingly crafted throwaway; a sugar basket which takes less time to eat than it does to admire. Plus I do like the way that Tom’s mix rolls out individual delicate moments for our attention, as if his faders were the sliding drawers in a jeweller’s desk.

* * * *

Sex raps are integral to hip hop: another part of that expressing-yourself-over-a-beat ethos, and a good way to keep a live and restless audience onside. Unless you’ve got a broad sense of humour, they can be touchy areas – too louche, or (at their worst) channels for power-posturing, misogyny and spite. Happily, Ardamus might bitch a bit – and might even settle a few minor scores on the side – but he doesn’t really hold grudges. ‘At Least I Got Laid’ could have been so damn nasty – a wheedler’s boast. Instead, it’s a shrug and a counting-of-blessings from a late-30s Washington rapper, thumbing through his temporary dating and mating memories for a piece that’s not so much bump-and-grind as bump-and-fall-off-the-couch.

Most of the endearing low-budget video (earthily-mimed rom-com looking like it’s been shot on the flickering, selective colour stock of memory) actually takes place on a couch, but what we see isn’t really love action. It’s the bits in between. The getting-to-know you exercises, the different books and the telling eye-rolls. The separate laptop and TV watching; the bumbling between what two different people want. The sulks and the missed tell-tales; the irritating or opportunistic friends. Eventually and inevitably, it’s the get-outs, fall-outs or peter-outs. (Heh. No pun intended). Yes, it’s a bloke’s record and a man’s-eye view. There’s annoyance and relief (“the divorce and the wedding would have been shotgun”; “if you want headaches then, shit, you can have her”) and Ardamus does delivers a superb low blow in the battle of the sexes when he complains about how “a tampon now becomes puppet strings.”

Still, it seems that Ardamus’ concerns aren’t about who stays on top, but how things are played out (“you can’t play games like that / and not expect to get called on it”). Rather than being coldly profane, he’s endearingly filthy – there’s some marriage-proposal wordplay which is well worth a spin or two. (Hint: it’s all about going down. And exactly where you put the ring. Veil optional.) When he’s not going for double-takes and horse-laughs, he’s also pretty good at pinpointing the sorry farce of how things go wrong (“the small talk that you want to step over: / pushed away at the table – you a leftover,”) and the mutual clinging (“getting mouldy, make-believe it / you need each other, so now trade diseases.”) He knows how two can screw up. The summery light of Soulful’s production textures – bass Rhodes figures and wobbly wipes of soul voice samples, like a cuddlier Wu-Tang sprawling back on a picnic rug – draws out any venom. Whatever had been said and done – if you’d been Ardamus’ girlfriend, I think at least he’d shake your hand at the end of it.

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’
Nocturne Blue (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’
Sub Pop Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download/stream single (released 13th January 2015)

We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’
Bad Elephant Music (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 12th January 2015)

Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’
Swim Mountain (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 7th January 2015)

Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’
Ardamus (no barcode or catalogue number)
Stream-only single (released 13th January 2015)

Get them from:

Nocturne Blue: ‘Bottle Rocket Butterfly’ – Bandcamp or iTunes.
Doldrums: ‘Hotfoot’ – Bandcamp; stream-only audio at Soundcloud, stream-only video at YouTube; or order from Sub Pop as part of ‘The Air Conditioned Nightmare’ album.
We Are Kin: ‘Home Sweet Home’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download).
Swim Mountain: ‘Love On Top’ – stream-only at Soundcloud.
Ardamus: ‘At Least I Got Laid’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-like download), or buy as part of the ‘I Can’t Replace Me Part 1 Improve’ EP.

Nocturne Blue online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp YouTube

Doldrums online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM

We Are Kin online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

Swim Mountain online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

Ardamus online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

January 2015 – single & track reviews – Giles Babel’s ‘2015’; Shot of Hornets’ ‘Elvis is Dead’; Heylel’s ‘I Talk to the Wind’; Marika Hackman’s ‘Animal Fear’; Tanya Tagaq’s ‘Uja’

10 Jan

Giles Babel: '2015'

Giles Babel: ‘2015’

Happy new year. How’s your irresolution?

Both as year and as song, ‘2015’ is another fitful emergence for Enfield polymath Glen Byford – poet, photographer, digital trinketer, small-time maker and on-off DJ. In the past, he’s put out his original music (anxious water-tank electronica, skinny-wistful glitch tunes, poppy plunderphonics and disillusioned spoken-word bedsit blurts) under the cover names of Hunchbakk or Giles Babel. As of this year, all projects seem to have merged under the Babel label and shrunk down to their most skeletal: or perhaps that’s just how it feels under a January hangover.

Peeling off and discarding his usual quilt of samples, the perpetually uncomfortable Glen distractedly slung this one together on an iPad app while reading and watching television – as if he was working behind his own back and didn’t want to catch himself at it. It’s downbeat, clipped and telegrammatic – budget-tronica pows and zips; a knocking and near-undanceable beat; minimal decoration. Rather than opting for best hopes and public drive, he chooses to sit back and take the poison pill – “Another new year, and another January of good intentions. / Another January of new perceptions, misconceptions that things could change.”

The music, though, seems to disagree – glitching and flipping into a rumble of double-time, or shoving the voice to the back of the drawer like an unwanted sock. Meanwhile, Glen fidgets between hope and cynicism (“This year will be my year – / yeah, just like last year, / and just like every year,”)and represents that year with a brief collage of Playstation chip music, pings and trills, mutters, and incongrous hip hop samples of block party shouts and cheering crowds (“we have a party, right?… I tell you what we do…” Uncertain inspirations reign. Glen pads, tentative and barefoot, around his room.

* * * *

Shot of Hornets: 'Elvis is Dead?'

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead?’

In the time that Glen would take to roll over twice and go back to sleep, Shot of Hornets would have squeezed five quick changes into a song. Apparently not much older than 2014’s Christmas wrapping-paper, this band’s blocky, power-oozing pounce-and-trap tones suggests a much longer-established band: they mingle math-metal’s block-feints with hot funk spaces, thrash riffs with anthemic grunge righteousness, but never entirely pin themselves to anything. When he’s not bursting into hardcore screams, the soulful wreck of singing drummer Conor Celahane’s vocals are reminiscent of gospel-tinged hard-rock heroes King’s X (as are the clotted, meaty guitar wails of his brother Dan), but there’s just as much of Megadeth’s grand irritation in the stew as well.

Elvis is Dead? is a shape-changing dust-off about nothing more specific than uncertainty, vague disappointment and finding the pieces to pick up. The King himself only shows up in a desultory moan about Spotify (so I’m guessing that there’s something being said about the commodification and shrinkage of cultural heroes here), but generally the song sees the band gathering together their compass-bearings and firing off the odd sarcastic broadside. “So here we are now, / no better and no worse off, / in the same world as everyone else,” notes Conor, going on to confess “I have a number of doubts.”

The music is sinewy and jumpy beneath the roaring guitar, and every couple of minutes, there’s a change – a glide of softer melody, a shift into death growls, a barrage of bouncing swipes and screams. “The first prize for gift of the gab / goes straight to you / how d’you feel about that?” Conor yells before the song turns anthemic, finding both the funk and its final feet. (“Turning my back on ignorance, turning my back on selfish people, turning my back on ignorance and lies.”) In a final riff-bout, the rhythm hurtles and rebounds like an evil-minded squash ball. Promising. Let’s see what they do when their concentration settles.

* * * *

Even compared to the other prog juggernauts of the ’70s, King Crimson aren’t given much credit for contributing to the classic songbook. Given the various song-gems lurking in their back catalogue, this is unfair. It probably owes more to Robert Fripp’s unfortunate (and somewhat unfair) reputation as a lofty demon headmaster, verbally withering casual listeners from his lectern before immolating them with sprays of burning guitar sludge – an image which does his Bowie collaborations no harm, but which drags his main band down like a concrete overcoat. The fact remains that outside of slavish interpretations from neo-prog bands, as far as Crimson cover versions go there’s been little more than a speckling.

In the past few years, though, this has changed significantly. In 2011, The Unthanks transformed Crimson’s Starless into a haunting Northumbrian chorale. The year before, Symbolyc One ripped 21st Century Schizoid Man to ominous ribbons and recombined them for Kanye West’s ‘Power’. A year before that, Maynard James Keenan of Tool snarled his way through a pure Schizoid Man cover for The Human Experimente (It was impressive, in an art-metal way, although personally I’m keener on Johnny G’s lo-fi delta-blues version from 1982).

I Talk to the Wind, however, is probably the closest King Crimson has to a standard. A ghostly, semi-existential folk song from their first album, it’s already attracted several reinterpretations. Italian new-wavers Violet Eves did a respectfully mournful and elegant cover in 1985; Camper Van Beethoven and Eugene Chadbourne tore up a hilarious country-punk version in 1987. Probably the most famous version is Opus III’s techno-house take from 1992 (complete with New Romantic Gilliam-cum-Dali fantasy video, mashing up ‘Dune’, ‘Logopolis’ and ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ as Kirsty Hawkshaw’s androgynous glam-waif stalks, slinks and smoulders her way around a desert lodge).

For their own version, Heylel have chosen to recapture some of the original Crimson’s sumptuousness. Serving as a coda to the Red Giant sequence on the epic prog/folk/metal of their ‘Nebulae’ album, their take on I Talk To The Wind is solemn and sealed. The ceremonial pace, the full-scale orchestral tremble, the fathoms of shoegaze-guitar shudder and the solemn, Gilmourian guitar solo render it inter-generationally grand: touching on the string-swoons of Craig Armstrong or Sinatra’s orchestras, the stadium turbulence of ‘The Wall’ and the mournful psychedelic drones of Spiritualized or Slowdive. The video suggests that they’re heading up the live sessions in the Black Lodge from ‘Twin Peaks’.

Yet the original song is a small, lonesome beast – lyrical flute, a gentle fug of guitar, a pre-ELP Greg Lake singing the melancholy words with a vulnerable humility that he’d never show again. Heylel singer Ana Batista keeps this in mind. Her vocal might be full of assured, implicit soul-pop power, but she’s never tempted to let rip, never loses sight of that original restraint: and, restored to a waking dream, the song’s allowed to settle over us once again.

* * * *
Despite the underlying wildness of her songwriting, Marika Hackman also appreciates and makes use of the power of restraint. Previous songs such as Bath Is Black and Itchy Teeth have revealed a compelling songwriter with a cool fascination for messy play, for psychological dirt and guilt and the wracked physicality of the uneasy soul. That she doesn’t scream these things out adds to her power. Her cool, polished folk tones deliver her surreal, slithering insights and her deft, subtle analyses with the same thoughtful poise, whether she’s chiding or sharing, empathizing or emphasizing.

Underneath the spooky Latinesque folktronica groove of ‘Animal Fear’ (full of Shankar-ish string wails and spaghetti western gunshots) a menstrual werewolf subtext is swirling. Part ‘Ginger Snaps’ and part ‘Being Human’, it embraces blood and feminity, bandages, and the helpless stink of male terror. “I’ve been weeping silent like a wound. / Would you stitch me up or let the blood soak through, / watching my world turn from white to blue?” She sings as if she might be dying; she sings as if to a lover or a brother; but she’s never really pleading, never wholly dependent. She sits inside her transforming body and watches the changes come; watches the fumblings of her companion with the same half-resigned curiosity. “Look into my eyes and convince us both that I’ll last through the night; / I could land on my feet if I tried. / I’ve never jumped a chasm so wide / and made it to the opposite side. / Even now as we’re standing here, / I can see the doubt in your eyes, / I can smell the animal fear.”

The song is a tender, chiding mixture of vulnerability and disappointment, but its observations are shot through with self-awareness. “I was not a heavenly child,” admits Marika, “savage, with a temperament wild.” As the song travels through the changes, it blends into acceptance, a new understanding bleeding through in flashes (“oh, my body trembling… / and teeth… / I won’t bite.. / Sweet too soon, treacherous night.”) We don’t get to find out how this ends, but even as Marika (now more initiate than invalid) murmurs “she calls my name” you’re left with her finely-honed sense of self. Under the fur and nipples, under the wracking pain, an image emerges of a woman who may wander but will never be truly lost.

* * * *

Tanya Tagaq – a Canadian Inuit throat singer – also seems to have some empathy with this kind of lycanthropic humanity. She’s recently delivered a forthright cover of Pixies’ ‘Caribou’ like a tundra bolero with violins and horns, picking up on its occult hints and dreams of a changed, more animal life outside the city and slinging it back with an Inuit twist and the bloody-minded wit of a hard-bitten outdoorswoman. Tanya first came to broader attention a decade ago (thanks to her four-song turn on Björk’s ‘Medúlla’), and has continued to work her way into Western musical awareness via work with the Kronos Quartet and Mike Patton. This kind of collaborator choice suggests a determination to broaden and involve her music rather than dilute it. With last year’s award-winning Canadian success for her ‘Animism’ album, she’s pitched to continue making breakthroughs on her own terms.

‘Uja’ confirms this. A trailer single for a broader overseas release of ‘Animism’, it has something in common with previous deeply-involved folktronic endeavours such as or Foxout! and Mouth Music. It might mate and merge with electronic beats in longstanding worldbeat fashion, but rather than pandering to easy tastes it’s a stirring textural affair, deliberately pitched between ritual and pounding. It feels like an Arctic club night with all of the technology freezing round the edges and only kept functional by fierce body-warmth.

Log-clock ticks, harsh electronic reverb, and a ragged fabric of synth-noise and incisive drumming make up a base and a blanket. Over, under and around this Tanya works in multiple layers of percussive hum-grunts, drawls, gasps, seal barks and harmonic growls. Occasional shamanic interjections in Inuit (sliding in over the top like a wake-up call filtering through sleep) might be terse warnings, defiant fuck-you statements or camouflaged jokes at the expense of Anglo monolinguals. With Tanya being an assertively political artists and performer, they could be any or all. If I’m the butt of the joke, though, I can take it this time. ‘Uja’ made the blood jump in my feet and in my temples.

Giles Babel: ‘2015’
Hunchbakk (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’
Shot of Hornets (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single (released 1st January 2015)

Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’
Heylel (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download/streaming single (released 7th January 2015)

Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’
Dirty Hit Records (no barcode or catalogue number)
Download-only single (released 9th January 2015)

Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’
Six Shooter Records (no barcode or catalogue number
Stream-only single (released 6th January 2015)

Get them from:
Giles Babel: ‘2015’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Shot of Hornets: ‘Elvis is Dead’ – Bandcamp (pay-what-you-want)
Heylel: ‘I Talk To The Wind’ – Bandcamp or iTunes (as part of ‘Nebulae’ album)
Marika Hackman: ‘Animal Fear’ – Soundcloud stream or iTunes (as part of ‘We Slept At Last’ album)
Tanya Tagaq: ‘Uja’ – Youtube stream; or Six Shooter Records store or iTunes (as part of ‘Animism’ album)

Giles Babel/Hunchbakk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp

Shot of Hornets online:
Facebook Bandcamp

Heylel online:
Homepage Facebook Bandcamp YouTube

Marika Hackman online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

Tanya Tagaq online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

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