A trust-risking double-album package, clearly intended to emphasize his dynamic musical dialectic, it also highlights the tension between his experimental side and his taste for romantic melody. There’s one disc of rough treatment (industrial noise-layering, screaming electricity) and one of ear-stroking pastoralism (the natural sound of wood and air, tickled by occasional breaths of spectral electronics). However, with Hall being who he is, the two ideas tend to bleed back together: in some cases, maybe more than was intended.
The ‘Steel Storms’ half of the set features a wealth of Hall’s “industrial sound sculptures”. Layered compositions played on his stock of prepared-and-processed guitars (via plectrum, fingertips, battery fans, velcro and more), they also make cunning use of assorted noise-makers ranging from scavenged autoharps and scrap metal to oven racks and household bricks. Texture is the predominant element in the music, but a surprising tunefulness and dark melodies often penetrate in the form of solemn classical adagios. It’s these which underpin the clattering chains, metallic rasps and harmonics of Industrial Sights, or the billowing clouds of rolling fragmented piano and wrenching distortion in Eye Saw It 2.
There’s an impressive documentary flamboyance at hand, too. When the insistently ringing, collapsing-steel groan-tones of Tsunami blend with both close-up atonal jangles of autoharp and with distant, skinny guitar-string shivers, the visual qualities of Hall’s music are particularly clear. Some of his work here wanders out to a distant edge. Two tracks in particular, Steel Storms and Steel Landscape, are almost wholly abstract – musical testaments to metal fatigue and the disorientating feel of post-industrial spaces. Grumbling, malignant loops and glittering boils of guitar drown in swills of rattling shard-metal and bass-drum booms. The pieces are laced with elephantine bursts of distortion; and with brief, dying surfacings of chemical-corroded blues playing.
Throughout, Hall’s grand painterly instincts tug the sound closer towards beauty – however twisted – than towards flat and impersonal horror. A whole album of such Hall industrialisms would be something to treasure. Unfortunately, ‘Steel Storms’ is continually gate-crashed by other sides of his musical personality. On River Flow, he revives one of his signature approaches: fluent Spanish guitar over detailed rolls of textural soundscaping. It’s as lovely as ever, but it’s misplaced here; and it’s anybody’s guess as to what Gypsy Gathering (a virtually straight piece of flamenco) is doing on the record.
In cases like these, Hall’s distracted eclecticism undermines the original intent of ‘Steel Storms’. Worse comes when that willing, stubborn naivety which lies at the heart of his music (giving it both its emotional strength and its core of idealism) becomes diluted into reproducing other people’s cliches. Since the mid-’90s, Hall has been an enthusiastic miner of his past work, dicing up his out-of-print albums to recombine their contents in new sequences. Often this has worked out well, juxtaposing his newer, tuneful solo tapestries with older, intriguing avant-jazz duets, trios and quartets (often featuring sundry members of Isotope, Gilgamesh or Nucleus). Unfortunately, on this occasion he’s pulled up some dross along with the gems.
Perhaps Hall’s work in library music during the lean years is to blame. He’s too interesting a musician to produce stock blandness (and even his failures have moments of interest) but on a record with a purpose, these lesser scraps should have stayed on the shelf. Yet several ‘Steel Storms’ tracks come from this lifeless batch, splotched with anonymous moves and tinny keyboard presets. No Man’s Land is drab robotic cop-chase stuff, the kind of thing a particularly cheesed-off Mark Knopfler might clunk out at the dull end of a soundtrack contract. The less said about the appalling Barbed Wire Bop (brittle ‘Seinfeld’ plastic-funk with the tones of a dodgy synth-demo) the better.
Happily, other ‘Steel Storms’ approaches are much more successful, toying fruitfully with the tight blare of fiesta horns, or with a kind of impressionistic stadium rock held together with paper-clips. The rainy-night drive of City Signals funnels determined loose-jointed funk elements through cascades of drumming, a marching-call trumpet leading the tune above Hall’s steel-saw guitar chops. On Docklands, an acoustic guitar explores and ranges over washing licks of soundscape; electric guitars swipe between factory-machine screeches and trumpet blasts; an echoing hip-hop beat – blind, gigantic and mechanical – stumbles through the landscape beyond.
Sometimes, everything comes together. Though centered on the aggressive, questioning rawness of an up-close flamenco guitar, B-E-trayed provides a discreet light-industrial twist to its traditional base, dragging its intermittent sheath of noises back into the realm of the personal. Already bouncing off tricky drumbox beats, it heads into more sinister areas when swarming, echoing drones and bitter laughter flicker across the speakers. At one point, Hall yells cathartically into the soundhole of his guitar.
All interesting, but the industrial theme becomes increasingly tenuous over the course of the record, though it does rally at points. Heavily overdriven cutting-blade sounds return for Fiya, in which blurred polluted riffs meet mournfully defiant Latin horns and gut-strung guitar. On Dancing On Cracking Ice the guitar plays a supporting role to mariachi horns (and to Sam Brown’s exploratory world-rock rattle of percussion), as Hall’s chopping slashing echoes and metal-fatigue string groans lead off into a leisurely Latin funk stretch. Funk is also one of the central elements of Battery Charger, colliding with big-band horns and space-rock as Hall’s snappy twang-melodies and jittering string harmonics are bounced through some serious Ash Ra Tempel echo.
While there’s no shortage of ideas and impressiveness on ‘Steel Storms’, as an album it’s a missed opportunity – too bitty, too unstructured, and not quite ruthless enough to do justice to its theme. You can dive in for the more thrilling patches – and hold your nose at the bad points – but at times it’s the wrong kind of bumpy ride. Fortunately, its companion album compensates for the missteps by being an experience of unqualified and perfectly integrated beauty.
Where ‘Steel Storms’ shows Hall straining after too many things at once, ‘Tender Spirits’ showcases a beautifully focused vision. Dominated by his acoustic playing and by the subtler side of his electrophonic treatments (sometimes heightened by softly resonant brass and drums), it sounds as if it was recorded under a great cool bowl of night sky. It also proves that, however much energy he puts into his experimentalism, he remains a superbly expressive guitarist once the trickery is removed. Here, the wise simplicity and romance at the center of his music come into their own, in full.
Judging by many of the pieces here, classical music lost a fine player and interpreter in Hall when he went left-field, not to mention a fine folk-fusion composer. Listen to those Spanish arpeggios (mournfully meditative on Love Lies Bleeding, restless and subtly unresolved on Slipstreams) or to the singing Irish ballad inflections of Patricia O’Leary. Alternatively, enjoy Hall’s subtle reunion with electricity on Shooting Stars, Ember or Dandelion Clocks. The first two are slow astral wheelers, their notes stroked into long, long, beautifully smudged trails and pining crystalline tubes of sound; the last is chuckling child-music, clean notes bubbled through a sparkling halo of echo.
Hall’s more multi-tracked and constructed compositions fit just as seamlessly into the mood. Some are familiar – here’s another outing for the thrumming bowed-bass winter scenery of Miles From No-Where (White Wilderness), a piece which Hall continually revisits. Similarly, there’s a new version of another favourite, Spirit Sky Montana, in which David Ford’s sleepy flugelhorn and Sam Brown’s slow swish of cymbal pull Hall’s stretched-bell guitar layers and church-music structure up to further heights of passionate serenity. A more ambiguous moment is granted on Incandescence, where a baroque six-string bass is smeared into dark and swollen horn sounds, voicing in shifting minor-key planes, searching for a place to settle.
However, it’s the magnificent Lonely Road which shows Hall at his very best. Loose, hanging drapes of luscious sound, distant detonating percussion, his Spanish guitar upfront again with a heart-tugging melody, and a final DIY touch – this time, a lonely and beautifully frail harmonica part. This is music you could live in. There’s a direct, emotional involvement in G.P. Hall’s work that’s rarely found among experimental musicians – probably because in spite of his gizmos and his taste for modernist expression he connects far deeper with the earthy roots of music than with the narrowed, exclusive intellectual demands of music as a science.
Ultimately, the main reason that ‘Tender Spirits’ is stronger than ‘Steel Storms’ is that in spite of Hall’s fascination with the impact of industrialism on our lives and senses, he knows it’s merely a part of our experience of the world: a relatively recent human-scale derangement overlaying much older terrain and themes. The two superb acoustic pieces which open and close ‘Tender Spirits’ could easily predate the factories, machinery and artefacts that inspire his industrial sound sculptures; both being intimately concerned with human survival within the simpler, starker hostilities of nature itself.
For the majestic impressionist-flamenco study of Sandstorm, Hall’s fingers slither out whips of string noise among the sharp and fluttering notes, conjuring up the flying dust. Sea Sorrow (Lament Of Lewis) is at the other end of the scale: a paean to shipwrecked souls in which Spanish guitar technique merges with a plaintive Celtic air. Within it, bitter bereavement struggles with acceptance and an awareness of continuance. Those who live with the sea are sustained by it and robbed by it, and this feeling lives in the music. As visual as anything Hall comes up with via loops and layers and implements, the plangent tones of this naked acoustic piece shape an image of someone alone and bleak on the headland, staring out at the ambiguous and often-merciless ocean which they must ultimately come to terms with.
It’s true that G.P. Hall’s road is, ultimately, a lonely one – sometimes assured, sometimes erratic, always marginalised. Yet it’s always one which he treads with a stubborn faith – wrong steps and slip-ups notwithstanding – and one that makes him all the more unique.
G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (786497264421)
CD/download double album
Released: 1st October 1998