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REVIEW: centrozoon: ‘Blast’ album reissue, 2008 (“let the music fall inwards”)

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

Disciplines become traps: beautiful sounds become honey-traps. This can be more obvious along certain musical paths than others. Two particularly susceptible paths are ambient-synth playing and the underground swell of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. The former can drift towards being a proliferating mass of lonely cells; each of them seeking an individual voice but often, obliviously, stuck in identical textures, wallowing in parallel. The latter follows a rigorous playing method and lifestyle which borders on benevolent culthood. While this banishes the shapeless flab which often devils ambient music, it can err in the other direction. At its best, the Craft births and burnishes exceptional players: at its worst, it produces musicians who devote themselves to obsessively burnishing a constant reiteration of stern, generic Fripp stylings.

When touch-guitarist Markus Reuter (an accomplished Crafty, and part of the Crafty-dominated Europa String Choir) encountered former Subsonic Experience electronics-coaxer Bernhard Wöstheinrich and formed centrozoon, the team-up had conceptual and practical lineage from both the Crafty discipline and the ambient flood. On top of that, by the time they released their debut album ‘Blast’ in 2000, there wasn’t anything especially unusual in what (on paper) they offered – an alliance of mutant fretboard work and left-field synth-noise, stretched and softened into a minimal ambience. In chasing that direction, centrozoon were following a path which had been trodden since the mid-’70s and the days of… well, Fripp & Eno.

Their peculiar triumph (which is clear even eight years later, with this expanded reissue) was that ‘Blast’ escaped all of the expected pitfalls and mudbanks. It’s not that Markus and Bernhard simply brazened it all out; nor did they overwhelm their listeners by assuming wracked and exaggerated musical personalities. Instead, they opted to simply get out of the way. With minimal shepherding, they let the music fall inwards of its own accord. This sounds like abandoning responsibility, but it’s not. Ultimately, and with the right kind of awareness and attitude, it’s a very effective way of letting the music take its own shape.

On a superficial listen, ‘Blast’ isn’t an obvious leap into the unknown; nor is it immediately shocking, then or now. Each of the four pieces on the original release could conceivably see the same use as other ambient experiments – a gloss for cosmic afternoons; sonic wrappings for art installations; chemical soundtracks for intellectual stoners on introverted afternoons. As for immediate originality, let’s say that Fripp fans enthralled by the oceanic, ambient-improvised textures of Soundscaping will find plenty of pleasure here. In particular, the widening ice-vapour agglomerations of Markus’ Warr Guitar textures in Empire are an immediate homecoming. As they stretch near-subliminal fingers out into the void, they’re subtly transformed by Bernhard’s lullaby synth-pulse; moving from austerity into something like the hopeful whistling of a small boy in the rain, safe in a shapeless optimism.

Transformation is a key process here. Markus’ extreme processing and honing of his Warr Guitar touch-playing into textural drifts and folds, all sounds of strings and fingers worn away; Bernhard’s unschooled musical impulses becoming constructive. Most significantly, their effect upon each other – formalist liberated by upsetter, randomiser cradled by knower.

Markus might dominate Empire – however passively – but it’s Bernhard (the part-time abstract painter) who leads the more baleful Sign. Here, the low buzzes and wah-swells of synth gradually open up into a mournful piece of grand European ambience. For Crafty guitarists and King Crimson fans alike, this is the most Frippertronical piece on the album. That said, Markus eschews any of those intensely compressed Frippish emotions in his playing. Instead, his touch-guitar yields little more than a distant, echoing subway-tunnel ambience. It pulls the listening ear after it, as if co-opting it into the pursuit of an invisible stranger who’s only just out of reach; or a far-off footfall which must be caught up with.

Even this early in their career, it’s the ability to trigger that kind of unsettling mood and engagement in the listener that set centrozoon apart, and eased them out of those Crafty/ambient straitjackets. Their eerie approach to layered tonality may have had its similarities to the Fripp approach, but it’s been taken a few steps further along. Blank and unsettling, it feels like a kind of purposeful decay, a deliberate whittling-away of what underpins expectations and security: hollowing it out only slightly, just enough to make a change that’s sensed. As a listener, you venture out onto it, but the sound of the settling structure disturbs you.

In many respects, time has left ‘Blast’ strangely untouched, and for all the right reasons. The Fripp & Eno analogy still holds, not so much over sound and mood, but over how Markus’ discipline and rigorous self-schooling and Bernhard’s iconoclastic instincts meet and envelop each other. Even at this stage, they’re astonishingly well integrated. It’s difficult to look at their work looking for cracks in the method. Unified and unruffled, it stares back at you, and it’s you that blinks first.

More self-conscious (or perverse) than the other tracks on the record, the hooded, atmospheric Sense cops a few tricks directly from 1980s art-pop. Sparse lines and pared-down chords of electric piano recall the pairing of Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian. A upfront electro-pulse (OMD meets ’90s techno) is carved up into a jazz shimmy, while Bernhard’s bloopy electronic punctuation sounds like nothing so much as a Simmons drum set catching the cheesy hiccups. All of these are eventually upended when Markus sets aside his Invisible Man approach in favour of a growing grind of slow-motion garage-static. In parallel, Bernhard’s underlay of sound gradually becomes more and more unstable and less and less comforting; eventually it hones itself into a subtly disturbing sheath of noise.

On the original ‘Blast’, Sense was the disruptive moment. Power – a held-back track from the album sessions, now restored to the reissue – demonstrates that it wasn’t as much of a one-off as it seemed. Post-‘Blast’, centrozoon would begin several years of thorough engagement with dance music (actually, a kind of wilful grappling) which would flower in 2003 with the thumping techno-prog drive of their ‘Cult Of: Bibiboo’ album. Three years earlier, Power anticipates this and delivers an early take. Its rocking knock of rhythm and Bernhard’s dirty twangs of synth are a shift towards the dance-floor, away from icy dreams. Markus’ misty blurs of Warr playing are more direct and sharpened than they are elsewhere on the album, roaming purposefully behind the electronics like a searching headlight. The musical layers climb eerily, growing into an alarming constellation of eyes as Bernhard works in a march-rhythm built from a racheting percussion pulse. Nine minutes along, the beat courses away and the music planes on into ambience and a slow fade of atonal spirals.

Placed at the end of the reissue, Power supplants the title track of ‘Blast’ as its grand finale. Drawing attention to the band’s drive onwards to its dance phase makes some historic sense, but it also displace the album’s original emotional core. After the disruptions of Sense, Blast doesn’t immediately seem disturbing. For a long time it remains as beautifully eerie but conventional textural ambience. It hovers around the same close, elongated and barely-there notes like steam in a cathedral aisle, coiling itself backwards in the winking lights from the synths.

Over seventeen minutes Markus and Bernhard gradually, imperceptibly marshal the potential of horrific awe that’s within the music until it’s staring you in the face. Its intensity is subliminal, its aghast tone somehow removed from imminent peril. The horror here is backwards-looking, specifically European and instinctive, reeking of a darker history without ever clarifying what that is. This could be just soundtracking; but if so centrozoon have found silent films of overwhelming cataclysm to channel the music for. At a pinch, it could be cathedral music – if so, the building’s traumatised ghosts have crept out for a whirling pageant of blood and fire. It could be a troubled, unanswerable requiem; if so, this one’s for a calamity that’s overtaken even God, even memory. There’s something about it that emphasises the absence of words, of the shapes that make sense. It’s less the blast, and more the invisible and unexpected shockwave – like a glimpse over the shoulder at the terrible beauty of impelled destruction.

In the coming years, centrozoon would prove themselves far more mercurial and direct than the music on ‘Blast’ suggests. Compared to the hammering pulse of ‘…Bibiboo’ or the leaping, detailed art-pop of ‘Never Trust The Way You Are’, ‘Blast’ now sounds like hidden music, or perhaps hiding music: Bernhard and Markus remote almost to the point of vanishing, keeping their skills on a low bleed. Even here, though, there’s a determined stamp that set them apart from the noodlers and set them on course – but that’s not all. There’s still something special about ‘Blast’ and its ability to etch such hauntings out of such hushed musicality.

centrozoon: ‘Blast’
Unsung Records/Inner Knot Records, UR004CD (4260139120307)
CD/download album reissue
Released: 2008 (originally released 2000)

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

Buy it from:
Iapetus Records or Burning Shed (CD); or Bandcamp (download).

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

REVIEW – Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’ single, 2000 (“lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing”)

29 Jul

Delicate AWOL: 'Hurray For Sugar'

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’

The effect is similar to one of those pocket mandalas you pick up at weekend markets. Do you know the ones I mean? Those little spheres of interwoven articulated wires which, under simple pressure, reform to flat discs; or extrude themselves out and around to form new, near-identical spheres with tiny spatial differences.

In such a way, Delicate AWOL have turned themselves inside out – the old shape inverting and realigning within itself. The blunt, metallic math-rock dots and points remain, as do the little axe-blows of guitar and the keen, floating intelligence. But the hard-bitten, streetwise urban perspectives they displayed on ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ have been flexed away, replaced by a blunted pastel sleepiness. Their music used to fit the sullen sludge of London’s clogged traffic arteries. Now it sounds as if it’s drifting through an endlessly attenuated suburban daybreak: through sleeping ranks of tidy little white subdivision houses, stretched out along the fringes of some anonymous American town.

None of the above is a slag-off. Yes, Delicate AWOL have retired their striking Throwing Muses-versus-Laika qualities of nerve, and have replaced them with the oddly narcotic soulfulness and dusty whispering you’d expect from Low or Cowboy Junkies. No, this is not a bad move. It’s allowed their minds to work in a different way, letting their thoughts seep out instead of being propelled out onto tape.

Warm, intimate, laden with clinging morning torpor, Hurray For Sugar lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing; Caroline’s voice stroking your floppy ears, a lone glockenspiel tingling out a little scatter of light. “Arise, you’re waking – hurray for sugar. / Aware, a little – hurray for coffee… / beside your body, catherine wheels spin.” And even if the guitars have a clotted sleep-dirt feel to them, this is still a song about vision; or about the moments of utterly unguarded perception which adhere to the sticky margin between sleeping and fully waking. “I breathe in, I open the curtains. / I look outside at my neighbours, / behind their fences… such radiant faces.” A lovely piece of work, shambling like a sated and drowsy lover.

Having reabsorbed their 40 Shades Of Black instrumental alter-ego, Delicate AWOL express it again in Camford Heights: which sounds like a sort of Sonic Youth picnic for the close of a West English summer, the sun slanting away down the back of a sky like a rumpled sofa. Blunted, slurred jazz chords and round, resounding Manchester bass carry the tune, completed with casual drop-in visits from all kinds of other fellow travellers: Mogwai all stoned and finger-mumbling a cryptic chant off their massed steel strings, a young Adrian Belew in noise-haze mode, Frank Zappa adding a dirty air-sculpture like a colophon of smog. Before it’s over, Delicate AWOL have passed through a bewitching slew of guitar sounds: passing train bells, crashing wires, the music of pylons in the wind. From wan, sweet daybreak to dusty, sun-stupored dusk, they’ve got it all covered.

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’
day Release Records Ltd., DR106 (no barcode)
Vinyl-only single
Released: 2000

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

REVIEW – Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ demo cassette, 2000 (“uptight urban fuck-up music”)

14 Jul

Empty Vessels: 'Empty Vessels' (demo cassette, 2000)

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ (demo cassette, 2000)

Perhaps I was spoilt by the absolute flamboyance of David Devant And His Spirit Wife (a band of music-hall performance artists in Britpop camouflage, fronted by another Vessel) but I initially found Empty Vessels a bit underwhelming. Billing themselves as a “breakbeat/guitar soundclash”, I was expecting to be walloped around the head with seething snare cracks, to have my arse booted by kick-drum hits and my ears burned by electric wailings (all in a comfortable metaphorical way, mind). I was expecting festival style-ee-ee expansiveness. A sort of Asian Dub Foundation that had been gutted and stripped out, but were still rustling defiantly.

But Empty Vessels are less of a soundclash than a crowded minibus jammed with noises. They sound as if they do their recording in one of those tiny closets in Islington that estate agents try to flog to people as homes… or maybe in the cupboard of one of those closets. The usual claustrophobia of sped-up drum’n’bass-style breakbeats could only be amplified by these cramped, super lo-fi recordings; all skinny and vertical, never laying out when they can tense up. The sort of music inspired by hunching up and listening to hoarded CDs rather than by losing oneself on a sweaty, body-heavy dancefloor. Beat-science with a home chemistry set…

Nicotine is an unfortunate starter: neurotically trapped rushes of synth bass, shrill Killing An Arab-style guitar licks through budget fuzztones, and some pug-dog yelping courtesy of a bloke who sounds like Steve Harley forcibly bundled into a filing cabinet. Skip it for Chew-Up, a smarter shot in which all the beats are turned up and a careening sub-bass runs away with the foundations. Here the fuzzy shoulderings of guitar are a relief from the needling drums. The voice runs like a mumbling rat, complaining but flicking from rhythm to rhythm, and you find yourself wanting to catch on to what it’s ranting about. Empathising too much with your own sampler, it seems. “Chewing up experience, and chewing up experience… / It’s mine! It’s mine! / I acquire.”

Empty Vessels sound best when they don’t sound in control, when they’re running after their technology like it’s the last bus out of town. Sneering Face is one of those intriguing accidents that happen when you have white guys playing gladiatorial black dance music, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get around their own whiteness, and ending up somewhere else entirely when they fail, sounding pretty liberated for it. While it starts as a wayward attempt at speed rapping (invaded by psychedelic space guitar echo), Empty Vessels have decided to fuck it all off about two-thirds of the way in and go for the ridiculous. Creaky vocal interjections that belong in Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop (“I – ought to teach them a leh-sson!”), seasick bloots of guitar, falsetto operatics wobbling in the background. The sort of vandalism that suggests they meant to do it from the start.

Uptight urban fuck-up music. Tower-block friendly. Angry summer sounds for days when none of your clothes seem to fit. I can’t say I like this, but it’s successfully sneaked into my curiosity field.

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ demo cassette
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only demo
Released: 11th June 2012

Buy it from:
The original cassette is long gone, although it was possibly reissued as a Peoplesound CD single which might be available second-hand. These three tracks have since been resurrected on ‘Empty Vessels 1‘, available from Bandcamp

Empty Vessels online:
Homepage BandcampYouTube

Album reviews – Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’ (“the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body”)

1 Dec

Picture Center: 'The Wonders Of God's Heaven And Earth'

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’

A beautifully understated fatalism hangs, both heavy and light, over the music on Picture Center’s first album. It reminds me of the last time I was – God knows why – wandering on one of the muddy pebble beaches along the Thames Estuary, heart carried like a windsock, fumbled at by a half-hearted drizzle; and when I saw a lonely seagull poised like a pinned crucifixion in the air, almost motionless. Every now and again there was a single convulsion of wings, but the bird always seemed on the brink of a slow, agonised slide down the bank of the air. I remember thinking that it must have been moving forwards once, but something had paralysed it in the middle of a wing-beat…

The words “together” and “forever” haunt ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’. Persistently returning – sometimes as statements of peeling faith, sometimes as a grim acknowledgement of being stuck. Sometimes a question, hopeful or semi-resigned; the gamble of a last lottery card; the last sarcastic murmur which is the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body. Another word that returns is “whatever” – breathed out as a throwaway, or embraced with no complaint beyond a drop in the volume and a withdrawal into the kind of shrug that says “here’s as uncertain as anywhere.”

This is familiar. Picture Center have a connection with the late lamented Field Mice… well, more of a fumbled kissing connection, really (they shared some people once, but not any more). Consequently, they’re part of that downbeat English indie bloodline that winds through Sarah Records and its Shinkansen successor – the one that carries the heart-lorn and introverted folk music from the lonely post-war estates – while the countrified, Celtified melancholia of songs like Useless ties in with the romantic resignation of Belle & Sebastian or The Blue Nile.

So, as you’d expect, the pace is wistfully dragging, almost funereal. Girls’ and boys’ voices whisper, tears are long-dry but faces stay crooked. The guitars sigh out the emotions, a mist of greyed-out pearls hanging in the atmosphere. A particular poignant English gloom prevails – wan air; not enough daylight saving; and little towns that aren’t so much sleepy as catatonic on tranquilisers, smack and inertia (“around in circles, but nothing comes of it”). The washed-out-but-beautiful album cover could be a stony beach, or a hill of puffy blossoms… oh, or the soggy styrofoam’n’plastic debris left behind in the fields after the festival closes. Distilling an unusual beauty from such unpromising ingredients is Picture Center’s particular talent.

You can think of psychedelia as colourful, but there’s another strand of it that’s a billion shades of grey and merely half of a painful, ghostly heartbeat away from reality. And that’s where Picture Center live; acknowledging it in their gliding, spectral cover of West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s Smell Of Incense. It’s heightened by the other elements they allow to soak into the mix – the occasional country curve of a lonely guitar, the fretful Sigur Ros falsetto and drum-machine bubble on Dreams, the pressed-out Julee Cruise sigh of Forever. The tired glimmers of Cocteau Twins moondust or the hinted imprint of hip-hop’s loops and scratchy gusts behind the music-box delicacy in Never. You know they’ve been there – that place where sorrow floats, suspended in its own little bubble while reality freezes your face into something that’s calm but drained…

Ten pictures of fading dreams, drawn-out disappearances, fateful accomodations (“without my darkness your star wouldn’t shine / You need me like I need you…”) and stories of nothing-going-on, in which despair and beauty still manage to sit hand-in-hand on the same worn-down furniture, and achieve a kind of peace together.

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’
North American Recordings, 5 030820 012704
CD album
Released: 27th November 2000

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Picture Center online:
MySpace Last FM

Album reviews – Grizzlybearunderwear: ‘Grizzlybearunderwear’ (“faraway silhouettes atop burnt-off hills”)

15 Oct

Grizzlybearunderwear: 'Grizzlybearunderwear'

Grizzlybearunderwear: ‘Grizzlybearunderwear’

If Grizzlybearunderwear’s terrible name (which might be an old ‘Simpsons’ joke) gets you thinking of a manic yodeling band of gabblers with wacky shorts and tricky fingers, then your reaction needs a rethink. On the other hand, if their music really is the “apocalyptic pop music” which they claim it to be, then that term needs a rethink too. There’ll be no sheets of fire, no torn T-shirts; no glamorous wailing and fucking in the streets while rolling in the torn shreds of the Situationist manifesto. Instead, life as we know it will end in radioactive studio silt and aching bones: and if this is pop music, then the future apocalypse won’t be about dancing and verse-chorus-verse (or even verse-chorus-explosion, verse-weird bit-recap). It’ll be about toil, twisted smiles and arms flailed grimly at faraway silhouettes atop burnt-off hills.

This is cause for cheerfulness if you’re of a certain cast of mind – a lover of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s cheery hellbound sitcoms, for example, or someone who sees ‘The Seventh Seal’ as an average day at the office. Maybe also if you were the kind of person seduced during the ’80s and ’90s by 4AD’s handful of backwards-future visionaries, soused in reverb and electronic gumbo but somehow touching on something stirringly ancient… even if they’d injected bastardised hip-hop into the mixture. Grizzlybearunderwear (Leipzig-based, led by the enigmatic KGSi) would’ve fitted in perfectly with that crowd. A decade or so further on at the century’s turn – with post-rockers rooting back into that world of blurs, dirt, noise and strangely captivating obscurities – they’ve got a chance to make a whole new set of friends.

So… eleven mostly-instrumental tracks, combed in from the band’s previous run of EPs. Some of this are a little too familiar-sounding. My Esoteric Friends sounds like Dif Juz deciding whether to dig themselves out of a swamp or wallow sensuously in the warm sludge; and if Germany had hosted a Cocteau Twins concert in the middle of a swamp, the bootleg would have sounded like Again, Dangerous Visions (romantic, rusted post-punk bass, fussing drum machine and guest singer Hirshie’s lightly sonorous warning tones, close to that chin-down, guarded alto which Liz Fraser used in more plaintive Cocteaus songs). But the way in which the phased guitar yields to free-form space whispers and to an unhitched scramble of psychedelic organ points the way towards Grizzlybearunderwear’s wilder, woollier intentions.

As KGSi and co. delve deeper, the album proves that they’re not short of ideas for interesting meetings of instruments and noise. Physalia takes a rocky journey from distant cave-drums and tremolo guitars to exhausted sludge-metal riffs and queasy, fingers-at-the-brink harmonium chording. The two-minute Spacer tumbles out of gothic guts like one of Vincent Ward’s lost sound cues from ‘The Navigator’: dragging, muddy-toil rhythms and a lamenting guitar which flaps overhead like a ragged banner. A suffocating sky-duvet of wah-noise cups itself She Drove To The Sea which (with its chain-clanking Slint guitars, Bardo Pond moodies and tinnitus grumble over the top) comes across like one of the more restless new-millennial post-rock bands (perhaps a more despondent Delicate AWOL). Ushuaia strips the detail further back only to add even more noise guitars, suffocatingly entwined, with gushing tidal waters surging relentlessly over the top with a hammering beauty. The gothic bells and sombre Rothko bass clanging of Parthian Shot, clunking bravely in its subterranean echo, mask a swirl of voice being squeezed out of existence in a tempest of rushing noise.

Broader thinking, filtering in dance music, is revealed on Snapdragon (Eniwetok Remix). A squelching bass pulse and a rapidly fluttering trance-techno riff are poised over the everyday, comforting sounds of a shopping mall: you can hear parents and children swarming distractedly through the aisles, as if to set us up for a braver, happier new world of clean architecture and Saturday shopping: suddenly, an abrupt countdown slams the music into driving industrial rock mode, extinguishing the shoppers. When we next hear voices they’re quietly discussing the effects of atomic explosions and the penetrative power of radioactive particles.

It’s revealing that the latter is being talked about in the matter-of-fact tones of Midwestern news broadcasts, and that KGSi’s industrial attack was merely grim and tough rather than decisively devastating. The 4AD bands cowered under the global threat of one overwhelming nuclear apocalypse. The Grizzlies are of a time when the average person’s at risk from a smaller hell – maybe one small package of explosive discontent, stashed in a city bin under a pile of greasy McDonald’s wrappers and waiting coldly for rush hour. Snapdragon’s lack of hysteria suggests that KGSi has accepted these everyday atrocities. His tongue-in-cheek claim of playing “electric chair controls” seems to be an acknowledgement of the casual trappings of horror the world now contains so openly.

Grizzlybearunderwear: ‘Beaver Female Seminary’

Grizzlybearunderwear’s work with dialogue adds to their explorations, although they’re rarely explicit. Patrol These Borders retains the time-honoured spangly guitars (embroidered with the hiccuping spatter of treated toms) but blends in a long chunk of bitter dialogue from ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – the voices of Bogart and Bacall, strained by disappointment and guilt. An assured, untrustworthy telephone voice on Beaver Female Seminary (providing guidelines to “the True Way” in the tones of a used-car salesman) is flattened by heated, weary steam-press thuds and growling Banshees guitars.

Hell Are Other Real People (which samples Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’) nods its way along on a scarcely-there-at-all dance thud, while deep, surprisingly vocal guitars hum to each other. Sometimes it’s like a more diffuse, message-less take on Godspeed You Black Emperor. All around crickets are warbling, cars draw up stealthily, a campfire burns, and voices mutter to each other. We’re somewhere in the American West, and they’re talking of stalking and concealment, of victimisation, of the decay of living bodies. The story never clarifies; but the feeling lingers: sinister places and hungry lives constantly poised for flight.

Beneath their guitars and samples, Grizzlybearunderwear certainly have an ear for the messages contained in sound and in the emotional underwash of voices. I might wish they had as good an ear for band names but, given what else they can achieve, I can forgive that lack.

Grizzlybearunderwear: ‘Grizzlybearunderwear’
Noiseworks Records/Heliodor Recordings, NW220 / HELIODOR 004 2000 (4032648002203)
CD-only album
Released: 2000

Get it from:
Best obtained secondhand, although some Grizzlybearunderwear tracks are downloadable for free from Edaphon and there’s an album page here.

Grizzlybearunderwear online:
Homepage MySpace

Album reviews – Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But The Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’ (“sheer guilelessness”)

10 Sep
Steve Lawson: 'And Nothing But the Bass - Live @ The Troubadour'

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But the Bass – Live @ The Troubadour’

Apparently, this music is what Steve Lawson makes to entertain friends – who make themself known as such simply by showing up to one of his intimate gigs. These could be in London, Lincoln, or Watford; in France or California; or wherever else Lawson and his little bundle of bass guitars, EBow sustainers and looping devices pitch camp for an evening of playing. Having asserted your friendship by wandering in and sitting down, you can smile to yourself about the way his lush, demonstrative instrumental music manages to cross-reference Frippertronics, Pete Seeger, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Satriani (for starters) without them crashing into each other or crowding him off his own playing stool.

You can also smile – with genuine enjoyment – at the sheer guilelessness of his music. The gauche jokiness of the album title is completely accurate. With one exception, this really is all One Man And His Loops live in front of a small, polite and audibly happy audience. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as cutesy novelty, or as circus tricks with effects pedals. That isn’t the half of it. In London, we’re used to anxiety. Self-exposure from tortured musical artists. Cool-by-numbers checklists. Spotlight-grabbing attitude flexers. Obvious-state-of-minders stapling themselves to credible trends, and sinking with them. Hearing Steve Lawson duck all of this (instead, he quietly focusses on the way music connects across generations, and between person and person) is a sweet shock.

On technical terms alone (if not in finger-thrashing stunt display), Lawson respectably holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass such as Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners. Maybe it’s from his previous work, playing with the equally guileless and elfin pop veteran Howard Jones. When you hear Lawson duetting with himself on sprightly children’s-song tunes like The Inner Game and The New Country (wrapping joyously squishy melodies around his looped, nodding, double-stopped riffs) you know you’re not hearing someone who’s concerned about his agenda fitting anyone’s T-shirt, or with the solemn rules at jazz school.

All right – perhaps an over-mellow conflation of two lovable old chestnuts (Chopsticks and Blue Moon) on Blue Sticks is a step too far in this direction. All taste and no meat; too close to a musical life that’s one long function room. Lawson dispatches it with impeccable skill – which is all very nice, but a little worrying in terms of complacency. Far better to hear him feeding twanging threads of Celtic-American folk song and bluegrass, Flecktones-style, into The Virtue Of The Small; and to then observe him splitting off to layer on some luxuriously glutinous improvisations (via serenely wandering fretless and classic-metal distortion). Listening carefully, you might spot momentary nods to other bass players – Chris Squire, Steve Swallow, Alphonso Johnson, Stuart Hamm – who’ve let melodies rumble up from the basement.

Of course, you could just put the notebook down and enjoy tunes like Bittersweet, a fretless-bass-and-piano duet owing a little to Pachelbel’s Canon and as much to Weather Report’s A Remark You Made. Jez Carr’s strums of high, cautiously sweet piano haze this one lightly with blue. Perhaps it’s over-aligned with the fastidious, earnestly white end of New Age jazz, but Lawson’s head-bowed cadences are beautifully poised – natural and regretful.

So far, so immaculate… so ‘Bassist Magazine’. What really opens doors are three pieces in which Lawson ventures into process music, chance-and-hazard and ambient music. Thankfully, it’s closer to Fripp Soundscapes and to post-rock than to the freeze-dried fusion on (for example), those slick early albums by John Patitucci.

On Drifting, the original moonlit ostinato foundations and skirling skybound melodies give way to smears of trembling Frippertronical treble passes – like wheelmarks on cloud – and to trance-techno bubble echoes Lawson somehow wrings out of his bass.  The lapping sounds and shimmering harmonic nudges of the gorgeous Pillow Mountain (with its sub-aqua heartbeat) are closer to Mouse On Mars than to any bass guitarring this side of Rothko’s post-rocking odysseys. Here, Lawson EBows strange Chinese string calls out of the beautiful murk. A third piece, Chance, clings on (just) to the right side of disassembly. The sharp attack, or mother-beast rumble, of Lawson’s varied approaches on fretless step in and around the frigidly emotional ECM-inspired bass figure at the heart of it, ghosted with minimal traceries.

It’s with these pieces that we hear Steve Lawson’s audience returning a favour. Moving away from simply bobbing their heads to the happy melodies, they concentrate on  listening instead. And all without the man breaking much of a sweat, either.  For any instrumentalist, this album would be charming. For Steve Lawson, it’s a showcase punched open at one end. His friends are watching him grow – I suggest that you join them.

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But The Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0011 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 28th August 2000

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

Album reviews – Rudy Simone: ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ (“shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat”)

19 Aug

record-rudysimone-putthesun

Shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat, Rudy Simone’s debut album doesn’t resolve the questions she’s raised before. It doesn’t round off those battleworn displays of uneasy heart from the previous year’s ‘Personal Cloud‘ EP, nor does it offer clear clues about where she’ll be travelling in the future.

Fresh as she sounds, Rudy already has plenty of past. Originally from Buffalo, New York State (where, as Rita Seitz, she sang in various obscure bands during the early 1980s) she turned emotional refugee later in life and crossed the Atlantic to Liverpool, where her own songs emerged amid a landscape of acoustic sessions and nightclub rushes. Most debut albums are a statement, however crude. This one’s a scrambling steeplechase across Rudy’s emotions and her spiritual restlessness. It stays true to the disruptive collisions between the life singing in the head and the life that lurks outside. What ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ resembles most is an attempt to wrap up Rudy’s fraught baggage in a big, unwieldy brown paper package; to tie it together with guitar strings and beats, to spray it with disco glitter and then set it free somewhere down the Mersey. Drifting seawards, it comes unstuck and reveals itself.

Attempting to cram in all her gushes of inspiration, Rudy ends up with a confusing whole. Seemingly at random, songs appear in alternate acoustic and instrumental alternate versions; there are two takes on the eerie Kill The Cult Of Cool single, and a trancier reworking of Personal Cloud. ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ ends up as an anxious, fractured goodie-bag, unsure about whether floaty beats are better than strumming, and telling repeated stories in different tones. Don’t expect track-by-track coherence – but do expect plenty of understated feeling, a maverick DIY pop sense in full effect, and some determined songcraft. This album is a necklace-worth of interesting, often touching episodes.

In some respects, Rudy fits in with that rough wave of confessional women emerging in the 1990s via trip-hop and indie rock, including the two Beths (Gibbons and Orton) and Juliana Hatfield. There are some similarities to Jane Siberry; though Rudy is more loosely strung, she shares elliptical, Siberryesque feminine perspectives, blown about by impressions and finding solid little truths in the midst of abstraction. But for my money the artist whom she’s closest to is Lida Husik. Both Rudy and Lida resist committing themselves to any one musical approach or way of looking; both seem suspicious of tradition or sturdy craftsmanship. As with Husik, Rudy’s wispily sweet vocal belies her determination to discover and envision things her own way, learning from time and from chance. Both, too, are peripatetic and intuitive to a fault: they’re both quite prepared to walk into mires of embarrassing self-conscious fluff if that’s where an idea takes them (in Rudy’s case, a misplaced James Brown tribute called Bony Little, giddy and apologetic, in which she bangs on forever about her skinny white ass).

For this album, the club dance elements have triumphed in Rudy’s big bag of sounds – as they did on Husik’s ‘Green Blue Fire’ album four years previously. Techno producer Sheldon Southworth, a.k.a Diffusion, is a vital collaborator for half the album. He’s the Beaumont Hannant to Rudy’s Husik, adding his own club-friendly trance sparkle to hers and replacing guitars with the zing of electronics. For The Secret Sayings Of Jesus, Rudy whispers god-inside Gnostic philosophy, floating it like evangelical thistledown over Diffusion’s bright trance beats and aquatic keyboard textures. Despite her trippy tones, hypnotically soft, the chant is a desperate prayer rather than navel-gazing. It’s a counterpoint to the other songs, which make up a travelogue of delusions to be overcome in oneself or endured from others.

Vanity’s Car perks its way through cheerful Euro-trance and Soft Cell gurgles, but Rudy’s lyrics dwell on how the wrong kind of excitement can lessen a person’s grasp on reality – “amazing how far you’ll go when you lose control – / I’ve got to get out on my feet / and be the things I always wanted to be.” The fallout is clear: “I might be sitting in your living room / but I might as well be in another country,” Rudy protests on Can’t Go There. “You can drive if you wanna, but I prefer to stay on my feet… / ‘cos you’re so blind, you can’t see that it’s right across the street.” Warm swelling synths, glinting funk-wah guitar, and house piano echo that communal gospel glory which Primal Scream tapped on Come Together. Rudy’s own hopes of connection, though, are dissolving.

While Diffusion’s contributions are valuable, there’s no question that Rudy remains convincing on her own. The brief pure-dance diversion of Mentallium hurls rapid drum’n’bass kitfire headlong into chilly trance electronica: to wild things up a little, Rudy mixes twitchy diva calls, jazzy double bass and kettle drums into the instrumental. Out on the other edge of her music, she abandons beats and boxes. A blues-y acoustic guitar version of Vanity’s Car brings its warnings closer to the surface, no longer masked by shiny bodywork. Part pop-plaint, but mostly blues rant, the all-acoustic Water’s Edge sees the banalities of love (“Sometimes I’d like to kill him, / but I always gotta thrill him”) splinter in a glare of rage. Wailing like a cross between PJ Harvey and Etta James, Rudy walks the shoreline, grappling with a moment of agonising choice. Violence is poised within her, ready to strike inwards or outwards, and only the lone conscious voice of the song cries out against it. “Don’t go, you’ll only make your mama cry / Don’t go, you’ll only fuck your baby’s mind.”

As a single, Kill The Cult Of Cool got lost in the no-budget wilds which sank so many others; yet its emotional hop-skip-and-jump was a remarkable coming-together of ideas and instinct. It still is. Broody horror synths, laceworks of folk guitar and a patchwork of voice snippets quilt together into something haunted, defiant and transformative. In keeping with the rest of the album’s repetitions and revisitings, the song gets a double outing (the Derision Mix transforms it into radiophonic electro-funk replete with glitchy scratching and whooshing, frothing Vangelis synth splurge) but it’s the original that really matters. Something of a signature song for Rudy ever since it first showed up on ‘Personal Cloud‘, its cohesive spirit remains clear as its splintered voices ask for compassion, pray for guidance, plant down stubborn feet. “I was the quiet one in school, never made any trouble,” stammers a sampled man; “I don’t care what you say, I’m not crazy,” Rudy adds quietly. It’s full of struggle, though never precisely clear what that struggle is – the claw back to sanity out of the creeping horrors? a defense of alternative thinkers and scapegoats? – yet it’s also affecting in a way in which few things that I hear are.

The spine of the album, though, is the title track and Personal Cloud. The former’s a grieving white-girl rap about a marriage snapped violently in half: here, Rudy sounds as soft-spoken but as wide-awake’n’dreaming as Margaret Fiedler does while puzzling out dreams in Laika. Almost cushioned by the pain, she lets moments of heartbreaking reproach crest over it and into the words: when she murmurs “you say you’re following your heart / I say fear has played a much bigger part”, real agony glints. In a new take on Personal Cloud (remixed by M@2K into radar blips, ambient funk and blue-light electronics) more displaced degrees of mourning are added to Rudy’s grapple with addictions, love and loneliness (“I wrap my lips around a cigarette instead of you…”). Her voice flutters, weightless and bereft: a hydrogen balloon un-anchored by faithless hands.

Maybe ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ is not the album Rudy Simone’s capable of. It’s more like several different shots at an album: all crowded into the kitchen together, taking anxious and uncomfortable refuge. No clear clues; a spinning signpost; but indications of an effective, if scattered, talent – one worth investing some love in.

Rudy Simone: ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’
Phat Lady Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R-only album
Released: 2000

Buy it from:
Extremely rare – best found second-hand.

Rudy Simone online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

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