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May 2015 – through the feed – free single/upcoming crowdfunder from The Duke Of Norfolk; Cardiacs and Knifeworld reissues; a new Tim Bowness album; disinterring lost Levitation

21 May

I can tell I’ve not kept my eye on the ball – nothing makes a person feel less alert than suddenly finding that three of his favourite musical projects (plus one new recent favourite and one older interest) are suddenly pouncing out new releases and. I step out for a moment, for another writing project, and someone moves all of the furniture around.

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

So… let’s start with news of fresh work from The Duke of Norfolk, a.k.a transplanted Oklahoman folkie Adam Howard, now resident in Edinburgh. He’s currently offering a free single – A Revolutionary Waltz – in part-promotion, commenting “I am launching a Kickstarter project in two weeks to fund the making of a live video EP, and would like to give you this recording in the meantime. It’s just a wee sonic experiment, but I hope you enjoy it!”

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Scottish Nationalist tie-in here, given recent political events in Britain, Adam’s adopted hometown, and that beautifully sympathetic and country-tinged setting of Robbie Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss on which he duets with Neighbour, think otherwise. In fact, this song is a darker cousin to An Evening Waltz (from his 2013 album ‘Le Monde Tourne Toujours’): a foreboding meditation on the inexorable turn of fate’s wheel, tying together three histories of power, betrayal and fall. Despite its timeless trad-folk lyric, Adam’s busking roots (and the lusciously acoustic sound of much of his other material) it’s also a rough-and-ready take on digital folk, either demo-rough or intended to display Adam’s other roots in sound design. A clipped electrophonic waltz picks its way across a murky psychedelic smudge and a droning feedback pibroch: its characters sea-waltz to the grim, dry beat of a hand drum and a scattering of cowrie-shell percussion. It’s well worth a listen. As for progress on the Duke Of Norfolk video Kickstarter campaign, it’s probably best to keep tabs on his Facebook page.

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

Following the success of their double vinyl LP reissue of 1995’s ‘Sing To God‘ album, Cardiacs are doing the same with its 1999 follow-up, ‘Guns’. While it’s not the magnificent sprawler that ‘Sing To God’ is, ‘Guns’ offers a more concise take on the pepper-sharp 1990s Cardiacs quartet that featured Bob Leith and gonzo guitarist Jon Poole alongside the band-brothers core of Tim and Jim Smith. As Cardiacs albums go it’s an even brasher beast than usual, hiding its gnarly depths under brass-balled upfront confidence and strong seasonings of glam-bang, pell-mell punk, whirring Krautrock, and jags of heavy metal looning.

‘Guns’ is also one of the most obscure Cardiacs works. Drummer Bob joined Tim on lyric duties, helping to turn the album’s words into a dense hedge-witch thicket of allusion and play, in which typically naked Cardiacs preoccupations (dirt, wartime, suspicion, indeterminate life and death) are tied up into an almost impenetrable web, driven along by the music’s eight-legged gallop. The fact that Tim and Bob were slipping in random borrowings from ‘English As She Is Spoke‘,  a notoriously bungled Victorian phrasebook with its own wonky and unintentional poetry, only added to the tangle.

You can pre-order the ‘Guns’ reissue here for end-of-June shipping. It’s a single vinyl record, with no extra thrills or treats, but does come with the promise of beautiful packaging and pressing. You can expect to hear news on more Cardiacs reissues over the next few years. The current plan is to reissue the band’s whole back catalogue on vinyl after years of exile (predominantly spent huddled exclusively on iTunes).

Meanwhile, see below for a taste of ‘Guns’ magnificent oddness. Here’s the grinding drive of Spell With A Shell (which encompasses the lives of pets, the terror and wonder of transformation, and the cruelty, loneliness and confused loyalties of childhood). Here’s a collision of outsider folk and reggae in Wind And Rains Is Cold (via a fan video of clips from ‘Night Of The Hunter’, from which Cardiacs frequently filch scraps of lyric). Finally, here’s the scavenged, scratchy prog of Junior Is A Jitterbug with its prolonged and celebrated unravelling coda.

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

For those without turntables, there’s been a relatively recent CD reissue of Cardiacs’ 1991 EP ‘Day Is Gone’ – which I somehow managed to miss when it was first announced – and which includes the original three B-sides (No Bright Side, Ideal and concert favourite Joining The Plankton). This is from the pre-‘Sing To God’ lineup: another quartet but with Dominic Luckman on drums and, ostensibly, Bic Hayes on second guitar (prior to his explosive stints in Levitation and Dark Star, and to his current position etching dark psychedelic guitar shadings in ZOFFF).

Actually, since this was a time of shuffle and change in the band it’s unclear as to whether Bic or Jon Poole is providing the extra galactic bangs and shimmerings on the EP. However, for Day Is Gone itself the attention should be on Tim Smith’s grand bottle-rocket of a solo, capping what’s both one of Cardiacs’ most autumnal songs and one of their most headrushing cosmic efforts – a bout of November skygazing gone bright and vivid. See below for the original video in all of its low-budget saucer-eyed glory, and pick up the CD here.

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

Note also that a couple of other early-‘90s Cardiacs recordings have made it back on CD in the past six months. ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’ (the parent album for Day Is Gone) shows Cardiacs at their brightest and bashing-est, but hiding a wounded heart. ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ – the recording of a raucous 1990 septet concert at the Salisbury Arts Centre – was both the last hurrah of the 1980s lineup (with carousel keyboards, saxophone and half-a-scrapyard’s-worth of percussion rig) and, for my money, is also one of the greatest live rock recordings ever made. See if you agree.

Cardiacs: 'All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest' (2014 reissue)

Cardiacs: ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ (2014 reissue)

‘Mares Nest’ also made a welcome resurfacing on DVD a couple of years ago – see below for a typically quaking example of the band in action. It’s also worth repeating that all of the profits from the recording sales continue to go towards palliative care and physical therapy for Tim Smith, who’s still engaged in the slow painful recovery from his crippling stroke of 2008.

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Meanwhile, Knifeworld – who feature an ex-Cardiac and, while being very much their own eclectic and tuneful proposition, carry a certain continuation of the Cardiacs spirit along with them – have collated early, interim and now-unavailable tracks onto a full-length album, ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’. The seven tracks (dating from between 2009 and 2012) bridge the space between their ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ debut and last year’s tour-de-force ‘The Unravelling’.

If you want to read my thoughts on the original releases, visit the original ‘Misfit City’ reviews of the ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ and ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EPs from which six of the tracks are taken. (I’ve just had a look back myself and discovered that I’ve previously described them as a band who could drag up exultation with their very fingernails, as starchildren weighed down by dark matter, as possessing “a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand” and as “an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together.” I must have been pretty excitable, on each occasion.)

Alternatively, have a look at the videos below. Also, if you’re in England during the end of May, the band (in full eight-person glory) are out on a short tour featuring the debut of new music.

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

With his erstwhile/ongoing no-man bandmate Steven Wilson going from strength to strength as a solo act, Tim Bowness also continues to concentrate on work under his own name – sleek, melancholy art-pop with a very English restraint, fired with a desperate passion and shaded with subtleties and regrets. His third album, ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’, is due for release on July 17th; barely a year after his last effort ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (one of my own favourite records of 2014).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ features the ‘Abandoned…’ core band of Tim plus his usual cohorts Michael Bearpark, Stephen Bennett, and Andrew Booker, and on spec sounds as if it’ll be a smooth progression and development from the previous album. It also features guest showings from three generations of art rock (Phil Manzanera and Peter Hammill; David Rhodes and Pat Mastelotto; Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord, Anna Phoebe and Rhys Marsh) and string arrangements by art-rock-friendly composer Andrew Keeling.

Expect a typically Burning Shed-ish range of format options: the double CD mediabook edition (with companion disc of alternate mixes and demos including an unreleased no-man demo from 1994), and LP versions in either black vinyl or transparent vinyl (CDs included with each). Pre-ordering gets you a downloadable FLAC version of the 5.1 mix, plus the usual cute postcard. Sorry – I have no early tasters for ‘Stupid Things…’, but here’s a taste of one of the slower, lusher tracks from ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ for the benefit of anyone who missed it last year.

Earlier on, while discussing Cardiacs, I briefly mentioned Bic Hayes and his time in Levitation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them – or who weren’t around in early ’90s Britain to witness their brief, Roman candle of a run – they were a band who eagerly fused together an enormous sound, leashing and running with a frenzied and energized take on psychedelic rock, driving post-punk noise and earnest, distressed chanting from their singer, the former House of Love guitar star Terry Bickers. Sadly, they’ve become best known as the springboard by which Terry catapulted himself first into frontmanhood, then into the uncharted and finally (via some tortured decisions and unfortunate outbursts) into the obscure.

In truth, Levitation were an equal conspiracy of five. As well as Terry and Bic, there was Robert White (a baby-faced free-festival veteran and secret-weapon multi-instrumentalist, who’d later lead The Milk & Honey Band), an undersung alt.rock bass hero called Laurence O’Keefe and David Francolini, an astounding and slightly demonic drummer who could run the gamut from pattering rain to pneumatic drill in a single roll round his kit (and who, within Levitation, had the perfect opportunity to do so). Fuelled equally by inspiration, drugs and sheer hard work, they strived for three intense years while living on the outside of their skins, and briefly came close to making some very unfashionable sounds current again.

While they were certainly a “head” band – hippy punks who joined floating threads of British counter-culture, spontaneity and resistance together – it’s vital to remember that Levitation were never your average festival band. They were never complacent, never entitled. More Yippie than trustafarian, they seemed (Bickers, in particular) to be desperately chasing revelations just over the rim of the horizon. Their ethos and experience was best summed up – or, more accurately, caught in a passing flare – in a lyric from their song Against Nature ), with Terry choking out “there is an answer, but I’ve yet to find out where” over a raging foam of guitars. Fingers (and not a few minds) got scorched along the way. In May 1993, it culminated in Terry’s wracked, brutal self-ejection from the band – in a spurt of slogans and despair – during a concert at the Tufnell Park Dome, just a short walk from Misfit City’s current home.

There have been some reconcilations since then (not least Bic, David and Laurence reuniting in the wonderful but equally short-lived Dark Star five years afterwards) but there have been no reunion, and no-one has ever seemed to want to go back. However, on Monday this week – Record Store Day 2015 – the Flashback label released the first Levitation music for twenty years – ‘Never Odd Or Even’, a vinyl-only EP containing three tracks from the band’s lost 1992 album ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (these being Never Odd Or Even, Greymouth and Life Going Faster). More information is here, although if you want to pick up one of the five hundred copies you’d better find your nearest participating British record store here: they might have some left. (There’s an earlier version of the title track below, in perhaps a rawer form.)

I’ve described ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ as a lost album, which isn’t strictly true. Although the record was recorded prior to Terry’s explosive departure, there was life after Bickers, For just over a year, singer Steve Ludwin took on the frontman role; during this time the band took it upon themselves to partially re-work the album with Ludwin’s vocals rolled out firmly over Terry’s. The resulting version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ was only released briefly in Australia. Following the split of the Ludwin lineup and the final end of the band, it’s always been regarded (rightly or wrongly) as something of a bastard appendix to the Bickers-era albums.

The happier news is that, following up ‘Never Odd Or Even’, Flashback are about to give ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ its own new lease of life with the active collaboration of the original lineup (including Terry Bickers). The album’s original vocals have been restored, the songs polished to satisfaction and a final tracklisting agreed upon. Although former album tracks Graymouth and Life Going Faster have been ceded to the ‘Never Odd…’ EP, the 2015 version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ keeps four of the tracks familiar from the Ludwin version (Food For Powder, Gardens Overflowing, Even When Your Eyes Are Open and the vaulting soar of King of Mice) and adds five songs previously only available via bootlegs (Bodiless, Imagine The Sharks, Evergreen, I Believe, Burrows and Sacred Lover). Apparently, it’ll be out sometime in “summer 2015” as a single CD and limited-edition double LP, each coming with gatefold sleeve and new artwork by original Levitation cover artist Cally.

It’s probably best to keep track of progress on the ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ release here; but meanwhile here’s the Bickers version of Even When Your Eyes Are Open (the last single the band released before he quit) and a bootleg-sourced version of the startling post-psychedelic stretchout Burrows – just to whet the appetite.

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
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Cardiacs online:
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Knifeworld online:
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Tim Bowness online:
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Levitation online:
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August 2009 – EP reviews – Matthieu Jacquot’s ‘Plucked String Instrument Recital’ (“a thoughtful, analytical performer”)

29 Aug
Matthieu Jacquot: 'Plucked String Instrument Recital'

Matthieu Jacquot: ‘Plucked String Instrument Recital’

Matthieu Jacquot – a Parisian classical guitarist and lutenist – is not yet an established name. On the basic of this EP he’s not only worth a listen, but worth some serious consideration.

‘Plucked String Instrument Recital’ may have been recorded, primarily, as a pitch for performance work. However, its unromantic (and borderline deconstructed) name and its discreet pushes at performance form reveals not just a skilled player but a thoughtful, analytical performer. Four different repertoire pieces, each by a different composer and arranged in chronological order (two Baroque, two on the cusp of Romanticism and modernism) allow Matthieu not to demonstrate his instrumental mastery of various eras, but also to investigate or imply connections between them.

The first of these, John Dowland’s Preludium (for Renaissance lute but performed here on archlute), is played straight. As a solo lutenist, Matthieu is graceful and expressive, but he’s also played blues, and some of that elastic stretch of time and expression seems to have made it into his classical playing style too, mingling with his sense of rubato. Tackling a second and subsequent Baroque piece (Gaspar Sanz’s Folias, one of the first iterations of one of the most lasting chord progressions of classical music), Matthieu swaps his archlute for classical guitar. Recorded a little more intimately – close enough to hear Matthieu’s breathing – it balances folky earnestness and a strong unhurried classical technique, with fine switches between fingerpicking and rasgueado strums,

It’s during the second half that things stay beautiful, but become a little more interesting. Take – as Matthieu has – Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie #1. Initially composed as a rebellion against Romanticism, it’s been transformed over the years (partially due to the curse of its pretty tune) into a mild-mannered and amiable carthorse. Innumerable interpretations bob across relaxation records. There are pop – or pop-tinged – covers by Sky, Blood Sweat & Tears and Gary Numan. It’s even become a concert apéritif for performances of the Romantic works it was supposed to be kicking against. Matthieu’s own version is ambivalent, but refreshing.

Classical guitar arrangements of the Gymnopédie are commonplace, but Matthieu has avoided standardisation by scoring it as a subtly overdubbed quartet version for himself – a bassline played on one guitar, melody on another, two more to handle the arcs of arpeggio and a second pass at the melody in deft harmonics. He also has no fear of stressing the incipient awkwardness which hovers behind the precise rhythms. In this version, you can hear the work of playing involved, without that taking anything away from his skill. In other hands, the additional swells of overdubbed gong he’s added would be a joke: a superficial New Age attempt to link Satie’s elegant economy of notes to a spurious Oriental tranquility. To be honest, Matthieu may have had a similar idea. However, he uses the gong as part of the ensemble: a piece of punctuation linked to the structuring of the music, a marker of key points. Instead of scenery, it links process and rituals: the musician’s shaping of phrases, the precise physical routines of Asian exercise and centering.

The last piece is the most ambitious. Le Gibet is the second of three demanding narrative pieces Maurice Ravel wrote as a suite for solo piano and called ‘Gaspard de la nuit’. In its original form, it’s bookended by two demanding and vigorous pieces of musical storytelling (both supernaturally themed, both cascading with notes and rhythms. By comparison, Le Gibet is a slice of static narrative, more of an illustration in music, complete with implications. The original scene, as set out by Ravel, is a desert view, a distant gallows in centre view, an equally distant city with the sound of a tolling bell rising from over the walls (the latter carried by an ominous pedal point ostinato).

Matthieu has arranged this as a duet between two guitars, making the most of both the music and the interplay between loss and gain due to the shift in instrumentation. Certainly, something is lost – the effects of the soft felt and pedal dynamics of the piano (so vital in adding the different colours, timbres and volume shifts of Romantic music) can’t be replicated on guitar, and some details fade. Instead, Matthieu’s approach dessicates the music into an additional desert toughness. The creaks of string noise and of shifting posture, the dry attack of the guitars and Matthieu’s plentiful use of harmonics – all of this takes away Ravel’s detailed coloration and turns his narrative into a sharp, leathery etching; a musical concentrate of the scene. It’s like someone reshooting a film along less forgiving, more minimal lines; or curing Ravel’s desert fantasy down to biltong.

Throughout, Matthieu draws implicit connections via his playing style; his sparse economy drawing a line between Satie’s proto-minimalism, Downland’s perfect miniature, the precise structure of the Folias and the concentration of his own arrangement of Ravel. Among the plucking, some enquiring tweaks.

Matthieu Jacquot: ‘Plucked String Instrument Recital’
Matthieu Jacquot (self-released)
Download-only EP
Released: 21st August 2009

Buy it from:

Matthieu Jacquot online:
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August 2009 – album reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ (“a dense and complicated thicket”)

24 Aug
Knifeworld: 'Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)'

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)’

Barely two tracks in, and (against a backdrop of spidery chords and distant whistling bird-noise) you can hear Kavus Torabi sigh “way to go – a scream fanfares the notion / that fortune and art don’t make good bedfellows.” He ought to know. Since the early 1990s, he’s fought plenty of tough uphill battles in order to fuel strange, intoxicating and awkward music: eight years of startling psychedelic math-rock with The Monsoon Bassoon and six of dogged multi-jointed expressionism with Cardiacs (plus digressions into latterday Zeuhl, madrigal, folk and chamber rock).

You could have forgiven Kavus if he’d played safe on this first, pseudonymous solo album. As one of those people who knows just how ecstatic and luminous music can become if you have the determination to push and ride it all the way, he’s also learned the hard way about how ambition and application don’t necessarily open the ears of the public – or stop the wheels coming off your band in a shower of sparks. Then again, musicians of his omnivorous and kaleidoscopic nature will never be truly happy rolling around the same well-trodden streets as everyone else.

True to past Torabi form, ‘Buried Alone…’ is a dense and complicated thicket of an album, infested with a riot of ideas: an explosion of technicolour shagginess to set against a rank of forward-sweep Britrock haircuts. Anyone who remember the cyclic romps and the full-tilt joyful roar of The Monsoon Bassoon will find some recognizable DNA in here. Yet if that former band was bottled lightning, then Knifeworld is a far more scattered beast. Standard rock instrumentation clusters, interlocks and spins apart in a glorious swirl of noise: an additional palette of clarinets, toy xylophones, violins and santoors adds wood, spit and rattle to proceedings. Crowded and impossibly animated (with multiple styles rubbing up against each other), the album sounds as if Kavus has ripped off the top of his head and let a decade’s worth of listening and imagination just spill out. Yet everything finds its own step in the dance.

Singled Out for Battery exemplifies the intricate wildness on offer, as shivering walls of electric distortion set off a dancing chorus and fairy-ring reels on recorder, guitar and piano. Hollered psychedelic tabloid headlines cartwheel through the verses and everything builds to the kind of exultant boiling guitar solo that suggests King Crimson and Hendrix dancing together around a ‘Wicker Man’ maypole. Large swathes of the album resemble an unstoppable pile-up in Toytown. Propulsive alt.rock riffery worthy of Pixies, Buzzcocks or Shudder to Think is sandwiched by bursts of staccato chamber music or thorny-backed melodic wanderings reminiscent of Henry Cow. Spindly Syd Barrett mumblings sprawl into unresolved mantras, while multi-angled web-work phrases on acoustic guitar are mown down by breaks of crushing thrash-metal.

In one corner, soft voices lilt mysteriously across a barren heathscape; ecstatic and sinister. In another, a dayglo Latin chant flirts with crunching power riffs, hammer dulcimers and fluting see-saw Mellotron before tangling with a crash’n’burn burst of Nancarrow player-piano. In the middle of it all there’s even a delirious single, Pissed Up On Brake Fluid. Horn-heavy and stuffed full of chart-pleasing hookery, it rampages happily towards indie rock radio entirely on its own terms. It’s about a deal with the devil going embarrassingly wrong; or it’s about failing to beat your own devil; or it’s about pranging your car as a metaphor for life. Kavus fires it straight through the center of the record, like a jaguar through a hoop. It soars past – waving the same catchy, compulsive freak flag as The Monsoon Bassoon’s Wise Guy – and then it’s gone, leaving fiery paw-prints on the swarming musical landscapes which surround it.

Despite all of this wildness and waywardness, you can’t simply write the album off as pure self-indulgence. Although Kavus shuffles all of his elements with the free inspiration, impulsiveness and rough edges of a true experimentalist, he also has the structural suss of a prog-rocker to back it up. His wrestling scatter of ingredients ultimately fall into patterns that make sense, however eccentric. On The Wretched Fathoms, jazzy woodwind slashes force themselves onto a lurching tune and drag on the beat like grappling-hooks. Open childlike melodies are mounted atop Corpses Feuding Underground: but underneath it’s restlessly shucking its way through shifting ground and moods, fitting in rockabilly guitar grumbles and brass parps as it does so.

As you might have guessed by now, ‘Buried Alone…’ isn’t an easy listen. Nor, despite the ambition and diversity of its strong medicine, is it all that it could be. Towards the end the album bellies out into a string of uneasy warped dirges which don’t quite match the inventiveness of earlier tracks. Yet this is also the most genuinely psychedelic rock album in ages, and one of the very few psychedelic albums which genuinely deserve the title. Rather than losing himself in noodling out aural wallpaper for stoners, Torabi offers up a succession of yawing mind-flickers which weave between thought, dream and reality as much as they do between styles.

The battered, urban feel of the album – suggesting stretches of blasted fox-ridden scrub ground between Hackney tower blocks, untended bomb-sites and smog-smeared children’s playgrounds – only adds to this. In the gaps between (and within) songs, ominous sounds filter through: the caw of a raven, leaking water, booms of collapse, and distant sirens from hunting police cars. Then there are the lyrics: on first hearing, an obscure word salad sung in earnest, artless tones by Torabi and guest singer Mel Woods (from Sidi Bou Said). Picking deeper into them – past the twirl and bounce of the music and the witty, tongue-in-cheek dips into outright bafflegab – and you find the corpse in the bathtub, a raw web of terrors and regrets rising to the surface.

That hammy album title isn’t just there for a joke. Across the record, there are seeded references to “broken hands”, friends who “hide real agendas in the sidings”, or the terrible phone call that tells you “there’s been an accident.” Corpses Feuding Underground jitters over the fragility of relationships, with unresolved threats looming from both above and below ground, from both the living and the dead. Kavus frets about the return of claustrophobic “clammy horror”, mutters “I’ve buffer-zoned my friends, shut the family out” and wonders aloud “is it vibrations what make us tick over, / or is shrugging doubt, death pulling hard at your cuff?” On No More Dying, over a panicked rotisserie of New York minimalism (computerized piano edge and pulsing Philip Glass clarinets) he wails “all my friends, one by one, sever their correspondence.” The same energy that fires up the album has its flipside in the paranoia which shakes things to pieces. On the swaybacked Severed Of Horsehoof, an exhausted Mel seems almost to have given up. “Just go to sleep,” she sighs, resignedly. “I wish I could…”

Throughout ‘Buried Alone…’, there seems to be a recurrence of the same “be-he-alive-or-be-he-dead” uncertainty that’s also soaked its way, from the beginning, through the work of Cardiacs. A visceral confusion, which ends up rendering Knifeworld’s patchwork of song more vital. Perhaps it’s due to a conviction that whatever life there is – with all of its nightmares, random churnings and visits from the dark side – it is (or has been) precious. “Oh, we dazzled when we were alive” muse Kavus and Mel together on Torch. On the final champing swirl of Me To The Future Of You, Knifeworld’s vision of Armageddon is suffused with acceptance and love. “When oceans earn the right to dry up / and stars have fallen earthward by the score. / Ah the end reeks of familiar, of ever after me to you… / Lips and lids are closing, it’s alright.”

It’s peace, of a kind: an admission and demonstration that our peculiar battles do have meaning in the end.

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’
Believer’s Roast, BRR 002 (5060078526074)
CD/download album
Released: 17th August 2009

Get it from:
Genepool, Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Knifeworld online:

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May 2009 – album reviews – Tom Slatter’s ‘Spinning the Compass’ (“…the heart amongst the wheels…”)

1 May
Tom Slatter: 'Spinning the Compass'
Tom Slatter: ‘Spinning the Compass’

Previously half of the obscure “post-apocalyptic quasi-acoustic indie-folk” duo Comrade Robot, Tom Slatter now marches off on his own, cogs a-whirring, with a short debut solo album mixing the macabre, the jolly and the poignant… all in the manner of a brainy kid’s puppet show. In part, the latter is down to the theatrical delivery: Tom’s ringmaster-next-door vocals, simultaneously declamatory and humble. In part, it’s due to the Cabaret Mechanical nature of the music itself – the lo-fi clack of programmed drums, the keyboards which are rarely far from stiff calliope posturing; the George Stephenson rattle of (mostly) acoustic guitar and piano; the steam-whistle synths. But a lot of it, frankly, is the robot-men.

Yes; lyrically, at least, ‘Spinning the Compass’ is a steampunk album: Victorian in tone, and riddled with altered, augmented characters who click and wheeze with gears, lenses, bellows and casements. Given the plumminess and the ambitions in the music, “steamprog” might be a better tag. The lone instrumental here pitches hooty synth against classical sounding guitarpeggios marching rapidly across a strange chord progression, disruptive but fluid.

What do you do with Tom Slatter: a man who leans towards the musical and lyrical complications of a Roy Harper, a Thomas Dolby or a Peter Hammill, but who also runs his scenarios like a cardboard pop-up theatre; and who could put a warm grin on the face of the ghost of Jim Henson? You settle back in your comfy chair and you listen to him, that’s what you do. You enjoy the jiggling figures. You laugh along with the stage whispers.

Regarding Tom’s song romps, the aforementioned Hammill is the easiest comparison to make. More specifically, the deliberately boyish songs Hammill (with fellow Van Der Graaf Generator alumnus Judge Smith) wrote about Vikings and airships on ‘Fool’s Mate’, with their whiff of yellowing comics pages and pulp ink. As with the more baroque Hammill moments, there’s a deliberate antiquity to this music. Tom, too, seems to love machines and dashing adventures, and the neurotic pomp of Empire. More accurately, as a storyteller he enjoys the twists and kinks and predicaments into which they place people. He’s got an interest in the way that the ponderous, increasingly amoral gravity of such things – of such seductive opportunities – warps both a person’s culture and their choices; even their ability, beyond a certain point, to choose at all.

Not all of ‘Spinning the Compass’ digs that deep. Some of it is simple, geeky fun. Aspects of Comrade Robot’s gleeful pulpiness remain in ‘Gaslight’, a triumphantly romantic love song which turns out to be set in a world plunged into eternal darkness – “even if they got on their knees and prayed for the dawn to come, / if they screamed to the heavens the night would never end / and you’d stay there beside me in the chill glow of the night.” A few other songs are straightforwardly robust Gothic nightmares, most obviously ‘Bad Dream’ with its flourishing Cardiacs-y guitar lines; and also the hammering ‘Lines Overheard at a Seance’ which builds its atmosphere of creepy weird-fiction madness while edging around the indescribable specifics. (“On a cold cold night I saw something evil – / turned the red, red walls a deep shade of grey, / and I’m not breaking down.”)

Throughout the album, Tom switches from hat to hat, playing individual characters in quirky situations or struggling, knowingly or otherwise, with their own moral choices and compromises. The balloon-riding Victorian hunter in the parlour-jazzy ‘Home’, for instance, lives a privileged, gun-toting ‘Boys’ Own’ life as one of the “kings of the great game, on top of the sky”, but he yearns to escape his macho, beast-slaughtering environment and reunite with his sweetheart. This, however, is a rare example of a ‘Spinning the Compass’ character choosing human-scaled love or humility over some form of devious power, or a hideous longevity. Most of Tom’s protagonists are sinking into (or already condemning themselves to) something far more horrible, whether they recognise it or not; and the further they commit themselves, the worse it gets.

For example, the triumphantly augmented Dickensian cyborg who narrates ‘Ingenious Devices’ is an oblivious monster; sardonic, and horribly selfish. As he watches lovers and family perish of old age, he himself revels in the engineering that keeps him alive (“My heart beats by pendulum. / I’ve filled grave with cogs and wheels, / so there’s no room.”) Ultimately his triumph resides in a post-human callousness, a reptilian dismissal – “I’ve seen them, with cracking skin, / greying hair, yellow teeth / and haunted eyes. / I’ll not be one of them. / I’ll fill my lungs with oil and steam /and never die.” In ‘I Still Smile’, Tom takes machine-man uncanniness to greater heights as (over a ghostly, stately, scintillating instrumental part) he plays the role of someone’s automated love-puppet, its memories and motivations mere shallow simulacrums of emotions and responsibilities – “My arms are always here / to make you feel complete / My face is fixed in a permanent grin / My latex skin never frowns / You bought me, to make you feel complete / And I’ll always be here. / Even when you’re crying, I still smile. /And your last touch of real skin hurt too much. / But I have all the time you need / My love never dies.”

As Tom warns elsewhere, though, “roses in the chains, / burning a pilot light / isn’t carrying a flame.” Even as early as the opening track, he’s flying the cautionary flags about how the mechanistic life dehumanises us all. “This mechanism, it’s driving us apart. / It shines a prism on the kind of love we share. / This mechanism is making passion spoil / It tastes of something, the cloying tang of wine and oil. /Our love relies on clockwork, / the careful use of gears and wheel – / this mechanism, it isn’t how we feel.” On a surface level, he’s playing that old trope of how horrible it is to become a Cyberman, or to be hijacked by the Maschinenmensch from ‘Metropolis’. On another, less geeky level, he’s singing about harbouring the wrong kind of awareness – analytics and risk assessments killing your spontaneity; cultivated programming replacing reactions, your arousals and your sympathies. Willingly importing programs into your mind can be as bad as literally forcing machinery into your flesh.

In the concluding song – the album’s title track – Tom addresses this while also ending up with the narrator’s role which is perhaps closest to himself. ‘Spinning the Compass’ is also his proggiest cut: ominous, wandering across assorted minor keys, and showing off his compositional strengths during a protracted acoustic guitar passage. The words, however, are what gives it its true core. Abandoning the previous metaphors of iron lungs and mannequin features, Tom sings about disintegrating crosswords and uncontrolled acceleration, about a gradual deterioration of sense and coherent structure.

At the end of the album, he’s placing himself as the human being now pinned (helplessly, and to his own horror) in the centre of an unbalanced and out-of-scale world, conned and gaslit into relinquishing his own corner of control within it. “Changing the rules while I was looking away, / five paths in the same dial. / Like living in a world of your own / all the time shrinking till all the roads meet. / White lines dashing past at speed / And up is left, east is west and no-one cares… / Like living in a mind not your own, / thinking thoughts you don’t understand… Do you get the feeling we’re running out time? / Have you heard the rumours of war planes in the skies? / With this spinning the end is surely nigh?” Apprehensive and pessimistic as it is, it’s a reaffirmation of the heart amongst the wheels, a shout out from the rose enmeshed in the chains.

Tom Slatter: ‘Spinning the Compass’
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
1st May 2009
Get/stream it from:
(2022 update) Currently available as remastered 2016 edition with two extra tracks – stream/download from Bandcamp, Apple Music, Deezer and Spotify 

Tom Slatter online:
Homepage, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Instagram, Bandcamp,, Apple Music, YouTube, Vimeo, Deezer, Spotify, Amazon Music   

April 2009 – album reviews – John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303’s ‘Chamber Music’ (“stark rectitude and detachment”)

25 Apr

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: 'Chamber Music'

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’

As well as being a composer, John P. Hastings is a curator. Actually… no. Separating the two terms suggest that there’s a gap between them: some kind of change in philosophy or mental state. It’s true that when he’s not composing, Hastings involves himself in arranging and hosting music events and sonic installations in his adopted home of Brooklyn, New York (via the ‘Sound Series’ at Presents Gallery) as well as co-running ‘The Experimental Music Yearbook’. However, it seems clear that these other activities might not involve much of a conceptual shift. I’ll come back to this later.

Starting off in Washington and Virginia, Hastings was at one time a late-’90s college rocker, playing guitar and writing songs for the post-grunge band Utris. After that he moved his base to CalArts and moved his musical allegiance – with a vengeance – to New Music via avant-garde process work and sonic art. While Utris occasionally dabbled in hard-rocking drones, Hastings’ subsequent music (be it orchestral, laptop-based or both) has quietly and methodically embraced many of the scientific components of late-twentieth-century conservatoire culture. His work sometimes shades carefully and soberly into the post-modern (via technology, found sound, chance methods and a fascination for the minutiae of microtones and the harmonic series) but his primary commitment has been to formalism and to music which establishes, as he defines it, “a logical and rationally satisfying whole.” His early chamber music pieces are rooted at the sternest end of late modernism, asserting a profound minimalism and blending it with clear process-based choices.

This debut collection reflects this position in all of its stark rectitude and detachment. All three of the minimal yet sonorous pieces here were performed either by the New Century Players (CalArts’ ensemble of “emerging musical language” musicians) or by Ensemble 303 (the experimental music group co-led by Hastings and Casey Thomas Anderson). Similarly, they were recorded in guarded heart-zones of the Californian avant-garde – two pieces in Roy O. Disney Hall at CalArts, and one in The Wulf gallery in downtown Los Angeles. These rooms seem to enclose and encourage the music in its deliberately slender and depthless form; its impassiveness; its focus on insidious pared-down number structures beneath the apparent form and textures. The musical notes themselves are explicitly passive components in a sparse mathematical schema, although this doesn’t stop them from often being beautiful.

Hastings makes his allegiance to science and mathematics plain from the off: the large-ensemble piece ‘telluric currents’ (performed by the New Century Players) is named after subterranean electric fields. Less scientifically, Hastings also describes in terms somewhere between angels’ trumpets and astro-metaphysics – “the music of the spheres, sounded with a low B-flat.” Translated, this means a single-note composition, though Hastings also states that it’s actually “one note, two curves.” The latter would appear to mean a gradual rise in pitch and an arc across the differing ranges of orchestral instruments. As for the former, every component note of the piece is a B-flat: precise timbre, octave and duration vary, but the pitch class doesn’t. The result is a kind of a chameleonic sound-curtain made up of nothing but octave variations on the same note.

In the opening moments, a low string drone is gradually joined by a low brass drone: after a minute and a half, the mid-range strings are backing up the low ones. Soon afterwards, the first of a set of horn soundings begin, adding to an enveloping hum. With no more than a single stacked set of octave intervals available to him, Hastings induces a surprisingly full sound, overlaying different instruments in different timbres and within different octaves to cover a broader spectrum of sound. The New Century Players seamlessly slot in replacement instruments as others fall out. It’s a little like a Risset scale trick reversed: instead of producing a continuous cyclic illusion of rising, the process camouflages a genuine rise. Those final sustained high B-flats (carried on stratospheric harmonics once all lower-pitched instruments have fallen away) come almost as a surprise. While this renders ‘telluric currents’ as more of an acoustic demonstration than a composition, Hastings’ arrangement of pitches and the ensemble’s dedication ensure that the listener walks away feeling that they’ve received much more musical information than they have.

‘Sonic Spiral’ (recorded by Ensemble 303 at the Wulf) is billed as “music and math in direct correlation” and as “a sound equivalent of the Fibonacci series.” It’s not the first time that the latter has been employed in structuring music. Building up from a start-point of zero and one, successive Fibonacci numbers sum the previous two, resulting in rapid and increasing jumps in magnitude as the sequence progresses. Spirals based on a linear and increasing Fibonacci sequence closely resemble “perfect” spirals based on the golden ratio, tying them in with idealised human architecture. Their appeal in guiding a compositional approach is obvious – allegedly, Bartók used them to compute part of the structure for ‘Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta’.

Hastings’ own seventeen-minute Fibonacci piece is written for 11 unspecified tunable instruments. On the Wulf recording, I think I can hear low brass, standard and bass clarinets, violin and viola, saxophone… but what I predominantly hear is sustain, and the long harmonics which it allows to play against each other. Hasting winds the piece up with a little silver key of mathematics and simply lets it unfurl. Over seventeen minutes, the development is glacially slow. More accurately, it’s indifferent to human priorities of time and gratification; obeying rules of harmonic motion or aggrandisement set by the Fibonacci sequence.

Sitting on its locked tonal centre, the piece seems static, a softly growing hum within a gentle dynamic range. It’s actually an ever-growing and increasingly complex chord, moving subliminally up a spectrum of pitch into which new notes are eased and out of which silvery harmonic whistles sprout according to acoustic interference. Around eight minutes and forty-five seconds a lone violin seems to emerge from the stack, dipping over its own sustain and briefly leading the ensemble. It’s an illusion: the instrumentation is less dense at that point, revealing the mechanical workings of one briefly exposed instrument. The tiny dips and recoveries in pitch between continuous bowstrokes, the human flutter and inevitable tiny flaws of the working player, seem momentarily to impose a new idea on the piece: but the grand plan has always been dictated by the numbers. Just as the piece was wound up, so it winds back down.

Unlike the other two pieces, ‘desertum’ lacks a stated mathematical context. Instead, following Hastings’ habit of bringing in arcane or mythological references, it’s touted as “the dark shadow of an Earthly paradise.” Apparently performances of ‘desertum’ can be between fourteen and twenty-one minutes long. Perhaps I’ve missed some obscure rule-of-seven which Hastings hasn’t mentioned. This particular recording is eighteen minutes and twenty-two seconds long – or one thousand, one hundred and two seconds. Neither of which fit the sevens. Maybe maths isn’t dictating the process this time, although I suspect that its hidden rational hand still guides the way: perhaps the clues are elsewhere.

Despite the instrumental billing – brass quintet and percussion quartet – the main instrumentation on ‘desertum’ is an uncredited sub-bass tone. Pure, continuous and borderline subliminal, it runs throughout at a single unchanging pitch. Too textureless for an actual drone, it acts as a flattened-out level ground for the other instruments to perch on: utterly unyielding, it renders everything they do impermanent. Periodically, the brass instruments engage in a kind of minimal fanfare, each playing a single elongated note as part of a staggered, overlapping arpeggio.

The resulting sound resembles a diagonal chord, changing component notes slightly on each widely-spaced repetition. The hierarchy of pitches changes too, sometimes with the higher notes sounding first, sometimes the lower or midrange. They stack up like wobbling columns of stones, or like the same ruins viewed from different angles. During the lengthy pauses between these chord-piles, assorted percussion winds quietly across that monotone floor – wary rattlesnakes sneaking past. There may well be a long game of determined structure here: a slow-motion play through a specialised harmonic sequence played out at an inhumanly attenuated, Morton Feldman-esque pace. Perhaps, without the score, I lack the patience or the ear to determine it.

Instead (listening with more abstract, literary ears) what I hear in ‘desertum’ is a generalised sense of place – a parched and uncaring environment in which any human scratch or sculpting remains solitary and ignored, however vividly it stands up against the dry horizon. Hastings’ chords stand unrewarded and unresolved, isolated between ground and sky. Any message or change which they might carry is reduced to a molecular level. Wherever the idea of an earthly paradise fits in is an open guess. Perhaps the brass instrumentation was chosen for its association with angels, and the broken contortions of chords and desolate lack of movement imply the failure of Eden and the bitter aridity of Exodus. Perhaps Hastings’ rationalism discourages too much of a literary or Biblical interpretation, and ‘desertum’ is simply an existential communication about us – placed in hostile and impartial landscapes, struggling against the odds to make our lives and establish our significance.

Rooms and spaces which encourage. Landscapes that reject… All right, these are classic pathetic fallacies of the kind which Hastings’ more rational side might reject. But on the other hand, I think that this more emotive idea of placings, of placement, does have a relevance. Bar the utterly aleatoric or the free improvisers, almost all working composers ensure that each note and harmony used has a place in the scheme. The utter minimalism provided by these works (with their mathematical maps, their formal constraints, their refusal to allow any kind of horizontal development other than that permitted for duration and equation) works differently.

In these pieces, Hastings comes across less as a composer and more as a kind of… curator of notes. Rather than putting those notes to work, he maps them, provides them with a decreed academic location, gives them their single fixed point in his sonic display and keeps them safe there. He can and will demonstrate where they come from and how they fit in, but it’s as if his artistic work as curator of events has overlapped and merged with his compositional creativity to the extent that it’s now difficult to tell them apart. Similarly (and with the possible exception of the stonily suggestive ‘desertum’) its hard to imagine these three pieces existing and living outside the shelter of the Wulf, the Disney Hall  or their equivalent art-labs dotted around the world. It’s where music like this is safe: is understood and identified; ultimately, is pinned down.

To be honest, sometimes it’s as much about the chamber as it is about the music.

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’
Download-only album
Released: 21st April 2009

Buy it from:

John P. Hastings online:
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New Century Players online:

Ensemble 303 online:


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