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June 2016 – upcoming gigs – Merz’s English tour with Julian Sartorius (12th-19th) plus The Sound Book Project, Hayley Ross, Megan Carlile and Christopher Anderson

9 Jun

In 1999 Merz popped up, apparently out of nowhere, with the Many Weathers Apart single. It was delightfully bizarre – there were deck scratches, a warbling rubber-guitar lick, a screaming soul sample. Merz himself was a crowy, androgynous pop squawk riding on a reverbed conga boom as big as the circling horizon. A hippy priest with a boombox, plugged into the metaphysical mainline, he sang in fluttering scraps about separation, connection and rainstorms and somehow tied them all together. The equally out-there follow-up, Lovely Daughter, was a sideswipe at subjugation and exploitation – ostensibly about young brides, but perhaps also about outflanked cultures. It sounded like Anthony Newley trapped in a tropical aviary, sprinkled with reggae-dust while tussling with Prince and Beck. Refreshingly, both songs were modest hits.

A bold debut album followed, on a Sony subsidiary. Merz surrounded the darting, hummingbird heart of his songcraft with paper-chain folk guitar, string orchestras and rain-dewed colliery brass bands, as well as what sounded like tips of the hat to Public Enemy, Sinatra and Van Morrison. He also added psychedelic flourishes, looted with elan, from a range of sources (be they worldbeat, Eurodance, the buccaneering edges of late-‘90s club culture, or acid-fuzzed corners of the Incredible String Band’s cottage). Unfortunately, 1999 wasn’t the best year for innovative eclectic-pop. However unfairly, Merz seemed to be at the tail end of a wave of experimentalists riding in Björk’s cooling wake. In the face of a much bigger wave of Latin disco and lighter entertainment, the hoped-for bigger hits didn’t happen for him. The album sold indifferently, the record deal foundered, and Merz walked. In music business terms that should have been the end of a familiar and often-repeated story. A&R takes a punt on something unusual; it rapidly runs out of steam; and the pet eccentric promptly drops back into obscurity, a footnote for geeks.

Merz (photo by Tabea Hubeli)

For Merz, in fact, all of this was simply one chapter of work; and it hadn’t even been the first chapter. Under his real name, Conrad Lambert, he’d been recording and releasing songs for over a decade before Many Weathers Apart broke cover. Even though that stage monicker turns out to have been a chance appropriation (rather than a nod to Kurt Schwitters), Merz had, from an early age, followed the connective prompts of a Bahá’í upbringing and a personal artistic bent (which had had him picking up the bagpipes as a first instrument at the age of six). His own restless nature spurred him on to early travelling, and would later drive the adult Conrad to make homes from town to town and from country to country. Ultimately, parting company with Sony and with an audience of turn-of-the-millennium hipsters just seems to have been another thing to shrug off. Merz had different things to do. Even if he didn’t quite know what they were yet. Then, as now, open possibilities beckoned… and security was a straitjacket.

As for the obscurity, that’s a matter of perspective. Merz seems to been quietly and steadily embraced by continental Europe (perhaps one of the reasons why he now makes his home in the Swiss Alps). His albums – including last year’s ‘Thinking Like A Mountain’ – are persistently and publically hailed across magazines and online review sites as the welcome surfacings of an inventive, tuneful and touching mind. If, in spite of this, he still remains cult it’s partly because it seems to suit him. Musically, he’s mellowed without slackening. As with Geddy Lee, what was once a strident corvine vocal has matured into a warmer, more human sound without losing its fundamental chirp. Across time he’s delivered songs which might only rarely touch the earth but which flutter and roost in stray corners of the mind for years; from the Northern-brass love-call of Lotus to the offset rhythms and flamenco fairing of Goodbye My Chimera, the melding of baroque harpsichord waltz and bubbling phuture-pop on Dangerous Heady Love Scheme, and the melding of Buckleylalia with blootering, breakneck industrial techno in the recent Ten Gorgeous Blocks.


At the core, today’s Merz is a roaming twenty-first century folk troubadour – centred around voice, a keyboard or laptop and a single fingerpicked guitar, making the most of both local ingredients and things intercepted en route. He’s based around instinctive heart rather than roots, and around spontaneous initiative rather than the solidity of tradition; spurred on by intuitive choices of collaborators, such as British electro-concrète producer Matthew Herbert. His current musical foil, wingman and licensed disruptor is Swiss drummer and sound artist Julian Sartorius, whom Merz met while recording his ‘No Compass Will Find Home’ album, and whom he subsequently allowed to strip out and repurpose his songs to form a further album’s-worth of startling drum-and-vocal renditions

As for his tours, they manage to be both quietly exhilarating and easy to miss. Ducking around and under the radar, they mount a clear challenge to the business of tired pop promotion. He seeks to make concerts – like live art works – unique and permanently memorable to the attendees, taking care over matters like time, place and involvement. In addition to fairly familiar arty venue types (picture galleries, music churches and house concerts), last year’s ‘In Intimate’ tour took in a village chapel, a working-men’s club and an Air Force Legion hall: even a cow barn, a Scottish castle, a yurt, a forest clearing, a railway arch, and a snooker club. This season’s tour isn’t quite as unusual, although it returns to a couple of In Intimate venues (in Middlesbrough and Oswestry). Elsewhere, Merz seems to have gone where he was invited… and made sure that it was either somewhere interesting or somewhere that strives (sprouting rock clubs in transient locations, or the sites of hopeful songwriter nights).

For many of the shows Merz will be playing as a duo alongside Julian Sartorius, who’ll also be playing a solo drumkit set to open the concert. On some evenings, support acts will be drawn from more straightforward singer-songwriter turf – in Hinckley, sixteen-year-old local open-mic promoter Megan Carlile; in Newcastle, local acoustic bard-of-observations Christopher Anderson; in Brighton, Hayley Ross (who leans towards a classic ‘70s style and expression but with a darker, cruel-hinting edge and occasional bursts of garage rock).


 
To counterbalance, at Oswestry support comes from the altogether stranger Sound Book Project, a sextet of multimedia artists and musicians (including a pair of Pram members) who use books as noisemakers and instruments – “wound, sprung, strummed, slapped and thrown” as well as being modified or miked-up – in an experimental, slightly fetishistic celebration of the sensuality of bound text as opposed to digital media, and the way in which sounds trigger memories and associations.

Similarly, the opening show at Middlesbrough’s MIMA is somewhat different from the others: it marks the closure of ‘When Now Becomes Then: Three Decades’, MIMA’s exhibition of the work of British abstract/gestural painter and printmaker Basil Beattie. Over two hours spread across the ground floor galleries, Merz will play songs from his repertoire which “allude to Beattie’s paintings both from a visual and spiritual point of view” and promises “a roving and impressionistic solo set.”
 

June 2016 – upcoming London experimental gigs – spiritual improv with Firefly at IKLECTIK (8th); electronic research-pop with ALMA, worriedaboutsatan, and Chagall at Whispers & Hurricanes (9th)

4 Jun

Here are a pair of imminent shows showcasing various directions in experimentation (from spiritual politics and improvisation to pop soundscaping and music technology) at two of London’s most undersung but exciting current venues.

* * * * * * * *

Firefly, 8th June 2016

IKLECTIK Arts Lab presents:
Firefly
IKLECTIK, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, Waterloo, London, SE1 7LG, England
Wednesday 8 June 2016, 8.00pm
more information

Firefly is an improvising project led by Barcelona-born singer Cristina Carrasco, whose past work includes jazz, rock, soul and bossa nova. For the past five years Cristina has been working in free improvisation and experimental sound (she’s a recent alumnus of Cleveland WatkissStardust People’s Choir project, and also studied with voice improvisers Víctor Turull and Inés Lolago) and aims to combine this work with her other career in community arts and education, working towards promoting “equality and social integration, prioritising the idea of music and its benefits as a main element to heal any kind of society.

Cristina describes ‘Firefly’ as “a tribute to the surrender of human capacity. When we connect with our inner sound we are part of the universal vibration, we are in the present moment opening new channels of communication and creating expression. So, welcome to a free improvisation and experimental sound trip, where our soul leads the musical journey.” For this Firefly evening, Cristina will be joined by composer and broadcaster Daniel James Ross (Roddart, Mega Trio, ‘Beethoven Was Wrong‘) on electronics, former Goldie collaborator Justina “J Eye” Curtis on piano, and the remarkable arts-and-culture polymath Ansuman Biswas on percussion.

No soundclips for this one – you’ll just have to guess and attend…

* * * * * * * *


Chaos Theory Promotions presents: present:
Whispers & Hurricanes: Alma + worriedaboutsatan + Chagall
New River Studios, 199 Eade Road, Manor House, London, N4 1DN, England
Thursday 9th June 2016, 7.30pm
more information

Whispers & Hurricanes, 9th June 2016“We take our night of weirdly wonderful new downtempo sounds to one of London’s best new artist community venues, New River Studios. This month sees artists blending electronic production, post-rock and brand new technology.

“Alternative post-rock/pop duo ALMA – a project from Codes In The Clouds members Pete Lambrou and Ciaran Morahan (the former also of Monsters Build Mean Robots) – deploy a loop station, multiple delay pedals, a piano and strings to create a slow-moving, high-flying soundscape of luscious gravitas. Their sound has grasped the heartstrings of many, and led to them recently completing an extremely successful UK tour with Nordic Giants as well as a slot at Mutations Festival alongside Lightning Bolt, Metz, John Talabot and Chelsea Wolfe. At this gig, they’ll be launching their new double A-side single The Lighthouse/While Nothing, featuring remixes by maybeshewill and Message To Bears.



 
worriedaboutsatan are a Manchester-based electronica band made up of Thomas Ragsdale and Gavin Miller (also known for their other project Ghosting Season). They incorporate swirling ambient melancholia, skyscraping post-rock guitar atmospherics, dark house and pounding slo-mo techno. Since starting life as a bedroom project back in 2006, the band has always retained a strong DIY ethos, and pride themselves on being very much a live band, rather than just another electronic project with a laptop. They’ve so far shared stages on tours and supports with a diverse array of musicians, such as Ólafur Arnalds, Clark, Dälek, Apparat, Errors, Pantha du Prince, HEALTH, Vessels, and many more.


 
Chagall (Chagall van den Berg) is a multimedia vocalist, songwriter and producer from Amsterdam. Singing live, she creates and triggers her rich electronic production, vocal effects and visuals by moving, bending and swaying her mi.mu gloves – wearable “gestural” technology developed with a team including Imogen Heap). Having spent some time on Universal/EMI’s roster, Chagall decided to quit the major label life and now prefers to make her way through Europe’s independent and underground music scene. Her live performance is unlike anything you’ll have witnessed.”


 

REVIEW – Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’ album, 2013 (“a kind of philosophical haunting”)

20 Jul

Érick d'Orion: ‘Koursk’

Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it from:
Bandcamp

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

REVIEW – Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’ albums, 2002 (“a game of reverse-chicken… impressive and utter liquefaction”)

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

The second part in Darkroom’s ‘Fallout’ trilogy ( a set of interwoven concert travelogues) sees the unorthodox dark-ambient trio shrink to fit circumstances: recorded over the course of four gigs in Cambridge between spring 2000 and spring 2001, ‘Fallout 2’ records their first period of work as a duo. With singer Tim Bowness temporarily absent from the group, the five lengthy live tracks see Darkroom’s sound now built up entirely from Andrew Ostler’s infinitely malleable, polluted volume of electronic sounds and Michael Bearpark’s massed, heaven-and-hell loop guitars.

Subtracting the singer should have meant removing the human face from Darkroom’s activities. It should have forced their music – which was already suffused with hanging menace, dense atmospherics and chaotic leanings – further down the road to alienation. In fact, the opposite is true. Minus those fragmentary Bowness sighs, whispers and melodic wails, Darkroom do relinquish part of their edge of romance and distress. But they also dispense with the intimations of human disintegration, morbidity and panic which Tim’s beautifully tortured vocal tones brought to the project.

In his absence, Darkroom is able to relax and experiment with a two-way balance instead of the three-way teeter they’d thrived on previously. Os and Michael sit back and play off each other – not in unison, but in a dialogue of occasional crossings and of deceptive, mock-disengaged responses. As with ‘Fallout One‘, the two-man Darkroom continue to embrace instinctive wandering noise-stews rather than art-rock discipline.

For this album, at least, these are gentler brews: one even begins with a serene duet of heaven-scented loop guitar and a windblown squiggle of pink noise, rather than the warning tones of before. Released from some of his duties as textural foil to Tim, it’s Michael who now gives the music its anchors: cyclic calling phrases, humming confections of layered Frippertronic-like loops, space-echoed licks, sometimes a sound like someone wrenching their way out of a giant metal tank. Os – as usual – takes responsible for most of the layers of sonic detail and for the most drastic directional shifts within Darkroom’s ever-restless improvisations.

Os’ increasing plunderphonic tendencies (linking and threading pieces with snippets of international radio conversation, Cambridge choristers or muezzin calls) prove that behind his responsibilities for the main body of Darkroom’s sound, he’s also the joker in the pack, dialling up effects and textures from a vast trick-bag of electronic sounds which he then sloshes across the speakers and leaves to evolve. His rhythms, too, betray a sense of cool, amused mischief. He’ll stitch in trails of techno beats, or hijack a piece five-and-a-half minutes in with jazzy cymbals and toms drenched in flapping dub treatments. He’ll even drop in the occasional comedy drum-wallop to accompany some blooping synth sounds he appears to have stolen off a kiddy-ride in a shopping center. Inscrutable humour aside, Os also assembles a remarkable variety of more solid elements to flesh out Darkroom’s randomness: imposing psychedelic cadences, static veils and suggestive electrophonic shapes.

Though Michael Bearpark’s playing still owes a debt to Robert Fripp (via his “Bearatronics” loops and his occasional digressions into trumpet-guitar), he’s far less formally-minded. While you could also draw parallels to the mangled roots sounds used by David Torn, Michael is a far more reticent, distant and watchful guitarist: less flamboyant, but similarly eclectic. Across the album, he comes up with the kind of junkyard guitar that Marc Ribot would be proud of; or treats us to yanks and scrabbles of twanging guitar in the vein of Henry Kaiser or Fred Frith. He unwinds collapsing, Spanish-guitar-style electric rolls; or feeds in the Bill Frisell-influenced ghost-country minimalism that he’s increasingly stamped onto Darkroom music. Os responds with gusty, gauzy swirls of noise, or busies himself chopping up the sound even as Michael enriches it.

It’s co-operation of a kind, I suppose. Sometimes the Bearpark/Os interplay is gloriously subtle. More often, they’re engaged in a game of reverse-chicken in which they seem to be seeing just how far they can wander from each other’s playing before Darkroom collapses, adding a kind of free-jazz risk to the elements of illbience, Krautrock and musique concrete that already flourish in the group’s sound. Darkroom’s apparent abstract shapelessness (more accurately their indifference to, and boredom with, the monotonous formality of much electronic music) seems to put a lot of people off. However, their loosely-knit and liberated music still has few rivals or peers in electronica.

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

Tim Bowness returns for ‘Fallout 3’ which at first listen sounds as if it could be pegged as the kinder, gentler Darkroom. This seems an unlikely label. Nonetheless, the album initially seems something of a let-up from Darkroom’s unsettling dark-ambient explorations.

As the group’s main studio-flexer, Os exerts most of the active control over the emerging music. On this occasion, he does this by taking more of those Darkroom live recordings and drastically remixing them. Drawn from two of the mid-2000 Cambridge gigs which initiated ‘Fallout 2’ (plus four other gigs between 1999 and 2000 in Cambridge and London), ‘Fallout 3’ is tagged as “a celebration of the art of post-production” and compresses their rich, chaotic improvised sprawl into a thickening wall of noise. This is Darkroom as jelly, rather than their usual coils of prismatic vapour. In the process, it displays a side of the group which might appeal better to ambient-music aficionados and art/noise acolytes (those who’ve so far proved immune to, or unconscious of, Darkroom’s brooding wide-open power).

The art-rock richness of Tim’s keening, beautiful-agony vocal was previously something of a scene-stealer – especially when it reached heights of drama which recalled Peter Hammill at full tilt. This time it drifts faintly through the mix like a displaced ghost. Half-obscured, half-dreamy, its physical presence fades to a livid imprint. As for the industrial-melodic textures of Michael’s guitars (and his layered MiniDisc manipulations), these have sunk even deeper than before into the fabric of Darkroom sounds, as have most of the drum loops. The most audible Darkroom instrumentation to be heard on ‘Fallout 3’ is the humble studio fader and the reverb unit, teasing their way through the music and rebuilding detail.

Turned right down, ‘Fallout 3’ sounds like the smooth-peanut-butter option compared to the crunchier varieties of ‘Fallout One’ and ‘Fallout 2′. Turned up, though, the music piles upwards inexorably; like a thick fluid shot through with veins of displaced voices. Sometimes these voices belong to Tim, processed almost beyond recognition to become muttering crowds or alien choirboys. Sometimes they’re radio voices stroked out of the ether by Os’ continuing casual interest in plunderphonics. Those little instrumental dialogues and monologues that used to weave through Darkroom pieces have been melted down too. Everything played becomes food to feed this new amorphous monster.

The result is that, more than ever, Darkroom’s music has the amnesiac, dissolving qualities of oceans. Powerful and ever-massing, and strangely indifferent to the repercussions of its nature. The sound itself, for what it’s worth, is closer to dry land if perhaps not stable ground. That continuously-rumbling, near-geological depth of soundfield and the thick “angry-earth” quality to the sound brings this reinvented Darkroom closer to the relentless, tectonic grind of Robert Hampson’s dark-ambient process music in Main. Like Main’s, the pieces on ‘Fallout 3’ are much of a muchness. All are slightly differing curves on a line mostly heading in one direction, arcing beyond post-rock to the land of out-rock. There’s far less of the more identifiable tendencies of the past – nowhere near as much of that Fripp-&-Eno-swimming-in-Lee-Perry’s-galactic-fishtank feel. The always diffuse identities of the Darkroom players are now barely there at all. The music has turned them inside out.

Consequently this is seventy-five minutes of impressive and utter liquefaction that’s still– identifiably – Darkroom, and which also enables them to thumb an invisible nose at past accusations of formlessness. Even when their musical substance is reduced to something as intangible as this, Darkroom’s baleful and beautiful intent remains intact: a long way beyond the easy trance to which most electronic acts are finally reduced. Darkroom’s vision is still inexplicable and alien. It’s also still undeniable.

Neither kinder nor gentler, then. Just even more seductively suffocating and inscrutable.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’
Burning Shed (no catalogue numbers or barcodes)
CD-R/download albums
Released: 01 January 2002 (‘Fallout 2’) & 1st February 2002 (‘Fallout 3’)

Get them from:
Burning Shed (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘) or Bandcamp (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘)

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’ remix mini-album, 2013 (“unstitched, re-embroidered, re-folded”)

17 Mar
Lee Fletcher: 'The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes'

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’

‘Faith In Worthless Things’ was one of 2012’s surprise pleasures. Lee Fletcher’s debut album was the late-blossoming distillation of years of work as engineer and confidant to assorted art-rock musicians, and of even more years absorbing influences and refining them in a budding songwriter’s heart.

What emerged was a sleek, assured and finely-honed planned-patchwork of an album. It pulled in sounds from touch guitars, Uillean pipes, crunchy rhythm loops, ukeleles, powdered trumpets and silky synthesizers; it mused on betrayals, work, bewitchment and people in general; and it drew on a wide but surprising coherent blend of string-quartet chamber pop, soul and trip hop, 1970s Scott Walker, King Crimson-flavoured progressive rock, electronica and Anglo-folk.

While Lee’s firm and expansive vision gave the album both shape and finish, it was also very much a group effort, achieved hand in hand with his singer wife Lisa plus the chameleonic touch guitarist/soundscaper Markus Reuter and a small battalion of interested musicians from around the world. This short album of follow-up remixes keeps that spirit, with a couple of returning collaborators and new reinventors let loose on the tracks.

Only two songs from ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ make it to this particular phase. There’s the title track – originally a humble state-of-the-world address sung by Lisa but dispatched by Lee, people-watching at the railway station in his Devon hometown, and sampling a picture of humanity from its wandering fragments on an ordinary morning. There’s also The Inner Voice, in which Lisa soars on a rich carpet of soul-inspired smoothness; delicately and beadily picking apart matters of confidence and collaboration, while unhitching – scuffed, but quietly determined – from a dragging entanglement. The latter was the album’s obvious single, so it’s interesting to see three different remixers work three different shades of pop out of it.

Of these, Brazilian proggers-turned-clubbers Worldengine offer perhaps the most satisfying reinvention – a slink-and-roll electronica take full of whispering creep, voice fuzz and closed-eye pulse beats. The smooth soul of the original is pared back in favour of odd, gently challenging chording and textures: as if Lisa’s vocal line has been gently unwound from its original branch and wrapped carefully around a new one. Imagine what might happen if David Torn had as much pop clout as Madonna does, and you’ll have some idea of where Worldengine take this.

Two other remixers take The Inner Voice further out, but perhaps with less originality. The mix from German DJ Ingo Vogelmann battles and switches restlessly between its whispering electronic-ambient chamber intro, heavily synthesized cyberpop and a naked acoustic strum. The onetime 4hero cohort Branwen Somatik offers a similarly morphing dance switchback – initially a slightly dubby hip-hop take with an eerie twist, then a transformation to minimally-sheathed soul-pop, finally melting away in a dubby whisper of liquefying beats.

There are no fewer than six versions of Faith In Worthless Things, including a return for Ingo Vogelmann who offers a mix replete with Orb/Jean Michel Jarre-flavoured electronica (strong on the breezy minimalism, and dappled with bits of dub and techno). Adrian Benavides has honed himself an industrial pop version full of collapsing sheet metal and drill bits. Fabio Trentini provides an ambient pop take with an art-pop tweak – part Japan (if the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ era took precedence) and part Crafty Guitarist. Lee’s words and Lisa’s sweet-but-stately vocals sit, unfazed, in these new cradles.

Having said that, this particular song is less suited to being strapped into dance, and other approaches are preferable. Under his Hollowcreature alias, David Picking seems to realise this; he keeps and highlights the train-swish from the intro, brings Lee’s own warm and pleasant guide vocals to the forefront for half of the time, and comes up with a subtly dubby version of the song’s English pastoral feel. The latter quality is something which Tim Motzer appears to have picked up on too, as he moves Faith In Worthless Things into a more British progressive rock area. This he does via a number of changes – jazz vibraphone, the ghost of a hard-rock riff and eventually a build up into a Pink Floyd blaze replete with Gilmourian guitar. It seems obvious, but there’s some clever sleight-of-hand here: Lisa is metamorphosed cunningly by the new arrangement into a leathered-up rock goddess, all without a change to her vocal part.

Tobias Reber, on the other hand, manages to be both daring and successful in his own mix, taking an unexpected creative risk and pulling it off. He contributes the best of the remixes on offer, as well as the most original. His reconstructive take on the songs sees it unstitched and re-embroidered, re-folded. The song is re-imagined over an uneasy sea-roll of structure. New chording, constructed from the components of the original piece, produces a striking new perspective; a different place from which Lee, through Lisa, can watch the world and see its unsettling currents ripple past and under him.

Each remix, though, gently unbuttons ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ again and reminds us of that collaborative feeling which suffused it. The rolling and friction between Lee’s ideas and where his accomplished collaborators took them – a journey in motion.

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 5th February 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

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

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW: centrozoon: ‘Boner’ album, 2012 (“a palette of capriciously shifting noises and sonic pounces”)

24 Jun

Centrozoon: 'Boner'

Centrozoon: ‘Boner’

Testing to destruction. For some, this isn’t a harsh and necessary process, but a judicious way of life. For the floating, ever-mutating alliance of centrozoon (magisterial touch-guitarist Markus Reuter and synth-bumping/pad-thumping lateral thinker Bernard Wöstheinrich) it seems to be a shrug of nature. Either that, or a compulsion. As centrozoon add to their body of work over the years, they’ve studiously avoided clinging to previous methods. Instead, they function as a kind of art-rock Laputa – hovering briefly over various musical terrains, dropping down tendrils to slurp up flavours and approaches. Despite their bone-dry sense of humour, they’ve always remained a little detached and aloof.

At the same time, centrozoon are driven hard by cryptic fascinations of their own, including their vigorous collision of schooled technical approaches and wild, derailing instinct. Their music has always been bipolar and simultaneous. Crude synth presets are embedded into beautifully-fashioned electric textures; ravening, artful touch-guitar solos play off the blunt wallop of electric whack-pads. En route, centrozoon have explored majestic dark-ambient drift music, ridden the clattering back of gabba techno (while flaying it to within a microtonal inch of its life) and spent time as rhapsodic prog-inspired melody men. In the early 2000s, they borrowed the lissom voice and hooded lyrics of Tim Bowness (on furlough from No-Man) to slide smoothly into a song-driven world of art-pop. Equally smoothly, Markus and Bernhard subsequently hit the eject button in order to reform as an introverted chamber electronics duo. Every time centrozoon go public, they’re different. Every time they seem to settle on a final format, they discreetly blow it up and start again.

Ultimately, centrozoon navigate their increasingly risky game of de-build and re-build by trimming back everything that they’d otherwise need to defend. They explode their identities as musicians to become a diffuse spray of wandering cells. They reduce themselves, once again, to enigmatic minds on the prowl; and now they’ve delivered the most abstract and challenging record of their career.

Emerging after a period of diversion, scatter and relative silence, ‘Boner’ suggests that it’s becoming increasingly pointless to define centrozoon‘s work as a clear interplay of individuals. Instead, their work has become a kind of willing entanglement into which each man – somehow – disappears at full volume. Suitably, the contributions of the band’s current third man Tobias Reber are mostly sonic collage (drastic laptop sound-mangling, heavily processed field recordings, occasional blurts of absurdist lo-fi vocal). With both Markus and Bernhard now enthusiastically jumbling up their own sounds, the band creates an intense and murky improvised electrophonic soup – extreme, exaggerately processed and roaming balefully across unstable tonal centres. It’s both utterly fragmentary and utterly involved. If anything, those interim years spent on other projects have only added to the creative centrozoon seethe, bringing the musicians and sounds closer together.

Where ‘Boner’ stands in the wider scheme of music isn’t clear. Not jazz – there’s no swing here, few melodic rushes or pursuits of harmony, no acknowledgement of pop moves. Not ambient as such – despite the atmospheric swishes of sustained texture, there’s little solid order and continuance, and precious little commitment to minimalism. Something in the drive and stance of the music links it to the far fringes of experimental rock. If so, it’s clinging on by a fingernail.

These new, uncomfortable compositions hang in the air like spasming irises or like nested Venetian blinds: multi-layered, periodically flexing open and shut to reveal new textures and patterns. Ever restless, centrozoon shuffle each and every one of these layers, flying in further sound-fields in the blink of an eye. A dribble of coffee-maker noise jump-cuts to a rumble of bass strings. A radiophonic pot-swoop is overwhelmed by a ringing metallic chord or an imperative percussion thump. In the arrhythmic wander of La Waltz of Kirk, hints of Zawinul tropicalia well through the gaps. On Cervus, ominous and dissonant passages in a classical-minor form recur first as vaporous synth pads, then as overdriven bassy touch-guitar lines.

You could try to cite assorted chaotic improvisers, plunderphonic artists and mixing-desk contrarians as close cousins to this music. However, what remains clearest (most evidently on the rumbles, quick body-blows and Mellotron hangings of Knock Outs) is centrozoon‘s familial relationship with King Crimson. More particularly, with that band’s most left-field improvisations – the atonal busyness of the ProjeKCts; the poly-everything lurch and creak of the ’90s Double Trio (spattering pulped MIDI all over the stage on ‘THRaKaTTak’) and the spidery skitter of ‘Starless and Bible Black’. The post-modern stomp of Markus’ work with another Crimson spin-off – Tuner – is also present. Both Tuner and ‘Boner’ share a hypnotic mixture of harshness and disorientation; an over-arching, out-of-focus beauty; and a grate-and-chop, channel-surfing mixture of signals to pour into your ears. Like Crimson, centrozoon also possess a rigid skeleton of stateliness which glides serenely through even their most chaotic improvised scrambles.

While attempting to make sense of this scattered map, it’s equally important to point out that centrozoon are also exploding the idea of what a commercial music album ought to be. Generally, such things are self-contained musical statements – linked to a point in time, a specific intent and a clearly-defined sales package. In making ‘Boner’, the band embraced as many constructive (and deconstructive) possibilities of chance, reinterpretation and creative dissension as they could. Hundreds of initial hours of free trio improvisation were cut and pasted into new compositions; then a third layer of process was added via two outside remixers, each of whom independently cloned and mixed down the finished sessions.

The result is two twinned but different takes on the final album, with different mixes and track sequences (the Marziano Fontana version emphasising those dramatic cuts and layering, the Adrian Benavides mix more spacious, smooth and chilly). Additionally, centrozoon sell ‘Boner’ in a bewildering variety of packages (via its “Bonestarter” campaign), with diverse extras plugging into the deal like bonus phone apps. Options now include one or both album versions; further choices of formats and downloads; signatures; custom clothing; original artwork; even personal access via one-to-one conversations or touch-guitar lessons.

It’s not that these moves, in themselves, are new. Alternate mixes and reinventions are commonplace, and compositions via mixing desk and improv have been around at least since Zappa. Jane Siberry has offered special-purchase deals with souvenirs and judicious personal access for years. What is new is centrozoon‘s audacity in coupling all of this to such a demanding, avant-garde musical package.

Even without the bonuses, ‘Boner’ may prove to be an incomprehensible palimpsest for many listeners – a palette of capriciously shifting noises and sonic pounces. For others, these same qualities will be a selling point. With colossal chutzpah and confidence – and a disregard of risk – centrozoon are selling the album with all of the confidence of arena rockers touting a singalong blockbuster. Bold, yes – and also pretty funny.

But ultimately, buying one of these bonus-laden ‘Boner’ arrays is rather more significant than buying a box-set edition of a rock album. Those who go for the full-deal set of clothing, decoration and tuition won’t just be grabbing nick-nacks, but buying into a whole centrozoon artistic method: effectively, into a way of life. As a consumer, how can you be sure that you truly own and understand the bewilderments of ‘Boner’ unless you have the Grand Deal with all of the trappings and the chance to press flesh with its creators? Alternatively: if you just own your preferred single recording of ‘Boner’, have you identified its core source, and swept aside all of those commercial refractions; all of those fetish fruits to sweeten the pill?

All of this casts up more questions than answers… as does the album itself. Those who don’t want to embrace the whole Bonestarter frenzy (and ultimately, even those who do) will ultimately find that their involvement will boil down to whether or not they find ‘Boner’s relentlessly abstract, unaccommodating music worth the investment.

Cautiously, I’d say that it is… although I’d add the warning that this music will never be quite what you expect it to be, or what you try to force it to be. Material of this nature is tough to understand, as such – you need to intuit instead, working your way into it. As you’ve seen, ‘Boner’ has already spun over a thousand analytical words out of me as I try to get to grips with its multiple paths and detonated form. Yet my primary reaction to the album is visceral and instinctive.

Beyond the chopped-up structures and the modular marketing, I’m listening to a trio persistently and inexorably falling into the realms of utter abstraction, only to pull themselves back out by their fierce musicality as players and editors. What I’m hearing through the hundreds of shifts and swaps is their determination to plot a course through this humming chaos. The cautious and catlike way in which they place their feet, while otherwise convulsing their music so utterly. The manner in which they orbit and flirt with musical collapse, like a capsule orbiting a threatening black hole.

It’s these things that I remember, past the sing-song AutoTuned rants in Bright Meowing and Smoked Info Monster; past the pocket-calculator seizures of Weak Spelling; even past the jigsaw-puzzle Bonestarter sale of mixed music, time and trophies. It’s this determination that links those fleeting glimpses – around jump-cut corners – of fingers hammering down on strings, keys and mouse buttons before vanishing into the edit.

centrozoon: ‘Boner’
Unsung Records,
CD/download album (plus assorted packages)
Released: 9th May 2012

Buy it from:
Centrozoon directly (includes various Bonestarter packages as mentioned in review), Burning Shed or Bandcamp

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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