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November 2019 – three Tuesdays of (mostly) femmetronica in London – Alice Hubble, Blick Trio and Merlin Nova (5th November), Carla dal Forno and Cucina Povera (12th November), Rachel K. Collier (19th November)

2 Nov

Following (and overlapping) the recent/current set of female poptronic gigs in London (with Caroline Polachek, Imogen Heap, Yeule and others), here are some more.

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Alice Hubble + Blick Trio + Merlin Nova, 5th November 2019

Alice Hubble (best known as half of tweetronic duo Arthur & Martha) has been striking out on her own this year and is playing at Servant Jazz Quarters on the 5th. Her debut album ‘Polarlichter’, driven by iPad workings on long journeys and transformed at home via Mellotrons and analogue synths, apparently stems from wistful envisionings of faraway places (including Ruby Falls in Chatanooga, USA, Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies and Dubai’s Atlantis Palm hotel) plus “a desire to work on a project without constraints, to move away from the traditional song writing process and to experiment with the form. Inspired by the ’70s recordings by Tangerine Dream, Ashra and even Mike Oldfield, Alice wanted to take a more delicate approach; a distinctly feminine take on (an) often pompous ’70s progressive synth sound. Other inspirations include Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Lee Hazlewood’s Swedish recordings and 80’s American synth pop band The Book of Love.”

A good set of reference points, although if you are going to snark about the pomposity of your male predecessors it’s best if you’ve built something startlingly different. Much of Alice’s work still cleaves rather closely to those familiar silvery Germanic/kosmische synth tropes, the cautiousness of several generations of post-Tangerine Dream acolytes, albeit with twists of post-punk melancholy and Stereolab-ilk avant-pop.

As for the femininity, it’s present mostly in the preoccupations of Alice’s lyrics, such as the stern reflections on male gaze and pedestal-placing on ‘Goddess’ (“a man idolising a woman to the point that he doesn’t see her as a person. His ‘love’ is all consuming and the focus of his affection is seen merely as an object. As a result he consumes her and takes from her until she has little left, but thankfully she finds the inner strength to walk away.”). All well and good to state; but, given that the song’s mostly concerned with climbing inside its misguided protagonist in order to critique him from within, leaving the woman in question almost as enigmatic, idealised and unexamined as he did, I’m not altogether convinced. But perhaps I’m snarking now – either way, I can’t help but feel that there’s better to come. Alice has a quiet, determined voice: maybe, at the gig, we’ll find out what else it has to say.


 
Support comes in two parts, one being from jazztronic array Blick Trio, made up of veteran polymathic brass-and-wind-player Robin Blick (from the sprawling Blick/Blake musical dynasty that also includes Mediaeval Baebes’ Katherine Blake), drummer Andrew Moran (who’s put in time in groups including The Violets and Not Cool) and bass player/synth programmer James Weaver (who already plays with Robin in Gyratory System). Prior to Gyratory System, Robin was also in Blowpipe; with both these and the Trio, he’s been building jazz/clubtronic/kosmiche meldings for a good couple of decades. The Trio, however, lean more towards “post-punk rhythms and straight jazz melodies” than the club beats and electrofuzz racket of the previous acts; with Robin’s musicality and wide genre-savviness in particular calling up aural and harmonic/melodic imagery from riffling snake-charmer music to pithead brass band melancholia.


 
The other support act is Merlin Nova, who vigorously straddles the space between musician and sound artist. Too tuneful to work consistently in the latter mode, and too flat-out sonically ambitious and diverse to be restrained by the former, she instead works both of them to the bone. She creates, records and broadcasts whatever comes to her mind, whether it’s surreal foley-bolstered persona narratives, soundscaped poetry or unorthodox fragmented songs across a vocal range from femme-baritone to skyscraping whistle register.

Merlin’s most recent pair of Soundcloud offerings illustrate her restlessness. Just Calling is one of her most straightforward works (a vocal and reverbscape’d love-song of faith, degrees of separation, faith and independence), while To The Sun is a drone-strings-and-vocalise solar prayer half an hour long, equal parts Alquimia and Sofia Gubaidulina. There’s plenty more to find there, evidence of an ambitious sound creator who’s tapping at the heels of multiple precursors… Ursula Dudziak, Cathy Berberian, outer-limits Björk, Maja Ratkje…

 
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Carla Dal Forno + Cucina Povera, 12th November 2019On the 12th, left-field synthpop writer Carla Dal Forno comes to Electrowerks trailing her newest album ‘Look Sharp’, in which “the small-town dreams and inertia that preoccupied (her) first album have dissolved into the chaotic city, its shifting identities, far-flung surroundings and blank faces”, thanks to her wanderings from her Melbourne origins to London via Berlin, telling “the story of this life in flux, longing for intimacy, falling short and embracing the unfamiliar.”

Sonically it’s frowning post-punk basslines and pearly sheens around subtle hollows; occasional touches of plainsong; arrangements stroked into shape by psychedelic-via-radiophonic synthesizer bends, swoops and flutters – a big step up from the queasy lo-fi wobble of her debut. As with Alice Hubble, Carla rarely changes tone vocally, etching momentary stories of subtle revenges, covert assignations and bleak reflectiveness with the same abbreviated unruffled whispercroon; delivering songs with the crisp, faux-reticent undertones and hardnosed observation of a finishing-school ace who’s opted to spend the rest of her life speaking softly but carrying a sharp hatpin. Simultaneously minimalist and expansive, sensual and austere, revealing and forbidding, the songs of ‘Look Sharp’ are measured diary entries enclosed in dove-grey leather, giving away little but hinting at much more. It’s as if one of the early versions of the Cure had agreed to back Jean Rhys during a venture into confessional songcraft, with Delia Derbyshire adding sonic filigrees.


 
The whole record sounds attractively antiquated. Not in terms of its harking back to early ‘80s proto-Goth, but in the way it feels as if it’s been written for (and in) a monochrome London of the 1930s: sparser crowds, the hiss of steam trains and the rattle of heels in empty housing courts. In fact, ‘Look Sharp’ functions best when Carla relinquishes the more obvious darkwave thrumbles, loses the bass and trusts to her electrophonic textures and spaces. This lends the instrumentals a touch of 5am light, an air of sneaking out into an unfamiliar town while it’s still slumbering unguarded, with a dream-frown shadowing its features. For songs such as Don’t Follow Me (with its deepening undertone of sexual threat), it allows a more sophisticated atmosphere to build, sound becoming character in the way that scenery and lighting do in film.


 
In support, there’s electronicist, live-looper and spatial explorer Maria Rossi – a.k.a Cucina Povera. As anyone who’s covered Maria before will tell you, “cucina povera” translates as “poor kitchen” – like “poor theatre”, a way of making the most of minimal ingredients and lean times: indeed, of making a virtue of the enforced simplicity, to the point of deliberately choosing it. Maria’s most recent project – ‘Zoom’, released back in January – had her strip back her already-minimal gear choices to just voice and loop pedal plus the digital recorder which gave the record its name: bar the very occasional bit of huffed or clinked bottlework, or synth bloop, that was it.

Last year’s ‘Hilja’ album applied the Cucina Povera methodology to a gaseous, beatless, haunting form of ambient art pop. It was full of folk-ghosts in the machine, bringing along hints of the ecclesiastic, of children’s songs and of traditional song fragments, much of it pillowed on vaporous keyboard textures and meticulous arrangements. In contrast, the Zoom pieces were recorded in “intimate spaces full of acoustic or ideological intrigue” and were a set of impromptu, improvised rituals-for-their-own-sake. Sometimes gabbled, frequently hymnal and monastic, blurring between established language and glossolalia, they build on the mysteriousness of ‘Hilja’ while venturing into more musically naked areas, taking from the previous album’s most cut-down moments without falling back on its cloudy synth-padded comforts or its pleasing banks of harmony.

Whether these pieces can be transported, translated and performed afresh in other locations is not so clear. Perhaps, for Electrowerks, Maria will improvise a new set in honour of the Slimelight’s fallen ghosts.



 
Also stirred into the evening’s menu will be a DJ set from darker techno/DIY/industrial specialist Kenny White of the Low Company record store.

 
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At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a splash of raucous female colour. Riding the momentum from the release of her debut album last month (if you’re a budding remixer or mash-upper, Bandcamp has it complete with sample and stem packs), Rachel K. Collier plays the Grand in Highbury in mid-November, with live percussion and interactive visuals augmenting her storm of sequencers, keyboards and Abletoning. Her house-inspired, undulating electronic club pop has been evolving over six years or so now, including bold intrusions into the world of adverts, collaborations with garage/house stars Wookie, Mat Zo and Ray Foxx, and more recently her current fearless-sounding solo work.

Rachel K. Collier - 19th November 2019

It’s a powerfully assured and complete pop sound, fusing full dancefloor momentum with righteous girl-power; although one that’s been achieved in the face of considerable bullying, scorn and condescension along the way from male musicians. (If the fuck-you beat and withering dismissal in her Dinosaur single is anything to go by. You can’t say that she didn’t get her own back. Success is the best revenge.)




 
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Dates:

Parallel Lines presents:
Alice Hubble + Blick Trio & Merlin Nova
Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England
Tuesday 5th November 2019, 7.30pm
– information here, here and here

Upset The Rhythm presents:
Carla dal Forno + Cucina Povera
Electrowerkz @ The Islington Metal Works, 1st Floor, 7 Torrens Street, Islington, London, EC1V 1NQ, England
Tuesday 12th November 2019, 7.30pm
– information here and here

Rachel K Collier
The Grace, 20-22 Highbury Corner, Highbury, London, N5 1RD, England
Tuesday 19th November 2019, 7.00pm
– information here, here and here
 

February 2019 – upcoming London classical gigs plus previews – Edmund Finnis premieres new piano trio on Britten Sinfonia English mini-tour (12th,13th, 15th February) – plus looks at Edmund’s imminent ‘The Air, Turning’ album and Markus Reuter’s imminent ‘Heartland’ album

8 Feb

A new Edmund Finnis composition is doing the rounds on a Britten Sinfonia micro-tour next week, taking in concerts in Cambridge, London and Norwich. The piece is a piano trio nestled in amongst a programme of compositions which examine chamber music’s historical connection to, and evolution from, Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1. Starting with this sonata, the concert progresses through Leoš Janáček’ ‘Pohádka’ and Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Le merle noir’, with the piano trio then preceding a performance of Bohuslav Martinů’s ‘Sonata for flute, violin and piano’. The performers are flautist Emer McDonough, violinist Thomas Gould, cellist Caroline Dearnley and pianist Huw Watkins.

I can’t find a title – or indeed, much more context and background – for the piano trio beyond this, although all will probably be revealed at the time. At the London date, Edmund’s also providing more details in a ticketed public talk with Dr Kate Kennedy before the concert begins. I’ve previously noted his compositional style as “flow(ing) from the luminously minimal to frenetically eerie orchestral jousts”, so he should have plenty to talk about.

Britten Sinfonia: At Lunch 2 2018-2019 – Bach, Janácek, Messiaen, Finnis and Martinu

  • West Road Concert Hall, 11 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP, England – Monday 12th February 2019, 1.00pm – information here, here, here and here
  • Wigmore Hall, 36 Wigmore Street, Marylebone, London, W1U 2BP, England – Wednesday 13th February 2019, 1.00pm
    – information here, here and here (Edmund Finnis in conversation with Dr Kate Kennedy, 12.15pm – free event – information here)
  • St Andrew’s Hall @ The Halls, St Andrew’s Plain, Norwich, NR3 1AU, England – Friday 15th February 2019, 1.00pm – information here, here and here

Edmund Finnis: 'The Air, Turning'

Edmund Finnis: ‘The Air, Turning’

Meanwhile, the first recorded collection of Edmund’s compositions – ‘The Air, Turning’, which has been six years in the making – is out on 9th February on NMC Recordings. Besides the sensual title composition (an orchestral work inspired by the concept of how music’s sound vibrations thrum and manipulate the atmosphere around us), it includes five other Finnis works. There’s the slow-ringing string orchestra piece ‘Between Rain’ (as performed at the Roundhouse and at ‘Organ Reframed‘ in 2016); the crepuscular, haunting ‘Shades Lengthen’ violin concerto; the blossoming ensemble work ‘Parallel Colour’ (in which clarinet, piano, strings and percussion drip and swell like heavy dew in an unexpected spot of bluster) and his ‘Four Duets’ for clarinet and piano.

Players include the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the London Contemporary Orchestra, violinist Eloisa-Fleur Thom and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. The more electronic/electrophonic side of Edmund’s work isn’t really present (for a few examples of that, visit his Soundcloud page), but it’s nodded to via the violin-plus-reverb concert hall piece ‘Elsewhere’ (which was touched on in here around two years ago when I plugged its second ever performance by Daniel Pioro). All in all, it’s exciting music – simultaneously translucent, muscular and subtly cerebral, with a rare quality of mystique and engagement.


 
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Seeing that I’ve drawn myself into writing about Edmund’s album, I’ll add something about Markus Reuter’s upcoming string quartet project ‘Heartland’. This isn’t out on record for a couple of months but has just begun to tease on Bandcamp, although Markus was good enough to send me the whole recording this week to listen to. This isn’t the first time Markus has created music which has disengaged from his usual electrophonic world of direct sound-processing and touch guitar, or in which he hasn’t felt the requirement to be present as performer. That would have been the orchestral version of ‘Todmorden 513’ a few years ago: a dense slowly-evolving soundpool built from algorithmic processes, assuming a vast, eerie and slightly melancholic ritual character to overlay its logical progression.

Markus Reuter, 2017 (photo © Dutch Rall)

Markus Reuter, 2017 (photo © Dutch Rall)

Across the sixty minutes and eight sections of ‘Heartland’, algorithmic processes are once again the driving engines: mathematics lurk within the extended composition, with fractals, magic squares, and other numerical devices defining its elegant form. The piece, however (beautifully recorded in Berlin’s Kirche Zum Heiligen Kreuz, Berlin last October by the Matangi Quartet) brings more to the listener than an appreciation of structures. Beyond the initial brain-tickle, it seems that different listeners are inspired into different psychoactive responses. Active voyages of discovery seem to be a common theme. Various sleevenote contributors compare the journey through ‘Heartland’ to a Jungian river-ride through the collective subconscious, or to a Kubrickian Star Gate trip; while in the teaser video, Matangi violinist Maria-Paula Majoor appreciates the essential character of ‘Heartland’ as being “contemplative, maybe, (but) not very sure… I like that, in music… I think it’s nice to feel there is a doubt…that also gives the space for interpretation, and also for the listener to create (their) own interpretation”, and cellist Arno van der Vuurst comments that the music seems to be “searching for something”.


 
On a superficial level, ‘Heartland’ sometimes also suggests a bridge between the technical perfection of Bach baroque and the programmatic patterning of New York minimalism. It’s true that that particular bridge has already taken some heavy traffic, and from many different composers; but in Markus’ case he seems to have built his own separate bridge across the same river, and it’s only a part of the architecture and living space which the piece enables – it’s by no means its raison d’être. For initial promotion, Markus has mostly restricted himself to talking about translating processes into music, and about how his algorithmic/fractal note rows (and what progresses from them) work like carefully decorated modes or ragas; but the twinkle in his eyes suggests more. On the literary side, there are explicit references to Scarlett Thomas, short stories and sad goodbyes, and implicit ones to Thomas Mann: Markus also talks about “music that is there already and only needs to be uncovered”, and he’s clearly revelling in his opportunity to go wherever he wants and that “people want to be surprised, and they kind of like the fact that I’m an explorer.”

Matangi Quartet: 'Markus Reuter: String Quartet No. 1 'Heartland''

Matangi Quartet: ‘Markus Reuter: String Quartet No. 1 ‘Heartland”

Due to my own circumstances, I often find that I have to run much of my music-listening time in parallel with entirely unassociated work time. In some cases this works fine: the higher levels of my brain are usually bored with lying fallow while other tasks have to be done, and the business of processing and appreciating music occupies brain space which would otherwise make me rattle and rebel. However, I do find that certain kinds of music are tougher to listen to. Much of contemporary classical music is too immediately information-dense, too neurotically intellectual – and, in a strange way, simultaneously too directly assertive and too demandingly needy for to be able to split my attention while listening to it. (Oddly enough, I have a similar response to hip hop).

‘Heartland’ is certainly full of coding, but when I ran it through the mill of listening necessity I’ve described above – while concentrating fiercely on a pile up of day-job things which needed to be fixed – I found that it also had surprisingly calming qualities. In particular, it had qualities of order – as if the pulse and pitching of the music was putting things right without relying on the usual structural/dramatic clichés to which I respond. While ‘Heartland’ is full of detail and mechanism, and while Markus is particularly open about that, much of its devicery is camouflaged: the piece does not anxiously assert its complexity and importance. Instead, I found it subtle and confident in its own intelligence, like the workings of a brain; not the chaotic, nervy dramatisation of an unbalanced mind, but something more Apollonian, with a matter-of-fact humanity. On this particular pass I didn’t feel skilled enough to analyse everything in it, but from the off I felt the structures and the processes… and also felt that I was somehow sharing in them.

This might not be a purely rational conclusion (and a different week might produce a different flexion of the imagination) but for now I’m sticking to it. Perhaps, beyond its number processes, ‘Heartland’ is a self-contained flexible map for an inner journey; perhaps, for me, it works as a set of complex mental debugging routines generated and given impetus by the chug of bow on string and the singing self-contained musicality that’s propelled string quartets in common for three centuries (and which has built a proportion of my own responses for about a sixth of that time). To these ears, this mind, ‘Heartland’ is a generous piece. It inspires a kind of serenity, even a kind of hope.

‘Heartland’ is out on Solaire Records on 12th April, and can be pre-ordered here and here.


 

March 2016 – upcoming gigs – London murk and sarcasm – an industry-baiting evening of 30-second songs by the Pocket Gods and mystery buddies; plus noise rock from Arabrot, Shitwife and Godzilla Black at Corsica Studios

15 Mar

Two London gigs for Thursday…

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Pocket Gods @ Zigfrid von Underbelly, 17th March 2016

The Pocket Gods (’30 Second Song Set’) + tbc
Zigfrid von Underbelly, 11 Hoxton Square, Hoxton, London, N1 6NU, England
Thursday 17th March 2016, 7.00pm
– free event – more information

Here’s the chirp – ”London lo-fi indie popsters The Pocket Gods play a free St Patrick’s Day gig in Hoxton, London to promote their groundbreaking album ‘100×30’ – which features one hundred songs, all of which are thirty seconds long and some of which will be featured. Free entry and some great support bands!“

Sweet, isn’t it?

Here’s the rest of the story.

‘100×30’ was released last December. It’s a sharp, timely yet self-mocking broadside aimed at the music industry as a whole, and also at the amorphous greed’n’gratification culture that’s gulping down what remains of it. Masterminding this collection of half-minute jabs are The Pocket Gods – shabby knowing masters of multiple styles, mix’n’matching shreds of chart pop, punk, synth-blurb, soggy psych and outright pisstakes (including Blur, and Dappy from N-Dubz). Sometimes they sound like a back-bedroom Zappa Band operating on cheapjack equipment from a small-town branch of Argos, and sometimes like a more eclectic Half Man Half Biscuit aiming more of their jokes at the towers of power.

Threaded through the whole album is a sense of indignation at the implosion of music as a workable career (“my royalty statement is a thing of wonder, and keeps me in a state of permanent hunger”) and the dismissal of artists who can no longer be counted as fresh and malleable meat. One lyric points out, with sardonic but righteous indignation, “I can write songs about anything, because I’ve lived a little longer”; and there’s quite a bit of moping about the prospect of a future which involves little more than making unwanted music on a laptop. Across the tracks, the subject matter paints a scathing, resolutely unimpressed picture of vulgarity and short-termisms. Songs attack the rent hikes which force music venue closures; lampoon the encroachment of multinational corporate interests into independent business (the entwinement of Orchard and Sony takes a pounding, which – since Orchard is releasing the album – is a particularly fanged move); and pour sarcasm onto side topics like the sorry parade of boss-pleasing reality-TV contestants, the cluelessness of A&R men and the ludicrous table prices at the Brits (apparent sideshows which point towards the bigger problem). The Gods even slag off laptop music and mount a harpsichord-driven assault on the memory of Steve Jobs. So much for the individual being independently empowered by technology.

With the proven flexibility of the Pocket Gods, it’s tempting to assume that the brace of performers elsewhere on the album are just pseudonyms. Not a bit of it. Some – including oddball pop mutterer Michael Panasuk and fuzz-guitar flourisher Brian Heywood – appear to be rogue film, television and library music composers. Two more are former chart stars (Owen Paul and Mungo Jerry’s Ray Dorset, each damn near unrecognisable).Some veer towards cabaret (the semi-genteel, character-vocalled acoustipop of The Low Countries) or sarky contrarian Scottish dolour (Bill Aitken). Others even sound like glossy successes in waiting, including power-popper Katy Thorn, gobby R&B-er Tricey R, immaculate faux-Californian rockers Dead Crow Road, countrified Elvis-alike Osborne Jones, twinkling white-boy hip hoppers Foxgrease and full-bore electropop drama queens Hands Of Industry. The burnished countrified chart-pop of Heywood Moore even sounds as if it could make a killing in the American Bible Belt (sweeping out of the same CCM radio playlists as the likes of Lexi Elisha – not bad for a band that’s actually from Dunstable). None of this seems to stop any of them from joining in. Some of them may be taking a long-delayed, heartfelt chomp at the hand that feeds so grudgingly, or refuses to feed at all; or which they see starving others, from audience to artist, both fiscally and spiritually.

Despite all of this justifiable resentment, it could all turn precious and self-righteous were it not for the jabs of anti-pomposity which the Gods and their friends turn in on themselves (the musician-skewering of ‘Small Town Musos’ and ‘Mac Book Ho’ made me laugh out loud, as did a song about the natural progression from ambitious Radio 1 listener to experienced Radio 2 couch-fogey). There are also the other moments – the flip side to the flipness – in which the half-minute song limit becomes a lesson in how much can be achieved in a short time. John Rowland’s plunderphonics and piano instrumentals; upROAR’s quick echo-laden harp passage, Orb collaborator Another Fine Day’s gorgeous burst of echo-soused kalimba; or when writer and narrator Michael Hingston (who’s already spent two tracks guesting with the Pocket Gods, bidding goodbye to the swelling ranks of closed-down London music venues in a hardbitten wise-barfly drawl) gently blows thirty seconds of tentative, unaccompanied saxophone.

Finally, there’s the persistent realist-absurdist wit of The Pocket Gods themselves – party hosts, project backbone and the only act formally confirmed as performing at the Hoxton gig on Thursday (yes, I was going to get back to that…) Come along to see who else makes it. Meanwhile, you can play through the whole album below; and even buy it (if you feel that that won’t somehow spoil either the joke or the protest).

 

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Baba Yaga’s Hut presents:
Arabrot + Shitwife + Godzilla Black
Corsica Studios, 4-5 Elephant Road, Elephant & Castle, London, SE17 1LB, England
Thursday 17th March 2016, 8.00pm
more information

Arabrot + Shitwife +Godzilla Black @ Baba Yaga's Hut, 17th March 2016Norwegian noise-rockers Arabrot have spent a decade and a half feeding classical, Biblical, existential and surreal tropes through a grand and gothic avant-rock mangle. As you can imagine from this, both their gigs and records have had an immediate raw-lifed, raw-liver feel to them, despite what ‘The Quietus’ describes as the band’s “velveteen grace”. More recently, group leader Kjetil Nernes spent two years recovering from throat cancer, during which he’s fought off and defeated encroaching death not just via hospital treatment and homestay but by hurling himself back into Arabrot recording and touring. Having admitted that the experience was “as close to real physical and psychological hell as you can go”, Kjetil has spun his reactions into Arabrot’s latest album, ‘The Gospel’, which is suffused with spectres of death, illness and his own defiance.

Shitwife have possibly the most discouraging band name in history – an evil grunt of a handle, a surly trucker’s growl of a monicker. We last encountered them in the listings for a Christmas gig, in which they were described as an “astonishingly brutal drums/laptop/electronics juggernaut fusing rave, death metal, noise and post-hardcore.” As far as I know, they’ve had no reason to mess with that formula in the intervening three months. Here’s a clip of them in action at a different gig last September (just a short walk away from ‘Misfit City’ HQ, not that I knew it) plus a more recent video showing laptop/keyscruncher Wayne Adams engaged in a painting session (and looking far sweeter than he ought to, given that his other band’s called Ladyscraper).


As I’ve said before, Godzilla Black seem to have made themselves into London noise-rock favourites while not actually having much to do with noise-rock at all. Most of the latter’s in the brawling muscle which they apply to their John-Barry-writes-for-Ruins-or-King-Crimson tunes; and in the garnish of hiss and fry lying on top of that muscle, adding a pitch and pinch of disintegration to their drums-and-horns pimp-roll. Otherwise what I’m hearing is spy-movie glamour all the way, albeit gone slightly weird: extra panicky descends and clangings, sax stranglebursts and sampler squeals. Brand new single ‘First Class Flesh’ sounds as if its about some kind of disassociative disorder: singer John McKenzie boggling, all glazed and juicy, about body parts but not actually about bodies (ending up neither sexy nor creepy, but away in a skewed and disfocussed branch-off of both).


 

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More March gig previews shortly…
 

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

18 Jan

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

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

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

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So… my 2014 as listener and attender, then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louis Barrabas plays Santa...

Louis Barrabas plays Santa…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* * * *

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

July 2014 – album reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘The Unravelling’ (“hurrying fearfully along the rim of a weakened dam”)

25 Jul
Knifeworld: 'The Unravelling'

Knifeworld: ‘The Unravelling’

You must have heard this one before. Alan Moore’s told a version, so has Groucho Marx. So have many others as the tale creeps down the years, gathering new clothes to wrap its bones in. Here’s another version.

One afternoon a doctor receives an unexpected patient – a middle-aged man, cheeks slack and jaw unshaven, creeping shyly into the consulting room where he sits, quivering, on the chair. His shoulders are hunched as if expecting a blow to fall. He wrings his battered hat in his hands and stammers that his world is imploding, that he feels that he cannot face a cruel present and uncertain future; that his body and mind are suffering and he doesn’t think that he can go on. The doctor is tempted to say “cheer up, it may never happen,” but restrains himself. It’s not purely out of professionalism – there’s something in his visitor’s muddy eyes that suggests that such flippancy would be more than cruel. Then the doctor has an idea. He puts on his most comforting, most reasonable voice. “What you need, my friend, is laughter. Here, I know the very thing for you. The great clown Grock is playing in town tonight – go and buy a ticket. He will make you forget your worries and your terrors.” The man says nothing for a moment, then, as he rises to leave, his eyes fill with terrible wounded tears. “But Doctor,” he stammers. “I am Grock…”

Chewing over this old chestnut has put me in mind of Knifeworld’s leader Kavus Torabi – a musician who’s spent years stuck fast in the guts of cult appeal but who’s suddenly starting to look a little ubiquitous. Steps upward via bigger cult bands (to Gong via Cardiacs and Mediaeval Babes) have helped him here. So, too, have his vigorous radio-show hostings and his eccentric, affectionate charm, belatedly recognised by a horde of magazines and webzines. So too, the frequency with which his lanky frame, explosive hairdo and glowing enthusiasm rock up at and around London gigs. By now, he’s well on his way to becoming a public personality – a vivacious, goofy, black-dandelion star with an infectious grin and throaty chuckle, whose career (to a new fan) would seem to have burst upwards in a series of random turns and innocent accidents.

The flipside of this is that he’s become something of a beloved clown, and it could have sunk him. Flying in the face of anxious rock pomposity and its accelerated quest for significance, Kavus openly refers to his work as “funny-music”. For two decades, on-and-off, he’s been releasing swarms of supercharged tatterdemalion art-rock songs (in which Canterbury whim grapples with Chicago nerve while spinning cogs of power-pop, psychedelia, prog and folk joust with reed-crammed avant-garde blares and slamming flashes of heavy metal) and ices this wild cake with baroque psychedelic imagery turned into a daffy, tongue-in-cheek juggling act. Upfront and loveable, Kavus will always bring accessibility and charm to the musical tumult behind him; but his oddball image has sometimes resisted and obscured deeper engagement. There’s a risk that his growing audience won’t grow with him; that when they listen to the ornate, shaggy-lantern rock of Knifeworld’s 2009 debut album ‘Buried Alone…‘ they might hear only its knotty playfulness, its busy collisions. While revelling in Knifeworld’s bird-flipping refusals to be either meat-and-potatoes rock or polished narcissistic artfulness, they’ll miss the emotive depths which wind beneath the band’s fairground-dazzle surface. Instead, they’ll be demanding constant cheery Kavus looning while they augur their own vague Phineas Freakears rebellions from the flyaway whorls in his barnet.

All in all, ‘The Unravelling’ – with its crucial shift in tone and weight – has arrived right on time. Kavus’ funny-music mask needs to crack. His entertainer face needs to blanch a little. He can’t remain the cute bastard child of Daevid Allen and Tom Baker forever.

That said, there’s little to suggest that Knifeworld’s second album is a calculated attempt at growing up, or at brushing away frivolity. Neither is it a “poor-me” album of mid-life crises or bleats about B-list fame. (Nor, in case you were worrying, are there any arch, camped-up traces of sad clown.) Instead, ‘The Unravelling’ seems to have formed out of sheer necessity. Its aches, fears and stalking black dogs have been cast out into the open by compulsive honesty and irresistible pressure. While undercurrents of darkness have snaked through the band’s colourful fantasias before, they’ve always been couched in fragmented word-games and arcane disguises – late-night fears sprouted a psychedelic froth of in-jokes, and tales of betrayal and shortfalls would spread and mutate into Ancient Mariner epics. Kavus was constantly hedging his bets; hanging little baubles of angst and honesty in his jagged, branching tunes like Christmas decorations. No more. Finally, he’s stopped the tease, stopped the sleight-of-hand and the fucking fan-dance.

What he’s revealing now is engaging, intimate and entirely human. At times, it’s heartbreaking. “My friends call out to me, / but I’m not home too many times,” he confides, on the very first song, swelling to a sudden pitch of raw hurt. “So some escaped or reproduced and some just fell apart. / Why? / Why did you grow those teeth in your heart?” At its roots, ‘The Unravelling’ is about love and vulnerability. It’s about feeling naked and thin-skinned at the mercy of dreadful forces of fate and irrationality, of memory and error. In its most reflective moments, it’s about the painful process of accepting the wounds. “Every passing year,” laments Kavus. “I feel those icy fingers poking me.”

Perversely, he’s singing about this while fortified by his biggest, most accomplished band yet. The current Knifeworld lineup is a solid brass-and-reeds-bolstered eight-piece – capable of fierce King Crimson snarls, elastic Shudder To Think bounds, sidesteps into complex harmonic spaghetti (a la Henry Cow) and rapid shifts of time signature or dynamic, but also possessing the immediate poise of a finely-honed pop band. Where on spec they ought to sprawl, they’re actually dead on-point. That extra cannonade of saxophones and Emmett Elvin’s wandering, watchful keyboards are as tight as an old-school soul revue. Musically, they’re brimming with confidence and simmering power: just listen to them charge their way through Don’t Land On Me like a progged-up John Barry Orchestra, deliver a pummelling but light-footed jazz-metal barrage on The Orphanage, or spice a vocal or string arrangement with an ingenious Kate Bush twist. Often they stop just short of swagger.

Some Knifeworld tics and tropes remain the same. Still present and correct are the proud eclecticism and visceral drive beneath the ornamentation; the vocal interplay between Kavus’ rusty earnestness and Mel Woods’ cool matter-of-fact tones; the naval tang of shanty and sea-song that soaks deep into the band’s marrow along with the rock-in-opposition and bristling prog. Yet the sound, formerly wayward and freewheeling, has been squeezed and sharpened by Kavus’ new preoccupations. Just as the lyrics have been pared from puzzle to pith, the vaulting chambers of psychedelic echo have been reduced to a tighter space (as if Gong had suddenly fallen under Joy Division’s shadow) and the tuneful sprawl has narrowed down to sinews and bones. Despite all of Knifeworld’s brassy collective strength, a miasma of unease hazes their horizon. It’s as if the whole octet – amps, guitars, horns, bassoon and all – are hurrying fearfully along the rim of a weakened dam. As if they’ve never felt so fragile, so ungainly and as likely to stumble… and it’s a long, long way down.

This is hardly surprising. In song terms, everything that Kavus has previously lived with but toyed with or danced around has finally reared up and shaken off the frills and protection. By his own account, ‘The Unravelling’ was inspired by ripples of pain in and around his own life and his tight-knit friendships in the last few years – solid bonds dissolving, unexpected savage blows from out of the darkness, free spirits tumbling into madness while the chickens come home to roost as vultures. Unsettling noises lope alongside several tunes – scrapes, friction-screeches or skeletal rattles; watch-ticks, muted footfalls and knocks – like eerie fellow travellers or frightened ghosts haunting dingy rooms, huddled in corners or stumbling, stricken; trying to stay unnoticed; afraid to live. Ominous bad-trip lyrics and phrases creep from song to song as eyes are shuttered, blocked off or sprout hideously from bare skulls; as hands hold secrets to be fumbled, dropped or cherished.

All of the trauma may or may not have settled to echoes now, but the music is still caught in the teeth of the drama. The Orphanage’s quick-flail riffing (packed with panicky staircases of crowded saxophone) frames a brief and bitter lyric of introverted desperation and disgusted intimacy, primed to implode, while the grand album opener I Can Teach You How To Lose A Fight bellies with muscular, operatic disquiet. Esther Dee’s guesting soprano dips and soars – a Valkyrie figurehead – while Knifeworld arc through star-peppered space and oncoming storms like the Flying Dutchman, and Mel delivers a portrait-in-flashes of a relationship wrenched off course by suspicions, resentments and absences. (“You’ll sleep alone, / bet I don’t get the chance / to watch it every night I’m home. / That halo won’t have far to drop, / ‘til it becomes a noose, /and I’m not gonna break you loose, no. / So steep inside my room, / when I’m not there, / too many times. / A witch-hunt for a bed, / uncover all my plan.”) In choral passion, and over explosive minefield rhythms, the band beat their hearts against the swelling poison – “every fight you lose, that breaks over us. / All the fights that you lost from the start, / unravelled something inside of you. / Every tooth you grew, that bites into us.” Even in Don’t Land On Me’s prog-Bolan/James Bond swagger (which bursts from thunder into light via great cruising stretches of acoustic guitar, dreamy verses and flashes of gospel ecstacy), Kavus unpacks bald moments of emotion. Confession, guilt and disconnection intertwine with his lysergic reveries of dream cities, withering stars, and the jolt of awakening. “Inside your dying sun, and you never caught me out. / Inside you’re dying, son. / Broken, unfound, there is only one thing I find – / we ran aground when I wouldn’t make up my mind.”

Back when he was a fresh-eyed twentysomething – wrangling guitars in The Monsoon Bassoon, and hatching ideas that would blossom again in Knifeworld – Kavus wrote a song called The Best Of Badluck 97. Wrapped in cryptic legends of iron swords and bitten hands, It covered a particular annus horribilis that sprawled and stank across the lives of him and his friends: band splits, broken romances, fallings-outs and other youthful horrors. Sixteen years on, history repeats with a fearful weight. In ‘The Unravelling’s eerie centrepiece (a haunted jig of snake-slide bass and revolving Rhodes piano) Kavus cites it directly – and with bitter rueful nostalgia – while nightmares of ruination and frightened statues take hold and things claw their way out of the garden. “That cursed year that caused the great divide. / …when we all regrouped it felt so different then, / like something had been lost, something had died. / Chemicals, craziness and confusion, / betrayals in between another’s thighs. / But I’d trade all I have to be right back there now, / ‘cos the skulls we buried have regrown their eyes.”

As a counterpart, Knifeworld deliver a bittersweet tribute to survival and thwarted hopes on Destroy The World We Love. “Oh well, it always ends up underground, then. / The best minds and all of that were going down,” sings Kavus. “The years that passed between, / unravelled all our dreams.” As the band thread and weave an intricate psychedelic cobweb (majestic crabbed guitar lines, Steve Reich wind cycles and delicate glock’n’Rhodes chimes) he muses over what’s been lost and what’s been salvaged: “I kind of miss all the madness, / I kind of miss the way we were, but, / for all the loss and the sadness, / me and you we made it through, / me and you we made it. / So we can never replace it, / and it’ll never come again, but / we got so close I could taste it.”

One particular story looms high above this knot of sorry tales – that of fallen Cardiacs leader Tim Smith, Kavus’ friend, onetime boss and profound inspiration. Although the man was shattered and silenced by a set of devastating strokes six years ago, his musical presence haunts ‘The Unravelling’, from its singalongs and switchbacks to the complex contrary rigging of its songcraft. His painful absence inspires the album’s two most involving songs, in which Kavus’ mingled love and grief burst into plain view. (“In my dreams still, you’re just like you were, you’re just fine. / In my waking, you are never out of my mind.”)

Travelling from exultation to dismay, and showcasing Knifeworld in all of their delicious tunefulness and irritation, Send Him Seaworthy is a coded parable of Tim Smith’s fall. Chloe Herington’s bassoon (increasingly, Knifeworld’s hotline to avant-garde classical rigour) lofts in stern spiny hogbacks above welters of nautical metaphor, as a jaunty sea-song is stretched and corrugated into proud crenellations, surging somewhere between the Sloop John B and Henry Cow. As the band defiantly fly their Cardiacs flag (“most set sail in the usual way, / and always stand to reason, / never set themselves ablaze. / Our proud galleon that sails today, /just dwarves the other vessels, / cuts through the waves,”) Kavus pursues his melody into every cranny and corner, as if hoping that he’ll find Tim tucked away in one of them, grinning and healed. “Enlisted men hit the waves again, / I can’t adjust the rudder – man overboard! / I never knew you’d capsize, my friend, /I said you were my brother, / I thought you’d be restored.” At the height of the drama, emotion capsizes the metaphor. Kavus drops all of the nautical play for an agonised real-life account of his own. “On the telephone at four AM, you said you wanted to stay. / It came as no surprise, ‘cos you were always that way. / I made up your bed and went back to mine. Yeah, I drifted but then, / when you never showed, how could I have known you’d never show up again?”

These same cold awakenings gnaw at This Empty Room Once Was Alive. A haunted, minimal hole-in-the-hull, this is a close cousin to Japan’s Ghosts: a stripped and eerie confessional in which a bass-less, drum-less, de-horned Kavus shivers outside the protection of his band. Only Emmett’s rippling dream-clock of Rhodes and Mel’s spectral harmony are there to keep him company against the night sounds and the early hours as he stares at the wall, “too terrified to sleep in case / the dreams in which you’re walking come, / that find me woken, staring at my pillow, / broken, spent, undone.” A background of ominous grinds and creaking scrapes suggest crumbling houses or rotting ship-hulks, or a slow, stranded disintegration of worth and significance. “When the curtain draws, / and buried all are we, / would this have made a difference? / And in the afterlife, / a gaudy purgatory,/ would we still remember?”

Then, with a strummed and beautiful sigh of cuatro strings, Kavus lets it all loose: a direct address to his broken friend, the words scraping against his teeth, full of profound sadness, sorrow and an acceptance of fear finally laid bare. “All I am is frightened / I’ll forget just what we had, / and all I am is scared / to cast what’s left of my mind back. / My dear friend, my sweet captain, / I can’t find the words to tell you, / just how deep the hole you left behind you when you fell became. /Around in circles limps this crippled horse that I’m still riding, / while old friends ring me up to ask me where have I been hiding?” At last he hits rock bottom… or, perhaps, ‘Rock Bottom’, as some of Robert Wyatt’s fluid account of transformative feeling is echoed here too, laving the sadness – that feeling of stun and shift; the sense of wonder, and of the human connection which redeems the disaster.

It’s that last which is going to save us, if anything will. Happy endings aren’t simply gifted to people: Kavus is sad enough and wise enough not to cheat and deny these bleak experiences he’s sung about (nor the marks they’ve scored onto people) by painting a smiley face over them. Instead, he leaves warmer points to glow inside the darker corners of these songs; bright crumbs of hope for us to gather up, those scraps that weren’t torn or whirled away. Destroy The World We Love patches some resolution and consolation into both its pealing Kavus guitar solo (which blends humility and dented heroism) and its warm, ghostly bind of a-capella – “Back in my room again, / I can’t remember when / you put to sleep my wars, /and turned my life to yours.”

To wrap up ‘The Unravelling’, I’m Hiding Behind My Eyes provides a bittersweet post-apocalyptic reverie. With cycling acoustic guitar and brittle piano flourishes, and a suppurating cosmic bleed as a backdrop, the song trudges away from the self-made wreckage as in brief, knotty breaks of guitar and horns, the band levers itself off the ground and puts itself back together. In soft and ashy tones, Kavus and Mel weigh up the losses, loyalties and shortfalls; accept them; then make a ragged plea for forgiveness, acceptance and something better. “Heavens fall, across the room, across the world, / After all we’ve lost… / If I fell into your arms, into your world, / could I dwell in your universe, / universe? / Even now I can’t begin to form the words, / to tell you how you’re my everything, / everything. / Worlds collapse, heavens fall, / and after all there’s really only us now.”

There’s no need to be a Grock (trapped in yourself, baling out hollow laughs to an audience that can’t really see you) nor a lost space cadet, out on your own and burned by your own dreams. In the end, ‘The Unravelling’ puts the remains of its battered faith behind compassion, and suggests that we can cede our own pain and finally surrender to our better natures simply by surrendering to each other, being ready to feel each other’s pain and being transformed by it. “Passing through this world of shadows, / I’m in love with you. / I’ll erase this world alive behind my eyes, / to spend my days in your universe.” That last word repeats and repeats to the fade, a hopeful mantra to the last.

Knifeworld: ‘The Unravelling’
Inside Out Music, 0506 858 (5052205068588)
CD/vinyl album
Released: 22nd July 2014

Get it from:

CD – from Knifeworld homepage store, Inside Out Shop, or Burning Shed.

Vinyl – Knifeworld homepage store, Inside Out Shop, or Burning Shed.

Knifeworld online:
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June 2014 – through the feed – Sufjan Stevens reissues ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ with various goodie options

26 Jun

Sufjan Stevens: 'Enjoy Your Rabbit'

Sufjan Stevens: ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’

Assuming that you’ve not heard about this yet (I still have the sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are ahead of me as regards news)…

…that prolific, poly-instrumental singer-songwriter/critical darling Sufjan Stevens is reissuing one of his earliest and oddest albums. Originally released by Asthmatic Kitty back in 2001, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ was reissued a couple of days ago (June 24th) on limited-edition deluxe vinyl and as a download.

On initial hearing, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ doesn’t sound much like the work with which Sufjan later made his name. Despite the man’s reputation for assured eclectism, it seems out-of-place and unexpected – very different from the concept albums in which he codified his life and thoughts into the hopes, dreams and terrains of American states; or from his baroque-ified folk-Americana (in which you were as likely to hear a cor anglais as a banjo or harmonium); or from his combining of original film and symphony music for ‘The BQE’; or even his battery of Christmas albums.

Recorded during Sufjan’s first stint in New York, it’s almost entirely electronic – a fizzing post-modern cut-up built from digital work station noises, samples and tweaks of live sounds (including stray guitars, organs, the brassy lather of Tom Eaton’s trumpet and prelingual vocals from Liz Janes and Sufjan himself). There’s a running theme via the Chinese zodiac and its twelve-year cycle, each year of which lends its name to a track (Year Of The Dragon, Year Of The Rat and so on), although Sufjan muddies the waters with two extra pieces – the title track and The Year Of Our Lord. (Given his professed Christianity, the latter is as likely to be sincere as it is to be a tongue-in-cheek gag: given the nature of the album, it’s probably both.)

Over to his label, Asthmatic Kitty, for a fuller explanation (as Asthmatic Kitty appears to have a staff of two, one of whom is Sufjan, you can be pretty sure that this is a definitive statement):

“Departing from the singer-songwriter format of his first Asthmatic Kitty album, ‘A Sun Came’, this collection of fourteen colourful instrumental compositions combines Sufjan’s noted gift for melody with electronic sounds to create an unusually playful and human – not to mention humane – electronic experience. First released in 2001 on CD, 2014 — the Year of the Horse — brings the original recording back as a double-LP set, the first disc clear and the other left to fortune. And no one can foresee who will receive one of two very special boxes of fortune cookies, containing fortunes penned especially for this occasion by Sufjan himself.

‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is the most underrated and overlooked album in Sufjan’s discography. It contains in capsule form what he would later unpack into more palatable music. There are flashes of ‘Michigan’ and ‘Illinois’ in Year Of Our Lord, Year Of The Ox and Year Of The Dog, and shadows of ‘Age Of Adz’ in the darkest moments of Year Of The Boar, Year Of The Snake or Year Of The Dragon. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a harbinger. A precursor. A wink in the eye before the slight. You should have listened in the first place. We’ll forgive you though, because when an album is only available in wasteful jewel-case CD, how cool can it be? Jewel-cases are so 1998. But now that it’s in multi-colored limited-edition gimmick-ridden vinyl, you have no excuse. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, which Sufjan wrote and recorded in the innocence of a pre-9/11 2001, is Sufjan’s best work because it is Sufjan at his least self-aware.

In an alternate reality, Sufjan never made ‘Michigan’ or ‘Seven Swans’ or ‘Illinois’; he kept making electronic freakout albums like ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ in obscurity, until perhaps he just gave up and stayed in graphic design and some pitying barely-afloat label re-released ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and sold a few dozen copies to a few scattered part-time record store employees. But here we are in this reality, where ‘Michigan’ is slated for an energy drink commercial, ‘Illinois’ is a backdrop to a pensive montage in a kickstarted blockbuster movie, and ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is relegated to a drunken purchase at Amazon.com.

Here at Asthmatic Kitty, where we often ignore reality as it’s presented, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is one of our most played records. We find ourselves in the small company of ballet choreographers, quartets, and occasional internet reviewers, but there should be more of us. So, as if we were in that alternate universe where “Sufjan” is more likely the name of a ‘Game of Thrones’ character than an indie star, we hope you’ll give this record a chance now that it’s available as vinyl. It is just as genius as anything Sufjan has released since. Everything’s been downhill since.”

To my own cranky ears, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a fascinating, skillful blip in Sufjan’s career – a rare chance to see his singular talent from a specific angle. It’s a little similar to your first encounter with Frank Zappa’s cascading Synclavier cut-ups if all you’d previously heard was his catalogue of hairy, horse-laugh rock cabaret numbers about groupie misdemeanours and middle-America caught napping and dribbling. Another comparison is Adrian Belew’s 1986 one-off ‘Desire Caught By The Tail‘ – a snarling, abstract career swerve from a musician who’d previously satisfied his avant-garde leaning by blowing spacey textures and barnyard/traffic sound effects through art-rock songs, but was now sitting down with a crude guitar synth (plus a jumble of pedals and assorted things to hit with a stick) in order to create uncompromising Picasso-Hendrix shapes at heavy-metal volume. Did someone say ‘Metal Machine Music’? Not quite, although there are moments of crushing noise on ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ which recall Lou Reed’s own Marmite effort.

One thing which can be said for certain is that ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a breathtakingly playful record which nonetheless exhibits Sufjan’s extraordinary breadth of influences and compositional skills. If you listen closely, his subsequent ways of building a song are all already present and correct. Though they’re sheathed and blurred within the blip-glitching video-Pong noises, Tibetan bells and drunken brass band textures of Year Of The Monkey, they’re definitely there: it’s a song, voiced with all the oddness of a Charles Ives let loose on a sampler.

Speaking of Zappa, some prime bogus pomp shows up on Year Of The Snake and Year Of The Boar. Amongst the larking bass-harmonium reed drone and the razzing fizz of Sufjan’s electronics, some weighty blimpery waddles and patters. I could have sworn that Year Of The Boar even quotes ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ at one point. Sufjan’s certainly not slow to drop in a ‘Mission Impossible’ quote on the album’s title track, which is otherwise the odd song out – an angular, dissonant line of Rock-In-Opposition guitar fuzz joined by a cavalcade of pushy racket and chiptune burble.

As for the Chinese component, it’s not clear whether this is a gimmick (like Sufjan’s subsequent tall tales of a “50 States” concept project) or another little metajoke which he’s balled up and sent sailing over our heads. Scattered sparingly across the record, Mannar Wong adds some genuine spoken Chinese. In and around certain pieces, trilled Chinese melodies bump up against European string quartet tunes or (as on Year of the Tiger) flute around cabaret vocalese and bells over thudding shadow-tones. But at least as much is drawn through and worked in from other sources: Sufjan’s first years in the thick of New York’s cosmopolitanism must have been a greedy feast for his ears. Steam-organ and No Wave whomp, carefully orchestrated, collide with early-Genesis prog flourishes. Sewer-pulsations meet Bontempi organs and sample-heavy vocal murmurs, folded into Latin pop melodies. Silvery Krautrock turns into dinky, glitch-mauled castle music on Year Of The Rat. For Year of the Sheep, Sufjan turns the music into a battle between pulp and celestial. Against the birth-of-the-world vocalise which he and Liz Janes knit together, animal sounds yawp and rampage – angry pregnant elephants, excited pterodactyls.

Rat

The thirteen-minute Year Of The Horse – the piece on which Sufjan could really have come unstuck – instead shows him in full control: sustaining and mutating schools of ideas at greater length, like a post-techno Mike Oldfield. Despite its mongrel elements and its sense of hazard sources, over the course of its journey (minimalist piano figure in trio with vibrating mechanical sounds and out-of-focus kettledrums; panpipe-riffles marshalling around industrial squashing-tones; a finale of glitched/phased/near-atonal signal twitches), it’s not so dissimilar to those carefully-structured stretches of ‘Tubular Bells’ or ‘Ommadawn’ back in the 1970s. Not that Sufjan would necessarily agree: his time at New York’s New School (which he was attending while he wrote this album) would have exposed him to any number of inspirations from chance heroes to masters of structure. What’s clear is that under the capering and restless sonics, great swathes of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ display Sufjan’s bedrock talent and the solidity of his musical placings. It’s a cliché that a single work by one artist can hold as many ideas as another artist’s entire career, but this is one of those cases where the old saw is true. I’ve heard plenty of electrophonic records eking out a single concept or a sparse few, albeit successfully. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ makes most of them sound like lazy sketches.

You should judge for yourselves, though – this wasn’t supposed to be a review. You can get your copy of the album from Asthmatic Kitty or Bandcamp (both fixed-price vinyl or download) or from Noisetrade (pay-what-you-like download-only). For the possibility of fortune cookies, I’m guessing that you should pester Asthmatic Kitty directly. If you want the additional option of ordering a vinyl twosome of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and Osso String Quartet’s ‘Run Rabbit Run’ as a thirty-dollar special offer… well, that’s another thing to talk to Asthmatic Kitty about.

Sufjan Stevens online:
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May 2014 – album reviews – Arch Garrison’s ‘I Will Be a Pilgrim’ (“lay out its gears and bones”)

25 May

Arch Garrison: 'I Will Be A Pilgrim'

Arch Garrison: ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’

Crest the ridge, now. Slow down at the sitting-stone, park your bones and aching muscles there, and take stock. Look at the way the landscape spreads out from up here – all of the fields and rills and, beneath, the skeleton of the land, the rocks and water, the things which give it shape. Moving back up a few layers, there’s the earth and grass and moving animals; the places lived in; the crows’ feet, the salt-and-pepper…

First, let’s look at the shapes which are closest to hand. Pick them up; have a squint.

On his second album of latter-day folk-baroque at the head of Arch Garrison, Craig Fortnam moulds and reworks diverse old and new traditions to delightful effect. His dexterous fingers strip webworks of notes from his acoustic guitars – nylon and steel, telegraph and gut. Within these, home-grown (or at least home-brewed) elements travel from song to song in a loose continuum, stretching from Elizabethan lute ballads through Celtic-American folk to Davey Graham’s flowing Anglo-Arab fingerstyle and the febrile reinventions of John Fahey. Elsewhere, the slides and clinks of change-ringing rows are smuggled from English church bells onto keys and strings.

Other specks and strains within the music seem to have been picked up from other parts of the world. A vellum-dry recording and a staccato attack nod to Ali Farka Touré’s Malian folk-blues, with the debt explicit on two lilting instrumental vamps. That elegant lilting baroque figure which opens the record initially steps out like something broader (a koto flourish, or a banjo beginning) and is returned to for the coda; this time built upon by bobbing, sliding, Cluster-esque layers of electronic organ, the drift of stained-glass shadows on flagstones. Across the album, while Craig sings the songs into life in his thin hopeful straw of a voice, a feathering of psychedelic burr hangs in the air like the faint memory of a benign, long-ago acid trip – a touch of the Barretts.

While Arch Garrison aren’t quite as numerous as they once were, Craig isn’t alone on his voyage. Over at his right hand, James Larcombe plays buzzing monosynths and gently teetering Philicorda, fusing the meticulous discipline of a classical organ scholar with a blend of Krautrock tangents. His playing can carry hints of wilful trance and of conscious airy detachment, but he also has the focus to draw an assured bead on what the moment requires and to nail it. On ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’s title track, the duo reach a pinnacle of mutual intricacy and involvement. James builds up a musing Philicorda fanfare (part kosmische, part chapel) amongst strands of piano, synth and swirling cymbal. Craig’s screw-threaded clawhammer guitar bursts through this massing kaleidoscope of psychedelic refractions to launch the song proper, whereupon Arch Garrison twirl deftly through knotwork prog breaks, rough-dancing harmonised vocals and capering mediaeval percussion (constantly pinned to a kind of Gothic lysergia via glimmering, echoed guitar counter-melodies).

The business of unpicking this intricate little treasure-box of an album can be fascinating: you can lay out its gears and bones, and marvel at how Appalachia, Forst, Tombouctou and Wiltshire can be encouraged to dance together. But getting distracted by the spread of ingredients on show would be missing the deeper points. On this set of songs, skilled fingerwork and compositional complexity sit in support of finer gravities of heart and of belonging. On Arch Garrison’s previous album, ‘King Of The Down’, Craig sketched the opening lines of a personal landscape – stretches and twinges, journeys and feelings, embraces and aches. It was even there in the album title, which encompassed Craig’s beloved southern English hills and his own wounded doubts. But it’s only now, with ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’, that he’s fully realised the craft of mapping these outer and inner geographies together, growing deeper into his own voice as he does so.

Craig has spent much of his musical history in the charismatic, ever-present shadow of his wife and bandmate Sharron. In their teamwork within The Shrubbies and North Sea Radio Orchestra (as with briefer work with the fFortingtons and Lake of Puppies), his writing set out most of the musical substance, but it was her striking vocal and personal anneal of post-punk bounce, classical soprano and folk chirp which set the tone. Voluntary as all of this was, in recent years the balance has shifted, with Craig singing several NSRO pieces in a smaller version of the band. While Sharron initially came along for Arch Garrison on bass guitar and harmonies, it was Craig who took the vocal lead. Now the Garrison trio’s reduced to a duo, and the older alliance is temporarily severed. Sharron is on leave-of-absence, away on the same maternity break that has currently put NSRO into mothballs. Although James provides conversational hums of backup vocal as well as his multi-jointed keyboards, Craig’s singing alone as he never has before.

Serendipitously, this has happened at the perfect time. ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ is the album on which both Craig’s songwriting and his growing hunger (after NSRO’s sculpted Edwardianisms) for direct expression fully mature. Fragile tones notwithstanding, you can’t imagine anyone else singing these songs, let alone singing them better. Just as Craig’s voice has come into focus, so too have his lyrics, with every song now an open, expanding kernel of idea and a signpost for an open road. The picture that emerges is of the restlessness that beats and tugs at men in the middle passage of life, turning them into helpless sails for every fearful yaw or sneaking gust of emotion.

Over the course of eight songs and three instrumentals, ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ explores parenthood, competition, faith, engagement with art and the ambivalence of loneliness. Its core – both symptoms and solutions – is centred round the act of walking. Propelled by his sinewy melodies and striding harmonic progressions, which roll across the album the way old wire fences roll across hills, Craig is constantly journeying, pressing currents of angst and uncertainty underfoot. From being a fragmented and distracted modern man, he strides back into connection, rediscovering himself in subconscious acceptance of history and place. Here and there, from song to song, a line recurs – “chalk under the bone” – as Craig acknowledges and encourages this strata of belonging. When he sings “never more known” he’s talking about both the hidden and the savoured.

Two river songs roll the point home. On The Oldest Road Craig has a full-on metaphysical vision of the Downs hills in a state of historical flux, and explores them in tones that echo William Blake and Edward Thomas as well as his old mentor Tim Smith. “Chalk arises overhead, up above alluvial. / Is it true what you said, chalk springs the fluvial? – / flows into town, / scatters people all around. / Do they feel it, do they know / chalk under the bone?” While landscape offers him escapism (“disappear into the haze – / happy days,”) he also greets the growing sense of heritage that it brings to him (“I was born with flint in hand, / write my name upon the land,”) and ends up celebratory, an open-ended bounds-walker freed from linear time altogether. “It only takes an hour, / even in an hour / feel the time unwind, boy… / I have walked the open road, made ten thousand years ago. / And when the earth explodes, / atomise the oldest road, never more known.”

On the title track (amidst James’ stitchwork of keyboards and the rattling percussion) Craig begins another journey – this time in London, tracing his beloved River Thames outwards “from the Cheap to the Fleet to the Strand, / then up to the fields, / then over the land, the grey-green and brown. / Oh the city, city wide, / beautiful river rolling by.” A former Londoner himself, perhaps he starts off by retracing his own path; but as soon as the city falls behind him the song opens out into more universal territories. Specific details and place-names dissolve; the journey becomes as permeable as dreams and as material as aching feet. Sadness and inspiration, solitude and engagement alternate and counterbalance each other. “In the morning, don’t be low. / There’s a ribbon of road. / Early morning – the giant stride. / The steeper the hill, then the faster walk I. / I will never, never tire.”

Eventually, Craig’s progress becomes open-ended; a pick-up-the-pace walk song in which he threads in and out of other people’s lives – ever the visitant. “I spring out of the sun, feel sigh. / Oh, people ringing… / In a pilgrim’s high… / oh pilgrim, wander by… / Oh, the lonely, lonely road. / Chalk under the bone.” Running alongside this wandering engagement is a sense of displacement; of letting oneself fall loose from the world of family and neighbours, tugging at the lead, tempted to drift away under a vague compulsion and never knowing whether it’s the right thing to do. “By the evening, don’t be low, there’s a light in a window,” Craig sings softly, grasping after a sense of home and fulfilment in the midst of wandering.

In contrast, the album’s opening song – Where The Green Lane Runs – sees him preparing to set it all aside. It’s more than a little unsettling to open your record with a vision of your own death, but that’s what this is. In a careful picking-out of parts and purposes (part march, part folk dance, meticulously lined on nylon-string guitar and a thin wheedle of organ) Craig sets out his exit. “I’ll make my own bed when the time comes / under a tree where the green lane runs. / You’ll never find me, I hope you wouldn’t look. / I’ll leave our home without a jacket on, / head to the west and the setting sun… / I’ll do a Captain Oates and step outside, / checking out the great divide.” If the river songs placed him on the landscape, this one sees him finally merging with it, plotting out a resting place which echoes his own increasingly blurred position between modernity and antiquity: “where the green lane divides… / between the A road and the river that flows.” There’s much to mull over here, not least the uneasy mixture of feelings – defiance (with a flicker of warrior spirit in the pledge to “look for high ground, / there I’ll make my stand,”), self-sacrifice (the evocation of the wounded Oates, wandering away to die alone rather than bring others down with him) and the underlying course of loneliness; the hooded, blurred reason for the walking-away and that final solitary end.

Meanwhile, while still earthbound, there’s still the business of living and of making day-to-day sense. Three songs deal with the frustrations of making art and the fluctuations of faith. On Everything All (a flourishing blues-y hop, with James blending in crayon synth and cheerful monkey-bar clamberings of piano) Craig’s reflections are weary, beaten by the grind and by other people’s indifference. They tend towards sadness and hints of retirement. “Sometimes it’s everything all / moving the air in a room or a hall / Trying to explain what I don’t understand, / The song is a mirror / I’m taking it down.” Other People, a tickling float of flamenco plucking resolving into a more classical structure, casts an uneasier look at competition and the perils of letting life slip out of your grasp. “You’re not other people – / if you were, they’d look you in the eye, / but they’re active, pushing along the road, / and you’re passive with the flow… / We used to live together, but they’re active – up the ladder, watch them go.”

As with the rest of the record, Craig keeps us guessing as to where he’s aiming his reflections. His gentle chiding could be a nudge at a torpid friend, or a dialogue with himself – a dose of pragmatism while stuck somewhere along the road. “You’re not undeserving of course, but there’s something you should know. / Life’s out selling, and you’re passive with the flow – / you go, go, go – / and the world is active – look, the spinning globe.” By the time he gets to Six Feet Under Yeah, he’s cemented some resolution. Accompanied by beautiful Tudoresque chording (festooned with joyfully quilled keyboard lines and fugues atop a sliding bass) he prods and encourages, and finally celebrates the struggle in a rousing gain-in-spite-of-pain anthem. “You don’t appreciate / the beauty of what you make… / Don’t be dissatisfied / keep your eye on the prize / Create it, then get it out – / yeah, get it out. / It ain’t over / ‘til it’s over.”


In spite of the darker veins that cross its vision (those vagabond drifts away from home, the spectre of lonely death, the cracks which erode confidence), ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ ultimately emerges onto the uplands of optimism. It’s not just about Six Feet Under Yeah’s concluding reclamations of course and momentum: in Bubble, Craig sets aside solitary thoughts and immerses himself in a simple celebration of parenthood. A squiggled bass riff boinks, a busy trio of guitars stand for family, and while James floats streamers of monosynth over everything (like a playful uncle) Craig sings unguardedly of little hats and tiny hands, chuckling over the chaos of cheerful, burgeoning family life – “we’ve skidded again… Blessed are we now, we’ll never be the same.”

All of this is capped, as it should be, by Craig’s reunion with Sharron on So Sweet Tomorrow; an old fFortingtons country tune turned nursery-rhyme on which the two harmonise, take turns and all but curtsey to each other. A soft mule-trudge rhythm, dappled with deceptively Christmassy bells, it has some of their old wide-eyed Shrubbies feel to it (“after today / we’ll ring a true bell, / when all is well”), but its heady couple-sung doggerel taps into older rituals of season and celebrations of survival. “Oh come along you, to light a spire, / wash out the mire, and raise the shadow, / dig under belly-o.” Spectres still flit around the edges, but the overall flavour is one of resilience. “Bring out your dying, and near-to-dead, / but still the final breath is left.”

Pull back and reflect. If there’s a final form to that psychic landscape – the one which we were scouting out from that hill-brow, back then when we first sat down, and the one which Craig’s been limning throughout the record – it’s here. Ghost-thoughts and dark loomings might protrude through the weak points, but the weak points aren’t everything; nor are they the defining features, just as a walk isn’t entirely defined by the blisters it raises. Walks are terrain, no less. Smoothnesses disrupted; routes which are more difficult and more revealing than the maps which you started with; stumbles leading to unexpected vistas. ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ is a record which (in its soft-spoken revealings and sway-back moods) ultimately embraces those stones in the shoes, the crows-feet and skiddings and the salt-and-pepper, the simple actions which maybe ache a little more than they used to. While it doesn’t make a meal of the fact, it’s also a record which absorbs something important – the point that pilgrimage isn’t just the journey or the destination, it’s the chance to discover yourself along the way.

All right, now. Rest-time is over, and there are roads to tread. Come on – ease yourself up. Put your pack back on; check your shoes. Comfortable enough. You’ll make it. Go.

Arch Garrison: ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’
The Household Mark, THM003
CD/download album
Released:
19th May 2014
Get it from:
Amazon or iTunes or Wayside Music.
Arch Garrison online:
Homepage MySpace

May 2013 – album reviews – Terry Gomes’ ‘Shh.’ (“the kind of gentle musical wit that’s been out of fashion for too long”)

18 May

Terry Gomes: 'Shh.'

Terry Gomes: ‘Shh.’

There are no shocks on ‘Shh.’ In certain respects, it could hardly be cosier – Canadian guitarist and arranger Terry Gomes isn’t the spikiest of artists. Three previous self-released albums of countrified folk-pop, with a clean and amiable early-’60s sonic sensibility, have seen him develop into a promising singer-songwriter. Yet even though 2009’s ‘Loose Ends’ (with subtler reflections on loss and orphanhood starting to ripple his songcraft) saw Terry beginning to sound something like a junior Richard Hawley, he’s always risked a headlong disappearance into the kind of consummate professionalism that swallows musicians without a trace.

While it’s a dumb, lazy rock canard that you’re automatically more genuine the more sprawling and trashy you are, it’s still true that the kind of sober musical strengths Terry favours could dip him straight into into the polished, preppy and staid. The clean-cut approach and old-school session-player clarity; the background of university studies, music teaching and classical guitar; the history of working dues paid at the modest end of rock bands and chamber ensembles. Then again, Terry’s also a Zappa fan with a taste for tongue-in-cheek, and a man who entertains himself by playing Dick Dale-flavoured prog-rock tributes to Toronto hockey teams on a pink-paisley Telecaster. There’s straight, and there’s not-so-straight.

Changing tack for his fourth album, Terry has set aside lyrics, singing and songwriting for the moment in order to reinvent himself through a different vintage lens. For ‘Shh.’, he’s exploring his skills as an instrumental jazz guitarist, albeit one who keeps his pop knack close to hand. Don’t expect much in the way of wild exploration or improvised threshing – Terry’s fluent, trim playing stays hand-in-glove with his upfront melodies, and most of the music sits nicely somewhere between 1950s-inflected cool jazz territory and clipped slap-back pop. Harkening after the bright tunefulness of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, it also keeps that Ventures/Shadows mix of twang and tune-dotting, while easing off into a relaxed George Benson accessibility.

There’s enough heart in the music to pull in some top Ottowan musical talent, all of whom play with warmth. Sharing drum duties with Jeff Asselin, Ouzo Power’s Ross Murray also co-produces. Jazz festival mainstay John Geggie provides most of the bass, while his fellow jazz veterans Dave Renaud and Peter Hum (plus Pulse Mondiale guitarist René Gely) make passing drop-ins as Terry’s front-line foils. Show-band stalwart Gino Scaffidi bolsters the rhythm guitar on half of the tracks, and there are further contributions from Afro-pop players Stu Watkins and Rob Graves, from Back-Talk Organ Trio’s Don Cumming and from classical percussionist Jonathan Wade. All of this gives ‘Shh.’ a diverse but easygoing small-group sound, an ability for quick shifts in style and the feeling of a happy gathering.

Terry’s prime concern, though, seems to be with keeping a friendly eye on the audience. In West Coast tradition, composition consistently trumps improvisation. Rather than brooding and brewing over a standard, Terry presents original engaging pieces of his own with clear straightforward hooks to hum along with and meticulous, perky arrangements. The album fires off short, tidy bursts of tunefulness like a musical espresso machine, all craft and polish. Every lick and fill is nicely honed, with the scope, rhythms and harmonic sophistication of jazz predominantly used as tools to gently buff and expand the melodies.

At its simplest, this emerges as breezy affectionate pastiche. On a couple of straightforward walking-jazz pieces, Terry strolls in loping step with Dave Renaud (who offers soft cartoonish clarinet on If It Walks Like A Duck and airy alto sax on Velvet Wings), and the two strut like two old buddies kidding each other over memories of smooth moves. Left to front the band by himself on Cool Cats, Terry switches between crisp finger-snapping swing and mellow reflection in an eyeblink, before blasting out a brief big-band roar via his fuzz pedal. Closing the record, Shake Shop Shenanigans abandons jazz altogether for snappy surf-rock, in which Terry’s early-’60s outlaw tone is offset both by its own fairground vigour and by Don Cummings’ background swipes of vaporous ghost-train organ.

Other pieces are less obvious, but stay unruffled. The ticking, steady pop instrumental Forever in a Day (on which Peter Hum offers an understated piano counterpart to Terry’s distorted, honeyed lead) breezes easily through its gentle, rhapsodic tune and its Latin undercurrents. René Gely adds nylon-string counterpoint to BG Bound’s driving song, conversing with Terry’s sleepy electric tones over the undulating bossa feel and the bobbing rhythms of Rob Graves’ congas and vibraslap. The three work together again on the velvety, Frisell-icana-styled duet of Gone; René adding occasional dreamy furls of steel guitar as well as nylon-string as Terry paints a happy lonesome sound full of gentle swells and breathy changes of mood.

No shocks, then – but that doesn’t mean that ‘Shh.’ is devoid of pleasing surprises. It’s easy to tag Terry for paying tribute to West Coast comfort and rock’n’roll twang, not to mention hopscotching gently in the footsteps of Hoagy Carmichael. But I suspect that, like Zappa, he’s well aware of the pastiche element. He’s open about ‘Shh.’ being influenced more by television and film soundtracks than by pure tradition, and he clearly loves the pop currency that he’s reshuffling in his own tunes. If he occasionally slinks along the cheese margin, he’s doing it deliberately and with enjoyment.

I’m also guessing that as well as the subliminal Zappa in Terry’s musical DNA, there’s a tiny touch of Spike Jones. ‘Shh.’ has no outright parody, no screams or gargling noises, but its good humour regularly spills over into outright winks and friendly stunts. Some of these are more vigorous than others (the fleeting music-hall flourishes of old-style melodrama, Queen-style) while others are inclusive chuckles embedded in the tunes themselves. Da Bug’s brush-drum shuffle toys with sly little shifts of metre, and with droll rolls and clucks of guitar picking. The tootling swing of Welcome cheerfully indulges a classical guitar-inspired section with bowed bass before nipping happily back into jazz (sparking some neat unison lines between Terry and Gino Scaffadi as it does).

All of this is too lighthearted, too integrated to be particularly postmodern or self-consciously stylised. It’s more the kind of gentle musical wit that’s been out of fashion for too long. At its broadest, it offers They Went That-a-Way, a theme for an imaginary helter-skelter Western that’s one-third ‘Bonanza’, one-third Eight Miles High and one-third Chuck Jones. Stuffed with galloping melodies and sudden switches in direction, this leads the band hither and yon in a hall-of mirrors scuttle; bursting in and out of cowboy orchestration, runaway fretboard zips and Jonathan Wade’s trick-bag rattle of orchestral percussion.

At the other end of the scale from the horse-laughs is The Skater. With the illustrative flair of a silent movie, a trio of Terrys etch out a musical impression of a day on the ice: a little cloudy, a little classical, it takes a Satie-via-Carmichael journey of long lines and pointed details. Beginning with initial lazy strokes across the rink, it builds through ambitious strumming to straining arabesques, only to career downwards in a windmilling slither of muted flamencoid chords as the skater heads out of control; finally picking up and reviving that cruising, swanlike dignity. There’s an art to this kind of light entertainment. Part of Terry’s own subtle artistry is to make it seem lighter than it really is.

Terry Gomes: ‘Shh.’
Bleeding Heart Recordings, BH01
CD/download album
Released: 15th May 2013

Get it from:
Terry Gomes’ online store, CDBaby or Amazon.

Terry Gomes online:
Homepage YouTube

May 2013 – album reviews – John Ellis’ ‘Sly Guitar’ (“a playful magpie interest”)

8 May

John Ellis: 'Sly Guitar'

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’

A skilled and flexible working guitarist since the early 1970s (travelling through punk, post-punk, pub rock, rhythm-and-blues and progressive rock in no particular order), John Ellis has never curdled as a musician. What he’s avoided doing up to now is making a player’s album. Generally he’s been content to tweak a song’s architecture as a team member (in The Vibrators and the mark two Stranglers) or as a flexible, innovative sideman (delivering fanged electric churn for Peters Hammill and Gabriel, or airship noises and roaring-Twenties fanfares for Judge Smith). Even when left to his own devices, he’s stayed away from guitar heroics – often, away from the guitar itself. He’s fermented semi-ambient hubbub for art galleries, filtered Victorian Japonisms through electronica, and taken strides into multimedia, but left the protracted strutting and soloing alone.

On ‘Sly Guitar’, however he returns to (and lays into) his main instrument with a sharp-clawed and swaggering stylishness. It’s the kind of performance that suggests he’s ripped the tail-fin off a 1950s Cadillac and carved a new guitar from it. Things are different this time. In some respects, the key to appreciating ‘Sly Guitar’ is knowing about John’s participation in a 2007 art prank, when he helped to fake a lost Hendrix rendition of the Welsh national anthem. While this particular stunt got his playing onto ‘Newsnight‘ – and was originally a joke about co-opting celebrities into random causes – viewed from here, it’s as much about the puckish and gleeful enjoyment which John gets out of playing guitar. Aspects of Ellis wit might show up on the records he’s worked on (qv. the intuitive bite of those Hammill albums, his thoughtful tricks with Smith, or the raw horse-laughs in his own rare solo songs), but a sense of liberated fun doesn’t always make it across. On ‘Sly Guitar’ it does.

I said “player’s album” – I’m also suggesting that this is the record on which John Ellis finally lets it all hang out. That’s a little misleading. Discreetly virtuosic yet always understated, John’s technique is marked out by the lean, sharp economy he’s learned from years of punk and art-rock. There are also plenty of examples of his taste for bouncing around inside delay units, and for the blocky synthwork and drum loops explored on 2008’s ‘Map of Limbo’. The music’s also liberally slathered with John’s beloved EBow sustainer, transforming notes into assorted hoots and stuttering violin chugs, or pulling them out into taffee-lengths.

These in turn blend in with ideas from all over the place. Fun notwithstanding, John’s art-school training consistently underlies his current approach (one track, with all irony intact, is called I Remember Futurism). He picks up odds-and-ends from the fashions and fads he’s seen pass by and reinterprets them with a playful magpie interest. The results blend an edgy and brittle flair with fastidious design, offset with a mischievous, practical form of musical adapt-and-reclaim.

Many of the tunes on ‘Sly Guitar’ have much in common with old pop-instrumental albums. There are tinges of Joe Meek and of perky surf-guitar capsules from the ’60s; and of those meticulous prog-tinged jingles from the ’70s. But this is just part of an overall collage effect which plucks inspiration from Hendrix, Hank Marvin and John Williams, from Robert Fripp and John Martyn; even from the likes of Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. It also suggests that over the years John has copped a listen to everything from ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Temple Head’ to On-U Sound and Moby. At the least, he’s caught their echoes as they’ve seeped through airwaves or were circulated alongside technology.

Certainly John’s thinking hard about latterday pop and accessibility; insistent club beats and nods to old crowd-pleasers drive much of the album. Pieces like Levitation and the eleven-minute title track sit on funk grooves with sleek flicks of rhythm guitar and curved, humming chromium lead lines. Snappily and space-ily rendered, the latter are recorded close enough to hear the speaker cones jumping and flattening while wellings of EBow sustain stack up behind like a pile of moonlit clouds. In the chop’n’chat of Farud Gets Electricity, John mixes a Latin loop and a dash of Stray Cats rockabilly into the recipe. Futuro’s leisurely boom-bat, wood-clack beat and clipped industrial framing recall a slimline version of Tackhead’s industrial hip-hop. Making the most of the album’s pop-up digital production sheen, it’s fleshed out by jawharp synth boings and fake horn stabs; its smoulder-point guitar lines hanging in the middle distance like burning ropes.

The beats may be familiar, but the tweaked and ruffled electrophonic timbres which John uses to build up the tunes are less so. Pedalo is as rhythmic as anything else on the record (gliding atop a cavernous trip-hop loop and cracking dub snare) but its body is made up of a mongrel set of slotted-in guitar voices – fanfare tones of firefly and conch; power-growls of distorted fuzz; a pitch-shifted shrill of parade melody teetering on top. All of these come together in spite of themselves, an ill-matched platoon who’ve learned to march in step. Under a skywriting blast of EBow sustain, I Remember Futurism interweaves a rippling set of arpeggios, passing them between a calm sky-blue organ and a guitar which sounds like a harp made of iron girders.

Embedded deep in the mix of the latter are the tinkling, caught-up accents of Brazilian cymbals and bells, and other pieces probe even deeper into worldbeat. Walking in the footsteps of Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music, and of Transglobal Underground, John brews up vividly staged polycultural blends in which the frowning lines between ethnology and fraudulence, sympathy and exploitation might perhaps blur into irrelevance. His cyborg guitar tones counterpoint the eerie ornamented leaps of the Middle Eastern music he sources, undercutting its spiritual passion with impressionist sound-builds recalling insect swarms, oppressive heat, or the spine-crawling sense of secret surveillance. Hollowing out a Nile processional (on Don’t Be Misled By Your Eyes), he repacks it with drilling mosquito sounds, duetting Arabian slide lines and choral synths. The leisurely Levantine trip-hop of Flies elevates a souk-call vocal sample like a dreamy kite, but then subtly pollutes it with hovering swarms of static guitar buzz.

These last are much like the withering drones employed by Robert Fripp on ‘Exposure’ back in 1979, painting threatening sonic portraits of decaying industrial landscapes. You could only speculate as to whether John’s applying these same ominous atmospherics to the torn cities of the Arab spring; the idea hangs heavy. Initially The Bowl Maker of Lhasa (framed by temple bells and further baleful Frippish insect buzzes and pitch-collapses) sounds as if it’s going to do something similarly politicized for Tibet. However, it rapidly returns to clear hip-hop and funk sources – the sleek dancing duel between stinging clean guitar and EBow whistle, the playful way it lifts and reshapes a sly quote from ‘Freddie’s Dead’ in the middle of its drum-machine swing. While there are a few left-field touches (such as a timbral shift which refracts the familiar street beats into something with a twist of copper and stained glass), perhaps it’s better just to enjoy the imaginative, enthusiastic sound-painting; and not to over-freight the pieces with too much extra meaning.

The remaining tracks, though, bypass the club beats for a deeper exploration of John’s textural art-rock side. The brief roundabout of Echoplexing presents a bone-and-wood clatter of choppily-strummed flamenco guitar: echoing off to the sides of the soundfield, it joins stinging treble guitar lines and zipping insect sounds, stitched together by a child-chant organ part. The loop-and-splay Infanta shows John at his purest both as player and as music processor. Dialling up a sparkling silvery electric guitar tone, he begins the tune with Spanish classical inflections nestled in a sharp snappy reverb before abruptly leaving them to pulse and circle inside a loop-hang while he gets on with other business. He goes on to juggle a section of Hendrix jinks and transfigured rock’n’roll quotes; a countrified oud tone; elegant touches of shading, slurring and EBow elisions; a razor buzz bouncing in the background.

Elsewhere, March Of The Kitchen Taps floats a cluster of hovering, uneasy guitar parts (floats, wails and squeals) against swishing electronics like ventilation fan-blades, and against massed samples of metallic taps and bangs which flutter, slice and nail the pulse down. Cue jokes about everything-and-the-kitchen-sink: Crow On A Dying Dog eggs these on further, blending even more twiddling kitchen metals with a bagful of plastic electronics – bass twangs, burbling random-pitched vocalise, synthesized big-band swing and blaring horn-guitar parts. As a flight of sampled rooks flap past, it sounds like a weird and wilful collision between suitcase synth-pop and bleak mediaeval soundtracks.

It’s these particular pieces, in fact, that seal both the fate and triumph of ‘Sly Guitar’. Forks and taps aside, it is a kitchen-sink album: one which flea-jumps enthusiastically between slick beats and toy noises, easy funk and experimental chop-suey, clippable music and idiosyncratic personal sketches. John may have finally turned in his “player’s” album, but even this far along in the game he refuses to play it straight. Dipping in and out of formalism and fooling around, coursing around plug-ins and unravellings, he’s turned in an album which celebrates and fans out his plurality as a musician. Having mastered a humble, low-key chameleonic wilfulness – in which the appropriate art and the immediate idea directly shapes the method – he’s let it become part of him, even when he’s flexing free.

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’
Chanoyu Records, CHA002
CD/download album
Released: 6th May 2013

Get it from:
Chanoyu Records.

John Ellis online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud

April 2013 – mini-album reviews – Alex’s Hand’s ‘This Cat is a Genius (A B-Sides Compilation)’ (“mostly tarry, and it sticks to things”)

17 Apr
Alex's Hand: 'This Cat Is A Genius'

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’

Sometimes barrel scrapings are as much part of the meal as anything else from the barrel. In the brewing industry, that’s how you get sludgy yeast spreads like Marmite. Yum. Or not.

Meanwhile… we’ve met Alex’s Hand before. They’re yomping Seattle-ites from the scruffiest, carney-est end of American Gothic; something like a junior Primus, Zappa and Residents rolled into one, abruptly zombified, and crammed into the fustiest old suit in Abraham Lincoln’s trunk of hand-me-downs. This EP of B-sides (so they call them – they’ve only ever put out one EP) certainly seems like barrel scrapings. It’s mostly tarry, and it sticks to things. It’s shapeless, it’s distinctly umami, and you might not like it.

That, of course, is the point. Alex’s Hand tend to revel in everything they do, both their moments of genuine artistry and their dumbest chunks of musical blubber. ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ is a pre-release teaser of off-cuts from their debut album (‘Albatross Around The Neck’). It shows off (if that’s the right word) their sludgier leanings; their most precipitous rants; their Melvins side. It sounds as if while the goofy fuckers were messing around in rehearsal, some vicious bastard poisoned their coffee – but they enjoyed it so much that they sent out for more and left the tape running.

What the band’s actually doing is dealing with the departure of Slurrp, their ontime lead guitarist and horn-razzler. Drummer Nic Barnes and bass-bothering microphone pest Kellen Mills drop their stage-names, pick up the pieces and tumble onwards; various buddies help Kellen out with the guitar parts; but it’s clearly been a blow. You can all but hear Alex’s Hand bouncing off the ropes. However, they’re not ones to miss out on a dark chortle, even at their own expense. Nor are they scared of turning a setback into a challenge. If they have to have a period of floundering, they’re damn well going to get something out of it, even if they have to milk it ’til it bleeds. Rolling away from a relatively tight rock stance towards something doomier (or at least more rubbery), they’re taking the opportunity to map the underside of their development as they go.

One of the last two tracks from Slurrp’s last stand – ConserveNow! – is six-and-a-half near-atonal minutes of Melvins-style strain: a lurch-along instrumental of fuzzed grunge bass and wobbly guitar, like a sick freight train careening along a lost stretch of railway. The other, Ants, is a collapsing shack-load of wreckage-guitar and free-form word association. While Slurrp sifts through sluggish, raging clumps of feedback in the background, Kellen’s schizophrenic basslines jump and ebb between laid-back mooch and irritated attack. He also mutters beady-eyed, half-cut stuff into your ear – mostly about giants and UFOs, although at one point he does complain “words are stale, empty – they lack a certain sensuality.” Much of the ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ shares this playful pissed-off stance – a complaining laughter; clever-dumb; slumming in drunken despondency and enjoying a grump. Kellen plays the role of educated-and-unravelling to the hilt, offering flashes of self-mockery through the filter of booze vapours and the pinch of bad shoes.

Dear Me’s clench of lumbering punk disgruntlement mingles King Crimson feedback skitters with a collapsing, anti-play perversity. Inside itself, the song’s at war – halfway through, Kellen grabs a guitar and launches doggedly down a different tunnel and into a different tune. On the headache blunder of Train, he’s scouting for empty bars in order to avoid conversation, moping about insincerity like a touchy teenager: “wish I was happy listening to people with nothing to say. / Lying assholes with so much money / really are dead inside – / they pick my brains as they lie.” Longtime ally Ben Reece (of Step Daddy) drops in again to add wracked, protesting electric guitar and some needling ‘Marquee Moon’ edge as Kellen’s drunken soliloquy heads ever further downhill and then kinks back up shit creek, screaming about “blackest diamonds” and falling into the sea.

While the odd glancing zinger falls out of this kind of lyrical mess, Kellen’s verbal squalls and cracked mumbling are generally just another bit of colour. What he says is less important than how he says it; or just how the words hit the wall. Impression (featuring another temporary guitarist, Shadough Williams) sounds like a lobotomized David Byrne tripping over Black Sabbath. Nic drums on bottles while the music flinches between runaway bursts of samba and foot-dragging sludge-metal. Kellen dismisses another waster in smudges of sardonic detail: “he smokes his cigarettes, douses them with side-effects… / Stand to deliver, his parents used to say – / started out rich and pissed it all away.”

On Penticide, the band paddle around in a splatter of sprained, detuned instruments – piano, melodicas, glockenspiels – while Kellen’s rambling narration casts a cockeyed look downtown. Scribbling a vicious political cartoon of a “crack-whore free-market” full of hapless fools pushing “shit-stained zombie shopping carts”, he also rips himself and his peers ragged. “Welcome to the half-baked bistro… / conspiracy countdown coffee-shop collective,” he husks, before tagging himself as “a dying maverick with a bad attitude… / like Merce Cunningham took a shit in a wine glass.” Mocking his trashed, anti-heroic slide from high culture to garbage, the band break into sarcastic applause.

Confounding all this sarcasm, the final moments come close to delicacy. Sad Little Skeletons is slender, thoughtful and melancholy; initially, it’s not much more than distant birdsong and overheard chat, accompanied by lonely bass melody and shavings of rhythm guitar. For once, Kellen sings gently, setting aside the drunken howls and the scatter-shot smartarsery. Clarity renders his conclusions even bleaker. “Thoughts will come / then fly away. / These emotions are so thick, / like this life just makes me sick. / These piddly little humans, driving their cars / on the freeway… / Sad little skeletons; broken, but don’t realize they’re lost.” The rise towards a tangled noisy fanfare and the drowning of the words in yell and distortion initially comes as a relief. Then you go back and listen to it again, hearing the weary breathing and the tiredness that smacks of reality.

Part-broken, smeared, and devilled by little gouts of waspishness, this isn’t the easiest collection of songs and slurs to get along with. But there’s plenty to scoop out anyway, especially if you like hearing the wilful awkwardness of a band who enjoy stretching themselves out of shape and balance, and who can fit that in with the big boots and barfly lunges. If you enjoy feeling as if you’ve been dipped in an uncomfortable goo, that’s a bonus.

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’
Alex’s Hand (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 15th April 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Alex’s Hand online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp LastFM

March 2013 – album reviews – The JazzFakers’ ‘Here is Now’ (“accumulates itself out of loose particles of imagination; like a rogue dust-bunny”)

27 Mar
The JazzFakers: 'Here Is Now'

The JazzFakers: ‘Here Is Now’

I guess that any full-on free improvising band that makes it through to their third album must have become something of a fixture. Rolling and roiling within the Brooklyn branch of the New York improv scene, The JazzFakers probably also qualify via assorted free-music spillages (Brooklyn’s Experimental Music Meet-Ups, the Experi-MENTAL Festival) since their 2008 inception. Their humming, grappling music still suggests nothing particularly fixed.

Two of the four ‘Fakers, David Tamura and Robert L. Pepper, are certainly well-established promiscuous players and upsetters. Lynchpins of the Brooklyn multimedia collective PAS, they’ve placed themselves firmly into a matrix of oppositional noise, construction and deconstruction. All of their multi-instrumental noise-cramming in The JazzFakers has been nourished by multiple collaborations with a long train of musicians (soundtrack layerist Philippe Pettit, improv veterans Kidd Jordan and Charles K. Noyes, the spontaneous composers Ron Anderson and Grady Gerbracht). The other two ‘Fakers are maybe less ubiquitous – and less space-filling – but they certainly bring their own vitality. The anxious rubbery bass lines of Raphael Zwyer add a restless, nervy sproing. Drummer Steve Orbach has turned up bright and eager to the sessions, his sticks a-quiver like bug antennae, ready to prod and feel their way into the music.

The album name, ‘Here Is Now’ suggests fresh, bright immediacy – improvisation without worry. The individual track names (a set of successive anagrams, all worked out from the album title) suggest playfulness and an enjoyment of structure games. The dirty kerb, torn binbags and scattered garbage – tied-off shirts, food fragments – of the cover shot tell a different story, and a more truthful one. JazzFakers are about debris and disparity, not consonance. There’s little about them that suggests structure apart from the swarming, disturbing liveliness of their intent.

Instead, their music accumulates itself out of loose particles of imagination; like a rogue dust-bunny. Or, more accurately, like a gigantic hairball – something rolling restlessly around the band members’ Brooklyn rooms and lofts, accreting a body from discarded bits of living and usefulness. Any given JazzFakers piece is a cannibal mass, crammed with china plate-shards, snapped pencils, and the sparking remnants of semi-dismantled technology; given extra lift by rolled-in springy fibres and by jazz-honk air-pockets. Runaway guitars, violins and reeds tussle with sundry distortions and tangled-up masses of electronic blips, and with a collection of synth voices which range from the raw to the deliberately corny.

While David Tamura is responsible for plenty of overdriven splintery electric guitar lines (rolling around furiously on the floors of the compositions, like injured scorpions), he’s also the band’s saxophone player. Unusually, this also means he’s often the band’s main link to more conventional structures. Certainly it’s him that provides the powdery, blues-rich tenor melody that boards the loose-boned march of Oh Rise New, adding a recognizable jazz voice to the restless buzz-keyboard swirls and mosquito-drill guitar, the rambling bass tune and the childlike organ which hangs and fidgets on a single disruptive chord. On Horse Wine, it’s his smartly turned-out tenor sax that moves in to converse calmly with Robert’s chorused violin saws and Raphael’s panicky bass, trembling and muttering on the upper harmonics. Steve’s subtle drumming adds some calming authority to the occasion, a taste of West African skintalk to offset the balloon-scraping sense of fear elsewhere.

On the other hand, David’s not to be relied on to provide anchors and grip all the time. Weise Horn, rising out of a wobble of shortwave synth whines, sees him let rip on free tenor: Robert responds with scrapescapes of violin, Raphael with a bass performance like a surprised bear. More than any other on the album, the piece becomes a free blow, but one struggling with a sense of being trapped. Led by David’s frantically wiggling sax, it’s claustrophobic, filled with screeches and frantic prison drumming in background sounding like someone drumming up a riot on a cooking-oil can.

There’s more free-sax contortions on Her Woe Sin (this time on alto) while a trepidatious, intense organ harmonic squeezes the band into a single trapped pitch cluster. Here, it feels as if they’re all being forced out through the neck of a bottle. As they reach a peak of compression, the piece becomes a revolving oscillation of guitar rub and smudged noises; trapped on a machine wheel, while Steve keeps a slow walking drum time at the rear.

Like David’s easy slips into conversational sax, that walking rhythm is another old-school jazz touch that comes rising up to reassure us through various JazzFakers confusions. There’s a brief, loose touch of it at the end of Nowhere Is – David and Steve bobbing along together in a moment of drums and sax companionship. Earlier it’s been a game of tack-blows, with Raphael’s rubber-mallet bass rebounding off curving chunks of organ, water-bottle tocks and flits of synth. As this moves into a more abrasive grind of free noise, David’s bluesy touch on sax makes a return, holding the band together with a stitch of melody. Ever-so-slightly wild, it sits in with the pugnacious racket like an old guy bantering with youths, laughing as his own wiles are tickled by their random energy.

Whine Rose reminds us that New York (like other cosmopolitan homes of music) isn’t just full of its own stylings, but also winds immigrant memories into its fabric. This piece sounds like an impression of the docks in Istanbul. Robert’s violin lines toy with a flaring, challenging Turkish-trumpet attack. Raphael’s bass strings scrape and creak like cargo cables: Steve drums like a longshoreman slinging and bumping crates across a quay. Every so often a long scraping drone in a reverberant arch will overwhelm the chatter and noise, push through the dirt and air-flashes from the band’s electronics and come in to rest, like a giant ship harbouring. At the end another jazz walk falls into place, free and swaggering, but trying to get back into comradely step. For a moment, the ‘Fakers sound like a cluster of dockers going off-shift, strutting out of the yard in search of a bar and perhaps a bit of trouble to bond the team together.

But while hints of jazz tradition, diasporan memory and other bits of cultural consonance may surface briefly through the matted fabric of their musical hairball, the JazzFakers are always predominantly about shredding sound – grabbing and shaking it into rag and rampage. Bar a brief breather in the middle (an interlude of silence, broken by gentle koto plucks), Where’s Ion gathers up raw hanks of sound to stretch and shear. Morse-blipping electronics and flinders of keyboard fight their way through a seesawing murky gale of playing. Robert’s abrasive, distorted violin wrenches back and forth, overdriven to the point where its melody fissures and cracks; time pulled and flexed too far out of shape to cling to. The second part entirely and willingly overwhelms itself: a shitstorm onslaught of scribbling guitar and a mass of excited electronic buzzing and whooping meets Steve’s drums and percussion head on, as they rattle like an upended ship’s galley.

The cheerful Whee Irons has its share of noisy Tamura guitar tangles and collapsing Pepper electronics, but also seems to be toying with broken bits of 1980s pop (trying on the hairstyles and waving around some of the sonic tropes). A bouncing, pulsing vocoder patch promises some kind of hook before becoming just something to squish and pulp against a jittering music box. Raphael (briefly in the spotlight) visits the upending, cunning-stunt territory of Tony Levin or Mick Karn. His bass jolts out high squeets, tap-and-hold skids, talkative burbles; on one occasion, a game-changing downward slide before slipping comfortably back into freestyle wandering for the second stretch. More elements tossed hopefully into the mix include some double-speed Zappa saxophone rushes and some corny, choral angel-voice keyboard, mocking at the huffing, bellowing drums and the drilling lead guitar.

At the end, with the twelve minutes of Hero We Sin, the band don’t so much tie up the record as relax the tangles. While free, it’s less furious. There’s less jostling and more listening, from the fake sci-fi theremin intro (echoing over lightly-struck and watchful cymbals) to the final saxophone-argues-with-egg-slicer fadeout. Along the way, the quartet shuffles a handful of musical cards: the edge-stalking Miles Davis fusion of 1971 (both invoked and undermined by little stings of toy piano); the undulant glissando guitar-wave of Syd Barrett; even a hint of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clearer solos emerge. An aggressively awake guitar (swelling large over grinding distorted drum crunches like rusty clockwork being forcibly wound); cloudy, floating high toms and cymbals over a gastric electronic splatter; a vibraphone over a phased electronic phase buzz, deep pitches, sanding noises and high birdlike twitters, which in turn give way to a cradling bulk-photocopier slide and clunk.

Towards the close, while electronic percussion boils and rattles like popcorn at the side, Robert’s scratch violin is caught in debate with David’s saxophone – the one complaining and cramping, the other remonstrating and stretching. The work’s ending. Time for sense. Time to flex the remaining knots out.

The JazzFakers: ‘Here Is Now’
Alrealon Musique, ALRN043
CD/download album
Released: 25th March 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Artist online:
Facebook MySpace Soundcloud

March 2013 – album reviews – Felipe Otondo’s ‘Tutuguri’ (“sound moulded by careful hands”)

26 Mar
Felipe Otondo: 'Tutuguri'

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’

Having pursued his studies from his native Chile to Denmark and then to the UK (he currently teaches at the University of Lancaster), electro-acoustic musician Felipe Otondo has already made himself a world traveler. The cosmopolitan sourcing of his music ensures that he travels even further afield, even while sitting at his computer. The four pieces on his debut album ‘Tutuguri’ draw on concepts, patterns, sounds and language from India, Java and Mexico as well as from European and American sound-labs.

This reminds me that, like bats, human beings use sound to find where we are. We often remain unaware of this, or even dismiss it. In cities, for example, we tend to think in terms of filtering out the extraneous noise – the rumbling press of traffic, the too-close babble of our neighbours on public transport or through the thin walls of apartment blocks; the persistent layering of unwanted music as ambient features for shopping or working. In spite of this, we’ll still use sounds to judge our way and to establish our place in a shifting world. Recurring sounds in the subway tell us that the service is regular, or when we need to change direction. Changing accents in voices and even birdsong rachet our subliminal paranoia up or down. Subtle switches in the quality of sound moving through the air tell us about weather, and about the places we move through. Some newly-blind people even report developing an echo-location sense, measuring the presence of oncoming pedestrians, lamp-posts and corners by the minute changes in echo and sound positioning.

Most importantly, we associate the places we know with an arrangement of sound. Wind will be shaped around a building in a particular way, the patterns of dialogue and intonation spoken in and around particular shops and café. Traffic lights and contraflows generate their own rhythms and exchanges. Blindfolded, I’d still be able to recognise the back-street where I currently live from its specific sound patterns: cars nudging the speed-bumps with a particular speed and duration, the toss and bend of the trees in the wind paths, the pitches of children’s voices in the school half-way along, the frequency of slow buses creeping to the nearby bus garage. These recognitions surprise us, often in ways which we don’t even consider until the connections occur to us.

To me (being less of a traveler than many) Felipe’s sound sources are more exotic, initially implying spatial journeys or international visits. The complex and beautifully-packaged CD sleeve for ‘Tutuguri’ enhances this, opening up like an origami flower (or like the jaws of a concealed alligator). The four intent and deceptively challenging pieces within the album are designed to shuffle the consciousness rather than soothe it. They divert the listener along other paths: associative, temporal, historical; hallucinatory or sacramental. When Felipe cites them as being “meditative”, he doesn’t mean relaxing, or lazy. Listening care is required. At a distance – at a point of detachment or reduction to background – Felipe’s pieces will sound like a fluttery wallpaper of treated sound effects. Up close, turned up, or simply heard on headphones, the craft is evident: Felipe’s years studying spatial sound and timbral perception have been well spent. He’ll set you down in the middle of a set of beautifully recorded instruments or noises – or as an offset, slightly distanced observer – and then gradually alter that sound-world in increments, or in sudden dartings.

The oldest piece on offer here, Ciguri, takes Native Mexican bell and gong sounds and cuts them loose from root time. This isn’t as straightforwardly surgical, or as uninvolved, as it might read. Felipe is open about the inspiration he’s drawn from the Mexican peyote ceremony (and from Antonin Artaud’s writings on it). In particular, he’s interested in the time-distortion effect experienced when ingesting mescaline (which he recreates here via digital editing). On the way, he also explores inharmonicity – the additional non-harmonic tones created within a sound, via variations in the source material’s state of rigidity and elasticity. Strictly speaking, this is a physical exploration, but if you’re talking ritual – if you’re talking metaphysics – the same idea might be extended to the participants in the ceremony. As in any sacrament, each of their experiences will be shaped by their willingness, and by how their own histories and attitudes impact on how their brain works and how their world is conceived.

On Ciguri, Felipe doesn’t make matters quite that explicit, but he does his very best to remind us of how subjective an experience this can be. Sound-wise, he places us in the heart of a slow heat of hanging metals, and we listen (over nine minutes) as they alter. During this time, different parts of the surrounding structure take turns to transmute while others remain still. Gently struck tones blur from a simple ping to a fluttering hummingbird drill: the substance of the metals themselves seem to move restlessly between solid resonant bronze, a whispering foil, or a mere shining hiss of elements. The reasons behind this may be all in the math, but it doesn’t feel that way. As the numbers race through their patterns, the world around us changes and we’re hypnotized by what feels like the universe breathing.

Another piece, Irama, draws directly on Javanese gamelan orchestra music (using manipulated recordings of the Sekar Petak ensemble at the University of York). Irama’s title comes from a flexible gamelan term – one that can be used to define the time between two notes, or the time between two actions; or the rhythmic relationships between parts of the composition; or tempo in general. Drawing all of these meanings together under one conceptual net suggests a substantial and integral connection between all of them, much as each of the Indonesian gongs, flutes, pots and zithers in a specific gamelan orchestra is honed and tuned to fit only with instruments from the same orchestra. Of course, digital electro-acoustic processing means that any relationship between notes, pitches or rhythms which didn’t already exist can be first conceived and then molded into shape: and Felipe flexes and reshapes the gamelan sounds according to his own design.

Irama’s gong sounds range from the familiar bronze boom to the kind of light dry patterings and tight-hide raps which you’d expect to hear bounding from frame drums. Over a particularly deep gong sound, a metallophone texture is stretched into a soft drone: when the broader percussion section returns, it’s joined by soft struck pings and an oceanic flutter. At crucial points, particular gong chimes cut through to suggest changes of intent and mood. Apart from these, all of the sounds which lope through Irama reinforce themselves, subtly adding to an arrangement which becomes denser and denser, shifting to a jazzier pulses before (nearly four minutes in) rising to flood-rate and then dispelling into nothing. A second section begins – sterilized pings and rings, more German laboratory than Javanese ritual. Drilling echoes are buried inside it, ringing edge-tones place themselves above it. At six minutes, the frame-drums return; at seven, the pulse has multiplied again to the point of flooding; at eight, softened rings are the dominant sound as the piece diminishes into calmness. As with Ciguri, there seems to be more than the mathematics at work here; but beyond the calculations, all of Irama could itself be an illustration of time as human experience – its repetitions, its bewildering multiplicity of voices; its moments of collective intensity and its sudden rapid lulls.


 
As a listener, attempting to put narratives (however clumsy) onto more elusive or abstract pieces of music is a common strategy. Thankfully, the mixed instrumental/vocal piece Teocalli already comes with a narrative. It’s based on ‘The Night Face Up’, a short story by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, whose surreal-modernist approach (creatively disrupting his plots and chances of resolution via a shifting, subjective consciousness and by the restless straw-shuffling of jazz) is well suited to the cut/paste/reshuffle of Felipe’s compositional tools.

The original tale is about an injured, hospitalized motorcyclist: delirious, and dreaming that he’s a man hunted by the ancient Aztecs and targeted for sacrifice. Location and context come adrift in the dreamer’s mind, but are carefully deployed by the writer – here, Felipe steps carefully into the latter role, guiding his strips and layers of sound into place. Hunters’ drums roll in the background, sometimes scooping up in an enormous glottal curl of extreme echo, swooped by fierce panning and sound-fielding. At times, they run backwards, creating great ominous bowls of sound-space. In a recurring cut-up, a little choir of men sing what sounds like a Mexican popular tune. This moves in and out of Teocalli like a radio which can’t stay fixed on the station, just as the injured man in the story can’t stay fixed within his own time or his own experience. Watchful silences bead within the piece, within the drum-slides; filled with tiny arrested hangs of reverberation.

Through these silences (but also often in the midst of great surging wrenches of drums, as they wrestle for our attention) women’s voices speak. Zapotec women, from a pre-Spanish civilization that lives alongside and intertwined with modern Mexico. They converse and chat, presumably about ordinary human matters – these are interview snippets, not field recordings. But as these women are separated from listeners like us by their language (and by our own crude knowledge, and cruder guesses, about their culture), they innocently become part of the sinister hallucinatory sound environment which Felipe creates. As drums sweep and skirl around our heads, so too does a whole jungle of suggestions – brief clusters of crickets, digitally squeezed and timeslid; bird calls, as of hunters hidden in the undergrowth. When one of the women speaks again, her unconcerned and easy voice is shaded into callousness. When, at one point, she suddenly laughs, easy and confident, the dense paranoia and wilderness swirling around her conspires to render her cruel.

There’s no final outcome to Teocalli – no cathartic slaughter, no rescue. Eventually Felipe’s piece just blows away into the shadows, like the memory of ugly wings pressed around you. The fever dream is over. With the passing sweat those eerie vicious terrors go with them. The deep-rooted fear (part-humble, part-racist) of an ancient, incipient otherness. The fear of comfort and security crumpling and allowing the past to pluck you away; a raw, helpless morsel.


 
In its way, the final ‘Tutuguri’ piece – Sarnath – is as ritualistic as the others, yet it doesn’t rely so much on recreating states of mind. Instead, it attempts to sculpt suggestions of place, history and connections. It’s based on Francis Booth’s Indian location recordings of places associated with the story of the Buddah (and is named after the deer park in which Buddhist Dharma was first taught). In a sense, Sarnath is both site-specific and displaced, bringing the noises of Buddah-touched locations to wherever its soundfiles are played. Concert venue. Boom box. Perhaps even a trekker’s smartphone, being carried on a pilgrimage of its own.

As Felipe switches between recordings (clicking up one-by-one the sonic capturess of different geographical stops on the Buddah journey), Sarnath itself seems to be moving from place to place in search of something. Literally, a footprint? Literally, an echo? Felipe toys with the field recordings: folding them on themselves, stretching them over time. A bell might sound, swell hugely, then drop away. Chants may be heard. On a half-distant road, a procession of ecstatically banging drums may wind its way to a shrine. Behind these, birds and animals twitter. Away from the devotions, there are the soft chips and scrapes of human work being carried on regardless. Here, Felipe’s notes most obviously cite the intense, subtle states of mind connected with meditation: here, with whispers of Buddha making their presence felt, it’s a traditional part of the tale. Here, too, are the tiny sounds to focus meditation; the small sonic flakes of the natural world around which attention can be wound.


 
‘Tutuguri’ is four pieces; four stories. None of them conclusive; and despite the sleevenotes and the substantial clues, at least part of the stories I’ve recounted here have been dreamed up by me. The solo listener – the sound moulded by careful hands around my ears, yes; some of the intimations perhaps patted into place. But in other cases this music is just process doing what process does: forming channels for their own sake, numbers making shapes and illusions as part of the pattern comes into view, and only part of that’s actually recognized. Much of the purely technical side of Felipe Otondo’s music escapes me: instead, I experience much of it as the psychological backwash, like the vapour trails after the plane has passed. Still, if I’m creating my own ideas for what Felipe’s music might entail or might intimate, there’s clearly enough extra substance there for me to build on. That’s what humans do: we use sound to find out where we are. Finding places we know: judging our way through what’s being presented to us; sometimes, the recognitions surprise us.

Working blind, but guided by sound, I travel too.

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’
Sargasso Records, SCD28070 (5065001338700)
CD/download album
Released: 25th March 2013

Get it from:
Sargasso Records (CD) or Amazon (download).

Felipe Otondo online:
Homepage Soundcloud LastFM

Album reviews – 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:
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March 2013 – album reviews – Henry Fool’s ‘Men Singing’ (“the friendly grapple between wide-eyed fluency and beady, quizzical interference”)

13 Mar
Henry Fool: 'Men Singing'

Henry Fool: ‘Men Singing’

Perhaps it’s his own fault for perpetually playing the faded-lily crooner, the songwriter victim of ever-blasted hopes, the sigher in lonely cafes. At any rate, Tim Bowness doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his mischievous sense of humour. For instance: in his understated and perfectly burnished way, he’s one of the most stylish and distinctive vocalists in British rock, whether he’s refining and wrangling art-pop with Steven Wilson in no-man or lending his silky melancholy tenor to assorted projects from OSI to centrozoon, Rajna to White Willow. Yet for the whole of this second Henry Fool record – for which the involvement of him and his voice might have been the biggest selling points – he shuts up altogether and plays guitar instead. Inevitably, the album’s called ‘Men Singing’.

Tim also contributes the track titles – enigmatic, silly, sometimes both simultaneously – and, I’m guessing, the sleevenotes. In the latter, his Henry Fool partner-in-chief Stephen Bennett is credited with impressions of Miles Davis and Terry Riley, but also with an impression of Mavis Riley from ‘Coronation Street’. It’s an intriguing glance into their working relationship. Presumably, this means Tim gets to be Rita Tanner. Not inconceivable. Following a phase of relatively sober hairstyles, he is looking more bouffant these days.

Of course, Henry Fool have a history of not quite doing what’s expected of them. While they’re nominally a progressive rock band, you might better describe them as highly-accomplished prog fans on a weekend trip to their influences, who get bored with the direct route and carry out chance diversions to their other interests as they go. Their 2001 debut album certainly drew echoes and ripples from Soft Machine, from mid-’70s Genesis or Pink Floyd, or the more ruminative moments of King Crimson. Yet there were post-punk spikes in the road, stopping the music from becoming grand and flowery; and stubborn, counter-intuitive post-rock kinks (reminiscent of Slint, Fridge or Tortoise) that reigned in or derailed the pastoral draperies.

In addition, rather than grand drama or ill-advised theories-of-everything, Tim’s songwriting (sparse and bloodsqueezed, honed for understatement) offered flashes of human fragility, thumbnail sketches of love and loneliness, and brief twilight peeks into inconclusive lives. It made for an uneasy listen, and maybe the prog world as a while wasn’t ready for a band more Raymond Carver than William Gibson or Siddharta. Henry Fool made a couple of slightly disjointed festival appearances and then went to sleep for a decade under a haystack of perfectionism, studio wrangling and sundry distractions.

Cue, much later, this re-emergence – in which the entire band sounds utterly invigorated. There might be no words this time, (and the music’s smooth flow belies its long gestation) but the intent is clear.

As of the moment, Henry Fool’s a seven-piece collective: part-time players and guest players (many from the no-man orbit) fluttering in and out of place to pulse out fluent streams of music, like happy quasars. Most of the original collaborators are back – multi-instrumental Eno collaborator Peter Chilvers returns on fretless bass, Cambridge jazz veteran Myke Clifford provides reeds and woodwind, and Michael Bearpark continues to commit a variety of guitar solos and interferences from skittering textural glissandi to raw, probing melodies. Of the newer recruits, Andrew Booker (from the no-man live band and, more recently, Sanguine Hum) draws, drives and hauls the drum patterns. The latest player to be pulled into the talent pool is I Monster’s Jarrod Gosling, who brings further prog- and post-rock ingredients along with him as well as sounds from the world of organic electronica – mixing, Mellotrons, a touch of Moog bass and a tinkling glockenspiel.

Most of the out-and-out proggery still comes courtesy of Stephen Bennett, whose keyboard skills and theatrical instincts (thanks to some solid neo-prog history via his 1980s band LaHost) adds most of the harmony and decoration to the project. The Tim Bowness stamp on the project is in the ideas and the overall compass. Never an instrumental virtuoso himself, he leaves the spotlight to others and provides the music’s spine rather than its face – sitting in the background, he rolls out a variety of low-key but crucial guitar lines. These generate the music’s understated art-rock elements of challenge and upset; and it’s still the friendly grapple between Stephen’s wide-eyed fluency and Tim’s beady, quizzical interference that brings the music to life.

The four lengthy, semi-improvised tracks on ‘Men Singing’ manage to be steeped in English prog and psychedelic reference points without becoming waterlogged by any of them. Even the guest appearance of a genuine ’70s art-rock guest star – Phil Manzanera, invited in to channel Quiet Sun on two tracks – fails to upset the balance. Instead, he slots smoothly into the work, engaging in an equal-terms quadrille of unorthodox lead and rhythmic noises with Michael Bearpark. It’s due to the band’s thinking patterns. Rather than going for an unfolding narrative or for linear doodling, Henry Fool works as a kind of coasting, vertical jam; with layer upon layer of subtle music thoughts playing out and exploring over their rolling instrumentals. Throughout, Peter Chilvers restrains himself to spare, crunching, authoritative rumbles and wahs on bass, like a giant turning over in bed – pinning and shaping each long measure with the minimum of showmanship.

The fourteen minutes of Everyone In Sweden are those which most strongly suggest mid-’70s British jazz-rock, carried as they are on upfront and ever-fluid Booker drumming, and woven through by high-buzzing analogue synths. At points it could sound like Soft Machine taking a crack at Los Endos, although a variety of knotty guitar approaches from Manzanera, Bearpark and Bowness and the airy punch of Myke Clifford’s soprano sax spin the music through further territories and changes. At half the length, Man Singing sounds like a lost jam between Miles Davis and the journeying Pink Floyd of ‘Ummagumma’ – elusive funk with bursts of Herbie Mann-ish flute from Myke Clifford, irritated-elephant interjections from Manzanera, and juicy elusive funk-slurs and pings from Chilvers. Bowness, meanwhile, hovers on a tremulous Bark Psychosis guitar; glimpsed occasionally through gaps in the rest of the music, and keeping the questions raised.

The lumbering two-note fuzz bass anchoring and stippling My Favourite Zombie Dream suggests something less gracious. On this one the band plays cruder even as it holds and manipulates tension. Toms bob uneasily, synthesizers string out warped buzzes and trumpeting tonal tumbles. A backdrop of Mellotron gauzes, crash-spring guitar and wrenched organ tones add further disruptive edges. Increasing layers of Stephen Bennett parts pay tribute to a variety of keyboard players from prog to Krautrock – all simultaneously.

Thirteen-and-a-half minutes of Chic Hippo round everything off. This one’s a game of two halves. The first is a leisurely, arena-friendly stroll – the boom-bat drums and the pecking bass, the brace of real violins (courtesy of Steve Bingham) flying alongside the pop-up musings of the Mellotron. There are trumpet lines, moving in jabbing boxer shuffles; and melting electric piano dreams. There are flown-in swerves of parachute-collapse guitar distortion, or bulges like the revving of temperamental guitars. For the second half, a steamy mid-tempo pulse decorated with stern doubled saxophone honks and Wurlitzer piano arpeggios picks everything else up and runs with it. Guitars hang off the sides of the tune, peeling in strips: Bowness offers serene minor arpeggios, Bearpark a scything fuzzed slide line.

Yet while the album is drenched in detail and in finely-worked passing salutes to the creative hum of the early ’70s, that’s not what’s important about it. What matters is the lifting and the liberation; those layers of floated space stacked up above the rhythms and the tickalongs, and the way in which they’re filled. Henry Fool’s biggest achievement is the way in which they’ve freed themselves. It could be a decade of clever editing – something given back from those years of doubt and wrangling – but that doesn’t explain the spirit of fluency here.

While the band have kept some of that beady edge and economy which set them apart on their original arrival, every second of this album is packed with the kind of music that seems to have arrived without agenda or awkwardness. In between the shifts in tone, the mood colourings and the instrumental dialogs, Henry Fool have found a way to travel in a state of easy grace. From the opening cymbal twists to the final harmonious thin-out, every single sound on here (collectively hovering in position like an immaculate air display) feels like the sound of a musician playing through their instruments in the right voice for the right moment… and that’s a rare achievement anywhere. For nearly forty sustained minutes, everyone’s attuned; all in chorus.

Men singing. What do you know? – perhaps it wasn’t a joke after all.

Henry Fool: ‘Men Singing’
KScope Music, KSCOPE244 / 802644824420 or KSCOPE836 / 802644583617
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 11th March 2013

Buy it from:
Burning Shed

Henry Fool online:
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February 2013 – mini-album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’ (“unstitched, re-embroidered, re-folded”)

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

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

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

centrozoon online:
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January 2013 – album reviews – Érick d’Orion’s ‘Koursk’ (“a kind of philosophical haunting”)

29 Jan

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:
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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

November 2012 – mini-album reviews – Sterbus’ ‘Smash the Sun Alight’ (“like a prog-dusted bumblebee”)

20 Nov
Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’

After six years of making off-kilter indie rock, Sterbus seems ready to make the jump from cult to cute. His previous albums and EPs have shuffled between serious tunes, determined explorations and playful jokes. ‘Smash The Sun Alight’ concentrates firmly on his most accessible side – fuzzy, funny-angled guitar pop launched into a chunky meander through the air, like a prog-dusted bumblebee.

If these seven songs and instrumentals had a colour, it would be orange-gold – blurry and amiable. Sterbus injects sunshine and smog from his native Rome straight into the heart of his rampant, time-travelling pop. One of his feet might be jammed happily into a big bucket of prog and psychedelia; the other’s rooted deeply in power pop and eclectic 1990s indie, with driving earworm-bursts of chorus. In his twists of tunefulness and humour and his love of scruffy noise, you can see traces of Blur, Small Faces and XTC (or, looking further west, Weezer, Steve Malkmus and Guided By Voices). Sterbus also has an ear for those drowsy, medicated-modal melodies that served Nirvana so well; and the dogged musical extravagance of Cardiacs infests his work like a glittering spiral, turning every tune into a hopeful steeplechase of extra chords and whole-tone hops.

It’s hardly straightforward; yet somehow Sterbus doesn’t overdo it and lose you along the way. It’s rare to hear so much bounding complexity tied up so neatly into buzzing firecrackers of song. The saturated bounce of Gay Cruise is typical of what’s on offer, kitting out a tuneful, sludgy Dinosaur Jr. fuzz-growl with some dissonant King Crimson pitches before hammering in a break of piled-up chords to grab us by the ear and take us mountaineering. The eccentric Welsh popster Curig Pongle is along for the ride, playing organ like a swerving Mini: the song also sideswipes a random Andy Partridge sample in which the great man is gurning on about Arthur Askey.

As for Sterbus’ lyrics, they’re a vegetable stew of soft little fragments. The occasional clear phrase bubbles up out of the gentle mumble and hum – uneasy (“troubles in the pool / making me cold”), tender (“My dear baby, what can I do? / You make me feel like I’ve been over-ruled,”) or whimsical (“Unboyfriendable girlies show no love”). Occasionally a skewed aphoristic image surfaces, like something cast up by a young Peter Blegvad (“Birds and second wives, / trying to be polite.”). Much of the time, though, the stew remains a stew, the language dissolved into flavours rather than shapes.

In some songs, such as the ukele-driven A Sigh of Relief, it’s not so much English as an impression of English; just as Sterbus’ breezy mouth-trombone solo and music-hall-McCartney bassline is a sepia impression of holidays in fading seaside resorts. Maybe he knows that songs of life, love and feeling can work just as well as gauzy murmurs. Perhaps it’s just a chewing-over of words to blend into an earnest, reassuring blur – a swirl of cream to smooth the mongrel clamberings of the music.

Oh well, perhaps innocence can be complicated too. That’s why those Irish fiddle parts are there to usher in Otorinolaringoiatria, unless they’re there to soothe us after the tongue-twister (and to stop us wondering why the only distinct word in the song is “sauerkraut”). That’s why You Can’t Be Sirius is tied up like a Sunday roast – its laddering chords held together by tight power-pop drumming, lashing those goosed leaps of organ into position, securing those shivering tremolo-blocks and speaker-fizzes of guitar.

That’s also why Wooden Spheres + Heartquakes plays its pass-the-parcel game. A pelting punk-pop three-chord wonder abruptly switches to Curtis Mayfield funk with sunny popcore punk choruses; then, after changing gear for the tiniest of organ solos, ends up jammed and droning like a stuck tide of Scandinavian prog. Similar in its out-and-out playfulness is The Amazing Frozen Yogurt: setting power chords against breezy mellowness, it sounds like a summery merge of Caravan and The Wildhearts. Lonnie Shetter’s sheets-of-sound sax scribble is flown in for a jolt, offsetting that mid-song switch into Zappa kitsch complete with vibraphone. Sterbus flutters around both parody and self-parody here, but his freshness steers him clear.

The near-seven minutes of Flatworms (Eggs Of Joy) tie together not just Sterbus’ musical agility and bevy of influences, but also his sense of connection. Away from the sung sections, it owes something to the severe angles of King Crimson’s Red; yet it’s also the most Cardiacs-styled piece on offer: a self-confessed attempt to write a sequel to that band’s Dirty Boy (which Sterbus has already covered) and its massive parade of chords. Sterbus’ drowsy vocals soften the cavalcade; the brief flashes of conga draw a little nourishing groove into it. While the lyrics are as obscure as anything else in this clutch of songs, they get the message of impermanence and humbling across. “Running away – far from heaven, / diggin’ the grave, the sun. / Crying away – all your glory; / useless and vain, in time.” It might be an oblique gesture of fellow feeling towards Tim Smith, Cardiacs stricken leader. Certainly, the song’s payoff line casts aside any artifice in favour of the purest sympathy ( “I see you, / I feel you. /You heal me. / Uncomplicated ways.”) and brings the inclusive generosity at the heart of Sterbus’ music to a natural home.

Nothing to be afraid of. Sun’s out. Come and warm yourself.

Sterbus: ‘Smash The Sun Alight’
Sterbus (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 16th November 2012

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Sterbus online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

November 2012 – album reviews – Cthulhu Detonator’s ‘Infernal Machines’ (“beneath the razor squeals and data blurts, there’s a lot of composed thought going on”)

9 Nov
Cthulhu Detonator: 'Infernal Machines'

Cthulhu Detonator: ‘Infernal Machines’

Over in the pleasant and temperate Canadian climes of Victoria, Eric Hogg sometimes strolls the streets and sometimes makes noise. Perhaps he dreams of being under dental sedation, indulging himself in some grand and streaky nightmares of colour-bleed and sound-warp. A salubrious environment isn’t necessarily a bar to a sinister imagination.

Then again, while it’s certainly unsettling, is the shivering noise music Eric produces as Cthulhu Detonator necessarily sinister? And what are nightmares, anyway, if they’re not creativity fracking its way simultaneously through the subconscious and the known in search of new fuel? I’m guessing that whenever Eric does go walking, he’s chewing over everything he’s heard both recently and years ago, waiting for something to engage fully with the teeth in his brain.

The choice of project name mixes demolition tech with H.P. Lovecraft. This is worth remembering. At its fringes, genre music is increasingly morphing into cheerfully-tailored geek accessory, so this could have been superficial fantasy horror-noise – vat bubbles, flailing tentacles, steampunk sound effects and a comic-book feel. Actually, Cthulhu Detonator’s music springs from the well-corroded, confrontational gully worn by power electronics, making the most of sonic distressage and sample-flaying. However, Eric gives a wide berth to the more regressive, narcissistic elements of power electronics (the psychopathic posturing, the violent fixations and the taste for hate-politics, the desire to transgress and incur repulsion). He takes the noise, not the rage. He doesn’t turn over bodies, just sounds. Beneath the razor squeals and data blurts, there’s a lot of composed thought going on.

Just to finally lay those Lovecraft associations to rest – besides the name, the only other Lovecraft link here is one single piece, At The Mountains Of Madness. This is also a tenuous link at best: Eric makes no obvious attempts to reconstruct the narrative of the horror story whose title he’s borrowed, just using the latter as a springboard for scene setting. As on the rest of the album, he sets up an instrumental language and then corrupting it into something else via intensive sound processing. For At The Mountains Of Madness, it’s a simple-as-possible drum solo, mostly concerted, mostly stumbling hits. Drums and struck metal percussives are crushed and milled; the former crudely distorted, the latter phased into smears. A determinedly uncooperative beat gives way to a rabble-rousing tom whack broken up by jittered glassy echoes and crazed, triggered reverb. It has the contradictory feel of a wall of noise that’s made mostly of gaps, with the sharp attack of drum hits setting up anticipation of the scrunching decay that follows. Soundfields pop violently in and out of hearing: sometimes you can hear a click track bleeding through, providing something to rebel against.

Infernal Machine is part hellish, but almost conversational. Drawing on a source which sounds much like a squealing guitar on maximum tube scream, Eric chops it into whoops and squeaks by some jackhammering processing which swings in a pendulum arc across the soundfield smudging and seducing the sounds as it goes. Halfway in the electrophonic squeals are replaced by a gracefully screaming choir (courtesy of a multi-tracked guest, Fairen Berchard), which echoes down a long tunnel. Cross the Static Ocean resembles an elderly printer grind, looped and sealed up in a bobbing storm of hurtling white noise. Eric gets the most out of it – sweeping across its frequencies, digging out hisses and tenor grinds, cutting and pasting around the soundfield, making it strangely beautiful. (There’s also an abstract humour at play here – one moment even sounds like a freight train doing the Charleston while no-one is looking.)

As so often with noise music, what often makes a Cthulhu Detonator piece involving is where you can see the process of its developing impurity – whether you’re looking for the sound sources or the corrupted concepts. Some pieces sound close to classical music. While it’s not entirely clear where its gently blaring, tottering source sounds came from, Transmit.Disintegrate ends up sounding like a baroque trumpet chorale filtered and echoed through a roaring stonework gullet, gently billowing and swirling as it goes on its journey. Blinding White Light starts its life as a dramatic sequence of interminably held organ chords; as if Eric’s raiding stock Hammer Horror music for battles with the Devil. He runs this piece of Gothic corn through the harrow-blades of distortion until it melts into a sirening phase of shuddering pink-misting noise: you can feel the higher pitches being squashed flat onto the bass, like tissue onto iron. Towards the end it’s simply shifting between two simple but uncomfortably-matched chords; a jammed apocalypse.

Somewhere, the party is also being crashed by dance music. Initially, Rise Automatons has something in common with fluttering dubstep. You might consider beats to be crucial for this, but they’re missing. However, here are the swooping bassiness, the teasing rewinds, the timestretch; and Eric’s overdriven scribbling sounds like turntable scratches. But it doesn’t last: the structure collapses and is crumpled into a confusion of vengefully buzzing flies and feedback whoops. At one point, a dead TV whistle sneaks underneath the violent editing and panning.

Chrome Leviathan – bizarrely – appears to be based on a deep-funk lick, although it’s one that’s being carried on a gnarled data burst and surrounded by crash processing and the occasional clatter of glass fragments. It certainly owes something to the old Hank Shocklee noise-as-rhythm riff idea – playing with two hip-hop accented riffs before it’s done – although the exaggerated panning at the end is pure noise disruption. The party continues on Lava Box , where a catchy clapping pulse rhythm is applied to an indeterminate, squelched buzz. There’s a clear head-bobbing intent here, as rhythmic parts bop along inside the squish with an unselfconscious physicality that could as easily be slamming hip-hop or heavy metal. Eventually all of the mashed noise is left to bubble by itself – the rhythms, ultimately, don’t become a tyranny.

Two further pieces reassert the subtler powers of ambient noise and sound-pictures. On Womb, the main constituent ingredient is a discreet drive-along hum – like a small car on a lonely mountain road, but amplified up to the level of landscape. In the mid-ground, slow enveloping organ chords appear, so large and yet so quiet that they’re all but out of the image. All you can hear are the small details on their sky-covering surfaces – the sound-curve of their undersides and their strangely comforting overtones. Radio voices, none of them distinguishable, sprinkle this cloudy arch. There’s a dirty serenity to it all, an intimation of clear air and solitude, lightly misted with the pollution of noise and incursion.

Atom Thresher – the last track on the album, and in many respects the most industrial – heads back to smaller scenes and more claustrophobic concepts. Deep flapping interference spatters static around a bowl-shaped drone: a third sound layer adds a klaxoning extensor buzz; a fourth, the sound of machinery clanking and extracting. Whatever’s being milled out here is invisible; but the working sound eventually falls out into Geiger counter pops, and at the very end a short decisive silence.

After this series of journeys and pictures, the question of the inspirational process remains – the disjunction between comfortable surroundings and an output of rough-textured noise. Maybe the keynote of making this kind of music in a pleasant climate (rather than in a crappy recession town full of blocked-off hopes and angry knuckleheads) is that it’s simply less pressured, less draining, more fun; and that this in turn shapes the music. Certainly, as industrial music goes, Cthulhu Detonator doesn’t appear to be aimed helplessly into a corner and buzzing with rage; nor does Eric shut down his human responses and slip into a bleak hover-mode. Instead he shapes the rags, bones and hanks of his sources into something which is, if not necessarily hopeful, at least alive and active; and involved with itself.

Cthulhu Detonator: ‘Infernal Machines’
Cthulhu Detonator (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 2nd November 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Cthulhu Detonator online:
Soundcloud Bandcamp

October 2012 – album reviews – Jorge Arana Trio’s ‘Mapache’ (“a lean, strutting pirouette along a jagged line”)

28 Oct
Jorge Arana Trio: 'Mapache'

Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’

Until fairly recently, Jorge Arana played guitar and hit keys in Pixel Panda; a precocious, musically omnivorous bunch of Kansas City skronk-punkers. Local heroes, hotly-tipped for the best part of a decade, they quietly called it a day in 2011 but wasted little time in moving on. Jorge’s bass-playing brother Luis stepped up a commercial notch via rising alt.rockers Beautiful Bodies, while other former Pandas can be found mingling psychedelia and hip-hop in Spidermums. As for Jorge, he’s pulled in the final Pandas drummer, Josh Enyart, added bass guitarist Jason Nash to make up a brotherhood of “J”s and stepped over into jazz. Someone in the band had to do it. This is Kansas City, after all – they’ve been shipping jazzmen out and up the river for nearly a century.

Punk roots or not, the Jorge Arana Trio’s serious jazz intent stretches beyond leaving behind quirky band names. Not that this apparent sobriety is absolute. Their debut album title, ‘Mapache’, is Spanish for raccoon, suggesting that the Trio see themselves as determined and adaptable omnivores, thriving on trash where necessary, and prepared to spread mischief around the suburbs if they have to. Some of the immigrant-son, take-no-prisoners fierceness of Pixel Panda has made its way into the new band. The glam racket might have disappeared, but not the stop-start emphasis or the punky crunch. Lester Bangs would have been proud of them.

That said, despite the band’s fierce electric energy there’s less outright skronk here than you might have expected. In fact, there’s less than there was in the Pandas. Instead, the Trio lead a lean, strutting pirouette along a jagged line between lean discipline and a scrawl of energised chaos. If there’s any self-indulgence here, it’s the kind you’d find in freerunning; a rebellious athletic liveliness, bodies pitted against the push-back from concrete mass and city obstacles.

There’s also something of the static, wound-up aura of the very early jazz-fusion bands, huddling among the fragments of busted rules as the ’70s arrived. Free like knife-fighters, trying to save their energies and moments for the right move at the right time but seething with excitement over the open field of opportunities. This latter is mainly in terms of musical tension. Skilled as the Trio are, they retain (for the most part) a clipped-back tyro technique closer to bullish avant-rock playing than to the broader subtler dynamic of jazz. However, their taste for driving syncopations and their bodily hunger for explosions of rhythm make it plain where their musical hearts lie now. Occasional bursts of wordless vocalising – combative, gladiatorial, almost like gang chants – break up or complement the instrumentals. Most of their pieces are short, interrupted, to the point – a quick flare of ideas followed by a watchful silence.

The places which the Trio explore are generally shaped by Jorge’s choice of instrument. Working with Jason’s cement-mixer bass churn and Joshua’s vigorous, spattering drumming, he alternates between electric guitar and electric piano (occasionally swapping mid-tune). Those pieces driven by his hardened, stony chimes of electric piano are more staccato, more turreted. On Bitter Era, Jason devises a ferocious distracted wrap of bass around Jorge – in broken unisons, the Trio thrash out a harsh and excited tattoo around the keyboard clunk. In contrast, I’m An Omnivore could almost be lounge jazz, tootling along happily even as all three musicians wrong-foot us. Each follows a slightly different rhythm, de-synchronising with each other and buckling the sidewalk under the strut.

When the compositions are driven by Jorge’s snaggled-up guitar, the trio work in a looser style: more elasticity, more smudging. Ether gradually whittles a brain-damaged marching riff out of Jorge’s demented squiggles. Peanut Butter works around a tight loop-and-discharge impetus, finally tottering into a wounded wind-down, bleeding off its abandoned velocity as if it were dumping fuel. Thieves Among Us sounds like the aftermath of a car chase. Stuttering away, the band could be clambering out of a canyon, away from the burning wreck of a car, to the accompaniment of headache pulses, dissonant auto-spring sounds and abrupt scrabbles as dazed opponents grab at their feet.

Some of the best moments come when Jorge is juggling instruments. Short & Evil, for example, in which he begins by spotting out ringing, sullen shapes on piano while the bass prowls: later, he’ll rub in crashing cascades of guitar like dislocated banjo-frails. Similarly, Baptize Your Dinner (by some distance the softest song on the record) begins as a passing, minimal sketch on piano, a pail of air and autumnal chordings. Purring like a forest, the drums work around this and transform it to a tolling crescendo, as Jorge steps back in with dabbing slides of tongue-like guitar.

Josh Enyart’s contribution to the Trio shouldn’t be undervalued. While his bandmates’ repertoire of rumble, scramble and tone-slur provide plenty of vocabulary, it’s his drums that give the Trio the fullness of its jazz spirit. He paces the brushes around his snare; adds brief powerful steam-hisses of concerted cymbal; hides polyrhythms in air-pockets for when they’ll be needed, and keeps one hand on the clutch for those quick surges of collective intensity. On Death Mask, he even leads the band: while the bass circles in locked math-rock arpeggios, and the guitar wanders off to dab at colouring chords, Josh’s drums talk in an insistent, assertive jazz language, eventually pulling the other instruments along with them.

Echoes of earlier bands flit distractedly through the music. There are hints of Prime Time and Naked City (in the blaring spirit, at least) while on Nightly Stroll, it’s the junior John McLaughlin of ‘Extrapolation’ (thanks to the dense fierceness of Jorge’s splinter-rough guitar chording and the rock-tattoo drumming, while Jason’s bass slithers after the guitar in search of unisons to stamp down on). Confrontation! briefly offers something of the discomfiting volcanic grooves of the electric Miles Davis band, when Chick Corea ring-modulated his Rhodes piano into dissonant smudges. For Snake In The Grass or Catching Bullets With Your Teeth, it’s the Teutonic jazz-rock of Magma as the trio roar out harsh choral parts over the swinging shifts and over the stuck, angry riffs of the instruments.

In the end, though, the Jorge Arana Trio are very much themselves: tightly wound but loose enough to splatter, viewing their hometown’s jazz through punkish eyes and casting a cartoon mottling across it.

Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’
Jorge Arana Trio (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette/download album
Released: 26th October 2012

Buy it from:
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Jorge Arana Trio online:
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October 2012 – album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘Faith in Worthless Things’ (“rich and delicate”)

7 Oct
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

And he came out from behind the console, and he spread out his dreams.

If you know Lee Fletcher already, it’s probably only in passing: maybe for the handful of mannered electro-pop tracks he and his wife Lisa have put out over the past decade as [halo]. More likely, you’ll know him for his extensive work as producer/engineer with centrozoon, Markus Reuter and with assorted King Crimson spin-offs including Tuner and Stick Men: well-established as a producer and engineer out at the more technical end of art-rock, you’d expect his own current music to be stark, or detached, or both.

It’s not just the question of his choice of colleague: it’s more that people in his position are generally there to get a job done, massaging and harassing slack musicians or their work into proper performance. If they’re of the more creative ilk, they might get to tweak their charges’ output into more original shapes. If they get around to putting out albums, these are likely to be back-to-basics vanity projects or all-star galleries of guest singers and studio flair – bought by fans for the tricks and the rarities, but then left to gather dust. Generally speaking, producers’ own records aren’t supposed to be romantic, aren’t supposed to be involved. Most especially, they’re not supposed to be revealing.

Lee Fletcher clearly has other ideas, and he won’t be doing quite what you expect of him.

Starting with the surface and working in… ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ certainly has the striking richness of sound you’d expect from someone of Lee’s experience. Live strings, wind instruments and solo cameos merge seamlessly with his own intricate programming and panoramic instrumentation in a fine blend of console wizardry and warm acoustic work. Rich and delicate arrangements encompass stirring contributions by guest players from right across the musical spectrum. Among others making their marks, the album boasts broad strokes and fine detail from art-rock guitarists Tim Motzer and Robert Fripp, jazz drift (from trumpeter Luca Calabrese, double bass player Oliver Klemp and drummer Matthias Macht), and sky-curve pedal steel playing from B. J. Cole. Equally memorable moments come when Uillean pipes (courtesy of Baka Beyond’s Alan Burton) and, to particular moving effect, Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn are woven subtly into the mix, set against sonic glitch and pillowy atmospherics.

If any of this orchestrated, cross-disciplinary lushness suggests other precedents to you, you’re right. Anyone familiar with David Sylvian’s electro-acoustic songscapes in the 1980s (or who subsequently took on the likes of Jane Siberry, Caroline Lavelle or no-man, whose violinist Steve Bingham plays a prominent role here) will recognise the wellsprings and traditions from which ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ draws. Miracles On Trees (a nimble quiltwork canon of touch-guitar, pipes and vocal harmonies suggesting Kate Bush fronting King Crimson) brings in additional strands of clean New Age-y folktronica, while more neurotic, Crimsonic arpeggios are stitched through A Life On Loan. Elsewhere, you’ll find fleeting, delicately organised touches from industrial electronica and dancehall reggae (as if bled in from a wobbling radio dial) and ingredients from Lee’s recent forays into torch song (via David Lynch’s protégée Christa Bell).  There’s certainly a strong debt to Scott Walker’s luxuriant orchestral pop work, made explicit via an enthusiastically dreamy cover of Long About Now.

However, much of the sonic recipe is Lee’s own spin on things – a developing and broadening sonic signature which began to unveil itself earlier in the year on GRICE’s Fletcher-produced  ‘Propeller’ (which featured many of the same players and a similar production ethos). ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ is also shaped by two featured players in particular – historically, the other two beats of Lee’s musical heart. On touch guitar, Markus Reuter adds a broad catalogue of supporting instrumental parts: textured or clean, rhythmic or melodic, banked-up or solo. While integral to the album’s fabric, his playing  also fades skilfully out of the foreground – although he’s constantly present, it’s as if he’s seen only in brief flashes, running through the trees, keeping pace with the sound. Meanwhile, Lisa Fletcher takes centre-stage (as she did with [halo]) to provide almost all of the album’s vocals as well as acting as Lee’s muse and interpreter. She sings even the most painstaking lyric with the cool, classical, adult sensuality of a pop diva who might at any moment slide off her long black concert dress and walk, naked and magnificent, out into the sea.

In spite of all of this sterling support, if you drill down through the music (past all of the tasteful production stylings, the guest players and the ornamentation) you’ll find a songwriter’s album underneath. While his physical voice is present only as a few murmured harmonies-cum-guide vocals dropped across a handful of tracks, Lee Fletcher’s songwriting voice entirely dominates the album. It even has its own particular hallmarks – a sophisticated way with compositional patterns which takes as much from chanson and European music as it does from Anglo-American pop; plus a yen for long, looping melodic journeys across an extended succession of chords. Lyrically he follows the earnest, philosophical musings of prog song-poets such as Peter Hammill; immersing himself in concepts or thoughts and writing his way through them with shades of classic verse, occasionally knocking frictional sparks against the constraints of the surrounding pop music.

There’s an interesting pull-and-push between this ever-so-slightly awkward lyrical grain and Lisa’s glossy-smooth vocals, just enough of a catch and grind to put a polish on the one and a depth on the other. When both Fletchers team up as writers on The Inner Voice, there’s an extra lift, bringing in the kind of hi-concept soul soar you’d have expected from Minnie Riperton or Commodores, or indeed from Janelle Monáe (if the latter’s leant over from a soul background to look into art-pop, the Fletchers seem to be leaning the other way.) The cruising, creamy melody hides some sharp barbs : the song’s partly an elegant kiss-off to a past lover or collaborator, partly a “won’t-get-fooled-again” statement of intent and new faith and intent. “You did me a great favour, in a melancholic way,” sings Lisa, in cool and assured tones. “The lesson learned and actioned for today / is to listen to the inner voice and serve that impulse well./ Have courage in conviction, break the shell.” Gracious in retreat, but along the way a polite yet lethal line of stilettos are being inserted into a turned and oblivious back (like some kind of vengeful acupuncture).

While Lee’s other lyrical concerns occasionally stretch to brooding worksong (“marching up the hill all day, fetching pails of water for the crown / Until the playtime whistle sounds, and blows your hallowed dreams away”) and wide-eyed nature worship (“the seasons are aligning/ Shedding Mother Nature’s silver skin /bringing balance to the timing”) he’s at his best when he’s drifting into the hazy realm of the personal. Part of this touches on the mutability and contradictions of love – its ability, in any given moment, to contain frailty and fears alongside strength, devotion and enrapturement. On The Number, he and collaborator SiRenée set up a picture of the start of intimacy as a phone call into the unknown: “Hello, you’ve reached the number of my secret voice / And though I asked you not to call / Your instinct made the choice… / I knew you’d call, I knew you’d love me… Stranger on the line, I’ve known you always.” Dusted by Luca Calabrese’s  sprays of muted Jon Hassell-ish trumpet, SiRenée sings the words in a misty bank of close and teasing harmonies – an enigmatic telephone nymph, she spins a spell of reflected longing as if at any moment she could either become flesh or simply vanish.

At the other end of the scale, where love is sealed and secure (with spouse, friends, family or perhaps all together), there is Life’s A Long Time Short; a Markus Reuter co-write in which an encroaching chill of the knowledge of ageing and death begins to gnaw at that security. “Our time is fleeting – / a love so true is truly painful. / A hurt that’s so divine – / at once the symptom and remedy.” Against a mournful ominous French horn line and a decaying fall of twinkling, dying Reuter touch-guitar chords, the song gradually passes from innocence (“there is no end, all time descends – / the trick is not to care”) to a warning (“there is an end. / Make all amends”) while Lisa sings with a subtle and breathless sense of disquiet, like a flickering ghost. All along, Lee watches with a poignantly shifting mixture of love, devotion and horror. Caught up within the current of time, all he can do is celebrate and confirm the life and value he shares in the now, while watching the inevitable washing-away and mourning coming closer and closer: “And as you grow, /  I watch in rhapsody / the miracle you are…/Inside I’m screaming.” 

On other occasions, Lee looks further outside, though it’s not always a comfort. Peering at the rapacious dazzle of television and pop media on Is It Me (Or Is It You?) he gets burned for his pains, then frets and growls out a proggy sermon about the callousness of the wider world: “Such a passion for freedom and brutality… / we pillage the living, ever seeking, kiss and telling morality / besieging all senses with apathy.” It’s the album’s title track that provides him with the still point which he needs. Out at the railway station café from dawn till dusk, notepad in hand, he’s watching the universe go about its business. Rails lead away to both possibility and obscurity; travellers move from place to place, passing through crowds while wrapping themselves in solitude; and Lee is “dreaming of the perfect future /  tall on tales, and short on truth.”

Here, out in the flow, he plays observer to small, everyday aggravations and hints at family disappointments spawning both small aches and broken-up little personal worlds: “children crying, mothers braying / Fathers absent once again.” Here, too, he finds his sympathy renewed, his understanding broadened: “all at one with situation – / Circumstance breeds condemnation / of our fellow man.” Encompassed by the lives and voyages of others,  surrounded by the signs and signifiers of both possibility and stagnation, he comes to a quiet acceptance of human fallibility and connection – “we’re bound by time, though here alone – / many rivers run as one. / Faith to heal the cracks within, / praying for life’s worthless things.” A small and modest epiphany, it’s the heart of the album and the song that binds everything together – including Lee’s divided impulses as skilled producer, exploring songwriter and man with a heart. Affection and anger, dislocation and commonality, families and strangers, nature and the grind, all linked under a lovingly gilded arch of strings, soft voices and soundscapes.

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’
Unsung Records, UR019CD (4260139121021)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
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Lee Fletcher online:
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September 2012 – album reviews – Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward’s ‘Waiting For The Storm’ (“tin roofs, heat and restlessness”)

5 Sep

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: 'Waiting For The Storm'

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’


Two guitars, two hushed voices, a looming double bass and a room that moves. That’s all that’s needed.

Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward go way back. In the 1980s, both were ungrizzled Scottish freshmen; teenaged guitarists coming up through roots music gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their paths have intersected many a time since then, while both clocked up the years and the experience – Mark with a brace of projects including the Berlin Americana band Two Dollar Bash, Craig most famously with dEUS (and spinoffs like The Love Substitutes), While this fuller collaboration was mooted in 2007, it wasn’t recorded until 2010 and 2011, and then went unreleased for a further year. In the meantime the intent hasn’t gone stale. If anything, it’s aged like a good whisky. This album might have been a while in coming, but it’s happily unstuck from the demands of time – just like any long friendship of the kind where a phone call and a kept date in a bar wipes away the years of separation.

Mark and Craig are upfront about their intentions. They’re reviving that strand of British “folk baroque” as played solo in the ’60s by Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, developed by John Renbourn and Danny Thompson in Pentangle, and performed in a shroud of mystique and withdrawal by Nick Drake. ‘Waiting For The Storm’ utterly recaptures that Witchseason glimmer – timeless, intimate and immediate, with the air listening in and the feeling that the songs are at the forefront of a push of story and message.

As guitarists and as singers, Craig and Mark are perfectly matched. Acoustic fingerpicking styles knit together in a generous skein of give-and-take, with each man providing varied electric textures as and where needed. Their quiet, rough-finished voices blur and separate in sighed harmonies, tinged with weariness, a little foreboding and some scarred-knuckle gentleness. Between them, Hannes d’Hoine plays double bass as if it were a straining mast, conjuring up deep thrums, solid gutsy plucking and ghostly bowed atmospherics. It’s very much a three-cornered exchange – almost telepathic in the players’ instinct to play just what is needed and no more.

As for the roots of the record, they drift – and no wonder. Though Mark and Craig are Scottish by origin, they’re wanderers by nature. The stoic discomfort blues of A Strange Place traces lightly over the angst of this lifestyle; the menacing weightlessness of its temporary, torn-up settlings. “Anyone entering this place they might say, / a strange place in which we belong…/ It’s a strange place we do run to, / a strange place to which we do run.” The slithering folk riffs and Simon & Garfunkel harmonies of Something On The Breeze raise up something more of home, via a Lowlands song of roaming and departure. (“Blowing through the open door that I have just walked through, / blowing me along to something new… / Looking forward to looking back on the things I’ve left behind, / somewhere a little further down the line.”)

Under even the dreamier-sounding songs, there’s a Scottish feel of hard lines: an undercurrent of poverty and menace dealt with stoically (“I see the cops on every corner, / people waiting ready to run. / Blue lights flashing out a warning – / someone’ll get hurt before the morning comes.”) Yet most of the underpinnings of the record come from one particular location: Mark’s current home of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti. Throughout ‘Waiting For The Storm’, Haiti breathes itself steamily into the mood and the music – mountains and stagnant creeks; tin roofs, heat and restlessness. There’s an occult foreboding here too, perhaps brought in by the business of living under the threat of capricious flooding, of drumming rain, or of violent passions swelling out of control. The answers flicker through the songs, half-seen, or viewed full in the face for an uneasy moment.

Some of it’s more relaxed; simply sketches and shadings of place and time. The winding sea currents of All The Doors Are Open (with Hannes’ grasping bass anchoring the surges of meter) invoke summer-struck stupor and an urge for motion. “All the doors are open, cars go past outside. / Won’t you take me with you, take me for a ride?… / I gulp down the icy water, drowning in the heat. / Hills lean over the hazy sea, wheels turning to the beat.” The instrumental Black Sail travels in a wave-roll and a dark minor key, telling a wordless story: moods shift weather-wise like bands of sunset and lowering clouds, the accelerations and slowings of the guitars tracked point-by-point by Hanne’s bowed bass.

With the title track, however, more threatening moods gather. “See the vinyl spinning its strange pattern in my head / and I can’t help thinking about something somebody said…” Like a brooding canvas, Waiting For The Storm uses the old expressionist motif of threatening weather to illustrate roils in the spirit, but leaves us hanging and expectant. “The sky is getting darker and the glass begins to fall. / The flicker of the candle’s throwing shadows on the wall… / Siren in the distance, the evening air is cool. / The bottle’s almost empty and the ashtray’s nearly full. / Waiting for a moment when it all begins to spin – / voices in the darkness, waiting for the storm to begin.”

Although the Haitian setting offers ravaged scenery and wild elements aplenty, Mark and Craig are ultimately too subtle just to use it as an exotic stage. In their lean words, they imply that most of the trouble a nomad might find in places like these might actually have been brought along in his own baggage. Secret Places, certainly, is caught up in its own space – one of obsessive passion, affirming “there’s no after, no before, /each time we pass through this door. / Nothing matters anymore – / each moment burns more fiercely than the last.”

Haiti gets to speak for itself as well. Amid arco bass rumbles and a stew of electric guitar atmospherics and acoustic webbing, Les Belles Promesses sees Mark, Craig and Hanne take a step back so that Haitian laureate Frankétienne can take centre stage. Working in smouldering wreathes of text from his own ‘Voix Marassa’, the old man recites and declaims in an impassioned, mesmeric French Creole like a voudoun Baudelaire, calling out razors and toadstones, sickness and fire, rocks and struck matches. “L’acidite de l’ombre… l’obsession des long voyage impermanences au bout du sexe, la passion du danger dans le sang, la fascination de riske… au-dessus du desastre.” Even at its height it remains honest, clear about the swings of raw fraught instinct.

So it is that the remaining two songs are left to their own devices. Icy Shivers comes from the armpit of a bad night – a circling lick; scribbling, edgy double bass harmonics; and moonlight-drop electric guitar, both ominous and omen-ous. “Things that crawl and things that bite / my thoughts as black as the sky tonight – / oh, it’s a long, long time until the dawn… / Dead of night the city sleeps – / waters still, a bargain deep.” Elsewhere, in Watching You Sleep, the devils are scratching away at a hard-won peace. Mark sings, as soft as anything, the pillow talk of a devoted lover – “you, your head lying on my shoulder, hear you breathing soft and clear. / I don’t care about tomorrow just as long as you are here,” – but hints at darker things abandoned in order to find and keep this haven. Even if they’re not stalking after him, there’s still a haunting. “I put the key in my pocket / and walked away from what came before. / A tune was running through my head / a song I can’t remember anymore. / I heard the sounds that go round the valley / hints of something far behind. / Something I wasn’t aware of losing / now I keep on trying to find.”

As other people’s violence stirs in the street, Mark’s narrator feels the pull of it and with a quiet, heartbreaking determination he asserts his love over rage. “I don’t want to go and get in a fight / I just want to stay with you tonight… / Don’t want to make nobody cry, / I just want to watch you where you lie.” The words are simple or even banal on the surface. The sentiments behind them, as sung, are subtly devastating. A reedy fuzz of electric guitar solo, one of the only ones on the record, seals the deal with hulking, sweating fingers.

There is an eventual respite from this darkness. Full of chuckling mandolins, The Six O’Clock Whistle is a jaunty folk instrumental with a hint of a reel (plus a nod and a wink to the childhood innocence of ‘Chigley‘). Sitting at the end of the record, it lifts the pressing atmosphere of the rest of the songs, drawing you away from the mesmeric night of memories, fancies, booze and shadows. Still, it’s the latter that remains with you: a baroque spell of sketchy lines, disquiet and stirred emotions, with some lines flapping free and others coiled too tight. A magical listen.

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’
Cannery Row Records, CRR 1217(826863121627)
Jezus Factory Records JF034 (826863121627)
CD/download album
Released: 3rd September 2012

Buy it from:
Cannery Row Records (CD only), Jezus Factory Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download only).

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward online:
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May 2012 – album reviews – centrozoon’s ‘Boner’ (“a palette of capriciously shifting noises and sonic pounces”)

16 May

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:
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April 2012 – album reviews – Komatsu’s ‘Komatsu’ (“a cats-cradle of skittering percussion, controlled screech and speeding draglines”)

30 Apr

Komatsu: 'Komatsu'

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’

This profusion of rock power duos – it must be viral. Surgically-reduced, punked-down, jazzed-up, math-rocking or swampy… they seem to be filling plenty of gaps. Pick one of them out, and it’s usually a drum-and-guitar pairing minus the bass, or otherwise a guitarless bass-and-drum coupling. What’s triggering this? The window-rattling scrunch championed by Death From Above 1979? The teasing-twosome model set up years ago by The White Stripes? Basic economics? The old Robert Fripp idea of smaller, mobile, more intelligent units, which in more austere times may exert more of a pull?

Anyway…

Komatu fit – very loosely and fiercely – the last of these options. A drums-and-guitar duo of Finnish rock improvisers, they’ve set themselves up to be as expansive as possible. They seem to use their lack of a bass guitar as a kind of invisible fulcrum: an absence which they can both pull away from and can curve back to compensate for. Having a bass would just pin them down, render them linear; when what they actually want to do is stretch themselves over every possible angle of orbit. In the absence of those root notes – those stolid map-pins of rhythms and root – both and neither of the two musician strive to offer something else, containing their wildness only by a teasing instinct for where the brinksmanship stops.

Komatsu are also unsentimental about naming their music. Most of the time, number placements will do instead, and you can bring your own interpretations to the party. Neither of the duo themselves are inclined to give away much in the way of meaning. The music itself, however, is anything but dispassionate. Even on those occasions when it turns mathematical, the numbers swarm like killer bees, waiting to plunge into brief resolutions and then dance away again.

Unusually, much of the time the lead instrument is Jussi Miettola’s drumkit. Hinting at and ducking around rhythms more often than simply holding them, his distinctive playing is busy, expansive and never less than exciting. It’s almost – but not quite – free jazz. It’s heavy on the sonic possibilities of the top kit with its dryness and its imperative rattle, sometimes bursting into vigorous splatters of bass drum and cymbal; coursing easily between Art Blakey, thrash metal and points in between.

Guitarist Juha-Pekka Linna plunges his guitar into a mass of loops, mechanisms and pulverizing crystallised distortion. The results run a broad gamut between a taut dry rattle (like spasming rockabilly) and a screeching cyclonic blizzard of rotating noise. In spite of this whipped-to-chaos approach, it’s often him who ends up holding Komatsu’s pieces in shape. His loops become binders – circumscribing the duo’s wilder flights, defining their narrow tones and furiously tight patterns.

On the Intro, fractured jazz chords on guitar wrestle with snare-scrabbling free drumming; an initial spideriness which is gradually bolstered and transformed by smudges of trippy, expectant backwards guitar. This in turn suddenly inflates and hunches up in a blur of warm overwhelming fuzz into jubilant, wing-whirring psychedelic noise. As Komatsu move directly on into First, it’s all swapped for a fold-over of psychedelic guitar echo; chattering in the teeth of an imagined gale, billowing itself out of shape. An expert roaming roll around Jussi’s toms adds another dimension of tension.

As Jussi and Juha-Pekka work away at the piece, it escalates into a panning tornado-swirl of layered guitars and rattling drums, brittle and yet overwhelming in its pent-up force. You imagine a man swinging rocks round and round in a bucket, waiting for that instinctive moment when he can open his grip and let everything fly. This never quite arrives, but Komatsu’s cats-cradle of skittering percussion, controlled screech and speeding draglines keeps you hanging in anticipation until that imaginary gale finally, rapidly, falters and dies.

For Second, Komatsu tone down the surge. A West African-inspired walking rhythm, played out on guttural post-punk guitar, tramps on against increasingly furious stick-and-tom rattles burst from the drums: Jussi’s decisive and pointed breaks make a one-sided musical conversation. There’s nearly two-and-a-half minutes of this dynamic sparseness, and then the faintest whisper of sound creeps in and gradually rears up in a veil-sweep of celestial noise guitar. As this grows and billows to hang above the tune, like a grand valance or a deathly Mellotron chord, the mood grows grimmer. Inexorably, the African stroll is overwhelmed by ever-increasing bass smudges. That Mellotronic chord eventually drives the music towards a waiting cliff. They have a certain taste for threat, then.

While much of hard improvisation sounds like a wrestling match (with cascades and grapples of angry notes) Komatsu’s version is more like a stalking, or an illustration of danger. Places once safe begin to flood. Confusing shadows blight the landscape. Situations turn uncomfortable.

Nothing For Money (the only Komatsu song with a name) broods like a dark Western, Juha-Pekka initially restricting himself to giant Morricone-esque guitar pluckings over Jussi’s uncharacteristically miserly, mathematical pick-out of drum parts. A second Jussi, jazzier and looser, plays against himself in the background, filtering dustily through a radio speaker like a memory of easier times. This, too, is gradually overwhelmed. The guitar begins to shucks out backward swells again. The drumming becomes more counterpointed, more belligerent.

With its uncomfortable, weirdly perpendicular funk-clank full of disassociated fragments (drum points, spacebar chinks), Third sounds like hip-hop might have sounded had it been invented and played by Can. It has an alienating quality: a kind of stern party music, pushing you into painful shapes. Juha-Pekka’s main guitar part is squashed flatter than wallpaper. Another of his lines drags a jangling siren motif up and down. With this spiraling in the foreground, a distant heavy-metal grind (colossal, but given quietness by distance) moves into place, by which time the drum parts have turned metallic too. The finale is an unexpected drop-away into fifteen gurgling seconds of distress call.

Fourth is split into two different and distinct parts. The first part draws on avant-garde ideas from contemporary classical ideas – vicious thunks of the lowest possible piano notes; groans and distracted orchestral growls from the guitar processes. These in turn are bled into chance noises: an airy temple-bell dings and chimes, and there’s the clear close-up sound of someone rolling coins or ball bearings around the studio. Some reflective menace is added by baleful post-rock guitar tinges and ear-filling fog-banks of sub-bass.

Suddenly, Jussi explodes into the second part with a tight lash of cymbals and a stream of West Coast power-punk drumming. There’s a scourge of rapid-strum guitar, at thrash-metal intensity, but without the rhythmic restlessness. Bar by bar, it rises up the chromatic scale while subliminal keyboard figures sketch moving arpeggios behind it, before the whole thing finally hits a crash-barrier of static.

On the final track (which, with typical Komatsu insouciance, is just called Last) the boys let their hair down. A skating buzz of static synthesizer serves as a continuo; Juha-Pekka’s wet and warbling science-guitar figures provide something like a melody. Halfway through, the emphasis shifts and the music morphs woozily elsewhere. The synth buzz become a deep bass drone; the guitar patterns become drips in the background, while the melodic role is taken by whooping varispeed notes.

From brood to fun-ride, sometimes two is all you need. There’s certainly not much missing from this fierce bout of inventiveness.

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’
Komatsu (self released, no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 24th April 2012

Get it from:
CD available directly from Komatsu; download available from iTunes.

Komatsu online:
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