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February/March 2019 – upcoming British folk/experimental gigs – Bell Lungs on tour with Raiments (20th February to 2nd March, various) with appearances by Despicable Zee, Michael Clark, The Nature Centre, Halcyon Jane, Tara Clerkin Trio and various DJs. Plus sundry other Bell Lungs shows in March including a København evening with Hugh Tweedie and Tanja Vesterbye Jessen, a show with David Toop and Rashad Becker, a date with Gaze Is Ghost.

16 Feb

Working with a multi-instrumental, device-heavy palette which includes guitar, harmonium, Omnichord, electric violin, lyre, bouzouki, saz, voice and a host of effects pedals, avant-folk singer/writer/sometime promoter Ceylan Hay (a.k.a. Bell Lungs) sits at the middle of a host of possible routes. Her sound incorporates post-folk and drone, dream pop, noise and free improv, psychedelia and site-specific realisations, while her psychohistorian subject matter takes in the ancient, the near-ancient and the presently numinous: probing prehistoric spaces, the ghosts of the industrial age, day-to-day feelings and the slide into a new virtual existence space via online culture.

Reflecting these overlaid levels (and what might be, at different perspective points, either shockingly near or completely occluded), her vocal delivery steps between ornamental trad-folk crenellations, feathery ambient warbles and horrific screams. You can never quite tell whether she’s going to lull you or scare you, but you know she cares about what she’s ferrying across to you.

With a new EP, the wintry ‘Wolves Behind Us‘, to promote (apparently it’s a return to folk and landscapes after recent science fiction/site-specific digressions, and is “Joan Aiken’s ‘Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’, caravan living in the Highlands and the ancient cosmology idea of dividing the year into two halves; the opening and closing of the wolf’s mouth”), Bell’s embarking on five weeks of touring (primarily alongside Raiments) through Scotland, England, Wales, followed up by other Raiments-less shows in Scotland, England and Denmark. (She’ll also be playing in Wales next month, but more on that later…)




 
Before taking a look at the tour, let’s take a look at her tourmates. Formed on the Berlin avant-garde scene, Raiments are fronted by sing-murmurer/left-field guitarist Mano Camatsos, and they sound like a soft-stepping muttering blend of Lou Reed and Momus fronting a band that mixes lurking dark-jazz styling (hardwood clarinet burr and groove-pattering trashdrums) with the DIY rattle of Pram and the dark throb of Morphine. Mano’s wildcard guitar is a clinking noisemaker and pulse generator taking note of hip hop, of avant-garde classical extended techniques and of mysterious instruments and methods gleaned from ethnological recordings. His songwriting voice is a oddball surreal instinct leading inexorably towards songs about ants or baffling seductions.



 
Tracing their upcoming footsteps on the tour is a joy, like following a plough which turns up small treasures as it reveals what’s in the earth. It’s partly the succession of intriguing off-the-beaten-path venues – squatty art-pubs, recovered eighteenth-century coal basins, pocket cinemas and art centres, diehard folk rooms and out-of-the-way sipperys – but also the revealing of similarly off-the-wall musical talents and enthusiasts they join up with en route.

In Edinburgh, Bell and Raiments are playing with Claquer – previously three-piece improvisers Claque until they spun off their American drummer an unspecified time ago. Now it’s just the Edinburgh contingent: free/experimental guitarist Jer Reid and viola player/speaker Lisa Fannen. They deal in lo-fi clangs, loopings and scrapes and spoken word: momentary moment-music.


 
In Newcastle, the main support comes from the soft melody murmurs and drowsy, cushioned keens of ambient/improv folk duo Halcyon Jane, a Tyneside/Humberside teamup. Upfront with the voice, guitar and devices is Newcastle performance art polymath Jayne Dent, better known via her own electronic/noisy folk project Me Lost Me, in which she buffers and buffets her singing with concertinas and samplers: when she played Hull back in December, support came from local ambient electronic beatsman Halcyon Neumann, who’s worked with The Body Farmers and with Sarah Shiels and who carries out sonic explorations of “the technological vs. the archaic/the spiritual vs. the scientific/the supernatural vs. the psychological.” Together they tease out a semi-improvised border music, part weird electro-folk and part post-shoegaze wisp.

Also playing is Michael Clark, providing slurred, wise, trepidatious and crepuscular folk music with fogrolls of noise behind an acoustic guitar. Despite being a Londoner, he sounds more like a moor-dweller; or like someone who lives in the kind of port city London used to be, one in which strange tales and intimation billow up the streets with the dock mist: this time out, his strange tales are backed up by a full band.

 
I’ve encountered The Nature Centre before. Headlining the Club Integral-hosted Birmingham show above Bell Lung and Raiments, they’re an affable rural/suburban pop quartet like a four-person one-man band, sprouting banjos and clarinets and found percussion alongside their drum kit and guitars. Drawn to playing at weirder gigs, they’ve shared bills with people like Bob Drake and have their own batchful of three-minute pop songs avidly reflecting the off-kilter visions of previous English songwriter eccentrics (the Syd Barretts, Robyn Hitchcocks and Tim Smiths). Handling the in-between-bands slot is someone new to me but not new to Brum’s vinyl-istas: Moseley Folk Festival’s house DJ and Moseley Record Fair co-organiser DJ Rome, promising his own selection of crate-dug oddities and inspirations.


 
In Bristol, the DJ backup comes from “bleary-eyed staggerer” Siegfried Translator of the Grey Area radio show (another haven for intriguingly weird music from all over the globe), but the gig predominantly features the Tara Clerkin Trio: the DIY musical brainchild of a ceramicist who also seems to have a yen for gamelan/minimalist-sounding pattern tinkling sprinkled with voiceloops, friendly saxophonic intrusions and other pitch-ins from whichever musical friends she can rope in for the occasion. (At other times, she creates her own slumberous take on experimental countrified pop.)

 
The Oxford show (promoted by Divine Schism) is primarily a launch event for the second EP by Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, a.k.a. Despicable Zee – a live-looper, improviser and conscious patterner of fifteen years standing, mixed Anglo/Irish/Iranian heritage, and a history of drumming in Oxford bands since her teens. Now the drums (plus loopstations and recordings) are used to create live solo tracks in which Zee employs a lo-fi, lo-technique approach to overlapping rhythm garlands and triggered conversations. As an artist (as well as an educator and mother), Zee’s increasingly conscious of the female lines she carries within her: the patched-in samples which wobble her current project along feature the voices of her mother and grandmother, mingling with Zee’s own sing-speak-raps as if they’ve dropped by for some kind of experimental music cross-cultural kaffee klatsch.


 
The London show (at Paper Dress Vintage) is an evening of music and spoken word put together by promoters Spilt Milk in order to raise money and awareness for North London Action for the Homeless. Shapeshifter experimental pop poet Alabaster dePlume comperes: also in the corner is Jenny Moore’s Mystic Business, who showed up in ‘Misfit City’ a little over a year ago.

Jenny’s another artist whose field extends from the visual and situational into action and music: the Mystic Business involves pulling together friends and strangers into a collective performance event that’s part communal clapalong choir, part percussion workshop and good-natured culture-jamming protest (with food). Guileless and charming, but nonetheless political and détournementational, it’s an attempt to get collective conscience back into the body, containing and encouraging a cheerful but insistent protest.



 
The Conventry and Brighton gigs appear to feature just Bell Lungs and Raiments on their own, but news just coming in re. the Liverpool date (at dockside art-pub Drop the Dumbulls) says that support there comes from Merseyside “synthwhisperer” and outsider synthpopper Claire Welles. She’s been rolling out her contrary songs for over a decade now, singing increasingly unsettling lyrics in a deep deadpan tone with a sarcastic medicated edge, while the backings deliquesce from elegant ageless Europop into something a little misshapen. It all becomes something like those conversations during which you wake up a third of the way in, not quite sure how you got into them, not quite believing that you’re stuck in there and will just have to ride it out.



 
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Following the Raiments tour, Bell heads off separately for other shows. A mid-March showing at Manchester’s Peer Hat is a solo gig, but there’s also an Argyll event (in the enchanting recording-studio-as-art-nook surroundings of St Marys Space) at which she’s supporting baroque poptronic project Gaze Is Ghost: itinerant Northern Irish singer/songwriter/post-classical composer Laura McGarrigle, noted for “spectral vocals and impressionist piano playing” as well as drifts into harmonium and ambient atmospherics. In recent years Laura’s let Zed Penguin drummer/artist Casey Miller into the project and (following a number of pre-Casey singles), Gaze Is Ghost are finally readying a debut album as a duo.

 
A return to Glasgow on 28th March sees Bell performing on a talk’n’play bill with musicologist and audio culturer David Toop and Berlin sonicist Rashad Becker (who, having polished over a thousand records by other people spanning noise to techno, has begun stepping out into music creation of his own with the resonant faux-ethnological synthwork of ‘Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol. I’).

On the 30th she’s back in Edinburgh to support another experimental folker, looper and performance artist: David Thomas Broughton, whose brilliantly wayward path has included looping his own heckles, blurring the line between song performance and experimental theatre. Along the way he’s released eight albums of accessible, tremulous, oddly haunting alt.folk delivered in an arresting genderless vocal tone a little reminiscent of Anthony/Anohni, and won the respect and collaborative contributions of (among others) Beth Orton, Sam Amidon, and Aidan Moffat. David will be in the early stages of his own tour, which I really should cover on its own.





 
Before any of these, though, she’s crossing the North Sea to perform at an experimental folk event in København. Part of the city’s Fanø Free Folk Festival, it’s hosted by local label Dendron Records, specializers in “small runs of abstract electronics, ghostly folk songs and surprisingly hummable tunes.” The concert will also feature two København-based British emigres Hugh Tweedie and Tanja Vesterbye Jessen. Hugh’s been operating for years under various names including The Weave And The Weft and Taiga Taiga, creating shadowy understated mostly-acoustic songs with a literary bent, and he regularly helps out with David Folkmann Drost’s homemade folk project Moongazing Hare. Previously known as a radical electric guitarist in Vinyl Dog Joy, Amstrong and Distortion Girls, Tanja recently struck out on her own with a solo debut, ‘Feeling Love’ in which she embraces and deconstructs pop songs, writing them acoustically before bringing assorted damaged amplification and effects-pedal interference to bear on them, resulting in songscapes covering a field from heavy-lidded noise-folk to cataclysmic “drone-metal disco”.




 
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Dates:

Bell Lungs & Raiments tour:

  • Henry’s Cellar Bar, 16A Morrison Street, Edinburgh EH3 8BJ – Wednesday 20th February 2019, 7.00pm (with Claquer) – information here
  • Cobalt Studios, 10-16 Boyd Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE2 1AP, England – Thursday 21st February 2019, 7.00pm(with Michael Clark + Halcyon Jane) – information here
  • The Edge, 79-81 Cheapside, Digbeth, Birmingham, B12 0QH, England – Friday 22nd February 2019, 8.00pm (with The Nature Centre + DJ Rome) – information here and here
  • Cube Cinema, Dove Street South (off top-left of King Square), Kingsdown, Bristol, BS2 8JD, England – Sunday 24th February 2019, 8.00pm(with Tara Clerkin Trio + The Grey Area DJs) – information here and here
  • Fusion Arts, 44b Princes Street, Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1DD, England – Monday 25th February 2019, 7.30pm(with Despicable Zee) – information here
  • Paper Dress Vintage Bar & Boutique, 352a Mare Street, Hackney, London, E8 1HR, England – Tuesday 26th February 2019. 7.30pm (with Jenny Moore’s Mystic Business + Alabaster dePlume) – information here and here
  • The Rose Hill Tavern, 70-71 Rose Hill Terrace, Brighton, West Sussex, BN1 4JL, England – Thursday 28th February 2019, 7.00pm – information here
  • The Tin @ The Coal Vaults, Unit 1-4 Coventry Canal Basin, St. Nicholas Street, Coventry, CV1 4LY, England – Friday 1st March 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Drop the Dumbulls @ The Bull, 2 Dublin Street, Liverpool, L3 7DT, England – Saturday 2nd March 2019, 7.00pm (with Claire Welles) – information here

Bell Lungs standalone dates with various others (tbc):

  • Fanø Free Folk Festival @ Alice, Norre Alle 7, DK-2200 København N, Norway – Monday 4th March 2019, 7.00pm(with Hugh Tweedie + Tanja Vesterbye Jessen) – information here
  • St Marys Space, Fasnacloich, Argyll, Scotland, PA38 4BJ – Saturday 9th March 2019, 7.00pm(supporting Gaze Is Ghost) – information here
  • The Peer Hat, 14-16 Faraday Street, Manchester M1 1BE – Thursday 14th March 2019, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Stereo/The Old Hairdressers, 20-28 Renfield Lane, Glasgow, G2 5AR, Scotland – Thursday 28th March 2019, 7.00pm (with David Toop + Rashad Becker) – information here and here
  • The Waverley, 3-5 St. Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TA, Scotland – Saturday 30th March 2019, 9.00pm (supporting David Thomas Broughton) – information here

February 2019 – upcoming London eclectic/multicultural gigs at Poplar Union – Grand Union Orchestra (22nd February); Mishti Dance (23rd February) with Conspirators of Pleasure, The Tuts, Kapil Seshasayee and Soundar Ananda

15 Feb

I don’t go down to Poplar that often, but despite its more confusing aspects – the hurtling convergence of the eastern motorway routes out of London; that strange dislocated/disassociated/dispossessed neighbour’s relationship which it has with the glittering towers of Docklands to the south – the place has always felt welcoming; from the wry hardiness of its shopkeepers to the gentle courtesy of the djellaba-clad pair of Muslim brothers (one twentysomething lad, one eight-year-old kid) who spotted me wandering (a lost, bald, bearded middle-aged white bloke) all nonplussed by the Limehouse Cut, and were kind enough to redirect me to Poplar Union.

PU still feels like a beacon for the area’s future – enthusiastically aspirational in its bright, clean, modern bookishness but also happily embedded in the area’s colourful swirl of cultures; decidedly unshabby but also entirely inclusive. Here are another couple of gigs coming up there this coming week.

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Grand Union Orchestra, 22nd February 2019

Sporting a thirty-plus roster of musicians from all across the world, Grand Union Orchestra have spent two decades playing and personifying an ethic of joyous multicultural cooperation onstage. With a tradition of creative diasporan work, and with an additional set of roots in left-wing community theatre, they’re a living rebuttal to British insularity. Usually there’s about eighteen of them on stage, drawn from a flexible roster of around thirty top-flight musicians from a variety of cultures and generations. You’ll see Bangladeshi, Chinese, English, Turkish, Caribbean, Roma, Bulgarian, Mozambiquian people and more, from striplings to grandmothers, all playing together, long accustomed to assembling rolling caravans of sound into which assorted musics – Carnatic and Bangladeshi classical, salsa, jazz – can be folded.



 
You can pick out the various components (even a quick dip will turn up players like Jazz Warriors trumpet veteran Claude Deppa, Carnatic violin virtuoso Claude Deppa, Roma accordionist Ionel Mandache, guzheng star Zhu Xiao Meng and a poly-hued battery of singers with backgrounds including fado, jazz, opera and Bengali classical) but you’re better off just enjoying the sweeping palette. Just looking at their gig flyers reminds me of the happy, souped-up neighbourly multiculture festivals in and around my primary school. It makes me want to bare my teeth against the chilly white monocultural wind that’s blowing from the future, from Brexit and from the surly side of Englishness; or – if I can’t do anything else – to at least turn up my collar, turn my angry back against the freeze and head for the lights, the warmth and the rhythms.

GUO’s current, workshop-driven project – ‘Bengal, Bhangra and the Blues’ – is helmed by tabla ace Yousuf Ali Khan: it leans back towards the music of the Asian sub-continent with classical ragas, Bengali songs and the aforementioned bhangra at the heart of it. Various young participants, having already enjoyed the previous week’s free instrumental youth workshops incorporated into the project programme, will be joining the main band for the concert.

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Mishti Dance featuring Conspirators of Pleasure + The Tuts + Kapil Seshasayee + Soundar Ananda, 23rd February 2019

I know Grand Union Orchestra, but I’m less familiar with PU’s Mishti Dance evenings and their Asian club/dance initiative. The idea strikes a fond chord of memories stemming from the Talvin Singh Anokha nights I’d occasionally attend in the mid-‘90s, in which all of the sounds I’d been vaguely aware of during an upbringing in multicultural Haringey suddenly seemed to grow up and stream together. Anokha, though, had its road laid down for it by the bhangra grooves and post-rave dance culture of the times, and while you could skulk up to the chillout room to listen to Shakti if you wanted to, it was predominantly about immersing yourself in sub-bass, remix chops and tabla frenzy.

Mishi, however, looks like a much looser bag: admittedly hung on the same British Asian peg but more tenuously, with room for just about anything and anyone with a Asian connection and in particular those who are following their own path out of the immediate cultural confines and bringing their innate cultural qualities to question, alter and enrich other spaces. The closest Anokha-type dance exemplar in this month’s gig looks as if it’s DJ Soundar Ananda of Indigenous Resistance, a French-Asian “conscious beats” deliverer, promoter and compilation curator working with “cutting-edge, futuristic, nu-skool, Eastern electronic music influenced by dub, dubstep, d’n’b, breakbeat, jungle, reggae.”

 
The Tuts, on the other hand, are a long way from Anohka beat culture, although I think Talvin and co would have appreciated their ethic. A fiesty, witty, self-propelled female throw-forward from the all-too-brief days of ’70s post-punk inclusivity, they’re a young DIY pop-punk trio of “proud Caribbean, English and Indian/Pakistani origin” and an immediate, salty working-class attitude of immediate self-assertion and street wit. Full of chop-and-change musical sharpness and girl-group zest (they’ve happily covered Wannabe, though there’s as much Fuzzbox or Slits to their vigour as there is Spice Girlhood), they’ll be inspiring girl moshers and wallflowers alike from Wolverhampton to Leicester, with little for old white gits like me to do but gently get out of the way, smiling as we do so. Bluntly inspirational.



 
The remaining two acts take us into delightfully eclectic and weird experimental pop and noise terrain. Bringing the majority of the weird noises are headliners Conspirators Of Pleasure: multi-media artists Poulomi Desai (who’s been in here before a few times over the year, toting her polydisciplinary stage shows and their festoonings of gizmos and collated contradictory content) and onetime Pop Group/Pigbag post-punk/funk/dub bassist Simon Underwood (once compared by Dennis Bovell to a white Robbie Shakespeare). Their adventures together have included helping to set Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ to music, and touring with Stewart Lee and other restless upsetters in the ‘Usurp Chance Tour’. Using repurposed tools of the cultural trade (Poulumi’s context-yanked sitar played with everything from an axe to a massage vibrator, Simon’s prepared bass guitar) plus assorted noisemakers, drone-sources, toys, stylophones and radios and a battery of makeshift audio-visual, they’ll spend their time onstage forking over textures and flotsam, touching on the industrial, on dance culture, on noisy improvised chaos and on the voices and ideas which emerge from this conflation.


 
Glaswegian-Asian singer-songwriter Kapil Seshasayee has parked himself on a junction where a variety of different ideas and approaches are coerced into meeting. He takes his beats from hardcore machine punk and Arca-ian experimental electropop; his guitar choices from a superimposition of Carnatic traditions and skinny-wire Hendrixian note-bending, crashes and hammer-on blues; his song structures from the kind of improvisational bardic rock which itself is drawing from griots or the ecstatic traditions which bubble away in various cultures despite having been vainly tarmac-ed over by Western rationalism.

His voice… well, I’m not entirely sure where that comes from. A beautiful Western/Indian rock clarion with hints of boy angel, Quwalli pronouncer and open-ended Beefheartian abstractioneer, it barrels up out of a position of assured strength only to lyrically splatter itself across parts of the landscape you’d not even noticed before. I could wave in Tim Buckley, Thom Yorke, Nick Harper and Van Morrison as whiter comparisons; I could point to some of the fiery ecstastic pitches and timbres of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or toward youthful bluesmen with an axe to sharpen; but I still wouldn’t get it across to you or do it the right kind of justice.

Bald and impressively bearded (beating me on both counts, in fact), Kalil additionally decorates his wrenched-cable music with electronic fizz and spookings plus the eldritch acoustic wails he can scratch out of a waterphone. As for his songs, whether they’re upended experimental blues or club-leaning avant-pop abstractions (and often they’re both), they sound like distracted revelations in train marshalling yards, Kapil as a spasming, pointing Blakean figure continually spotting and sweeping the hidden numinous into his narratives and fracturing them into cracked landscapes. Somewhere inside Kalil there’s a bloke who wants to sing straightforward young-man songs about love gone wrong. Fortunately, his own brain continually waylays him in between impulse and expression.



 
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Dates:

Grand Union Orchestra: Bengal, Bhangra and the Blues
Poplar Union, 2 Cotall Street, Poplar, London, E14 6TL, England
Friday 22nd February 2019, 7.30pm
– information here and here

Mishti Dance presents:
Conspirators of Pleasure + The Tuts + Kapil Seshasayee + Soundar Ananda
Poplar Union, 2 Cotall Street, Poplar, London, E14 6TL, England
Saturday 23rd February 2019, 7.00pm
– information here and here
 

February 2019 – upcoming gigs in London and Sunderland (folk, country, etc.) – Mally Harpaz and Valeria Pozzo in London (12th); a resurgent Bill Jones in London and Sunderland (16th & 20th February); Sarah Jane Scouten in London (18th February)

4 Feb

Mally Harpaz + Valeria Pozzo, 12th February 2019

On Tuesday next week, there’s yet another chance to see sometime Anna Calvi drummer/harmoniumist Mally Harpaz present her solo composer side, via live performances of her soundtracks for Clara Aparicio Yoldi’s video-art extrapolations from classic paintings. Debuted a little over a year ago (and revisited a couple of times since then, they’re post-classical piano-centric mood pieces. Various guests will be joining Mally as part of her ensemble – in the past, these have included Mark Neary, Hazel Iris, Ciara Clifford, Jessica Lauren, Eran Karniel and, indeed, Anna Calvi (a close friend rather than an employer, and one who repays loyalty).

 
As for the future, Mally is still incubating her intended debut album, with two brooding instrumentals having broken cover on Soundcloud two years ago – glowering Gothic impressionism for piano, drum and ghost guitar, dabbed with synth strings and wordless soprano wails. You can hear the imprint of mediaeval-toned cinema epics, Dead Can Dance, some of the foggier Braonáin-isms… but someone really needs to let this woman loose on a New Weird Britain film about a haunted pantry somewhere in the New Forest. Something nasty, with a scary cutlery drawer.


 
As she usually does, Mally is presenting this as part of one of her “off-the-beaten-track” Blind Dog Studio evenings, which also showcase other performers. In the past these events have often favoured under-the-radar female singer-songwriters with impressive multi-instrumental abilities. This month’s show is no exception, featuring Valeria Pozzo.

Originally from Italy, Valeria currently floats in that strangely nationless zone of acoustic jazz pop, where it’d be difficult to tell where she was from unless you asked. She’s the possessor of handy guitar and violin skills as well as being the owner of a supple voice; and from what I’ve heard of her so far she’s hovering on a cusp where she could either carve out a comfortable career supplying smooth, edgeless jazz-folk entertainment at upscale pizza restaurants or take a couple of small, delicate gambles and persistently deliver songs which could turn heads and stop jaws champing.

I much prefer it when she does the latter: easing subtly strange chordings and tunings into her work, adding an extra dimension. Not necessarily unsettling, let alone perverse, but providing a deepening, an extra quality of storytelling undercurrent. What would be, if she dealt in written stories, the story beyond the words: the bit that crept up on you.


 
Valeria’s also making another appearance later in the month, this time at Rami Radi’s Laid Bare At the Ritzy acoustic night in Brixton; where she’ll be appearing with assorted other south London singer-songwriters including post-Damien Rice caroller Archie Langley, Berlin-born acoustic soulster Adwoa Hackman and her white-soul-boy-next-door counterpart Josh Collins. As a bill it’s got its moments, but it’s a little too generic for me to say much here, to be honest; although George Pelham’s buttery lite-soul voice and apparently effortless shuffling of McCartney, Prince and Elton John songwriting sounds pretty good. I’m also going to go back sometime and have a closer listen to the coastal autoharp folk of Olive Haigh – the deliverer of a cute, winsome sound with a garnish of eerie weirdness which becomes more apparent the more you listen (slightly magical/slightly sinister fairytale undertones, and a subtle use of sound embellishments from fiddle slides to pebble rattles).

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Bill Jones, 16th February 2019

There was a time in the early 200s when Bill Jones looked set to be a British folk star with the profile of someone like Kate Rusby – upfront, nicely turned out, fairly straightforward and with her folk scholarship gently on display. (These days it seems to matter less whether you gained it at lockins or at university, though plenty seem to study at both of these schools. Bill was one of those who did both.)

My own initial memories of Bill are wilder, woollier and from a bit further back: from when she was singing loud, pure backing vocals from behind an accordion as an anchoring part of The Wise Wound, who have generally been snootily dismissed as “an indie band” in accounts of Bill’s prehistory but whose absorbing, sometimes frustrating work was more like a remarkable psychedelic quilt being disgorged through a chamber folk-funnel. Back then (still going through formative years) she was something of a band secret weapon: a dark horse who stood apart from the friendly-frictional mental wrestling and gag-cracking that made up much of the Wise Wound’s offstage behaviour, while secretly fostering a great deal of the charm that served her well when she eventually found her own voice and went solo.

It was interesting seeing Bill afterwards, since she was still something of a dark horse: managing to pull off (possibly unwittingly) the trick of being entirely open while remaining entirely enigmatic. Even when revealing something personal in song (such as her family’s Anglo-Indian Darjeeling heritage, as laid out a capella in the title track of 2001’s ‘Panchpuran’) she sometimes seemed less of a conversationalist in what she sang than a conduit, like the flute she also plays. Her sleekly-groomed picture-book folk sometimes made use of the varnished production of pop, but without any concessions or vulgarities; and there was certainly always a sense that while Bill was friendly and loved her craft, she was also keeping a careful reign on the interplay of life and music.

Bill Jones, 20th February 2019At any rate, after three increasingly well-received albums (plus a live record, an odds-and-sods collection and a trinational collaborative project and tour with Anne Hills and Aoife Clancy), Bill turned away from the road and the spotlight; taking the option of stepping back, while still in her twenties, in favour of home-life in Sunderland, teaching and raising a family. She hasn’t been completely absent from the stage since. Folk-music teaching has less differentiation between instruction and performance; plus there were a couple of 2016 support slots in Tokyo for Flook and a number of low-key charity gigs for Antenatal Results & Choices (a cause close to Bill’s heart).

Now, however, she’s mounting a more substantial comeback, with a new album – ‘Wonderful Fairytale’ – finally arriving this coming May and various folk festival appearances scheduled for England and the United States later in the year. The first sightings are a new song, My Elfin Knight, and a pair of February dates accompanied by violinist/viola player and album buddy Jean-Pierre Garde. Between them, incidentally, the gigs indicate the affable but borderline incompatible polarities of British folk music. The London show in the churchy environs of The Gresham Centre can’t help but come with a bit of lofty gloss (canonicity, scholarliness, high-culture), while the Sunderland hometown gig is much more down-to-earth (a Whitburn Village Heritage Society do at a cricket club which also features floor spots from local singers).

I don’t know whether Bill makes much of these differentiations, or whether the contrast makes her laugh. As far as I can see, she’s just getting on with the music. Here’s the video for My Elfin Knight, which shows that she’s lost nothing in the intervening time: musically, still as sleek as a seal and cool as an early autumn evening. If anything’s changed, it’s the emotional freighting: the passing years seem to have laid an extra presence on her, with the sense of unspoken things lurking closer behind the song.


 
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Among the Nest Collective events popping up for early 2019 is a show by Canadian country folker Sarah Jane Scouten – another artist with firm groundings in tradition plus the willpower to bring it to a fresh new audience. As with the spill of characters around the Laid Bare evening, I can’t say much for Sarah in terms of originality, or in terms of her bringing much that’s new to the table, but with her neither of these things need to matter.

Sarah Jane Souten, 18th February 2019

What does matter is how she takes her chosen song-form back into her corner (a genre that’s still too young to be ossified but is still too easy to render cheesy) and how she refreshes it. Rather than a young revolutionary, Sarah’s a restorer and a reconfigurer: someone who can already turn out classic-sounding songs to fit the canon, and who can personify its ongoing traditions in a way that looks forced and creaky on a rock performer but sits surprisingly well on a country figure. Maybe it’s the storytelling side of things – as with traditional folk, stories get picked up, dusted off and recast in country, rolling on like a wheel. At any rate, Sarah’s consistently impressive, whether she’s turning out honky-tonk or delivering typically countryesque tales of rural life, bereavement and memory with songs such as the recent single Show Pony. She might not be showing you where country is going, but she’ll certainly show you where it will always be coming from.

 
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Dates:

Blind Dog Studio presents:
Mally Harpaz + Valeria Pozzo + guests
Hundred Years Gallery, 13 Pearson Street, Hoxton, London, E2 8JD, England
Tuesday 12th February 2019, 7.30pm
– information here and here

The Nest Collective presents:
Sarah Jane Scouten
The Slaughtered Lamb, 34-35 Great Sutton Street, Clerkenwell, London, EC1V 0DX, England
Monday 18th February 2019, 7.00pm
– information here, here and here

Bill Jones:

  • Gresham Centre, St Anne And St Agnes Church, Gresham Street, Barbican, London, EC2V 7BX, England – Saturday 16th February 2019, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Whitburn Cricket Club, The Village Ground, Sunderland, South Tyneside, SR6 7BZ, England – Wednesday 20th February 2019 – information here and here

Laid Bare At the Ritzy presents:
George Pelham + Adwoa Hackman + Olive Haigh + Josh Collins + Valeria Pozzo Trio + Archie Langley
Upstairs at The Ritzy, Brixton Oval, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London, SW2 1JG, England
Wednesday 27th February 2019, 7.30pm
– information here
 

January 2019 – upcoming English rock gigs – Francis Dunnery’s ‘Big Lad In The Windmill’ mini-tour (18th to 20th January)

12 Jan

Next week, gloriously wayward singer-songwriter Francis Dunnery revisits his past with It Bites – in solo format – as he takes music from their 1986 debut album ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ out on an English micro-tour.

Francis Dunnery, 11th and 18th to 20th January 2019

When pompous would-be music tastemakers like myself roll out their list of great pop and rock albums of the 1980s, ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ generally isn’t on there. That’s unsurprising. As a decade, the ‘80s sprawled into outspoken ideological polarisation, during which it sometimes seemed as if everyone in popular music was a purist poseur of some kind or other; whether they were swanning about on yachts sporting terrifying ozone-threatening hairstyles, acting out grimly righteous/reductionist salt-of-the-earth positionings, haute-couture megaphoning about The Future or (rather more constructively) hurtling around America in vans trying to build an alternative economy. Perhaps that’s over-simplifying, but it’s certainly true that it was an age of vivid stances, and that some terrible and reductive snobberies developed as a side-effect of said stances and manifestos. In such a time and in such a milieu, ‘The Big Lad’ was the kind of album that wasn’t supposed to happen… and many people seemed (and still seem) to think it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

It Bites: 'The Big Lad In The Windmill'

It Bites: ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’

Admittedly on spec it was also a little preposterous. A shotgun marriage of glutinous, glittery ‘80s pop with hard rock snorts and cartwheeling prog stunts, it was recorded by four self-confessed working-class hicks from England’s gorgeous, isolated Lake District, who also happened to be unfashionably virtuosic as musicians. Possessing a keen ear for pastiche and adaptation, they’d had a prehistory back home as a badly-behaved covers band. Plying the tough Cumbrian circuit of nightclubs and working men’s clubs, they’d mastered reams of contemporary pop hits (Level 42, Police, Haircut 100 and so on) while simultanously nursing a profound love for the 70’s complexity and flourishes of Genesis and Yes, UK and Weather Report. All of which showed by the time they came to write their own stuff. By the mid-‘80s (abetted by resident keyboard popinjay and arrangements genius John Beck), Dunnery was putting together original songs which played on both sets of preoccupations.

Some smartarse once tagged It Bites as “bubblegum prog”, which isn’t too bad a label. It encapsulates the band’s mastery of the kind of throwaway immediate pop tunes which prove to have a tenacious, sticky life of their own: it also takes into account their taste for florid illustrative musical passages. In addition, their playing had a layer of fantasy-funk and soul itch (due to admixtures of Steve Arrington and Prince, plus Dick Nolan’s stalking, slippery bass grooves), and some hard rock crunch (staunch, sturdy drummer Bob Dalton was a Led Zeppelin guy at heart). Collectively, It Bites aspired to the well-drilled, muscular “follow-this” ethic of a black showband; which seemed to be judged as less of a virtue when coming from a white British rock band of the times, where restrictive amateurism or beefy stiffness was the order of the day.

Bear in mind that this was years before white-boy eclecticism inveigled its way back into mainstream rock and pop. Ween were still only releasing home-made cassettes; Jellyfish wouldn’t show up for another three years, and while Frank Zappa stubbornly flew the flag for stylistic fluidity, he was an elder statesman turned cult artiste in a niche of his own. Even Queen had calmed down a bit. Had they slipped into a more parodic approach lyrical approach, It Bites might have suddenly woken up to find that their nearest British equivalents were The Barron Knights. Fortunately, they took themselves a little more seriously: there was silliness in their playful approach, but it was matched by an earnest bravado which won them affection from audiences even as it drew critical disdain.


 
Once signed by Virgin and given a shot at making a record, It Bites treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to throw everything they had into the effort and stir it up like crazy. Throughout ‘The Big Lad’ they’re coltish and restless, latching onto impeccable mainstream pop-rock stylings only to suddenly career off into wildly played, cunningly constructed breaks. Turn Me Loose and I Got You Eating Out Of My Hand mercilessly run straightforward pop songs through a mill of transformational time and mood changes. Almost anything goes – heavy metal, jazz-fusion arrhythmia, Al di Meola flamenco, even the drum machine and Bontempi drone of a narcotized lounge act – although the band backtrack and flawlessly reconstruct the songs at the end.

Producer Alan Shacklock entered into the spirit of things with a vengeance. He kept a “riot track” free in the mix to capture the band’s raucous in-studio jabbering; he delivered a gleefully glittering plastic sound which revelled in every Japanese-digital synth chime, every start/stop noise-gate interruption and every over-exaggerated bit of sound-panning. He also accidentally sped up the master tape, resulting in the band sounding (according to Francis) “like Pinky and Perky.” The result was – and is – a record which feels like a sudden soda pop binge after months away from the stuff.

‘The Big Lad’ is generally remembered for a surprise Top Ten single. Cantering toytown hit Calling All The Heroes married the band’s musical deftness to old Republic serials, rocking cradles and boyhood cowboy games, fuelled by an earworm chorus and some sneaky false endings. (Presumably the Wild West schtick struck a chord with Shacklock – his own early ‘70s prog band Babe Ruth had recorded The Mexican, an Alamo-themed story with which Calling All The Heroes shares a number of passing musical similarities). For many people, this song is where It Bites have been permanently stuck: pegged to a couple of fanfaring pop hooks remembered by almost every Briton who lived through mid-‘80s chart pop. In the video a bleached’n’styled, cutesied-up Dunnery and co. bob nervously, like a loopier Go West, presaging the marketing problems which would plague them for the rest of their existence. Live, they’d pull out the full prog trickbag.


 
It’s a shame that the album’s glossy, hyperactive surfaces and loop-the-loop stunting make it easy to ignore the substance beneath. Fair enough: something like Wanna Shout mostly exists in order to run demented macho-guitar heroics over stuttering go-go synths, and All In Red does little more than throb like a fourteen-year-old boy’s heat dream of Zeppelin colliding with Level 42. This isn’t the kind of record you put on to remember angry alienation in pre-punk-era Manchester, or to recapture political struggles, or even to remember belonging to anything much (unless it was being part of the crowd which understood the band’s straightforward musical verve and the down-to-earth Cumbrian personalities which bedrocked it).

Yet elsewhere on ‘The Big Lad’, genuine stories about real people emerge from beneath Beck’s thunderous keyboard chimes and Dunnery’s barrel-roll guitar playing. The band’s follow-up single Whole New World is mostly forgotten. It’s actually a fine, agonised pop song, whose horn-assisted contortions marry dashes of dumped-bloke Motown and Memphis under the Christmas-tree synths. On first impressions, Cold Tired And Hungry might be a screamingly uncool rock-snortin’ melodrama, but on a second look its histrionics run parallel to the naked, hurt-boy stances Prince was trying on at the time (although it sounds more like Steve Marriott locked into a sobbing death spiral with Brian May).

Best, though, are a couple of tracks which embrace genuine personal memories rather than generic pop tropes. Under the bravado, Screaming On The Beaches is a flipside take on Calling All The Heroes’ daydream battles. Based on Dunnery’s teasing-out of traumatic wartime memories from his dad (who’d served as a soldier in the Burma Campaign), it’s tech-laden and roaring, screwing its disorientating picture of ordinary men coming apart under fire into a party mixture of twisted pop-metal riffing, jazz-funk cat pounces and Beck’s wailing keytar. Over the next few years, the band would polish it up into a stompingly danceable live highlight, demonstrating that they had almost as much in common with Trouble Funk as they did with Genesis. Conversely, You’ll Never Go To Heaven is one of the 1980s’ great lost lighters-aloft anthems. A heart-wringing Catholic-guilt ballad (capped with Philip Glass pulse-synths and angel choirs), it features a desperate, spiralling outro solo from Dunnery that sounds like Allan Holdsworth giving vent to a primal scream.



 
* * * * * * * *

Francis Dunnery’s come a long way from the nervous, bullish twenty-three-year-old he was when he recorded ‘The Big Lad’. Four years and two albums after its release, his restless nature (plus a much-confessed dip into a serious drink problem) split him away from his more stolid bandmates. While It Bites have gone on to have a belated second life without him, he’s spent the intervening time following a solo career demonstrating that he’s a rough diamond who decided that he prefers to stay a little rough.

At the time, the necessary polish and consistency required to play the pop game wasn’t right for him. It still isn’t, but he’s managed to turn it to his advantage. Now entirely independent, he follows his own particular muse, popping out records as and when it suits him, and building a relationship with his listeners which has the same mixture of generosity, conversationality and occasional cantankerousness as a genuine friendship. At fifty-six, Francis resembles that old lag with delightful hidden depths whom you might meet during stints on a building site: the one who retains his working-class saltiness, cracks wicked jokes and is still handy in a fist-fight, but likes to sit you down during lunchbreaks and talk about Jung, history and esoterica.

His records have run a similar lane-swapping gamut – the kind of tasteful fingerpicked adult pop which gives the genre a good name; acoustic meditations on life and wounds and healing; fanbase-bewildering dips into laptop R&B; reconstructive tributes to the gothic Cumbrian jazz-metal written by his late brother Barry, and so on. Psychology, astronomy, metaphysics, bite-backs and broad jokes litter his songs. Freed from the standard album-tour-album treadmill, a typical Dunnery gig is now a mixture of friendly encounter group and surreal pub talent night. As well as playing songs, he’ll be telling his audience stories, teasing them about prog cliches or dwarf porn, gleefully upending a performance with comedy and spontaneous competitions, or spicing things up with unexpected guest appearances from his capacious address book (could be a musical friend like Robert Plant, Theo Travis or Steve Hackett; could be an actual fucking pantomime horse…)

While they’ve kept much of the musicality, recent Francis reworkings of the ‘Big Lad’ songs (on his ‘Vampires‘ album) are a touch more sedate and patient – breezier, and partially shorn of their pyrotechnic plastic-synth fizz. In truth, while he’s still more than capable of wringing out the dazzling guitar flash and the singing, the years do make something of a difference: mostly because when set against later Dunnery work (with its accounts of mid-life bereavement, parenthood and the battles fought between a person’s ever-resistant roots and the idea of who they’re trying to be) ‘The Big Lad’ is a bit too callow and fizzy. It’ll always be a young man’s album – drunk on possibilities and grappling with the spirit of discovery while working out some of that immediate post-childhood angst; over-aware of its own muscles and energy; distractedly trying to jigsaw together a sense of history, background and its own place within it via song and allusion. Perhaps that’s part of the thinking behind retaining Francis’ onetime protégé Luke Machin (a former teen guitar prodigy-turned-twentysomething jazz/prog/metal ace) in a crack, hand-picked live band also including Tiger Moth Tales’ Peter Jones and Freak Kitchen drummer Björn Fryklund (plus fretless bassist Paul Brown, holding down the ever-underrated Dick Nolan role).

Regardless of this, even if ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ is two parts kiddie sherbet to one part brilliance – and even if you want to clobber it over the head as an example of undeniable ’80s excess – it still stands up. Looking back, it’s still recognisably Dunnery music, a handful of rough adolescent prisms through which his younger, fearful self blinks from underneath the dazzle. Catholic-rooted, disaster-prone but unstoppable; heartfelt and playful; naïve and wise; soft and noisy, driven and impulsive. The man Francis would become – the man he is now – is still waiting in those songs; waiting to be knocked into shape via further adventures, further bumps and arguments along the way. I bet that there are plenty of ’80s pop refugees who wish they’d written juvenilia like this: songs with heart, flash and legs.

Dates:

  • The Slade Rooms, 32-40 Broad Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1HP, England, Friday 18th January 2019, 7. 00pm – information here, here and here
  • Manchester Academy, University Of Manchester Students’ Union, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PR, England, Saturday 19th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7LJ, England, Sunday 20th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here

 

January 2019 – upcoming London eclectic gigs – Chlöe Herington curates ‘Overlaps’ with members of Knifeworld, Prescott, Two Pale Boys etc (15th January); No One’s Watching #4 featuring Ale Hop, Jylda, flies+flies and Famous Eno (19th January); a side-date with Dowry and Participant (23rd January)

9 Jan

While she’s been active for much of the past two decades as an ubiquitous reed-blowing sidewoman, 2018 was something of a breakout year for Chlöe Herington in that she became more ubiquitous in her own right. Last year, her V A L V E project seemed to be popping up everywhere. Originally a solo effort (in which she worked her bassoons and saxophones around peculiar avant-garde musical concepts, and orchestrated by building Heath Robinson-meets-Hugh-Davies instruments out of tobacco tins, transistors and bits of shelving), it’s now an all-female singing/multi-instrumental trio with a post-punk/immediate-music ethos. Sporting concert harps, bass guitars and microsynths, it happily dances up what initially look like musical cul-de-sacs only to raucously redecorate them.

'Overlaps', 15th January 2019

On top of that there’s been the regular work – helping to keep Lindsay Cooper’s music alive and performed; adding horn and woodwind razz (and a touch of glamour) to Knifeworld; and (most recently) joining brass-dappled techno outfit Hirvikolari to fatten up the hornwork. Meanwhile, Chlöe’s also been working behind the scenes as promoter and realiser for Westking Music, setting up assorted concerts and musical outlets at the Harrison in Kings Cross covering avant-pop, folk and more. The latest burst of the latter comes in the shape of the new ‘Overlaps’ evening she’s put together for the 17th this month with fellow Westminster Kingsway tutor and current Pere Ubu/Prescott guitarist Keith Moliné (whose own music sounds like a restless cross between a swamp musician, a distant train horn and a 1960s telephone exchange, when it’s not running off into morphing MIDI).

Apparently inspired by a circle of chairs they noticed in the Harrison one college lunchtime, ‘Overlaps’ is intended to be a dedicated experimental tag-team workout involving six different musicians joining up for improvisation, collaboration and the overlapping of work. For the first of these sessions, Chlöe and Keith themselves will be taking part.

 
Of the other players signed up for the launch gig, art-improv drummer Frank Byng usually works with Snorkel (both the band and the recording studio) and plays with Keith in Prescott. For two decades he’s driven, adjusted, pounced around and subverted the beat behind a host of playing projects from This Is Not This Heat to Crackle. Chlöe’s Knifeworld bandmate Kavus Torabi has spent the same two decades overturning rock applecarts as guitarist with Knifeworld, Guapo, Cardiacs and others. Depending on mood, he can sound like Fred Frith throwing it all up one illuminated lysergic evening to go hillbilly, or like a coffin-dragging psych-folk Django staggering home under a black sun.



 
The remaining two contributors are less well-known. Singer/ranter/sound manipulator/explorer Merlin Nova came into music-making via spoken word and radio soundcaping. Last year’s ‘Protect Your Flame’ EP is a happily unsettled beast which sees her travelling between batsqueak acapella songs, fractured megaphone poetics, experimental pop-bounce and strange devotional noise abstractions. Earlier work is a mixture of unsettling sonics and persona-shifting performance art.

Even less is known about the sixth musician, Farz, other than that he’s another shadowy figure from the Westgate Kingsway staff who released a debut EP on drum-and-bass label Peer Pressure last September. Whoever’s lurking behind the mononym, his music’s a dankly ornamental take on the d&b idea. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the oft-overlooked ventures into art-dance by ex-Japan refugees Jansen Barbieri Karn from the tail end of the ’90s – deracinated from its direct origins (and losing a little of the context and directness), but gaining other context from its expansion elsewhere; carefully textured; occasionally yarping into digressions of curving, cirrus-tailed jazz-fusion synths.



 

If this evening works out then it’ll apparently develop into a gig series with a constantly shifting roster of players. I hope so.

* * * * * * * * *

 
'No-One's Watching #4', 19th January 2019The people behind another semi-experimental music evening, No-One’s Watching, have already managed to get to their fourth night before I got around to noticing them. Par for the course with me, unfortunately, but I think I’ll be keeping an eye on them in future. Tagging their latest event on 19th January as “three wonderfully surreal live acts topped off with a serious session of leftfield dancehall heaters”, they’re aiming for some kind of umami spot between basic pop appeal, beat impulse and avant-garde perspectives, happily seizing on the backdrop of new-ish Dalston art house SET with its mingled milieu of “the Twin Peaks Red Lodge (sic) and a northern working man’s club.”

Despite a name which reads like a Sussex pub folk session, headliner Ale Hop is Peruvian, currently working in Berlin after a spell in New York. Her early work was a strange wedding of discombobulated synthpop, psychedelic guitar sludge and vocal murmurs clinging together in fall-apart structures: sprawling, untethered songs moving sluggishly in drugged amber. Since then she’s been moving even further from formal areas, mostly using her effects-mangled guitar and voice as sonic sources. The results have a strange, off-the-wall drama to them: subterranean tunnelscape walkarounds in which ringing tones, distant treated guitars and scratchy rat-choir vocals are heard around corners and in which surprises lurk (synth-organ steamclouds, club kickdrums, computer register bleeps and sudden bursts of beat program). Her cover of the old black spiritual Sinnerman incarcerates it in a confounding, refracting trapfold of echoing guitar and voice (given additional heft by Caroline Araoz’ huge shofar-ish saxophone parts which rage in the background like natural disasters).




 
The other two live acts are gentle in comparison, but have their own charm and ambition. A recent transferee from Berlin to London, Gianna Gehlhar – or Jylda – strays along the line between a fairly conventional dreamy pop trip and more avant-garde distractions. Not much has been recorded/released beyond The Body, a slightly slurred, distractedly eroticised slice of distraction, with a narcotised drag weaving itself into a gloriously woozy climax of glockenspiel rainfall and synth tingles. Apparently the live show is where it’s at, with Jylda giving full reign to her vocals “constantly drift(ing) between extremes, from sounding high and soft, sometimes operatic and siren-like on the one hand, and keen and metallic on the other.” She won over a Paper Dress Vintage audience a while back, and now it’s Dalston’s turn.


 
No-One’s Watching house band Flies + Flies create their own unsettling pop that hovers that crucial two or three degrees of the normal. Admittedly it’s taken them a while to get there. Early material was bogged down in lead-footedness, but over four years though, they’ve evolved to the point where the interaction of Dan Griffis’ mellifluous vocal and Pet Rok’s subtly tussling instrumentation sounds like Jeff Buckley taking a wrong turn into a Mute-flavoured analogue-electrophonic dystopia. Chilly electronic skybuzzes and analogue bass, along with the clicks and clacks of old school drumboxes, frame a vocal sounding like a balladeer wrenched out of romantic simplicities and forced to navigate stranger dream-logic terrains. There’s a welcome hint of Robert Smith here too, albeit a Smith shorn of The Cure’s rolling, roiling rock traditions and given a tent, an incomplete map and some more interesting books.

 
Bringing some DJ culture to the night, Pet Rok will also be showing up on the decks in tandem with DJ PLS in order to play “weird bangers from across the globe”; while Swing Ting label DJ/producer Famous Eno brings a set of his own, touching on his work in grime, bashment, Afro-house and a host of other overlapping dance genres.


 
* * * * * * * * *

On the 23rd, Éna Brennan is quietly slipping away from the ongoing Bell X-1 tour, on which she’s providing the Irish indie-rockers with violin parts at the helm of her Dowry Strings quartet, and spending an evening simply as Dowry. As part of this, she’s hooking up again with Stephen Tiernan, a.k.a pop soloist Participant, with whom she went out on a successful double-header tour in Ireland last year. This month, London gets its own taste of this down in the basement at Servant Jazz Quarters, now well established as one of the best rough’n’ready showcase venues in town.

Dowry + Participant, 23rd January 2019

Dowry is Éna’s loop-fiddle project. While drawing on her experience as multi-instrumentalist, broadcaster and composer, it sits off on its own as a
kind of unification of Terry Riley systems music with the oft-sidelined traditions of Irish classical (generally overshadowed by the more readily exportable folk tradition, but offering its own Eirean essence of rainsoaked strings and staunch intransigent romance). In a typical piece, overlaid violin parts will pile up like slowing lava flows, increasingly hallucinatory and vertiginous. They’re like a growing conflation of idiosyncratic conversational voices; mutters both gentle and harsh, running increasingly out-of-sync and punctuated by actual subvocalisations and breath punctuations from Éna as she plays.

 
In comparison to Dowry’s heady confusions, Participant could hardly be clearer or sharper. A Dubliner, Stephen Tiernan’s been releasing assorted singles and EPs for four years now. A gawkily handsome presence, he’s an unlikely baby-voiced literalist who rides his intricately-worked-out songs from folk-cellar plucking to enormous, romantic Disney orchestral arrangements. Presumably he’s brought his arrangement dynamics along with him in a black box: otherwise, expect an unplugged hearthside show with trace-elements of other Irish songwriters in there (I can hear the ghostly solo work of Martin Furey, as well as a touch of Damien Rice) but Stephen’s understated precision is all his own.



* * * * * * * * *

Dates:

‘Overlaps’ (featuring Chlöe Herington + Keith Moliné + Frank Byng + Kavus Torabi + Merlin Nova + Farz)
The Harrison, 28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, London, WC1H 8JF, England
Tuesday 15th January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

No One’s Watching presents:
No One’s Watching #4: Ale Hop + Jylda + flies+flies + Famous Eno
SET (Dalston Lane), 27a Dalston Lane, Dalston, London, E8 3DF, England
Saturday 19th January 2019, 9.00pm
– information here and here

Dowry + Participant
Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England
Wednesday 23rd January 2019, 8.00pm
– information here, here and here
 

January 2019 – upcoming London experimental gigs – Marianne Schuppe’s ‘slow songs, nosongs’ (9th January)

5 Jan

I’ve got to admit, I like a complicated song. Blame all of that prog I grew up listening to; blame my interest in Sondheim and Flanders & Swann; or my time in choirs singing extended classical pieces… but whether it’s a case of stretching the lyrical format with streams of words or internal rhymes or of massing the music with variations, countermelodies or sundry intrusions, I like songs which develop quickly and boldly into something more extensive than a couple of riffs, a chorus and a bit of moon-in-june.

Marianne Schuppe, 2018

Marianne Schuppe, 2018

Encountering the kind of song which works at the other extreme, though, can be a real head-turner… and if it’s done right, it takes my breath away. The Swiss singer-composer Marianne Schuppe has been making a name for herself with this kind of song, this kind of singing, for about two decades now. It’s not the only thing she does (she’s a member of the Wandelweiser group of avant-garde composers, contributing instrumental and noise work, and she improvises with a variety of other musicians including Alfred Zimmerlin), but this particular aspect of her work stands out in its uncluttered boldness, its Zenlike simplicity and focus on only the necessary elements.

If you’re approaching this from a pop or avant-pop context, you could draw some comparisons with the more hovering, trepidatious interludes in modern-day Scott Walker, with Nico’s work on ‘The Marble Index’, or with the song whispers of Anja Garbarek’s ‘Smiling & Waving’. Aficionados of classical music could probably pick closer analogies – I could cite some aspects of Eleanor Armer‘s songcraft, for example – and a significant part of Marianne’s reputation comes from her dips into the indeterminate end of contemporary classical, making interpretations of the elusive, protracted song-murmurs of Morton Feldman and Giacinto Scelsi (with their minimal pitching, silences and opportunity to make every pared phrase count).

Yet for the most part Marianne’s own songs seem to bud out of the air spontaneously, any motivations or influences hidden within the moment. She’s stated that her prime interest as a composer-performer is “the voice’s ability to move between pure sound and words”; and while for many experimental vocalisers this is an excuse for splurging, showy explosions of babbling glossolalia, for her it’s an opportunity to slow liminal skating, shading almost imperceptibly between a lone, literally meaningful word and a lacuna of non-literal meaningful noise-tone, all within a low, minimal enclosure of soprano range like a deliquescing icicle. Marianne accompanies herself by placing an acoustic lute flat on a table top (a la Keith Rowe) and extracting notes from it via “uber-bows” – homemade bastard cousins of EBows, those hand-held electro-magnetic note inducers which add those sustained whooping tones to certain spacier rock songs (from Fade Away And Radiate, The Unforgettable Fire and Don’t Fear The Reaper to… oh, yes, R.E.M.’s Ebow The Letter) or the bookending humming halos to John Cage’s harp work ‘Postcard From Heaven’.

The sparse tonal wellings which result sound nothing like string plucks, and nothing like the accompaniments to a John Dowland lute lay. They’re amorphous bodies of tone, forced up like the first emergence of spring-waters, or the work of sine-tone generators. It’s a peculiar, unexpected use of an instrument with such an extensive body of associated work and history: like a kind of musical exorcism or automatic writing exercise, dipping below the surface of how the instrument functions in order to access a different expectation-disrupting voice. As for the songwords, they’re strange passes at impressions and impulses which might, if looked at too closely, disappear under the weight of logic. As text, they’re almost white-on-white – fragments of stories and encounters involving sunhats and deer, or studies of fingers – minimal anchors to latch onto slivers of ideas which Marianne can follow uninterrupted and undistracted, and let go whenever she sees fit.

 
Marianne’s slot next week at Café Oto showcases – or, more accurately, liberates – songs of these kind from two of her recent albums: 2015’s ‘slow songs’ and its 2018 cousin ‘nosongs’. In terms of vision and artistic platforming it ought to be very much an Oto show, although perhaps the venue’s friendly, expansive, post-industrial intellectual feel isn’t the perfect match. Ideally, these songs belong in the smallest, quietest space possible. A welcoming cellar somewhere, accessed by a winding symbolic stair; and with a silent, attentive, deep-listening audience hand-cupping songs and singer in a cell of absolute attention.

Marianne Schuppe: ‘slow songs, nosongs’
Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England
Wednesday 9 January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here
 

January 2019 – upcoming London gigs – Monelise, Laura Victoria, Paul Reynolds and Paul Go free in Peckham; Amy Balog at the Poetry Café; The Osiris Club, Kavus Torabi and ANTA in Camden (all 9th January)

4 Jan

Three for next Wednesday…

* * * * * * * *

Monelise + Laura Victoria + Paul Reynolds + Paul Go, 9th January 2019

A free gig down in Peckham showcases four independent songwriters, with recent Goldsmiths graduate Monelise at the head of the bill. Positioning herself in the dreamy, arty end of pop, she tosses leading comparisons and tells around like chiffon scarves – David Lynch, Kate Bush, her own synaesthesia – and the talk-up seems to be working so far, with her videos being played in Topshop and a Pledgemusic campaign working hard at getting her debut EP completed (and her live shows up and running across a Mediterranean living-room tour and an Edinburgh Fringe fixture). She’s clearly as much a visual artist as a musical one, with her final degree show at the Deptford Albany last December already featuring screens, visuals and drifting snatches of 1920s opera shellac as well as a four-piece band.

I admire the ambition and industry, even if I’m not yet sold on the output. The influences Monelise is citing have the ability to reach down into your deep dreams and jar you. In comparison, she herself still seems content to drift along on the surface of a dusk dream, sounding pretty and basking in moonlight. I can only go by what I’m seeing. It’s possible that Monelise’s keeping her cards close to her chest as regards what she’s put out so far, and perhaps the live show’s the only current way of appreciating her in full. Available evidence shows two versions of her – the managed one (who releases slick spiritual-couture videos and tracks which blend contemporary pop and trip hop into seamless, depthless musings), and the far more interesting and unpolished live Monelise (who strives and juggles simultaneous singing, keyboards and theremin, and who might be shakier and more erratic at the moment but who also offers possibilities of growing, learning and interacting which her hermetically-sealed recorded persona currently doesn’t).



 
There are no such abstractions or evasions in the music of Laura Victoria. A onetime scion of Tyneside youth folk ensemble FolkESTRA North, she belts out punchy songs of life and love drawing from English folk, acoustic pop and Americana, accompanying herself on cello and leading a three-piece band featuring drummer Josh Wolfsohn and fiddler/banjoist Jo Cooper. Now up to her third album, and having been a regular presence on folk scene gigs up and down the country for twelve years, she’s confident and fully formed: what you see is what you get. I see sunniness, vigour and empathy in equal measure. In addition, she runs folk singing classes at Morley College and IKLECTIK, and has done at least one sprightly, ramshackle Joan Jett cover, if anyone’s interested…



 
Paul Go is another transplanted Northumbrian folkie, although of a very different order and style to Laura. His only available song so far is soft, shy and sweet – a gentle, momentary folk-pop sketch with brush drums, donkey-ride fingerpicking and fiddle contrasting awkward human reclusiveness with the unconscious confident grace of animals. Of the other two tracks he’s released, one’s a skittish, part-broken guitar improvisation designed to make use of the acoustic space of Ealing’s Vestry Hall. The other shows an unexpected interest in Chinese music, featuring the slithering sigh of an erhu fiddle, chimes and a guest narrative in Mandarin. Hopefully some of these other sides of Paul will bleed through in the concert: soft suburban musing and amiability are fine, but extra dimensions are better.



 
That’s something which already holds true for Paul Reynolds. Sometimes part of triple-threat modern folk trio Vespers, he plays bass for his own projects and for various other people, but graduates to piano for his own solo songs and for spacious, introverted instrumental improvisations (sometimes artfully jarred by odd tunings and by interspersed sound effects and electronics). I’m guessing that the songs will take preeminence this time around. Evidence so far suggests that they’re in the classic vein of chamber-folk touched with elements of classical and chanson, and thrumming behind a patina of English reserve: a mixture of craft and of carefully harboured emotion. Paul’s also got a sideline in little sonic experimental dramas such as The Brading Experience, suggesting a quietly uncontainable musician and aural imagination behind the meticulous skill.

 
* * * * * * * *

All right – in advance of her spoken word/musical set at the Poetry Cafe, here’s Amy Balog‘s opening statement:

“The hungry vulture of feminism is circling in the grey sky above the dying Femme Fatale. She’s being tortured to death by girls who don’t understand her power, thinking it somehow makes them weaker. Her admirers are collecting her sweet, priceless blood in vintage crystal flasks, trying to preserve at least this one colour still left in a humourless and passionless world. But she’s still breathing, and it’s not too late to save her from a cruel demise…”

Amy Balog: 'The Dying Femme Fatale', 9th January 2019

I’m not sure quite what to make of Amy yet. She’s a Hungarian Londoner infused with Gothic prose and horror erotica; a refugee from science journalism who carried out a moonlight flit into the world of speculative fiction and dream psychology. Having reinvented herself as a novelist and poet, she’s now (at the age of twenty-seven) standing up in front of audiences to deliver a performance-poetry manifesto exploring “the nature of femininity and feminine power from a perspective critical of contemporary feminism… other themes include political correctness, identity politics, religion and mental illness.” As part of the process, she’s struck up an alliance with jazz-psych guitarist Carlos Ferrao, who brings a splintery musical soundscape to her recitations – hollowbody chugs, echoes and grumbles, deliquescing now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t riffs.


 
Heh. I’ve never much trusted anyone who scorns and decries “political correctness” and uses that ire as a rallying call. Having watched or suffered losses and setbacks related to mental illness, I’m suspicious of anything which politicises or potentially celebrates madness; and the fact remains that if you’re a woman arguing against feminism, you’re basically aiming an axe at your own ankles. That said, there’s more to Amy than flashy reactionary advertising or self-indulgent apologism. By her own admission, there’s plenty of Camille Paglia in her work, plenty of Jung, Nietzsche, Poe and the Comte du Lautréamont – the bloodwork of surrealism, expressionism, contrarian thought, like a kind of Goth take on Lydia Lunch.

Don’t expect measured, objective consideration here. Amy’s interested in transformative apocalypses, irrational dream quests and night journeys, the truth implicit in the fluid and contradictory power balance between artist and muse, or about the flip side of objectification. Her female narrators may be thwarted or humiliated or imperilled, but they’re also resistant and strangely bulletproof, with a core of self-will: heroic archetypes determined to establish their own concept of femaleness. Core to this is Amy’s own perception of beauty as a force in its own right – it threads through her words, and her Gothic redhead looks and sensual witchy Tori Amos presence are an integral part of her work; the vessel for the wine.

Perhaps it’s best to allow for the fact that feminism, by its very nature, is a broad church with room for multiple perspectives and considerations; that there are many pathways to female assertion and that none of them should be readily shouted down; and that Amy’s still in the early stages of her night journey. Despite her determined stance, at the moment there are more questions and challenges in place than answers. It may be interesting to see where she goes.



 
* * * * * * * *

The Osiris Club + Kavus Torabi + ANTA, 9th January 2019A heavier, more masculine psychedelia gets an airing up at the Black Heart, where record label Old Empire are putting on a night of darker and/or harder sounds, headed up by occult post-punk/progressive metal metallers The Osiris Club.

Originally formed with the intent of fusing horror film soundtracks with instrumental avant-metal, the OC has now swollen to a full-on song septet. The changes seem to be resulting in accessible, gloomily elegant tritone epics of tingling guitar and droning indie vocal; as if The House of Love had thrown their hands up in the air and confessed to having been fantasy comics fans all along (while various members of Fantômas grinned and egg them on in the background). That said, for epics such as A Winter’s Night On Sentinel Hill the Club pull out all of the Hawkwind oscillators and Van Der Graaf/Iron Maiden declamations, unveiling a Lovecraft-prog grandeur in full glorious/ghastly melodrama.



 
No such code-switching games for ANTA – described by Chaos Theory as the purveyors of “velvetine cosmic textures delivered as a hammer blow to the soul”, they open the show with their own enthusiastically convoluted, heavy-prog brain-tangling rock swing. Sandwiched in the middle is Kavus Torabi. Having recently exploded the Garage at the helm of his psychedelic prog octet Knifeworld, he returns to the sullen, trepidatious, post-nova ember-glow of his solo work; trawling through shimmering webs of harmonium, effected drones and knell-clangs of acoustic guitar, exploring a forbidding hinterland of vulnerability and permeable spirit-space.



 
* * * * * * * *

Dates:

Monelise + Laura Victoria + Paul Reynolds + Paul Go
Rye Wax, 133 Rye Lane, Peckham, London, SE15 4ST, England
Wednesday, 9 January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

The Poetry Society presents:
Amy Balog: ‘The Dying Femme Fatale – An Evening of Poetry and Music’
The Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 9BX, England
Wednesday 9th January 2019, 7.00pm
– information here and here

Old Empire presents:
The Osiris Club + Kavus Torabi + Anta
The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden Town, London, NW1 0AP, England
Wednesday 9th January 2019, 7.00pm
– information here, here and here
 

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