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May 2018 – experimental rock, hip hop and strange-pop in London – Black Midi, Shaun Sky and Omelet (10th May); Farai, Black Midi, Jockstrap, TONE and more (24th May)

6 May

As of yet, no-one’s really successfully categorised south London under-bubblers Black MIDI – something which I reckon they’re quite pleased about – but there seem to be an increasing number of people who get them, responding to the band’s perverse flinty reverberations with outright delight.

Here’s what I wrote about them last time our paths crossed:

“Teenage Croydonians Black MIDI (subtitled, variously, “the decibel boys” and “purveyors of the loudest dreamscapes”) managed to win over a pubful of Cardiacs cultists. Not the easiest thing to do and they didn’t do it with post-punk virtuosity or effusive psychedelic complexity but by dogged, determined presence. Artful and awkward (or gawk-ward), in some respects reminiscent of key post-hardcore bands such as Slint and Jesus Lizard (and in others a muted, utterly pared-back Huge Baby), they also sound as if they’ve got there without listening to the records. While a generation of shoegazer revivalists annoy me by clogging up my inbox with ersatz sonic cathedral cliches, Black MIDI arouse my interest by whittling sparse piles of breeze-blocks into mysterious cranky monuments… I found them elusive to follow, and follow-ups are no easier (their Soundcloud’s vanished down the back of the rehearsal room sofa; their Facebook page currently consists of one post).


 
“Still, they offhandedly own their space onstage: perhaps their secret ingredient might be impeccably fit drummer Morgan Simpson (who might look as if he’s timewarped in from the young Fishbone but seems absolutely at home where he is now) but when you’re dealing with a bandful of stubborn square pegs like this one, any or all of them could be…. Between holding the low notes down or strumming out wooly baritone chord-clouds, (the) bass player maintains ambiguous eye contact with the audience, like an onstage imposter letting us in on his stunt. One of the guitarists (blessed and cursed with the arched, cruel, elfin eyebrows of Thomas Sangster) looks perpetually affronted, but instead of screaming out tortured emo wails he enunciates rambling, precisely-formed, utterly incomprehensible digressions: like a fiercely introverted baby Peter Hammill, or an exiled punk senator addressing a horde of penguins…

“With a rumble spreading about their south London rumble, this feels like the start of something. Just as much as I find it hard to place where Black MIDI come from, I have no idea where they’re going; but they’re the kind of band which excites me via that blank-slate art-punk feeling that they could go anywhere.”

Wu-Lu Curates: Black Midi + Shaun Sky + Omelet, 10th May 2018

Having demonstrated both a preternatural confidence and a healthy genre-crossing “play-with-anyone” attitude ever since their emergence, Black Midi continue their London encroachments via two very different gigs in May. For the first (on the 10th), they’re playing at a Shacklewell show curated by South London artist and tastemaker Wu-Lu, a trans-Thames event aiming to “showcase some of the most exciting acts currently breaking through South of the river, all the way up in East London.”

Billmates for this one are a pair of hip hop talents. South London rapper Shaun Sky is the kind of affable jack who sounds as if he’d rather spend his time ambling round the top of a hilly park, greeting and free-associating, away from street corners. Semi-acoustic and spacious, his work’s balanced atop a London sundowner groove of sunwarmed beats, acoustic guitar and soul murmurs; his thoughts are a constant, light-touch note-to-self to pick up and get focussed.

 
On the flipside, Omelet (usually the beatmaster and orchestrator for the brooding, phantasmal Neverland Clan, the Catford-to-Hackney crew he also calls, with full irony, “the world’s gnarliest boyband”) steps out from his dayjob for a solo appearance. Taking something from the drunken-sounding, unbalanced, falling-asleep-on-the-spindle urban veil-dances he uses as Neverland backings (who generally sound as if Massive Attack had taken a couple of draws from their own future, straight from the post-split Tricky, and begun to disintegrate) he sharpens them up. Minus the MC murmurs of Daniel OG and Ryan Hawaii, they’re still narcotic and weird-eerie, but now more on pitch – disassociated minimal beatscapes made as much of space, echoing wafts and inconclusions as they are of hits and pindowns; uncomfortably sedated, with drift-in samples of dream-recountings and distant orgasms.

 
GLOWS presents Middle Of The Room: Farai + Black Midi + Jockstrap + TONE + more, 24th May 2018The second Black Midi outing of the month is at the second PL x Glows “Middle Of The Room” event at DIY Space for London. It’ll be a big sprawling evening of mixed media and art, in which they’ll be sandwiched between the adventures of two experimental pop duos – Farai and Jockstrap – on a bill completed by TØNE, who fires off slinky-robot salvos of latterday electro (veering between a kind of warm, distracted isolationism and scattered hints at the black experience).

 
Similarly oblique is what’s going on within Farai. Basil Harewood Jnr provides the sounds (deep-buzz, sawtoothed synthpop) while the superbly named/renamed Farai Bukowski-Bouquet provides the voice and the identity; the whole concept stitched together with lashings of Afropunk attitude and beady Berlin-art blankness. Farai herself yells small-voiced, cryptic/obvious nuggets into echoing dub-chamber space (“I am a warrior, but even lions cry too”, “Chasing the dragon, inhale exhale”, “I roll with the hell’s angels”) and always seems to be glancing off bigger statements, leaving pointers or shreds of clues rather than outright explanations or challenges; exchanging meaningful nods with Robert Johnson or Prince Far I while swiping past them on the autobahn. Perhaps there are more clues in the group’s videos – flat, pop-up art-gallery/fashion shoot reframing of introspections or street-market scenes, in which Basil and Farai seem to be part of a contracting and expanding collective of talkers, arguers, dancers and hustlers.

I can’t tell whether it’s all a deliberately difficult slit-view onto a bigger world, with them demanding that you make up all the running to gain understanding; whether it’s all codes and pre-initiations; even whether there’s substance behind those sketched references and implications, or whether its a handful of slogan-poses around an empty core. Sometimes it’s all frustratingly impenetrable – Farai makes fleeting eye-contact from under her lids, challenging you to speak or to question, without ever indicating that she’ll provide a reply – but she and her group are a compelling presence, a bewildering mix of shyness and stage-owning, resilience and passivity.



 
Jockstrap are easier to get. Despite the sweaty hardcore name, they’re another boy-girl duo: Georgia Ellery and Taylor Skye, a couple of Guildhall grads who start out with ’60s MOR pop – orchestral, bossa, ye-ye – and then promptly put it through the weird wringer. What starts out straightforward ends up strange – pitchwarped; almost atonalised; drag-g-g-ing; like Portishead being dragged through a Nordic-narcotic slurry of slowed-down electronic jazz. Their pocketful of recorded songs come across like minor bossa classics being waylaid by experimental electronica, or by the teasing strand-by-strand rearrangements of contemporary classical. Full of drop-outs, cheap pocket blips and strange celebratory jump-shifts of tone, mood and pace, they’re prey to interfering sounds and rude, speaker-prodding mixes. Think of a more gleefully insane Elephant, a more mischievous Broadcast, the balefully intelligent murmur-whisper pop oddities of Anja Garbarek; or (going back a bit further) the mocking deconstructive treatment of old jazz standards on Django Bates’ Quiet Nights.

Live – with a two-man rhythm section and Georgia pulling triple duty on treated viola and stylophone – they’re deprived of the absolute mix control which makes their recorded songs so startling. On the other hand, they become a little more accessible – still subtly pranky with their interjections of weird sound processing and attention-deficit mood shifts (listen as a lounge-pop string part goes weirdly Chinese!), but with their disruptive futurism now fighting a rearguard action to their nostalgia. The other bonus is the added prominence given to Georgia’s breathy leaf-on-the-wind vocalising and her “now-I’m-slinky, now-I’m-friendly” performance persona: unveiling the subtleties and human touches within their songwriting from the offbeat thought processes to the shots of blunt, frustrated eroticism.




 
As with the previous Glows party, there’ll be DJ sets, a meetup for assorted zines and alternative promoters, and a steady stream of art curated by Felix Bayley-Higgins: “a pool of films, objects and images in continuous circulation, presented through a process of rotation.” No word yet on who’s contributing to this, but last month’s event had irreverent, ingenious and sometimes just plain beautiful sculptures and designs from a basketful of artists including Wilfrid Wood, Willa Hilditch and Harry Grundy.

Dates:

  • Wu-Lu Curates: Black Midi + Shaun Sky + Omelet, Birthdays, 33-35 Stoke Newington Road, Dalston, London, N16 8BJ, England, Thursday 10th May 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • PL x Glows present ‘Middle Of The Room’ featuring Farai, Black Midi, Jockstrap, TONE + more, DIY Space For London, 96-108 Ormside Street, South Bermondsey, London, SE15 1TF, England, Thursday 24th May 2018, 7.00pm – information here and here

 

May 2018 – a punk and groove womansplosion in London – ILL, LibraLibra and The Ethical Debating Society (11th May)

5 May

ILL + LibraLibra + The Ethical Debating Society, 11th May 2018

CLUB.THE.MAMMOTH. presents:
ILL + LibraLibra +The Ethical Debating Society + CLUB.THE.MAMMOTH DJs
The Sebright Arms, 33-35 Coate Street, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9AG, England
Friday 11th May 2018, 8.00pm
– information here and here

There’s an evening of feminist-slanted dance, rock’n’rave coming up in Bethnal Green next Friday, as delightfully gaudy post-punk Manchester shoutmonsters ILL (following up two previous self-released EPs) light the blue touchpaper under their debut album ‘We Are ILL’.

ILL, 2018Admired by ‘The Quietus’ for their “kinetic force” and describing themselves as “a genre-evading band which believes in the power of disobedient noise… with a repertoire of precarious pop songs and frequent improvised departures”, the all-female, fiercely feminist four-piece “revel in the right to be weird, exploring the borders between the funny and the sinister, the personal and the political, the mundane and the surreal.”

Between making a racket at Quietus events, Supernormal and the Raw Power Festival, carrying out relatively standard support slots with the likes of British Sea Power, and splurging out improvised audio-visual work at assorted art galleries, they’re certainly making a mark of their own choosing. In true Situationist tradition, ILL conceive their debut album as much as event as record – “…a call to action, a disobedient protest in the face of passivity, wrestling with the personal and political issues of identity and gender, mental health, the disintegration of social services, capitalism and misogyny. Subversive, surrealistic, humorous and fighting fierce, ILL warmly invite you to join them in kicking some ass!”



In support are Brightonian four-piece LibraLibra, a live mash of “exotic melodies and frenetic, lyrical flows meet(ing) tribal beats and broken guitars” fronted by striking singer Beth Cannon, whose recent credits include work with post-rockers Nordic Giants and co-writing/singing the riveting dream-pop-soul track Bones for Simon Raymonde’s Lost Horizons project (which she delivered like a magnificent tri-point cross between Etta James, Kate Bush and Liz Fraser).

LibraLibra’s debut single Animali (out since mid-March) is a rip-roaring renegade slosh of sub-bass-oozing world-beat carnivalia. As vigorous as the height of a Brighton Pride parade – or a volcano-cresting sabre fight between Shirley Bassey and Eartha Kitt – it’s chockful of animal namechecks, wild-woman party-leading, and a cavalcade of ferocious summoning lyrics (“you sting, you pierce my skin like a razor,” “monsoon of blood-flood, she’s calling”, “save me from the bullshit boy”) suggesting a writhing in-the-moment package of shape-shifting, menstrual sorcery, and assorted seize-the-day don’t-give-a-fuckery.

Completing the set, matter-of-fact London riot pop trio The Ethical Debating Society bring street-level DIY art-punk to the evening. Having originated as “a pseudonym for Tegan Xmas, writing anti-love songs on her hooty piano” it blossomed into “a full band, now with Kris Martin on guitarrr/vocals and Eli playing pots and pans. If we’re trying to prove anything, it’s that music is for everyone to have fun with, not just a chosen few.” Expect no frills; but do expect noisy non-nonsense songs about ethics, choices and the travails of the leaned-on, hard-bitten end of the London community.


 

September 2016 – upcoming London jazz gigs – Jonathan Silk and Ben Lee bands at Kings Place (16th); Bitch’n’Monk, Survival Skills and Peter Ehwald at Rich Mix (22nd); free show by Tamas Teszary Quartet at Magic Garden (22nd)

14 Sep

More jazz and jazzlike London gigs for the coming month, presented more or less straight from the press releases (to ensure that the month’s news updates don’t drag too much…)

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Jazz at Kings Place/Stoney Lane Records present:
Jonathan Silk Big Band + Ben Lee Quintet
Hall Two @ Kings Place, 90 York Way, Kings Cross, London, N1 9AG, England
Friday 16th September 2016, 8:00pm
information

From Kings Place:

“The third in a series of eclectic performances featuring artists from the burgeoning Stoney Lane Records label – and a special double album launch.

“Drummer and composer Jonathan Silk – dubbed “one To watch” by ‘Jazzwise‘ magazine – leads his dynamic big band, with strong influences from mentors and world renowned composers Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza, along with contemporary New York improvisors Jim Black and Dave Binney. Playing music from Jonathan’s forthcoming album ‘Fragment’, the big band will perform a suite composed to explore the contrast between the powerful forces of a big band in full cry, and the more delicate touch of orchestral textures.



 
“Young guitarist Ben Lee is tipped as one of the rising stars in the jazz world, and launches his debut album this autumn. His beguiling quintet explore the many sounds and combinations of its unorthodox line-up, featuring guitar, alto sax, trombone, organ and drums. Inspired by a whole host of eclectic musicians, from Nirvana and Radiohead to many of the jazz greats, the Ben Lee Quintet bring punchy horn lines, groove, invention, original melodies and no lack of warmth and technical prowess.”




 

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Chaos Theory Promotions/Jazz Standard/United Artists present:
Bitch ‘n’ Monk + Peter Ehwald + Survival Skills
Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E1 6LA, England
Thursday 22nd September 2016, 7.30pm
information

From Chaos Theory:

“This is a special collaboration between ourselves, Tina Edwards of Jazz Standard (one of London’s best promoters of contemporary jazz), Rich Mix (one of London’s hottest hotbeds of contemporary creativity) and daringly experimental duo Bitch ‘n’ Monk, as they launch their new album ‘We Are Peering Over’ in an evening of experimental jazz, improv, art and electronica.

“Described as “a kaleidoscope of musical styles” by the BBC’s ‘Late Junction’ (and by ‘The Quietus‘ as musicians who “will send you into a lovesick coma and give you an electrifying kiss of life all at once”) Bitch’n’Monk are a wayward soprano and screaming flute duo from London and Colombia. They invite you to come to the edge of the music that you know, and peer over into something unpredictable, wild, and new to your ears (the ‘Guardian‘ has observed that “you’ll spend a while pondering how to classify them – prog folk? Operatic post-punk? Gothic reggae? – but they know how to write melodies.” Their new album is a masterpiece, and is a defiant fusion of arts and culture, allowing us each to explore it in our own unique way, with no two people experiencing it quite the same. Tonight ‘We Are Peering Over’ will be premiered live and audience members will have a chance to pre-order the album at a discount, and reserve it for collection at the merch desk ahead of its official release on 30th September.



 
“In support, Survival Skills is an electronic improvisational solo venture by respected contemporary and nu jazz guitarist and producer Chris Sharkey – a fiercely creative individual who is as at home playing the main stages at international festivals, or performing to an intimate audience in a hidden basement venue. Previously known for Acoustic Ladyland and TrioVD, some of you may remember his other projects Shiver at The Facemelter last July, and The Geordie Approach at The Jazz Market last October. Chaos Theory was lucky enough to host the live premiere of Survival Skills almost two years ago, so this will be a great opportunity to see how the solo project has developed.



 
“German musician Peter Ehwald is an adventurous saxophonist with a distinctive sound (described by ‘Jazzwise’ as “an affecting tonal range, moving artfully between Wayne Shorter-type floaty, snaking lines and tougher vocalised timbres.”). He’s known for The Backyard Jazz Orchestra, his collaborative project with the Goethe Institute and Stefan Schultze. He also performs solo with raw energy, creating a remarkably modern sound.”


 
* * * * * * * * *

Tamas Teszary Quartet
The Magic Garden, 231 Battersea Park Road, Battersea, London, SW11 4LG, England
Thursday 22nd September 2016, 9.00pm
free event – information

“If you get the chance to go and listen to the Tamas Teszary Quartet live don’t miss it! This quartet, led by vibraphone wizard Tamas Teszary, brings sizzling new originals to the jazz scene. His compositions invoke sensations from your brain as if traveling from the smoky jazz clubs of New York through the lush landscapes of Canada to the hustling streets of London. With driving bebop lines, funky beats and hip ­hop chills, from melancholic to twisted jazz harmonies, TTQ delivers the mind warp you’ve been thirsty for.”


 

August 2016 – upcoming gigs – three-date British tour of saz balladry by Aşıq Nargile (plus choral fizz, oddrock and pedal steel strangeness from Tut Vu Vu, Muldoon’s Picnic and Heather Leigh – 2nd-4th); Hackney Colliery Band & Bring Your Own Brass kick off Borderless in London (2nd)

30 Jul

In between appearances at the WOMAD and Supernormal festivals, Georgian saz player and singer Aşıq Nargile is embarking on a three-date British microtour in August, calling in at points in Scotland, Yorkshire and London.

Aşıq Nargile

In case you’re looking at the picture and thinking (lazily) “another girl folk singer”, it’s worth noting that “Aşıq” is an honorific, not a forename. It denotes a particular type of traditional Georgian bard, multilingual and mobile, who travels through the country’s diverse regions as vessels for music, news, concepts and culture both old and new. (A little like a Caucasian version of a West African griot, although perhaps without the satirical upsetter elements).

Originally from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, Nargile Mehtiyeva has carried the cosmopolitan traditions of her home town with her, but has chosen to base herself in the southern Borcali region. For the moment, she’s the only female aşıq at work there. A trilingual singer and player of the saz lute since her mid-teens, she’s now both a teacher of the traditional forms and (via the Sayat Nova initiative) an ambassador for Georgian culture. Her concerts involve interlocking musicality and literacy – a “vocal recital of epic folk poetry (in) Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Russian… by turns ecstatic and deeply expressive… interspersed with bursts of virtuosic, highly ornamented saz.” in the shape of “moving laments or upbeat folk dances.” For those who don’t speak any of those languages, the shows are still musically sensual experiences – propulsive and silvery cascades of wiry stringwork, accompanied by a vocal like an elastic lassoo and the stately assurance of someone backed up by a couple of thousand years of heritage.


 
Tour dates are as follows:

  • The Old Hairdressers, 23 Renfield Lane, Glasgow G2 6PH, Scotland, Tuesday 2nd August 2016, 7.30pm (supported by Tut Vu Vu + Muldoon’s Picnic) – information
  • Delius Arts & Cultural Centre, 29 Great Horton Road, Bradford, BD7 1AA, England, Wednesday 3rd August 2016…. (+ support act t.b.c.) – information here and here
  • The Forge, 3-7 Delancey Street, Camden Town, London, NW1 7NL, England, Thursday 4th August 2016, 7.30pm (with Heather Leigh) – information

While the Bradford gig is solo, the Glasgow show sees Nargile playing as part of a splendidly adventurous and diverse triple bill alongside two very different Glaswegian groups who have next to nothing in common bar their musicality.

Despite their cosy and informal appearance, a name that comes from drunken Irish misadventure, a repertoire reaching from “the sublime to the ridiculous” and their emphasis on fun and friendship in singing, acapella group Muldoon’s Picnic unites a number of very dedicated and talented Glasgow-based singer and scholars. Its six or seven regular members (not least in-house arranger Katy L. Cooper) have already made their mark in a brace of other vocal ensembles – Trembling Bells spin-off Crying Lion, Glasgow Madrigirls, The Four Hoarse Men, Voicebeat, Voicemale, Sang Scule, and “barbershop-prog” group Honey & The Herbs – plus more church, chapel, cathedral, workplace and community choirs than you could shake a stave at. As for that repertoire, it embraces gospel, shanties, Scots ballads, English carols, Afro-American spirituals, sacred harp songs, Victorian parlour music and music hall songs and assorted pieces cast up and circulated by the world music movement. Where other choral groups dabble, this one delves. The songs are sung not just in English but in other tongues of the British Isles (Scots Gaelic, Cornish, Manx and Welsh) and further afield: Breton, southern African Sotho, Ugandan Luganda and eastern European languages (Bulgarian, Croatian and Georgian – in the latter’s polyphonic music, they touch base with Nargile.)


 

The third act on the Glasgow bill, Tut Vu Vu, play their dark-browed and looming electrophonic instrumentals in a cloud of disinformation. When someone compares them to Anaïs Nin and David Lynch and they claim that it’s all a misunderstanding; someone else mentions musique concrète and they respond with askance, amused looks. When given the chances to set things straight, they deliver misleading mission statements filled with science fiction technogabble about phased plasma and hydrogen sulphide. What’s demonstrably true is that they’re an alliance of Glasgow art-punks who’ve already been around a decade’s cycle of experimental groups – Iban Perez in The Sparkling Shadazz, Rags & Feathers and A Rhythmtic) Raydale Dower, Matthew Black and Jamie Bolland in rattling theatricalists Uncle John & Whitelock.

Expect something of an oblique and inscrutable wall between the quartet’s current work and their previous brainy trash-lungings. A band apparently in search of a new dialect (while drawing on assorted shredded utterances from Krautrock, Beefheart, ‘90s rave or ‘80s arsequake) a typical TVV track can be a bizarre collage of muffled falsetto wails and feedback drones, of layered tribal toms and analogue-synth bass-farts, of approaching-horns guitar shapes; all of which is cunningly and immediately sculpted for maximum enigmatic impact, rather than being tossed out of the speakers for someone else to sweep up.




 

In London, Nargile is playing a double header gig with Heather Leigh. One of the most unconventional pedal steel guitarists in contemporary music, Heather belies her traditional country music heritage (a West Virginia birth, a descent from coal miners) and instead reinvents both her instrument and her voice as a conduit for strange and ghostly improvisations. Aided by cruel amplifier tones and strange, skittering, instinctive hand techniques, her compositions emerge like spectral possessions of strings, pedals, larynx and language. Often touching on themes of trauma, abuse and hidden, subjective experience, Heather’s eerie and disturbing work has already led her to collaborations with Peter Brötzmann, Jandek, Thurston Moore and plenty of others since her emergence in the 1990s.




 
* * * * * * * *

August also sees the start of Borderless, a delightfully rambling live music series at Battersea Arts Centre running roughly parallel to the Olympic Games in Rio. Run in collaboration with GOAT Music (set up last year by former Roundhouse music bosses David Gaydon and Lou Birkett) it aim to showcase “the UK’s best homegrown talent and unique artists from around the globe, in the intimate and beautiful setting of the Council Chamber… Borderless will provide an alternative cross-cultural celebration. Samba to tropical beats, dance to Afrobeat legends, skank to reggae and let the new generation of jazz take you to another place. Break down the borders and shuffle your feet to global rhythms to hear the biggest tunes from all over the planet. We’ll also provide a platform for the freshest artists and exciting talent currently taking the UK by storm. Hear the artists sound tracking the underground scene, dominating the airwaves and paving the way for the alternative UK music scene.”

Glad to hear it. Bring it on. What do you have?

GOAT Music and Battersea Arts Centre present:
Borderless: Hackney Colliery Band + Bring Your Own Brass
Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, Battersea, London, SW11 5TN, England
Tuesday 2nd August 2016, 8.00pm
information

Hearing about Hackney Colliery Band initially caught me between hackles and chuckles. For a moment, I thought it was about taking the piss out of a great and still-living industrial British art form while cynically attempting to replace it. After all, when there are still genuine colliery bands maintaining the tradition across old mining heartlands from Tyneside to Derbyshire, Shropshire to Leicestershire and the Rhondda Valley (and dotted across the Yorkshire pitscape from Grimethorpe to Dinnington, Frickley to Queensbury) why would you want to substitute them with a slick London parody? On the other hand, my sense of the absurd soon kicked in – since Hackney’s been sprouting all kinds of cartoonish artisan features for the past decade (from craft beer to boutique muffins and shoes), why not an ersatz coal mine?

As it happens, HCB have got little to do with any of this. The name’s a little dab of post-modern British showbiz and the band (excellent, by the way) don’t stick to the grand dignity and mournfulness of colliery music, being more of an omnivorous brass beast immersed in and rejigging a variety of horn-party traditions from jazz, r&b, funk and others, including New Orleans tunes from both fun and funerals. Much the same can be said of the support act, Bring Your Own Brass – a band who, as “up-and-coming brass hip-hop ripsnorters”, have been known to parp out a Rakim cover or two. If this makes them sounds like a novelty act, they aren’t. Sound and vision reveal them to be well-scrubbed, well-studied white disciples of a wide span of styles, clambering over Afrobeat, rap, funk and marching-band ideas with head-bopping panache.

Recently, both bands seem to have cornered the market in boutique festivals and showbiz event (between them they’ve got Olympic Games and Brit/Mercury award appearances under their belts, as well as shows at Ally Pally, with slots at Wilderness, Stow and Meatopia to come later in August for BYOB and a hefty European tour for HCB). HCB’s previous set at the MOBO awards suggests that they can impress at a formal roots level as well, unless it was a case of contacts trumping authenticity. Just as long as bands like these aren’t crowding out bands like Kokoroko; although BYOB’s teamup with Bristolian rapper and slam poet Solomon O.B (see below) suggests that, as far as fellow musicians are concerned, there aren’t any practical or philosophical problems.



 

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

9 Jun

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

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

Merz (photo by Tabea Hubeli)

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

February 2016 – upcoming gigs – interlocking British tours by Yorkston Thorne Khan, Toby Hay/Jim Ghedi and Laura Moody offer Anglo-Indian crossover folk, fingerstyle guitar, folk baroque and cello bewitchment.

10 Feb

I didn’t catch up with this next tour until a couple of its January dates had gone by, but it’s still worth catching up with the rest of it:

Yorkston Thorne Khan, 2015

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan are an experimental group that includes James Yorkston (hailed as one of the most “influential singer/songwriters on the Scottish folk scene”), Suhail Yusuf Khan (award winning sarangi player and classical singer from New Delhi) and Jon Thorne (best known as jazz double bass player with electro outfit Lamb). The trio are currently touring to support their collaborative debut album ‘Everything Sacred’, which was released in mid-January 2016.

This is Scottish-Irish-Indian-English music in the raw – Yorkston’s familiar steel guitar strings pulled, pushed and bent into more unfamiliar acoustic drones, the bass dropping anchors through the floor. Rather than world music per se, this sounds more idiosyncratic, a temporary structure bivouacking by the side of the indie-folk, art music tradition, while its widening horizons extend back to the Sixties heyday of the Incredible String Band, and forward to this singular album’s satellite orbit over the folk music, Indian classical and indie music of today – all these musical ley lines threaded into a new kind of eclectic, domestic setting.

James: “Playing together as Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, we tackle a wide array of different sounds and songs. Alongside pieces of our own, there’s a fair chunk of improvisation, plus covers of Ivor Cutler’s Little Black Buzzer and Lal Waterson’s Song For Thirza. Jon’s jazz background definitely comes to the fore, as does Suhail’s devotional singing and outstanding sarangi playing. I just do my best to keep up…”


 

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