Tag Archives: almost sacred

REVIEW – Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’ EP, 2012 (“devotion makes us vulnerable”)

17 Aug

Leah Banks: 'Sincerely'

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’

Someone you love. Just the thought of them gives you a little catch, right there, under the chest; like a hard kiss or a light blow, reminding you that even when it’s going right, love is never entirely safe.

Devotion makes us vulnerable. You’re never more than a moment from the topple or the stumble, from the interrupted step to the full-force sprawl. That’s what Leah Banks’ songs are like. They don’t need much amplification beyond their feather-soft country-folk shapes and the superb, subtle brush-drum work that stokes them (more like the breath and sinews of a jazz master than the shed-whack of honky-tonk). They’ve got their own transporting power, their own risk, wrapped up in the hush.

Riverside, the first song on Leah’s ’Sincerely’ EP, has the panting pitch of the Song of Solomon. A coil of eroticism rises up like a sacrament via a thudflutter rush of muted acoustic guitar, heartbeat bass and swimming cello. The words are breathless and obsessive – “I can’t wait to see you, to look upon your face / I’ll dive into your adoring eyes and hang on every word you say. / And I can’t wait to feel you, to be held in your arms – / one hand resting on the small of my back, and the other round my neck.”

Leah’s delivery is a tense urgent moan, stretching and bending phrases, pushing against the metre as if it were clothes that suddenly felt too hot and too tight. There’s a touch of Sinead O’Connor in her fervour as she rides the buried complexities of female desire, poised between a caress and a snap, between devotion and greedy hunger. “Lover, please hurry, / I’m not sure how long I’ll last, / waiting here by the riverside, / my breath is wasted on the wind and waves, / when it should be dwelling in a kiss… / I’ll press into your chest as the wind blows my dress / and steal warmth from your presence.” Towards the end, there’s a little lacuna of drop-away. The song vanishes for a second, then gusts back into place. “The water is rushing, and without you here / I think I might fall in,” Leah warns. There’s been a change in the climate. Ignore it at your own risk.

That hint of the Song of Solomon lingers in the mind: while Leah’s own spiritual beliefs are never stated, all three of the songs on ‘Sincerely’ could have a religious cast. The grit and carnality in them don’t have to be a barrier. If we’re following this line of thought, consider the steamy metaphor in the ecstacy of Saint Theresa, or, closer to now, Al Green singing “Belle – oh, it’s you I want, but it’s Him I need.” The blend of the holy and the earthbound-but-urgent is no new thing – it’s what lets gospel tug at the hearts of secular people, and what lends that numinous shiver to country, to blues and indeed to anything which reaches out of the mess in the hope of finding something higher. Leah herself is telling without telling, although ambiguous clues flicker through the songs.

In contrast to the feverish pulse of longing in Riverside, The Only One is a confessional. “I wish I could stop my eyes from wandering / and keep my mind from its hungering,” Leah sings, in a regretful insomniac sigh. “Listen, the struggle makes me weak – / now I can hardly stand on my feet.” A tattoo of snare and acoustic guitar sets the reflective pace, while a mandolin (and an occasional brush of banjo) draws slow, colourful paper hoops around the chorus. At the kernel, the song might be about keeping faith, and the sometime bitterness of submitting to it: “How long will I drink from this cup? / Maybe I should just give up, / give up trying to fight it out, / give up trying to live without doubt.”

At one point Leah craves to return to a time “before our hearts were involved”, suggesting a lovers wrangle; yet throughout the song’s soft bourbon haze she leaves the surface meaning blurred. It could be about straying from religious devotion; it could just be a lonely kitchen-table song as Leah tries to scrape herself up off the floor one wretched and heart-sore night. There’s reproach in here, and somewhere there’s a reckoning to be had; but it’s never quite clear who’s to blame, or even if she’s blaming anyone. “And how does it feel to be the only one standing? / and how does it feel to be the only one left?” she sings, with a touch of asperity, before settling on a conclusion which weaves not through what’s happened, but through what’s going to happen next. “Lets go back to the beginning, / bring it back to the start. / I won’t do it again now – / this time I’ll do it right.”

Blame is easier to pin down in the final song on ‘Sincerely’: its title track. Carried along on a light and rolling road-pulse of guitar (which, along with the restless jazzy jabs of vocal, echoes Joni Mitchell’s reflective road-burned floats on ‘Hejira’), Leah holds her own hands up in admission. “I know I said I would, but what if I can’t?” she asks. “Sometimes I say things without even thinking, / sometimes I jump the gun.” In flight from somewhere, in flight to something, honesty is being pressed out of her with every roll of the wheels; although she doesn’t claim to have cured her failings. In her apology, there’s a blunt statement of self-knowledge. “There’s a sinking in my heart, / I know that I have failed you. / I just didn’t see it coming / and you never warned me, / so, / well, I could say I’m sorry, and I would be sincere. / I could try harder next time, but I would still be here.”

Even with guilt admitted and delivered, and even hoping to be saved and forgiven by love, there’s still grit in Leah; enough for her to throw her own challenge out into the confession. Once again, the lines blur in the song – lover, saviour, self. “I know that you love me – so where are you now? she “Make yourself known – / no, make yourself heard.” Perhaps she’s hoping, like Jacob, to encounter her angel on the road and to wrestle some meaning out of him. I suspect that she won’t settle for less. A woman of heart and mind, by any measure.

Leah Banks: ‘Sincerely’
Inus Records (no catalogue or barcode)
Download-only EP
Released: 16th October 2012

Get it from:
Noisetrade

Leah Banks (Leah Freeman) online:
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REVIEW – Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’ album, 1999 (“scraping waves and langorous tides”)

10 May
Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: 'Thin Air'

Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’

I could take the easy route first and say that if you’ve heard ‘No Pussyfooting’, you’ve more or less heard ‘Thin Air’. But that’d be a weaselling statement: technically correct but still untrue, and also of neither use nor value to you. As if I said that the most important defining characteristic of an apple was that it was round and green, and thought that that was all there was to it.

Yes – it is true that the Bearpark/Chilvers album is very Fripp & Eno (or a close musical cousin to Richard Pinhas). Its five tracks (titled, without fuss, One to Five) make up a little under an hour of droning, buzzing, looped Les Paul guitar textures and minimal synth. It comes in scraping waves and langorous tides, sometimes broken by a tightly-controlled welling of overdriven melody. The Frippertronics comparison is more than appropriate: it’s exact. Here is the same methodology, and similar equipment – although Peter Chilvers’ digital keyboards and hard-drive recording are far removed from Eno’s primitive VCS3 and Revoxes back in 1972.

But with that said, we can move on to the distinctions. It’s the same methodology, yes – but with a different intent. Fripp & Eno were taking a vacation from disciplined, cunningly constructed early ’70s art-rock when they made ‘No Pussyfooting’. While they’ll have absorbed the same influences second-hand (not least through Fripp and Eno themselves), Bearpark and Chilvers’ active roots lie in the lusher ambient fields of the ’80s, the small home thoughts of the ’90s, and elsewhere. For feeding grounds there’s been the avant-garde songwriter croon of Samuel Smiles (of which, together, they make up half the line); the ethereal, tranquillised nu-folk of Chilver’s Alias Grace project; and the remarkable extended electrophonic improvising of Darkroom in which Michael coaxes and abuses guitar, and in which Peter occasionally guests on subliminal bass noises.

Consequently, ‘Thin Air’ simply doesn’t have the same flavour as ‘No Pussyfooting’ – although there’s a case to be made for its relationship with the subsequent ‘Evening Star’ centerpiece Wind On Water, or indeed with David Sylvian’s Fripp-starring Gone To Earth. The music here is more accepting of meditative flows and of fallings-into-place than Fripp & Eno’s passive-aggressive merger of science and chance, where the tones bristled like affronted scholars even as they delivered their assertions. New Age it’s not, though; finding a rich and revealing depth as it surrenders to the floating moment. As One progresses, Peter’s keyboards become more predominant as well as more sacramental in tone; swelling in sermon-ish washes or setting out tiny, meditative piano lines like an English Roedelius. Three sees him levitate a celestial synth in a bathe of high, light sounds over a sawing, working guitar loop, ending in what feels oddly like a High Church benediction.

Michael Bearpark – though he’s a Fripp-ish soundpainter for sure – has a very different musical personality. Dirtier, more repressed and seething than Fripp’s near-religious passion and pilgrim’s drive to grace, his slow-hand playing is actually more bloody-handed; sometimes leaning on notes as if he was trying to crush them, or to push their heads underwater and drown them. And there’s a strong element of filtered, chemically refined blues welling through the music; an ultra-distilled moan of frustration and clenched force, adding an extra human bite to the industrial friction sounds that gnaw gently in the background. All of the above makes his ultimate surrender to the trance more affecting.

What’s most revealing is what the two musicians give to each other in this context. Michael’s drawn-out, demanding focus draws Peter away from his tendencies to sober prettiness. In turn, Peter’s thoughtful but assertive calm (the pastor to the guitarist’s restless congregation) helps Michael to allay his own wayward illbient tendencies. And fortunately the result’s a compound of the two, rather than a dilution. If Two has the tightest discipline (a deep comforting growl of a bass loop, a starlit synth chord journeying from space to space in the stretched weave of guitar patterns), Four is a fall-apart – a dissolving narcosis of disintegrating guitar arpeggios over the looping waft of a nearly-was organ. Five is an absent farewell, looped up and down like a slow-motion roller coaster at midnight. The attention is elsewhere, but it’s gently captivating.

Yes, in terms of equipment lists and step-by-step instructions, this is something you’ve heard before. But one thing Michael Bearpark and Peter Chilvers prove on ‘Thin Air’ is that, whatever the gear and gizmos, this kind of process music is formed first and foremost by personalities – not by equations, function maps or manuals.

Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’
PeopleSound, 270370 (no barcode)
CD-R-only album
Released: 1999

Get it from:
The original PeopleSound CD-R is now long-deleted and best obtained second-hand. The album has been reissued as a CD-R by Burning Shed.

Michael Bearpark online:
Homepage Facebook Last FM

Peter Chilvers online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

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

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

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

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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