Tag Archives: apocalyptic roars

August 2015 – upcoming London gigs – Prescott, A Sweet Niche and V A L V E @ The Harrison, August 26th; the welcome return of Daylight Music (with Pete Astor, TEYR and The Left Outsides), August 29th

22 Aug

Coming to a Kings Cross cellar next week…

Prescott - as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella...

Prescott – as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella…

Prescott + A Sweet Niche + V A L V E (The Harrison, 28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, London, WC1H 8JF, UK, Wednesday 26th August, 7.00pm) – £5.00

Prescott are a percolating musical alliance between Kev Hopper (who once played elasticated bass guitar for Stump and went on to participate in offbeat experimental projects from laptop improv to pocket pop), veteran avant-indie/improvising drummer Frank Byng (of Crackle, Snorkel and the Slowfoot label) and polymath keyboard player Rhodri Marsden, whose curiosity, industry and dry wit has drawn him through a patchwork career of interesting music (including The Keatons, Zuno Men, The Free French, Gag and Scritti Politti) and deft, wry journalism on everything from drum machines to dating disasters.

According to the Harrison’s blurb, the band deliver “a curious mix of the melodic and discordant with syncopated funky, skewed beats and lopsided, sometimes jabbing riffs that emerge from a complex web of musical interactions and expand or contract like sections of a stuck record.” The band themselves talk about “jabbing heteroclite riffs, circular rhythmic patterns, vibrating harmonic clashes, irregular note intervals, all contrasted with pockets of beautiful melody” and their trick of “microriffing” – repeating the same tiny melodic segment for “as long as they can hold their nerve” (out of a sense of persistence, a zest for irritancy or a desire to pay homage to loop culture) .

I’ll add that while these descriptions make Prescott sound like a set of ticks on a battered art-music bingo card, they’re actually one of the most entertaining and even danceable bands I’ve seen in recent years; pumping out a surprisingly melodious batch of hiccups, peculiar grooves and inventive colours, and sometimes seeming to plug into a monstrous late-Miles Davis synth-fusion groove (entirely by mistake).

I’ve written about A Sweet Niche before, having encountered them a few years ago when they were roaring the roof of a cellar off in Spitalfields. Between them, guitarist Keir Cooper, baritone saxophonist Oliver Sellwood and drummer Tim Doyle have an intimidating list of project credits. In this band, however, they make a brinksman’s racket of free-form punk-jazz, bringing in whatever else they’ve learned from excursions into rock, theatre work and the thornier ends of contemporary classical.

Making the most of their disparate backgrounds (Oliver is a qualified musical academian, Keir more of a non-institutional outsider, newer boy Tim somewhere in between) they’ll attack their musical ideas at full blurt and with plenty of noise, like angry men stripping the wreck of a ca. They’ll toss disparate fragments up into the air and rant about them, but then sideswipe expectations with a run at a cute theme. Last time I described them as “if Bagpuss had joined Slayer”, and they seemed to like it. See what you think.

V A L V E is the solo project of Chlöe Herington – reedswoman, experimenter and Magma/Zappa/Peter Maxwell Davies fan. She’s best known for blowing taut, assertive bassoon and saxophone parts in Knifeworld and Chrome Hoof, but has also worked with lo-fi art-rockers Jowe Head & The Demi Monde and elusive psycho-lounge band Made By Monsters, as well as a clutch of contemporary classical projects. V A L V E places the bassoon to centre stage, surrounded by Chlöe’s clusters of technology and (when required) selected guests. At the Harrison, the project will be appearing in “its first non-gallery show ever”, which might either involve letting it off the leash or playing a little more safe. (Come and find out.)

Dotted around Chlöe’s other band commitments, V A L V E releases have been sparse so far – odd fits and starts on Soundcloud or YouTube plus a couple of Bandcamp tracks. Here are a few tasters, including the soundtrack to a dinosaur battle, something which Chlöe developed from a piece of music found in a skip, and a more sombre contemporary classical effort.

Up-to-date gig information available here and here. (Or, if none of this really floats your boat and you’d prefer some lustrous art-rock croon, here’s one last linking plug for the Tim Bowness/Improvizone gig at the Boston Music Room on the same night.)

* * * * * * * *

On the Saturday, it’s time to welcome back Daylight Music, who are starting up a new series of free midday gigs (and are still writing their own promo blurb, which makes things a little easier for me).

Daylight Music 198 - Pete Astor + TEYR + The Left Outsides
Daylight Music 198: Pete Astor + TEYR + The Left Outsides (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, UK – Saturday 29th August, 12pm to 2pm)

Ex-leader of The Loft, The Weather Prophets and numerous other esteemed acts, Pete Astor creates timeless chamber-pop, brimming with wry lyrical insight and haunting melodic hooks. Now recording for Fortuna POP!, he has his first full length album for four years ready for release. This has been made with Ultimate Painting, Veronica Falls and Proper Ornaments main man James Hoare along with Pam Berry (Black Tambourine, Withered Hand) on vocals, Alison Cotton (The Left Outsides) on viola, Jack Hayter (Hefner) on pedal steel and guitar, Emma Winston on synth bass (Darren Hayman’s Long Parliament, Owl & Mouse) and Susan Milanovic (Feathers) on drums. The recent single, ‘Mr Music’ has been very warmly received with Astor and band recording sessions for Marc Riley and headlining the Church stage at this years’ Indie Tracks festival among many other recent live outings. For the Daylight Music show Astor will be joined onstage by James, Pam, Alison, Jack, Emma and Susan making a seven-piece group playing Astor’s songs, old and new, for an edifying and nutritious lunchtime performance.

Forged amongst the hustle and bustle of North London’s folk scene, TEYR (“3” in the Cornish language) are a trio of formidable musicians who showcase the many sounds of the British Isles. With roots running from Ireland to Wales to Cornwall, James Gavin (guitar and fiddle), Dominic Henderson (uilleann pipes and whistles) and Tommie Black-Roff (accordion), the players thrive on close interplay and pushing the possibilities of acoustic music. Having met on the traditional music scene through late night sessions, each performer holds an intuitive sense of folk music, evident in their deft arrangements and compositions. The trio draws influence from neo-folk groups such as Lau, Kan and Lúnasa, whilst harnessing an innovative combination of strings, reeds and voices. With this distinct mix, TEYR strike an enigmatic path through the current folk wave.

The Left Outsides are Mark Nicholas and Alison Cotton, a London-based husband and wife duo whose atmospheric, hypnotic songs echo Nico’s icy European folk, pastoral psychedelia and chilly English fields at dawn. Their second album ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ has just received a welcome and much-praised vinyl release on Dawn Bird Records and an album of new material is currently being recorded. The duo have played across the UK, France, Germany and in the USA; and have recorded radio sessions for Stuart Maconie’s Freakzone, Tom Robinson’s show on BBC6 Music, Pete Paphides show for Soho Radio and Tom Cox’s radio show.

As ever, Daylight Music is free, although you’ll have to pay for your tea and cake, and further donations are encouraged. Full up-to-date information is available here.

May 2015 – through the feed – free single/upcoming crowdfunder from The Duke Of Norfolk; Cardiacs and Knifeworld reissues; a new Tim Bowness album; disinterring lost Levitation

21 May

I can tell I’ve not kept my eye on the ball – nothing makes a person feel less alert than suddenly finding that three of his favourite musical projects (plus one new recent favourite and one older interest) are suddenly pouncing out new releases and. I step out for a moment, for another writing project, and someone moves all of the furniture around.

The Duke Of Norfolk: 'A Revolutionary Waltz'

The Duke Of Norfolk: ‘A Revolutionary Waltz’

So… let’s start with news of fresh work from The Duke of Norfolk, a.k.a transplanted Oklahoman folkie Adam Howard, now resident in Edinburgh. He’s currently offering a free single – A Revolutionary Waltz – in part-promotion, commenting “I am launching a Kickstarter project in two weeks to fund the making of a live video EP, and would like to give you this recording in the meantime. It’s just a wee sonic experiment, but I hope you enjoy it!”

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Scottish Nationalist tie-in here, given recent political events in Britain, Adam’s adopted hometown, and that beautifully sympathetic and country-tinged setting of Robbie Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss on which he duets with Neighbour, think otherwise. In fact, this song is a darker cousin to An Evening Waltz (from his 2013 album ‘Le Monde Tourne Toujours’): a foreboding meditation on the inexorable turn of fate’s wheel, tying together three histories of power, betrayal and fall. Despite its timeless trad-folk lyric, Adam’s busking roots (and the lusciously acoustic sound of much of his other material) it’s also a rough-and-ready take on digital folk, either demo-rough or intended to display Adam’s other roots in sound design. A clipped electrophonic waltz picks its way across a murky psychedelic smudge and a droning feedback pibroch: its characters sea-waltz to the grim, dry beat of a hand drum and a scattering of cowrie-shell percussion. It’s well worth a listen. As for progress on the Duke Of Norfolk video Kickstarter campaign, it’s probably best to keep tabs on his Facebook page.

Cardiacs: 'Guns'

Cardiacs: ‘Guns’

Following the success of their double vinyl LP reissue of 1995’s ‘Sing To God‘ album, Cardiacs are doing the same with its 1999 follow-up, ‘Guns’. While it’s not the magnificent sprawler that ‘Sing To God’ is, ‘Guns’ offers a more concise take on the pepper-sharp 1990s Cardiacs quartet that featured Bob Leith and gonzo guitarist Jon Poole alongside the band-brothers core of Tim and Jim Smith. As Cardiacs albums go it’s an even brasher beast than usual, hiding its gnarly depths under brass-balled upfront confidence and strong seasonings of glam-bang, pell-mell punk, whirring Krautrock, and jags of heavy metal looning.

‘Guns’ is also one of the most obscure Cardiacs works. Drummer Bob joined Tim on lyric duties, helping to turn the album’s words into a dense hedge-witch thicket of allusion and play, in which typically naked Cardiacs preoccupations (dirt, wartime, suspicion, indeterminate life and death) are tied up into an almost impenetrable web, driven along by the music’s eight-legged gallop. The fact that Tim and Bob were slipping in random borrowings from ‘English As She Is Spoke‘,  a notoriously bungled Victorian phrasebook with its own wonky and unintentional poetry, only added to the tangle.

You can pre-order the ‘Guns’ reissue here for end-of-June shipping. It’s a single vinyl record, with no extra thrills or treats, but does come with the promise of beautiful packaging and pressing. You can expect to hear news on more Cardiacs reissues over the next few years. The current plan is to reissue the band’s whole back catalogue on vinyl after years of exile (predominantly spent huddled exclusively on iTunes).

Meanwhile, see below for a taste of ‘Guns’ magnificent oddness. Here’s the grinding drive of Spell With A Shell (which encompasses the lives of pets, the terror and wonder of transformation, and the cruelty, loneliness and confused loyalties of childhood). Here’s a collision of outsider folk and reggae in Wind And Rains Is Cold (via a fan video of clips from ‘Night Of The Hunter’, from which Cardiacs frequently filch scraps of lyric). Finally, here’s the scavenged, scratchy prog of Junior Is A Jitterbug with its prolonged and celebrated unravelling coda.

Cardiacs: 'Day Is Gone'

Cardiacs: ‘Day Is Gone’

For those without turntables, there’s been a relatively recent CD reissue of Cardiacs’ 1991 EP ‘Day Is Gone’ – which I somehow managed to miss when it was first announced – and which includes the original three B-sides (No Bright Side, Ideal and concert favourite Joining The Plankton). This is from the pre-‘Sing To God’ lineup: another quartet but with Dominic Luckman on drums and, ostensibly, Bic Hayes on second guitar (prior to his explosive stints in Levitation and Dark Star, and to his current position etching dark psychedelic guitar shadings in ZOFFF).

Actually, since this was a time of shuffle and change in the band it’s unclear as to whether Bic or Jon Poole is providing the extra galactic bangs and shimmerings on the EP. However, for Day Is Gone itself the attention should be on Tim Smith’s grand bottle-rocket of a solo, capping what’s both one of Cardiacs’ most autumnal songs and one of their most headrushing cosmic efforts – a bout of November skygazing gone bright and vivid. See below for the original video in all of its low-budget saucer-eyed glory, and pick up the CD here.

Cardiacs: 'Heaven Born And Ever Bright'

Cardiacs: ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’

Note also that a couple of other early-‘90s Cardiacs recordings have made it back on CD in the past six months. ‘Heaven Born And Ever Bright’ (the parent album for Day Is Gone) shows Cardiacs at their brightest and bashing-est, but hiding a wounded heart. ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ – the recording of a raucous 1990 septet concert at the Salisbury Arts Centre – was both the last hurrah of the 1980s lineup (with carousel keyboards, saxophone and half-a-scrapyard’s-worth of percussion rig) and, for my money, is also one of the greatest live rock recordings ever made. See if you agree.

Cardiacs: 'All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest' (2014 reissue)

Cardiacs: ‘All That Glitters Is A Mares Nest’ (2014 reissue)


‘Mares Nest’ also made a welcome resurfacing on DVD a couple of years ago – see below for a typically quaking example of the band in action. It’s also worth repeating that all of the profits from the recording sales continue to go towards palliative care and physical therapy for Tim Smith, who’s still engaged in the slow painful recovery from his crippling stroke of 2008.

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Knifeworld: ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’

Meanwhile, Knifeworld – who feature an ex-Cardiac and, while being very much their own eclectic and tuneful proposition, carry a certain continuation of the Cardiacs spirit along with them – have collated early, interim and now-unavailable tracks onto a full-length album, ‘Home Of The Newly Departed’. The seven tracks (dating from between 2009 and 2012) bridge the space between their ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ debut and last year’s tour-de-force ‘The Unravelling’.

If you want to read my thoughts on the original releases, visit the original ‘Misfit City’ reviews of the ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ and ‘Clairvoyant Fortnight’ EPs from which six of the tracks are taken. (I’ve just had a look back myself and discovered that I’ve previously described them as a band who could drag up exultation with their very fingernails, as starchildren weighed down by dark matter, as possessing “a knack of dissecting difficult feelings via swirling psychedelic sleight-of-hand” and as “an almighty and skilful art-rock mashup, with horns and bassoons poking out of it every which-way and strangely kinking, spiraling spines of rhythm and harmony locking it all together.” I must have been pretty excitable, on each occasion.)

Alternatively, have a look at the videos below. Also, if you’re in England during the end of May, the band (in full eight-person glory) are out on a short tour featuring the debut of new music.

Tim Bowness: 'Stupid Things That Mean The World'

Tim Bowness: ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’

With his erstwhile/ongoing no-man bandmate Steven Wilson going from strength to strength as a solo act, Tim Bowness also continues to concentrate on work under his own name – sleek, melancholy art-pop with a very English restraint, fired with a desperate passion and shaded with subtleties and regrets. His third album, ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’, is due for release on July 17th; barely a year after his last effort ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (one of my own favourite records of 2014).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World’ features the ‘Abandoned…’ core band of Tim plus his usual cohorts Michael Bearpark, Stephen Bennett, and Andrew Booker, and on spec sounds as if it’ll be a smooth progression and development from the previous album. It also features guest showings from three generations of art rock (Phil Manzanera and Peter Hammill; David Rhodes and Pat Mastelotto; Colin Edwin, Bruce Soord, Anna Phoebe and Rhys Marsh) and string arrangements by art-rock-friendly composer Andrew Keeling.

Expect a typically Burning Shed-ish range of format options: the double CD mediabook edition (with companion disc of alternate mixes and demos including an unreleased no-man demo from 1994), and LP versions in either black vinyl or transparent vinyl (CDs included with each). Pre-ordering gets you a downloadable FLAC version of the 5.1 mix, plus the usual cute postcard. Sorry – I have no early tasters for ‘Stupid Things…’, but here’s a taste of one of the slower, lusher tracks from ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ for the benefit of anyone who missed it last year.

Earlier on, while discussing Cardiacs, I briefly mentioned Bic Hayes and his time in Levitation. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them – or who weren’t around in early ’90s Britain to witness their brief, Roman candle of a run – they were a band who eagerly fused together an enormous sound, leashing and running with a frenzied and energized take on psychedelic rock, driving post-punk noise and earnest, distressed chanting from their singer, the former House of Love guitar star Terry Bickers. Sadly, they’ve become best known as the springboard by which Terry catapulted himself first into frontmanhood, then into the uncharted and finally (via some tortured decisions and unfortunate outbursts) into the obscure.

In truth, Levitation were an equal conspiracy of five. As well as Terry and Bic, there was Robert White (a baby-faced free-festival veteran and secret-weapon multi-instrumentalist, who’d later lead The Milk & Honey Band), an undersung alt.rock bass hero called Laurence O’Keefe and David Francolini, an astounding and slightly demonic drummer who could run the gamut from pattering rain to pneumatic drill in a single roll round his kit (and who, within Levitation, had the perfect opportunity to do so). Fuelled equally by inspiration, drugs and sheer hard work, they strived for three intense years while living on the outside of their skins, and briefly came close to making some very unfashionable sounds current again.

While they were certainly a “head” band – hippy punks who joined floating threads of British counter-culture, spontaneity and resistance together – it’s vital to remember that Levitation were never your average festival band. They were never complacent, never entitled. More Yippie than trustafarian, they seemed (Bickers, in particular) to be desperately chasing revelations just over the rim of the horizon. Their ethos and experience was best summed up – or, more accurately, caught in a passing flare – in a lyric from their song Against Nature ), with Terry choking out “there is an answer, but I’ve yet to find out where” over a raging foam of guitars. Fingers (and not a few minds) got scorched along the way. In May 1993, it culminated in Terry’s wracked, brutal self-ejection from the band – in a spurt of slogans and despair – during a concert at the Tufnell Park Dome, just a short walk from Misfit City’s current home.

There have been some reconcilations since then (not least Bic, David and Laurence reuniting in the wonderful but equally short-lived Dark Star five years afterwards) but there have been no reunion, and no-one has ever seemed to want to go back. However, on Monday this week – Record Store Day 2015 – the Flashback label released the first Levitation music for twenty years – ‘Never Odd Or Even’, a vinyl-only EP containing three tracks from the band’s lost 1992 album ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ (these being Never Odd Or Even, Greymouth and Life Going Faster). More information is here, although if you want to pick up one of the five hundred copies you’d better find your nearest participating British record store here: they might have some left. (There’s an earlier version of the title track below, in perhaps a rawer form.)

I’ve described ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ as a lost album, which isn’t strictly true. Although the record was recorded prior to Terry’s explosive departure, there was life after Bickers, For just over a year, singer Steve Ludwin took on the frontman role; during this time the band took it upon themselves to partially re-work the album with Ludwin’s vocals rolled out firmly over Terry’s. The resulting version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ was only released briefly in Australia. Following the split of the Ludwin lineup and the final end of the band, it’s always been regarded (rightly or wrongly) as something of a bastard appendix to the Bickers-era albums.

The happier news is that, following up ‘Never Odd Or Even’, Flashback are about to give ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ its own new lease of life with the active collaboration of the original lineup (including Terry Bickers). The album’s original vocals have been restored, the songs polished to satisfaction and a final tracklisting agreed upon. Although former album tracks Graymouth and Life Going Faster have been ceded to the ‘Never Odd…’ EP, the 2015 version of ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ keeps four of the tracks familiar from the Ludwin version (Food For Powder, Gardens Overflowing, Even When Your Eyes Are Open and the vaulting soar of King of Mice) and adds five songs previously only available via bootlegs (Bodiless, Imagine The Sharks, Evergreen, I Believe, Burrows and Sacred Lover). Apparently, it’ll be out sometime in “summer 2015” as a single CD and limited-edition double LP, each coming with gatefold sleeve and new artwork by original Levitation cover artist Cally.

It’s probably best to keep track of progress on the ‘Meanwhile Gardens’ release here; but meanwhile here’s the Bickers version of Even When Your Eyes Are Open (the last single the band released before he quit) and a bootleg-sourced version of the startling post-psychedelic stretchout Burrows – just to whet the appetite.

The Duke Of Norfolk online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Cardiacs online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Tim Bowness online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Vimeo

Levitation online:
Homepage Facebook

May 2013 – live reviews – Chaos Theory presents ‘Jazz Market’ @ The Luxe, Spitalfields, London, 29th May 2013 (featuring A Sweet Niche, Macchina del Tempo, What?! – with guests Yasmyn Hendrix, Moo Clef, Chloe Herington) (“tunes and stutters and babels”)

30 May

Walking into the Luxe, I feel even shabbier than usual. I fear those spotless white napkins and wooden counters; I look sidelong at the pricey menu; I sidle off to the side door as soon as possible. Like most of the rest of Spitalfields, this place has gone upmarket and left me behind. Until about a decade ago, it was the Spitz – another restaurant, another bar, another venue. Much loved, and more boho-genteel: I’d come here for electronica, for rock of the post- and mathy variety, and for the occasional off-centre songwriter.

Occasionally I’d come for jazz – something which, as a language, still sits oddly in London’s mouth. It’s not that the city spurns jazz – enough London musicians, venues and festivals give the lie to that. But I feel that sometime it seems a little deracinated here, even in a town where more recent arrivals like reggae and salsa now seem like part of tradition. Supper jazz might be healthy, foyer spaces still welcoming, but outside of grants or outright corporate sponsorship, it’s mostly a tribute to the tenacity and dedication of London’s jazzers that the music keeps its personal, inventive foothold here. The old Spitz was a place which welcomed jazz in plenty of its diverse strands and split-tongued digressions. When you were at a Spitz jazz event, you could feel the music striving, feel its life; and when all of that ended London jazz was diminished.

This picture’s a little too gloomy. There were – and are – other venues, and for those who still want it, the displaced spirit of the Spitz lives on elsewhere as a jazz collective. But it’s heartening that Chaos Theory Promotions (that mobile feast of wide-spanning musical interest, springing from place to place across London) seem to be paying a little homage to old times when they drop their Jazz Market night into the Luxe. Some things stay changed, sadly. I’ve not been here in years, but in Spitz days the music owned the top floor (and a Shoreditch panorama, such as it was). Now it’s down in the basement bar, sharing with the comedy and competing with the toilets: sidelined. Never mind. The Chaos brokers themselves are brimful of enthusiasm, and three jazz trios have come to chat.

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

If jazz is a language, What?! keep it as handfuls of sentences plunged into a deep baggy pocket, mixed up with anything else they’ve found during the week. Everything in the pocket is regularly hauled up for inspection, to be chucked and scattered casually across a table, just to see how it will fall. The boys certainly aren’t purists, although their taste for locating comfortable licks and riffs in whichever genre they’re toying with does keep you guessing as to how much of what they do is serious. In keeping with this, they’re acting as class clowns tonight. In fetching scarlet dressing-gown and shades, his white-man dreads spilling from a Rasta cap, guitarist Niels Bakx is part-Trustafarian and part-trannie. Bass guitarist Ago Collura, his back turned to the audience, is Reverse Man – a white mask strapped to the back of his head beneath his Tyrolean stovepipe hat, a collar and tie sprouting from the nape of his neck. Having apparently lost a bet, sparky drummer Raphael Lanthaler performs stripped to the waist and down to his underpants (though he’s been allowed to keep his hatful of bright rainbow-dyed feathers as well as his delighted grin).

On record, What?! strut and step like a cool-jazz function band about to be warmed-up and overcome by a sly sense of mischief. Both of their recent singles make a showing tonight – the Brubeck reggae of Tikka Masala (now with extra curlicues from Ago’s bass and curves of wah on the rhythm guitar); a spiked-up, rockier version of Schwaffelen, passing a swaying cats-cradle of jazz and ska touches over and over the tune. This kind of music is what they’re most at home with. It’s not, however, what they’re most drawn to doing. What?! like to stray – prancing into diced-up, chequered rock patterns dominated by the thwack of Raphael’s tom; laying out a sun-stroked Caribbean hiccup for a minute; or suddenly picking up and pelting through some driving motorbike music. Still very young (at an age where anything and everything can be hysterically funny), and still drunk on the musical options that surround them as busy session players and broad listeners, What?! can certainly groove: but they won’t settle.

What?! - unexpectedly naked drummer... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! – unexpectedly naked drummer… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

It’s unclear how many of the band’s disruptions, false halts and oblique quotes are written rather than improvised, but their sense of fun constantly overpowers their artfulness, and every so often their humour dips towards novelty territory. When they slip into a quick strum through Happy Birthday for a friend, it’s warm but a touch too crowd-pleasing. I doubt that What?! wouldn’t care if anyone told them that. An easy-going and sociable band, they’ve invited buddies up to play and clearly thrive on it.

Like a dayglo Tom Waits in his checkered-tablecloth bowler and green tints, the jazz-prankster Moo Clef sits in for a couple of songs. One he plays straight, blowing a fiesta trumpet over a reggae section, fluent and cool-fired. For the other, he adds various sung, rapped and chanted interjections that he tweaks and filters into cartoon oddities via effects pedals. At one point, a chipmunk-voiced cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit takes over, the band smoothly slipping into light-touch Nirvana riffage. The joke wobbles somewhere between Battles and Zappa: disarming romp, or sarcastic cheese. (Or lounge act. Ha.)

It’s a different story when Yasmyn Hendrix and her flower-child headscarf step up to front the trio for Stay With Me. Usually she’s found in unlikely venues, crafting herself castles out of her own vocal loops. Here she plays it straight and soulful, her light but bluesy vocals lounging and skittering over What?!’s skein of tango-funk and Come Together dub-shimmer. For a while, the band sit back and enjoy playing as accompanists. For a while, they stay rooted. They’re good at it. Those quick-cut style shifts and the metafoolery are just part of their choices, not their only option.

Still, in between clear individual pieces the band improvise loosely, and as much with genre as with anything else. They’ll roll out a strolling lunar echo (Raphael sighing and gusting on the drums with near-silent brushstrokes while Niels caresses out wide chords), or crawl through a fragmented, broken-backed jazz ballad that they’ve deconstructed to the point of disintegration. Once they spit out a talking-blues bossa (with Niels on vivid slide guitar), only to refit it midway and produce a tumbling complex skeleton of arpeggiated notes, traveling from Elmore James to Gilberto to Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in a matter of minutes. Towards the end, they throw in a grunge-rock climb complete with punk screaming. Raphael (tonight’s head joker) continually tosses in triggers: false stops and starts, or stalking who-blinks-first contests with Ago.

Again, how much of this is quick coin whipped out of a trick-bag is unclear. What is clear is What?!’s breadth of reference, be it a midsection of shoegazing-summer guitar-echo, a little reggae chip or a mass-less bridging passage of math-rock brewing like a disappearing wreath of mercury fumes. Sometimes their work is a puzzle; sometimes it’s cut-and-shunt. Sometimes, though, it seems as if they’ve scattered themselves out a bit too far, becoming a set of waggling jazz-hands where they should be a breathing, scatting jazz lung. They could do with a little time to breathe in and rethink, maybe.

On first sighting, Macchina del Tempo are raw-boned, hard-faced men. They look like the kind of band that shows up at remote and friendless small-town gigs, purely to prey on other bands. You could imagine them cornering some other, more hapless group in order to swipe and swig their beer in front of them, shake them down for their gig money and then steal their van, all without cracking those stony expressions.

Stocky guitarist Walter Fazio, glowering above his inverted Slayer goatee, looks particularly fearsome, purposeful and frowning – the kind of man who’d grunt one word and unleash hell. Then you see him play. As he smiles, broad and unguarded, while one of his liquid runs of notes hits the spot, then you understand what Macchina del Tempo are really about. Jazz Market regulars, this fusion trio made common cause a few years ago. Two Brits and an Italian, forged in and scarred by the grim working heat of innumerable cover bands, they made a leap to somewhere they could flower.

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What Macchina del Tempo provide tonight is a strong contrast to What?!’s permanent state of playful. Effortlessly inventive but tightly-drilled, they roll out four long and muscular pieces of driving jazz-rock ,each with a gritty core which suggests that there might be something to that initial hard-man appearance. If you’re imagining the kind of shrill sterile tech-wank that afflicted jazz-fusion when it gulped down the wrong bits of synthpop and heavy metal at the end of the ‘70s, think again – and think further back. There’s certainly plenty of rock in here, but from the organic end, in which sweat and texture add body and warmth as well as disrupting any shop-fresh sheen.

Certainly Macchina are as much Motorhead as they are Mahavishnu or Metheny (and, given the choice, they appear to be more Rush than Yellowjackets). One of their offerings blends a long-throw fusion funk with creamy jazz metal, a tight seethe of musicality with a laddering, gibbon swing to it. Another starts as a swinging Jimmy Page-meets-Sonny Sharrock hydra – tremendously fluent, ribbed with dissonant slashes but full of tight prog-rock pounces of unison guitar and bass, with a strong rumbling taste of Ace Of Spades (and a final united scurry like La Villa Strangiato).

However, Walter’s persistently inventive guitar playing ensures that the band’s music never boils dry. There might be a bit of Hendrix in his floating horn-wail of lead line, continually playing a push, stroke’n’stretch game with its envelope. There’s probably a pinch of Allan Holdsworth ripple, some dirty Mike Stern blues or Foley McCrearey whumph, an occasional trilling coil of fretboard tapping… whatever there is, it’s subsumed into Walter’s own voice. For the forty minutes he’s onstage, he’s playing almost continually and never once puts a foot wrong. For the full set, he wraps you in the ins and outs of his conversation, his pauses for thought, his gently brooding reflections, frowns and unspoken implications. Guitarists this compelling and fertile are rare – and they’re a pleasure to encounter.

Macchina del Tempo - Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo – Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

From the start, it’s also been clear that Macchina have an utter mastery of the flexible groove. While drummer Mick Claridge can certainly swing, it’s only part of his vocabulary as the band drive and chivvy through their smooth shifts of time and tempo. On bass guitar, Jamie McKenzie plays neither the great soloist nor the staid, conservative backliner. Instead he firmly unzips the chords in all their glory, then fingers his way around and across the scales in a continous springy roam. A dextrous fretted fingerstylist, he knows where every note needs to go. His playing creates a webbing of involved, swung-baroque bass-line, over which Walter’s guitar can flicker like a sly chameleon whenever it needs to. Mick subtly supports the arc; swirls under it, drums cruising and lifting like a river-rise.

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)


They’re certainly making an impact – around me, bodies rapidly lose their reluctance, peeling up from the Luxe’s dark faux-leather sofas to sway and wave to the Macchina percolations. A third piece, though it starts with a crabby rock sidle strangely similar to You Really Got Me, soon turns into electric-chicken jazz funk. Mick slides greasy rhythms from hand to hand even as he pins the piece to the floor, a human nail-gun. For the last in their foursome of amplified groove, the band’s funk turns a little Mahavishnu: full of tensing stops, bullish balance and hot scraps sliding unregarding from that smouldering guitar. Even now, deep into their set, the three Macchina men seem transformed by their playing. Seeing those tough faces softened and gentled into something resembling reverence – it does the heart good.

What?! have the playful end of things covered tonight. Macchina del Tempo have so convincingly laid claim to solidity and substance that they’d be tough to follow with something similar. It falls to A Sweet Niche, then, to stagger splay-armed along the edge; to rake their nails down the rough wall of art and shout the appropriate odds.

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ben Handysides drums with dainty motions but powerful strikes. He looks like a handsome public-school rugger star who’s thinking about becoming a poet; he can play jazz, folk, progressive rock, kletzmer and sundry permutations of all of those and more. This makes him a shoo-in for A Sweet Niche when they play live. While they’ve already got an established drummer for composing and recording, he lives, rather disobligingly, far off in Cornwall (where he can presumably maintain the freshness required for their studio sessions). Everyone else in the band besides Ben seems to have intense sidelines in film, or theatre, or the spiky world of contemporary classical. Perhaps this explains the open-marriage, flyaway feel of the band; and why Ben currently seems like a blond bridge linking the two remaining poles of A Sweet Niche together.

A Sweet Niche - Oliver Sellwood's baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Oliver Sellwood’s baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

One of these two poles is Oliver Sellwood, on baritone sax. He’s a fluid rippling player (with plenty of bassy skronk in him whenever he needs it) and he’s as well turned out as his playing: neat haircut, neat glasses, unflappable demeanour. He can blow like a demon, but he delivers these storms coolly and professorial, as if chatting from a podium. The other pole is on the other side of Ben and looks as if he’ll rattle himself to bits at any moment. In his agony-scarlet sweat top, Keir Cooper is spindly and driven; bristle-bearded, and playing a guitar as if someone will nail him to it at set’s end. Everything about him screams “art lifer”. He’s the filmmaker. He probably sleeps once or twice every five years, if someone else talks him into it.

A Sweet Niche cast off with a clutch of snaking instrumental wiggles. Oliver’s baritone sax tattoo soon settles into a blaring drone, around which Ben casts up a ticking construction set before the band blaze up into distortion. Keir is clearly going to be the splinter in the jam – his face crumples into walnut creases as he drives shattered howls out of his guitar. Ben looks loose in comparison, his drumsticks dangling like plucked lilies. Oliver disregards them both, ripping off a sax solo as if he was wrenching a seam from a jacket: it’s a little Arabian in tone, a reproving and arrogant ripple of grace above the chaos, of which there’s plenty more to come.

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Their second salvo, Eye Music II is crash noise from the off. Their third begins as a kind of minimalist ska, then becomes Yaketty-Yak re-imagined for math-rockers. After Ben delivers a burst of horse-clopping rimshots, they break for another swirl of Arabian saxophone, heavy on the romance, before heading back towards the ska armed with hammer-swipes of noise. To top it off, the coda is a lullaby pop tune.

As a band – or, perhaps, as a spasm – A Sweet Niche seem to crouch somewhere between John Zorn (in his more impish Naked City moods) and the wracked, Maoist judders of English free jazz. Moments where a passage of brittle swing mutates into a kind of thrash samba could be put down to dark humour, but it’s difficult to calculate the shape of the band’s intent when a cheerful passage of saxophone sleaze is overtaken by screeching guitar alarm and then a taut, distant game of musical tag as Keir and Oliver dot each other with single notes and with silence.

It’s tricky to pin down whether what they do is political, or disruptive for its own sake, or just a natural expression of brain hiccups; or whether all of these options are equally valued or dismissed. Besides their wary body language – which could be a deceptive feint anyway – they give little away personally. There are no arcane jokes at the microphone, and few wacky titles (although the choppy ta-ta-ta and carousel echos of Bananagirl inspire even more confusion, as if Bagpuss had joined Slayer).

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ultimately A Sweet Niche’s aim seems to be to blow their education out of their minds, like a bolus of brain-snot. Chunks of structure regularly whiz past our ears (Oliver, in particular, has a knack for hurling fervent and compressed musical dialogue) while Keir is ceaseless in shaking off his thoughts as an urgent, committed racket. At one point, following a particularly intense bit of guitar wringing, he blinks with astonishment. For a few seconds, he looks relieved, with a surprised smile and the hint of shy laughter fluttering round his chops, and a “where did that come from?” shrug lifting his arms. As they head towards the end of their set, though, their disruptive peace-destroying turns into a dotted bounce. Bit by bit, they’re turning to a dance even if at the next song they’ll be trying to squash us against the wall with ripped slices of metallic thrash-hop.

They end with a thunderous, purging blast through Duodecimal. Then, bizarrely, they’re back for an encore, augmented by Chloe Herington (the unflappable reedswoman from Chrome Hoof, VALVE and Knifeworld) who suddenly pops up to moonlight and to add a new factor to the band’s unruly chemistry. There’s plenty of muttering, subtle stares and subliminal eyebrow gestures before they get started. It’s unclear whether they’re cueing each other, playing chicken or attempting some kind of disguised wink-murder.

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Just as I’m losing interest, they reel out a tremendous length of jazz-thrash-turned-sludge-metal. Her alto sax hovering, Chloe stays silent for most of it before jerking into place right at the pell-mell coda. She blows ten or fifteen seconds of twisting Coltrane overblowing over the roar, and then everything crashes to a halt. The night’s over, and so is A Sweet Niche’s psychological shell game. The strains and strange focusses slough away like last month’s bandages: with the instruments down, they’re suddenly warm with each other.

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ten minutes later, sleepy and stumbling, I’m making my way south-west of Spitalfields and I’m ever so slightly lost. Trying to find the tube, I’m wandering past the cluster of City skyscrapers by Bishopsgate – pushy assertions, half-formed nubbins and works-in-progress, garlanded by lights: and the finished statements, shoved heavenwards. Appropriate really.

Around my midnight bleariness (and as I’m passing the arrested concrete stump of the Pinnacle building, humiliated and frozen by market forces) I’m thinking dimly about language again, about tunes and stutters and babels and temporary silences. I don’t come to a conclusion, but as the last echoes of the gig swirl away in my mind I’m feeling glad that this part of town’s got some of its more unusual dialogues back.

What?! online:
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Macchina del Tempo online:
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A Sweet Niche online:
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Chaos Theory Promotions online:
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March 2013 – album reviews – The JazzFakers’ ‘Here is Now’ (“accumulates itself out of loose particles of imagination; like a rogue dust-bunny”)

27 Mar
The JazzFakers: 'Here Is Now'

The JazzFakers: ‘Here Is Now’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

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

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

9 Nov
Cthulhu Detonator: 'Infernal Machines'

Cthulhu Detonator: ‘Infernal Machines’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Cthulhu Detonator online:
Soundcloud Bandcamp

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

28 Oct
Jorge Arana Trio: 'Mapache'

Jorge Arana Trio: ‘Mapache’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Jorge Arana Trio online:
Homepage Facebook Bandcamp Soundcloud

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

30 Apr

Komatsu: 'Komatsu'

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’

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

Anyway…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Komatsu online:
Homepage Facebook SoundCloud

North Atlantic Oscillation: ‘Savage With Barometer’ promo single (“new rituals form”)

18 Feb

This certainly is compelling… but why is it so compelling?

Ever since 2009 and their ‘Callsigns’ EP, North Atlantic Oscillation have been ploughing up a reputation as the new thing in rock, the sound of the future. Here, it seems that what they offer isn’t all that new, once you capture and dissect it. That engulfing hedge of pins-and-needles guitar noise – great writhing blocks of it surrounding and overwhelming the vocal, like windings of toxic insect-ridden gauze – harks back to the psychedelic revival of the late ’80s and the shoegazing bands who sprang up out of a plain of distortion, disorientation and nauseous bliss. That rambunctious bang of snare drum and tom (pimp-rolling forcefully through the music like a garbage man turned one-man-marching band) is ultimately drawn from Bonham and ‘Kashmir’. Sam Healy’s voice, pale and waving above the monstrous swell of sound from his guitars, always on the verge of drowning in it… again, that’s psychedelia returning on a comet-swing, tied to Syd Barrett on Astronomy Domine, Kevin Shields on You Made Me Realise, or Wayne Coyne on most things.

For all that, Savage With Barometer is pretty marvellous. It’s certainly full-bodied: the attention to detail from Healy and cohorts’ is streets ahead of most of their predecessors and contemporaries. It’s got a pell-mell momentum, albeit via an inexorable slow motion rather than a tremendous rush. But why does it sound new, and how does it carry that shock of emergence along with it?

I think there are two answers here. One is a matter of architecture. Beyond those towering gnarls of scratch-and-howl, the melody that’s clasped by the all-but-buried vocals refuses to be reduced to a simple narcotic mumble. Instead it’s flat-out aspirational. It builds up and out and up again: a precarious scaffolding of pitches, clinging to a hope of reaching somewhere above the roar. Even when it dips or lowers, this is merely a kind of dogged feint – a way around an obstacle. A few people have cut out similar pathways and hauled us along it with them (Brian Wilson and Tim Smith, to name but two) but North Atlantic Oscillation bring their own spooked wonder and weight.

The second answer is to do with ritual, and with belief. Healy has gone on record as saying that his band is, in effect, less post-rock than post-faith. They create music for a world in which established religion has fallen away, leaving a yawning vacuum. Into this, a confusion of signals and noise roars in a torrent, and new rituals form.

Savage With Barometer is, in fact, a trucker’s anthem. Yes, you read that right. It’s also a bitter psalm, a work-song… a portrait of how thinking can be formed by tasks. Take away the plastic Jesus on the dashboard. Substitute a dread which is now invested in the readings of forecasts, and of gauges, and on the turn of storms both physical and fiscal. Now imagine a loose squadron of men caught up in it together, and listen to those high wind-blown words again. “I want fair weather, so I will pray to Mercury / Alone and in lockstep… / We need cargo, / we need news from wretched outposts. / Show us, we can’t see.”

You can rise up and kill your first god – maybe someone else will kill him for you, whether you want them to or not. You’re actually no freer in the brave new material world into which you emerge. You’re still at the mercy of forces beyond your power to wrestle with; still walking under somebody’s bloated shadow, begging them to grant you some kind of harvest, or to provide those answers you need in order to shape and save your fumbling life. For a trucker, orders and benedictions come over the airwaves from the depot. Supply-and-demand carves necessary shapes onto their wanderings. A brief tick or plummet on a financial graph can spark a schism, spilling lives and plans and blasted hopes in its wake.

In turn, a working man’s grumble – speed-addled and resentful, stupefied by an imposed servitude – turns into a plaint, a prayer and a resentful surrender. “I want fair weather, I want white pills. / One-state anthill / – the great operation brings us all under your thumb.” Compressed by work, by the noise of labour piling up, it becomes a new and bitter creed. Perhaps what we’re talking about here isn’t the shock of the new, but of the exposed. Emerging from beneath the bellies of the old gods, we find the new vistas surprisingly familiar, if not worse. Fooled again?

North Atlantic Oscillation: ‘Savage With Barometer’
K-Scope/Bandcamp (no cat. number or barcode)
Download-only promo single
released 15 February 2012

Buy it from:
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North Atlantic Oscillation online:
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November 2011 – live reviews – RoastFest music festival @ The Unicorn, Camden Road, London, 12th November (featuring Arch Garrison, Matt Stevens, Stars in Battledress, Redbus Noface, Thumpermonkey, William D. Drake, Knifeworld, Sanguine Hum, Admirals Hard) (“trailing bright scraps of music”)

18 Nov

It’s a bit like coming home. My first venture out into gigworld for a while, and I’m walking into a rough-looking rock pub out on the elbow of Tufnell Park. Not so many years ago, the Unicorn was a genuine trouble dive in the industrial frownage north of Kings Cross – just a spit away from the troubled estates around Caledonian Park. Reinventing itself as a part-time heavy metal venue a few years ago turned out to be its salvation. Now it’s been turned around to become a friendly local. The only blood’n’guts making an appearance is on the death-metal flyers by the door.

Today The Unicorn is packed out with a warm crowd of allsorts-people whom you could never easily pin down as a clear scene. Arcane T-shirts stretch around comfy bodies; hairstyles range from metallic red to casually balding, The people here are as likely to be agricultural workers or car-hire operators as hipsters or metalheads, and they’re almost as likely to have flown in from Italy or Poland as have driven or walked in from Worcester or Camden Town. In between acts, the PA spits out recordings as diverse and potentially divisive as John Adams, The Melvins, King Crimson or early ’90s agit-samplers Disco Inferno. Nobody seems in the least bit disorientated, nor do they pester the DJ for Kasabian. In any stylistic sense, confusion reigns. In an emotional sense there’s the warm, scruffy feeling of a tribe who coalesce only occasionally, but always feel very much at home when they do so.

I’ve been here before. This is the Cardiacs flavour. Although Cardiacs as a band are now several years gone-to-ground, as a culture their rampaging jigsaw of unorthodox sensibilities and connections survives – even thrives – through a network of enthusiasts and musical heirs. Uber-fan and hitchhiking hero Adrian Bell is bouncing around the Unicorn swapping stories, spilling his beer and enthusiastically flogging his Cardiacs book. Snooker star-turned-prog champion Steve Davis is here, proving once again that his enthusiasm stretches much further than simply supporting ’70s legends over at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That silver-tongued James-Bond figure also doing the rounds (plugging a dedicated Cardiacs disco at “battle volume” for next January) turns out to be Dominic Luckman: he’s evidently taken plenty of lessons in suave since his gurning, flour-covered years behind the Cardiacs drumkit. Other former Cardiacs will be performing in various permutations throughout the day: although to be honest this is less to do with tributes or fan-service than it is to do with the tendency of certain musicalities to continue beyond the brand name.

The whole kit and caboodle of Roast Fest itself has been put together by Kavus Torabi. Recently a Cardiac (and before that, in The Monsoon Bassoon) he’s currently heading up both his own band – Knifeworld – and the Believers Roast label that’s hosting the event. This also means that he’s today’s overburdened one-man juggling act. When I first catch sight of him, he’s boggle-eyed with worry, stapling a merchandise board together and hoping that everything will stay together. A self-styled (or self-slandered) psychedelic flake, Kavus seems to half-expect chaos round the corner and for all of this to come tumbling down around his ears. As ever, he’s doing himself down. While he’s relatively new to the full weight of carrying a cottage industry (let alone two, plus the bottled randomness of a mini-festival), his instincts are true and his audience sound. This feels as if it’s going to go well.

It also starts quietly as Craig Fortnam makes his first appearance of the day in Arch Garrison, a solo project which has a tendency to flit between one man-band and acoustic trio. On this occasion it’s a duo, with Craig joined by James Larcombe (today’s man-of-many-bands) on a variety of reedy little keyboards. Initially their sound is ornate and a little introverted, with James drawing angular pipelines of awkward tune across the artful spinning cogs and involved strums of Craig’s acoustic guitar. Together they build up a succession of gangling, summery blueprints; intricate and skeletal folk-baroque miniatures which scroll across time and pitch like attenuated Heath Robinson gizmos.

Some of the wedding-cake decorativeness of Craig’s main project (the retrofitted chamber ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra) is present and correct, as is a taste of the baroque side of Michael Nyman. Yet Arch Garrison is less formal than either of these, and although seemingly delicate and fey to the point of flimsiness, the music is actually underlaid by an assured, precise musicality. Craig’s acoustic guitar-playing, in particular, is tremendously strong: part Renaissance lutenist, part gutsy Nick Drake fingerpickery, and part atomic clock. Sometimes he also sings – in an easy and distracted murmur, as if daydreaming in his front room.

In spite of this air of detachment (and with the help of an audience that’s warm and receptive from the start), musicians and crowd move closer together as the set progresses, and as the songs take on life from their elegantly quilled and tapestried beginnings and shamble out into the room. Arch Garrison’s music clambers off the Unicorn’s shabby stage like a hung-over peacock emerging from a cardboard box – bedraggled but with flashes of finery. Wreathed in compassion and energetic flourishes, a sweet-natured, gently chiding call to art and arms called Six Feet Under Yeah comes across especially well. Borderline precious they may be, but by the end of the set this band’s earned the kind of affection you’d give to a battered family heirloom.

I’ve heard plenty of loop musicians in my time. Once you’ve seen one they’re like gateway drugs to hundreds of others. (I’m sorry – I’ve battled my addiction for years, but it keeps coming back…) Most of them are sit-down sound brewers: reserved in aspect, slowly adding detail to their patterns, absorbed in their banks of effects pedals.

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens isn’t like that. A hulking figure – wild of hair and beard and with the imposing build of a rugby forward – he’s also afire with nervous energy, hailing his audience with a delighted sportsman’s roar. As regards potential gear-fiddling, he looks more likely to hurl himself onto his pedals and roll across the stage, wrestling with lashing cables and flying components, rather than indulge in prissy fondling. In the event, he settles for stabbing owlishly at his pedalboard as he hacks into his set with furious enthusiasm, attacking a battered acoustic guitar with the energy of a born-again busker.

Even if Matt is an extroverted bear in a loopers’ community of aloofness, he’s still obliged to spend some onstage time engrossed in loop-science. This he does both with earnestness and the air of a smouldering volcano. Bashing aggressively-strummed chords into the loop in order to build up his layered compositions, he crams in his extra details later, subverting his acoustic noises with wah-wah or strange compressions which bring out new instrumental parts like falls of slate or torn hunks of burnished copper. Throughout, a powerful rhythmic momentum is key (whether it’s expressed via out-and-out rockiness, a stuttered systemic pulse or a slither of percussive noise) as is Matt’s total involvement in what he’s doing. If he couldn’t squeeze the next loop idea out, you feel that he’d burst. His joy when things fall into place is palpable.

That said, Matt’s seasoned enough not to dissolve into petulance when things don’t go right. There’s not an error that can’t be turned into an opportunity, not a glitch that can’t be an excuse for a new bit of fun. Even when a string snaps with a whip-like crack, its echoed ghost is built so assertively into Matt’s wall of sound that the piece would ultimately have been less without it. Plenty of loopers reference the more academic touchstones of the genre – Shaeffer and Stockhausen, Fripp and Eno. Matt Stevens has some of that too, but he most definitely grabs us by the scruff of our collective neck to drag us back to the roughneck folk days of John Martyn and his rattling Echoplex (now there was a man who knew something about chance and hazard…) And as he tears us off a Moebius strip, we love him for it.

Fighting an unsympathetic sound mix, Stars in Battledress aren’t having it easy. Of course, life isn’t generally easy for massively over-educated brothers who form art-rock duos, mix up rolling minimalism with genteel English folk and a jigsaw of elaborate lyrical conceits, and then act as if they’ve teleported in from a 1930s gentleman’s club.

If Stars in Battledress were, in fact, playing all of these factors up for laughs (as if they were some kind of parody lounge act), they might be quids-in for a while. The problem is that while they’re flushed with a vein of dense and playful humour, they’re also entirely sincere. Almost everything that makes them remarkable – even wonderful – also makes them hard to sell in England. It’s probably one of the reasons why their gigs are rare these days.They’re willfully out of time; hothouse blooms in a climate that doesn’t favour greenhouses. Even the reviews they inspire turn artful and drip sepia.

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

As ever, Richard Larcombe cuts an intriguing figure – a pocket-sized handsome devil, part scholarly fop, part English pop eccentric (as if the two have never been known to overlap). Occasionally, you feel that his air of genteel amusement will slip away and he’ll suddenly go for your neck. Until then, he plays master-of-ceremonies with mixed breeziness and nerves, darting his head like a kestrel, picking fastidiously at his big jazzman’s guitar. His wicked grin and arched eyebrow seep into his vocal tone – a well-spoken tenor, moving between rich warm folk-drone and spooked falsetto. Smiling kindly behind his keyboard, James Larcombe is the obliging laid-back Swann to his brother’s sardonic Flanders: playing fluidly, bringing the solidity to support Richard’s genial spikiness.

With the audience on their side despite the sound flutters, Stars In Battledress treat us to a five-song set, forging a path through shellac-scented easy listening, deep English folk music and Canterbury-esque whimsy, all laced together with strands of Chicago art-rock, cycling piano lines and a dab or two of prog-rock glue. On spec, this sounds like a pile-up. In fact, every song is carefully thought through: lovingly hand-crafted and loaded with the kind of shrewd, floridly verbose lyrical wit that plays a circling game with its listeners. A blowsy chunk of psychedelic antiquarianism, Come Write Me Down references both copperplate and the Copper Family. If Morrissey had been forcibly cut-and-pasted into an Ealing comedy, he’d probably have riposted with something like Fluent English (in which Richard spirals defiantly through levels and levels of social awkwardness, a passive-aggressive cad-seeking missile).

More touchingly, Richard dedicates the brand-new Matchless Bride to his own wife (clambering over and dismissing both Cleopatra and Helen of Troy en route) and behind the dry theatrical wit, the Larcombes occasionally demonstrate a more elusive side. Pinocchio Falls In Love takes Disney and pulls it somewhere towards Syd Barrett in chapel, losing itself in hypnotic circles. The roaring distorted guitar fanfare of Remind Me Of The Thames Or Else, meanwhile, reminds us that this is a band that listens to Battles and Voivod as eagerly as it does to Northumbrian bagpipe reels.

Though it’s been nearly thirty years since Mark Cawthra was a Cardiac, you could still describe him as the band’s second severed head. In early lineups he’d hop around between keyboards, drums and singing, egging Tim Smith on to greater and greater heights of manic invention. These days, he’s still multi-instrumental, but the jibber and twitch of the early years has been replaced by something more relaxed and thoughtful.

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

On record, Mark’s Redbus Noface project stretches slightly askew of classic English mainstream pop, ending up like a slightly more psychedelic Chris Difford. Live (with a pickup band of assorted Cardiacs and other friends) Redbus Noface are considerably chunkier. They present a drenched crash of solid rock musicianship, run through with a soft vein of melancholy – and, on this occasion, substantial technical hitches. Mark, fronting the band on guitar, deals with his setbacks with patience; which is something that could also be said for the majestically glum music.

It’s not that the band are miserable, per se. It’s more that they’re operating under a glimmering halo of resignation; of acceptance, of carrying on. Hard to put your finger on, though if you’re carrying a few more years it becomes easier. Compared to the jumping-jack of the Cardiacs years, the current Mark is soberer, but if the energy is reduced, the wisdom is broader. The Redbus cover of an early Cardiacs song, Let Alone My Plastic Doll, takes the stubborn heels-dug-in-tone of the original and fills it with grime, sand and saturated weight. In the process, it makes it weightier, more substantial. Mark Cawthra is not what he was. He’s more – and it’s neither show nor tell. It’s feel.

Usually Thumpermonkey can rely on various supports. On record, it’s the studio playground in which Michael Woodman can shore up his ambitious musical constructions with assorted sound trickery. Out live (and minus the gracings of harmonies, samplers, mandolins or keyboards) it’s at least helpful to have a bass player to pin down the foundations of their brooding new-prog grind. (Think Killing Joke meets Van Der Graaf Generator meets Tool, and then get frustrated at how poorly that captures their music’s sly muscularity and brainpower.)

Tonight they have neither of these things. Instead, Thumpermonkey are appearing as a two-guitarred power trio with the basslines covered by octave pedals and a Rush-like determination to dance their way over the personnel gaps by sheer skill and musical ingenuity. Fortunately Michael and his main foil, Rael Jones, have this in spades. They also have a batch of complex, restless songs which roar out from the stage: a slowly swirling mass of ever-altering metallic riffs in shades of grunge-baroque, hardcore punk and ermine cape, all staked into shape by Ben Wren’s needle-sharp drumming and topped off by Michael’s rich baronial voice.

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The latter’s a sound which demands attention. Scorning both sterile heavy-metal strutting or the self-righteous monotone screech of hardcore (though he can roar and scream with the best of them) Michael unleashes a vocal ever bit as striking and expressive as his Escher-knot of instrumental patterns. As he and Rael crash and chisel out the guitar lines, Michael treats us to a series of hard-rock soliloquies: heady declamation, musings, ominous mutters and runaway wails adding the muscle to his intricate lyrics.

In turn, this fits neatly into the undulating, stuttering landscape of Thumpermonkey’s music. Even when the band’s stripped down, the music thrives – catching at your ears, presenting tantalising gaps of rhythm and tension. Thumpermonkey know that if there are enough good ingredients in the stew, then there’s no such thing as overcooking. They may have always been a band with too many ideas, but they’ve become brilliant at blending and poising them all. They also visibly enjoy their arch humour, a witty blend of pastiches from cyberpunk to Gothic melodrama to art cinema oddity.

It’s got to be said that as metallers (even of the brainiac kind), they don’t quite look or act the part. Few obvious tattoos are in evidence; and they could shed their roles as easily as their T-shirts. Rael – part bespectacled boffin, part spindly golden eagle – prowls the stage with the barely-suppressed excitement of a toddler at Christmas, while Michael – even in full yell – has the cuddly softness of a plush-doll Paul McCartney, complete with smile and shaggy moptop. Look them in the eye, though, and see the twinkling confidence of men with total self-belief and the humour to enjoy it all the way to the end of the set and home. Ultimately it’s the music which sets Thumpermonkey’s ranking, and on every bit of evidence here, that’s pretty high.

William D. Drake comes complete with a throng of “So-Called Friends”, including the Larcombe brothers, Mark Cawthra (back behind the drumkit) and the Trudy’s Jon Bastable on bass. With singer Dug Parker and clarinetist Nicola Baigent also squeezed in, there are almost too many people to fit onstage. Richard Larcombe has to comically mountaineer his way back and forth between songs, a guitar swivelling around his body like a slapstick plank – you’d almost expect a Spike Jones soundtrack of thwacks, boings and yelps.

Such is the geniality onstage, however, that any clouts from a straying instrument would be taken in good heart. Squeezed they might be, but the seven-piece band do some sprawling justice to the clutch of Drakesongs on offer tonight. Each of them spring gently open when played, an overstuffed old trunk full of homemade melodies and worn-down reeds. Another onetime Cardiac, Bill Drake used to exude jollity and warmth around a chubby smile even when he was slathered in smeary slap and rolling out a convulsed fugal organ line. Two decades on, the freak trappings have long since washed off but the warmth has blossomed.

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Upfront at his piano, Bill’s like the avuncular monk in charge of the brewery. For a while, the November evening turns to a leaf-strewn end-of-summer afternoon as he sings in his split, woody voice – a kind of innocence in itself, straining heartily against its natural restrictions to break out into a flattened earnest roar or into a conversational softness. His songs thrive on ripples of piano and clarinet, on the hoppity bounce of half-forgotten novelty records; on hushed moments of old English reverie. It’s as if they’ve sprung up from a snowed-in village, put together by a group of people enjoying the warmth of companionship. One of the newer songs – Homesweet Homestead Hideaway – travels sedately from happy plonk to sea music, and from chamber music to music hall, all in a single unrolling skein.

The So-Called Friends nearly overwhelm the stage: Knifeworld transcend it. Tonight, they’re the only band that really do. Maybe it’s because they’re Kavus’ own band, briefly releasing him from organiser’s headaches, letting him take up his white Gretsch guitar and fire off a little compositional lightning. At any rate, Knifeworld take their set at full-tilt, as if they’re playing on excited tiptoe prior to leaping through the ceiling. Even the sonic missteps or rough patches don’t slow them down – any occasional keyboard plunk or fluffed vocal note is scooped up and along to fuel their energy.

In more than one respect, the band bristle. Grown to a six-piece (and swallowing up a couple of Chrome Hoof members along the way), they now have electric pianos and bassoons poking out of them like crazy hairpins. Kavus’ veering and breathless songs need no less these days. Crammed with escapologist riffs, abrupt time-changes and flagrant decorations, they’re like manically accelerated conversations complete with excited table-bangings. They’re also like mashed-up city traffic – dozens of different ideas like wandering cars, edging into narrow streets, getting squeezed into a bigger and more diverse picture, but somehow managing to manoeuvre and thrive.

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Up at the front Kavus’ gruff and friendly bark of voice mingles with that of his vocal foil Mel Woods. They sing with a chatty roughness which almost, but not quite, disarms the furious musical mechanisms churning away behind them: part prog, part Rock-In-Opposition, part surreal shanty. Chloe Herrington’s steely bassoon playing is the newest Knifeworld ingredient, as tart as molasses and threading a new dark vein through the songs, most of which are newer work, including the benign lurches of In A Foreign Way and the chittering pump-riffage of Pilot Her.

The best comes last. Fully warmed up, Knifeworld lock in a few more gears, summon up a few more notches of the power and launch into The Prime Of Our Decline, a piece so new that it’s still glistening. It rampages past our ears and through our brains in a blizzard of lights and joy. It’s a streaking Mediterranean storm of flamencoid prog pulse and haul song, flashing out memories of John McLaughlin, Yes and Fred Frith (each at the peak of their communicative powers), but it also sustains along its entire length, the heart-racing punch of a top pop hook. I feel my jaw drop. For five minutes, the entire band seem to be leaning into an ecstatic curve; or levitating an inch above the Unicorn’s scruffy stage carpet. It’s not often that I see a band suddenly move up a level, right in front of me. It takes my breath away when it actually happens.

It does strike me that, were most of these bands American, they’d be getting proper respect. All credit to them for coming together to light up this obscure little corner of North London, but they’re still running along in a distant neglected parallel, some way out of the club of the British musicians who are properly celebrated, who are held up as the exemplars of what we ought to be doing as a musical nation. Some of them have been at it for years in one form or another, and to see their clear talent unrewarded is hard.

It’s something to do with a pop aesthetic worn down to a neurotic sliver, I suppose. An idea is always easier to sell if it’s been pre-formed and pre-warmed; and not only does the emphasis on the shape of the British pop song often end up as a straitjacket, British musical jingoism has a flipside of fawning insecurity. From a British perspective, it often seems as if it’s only Americans who are allowed to experiment, to embrace their own whimsy to the hilt, to draw in something less urban and less in cahoots with fashion; and in Britain it’s only American musicians who are allowed to be celebrated for this. The Roastfest roster – profoundly British, without a pop art flag in sight – flip a cheerful collective finger at this notion.

Still, I have to admit that coping with Roastfest’s rich stew of acts in relentless succession does eventually take it out of you. I’m flagging by the time Sanguine Hum arrive onstage. Not too long ago, they were called The Joff Winks Band, and they used to lie to people. Travelling under a classic-pop flag to mislead people, they played beautifully, wrote intricate Canterbury-mellow prog-rock songs while pretending not to, and made the kind of tasteful support-band ripples you’d expect if you spent your time opening for people like Joseph Arthur and Regina Spektor.

Prog of a more delicate stripe... Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Prog of a more delicate stripe… Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

In parallel, Joff and his bandmates also had alter-egos. They explored a lighthearted, Anglicised post-rock as Antique Seeking Nuns, and pegged out some spacey textural music as Nunbient. Maybe proving themselves in these fields has given them the confidence of finally making themselves over as an overt prog band. Hurray for that.

During the course of their set I drift around the pub, a little dazed by standing and by keeping myself fuelled on bar snacks. Consequently Sanguine Hum’s airy prog blend – in which Rhodes-propelled Camel mellowness blends with occasional Zappa seizures – doesn’t grab enough of my wandering attention. By the end of the evening my impression of the band is hazy, and my notes too vague to be of much use. Sanguine Hum seem cleaner and more polite than anyone else on offer – they’ve kept the classic ’70s pop sheen, for certain – and I have to nod to both Matt Baber’s bright, dazzling keyboard touch and Joff’s sweet-natured frontman work. The rest of what they are will have to wait until we next cross paths. Sorry, Joff. Not your fault. I just wasn’t quite up to it this time.

The evening ends with a big, scrappy folk noise. Admirals Hard don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are – émigré Plymouth art-rockers gone acoustic (plus a few London friends), indulging hometown roots with a string of traditional sea-shanties. The affable Andy Carne fronts this busman’s holiday, but both of the Larcombe brothers are back onstage too, along with chunks of The Monsoon Bassoon (Dan Chudley on bass and fur cap, while Kavus, letting his hair down at the end of the night, jangles a mandolin). Onetime Foe drummer Paul Westwood plays harmonium and hammered dulcimer; Tungg! singer Becky Jacobs joins in too.

In fact, everyone sings – not just the whole band (with the affable Carne performing as much as an MC as lead vocalist) but the audience. While Admirals Hard have been known to fling in shipworm-friendly covers of Cardiacs and Iron Maiden (their take on Stranger In A Strange Land is surprisingly convincing as well as funny), these aren’t needed tonight. At the end of a day of invention, the trad songs cheerfully mop up. An international audience of music obsessives let down hair and inhibitions, drink the last of the bar dry and sing along to All For Me Grog, Eddystone Light and Thou Hast Drunk Well Man; the roaming Janners and honorary Janners onstage let their accents broaden, strum out a sound like a skinny Pogues and imagine a rolling deck. With the bar drunk dry, that’s probably not too much of a stretch by now.

Finally we disperse into the November night, trailing bright scraps of music as we go. I head for Archway, humming something complicated, or something simple. Something warm. Something welcome.

Buy a memento:
Various Artists: ‘The Central Element’ (compilation album with one track from each Roastfest band) – available from Genepool.

Arch Garrison online:
Homepage MySpace

Matt Stevens online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM YouTube

Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Redbus Noface online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

Thumpermonkey online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM YouTube

William D. Drake online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Sanguine Hum online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM Soundcloud

Admirals Hard online:
MySpace

The Unicorn, Camden online:
Facebook Twitter

March 2011 – mini-album reviews – Playing with Nuns’ ‘Wave Equation’ (“a fly’s-ear perspective of a Zeppelin crash”)

15 Mar
Playing With Nuns: 'Wave Equation'

Playing With Nuns: ‘Wave Equation’

With hundreds of releases in the bag already, it’s difficult to even summarise the dark-ambient work of Playing With Nuns (alias D.I.Y. Argentine noiseworker Ariel Chapuis), let alone sort it through item by item. However, a few things are apparent for ‘Wave Equation’. One is that (by the usual Playing With Nuns standards) it presents a gentler face. The titles of the recording and of the individual songs are more reflective than usual: the elegant mathematical graph-shot on the cover art is devoid of the forthright challenge of other releases, No huge and tilting cranes, no feral cartoons. No naked women wrapped up in hazard tape.

By the bullish, confrontational standards of some avant-noise artists this might be taken as signs of a cop-out; or at least a digression into mathematical navel-gazing. That’s not the case. To my ears, this recording’s sound world is one of giganticism – everyday objects ramped up to a stunning blur of over-scaled, colliding sound. At particular points, it’s borderline unbearable (which Chapuis would probably take as a sober compliment). It might not have you fretting over dysfunctional anger, but it might make you too scared to catch the bus.

On the other hand, there’s little here in the way of avant-garde theatrics. Everything is matter-of-fact. There’s no attempt to make an obvious wall of aural assault, or to engage in shock tactics for the sake of it. Chapuis simply lets his noises off the leash, and lets them take their course.

In Advertising For Lizards, plunderphonics are writ large against a dirty-celestial skirl of feedback. Scraps of conversation are distorted and giganticised into enormous blurred wind instruments and furniture drags. These roll and scrape, as if being pulled along the inside of a vast balloon, while Chapuis cunningly pans them around the sound-field.

I Let You Tools is a little more traditionally concrète, making a clear play of sampling construction devices, power drills and saws. It also deliberately deforms samples of other noises (including voices) into sounding like power tools before it collages everything that it’s found. The final result is a sandwich of technological interactions: almost a cartoon. A set of cheery telephone pulse-codes are sandwiched into it, trapped between a barrage of tool noises on one side and a rumbling wall of power-electronics on the other. The latter sails up to loom large and demanding, like an particularly needy cruise liner.

On Sequences of Lost Children, the clearest sound is two alternating organ notes. The dominant sound, however, is microphone-fry; sizzling and crackling around the clunk of struck pipework and the playful vocal grumbles of synthesizer. Throughout, there’s the crunch of an abused pickup, crushed and buffeted underwater. Unpleasant aural suggestions swim into place – a polluted zone for drownings, filled with ominous and suspicious objects. It’s immersive, threatening, possibly death-haunted. Perversely, all of this busy sonic activity inflates it with an uncomfortable life-force.

Initially, Wave Equation itself offers the closest thing to a let-up. A loop of pleased-with-itself electronic hum, waver-pulse and munching static chews the cud. For about a minute, it’s joined by a radio voice of crunched, compressed Spanish. This relative calm doesn’t last. After one-and-a-half minutes, the idiot noise arrives – an inflated shrieking grind which bounces and rolls over the static, over the percolating electronics, over everything.

Nine-and-a-half minutes long, the spectacularly queasy Decline & Fall is the album centrepiece. It sounds like dynamic travel sickness – a soundscape of hugely magnified stomach flutters, aircraft propellers and groaning feedback. Meanwhile, something is continually crashing and bouncing along the ground, ploughing up colossal waves and furrows of static. Imagine a fly’s-ear perspective of a Zeppelin crash… yet even that doesn’t communicate the terrifying, carefree attitude to the sound.

That’s the key to the unease in this record. Picture a world run out of control and shrunk down to the clatter of a battered and juddering gearbox; and picture ourselves, in turn, shrunk down to ant-scale and trapped inside it. There’s the feel that the grinding forces and crunch of object (in particular, Decline & Fall’s perpetually prolonged ongoing crash) is just business as usual – a humdrum and relentless process of clumsy mechanical brutality while machines plough and scrape their way between destinations and across targets, indifferent to the rattled and fragile animals within and around them. Whatever happens, happens. If it’s brutal, that’s simply the nature of things. It’s like that power-lathe which doesn’t mean to deafen you, but which certainly will deafen you if you sit next to it. It’s nothing personal.

Playing With Nuns: ‘Wave Equation’
Kopp Netlabel, KOPP.17
Download-only mini-album (free)
Released: 6th March 2011

Buy it from:
Free download from Kopp Netlabel (rightclick) or Archive.org

Playing With Nuns online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud

January 2010 – EP reviews – Orders of the British Empire’s ‘Rebuild (“bulge-eyed romantic ear-splitters, about to pop a vein”)

5 Jan
Orders of the British Empire: 'Rebuild' EP

Orders of the British Empire: ‘Rebuild’ EP

Orders Of The British Empire wear some pretty evident, pretty well-known influences upfront. These North London bandmates are avowed disciples of Mogwai, of Pelican and of Oceansize – and it shows.

While OBE are members of the broad church of instrumental post-rockers, they operate at the brutal, crunchy, masculine end of the genre. In other words, the one which relies on a bristly bromance between hardcore punk, hurricane-textured shoegazery and epic heavy metal, all reconfigured for sensitive guys with tattoos. It’s the side of post-rock which brings most of the previously-despised rock muscle roaring back in; and which (while abhorring and deleting the spotlit solos and preening, cocksure singing) is rammed full of guitars which fret, bulge and wail like a man who’s undergoing an apocalyptic religious conversion but who’s also reduced to frantic speechless hand-gestures to explain just how he feels.

There’s certainly enough of the hallmarks of this art-brute school of sound. There are the melancholy guitar arpeggios which cloudburst into sleet-storms of frantically scrubbed strings and distortion sprays. There are the hush-to-shriek dynamics and the clear evidence that everyone involved can play like a demon, but have had to carefully weave and duck their skills past the frowns of the punk police (or perhaps their own vestiges of punk embarrassment). There are the Godspeed You Black Emperor digressions into dry-boned countrified vistas, suggesting poisoned prairies under oil-smeared skies. There’s the sneaking feeling that this kind of music should just bite the bullet and call itself “psychedelic metal”, if that didn’t throw up unfortunate thoughts of a saucer-eyed Ozzy Osbourne chanting and dribbling blood down his kaftan.

So – not terribly original at root, and building heavily on what’s gone before. Yet what saves OBE (and then some) is that their hearts are as upfront as their debts. To a man, they’re bulge-eyed romantic ear-splitters, about to pop a vein in the service of expression. Their decision not to include a singer means that all of that passion feeds magnificently into their churning hands. The guitars bypass the pitfall into neurotic stiffness which often plagues post-rock: instead, they play with the suppleness and flex of tormented blues. The drums pace and clamour at the back like a fierce and loving sergeant – not just keeping time, but chivvying each of the other instruments.

Admittedly, the other payback is that their music is stadium-sized, and dazzled by its own overwhelming importance. The wordless songs march under fierce manifestos (Rebuild With Gunpowder), namecheck mythical serpents and Earth-hammering asteroids (Apophis Reigns) and cast up, without a hint of self-consciousness, questions for everyday existential heroes (What Would You Do). Even so, OBE have delivered up a striking, accomplished opening statement – especially as, rather than being a squad of pierce-festooned hardcore athletes with scalp-locks, they turn out to be a bashful-looking crew of soft-lipped boy-men.

There’s much to savour on ‘Rebuild’. Partly, it’s the sonic excitement, with the fluttering intro thrums and emotional math-riffing of Rebuild With Gunpowder; or the gushes of deep, disgruntled pink noise which swell under the increasingly frantic What Would You Do, like the breath of a sleeping giant. The multi-part Apophis Reigns boasts a spectacularly emotive flow of Western desert chords and ear-scouring guitar boil; the lapping lake-music of Roundabouts offers comparative simplicity and a clear view into the band’s romanticism, bypassing the epic storminess.

All things said, it’s refreshing when a band who, on first count, seem so derivative can in fact be so transformative – and so soon. Swerving aside from simple tribute, OBE rapidly become flushed with their own life and their own fascinations.

Orders Of The British Empire: ‘Rebuild’ EP
Big Cartel/Bandcamp
CD/download EP
Released: 1st January 2010

Get it from:
Big Cartel or Bandcamp

Orders Of The British Empire online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

August 2009 – album reviews – Knifeworld’s ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’ (“a dense and complicated thicket”)

24 Aug
Knifeworld: 'Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)'

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone (Tales of Crushing Defeat)’

Barely two tracks in, and (against a backdrop of spidery chords and distant whistling bird-noise) you can hear Kavus Torabi sigh “way to go – a scream fanfares the notion / that fortune and art don’t make good bedfellows.” He ought to know. Since the early 1990s, he’s fought plenty of tough uphill battles in order to fuel strange, intoxicating and awkward music: eight years of startling psychedelic math-rock with The Monsoon Bassoon and six of dogged multi-jointed expressionism with Cardiacs (plus digressions into latterday Zeuhl, madrigal, folk and chamber rock).

You could have forgiven Kavus if he’d played safe on this first, pseudonymous solo album. As one of those people who knows just how ecstatic and luminous music can become if you have the determination to push and ride it all the way, he’s also learned the hard way about how ambition and application don’t necessarily open the ears of the public – or stop the wheels coming off your band in a shower of sparks. Then again, musicians of his omnivorous and kaleidoscopic nature will never be truly happy rolling around the same well-trodden streets as everyone else.

True to past Torabi form, ‘Buried Alone…’ is a dense and complicated thicket of an album, infested with a riot of ideas: an explosion of technicolour shagginess to set against a rank of forward-sweep Britrock haircuts. Anyone who remember the cyclic romps and the full-tilt joyful roar of The Monsoon Bassoon will find some recognizable DNA in here. Yet if that former band was bottled lightning, then Knifeworld is a far more scattered beast. Standard rock instrumentation clusters, interlocks and spins apart in a glorious swirl of noise: an additional palette of clarinets, toy xylophones, violins and santoors adds wood, spit and rattle to proceedings. Crowded and impossibly animated (with multiple styles rubbing up against each other), the album sounds as if Kavus has ripped off the top of his head and let a decade’s worth of listening and imagination just spill out. Yet everything finds its own step in the dance.

Singled Out for Battery exemplifies the intricate wildness on offer, as shivering walls of electric distortion set off a dancing chorus and fairy-ring reels on recorder, guitar and piano. Hollered psychedelic tabloid headlines cartwheel through the verses and everything builds to the kind of exultant boiling guitar solo that suggests King Crimson and Hendrix dancing together around a ‘Wicker Man’ maypole. Large swathes of the album resemble an unstoppable pile-up in Toytown. Propulsive alt.rock riffery worthy of Pixies, Buzzcocks or Shudder to Think is sandwiched by bursts of staccato chamber music or thorny-backed melodic wanderings reminiscent of Henry Cow. Spindly Syd Barrett mumblings sprawl into unresolved mantras, while multi-angled web-work phrases on acoustic guitar are mown down by breaks of crushing thrash-metal.

In one corner, soft voices lilt mysteriously across a barren heathscape; ecstatic and sinister. In another, a dayglo Latin chant flirts with crunching power riffs, hammer dulcimers and fluting see-saw Mellotron before tangling with a crash’n’burn burst of Nancarrow player-piano. In the middle of it all there’s even a delirious single, Pissed Up On Brake Fluid. Horn-heavy and stuffed full of chart-pleasing hookery, it rampages happily towards indie rock radio entirely on its own terms. It’s about a deal with the devil going embarrassingly wrong; or it’s about failing to beat your own devil; or it’s about pranging your car as a metaphor for life. Kavus fires it straight through the center of the record, like a jaguar through a hoop. It soars past – waving the same catchy, compulsive freak flag as The Monsoon Bassoon’s Wise Guy – and then it’s gone, leaving fiery paw-prints on the swarming musical landscapes which surround it.

Despite all of this wildness and waywardness, you can’t simply write the album off as pure self-indulgence. Although Kavus shuffles all of his elements with the free inspiration, impulsiveness and rough edges of a true experimentalist, he also has the structural suss of a prog-rocker to back it up. His wrestling scatter of ingredients ultimately fall into patterns that make sense, however eccentric. On The Wretched Fathoms, jazzy woodwind slashes force themselves onto a lurching tune and drag on the beat like grappling-hooks. Open childlike melodies are mounted atop Corpses Feuding Underground: but underneath it’s restlessly shucking its way through shifting ground and moods, fitting in rockabilly guitar grumbles and brass parps as it does so.

As you might have guessed by now, ‘Buried Alone…’ isn’t an easy listen. Nor, despite the ambition and diversity of its strong medicine, is it all that it could be. Towards the end the album bellies out into a string of uneasy warped dirges which don’t quite match the inventiveness of earlier tracks. Yet this is also the most genuinely psychedelic rock album in ages, and one of the very few psychedelic albums which genuinely deserve the title. Rather than losing himself in noodling out aural wallpaper for stoners, Torabi offers up a succession of yawing mind-flickers which weave between thought, dream and reality as much as they do between styles.

The battered, urban feel of the album – suggesting stretches of blasted fox-ridden scrub ground between Hackney tower blocks, untended bomb-sites and smog-smeared children’s playgrounds – only adds to this. In the gaps between (and within) songs, ominous sounds filter through: the caw of a raven, leaking water, booms of collapse, and distant sirens from hunting police cars. Then there are the lyrics: on first hearing, an obscure word salad sung in earnest, artless tones by Torabi and guest singer Mel Woods (from Sidi Bou Said). Picking deeper into them – past the twirl and bounce of the music and the witty, tongue-in-cheek dips into outright bafflegab – and you find the corpse in the bathtub, a raw web of terrors and regrets rising to the surface.

That hammy album title isn’t just there for a joke. Across the record, there are seeded references to “broken hands”, friends who “hide real agendas in the sidings”, or the terrible phone call that tells you “there’s been an accident.” Corpses Feuding Underground jitters over the fragility of relationships, with unresolved threats looming from both above and below ground, from both the living and the dead. Kavus frets about the return of claustrophobic “clammy horror”, mutters “I’ve buffer-zoned my friends, shut the family out” and wonders aloud “is it vibrations what make us tick over, / or is shrugging doubt, death pulling hard at your cuff?” On No More Dying, over a panicked rotisserie of New York minimalism (computerized piano edge and pulsing Philip Glass clarinets) he wails “all my friends, one by one, sever their correspondence.” The same energy that fires up the album has its flipside in the paranoia which shakes things to pieces. On the swaybacked Severed Of Horsehoof, an exhausted Mel seems almost to have given up. “Just go to sleep,” she sighs, resignedly. “I wish I could…”

Throughout ‘Buried Alone…’, there seems to be a recurrence of the same “be-he-alive-or-be-he-dead” uncertainty that’s also soaked its way, from the beginning, through the work of Cardiacs. A visceral confusion, which ends up rendering Knifeworld’s patchwork of song more vital. Perhaps it’s due to a conviction that whatever life there is – with all of its nightmares, random churnings and visits from the dark side – it is (or has been) precious. “Oh, we dazzled when we were alive” muse Kavus and Mel together on Torch. On the final champing swirl of Me To The Future Of You, Knifeworld’s vision of Armageddon is suffused with acceptance and love. “When oceans earn the right to dry up / and stars have fallen earthward by the score. / Ah the end reeks of familiar, of ever after me to you… / Lips and lids are closing, it’s alright.”

It’s peace, of a kind: an admission and demonstration that our peculiar battles do have meaning in the end.

Knifeworld: ‘Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat’
Believer’s Roast, BRR 002 (5060078526074)
CD/download album
Released: 17th August 2009

Get it from:
Genepool, Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Knifeworld online:

Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

March 2004 – live reviews – Mondriaan Kwartet @ Fuse Leeds 04 festival (performing John Zorn/Toek Numan/John de Simone/Richard Ayres) @ The Venue, Leeds College of Music, Quarry Hill, Leeds, UK, 4th March (“brimming over with the enjoyment of physical and audience challenge”)

12 Mar

We’re all consenting adults tonight, in for an evening of potential torment at the hands of four extremely accomplished Dutch experts. As we wait, we’re eyeing an ominous device. Rearing up from the floor, it initially resembles a homemade shower cabinet, adapted to work as an electrocution chamber.

Any second thoughts?

The towering gizmo is the Octachord. It’s a nine-foot sound-sculpture (to be precise, an electrophonic harp) doing double duty as accompaniment for Mondriaan Kwartet –  but that’s for later. Right now, its main role is to focus our attention. Eight metal extrusions like park-fence railings (actually tubes holding the Octachord’s strings and movable bridges) jut up from a chipboard sound-box, sitting on a set of squat castors. Hugged by a tracery of control wires and delicate devices, the tubes ascend to a cross-brace like an oversized hash sign.

Like many sound-sculptures, the Formica surfaces of the Octachord and its festoonings of light-industrial debris give it a frail, domesticated Heath Robinson structural logic, offsetting its intimations of menace and tortured electricity. You could imagine it sitting in the corner of your spare room, exchanging polite machine-conversation with the boiler. But you wouldn’t want to imagine it roaming the house in the dead of night: looming towards the bedroom door, exuding fat blue sparks…

I was mentioning torment? That’ll be courtesy of John Zorn. For as long as he’s been blowing frenetically over jazz and hardcore art-rock, this viciously intelligent post-modern saxophone maven has doubled as a modern classical composer. His waspish chamber music dominates the Mondriaan’s repertoire tonight – and when I say “torment”, I mean it literally.

By Zorn’s own admission, the splintered suite music of ‘The Dead Man’ is a detailed representation of a sadomasochism session in progress. Violins, viola and cello conjure the impact of blows and the rests of anticipation; the distortion of twists and cruel stretches; the shocks and the sensuality. If this sounds like sensationalism or game-playing, then bear in mind that Zorn apparently practices what he’s preaching here. If he’s setting up as an ambassador for the joys of S&M he makes a compelling job of it, by writing music that’s as eerily seductive as it is violent.

As for the performers, Mondriaan Kwartet are a New Music string quartet par excellence – an effortless collective embodiment of Dutch cool and elegance – but they’re clearly brimming over with the enjoyment of physical and audience challenge. They dive passionately into Zorn’s music with its hornet squeals; its sudden pops of ordnance; its super-pianissimo glass-pane skitterings of bow on strings. The Dead Man itself sounds like nothing so much as music for duelling crabs – perilous music, with its structure continually threatened by tensile collapse. The concerted classical discipline and harmonies are beset by savage scrapes, and by drifting descending tones and atmospheres that alter the air like eerie lighting effects. When they’re not slithering their bows over the strings, the players rattle them against the fingerboards; or swat at the air with them, making muted whip swooshes. Over the top of her viola, Annette Bergman’s eyes flick from colleague to colleague for cues. On the execution of a particularly tricky Zornism, a broad grin flashes across her face – guileless, yet mischievous.

Setting Zorn for a while, the Mondriaan move to ‘Stringtones for String Quartet’ by Dutch composer Toek Numan. Reflecting his work in dance theatre and film soundtracks, Numan’s piece is presented in highly visual terms – performed in near-darkness accompanied by film projections, a rotor of light passing across gelid red tiles and flickering and fractionating into restless patterns. The music itself is a shudder of anticipation, broken by staccato plucks before it’s allowed to go far in sustaining itself: a drone undermined by quick strikes and harmonies, eroding backbone even as they provide an intriguing sour extension. Revealed in parallel, Numan’s work embodies and illustrates a dividing line between continuity and the disturbances arising in its wake.Throughout, its value seems to lie in the challenge of balance which it sets its players.

There’s a problem with this at first, as it seems that (beyond the admiration we can offer to the Mondriaan’s brinksmanship and precision) there’s little for us to grip out here in the audience. But then there are the flashes of small reward. A shared line of falling/rising harmonic keen from the violins. There’s a brief, bright glimpse of harmony as the Mondriaan power through a sudden and unexpected mosaic of notes (like The Kronos Quartet on full Manhattan throttle), only for it to disappear just as rapidly. These moments materialize more and more frequently as the piece progresses and finally ‘Stringtones…’ is revealed for what it is : a modernist’s veil dance – thoroughly orchestrated, but with its component parts almost always left entirely masked, or extracted and scattered across its length.

Throughout all of this, the Octachord broods onstage like a threatening science fiction prop. Appropriately, it’s finally brought into play for John de Simone‘s ‘Deus ex Machina’ – a compositional nod to the primal thrills of science fiction B-movies, in which the Octachord plays the Alien Menace to the string quartet’s Earthlings. At the Octachord’s controls, its creator Robert Pravda gets to play the obligatory mad scientist, but only up to a point. Unshaven, and sporting long warrior’s hair, he provides an air both of frizzy chaos and of gentle politeness. This sets off the Mondriaan’s collective neatness and precision before a single note is played.

The Mondriaan go to work around Pravda in a sawn-up staccato, one violin off on a gull-flight glissando above the dense, intense, angrily compressed structure. As bows swoop up and down to precise point on instrument necks, Pravda totes a seven-foot button-studded control stick with an air of mild trepidation. Finally, cued in by a two-note violin ostinato, the Octachord activates with a brutal transformer hum before swelling out to a factory bray like a clutch of singing drill-bits. Under Pravda’s gaze, flashing green lights crawl up and down the rods like slow abseilers, riding the bridges as they set the pitch. The sound is terrific – vast, oppressive and urgent harmonic waves.

Unfortunately, it’s immediately a fatal distraction from the quartet music. This vanishes into indifference as the Octachord rides balefully along within its own entirely separate space. Given a long solo passage, with many of its dancing lights alight, it renders us a wonderful unearthly noise like a glass harmonica being ravished by ravenous microscopic metal worms. Watching it chunter along like a psychedelic cathedral clock (or a captivating ‘Doctor Who’ relic), we forget all about the strings, and the composer.

With ‘Deus Ex Machina’ over and the interval in progress, I sidle up to the Octachord (alongside other nosy audients) and sneak a peek at Pravda’s copy of the score. Our explosive giggles prove that curiosity has finally cracked up the cat. The instructions from de Simone are simply to turn the Octachord on, to let the Mondriaan phase in with the string drones and come to a halt; and to then “do your thing for 2-3 minutes, or until audience is bored…” It’s a good joke. Still, it’s not enough to make up for the feeling that a marvellous sound-sculpture roar has been wasted –  that it’s been bolted onto a halfway-interesting chunk of aggressive minimalism in a cavalier and casual fashion, only for both to fall flat. Yoked together, to death.

Another new work – the two-part ‘No.38 for String Quartet’ by Cornish composer Richard Ayres – begins with bouzouki-style picking. Armed with plectra, the Mondriaan members claw gently at the strings of cello, viola and violin for Part 1. Jan Erik van Regteren Altena’s first violin, is the exception: ejecting a thin strand of stressed melody, hurtling helplessly off the side of the instrument. Part 2 has the full quartet engaged in a hopping dance full of skidding harmonics. Dispatched with zest and vigour, it sounds like children’s skipping songs being enticed into a motorcycle formation, and then run violently off the road. Later on, other vivacious dances are sliced and diced in Ayres’ conceptual grinder. It seems that John Zorn doesn’t claim the monopoly on cheerful sadism.

However, Zorn does claim composer’s laurels for the evening, as the Mondriaan close the concert with his ‘Cat O Nine Tails’ – a masterfully disruptive witty soundtrack to an imaginary cartoon. Ripe with cunning flirtations with chaos – and peppered with a wealth of Americana – it offers the Mondriaan another opportunity to stretch out and relish. Scourging turbulence and shimmers cross over with jaws and saws; fragments of hoedown reels start up and are swallowed by silence, jump-cut with passages of rich serenity or sly threat. Inside its parade of styles and suggestions, Eduard van Regteren Altena gets to quote jazz bass on his cello, and Zorn also throws in a brief shuffled history of the fiddle’s musical journey across Europe and America via kletzmer, Appalachia and Hollywood. Certainly, there are gimmicks a-plenty – but here, as in cartoons, the architecture of gag and message combine, part of a bigger picture.

Mondriaan Kwartet online:
Homepage

John Zorn online:
Homepage MySpace LastFM

Toek Numan online:
Homepage Homepage - blog LastFM

John de Simone online:
MySpace

Richard Ayres online:
Homepage MySpace

Robert Pravda & the Octachord  online:
Homepage Facebook and also this article.

The Venue (Leeds College of Music) online:
Homepage

July 1999 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Seethrough’ (“dropping casual, vinegar-dry references while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique”)

22 Jul
Darkroom: 'Seethrough'

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’

Transparent neither in style nor intent, Darkroom’s second album is demanding, mysterious; trickily opaque. This is not an unfamiliar position for this most obscure, obscured and inexplicable of ambient/illbient groups. The billowing instrumentals of Darkroom’s first album, ‘Daylight‘, made their points obliquely through a spray of trip-hop grace, thick detail and industrial derangement. About half of ‘Seethrough’ follows a similar path – baleful/beautiful semi-improvised noisescapes of layered electronics, angrily-stewing loop guitar and naked caress-through-to-howl vocals.

Resident synth necromancer Os fires off ratlike background rattles and spectral drum’n’bass rhythm triggers on the glutinous and dubbed-up Galaxy Craze, a threatening arrhythmic undulation in which Tim Bowness’ minimal, wraith-like subway singing is menaced by a fretless bass guitar part which probes like a giant animal’s tongue. On Charisma Carpenter, old-school ’80s synthpop riffs underpin the dense aviary heat of Michael Bearpark’s textured guitar. These OMD-styled tinklings make an unexpectedly cheerful counterpart to Tim’s lustrous and vaporous vocal chanting, which remains the most bizarre aspect of Darkroom’s music. Singing mere tumbling vowels, or sounds on the edge of becoming words, Tim delivers them with an eerily precise and chilly diction: like droplets of love-song which freeze to alien sleet as soon as they leave his mouth.

In spite of the textural invention and intelligence at work, only Kaylenz hints at the shocking intensity of Darkroom at full, live, improvising intensity. It takes up fourteen sprawling, disorientating minutes of the album, during which the tension between the celestial and the pestilential growing ever more violent. Electronica loops shade upwards into alarm, distorted hospital bells shrill. Mike’s country-toned guitar tang gives way to sharp buzz-edged swarming, while Tim’s vocals travel from weary, loving sorrow to a hysterical pitch of recriminations and a dash of lyrical perversity. Just before Kaylenz steps up – or breaks down – into a chaotic torrent of frighteningly emotional randomness, we hear Tim singing in a lost corner of the studio: a bored, beautiful, detached whisper of “you again, you again – / who’s to blame, if it’s all the same?”


This brings us to the wild card of ‘Seethrough’ – the presentation of Darkroom’s songwriting side, in which they sketch withering surreal portraits of disenchantment and alienation helped along by spacey glissandos of electric slide guitar. They’ve dabbled in words before (on the drum’n’bass/Fripp & Eno soundclash of the Carpetworld single) but here it’s more leisurely, more controlled; more disturbing. In some ways it’s an extension of Tim’s work on the cryptic dark-city musings of No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’. In others it reflects the burnt-out, amoral contemplations of Tricky’s surreal, spliff-fuelled ‘Maxinquaye’.

If so, this is Tricky as played by Alec Guinness, dropping casual, vinegar-dry references to both Def Leppard and Janet Frame while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique unhindered by the flapping of library cards. On the bobbing Morricone-meets-Orb dub of King Of The Cowboy Singers, Tim’s guarded, musical speaking voice recites both nonsense and significance to the beat – “trying to find a new life in an old boot, / walking to the new place in your old suit – / the king of the cowboy singers, / the toast of the Old School dinners…” The roiling, improvised star-stuff that usually pools out of Darkroom’s speakers is swapped for Dada-tinged narratives of shifting identities and habits; of introverted, stiffly English insanity and implosions of a starchy order.

Having said that, although Darkroom no longer quite sound as if they’re playing live from the surface of the sun, they’ve only retreated as far as a ski-lodge on Mercury. The glimpses of sky are always a bright merciless glare, the ground always dry dust; the scenery just a few steps away from white-out. Surly and blinded, Bludgeon Riffola surfaces through a swimming of harness bells as a filthy punk-blues fed through post-rock processing and glowing tracer-paths of needling synth-noise, Tim’s petulant vocals rope-swung and curdled with distortion.

The album’s masterpiece – the ten-minute stretch of Bottleneck – is blindingly white and exposed; a sinister mixture of Aphex Twin and Bill Frisell. Sparse, desolate slide guitar is chewed at by Os’ echoing dead-sea-surf static and smeared brass textures. Tim’s lonesome vocal (once it finally arrives) rides a stately dance of plucked orchestra strings, drawing out the shapes of a puzzle of betrayal and disgust. The charges are clear – “You never really loved your wife… / you never really knew your boys… / you never even liked the girl you said had claimed your heart – restart, restart.” But the story’s obscured: gaps between snapshots swallow it up. The figure of a man is reduced to a hat, a cigarette; an unfinished meal; an absence.

Then again, Darkroom aren’t here to provide clarity. Seethrough itself seals the album in a light and feverish running pulse, frosted by far-off gilded sprays of reserved prog-rock guitar. It’s tremulously sweet and frantic – trance-techno that’s neurotic rather than narcotic – and with a blurred, vocoder-ed vocal that queries the giddy transcendence of the music. “Too much misunderstanding; too much, too little love. / Too much to keep your hand in, too much to float above.” Dancing lightly on its feet, it moves with the crowd only to slip away quietly as the dreams evaporate. “Too much deliberation, too much you want to be. / Too much anticipation, too much you’ll never see – see through, seethrough.”

Blink, and it’s gone. Darkroom tease us with clarity, but lead us to a vanishing in the end.

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’
Peoplesound, ART 4249-CD01
CD-only album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Original release deleted. 2003 remastered CD-R version available from Burning Shed; download version from Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

June 1999 – album reviews – The Monsoon Bassoon’s ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ (“gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal”)

15 Jun

The Monsoon Bassoon: 'I Dig Your Voodoo'

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’

You could say that The Monsoon Bassoon are like three train-tracks converging on a single set of points. Going full-tilt on the first is a savage, grinning, tuneful thing from that edgy end of indie-rock that spawned Pixies or Shudder To Think – one eye a gimlet, the other a Catherine wheel. Riding the second, there’s a rigorous interlocking mechanism poised like a mantis: its lifeblood a nerve-pumping mix of math-rock mesh and prog rock verve. Careening along the third track is a thrashing shotgun wedding of baroque black metal and head-fuck psychedelia, steam spurting out of every joint. High speed. Impact imminent. This could be messy.

In fact, it ends up as something wonderful. Where there should’ve been mangled smoking fragments strewn across the neighbourhood, an ornate and brand-new beast is racing ahead. Gleaming gears whirling, showering fat sparks – taking on the stodgy, mulchy, rotted-down state of guitar rock and carving an intricate furrow through it, smashing exuberantly through fences en route. Ten tracks of delirious celebratory intricacies, and explosive rock detonations, ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ rejoices unashamed in the sheer excitement of motion. If you could fix it so that a tropical rainstorm blasted through a double reed, you’d probably end up with this kind of melodious shrapnel.

The very thought of latterday psychedelic rock can prompt a checklist: druggy sonic syrup, honeybee harmonies, static songs, ad-infinitum wobbly jamming… Forget that. Instead, and for starters, imagine a roller-coasting XTC arguing their way down the corkscrew. Imagine Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci if they’d been shorn of their Brian Wilson fixation, off their heads on chaos theory and frantically shagging a stapling machine. In The Monsoon Bassoon two duelling slashing guitars, a fat-geared-but-light-footed rhythm section and three urchin-meets-starchild singers (Sarah Measures, Dan Chudley and Kavus Torabi) fractalise their songs into manic battling melodies. There are pop hooks aplenty, generally on the verge of turning into egg-whisks and grappling irons: there’s an alphabet soup of puzzling riffs, quirks and blissful deranged woodwind. If the band are clearly enthralled by their own avid craftmanship, they’re also firing up their gloriously twisted tunes with gritty, testifying zeal, running the shoe-leather off the soul-punk poseurs.

Even so, managing to bag an NME Single of the Week with each of their three singles so far must have been as vividly strange for the Bassooners as their songs are to everyone else. At a time when artier British tastemakers generally save their praise for musicians across the Atlantic – Flaming Lips and Pavement, Jim O’Rourke, Godspeed, Dave Pajo and his ever-unwinding adventures – left-field rockers over here are rarely given many sniffs of approval. While there are some exceptions, the Bassoon doesn’t fit the gaps in the sorter. They lack the 1960s classic-pop castellations of the aforementioned Gorky’s or Super Furry Animals; nor do they have the latter’s comfortable indie pounding and canny dilution of experimental juices: nor do they ever resort to those sullen, reductive punk-gang posturings with which Mogwai feel they need to justify their own rugged sound-paintings. Operating right off the critical and commercial radar, driven by a stubborn and guileless enthusiasm, the Monsoon Bassoon give off the impression of a band mounting an unexpected coup which is as much of a surprise to them as it is to everyone else.

That said, a shortage of ambition – or of sheer bloody cheek – is the last thing that this band need to worry about. With joyous, inspirational disregard for their own dignity, The Monsoon Bassoon blow the lid off the whole shebang in a well-overdue explosion – and the last that I heard, it was still heading skywards. When The King Of Evil kicks in at Mach 3 (with its interweaving jitterbug melodies and Sarah purring her foxy way along the switch-backing melody) and when it closes in a welter of rough’n’ready choral excitement, giant celebratory chords and the sound of Kavus and Dan’s guitars utterly losing it, screaming in delight… you can hear liberation. This is rock music flowering into shape without the usual restrictions on decreed shape, or on fashion manifesto; and it’s all the better for it, yelling “fuck you, get out of my way!” while in the same breath flashing a brilliant grin and adding “but you can come too.”

There are left-field forebears to spot, for sure. Beyond the Naked City reed-punk and the manic gearshifting, there’s a chainmail of intent and disciplined guitar patterns (equal parts Television and Henry Cow) while their zeal for distressed chords and textures would do Sonic Youth proud. Blue Junction – in which meticulous chamber-minimalism suddenly explodes into New Wave thrash – anchors them to Steve Reich, as does their ‘Magic Roundabout’ way with a circling riff. Sometimes the band resemble a younger, more hyperactive King Crimson (those revolving guitars, Sarah’s daredevil flutes and reeds, the way the music booms back and forth between celestial minimalism and bellowing, screaming blasts of red-hot air) yet they have more of a sense of sheer fun and active dynamism. The lunatic shadow of Cardiacs walks alongside them too – unsurprisingly, as it’s Tim Smith’s jaggedy production that’s trimming off any of the album’s residual cuteness, feathering the guitars with a swarming shiver, and turning the music into a multi-coloured paintbomb blowing up in a garage.

But The Monsoon Bassoon are very much their own people – sporting their irrepressible pop edge; spin-drying their surreal, prismatic lyrics into motion-blurs; bouncing melodies off a riot-ballet of pummelling rhythms. The band’s collective readiness to go from ragged pop coo to thrash to heavy prog to freak-noise – all at the flick of a wrist – ensures that nothing has time to go stale. They could be strafing and racing, relentlessly hammering a metallic riff to death until it haemorrhages rainbows, as they do on The Constrictor and Commando. Or (as on Soda Pop And Ash) they could be fattening a snakey wisp of wistful melody on those knotty guitars and skewering your attention through your third eye. Or – as on the fragmentary, wonder-struck Volcano – they could be sliding off the edge of the world, pupils dilated, as a lone glissando guitar scribbles hazy colour across the sky. Whichever way they go, a brainstorm of invention is guaranteed to hit you in the ears at just the right moment, spinning the music into a fascinating new course.

Wise Guy was the first of their singles to wear a bizarre groove in London indie-radio playlists and has lost none of its ability to set your head dancing. Six minutes of choppy pop (as if they’d collided the best bits of ‘Red’, ‘Fear Of Music’, Living In The Past and Paranoid Android to audaciously tuneful effect), it periodically explodes like axe-heads coming through hotel-room doors, twirls pirouettes, and leaps up to a trumpeting, triumphant, speaker-melting fanfare. Kavus, Dan and Sarah babble about uncut diamonds and flashbulbs and gravity gone bored; about digging (perhaps into trouble, probably into revelation), and about “three silver sixes” (which might be about dice, and might be about something more occult). Both wild and meticulous, the music races away into a game of pouncing, quick swap grooves and joshing body-slams. Through the flashes, the song’s actual meaning is more elusive, more felt than voiced; it flirts around you and threads its way into your instincts, dancing on giddy splinters as it does.

Yet in spite of the tangled, giddy innocence their enthusiasm suggests, there’s more to the Monsoon Bassoon than just adrenalin art or an agreeably scrambled psychedelic circus. As their leaf-storm of lyrics tumbles by, it leaves scratches of faith, fear, things seen from the corners of eyes and in the corners of souls. Flashes of purgatory, intimations of danger – “lovely tornado, / who is such a fucking laugh, / turns up on my turf… Like glass I may crack. / Unlike glass I’ll not be replaced.” The menace lurking in the places where a glittering chord can’t hurl illumination. It’s all of a piece with the band’s fizzing, open spirit of inquiry: it’s the other side of the receiver. Their journey offers fractured glimpses of disturbing places – a kaleidoscopic stream of raw life-jolts, bad comedowns, metaphysical jitters and naked feelings all fusing together.

It takes guts and risk to walk the Bassoon’s kind of wayward line, to let yourself be carried along in the impulses of creating this music’s headlong rush. Towards the end of the gloriously-titled Fuck You Fuck Your Telescope, there’s a panicked, repeating wail of “wake up teetering everyday.” On Blue Junction the music bursts from serenity into pulsing frenzy as soon as Kavus blurts “he was out of the country and down on his luck / when you came out laughing and I came unstuck.” Among the chopping riffs and lofting spirals of Best Of Badluck 97, Kavus is seething and licking wounds. “I broke my neck to kiss her / The year this mother went up to 11. / Saddle-sore and still there’s more… / No sword of iron ever struck such blows. / Such a swarm of death, self-centred I… / Inside I’m six foot deep.” Shortly afterwards, the whole group carols “and I can’t catch up, / and I can’t wake up, / and I won’t grow up, / and I can’t stand up” as if their collective backs are against the wall, and all that they can do is sing the threat away: a harmony of defiance.

The forbidding tones of In The Iceman’s Back Garden (slow, pagan, cathedralline), closes the album like a shower of luminous earth hitting a coffin lid. It’s the sort of epic you’d expect from a band stuck into their fourth album, grown-up, newly spiritual and eager to wrestle with the indifferent savagery of the universe. A world away from the vivacious peekaboo of Wise Guy, it’s no less impressive. If the former was a firework display, Iceman is the glow on the lip of a volcano, showing that The Monsoon Bassoon are just as effective when rooted to the planet and letting something dark and troubling seep through them to the surface. It starts off as dark embers, slowly fanned and building up to destroying flame: an enormous iron clang, then a foreboding clarinet, intoning over the top of a massive, bells-of-doom guitar lattice that’s enough to send most of the Goth bands of the world running home to mother. And this time there’s an almost religious terror in the vocals – a fierce song commemorating the end of something as it has been known, and tinged with fear as to what will happen next.

The voices and lyrics are murky, mysterious, entranced. Faces, dirt, hair, stars, cries and eyes creep out of the word-darkness – little clues. In one of the few clear moments, they’re keening “He won’t dare…” There are a few moments of tumbling vocals, slashing guitars and urgent reeds during which the whole thing seems to whirl: then the guitars flail and the clarinet screams as a fierce, beautiful, terrible light pours down from above. A final, desperately beautiful chant, then they beat our hearts to death with a riff the size of the sky before bursting into a stream of starry feedback that sweeps all before it. If the apocalypse is going to be this beautiful, roll on Doomsday.

Stubborn, ludicrous, gloriously eccentric; ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’ is all these things: but it’s also one of the bravest, most exciting British rock albums of its time… by a long twisty neck. Jumping the tracks with style and a vengeance.

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’
Weird Neighbourhood Records, WNRS4 (5 024545 078428)
CD-only album
Released:
7th June 1999
Buy it from: Best obtained second-hand. (Note, April 2013 – Believers Roast plan to reissue this along with the rest of the Monsoon Bassoon catalogue at some point in the next few years.)
The Monsoon Bassoon online:
MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

October 1998 – EP reviews – Dark Star’s ‘Graceadelica’ (“a fistful of brilliant flares criss-crossed with human fragility”)

28 Oct

Dark Star: 'Graceadelica' EP

Dark Star: ‘Graceadelica’ EP

Hallelujah. David Francolini, Laurence O’Keefe and Christian “Bic” Hayes – refugees from the indie/prog/psych collision of Levitation – have quietly regrouped as Dark Star. Listening to their superb debut EP somehow makes the whole painful Levitation saga (all those spats, frustrations and blown hopes) worthwhile. But while Levitation ran, jumped, shook rooms, dazzled, and finally shattered, Dark Star – a power’n’glory trio that’ll rip off your head and return it to you all lit up and twice the size – take every bit of that energy, aim it, and channel it on course.

So what would happen if someone took British underground psych-rock as a foundation, then scanned the heights of British ’90s indie for what it had to offer? If they took Primal Scream’s panoramic hallucinatory peak, the funky drummer grace of The Stone Roses on ‘Fool’s Gold’, Radiohead’s lacerating skill and intensity, Spiritualized‘s on-off blinks of revelation, the waves of transporting guitar frenzy The Verve dealt in when Ashcroft cut out the rock-god schtick, and then fused it all together? And – unbelievably – got it right? They’d get this.

‘Graceadelica’ itself storms right out at you full-tilt, laced with detail, power and adrenalin quakes. Bic’s ghostly guitars are everywhere – chittering in the midground, weaving sensuous smoky patterns and Cocteaus star-clusters beyond, sketching spare cascading melodies upfront, then suddenly exploding into your ear in a storm of shocked echo over Francolini’s immaculate power-funk drumming. And it’s about memory barbed and refracted by mystery: someone stalking the city with a incredible secret to recover. “I must have hit the floor, / some dark uncertain hours before /…Those half familiar streets / were swimming underneath my cobwebbed feet. / My aching bones were dry, / a skeleton beneath the lead-grey sky. / Yeah, it’s all coming back to me now… maybe too late.” Pounding the pavement, finding a pathway to the key. “Feels like I’m walking over water, / subhuman urban messiah. / Slow-bound for church of the neon, / my resurrection’s in a glass on the bar…”


 
The title track carries off the prize for grace and scope, but the whole EP is a fistful of brilliant flares criss-crossed with human fragility. The heavy-metal bullet of ‘Crow Song’ – like PJ Harvey fucking Ted Hughes on Metallica’s drum riser – is haunted, a hapless killer’s nightmare. O’Keefe’s supple, astonishing basswork oozes power, but the song itself is flinching from guilt (“Hope you don’t mind, but if I let you in – no-one must know, no-one must know”) and the unfolding of terrible rituals: “You see, he speaks to me in sleep: and I don’t like what he says. And when I wake I find another feather, just next to me on the pillow…”

On ‘New Model Worker’, Bic’s voice is both tannoy-sneer and humble plea, the guitars a cataclysmic swing between grinding industrial filth and tiny, tender, praying filaments. “Season’s cycle’s turning overtime, and I’m a new model worker with too much on the mind. / There’s nothing to decide, there’s nowhere here to hide. / And just to breath in; the future becomes what’s left behind.” ‘Solitude Song’, hovering over a huge depressive plunge, refuses to deny anything – “There’s nothing wrong with you / (“I’m sorry, Doctor”) / You’re acting like a fool (“Well, someone’s got to…”) “. Instead, it’s braved out, and they jerk your tears out while they howl for strength “until the cloud’s gone, and we’re through… / Laugh when it’s over.”

Dark Star have only just started, and already they’re way better than Levitation ever were. Unless they blow out that revealing light again. Like Levitation, Dark Star are possessed of such power that they could as easily shake the world or tear the muscles off their own bones. Top marks for effort and promise, lads, but don’t let the frenzy buck you off this time. ‘Gracedelica’, at least, is an object lesson in how to ride the bastard over the horizon and back.

Dark Star: ‘Gracedelica’
EMI Records Ltd/Harvest Records, CDEM523/10EM523 (724388615822)
CD/vinyl EP
Released: 26th October 1998
Get it from:
(2020 update – best obtained second-hand)
Dark Star online:
Facebook MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Spotify Amazon Music
 

August 1998 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Daylight’ (“subtly distressed electronica”)

14 Aug

Darkroom: 'Daylight'

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’

To work out where Darkroom are coming from, you could do worse than take a look at ‘Daylight’s arresting cover. It’s a study of sturdy, corroded old industrial tanks, encircled by metal stairways and surrounded by a devil’s playground of battered, abandoned plastic drums. The drums are marked with hazard labels but yawn open, suggesting that their toxic contents have long since leached out into the environment.

Behind the towering tanks is a radiant blue sky and a slanting blanket of pure white fluffy cloud, against which they rear up like Reims Cathedral. It’s beautiful, in a warped way – the wreckage and castoffs of a once-bright new industry that, nonetheless, continue to assert themselves. Yet in this toxic paradise there’s not a person in sight.

No, this isn’t suggesting that Darkroom are the sort of electronica trio who revel in futurism, and who excise humanity from their orderly sequenced and oscillating musical vision of the world. The opposite is true. Darkroom’s music (in which Os’ sequences and textures are balanced by Michael Bearpark’s mutated post-industrial guitars and Tim Bowness’ naked swoony vocal wail) has humanity in spades. The live instrumentation and vocalising unites with the programmed sound and beats in a way that’s rare in over-purified electronic music, but in the music that emerges – one in which the technology provides uncertainty rather than comfortable form, and in which the threat of chaos and upset looms constantly in the background – the main note sounded is one of loss. One of the main qualities of daylight, after all, is its impermanence.

Via a previous EP, we’ve already heard the discontented seethe of Carpetworld: roof-skittering drum’n’bass with guttering snarls of wounded guitar and Tim’s voice reined in to a hooded whisper of acidic verbiage – the only lyrics on the record, and they’re about bad sex, looting and dodgy discos. We’ve also heard the beautiful flush of ‘Daylight’s title track: a tumbling chant (mournful but blissful) against a slow wallow of bass, the singing notes of Mike’s Frippertronical guitar, and Os’ dawn chorus of flickering sound. Darkroom can do in-yer-face, and they can do strokin’-yer-cheek. They do each of these in roughly equal amounts. Often they do both together, in an elusive blur of ambiguous emotion – the sort that makes you keep one eye on them and the other, anxiously, on the door; but which keeps you held in place, unable to resist the desire to see for yourself what comes next.

Ambiguity is in fact the keyword for this music. Brash, defined techno structures are missing, their place taken by sketchy outlines which the trio fill up with evolving, chaotic detail. The beats are light-footed: slow breaks languidly pacing the background, or pattering techno pulses like rats’ paws. The electronics hum like supercharged fridges close to bursting flamewards, or keen out lovely auroral shivers in the sky and in the shadowed spaces. Tim’s full-voiced mixture of blurred word-shapes and sub-verbal whoops are sometimes Buckley-ish in their tortured flamboyance, sometimes more like Liz Fraser’s outraged brother. Melodies drift, loop and contort: massy and queasily mutable, cloudscapes tortured out of their natural forms by the force of some cruel idiot god.

Sometimes Darkroom’s music sounds like Underworld (though tumbled from their throne and reeling with the impact of a massive nervous breakdown) or like Fripp and Eno sailing their boat into much more malevolent waters. Sprawl growls its overcast way past complex shifting slapping beats, squelched bass, crushed radio-talk and vocal frailties; a baleful camera scanning a wasteland. The opener, Crashed, is strung out, lovely but disfocussed, with a streak of elegant suffering running through it. The guitars rattle like motoring moon-buggies, the voice oppresses like a summer shower, and somewhere in the background, behind the throaty tick of percussion, a lone voice of optimism: a marimba chinking out its own little Steve Reich wavelet.

There are episodes of naked grace on board, beside the pollution, but ‘Daylight’ is still one of the most subtly distressed records to wriggle out of late ‘90s electronica. This is most obvious in the wrenching, frozen agony of Vladimir; but Died Inside seems to sob in anticipation for a collapse waiting to happen but never quite arriving. Looped calls, lilting gasps are answered across a chill and echoing gulf by the icy fuzz of a guarded guitar, prowling and snarling in its own isolation. Once, Tim’s voice reaches a rare degree of intelligibility – a panicked, unanswered plea of “d’you feel the same?”

The wonder that comes close in hand with this fear is laid out explicitly in No History. A soft hip-hop beat holds down the sky-stretchingly rapt vocal and the beautiful subterranean guitar moans: a soundtrack to the forever-flavoured moment when you lie stricken at the bottom of that fatal crevasse, watching the last and most brilliant stars of your lifetime pierce the beckoning void overhead. Like a fleeting memory of softer times, a snippet of (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay slips in. The amplifier buzz at the end is a benediction.

If there’s a time when there’s resolution, it’s when those two questioning background voices reach out across the comforting pulse of Estragon – Michael’s guitar like a high, bowed bell, Tim toned down to a florid whisper. Still, as it sails on towards its hushed conclusion, the key feeling of ‘Daylight’ remains one of loss. A lament for something unknown, but something voiceable. Something long gone past but reaching out for you again, as the day goes down and fades off into the poisonous beauty of a industrial sunset haunted by old unquiet ghosts.

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8002 CD (5 023693 800226)
CD-only album
Released: 7th August 1998

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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