Tag Archives: Chapman Stick

April 2019 – upcoming London experimental gigs – Sonic Imperfections at Telegraph Hill Festival with Darkroom, Handäoline, Jo Thomas and Minus Pilots (5th) and your chance to jump into some more of their Festival work yourself (13th)

1 Apr

Having inveigled their way into a second home in a hilltop church a stone’s throw from New Cross (and half a klick away from their usual home at the Montague Arms), south London experimental evening Sonic Imperfections are presenting an early April sound’n’space gig at the end of the coming week, continuing their ongoing work with the Telegraph Hill festival. It features various contributions from Darkroom, Handäoline, Jo Thomas and Minus Pilots, all endeavouring to fill up the nave and the arch with reverberance of one kind or another.

Sonic Imperfections, 5th April 2019

Despite now being geographically split between Hertfordshire (where guitarist Michael Bearpark lives) and Edinburgh (where synthesist and reedsman Andrew Ostler is making solo inroads into the Scottish improvisation scene), the Darkroom duo remain tightly loyal to each other even as they stay conceptually loose, artistically inscrutable and absolutely in command of their vivid, grand scale abstractions after twenty years of making them. The boiling, heavy-ambience starstuff of the early years (with its post-prog wails, stepped pyramids of piled-up textures and the pulses which snaked alongside club music while never being shackled to it) has long since given way to something different: Darkroom now sound woody, or deep-carved and ancient, even as their music takes place behind winking lights and modular plug-ins.

Still underrated as one of Britain’s top guitarists in that rarified field where commanding emotion meets marvellous texturology, Michael’s playing exudes both confidence and a broadminded framework; sometimes stirring up a broody hauntological fog, sometimes exuding a cobweb of ominous data, sometimes licking at the music with the fiery tongue of a melodic soloist on a tight leash. Os (increasingly drawn to his bass clarinet booms and voicings) brings the wind through the bracings and the horns to the shoreline even as he runs Darkroom’s complex instinctive sonic architecture through his custom preamps and plugins. Any Darkroom performance is an ear-opener, and this should be no exception.



 
Handäoline is a new-ish familial teaming of Death In Vegas founder-turned-experimental sonics journeyman Steve Hellier, ‘Late Junction’-eer Freya Hellier and (in a sense) Steve’s late great-uncle Wally, a soldier killed in action during the World War II offensive in Italy. The inspiration is Wally’s old melodeon (rescued from his possessions after his death and kept in the family) and his handwritten notes for a piece of 1940s pop called ‘The Chocolate Soldier’s Daughter’. On accordion, Freya recreates and acknowledges some of this history while Steve passes her playing through sound processors and adds his own contributions via laptop and mixing: laced with further sound samples from the Hellier family archives, it’s a different kind of album project, surrealizing and loosening familial memory and once-or-twice-removed community history.

It’s all new enough to stop me from being able to bring you a soundclip or two, so you’ll just have to imagine your own way into this one. As compensation, here’s the original version of Wally’s old favourite…


 
Freeforming with “raw and sensitive sonic matter” (and working mostly from her own processed voice, tabletop electronics, found sounds and a Chapman Stick), electronic instrumentalist Jo Thomas explores the world around herself in a matter-of-fact manner which emerges as suggestive, obliquely sensual abstractions. By this I don’t mean erotic-sensual (although that shouldn’t be entirely ruled out). I mean that she records her impressions of atmospherics, situational weight and association, weighs them and returns them to us transformed or blanketed in evocative, unearthly, sometimes confrontational noise.

By some distance the most experimental act on the bill, Jo’s an abstract expressionist of sound. Her music takes varied shapes – the slow-evolve fluting-organ drones of 2017’s ‘Random Feathers’ (electrophonically realising her reflections on Emily Dickinson); the conglomerations of large-scale equipment hiss and rumble from a particle accelerator, as recorded and reworked on 2011’s Crystal Sounds Synchrotron; the recent Radiophonic inspirations of Natures Numbers (in which Jo follows in the blip-and-ghost-ridden footsteps of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, and adds a few of her own, a fellow traveller). At the input stage, her inspirations are clues: by the output stage, they’ve become mysteries.


 
Minus Pilots are bassist Adam Barringer and percussionist Matt Pittori: post-rockers who’ve drifted far from rock. Their sounds are gentle, post-industrial, even a little reverent. They’re the kind of holy minimalism you might get from an allegedly reformed psych-rocker sitting quietly and shaggily among the congregation towards the back of the church, secretly tonguing a decal of blotter acid as he eyes the rose window and daydreams of the ruins of an old chocolate factory. Expect hum and crackle, expect frayed fences and distant boom; expect the sound of a parched-out spiritual rinse; expect, too, the shatter of free jazz as Matt cuts a little loose.



 

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Sonic Imperfections, 13th April 2019

Continuing their Telegraph Hill Festival work this month, Sonic Imperfections are also running a sign-up and turn-up immersive event for improvisers in Telegraph Hill Park on 13th April, as part of the Festival’s 25th Anniversary Spectacular. This involves a shifting, spontaneous play-along to a silent film or two as well as providing the sonic backdrop to an audience being led around the park. If you’re interested in playing, you can put your name down here on the Facebook page.

* * * * * * * *

Dates:

Sonic Imperfections presents:
Darkroom + Handäoline + Jo Thomas + Minus Pilots
St Catherine’s Church, 102a Pepys Road, Telegraph Hill, London, SE14 5SG, England
Friday 5th April 2019, 8.00pm
– information here

Sonic Imperfections presents:
Sonic Imperfections @ Telegraph Hill Festival 2019 – 25th Anniversary Spectacular
Telegraph Hill Park (Lower Park), Pepys Road, Telegraph Hill, London, SE14 5TJ, England
Saturday 13th April 2019, 8.30pm
– information here
 

June 2015 – upcoming London gigs – Jim Lampi plays in Balham tonight, Putney at the end of the month

15 Jun

A quick note, since this is at very short notice. Jim Lampi, singer-songwriter and arguably the world’s best Chapman Stick player, is surfacing for two rare gigs in London this month… one of them tonight. Jim Lampi The Chapman Stick is often known as a technician’s instrument – studied polyphony, smooth jazz, fingertapping extravaganzas. While Jim’s more than capable of all that there’s also a rootsy joy to his musicality, born from curiosity, a subtle musical restlessness and a diverse if low-key career. He’s played with people as diverse as Michael Manring, Courtney Pine and in particular the late John Martyn, for whom he was an occasional bandmember. The latter looms large in Jim’s own recent songwriting, which is full of dreamy slurs and elastic timing and sung in a weathered voice that’s part Martyn and part Leon Redbone. Watching him play, even in short bursts, is a joyous experience.

Live @ The Bedford, The Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill, Balham, SW12 9HD – Monday 15th June – 8.00pm, free event.

Jim plays at the resident singer-songwriter night, alongside three other singer-songwriters: Brendan Cleary, Josh McCartney and Robert Kennedy – full details here.

The Half Moon, 93 Lower Richmond Road, Putney, London, SW15 1EU, UK, Monday 29th June – 8.00pm, £8.00-£10.00.

Jim plays a support slot for the acclaimed John Martyn tribute band The Glorious Fools. More details here, and get tickets here.

November 1994 – album reviews – Laundry’s ‘Blacktongue’ (“a scuffed, brooding black-iron hybrid”)

26 Nov

Laundry: 'Blacktongue'

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’

Pity the aging hardcore punk purists. They’ll talk about the punk wars they fought in order to kill off prog rock, but they forgot that little pockets on each side of a war have a tendency to learn each others languages and swap cigarettes during lulls in the battle. Or that invaders tend to crossbreed with the invaded. In Britain at the beginning of the ’80s, the likes of Magazine and Cardiacs drew prog rock ambition back into punk energy. Over in the States in the ’90s, the second coming of punk was spearheaded by Kurt Cobain – a Robert Fripp fan. You can shout and proclaim your Year Zeroes all you like, but you can’t kill knowledge or the desire to grow.

Hence, in the here and now, the appearance of bands such as Laundry. Like the lunatic punk/prog/funk/freak metal band Primus (with whom they share their astonishing drummer Herb Alexander), they hail from the fertile Bay Area scene in northern California and have roots in art punk bands Grotus and Sordid Humor. But they’ll just as readily admit to drawing from European prog and art rock such as Can and King Crimson as from the usual suspects; the terrifying electro negativism of the likes of Nine Inch Nails, plus strange post-punk/psych experimentalists like Butthole Surfers. Laundry’s deep black, forbidding music (using similar instrumentation to the later, stripped down versions of King Crimson) plants itself in that dark and hellish area in which “alternative” and “prog” seem must suited to meet and surprise each other.


 
Musically at least, it’s an unselfconscious blend – a scuffed, brooding black-iron hybrid of ‘Discipline’ rock gamelan, gruff Nomeansno hardcore force, and Pearl Jam histrionics. The latter comes courtesy of former Sordid Humor drummer Toby Hawkins’ snarling Vedder esque baritone, while guitarist Tom Butler chops out minimal metal riffs or a Fripp-like mixture of metallic rending noises and compellingly ugly solos. The real strength, though, is in the rhythm section: Herb swaggering around his drums like a funkier, fluider Bill Bruford and the remarkable Ian Varriale playing phenomenally dirty, polyphonically funky basslines on the Chapman Stick (which has so long been considered an instrument for jazz technicians and art rock eggheads that it’s a revelation to hear it sounding as raw as it does here).


 
Despite the strong musicality of the players, this is far from an airy prog trip. This Laundry seems to be where the darkest, dirtiest stains on the soul are scoured out, or are wrung out by the mangle. The oppressed, threatening, dissatisfied feel of grunge, which forced a seething dysfunctional contemporary rage into the mainstream, still casts a long shadow over contemporary American rock; and Laundry are very much part of that.


 
And how. Toby Hawkins (although he seems to have escaped Trent Reznor’s pathological need to actively shock or destroy the sensibilities of his audience) is consumed by the sort of fuck-up negativity that even the most confrontational of hardcore bellowers or the darkest of grungers would find difficult to relate to. Recurrent images of disgust, physical and mental sickness pervade ‘Blacktongue’: Alice in Chains were a barrel of laughs by comparison. The harsh, paranoid sexual fable of the title track and the grinding depression/sedation rant of Misery Alarm are just two examples: the fantastical psychosis of Monarch Man (prefaced by colossal distorted cat purring) lays colourful musings of twisted beauty over a tortuously funked up Crimsonic march, while the angel messenger in Skin brings only word of freezing, disease, and sexual loathing.


 
Not light-hearted stuff by any means, and the unremitting bleakness of the album does tell against it. While the music draws on fury and darkness to swell its compulsive strength, the lyrical content – reading like notes from an agonised, hopeless therapy session – displays an unrelenting despair, misery and withdrawal from human life, without the leavening of humour and compassion that make such thoughts palatable. Consequently, many a ferocious burst of taut musical excitement is dragged down by the millstone of Hawkins’ suicidal roar.


 
There are some moments of relief, however. If you’re into the pattern side of Laundry’s music, there’s the disconnected Stick geometries of Monkey’s Wrench. If you’re looking for redemption in song, there’s Canvas, in which Hawkins (backed by Butler’s lilting arpeggios) breaks out of his doomy caterwauling to discover the possibilities of art therapy and achieve a measure of peace. “Try to make sense of your shadow, paint a picture of the way it should be, colours arranged carefully…/ Inside the frame on the wall, paint your heart under a waterfall / paint your world the way it should be, so you can understand what you see.”


 
Generally, though, Laundry are more interested in dysfunction than healing. And despite Hawkins’ self-flagellating attempts to build significance out of the topic, it takes the wit of a guest to really get things moving. “I can’t stand it for anyone to be more awkward, self hateful, stupid, or inappropriate than I am” crackles the sardonic, telephone relayed voice of Bay Area artist Don Bajema on 19. Over a marvellous brooding thudding riff (a slower, darker Thela Hun Ginjeet), Bajema unwinds his cynical but concerned ideas: deliberate awkwardness, withdrawal and self humiliation may be his only logical response to and defence against a sick and ridiculous world, but it’s simultaneously an unwanted mask against those he truly loves, “the last people I would want to see me like this…” A disturbing confession, but one that rings so true that it’s easily the moment that makes the album.


 
Will Laundry clean up? Dubious – even deep-dyed grungers will have trouble with their uncompromising grimness and suspicion of anything approaching a tune, and Toby Hawkins’s obsession with depression and psychosis comes across all too often as self-indulgent droning and ranting without the redemptive melodies of Nirvana or Pearl Jam. What draws the band out of this trough of misery is their brutal power, their brooding energy and the masterly rhythmatism of Varriale and Herb: the powerful spine of the music which tugs them towards the darker, unforgiving end of progressive rock, towards Hammill-esque heart-crushing and 21st century schizophrenia. Flawed and muddied by defeatism it might be, but ‘Blacktongue’ is still a potent (if still no more than potential) statement from a band in waiting.

Laundry: ‘Blacktongue’
Mammoth Records/Prawn Song Records, MR0098 2 (35498009822)
CD-only album
Released:
22nd November 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Laundry online:
MySpace Last FM YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
 

October 1994 – mini-album reviews – King Crimson’s ‘VROOOM’ (“like a gigantic work-worn machine developing a telling fault”)

31 Oct

King Crimson: 'VROOOM'

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’

The first new music from King Crimson in a whole decade rolls in with a yawn… or the sound of a hitman’s car tyres slithering quietly past your house. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s subliminal – a dark, stretching, barely audible ambient sound. Reverbed and resting right on the edge of the listener’s attention, it’s something which creeps in and cases the joint, maybe clears it of distractions. The last set of King Crimson albums, back in the ’80s, went straight in with clean, pealing, bell-like guitar patterns. Perhaps there’s a big clue to current Crimsonizing in that this one doesn’t.

Although the band’s known for its high turnover of disparate personnel and fresh starts, ‘VROOOM’ unexpectedly reunites that stable-against-the-odds 1980s Crimson lineup (Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Tony Levin and Bill Bruford) but augments them with two new members: Trey Gunn (a graduate of Fripp’s Guitar Craft course, doubling Levin’s 10-string Chapman Stick) and Pat Mastelotto (a jobbing, dextrous rock drummer best known for being part of American AOR act Mr Mister). Historically, when Crimson’s added members it’s been for as much for specific sonorities as much as personal approach. Perhaps a jazz or military saxophonist to break up a beat group, or a violinist to bring in classical textures. Maybe a Stick player to replace, fan out and reshape the bass chair; maybe, to upset the whole applecart and reboot the other players’ brains, an avant-garde improv percussionist with a thousand-yard stare and a junkyard armoury, or a master of cartoonish sound-effect guitar. Conversely, this is the first time Fripp’s apparently hired people mostly to thicken out the existing sound. This might be another clue.

What emerges – after that scouting roll – does and doesn’t sound like King Crimson. The New York brightnesses of the ’80s lineup (those circular Steve Reich and Talking Heads echoes which so thoroughly rebooted Crimson’s former Anglo-prog approach) have been banished. The title track is a descending, angry staircase of screech – simultaneously in synch and slightly ragged, like a gigantic work-worn machine developing a telling fault. If there’s a template for it, it’s the sound and structure of key ’70s Crimson track Red (the frowning, minimalist/totalitarian march which announced that Fripp had honed his once-florid instincts to a fine metallic economy).

The difference is that the big bare bones of this follow-up are fletched with additional details; disruptive flams and spurs, heavy digital processing resulting in analogue splurge, gears splintering but carrying on. A second huge instrumental track – THRaK – lurches forward in angry displacements, a blind giant hammering at a wall. In both tracks there are breathers which aren’t breathers – sighing passages where instruments fall back and Fripp’s misty ambient drones come in; or where a clambering bittersweet arpeggio makes a bed for a solo passage of wracked and pearly beauty before the hammers come down again. Throughout, there’s the sense of highly-stressed engineering precision just one slip away from disastrously throwing a rod, or a kind of hellish chamber music electrified to breaking point.

The band’s nervously sunny human face during the ’80s, Adrian Belew has been sucked backwards into this bigger, blurrier ensemble (predominantly providing a battery of guitar shrieks, leftfield lunges and rubbery solo lines). He still sings; is still the go-to song guy; but it’s clear that the songs have been almost entirely subverted by the new approach. On Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream, King Crimson rattles through a bluesy lurch; Adrian sounding like an animatronic waiter covering John Lee Hooker, delivering sub-Dada wordplay in murmur-to-scream builds before the band explodes into barely contained passages of full-on percussive chaos.

A little of the ’80s Crimson is allowed into Cage, with Fripp’s cackling speed-arpeggios making it a close cousin to ‘Discipline’s breakneck Thela Hun Ginjeet. Like Thela, it’s a neurotic street cry, but what was once simply threatening has now turned actively murderous as Belew’s prissy paranoia is taken up to international level (“walking down the street, do you stare at your feet / and never do you let your eyes meet the freaks, / the deadbeat addicts, social fanatics, / they’re a dime a dozen and they carry guns. / Halloween every other day of the week… Holy smoke! somebody blew up the Pope!”) while didgeridoos yelp and Fripp provides a barrage of his most jarring, churning guitar disruptions.


 
A third instrumental – When I Say Stop, Continue – mingles both King Crimson’s old knack for doomy improvised sound-pictures and the band’s puckishly dry sense of humour. Over an ambient creeping horror of a Fripp Soundscape, the band knock, shrill, drill and build up a swelling industrial noiseuntil Belew yells “Ok, come to a dead stop. One, two, three, four!…” only for the band to wilfully drift on without him, trailing ghostly shrouds of presence, until the drummers slam and nail the doors shut.


 
Only with One Time do both King Crimson and Belew emerge from this deliberately uneasy fug. Here, the sextet drop delicately into perfect synch and sweet restraint, a softly-mutated post-bossa pulse and Levin’s springy bassline coaxing along Belew’s lapping reverse-rhythm guitar and gentle vocal melancholia. It’s a reminder that King Crimson also have a knack for the beautiful offbeat ballad alongside the harsh upheaval. This is no exception, grasping wistfully and tenderly after a fleeting sense of centredness, throwing what’s come before into a more human-scaled relief.

King Crimson: ‘VROOOM’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 0004 (5 028676 900016)
CD-only mini-album
Released:
31st October 1994
Get it from: (2020 update) some original copies still available from Burning Shed – also reissued, along with the material from its companion volume ‘The VROOOM Sessions’, as part of 2015’s 16-disc ‘THRAK BOX (King Crimson Live and Studio Recordings 1994-1997)’, also available from Burning Shed
King Crimson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music
 

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