Tag Archives: creeping horror

April 2016 – upcoming gigs – two for April 16th: the third Festival Ambient de Paris with Ujjaya, Asmorod and others; and roaring about in London with Godzilla Black plus cohorts.

15 Apr

Tomorrow – two cities, two gigs. In Paris, people will be filing into the mediaeval cellars, all serious and attentive, fascinated by texture and the warp and weft of sound. In London, it looks as if they’ll be torn between wanting to be handsome psychotic brutes in sharp suits or shabby, demented hermits in bird masks.

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3ieme Festival Ambient de Paris, 2016 3ieme Festival Ambient de Paris
Crypt du Martyrium de Saint-Denis, 11 rue Yvonne Le Tac, 75018 Paris, France
Saturday 16th April 2016, 4.00pm
– more information here and here

From the organisers…

”Crypt du Martyrium is the most mystic and secret of Paris crypts (the head of the first bishop Denis was found here in 300 AD, and it was also the birthplace of the Jesuit Society). For one night only, artists from Paris and its suburbs will enchant this unique historical place with the kind of music you will hardly hear anywhere else in France.

The festival welcomes :

Ujjaya – an French ethno-ambient veteran, deeply influenced by Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Jon Hassell and Jorge Reyes. With his new found interest in suspended gamelan (which he’ll be enchanting the crypt with tonight), Loren Nerell has become another point of reference for his ongoing work. (For more information, try one or both of his two free-to-download albums: ‘De Retour’ and ‘The Master of Crossroads’.)


 
Onde Poussière – an experimental duo specializing in hypnotic minimalism and controlled chaos, and featuring Doedelzak (synth) and Kecap Tuyul (table-top prepared guitar). Think an ambient version of Jim O’Rourke , Taku Sugimoto or even Autechre.


 
Patrick Wiklacz – also known as Prats – is influenced by Terry Riley, Klaus Schulze and Bernard Parmeggiani. He will unleash his own electronic universe on synth and MIDI controller – a mix of repetitive minimalism, ambient and electro-acoustic music.


 
Archetype – an heir to Oöphoi, Alio Die and Mathias Grassow (and performing on guitar, synth, voice and table harp)Archetype makes deep listening music and also plays some ethno-ambient music not unlike Dead Can Dance.


 
Asmorod – the founder of the Snowblood label, synth/keyboard player Asmorod is both very discreet and very influential in the dark ambient scene (he’s an acknowleged influence on Kammarheit’s ‘Hysope’ album).


 

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Godzilla Black + Bobbie Peru + Punching Swans + Mashiro
The Hope & Anchor, 207 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1RL, England
Saturday 16th April 2016, 7.00pm
more information

Godzilla Black + Bobbie Peru + Punching Swans + Mashiro, 16th April 2016Godzilla Black have been unsettling ears since 2006 with their own personal brand of depraved heaviness. This is the official launch party for their new album, ‘Press The Flesh’, which was released on 1st April through Quisling Records. ‘Press The Flesh’ is the most ‘normal’ Godzilla Black record to date, drawing on influences such as Cardiacs, Liars and The Jesus Lizard, underscored by feeling of sensuality in all the wrong places. ACCEPT NO IMITATIONS.”

I may have to revise that “James-Barry-in-a-sleetstorm” description with which I always saddle Godzilla Black. Listening through to ‘Press The Flesh’ reveals the band in all of their romping glory, sometimes sounding like gonzo-industrial hero Foetus hijacking a soul revue, sometimes like late Cardiacs channelling early Roxy. Glam-descends meet blaring beefhorns, with lyrics full of dark jokes and carnivorous, cannibalistic disassociation. They’re flowering into something sharky and vivid. Clips below for album opener ‘The Other Other White Meat’ and the first ‘Press The Flesh’ single, ‘First Class Flesh’ (note that there’s a theme developing here…)


In support are Bobbie Peru, whose music is heavily influenced by punk, post-punk, rockabilly and 60’s garage; and who offer “an abrasively grooving electric live show with a vibe somewhere between Sonic Youth, Nomeansno and Groop Dogdrill.” Currently recording their third full-length album in Manchester (and constantly playing live around the north-west of England), the band are something of a fixture in the world of indie and post-punk tours, having racked up road support slots with Black Francis, Buzzcocks, Spear Of Destiny, Killing Joke and The Fall since their own emergence in the mid-2000s.

Medway convulsers Punching Swans are self-described as “thrilling dischordance for fans of Future Of The Left and Fugazi”, although I can hear hints of The Residents lurking in their threshing pop-savvy upending of rituals, and when they’re not hammering alarmingly at a darker idea they’re out on the whoop chasing the spirit of ‘Song 2’. It’s the cryptic strangeness that makes them special, though – they’ve recently brought out a concept album about “a man cast out from society and taking on the habits and compulsions of a depraved bird, gone to seed,”, and are making the woodsbound videos to match. There’s a peek into this particular world below.

Oxford abstract mathcore metallists Masiro bring “heaviness, other-wordly atmosphere and headfuck grooves. Touching on Pelican, Isis and Battles. Don’t expect a singalong.” All right, then. Evidence of their jabbing attention-deficit methods is here:

 
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More shortly…
 

March 2013 – album reviews – Felipe Otondo’s ‘Tutuguri’ (“sound moulded by careful hands”)

26 Mar
Felipe Otondo: 'Tutuguri'

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’

Having pursued his studies from his native Chile to Denmark and then to the UK (he currently teaches at the University of Lancaster), electro-acoustic musician Felipe Otondo has already made himself a world traveler. The cosmopolitan sourcing of his music ensures that he travels even further afield, even while sitting at his computer. The four pieces on his debut album ‘Tutuguri’ draw on concepts, patterns, sounds and language from India, Java and Mexico as well as from European and American sound-labs.

This reminds me that, like bats, human beings use sound to find where we are. We often remain unaware of this, or even dismiss it. In cities, for example, we tend to think in terms of filtering out the extraneous noise – the rumbling press of traffic, the too-close babble of our neighbours on public transport or through the thin walls of apartment blocks; the persistent layering of unwanted music as ambient features for shopping or working. In spite of this, we’ll still use sounds to judge our way and to establish our place in a shifting world. Recurring sounds in the subway tell us that the service is regular, or when we need to change direction. Changing accents in voices and even birdsong rachet our subliminal paranoia up or down. Subtle switches in the quality of sound moving through the air tell us about weather, and about the places we move through. Some newly-blind people even report developing an echo-location sense, measuring the presence of oncoming pedestrians, lamp-posts and corners by the minute changes in echo and sound positioning.

Most importantly, we associate the places we know with an arrangement of sound. Wind will be shaped around a building in a particular way, the patterns of dialogue and intonation spoken in and around particular shops and café. Traffic lights and contraflows generate their own rhythms and exchanges. Blindfolded, I’d still be able to recognise the back-street where I currently live from its specific sound patterns: cars nudging the speed-bumps with a particular speed and duration, the toss and bend of the trees in the wind paths, the pitches of children’s voices in the school half-way along, the frequency of slow buses creeping to the nearby bus garage. These recognitions surprise us, often in ways which we don’t even consider until the connections occur to us.

To me (being less of a traveler than many) Felipe’s sound sources are more exotic, initially implying spatial journeys or international visits. The complex and beautifully-packaged CD sleeve for ‘Tutuguri’ enhances this, opening up like an origami flower (or like the jaws of a concealed alligator). The four intent and deceptively challenging pieces within the album are designed to shuffle the consciousness rather than soothe it. They divert the listener along other paths: associative, temporal, historical; hallucinatory or sacramental. When Felipe cites them as being “meditative”, he doesn’t mean relaxing, or lazy. Listening care is required. At a distance – at a point of detachment or reduction to background – Felipe’s pieces will sound like a fluttery wallpaper of treated sound effects. Up close, turned up, or simply heard on headphones, the craft is evident: Felipe’s years studying spatial sound and timbral perception have been well spent. He’ll set you down in the middle of a set of beautifully recorded instruments or noises – or as an offset, slightly distanced observer – and then gradually alter that sound-world in increments, or in sudden dartings.

The oldest piece on offer here, Ciguri, takes Native Mexican bell and gong sounds and cuts them loose from root time. This isn’t as straightforwardly surgical, or as uninvolved, as it might read. Felipe is open about the inspiration he’s drawn from the Mexican peyote ceremony (and from Antonin Artaud’s writings on it). In particular, he’s interested in the time-distortion effect experienced when ingesting mescaline (which he recreates here via digital editing). On the way, he also explores inharmonicity – the additional non-harmonic tones created within a sound, via variations in the source material’s state of rigidity and elasticity. Strictly speaking, this is a physical exploration, but if you’re talking ritual – if you’re talking metaphysics – the same idea might be extended to the participants in the ceremony. As in any sacrament, each of their experiences will be shaped by their willingness, and by how their own histories and attitudes impact on how their brain works and how their world is conceived.

On Ciguri, Felipe doesn’t make matters quite that explicit, but he does his very best to remind us of how subjective an experience this can be. Sound-wise, he places us in the heart of a slow heat of hanging metals, and we listen (over nine minutes) as they alter. During this time, different parts of the surrounding structure take turns to transmute while others remain still. Gently struck tones blur from a simple ping to a fluttering hummingbird drill: the substance of the metals themselves seem to move restlessly between solid resonant bronze, a whispering foil, or a mere shining hiss of elements. The reasons behind this may be all in the math, but it doesn’t feel that way. As the numbers race through their patterns, the world around us changes and we’re hypnotized by what feels like the universe breathing.

Another piece, Irama, draws directly on Javanese gamelan orchestra music (using manipulated recordings of the Sekar Petak ensemble at the University of York). Irama’s title comes from a flexible gamelan term – one that can be used to define the time between two notes, or the time between two actions; or the rhythmic relationships between parts of the composition; or tempo in general. Drawing all of these meanings together under one conceptual net suggests a substantial and integral connection between all of them, much as each of the Indonesian gongs, flutes, pots and zithers in a specific gamelan orchestra is honed and tuned to fit only with instruments from the same orchestra. Of course, digital electro-acoustic processing means that any relationship between notes, pitches or rhythms which didn’t already exist can be first conceived and then molded into shape: and Felipe flexes and reshapes the gamelan sounds according to his own design.

Irama’s gong sounds range from the familiar bronze boom to the kind of light dry patterings and tight-hide raps which you’d expect to hear bounding from frame drums. Over a particularly deep gong sound, a metallophone texture is stretched into a soft drone: when the broader percussion section returns, it’s joined by soft struck pings and an oceanic flutter. At crucial points, particular gong chimes cut through to suggest changes of intent and mood. Apart from these, all of the sounds which lope through Irama reinforce themselves, subtly adding to an arrangement which becomes denser and denser, shifting to a jazzier pulses before (nearly four minutes in) rising to flood-rate and then dispelling into nothing. A second section begins – sterilized pings and rings, more German laboratory than Javanese ritual. Drilling echoes are buried inside it, ringing edge-tones place themselves above it. At six minutes, the frame-drums return; at seven, the pulse has multiplied again to the point of flooding; at eight, softened rings are the dominant sound as the piece diminishes into calmness. As with Ciguri, there seems to be more than the mathematics at work here; but beyond the calculations, all of Irama could itself be an illustration of time as human experience – its repetitions, its bewildering multiplicity of voices; its moments of collective intensity and its sudden rapid lulls.


 
As a listener, attempting to put narratives (however clumsy) onto more elusive or abstract pieces of music is a common strategy. Thankfully, the mixed instrumental/vocal piece Teocalli already comes with a narrative. It’s based on ‘The Night Face Up’, a short story by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, whose surreal-modernist approach (creatively disrupting his plots and chances of resolution via a shifting, subjective consciousness and by the restless straw-shuffling of jazz) is well suited to the cut/paste/reshuffle of Felipe’s compositional tools.

The original tale is about an injured, hospitalized motorcyclist: delirious, and dreaming that he’s a man hunted by the ancient Aztecs and targeted for sacrifice. Location and context come adrift in the dreamer’s mind, but are carefully deployed by the writer – here, Felipe steps carefully into the latter role, guiding his strips and layers of sound into place. Hunters’ drums roll in the background, sometimes scooping up in an enormous glottal curl of extreme echo, swooped by fierce panning and sound-fielding. At times, they run backwards, creating great ominous bowls of sound-space. In a recurring cut-up, a little choir of men sing what sounds like a Mexican popular tune. This moves in and out of Teocalli like a radio which can’t stay fixed on the station, just as the injured man in the story can’t stay fixed within his own time or his own experience. Watchful silences bead within the piece, within the drum-slides; filled with tiny arrested hangs of reverberation.

Through these silences (but also often in the midst of great surging wrenches of drums, as they wrestle for our attention) women’s voices speak. Zapotec women, from a pre-Spanish civilization that lives alongside and intertwined with modern Mexico. They converse and chat, presumably about ordinary human matters – these are interview snippets, not field recordings. But as these women are separated from listeners like us by their language (and by our own crude knowledge, and cruder guesses, about their culture), they innocently become part of the sinister hallucinatory sound environment which Felipe creates. As drums sweep and skirl around our heads, so too does a whole jungle of suggestions – brief clusters of crickets, digitally squeezed and timeslid; bird calls, as of hunters hidden in the undergrowth. When one of the women speaks again, her unconcerned and easy voice is shaded into callousness. When, at one point, she suddenly laughs, easy and confident, the dense paranoia and wilderness swirling around her conspires to render her cruel.

There’s no final outcome to Teocalli – no cathartic slaughter, no rescue. Eventually Felipe’s piece just blows away into the shadows, like the memory of ugly wings pressed around you. The fever dream is over. With the passing sweat those eerie vicious terrors go with them. The deep-rooted fear (part-humble, part-racist) of an ancient, incipient otherness. The fear of comfort and security crumpling and allowing the past to pluck you away; a raw, helpless morsel.


 
In its way, the final ‘Tutuguri’ piece – Sarnath – is as ritualistic as the others, yet it doesn’t rely so much on recreating states of mind. Instead, it attempts to sculpt suggestions of place, history and connections. It’s based on Francis Booth’s Indian location recordings of places associated with the story of the Buddah (and is named after the deer park in which Buddhist Dharma was first taught). In a sense, Sarnath is both site-specific and displaced, bringing the noises of Buddah-touched locations to wherever its soundfiles are played. Concert venue. Boom box. Perhaps even a trekker’s smartphone, being carried on a pilgrimage of its own.

As Felipe switches between recordings (clicking up one-by-one the sonic capturess of different geographical stops on the Buddah journey), Sarnath itself seems to be moving from place to place in search of something. Literally, a footprint? Literally, an echo? Felipe toys with the field recordings: folding them on themselves, stretching them over time. A bell might sound, swell hugely, then drop away. Chants may be heard. On a half-distant road, a procession of ecstatically banging drums may wind its way to a shrine. Behind these, birds and animals twitter. Away from the devotions, there are the soft chips and scrapes of human work being carried on regardless. Here, Felipe’s notes most obviously cite the intense, subtle states of mind connected with meditation: here, with whispers of Buddha making their presence felt, it’s a traditional part of the tale. Here, too, are the tiny sounds to focus meditation; the small sonic flakes of the natural world around which attention can be wound.


 
‘Tutuguri’ is four pieces; four stories. None of them conclusive; and despite the sleevenotes and the substantial clues, at least part of the stories I’ve recounted here have been dreamed up by me. The solo listener – the sound moulded by careful hands around my ears, yes; some of the intimations perhaps patted into place. But in other cases this music is just process doing what process does: forming channels for their own sake, numbers making shapes and illusions as part of the pattern comes into view, and only part of that’s actually recognized. Much of the purely technical side of Felipe Otondo’s music escapes me: instead, I experience much of it as the psychological backwash, like the vapour trails after the plane has passed. Still, if I’m creating my own ideas for what Felipe’s music might entail or might intimate, there’s clearly enough extra substance there for me to build on. That’s what humans do: we use sound to find out where we are. Finding places we know: judging our way through what’s being presented to us; sometimes, the recognitions surprise us.

Working blind, but guided by sound, I travel too.

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’
Sargasso Records, SCD28070 (5065001338700)
CD/download album
Released: 25th March 2013

Get it from:
Sargasso Records (CD) or Amazon (download).

Felipe Otondo online:
Homepage Soundcloud LastFM

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 – Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’ single, 2013 (“cowering and defiant; brave and fucked-up and lucid”)

14 Feb

Qwestions: 'Humble Pie'

Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’

“I’m dry-heaving, saying these words with meaning,” gasps Qwestions. Gut feeling. It’s supposed to be at the heart of hip-hop: but in a music of masks, demands and fly-posted signifiers it often gets pasted over.

Too much. There’s too much to represent – too much history and geography to be spat up like fireworks, too many links and hand-holds to be acknowledged, too many objects to count. No wonder that so many rappers rapidly run down and put up the same touchy, predictable façade. No wonder that they turn into mobile billboards flattened of meaning, riding in identical limousines – overwhelmed; turned into nothing but front; still scared of the moment when everything will be kicked out from under them.

As for Chicago MC Qwestions, his desperate, dazzling raps suggest that he couldn’t fall into this two-dimensional lie even if he wanted to. At 23, standing tall and shaking, he’s a man who flinches from masks and who lives on the outside of his skin: tears, confusion, grand-and-ground-standing and all. He’s everything that hip-hop ought to be in its honesty. Here, perched on a clenching, reluctant beat and hunched underneath Mario Anthony’s chilly stratospheric washes of synth (as cold as a 4am January on the South Side) Qwestions is both cowering and defiant; brave and fucked-up and lucid. It’s said that rappers have to grow up fast. Qwestions reminds us that growing up is actually a constant, painful process.

Humble Pie sounds like a man hitting concrete, but knowing that he has no choice but to get up and run on. While Qwestions kicks off with what sounds like a typical brag (“I am the greatest rapper alive – / am I wasting my time / eating this humble pie with a plastic fork and no knife?”), the rap quickly and deftly folds in on itself. It becomes both critique and confession of Qwestions’ life and work, of the compromises which he has to make both as artist and man. Even the mocking drawl of the chorus spins between multiple and revealing mirrors: a boast of being a cut above, a wry acceptance of holding back, of pretense and the wrestle with ego. “You know, you know, you know, / they won’t love you when you know, / you too dope, too dope, too dope, / so I play my role… / I know it’s moving slow.” Even the pay-off line could be aimed as much at himself as at a foe onstage – “Make sure you eat some humble pie before the show.”

Many of the images in Humble Pie revolve around guts, and around the value and terrors of food: the nutrition of work, the unpalatability of being conscious enough to let the world intrude. In his dedication to honesty, Qwestions dares to sometimes be repulsive; dares to be outright with matters of weakness, helplessness and terror . “Vomit all in my kitchen sink – / the nausea gets critical when I start to think,” he moans at one point. “I let my mind drift then my stomach flips. / I guess it is a curse when you born with gifts.” Later, he shoulders his offstage burdens with a mixture of courage and gripe – “The scene changes, but it’s the same script, / I’m trying to be a good father… / I sacrifice all my happiness for a couple of dollars and some pocket lint.”

Elsewhere he’s stepping up aggressively, unsure whether to ball his fists or spread his hands, but stripping his self-assertion to the bones of desperation in a bid to be understood. “Remember life in the hood – why the fuck you think I’m so cocky? / Why you think I try so hard? / Why you think you can stop me?” Even here – and after all of the moans, acidic spits and fear-belches – it’s hard not to like Qwestions. But then, a rapper who shares so much about the human condition is to be treasured.

You just hope that he’s going to make it through. Sometimes he sighs, half-broken even as he delivers: “Am I wasting my time / investing in all my dreams with no moments to recline?… / I just want to lay up, / sleep and never get up.” Meanwhile a nagging, sneering voice slips through the verses; a spiteful ghost flitting in and out of the gaps in the tower blocks. A voice from the back of his head, overturning his brags and hollowing out his talent as fast as he assert it.. “Your little crude knife… / You’ll never eat.” The guts of belief are laid bare: there’s everything to defend, everything to play for.

Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’
Ingenious Dreams Media Group (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 2nd January 2013

Buy it from:
Soundcloud

Qwestions online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter YouTube

January 2013 – album reviews – Érick d’Orion’s ‘Koursk’ (“a kind of philosophical haunting”)

29 Jan

Érick d'Orion: ‘Koursk’

Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’

What becomes evident while listening to ‘Koursk’ is the kernel of oblique, detached anger which beads at its heart. The abrasive vigour of noise music – its refusal to comply to melody, to conventional narratives and aesthetics of order, even to most standards of beauty – can give it a predictable free pass into total self-indulgence. It’s good to hear something in this musical vein which hints at a moral core, at least for a while.

Recorded over a five-year period, Érick d’Orion’s baleful album mingles a stern, clinical brutality with unexpected gaps for breathing. A veteran of avant-garde noisemaking since the mid-’90s (via Napalm Jazz, morceaux_de_machines and entanglements with Otomo Yoshihide, Evan Parker and the like) Érick has based the core of his album on “the fatality of a place, or concept.” In effect, he’s created a kind of philosophical haunting.

Erick’s ground-zero meme is Koursk, out of which he plots and illustrates two fateful iterations. For those who don’t know their eastern European history, Koursk (or Kursk) is an ancient, iron-rich city and region of mid-Russia. During World War II, it saw the biggest and bloodiest tank battle in history, sprawling over a month’s duration as the Red Army ground itself to Pyrrhic shards and mince against the Wehrmacht. Under the spades of the defending Russians, the Kursk hills were gouged by thousands of miles of trenches and tank-crippling ditches, while Soviet air-raids pelted the Panzer supply lines. The Soviets triumphed and the Germans were halted, but at the cost of enormous losses of Russian men and machines – all thrown relentlessly into the meat-grinder by Marshal Zhukov and his colleagues in order to defend the motherland.

Fifty-seven years later (and nine years post-Soviet, in 2000) a second Koursk hit the worldwide news – a flagship Russian Federation nuclear submarine, named after the original grim victory. Following explosions in its torpedo chamber, the ‘Koursk’ plunged helplessly to the bottom of the sea. While the crew’s relatives panicked, the Russian authorities rejected international rescue assistance (on the grounds of military secrecy), covered up the disaster, bungled four successive days of rescue attempts and finally accepted help too late. Everyone on board the submarine was long dead by then. Initially, the Russian Admiralty claimed that the crew of the ‘Koursk’ had all perished within minutes of the disaster. It emerged later that many of them had stayed alive and conscious long enough to see the air run out and the water rush in, and that some of them had even had time to write farewell notes for their loved ones. The cause of the explosion was finally traced to a faulty, antiquated torpedo, retained for budget reasons. No one was ever punished or prosecuted – instead, the government spent most of its efforts on condemning the Russian media for negative coverage of the disaster.

Far away from these painful events, it’s easy to moon vacuously about the curse of Koursk, or to make similarly dimwitted puns. It’s also easy to discern a more accurate pattern – a coincidental collage of Russian bloody-mindedness, or of that contradictory mixture of material ruthlessness, fatalism and (in its conspicuous burn-up of lives and resources) jaw-dropping pseudo-potlatch that often characterised Stalinism and Warsaw Pact history. However much personal tragedy was involved, Zhukov and his comrades considered those thousands of burnt-out tanks and crisped bodies littered over the hills of Koursk Oblast in the summer of 1943 to be the necessary dues to be paid for protecting the nation. Given the attritional nature of Hitler and Stalin’s struggle for Russia, perhaps the generals had a point; even if the sheer scale of the death and appalls us in more parsimonious, less blindly patriotic days. It’s less easy to defend the fate of the submarine – first wrecked by institutional incompetence, then clumsily (and unsuccessfully) sacrificed to the public image of Putin’s Russian Federation.


 
With all of that considered, Erick doesn’t deliver explicit or directly moral judgements on either event nor on any continuum which they might share. Instead (bar that striking cover image of a half-submerged submarine in a welter of blood-streaked water), the details are in the sounds he shapes. Becquerels, for example, is a humming shroud: bassy drones hiccupping, a persistent drizzle of midrange noise. The noise drips and dribbles in, backed by distant grinds and rumbles, circular mechanical gnaws. There are implications here of badly-tuned mechanisms, of radiation slopping into compartments where it doesn’t belong. Chop-ins of explosive industrial drumkit noise become venting spurts; the engine-sounds periodically burst out in short-lived, ominous overruns. The last section is a beautiful warble, smashed into by bursting cogs. There’s no joy in the viciousness on display. There’s just a sense of carelessness being observed and documented, as Erick etches an acidic sonic portrait of breakdown which crowds out and overwhelms personal space, erasing people.

If Becquerels is a bitter salute to the submarine, the nine-plus minutes of Kursk Assault presumably pays tribute to the battle. A square wave tank growl, throbbing its way over random rises and dips and flats, becomes a wash of indiscrimate information leveled out to a crammed, rumpled buzz. Barely distinguishable behind this (in effect, crushed and obscured by the charging machinery) is a folk tune on droning pipes, possibly a Russian volynka. Throughout, scattered vocal syllables are chopped in like broken radio conversation. At the end, a tight cycle of looped pipes and data grind stutters round and round, like something trapped on a wheel.

As with Bequerels, there seems to be a moral edge to the noises here. It’s nothing to do with structured condemnation, nor with redemption. Instead Erick offers a baleful account in sound of the misery of people forced into combat, inside machines that they can’t trust to keep them safe, relying on other people who will let them down or spend them like poker chips. There’s an undercurrent of cramped and sweaty fear in these tones – men crammed into claustrophobic cockpits, waiting for the shells to burst through; men trapped in a crippled steel bottle, fathoms down, listening to the hull shear and the water gush in. The blattering sound also cocks a bitter snook at parade ground pomp. Here, war (and the Cold War) is just an impersonal, perilous sludge.


 
However, having registered his abstracted judgements, Erick retreats from his implicit moralism to explore different implications. The glitchy thud and staccato arpeggios of Steam And Speed suggest techno, as if Érick was building an impressionist, impasto sketch of a nightclub out of a mulchy bucket of cast-off industrial noises. The namesake being nodded to in the eleven-minute György is presumably György Ligeti, as vocal organum pitches move around behind radio whines and whoops and pell-mell machinery clashes, with disruptive cuts in the piece marked by static spits. After five minutes Érick folds a small choir into the mix, a sampled motet: after that, a man’s voice singing soft and deep and casual. The Ligeti references sift in as the piece moves on – the violent pitch shifts applied to the choir, mimicking Ligeti’s own unsettling choral runs: the deep-buried cosmic skitters buried deep in the mix in the final minutes, beneath the deep and pitchless drone.


 
Two remaining tracks reference a pair of lurid and controversial art-house films, both of which engaged in studies of morality and nihilism; but if Erick was intending to carry the studies over he’s done so in forms too obscure to plumb. The brief interlude of Man Bites Dog – a flat drone, a squeal and squiggle of static, a hint of hyper-compressed conversation – is straightforward but cryptic (or possibly encrypted). The ugly sibilant shiver of Bad Lieutenant – the album’s longest piece – is a dirty judder of mosquito hiss, behind which slow passes of electrophonica swell like slowed vox-humana organ stops slowed. A gentle pink noise churn runs through the piece, implying slow floods and propellers revolving; there’s a passage of steam-sound, tinny distorted vocal murmurs and dub echoes; an unsettling sweep of what sounds like electrified mice scrabbling and twittering. Later, birdsong echoes over a propeller churn like a shipwreck survivor’s memory – ordnance bangs and mechanical scurf play us out.


 
The last of this could be a recapitulatory visit to the ‘Koursk’s watery grave, or it might not. Bad Lieutenant has spawned a number of remixes that fail to illuminate a moral dimension: ignoring the context, they simply play with the noises. Martin Tétreault’s mix trims the piece down to a three-minute commodity , gaming it with a tattoo beat of drum-static. Of the two bonus remixes on the download version, Nicholas Bernier’s ten-minute effort retains more of the length but screebles everything with a silvery download skitter and needling, proggy synth cascades like a vintage Galaxians invasion. Robin Fox’s shorter five-minute mix concentrates on adding the missing rhythmatic elements: there’s a faint hip-hop influence in the thudding bass drum and the cut-up bursts of dynamic sound which feed its cat-walking impetus.

What these latter tracks and their reinventions don’t offer are any human conclusions. For a while, listening to this album opened up a window (a questioning and undermining of brute and impersonal power, itself expressed in brute power) which ultimately closed too soon. The noise artistry is impeccable, but I’m left feeling pulled up short: drawn in by a buzzing lasso to ponder a message which fades away too early under the racket.

Érick d’Orion: ‘Koursk’
Érick d’Orion (self-released, DOR 2013, no barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 21st January 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

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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:
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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:
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Cthulhu Detonator online:
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January 2012 – EP reviews – Noise Research’s ‘Space Stones’ (“gigantic forces tapping on the outside of the bubble”)

7 Jan
Noise Research: 'Space Stones'

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’

Ever-conscientious, Noise Research’s Ian Simpson goes out of his way to admit the traditional approach of this album-length EP, with its use of tape-loop and musique-concrete methods. It’s not a confession that matters. Plenty of atmosphere musicians draw on those techniques; just as plenty draw on the traditions of 1970s kosmische music and Germanic space-drones, or nod to the eerie smudge-cascades of spectralism.

It’s a rarer achievement to not only conjure up those astronomical Krautrock noises (and those visions of spaceships with sports-car contours) but also to recreate the feeling of otherness impinging on your comfortable, oblivious life; of gigantic impersonal forces tapping on the outside of the bubble.  Each of the four pieces on ‘Space Stones’ sends me spinning back to my eight-year-old self, and the sense of awe that I felt each time I saw the silhouette of the antique Zeiss projector that squatted, like a giant querulous bug, at the heart of the old London Planetarium.

With all but one piece being over nine minutes in length, each has plenty of time to unfold as an event in sound. Simultaneous chilliness and warmth pervade Cosmic Stones, in which a ringing organ overtone sits serenely under chilly breathlike rushes of a galactic string section. Over time (and almost at whim) the home pitch slides mercurially into a new position, a new anchor for thinking at the heart of a gradually expanding pool of reverb. Sun Stones sounds like the solar wind made audible: deep tenor flute-edge sounds bending and straining themselves around invisible objects, with an open-pipe high tenor drone loudening behind them.

A single organ cluster-tone sits suspended in place for Earth Stones – a bullet-time slice of instrumental captured and magnified from the middle of a stabbed, jarring chord. Around this, overtones change with geological slowness. Buried inside them, intimations of voices and trumpets come and go, as if the sounds and those who eavesdrop on them are in parallel times – unmatched, and unmatching.

Most suggestive is Space Stones itself, in which Noise Research’s sounds imply a slow, relentless poisoning at a molecular level. Aluminium oscillations dominate the sound, like radiation wavefronts hitting the metal skin of a space capsule. In the background, single-chord clusters roll like a muted brass-band section; by a third of the way through they’ve faded, giving way to slow swells of barely-there unease. By then, the pulsed sounds are echoing more rapidly, penetrating the capsule and bouncing off the inside. Two-thirds of the way in we’re looking at a dead scene: sonic suggestions of bars of unheeded light rotate eerily and unheeded across cabin space as the music drifts onwards. All that’s left is the paralysed fascination as we float on.

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’ EP
Electronic Musik, EM162
Free download-only EP
Released: 2nd January 2012

Get it from:
Free download from archive.org

Noise Research online:
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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:
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February 2011 – album reviews – The Chewers’ ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ (“a couple of junk dogs”)

12 Feb
The Chewers: 'Every Drop Disorganized'

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’

The Chewers thrust their faces, suddenly, out of the forest. They notice your startled expression, but they just cross their eyes at you. They’re not here to entertain you, let alone impress you. They’re sniffing around music, a couple of junk dogs, seeing what they can make of it. There will be bumps and boings: there will be scraps of sudden, enthusiastic remembering. There will be sudden interjections. There will be rather a lot of hammering.

The Chewers are Travis Caffrey and Michael Sadler, a pair of self-confessed West Virginian freaks. Most of what they do involves rudimentary guitar lines which complain like old suspension springs; drums thumped with a bastardized ritual technique; frowning stump-handed bass playing which is too big for the room but too inert to leave it. They sing, after a fashion – usually in a menacing deadpan creak, sometimes in a gruff lobotomized roar. Melodies are torn off, like unwanted paint: they strip everything down to a trapped and surly chug, then filter it through the sound of collapse. Sometimes they leave an electric organ broiling in the corner, add a layer of picked-out piano, or torment a fiddle with skeleton plucks or sawing skids.

These are the kind of tunes that could make a musician forget how to play. Their goofy, deadpan primitivism sounds like drunken mechanics banging rocks together in a Flintstones cartoon; or a couple of bears who’ve set upon and eaten a guy in a one-man-band outfit, then start fumbling at the crumpled instruments to try and get that interesting noise back. We’ve been here before, of course, with The Residents – and a musky, oppressive Residents reek hangs all over The Chewers’ faux-artless art music. At a root level, both bands work with the same kind of sub-technique – deliberately clumsy, deliberately short-sighted, attempting to sneak up on an idiot-savant approach from behind.

Much of The Chewers’ debut album ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ seems to follows a freak-show blueprint. Stirring a greasy canful of satire and nihilism, Travis and Michael are self-confessed cartographers of tiny personal hells. While what can be discerned of their settings, characters and stylings are unmistakeably American, they’re often fairly timeless. They present stark three-line drawings of insanities and self-inflicted rages, or of situations slewing into enmity or a crude revenge. Their Americana is absurd and brutal, part Faulkner and part ‘Gummo’ – the kind of storyscape in which thick-set dungaree’d inbreds drag their own coffins around on leg-chains and where frowning men, preoccupied with guzzling and paranoia, squat guard outside collapsing shacks, broken-down trailers and mouldering gambrel houses.

In fact (as with The Residents), what The Chewers do behind their Muppet voices and smeary, tarry-black humour is less elaborate and even more savage. With American Gothic, there’s some state of aspiration to fall from and some perverse pleasure in the decay. The Chewers, though, deal with lives apparently blunted by ignorance, obsession, violence and inertia from the start. You’re a brute; or a chump; or the target of someone else’s shills and exploitations – and you’re stuck with it. The misanthropic ranting of Human Scum is couched in brown-dwarf rock-and-roll, compressed to a broken stumble of sour fuzz guitar, splattered twang and thunder-drum. “Get your slime out of this house,” one Chewer growls on Get Out Of Town, while half a blues riff tussles with fragments of Dobro slide. “You left many things behind. / None of them was a friend.”

The Chewers clearly enjoy their grim and guttural journey. During breaks in dragging around those hope-coffins, they indulge in short instrumentals, deliberate guitar bungles and instinctual blobs of pick-up-and-play sound-art. The Scooby Doo caveman vocals and berimbau twanging on Who Ra makes that Residents debt even more explicit (it could easily sit alongside the faked rituals and pop-culture gags on ‘Eskimo’). Don’t Go In The Tent offers three minutes of machine pulse, bat-wing bellows-chords and drill-whistles. The Day The Circus Came To Town fools around with Autotune-whooping, kazoos and fiddle scrawls. The Chewers bring an exultation to this part of the work, delighting in the clash of noises.

Much of the music thumbs its nose at American aspiration while revelling in American orneriness and the palpable debris of American life. This makes absolute sense – the other key Chewers influences are those utterly American musicians and songwriters who stick like bones in the throat of their culture. The three Swamp Drag pieces bear the stamp (or stomp) of Tom Waits hobo-music pieces with their wounded marching drum, their dinosaur gronks and busted-suspension riffage, their broken-off stub of tune and the lost, frothing narrator winding his way inwards. Butterknife – with its deadpan sprechstimme and its indistinct, twisting story of marital discontent, murder and kitchen utensils – owes plenty to Frank Zappa .

Two other songs have a fairly explicit Captain Beefheart tang. The evangelism parody of Savior Pill crumbles like ripe old cheese as it lurches along on jazz cymbals and gnarled-up blues: although the lyrics, using the language of oldtime radio hucksters, are more Zappa. “Shouldn’t you have some relief? Call to see if you qualify… / Legs are restless, souls in strife. / Side effects include everlasting life. / Call in ten minutes and you’ll see the light. / Benefits are many, side effects are few – we’ll even throw in a Second Coming.” Beyond its guitar boings and grits-pan clunks, Fire on the Hill stumbles into trek poetry, painting the simple beauty of the outdoors in disconnected swipes and flashes while entwining it with the occult. “Trouble is following me through the long grass… / Voices beside me as I sit near the flames – the horses make noises, they drop through the dark… / Laughing is loud, / the crickets are chirping. / The sky is a dome.”

On the whole, though, Chewers songs are populated by fuck-ups. Convicts stuff their faces; some people fall down wells (where they wait, somewhat indifferently, for rescue), while others wander permanently off the trail. Damaged men sit alone in rooms, propelled into puzzling hallucinations by ringing telephones. The ambitious aren’t spared either. With the grinding punk-slurry riff and monotone delivery of Hollywood Car, Travis and Michael caustically lay waste to dreams of celebrity, reducing them to empty greed. “Rotten soul don’t get old… / Pledge yourself like all the others. / Step over your mom – skin is glossy like a magazine cover… / Smile through your teeth and ignore the poor. / You got your foot in the door. / You’ve had fifteen and you want some more… / Hollywood isn’t a workplace rat-race – / it’s a high-speed chase. / Cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Perhaps where all of this fails a little is in the way The Chewers allow their absurdism thicken into cynicism. Never really presenting their blundering song-characters as anything other than grim entertainment or easy meat, they don’t leave them the option of dignity. There’s rarely any of punk’s indignation; and not even much of Zappa’s frustrated disdain. On Specimen, they play a crude kazoo-laden cha-cha-cha and deliver a one-way story about a man becoming a test animal in a destructive medical experiment. On the strummed, limping lollop of Charlie Chum, they show even less sympathy for their hapless protagonist. “You should have seen this coming” they grunt, as they drawing a muddled, menacing picture of a man who first deceives and then overreaches himself; who “chews his words like cows chew cud… / believes every word he speaks.” Falling foul of the predators, he eventually pays the price – “Charlie Chum has got two hands – / one swats flies, one deals cards. / Deck is cut, game draws blood, / sharks tear Charlie Chum apart.” Travis and Michael, at least, seem to think he had it coming. Despite the murky flourishes, this never rises above the level of chump cartoon, and that’s a shame.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Even at the very least ,the album’s cartoon-noir tone is enjoyable once you’ve attuned yourself to its sinister creep; and one track – an acapella ode to the joy of pancakes – offers some relief. As The Chewers sing, hiccup, belch and gargle their way through a gamut of American musical trademarks (a blues-grind, some close-harmony doo-wop, a prison song, a Spike Jones fusillade of comedy noises) they also recite a series of cheerfully dumb Bubba-isms in a thoughtful Jimmy Dean drawl. “Life without pancakes is hell on earth, / and I don’t mind my massive girth… / The only difference between beast and man / is – an animal can’t make a cake in a pan… / When they find me bloated in the gutter, / they can cover my coffin in syrup and butter.”

Though they top it off with a particularly dopey and violent twist (“The only way I’ll have my fill / is when they make one good enough to kill,”) it’s somehow an affectionate moment: one in which they embrace their all-American idiot as well as laugh at him. At The Chewers’ jokiest moment it all comes together – the stubbornness and rebelliousness that’s as much a part of Americana as is romance or beauty; the love of homemade noise and of squeezing music out from the pips; the thick’n’tasty bozo parade.

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’
The Chewers (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 6th February 2011

Buy it from:
The Chewers homepage.

The Chewers online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud LastFM YouTube

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

REVIEW – Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’ single, 2001 (“counting the change and failing to come up with comforting answers”)

12 Aug

Laughtrack: 'Amusements'

Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’

Amusements is a majestic but famished slink across rain-dirty pavements in the gaudy heart of town: redolent of grime and darkness, and with disturbed puddles wavering neon reflections at you. A techno dub-groove catwalks its way from start to finish, toying with all the time in the world: whether the wire-wool guitars are beating themselves against it or whether the sound is being gulped away to reveal the skeletal machinery of bass and beat prowling onwards. A thin but insistent vocal hangs at the heart of it: “I can’t tell you no lies / We’re moving into a new kind of life – / a strange new world, a comfort zone / where nobody has to be alone.”

It’s a lyric which almost sounds as if it ought to be bobbling along on top of a corporate anthem: but which, in this context, sounds as if it’s shadowing the giant corporate hands which can pat you on the head in one pass and scoop away your world with the next. “Why have you sold the future, why have you sold the past?” questions the chorus. “Is it for our amusements, ‘cos nothing is meant to last?” Someone’s standing on the edge of the kerb, swaying on their heels, counting the change they’ve been returned and failing to come up with comforting answers.

If the original Amusements resembles a rocked-up ‘Mezzanine’, the Severance mix (done with “avant-hardist” MEME) flings the drums into echoing relief and carves the groove into a zombie stomp, Garbage-style. Grating peaks of sub-bass and further sandstorms of psychedelic guitar crackle somewhere between Chapterhouse, Suicide and Levitation – sleekness savaged into life by noise and interference. No words, but an implacable, forceful indifference. The deal’s done – it’s time to bring out the heavy lorries.

Slide round the corner, and things are different. The torch song atmosphere of Left Standing implies Goth-cum-trip-hop, but also a take on Billy Mackenzie at his most open. It’s the brittle piano chording, that cavernous sway of arrangement around the lamp-post glow of a solitary microphone; the hints of theatrics and sincerity interlocking fingers and squeezing for luck… or in desperation. That said, it doesn’t follow the Mackenzie trail entirely. There’s an absence of helium operatics and peacock posturing. Instead, the almost-buried voice of Joe (Laughtrack’s mastermind) catches at the same blend of clenched unfunky indignation as Roland Orzabal at his most vulnerable; and even breaks at the same preacherly point.

This time Joe’s not mourning a way of life, but a person: and although the burden of grief is shared, the empty space that’s been punched into his life is obvious. Joe sounds exhausted and angry as he confesses “I really don’t care for very much these days, / but the living is easy in a pointless way. / You left us standing, and now everything is hard to say…” Thankfully there are compensations, new reconcilations, new solidarities to be found in the face of it: “I tell my friends ‘don’t be so scared’… / You left us standing, and that’s something we’ll always share.”

It’s Laughtrack’s unease – their sense of huge forces and emotions moving behind the immediate business of life – that draws you back to them. This is dark, luxuriant pop to tease apart with the fingertips and pry into; something that suggests stories in the same way as the more oblique moments of no-man or Smog. And Laughtrack’s simple but oddly unsettling name (raising questions every time you consider it) suggests a writer intelligent enough to be aware of the frame surrounding whatever he does.

As Laughtrack roll away off into the night, they’re being quietly trailed by gumshoes who are after some more answers.

Laughtrack: “Amusements”
Contrary Public, CONTPUB001 (no barcode)
CD-only single
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Laughtrack online:
MySpace

August 2001 – EP reviews – Spratleys Japs’ ‘Hazel’ (“halted by the tiniest thing”)

10 Aug
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

More songs brought out of the woods in a bloody enormous bucket, then? A bucket that’s small enough and big enough to hold the moon and all the stars in the night sky, in one drink of water…

‘Hazel’ is a single, of sorts. It’s a little taste of Spratleys Japs, the youngest bud on the twisty family tree of Cardiacs. If you believe some of the yarns being spun about them, then they’re a cunning trans-Atlantic bud, gene-splicing Cardiacs’ abrasive brand of psychedelia (in which punk squawk and London brick-ends collide with a particularly rowdy mediaeval minstrels gallery) with singing urchin Jo Spratley and a gaggle of American high-desert rockers called the Rev-Ups. If you believe some of the other rumours, the hybrid songs that resulted were recorded in a spooky little shack deep in damp, spidery New Forest darkness: head Cardiac Tim Smith going outlaw as he pulled them all together with an audience of rats and a tenuous umbilical of dodgy power lines. Hence my strange intro back there. Hence the babbling.

(Anyway, Cardiacs lie. It’s best to remember that.)

Regardless of rats or forests, Hazel sounds neither young nor American. It’s a stately, ghostly, mouldering-castle fanfare – tear-blown strings, brass, kettle-drums and harps. It wheels massively in the sky like a planetarium show, or booms out low and ponderous like a ritual march. Just as it seems to have settled into its dinosaur vastness, it’s halted by the tiniest thing… Jo’s child-size voice, squished and distorted to a ghost-broadcast tinniness. She sounds seasick, she sounds strained and flattened as wallpaper; and she’s keening out a desperate minimal anti-tune from some dusty corner, words smeared beyond recognition. Everything (bar a shimmering, failing wall of high Mellotron) just stops – dead. Then the Jo-ghost fades, nervous guitars stir the air, and the orchestra pours in again. It’s the same tune, but transmuted somehow from its original pomp into something overwhelmingly compassionate. Then it all happens again. Then it happens no more. What they’re getting at defies the workings of my brain; but it digs up my emotions, as if it’s forking up mulch.

Two other songs – Curfew and the sleepy, knotted Secret, both voiced scratchily by Tim – are closer to the usual Cardiacs bashes. They clamber, jagged and monkey-like, around the whole-tone scale. They’re like folk songs forgotten in the womb, carrying a scolding kind of order in their baroque keyboard structures and the little child-choir voices. Perhaps they deal with more complete stories, on a more human scale: one of the Gothic scenarios which bubbles up is about a woman desperately trying to muffle a pealing bell, using her own body to hold off her husband’s execution. But it’s elsewhere that Spratleys Japs are really active on the borders of instinct: where they’re at their most stimulating. No answers. Exposure. A little fear. Good medicine?

A jarring change of gear after the spooky grandeur of Hazel, Home is just upsetting. There’s not much to it – just some captured seconds of studio chatter during which Jo breaks down into a panic attack, whimpering and gulping like a scalded child. Tim and sundry other SpratJaps leave the tape rolling, heartlessly, as they prepare for the next song. It’s intrusive, it’s claustrophobic, it’s horribly naked. It could well be a prank. But along with Hazel, it does get to the back-ways of the heart. Sometimes Spratleys Japs do this with a soothe, sometimes with a jolt, but they do it as if they’re twitching a curtain aside to reveal something outside the normal angle of view: something beautiful, terrifying or wondrous, but unquestionably there. Something which changes you just by being seen.

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’
All My Eye And Betty Martin Music, AME CD002 (502127203848)
CD-only EP
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Cardiacs official store or second-hand.

Spratleys Japs online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM

February 2001 – album reviews – Jim Fox’s ‘Last Things’ (“like floodwater in the night”)

10 Feb

Jim Fox: 'Last Things'

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’

Renewing his Cold Blue Music label for the millennium, Californian composer Jim Fox has set himself up as its figurehead, although not in a triumphal manner. Pomp and flamboyance wouldn’t sit well with Cold Blue’s explorations in New Music, and this first new release out of the Cold Blue bag doesn’t need to grab attention, anyway. The two Fox compositions on this album (slow-moving, implicatory, atmospheric and deliciously disturbing) surround you instead, like floodwater in the night.

With distractedly moving electronic traces making up the bulk of the music, The Copy Of The Drawing is rooted in chopped, diced and rearranged texts from letters sent to Mount Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1955 while Los Angeles swelled from backwater to metropolis. These fragments are recited by Janyce Collins in a ice-queen whisper. Her cold lips brush your ear with a beautifully cool eroticism, its detachment only increasing its power. Often phrases are followed by glassy, ratcheting harmonic sound: as if a telescope, smoothly rotating on gimbals, is trying to take a fix on the target the words imply.

Slithering passes of moth-soft electronics slide around the words as if they’re unimportant, part of the ambient backchat in any place of science. Occasionally almost-vocal smudges of transparent noise ring up in (and fall away from) the foreground: although in some respects there is no foreground, just a slow sub-zero swirl of ambient hints, briefly smeared, like time-exposure photographs. Scrapes and subliminal swarms, jump-starting drifting thoughts in the narration; quick-drowning sounds like disturbances in ice-water or the imprints of decaying viola counterpoint and dying Gregorian chant.

Allegedly, The Copy Of The Drawing is non-dramatic. But Fox’s placement of these words, the stop/start fragments and interrupted clauses (“a jumbled mess – enough to give you an idea”) suggest otherwise. The phenomena of observed and notated science are often invoked with the reverence with which scientists replace religious awe, but sometimes as a kind of anchor (“light is always the same – water is H2O…”) against the misgivings whispered in brief passes elsewhere. “Self-deficient – diffused self – applied phenomena – name – danger lies in the abstract…” Before long we’ve heard statements of meticulous preparations (“I have put it in three different envelopes – airproof, fireproof, waterproof”) and chilly accounts of emotional hallucinations. “I still heard talking – I have heard babies crying and screaming – like in a photo – babies can hear me writing this – the pictures can talk to me – they’re not lonely – and it won’t stop…”


 
Explicit disturbance is rare, and Collins’ voice remains uniformly glacial whatever the content of her script. Nonetheless, anxiety and revelation are blended throughout, with the prismatic narrative musing on thoughts such as “No-one may ever have the same knowledge – everything running up and in and out.” Certainly there’s disintegration here – a loss of assurance, causality dissolving into “a possibility – there was such a thing – invisibility… before that – all history – it doesn’t seem possible… / it’s closer if you draw a line – on that line – all depends.” At one point, Collins recites a list which explicitly fails to reduce events, phenomena and states of existence to anything tidy. “Stuff – factors – motion – the perpendicularity – the process – the parts of things – the female principles of nature – etcetera – quite incomprehensible due to its invisibility – something that is true – close by – far…”

Covertly, Fox seems to be attempting to reconcile the cosmological with the personal. Collins’ narration of astronomers’ notes seem to take on revealingly intimate suggestions (“thousands of small pushes a second – inertia is very great”) and equates the paths of cosmic debris with those of people (“one of the incoming pieces of matter – there may be more – they may travel together…”) Maybe it’s a reflection of the gravity of cities like Los Angeles – pulling in immigrants, the lost and wandering, accreting mass as it does so. Maybe it’s an idea about scientists allowing the unsettling parallels of poetry and metaphor to sneak into their notebooks and resound in those working lives which they’ve obediently sealed away from personal concerns. This is observatory music, for certain. But the question of exactly what is being observed here is an open question. It’s one which ultimately leaves you without an answer; although perhaps it does leave you with a cold, indifferently sensuous kiss.

With Last Things itself, the sky is lowering. An ominous drop, as Fox conjures up not so much a drone of bass synth as a faraway envelope of it (massed over our heads like apocalyptic cloud) and then rings us round with a distant thunderous fence of bass-register piano, rumbling tectonically and eerily, like the harbinger of the great Californian earthquake. Trapped between stooping sky and unquiet ground, we bear witness to a passionate, wordless pieta in which the dominant instrumental voice (Marty Walker’s brilliantly tortuous bass clarinet) sounds famished, and as oppressed as we are by the press of sound. Walker’s control is remarkable – he travels between delicate, near-inaudible quivers of notes; great wide splits of sound that crack with emotion; and magnificent mournful coyote calls, summoning up visions of friendless desert vistas.


 
Relief, of a sort, comes from Chas Smith’s pedal steel guitar. Almost choral in its breadth, it’s the one truly calming element in Fox’s musical painting. It’s a Pacific palliative which voices itself as distant balm to Walker’s painful questioning, or as a glimmer of light on the crack of the horizon. At around the eight-and-a-half minute mark, sounds like distant foghorns appear in the murk to add their own skein of warning and disquiet. More ethereal, less hungry, but hardly less of a disturbing portent are the rubbing glass rods on Rick Cox’s treated guitar, hanging dying trails of luminescence in the middle distance.

When Last Things fades out, the hope of things resolved has given way to a kind of acceptance. We’ve come to terms with the fearsome displacement and anxiety in Fox’s California soundscapes to such a degree that we’ve probably failed to notice that he’s finally resolved the music with a chordal and dynamic shift so subtle as to almost escape notice – like life settling itself in, a warm beast, around the jags, harshnesses and daily warnings of a threatening environment.

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’
Cold Blue Music, CB0001 (800413000129)
CD/download album
Released: 5th February 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Jim Fox online:
Homepage

November 1999 – album reviews – Sneaker Pimps’ ‘Splinter’ album, 1999 (“half in love with the idea of beautiful corpses and wanton failures”)

5 Nov

Sneaker Pimps: 'Splinter'

Sneaker Pimps: ‘Splinter’

Smack.

Its presence ghosts off this record like chill off the sea. The more you listen, the more obvious it gets; the more appropriate it seems. Twelve songs about different levels of letdown – alienation and betrayal; shortfall and disgust, “high fives and corporate anthems” – but always, always possessing an ability to be lifted above it; to float in a strange and tragic euphoria in which pain and torment are overwhelmed. A rush of transcendent languorous bliss while the mind hovers above, intact and unmarked.

Even if Sneaker Pimps weren’t so candid about backstage recreation (or didn’t drop lyrical hints like “my aim’s so weak that I’d fail to get into my arm”), you can’t escape the fact that their second album is a heroin album par excellence. Admittedly, a smarter and more professional brand of smack music – no William Burroughs squalor, no Needle Park lowlife. The spike goes in beside a penthouse window, lying on a sleek leather couch; no dust on the floor. But then, as a pop group, Sneaker Pimps always seemed far too smart for the daytime shows and MTV gladhandings.

Well, some of them did. I saw an Sneaker Pimps interview in which Kelli Dayton – their original Goth pixie-ette singer – sat flirting and babbling on a sofa, flanked by Chris Corner and Liam Howe. When not answering their own questions, with a cool intelligence, they observed her with the bored and slightly amazed looks of gentleman experts faced with a posturing child. The hapless Kelli isn’t part of Sneaker Pimps any more. She’s been dropped out – as if via hidden trapdoor – or simply excised.

For ‘Splinter’, Chris Corner glides forward like Dracula to take over the mic. His slackly sensual looks (young Johnny Thunders and Ronnie Wood, with a wild crow’s nest of dyed-black hair) lounge all over the artwork of ‘Splinter’, much as his lisping, artfully-forlorn whisper floats ahead of the music’s tide. Perhaps it’s just extra clarity – with Kelli no longer an oblivious mouthpiece – but ‘Splinter’ feels like cresting a roller-coaster. A swelling build of dawning clarity, darker- toned, which sets you up for the plunge.


 
‘Splinter’ is also the most seductive pop record I’ve heard in a long time. Not coy winks or overblown soul-boy mating calls, not even on the acid-coated, Suede-stinging-Cameo-to-death stamp of Ten To Twenty. This is a more abstract seduction, the lure of rich fabric, sweet smoke or smouldering looks. It’s born not just from the unveiling of secrets but from Liam Howe’s shockingly opulent backdrop. Creamy, orchestrated synths and samplers traced with beautifully disturbing sound. Pianos echo, fretful in the cavernous dark. ‘Omen’ choirs or wailing-wall chants lunge out at Chris, trying to lassoo him. Small slivers of Oriental melody glitter in the fabric, and beyond the luscious trip-hop grooves eerie Bernard Hermann strings are trembling, bursting, warning. Female singers, disturbingly blank, shadow Chris’ pinched tones.

The whole album’s in a state of sensual motion, like restless waters or billowing tapestries. As for mood and motif, it’s always ominous – always half in love with the idea of beautiful corpses and wanton failures; with sultry sicknesses and the bloody romance of despair. Kelli or no Kelli, there’s always been a Goth undercurrent to Sneaker Pimps (and not just because the industrial-tinged, reverberant rock of Superbug also has a distinct tang of The Mission). When Chris sings “strike me down, give me everything you’ve got. / Strike me down, I’ll be everything I’m not,” on Lightning Field, he sounds bright-eyed, waiting for the lash.


 
For Half Life’s liquid, trembling swirl of pianos and ghost orchestras, Chris muses at the syringe or at the lover he’s failing with – “half life wastes before it goes – / it’s funny how your bee-sting touch never leaves me whole. / It’s not enough to stay here, almost trying. / You kept your last laugh, watch this dying.” On the magnificently disdainful, disgusted ‘Low Five’ he delicately spits back corporate language and schmooze-talk with savage grace – “Kite-marked for true low standards / where more wants all and no less. / Just change with no real progress… / I’m a low five downsize no-one else. / Do you love yourself?”

Bad relationships. With the biz, with the needle or with girlfriends – all three bleed together in Sneaker Pimps’ crafted disaffection. Only on Cute Sushi Lunches does this seem brattish, as Chris sneers “nineteen steps out from under your feet. / Can’t eat, won’t eat… / Hate like a child hates his hair cut,” and the instruments obstruct each other, stubbornly refusing to gel… but not quite enough to derail the song.


 
It’s a suspect confessional, a cunning blind to absorb attack while Sneaker Pimps slip the rest of the album past your resistance. The worm-turning cruelty of Curl, popping with funk under its lustrous ballad verses, stung by zithers and pulsating psychedelic grind – “I curl to break consent… / and I curl now to help me find you out.” And the little thrusts and revelations like “never compromise – you’re just always weak”; “it takes too much to please me – / attached but no real feeling,”; and (most killingly) “failure was on me, / but your ideals bore me.” All of it wrapped in that dark and dreamy music.

Beyond the sensual overkill – that luxuriant death-by-soundtrack – the rich nightlife sounds are sometimes folded away in favour of small rooms dominated by Chris’ spider-legged acoustic guitar. Flowers And Silence is the most explicit trip to the shooting gallery. Skeletal slow jazz waltzing among the radar blips somewhere between Scott Walker and John Lydon, moth-wing vibrations of synth, and a dry-mouthed Chris murmuring “she’s nowhere, she mainlines, / helps me out – now I can speak… / So nothing’s free. / Ghost-drunk, out of reach.”


 
Behind the dogged strum and distant alarms of Destroying Angel, strings slither down – blood trickling across a window – while Chris turns in the most sinister performance on the record. “The stones beneath the water that you walk on to be taller, / the hands you stuck together ‘cos you prayed you’d wait forever,”, he whispers, picking apart a dying affair full of desperate power games and scams, and ruthlessly stripping it away from himself, right down to the tattoos (“the words beneath my skin / the ink that you put in, / destroying all the things you left around.”). There’s torch music on Empathy Low – as well as a rich sleazy purr of double bass – but if so it’s torch reduced to clammy ashes, as Chris stares into the recesses of his soul and finds them disturbingly bare. “Proves herself to be closer, / but not me forever, not me… / My memory’s so / Empathy low.”


 
And there’s Splinter itself, the guitar zinging and slapping while things prowl in the shadows – growling, creaking double bass, moaning and scraping; boiling, ghostly noises from Liam Howe’s black boxes. Then there’s Chris, flint-eyed and flint- voiced – “Does it take the fireworks to make you look in wonder? / Would you give reaction to the cause I’m under? / So coloured by you, but your monkey messed it up – / surrounded by you, your monkey’s long-while had enough.” If David Sylvian had stayed in London, corrupted by the smoke and cynicism, he might have ended up this sleekly poisonous: enveloped in beautiful, cultured ambient sound and existential melancholy, but honing a small silvery sleeve-dagger for the right moment.

The final song – Wife By Two Thousand – could be a subway busk, with one of Chris’ faceless women singing back at him from further down the tunnel. A draught sucks at it, pulling Liam’s subliminal buzzes and celesta clinks away into the oblivious sounds of a crowd. While Chris strings phrases from I Can Sing A Rainbow into the chorus (as if trying to get back to childhood assurance), the song’s an attempted seduction, in spite of everything that’s gone before. Chris is playing the vulnerable card this time, with a cynical, pleading desperation. “Never so complete, just failing on its feet… / I think that I need working on, so work on me / I feel that nothing’s getting though, so get to me.”


 
But the last we hear of him is a nonchalant nothing-can- hurt-me whistle. He’s disappearing into the city with his bag of secrets closed up again, leaving you to make your guesses. The kind of doomed, fascinating bastard whom your eyes still follow, and whom your hands reach out to in spite of yourself. Damn.

Trust a junkie? Never. But they can be as compelling as their habits.

Sneaker Pimps: ‘Splinter’
Clean Up Records Ltd., CUP 040CD (5029271004024)
CD/download album
Released: 25th October 1999

Buy it from:
Available from most sources.

Sneaker Pimps online:
Homepage FacebookMySpace Last FM

The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’ single (“ugly things going about their business”)

18 Sep
The Nazgul: 'Plujectories/Habitually'

The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’

The Nazgul – shadowy figures from the most obscure Krautrock fringes of the ’70s – are back. And lurking in full public view.  They’ve been occasional housemates of Tom Waits, and probably got the chance to have a gnaw on his bone machine. They’ve been studio ghouls scratching atmospheres out of trash and implements down in the Turkish quarter of Cologne in the mid-’70s, and they’ve been people who don’t just seem to coax sound out of the most unlikely sources, but draw it out via seance. The rumour is that they’ve even developed a way of recording ghost voices from over-amplifying the signals impinging on bare wires. And these two tracks – crouching malignantly on a new slice of black vinyl – were recorded using only voice, twenty-foot drainpipe and 270 feet of microphone cable. Oh, plus an accordion, for that homely folk edge. As if.

Forget the motorik aspects of Krautrock; forget the shapes it scratches and growls, whatever its texture. The Nazgul have taken it to a point where there’s almost nothing but texture: a rhythmless, frighteningly impure cloud of sound shot through with disturbing noises. Plujectories is a thick worm of static hiss, whirring compressor grind and bass-bin hum, scratching through your ears like a fibreglass cotton swab. Lunging ghostlike through the centre are flattened steam-whistle screeches, the shrill treble songs of nerve-fibres being burnt through, sometimes a barely-recognisable voice stretched in a submerged roar. It’s the sort of sound you’re scared to imagine a microphone collecting, because of what that implies about the world it’s listening to. You close your eyes, and imagine the solar flares burning through your house.

Habitually is more accessible. Hmmm. As if that mattered at this stage of the game. Although as soon as it’s let you in, you feel as if something dark has closed in behind you and cut you off. It’s an experience, a sound picture of an unsteady walk along a polluted foreshore. The crunching and crackling noises that slide around you could be the sand crumbling beneath your feet and dissolving under the dirty water, could be the stone and mortar of the old dock wall disintegrating like perished rubber; could even be the air frying and corroding under the malignant fumes emanating from that squat, broad, frightening factory over the estuary. Distant boats slither past on the sullen greying surface of the water, no faces showing on deck. Occasionally harsh dark chords and dischords blow out, looming up to enormous foghorn dimensions – something to flinch at. There are slammings, as of giant train doors: and, always around, the barely-there voices. Whistling, rustling, wheezing and gasping, part of the architecture of this corner of nowhere good.

But The Nazgul somehow seem to make all of this sound like… just another dark day, ugly things going about their business as the world slowly chokes on the last polluted shreds of its poisoned lifetime. One of the scariest things to consider is the fact that people can get used to anything. The Nazgul are up on the harbour wall watching you as you come to realise this, while you’re knee-deep and imperceptibly sinking in the dull sand. And they’re wraithed in smiles.


The Nazgul: ‘Plujectories/Habitually’
day Release Records Ltd., DR103
12-inch vinyl-only single
Released: July 1999

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

The Nazgul online:
No dedicated websites available.

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

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