Tag Archives: drift and float

November 2016 – upcoming London gigs – electro-poetryscapes with Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light at the Horse Hospital (5th)

3 Nov

They might be performing in Bloomsbury , but their heart’s in Soho. You can’t get away from it.

Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light, 5th November 2016I once started writing a set of time-travelling stories about Soho, and one day I may go back to them. If so, it might be difficult not to write Jeremy Reed into them. Poet locum and unruly novelist, with fifty-odd books behind him, both his work and his person is soused in the atmosphere, possibilities and ramifications of this particularly disobedient district of London. For my lifetime and his, it’s been the haunt of artists, drunks, liars, king-queens, agreeable rascality and disagreeable visionaries. Even in its current state of snarling retreat, slowly losing a civil war against the clammy, sterilizing encroachment of central London gentrification, chain shops and absentee renting, it’s still the part of town where you’re most likely to see an inexplicable marching band or dishevelled unicorn.

A Firewords Display presents:
Jeremy Reed & The Ginger Light
The Horse Hospital, The Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London, WC1N 1JD, England
Saturday 5th November 2016, 7.30pm
information

Dating back to 2012, The Ginger Light is a collaboration between Jeremy and Itchy Ear, a.k.a. Covent Garden loftbird Gerald McGee: an electronic music producer, film buff and keen, self-starting soundtracker who adds spectrally-energised EDM and electronica backings to footage from the likes of brutal nightmare-noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, Jean Genet’s steamy men’s-prison reverie ‘Un Chant d’Amour’ and the differently-dreamy 1903 film of ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Working live from a laptop, Gerald complements Jeremy’s word salvos with sound layers too detailed and active to be described as simple backdrops.

Like the poems they lift and wreathe, Gerald’s soundscapes are multilayered time-travel textures: archaeological digs pulling up mongrel music memories from London’s strata of music and broadcast history. Ladbroke grove dub-echoes, Carnaby pop and basement jazz; psychedelic acid-rock distortions from the UFO or Portobello Road. Ominous Throbbing Gristle reverberation and corrosive washes from the old Hackney squats. Floating ghostly sound effects, like snippets of radio drama caught on a forty-year rebound.

As for Jeremy, he plays his own role to the hilt. Blurring confessor and transgressor, impressionist chronicler and flagrant charlatan, he’s a figure of arch and wasted glamour, as if Quentin Crisp had woken up one morning transformed into Jim Morrison. A Soho fixture since the mid-’80s, he’s a onetime protege of Francis Bacon; hailed as the real poetic deal by past literary titans (Seamus Heaney, J.G. Ballard and Edmund White – two of whom compared him to Rimbaud and one to Bowie’s Thomas Newton, the Man Who Fell to Earth) and by living pop-poetry shapers (Bjork, Richard Hell, Pete Docherty).

He delivers his own poems in a voice like London sleet – a heavy-lidded, lead-cadenced drone; lisping and compellingly monotonous, burnished by rich and antiquated RADA tones and by a seething incantatory Peter Hammill flair. In the psychic autopsy of talent’s fragility in ‘Soho Johnny’; you can detect echoes of the Beats and of the exploding perspective of the ‘60s; in his calling-up and collaging of spirits including Derek Jarman and Jack the Ripper, those of cut-up broadsheets and psychogeography; in his accounts of shoplifters and dissidents adrift in the changing junk-raddled backwash of city trade, commerce and exploitation, there are looming narcotic Blakean myths.

A career-long celebrator of the transgressive, ignored and cast-aside, Jeremy’s becoming not only a poet locum for Soho, but something of a genius loci: declaiming the neighbourhood’s crumpled, contemplative, spontaneous amorality like the last pub-bard standing. In consequence, he himself seems to be succumbing to being fixed in time, representing qualities being swept away as Crossrail opportunities and predatory investment force them out. Like the Wood Green soiree happening the previous night, he’s edging towards becoming one of those fragile something to enjoy while you still can. Here he is, rouged and alert, alongside Gerald and delivering a Ginger Light performance earlier this year: keeping the vision breathing.


 

September 2015 – upcoming gigs – Gong’s Dave Sturt and friends travel the world from Derbyshire on the 23rd; London gets more Daylight Music eclectica plus a Blacklisters/Joeyfat/Himself jabber-rock summit on the 26th

17 Sep

Here are details on some more interesting concerts coming up later this month. These run the gamut from soft psychedelic world-folk atmospherics to jabbering electric art-punk noise and sprechtstimme via dream-folk, caustic love songs and extended-technique art-rock instrumentals. (It was a shame to hear about the cancellation of the Charles Hayward gig in London on the 23rd – taking its ANTA, Gnob and Kavus Torabi support slots with it – but I’m sure that something similar will be rescheduled for anyone in need of their art-mash/stoner/prog/psych/metal salad…)

event20150923davesturtwirkw

Dave Sturt presents An Evening of Dreams & Absurdities (Upstairs @ The Red Lion, Market Place, Wirksworth, Matlock, Derbyshire, DE4 4ET, UK, 23rd September 2015, 8.00pm) – £8.00

As part of the Wirksworth Festival Fringe, Dave Sturt (bass guitarist with Gong, Bill Nelson, Steve Hillage and Jade Warrior, as well as being half of Cipher) showcases tracks from his forthcoming solo album ‘Dreams & Absurdities’ in an evening of world-class all-instrumental musicianship featuring beautiful eclectic music, soundscapes and various field recordings from Gong tours and elsewhere. The music is “mostly mellow and ambient – somewhere between melancholy and elation.”

For the performance, Dave will be accompanied by three guests. Chris Ellis (guitar and piano) is a multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter/actor, an ex-member of Anglesey band Ghostriders, and an award-winning soundtrack composer – he’s also a collaborator with Dave on the Past Lives Project (which recreates the recent ancestral histories of British communities by resurrecting their old cinefilm recordings and setting them to new music). Brian Boothby (low whistle, djembe) is an acclaimed folk musician, dramatist and writer and a member of the Derbyshire mixed-arts collective Genius Loci. Jeff Davenport (drums, percussion, HandSonic pad) has worked with jazz musicians Andy Sheppard and Phil Robson, pop artists James Morrison and Laura Mayne, and currently collaborates regularly with “Silent Pianist” Neil Brand providing soundracks to silent films, as well as working in Europe and the Far East on various projects with all manner of musicians.

Up-to-date details here  and here, with tickets available online from here or available from Traid Links via email enquiry.

* * * * * * * *

On the last post, I plugged a London double event on the 19th – a day with a Daylight Music concert at midday and a noisier rock gig in the evening (both events which are still about to happen as I post this). In another week’s time, history’s repeating (fortunately not as farce, though anyone familiar with the bands in the evening show can expect some twists and jabs of humour) so here’s what’s coming up on September 26th…

Daylight Music 200

Daylight Music 200: Ex-Easter Island Head + French For Rabbits + Louis Barabbas, plus a photo exhibition (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, UK – Saturday 26th September 2015, 12.00pm-2.00pm) – free entry, suggested donation £5.00

An extra special event to celebrate the 200th Daylight Music, featuring some of the most popular acts from the last six years (643 performances by 530 different acts; 15,254 cups of tea or coffee drunk; 9,863 slices of cake scoffed; 5,003 pieces of quiche devoured) and during which we’ll be raising funds for Daylight Music in 2016.

Ex-Easter Island Head are a Liverpool based musical collective composing and performing music for solid-body electric guitar, percussion and other instruments. They have performed their original compositions solo, as a duo, trio, quartet and as a large ensemble across a wide variety of events from site-specific installation works to live film scores. They create a sensation whenever they play. If you’ve never seen musicians hitting electric guitars with mallets before, then cancel all other plans for the day and head down.

French For Rabbits hail from the remote natural setting of Waikuku Beach, in New Zealand’s South Island. Vocalist Brooke Singer expresses intimate narratives against the cast of the damp colonial cold; her voice delicately steeled against winsome guitar lines and the eerie instrumentation of her bandmates. It’s a weather-beaten dreamscape, nostalgic for warmth and hopefully lilting towards sunnier climes.

Louis Barabbas is a writer, performer and label director, best known for caustic love songs and energetic stage shows that leave you pumped up and breathless.

The icing on the cake this week is an instrumental soundscape provided by Irish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Crowley, who (over his six-album career) has been described by the Independent as “a master of understatement” and cited by Ryan Adams as the answer to the question “who’s the best songwriter that no one’s heard of?”

To celebrate the fantastic photography taken throughout the lifespan of Daylight Music by a very talented bunch of volunteer photographers, there will be a lo-fi photo exhibition consisting of 200 postcards on the pews of the chapel for people to take away; plus there will be a limited numbers of brochures to buy featuring all of the photographs.

More information on the concert is here.

In the evening, there’s a change of pace and milieu over in Hackney as post-hardcore rubs up against a bit of playful English Dada. I’ve got a liking for those occasions when rock music drives itself up against persistent, wayward speech and stubs its toes on it; and this gig will offer plenty of opportunities for that…

Blacklisters, Joeyfat, Himself, September 26th

Blacklisters + Joeyfat + Himself (Pink Mist @ The Shacklewell Arms, 71 Shacklewell Lane, London, E8 2EB, UK, Saturday 26th September 2015, 8.00pm) – £8.00

Blacklisters’ aggressive, confrontational and darkly humorous performances have earned them a reputation as one of the best acts on the UK underground, drawing comparisons to the likes of The Jesus Lizard and Pissed Jeans. Their debut album ‘BLKLSTRS’ was released in 2012 to critical acclaim, landing them supports with Scratch Acid, Pig Destroyer, Future of the Left and Big Business, as well as a live session at Maida Vale studios for the Radio 1 Rock Show. Tonight’s special show is in support of their fearsome new record ‘Adult’ on Smalltown America. Produced by Matt Johnson (aka MJ of Hookworms) the album is a clear progression for the band and sees them fuse abstract art-noise with the brutally minimalist riffs that first put them on the radar.

Also playing are amorphous cult stalwarts Joeyfat, a band who’ve been defying conventions of “band logic” longer than most of us have been able to get into shows at all. Their sinewy math-inspired spoken-word has seen them share stages with the likes of Bilge Pump, S*M*A*S*H, Clearlake, Lords, Dartz, Art Brut, Trencher and Green Day, obviously. Catch them at this rare London show.

Direct from Leeds (unless they stopped off some place on the way), Himself’s shouty/talky interactive noise rock has been winning them plaudits up and down the company, including from Radio’s Daniel P. Carter who invited them to record a live session for the Radio 1 Rock Show earlier this year.

Tickets for the Shacklewell Arms gig are available here and here. Note that this is an 18+ event.

 

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

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

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

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

REVIEW – Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’ single, 2013 (“a five-minute garland”)

22 Jan
Apricot Rail: 'Basket Press'

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’

Damn, but latter-day post-rock bands can be dour. Something renders so many of them dry, or scrunched up into a kind of passive-aggressive melodrama. Too many of them belong to the post-Mogwai/Explosions In The Sky faction – increasingly hackneyed building blocks of minimal, stilted guitar arpeggios, building to a fuzzed-up tumble of noise via a gradual crescendo. I’ve heard it too often now. It’s like watching the same slow-motion fireworks every night – every time, the same chilly histrionics.

Perth sextet Apricot Rail, trailing this new single for their second album ‘Quarrels’, manage to avoid that disappointment. As ever, they bring some of the original post-rock enchantment back as well as plenty of enchantment of their own. Admittedly, on a first hearing Basket Press is more conventionally post-rocky than their previous outing (2011’s ‘Surry Hills’ EP, in which whirring warmth and a sun-dappled shuffling of approaches gave their music the vivid craft of a beautiful set of handmade holiday postcards). The band have even returned to those pluck/build/fuzz/hallucinate ingredients I’ve just been savaging, and there’s less of the generous instrument-swapping that’s freshened their approach in the past.

In spite of this, Apricot Rail manage to avoid drabness and predictability. Basket Press is a five-minute garland of distinct and graceful stages. Part summery harvest-time music, part rippling classical suite, part affectionate conversation, it’s bound together with a palpable friendliness. First there’s a lone guitar sketching out slow American-folk arpeggios with a touch of echo (the chords, save for one crucial falling note, reworking the floating Pink Floyd melancholia of Us And Them). Then, as woodwind player Mayuka airs a fuzzy flute trail of sustained notes, there are three. Guitarists Ambrose, Jack and Justin strum, curl and gently chisel out firmer chords over a cosy fuss of drums, as if they were rounding off a carved scroll. From this, a move to that on-the-one post-rock downstrum – then, as two guitars mix a light picking of melody with pinging counter harmonics, Mayuka’s flute wakes into a twining, rising counterpoint. Bass and drums move in via a low dotting – a patter, and a dialogue.

All along, the feeling is of a mutual binding, of teamwork, all six musicians facing inwards to share the exchange. The music slips through phases like breathing, like the momentum of thoughts; like assured working hands shifting their grip on a gardening hoe. A rare and understated joy wells through it, passing hints. In many respects, all of this is moving to a similar pulse as that mid-’70s sweep of world-folk and chamber-jazz melanged into being by Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner and their colleagues in Oregon. As the lowest-pitched guitar stirs a new folkier rhythm into the band circle, Mayuka responds with sweet McCandless-esque clarinet curves. Upping the ante, a detailed guitar study – a Mediterranean sparkle – works its way in over rising supportive drums. Another guitar, sitting in the mid-register, embroiders sweet minimal rosettes of lazy cycling notes.

Eventually the band builds through a mass of roaring pedalwork and noise into the kind of land-sliding, sleeting mass of guitar-descend which we’re used to as that conclusive Mogwai-tradition flourish. This time, though: it’s been prepared for. Rather than the expected ragged glory of a ruined Sysiphus-bound downwards into gravity’s clutches, it’s a payoff – a burst of energy from what the musicians have put into the song and stored there.

For the curious – a basket press is a wine-making device, one used for over a thousand years. I can see the connection. Harvest arrives.

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’
Hidden Shoals Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th January 2013

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Apricot Rail online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

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

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’ EPs, 2011 & 2012 (“the shadow of a melody”)

6 Sep
Preludes: 'The Moth'

Preludes: ‘The Moth’

There’s the shadow of a melody in the house, floating in the dusty air. It’s coming from just around the corner, or maybe from up by the crumbling moulding.

Preludes is Matt Gasda (the sotto-voce poet who did most of the singing and keyboards in the ghostly riverbank psychedelics Bears in America) and his sister Emily. The Bears were a group so reticent and self-involved that listening to them was like spying on a set of old footprints, long-abandoned and filling with water. Some Preludes songs began life as Bears pieces before falling into this new form and flavour, so you can expect something of a family resemblance. Yet in their hypnotic and looping way, with their camp-fire canons and travelling-man guitars, Bears in America fitted (just) into the Americana bracket. In contrast, Preludes looks wistfully eastward, back towards Europe.

More specifically, Preludes capture a lost and fading atmosphere of East Coast grandeur: one which jealously guards its Old World connections, its cultural loftiness, its yellowing old money in a deadened and dreamy grip. While Matt may have relocated to New York City and settled in Brooklyn, Preludes seems to have set its heart further uptown. These songs emerge like a sigh haunting a shabby brownstone mansion on the Upper East Side, clinging to the scuffed books in its neglected library, or fluttering with a swirl of yellow leaves in its deep walled garden. It’s not that these are wordy songs of privilege; instead, they’re leisurely blurs of decaying luxury, drunk on elevated sensation and cut right back to free-drifting images of moons, flowers, loss and water, their stories dissolved. An encroaching darkness hovers around them, like time and chemistry eroding sepia photographs. At the same time, there’s a rapturous quality to the music: the thrill of the last gasp, the final pirouette of memory.

‘The Moth’ EP, and its title track in particular, set up the Preludes recipe from the start – pianos (drowned in a flat and musty reverb), blurry-edged keyboard layers (in this case, a wavering swoon of fake strings), and a faint and faded rag of vocal yearning after something it can’t quite describe, catching on whatever surrounds the moment. There’s a touch of Goth in the mix, and more than a suspicion of Nico or Anthony Hegarty; but the obliqueness and the gauzy obscurity are all Matt’s. Moonstruck, he murmurs soft, semi-operatic vocals in the backgrounds, muttering about cicadas and strange, longing transformations. Halfway along, a cheap drum machine begins to tap out a stately dance rhythm and Matt steps up to a new level of obscure, gently-impassioned reverie. (“And we’ll walk along the opening geraniums… /The light of the moon. / Open your milk-white eyes… We will never grow so old.”) It doesn’t mean so much when you pin it down. Just a handful of fleeting images, lighter than anything. Open your hand and let it drift on this sigh of breath, however, and it flushes gently with life.

It’s Emily Gasda who sings the out-of-focus waltz of The Moon And The Bonfires – sings in a small and distracted way over a softened skirl of goth keyboards; a spiralling distant dream of a barrel organ melody. Here’s more obscurity (nightswimming and natural lights; the sense of a particular, autumnal time of year). Here’s more plucking at floating, flowery images (“The violets of memory are growing in the water… / It’s like a debt you share…”) She sounds like a more peaceful version of Cranes’ Alison Shaw. The Goth tambourine and the bass drum thud behind her sound like a lull in a noisy evening. Perhaps these songs are some kind of refuge.

As goosefeather-soft as the rest, the last song – Nightlight Child – begins as a ghostly lullaby. A muffled drum and music box playout becomes a throb while Matt and Emily sing together, and for a while they’re Victorian in their magic and ruffles, their willingness to slip away into dream logic and wordplay and into ornamental fantasy. “Like water drawn from the well – moon drawn like a fish. / Nightlight child, it’s all right. / Nightlight child come to life / and from the shell alight. /A starry, starry night.” Gradually the lullaby play fades seamlessly into surreal and transforming fable: images turn macabre (moth eyes, floods rising from the throat to drown) and innocence and horror overlap. Unwinding ourselves from this particular gauze is less easy.

Preludes: 'The Swan'

Preludes: ‘The Swan’

Five-and-a-half months later (swimming back into view with a second EP, ‘The Swan’) Preludes are just as enclosed and enrapt in their consumptive old-world decay. “Snow falls in Central Park, / and for a day your fever drops,” sings Emily on a song which also coos “love is so cold” and reminisces – with a quiet, absorbed bliss – about kissing frozen hands. There’s never a suggestion that there’s any danger involved here, or a direct flicker of death. That particular disquiet just seeps into the gap that’s left for it.

In general the themes of sleep, death, illness and wasting-dream simply blush gently through the EP’s songs, each of them thinning the walls between experiences. The strangest of these is the title track, wrought with a chilly expressionism and drifting symbols. “I love the sorrow of your voice / and the wreckage of the old days” Matt muses, beneath a cloudy Blue Nile synth pad (a mirage of traffic in the evening sky) and a funerary piano line (a shard of dusty porcelain from a lost urn). Death and revival blur together (“you’re enclosed in the petals / made of snow, / born up into the clouds like ash”) in a way that’s as much phoenix as swan. “I’ll wait by the river / for the ice to tear itself up,” promises Matt, as the ritual works its way to conclusion. “Your blood will germinate the spring.” Over a minute of silence at the end of the song eases the point home.

On Sleepy Eye’d (backed by an enthusiastic music-box twinkle and lambent synth), Emily enjoys a much more innocent dream – “We’ll tear up the feathers of the stars / and make our bedding on the moon… / Take my hand, we’ll go skating on the glass, / catch fireflies with our hands.” For a while, Preludes sound as if they’ve slipped into ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland‘ and the air of rapt surrender lightens a little.

It’s only on The Well that brother and sister find out what happens when they write and sing together. Here, Emily sounds eerily like Mama Cass (moving almost imperceptibly from her previous ghostly solipsism to a kind of centred passion) while Matt murmurs an ashy, barely-there harmony. Somewhere in there is an ancient Scottish air, missing its drone but making do with a broken-limbed piano line and rising string-synth bleeds. “And the love you held in your hands like a bird / is waking up again.” sings Emily, cupping revival in her voice. “I will go down to the well / draw up water in my hands. / Tell all, all the dead / the world is now beautiful – / stop the clocks and open the windows. / We can’t understand.”

By the end of the song, it seems as if those strange arrested Preludes atmospheres might finally be breaking down, offering release. “Now I feel time as it flows / like the melting snow.” sings Emily. Somewhere out of earshot a gate is opening, a clock starting, a breath deepening.

Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’
Preludes (self-released)
Download-only EPs
Released: 21st August 2011 (‘The Moth’) & 8th February 2012 (‘The Swan’)

Get them from:
Bandcamp – ‘The Moth’; ‘The Swan’

Preludes online:
Bandcamp

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:
Homepage Tumblr

March 2011 – album reviews – Heath/Jay/Roedelius’ ‘Meeting the Magus’ reissue (“a varnish of mysticism cracks”)

29 Mar
Heath/Jay/Roedelius: 'Meeting The Magus'

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: ‘Meeting The Magus’

Even by the standards of beatless ambient electronica, the work made by Andrew Heath and Felix Jay under the name of Aqueous specializes in being elusive. Their serene, virtually weightless debut album often gave the impression that it was hiding behind itself as it flowed gently out of your speakers: a slender, slightly icy haze of suggestion.

In this 1997 team-up with a longtime Aqueous hero, the Krautrock synth-alchemist Hans-Joachim Roedelius (formerly of Cluster, and to whose Aquarello project Jay had contributed earlier in the decade) their music took on a different kind of transparency. It became easier to follow: even eager to help you along. Reissued by Roedelius fourteen years later, ‘Meeting The Magus’ remains an album on which a varnish of mysticism cracks to reveal a quiet understated joy.

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: 'First Lesson – To Renounce'

Admittedly, at first glance the album can send out a cloying message of cloistered, monastic posing. There’s a four-part Aqueous/Roedelius collaboration of “Lessons”, with titles like To Renounce and To Remember. But beyond the holy smokescreen set up by Heath and Jay (via the buzzing chanting intro tones of This Waiting Earth) lies a clearly enjoyable session. It seems that the two British synthesists came to their inspirational German counterpart more for warmth and common purpose than for instruction. It’s worth remembering that even monks, as they move around the cloisters, meet and smile – and brew things up. The original sleeve sported a profundity of meditative sky colours. The reissue humanizes the package by substituting a photo of a sculpted head with soft lines, blind sockets and terracotta-pink tone. It has the look of an amused, enigmatic toe.

While on Aqueous recordings the roles of Jay and Heath tend to blur together, the Lessons see them more clearly defined. While Roedelius plays more heavyweight digital piano and sample-rendered tones via his Kurzweil rig, Jay offers analogue sounds on older synths; plus a direct, electro-mechanical edge in the shape of Rhodes piano. Heath mediates (and meditates) in the middle with both analogue and digital keyboards, providing the reclusive structures for his collaborators to build on. It’s Jay’s decorations of Rhodes notes which silver the solemn analogue tolling on First Lesson; and which add skeletal, hopeful chords to the monastic walls of atmosphere on Second Lesson and to the ringing glass textures on Fourth.

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: 'Third Lesson – To Remember'

Roedelius comes more into his own by Third Lesson, laying swathes of amnesiac melody under Jay and Heath’s electronic abstractions. On Fourth Lesson, he lets tunes drip lightly from a harp-string setting. Throughout the Lessons the sound is reverent but revelatory, and turns playfully rebellious on Magister Interludi, which provides a playtime piece. Heath chinks and jingles while Roedelius wallops away at his keyboard drum-pads, and Jay cheerfully flails a one-note piano as if he’d trapped his finger in the strings. If the Lessons are ambient plainsong, then this is ambient garage rocking.

Although he doesn’t play any further part on the remainder of the album, Roedelius’ influence is written all over the rest of the pieces. Heath and Jay make up for his absence by imbuing tracks like Easter Sunday and Vergissmeinnicht with a new, more direct warmth and romanticism than they would have chosen previously. There’s a sense of Roedelius (even in absentia) adding zest and fresh melodic curves to the sounds, like a twist of flavour melting out of an ice-cube.

In general, attempting to get a grip on this music is still like trying to pick up water with a salad fork. But whereas most journeys to gurus or sacred mountains can mean development at the expense of the honesty and flaws which render us human, ‘Meeting the Magus’ shows that this particular journey left Heath and Jay’s Aqueous work a little thawed – and with greater humanity.

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: ‘Meeting The Magus’
Roedelius Musik, ROEDM001 (9120047330425)
Download-only album
Released: 24th March 2011 (album originally released 19th May 1997)

Buy it from:
Aqueous homepage store (original version), Digital-Tunes, Boomkat and others.

Aqueous (Andrew Heath/Felix Jay) online:
Homepage

Hans-Joachim Roedelius online:
HomepageFacebookTwitterMySpaceLast FMYou TubeiTunes

January 2011 – EP reviews – Bears in America’s ‘Bear Tracks’ (“the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle”)

29 Jan
Bears In America: 'Bear Tracks'

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’

I wasn’t sure whether I’d be getting some straightforward nature music, or an EP celebrating stocky gay men in the Appalachians. A part of me is a little disappointed that it wasn’t the latter.

Bears In America are elusive and oblique enough to be called just about anything – but the name fits. They sound like large, vague furry things; as if they’re moving past in secret, just out of eyeshot, grazing on the debris left behind towns and people. You hear their rustles and mumbles; you turn around; but they’re too difficult to spot clearly unless they want to be seen. They make small, gentle noises; generally much smaller and gentler than they are.

Matt Gasda (previously of Electioneers) and Daniel Emmett Creahan (instigator of various quixotic tape-music labels such as Prison Art and O, Morning) make up the band. They’re based in Syracuse, New York: a university town which, once upon a time, was a swamp. It sounds as if Matt and Daniel spend quite a lot of time dreaming about what it was like back in the Syracuse swamp days, and whether some of that time still soaks into today. The three tracks on here (allegedly recorded in basements and closets, and possibly while half-asleep) even feel waterlogged. While the songs themselves are light – barely sticking to the eardrum – the instruments are heavy; from the rumbling, staggering piano to the guitar which sounds like the wet, wind-spun spokes of an abandoned bicycle, half-buried in the mud.


 
At times, it’s like listening to an ancient, rural version of No Wave or a Steve Reich process chant – its back turned, its hat pulled down over its eyes, caught up by the waterline and engrossed in an endless pulse which it’s found and has tuned into. Wrapped in repetition, Rain King rumbles like a prayer, Matt singing “Put your trust in the rain king, / who’s going to move the mountain?” in a piping murmur while dark thunderheads of piano notes build up in the background. The Beta Band used to tap into sketched sounds and feelings like these back at the beginning, when they were still a well-kept secret. Bears in America sing and play as if they always want to remain that kind of secret, piping in music from a ghostly, gentler country.


 
Ratsbones spreads out the minimalism over six minutes. There’s a limping, leaning piano fragment; a drape of organ texture; a set of delicate vocal canons. Later on, there’s the sound of oyster-shells crunching. Melting together reticence, frail reedy singing and hypnotic structure, this is part Robert Wyatt reverie, part mournful Gavin Bryars ritual. The incantations themselves begin as no more than shack-mutterings (“Rat bone, the windows of the night”) but build to soft earnest cries (“The soul is leading me out, bleeding me out… / to the lamp-light, to the lamp-light and the soul…”) All feeling, no clarity. Clearer that way.


 
For Slipstream, Bears In America get up out of their huddle and turn around. You can almost hear them crack a gentle smile as they deliver a shimmering fragment of folk song based around a hushed and ebbing guitar figure, a jingle of ornament, a blanket of blurred marimbas bobbing like light-flecks on the skin of a river. It’s also a love-song of sorts, Matt singing “You are the lovely oak tree’s daughter / I’m just the lonely secret water” while immensely quiet passing sounds ruffle the air around him. At at one point the guitar starts to toy with a harder Velvet Underground pulse but the song is too liquid, too giving, to retain that kind of edge. It reaches one reedy arm back towards Nick Drake and River Man. The other stretches forwards towards something more forthrightly psychedelic, wrapped in echoes and various backwardnesses.

The song ends with a hooded country-folk flourish. So too does the EP, amid a soft cloud of hoots and murmurs as the band amble away. They vanish into the wilderness again in a rustle of battered hats and lowered eyes, as if they’d never been here. It’s not clear whether we’ll ever see them again. More than a little magical.

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’ EP
Bears In America, no catalogue number
download-only EP
Released: 20th January 2011

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Bears in America online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

October 2008 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Some of These Numbers Mean Something’ (“once engaged in perpetual fall, now they roam”)

10 Oct

Darkroom: 'Some Of These Numbers Mean Something'

Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’

Perhaps the passage of time forces a shape on what used to be abstract, giving it some meaning. Perhaps Darkroom just got tired of toying with slow nebulae and with clouds of diffused adrenalin and panic. At any rate, the Cambridge dark-ambient duo (now based around Hertfordshire) are changing. Their first full-release album since 2002’s ‘Fallout 3‘ sees them producing a very different music from the leashed chaos of their first decade. Those looming, passive-aggressive electronic thunderheads and those forbidding razor-smears of guitar are easing into a sweeter mood.

There’s also the question of how that passage of time works the same effect on people as it does on bands. In many respects, watching Darkroom evolve has been like watching – in extreme slow motion – the unknotting of a glower. Whatever the image, there’s always more to electronica artists than their boxfuls of clicks and drones or their “take-it-or-leave-it” detachment from their completed music, for which the finely-honed details of a recording (rather than the performance within) is the ultimate statement. For Darkroom, perhaps this is closer to the surface than most. The group has rarely, if ever, been sought out for interview, but anyone who’s taken the trouble to talk to them has encountered soft-spoken yet determined men keeping a tremendous exploratory brainpower in reserve. While no-man singer Tim Bowness was part of Darkroom (howling wordless imprecations and grand voice fragments, a guttering horror-struck Lucifer tumbling through a churn of collapsing stars) much of this emphasis fell on him. With Tim long-since melted out of the picture, any such curiosity has to move in on the remaining Darkroom pair and what they might be bringing in.

It becomes more interesting, for example, that synth lynchpin Os programs (as Expert Sleepers) innovative sound modules and methods for other musicians to pursue, and cooks up lighting effects for video gaming at the point where it bleeds into video art; or that guitar-broiler Michael Bearpark’s sinewy textural playing is a flipside to his day-job in cutting-edge computational chemistry. While this kind of hard science hasn’t obviously dictated the form of Darkroom (generally they’ve surrendered to the unknown rather than tried to map it) it does seems that ideas of coloration, reaction, chemical excitement and chiaroscuro are built into the group at a deep and evolving level.

When I originally reviewed ‘Fallout 3’, I toyed with the idea of a kinder, gentler Darkroom, in which the pressured frowns and disorientations of their earlier music relinquished its forbidding edge. Here, this comes to pass. While they’re not exactly rolling over to have their bellies tickled, Darkroom have, in their way, mellowed. A decade into their work, they’ve stopped overwhelming us with gigantic, impenetrable sonic proofs and begun welcoming us with musicality. Though star-stuff is still implied, and they’ve kept much of their cosmic scale and atmospherics, they’ve switched off most of their former barrage of hostile radiation. What comes through now are blushes and bobs of warmth, a new appreciation of carefully worked detail. With Michael’s recent embrace of acoustic guitars (and the deployment of drummer Andrew Booker as a new group foil) we also get the sound of physical velocity, friction and fingerprints; of hands on sticks, gut and wood as well as electronic triggers. Where they once engaged in perpetual fall, now they roam.

Their 1999 album ‘Seethrough‘ (an unexpected collection of songs recorded while Tim Bowness was still on board and tugging them back towards his own musical heartland) originally seemed like a blip in Darkroom’s career. Listening to the camouflaged melodies and song structures sliding past in ‘Some Of These Numbers…’ suggests that with or without Tim some seeds might have been planted them for later emergence. Bar the vertiginous, unsettling loll of Insecure Digital (a teetering reminder of Darkroom’s roots in echoing noise and psychedelic dub) the music here sounds as if it comes from the heart and not from the more obscure sets of glands. Mercury Shuffle, in particular, rides on a soft and subtle ballad-chord sequence, inspiring rippled melodics. Booker, in his most prominent moment on the record, provides a subtle shuffle from which to launch Os’ rhapsodic faux-CS-80 synth buzz and Michael’s batwing-rises of screech-guitar. Beyond the drowsy interplay, the backgrounds show Darkroom at their gentlest: a riffling submarine twang, or space-rock-tinged Americana with a touch of Bill Frisell (and, perhaps more than a couple of echoes of Red River Valley).

While Darkroom have generally been open about their enjoyment of 1970s prog and fusion, and of 1980s pop (as well as the 1990s electronica boom which they both sprang from and dodged) it’s becoming more evident in the sounds they choose and the structures they etch. Album opener The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes revisits some aspect of the group’s original brutal beauty – a brow-furrowed mumble of baleful sound, its hooded swamp-dragon guitar tones move foggily over a bass-drum thud that’s part hip-hop and part dream-course, as if some of the trancier elements of Pink Floyd’s Echoes were cheek-to-cheeking with the Aphex Twin. Yet it’s also more structured than they’d have allowed themselves before: more painstakingly orchestrated. Treated guitar parts flash over the lip of the tune’s leading edge like a handful of blades, sounding in the deep like Wagner horns or mingling Delta slide with digital interrupts.

A whole rackful of ideas are bound into the album’s title track, which travels from electronics fluttering around elegant classical-styled guitar harmonics via a subtly slowhanded Bearpark melody and bouncing Eurotrance suggestions from Os. These in turn thin out into a post-rock brew of expressive but hidden guitar and a succession of themes, each beautifully suggestive but barely touched upon. They’re like the points of a mathematical iceberg, nudged and smoothed by equally brief musical salutes (an aerial Fripp burn, a little Talking Heads funk) and, towards the end, the crash and hiss of sea-breakers.

While they’re shyly opening out this fan-spread of influences, Darkroom also reveal a new skill: that of touching on and drawing on the times and tones which inspire them without ever getting stuck to them. My Sunsets Are All One-Sided simultaneously revisits the rootless, reborn feel of very early jazz-fusion (before the pulls of groove and tradition dragged it back to something more predictable) and the creeping 1950s curiosity of the European avant-garde. Here’s a gentle Stockhausen toy-chime, eventually discovering its own little medley of small tunes. Here’s a lighthouse-revolve of guitar swells. Here’s a move, by degrees, from Zawinul to Hammer; to a point where a ‘Miami Vice’ bass-synth pulse and subtle Booker cymbalwork grounds Michael’s leaf-fall guitar work, and a shuffling batter of electronic funk is shadowed by the jingle of a roller toy.

Cuddling up with the light celestial touches of ’70s chamber-soul while filtering them through carefully-reserved 1990s arrangements, No Candy No Can Do also hints at the diaphanous mid-’80s tundrascapes on Cocteau Twins’ ‘Victorialand’. Twinkly flechettes of electric piano, slow spins of programmed glitter-dust and a watery Booker shuffle provide the shape, with a countrified psychedelic guitar patrolling the hazy horizon. Hints of dub, apparently played on a toy organ, even makes links to the frayed and contemplative Birmingham exotica of Pram.

The key to Darkroom’s transformation is in Michael’s work on acoustic nylon and steel-string guitars, which bring him down from his cruising altitudes and up from his witches-brew textural bubbling and leave him bare-armed at Darkroom’s forefront. On Two Is Ambient, he’s hooking out a Spanish guitar clang, looping against his own electric drones, warbles and wah-wah cycles and against Booker’s industrial snare and tight cymbals. The latter pulls in yet another layered Bearpark, this one exploring a stepping probing bass sound (begun on the low nylon strings, fretbuzz and all, and ending up somewhere in cavernous double bass territory). Os seems to be both manipulating these sounds with one hand and pushing again them with the other: presumably it’s him who’s responsible for the final chromatic crash and pink noise weirdout. Similarly, it’s Os who throws up the gelid synth-wobble, string-section cycles and speed-oscillation pranks in Chalk Is Organised Dust – a necessary wildcard foil to the loping, snapping drums (part Bill Bruford and part Can) and the snatches of blues, classical double-stops and jazz-bass ostinato which Michael’s now feeding into the tune (as if for ten years he’s been a hostage virtuoso, now finally set free of his leg-irons and running off in a kind of fluid hobble).

Turtles All The Way Down concludes the album on a dry joke. The title’s from Stephen Hawking, via any number of sources. It covers infinite regression (handy for loopers), desperate mythologizing and arguments stretched thin. The music itself is fired off from on the abstract coil of a steel-strung guitar lick in which jazz, blues, minimalism and an awkward all-ways dash combine in a way which would’ve raised a sour grin from John Fahey. This quickly moves into a gnarly munching electric drone, ghostly post-rock keyboards and spacious drum clatter. It’s a last-minute hollowing out of what’s gone before, the sounds and atmospherics recalling the anxious small-hours cruises of Bark Psychosis (sliding past the red lights at 3am, somewhere close to home but never in a stranger place).

It’s as if Darkroom have suddenly stopped, shaken awake, and reminded themselves not to let us settle into too much comfort. Much of the music on ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’ may have dropped out of the previous interstellar char-and-chill in order to embrace a more human-scaled and earthbound warmth. Darkroom aren’t forgetting that the inhuman extremes are still there, waiting indifferently just outside the envelope.

Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’
Burning Shed, BSHED 0408 (5060164400059)
CD/download album
Released: 3rd October 2008

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

September 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘Lessons Learned from an Aged Feline Pt. 1’ album, 2002 (“a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man”)

18 Sep

Steve Lawson: 'Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline - Pt 1'

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline – Part 1’

Dedicating an entire album to a cat sounds unforgivably twee, but Steve Lawson really couldn’t care less. He’s probably immune to any such embarrassment, having long fostered an image as The Cuddly Solo Bass Player (This included a stint braving potentially fatal scorn from Level 42 fans, when he played some unmanly support slots to their heroes while wearing angora coats, glitterball T-shirts and heterosexual nail varnish. If he isn’t immune to embarrassment, at least he can claim that that’s something Paul Simonon never had the balls to do.) There’s also solidity to his gesture: the cat in question is Steve’s old and ailing Abyssinian, and Steve himself is a firm believer in the lessons gained from loving our companions (pets included) and learning to accept their ageing and their eventual deaths.

Originally ‘Lessons Learned From An Ancient Feline Pt 1’ was a free companion release for the second Steve Lawson album – ‘Not Dancing For Chicken‘. As such, it’s inevitably less ordered. At the crudest summary, it’s an outtakes-plus kind of release compiling the bits of the ‘…Chicken’ sessions which didn’t fit comfortably onto the main album. Even so it gives a surprisingly effective rough’n’ready look at Lawson’s prolific and wide-ranging talent. The lover of pretty tunes who’s also a serious gear-hound and sound-mangler; the electronic texture looper who’ll groove like Gilberto. The distorted beat-science meddler with a thoroughly un-ironic taste for playing Fly Me To The Moon straight with no chaser or spoiler.

On the easy side, there are a couple of bits of Lawson the Latin lover. The opening One Hip Cat is a twangy Brazilian-style guitar study, allowing him to display some accomplished jazzy chops inside its lazy summery breeziness. There’s a hint of what’s to come via in the shape of the occasional odd drones undercutting the music; drifting in like the suspicion of sharky shadows deep below blue lagoon water. Here Endeth The Lesson is one of Steve’s loop-assisted live collaborations with himself – a duet between a slow Latin rhythm bass with a pillowy tone and a solo fretless bass carrying the tune. The latter (high and tenor-y) sings off into the dusk with an impeccable spacey melodicism, ultimately sliding away into a sleeper’s fade.

Either of these two pieces could have fitted into a summer jazz festival of samba and ice cream, and they’d also have matched those glitterball T-shirts. Two neighbouring pieces definitely couldn’t. Cute names notwithstanding, both Framulous Jam and Evil Harv’s Evil Empire are discombobulated systems music. Like everything else on the album, they’re generated solely by Steve’s bass guitar and effects rack in real time. Unlike the easy-on-the-ear pieces, they sound thoroughly electronic and abstracted.

Evil Harv’s Evil Empire arrays fast and atonal binary-on-off hums, mingling them with suspension-bridge twangs and plucks and snips. Interrupt silences and backward sounds are stewed into the brew, before all is ultimately rendered into a backdrop for some of Lawson’s roaming, unbounded glissandi. In Framulous Jam, harmonic chime-chords are worried gently by electronic interrupts, setting up interesting conflicts between hanging sustain and random blip-jitters. Both could sidle into those earnest meets in obscure juice bars, haunted by men from ‘The Wire’ intent on watching other men frown over gurgling laptops.

Ultimately, the album’s centrepiece is the saccharin-titled but sonically stretching two-parter Sleep Eat Snuggle Repeat. In the first part, angelic traces of sustained E-bow bass – thrillingly vocal – move between foggy front of cold and warm textures, exchanging almost imperceptibly. In echoing caverns beyond, pings ring like stressed piano notes, clocks tick, water drops, wah-pedals disgorge diffuse gushes of sound, and bubble-motors pulse and spurt. Part two builds on the preceding one. A float of sounds and traces are punctuated, now and again, by a giant organ-like roar as the digital stops are eased out. It’s pure abstract indulgence, but mightily effective. It sounds like the dreams of a flea on a whale.

The big joke is that behind the twee titles lurks Steve’s most bizarre album yet, and one which stakes his most effective claim to being a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man. What was the most important lesson which Steve Lawson learned from his cat? Why, to move when you least expect it…

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt 1’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013(B) (no barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 2nd September 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp, download only. The original release was a CD-R included with early orders of ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’: some copies may be in circulation second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

July 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘Not Dancing for Chicken’ (“a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration”)

14 Jul
Steve Lawson: 'Not Dancing For Chicken'

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’

Steve Lawson’s second solo album shows that he’s taking assured strides in all directions. His relaxed, informal debut (2000’s ‘And Nothing But The Bass‘) was a generous concoction of looped and jazzy bass guitars, vivid electronic textures and welling ambiences. It showed what could happen when benevolent prettiness intermeshes with a generous pinch of sound-warping avant-garde tendencies.

Lawson’s latest solo efforts display a more kaleidoscopic approach while losing none of that endearing friendliness. “Not dancing for chicken” is a war-cry – something to do with buckets of junk food, the waning star of MC Hammer and the fight between commercialism and art. To be honest, Lawson can sit that specific war out. He can mash up sound with the best of them (as he’s done with the French improvisers Franck Vigroux and Jerome Curry), but the warrior/guru moves of the dedicated avant-gardener aren’t really his style. Instead of responding to sickly market pap with ferocious spills of obvious disruption, he marries simple, memorable rivulets of melody to a broad field of sonic treatments. In doing so, he creates music which rather than turning its back and raging will instead sail right in under the commercial radar to tickle people’s senses. If that makes him an armchair revolutionary, at least he’s the kind who offers you the armchair first.

To define this better, one could quote one of his own song titles: Lawson believes in “the virtue of the small.” Sticking to a single-take, bass-guitar-only rule (and pursuing his experiments with sound processors, EBow sustainers and loop technology), he continues to hit the elusive target of making music-for-everyone. Centred on a deft, tuneful and jazzy core, his music avoids the predictable calisthenics of fusion and the stolid members-club beefiness of mainstream jazz and post-bop. Instead, he’s a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration, and an obvious love for his listeners.

No More Us And Them displays this perfectly, showing Lawson at his very best. Cascading curtains of gorgeous submarine texture tumble in waves over particularly poignant fretless bass figures and a questioning melody which hovers marvellously between mourning and hope. By way of contrast, MMFSOG offers a goofy Hawaiian celebration. Lawson squeezes out a typewriter rattle of tabla-styled slap groove before anointing it with layer upon layer of mischievously camouflaged bass sounds. Most notable is the giddy, slippery steel guitar impression, roller-blading precariously across the verses; but there are also cicada choruses, stunt-plane zips of backwards melodies and blankets of Warp-styled electronica burble on offer. Eventually Lawson cheerfully runs the song into the swamp and leaves it there to marinade, taking up more mutant funk on Channel Surfing in which a stupefied, robotic slap line chunters merrily under a pale, ringing line of tumbledown chord arches. Various queasy jazz riffs and funky wriggles squeeze past it as best they may.

Although Lawson delights in cooking up this kind of loop stew, ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’ doesn’t reject tradition. On Regretting The Rainbow (the most complex piece on offer) he employs his six-string contrabass to blend elements of jazz guitar smoothies Martin Taylor and Joe Pass in a luscious and breezy study, steered subtly towards some difficult questions via an intrusion of quizzical harmony. Danny And Mo lets Lawson’s fretless bass and EBow gently sing the praises of underrated British bass heroes: a nice counterbalance to the endless musical tributes to Jaco Pastorius tumbling from other bass players.

A couple of pieces (the relaxed Brazilian lilt of Amo Amatis Amare and the stumble-blues of Tom Waits For No Man) are one-man-band opportunities to fool around with some familiar forms, to Lawsonify them, and to take advantage of some truly appalling puns. Two ballads – Need You Now and Jimmy James – showcase Lawson’s humble-yet-richly-romantic solo tone, as well as his flair for understated counterpoint via a couple of artfully poised loops. The latter (a valediction to a lost friend) moves away from simple Windham Hill prettiness thanks to the eerie fingertip-on-glass textures that circulate behind its warm, sleepy fretless melody.

The stranger music sends Lawson into a different area again. Exit Sandman is a lurking mood piece, a sour work-song riff wafting up into vaporous blue-grey wails of E-bow. No Such Thing As An Evil Face is a ghostly African death-song. The amnesiac Ubuntu is a similar set of waves reaching the beach, Lawson’s backing loops providing tinkling tabla tones and prinking noises like cooling shrapnel.

The finale, Highway 1, brings all of Lawson’s work together. The rich, free-ranging travellers melody sits on gently swinging cradles of clicks, pops and ghost notes and on shimmering shells of chords. It’s carried in turn by a sweet, blues-y wah-tone like a swamp foghorn, then a shimmering ripple of backwards basses, then a sky-borne E-bow wail which flutters like a giant and beautiful moth. Lawson conjures up heat-hazes and mirage-doubles of parts and melody out of his loops pedals, and will-o-the-wisps dance counterpoint but never obscure the relaxed momentum of the tune as it heads onwards to a permanent perfect sunset and fades out; still travelling as hopefully as the smiling man on the bass.

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st July 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

January 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson/Jez Carr’s ‘Conversations’ album, 2002 (“easy, generous grace”)

14 Jan
Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: 'Conversations'

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’

Talk’s cheap, and so am I… at least, when writing intros. I was going to pursue the “conversation” theme by squeezing in comments of my own about eavesdropping on musicians, or about the Troggs tape, or the language of notes. Then I put all of my smart-arse lines down, and just listened.

There are some records about which it’s difficult to say anything. Much. They crop up when you want to get expansive and to show off: and then you find that you just can’t use them as launch-pads for spectacular rants about the state of music, or the permeability of the soul. They bob beyond clutching fingertips and wagging tongue, deflecting the last-ditch wafts of hype with which you try to lassoo them. They’re critic-killers. And the funniest thing is that you love them for it – for the best reasons (nothing to do with clenched teeth, uptight craftsmanship or sweating in front of paying audiences). ‘Conversations’ is one of those records. Go and buy it. Feel good.

Alternatively, accept that I’ve got to try to explain it anyway: so please humour me for seven hundred more words or so…

Basics, then. ‘Conversations’ is a set of immediate, improvised duets between two British musicians – Steve Lawson (fretless bass guitar, loops) and Jez Carr (piano, small antelope statuettes) – from one of the tasteful/tuneful intersections of jazz and the avant-garde underground. Two sprawling self-penned essays on the CD sleeve reveal a cheerfully anti-heroic approach to improv and to music in general. Lawson and Carr name-check Schoenberg and Yehudi Menuhin, note that “people think that free means ‘out’, when free just means free”, but steer clear of portentousness. Oft-revived improv traits – stoniness, pomposity, randomness, irritating mysticism – are ignored in favour of an earnest, open approach.

The music reflects this. Clean and quietly inspired, it resounds through comfortable air, sharing subtle humour. It makes you think of a friendly hand on your shoulder; not a scuffle in an alley, or six days at the foot of a grouchy guru. If it sent postcards home, they’d be of green hills in ECM-land, or soft-focus shots of Bill Evans’ study. A few pictures of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow’s backyard might be in there too: but from the quiet time, somewhen in late spring, a lull in the heavy blowing season. This sounds pretty, and it is. Ultimately ‘Conversations’ is soft-edged, as relaxed as winding English rivers. It never works up a head of steam when a delicate flow will do instead.

Despite Carr’s Romantic leanings (he owes as much to Chopin as to Evans or Dollar Brand), he doesn’t waste notes, or drown the music in florid chords: and although ‘Conversations’ is built on slick musical technology, it’s not hijacked by it. Lawson (usually a solo performer, with a warped melodic looper’s approach) has all of his digital gizmos and luscious overlaid textures to hand; but he never once swamps Carr with them. For his part, Carr draws as much warmth from a digital piano as others could from a concert grand or from a well-worn-in jazz-club upright (covered in cigarette burns, whisky spills and four-generations-worth of jazzmen’s fingerprints).

Each piece is double-titled, reflecting each players’ viewpoint. Although Carr’s serious-sounding Migration manages to also be Lawson’s flippant Whateverwhatever, the duo maintain remarkable accord as they play. As Lawson and Carr settle readily into light-footed slow-motion melodies or feathery grooves, rich smudges of bass tone or rapt curving anchors of sound are left revolving in the loop pedal waiting for counterpoint with quick, relaxed piano touches. There are plenty of opportunities for hearing the expansive, delicately embracing tones of Lawson’s solo melodies: but for most of the record he provides a low-volume dub menagerie of playful but expressive noises. These sit alongside Carr’s crisp, ever-fresh improvising like an inspired combination of Percy Jones and a New Age Squarepusher.

On Sweet’N’Spiky/Shades Of Creation, Carr outlines ideas of rapt melodic phrases over Lawson’s bedrock riff, leaving our imaginations to fill in the gaps. At his leisure, Lawson fills in gaps we hadn’t actually thought of – via distant scrunches, data streams, balloon pings, gargling clicks and spinbacks, all sitting in the pockets of the tune. Walking rhythms interplay for Whateverwhatever/Migration: Carr’s brittle and determined piano mileposts the journey while Lawson offers squeaky wheels, footsteps and theremin wobbles of bass loop. For 1, 2, 3, 4…/Broken Lead, the bassist offers a fragmentary free-funk undertow, further softened by layers of unorthodox spindly chords and gurgling harmonics as Carr provides bright spins of softly-fingered notes.

Destination Unknown @ Point Of Departure/Drifting Dreaming makes the most of a grand vista of musical space, but does it by filling up as little of the view as possible. Carr plants brave speckles of light on unseen crags while a variety of subtle Lawson noises low like distant cattle, or write backward circles in fizzing firefly textures. Signing off with Closing Statement/At First Sight, Carr opens up into ringing blue ripples of controlled delight. Lawson builds up from E-Bowed foghorning soundscapes, progressing to wah-wobbled groove pulses and shimmering echoed treble tremors. Two-thirds of the way in, the music finally slides gracefully into a straightforward duet. Lawson’s yawning fretless notes cradle an ever-sleepier Carr – though unusual tinges of chording promise colourful dreams. It’s a beautiful closer to an album on which nothing has got in the way of the music. Neither embarrassment, nor aggression, nor flash.

What is truly remarkable about ‘Conversations’ is its easy, generous grace: unobscured by its gadgets, the skills of its players, even the hints implicit in genre and background. Waylaid by catches and self-consciousness, few records of “open” music are truly open. This is one that is.

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0012 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st January 2002

Buy it from:
Download from Jez Carr’s Bandcamp page; CD best looked for second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

Jez Carr online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

June 2001 – album reviews – Marty Walker’s ‘Dancing on Water’ (“a leading light in bass clarinet”)

10 Jun
Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water'

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’

Blowing thick darkness, cheery reed-chatter and diva moans with equal facility, Marty Walker has earned himself a New Music name as a leading light in bass clarinet. Over eighty pieces by diverse composers have been written specifically for his particular gifts, and he’s effectively the in-house reedsman for many of the “California school” cadre of composers. For ‘Dancing On Water’ – his first release under his own name on Cold Blue Music – the California school returns the favours. Works from five of its members – the blissful voice-music of Daniel Lentz, the plotted-out ellipses of Michael Byron, Jim Fox’s expansive impressionism, Michael Jon Fink’s lonely, romantic grace-of-few-words and Peter Garland’s percussion-slanted Native American leanings – all juxtapose in different ways with different aspects of Marty’s interpretative approach.

On several of these pieces, Marty gets to stow away his bass clarinet (along with all of its invites to the New Music party) and bring his B-flat clarinet out from under its cousin’s shadow. The close-up duets of Peter Garland’s two-part Dancing On Water sets Walker down next to William Winant and David Johnson’s four-handed marimba. The music neatly folds Mexican folk melodies into minimalist discipline: the marimba clinks with sharp solemnity, both childlike and gamelan-esque. It’s a wily dance of toys, slicing the simple cadences up with unpredictable yet precise spaces. While the clarinet traces similar curves up through the arpeggios, Marty invests it with warmth plus infinitesmal bluesy slides and fades from small-group jazz: a wink in the midst of discipline. Moonlight is the meditation afterwards – a tremolo marimba twinkling like water underneath a much sleepier, dreamier clarinet, Marty coaxing utter expressiveness out of Garland’s clipped material.



 
On Daniel Lentz’s efflorescent Song(s) Of The Sirens, Marty’s ten overdubbed clarinets are matched by ten overdubbed pianos (played by Bryan Pezzone, another Cold Blue loyalist). But rather than being slaved to a rigid percussive regimentation, all twenty instruments are worked into Lentz’s familiar fascination with overlaid, overlapping vocal fragments. A sensuous undulation of slightly disfocussed pitches are linked by Pezzone’s summery, waterfalling spirals of virtuoso piano; a squadron of tiny icicles falling on the ear.

Amy Knoles’ sighing, narcotised voice (doppelgangered and folded into blurry harmonies and elisions, stacked like sated bodies) provides the siren’s role. This reaches us as a meandering stream of single spoken words – “lips”, “let”, “love”, “air”, “sweet”; “to”, “our”, “listen”, “touch”, “voices”, “you” – all of which are lifted and displaced from their sentences, suggesting an erotic, subliminal hypnosis. As digital manipulation slowly brings the intent into focus, full sentences and melodies coalesce from the haze. Marty’s role here, though, is simply as one (or ten) of the ensemble dreamers, voicing Lenz’s drowsy vision via the clarinet’s sleepy yawning tones. By the time of the stirring, ecstatic finale of piano rolls rumbling out of the trance, he’s not even there anymore.


 
In the end, it remains the bass clarinet that provides the best bridge between Marty Walker and the composers who seek him out. It’s on that instrument that his expressiveness achieves its most fascinating levels. Certainly it’s fascinated Michael Byron, whose composition Elegant Detours has the most obsessive interest in Marty’s abilities. Byron, however, seems more interested in Marty Walker as a performance mechanism rather than as an emoter. Trapped inside an implied run up a three-octave whole-tone scale, Elegant Detours scurries in super-compressed bursts to explore the possible patterns available. A workout of bass clarinet extremes (from tiny puffs of air to sweeps across its whole range) it ends in lung-bustingly sustained wails knifing the attention to the wall, almost physically painful to listen to. Marty rises superbly to the technical challenge, but it’s frantically clinical. The music seems to feast on itself; like competitive weightlifting, or like laying bets on the frantic mice attempting to escape from a lab maze.


 
Using far fewer games of structure, Jim Fox demonstrates that he understands the empathy in Marty’s playing. Fox usually works with quiet, beautifully ominous nightscapes and slow-creeping tonalities, and his piece – Among Simple Shadows – is no exception. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith blows a transparent and hushed last-post of a tune, which Marty shadows like the last hum resonating from the throat of a gospel bass. Bryan Pezzone’s piano flaps weightlessly in the wind, and casts anxious repeating clots of melody after the mingled brass and woodwind as they move through a dark-blue spectrum of emotions from quiet grief to undefinable hope.


 
Of all the composers, Rick Cox might have the most fellow feeling for Marty Walker. After all, throughout On Tuesday that’s his own contra-alto clarinet playing in counterpoint to Marty’s bass model. This chokingly slow four-movement duet has more than a tinge of swamp-blues to it – like the last notes restlessly clinging onto the grass tussocks after the funeral procession is long gone and the coffin rests in its mausoleum, floating above the bayou. With both instruments burring and smearing towards the bottom of their ranges, there’s a sense of exhaustion. As with much to do with the blues, there’s also a feeling of unfinished business.


 
David Johnson (on vibraphone this time) returns to help Marty tackle Michael Jon Fink’s micro-concerto As Is Thought/Aurora. This time, they make a trio with orchestral harpist Susan Allen. A tense set of precise unison arpeggios, venturing warily out into space, are connected and soothed by Marty, whose jazz-inflected way with the shaping of his bridging phrases counters the music-box abruptness of the other instruments. As the piece’s initial trepidation melts, like the dissolution of fear, Allen’s harp comes more to the fore. Each instrument softens, progressively handing the others a tiny cadence of notes to repeat – a canon which clambers on like hands swapping grip-space on a rope, continuing to move outwards.


 
Overall, ‘Dancing On Water’ reaffirms Marty Walker’s excellence as an interpretative musician, providing a set of multiple masques – or masks – for him to excel in. Still, I’m left uncomfortably whetted and slightly unsatisfied. His generous illumination of the music of others draws me into hankering after other aspects of his musicality – the creator, the improviser; the Marty Walker who’s drawn on his own music to provide that illumination. Hints of this are dotted all over ‘Dancing On Water’ in every cunningly bent note, in every hint of intelligence drawn from outside – even in the times when he steps back into the ensemble, upstaged on his own record.

There’s power in a name. Perhaps Marty Walker’s name, and his musical identity, has become too powerful to let him play second fiddle on his recordings. ‘Dancing On Water’ certainly showcases his talents, but in comparison to other Cold Blue albums – each firmly stamped with a composer’s identity – it feels like a picture of a man grown just a bit too big to comfortably wear other people’s handed-over suits in his own house.

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’
Cold Blue Music, CB0005 (800413000525)
CD-only album
Released: 5th June 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music

Marty Walker online:
Homepage

February 2001 – album reviews – centrozoon’s ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ (“miscellaneous objects picked up on a bright afternoon”)

27 Feb
centrozoon: 'Sun Lounge Debris'

centrozoon: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’

Interbreeding the subliminal and the upfront, German ambient duo centrozoon first showed up in 2000 with the self-camouflaging, superbly effective ‘Blast‘. Icy and transformative (an album of elusive, subtle yet uncompromising music for a dissolving world), it was a deliberate hollow grail; an eerily crafted emptiness masking or bypassing outright emotion. The occasional fragmentary synth-pop hiccup broke this rule and humanised the duo (like a brief giggle or fart in the meditation), but ‘Blast’ was mostly all hints and invisible statements – a ghost-impression of grandiosity, a sumptuous erasing.

The six tracks of the follow-up, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ (put out on the quick-release art-rock label Burning Shed rather than, like ‘Blast’, on the more impassively arty DiN) turn out to be the product of a single day’s recording. With ambient groups being what they are, and the rapidly diminishing returns of minimal textures, it’d be fair to expect a series of belated out-takes. Markus Reuter and Bernhard Wöstheinrich could have exposed themselves as blanded-out or hopelessly jumbled: at best, retreading the magnificent displaced atmospherics of ‘Blast’. Fortunately, centrozoon‘s taste and inspiration are very much intact, and they’ve added some healthy lust and humour to the mix.

Admittedly, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ doesn’t have the quiet and eerie impact of ‘Blast’. The disordered-lifestyle title makes that implicit, whether the centrozooners are suggesting a J.G. Ballard dystopia or simply admitting that they, too, sometimes like to lie around in a mess of crisps, magazines and tanning lotion. The music – disparate and different in its swatch of moods – also indicates that centrozoon aren’t prepared to plough that same impeccable furrow as they did on their debut. In certain respects, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ resembles a collection of miscellaneous objects picked up on a bright afternoon. However, any randomness is rapidly offset by the connective, collective intelligence which centrozoon exhibit, and by their clear eagerness to develop from their previous wintry and self-absenting perfection and move towards questions and delicate musical quirks.

‘Sun Lounge Debris’ pieces come, roughly speaking, in pairs. Two of the tracks, Tales Of Children In Trees and Harvest Girls, reveal depths (or, more accurately, widths) to centrozoon which have previously gone unnoticed. More on those later. The two remaining pairs take inspiration from the texture-based constructions of ‘Blast’ but move the ideas elsewhere.

From the throwaway ironic/pedantic titles, one of these ambient pairs suggests game-playing at work; toying with expectations. This One Will Please You could’ve been a ‘Blast’ outtake, were it not for its warmth – it’s a cosmic Mistral, entirely composed of atmosphere, thoroughly sunny and swimmy. The second – the displeaser – is darker, but where ‘Blast’ suggested urban dissolution (chilliness, shapes of buildings yielding to vapour) This One Won’t Please You implies some more rural outlines. More forbidding than its brother, it possesses a similar softness: perhaps a musical impression of the darkness hollowed out beneath the forest roof. The sinister side is provided in a sense of waiting for something unknown, something as yet unshaped in the mind’s eye.

Less cohesive – but bolder – than the Please tracks, another pair of centrozoon experiments jolts the project into more radical dynamics. In Sable Orbit is the most immediately striking of the two. As mushroom clouds of pipe-organ sounds are put through the MIDI wringer, pitches are set afloat in choppy spasms so that they billow in a vast and giddy skyward swell: a scrap of Messaien nightmare trapped in a Zeppelin. Several Chilled Wives follows the same approach with a little less alarm. Beyond its lazy, inexorable and monstrous lurches a circular harmony reveals itself, like the boundary of a horizon.

In almost all of these it’s unclear as to which noises are coming off Markus’ heavily processed and looped Warr Guitar and which emanate from the voice-banks of Bernhard ‘s synthesizers. In spite of their very different musical motivations – Bernhard spontaneous and iconoclastic, Markus scholarly and studied – both centrozooners are able to morph together without an evident join, as they did for much of the frosted blend of ‘Blast’. Harvest Girls – one of the two serious centrozoon digressions on the album, and the one which gives ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ its explosive, bliss-struck opening – is very different, and shows us what happens when centrozoon let themselves fall open into those two halves.

It’s revealing. While Bernhard blots an immense, swirling, stained-glass flange noise from his keyboard onto the sky, Markus lets rip with a richly melodic overdriven buzz of solo – an ecstatic Robert Fripp whoop. This is the polar opposite to his usual textural playing, with its concealing nature – this is a lusty, ascending and liberated firework spray of rock tensions, as healthy and randy as a summer party. The nasal-toned scurries and wails are closer to the excitement of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ or to Joe Satriani’s triumphal histrionics then they are to more expected influences like Fripp or of Trey Gunn, with their devotional dissonance. The joy is unfeigned, but unashamedly synthetic in its plastic textures: you can hear centrozoon revelling in the fact. In response to Markus’ blaze of guileless prog-rock romanticism, Bernhard sends a cheesy synth-pad of concerto strings rebounding off the clouds. Apparently intent on mutilating any of the dodgy presets which he can entice out of his gear, he also offers up an undulating bass synth boom plus a taffy-stretched swathe of electronica which sounds like an evaporating glass harmonica.

Harvest Girls could be centrozoon trying on the bristly mantle of rock piggery and loving it; but Tales Of Children In Trees propels them forward into the world of dance. Those smooth swirls of ambience and the synth chuckles could have come from anywhere else in their ambient past and present, but they’re all tossed on a hustle of jazz breakbeats: a thinking pummel, assured and dominant. As an album closer, it suggests that centrozoon are already off their loungers and in fervid motion. If you came by to relax and slob out, you’re already too late. Next chapter engaging…

centrozoon: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’
Iapetus Records/Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 21st February 2001

  • Preceded by: Blast.
  • Followed by: ‘The Divine Beast’.

Buy it from:
Free download from Iapetus Records or Bandcamp. Originally released by Burning Shed as a CD-R album.

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp 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

December 2000 – album reviews – Picture Center’s ‘The Wonders of God’s Heaven and Earth’ (“the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body”)

1 Dec

Picture Center: 'The Wonders Of God's Heaven And Earth'

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’

A beautifully understated fatalism hangs, both heavy and light, over the music on Picture Center’s first album. It reminds me of the last time I was – God knows why – wandering on one of the muddy pebble beaches along the Thames Estuary, heart carried like a windsock, fumbled at by a half-hearted drizzle; and when I saw a lonely seagull poised like a pinned crucifixion in the air, almost motionless. Every now and again there was a single convulsion of wings, but the bird always seemed on the brink of a slow, agonised slide down the bank of the air. I remember thinking that it must have been moving forwards once, but something had paralysed it in the middle of a wing-beat…


 
The words “together” and “forever” haunt ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’. Persistently returning – sometimes as statements of peeling faith, sometimes as a grim acknowledgement of being stuck. Sometimes a question, hopeful or semi-resigned; the gamble of a last lottery card; the last sarcastic murmur which is the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body. Another word that returns is “whatever” – breathed out as a throwaway, or embraced with no complaint beyond a drop in the volume and a withdrawal into the kind of shrug that says “here’s as uncertain as anywhere.”

This is familiar. Picture Center have a connection with the late lamented Field Mice… well, more of a fumbled kissing connection, really (they shared some people once, but not any more). Consequently, they’re part of that downbeat English indie bloodline that winds through Sarah Records and its Shinkansen successor – the one that carries the heart-lorn and introverted folk music from the lonely post-war estates – while the countrified, Celtified melancholia of songs like Useless ties in with the romantic resignation of Belle & Sebastian or The Blue Nile.


 
So, as you’d expect, the pace is wistfully dragging, almost funereal. Girls’ and boys’ voices whisper, tears are long-dry but faces stay crooked. The guitars sigh out the emotions, a mist of greyed-out pearls hanging in the atmosphere. A particular poignant English gloom prevails – wan air; not enough daylight saving; and little towns that aren’t so much sleepy as catatonic on tranquilisers, smack and inertia (“around in circles, but nothing comes of it”). The washed-out-but-beautiful album cover could be a stony beach, or a hill of puffy blossoms… oh, or the soggy styrofoam’n’plastic debris left behind in the fields after the festival closes. Distilling an unusual beauty from such unpromising ingredients is Picture Center’s particular talent.

You can think of psychedelia as colourful, but there’s another strand of it that’s a billion shades of grey and merely half of a painful, ghostly heartbeat away from reality. And that’s where Picture Center live; acknowledging it in their gliding, spectral cover of West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s Smell Of Incense. It’s heightened by the other elements they allow to soak into the mix – the occasional country curve of a lonely guitar, the fretful Sigur Ros falsetto and drum-machine bubble on Dreams, the pressed-out Julee Cruise sigh of Forever. The tired glimmers of Cocteau Twins moondust or the hinted imprint of hip-hop’s loops and scratchy gusts behind the music-box delicacy in Never. You know they’ve been there – that place where sorrow floats, suspended in its own little bubble while reality freezes your face into something that’s calm but drained…


 
Ten pictures of fading dreams, drawn-out disappearances, fateful accomodations (“without my darkness your star wouldn’t shine / You need me like I need you…”) and stories of nothing-going-on, in which despair and beauty still manage to sit hand-in-hand on the same worn-down furniture, and achieve a kind of peace together.

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’
North American Recordings, 5 030820 012704
CD album
Released: 27th November 2000

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Picture Center online:
MySpace Last FM

September 2000 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘And Nothing But the Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’ (“sheer guilelessness”)

10 Sep
Steve Lawson: 'And Nothing But the Bass - Live @ The Troubadour'

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But the Bass – Live @ The Troubadour’

Apparently, this music is what Steve Lawson makes to entertain friends – who make themself known as such simply by showing up to one of his intimate gigs. These could be in London, Lincoln, or Watford; in France or California; or wherever else Lawson and his little bundle of bass guitars, EBow sustainers and looping devices pitch camp for an evening of playing. Having asserted your friendship by wandering in and sitting down, you can smile to yourself about the way his lush, demonstrative instrumental music manages to cross-reference Frippertronics, Pete Seeger, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Satriani (for starters) without them crashing into each other or crowding him off his own playing stool.

You can also smile – with genuine enjoyment – at the sheer guilelessness of his music. The gauche jokiness of the album title is completely accurate. With one exception, this really is all One Man And His Loops live in front of a small, polite and audibly happy audience. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as cutesy novelty, or as circus tricks with effects pedals. That isn’t the half of it. In London, we’re used to anxiety. Self-exposure from tortured musical artists. Cool-by-numbers checklists. Spotlight-grabbing attitude flexers. Obvious-state-of-minders stapling themselves to credible trends, and sinking with them. Hearing Steve Lawson duck all of this (instead, he quietly focusses on the way music connects across generations, and between person and person) is a sweet shock.

On technical terms alone (if not in finger-thrashing stunt display), Lawson respectably holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass such as Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners. Maybe it’s from his previous work, playing with the equally guileless and elfin pop veteran Howard Jones. When you hear Lawson duetting with himself on sprightly children’s-song tunes like The Inner Game and The New Country (wrapping joyously squishy melodies around his looped, nodding, double-stopped riffs) you know you’re not hearing someone who’s concerned about his agenda fitting anyone’s T-shirt, or with the solemn rules at jazz school.

All right – perhaps an over-mellow conflation of two lovable old chestnuts (Chopsticks and Blue Moon) on Blue Sticks is a step too far in this direction. All taste and no meat; too close to a musical life that’s one long function room. Lawson dispatches it with impeccable skill – which is all very nice, but a little worrying in terms of complacency. Far better to hear him feeding twanging threads of Celtic-American folk song and bluegrass, Flecktones-style, into The Virtue Of The Small; and to then observe him splitting off to layer on some luxuriously glutinous improvisations (via serenely wandering fretless and classic-metal distortion). Listening carefully, you might spot momentary nods to other bass players – Chris Squire, Steve Swallow, Alphonso Johnson, Stuart Hamm – who’ve let melodies rumble up from the basement.

Of course, you could just put the notebook down and enjoy tunes like Bittersweet, a fretless-bass-and-piano duet owing a little to Pachelbel’s Canon and as much to Weather Report’s A Remark You Made. Jez Carr’s strums of high, cautiously sweet piano haze this one lightly with blue. Perhaps it’s over-aligned with the fastidious, earnestly white end of New Age jazz, but Lawson’s head-bowed cadences are beautifully poised – natural and regretful.

So far, so immaculate… so ‘Bassist Magazine’. What really opens doors are three pieces in which Lawson ventures into process music, chance-and-hazard and ambient music. Thankfully, it’s closer to Fripp Soundscapes and to post-rock than to the freeze-dried fusion on (for example), those slick early albums by John Patitucci.

On Drifting, the original moonlit ostinato foundations and skirling skybound melodies give way to smears of trembling Frippertronical treble passes – like wheelmarks on cloud – and to trance-techno bubble echoes Lawson somehow wrings out of his bass.  The lapping sounds and shimmering harmonic nudges of the gorgeous Pillow Mountain (with its sub-aqua heartbeat) are closer to Mouse On Mars than to any bass guitarring this side of Rothko’s post-rocking odysseys. Here, Lawson EBows strange Chinese string calls out of the beautiful murk. A third piece, Chance, clings on (just) to the right side of disassembly. The sharp attack, or mother-beast rumble, of Lawson’s varied approaches on fretless step in and around the frigidly emotional ECM-inspired bass figure at the heart of it, ghosted with minimal traceries.

It’s with these pieces that we hear Steve Lawson’s audience returning a favour. Moving away from simply bobbing their heads to the happy melodies, they concentrate on  listening instead. And all without the man breaking much of a sweat, either.  For any instrumentalist, this album would be charming. For Steve Lawson, it’s a showcase punched open at one end. His friends are watching him grow – I suggest that you join them.

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But The Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0011 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 28th August 2000

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

July 2000 – album reviews – Peggy Green’s ‘Songs of Naka Peida’ (“defiantly post-RSI pedal steel guitar music”)

6 Jul

Peggy Green: 'Songs Of Naka Peida'

Peggy Green: ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’

Imagine working at something for the best part of twenty years. Perfecting it to your best ability, gaining a reputation and respect; making a decent living as well as finding a way to make it speak for you, give you another voice to communicate with. And then, all at once, having it taken away from you.

This is what happened to Peggy Green. Up until the point when repetitive strain injury gripped her working hands in 1990, she was one of the most respected pedal steel guitarists in New England; not to mention also crafting her way in private as a six-string player and songwriter. Subsequent neuromuscular complications during the ’90s robbed her, at various times, of the ability to use the blocking and rapid picking techniques which are the staple of pedal steel playing; to work the crucial left pedal of her instrument; to walk anything further than short distances without crippling swelling of the hands; or even to play for more than ten seconds. It’s the kind of situation which unites musicians – via both the heart and the pocket – in a cold sweat. The cut-off, seemingly irrevocable.

No, there isn’t a glitzy TV movie outcome. Peggy has recovered partially since then, but not completely. These days, you won’t find her duelling onstage with Buddy Emmons and Bruce Kaphan; or burning up Nashville pedal steel playoffs with a revitalised, zippier technique; or wearing Dolly Parton hats while having her hand shaken by the President. Life often doesn’t let us wallow in such easy tears and such feel-good endings. But what life can be is dignified.

Constrained by the cold facts of injury, Peggy could have retreated into honourable retirement, taking another job and accepting her loss as some kind of act of God. What she’s done instead does involve acceptance. But humble defeat? Not so. ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’ is a defiantly post-RSI album of pedal steel guitar music, played on a couple of custom built acoustic instruments built by legendary pedal steel maker Paul Franklin Sr. Dubbed “ped-a-bro”s, they merge the penetrating “jump-at’cha” sound of dobro resonator guitars with the flexible bends and glides of conventional steels.

As you can imagine, these are naked instruments – the kind which won’t hide a players errors behind a comforting wall of amplified smoothing. They’d be a challenge for a player in prime fitness, let alone one with hand problems, but Peggy’s chosen to make her way on them. Having accepted the limitations imposed by RSI, she’s dispensed with the flash and trickiness she could previously deploy for showboating country musicianship. Now she’s concentrating on a slow, considered, delicately melodic way of playing – clipped in approach; tailored to avoid the spasms, locks and numbness of the condition: a way in which she can, as she puts it “achieve that old connection between my soul and my hands.” She’s also elected to record in a way which makes every creak of the ped-a-bro mechanism and every shift of the player’s stool discreetly audible, so that you can hear her at work.

It works wonderfully. Peggy offers sparse, slowhand, bluesy playing nourished by lonesome American roots; at the same time she offers short, shallowly-picked notes with an exquisite attention to placement that’s associated more with East Asian music (with the yang ch’ins of China, the kotos of Japan and the assorted zithers of Carnatic music). These precise patterns can – at the right moment – be lifted off the map and up into the air, with just a push on a pedal. All of this is achieved with a patient grace and melodicism, the kind which wouldn’t shame Bill Frisell or Martin Taylor. Not that there isn’t some therapeutic wrestling with demons here. Titles like Achin’ Deep Down In My Bones and Fair Affliction assure us of that. But most of ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’ is – while never transcendently happy – remarkable in its serenity.

There’s also a background concept here. The album has a speculative yarn attached: a self-referential creation with strong flavours of Ursula K. LeGuin. In the stricken, disaster-oppressed Continuum society of the future, Naka Peida is the name of a character – the Continuum’s Chief Archivist. Each song on the album is linked to a story of the rediscovery of Peggy’s music, and its connection and implications to both Naka Peida and the Continuum. Evidently Peggy’s not interested solely in her own healing.

The music travels on, learning from places as it goes. There’s the graceful glissandi of Koroen; the tart, sparkling Indian cascades of Love’s Last Chance; the welcoming Japanese formality of Nakahama (named after the location where most of the album was both written and recorded) or the curving Hawaiian warmth of The Pedalist or Wrong Stop Blue. If the music doesn’t necessarily draw from a sense of place, it can draw from time instead. One of the approaches Peggy uses is to place herself in a particular moment. Goodbye To The Twentieth Century was recorded in Osaka on Millennium Eve, and comes out as the most hopeful piece on the entire album. Affected by its Japanese setting, it also revels in its vertiginous, playfully lovely slides and swoops, in the celebratory birdsong harmonics. For a moment, Peggy even lets the ped-a-bro sing with the jazzy bends of Billie Holiday.

The three-part Improvisations In The Moonlit Dawn (billed by Peggy as being “the closest you can come to sitting with me while musical ideas are being born and tried out”) comes from a February morning, closer to home in New York. It’s more sober (Five Note Blues is positively respectful) and more American (you could even expect Robert Johnson to be moaning over Evening Turns). Finally, it’s brasher when the punchy, multiple stop-and-slide slowhanding of Make Way For Dawn makes its presence felt. Assertive, muscular and far more assured than you’d have expected, it still loses none of the delicate melodicism of the rest of the album.

“My struggle against the adversity of my injury makes me the player I am today,” notes Peggy. Whatever she may have been before the axe fell, she’s a pretty remarkable player now. Without much of a big sound, without banner-waving, this album is quietly inspiring and humbling: even profoundly moving.

Peggy Green: ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’
Peggy Green (self-released),  MHG737 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 27th June 2000

Buy it from:
CDBaby, CD Universe or iTunes or Amazon MP3 Store.

Peggy Green 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

October 1999 – album reviews – Cipher’s ‘No Ordinary Man’ (“its own burning chill, changing the air around it”)

10 Oct
Cipher: 'No Ordinary Man'

Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’

Coldness and the lack of feeling – an odd association to make, if you can remember the feel of a fragment of ice held in the intimacy of your mouth or your hand. Something not lacking but, rather, almost too intense; shocking the flesh so that you can only touch it by degrees. Something that slowly changes as it becomes closer to what you are, and is consumed by the process.

By these standards, as well as by immediate impressions, Cipher’s ‘No Ordinary Man’ is a very cold album – it’s something intimate, but in an unusual way. Unquestionably this is beautiful music, but it’s the kind of music which would play in your mind while you lay immobilized on an Arctic snowbank, watching, with a hypnotized joy, the glow of the Northern Lights even as you slipped deeper and deeper into exposure and a chilly coma. Cipher’s music is unadorned, passive, slow and sparse in resolution (if it ever resolves at all) and it’s quiet: but it also has its own burning chill, changing the air around it. Former Jade Warrior Dave Sturt’s minimal, expressive forays on fretless bass float upfront or squash deep valleys into the music. Theo Travis‘ pale and lovely lines on soprano sax and flute hang like solitary albatrosses, beyond the programmed loops and sounds which both men come up with together.

There’s a lot of Nordic-style ECM clarity and mournfulness here: Jan Garbarek is certainly a constant touchstone for listeners, if not necessarily for the players. The slow, measured bleeding-in of Theo’s psychedelic influences (along with Dave’s leaning towards both electronic ambience and Celtic airs) means that there’s more to Cipher’s music than you could find from simply haunting Garbarek’s footsteps from fjord to fjord. However, these additional elements end up tinting the music rather than colouring it. It retains its own arresting static integrity while remaining entirely open to the outside; so that even when such superbly individual guest texturalists as Steven Wilson and Richard Barbieri are linked to the Cipher core they blend in perfectly, adding another layer of ever-so-slightly disturbing atmosphere.

Cipher’s particular skill is to balance lightly and enigmatically on the cusp between that obvious ECM-flavoured tastefulness and the more psychoactive disturbances of dark electronica. As such they constantly, subtly, put the listener on the wrong foot with a delightful unease. Given that it’s a contemporary soundtrack not just to an early Jack the Ripper film but to one by the young Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger is appropriately creepy. Theo haunts the upper air past the smokily building, menacing wind patterns: Dave offers glassy, melodic spindles of rotating bass.

A Far Cry deliberately undermines associations. The trapped gaiety of a looped-and-buried fairground calliope contradicts the sad, syncopated stagger of backwards tones that makes up the body of the track and underlays Dave and Theo’s unusually intense, bloodshot calling. Dank electronic drips and shades from Richard Barbieri form the environment of Canyon, beneath the dreamy electronic ripples and the drifts of sax and bass. The foreboding swells of Dusk suggest a disturbance just out of memory range, probed in shifting tones.

It’s the panorama of landscapes, both material and psychological, which predominates. Listening to Bodhidharma, with its little glitters of distant guitar, is like watching vapour ascend slowly out of a crater; while it shares something with Robert Fripp’s diaphanous Soundscapes, it’s also the point where unconnected post-rock bands like Labradford and Bark Psychosis suddenly meet, blink away tears and touch. Desert Song, in contrast, dips more obviously towards New Age. In its flamboyance, it recalls the underrated mystic-Mexicana of Alquimia with its extended slow-motion boom of synth and its garnish of throat-singing samples: however, the passionate tug of Rabbi Gaddy Zerbib’s devotional Hebrew vocals pulls it forcefully back into the real world. White Cloud, Blue Sky sees Theo playing bleakly over disintegrating tones somewhere between disturbed wind-chime and the expansive empty-gallery guitar Bill Frisell uses to paint his pictures of America.

The Waiting, though, is pure dreamscape. A simple shaker and cymbal rhythm is joined by Theo’s moody searching sax gliding in the sky. Dave’s tingling gulp of bass swallows at the ground, and a growing textural bristle of ringing tones and alien electronics builds in some blurry area between birdcall and gauze. Eventually all is submerged in a hallucinatory backwards dissolve.

It’s left to the title track (the straightest piece on the album, and also the finale) to bridge the ever-shifting gap between Cipher’s abstraction and their empathy. Essentially a free-floating blue-haze trio of bass, piano and ravishing alto flute, it hearkens back to a clutch of comparisons: Bill Evans, Miroslav Vitous, the spacey world-jazz of Dizrhythmia and – finally – Rain Tree Crow’s pattering, mysterious finale, Cries And Whispers (enclosed as it is both in sensous brushes of electronic air and a distant-walled cavern echo of Eastern-sounding percussion). Far from ordinary, and far from freeze-dried. Cold fingers can stimulate too.

Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’
Voiceprint/Hidden Art (HI-ART 5, 60438845732)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 1999

Buy it from:
Burning Shed

Cipher online:
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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:
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