Tag Archives: electric guitar music

July 2018 – upcoming avant-pop gigs – Liam Singer in New York and Catskill with Sontag Shogun, Alexander Turnquist and Tim Mislock (12th, 13th July)

6 Jul

Liam Singer, 2018Bar his efforts in assembling a performance of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ under the Brooklyn Bridge last year, not enough has been heard from Liam Singer since he released his gorgeously limpid ‘Arc Iris’ album in 2013. In fact, he’s quit New York City and moved upstate to Catskill, where he’s now co-running HiLo – a combined cafe, bar, art gallery, and performance space. New responsibilities, however, haven’t stemmed his musical flow. Two imminent shows (one at HiLo and one in his old Brooklyn stomping grounds) mark this month’s release of his fifth album, ‘Finish Him‘, on Birdwatcher Records.

Centred on his piano and the sweet murmur of his voice, Liam’s previous records brought in strings, glass harmonicas and spectral studio reverb; the clink and clatter of gamelan and prepared instruments, Morton Feldman namedrops, and women’s voices shading into birdsong. They sketched out a sharply etched dreamworld which seemed to take place in and on the towns, roads and headlands of a permeable New England coastline – one in which ancient mythology and personal headspace interpenetrated, and danced their way up and down from the seabed to the constellations. Either that, or they evoked loft life in an idealised, slightly antiquated boho New York or upscale university town – Art Deco bannisters, rumpled stockings discarded by elusive free-spirited lovers; mannered speech, books on the Harlem Renaissance.

It was pop, but pop over which Steve Reich and the aforementioned Feldman presided as occasional guardian angels (as did Henry Cowell and Shaker music), amidst a papery flutter of old books and wallpaper witnessings, and of dust being blown off enthralling junk-shop discoveries. Longtime co-producer Scott Solter likes to link it to “Edward Gorey and the Brothers Quay“. The descriptions may sound precious, but the songs aren’t. No showboater, Liam is nonetheless one of those singers whose tones gently, subtly shift and refract between wonder, melancholy, wry self-deprecation and ecstacy: a caster of light upon things, rather than a hoarder or showcaser. The folding of literary and mythical references into his songs – and their subtly eclectic instrumentation – may bring him comparisons to Elliott Smith (especially in terms of the intimate delivery) and to Sufjan Stevens; but to me he’s a far more gentler character, bringing a human fragility and self-awareness to his steps in and out of a numinous music realm. A bit like an American William D. Drake, perhaps; though minus the occasional overt music-hall flourishes.


 
That said, ‘Finish Him’ (described as “a coming-out party”) sees Liam changing tack. Now he’s fully, publically embracing influences he’s previously only hinted at – predominantly colourful 1980s art pop “from a time when traces of the Baroque and avant-garde began to seep into the margins of the mainstream alongside the iconic synths, gated reverbs and big hair.” The science-fiction bacofoil-meets-CGI video, drum machine and layered synths of pilot single Test Tone determinedly sets out this new stall – like Wes Anderson simultaneously taking on ‘Tron’ or one of those Saturday afternoon space operas – and while new tracks like The Devil and I Want To See Sparks are less immediately brash, they’ve set aside some of the diaphanous sound of previously-on-Liam in favour of grander, brighter colourings, scrim-sweeps of noise, and bolder narratives about the struggle between selfishness and connection, the booting over of applecarts.



 
If there’s a new parallel, it’s the latterday work of Paddy McAloon – the revealing of extra bite and sharp points behind the musical meringue, the emergence of perspective and bone-deep feeling that comes with age and gravity taking more of a hold. The magic and mists are still there, just with a little more lightning.

Main support at both shows comes from Liam’s friends in the “lullanoise” project Sontag Shogun, who travel the world and bring back armfuls of noise and aural capturings of different places and times, only to re-knit them into ambiguous/meaningful post-minimalist mood pieces of piano and soundscape. Evoking or manufacturing memories filled with beauty and displacement, they produce music which is part hypnagogic tape, part four-dimensional postcard or souvenir.

For the Brooklyn show, the core Shogun trio (pianist Ian Temple, laptop/field recordings manipulator Jesse Perlstein and tapesman/oscillator operator/microphonist Jeremy Young) are “reformatting and outfitting” the band with a string quartet (thus forming the Sontag String Ensemble) and are playing “all new music, marrying improvisational and experimental sound with composed string arrangements by Ian.” For the Catskill show, they’re reverting to the trio format.



 
Each of the two shows will be bolstered by another instrumental set, each by a different guitarist/composer. In Brooklyn, it’s Alexander Turnquist, whose instrumental reflections on nature and philosophy blend virtuosic twelve-string acoustic fingerstyle with studio-based electronic noise aesthetics, producing a melodious state-shifting thunder of folk baroque/New Acoustic stringwork and reverberant processing which perhaps makes him the heart of an imaginary triangle between Michael Hedges, John Fahey and Jim O’Rourke.

Alexander’s counterpart at the Catskill show is Tim Mislock, whose use of simple electric figures and slow, ebbing ambient-country pulses… renders him more similar to Britain’s Rob Jackson or to a Nashville-saturated Robert Fripp, while also dipping into the lonesome romantic post-rock minimalism of Explosions In The Sky. His current album ‘Now Is The Last Best Time’ is “a heartfelt ode to (his) mother, who over the course of the past decade, has been the primary caregiver to her husband and Mislock’s stepfather; as he slowly fades into the ever-present silence of Alzheimer’s disease.” It’s a project encompassing love, regret, compassion and drift, and you can feel all of them in every note.


Dates:

  • Liam Singer + Sontag String Ensemble + Alexander Turnquist – Wonders Of Nature, 131 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, New York 11249, USA, Thursday 12th July 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Liam Singer + Sontag Shogun + Tim Mislock – HiLo Catskill, 365 Main Street, Catskill, New York 12414, USA, Friday 13th July 2018, 8.00pm – information here

 

November 2016 – upcoming London gigs – Future Currents at IKLECTIK (15th), Rothko & Ghost Mind at Servant Jazz Quarters (17th)

14 Nov

A couple of instrumental or near-instrumental shows in London this week – intent and textural, electric and hidden, bubbling underground.

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EFG London Jazz Festival presents:
Future Currents
IKLECTIK, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, Waterloo, London, SE1 7LG, England
Tuesday 15th November 2016, 8.00pm
information

IKLECTIK/band press release below (tweaked and interfered with, as usual):

“Future Currents is the electric guitar ensemble formed by composer/improviser Alex Roth with the aim of exploring the full range of the guitar’s sonic potential and contributing to a redefinition of the instrument’s role in twenty-first century experimental music.

Future Currents: 'Future Currents' EP

Future Currents: ‘Future Currents’ EP

“Bringing together three of the UK's most acclaimed improvising guitarists – Alex himself, Chris Montague ( of
“Motorhead meets Mingus” jazz-rock trio Troyka) and Chris Sharkey (formerly part of both trioVD and Acoustic Ladyland, currently working solo as Survival Skills and as part of the Shiver trio) -the ensemble creates new music of extremes: expansive soundscapes informed as much by composers like Morton Feldman, Frank Zappa, Olivier Messiaen and Richard D. James as by pioneering guitarists such as Fred Frith, Robert Fripp, Ben Monder, Marc Ducret and Bill Frisell.

“As its name suggests, Future Currents’ self-titled debut EP (featuring post-production by fellow guitarist Matt Calvert of Three Trapped Tigers), encapsulates a sense of existing in multiple tenses simultaneously (the “now” and a projected “then”); but ‘Future Currents’ also connotes electricity – one of the defining elements of the ensemble’s sound. Further extending this theme, the track titles reference scientists and mathematicians who have made significant contributions to our understanding in this (or a related) field.”

This concert is a launch gig for the EP, which will also include screenings of short films by Morgan Beringer, including his illuminated sine wave video for the track ‘Fourier’.


 
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On Thursday, there’s a repeat London date for the loomingly beautiful music of Rothko and the spellbindingly expansive improv trio Ghost Mind…

Trace Recordings presents:
Rothko + Ghost Mind
Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England
Thursday 17th November 2016, 7.30pm
information

Rothko + Ghost Mind, 17th November 2016

Though anchored in every sense – musical, textural, timbral, compositional and organisational – by Mark Beazley’s strata-laying post-punk bass guitar tones, the lineup of Rothko has shifted and reshaped over the years; like a restless colony creature (or, indeed, a restless artist’s colony). Sometimes it’s just Mark, painting bleak but beautiful low-frequency soundpaintings in a hundred hues of grey and grit; sometimes it’s Mark and another bassist, or a small wall of bassists; sometimes it’s Mark plus appended art-rock or post-rock band, adding flute, guitar, violin, drumkit, glockenspiel or whatever.

Currently and confusingly, Rothko are managing to be two, but in three senses. There’s the project’s ongoing two-man lineup; then there’s the fact that there are two simultaneous and different versions of the lineup, operating in an amicable parallel. One of these is Mark plus recurring other-bass foil Michael D. Donnelly, instrumental and enmeshed; the other is Mark plus Band Of Holy Joy frontman Johnny Brown, who are releasing the first collection of their work next Monday as the album ‘A Young Fist Curled Around A Cinder For A Wager’.

It’s the Beazley/Brown lineup that’s playing at Servant Jazz Quarters, launching the record. From what I can gather, they’re a performative duo of Mark’s assertive, layered bass-scapes and Johnny’s spoken-word poetry; vivid, brutally honest evocations of childhood in a harsh, post-industrial rural community. Live, they’re augmented by the projected imagery of longtime Band of Holy Joy collaborator Inga Tillere, whose work taps into feelings of loss and dislocation, and whose photos of battered shacks and sheds (like ghosts of habitation) makes up the bones of the new album’s artwork. More is evolving at the current ‘…Young Fist…’ microsite.

(UPDATE – since I originally posted this, the album’s title track has surfaced on both Bandcamp and Soundcloud, so here it is…)


 
As for Ghost Mind, they’re a Cheltenham-based metaphysical quartet, a spin-off from long-running experimental group Cheltenham Improvisers Orchestra. Three playing members – Jon Andriessen on guitar and effects, Pete Robson on assorted trumpets and horns and Stuart Wilding on allsorts percussion – join forces with a fourth, conceptual member collated from found sounds and field recording atmospheres (gathered from around the planet, many of them from centres of human habitation) and characterised, for purposes of both performance and communion, as a kind of world consciousness.

It’s a high-faluting idea, which would drift into worthy pomposity in the wrong hands. When explored by a trio of such particular sensitivity and skill in interacting both with each other and with the tapes, it’s revelatory: simultaneously bringing the world in through the window while summoning up three other ones from within via the gateways of unfettered musical exploration, and somehow managing to blend all four into the same flowing movement.

For a fuller exploration and expansive dip into the soundworld of Ghost Mind (plus sundry bits of Rothko background, music and history), have a read of my preview for their shared gig at IKLECTIK back in June of this year. Alternatively, immerse yourself in the Ghost Mind concert recording below.

 

October 2016 – upcoming London gigs – two-part experimental concert from Laura Steenberge, Michael Winter and friends at IKLECTIK and Hundred Years Gallery (7th & 9th)

5 Oct

Two Los Angeles composer-experimentalists – Laura Steenberge and Michael Winter – flit between two London art-music venues at the end of this week, joining forces for a two-part concert.

‘Open… and perhaps not yet fully formed’, 7th & 9th October 2016Mira Benjamin presents:
‘Open… and perhaps not yet fully formed’ (with Laura Steenberge and Michael Winter)

  • Part I – IKLECTIK, Old Paradise Yard, 20 Carlisle Lane, Waterloo, London, SE1 7LG, England, Friday 7th October 2016, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Part II – Hundred Years Gallery, 13 Pearson Street, Hoxton, London, E2 8JD, England, Sunday 9th October 2016, 3:30pm – information here and here

The two visiting musicians make an interesting and complementary pair. Laura’s linguistic training backs up her musicality and instills a curiosity about the roots of communication, with her ‘Chant Etudes’ series attempting to recreate or recapture a “deep past, when the idea of a musical instrument was not yet fully formed.” Making and playing rudimentary part-salvaged instruments (which combine standard recorder or trumpet mouthpieces with flexible metal or plastic piping), Laura blows and sings into them while also whirling them, combining simple and complex harmonies from instrument and voice while participating in a sound which she partially controls and partially doesn’t. It conflates ideas of natural wind sound, air-hung instruments which play without human intercession (such as Aeolian harps) and human attempts at music making which suggest both the pre- and post-industrial. There’s a mystical element too, as Laura deliberately searches out “the secret vibrations hidden among the controlled tones.”

 
As for Michael, he’s more computationally-minded: setting out his algorhythmic pieces via scores involving minimal standard notation, or minimal graphical cues, or succinct but meticulous lines of text, and drawing structural elements from other disciplines (science, architecture, mathematics, different art fields). Both concerts will feature a performance of Michael’s ‘for Sol LeWitt’ – a text score piece for solo glissando and four sustained tones, which on these occasion will be performed with at least one amplified/processed violin. (Perform it yourself, right now, using any available sound source, from the instructions here – otherwise, cop a listen to the slow-evolving version below).


 
Four London-based players are joining in on both occasions, fanning the event out out into a loose potential sextet. Two of these are avant-garde violinists – prepared-instrument/improv doyenne Angharad Davies; microtonal specialist Mira Benjamin. The remaining two are objects-and-electronics player John Lely and fellow object botherer/roving conceptualist/sometime pianist Tim Parkinson.

I’m being more than a little glib and flippant in my descriptions here. Just think of them as being like the tabs in a pop-up book, something which you pull out to unfold the details what these assorted players really do – a cascade of directions and deconstructions springing off from the music and situations they engage with. Many of the ensemble are also active encouragers or curators of New Music – Mira through the vigorous commissioning and nurturing of new compositions, as well as serving as the impresario for these two ‘Open…’ shows; others through running various performance nights in LA or London (Michael’s experimental institution the wulf.; the ‘Music We’d Like to Hear‘ series which John and Tim run with Marcus Trunk).

In addition, two ‘Music We’d Like to Hear’ semi-regulars – double bass player/onetime Oxford Improviser Dominic Lash and cellist/Apartment House founder Anton Lukoszevieze – will join in for the second concert. (Anton will be playing John Leles’ self-descriptively-titled ‘The Harmonics of Real Strings’).


 

* * * * * * * *

Beyond the pieces I’ve mentioned before, the programmes vary between the concerts, although the general brief is “simple processes and open forms.” One inclusion will be another Michael Winter piece (the rhythmic three-line drone-counterpoint process ‘tergiversate’). Another will be a second John Leles composition, ‘All About the Piano’, in which the initial piano lines are recorded onto a series of dictaphones as they’re played, and are then replayed later on in lo-fi over the top of later lines. (This enables the piece’s history to repeat – the first time as grace, the second time as what sounds like a distant, distracting coterie of ice cream vans.)



 
Tim Parkinson will be contributing two brand-new pieces – ‘No. 4’ and ‘No. 5’ – about which he’s not provided any information. Having recently composed an almost actionless opera with a combined orchestra-pit-cum-stage-set of trash and rubble, without any music (bar stolen snippets of Handel and Rossini as performance bookends), and which mostly consists of the performers wading through the wreckage, he’s arguably the most playful of the composers contributing to ‘Open’. Expect anything; and then expect to see that anything dismantled.

Outside of music sourced by the ensemble members themselves, ‘Open…’ will see a performance of one of the Circular Music piano pieces by Swiss composer Jürg Frey (a member of the Wandelweiser Group, who pursue a John Cage-inspired integration of silence and humble reticence into composition). ‘Circular Music part 6’ is part of a series in which Frey seems to have been skirting around the avant-garde composer’s fear of (or suspicion of) virtuoso cliché or cultural determinism – aiming instead to naturally compose something which is both starkly simple and, at the same time, significant.

In an interview with Sheffield record label Another Timbre, Frey expanded on this by talking about how he was “looking to find a confidence in chords, dyads and single notes… I hope that accordingly they will resonate with confidence. This applies to every material, whether stones or a piano, but with the piano it seems to be more challenging because of the clarity of the material and how the instrument itself suggests it should be used.” (Full interview text here, while one of the other Circular Music pieces is linked below.)


 
The last piece confirmed for the concert (although there should be others) is ‘Another’, by Christian Wolff: conceptual composer, final survivor of the Cage-led New York School of experimental classical, a muso-political provocateur in step with Cornelius Cardew, and an avowed influence on both Tim Parkinson and John Leles. ‘Another’ isn’t a piece I can actually find in Woolf’s catalogue. It may well be a version of his floating, fragmentary but surprisingly lovely nine-minute electric guitar piece ‘Another Possibility’, which is and was a response to a 1966 piece which Woolf’s friend Morton Feldman had composed for him to perform on electric guitar (despite Woolf’s own unfamiliarity with the instrument).

Woolf would later recall the process of making ‘The Possibility Of A New Work For Electric Guitar’ as “we immediately set to work, (Feldman) at the piano, playing a chord: “can you do that?” I could. “How about this?” With some contortions (the guitar was laid flat so I could better see what I was doing – I’m not a guitar player, and this way I could finger and pluck with either hand), yes.”This?” Not quite. “Now” (with changed voicing, or a new chord)? Yes. And so on, until he had made the piece. Tempo was slow and dynamics soft, the structure dictated by the amount of time we were able to concentrate on the work. The sound, the chords or single notes, were reverberations set off by his (characteristic) piano playing, feeling for a resonance, then confidently transferred to the guitar within that instrument’s capacities (sometimes adding one of its particular features, the ability to make small slides with a vibrato bar).” Woolf only performed Feldman’s composition three times before both guitar and the manuscript were stolen from his car the following year – but he’d subsequently use the memory of the lost piece for inspiration.

Incidentally, three years after Woolf composed ‘Another Possibility’ (and some forty years after the theft), a recording of the stolen Feldman score was recovered, and it was subsequently transcribed and put back into the repertoire. The full story is here, and you can compare the two related pieces below – ‘Another Possibility’ via an interesting effect-sprinkled performance (Andy Summers-gone-avant-garde) by Swiss omin-guitarist Gilbert Impérial, and the original Feldman ‘…Possibility…’ in a straight, reverent reading by Japanese classical/electric crossover player Gaku Yamada.



 
* * * * * * * *

Here’s a quick rundown of ‘Open…’ again.

Performers:

Laura Steenberge (objects and voice)
Michael Winter (guitalele, objects, electronics)
Mira Benjamin (violin)
Angharad Davies (violin)
John Lely (objects, electronics)
Tim Parkinson (piano, objects)
Dominic Lash (double bass – Part 2 only)
Anton Lukoszevieze (cello – Part 2 only)

Programme:

Part 1 includes:
Laura Steenberge – The Chant Etudes
Michael Winter – for Sol LeWitt
John Lely – All About the Piano
Jürg Frey – Circular Music No. 6
Tim Parkinson – No.4 (2016) & No.5 (2016)

Part 2 includes:
Laura Steenberge – The Chant Etudes
Michael Winter – tergiversate
John Lely – The Harmonics of Real Strings
Michael Winter – for Sol LeWitt
Christian Wolff – Another
 

September/October 2016 – upcoming and ongoing London gigs and music theatre – Laura Moody’s ongoing work in ‘dreamplay’ at The Vaults (plus a solo song show on October 11th); Keir Cooper and Rose Biggin collide pole dancing and noise-guitar in their ‘Badass Grammar’ revival at Camden People’s Theatre (5th & 6th October)

22 Sep

A couple of interesting (and very different) elisions between music and theatre, plus a solo gig…

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Currently engaged in providing live cello for Jocelyn Pook‘s score to the current Globe Theatre production of ‘Macbeth’, audaciously accomplished cellist and singer-songwriter Laura Moody (see passim) is also doubling down at Waterloo to perform in BAZ Productions‘ performance piece ‘dreamplay’.

'dreamplay'

BAZ Productions present:
‘dreamplay’
The Vaults Theatre @ The Vaults, Arch 236 Leake Street, London SE1 7NN, England (use the Launcelot Street entrance off Lower Marsh)
Saturday 10th September 2016 to Saturday 1st October 2016 (Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm; Saturday matinees 3pm; BSL Performance on Saturday 24th September)
– information here

A reworking of and response to August Strindberg’s classic proto-expressionist work of the same name (and scripted by BAZ director Sarah Bedi and the performers), the piece features “a mysterious woman (who) arrives on Earth, intent on uncovering the truth about human suffering. Her dream-like quest leads her through shifting landscapes and into contact with a host of disturbing characters as she searches for the ever elusive Door, behind which she is certain the answer lies … Can she discover the unconscious truth and return home?” (Sadly, ‘dreamplay’ is already halfway through its run – if I’d known about it earlier myself I’d have posted about it sooner…)

 
Direct from Laura: “I appear as a variety of characters, as part of a wonderful cast of five, performing all the music I’ve created for the show live. I also give my acting debut! I’m really delighted that just a few days into opening my music/soundscape for ‘dreamplay’ has been nominated for an Off West End Theatre Award for best sound design.

“Played out in the tunnels underneath Waterloo Station, ‘dreamplay’ is an immersive, challenging piece that casts you, the audience, as the dreamer and leads you through a labyrinth of scenes, images and situations prompting fundamental questions about humanity. I, for example, finished opening night contemplating how exactly I had managed to acquire quite so many inexplicable bruises on my limbs and HP sauce on my bow. Such are the mysteries that await you, and many more…”

Laura Moody performing in 'dreamplay' (photo © Cesare De Giglio)

Laura Moody performing in ‘dreamplay’ (photo © Cesare De Giglio)

Once ‘dreamplay’ is finished, Laura will be performing one of her intermittent London solo gigs – an hour-long song set with no support act – at City University..

City University presents:
Laura Moody
Music Department @ City University, Northampton Square, Finsbury, London, EC1V 0HB, England
Tuesday 11th October 2016, 7.00pm
-free event requiring ticket reservations – information here

To whet the appetite for this, here are a couple of videos shot back in June at the Dartington Estate during Laura’s gig there, in which she duets with Adem on a version of her song We Are Waiting (and on Adem’s own Love And Other Planets).



 
* * * * * * *

Earlier in the year, Keir Cooper (who’s previously graced this blog as guitarist and composer for noisy experimental jazz-rockers A Sweet Niche) teamed up with fellow theatremaker and physical performer Rose Biggin to create the performance piece ‘Badass Grammar’, in which Keir’s blistering guitar is paired with Rose’s dynamic pole dancing in an hour-long dialogue of ideas.

'Badass Grammar' (photo © Rachel Manns)

‘Badass Grammar’ (photo © Rachel Manns)

Rose and Keir describe ‘Badass Grammar’ as “sexy, smart, witty as houses and obviously featur(ing) big bold dance and electric guitar duets.” A longer description suggests “a theatrical collaboration between a pole dancer and a guitarist, a composition in exploded view. With a mischievous agenda, the performance invites in the mucky subjects of shame, power and privilege. And takes them dancing. Peering down at the nuts and bolts, the muscle and bone. The pole dislocated, the guitar unfretted. Sparkling, witty, savage, fabulous: we draw on the invisible histories of our disciplines and are building a new one. Starting now. Come with us.”

 
Following its initial performances at The Yard, ‘Badass Grammar’ is being revived for Camden People’s Theatre as part of the annual Calm Down Dear festival of feminist performance.

Calm Down Dear #4 presents:
‘Badass Grammar: A Pole/Guitar Composition in Exploded View’
Camden People’s Theatre, 58-60 Hampstead Road, Euston, London, NW1 2PY, England
Wednesday 5th & Thursday 6th October 2016, 9.00pm
information (presented in a double bill with ‘40 Days Of Rain‘ on the 5th)

Below, there’s a brief and tintinnabulating minute-and-a-half-long excerpt from Keir’s score – spilling, mercurially elusive guitar-noise shapes passing through hard rock distortion and riffing, and refracted as if glancing off the chromed mirrors of the pole podium. Some of the music from this and other theatre work should eventually surface on his proposed ‘Bodies‘ album, which will incorporate Keir’s guitar-and-effects-pedal contributions to collaborations with assorted artists across a variety of live dance and performance disciplines (including “strip punk” and flamenco).


 
In an expositionary piece written for Bellyflop Magazine back in May (and which you can read in full here) Rose and Kier present and explore some of the implications of their show; not ducking around the “massive inflatable grey elephant that comes tied to every pole” in the form’s inescapable ties to sex work, but raising other questions in response, including “are women to be judged harder if you don’t like their job?… What if I’m actually one of many feminists on the pole? Does that mean I can be listened to yet? Or still spoken for?”

As they state, “we’re making a show. It’s pole dance, which is sometimes sexy, and came from strip clubs. It’s also live electric guitar, which is often a lot of willy-waggling. It’s a show about shame, power and privilege. Let’s see what happens.

“Pole is a very visible arena for tensions around women’s bodies, women’s work, shame, power and privilege. Far from a casual choice – it is impossible not to be political when near this object… When we discuss our performance with folks, somebody will ask if Keir is pole dancing and Rose is playing the guitar. Sometimes this is asked as a joke – when it’s a joke, it’s always asked by a man. But sometimes it’s a genuine artistic question, and as such it’s a valid one.

“The short answer is no, because artistically, we’ve decided it would be pretty boring to watch people doing something they’re terrible at. (For an hour.) But the longer answer is no, because we think it is more interesting to utilise the forms from where we are and examine how it came to be that we got here. And what we will do now…”

I’ll just pinch from one more source to add a bit of extra colour. Here’s Rose’s irreverent, practical list from her ‘Badass Grammar’ article in ‘Standard Issue’ magazine, detailing what she’s learnt from the form…

Rose's list, part 1

…and not forgetting…

Rose's list, part 2
 

March 2016 – upcoming gigs – Kiran Leonard tours Britain again (March into April) and reveals new single; London gigs from Whispers & Hurricanes (with Madam, Kat May and RobinPlaysChords) and a guitar double from Dean McPhee and Seabuckthorn

23 Mar

Details on two London shows from a packed upcoming weekend: but first, an extended British tour from a major talent…

* * * * * * * *

Tomorrow, explosively gifted singer-songwriter Kiran Leonard charges off on another British tour with his all-star quartet of Manchester art rock luminaries (completed by Dan Bridgwood Hill, Dave Rowe, and Andrew Cheetham – see the note on his previous tour for their credentials). Support on most of the tour comes from dark-glam Manchester pop act Irma Vep, although some dates feature folk musicians Richard Dawson and Salvation Bill (in Newcastle and Oxford respectively) and Bristolian “jazz/rock/post-op pop” quartet The Evil Usses (who fill the bill in Bath), with other acts to be confirmed (though they might have been added to the individual gig pages by now…)





Meanwhile, here’s Kiran’s brand-new nine-and-a-half-minute single – a terrific and spontaneous-sounding interweaving of otherworldly folk baroque, chamber prog, post-hardcore racket and kitchen-warrior percussion. The parent album, ‘Grapefruit’, is out on Moshi Moshi on Friday.


 

* * * * * * * *
In London, at the weekend, there’s a third-outing triple bill for Whispers & Hurricanes (the quieter wing of Chaos Theory Promotions, for when they fancy putting on an act that doesn’t sound like a giant metallic jazz centipede in manga boots)…

Whispers & Hurricanes, 26th March 2016

Chaos Theory presents:
Whispers & Hurricanes: Madam + Kat May + RobinPlaysChords
The Sebright Arms, 33-35 Coate Street, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9AG, England
Saturday 26th March 2016, 7.30pm
more information

“A five-piece London based band, fronted by charismatic singer-songwriter and composer Sukie Smith, Madam create nocturnal, intricate-yet-cinematic soundscapes showcasing songs that are at once confessional and a call to arms, and have been compared to both Mazzy Star and Cat Power. The band has amassed a loyal legion of fans at home and abroad, showcasing their smoky sound at intimate gigs and packed venues across Europe. Tonight they will launch their haunting single When I Met You, taken from their upcoming album ‘Back To The Sea’.” (Meanwhile, here’s an earlier track from their previous album, ‘Gone Before Morning’; plus their darned slinky cover of Oscar Brown’s tale of treachery, ‘The Snake’ – a welcome antidote to the song’s recent co-opting by Donald Trump.)



 

Whispers & Hurricanes, 26th March 2016“After many years we are reunited with the extraordinary singer-songwriter Kat May, who is inspired by the melancholy of Scandinavia, the urban textures of her base in London and the literary song-writing of her native France. Her atmospheric indie folk-pop has been hailed by France’s biggest music magazine, ‘Les InRocks’, as “cathartic and elegant”, and by ‘Lomography’ as “visually dreamy, melancholic and emotionally arresting all at the same time.” We caught the launch of her debut album ‘Beyond The North Wind’ at St Pancras Old Church back in 2014, and it’s still a regular feature on our playlists. Tonight she will perform her music on piano and voice, with violin and cello accompaniments.


 

Robin Jax’s exploits as RobinPlaysChords have been built on a slow but steady sonic development. Hailing from his remote country abode near Leamington Spa, the solitary songwriter uses his guitar and loopstation to create percussion, shimmering ambience and distorted hooks for him to place his honest lyrics over. Garnering comparisons to David Bowie and Patrick Wolf, RobinPlaysChords has previously won over audiences when opening for The Irrepressibles, Larsen, Thomas Truax and others, as well as undertaking his first shows in continental Europe in 2015.”


 

* * * * * * * *

Finally for now, a doubled gig of textured, looped and echoed guitar, but with a pastoral edge…

Dean McPhee + Seabuckthorn
The Slaughtered Lamb, 34-35 Great Sutton Street, Clerkenwell, London, EC1V 0DX, England
Saturday 26th March 2016, 8.30pm
more information

“West Yorkshire based solo electric guitarist Dean McPhee plays a Fender Telecaster through a valve amp and effects pedals, combining clean, chiming melodic lines with deep layers of decaying delay and cavernous echo. Over years of improvisation and experimentation he has developed a unique style of playing which draws together influences from British folk, dub, kosmische, post-rock, Mali blues and modal jazz. His releases on the Blast First Petite, Hood Faire and World in Winter labels have been critically acclaimed by ‘The Wire’, ‘Uncut’, ‘Record Collector’, ‘Music OMH’, ‘Dusted’, ‘Brainwashed’, ‘The Out Door’, ‘Drowned in Sound’ and ‘The Quietus’ amongst others. He has supported artists/bands including Thurston Moore (as UK tour support), Acid Mothers Temple, Wolf People, James Blackshaw, Emeralds, Josh T Pearson, The Magic Band, Sharon Van Etten, Michael Hurley, Josephine Foster, Meg Baird, Bohren and der Club of Gore and Charalambides. Dean is currently working on a new album which uses a kick drum pedal to introduce a pulsing, percussive undercurrent to his most recent compositions,


 

Seabuckthorn is the solo project of UK acoustic guitarist Andy Cartwright. Releasing 6 albums since 2008 he explores alternative terrains on six to twelve strings, often with minimal layered accompaniments to form musical landscapes. Cartwright uses the techniques of finger picking & bowing combined with various open tunings to create a well curated mixture of approaches. Falling into the cinematic and soundtrack genres, his music is evident of influences ranging from the traditional styles of Robbie Basho and Jack Rose, to more modern players like Ben Chasny, Zak Riles, and Gustavo Santaolalla with whom Cartwright shares an emphasis on atmospheric and multi-instrumental compositions. Sometimes quietly ambient, often powerfully expressive. As well as live performances around the UK, Cartwright has performed in numerous shows & festivals all over France & the southern deserts of Tunisia.


 

Dean McPhee and Seabuckthorn are recording a split 7″ single to be released later this year.”

* * * * * * * *

News on more London weekend shows are coming up next time…
 

February 2016 – upcoming gigs – interlocking British tours by Yorkston Thorne Khan, Toby Hay/Jim Ghedi and Laura Moody offer Anglo-Indian crossover folk, fingerstyle guitar, folk baroque and cello bewitchment.

10 Feb

I didn’t catch up with this next tour until a couple of its January dates had gone by, but it’s still worth catching up with the rest of it:

Yorkston Thorne Khan, 2015

Yorkston/Thorne/Khan are an experimental group that includes James Yorkston (hailed as one of the most “influential singer/songwriters on the Scottish folk scene”), Suhail Yusuf Khan (award winning sarangi player and classical singer from New Delhi) and Jon Thorne (best known as jazz double bass player with electro outfit Lamb). The trio are currently touring to support their collaborative debut album ‘Everything Sacred’, which was released in mid-January 2016.

This is Scottish-Irish-Indian-English music in the raw – Yorkston’s familiar steel guitar strings pulled, pushed and bent into more unfamiliar acoustic drones, the bass dropping anchors through the floor. Rather than world music per se, this sounds more idiosyncratic, a temporary structure bivouacking by the side of the indie-folk, art music tradition, while its widening horizons extend back to the Sixties heyday of the Incredible String Band, and forward to this singular album’s satellite orbit over the folk music, Indian classical and indie music of today – all these musical ley lines threaded into a new kind of eclectic, domestic setting.

James: “Playing together as Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, we tackle a wide array of different sounds and songs. Alongside pieces of our own, there’s a fair chunk of improvisation, plus covers of Ivor Cutler’s Little Black Buzzer and Lal Waterson’s Song For Thirza. Jon’s jazz background definitely comes to the fore, as does Suhail’s devotional singing and outstanding sarangi playing. I just do my best to keep up…”


 

Dates:

July 2015 – upcoming London gigs this week – LUME on Thursday (Nick Costley-White/Bleep Test); Daylight Music on Saturday (The UCC Handbell Ringers/Ryan Teague/Ellie Lovegrove, with Angèle David-Guillou)

13 Jul

More upcoming London gigs this week. Firstly, various kinds of jazz on Thursday…

LUME logo

Nick Costley-White & Bleep Test (LUME @ Long White Cloud, 151 Hackney Road, Hoxton, London, E2 8JL, UK, Thursday 16th July, 8.00pm

This week at LUME… original and improvised music. We’ve got a tasty double bill for you this Thursday with solo guitar explorations and an exciting new electronic jazz ensemble mixing beats and tunes. Should be a great evening of cutting edge new sounds. Entry is one Bank of England note of your choice. (£5, £10, £20… £50???!)

Bleep Test (Fraser Smith – tenor sax/effects; Joe Webb – synths; Lloyd Haines – drums; Matthew Read – bass) combine house, breaks, drum & bass and jazz. Analog synths, electric drums and a screaming saxophone tie this band to the growing scene of exciting, genre defying music groups emerging from London’s creative underground. Fiery grooves and memorable melodies push these musicians out of the traditional jazz improvisation realm and into another soundscape that hits hard.

Nick Costley-White is fast becoming one of the most in demand young guitarists in the London jazz scene. With a developed sound and individual voice on his instrument, Nick has had the opportunity to perform professionally with some of the country’s finest musicians including Stan Sulzmann, Jeff Williams, Gareth Lockrane, Tom Challenger, Martin Speake, Ivo Neame, Tommy Andrews, Jon Scott, Dave Hamblet and Josh Arcoleo.
Nick studied jazz and classical guitar at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Phil Robson, Colin Oxley and John Parricelli, graduating with first class honours and awarded the 2011 Yamaha Jazz Scholarship for Outstanding Musicians.

See you there!

On Saturday, there’s the last Daylight Music concert of the season, with definite sacred and classical tinges to it…

The UCC Handbell Ringers @ Daylight Music, 18th July 2015

 

Daylight Music 197: The UCC Handbell Ringers + Ryan Teague + Ellie Lovegrove (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN – Saturday 18th July, 12pm to 2pm)

A Bells and Bronze afternoon will ring out this season of Daylight in style.

The UCC Handbell Ringers are a select group of nineteen young people, ages fourteen to eighteen, from the University Christian Church in Fort Worth, Texas. This Church is situated across the street from the Texas Christian University School of Music and since its founding in 1873, the music ministry has been an integral part in the life of the church. The UCC Ringers ring one of the church’s two five-octave sets of English handbells cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. The bell choirs have a long tradition of musical excellence and have been an integral part of the life of the church for many years. They have toured regularly. In addition to being the first bell choir to perform at Westminster Abbey, they have played in worship services and in concert at the Royal Festival Hall, York Minster, St. Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol and the Collegiate Church of St. Mary in Warwick; and at Exeter, Bristol, Gloucester, Canterbury, Winchester, Salisbury, Christ Church Oxford and Coventry Cathedrals.

Ryan Teague is a composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist based in Bristol. His music combines acoustic instrumentation and arrangements with electronic and processed material, the results of which incorporate minimalist, ambient and electro-acoustic music. Ryan has released numerous albums and EPs on labels including Village Green, Sonic Pieces and Type Records. He also produces music and sound design for various film & TV productions and has spent an extended period of time in Indonesia studying Javanese gamelan music. This afternoon’s music will also feature a new and exclusive composition premiere ‘Storm Or Tempest May Stop Play’ by Ryan Teague with Gamelan Ensemble.

From a musical family in Ware, Hertfordshire, Ellie Lovegrove began learning the trumpet at school aged seven. She later played principal trumpet with the Hertfordshire County Youth Orchestra, joined the National Youth Orchestra at the Proms, and went on to study at the Royal College of Music, London. Here she received tuition from Paul Beniston, Neil Brough and Michael Laird, winning the Brass Ensemble Prize and the Brass Concerto Competition. Ellie continued her studies with Kristian Steenstrup and Mark David. Professionally, Ellie enjoys a varied freelance career. Her work as an orchestral player includes concerts and broadcasts with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Royal Ballet Sinfonia and the Britten Sinfonia. She has also deputised for the the Royal Shakespeare Company as the onstage trumpeter in their production of ‘The Roaring Girl’ and in their recent production of ‘Henry IV’ at the Barbican. As a chamber musician, Ellie has performed at The London Handel Festival on period instruments, and has enjoyed working with Chaconne Brass, including a commercial recording of a new work by Bob Chilcott with Wells Cathedral Choir. Her trumpet and organ duo Illumina have performed recitals at St Paul’s Cathedral, Fairfield Halls and Alexandra Palace, and have recently commissioned a new work from composer Paul Burke.

If that wasn’t enough magic then Angèle David-Guillou will plays some chiming melodies on the piano. Angèle is best known for a brace of critically acclaimed electro-acoustic dream-pop albums under the alias Klima, for her signature contributions to cult Anglo-French ensemble Piano Magic and for cameos on albums by the likes of The Go! Team, Peter Astor and Ginger Ale. In contrast to much of her oeuvre to date, Angèle’s debut album under her given name is a largely, if not exclusively, instrumental work, predominantly consisting of melodically opulent, emotionally compelling compositions for the grand piano (and, on three songs, a Wurlitzer electric piano), many of them emblazoned with vivid arrangements for strings, woodwind, musical saw and percussion.

Free entry, but donations are (as ever) encouraged.

May 2014 – through the feed – Johnny Parry Orchestra, Matt Stevens: new and new-ish albums

19 May

I keep a regular eye on the ‘Organ’ blog. In the good old, grim old days of print, paste, photocopy and crude HTML, ‘Organ’ was a big inspiration for ‘Misfit City’. While there’s been a lot of turbulent water under the bridge since then, and though Sean Worrall – he who is ‘Organ’ – claims his days of animated gonzo reviewing are long past, the current blog is still a great source of news and rapid-fire information/reaction regarding music, the London art scene, occasional politics and whatever other related thoughts are passing through Sean’s head. Some time (when I’m feeling even more solipsistic than usual) I might write some more about ‘Organ’ and ‘Misfit City’ and the 1990s, although I suspect that few people can pronounce better on Sean and his singular range of experiences than he can himself. (I’m hoping that he writes a proper memoir one of these days.)

Right now, here’s something I picked up from ‘Organ’ late last week and am sharing now: it triggers a different kind of nostalgia.

Johnny Parry Orchestra: 'An Anthology Of All Things'

Johnny Parry Orchestra: ‘An Anthology Of All Things’

Today, the Johnny Parry Orchestra release their second album ‘An Anthology Of All Things’. I first became aware of Johnny in 2002 when, as a solo act, he sent his debut album ‘Break Your Little Heart’ to the original incarnation of ‘Misfit City’. At the time ‘Misfit City’ was going down with all hands (ie, me) and so despite all best intentions and protestations, the album just sat on my shelf. I think it’s still there. I owe it to Johnny to revisit it properly sometime.

Fortunately (for my conscience, anyway), being neglected by me hasn’t hurt Johnny in the slightest. In the intervening twelve years he’s continued to work on and release music from his base in Bedford, steadily building himself up from solo dream-popster to trio leader, then becoming a small-ensemble boss and eventually expanding to the role of orchestral maestro. Now moving with assurance within the world of substantial arts grants, community music and event concerts, the latter-day Johnny Parry composes, arranges and conducts on a large scale and has worked with musical names as diverse as Talvin Singh, Michael Nyman, Seb Rochford and Beth Orton as well as Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed. Not bad for someone whom in 2002 was wandering Toronto amidst the wreckage of a record contract, seeking solace and inspiration from the city’s buskers. If life handed him a lemon, he certainly went on to grow lemon groves.

‘An Anthology Of All Things’ is Johnny’s second orchestral/choral album – funded by Bedford Creative Arts, it features (in addition to the JPO) the Bedford Arts Choir and soprano Donna Lennard. Already gaining comparisons to Benjamin Britten – albeit a Britten with a strong pop leaning – it’s very much community-shaped, with Johnny drawing his settable texts from lyrics donated (consciously or otherwise) by the Bedford public. The video excerpts below should demonstrate how this works. The first of these (for the sixth movement) is the result of Johnny soliciting and assembling original romantic testaments from friends, including couples, about their own feelings:

The second video is for the fifth movement, which gleans its text from the dedications on park benches in and around Bedford:

Some of the remaining movements are inspired by reflections on Bedford historical figures and childhood heroes, plus the town’s memories of the Second World War: others draw on more general or abstracted themes such as the human body, the elements of narrative, the components of travel and “youthful boundary defiance”. Here are a few more snippings from the press release:

“A captivating small town experience that has a far wider resonance… magnificent, masterful and sweepingly heart-warming, and performs a velvety emotional cut and paste approach. It dares to be huge and expansive but retains a deeply personal core which carries the intimate, often evocative thoughts and statements that are at times uncomfortable, innocent, whimsical and on occasions playfully risqué.”

The album can be ordered directly from here (though you’ll need to use PayPal)

While I’m beating myself up a little for not keeping up with obligations, here’s something from someone else whose work I need to keep up with more regularly. Matt Stevens is no stranger to ‘Misfit City’ – see this review of him threshing up a lively storm at Roastfest a few years ago with just an acoustic guitar, loops, a pedalboard and plenty of bearish enthusiasm. Likewise, there are a couple of reviews of his early work with the collaborative band The Fierce & The Dead (here and here), an outfit which has grown from a trio of interesting polystylistic rock dabblers into a roaring garage-prog quartet with a shaggy, behemoth sound to it.

Matt Stevens: 'Lucid'

Matt Stevens: ‘Lucid’

First and foremost, though, Matt is a ceaselessly enthusiastic solo artist, and in March he released his fourth solo album ‘Lucid’. Compared to his earlier solo work, it’s more of a band record, predominantly based around Matt’s friends and contemporaries in British art-rock (Stuart Marshall from The Fierce & The Dead and Charlie Cawood from Knifeworld are the rhythm section for most of the record, while sundry other Fiercies, Knifeworlders, Trojan Horses, Guapo-sians and Chrome Hoofers also make a showing – hello Emmett Elvin, Nick Duke and Kev Feazey). However, it also draws from latterday prog via Jem Godfrey (of Frost*), dark ambience from Helicopter Quartet‘s violinist Chrissie Caulfield, and cosmic jazz in the shape of Lorenzo Feliciati of Naked Truth, who may or may not be responsible for the presence on the album of his NT bandmate Pat Mastelloto, the increasingly ubiquitous and inventive King Crimson drummer who’s become something of a touchstone for art-rock crossovers. (Mysterious vibraphone player Jon Hart is also on board but, as always, wherever he’s coming from is anyone’s guess.)

Matt himself describes ‘Lucid’ as:

“a significant step up from the previous albums. It’s inspired by a bit of a dark time, but hopefully it’s an uplifting record… all the players really were outstanding. It’s a record that reflects my love of Jesu and Celtic Frost as much as the Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson or even Peter Gabriel and I’m really proud of it. If you’re not going to take risks and try and do something interesting what’s the point?”

The preview video below (which has been out for a few months now) should give you some idea of what Matt’s aiming for. If you like what you hear, the album’s out on Esoteric Antenna Records and you can get it either from Burning Shed or Cherry Red.

Johnny Parry online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter YouTube

Matt Stevens online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM YouTube

May 2013 – album reviews – Terry Gomes’ ‘Shh.’ (“the kind of gentle musical wit that’s been out of fashion for too long”)

18 May

Terry Gomes: 'Shh.'

Terry Gomes: ‘Shh.’

There are no shocks on ‘Shh.’ In certain respects, it could hardly be cosier – Canadian guitarist and arranger Terry Gomes isn’t the spikiest of artists. Three previous self-released albums of countrified folk-pop, with a clean and amiable early-’60s sonic sensibility, have seen him develop into a promising singer-songwriter. Yet even though 2009’s ‘Loose Ends’ (with subtler reflections on loss and orphanhood starting to ripple his songcraft) saw Terry beginning to sound something like a junior Richard Hawley, he’s always risked a headlong disappearance into the kind of consummate professionalism that swallows musicians without a trace.

While it’s a dumb, lazy rock canard that you’re automatically more genuine the more sprawling and trashy you are, it’s still true that the kind of sober musical strengths Terry favours could dip him straight into into the polished, preppy and staid. The clean-cut approach and old-school session-player clarity; the background of university studies, music teaching and classical guitar; the history of working dues paid at the modest end of rock bands and chamber ensembles. Then again, Terry’s also a Zappa fan with a taste for tongue-in-cheek, and a man who entertains himself by playing Dick Dale-flavoured prog-rock tributes to Toronto hockey teams on a pink-paisley Telecaster. There’s straight, and there’s not-so-straight.

Changing tack for his fourth album, Terry has set aside lyrics, singing and songwriting for the moment in order to reinvent himself through a different vintage lens. For ‘Shh.’, he’s exploring his skills as an instrumental jazz guitarist, albeit one who keeps his pop knack close to hand. Don’t expect much in the way of wild exploration or improvised threshing – Terry’s fluent, trim playing stays hand-in-glove with his upfront melodies, and most of the music sits nicely somewhere between 1950s-inflected cool jazz territory and clipped slap-back pop. Harkening after the bright tunefulness of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell, it also keeps that Ventures/Shadows mix of twang and tune-dotting, while easing off into a relaxed George Benson accessibility.

There’s enough heart in the music to pull in some top Ottowan musical talent, all of whom play with warmth. Sharing drum duties with Jeff Asselin, Ouzo Power’s Ross Murray also co-produces. Jazz festival mainstay John Geggie provides most of the bass, while his fellow jazz veterans Dave Renaud and Peter Hum (plus Pulse Mondiale guitarist René Gely) make passing drop-ins as Terry’s front-line foils. Show-band stalwart Gino Scaffidi bolsters the rhythm guitar on half of the tracks, and there are further contributions from Afro-pop players Stu Watkins and Rob Graves, from Back-Talk Organ Trio’s Don Cumming and from classical percussionist Jonathan Wade. All of this gives ‘Shh.’ a diverse but easygoing small-group sound, an ability for quick shifts in style and the feeling of a happy gathering.

Terry’s prime concern, though, seems to be with keeping a friendly eye on the audience. In West Coast tradition, composition consistently trumps improvisation. Rather than brooding and brewing over a standard, Terry presents original engaging pieces of his own with clear straightforward hooks to hum along with and meticulous, perky arrangements. The album fires off short, tidy bursts of tunefulness like a musical espresso machine, all craft and polish. Every lick and fill is nicely honed, with the scope, rhythms and harmonic sophistication of jazz predominantly used as tools to gently buff and expand the melodies.

At its simplest, this emerges as breezy affectionate pastiche. On a couple of straightforward walking-jazz pieces, Terry strolls in loping step with Dave Renaud (who offers soft cartoonish clarinet on If It Walks Like A Duck and airy alto sax on Velvet Wings), and the two strut like two old buddies kidding each other over memories of smooth moves. Left to front the band by himself on Cool Cats, Terry switches between crisp finger-snapping swing and mellow reflection in an eyeblink, before blasting out a brief big-band roar via his fuzz pedal. Closing the record, Shake Shop Shenanigans abandons jazz altogether for snappy surf-rock, in which Terry’s early-’60s outlaw tone is offset both by its own fairground vigour and by Don Cummings’ background swipes of vaporous ghost-train organ.

Other pieces are less obvious, but stay unruffled. The ticking, steady pop instrumental Forever in a Day (on which Peter Hum offers an understated piano counterpart to Terry’s distorted, honeyed lead) breezes easily through its gentle, rhapsodic tune and its Latin undercurrents. René Gely adds nylon-string counterpoint to BG Bound’s driving song, conversing with Terry’s sleepy electric tones over the undulating bossa feel and the bobbing rhythms of Rob Graves’ congas and vibraslap. The three work together again on the velvety, Frisell-icana-styled duet of Gone; René adding occasional dreamy furls of steel guitar as well as nylon-string as Terry paints a happy lonesome sound full of gentle swells and breathy changes of mood.

No shocks, then – but that doesn’t mean that ‘Shh.’ is devoid of pleasing surprises. It’s easy to tag Terry for paying tribute to West Coast comfort and rock’n’roll twang, not to mention hopscotching gently in the footsteps of Hoagy Carmichael. But I suspect that, like Zappa, he’s well aware of the pastiche element. He’s open about ‘Shh.’ being influenced more by television and film soundtracks than by pure tradition, and he clearly loves the pop currency that he’s reshuffling in his own tunes. If he occasionally slinks along the cheese margin, he’s doing it deliberately and with enjoyment.

I’m also guessing that as well as the subliminal Zappa in Terry’s musical DNA, there’s a tiny touch of Spike Jones. ‘Shh.’ has no outright parody, no screams or gargling noises, but its good humour regularly spills over into outright winks and friendly stunts. Some of these are more vigorous than others (the fleeting music-hall flourishes of old-style melodrama, Queen-style) while others are inclusive chuckles embedded in the tunes themselves. Da Bug’s brush-drum shuffle toys with sly little shifts of metre, and with droll rolls and clucks of guitar picking. The tootling swing of Welcome cheerfully indulges a classical guitar-inspired section with bowed bass before nipping happily back into jazz (sparking some neat unison lines between Terry and Gino Scaffadi as it does).

All of this is too lighthearted, too integrated to be particularly postmodern or self-consciously stylised. It’s more the kind of gentle musical wit that’s been out of fashion for too long. At its broadest, it offers They Went That-a-Way, a theme for an imaginary helter-skelter Western that’s one-third ‘Bonanza’, one-third Eight Miles High and one-third Chuck Jones. Stuffed with galloping melodies and sudden switches in direction, this leads the band hither and yon in a hall-of mirrors scuttle; bursting in and out of cowboy orchestration, runaway fretboard zips and Jonathan Wade’s trick-bag rattle of orchestral percussion.

At the other end of the scale from the horse-laughs is The Skater. With the illustrative flair of a silent movie, a trio of Terrys etch out a musical impression of a day on the ice: a little cloudy, a little classical, it takes a Satie-via-Carmichael journey of long lines and pointed details. Beginning with initial lazy strokes across the rink, it builds through ambitious strumming to straining arabesques, only to career downwards in a windmilling slither of muted flamencoid chords as the skater heads out of control; finally picking up and reviving that cruising, swanlike dignity. There’s an art to this kind of light entertainment. Part of Terry’s own subtle artistry is to make it seem lighter than it really is.

Terry Gomes: ‘Shh.’
Bleeding Heart Recordings, BH01
CD/download album
Released: 15th May 2013

Get it from:
Terry Gomes’ online store, CDBaby or Amazon.

Terry Gomes online:
Homepage YouTube

May 2013 – album reviews – John Ellis’ ‘Sly Guitar’ (“a playful magpie interest”)

8 May

John Ellis: 'Sly Guitar'

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’

A skilled and flexible working guitarist since the early 1970s (travelling through punk, post-punk, pub rock, rhythm-and-blues and progressive rock in no particular order), John Ellis has never curdled as a musician. What he’s avoided doing up to now is making a player’s album. Generally he’s been content to tweak a song’s architecture as a team member (in The Vibrators and the mark two Stranglers) or as a flexible, innovative sideman (delivering fanged electric churn for Peters Hammill and Gabriel, or airship noises and roaring-Twenties fanfares for Judge Smith). Even when left to his own devices, he’s stayed away from guitar heroics – often, away from the guitar itself. He’s fermented semi-ambient hubbub for art galleries, filtered Victorian Japonisms through electronica, and taken strides into multimedia, but left the protracted strutting and soloing alone.

On ‘Sly Guitar’, however he returns to (and lays into) his main instrument with a sharp-clawed and swaggering stylishness. It’s the kind of performance that suggests he’s ripped the tail-fin off a 1950s Cadillac and carved a new guitar from it. Things are different this time. In some respects, the key to appreciating ‘Sly Guitar’ is knowing about John’s participation in a 2007 art prank, when he helped to fake a lost Hendrix rendition of the Welsh national anthem. While this particular stunt got his playing onto ‘Newsnight‘ – and was originally a joke about co-opting celebrities into random causes – viewed from here, it’s as much about the puckish and gleeful enjoyment which John gets out of playing guitar. Aspects of Ellis wit might show up on the records he’s worked on (qv. the intuitive bite of those Hammill albums, his thoughtful tricks with Smith, or the raw horse-laughs in his own rare solo songs), but a sense of liberated fun doesn’t always make it across. On ‘Sly Guitar’ it does.

I said “player’s album” – I’m also suggesting that this is the record on which John Ellis finally lets it all hang out. That’s a little misleading. Discreetly virtuosic yet always understated, John’s technique is marked out by the lean, sharp economy he’s learned from years of punk and art-rock. There are also plenty of examples of his taste for bouncing around inside delay units, and for the blocky synthwork and drum loops explored on 2008’s ‘Map of Limbo’. The music’s also liberally slathered with John’s beloved EBow sustainer, transforming notes into assorted hoots and stuttering violin chugs, or pulling them out into taffee-lengths.

These in turn blend in with ideas from all over the place. Fun notwithstanding, John’s art-school training consistently underlies his current approach (one track, with all irony intact, is called I Remember Futurism). He picks up odds-and-ends from the fashions and fads he’s seen pass by and reinterprets them with a playful magpie interest. The results blend an edgy and brittle flair with fastidious design, offset with a mischievous, practical form of musical adapt-and-reclaim.

Many of the tunes on ‘Sly Guitar’ have much in common with old pop-instrumental albums. There are tinges of Joe Meek and of perky surf-guitar capsules from the ’60s; and of those meticulous prog-tinged jingles from the ’70s. But this is just part of an overall collage effect which plucks inspiration from Hendrix, Hank Marvin and John Williams, from Robert Fripp and John Martyn; even from the likes of Fred Frith and Henry Kaiser. It also suggests that over the years John has copped a listen to everything from ‘No Pussyfooting’ and ‘Temple Head’ to On-U Sound and Moby. At the least, he’s caught their echoes as they’ve seeped through airwaves or were circulated alongside technology.

Certainly John’s thinking hard about latterday pop and accessibility; insistent club beats and nods to old crowd-pleasers drive much of the album. Pieces like Levitation and the eleven-minute title track sit on funk grooves with sleek flicks of rhythm guitar and curved, humming chromium lead lines. Snappily and space-ily rendered, the latter are recorded close enough to hear the speaker cones jumping and flattening while wellings of EBow sustain stack up behind like a pile of moonlit clouds. In the chop’n’chat of Farud Gets Electricity, John mixes a Latin loop and a dash of Stray Cats rockabilly into the recipe. Futuro’s leisurely boom-bat, wood-clack beat and clipped industrial framing recall a slimline version of Tackhead’s industrial hip-hop. Making the most of the album’s pop-up digital production sheen, it’s fleshed out by jawharp synth boings and fake horn stabs; its smoulder-point guitar lines hanging in the middle distance like burning ropes.

The beats may be familiar, but the tweaked and ruffled electrophonic timbres which John uses to build up the tunes are less so. Pedalo is as rhythmic as anything else on the record (gliding atop a cavernous trip-hop loop and cracking dub snare) but its body is made up of a mongrel set of slotted-in guitar voices – fanfare tones of firefly and conch; power-growls of distorted fuzz; a pitch-shifted shrill of parade melody teetering on top. All of these come together in spite of themselves, an ill-matched platoon who’ve learned to march in step. Under a skywriting blast of EBow sustain, I Remember Futurism interweaves a rippling set of arpeggios, passing them between a calm sky-blue organ and a guitar which sounds like a harp made of iron girders.

Embedded deep in the mix of the latter are the tinkling, caught-up accents of Brazilian cymbals and bells, and other pieces probe even deeper into worldbeat. Walking in the footsteps of Jon Hassell’s Fourth World Music, and of Transglobal Underground, John brews up vividly staged polycultural blends in which the frowning lines between ethnology and fraudulence, sympathy and exploitation might perhaps blur into irrelevance. His cyborg guitar tones counterpoint the eerie ornamented leaps of the Middle Eastern music he sources, undercutting its spiritual passion with impressionist sound-builds recalling insect swarms, oppressive heat, or the spine-crawling sense of secret surveillance. Hollowing out a Nile processional (on Don’t Be Misled By Your Eyes), he repacks it with drilling mosquito sounds, duetting Arabian slide lines and choral synths. The leisurely Levantine trip-hop of Flies elevates a souk-call vocal sample like a dreamy kite, but then subtly pollutes it with hovering swarms of static guitar buzz.

These last are much like the withering drones employed by Robert Fripp on ‘Exposure’ back in 1979, painting threatening sonic portraits of decaying industrial landscapes. You could only speculate as to whether John’s applying these same ominous atmospherics to the torn cities of the Arab spring; the idea hangs heavy. Initially The Bowl Maker of Lhasa (framed by temple bells and further baleful Frippish insect buzzes and pitch-collapses) sounds as if it’s going to do something similarly politicized for Tibet. However, it rapidly returns to clear hip-hop and funk sources – the sleek dancing duel between stinging clean guitar and EBow whistle, the playful way it lifts and reshapes a sly quote from ‘Freddie’s Dead’ in the middle of its drum-machine swing. While there are a few left-field touches (such as a timbral shift which refracts the familiar street beats into something with a twist of copper and stained glass), perhaps it’s better just to enjoy the imaginative, enthusiastic sound-painting; and not to over-freight the pieces with too much extra meaning.

The remaining tracks, though, bypass the club beats for a deeper exploration of John’s textural art-rock side. The brief roundabout of Echoplexing presents a bone-and-wood clatter of choppily-strummed flamenco guitar: echoing off to the sides of the soundfield, it joins stinging treble guitar lines and zipping insect sounds, stitched together by a child-chant organ part. The loop-and-splay Infanta shows John at his purest both as player and as music processor. Dialling up a sparkling silvery electric guitar tone, he begins the tune with Spanish classical inflections nestled in a sharp snappy reverb before abruptly leaving them to pulse and circle inside a loop-hang while he gets on with other business. He goes on to juggle a section of Hendrix jinks and transfigured rock’n’roll quotes; a countrified oud tone; elegant touches of shading, slurring and EBow elisions; a razor buzz bouncing in the background.

Elsewhere, March Of The Kitchen Taps floats a cluster of hovering, uneasy guitar parts (floats, wails and squeals) against swishing electronics like ventilation fan-blades, and against massed samples of metallic taps and bangs which flutter, slice and nail the pulse down. Cue jokes about everything-and-the-kitchen-sink: Crow On A Dying Dog eggs these on further, blending even more twiddling kitchen metals with a bagful of plastic electronics – bass twangs, burbling random-pitched vocalise, synthesized big-band swing and blaring horn-guitar parts. As a flight of sampled rooks flap past, it sounds like a weird and wilful collision between suitcase synth-pop and bleak mediaeval soundtracks.

It’s these particular pieces, in fact, that seal both the fate and triumph of ‘Sly Guitar’. Forks and taps aside, it is a kitchen-sink album: one which flea-jumps enthusiastically between slick beats and toy noises, easy funk and experimental chop-suey, clippable music and idiosyncratic personal sketches. John may have finally turned in his “player’s” album, but even this far along in the game he refuses to play it straight. Dipping in and out of formalism and fooling around, coursing around plug-ins and unravellings, he’s turned in an album which celebrates and fans out his plurality as a musician. Having mastered a humble, low-key chameleonic wilfulness – in which the appropriate art and the immediate idea directly shapes the method – he’s let it become part of him, even when he’s flexing free.

John Ellis: ‘Sly Guitar’
Chanoyu Records, CHA002
CD/download album
Released: 6th May 2013

Get it from:
Chanoyu Records.

John Ellis online:
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September 2002 – album reviews – Resindust’s ‘Resindust’ (“scattered art rock, post-rock, guru-guitar serenity and air-sculpture”)

14 Sep

Resindust: 'Resindust'

Resindust: ‘Resindust’

Let’s imagine that somewhere within British art-music, there’s a recovery zone, and that that’s where we find the two Resindust blokes trying to help each other out. On the one hand, there’s Lewis Gill – part of the North-West English avant-garde via guitar improv with The Psychiatric Challenge, full-on death-drone noisescaping with Sebastian, and rolling about in the electronica toybox with Vivahead. And on the other hand, there’s Tony Harn – the dedicated solo instrumental craftsman, happily out-of-step with time and trends. Usually, Tony purveys appealing guitar heroics blending jazz-fusion, ’70s rock beef and ’80s echo-box chitter somewhere between Durutti Column, Brian May and John Scofield.

Shape-shifter, meet Trusty.

Now… let’s say that perhaps Trusty’s seeking a way to become less clever and mannered. And perhaps Shape-shifter is experimenting with how to be less sprawling and bizarre. And let’s also consider that while most new projects are intended to be springboards, Resindust might well be intended as a set of emergency dampers. But that’s far too glib. Rather than chaperoning or circumscribing each other, the Resindusters thrive on creative, positive dilution. Ignoring the arm-wrestling of most jazz-rock and avant-garde stand-up fights, they melt into each other’s music at each meeting.

Thriving on the opposing poles of their drives and talents, they make the most of previous chemistry (having briefly played fusion-rock together in Lifebox) and of the interesting DIY sonic and instrumental layers they use to augment their odd-couple guitar work. Vocal hums, artlessly sweet woodwind, veering masses of low-key electronica, wind-chimes and flapping hoods of bass combine in a melange of scattered art rock, post-rock, guru-guitar serenity and air-sculpture. Recalling Fred Frith, Mike Oldfield, This Heat and AR Kane in equal parts, ‘Resindust’ contains some of the most thought-provoking music that either Tony or Lewis have produced to date.

For the guitar-led pieces, they opt for a disciplined approach: collective cycles of electric counterpoint, urged gently towards the panoramic. In Wireweave, Lewis’ earnest neurotic parts intersect Tony’s majestically burnished clockwork patterns in a cat’s-cradle of multiple guitar lines: but Tony also delivers a fat Queen-gone-space-rock solo, nudging through the delicacy like a gold-plated airship. When Tony’s in the driving seat, the duo incline towards ornate and looping structures with a definite prog taste. Suzanna weaves precisely-etched pastoral guitars into repeating, mellifluous Fabergé glitter. On Resindust itself, dogged multi-tracked guitars burrow up out of the same kind of minimalist shards and sketches as Bark Psychosis’ Pendulum Man. As these mesh together in a slow, precise pile-up, Tony’s bowed guitar and fretless bass offer bleak and slanting commentary amidst the hovering ambient string talk.

Lewis generally plays rogue element to Tony’s jewelled approach. He lets the guitars hang everywhere – polluting the atmospherics and hovering around their miasmic impressions of mosquitoes, sirens and beast growls. On Vorpmix, his slow-brewed sleet of industrial noise sharpens Tony’s beefy moans and scrapes of guitar ambience. The baleful, semi-ambient Critical is a trapdoor-land of sour and haunting guitar swells, with bent and wind-blown chords dropping from above like sheets of corroded tinfoil, scattering over the crematorium organ and thirsty windchimes. Yet it’s Lewis’ naïve murmurs of song-vapour which anchor Suzanna to earth, and for the softness of ‘Cotlife’ his guitars tease out tiny, waltzing, bluesy curlicues (beautifully judged and deliciously expressive; trimmed back to the size of comforting ghosts).


 
But although graceful or abused guitars dominate Resindust’s music, there’s no drop in interest when they’re laid aside in favour of Lewis and Tony’s remaining noisemakers. Windscream sets itself down in draughty chills of ambient keyboard and lamenting, clay-fluting recorder notes. A lone fretless bass mouths like a shipwrecked plesiosaur while vocal keens and burrs, chings and echoes chew gently at what remains of the structure. And for Artism, Lewis’ looped and layered a-cappella vocals wobble precariously over collapsing dub drum-spasms. Multiple descending harmonies skip down over nasal, throbbing madrigal jollity. Lapping slices of conversation toss words onto the shoreline beyond: phrases like “jigsaw puzzle” wash up from the background, and for a moment you wonder what it’d be like if Alan Bennett had ever muscled in on a Henry Cow chorale.

‘Resindust’ is an album of solace and reconciliation. It’s not just because of the gentle beauty and bewitching chaos that peek through its music from time to time, but because of the affectionate wit in the way it reconciles studied, precise musicality with the chance factors and absurdity of raw art instincts… all without so much as a stepped-on toe. Harn and Gill never really needed to use each other as a cure. They just needed that mutual hand-up to where they could bridge the nagging gaps together.

Resindust: ‘Resindust’
Resindust (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 2002

Buy it from:
Very rare – best obtained second-hand.

Tony Harn online:
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Lewis Gill online:
Homepage MySpace

September 2001 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘Moving Moons’ (“beautiful liquid-gold guitar with its shoes kicked off”)

2 Sep

Tony Harn: 'Moving Moons'

Tony Harn: ‘Moving Moons’

Little has changed in Tony Harn’s approach, but the Warrington fusion-rock guitarist has never sounded happier. His lyrical, tightly-controlled hard-rock drive is still set off against tumbling, multi-faceted art-rock arpeggios, plus enquiring shapes and vocalised textures drawn in from the world of modern jazz guitar. But the lightness of touch on ‘Moving Moons’ – and its renewed breadth of expression – makes it his most assured work to date.

This third album seems to be about simply enjoying the flow. Its gently sparkling mood is that of a well-pleased man, leaning sensually into his work. As ever, Harn (playing or programming all the instruments) blends his music without cynicism or self-consciousness about his comfortable sound. The bright, guileless weave of cyclic minimalism, gleaming Factory Records economy and judiciously-employed jazz-prog flamboyance retains Harn in a small, well-kept territory of his own.

You can trace a Pat Metheny legacy in some of those friendly guitar percolations, and that of Vini Reilly in the glittering, spindly-but-intricate echo-box patterns. But the overdriven keens of his lead lines have the affable, comfy edge of a ’70s geezer rocker – good-natured, puppy-rough and serenely blissful. At root, ‘Headstart’ is a Satriani-style rocker, growling from the pit of its sulky, dirty wah-rhythm and attempting to swagger. Yet Harn focuses and soothes it, opening the music outwards and festooning it with reflective pointillistic arpeggios; finally leading it towards inclusiveness and away from posturing.

Compared to the pastoral English flavour of Harn’s previous album ‘Lifebox‘, ‘Moving Moons’ is built on a summery Mediterranean warmth – hot nights of brilliant stars, or energising washes of daylight and bright stucco walls. Although Harn sometimes lets his airy keyboards dominate (especially on the pocket-funk throb of Pulsecode, synth riffs chuckling like contented babies), the pervading sound of the album is acoustic, or near-acoustic. Despite of the squadron of stratospheric rock wails and the sheath of Andy Summers textural swells, what really informs Jackal is Spanish guitar, all tangy attack and tremolo. Anger And Empathy provides a dynamic demonstration of Harn’s experimental side – a slow-motion volcano-burst of bent whammy-bar swells, scrapes and tortured violin-bow noises, all fed through outer-space distortions and echoes. But this too flows forward into another Spanish-styled guitar progression, clean and sweet: and ‘Safe Again’ is full of perky acoustic strumming as Harn takes flight, deliciously chasing his own echo.

Although this strays closer to driving music for the Algarve than it does to Paco Peña, Harn invariably saves the day with his ear for tunes, his knack for beautifully refracted arrangements, or his mastery of unabashed constructive naivety. The marriage of technology and innocence – a rare quality in guitarists – is Harn’s ace card, and a surprisingly effective one.

Moving Moons itself is a fragrant nightscape – tootling synths kissing up to arpeggio guitar and the sound of floats bobbing in reflective water. Sweet meteor trails of guitar-wail arc across the air for a rendezvous with moving cross-rhythms; and more spare, sweet paths of feedback show up on the deliciously lazy study of Standing In The Doorway To Your World. Here, they play over the gently assured structures built up by Harn’s synths and organs, or ease breathlessly across a classical-minimal duo of Reilly-esque clean guitars. Lake Song has Harn orchestrating a duet of twinkling post-punk guitar and hooting ’70s overdrive, the drumbox teased by reggae-tinted bass beneath those double-stopped minimalist patterns.

Generally avoiding the temptation to rampage incessantly across his fretboard, Harn’s drawn instead towards finding and sitting on pretty patterns. Sometimes this gets dangerously close to cuteness – the breezy Bubbleburst, for example, like a chance meeting between Alphonso Johnson and Brian May in the kids’ end of the jazz-rock pool. User One (Moon Two) also lives in the bright-eyed zone, bouncing its swirly jangle of notes against the night sky, keeping them up and moving via its pumping, lightly-whipped funk bass-line.

As a counterweight, Harn addresses his jazz leanings more substantially in a couple of loose fusion ballads. Time For Answers merges swing rhythms, prog assertions and a Django Reinhardt gypsy wriggle, leading them all through to a celebratory duet of guitar and tootling synth. Sixlowdown aims at the jazz pocket through the gaps of another reggae-styled bassline: a bubbling, tripping sway like a mid-’80s Miles Davis ballad, emphasized by the growl of bluesy distortion Harn employs for terse comments from the sidelines, flexing a few John McLaughlin sensibilities.

‘Moving Moons’ sometimes seems a little becalmed within its coasting motions – a touch too happy in its light’n’easy beauty – but with such lovely scenery to glide through, it’s little wonder that Harn’s opting to cruise easily. Ultimately, this time he’s offering beautiful liquid-gold guitar with its shoes kicked off, and whether you choose to join him on the sundeck is your own affair. But he couldn’t be any more welcoming if he tried.

Tony Harn: ‘Moving Moons’
Tony Harn, THCD2 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Burning Shed.

Tony Harn online:
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September 1999 – album reviews – John Ellis’ ‘Spic’n’Span’ (“a minor treasury of passing ideas”)

24 Sep
John Ellis: 'Spic'N'Span'

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’

The lifespans of pop musicians are usually measured in five-year units – generally just one each before they’re inserted into the “where are they now?” file. But for every ten who went into hostelry, college lecturing or millinery, one adapted and carried on the journey as best they could and perhaps saw how their talents and ideas could fit into the next stage.

As guitarist, songwriter and sound-shaper John Ellis is hardly a household name, but his work and adaptability have both been consistent. He’s already discreetly chameleoned his way through three decades of music. A founder member of The Vibrators during the punk era, he went on to play an integral role in the Peter Hammill and Peter Gabriel bands over the cusp of the ’70s and ’80s. Links with Jean-Jacques Burnel eventually led him (along with Paul Roberts) into the post-Hugh-Cornwell Stranglers line-up; he developed an electronica sideline via his digressions into gallery music, There’s even a touch of prog beyond Gabriel and Hammill: John also plays guitar for Judge Smith’s ongoing “song-story” projects.

John’s journeyman credentials are unquestionable, and to each position he’s brought his own supporting voice and particular marks. However, always being the lieutenant means some of your ideas bounce off the boss (or the inflexibility of circumstances) and get stashed away. ‘Spic’N’Span’ corralls together unheard odds’n’sods from John’s curvy journey through music, and consequently it’s a musical scrapbook rather than an album.

A third of the tunes are the kind of thing that many working musicians knock out for TV music library discs – bright jingles and “we’re going somewhere” music, executed on cupboard synth orchestras. The synthetic Euro-funk/perky testcard tunes of Wild Talent and Tune-O-Matic fall into this category; as do the flying-over- mountains melody of Early Riding Daddy, the New Age-y pop march of The Needs Of The Soul and the rather more ambitious baroque-jazz stylings of Running Through The Trees. Still… behind many of these you can hear little pop chicks trying to hatch out of the multi-track demos, hoping to drop into the collective lap of an ’80s boy band, to do that five-year round; and to then cheat death by popping up in a nostalgia DJs record box, taking a ride on a revival. It might not have actually happened, but then the business of selling songs has always been a bit of a lottery.

Another third of ‘Spic’N’Span’ is a set of genuine ’80s pop songs. All of these are produced in the squeaky-clean studio fashion of the time; but all are executed with the restraint, intelligence and puritanical zeal of post-punk. The pin-sharp shimmy of John’s guitar is the linking factor – wailing away on E-bow sustain, sparking off claw-hand finger-picking, or adroitly yanked from note to note.

Three of these songs are sung by Alex Legg – his spooky vocal resemblance to Peter Gabriel shows us how things might have been had Gabriel and Ellis joined forces and run off together into the showy pop territory eventually colonised by Tears For Fears instead. The Space Between Us (a soulful, regretful R’n’B lament of hostility, injustice and enmity) could easily have fitted onto an album like ‘So’. Similarly, Joe Jackson would have been proud to have written the pumping Monopoly (the biting list song of an abusive marriage, a woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape it, and the grim consequences). Off on its own, the John Greaves-ish piano song Mumble Jumble (pointing up the Ellis art-school/art-rock background) ponders the confusions and blocks of language.

Two more songs are sung by John himself. Giving Up The Ghost, with its airbrushed console-blues sound and phantom horn section, strives after the authenticity of roots Americana only to arrive as a Eurythmics B-side instead. But the glinty, polished Elevator Man (which sounds more like Steve Harley doing J-pop) works better, capturing the arch giddiness of stardom from a slight but crucial degree of separation. “I went from rags to riches, from riches to rags. / I was an overnight sensation.”

Then there’s a third section: a couple of tunes which seem to be trying for the early ’80s link between electro, hip-hop, and primitive British synth pop. Such is the buzz and piping of Stutter Gun with its earnest, uptight vocal samples and its synaesthesic theme: “it’s beautiful… the colours will flash… the sounds will embrace you.” Jimi Jam studs its gurgling electro with little sampled Hendrix asides – “Hey, what’s happening?… Oh no, I think I’m out of tune.” Discreetly decorated with wobbling wails of clean sustained feedback, it’s so cheerfully plastic when compared to Hendrix’s controlled brinksmanship that it has to be a piss-take.

There are also a couple of genuine, delightful misfit chunks in the stew. The panoramic zither chug of One Way Street walks in step with Trans-Global Underground in its mess of world beats, the spine-shivering harmonies of crowd hums from old Lomax recordings, and the Republic serial dialogue snippets (“All the streets are one way!”; “What better way to commemorate the dead?”). John performs a solo joke on The Best Part Of The Cabbage: woozy slide guitar and sleepy voice shambling out a ramshackle joke-blues on cannibalism. (“Looking at you, I lick my lips…”) The sensuous laziness of the tune offsets the wonderfully appalling humour: “If you ain’t got a fridge yet, there’s not much on a midget – / a mouthful, or two.”

A minor treasury of passing ideas, ‘Spic’N’Span’ will never be more than a curio, but one that remains open and friendly throughout.

John Ellis: ‘Spic’N’Span’
Furious Productions (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only album
Released: September 1999

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand: this was released as a very-limited-edition run of 50 copies, so it’s extremely rare.

John Ellis online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Soundcloud

July 1999 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘Lifebox’ (“settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace”)

24 Jul
Tony Harn: 'Lifebox'

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’

Since striking out on his own with ‘From The Inside‘ in 1997, Warringtonian guitarist Tony Harn has gone from strength to strength. It’s not that ‘Lifebox’ is all that different from its predecessor. It’s the same recipe of glittering, admirably economical rock guitar arrangements backed up by simple keyboard sounds and lightly-cymballed percussion programming – the sort of thing that would have made Harn a hero of British instrumental rock in the 1970s, or even the ’80s. In the late ’90s, it makes him more of a finely-tuned curio. A guilty pleasure.

Still, being out-of-step with the times has little to do with your innate value; and Tony Harn’s got plenty of that. His concept of melodic rock moving towards a jazz vocabulary has had to pass through a Manchester filter first. There’s a lot of meticulousness and post-industrial reserve here, an underlying balance of sounds and patterns that’s got more to do with Factory-style Futurism than feet-on-monitors and flailing hair. Not that Harn’s cover photo – the purposefully-shaven skull and meaningful gaze – shows hair to flail anyway.

In a nutshell, Tony Harn is what Joe Satriani might have been if he’d had Durutti Column’s sensibilities. His full-blooded melody-metal tone, his tunefulness and his sweet tooth for rock romanticism is reined in by Northern English economies on gesture and gush. Except for a solitary Van Halen moment – a short-lived explosion of devil fingers called Reaction:Release (In One Motion) – all is controlled and thoughtful. Layers of staccato echoed phrasing and delicate flat-picked motifs interplay with tuneful, assured lead lines. Harn’s guitars can chatter and circle busily, or pine away in expressive overdriven wails, all without letting the music lose its well-suspended balance. It can be as dignified as fine civic architecture, or it can roll like a landscape of green English hills. Pastoral, but never pastel; surprisingly serene, but not soporific with it.

And (if all of this isn’t starting to sound too cute) proggy without being boggy. Since the sometimes-perfunctory tunes of ‘From The Inside’, Harn’s developed a well-deserved confidence in taking on longer-form compositions. The fifteen-minute, multi-phase Reaction:Repeat (In Six Motions) bubbles with understated invention – it’s a drawn-out, trance-y rockscape of shifting heroic tunes and dance pulses, bouncing off the same constellations as Porcupine Tree did on ‘Voyage 34’. Split The Sketch jumps from sleepy church music (cavernous swells, sweet-dream melody and the chink and whisper of string noise) into the sort of split-metred riffing and racing arpeggios that Steve Hackett would’ve been happy to set his name to. Blue Blazes doesn’t go for length, but for shimmering detail, weaving tiny repetitive phrases into sky-written spirals around an airborne ripple of synth.

Even if his silvery jazz-inflected chording doesn’t quite qualify these efforts as fusion, Harn’s push towards jazz is becoming easier to distinguish. You can hear him trying out conversations with the themes in Eve Of Obligation; and if you listen beyond the diamante guitars on Pseudotalk, you’ll hear a pretty, melting tune that wants to sit down with a jazz quintet and make friends. But if Harn does move into that world, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the straightforward and joyful way he expresses his melodies – the folkiness of Last Town, the wedding bell tumble of Twelve Years, or how his romantic heart sits self-evidently on his sleeve for Forgotten Summer as his guitars and bass court each other. It shouldn’t be at the expense of digressions into haunting soundscaping such as Dark Age; in which, through organ drift and dreaming guitar sculptures, a girl’s guilt-stricken voice murmurs “I never used to think about it before.”

This, after all, is that rare breed of rock guitar album – one which you play not to worship at the Church of Guitar but to settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace, and to lean back into it. ‘Lifebox’. A good name for such an unassuming package, spilling out such fertile enthusiasm.

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’
Tony Harn, THCD2 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Limited availability – contact Tony Harn for information.

Tony Harn online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube

July 1998 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Marks on the Air’ (“a rough’n’ready homemade ethos”)

20 Jul

G.P. Hall: 'Marks On The Air'

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’


On ‘Marks On The Air’ (an album of live recordings from concerts in London and Wiltshire), the eccentricity and affections of British experimental guitarist G.P. Hall is presented wide open and unashamed.

To make the record, Hall teamed up with binaural recording whiz Mike Skeet. It’s Skeet’s voice you can hear bookending the concert – running up stairs and heading down in lifts, describing his surroundings with the nattering enthusiasm of a ‘Playschool’ presenter, and popping any remaining hopes of arty detachment. Still, it somehow adds to the warmth of the atmosphere which Hall’s live playing induces. Apart for the oddly truncated applause and the removal of Hall’s shy, uncontrived audience chat, it’s as close to one of his concerts as you’re going to get without leaving your home. Skeet’s superb recording techniques (his binaural miking technology directly mimicking the listening experience of ears on a human head) presents this music in the enveloping, directly tactile environment it requires.

Compared to the more assured sonic constructions you’ll find on a Hall album, ‘Marks On The Air’ is less sophisticated and more risky, but it’s equally ambitious. Skeet’s interjections aside, this is a one-man show. It relies entirely on how much Hall can get out of his hands and his immediate music loops while still keeping an audience entertained. With four separate speaker stacks, an assorted collection of guitars and effects pedals, and the armoury of unorthodox guitar-abusing sundries which he uses as playing implements (bows and battery fans, crocodile clips and Velcro, toy cars and electric razors), Hall is at least well-armed to do that, Even the clean, dated, digital rattle-and-thunk of his 1980s rhythm box lends the enterprise an endearing extra dimension of naivety.

Hall’s pictorial – even painterly – approach to music is consistent throughout. New England Woods is cut from the same lambent aural cloth which Hall made his own with Spirit Sky Montana – swelling curtains of sounds midway between country steel guitar and cello parts strolling and dallying in a soft adagio. Docklands attempts to recreate the brazenly lively colourfulness of a polluted industrial sunset – the shambling drums falling lopsided, the whooshing saw-sounds and lemon-sharp guitar echoes pressing out the shape of the skyline.

Live, however, Hall can be tempted away from his more elegant pastoral confections and into heavier statements. The impressionistic heavy metal of City Signals and Uncharted Territory both offer searing and swaggering chromium-blue lead lines, plenty of echoed backings and slow rolling pummels of drum-sound. Rippling, prolonged ambient humming and field recordings of indistinct conversation fill the gaps, like smog pouring into a heat-haze. For the tremendous scrunch of Flying Ants, Hall turns to his six-string bass and his flamenco knowledge. The result sounds like an over-scaled Gypsy guitar played with helicopter blades for fingernails. A delightfully yobbish take on the form, it flicks between tremendous chocolate-y gurgles of sound and (when Hall kicks in the distortion pedal) impenetrable hedges of distorted overload.

Much of this music is punctuated by clipped and plunking programmed synth-bass lines. Outside of mid-’80s chart hits, these ought to sound cheap and unpleasant. Instead, they fit surprisingly well into Hall’s musical sketches of the grubbier side of cities. They can be as brash and tacky as scattered burger boxes at your feet; as the failing neon signs and fly-by-night minicab firms gummed onto and into frowning old brickwork. On Flying Ants, they’re just appealingly cyborg. On Figments Of Imagination – where they’re working alongside metallic wails, hand-pumped stutters of echo and the rattle of crocodile clips – they add to the rough’n’ready homemade ethos of the music.

The hypnotic On Every Life (A Little Rain Must Fall) goes further into the wilderness. Nodding to Native American rhythm patterns, it calls up the feel of a parched Arizonan desert view. The delicate whine and rush of the guitar patterns swap between impressions of the dry, red heat and dust and of the shocking whiteness and colours of the tasselled fragments of cloud. Notes call and repeat, tranced out. Towards the end there’s a moment when it all stops. All but a faint swirling echo, as if the whole desert was looking upwards; and then the mass of sound crams back in again, like a cloudburst.

Best of all, perhaps, is the build- up of The Lonely Road, coalescing sustained, sorrowful coats of sound and small factory noises. Tinges of ambient-blues embrace a tired old worker’s knotted muscles at the end of the day. Part of the human focus comes in via the twanging, Frisell pluck’n’pang of Hall’s guitar. It’s capped, however, by the endearingly rough burst of busker’s harmonica which he wafts over the floating sorrow. Brave and defiant, it’s answered in kind by the elephant-trumpet of a rotary-saw sound.

Despite the odd bit of bluster, ‘Marks On The Air’ goes further towards expressing Hall’s gently appealing emotional nakedness as player and creator. What he sometimes loses in the grace stakes, he gains back in honesty and sympathy. There are a couple of unselfconscious, winning little cameos of “tiny music” which could have come from a children’s theatre. Drum sounds pop and clatter against the clipped melody and zither-blues intonation of Chinese Firecrackers. Suvi’s Little Crickets is built out of simple yet exquisite acoustic child-song patterns, which regularly rests while Hall circles a boxful of mechanical insects, chirping peacefully, around his microphone. Further hints into the private man are suggested by the deep pulsing chant of Alcharinga (in which guitars are abandoned altogether, in favour of throat-singing through an old answering machine mike). Marks On The Air itself is a long, mournful study on classical guitar – swept back and forth in eddies of echo, resigning itself beautifully to its own impermanence.

G.P. Hall manages to be many things. The garage player amongst the avant-garde; the warm-hearted soft touch among the arthouse players. The naive wonderstruck kid in the crowd of post-adolescent posers, the transfigurer of the straight, and the benevolent ghost in the machinery. Not a bad set of credentials, at that.

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 15th July 1998

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

July 1998 – mini-album reviews – Bob Burnett’s ‘Loops & Lines’ (“sample, hold’n’swing”)

13 Jul
Bob Burnett: 'Loops & Lines'

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’

Santa Cruz jazzer Bob Burnett is an oddity, someone who’s ostensibly extremely straight but gets there in a puzzling way. He loves his semi-acoustic guitar – keeps it clean, plays it with an economical and modest Wes Montgomery twinkle – but he’ll dab in a few colours on guitar synth and is also very much into what digital sampling offers the modern composer.

This you’d expect in somewhere like New York City – hip-hop saturated, with digital cut-up/jazz crosstalk from the likes of M-Base or Q-Tip. Coming from Bob, it’s a little less of an obvious path – a transplanted New Jersey-ite now residing in roots-band heaven, he’s played with world-beat bands Kosono and Pele Juju for much of the past decade. With ‘Loops And Lines’ Bob’s giving his sample, hold’n’swing ideas their first recorded outing.

At root, these are pretty cosy ideas. Don’t come in expecting a cross between John Scofield and Disco Inferno, nor yet The Young Gods playing Gil Evans. That living-in-California easiness initially makes ‘Loops & Lines’ sound like an Acid Jazz comedown pleaser. But although the six pieces on the mini-album are sweet enough to be lounge-fare, they’re also lush enough for a lock-in. Bob’s music is refreshingly innocent of guile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without a dash of wit: a quality which is a precious balance within sampler culture.

Together builds on a moment from John McLaughlin’s Peace One, as the guitarist skips spider-fashion across his low strings: joining in, Bob swings tastefully over the top while Rhan Wilson’s bells and assorted metals mist the edges. Igor plays a similar trick with a few phrases and deep string chops from Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, Bob adding some Hawaiian lines over the top of the thudding march of deep strings and drums. For Out West he affectionately samples some local-band friends (Pipa & The Shapeshifters) to craft a little bit of Portishead spy music – Adrian Utley’s breed of Duane Eddy twang, with the big stoned swats at the drumkit and the sound of rain sifting down in the background.

Most successfully, there’s Home James in which Bob stitches together a dream jam between himself, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Bright and cheerfully funky, it’s close to an Us3 moment. You expect a laid-back rapper to come strolling in at any moment, with rhymes about strolling by Electric Ladyland with a spliff and a sax case. Instead, what you get sounds more like Bob finding all three legends together at the same Harlem party; each in a separate conversation but still meshing, by happy chance, into a common thread and rhythm. The music – and the falls together with a simple eloquence. Trane throws out a sinous four-note tenor wave from Countdown; Bird counters with a acquiescent call from Night In Tunisia. Somewhere in the background Jimi chips in with a reverberant Band Of Gypsies clang. Bob’s sweet and skinny guitar bubbles throughout the whole thing, chatting merrily away on the breaks.

The only things missing are the “yeah!”s and the punctuation of hand-talk. In fact if it weren’t for the tall (and dead) shadows which that all-star trio cast, Home James would almost convince as a genuine studio jam. Surprisingly, it’s a humble piece: Bob never feels like he’s stealing from his three luminaries, nor as if he’s harbouring vain hopes of cutting them in competition. It’s all about making the links, making a might-have-been occasion; being the helpful guy in the middle.

In fact, on ‘Loops & Lines’ it’s not so easy to work out when, exactly, Bob has got his sampler switched on. He has a remarkably subtle touch as a samplist. In contrast to the way, say, Young Gods or Jesus Jones would proudly ride on the back of a blatant parade of loops, he’s more interested in the seamless interweaving of sample and solo, using temporary digital capture to get more musicians and voices flickering in and out of his virtual band. If, via the magic of samping, he can bring the amicable ghosts of the Johns and the Jimis round to his local bar for a few beers and a blow through one of his tunes, he’s happy.

For instance, Decoy might make use of another Coltrane sample, as well as drawing on snippets of American pop TV themes – ‘King Of The Hill’, ‘Teen Angel’ – but there’s no separation between those inserted elements, the light-footed touches of the live rhythm section, and Bob’s mellow-mischievous guitar skips taking centre stage throughout. The reggae-fied ripple of Lower Nile (the disc’s only cover version) brings back a live band, winds soprano sax through North African melodies… and uses no samples whatsover apart from a few jungle chirps and rustles.

In the end, “Loops & Lines’ is an announcement of relaxed intent; short, sweet and discreet. It’s interesting to indulge the thought of Bob Burnett taking it to slightly wilder climes – maybe coming on like Ronnie Jordan playing over found-sound backdrops. But I get the feeling that he’s happier just stretching loops round the barbeque, shooting the breeze with heroes and friends, providing small glows of warmth rather than burning it up with his music.

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’
Bob Burnett, 9801 (no barcode)
CD-only mini album
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Bob Burnett.

Bob Burnett online:
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April 1998 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ (“grand painterly instincts”)

7 Apr

G.P. Hall: 'Steel Storms & Tender Spirits'

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’

Despite the luminous loveliness of much of his music, the career of style-hopping guitarist G.P. Hall hasn’t been smooth (even by the uneven standards of the experimental music he dips in and out of). Regardless, ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ shows that he’s still up for taking a gamble.

A trust-risking double-album package, clearly intended to emphasize his dynamic musical dialectic, it also highlights the tension between his experimental side and his taste for romantic melody. There’s one disc of rough treatment (industrial noise-layering, screaming electricity) and one of ear-stroking pastoralism (the natural sound of wood and air, tickled by occasional breaths of spectral electronics). However, with Hall being who he is, the two ideas tend to bleed back together: in some cases, maybe more than was intended.

The ‘Steel Storms’ half of the set features a wealth of Hall’s “industrial sound sculptures”. Layered compositions played on his stock of prepared-and-processed guitars (via plectrum, fingertips, battery fans, velcro and more), they also make cunning use of assorted noise-makers ranging from scavenged autoharps and scrap metal to oven racks and household bricks. Texture is the predominant element in the music, but a surprising tunefulness and dark melodies often penetrate in the form of solemn classical adagios. It’s these which underpin the clattering chains, metallic rasps and harmonics of Industrial Sights, or the billowing clouds of rolling fragmented piano and wrenching distortion in Eye Saw It 2.

There’s an impressive documentary flamboyance at hand, too. When the insistently ringing, collapsing-steel groan-tones of Tsunami blend with both close-up atonal jangles of autoharp and with distant, skinny guitar-string shivers, the visual qualities of Hall’s music are particularly clear. Some of his work here wanders out to a distant edge. Two tracks in particular, Steel Storms and Steel Landscape, are almost wholly abstract – musical testaments to metal fatigue and the disorientating feel of post-industrial spaces. Grumbling, malignant loops and glittering boils of guitar drown in swills of rattling shard-metal and bass-drum booms. The pieces are laced with elephantine bursts of distortion; and with brief, dying surfacings of chemical-corroded blues playing.

Throughout, Hall’s grand painterly instincts tug the sound closer towards beauty – however twisted – than towards flat and impersonal horror. A whole album of such Hall industrialisms would be something to treasure. Unfortunately, ‘Steel Storms’ is continually gate-crashed by other sides of his musical personality. On River Flow, he revives one of his signature approaches: fluent Spanish guitar over detailed rolls of textural soundscaping. It’s as lovely as ever, but it’s misplaced here; and it’s anybody’s guess as to what Gypsy Gathering (a virtually straight piece of flamenco) is doing on the record.

In cases like these, Hall’s distracted eclecticism undermines the original intent of ‘Steel Storms’. Worse comes when that willing, stubborn naivety which lies at the heart of his music (giving it both its emotional strength and its core of idealism) becomes diluted into reproducing other people’s cliches. Since the mid-’90s, Hall has been an enthusiastic miner of his past work, dicing up his out-of-print albums to recombine their contents in new sequences. Often this has worked out well, juxtaposing his newer, tuneful solo tapestries with older, intriguing avant-jazz duets, trios and quartets (often featuring sundry members of Isotope, Gilgamesh or Nucleus). Unfortunately, on this occasion he’s pulled up some dross along with the gems.

Perhaps Hall’s work in library music during the lean years is to blame. He’s too interesting a musician to produce stock blandness (and even his failures have moments of interest) but on a record with a purpose, these lesser scraps should have stayed on the shelf. Yet several ‘Steel Storms’ tracks come from this lifeless batch, splotched with anonymous moves and tinny keyboard presets. No Man’s Land is drab robotic cop-chase stuff, the kind of thing a particularly cheesed-off Mark Knopfler might clunk out at the dull end of a soundtrack contract. The less said about the appalling Barbed Wire Bop (brittle ‘Seinfeld’ plastic-funk with the tones of a dodgy synth-demo) the better.

Happily, other ‘Steel Storms’ approaches are much more successful, toying fruitfully with the tight blare of fiesta horns, or with a kind of impressionistic stadium rock held together with paper-clips. The rainy-night drive of City Signals funnels determined loose-jointed funk elements through cascades of drumming, a marching-call trumpet leading the tune above Hall’s steel-saw guitar chops. On Docklands, an acoustic guitar explores and ranges over washing licks of soundscape; electric guitars swipe between factory-machine screeches and trumpet blasts; an echoing hip-hop beat – blind, gigantic and mechanical – stumbles through the landscape beyond.

Sometimes, everything comes together. Though centered on the aggressive, questioning rawness of an up-close flamenco guitar, B-E-trayed provides a discreet light-industrial twist to its traditional base, dragging its intermittent sheath of noises back into the realm of the personal. Already bouncing off tricky drumbox beats, it heads into more sinister areas when swarming, echoing drones and bitter laughter flicker across the speakers. At one point, Hall yells cathartically into the soundhole of his guitar.

All interesting, but the industrial theme becomes increasingly tenuous over the course of the record, though it does rally at points. Heavily overdriven cutting-blade sounds return for Fiya, in which blurred polluted riffs meet mournfully defiant Latin horns and gut-strung guitar. On Dancing On Cracking Ice the guitar plays a supporting role to mariachi horns (and to Sam Brown’s exploratory world-rock rattle of percussion), as Hall’s chopping slashing echoes and metal-fatigue string groans lead off into a leisurely Latin funk stretch. Funk is also one of the central elements of Battery Charger, colliding with big-band horns and space-rock as Hall’s snappy twang-melodies and jittering string harmonics are bounced through some serious Ash Ra Tempel echo.

While there’s no shortage of ideas and impressiveness on ‘Steel Storms’, as an album it’s a missed opportunity – too bitty, too unstructured, and not quite ruthless enough to do justice to its theme. You can dive in for the more thrilling patches – and hold your nose at the bad points – but at times it’s the wrong kind of bumpy ride. Fortunately, its companion album compensates for the missteps by being an experience of unqualified and perfectly integrated beauty.

Where ‘Steel Storms’ shows Hall straining after too many things at once, ‘Tender Spirits’ showcases a beautifully focused vision. Dominated by his acoustic playing and by the subtler side of his electrophonic treatments (sometimes heightened by softly resonant brass and drums), it sounds as if it was recorded under a great cool bowl of night sky. It also proves that, however much energy he puts into his experimentalism, he remains a superbly expressive guitarist once the trickery is removed. Here, the wise simplicity and romance at the center of his music come into their own, in full.

Judging by many of the pieces here, classical music lost a fine player and interpreter in Hall when he went left-field, not to mention a fine folk-fusion composer. Listen to those Spanish arpeggios (mournfully meditative on Love Lies Bleeding, restless and subtly unresolved on Slipstreams) or to the singing Irish ballad inflections of Patricia O’Leary. Alternatively, enjoy Hall’s subtle reunion with electricity on Shooting Stars, Ember or Dandelion Clocks. The first two are slow astral wheelers, their notes stroked into long, long, beautifully smudged trails and pining crystalline tubes of sound; the last is chuckling child-music, clean notes bubbled through a sparkling halo of echo.

Hall’s more multi-tracked and constructed compositions fit just as seamlessly into the mood. Some are familiar – here’s another outing for the thrumming bowed-bass winter scenery of Miles From No-Where (White Wilderness), a piece which Hall continually revisits. Similarly, there’s a new version of another favourite, Spirit Sky Montana, in which David Ford’s sleepy flugelhorn and Sam Brown’s slow swish of cymbal pull Hall’s stretched-bell guitar layers and church-music structure up to further heights of passionate serenity. A more ambiguous moment is granted on Incandescence, where a baroque six-string bass is smeared into dark and swollen horn sounds, voicing in shifting minor-key planes, searching for a place to settle.

However, it’s the magnificent Lonely Road which shows Hall at his very best. Loose, hanging drapes of luscious sound, distant detonating percussion, his Spanish guitar upfront again with a heart-tugging melody, and a final DIY touch – this time, a lonely and beautifully frail harmonica part. This is music you could live in. There’s a direct, emotional involvement in G.P. Hall’s work that’s rarely found among experimental musicians – probably because in spite of his gizmos and his taste for modernist expression he connects far deeper with the earthy roots of music than with the narrowed, exclusive intellectual demands of music as a science.

Ultimately, the main reason that ‘Tender Spirits’ is stronger than ‘Steel Storms’ is that in spite of Hall’s fascination with the impact of industrialism on our lives and senses, he knows it’s merely a part of our experience of the world: a relatively recent human-scale derangement overlaying much older terrain and themes. The two superb acoustic pieces which open and close ‘Tender Spirits’ could easily predate the factories, machinery and artefacts that inspire his industrial sound sculptures; both being intimately concerned with human survival within the simpler, starker hostilities of nature itself.

For the majestic impressionist-flamenco study of Sandstorm, Hall’s fingers slither out whips of string noise among the sharp and fluttering notes, conjuring up the flying dust. Sea Sorrow (Lament Of Lewis) is at the other end of the scale: a paean to shipwrecked souls in which Spanish guitar technique merges with a plaintive Celtic air. Within it, bitter bereavement struggles with acceptance and an awareness of continuance. Those who live with the sea are sustained by it and robbed by it, and this feeling lives in the music. As visual as anything Hall comes up with via loops and layers and implements, the plangent tones of this naked acoustic piece shape an image of someone alone and bleak on the headland, staring out at the ambiguous and often-merciless ocean which they must ultimately come to terms with.

It’s true that G.P. Hall’s road is, ultimately, a lonely one – sometimes assured, sometimes erratic, always marginalised. Yet it’s always one which he treads with a stubborn faith – wrong steps and slip-ups notwithstanding – and one that makes him all the more unique.

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (786497264421)
CD/download double album
Released: 31st March 1998

Get it from:
Future Music Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download-only, as two separate albums, ‘Steel Storms‘ and ‘Tender Spirits

G.P. Hall online:
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September 1997 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘From the Inside’ (“hard-rock directness with intricate layering”)

18 Sep
Tony Harn: 'From The Inside'

Tony Harn: ‘From The Inside’

Tony Harn used to be in Spacematic, a Warrington duo who – had they survived – might’ve carved out a niche for themselves as music history’s only cross between Morrissey and Jeff Beck. Their 1996 demo was an odd and edgy marriage between Dave Harrison’s bleak bedsit lyrics and mournful vocals and Harn’s fluently melodic guitars (which mingled hard-rock directness with intricate layering). Imagine what their gigs might have been like. Two guys onstage in the throes of song and lost to the world – oblivious to the panicky expressions on the faces of their audience, as the tribal reps for the indie depressives and the rock hogs were forced to eye each other nervously across the clubroom floor, clutching their snakebites and beers for support. Ah, social awkwardness rattles its cage. Fine times. And – if they ever existed – gone times.

Parted from Harrison, Harn spent a year left to his own devices and ‘From The Inside’ is the result – an self-released instrumental guitar album which allows him to explore spaces of playing and composing which Spacematic could never have accommodated. Usually, rock guitar solo records are unparalleled opportunities for musical showing-off. While Harn’s got the necessary technical skill (and enough classic rock in his playing) to go for total guitar-hero blowout, ‘From The Inside’ is remarkably modest, and its musicality is expressed with unusual restraint. For instance, the title track’s Brian May explosion of passionate electric pomp and romance, lasts barely over a minute and fades out in a subdued loop of Vini Reilly arpeggios. Harn’s experiments in five- and seven-time are lilting, accessible and lovingly melodic: his lead lines are concise, memorable and authoritative. Acting as his own support musician, his crisp drum programming and sturdy work on bass and keyboards (as integrated as his guitar playing) lend the album a homely sound.

One of the best things about Harn’s playing is that, for all the skill of his fingers, not one note is superfluous or wasted. He’s more likely to sit comfortably on top of a bold tune than to play stuntman; he knows when to let exploration stop, and when to let silence stand. In a musical zone stuffed with supremely accomplished fret-wankers suffering from fingerboard diarrhoea, that’s a rare and cherishable talent. As far as obvious influences go, the above-mentioned Jeff Beck gets a look in (something in the attack, the indisputably British rock stylings); there’s a little of the ’80s Alex Lifeson in the hard-rock digital jangle; and sweet lyrical solos like Mike Oldfield or even Prince. Harn also has a strong touch of Joe Satriani’s out-and-out lyrical tone and way with a melody (most obviously on the sunny rush of Playsafe and Pseudoseven, or the echoing Room One which recalls Satriani’s Circles).

But what ‘From The Inside’ reminds me of most is the pair of albums Andy Summers and Robert Fripp recorded in the mid-80s – ‘I Advance Masked’ and ‘Bewitched’. Harn’s playing has neither Fripp’s intensity nor his academic sternness. Nor does it have Summers’ taste for textures on the guitar synth. But his fondness for the spangly echoes of the delay pedal, his exuberantly climbing note patterns and ear for counter-arranged, bell-toned rhythm-picking lines comes directly from their legacy. In Turning Time, guitars dodge and somersault cheerfully over the rising drones and evolving multiple rhythms. The cycling riff in Pseudopool recalls Talking Heads and I Zimbra: its long sweet smudge of a solo hearken back to Fripp’s New York years.

‘From The Inside’ does have its flaws, the most obvious one being that it carries the predictable symptoms of a guitarist’s showcase. Some pieces show this more blatantly than others (Beat The Bad, for example – a pretty superfluous bit of guitar-rock reggae style). You could also quibble about some slightly cheesy keyboard tones and parts, which pull some compositions a little too far towards travel-show soundtracks. Yet at least they err on the side of cuteness rather than flabbiness, and are essentially there to support the guitar work. Harn can be forgiven these lapses given that plenty of rock guitar soloists choose sixteen minutes of assorted widdly-widdly as a showcase, while his own offering is a well-worked-out album of tunes and interplaying.

In spite of Harn’s knack for those solid tuneful elements, many of the high points of the album come when he slows down and makes shapes. The eerie scrapings and siren wails which set the scene for the title track, for instance. Or Coloursound, in which ringing slow-swelling chords mingle gorgeously with the whispered sample on the voiceover: “Particularly at night, I have this incredible feeling of intense blackness… I mean, I’ve never experienced such darkness…” It could’ve sat comfortably on David Sylvian’s ‘Gone To Earth’, as could its drowsy vapour-trail of a melody.

I’d really love to hear Tony Harn working in a fuller band situation, or with collaborators who’d really bring out the best in him – but this’ll do for now. One of Britain’s finest undiscovered rock guitarists has left his calling-card, and I’d advise you to get in touch.

Tony Harn: ‘From The Inside’
Tony Harn, THCD1 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 1997

Buy it from:
Limited availability – contact Tony Harn for information.

Tony Harn online:
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August 1997 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ (“ranges with restless compassion across a wide field”)

10 Aug
G.P. Hall: 'Mar-Del-Plata'

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’

Still clearing out the accumulated tapes of an inexplicably neglected career, Graham Peter Hall is continuing to come up with the goods. He’s been through thirty years of uneasy development on that rocky, unrewarding terrain between the simple sureties of the rock and roots instrumentalist and the often complacent indulgences of the full-on avant-garde blower. Marginalisation and bad luck might have ensured that he’s received little financial reward – nor has he gained the kind of brittle, precious reputation that marks out the darlings of the art-music intelligentsia – but it has resulted in a stock of lovely, emotive music in its own right.

Certainly Hall has managed to remain one of Britain’s most individual and complete guitarists over that time. Mastering a variety of styles from flamenco to rock to folk and blues, he’s also immersed himself in experimentation via technology – multiple speakers and pedal processors; vast, slow delay loops. Additionally, he draws on a repertoire of bizarre playing techniques and plectrum substitutes (involving battery fans, tiny psaltery bows, electric razors, toy cars and velcro, among others) which reflects the reinvention of guitar function explored by Fred Frith or Keith Rowe. With these methods in place, he’s explored sound through the textural suggestions of his “industrial sound sculptures”. Light industry, that is – Hall’s mimicry is closer to handsaws and governor motors rather than, say, Trent Reznor’s car-crushers and stamping presses.

Yet in amongst this, Hall has somehow never lost the ability to embrace expressive tunes; or to weave a handrail of familiarity into his sonic constructions. Perhaps that’s why ‘Wire’ types don’t seem to go for him; why he doesn’t have the kudos that the likes of Rowe, Frith, Eugene Chadbourne or Glenn Branca enjoy. He can get in your face – or wander off the usual path – with the best of them, but it’s generally in order to touch your sympathies. Ironically, in choosing to express his conservative and traditional side as equally important to (and entwined with) his avant-garde side, he’s gone too far for some.

‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is by far the most accessible and diverse of the compiled albums which Hall has been assembling this decade from deleted vinyl and assorted unreleased tapes. It’s a tour across a loose, but affecting, composing and performing imagination which ranges with restless compassion across a wide field. Sometimes you’re listening to a skittering, wilful flamenco performance. Sometimes it sounds like Cocteau Twins doing home improvements in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it’s the sort of individual, humanistic free improv/New Music result which you’d expect from Frith at his more lighthearted and relaxed, or from Simon H. Fell.

But though the record is full of experimentalism, Hall’s sense of melody is at the forefront – and the predominant voice on ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is his masterfully expressive Spanish guitar playing. This can usually be found angling over long aching stretches of choral electronic humming, plangent violin and eerie ambient sounds called up from the industrial processors. In some ways it’s like a semi-unplugged take on a Robert Fripp Soundscape, in which guitar textures span out into infinity.

At other times, it takes on the simple directness of a folk tune: a dance of sparkling acoustic lights on Ionian Water, or the staccato accented Latin melodies of Mar-Del-Plata itself, underpinned by a geological murmur of bass. On the final hot gusting of Sierra Morena Dust Storm, the gut strings spit and scatter in rich melody, reaching new heights of sinewy passion. Here, Hall also bows some winnowing textures in his electric guitar accompaniment, using serrated steel bars from his box of implements.

Where technology plays a more direct role, Hall’s humanity doesn’t falter or go under. The hymnal swells of billowing electric warmth on Spirit Sky Montana (somewhere between Bill Frisell’s cinematic romance and David Torn’s eccentric string-warps) are the most beautiful and enveloping sound on the record, tapping deeply into church music and Romantic classical composing. The trickle of wind chimes, langorous piano, and enveloping sighs of Humidity Despair provide a gusting, luxurious impression of a sultry night: it’s lush enough to lean right back into.

Some tracks, fleshed out by Hall’s sound-loops and D.I.Y. treatments, are detailed, impressionistic oil-paintings in music and tone. Deep Blue sounds like someone chainsawing up a frozen Alpine lake, its jangling piano chords and thumping bass a mass of irregularities. The smear of bright spring-loaded colourflow on Charmouth Beach rings beautiful alarm bells. The menacing bass growl of Enigmatic is like a cave-bear thumping around in your dreams: squeaks and rattles from fingerboard and autoharp move around in slow disquiet, enclosed by knocking metal.

Plutonium Alert (in which Hall abandons guitar altogether in favour of soprano sax and the ring of auto-harps) treads similar territory to the ominous King Crimson improvisations from the mid-’70s. It goes for an all-out sensory mix of apocalyptic aftertones: angular bell-sounds and aggressive Grappelli violins entangling themselves with a spasmodically awkward funk rhythm. Weirdest (and most satisfying) of all is Fahrenheit 451 – juddering guitar, saw sounds, the shriek of a whistling kettle, and treble scratching all mix like toxic vapours under heavy pressure, pushing your head back against your rising hackles. Horribly enjoyable.

The scattered effects of the attempt to capture all of Hall’s ideas across a single CD does mean that ‘Mar-Del- Plata’ misses out on the cohesion which would render it excellent, but it’s a close-run thing. The centrepiece – a long-form creation called The Estates – pulls all the elements of the album together. A version of a 1975 long-form composition, it blends the chiming, restless clatter of its improv ensemble with Hall’s own quiveringly angry solo acoustic guitar. The brooding theme of The Estates is the crappiness and autocracy of post-war British urban programming. In thrall to modernism without being able to master it, its utopian vision (heartily botched and compromised) laid down a blight on communities, their architecture and their cohesion wrecked by the same tower blocks and support links designed to improve them.

Hall and co. express the disillusion and neurosis which resulted, with pulses of frustration and alienation hurl themselves against the confines of the music. Dulcimers, clarinets, and a huge array of percussion all seethe and pant over twenty-five minutes of desperate musical invocation; all overhung by the forbidding scrapes and alarm-clangs of two adapted metal piano frames (played like harps with assorted chains, wires, and implements). Hall’s panic-stricken guitar playing conjures the nightmare of a new, fatally-flawed sprawl of roads and buildings: swarming locust-like, unchecked and unconsidered, over beloved landscapes.

Incidentally, in the sleevenotes Hall gives a blood’n’guts description of the struggle it took to assemble and perform The Estates. Apparently, some of the manufactured instruments continue to drift through the art world with a life of their own. The piano frames – still counter-invading the architecture – were last seen as part of a “fire sculpture”. Meanwhile, the piece itself has an additional afterlife as a reflection on Hall’s own love/hate relationship with modernism; his own playing and arrangements echoing and championing the sounds of the traditional past even as they break them up in performance and execution.

As a body of work ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ has its faults – yet judged on its parts (and at its undisciplined best), it’s a touching, passionate and diverse album. Throughout, we get the sort of peek at Hall’s open heart (warts, gooey patches and all) which most experimental musicians, hard-wired into intellectual dryness, would never risk expressing.

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 12 April 1997

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
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August 1993 – live reviews – Martin Taylor @ Ferens Live Art Space, Kingston-upon-Hull, England, 5th August (“like hearing crystallised music”)

8 Aug

It’s nice, for a change, not to have to do anything except sit back and listen.

Listening to Martin Taylor is like a breath of fresh air after a particularly sticky storm. He stands alone on a little white block of a stage with only his guitar and gently tapping foot, and gently unravels a long flowing river of melody to soothe the heart and to excite the brain. Pure and simple music. After a surfeit of analysis, a slew of post-modern criticism, a stew of eclecticism and image, it’s nice to get back to that once in a while.

Listening to Martin Taylor allows you to rediscover a love of the old tunes. He’s not a composer; his strength lies in the re-interpretation of classic standards, but rather than murdering them by pouring on strings and pallid flutes to make them ripe for serving up in the air conditioning, he offers you the chance to hear him dust down an oldie, hold it up to the light and then skilfully polish it, smiling as he shows it to you again and points out a hundred little details which you never saw before, a source of fresh wonder.

Because listening to Martin Taylor is like hearing crystallised music. You can distinguish the original tune somewhere in the glittering web of notes which his fingers are drawing out of the guitar – maybe it’s a ballad from ‘West Side Story’, maybe Duke Ellington’s Just Squeeze Me or a Hoagy Carmichael piece – but it’s been reflected and amplified through so many harmonies, echoes and byways along the way that what finally emerges bears as much resemblance to the original as a cut diamond does to glass. Old tunes turned corny and worn down by their own familiarity re-emerge as multi-faceted gems, cut and refined by a master’s technique, multi-layered and ornate.

If you stop listening to Martin Taylor for a moment, you might be able to hear the sharp clicks as the jaws of the guitarists in the audience drop smartly onto the floor. This crystalline music – richly syncopated melody and harmony played together, simultaneously with swooping basslines – is, after all, being played by one man without even the whiff of an effects pedal. During the interval, people are overheard wondering if there are four other guitarists concealed under the stage or behind the curtains. But there’s no denying that this music is being played by a human being; no pristine technician, Taylor’s impeccable skill is shaped as much by punchy string snaps and fretboard noise as it is by his carefully considered polyphony and his vertical, dense approach to arrangement. He’s as likely to use a violent slide up the bass strings as he is to tease out a gentle classic jazz chord in the treble; and, as the most exciting musicians do, he lets you hear him stretching towards his objective rather than simply delivering it ready-packed and icily perfect.

Listening to Martin Taylor when he stops playing and talks for a while is, in its way, no less of a joyful experience. Here we have one of the world’s greatest and most underrated jazz guitarists and he turns out to be a warm, humble and self-effacing guy with a nice line in gentle humour and a shy manner, as if tonight was his first gig. Taylor is possibly also one of the world’s first motherable jazzmen. No guitar god here: even when he speaks of his sessions with the legendary likes of Joe Pass and Chet Atkins, he makes it sound like a comfy jam session after an evening at the pub. Very British. I’m not sure if these isles can produce a legend of their own these days – we’re just no good at mystical PR…

No matter. Who needs a legend or the cartoon padding of a star, anyway? Taylor’s music is possessed of enough to soothe, stun, stimulate, delight and relax without recourse to tortured artistry, space-cadet communion or outlaw chic. And if he prefers to continue playing gorgeously low-key and intimate gigs, just one man and a warm-toned guitar, then I for one will continue to turn up to listen to Martin Taylor.

Because listening to Martin Taylor makes you remember just how wonderful listening can be.

Martin Taylor online:
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