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REVIEW – What?!: ‘Schwaffelen’ single, 2013 (“it’s still not clear when they’re going to stop fencing and start carving”)

9 May
What?!: 'Schwaffelen'

What?!: ‘Schwaffelen’

All right, they suckered me. I thought that What?! were starting a gimmick tradition of rolling out cute singles named after foodstuffs. A natural suspicion – their debut single had the crowd-pleasing title of Tikka Masala. Actually, it turns out that “schwaffelen” is Dutch slang, and refers to a man repeatedly bouncing his semi-erect penis off assorted objects (ranging from someone else’s cheekbone to the side of the Taj Mahal). Handy phrase – consider me educated. I’ve been saved some embarrassment the next time I’m snacking in Amsterdam, but have been left with a delightful image of waffles-and-cream that I now need to bleach from my mind. Thanks for that.

What?! remain the kind of supple instrumental trio that gives slick a good name – guitar, bass guitar, drums and a thorough versing in everything out there which grooves. They also own a not-so-secret knowledge of plenty of things which don’t groove but which do lurk, puzzle over things and then jump out at you. But they’ve yet to really show their other teeth: those rougher, odder inspirations they claim to get from Zappa, Dub Trio and Mr Bungle. So far, they’ve been more about delicate sunlit jazzy chords and walks, clean deft swing, and plenty of space. You get the feeling that they could do anything with their material – as soon as they wanted to – and that they’re fencing with expectations. It’s just that it’s still not clear when they’re going to stop fencing and start carving.

As much as you might want them to get nastier, Schwaffelen doesn’t show What?! chucking away any of their finesse in favour of skronk or sludge. If they’re stepping towards a spikier direction, they’re starting subtle – taking some sour art-rock patterns and passing them back and forth through the smooth-jazz filter. As with Tikka Masala, there’s a hint of Take 5 in the gently precise stops and feints as a bossa nova is displaced and reshuffled into math-rock spikes. But the truth is that, in spite of the cock-bouncing title, What?! keep their all-things-to-all-men decorum throughout – even when hitting the distortion pedals.

If you’re hoping for some upheaval – something like the obsessive rhythmic knotting of Battles, say, or the disruptive slice-and-dice of Naked City – you’re in the wrong place. Schwaffelen’s flexing sections do include a flawless switch into driving rock as guitarist Niels Bakx starts blasting away and Agostino Collura’s nimble bass drops its funky slither and locks down into root-note pummeling. But this is more an exercise in clever distraction. Even as Raphael Lanthaler drums along at motorway-punk velocity, the whole band are keeping an eye on the little loping twists of the original rhythm: as it ghosts on underneath, they’ll lock seamlessly back into it whenever they choose. Even the texture phase (in which Niels seems to be channeling the sparse echo-spangled touch of Andy Summers) adds some extra breadth but no questioning depth or disruption.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter – whatever else they might or might not do, What?! remain supremely elegant puzzlers. But it still feels as if there’s much more to them. The Key Ness remix of Schwaffelen is barely half the length of the original, but during its stay it chops, rewinds and pans the original riffs around a gastric roller-coaster of sub-bass and boiling P-Funk synth. Along the way, it twirls past Alice Coltrane harp cascades, brief bursts of classical soul orchestras, wind-tossed shouts from hip-hop MCs and gutsy flowerings of Spanish guitar. It sounds more like what must go on in the trio’s heads – what they must listen to on iPods, gulp down from session to session, or coast by on the bus.

One last thing, going back to the original track… As it snaps to a halt and telescopes away, with a quick twist-and-growl, those push-pulling rhythms leave you in a state of expectation. There’s a moment of hover. Then there’s several messy, prolonged seconds of the most horrendous splurging musical spoff-noise you can imagine. Maybe it’s a surprise, a pancaked blast-beat hurled out by Raphael to be crushed flat in the mix. Whatever it is, it’s a Zappa-style kiss-off. Perhaps I’ve been unfair to What?!. They did finally deliver that dirty splatter.

What?!: ‘Schwaffelen’
What?! (self-released) (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 1st April 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

What?! online:
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REVIEW – Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’ single, 2013 (“sings in a tone of wonder – and of determination”)

26 Mar
Liam Singer: 'Stranger I Know'

Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’

What a wonderful mind for composition Liam Singer has. Four albums into his career, he’s coming up with ever-more-detailed songs which only fit the pop label due to their presentation and singability. In all other respects, he’s a classical songwriter, building a song from cellar to roof, all parts in parallel: a detailed patterner with each idea serving the larger one.

A very small number of songwriters take the trouble to think like this. Brian Wilson and Prince, obviously. Jeff Lynne, Sufjan Stephens and Stephen Merritt, perhaps. Tim Smith, definitely – the interplay of vocal parts on Stranger I Know particularly recalls Smith’s pastoral work with Sea Nymphs or the more delicate moments on Cardiacs records as worked out with William D. Drake (another comparison that can be thrown into the circle). At work in his current hideaway in Queens, Liam Singer belongs to this world of the total song-composers: the ones for whom genre barriers are predominantly bubbles of resistance, and for whom form and content are inseparable.

Stranger I Know sounds like many things. Its links to American minimalism are clear in its collection of elegant cycles (from oompah bass to arching cello; shakers and flute; a mathematical glockenspiel climb) as they move against each other, interplaying in uplifting counter-rhythms. Beyond that, Liam’s omnivorous musical diet is made clear in the breadth of arrangement and intonation, stretching from romantic piano to staccato gamelan pot-clunk. Each instrument comes sheathed in its own immediate mood and pace, hanging onto its place in the dance by a skilful fingertip: just enough to snag a little tension and independence; just enough to flirt.

Shadowed and overflown (as ever) by the spectral caroling of soprano voices, Liam sings in a tone of wonder – and of determination. It’s all a little archaic: a spiritual love ballad with swaying time, an elusive subject and a courtly seriousness which ultimately fails to mask its fervour. “Stranger I know / thy face / from a dream. / All night I’ve yearned to hear that song. / – Once, it sang me.” There are hints of transformation and liberation here – “What was / before me / is now / behind me. / Strings fall / off of / a body,” – but devotion and freedom end up so closely wound together that there’s nothing between them. Liam finally stands set loose on the verge of… something. It’s unclear, it’s unsure, it could even be an end; but it’s welcomed, and while Liam’s left some things behind, he’s not alone. “Saw God’s / features – they / can keep ’em all. / There is no / voice to follow / now. / And as the / noise / takes over, you / just hold your / breath, I’ll hold / mine too.”

Stranger I Know is also a little exercise in time-travel, working a gentle auger down through several generations of American tune and peeping through the hole. Liam’s previous songs have been beautifully arranged, evoking a classical ambience. This one – balancing a subtle, minimal complexity with fleeting kisses at its reference points – ups the game. In its shifting and its overlaying, you can hear migration at work. A little dose of romantic Europe dapples a line of American mountains: the breathless chorus (its rhythm offset from the dreamy verse) steps in like an old-country village dance setting up against the pistons and presses of a little factory in the hills. Behind the tinkling delicacy, that bass drum which comes in for the bridge hint at a barn-dance stomp: Shaker Loops to hometown hoedown.

All of this activity is encapsulated within less than three minutes. In, out, open. A little wonder.

Liam Singer: ‘Stranger I Know’
Hidden Shoal Recordings (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 6th March 2013

Get it from:
Free download from Hidden Shoal Recordings or Bandcamp

Liam Singer online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

REVIEW – What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’ single, 2012 (“a sweet-natured hall-of-mirrors groove”)

19 Mar
What?!: 'Tikka Masala' single

What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’ single

Sometimes you can come across simple treasures hiding in the backroom. Dutch guitarist Niels Bakx, Sicilian drummer Raphael Lanthaler and Tyrolean bass player Agostino Collura are part of that under-appreciated swirl of humble, talented international musicians who fly in, settle down and quietly underpin bands in London, as in many big cities. People like these plug away behind the people with the big ideas and the knack for fronting. They’re the ones who finesse the roughness, who add the musical depth and the polish which brings shine and sophistication to performance. And sometimes, they secretly bring more.

Individually, each of these three have clearly got the chops and the temperament to keep themselves in demand with songwriters (Agostino plays with Anna Waldmann’s band The Cry Baby, Niels and Raphael back Charlotte Eriksson in The Glass Child), embedded in soul collectives (Agostino’s work with Retrospective For Love) and driving mixed groove-band (Raphael’s Snail Trail). Together, though, Niels, Raphael and Agostino are something else.

As What?!, they’re an assured and formidable unit; an airy, confident groove-trio audibly revelling in their flexibility and their knack for carefully-sprung timing. On spec, there’s nothing particularly unusual in what they do. Enough years spent plugging away at sessions and keeping punters happy with funk, soul, jazz and reggae tunes have made them experts in warm, sunny, foot-moving musicality: but it’s what’s beyond the blueprint that’s interesting.

Their debut single Tikka Masala (named, consciously or not, after a meal made up on the spot to keep British customers happy) is a sweet-natured hall-of-mirrors groove, light and slinky. There’s reggae in it, thanks to Raphael’s displaced bass drum taps, his tight-tuned tom rattles and Niel’s skinny-supple rhythm guitar. There’s funk in the warm spaces between strokes and beats. There’s jazz in everything, from the little golden runs of licks to the turnarounds to the feel that the rhythms are to be flung from hand to hand, danced over, teased and tag-teamed around. There are subtle refractions, interruptions of rhythm and key, that make you think briefly of progressive rock at its least bombastic and most aware. There are also flares of hard rock when all three musicians line up under a suddenly roaring guitar and suddenly start jabbing together ahead of the beat.

What’s really special about it is their complete control over the music. Their discipline is absolute but relaxed, with the feel that at any time they could shift rhythm, speed, genre back and forth in a moment, and yet not drop a single thing along the way. There are no self-conscious cut-ups in What?!’s music – no need to deconstruct. Why should there be when they’re masters of structure? – so much that if you flipped Tikka Masala around and spun it backwards it would keep every bit of its symmetry and bounce. For a demonstration of this, play the bonus track Alasam Akkit as that’s exactly what that is – a backwards-play of the A-side which sounds almost as good as the forwards version. A backwards-play which you can still dance to. Remarkable.

Exactly what this leads to, I’m not sure. Perhaps the outcome is that What?! set themselves up as a twenty-first century Sly and Robbie-plus-one. Perhaps they remain a supremely-accomplished hobby band, something which the trio engage in when they’re not otherwise employed keeping other people happy. Or do they push ahead as self-sufficient instrumentalists, seeing how far they can push, stretch and double-feint their masterful musicality? The only thing I can be sure of is that, whenever they do get together, all ways – for those moments – are open; and it’s tremendously refreshing.

What?!: ‘Tikka Masala’
What?! (self-released) (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 11th October 2012

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

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

22 Jan
Apricot Rail: 'Basket Press'

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Apricot Rail online:
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REVIEW – Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’ single, 2012 (“a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes”)

26 Oct

Dutch Uncles: 'Fester'

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’


That’s a repulsive title for a single. Then again, Dutch Uncles have always been something of an irritant. I mean that in a good way, as it happens. Some of my favourite bands are irritants. Too many bands just want to be stimulants – crude and obvious, they roar in with a snort and a thump, hammering hard on the most obvious buttons. After a while, you just need more and more of it to elicit even a small buzz, and you end up bored and bloated.

An irritant, on the other hand – that does its job of stirring up a reaction in a different way. You can’t ignore it. It focuses the attention, often by making you aware of sensitivities that you didn’t even know you had. Dutch Uncles have always been happy to spike the necessary nerve and keep feeding a pulse into it. If you’re familiar with those dancing, sidestepping cycles of guitar riff which festooned and hiccuped all over their earlier singles (Fragrant, The Ink, Face In) then Fester will sound halfway familiar. If you persuaded Steve Reich to write around eleven Disco Phases, then stacked them up on top of each other, you’d have the basic bones already. It rotates like a carousel full of drunk mathematicians, with Duncan Wallis’ warm alto hoot (still a butter-toffee in a world of cheap smokes) muttering and musing atop the pile.

What’s new for Dutch Uncles is a delightful infusion of art-rock colourings – that bass guitar which thunks like a piano; that bony clink of marimba hook; the guitar which blows and bloozes like a sleepy horn solo. There’s a delicious feeling of confusion and clothes-swapping wrapped into the song: it’s reminiscent of early Roxy Music and their upsetting of texture, of the otherworldly kink of Associates. With Duncan’s tone of repressed and airy hysteria, there’s also got something of the closeted wildness of Sparks (albeit in one of their mellower moods). Dutch Uncles have that nervy theatrical cleverness to them, as if they’re delicately stepping along a rail with ideas dropping out of their pockets and with tell-tales twitching at the corners of their eyes.

I mentioned a song, didn’t I? It’s built into the jittery mosaic of instruments; and it’s a protest, of sorts. “There’s a time to hide everything – the way that you are; where you’ve been. / And the feeling I’ve tried to fight, / pieces I’m left in inside.” In a genteel way, Duncan’s pissed off; chanting “takes me to the bone” as he swats, distractedly, at a lingering pain. Fractured syntax dribbling in his wake, he argues his position and tells his story like a hungover man struggling with a jigsaw. “And the times you cry at everything / for reasons we don’t mean anything. / And the times I hide behind a smile / that says you were right, you were always right.” By the end of his efforts, he’s trying to strip-mine his way into sense by plunging headlong into tongue-twisters (“The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I trust the worst is hard to know. / The worst is hardly, hardly known, / I know the worst is hard to know,”) as the band pound delicately around him. Irritation confuses, scatters against structure: but few things are better at making you feel.

Dutch Uncles: ‘Fester’
Memphis Industries, MI0250D/MI0250S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 20th September (download) & 12th November (vinyl) 2012

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries (vinyl); Dutch Uncles homepage
or Memphis Industries news page (download)

Dutch Uncles online:
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July 2012 – EP reviews – Tonochrome’s ‘Tonochrome’ (“a swan dive into a mass of silks”)

31 Jul
Tonochrome: 'Tonochrome' EP

Tonochrome: ‘Tonochrome’ EP

Although they’re young enough to be touching down for a 2012 debut, what Tonochrome ultimately resemble are a gaggle of 1970s rockers: ones who’ve been lucky enough to see the future only to then forget three-quarters of it, but who are doing their best to catch up regardless.

A scattered glut of pop knowledge and ambition is their fuel. From the central framework of Andres Razzini’s guitar and buttery soft-soul-inspired vocals, they hang a succession of overlapping musical approaches. Each of these is played with vigour while it’s in place, but is tossed aside as soon as a song’s over, or even before. The wardrobe in Tonochrome’s memory palace must be bursting – every visit there would be a swan dive into the mental equivalent of a mass of silks, jeans, capes and feather boas. This layering of ideas and styles (and the band’s restlessness as regards taking a final form) ensures that Tonochrome fit right in with the swarm of post-progressive rock bands that are currently rising to attention: but while they do share a member with Knifeworld, they have little in common with that band’s tumultuous and knotty psychedelia. Similarly, they’re not a band who wear their diversity like a fuck-you T-shirt. In spite of their restlessness, they never play with grate-and-chop disruptiveness.

Instead, they’re a much smoother proposition, like a slightly proggier Tears For Fears. Not in terms of Orzabal and co’s melodramatically distressed New Wave beginnings; Tonochrome are more in tune with the confident, eclectomaniac soul-pop version which came later. It’s the flair, or the flare; the way that Tonochrome (all of whom play beautifully and bring plenty of ideas to the party) can flickeringly recall both Bolan and the Buckleys, blur into a Beatles singalong by way of both Genesis and Alexander O’Neal, or take flight over a pulse of Spanish-flavoured funk. Whatever’s going on with that wardrobe, there’s also a feeling of curtains sweeping up and away and down; theatrically introducing new ideas, new burnishings.

Theatre – that’s appropriate. At root, Tonochrome’s songs are about performance and the battle with fear, that way that “time moves on, / slaps in the face.” Andres sings about launching, about halting, about taking or surrendering control: Let It Begin is a personal call to arms and activity, shuffling a lyric full of shows and races, walls and spectators, push-buttons and puppet-strings. Musically, it’s the ’70s as seen though the ’80s. Andres and Charlie Cawood chop out a hairy chug of hard-rock guitars, Steve Holmes’ kinked synth lines find common ground between P-Funk and Marillion, and Andres enjoys a luxuriant soul-man sprawl across the choruses. A soul song realised with prog methods, it settles into a lively stew of pop. Mike Elliott plunks his bass like a funky cello and sings along: someone else plays water percussion. From the clapalong riff that adds wiggle to the rhythms, to the squishy breakdown in the middle and the carnival-drumming finish, there’s enough on here to front a parade.

It’s a fine and confident opening; but that nagging sense of unease remains, however many musical layers the band run through their busy fingers. Eerie swerving Ebow lines cry whalesong trails through Waiting To Be Unveiled (a leaner, gliding cousin to the long-lost bewitchment of Levitation’s Even When Your Eyes Are Open). This time, Andres sings quietly and with trepidation: “The unknown may be terrifying, but it’s got such a pretty face. / No one can predict the future, / but I’ve got an ace…” The payoff, however, is pure heart-on-sleeve ’80s pop, vocals melting and caroling around a resolution: “I will abdicate my kingdom / for a chance to see the world.”

Starts And Ends sees Andres stripped of his band’s protection. Alone and shivering, he creates a haunting drape of melody with a lonely echoing electric guitar, a slow-falling ladder of jazzy chords and a rattlesnake breath of percussion. He sings of self-reliance (“on this road I’ve known / those who wait for signs and cues. / Trudging on, stones in their shoes… / By the side of the road / let go of heavy loads – / all you need is here,”) but the wound in his voice belies it. Throughout the EP, he works around the paradoxes of hope and fear. Necessary spurs, or killers of initiative? Blinding deceivers, or inspirations?

Andres is still puzzling it out over the Buckleyesque minor-key figures on Gods and Demons, wrestling with conflicting directions even as crunchy Jefferson Airplane choruses and slithering Spanish rhythms kick in alongside a fax-machine witter of noise guitar. On Punctuation Marks, he protests “I’m half-way and see no starting line” over a zip-and-dodge acoustic guitar as the rest of the band pass a swirl of r’n’b, prog-synth and shimmer-pop ideas through a storm of psychedelic noise. These doubts fit into Tonochrome’s world like their own teeth; like all of the varied influences the band’s spread of members weave into their tight and poppy rope of songcraft; just as this EP could be the harbinger of a solid career of eclectic rock if Tonochrome hold it together, or an early omen for a set of promising solo careers if they don’t. We may doubt, we’ll certainly hope. We’ll see.

Tonochrome: ‘Tonochrome’
Andres Razzini/Daniel Imaña, AR001 (610370590232)
CD/download EP
Released: 31st July 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp or Rough Trade.

Tonochrome online:
Homepage FacebookBandcampSoundcloud

REVIEW: The Fierce & The Dead: ‘10×10’ single, 2011 (“post-glum”)

12 Jun
The Fierce & The Dead: '10x10'

The Fierce & The Dead: ’10×10′

So they’re trying on some sparkle, now? The last time I heard Matt Steven’s improv-rock trio they were lurking and cruising somewhere in the loose territory between bluesy prog, smoky space music and easygoing math-rock. They were promising, but they weren’t upsetting much: their initial statement was more of a drawl than a grand pronouncement. However, having shambled forward and established themselves, The Fierce & The Dead are getting down to more serious play. Ideas that were only hinted at last time, down in the small details, now wriggle forward.

For starters, 10×10 itself scrunches up and throws away the idea that this band is just Matt Stevens and pals. Bass player Kev Feazey, a solemn support musician on the band’s opening shot, steps up and all-but-leads the band on their second. His slithering springy bass line, full of New Wave funk, recalls both turn-of-the-’80s Talking Heads and long-lost London math/surf rockers Kenny Process Team: gentle arty neurosis, pinned to a love of groove. A spluttering, stuttering synth break adds a raw danceable edge.

Meanwhile, Matt is quietly at work all over the background – catching a surf of noise in the distance, opening out the landscape beyond with torch-beams of sustain guitar. Some looping, arpeggiating guitars dragged along after the bassline draw their drive from a long-gone, edgier New York: skitchers grabbing velocity from a speeding car, or Robert Fripp’s cyclic proto-‘Discipline’ Manhattan patterns. There’s even a dash of rave dynamics as a delicate, dewdrop-fine piano break spins us around for a look at the dawn. In the cloud of “post”-widget names that swarm around art-rock music these days, pick “post-glum”.

The second track, Foreign Languages is even livelier. A blues-rock grind on bass over mechanical drums; spankingly sharp fingerpicked guitar and a bubbling, ground-shimmying feel of dub.An old ‘Galaxian’ game in the corner of the studio seems to have joined in too, adding zips and lassoos of gurgling analogue sparkle. There’s a tremendous sense of free play – old familiar elements reshuffled and re-zested, and looked at afresh. Since ‘Part 1’, The Fierce and the Dead have recharged their time machine, and now skip merrily between the dreamy psychedelia of the ’70s and the boggling pluralism of the post-punk ’80s with ease and a yen for reinvention. Where next?

The Fierce & The Dead: ’10×10′
Bandcamp
Download-only single
Released: 4th April 2011

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

The Fierce & The Dead online:
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LOOKBACKS – Richard Causton (perf. by Stephen Wolff): ‘Non mi comporto male’, 1993 (“rather than attempting to overwhelm Waller, Causton chooses to honour him”)

31 May
Richard Causton

Richard Causton

There’s a fairly well-known story about Charlie Parker bringing his band to Paris, and spotting Igor Stravinsky in the audience. Like many of his jazz peers (and despite his headlong, self-destructive reputation), Parker was a keen and well-informed follower of classical music. As he played the bebop standard Salt Peanuts he added an impromptu tribute into his solo, blowing in a quote from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the same conversational way that he’d have sung back another jazzman’s phrase through his horn. Stravinsky – no less a jazz fan himself – was so delighted that he spilled his drink.

If only all meetings of the classical conservatoire and the jazz stand were as happy as that one: but for every genuine Parker/Stravinsky-style love-in, there’s a daffy piece of fusion or a classical piece which colonizes without comprehending. I’ve learned to be suspicious when reading program notes in which a classical composer claims to love jazz and engage with its ideas. Too often, that jazz component becomes another post-modern ingredient to be used and ploughed under, just another dead rattling tongue in the composer’s vocabulary. It’s ugly to see a living form become a dried-up skin, its rhythms pinned under the steamroller of European art music as the latter rumbles on, convinced of its own innate superiority and its right to merely mimic and exploit where it should be sharing.

Richard Causton’s ‘Non mi comporto male’ is a welcome exception to these disappointments. Nominally, it’s a close-clustered set of solo piano variations on that cheerful Fats Waller evergreen, Ain’t Misbehavin’. Even the title is a tongue-in-cheek classical translation. In fact, being all of a piece (and having been built particularly freely out of the melodies and chord progressions), it’s closer to being a contrafact: an adaptive and inventive form which in modern times has found a happier home in jazz than it did in classical. Additionally, ‘Non mi comporto male’ builds backwards in a kind of reverse deconstruction. Coalescing over seven minutes from multiple, deliberately scattered fragments of tone and rhythm, it returns to the re-integrated original piece like an explosion filmed and played back in reverse. piwhT. moobaK.

So far, so tricky; and on spec alone this could have been a bloodless game. As a composer Causton’s cerebral skill is evident, and he echoes some of Harrison Birtwistle’s ideas of presenting multiple views of a musical theme from differing angles (and through different gaps in the musical bulk) and John Cage’s chance rearrangements of Erik Satie in ‘Cheap Imitation’. Yet rather than attempting to overwhelm Waller with architecture and indeterminacy, Causton chooses to honour him instead – first installing him invisibly at the heart of the piece and then gradually revealing him in small touches. Starting with what seems to be a tranquillized muddle of straying notes, and moving into fitful chromatic squiggles akin to bursting bebop saxophone lines, Causton slowly lets his key parts fall into place. A flurrying treble line may zig-zag away, only to lose its momentum and be gently pulled back in like a puppy on a leash. The entrance of a familiar bass chord brings gravity to a whirl of chromatic flechettes; emerging as if from nowhere, a true melody note is carefully positioned on a hinted moment of swing.

Pianist Stephen Wolff plays a major role in making this work. His impressive technical skill is well suited to interpreting Causton’s long-game of structure and projection; but he also displays a humble and affectionate understanding of jazz, making the eventual recovery of the original tune entirely convincing. By the sixth minute, Ain’t Misbehavin’ has emerged in full, softly and freely played, taking its final steps back into shape while surrounded by jags of high notes. Until just before the very end, a few stray extrapolated plinks still glint around the melody, like the dust left by hand-tooling: the last traces of Causton’s unexpected loving touch. You can imagine Fats himself – tipsy and happy, with whisky-glass in hand – chuckling away at it.

Richard Causton: ‘Non mi comporto male (for solo piano)’
(performed by Stephen Wolff)
unreleased recording (private collection)
composed and performed 1993

Buy it from:
This piece is not commercially available – email Richard Causton to enquire about access to recordings. The score is available from Oxford University Press.

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REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Ants’ single, 2011 (“somewhere between love-gone-wrong and epilepsy”)

30 May
Elephant: 'Ants/Wolf Cry'

Elephant: ‘Ants/Wolf Cry’

Band named after large thing actually sounds small. Single named after tiny things suggests that small-sounding band (named after large thing) could go massive. Sometimes I love pop’s ridiculous anti-logic.

Elephant are two. Christian Pinchbeck coaxes noises out of computers and wrangles chittering textures from guitars. Amelia Rivas plays old sounds on modern keyboards while swimming and sighing distractedly through the middle, avoiding eye contact. It’s synth-pop, allegedly, but it’s also nothing quite so obvious. Amelia and Christian may or may not be a couple, but that’s not clear either. With Elephant, not much is.

Ants is Elephant’s debut single, and it spends its three minutes cunningly, surprisingly persuading various things that shouldn’t work together to cosy up and make something which does work. A gentle reggae bounce, a dribble of whiter-than-anything psychedelic guitar direct from Cocteau Twins; a roughed-up reedy synth figure like a bass accordion with hiccups. As for what the song might be about, it’s somewhere between love-gone-wrong and epilepsy; like David Lynch reimagined as lovers rock. “I’m tired and I’m bruised for you,” Amelia murmurs, moping elegantly across the backbeat. “The war that I fought made my body contort… I’m down in the black, and I’m blue.”

When we talk of indie-pop being sickly, we usually mean that it lacks power. Here, sickliness is power. Unease and disease blend together, reality is erased by symptoms, and experience is somehow amplified by the giddiness and blank alarm. Throughout, there are references to buckling knees; to floating and amnesia and jump-offs; to falling to the ground or into song. Even the chorus avoids clarity in favour of hallucinatory warp (“Ants now scurry on the floor, / I just can’t remember before,”) with all perspective thrown right out-of-whack. Yet Elephant snatch a victory from these flashes of confusion and disaster, sheathing them into a subtle, catchy, play-it-again heartbeat of song; a cool, black-and-white flicker of distress call.

While Ants cloaks strangeness under bits of spooky washed-out reggae ballad, its flipside Wolf Cry goes for out-and-out surrealism in a stream of Bunuel electro-punk. Amelia sings of seasons, seafarers and parted lovers. Deeper into the song, she jinks these acid-folk fairytales into blurred dreams of power struggles, throwing out images of hunky aristocrats or “militants on the roof.” Everything hangs together – precariously – over Christian’s alienated instrumental bonework: a flat backdrop of flat echoing skitters, deep red bassquakes, ghostly chords and spray-can snare hits. As the song riffles balefully through its repertoire of cinematic flashes, impressions build and cut (“the ticking of a clock, jumps to interior,”) or flirt, archly, around games of obscurity (“we all wear a mask to a fellow passer-by.”)

Ultimately, Wolf Cry comes apart in the fingers if you squeeze too hard (the strange syntax, the dodging of plot, their mingling of seduction and avoidance) in much the same way that the story of Ants comes to us half-melted. Elephant have a knack for this kind of anti-logical play, squeezing into the gaps in the story. Besides, they’ve already demonstrated that they’re masters at magicking something coherent out of disorientated fragments – not least via a fine mournful tune or two. Evasive or not, they’re very much in the room. I suspect that I’m going to go on talking about them.

Elephant: ‘Ants’
Memphis Industries, MI0172S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 17th January 2011

Get it from:
Memphis Industries.

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

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

Heath/Jay/Roedelius: ‘Meeting The Magus’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aqueous (Andrew Heath/Felix Jay) online:
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Hans-Joachim Roedelius online:
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March 2003 – live reviews – North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St Clement Eastcheap, City of London, England, 15th March (“a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details”)

18 Mar

Once you’ve found it (tucked away in the cramped, confusing whorls of buildings and alleyways near the Monument) the diminutive Christopher Wren church of St Clement Eastcheap is like an old-fashioned kid’s treasure-box, hidden in a chest-of-drawers. Small but perfectly-formed (and bearing the decorous marks of its mid-Victorian refurbishment), it perches pertly between two well-known architectural schools – “enchanting” and “cute”. Tidy pillars spring up hopefully at the sides of its nave. That creamy yellow tint in the immaculate plasterwork of the walls sets off the lovingly-worn mahogany of choir stalls, pews and the massive pulpit. It’s tiny enough for a smallish art-rock audience to squeeze into and feel cosy: and there’s a nursery-rhyme connection too, if you know your oranges and your lemons.

Really, the North Sea Radio Orchestra couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue. For the music of this retrofitted, romantic-progressive chamber ensemble, St Clements fits like a glove. It shares those hints of modestly-mingled English eras of scaled-down splendour, the atmosphere of nostalgic time travel and aan affectionate polish of traditional heritage. Once you’re inside, both of them also tempt you to blissfully engulf yourself in a luxurious dream of old England – open fields, spinneys, bright stars, sunlight and green thoughts – while all around you the ruthlessness, frenetic urban pace and concrete encroachment looms and sprawls. This may all be an imaginary, selective stance. On a superficial level, you could also get suspicious of well-spoken contemporary white musicians in London warding off angst by cooking up a hand-crafted pre-industrial daydream. But this does the NSRO a disservice. You could accuse them of forcing their innocence – and maybe yours as well – but whatever else they’re doing here is done entirely without malice.

Twenty people settle onstage and get a grip on their violas, cellos, trombones, bass clarinets or whatever. Familiar London art-rock faces abound. Conductor-composer Craig Fortnam and the ensemble’s soprano singer Sharron Saddington used to bob up and down on the fringes of the Cardiacs scene, first in the psychedelic tea-party of William D. Drake’s short-lived Lake Of Puppies and then in the bumptiously charming folk-pronk of The Shrubbies. James Larcombe (Stars In Battledress’ elegantly-tailored smoothie of a keyboard player) is soberly fingering a chamber organ. His brother and bandmate Richard is boosting the numbers in the eight-strong choir, right next to the wild Persian afro of onetime Monsoon Bassoon-er (and current Cardiac) Kavus Torabi. Out in the audience, the aforementioned Mr Drake sits next to Tim Smith, his old friend and former boss in Cardiacs. Across from them, there are various Foes and Ursas and Sidi Bou Saids. There’s a sense of occasion. We get a beautifully designed arts-and-crafts-styled programme to take home. It’s a long way from Camden pub gigs.

This isn’t solely because of the surroundings. North Sea Radio Orchestra might carry their assorted historical splinters of psychedelic rock, folk, and even punk along with them, but they are unabashedly classical in intent. Even the twistiest and most abrasive of the art-rockers in the lineup are sporting the sober concentration of churchgoers, and Sharron has traded her former outfit of cosy specs and jumpers (though not her artlessly warm smile) for a modest diva gown. Craig, his back turned, conscientiously conducts the ensemble. When he sits aside to strum a little polite guitar, he has to crane his neck round anxiously, making sure that the music is still running smoothly.

He needn’t worry. Despite the shades of complex tonality which inform the NSRO’s compositions (Frank Zappa, Benjamin Britten and Tim Smith have all left their mark on Craig’s inspiration), the music flows readily. Sometimes it’s a simple organ drone as a base for Dan Hewson’s trombone expositions. At the other end of the measure, there’s the rollicking Occasional Tables: a dancing interplay between clarinets with a gloriously drunken, attention-switching Frank Zappa/Henry Cow approach. With its mediaeval echoes, and an additional infusion of the peculiar darkness of post-Morton Feldman Californian conservatoire music, it’s given an edge by the astringent, atonal vibraphone shiver (and by Craig’s strict, almost military turn on bongos).

Intriguing as these are, it’s the NSRO’s orchestration of poems which connect deepest with the audience. Mostly these are Tennyson settings (with a sprinkling of Thomas Hardy and other contemporaries) but even Daniel Dundas Maitland’s modern Sonnet looks back to ornate Victoriana. So does Craig’s music, swirling its Early Music and contemporary classical influences together to meet halfway in a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details. Sharron’s vocals – sometimes piping, sometimes emoting in keen, theatrical wails – make for exquisitely brittle sugar-sculpture shapes, while rivulets of strings and woodwind launch themselves from the melody.

The heavenly sway of Move Eastward Happy Earth sets Sharron’s winsome soprano against the lazy, streaming clarinet of Nick Hayes and against Ben Davies’ slow waltz of trimmed-down piano. The choir (with a hearty, clever enthusiasm that reminds me of nothing so much as Gentle Giant) leaps in for stepped, skipping choruses and glorious vocal resolutions. For The Flower, drifts of strings slip from the vocal line and weave busily like something out of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Onstage, everyone who isn’t smiling looks happily dazed, as if drunk on the sunny harmonies.

And so it continues, with parts of the NSRO dropping in and out to suit the music. For Thumb Piano, Craig trims it down to a revolving arpeggio of guitar harmonics in trio with the blues-tinged fluting of Hayes’ sweet’n’wild clarinet and Katja Mervola’s pizzicato viola. Harry Escott provides a cello improvisation, impressively-voiced chordal melodies sliding on top of a slithering bass drone. James Larcombe sketches out a collage of beady, kaleidoscopic chord progressions in his studious organ solo. The chorus, for their part, sing lustily in a London melting-pot of diverse accents. For the canon setting of Yeats’ He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, the whole orchestra sings its way through Craig’s pop-folk melodies.

When the whole ensemble is running at full strength, St Clement brightens with music. Shelley’s Skylark, in particular, is profoundly ambitious – semi-connected cello lines swing like foghorns, thick Michael Byron-ish string parts disgorge dominant melodies, and the chorus is a rich blur of voices, pumping resolution into Hardy’s words. But best of all is a generous Fortnam orchestration of a piece by his former bandleader William D. Drake – a setting of William Johnson Cory’s Mimnermus In Church. With Richard Larcombe stepping out from the chorus to duet with Sharron, and the North Sea Radio Orchestra performing at its fullest stretch, the results are captivating. The voices of Sharron and Richard move around each other in dusty, reedy, yearning harmonies (he floating up to countertenor) while strings, piano, clarinets and brass open out like a delicate night-bloomer, fragrantly illustrating Cory’s salute to flawed and transient life in the face of a perfect yet chilly heaven. “All beauteous things for which we live by laws of time and space decay. / But O, the very reason why I clasp them is because they die.”

Yes, in pop culture terms it is music for an ivory tower, or for a detached oasis where you can secrete yourself away from the world. Only a mile or two to the west, I’m sure that electric guitars are roaring out rock, garage clubs are spinning off beats and bling, and someone’s delivering tonight’s definitive urban hymn. But emerging into the City of London – all higgledy-piggledy with glass skyscrapers, Renaissance guildhalls and mediaeval street names, a ragbag of congealed history in parallels – I couldn’t care less.

Like the best musicians, North Sea Radio Orchestra tap into timeless things (beauty, transient joys, the shift of seasons). But like the stubbornest, they also know the colours and shades of the times which they’ll want to employ, finding a way to make them mean something whenever and wherever they’re played. And though an antique church and a Victorian altar cloth made a beautiful frame tonight, this music – at its peak – would’ve sounded good even if the whole ensemble had been balanced atop a Docklands trash-heap.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
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St Clement Eastcheap online:
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December 2002 – EP reviews – North Sea Radio Orchestra’s ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

5 Dec

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness.

Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

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

14 Jan
Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: 'Conversations'

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

Jez Carr online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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:
Facebook MySpace YouTube

August 2001 – album reviews – Michael Jon Fink’s ‘I Hear It in the Rain’ (“into the tundra of forgetfulness”)

25 Aug
Michael Jon Fink: 'I Hear It In The Rain'

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’

Often it’s as simple as this – for true treasure, let go of the precious.

Michael Jon Fink (operating within New Music but sidestepping much of its systematic, lab-dulled pretensions) proves it on this album of close-up and subtle music, aided by remarkably sympathetic collaborators – textural guitarist Rick Cox, percussionist Dan Morris, Bryan Pezzone on piano and celesta, and bass clarinetist Marty Walker. There’s something of Gavin Bryars’ evanescent emotional skill to Fink’s music; something of the soft spatial blur of the Evanses (both Bill and Gil); but little of the chart-plotting dryness of a composer after cleverness points. Although Fink’s composing seems to be romantic at heart, he’s well aware of what modernism lets him draw by implication. ‘I Hear It In The Rain’ has feeling in plenty, but doesn’t lay out its secrets that easily.

During Five Pieces For Piano, Bryan Pezzone’s soft playing presses oh-so-gently on our ears. Fink’s music emerges from Pezzone’s piano so delicately that it hardly disturbs the air, as silent as night-travelling stealth ships, yet it sets reactions moving. The musical voicings are widely spaced, just dissonant enough for a shadow of doubt. The melodies are simple – songs from a sleepy child on the road – and it’s Pezzone’s exquisite touch on both keys and pedals that brings out Fink’s intentions.


 
The sparse sketch of Passing sounds like Debussy, but also like worksong. Its tentative descending melodies touch down in firm but unsettled chords – displaced, jazz-shadowed. Constrained by its skeletal melodic discipline, Mode uses space instead to ask its wordless questions, which remain unanswered by the rising minor-key bass arpeggio of Fragment and the two-note treble alternation which rings on and on – absently, a long-ignored alarm that’s forgotten both urgency and reason and instead beats out its worn, relaxing ritual. For Echo, two cycles of elegantly picked-out notes overlap each other, engaging not like machine parts but like two people caught unwittingly in a loose parallel. The fifth and final piece, Epitaph, draws the harmony together. The sustained, rising rumble of each decaying bass note holds the attention, while a melody in the mid-range takes up the implications of a death song.


 
This is not about feelings being directly manipulated. Fink’s music induces them, drawing into the gaps and implications between the notes. A lot of it is timing: the attuned sensibilities of a performer and a composer both inspired by the subtle, near-telepathic interreactions of small-group jazz. More of the slender, yet involving, same can be found within Two Preludes For Piano. The first of these, Image, keeps that same poise between amnesia and raptness as the Five Pieces do, tiny details slipping past the pared-back structure of Fink’s notes. The second, Wordless, heads further into the tundra of forgetfulness: the tenor- and soprano-range parts thoughtful and reassuring, but set just far enough apart from each other for disturbance, fading unresolved into the deep evening.

When Fink and Pezzone leave the piano’s subtle, powerful dynamism, they favour the celesta – an instrument which demands (and produces) an exquisite clarity, but with soap-bubble fragility. While the instrument is chillier and less robust than the timbrally similar Rhodes piano (the jazzer’s usual choice for the otherworldly), Fink turns this into a virtue. Initially, For Celesta seems as physically ephemeral as a frost-painting – bright points glimmering on a window – but grows by degrees as Pezzone brings out the full resonance of the instrument’s range. A beautifully sleepy melody grows, reflection by reflection. It’s precise, yet weighted oddly by its slow ebb and return of acceleration; and by the sudden unexpected welling-up of emotional and physical volume midway through, before returning to its soft contemplation.


 
Elsewhere, Fink’s moods are less compressed and matter-of-fact titles are left behind for more poetic names. On Living To Be Hunted By The Moon (which could be a nod to Gurdijieff’s mythology of soul-eating moons, or to even older fears) Fink builds a landscape of powerful but distant sampler drones. These slant across the sky like angled, endless, featureless walls, each one eerily bisecting the former with a disquieting geometry. Underneath this beautiful and subtly oppressive canopy the marvellously expressive Marty Walker purrs and throbs all-but-subliminal lines on his bass clarinet. It comes across as a supernatural play of light represented in sound, but once again Fink’s near-narcotic sense of subtle disassociation comes into play. His soundscapes hover overhead like a deferred threat, or like a beautiful, cruel and thoughtless god – something to be crept past; something of predatory attentions, carefully evaded.


 
No such emotional deferral happens on the album’s title track, which is also it’s haunting and lovely finale. Everything that has been promised (or hidden) elsewhere on the album settles home like final snow, or final tears. Where all else has been sparse and minimal, I Hear It In The Rain is luxuriant and gently cathartic. Dreamily slow, founded on Fink’s pedal-point of bass guitar and the gentle rocking motion of his bell-like keyboards, it’s shot through with fluttering orchestra-sized samples of tremulous cellos, blending with the soft rushes of Morris’ gongs and bell trees. Rick Cox’s electric guitars (teased into hallucinatory smears by sponge or glass implements) buoy up the spectral and blissfully desolate melodies, dissolving the emotional suspense in one long resolution; dissolving you too and easing you out through your opening window up into another warm and solitary Los Angeles night.


 
Words aplenty… I could go on and on to you about the restraint and wisdom in Michael Jon Fink’s work, but what gets me every time is its sheer and honest beauty. There’s a disciplined mind at work here: it’s also one which is in touch with such universality of feelings that praising his deft economy and musical grammar seems reductive. I could pin him down further for you, but what matters might be beyond by reach – though, even as I finish this, it’s come filtering through the air to reach back to me again. Simple. Special. Indispensable.

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’
Cold Blue Music, CB0004 (800413000426)
CD/download album
Released: 18th June 2001

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

Michael Jon Fink online:
HomepageLast FM iTunes

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

10 Jun
Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water'

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’

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

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



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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music

Marty Walker online:
Homepage

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

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

15 Jun

The Monsoon Bassoon: 'I Dig Your Voodoo'

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monsoon Bassoon: ‘I Dig Your Voodoo’
Weird Neighbourhood Records, WNRS4 (5 024545 078428)
CD-only album
Released:
7th June 1999
Buy it from: Best obtained second-hand. (Note, April 2013 – Believers Roast plan to reissue this along with the rest of the Monsoon Bassoon catalogue at some point in the next few years.)
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November 1998 – album reviews – Cloud Chamber’s ‘Dark Matter’ (“unsettling beauty with an element of wild and joyous fear”)

20 Nov
Cloud Chamber: 'Dark Matter'

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’

A cloud chamber is a device for measuring the existence of the intangible. Physicists use them – mapping out the paths that subatomic particles trace through a vapour, studying nuclear reactions and inferring the presence of other particles. There’s something about that last bit I particularly like: inferring the existence of something. Something you can only detect, or believe in, by seeing how it affects something else.

Cloud Chamber (with the capitals) is an improvising group allowing the convergence of several other exotic particles – these being guitarist Barry Cleveland, space-age bass guitarist Michael Manring, cellist Dan Reiter, percussionist Joe Venegoni and Michael Masley, who coaxes sounds out of a more esoteric set of instruments (panpipes, gobek, gobeon and the cymbalom dulcimer). Having come together as part of the Lodge improv evenings in Oakland, California following stints with employers as diverse as Michael Hedges, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, Ry Cooder and Garbage (plus exploits in journalism and dance theater), Cloud Chamber’s collective past suggests that what they’re likely to condense together will be suckling blissfully on an inspiration of mind and music, devoid of barriers.

More accurately, outside of barriers. When listening to improvised music you’re all too often shoved back on your arse by the force of several musicians protesting their individuality as forcefully as possible, and playing off each other with all the subtlety of dodgem cars. Cloud Chamber, on the other hand, have nothing to do with ego. The fivesome’s music emerges like the interplay of ocean currents; a process of continual organic movement to which the musicians respond as if they’re no more than implements of a guiding force.

And that’s how it needs to be – the compound music that Cloud Chamber produce is as precarious and demanding as improv demands, but to release the life in that music it’s necessary for the musicians to let it play through them. Manring (a driving and devastatingly gifted bassist, as his solo records and work with Sadhappy testifies) keeps any hero-glitter under a bushel of humility here. He takes a step back, becoming just one of many element in the condensate: no more dominant then Reiter’s troubled, graceful cello or Venegoni’s poised rattlebag. Cleveland lurks in the background with his chameleonic guitar (playing a skeletal pattern of notes, a swarm of bees, a steel-shack sound, or an unknown language). Masley strokes and strikes gorgeously glassy shard-notes out of his cymbalom with his bowhammers and thumb-picks.

Patterns and presences take shape out of nothingness, drift around on the edge of perception, then suddenly and deeply solidify, impressing themselves on you as if they’ve been there for years. Half-familiar fragments of music (bits of Eastern European string quartet, Chinese and Asian music, a riff from King Crimson’s The Talking Drum) reveal themselves with an enigmatic smile while they’re well on the way to becoming something new.

This is also very beautiful music: though it’s a strung-out, unsettling beauty with an element of wild, joyous fear. The exquisite Blue Mass manifests itself like light twisting through a stained-glass prism, anchored on Reiter’s perplexing, precariously emotional cello calls above which the group fashion a soft, high night-sky of singing steel sounds. Radiant Curves is all looping contrails.

On Solar Nexus, singing bass guitar and cello interweave as Masley plucks and bows his cymbalom overhead: Cleveland’s guitar flies in out of left-field over popping, sliding, shadowy bass shapes, and everything ends in glittering, mirror-surfaced screams. As a listener, you become increasingly spooked and enchanted at the presences these sounds suggest. It feels like being stalked by the Easter Island statues in a swirling fog; or like hearing the sudden ring of an unknown voice in the haunted wind that cuts through high-tension wires overhead.

This disquietude doesn’t come from conflict. These musicians don’t battle each other. The thoughtful interview they provide in the booklet, and the watchful grace they exhibit in their interaction, amply proves the opposite. But something in the music that comes out of their alliance seems to suggest a rapt, fearful awe at the size and diversity of the cosmos; and that’s not just in the astronomer’s titles which the pieces sport.

Some music changes the way you see the world, and this is a full hour’s helping. Not so much a Big Music as a small music, something retreating into the details and filaments of unconfirmed suspicions. This could be in the rhythmic imperative of the baleful four-note Pink Floyd-ian riff in The Call, worried at by the rat-scurrying strings, space-gypsy fiddling and Manring’s anxious Jaco-in-retreat fingerwork. Or it could be in the cat’s-cradle of scrapes and rockets on cello, mingling with cymbalom mantras, on Full of Stars. Here, a tangle of miscellaneous alien squawks is surrounded by collapsing glassy percussion, fractured-tree bass noises and Cleveland’s guitar-talk, finally washing up on the shores of Chinese classical music.

The most obvious Cloud Chamber ever get is on the sketchy world-funk of Dithyramb. This is like an exploded version of the fake ethnography crafted by Byrne and Eno on ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, or by Rain Tree Crow, and passes into a high, stretched-out passage of cello and bass sustain. Travelling alongside, Cleveland’s mounting guitar journeys from sketching out cirrus cloud to lovely Vini Reilly-esque pointwork. But this is a rare moment of innocence and cheer. Much more characteristic is the air-on-a-G-string improv that bedrocks Ursa Minor, setting up tensions between pluck and sustain, between the percussive cello and phased, rapping bass; between the ominous restlessness of free open passages and the querulous, demanding blue notes of the cello solo.

The final (and untitled) experiment leaves no tone resolved – winding cello, seagull distortions and an irregular, antsy wash of noise. You’re left feeling that Cloud Chamber have dismantled the scenery between us and the infinite, leaving us losing track of time, of solidity. Falling through the world. Suddenly turning around to find the whole colossal starry wonder of the universe at your back, and thrilling with a terrible flinch of delight.
Somehow Cloud Chamber are picking up on something that most of us miss: revealing something unseen by reacting to it. Hearing ‘Dark Matter’, you feel as if you’ve been allowed to watch the ambiguous wonder of something changing, and changing decisively – a presence inferred – and that you’ve been allowed to be part of it.

Science, or magic? Doesn’t matter. Live within it.

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’
Supersaturated Records, SUPERSATURATED 001
CD/download album
Released: 11th November 1998

Get it from:
CD Baby or iTunes.

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

28 Oct

Dark Star: 'Graceadelica' EP

Dark Star: ‘Graceadelica’ EP

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

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

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


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

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

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

Dark Star: ‘Gracedelica’
EMI Records Ltd/Harvest Records, CDEM523/10EM523 (724388615822)
CD/vinyl EP
Released: 26th October 1998
Get it from:
(2020 update – best obtained second-hand)
Dark Star online:
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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 1996 – album reviews – Aqueous’ ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’ (“ambient emotional blackmail”)

24 Aug
Aqueous: 'Tall Cloudtrees Falling'

Aqueous: ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’

One thing ambient music is supposed to do is to be passive and let you play the unlistener. That way, you know where you stand. Put on an ambient record, flood yourself with the pastel light or shadow of your choice, lie back and just relax into it like a big cushion of sound waves. There might or might not be some gentle beats involved, you might get the odd trumpet or whale-song, it might be dark or it might be light… Whatever it is, you’ve got control and it’s tailored to one-size-fits-all. No problems. No thinking necessary.

Aqueous: ‘Catching Sight of Land’

At first hearing, Aqueous’ ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’ sounds as if it’s going to be one of those archetypal ambient throw-pillows. Listening to Andrew Heath and Felix Jay gently ping and buzz their way through Catching Sight of Land (whole-tone scale digital abstractions; robotic bass blobbing up in gentle ruminant belches) or Under a Heavy Sky’s dewdrops of Rhodes piano and wowing buzzes, you can settle down, open your book, drift off…

Hang about. Brain message, confused. Surely there should be something here to latch on to? The reassuring melody-ette, the heartbeat to the ambient womb? Either someone’s made off with it, or Aqueous have folded it up like origami – all the expected angles in the wrong place. You can’t read the book; there are gaps in the music which your subconscious is forcing you to listen to. Ambient emotional blackmail.

And eventually you have to respond. You put down the book, and you listen to this wandering, gentle collection of electronic shapes. A third of it makes sense. The remainder refuses to stay in your grasp, melting off into the air like an evasive scent. The ice has melted in your drink.

Back to the book. This time, the music creeps up behind you and gently, insistently – maddeningly – tugs at your shoulder. It demands, ever so gently that you listen to it: but as soon as you turn around, it’s gone again. Sub-audible – in the night-breaths of Antarctica as insubstantial, yet as unmistakeably there, as the shape a leaf-laden branch makes in the breeze. In Les Trois Jours D’Ete, capturing the silence of a sun-washed garden… with the eyes drawn up over the top of the wall in expectation of sudden, silent summer events. You shelter in it. It slowly sags and gives way at unexpected angles beneath you: turning you round, dropping you into Sweet Santoor’s zither of icicles and Stylophonic buzzes (amid snatches of disintegrating Satie).

Aqueous: ‘Within This Dream I Awake’

This carpet-slippered game of cat and mouse could go on for ever, while you attempt to either pursue or ignore Aqueous’ essence. You can draw a few comparisons if you like. The mingling, exchanging, misty patterns in Leaving Alexandria in the Cold Light of Dawn mixes Harold Budd’s still-air vistas with the insidious kind of fluting, droning analogue shapes that Vangelis cooked up during his mid-’70s Nemo peak, during quieter moments. The whole album has echoes of Cluster.

But attempting to pin Aqueous music down to absolutes is as futile as trying to pull that unlistening ambient-consumer’s trick on it. Like the various states of water, this music can both give and refuse to give; and it infiltrates the environment it enters, with the insidiousness of transient vapour or with the unyielding fragility of an ice sheath over a pond.

Aqueous: ‘Tall Cloudtrees Falling’
Hermetic Recordings, HERM 2222
CD album
Released: 19th August 1996

Buy it from:
Aqueous homepage store

Aqueous online:
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