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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.

Richard Causton online:
Homepage

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.

Elephant online:
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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:
Homepage

Hans-Joachim Roedelius online:
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