Tag Archives: head spins gently

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

3 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

June 2014 – through the feed – Sufjan Stevens reissues ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ with various goodie options

26 Jun

Sufjan Stevens: 'Enjoy Your Rabbit'

Sufjan Stevens: ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’

Assuming that you’ve not heard about this yet (I still have the sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are ahead of me as regards news)…

…that prolific, poly-instrumental singer-songwriter/critical darling Sufjan Stevens is reissuing one of his earliest and oddest albums. Originally released by Asthmatic Kitty back in 2001, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ was reissued a couple of days ago (June 24th) on limited-edition deluxe vinyl and as a download.

On initial hearing, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ doesn’t sound much like the work with which Sufjan later made his name. Despite the man’s reputation for assured eclectism, it seems out-of-place and unexpected – very different from the concept albums in which he codified his life and thoughts into the hopes, dreams and terrains of American states; or from his baroque-ified folk-Americana (in which you were as likely to hear a cor anglais as a banjo or harmonium); or from his combining of original film and symphony music for ‘The BQE’; or even his battery of Christmas albums.

Recorded during Sufjan’s first stint in New York, it’s almost entirely electronic – a fizzing post-modern cut-up built from digital work station noises, samples and tweaks of live sounds (including stray guitars, organs, the brassy lather of Tom Eaton’s trumpet and prelingual vocals from Liz Janes and Sufjan himself). There’s a running theme via the Chinese zodiac and its twelve-year cycle, each year of which lends its name to a track (Year Of The Dragon, Year Of The Rat and so on), although Sufjan muddies the waters with two extra pieces – the title track and The Year Of Our Lord. (Given his professed Christianity, the latter is as likely to be sincere as it is to be a tongue-in-cheek gag: given the nature of the album, it’s probably both.)

Over to his label, Asthmatic Kitty, for a fuller explanation (as Asthmatic Kitty appears to have a staff of two, one of whom is Sufjan, you can be pretty sure that this is a definitive statement):

“Departing from the singer-songwriter format of his first Asthmatic Kitty album, ‘A Sun Came’, this collection of fourteen colourful instrumental compositions combines Sufjan’s noted gift for melody with electronic sounds to create an unusually playful and human – not to mention humane – electronic experience. First released in 2001 on CD, 2014 — the Year of the Horse — brings the original recording back as a double-LP set, the first disc clear and the other left to fortune. And no one can foresee who will receive one of two very special boxes of fortune cookies, containing fortunes penned especially for this occasion by Sufjan himself.

‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is the most underrated and overlooked album in Sufjan’s discography. It contains in capsule form what he would later unpack into more palatable music. There are flashes of ‘Michigan’ and ‘Illinois’ in Year Of Our Lord, Year Of The Ox and Year Of The Dog, and shadows of ‘Age Of Adz’ in the darkest moments of Year Of The Boar, Year Of The Snake or Year Of The Dragon. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a harbinger. A precursor. A wink in the eye before the slight. You should have listened in the first place. We’ll forgive you though, because when an album is only available in wasteful jewel-case CD, how cool can it be? Jewel-cases are so 1998. But now that it’s in multi-colored limited-edition gimmick-ridden vinyl, you have no excuse. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, which Sufjan wrote and recorded in the innocence of a pre-9/11 2001, is Sufjan’s best work because it is Sufjan at his least self-aware.

In an alternate reality, Sufjan never made ‘Michigan’ or ‘Seven Swans’ or ‘Illinois’; he kept making electronic freakout albums like ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ in obscurity, until perhaps he just gave up and stayed in graphic design and some pitying barely-afloat label re-released ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and sold a few dozen copies to a few scattered part-time record store employees. But here we are in this reality, where ‘Michigan’ is slated for an energy drink commercial, ‘Illinois’ is a backdrop to a pensive montage in a kickstarted blockbuster movie, and ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is relegated to a drunken purchase at Amazon.com.

Here at Asthmatic Kitty, where we often ignore reality as it’s presented, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is one of our most played records. We find ourselves in the small company of ballet choreographers, quartets, and occasional internet reviewers, but there should be more of us. So, as if we were in that alternate universe where “Sufjan” is more likely the name of a ‘Game of Thrones’ character than an indie star, we hope you’ll give this record a chance now that it’s available as vinyl. It is just as genius as anything Sufjan has released since. Everything’s been downhill since.”

To my own cranky ears, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a fascinating, skillful blip in Sufjan’s career – a rare chance to see his singular talent from a specific angle. It’s a little similar to your first encounter with Frank Zappa’s cascading Synclavier cut-ups if all you’d previously heard was his catalogue of hairy, horse-laugh rock cabaret numbers about groupie misdemeanours and middle-America caught napping and dribbling. Another comparison is Adrian Belew’s 1986 one-off ‘Desire Caught By The Tail‘ – a snarling, abstract career swerve from a musician who’d previously satisfied his avant-garde leaning by blowing spacey textures and barnyard/traffic sound effects through art-rock songs, but was now sitting down with a crude guitar synth (plus a jumble of pedals and assorted things to hit with a stick) in order to create uncompromising Picasso-Hendrix shapes at heavy-metal volume. Did someone say ‘Metal Machine Music’? Not quite, although there are moments of crushing noise on ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ which recall Lou Reed’s own Marmite effort.

One thing which can be said for certain is that ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ is a breathtakingly playful record which nonetheless exhibits Sufjan’s extraordinary breadth of influences and compositional skills. If you listen closely, his subsequent ways of building a song are all already present and correct. Though they’re sheathed and blurred within the blip-glitching video-Pong noises, Tibetan bells and drunken brass band textures of Year Of The Monkey, they’re definitely there: it’s a song, voiced with all the oddness of a Charles Ives let loose on a sampler.

Speaking of Zappa, some prime bogus pomp shows up on Year Of The Snake and Year Of The Boar. Amongst the larking bass-harmonium reed drone and the razzing fizz of Sufjan’s electronics, some weighty blimpery waddles and patters. I could have sworn that Year Of The Boar even quotes ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’ at one point. Sufjan’s certainly not slow to drop in a ‘Mission Impossible’ quote on the album’s title track, which is otherwise the odd song out – an angular, dissonant line of Rock-In-Opposition guitar fuzz joined by a cavalcade of pushy racket and chiptune burble.

As for the Chinese component, it’s not clear whether this is a gimmick (like Sufjan’s subsequent tall tales of a “50 States” concept project) or another little metajoke which he’s balled up and sent sailing over our heads. Scattered sparingly across the record, Mannar Wong adds some genuine spoken Chinese. In and around certain pieces, trilled Chinese melodies bump up against European string quartet tunes or (as on Year of the Tiger) flute around cabaret vocalese and bells over thudding shadow-tones. But at least as much is drawn through and worked in from other sources: Sufjan’s first years in the thick of New York’s cosmopolitanism must have been a greedy feast for his ears. Steam-organ and No Wave whomp, carefully orchestrated, collide with early-Genesis prog flourishes. Sewer-pulsations meet Bontempi organs and sample-heavy vocal murmurs, folded into Latin pop melodies. Silvery Krautrock turns into dinky, glitch-mauled castle music on Year Of The Rat. For Year of the Sheep, Sufjan turns the music into a battle between pulp and celestial. Against the birth-of-the-world vocalise which he and Liz Janes knit together, animal sounds yawp and rampage – angry pregnant elephants, excited pterodactyls.

Rat

The thirteen-minute Year Of The Horse – the piece on which Sufjan could really have come unstuck – instead shows him in full control: sustaining and mutating schools of ideas at greater length, like a post-techno Mike Oldfield. Despite its mongrel elements and its sense of hazard sources, over the course of its journey (minimalist piano figure in trio with vibrating mechanical sounds and out-of-focus kettledrums; panpipe-riffles marshalling around industrial squashing-tones; a finale of glitched/phased/near-atonal signal twitches), it’s not so dissimilar to those carefully-structured stretches of ‘Tubular Bells’ or ‘Ommadawn’ back in the 1970s. Not that Sufjan would necessarily agree: his time at New York’s New School (which he was attending while he wrote this album) would have exposed him to any number of inspirations from chance heroes to masters of structure. What’s clear is that under the capering and restless sonics, great swathes of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ display Sufjan’s bedrock talent and the solidity of his musical placings. It’s a cliché that a single work by one artist can hold as many ideas as another artist’s entire career, but this is one of those cases where the old saw is true. I’ve heard plenty of electrophonic records eking out a single concept or a sparse few, albeit successfully. ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ makes most of them sound like lazy sketches.

You should judge for yourselves, though – this wasn’t supposed to be a review. You can get your copy of the album from Asthmatic Kitty or Bandcamp (both fixed-price vinyl or download) or from Noisetrade (pay-what-you-like download-only). For the possibility of fortune cookies, I’m guessing that you should pester Asthmatic Kitty directly. If you want the additional option of ordering a vinyl twosome of ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ and Osso String Quartet’s ‘Run Rabbit Run’ as a thirty-dollar special offer… well, that’s another thing to talk to Asthmatic Kitty about.

Sufjan Stevens online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Tumblr Bandcamp Last FM

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

26 Mar
Felipe Otondo: 'Tutuguri'

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Felipe Otondo online:
Homepage Soundcloud LastFM

Album reviews – Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’ albums, 2002 (“a game of reverse-chicken… impressive and utter liquefaction”)

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

The second part in Darkroom’s ‘Fallout’ trilogy ( a set of interwoven concert travelogues) sees the unorthodox dark-ambient trio shrink to fit circumstances: recorded over the course of four gigs in Cambridge between spring 2000 and spring 2001, ‘Fallout 2’ records their first period of work as a duo. With singer Tim Bowness temporarily absent from the group, the five lengthy live tracks see Darkroom’s sound now built up entirely from Andrew Ostler’s infinitely malleable, polluted volume of electronic sounds and Michael Bearpark’s massed, heaven-and-hell loop guitars.

Subtracting the singer should have meant removing the human face from Darkroom’s activities. It should have forced their music – which was already suffused with hanging menace, dense atmospherics and chaotic leanings – further down the road to alienation. In fact, the opposite is true. Minus those fragmentary Bowness sighs, whispers and melodic wails, Darkroom do relinquish part of their edge of romance and distress. But they also dispense with the intimations of human disintegration, morbidity and panic which Tim’s beautifully tortured vocal tones brought to the project.

In his absence, Darkroom is able to relax and experiment with a two-way balance instead of the three-way teeter they’d thrived on previously. Os and Michael sit back and play off each other – not in unison, but in a dialogue of occasional crossings and of deceptive, mock-disengaged responses. As with ‘Fallout One‘, the two-man Darkroom continue to embrace instinctive wandering noise-stews rather than art-rock discipline.

For this album, at least, these are gentler brews: one even begins with a serene duet of heaven-scented loop guitar and a windblown squiggle of pink noise, rather than the warning tones of before. Released from some of his duties as textural foil to Tim, it’s Michael who now gives the music its anchors: cyclic calling phrases, humming confections of layered Frippertronic-like loops, space-echoed licks, sometimes a sound like someone wrenching their way out of a giant metal tank. Os – as usual – takes responsible for most of the layers of sonic detail and for the most drastic directional shifts within Darkroom’s ever-restless improvisations.

Os’ increasing plunderphonic tendencies (linking and threading pieces with snippets of international radio conversation, Cambridge choristers or muezzin calls) prove that behind his responsibilities for the main body of Darkroom’s sound, he’s also the joker in the pack, dialling up effects and textures from a vast trick-bag of electronic sounds which he then sloshes across the speakers and leaves to evolve. His rhythms, too, betray a sense of cool, amused mischief. He’ll stitch in trails of techno beats, or hijack a piece five-and-a-half minutes in with jazzy cymbals and toms drenched in flapping dub treatments. He’ll even drop in the occasional comedy drum-wallop to accompany some blooping synth sounds he appears to have stolen off a kiddy-ride in a shopping center. Inscrutable humour aside, Os also assembles a remarkable variety of more solid elements to flesh out Darkroom’s randomness: imposing psychedelic cadences, static veils and suggestive electrophonic shapes.

Though Michael Bearpark’s playing still owes a debt to Robert Fripp (via his “Bearatronics” loops and his occasional digressions into trumpet-guitar), he’s far less formally-minded. While you could also draw parallels to the mangled roots sounds used by David Torn, Michael is a far more reticent, distant and watchful guitarist: less flamboyant, but similarly eclectic. Across the album, he comes up with the kind of junkyard guitar that Marc Ribot would be proud of; or treats us to yanks and scrabbles of twanging guitar in the vein of Henry Kaiser or Fred Frith. He unwinds collapsing, Spanish-guitar-style electric rolls; or feeds in the Bill Frisell-influenced ghost-country minimalism that he’s increasingly stamped onto Darkroom music. Os responds with gusty, gauzy swirls of noise, or busies himself chopping up the sound even as Michael enriches it.

It’s co-operation of a kind, I suppose. Sometimes the Bearpark/Os interplay is gloriously subtle. More often, they’re engaged in a game of reverse-chicken in which they seem to be seeing just how far they can wander from each other’s playing before Darkroom collapses, adding a kind of free-jazz risk to the elements of illbience, Krautrock and musique concrete that already flourish in the group’s sound. Darkroom’s apparent abstract shapelessness (more accurately their indifference to, and boredom with, the monotonous formality of much electronic music) seems to put a lot of people off. However, their loosely-knit and liberated music still has few rivals or peers in electronica.

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

Tim Bowness returns for ‘Fallout 3’ which at first listen sounds as if it could be pegged as the kinder, gentler Darkroom. This seems an unlikely label. Nonetheless, the album initially seems something of a let-up from Darkroom’s unsettling dark-ambient explorations.

As the group’s main studio-flexer, Os exerts most of the active control over the emerging music. On this occasion, he does this by taking more of those Darkroom live recordings and drastically remixing them. Drawn from two of the mid-2000 Cambridge gigs which initiated ‘Fallout 2’ (plus four other gigs between 1999 and 2000 in Cambridge and London), ‘Fallout 3’ is tagged as “a celebration of the art of post-production” and compresses their rich, chaotic improvised sprawl into a thickening wall of noise. This is Darkroom as jelly, rather than their usual coils of prismatic vapour. In the process, it displays a side of the group which might appeal better to ambient-music aficionados and art/noise acolytes (those who’ve so far proved immune to, or unconscious of, Darkroom’s brooding wide-open power).

The art-rock richness of Tim’s keening, beautiful-agony vocal was previously something of a scene-stealer – especially when it reached heights of drama which recalled Peter Hammill at full tilt. This time it drifts faintly through the mix like a displaced ghost. Half-obscured, half-dreamy, its physical presence fades to a livid imprint. As for the industrial-melodic textures of Michael’s guitars (and his layered MiniDisc manipulations), these have sunk even deeper than before into the fabric of Darkroom sounds, as have most of the drum loops. The most audible Darkroom instrumentation to be heard on ‘Fallout 3’ is the humble studio fader and the reverb unit, teasing their way through the music and rebuilding detail.

Turned right down, ‘Fallout 3’ sounds like the smooth-peanut-butter option compared to the crunchier varieties of ‘Fallout One’ and ‘Fallout 2′. Turned up, though, the music piles upwards inexorably; like a thick fluid shot through with veins of displaced voices. Sometimes these voices belong to Tim, processed almost beyond recognition to become muttering crowds or alien choirboys. Sometimes they’re radio voices stroked out of the ether by Os’ continuing casual interest in plunderphonics. Those little instrumental dialogues and monologues that used to weave through Darkroom pieces have been melted down too. Everything played becomes food to feed this new amorphous monster.

The result is that, more than ever, Darkroom’s music has the amnesiac, dissolving qualities of oceans. Powerful and ever-massing, and strangely indifferent to the repercussions of its nature. The sound itself, for what it’s worth, is closer to dry land if perhaps not stable ground. That continuously-rumbling, near-geological depth of soundfield and the thick “angry-earth” quality to the sound brings this reinvented Darkroom closer to the relentless, tectonic grind of Robert Hampson’s dark-ambient process music in Main. Like Main’s, the pieces on ‘Fallout 3’ are much of a muchness. All are slightly differing curves on a line mostly heading in one direction, arcing beyond post-rock to the land of out-rock. There’s far less of the more identifiable tendencies of the past – nowhere near as much of that Fripp-&-Eno-swimming-in-Lee-Perry’s-galactic-fishtank feel. The always diffuse identities of the Darkroom players are now barely there at all. The music has turned them inside out.

Consequently this is seventy-five minutes of impressive and utter liquefaction that’s still– identifiably – Darkroom, and which also enables them to thumb an invisible nose at past accusations of formlessness. Even when their musical substance is reduced to something as intangible as this, Darkroom’s baleful and beautiful intent remains intact: a long way beyond the easy trance to which most electronic acts are finally reduced. Darkroom’s vision is still inexplicable and alien. It’s also still undeniable.

Neither kinder nor gentler, then. Just even more seductively suffocating and inscrutable.

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’ & ‘Fallout 3’
Burning Shed (no catalogue numbers or barcodes)
CD-R/download albums
Released: 01 January 2002 (‘Fallout 2’) & 1st February 2002 (‘Fallout 3’)

Get them from:
Burning Shed (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘) or Bandcamp (‘Fallout 2‘, ‘Fallout 3‘)

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

22 Jan
Apricot Rail: 'Basket Press'

Apricot Rail: ‘Basket Press’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Apricot Rail online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

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

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Golden’ single, 2012 (“playing in the sunshine”)

8 Sep
Elephant: 'Golden'

Elephant: ‘Golden’

Hmm. It’s only taken Elephant a year and a half to journey from being walkers in the gloaming (singing out their queasy, dissolved surrealism) to playing in the sunshine. There were some clues on their previous EP, ‘Assembly‘, which embraced mainstream pop while twirling mournfully like a mascara-ed panda; yet this is a firm step outwards from the obsessive feel of their early singles. Or is it?

Whether it’s Amelia Rivas’ French ancestry coming through, or just a shared and surfacing taste for classy Europop, Golden sees Elephant strip away their cavernous post-punk layers of dream-pop guitars and blood-throb synths in favour of gently bobbing acoustic strums, shimmering organ string pads, a touch of swing and bell-like keyboard smears. Actually, come to think of it, they’ve been here before on Actors, the surprising B-side to their second single Allured. This is altogether more sedate, though – a leisurely boat trip as compared to Actors’ chic bike ride, or perhaps a gentle merry-go-round bump’n’whirl. Compared to the hallucinatory greyness of their earlier work, it’s full-colour. French-tinged pop, for certain: an antique kind, filtered through Goffin and King and through Elephant’s subtle and invisible technical skills.

The link to what’s come before remains Amelia’s voice (still mournful and carrying a dry-eyed narcotic timbre, whatever she’s singing about) and her baffling way with a lyric, in which she dabs loosely associated words and phrases into a line like painted highlights and hopes that you’ll focus on her own scattered picture. With this kind of tune – this lightness, this air of sated contentment – I’m assuming that Golden is a love song. It certainly starts as intimate (“speaking in codes to you / in a drowned-out room. / Chandelier shelters us – / only space for two,”) but a chorus that gives equal weight to the words “escapade” and “hate” suggests something a little more complex.

Certainly by the second verse – “gazing from this altitude, / trapeze transforms to new. / The old was there all along. / Telescope straight to you,” – we’re in lyrical warpspace. Though Elephant have never sounded so cosy, so lovewrapped on the outside, the usual hallucinations are bleeding up from the inside. By the third verse, the summertime and the sunlight are taking on a shadow-etched ‘Twin Peaks’ hue – “The trees they whisper too, / as I glare from a bird’s eye view. / The grass entwines my feet and hands – / they hold me like you do.”

If you look at something too closely, cracks appear, and that’s true both when looking at songs and looking at love. Love and rage: the cuddle that ebbs away into a stifle… I’m backing off. Today I was promised sunshine, and a dank draught from the basement wasn’t part of the plan.

Perhaps if I don’t look too hard, I’ll be able to glide along on the surface, hold hands and enjoy the golden light. Perhaps it will all be OK. Will it?

Elephant: ‘Golden’
Elephant (self-released)
Download-only single
Released: 6th June 2012

Buy it from:
Soundcloud

Elephant online:
Facebook Twitter MySpace Tumblr Bandcamp

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

6 Sep
Preludes: 'The Moth'

Preludes: ‘The Moth’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preludes: 'The Swan'

Preludes: ‘The Swan’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preludes online:
Bandcamp

REVIEW – Cceruleann: ‘Hearts Stop’ single, 2012 (“uneasy allure”)

30 Jul

Cceruleann: 'Hearts Stop'

Cceruleann: ‘Hearts Stop’

Cceruleann’s previous, provocatively-titled pop single – ‘Fucking Wind‘ – seemed to be playing games with us. The soft, romantic sound versus that crude title. That sugary innocence, prancing onwards; oblivious to a silent looming hammer of anger. When I heard it, I thought it was supposed to be listened to from outside – that it was about the fury we sometimes feel towards the complacent and self-centred. It was as if the song had built a gun to point, teasingly, at its own head.

Hearts Stop doesn’t play the same shifting cards; but there’s still an odd, artful twist to Cceruleann’s songcraft, which means that anything even slightly unusual about them becomes loaded with significance. The fact that babydoll-voiced singer Marilyn and instrumentalist Elliot are siblings; that they live half a globe apart in Denver and in London; that together they’re writing these peculiar, minimal and contradictory electro-pop songs with their pretty little coatings… All of it adds to the uneasy allure.

This time, the artwork is a swarming beehive. Marching on an incongruous, thunderous hip-hop drumbeat and tuneful electropop bleeps, Hearts Stop is built around a slim haiku of lyric which Marilyn chants against a skein of wineglass warbles: “We can fly forever, / but we will fall when our hearts stop. / The fall will break us.” During the breakdowns, her multi-tracked voice twines coyly around itself, as new blips and patters worm their way into the skein. A distorted female laugh bubbles up in the mix, and stays there. A sampler dices and hiccups out the song title (two-and-a-half syllables of the haiku).

It’s as simple as that. And maybe it is as simple as that. Maybe there’s no more decoding to be done, and the bees are only wrapped around the single for effect. Maybe Cceruleann have just written another synth-pop anthem about love, broken hearts and death in the overblown way it’s supposed to go, so that we can keep singing songs about it.

Unless, perhaps, Cceruleann aren’t singing about love and heartbreak at all. Perhaps they’re actually making a point about work and obsession; about how we’re driven on by what we believe we ought to do, whether it’s grinding our lives to dust in a thankless job or slowly crushing ourselves to exhaustion against people and causes which simply don’t love us back. In this light, the song shifts into something different and more ambivalent – a sweet-sounding lemming-march, a chant for the worker bees who strive until they stumble and end and are swept aside for the next ones. Perhaps I’m imagining it. If so, it’s only because I don’t ever quite trust Cceruleann to play straight.

Cceruleann: ‘Hearts Stop’
Holy Underground Recordings/Bandcamp
Download-only single
Released: 10th July 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Cceruleann online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

REVIEW – Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’ single, 2012 (“waiting to be wrong-footed”)

6 Jun
Cceruleann: 'Fucking Wind'

Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’

In love and on the road: it should be sweet. Instead, you’re continually waiting to be wrong-footed.

First, there’s the music – electronic dream-pop of a multiple-nostalgic kind. The tune is balmy. The blipping synth lines, the crude keyboard beats, the hiccuping voice cut-ups are all from ’80s sample pop. That dazed, wet-gossamer female vocal and the smudge of stretched-out organ goo (swirling from speaker to speaker), draws inspiration from shoegazery and similar blissful-nauseous mid-’90s psychedelia. The puffed hints of melodica and the yawns of bass swim in from first-generation post-punk; or perhaps I’ve just been drawn into the dream, and am imagining them.

Then there’s the song itself. A girl in a car, savouring the moment, coos the simplest, most sugary lover’s line. “It’s OK, baby, don’t worry / ‘cos we’re driving with the summer breeze in my face.” That’s it. There are four more words in the entire lyric, one of which is “ethereal.”

Finally, lurking around the corner like a mugger-in-waiting, there’s that blunt instrument of a title. It’s already plastered all over the cover art. You keep expecting it to come down hard and smash the reverie. Or, alternatively, for everything to turn metaphysical and carnal as the gale hits, the cuteness ends, the car pulls over and everyone starts rutting in the back seat.

For something so light and fluffy on the surface, Cceruleann’s debut single throws up plenty of confusion. Even more subtext gets plastered in when you discover that the band are a brother-and-sister duo (instrumentalist Elliot, singer Marilyn). If I were you, I’d do my best to ignore that for now. In some ways, that’s easy to carry out: though moving together in musical step, Elliott and Marilyn sound as if they’re musing in different worlds. Along the way, some of Marilyn’s words are caught up and shredded, then tossed like happy litter in the wake of the tune. As for that title, it never arrives in the song. The f-bomb remains undetonated. Have they scammed us? Did they just get sick of their own song and punish it with a sarcastic name?

Or perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place. Maybe the real story is about the other person who’s out on that drive – perhaps listening to this endless burble of contentment and seething, their knuckles clenched white on the wheel or wrapped tight around the knees, wondering once again why it’s so impossible to see how another person sees, to feel their feelings, comprehend their tastes… even to understand how you can get through a single day of being with them anymore. Maybe the romance of the playful summer wind is lost along with that. As it teases and strokes at cheekbones, perhaps on the other side of the car it’s whipping petulantly at a cowlick; and while fringe blows aggressively into eyes, and as love heads into the sour spot for good, perhaps something vile is being muttered into that uncaring breeze.

Cceruleann: ‘Fucking Wind’
Holy Underground Recordings/Bandcamp
Download-only single
released 14 May 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Cceruleann online:
Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’ single, 2011 (“a slow jam that’s strayed”)

6 Jun
Elephant: 'Allured/Actors'

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’

“Oh, hello, / I’m a never-ever-let-it-show – / But I know that you know. / Maybe I should let it, let it show…”

On past evidence Elephant have a knack for drawing us in while admitting to little. Their debut single mingled dream-pop with reggae and industrial chill, and cold electronics with fairy-tale flashes. They ride on a solid understanding of black pop, yet constantly swerve away from it into Euro-cool whiteness. They readily confuse, and they excel in oblique feelings – perhaps they can’t help it. Amelia’s blank singing, their aloof and obscure post-punk textures, their taste for quick-cut lyrics and surreal, visual word-imagery… while their work so far is memorable, all of it’s a conundrum. Yet for a moment, on this second single, everything is clearer.

With only the subtlest indie-pop bleachings and dream-pop shadings, Allured is an R’n’B piano ballad: plain and simple. There’s the deep, minimal support of bass. There’s the gaps, space and swat of a heavy-lidded slow sex-beat; the sparse flick of tambourine like a shimmying skirt-fringe. Essentially it’s a slow jam that’s strayed out of the dance club in its heels and skintights, taken a wrong turning past the taxi rank, and been painlessly swallowed by Elephant’s dreamy way of doing things. In the video we watch as voyeurs as Amelia and Christian languidly nuzzle and smooch each other – lengthily, and uninterruptedly. Either they’re answering that “are-they-aren’t-they?” question that’s hung around Elephant since the beginning, or they’re very committed to the world of this particular song.

Whether Elephant have simply been infected by R’n’B’s outright and intoxicated sexuality, or whether they’ve swallowed it deliberately, is open to question. I suspect the latter. Few areas of twenty-first century pop haven’t rolled over and submitted to R’n’B’s sweaty vigour and its gobby, blinged-up sex’n’suss’n’opportunity confidence. While some diehard indie-poppers might still scream and scrub it off; or cling to older schools of soul, Elephant see a good thing and slurp it up, embracing and engulfing it in their turn. So here they are, reaching out greedily into the wide-open mainstream while happily sunk in obsession, drunk with sensuality.

Only the lyrics retain that peculiar Elephantine distortion. Amelia rolls the words around on her tongue, dabbing them with glottal stops and her own strange short-circuiting shifts of accent or syntax, whether wriggling into a tangled lick of coyness, circling orgasm (“our own anatomy, so I find the path – my brain / it carousels instantly, drives me to insane,”) or swimming in a stupor of surrendered identity (“I dreamt he’d written me… He took me away, crossed me away from the crowd…”) By rights, this clotted wordplay should cripple the song. Instead it lolls sexily across the beat, as if on the brink of falling out of bed.

Then the B-side – Actors – throws us right off the scent. Same old Elephant; entirely different set of clothes. Rather than the wallow of bass and beats, here are acoustic guitars on the strum, a skinny ice-rink organ, and a dose of fast-paced pop soufflé which chuffs around its drum track like a toy steam train. It’s a tune for people in mini-dresses to run around Paris to, or chase summer bicycles through Spanish Harlem. Once again, Amelia’s dazed delivery and tangled string of lyrics ensure that it keeps the Elephant stamp.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what she’s singing about this time – “hop around aimlessly, simply surrender to time. /Animations out past under the feet, imitating a shadow spine.” Somehow the words fall into place as she sings of paying the rent “with a monogram eye” or murmurs about “the highest apple in the tree.” Perhaps, like many of the best and sexiest club hook-ups, it’s just a happy accident.

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’
Memphis Industries, MI0193S/D
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 18th July 2011

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries.

Elephant online:
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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.

Elephant online:
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April 2012 – album reviews – Komatsu’s ‘Komatsu’ (“a cats-cradle of skittering percussion, controlled screech and speeding draglines”)

30 Apr

Komatsu: 'Komatsu'

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’

This profusion of rock power duos – it must be viral. Surgically-reduced, punked-down, jazzed-up, math-rocking or swampy… they seem to be filling plenty of gaps. Pick one of them out, and it’s usually a drum-and-guitar pairing minus the bass, or otherwise a guitarless bass-and-drum coupling. What’s triggering this? The window-rattling scrunch championed by Death From Above 1979? The teasing-twosome model set up years ago by The White Stripes? Basic economics? The old Robert Fripp idea of smaller, mobile, more intelligent units, which in more austere times may exert more of a pull?

Anyway…

Komatu fit – very loosely and fiercely – the last of these options. A drums-and-guitar duo of Finnish rock improvisers, they’ve set themselves up to be as expansive as possible. They seem to use their lack of a bass guitar as a kind of invisible fulcrum: an absence which they can both pull away from and can curve back to compensate for. Having a bass would just pin them down, render them linear; when what they actually want to do is stretch themselves over every possible angle of orbit. In the absence of those root notes – those stolid map-pins of rhythms and root – both and neither of the two musician strive to offer something else, containing their wildness only by a teasing instinct for where the brinksmanship stops.

Komatsu are also unsentimental about naming their music. Most of the time, number placements will do instead, and you can bring your own interpretations to the party. Neither of the duo themselves are inclined to give away much in the way of meaning. The music itself, however, is anything but dispassionate. Even on those occasions when it turns mathematical, the numbers swarm like killer bees, waiting to plunge into brief resolutions and then dance away again.

Unusually, much of the time the lead instrument is Jussi Miettola’s drumkit. Hinting at and ducking around rhythms more often than simply holding them, his distinctive playing is busy, expansive and never less than exciting. It’s almost – but not quite – free jazz. It’s heavy on the sonic possibilities of the top kit with its dryness and its imperative rattle, sometimes bursting into vigorous splatters of bass drum and cymbal; coursing easily between Art Blakey, thrash metal and points in between.

Guitarist Juha-Pekka Linna plunges his guitar into a mass of loops, mechanisms and pulverizing crystallised distortion. The results run a broad gamut between a taut dry rattle (like spasming rockabilly) and a screeching cyclonic blizzard of rotating noise. In spite of this whipped-to-chaos approach, it’s often him who ends up holding Komatsu’s pieces in shape. His loops become binders – circumscribing the duo’s wilder flights, defining their narrow tones and furiously tight patterns.

On the Intro, fractured jazz chords on guitar wrestle with snare-scrabbling free drumming; an initial spideriness which is gradually bolstered and transformed by smudges of trippy, expectant backwards guitar. This in turn suddenly inflates and hunches up in a blur of warm overwhelming fuzz into jubilant, wing-whirring psychedelic noise. As Komatsu move directly on into First, it’s all swapped for a fold-over of psychedelic guitar echo; chattering in the teeth of an imagined gale, billowing itself out of shape. An expert roaming roll around Jussi’s toms adds another dimension of tension.

As Jussi and Juha-Pekka work away at the piece, it escalates into a panning tornado-swirl of layered guitars and rattling drums, brittle and yet overwhelming in its pent-up force. You imagine a man swinging rocks round and round in a bucket, waiting for that instinctive moment when he can open his grip and let everything fly. This never quite arrives, but Komatsu’s cats-cradle of skittering percussion, controlled screech and speeding draglines keeps you hanging in anticipation until that imaginary gale finally, rapidly, falters and dies.

For Second, Komatsu tone down the surge. A West African-inspired walking rhythm, played out on guttural post-punk guitar, tramps on against increasingly furious stick-and-tom rattles burst from the drums: Jussi’s decisive and pointed breaks make a one-sided musical conversation. There’s nearly two-and-a-half minutes of this dynamic sparseness, and then the faintest whisper of sound creeps in and gradually rears up in a veil-sweep of celestial noise guitar. As this grows and billows to hang above the tune, like a grand valance or a deathly Mellotron chord, the mood grows grimmer. Inexorably, the African stroll is overwhelmed by ever-increasing bass smudges. That Mellotronic chord eventually drives the music towards a waiting cliff. They have a certain taste for threat, then.

While much of hard improvisation sounds like a wrestling match (with cascades and grapples of angry notes) Komatsu’s version is more like a stalking, or an illustration of danger. Places once safe begin to flood. Confusing shadows blight the landscape. Situations turn uncomfortable.

Nothing For Money (the only Komatsu song with a name) broods like a dark Western, Juha-Pekka initially restricting himself to giant Morricone-esque guitar pluckings over Jussi’s uncharacteristically miserly, mathematical pick-out of drum parts. A second Jussi, jazzier and looser, plays against himself in the background, filtering dustily through a radio speaker like a memory of easier times. This, too, is gradually overwhelmed. The guitar begins to shucks out backward swells again. The drumming becomes more counterpointed, more belligerent.

With its uncomfortable, weirdly perpendicular funk-clank full of disassociated fragments (drum points, spacebar chinks), Third sounds like hip-hop might have sounded had it been invented and played by Can. It has an alienating quality: a kind of stern party music, pushing you into painful shapes. Juha-Pekka’s main guitar part is squashed flatter than wallpaper. Another of his lines drags a jangling siren motif up and down. With this spiraling in the foreground, a distant heavy-metal grind (colossal, but given quietness by distance) moves into place, by which time the drum parts have turned metallic too. The finale is an unexpected drop-away into fifteen gurgling seconds of distress call.

Fourth is split into two different and distinct parts. The first part draws on avant-garde ideas from contemporary classical ideas – vicious thunks of the lowest possible piano notes; groans and distracted orchestral growls from the guitar processes. These in turn are bled into chance noises: an airy temple-bell dings and chimes, and there’s the clear close-up sound of someone rolling coins or ball bearings around the studio. Some reflective menace is added by baleful post-rock guitar tinges and ear-filling fog-banks of sub-bass.

Suddenly, Jussi explodes into the second part with a tight lash of cymbals and a stream of West Coast power-punk drumming. There’s a scourge of rapid-strum guitar, at thrash-metal intensity, but without the rhythmic restlessness. Bar by bar, it rises up the chromatic scale while subliminal keyboard figures sketch moving arpeggios behind it, before the whole thing finally hits a crash-barrier of static.

On the final track (which, with typical Komatsu insouciance, is just called Last) the boys let their hair down. A skating buzz of static synthesizer serves as a continuo; Juha-Pekka’s wet and warbling science-guitar figures provide something like a melody. Halfway through, the emphasis shifts and the music morphs woozily elsewhere. The synth buzz become a deep bass drone; the guitar patterns become drips in the background, while the melodic role is taken by whooping varispeed notes.

From brood to fun-ride, sometimes two is all you need. There’s certainly not much missing from this fierce bout of inventiveness.

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’
Komatsu (self released, no catalogue number or barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 24th April 2012

Get it from:
CD available directly from Komatsu; download available from iTunes.

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November 2011 – EP reviews – Elephant’s ‘Assembly’ (“how the war is contained”)

20 Nov

Elephant: 'Assembly'

Elephant: ‘Assembly’

Though Elephant’s Amelia and Christian actually hail from semi-rural English idylls (Pontefract and Stroud), their band is a London band and behaves like one. Rather, it presents itself in the way many pop bands made in London by incomers tend to. There’s something a little guarded about Elephant’s music – detailed and consuming notes from the inner life versus a chilly, self-constructed poise. It’s difficult to see which side is winning. It’s interesting seeing how the war is contained.

Two previous singles, ‘Ants’ and ‘Allured’, have dabbled in pop-reggae and R’n’B respectively, merging these with Amelia’s dazed and distorted lyricism and Christian’s avant-garde dream-pop trickery. With ‘Assembly’, Elephant now seem to be moving into more mainstream territories – more Anglo or European, certainly a little whiter. Think of a tranquillized Yazoo strained through 1960s West Coast pop; and then through the submarine guitar rills of Cocteau Twins, Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. Think of a poppier yet more introspective Broadcast.

Think, also, of slow-paced black and white movies in which no-one seems to do much. While most synth-pop blazes outwards, Elephant’s blanched-out songs (offhanded in manner but carefully constructed) are always on the verge of collapsing inwards. Smooth swatches of organ, pulses of vintage keyboard and a solid sense of classic pop songwriting provide their work with an anchorage. But even when the synth trills and frills are at their liveliest, Elephant are increasingly trading in infinite shades of grey – monochrome filigree, slanted shadows, deadened responses. Amelia’s hopeless, surrendered sigh should be the band’s weak point, flattening Elephant’s pop soar into a graceful, endless nose-dive. In practise, those last drops of romance which cling to her resignation render the songs that much more intriguing.

Within the songs, the band’s brains are ticking away even when they sound as if they’re dazed by cough-mixture hangovers. Under its icy shrouding, Assembly pop-bops and puppy-bounces like The Teardrop Explodes; but still takes its medication straight to a frozen heart, anatomizing and dissecting the impact of closeness gone wrong. “It’s like a disease,” complains Amelia. “Think too hard, the brain goes cold.” While she’s dishing out a few sharp survival tips amongst the scalloped echoes and fairy-dust twinkles – “don’t dwell on who won’t dwell over you” – most of the song is convalescence and consolidation. “I have a mind,” she muses, pulling herself in. “The rest is numb, just a skeleton.”

The deeper into the EP you go, the further Elephant conceal outright emotion under festoons of Cocteau Twins guitar, blood-pulse synth and studied blankness. This is happening even as the lines they deliver lean more and more towards the romantic. Even the desert island setting of Shipwrecked doesn’t cut the chill. Amelia wanders through blurs of physicality (“shuffle, ricochet on the ground”), then fails to connect (“don’t try to confuse me again, / you speak so slow, sand falls on my head”) and finally all but gives up (“What’s the point of time? It dissolves in the sea. / If you sail with the tide, will you shipwreck back to me?”) While Christian’s sounds trail and spiral onwards, Amelia chases a half-stunned chorus – “that’s where my heart, the rest of my heart is” – as if grasping after a pair of slow-moving balloons.

The imperious blast of keyboards at the start of Hopeless herald an out-and-out dizzy love song. It’s part classic ’60s girl-group, part hi-NRG synth-pop. In its way – in Elephant’s particular way – it’s even quite triumphant. Elephant’s way, though, usually involves some kind of collapse. Amelia spins through the middle of the song, twirling like a stray leaf, sounding happy to be blown around by feeling. “Hopeless I know, I sway to and fro – / I can’t hide from you.”

But by the end of the EP, Elephant are hiding out. At Twilight is a step back to their earlier, artier work: from its swallowed-up chorused vocals and witch-queen intro, to its deathly pace and dreamy lyrics about a “circus moon”, it’s also deep trip-hop collapsing into Gothwave. A bass pulse lags and limps outside of the funereal beat: Amelia stares at her hands and murmurs “I need to leave, but I don’t know how,” as a foam of feedback gradually fills up the space. Inner life boiling over? Perhaps. Elephant play a teasing game with their songwriting tensions. It makes us keep listening.

Elephant: ‘Assembly’
Memphis Industries, MI0200CD/D
CD/download EP
released: 14th November 2011

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries.

Elephant online:
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December 2010 – album reviews – Various Artists ‘Leader of the Starry Skies – A Tribute to Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ (“an unmapped musical crossroads… one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable”)

20 Dec
Various Artists: 'Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1'

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’

Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.

In June 2008, en route back from a My Bloody Valentine concert, the world fell in for Tim Smith. A sudden heart attack (and in immediate cruel succession, a pair of devastating strokes) failed to kill him, but only just. Now he’s in long-term recuperation, condemned to that long wait in the margins. With his damaged body now his enemy, his brain’s left to flick over the days until something – anything – gets better and his luck turns. This is a sad story. Even sadder, given that many similar stories must shuffle out of hospitals every month.

There’s an extra layer of pain here in that for over four decades Tim Smith was a dedicated, compulsive fount and facilitator of music. As the singer, composer and main player of some of the most eerily intense, unique and cryptic songs ever recorded, he sat at an unmapped musical crossroads where apparently incompatible musics met. In turn, his songs were hymnal, punky and part-classical; shot through with crashing guitars, keyboard trills and mediaeval reeds; festooned with swings and changes. They were sometimes choral, or full of martial pomp or playground squabble. They were sometimes ghostly. They were a damned ecstatic racket, or a parched and meditative whisper. With what’s now become a brutal irony they also frequently fluttered, quizzically, across the distinctions of life and death; sometimes seeing little separation between the two states, sometimes hovering somewhere in between; sometimes seeing as much meaning in the wingbeat of a stray insect as in the scrambling for human significance.

Tim’s rich and puzzled perspective on life and the weave of the world travelled out to a fervent cult following via a sprouting tree of projects – the quaking mind-mash rock of Cardiacs; the psychedelic folk of Sea Nymphs, the tumbledown explorations of Oceanland World or Spratleys Japs. In addition (and belying the manic, infantile mood-swings of his onstage persona) the man was generous of himself. Via sound production, video art or simple encouragement, his influence and peculiar energy spread from feisty indie rock bands right across to New Music performers and bedroom-studio zealots. It spread far wider than his nominally marginal status would suggest. For all of this, Smith never received adequate reward or overground recognition for these years of effort – another sting in the situation (though, having always been a stubborn goat, he’s probably dismissed it).

Yet if he’s been slender of pocket, he’s proved to be rich in love. His praises may not have been sung by the loudest of voices, but they are sung by a scrappy and vigorous mongrel choir, scattered around the houses. The Smith influence haunts cramped edit suites and backwater studios. It lingers in the scuffed shells of old ballrooms, and in the intimate acoustics of a handful of cramped Wren churches in London: it’s soaked into the battered ash-and-beer-stained sound desks of rock pubs. Most particularly, it lives in the memories of thirty years of backroom gigs where people baffled at, laughed at and finally yelled along with the giddy psychological pantomime of a Cardiacs concert; and where they lost their self-consciousness and finally stumbled away with their armour discarded.

And now, all silenced?

No.

In many cases, these same people who yelled and sang from the audience (or, onstage, from beside Tim) would go on to form bands which demonstrated that three chords and a crude truth was far too blunt a brush with which to paint a picture of the world. All of this outgoing wave of energy comes rolling back with a vengeance on ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’. Put together by Bic Hayes (best known for galactic guitar in Levitation and Dark Star, but in his time a Cardiac) and Jo Spratley (Tim’s former foil in Spratleys Japs), it’s an album of Smith cover versions in which every penny of profit going back to raise money for Tim’s care. In effect, it’s swept up many of those people who sang along with Tim Smith over the years (all grown up now, and numbering characters as diverse as The Magic Numbers, Julianne Regan and Max Tundra) and brought them back for visiting hours.

And they sang outside his window, and they sang in the corridors; and from the ponds and rivers, from the windows of tower blocks and from lonely cottages…

Given Tim Smith’s own eclecticism, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ is one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable. Despite the familial feel, the musical treatments on here vary enormously. Lost broadcasts, festooned in unsettling noise, rub up against stately electric folk. Psychedelic grunge balances out colourful playschool techno. Unaccompanied Early Music recreations drift one way, while centipedal Rock-in-Opposition shapes charge off in another. None of this would work if Tim’s songs – seemingly so resistant – didn’t readily adapt. Anyone can get around the shape of a Neil Young song, a Paul McCartney song or even a Morrissey song for a tribute: but these rampant compositions with their peculiar twists are of a different, wilder order. However, every contributor has managed to embrace not only the unorthodox Smith way with a Jacob’s Ladder tumble of chords but also his dense lyrical babble, which grafts nonsense onto insight and the ancient onto the baby-raw. Everyone involved has striven to gently (or vigorously) tease the songs out of cult corner and bring them to light.

Take, for instance, what The Magic Numbers have done with A Little Man and a House. This anguished Cardiacs ode to the 9-to-5 misfit has never seemed quite so universal, slowly pulling out from one man’s chafing frustration for a panoramic view of a worldful of human cogs. (“And there’s voices inside me, they’re screaming and telling me ‘that’s the way we all go.’ / There’s thousands of people just like me all over, but that’s the way we all go.”) The original’s pained South London squawk and huffing machinery noises are replaced by Romeo Stodart’s soft American lilt, while massed weeping clouds of piano and drums summon up an exhausted twilight in the Monday suburbs. Likewise, when Steven Wilson (stepping out of Porcupine Tree for a moment) sighs his way through a marvelously intuitive and wounded solo version of Stoneage Dinosaurs, he takes Tim’s hazy memories of childhood fairgrounds and incipient loss and makes them glisten like rain on a car mirror while sounding like the saddest thing in the world. Even with Wilson’s own formidable reputation behind him, this is immediately one of the finest things he’s ever done – an eerie ripple through innocence; a sudden, stricken look of grief flitting for a moment across a child’s face.

Three of the covers have added poignancy from being connected to ends, to new beginnings, or to particular paybacks. When Oceansize abruptly split up at the peak of their powers, their final word as a band turned out to be Fear (this album’s loving cover of an obscure Spratleys Japs track). Rather than their usual muscular and careening psychedelic brain-metal, they render this song as a soft-hued exit, a fuzzed-up tangle of fairy lights which wanders hopefully down pathways as they gently peter out. Conversely, glammy Britpop anti-heroes Ultrasound set an acrimonious decade-old split behind them and reformed especially to record for this project. Their whirling clockwork version of the Cardiacs anthem Big Ship is all boxed-in and wide-eyed. It bobs along like a toy theatre while the band fire off first pain (“the tool, the tool, forever falling down / planes against the grain of the wood / for the box, for my soul / and my aching heart,”) and ultimately burst into the kind of incoherent, hymnal inclusiveness which was always a Cardiacs trademark – “All of the noise / takes me to the outside where there’s all /creations, joining in / celebrating happiness and joy; /all around the world, / on land and in the sea.” It seems to have worked for them – they sound truly renewed.

Some of Tim Smith’s songs have a strangely mediaeval tone or texture to them, and some have a twist of eerie folk music. These attract different interpretations. Foundling was once a particularly bereft and fragile Cardiacs moment: an orphaned, seasick love-song trawled up onto the beach. Accompanied by elegant touches of piano and guitar, the genteel art-rockers Stars in Battledress transform it into a heartfelt, change-ringing English bell-round. North Sea Radio Orchestra travel even further down this particular line – their bright tinkling chamber music sweeps up the hammering rock parade of March and turns it into a sprightly, blossoming cortege. Packing the tune with bells, bassoon and string quartet, they dab it with minimalism and a flourishing Purcell verve: Sharron Fortnam’s frank and childlike soprano clambers over the darker lyrics and spins them round the maypole.

Deeper into folk, Katherine Blake (of Mediaeval Baebes) and Julianne Regan (the shape-shifting frontwoman for All About Eve and Mice) each take an eerie acoustic Sea Nymphs fragment and rework it on their own. Julianne’s version of the children’s dam-building song Shaping the River adds rattling tambourine, drowsy slide guitar and a warm murmur of voice: it’s as if the faded lines of the song had washed up like a dead leaf at her feet, ready to be reconstructed at folk club. (“Pile some sticks and pile some mud and some sand. / Leave the ends wide, / three against the side, / plug the heart of flow.”) Katherine’s narcotic a-cappella version of Up in Annie’s Room might have shown up at the same concert. A world away from the pealing cathedral organ of the original, it slips away into empty space in between its gusts of eerie deadened harmonizing and Tim’s sleepy, suggestive cats-cradle of words (“Fleets catch your hair on fire. / The fleet’s all lit up – flags, flame on fire…”)

Max Tundra, in contrast, sounds very much alive and fizzing. His pranktronica version of the brutal Will Bleed Amen re-invents it as delightfully warm and loopy Zappa-tinted techno. Its abrupt air-pocketed melody opens out like a sped-up clown car: when a convoluted cone of lyrics punches his voice up and sticks it helpless to the ceiling, former Monsooon Bassoon-er Sarah Measures is on hand to provide a cool clear vocal balance, as well as to build a little open cage of woodwind at the heart of the rush. It’s a terrific reinvention, but perhaps not the album’s oddest turnaround. That would be courtesy of Rose Kemp and Rarg – one a striving indie-rock singer and blood-heir to the Steeleye Span legacy, the other the laptop-abusing keyboard player with Smokehand. Rose is a Cardiacs interpreter with previous form: this time she’s fronting a forbidding glitch-electronica version of Wind And Rains Is Cold with all of the cute reggae bounce and innocence pummeled out of it. While Rarg flattens and moves the scenery around in baleful planes, Rose delivers the nursery-rhyme lyric with a mixture of English folk stridency and icy Germanic hauteur, uncorking its elliptical menace as she does – “Now you remember, children, how blessed are the pure in heart – / want me to take ’em up and wash ’em good?… / Hide your hair, it’s waving all lazy and soft, / like meadow grass under the flood.”

While most of the musicians on ‘Leader…’ could cite Tim Smith as an influence, Andy Partridge was a influence on Tim himself, way back in his XTC days. Three-and-a-half decades later he repays the appreciation by guesting on the dusky autumnal spin which The Milk & Honey Band‘s Robert White gives to a Sea Nymphs song, Lilly White’s Party. Redolent with regret (for more innocent times, before a fall), it covers its eyes and turns away from the shadows falling across the hillside. Partridge’s deep backing vocals add an extra thrum of sympathy: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel, let’s not open that can of worms, / Let’s not say what we did, and play by ear. / Back to square one…”

The backbone of ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies’ however, comes from the contributions of former Cardiacs players reconnecting with the family songbook. As with any family over time, they’re scattered. One of the earliest members, Pete Tagg, now drums for The Trudy, who take the bucketing psychedelic charge of Day is Gone and offer a more down-to-earth spin on it for the indie disco, keeping that heady chromatic slide of chorus but adding a suspiciously blues-rock guitar solo and Melissa Jo Heathcote’s honeyed vocals. One of the more recent Cardiacs additions, Kavus Torabi, brings his band Knifeworld to the party. He hauls a particularly involved and proggy Cardiacs epic – The Stench of Honey – back through a 1970s Henry Cow filter of humpbacked rhythms, woodwind honks, baby squeaks and rattletrap percussion. Double-strength art rock, it could have been a precious step too far. Instead, it’s triumphant, its skeletal circular chamber music salad-tossed by stomping bursts and twitches of joy.

Onetime Cardiacs keyboard player William D. Drake offers a gentler, kinder tribute, taking the shanty-rhythms of Savour and spinning them out into soft Edwardiana with harmonium, ukulele and a gently bobbing piano finale. Drake’s predecessor Mark Cawthra brings an eerie sense of pain to his own cover version: back in the earliest days, he was Tim Smith’s main foil, playing lively keyboards and drums as well as sharing the bumper-car vocals. Now he sounds like the head mourner, taking on the heavy tread of Let Alone My Plastic Doll and sousing it with Vanilla Fudge-slow organ, doubled guitar solos and sigh-to-wail vocals. The twitchy, baby-logic lyrics are slowly overwhelmed by an undercurrent of grief, but the kind of grief that can only come from a older, wiser man.

Under his Mikrokosmos alias, Bic Hayes takes on Cardiacs’ biggest near-hit (Is This The Life) and subjects it to startling psychedelic noise-storms and industrial drum twirling. In the process, he shakes out and enhances its original pathos. Blown splay-limbed into a corner by a tornado of white noise, plug-in spatters and buzzing malfunctions, Bic’s voice is nasal, lost and forlorn. It sings of split and rootless identity against a wall of forbidding harmonium: “Looking so hard for a cause, and it don’t care what it is; / and never really ever seeing eye to eye / though it doesn’t really mind. / Perhaps that’s why / it never really saw.” Although Jo Spratley coos reassurance under ululations of alto feedback, Bic still ends up cowering like a damaged crane-fly under showers of distorted harpsichords and Gothic synths. Bewitchingly damaged.

The last word goes to The Scaramanga Six, the swaggering Yorkshire theatricalists who were the main beneficiaries of Smith production work before the accident. By their usual meaty standards, the Six’s take on The Alphabet Business Concern (Cardiacs’ tongue-in-cheek corporate anthem, packed to the gunwales with flowery salutes) initially seems cowed, as if flattened by dismay and sympathy at Tim’s misfortune. But it doesn’t end there. Starting tremulous and hushed, with nothing but the embers of faith to keep it up, it builds gradually from tentative acoustic guitars and hiding vocals up through a gradual build of electric instruments, feeding in and gaining strength: “and now the night of weeping shall be / the morn of song…” Over the course of the anthem the Six go from crumpled to straightened to proud cheat-beating life. By the end, the recording can hardly contain their vigorous Peter Hammill bellows, as they sweep out in a grand procession with rolling guitars, pianos and extended Cardiacs choirs. It’s a stirring, defiant finale to an album that’s done everything it could to blow away the ghosts of helplessness and to charge up not just an armful of Smith songs but, in its way, a vivid sense of Smith. He might have taken a bad, bad fall; but the humming and rustling vitality of the music, the way that it’s become a spray of vivid lively tendrils reaching far and wide, is an enormous reassurance.

Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.

Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’
Believer’s Roast, BR003 (5060243820372)
CD/vinyl/download album
Released: 13th December 2010

Buy it from:
Genepool (CD) or iTunes (download)

Tim Smith online:
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‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ online:
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October 2008 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Some of These Numbers Mean Something’ (“once engaged in perpetual fall, now they roam”)

10 Oct

Darkroom: 'Some Of These Numbers Mean Something'

Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

14 Sep

Resindust: 'Resindust'

Resindust: ‘Resindust’

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

Shape-shifter, meet Trusty.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tony Harn online:
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Lewis Gill online:
Homepage MySpace

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

10 Aug
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spratleys Japs online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM

August 2000 – album reviews – Rudy Simone’s ‘To Put the Sun Back in the Sky’ (“shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat”)

19 Aug

record-rudysimone-putthesun

Shot through with aftershocks of abandonment, dispossession, self-doubt and the battle to stay afloat, Rudy Simone’s debut album doesn’t resolve the questions she’s raised before. It doesn’t round off those battleworn displays of uneasy heart from the previous year’s ‘Personal Cloud‘ EP, nor does it offer clear clues about where she’ll be travelling in the future.

Fresh as she sounds, Rudy already has plenty of past. Originally from Buffalo, New York State (where, as Rita Seitz, she sang in various obscure bands during the early 1980s) she turned emotional refugee later in life and crossed the Atlantic to Liverpool, where her own songs emerged amid a landscape of acoustic sessions and nightclub rushes. Most debut albums are a statement, however crude. This one’s a scrambling steeplechase across Rudy’s emotions and her spiritual restlessness. It stays true to the disruptive collisions between the life singing in the head and the life that lurks outside. What ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ resembles most is an attempt to wrap up Rudy’s fraught baggage in a big, unwieldy brown paper package; to tie it together with guitar strings and beats, to spray it with disco glitter and then set it free somewhere down the Mersey. Drifting seawards, it comes unstuck and reveals itself.

Attempting to cram in all her gushes of inspiration, Rudy ends up with a confusing whole. Seemingly at random, songs appear in alternate acoustic and instrumental alternate versions; there are two takes on the eerie Kill The Cult Of Cool single, and a trancier reworking of Personal Cloud. ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ ends up as an anxious, fractured goodie-bag, unsure about whether floaty beats are better than strumming, and telling repeated stories in different tones. Don’t expect track-by-track coherence – but do expect plenty of understated feeling, a maverick DIY pop sense in full effect, and some determined songcraft. This album is a necklace-worth of interesting, often touching episodes.

In some respects, Rudy fits in with that rough wave of confessional women emerging in the 1990s via trip-hop and indie rock, including the two Beths (Gibbons and Orton) and Juliana Hatfield. There are some similarities to Jane Siberry; though Rudy is more loosely strung, she shares elliptical, Siberryesque feminine perspectives, blown about by impressions and finding solid little truths in the midst of abstraction. But for my money the artist whom she’s closest to is Lida Husik. Both Rudy and Lida resist committing themselves to any one musical approach or way of looking; both seem suspicious of tradition or sturdy craftsmanship. As with Husik, Rudy’s wispily sweet vocal belies her determination to discover and envision things her own way, learning from time and from chance. Both, too, are peripatetic and intuitive to a fault: they’re both quite prepared to walk into mires of embarrassing self-conscious fluff if that’s where an idea takes them (in Rudy’s case, a misplaced James Brown tribute called Bony Little, giddy and apologetic, in which she bangs on forever about her skinny white ass).

For this album, the club dance elements have triumphed in Rudy’s big bag of sounds – as they did on Husik’s ‘Green Blue Fire’ album four years previously. Techno producer Sheldon Southworth, a.k.a Diffusion, is a vital collaborator for half the album. He’s the Beaumont Hannant to Rudy’s Husik, adding his own club-friendly trance sparkle to hers and replacing guitars with the zing of electronics. For The Secret Sayings Of Jesus, Rudy whispers god-inside Gnostic philosophy, floating it like evangelical thistledown over Diffusion’s bright trance beats and aquatic keyboard textures. Despite her trippy tones, hypnotically soft, the chant is a desperate prayer rather than navel-gazing. It’s a counterpoint to the other songs, which make up a travelogue of delusions to be overcome in oneself or endured from others.

Vanity’s Car perks its way through cheerful Euro-trance and Soft Cell gurgles, but Rudy’s lyrics dwell on how the wrong kind of excitement can lessen a person’s grasp on reality – “amazing how far you’ll go when you lose control – / I’ve got to get out on my feet / and be the things I always wanted to be.” The fallout is clear: “I might be sitting in your living room / but I might as well be in another country,” Rudy protests on Can’t Go There. “You can drive if you wanna, but I prefer to stay on my feet… / ‘cos you’re so blind, you can’t see that it’s right across the street.” Warm swelling synths, glinting funk-wah guitar, and house piano echo that communal gospel glory which Primal Scream tapped on Come Together. Rudy’s own hopes of connection, though, are dissolving.

While Diffusion’s contributions are valuable, there’s no question that Rudy remains convincing on her own. The brief pure-dance diversion of Mentallium hurls rapid drum’n’bass kitfire headlong into chilly trance electronica: to wild things up a little, Rudy mixes twitchy diva calls, jazzy double bass and kettle drums into the instrumental. Out on the other edge of her music, she abandons beats and boxes. A blues-y acoustic guitar version of Vanity’s Car brings its warnings closer to the surface, no longer masked by shiny bodywork. Part pop-plaint, but mostly blues rant, the all-acoustic Water’s Edge sees the banalities of love (“Sometimes I’d like to kill him, / but I always gotta thrill him”) splinter in a glare of rage. Wailing like a cross between PJ Harvey and Etta James, Rudy walks the shoreline, grappling with a moment of agonising choice. Violence is poised within her, ready to strike inwards or outwards, and only the lone conscious voice of the song cries out against it. “Don’t go, you’ll only make your mama cry / Don’t go, you’ll only fuck your baby’s mind.”

As a single, Kill The Cult Of Cool got lost in the no-budget wilds which sank so many others; yet its emotional hop-skip-and-jump was a remarkable coming-together of ideas and instinct. It still is. Broody horror synths, laceworks of folk guitar and a patchwork of voice snippets quilt together into something haunted, defiant and transformative. In keeping with the rest of the album’s repetitions and revisitings, the song gets a double outing (the Derision Mix transforms it into radiophonic electro-funk replete with glitchy scratching and whooshing, frothing Vangelis synth splurge) but it’s the original that really matters. Something of a signature song for Rudy ever since it first showed up on ‘Personal Cloud‘, its cohesive spirit remains clear as its splintered voices ask for compassion, pray for guidance, plant down stubborn feet. “I was the quiet one in school, never made any trouble,” stammers a sampled man; “I don’t care what you say, I’m not crazy,” Rudy adds quietly. It’s full of struggle, though never precisely clear what that struggle is – the claw back to sanity out of the creeping horrors? a defense of alternative thinkers and scapegoats? – yet it’s also affecting in a way in which few things that I hear are.

The spine of the album, though, is the title track and Personal Cloud. The former’s a grieving white-girl rap about a marriage snapped violently in half: here, Rudy sounds as soft-spoken but as wide-awake’n’dreaming as Margaret Fiedler does while puzzling out dreams in Laika. Almost cushioned by the pain, she lets moments of heartbreaking reproach crest over it and into the words: when she murmurs “you say you’re following your heart / I say fear has played a much bigger part”, real agony glints. In a new take on Personal Cloud (remixed by M@2K into radar blips, ambient funk and blue-light electronics) more displaced degrees of mourning are added to Rudy’s grapple with addictions, love and loneliness (“I wrap my lips around a cigarette instead of you…”). Her voice flutters, weightless and bereft: a hydrogen balloon un-anchored by faithless hands.

Maybe ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’ is not the album Rudy Simone’s capable of. It’s more like several different shots at an album: all crowded into the kitchen together, taking anxious and uncomfortable refuge. No clear clues; a spinning signpost; but indications of an effective, if scattered, talent – one worth investing some love in.

Rudy Simone: ‘To Put The Sun Back In The Sky’
Phat Lady Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R-only album
Released: 2000

Buy it from:
Extremely rare – best found second-hand.

Rudy Simone online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

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

10 Oct
Cipher: 'No Ordinary Man'

Cipher: ‘No Ordinary Man’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed

Cipher online:
Homepage MySpace YouTube

July 1999 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Seethrough’ (“dropping casual, vinegar-dry references while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique”)

22 Jul
Darkroom: 'Seethrough'

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’

Transparent neither in style nor intent, Darkroom’s second album is demanding, mysterious; trickily opaque. This is not an unfamiliar position for this most obscure, obscured and inexplicable of ambient/illbient groups. The billowing instrumentals of Darkroom’s first album, ‘Daylight‘, made their points obliquely through a spray of trip-hop grace, thick detail and industrial derangement. About half of ‘Seethrough’ follows a similar path – baleful/beautiful semi-improvised noisescapes of layered electronics, angrily-stewing loop guitar and naked caress-through-to-howl vocals.

Resident synth necromancer Os fires off ratlike background rattles and spectral drum’n’bass rhythm triggers on the glutinous and dubbed-up Galaxy Craze, a threatening arrhythmic undulation in which Tim Bowness’ minimal, wraith-like subway singing is menaced by a fretless bass guitar part which probes like a giant animal’s tongue. On Charisma Carpenter, old-school ’80s synthpop riffs underpin the dense aviary heat of Michael Bearpark’s textured guitar. These OMD-styled tinklings make an unexpectedly cheerful counterpart to Tim’s lustrous and vaporous vocal chanting, which remains the most bizarre aspect of Darkroom’s music. Singing mere tumbling vowels, or sounds on the edge of becoming words, Tim delivers them with an eerily precise and chilly diction: like droplets of love-song which freeze to alien sleet as soon as they leave his mouth.

In spite of the textural invention and intelligence at work, only Kaylenz hints at the shocking intensity of Darkroom at full, live, improvising intensity. It takes up fourteen sprawling, disorientating minutes of the album, during which the tension between the celestial and the pestilential growing ever more violent. Electronica loops shade upwards into alarm, distorted hospital bells shrill. Mike’s country-toned guitar tang gives way to sharp buzz-edged swarming, while Tim’s vocals travel from weary, loving sorrow to a hysterical pitch of recriminations and a dash of lyrical perversity. Just before Kaylenz steps up – or breaks down – into a chaotic torrent of frighteningly emotional randomness, we hear Tim singing in a lost corner of the studio: a bored, beautiful, detached whisper of “you again, you again – / who’s to blame, if it’s all the same?”


This brings us to the wild card of ‘Seethrough’ – the presentation of Darkroom’s songwriting side, in which they sketch withering surreal portraits of disenchantment and alienation helped along by spacey glissandos of electric slide guitar. They’ve dabbled in words before (on the drum’n’bass/Fripp & Eno soundclash of the Carpetworld single) but here it’s more leisurely, more controlled; more disturbing. In some ways it’s an extension of Tim’s work on the cryptic dark-city musings of No-Man’s ‘Wild Opera’. In others it reflects the burnt-out, amoral contemplations of Tricky’s surreal, spliff-fuelled ‘Maxinquaye’.

If so, this is Tricky as played by Alec Guinness, dropping casual, vinegar-dry references to both Def Leppard and Janet Frame while somehow maintaining a ghostly mystique unhindered by the flapping of library cards. On the bobbing Morricone-meets-Orb dub of King Of The Cowboy Singers, Tim’s guarded, musical speaking voice recites both nonsense and significance to the beat – “trying to find a new life in an old boot, / walking to the new place in your old suit – / the king of the cowboy singers, / the toast of the Old School dinners…” The roiling, improvised star-stuff that usually pools out of Darkroom’s speakers is swapped for Dada-tinged narratives of shifting identities and habits; of introverted, stiffly English insanity and implosions of a starchy order.

Having said that, although Darkroom no longer quite sound as if they’re playing live from the surface of the sun, they’ve only retreated as far as a ski-lodge on Mercury. The glimpses of sky are always a bright merciless glare, the ground always dry dust; the scenery just a few steps away from white-out. Surly and blinded, Bludgeon Riffola surfaces through a swimming of harness bells as a filthy punk-blues fed through post-rock processing and glowing tracer-paths of needling synth-noise, Tim’s petulant vocals rope-swung and curdled with distortion.

The album’s masterpiece – the ten-minute stretch of Bottleneck – is blindingly white and exposed; a sinister mixture of Aphex Twin and Bill Frisell. Sparse, desolate slide guitar is chewed at by Os’ echoing dead-sea-surf static and smeared brass textures. Tim’s lonesome vocal (once it finally arrives) rides a stately dance of plucked orchestra strings, drawing out the shapes of a puzzle of betrayal and disgust. The charges are clear – “You never really loved your wife… / you never really knew your boys… / you never even liked the girl you said had claimed your heart – restart, restart.” But the story’s obscured: gaps between snapshots swallow it up. The figure of a man is reduced to a hat, a cigarette; an unfinished meal; an absence.

Then again, Darkroom aren’t here to provide clarity. Seethrough itself seals the album in a light and feverish running pulse, frosted by far-off gilded sprays of reserved prog-rock guitar. It’s tremulously sweet and frantic – trance-techno that’s neurotic rather than narcotic – and with a blurred, vocoder-ed vocal that queries the giddy transcendence of the music. “Too much misunderstanding; too much, too little love. / Too much to keep your hand in, too much to float above.” Dancing lightly on its feet, it moves with the crowd only to slip away quietly as the dreams evaporate. “Too much deliberation, too much you want to be. / Too much anticipation, too much you’ll never see – see through, seethrough.”

Blink, and it’s gone. Darkroom tease us with clarity, but lead us to a vanishing in the end.

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’
Peoplesound, ART 4249-CD01
CD-only album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Original release deleted. 2003 remastered CD-R version available from Burning Shed; download version from Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

July 1999 – mini-album reviews – Philip Sheppard’s ‘The Glass Cathedral’ (“a whole chamber of cellos swimming off in a new direction”)

12 Jul
Philip Sheppard: 'The Glass Cathedral'

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’

Reluctantly, as the music finally dissipates into quiet, I surface for facts – and here they are.

Philip Sheppard is cellist with the Composers’ Ensemble and with The Smith Quartet (a London answer to New Music ensembles like Kronos Quartet). He’s taken on the knotty work of Michael Tippett and Oliver Knussen: his list of close collaborators outside the classical world have included Abdullah Ibrahim and Jeff Buckley. Freed from the demands of repertoire and support roles, his own music for solo cello leads into meditative, overlapping multi-tracked soundscapes.

That’s the definition, the bare bones of it. A modern-classical musician, as composer-performer, looping or patterning processed sounds in the path followed by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, and by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.

This doesn’t convey how far beyond the plain facts of the process Philip Sheppard gets – how he’s boiled down the structure of classical expression to small and beautiful hints in a sustained electrophonic atmosphere. The captivating, wonderfully played music on ‘The Glass Cathedral’ is close, in its way, to the devotional reachings of Fripp’s ‘A Blessing Of Tears’: but it’s more abstract, a music of suggestions and amnesia. Philip manages to suggest vistas of embracing vastness with simple and delicately executed elements gradually mixed into an ever-expanding palette of cello textures, running from a discordant plumbing-scrape to an overwhelming snatch of piercing, striving melody. There are only two pieces on here, both vastly different, both extraordinary.

Harrison’s Chronometer uses Philip’s electric cello – a custom-built five-string cyborg which readily sinks itself into an evanescent minor-chord drone, gradually resolving and passing through moods; a Mahler trance in multi-track. The name’s taken from the 18th century timepiece designed to revolutionise navigation and safety at sea; providing a fixed, reliable timekeeping process, aiding judgement of distance, mapping and location. Inspired by this, the music sounds like a steady, resolute voyage through half- known climes, as Philip fills the air with the sounds of beasts and uncertainties. String snarls slide and slink away, high harmonics keen and shiver. Low, rumbling deep sea monsters scrape away in the bass registers.

Living but impersonal detail builds up, as gorgeously and inhumanly hostile as a crystal jungle; and into this comes tentative tracings of order. There’s a high pulse; a sawing Greek riff of chorused cellos; snap-and-lock ostinatos in the bass recalling the clipped Mediterranean funk of Mick Karn. A melody materialises in the alto range, cleanly distorted – to the point where it finds a rough perfection – but it tails out. Nothing is resolved; eventually the music fades away into the dark, although its recognisable touches are still isolated within the surrounding chaos. Expressive to the last, they sit like lonely markers; or like humans in a small, fragile boat on brutally indifferent seas that have hardly even begun to yield their perilous secrets.

Compared to Harrison’s Chronometer, the title track of The Glass Cathedral is sublimely peaceful: though in its own way it’s just as deliquescent, just as much part of that territory where post- classical meets post-rock and where both begin to blend with the subtle dissolutional anarchy that is drift. It’s played on a vintage cello with a history implied rather than certain: a mid- 8th century instrument possessed of a rich verdant tone and traced back to an anonymous London craftsman. Whether its ambiguous story is true or false, I’d like to think it informs the piece, which has hints of more intimate John Taverner compositions but links back to the past via a quote from Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ which coalesces and dissolves throughout the composition.

Here, the music seems to wake itself in sensual, melodic stretches of cello, in exquisite glass-harmonica deviations of sound. It is like drowsing inside a translucent sacred building, allowing a whole day to become a time-exposure. Overdubbed drones and harmonies acting like light beams, branching off at odd angles, allowing the corners of the church to be lit gently and briefly before the source slides off somewhere else. A solo cello establishes itself in centre with a contemplative, yearning changing theme. It gives dominance over to the light angles and the Monteverdi fragment… then, as if shot through a prism, a whole chamber of cellos are swimming off in a new direction, embarking on a related theme, only to dissolve out gently in loosely woven trios.

I’d say more, but I’m already spewing too many abstractions. It’s enough to say that if it’s true that architecture is frozen music, then this is (just as equally) a beautiful, dissolving architecture.

Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’
Blue Snow, BSNCD1 (no barcode)
CD/download mini-album
Released: 5th July 1999

Get it from:
CD version best obtained second-hand: download available via Bandcamp.

Philip Sheppard online:
Homepage Homepage Twitter Bandcamp

May 1999 – mini-album reviews – Rudy Simone’s ‘Personal Cloud’ (“contradictory shards and half-formed knots of feeling”)

14 May

Rudy Simone: 'Personal Cloud'

Rudy Simone: ‘Personal Cloud’

“I wrap my lips around a cigarette / instead of you,” mourns Rudy Simone on the title track of ‘Personal Cloud’. Her voice pipes and teeters on a precipice of reproach. It’s gently, perpetually, pulled back by beautiful harp-like guitars and throaty bass synth. Here’s a lullaby for the betrayed, somewhere between the sweet hyper-conscious dissolve of a Jane Siberry ballad and a Rose Royce disco symphony. Clasping heartbreak to itself, like an addict in recovery, and gently rocking to soothe; while allowing all of the contradictory shards and half-formed knots of feeling to swim free for a moment, a float of voices and words knocking against each other.

“I thought I was drowning, it was only rain./ Thought I felt fire, it was only smoke. / Never leave me… / Oh, will this world take you from me? / I tried, I tried to leave it alone…”

‘Personal Cloud’ is all about this kind of mixed, eddying feeling. Intensities and unravellings. Throwing vitriol and clinging to loyalty. The need to stab the same person you might be begging to pick you up off the floor two hours later. And if it wavers dramatically – both in its musicality and in its consistency – that’s only in keeping with what it’s about, as Rudy explores her emotional devastation using various forms of music. Club elements invade baggily-hanging acoustic confessionals. Wobbly jazz singing gatecrashes trance-dance. Free association yanks a tune bloodily from its roots. Throughout, moods swing like road-signs in a gale, confusing direction.

 “I swear sometimes I wish an alien will take you from this planet / then I turn around, y’know, / I never meant it,” frets Rudy on Velvet, an all-over-the place straggle of guitar, cello and drums where jealousy, need and pride disrupt each other. At one moment, she’s showing the lover her boot and the door  (“Go on out / take your place and find the one who does it all for you,”). At the next, she’s turned the full blowtorch of greedy sexuality onto him to melt him back down again (“It don’t fit into your plans to be so selfish / when all that velvet is waiting for your kiss…”).

Puppet strings yank themselves; kissing lips bruise on gritted teeth. A foot slides, caressing, up a lover’s calf. The same foot turns and hammers a heel, hard, into his instep.

This kind of tense no-man’s land is a stressful place to be. Sometimes there’s a wordless protest, as expressed in Galactica – cosmic trance-techno, where the lonely cry of a star-burned keening synth is cheered up by a flamboyant crash of bells and bucked up by a roguish, tarry bubble of club bassline. Alternatively, Stronger Than You Know meanders along on its skinny guitar and string synths, changing its shape, like a girl dancing drunkenly across treacherous ground, knowing where to put her feet but lurching dangerously close to disaster. It seems fey, but only because it’s discovered a different kind of resistance, dissolving again to escape damage – “Oh, you’re kicking light, / you’re punching air.”

The militaristic Bjork-ish beat of Glimmer Of Hope, the tension of guitar and listing punchdrunk voice, belies its positivity – “I see a glimmer of hope in the clouds / and it’s all I need to see my way out of this.”  On Feel Like I Belong, the club electronics bang and bubble under one of Rudy’s sweetest bluesiest sighs, and bloody experience is weighed up – “memories can drown if you let them – / just because you can it doesn’t mean that you should.” Only the drunken brooding of surly fuzz-guitar suggests there’s something wrong behind this particular attempt at finding peace.

record-rudysimone-ktcocFar more satisfying (in terms of comfort, anyway) is the spooky guitar and spiralling trip-hop of the haunted single Kill The Cult Of Cool – remarkable in any context, particularly moving here, it sounds like a night’s spiritual battle committed to tape. On the single cover Rudy, visibly haunted, stared down fear out of a circle of tall, slender flames, and the song’s occult, speaking-in-tongues feel is still immediate. Over Gothic movie keyboards, Rudy delivers a Buffy-esque putdown in a cool, girl-with-a-mission voice – “I’ve got nothing but derision for your apocalyptic vision. / Anti-amorous, not glamorous. / Time to kill the cult of cool,” – before rolling off into a weird, syncopated mixture of American indie, sampledelia and trip-hop in which everything seems to slide gracefully in and out of time. Ruminative, sandpapery hip-hop beats do the slippery shuffle-and-collapse in the basement. Frail raga-trance vocal melodies drape themselves in irregular folds over the roof. White noise, static radio fizz and heart-monitor bleeps struggle in and out of the mix: a dreamy staircase of guitars (including a spaghetti-Western dobro) twangs at the heart of the chorus.

The rest is a weave of lost-girl chant and coos, a multiplicity of voices flipping backwards and forwards, a narcotic nuzzle towards solace. “Help up, I shall bless,” keens one line. “Ooh yes, honour – there’s no-one there…” murmurs another. Rudy duels weightlessly with other wounded voices (“I was the quiet one in school, never made any trouble…”) and absentee gods before declaring with quiet assurance, “I don’t care what you say, I’m not crazy.” The fact that this happens at the beginning of ‘Personal Cloud’ – and not as a tidy resolution at the end – suggests that this isn’t the first time she’s had to take up arms against her own crowded inner sea of troubles.

Uneven, unsettling, and mixing awkward un-coordination with gliding grace, ‘Personal Cloud’ reveals the wayward talent of a potential cult heroine – unafraid to grasp at the chaos and trash of the battered heart.

Rudy Simone: ‘Personal Cloud’
Phat Lady Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R-only mini-album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Extremely rare – best found second-hand.

Rudy Simone online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

December 1998 – live reviews – The Sea Nymphs @ The Falcon, Camden Town, London, 13th December (“a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes”)

18 Dec

In reality, the music room at The Falcon is a tumbledown concrete box shoved out onto a bit of waste ground. Right now, though, we could easily imagine it transformed by our collective warmth, enwebbed with flowered arbors and the hum of big lovable insects.

This is good. The air’s alive with a warm, fireside excitement and the sound of a zillion Christmas triangles. Up on stage, Tim Smith has just flicked us one of his weird little opening-envelope smiles. Bill Drake – goateed and woolly-hatted, somewhere between pharoah and trainspotter – settles in behind his keyboards, half-in and out of the parallel universe he normally inhabits. Someone bleats like a sheep. Everyone laughs. Sarah Smith – unreservedly sexy and wholesome, like a fairytale milkmaid – readies her saxophone, smiles mischievously.

As they make a showing for the first time in years, The Sea Nymphs bring us the same sense of unguarded wonder that we’d get from watching some obscure and exquisite little beast uncurl itself from hibernation or hatch out of a chrysalis. There’s that, and there’s their uncanny ability to awaken the sort of love that I haven’t felt sweep through a concert for ages. We’re crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder – on any other day, we’d be the usual indie-rock cattle, and we’d feel it. This time, it feels more like being a step away from holding hands.

It’s as if we’re all buoyed up on a long curving wave of sea-songs, swimming keyboards, children’s play-rhymes; of twinkle-fingered piano, folk fragments, and pale running saxophones; plus Edward Lear, Edward Gorey, and all the other unguarded wistful subconscious flickers that may (or may not) inform The Sea Nymphs’ music. Somehow, they’re managing to remove the tarnish that’s caked onto the joy that we’ve almost forgotten: that straightforward joy at being alive. Because this is music that disarms and rebuilds somehow – it’s ducking aside from the panicky hurtle of London neurosis that’s going on outside, and taking us with it.

This may seem a woolly cop-out; as if I’m just burbling. The truth is that The Sea Nymphs, in work and in performance, seem to be offering a mystery of creation that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. Too much breakdown won’t break the spell – it will just ease you out of it, painlessly, like a splinter; into the cold again. And that’s something which you don’t want to happen. Within Sea-Nymphs-space, we’ve all found a place in which we very much want to be. We want to rest in the anchoring embrace of Tim’s warm and rounded basslines, to cotton on to how the querying melody-hop of Little Creations sounds like a baby making its very first connections. We want to enjoy the unselfconscious way Sarah rejoices in striking a gong, as if she was dusting a clock.

As the tipsy near-waltzes sway around the air, as Tim, Sarah and Bill’s voices twine and alternate (from naked and frayed harmonies to scratchy yelps, to impossibly sweet helium coos) we’re given the opportunity to pig out on a different kind of instinct than that triggered off by the standard lash of rebellious rock noise. There’s something baptismal in that sound – the little lilts of Shaping The River, the cries of “sponge me clean again” vaulting over a chunky acoustic strum. Maybe it’s something to do with a natural, maternal comfort. The key line of Blind In Gaiety And Leafy In Love is “she smells just like you and she smells just like me”, while Appealing To Venus stretches out a begging hand to an absent goddess, pleading “dwell among the people. / Come back to us, we need you.”

Maybe – behind the celebratory music and those rosettes of voice and exhilarated sax, lofting toward the ceiling – the vulnerable flutter at the heart of it all is the fears. Fears at the treacherous terrain of potential fuck-ups and traps, opening up like a dirty promise before newborns as they begin their blundering pilgrimages onward from birth through a childhood and adulthood of busts and confusions. “Back to square one… / large as life and twice as natural… / Let’s not reinvent the wheel; open that can of worms…”

Still. Here and now Sea Nymphs restore our openness – our willingness to ride our curiosity. For a brief time, at least, it becomes our strength again; and when, in Mr Drake’s Big Heart, the band tell us “something’s going to happen today”, we all feel as if we’re a part of it. After tonight, at the very least, we’ll have been able to say that we were together for a while, and it was good.

The Sea Nymphs online:
Homepage MySpace

The Falcon, Camden online:
Homepage

October 1998 – live reviews – Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)

3 Oct

Usually, the stage is festooned with objects. Antique candlesticks, mutilated dolls, little aliens and masks and stuffed rats. Inflatable replicas of Munch’s ‘Scream’; drapes and toy guitars and candles and mirrors. A travelogue of places been, of people touched and gifts given and received. It’s like walking into a voodoo shrine when you go to one of Holly Penfield’s shows, with a Kurzweil keyboard synth as the altar and a most singular priestess creating sympathetic magic.

Tonight, though, it’s not like that – and, to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been for some time.

When I knew it in the early ’90s, the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ Show had set itself up as a Kilburn cult: blazing and guttering as a shredded star in the Black Lion’s lofty function room, an intense piece of performance art sitting oddly on the schedule among the jazz nights and the inevitable country and Irish bands. I used to be a regular, travelling an ungainly “v”-shape by Tube from Highgate to Kilburn via Charing Cross every few weeks to take in this precarious celebration of the outsider’s turmoil. I’d be hearing new audience members mutter “I’m absolutely fucking gobsmacked!” and “she’s a shaman, that’s what she is!” as Holly hauled her exhausted self offstage after the climax of every show, to meet the cluster of new converts. Or watching others sitting bolt-upright in their seats, uncertain as to whether they should move or breathe yet.

Kilburn has a long-standing reputation for nurturing street-fighters, poets and geniuses, but no-one was ever entirely prepared for the sheets of tumultuous emotion that blasted off that stage, winding the audience in out of their cloistered London selves. It was no crowd-pleasing assemblage of easy pieces. It was an exorcism, sung out of the psyche of an unstable California songwriter come to earth and berth as North London’s answer to Tori Amos, whose self-appointed mission was to celebrate the glorious awkwardness of being alive and being human.

She did it in style and with her whole heart, exploring our contradictory and troubled natures with her bag of striking songs and her full-on keyboards and singing. Part synth-pop diva, part 1970s rock siren, she came across like a full-throttle Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick invading and overwhelming a Laurie Anderson show-and-tell, and she brought a brace of personas with her. At times she was the enigmatic seductress, at others the knowing child or the wise fool, the little girl lost who sees with the clearest eye. Sometimes – especially in the wilder second half of the show – she was the liberating hysteric, encouraging the whole pub into primal screaming with her, or delving into the world of the compulsively needy in the sonic barrage of Cuddle Me.

Being a member of Holly’s audience meant being enticed into shedding those cloaks of cynicism and reserve we use to insulate ourselves, and opening your heart up to the rawest kind of sympathy and honesty. The show became a part of us, as much as we were a part of it, the church of the misfits she embraced. We dropped our guard, she sang: a voice for our odd angles and our visceral fears. OK, it wasn’t always successful. If you didn’t buy into her stylings and sounds, or suspected her for the years she’d clearly spent grinding away and trapped in the Los Angeles pop factory, you’d have been left cold from the start. Holly’s whimsical song-stories of peculiar goings-on down at the ranch burbled where they should enlighten. Her savage onslaughts on her inflatable Scream dolls did look like kids’ TV for psychos; and some songs fell across the line dividing the inspired from the self-indulgent. If you led with your sense of cool, or your cynicism, there was no chance.

But at full tilt, it was unmatchable. Banners unfurling, defining the nature of the misfit – and, years later, inspiring the name of this blog. The keyboard was caressed and hammered, abused and enchanted, responding with waves and roars of sound, chimes and ripples as those melodies cascaded out of it. Inevitably, the show would climax in a crash of sound and fury as Holly’s rage and passion reached a colossal peak and she smashed at keyboard and walls with terrifying fervour. Some evenings she’d pull herself up from the floor to let us off the hook with a song of redemption. Some evenings she’d given out so much that she couldn’t…

And eventually, it died a death. The show’s welcoming inclusiveness coagulated, and shrank to one woman’s neurosis replayed again and again on stage as a stubborn loop. Locked into her ritual of combat and confrontation, Holly became unapproachable: stopped listening. People, reduced from being family to being just punters, felt that; they stopped listening themselves; drifted away. Eventually, one evening (watching Holly run through a show that had become no more than a process, a jukebox for the disturbed) I realised that everything that had drawn me to attend the Fragile Human Monster Show – to be a part of the show – had slid out of Holly’s hands as they contorted on her keyboard, and drained away.

Quietly, and unmissed, I left. I heard that it ground on for maybe half a year longer – until Holly’s compulsion to keep performing it had finally ebbed – and then faded out. Radio silence.

That was then. Now… a tentative return to action. Holly’s show is no longer a monkey on her back, no longer a vampiric therapy devouring its own subject. And – by word of mouth, by phone – she’s calling back the family. There’s a new, one-off venue, in a more genteel neighbourhood. And there’s a gentler, shorter ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’. Less of a pitched battle this time. Testing the waters, for sharks and for soothing.

So… no decoration tonight. No Screams either. Just the keyboard, and Holly: still wand-slim, wispily blonde, petite; still looking as if you could break her between a couple of fingers. And, tonight, apprehensive as she works her way back into performing the show. When she takes the stage, however, she’s anything but insubstantial. That voice, that playing, those songs… are still intact. Little miracles of warmth and tension, instantly memorable as her astoundingly expressive voice curves little bluesy, jazzy curves round heartbreaking corners.

Penfieldia is a place to hide and be inspired, inhabited by characters like the homeless poet living in a box in Over The Edge or the unravelling lovers in the hollow urban landscape of City Of Lights. There’s familiarity to them, yes. These songs could conceivably have sat in the charts – or in piano bars. But, just as it all seems to be getting too straight, Holly twists it and it’s off in a different direction, or barbed with something unexpected that sneaks in and turns your heart like a doorknob.

Parts Of My Privacy unwraps the fears of the distrusting recluse. In Stay With Me slow coils of piano reach into the depths of loneliness, still the sound of a woman slowly sliding into the dark. Sea Of Love offers us respite with a slow sated love ballad and Don’t Hide sends out a rousing percussion call to faith. And Voices – a slow, winding sleepy version in which Holly leans on every note to push it home into the air – has the audience gently thrumming, always on the edge of a breath.

The clincher was always going to be the climactic ‘Misfit’ finale, the explosion which always blew the cork out of the frustration raging in the original shows. It still has that drama, that rage and stubbornness… but now it seems content to rest on its own worth, not to burst into hysteria and hallucinations. She’s keeping us guessing. Or, maybe, questioning herself about what her misfit resistance should be doing now and how its battle cry should sound, now that it’s escaped from the torments of the hall of mirrors.

Tonight, though, was something more important than just songs. It was the night that this most involving of shows gave itself back to the people who’d buoyed it up and who’d lived it as much as Holly Penfield herself. A collection of fragile human monsters found themselves, once again, with the sweet shared ache along the same shared faultlines.

No matter how much she could’ve dressed the show up, it would have been immeasurably poorer without that.

Holly Penfield online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Last FM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

The Washington, Belsize Park online:
HomepageTwitter

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