Tag Archives: intimations of ancientness

REVIEW – Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’ singles, 2012 & 2013 (“sample-punk turned foley-bard”)

30 Oct

Ian Crause: 'The Song Of Phaethon'

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’

“Well, I know, I know the story – / the fall of the sun and the vengeance of glory revoked. / So well, I know how the seas turned to dust, / and how the known earth choked. / So well, I know, I know the ending: / the carriage from its zenith bending, / a comet slung through ashen skies / and burst against the banks.”

Cinematic. Epic. These are words which have been whored out far too often, especially when it comes to describing and defining music. Froth and PR corrode their meanings, reducing them to fancy synonyms for nothing more than crude scale, and we forget that other qualities are wrapped into them. These words shouldn’t just be cheap and glittery tags for charlatans – the kind who steep their tunes in giant vats of reverb, or who substitute eye-watering grandiosity for sincerity. There are more crucial meanings. There’s storytelling, and the churn of history. There’s the play of images, the triggering of senses. Eventually, there should be some kind of understanding.

Ian Crause knows all of this. Back in the 1990s – when he was barely out of his teens, and the driving force behind the startling expressionist pop band Disco Inferno – he was struggling with it himself. Even then, though, he wasn’t stumbling to understand: he was striving to perfect. Disco Inferno had come from limited beginnings but grown fast. Originally a dour post-punk power trio, they’d seized the opportunities presented by technology and imagination and transformed themselves into a whole-world window. Hot-wiring their way into the disruptions and illuminations of found-sound and musique concrète, they plugged guitar, bass and drums into digital samplers and grew themselves an ever-expanding sheath of noises: a startling collage of jarring sound effects, layered into composition and twisted into context.

Disco Inferno’s swarm of noise was never there simply to overwhelm. Instead, it refracted and illuminated the poignant dissatisfied pop songwriting which stood, steadfast, at the band’s core. They were doggedly political, but owed nothing to dogma. Caught within ominous social currents and inside treacherous personal eddies, their songs bore witness to cruelties, both intended and impersonal. Those tearing rivulets of sound-montage were flashes of further illumination, put there to side-swipe and snag the attention, and to up-end complacency. The fragments of birdsong and clattering glassware; the careful punctuation of trains and screams and distant firework-pops; the sound of feet jogging grimly away through a numbing snowfall – all of it bore witness to the swerving cacophony of the world, smearing past our ears and battering our psyche, carrying its deeper meanings and significances into us via a pummeling swirl.

At the heart of this unsettling barrage were Ian’s lyrics, which were wise, stark and bleak beyond his years. He sang about the crumbling of vulnerable individuals; about the fraying of the social contract and distortion of social forces. He sang about the stifling, stunting pressures callously imposed from above. He sang about all of this in a still, small, stubborn voice which sounded like the next-to-last exhalation; as if he was a few crucial steps and dogged heel-digs away from giving up and bleeding out. He sounded brave, bitter and doomed – snarling his scorn at the boot-tread even as it rolled over him. For a while, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bands who refuse to comfort us (or refuse to stroke our sundry petty vanities) rarely get rewarded, and Disco Inferno were no exception – the strains of dealing with commercial indifference and inner despair finally tore them to bits in 1997. A couple of barely-noticed Ian Crause solo EPs hiccupped out in the band’s wake over the next few years, and then he too seemed to drop out of the story.

In fact, he’d only dropped out of the cheaper kind of mythology. That’s the one in which ducking out of music becomes death or disappearance by another name. His own story – the real story – moved on regardless. There were years of growing up and grim jobs to come, and years of being chewed over by the same callous forces he once sang about. In amongst the drudgery, there were other factors. There was fatherhood, and family. Surprisingly (for a lyricist already so accomplished and intelligent) Ian made his first adult engagement with literacy. Curiosity, plus a determination to pursue the roots of song and storytelling, led him to the themes and voices of classical literature. His developing interest in the telling parallels with contemporary society kept him immersed in it. Crucially, Ian discovered the works of Ovid – Roman epic poet and exile – via dedicated translations by Ted Hughes and David R. Slavitt.

Like Ovid, Ian would eventually become an exile himself (a self-determined one, abandoning Britain for Bolivia) and enter into a new swell of creativity. Via his ‘Metamorphoses’, Ovid eventually inspired The Song Of Phaethon – Ian Crause’s formal return to music, transformed and developed. It might not be the first new note he’s delivered after eleven years of radio silence. That would be More Earthly Concerns, which welled out via Mixcloud and blogclick in March 2012, and which I’ll talk about elsewhere. But (as Ian begins to dole out his work, in handfuls, onto Bandcamp) The Song Of Phaethon is the first of Ian’s songs to be let out into the marketplace. It’s also probably more crucial in understanding his evolution since his Disco Inferno days.

The protagonist, Phaethon, is and was one of those half-divine children who pepper Greek mythology – he’s the bastard of the sun god Apollo Helios, a malcontent boy strutting up to his sun-father’s palace to claim his ancestry and birthright before he has the wisdom to use it. Greeted, given the acknowledgment he craves, and granted the gift of driving the sun’s chariot for a day, Phaethon is warned of the terrible risks involved. Swallowed up by his grand moment, and too conceited to listen, he takes all of his opportunities to their ruinous conclusions. Losing control of the chariot, he transforms a triumphal fly-past into a joyride and then into a catastrophe. Before the high god Zeus restores order by striking him down, Phaethon scorches a gigantic swathe across the world and casts the seasons into chaos.

Like most figures woven into the complex psychological map of Greek myth, Phaethon still has his role to play. He’s a metaphor for arrogance and a sense of entitlement; he also stands for the destructive potential which both of these follies possess. It’s deep literary currency, and maybe not the first thing which you’d think of as a match for the Crause songcrafting method – so direct and personal in Disco Inferno days. Yet Ian’s battering splay of noises and disaffection opens itself up readily to the mythology, which sinks in grain-for-grain. Explosive futurism meets stern and ancient legend, and both are renewed.

Some of Disco Inferno’s post-punk grit remains at the spine of the music (listen to those dogged dot-trails of frowning bass, or to the occasional flares of wire-wool guitar), but the song falls far away from rock into something older. Myths lend themselves to being channeled into new courses by any means available – Phaethon, for instance, worked his way into a Patricia Barber jazz epic six years previously. Ian rises to his own challenge superbly. In any worthwhile sense, what he comes up for The Song Of Phaethon is a new take on a bardic chant. Its melody is minimal and hypnotic; its rhythms walking, changing pulses constantly driven by the restless words. With vivid artistic appetite, Ian also mines the story’s depths for any resonances which he can transmogrify and feed into his own samples-as-narrative approach.

In this he’s served well – the mythic structure and detail inspire and transform his lyrics, which in turn take on the layered build of classical imagery. Various whispers of fateful moira and foreshadowing rise up to nourish the sounds. From early on, Phaethon’s life is marked by the celestial – right down to the transformation of his familiar landscapes by the passage of the sun and moon each day, continual reminders of his thwarted birthright. Ian reflects this in the woven detail of the narrative: “Every day their shadows ran / down Asia like a lyre, strumming / past his village, swinging down at perihelion / to touch upon his mother’s house / then over dark and quiet woods – / their distant hawks and watching deer / oblivious in bending shade – / descending into seacloud mist, / and down towards the gull-cloud cliffs / to pour their jewels and precious metals / out along the sea.”

Just as he did with Disco Inferno, Ian juxtaposes sound effects with the lyrics to create telling sonic scenery. Though he generally wields these with the skills of a master ironist, he slam them into place with forthright punk brutality whenever he needs to. Throughout, the Greek horns and lyres are a pointed racket: ritual blares, ancient continuo lines. Signatures of antiquity and origin stand solid against the thrumming synths and Ian’s tidal electrophonic swirl of throbbing samples. In prophetic flashes, the clip-clop of horse’s hooves and the slam of violent collisions clatter and blur in and out of the mix, while Phaethon’s more innocent youth is illustrated by the clank of herd bells and goats. In time, his dogged journey through Asia and towards Apollo is dappled and smeared by a souksworth of Asian instruments and chatter, careering past the listener in a flickering travelogue: “Levantine cities raised themselves, then hazed away in dreams of sand, where sand subsumes / the earth itself and still ahead his path led on. But falling always out of reach, the rising sun. / Into the dawn, alone he walked.”).

The effect is of a kind of illuminated text – a cinematic compression of time and location into a vivid illustrative story. That story remains paramount: even while we, as listeners, are being drawn inside those blood-in-the-head thunders and are surrounded by a glorious noise, as if we’ve been trapped under the encircling lip of a vast bronze bell. Beyond the story, though, other dimensions to the tale are coming into play. The song is also a loose parable of another gatecrashing of grand power. “He knew, he knew – / his place was beyond.”

Superimposed – a ghostly transparency – over Phaethon’s story is the tale of Tony Blair’s entry into the Second Gulf War. As this emerges through the song, it’s clear that Ian sees this as another disastrous snatch at high significance and public destiny. Something which flew high and upwards towards glory, only to destroy any achievement of its own, wreaking havoc on the ground and people below. Cunningly, occasional Blairisms are woven both into the narrative and into Phaethon’s thoughts and speech. At one point, he even blathers, Blair-like, “look, you know,” before sliding into advocate pomp and hubristic heroics. For a moment, the pleading voices of the two men overlap within Ian’s narration, making a contradictory cats-cradle out of public morality, power-grabs and a preening Promethean sense of mission. “It was not just God but also man / who clearly needs some representing – / A case I’ll take for free… / Evidentially it takes / a half-divinity to raise / the flag of man aloft for man…”

It follows – with a harsh and unforgiving logic – that the noises of modern warfare should persistently break through the song’s tapestry of ancient sounds. As Ian goes beyond everyday sound effects and begins to violently splice present-day horrors into the textures of the mythical plot and signifiers, the song is slashed up into a jittery palimpsest. Almost from the start, those bleating goats on the ancient Greek hillsides are blindsided by gunshots and by the crash of heavy munitions. With booms, crunches and clatters the shattered, warped shards of twenty-first century concrete and metal scrape and shoulder their own way into the past.

Even specific events from the myth draw across, from recent times, their own crooked parallels. The bursting, clattering crowd-sound of Phaethon’s entry into Apollo’s hall is lifted and twisted from the peak of Blair’s 2003 address to the US Congress. It becomes a Dionysiac smear of fanatical applause and whistles: something turned into a nightmare puppet show, or a rainstorm ripped horribly out of kilter. At the coda, Phaethon is poised unwitting on the brink of disaster. The ascension of the Sun’s chariot merges, indistinguishably, into the noise of a jet fighter launch. Backed by the white-hot screech of the afterburners, the lyrics weave both tales, both times and a set of terrible implications – “the steeds were armed: a blinding shock; / a ferrous scream; a rubber stamp; / and up,” – into final, irrevocable process.

By anyone’s standard, The Song Of Phaethon is a major achievement – a jump-up into fiercely intelligent, confident high art, it stakes new claims and transfigures old ground. It even manages to both stay true to and transcend the moral and political commitments Ian held with Disco Inferno. And yet… it raises a tremulous question of what might have happened to the other side of Ian Crause. Between the immersion in classical tradition (and the dense time-folding focus of the samplers) what’s left of the fervent young New Order fan who always saw himself as fronting a pop band? What, in other words, became of Crause the unlikely pop singer?

Ian Crause: 'Suns May Rise'

Ian Crause: ‘Suns May Rise’

For the answer, look to Suns May Rise, released three months after The Song Of Phaethon. Ian’s mining of Greek mythology is still in place (as are his detailed tapestries of sound-effect) but they’re now wrapped around an out-and-out pop song and a lustrous, dancing melody that Bernard Sumner would give his eye-teeth for. Those Greek lyres and zithers are back, as are the layers of sound effects (sea-spray and thunderous surf crash billow through Suns May Rise from start to finish); but they’re bolstered by massed stadium synth and guttering pop guitar; by angelic powder-puffs of fake-choir; and by warbling rococo flourishes of electronics. Even Ian’s voice – usually so dry, and pointed – is flushed with the balmy blue of a Mediterranean summer. Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins, each at their flounciest, could find common ground with this song’s feverish, chattering opulence. So, come to that, could latterday Marillion.

I suspect that all of this ’80 ornamentation is deliberate. After all, it skips hand-in-hand with other ’80s excesses, and that’s not too far from where Ian’s caustic, righteous attention is focused. Beneath this gleeful and gorgeous bluster, he’s unraveling a story from the Odyssey: a warning bell for avaricious times. As the story has it, Odysseus (while returning from the Trojan Wars) visited the generous Keeper of the Winds, who gave him a bag of sea-gales to ensure that the sails of his ships would be filled and his voyage home would be swift. En route, Odysseus slept; and his friends sneaked up to rifle the bag, in search of treasure which they were sure he’d hidden from them. All they succeeded in doing was to unleash the winds, which blew the ships hither and yon and – eventually – blew them back to where they had started. Reckless avarice, bringing down calamity, provides the keystone of the song. “There will always be some fool / to pull the strings apart. /And suns may set and moons may wax, / and moons may wane and suns may rise – / the gold within his eyes will weigh / Man down a stumbling fool.”

When Ian starts singing about this, though, it’s from the point of view of that corrupted, consensual chorus of friends – the “brothers bound in bronze.” Their coy, self-congratulatory rapaciousness soak his tones like a stain on the teeth. Flushed and greedy with loot already, all they can see is the chance to grab some more. From his own place at the reins of the narrative, Ian reveals their mythic echo in today’s freebooting boy-club of bankers and stockbrokers. Men of unfettered appetite goad each other on. People who simply don’t know when to stop – and who wouldn’t want to even after being handed a sobering, sickening lesson – would still pick perilous holes in opportunity. “You had enjoyed a peace of sorts / The winds had been re-tamed and so / of course the bag was bursting fat: / It fell to men to see to that. / Again so sure the bag would hold / either wine or gold, / Necessity appeared, demanding ‘Open this’.”

It’s here (with a careering inflative screech on “bursting fat”) that Ian himself deliberately unleashes the hidden forces within Suns May Rise, to overwhelm it. From here on in, sounds rise and cyclone – seaspray, radio chatter and winnowing churns of air; a lash of strained rope which morphs from background effect to edgy kick-drum. Amongst all of this the thread of pop song holds fast, stretched taut over an ever-burgeoning epic. In a parading weave of rapid soundbites, assorted newscasters and pundits and politicians roll past in a potted history of the last generation of monetarism. At its tail-end, George W. Bush (waving through a banker’s rescue programme of the kind he’d never have brooked for any other group of people) chokes, gargles and drowns amongst the becalmed wreckage of Odysseus’ ships. Throughout, that teasing pop melody ensures that we’ll remember what happened this time around.

So… the forces eventually sink the meddlers, but there always seem to be more of the latter. Ian conjures up further mythic winds, more specters bringing in ruin from the other far-flung breeding grounds of a destructive capitalist carnival. “Through solids, countries, paper bonds; / The world again reveals itself / in entrails; in open wounds. / The priests and seers shed tears of glee / and privately amuse on how / it still can be that after so long… / there will always be some chance / to pull the threads apart.” Again, the bones of legend rear up inside the flesh of current affairs. Again, this unlikely sample-punk turned foley-bard turns up to show us where those bones are poking through – his words a layered and subtle scourge; even an education. For Ian Crause, it’s been a long and often stony road from transformative teenage angst to his current role of reveal-and-illuminate, but it’s also been a journey of integrity and hard-won vision. The results are even a story in themselves.

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’
Ian Crause (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only singles
Released: 20th November 2012 (‘The Song of Phaethon’), 18th February 2013 (‘Suns May Rise’)

Buy it from:
‘The Song Of Phaethon’ – Bandcamp (the original version reviewed here has now been replaced by this mini-album)
‘Suns May Rise’ – Bandcamp (the single version reviewed here has now been replaced by this version from ‘The Vertical Axis’ album)

Ian Crause online:
Facebook Bandcamp LastFm

REVIEW – Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’ album, 2013 (“sound moulded by careful hands”)

9 Apr
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

REVIEW – Various Artists: ‘Leader Of The Starry Skies – A Tribute To Tim Smith – Songbook 1’ album, 2010 (“an unmapped musical crossroads… one of the most diverse tribute albums imaginable”)

12 Sep
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

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REVIEW – Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’ album, 2010 (“intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air”)

21 Jun

History can catch at things and mess them around. Take the theremin – a serious instrument, reduced to a circus trick, with a story that reads like a map of twentieth-century aspirations and follies. Early days were heady: born from Russian security research, Léon Theremin’s electronic instrument was quickly diverted to more high-minded classical music uses: mostly summoning up the sounds of the ethereal spheres for mystically-minded intellectuals. Now? The gimmick tray. Its “woo-woo” glissandi are used to evoke gimcrack spookiness, or as a quick and flashy shorthand for psychedelic derangement.

Worse – on half of those occasions when you’re assured that you’re actually hearing a theremin (Good Vibrations, the original ‘Star Trek’ theme, early Portishead) what you’re actually hearing is a forgery. Based on motion detectors and on hands that aren’t allowed to touch anything, the genuine instrument is tougher to play than a greased fiddle. Hence (for those who want a quick route to the theremin sound without the sweat, physicality and sheer involvement of playing one) the slew of knock-off devices and plug-ins available for faking the flitter.

It’s all a little sad. Despite the efforts of a distinguished handful of composers (not least Shostakovich and Miklós Rózsa) the theremin passed quickly from being the sound-of-the-future to becoming a sonic trinket and a source of freaky icing – all via pop culture, counterfeitery and the Cold War. You could scarcely blame Léon Theremin if he were spinning in his grave (sounding a heavenly wavering burble of rage as he did so). Hearing a theremin played in a way that’s even slightly close to the original intent is something of a rarity these days. While he’s not exactly a purist, Cihan Gülbudak (better known as Meczûp) clearly takes his own theremin seriously enough to steer it back to roots-level.

On ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’, Meczûp’s theremin is accompanied only by its own looped signals, and sometimes by a gauzy, delicate brushing of fuzz-noise shrouding the pure tone in a gentle, finely-milled distortion. Mostly, though, Meczûp suspends the instrument in wide space, sending its sliding, sustained tones out as a majestic keen. His control is exemplary, mastering the air-shaping swoops and pinches necessary to pull away from plain electronic tone and towards intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air. Where a little more flex is required there’s a whammy-pedal available, heaving the pitches up and down in tidal zooms, and giving the music the apocalyptic boom of a Messaien organ-blast.

Besides the skill of Meczûp’s fingertips, the other key ingredient in his work is locale. Based in Istanbul, he sits at the historic conceptual crossroads of East and West. Seemingly setting aside contemporary blendings of globalization and cyberculture, his music taps into older frictions and fertilizations. There’s an old-fashioned sense of discovery here. Geographies slide across each other and voices strain to mingle, from the earnestly mangled English of the song titles to the cross-sifting of the musical impulses. Throughout the album, echoes of the classical European yearn-to-order meet intimations of Eastern devotional. Despite Meczûp’s classic theremin technique his musical lines don’t have the chilly ethereality of the original approach. They sound more like ney flutes, duduks or zurnas – Middle Eastern wind instruments with their own connection to Sufi, shamanism and oral histories; to the angelic and diabolic aspects of spiritual experience; or the difficult memories of the region’s blood-mottled sway between the heights of civilization and the depths of brutality and pain. There are notes of beauty and agony here, calling up more than a few old ghosts.

Meczûp: 'Hanging From The Purgatory's Pendulum' (previous cover)

Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’ (previous cover)

At its most basic, Meczûp’s music sounds predominantly Eastern (the brief Arabic piping of Shadow: A Parable) but the musical crossings-over are far more interesting. Beneath the long whining melodies that cap and guide A Tale For Lancinant Screws, a kind of slender and abbreviated suggestion of Renaissance counterpoint emerges. It’s less an outright structure than a kind of haunting, like the image of a face flattened out across an endless carpet. A similar device haunts The Ribald Genie, ghosting underneath a lonely melody which gradually alters from pure keen to distorted scream and finally to a melancholy sarangi moan. For the brief but wide-ranging Garoun A, more of these suggestions blur into whalesong glissandi: a succession of theremin voices from teetering soprano to slithering sub-bass chase each other before tailing off into echoes.

Meczûp’s sharp appreciation of lines of beauty dominates the record, although at points this is deliberately overstretch to the point of breakdown. On Puriest Morning of All Times, baroque intimation destroys its own bounds: a vaulting lead melody (first soprano, then alto) strides downwards into echo-space before more parts build into a looping, uneasy fugue. As it moves on, the theremin sound begins to rip and degrade, eventually becoming a mass of gargling sharp-edged rattles like a rockslide or a Geiger counter. Blossoming in Cemetery sits between Bach liturgy and Armenian lament, maintaining an ache and yearn for six minutes before the theremin’s translucent cloak of distortion cracks and dissolves, and the melody starts to reiterate as a scabrous insect buzz.

In spite of his austere tendencies, Meczûp allows a little fantasy into the mix for a couple of pieces, drawing on and transforming pinches of popular culture. The first of these is Kwaidan, rooted in Japanese ghost tales via Lafcadio Hearn and cinema. Relinquishing the counterpoint which informs the rest of the record, it brings out more of the Eastern melodies while walls of looped theremin churn in the background, fluttering and stuttering on a grand scale.

The second is The Bridge of Khazad-dûm – an etiolated isolationist drone which becomes perhaps the most powerful work on an album already full of grand-scale intimations. It takes its inspiration from Tolkien: specifically, that chasm-spanning subterranean stone bridge which (at a key point in ‘Lord of the Rings’) becomes a locus for death, despair and ruin. Meczûp interprets another aspect, capturing something of Tolkien usually drowned under torrents of merchandising: his valedictory quality, the way his stories shuffle and re-deal the racked old bones of history, romance and inevitable decay for one final mournful hurrah. Meczûp’s vision of the bridge is of an ancient, significant place deserted. Plangent teary layers of theremin fuse together, cold spaces emerge in the music, and entwined senses of antiquity and abandonment are caught in broad view.

In fact, this sense of stricken grandeur applies equally to the rest of the album. Meczûp’s eerie, assertive picking-over and teasing-out of elements within of his music feels like a week spent immersed in history. It has the same tasting of triumphs and fleeting beauty; the same dawning feeling that one somehow fits into something so much broader and complicated. Through it all, the theremin rises triumphant. Survival and vindication.

Meczûp: ‘Hanging From The Purgatory’s Pendulum’
BFW Recordings, BFW038 (no barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 1st March 2010

Buy it from:
BWF Recordings, Magyar Walltapper or Reverb Nation. 9-track version also available from Bandcamp

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

5 Jun
Bears In America: 'Bear Tracks'

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW – Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’ EP, 2012 (“gigantic forces tapping on the outside of the bubble”)

1 Jun
Noise Research: 'Space Stones'

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’

Ever-conscientious, Noise Research’s Ian Simpson goes out of his way to admit the traditional approach of this album-length EP, with its use of tape-loop and musique-concrete methods. It’s not a confession that matters. Plenty of atmosphere musicians draw on those techniques; just as plenty draw on the traditions of 1970s kosmische music and Germanic space-drones, or nod to the eerie smudge-cascades of spectralism.

It’s a rarer achievement to not only conjure up those astronomical Krautrock noises (and those visions of spaceships with sports-car contours) but also to recreate the feeling of otherness impinging on your comfortable, oblivious life; of gigantic impersonal forces tapping on the outside of the bubble.  Each of the four pieces on ‘Space Stones’ sends me spinning back to my eight-year-old self, and the sense of awe that I felt each time I saw the silhouette of the antique Zeiss projector that squatted, like a giant querulous bug, at the heart of the old London Planetarium.

With all but one piece being over nine minutes in length, each has plenty of time to unfold as an event in sound. Simultaneous chilliness and warmth pervade Cosmic Stones, in which a ringing organ overtone sits serenely under chilly breathlike rushes of a galactic string section. Over time (and almost at whim) the home pitch slides mercurially into a new position, a new anchor for thinking at the heart of a gradually expanding pool of reverb. Sun Stones sounds like the solar wind made audible: deep tenor flute-edge sounds bending and straining themselves around invisible objects, with an open-pipe high tenor drone loudening behind them.

A single organ cluster-tone sits suspended in place for Earth Stones – a bullet-time slice of instrumental captured and magnified from the middle of a stabbed, jarring chord. Around this, overtones change with geological slowness. Buried inside them, intimations of voices and trumpets come and go, as if the sounds and those who eavesdrop on them are in parallel times – unmatched, and unmatching.

Most suggestive is Space Stones itself, in which Noise Research’s sounds imply a slow, relentless poisoning at a molecular level. Aluminium oscillations dominate the sound, like radiation wavefronts hitting the metal skin of a space capsule. In the background, single-chord clusters roll like a muted brass-band section; by a third of the way through they’ve faded, giving way to slow swells of barely-there unease. By then, the pulsed sounds are echoing more rapidly, penetrating the capsule and bouncing off the inside. Two-thirds of the way in we’re looking at a dead scene: sonic suggestions of bars of unheeded light rotate eerily and unheeded across cabin space as the music drifts onwards. All that’s left is the paralysed fascination as we float on.

Noise Research: ‘Space Stones’ EP
Electronic Musik, EM162
Free download-only EP
Released: 2nd January 2012

Get it from:
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Soaring On Their Pinions (featuring Whitney Drury): ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’ single (“just the singing and what can be teased out of it”)

23 Dec
Soaring On Their Pinions: 'Veni, Veni, Emanuel'

Soaring On Their Pinions: ‘Veni, Veni, Emanuel’

Thinking drummers are to be treasured. Not just the sparky virtuosi cast up by jazz and progressive rock – clear and plain equals to anyone whom they share a stage with. Nor even just those examples of drummer-plus such as Levon Helm or Gary Husband, for whom drumming is just a part of their all-round musicianship, and hence nourishes (and is nourished by) everything else they strum, press, blow or sing.

Here and now, I’m talking about the drummers who get so involved with the idea of pure sound in itself that they down sticks (in some cases permanently), and sail away to pursue it. Mick Harris, for example, who quit Napalm Death and thrash metal in order to explore deep industrial noise and beatless drones with Scorn and Lull. Drummers’ projects in this vein don’t seem to have the half-hearted taint of similar work by guitarists or keyboard players. Maybe the physical immediacy of drumming, from big bangs to stroked whispers, breed a special restraint and particular listening skills – a sensitivity to how air moves and responds to touch.

Within Houston’s underground music scene Lance Higdon is best known for driving various math rock, improvisation, noisecore and psychedelic projects via superb kit-work. With Soaring On Their Pinions, his musical imagination moves him away from the drums – though probably not permanently. As Harris did in his ‘Murder Ballads’ collaboration with Martyn Bates, Higdon has turned to reworking traditional folk and liturgical songs via beatless ambient electronics. Where his method differs is that his electronics are, in effect, inaudible. Unlike the dark, low wind-noise of Harris’ machines, Higdon’s can only be detected by the imprints and embossing which they leave in other sounds. Specifically, he’s sifting and sampling the unaccompanied singing voices of women, getting deep into the grain in search of textures and fragments which he can then build back to the song. In some ways, it’s a nod back to the 1950s and the electro-acoustic methods of musique concrete, but it has a particular purity. No other sound sources – just the singing and what can be teased out of it.

At the heart of this debut single is the first of his guests-cum-raw-material – Atlantan mezzo-soprano Whitney Drury. She sings the Advent hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The original Latin title is kept, but the sung words are English. Drury’s delivery is sung straight and beautifully, with a lone candle-flame clarity. It’s also thoroughly American, with a creamy Southern curve to her “r”s. and “o”s. Is that relevant? Perhaps – if you consider that Soaring On Their Pinions is about layering, and that even before Higdon begins his own work on this particular song he is dealing with a long tradition of accretion.

As a song, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel can look back over a thousand years of travel: from Hebrew and Latin antiphon through Franciscan hymn to the muscular piety of Victorian Anglicans. Anyone taking it on is joining a lengthy queue of interpretations. A Christian favourite, the song has almost become a cliché, with everyone getting in on the act: robed Episcopalians, clean-shaven New Agers with check shirts and acoustic guitars, even Whitney Houston (who gospelled up a version with Take 6 in 2003). It’s hardly less popular to secular ears, sparking (or surviving) multiple interpretations even recently (by Enya, North Sea Radio Orchestra and even metalcore heroes August Burns Red).

Perhaps mindful of this, Higdon’s treatment doesn’t make any attempt to dig into or smooth over tradition. Instead he rediscovers the song from the base level of Drury’s vocal. The latter may start off clean and polished and contemporary (like air-conditioning and throat-care capsules). Yet as Higdon shaves, clones and reattaches fragments from it, he shapes and reveals something more ancient: something which could have wafted from a lonely hermit’s cell. He buoys the vocal up on cellular flutters of transposed echo – first arresting it, later turning it into a kind of slipped, arrested madrigal. He enshrines it in a subtle crypt of reverb. He steals and multiplies Drury’s sibilants, feeding them back past her in fuzzy air-serpents of susurration. Later on, distorted shreds of voice, crushed beyond recognition, waft through the song like smuts: while higher shreds tap out a shattered, stuttering Morse.

Yet ultimately Higdon’s a gatherer, not a harrower – respecting the song and the singer even as he refracts it. Such is the serene melodic beauty of the original that it’s easy to miss that it’s actually a desperate prayer for deliverance: a call for a Messiah to revitalise law, to destroy tyranny and captivity, to open up Heaven. In other words, it’s a spiritual protest song… or just a spiritual. Higdon’s treatment returns it to that level, while rendering it vulnerable to collapse or corruption. His sound-sculpting surrounds that beauty with loneliness, threat and uncertainty (via loop hazard and eeriness) while retaining its core of beleaguered faith.

Soaring On Their Pinions (featuring Whitney Drury): ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’
Soaring On Their Pinions (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 20th December 2010

Get it from:
Free download from Bandcamp

Soaring On Their Pinions (Lance Higdon) online:
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