Tag Archives: Manchester (England)

June 2019 – upcoming experimental/eclectic gigs – post-classical noise/audio-visualists Ariadne play New York and tour Europe (7th, 12th-28th various) with all manner of contributions from Carl Stone, Dasychira, Salaċ, Lazy Bones, Wolf Scarers, Julia Dyck, Anna Peaker, Ideal, Java Java Wetware, Sound Situation and Ariel Kalma

3 Jun

Long past the point when its cultural context receded into antiquity, mediaeval plainsong remains a ready grab for musicians seeking to bridge classical ideas with (in the broadest sense) pop ones. It’s easy to recall the Gregorian chants stapled to dance loops and succubus exotica pioneered by Enigma at the start of the ‘90s, in the wake of which waddled a million chillout chant albums: though to pick some more inspiring examples from past ‘Misfit City’ coverage, there’s also the post-plague requiem of Jocelyn Pook’s ‘Deluge’ and the acapella-versus-disintegrating-granular-noise of Soaring On Their Pinions.

Perhaps plainsong’s draw is in its sparseness, its directness – the way in which its emphasis on a soloist (or at least a monophonic group line) initially seems like a direct personal meditation or plea, a kind of ecclesiastic monastic blues. It could also be the way in which that sense of vulnerability mixes with a sense of ancient history (the early steps of Christianity, with the classical Hebrew and Greek temple music sources still evident, unobscured by the later agglutinating harmonies of the Renaissance). Or, to be a little more cynical, maybe it’s just that that same sparseness and built-in antique provenance has made it an easier cold sell to an audience in the age of recordings.


 
Ariadne could probably provide a better and more interesting explanation than I can. They’ve certainly got the background to enable them to understand it – electronicist/visual specialist Benjamin Forest and fellow electronicist and mezzo-soprano Christine Papania first formed an allegiance at the music school of the University of Indiana: and Christine also explores various strands of classical in her solo voiceloop project Lanx as well as singing for the Manhattan Chorale. Since around 2015, Ariadne have been investigating and altering plainsong and its relations in a succession of albums, EPs, concerts and installations.

Their 2015 album ‘Tsalal’ was based around Hebrew texts and was about plummeting into darkness, physical and psychological; the same year’s ‘Ex Tempore’ was a psalmic “dialogue between the physical and the ethereal in a languished and dense atmosphere.” Their newest work, ‘Stabat Mater’ is a “twenty-movement cycle of audio/visual ecstatic visions, heavily inspired by the visions of female Christian mystics Hildegard von Bingen and Teresa of Ávila.” The latters’ writings are rearranged and transmuted for the sung texts, with a third source coming via text from the surrealist poet Aase Berg.

Hildegard’s work, of course, has regularly blended in nicely with contemporary concerns of spirituality, pain and the female perspective: only last year her work was programmed in underground New York/London arthouse concerts by Daisy Press and Filthy Lucre, juxtaposed against Bowie, Byrne, Charlie Looker’s anguished hard-rock analyses of toxic masculinity and fascism, and the morbid queer romanticism of Claude Vivier… all of which I’m sure is just the tip of an associative iceberg. Hildegard’s ecstasies were paralleled by the rather more masochistic ones of Teresa (who also suffered a particularly grotesque fate-of-a-saint post-death postscript as her corpse was gradually disassembled and traded about by quarrelling groups of nuns, dukes, Popes and priests for open mercantile advantage).

As for Aase, still very much alive, she’s an often-bewildering overturner of expectations with a marked disdain for the “patriarchal… male sexuality” restrictions which she sees applying to standard chronology (“time passes and things have to happen and there has to be a narrative”). Her own work upends this in favour of polymathic siftings of “science, math, probability, string theory, etc.” in weird-fiction settings of post-environmental catastrophes and reconstructed worlds in which standard human perspectives are slipping away, being superseded or disintegrated by impassive, inevitable processes of change. Notably, Aase has also worked as a translator for the horror-struck, pessimistic fantasy texts of H.P. Lovecraft which, though they have an empurpled baroque verbosity which her texts avoid, often operate in similarly blasted philosophical territories.

 
While I’m sure that Ariadne too are paying plenty of attention to all of this, text is secondary to what they’re putting it through sonically. While experimenting with eerie pitchshifting, reverberation and sound chopping, their earlier work backgrounded it in favour of the traditional purity of Christine’s voice. Now they’re bolder, more assured and disruptive: while delivering perverse auto-destructive lyrics like “put my fist through my mouth and pull the roots out of the ground”, Christine’s voice retains its classical beauty but also negotiates its way through a far more confrontational path of distortions, subversions, doppelganger mockings and simple sequences of compline giving ways to gorgeous vomitations like a hopelessly poisoned Kate Bush. The electronically-generated sound, too, keeps its previous haunted/spinning chapterhouse atmosphere while rearing up like a briar thicket destroying a pathway, with distressing organic splatters, acidic treble rills, liquid-sword shatterwhooshes and nightmare distortion-belfry sounds breaking things up; plus vocal capture/turns like the obscene Pachucho squelch that chokes through Burning Sphere.

Like the last-act works of Scott Walker, though, ‘Stabat Mater’ manages to be disturbing and ear-opening without relying on shock-schlock. It hints at and flickeringly reveals dysfunction, confusion and horror without quashing or sneering at the beauty, structure or aspiration of the source materials. Benjamin’s video work, too, makes mesmerically beautiful optical scapes out of disruption, data corruption, trippy fetish hints and perspective explosions.

 
An upcoming Ariadne tour takes ‘Staber Mater’ around selected spots in America and Europe – as well as assorted arts centres, venues include an avant-garde-sympathetic bar at home in New York; an accommodating church crypt in Bristol with a patience for the heretical; a preserved grand Tudor chamber in London; and the marine guts of a permanently harbour-bound Hamburg merchant ship.

That New York hometown concert is taking place at metal/experimental hangout bar Saint Vitus, accompanied by Ideal and Dasychira (with records spun by DJ Clone). Dasychira is a platform for some brilliantly inventive experimental dance music from transplanted, intriguingly alienated South African sound artist Adrian Martens. Adrian explores and celebrates his own psychological vulnerability and resilience via industrial detonations and scatters of mbira chops, alarming darkwave pop interjections and bursts of monastic chorale. Scurrying underneath are thematic undertows of insect regeneration, building new lives from nothing. He debuted with 2017’s ‘Immolated’ EP, while last year saw the ‘Razor Leaf’ single and the ‘Haptics’ EP consolidate his work. The gig’s worth attending for his sake alone. As to whom Ideal are, I’m less sure. I’m assuming that they’re not these German New Wavers from 1982, but within the ever-refreshing and surprising Brooklyn ferment, I probably shouldn’t assume anything.



 
In Bristol, there’ll be slots featuring a pair of duos from the town’s Avon Terror Corps underground label, whose artists draw their loose inspirations and guidelines from“”medieval visions of the future, breakcore, ‘Westworld’ (the original film), industrial, the psychogeography of Castlemead, the legacy of shoegaze, the legend of Goram and Vincent, the total destruction of “deconstructed club”…” Both are best judged by their contributions to the ‘Avon Is Dead’ compilation, which amasses sundry ATC cloud uploads from 2018.

Salaċ – bewildering, serious-playful aural occultists – create long-spooling jump-cut soundscape ceremonials, the outcome of their “sculpting séances of sound with tape machines.” These are aggressive dirtbass rumbles, spasms of object-rolling across metal sheets, complaining recitations of disassociation, punctuated by watertank booms, data-screech waterfalls and a certain amount of dry psycho-geographist’s humour (as in fucked-up cheesy drum machine beats they occasionally summon up and put through the soiling chamber). So far, it’s best to judge Bokeh Edwards and Jade Hybou, a.k.a. “esoterrorists” Java Java Wetware by their track Even Cowgirls Get The Blues – a fragmentary aural story via a dreamy harmonica-assisted trudge through ruined domes and shattered glass, set further off-kilter by lapping folk soprano vocals and ending with secretive whispers and a handful of reverb-muffled gunshots.



 
In Manchester, support acts include obscure local psych/alt.folker and “veteran astral wanderer” Lazy Bones. Whether solo meanderer or journeying band, he/they have been at it for at least a decade and a half, coming up with “gentle melodies hid(ing) strange shadows, hidden yearnings and the promise of the transcendental” with a “whimsical ’70s edge” following the lysergic thicketry of Cope, Barrett and Jansch: some of it may be found on this cobwebbed MySpace site, if you can find your way in. Working in a similar vein (but easier to track down) is the bouzouki-driven power pop and stoner beat of The Peace Pipers, enthusiastic ’60s hippy-punk throwbacks with a taste for dressing up and dancing down the garden paths of The Move, early Pink Floyd and Dave Mason. The evening’s real wildcard is sometime ILL member Sadie Noble, a.k.a. Nummo Twin: generator of woody, baffling dream pop and abstracted yet covertly clever chucking-mud-at-the-wall collages of glitchy electronics, woodworking noises, and half-heard vocal mumbles.





 
The Todmorden show features raffishly arty tenor sax duo Wolf Scarers (Simon Prince and Keith Jafrate) and thrumming audio-visualizer Anna Peaker. With printmaking, DJing and gig promotion as part of her activity alongside the sound and graphics designer (and with an eye on branching out into dressmaking and ceramics.) Anna is an impressive DIY/do-anything character. Across her artwork she takes inspiration from Yorkshire weaving mills, witchcraft, old record sleeves and film posters; from ancient pathways and the millennia-spanning architectural layers of her base in Leeds. By itself, her music is skirling Yorkshire-Germanic variations on assorted psychedelic-chapel organ drones, billowing in and out of focus and sometimes including autoharp and field recordings – for the full effect, though, it’s tied into the cascade of her live visuals.

With Wolf Scarers, Simon and Keith blow a free-brewed stewing of various ingredients and inspirations from the multiple genres each has played individually (and sidestepping the temptations to baffle the acoustic tones any further with computer processing). The results range from “gentle meditations that almost become chamber music across to full-blown shout-ups in the true tenor sax tradition, via, possibly, messed-up marching band funk and deconstructed jazz strut.” Larger Wolfscaring lineups are rolled out when the music necessitates, but on this occasion it’ll be the core duo at work.


 
In Berlin, Ariadne are slotting in at the bottom of a mixed bill in the Kiezsalon series run by Michael Rosen. At the top is American sampling-and-computer-music pioneer Carl Stone, whose 1970s loops and repurposing of library records drew a kind of academic-based parallel to hip hop’s turntablism, and who’s subsequently kept pace with technological collaging possibilities while maintaining an accessible sense of found/captured/manipulated melody, plus a continually expanding taste for incorporating suggestions and content from other cultures’ music (in particular Asian cultures) and a disarmingly bonkers vocal quality. In the middle is French wind instrumentalist/synthesist Ariel Kalma, who’s been dwelling on the borderlines of process music, Paris experimentalism, New Age and electrophonic minimalism since the mid-‘70s.



 
Over at Prague’s Punctum venue, the first of two listed support acts is the acousmatic Sound Situation trio: domestic New Music exponents with electronicist Michal Rataj (electronics), Jan Trojan (more electronics, plate-bashing) and Ivan Boreš (prepared guitar) Veterans of academic music and live improv, as definition they spit out a host of word associations as definition: “sound design, freshly baked bottle in the fridge, movie soundtracks, radio art, pieces of sheet metal, flamenco, sirens, spectral transformations, Kvok!, teaching at the university… Ostrava new music days, abandoned sea beach, Contempuls, Noise Assault Agency Budweiss, BERG Orchestra, Gride”.

 
Unpick and reassemble that little lot if you wish; but note that Punctum have spent far less time expounding on who second Prague support Julia Dyck might be. To be frank, they’ve spent no time at all on it so far… but evidence points towards it being this woman. If so, you can expect to see or hear anything pulled from a bewildering, inspiring rack of potential directions and from a mind seething with forma drawn from feminist/queer/gender theory, from technological awareness and from Julia’s formidable polymathic curiosity about the world. It might be radiophonics, or synth minimalism, or voice-and-fx constructions, or ambient noise; it might be ideas drawing from her time as radio producer, writer and broadcast media artiste; or general conceptual experiments like the miked-up fruit-and-body performance she recorded for a batch of film festivals earlier in the year.

There are a few tasters below – the krautrock-in-the-frying-pan of Passenger, the ambient goo of Changes Made – but there’s too much to Julia to summarise in a paragraph or two or a handful of audio clips. Even briefly looking into what she does is like cracking an eggshell and finding an expansive, challenging pocket universe within, which then maps inexorably back onto your own and changes it behind your back.

 
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Full tour dates and details are still being assembled, but here are the ones I know about so far:

 

  • Saint Vitus Bar, 1120 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York City, NY 11222, USA – Friday 7th June 2019 (with Ideal and Dasychira) – information here, here, here and here
  • Blah Blah, via Po 21, 10124 Torino, Italy – Wednesday 12th June 2019, 8.00pm – information here
  • Le Brin de Zinc, 3 ZA Route de la Peysse, Chambery, 73000 Barberaz, France – Thursday 13th June 2019, 8.30pm – information here
  • St Paul’s Church Southville, 2 Southville Road (junction with Coronation Road), Bristol, BS3 1DG, England – Saturday 15th June 2019, 7.00pm (with Salaċ + Java Java Wetware) – information here and here
  • The Golden Lion, Fielden Square, Todmorden, OL14 6LZ, England – Sunday 16th June 2019, 7.30pm (with Wolf Scarers + Anna Peaker) – information here
  • The Peer Hat, 14-16 Faraday Street, Manchester, M1 1BE, England – 17th June 2019, 7.30pm (with Lazy Bones + The Peace Pipers + Nummo Twin) – information here
  • Sutton House, 2-4 Homerton High Street, Homerton, London, E9 6JQ, England – Tuesday 18th June 2019, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Muziekcentrum Kinky Star, Vlasmarkt 9, 9000 Ghent, Belgium – Wednesday 19th June 2019, 8.00pm – information here
  • MS Stubnitz, HafenCity, Kirchenpauerkai 26, Umfahrung Versmannstraße, Baakenhafen/Baakenhöft, 20457 Hamburg, Germany – Friday 21st June 2019, 8.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Komplex, Zietenstr. 32, 09130 Chemnitz, Germany – 22nd June 2019, 8.00pm – information here
  • Punctum, Krásova 27, Žižkov, 13000 Prague, Czech Republic – Sunday 23rd June 2019, 7.00pm (with Michal Rataj/Ivan Boreš/Jan Trojan + Julia Dyck) – information here and here
  • Wolskie Centrum Cultury, Wolskie Centrum Kultury, ul. Obozowa 85, 01-425 Warszawa, Poland – Monday 24th June 2019, 8.00pm – information here
  • Kiezsalon, Greifswalder Strasse 23a, 10407 Berlin, Germany – Wednesday 26th June 2019, 8.00pm (with Carl Stone + Ariel Kalma) – information here and here
  • Macao, Viale Molise 68, 20137 Milan, Italy – 28th June 2019, time t.b.c.

 

May/June 2019 – wayward experimental rock wunderkind Kiran Leonard on tour in England, bumping into Du Blonde, Kermes, Caroline, Humint, Mora Telsnake, Peacetime Romances, Squid, Ichabod Wolf, Don Du Sang and Margate Social Singing Choir en route (5th-10th May); plus a support slot with Soccer Mommy in Berlin (23rd May)

3 May


 
When he first emerged, as a dazzling teenager, out of a Saddlesworth bedroom (singing, drawing on an entire library of exploratory pop and playing every instrument he could get his hands on, as well as drafting in any object that made a useable noise), Kiran Leonard looked set to turn into a latterday Todd Rundgren, or a man hot on the eclectic heels of Fyfe Dangerfield… or, given his self-releasing teething period within homemade experimental electronica, perhaps a second-generation Steven Wilson. His formal debut release, ‘Bowler Hat Soup’ confirmed this: a bursting jumble-sale of home-orchestrated pop treasures, it framed a talent ready for anything from sweaty pub gigs to festival mainstages, and a singer, songwriter, bandleader capable of thrilling anyone from a freshly-hatched indie enthusiast to a committed psychedelic tripper to a long-in-the-tooth Van Morrison fan. It’s not often that someone so universal emerges, still less from such homely beginnings.

As it turned out, Kiran’s instinct for steering means that he’s no less active, no weaker in potential, but less likely to climb the straightforward rungs. Now based in the revived creative ferment of south London (after a spell in Portugal), in many respects, he’s become like the present-day Thurston Moore or the ever-shifting Mike Scott, with his career path now resembling a looping spirograph pattern as he spins from inspiration to inspiration and format to format and back again – ever refreshed, never burned. That melodiousness is still there, but it’s subordinate to (and subverted by) an ecstatically heterogenous enthusiasm for digging into whatever musical shape or form takes his fancy. On record, he’ll turn out simultaneously tight-and-sprawling rock songs packed with loose-limbed cultural critique; looping lo-fi Buckley-esque folk carolling recorded on the hoof between Manchester, Oxford and Portugal; assorted experimental voicings as Advol, Pend Oreille or Akrotiri Poacher; solo acoustic guitar improvisations; themed literary adventures for voice, piano and string trio.

Live, he tends to work as part of a rough-edged four-piece waltzing on the lip of art-rock but playing within the moment, with slick precision utterly sidelined in favour of immediate inspiration or a fringe of incantatory noisepop. Tricky to pigeonhole, at the still-tender age of twenty-three Kiran remains one of our most promising talents while continuing to embrace his own cottage industry rather than sit in the lap of big labels. He’s still working his way around small venues (as he is this month) on a circuit which you’d think was too little to hold him; but which, in many ways, is an ideal continuous crucible for his art, bringing him up close to an audience which fires him up and catches his thrown sparks.



 
In Margate, Kiran and band are part of the third day entertainments of the Caring Is Creepy festival, a new venture between two Margate musical fixtures (promoters Art’s Cool and erstwhile hip London label Moshi Moshi Records, who’ve had an outpost in the town for a while). They’re playing in a bill topped by Beth Jeans Houghton’s Du Blonde, in all of its scuzzy bedsit-punk-blues reflectiveness and its shades of self-aware dysfunction. Also featured are Margate Vocal Studio’s Social Singing Choir, and Brighton/London “underwater boy band” Squid (who add synths, cornet and cello to the usual indie art-rock guitars, drums, bass and sighmurmur vocals to create something stretched-out and oceanic for Margate sunsets); it’s all topped off with DJ work from Rock Solid (Laura Barton and Teri Olins)




 
In Sheffield, they’re on a bill with Midlands singer-songwriter Kieran Smith – a.k.a. Ichabod Wolf – who sings displaced, deracinated Americoustica like Leon Redbone oscillating on the end of an elastic rope. Also on hand are Humint; a brand-new offshoot from jazzy Manchester art-punkers DUDS playing “post-post-robowave” (which translates as choppy noisepop sounding like the young Sonic Youth and the young Devo pecking each other around during an argument over flatpack furniture).



 
In Bristol, they’ll be playing alongside the gently simmering, downbeat-minimal, violin-and-guitar humstrums of London post-rock septet Caroline (through which ghostly inconclusive threads of pemmican-country balladry seep, like a distant campfire duet heard down a winding canyon). There’ll also be dobro-folk from transplanted Frenchwoman Mora Telsnake, who (drawing on ‘60s-to-‘70s solo folk and “80s cheese” and singing in both French and English) delivers an alternating melange of Gallic-accented American Plains music and spindly, blues-infused chansonnerie.

 
In a Berlin date later in the month, the band will be supporting American singer-songwriter Sophie Allison, better known as Soccer Mommy and for the string of Bandcamp releases which eventually led to last year’s full-blown debut album ‘Clean’ with its tales of assorted yearnings and emotional jumbles amongst the young and stoned. Her work’s a peculiar but affecting mixture of detached musicality with feelings spiralling and jagging inside it; thoughts too active and too pointed – too much in need of saying out loud – to submit to the dull rumble of low expectations.


 
The London and Manchester shows are Kieran-and-band only; and the Nottingham one’s a lone Kieran solo appearance, sans band. I’m not sure whether this is due to logistics or to personal choice: I rather hope that it’s the latter, the fervour of the other bands on the bill inspiring him to a more naked and liberated statement than he might have otherwise delivered. Local wonk-poppers Don Du Sang provide murmuring cut-up dance songs with a pleasing wobble, part-sourced from stolen snatches of vinyl, but are rather overshadowed by the political and personal fervour of the two bands providing the rest of the evening’s music.

Outright queerpunk man/woman duo Peacetime Romances actually offer up a kind of broiling, rediscovered underground folk music; toasted with drum clatter and electric guitar wire-rattle, and drawing on twenty years of “every kind of close”, their relationship and perspective has resulted in a batch of songs about “bad men” of all kinds, emotional threshings tinged with nightmare and redolent of resistance. Leicester power/punk-poppers Kermes are even more ferocious, a muscular roil of a band broadcasting a storm of noisy, melodious flechettes showcasing the belligerent, angry stubbornness of trans singer Emily Rose Teece as she wrestles with the weight of heteronormativity, of other people’s boorishness, of struggling to establish her own space while being crushed and bumped by the crude blocks of expectation and restriction.

With Sleater-Kinney and Spook School already floating in the pool of musical comparisons, Kermes’ debut album ‘We Choose Pretty Names’ is also striking in its literary articulacy (inspired by immersion in writers such as Maggie Nelson and Imogen Binnie). In a recent interview with ‘The Four-Oh-Five’, Emily’s described the prime drivers of the album’s songs as “feeling ugly, feeling like a freak, and peacefully existing in a way that make people viscerally hate you.” That’s as may be, but the music Kermes creates is far from lachrymose, whiny or martyrish. It’s constantly buzzing and blurring between dysfunction and self-assurance, with Emily increasingly emerging as someone to follow rather than pity; a tough, tattered-banner leader with dried tear-tracks and a set jaw.




 
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Dates:

  • Caring is Creepy Festival 2019 @ Elsewhere, 21-22 The Centre, Margate, Kent, CT9 1JG, England – Sunday 5th May 2019, 6.30pm (with Du Blonde + Squid + Margate Social Singing Choir + Rock Solid DJs) – information here and here
  • Paper Dress Vintage Bar & Boutique,, 352a Mare Street, Hackney, London, E8 1HR, England – Monday 6th May 2019, 7.30pm – information here, here and here
  • The Old England, 43 Bath Buildings, Bristol, BS6 5PT, England – Tuesday 7th May 2019, 8.30pm (with Caroline + Mora Telsnake) – information here and here
  • Gullivers NQ, 109 Oldham Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester, M4 1LW, England – Wednesday 8th May 2019, 7.30pm – information here, here and here
  • Delicious Clam Records, 12 Exchange Street, Sheffield, S2 5TS, England – Thursday 9th May 2019, 7.00pm (with Humint + Ichabod Wolf) – information here and here
  • JT Soar, 2 Aberdeen Street, Nottingham, NG3 1JB, England – Friday 10th May 2019, 8.00pm (solo, with Kermes + Peacetime Romances + Don Du Sang) – information here and here
  • Musick & Freiden, Falkensteinstrasse 48, 10997 Berlin, Germany – Thursday 23rd May 2019 2019, 7.30pm (supporting Soccer Mommy) – information here, here and here

 

May/July 2019 – upcoming classical/experimental gigs – multimedia string quartet work – Solem Quartet in London, Liverpool and Manchester (2nd, 9th, 10th May); Kronos Quartet & Trevor Paglen’s ‘Sight Machine’ in London (11th July)

29 Apr

Some quick signal-boosing for those of you who might enjoy augmented string quartet music…

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Solem Quartet, 2nd/9th/10th May 2019“In the first of a brand new series, Solem Lates, the Solem Quartet present ‘batózeyal’: a night of music for string quartet and electronics.

“Excitingly, ‘batózeyal’ will feature two specially commissioned premieres, from Larry Goves and Aaron Parker, alongside Anna Meredith‘s ‘Tuggemo’ (a dance-inspired romp mixing the sounds of live string quartet with synth electronics), and other exhilarating recent works from Jonathan Dove (‘Quite Fast’ from his 2001 string quartet ‘Out of Time’) and Paul Zaba (‘Sidechains’, a dizzying musical incarnation of the electronic effect of the same name).

“In the context of this contemporary music, we will also be performing Bartók’s 3rd Quartet which sounds as fresh and visceral as it did at its conception, almost one hundred years ago.

“The title of the night shares its name with the piece by Aaron Parker, which responds to and interacts with the Bartók Quartet (while incorporating electronics and film). So come and join us for sparkling new music and a masterpiece of twentieth-century chamber music!”

There were no initial details for what the Goves piece was called, but talk on Twitter has confirmed that it’s a nine-minute composition called ‘Two-Way Mirror’. Meanwhile, here’s the Solem playing the Bartók (along with a Paul Zaba Soundcloud clip of ‘Sidechains’ and a performance of ‘Quite Fast’ by the Eurasia Quartet).


 
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“Artist Trevor Paglen and the ever-inventive Kronos Quartet present Sight Machine, a multimedia performance putting a string quartet under the gaze of machine-vision and artificial intelligence.

Kronos Quartet/Trevor Paglen: ' Sight Machine', 11th July 2019We live in a data-driven world, but is it really possible to quantify human emotion? This concert puts that question under surveillance. While the Kronos Quartet perform works by Terry Riley, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Egyptian electronic musician Islam Chipsy and others, the musicians are monitored by cameras feeding into a suite of artificial intelligence algorithms. The software turns this abstracted information back into images, which are then projected onto the screen behind the performers, showing us how machines and their algorithms perceive what we are seeing.

“Utilising algorithms ranging from consumer-grade facial detection to advanced surveillance systems and even guided missiles, ‘Sight Machine’ is a fascinating and unsettling illustration of the discrepancy between what we experience as human beings and what machines ‘see’.

“This is part of Life Rewired – the 2019 Barbican season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.”

 

This work was originally performed in New York back in 2017 – read some more about that here. No extra details on the setlist yet…

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Dates:

Solem Quartet: ‘batózeyal’

  • The CLF Art Café, Block A, Bussey Building, 133 Copeland Road, Peckham, London, SE15 3SN, England – Thursday 2nd May 2019, 8.00pm – information here, here and here
  • The Invisible Wind Factory, 25 Carlton Street, Liverpool, L3 7BX, England – Thursday 9th May 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Soup Kitchen, 31-33 Spear Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester, M1 1DF, England – Friday 10th May 2019, 7.00pm – information here and here


Serious presents:
Kronos Quartet & Trevor Paglen: ‘Sight Machine’
Barbican Hall @ Barbican Arts Centre, Silk Street, City of London, London, EC2Y 8DS, England
Thursday 11th July 2019, 8.30pm
– information here and here

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Also, I guess it’s worth mentioning that the Markus Reuter string quartet record I previewed back in February is now out. Here are some promotional clips for those of you who missed out on the previous post…




 

February/March 2019 – upcoming British folk/experimental gigs – Bell Lungs on tour with Raiments (20th February to 2nd March, various) with appearances by Despicable Zee, Michael Clark, The Nature Centre, Halcyon Jane, Tara Clerkin Trio and various DJs. Plus sundry other Bell Lungs shows in March including a København evening with Hugh Tweedie and Tanja Vesterbye Jessen, a show with David Toop and Rashad Becker, a date with Gaze Is Ghost.

16 Feb

Working with a multi-instrumental, device-heavy palette which includes guitar, harmonium, Omnichord, electric violin, lyre, bouzouki, saz, voice and a host of effects pedals, avant-folk singer/writer/sometime promoter Ceylan Hay (a.k.a. Bell Lungs) sits at the middle of a host of possible routes. Her sound incorporates post-folk and drone, dream pop, noise and free improv, psychedelia and site-specific realisations, while her psychohistorian subject matter takes in the ancient, the near-ancient and the presently numinous: probing prehistoric spaces, the ghosts of the industrial age, day-to-day feelings and the slide into a new virtual existence space via online culture.

Reflecting these overlaid levels (and what might be, at different perspective points, either shockingly near or completely occluded), her vocal delivery steps between ornamental trad-folk crenellations, feathery ambient warbles and horrific screams. You can never quite tell whether she’s going to lull you or scare you, but you know she cares about what she’s ferrying across to you.

With a new EP, the wintry ‘Wolves Behind Us‘, to promote (apparently it’s a return to folk and landscapes after recent science fiction/site-specific digressions, and is “Joan Aiken’s ‘Wolves of Willoughby Chase’, Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’, caravan living in the Highlands and the ancient cosmology idea of dividing the year into two halves; the opening and closing of the wolf’s mouth”), Bell’s embarking on five weeks of touring (primarily alongside Raiments) through Scotland, England, Wales, followed up by other Raiments-less shows in Scotland, England and Denmark. (She’ll also be playing in Wales next month, but more on that later…)




 
Before taking a look at the tour, let’s take a look at her tourmates. Formed on the Berlin avant-garde scene, Raiments are fronted by sing-murmurer/left-field guitarist Mano Camatsos, and they sound like a soft-stepping muttering blend of Lou Reed and Momus fronting a band that mixes lurking dark-jazz styling (hardwood clarinet burr and groove-pattering trashdrums) with the DIY rattle of Pram and the dark throb of Morphine. Mano’s wildcard guitar is a clinking noisemaker and pulse generator taking note of hip hop, of avant-garde classical extended techniques and of mysterious instruments and methods gleaned from ethnological recordings. His songwriting voice is a oddball surreal instinct leading inexorably towards songs about ants or baffling seductions.



 
Tracing their upcoming footsteps on the tour is a joy, like following a plough which turns up small treasures as it reveals what’s in the earth. It’s partly the succession of intriguing off-the-beaten-path venues – squatty art-pubs, recovered eighteenth-century coal basins, pocket cinemas and art centres, diehard folk rooms and out-of-the-way sipperys – but also the revealing of similarly off-the-wall musical talents and enthusiasts they join up with en route.

In Edinburgh, Bell and Raiments are playing with Claquer – previously three-piece improvisers Claque until they spun off their American drummer an unspecified time ago. Now it’s just the Edinburgh contingent: free/experimental guitarist Jer Reid and viola player/speaker Lisa Fannen. They deal in lo-fi clangs, loopings and scrapes and spoken word: momentary moment-music.


 
In Newcastle, the main support comes from the soft melody murmurs and drowsy, cushioned keens of ambient/improv folk duo Halcyon Jane, a Tyneside/Humberside teamup. Upfront with the voice, guitar and devices is Newcastle performance art polymath Jayne Dent, better known via her own electronic/noisy folk project Me Lost Me, in which she buffers and buffets her singing with concertinas and samplers: when she played Hull back in December, support came from local ambient electronic beatsman Halcyon Neumann, who’s worked with The Body Farmers and with Sarah Shiels and who carries out sonic explorations of “the technological vs. the archaic/the spiritual vs. the scientific/the supernatural vs. the psychological.” Together they tease out a semi-improvised border music, part weird electro-folk and part post-shoegaze wisp.

Also playing is Michael Clark, providing slurred, wise, trepidatious and crepuscular folk music with fogrolls of noise behind an acoustic guitar. Despite being a Londoner, he sounds more like a moor-dweller; or like someone who lives in the kind of port city London used to be, one in which strange tales and intimation billow up the streets with the dock mist: this time out, his strange tales are backed up by a full band.

 
I’ve encountered The Nature Centre before. Headlining the Club Integral-hosted Birmingham show above Bell Lung and Raiments, they’re an affable rural/suburban pop quartet like a four-person one-man band, sprouting banjos and clarinets and found percussion alongside their drum kit and guitars. Drawn to playing at weirder gigs, they’ve shared bills with people like Bob Drake and have their own batchful of three-minute pop songs avidly reflecting the off-kilter visions of previous English songwriter eccentrics (the Syd Barretts, Robyn Hitchcocks and Tim Smiths). Handling the in-between-bands slot is someone new to me but not new to Brum’s vinyl-istas: Moseley Folk Festival’s house DJ and Moseley Record Fair co-organiser DJ Rome, promising his own selection of crate-dug oddities and inspirations.


 
In Bristol, the DJ backup comes from “bleary-eyed staggerer” Siegfried Translator of the Grey Area radio show (another haven for intriguingly weird music from all over the globe), but the gig predominantly features the Tara Clerkin Trio: the DIY musical brainchild of a ceramicist who also seems to have a yen for gamelan/minimalist-sounding pattern tinkling sprinkled with voiceloops, friendly saxophonic intrusions and other pitch-ins from whichever musical friends she can rope in for the occasion. (At other times, she creates her own slumberous take on experimental countrified pop.)

 
The Oxford show (promoted by Divine Schism) is primarily a launch event for the second EP by Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, a.k.a. Despicable Zee – a live-looper, improviser and conscious patterner of fifteen years standing, mixed Anglo/Irish/Iranian heritage, and a history of drumming in Oxford bands since her teens. Now the drums (plus loopstations and recordings) are used to create live solo tracks in which Zee employs a lo-fi, lo-technique approach to overlapping rhythm garlands and triggered conversations. As an artist (as well as an educator and mother), Zee’s increasingly conscious of the female lines she carries within her: the patched-in samples which wobble her current project along feature the voices of her mother and grandmother, mingling with Zee’s own sing-speak-raps as if they’ve dropped by for some kind of experimental music cross-cultural kaffee klatsch.


 
The London show (at Paper Dress Vintage) is an evening of music and spoken word put together by promoters Spilt Milk in order to raise money and awareness for North London Action for the Homeless. Shapeshifter experimental pop poet Alabaster dePlume comperes: also in the corner is Jenny Moore’s Mystic Business, who showed up in ‘Misfit City’ a little over a year ago.

Jenny’s another artist whose field extends from the visual and situational into action and music: the Mystic Business involves pulling together friends and strangers into a collective performance event that’s part communal clapalong choir, part percussion workshop and good-natured culture-jamming protest (with food). Guileless and charming, but nonetheless political and détournementational, it’s an attempt to get collective conscience back into the body, containing and encouraging a cheerful but insistent protest.



 
The Conventry and Brighton gigs appear to feature just Bell Lungs and Raiments on their own, but news just coming in re. the Liverpool date (at dockside art-pub Drop the Dumbulls) says that support there comes from Merseyside “synthwhisperer” and outsider synthpopper Claire Welles. She’s been rolling out her contrary songs for over a decade now, singing increasingly unsettling lyrics in a deep deadpan tone with a sarcastic medicated edge, while the backings deliquesce from elegant ageless Europop into something a little misshapen. It all becomes something like those conversations during which you wake up a third of the way in, not quite sure how you got into them, not quite believing that you’re stuck in there and will just have to ride it out.



 
* * * * * * * *

Following the Raiments tour, Bell heads off separately for other shows. A mid-March showing at Manchester’s Peer Hat is a solo gig, but there’s also an Argyll event (in the enchanting recording-studio-as-art-nook surroundings of St Marys Space) at which she’s supporting baroque poptronic project Gaze Is Ghost: itinerant Northern Irish singer/songwriter/post-classical composer Laura McGarrigle, noted for “spectral vocals and impressionist piano playing” as well as drifts into harmonium and ambient atmospherics. In recent years Laura’s let Zed Penguin drummer/artist Casey Miller into the project and (following a number of pre-Casey singles), Gaze Is Ghost are finally readying a debut album as a duo.

 
A return to Glasgow on 28th March sees Bell performing on a talk’n’play bill with musicologist and audio culturer David Toop and Berlin sonicist Rashad Becker (who, having polished over a thousand records by other people spanning noise to techno, has begun stepping out into music creation of his own with the resonant faux-ethnological synthwork of ‘Traditional Music of Notional Species, Vol. I’).

On the 30th she’s back in Edinburgh to support another experimental folker, looper and performance artist: David Thomas Broughton, whose brilliantly wayward path has included looping his own heckles, blurring the line between song performance and experimental theatre. Along the way he’s released eight albums of accessible, tremulous, oddly haunting alt.folk delivered in an arresting genderless vocal tone a little reminiscent of Anthony/Anohni, and won the respect and collaborative contributions of (among others) Beth Orton, Sam Amidon, and Aidan Moffat. David will be in the early stages of his own tour, which I really should cover on its own.





 
Before any of these, though, she’s crossing the North Sea to perform at an experimental folk event in København. Part of the city’s Fanø Free Folk Festival, it’s hosted by local label Dendron Records, specializers in “small runs of abstract electronics, ghostly folk songs and surprisingly hummable tunes.” The concert will also feature two København-based British emigres Hugh Tweedie and Tanja Vesterbye Jessen. Hugh’s been operating for years under various names including The Weave And The Weft and Taiga Taiga, creating shadowy understated mostly-acoustic songs with a literary bent, and he regularly helps out with David Folkmann Drost’s homemade folk project Moongazing Hare. Previously known as a radical electric guitarist in Vinyl Dog Joy, Amstrong and Distortion Girls, Tanja recently struck out on her own with a solo debut, ‘Feeling Love’ in which she embraces and deconstructs pop songs, writing them acoustically before bringing assorted damaged amplification and effects-pedal interference to bear on them, resulting in songscapes covering a field from heavy-lidded noise-folk to cataclysmic “drone-metal disco”.




 
* * * * * * * *
Dates:

Bell Lungs & Raiments tour:

  • Henry’s Cellar Bar, 16A Morrison Street, Edinburgh EH3 8BJ – Wednesday 20th February 2019, 7.00pm (with Claquer) – information here
  • Cobalt Studios, 10-16 Boyd Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE2 1AP, England – Thursday 21st February 2019, 7.00pm(with Michael Clark + Halcyon Jane) – information here
  • The Edge, 79-81 Cheapside, Digbeth, Birmingham, B12 0QH, England – Friday 22nd February 2019, 8.00pm (with The Nature Centre + DJ Rome) – information here and here
  • Cube Cinema, Dove Street South (off top-left of King Square), Kingsdown, Bristol, BS2 8JD, England – Sunday 24th February 2019, 8.00pm(with Tara Clerkin Trio + The Grey Area DJs) – information here and here
  • Fusion Arts, 44b Princes Street, Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1DD, England – Monday 25th February 2019, 7.30pm(with Despicable Zee) – information here
  • Paper Dress Vintage Bar & Boutique, 352a Mare Street, Hackney, London, E8 1HR, England – Tuesday 26th February 2019. 7.30pm (with Jenny Moore’s Mystic Business + Alabaster dePlume) – information here and here
  • The Rose Hill Tavern, 70-71 Rose Hill Terrace, Brighton, West Sussex, BN1 4JL, England – Thursday 28th February 2019, 7.00pm – information here
  • The Tin @ The Coal Vaults, Unit 1-4 Coventry Canal Basin, St. Nicholas Street, Coventry, CV1 4LY, England – Friday 1st March 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Drop the Dumbulls @ The Bull, 2 Dublin Street, Liverpool, L3 7DT, England – Saturday 2nd March 2019, 7.00pm (with Claire Welles) – information here

Bell Lungs standalone dates with various others (tbc):

  • Fanø Free Folk Festival @ Alice, Norre Alle 7, DK-2200 København N, Norway – Monday 4th March 2019, 7.00pm(with Hugh Tweedie + Tanja Vesterbye Jessen) – information here
  • St Marys Space, Fasnacloich, Argyll, Scotland, PA38 4BJ – Saturday 9th March 2019, 7.00pm(supporting Gaze Is Ghost) – information here
  • The Peer Hat, 14-16 Faraday Street, Manchester M1 1BE – Thursday 14th March 2019, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Stereo/The Old Hairdressers, 20-28 Renfield Lane, Glasgow, G2 5AR, Scotland – Thursday 28th March 2019, 7.00pm (with David Toop + Rashad Becker) – information here and here
  • The Waverley, 3-5 St. Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TA, Scotland – Saturday 30th March 2019, 9.00pm (supporting David Thomas Broughton) – information here

February 2019 – upcoming London jazz gigs – LUME return for a Sloth Racket/Entropi double header (13th February); Jazz HerStory with Rosie Turton (21st February)

11 Feb

After a year away working on other things, the jazzwomen behind LUME are bringing it back to life. Hopping on board the fast-moving train of Kings Place’s ‘Venus Unwrapped‘ series (which I’ve really got to take a closer look at shortly), they’re presenting a double bill of two LUME spearhead acts: each led by one of the two LUME directors.

Baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts heads up and composes for Sloth Racket a scorching, heavy London-and-Manchester free jazz quintet in which she jousts and converses with Sam Andreae’s alto over a rhythm section of guitarist Anton Hunter, drummer Johnny Hunter and double bassist Seth Bennett (who aren’t actually that much bound by straight rhythm). Incorporating cells of conventionally-written material as well as graphic notation, Sloth Racket music is an aggregation of explosive rips, broken-up hums, forcefully lyrical micro-interjections and tense silences. They’re up to their third self-released album, ‘A Glorious Monster’.

 
Alto saxophonist Dee Byrne runs Entropi, in which she’s joined by trumpeter Andre Canniere, keyboardist Rebecca Nash, drummer Matt Fisher and bassist Olie Brice. Their music is built on discombobulated, mutually superimposed grooves and deconstructive/reconstructive melodic parts and harmonies, continually walking a wiggly line between falling apart and dancing together. Dee keeps everyone involved on supple, elastic musical leashes, letting them roam to the limits before gently reeling them back in.


* * * * * * * *

In a couple of weeks, the Jazz HerStory season out east at Poplar Union continues with a gig from Nerija trombonist Rosie Turton, now bandleading in her own right and with an EP, ‘Rosie’s 5ive’ out this year on Jazz Re:freshed Records. Following in the footsteps of two of Rosie’s biggest inspirations, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, her 5ive band (in which she’s joined by Johanna Burnheart on violin, Maria Chiara Argirò on piano, Twm Dylan on bass and Jake Long on drums) works around a sensually airy intertwining of Indian violin, trombone and electric piano, in which adventurous tunes effloresce and sway around light-on-their-feet rhythm grooves: a clever, flowing, flowery architecture.
.


 
* * * * * * * *

Dates:

Venus Unwrapped: Entropi + Sloth Racket
Hall Two @ Kings Place, 90 York Way, Kings Cross, London, N1 9AG, England
Wednesday 13th March 2019, 8.00pm
– information here and here

Jazz HerStory presents:
Rosie Turton
Poplar Union, 2 Cotall Street, Poplar, London, E14 6TL, England
Thursday 21st February 2019, 7.30pm
– information here and here
 

February 2019 – upcoming English folk-rock-but-not-just-folk-rock gigs – My Octopus Mind on tour (13th, 16th, 21st, 22nd February) with Jakabol, The Display Team, Lapis Lazuli and Malika Collective; Hexvessel and Arktau Eos in London (22nd February)

10 Feb

Flexible Bristol almost-acoustic trio My Octopus Mind occupy a pleasing position, settled in their own web of connections between a number of different influences but reliant upon none of them. There’s a jazzy rattle, predominantly via the gloriously noisy effected double bass of Izy Ellis (a growling, punchy, conversational art-box; upfront timber and raw electronic treatments). The whole band’s informed by post-Radiohead/Mars Volta art rock and by the mating of contrasts implicit in assorted culture collisions (such the Hindustani-classical meets New-York-loft-music teaming achieved in one particular favourite, Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s ‘Passages’). Frontman singer and guitarist Liam O’Connell cites the sonic and psychological crescendos of Jeff Buckley and Josh Homme’s mix of heaviness and irony, but also the restraint of Jose Gonzales. Ex-Lambhorneer Oliver Cocup adds refreshed drum bounce, and racing through the whole thing is a rivulet – or, more accurately, an unstoppable jet – of skittish Balkan folk.


 
With a debut album, ‘Maladyne Cave’, nearing release, My Octopus Mind are out on a brief English tour wriggle this month, taking in Manchester, Canterbury, London and their hometown. In part, it’s to celebrate the recent release of their debut single Elska, with its increasingly disturbing Coppelian dance video (in which a man wheels an impassive doll-woman around in a suitcase, engaging in secret and increasingly frustrated trysts with her).

While Manchester is an evening for the band on their own, various temporary tourmates slot in elsewhere – in London, it’ll be the accomplished Afro-Latin groove band Malika Collective. The Canterbury show sports an eclectic psychedelic edge with local jam band and “maximalist psych-prog heroes” Lapis Lazuli plus the convoluted Zappa-brass meets London-urchin-pop of The Display Team (see passim) and psych/prog/punk funk/soul/dub/afro combination DJ interludes from Professor Appleblossom. The Bristol tour launch show, meanwhile, also features Jakabol, a warm Bristolian instrumental band in which violin, harp, guitar and drums leap and lurch tunefully around a set pitched midway between post-rock gutter and country hoedown (perhaps a further extension of the rural post-rocking I’ve been hearing from Rumour Cubes and Apricot Rail).



 
* * * * * * * *

Linkings between folk music and heavy rock go back pretty much all of the way to the start of the latter, especially in Europe. In plain sight, Led Zeppelin regularly immersed themselves in Welsh border hillsides and Janschian jangle; a little later, Jethro Tull brought in the jigs, liltings and mandolins while allying them to Ian Anderson’s witty, sardonic absolutely-in-the-moment songwriting voice (which swept in the eclectic interests and erudition of a restless, randy, contemporary urban boulevardier who could’ve make the idea of a leprechaun in your sitting room sound like something contemporary, adult and immediate rather than twee). In the ‘90s a swell of Celtic/Nordic folk metal and Gothic paganism via bands such as Skyclad led to a revival of mythic musical drama; in the Noughties, there was the feeling that the likes of Opeth were peering over their successive ramparts of black metal and prog in search of something offering more air and antiquity. Nowadays, you can hardly move for this sort of thing sprouting up from Ireland to Israel: driving a guitar through a hefty amp seems like one of the most effective ways to kick off an interest in your own folk history.

In many respects, latterday Anglo-Irish-Finnish heavy-folk-rockers Hexvessel hanker back to Tull – some of the lilts and jangles are there, as are the banging barn-door blurts of chunky electric guitar work – but they also trade in some of the dramatic minor keys and broody, nonconforming, subculture-meets-antiquity feel of Skyclad. Of course, this is probably incidental: it would be more constructive to reconsidering the swirling body of interests and philosophy surrounding singer and prime mover Mat McNerney. Despite Mat’s former black metal links (as “Kvohst”, he cavorted across stages with bands like Dødheimsgard and Code), Hexvessel avoid certain predictable pitfalls – no ludicrous demonic posturing; no arid hating; no polluted white-is-right old-Europe nationalism. This is primarily because under the corpse paint Kvohst always seems to have been a thoughtful and sensible chap with a well-calibrated bullshit detector, sorting the nourishing myths from the toxic ones.




 
Instead, Hexvessel explore a range of thinking stimuli – post-/pre-Catholic pagan magick; the connecting threads connecting contemporary Finnish woodland psych with the brooding kosmische stews of Amon Duul and the chatty verbal maximalism of early ‘70s British psych folk; comic book legendariums; and respectful pro-feminist reintegrations of women back into musical forms that have often wandered too far down macho paths. Later this month, they’re setting up camp at St Johns Bethnal Green; playing a London show as part of the European tour in support of brand new album ‘All Tree’, in which they’ve endeavoured to blend Mat’s memories of old ghost stories and other transmissions of folk culture with their own dramatic Samhain vibes and symbolic forest-folk musical experiments (including playing tree boughs with violin bows). Mat sees it as a way of connecting to Samhain’s liminal side; a time when ancestors, as spirits and memories, are that much closer.

Hexvessel’s tree-bowing was captured out by the band’s resident field recording/sound conjuring wizard Antti Haapapuro. In another incarnation – as half of sacking-masked ritual ambient/oneiric duo Arktau Eos – he and fellow Eosian Antti Litmanen open the show, rubbing the psychic gateways open with their primeval sounding drones, swells and invocation of significant spaces – simultaneously post-industrial and prehistoric, thrumming out of a green church, resonating nook or ancient gravehole like a stone-tape playback of ancient, dignified rites.

Steeped in hermetic philosophy and Apophatic theology, Arktau Eos come across as thoughtful ceremonial scholars in interviews such as this one in the ‘This Is Darkness’ ezine. Eloquent and courteous if you care to track them down for a respectful conversation, but unswayed by distractions from their business of the mining of the “ur-currents” of religious faith; the pull of site-specific mysteries, apprehending experience without attempting to stare it in the face or pin it down with sentences. In a similar spirit, I think I should just leave the descriptions there, as they stand. Essentially, it’s all in the sound and the placement, and the ceremonial use of the available moment. Understand them that way.


 
* * * * * * * *
Dates:

My Octopus Mind:

  • The Crofters Rights, 117-119 Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RW, England – Wednesday 13th February 2019, 7.30pm (with Jakabol) – information here and here
  • The Old Abbey Taphouse, Guildhall Close, Manchester, M15 6SY, England – Saturday 16th February 2019, 7.30pm – information here
  • UCA Bar Canterbury, New Dover Road, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 3AN, England – Thursday 21st February 2019, 7.30pm (with The Display Team + Lapis Lazuli) – information here
  • The Magic Garden, 231 Battersea Park Road, Battersea, London, SW11 4LG, England – Friday 22nd February 2019, 7.00pm (with Malika Collective) – information here and here

Old Empire proudly presents:
Hexvessel + Arktau Eos
St John on Bethnal Green, 200 Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9PA, England
Friday 22nd February 2019, 7.00pm
– information here and here
 

January 2019 – upcoming English rock gigs – Francis Dunnery’s ‘Big Lad In The Windmill’ mini-tour (18th to 20th January)

12 Jan

Next week, gloriously wayward singer-songwriter Francis Dunnery revisits his past with It Bites – in solo format – as he takes music from their 1986 debut album ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ out on an English micro-tour.

Francis Dunnery, 11th and 18th to 20th January 2019

When pompous would-be music tastemakers like myself roll out their list of great pop and rock albums of the 1980s, ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ generally isn’t on there. That’s unsurprising. As a decade, the ‘80s sprawled into outspoken ideological polarisation, during which it sometimes seemed as if everyone in popular music was a purist poseur of some kind or other; whether they were swanning about on yachts sporting terrifying ozone-threatening hairstyles, acting out grimly righteous/reductionist salt-of-the-earth positionings, haute-couture megaphoning about The Future or (rather more constructively) hurtling around America in vans trying to build an alternative economy. Perhaps that’s over-simplifying, but it’s certainly true that it was an age of vivid stances, and that some terrible and reductive snobberies developed as a side-effect of said stances and manifestos. In such a time and in such a milieu, ‘The Big Lad’ was the kind of album that wasn’t supposed to happen… and many people seemed (and still seem) to think it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

It Bites: 'The Big Lad In The Windmill'

It Bites: ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’

Admittedly on spec it was also a little preposterous. A shotgun marriage of glutinous, glittery ‘80s pop with hard rock snorts and cartwheeling prog stunts, it was recorded by four self-confessed working-class hicks from England’s gorgeous, isolated Lake District, who also happened to be unfashionably virtuosic as musicians. Possessing a keen ear for pastiche and adaptation, they’d had a prehistory back home as a badly-behaved covers band. Plying the tough Cumbrian circuit of nightclubs and working men’s clubs, they’d mastered reams of contemporary pop hits (Level 42, Police, Haircut 100 and so on) while simultanously nursing a profound love for the 70’s complexity and flourishes of Genesis and Yes, UK and Weather Report. All of which showed by the time they came to write their own stuff. By the mid-‘80s (abetted by resident keyboard popinjay and arrangements genius John Beck), Dunnery was putting together original songs which played on both sets of preoccupations.

Some smartarse once tagged It Bites as “bubblegum prog”, which isn’t too bad a label. It encapsulates the band’s mastery of the kind of throwaway immediate pop tunes which prove to have a tenacious, sticky life of their own: it also takes into account their taste for florid illustrative musical passages. In addition, their playing had a layer of fantasy-funk and soul itch (due to admixtures of Steve Arrington and Prince, plus Dick Nolan’s stalking, slippery bass grooves), and some hard rock crunch (staunch, sturdy drummer Bob Dalton was a Led Zeppelin guy at heart). Collectively, It Bites aspired to the well-drilled, muscular “follow-this” ethic of a black showband; which seemed to be judged as less of a virtue when coming from a white British rock band of the times, where restrictive amateurism or beefy stiffness was the order of the day.

Bear in mind that this was years before white-boy eclecticism inveigled its way back into mainstream rock and pop. Ween were still only releasing home-made cassettes; Jellyfish wouldn’t show up for another three years, and while Frank Zappa stubbornly flew the flag for stylistic fluidity, he was an elder statesman turned cult artiste in a niche of his own. Even Queen had calmed down a bit. Had they slipped into a more parodic approach lyrical approach, It Bites might have suddenly woken up to find that their nearest British equivalents were The Barron Knights. Fortunately, they took themselves a little more seriously: there was silliness in their playful approach, but it was matched by an earnest bravado which won them affection from audiences even as it drew critical disdain.


 
Once signed by Virgin and given a shot at making a record, It Bites treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to throw everything they had into the effort and stir it up like crazy. Throughout ‘The Big Lad’ they’re coltish and restless, latching onto impeccable mainstream pop-rock stylings only to suddenly career off into wildly played, cunningly constructed breaks. Turn Me Loose and I Got You Eating Out Of My Hand mercilessly run straightforward pop songs through a mill of transformational time and mood changes. Almost anything goes – heavy metal, jazz-fusion arrhythmia, Al di Meola flamenco, even the drum machine and Bontempi drone of a narcotized lounge act – although the band backtrack and flawlessly reconstruct the songs at the end.

Producer Alan Shacklock entered into the spirit of things with a vengeance. He kept a “riot track” free in the mix to capture the band’s raucous in-studio jabbering; he delivered a gleefully glittering plastic sound which revelled in every Japanese-digital synth chime, every start/stop noise-gate interruption and every over-exaggerated bit of sound-panning. He also accidentally sped up the master tape, resulting in the band sounding (according to Francis) “like Pinky and Perky.” The result was – and is – a record which feels like a sudden soda pop binge after months away from the stuff.

‘The Big Lad’ is generally remembered for a surprise Top Ten single. Cantering toytown hit Calling All The Heroes married the band’s musical deftness to old Republic serials, rocking cradles and boyhood cowboy games, fuelled by an earworm chorus and some sneaky false endings. (Presumably the Wild West schtick struck a chord with Shacklock – his own early ‘70s prog band Babe Ruth had recorded The Mexican, an Alamo-themed story with which Calling All The Heroes shares a number of passing musical similarities). For many people, this song is where It Bites have been permanently stuck: pegged to a couple of fanfaring pop hooks remembered by almost every Briton who lived through mid-‘80s chart pop. In the video a bleached’n’styled, cutesied-up Dunnery and co. bob nervously, like a loopier Go West, presaging the marketing problems which would plague them for the rest of their existence. Live, they’d pull out the full prog trickbag.


 
It’s a shame that the album’s glossy, hyperactive surfaces and loop-the-loop stunting make it easy to ignore the substance beneath. Fair enough: something like Wanna Shout mostly exists in order to run demented macho-guitar heroics over stuttering go-go synths, and All In Red does little more than throb like a fourteen-year-old boy’s heat dream of Zeppelin colliding with Level 42. This isn’t the kind of record you put on to remember angry alienation in pre-punk-era Manchester, or to recapture political struggles, or even to remember belonging to anything much (unless it was being part of the crowd which understood the band’s straightforward musical verve and the down-to-earth Cumbrian personalities which bedrocked it).

Yet elsewhere on ‘The Big Lad’, genuine stories about real people emerge from beneath Beck’s thunderous keyboard chimes and Dunnery’s barrel-roll guitar playing. The band’s follow-up single Whole New World is mostly forgotten. It’s actually a fine, agonised pop song, whose horn-assisted contortions marry dashes of dumped-bloke Motown and Memphis under the Christmas-tree synths. On first impressions, Cold Tired And Hungry might be a screamingly uncool rock-snortin’ melodrama, but on a second look its histrionics run parallel to the naked, hurt-boy stances Prince was trying on at the time (although it sounds more like Steve Marriott locked into a sobbing death spiral with Brian May).

Best, though, are a couple of tracks which embrace genuine personal memories rather than generic pop tropes. Under the bravado, Screaming On The Beaches is a flipside take on Calling All The Heroes’ daydream battles. Based on Dunnery’s teasing-out of traumatic wartime memories from his dad (who’d served as a soldier in the Burma Campaign), it’s tech-laden and roaring, screwing its disorientating picture of ordinary men coming apart under fire into a party mixture of twisted pop-metal riffing, jazz-funk cat pounces and Beck’s wailing keytar. Over the next few years, the band would polish it up into a stompingly danceable live highlight, demonstrating that they had almost as much in common with Trouble Funk as they did with Genesis. Conversely, You’ll Never Go To Heaven is one of the 1980s’ great lost lighters-aloft anthems. A heart-wringing Catholic-guilt ballad (capped with Philip Glass pulse-synths and angel choirs), it features a desperate, spiralling outro solo from Dunnery that sounds like Allan Holdsworth giving vent to a primal scream.



 
* * * * * * * *

Francis Dunnery’s come a long way from the nervous, bullish twenty-three-year-old he was when he recorded ‘The Big Lad’. Four years and two albums after its release, his restless nature (plus a much-confessed dip into a serious drink problem) split him away from his more stolid bandmates. While It Bites have gone on to have a belated second life without him, he’s spent the intervening time following a solo career demonstrating that he’s a rough diamond who decided that he prefers to stay a little rough.

At the time, the necessary polish and consistency required to play the pop game wasn’t right for him. It still isn’t, but he’s managed to turn it to his advantage. Now entirely independent, he follows his own particular muse, popping out records as and when it suits him, and building a relationship with his listeners which has the same mixture of generosity, conversationality and occasional cantankerousness as a genuine friendship. At fifty-six, Francis resembles that old lag with delightful hidden depths whom you might meet during stints on a building site: the one who retains his working-class saltiness, cracks wicked jokes and is still handy in a fist-fight, but likes to sit you down during lunchbreaks and talk about Jung, history and esoterica.

His records have run a similar lane-swapping gamut – the kind of tasteful fingerpicked adult pop which gives the genre a good name; acoustic meditations on life and wounds and healing; fanbase-bewildering dips into laptop R&B; reconstructive tributes to the gothic Cumbrian jazz-metal written by his late brother Barry, and so on. Psychology, astronomy, metaphysics, bite-backs and broad jokes litter his songs. Freed from the standard album-tour-album treadmill, a typical Dunnery gig is now a mixture of friendly encounter group and surreal pub talent night. As well as playing songs, he’ll be telling his audience stories, teasing them about prog cliches or dwarf porn, gleefully upending a performance with comedy and spontaneous competitions, or spicing things up with unexpected guest appearances from his capacious address book (could be a musical friend like Robert Plant, Theo Travis or Steve Hackett; could be an actual fucking pantomime horse…)

While they’ve kept much of the musicality, recent Francis reworkings of the ‘Big Lad’ songs (on his ‘Vampires‘ album) are a touch more sedate and patient – breezier, and partially shorn of their pyrotechnic plastic-synth fizz. In truth, while he’s still more than capable of wringing out the dazzling guitar flash and the singing, the years do make something of a difference: mostly because when set against later Dunnery work (with its accounts of mid-life bereavement, parenthood and the battles fought between a person’s ever-resistant roots and the idea of who they’re trying to be) ‘The Big Lad’ is a bit too callow and fizzy. It’ll always be a young man’s album – drunk on possibilities and grappling with the spirit of discovery while working out some of that immediate post-childhood angst; over-aware of its own muscles and energy; distractedly trying to jigsaw together a sense of history, background and its own place within it via song and allusion. Perhaps that’s part of the thinking behind retaining Francis’ onetime protégé Luke Machin (a former teen guitar prodigy-turned-twentysomething jazz/prog/metal ace) in a crack, hand-picked live band also including Tiger Moth Tales’ Peter Jones and Freak Kitchen drummer Björn Fryklund (plus fretless bassist Paul Brown, holding down the ever-underrated Dick Nolan role).

Regardless of this, even if ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ is two parts kiddie sherbet to one part brilliance – and even if you want to clobber it over the head as an example of undeniable ’80s excess – it still stands up. Looking back, it’s still recognisably Dunnery music, a handful of rough adolescent prisms through which his younger, fearful self blinks from underneath the dazzle. Catholic-rooted, disaster-prone but unstoppable; heartfelt and playful; naïve and wise; soft and noisy, driven and impulsive. The man Francis would become – the man he is now – is still waiting in those songs; waiting to be knocked into shape via further adventures, further bumps and arguments along the way. I bet that there are plenty of ’80s pop refugees who wish they’d written juvenilia like this: songs with heart, flash and legs.

Dates:

  • The Slade Rooms, 32-40 Broad Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1HP, England, Friday 18th January 2019, 7. 00pm – information here, here and here
  • Manchester Academy, University Of Manchester Students’ Union, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PR, England, Saturday 19th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7LJ, England, Sunday 20th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here

 

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