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REVIEW – Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’ single, 2013 (“setting things right as well as respecting the source”)

9 Sep

Fletcher/Fletcher/Reuter: 'Islands'

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’

Ironically, we often record cover versions to find out – or to show – who we are.

Markus Reuter, for instance, would prefer it if other people could stop telling him who he is. Too many of them are telling him that he’s obliged to be the twenty-first century’s Robert Fripp. They can’t get past his Frippic virtuosity on touch guitar, his past as a Fripp student, or his work with the man’s former King Crimson colleagues (in Stick Men and Tuner). They can’t even get over the fact that these days he plays all of the Fripp parts in the Crimson ProjeKCt…

Ah. Well, all right, but Markus’ vivid success in the sprawling latterday Crimson family shouldn’t have to box in a musician as stubbornly wide-ranging as he is. Yet it does, even though you don’t have to scratch him too deeply to discover that he’s not as enFrippened as he seems. When it comes to willful and wayward yet methodical 1970s virtuosi, Mike Oldfield is kernelled deeper in Markus’ heart than Fripp is. Hence this unexpected and open-armed cover of a long-forgotten Oldfield song, recorded by Markus in cahoots with long-term collaborators Lee and Lisa Fletcher, and demonstrating that Markus deals with more musical colours than just ‘Red’ ones.

A few sketchy parallels can be drawn here. When Oldfield released the original Islands single (back in 1987, towards the uglier end of his Virgin Records contract), he wasn’t entirely sure who he was. Though he’d made his name via intricate, acclaimed confections of multi-instrumental experimental rock, spatial Celtic folk and classical minimalism, by the mid-’80s Virgin had talked him into writing hit-and-miss pop songs dressed up with fat blobs of Fairlight, gated reverb and arena grease. The ‘Islands’ album floundered to cover both poles – a side of lengthy neoclassical fare (heavily spiced with chants, electric flourishes and whirring jazz flute) counterweighted a side of echoing pomp-rock (with straining guest singers and drums like torpid cannons). Even back then, this didn’t age well, despite spawning a vapid video album in which Bonnie Tyler and Kevin Ayers (in ‘Miami Vice’ regalia and power-frosted hairdos) sang and jostled their way through pastel-misted virtual realities and through corny CGI blizzards of New Age totems, ducking flying Tutankhamuns as they went.

At that point Mike Oldfield was pretty lost. Though he’d only stick the situation out for one more album (before rebelling and revitalizing himself via the inspired slice-and-dice music of ‘Amarok’) in 1987 he seemed beached. Islands – the song – ended up a little lost as well. Uniting strands of John Donne, Celtic Big Music and Dream Academy oboe, it could have triumphed over the crash of reverb: with its lyric of loneliness unclenching it could have become one of the decade’s all-join-hands power ballads. It even had Bonnie Tyler singing it, all sandpaper and yodels. What actually happened is that it floated round the middle of various European charts for a while and then sank.

In contrast to the lacquered, divided and ultimately stranded figure that Oldfield cut in the late ’80s, Lee Fletcher comes to Islands knowing himself and knowing what he’s doing. After a decade of quiet self-apprenticeship and networking, the Fletcher sound has blossomed into a rich pool of talented instrumentalists and instrumentation – digital blips to rattling jazz, frosty-fanged art-rock guitars to keening folk and glowing chamber music, choreographed with a mixture of precise delicacy and expansive flair. His auteur-producer take on Islands doesn’t just restore the song’s appeal. As a string quartet jumps from scratchy shellac recording to full live presence alongside uillean pipes and whistle – and as Markus rides happily at the centre of the song, his touch guitar chords and slithers fanning out like a nerve map – it restores the song’s lost Oldfield-ness. This could be as much rebuke as tribute. Either way, there’s the feel of setting things right as well as respecting the source.

There’s a little of the undulant Saharan patter of a Peter Gabriel song (reinforced by Tony Levin’s prowling spring of a bass part). There’s the spirit of an Irish pub session, too (Alan Burton’s pipework recalls other Oldfield moments, such as the haunted morning chills of ‘Ommadawn’ or Paddy Moloney’s warmer dip-ins on ‘Five Miles Out’ and ‘Amarok’). Finally, there’s the third side of the Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter team – Lisa Fletcher. Compared to Lee or to Markus, it’s less clear whether she knows who she is, musically. More to the point, it’s not even clear whether she thinks its important. She’s the only member of the F|F|R trio who’s got form for actual impersonation (if you don’t believe me, check out her startling Sinead O’Connor impression from an old series of ‘Stars In Their Eyes’) and for now, she’s keeping up that sensuous and welcoming vocal persona with which she helmed Lee’s ‘Faith In Worthless Things‘ last year – a flushed, de-gushed and beautifully controlled Kate Bush mezzo which slips supple invisible fingers round the lyrics, caresses them, and passes on by.

It’s a low-key take compared to Bonnie’s hearts-and-guts original. What matters, though, is that it works: a vocal and a sentiment that’s a welling rather than a sobbing, and far better at catching the quickening thaw that’s being voiced in Oldfield’s lyrics. Beyond the beautiful sound, Lisa remains something of an enigma as a singer and as an adept interpreter – still playing a game of veils in which flashes of other singers, other sentiments distract our curiosity, and behind which she’s drawing out other people’s words and launching them with the subtlest of spins. It makes me wonder what she’ll sound like when she’s singing her own songs. For now, she’s transformed Islands into a shimmering welcome rather than an emotive wrack, and has kept her own mystery as she does it. No easy trick.

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 10th June 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter online:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
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Lisa Fletcher online:
Facebook

Markus Reuter online:
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REVIEW – centrozoon: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ album, 2001 (“miscellaneous objects picked up on a bright afternoon”)

11 Apr
centrozoon: 'Sun Lounge Debris'

centrozoon: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’

Interbreeding the subliminal and the upfront, German ambient duo centrozoon first showed up in 2000 with the self-camouflaging, superbly effective ‘Blast‘. Icy and transformative (an album of elusive, subtle yet uncompromising music for a dissolving world), it was a deliberate hollow grail; an eerily crafted emptiness masking or bypassing outright emotion. The occasional fragmentary synth-pop hiccup broke this rule and humanised the duo (like a brief giggle or fart in the meditation), but ‘Blast’ was mostly all hints and invisible statements – a ghost-impression of grandiosity, a sumptuous erasing.

The six tracks of the follow-up, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ (put out on the quick-release art-rock label Burning Shed rather than, like ‘Blast’, on the more impassively arty DiN) turn out to be the product of a single day’s recording. With ambient groups being what they are, and the rapidly diminishing returns of minimal textures, it’d be fair to expect a series of belated out-takes. Markus Reuter and Bernhard Wöstheinrich could have exposed themselves as blanded-out or hopelessly jumbled: at best, retreading the magnificent displaced atmospherics of ‘Blast’. Fortunately, centrozoon‘s taste and inspiration are very much intact, and they’ve added some healthy lust and humour to the mix.

Admittedly, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ doesn’t have the quiet and eerie impact of ‘Blast’. The disordered-lifestyle title makes that implicit, whether the centrozooners are suggesting a J.G. Ballard dystopia or simply admitting that they, too, sometimes like to lie around in a mess of crisps, magazines and tanning lotion. The music – disparate and different in its swatch of moods – also indicates that centrozoon aren’t prepared to plough that same impeccable furrow as they did on their debut. In certain respects, ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ resembles a collection of miscellaneous objects picked up on a bright afternoon. However, any randomness is rapidly offset by the connective, collective intelligence which centrozoon exhibit, and by their clear eagerness to develop from their previous wintry and self-absenting perfection and move towards questions and delicate musical quirks.

‘Sun Lounge Debris’ pieces come, roughly speaking, in pairs. Two of the tracks, Tales Of Children In Trees and Harvest Girls, reveal depths (or, more accurately, widths) to centrozoon which have previously gone unnoticed. More on those later. The two remaining pairs take inspiration from the texture-based constructions of ‘Blast’ but move the ideas elsewhere.

From the throwaway ironic/pedantic titles, one of these ambient pairs suggests game-playing at work; toying with expectations. This One Will Please You could’ve been a ‘Blast’ outtake, were it not for its warmth – it’s a cosmic Mistral, entirely composed of atmosphere, thoroughly sunny and swimmy. The second – the displeaser – is darker, but where ‘Blast’ suggested urban dissolution (chilliness, shapes of buildings yielding to vapour) This One Won’t Please You implies some more rural outlines. More forbidding than its brother, it possesses a similar softness: perhaps a musical impression of the darkness hollowed out beneath the forest roof. The sinister side is provided in a sense of waiting for something unknown, something as yet unshaped in the mind’s eye.

Less cohesive – but bolder – than the Please tracks, another pair of centrozoon experiments jolts the project into more radical dynamics. In Sable Orbit is the most immediately striking of the two. As mushroom clouds of pipe-organ sounds are put through the MIDI wringer, pitches are set afloat in choppy spasms so that they billow in a vast and giddy skyward swell: a scrap of Messaien nightmare trapped in a Zeppelin. Several Chilled Wives follows the same approach with a little less alarm. Beyond its lazy, inexorable and monstrous lurches a circular harmony reveals itself, like the boundary of a horizon.

In almost all of these it’s unclear as to which noises are coming off Markus’ heavily processed and looped Warr Guitar and which emanate from the voice-banks of Bernhard ‘s synthesizers. In spite of their very different musical motivations – Bernhard spontaneous and iconoclastic, Markus scholarly and studied – both centrozooners are able to morph together without an evident join, as they did for much of the frosted blend of ‘Blast’. Harvest Girls – one of the two serious centrozoon digressions on the album, and the one which gives ‘Sun Lounge Debris’ its explosive, bliss-struck opening – is very different, and shows us what happens when centrozoon let themselves fall open into those two halves.

It’s revealing. While Bernhard blots an immense, swirling, stained-glass flange noise from his keyboard onto the sky, Markus lets rip with a richly melodic overdriven buzz of solo – an ecstatic Robert Fripp whoop. This is the polar opposite to his usual textural playing, with its concealing nature – this is a lusty, ascending and liberated firework spray of rock tensions, as healthy and randy as a summer party. The nasal-toned scurries and wails are closer to the excitement of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’ or to Joe Satriani’s triumphal histrionics then they are to more expected influences like Fripp or of Trey Gunn, with their devotional dissonance. The joy is unfeigned, but unashamedly synthetic in its plastic textures: you can hear centrozoon revelling in the fact. In response to Markus’ blaze of guileless prog-rock romanticism, Bernhard sends a cheesy synth-pad of concerto strings rebounding off the clouds. Apparently intent on mutilating any of the dodgy presets which he can entice out of his gear, he also offers up an undulating bass synth boom plus a taffy-stretched swathe of electronica which sounds like an evaporating glass harmonica.

Harvest Girls could be centrozoon trying on the bristly mantle of rock piggery and loving it; but Tales Of Children In Trees propels them forward into the world of dance. Those smooth swirls of ambience and the synth chuckles could have come from anywhere else in their ambient past and present, but they’re all tossed on a hustle of jazz breakbeats: a thinking pummel, assured and dominant. As an album closer, it suggests that centrozoon are already off their loungers and in fervid motion. If you came by to relax and slob out, you’re already too late. Next chapter engaging…

centrozoon: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’
Iapetus Records/Burning Shed (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 21st February 2001

  • Preceded by: Blast.
  • Followed by: ‘The Divine Beast’.

Buy it from:
Free download from Iapetus Records or Bandcamp. Originally released by Burning Shed as a CD-R album.

centrozoon online:
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REVIEW – Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’ remix mini-album, 2013 (“unstitched, re-embroidered, re-folded”)

17 Mar
Lee Fletcher: 'The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes'

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’

‘Faith In Worthless Things’ was one of 2012’s surprise pleasures. Lee Fletcher’s debut album was the late-blossoming distillation of years of work as engineer and confidant to assorted art-rock musicians, and of even more years absorbing influences and refining them in a budding songwriter’s heart.

What emerged was a sleek, assured and finely-honed planned-patchwork of an album. It pulled in sounds from touch guitars, Uillean pipes, crunchy rhythm loops, ukeleles, powdered trumpets and silky synthesizers; it mused on betrayals, work, bewitchment and people in general; and it drew on a wide but surprising coherent blend of string-quartet chamber pop, soul and trip hop, 1970s Scott Walker, King Crimson-flavoured progressive rock, electronica and Anglo-folk.

While Lee’s firm and expansive vision gave the album both shape and finish, it was also very much a group effort, achieved hand in hand with his singer wife Lisa plus the chameleonic touch guitarist/soundscaper Markus Reuter and a small battalion of interested musicians from around the world. This short album of follow-up remixes keeps that spirit, with a couple of returning collaborators and new reinventors let loose on the tracks.

Only two songs from ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ make it to this particular phase. There’s the title track – originally a humble state-of-the-world address sung by Lisa but dispatched by Lee, people-watching at the railway station in his Devon hometown, and sampling a picture of humanity from its wandering fragments on an ordinary morning. There’s also The Inner Voice, in which Lisa soars on a rich carpet of soul-inspired smoothness; delicately and beadily picking apart matters of confidence and collaboration, while unhitching – scuffed, but quietly determined – from a dragging entanglement. The latter was the album’s obvious single, so it’s interesting to see three different remixers work three different shades of pop out of it.

Of these, Brazilian proggers-turned-clubbers Worldengine offer perhaps the most satisfying reinvention – a slink-and-roll electronica take full of whispering creep, voice fuzz and closed-eye pulse beats. The smooth soul of the original is pared back in favour of odd, gently challenging chording and textures: as if Lisa’s vocal line has been gently unwound from its original branch and wrapped carefully around a new one. Imagine what might happen if David Torn had as much pop clout as Madonna does, and you’ll have some idea of where Worldengine take this.

Two other remixers take The Inner Voice further out, but perhaps with less originality. The mix from German DJ Ingo Vogelmann battles and switches restlessly between its whispering electronic-ambient chamber intro, heavily synthesized cyberpop and a naked acoustic strum. The onetime 4hero cohort Branwen Somatik offers a similarly morphing dance switchback – initially a slightly dubby hip-hop take with an eerie twist, then a transformation to minimally-sheathed soul-pop, finally melting away in a dubby whisper of liquefying beats.

There are no fewer than six versions of Faith In Worthless Things, including a return for Ingo Vogelmann who offers a mix replete with Orb/Jean Michel Jarre-flavoured electronica (strong on the breezy minimalism, and dappled with bits of dub and techno). Adrian Benavides has honed himself an industrial pop version full of collapsing sheet metal and drill bits. Fabio Trentini provides an ambient pop take with an art-pop tweak – part Japan (if the ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ era took precedence) and part Crafty Guitarist. Lee’s words and Lisa’s sweet-but-stately vocals sit, unfazed, in these new cradles.

Having said that, this particular song is less suited to being strapped into dance, and other approaches are preferable. Under his Hollowcreature alias, David Picking seems to realise this; he keeps and highlights the train-swish from the intro, brings Lee’s own warm and pleasant guide vocals to the forefront for half of the time, and comes up with a subtly dubby version of the song’s English pastoral feel. The latter quality is something which Tim Motzer appears to have picked up on too, as he moves Faith In Worthless Things into a more British progressive rock area. This he does via a number of changes – jazz vibraphone, the ghost of a hard-rock riff and eventually a build up into a Pink Floyd blaze replete with Gilmourian guitar. It seems obvious, but there’s some clever sleight-of-hand here: Lisa is metamorphosed cunningly by the new arrangement into a leathered-up rock goddess, all without a change to her vocal part.

Tobias Reber, on the other hand, manages to be both daring and successful in his own mix, taking an unexpected creative risk and pulling it off. He contributes the best of the remixes on offer, as well as the most original. His reconstructive take on the songs sees it unstitched and re-embroidered, re-folded. The song is re-imagined over an uneasy sea-roll of structure. New chording, constructed from the components of the original piece, produces a striking new perspective; a different place from which Lee, through Lisa, can watch the world and see its unsettling currents ripple past and under him.

Each remix, though, gently unbuttons ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ again and reminds us of that collaborative feeling which suffused it. The rolling and friction between Lee’s ideas and where his accomplished collaborators took them – a journey in motion.

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’
Unsung Records (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 5th February 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
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REVIEW: centrozoon: ‘Blast’ album reissue, 2008 (“let the music fall inwards”)

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

Disciplines become traps: beautiful sounds become honey-traps. This can be more obvious along certain musical paths than others. Two particularly susceptible paths are ambient-synth playing and the underground swell of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. The former can drift towards being a proliferating mass of lonely cells; each of them seeking an individual voice but often, obliviously, stuck in identical textures, wallowing in parallel. The latter follows a rigorous playing method and lifestyle which borders on benevolent culthood. While this banishes the shapeless flab which often devils ambient music, it can err in the other direction. At its best, the Craft births and burnishes exceptional players: at its worst, it produces musicians who devote themselves to obsessively burnishing a constant reiteration of stern, generic Fripp stylings.

When touch-guitarist Markus Reuter (an accomplished Crafty, and part of the Crafty-dominated Europa String Choir) encountered former Subsonic Experience electronics-coaxer Bernhard Wöstheinrich and formed centrozoon, the team-up had conceptual and practical lineage from both the Crafty discipline and the ambient flood. On top of that, by the time they released their debut album ‘Blast’ in 2000, there wasn’t anything especially unusual in what (on paper) they offered – an alliance of mutant fretboard work and left-field synth-noise, stretched and softened into a minimal ambience. In chasing that direction, centrozoon were following a path which had been trodden since the mid-’70s and the days of… well, Fripp & Eno.

Their peculiar triumph (which is clear even eight years later, with this expanded reissue) was that ‘Blast’ escaped all of the expected pitfalls and mudbanks. It’s not that Markus and Bernhard simply brazened it all out; nor did they overwhelm their listeners by assuming wracked and exaggerated musical personalities. Instead, they opted to simply get out of the way. With minimal shepherding, they let the music fall inwards of its own accord. This sounds like abandoning responsibility, but it’s not. Ultimately, and with the right kind of awareness and attitude, it’s a very effective way of letting the music take its own shape.

On a superficial listen, ‘Blast’ isn’t an obvious leap into the unknown; nor is it immediately shocking, then or now. Each of the four pieces on the original release could conceivably see the same use as other ambient experiments – a gloss for cosmic afternoons; sonic wrappings for art installations; chemical soundtracks for intellectual stoners on introverted afternoons. As for immediate originality, let’s say that Fripp fans enthralled by the oceanic, ambient-improvised textures of Soundscaping will find plenty of pleasure here. In particular, the widening ice-vapour agglomerations of Markus’ Warr Guitar textures in Empire are an immediate homecoming. As they stretch near-subliminal fingers out into the void, they’re subtly transformed by Bernhard’s lullaby synth-pulse; moving from austerity into something like the hopeful whistling of a small boy in the rain, safe in a shapeless optimism.

Transformation is a key process here. Markus’ extreme processing and honing of his Warr Guitar touch-playing into textural drifts and folds, all sounds of strings and fingers worn away; Bernhard’s unschooled musical impulses becoming constructive. Most significantly, their effect upon each other – formalist liberated by upsetter, randomiser cradled by knower.

Markus might dominate Empire – however passively – but it’s Bernhard (the part-time abstract painter) who leads the more baleful Sign. Here, the low buzzes and wah-swells of synth gradually open up into a mournful piece of grand European ambience. For Crafty guitarists and King Crimson fans alike, this is the most Frippertronical piece on the album. That said, Markus eschews any of those intensely compressed Frippish emotions in his playing. Instead, his touch-guitar yields little more than a distant, echoing subway-tunnel ambience. It pulls the listening ear after it, as if co-opting it into the pursuit of an invisible stranger who’s only just out of reach; or a far-off footfall which must be caught up with.

Even this early in their career, it’s the ability to trigger that kind of unsettling mood and engagement in the listener that set centrozoon apart, and eased them out of those Crafty/ambient straitjackets. Their eerie approach to layered tonality may have had its similarities to the Fripp approach, but it’s been taken a few steps further along. Blank and unsettling, it feels like a kind of purposeful decay, a deliberate whittling-away of what underpins expectations and security: hollowing it out only slightly, just enough to make a change that’s sensed. As a listener, you venture out onto it, but the sound of the settling structure disturbs you.

In many respects, time has left ‘Blast’ strangely untouched, and for all the right reasons. The Fripp & Eno analogy still holds, not so much over sound and mood, but over how Markus’ discipline and rigorous self-schooling and Bernhard’s iconoclastic instincts meet and envelop each other. Even at this stage, they’re astonishingly well integrated. It’s difficult to look at their work looking for cracks in the method. Unified and unruffled, it stares back at you, and it’s you that blinks first.

More self-conscious (or perverse) than the other tracks on the record, the hooded, atmospheric Sense cops a few tricks directly from 1980s art-pop. Sparse lines and pared-down chords of electric piano recall the pairing of Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian. A upfront electro-pulse (OMD meets ’90s techno) is carved up into a jazz shimmy, while Bernhard’s bloopy electronic punctuation sounds like nothing so much as a Simmons drum set catching the cheesy hiccups. All of these are eventually upended when Markus sets aside his Invisible Man approach in favour of a growing grind of slow-motion garage-static. In parallel, Bernhard’s underlay of sound gradually becomes more and more unstable and less and less comforting; eventually it hones itself into a subtly disturbing sheath of noise.

On the original ‘Blast’, Sense was the disruptive moment. Power – a held-back track from the album sessions, now restored to the reissue – demonstrates that it wasn’t as much of a one-off as it seemed. Post-‘Blast’, centrozoon would begin several years of thorough engagement with dance music (actually, a kind of wilful grappling) which would flower in 2003 with the thumping techno-prog drive of their ‘Cult Of: Bibiboo’ album. Three years earlier, Power anticipates this and delivers an early take. Its rocking knock of rhythm and Bernhard’s dirty twangs of synth are a shift towards the dance-floor, away from icy dreams. Markus’ misty blurs of Warr playing are more direct and sharpened than they are elsewhere on the album, roaming purposefully behind the electronics like a searching headlight. The musical layers climb eerily, growing into an alarming constellation of eyes as Bernhard works in a march-rhythm built from a racheting percussion pulse. Nine minutes along, the beat courses away and the music planes on into ambience and a slow fade of atonal spirals.

Placed at the end of the reissue, Power supplants the title track of ‘Blast’ as its grand finale. Drawing attention to the band’s drive onwards to its dance phase makes some historic sense, but it also displace the album’s original emotional core. After the disruptions of Sense, Blast doesn’t immediately seem disturbing. For a long time it remains as beautifully eerie but conventional textural ambience. It hovers around the same close, elongated and barely-there notes like steam in a cathedral aisle, coiling itself backwards in the winking lights from the synths.

Over seventeen minutes Markus and Bernhard gradually, imperceptibly marshal the potential of horrific awe that’s within the music until it’s staring you in the face. Its intensity is subliminal, its aghast tone somehow removed from imminent peril. The horror here is backwards-looking, specifically European and instinctive, reeking of a darker history without ever clarifying what that is. This could be just soundtracking; but if so centrozoon have found silent films of overwhelming cataclysm to channel the music for. At a pinch, it could be cathedral music – if so, the building’s traumatised ghosts have crept out for a whirling pageant of blood and fire. It could be a troubled, unanswerable requiem; if so, this one’s for a calamity that’s overtaken even God, even memory. There’s something about it that emphasises the absence of words, of the shapes that make sense. It’s less the blast, and more the invisible and unexpected shockwave – like a glimpse over the shoulder at the terrible beauty of impelled destruction.

In the coming years, centrozoon would prove themselves far more mercurial and direct than the music on ‘Blast’ suggests. Compared to the hammering pulse of ‘…Bibiboo’ or the leaping, detailed art-pop of ‘Never Trust The Way You Are’, ‘Blast’ now sounds like hidden music, or perhaps hiding music: Bernhard and Markus remote almost to the point of vanishing, keeping their skills on a low bleed. Even here, though, there’s a determined stamp that set them apart from the noodlers and set them on course – but that’s not all. There’s still something special about ‘Blast’ and its ability to etch such hauntings out of such hushed musicality.

centrozoon: ‘Blast’
Unsung Records/Inner Knot Records, UR004CD (4260139120307)
CD/download album reissue
Released: 2008 (originally released 2000)

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

Buy it from:
Iapetus Records or Burning Shed (CD); or Bandcamp (download).

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

REVIEW – Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ album, 2012 (“rich and delicate”)

28 Aug
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

And he came out from behind the console, and he spread out his dreams.

If you know Lee Fletcher already, it’s probably only in passing: maybe for the handful of mannered electro-pop tracks he and his wife Lisa have put out over the past decade as [halo]. More likely, you’ll know him for his extensive work as producer/engineer with centrozoon, Markus Reuter and with assorted King Crimson spin-offs including Tuner and Stick Men: well-established as a producer and engineer out at the more technical end of art-rock, you’d expect his own current music to be stark, or detached, or both.

It’s not just the question of his choice of colleague: it’s more that people in his position are generally there to get a job done, massaging and harassing slack musicians or their work into proper performance. If they’re of the more creative ilk, they might get to tweak their charges’ output into more original shapes. If they get around to putting out albums, these are likely to be back-to-basics vanity projects or all-star galleries of guest singers and studio flair – bought by fans for the tricks and the rarities, but then left to gather dust. Generally speaking, producers’ own records aren’t supposed to be romantic, aren’t supposed to be involved. Most especially, they’re not supposed to be revealing.

Lee Fletcher clearly has other ideas, and he won’t be doing quite what you expect of him.

Starting with the surface and working in… ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ certainly has the striking richness of sound you’d expect from someone of Lee’s experience. Live strings, wind instruments and solo cameos merge seamlessly with his own intricate programming and panoramic instrumentation in a fine blend of console wizardry and warm acoustic work. Rich and delicate arrangements encompass stirring contributions by guest players from right across the musical spectrum. Among others making their marks, the album boasts broad strokes and fine detail from art-rock guitarists Tim Motzer and Robert Fripp, jazz drift (from trumpeter Luca Calabrese, double bass player Oliver Klemp and drummer Matthias Macht), and sky-curve pedal steel playing from BJ Cole. Equally memorable moments come when Uillean pipes (courtesy of Baka Beyond’s Alan Burton) and, to particular moving effect, Jacqueline Kershaw’s French horn are woven subtly into the mix, set against sonic glitch and pillowy atmospherics.

If any of this orchestrated, cross-disciplinary lushness suggests other precedents to you, you’re right. Anyone familiar with David Sylvian’s electro-acoustic songscapes in the 1980s (or who subsequently took on the likes of Jane Siberry, Caroline Lavelle or no-man, whose violinist Steve Bingham plays a prominent role here) will recognise the wellsprings and traditions from which ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ draws. Miracles On Trees (a nimble quiltwork canon of touch-guitar, pipes and vocal harmonies suggesting Kate Bush fronting King Crimson) brings in additional strands of clean New Age-y folktronica, while more neurotic, Crimsonic arpeggios are stitched through A Life On Loan. Elsewhere, you’ll find fleeting, delicately organised touches from industrial electronica and dancehall reggae (as if bled in from a wobbling radio dial) and ingredients from Lee’s recent forays into torch song (via David Lynch’s protégée Christa Bell).  There’s certainly a strong debt to Scott Walker’s luxuriant orchestral pop work, made explicit via an enthusiastically dreamy cover of Long About Now.

However, much of the sonic recipe is Lee’s own spin on things – a developing and broadening sonic signature which began to unveil itself earlier in the year on GRICE’s Fletcher-produced  ‘Propeller’ (which featured many of the same players and a similar production ethos). ‘Faith In Worthless Things’ is also shaped by two featured players in particular – historically, the other two beats of Lee’s musical heart. On touch guitar, Markus Reuter adds a broad catalogue of supporting instrumental parts: textured or clean, rhythmic or melodic, banked-up or solo. While integral to the album’s fabric, his playing  also fades skilfully out of the foreground – although he’s constantly present, it’s as if he’s seen only in brief flashes, running through the trees, keeping pace with the sound. Meanwhile, Lisa Fletcher takes centre-stage (as she did with [halo]) to provide almost all of the album’s vocals as well as acting as Lee’s muse and interpreter. She sings even the most painstaking lyric with the cool, classical, adult sensuality of a pop diva who might at any moment slide off her long black concert dress and walk, naked and magnificent, out into the sea.

In spite of all of this sterling support, if you drill down through the music (past all of the tasteful production stylings, the guest players and the ornamentation) you’ll find a songwriter’s album underneath. While his physical voice is present only as a few murmured harmonies-cum-guide vocals dropped across a handful of tracks, Lee Fletcher’s songwriting voice entirely dominates the album. It even has its own particular hallmarks – a sophisticated way with compositional patterns which takes as much from chanson and European music as it does from Anglo-American pop; plus a yen for long, looping melodic journeys across an extended succession of chords. Lyrically he follows the earnest, philosophical musings of prog song-poets such as Peter Hammill; immersing himself in concepts or thoughts and writing his way through them with shades of classic verse, occasionally knocking frictional sparks against the constraints of the surrounding pop music.

There’s an interesting pull-and-push between this ever-so-slightly awkward lyrical grain and Lisa’s glossy-smooth vocals, just enough of a catch and grind to put a polish on the one and a depth on the other. When both Fletchers team up as writers on The Inner Voice, there’s an extra lift, bringing in the kind of hi-concept soul soar you’d have expected from Minnie Riperton or Commodores, or indeed from Janelle Monáe (if the latter’s leant over from a soul background to look into art-pop, the Fletchers seem to be leaning the other way.) The cruising, creamy melody hides some sharp barbs : the song’s partly an elegant kiss-off to a past lover or collaborator, partly a “won’t-get-fooled-again” statement of intent and new faith and intent. “You did me a great favour, in a melancholic way,” sings Lisa, in cool and assured tones. “The lesson learned and actioned for today / is to listen to the inner voice and serve that impulse well./ Have courage in conviction, break the shell.” Gracious in retreat, but along the way a polite yet lethal line of stilettos are being inserted into a turned and oblivious back (like some kind of vengeful acupuncture).

While Lee’s other lyrical concerns occasionally stretch to brooding worksong (“marching up the hill all day, fetching pails of water for the crown / Until the playtime whistle sounds, and blows your hallowed dreams away”) and wide-eyed nature worship (“the seasons are aligning/ Shedding Mother Nature’s silver skin /bringing balance to the timing”) he’s at his best when he’s drifting into the hazy realm of the personal. Part of this touches on the mutability and contradictions of love – its ability, in any given moment, to contain frailty and fears alongside strength, devotion and enrapturement. On The Number, he and collaborator SiRenée set up a picture of the start of intimacy as a phone call into the unknown: “Hello, you’ve reached the number of my secret voice / And though I asked you not to call / Your instinct made the choice… / I knew you’d call, I knew you’d love me… Stranger on the line, I’ve known you always.” Dusted by Luca Calabrese’s  sprays of muted Jon Hassell-ish trumpet, SiRenée sings the words in a misty bank of close and teasing harmonies – an enigmatic telephone nymph, she spins a spell of reflected longing as if at any moment she could either become flesh or simply vanish.

At the other end of the scale, where love is sealed and secure (with spouse, friends, family or perhaps all together), there is Life’s A Long Time Short; a Markus Reuter co-write in which an encroaching chill of the knowledge of ageing and death begins to gnaw at that security. “Our time is fleeting – / a love so true is truly painful. / A hurt that’s so divine – / at once the symptom and remedy.” Against a mournful ominous French horn line and a decaying fall of twinkling, dying Reuter touch-guitar chords, the song gradually passes from innocence (“there is no end, all time descends – / the trick is not to care”) to a warning (“there is an end. / Make all amends”)while Lisa sings with a subtle and breathless sense of disquiet, like a flickering ghost. All along, Lee watches with a poignantly shifting mixture of love, devotion and horror. Caught up within the current of time, all he can do is celebrate and confirm the life and value he shares in the now, while watching the inevitable washing-away and mourning coming closer and closer: “And as you grow, /  I watch in rhapsody / the miracle you are…/Inside I’m screaming.” 

On other occasions, Lee looks further outside, though it’s not always a comfort. Peering at the rapacious dazzle of television and pop media on Is It Me (Or Is It You?) he gets burned for his pains, then frets and growls out a proggy sermon about the callousness of the wider world: “Such a passion for freedom and brutality… / we pillage the living, ever seeking, kiss and telling morality / besieging all senses with apathy.” It’s the album’s title track that provides him with the still point which he needs. Out at the railway station café from dawn till dusk, notepad in hand, he’s watching the universe go about its business. Rails lead away to both possibility and obscurity; travellers move from place to place, passing through crowds while wrapping themselves in solitude; and Lee is “dreaming of the perfect future /  tall on tales, and short on truth.”

Here, out in the flow, he plays observer to small, everyday aggravations and hints at family disappointments spawning both small aches and broken-up little personal worlds: “children crying, mothers braying / Fathers absent once again.” Here, too, he finds his sympathy renewed, his understanding broadened: “all at one with situation – / Circumstance breeds condemnation / of our fellow man.” Encompassed by the lives and voyages of others,  surrounded by the signs and signifiers of both possibility and stagnation, he comes to a quiet acceptance of human fallibility and connection – “we’re bound by time, though here alone – / many rivers run as one. / Faith to heal the cracks within, / praying for life’s worthless things.” A small and modest epiphany, it’s the heart of the album and the song that binds everything together – including Lee’s divided impulses as skilled producer, exploring songwriter and man with a heart. Affection and anger, dislocation and commonality, families and strangers, nature and the grind, all linked under a lovingly gilded arch of strings, soft voices and soundscapes.

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’
Unsung Records, UR019CD (4260139121021)
CD/download album
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterBandcamp

REVIEW: centrozoon: ‘Boner’ album, 2012 (“a palette of capriciously shifting noises and sonic pounces”)

24 Jun

Centrozoon: 'Boner'

Centrozoon: ‘Boner’

Testing to destruction. For some, this isn’t a harsh and necessary process, but a judicious way of life. For the floating, ever-mutating alliance of centrozoon (magisterial touch-guitarist Markus Reuter and synth-bumping/pad-thumping lateral thinker Bernard Wöstheinrich) it seems to be a shrug of nature. Either that, or a compulsion. As centrozoon add to their body of work over the years, they’ve studiously avoided clinging to previous methods. Instead, they function as a kind of art-rock Laputa – hovering briefly over various musical terrains, dropping down tendrils to slurp up flavours and approaches. Despite their bone-dry sense of humour, they’ve always remained a little detached and aloof.

At the same time, centrozoon are driven hard by cryptic fascinations of their own, including their vigorous collision of schooled technical approaches and wild, derailing instinct. Their music has always been bipolar and simultaneous. Crude synth presets are embedded into beautifully-fashioned electric textures; ravening, artful touch-guitar solos play off the blunt wallop of electric whack-pads. En route, centrozoon have explored majestic dark-ambient drift music, ridden the clattering back of gabba techno (while flaying it to within a microtonal inch of its life) and spent time as rhapsodic prog-inspired melody men. In the early 2000s, they borrowed the lissom voice and hooded lyrics of Tim Bowness (on furlough from No-Man) to slide smoothly into a song-driven world of art-pop. Equally smoothly, Markus and Bernhard subsequently hit the eject button in order to reform as an introverted chamber electronics duo. Every time centrozoon go public, they’re different. Every time they seem to settle on a final format, they discreetly blow it up and start again.

Ultimately, centrozoon navigate their increasingly risky game of de-build and re-build by trimming back everything that they’d otherwise need to defend. They explode their identities as musicians to become a diffuse spray of wandering cells. They reduce themselves, once again, to enigmatic minds on the prowl; and now they’ve delivered the most abstract and challenging record of their career.

Emerging after a period of diversion, scatter and relative silence, ‘Boner’ suggests that it’s becoming increasingly pointless to define centrozoon‘s work as a clear interplay of individuals. Instead, their work has become a kind of willing entanglement into which each man – somehow – disappears at full volume. Suitably, the contributions of the band’s current third man Tobias Reber are mostly sonic collage (drastic laptop sound-mangling, heavily processed field recordings, occasional blurts of absurdist lo-fi vocal). With both Markus and Bernhard now enthusiastically jumbling up their own sounds, the band creates an intense and murky improvised electrophonic soup – extreme, exaggerately processed and roaming balefully across unstable tonal centres. It’s both utterly fragmentary and utterly involved. If anything, those interim years spent on other projects have only added to the creative centrozoon seethe, bringing the musicians and sounds closer together.

Where ‘Boner’ stands in the wider scheme of music isn’t clear. Not jazz – there’s no swing here, few melodic rushes or pursuits of harmony, no acknowledgement of pop moves. Not ambient as such – despite the atmospheric swishes of sustained texture, there’s little solid order and continuance, and precious little commitment to minimalism. Something in the drive and stance of the music links it to the far fringes of experimental rock. If so, it’s clinging on by a fingernail.

These new, uncomfortable compositions hang in the air like spasming irises or like nested Venetian blinds: multi-layered, periodically flexing open and shut to reveal new textures and patterns. Ever restless, centrozoon shuffle each and every one of these layers, flying in further sound-fields in the blink of an eye. A dribble of coffee-maker noise jump-cuts to a rumble of bass strings. A radiophonic pot-swoop is overwhelmed by a ringing metallic chord or an imperative percussion thump. In the arrhythmic wander of La Waltz of Kirk, hints of Zawinul tropicalia well through the gaps. On Cervus, ominous and dissonant passages in a classical-minor form recur first as vaporous synth pads, then as overdriven bassy touch-guitar lines.

You could try to cite assorted chaotic improvisers, plunderphonic artists and mixing-desk contrarians as close cousins to this music. However, what remains clearest (most evidently on the rumbles, quick body-blows and Mellotron hangings of Knock Outs) is centrozoon‘s familial relationship with King Crimson. More particularly, with that band’s most left-field improvisations – the atonal busyness of the ProjeKCts; the poly-everything lurch and creak of the ’90s Double Trio (spattering pulped MIDI all over the stage on ‘THRaKaTTak’) and the spidery skitter of ‘Starless and Bible Black’. The post-modern stomp of Markus’ work with another Crimson spin-off – Tuner – is also present. Both Tuner and ‘Boner’ share a hypnotic mixture of harshness and disorientation; an over-arching, out-of-focus beauty; and a grate-and-chop, channel-surfing mixture of signals to pour into your ears. Like Crimson, centrozoon also possess a rigid skeleton of stateliness which glides serenely through even their most chaotic improvised scrambles.

While attempting to make sense of this scattered map, it’s equally important to point out that centrozoon are also exploding the idea of what a commercial music album ought to be. Generally, such things are self-contained musical statements – linked to a point in time, a specific intent and a clearly-defined sales package. In making ‘Boner’, the band embraced as many constructive (and deconstructive) possibilities of chance, reinterpretation and creative dissension as they could. Hundreds of initial hours of free trio improvisation were cut and pasted into new compositions; then a third layer of process was added via two outside remixers, each of whom independently cloned and mixed down the finished sessions.

The result is two twinned but different takes on the final album, with different mixes and track sequences (the Marziano Fontana version emphasising those dramatic cuts and layering, the Adrian Benavides mix more spacious, smooth and chilly). Additionally, centrozoon sell ‘Boner’ in a bewildering variety of packages (via its “Bonestarter” campaign), with diverse extras plugging into the deal like bonus phone apps. Options now include one or both album versions; further choices of formats and downloads; signatures; custom clothing; original artwork; even personal access via one-to-one conversations or touch-guitar lessons.

It’s not that these moves, in themselves, are new. Alternate mixes and reinventions are commonplace, and compositions via mixing desk and improv have been around at least since Zappa. Jane Siberry has offered special-purchase deals with souvenirs and judicious personal access for years. What is new is centrozoon‘s audacity in coupling all of this to such a demanding, avant-garde musical package.

Even without the bonuses, ‘Boner’ may prove to be an incomprehensible palimpsest for many listeners – a palette of capriciously shifting noises and sonic pounces. For others, these same qualities will be a selling point. With colossal chutzpah and confidence – and a disregard of risk – centrozoon are selling the album with all of the confidence of arena rockers touting a singalong blockbuster. Bold, yes – and also pretty funny.

But ultimately, buying one of these bonus-laden ‘Boner’ arrays is rather more significant than buying a box-set edition of a rock album. Those who go for the full-deal set of clothing, decoration and tuition won’t just be grabbing nick-nacks, but buying into a whole centrozoon artistic method: effectively, into a way of life. As a consumer, how can you be sure that you truly own and understand the bewilderments of ‘Boner’ unless you have the Grand Deal with all of the trappings and the chance to press flesh with its creators? Alternatively: if you just own your preferred single recording of ‘Boner’, have you identified its core source, and swept aside all of those commercial refractions; all of those fetish fruits to sweeten the pill?

All of this casts up more questions than answers… as does the album itself. Those who don’t want to embrace the whole Bonestarter frenzy (and ultimately, even those who do) will ultimately find that their involvement will boil down to whether or not they find ‘Boner’s relentlessly abstract, unaccommodating music worth the investment.

Cautiously, I’d say that it is… although I’d add the warning that this music will never be quite what you expect it to be, or what you try to force it to be. Material of this nature is tough to understand, as such – you need to intuit instead, working your way into it. As you’ve seen, ‘Boner’ has already spun over a thousand analytical words out of me as I try to get to grips with its multiple paths and detonated form. Yet my primary reaction to the album is visceral and instinctive.

Beyond the chopped-up structures and the modular marketing, I’m listening to a trio persistently and inexorably falling into the realms of utter abstraction, only to pull themselves back out by their fierce musicality as players and editors. What I’m hearing through the hundreds of shifts and swaps is their determination to plot a course through this humming chaos. The cautious and catlike way in which they place their feet, while otherwise convulsing their music so utterly. The manner in which they orbit and flirt with musical collapse, like a capsule orbiting a threatening black hole.

It’s these things that I remember, past the sing-song AutoTuned rants in Bright Meowing and Smoked Info Monster; past the pocket-calculator seizures of Weak Spelling; even past the jigsaw-puzzle Bonestarter sale of mixed music, time and trophies. It’s this determination that links those fleeting glimpses – around jump-cut corners – of fingers hammering down on strings, keys and mouse buttons before vanishing into the edit.

centrozoon: ‘Boner’
Unsung Records,
CD/download album (plus assorted packages)
Released: 9th May 2012

Buy it from:
Centrozoon directly (includes various Bonestarter packages as mentioned in review), Burning Shed or Bandcamp

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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