Tag Archives: music from Cambridge (England)

June 2016 – upcoming gigs – picking through BBC Music Day

29 May

BBC Music Day

The annual BBC Music Day comes up this year and this week on Friday 3rd June. It’s a generally beneficial nation-building exercise in typical BBC style, informed by magazine-style news, middle-range tastes and light entertainment. Much of what’s on is comfortably communal – plenty of light music choirs, familiar regional touches of brass and pipes.

In all fairness, there’s plenty here to like. There’s a scheme organising gentle live shows in hospitals throughout Scotland and England. There’s a focussing on church bell ringings around the country which is free of gimmick and simply lets the art speak for itself (emphasising both its national status and its localism). There’s the ‘Take It To The Bridge‘ programme, during which the nation’s bridges will be briefly overrun by symbolic musical meetings, community choirs, time-travelling orchestras and local songwriters.

Twelfth Doctor with guitar

Sadly not joining in with any time-travelling orchestras…(© BBC 2015)

There’s also a strong sense of that other nation – the one which the BBC still encourages in the face of rumbling political dissatisfaction, manipulation and discomfort. It might be a non-partisan wash of generic English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish decency which doesn’t offer much to scare the horses, doesn’t break a sweat breaking new ground, and doesn’t ultimately provide much event-by-event challenge; but it should still be applauded for at least trying to encourage common ground and (at a time when art is being squeezed out of schools) a culture of engagement with music. For the full programme – and for British readers who want to find out exactly what’s going on in their region – check the links above.

For what it’s worth, I’ve been sifting through the programme with my jaundiced, picky eye and selecting out what I feel are some of the more unusual or rewarding events dotted around the comfy musical quilt (more or less in order of occurrence), starting in the middle of another festival in Hay-on-Wye…

BBC Radio 3 Live/Hay Festival presents:
Hay Festival Guitar Jam with Morgan Szymanski
Friends Café @ Hay Festival Site, Dairy Meadows, Brecon Road, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5PJ, Wales
Friday 3rd June 2016, 9.30am

BBC Music Day - Get Playing!“Prior to his Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert (a collaboration with the Cremona String Quartet at 1.00pm, and already sold out) classical guitar ace Morgan Szymanski will be inviting amateur guitarists to join him for a morning guitar jam. Help create and perform a brand new piece for a hundred guitarists to be featured in the concert. Morgan will lead you through the process, whatever your level, from beginner to advanced. The event includes a special master class from Nitin Sawhney on playing the guitar.”

Unlike the walk-up nature of most of the other events listed here, a Hay Festival ticket is required for this one.

In Cambridge…

BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presents:
English Pocket Opera vs. Imperial & K.I.N.E.T.I.K
Silver Street Bridge, Silver Street, Cambridge, CB24 5LF, England
Friday 3rd June 2016, 11.30am

English Pocket Opera will be performing on a punt through the waterways of Cambridge. As they approach Silver Street bridge the opera will be joined by a local ‘BBC Introducing’ hip-hop duo Imperial & K.I.N.E.T.I.K, on top of the bridge. Hip-hop and opera will merge to create a brand new sound.”

Christ, this one could be a car-crash in multiple senses. I mean, it’s hard enough to handle a Cambridge punt at the best of time – it’s an unhappy marriage of Newton and Zen – let alone try to synchronise it with anything else. Still, given the sunny, positive and playful nature of both sets of musicians involved (don’t expect a collision of ‘Wozzeck’ and Kanye), let’s give them the benefit of the doubt… and just to put it into perspective, I‘m an appalling puntsman and these guys know their music.



 

In Nottingham…

Afro Therapy, 3rd June 2016Can’t Stop Won’t Stop presents:
Afro Therapy: featuring Jourdan Pierre Blair + Ella Knight + Early Bird + Garton + D Dot + others tbc
Rough Trade Nottingham, 5 Broad Street, Nottingham, NG1 3AJ
Friday 3rd June 2016, 7.00pm

“Live music and DJs will be putting music of black origin in the spotlight. Unsigned and independent artists Ella Knight, beat maker Early Bird, and MCs Garton, D-Dot and Jourdan Pierre Blair (the last better known as Jah Digga) will represent a range of R’n’B and hip hop styles with a British stamp on global music. This free event is open to people over the age of 14.”

I’ve got to say that – for all of the community ethos being trumpeted elsewhere – this show is probably the most proactively street-level event on a day which needs to be about everyone in the country, not just people who like choirs and crumpets. (I’m not trying to bitch here; I just… noticed.) Here’s a run of video and soundclips for most of those involved.





 

Sheffield also deserves credit for working outside the comfy box…

A Law Unto Ourselves, 3rd June 2016

Yellow Arch Studios present:
A Law Unto Ourselves: The Eccentronic Research Council (featuring Maxine Peake) + The Death Rays of Ardilla + Sieben + The Third Half
Yellow Arch Studios, 30-36 Burton Road, Neepsend, Sheffield, S3 8BX, England
Friday 3rd June 2016, 7.30pm
– free event – more information

This is probably the most experimental event of the lot: an opportunistic but rewarding live spotlight on Sheffield’s unique independent music scene. There should have been more events like this dotted up and down the country – not necessarily with an experimental pop thrill, but emphasizing local current indigenous music which could only have happened in particular towns and at this particular time. All respect is due to Sheffield musicians, to the Yellow Arch venue and to curator Sophie Toes for taking the trouble to spot this challenge and rise to it.

Probably the biggest draw for A Law Unto Ourselves are the headliners – The Eccentronic Research Council, barbed and crafty exponents of their own scenic and sample-heavy “library/soundtrack, experimental, folkloric/non-populist pop”. They’ll be accompanied by their own established muse and mouthpiece – Maxine Peake (actress, declaimer, proud overturner of complacent applecarts) – and are the most questioning act across Music Day, bringing a touch of dissent, argument and the British radical tradition into its general cosiness. In support are spaced-out and (literally) brotherly garage-rock duo The Death Rays of Ardilla, Sieben (a.k.a. beater, plucker, tickler and layerer of voice and violin Matt Howden) and The Third Half (a duo who combine and alternate harp, celeste, guitar and voice in “twenty-first century neo-pastoral rare groove”).

ERC


There will also be DJ sets from representatives of some of Sheffield’s other interesting underground or experimental bands – spooky lysergic-child-song folksters Antique Doll, progtronicians I Monster, psychedelic country-and-western band The Cuckoo Clocks – plus one from Sophie Toes herself. There’s limited capacity for this show, so early arrival is recommended to avoid disappointment.

* * * * * * * *

In Bristol…

Charles Hazlewood and the British Paraorchestra
Colston Hall, Colston Street, Bristol, BS1 5AR, England
Friday 3rd June 2016, 8.00pm

“After the success of last year, the ground-breaking British Paraorchestra, the world’s first professional ensemble of disabled musicians, return to Colston Hall to perform for BBC Music Day. The group is headed up by Charles Hazlewood, a genuine pioneer and innovator in the world of classical music. In a unique show, the Paraorchestra will be joined on-stage by performers from Extraordinary Bodies, the professional integrated circus company and partnership between Cirque Bijou and Diverse City. The combined effect of The British Paraorchestra and Extraordinary Bodies playing ‘In C’ by composer Terry Riley, promises to be cathartic and uplifting. The aural equivalent to climbing inside a giant lava lamp.”

On spec, this may sound like a case of worthiness over content – but while it’s true that (despite the Riley) the Paraorchestra plays its fair share of light-ent pop transcriptions to sugar the pill, albeit in its own way – it’s also worth noting that the ensemble isn’t just about the state of bodies. The Paraorchestra also explodes a lot of ideas about how an orchestra might work, in terms of instrumentation and approach: likewise, Extraordinary Bodies has plenty of challenges and delight to offer. See below:

 

…and finally…

Shaun the Sheep

Aardman Animation/Colston Hall/Bristol Museums present:
Shaun the Sheep’s Vegetable Orchestra
Studio 2, The M Shed, Princes Wharf, Wapping Rd, Bristol BS1 4RN, England / Colston Hall, Colston Street, Bristol, BS1 5AR, England
Friday 3rd June 2016
Workshops and rehearsals at Studio 2: 10.15am, 11.15am & 12.15pm (tel: 0117 352 6600 for details)
Veg Orchestra Finale! featuring Shaun the Sheep and his Vegetable Orchestra at Colston Hall: 1.40pm

“In celebration of BBC Music Day and Aardman’s 40th anniversary, children are invited to join Shaun the Sheep and become part of his Vegetable Orchestra for a live performance at Colston Hall. (There will also be an Aardman birthday singalong and cake presentation.) There will also be pre-performance workshops at M Shed to decorate your veg instruments and learn how to play your part, all set to the ‘Shaun The Sheep’ theme tune. Workshops presented by Farmer characters & Shaun himself, it’s ‘flock ‘n’ roll’ for all ages and all set on Mossy Bottom Farm!”

Sorry. For a variety of reasons (parenthood, humour, a taste for experimentalism and a love of everything Aardman-esque) I just couldn’t bloody resist that last one… and it turns out that the foremost practitioners of the vegetable orchestral art are as cheerfully experimental and conceptual as anything else I tend to feature in here…


 

REVIEW – Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’ album, 1999 (“scraping waves and langorous tides”)

10 May
Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: 'Thin Air'

Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’

I could take the easy route first and say that if you’ve heard ‘No Pussyfooting’, you’ve more or less heard ‘Thin Air’. But that’d be a weaselling statement: technically correct but still untrue, and also of neither use nor value to you. As if I said that the most important defining characteristic of an apple was that it was round and green, and thought that that was all there was to it.

Yes – it is true that the Bearpark/Chilvers album is very Fripp & Eno (or a close musical cousin to Richard Pinhas). Its five tracks (titled, without fuss, One to Five) make up a little under an hour of droning, buzzing, looped Les Paul guitar textures and minimal synth. It comes in scraping waves and langorous tides, sometimes broken by a tightly-controlled welling of overdriven melody. The Frippertronics comparison is more than appropriate: it’s exact. Here is the same methodology, and similar equipment – although Peter Chilvers’ digital keyboards and hard-drive recording are far removed from Eno’s primitive VCS3 and Revoxes back in 1972.

But with that said, we can move on to the distinctions. It’s the same methodology, yes – but with a different intent. Fripp & Eno were taking a vacation from disciplined, cunningly constructed early ’70s art-rock when they made ‘No Pussyfooting’. While they’ll have absorbed the same influences second-hand (not least through Fripp and Eno themselves), Bearpark and Chilvers’ active roots lie in the lusher ambient fields of the ’80s, the small home thoughts of the ’90s, and elsewhere. For feeding grounds there’s been the avant-garde songwriter croon of Samuel Smiles (of which, together, they make up half the line); the ethereal, tranquillised nu-folk of Chilver’s Alias Grace project; and the remarkable extended electrophonic improvising of Darkroom in which Michael coaxes and abuses guitar, and in which Peter occasionally guests on subliminal bass noises.

Consequently, ‘Thin Air’ simply doesn’t have the same flavour as ‘No Pussyfooting’ – although there’s a case to be made for its relationship with the subsequent ‘Evening Star’ centerpiece Wind On Water, or indeed with David Sylvian’s Fripp-starring Gone To Earth. The music here is more accepting of meditative flows and of fallings-into-place than Fripp & Eno’s passive-aggressive merger of science and chance, where the tones bristled like affronted scholars even as they delivered their assertions. New Age it’s not, though; finding a rich and revealing depth as it surrenders to the floating moment. As One progresses, Peter’s keyboards become more predominant as well as more sacramental in tone; swelling in sermon-ish washes or setting out tiny, meditative piano lines like an English Roedelius. Three sees him levitate a celestial synth in a bathe of high, light sounds over a sawing, working guitar loop, ending in what feels oddly like a High Church benediction.

Michael Bearpark – though he’s a Fripp-ish soundpainter for sure – has a very different musical personality. Dirtier, more repressed and seething than Fripp’s near-religious passion and pilgrim’s drive to grace, his slow-hand playing is actually more bloody-handed; sometimes leaning on notes as if he was trying to crush them, or to push their heads underwater and drown them. And there’s a strong element of filtered, chemically refined blues welling through the music; an ultra-distilled moan of frustration and clenched force, adding an extra human bite to the industrial friction sounds that gnaw gently in the background. All of the above makes his ultimate surrender to the trance more affecting.

What’s most revealing is what the two musicians give to each other in this context. Michael’s drawn-out, demanding focus draws Peter away from his tendencies to sober prettiness. In turn, Peter’s thoughtful but assertive calm (the pastor to the guitarist’s restless congregation) helps Michael to allay his own wayward illbient tendencies. And fortunately the result’s a compound of the two, rather than a dilution. If Two has the tightest discipline (a deep comforting growl of a bass loop, a starlit synth chord journeying from space to space in the stretched weave of guitar patterns), Four is a fall-apart – a dissolving narcosis of disintegrating guitar arpeggios over the looping waft of a nearly-was organ. Five is an absent farewell, looped up and down like a slow-motion roller coaster at midnight. The attention is elsewhere, but it’s gently captivating.

Yes, in terms of equipment lists and step-by-step instructions, this is something you’ve heard before. But one thing Michael Bearpark and Peter Chilvers prove on ‘Thin Air’ is that, whatever the gear and gizmos, this kind of process music is formed first and foremost by personalities – not by equations, function maps or manuals.

Michael Bearpark/Peter Chilvers: ‘Thin Air’
PeopleSound, 270370 (no barcode)
CD-R-only album
Released: 1999

Get it from:
The original PeopleSound CD-R is now long-deleted and best obtained second-hand. The album has been reissued as a CD-R by Burning Shed.

Michael Bearpark online:
Homepage Facebook Last FM

Peter Chilvers online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

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

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

22 Sep
Darkroom: 'Seethrough'

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW: Darkroom: ‘Daylight’ album, 1998 (“subtly distressed electronica”)

4 Aug

Darkroom: 'Daylight'

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’

To work out where Darkroom are coming from, you could do worse than take a look at ‘Daylight’s arresting cover. It’s a study of sturdy, corroded old industrial tanks, encircled by metal stairways and surrounded by a devil’s playground of battered, abandoned plastic drums. The drums are marked with hazard labels but yawn open, suggesting that their toxic contents have long since leached out into the environment.

Behind the towering tanks is a radiant blue sky and a slanting blanket of pure white fluffy cloud, against which they rear up like Reims Cathedral. It’s beautiful, in a warped way – the wreckage and castoffs of a once-bright new industry that, nonetheless, continue to assert themselves. Yet in this toxic paradise there’s not a person in sight.

No, this isn’t suggesting that Darkroom are the sort of electronica trio who revel in futurism, and who excise humanity from their orderly sequenced and oscillating musical vision of the world. The opposite is true. Darkroom’s music (in which Os’ sequences and textures are balanced by Michael Bearpark’s mutated post-industrial guitars and Tim Bowness’ naked swoony vocal wail) has humanity in spades. The live instrumentation and vocalising unites with the programmed sound and beats in a way that’s rare in over-purified electronic music, but in the music that emerges – one in which the technology provides uncertainty rather than comfortable form, and in which the threat of chaos and upset looms constantly in the background – the main note sounded is one of loss. One of the main qualities of daylight, after all, is its impermanence.

Via a previous EP, we’ve already heard the discontented seethe of Carpetworld: roof-skittering drum’n’bass with guttering snarls of wounded guitar and Tim’s voice reined in to a hooded whisper of acidic verbiage – the only lyrics on the record, and they’re about bad sex, looting and dodgy discos. We’ve also heard the beautiful flush of ‘Daylight’s title track: a tumbling chant (mournful but blissful) against a slow wallow of bass, the singing notes of Mike’s Frippertronical guitar, and Os’ dawn chorus of flickering sound. Darkroom can do in-yer-face, and they can do strokin’-yer-cheek. They do each of these in roughly equal amounts. Often they do both together, in an elusive blur of ambiguous emotion – the sort that makes you keep one eye on them and the other, anxiously, on the door; but which keeps you held in place, unable to resist the desire to see for yourself what comes next.

Ambiguity is in fact the keyword for this music. Brash, defined techno structures are missing, their place taken by sketchy outlines which the trio fill up with evolving, chaotic detail. The beats are light-footed: slow breaks languidly pacing the background, or pattering techno pulses like rats’ paws. The electronics hum like supercharged fridges close to bursting flamewards, or keen out lovely auroral shivers in the sky and in the shadowed spaces. Tim’s full-voiced mixture of blurred word-shapes and sub-verbal whoops are sometimes Buckley-ish in their tortured flamboyance, sometimes more like Liz Fraser’s outraged brother. Melodies drift, loop and contort: massy and queasily mutable, cloudscapes tortured out of their natural forms by the force of some cruel idiot god.

Sometimes Darkroom’s music sounds like Underworld (though tumbled from their throne and reeling with the impact of a massive nervous breakdown) or like Fripp and Eno sailing their boat into much more malevolent waters. Sprawl growls its overcast way past complex shifting slapping beats, squelched bass, crushed radio-talk and vocal frailties; a baleful camera scanning a wasteland. The opener, Crashed, is strung out, lovely but disfocussed, with a streak of elegant suffering running through it. The guitars rattle like motoring moon-buggies, the voice oppresses like a summer shower, and somewhere in the background, behind the throaty tick of percussion, a lone voice of optimism: a marimba chinking out its own little Steve Reich wavelet.

There are episodes of naked grace on board, beside the pollution, but ‘Daylight’ is still one of the most subtly distressed records to wriggle out of late ‘90s electronica. This is most obvious in the wrenching, frozen agony of Vladimir; but Died Inside seems to sob in anticipation for a collapse waiting to happen but never quite arriving. Looped calls, lilting gasps are answered across a chill and echoing gulf by the icy fuzz of a guarded guitar, prowling and snarling in its own isolation. Once, Tim’s voice reaches a rare degree of intelligibility – a panicked, unanswered plea of “d’you feel the same?”

The wonder that comes close in hand with this fear is laid out explicitly in No History. A soft hip-hop beat holds down the sky-stretchingly rapt vocal and the beautiful subterranean guitar moans: a soundtrack to the forever-flavoured moment when you lie stricken at the bottom of that fatal crevasse, watching the last and most brilliant stars of your lifetime pierce the beckoning void overhead. Like a fleeting memory of softer times, a snippet of (Sittin’ On The) Dock Of The Bay slips in. The amplifier buzz at the end is a benediction.

If there’s a time when there’s resolution, it’s when those two questioning background voices reach out across the comforting pulse of Estragon – Michael’s guitar like a high, bowed bell, Tim toned down to a florid whisper. Still, as it sails on towards its hushed conclusion, the key feeling of ‘Daylight’ remains one of loss. A lament for something unknown, but something voiceable. Something long gone past but reaching out for you again, as the day goes down and fades off into the poisonous beauty of a industrial sunset haunted by old unquiet ghosts.

Darkroom: ‘Daylight’
3rd Stone Ltd./The Halloween Society, HAL 8002 CD (5 023693 800226)
CD-only album
Released: August 7th 1998

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’ album, 2002 (“easy, generous grace”)

2 Jul
Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: 'Conversations'

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’

Talk’s cheap, and so am I… at least, when writing intros. I was going to pursue the “conversation” theme by squeezing in comments of my own about eavesdropping on musicians, or about the Troggs tape, or the language of notes. Then I put all of my smart-arse lines down, and just listened.

There are some records about which it’s difficult to say anything. Much. They crop up when you want to get expansive and to show off: and then you find that you just can’t use them as launch-pads for spectacular rants about the state of music, or the permeability of the soul. They bob beyond clutching fingertips and wagging tongue, deflecting the last-ditch wafts of hype with which you try to lassoo them. They’re critic-killers. And the funniest thing is that you love them for it – for the best reasons (nothing to do with clenched teeth, uptight craftsmanship or sweating in front of paying audiences). ‘Conversations’ is one of those records. Go and buy it. Feel good.

Alternatively, accept that I’ve got to try to explain it anyway: so please humour me for seven hundred more words or so…

Basics, then. ‘Conversations’ is a set of immediate, improvised duets between two British musicians – Steve Lawson (fretless bass guitar, loops) and Jez Carr (piano, small antelope statuettes) – from one of the tasteful/tuneful intersections of jazz and the avant-garde underground. Two sprawling self-penned essays on the CD sleeve reveal a cheerfully anti-heroic approach to improv and to music in general. Lawson and Carr name-check Schoenberg and Yehudi Menuhin, note that “people think that free means ‘out’, when free just means free”, but steer clear of portentousness. Oft-revived improv traits – stoniness, pomposity, randomness, irritating mysticism – are ignored in favour of an earnest, open approach.

The music reflects this. Clean and quietly inspired, it resounds through comfortable air, sharing subtle humour. It makes you think of a friendly hand on your shoulder; not a scuffle in an alley, or six days at the foot of a grouchy guru. If it sent postcards home, they’d be of green hills in ECM-land, or soft-focus shots of Bill Evans’ study. A few pictures of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow’s backyard might be in there too: but from the quiet time, somewhen in late spring, a lull in the heavy blowing season. This sounds pretty, and it is. Ultimately ‘Conversations’ is soft-edged, as relaxed as winding English rivers. It never works up a head of steam when a delicate flow will do instead.

Despite Carr’s Romantic leanings (he owes as much to Chopin as to Evans or Dollar Brand), he doesn’t waste notes, or drown the music in florid chords: and although ‘Conversations’ is built on slick musical technology, it’s not hijacked by it. Lawson (usually a solo performer, with a warped melodic looper’s approach) has all of his digital gizmos and luscious overlaid textures to hand; but he never once swamps Carr with them. For his part, Carr draws as much warmth from a digital piano as others could from a concert grand or from a well-worn-in jazz-club upright (covered in cigarette burns, whisky spills and four-generations-worth of jazzmen’s fingerprints).

Each piece is double-titled, reflecting each players’ viewpoint. Although Carr’s serious-sounding Migration manages to also be Lawson’s flippant Whateverwhatever, the duo maintain remarkable accord as they play. As Lawson and Carr settle readily into light-footed slow-motion melodies or feathery grooves, rich smudges of bass tone or rapt curving anchors of sound are left revolving in the loop pedal waiting for counterpoint with quick, relaxed piano touches. There are plenty of opportunities for hearing the expansive, delicately embracing tones of Lawson’s solo melodies: but for most of the record he provides a low-volume dub menagerie of playful but expressive noises. These sit alongside Carr’s crisp, ever-fresh improvising like an inspired combination of Percy Jones and a New Age Squarepusher.

On Sweet’N’Spiky/Shades Of Creation, Carr outlines ideas of rapt melodic phrases over Lawson’s bedrock riff, leaving our imaginations to fill in the gaps. At his leisure, Lawson fills in gaps we hadn’t actually thought of – via distant scrunches, data streams, balloon pings, gargling clicks and spinbacks, all sitting in the pockets of the tune. Walking rhythms interplay for Whateverwhatever/Migration: Carr’s brittle and determined piano mileposts the journey while Lawson offers squeaky wheels, footsteps and theremin wobbles of bass loop. For 1, 2, 3, 4…/Broken Lead, the bassist offers a fragmentary free-funk undertow, further softened by layers of unorthodox spindly chords and gurgling harmonics as Carr provides bright spins of softly-fingered notes.

Destination Unknown @ Point Of Departure/Drifting Dreaming makes the most of a grand vista of musical space, but does it by filling up as little of the view as possible. Carr plants brave speckles of light on unseen crags while a variety of subtle Lawson noises low like distant cattle, or write backward circles in fizzing firefly textures. Signing off with Closing Statement/At First Sight, Carr opens up into ringing blue ripples of controlled delight. Lawson builds up from E-Bowed foghorning soundscapes, progressing to wah-wobbled groove pulses and shimmering echoed treble tremors. Two-thirds of the way in, the music finally slides gracefully into a straightforward duet. Lawson’s yawning fretless notes cradle an ever-sleepier Carr – though unusual tinges of chording promise colourful dreams. It’s a beautiful closer to an album on which nothing has got in the way of the music. Neither embarrassment, nor aggression, nor flash.

What is truly remarkable about ‘Conversations’ is its easy, generous grace: unobscured by its gadgets, the skills of its players, even the hints implicit in genre and background. Waylaid by catches and self-consciousness, few records of “open” music are truly open. This is one that is.

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0012 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st January 2002

Buy it from:
Download from Jez Carr’s Bandcamp page; CD best looked for second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

Jez Carr online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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