Tag Archives: rattlebag

September 2015 – upcoming gigs – Gong’s Dave Sturt and friends travel the world from Derbyshire on the 23rd; London gets more Daylight Music eclectica plus a Blacklisters/Joeyfat/Himself jabber-rock summit on the 26th

17 Sep

Here are details on some more interesting concerts coming up later this month. These run the gamut from soft psychedelic world-folk atmospherics to jabbering electric art-punk noise and sprechtstimme via dream-folk, caustic love songs and extended-technique art-rock instrumentals. (It was a shame to hear about the cancellation of the Charles Hayward gig in London on the 23rd – taking its ANTA, Gnob and Kavus Torabi support slots with it – but I’m sure that something similar will be rescheduled for anyone in need of their art-mash/stoner/prog/psych/metal salad…)

event20150923davesturtwirkw

Dave Sturt presents An Evening of Dreams & Absurdities (Upstairs @ The Red Lion, Market Place, Wirksworth, Matlock, Derbyshire, DE4 4ET, UK, 23rd September 2015, 8.00pm) – £8.00

As part of the Wirksworth Festival Fringe, Dave Sturt (bass guitarist with Gong, Bill Nelson, Steve Hillage and Jade Warrior, as well as being half of Cipher) showcases tracks from his forthcoming solo album ‘Dreams & Absurdities’ in an evening of world-class all-instrumental musicianship featuring beautiful eclectic music, soundscapes and various field recordings from Gong tours and elsewhere. The music is “mostly mellow and ambient – somewhere between melancholy and elation.”

For the performance, Dave will be accompanied by three guests. Chris Ellis (guitar and piano) is a multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter/actor, an ex-member of Anglesey band Ghostriders, and an award-winning soundtrack composer – he’s also a collaborator with Dave on the Past Lives Project (which recreates the recent ancestral histories of British communities by resurrecting their old cinefilm recordings and setting them to new music). Brian Boothby (low whistle, djembe) is an acclaimed folk musician, dramatist and writer and a member of the Derbyshire mixed-arts collective Genius Loci. Jeff Davenport (drums, percussion, HandSonic pad) has worked with jazz musicians Andy Sheppard and Phil Robson, pop artists James Morrison and Laura Mayne, and currently collaborates regularly with “Silent Pianist” Neil Brand providing soundracks to silent films, as well as working in Europe and the Far East on various projects with all manner of musicians.

Up-to-date details here  and here, with tickets available online from here or available from Traid Links via email enquiry.

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On the last post, I plugged a London double event on the 19th – a day with a Daylight Music concert at midday and a noisier rock gig in the evening (both events which are still about to happen as I post this). In another week’s time, history’s repeating (fortunately not as farce, though anyone familiar with the bands in the evening show can expect some twists and jabs of humour) so here’s what’s coming up on September 26th…

Daylight Music 200

Daylight Music 200: Ex-Easter Island Head + French For Rabbits + Louis Barabbas, plus a photo exhibition (Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, UK – Saturday 26th September 2015, 12.00pm-2.00pm) – free entry, suggested donation £5.00

An extra special event to celebrate the 200th Daylight Music, featuring some of the most popular acts from the last six years (643 performances by 530 different acts; 15,254 cups of tea or coffee drunk; 9,863 slices of cake scoffed; 5,003 pieces of quiche devoured) and during which we’ll be raising funds for Daylight Music in 2016.

Ex-Easter Island Head are a Liverpool based musical collective composing and performing music for solid-body electric guitar, percussion and other instruments. They have performed their original compositions solo, as a duo, trio, quartet and as a large ensemble across a wide variety of events from site-specific installation works to live film scores. They create a sensation whenever they play. If you’ve never seen musicians hitting electric guitars with mallets before, then cancel all other plans for the day and head down.

French For Rabbits hail from the remote natural setting of Waikuku Beach, in New Zealand’s South Island. Vocalist Brooke Singer expresses intimate narratives against the cast of the damp colonial cold; her voice delicately steeled against winsome guitar lines and the eerie instrumentation of her bandmates. It’s a weather-beaten dreamscape, nostalgic for warmth and hopefully lilting towards sunnier climes.

Louis Barabbas is a writer, performer and label director, best known for caustic love songs and energetic stage shows that leave you pumped up and breathless.

The icing on the cake this week is an instrumental soundscape provided by Irish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Crowley, who (over his six-album career) has been described by the Independent as “a master of understatement” and cited by Ryan Adams as the answer to the question “who’s the best songwriter that no one’s heard of?”

To celebrate the fantastic photography taken throughout the lifespan of Daylight Music by a very talented bunch of volunteer photographers, there will be a lo-fi photo exhibition consisting of 200 postcards on the pews of the chapel for people to take away; plus there will be a limited numbers of brochures to buy featuring all of the photographs.

More information on the concert is here.

In the evening, there’s a change of pace and milieu over in Hackney as post-hardcore rubs up against a bit of playful English Dada. I’ve got a liking for those occasions when rock music drives itself up against persistent, wayward speech and stubs its toes on it; and this gig will offer plenty of opportunities for that…

Blacklisters, Joeyfat, Himself, September 26th

Blacklisters + Joeyfat + Himself (Pink Mist @ The Shacklewell Arms, 71 Shacklewell Lane, London, E8 2EB, UK, Saturday 26th September 2015, 8.00pm) – £8.00

Blacklisters’ aggressive, confrontational and darkly humorous performances have earned them a reputation as one of the best acts on the UK underground, drawing comparisons to the likes of The Jesus Lizard and Pissed Jeans. Their debut album ‘BLKLSTRS’ was released in 2012 to critical acclaim, landing them supports with Scratch Acid, Pig Destroyer, Future of the Left and Big Business, as well as a live session at Maida Vale studios for the Radio 1 Rock Show. Tonight’s special show is in support of their fearsome new record ‘Adult’ on Smalltown America. Produced by Matt Johnson (aka MJ of Hookworms) the album is a clear progression for the band and sees them fuse abstract art-noise with the brutally minimalist riffs that first put them on the radar.

Also playing are amorphous cult stalwarts Joeyfat, a band who’ve been defying conventions of “band logic” longer than most of us have been able to get into shows at all. Their sinewy math-inspired spoken-word has seen them share stages with the likes of Bilge Pump, S*M*A*S*H, Clearlake, Lords, Dartz, Art Brut, Trencher and Green Day, obviously. Catch them at this rare London show.

Direct from Leeds (unless they stopped off some place on the way), Himself’s shouty/talky interactive noise rock has been winning them plaudits up and down the company, including from Radio’s Daniel P. Carter who invited them to record a live session for the Radio 1 Rock Show earlier this year.

Tickets for the Shacklewell Arms gig are available here and here. Note that this is an 18+ event.

 

June 2015 – upcoming gigs – Imminent shows at the Hope & Ruin in Brighton (Liebezeit & Irmler, Prolapse & Slum of Legs), plus the tours they belong to

11 Jun

If I was a Brightonian, I suspect that I’d be spending quite a lot of evenings at the Hope & Ruin. Not only does it host some of the town’s most interesting gigs, its interior décor – patched together in a pack-rat/caddis-fly jumble of enthusiasm – makes it feel like the vessel   of some spacegoing carny out of ‘Firefly’ or ‘Doctor Who’.

I’m guessing that most people who’ve read the post title will already know all about these – since cult art, Brighton and a gossip grapevine make a happy mash – but two upcoming Hope & Ruin gigs have caught my attention. One features two leading lights of the original Krautrock/kosmische/German experimental rock scene (something else that’s become as Brightonian as the Pavilion). The other one sees the return of one of Britain’s more interesting wrangle-rock rackets from the 1990s: on this occasion, backed up by a more than worthy heir from the current decade. Both are stops on longer UK tours – I’ll include details on those as well.

Jaki Liebezeit & Hans Joachim Irmler @ The Hope & Ruin, 11-12 Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3WA, UK, Thursday 17th June (doors 8.00pm)

The former Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit is one of the great beat stylists of experimental rock. Described as “a master of the pause and the stop”, he plays cutting, lean and propulsive rhythms from a small kit: alongside Neu!’s Klaus Dinger, he pioneered the mechanistic motorik beat which you’ll hear behind half a hundred nouveau-Krautrock bands. Hans Joachim Irmler () has had various multi-instrumental and production role in and around Faust over the years, but predominantly plays organ (a highly customisable transistor model which he built himself over forty years ago) and boxes-of-tricks (having created or co-created most of Faust’s unusual noise processors). Longstanding collaborators, Irmler and Liebezeit released the ‘FLUT’ album in 2014 featuring a “hypnotic maelstrom” of organ and drum improvisations. I’ve not reviewed it, but the ever-reliable ‘Quietus’ did – and it’s this vein of music which they’ll be performing.

More details here – although if you’re a fan, all of this will be old news and you’ll already have your tickets. If the Krautrock galaxy is still relatively new and obscure to you – and you’re within grabbing distance of Brighton – this sounds like the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the cult. (If recent rumblings about Liebezeit’s retirement are true, it might also be one of your last opportunities to taste the original flavour). If you’re not in Brighton, note that there are also tour dates in London, Fife and Glasgow (beginning on Friday) as listed below:

    Sunday 14th June 2015 – Platform, The Bridge, 1000 Westerhouse Road, Glasgow, G34 9JW, UK – details here.
    Tuesday 16th June – Cafe OTO, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL, UK – details here.

Prolapse + Slum Of Legs @ The Hope & Ruin, 11-12 Queens Road, Brighton, BN1 3WA, UK, Tuesday 23rd June (doors 8.00pm)

Art-punks who emerged in the 1990s, Prolapse came up with a much more assured and individual take on the form than most, apparently by accident. The dual vocal frontline of Linda Steelyard and Mick Derrick (the former singing and the latter ranting,) often came across as disruptive theatre, a performance partnership which veered dramatically between combative duologues, utter disjunction or play-fights. Meanwhile the band behind them pegged brutally away on Krautrockian/Fall-esque rhythms, riffs and noises, like a Dada Hummvee worn down to its wheel-rims. The members have tended to claim that it all happened spontaneously and in general was a muckaround, but this was a band that was smart enough to work out when not to think – if you dug deep enough into them you found Master’s degrees, archaeologists, ceramicists and future journalists.

In 1999, after three albums and enough touring to wear them down, Prolapse very sensibly split up just before the point when it all became too frustrating. This year, having been enticed back from various locations and interesting jobs by Mogwai (who’ve invited them to play support at the latter’s 20th anniversary shows) they’ve opted to play a six-date UK tour, for which the other remaining dates are:

    Friday 19th June – The Maze, 257 Mansfield Road, City Centre, Nottingham, NG1 3FT, UK, 19th June (supported by Grey Hairs and Hot Shorts) – buy tickets here.

Playing support at the Brighton gig are Slum of Legs – an inspirational, instrument-swapping, all-female travelling brainstorm of a band. Although they have roots in Raincoats-style post-punk and Riot Grrl (and more than a few similarities to the spontaneous inventiveness of Prolapse) Slum Of Legs have a particular approach to lyric writing which is all their own – intricate, irreverent, literate and broad-ranging. So even if the musical style doesn’t altogether appeal to you, go for the sake of the words and see what else falls into place. (Again, I’m late to the table for this one, so I’ll refer you to this spray of enthusiasm from ‘Collapse Board’, which sets out a view of the Slum Of Legs stall in a way that’s far better, and probably far closer to their pulse, than I could right now.) More info on the gig is here.

April 2013 – mini-album reviews – Alex’s Hand’s ‘This Cat is a Genius (A B-Sides Compilation)’ (“mostly tarry, and it sticks to things”)

17 Apr
Alex's Hand: 'This Cat Is A Genius'

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’

Sometimes barrel scrapings are as much part of the meal as anything else from the barrel. In the brewing industry, that’s how you get sludgy yeast spreads like Marmite. Yum. Or not.

Meanwhile… we’ve met Alex’s Hand before. They’re yomping Seattle-ites from the scruffiest, carney-est end of American Gothic; something like a junior Primus, Zappa and Residents rolled into one, abruptly zombified, and crammed into the fustiest old suit in Abraham Lincoln’s trunk of hand-me-downs. This EP of B-sides (so they call them – they’ve only ever put out one EP) certainly seems like barrel scrapings. It’s mostly tarry, and it sticks to things. It’s shapeless, it’s distinctly umami, and you might not like it.

That, of course, is the point. Alex’s Hand tend to revel in everything they do, both their moments of genuine artistry and their dumbest chunks of musical blubber. ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ is a pre-release teaser of off-cuts from their debut album (‘Albatross Around The Neck’). It shows off (if that’s the right word) their sludgier leanings; their most precipitous rants; their Melvins side. It sounds as if while the goofy fuckers were messing around in rehearsal, some vicious bastard poisoned their coffee – but they enjoyed it so much that they sent out for more and left the tape running.

What the band’s actually doing is dealing with the departure of Slurrp, their ontime lead guitarist and horn-razzler. Drummer Nic Barnes and bass-bothering microphone pest Kellen Mills drop their stage-names, pick up the pieces and tumble onwards; various buddies help Kellen out with the guitar parts; but it’s clearly been a blow. You can all but hear Alex’s Hand bouncing off the ropes. However, they’re not ones to miss out on a dark chortle, even at their own expense. Nor are they scared of turning a setback into a challenge. If they have to have a period of floundering, they’re damn well going to get something out of it, even if they have to milk it ’til it bleeds. Rolling away from a relatively tight rock stance towards something doomier (or at least more rubbery), they’re taking the opportunity to map the underside of their development as they go.

One of the last two tracks from Slurrp’s last stand – ConserveNow! – is six-and-a-half near-atonal minutes of Melvins-style strain: a lurch-along instrumental of fuzzed grunge bass and wobbly guitar, like a sick freight train careening along a lost stretch of railway. The other, Ants, is a collapsing shack-load of wreckage-guitar and free-form word association. While Slurrp sifts through sluggish, raging clumps of feedback in the background, Kellen’s schizophrenic basslines jump and ebb between laid-back mooch and irritated attack. He also mutters beady-eyed, half-cut stuff into your ear – mostly about giants and UFOs, although at one point he does complain “words are stale, empty – they lack a certain sensuality.” Much of the ‘This Cat Is A Genius’ shares this playful pissed-off stance – a complaining laughter; clever-dumb; slumming in drunken despondency and enjoying a grump. Kellen plays the role of educated-and-unravelling to the hilt, offering flashes of self-mockery through the filter of booze vapours and the pinch of bad shoes.

Dear Me’s clench of lumbering punk disgruntlement mingles King Crimson feedback skitters with a collapsing, anti-play perversity. Inside itself, the song’s at war – halfway through, Kellen grabs a guitar and launches doggedly down a different tunnel and into a different tune. On the headache blunder of Train, he’s scouting for empty bars in order to avoid conversation, moping about insincerity like a touchy teenager: “wish I was happy listening to people with nothing to say. / Lying assholes with so much money / really are dead inside – / they pick my brains as they lie.” Longtime ally Ben Reece (of Step Daddy) drops in again to add wracked, protesting electric guitar and some needling ‘Marquee Moon’ edge as Kellen’s drunken soliloquy heads ever further downhill and then kinks back up shit creek, screaming about “blackest diamonds” and falling into the sea.

While the odd glancing zinger falls out of this kind of lyrical mess, Kellen’s verbal squalls and cracked mumbling are generally just another bit of colour. What he says is less important than how he says it; or just how the words hit the wall. Impression (featuring another temporary guitarist, Shadough Williams) sounds like a lobotomized David Byrne tripping over Black Sabbath. Nic drums on bottles while the music flinches between runaway bursts of samba and foot-dragging sludge-metal. Kellen dismisses another waster in smudges of sardonic detail: “he smokes his cigarettes, douses them with side-effects… / Stand to deliver, his parents used to say – / started out rich and pissed it all away.”

On Penticide, the band paddle around in a splatter of sprained, detuned instruments – piano, melodicas, glockenspiels – while Kellen’s rambling narration casts a cockeyed look downtown. Scribbling a vicious political cartoon of a “crack-whore free-market” full of hapless fools pushing “shit-stained zombie shopping carts”, he also rips himself and his peers ragged. “Welcome to the half-baked bistro… / conspiracy countdown coffee-shop collective,” he husks, before tagging himself as “a dying maverick with a bad attitude… / like Merce Cunningham took a shit in a wine glass.” Mocking his trashed, anti-heroic slide from high culture to garbage, the band break into sarcastic applause.

Confounding all this sarcasm, the final moments come close to delicacy. Sad Little Skeletons is slender, thoughtful and melancholy; initially, it’s not much more than distant birdsong and overheard chat, accompanied by lonely bass melody and shavings of rhythm guitar. For once, Kellen sings gently, setting aside the drunken howls and the scatter-shot smartarsery. Clarity renders his conclusions even bleaker. “Thoughts will come / then fly away. / These emotions are so thick, / like this life just makes me sick. / These piddly little humans, driving their cars / on the freeway… / Sad little skeletons; broken, but don’t realize they’re lost.” The rise towards a tangled noisy fanfare and the drowning of the words in yell and distortion initially comes as a relief. Then you go back and listen to it again, hearing the weary breathing and the tiredness that smacks of reality.

Part-broken, smeared, and devilled by little gouts of waspishness, this isn’t the easiest collection of songs and slurs to get along with. But there’s plenty to scoop out anyway, especially if you like hearing the wilful awkwardness of a band who enjoy stretching themselves out of shape and balance, and who can fit that in with the big boots and barfly lunges. If you enjoy feeling as if you’ve been dipped in an uncomfortable goo, that’s a bonus.

Alex’s Hand: ‘This Cat Is A Genius’
Alex’s Hand (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only mini-album
Released: 15th April 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

Alex’s Hand online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp LastFM

March 2013 – album reviews – The JazzFakers’ ‘Here is Now’ (“accumulates itself out of loose particles of imagination; like a rogue dust-bunny”)

27 Mar
The JazzFakers: 'Here Is Now'

The JazzFakers: ‘Here Is Now’

I guess that any full-on free improvising band that makes it through to their third album must have become something of a fixture. Rolling and roiling within the Brooklyn branch of the New York improv scene, The JazzFakers probably also qualify via assorted free-music spillages (Brooklyn’s Experimental Music Meet-Ups, the Experi-MENTAL Festival) since their 2008 inception. Their humming, grappling music still suggests nothing particularly fixed.

Two of the four ‘Fakers, David Tamura and Robert L. Pepper, are certainly well-established promiscuous players and upsetters. Lynchpins of the Brooklyn multimedia collective PAS, they’ve placed themselves firmly into a matrix of oppositional noise, construction and deconstruction. All of their multi-instrumental noise-cramming in The JazzFakers has been nourished by multiple collaborations with a long train of musicians (soundtrack layerist Philippe Pettit, improv veterans Kidd Jordan and Charles K. Noyes, the spontaneous composers Ron Anderson and Grady Gerbracht). The other two ‘Fakers are maybe less ubiquitous – and less space-filling – but they certainly bring their own vitality. The anxious rubbery bass lines of Raphael Zwyer add a restless, nervy sproing. Drummer Steve Orbach has turned up bright and eager to the sessions, his sticks a-quiver like bug antennae, ready to prod and feel their way into the music.

The album name, ‘Here Is Now’ suggests fresh, bright immediacy – improvisation without worry. The individual track names (a set of successive anagrams, all worked out from the album title) suggest playfulness and an enjoyment of structure games. The dirty kerb, torn binbags and scattered garbage – tied-off shirts, food fragments – of the cover shot tell a different story, and a more truthful one. JazzFakers are about debris and disparity, not consonance. There’s little about them that suggests structure apart from the swarming, disturbing liveliness of their intent.

Instead, their music accumulates itself out of loose particles of imagination; like a rogue dust-bunny. Or, more accurately, like a gigantic hairball – something rolling restlessly around the band members’ Brooklyn rooms and lofts, accreting a body from discarded bits of living and usefulness. Any given JazzFakers piece is a cannibal mass, crammed with china plate-shards, snapped pencils, and the sparking remnants of semi-dismantled technology; given extra lift by rolled-in springy fibres and by jazz-honk air-pockets. Runaway guitars, violins and reeds tussle with sundry distortions and tangled-up masses of electronic blips, and with a collection of synth voices which range from the raw to the deliberately corny.

While David Tamura is responsible for plenty of overdriven splintery electric guitar lines (rolling around furiously on the floors of the compositions, like injured scorpions), he’s also the band’s saxophone player. Unusually, this also means he’s often the band’s main link to more conventional structures. Certainly it’s him that provides the powdery, blues-rich tenor melody that boards the loose-boned march of Oh Rise New, adding a recognizable jazz voice to the restless buzz-keyboard swirls and mosquito-drill guitar, the rambling bass tune and the childlike organ which hangs and fidgets on a single disruptive chord. On Horse Wine, it’s his smartly turned-out tenor sax that moves in to converse calmly with Robert’s chorused violin saws and Raphael’s panicky bass, trembling and muttering on the upper harmonics. Steve’s subtle drumming adds some calming authority to the occasion, a taste of West African skintalk to offset the balloon-scraping sense of fear elsewhere.

On the other hand, David’s not to be relied on to provide anchors and grip all the time. Weise Horn, rising out of a wobble of shortwave synth whines, sees him let rip on free tenor: Robert responds with scrapescapes of violin, Raphael with a bass performance like a surprised bear. More than any other on the album, the piece becomes a free blow, but one struggling with a sense of being trapped. Led by David’s frantically wiggling sax, it’s claustrophobic, filled with screeches and frantic prison drumming in background sounding like someone drumming up a riot on a cooking-oil can.

There’s more free-sax contortions on Her Woe Sin (this time on alto) while a trepidatious, intense organ harmonic squeezes the band into a single trapped pitch cluster. Here, it feels as if they’re all being forced out through the neck of a bottle. As they reach a peak of compression, the piece becomes a revolving oscillation of guitar rub and smudged noises; trapped on a machine wheel, while Steve keeps a slow walking drum time at the rear.

Like David’s easy slips into conversational sax, that walking rhythm is another old-school jazz touch that comes rising up to reassure us through various JazzFakers confusions. There’s a brief, loose touch of it at the end of Nowhere Is – David and Steve bobbing along together in a moment of drums and sax companionship. Earlier it’s been a game of tack-blows, with Raphael’s rubber-mallet bass rebounding off curving chunks of organ, water-bottle tocks and flits of synth. As this moves into a more abrasive grind of free noise, David’s bluesy touch on sax makes a return, holding the band together with a stitch of melody. Ever-so-slightly wild, it sits in with the pugnacious racket like an old guy bantering with youths, laughing as his own wiles are tickled by their random energy.

Whine Rose reminds us that New York (like other cosmopolitan homes of music) isn’t just full of its own stylings, but also winds immigrant memories into its fabric. This piece sounds like an impression of the docks in Istanbul. Robert’s violin lines toy with a flaring, challenging Turkish-trumpet attack. Raphael’s bass strings scrape and creak like cargo cables: Steve drums like a longshoreman slinging and bumping crates across a quay. Every so often a long scraping drone in a reverberant arch will overwhelm the chatter and noise, push through the dirt and air-flashes from the band’s electronics and come in to rest, like a giant ship harbouring. At the end another jazz walk falls into place, free and swaggering, but trying to get back into comradely step. For a moment, the ‘Fakers sound like a cluster of dockers going off-shift, strutting out of the yard in search of a bar and perhaps a bit of trouble to bond the team together.

But while hints of jazz tradition, diasporan memory and other bits of cultural consonance may surface briefly through the matted fabric of their musical hairball, the JazzFakers are always predominantly about shredding sound – grabbing and shaking it into rag and rampage. Bar a brief breather in the middle (an interlude of silence, broken by gentle koto plucks), Where’s Ion gathers up raw hanks of sound to stretch and shear. Morse-blipping electronics and flinders of keyboard fight their way through a seesawing murky gale of playing. Robert’s abrasive, distorted violin wrenches back and forth, overdriven to the point where its melody fissures and cracks; time pulled and flexed too far out of shape to cling to. The second part entirely and willingly overwhelms itself: a shitstorm onslaught of scribbling guitar and a mass of excited electronic buzzing and whooping meets Steve’s drums and percussion head on, as they rattle like an upended ship’s galley.

The cheerful Whee Irons has its share of noisy Tamura guitar tangles and collapsing Pepper electronics, but also seems to be toying with broken bits of 1980s pop (trying on the hairstyles and waving around some of the sonic tropes). A bouncing, pulsing vocoder patch promises some kind of hook before becoming just something to squish and pulp against a jittering music box. Raphael (briefly in the spotlight) visits the upending, cunning-stunt territory of Tony Levin or Mick Karn. His bass jolts out high squeets, tap-and-hold skids, talkative burbles; on one occasion, a game-changing downward slide before slipping comfortably back into freestyle wandering for the second stretch. More elements tossed hopefully into the mix include some double-speed Zappa saxophone rushes and some corny, choral angel-voice keyboard, mocking at the huffing, bellowing drums and the drilling lead guitar.

At the end, with the twelve minutes of Hero We Sin, the band don’t so much tie up the record as relax the tangles. While free, it’s less furious. There’s less jostling and more listening, from the fake sci-fi theremin intro (echoing over lightly-struck and watchful cymbals) to the final saxophone-argues-with-egg-slicer fadeout. Along the way, the quartet shuffles a handful of musical cards: the edge-stalking Miles Davis fusion of 1971 (both invoked and undermined by little stings of toy piano); the undulant glissando guitar-wave of Syd Barrett; even a hint of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clearer solos emerge. An aggressively awake guitar (swelling large over grinding distorted drum crunches like rusty clockwork being forcibly wound); cloudy, floating high toms and cymbals over a gastric electronic splatter; a vibraphone over a phased electronic phase buzz, deep pitches, sanding noises and high birdlike twitters, which in turn give way to a cradling bulk-photocopier slide and clunk.

Towards the close, while electronic percussion boils and rattles like popcorn at the side, Robert’s scratch violin is caught in debate with David’s saxophone – the one complaining and cramping, the other remonstrating and stretching. The work’s ending. Time for sense. Time to flex the remaining knots out.

The JazzFakers: ‘Here Is Now’
Alrealon Musique, ALRN043
CD/download album
Released: 25th March 2013

Get it from:
Bandcamp.

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

26 Mar
Felipe Otondo: 'Tutuguri'

Felipe Otondo: ‘Tutuguri’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Felipe Otondo online:
Homepage Soundcloud LastFM

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

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – 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

October 2012 – EP reviews – Alex’s Hand’s ‘Madame Psychosis’ (“art-rockers deliberately braining themselves with a tin tray”)

5 Oct
Alex's Hand: 'Madame Psychosis' EP

Alex’s Hand: ‘Madame Psychosis’ EP

As they totter and lurch through the four songs on their debut EP, Alex’s Hand are almost pure Halloween. It’s not just their affinity for macabre subjects, but their larger-than-life, cartoonish demeanour. They don’t just bring weird to the table – they slap it down on top, like an oversized pair of dirty boots, and then stare you out until you say something about it.

Underneath their gurning and silly pseudonyms there’s some fine musicianship – you’d expect no less from Seattle art-rockers who revere Zappa, The Melvins and The Residents. Yet the band’s prime fuel is atavistic spasms of prehistoric zombie jazz; trainwreck rock-and-roll; jarring faux-boondocks punk. They sound like a wrecked stovepipe hat, or an outgrown tuxedo with the elbows worn shiny: or like a quick rimshot played off the jutting, grimy wrist of a backwoods murderer. The tensions between their darkness, their outright goonery and their twists of clever, carny campery give them their particular flavour. Often, Alex’s Hand come across like a leering, anarchic ‘Muppet Show’ parody of Nick Cave: telling tales of blood and chaos, crawling on all fours, but winking hard as they do so.

As the band roll their parodic, chaotic, travelling-show style along, geek bones sometimes gleam through. On Laura (a spooky, corny ‘Twin Peaks’ tribute) they jog and jerk through a whistle-stop tour of the show’s soap-noir tropes (“stop-light flashing on and off – / ‘there’s a darkness in the woods!’ / A town with so many secrets – / what lies beyond?”). A double-jointed ‘South Park’ scratchalong full of silly voices and 1950s slapback, it chucks the lush narcotic memories of Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracking unceremoniously out of the side door in favour of a more pointed strangeness. Feedback scrunches around the drum-clatter. Horn-playing guitarist Slurrp blurts out wrecked soul riffs with mottled old bloodstains dried onto the edges. Meanwhile, frontman Doctor Shark stumbles through the song like a disturbed conscience. When he isn’t looning along with the melodrama he’s pulling curtains off the rail, moaning with a barely-tranquillized despair as the tune plays tug-of-war between rock’n’roll perkiness and a wandering moping tonality (all lynchpinned by Slurrp’s startling, randomised guitar solo).

Similarly, the two-and-a-half crash-punk minutes of Robot ply a drunken line between cartwheel, pratfall and purposeful brain damage. Trapped in a tiny shack, the band charge their foreshortened Jesus Lizard riffs back and forth like sore-headed bears. Smacking into walls and roaring out resentful scatterbrained lyrics, they never get further than a ball of confusion. Eventually they crouch and sulk in the middle, smouldering like a burning trashcan and emitting a bastardized King Crimson growl of muttering bass and smeared, squealing guitar.

On the surface this is awkward lunkheadery, but the frustration and dismay is deliberate, self-inflicted – and clearly staged. Imagine an art-rock trio deliberately braining themselves with a tin tray to keep their audience happy. Whether this is all about avoiding straightforward expressiveness or whether Alex’s Hand are on some kind of echt-Brecht trip… that’s less clear. The theatricality certainly allows them to skim some pretty sordid areas, while hiding their sharper songwriting brains in their shoes.

With Stalker, Shark and co. rewrite a ugly tale of abduction and sex-murder as a lachrymose tragedy… but from the murderer’s corner. Drummer Tub skitters away on skeleton percussion; a campfire guitar limps through the chords. While his bass yawps away like cardboard thunder on a travelling-show wagon, Shark blurts out his words like a strangulated Nick Cave. The melody is sweet, lovelorn and memorable, but the jet-black humour is borderline repulsive – “stabbed alone in a room / Crying out, no-one hears you. / You look so lost and afeared – / to him, it’s been a really good year.” Yet a sombre, Lynchian aura of romance hangs over the song. During that moment before the horrible twist, everything seems so much more vivid and alive. “Exit the car, but you look back / and see those trees in the cul-de-sac, / and feel safe on those tracks – / but love has come for you…” The song doesn’t survive its own story either. Disturbing scraping noises and a brief twisted guest guitar solo (from Step Daddy’s Ben Reece) build to a sudden crushing derailment as the dream of love and death violently collapses.

Jaunty and gloomy, Reception picks over homelier horrors – a mire of despondency and addictions – but with Steve Barnes’s beautiful ripples of piano and organ soothing the murk, it’s also the band’s finest hour. With its spectrally pulsing bass and its nighthawk atmosphere, the song comes across like a wrecked and blasted take on Morphine. “Hauling yourself from the reception, / blame it all on depression,” moans Shark, still mooching around mournfully in a shabby coat with his hair in a Robert Smith tousle, clutching a suspicious bottle. “Carted off and then forgotten. / The others refuse that we have a problem. / Drink up – / drugs, self medicate…/ small twist of fate.” A superbly mock-melodramatic, fall-down-drunk guitar solo follows, as if someone had slurred out its name. This is one of those songs that realise that defeat doesn’t usually just drop to rock-bottom and fizzle out, but bumps along on a plateau halfway there, fuelled mostly by bathos. “Like a snail trying to build a home, / the roots don’t last and they end up all alone…” There’s more to Alex’s Hand than big boots, geek jokes and horse-laughs.

Alex’s Hand: ‘Madame Psychosis’ EP
Alex’s Hand (self-released), (no catalogue number)
CD/download EP
Released: 1st October 2012

Buy it from:
CD Baby, iTunes or Bandcamp

Alex’s Hand online:
Facebook Twitter Bandcamp LastFM

LOOKBACKS – Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ song-suite 1985/1988, released 2010 (“as hardened and hollowed-out as driftwood sculpture”)

14 Jun

While some of her work has been set to music, Ursula LeGuin is best known for her reconfigurations of science fiction, fantasy and myth. The narratives of her stories sheathe cunning, detailed challenges to race, to gender and to the ways in which one can tell a story. More recently her tales have shaded into a kind of conceptual ethnography in order to build stories almost entirely out of explorations of culture.

Less well known, LeGuin’s poetry initially seems like a different beast. Close examination sees the same preoccupations written in microcosm. Sparse and spare, the words in her poems are the tips of long quills of implied experience; to be drawn out and savoured. In these mid-’80s recordings, Californian composer Elinor Armer has taken five disparate Ursula LeGuin poems and (working in a stark, economical style as hardened and hollowed-out as driftwood sculpture) whittled a musical housing for them.

Assuming that it’s a song-cycle at all, ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ is a loose one. The poems are taken from three separate volumes spanning thirteen years, and the interconnections in LeGuin’s text are tenuous. There are fleeting references to bodies of water. A falcon links two songs; extending this, references to birds link a full three. Unspecified protagonists (all of them apparently female) are observed via brief passing notes and at various ages, generally in relation to a loaded past or a fervently desired future. The obscure bones of the title transform and recur in the shape of crustacean shells or as feathers or teeth; possibly even in the irreducible state of the lean phrases making up the poems.

Armer, in turn, faithfully honours LeGuin’s verbal economy. Her music stops, starts and leaves prolonged expectant spaces as she delicately feathers the text. For ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ she uses a quintet: flute, violin, piano and percussion set plus Wendy Hillhouse’s stooping mezzo-soprano. Armer keeps her own compositional liveliness on a tight leash. Nonetheless, she brings her particular yen for musical illustration to the table (as well as leavening touches of humour and compassion). Initially building up from a reserved, near-atonal sketchpad, Armer still works in tinges of modern America, ancient Greece and traditional Japan. Direct musical themes are hidden in favour of attentive, close-bound responses to the emotional charges of the poems. Ultimately, it’s this that provides the cycle’s unifying factor.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘The Anger’

In the first piece, The Anger, a young woman’s frustrations burst out. She’s trapped between worlds of experience – one outgrown and chafing, the other filled with promise but sealed away). Rira Watanabe’s chivvying violin and Keisuke Nakagoshi’s piano accents usher in a flare of rage, with the first line sung against tolling, breaking percussion: “Unlock, unlock! / So long a silence / needs shouting / and latches smashed / and the damned hinges broken…” In airier drifts, the middle section dreams welcome and ceremony – “open air, the wine / poured out, the hands / empty: and slowly, / grave, straight, smiling, / to step across the threshold.” It feeds the eventual conclusion, in which that earlier impotent frustration becomes a clear, confident command.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘The Child on the Shore’

The Child on the Shore is made up of a split dialogue between a daughter and her dead mother. Neither address each other directly: in the poem, their communications are carried by intermediaries of the natural world, by song, by death itself. The entire piece is a bleached landscape of bereavement rituals. Esther Landau’s lyrical flute-playing embodies the elements into which propitiatory gifts are flung – a ring into the sea, a feather into the wind.

In turn, Hillhouse gives voice to two exhausted threnodies, one for each woman. The child’s voice is angry with grief, demanding return of both tokens and parent. The mother’s is windblown and accepting; a thank-you for the gifts, a desire to soothe. Yet there is no confirmation that this message of comfort has been heard. The intermediaries themselves remain silent throughout. Armer divides the two voices with a bleak, unyielding curve of violin melody. Behind them, abrupt traces of marimba and piano stray and hit like bruising raindrops.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Footnote’

Footnote briefly enters the thoughts of a solitary woman. It’s unclear whether she’s an exile or a recluse, whether she’s young or old. Her hints at an aristocratic background could be no more than whim, or the last vestige of hauteur. Regardless of this, she finds kinship with nature in all of its wrack, decay and continuance – not just through the heraldic glamour of the falcons, but via the cast-up seaweed, the scavengers, the passing insects and the weather.

Armer treats this cultivated loneliness (and acceptance of the world) in kind. Still, slow and minimal in nature, the music is pierced and enlivened by visitants. After a drifting reflective start, a shift to a dissonant emphasis and Erica Johnson’s rattling wood percussion greets the naming of “crabs / prancing in the shadow / of fierce, stranded seaweed” while the appearance of bats is accompanied by violin and flute.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Hard Words’

In Hard Words, Armer abandons melody altogether and goes for a plosive, theatrical hayashi approach. Hillhouse speaks and swoops LeGuin’s words like a Noh theatre chanter, springing the rhythms in the poetry, which itself abandons all but the most essential nuggets of phrase in an oblique look at the failings of human language. “Hard words / lockerbones / this is sour ground / dust to ashes / sounds soft / hard in the mouth / as stones / as teeth / Earth speaks birds / airbones / diphthongs.” The instrumentalists respond with zings of percussion; with tongued flutes, piano fragments and instrumental noises (including a short resigned squall of violin like the last gasp of a fax machine). On the final word, a lacuna of mingled flute and gong ends in a sub-audible skirl of breath. Relief and release.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘For Katya’

The songs conclude with the wounded, optimistic For Katya. A muted and slender melody – seasoned by anger – fleshes out LeGuin’s words, which reinterprets the struggles for control between men and women in the form of a stark fairytale built from halting, frustrated syntax. “They always shut us up in towers / ever since once upon a…” Comfort arrives in the same mythic form, as a transformation of both sentence and outlook: “So we learn alone there / arts of unlocking / Till the old terrors / shed wolfskin and stand brothers…”

It’s an exhausted comfort: yet it’s indomitable, a long parched resistance holding out for a sane outcome. As Hillhouse sounds out the last word, a capella, its pitch hangs unresolved; waiting for the future to catch up with the hope.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’
Private release
Download tracks
Released: 2010 (recorded 1985/1988)

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Glowing House: ‘Taming Lions’ single (“beating time on a tumbledown shack”)

12 May

Out at the helm of Glowing House, Steve Varney is raw, ruffled, hollering and sounds born to run. This is just as well. Trouble is hot on his tail. “I don’t think there is a gauge that will save me – / somehow they overpower gunpowder, like it’s easy…”

The head-up single for the second Glowing House album, Taming Lions is all about the incipient, savage disaster that’s just about to crash down on Steve’s head. The band’s fall-apart folky acoustic noise catches the feeling perfectly. They sound like the kind of band which survives credit crunches, small nuclear wars and the collapse of most of the functional parts of civilization. You can see yawing flashes of light straight through the gaps in the barefoot, wind-tossed rhythms.

Besides the cluck and clunk of Steve’s banjo, the song’s a superb stomping wobble of school piano, Salvation Army brass, foggy rasps of accordion and dirty cello, and someone beating time on a tumbledown shack with a handful of big sticks. (I checked back on this – it’s actually a third of the band playing on church pews. Talk about muscular Christianity…) At the top of his carrying, celebratory bruise of a voice, Steve’s making it quite clear that he’s stuck in a rigged and increasingly dangerous game. “They gave me a ten-minute head start, and they started counting. / I need a top-notch hiding spot I can hide out in. / Don’t be fooled they’ll give you space in the chase for a reason – / they wait for the perfect minute to stop the healing.”

Off he hurtles; firing a cartoon blunderbuss for cover, and to no great effect. They keep coming. As the song bounces on, there are more than a few suggestions that what Steve’s actually fleeing are his own demons, bouncing after him like a tin can tied to his ankle. Not much hope in escaping that way. But the sheer vigor of the band – of the song itself – suggests that they’re people who thrive on this kind of peril and the energy it kicks up. This is enormous fun. Keeping one step ahead of disaster rarely sounded so lively.

Glowing House: ‘Taming Lions’
Bandcamp
download-only single
released: 8th May 2012

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Free download from Bandcamp

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

30 Apr

Komatsu: 'Komatsu'

Komatsu: ‘Komatsu’

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

Anyway…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CD available directly from Komatsu; download available from iTunes.

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March 2011 – mini-album reviews – Playing with Nuns’ ‘Wave Equation’ (“a fly’s-ear perspective of a Zeppelin crash”)

15 Mar
Playing With Nuns: 'Wave Equation'

Playing With Nuns: ‘Wave Equation’

With hundreds of releases in the bag already, it’s difficult to even summarise the dark-ambient work of Playing With Nuns (alias D.I.Y. Argentine noiseworker Ariel Chapuis), let alone sort it through item by item. However, a few things are apparent for ‘Wave Equation’. One is that (by the usual Playing With Nuns standards) it presents a gentler face. The titles of the recording and of the individual songs are more reflective than usual: the elegant mathematical graph-shot on the cover art is devoid of the forthright challenge of other releases, No huge and tilting cranes, no feral cartoons. No naked women wrapped up in hazard tape.

By the bullish, confrontational standards of some avant-noise artists this might be taken as signs of a cop-out; or at least a digression into mathematical navel-gazing. That’s not the case. To my ears, this recording’s sound world is one of giganticism – everyday objects ramped up to a stunning blur of over-scaled, colliding sound. At particular points, it’s borderline unbearable (which Chapuis would probably take as a sober compliment). It might not have you fretting over dysfunctional anger, but it might make you too scared to catch the bus.

On the other hand, there’s little here in the way of avant-garde theatrics. Everything is matter-of-fact. There’s no attempt to make an obvious wall of aural assault, or to engage in shock tactics for the sake of it. Chapuis simply lets his noises off the leash, and lets them take their course.

In Advertising For Lizards, plunderphonics are writ large against a dirty-celestial skirl of feedback. Scraps of conversation are distorted and giganticised into enormous blurred wind instruments and furniture drags. These roll and scrape, as if being pulled along the inside of a vast balloon, while Chapuis cunningly pans them around the sound-field.

I Let You Tools is a little more traditionally concrète, making a clear play of sampling construction devices, power drills and saws. It also deliberately deforms samples of other noises (including voices) into sounding like power tools before it collages everything that it’s found. The final result is a sandwich of technological interactions: almost a cartoon. A set of cheery telephone pulse-codes are sandwiched into it, trapped between a barrage of tool noises on one side and a rumbling wall of power-electronics on the other. The latter sails up to loom large and demanding, like an particularly needy cruise liner.

On Sequences of Lost Children, the clearest sound is two alternating organ notes. The dominant sound, however, is microphone-fry; sizzling and crackling around the clunk of struck pipework and the playful vocal grumbles of synthesizer. Throughout, there’s the crunch of an abused pickup, crushed and buffeted underwater. Unpleasant aural suggestions swim into place – a polluted zone for drownings, filled with ominous and suspicious objects. It’s immersive, threatening, possibly death-haunted. Perversely, all of this busy sonic activity inflates it with an uncomfortable life-force.

Initially, Wave Equation itself offers the closest thing to a let-up. A loop of pleased-with-itself electronic hum, waver-pulse and munching static chews the cud. For about a minute, it’s joined by a radio voice of crunched, compressed Spanish. This relative calm doesn’t last. After one-and-a-half minutes, the idiot noise arrives – an inflated shrieking grind which bounces and rolls over the static, over the percolating electronics, over everything.

Nine-and-a-half minutes long, the spectacularly queasy Decline & Fall is the album centrepiece. It sounds like dynamic travel sickness – a soundscape of hugely magnified stomach flutters, aircraft propellers and groaning feedback. Meanwhile, something is continually crashing and bouncing along the ground, ploughing up colossal waves and furrows of static. Imagine a fly’s-ear perspective of a Zeppelin crash… yet even that doesn’t communicate the terrifying, carefree attitude to the sound.

That’s the key to the unease in this record. Picture a world run out of control and shrunk down to the clatter of a battered and juddering gearbox; and picture ourselves, in turn, shrunk down to ant-scale and trapped inside it. There’s the feel that the grinding forces and crunch of object (in particular, Decline & Fall’s perpetually prolonged ongoing crash) is just business as usual – a humdrum and relentless process of clumsy mechanical brutality while machines plough and scrape their way between destinations and across targets, indifferent to the rattled and fragile animals within and around them. Whatever happens, happens. If it’s brutal, that’s simply the nature of things. It’s like that power-lathe which doesn’t mean to deafen you, but which certainly will deafen you if you sit next to it. It’s nothing personal.

Playing With Nuns: ‘Wave Equation’
Kopp Netlabel, KOPP.17
Download-only mini-album (free)
Released: 6th March 2011

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Free download from Kopp Netlabel (rightclick) or Archive.org

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

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

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

Listen. They’re singing at his bedside.

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

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

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

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

And now, all silenced?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen. He’s alive. He’s alive.

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

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

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

10 Oct

Darkroom: 'Some Of These Numbers Mean Something'

Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
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June 2004 – live reviews – The Cox Cruise @ MV King Arthur, floating along the River Severn, Gloucestershire, early summer 2004 (featuring Earnest Cox, Ghosting, Charlie Says, Michael J. Sheehy & Paddy McCarthy of St Silas Intercession, Datapuddle) (“a self-propelled music bash”)

30 Jun

All we can see outside in the dark are moving, ghostly fronds – foliage bleached by the passing light spilling from our boat, nodding in the gusting winds above the lap of water. We’re on the river at night. We can’t see where we’re going, and we’ve entrusted our safety to a group of people with the seedy, ingratiating collective name of Earnest Cox. Things look bleak.

“It’s ‘Nam, man!” some joker screams suddenly. “Charlie’s out there, and he don’t surf! We’re all gonna die, man!”

He’s greeted by laughter. It’s all far, far too English for any of that: those nodding leaves we’re passing are in quiet Gloucestershire, and the River Severn isn’t winding us towards the heart of darkness… not unless Bristol’s having a really bad Saturday night. The double-decker boat we’re riding – the MV King Arthur – has been hired from the National Waterways Museum, and in under four hours we’ll have looped back to its safe berth in Gloucester. On the way, we’ll be enjoying a self-propelled music bash featuring the aforementioned Coxers and a little circle of related bands from Gloucester and London. There’s even a raffle. Cosy.

Had we set out a little earlier in the summer, and during the day, it would have been picnics and beer all round by now. As the red and gold lights of a jolly riverside pub bob past like a luminous Johnny Walker bottle, it’s clear that any actual weirdness will need to be handled by the bands. Crammed onto chairs on the makeshift band stage wedged into the top deck, Datapuddle do what they can. Alex Vald (who once played filthy guitar for Dream City Film Club) cradles an electric mandolin across his chest like a sulking cat. When not distractedly plucking and strumming at it as if he were plucking a chicken, his hands dart restlessly towards a litter of electronic gizmos on a table: a virtual theremin, a cheap sequencer, a plastic voice-changer and other bits of toy-box guts. Stephen Huddle plays sketchy acoustic guitar and pushes broken murmurs and mumbles of song up into Alex’s cobwebs of sound.

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

What ultimately emerges is a lo-fi cat’s-cradle of strung-together and slightly strung-out elements. Tidal dub; debris and dusty notes swept out of an Irish-American bar; bits of memory and reaction scattered like dandruff – all glued by static electricity and misfiring synapse energy to the guitar strings of a long-fried singer-songwriter. “Here’s a little sea shanty,” says Stephen brightly. A water-blip of electronics merges with a Lloyd Cole chug of guitar, rocking it on its rhythmic base. Alex buzzes a harmonica into an overlapping backwards loop, transforming it into a reversed melodica.

On the next song, trip-hop snare-drum smoke merges with psychedelic space whisper like the first skunked-out collision between Portishead and Hawkwind. Alex’s mandolin maintains a relentless, disappearing clang like a freight train bell, while Stephen mutters like Tom Waits ruffled from deep sleep. Peril – another shaggy-dog shanty written especially for tonight – namechecks the Severn amidst its steam-train chunter of knocks, old-school electro breaks, and harmonica rasps. “Don’t buy the brown acid,” Stephen sings, channelling up the confusion of a different party as ours sways cheerfully along the river.

Datapuddle come to a purring end with lashings of electric theremin wibble and a lengthy musical chew on a genuine melodica which has surfaced from their box of battered goodies. Watching them was like watching someone scrabble a shack together out of estuary trash and flotsam. In its way, it was just as raw and triumphant.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

While the upstairs audience return to conversation and shore-spotting, Michael J. Sheehy and Paddy McCarthy are down below decks mopping up the leftovers (along with any beer that’s available). Cuddling a pair of honey-blonde acoustic guitars, the brothers from St Silas Intercession (and, previously, Dream City Film Club) have wedged themselves into a corner to hammer out rough’n’ready London-Irish punk blues as brutal as paving stones and hard-luck sneers. Eventually they’re joined by a wandering harmonica player and by a growing crowd of boozy party stragglers. Before too long, the corner turns into an enthusiastic trash-music shebeen (staggered over the changeover times between the acts upstairs) during which everyone’s treated to rattling, spat-out’n’spattered takes of the songs from the debut St Silas EP, starting with the vicious roar of You Don’t Live Here Anymore.

St Silas Intercession’s music is a London echo of the brutally direct and bluesy garage noise still spilling out of Detroit (and all of the little Detroits that have sprung up in the wake of Jack White or The Dirtbombs). Venomous as a dirty flick-knife and as blunt as masonry nails, it’s some way down the evolutionary tree from the corrupted sophistication of Sheehy’s recent songwriter albums, or even from the trawling sleaze of his old work with Dream City Film Club. Obviously the man himself couldn’t give a shit about all that: judging by the twinkle in his eyes and in Paddy’s, as they face each other off over sprawling riffs and hollers, they’ve rarely been happier with their music than now.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

The brute-blues meanness of Get My Share has a good hard whiskey sting to it; as does the defiance of Caravan Rock (“me and my kids and their mum, / living in a caravan, moving on, moving on…”). A lacerating spurt through All About The Money sets people bobbing, scrambling and bouncing as well as a seven-and-a-half foot deck ceiling will allow. But as Paddy’s permanent goofy cartoon grin indicates, the St Silas brothers never take themselves too seriously. “It’s always about the money!” Michael protests, through a cheap megaphone. His voice suddenly jumps tracks from Louisiana bawl back through his London grit to an ‘EastEnders’ stage-Cockney. “You sla-a-a-g!”

Back upstairs, a dirty blonde in a cute plush cap is hammering a comradely nail into Mr Sheehy’s coffin. “Michael slags me off in his songs, and I slag him off in my songs,” explains Charlie Beddoes. Then she bowls us the rapaciously scornful putdowns of Vitriolic Alcoholic which kerb-kicks a snarling addict with a series of offhanded verbal wallops, culminating in “do I look like I give a toss? / It’s not my problem, not my loss.” It’s good to have friends.

The determined, diminutive Charlie is both the figurehead and the core of the shifting cult-of-personality that calls itself Charlie Says. Tonight, they’re three boot-babes and a moll-boy. Backed up by sidekick Ben Fisher’s car-crash guitar and by Lian and Kim Warmington’s ice-diva backing vocals and cool basilisk stares, Charlie plucks a remarkably articulate bass, sings like a breezeblock with lipstick and thuds out middle-weight girlpunk. Not short of charisma, Charlie holds the audience in the palm of her hand. The trouble is, she then rolls them around as if she doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

There’s a big difference between true punk and mere punk-ertainment, and Charlie Says wander a bit too close to the latter end of the scale. While Charlie’s former background in hip-hop art-rockers Rub Ultra is promising, discovering that both she and Ben are recent refugees from the touring band of tech-rocker Martin Grech pokes some suspicious holes in their lo-fi rebel stance. It just makes their music seem a little contrived. Not that the songs always help: It’s All About The Music is just another me-and-my guitar anthem, and Hey Leadfinger, Why You Gotta Keep Putting Me Down? is a foray into garage-blues which is far less interesting than its title is.

What pulls the band up out of fun-punk poseur-world are Charlie’s bright flickers of blunt humour and determination. The girlpower swagger of Venus Envy suddenly flings out “if the balls are in our court, then at least we have some,” while This Is Not My Story claims “whichever way it lands, my heart will keep on beating.” Little gems of lead-pipe wit and guts like this are what will make Charlie Says special; not desperate attempts to hitch onto whichever punk or garage soul flits past next. For the rest of the evening, I see Charlie perched here and there around the boat – beaming with life, always as if on the verge of delivering another breezy wisecrack. Let’s have more of that.

For all their efforts, Charlie Says don’t make me want to riot. Ghosting do… but I’d be rioting on their behalf. Five more minutes of hearing boozy party blabber drown out their beautiful, beautiful songs and I’d be flinging bottles around myself. Ghosting are heartbreakingly soft – as vulnerable and resilient as fresh grass bending underfoot. Unlike any other band this evening, they create little pockets of pure songcraft which you need to crane your head into to find out what’s going on.

Upfront, Dan Pierce picks out gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios which ride up into the atmosphere like thermals, and lets his voice follow suit. In the corner, wedged into a little cage of half-drumkit, laptop and miniature keyboard, George Moorey handles the rest. Intent and anxious-looking, he peers at his screen like a nervy microbiologist watching a virus proliferate. In fact, he’s just making sure that the sounds arrive on time – making tiny triggering adjustments to a mouse, reaching out one hand to roll off a gentle peal of Blue Nile piano, or swivelling to make precise soft taps on cymbal and snare with the single drumstick he holds in his other hand. It’s like watching someone play a one-man-band suit and conduct an orchestra at the same time. Yet even more impressive than this deft and diffident juggling act are the way Ghosting’s songs pool in the atmosphere – gradually, quietly filling up the space.

Dan’s big genial frame contains a songwriter’s spirit of rare and seductive delicacy. Faced with a chattering crowd, he simply shifts his guitar in his hands and sings soft, warm and open… and slowly the chatter drains away as the spell begins to work. Gently, Ghosting explore topics spanning all the way from frayed love songs (Your Love Don’t Make Sense) through thoughtful disillusion all the way to ending up being fingered as a murder suspect (Someone At The Door). Hopefully not as a natural progression – but if it was, you’d suspect that they’d’ve illustrated even that story with colossal and convincing sensitivity.

By the time Ghosting are midway through the exquisite, naked plea of I Want You To See Me, the crowd is hushed and half of them are hooked. Dan’s flexible and heartfelt singing – mostly a feather on tremulous breath, but rising to a swoony peak of intensity – sometimes recalls Mike Scott or Robert Forster at their very softest. In a fey, English, breathy way, he even has flashes of the fluttering abandonment of a Van Morrison or an Aaron Neville. Like them, he’s singing songs of real people grasping out at the intangible – unsure of what to believe on Anything That Might Be True, or “waiting for the one thing which really might have been some help,” on Good Year, only to wait in vain. Intangible desires, tangible heartaches. They’ll probably rise like damp rather than rockets, but I suspect that within a few years Ghosting will be very important to a lot of people.

Having put the whole cruise together in the first place, Earnest Cox get a well-deserved heroes’ welcome once they arrive onstage. They respond with perhaps their most energetic and assured set to date. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve caught the Cox, over a time when I’ve watched their sturdy intelligence getting to grips with lacing together their multiple influences. It’s taken a while for their mixture of old Memphis R’n’B, ’60s lad-rock, ’80s indie textures and prowling street poetry to gel.

Tonight it does with a vengeance. Hello Stranger sweeps out of the gate with a swagger of rogue testosterone coupled with a smart and beady eye, as Cox singer La Windo immediately takes on the audience with his particular blend of strut and twice-burned wariness. Perhaps it’s recent honeymoon rejuvenations or perhaps it’s the side effects of squabbling over their current recordings, but Earnest Cox are smouldering tonight. Still looking like a disparate houseful of mature students (the band’s a bewildering range of types from motherly to mysterious, from rogue to stockbroker) they continue to draw on what’s in them already rather than trying to squeeze themselves into an image.

The rhythm section used to be little more than agreeably white’n’slightly-funky: now it’s moving towards a lubricious slippery groove, with bass player/occasional MC Simon abandoning cheese and cheeriness to join drummer Shane in seriously flexing the pocket. Nicola parachutes in flights of piano, springs of Booker T. Hammond organ or splurges of synth when she needs to, while Marc buries himself in the middle of the band, cooking up lightly-textured mats of funky guitar texture to fly blurs across the gaps.

Up front, where you’d expect to find a preening Rod Stewart lookalike, La continues to prowl like a Gloucester merging of Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed, delivering his narratives of edgy small-town life like the most restless man in the pub and shaking his percussion as if testing the heft of a throwing knife. He looks pretty handy: yet the Cox don’t exactly trade on casual violence, even when La hurls out scathing fighting talk on You’re Not Fit To Lick (The Shit From My Shoes).

Rather, they seize on restlessness in general, whether it’s randiness, boredom, the unease as your parents age towards death, or the bumps in love’s road. There’s swagger, vengeance and one-upmanship aplenty in songs like Two Can Play At That Game, Baby and Scratching The Same Old Itch: yet in spite of this Earnest Cox’s songs are about survival if they’re about anything. No More Happy Endings treads the ashes of hopes and securities with the dogged, battered trudge of someone who’s had the knocks, has sagged, but won’t go down yet.

The Cox’s musical cockiness almost makes them part of that line of lad’s bands dipping in and out of pubs, taverns and speakeasys (and finally Royal Command performances). Yet the way the bruises on the songs never entirely fade (and the way that La quietly retreats into himself, gaze distracted, mid-song) hints at a band who’ve accepted, even embraced, the dragging baggage of personal history rather than saturating themselves in adolescent posing. Marc’s refusal to play the role of the strutting guitar stud (keeping his back almost entirely turned to La and the audience as he brews up his noises) confirms it and heightens the internal dignity beyond the Cox’s miscellaneous looks.

Perhaps it’s this mixture of getting by, getting on and getting on with it even within limited horizons that makes Earnest Cox local heroes on the Gloucester scene. The familiar tastes of that stew of pop ingredients they serve it up with, plus their band’s anti-glorious English universality and their bumpy everyman charisma should win them friends around the country, whether or not they bring their boat with them.

As the Cox set hits its climax, we look up and find ourselves back in the Gloucester lock. Hometime, Charlie.

Datapuddle online:
Homepage TwitterMySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Michael J. Sheehy online:
Facebook MySpace LastFM

Miraculous Mule (what Sheehy/McCarthy/St Silas Intercession did next) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud LastFM

Charlie Says online:
Homepage

Ghosting online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

Earnest Cox online:
MySpace

MV King Arthur online:
Homepage

March 2004 – live reviews – Mondriaan Kwartet @ Fuse Leeds 04 festival (performing John Zorn/Toek Numan/John de Simone/Richard Ayres) @ The Venue, Leeds College of Music, Quarry Hill, Leeds, UK, 4th March (“brimming over with the enjoyment of physical and audience challenge”)

12 Mar

We’re all consenting adults tonight, in for an evening of potential torment at the hands of four extremely accomplished Dutch experts. As we wait, we’re eyeing an ominous device. Rearing up from the floor, it initially resembles a homemade shower cabinet, adapted to work as an electrocution chamber.

Any second thoughts?

The towering gizmo is the Octachord. It’s a nine-foot sound-sculpture (to be precise, an electrophonic harp) doing double duty as accompaniment for Mondriaan Kwartet –  but that’s for later. Right now, its main role is to focus our attention. Eight metal extrusions like park-fence railings (actually tubes holding the Octachord’s strings and movable bridges) jut up from a chipboard sound-box, sitting on a set of squat castors. Hugged by a tracery of control wires and delicate devices, the tubes ascend to a cross-brace like an oversized hash sign.

Like many sound-sculptures, the Formica surfaces of the Octachord and its festoonings of light-industrial debris give it a frail, domesticated Heath Robinson structural logic, offsetting its intimations of menace and tortured electricity. You could imagine it sitting in the corner of your spare room, exchanging polite machine-conversation with the boiler. But you wouldn’t want to imagine it roaming the house in the dead of night: looming towards the bedroom door, exuding fat blue sparks…

I was mentioning torment? That’ll be courtesy of John Zorn. For as long as he’s been blowing frenetically over jazz and hardcore art-rock, this viciously intelligent post-modern saxophone maven has doubled as a modern classical composer. His waspish chamber music dominates the Mondriaan’s repertoire tonight – and when I say “torment”, I mean it literally.

By Zorn’s own admission, the splintered suite music of ‘The Dead Man’ is a detailed representation of a sadomasochism session in progress. Violins, viola and cello conjure the impact of blows and the rests of anticipation; the distortion of twists and cruel stretches; the shocks and the sensuality. If this sounds like sensationalism or game-playing, then bear in mind that Zorn apparently practices what he’s preaching here. If he’s setting up as an ambassador for the joys of S&M he makes a compelling job of it, by writing music that’s as eerily seductive as it is violent.

As for the performers, Mondriaan Kwartet are a New Music string quartet par excellence – an effortless collective embodiment of Dutch cool and elegance – but they’re clearly brimming over with the enjoyment of physical and audience challenge. They dive passionately into Zorn’s music with its hornet squeals; its sudden pops of ordnance; its super-pianissimo glass-pane skitterings of bow on strings. The Dead Man itself sounds like nothing so much as music for duelling crabs – perilous music, with its structure continually threatened by tensile collapse. The concerted classical discipline and harmonies are beset by savage scrapes, and by drifting descending tones and atmospheres that alter the air like eerie lighting effects. When they’re not slithering their bows over the strings, the players rattle them against the fingerboards; or swat at the air with them, making muted whip swooshes. Over the top of her viola, Annette Bergman’s eyes flick from colleague to colleague for cues. On the execution of a particularly tricky Zornism, a broad grin flashes across her face – guileless, yet mischievous.

Setting Zorn for a while, the Mondriaan move to ‘Stringtones for String Quartet’ by Dutch composer Toek Numan. Reflecting his work in dance theatre and film soundtracks, Numan’s piece is presented in highly visual terms – performed in near-darkness accompanied by film projections, a rotor of light passing across gelid red tiles and flickering and fractionating into restless patterns. The music itself is a shudder of anticipation, broken by staccato plucks before it’s allowed to go far in sustaining itself: a drone undermined by quick strikes and harmonies, eroding backbone even as they provide an intriguing sour extension. Revealed in parallel, Numan’s work embodies and illustrates a dividing line between continuity and the disturbances arising in its wake.Throughout, its value seems to lie in the challenge of balance which it sets its players.

There’s a problem with this at first, as it seems that (beyond the admiration we can offer to the Mondriaan’s brinksmanship and precision) there’s little for us to grip out here in the audience. But then there are the flashes of small reward. A shared line of falling/rising harmonic keen from the violins. There’s a brief, bright glimpse of harmony as the Mondriaan power through a sudden and unexpected mosaic of notes (like The Kronos Quartet on full Manhattan throttle), only for it to disappear just as rapidly. These moments materialize more and more frequently as the piece progresses and finally ‘Stringtones…’ is revealed for what it is : a modernist’s veil dance – thoroughly orchestrated, but with its component parts almost always left entirely masked, or extracted and scattered across its length.

Throughout all of this, the Octachord broods onstage like a threatening science fiction prop. Appropriately, it’s finally brought into play for John de Simone‘s ‘Deus ex Machina’ – a compositional nod to the primal thrills of science fiction B-movies, in which the Octachord plays the Alien Menace to the string quartet’s Earthlings. At the Octachord’s controls, its creator Robert Pravda gets to play the obligatory mad scientist, but only up to a point. Unshaven, and sporting long warrior’s hair, he provides an air both of frizzy chaos and of gentle politeness. This sets off the Mondriaan’s collective neatness and precision before a single note is played.

The Mondriaan go to work around Pravda in a sawn-up staccato, one violin off on a gull-flight glissando above the dense, intense, angrily compressed structure. As bows swoop up and down to precise point on instrument necks, Pravda totes a seven-foot button-studded control stick with an air of mild trepidation. Finally, cued in by a two-note violin ostinato, the Octachord activates with a brutal transformer hum before swelling out to a factory bray like a clutch of singing drill-bits. Under Pravda’s gaze, flashing green lights crawl up and down the rods like slow abseilers, riding the bridges as they set the pitch. The sound is terrific – vast, oppressive and urgent harmonic waves.

Unfortunately, it’s immediately a fatal distraction from the quartet music. This vanishes into indifference as the Octachord rides balefully along within its own entirely separate space. Given a long solo passage, with many of its dancing lights alight, it renders us a wonderful unearthly noise like a glass harmonica being ravished by ravenous microscopic metal worms. Watching it chunter along like a psychedelic cathedral clock (or a captivating ‘Doctor Who’ relic), we forget all about the strings, and the composer.

With ‘Deus Ex Machina’ over and the interval in progress, I sidle up to the Octachord (alongside other nosy audients) and sneak a peek at Pravda’s copy of the score. Our explosive giggles prove that curiosity has finally cracked up the cat. The instructions from de Simone are simply to turn the Octachord on, to let the Mondriaan phase in with the string drones and come to a halt; and to then “do your thing for 2-3 minutes, or until audience is bored…” It’s a good joke. Still, it’s not enough to make up for the feeling that a marvellous sound-sculpture roar has been wasted –  that it’s been bolted onto a halfway-interesting chunk of aggressive minimalism in a cavalier and casual fashion, only for both to fall flat. Yoked together, to death.

Another new work – the two-part ‘No.38 for String Quartet’ by Cornish composer Richard Ayres – begins with bouzouki-style picking. Armed with plectra, the Mondriaan members claw gently at the strings of cello, viola and violin for Part 1. Jan Erik van Regteren Altena’s first violin, is the exception: ejecting a thin strand of stressed melody, hurtling helplessly off the side of the instrument. Part 2 has the full quartet engaged in a hopping dance full of skidding harmonics. Dispatched with zest and vigour, it sounds like children’s skipping songs being enticed into a motorcycle formation, and then run violently off the road. Later on, other vivacious dances are sliced and diced in Ayres’ conceptual grinder. It seems that John Zorn doesn’t claim the monopoly on cheerful sadism.

However, Zorn does claim composer’s laurels for the evening, as the Mondriaan close the concert with his ‘Cat O Nine Tails’ – a masterfully disruptive witty soundtrack to an imaginary cartoon. Ripe with cunning flirtations with chaos – and peppered with a wealth of Americana – it offers the Mondriaan another opportunity to stretch out and relish. Scourging turbulence and shimmers cross over with jaws and saws; fragments of hoedown reels start up and are swallowed by silence, jump-cut with passages of rich serenity or sly threat. Inside its parade of styles and suggestions, Eduard van Regteren Altena gets to quote jazz bass on his cello, and Zorn also throws in a brief shuffled history of the fiddle’s musical journey across Europe and America via kletzmer, Appalachia and Hollywood. Certainly, there are gimmicks a-plenty – but here, as in cartoons, the architecture of gag and message combine, part of a bigger picture.

Mondriaan Kwartet online:
Homepage

John Zorn online:
Homepage MySpace LastFM

Toek Numan online:
Homepage Homepage - blog LastFM

John de Simone online:
MySpace

Richard Ayres online:
Homepage MySpace

Robert Pravda & the Octachord  online:
Homepage Facebook and also this article.

The Venue (Leeds College of Music) online:
Homepage

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

14 Sep

Resindust: 'Resindust'

Resindust: ‘Resindust’

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

Shape-shifter, meet Trusty.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tony Harn online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube

Lewis Gill online:
Homepage MySpace

2000 – EP reviews – Empty Vessels’ ‘Empty Vessels’ EP (“uptight urban fuck-up music”)

14 Jul

Empty Vessels: 'Empty Vessels' (demo cassette, 2000)

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ (demo cassette, 2000)

Perhaps I was spoilt by the absolute flamboyance of David Devant And His Spirit Wife (a band of music-hall performance artists in Britpop camouflage, fronted by another Vessel) but I initially found Empty Vessels a bit underwhelming. Billing themselves as a “breakbeat/guitar soundclash”, I was expecting to be walloped around the head with seething snare cracks, to have my arse booted by kick-drum hits and my ears burned by electric wailings (all in a comfortable metaphorical way, mind). I was expecting festival style-ee-ee expansiveness. A sort of Asian Dub Foundation that had been gutted and stripped out, but were still rustling defiantly.

But Empty Vessels are less of a soundclash than a crowded minibus jammed with noises. They sound as if they do their recording in one of those tiny closets in Islington that estate agents try to flog to people as homes… or maybe in the cupboard of one of those closets. The usual claustrophobia of sped-up drum’n’bass-style breakbeats could only be amplified by these cramped, super lo-fi recordings; all skinny and vertical, never laying out when they can tense up. The sort of music inspired by hunching up and listening to hoarded CDs rather than by losing oneself on a sweaty, body-heavy dancefloor. Beat-science with a home chemistry set…

Nicotine is an unfortunate starter: neurotically trapped rushes of synth bass, shrill Killing An Arab-style guitar licks through budget fuzztones, and some pug-dog yelping courtesy of a bloke who sounds like Steve Harley forcibly bundled into a filing cabinet. Skip it for Chew-Up, a smarter shot in which all the beats are turned up and a careening sub-bass runs away with the foundations. Here the fuzzy shoulderings of guitar are a relief from the needling drums. The voice runs like a mumbling rat, complaining but flicking from rhythm to rhythm, and you find yourself wanting to catch on to what it’s ranting about. Empathising too much with your own sampler, it seems. “Chewing up experience, and chewing up experience… / It’s mine! It’s mine! / I acquire.”

Empty Vessels sound best when they don’t sound in control, when they’re running after their technology like it’s the last bus out of town. Sneering Face is one of those intriguing accidents that happen when you have white guys playing gladiatorial black dance music, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get around their own whiteness, and ending up somewhere else entirely when they fail, sounding pretty liberated for it. While it starts as a wayward attempt at speed rapping (invaded by psychedelic space guitar echo), Empty Vessels have decided to fuck it all off about two-thirds of the way in and go for the ridiculous. Creaky vocal interjections that belong in Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop (“I – ought to teach them a leh-sson!”), seasick bloots of guitar, falsetto operatics wobbling in the background. The sort of vandalism that suggests they meant to do it from the start.

Uptight urban fuck-up music. Tower-block friendly. Angry summer sounds for days when none of your clothes seem to fit. I can’t say I like this, but it’s successfully sneaked into my curiosity field.

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ demo cassette
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only demo
Released: 11th June 2012

Buy it from:
The original cassette is long gone, although it was possibly reissued as a Peoplesound CD single which might be available second-hand. These three tracks have since been resurrected on ‘Empty Vessels 1‘, available from Bandcamp

Empty Vessels online:
Homepage BandcampYouTube

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

22 Jul
Darkroom: 'Seethrough'

Darkroom: ‘Seethrough’

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

November 1998 – album reviews – Cloud Chamber’s ‘Dark Matter’ (“unsettling beauty with an element of wild and joyous fear”)

20 Nov
Cloud Chamber: 'Dark Matter'

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’

A cloud chamber is a device for measuring the existence of the intangible. Physicists use them – mapping out the paths that subatomic particles trace through a vapour, studying nuclear reactions and inferring the presence of other particles. There’s something about that last bit I particularly like: inferring the existence of something. Something you can only detect, or believe in, by seeing how it affects something else.

Cloud Chamber (with the capitals) is an improvising group allowing the convergence of several other exotic particles – these being guitarist Barry Cleveland, space-age bass guitarist Michael Manring, cellist Dan Reiter, percussionist Joe Venegoni and Michael Masley, who coaxes sounds out of a more esoteric set of instruments (panpipes, gobek, gobeon and the cymbalom dulcimer). Having come together as part of the Lodge improv evenings in Oakland, California following stints with employers as diverse as Michael Hedges, the Oakland Symphony Orchestra, Ry Cooder and Garbage (plus exploits in journalism and dance theater), Cloud Chamber’s collective past suggests that what they’re likely to condense together will be suckling blissfully on an inspiration of mind and music, devoid of barriers.

More accurately, outside of barriers. When listening to improvised music you’re all too often shoved back on your arse by the force of several musicians protesting their individuality as forcefully as possible, and playing off each other with all the subtlety of dodgem cars. Cloud Chamber, on the other hand, have nothing to do with ego. The fivesome’s music emerges like the interplay of ocean currents; a process of continual organic movement to which the musicians respond as if they’re no more than implements of a guiding force.

And that’s how it needs to be – the compound music that Cloud Chamber produce is as precarious and demanding as improv demands, but to release the life in that music it’s necessary for the musicians to let it play through them. Manring (a driving and devastatingly gifted bassist, as his solo records and work with Sadhappy testifies) keeps any hero-glitter under a bushel of humility here. He takes a step back, becoming just one of many element in the condensate: no more dominant then Reiter’s troubled, graceful cello or Venegoni’s poised rattlebag. Cleveland lurks in the background with his chameleonic guitar (playing a skeletal pattern of notes, a swarm of bees, a steel-shack sound, or an unknown language). Masley strokes and strikes gorgeously glassy shard-notes out of his cymbalom with his bowhammers and thumb-picks.

Patterns and presences take shape out of nothingness, drift around on the edge of perception, then suddenly and deeply solidify, impressing themselves on you as if they’ve been there for years. Half-familiar fragments of music (bits of Eastern European string quartet, Chinese and Asian music, a riff from King Crimson’s The Talking Drum) reveal themselves with an enigmatic smile while they’re well on the way to becoming something new.

This is also very beautiful music: though it’s a strung-out, unsettling beauty with an element of wild, joyous fear. The exquisite Blue Mass manifests itself like light twisting through a stained-glass prism, anchored on Reiter’s perplexing, precariously emotional cello calls above which the group fashion a soft, high night-sky of singing steel sounds. Radiant Curves is all looping contrails.

On Solar Nexus, singing bass guitar and cello interweave as Masley plucks and bows his cymbalom overhead: Cleveland’s guitar flies in out of left-field over popping, sliding, shadowy bass shapes, and everything ends in glittering, mirror-surfaced screams. As a listener, you become increasingly spooked and enchanted at the presences these sounds suggest. It feels like being stalked by the Easter Island statues in a swirling fog; or like hearing the sudden ring of an unknown voice in the haunted wind that cuts through high-tension wires overhead.

This disquietude doesn’t come from conflict. These musicians don’t battle each other. The thoughtful interview they provide in the booklet, and the watchful grace they exhibit in their interaction, amply proves the opposite. But something in the music that comes out of their alliance seems to suggest a rapt, fearful awe at the size and diversity of the cosmos; and that’s not just in the astronomer’s titles which the pieces sport.

Some music changes the way you see the world, and this is a full hour’s helping. Not so much a Big Music as a small music, something retreating into the details and filaments of unconfirmed suspicions. This could be in the rhythmic imperative of the baleful four-note Pink Floyd-ian riff in The Call, worried at by the rat-scurrying strings, space-gypsy fiddling and Manring’s anxious Jaco-in-retreat fingerwork. Or it could be in the cat’s-cradle of scrapes and rockets on cello, mingling with cymbalom mantras, on Full of Stars. Here, a tangle of miscellaneous alien squawks is surrounded by collapsing glassy percussion, fractured-tree bass noises and Cleveland’s guitar-talk, finally washing up on the shores of Chinese classical music.

The most obvious Cloud Chamber ever get is on the sketchy world-funk of Dithyramb. This is like an exploded version of the fake ethnography crafted by Byrne and Eno on ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’, or by Rain Tree Crow, and passes into a high, stretched-out passage of cello and bass sustain. Travelling alongside, Cleveland’s mounting guitar journeys from sketching out cirrus cloud to lovely Vini Reilly-esque pointwork. But this is a rare moment of innocence and cheer. Much more characteristic is the air-on-a-G-string improv that bedrocks Ursa Minor, setting up tensions between pluck and sustain, between the percussive cello and phased, rapping bass; between the ominous restlessness of free open passages and the querulous, demanding blue notes of the cello solo.

The final (and untitled) experiment leaves no tone resolved – winding cello, seagull distortions and an irregular, antsy wash of noise. You’re left feeling that Cloud Chamber have dismantled the scenery between us and the infinite, leaving us losing track of time, of solidity. Falling through the world. Suddenly turning around to find the whole colossal starry wonder of the universe at your back, and thrilling with a terrible flinch of delight.
Somehow Cloud Chamber are picking up on something that most of us miss: revealing something unseen by reacting to it. Hearing ‘Dark Matter’, you feel as if you’ve been allowed to watch the ambiguous wonder of something changing, and changing decisively – a presence inferred – and that you’ve been allowed to be part of it.

Science, or magic? Doesn’t matter. Live within it.

Cloud Chamber: ‘Dark Matter’
Supersaturated Records, SUPERSATURATED 001
CD/download album
Released: 11th November 1998

Get it from:
CD Baby or iTunes.

Cloud Chamber (Barry Cleveland) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

September 1998 – EP reviews – Blowholy’s ‘Psalm 666’ (“a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down an endless cobbled alley”)

11 Sep
Blowholy: 'Psalm 666'

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’

For all the wild promo bluff (foaming descriptions of “’70s hell-riffing axe-gods having lo-fi nervous breakdowns whilst being sodomised by Satan’s own sampler under a layer of time-warped filth and modulated interference waves”) it’s easy to pin this one down. It was only a matter of time before someone copped on to the possibilities of fusing the rhythmical extremity of drum’n’bass junglism with the punch and theatrical flair of heavy metal. Strangely Brown (Blowholy’s one-man noise army) aims to be at the front of the queue to mate two musics more obsessed than most with extremity and big bangs.

If you can imagine a very young Trent Reznor chasing Tony Iommi down a narrow, endless cobbled alley, you’re halfway to imagining Blowholy. Knife-life guitar-riffs – pure Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, cored from their early ’70s pomp – ride on glittering junglist axles with a witchy, wiry vocal wound over the top. Electro-rattle meets bludgeon riffola – simple as that. Ministry did something similar with industrial techno at the start of the ’90s, and it’s fair to say that Blowholy owe them something. However, much of this EP springs from a distinctly British brand of humour and resentment.

Some of this is pulled from punk, some from the anarchic spirit of resistance in the free festivals, and some from the brutal rained-on sarcasm of the English cynic. Riding way back in the mix, crushed and distorted to a thin buzz, Strangely’s tones have a lip-smacking relish to them. He’s a rebellious and gleefully smart-arsed underdog, spitting out slap after slap to familiar targets, but with a engaging vigour. On the titular Psalm 666, he tears straight into consumerism (“Just buy what you’re told, / you are what you own. / Just do what you’re told and you’ll never be alone,”) and its pernicious work at frightening individuals into conformism. As with the metallic riffing, the song’s righteous punk disdain is tinged with Sabbath-style heavy-metal demonics (“Strip away the inane and just one voice remains. / It’s so subliminal, the devil’s own marching call: / ‘Come on, come on, come on, come on now, / fit in, fit in, fit in with the crowd’…”).

While Do As You’re Done By initially sounds more like personal revenge (“God, it gets me high to see the realisation dawn. / At last you’re facing someone you should really not have scorned!”) it’s more of a general roasting of the brainwashed – “I’ve had you here a year but you just never seem to learn. / So now it’s time to find out just what makes your flywheel turn. / If I open up your head I’ll see your tiny poisoned mind / I’m not expecting much, but I will see what I can find.” Beneath the occasional dungeon lyrics, it isn’t schoolboy sadism that drives Strangely: it’s ire at the smug, or the sheeplike, or the pretentious. ‘Dig Your Own’ (which mixes in some Mike Patton-style brat-rapping and a fistful of psychotically wiggling sax samples from Naked City) rips enthusiastic holes in some swell’s ballooning ego. “Claiming to bring the ultimate coup, / only to say what we already knew. / You’re going on so fast that you bring your own disaster. / En route from god to bastard, / so big; could not be vaster. / You’re going on so fast that it could never, ever last you…”

Scene & Herd charges back to the big unison Black Sabbath riffs, taking a sniff at speed-garage while it’s there. The dance elements are better integrated, wrapped in a grinning, glistening embrace with the guitars. This time, Strangely takes his knife to bandwagon-jumpers whose opportunism outstrips their knowledge or sincerity. “In all you do, it’s only you that you want to please… / There is no credence to the so-called words of wisdom that you sell. / But who can tell?” With great pleasure, he pronounces sentence: “It’s your fate to emulate / the world you think you have escaped / but merely aped.”

All well and good, but once the trick of drum’n’bass/metal fusion has become familiar, you do start hankering after some new tricks. Luckily, there’s Iconoplastic (Tzawai), in which Blowholy take a step on from the initial hybrid and produce something much more interesting. The power-riffing electric guitars are gone this time (occasionally replaced by scrabbles across a dislocated acoustic) and the stripes of waiting vacuum and rushing, balefully-textured noise stretched across the shuddering beat are more along the unrelenting sampledelic lines of Moonshake, Muslimgauze or The Young Gods than anything that finds its natural home in ‘Kerrang!’. The ominous Arabic samples (courtesy of Chalf Hassan) merge with the lo-fi percussive impulse, a jihad strike-force speeding across the sands. Meanwhile, the sardonic word-dancing has reached new levels of acidity. “Here we go again, with your self-important jive / about how you made a difference filling empty lives… / Well, it’s such a bed of roses with your collection of pet psychoses. / So tormented, like you meant it. / Oh, such a sensitive man!”

Blowholy are halfway there – they’re on the right track, but if they’re to become as musically interesting as the Naked City and Mr Bungle tracks they sample, they need the courage to consistently extend their own envelope. In other words, more Iconoplastics. But at least the drum’n’bass/metal crossover floodgates have been thrown open. That shaggy, long-in-the tooth rock monster has grown itself a new skeleton and is about to road-test it.

Blowholy: ‘Psalm 666’
Ketamine Leper Music, KETCDS 01 (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 1998

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand, although CD versions will be extremely rare. Some tracks can be downloaded from Soundcloud as part of the ‘Church Bizarre’ album.

Blowholy online:
Homepage Facebook Soundcloud

August 1998 – album reviews – Darkroom’s ‘Daylight’ (“subtly distressed electronica”)

14 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: 7th August 1998

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

October 1997 – live reviews – Django Bates’ Human Chain @ The Vortex Jazz Bar, Stoke Newington, London, sometime in 1997 (“joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia”)

13 Oct

Next time I’ll bring my platforms. As per usual with Django Bates gigs, the Vortex is packed out and it’s standing room only. To enable the bar staff to make the perilous weaving journey between the crowded tables, the only place I can park myself and my aching feet is up against a wall, craning my neck to peer over the obligatory taller person in front. Plenty of other people are in the same boat. No one complains.

Well… apart from the couple I speak to afterwards, with their heads full of Parisian Latin Quarter memories and a taste for acid-jazz, looking in to see what a Jazzpar Prize winner plays like. They’ve decided that they hate Django Bates. Can’t stand him, can’t see what the fuss is about, can’t see the point. In their eyes, something’s wrong with the whole thing.

While I completely disagree with them, I can see their point. If you’re coming from an established jazz perspective (certain moves, a certain closet full of set patterns, a certain desire to be pleased in a traditional way), then what do you make of Django Bates? A man of many hats, most of them odd-shaped (tonight’s being a reasonably modest ski-hat which doesn’t even get to make it onstage). A man who’s wearing a faded T-shirt marked “Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian”. Someone who reinvents the sacred New York, New York as a volley of bloody-minded bop, assault and battery (via vicious drums and sound effects – fire-engines, road drills and machine guns). Who then insults the memory of Sinatra by singing as if he’s in the shower; and finally throws in a rapturous applause sample during which the entire band punch the air like Motley Crue?

Or how about Hyphen’s forthright Coltrane-isms scratched into a hypermanic bass walk? Django yelps a string of “yeah!”s in parodic hammy Americanese; yet he later delivers a sprightly piano solo as the piece’s main moment of reflection. It’s peculiar but assured – like Victor Borges hosting the Jazz Club on ‘The Fast Show’. It’s not so much Duke Ellington as Frank Zappa hitting the lounge wall. Hard.

“N.Y., N.Y. – nice, yet nihilistic, yobs. That’s us,” says Django, faux-innocently. “Respect.”

It’s this sort of English ridiculousness that puts the originality and oomph into Bates’ muse, yet simultaneously blights his career. However much people are drawn to the joyous, brilliantly constructed bacchanalia of his music, many of them still struggle to accept the humour.  In another life, Django would have been an eccentric Oxford don setting his callow students another brainteaser. But jazz aristocrats are supposed to be enigmatic, not possessed of an absurdist schoolboy imagination. For all of his enthusiastic following, Bates’ refusal to wear a legend’s weighty clothes (or to deny his own genuinely playful nature), has tended to place him out in the cold within the jazz world, as opposed to in at the heart of the cool.

For this reason alone, it’s good to see that he finally seems to be growing up a bit. There’s a feeling of “less is more” tonight. The once-astronomical note count is down, and some of the exuberance has been pared off to let the expression come through more easily. The Human Chain four-piece has always been the purest conduit for Bates music, anyway. Django’s three lieutenants spar dextrously with his carnival of keyboards and the loopy bonhomie of his peck horn. Michael Mondesir expands his crabbed, funk-impossible groove approach on bass guitar, in partnership with Martin France’s ever-fresh polylingual drumming. Iain Ballamy serves as the moral centre and hidden authority for the group, his frowning bulldog visage set firm as he navigates his saxophones through the convoluted maps of Batesworld.

There’s a lot to find along the way, here in Human Chain’s haphazardly hilly country between Weather Report, Mingus, Naked City and Ivor Cutler. For instance,  the intriguingly sprained prog-rock samba of Three Architects Called Gabrielle; or And A Golden Pear’s long mixture of rhetorical questioning and querulous demand (this time given a Carlos Jobim calypso lilt). On Powder Room Collapse, France and Mondesir smack and swat away at the hidden angles of the rhythm. Bates expounds on his wah-wah’ed horn or squeezes electrified duck calls out of the keyboards. Underfelt slips from mode to mode, like a trapeze artiste on an endless series of loop stunts.

Keeping a single mood – other than an amused giddy elation – is next to impossible, especially while Django is continuing to toy with traditions. “We’d like to change the mood now,” he muses, and pauses a second. “And now we’d like to change it back again.” This continual deflation of expectations has got to be deliberate, a way of disarming and confounding our prejudices, freeing us up so that we can react naturally to the great and mischievous “perhaps” of jazz that Bates spends so much of his life illustrating. Thus, Food For Plankton – always an especially joyful party hop, working around a melody of delirious happiness and zipping soprano sax. Tonight it clicks its shoes to exceptionally pointed accents. It gives way,  during Potato Pickers, to a long and glorious slow flood of horn over wintery electronics.

The same players that sing, straight-faced, a frivolous primer for tea-making called The Importance of Boiling Water will also melt into the detached loneliness of Is There Anyone Up There?, Bates chiming the hours beneath Ballamy’s frayed alto saxophone thread. With incredible delicacy, his piano spills into the solo, becoming tiny notes afloat on a cymbal’s breath, so quiet that you can hear the measured hum of the fridge behind the bar as easily as you can Martin France’s brushes. Backed by the comforting yawn of Ballamy’s alto, Bates croons and mumbles bits of melody into the mike, narrates a story of a young man starved to death by TV, before France breaks it up with a colossal bang on the drums, triggering the final electronic runaway.

Best of all, the band can handle the frail beauty of Further Away with a compressed excitement. While focussing on Ballamy’s powdery-soft, open-hearted melody (echoing over itself), you only just notice how the band have sustained the spartan expectant atmosphere while simultaneously playing the hell out of it; whispering and yelling, dogs on the leash around Ballamy’s delicately determined oasis.

But perhaps, in the end, you genuinely just don’t get it. What the hell… your loss. No pork pie hats; showbiz that’s more ‘Call My Bluff’ than ‘The Cotton Club’. Respect, but not submission, to the black saints; a tendency to move the ground instead of the hips. Perhaps none of the above is your idea of jazz. But whatever you think, Django Bates is continuing to blow the dust off jazz’s spirit of adventure and letting it out to run. Whatever the humour here, there’s absolutely no joke in that.

Django Bates online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Amazon Music

The Vortex Jazz Bar online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

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