Tag Archives: songs that sound like dusk

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

11 Jun

Fletcher/Fletcher/Reuter: 'Islands'

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter: ‘Islands’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Fletcher|Fletcher|Reuter online:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp

Lisa Fletcher online:
Facebook

Markus Reuter online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM YouTube

February 2013 – mini-album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’ (“unstitched, re-embroidered, re-folded”)

9 Feb
Lee Fletcher: 'The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes'

Lee Fletcher: ‘The Cracks Within: FiWT Remixes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterBandcamp

October 2012 – album reviews – Lee Fletcher’s ‘Faith in Worthless Things’ (“rich and delicate”)

7 Oct
Lee Fletcher: 'Faith In Worthless Things'

Lee Fletcher: ‘Faith In Worthless Things’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Lee Fletcher online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterBandcamp

REVIEW – Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’ EPs, 2011 & 2012 (“the shadow of a melody”)

6 Sep
Preludes: 'The Moth'

Preludes: ‘The Moth’

There’s the shadow of a melody in the house, floating in the dusty air. It’s coming from just around the corner, or maybe from up by the crumbling moulding.

Preludes is Matt Gasda (the sotto-voce poet who did most of the singing and keyboards in the ghostly riverbank psychedelics Bears in America) and his sister Emily. The Bears were a group so reticent and self-involved that listening to them was like spying on a set of old footprints, long-abandoned and filling with water. Some Preludes songs began life as Bears pieces before falling into this new form and flavour, so you can expect something of a family resemblance. Yet in their hypnotic and looping way, with their camp-fire canons and travelling-man guitars, Bears in America fitted (just) into the Americana bracket. In contrast, Preludes looks wistfully eastward, back towards Europe.

More specifically, Preludes capture a lost and fading atmosphere of East Coast grandeur: one which jealously guards its Old World connections, its cultural loftiness, its yellowing old money in a deadened and dreamy grip. While Matt may have relocated to New York City and settled in Brooklyn, Preludes seems to have set its heart further uptown. These songs emerge like a sigh haunting a shabby brownstone mansion on the Upper East Side, clinging to the scuffed books in its neglected library, or fluttering with a swirl of yellow leaves in its deep walled garden. It’s not that these are wordy songs of privilege; instead, they’re leisurely blurs of decaying luxury, drunk on elevated sensation and cut right back to free-drifting images of moons, flowers, loss and water, their stories dissolved. An encroaching darkness hovers around them, like time and chemistry eroding sepia photographs. At the same time, there’s a rapturous quality to the music: the thrill of the last gasp, the final pirouette of memory.

‘The Moth’ EP, and its title track in particular, set up the Preludes recipe from the start – pianos (drowned in a flat and musty reverb), blurry-edged keyboard layers (in this case, a wavering swoon of fake strings), and a faint and faded rag of vocal yearning after something it can’t quite describe, catching on whatever surrounds the moment. There’s a touch of Goth in the mix, and more than a suspicion of Nico or Anthony Hegarty; but the obliqueness and the gauzy obscurity are all Matt’s. Moonstruck, he murmurs soft, semi-operatic vocals in the backgrounds, muttering about cicadas and strange, longing transformations. Halfway along, a cheap drum machine begins to tap out a stately dance rhythm and Matt steps up to a new level of obscure, gently-impassioned reverie. (“And we’ll walk along the opening geraniums… /The light of the moon. / Open your milk-white eyes… We will never grow so old.”) It doesn’t mean so much when you pin it down. Just a handful of fleeting images, lighter than anything. Open your hand and let it drift on this sigh of breath, however, and it flushes gently with life.

It’s Emily Gasda who sings the out-of-focus waltz of The Moon And The Bonfires – sings in a small and distracted way over a softened skirl of goth keyboards; a spiralling distant dream of a barrel organ melody. Here’s more obscurity (nightswimming and natural lights; the sense of a particular, autumnal time of year). Here’s more plucking at floating, flowery images (“The violets of memory are growing in the water… / It’s like a debt you share…”) She sounds like a more peaceful version of Cranes’ Alison Shaw. The Goth tambourine and the bass drum thud behind her sound like a lull in a noisy evening. Perhaps these songs are some kind of refuge.

As goosefeather-soft as the rest, the last song – Nightlight Child – begins as a ghostly lullaby. A muffled drum and music box playout becomes a throb while Matt and Emily sing together, and for a while they’re Victorian in their magic and ruffles, their willingness to slip away into dream logic and wordplay and into ornamental fantasy. “Like water drawn from the well – moon drawn like a fish. / Nightlight child, it’s all right. / Nightlight child come to life / and from the shell alight. /A starry, starry night.” Gradually the lullaby play fades seamlessly into surreal and transforming fable: images turn macabre (moth eyes, floods rising from the throat to drown) and innocence and horror overlap. Unwinding ourselves from this particular gauze is less easy.

Preludes: 'The Swan'

Preludes: ‘The Swan’

Five-and-a-half months later (swimming back into view with a second EP, ‘The Swan’) Preludes are just as enclosed and enrapt in their consumptive old-world decay. “Snow falls in Central Park, / and for a day your fever drops,” sings Emily on a song which also coos “love is so cold” and reminisces – with a quiet, absorbed bliss – about kissing frozen hands. There’s never a suggestion that there’s any danger involved here, or a direct flicker of death. That particular disquiet just seeps into the gap that’s left for it.

In general the themes of sleep, death, illness and wasting-dream simply blush gently through the EP’s songs, each of them thinning the walls between experiences. The strangest of these is the title track, wrought with a chilly expressionism and drifting symbols. “I love the sorrow of your voice / and the wreckage of the old days” Matt muses, beneath a cloudy Blue Nile synth pad (a mirage of traffic in the evening sky) and a funerary piano line (a shard of dusty porcelain from a lost urn). Death and revival blur together (“you’re enclosed in the petals / made of snow, / born up into the clouds like ash”) in a way that’s as much phoenix as swan. “I’ll wait by the river / for the ice to tear itself up,” promises Matt, as the ritual works its way to conclusion. “Your blood will germinate the spring.” Over a minute of silence at the end of the song eases the point home.

On Sleepy Eye’d (backed by an enthusiastic music-box twinkle and lambent synth), Emily enjoys a much more innocent dream – “We’ll tear up the feathers of the stars / and make our bedding on the moon… / Take my hand, we’ll go skating on the glass, / catch fireflies with our hands.” For a while, Preludes sound as if they’ve slipped into ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland‘ and the air of rapt surrender lightens a little.

It’s only on The Well that brother and sister find out what happens when they write and sing together. Here, Emily sounds eerily like Mama Cass (moving almost imperceptibly from her previous ghostly solipsism to a kind of centred passion) while Matt murmurs an ashy, barely-there harmony. Somewhere in there is an ancient Scottish air, missing its drone but making do with a broken-limbed piano line and rising string-synth bleeds. “And the love you held in your hands like a bird / is waking up again.” sings Emily, cupping revival in her voice. “I will go down to the well / draw up water in my hands. / Tell all, all the dead / the world is now beautiful – / stop the clocks and open the windows. / We can’t understand.”

By the end of the song, it seems as if those strange arrested Preludes atmospheres might finally be breaking down, offering release. “Now I feel time as it flows / like the melting snow.” sings Emily. Somewhere out of earshot a gate is opening, a clock starting, a breath deepening.

Preludes: ‘The Moth’ & ‘The Swan’
Preludes (self-released)
Download-only EPs
Released: 21st August 2011 (‘The Moth’) & 8th February 2012 (‘The Swan’)

Get them from:
Bandcamp – ‘The Moth’; ‘The Swan’

Preludes online:
Bandcamp

September 2012 – album reviews – Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward’s ‘Waiting For The Storm’ (“tin roofs, heat and restlessness”)

5 Sep

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: 'Waiting For The Storm'

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’


Two guitars, two hushed voices, a looming double bass and a room that moves. That’s all that’s needed.

Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward go way back. In the 1980s, both were ungrizzled Scottish freshmen; teenaged guitarists coming up through roots music gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their paths have intersected many a time since then, while both clocked up the years and the experience – Mark with a brace of projects including the Berlin Americana band Two Dollar Bash, Craig most famously with dEUS (and spinoffs like The Love Substitutes), While this fuller collaboration was mooted in 2007, it wasn’t recorded until 2010 and 2011, and then went unreleased for a further year. In the meantime the intent hasn’t gone stale. If anything, it’s aged like a good whisky. This album might have been a while in coming, but it’s happily unstuck from the demands of time – just like any long friendship of the kind where a phone call and a kept date in a bar wipes away the years of separation.

Mark and Craig are upfront about their intentions. They’re reviving that strand of British “folk baroque” as played solo in the ’60s by Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, developed by John Renbourn and Danny Thompson in Pentangle, and performed in a shroud of mystique and withdrawal by Nick Drake. ‘Waiting For The Storm’ utterly recaptures that Witchseason glimmer – timeless, intimate and immediate, with the air listening in and the feeling that the songs are at the forefront of a push of story and message.

As guitarists and as singers, Craig and Mark are perfectly matched. Acoustic fingerpicking styles knit together in a generous skein of give-and-take, with each man providing varied electric textures as and where needed. Their quiet, rough-finished voices blur and separate in sighed harmonies, tinged with weariness, a little foreboding and some scarred-knuckle gentleness. Between them, Hannes d’Hoine plays double bass as if it were a straining mast, conjuring up deep thrums, solid gutsy plucking and ghostly bowed atmospherics. It’s very much a three-cornered exchange – almost telepathic in the players’ instinct to play just what is needed and no more.

As for the roots of the record, they drift – and no wonder. Though Mark and Craig are Scottish by origin, they’re wanderers by nature. The stoic discomfort blues of A Strange Place traces lightly over the angst of this lifestyle; the menacing weightlessness of its temporary, torn-up settlings. “Anyone entering this place they might say, / a strange place in which we belong…/ It’s a strange place we do run to, / a strange place to which we do run.” The slithering folk riffs and Simon & Garfunkel harmonies of Something On The Breeze raise up something more of home, via a Lowlands song of roaming and departure. (“Blowing through the open door that I have just walked through, / blowing me along to something new… / Looking forward to looking back on the things I’ve left behind, / somewhere a little further down the line.”)

Under even the dreamier-sounding songs, there’s a Scottish feel of hard lines: an undercurrent of poverty and menace dealt with stoically (“I see the cops on every corner, / people waiting ready to run. / Blue lights flashing out a warning – / someone’ll get hurt before the morning comes.”) Yet most of the underpinnings of the record come from one particular location: Mark’s current home of Port-au-Prince, in Haiti. Throughout ‘Waiting For The Storm’, Haiti breathes itself steamily into the mood and the music – mountains and stagnant creeks; tin roofs, heat and restlessness. There’s an occult foreboding here too, perhaps brought in by the business of living under the threat of capricious flooding, of drumming rain, or of violent passions swelling out of control. The answers flicker through the songs, half-seen, or viewed full in the face for an uneasy moment.

Some of it’s more relaxed; simply sketches and shadings of place and time. The winding sea currents of All The Doors Are Open (with Hannes’ grasping bass anchoring the surges of meter) invoke summer-struck stupor and an urge for motion. “All the doors are open, cars go past outside. / Won’t you take me with you, take me for a ride?… / I gulp down the icy water, drowning in the heat. / Hills lean over the hazy sea, wheels turning to the beat.” The instrumental Black Sail travels in a wave-roll and a dark minor key, telling a wordless story: moods shift weather-wise like bands of sunset and lowering clouds, the accelerations and slowings of the guitars tracked point-by-point by Hanne’s bowed bass.

With the title track, however, more threatening moods gather. “See the vinyl spinning its strange pattern in my head / and I can’t help thinking about something somebody said…” Like a brooding canvas, Waiting For The Storm uses the old expressionist motif of threatening weather to illustrate roils in the spirit, but leaves us hanging and expectant. “The sky is getting darker and the glass begins to fall. / The flicker of the candle’s throwing shadows on the wall… / Siren in the distance, the evening air is cool. / The bottle’s almost empty and the ashtray’s nearly full. / Waiting for a moment when it all begins to spin – / voices in the darkness, waiting for the storm to begin.”

Although the Haitian setting offers ravaged scenery and wild elements aplenty, Mark and Craig are ultimately too subtle just to use it as an exotic stage. In their lean words, they imply that most of the trouble a nomad might find in places like these might actually have been brought along in his own baggage. Secret Places, certainly, is caught up in its own space – one of obsessive passion, affirming “there’s no after, no before, /each time we pass through this door. / Nothing matters anymore – / each moment burns more fiercely than the last.”

Haiti gets to speak for itself as well. Amid arco bass rumbles and a stew of electric guitar atmospherics and acoustic webbing, Les Belles Promesses sees Mark, Craig and Hanne take a step back so that Haitian laureate Frankétienne can take centre stage. Working in smouldering wreathes of text from his own ‘Voix Marassa’, the old man recites and declaims in an impassioned, mesmeric French Creole like a voudoun Baudelaire, calling out razors and toadstones, sickness and fire, rocks and struck matches. “L’acidite de l’ombre… l’obsession des long voyage impermanences au bout du sexe, la passion du danger dans le sang, la fascination de riske… au-dessus du desastre.” Even at its height it remains honest, clear about the swings of raw fraught instinct.

So it is that the remaining two songs are left to their own devices. Icy Shivers comes from the armpit of a bad night – a circling lick; scribbling, edgy double bass harmonics; and moonlight-drop electric guitar, both ominous and omen-ous. “Things that crawl and things that bite / my thoughts as black as the sky tonight – / oh, it’s a long, long time until the dawn… / Dead of night the city sleeps – / waters still, a bargain deep.” Elsewhere, in Watching You Sleep, the devils are scratching away at a hard-won peace. Mark sings, as soft as anything, the pillow talk of a devoted lover – “you, your head lying on my shoulder, hear you breathing soft and clear. / I don’t care about tomorrow just as long as you are here,” – but hints at darker things abandoned in order to find and keep this haven. Even if they’re not stalking after him, there’s still a haunting. “I put the key in my pocket / and walked away from what came before. / A tune was running through my head / a song I can’t remember anymore. / I heard the sounds that go round the valley / hints of something far behind. / Something I wasn’t aware of losing / now I keep on trying to find.”

As other people’s violence stirs in the street, Mark’s narrator feels the pull of it and with a quiet, heartbreaking determination he asserts his love over rage. “I don’t want to go and get in a fight / I just want to stay with you tonight… / Don’t want to make nobody cry, / I just want to watch you where you lie.” The words are simple or even banal on the surface. The sentiments behind them, as sung, are subtly devastating. A reedy fuzz of electric guitar solo, one of the only ones on the record, seals the deal with hulking, sweating fingers.

There is an eventual respite from this darkness. Full of chuckling mandolins, The Six O’Clock Whistle is a jaunty folk instrumental with a hint of a reel (plus a nod and a wink to the childhood innocence of ‘Chigley‘). Sitting at the end of the record, it lifts the pressing atmosphere of the rest of the songs, drawing you away from the mesmeric night of memories, fancies, booze and shadows. Still, it’s the latter that remains with you: a baroque spell of sketchy lines, disquiet and stirred emotions, with some lines flapping free and others coiled too tight. A magical listen.

Mark Mulholland & Craig Ward: ‘Waiting For The Storm’
Cannery Row Records, CRR 1217(826863121627)
Jezus Factory Records JF034 (826863121627)
CD/download album
Released: 3rd September 2012

Buy it from:
Cannery Row Records (CD only), Jezus Factory Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download only).

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REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’ single, 2011 (“a slow jam that’s strayed”)

6 Jun
Elephant: 'Allured/Actors'

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’

“Oh, hello, / I’m a never-ever-let-it-show – / But I know that you know. / Maybe I should let it, let it show…”

On past evidence Elephant have a knack for drawing us in while admitting to little. Their debut single mingled dream-pop with reggae and industrial chill, and cold electronics with fairy-tale flashes. They ride on a solid understanding of black pop, yet constantly swerve away from it into Euro-cool whiteness. They readily confuse, and they excel in oblique feelings – perhaps they can’t help it. Amelia’s blank singing, their aloof and obscure post-punk textures, their taste for quick-cut lyrics and surreal, visual word-imagery… while their work so far is memorable, all of it’s a conundrum. Yet for a moment, on this second single, everything is clearer.

With only the subtlest indie-pop bleachings and dream-pop shadings, Allured is an R’n’B piano ballad: plain and simple. There’s the deep, minimal support of bass. There’s the gaps, space and swat of a heavy-lidded slow sex-beat; the sparse flick of tambourine like a shimmying skirt-fringe. Essentially it’s a slow jam that’s strayed out of the dance club in its heels and skintights, taken a wrong turning past the taxi rank, and been painlessly swallowed by Elephant’s dreamy way of doing things. In the video we watch as voyeurs as Amelia and Christian languidly nuzzle and smooch each other – lengthily, and uninterruptedly. Either they’re answering that “are-they-aren’t-they?” question that’s hung around Elephant since the beginning, or they’re very committed to the world of this particular song.

Whether Elephant have simply been infected by R’n’B’s outright and intoxicated sexuality, or whether they’ve swallowed it deliberately, is open to question. I suspect the latter. Few areas of twenty-first century pop haven’t rolled over and submitted to R’n’B’s sweaty vigour and its gobby, blinged-up sex’n’suss’n’opportunity confidence. While some diehard indie-poppers might still scream and scrub it off; or cling to older schools of soul, Elephant see a good thing and slurp it up, embracing and engulfing it in their turn. So here they are, reaching out greedily into the wide-open mainstream while happily sunk in obsession, drunk with sensuality.

Only the lyrics retain that peculiar Elephantine distortion. Amelia rolls the words around on her tongue, dabbing them with glottal stops and her own strange short-circuiting shifts of accent or syntax, whether wriggling into a tangled lick of coyness, circling orgasm (“our own anatomy, so I find the path – my brain / it carousels instantly, drives me to insane,”) or swimming in a stupor of surrendered identity (“I dreamt he’d written me… He took me away, crossed me away from the crowd…”) By rights, this clotted wordplay should cripple the song. Instead it lolls sexily across the beat, as if on the brink of falling out of bed.

Then the B-side – Actors – throws us right off the scent. Same old Elephant; entirely different set of clothes. Rather than the wallow of bass and beats, here are acoustic guitars on the strum, a skinny ice-rink organ, and a dose of fast-paced pop soufflé which chuffs around its drum track like a toy steam train. It’s a tune for people in mini-dresses to run around Paris to, or chase summer bicycles through Spanish Harlem. Once again, Amelia’s dazed delivery and tangled string of lyrics ensure that it keeps the Elephant stamp.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what she’s singing about this time – “hop around aimlessly, simply surrender to time. /Animations out past under the feet, imitating a shadow spine.” Somehow the words fall into place as she sings of paying the rent “with a monogram eye” or murmurs about “the highest apple in the tree.” Perhaps, like many of the best and sexiest club hook-ups, it’s just a happy accident.

Elephant: ‘Allured/Actors’
Memphis Industries, MI0193S/D
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 18th July 2011

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries.

Elephant online:
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REVIEW – Elephant: ‘Ants’ single, 2011 (“somewhere between love-gone-wrong and epilepsy”)

30 May
Elephant: 'Ants/Wolf Cry'

Elephant: ‘Ants/Wolf Cry’

Band named after large thing actually sounds small. Single named after tiny things suggests that small-sounding band (named after large thing) could go massive. Sometimes I love pop’s ridiculous anti-logic.

Elephant are two. Christian Pinchbeck coaxes noises out of computers and wrangles chittering textures from guitars. Amelia Rivas plays old sounds on modern keyboards while swimming and sighing distractedly through the middle, avoiding eye contact. It’s synth-pop, allegedly, but it’s also nothing quite so obvious. Amelia and Christian may or may not be a couple, but that’s not clear either. With Elephant, not much is.

Ants is Elephant’s debut single, and it spends its three minutes cunningly, surprisingly persuading various things that shouldn’t work together to cosy up and make something which does work. A gentle reggae bounce, a dribble of whiter-than-anything psychedelic guitar direct from Cocteau Twins; a roughed-up reedy synth figure like a bass accordion with hiccups. As for what the song might be about, it’s somewhere between love-gone-wrong and epilepsy; like David Lynch reimagined as lovers rock. “I’m tired and I’m bruised for you,” Amelia murmurs, moping elegantly across the backbeat. “The war that I fought made my body contort… I’m down in the black, and I’m blue.”

When we talk of indie-pop being sickly, we usually mean that it lacks power. Here, sickliness is power. Unease and disease blend together, reality is erased by symptoms, and experience is somehow amplified by the giddiness and blank alarm. Throughout, there are references to buckling knees; to floating and amnesia and jump-offs; to falling to the ground or into song. Even the chorus avoids clarity in favour of hallucinatory warp (“Ants now scurry on the floor, / I just can’t remember before,”) with all perspective thrown right out-of-whack. Yet Elephant snatch a victory from these flashes of confusion and disaster, sheathing them into a subtle, catchy, play-it-again heartbeat of song; a cool, black-and-white flicker of distress call.

While Ants cloaks strangeness under bits of spooky washed-out reggae ballad, its flipside Wolf Cry goes for out-and-out surrealism in a stream of Bunuel electro-punk. Amelia sings of seasons, seafarers and parted lovers. Deeper into the song, she jinks these acid-folk fairytales into blurred dreams of power struggles, throwing out images of hunky aristocrats or “militants on the roof.” Everything hangs together – precariously – over Christian’s alienated instrumental bonework: a flat backdrop of flat echoing skitters, deep red bassquakes, ghostly chords and spray-can snare hits. As the song riffles balefully through its repertoire of cinematic flashes, impressions build and cut (“the ticking of a clock, jumps to interior,”) or flirt, archly, around games of obscurity (“we all wear a mask to a fellow passer-by.”)

Ultimately, Wolf Cry comes apart in the fingers if you squeeze too hard (the strange syntax, the dodging of plot, their mingling of seduction and avoidance) in much the same way that the story of Ants comes to us half-melted. Elephant have a knack for this kind of anti-logical play, squeezing into the gaps in the story. Besides, they’ve already demonstrated that they’re masters at magicking something coherent out of disorientated fragments – not least via a fine mournful tune or two. Evasive or not, they’re very much in the room. I suspect that I’m going to go on talking about them.

Elephant: ‘Ants’
Memphis Industries, MI0172S
vinyl 7″/download single
released: 17th January 2011

Get it from:
Memphis Industries.

Elephant online:
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Last Harbour: ‘Never’ single (“a tremendous spit in the face of futility”)

7 Feb
Last Harbour: 'Never'

Last Harbour: ‘Never’

If you want to keep doom in your pop, you need a trade-off. For every reverberating song of blasted hopes, naked disaster and dramatic plummets into death, there must be a moment when the naked emotion cuts loose: beyond taste, beyond the little voice of reason and logic, and straight into the sweet spot. It’s the same emotional pornography that you’ll find in an overcooked opera, and it works like a charm. If you’re writing deep in the vein of Southern Gothic (in itself, a kind of blue-collar grand opera), this can be the only trick which makes that long black coat billow like it should.

For Never, this point comes about halfway in. Up until then, Kev Craig has been riding a majestic groundswell of piano, bass and anticipatory gushes of cymbal. He’s been singing, obliquely, of love’s fears; of chances lost under blushes, of words becoming “wingless birds.” The guitars and drums have been biding their time, creeping in and out, hinting at heart-crashes.

Now, as all but the piano slips away, here comes the payoff – an invisible gusher, with only Kev’s voice here to ride it. What, up until now, has been a fruity Johnny Cash-cum-Nick Cave impression summons up an even deeper Americana accent, rears high and (as Kev’s lover takes his hand) joyfully bursts its banks: “You told me this truth – / that lovers, unafraid, should open up their graves / and just jump in…”

It’s a tremendous spit in the face of futility; twisting off the sting of death while accepting that it will, one day, be back for its dues. The celebratory boom of instruments that follows could be Arcade Fire or the Waterboys. The blanketing, poisoned romanticism recalls Australia’s great lost desolation band, The Triffids. The weight – ultimately, the whole towering and fruity triumph – is all Last Harbour’s. From here on, the rest of the song is a view down the mountain, but no less grand for that.

There’s more hand-holding on The Heath. This time Kev is sunk deep in a fug of baritone foreboding, with a lone chamber organ looming through the murk to keep him company. There’s a pallid sun, and a gunshot. All else is blurs of detail: coldness, a sense of struggling and drowning, a need for escape. Sometimes the game tilts the other way. Sometimes the view just doesn’t come clear.  Sometimes the long black coat just hangs – just like that, just fine.

Last Harbour: ‘Never’
Little Red Rabbit Records, LRR030
CD/download single
released: 30th January 2012

Get it from:
Free download from Little Red Rabbit Records or Bandcamp

Last Harbour online:
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November 2011 – EP reviews – Elephant’s ‘Assembly’ (“how the war is contained”)

20 Nov

Elephant: 'Assembly'

Elephant: ‘Assembly’

Though Elephant’s Amelia and Christian actually hail from semi-rural English idylls (Pontefract and Stroud), their band is a London band and behaves like one. Rather, it presents itself in the way many pop bands made in London by incomers tend to. There’s something a little guarded about Elephant’s music – detailed and consuming notes from the inner life versus a chilly, self-constructed poise. It’s difficult to see which side is winning. It’s interesting seeing how the war is contained.

Two previous singles, ‘Ants’ and ‘Allured’, have dabbled in pop-reggae and R’n’B respectively, merging these with Amelia’s dazed and distorted lyricism and Christian’s avant-garde dream-pop trickery. With ‘Assembly’, Elephant now seem to be moving into more mainstream territories – more Anglo or European, certainly a little whiter. Think of a tranquillized Yazoo strained through 1960s West Coast pop; and then through the submarine guitar rills of Cocteau Twins, Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. Think of a poppier yet more introspective Broadcast.

Think, also, of slow-paced black and white movies in which no-one seems to do much. While most synth-pop blazes outwards, Elephant’s blanched-out songs (offhanded in manner but carefully constructed) are always on the verge of collapsing inwards. Smooth swatches of organ, pulses of vintage keyboard and a solid sense of classic pop songwriting provide their work with an anchorage. But even when the synth trills and frills are at their liveliest, Elephant are increasingly trading in infinite shades of grey – monochrome filigree, slanted shadows, deadened responses. Amelia’s hopeless, surrendered sigh should be the band’s weak point, flattening Elephant’s pop soar into a graceful, endless nose-dive. In practise, those last drops of romance which cling to her resignation render the songs that much more intriguing.

Within the songs, the band’s brains are ticking away even when they sound as if they’re dazed by cough-mixture hangovers. Under its icy shrouding, Assembly pop-bops and puppy-bounces like The Teardrop Explodes; but still takes its medication straight to a frozen heart, anatomizing and dissecting the impact of closeness gone wrong. “It’s like a disease,” complains Amelia. “Think too hard, the brain goes cold.” While she’s dishing out a few sharp survival tips amongst the scalloped echoes and fairy-dust twinkles – “don’t dwell on who won’t dwell over you” – most of the song is convalescence and consolidation. “I have a mind,” she muses, pulling herself in. “The rest is numb, just a skeleton.”

The deeper into the EP you go, the further Elephant conceal outright emotion under festoons of Cocteau Twins guitar, blood-pulse synth and studied blankness. This is happening even as the lines they deliver lean more and more towards the romantic. Even the desert island setting of Shipwrecked doesn’t cut the chill. Amelia wanders through blurs of physicality (“shuffle, ricochet on the ground”), then fails to connect (“don’t try to confuse me again, / you speak so slow, sand falls on my head”) and finally all but gives up (“What’s the point of time? It dissolves in the sea. / If you sail with the tide, will you shipwreck back to me?”) While Christian’s sounds trail and spiral onwards, Amelia chases a half-stunned chorus – “that’s where my heart, the rest of my heart is” – as if grasping after a pair of slow-moving balloons.

The imperious blast of keyboards at the start of Hopeless herald an out-and-out dizzy love song. It’s part classic ’60s girl-group, part hi-NRG synth-pop. In its way – in Elephant’s particular way – it’s even quite triumphant. Elephant’s way, though, usually involves some kind of collapse. Amelia spins through the middle of the song, twirling like a stray leaf, sounding happy to be blown around by feeling. “Hopeless I know, I sway to and fro – / I can’t hide from you.”

But by the end of the EP, Elephant are hiding out. At Twilight is a step back to their earlier, artier work: from its swallowed-up chorused vocals and witch-queen intro, to its deathly pace and dreamy lyrics about a “circus moon”, it’s also deep trip-hop collapsing into Gothwave. A bass pulse lags and limps outside of the funereal beat: Amelia stares at her hands and murmurs “I need to leave, but I don’t know how,” as a foam of feedback gradually fills up the space. Inner life boiling over? Perhaps. Elephant play a teasing game with their songwriting tensions. It makes us keep listening.

Elephant: ‘Assembly’
Memphis Industries, MI0200CD/D
CD/download EP
released: 14th November 2011

Buy it from:
Memphis Industries.

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

29 Jan
Bears In America: 'Bear Tracks'

Bears In America: ‘Bear Tracks’

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

Get it from:
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Bears in America online:
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March 2010 – album reviews – Meczûp’s ‘Hanging from the Purgatory’s Pendulum’ (“intimations of strings, pipes and carefully torn air”)

12 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meczûp online:
Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

January 2010 – EP reviews – Orders of the British Empire’s ‘Rebuild (“bulge-eyed romantic ear-splitters, about to pop a vein”)

5 Jan
Orders of the British Empire: 'Rebuild' EP

Orders of the British Empire: ‘Rebuild’ EP

Orders Of The British Empire wear some pretty evident, pretty well-known influences upfront. These North London bandmates are avowed disciples of Mogwai, of Pelican and of Oceansize – and it shows.

While OBE are members of the broad church of instrumental post-rockers, they operate at the brutal, crunchy, masculine end of the genre. In other words, the one which relies on a bristly bromance between hardcore punk, hurricane-textured shoegazery and epic heavy metal, all reconfigured for sensitive guys with tattoos. It’s the side of post-rock which brings most of the previously-despised rock muscle roaring back in; and which (while abhorring and deleting the spotlit solos and preening, cocksure singing) is rammed full of guitars which fret, bulge and wail like a man who’s undergoing an apocalyptic religious conversion but who’s also reduced to frantic speechless hand-gestures to explain just how he feels.

There’s certainly enough of the hallmarks of this art-brute school of sound. There are the melancholy guitar arpeggios which cloudburst into sleet-storms of frantically scrubbed strings and distortion sprays. There are the hush-to-shriek dynamics and the clear evidence that everyone involved can play like a demon, but have had to carefully weave and duck their skills past the frowns of the punk police (or perhaps their own vestiges of punk embarrassment). There are the Godspeed You Black Emperor digressions into dry-boned countrified vistas, suggesting poisoned prairies under oil-smeared skies. There’s the sneaking feeling that this kind of music should just bite the bullet and call itself “psychedelic metal”, if that didn’t throw up unfortunate thoughts of a saucer-eyed Ozzy Osbourne chanting and dribbling blood down his kaftan.

So – not terribly original at root, and building heavily on what’s gone before. Yet what saves OBE (and then some) is that their hearts are as upfront as their debts. To a man, they’re bulge-eyed romantic ear-splitters, about to pop a vein in the service of expression. Their decision not to include a singer means that all of that passion feeds magnificently into their churning hands. The guitars bypass the pitfall into neurotic stiffness which often plagues post-rock: instead, they play with the suppleness and flex of tormented blues. The drums pace and clamour at the back like a fierce and loving sergeant – not just keeping time, but chivvying each of the other instruments.

Admittedly, the other payback is that their music is stadium-sized, and dazzled by its own overwhelming importance. The wordless songs march under fierce manifestos (Rebuild With Gunpowder), namecheck mythical serpents and Earth-hammering asteroids (Apophis Reigns) and cast up, without a hint of self-consciousness, questions for everyday existential heroes (What Would You Do). Even so, OBE have delivered up a striking, accomplished opening statement – especially as, rather than being a squad of pierce-festooned hardcore athletes with scalp-locks, they turn out to be a bashful-looking crew of soft-lipped boy-men.

There’s much to savour on ‘Rebuild’. Partly, it’s the sonic excitement, with the fluttering intro thrums and emotional math-riffing of Rebuild With Gunpowder; or the gushes of deep, disgruntled pink noise which swell under the increasingly frantic What Would You Do, like the breath of a sleeping giant. The multi-part Apophis Reigns boasts a spectacularly emotive flow of Western desert chords and ear-scouring guitar boil; the lapping lake-music of Roundabouts offers comparative simplicity and a clear view into the band’s romanticism, bypassing the epic storminess.

All things said, it’s refreshing when a band who, on first count, seem so derivative can in fact be so transformative – and so soon. Swerving aside from simple tribute, OBE rapidly become flushed with their own life and their own fascinations.

Orders Of The British Empire: ‘Rebuild’ EP
Big Cartel/Bandcamp
CD/download EP
Released: 1st January 2010

Get it from:
Big Cartel or Bandcamp

Orders Of The British Empire online:
Facebook MySpace Bandcamp

August 2001 – album reviews – Michael Jon Fink’s ‘I Hear It in the Rain’ (“into the tundra of forgetfulness”)

25 Aug
Michael Jon Fink: 'I Hear It In The Rain'

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’

Often it’s as simple as this – for true treasure, let go of the precious.

Michael Jon Fink (operating within New Music but sidestepping much of its systematic, lab-dulled pretensions) proves it on this album of close-up and subtle music, aided by remarkably sympathetic collaborators – textural guitarist Rick Cox, percussionist Dan Morris, Bryan Pezzone on piano and celesta, and bass clarinetist Marty Walker. There’s something of Gavin Bryars’ evanescent emotional skill to Fink’s music; something of the soft spatial blur of the Evanses (both Bill and Gil); but little of the chart-plotting dryness of a composer after cleverness points. Although Fink’s composing seems to be romantic at heart, he’s well aware of what modernism lets him draw by implication. ‘I Hear It In The Rain’ has feeling in plenty, but doesn’t lay out its secrets that easily.

During Five Pieces For Piano, Bryan Pezzone’s soft playing presses oh-so-gently on our ears. Fink’s music emerges from Pezzone’s piano so delicately that it hardly disturbs the air, as silent as night-travelling stealth ships, yet it sets reactions moving. The musical voicings are widely spaced, just dissonant enough for a shadow of doubt. The melodies are simple – songs from a sleepy child on the road – and it’s Pezzone’s exquisite touch on both keys and pedals that brings out Fink’s intentions.


 
The sparse sketch of Passing sounds like Debussy, but also like worksong. Its tentative descending melodies touch down in firm but unsettled chords – displaced, jazz-shadowed. Constrained by its skeletal melodic discipline, Mode uses space instead to ask its wordless questions, which remain unanswered by the rising minor-key bass arpeggio of Fragment and the two-note treble alternation which rings on and on – absently, a long-ignored alarm that’s forgotten both urgency and reason and instead beats out its worn, relaxing ritual. For Echo, two cycles of elegantly picked-out notes overlap each other, engaging not like machine parts but like two people caught unwittingly in a loose parallel. The fifth and final piece, Epitaph, draws the harmony together. The sustained, rising rumble of each decaying bass note holds the attention, while a melody in the mid-range takes up the implications of a death song.


 
This is not about feelings being directly manipulated. Fink’s music induces them, drawing into the gaps and implications between the notes. A lot of it is timing: the attuned sensibilities of a performer and a composer both inspired by the subtle, near-telepathic interreactions of small-group jazz. More of the slender, yet involving, same can be found within Two Preludes For Piano. The first of these, Image, keeps that same poise between amnesia and raptness as the Five Pieces do, tiny details slipping past the pared-back structure of Fink’s notes. The second, Wordless, heads further into the tundra of forgetfulness: the tenor- and soprano-range parts thoughtful and reassuring, but set just far enough apart from each other for disturbance, fading unresolved into the deep evening.

When Fink and Pezzone leave the piano’s subtle, powerful dynamism, they favour the celesta – an instrument which demands (and produces) an exquisite clarity, but with soap-bubble fragility. While the instrument is chillier and less robust than the timbrally similar Rhodes piano (the jazzer’s usual choice for the otherworldly), Fink turns this into a virtue. Initially, For Celesta seems as physically ephemeral as a frost-painting – bright points glimmering on a window – but grows by degrees as Pezzone brings out the full resonance of the instrument’s range. A beautifully sleepy melody grows, reflection by reflection. It’s precise, yet weighted oddly by its slow ebb and return of acceleration; and by the sudden unexpected welling-up of emotional and physical volume midway through, before returning to its soft contemplation.


 
Elsewhere, Fink’s moods are less compressed and matter-of-fact titles are left behind for more poetic names. On Living To Be Hunted By The Moon (which could be a nod to Gurdijieff’s mythology of soul-eating moons, or to even older fears) Fink builds a landscape of powerful but distant sampler drones. These slant across the sky like angled, endless, featureless walls, each one eerily bisecting the former with a disquieting geometry. Underneath this beautiful and subtly oppressive canopy the marvellously expressive Marty Walker purrs and throbs all-but-subliminal lines on his bass clarinet. It comes across as a supernatural play of light represented in sound, but once again Fink’s near-narcotic sense of subtle disassociation comes into play. His soundscapes hover overhead like a deferred threat, or like a beautiful, cruel and thoughtless god – something to be crept past; something of predatory attentions, carefully evaded.


 
No such emotional deferral happens on the album’s title track, which is also it’s haunting and lovely finale. Everything that has been promised (or hidden) elsewhere on the album settles home like final snow, or final tears. Where all else has been sparse and minimal, I Hear It In The Rain is luxuriant and gently cathartic. Dreamily slow, founded on Fink’s pedal-point of bass guitar and the gentle rocking motion of his bell-like keyboards, it’s shot through with fluttering orchestra-sized samples of tremulous cellos, blending with the soft rushes of Morris’ gongs and bell trees. Rick Cox’s electric guitars (teased into hallucinatory smears by sponge or glass implements) buoy up the spectral and blissfully desolate melodies, dissolving the emotional suspense in one long resolution; dissolving you too and easing you out through your opening window up into another warm and solitary Los Angeles night.


 
Words aplenty… I could go on and on to you about the restraint and wisdom in Michael Jon Fink’s work, but what gets me every time is its sheer and honest beauty. There’s a disciplined mind at work here: it’s also one which is in touch with such universality of feelings that praising his deft economy and musical grammar seems reductive. I could pin him down further for you, but what matters might be beyond by reach – though, even as I finish this, it’s come filtering through the air to reach back to me again. Simple. Special. Indispensable.

Michael Jon Fink: ‘I Hear It In The Rain’
Cold Blue Music, CB0004 (800413000426)
CD/download album
Released: 18th June 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Michael Jon Fink online:
HomepageLast FM iTunes

REVIEW – Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’ single, 2001 (“counting the change and failing to come up with comforting answers”)

12 Aug

Laughtrack: 'Amusements'

Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’

Amusements is a majestic but famished slink across rain-dirty pavements in the gaudy heart of town: redolent of grime and darkness, and with disturbed puddles wavering neon reflections at you. A techno dub-groove catwalks its way from start to finish, toying with all the time in the world: whether the wire-wool guitars are beating themselves against it or whether the sound is being gulped away to reveal the skeletal machinery of bass and beat prowling onwards. A thin but insistent vocal hangs at the heart of it: “I can’t tell you no lies / We’re moving into a new kind of life – / a strange new world, a comfort zone / where nobody has to be alone.”

It’s a lyric which almost sounds as if it ought to be bobbling along on top of a corporate anthem: but which, in this context, sounds as if it’s shadowing the giant corporate hands which can pat you on the head in one pass and scoop away your world with the next. “Why have you sold the future, why have you sold the past?” questions the chorus. “Is it for our amusements, ‘cos nothing is meant to last?” Someone’s standing on the edge of the kerb, swaying on their heels, counting the change they’ve been returned and failing to come up with comforting answers.

If the original Amusements resembles a rocked-up ‘Mezzanine’, the Severance mix (done with “avant-hardist” MEME) flings the drums into echoing relief and carves the groove into a zombie stomp, Garbage-style. Grating peaks of sub-bass and further sandstorms of psychedelic guitar crackle somewhere between Chapterhouse, Suicide and Levitation – sleekness savaged into life by noise and interference. No words, but an implacable, forceful indifference. The deal’s done – it’s time to bring out the heavy lorries.

Slide round the corner, and things are different. The torch song atmosphere of Left Standing implies Goth-cum-trip-hop, but also a take on Billy Mackenzie at his most open. It’s the brittle piano chording, that cavernous sway of arrangement around the lamp-post glow of a solitary microphone; the hints of theatrics and sincerity interlocking fingers and squeezing for luck… or in desperation. That said, it doesn’t follow the Mackenzie trail entirely. There’s an absence of helium operatics and peacock posturing. Instead, the almost-buried voice of Joe (Laughtrack’s mastermind) catches at the same blend of clenched unfunky indignation as Roland Orzabal at his most vulnerable; and even breaks at the same preacherly point.

This time Joe’s not mourning a way of life, but a person: and although the burden of grief is shared, the empty space that’s been punched into his life is obvious. Joe sounds exhausted and angry as he confesses “I really don’t care for very much these days, / but the living is easy in a pointless way. / You left us standing, and now everything is hard to say…” Thankfully there are compensations, new reconcilations, new solidarities to be found in the face of it: “I tell my friends ‘don’t be so scared’… / You left us standing, and that’s something we’ll always share.”

It’s Laughtrack’s unease – their sense of huge forces and emotions moving behind the immediate business of life – that draws you back to them. This is dark, luxuriant pop to tease apart with the fingertips and pry into; something that suggests stories in the same way as the more oblique moments of no-man or Smog. And Laughtrack’s simple but oddly unsettling name (raising questions every time you consider it) suggests a writer intelligent enough to be aware of the frame surrounding whatever he does.

As Laughtrack roll away off into the night, they’re being quietly trailed by gumshoes who are after some more answers.

Laughtrack: “Amusements”
Contrary Public, CONTPUB001 (no barcode)
CD-only single
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Laughtrack online:
MySpace

August 2001 – EP reviews – Spratleys Japs’ ‘Hazel’ (“halted by the tiniest thing”)

10 Aug
Spratleys Japs: 'Hazel'

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’

More songs brought out of the woods in a bloody enormous bucket, then? A bucket that’s small enough and big enough to hold the moon and all the stars in the night sky, in one drink of water…

‘Hazel’ is a single, of sorts. It’s a little taste of Spratleys Japs, the youngest bud on the twisty family tree of Cardiacs. If you believe some of the yarns being spun about them, then they’re a cunning trans-Atlantic bud, gene-splicing Cardiacs’ abrasive brand of psychedelia (in which punk squawk and London brick-ends collide with a particularly rowdy mediaeval minstrels gallery) with singing urchin Jo Spratley and a gaggle of American high-desert rockers called the Rev-Ups. If you believe some of the other rumours, the hybrid songs that resulted were recorded in a spooky little shack deep in damp, spidery New Forest darkness: head Cardiac Tim Smith going outlaw as he pulled them all together with an audience of rats and a tenuous umbilical of dodgy power lines. Hence my strange intro back there. Hence the babbling.

(Anyway, Cardiacs lie. It’s best to remember that.)

Regardless of rats or forests, Hazel sounds neither young nor American. It’s a stately, ghostly, mouldering-castle fanfare – tear-blown strings, brass, kettle-drums and harps. It wheels massively in the sky like a planetarium show, or booms out low and ponderous like a ritual march. Just as it seems to have settled into its dinosaur vastness, it’s halted by the tiniest thing… Jo’s child-size voice, squished and distorted to a ghost-broadcast tinniness. She sounds seasick, she sounds strained and flattened as wallpaper; and she’s keening out a desperate minimal anti-tune from some dusty corner, words smeared beyond recognition. Everything (bar a shimmering, failing wall of high Mellotron) just stops – dead. Then the Jo-ghost fades, nervous guitars stir the air, and the orchestra pours in again. It’s the same tune, but transmuted somehow from its original pomp into something overwhelmingly compassionate. Then it all happens again. Then it happens no more. What they’re getting at defies the workings of my brain; but it digs up my emotions, as if it’s forking up mulch.

Two other songs – Curfew and the sleepy, knotted Secret, both voiced scratchily by Tim – are closer to the usual Cardiacs bashes. They clamber, jagged and monkey-like, around the whole-tone scale. They’re like folk songs forgotten in the womb, carrying a scolding kind of order in their baroque keyboard structures and the little child-choir voices. Perhaps they deal with more complete stories, on a more human scale: one of the Gothic scenarios which bubbles up is about a woman desperately trying to muffle a pealing bell, using her own body to hold off her husband’s execution. But it’s elsewhere that Spratleys Japs are really active on the borders of instinct: where they’re at their most stimulating. No answers. Exposure. A little fear. Good medicine?

A jarring change of gear after the spooky grandeur of Hazel, Home is just upsetting. There’s not much to it – just some captured seconds of studio chatter during which Jo breaks down into a panic attack, whimpering and gulping like a scalded child. Tim and sundry other SpratJaps leave the tape rolling, heartlessly, as they prepare for the next song. It’s intrusive, it’s claustrophobic, it’s horribly naked. It could well be a prank. But along with Hazel, it does get to the back-ways of the heart. Sometimes Spratleys Japs do this with a soothe, sometimes with a jolt, but they do it as if they’re twitching a curtain aside to reveal something outside the normal angle of view: something beautiful, terrifying or wondrous, but unquestionably there. Something which changes you just by being seen.

Spratleys Japs: ‘Hazel’
All My Eye And Betty Martin Music, AME CD002 (502127203848)
CD-only EP
Released: 2001

Get it from:
Cardiacs official store or second-hand.

Spratleys Japs online:
Homepage MySpace Last FM

February 2001 – album reviews – Jim Fox’s ‘Last Things’ (“like floodwater in the night”)

10 Feb

Jim Fox: 'Last Things'

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’

Renewing his Cold Blue Music label for the millennium, Californian composer Jim Fox has set himself up as its figurehead, although not in a triumphal manner. Pomp and flamboyance wouldn’t sit well with Cold Blue’s explorations in New Music, and this first new release out of the Cold Blue bag doesn’t need to grab attention, anyway. The two Fox compositions on this album (slow-moving, implicatory, atmospheric and deliciously disturbing) surround you instead, like floodwater in the night.

With distractedly moving electronic traces making up the bulk of the music, The Copy Of The Drawing is rooted in chopped, diced and rearranged texts from letters sent to Mount Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1955 while Los Angeles swelled from backwater to metropolis. These fragments are recited by Janyce Collins in a ice-queen whisper. Her cold lips brush your ear with a beautifully cool eroticism, its detachment only increasing its power. Often phrases are followed by glassy, ratcheting harmonic sound: as if a telescope, smoothly rotating on gimbals, is trying to take a fix on the target the words imply.

Slithering passes of moth-soft electronics slide around the words as if they’re unimportant, part of the ambient backchat in any place of science. Occasionally almost-vocal smudges of transparent noise ring up in (and fall away from) the foreground: although in some respects there is no foreground, just a slow sub-zero swirl of ambient hints, briefly smeared, like time-exposure photographs. Scrapes and subliminal swarms, jump-starting drifting thoughts in the narration; quick-drowning sounds like disturbances in ice-water or the imprints of decaying viola counterpoint and dying Gregorian chant.

Allegedly, The Copy Of The Drawing is non-dramatic. But Fox’s placement of these words, the stop/start fragments and interrupted clauses (“a jumbled mess – enough to give you an idea”) suggest otherwise. The phenomena of observed and notated science are often invoked with the reverence with which scientists replace religious awe, but sometimes as a kind of anchor (“light is always the same – water is H2O…”) against the misgivings whispered in brief passes elsewhere. “Self-deficient – diffused self – applied phenomena – name – danger lies in the abstract…” Before long we’ve heard statements of meticulous preparations (“I have put it in three different envelopes – airproof, fireproof, waterproof”) and chilly accounts of emotional hallucinations. “I still heard talking – I have heard babies crying and screaming – like in a photo – babies can hear me writing this – the pictures can talk to me – they’re not lonely – and it won’t stop…”


 
Explicit disturbance is rare, and Collins’ voice remains uniformly glacial whatever the content of her script. Nonetheless, anxiety and revelation are blended throughout, with the prismatic narrative musing on thoughts such as “No-one may ever have the same knowledge – everything running up and in and out.” Certainly there’s disintegration here – a loss of assurance, causality dissolving into “a possibility – there was such a thing – invisibility… before that – all history – it doesn’t seem possible… / it’s closer if you draw a line – on that line – all depends.” At one point, Collins recites a list which explicitly fails to reduce events, phenomena and states of existence to anything tidy. “Stuff – factors – motion – the perpendicularity – the process – the parts of things – the female principles of nature – etcetera – quite incomprehensible due to its invisibility – something that is true – close by – far…”

Covertly, Fox seems to be attempting to reconcile the cosmological with the personal. Collins’ narration of astronomers’ notes seem to take on revealingly intimate suggestions (“thousands of small pushes a second – inertia is very great”) and equates the paths of cosmic debris with those of people (“one of the incoming pieces of matter – there may be more – they may travel together…”) Maybe it’s a reflection of the gravity of cities like Los Angeles – pulling in immigrants, the lost and wandering, accreting mass as it does so. Maybe it’s an idea about scientists allowing the unsettling parallels of poetry and metaphor to sneak into their notebooks and resound in those working lives which they’ve obediently sealed away from personal concerns. This is observatory music, for certain. But the question of exactly what is being observed here is an open question. It’s one which ultimately leaves you without an answer; although perhaps it does leave you with a cold, indifferently sensuous kiss.

With Last Things itself, the sky is lowering. An ominous drop, as Fox conjures up not so much a drone of bass synth as a faraway envelope of it (massed over our heads like apocalyptic cloud) and then rings us round with a distant thunderous fence of bass-register piano, rumbling tectonically and eerily, like the harbinger of the great Californian earthquake. Trapped between stooping sky and unquiet ground, we bear witness to a passionate, wordless pieta in which the dominant instrumental voice (Marty Walker’s brilliantly tortuous bass clarinet) sounds famished, and as oppressed as we are by the press of sound. Walker’s control is remarkable – he travels between delicate, near-inaudible quivers of notes; great wide splits of sound that crack with emotion; and magnificent mournful coyote calls, summoning up visions of friendless desert vistas.


 
Relief, of a sort, comes from Chas Smith’s pedal steel guitar. Almost choral in its breadth, it’s the one truly calming element in Fox’s musical painting. It’s a Pacific palliative which voices itself as distant balm to Walker’s painful questioning, or as a glimmer of light on the crack of the horizon. At around the eight-and-a-half minute mark, sounds like distant foghorns appear in the murk to add their own skein of warning and disquiet. More ethereal, less hungry, but hardly less of a disturbing portent are the rubbing glass rods on Rick Cox’s treated guitar, hanging dying trails of luminescence in the middle distance.

When Last Things fades out, the hope of things resolved has given way to a kind of acceptance. We’ve come to terms with the fearsome displacement and anxiety in Fox’s California soundscapes to such a degree that we’ve probably failed to notice that he’s finally resolved the music with a chordal and dynamic shift so subtle as to almost escape notice – like life settling itself in, a warm beast, around the jags, harshnesses and daily warnings of a threatening environment.

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’
Cold Blue Music, CB0001 (800413000129)
CD/download album
Released: 5th February 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Jim Fox online:
Homepage

December 2000 – album reviews – Picture Center’s ‘The Wonders of God’s Heaven and Earth’ (“the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body”)

1 Dec

Picture Center: 'The Wonders Of God's Heaven And Earth'

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’

A beautifully understated fatalism hangs, both heavy and light, over the music on Picture Center’s first album. It reminds me of the last time I was – God knows why – wandering on one of the muddy pebble beaches along the Thames Estuary, heart carried like a windsock, fumbled at by a half-hearted drizzle; and when I saw a lonely seagull poised like a pinned crucifixion in the air, almost motionless. Every now and again there was a single convulsion of wings, but the bird always seemed on the brink of a slow, agonised slide down the bank of the air. I remember thinking that it must have been moving forwards once, but something had paralysed it in the middle of a wing-beat…


 
The words “together” and “forever” haunt ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’. Persistently returning – sometimes as statements of peeling faith, sometimes as a grim acknowledgement of being stuck. Sometimes a question, hopeful or semi-resigned; the gamble of a last lottery card; the last sarcastic murmur which is the sound an illusion makes as it leaves the body. Another word that returns is “whatever” – breathed out as a throwaway, or embraced with no complaint beyond a drop in the volume and a withdrawal into the kind of shrug that says “here’s as uncertain as anywhere.”

This is familiar. Picture Center have a connection with the late lamented Field Mice… well, more of a fumbled kissing connection, really (they shared some people once, but not any more). Consequently, they’re part of that downbeat English indie bloodline that winds through Sarah Records and its Shinkansen successor – the one that carries the heart-lorn and introverted folk music from the lonely post-war estates – while the countrified, Celtified melancholia of songs like Useless ties in with the romantic resignation of Belle & Sebastian or The Blue Nile.


 
So, as you’d expect, the pace is wistfully dragging, almost funereal. Girls’ and boys’ voices whisper, tears are long-dry but faces stay crooked. The guitars sigh out the emotions, a mist of greyed-out pearls hanging in the atmosphere. A particular poignant English gloom prevails – wan air; not enough daylight saving; and little towns that aren’t so much sleepy as catatonic on tranquilisers, smack and inertia (“around in circles, but nothing comes of it”). The washed-out-but-beautiful album cover could be a stony beach, or a hill of puffy blossoms… oh, or the soggy styrofoam’n’plastic debris left behind in the fields after the festival closes. Distilling an unusual beauty from such unpromising ingredients is Picture Center’s particular talent.

You can think of psychedelia as colourful, but there’s another strand of it that’s a billion shades of grey and merely half of a painful, ghostly heartbeat away from reality. And that’s where Picture Center live; acknowledging it in their gliding, spectral cover of West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s Smell Of Incense. It’s heightened by the other elements they allow to soak into the mix – the occasional country curve of a lonely guitar, the fretful Sigur Ros falsetto and drum-machine bubble on Dreams, the pressed-out Julee Cruise sigh of Forever. The tired glimmers of Cocteau Twins moondust or the hinted imprint of hip-hop’s loops and scratchy gusts behind the music-box delicacy in Never. You know they’ve been there – that place where sorrow floats, suspended in its own little bubble while reality freezes your face into something that’s calm but drained…


 
Ten pictures of fading dreams, drawn-out disappearances, fateful accomodations (“without my darkness your star wouldn’t shine / You need me like I need you…”) and stories of nothing-going-on, in which despair and beauty still manage to sit hand-in-hand on the same worn-down furniture, and achieve a kind of peace together.

Picture Center: ‘The Wonders Of God’s Heaven And Earth’
North American Recordings, 5 030820 012704
CD album
Released: 27th November 2000

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Picture Center online:
MySpace Last FM

April 2000 – album reviews – Pale Boy’s ‘Pale Boy’ (“transparent as blown newsprint”)

26 Apr
Pale Boy: 'Pale Boy'

Pale Boy: ‘Pale Boy’

Apparently what fires Seth Geltman up is Astor Piazolla – fiery, complex, challenging music, stirring feet into instinctive dance. But it’s a stiller, smaller flame that Piazolla has lit in Geltman’s heart. His own songwriting is a more reserved thing altogether. You could compare what Seth Geltman and Thomas Blomster do with Pale Boy to what Stephen Merritt does with Magnetic Fields: “from the brain straight through the heart – the shortest distance”, as Geltman puts it.

Although not as accessible (or Broadway-bound) as Merritt’s, Geltman’s songwriting is similarly sophisticated. It’s cerebral, and sometimes difficult for ears attuned to pure pop. Dark closeted harmonies abound; melodies fade into shadowy doubts rather than aspiring. An air of introversion and dry, wounded carefulness is always present. If Spice Girls had Geltman’s number, they wouldn’t call it. If Stephen Sondheim had it, he might.

Pale Boy’s delicate and mannered debut is loaded with thought and detail. Life is constantly being breathed in by Blomster’s exquisite arrangements: a chamber-orchestra palette of fluttering jazz and flamenco guitars, violins, reeds and brass plus Blomster’s own piano, ever-crisp drumming and knack for tuned percussion. Drawing on latter-day classical, jazz, and the area where the two blend together, this is music fleshed out with the same kind of light, miniaturist detail as Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Seth handles most of the singing himself – his light bloodless voice as untouchable and inflection-free as Leonard Cohen’s and as transparent as blown newsprint.

Although Pale Boy are Denver-based, their spiritual home is European – either an autumnal and imaginary Paris of skating rinks, cafe culture and falling leaves, or the ascerbic Germany that Brecht and Weil knew. Or, perhaps, a hundred points between Moscow and San Francisco where dispossessed Old Worlders with shabby coats and battered instrument cases laid down their baggage and played for a while… Think that. Then factor in a touch of Smog, with trailer parks, shitty hotels and bad teeth replaced by faded, once-grand apartments and battered books. That nails the Pale Boy world as closely as anything.

The other occasional touchstone is Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ – intricate folk strumming, surging orchestras, and dreamy heads running up against barriers. Just A Thought (in which Seth, up to his knees in toil, casts his mind free over slinking brass and woodwind) hints at Aloneagainor in its mingled innocence and frustration – “There’s so much more than the grind every day – / there’s the blue, and the cats, and the letter K. / Far from the chatter and the money hunt, / there’s a thought of an autumn afternoon.”

A darker taste of Love, mingled with twelve-tone operetta, enters Promise Me, shading into a moody resignation: “Promise me obscurity / Turn out the spotlight… / Come and go but never leave. / Let me make my best guess how to ride your slippery lines, / you fleeting joking prayer.” Best of all are the sweet express-train violins, budding trumpets and John Adams throb of It’s Good, the point where Pale Boy succumb to instinct (“Over all this sprawling mess, / rising slow in the abdomen, / taking hold of what we know. / Is this another fine mess / or an opulent waltz in the wrong direction?”) and where a new note of assurance enters Seth’s voice: “Yes, it’s good. / Just sit tight, / wait for light…”

Here and everywhere in this painstakingly adult music you can sense the presence of those cracks and draughts which betray us each time we succumb to the unexpected currents and shamings that toy with stable lives and clean ambitions. “Facts march all over an ordinary day / Paper’s got nothing to say except scandals, sports, atrocities… / Scattered friction everywhere.” The understated title track might bury itself under a forgettable melody, but its vivid lyric (of lost directions, of a hectoring young man engulfed by a stifling fence) penetrates deeper. Acrobat is cutting and unforgiving, a bored audience turning away from a “gaudy little crackpot showing off with all his might” and ignoring him as he heads into his fatal fall. Bossa-nova and muted brass line the music of October Hat, a surreal ballet of a song in which one scribbled sonnet, lost to the sea, signifies one man’s misdirected attempt to capture and circumscribe the sense of his own life.

“Well, you made your point, / and the only audience that mattered never showed up” Geltman murmurs pointedly on Hum In The Clouds. Storm-tossed lounge jazz rolls around him, wrestling with a Reich-ian xylophone, and the debris of divorce bangs into both. “What did you think would happen? Why did you leave so soon? / Do you know how much was missed and lost on those Saturday afternoons?” Throughout the record, mixed feelings and shifting views struggle for dominance; as in Wearing Your Time Out, when patient drudgery gives way to “the corner of your eye / going suddenly awry / after getting lost on lines of reason.”

This ambiguity is best caught in the trio of songs sung by Jeana Dodge. Her restrained classical soprano lends them an affectingly uptight and anxious yearning. The light, mournful marriage waltz of Almost illustrates profoundly thankful love, yet ever-so-slightly sullied by restlessness and defensiveness – “Almost a connection that couldn’t exist. / Almost all I need to subsist.” On Underside Of A Terrible Thought, an unspecified angst is picked apart with determination, disgust and fascination – “Hold it high in the muddy light… / Hold your nose and hold it very tight… / It warms your brain and quickens your blood… / this twisted tangled orphan.” The polite cadences and lullaby-vibraphone of All We’re Left With show compressed resentment seeping from the civilised rubble of a relationship – “Kept my patience, bought the flowers, went to college, put out fires… / brought home bacon, / scrubbed the windows… / and I followed the rules.”

Less successful are attempts at straightforward anger, which only sap Pale Boy of both spirit and tunes. I Hate You greys out into dull minimalism (in spite of precise, venomous lyrics (and Blomster’s poignant arrangement of funeral reeds), and while Ton Of Blue gropes at the lovelorn existential dread of the deepest blues, it only ends up sulking, morose and snappish, in its conservatoire setting. No – Pale Boy’s understated emotions fare better with  subtler, yet more complex  bonds and empathies. An endearing, awkward eroticism nibbles at the floating, detached spring-dream of Shy Beast. The wistful, tear-jerking strings and muffled brass of I Know What You’re Thinking make it a Scott Walker fall-apart thing. Here, Seth singing at his gentlest. “I know you’ve been drinking / from the oldest hope that ever was. Rising up through your spine, / flowing through the brain and through the heart, the part glowing… / And I know what you’re thinking – / ‘Get me through this jagged night’.”

At the end, Stay Hidden makes a quiet and wary bid for intimacy, with Seth pursuing truth with all the extra senses of the once-bitten. “It leaks its news through unsuspecting clues, / it lies in wait for all of us.” By this time, those cracks and gaps have been assuaged by something. Perhaps it was the still, small sound of a hopeful trumpet. This album’s not for everyone; but if you’ve silently burned, quietly frayed or seen something dear to you stretch out of your gentle grasp, it’ll strike up a little chord in you.

Pale Boy: ‘Pale Boy’
Kale Music, ERG82299 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 18th April 2000

Buy it from:
CD Baby

Pale Boy (Seth Geltman) online:
Homepage

REVIEW – Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’ single, 1999 (“smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling”)

27 Sep

Forty Shades Of Black rear up with the dirty, sticky, galumphing riffs of Belisha – an elephantine math-rock construction with stubble somewhere that’s annoying it. It lumbers around, red-eyed and furious, tearing a few trees up in fits of fiery rage. It also provides a way for the spiky London post-rockers Delicate AWOL to let off steam (Forty Shades Of Black is basically a handy alter-ego for them when they don’t want to sing).

We’ve met Belisha before, on Delicate AWOL’s ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ EP. Put centre-stage, its grind’n’chop, Mogwai-meets-Ruins sardine-can shapes bang aggressively against your eardrums, and look set to dominate. That is, until the band unveil the smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling sound-painted dreams of the other tracks. These reveal themselves gradually, like disintegrating lacework peeling off an old dressmaker’s dummy.

The soft explorations of Sidings are a post-rocker’s picture of a shunting yard being swallowed by the encroaching dark. Intermittent bass throbs mutter alongside shivering guitar. Caroline’s quiet moans float past alongside feathery passes of brushes on drumskins. Notes slide by, softly massive and indifferent – red lanterns looming out of the darkness. Much less of a reverie, Advanced Formula is as fragile and awkwardly stretched as a crane fly. Spidery math-rock chording scratches out a place to sit: an E-Bowed solo paints a long wavering strip of electric-blue Bill Nelson light across the cloud cover, while the shapes give way to a relaxed out-of-synch swing.

I’ve mentioned before how Delicate AWOL seem hung up on disintegration. This time, watching things decay and fall apart seems somehow satisfying – the return of something to its disassociated elements, instead of the fraying of desires. Whichever is your favourite collapse, inside or out, this band can orchestrate both.

Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’
day Release Records Ltd., DR102 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL (Forty Shades Of Black) online:
MySpace

REVIEW – David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’ single, 1999 (“drained of energy but not of humanity”)

26 Sep
David Hurn: 'Sick Of Hate'

David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’

For better or worse, former Ever-Opening Flower frontman David Hurn left behind a lot when he quit that band’s deep-blue, textured shades and unusual blend of Rain Tree Crow, Rush and Morrissey. It wasn’t just the rock-band muscle and ghostly electronics that Ever-Opening Flower offered, but the aggressiveness of the detail; the assertion and meaty impersonality offered by a pushing bass, rock drumming and high amplification… the way it can obstruct and drown any soft brush of associations which you might want to imply rather than state outright. Pros and cons.

Left to his own devices, Hurn’s songs are hushed, internalized, almost entirely acoustic; and none of them rises much above a whisper. His guitar and the wistfully resigned tones of his low-tenor voice are joined by droplets of detached, forgetful piano and the sorrowful whistle of detuned radios. Sick Of Hate is a spare, isolated, note-picking thing; drained of energy but not of humanity. It’s the soft, tired noise left behind after the London bustle has passed and the frantic energy has ebbed. “I’m sick and tired of hate, / Of rain on the streets./ You and me are far too small to make a difference…” If it fights back, it fights back like the grass – bent back by hostile forces but refusing to be shaped by them.

There are some shades of Red House Painters (and the perennial Nike Drake) in there. It’s the sighing gloom, the mouse-like quiet; the way you have to focus yourself in on the story, to have to want to care before you can get anything out of it. You’re eavesdropping on the final deterioration of a love affair, the lack of conclusion after the arguments become meaningless. David murmurs “The mess that we made needs cleaning up for the last time. / Are you feeling weak and poor, or just tired?” In some ways Sick Of Hate also looks back towards Hurn’s old debt to David Sylvian; but where Sylvian wraps himself in impenetrable mystical robes and perfects the shamanic droop of his eyelids, the other David still cares about the realities ruling the strained existences of everyday people. “The value of our lives, that we would both die for – / but something’s telling me the truth matters more…”

The B-side – (For Missguided) – is Hurn at the ambient guitar sketchpad. He improvises with sombre, spinily picked chords on his acoustic and with moaning soundscapes of experimental string noise: pings, knocks and microtonal whale whispers. It’s like the spookier moments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’, or like Bill Nelson locked in with Bert Jansch during a rain-swept dusk. In its way, it continues Sick Of Hate’s autumnal atmosphere of regret, inertia and (with its empathic sense of resignation) even a touch of grace. While the bittersweet fog of sadcore usually blows, trapped, around the happysad streets of San Francisco (or wherever Will Oldham or Bill Callaghan might be hanging their battered hats), David Hurn, a prince of rueful shrugs, is establishing a bridgehead for it over here in the tired old brickwork of the Smoke.

David Hurn: ‘Sick Of Hate’
day Release Records Ltd., DR105
7-inch vinyl single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
original vinyl single was a limited edition of 1,000 copies – buy it secondhand, or download from Bandcamp.

David Hurn online:
Homepage Facebook TwitterMySpaceSoundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

September 1999 – EP reviews – Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades of Black’s ‘Random Blinking Lights’ EP (“fifteen minutes before the machine blows”)

25 Sep
Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: 'Random Blinking Lights'

Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Random Blinking Lights’

“Accept that you cannot find your friend – / accept defeat and step inside.”

Welcome to the Crumbler. It’s what Guns’N’Roses might have warned you about had they been singing about an older, tired-er city than L.A., minus even the toxic smoggy sunshine. Delicate AWOL capture the worn-down feel of London’s scrag-end districts pretty well: the blinded indifference of railway arches, the crumbling cliffs of Victorian brick, and the washed-up bewildered old communities herded aside by no-stopping rat-runs. Their restless, borderline-sinister art-rock could’ve been made for the King’s Cross snarl-up.

There are a few touches of The Fall and Throwing Muses here, a bit of disaffected Banshees too, perhaps. But with its hard-bitten lyrics of frustration (and the spurts of noise-guitar, like aural graffiti tags, on the corrugated-iron lines of the riffs) this music is most clearly the heir to the sounds Margaret Fiedler and Dave Callahan violently worried out of the original Moonshake: eyeball to eyeball and teeth in meat. ‘Random Blinking Lights’ is a sour but arresting low-life bar vignette, with a bleak tune that cuts like glass on a lip. Underneath a low ceiling, guitars clank like homicidal vacuum cleaners busting a gasket. Meanwhile a cast made up of embittered barmaids, and of sundry people who’ve come in to duck out of the light, continue to cadge and haggle with each other – all of them out for whatever relief they can get.

A rancid dissatisfaction bleeds through the song. “Cosy cashmere wives sitting at home are unaware / that their husbands visit here / when they say there’s extra paperwork…” No mention of what the men are after. Whores? Gambling? The sharp anaesthetic tang of a coveted drink, or just the chance to pull themselves in and away from the tugging hands? Caroline Ross (sliding and seesawing her voice around the spilled ashtrays, stale air and puddles) brings all of this to life,. Now she’s as strident as a bingo caller; now hovering behind people’s shoulders and murmuring drips of frustration into their ears (“When are you gonna see two feet in front of you?”); now closing her eyes and drifting off – all objective – for a second. She catches the tedium and pressure of trapped lives and brings their nagging internal questions up close: like the first venomous rumble of steam, fifteen minutes before the machine blows.

As you’d guess from this – and from song titles like Unreleasable Fear – Delicate AWOL seem fascinated by feelings of trappedness. Only an unhindered Mogwai-ish instrumental called Belisha (and recorded under their side-project name, 40 Shades Of Black) provides relief. They generally observe the whole trap from the side rather than – as hardcore heroes might – howling from the centre of the condemned cell. Unreleasable Fear itself caps compressed, Slint-y dot music with a keening chorus; wary gentleness skirting the surges of a panic attack. For Plateau, a vertiginous organ hangs queasily in mid-air while Jim Version’s pointy, serrated guitars jump like startled cats and peer suspiciously round corners. The whole thing sways back and forth on the edge of a forbidding brink as Caroline rasps “it’s not what you wanted it to be, / and never will be… / I’ve come to the end of my wisdom… I’ve come to the end of my plateau.” Compelling.

Delicate AWOL vs. Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Random Blinking Lights’
day Release Records Ltd., DR101CD (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: September 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

August 1998 – EP reviews – No-Man’s ‘Carolina Skeletons’ (“loaded with meaning, swollen thick with suppressed tears”)

29 Aug

They claim it as “a totally new approach” for the band, but thankfully, this time they’re wrong. After the diverse experimentation of the ‘Wild Opera’ and ‘Dry Cleaning Ray’ albums, it’s more of a look back to their roots in the deceptively simple, poignant flush of ambiguous romance. No-Man are going home. And as they do, this falls – as if from a worn-out pocket – into our hands.

Carolina Skeletons could just be the finest single No-Man have ever released. A rhythm track like a weary hubcap rolling its way home; Steve Wilson’s lovelorn, restrained piano and sleepy, teary guitar touches. A simple, unchanging dynamic evoking both a state of grace and a state of stagnation. A set of chords that fall, question and resolve – heartbreakingly – around Tim Bowness’ quietly yearning vocal. A distant almost inaudible organ, hovering like a night scent. And a short glimpse of a few moments of a trapped life.


 
It’s a snapshot of a lonely woman paralysed by inertia, watching as time “strips the tinsel from her hair” and the mingled forces of gravity and grief tug her down. It has the same sketch-like quality of American Music Club or The Blue Nile – a few lines loaded with meaning, swollen thick with the suppressed tears – and breathes out, with its eyes closed, the same ineffably bruised air as Mark Hollis’ melancholy reveries. You get a feeling that for its solitary anti-heroine, Cowboy Kate, time is slowing but history has already halted.

So much for the lead track. But the whole EP shivers with an underlying, understated tension; the sort of slight ache that nags and means that at best only a flawed and brittle peace is possible. Caught up in the acoustic guitar webbing of Something Falls, Tim’s words are entangled and shivering in the anticipation of a shock to come: “You’re far too near it to feel it… / You’re far too near it to fear it…”


 
In Close Your Eyes (a swoonier, more grace-inspired take on their old Desert Heart epic) Mellotron strings hover near or retreat over rolling slot-drums: elegant stalkers on the uppers of their nerves. Twinkles and illuminations come and go like soft offshore lights – halfway through a guitar screams alone in the middle distance. Caressed, Tim sings a beatific, burnished chorus while the verses hint at love, violence and dependency: “His hands were hard, your face was soft. / He kissed your heavy head – and then you lost your strength…” It ends on a poised and prolonged outbreath, with Tim wailing passionately into the void up ahead: “You break, you swim alone, like a child…”

To close – a reverberant, distant, Budd-like reprise of the Carolina piano line in all of its beautiful worn-down dignity. The dust blows forward and the dust blows back. Sometimes all there is to do is to carry on, face set to the wind and tears stroked back towards where you’ve come from. Beautiful.

No-Man: ‘Carolina Skeletons’
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE037CD (5023693003757)
CD-only EP
Released: August 1998

Get it from: Best obtained second-hand. The title track (and a different version of Close Your Eyes) ended up on no-man‘s ‘Returning Jesus’ album in 2001: all of the EP tracks were also reissued on the triple-vinyl release of ‘Returning Jesus (The Complete Sessions)’ in 2006.
No-Man online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud LastFM Apple Music YouTube Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Instagram Amazon Music
 

July 1998 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Marks on the Air’ (“a rough’n’ready homemade ethos”)

20 Jul

G.P. Hall: 'Marks On The Air'

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’


On ‘Marks On The Air’ (an album of live recordings from concerts in London and Wiltshire), the eccentricity and affections of British experimental guitarist G.P. Hall is presented wide open and unashamed.

To make the record, Hall teamed up with binaural recording whiz Mike Skeet. It’s Skeet’s voice you can hear bookending the concert – running up stairs and heading down in lifts, describing his surroundings with the nattering enthusiasm of a ‘Playschool’ presenter, and popping any remaining hopes of arty detachment. Still, it somehow adds to the warmth of the atmosphere which Hall’s live playing induces. Apart for the oddly truncated applause and the removal of Hall’s shy, uncontrived audience chat, it’s as close to one of his concerts as you’re going to get without leaving your home. Skeet’s superb recording techniques (his binaural miking technology directly mimicking the listening experience of ears on a human head) presents this music in the enveloping, directly tactile environment it requires.

Compared to the more assured sonic constructions you’ll find on a Hall album, ‘Marks On The Air’ is less sophisticated and more risky, but it’s equally ambitious. Skeet’s interjections aside, this is a one-man show. It relies entirely on how much Hall can get out of his hands and his immediate music loops while still keeping an audience entertained. With four separate speaker stacks, an assorted collection of guitars and effects pedals, and the armoury of unorthodox guitar-abusing sundries which he uses as playing implements (bows and battery fans, crocodile clips and Velcro, toy cars and electric razors), Hall is at least well-armed to do that, Even the clean, dated, digital rattle-and-thunk of his 1980s rhythm box lends the enterprise an endearing extra dimension of naivety.

Hall’s pictorial – even painterly – approach to music is consistent throughout. New England Woods is cut from the same lambent aural cloth which Hall made his own with Spirit Sky Montana – swelling curtains of sounds midway between country steel guitar and cello parts strolling and dallying in a soft adagio. Docklands attempts to recreate the brazenly lively colourfulness of a polluted industrial sunset – the shambling drums falling lopsided, the whooshing saw-sounds and lemon-sharp guitar echoes pressing out the shape of the skyline.

Live, however, Hall can be tempted away from his more elegant pastoral confections and into heavier statements. The impressionistic heavy metal of City Signals and Uncharted Territory both offer searing and swaggering chromium-blue lead lines, plenty of echoed backings and slow rolling pummels of drum-sound. Rippling, prolonged ambient humming and field recordings of indistinct conversation fill the gaps, like smog pouring into a heat-haze. For the tremendous scrunch of Flying Ants, Hall turns to his six-string bass and his flamenco knowledge. The result sounds like an over-scaled Gypsy guitar played with helicopter blades for fingernails. A delightfully yobbish take on the form, it flicks between tremendous chocolate-y gurgles of sound and (when Hall kicks in the distortion pedal) impenetrable hedges of distorted overload.

Much of this music is punctuated by clipped and plunking programmed synth-bass lines. Outside of mid-’80s chart hits, these ought to sound cheap and unpleasant. Instead, they fit surprisingly well into Hall’s musical sketches of the grubbier side of cities. They can be as brash and tacky as scattered burger boxes at your feet; as the failing neon signs and fly-by-night minicab firms gummed onto and into frowning old brickwork. On Flying Ants, they’re just appealingly cyborg. On Figments Of Imagination – where they’re working alongside metallic wails, hand-pumped stutters of echo and the rattle of crocodile clips – they add to the rough’n’ready homemade ethos of the music.

The hypnotic On Every Life (A Little Rain Must Fall) goes further into the wilderness. Nodding to Native American rhythm patterns, it calls up the feel of a parched Arizonan desert view. The delicate whine and rush of the guitar patterns swap between impressions of the dry, red heat and dust and of the shocking whiteness and colours of the tasselled fragments of cloud. Notes call and repeat, tranced out. Towards the end there’s a moment when it all stops. All but a faint swirling echo, as if the whole desert was looking upwards; and then the mass of sound crams back in again, like a cloudburst.

Best of all, perhaps, is the build- up of The Lonely Road, coalescing sustained, sorrowful coats of sound and small factory noises. Tinges of ambient-blues embrace a tired old worker’s knotted muscles at the end of the day. Part of the human focus comes in via the twanging, Frisell pluck’n’pang of Hall’s guitar. It’s capped, however, by the endearingly rough burst of busker’s harmonica which he wafts over the floating sorrow. Brave and defiant, it’s answered in kind by the elephant-trumpet of a rotary-saw sound.

Despite the odd bit of bluster, ‘Marks On The Air’ goes further towards expressing Hall’s gently appealing emotional nakedness as player and creator. What he sometimes loses in the grace stakes, he gains back in honesty and sympathy. There are a couple of unselfconscious, winning little cameos of “tiny music” which could have come from a children’s theatre. Drum sounds pop and clatter against the clipped melody and zither-blues intonation of Chinese Firecrackers. Suvi’s Little Crickets is built out of simple yet exquisite acoustic child-song patterns, which regularly rests while Hall circles a boxful of mechanical insects, chirping peacefully, around his microphone. Further hints into the private man are suggested by the deep pulsing chant of Alcharinga (in which guitars are abandoned altogether, in favour of throat-singing through an old answering machine mike). Marks On The Air itself is a long, mournful study on classical guitar – swept back and forth in eddies of echo, resigning itself beautifully to its own impermanence.

G.P. Hall manages to be many things. The garage player amongst the avant-garde; the warm-hearted soft touch among the arthouse players. The naive wonderstruck kid in the crowd of post-adolescent posers, the transfigurer of the straight, and the benevolent ghost in the machinery. Not a bad set of credentials, at that.

G.P. Hall: ‘Marks On The Air’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 15th July 1998

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

April 1998 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ (“grand painterly instincts”)

7 Apr

G.P. Hall: 'Steel Storms & Tender Spirits'

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’

Despite the luminous loveliness of much of his music, the career of style-hopping guitarist G.P. Hall hasn’t been smooth (even by the uneven standards of the experimental music he dips in and out of). Regardless, ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’ shows that he’s still up for taking a gamble.

A trust-risking double-album package, clearly intended to emphasize his dynamic musical dialectic, it also highlights the tension between his experimental side and his taste for romantic melody. There’s one disc of rough treatment (industrial noise-layering, screaming electricity) and one of ear-stroking pastoralism (the natural sound of wood and air, tickled by occasional breaths of spectral electronics). However, with Hall being who he is, the two ideas tend to bleed back together: in some cases, maybe more than was intended.

The ‘Steel Storms’ half of the set features a wealth of Hall’s “industrial sound sculptures”. Layered compositions played on his stock of prepared-and-processed guitars (via plectrum, fingertips, battery fans, velcro and more), they also make cunning use of assorted noise-makers ranging from scavenged autoharps and scrap metal to oven racks and household bricks. Texture is the predominant element in the music, but a surprising tunefulness and dark melodies often penetrate in the form of solemn classical adagios. It’s these which underpin the clattering chains, metallic rasps and harmonics of Industrial Sights, or the billowing clouds of rolling fragmented piano and wrenching distortion in Eye Saw It 2.

There’s an impressive documentary flamboyance at hand, too. When the insistently ringing, collapsing-steel groan-tones of Tsunami blend with both close-up atonal jangles of autoharp and with distant, skinny guitar-string shivers, the visual qualities of Hall’s music are particularly clear. Some of his work here wanders out to a distant edge. Two tracks in particular, Steel Storms and Steel Landscape, are almost wholly abstract – musical testaments to metal fatigue and the disorientating feel of post-industrial spaces. Grumbling, malignant loops and glittering boils of guitar drown in swills of rattling shard-metal and bass-drum booms. The pieces are laced with elephantine bursts of distortion; and with brief, dying surfacings of chemical-corroded blues playing.

Throughout, Hall’s grand painterly instincts tug the sound closer towards beauty – however twisted – than towards flat and impersonal horror. A whole album of such Hall industrialisms would be something to treasure. Unfortunately, ‘Steel Storms’ is continually gate-crashed by other sides of his musical personality. On River Flow, he revives one of his signature approaches: fluent Spanish guitar over detailed rolls of textural soundscaping. It’s as lovely as ever, but it’s misplaced here; and it’s anybody’s guess as to what Gypsy Gathering (a virtually straight piece of flamenco) is doing on the record.

In cases like these, Hall’s distracted eclecticism undermines the original intent of ‘Steel Storms’. Worse comes when that willing, stubborn naivety which lies at the heart of his music (giving it both its emotional strength and its core of idealism) becomes diluted into reproducing other people’s cliches. Since the mid-’90s, Hall has been an enthusiastic miner of his past work, dicing up his out-of-print albums to recombine their contents in new sequences. Often this has worked out well, juxtaposing his newer, tuneful solo tapestries with older, intriguing avant-jazz duets, trios and quartets (often featuring sundry members of Isotope, Gilgamesh or Nucleus). Unfortunately, on this occasion he’s pulled up some dross along with the gems.

Perhaps Hall’s work in library music during the lean years is to blame. He’s too interesting a musician to produce stock blandness (and even his failures have moments of interest) but on a record with a purpose, these lesser scraps should have stayed on the shelf. Yet several ‘Steel Storms’ tracks come from this lifeless batch, splotched with anonymous moves and tinny keyboard presets. No Man’s Land is drab robotic cop-chase stuff, the kind of thing a particularly cheesed-off Mark Knopfler might clunk out at the dull end of a soundtrack contract. The less said about the appalling Barbed Wire Bop (brittle ‘Seinfeld’ plastic-funk with the tones of a dodgy synth-demo) the better.

Happily, other ‘Steel Storms’ approaches are much more successful, toying fruitfully with the tight blare of fiesta horns, or with a kind of impressionistic stadium rock held together with paper-clips. The rainy-night drive of City Signals funnels determined loose-jointed funk elements through cascades of drumming, a marching-call trumpet leading the tune above Hall’s steel-saw guitar chops. On Docklands, an acoustic guitar explores and ranges over washing licks of soundscape; electric guitars swipe between factory-machine screeches and trumpet blasts; an echoing hip-hop beat – blind, gigantic and mechanical – stumbles through the landscape beyond.

Sometimes, everything comes together. Though centered on the aggressive, questioning rawness of an up-close flamenco guitar, B-E-trayed provides a discreet light-industrial twist to its traditional base, dragging its intermittent sheath of noises back into the realm of the personal. Already bouncing off tricky drumbox beats, it heads into more sinister areas when swarming, echoing drones and bitter laughter flicker across the speakers. At one point, Hall yells cathartically into the soundhole of his guitar.

All interesting, but the industrial theme becomes increasingly tenuous over the course of the record, though it does rally at points. Heavily overdriven cutting-blade sounds return for Fiya, in which blurred polluted riffs meet mournfully defiant Latin horns and gut-strung guitar. On Dancing On Cracking Ice the guitar plays a supporting role to mariachi horns (and to Sam Brown’s exploratory world-rock rattle of percussion), as Hall’s chopping slashing echoes and metal-fatigue string groans lead off into a leisurely Latin funk stretch. Funk is also one of the central elements of Battery Charger, colliding with big-band horns and space-rock as Hall’s snappy twang-melodies and jittering string harmonics are bounced through some serious Ash Ra Tempel echo.

While there’s no shortage of ideas and impressiveness on ‘Steel Storms’, as an album it’s a missed opportunity – too bitty, too unstructured, and not quite ruthless enough to do justice to its theme. You can dive in for the more thrilling patches – and hold your nose at the bad points – but at times it’s the wrong kind of bumpy ride. Fortunately, its companion album compensates for the missteps by being an experience of unqualified and perfectly integrated beauty.

Where ‘Steel Storms’ shows Hall straining after too many things at once, ‘Tender Spirits’ showcases a beautifully focused vision. Dominated by his acoustic playing and by the subtler side of his electrophonic treatments (sometimes heightened by softly resonant brass and drums), it sounds as if it was recorded under a great cool bowl of night sky. It also proves that, however much energy he puts into his experimentalism, he remains a superbly expressive guitarist once the trickery is removed. Here, the wise simplicity and romance at the center of his music come into their own, in full.

Judging by many of the pieces here, classical music lost a fine player and interpreter in Hall when he went left-field, not to mention a fine folk-fusion composer. Listen to those Spanish arpeggios (mournfully meditative on Love Lies Bleeding, restless and subtly unresolved on Slipstreams) or to the singing Irish ballad inflections of Patricia O’Leary. Alternatively, enjoy Hall’s subtle reunion with electricity on Shooting Stars, Ember or Dandelion Clocks. The first two are slow astral wheelers, their notes stroked into long, long, beautifully smudged trails and pining crystalline tubes of sound; the last is chuckling child-music, clean notes bubbled through a sparkling halo of echo.

Hall’s more multi-tracked and constructed compositions fit just as seamlessly into the mood. Some are familiar – here’s another outing for the thrumming bowed-bass winter scenery of Miles From No-Where (White Wilderness), a piece which Hall continually revisits. Similarly, there’s a new version of another favourite, Spirit Sky Montana, in which David Ford’s sleepy flugelhorn and Sam Brown’s slow swish of cymbal pull Hall’s stretched-bell guitar layers and church-music structure up to further heights of passionate serenity. A more ambiguous moment is granted on Incandescence, where a baroque six-string bass is smeared into dark and swollen horn sounds, voicing in shifting minor-key planes, searching for a place to settle.

However, it’s the magnificent Lonely Road which shows Hall at his very best. Loose, hanging drapes of luscious sound, distant detonating percussion, his Spanish guitar upfront again with a heart-tugging melody, and a final DIY touch – this time, a lonely and beautifully frail harmonica part. This is music you could live in. There’s a direct, emotional involvement in G.P. Hall’s work that’s rarely found among experimental musicians – probably because in spite of his gizmos and his taste for modernist expression he connects far deeper with the earthy roots of music than with the narrowed, exclusive intellectual demands of music as a science.

Ultimately, the main reason that ‘Tender Spirits’ is stronger than ‘Steel Storms’ is that in spite of Hall’s fascination with the impact of industrialism on our lives and senses, he knows it’s merely a part of our experience of the world: a relatively recent human-scale derangement overlaying much older terrain and themes. The two superb acoustic pieces which open and close ‘Tender Spirits’ could easily predate the factories, machinery and artefacts that inspire his industrial sound sculptures; both being intimately concerned with human survival within the simpler, starker hostilities of nature itself.

For the majestic impressionist-flamenco study of Sandstorm, Hall’s fingers slither out whips of string noise among the sharp and fluttering notes, conjuring up the flying dust. Sea Sorrow (Lament Of Lewis) is at the other end of the scale: a paean to shipwrecked souls in which Spanish guitar technique merges with a plaintive Celtic air. Within it, bitter bereavement struggles with acceptance and an awareness of continuance. Those who live with the sea are sustained by it and robbed by it, and this feeling lives in the music. As visual as anything Hall comes up with via loops and layers and implements, the plangent tones of this naked acoustic piece shape an image of someone alone and bleak on the headland, staring out at the ambiguous and often-merciless ocean which they must ultimately come to terms with.

It’s true that G.P. Hall’s road is, ultimately, a lonely one – sometimes assured, sometimes erratic, always marginalised. Yet it’s always one which he treads with a stubborn faith – wrong steps and slip-ups notwithstanding – and one that makes him all the more unique.

G.P. Hall: ‘Steel Storms & Tender Spirits’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (786497264421)
CD/download double album
Released: 31st March 1998

Get it from:
Future Music Records (CD only) or Bandcamp (download-only, as two separate albums, ‘Steel Storms‘ and ‘Tender Spirits

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

August 1997 – album reviews – G.P. Hall’s ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ (“ranges with restless compassion across a wide field”)

10 Aug
G.P. Hall: 'Mar-Del-Plata'

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’

Still clearing out the accumulated tapes of an inexplicably neglected career, Graham Peter Hall is continuing to come up with the goods. He’s been through thirty years of uneasy development on that rocky, unrewarding terrain between the simple sureties of the rock and roots instrumentalist and the often complacent indulgences of the full-on avant-garde blower. Marginalisation and bad luck might have ensured that he’s received little financial reward – nor has he gained the kind of brittle, precious reputation that marks out the darlings of the art-music intelligentsia – but it has resulted in a stock of lovely, emotive music in its own right.

Certainly Hall has managed to remain one of Britain’s most individual and complete guitarists over that time. Mastering a variety of styles from flamenco to rock to folk and blues, he’s also immersed himself in experimentation via technology – multiple speakers and pedal processors; vast, slow delay loops. Additionally, he draws on a repertoire of bizarre playing techniques and plectrum substitutes (involving battery fans, tiny psaltery bows, electric razors, toy cars and velcro, among others) which reflects the reinvention of guitar function explored by Fred Frith or Keith Rowe. With these methods in place, he’s explored sound through the textural suggestions of his “industrial sound sculptures”. Light industry, that is – Hall’s mimicry is closer to handsaws and governor motors rather than, say, Trent Reznor’s car-crushers and stamping presses.

Yet in amongst this, Hall has somehow never lost the ability to embrace expressive tunes; or to weave a handrail of familiarity into his sonic constructions. Perhaps that’s why ‘Wire’ types don’t seem to go for him; why he doesn’t have the kudos that the likes of Rowe, Frith, Eugene Chadbourne or Glenn Branca enjoy. He can get in your face – or wander off the usual path – with the best of them, but it’s generally in order to touch your sympathies. Ironically, in choosing to express his conservative and traditional side as equally important to (and entwined with) his avant-garde side, he’s gone too far for some.

‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is by far the most accessible and diverse of the compiled albums which Hall has been assembling this decade from deleted vinyl and assorted unreleased tapes. It’s a tour across a loose, but affecting, composing and performing imagination which ranges with restless compassion across a wide field. Sometimes you’re listening to a skittering, wilful flamenco performance. Sometimes it sounds like Cocteau Twins doing home improvements in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it’s the sort of individual, humanistic free improv/New Music result which you’d expect from Frith at his more lighthearted and relaxed, or from Simon H. Fell.

But though the record is full of experimentalism, Hall’s sense of melody is at the forefront – and the predominant voice on ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ is his masterfully expressive Spanish guitar playing. This can usually be found angling over long aching stretches of choral electronic humming, plangent violin and eerie ambient sounds called up from the industrial processors. In some ways it’s like a semi-unplugged take on a Robert Fripp Soundscape, in which guitar textures span out into infinity.

At other times, it takes on the simple directness of a folk tune: a dance of sparkling acoustic lights on Ionian Water, or the staccato accented Latin melodies of Mar-Del-Plata itself, underpinned by a geological murmur of bass. On the final hot gusting of Sierra Morena Dust Storm, the gut strings spit and scatter in rich melody, reaching new heights of sinewy passion. Here, Hall also bows some winnowing textures in his electric guitar accompaniment, using serrated steel bars from his box of implements.

Where technology plays a more direct role, Hall’s humanity doesn’t falter or go under. The hymnal swells of billowing electric warmth on Spirit Sky Montana (somewhere between Bill Frisell’s cinematic romance and David Torn’s eccentric string-warps) are the most beautiful and enveloping sound on the record, tapping deeply into church music and Romantic classical composing. The trickle of wind chimes, langorous piano, and enveloping sighs of Humidity Despair provide a gusting, luxurious impression of a sultry night: it’s lush enough to lean right back into.

Some tracks, fleshed out by Hall’s sound-loops and D.I.Y. treatments, are detailed, impressionistic oil-paintings in music and tone. Deep Blue sounds like someone chainsawing up a frozen Alpine lake, its jangling piano chords and thumping bass a mass of irregularities. The smear of bright spring-loaded colourflow on Charmouth Beach rings beautiful alarm bells. The menacing bass growl of Enigmatic is like a cave-bear thumping around in your dreams: squeaks and rattles from fingerboard and autoharp move around in slow disquiet, enclosed by knocking metal.

Plutonium Alert (in which Hall abandons guitar altogether in favour of soprano sax and the ring of auto-harps) treads similar territory to the ominous King Crimson improvisations from the mid-’70s. It goes for an all-out sensory mix of apocalyptic aftertones: angular bell-sounds and aggressive Grappelli violins entangling themselves with a spasmodically awkward funk rhythm. Weirdest (and most satisfying) of all is Fahrenheit 451 – juddering guitar, saw sounds, the shriek of a whistling kettle, and treble scratching all mix like toxic vapours under heavy pressure, pushing your head back against your rising hackles. Horribly enjoyable.

The scattered effects of the attempt to capture all of Hall’s ideas across a single CD does mean that ‘Mar-Del- Plata’ misses out on the cohesion which would render it excellent, but it’s a close-run thing. The centrepiece – a long-form creation called The Estates – pulls all the elements of the album together. A version of a 1975 long-form composition, it blends the chiming, restless clatter of its improv ensemble with Hall’s own quiveringly angry solo acoustic guitar. The brooding theme of The Estates is the crappiness and autocracy of post-war British urban programming. In thrall to modernism without being able to master it, its utopian vision (heartily botched and compromised) laid down a blight on communities, their architecture and their cohesion wrecked by the same tower blocks and support links designed to improve them.

Hall and co. express the disillusion and neurosis which resulted, with pulses of frustration and alienation hurl themselves against the confines of the music. Dulcimers, clarinets, and a huge array of percussion all seethe and pant over twenty-five minutes of desperate musical invocation; all overhung by the forbidding scrapes and alarm-clangs of two adapted metal piano frames (played like harps with assorted chains, wires, and implements). Hall’s panic-stricken guitar playing conjures the nightmare of a new, fatally-flawed sprawl of roads and buildings: swarming locust-like, unchecked and unconsidered, over beloved landscapes.

Incidentally, in the sleevenotes Hall gives a blood’n’guts description of the struggle it took to assemble and perform The Estates. Apparently, some of the manufactured instruments continue to drift through the art world with a life of their own. The piano frames – still counter-invading the architecture – were last seen as part of a “fire sculpture”. Meanwhile, the piece itself has an additional afterlife as a reflection on Hall’s own love/hate relationship with modernism; his own playing and arrangements echoing and championing the sounds of the traditional past even as they break them up in performance and execution.

As a body of work ‘Mar-Del-Plata’ has its faults – yet judged on its parts (and at its undisciplined best), it’s a touching, passionate and diverse album. Throughout, we get the sort of peek at Hall’s open heart (warts, gooey patches and all) which most experimental musicians, hard-wired into intellectual dryness, would never risk expressing.

G.P. Hall: ‘Mar-Del-Plata’
Future Music Records, FMR CD46-V0997 (7 86497 26442 1)
CD-only album
Released: 12 April 1997

Buy it from:
G.P. Hall homepage or Future Music Records

G.P. Hall online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp YouTube

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