Tag Archives: travelling hopefully

October 2015 – upcoming London gigs – Arch Garrison & Lisa Doscher, October 3rd

29 Sep

…and this would have been in the previous post about first-week-of-October gigs had I found out about it sooner. For a while now, I’ve been a fan of Tigmus‘ portable crowdfunding formula for making gigs happen, so it’s good to be spurred into plugging one such gig – especially since it features Arch Garrison (whose wonderful second album gained an extensive ‘Misfit City’ review last year) and takes place in such an unusual location…

Arch Garrison +Lisa Doscher, October 3rd 2015

Arch Garrison + Lisa Doscher (Tigmus @ Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, Hampton Court Road, Hampton, London, TW12 2EN, UK, Saturday 3rd October 2015, 7.00pm) – £10.00

Over to Tigmus:

The second concert in our autumn series at the Garrick Temple to Shakespeare features the beautiful sounds of Arch Garrison and Lisa Doscher.

Having garnered much critical acclaim for his larger-scale compositions and songs with North Sea Radio Orchestra, Craig Fortnam also writes and performs in singer-songwriter mode, alongside James Larcombe (NSRO/Stars in Battledress/William D. Drake) on keyboards as  Arch Garrison, who have released two albums; ‘King of the Down’ (2010) and the latest work ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ (2014).

‘…Pilgrim…’ details Fortnam’s attachment to the chalk downland of Southern England; a landscape criss-crossed with ancient trackways, droves and green lanes, and dotted with Neolithic mounds and barrows, evidence of the Great Stone Culture – all calling him to pull on his walking boots, whistle for the dogs and hit the road, to undertake a pilgrimage to nowhere. He walks the ancient paths as an act of connecting to something intangible but present in the marks left by man, be they burial mounds or pylons – it’s all the same really – all grist to the songwriting mill – walk walk hum sing walk…

Originally from New Hampshire, USA, but now settled in Oxfordshire, England, Lisa Doscher creates soulful vocals with lovely cosy harmonies. Indie-folk peppered with gospel, Americana and urban rhythms; uplifting songs from the heart and soul-powered rhythms for sharing around the campfire and joining in. In her first full-length album, aptly titled ‘Return Home’, she charts her last ten years of diverse musical experience with introspective songwriting and her atmospheric alt-folk sound. The songs each provide a landscape for some discovery that is essential for understanding one’s place in the world.

Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare is a small garden folly erected in 1756 on  the north bank of the River Thames at Hampton, London. It was built by the actor David Garrick to honour the playwright William Shakespeare, whose plays Garrick performed to great acclaim throughout his career. After a campaign supported by distinguished actors and donations from the National Lottery’s “good causes” fund, it was restored in the late 1990s and reopened to the public as a museum and memorial to the life and career of Garrick. It is reputedly the world’s only shrine to Shakespeare.

Up-to-date info on the gig is here, and tickets are available here.

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

July 2012 – EP reviews – Tonochrome’s ‘Tonochrome’ (“a swan dive into a mass of silks”)

31 Jul
Tonochrome: 'Tonochrome' EP

Tonochrome: ‘Tonochrome’ EP

Although they’re young enough to be touching down for a 2012 debut, what Tonochrome ultimately resemble are a gaggle of 1970s rockers: ones who’ve been lucky enough to see the future only to then forget three-quarters of it, but who are doing their best to catch up regardless.

A scattered glut of pop knowledge and ambition is their fuel. From the central framework of Andres Razzini’s guitar and buttery soft-soul-inspired vocals, they hang a succession of overlapping musical approaches. Each of these is played with vigour while it’s in place, but is tossed aside as soon as a song’s over, or even before. The wardrobe in Tonochrome’s memory palace must be bursting – every visit there would be a swan dive into the mental equivalent of a mass of silks, jeans, capes and feather boas. This layering of ideas and styles (and the band’s restlessness as regards taking a final form) ensures that Tonochrome fit right in with the swarm of post-progressive rock bands that are currently rising to attention: but while they do share a member with Knifeworld, they have little in common with that band’s tumultuous and knotty psychedelia. Similarly, they’re not a band who wear their diversity like a fuck-you T-shirt. In spite of their restlessness, they never play with grate-and-chop disruptiveness.

Instead, they’re a much smoother proposition, like a slightly proggier Tears For Fears. Not in terms of Orzabal and co’s melodramatically distressed New Wave beginnings; Tonochrome are more in tune with the confident, eclectomaniac soul-pop version which came later. It’s the flair, or the flare; the way that Tonochrome (all of whom play beautifully and bring plenty of ideas to the party) can flickeringly recall both Bolan and the Buckleys, blur into a Beatles singalong by way of both Genesis and Alexander O’Neal, or take flight over a pulse of Spanish-flavoured funk. Whatever’s going on with that wardrobe, there’s also a feeling of curtains sweeping up and away and down; theatrically introducing new ideas, new burnishings.

Theatre – that’s appropriate. At root, Tonochrome’s songs are about performance and the battle with fear, that way that “time moves on, / slaps in the face.” Andres sings about launching, about halting, about taking or surrendering control: Let It Begin is a personal call to arms and activity, shuffling a lyric full of shows and races, walls and spectators, push-buttons and puppet-strings. Musically, it’s the ’70s as seen though the ’80s. Andres and Charlie Cawood chop out a hairy chug of hard-rock guitars, Steve Holmes’ kinked synth lines find common ground between P-Funk and Marillion, and Andres enjoys a luxuriant soul-man sprawl across the choruses. A soul song realised with prog methods, it settles into a lively stew of pop. Mike Elliott plunks his bass like a funky cello and sings along: someone else plays water percussion. From the clapalong riff that adds wiggle to the rhythms, to the squishy breakdown in the middle and the carnival-drumming finish, there’s enough on here to front a parade.

It’s a fine and confident opening; but that nagging sense of unease remains, however many musical layers the band run through their busy fingers. Eerie swerving Ebow lines cry whalesong trails through Waiting To Be Unveiled (a leaner, gliding cousin to the long-lost bewitchment of Levitation’s Even When Your Eyes Are Open). This time, Andres sings quietly and with trepidation: “The unknown may be terrifying, but it’s got such a pretty face. / No one can predict the future, / but I’ve got an ace…” The payoff, however, is pure heart-on-sleeve ’80s pop, vocals melting and caroling around a resolution: “I will abdicate my kingdom / for a chance to see the world.”

Starts And Ends sees Andres stripped of his band’s protection. Alone and shivering, he creates a haunting drape of melody with a lonely echoing electric guitar, a slow-falling ladder of jazzy chords and a rattlesnake breath of percussion. He sings of self-reliance (“on this road I’ve known / those who wait for signs and cues. / Trudging on, stones in their shoes… / By the side of the road / let go of heavy loads – / all you need is here,”) but the wound in his voice belies it. Throughout the EP, he works around the paradoxes of hope and fear. Necessary spurs, or killers of initiative? Blinding deceivers, or inspirations?

Andres is still puzzling it out over the Buckleyesque minor-key figures on Gods and Demons, wrestling with conflicting directions even as crunchy Jefferson Airplane choruses and slithering Spanish rhythms kick in alongside a fax-machine witter of noise guitar. On Punctuation Marks, he protests “I’m half-way and see no starting line” over a zip-and-dodge acoustic guitar as the rest of the band pass a swirl of r’n’b, prog-synth and shimmer-pop ideas through a storm of psychedelic noise. These doubts fit into Tonochrome’s world like their own teeth; like all of the varied influences the band’s spread of members weave into their tight and poppy rope of songcraft; just as this EP could be the harbinger of a solid career of eclectic rock if Tonochrome hold it together, or an early omen for a set of promising solo careers if they don’t. We may doubt, we’ll certainly hope. We’ll see.

Tonochrome: ‘Tonochrome’
Andres Razzini/Daniel Imaña, AR001 (610370590232)
CD/download EP
Released: 31st July 2012

Buy it from:
Bandcamp or Rough Trade.

Tonochrome online:
Homepage FacebookBandcampSoundcloud

REVIEW – Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’ single, 2000 (“lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing”)

29 Jul

Delicate AWOL: 'Hurray For Sugar'

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’

The effect is similar to one of those pocket mandalas you pick up at weekend markets. Do you know the ones I mean? Those little spheres of interwoven articulated wires which, under simple pressure, reform to flat discs; or extrude themselves out and around to form new, near-identical spheres with tiny spatial differences.

In such a way, Delicate AWOL have turned themselves inside out – the old shape inverting and realigning within itself. The blunt, metallic math-rock dots and points remain, as do the little axe-blows of guitar and the keen, floating intelligence. But the hard-bitten, streetwise urban perspectives they displayed on ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ have been flexed away, replaced by a blunted pastel sleepiness. Their music used to fit the sullen sludge of London’s clogged traffic arteries. Now it sounds as if it’s drifting through an endlessly attenuated suburban daybreak: through sleeping ranks of tidy little white subdivision houses, stretched out along the fringes of some anonymous American town.

None of the above is a slag-off. Yes, Delicate AWOL have retired their striking Throwing Muses-versus-Laika qualities of nerve, and have replaced them with the oddly narcotic soulfulness and dusty whispering you’d expect from Low or Cowboy Junkies. No, this is not a bad move. It’s allowed their minds to work in a different way, letting their thoughts seep out instead of being propelled out onto tape.

Warm, intimate, laden with clinging morning torpor, Hurray For Sugar lilts and tilts like a girl on a lazy swing; Caroline’s voice stroking your floppy ears, a lone glockenspiel tingling out a little scatter of light. “Arise, you’re waking – hurray for sugar. / Aware, a little – hurray for coffee… / beside your body, catherine wheels spin.” And even if the guitars have a clotted sleep-dirt feel to them, this is still a song about vision; or about the moments of utterly unguarded perception which adhere to the sticky margin between sleeping and fully waking. “I breathe in, I open the curtains. / I look outside at my neighbours, / behind their fences… such radiant faces.” A lovely piece of work, shambling like a sated and drowsy lover.

Having reabsorbed their 40 Shades Of Black instrumental alter-ego, Delicate AWOL express it again in Camford Heights: which sounds like a sort of Sonic Youth picnic for the close of a West English summer, the sun slanting away down the back of a sky like a rumpled sofa. Blunted, slurred jazz chords and round, resounding Manchester bass carry the tune, completed with casual drop-in visits from all kinds of other fellow travellers: Mogwai all stoned and finger-mumbling a cryptic chant off their massed steel strings, a young Adrian Belew in noise-haze mode, Frank Zappa adding a dirty air-sculpture like a colophon of smog. Before it’s over, Delicate AWOL have passed through a bewitching slew of guitar sounds: passing train bells, crashing wires, the music of pylons in the wind. From wan, sweet daybreak to dusty, sun-stupored dusk, they’ve got it all covered.

Delicate AWOL: ‘Hurray For Sugar’
day Release Records Ltd., DR106 (no barcode)
Vinyl-only single
Released: 2000

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

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

March 2004 – album reviews – Edwige’s ‘Rise and Sing’ (“while she’s not yet citing chapter and verse, the sacred aspect is clearer now”)

22 Mar
Edwige: 'Rise And Sing'

Edwige: ‘Rise And Sing’

Having made her initial mark with a couple of quirky, tricky-to-pigeonhole folk-pop albums, Edwige has made one on which she intends to celebrate “God’s beautiful gift of singing.” This could mean a lot of things. Perhaps she’s taking that unorthodox, archly beautiful voice of hers on an exploration of experimental a-capella songs, or a pure set of vocal rounds. Perhaps she’s made an album of devotional folk; or an unexpected gospel record.

As it happens, none of these are exactly the case. Edwige’s embrace of the joy of singing may be heartfelt, but it’s also comfortable. The key tone of ‘Rise and Sing’ is relaxation, and of Edwige’s assurance in her own work and her own methods. In many respects, it remains a familiar Edwige album. Many familiar tastes certainly remain intact. She still favours upfront lyrical messages, and continues to steer a course placing her somewhere between cabaret entertainer (especially on the oompah-pop of Bad Hair Day) and announcing angel.

She’s also continuing to develop her tendencies towards baroque pop arrangements. I Just Can’t Resist That Love is given lift by a suspended chorus of trilling voices and sunny passages of oboe; Into View is threaded with reeds, harpsichord, and tuba; while a harp adds sparkle to the simple, open love song After The Rain. The perky swing of New Mexico – with its elasticated guitars and psychedelic pedal-steel keyboards in tow – shows another side of her tastes, this time a dash of country music for the road.

The most surprising aspect of ‘Rise And Sing’ is a new affection for noisy guitar pop. Edwige’s latest producer (former Homer/Robyn Hitchcock sideman Andrew Claridge) sploshes some crashing electric guitars around several songs here, beefing up the acoustic strumming with touches of indie-pop, swamp-rock and grunge. The unplugged directness of previous Edwige albums, with their ornate bursts of cuteness and their denser musical surprises, sounded as if they’d come from odd-shaped rooms in an apartment piled high with spiritual books and knick-knacks. This album suggests that Edwige has recently knocked through a wall or two, and built a nice scruffy garage to play in. Her voice, as ever, is peppered with odd pitch-swoops, vibrato and declamatory theatrical inflections, and is still French-accented even after years of living in London. It’s an odd match for this bristly rock clanging – yet she thrives on the cruder energy that the extra noise provides.

With her perpetual good humour intact, Edwige uses the extra force to help her to drive home a few righteous stilettos. Straddling a catchy swaggering hook on Ears On Fire, she takes dry pot-shots at questionable cults with unreliable gurus – “I heard he was unfaithful to his wife, / I promptly took his words, and boiled them with my rice.” On Elegy For You, she skewers another bad-news, would-be Mephistopheles, decorating her lines with layered falsetto shimmers of vocalese while using the main lyric to sketch his cunning in song – “You’re so good at enchanting – / you lure with hopes and dreams / held through your spindly fingers, / and have them crushed like a crumply paper ball.” She also draws on this energy on Time For The Glorious: switching between midvoice and falsetto, rising serenely over the fuzzy rock backing to declaim “the leaf wouldn’t be but for the tree, / the wave wouldn’t roll but for the sea, / your heart wouldn’t be / but for a love much greater than one can ever conceive.”

Ah, yes. There are God-songs on ‘Rise and Sing’. Previously Edwige has only alluded to her personal, devotional brand of Christianity through cryptic clues, but now she’s beginning to become more direct. While she’s not yet citing chapter and verse, or names, the sacred aspect is clearer now, and this in turn reveals the true nature of many of her previous songs. As for the new ones, I Just Can’t Resist That Love pulls off the old soul-music trick of blurring across the boundaries of love song and devotional hymn. Opting for generosity rather than hectoring, Edwige’s revealed evangelism takes a variety of forms over a broad range of experience and musical method.

We get our gospel song after all – I May Have, in which Edwige testifies doubts and faith over a soft bed of electric chapel organ and little electric guitar agreements. Behind the pretty arrangement, Into View reveals itself as a waltzing tale of a Damascene conversion. For the jazz-tinged acoustica of Tea Light Sympathy Edwige turns teacher, with a gentle (but stern) offer to share her path. On Fusion, she becomes an ecstatic celebrant, kicking off a startling, delirious cocktail of techno pulse, hard-rocking fuzzpunk and hoedown. Choppy cello and guitars meet up with a stomping dance-floor beat and speaker-trashing bassline, and are in turn covered in festoons of Edwige as she chants, lets rip again with the vocalese and sends up fireworks of singing.

The thing about devotion, though, is that it involves letting go. Edwige is such a determined performer – so enthralled with the message, the observations, the little dialogues of life – that little of this (bar the rampaging delight of Fusion) rips through into the ecstatic. The message is always already decided, never discovered, and so the sense of actual revelation is lost. That’s a shame – for believer and unbeliever alike, observing or sharing a revelation of faith is often a fuse for crucial sympathy, and on her songs Edwige seems to miss out on this transformatory moment.

There’s one significant exception, in which Edwige’s wayward journey takes her up into a place she’s never visited before in song. Do I is that music-of-the-moment that’s missing elsewhere. An unexpected (and welcome) bit of psychedelic noise-folk, it’s set on Nico organ drones and on a cloudy screech of guitars so overdriven that they sound like English brass bands scattered by gales. The lyric is the simplest of declarations – no angles, no patter, just a naked, assured statement of devotion. “Do I come? – I do. / Will I follow? – I will. / In the light or darkness, pray for strength, / ah my love, … / Give me the warmth of your love. / Safe with you forever, ever, ever, ever.” Stepping up from the chapel drone, rising above this massing, crashing confusion of tangled feedback, Edwige is making her leap of faith for us; all cabaret cuteness falling away.

It’s the kind of inspiring moment which that unearthly voice was made for. I wish she’d do more like this.

Edwige: ‘Keep The Change’
Quasar Music, EDW3CD
CD album
Released: 2004

Buy it from:
Quasar Music or CD Baby.

Edwige online:
Homepage YouTube

September 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘Lessons Learned from an Aged Feline Pt. 1’ album, 2002 (“a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man”)

18 Sep

Steve Lawson: 'Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline - Pt 1'

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline – Part 1’

Dedicating an entire album to a cat sounds unforgivably twee, but Steve Lawson really couldn’t care less. He’s probably immune to any such embarrassment, having long fostered an image as The Cuddly Solo Bass Player (This included a stint braving potentially fatal scorn from Level 42 fans, when he played some unmanly support slots to their heroes while wearing angora coats, glitterball T-shirts and heterosexual nail varnish. If he isn’t immune to embarrassment, at least he can claim that that’s something Paul Simonon never had the balls to do.) There’s also solidity to his gesture: the cat in question is Steve’s old and ailing Abyssinian, and Steve himself is a firm believer in the lessons gained from loving our companions (pets included) and learning to accept their ageing and their eventual deaths.

Originally ‘Lessons Learned From An Ancient Feline Pt 1’ was a free companion release for the second Steve Lawson album – ‘Not Dancing For Chicken‘. As such, it’s inevitably less ordered. At the crudest summary, it’s an outtakes-plus kind of release compiling the bits of the ‘…Chicken’ sessions which didn’t fit comfortably onto the main album. Even so it gives a surprisingly effective rough’n’ready look at Lawson’s prolific and wide-ranging talent. The lover of pretty tunes who’s also a serious gear-hound and sound-mangler; the electronic texture looper who’ll groove like Gilberto. The distorted beat-science meddler with a thoroughly un-ironic taste for playing Fly Me To The Moon straight with no chaser or spoiler.

On the easy side, there are a couple of bits of Lawson the Latin lover. The opening One Hip Cat is a twangy Brazilian-style guitar study, allowing him to display some accomplished jazzy chops inside its lazy summery breeziness. There’s a hint of what’s to come via in the shape of the occasional odd drones undercutting the music; drifting in like the suspicion of sharky shadows deep below blue lagoon water. Here Endeth The Lesson is one of Steve’s loop-assisted live collaborations with himself – a duet between a slow Latin rhythm bass with a pillowy tone and a solo fretless bass carrying the tune. The latter (high and tenor-y) sings off into the dusk with an impeccable spacey melodicism, ultimately sliding away into a sleeper’s fade.

Either of these two pieces could have fitted into a summer jazz festival of samba and ice cream, and they’d also have matched those glitterball T-shirts. Two neighbouring pieces definitely couldn’t. Cute names notwithstanding, both Framulous Jam and Evil Harv’s Evil Empire are discombobulated systems music. Like everything else on the album, they’re generated solely by Steve’s bass guitar and effects rack in real time. Unlike the easy-on-the-ear pieces, they sound thoroughly electronic and abstracted.

Evil Harv’s Evil Empire arrays fast and atonal binary-on-off hums, mingling them with suspension-bridge twangs and plucks and snips. Interrupt silences and backward sounds are stewed into the brew, before all is ultimately rendered into a backdrop for some of Lawson’s roaming, unbounded glissandi. In Framulous Jam, harmonic chime-chords are worried gently by electronic interrupts, setting up interesting conflicts between hanging sustain and random blip-jitters. Both could sidle into those earnest meets in obscure juice bars, haunted by men from ‘The Wire’ intent on watching other men frown over gurgling laptops.

Ultimately, the album’s centrepiece is the saccharin-titled but sonically stretching two-parter Sleep Eat Snuggle Repeat. In the first part, angelic traces of sustained E-bow bass – thrillingly vocal – move between foggy front of cold and warm textures, exchanging almost imperceptibly. In echoing caverns beyond, pings ring like stressed piano notes, clocks tick, water drops, wah-pedals disgorge diffuse gushes of sound, and bubble-motors pulse and spurt. Part two builds on the preceding one. A float of sounds and traces are punctuated, now and again, by a giant organ-like roar as the digital stops are eased out. It’s pure abstract indulgence, but mightily effective. It sounds like the dreams of a flea on a whale.

The big joke is that behind the twee titles lurks Steve’s most bizarre album yet, and one which stakes his most effective claim to being a serious experimental musician as well as a family-friendly melody man. What was the most important lesson which Steve Lawson learned from his cat? Why, to move when you least expect it…

Steve Lawson: ‘Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline Pt 1’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013(B) (no barcode)
CD-R/download album
Released: 2nd September 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp, download only. The original release was a CD-R included with early orders of ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’: some copies may be in circulation second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

July 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘Not Dancing for Chicken’ (“a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration”)

14 Jul
Steve Lawson: 'Not Dancing For Chicken'

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’

Steve Lawson’s second solo album shows that he’s taking assured strides in all directions. His relaxed, informal debut (2000’s ‘And Nothing But The Bass‘) was a generous concoction of looped and jazzy bass guitars, vivid electronic textures and welling ambiences. It showed what could happen when benevolent prettiness intermeshes with a generous pinch of sound-warping avant-garde tendencies.

Lawson’s latest solo efforts display a more kaleidoscopic approach while losing none of that endearing friendliness. “Not dancing for chicken” is a war-cry – something to do with buckets of junk food, the waning star of MC Hammer and the fight between commercialism and art. To be honest, Lawson can sit that specific war out. He can mash up sound with the best of them (as he’s done with the French improvisers Franck Vigroux and Jerome Curry), but the warrior/guru moves of the dedicated avant-gardener aren’t really his style. Instead of responding to sickly market pap with ferocious spills of obvious disruption, he marries simple, memorable rivulets of melody to a broad field of sonic treatments. In doing so, he creates music which rather than turning its back and raging will instead sail right in under the commercial radar to tickle people’s senses. If that makes him an armchair revolutionary, at least he’s the kind who offers you the armchair first.

To define this better, one could quote one of his own song titles: Lawson believes in “the virtue of the small.” Sticking to a single-take, bass-guitar-only rule (and pursuing his experiments with sound processors, EBow sustainers and loop technology), he continues to hit the elusive target of making music-for-everyone. Centred on a deft, tuneful and jazzy core, his music avoids the predictable calisthenics of fusion and the stolid members-club beefiness of mainstream jazz and post-bop. Instead, he’s a nifty bantamweight with a remarkable ear for timbral decoration, and an obvious love for his listeners.

No More Us And Them displays this perfectly, showing Lawson at his very best. Cascading curtains of gorgeous submarine texture tumble in waves over particularly poignant fretless bass figures and a questioning melody which hovers marvellously between mourning and hope. By way of contrast, MMFSOG offers a goofy Hawaiian celebration. Lawson squeezes out a typewriter rattle of tabla-styled slap groove before anointing it with layer upon layer of mischievously camouflaged bass sounds. Most notable is the giddy, slippery steel guitar impression, roller-blading precariously across the verses; but there are also cicada choruses, stunt-plane zips of backwards melodies and blankets of Warp-styled electronica burble on offer. Eventually Lawson cheerfully runs the song into the swamp and leaves it there to marinade, taking up more mutant funk on Channel Surfing in which a stupefied, robotic slap line chunters merrily under a pale, ringing line of tumbledown chord arches. Various queasy jazz riffs and funky wriggles squeeze past it as best they may.

Although Lawson delights in cooking up this kind of loop stew, ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’ doesn’t reject tradition. On Regretting The Rainbow (the most complex piece on offer) he employs his six-string contrabass to blend elements of jazz guitar smoothies Martin Taylor and Joe Pass in a luscious and breezy study, steered subtly towards some difficult questions via an intrusion of quizzical harmony. Danny And Mo lets Lawson’s fretless bass and EBow gently sing the praises of underrated British bass heroes: a nice counterbalance to the endless musical tributes to Jaco Pastorius tumbling from other bass players.

A couple of pieces (the relaxed Brazilian lilt of Amo Amatis Amare and the stumble-blues of Tom Waits For No Man) are one-man-band opportunities to fool around with some familiar forms, to Lawsonify them, and to take advantage of some truly appalling puns. Two ballads – Need You Now and Jimmy James – showcase Lawson’s humble-yet-richly-romantic solo tone, as well as his flair for understated counterpoint via a couple of artfully poised loops. The latter (a valediction to a lost friend) moves away from simple Windham Hill prettiness thanks to the eerie fingertip-on-glass textures that circulate behind its warm, sleepy fretless melody.

The stranger music sends Lawson into a different area again. Exit Sandman is a lurking mood piece, a sour work-song riff wafting up into vaporous blue-grey wails of E-bow. No Such Thing As An Evil Face is a ghostly African death-song. The amnesiac Ubuntu is a similar set of waves reaching the beach, Lawson’s backing loops providing tinkling tabla tones and prinking noises like cooling shrapnel.

The finale, Highway 1, brings all of Lawson’s work together. The rich, free-ranging travellers melody sits on gently swinging cradles of clicks, pops and ghost notes and on shimmering shells of chords. It’s carried in turn by a sweet, blues-y wah-tone like a swamp foghorn, then a shimmering ripple of backwards basses, then a sky-borne E-bow wail which flutters like a giant and beautiful moth. Lawson conjures up heat-hazes and mirage-doubles of parts and melody out of his loops pedals, and will-o-the-wisps dance counterpoint but never obscure the relaxed momentum of the tune as it heads onwards to a permanent perfect sunset and fades out; still travelling as hopefully as the smiling man on the bass.

Steve Lawson: ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0013 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st July 2002

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

January 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson/Jez Carr’s ‘Conversations’ album, 2002 (“easy, generous grace”)

14 Jan
Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: 'Conversations'

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

Jez Carr online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

September 2001 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘Moving Moons’ (“beautiful liquid-gold guitar with its shoes kicked off”)

2 Sep

Tony Harn: 'Moving Moons'

Tony Harn: ‘Moving Moons’

Little has changed in Tony Harn’s approach, but the Warrington fusion-rock guitarist has never sounded happier. His lyrical, tightly-controlled hard-rock drive is still set off against tumbling, multi-faceted art-rock arpeggios, plus enquiring shapes and vocalised textures drawn in from the world of modern jazz guitar. But the lightness of touch on ‘Moving Moons’ – and its renewed breadth of expression – makes it his most assured work to date.

This third album seems to be about simply enjoying the flow. Its gently sparkling mood is that of a well-pleased man, leaning sensually into his work. As ever, Harn (playing or programming all the instruments) blends his music without cynicism or self-consciousness about his comfortable sound. The bright, guileless weave of cyclic minimalism, gleaming Factory Records economy and judiciously-employed jazz-prog flamboyance retains Harn in a small, well-kept territory of his own.

You can trace a Pat Metheny legacy in some of those friendly guitar percolations, and that of Vini Reilly in the glittering, spindly-but-intricate echo-box patterns. But the overdriven keens of his lead lines have the affable, comfy edge of a ’70s geezer rocker – good-natured, puppy-rough and serenely blissful. At root, ‘Headstart’ is a Satriani-style rocker, growling from the pit of its sulky, dirty wah-rhythm and attempting to swagger. Yet Harn focuses and soothes it, opening the music outwards and festooning it with reflective pointillistic arpeggios; finally leading it towards inclusiveness and away from posturing.

Compared to the pastoral English flavour of Harn’s previous album ‘Lifebox‘, ‘Moving Moons’ is built on a summery Mediterranean warmth – hot nights of brilliant stars, or energising washes of daylight and bright stucco walls. Although Harn sometimes lets his airy keyboards dominate (especially on the pocket-funk throb of Pulsecode, synth riffs chuckling like contented babies), the pervading sound of the album is acoustic, or near-acoustic. Despite of the squadron of stratospheric rock wails and the sheath of Andy Summers textural swells, what really informs Jackal is Spanish guitar, all tangy attack and tremolo. Anger And Empathy provides a dynamic demonstration of Harn’s experimental side – a slow-motion volcano-burst of bent whammy-bar swells, scrapes and tortured violin-bow noises, all fed through outer-space distortions and echoes. But this too flows forward into another Spanish-styled guitar progression, clean and sweet: and ‘Safe Again’ is full of perky acoustic strumming as Harn takes flight, deliciously chasing his own echo.

Although this strays closer to driving music for the Algarve than it does to Paco Peña, Harn invariably saves the day with his ear for tunes, his knack for beautifully refracted arrangements, or his mastery of unabashed constructive naivety. The marriage of technology and innocence – a rare quality in guitarists – is Harn’s ace card, and a surprisingly effective one.

Moving Moons itself is a fragrant nightscape – tootling synths kissing up to arpeggio guitar and the sound of floats bobbing in reflective water. Sweet meteor trails of guitar-wail arc across the air for a rendezvous with moving cross-rhythms; and more spare, sweet paths of feedback show up on the deliciously lazy study of Standing In The Doorway To Your World. Here, they play over the gently assured structures built up by Harn’s synths and organs, or ease breathlessly across a classical-minimal duo of Reilly-esque clean guitars. Lake Song has Harn orchestrating a duet of twinkling post-punk guitar and hooting ’70s overdrive, the drumbox teased by reggae-tinted bass beneath those double-stopped minimalist patterns.

Generally avoiding the temptation to rampage incessantly across his fretboard, Harn’s drawn instead towards finding and sitting on pretty patterns. Sometimes this gets dangerously close to cuteness – the breezy Bubbleburst, for example, like a chance meeting between Alphonso Johnson and Brian May in the kids’ end of the jazz-rock pool. User One (Moon Two) also lives in the bright-eyed zone, bouncing its swirly jangle of notes against the night sky, keeping them up and moving via its pumping, lightly-whipped funk bass-line.

As a counterweight, Harn addresses his jazz leanings more substantially in a couple of loose fusion ballads. Time For Answers merges swing rhythms, prog assertions and a Django Reinhardt gypsy wriggle, leading them all through to a celebratory duet of guitar and tootling synth. Sixlowdown aims at the jazz pocket through the gaps of another reggae-styled bassline: a bubbling, tripping sway like a mid-’80s Miles Davis ballad, emphasized by the growl of bluesy distortion Harn employs for terse comments from the sidelines, flexing a few John McLaughlin sensibilities.

‘Moving Moons’ sometimes seems a little becalmed within its coasting motions – a touch too happy in its light’n’easy beauty – but with such lovely scenery to glide through, it’s little wonder that Harn’s opting to cruise easily. Ultimately, this time he’s offering beautiful liquid-gold guitar with its shoes kicked off, and whether you choose to join him on the sundeck is your own affair. But he couldn’t be any more welcoming if he tried.

Tony Harn: ‘Moving Moons’
Tony Harn, THCD2 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Burning Shed.

Tony Harn online:
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August 2001 – EP reviews – Delicate AWOL’s ‘Driesh’ (“a majestic, footsore sway of poignant, lead-heavy guitars”)

7 Aug
Delicate AWOL: 'Driesh'

Delicate AWOL: ‘Driesh’

“Driesh” sounds like one of those arcane words which early-Noughties art-rockers festoon their work with. It’s actually the name of one of Delicate AWOL’s favourite mountains. When not hiding out in Stockwell recording increasingly soulful post-rock melodies, they’ve got a taste for scrambling cheerfully up the heights of the Scottish highlands, all fleeces and crampons.

On the subject of mountain climbing (sort of), Delicate AWOL are still ascending. ‘Driesh’ is their finest EP to date. It’s not a question of ambition, more one of balance. Delicate AWOL have never sounded more balanced, more aware of music as an expression of what is instead of what you force it to be.

The magnificent Dust – a majestic, footsore sway of poignant, lead-heavy guitars – demonstrates this principle. The first time you hear it you have no idea what it is: you’re just caught up in Caroline Ross’ powerful and moving, yet surrendering, vocal. The second time, you realize where the surrender comes from. This is a paean to pollutants, no less: small things which change our immediate world with neither our volition nor our involvement. And this is a song that finds, without a hint of irony, beauty in these changes; honing that balance with acceptance and a fine-art vision. “Dust from satellites fills the skies, / lends an orange hue to buildings they designed in grey /… Dirt from satellites coats the meteorites, / shares its redder touch with rocks that are mostly dust. / And I give thanks for dust.”

Off to one side, Evergreen China Prairie Tribunal is one of the band’s affectionate amblings into mutant country/Hawaiian instrumentals. Short guitar notes are stretched lazily and luxuriantly during their brief lifespans; slide guitar, flown behind like a kite, does some happy yawning. The drums and bass patter on, chattering like a pair of old mule drivers on a slow road.

On the other side, the quietly swarming clang of Moggie is one of Delicate AWOL’s periodic nods to Mogwai’s crowded fuzz-riffing. However, it’s more homespun, imbued with a positive energy rather than Mogwai’s rampant insecurity. Where Mogwai are tight and tense, Delicate AWOL are endearingly woolly: they’re unconcerned with occasional sloppy accents, and lessen the weight on the guitars to let light sliding curls of notes unravel from the ends of the song. Caroline’s soft, half-buried wail drifts in like a cat singing in the hallway.

Only one song on the EP goes against this serene and meditative stasis. In the languid, perturbed awakening of What In The World To Do Ingrid, Caroline serenades a woman whose stasis is a matter of routine, and an unwelcome routine at that. “Had enough of breaking bread, / had enough of freaking out. / What in the world to do, Ingrid? / Summer will be here sooner now.” As faintly ominous guitars stir against Caroline’s questioning, they hint that Ingrid’s own nature, under stress, is beginning to crack both her routine and her normality. “Rising inside her – / another, more beautiful woman. / Caught another glimpse of her, hiding in the mirror frame. / What in the world to do, Ingrid? / she’ll be taking over sooner than…”

Just when you think this is going to turn into another tale of a woman slipping into madness, there’s a happier transformation. A joyous hand-clapping lift and gurgles of Hammond organ (the latter straight out of old Memphis R’n’B), and the song becomes a story about stripping off the safety of a firm uniform in favour of striding off naked but unburdened. Caroline sings out another question – “Could it be worse?” – but with the brightening quizzical tones of someone who knows that it won’t be.

Delicate AWOL: ‘Driesh’
day Release Records Ltd., DR401 (no barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 6th August 2001

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

Delicate AWOL online:
MySpace

September 2000 – album reviews – Steve Lawson’s ‘And Nothing But the Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’ (“sheer guilelessness”)

10 Sep
Steve Lawson: 'And Nothing But the Bass - Live @ The Troubadour'

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But the Bass – Live @ The Troubadour’

Apparently, this music is what Steve Lawson makes to entertain friends – who make themself known as such simply by showing up to one of his intimate gigs. These could be in London, Lincoln, or Watford; in France or California; or wherever else Lawson and his little bundle of bass guitars, EBow sustainers and looping devices pitch camp for an evening of playing. Having asserted your friendship by wandering in and sitting down, you can smile to yourself about the way his lush, demonstrative instrumental music manages to cross-reference Frippertronics, Pete Seeger, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Satriani (for starters) without them crashing into each other or crowding him off his own playing stool.

You can also smile – with genuine enjoyment – at the sheer guilelessness of his music. The gauche jokiness of the album title is completely accurate. With one exception, this really is all One Man And His Loops live in front of a small, polite and audibly happy audience. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as cutesy novelty, or as circus tricks with effects pedals. That isn’t the half of it. In London, we’re used to anxiety. Self-exposure from tortured musical artists. Cool-by-numbers checklists. Spotlight-grabbing attitude flexers. Obvious-state-of-minders stapling themselves to credible trends, and sinking with them. Hearing Steve Lawson duck all of this (instead, he quietly focusses on the way music connects across generations, and between person and person) is a sweet shock.

On technical terms alone (if not in finger-thrashing stunt display), Lawson respectably holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass such as Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners. Maybe it’s from his previous work, playing with the equally guileless and elfin pop veteran Howard Jones. When you hear Lawson duetting with himself on sprightly children’s-song tunes like The Inner Game and The New Country (wrapping joyously squishy melodies around his looped, nodding, double-stopped riffs) you know you’re not hearing someone who’s concerned about his agenda fitting anyone’s T-shirt, or with the solemn rules at jazz school.

All right – perhaps an over-mellow conflation of two lovable old chestnuts (Chopsticks and Blue Moon) on Blue Sticks is a step too far in this direction. All taste and no meat; too close to a musical life that’s one long function room. Lawson dispatches it with impeccable skill – which is all very nice, but a little worrying in terms of complacency. Far better to hear him feeding twanging threads of Celtic-American folk song and bluegrass, Flecktones-style, into The Virtue Of The Small; and to then observe him splitting off to layer on some luxuriously glutinous improvisations (via serenely wandering fretless and classic-metal distortion). Listening carefully, you might spot momentary nods to other bass players – Chris Squire, Steve Swallow, Alphonso Johnson, Stuart Hamm – who’ve let melodies rumble up from the basement.

Of course, you could just put the notebook down and enjoy tunes like Bittersweet, a fretless-bass-and-piano duet owing a little to Pachelbel’s Canon and as much to Weather Report’s A Remark You Made. Jez Carr’s strums of high, cautiously sweet piano haze this one lightly with blue. Perhaps it’s over-aligned with the fastidious, earnestly white end of New Age jazz, but Lawson’s head-bowed cadences are beautifully poised – natural and regretful.

So far, so immaculate… so ‘Bassist Magazine’. What really opens doors are three pieces in which Lawson ventures into process music, chance-and-hazard and ambient music. Thankfully, it’s closer to Fripp Soundscapes and to post-rock than to the freeze-dried fusion on (for example), those slick early albums by John Patitucci.

On Drifting, the original moonlit ostinato foundations and skirling skybound melodies give way to smears of trembling Frippertronical treble passes – like wheelmarks on cloud – and to trance-techno bubble echoes Lawson somehow wrings out of his bass.  The lapping sounds and shimmering harmonic nudges of the gorgeous Pillow Mountain (with its sub-aqua heartbeat) are closer to Mouse On Mars than to any bass guitarring this side of Rothko’s post-rocking odysseys. Here, Lawson EBows strange Chinese string calls out of the beautiful murk. A third piece, Chance, clings on (just) to the right side of disassembly. The sharp attack, or mother-beast rumble, of Lawson’s varied approaches on fretless step in and around the frigidly emotional ECM-inspired bass figure at the heart of it, ghosted with minimal traceries.

It’s with these pieces that we hear Steve Lawson’s audience returning a favour. Moving away from simply bobbing their heads to the happy melodies, they concentrate on  listening instead. And all without the man breaking much of a sweat, either.  For any instrumentalist, this album would be charming. For Steve Lawson, it’s a showcase punched open at one end. His friends are watching him grow – I suggest that you join them.

Steve Lawson: ‘And Nothing But The Bass – Live @ the Troubadour’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0011 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 28th August 2000

Get it from:
Bandcamp

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

July 1999 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘Lifebox’ (“settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace”)

24 Jul
Tony Harn: 'Lifebox'

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’

Since striking out on his own with ‘From The Inside‘ in 1997, Warringtonian guitarist Tony Harn has gone from strength to strength. It’s not that ‘Lifebox’ is all that different from its predecessor. It’s the same recipe of glittering, admirably economical rock guitar arrangements backed up by simple keyboard sounds and lightly-cymballed percussion programming – the sort of thing that would have made Harn a hero of British instrumental rock in the 1970s, or even the ’80s. In the late ’90s, it makes him more of a finely-tuned curio. A guilty pleasure.

Still, being out-of-step with the times has little to do with your innate value; and Tony Harn’s got plenty of that. His concept of melodic rock moving towards a jazz vocabulary has had to pass through a Manchester filter first. There’s a lot of meticulousness and post-industrial reserve here, an underlying balance of sounds and patterns that’s got more to do with Factory-style Futurism than feet-on-monitors and flailing hair. Not that Harn’s cover photo – the purposefully-shaven skull and meaningful gaze – shows hair to flail anyway.

In a nutshell, Tony Harn is what Joe Satriani might have been if he’d had Durutti Column’s sensibilities. His full-blooded melody-metal tone, his tunefulness and his sweet tooth for rock romanticism is reined in by Northern English economies on gesture and gush. Except for a solitary Van Halen moment – a short-lived explosion of devil fingers called Reaction:Release (In One Motion) – all is controlled and thoughtful. Layers of staccato echoed phrasing and delicate flat-picked motifs interplay with tuneful, assured lead lines. Harn’s guitars can chatter and circle busily, or pine away in expressive overdriven wails, all without letting the music lose its well-suspended balance. It can be as dignified as fine civic architecture, or it can roll like a landscape of green English hills. Pastoral, but never pastel; surprisingly serene, but not soporific with it.

And (if all of this isn’t starting to sound too cute) proggy without being boggy. Since the sometimes-perfunctory tunes of ‘From The Inside’, Harn’s developed a well-deserved confidence in taking on longer-form compositions. The fifteen-minute, multi-phase Reaction:Repeat (In Six Motions) bubbles with understated invention – it’s a drawn-out, trance-y rockscape of shifting heroic tunes and dance pulses, bouncing off the same constellations as Porcupine Tree did on ‘Voyage 34’. Split The Sketch jumps from sleepy church music (cavernous swells, sweet-dream melody and the chink and whisper of string noise) into the sort of split-metred riffing and racing arpeggios that Steve Hackett would’ve been happy to set his name to. Blue Blazes doesn’t go for length, but for shimmering detail, weaving tiny repetitive phrases into sky-written spirals around an airborne ripple of synth.

Even if his silvery jazz-inflected chording doesn’t quite qualify these efforts as fusion, Harn’s push towards jazz is becoming easier to distinguish. You can hear him trying out conversations with the themes in Eve Of Obligation; and if you listen beyond the diamante guitars on Pseudotalk, you’ll hear a pretty, melting tune that wants to sit down with a jazz quintet and make friends. But if Harn does move into that world, it shouldn’t be at the expense of the straightforward and joyful way he expresses his melodies – the folkiness of Last Town, the wedding bell tumble of Twelve Years, or how his romantic heart sits self-evidently on his sleeve for Forgotten Summer as his guitars and bass court each other. It shouldn’t be at the expense of digressions into haunting soundscaping such as Dark Age; in which, through organ drift and dreaming guitar sculptures, a girl’s guilt-stricken voice murmurs “I never used to think about it before.”

This, after all, is that rare breed of rock guitar album – one which you play not to worship at the Church of Guitar but to settle into the music’s bright and rapid embrace, and to lean back into it. ‘Lifebox’. A good name for such an unassuming package, spilling out such fertile enthusiasm.

Tony Harn: ‘Lifebox’
Tony Harn, THCD2 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Limited availability – contact Tony Harn for information.

Tony Harn online:
Facebook MySpace YouTube

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

July 1998 – mini-album reviews – Bob Burnett’s ‘Loops & Lines’ (“sample, hold’n’swing”)

13 Jul
Bob Burnett: 'Loops & Lines'

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’

Santa Cruz jazzer Bob Burnett is an oddity, someone who’s ostensibly extremely straight but gets there in a puzzling way. He loves his semi-acoustic guitar – keeps it clean, plays it with an economical and modest Wes Montgomery twinkle – but he’ll dab in a few colours on guitar synth and is also very much into what digital sampling offers the modern composer.

This you’d expect in somewhere like New York City – hip-hop saturated, with digital cut-up/jazz crosstalk from the likes of M-Base or Q-Tip. Coming from Bob, it’s a little less of an obvious path – a transplanted New Jersey-ite now residing in roots-band heaven, he’s played with world-beat bands Kosono and Pele Juju for much of the past decade. With ‘Loops And Lines’ Bob’s giving his sample, hold’n’swing ideas their first recorded outing.

At root, these are pretty cosy ideas. Don’t come in expecting a cross between John Scofield and Disco Inferno, nor yet The Young Gods playing Gil Evans. That living-in-California easiness initially makes ‘Loops & Lines’ sound like an Acid Jazz comedown pleaser. But although the six pieces on the mini-album are sweet enough to be lounge-fare, they’re also lush enough for a lock-in. Bob’s music is refreshingly innocent of guile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without a dash of wit: a quality which is a precious balance within sampler culture.

Together builds on a moment from John McLaughlin’s Peace One, as the guitarist skips spider-fashion across his low strings: joining in, Bob swings tastefully over the top while Rhan Wilson’s bells and assorted metals mist the edges. Igor plays a similar trick with a few phrases and deep string chops from Stravinsky’s ‘Soldier’s Tale’, Bob adding some Hawaiian lines over the top of the thudding march of deep strings and drums. For Out West he affectionately samples some local-band friends (Pipa & The Shapeshifters) to craft a little bit of Portishead spy music – Adrian Utley’s breed of Duane Eddy twang, with the big stoned swats at the drumkit and the sound of rain sifting down in the background.

Most successfully, there’s Home James in which Bob stitches together a dream jam between himself, Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Bright and cheerfully funky, it’s close to an Us3 moment. You expect a laid-back rapper to come strolling in at any moment, with rhymes about strolling by Electric Ladyland with a spliff and a sax case. Instead, what you get sounds more like Bob finding all three legends together at the same Harlem party; each in a separate conversation but still meshing, by happy chance, into a common thread and rhythm. The music – and the falls together with a simple eloquence. Trane throws out a sinous four-note tenor wave from Countdown; Bird counters with a acquiescent call from Night In Tunisia. Somewhere in the background Jimi chips in with a reverberant Band Of Gypsies clang. Bob’s sweet and skinny guitar bubbles throughout the whole thing, chatting merrily away on the breaks.

The only things missing are the “yeah!”s and the punctuation of hand-talk. In fact if it weren’t for the tall (and dead) shadows which that all-star trio cast, Home James would almost convince as a genuine studio jam. Surprisingly, it’s a humble piece: Bob never feels like he’s stealing from his three luminaries, nor as if he’s harbouring vain hopes of cutting them in competition. It’s all about making the links, making a might-have-been occasion; being the helpful guy in the middle.

In fact, on ‘Loops & Lines’ it’s not so easy to work out when, exactly, Bob has got his sampler switched on. He has a remarkably subtle touch as a samplist. In contrast to the way, say, Young Gods or Jesus Jones would proudly ride on the back of a blatant parade of loops, he’s more interested in the seamless interweaving of sample and solo, using temporary digital capture to get more musicians and voices flickering in and out of his virtual band. If, via the magic of samping, he can bring the amicable ghosts of the Johns and the Jimis round to his local bar for a few beers and a blow through one of his tunes, he’s happy.

For instance, Decoy might make use of another Coltrane sample, as well as drawing on snippets of American pop TV themes – ‘King Of The Hill’, ‘Teen Angel’ – but there’s no separation between those inserted elements, the light-footed touches of the live rhythm section, and Bob’s mellow-mischievous guitar skips taking centre stage throughout. The reggae-fied ripple of Lower Nile (the disc’s only cover version) brings back a live band, winds soprano sax through North African melodies… and uses no samples whatsover apart from a few jungle chirps and rustles.

In the end, “Loops & Lines’ is an announcement of relaxed intent; short, sweet and discreet. It’s interesting to indulge the thought of Bob Burnett taking it to slightly wilder climes – maybe coming on like Ronnie Jordan playing over found-sound backdrops. But I get the feeling that he’s happier just stretching loops round the barbeque, shooting the breeze with heroes and friends, providing small glows of warmth rather than burning it up with his music.

Bob Burnett: ‘Loops & Lines’
Bob Burnett, 9801 (no barcode)
CD-only mini album
Released: 1998

Get it from:
Bob Burnett.

Bob Burnett online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Last FM 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

September 1997 – album reviews – Tony Harn’s ‘From the Inside’ (“hard-rock directness with intricate layering”)

18 Sep
Tony Harn: 'From The Inside'

Tony Harn: ‘From The Inside’

Tony Harn used to be in Spacematic, a Warrington duo who – had they survived – might’ve carved out a niche for themselves as music history’s only cross between Morrissey and Jeff Beck. Their 1996 demo was an odd and edgy marriage between Dave Harrison’s bleak bedsit lyrics and mournful vocals and Harn’s fluently melodic guitars (which mingled hard-rock directness with intricate layering). Imagine what their gigs might have been like. Two guys onstage in the throes of song and lost to the world – oblivious to the panicky expressions on the faces of their audience, as the tribal reps for the indie depressives and the rock hogs were forced to eye each other nervously across the clubroom floor, clutching their snakebites and beers for support. Ah, social awkwardness rattles its cage. Fine times. And – if they ever existed – gone times.

Parted from Harrison, Harn spent a year left to his own devices and ‘From The Inside’ is the result – an self-released instrumental guitar album which allows him to explore spaces of playing and composing which Spacematic could never have accommodated. Usually, rock guitar solo records are unparalleled opportunities for musical showing-off. While Harn’s got the necessary technical skill (and enough classic rock in his playing) to go for total guitar-hero blowout, ‘From The Inside’ is remarkably modest, and its musicality is expressed with unusual restraint. For instance, the title track’s Brian May explosion of passionate electric pomp and romance, lasts barely over a minute and fades out in a subdued loop of Vini Reilly arpeggios. Harn’s experiments in five- and seven-time are lilting, accessible and lovingly melodic: his lead lines are concise, memorable and authoritative. Acting as his own support musician, his crisp drum programming and sturdy work on bass and keyboards (as integrated as his guitar playing) lend the album a homely sound.

One of the best things about Harn’s playing is that, for all the skill of his fingers, not one note is superfluous or wasted. He’s more likely to sit comfortably on top of a bold tune than to play stuntman; he knows when to let exploration stop, and when to let silence stand. In a musical zone stuffed with supremely accomplished fret-wankers suffering from fingerboard diarrhoea, that’s a rare and cherishable talent. As far as obvious influences go, the above-mentioned Jeff Beck gets a look in (something in the attack, the indisputably British rock stylings); there’s a little of the ’80s Alex Lifeson in the hard-rock digital jangle; and sweet lyrical solos like Mike Oldfield or even Prince. Harn also has a strong touch of Joe Satriani’s out-and-out lyrical tone and way with a melody (most obviously on the sunny rush of Playsafe and Pseudoseven, or the echoing Room One which recalls Satriani’s Circles).

But what ‘From The Inside’ reminds me of most is the pair of albums Andy Summers and Robert Fripp recorded in the mid-80s – ‘I Advance Masked’ and ‘Bewitched’. Harn’s playing has neither Fripp’s intensity nor his academic sternness. Nor does it have Summers’ taste for textures on the guitar synth. But his fondness for the spangly echoes of the delay pedal, his exuberantly climbing note patterns and ear for counter-arranged, bell-toned rhythm-picking lines comes directly from their legacy. In Turning Time, guitars dodge and somersault cheerfully over the rising drones and evolving multiple rhythms. The cycling riff in Pseudopool recalls Talking Heads and I Zimbra: its long sweet smudge of a solo hearken back to Fripp’s New York years.

‘From The Inside’ does have its flaws, the most obvious one being that it carries the predictable symptoms of a guitarist’s showcase. Some pieces show this more blatantly than others (Beat The Bad, for example – a pretty superfluous bit of guitar-rock reggae style). You could also quibble about some slightly cheesy keyboard tones and parts, which pull some compositions a little too far towards travel-show soundtracks. Yet at least they err on the side of cuteness rather than flabbiness, and are essentially there to support the guitar work. Harn can be forgiven these lapses given that plenty of rock guitar soloists choose sixteen minutes of assorted widdly-widdly as a showcase, while his own offering is a well-worked-out album of tunes and interplaying.

In spite of Harn’s knack for those solid tuneful elements, many of the high points of the album come when he slows down and makes shapes. The eerie scrapings and siren wails which set the scene for the title track, for instance. Or Coloursound, in which ringing slow-swelling chords mingle gorgeously with the whispered sample on the voiceover: “Particularly at night, I have this incredible feeling of intense blackness… I mean, I’ve never experienced such darkness…” It could’ve sat comfortably on David Sylvian’s ‘Gone To Earth’, as could its drowsy vapour-trail of a melody.

I’d really love to hear Tony Harn working in a fuller band situation, or with collaborators who’d really bring out the best in him – but this’ll do for now. One of Britain’s finest undiscovered rock guitarists has left his calling-card, and I’d advise you to get in touch.

Tony Harn: ‘From The Inside’
Tony Harn, THCD1 (no barcode)
CD-only album
Released: 1997

Buy it from:
Limited availability – contact Tony Harn for information.

Tony Harn online:
Facebook MySpace 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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