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REVIEW – Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’ singles, 2012 & 2013 (“sample-punk turned foley-bard”)

30 Oct

Ian Crause: 'The Song Of Phaethon'

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’

“Well, I know, I know the story – / the fall of the sun and the vengeance of glory revoked. / So well, I know how the seas turned to dust, / and how the known earth choked. / So well, I know, I know the ending: / the carriage from its zenith bending, / a comet slung through ashen skies / and burst against the banks.”

Cinematic. Epic. These are words which have been whored out far too often, especially when it comes to describing and defining music. Froth and PR corrode their meanings, reducing them to fancy synonyms for nothing more than crude scale, and we forget that other qualities are wrapped into them. These words shouldn’t just be cheap and glittery tags for charlatans – the kind who steep their tunes in giant vats of reverb, or who substitute eye-watering grandiosity for sincerity. There are more crucial meanings. There’s storytelling, and the churn of history. There’s the play of images, the triggering of senses. Eventually, there should be some kind of understanding.

Ian Crause knows all of this. Back in the 1990s – when he was barely out of his teens, and the driving force behind the startling expressionist pop band Disco Inferno – he was struggling with it himself. Even then, though, he wasn’t stumbling to understand: he was striving to perfect. Disco Inferno had come from limited beginnings but grown fast. Originally a dour post-punk power trio, they’d seized the opportunities presented by technology and imagination and transformed themselves into a whole-world window. Hot-wiring their way into the disruptions and illuminations of found-sound and musique concrète, they plugged guitar, bass and drums into digital samplers and grew themselves an ever-expanding sheath of noises: a startling collage of jarring sound effects, layered into composition and twisted into context.

Disco Inferno’s swarm of noise was never there simply to overwhelm. Instead, it refracted and illuminated the poignant dissatisfied pop songwriting which stood, steadfast, at the band’s core. They were doggedly political, but owed nothing to dogma. Caught within ominous social currents and inside treacherous personal eddies, their songs bore witness to cruelties, both intended and impersonal. Those tearing rivulets of sound-montage were flashes of further illumination, put there to side-swipe and snag the attention, and to up-end complacency. The fragments of birdsong and clattering glassware; the careful punctuation of trains and screams and distant firework-pops; the sound of feet jogging grimly away through a numbing snowfall – all of it bore witness to the swerving cacophony of the world, smearing past our ears and battering our psyche, carrying its deeper meanings and significances into us via a pummeling swirl.

At the heart of this unsettling barrage were Ian’s lyrics, which were wise, stark and bleak beyond his years. He sang about the crumbling of vulnerable individuals; about the fraying of the social contract and distortion of social forces. He sang about the stifling, stunting pressures callously imposed from above. He sang about all of this in a still, small, stubborn voice which sounded like the next-to-last exhalation; as if he was a few crucial steps and dogged heel-digs away from giving up and bleeding out. He sounded brave, bitter and doomed – snarling his scorn at the boot-tread even as it rolled over him. For a while, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bands who refuse to comfort us (or refuse to stroke our sundry petty vanities) rarely get rewarded, and Disco Inferno were no exception – the strains of dealing with commercial indifference and inner despair finally tore them to bits in 1997. A couple of barely-noticed Ian Crause solo EPs hiccupped out in the band’s wake over the next few years, and then he too seemed to drop out of the story.

In fact, he’d only dropped out of the cheaper kind of mythology. That’s the one in which ducking out of music becomes death or disappearance by another name. His own story – the real story – moved on regardless. There were years of growing up and grim jobs to come, and years of being chewed over by the same callous forces he once sang about. In amongst the drudgery, there were other factors. There was fatherhood, and family. Surprisingly (for a lyricist already so accomplished and intelligent) Ian made his first adult engagement with literacy. Curiosity, plus a determination to pursue the roots of song and storytelling, led him to the themes and voices of classical literature. His developing interest in the telling parallels with contemporary society kept him immersed in it. Crucially, Ian discovered the works of Ovid – Roman epic poet and exile – via dedicated translations by Ted Hughes and David R. Slavitt.

Like Ovid, Ian would eventually become an exile himself (a self-determined one, abandoning Britain for Bolivia) and enter into a new swell of creativity. Via his ‘Metamorphoses’, Ovid eventually inspired The Song Of Phaethon – Ian Crause’s formal return to music, transformed and developed. It might not be the first new note he’s delivered after eleven years of radio silence. That would be More Earthly Concerns, which welled out via Mixcloud and blogclick in March 2012, and which I’ll talk about elsewhere. But (as Ian begins to dole out his work, in handfuls, onto Bandcamp) The Song Of Phaethon is the first of Ian’s songs to be let out into the marketplace. It’s also probably more crucial in understanding his evolution since his Disco Inferno days.

The protagonist, Phaethon, is and was one of those half-divine children who pepper Greek mythology – he’s the bastard of the sun god Apollo Helios, a malcontent boy strutting up to his sun-father’s palace to claim his ancestry and birthright before he has the wisdom to use it. Greeted, given the acknowledgment he craves, and granted the gift of driving the sun’s chariot for a day, Phaethon is warned of the terrible risks involved. Swallowed up by his grand moment, and too conceited to listen, he takes all of his opportunities to their ruinous conclusions. Losing control of the chariot, he transforms a triumphal fly-past into a joyride and then into a catastrophe. Before the high god Zeus restores order by striking him down, Phaethon scorches a gigantic swathe across the world and casts the seasons into chaos.

Like most figures woven into the complex psychological map of Greek myth, Phaethon still has his role to play. He’s a metaphor for arrogance and a sense of entitlement; he also stands for the destructive potential which both of these follies possess. It’s deep literary currency, and maybe not the first thing which you’d think of as a match for the Crause songcrafting method – so direct and personal in Disco Inferno days. Yet Ian’s battering splay of noises and disaffection opens itself up readily to the mythology, which sinks in grain-for-grain. Explosive futurism meets stern and ancient legend, and both are renewed.

Some of Disco Inferno’s post-punk grit remains at the spine of the music (listen to those dogged dot-trails of frowning bass, or to the occasional flares of wire-wool guitar), but the song falls far away from rock into something older. Myths lend themselves to being channeled into new courses by any means available – Phaethon, for instance, worked his way into a Patricia Barber jazz epic six years previously. Ian rises to his own challenge superbly. In any worthwhile sense, what he comes up for The Song Of Phaethon is a new take on a bardic chant. Its melody is minimal and hypnotic; its rhythms walking, changing pulses constantly driven by the restless words. With vivid artistic appetite, Ian also mines the story’s depths for any resonances which he can transmogrify and feed into his own samples-as-narrative approach.

In this he’s served well – the mythic structure and detail inspire and transform his lyrics, which in turn take on the layered build of classical imagery. Various whispers of fateful moira and foreshadowing rise up to nourish the sounds. From early on, Phaethon’s life is marked by the celestial – right down to the transformation of his familiar landscapes by the passage of the sun and moon each day, continual reminders of his thwarted birthright. Ian reflects this in the woven detail of the narrative: “Every day their shadows ran / down Asia like a lyre, strumming / past his village, swinging down at perihelion / to touch upon his mother’s house / then over dark and quiet woods – / their distant hawks and watching deer / oblivious in bending shade – / descending into seacloud mist, / and down towards the gull-cloud cliffs / to pour their jewels and precious metals / out along the sea.”

Just as he did with Disco Inferno, Ian juxtaposes sound effects with the lyrics to create telling sonic scenery. Though he generally wields these with the skills of a master ironist, he slam them into place with forthright punk brutality whenever he needs to. Throughout, the Greek horns and lyres are a pointed racket: ritual blares, ancient continuo lines. Signatures of antiquity and origin stand solid against the thrumming synths and Ian’s tidal electrophonic swirl of throbbing samples. In prophetic flashes, the clip-clop of horse’s hooves and the slam of violent collisions clatter and blur in and out of the mix, while Phaethon’s more innocent youth is illustrated by the clank of herd bells and goats. In time, his dogged journey through Asia and towards Apollo is dappled and smeared by a souksworth of Asian instruments and chatter, careering past the listener in a flickering travelogue: “Levantine cities raised themselves, then hazed away in dreams of sand, where sand subsumes / the earth itself and still ahead his path led on. But falling always out of reach, the rising sun. / Into the dawn, alone he walked.”).

The effect is of a kind of illuminated text – a cinematic compression of time and location into a vivid illustrative story. That story remains paramount: even while we, as listeners, are being drawn inside those blood-in-the-head thunders and are surrounded by a glorious noise, as if we’ve been trapped under the encircling lip of a vast bronze bell. Beyond the story, though, other dimensions to the tale are coming into play. The song is also a loose parable of another gatecrashing of grand power. “He knew, he knew – / his place was beyond.”

Superimposed – a ghostly transparency – over Phaethon’s story is the tale of Tony Blair’s entry into the Second Gulf War. As this emerges through the song, it’s clear that Ian sees this as another disastrous snatch at high significance and public destiny. Something which flew high and upwards towards glory, only to destroy any achievement of its own, wreaking havoc on the ground and people below. Cunningly, occasional Blairisms are woven both into the narrative and into Phaethon’s thoughts and speech. At one point, he even blathers, Blair-like, “look, you know,” before sliding into advocate pomp and hubristic heroics. For a moment, the pleading voices of the two men overlap within Ian’s narration, making a contradictory cats-cradle out of public morality, power-grabs and a preening Promethean sense of mission. “It was not just God but also man / who clearly needs some representing – / A case I’ll take for free… / Evidentially it takes / a half-divinity to raise / the flag of man aloft for man…”

It follows – with a harsh and unforgiving logic – that the noises of modern warfare should persistently break through the song’s tapestry of ancient sounds. As Ian goes beyond everyday sound effects and begins to violently splice present-day horrors into the textures of the mythical plot and signifiers, the song is slashed up into a jittery palimpsest. Almost from the start, those bleating goats on the ancient Greek hillsides are blindsided by gunshots and by the crash of heavy munitions. With booms, crunches and clatters the shattered, warped shards of twenty-first century concrete and metal scrape and shoulder their own way into the past.

Even specific events from the myth draw across, from recent times, their own crooked parallels. The bursting, clattering crowd-sound of Phaethon’s entry into Apollo’s hall is lifted and twisted from the peak of Blair’s 2003 address to the US Congress. It becomes a Dionysiac smear of fanatical applause and whistles: something turned into a nightmare puppet show, or a rainstorm ripped horribly out of kilter. At the coda, Phaethon is poised unwitting on the brink of disaster. The ascension of the Sun’s chariot merges, indistinguishably, into the noise of a jet fighter launch. Backed by the white-hot screech of the afterburners, the lyrics weave both tales, both times and a set of terrible implications – “the steeds were armed: a blinding shock; / a ferrous scream; a rubber stamp; / and up,” – into final, irrevocable process.

By anyone’s standard, The Song Of Phaethon is a major achievement – a jump-up into fiercely intelligent, confident high art, it stakes new claims and transfigures old ground. It even manages to both stay true to and transcend the moral and political commitments Ian held with Disco Inferno. And yet… it raises a tremulous question of what might have happened to the other side of Ian Crause. Between the immersion in classical tradition (and the dense time-folding focus of the samplers) what’s left of the fervent young New Order fan who always saw himself as fronting a pop band? What, in other words, became of Crause the unlikely pop singer?

Ian Crause: 'Suns May Rise'

Ian Crause: ‘Suns May Rise’

For the answer, look to Suns May Rise, released three months after The Song Of Phaethon. Ian’s mining of Greek mythology is still in place (as are his detailed tapestries of sound-effect) but they’re now wrapped around an out-and-out pop song and a lustrous, dancing melody that Bernard Sumner would give his eye-teeth for. Those Greek lyres and zithers are back, as are the layers of sound effects (sea-spray and thunderous surf crash billow through Suns May Rise from start to finish); but they’re bolstered by massed stadium synth and guttering pop guitar; by angelic powder-puffs of fake-choir; and by warbling rococo flourishes of electronics. Even Ian’s voice – usually so dry, and pointed – is flushed with the balmy blue of a Mediterranean summer. Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins, each at their flounciest, could find common ground with this song’s feverish, chattering opulence. So, come to that, could latterday Marillion.

I suspect that all of this ’80 ornamentation is deliberate. After all, it skips hand-in-hand with other ’80s excesses, and that’s not too far from where Ian’s caustic, righteous attention is focused. Beneath this gleeful and gorgeous bluster, he’s unraveling a story from the Odyssey: a warning bell for avaricious times. As the story has it, Odysseus (while returning from the Trojan Wars) visited the generous Keeper of the Winds, who gave him a bag of sea-gales to ensure that the sails of his ships would be filled and his voyage home would be swift. En route, Odysseus slept; and his friends sneaked up to rifle the bag, in search of treasure which they were sure he’d hidden from them. All they succeeded in doing was to unleash the winds, which blew the ships hither and yon and – eventually – blew them back to where they had started. Reckless avarice, bringing down calamity, provides the keystone of the song. “There will always be some fool / to pull the strings apart. /And suns may set and moons may wax, / and moons may wane and suns may rise – / the gold within his eyes will weigh / Man down a stumbling fool.”

When Ian starts singing about this, though, it’s from the point of view of that corrupted, consensual chorus of friends – the “brothers bound in bronze.” Their coy, self-congratulatory rapaciousness soak his tones like a stain on the teeth. Flushed and greedy with loot already, all they can see is the chance to grab some more. From his own place at the reins of the narrative, Ian reveals their mythic echo in today’s freebooting boy-club of bankers and stockbrokers. Men of unfettered appetite goad each other on. People who simply don’t know when to stop – and who wouldn’t want to even after being handed a sobering, sickening lesson – would still pick perilous holes in opportunity. “You had enjoyed a peace of sorts / The winds had been re-tamed and so / of course the bag was bursting fat: / It fell to men to see to that. / Again so sure the bag would hold / either wine or gold, / Necessity appeared, demanding ‘Open this’.”

It’s here (with a careering inflative screech on “bursting fat”) that Ian himself deliberately unleashes the hidden forces within Suns May Rise, to overwhelm it. From here on in, sounds rise and cyclone – seaspray, radio chatter and winnowing churns of air; a lash of strained rope which morphs from background effect to edgy kick-drum. Amongst all of this the thread of pop song holds fast, stretched taut over an ever-burgeoning epic. In a parading weave of rapid soundbites, assorted newscasters and pundits and politicians roll past in a potted history of the last generation of monetarism. At its tail-end, George W. Bush (waving through a banker’s rescue programme of the kind he’d never have brooked for any other group of people) chokes, gargles and drowns amongst the becalmed wreckage of Odysseus’ ships. Throughout, that teasing pop melody ensures that we’ll remember what happened this time around.

So… the forces eventually sink the meddlers, but there always seem to be more of the latter. Ian conjures up further mythic winds, more specters bringing in ruin from the other far-flung breeding grounds of a destructive capitalist carnival. “Through solids, countries, paper bonds; / The world again reveals itself / in entrails; in open wounds. / The priests and seers shed tears of glee / and privately amuse on how / it still can be that after so long… / there will always be some chance / to pull the threads apart.” Again, the bones of legend rear up inside the flesh of current affairs. Again, this unlikely sample-punk turned foley-bard turns up to show us where those bones are poking through – his words a layered and subtle scourge; even an education. For Ian Crause, it’s been a long and often stony road from transformative teenage angst to his current role of reveal-and-illuminate, but it’s also been a journey of integrity and hard-won vision. The results are even a story in themselves.

Ian Crause: ‘The Song Of Phaethon’ & ‘Suns May Rise’
Ian Crause (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only singles
Released: 20th November 2012 (‘The Song of Phaethon’), 18th February 2013 (‘Suns May Rise’)

Buy it from:
‘The Song Of Phaethon’ – Bandcamp (the original version reviewed here has now been replaced by this mini-album)
‘Suns May Rise’ – Bandcamp (the single version reviewed here has now been replaced by this version from ‘The Vertical Axis’ album)

Ian Crause online:
Facebook Bandcamp LastFm

REVIEW – Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’ album, 2008 (“once engaged in perpetual fall, now they roam”)

1 Oct

Darkroom: 'Some Of These Numbers Mean Something'

Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

18 Mar

Darkroom: 'Fallout 2'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 2’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom: 'Fallout 3'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout 3’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

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

13 Jan
Darkroom: 'Fallout One'

Darkroom: ‘Fallout One’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW – John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’ album, 2009 (“stark rectitude and detachment”)

6 Aug
John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: 'Chamber Music'

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’

As well as being a composer, John P. Hastings is a curator. Actually… no. Separating the two terms suggest that there’s a gap between them: some kind of change in philosophy or mental state. It’s true that when he’s not composing, Hastings involves himself in arranging and hosting music events and sonic installations in his adopted home of Brooklyn, New York (via the ‘Sound Series’ at Presents Gallery) as well as co-running ‘The Experimental Music Yearbook’. However, it seems clear that these other activities might not involve much of a conceptual shift. I’ll come back to this later.

Starting off in Washington and Virginia, Hastings was at one time a late-’90s college rocker, playing guitar and writing songs for the post-grunge band Utris. After that he moved his base to CalArts and moved his musical allegiance – with a vengeance – to New Music via avant-garde process work and sonic art. While Utris occasionally dabbled in hard-rocking drones, Hastings’ subsequent music (be it orchestral, laptop-based or both) has quietly and methodically embraced many of the scientific components of late-twentieth-century conservatoire culture. His work sometimes shades carefully and soberly into the post-modern (via technology, found sound, chance methods and a fascination for the minutiae of microtones and the harmonic series) but his primary commitment has been to formalism and to music which establishes, as he defines it, “a logical and rationally satisfying whole.” His early chamber music pieces are rooted at the sternest end of late modernism, asserting a profound minimalism and blending it with clear process-based choices.

This debut collection reflects this position in all of its stark rectitude and detachment. All three of the minimal yet sonorous pieces here were performed either by the New Century Players (CalArts’ ensemble of “emerging musical language” musicians) or by Ensemble 303 (the experimental music group co-led by Hastings and Casey Thomas Anderson). Similarly, they were recorded in guarded heart-zones of the Californian avant-garde – two pieces in Roy O. Disney Hall at CalArts, and one in The Wulf gallery in downtown Los Angeles. These rooms seem to enclose and encourage the music in its deliberately slender and depthless form; its impassiveness; its focus on insidious pared-down number structures beneath the apparent form and textures. The musical notes themselves are explicitly passive components in a sparse mathematical schema, although this doesn’t stop them from often being beautiful.

Hastings makes his allegiance to science and mathematics plain from the off: the large-ensemble piece ‘telluric currents’ (performed by the New Century Players) is named after subterranean electric fields. Less scientifically, Hastings also describes in terms somewhere between angels’ trumpets and astro-metaphysics – “the music of the spheres, sounded with a low B-flat.” Translated, this means a single-note composition, though Hastings also states that it’s actually “one note, two curves.” The latter would appear to mean a gradual rise in pitch and an arc across the differing ranges of orchestral instruments. As for the former, every component note of the piece is a B-flat: precise timbre, octave and duration vary, but the pitch class doesn’t. The result is a kind of a chameleonic sound-curtain made up of nothing but octave variations on the same note.

In the opening moments, a low string drone is gradually joined by a low brass drone: after a minute and a half, the mid-range strings are backing up the low ones. Soon afterwards, the first of a set of horn soundings begin, adding to an enveloping hum. With no more than a single stacked set of octave intervals available to him, Hastings induces a surprisingly full sound, overlaying different instruments in different timbres and within different octaves to cover a broader spectrum of sound. The New Century Players seamlessly slot in replacement instruments as others fall out. It’s a little like a Risset scale trick reversed: instead of producing a continuous cyclic illusion of rising, the process camouflages a genuine rise. Those final sustained high B-flats (carried on stratospheric harmonics once all lower-pitched instruments have fallen away) come almost as a surprise. While this renders ‘telluric currents’ as more of an acoustic demonstration than a composition, Hastings’ arrangement of pitches and the ensemble’s dedication ensure that the listener walks away feeling that they’ve received much more musical information than they have.

‘Sonic Spiral’ (recorded by Ensemble 303 at the Wulf) is billed as “music and math in direct correlation” and as “a sound equivalent of the Fibonacci series.” It’s not the first time that the latter has been employed in structuring music. Building up from a start-point of zero and one, successive Fibonacci numbers sum the previous two, resulting in rapid and increasing jumps in magnitude as the sequence progresses. Spirals based on a linear and increasing Fibonacci sequence closely resemble “perfect” spirals based on the golden ratio, tying them in with idealised human architecture. Their appeal in guiding a compositional approach is obvious – allegedly, Bartók used them to compute part of the structure for ‘Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta’.

Hastings’ own seventeen-minute Fibonacci piece is written for 11 unspecified tunable instruments. On the Wulf recording, I think I can hear low brass, standard and bass clarinets, violin and viola, saxophone… but what I predominantly hear is sustain, and the long harmonics which it allows to play against each other. Hasting winds the piece up with a little silver key of mathematics and simply lets it unfurl. Over seventeen minutes, the development is glacially slow. More accurately, it’s indifferent to human priorities of time and gratification; obeying rules of harmonic motion or aggrandisement set by the Fibonacci sequence.

Sitting on its locked tonal centre, the piece seems static, a softly growing hum within a gentle dynamic range. It’s actually an ever-growing and increasingly complex chord, moving subliminally up a spectrum of pitch into which new notes are eased and out of which silvery harmonic whistles sprout according to acoustic interference. Around eight minutes and forty-five seconds a lone violin seems to emerge from the stack, dipping over its own sustain and briefly leading the ensemble. It’s an illusion: the instrumentation is less dense at that point, revealing the mechanical workings of one briefly exposed instrument. The tiny dips and recoveries in pitch between continuous bowstrokes, the human flutter and inevitable tiny flaws of the working player, seem momentarily to impose a new idea on the piece: but the grand plan has always been dictated by the numbers. Just as the piece was wound up, so it winds back down.

Unlike the other two pieces, ‘desertum’ lacks a stated mathematical context. Instead, following Hastings’ habit of bringing in arcane or mythological references, it’s touted as “the dark shadow of an Earthly paradise.” Apparently performances of ‘desertum’ can be between fourteen and twenty-one minutes long. Perhaps I’ve missed some obscure rule-of-seven which Hastings hasn’t mentioned. This particular recording is eighteen minutes and twenty-two seconds long – or one thousand, one hundred and two seconds. Neither of which fit the sevens. Maybe maths isn’t dictating the process this time, although I suspect that its hidden rational hand still guides the way: perhaps the clues are elsewhere.

Despite the instrumental billing – brass quintet and percussion quartet – the main instrumentation on ‘desertum’ is an uncredited sub-bass tone. Pure, continuous and borderline subliminal, it runs throughout at a single unchanging pitch. Too textureless for an actual drone, it acts as a flattened-out level ground for the other instruments to perch on: utterly unyielding, it renders everything they do impermanent. Periodically, the brass instruments engage in a kind of minimal fanfare, each playing a single elongated note as part of a staggered, overlapping arpeggio.

The resulting sound resembles a diagonal chord, changing component notes slightly on each widely-spaced repetition. The hierarchy of pitches changes too, sometimes with the higher notes sounding first, sometimes the lower or midrange. They stack up like wobbling columns of stones, or like the same ruins viewed from different angles. During the lengthy pauses between these chord-piles, assorted percussion winds quietly across that monotone floor – wary rattlesnakes sneaking past. There may well be a long game of determined structure here: a slow-motion play through a specialised harmonic sequence played out at an inhumanly attenuated, Morton Feldman-esque pace. Perhaps, without the score, I lack the patience or the ear to determine it.

Instead (listening with more abstract, literary ears) what I hear in ‘desertum’ is a generalised sense of place – a parched and uncaring environment in which any human scratch or sculpting remains solitary and ignored, however vividly it stands up against the dry horizon. Hastings’ chords stand unrewarded and unresolved, isolated between ground and sky. Any message or change which they might carry is reduced to a molecular level. Wherever the idea of an earthly paradise fits in is an open guess. Perhaps the brass instrumentation was chosen for its association with angels, and the broken contortions of chords and desolate lack of movement imply the failure of Eden and the bitter aridity of Exodus. Perhaps Hastings’ rationalism discourages too much of a literary or Biblical interpretation, and ‘desertum’ is simply an existential communication about us – placed in hostile and impartial landscapes, struggling against the odds to make our lives and establish our significance.

Rooms and spaces which encourage. Landscapes that reject… All right, these are classic pathetic fallacies of the kind which Hastings’ more rational side might reject. But on the other hand, I think that this more emotive idea of placings, of placement, does have a relevance. Bar the utterly aleatoric or the free improvisers, almost all working composers ensure that each note and harmony used has a place in the scheme. The utter minimalism provided by these works (with their mathematical maps, their formal constraints, their refusal to allow any kind of horizontal development other than that permitted for duration and equation) works differently.

In these pieces, Hastings comes across less as a composer and more as a kind of… curator of notes. Rather than putting those notes to work, he maps them, provides them with a decreed academic location, gives them their single fixed point in his sonic display and keeps them safe there. He can and will demonstrate where they come from and how they fit in, but it’s as if his artistic work as curator of events has overlapped and merged with his compositional creativity to the extent that it’s now difficult to tell them apart. Similarly (and with the possible exception of the stonily suggestive ‘desertum’) its hard to imagine these three pieces existing and living outside the shelter of the Wulf, the Disney Hall  or their equivalent art-labs dotted around the world. It’s where music like this is safe: is understood and identified; ultimately, is pinned down.

To be honest, sometimes it’s as much about the chamber as it is about the music.

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’
Bandcamp
Download-only album
Released: 21st April 2009

Buy it from:
Bandcamp

John P. Hastings online:
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New Century Players online:
Homepage

Ensemble 303 online:
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