Ghosts and Poissons

Lightning Striking Me Again

Pretty Lightning is the duo of German players Christian Berghoff and Sebastian Haas. There Are Witches in the Woods (FONAL RECORDS FR-83) is a set of 11 songs which are imbued with a folk memory of an imaginary past from the pages of Brothers Grimm – wizards, ghosts, old wives tales, thunder, and the moon are all namechecked and sung about to the tune of rousing folk-song like melodies and performed at ear-splitting volumes. Effectively they are a drum and guitar duo, and at times this slightly supernatural record feels like it’s trying to outdo the third Led Zeppelin album in its attempts at realising new forms of “spooky dark folk” music. Another musical touchstone might be the 1969 ESP-Disk oddity by Cromagnon, whose ‘Caledonia’ was memorably covered by Japanese latterday psychmeisters Ghost. Pretty Lightning don’t use the same trick of “guitars sounding like bagpipes”, but they do have a strong line in a rock-solid thumping drum beat that could be used to propel a division of Scots Highlanders on a 50-mile route march through the mud during the Jacobite rebellion. Many of the tracks here follow the path of the dirge with extremely loud and unpolished dirty guitar melodies howling out their pentatonic tunes, although ‘See No Evil’ starts off with an atmospheric organ drone of undeniably Gothic proportions, and the drummer manages to restrain himself for about half of ‘The Sound of Thunder’, allowing eerie banshee howls and doomed stoner vocals to layer up in the nocturnal air. In these areas, the “march or die” factor may be diminished, but the record retains its forces of witchery. I see they both performed on the Datashock record (noted here), which failed to connect with me as much as this one. A nightmarish mix of heavy Kraut sounds with gothic overtones and voodoo curses that will appeal to fans of Cramps and The Gun Club.

The Lower Depths

Marées De Hauteurs Diverses (INSUBORDINATIONS NETLABEL INSUBRWK 02) is a reworking of the album Complaintes De Marée Basse, originally performed by the Swiss improvising duo Diatribes joined by Abdul Moimême. Among those doing the reworking are Francisco López, Nicolas Bernier, and Honoré Feraille. It’s funny how most of their efforts are concentrated on taking a lively and percussion heavy album and rendering it down into calm, formalised drones of great stillness. Digital technology extracts a core of silence and music of heavy depth. Herzog‘s ‘Naufrage / Remix’ is probably the most pertinent example of what I mean; the abrasive impulses of the music are smoothed down into slightly distorted ambient tones, producing a not un-nice effect, but in this serene zone we are floating quite some way from the original source material. Occasionally ghosts and remnants of the original music do surface, but according to Ludger Hennig the music is taking place at ten steps remove, as if performed in another room five miles away; while López is only interested in replaying very short fragments he can use to punctuate his lengthy silent tracts. Mukuhen pays more attention to dynamics; after two minutes of baffling mystery, excerpts of heavily processed music surface to the top of his ‘Poisson Silence, Oki’, and shimmer for a few precious seconds of overdubbed and backwards-running genius. The Montreal composer Nicolas Bernier remains true to the frenzied spirit of D’Incise’s drumming, and indeed he multiplies and overstates it to make it yet more frenzied. Blindhæd (known to us from the Belgian label ini.itu) has a lot of incident in his reworking, but it’s mysterious to the point of obtuseness, and introduces too much artificial drama and contrivance in its strange washes of sound. As can be seen from the titles, and the overall “aquatic” impressions of the sonic content, the record follows an underwater theme, perhaps likening the musicians to deep sea divers picking sea anemones and old bits of wreckage.

Another Brick in the Wall

From California, Bruce Friedman kindly sent us a copy of Edge Study, a recent record he made with the Japanese-born synthesizer player Motoko Honda. We last heard from Friedman in 2009 with the O.P.T.I.O.N.S. record of group improvisation he made for pfmentum, but Edge Study (ANALOG ARTS NO NUMBER) is quite different and a far more appealing example of carefully directed improvisation. I suppose the first thing to note is that it sounds absolutely beautiful. A single trumpet slowly playing long tones along with the rich electric voice of a keyboard synthesizer; there’s emotion (mostly of a rather melancholy hue), stillness, and plenty of space for the listener. So much space it’s like a sense of settled accommodation, a vast sunlit room where you’ll be happy just to curl up on the bare unfurnished floor for the day. To understand all of Friedman’s achievements here requires a musicological knowledge which is beyond this writer, but I like the admission that he is starting to grow weary of some the established aspects of free improvisation in music, most notably the emphasis on the extension of “musical techniques”, and the implication that if you improvise, you also gotta sacrifice melody. So he’s determined to blow his trumpet and take up arms against these particular bug-a-boos, and find his own “comfort zone” where he wouldn’t have to shovel musical tradition into the garbage pail, yet also remain in touching distance of “contemporary sonic approaches”. In like manner, the sound artist and pianist Motoko Honda was invited to respond to this challenge and found that he she too was somewhat sceptical about electronic music’s tendency towards excessive complexity; it’s as though once you have a Moog in your hands, the music all too easily slides into ultra-fast and “clever” noodling. Could Motoko make her Nord keyboard into something “organic and alive”, could she find the soul in the machine which men have been searching for ever since Robert Moog’s prototype first rolled off the conveyor belt in the late 1960s? Edge Study is the triumphant success story, and even if it is billed as “an experiment”, it’s a bold piece of work that gets musicians and listeners right back into a familiar and warm simplicity, a very human place indeed, without having to pick up and carry every piece of conceptual baggage associated with the New York school of “minimalism”. But speaking of which, here is the great Christian Wolff providing three succinct paragraphs as a sleeve note to this excellent release. When spun, he at once thought he was hearing composed music, so distilled and pure are these glorious tones; but he realised this was a result of the self-imposed discipline Friedman has brought to the work. Wolff seems delighted with the lack of melodic development, the absence of repeated patterns, and with the precision of a grand master he observes how “each [note] is just there”. Just there. What a Cagean remark. I suppose it’s this elusive quality that makes Edge Study fascinating, how it almost seems to approximate the very thought processes of the human brain, rendering that phenomenon in musical terms. The sleeve design suggests visually that this experiment has run into a brick wall, but I suggest the exact opposite; it’s got the sort of meditational power that can vibrate such insurmountable obstacles into dust. Very recommended!

Update from Bruce Friedmann: “I love the ‘brick wall’ analogy that you interpreted. In reality, I was considering the edges of the bricks as being similar yet each unique. An analogy to the individual pitches of the trumpet part. Each similar but perhaps nuanced slightly differently?”

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