Category: Current listening

David Bowie (self-titled, 1967): 50 years ago today, a star man came out to play

David Bowie, self-titled, Deram Records (1967)

June 1st, 1967, was a significant day in the history of British rock and pop: an album by a highly influential act was released on that day. Naaah, I didn’t have The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in mind, important though that work might be in some people’s eyes. Besides, contrary to what is often believed, that particular recording’s release date was brought forward a week by its label EMI in Britain so the release date was actually May 26, 1967, instead of June 1st, 1967.

No, on that day, that hallowed day, the world was blessed with the release of David Bowie’s self-titled debut album. WHA-A-AT? you say, David Bowie’s first album, the one consigned to mental attics around the world as some unwanted and unloved mad relative of classics like “Low”, “Heroes” and “Station to Station”? Well yes, I want to rescue that album from its current inglorious status as one of the black moments in Bowie’s long history as an artist, equivalent to those seedy little pornographic flicks that famous actors always regret making while they were down on their last dollar as drama graduates way back when in the mists of time. As black moments go, “David Bowie” turns out to be much, much lighter in colour than people, even diehard Bowie fans, might make it out to be – c’mon, folks, can the same be said of other black moments in Bowie’s recording history like “Never Let Me Down”?

Well, I’ll grant that most of the music on “David Bowie” isn’t what you’d expect of an ambitious up-and-coming teenage pop singer: it often sounds twee and the minimal “play safe” approach doesn’t always suit the lyrics on several songs which cover themes and topics such as alienation or lack of connection with others, longing, futuristic dystopias in which irrational crowds follow self-proclaimed messiahs, fluid gender identity, population control, serial killing, necrophilia and paedophilia among others. (Some of these themes were to arise on future Bowie albums again and again.) Certainly the music on songs like “There Is A Happy Land”, which depending on one’s interpretation can carry a chilling message about the alien nature of youth, seems at odds with the track’s theme; on the other hand, its relaxed and stripped-back nature highlights the lyrics and Bowie’s crisp style of singing which varies from one song to the next. Quite a lot of vocal gymnastics is involved and if Bowie had had some training at this point in his career, the album could have been a very remarkable one for his vocal range and adventurous singing. There’s also the possibility that Bowie found juxtaposing dark and disturbing lyrics with seemingly happy or comic music intriguing and amusing, and he would not have been the first (certainly not the last) artist to discover that the happy pop song format is an ideal medium for conveying otherwise sinister messages.

Why Bowie chose to write and record his debut the way he did, with the music, the visually colourful lyrics and the sometimes disturbing messages they carry, we may never fully know. Legend has it his manager at the time, Ken Pitt, may have pressured the young singer into becoming an all-round entertainer with old music hall and vaudeville influences, and recording the album with that goal in mind. The irony of course is that Bowie eventually did become an all-round entertainer by following a different if perhaps more zig-zagging path.

Even so, with all the faults of this approach which ill-suited Bowie, several songs on the album have their own sweet and whimsical charm, and if you let them they can grow on you. Bowie’s singing which sounds surprisingly mature, even a little “old man”-ish for someone of his age, has a very distinct flavour at once intimate yet suggesting its owner might have access to some deep well of gnostic knowledge. The lyrics are often funny, self-deprecating and wry at the same time, and strong visual imagination and inventive, cunning wit are at work here. Bowie’s wacky and bizarre sense of humour – which never ch-ch-ch-changed over the years – is in full flight across several songs with a number of them containing very subtle twists in the tales they tell.

There are songs here (“When I Live My Dream”, “Sell Me A Coat” and “Silly Boy Blue”) that could have been reworked with different music arrangements and re-released, and no-one would guess that they’d been on this album. “Silly Boy Blue”, referencing Bowie’s life-long interest in Tibetan Buddhism, in particular imitates Tibetan-style droning music and rhythms and a later treatment could have incorporated actual drones and invited experimentation. “Join The Gang” enjoys a brief burst of avant jazz improv at its end which could have been extended to cover the whole song.

If one chooses to listen to the whole album just for Bowie’s voice, lyrics and subject matter, one will find very little filler even in songs with the most godawful crap music. With regard to experimentation, several tracks are quite good, given Bowie’s inexperience and the guidance he had, though they could have done with more and one track – it’s my favourite of the whole album – that will surprise listeners is the last song, “Please Mr Gravedigger”, sung entirely a cappella with just ambient effects as accompaniment. Now that’s what I call experimental!

Fifty years ago today, a star man came out to play … it’s time for this particular mad relative to come out of the attic and show us all how really mad it is!

RIP Erkki Kurenniemi: farewell to a major experimental / electronics music pioneer

RIP Erkki Kurenniemi (1941 – 2017)

News of Finnish experimental / electronic music pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi’s death at the age of 75 years on 1 May 2017 was a shock to me: his actual output of music has been small compared to others of his generation but that’s due to the many interesting twists and turns his life took over the decades. The news prompted me to revisit a compilation of his early works that I’d reviewed years ago for TSP: “Aanityksia / Recordings (1963 – 1973)” released by Love Records (LXCD637) way back in 2002. The compilation contains nearly everything Kurenniemi made while employed as a volunteer assistant working towards a science degree in the Department of Musicology at the University of Helsinki.

Playing that compilation again, I’m amazed at the incredible of sounds Kurenniemi achieved and the cheerful fun and playfulness emanating from these tracks. From the loud and brash tape feedback noise of “On-Off” to the skritchy craziness of “Antropoidien tanssi”, to the mellow stateliness that becomes zanily deranged on “Inventio / Outventio”, to the near-hysterical wailing of “Preludi” or the equally demented “Nimeton” which builds up to a chaotic pyromanic climax, Kurenniemi’s curiosity and mischievous sense of humour power these tracks’ sounds and melodies to their utmost and reveal the sonic universe they inhabit as fun and at the same time extraordinarily rich in its minimalism. The last two tracks on the album (one “Mix Master Universe” done in collaboration with Jukka Ruohomaki) are long montages of various tape recordings with one track featuring a sing-along by Kurenniemi’s friends; these are not quite as enthralling as the earlier, shorter tracks, and they meander quite a bit but they still have their moments of easy amusement and joy.

Those interested in reading about Erkki Kurenniemi and why his career as an electronics music pioneer and inventor of electronic musical instruments faded away in the mid-1970s can start with his entry on Wikipedia which reveals that among other things he worked for now-defunct industrial design company Rosenlew and the more famous company Nokia designing industrial robotics systems during the 1980s. As interest in his early music and film work revived in Finland and around the world in the early 2000s, Kurenniemi returned to designing and making electronic musical instruments. He also became a commentator on future trends and developments in science and technology for Finnish TV networks. An interesting aside is that Kurenniemi’s mother Marjatta is famous in her own right as a writer with her own entry on Finnish-language Wikipedia.

Kurenniemi’s films (14 in all) and some of his early musical inventions and robot designs are being archived and preserved by art galleries and museums in Helsinki and Stockholm. His reputation in different fields of art, science and technology, and Finnish media is sure to grow after his death. Years may pass before his legacy to Finnish art, music and culture is fully recognised and acknowledged. RIP Erkki Kurenniemi.

White Death (self-titled): out of icy Arctic cold comes sudden terror striking fast to the core

White Death, self-titled, Finland, Werewolf Records, CD digipak Evil-040 (2017)

Named after Simo Häyhä the famous Finnish sniper said to have killed over 500 enemy combatants during the 1939 – 1940 Winter War against the Soviet Union, this band from Lappeenranta aims to do the same to you as its namesake did over 70 years ago: out of the icy cold and silent Arctic comes forth sudden terror, striking swiftly and killing you stone dead, then disappearing back into the blank whiteness as mysteriously as it arose. Well maybe killing you stone dead is overkill; the band members might be more interested in stunning you temporarily with precision-cut rock-blasting icy black metal that harks back to the classic second wave of Norwegian BM.

Opening track “Born of Unholy Fire” shoots straight between the eyes and ears with its payload of dense blackened rifferama and nuclear-powered blast-beat percussion. The crabby vocals, spilling out lyrics of defiant Satanic worship, nearly trip over the words as fast as they come out and are best treated as another sonic textural element in the rapid-fire music. There are death metal influences in some of the song’s rhythms and a strong melody in parts. Most songs are actually very distinctive in their riffs and melodies – some even have catchy pop hooks – even though they’re super-fast and if you sneeze at the wrong time, they’re gone forever. For all their speediness, the songs flow well and possess quite a lot of drama and mood. Early songs like “Kaste” and “Immortal Hunter of the Moon” pack in enough distinct riff and melody hooks that they could be ideal singles if the band ever considers angling for a more commercial audience.

While faster, more aggressive tracks like “Goat Emperor” have their appeal, slower songs like “Warpath” are a better showcase of the band’s talents and ability to incorporate melody and work in rhythm structures and mood to produce complex music in very self-contained songs. The faster songs come earlier in the album, giving way to slower songs with a greater range of mood and expression and which sometimes reach quite epic and majestic proportions. The closing track is the most complex and varied of all, including as it does an acoustic guitar introduction, a mix of melodic hard rock and BM, and matching voices that give the song a hardcore punk edge.

The album has something to satisfy nearly everyone, from die-hard old-school BM fans to those who like pop melodies or dense, almost symphonic metal that reaches for the stars, without sounding forces or calculating. White Death pay their respects to classic second-wave BM in a highly individual and often quirky way that’s minimalist and straightforward in style.

Banished from Time: an intense immersion into a particular hell

Black Cilice, Banished from Time, Iron Bonehead Productions, Germany, CD / cassette IBP321 (2017)

“Banished from Time” is a very intense and thundering work, often repetitive, and always frenzied and feverish. The album is the fourth by black metal act Black Cilice, whose home country is Portugal, and about whom little else is known, not even whether the band is just a lone-wolf solo act or a group. The project does boast a huge discography of cassettes, split releases and albums.

From start to finish, the music is constant assault on your senses and consciousness, with a lot of cacophony and howling, but within the noise and non-stop shrieking there are definite melodies and riffing. The sound, flooded with reverb, is noisy and cavernous, all-enveloping until you feel that your head is completely filled up with even more music pushing its way in with all that non-stop intense percussion thudding and you’re in danger of drowning in such overwhelming noise and mental torment. The first track “Timeless Spectre” is a good example of what to expect: high-speed pounding drums, steaming fuzzy vibrato guitars, banshee vocals howling trapped within the depths of the noise reverb, with melodies and actual riffs and rhythms passing in and out. The following track “On the Verge of Madness” has more of the same except that the music seems more streamlined and focused with one constant rhythm banging out its heart and growing more intense and urgent. The third track has a good galloping groove that goes into a hysterical frenzy as the song progresses amid the noise and anguish.

On and on it goes … yes, the music sounds like the proverbial flood that, once set free, never stops pouring and overflowing the levees and plains. Yet there’s actual structure carved out of the sound and noise that gives the album some direction and brings out its message of absolute despair and total alienation. The last couple of songs on the album bring something new to the usual screeching: the fourth song “Channeling Forgotten Energies” has an additional layer of sharp-ish drone and the final track “Boiling Corpses” has as much fury and aggressive, destructive drama as it does desperation and inner torment. For the first time, the anger seems to turn outward away from attacking its owner and towards the source of torment with single-minded obsession. Some signal of hope, of a light shining into the darkness, now becomes apparent and there’s the possibility of inner peace and healing.

This album is more of an immersion into a particular kind of hell than it is a collection of songs or a soundtrack – its intensity will put off most people and only those who may have had similar depressive experiences will appreciate it for what it is and represents. Beneath the layers of noise, confusion and agony can be found music of overwhelming emotion that in its own way possesses unearthly beauty.

A Spineless Descent: deeply hypnotic ambient black metal psychedelia debut

Grok, A Spineless Descent, United States, E.E.E. Recordings, CD (2016)

For those of us who miss the sprawling and darkly hypnotic music of Light Shall Prevail and Njiqahdda from years ago, the fellow behind those bands and E.E.E. Recordings, E Henderson, has resurfaced with a new project Grok that also features a second member, known as CJH, on vocals. Grok sounds superficially similar to those past projects though the duo’s style is less noisy and is more spacious with a much greater emphasis on keyboard-generated atmospheric tones and effects. Dare I hope that Grok heralds a return to the glory days of Njiqahdda of a decade ago?

You need to play this album a few times to appreciate its atmospheres fully: yes, they are dark and very spacious, and filled with deep and complex emotions that seem to range from anger to despair and grief. Who knows from what cause such feelings have arisen? I have the impression that they arise from the disappointments that life metes out to us, from dashed expectations and loss of faith in the things and ideologies that we thought would guide us to spiritual fulfillment. In the place of these dashed hopes are disillusionment and a sober realisation that life and the universe are far more complicated, less benevolent and much more remote than we realise. We have only this planet as our home and ourselves and our fellow animal, plant and mineral travellers as our companions and sources of comfort and connection. The music ranges far and wide in the cold frigid darkness generated by the synthesiser wash and tone effects, the distant phantom growling vocals following where the melodies and percussion go.

The eight tracks are not all that distinctive in themselves and form a long soundtrack to an imaginary film of mesmeric dark psychedelic landscapes wherein dwell ghosts and spirits who might have inhabited our physical universe aeons ago, and have ascended (or descended) to other planes of existence. Drums and shifting keyboard ambience dominate, achieving a somewhat paradoxical effect in which melodies and riffs definitely exist yet if you try to concentrate on any one particular passage, the music ends up sounding formless. It goes where it will and the apparent lack of direction might frustrate listeners. Guitars have a very sparing presence though they do give the music a tough and forbidding aspect.

Perhaps the music could have done with some editing for length as parts do get repetitive and I admit there isn’t much Grok brings in here that wasn’t done previously with Njiqahdda. The vocals don’t stray far from their ghostly rasping tumbleweed style. While the album is great for icy atmospheres, listeners expecting more will be disappointed – within those deep spaces, there are more ghostly apparitions, deeper caverns of negative sound, like a never-ending chain of doors along a corridor opening onto more doors ad infinitum. But if you are happy to be immersed in deep hypnotic trance ambient black metal psychedelia, and are not asking for more, this album will satisfy you.

Beat the Law: a set of filthy doom sludge songs coming at you at a fast snappy pace

Legalise Crime, Beat the Law, Poland, BSFD Recordings, CD023 (2017)

From Poland comes this filthy doom sludge mob who rejoice in short, sharp songs that pack in huge wallops of thick magma guitar and drum crash all iced over with the most hilarious song titles I’ve ever seen. “Crack that took the Whole Summer to Lose”? – you’d have to be trying to sell it to penguins in the Antarctic. As for track 12, those latitude / longitude co-ordinates give a location in the band’s home city of Wroclaw which might be where the guys recorded this album. Or perhaps they mark the spot where the band first crawled out of the primordial sludge ooze that still influences and shapes the sound and texture of the thick grinding metal crust on display. Whatever the members had in mind, one thing is for sure: “Beat the Law” is an impressive debut, a surprisingly fast and punchy doom sewer sludge album of raw power and ragged screech.

By themselves most songs are short and the album is best heard in one hit from start to finish. It actually flows well that way and from Track 1 to the end of Track 7 at least, the music does sound more or less continuous. The aforementioned “Crack …” brings a sharp break with a punky attitude and speed but it still features glacial doom sludge slush mixed with the fast snappy stuff. Some listeners may gripe that the songs should be longer, especially as some have deep Mariana Trench-sized grooves that never let you go once you’re right into them, and that the pauses between songs come too fast. I tend to agree, that most songs could be a lot longer just to savour and immerse yourself in, because the band’s sound is incredibly massive and mind-destroying, and in some songs like “Riot Rat”, the guys really go off their brains in the screaming and in generating the most insane feedback noise.

The album gets off to a good start in the relatively low-key “XXXX” opener which basically softens us up for the onslaught to come. And come it does with full aggression and power, and plenty of throat-shredding desperation on the part of the vocalist. “Jimmy Hix Sucks Cock” (yes, really) is a huge number that just barely fits in its three-minutes-and-a-bit time-slot. (Sorry, it’s difficult to talk about this song without double entendres.) “Doomed City” starts with glorious feedback drone abrasion that tears through your mind like slow-ripping paint stripper. “Noob the Loser” has a great rhythm that drives the song and very infectious pop riffs that together with the singing turn the song into doom hardcore. These songs are but just three examples of how the album bludgeons listeners into awed silence with a surprising mix of fast, even punk-influenced beats, some of the slowest slabs of doom sludge ever to trudge into view, occasional doompop melodies and strong riffing combined with inspired moments of feedback improvisation.

By the end, you might be left reeling from all the hard hitting (not always a good idea if the band wants people to replay the album as soon as it finishes) or you might feel a bit frustrated that the songs are so short and tend to start fast, fast, then go slow and then fast again without much let up. We’ll have to wait for a follow-up to see if the band is willing to play longer tracks that deliver the sledgehammer hits a bit more … slowly.

Aguas Territoriales / Caballos: two pioneers of 1980s Cuban electronic experimentation

Carlos Farinas, “Aguas Territoriales” / Juan Marcos Blanco, “Caballos”, Australia, Creelpone, CD-R CP220

In an effort to release as much historical experimental electronic music in their current double-set limited edition series, Creelpone elected to pop these two Cuban recordings from the early 1980s together on the one disc. Both recordings, originally released separately by Empresa Grabaciones Y Ediciones Musicales (EGREM) – a Cuban record label founded in 1961 responsible for releasing many significant Cuban and other Latin American recordings in homegrown and regional contemporary music genres, jazz and rock – are nearly equal in length at about 33 minutes and 34 minutes respectively.

Farinas leads off with the two long tracks that make up “Aguas Territoriales” (“Territorial Waters”). “Madrigal” is an unobtrusive though far-ranging electroacoustic piece of shrill bird-whistle melody fragmentation overlying a long drone that develops into a serene, radiant electro-symphonic epic. It’s a very graceful introduction into this archival set. “Aguas Territoriales” the title track features field recordings of water bubble that become crazed and demented as they pass through reverb and drone treatments when you might expect they would be plop-plop still and quiet. Both long pieces reveal a very unexpected and mischievous humour on Farinas’ part.

JMB’s “Caballos” (“Horses”) starts as a lively and playful melodic recording, dominated by analog synth, with plenty of galloping rhythms and frivolous flights of twittery fancy. Chase scenes and light-hearted dramas flit by as the horses run from one corral to another and back. As this work progresses – it was originally written for the stage – it expands into a full soundtrack of electro-orchesral ditties and field recordings embracing many moods and feelings. Birdsong appears among pure clean-toned electronic tunes and musique concrete sounds suggesting light industrial work and explosions.

A lot of fun is to be had on both these recordings though they’re very different in style and approach. The ages of the two composers may be significant: Farinas was in his 50s and JMB in his 30s at the time their recordings were released. JMB’s “Caballos” is the more extroverted and busy work, heavy on melody and constant light-fingered activity. Farinas seems more interested in creating mood and suggesting that water may be alive in its own perhaps demonic way with special effects. Both works complement each other very well and provide an  entrée into Cuban electronic experimental music during the Cold War.

The CD-R is available from Broken Music.

Flesh Cathedral: a daring if daunting adventure through ruin to redemption

Svartidaudi, Flesh Cathedral, Norway, Terratur Possessions, CD VOICE033 / DWP024 (2012)

“Flesh Cathedral” remains Svartidaudi’s sole album to date which may surprise a lot of people who listen to it the first time – I certainly was, because it sounds so accomplished and meticulous in its technical crafting. It certainly doesn’t sound like a first album but more like a second or even third album: the songs are part of a concept that’s taken time to develop (and for that reason the album is best heard in one sitting) and the music’s execution sounds well balanced, tight enough but not too tight. The band’s preference for dissonant chords does mean the music sounds superficially similar to famous French black metallers Deathspell Omega and these Icelanders may well have taken inspiration from DSO in their song-writing and concepts. Everything else they do here though is different: Svartidaudi don’t go in for avant-jazz rhythms, theirs is a more doomy style of black metal.

Intro track “Sterile Seeds” sets the stage musically and conceptually: this track introduces us to a post-apocalyptic world ruined by wars and pollution, or to a body wrecked by addiction and abuse of all kinds and that has passed the threshold between life and death. The track’s style is epic and monumental in many ways, with layers and layers of grinding or fluttering tremolo guitars, a cold atmosphere and harsh stentorian vocals. The drumming isn’t especially heavy or remarkable but doesn’t need to be – the guitars and bass shoulder most of the responsibility for building up and carrying such a massive edifice of music, mood and ambience. “The Perpetual Nothing” brings the listener to confront an utterly empty and bleak universe with stuttering rapid-fire rhythm thunder, tom-tom rolls, sinister spider lead guitars and the most dreadful death-rattle vocals that sigh resignation in the face of nihilism. This song is a mighty monster of machine-gun blast-beat and tom-tom punishment and wailing guitar, relentless in piling riff upon riff, and nearly drowning out the vocals.

The title track builds on previous songs with a huge deep cavernous atmosphere, a complex mix of thunderous drumming, flippy blast beats and shifting rhythms, monstrous grinding bass grooves, sinister winding guitar riffs and melodies, and above all those dry wraith vocals drifting overhead. “Psychoactive Sacraments” is a roller-coaster ride through highs and lows in mood and music with portentous doom, malevolent black metal and hellish dark ambient elements used where appropriate to create a dramatic shape-shifting sonic architecture that floods and overwhelms the senses. While darkness and despair reign, there also appears a glimmer of hope, of brightness, of potential renewal and access to a higher spiritual plane.

Each song is very long and structurally elaborate with new riffs and melodies coming in almost right up to the end, and drastically changing rhythm or direction about halfway through as well, so tracks probably aren’t as distinctive or memorable as they could be. No one track is typical of the album and all songs need to be heard together for them to make sense, not only as a whole, but as parts in the whole. For this reason, hearing this album is a daunting adventure in itself and several rounds with the album might be necessary at risk of feeling punch drunk after each listen. But those of us who’ve heard the album a few times can at least say it’s an adventure worth taking.

The one thing I think that would improve this album is a higher quality production that brings out more of its subtleties and highlights its sonic extremes and many moods and atmospheres.

Circle of Light: a low-key abstract soundtrack of beauty and imagination

Delia Derbyshire and Elsa Stansfield, Circle of Light, United Kingdom, Trunk Records, JBH061CD (2016)

From the deft fingers of Delia Derbyshire, the British electronic music pioneer who gave the world the original spooky version of the Doctor Who TV series theme music, comes this soundtrack to a half-hour film made in 1972 by photographer Pamela Bone. When first released, this film “Circle of Light” appeared in a number of film festivals around the world and was noted for Bone’s photographs placed on glass transparencies which were arranged in a slideshow structure to conform to a narrative detailing themes of nature favoured by Bone. These days the actual film itself is secondary to the abstract music soundtrack composed by Derbyshire and Stansfield, not least because the music is said to be the longest sound recording known to have been made by Derbyshire.

After a brief introductory description by film director / art collector Anthony Roland of Bone’s work and Bone’s artistic statement, the music launches on a journey that’s remarkably ethereal, controlled and restrained, and eerie and spacious. There are various spacey and alien effects and much is made of musique concrete recordings using nature-based sources, all of which contribute to the music’s strange and sometimes sinister qualities. Birdsong occasionally adds a cheerful mood in some parts but otherwise the soundtrack is a serene and steady work.

One definitely has the impression of being absorbed into a world of weird yet beautiful and quiet stately landscapes populated by exotic birds and animals that might have escaped from an imperial menagerie of unimagined rich strangeness. Long-lasting wind storms sigh through misty regions where life may be glimpsed through clouds of water vapour and thick bush. Insects sing their complex rhythmic songs. In the second half of the album the music drones become more threatening and the mood is sombre but tension eventually dissipates.

There are few recordings like this one where the music allows, even encourages listeners to run their own abstract art films behind their eyes and between their ears. This must be part of the genius of Derbyshire, that however strange or abstract her music is, her ego never dominates but instead allows the listener’s imagination to take her music and make something of it particular to that person.