Tagged: English

T.R.A.S.E. (Tape Recorder And Synthesiser Ensemble): early 1980s UK teenage outsider synth-pop (yes, really!)

T.R.A.S.E.

T.R.A.S.E. (Tape Recorder And Synthesiser Ensemble), self-titled, UK, B-Music / Finders Keepers, CD BMS050 / FKR067 (2013)

Here’s a recording where the history of the artist and the equipment used is so unusual and engrossing that it threatens to overshadow the music itself. The group’s name might seem twee and antiquated to us jaded sophisticates today but in 1981 the concept behind the name and project was just slightly ahead of the trends prevailing in the commercial pop music industry in Britain. The astonishing aspect of T.R.A.S.E. is that it was actually the music project of a 16-year-old boy who started it as an extension of both the work he was doing at school, in class and in extra-curricular activities, and his own interests in pop and rock music. Even more amazing is that the youngster, Andy Popplewell, built his own synthesiser (the Elektor Chorosynth), a 6-channel audio mixer, a phaser and a fuzz box using instructions from electronics magazines and the school woodwork and electronics skills he gained. With money earned from delivering newspapers, Popplewell built all these himself (his father having died years earlier), acquired and assembled a drum machine kit, and off he went, experimenting with composing and playing his own music, some of the results of which have now been released on vinyl and CD.

Admittedly if you were to hear the music and you didn’t know that this was all the work of a young teenage boy with some help from his guitar-playing kid brother, you’d swear that the artist behind the various rhythm texture pieces making up the bulk of the recording was a bit conservative in the way he coaxes sounds and melodies out of his machines, with very few sounds hitting the extremes of the instruments’ capabilities and burning up the wires. The drum machine beats anchor the music rigidly and apart from a couple of instrumental tracks near the beginning and the end, there’s hardly any experimentation with basic elements like sound; the music is driven by repetitive melody loops held in place by fixed beats. Sometimes the music is so slow or monotonous that you almost fall off your seat in slumber. On the other hand, there are some good tracks that show music composition potential (“Electronic Rock”, “War Machine”, “Unrequited Love”) even if very little is done with them. There are some beautiful ambient mood pieces like “Harmonium”, a radiantly sunny instrumental that includes a trilling melody and plucked warm-summer guitar tones. That a school-kid was able to progress as far as he could building his own equipment and writing and playing his own music within fairly commonplace artistic and musical conventions of the time might say something about his middle class upbringing in early 1980s Britain and how much (or how little) exposure children had to music, art and other avenues of creative intellectual enrichment.

In the booklet that accompanies the CD, Popplewell lists among his musical influences acts like Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, Jean Michel Jarre, Joy Division, Ultravox, the Human League, Gary Numan and John Foxx and his own music certainly reflects those inspirations. (The booklet also mentions his interest in Cheap Trick, Led Zeppelin and Motorhead but their influence, if any, can’t be discerned, perhaps for obvious reasons: their music was dominated by guitar and was not minimalist in structure.) Some tracks have a melancholy air as well as a definite pop orientation and the deadpan singing style Popplewell employs might owe as much to his heroes as to his own inexperience as a singer. Although in the booklet he states his suspicion of being close to having Asperger’s syndrome, I detect in the music he may have had something of a talent for picking sounds and tunes that conjure up particular moods.

I don’t have many favourite tracks on this CD but the one I like best is one I might treasure for the rest of my life and that’s “War Machine” for its delirious slightly off-key and dazed synth tones and the clicky mechanical rhythms. Probably by the time Popplewell composed this song, he’d already had considerable experience writing, playing and polishing his music. The singing is frail and boyish and the whole track sounds a bit like a cross between early Depeche Mode and The Cure. A solo lead guitar turn by little brother Phil Popplewell adds a soulful blues mood. The song is crowned by the sort of abstract early-Kraftwerkian experimentation, here simulating machine-gun fire and falling bombs, I’ve been dying (err …) to hear all through the album.

The value of this recording lies mainly in the circumstances in which it was conceived, the DIY culture that existed in the UK in the late 1970s / early 1980s and the fact that it was made by an artist still at high school and what this suggests about how much Western society still underestimates the creative potential of adolescents. Some of the songs may well grow on listeners over repeated hearings.

Alas, Popplewell did not follow up his early precocious start as an experimental electronic pop musician; he became a BBC radio broadcast engineer (though he curiously manage to miss falling into the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) in the 1980s and has held other technical and engineering positions since. It may not be too late for Popplewell to resurrect his music career if he so wishes, though I doubt that the novelty value of his having been a child musical prodigy would last long; advances in music technology and electronics have been so great over the last 30 years that audiences born after 1980 might well be mystified by the music and instruments used, and several tracks really are just not much more than rhythm texture studies.

Contact: Finders Keepers, www.finderkeepers.com

Brazen Glory from Yorkshire

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An excellent item is Knurr & Spell: Being Psychedelic Sounds From Yorkshire (SMOKERS GIFTS #14 / MEMOIRS OF AN AESTHETE MOA CD 004). For starters it’s great to hear from Phil Todd after so long, he who bestrode the 1990s UK underground like a colossus with an abundance of releases featuring his own guitar drone band Ashtray Navigations, as well as numerous solo records and collaborative projects. A true connoisseur of noise and drone, Todd is a no-nonsense Northener who saw right through the pose of self-centred drama queen Keiji Haino, and once explained to me in a letter the simple combination of effects pedals that would enable any guitarist to “Do A Keiji”. This release from March 2013 is a four-way split to showcase the “vibrant 21st century West Yorkshire outerground”, in four 20-minute tracks. It seems to me that all four creators are largely about the sound they make; they each have a very distinctive noise, and they spend their 20 minutes exploring it thoroughly, with conviction. Shemboid is the work of painter, collagist and poet Alan Sharples, and his ‘Myths Of The Prehistoric Future’ is a continuous edgy blast of super-abrasive guitar drone mixed with mad sequencer programming. This is real music for fell-walking when facing the hail and rain of a bleak Northern winter, and the very sky itself appears to be filled with skeletons. Sharples’ visual works are likewise psychedelic recastings of that wild landscape that feeds the imagination of any sentient being. On ‘Bontempi Bastet’, the weirded-up voice of Ocelocelot is given full rein; this is Melanie O’Dubhslaine playing with analogue oscillations on the world’s most disaffected piece of equipment. To put it mildly, this metal box of sqwawk and fizz seems to be sinking slowly to the bottom of a very deep fishpond, or lake. Ocelocelot isn’t so much playing the instrument as exerting a strange kind of magnetism or psychic influence on it, something that emanates from her very body, walking around the device while making her magic passes. Her unsettling tones are almost supernatural; she ought to do a team-up with Darren Wyngarde some time.

Moral Holiday appears to be Phil Todd himself; given that I have not heard anything from him for a number of years, I shouldn’t be surprised at his “new direction”, and it’s his own warped take on the electrop genre complete with half-working synths, minimalist instrumental stabs, and a morose drum machine. While he himself likens the end results to Suicide and John Carpenter soundtracks, it’s also the sort of music likely to appeal to the “dark wave” crowd (if they still exist; I have no idea about the exact parameters of this genre, which might already be considered over-done and passé.) Todd’s upsetting vocal yelps on this track, called ‘No Forks’, are indeed a passable imitation of Alan Vega when depicting the fate of lost souls writhing in a rock ‘n’ roll Hell. Todd still achieves an uncanny “distressed” surface sound to his music, and his sparing use of the echo chamber is ingenious. Foldhead close out the disc with a grisly noise-wall assault, and ‘Taser Delerium’ is the work of one who doesn’t know the meaning of “restraint” when it comes to spewing out filthed-up fuzz from an insane synth. The synth was probably driven mad just by keeping in the company of Foldhead for a few months. This bughouse music was created by Paul Walsh from Smell & Quim, the 1990s prankster noise group which may or may not have included Neil Campbell and Stewart Walden in their ever-shifting ranks. While the above review may have a streak of “nostalgia” for the past running through it, this vital comp is emphatically not about reliving past glories and serves to remind us there’s a lot of good healthy noise swill being created in the UK, prompting us to investigate further outpourings from the Memoirs Of An Aesthete label. A joint release with Smokers Gifts and Absurd / Noise Below in Greece. Received 26 February 2013.

Calm Down Grandad

We last took note of the fine English combo Hamilton Yarns in February 2011. We received Calm Down Grandad (HARK! 018) on 2nd November 2012, meaning that the limited pressing of 70 copies with a silkscreen insert has probably long since sold out 1, but the “quaint” music of this Brighton-based team is always worth investigating. The team of Paxon, Strachan, Colvert, Bissa and Homewood all seem to share a basic “gentle” approach to playing their instruments, treating the accordions and Wurlitzer electric pianos like old friends where only a delicate touch is needed to bring a generous response.

On this release the intention has been to paint pictures – probably executed with basic geometric shapes and rendered in bright primary colours – of an imaginary English workaday world where nothing much happens, and “a man lost in the sea mist” or “dogs on beaches” are regarded as major events on the horizon. These very fleeting impressionistic sketches are occasionally enhanced by unobtrusive field recordings, and the low-key vocals of the singers – unfailingly sung in a deliberately poised English accent without a trace of affectation, and with lyrics intuitively structured to resemble passing fancies of the mind rather than the all-out sloganeering of any given “rock” song. Even the title “Calm Down Grandad” feels like something the band would actually say (in the kindest possible way) to an elderly relative at a tea party; the same phrase in the mouth of a Roger Daltrey or a John Lennon would simply be a classic put-down of the older generation.

I think there is much to be said for the “collective” approach of a group like this. Imagine if Hamilton Yarns were just one person, and we’d probably have no problem writing it off as the eccentric musings of a lone genius. Instead, there is strength and continuity in the fact that the five of them can apparently dream together, sharing the same evanescent images within the comfort of the hive mind. Now I’m a big fan of the Ghost Box project, which has a similar toe-hold in a semi-imaginary 1970s England, and whose creators go to great lengths to reimagine and make real by all means at their disposal. Yet Ghost Box can seem slightly contrived next to the charming, natural, and very sincere Hamilton Yarns.

  1. Actually it is still available from their shop at time of writing.

The Haunted Drawing Room

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The name of pianist John Tilbury should be familiar to anyone who has ever dipped a toe or two into the waters of the British avant garde. An impressive c.v. unravels before us….a member of AMM for thirty-three years, the ne plus ultraman of Morton Feldman interpretations, a one-time member of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra and the M.I.M.E.O. collective with Keith Rowe, and others.

Poland’s principal minimalist composer in orchestral/chamber/tape/solo fields, Tomasz Sikorski (1933-88) was a friend and associate of John’s during his tenure at Warsaw Conservatory and John’s latest CD For Tomasz Sikorski (BOLT RECORDS BR 1014 / BOCIAN RECORDS BC JT) consists of three interpretations of his works and adds on an improvisatory tribute to this criminally undervalued figure, who, sadly, only merits a small bundle of entries on internet sites.

A series of well measured repetitive figures form the backbone of the opening “Autograph” and the slightly similar (and deceptively titled) “Rondo”. Haunted drawing room flourishes clash with the occasional heavier right hand punctuation, whilst the latter piece tends to occupy the higher end of the keyboard. Its jittery movements promise and deliver a less linear audio experience, made even more so at times, by dramatic usage of the pregnant pause option. “Zertstreutes Hinausschauen” reveals itself to be the most forceful and brooding of the trio, where knitted brows and basilisk glares are de rigeur in, no doubt, a listening or playing capacity. “Improvisation for Tomasz Sikorski” comes under heavy Cageian manners with the aid of a slew of unspecified foreign bodies placed in the piano’s underbelly. This added vocabulary squeezes out (in no particular order), some ersatz far eastern harmonics, a recurring spectral bass gongtone and the tiny mechanical clack of victorian automata. Funnily enough, John’s solo debut LP on Decca from 1975 was a certain Mr Cage’s Prepared Piano. So…deference from a master to a grandmaster’s methods lasts a long, long time.

A joint release between Bocian Records and Bolt Records. Crisply recorded at Warsaw Museum of Sculpture, where every last micro-second of decaying note is captured for posterity.

From solo piano to one man and his six-string…

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After 2011’s Neil Young v Rhys Chatham jam-heavy Paranoid Cat CD (Family Vineyard), Chris Forsyth, ex of freeform splatterjazz combo Peeesseye returns to the fray with Kenzo Deluxe (NORTHERN SPY 025). A solo electric guitar showcase (sans overdubs) that trains its telescope towards the realms of kozmik Americana, where the Fahey Spiral and Basho Centauri can still be glimpsed.

It’s a collection of conflicting moods, where the track sequencing does tend to run towards the occasional zig-zagging ride. “The First 10 Minutes Of Cocksucker Blues” is a heavy lidded abstract blooze in long form, where a chugging undertow is topped off with a strange form of lyrical picking that sounds, for all the world, as if it were recorded underwater. If Harvey Mandel (Canned Heat/solo) ever ventured into repetitive musics – then it just might resemble this. The gently meandering “Downs & Ups” is, to these ears, the most successful track, in which images of Felt’s great lost guitar wizard Maurice Deebank emerge, caught boning up on Takoma sheet music. However, themes of mellow fruitfulness evaporate as if they were but strange dreams. “Boston St. Lullaby No. 2″ appears to hark back to Chris’s more noisome past endeavours. This fug-laden reverb ‘n’ drone exercise inches towards Ben Chasny territory and possibly even Bardo Pond solo ventures and, in no way, can be viewed as a complimentary ticket to the Land of Nod. Acting as a brief and delicately played buffer, “East Kensington Run Down” gives way to “Boston St. Lullaby no 1″, a charming slice of back porch introspection that luxuriates on a bed of the finest woven reverb. Like I said, sequencing that moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

A release from Northern Spy Records (39 Hawthorne St., Brooklyn, NY11225, U.S.A.) that has also been issued in vinyl form, now long gone no doubt…

The Fabulous Shirley Bassey

Seesaw of Dreams


Great package from Darren Wyngarde aka Filthy Turd…no-nonsense English noisemaker of prolific proportions…active and social he be, engaging with noise in a physical and sweaty manner, aided by fellow oddballs, not footling around with computers or antiseptic conceptual notions…arrived here in May 2012…two cassette tapes, wrapped up in a magazine spread (and I use the word advisedly), with some underfloor felt / debris / muck thrown in, hopefully lifted from under one of his fetid carpets…neither tape is titled that I can see, although one of them might be called URDWYG THE GOLDERR – CASSETTE PSYCHIC VOLUME 1 …this one is made from a recycled musicassette, wherein El Filtho has recorded his dire diablry over top of pre-recorded elements but not allowed any remnants of original to survive…such cassettes are probably impossible to give away even in charity shops now, who have turned their backs on VHS tapes long ago…the deal with this release is that the item is not for sale or manufactured in conventional sense, and to hear it you must send a tape in your possession to the warlock himself, whereupon he will refashion and refit it with his grim horrors, hand-making all covers, each one unique…at same time guaranteeing to wreck your equipment…a potent spell then…seems he has already enlisted over 50 subscribers to the scheme, each man willingly signing up for a walk to the gallows tree…so far a pretty convincing raid from under the floorboards, subterranean spirits and demons surfacing to take what is rightfully theirs among the sweepings, the leavings, the dust, the neglected cobwebs of England’s collective murky psyche…obvious clue to remark on here is the sex-magic undercurrent, as bejudged by the magazine pages ye see, but also perhaps to some extent by the choice of musicassettes that have been assaulted by the hands of Senor Turdoo…Shirley Bassey, Charlotte Church, Nana Moskouri are among the celebrity victims of this demented stalker in sound…some might read that enterprise as a nasty form of “aural rape”, but I think it’s more like a demonic possession, an inhabiting of female bodies…not to say that is any more wholesome…also a concerted effort to erase and wipe out all forms of bourgeois good taste by any means possible, dubbing over tapes of Mum and Dad music and effacing printed information from record company by means of blue magic marker…two enemies disposed of in this way…the second tape is also hard to identify like any good criminal renegade walking abroad should be, but the word UR is ensculped in middle of the case…would be possible to read title as 90-O-UR-O-A if wrecked on strong drink at time of scoping…it contains subtle but unsettling looping and murmuring effects, quickly degenerating into a pile of echoed and uncertain wail-noise that can freeze the hearts of strong men, many of them blanching or fainting at the prospect…continuous noise with scads of ghastloid vocal elements, which may morph at any time into a devilish prayer or chant, and certainly no good is boded if screams on tape are evidence of anything…now let us turn to the Cassette Psychic item for ear-trial….of course I was not a subscriber to the plan so Darren the Monstro sent me the Shirley Bassey palimpsest on his own account…wrapped in silver foil…note title inside scrawled in blue biro and torn from notebook of a muttering loon…it is disturbing to hear…again surprisingly at first a departure from the intense and caustic noise wall which previous outings from the Northern climes may have prepared us for…instead a low-key and muffled sound disguises some potent and radical tape experiments with voice, echo device, electronic oozings…still a foul and unpleasant experience, reaching into this bucket of earwigs, worms, and other garden effluvia…what will my hand touch next?…edited and hashed up for maximum disorienting factor, one illogical splice after another, baffling documents and sleep-talk wrenched from the mind of a four A.M. insomniac…at times almost comic, but instantly warping into grotesque and amateurish anti-art, with distorted microphone effects and vari-speeded effects, trivial fragments of sound that even the most hard-bitten cassette band of 1982 would have distanced puny selves from…is this making sense? It is unmaking sense…these scrawls and doodles on magnetic tape could be secret messages intended for your ears only, if you can realign your inner radio antennae onto the wavelength. By writing “Stuff For You” to me and drawing red witch on verso, Darrenacious has succeeded once again in casting the runes on me, sealing my doom.

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The Rector lived in Hampshire


Very eccentric and unusual record here by Socrates That Practiçes Music, one which we’ve had leaning its way in the vinyl pile since at least September 2011, although the limited vinyl actually came out in May 2011. Further Conclusions Against An Italian Version (Bat) (JUNIOR ASPIRIN RECORDS ASP 021) is an impressive art-rock statement by a London group who are completely new to me, containing an uncategorisable mix of content – songs, cut-ups, and instrumentals, with a very English awkwardness and generally puzzling air. The lyrics are fragmented and perplexing, riddles providing glimpses into sometimes rather dismal vistas and inexplicable events, and highlighting the underlying conundrum by simply repeating its hermetic phrases over and over. Lyrically this is easily on a par with Graham Lambkin’s profoundly disturbing texts for The Shadow Ring. Where the tone of these texts isn’t apocalyptic or nightmarish, it’s eccentric to a very extreme degree – ‘The Measures’, which intones sets of statistics for the dimensions of the human body, is so absurd it’s almost funny, but also a tad unsettling. Other songs, like ‘Tommy Dawsey’, impart tremendous significance to trivial and futile details, blurring the edges between madness and insanity. ‘Mrs Hammersmith’ offers an unsympathetic portrait of civil service bureaucracy, and could be read as a political critique or diatribe about society’s ills, but it too soon grows into something very strange. The singer delivers all this in a crisp English accent, emphasising syllables and consonants in mannered fashion, further deepening the strangeness of it all. He has a peculiarly English streak in the tradition of some of the best post-punk vocalists – Edward Ka-Spel of Legendary Pink Dots, Charles Hayward’s singing for This Heat, or that of Colin Newman for Wire. Not a bad set of precedents to pin to your bedroom wall, although Socrates is certainly upping the ante in many areas, partly due to the great conviction and powerful imagination in the execution.

Musically, we’ve got a fairly skewed approach to rock music and electropop songs, where the aim is not to uplift but generally to darken the mood where possible. There is the skeletal “angular” riffing on the guitars that also characterises the post-punk mode. There are short but incredibly beautiful piano fugues; and there are eerie backing vocals like a choir beaming in from a distant radio set. The production technique on the record knows how to use this “distancing” effect sparingly, but to great effect; it all contributes to the abiding sensations of unreality, of dream-like content. Then there’s the use of cut-up and mangled tapes, also used with economy. The LP opens with a twisted tape melange that welcomes the listener to the Italian Version world, letting us know we’re entering a realm of great artifice. ‘I am Alive Order’ is one of the more grotesque tape experiments, a paranoid vision not unlike Mark Stewart and Maffia, where the radically time-shifted and layered voices evoke a horrifying military disaster. Side one ends with an unexpected fragment from a lecture on English monastic history that could be taken from a 1970s schools and colleges programme. And on ‘Ruthless Rake’, the voice element is dropped in to accompany the music, and seems a slightly more benign episode involving a very English woman creating a tape-recorder letter to a friend; its vision of pastoral calm in a garden is quite at odds with the sinister tenor of the music. It’s all part of the deliberately mixed messages sent out by this odd record, with its well-crafted mix of the ugly (terror, madness, absurdity) with the beautiful.

Socrates That Practiçes Music is mostly the work of Andy Cooke, who wrote all the songs, plays keyboards and guitars, does the singing, and recorded and mixed the record with the help of Nathaniel Mellors. Alex Ellerington is the drummer in the group, there’s the guest vocalist Alexander Friske-Harrison on one tracks, and the cellist Dan Fox adds some delicious moments of resonant string work to ‘The Measures’. I’m very grateful to independent label Junior Aspirin Records for releasing this curio and sending a copy, and it seems quite at home with the work of label-mate The Rebel, whose astonishing LPs of disturbing songcraft we noted in TSP #20. It remains to mention the macabre collage cover, with a large bat suspended across a stone circle vista with a yellow ground. With its supernatural undercurrents, it vividly suggests haunted English countrysides and has led other writers to pick up on the M.R. James vibe of the record. So, if you’re a fan of ‘Spectre Vs Rector’, you need a copy of this!

Jazz is the new WWF


Arrived 20 December 2011, another envelope from the Helsinki jazz label TUM that impressed us quite favourably in January. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto are two big names in the Finland jazz world and have been playing together since 1964. Conversations (TUM CD 024-2) is a two-disc set of saxophone and piano improvisations from this venerable duo, including some original compositions by the pianist Sarmanto and a couple of Schwartz-Dietz standards that ought to be familiar to anyone who ever heard a jazz record made after 1940. It’s flawless playing throughout, even if not especially innovative, and Aaltonen comes across like a slightly mellower version of Trane when he was in an introverted, meditative frame of mind. Sarmanto is a melodic genius, and he’s quietly working overtime to add no end of melodic flourishes and glissandoes on his keyboard with modest grace and expertise. You can tell he’s an arranger; he seems to be sketching out scores for a full orchestra as he plays the keys. The cover painting is suitably autumnal with colours that match the wistful and burnished mood of much of the music, and was executed by the Finnish abstract painter Juhana Blomstedt.

From 16 December last year, we received Not Far From Here (PFMENTUM CD065), a set of impressive jazz-based improvisations by the Los Angeles musician Dick Wood, who composed and led the sessions as well as playing the flute and alto. He’s built a strong small combo with the cornet player Dan Clucas, the trombonist Dan Ostermann who sometimes adds a “space mute” to his trombone, the drummer Marty Mansour, bassist Hal Onserud who joined by way of Cecil Taylor, tenorman Chuck Manning, plus live electronics from Mark Trayle. Together, these energised and expert players harness mucho free jazz energy while also managing to negotiate all the wild twists and turns of Wood’s freaky, pretzel-shaped compositions; some startling dynamics on offer throughout all six tracks, showcasing instruments in highly imaginative and unconventional ways, all of which makes for a very satisfying listen. More often than not with this set I bethought me of a 21st-century update on Art Ensemble of Chicago with the added hookery-pamookery of digital whoops from the Supercollider electronics section, but it seems Wood has a very large range of musical ambitions in mind which feed into his elaborate mind-circuits, not all of them from the jazz world either. Blues, avant-garde composition, and Zen philosophy are all strong forces which Wood intends to marshall in his private army. In fine, a glorious listening experience of jazzy brass toots, percussion, bowed and scraped bass sounds, and generally mutated loopiness managed with the sparing use of electronic treatments and breathy growling effects. I like the lively stop-start angularity of ‘Cook The Books’, but if in need of something more “out there” you might enjoy the electronics-heavy diablery of ‘No Known Knowns’, which samples the voice of US defense secretary Rumsfeld and combines it with the octokoto instrument (a hand-made modified zither) of Dan Clucas. In the semi-shady mystery world of this cut, the rhythm section manage to sound positively cynical and blasé at the same time with their ramshackle percussion and resigned bass sighs. The record also boasts an exciting, bright sound, for which we must give due credit to Scott Fraser, the technician who recorded it at Architecture in LA in just two separate sessions. The mangos are in!

The English trio of power-jazz players Hession Wilkinson and Fell opened many ears to what the English could really do with the free jazz mode, particularly in 1992 when Foom! Foom! was first released and even veteran jazz writer Byron Coley waxed lyrical at that time about the raw blastage coming from Alan Wilkinson’s bell. Now here they are again on 2010 date released as Two Falls & A Submission (BO’WEAVIL RECORDINGS WEAVIL44CD), and the passage of 18 years has done absolutely nothing to dim the fire nor crack the binding of these three, as the opening cut ‘First Fall’ bears witness – over 32 minutes of uninterrupted sustained jazz-improv energy which is as welcome as a roaring bonfire in the middle of a cold and damp May Day field. The album and track titles are derived from the metaphor devised by drummer Paul Hession, who sometimes likens the act of improvising to a wrestling match. By his reckoning, the trio of Hession Wilkinson and Fell have a “playful, grappling style”, and it’s this very physicality which asserts its unignorable presence on almost every minute of this disk…you can almost feel the three players interlocking their very bodies, if that isn’t too indelicate an image. There’s something about Hession’s drum rolls in particular that seem to suggest acrobatic back-flips and rope-bounces aplenty as another body flattens against the canvas, but mostly it’s the way the rhythm section work together that creates an endless flow of forward-moving complex musical information, an express train packed with a delegation of University professors and toting 5,000 doctoral theses piled in the caboose. Meanwhile Wilkinson, switching between alto and baritone with the gusto of an Italian gourmet visiting the sweet trolley, exhibits a huge range of techniques – crazy overblowing shrieks, sad and mysterious basso-burbling, sonorous growls and grunts, and (mostly) endless streams of free-thinking diatribes flowing through his supple fingers at a speedy rate of knots. It’s pure streams of abstracted emotional wallop, set to a syncopated beat that makes every sinew in your body pop. In short, the album is a hip throw…from the hippest of the hip!

The Wounded Kings: In the Chapel of the Black Hand


The Wounded Kings, In the Chapel of the Black Hand, Sweden, I Hate Records, IHRCD096 (2011)

Since I reviewed this band’s second album The Shadow over Atlantis, The Wounded Kings have changed a great deal and not necessarily for the better. They lost a member and then expanded to a 5-piece proper band with a female vocalist. The music has changed to a more traditional English doom metal style with witch-like vocals and apparent influences from Italian horror films of the 1960s. If you weren’t aware of what TWK had been up to before hearing this album, perhaps you should remain in ignorant bliss: In the Chapel of the Black Hand is not a bad recording, it’s quite powerful but compared to The Shadow …, it’s just not distinctive or original. I’ve heard there is a trend for doom metal bands to feature female vocalists with witchy voices and if that is so, I wish TWK hadn’t joined that particular bandwagon; they have become just another drop in a big pond of clone bands. As if to reassure me, In the Chapel … even reverts a little to that earlier album’s style in one of its middle tracks but I’m not so easily comforted.

The opening track “The Cult of Souls” starts strongly with powerhouse riffs and ominous organ but the lyrics aren’t anything out of the ordinary and the song keeps to an even keel. I always think when you sing something dedicated to Dionysus, you should include reference to the mad maenads who followed him and reputedly seized young men in a frenzy, rending them apart limb by limb … ooh-ah! But TWK don’t go in for frenzy unfortunately … “Rites of Oblivion” is another slow, doomy juggernaut with slashing chords and more of Sharie Neyland’s wobbly singing: the lady has a narrow range but her tone is good and seems spot-on, and she does a great trade in long howls. Cold, sinister organ, a spiky oily-sounding lead guitar and sluggish riffs conjure a thick, evil black atmosphere with a slight psychedelic feel.

The brief instrumental interlude “Return of the Sorcerer” is a throwback to older TWK work with slightly bleached guitar chords and enthusiastic lead guitar work. It’s a good break from the conventional doomy music to be enjoyed while it lasts. Final track “In the Chapel of the Black Hand” announces itself triumphantly with some impressive riffing but it ends up sidling back into conventional doom metal territory with wobbly, woffling lead guitar and Neyland’s half-spoken / half-sung vocals warbling about something lurking in the darkness and bumping up against her … yes, it turns out to be evil …

It’s likeable but across the Atlantic Ocean, the US doom metal band Blizaro has done far superior work in this sub-category of trad doom with a great sense of humour and affection and that’s just a one-man band. To The Wounded Kings, I say: surely you can do much better?

Contact: I Hate Records, info@ihate.se, www.ihate.se

Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black


As part of my musings today I consider a photograph I took on Friday of a Lego Giraffe in Berlin. All of us like to think we’re seeing something special on our travels overseas, but with the internet and digital cameras and everyone immersed in a rising tide of instantly-available images, I find some of that magic is wearing a bit thin. I need only click on to Flickr.com to discover multiple images of the Lego Giraffe from multiple contributors, each of them probably equally unexceptional, with mine being the most banal of them all. Before digital cameras, I suppose it was only the poor bloke who worked in the one-hour photo place that experienced this awful disenchantment brought about by a plenitude of interchangeable views of the seven wonders of the world. By sheer volume and repetition of images, the specialness and unattainability of experience is being worn away, its erosion measurable in bits and bytes.

An artist ought to give us a special view of the world. Today for me it’s possible to imagine a surreal vista of green sunlit fields of Cambridge in June, overlaid with a view of the Savannahs of Africa, a 1930s photograph of mud flats in Mississippi and the floodplains of Thailand as presented by National Geographic magazine. It’s a kaleidoscopic vision, but it’s coherent – all the geographical features match up. Hard by is my guide C Joynes in his sun helmet, his acoustic guitar and banjo under one arm, and a clutch of albums under the other – English folk from the Topic label, 1960s free jazz on Atlantic, old 78s by Skip James and Charley Patton, his mind constantly making cross-references between these and with the Folkways LPs of Indonesian and Asian music provided by friend Simon Loynes, who is within hailing distance. Images swim back and forth, birds fly backwards reversing time with their wings, mighty trees sink into the ground, and spectres rise from unknown locales. All this is accomplished in short, compressed musical utterances performed with the grace and lightness of touch of a true master.

Hope some of this conveys how delighted I am with the new album from C Joynes, Congo (BO’ WEAVIL RECORDINGS WEAVIL46 CD) which arrived here in October 2011, the follow-up to Revenants, Prodigies And The Restless Dead released in 2009 by this same label in a similar “house style” package. C Joynes continues to make gloriously beautiful instrumental music and, just like two years ago, I am barely able to write anything useful about it. In creating his crystal-clear blends of stirring melodies inspired by the folk musics of the world, Joynes plays mostly acoustic guitar and possibly the banjo, maybe some slide guitar on one track; he’s joined by his team of collaborators including Patrick Farmer, Dominic Lash, Simon Loynes and Richard Partidge, here credited as The Marsh Arabs and adding delicious touches of percussion, bass and stringed instruments. The violin work of Partridge is especially welcome, adding its scrapy and mournful drone sparingly at key moments, causing hairs to rise on the back of the spine. Further exotic voicings are added by Loynes (a.k.a. The Doozer) with his Indian Tarang, and his Phin (lute-ish) and Khaen (harmonica-ish) from Thailand. These additions are subtle, understated, not a jarring mix or a mannered contrivance; all natural, all good.

Bruce Russell, famed New Zealand guitarist and musical connoisseur, contributes the sleeve notes to this one and he joins the long list of writers, myself included, who are amazed and astounded to the point of being flummoxed at Joynes’ fluency with a wide range of international musics from the past and presents configurations of our wonderful globe. On this album Russell can hear exciting confluences of Indian, African, English folk and American bluegrass music, delivered by Joynes with his characteristic playing style – assured, measured, accurate as a diamond, and with no attempt at flashiness. Joynes is not attempting to bewilder the listener with an indigestible stew that mixes up genres, styles and indigenous musics simply for novelty’s sake. It’s not incumbent on us to decode all the resonances and layers of meaning, nor to attempt to spot the joins (pun intended) where the early country blues tune cross-bred with Martin Carthy leaves off and the Java gamelan music informed by Congolese drumming begins, and I’m not a musicologist in any case. Joynes has done all that work for us, and with his intelligence, discrimination, intuition and sheer raw talent, is carefully and quietly crafting a fully-articulated musical vocabulary that is quite unique and his alone. No purist he, one who insists on preserving ethnic music through slow fossilisation. Nor does he need to extemporise on his guitar at length with 20-minute guitar-orchestra symphonies; he packs dense volumes of information into tunes some two or three minutes in length. We can be assured, as we listen, that there is an honesty and authenticity to every note he plays, and all we need do is open our ears and let the beauty come streaming in.

I would add that on this occasion, what comes over very strongly is a sense of warmth and compassion as well, and it’s embedded in the very musical forms they play but also in the collaborative playing which is much more to the fore than previous releases that have tended to showcase Joynes solo. In his trusted team of cohorts and friends, Joynes is constantly arriving at a shared view of the mysterious other-worlds in past and present incarnations, and they are able to pass this on to us, giving us magical glimpses of ‘Joseph in the Sea of Corn’ or the terrifying ‘Ghosts of the Field’. As with previous releases, the musical tapestry is enhanced by a rich array of visual and written clues, scattered about the artwork of the release, and I will leave you to discover and interpret these in your own time, but the patterns continue to emerge – nature, fields, birds; musicological studies, tracing of sources, unlikely and unexpected connections; travel, geography, transport; personal and poetic names for things, such as ‘The Beast of Elham’ which is just too wonderful a name to simply be another musical instrument. Through these combined and oblique magical forces, Joynes welcomes you back into the world of the living and invites you to open your eyes and share the joy of simplicity.

Also available as a limited vinyl LP with a silkscreened cover.

1st March 2012 update: C Joynes writes to point us here and tell us “If Congo had an annotated bibliography, it’d look like these two mixtapes.”

The Voice of Unreason


Univrs. (RASTER NOTON R-N 133) by Alva Noto is a record which I would like to think celebrates the joys of typesetting – Univers is everyone’s favourite font – but in fact it’s a follow-on from a previous release Unitxt, and has something do with the properties of a universal language. Given Carsten Nicolai’s very digital predilections, you can bet his conception of language and universality has little to do with quaint notions such as Esperanto, The United Nations or international détente (how very 20th century, my dear), and instead features the microchip and the modem as the mandatory basis for all communications henceforth. As is customary, Alva Noto does a son et lumière version of this record which also involves computers, digital images being manipulated by audio signals and projected on a screen. One digital language mutating another, as it were; I seem to recall this particular trope was meat and drink to Farmers Manual and Hecker over ten years ago, but in some cases artists who followed this path of interchangeable digital information ended up with endless streams of gibberish on their records. Not so our Alva Noto, whose impeccable logic always produces clean and rigourous music, like a diagram for club music, expressed as unadorned thumps, clicks and burrs.

I have a lot of time for Hate-Male, the English creator of very extreme and very loud noise music, even when faced with the rather unsubtle and near-crass imagery that he sometimes uses. The cover for Total Fucking Hate (DOGBARKSSOME DISCS DBSD18), with its lurid pulp paperback gouache image of a fearsome moll in a red dress with an armful of murderous hardware and an expression you could use to sear a ribeye steak, is certainly quite – erm – memorable. The music is pretty hard to recover from, too. On these 11 tracks, one experiences the familiar sensations of tumult and catastrophe normally reserved for earthquakes and collapsing buildings, but in between the now-commonplace harsh noise bursts Lawrence Conquest is making strong use of the human voice, sometimes sampled from records or used as the voice of a mechanical man barking out unintelligible commands, such as on the very effective and nightmarish ‘Live In Vegas – White Night #1′. Guest player Jennifer Wallis adds vocals to the album, maybe here and on ‘Live In Vegas – White Night #2′, but if so her tones have been subjected to some ultra-insane processing method that renders her quite inhuman. Powerful stuff. We also have the lengthy rhythm and echo attacks, such as ‘Under the tent of their rough black wings’ and ‘Taste The Poison’, which are both very heavy going – the noise-listener’s equivalent to a 40-mile forced march in the desert with full military kit. Throughout, Hate-Male is at all times wild and full-on, but also very thoughtful in executing his absurd and crazy dynamics; he uses the digital delay like a paintbox, and he can manipulate tones to ensure that certain abstracted curls and shrieks are foregrounded, so they really stand out sharply from the background fuzz. Among noise-men, many of whom are content to push their pedals to the floor and keep them there, this is a rare talent.

Get Lost (EDITIONS MEGO 123) is the title of a Mark McGuire collection showcasing the solo guitar and synth work of this young American player, fairly well-known by now as a member of Emeralds, the electronic drone-ambient trio from Cleveland. Not especially experimental, this one; a highly melodic release produced by carefully crafted overdubs of stringed and keyboard instruments. The Mike Oldfield of the present time, perhaps, although McGuire doesn’t have quite the same gift for a memorable tune.

On same label as McGuire but a guitarist of quite another stamp is Bill Orcutt, the Harry Pussy guitarist whose return to the performing and recording arena is a well-told tale by now. In February we raved about his A New Way To Pay Old Debts record for this label which compiled some of his earlier private press records, and now here’s How The Thing Sings (EDITIONS MEGO 128), seven new home recordings made in San Francisco. Titles like ‘Heaven is Close to me Now’ and ‘No True Vine’ may put you in mind of Rev Gary Davis, but the comparisons with early pre-war blues have been done to death by now, and in any case they won’t stand when faced with this onslaught of biting, aggressive free guitar improvisation. Orcutt’s technique is to play like a condemned man, packing as many notes as possible into each musical moment, using lots of shorthand and abbreviations, compressing the vital information into taut and urgent phrases before they wheel him away to fry in the hotseat. Plenty of hammering on, string-pulling, unexpected flurries of strumming which stop equally unexpectedly; it’s almost an alarming listen. Lovers of Derek Bailey’s music will find much to admire in these fragmented, tuneless clusters, but even Bailey stopped short of putting so much raw emotion and sheer volumes of angst into the steel strings as Orcutt does. And if you like to share another man’s pain, you’ll love his vocalising too – unrestrained yawping with no attempt to form recognisable words, adding to the sense of near-demonic possession. Essential record, 34 minutes of electrifying acoustic playing that instantly forms a cage of barbed razor-wire around your head.

On Deus Ignotus (EPIPHANY 06), English folk singer Andrew King moves away from his recent sea-faring themes in song and makes a return to what he knows best, that is highly personal interpretations of gloomy old ballads and songs sung against industrial-music style backdrops with tape loops, drums and drones. I can’t resist any record which is front-loaded with two all-time great ballads, ‘The Three Ravens’, a song about carrion birds who find a knight’s dead body in the field, and ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’, a supernatural winter-time song where a mother’s drowned sons come to visit her for one night. For the latter, King’s sepulchral and quavering tones are aptly suited to the grisly and unsettling content, and he transforms that ravens ballad into a sort of inverted battle-anthem with martial drums and declamatory chanting. Other traditional ballad material in like vein on the record includes ‘Edward’, ‘Sir Hugh’ and ‘Lord Lovell’, but the material that represents something of a departure from the norm is that inspired by texts from the gospel and church singing; this includes ‘In Upper Room’ and ‘Judas’, the former King’s interpretation of a poem-novel from the 1950s by David Jones called The Anathemata. I need to research these properly, as they look fascinating. For all these astonishingly innovative and unusual works, King is joined by the musicians Hunter Barr of Knifeladder, industrial music veteran John Murphy, and Maria Vellanz, who adds some devilish violin work. The entire record is an intoxicating mix of industrial music, traditional folk, religious song and psalmery, and interminable harmonium drones with doomy drumming, and with its mixed content and wide variety of singing styles, it refuses any sort of easy categorisation. As usual, it’s all tied together by King’s concise annotations, citing his sources and inspirations, drawn from music, literature, and history; 24 pages of information, libretto and images, set in tiny 8pt type, for you to digest and enjoy. King’s music is an acquired taste (like the voice of Peter Bellamy), but it’s hard to overlook the depth of his scholarship and the originality of his ideas. I support him totally, and this – which apparently took over nine years to realise – looks to be one of his best works.