Tagged: English

The Three-Day Week

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Recently we noted The Quietened Village from the English micro-label A Year In The Country (AYITC), a compilation which limned allusive portraits of English pastoral idylls. Here is the same label with another not-unrelated compilation called Fractures, which they dub #3 in a “series of explorations” called Audiological Transmission Artifact. Once again there’s a concept at work; the compilers propose that the year 1973 was a pivotal year for the UK, where a “schism in the fabric of things took place”. The manifestations of this change are reflected in the following list: power cuts, the three day week, the release of the film The Wicker Man, the making of the children’s sci-fi TV series The Changes, and other scattered references. I suppose the main disaster for AYITC was the departure of Delia Derbyshire from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. There are also references to faded psychedelia and corrupted ideals, but the level of engagement with 20th century history hasn’t gone much beyond reading a few headlines and rummaging in a very eclectic shopping bag of cultural effluvia, mostly derived from watching the telly.

I’m all in favour of this kind of alternative history, even if the concept feels a little undeveloped in this instance, and whatever substance it has is mostly reflected in the press release rather than in the actual music on offer. At least on The Quietened Village, some of the musicians were making an attempt to reference real English villages in their sounds, titles, and field recordings; on Fractures, the music’s relation to the central concept is less easy to discern, other than a vague feeling of disquiet and paranoia in some cases. There’s a lack of specificity which troubles me a little. However, Fractures works well as an entertaining spin on its own terms. My favourite pieces include ‘The Osmic Projectors / Vapors Of Valtorr’ credited to two separate projects, where the vaguely sinister purr and spangly electronica of Circle gives way to a deliciously haunting melody concocted by Temple. I also enjoyed Time Attendant and their ‘Elastic Reform’, which like most of the stuff here lacks a real tune, but at least uses repetition quite effectively. It goes on for a long time and insists on itself to the point of creating a nice mysterious ambiance.

Semi-supernatural suggestiveness is to be had from Keith Seatman on ‘Seeing The Invisible’; the sounds are interesting, but the construction is weak. It feels like someone is attempting to summon spirits; buried children’s voices emanate from the quasi-supernatural murk. Polypores are attempting something slightly similar on ‘The Perfect Place For An Accident’; eerie voices are mixed together with off-kiltre keyboard murk, and the technique is like an attempt to conceal a murder mystery where voices of the innocent continue to haunt the guilty. Neither of these are genuinely horrifying though, and feel more like the pale ghosts of certain Central Office of Information films. With their extremely fragile narrative elements, these might be tunes we could match up against the hoped-for associations with BBC TV of the 1970s. Slightly more explicit in making such references are Listening Center 1 with ‘Triangular Shift’, a piece which begins with outer-space suggestions of missiles and satellites at play, and then leads into a jaunty Schools & Colleges type-tune.

With all of these Radiophonic Workshop clues floating about, I’m a tad disappointed that none of the creators make much of an effort to emulate their heroes; I mean that I can find no evidence they have studied the techniques or methods of these highly original and inventive creators who worked in such a physical way with tape construction and sound mixing, and instead are content simply to imitate their surface sounds. In some cases, not even doing that very convincingly. But it’s harsh to level this charge at the creators here, as I refer to a name-checking syndrome that’s been afoot in the UK for many years now. Likewise, I don’t quite get the fixation that everyone continues to apply to The Wicker Man, often to the exclusion of any other English horror movie made in the 1970s. It’s a form of tunnel vision to single out this very unusual movie, and often so many of its adherents seem to lack the contextual understanding of film theory or cinematic history that might help us to see it in perspective.

At any rate, those who delight in the pagan elements of The Wicker Man are bound to find interest in the tracks here by Sproatly Smith and The Hare And The Moon with Michael Begg. Sproatly Smith’s ‘In The Land Of Green Ginger’ is trying very hard to be romantic, English, and pagan in a way that would attract the approval of Julian Cope and his acolytes. I do like to combination of traditional folk-song elements with the doodly electronic interventions, but the tune lacks melodic strength and is badly sung. ‘A Fracture In The Forest’ by The Hare And The Moon appeals to me even less, with its solemn recits about about lifting the veil and catching sight of the God Pan. But it plugs into a continuum of dark Industrial folk music that has its supporters, a strand which I suppose has its beginnings with David Tibet, who has appeared on at least one Human Greed record recorded by Begg. To some extent, The Rowan Amber Mill are also perhaps aiming for a folky vibe on their ‘Ratio (Sequence)’, with its vaguely pastoral melody mixed with modern electronica.

The comp ends on a very downbeat note. A Year In The Country offer us ‘A Candle For Christmas’, a very sombre construction which I enjoyed. It seems to exist in parallel with a wholly unrelated musical sub-genre, that of Cold Depressive Black Metal; but for all their pessimism A Year In The Country never succumb to that sense of complete futility we associate with the latter. Their non-specific valedictory hymn is entirely unique to the label aesthetic, and to this compilation. I’m slightly less taken with David Colohan’s ‘Eldfell’, which amounts to a generic atmospheric drone with wailing voices. It ain’t exactly Popol Vuh, but the unassuming tone and mock grandeur is unmistakeably English. Fractures exists in two editions, of which I received the Dawn Edition on 22 April 2016.

  1. Why is their name spelled the American way?

The Road To Red

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Red Square
Rare And Lost 70s Recordings
SPAIN MENTAL EXPERIENCE MENT003 LP (2016)

Here’s another excellent item from Mental Experience, the sub-label of Guerssen who also brought us the two reissues of Circle, the lesser-known 1980s post-Krautrock band. Red Square were an English art-rock free-jazz combo who were first active in the 1970s, and had a serious political edge to boot. The name Red Square refers not to the plaza in Moscow, but to the work of the Constructivists painters (especially El Lissitzky), but I’m sure these Marxists found it was a good way to signal their intentions to promoters and organisers alike. Nothing like booking a commie pinko band to play to the radical young students of the day, who wanted some light relief after a hard day occupying the University faculty with their sit-ins and strikes. They also made a grand old racket, as is evidenced by Rare And Lost 70s Recordings, an album which salvages a studio session from 1978 where they played live to create four blistering cuts, and another three recordings from a gig at Lindisfarne Hall the same year.

It’s fairly clear Red Square had at least one foot planted in the rock music enclave, as the guitarist Ian Staples heaves out a delicious heavily-amped swirl of noise, proving he fears neither loud amplifiers nor feedback effects, and makes few concessions to conventions of free jazz (or rock, for that matter). In fine, by 1978 Staples had already evolved himself into an English Sonny Sharrock, which isn’t bad going if you consider that Monkie Pockie-Boo was only 8 years old at this time, and I sincerely doubt if many people in England had even heard that record. Then you’ve got the drummer Roger Telford, who has a fairly relentless attack…I usually don’t care for drumming that attempts to fill in every available space with unnecessary rattles, bangs and triple-notes, but for some reason this maximalism is just perfect here. Manic, excessive drumming appears to be a big part of the Red Square sound. One might even say it’s the lifeblood. If nothing else, Telford’s bass skins do give the band their “bottom end”.

Then there’s the woodwind player, Jon Seagroatt, also a member of Comus and sometime performer with Current 93, who plays bass clarinet and saxophone and may at times seem to be in danger of being wiped out by the guitar noise, but retaliates with everything he’s got in his lungs, heart and liver. While he too may have picked up some of hell-for-leather sensibilities of the all-out free blowing such as you find on the 1969 BYG records, Seagroatt has also somehow evolved his own English take on the genre. There may be anger and fury bubbling under the surface, but whereas Archie Shepp and Clifford Thornton directed their anger against white racism in America, here it’s channelled into an audible Marxist dialectic, laying out a sustained critical argument against the iniquities of society in 1970s UK. At any rate, that’s my take on the matter. I invite the listener to hear for themselves and see if they agree.

All of Red Square’s music carries this particular directed energy, so the music is not just an exercise in “free blowing” or “extended technique”; they were probably young idealists itching for change, and I would suggest they intended to pass on their restless state of mind to the listener, and thereby activate the brains of the audience towards critique, towards questioning. I have often expressed the same view regarding certain Post Punk bands, most notably This Heat. It’ll come as no surprise when you learn Red Square played with Henry Cow, and were part of a movement called Music For Socialism. On the other hand, while I can imagine Chris Cutler personally welcoming Red Square as fellow Marxists, I’m not sure how far they went with participating in the Rock In Opposition thing. For balance, we should also point out they shared bills with other jazz and jazz-rock combos with no discernible political agenda, such as National Health and Lol Coxhill. There’s also some vague allusion in the press notes here to general conflicts which arose in the band’s lifetime: “their extreme sound and attitude were too much for both audience and record companies”, an evasive remark if ever there was. “Too much”? What happened? Were there audience riots? And could you be more specific about why they didn’t get a record deal?

Even if you’ve no interest in politics, which can be a jolly boring subject, the music will energise and amaze you. At their best Red Square created a kind of fierce tidal wave of sound, which was absolutely untrammelled by any tedious conventions such as rhythm, metre, structure, chord changes, or any of that stuff that gets in the way and restricts movement. Yet they did not simply spew out a hideous, self-indulgent racket, and the internal dynamics of this trio must, I assume, be something that these three men alone were capable of creating together. The press notes blither on about how Red Square were pioneers of things that “have become common practice today”, and doing this before Sonic Youth, Last Exit, and contemporary noise combos like The Thing, as though these “common practices” were fixed values and fixed goals, and “getting there first” was the important thing. I take issue with such lazy thinking. Such thinking also assumes that all these bands and musicians are all trying to do the same thing, which might not be correct. I realise we all need these labels like “noise” and “avant jazz” to help us get our bearings, but we shouldn’t trust them to the extent that we fail to listen to the music itself, and appreciate the real differences between things. Music is a living culture, not a map pointing to things we already know. And while I’m prepared to grant pioneer status to any brave musician in history who took risks and followed their instincts, I don’t think it’s helpful to see musical evolution as some sort of race to the finish line or a competition to invent something “new” before everyone else. But there I am criticising the press release, which is a bad way to write.

Red Square existed from 1974 to 1978; apparently they created two private press cassettes at this time, probably for selling at gigs, and as far as we know no “official” records from this period exist until now. However, they reformed in 2008, and albums were released on FMR Records and Fo Fum from this date, including a document of s gig at the Vortex released in 2010. Very happy to hear these fragments of buried treasure from 1978 and this record is highly recommended. From 18th April 2016.

Everything’s Going Jackanory

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English pastoral moods, themes, and whimsy on The Quietened Village: Dawn Edition (AUDIOLOGICAL TRANSMISSIONS ARTIFACT #2), an 11-track compilation of contemporary artistes from the micro-label A Year In The Country. They present the work in two different editions, a Night edition and a Dawn edition, but the audio content is the same, just the packaging varies (the Night edition arrives in a box). Everything is hand-made, textured papers are favoured, and little chunks of ephemera including a small badge and a stringed tag are attached. I like the care and attention in the packaging, which is described in extensive detail on the label website, but I find the actual imagery is severely impoverished; the cover, which looks like it might have started life as a nice bit of photo-collage work, is printed in such a light grey that it seems to be fading away before our eyes.

This is probably the whole point, however. The project is setting out to produce a “reflection” on lost villages of England. We are invited to muse upon matters of coastal erosion (village has fallen into the sea), villages no longer featured on maps, or cases where populations are evicted and when they come back it’s all changed. As to that last one, the paragraph that describes it is clearly referring to Imber, yet doesn’t name it explicitly, resorting instead to flowery phrases like “great conflicts between nations”. Imber was indeed evacuated during the second World War and never recovered from its careless treatment at the hands of the MOD; another record, oddly enough made by the Norwegian guitar duo kÖök, covered similar ground, and is noted here. They drew very pessimistic conclusions.

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This vagueness (I suppose they would prefer to call it “allusiveness”) on the part of A Year In The Country is evidenced throughout the album. Only two tracks here actually dare to name an abandoned village; there’s ‘The Drowning Of Mardale Green’, referring to a place in the Lake District that was submerged underwater due to a reservoir blunder by Manchester Corporation; and ‘Lost Villages of Holderness’, referring to parts of the East Riding in Yorkshire that were lost to erosion. I discount David Colohan’s reference to the Mitta Mitta, as this is a small town in Australia, and doesn’t seem to fit the overall theme of Englishness. Evidently, the music on The Quietened Village prefers to evoke, rather than to deal with specifics of geography or history; and likes to mix reality with imagination, fictions and myths, as demonstrated by the press release with its reference to The Midwich Cuckoos, and “dystopic tales told and transmitted in times gone by” – a sentence which, while lyrical, would not have earned its author a pass mark in CSE History.

The music itself, mostly instrumental, is pleasant enough. If the musicians share any common ground, I’d say it’s that they are trying to trigger memories and associations in the listener, and doing so mostly by pastiche and quotation. In this, they are not far apart from their nearest rival, the well-established Ghost Box label with its loving recreations of a fictional England refracted through memories of incidental music on BBC television emerging in some undefined period between the Suez crisis and the joining of the European common market. Two cuts which to my ears most closely resemble the Ghost Box “style” (admittedly a very broad church) are ‘Playground Ritual’ by Polypores, and ‘47 Days And Fathoms Deep’ by A Year In The Country. The latter is a pleasant folk-y tune presented with slightly treated sounds, and it fades away sadly into the sound effect of the blowing winds. to illustrate the passing of a lost village. The former has a clunky synth tune acting in quite an agitated manner, with richly evocative sounds; I like its slightly dark undercurrent, the vague creeping noise approaching, which may be taken to stand for encroaching modernity threatening the old ways.

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From here it’s a stone-throw to some good old Radiophonic Workshop quotes; our good friends Howlround have made a career from quoting BBC music in clever and well-informed ways, and their ‘Flying Over a Glassed Wedge’ does not disappoint, reminding us of incidental music for Dr Who episodes that never existed. ‘Day Blink’ by Time Attendant, is likewise of a sci-fi bent, using distortion and unusual synth sounds punctuated by random beats. Time Attendant is a great name, but sadly time-keeping is not in their skill-set. Like much of the work on this compilation, it’s an attractive but poorly-composed piece, lacking form or direction or a satisfactory conclusion. Cosmic Neighbourhood’s ‘Bunk Beds’ is likewise littered with quirky electronic sounds, in a nonsensical confection that ends the comp on a note of whimsical fun.

The Rowan Amber Mill have made more of an effort to compose and arrange music; their ‘Separations’ reminds me of a Dolly Collins arrangement from Love Death and The Lady, lean and spare, and given the context that’s not a bad association to have. 1 The Soulless Party have their ‘Damnatorum’, a pleasing tune rendered in a sort of minimal romantic classical style. Only the synthetic string keyboards let this one down slightly. ‘Damnatorum’ is a strong title too, and let’s not forget the film made of The Midwich Cuckoos was called Village of the Damned. Another track with classical leanings is Richard Moult’s ‘Quopeveil’, where the piano and oboe produce a very tasty and unusual combination, even if the melody is very uncertain and comes out haltingly. It feels a bit precious, strained; as if striving to be mistaken for a British Light Music classic.

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David Colohan’s ‘At the Confluence of the Mitta Mitta & Murray’ relies almost entirely on a “nostalgic” ambient drone to achieve its effects; it’s in the same general area as Sproatly Smith and their ‘Lost Villages of Holderness’, a piece which makes extensive use of sound effects such as ocean waves, seagulls, wind, etc. It feels a bit glib, but the juxtaposition of these recordings with the nostalgic music works well. The second half of the piece shifts dramatically to a “modern” folk song, sung in a charmless style.

For other musicians who have tried to capture the charms of the United Kingdom’s imaginary past, see Hidden Rivers (i.e. Huw Roberts) who idealised the Welsh countryside on Where Moss Grows; Nigel Samways, at a stretch, with his Nuclear Beach and Temple of the Swine; and Jon Brooks, with his 52 for the label Clay Pipe Music. From 6th April 2016.

  1. Somehow I expected a few more explicit references to English folk music. Maybe it’s because the title reminded me of The Imagined Village, which is a hyper-critical book by Georgina Boyes, amounting to a direct attack on the person and work of folk song collector Cecil Sharp. Boyes wanted to disabuse us of any notion we might harbour that folk music is “ancient” or produced by unlearned rustics; she aimed to debunk myths. The phrase “The Imagined Village” was then lifted by Simon Emmerson of the Afro Celt Sound System and applied to his multi-cultural music project. Allez savoir pourquoi.

Cats On Window Sills

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The Original Beekeepers
How The River Runs Dry
UK LINEAR OBSESSIONAL RECORDINGS LOR064 CD (2015)

If I was doorstepped by some earnest musicologist, I’d have said that listening to the London-based Bees showed a quintessentially English songwriting outfit that was possibly riding on the coattails of Martin Newell’s Cleaners from Venus and/or the rather plush garden shed demos found on XTC’s Homegrown c.d. However, it appears that the O.B.s (a.k.a. Tom, Steve and Ash) have been in existence (initially as The Shammy Leathers) since 1984 (!), having amassed nearly five hundred home recordings. So… they were closer to being near contemporaries to Andy Partridge’s combo and the Venusians than was previously thought!

Issued in a decidedly miniscule edition of fifty copies, …River… is a ten track conceptual work where the interrelated numbers tell a story of everyday folk down Suburbiton way. And cracks start to appear fairly early on in this diorama, the title track’s male/femme trade-offs coming to a head with vocalist Denise’s kitchen sink musings, “This life’s not mine” becoming the most telling line of all. Though having zilch to do with Scandinavian black metal, “A Church is Burning” is the punchiest number here and the one imbued with a crazy logic of its own, with an extended and frenetic sitar solo coming straight out of nowhere. “Breaking Down”, like the previous, assimilates certain eastern elements with the brassy blare of “The Hornsey Horns” evincing the woozy, loping gait of Soliman Gamil or indeed those of the Ethiopian school.

Unusual as it is to let the group review its own wares, their claim that …River… is “probably their best and most consistent work since 2002” seems pretty damn on the mark. Painfully obscurist fare admittedly, but this is my kind of pop.

Long Overdue Part 6

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From around 2004 onwards I was enchanted with the music of The Inecto School, a mysterious UK combo who would occasionally send me CDRs of their sporadic output. They weren’t interested in fame and fortune and I never really found out much about them, apart from Stewart with whom I exchanged a few letters. It might be possible to characterise their work as “free improvisation”, but it’s not really – you can tell just by listening these are musicians who play for the sheer fun and liberation of making something new together, in a comparatively innocent fashion, and have no ambitions to expand the envelope or push their egos to the fore at the leading edge of some avant-garde ploughshare. Whatever that means. There’s a simplicity to the music, a directness; they don’t fear playing ordinary 4/4 rhythms, for instance, an area regarded as taboo by some hard-core improvisers, and they are not afraid of creating music that’s enjoyable to listen to.

On 8th September 2011 I was sent a copy of Free Time, a CDR containing 16 more examples of their work “compiled from live sessions”. Confusingly, the track listing is printed with Side A and Side B, as if a vinyl LP pressing were intended. The recordings were made in Leeds between 2003 and 2006, and all we have to go on is the forenames of the five performers, Mike, Andrew, Will, Lee and Stewart. The music is enchanting – all acoustic, involving lots of percussion, strings, horns, and some low-key murmured vocals that are midway between singing and spoken instructions. I suppose what I liked then, as I like now, is the general diffuseness of the music, the lack of a definite form; within a quiet, acoustic nebula of sound, something persists and repeats, creating sporadic and organic patterns, a breathing heartbeat rhythm. It might be that these precious 3 or 4 minute segments we’re hearing are edited down from much longer improvised events, where it took four hours of playing to produce only a few minutes of value; or it might be that The Inecto School can bring themselves to this “sweet spot” with a minimum amount of effort. It is charming music, understated, and not weighed down with a sense of the players’ egos or ambitions. Many thanks to Stewart for sending this.

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Long Overdue Part 4

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From 17 July 2012, a wondrous CD by The Bohman Brothers. Adam and Jonathan Bohman are rightly regarded as saintly ministers and angels of grace in the UK experimental firmament, as a lighthouse in the dark night of spiritual desolation and decay that currently blights our fair land. Their great CD Back On The Streets (PERIPHERAL CONSERVE pH-15) has been issued by the lovely Peter Strickland, who also put up some financing and is credited with playing “walnut fingers”; other friendly collaborators and pundits ushered in from the English game reserve include Colin Fletcher, who recorded the studio cuts, Oliver Fay and Lee Gamble, and the radio station Resonance FM.

Musically, the CD alternates broadly between two modes – spoken word pieces and performance pieces. The performance pieces are the type of non-specific grinding scrapey noise made with non-musical objects, often arranged on a tabletop; some of these are detailed on the CD cover; other long-standing fans will have seen photographs of such a table top, or even seen the Bohmans doing this live. Those objects are probably carefully selected, and it would be good if one day someone interviewed Adam and Jonathan one day about this specific aspect of their selection of any given piece of plastic or metal. But then why should the magicians give away their prized secrets, thus weakening the charms? The real gift is in the five fingers of the artist who manipulates that comb or wineglass, and there’s no sense in making a fetish or votive object out of that table top.

The spoken word pieces comprise random (?) jumbles of words and found texts, often delivered by the two Bohmans mouthing together in a structured rapid-fire exchange, overlapping the words or the pages and paragraphs, giving the ear and the brain too much textual information to decode at once. There’s nothing inherently lyrical about the source material they choose, which is often trivial or utilitarian in nature. But the Bohmans have always been very good with found texts, Adam finding “everyday poetry” all the time when he walks the streets and makes an aural note into one of his cassette diary recordings. I’m sure he could read aloud a phone book and make it exciting. Here I’m very conscious of a clash between utter absurdity and profound significance; the Bohmans do their readings with the utmost seriousness, enunciating carefully, making the work into a real performance. Yet through the juxtaposition of the words, and by taking the paragraphs out of context, what results is strange, puzzling, incomprehensible, hilarious near-gibberish.

This is very striking work, and seems to me a uniquely English take on the “sound poetry” form as practised by Henri Chopin and others of the French school. The Bohmans don’t just make non-verbal sounds such as we hear on the Ur-Sonata; they choose to use specific words, coherent sentences, but want to break down the common sense of language construction through their lumpy, determined, performances. This has the effect of helping to short-circuit common sense, free our minds to the possibility of absurdist thought. It’s like a post-surrealist version of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll.

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Speaking of surreal, how about the cover painting? This was executed by Milan Kovac and depicts the Bohmans as heroic astronauts on a hostile planet surface, defeating alien dragons; Adam has a ray gun, Jonathan has power beams issuing from his gloved fingers. It’s rendered in the style of a 1970s sci-fi paperback cover painting. It seems perhaps an unlikely cover for an avant-garde record, but don’t forget the Bohman sense of humour. The planet in space motif is picked up on the CD disc, and on the inside cover, where the planet is apparently orbited by a bowl of chickpeas.

Long Overdue Part 1

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Welcome return for some music by The Vitamin B12, in a double-cassette set we’ve had here in the racks since 2014. The Vitamin B12 is sometimes just a solo project by Alasdair Willis, but has also been an improvising collective involving any number of people in and around the Brighton UK area. We used to enjoy the solo records enormously back in the day, such as the vinyl-only releases 2LP Gatefold Set from 2000, or the double LP Badges from 2003, and for a time I was amazed we managed to persuade this rather reclusive fellow to contribute some record reviews to the magazine and provide some of his sumptuous drawings as well. Solo Vitamin is always hard to pin down to a genre, but it’s usually a form of very melodic music, full of inventive and eccentric electronic tunes and ditties, informed by everything from Radiophonic Workshop, easy listening, and classical avant-garde composition. The improvising version of The Vitamin B12 didn’t appeal to me half as much, but the manic skittering clattersome noise they made was well represented on a series of 10-inch LPs called Heads, all issued together in 2006. When spun, you had the impression with these players that they just didn’t know when to stop.

Today’s item is not like either of the above “modes”. Winter City Patterns 1-4 is two cassettes with zero artwork or information printed anywhere, and they’re sealed inside a plastic box which you have to open by loosening four screws. Luckily, I have a head start in that department. Listeners without a Philips screwdriver will find themselves at a loss. I was afraid it might turn out to be a memory stick inside the box, containing some 400 unreleased albums. I wouldn’t even have known the title had it not been for the helpful letter from Nick Langley of Third Kind Records, who issued it and sent me a copy. It’s a solo set by Alasdair Willis; “the music…will definitely not be described as impenetrable”, writes Langley.

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Winter City Patterns is all keyboard music, mostly piano (or digital piano) with some other keyboards including a tasty organ preset, with one long piece per side of a tape. It is indeed very accessible music and in places quite beautiful. The earlier electronic music from 2000 onwards was often characterised by its brevity and compactness, but here Willis has opted for the long form to allow his discursive ideas to develop. Perhaps as a result of this, it’s easy enough to find comparisons with the music of Terry Riley or Philip Glass in these repeated arpeggios and restated patterns with their slight variations, but Willis is clearly not aiming for anything as solemn or monumental as an American Minimalist, and is still happy to construct model villages and Lego toytowns in sound. His music here may mesmerise and enchant, but he doesn’t promise mystical Sufi fulfilment or Eastern knowledge at the end of it, maybe rather a trip to the toyshop and a bag of boiled sweets. All of the pieces are pretty much in a major key setting, contributing to the sense of uplift and well-being; and the music flows as naturally as a mountain spring.

Besides the American minimalism parallels, there’s something of more substance and complexity going on with sides three and four (at any rate, the third and fourth sides of these unmarked tapes which I spun) with moves and structures which I would like to classify as more European, but I lack the musical knowledge to affirm this claim. One might hear traces of Satie in these inventions and caprices, including phrases which sound as though they ought to be quotes from well-known classical works, woven seamlessly into the flow of the music. For one thing I had no idea Willis was so fluent and capable behind the piano, but with such a self-effacing personality it’s perhaps in keeping that he remains modest about these achievements.

If one could find fault with Winter City Patterns, it would be with the small problem that Willis solo, like the Vitamin B12 collectives, doesn’t know when to stop. The duration here is important to the meaning and realisation of each piece, but they also seem to go on for far too long, without really progressing much in the process. There’s also this slightly cloying taste to the work, to the point where the major key and user-friendly melodies start to become irritating. It’s almost like a very contemporary form of cocktail lounge music. These observations though should not detract from your listening pleasure as you allow these lengthy and pleasing extemporisations to wash over you like a warm bubble bath. From 1st December 2014.

Hello To The Day

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Following on from 2014’s The Orchard, English combo Hamilton Yarns continue their preoccupation with oblique story-telling on their new release, which is two short-ish releases at 25 mins apiece, yoked together in a hand-screenprinted gatefold card cover. 2 Coins In A Fountain / The Eye Of The Storm (HARKIT HARK!023) is intended as an episodic journey, each song representing glimpsed highlights of pastoral beauty, strangeness and charm along the trail. To this end, the music is enhanced with field recordings and sound effects reminiscent of the English countryside. On 2 Coins, many of the songs are typically ramshackle and low-key undemonstrative pop music, almost the polar opposite of an R’n’B diva giving it hell for leather through a pair of cracked lungs; the voices of Iain Paxon, Alistair Strachan, Daisey Wakefield and Josephine Dimbleby sound more like they’re welcoming you into their front parlour for a slice of Dundee cake. The closing tracks ‘Drifting I’ and ‘Drifting II’ are the high spots of this first half; combining all their interests in Eno-influenced ambient music, home-made kosmische drone, and friendly Childrens’ TV music from the 1970s in a wholly unselfconcsious manner.

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The artworks for 2 Coins confirm that it’s the “daytime” half of the act, while Eye of the Storm is the nocturne. Here the music is less oriented in the direction of conventional pop songs and tends towards atmospheric mood music, even more washed-out drones, eccentric and highly treated studio effects, and a general tone of introverted contemplation. Field recordings from Lewes, Brighton and Sussex enhance the dreamy sensations. ‘Be The One’ and ‘Across The Sky’ are two high spots here, where the combo exhibit incredible restraint in both composition and performance, and what emerges is a bare-bones construct of pop music, its languid melody and understated chords barely hanging together. In like manner, the artworks are all like deconstructed snapshots from a forgotten children’s book of the 1960s, taken out of context; proposing links between country walks and diagrammatic views of the cosmos. A fully integrated release in terms of its content, packaging, and delivery; recommended. From 12 August 2015.

Oscar Contemplates

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Last heard the talented multi-instrumentalist and singer Nick Pynn in 2011, with his six-track EP talktapes, a delightful showcase for his highly companionable style and admirable performative skills. His 2015 album Waterproof (OSCAR RECORDS OSC002) is not only quite a step forward in terms of production values, but the performances are more assured than ever before. Effortlessly playing everything in sight (multiple stringed instruments and percussion), Pynn’s a one-man band whose escapades could, in the wrong pair of mitts, come off as something of a novelty gimmick, and indeed he seems to have won over the crowds of culture-consumers who flock to the Edinburgh Festival, and celeb comedian Stewart Lee has playfully dubbed him “the octopus of sound”. But I am persuaded that Pynn’s all about the craft – a genuine musician, with something personal of his own to say, and so much nervous energy spilling out of him that the only way he can express it sufficiently is through picking 18 mandolins, banjos, guitars, ukuleles, and violas (not forgetting the bass pedals and foot-operated loops he plays on stage).

Aided here by side-players John Sawicki, Kate Daisy Grant and Paul Guinter, Pynn delivers himself of 14 original songs and instrumentals, neatly evading genre pigeon-holing as he exhibits a healthy interest in acoustic folk, introverted shoegaze, post-punk rock, and ethnic-flavoured rhythms. While he’s still not much of a singer, continuing to mumble into the microphone with shy, downcast eyes, all the assurance comes through in the assembled playback, and his original poetic ideas continue to intrigue. To put it another way, the instrumental playing is bright, confident and upbeat; the singing is lugubrious, slow, and projecting the persona of a shy, gloomy fellow, but one who’s willing to take you into his confidence, and disclose things worth knowing. I see he’s quite the collaborator these days…among the roster of names he’s played alongside, there’s the great Mike Heron, and considering that the early Incredible String Band albums were pretty much multiple-overdub jobs played entirely by Heron and Robin Williamson, I’d imagine Nick Pynn felt he’d found a true progenitor for his own work. From 7th April 2015, and the successful outcome of a Kickstarter project.

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