New solo album by the Nottingham guitar player Nick Jonah Davis. House Of Dragons (THREAD RECORDINGS THR004) contains ten tracks of consummate acoustic guitar craft – melodic, rootsy, folky, performed with confidence and uncanny accuracy. All that I wrote about Split Electric – his fab teamup with C. Joynes from earlier in 2016 – continues to apply, except that this record is pretty much all-acoustic, so less of the spooky noise effects we heard on ‘Sigil Eyes’ this time, apart from the opening seconds of ‘Double Peace’, which uses a scrapey flourish to set the mood on this, one of the darker pieces on a mostly upbeat and sprightly record. Cam Deas, who sent us his amazing Quadtych album in 2011, did the production on House Of Dragons, and friends C. Joynes and Karl Townsend play on the last cut, ‘The Illumination of Nelson Fortune’. This piece has a rather Fahey-esque title and a Ry Cooder feel in the shimmering slide and drone effects, conjuring up a cinematic desert vista in short order. I might add that the press release points out he has kept the company of two other TSP heroes, i.e. folk iconoclast Richard Dawson and radical song interpreter Alasdair Roberts, which earns him automatic wine privileges in my house. He’s also managed to perform alongside Max Ochs at a New York guitar festival, which is a pretty big deal…there aren’t that many records by this Greenwich Village hero of the 1960s, although if you get a copy of that Takoma sampler Contemporary Guitar, you can hear a couple of ragas by him. I have enjoyed House Of Dragons enormously, although with its title and cover artworks, I was hoping for something slightly more sinister, perhaps with added fairytale or supernatural undertones and themes. Instead we have this, with its generally rather cheery and bouncy tunes and melodies. I would like to think Davis has it in him to turn in a downbeat, pessimistic set of Richard Thompson cover versions, all played as instrumentals on the blackest guitar in his collection. From 2nd August 2016.
Matthew Revert, An Insect on the Other Side of the World Climbing up a Table Leg, Caduc CD #CA17 (2016)
A beguiling work composed of spoken word monologues, field recordings, samples, occasional acoustic guitar noodling and off-key singing, “An Insect …” heralds a growing body of experimental music by Melbourne-based absurdist novelist / graphic designer Matthew Revert. This recording nods in the direction of improv, drone, light noise and neo-primitive folk without being captured completely by any of these categories. It’s quite a busy release with hardly any pauses or lapses in the continuous free-form patter of sound and I marvel that Revert is able to keep up the brisk pace without losing a beat. (Of course there would be have been a lot of cutting and pasting but any joins can hardly be heard.) All the sounds appear to be completely natural with very little processing and they are right at the forefront of the mix.
Listeners might feel a little too close to the action for comfort – there’s a phone conversation that they’ll be eavesdropping into, and Revert (I assume that Revert does all the monologues) mumbles under his breath and almost appears to drift into sleep – and possibly much of the intimacy feels too forced. Towards the end of the recording, sounds from the external environment – radio song, a soap opera soundtrack, half of a conversation – intrude into the musical narrative and turn it into something more forbidding and impersonal. It’s as if Revert’s private space which he has deigned to share with us is being invaded and torn apart.
Not too long for the stream-of-consciousness novelty value to turn kitschy and stale, and not too short either, this quirky work has much charm and many surprises. TSP readers need to hear it for themselves as to what meanings or messages (if any) it may have – but I need to warn you, the more you listen to it, the more you’ll wonder what it’s meant to be about. At least the cover art (done by Revert) is easy on the eye and looks as if it means something … or does it when you see the blank face and read the strange messages?
Hello New York (OSR TAPES OSR60) is the “American” album, I suppose, by Maher Shalal Hash Baz, that highly eccentric Japanese band led by Tori Kudo that continues to baffle listeners across the globe. I think they may have caused a flurry of interest in the UK around 2000, when Stephen Pastel started to put out some of their records on his Geographic label, but copies of these never reached us. Matter of fact we don’t seem to have been graced with their music since 2009, when we heard the bizarre double CD C’est La Dernière Chanson which was recorded with the help of some local French players. It comprised over 200 songs, a fact I mention just to remind you of one of the many quirks of the Maher Shalal Hash Baz approach to playing and recording songs.
The tradition of “working with the locals” appears to continue on Hello New York, as he’s joined by some American players including Christina Schneider and Zach Phillips from CE Schneider Topical (Zach is also the owner of OSR Tapes), and clarinet player Arrington de Dionyso who has amazed us in the past with his wild solo records and with the group Old Time Relijun. How did Tori Kudo feel about playing in New York? “One of my dreams has come true,” he states on his modest sleeve note here, worried about whether his voice carried well when he said “hello New York”. Did he say it to an audience? These are live recordings, in case you were wondering, but done in a studio in Brooklyn. Packed crowd of eager fans at Madison Square Garden next time, let’s hope.
I can see why civilians struggle to listen to the music of Maher Shalal Hash Baz; clearly it sounds as though it’s being played “badly”, and when writing about it I always reach for the metaphor of a school band attempting to do easy-listening music. But it’s done this way deliberately, and the odd arrangements are what gives the music its character. Even so this particular record might be a way in for many listeners, as it’s got something of a rock vibe; for one thing, they set out to cover a Velvet Underground song (‘Sweet Jane’, rendered here as ‘Dulce Juana’), and at least half of the tunes resemble VU songs and jams that never existed. This may be because of the large number of guitar players who are credited on the sessions – eight in all, including Kudo. But it’s also endearing and exciting to hear the band attempt even the simplest rock syncopation in their rhythms, only for it to come out extremely clunky, with the percussion, xylophone and clarinets soon revealing their shortcomings when it comes to playing streetwise rock, or even gentle loping Indie-rock rhythms. This may be one of the things Pastel found so appealing in the first place. It certainly grows on you.
Playing ‘Sweet Jane’ is Kudo’s way of greeting New York, by paying homage to that most New Yorkian of rock bands. It’s clear he not only loves the band, but he’s taken every one of their recordings to heart in a way that shames even the most dedicated VU collector-nutcase; his rendition of ‘Sweet Jane’ is not only accurate and complete, but also a radical remake; it reveals unexpected nuances and meanings in the song. The song is echoed, I would claim, by a song which proceeds it on side one, called ‘Haarp’, which is dominated by Schneider and Phillips performing the sort of snappy off-colour repartee which Lou Reed would normally have carried out by himself, playing all the parts in his dramas of seedy low-life.
Kudo’s other way of greeting New York is to have played some John Cage music, apparently. Good move, given Cage’s position as some sort of patriarch of the New York school. I don’t know if this high experimentalism of Kudo shows up on the grooves. We do have some of his characteristically odd compositions, such as ‘Banksy’, scored for woodwind and percussion – less than a minute of deliciously perplexing gentle notes arrayed according to a weird logic. It’s not easy to summarise this elusive music, but one key characteristic is “brevity” – short tunes that end as soon as they begin, leaving many question marks at the end, although the longer workouts such as ‘Miss You My Baby Doll’ and ‘That’s All I Would Get’ tip the balance in the opposite direction, making their one simple point over and over again. Another key characteristic is “everything playing at once”, by which I mean no solos and no single instrument is especially highlighted. Great polyphony. Yet it coheres, and we can hear everyone clearly in a delicious jumble of music. One sense it takes some discipline and talent to be able to keep this many musicians under control without producing a horrible noise. There is an anecdote about Phil Spector and his enormous studio bands…which I’ll save for another time.
This endearing record feels more “chaotic” (in a good way) than the few Maher Shalal Hash Baz recordings I have heard, so perhaps Tori Kudo picked up some of the “energy” of New York that everyone talks about. It’s reflected to some degree in the back cover photos of the sessions, created by Christina Schneider, brilliantly collaging and overlaying her own images. A riot of colour, instruments and stands everywhere; almost like a dream in miniature of the Arkestra. Kramer (of Shimmy Disc fame) did the mastering, and the LP is 53 minutes long! From 19 May 2016.
30th January update: many thanks to Ed Walsh, who points out this cover is a pastiche of a 1973 LP by Silverhead.
Daniel Wyche is a Chicago guitar player and improviser who takes his task very seriously, determined to “explore the relationships between forms of resonance, overtones and noise”. He’s been doing it through extended techniques, guitar preparations, and using an effects console that would probably make even Keiji Haino sick. More recently, Wyche has turned to the methods of multi-channel playback, and something to do with the “spatialisation” of sound, something that works better in some performance places than it does in others. Some of these ambitions may or may not be represented on Our Severed Sleep (EH? AUDIO REPOSITORY EH?86), where he lets rip with the help of Ryan Packard, the drummer from Fonema Consort and Skeletons. Two lengthy improvisations pour forth, over 18 minutes apiece; a full-on noise assault eventually kicks in, some minutes after undetermined noodling about and hesitant stabs. There are some nice unkempt and dirty sounds on here, but for all their thrashing and hammering, the duo can’t seem to generate much actual energy. Their strenuous efforts go round in circles, like a dismal whirlpool, leaving no lasting effect on the listener. Wyche isn’t really playing the guitar enough for my liking; 40% of this album is just loud feedback put through filters and left to drone in an angry manner. Conversely, Packard plays the drums too much, blindly smashing his way through unadventurous riffs. While Our Severed Sleep may appeal to fans of avant-rock noise, it’s also too mannered and over-intellectualised to really make that visceral, gut-level connection one would tend to seek. Grandiose titles like ‘I Give My Language To More Than History’ don’t help matters either, I regret to say. From 25 July 2016.
Eugenio Sanna is a great new discovery to make for me. Evidently he’s an avant-garde improvising guitarist, although you’d never guess from the scant printed information provided on La Porta Stretta (TUTORE BURLATO #04), a C29 cassette containing seven examples of his very extreme instrumental craft. Scrapes, jangles, metallic howls and whines, non-musical and semi-musical sounds combining in a delirious but very brittle melange of playing. I’m particularly keen on the false harmonics he sends up in the air from his precise strums and attacks, much in the manner of a 1970s Derek Bailey. While the natural sounds of an electric guitar are heavily disguised for the most part, he doesn’t do it through the lazy use of pedals, but through his own innovative technique; and he’s advancing the possibilities of the instrument in many ways, rather than trying to actively destroy or subvert one of the linchpins of Western musical culture. I’m delighted by the physical, hands-on, nature of his playing; he seems to be physically wrestling with a problem in real time, and solving it, rather than contemplating insubstantial abstract notions in an airy-fairy manner. I see he’s played with Mike Cooper on record at least twice, which is encouraging, and also with Edoardo Ricci since the 1990s. There’s also an odd record he made with Jealousy Party, whose bizarre antics on another record we noted recently here. Sanna walks a lonely furrow and ploughs a tempestuous wind, but his armour is bright.
One of nine cassettes received 4th July 2016 from Ezio Piermattei.
Regular readers will have noticed a couple of reissues of recent-ish Norman Westberg CDRs which have been coming out from Room 40 in Australia. Here is Westberg with an all-new solo album The All Most Quiet (HG1605), released on the Swiss label Hallow Ground, current home to Andrew Liles and Colin Potter, as well as the unusual experimental dub combo Driftmachine (noted here). The press notes are keen to point out how Norman Westberg can be seen as “the quiet one” in Swans, a band notable for their punishing high volume and uncompromising stance on stage (apparently they are still touring), and The All Most Quiet showcases two examples of Westberg’s ingenious and single-minded approach to the generation of rich but simple guitar drones, enriched with multiple layers and textures, but somehow retaining a calm and focused centre in the middle of a small, controlled storm of sound. The seamless production of the title track is astonishing in its near-perfection, the burnished and blended guitars creating an intense sensation of some implacable benign force, like a mist of gas slowly descending over the listener’s body, and hopefully not producing any unexpected side effects such as in The Incredible Shrinking Man. The second cut ‘Sound 2’ is somewhat more agitated and achieves its desired goals through the use of loops and repetition, the rotating soft wheels of sound making their insistent statements with a strange urgency. Both tracks go for the long duration marathon (19 mins apiece), but don’t just fill up empty space with meaningless blocks of sound; Westerberg gives you a lot of content, and a lot of variation, never short-changing the listener. A thoroughly mesmerising maximal record that saturates the brain like a sponge dipped in red ink. Vinyl and CD editions available. From 25 May 2016.
Fluid To The Influence
AUSTRALIA ROOM40 RM464 LP/CD (2016)
This recent solo release from Chris Abrahams – one third of the ever-prolific Necks trio – is bamboozling in its eclecticism; a seemingly semi-digested bag of oddball juxtapositions in which concrète sound art and sine wave stasis sit aside laconic, ring-tone piano meanderings like ingredients set by for a mystery stew. One might easily see such obfuscation as a playful raspberry directed at devotees of the Necks’ all-assimilating ambient jazz, though the aptly titled opener ‘One Liter Cold Laptop’ clarifies Abraham’s sincere interest in the oblique relations between distinct elements: an aimless churn of electric organ and barbed wire guitar brusquely interrupted at the halfway mark by a length of hair-raising radio screech; itself rejoindered by the nuanced, luxury spa piano lines of ‘Scale Upon The Land’.
A pianist by trade, Abrahams’ playing takes a range of leading roles: in ‘Trumpets Of Bindweed’ an electric organ of some description flickers and swells in a half-lit, metallic dissonance, while waves of pellucid piano dance softly in the more watery setting of ‘Clung, Eloquent’. The sense of ease and direction remain unknown quantities throughout. Just as his main group make a virtue of blending all manners of exotic into room-temperature air freshener, Abrahams is apparently more concerned with tweaking the tensions found at the border level, as per his recent geometry-threatening collaborations with sound artist Alessandro Bosetti. Yes, his purposes are ever puzzling, but they’re worth puzzling over all the same.
Clara de Asís
Uno Todo Tres
FRANCE PIEDNU PN0116 CD (2016)
Clara De Asís is both a new name to me and a refreshing voice in the well-inhabited drone world, to which the Spanish-born / France-based guitar player brings a temperament informed by her interests in electroacoustic composition, collaborative improvisation and something of a psychoanalytic approach to sound construction. Proust’s home country is surely a suitable base of operations: her work often concerns the uncertain relationship between memory and experienced reality; her compositions tool for tapping the hidden potential of sparse sounds. Uno Todo Tres continues to plumb the the prepared guitar’s phenomenological depths, and is annotated by such ontological epithets such as ‘A sound that raises awareness of the profound silence and in extinguishing leads into the depths of this silence’. The piece consists of a tremulous, organ-sounding tone that materialises from and returns to nothing over forty-four minutes. Its meditative properties might help the listener to make sense of Asís’ binary-smashing rumination, but it leaves the listener in a sense of emotional completion with its deep examination of tonal extremes.
Three items from the LF Records label in Bristol landed 6th May 2016.
Norwegian Sindre Bjerga wows crowds everywhere through his manipulation of cassette tapes. We heard him doing it for this label in 2014 with Black Paper Wings, a highly effective combination of warped speaking voices with twisted electronic spew. We also heard him as one half of Star Turbine, on the fabbo record Inner Space / Outer Space for Attenuation Circuit, and on Invisible Paths for Zoharum. Here on For The Automatic People (LF057), we’ve got 28 minutes of him mangling tapes and machines at a live set in Nijmegen. No doubt it offers a sensationally chilling experience, pushing the listener through the other side of a distorting mirror where the once-familiar world is transformed into ugly, threatening shapes. But for most of the time Bjerga is treading water, letting the tapes unspool in suitably ambiguous droney and crackly scapes but not doing much to exert himself as a performer; I prefer the brief moments when he gets his hands stuck right in, and does something to manually retard the rotation of his own capstans, to devastating effect. Even so, this growly beast fully lives up to label claim of “magnetic tape abuse, bleak drone and dungeon crawler electronics”.
When it comes to “hands-on” performances, you could do worse than turning your spotlight on major loon Yol, the English performer whose ugly and slightly confrontational work has crossed our path on two unforgettable CDRs. Is It Acceptable (LF056) contains four instances of his voice-centric noise, and will likely sear its way into your life in just 30 mins with as much assurance as a truckload of spoiled food or garden debris tipped onto your front lawn. Yol spits and vomits out primitive poetry right there on the stage, mauling and mangling his own larynx into hideous forms while doing so; unpleasant imagery abounds in his texts, many of them vivid descriptions of life on a bleak on a housing estate, and it’s like meeting an urbanised Stig of the Dump crossed with a heroin addict clutching a can of Special Brew in his hairy paw. To accompany these caustic, abrasive voice attacks, Yol uses broken debris as percussion – could be chains, metal tins, broken glass…as if using the remains of industrial society to make his point. Can’t help but concur with label assessment: “Yol infests speech and sound with a plague-like bubonic mass that explodes spores into the atmosphere”.
Both the above releases tend to confirm label owner Greg Godwin’s view of contemporary British society as broken and incoherent. The next record is slightly more “musical”, though that’s probably stretching the envelope a bit more than we should. It’s a split album (LF050) between Robin Foster and Henry Collins, with both cuts mysteriously timed at exactly 18:02. Foster turns in ‘Spill Lynch Corrosiveness’, a long and brooding episode of nasty guitar noise, which he executes with a coldness of purpose that borders on malevolence. He makes that feedback hum creep along the studio floor as though it’s a slowly-seeping pool of acid, soon to be lapping around our ankles. There’s also evidence of his skill with pedal manipulation; not a second goes by but a potentially “normal” sounding guitar lick is mutated into a hideous blob of ugliness by means of distortion or delay, pushed to wild extremes. If there’s a coherent statement to be extracted from this lengthy bout of waywardness, you’d be hard pressed to find it; Robin Foster is determined to short-circuit logic and common sense at all times, pushing back and forth between the modes of twangy free-form plucking and pure noise generation.
Henry Collins’ exploits are even more insufferable. His ‘Frostlike, Neighbourly Aversion’ makes it plain, in both title and sound, that he wishes to explore his own personal sensations of alienation. His assault on the guitar, if that is indeed the instrument in question, is violent and crude; for the first seven minutes the listener is repelled rather than engaged, forced aside by an ugly chattering of coarse metal-electric filth. Things progress from that point, into insane explorations of wayward feedback apparently taking place inside an industrial metal cannister, some 30 feet high with no possibility of escape. It’s genuinely alarming to hear; this noise perfectly evokes the maddened frustration and claustrophobia of the mentally ill, clawing helplessly at the walls of their self-made cage. One of the more impressive scabs to have been torn from the gangrenous knee of the LF Records label; for those with a thirst for more Foster and Collins, they also perform as a duo under the name of Tippex.
Here’s another reissue obscurity from Out-Sider Music, the Spanish offshoot of Guerssen, whose other offshoot Mental Experience brought us the reissues of Circles and Red Square. MacArthur (OSR044) was made by an American band in the late 1970s and described here as a “US basement psych-prog monster”. I understand why these reissue labels feel the need to hype everything they put out, but this is such a mediocre example of 1970s American rock that I find this hyperbole hard to swallow. Apart from some quite good flashes of accomplished lead guitar work, this whole album is an undistinguished piece of work, with lame songs, poor vocals, and a heavy-handed rhythm section.
MacArthur are sold to us as a form of progressive rock or psychedelic rock, but for the most part they resemble a third-rate version of Kansas, Boston, or Foghat. A charitable listener might find consonances between album opener ‘Light Up’ and the early work of Focus (it comes within an ace of turning into ‘Sylvia’), and ‘The Black Forest’ is a Flamenco-tinged instrumental that vaguely suggests sword-and-sorcery themes drawn from the well of Led Zeppelin IV. On ‘Prelude No 1 in C Major’, the guitarist indulges his skill for baroque classical guitar, and ‘The Shock Of The New’ is a showcase for ELP-styled pyrotechnics with speedy acoustic piano licks followed by Euro-prog moog solo excess. But MacArthur’s real passion is for playing power ballads, with unexceptional time signatures and unemotive vocals from the lead singer, and this material is what characterises most of the album. It’s quite some way from being “underground” as I would understand it; it seems more plausible that MacArthur had their sights set on finding their way into the AOR charts and FM radio play. Unfortunate timing for them, given that MTV was just about to dawn, resulting in significant changes to the market and audience they were seeking for their music.
The story of it is that MacArthur recorded the album at home in 1979, on a four-track machine. There are other, less credible, stories that say it was recorded in 1973 and released in 1974, but this is probably just wishful thinking. The creative nexus is songwriter Ben MacArthur and instrumentalist-arranger Bill Heffelfinger, who met in Saginaw in Michigan. Heffelfinger seems to be the main creative powerhouse; he arranged the songs and produced the album, the guitar and keyboard solos are all his, and so are what the press notes describe as “mini-moog analog synth attacks”.
The resulting album was a private-press release, comprising 200 copies (or 500; again, there are conflicting stories about this detail). It appeared in a very plain sleeve; the label is at pains to tell us the lengths they have gone to restore the “embossed letters” which appear on the LP version of this release, sparing no expense to represent the band’s original intention. Before this official release, there was a bootleg version circulating with a rather attractive collage cover, retitled The Black Forest, a release which may well have been the source of the wrong dates and other misinformation. Even that bootleg is rare, which persuades me that there are some vinyl collectors who will chase after anything provided it’s obscure enough, regardless of the quality of the music. Guerrsen and Out-Sider have been “reissuing rare and obscure psychedelic, progressive, folk and garage albums from the 60s to early 80s” now since 2010, arguably picking up the torch from other dubious labels who do likewise, such as Akarma, Radioactive Records, and Phoenix.
MacArthur is a very mixed bag and extremely uneven album which I can’t recommend, except as an odd period piece. From 16th April 2016.
Aithein (KARL RECORDS KR023) is a fine record of guitar art-rock excess played by Oren Ambarchi with two Italian musicians joining in, namely Stefano Pilia and Massimo Pupillo. I see we noted guitarist Stefano Pilia in 2005 with his album for Last Visible Dog, Healing Memories… And Other Scattering Times, realised with the help of Valerio Tricoli. “Long-form instrumental…shapeless drones”, was how I recall it, but there was also warmth and sincerity to his work, plus he seems to have improved his technique considerably in 11 years, and his guitar work makes a good complement to Oren’s playing here. Pilio has also made some headway playing and touring with Andrea Belfi and David Grubbs in another art-music trio. Massimo Pupillo is the bass player in Zu, an Italian trio who blended jazz moves with math-rock in some way, and I don’t think we heard them since 2005 either, and the album The Way Of The Animal Powers on Public Guilt. Well, so much for the good old days.
Oren Ambarchi has over time been growing and developing his unique approach to playing extended instrumentals, a trend which could be seen on 2012’s Audience Of One and Sagittarian Domain from 2013. I’m not sure what it means, or how to characterise it. I can’t give it a name. It feels quite composed, because it’s structured to some degree; it allows for improvisation, like jazz; and yet there’s always a strong beat in it somewhere, so it never departs very far from rock music. You could say Oren is trying to have his triple-layer cake and eat it, with extra helpings of cream and sugar. Maybe it also reflects on his wide-ranging musical appetites; we all like so many types of music now, mainly because there’s so much of it available. But I’d like to think Oren is not only doing something quite original, he’s taking his time to evolve it thoroughly, and naturally; it’s a learning process, other collaborators are involved (even though he can produce similar results in a studio by playing all the instruments himself), and it’s not some novelty act or a flash in the pan that’s built on sand (insert other dreary cliché of your choice here; I’m looking for trite, commonplace phrases that suggest transience or impermanence).
However you might wonder what on earth I’m getting so excited about when you hear Aithein, captured at a live gig in Bologna in 2015 and comprising two long instrumentals. After all, the first half is mostly so desolate and empty that you lose the will to live as you listen, especially when you survey the grey empty skies and consider the awful future that awaits us all. And is your life enriched by the livelier antics on the second side, which if you sampled for just two minutes you’d say was nothing special, indistinguishable from any given Hawkwind “jam” of 1973 surviving from a Festival bootleg tape? (Incidentally I think that’s Oren drumming at the end of the record, and he ain’t no slouch behind the old tubs.) Well, Oren’s achievement I think has been to structure the whole piece over some 33 minutes, so that there’s a discernible trajectory from its sorrowful start and its cathartic release at the end; along the way, there are numerous changes in tone, mood, timbre and effect, where the subtleties of the guitar drones are far more varied and powerful than anything Sunn O))) (with whom he has played) have ever managed, riff in slow motion as they may. Aithein’s dynamics and developments never feel forced or strained; it’s a combination of good ideas, compositional / directional strengths, and good musicianship that leads to such a good result. From 19 April 2016.