Tagged: orchestrated

People Go into the Stratosphere


The Martin Archer all-you-can-eat buffet is open for business…better bring a big plate and an extra fork…we received the self-titled double CD set by Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere (DISCUS40CD) on 19 November 2012, and it’s a real grand bouffe 1. This is another grand scaled project organised by Martin Archer in Sheffield and released on his own Discus label. Archer, highly conversant with saxophone and electronics, has been a past master of small and intimate group situations involving those instruments, but increasingly these days he is thinking big; there’s a large number of gifted people involved in this ambitious project, and while the core Orchestra itself – mostly keyboards, electronics, synths and percussion – comprises just five players, there are also performances from La Garotte String Quartet, The Divine Winds (a saxophone and woodwind group), and Juxtavoices, the unique singing choir whose work is also represented on this label on the record Juxtanother Antichoir From Sheffield released this year. With this small army of musicians, this lengthy album presents a cosmic sprawl of massed organ drones and electronic doodlings, enhanced with jazzy brass blasts and free-style vocal episodes from the choir. Think of Tangerine Dream to the power of ten, joined by an early incarnation of the Mike Westbrook Band and the Scratch Orchestra – an early 1970s music fan’s dream come true!

On ‘Seen From Above Parts 1 and 2’, the Orchestra create a truly enormous and cavernous sound, occupied by detailed passages of free playing; it’s a remarkably sustained effort to keep the space as nebulous as possible, without allowing the work to collapse into a sludgy mess. Philip Glass saxophone arpeggios leak into this open-ended gaseous billow of Gong-esque organ and synth drone. ‘The Opposition Effect’ should appeal to anyone who enjoys the work of the John Aldiss choir on side one of Atom Heart Mother (and I know not many Pink Floyd fans do), with Juxtavoices chanting their clipped syllables in a strident manner to the backing of a lumbering rock beat, solid organ chords and flipped-out sax squawkings. “It’s a 25-voice choir that works on the premise that any 25 note chord is probably going to be OK,” is how Archer described the choir to me in 2011, reflecting on the mixed abilities of the singers in the group. “It’s more about text and performance and maybe experimental poetry.” That side of the choir is also to the fore on ‘An Open Vista Is Revealed’, an excellent short piece on the second CD, with the voices whistling and whispering in mysterious manner against a very restrained and open-ended instrumental backdrop. There’s more of their free-form poetry chants on ‘Star Procession’, which when combined with the dissonant string sections and electronic drones produces a heavy-duty dose of out-there weirdness.


Archer has stressed that he isn’t out to experiment with variety just for the sake of novelty; rather he regards his multiple approaches as different ways of solving the same problem. This double CD set abounds with experiment and innovation, exploring ways to make these group combinations work. On ‘Almost Unrecognisable But For Its Surface Markings’, the string quartet wander an alien landscape in amazement, while percussion clatters around them in tiny explosions. In that case, the keynote is uncertainty and doubt, but not so on ‘Duty Music’, a big-band escapade with the strings and brass creating a very forthright and upbeat mood. ‘The Umbral Length of Shadows’ is an extremely bold attempt to use most if not all of the musicians in one collective blast; a somewhat lumbering beast results, which misfires in places and gives us almost too much to listen to as it tramps along its path propelled by a faux-funky beat; but you’ve rarely heard such remarkable combinations of unusual sounds, timbres and pitches. And at 20 minutes, ‘Nimbus’ is another major showcase for noodling keyboards, heavy drone and errant string solos creating unearthly effects, only slightly let down by the rhythm section providing an unimaginative drum and bass beat which somehow falls short of the best moments of Can. That said, Can never used strings and brass to such powerful effect on their records.

With titles such as ‘Anti-Crepuscular Rays’, ‘Rainforest Tension’, and other titles quoted above you’ll have noticed the meteorological and sky-gazing themes of this release 2. It’s a promise that is borne out by the very airy and open sound the Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere are capable of generating with their competing frequencies and strange juxtapositions, at their best achieving the ethereality of the air itself. As to the music, which incidentally has taken three years to complete, the press notes make explicit aspirations in the direction of Terry Riley, Stockhausen, Alice Coltrane and Krautrock – which should give you sufficient orientation. I think this is an exceptional work, which testifies to Archer’s very sociable and outgoing approach to making music; he simply likes people and likes to gather them around him so he can perform music with them, and I would estimate that a significant percentage of this album is performed live or in real time. Certainly the electronic effects are kept to a minimum, with only a few audible foot-pedals to tweak the organ drone, and acoustic instruments abound, holding their own against the amplified section of the Orchestra. And the sheer length is mightily impressive. In duration alone this would have occupied a four-LP box set in the old days, a generosity that pays off even when the music does sag in places (‘Coherent Backscattering’, a rather formless and laboured piece, is one notable failure) and the work overall might have benefited from a little editing or a more selective production strategy. The major disappoint to me is the utterly unprepossessing cover art, a grainy image of hideous browns and blacks which eventually resolves itself into a murky treated photograph of the band playing a concert in a venue. The cosmic Theta on the back cover is a good notion 3, but this powerful sign has had its energy somehow sapped by digital imaging, and it floats vaguely against a bitty background of artefacts when instead it should pulsate with all the mystical power of the black monolith object on Presence 4. The cloud photos printed on the discs are slightly better and fit the concept of the record. But overall I believe the strength of the music is seriously under-communicated by these poor visuals. This plaint aside, Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere makes good its printed claim to “propose an alternative reality”, and is warmly recommended.


  1. I refer to the film of this title directed by Marco Ferreri and released in 1973.
  2. For perfect conceptual unity, the record really ought to have been pressed at Nimbus, who manufactured most of the releases for Recommended Records.
  3. Theta is used in meteorology to represent potential temperature.
  4. i.e. the Led Zeppelin LP. The puzzling cover art is one of Hipgnosis’s best, in my view. Storm Thorgerson appeared on a recent TV documentary about the making of Wish You Were Here, and neatly summed up Hipgnosis’s cultural achievement; he was simply fed up of rock album covers that were no more than photographs of old geezers.

Rosenboom’s Beginning


David Rosenboom
In The Beginning
USA NEW WORLD RECORDS 80735-2 2 x CD (2012)

One abiding concern of renowned American multi-disciplinary musician/composer David Rosenboom‘s work has been the idea that minimalistic starting points can, if rigorously explored, create works of elegant depth and complexity. The conceit is simple enough, in one sense: take simple elements, build and weave layers of same, and by accretion a certain kind of intensity ensues. Artistic success lies equally in the careful handling of material and dedication to the logic of the method itself.

This nicely-presented two disc set showcases key works of this kind, chronologically covering the four-year period 1978 to 1981, and including extensive sleevenotes by fellow composer Chris Brown. Over the course of eight (mostly lengthy) pieces, Rosenboom exposes his system to a wide range of settings and instrumentation as well as varied numbers of personnel – from solos, on synthesiser or piano, through duos and trios, featuring anything from trombone to computer, to larger ensembles comprising orchestral instruments. The roll-call includes long-standing collaborators, Rosenboom’s son, Daniel on trumpet and William Winant on percussion.

Notable is the pointillistic precision of the opening track, ‘In The Beginning I (Electronic)’, which sees Rosenboom on solo Buchla. Fluid hi-fidelity folds of sound, unexpressively, in the best sense of the word, mount and merge into an orchestra-sized arrangement. Despite the mathematical process involved, this is never without beauty, never merely mechanical or metronomic, and seldom purely textural. There is a warmth when one could so easily end up with a form of austere academism. Here, and with the album generally, in fact, the listener can opt to pursue one tiny acorn or swallow the proceedings whole.

The ensemble interplay of pieces such as ‘In the Beginning III (Quintet)’ and ‘In the Beginning V (The Story)’ elaborate further upon this sensibility, by exploiting the multiplicity of possible tones and timbres of brass, woodwind, percussion etc. Rosenboom’s output covers a multitude of outlooks and interests – including somewhat freer music, as exemplified, for instance, in his collaborations with Winant. In the Beginning has a definitive air about it, and is as good an introduction to this particular and important aspect of Rosenboom’s work as any.



The Laughable Barn

The Wake of the Flood

An astonishing production is Outside, The Great Drought (SMERALDINA-RIMA S-R-018CD), an excessive pop opera with grand ambitions, and a work which is the vision of American musician Colby Nathan. He’s the sort of multi-talented player who probably could have performed all the parts on the record by himself, but as one half of Hyena he’s assisted by main partner and percussionist Dylan Kumnick, and a small army of friendly musicians providing strings, brass, percussion, vocals, and rock ensemble parts. Though you might not realise it to listen to this overpowering multi-tracked epic, DIY-maestro Colby Nathan is not exactly a man of independent means and was obliged to assemble this great work in numerous places across America, working much like Orson Welles in his latter years shooting and assembling his European movies in fits and starts. Accordingly Nathan lists a catalogue of recording locations, all of them intimately connected with friends and colleagues, such that the very making of the record is like a private diary of his efforts. What of the content? Well, lyrically, if there’s an abiding theme to this sweeping portrait of life-changing weather systems and shifting geography patterns, it is expressed in concise poetic terms by its author on one panel of the CD insert. This economy of style hasn’t prevented him from managing a few magical-realist and surrealist literary touches within that text, elements which are also manifested in the song’s lyrics. Musically, the songs are a mixture of insanely urgent power pop sung with a barely-controlled hysteria (Nathan’s lead vocals at such moments remind me of early Russell Mael), or warped versions of acoustic guitar country-tinged tunes, as if rendered by the alien twin of Neil Young. Propelling all of this unusual song-form into the realms of overblown absurdity is the rag-tag rock orchestra ensemble, whose contributions add just the right degree of dramatic pomp. Colby Nathan’s work is new to me, but it seems we have to admit that Colin Langenus now has a serious contender to face in the arena of contemporary orchestrated avant-pop underground music. Even so, I don’t quite hear the Brian Wilson / Van Dyke Parks similarities which the press note advises us to look for; Colby Nathan doesn’t quite have their same knack for subtlety or understatement, but that isn’t to deny this isn’t a serious and impressive work of crazed visionary Americana. Arrived here 3rd April 2012; also available as a vinyl LP.

Resonant Drive Shafts

Recently I bought two LPs by Don Sugarcane Harris, the jazz-blues-rock violinist who played and sang with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention on such notable albums as Hot Rats, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. Zappa devotee Edwin Pouncey reminded me of Zappa’s innate ability to identify many supremely talented musicians and harness their energy for his own grand projects, often persuading them to do things outside their normal comfort zone. Don Preston was such another, and he provided incredible piano and synth music for many of the finest MOI records of the 1960s and 1970s. What I didn’t know is that he was a serious student of contemporary music in the early 1960s, developed his own form of electronic instrument, and was friends with Robert Moog and Louis and Bebe Barron. Now we have the CD compilation Filters, Oscillators & Envelopes 1967-82 (SUB ROSA SR334) which brings together a number of otherwise unreleased experimental recordings from Preston’s personal history. The first one is called simply ‘Electronic Music’, and was realised in 1967. This is in some ways the most radical of Preston’s pieces on offer here; it’s certainly the most hand-crafted, with some rough edges and a palpable sense of Preston’s excitement of discovery. It was put together in between performing MOI gigs at the Garrick in NYC, and made with an unconventional setup – Preston’s own home-made synth, a tape echo, and a tape recorder. 15 minutes of understated abstract groans and creaks, occasionally punctuated with futuristic harpsichord arpeggios, full of unexpected but not shockingly crazy shifts and changes. This one could almost have been used as a backdrop to one of Zappa’s absurdist on-stage parody dramas, but it makes for delicious listening on its own terms. I suppose we can also detect some of Preston’s influences from the time, particularly Tod Dockstader, whose music he studied.

After this the CD jumps to 1975, by which time Preston is the owner of a “proper” modular synth built by Pat Gleeson; this is what we hear played on the seven parts of ‘Analog Heaven’, along with Preston’s mini-moog, and his echoplex unit. For a tasty example of Preston’s mini-moog mastery, listen to ‘Lonesome Electric Turkey’ on the Fillmore East, June 1971 album. ‘Analog Heaven’ is a much more restrained piece of music, and is evidence of Preston’s skill and patience in exploiting the “wonderful morphing ability” of these instruments; he spent many months experimenting with patches to create these textures, and yet the music itself also feels very spontaneous and free-flowing. Spontaneity is a very elusive and rare quality in most composed electronic music, particularly from the European schools; many classical composers also laboured long and hard to create their electronic music, and the effort was often quite apparent in the stilted and heavy results. But in 1975, Preston was making it look almost effortless.

The last third of the album is the 1982 piece ‘Fred & Me’, which appears to be a collaboration between Preston and the maverick percussionist Fred Stofflet. It combines low-key electronic humming with eccentric percussion instruments collected by Preston, mostly pieces of abandoned industrial equipment and railway parts. By this time Preston had worked on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, and one cannot help but hear this slow-moving music as a more nightmarish and muffled version of the end-credits music for that movie. A series of very uncertain half-tones, muted notes, and heavily-disguised percussive effects all coalesce to produce a dream-like and vaguely threatening sonic environment. The rapport of these two improvisers is apparent, especially in the blending of their respective sounds. Fine collection; Zappa completists will probably want to snap this up as a matter of course, though I can recommend it to all lovers of electronic music. Also available in vinyl form.


Dream Seeds: too bland, poppy and smooth for very dark subject matter

Extra Life, Dream Seeds, Northern Spy Records, NSCD 022 (2012)

That album cover has that curious and creepy look that I associate with the artwork for The Melvins’ albums but the music here is very, very different from those doom metal musicians’ work. Superficially poppy and intimate, as though made just for one person and that one person is you, the self-confessional album hides very dark fantasies and traumas, too dark to ever reveal to the light: traumas and thoughts that would see the unseen narrator-singer go into the slammer were they to be made public. “Dream Seeds” is the work of Charlie Looker who performs all vocals (which remind me of Depeche Mode in their pure strong choir-boy tones that suggest both innocence and self-torment), acoustic guitar and some synthesiser plus two other musicians on electronics, synth, guitar, percussion and backing vocals who make up Extra Life. The music emphasises awkward and deliberately clunky rhythms and beats, an epic and varied sound that takes in hard-edged pop-rock, moods of melancholy, fear, sorrow and despair, and synth-based orchestration.

To be honest, I find the music palls over the album’s running time: there’s something about it that’s bland and blunt and leaves me feeling remote and uninvolved. Perhaps the style of music adopted here is the problem: I guess I expect music this dark and personal to have some anguish and hints of self-examination, self-torture and pleading / bargaining with God that would be reflected in the very texture of the music – some harsh layers of sound here and there that would contrast with the smoothness of the singing. As the album goes, the emotion that should have been spread throughout instead comes in the last song and sounds very forced. I feel as though I’m sitting through some kitchen-sink drama that’s been done too often already and the burnt-out actors are simply going through the motions again.

The lyrics are the best part of the album and could stand apart as a monologue. Taken together, the lyrics form a narrative of guilt on the vocalist’s part for going ahead with an abortion or a few abortions in spite of his religious pro-life background and his fantasies about what he’d like to do to several children under his care as a teacher. Extreme abusive corporal punishment (“Discipline for Edwin”) and paedophilia (“Little One”, “First Song”) are hinted at. The last two tracks bring back memories of the abortions, controlling the unruly class of school-kids with a paddle and finally release from a particular mortal coil.

“First Song” is the best song on the album for its intense emotion and the mood of darkening cloud, a feeling that something very wrong is occurring, but apart from this, the music and singing just don’t seem to fit the subject matter well enough.

Contact: Northern Spy Records


V: best work by two soul music brothers

KTL, V, Editions Mego, CD eMEGO 120 (2012)
For a band that  formed in 2007 to score music for a play “Kindertotenlieder” (hence the name KTL) by Dennis Cooper and Gisele Vienne, KTL has come a long way indeed; I thought the duo would be good for a couple of albums at least but it looks like I vastly underestimated the potential of these guys to keep coming up with new ideas and material. This fifth full-length album marks out new sonic territory: no longer are KTL simply a fusion of doom drone metal and glitchy laptop electronics but PITA and SOMA are revealed as true soul music brothers who keep pushing each other into something new and different whenever they are together. PITA has grown enormously as a musician and person and likely the same can be said for SOMA as evinced on this album where he plays synthesiser, laptop electronics and sound effects with a contact mic as well as guitar.

First track “Phill 1″ which might be a dedication to one of KTL’s musical heroes Phil Niblock is a slow-burning atmospheric piece of deep, dark, complex mood. We move quickly into “Study A”, an intense and seemingly static work that actually changes a great deal; the sounds individually may be harsh, piercing, shrill and discomfiting but together they induce a sense of concentrated stillness. The extended drones are beautifully sculpted and sustain themselves with a quiet certainty as they soar heavenwards, perhaps to upset the age-old hierarchy of the angels and introduce a new sinister regime those winged wussies have never known. “Tony”  is a more foreboding track similar to SOMA’s work with Sunn0))) and if I hadn’t known what the track was when I first heard it, I would have said this is a Sunn0))) track from around the period when that band and Boris were recording “Altar” together. It consists of an extended guitar drone with soft sub-bass sighing in and out, and ghostly washes and undersea echoes and booms welling up from below six fathoms deep; to most people, that may not sound like much but the track is highly absorbing and listeners may find themselves falling and sinking into its deep embrace.

“Phill 2″ is a seesawing loop of orchestrated strings, horns and electronics, courtesy of composer Johann Johannsson who added double bass, cello and violin sounds to KTL’s echoes and ghostly sound washes. The piece reminds me of Aethenor’s first album which had something of a ghost ship theme (or so it sounded to me) and of course Aethenor is one of SOMA’s experimental collaborative projects. It’s repetitive but each repeated loop changes significantly from its predecessor in increasing volume, sense of horror and epic quality. The deep bassy loop snakes from one end of the work to the other and booms out from time to time, giving the impression of a leviathan monster swimming in the briny depths, snaking in and out of clouds of misty sediment. Sharpish-sounding horns add a majestic soundtrack quality to the work. The whole grand juggernaut comes to a satisfying climax of opposites that destroy each other as they merge, producing a completely new being of bright shattering revelation.

“Last Spring: A Prequel” is a sound art piece created for an art installation by Gisele Vienne of the same name and features a monologue performance by Jonathan Capdevielle who appears to play two characters using a clean voice and a gravelly, almost death metal voice respectively. The monologue is done in French but unfortunately there are no translations in English, German or any other language for non-Francophone folks to follow. While this is going on, an eerie drone hovers like a distant puttering UFO far in the background and strange phantom rumbles and crackles sound off whenever Capdevielle comes close to being hysterical and deranged. This gives the entire piece a murky, uncertain underwater feel and enhances JC’s performance in such a way as to suggest that we might be deep in his brain observing two voices at war and turning his psyche into a battleground between two forces of psychotic evil.

This album is a completely unexpected and welcome surprise from KTL: I had not anticipated that PITA and SOMA would progress so much together and individually with this project. The album is hugely atmospheric with many moods suggestive of dark hazy and murky underwater realms where malevolent serpentine creatures unknown to science lurk, ready to snatch a human victim and shoot away, never to return. “V” might very well be the best work the two have done together.

Contact: Editions Mego


Rare Cases

From Montpellier France comes Horse Gives Birth To Fly, a name which is very reminiscent of the uncanny phenomena which J.G. Posada delighted in engraving on his Mexican woodblocks (he called each one a caso raro), but in this instance the name is connected to Amon Duul II and Deutsch Nepal in ways we cannot fathom. HGBTF are a duo of French players who perform what they would like to term “ritual noise”. They’ve been enacting these private ceremonies in sound since 2008 and have an impressive series of CDRs, splits and compilation appearances lurking in their stable, or equine cave. Langue De Fièvre (NO LABEL) contains many lengthy drone workouts, generally rather eccentric in nature and enriched by a bewitching, almost supernatural sound. Part of the eerie charm is no doubt due to their insistence on all-organic, home-grown DIY methods of sound production; the two voices are usually the key component, wailing, moaning and muttering in invented alien languages. Then comes the instrumental layering, involving not the deployment of expensive synthesisers and filters, but very basic guitar work and simple devices referred to as “space toys”. Two of the untitled tracks contain the spooky outer-regional vocal wailings, the third revolves around a primitive circular guitar riff, the fourth brings down rain gods and other deities with the use of “tribal” drumming and insane percussive metal clattering. The record gets a shade too “Tibetan” for me after that point, but there is a closing track which invokes an epic, monstrous apocalypse worthy of any given medieval draughstman. Plenty of denatured and thrilling non-specific noise on offer, but we also have to admire the restraint and simplicity of this pair. Kriss and Miccam put a lot of effort into summoning unfamiliar effects and sonic adventures, both from their instruments and from their mesmerising droney voices, which have a full range of timbres and shades within their peculiar chatterings. The cover collage artwork evokes exactly the right degree of fetid swampiness with its dank shades of green and Mocha-esque overlays of curlicue shapes going mad. Girls, their heads replaced with the heads of dogs, lounge on armchairs wearing kinky boots, inviting us to enter this peculiar world. Received 14 March 2012.

Some home-recording experiments that don’t quite gel for me from Captain Super Scranchin on his CDR release. Nine tracks veer between playful manipulations of synthesiser effects and frantic explosions of cymbal-heavy percussion, all deliberately recorded in lo-fi with one microphone and a lot of distortion. Scranchin’s efforts are further disrupted with layers of recording hiss, wonky tape speed playback, and overlaid foreign elements and found sounds. It’s a little hard to see much underlying structure here, but the release reminds me of 1980s bedroom cassette releases and has a roughness in its passion that some listeners may enjoy. No website; try email to scranchin@hotmail.co.uk. Received 19 March 2012.

A highly baroque oddity of outsider classical-pop is Last Wane Days (SQUIB-BOX NO NUMBER). Initial hearing caused my beret to fly off my head in surprise, while my noggin teemed with soundbites like “Kate Bush meets Luciano Berio during a performance of The Living Theatre”. It’s composed by the London musician Neil Luck, sung by Fiona Bevan, and played by a small avant-garde chamber ensemble called ARCO who wield acoustic instruments (strings, bass, piano). This two-part weirdie lasts only 18 minutes, but it compresses huge volumes of detail into its strange, ever-changing fabric. Broken, disjunctive passages of discordant music are punctuated with brittle percussion effects and daring gaps of silence. Holding everything together is the astonishing voice of Bevan, who slides effortlessly across genres, moving from classical operatic to easy-listening by way of Weimar cabaret. I’m not making much headway with the lyrical content so far, which is spoken, sung and chanted (sometimes mathematically so, in the manner of Einstein on the Beach), but that’s hardly surprising as most of the loopy libretto has been derived from cut-ups of the notebooks of Richard Foreman, a writer whose work I am not familiar with. That said, there are at least two songs woven into this uneven and over-decorated magic carpet, one of them with lyrics penned by Bevan herself. It’s described in the notes as a “monodrama” and a “dislocated song-cycle”. With its wild dynamics and unusual sound, Last Wane Days is an unusual record which many will find an acquired taste, but none should doubt the skill and artistry at work here. Received 21 March 2012.

On Lichtung (EAT SLEEP REPEAT ESR201201), field recordings meet up with low-key ambient music in an art gallery installation environment, assembled by the duo of Steve Roden and Machinefabriek. The original installation also had a visual component from Sabine Bürger, partially represented via the cover and booklet photographs of this CD release, which comprises edited highlights from the event. The original commission was intended to express the German idea of “heimat”, a word which roughly means “homeland” in English, but I believe it corresponds to a deep-seated cultural emotion about the environment and one’s place within it which is rooted in the Germanic bones, and which may not have a direct counterpart anywhere else in the world. The sensitive and nuanced response of the artists here has been to work with very evocative and misted-over field recordings which deepen the overall sense of ambiguity, and to incorporate local natural elements (leaves, twigs and water) in the finished installation piece. Small and intimate sounds, of which Roden is a masterful and subtle sculptor, characterise this record, but so too does the nostalgic and understated half-music of Rutger Zuydervelt (i.e. Machinefabriek). Some records in this vein can depress me with their undernourished sounds, which can appear minimal to the point of utter vacancy, but Lichtung has warmth and depth. Received 23 March 2012.

Simon Balestrazzi has come our way in the past with his hypnotic electronic drones which sometimes have an occult side, such as A Rainbow In My Mirror and his spooky Candor Chasma collaboration. On The Sky Is Full Of Kites (BORING MACHINES BM38), the work has all been generated out of his modified and home-made instruments, including the “prepared psaltery”, plus synths, oscillators, and the laptop all providing so much thickened and glutinous electronic buzz you can almost measure it by the acre. According to the press notes, the keywords we should be bearing in mind are to do with industrial landscapes and the weather, and the music here does indeed convey the sensations of unpleasant, drizzly grey skies hovering over a ruinous once-proud city of dead machines. Balestrazzi’s textures and layers are impeccably rich, and he has put in a lot of time and effort to invoke the dark forces which intrigue him, but most of the album feels like a bit of a sprawl to me, without sufficient forward movement within the tunes to lift the listener from the quagmire of desolation. The title track admittedly has a little more agitation to assist its moribund atmosphere, and a vague pattern can be discerned in its leisurely rise-and-fall shapes. Daniele Serra, who also illustrated the Candor Chasma CD, provides notably odd artworks where cityscapes, machinery, and insect-like forms are combined in unholy marriages. Received 27 March 2012.


A Rate of Knots

So what has good old Oren Ambarchi been up to the last coupla years? We don’t seem to have reviewed any of his records since TSP 18. The more we heard from this seriously talented Australian musician, the more facets appeared…a guitar-player of highly avant-melodic dimensions, he evolved and crafted an incredible personal style and distinctive sound on his instrument which to this day no-one else understands how to achieve. He also continued to amass an enormous collection of extreme Black Metal records during the years when that genre was hot, just because he loved the stuff; and also found time to pursue pop music in his band Sun, tour with Sunn O))), and appear in various doom metal projects such as Gravetemple and the Burial Chamber Trio. Not to mention appearing alongside improvising guitar veteran Keith Rowe as a member of 4G. Talk about your hardest-working man in showbiz…

Now we have his new record Audience Of One (TOUCH TO:83) which we received 17 February 2012. It’s a pretty unclassifiable album. I suppose the first thing to say is that it’s very beautiful music, and that it’s also rather lonely and sad in its fragile beauty. Through slowness, stillness, economy of means and other refining tactics, Oren has composed and directed four pieces of exceptionally poignant contemporary music. Did I forget to mention it’s also a collaborative work? Oren plays guitars, percussion, and keyboards, while important guest players provide strings, horns, piano, and percussion. On one of the most limpid cuts, ‘Passage’, there’s the splendid Eyvind Kang adding viola and piano to the mournful elegiac music. Kang is making good with his “spectral” compositions for Ideologic Organ just now. There’s also the delicate voice of Jessika Kenney on ‘Passage’, barely appearing, and moving through the track like an imperceptible breeze, barely leaving a stain on the tape. crys cole is doing something equally nuanced with her brushes and contact mics, while Oren builds his transparent layers of sound with guitars, Hammond organ and wineglasses (the glass harmonica I assume). After some six minutes of still waters running deep, ‘Passage’ segues into ‘Fractured Mirror’, the eight-minute epic that closes the album and represents another side of the pop and rock music loving Oren…for starters, it’s based on a tune by the Kiss lead guitarist, Ace Frehley 1. Oren plays virtually everything, apart from some acoustic guitar assist from Natasha Rose, and it’s a tightly-structured instrumental of minimal Krautrock, the guitar sound of Daniel Fichelscher set to an early 1980s drum machine click track, with a murmuring mellotron drone at the bottom. Of all the music here this is the one track that wants to try and rejoice, even in the face of great sadness; it’s a glorious bittersweet melange of emotion.

The album begins however, not on a triumphant note at all, but with the slow sadness of ‘Salt’, a lugubrious song with pained vocals supplied by Paul Duncan from Warm Ghosts, plus a small string section (violin by Elizabeth Welsh, James Rushford on viola and piano) creating a romantic swell that’ll make your heart burst with empathy. Against this, Oren adds his treated guitar to sound like the unobtrusive ambient piano of Brian Eno, and also etches in his tiny details of discordant notes that add just the right degree of ambiguity to this hymn of uncertainty. This is probably what Scott Walker die-hard fans imagine they are hearing on disastrous records like The Drift, but when it comes to creating disturbing easy-listening styled modern pop ballads, Oren shows us how it’s done, almost effortlessly.

The main event of the album though has to be ‘Knots’, and at 33 minutes this track could have made a credible vinyl release on its own terms. The lineup here includes Eyvind Kang again, plus the cellist Janei Leppin, Josiah Boothby on French Horn, the percussionist Joe Talia and the singer Stephen Fandrich, all accompanying Oren with his electric guitars, autoharp, and percussion. The recordings have been made at different times across the world – Australia, Seattle, London, Luz and Milan – and assembled in the studio with the help of Randall Dunn. What results is a tightly integrated and intense piece of micro-tonal groaning, as nebulous as a swarming galaxy. As with all of this album, “understatement” is certainly the keynote of the day, but there is exquisite detail and discipline woven into every strand of this “knotted” composition, and it’s not simply another self-indulgent drone-morass of the sort that blights contemporary music like Dutch elm disease. Without wishing to dive straight into the deep end of the “superlatives” swimming pool at Swiss Cottage, I’d have little problem aligning this ambitious and sustained piece of work alongside recent compositions by Reinhold Friedl or Yannis Kyriakides; though to give credit where it’s due, it seems that most of the arrangement work for this exceptional piece was executed by Eyvind Kang rather than Oren. The press notes highlight the subtle but very propulsive percussion work of Talia, indicating that ‘Knots’ also works as an update on the electric jazz of Miles Davis, the confidence and swagger of Miles’ music restated with all the qualifiers of 21st-century doubt and uncertainty. And besides all the spectral composition undercurrents, there’s a hint of doom metal in the menacing bass growls…a very accomplished record and one that will probably come to be regarded as a significant benchmark in Oren’s oeuvre.

Edited 09/11/2013 to correct gender of crys cole (his > her)

  1. In my book, Oren scores 500 points for even name-checking Kiss, but he goes one better and records a cover version of a song by one of the band’s naffest members!

Per Flagellum Sanguemque, Tenebras Veneramus: a more refined approach to bombastic blackened noise soundtrack music

Gnaw Their Tongues, Per Flagellum Sanguemque, Tenebras Veneramus, Crucial Blast Records, CD CBR93 (2011)

On this massive missive of extreme blackened orchestral noise terror, GTT man Mories has refined his approach so that it’s more atmospheric and relies less on shock-horror-awe theatrics and melodrama. Mories’s choice of target seems to be more specific: to me, judging from the song titles and the photographs, the object of his attacks is organised religion and the rituals associated with them, all treated in a highly perverse way. Just as in the mediæval past, people such as the Goliards in England, France, Italy and Germany in the 12th and 13th centuries, who were critical of the Roman Catholic Church and its rituals, satirised them by writing defamatory poetry and among other things developing and building up the idea of the Black Mass over time (although the Black Mass as understood in popular culture has its origins in 17th and 18th century literary French culture, no surprise here!), so here Mories might be aiming at the Christian priesthood in the churches of his native Netherlands by presenting them and their rituals as defiled by bodily fluids and excreta.

Throughout the recording, the orchestral music is cacophonous, doomy and often very frenzied with choirs of demon voices gone completely insane. Any violins that might appear go straight into the shrill, hysterical range of their capabilities. Trumpets and tubas blare loudly while the rest of the orchestra fight over which section gets second billing. Since most songs lack definite structure, melodies and riffs, they all tend to sound alike and so the entire album must be heard in its entirety with each song to be considered a movement within a whole work.

There are voice samples included in the work and these help give the impression that the album is intended as a soundtrack for an as yet unmade movie: perhaps Mories should team up as composer with fellow Dutch maniac Tom Six should the latter heed the call from heaven for a third installment in his Human Centipede movie series. Certainly as the album progresses, quieter passages of music with more conventional choral voices are introduced. Quiet though does not mean serene and several quiet passages turn out to be more creepy and malevolent than the full-on noisy and chaotic music.

The title track, coming as the finale, may be presumed to sum up everything that’s gone before it and while there is plenty of anguished screaming and howling going on and the music features plenty of bombast and field recordings of jangling chains and spoken voice snippets, it comes across more as just another episode in Mories’s evolving horror-film music soundtrack. This perhaps points up a weakness in this and other GTT albums I’ve heard so far: there’s not really that much dynamism in the music and for all the noisy chaos that I hear in it, the music in a sense is static and not at all progressive. When the quiet coda comes, it seems incidental to the rest of the album.

Contact: Crucial Blast Records

Tidal Bearings

If you want to sharpen your wits with some good old-fashioned astringent modernism, the double CD On Tour (MUTABLE MUSIC 17544-2) by Ostravská Banda ought to be poured into your daily tub like a pouch of bath salts. This ensemble went on a tour of Europe in 2010 and took with them a strong repertoire of complex and difficult modern music, some of which is represented on these two hour-long disks. Showcased here: the Italian Luca Francesconi, Petr Bakla, Paulina Zalubska from Krakow, the Japanese composer Somei Satoh, and Bernhard Lang. There’s also a long piece by John Cage and a further long piece by Ostravská Banda founder Petr Kotik which is a four part tribute to Cage. Nice and loud recordings throughout (one thing that often troubles me about most commercial recordings of avant classical music is they’re recorded or mastered too quietly for noise-loving me). Of note: the complexity and busy-ness of Francesconi’s ‘Riti Nautrali’ which is built around the virtuosity of violin player Irvine Arditti; any work that brings its players to a “collective frenzy” gets my juices salivating, and it packs more notation per square inch than an experiment with sub-atomic particles. This contrasts nicely with Satoh’s ‘The Passion’, a slow and stately vocal ensemble piece with parts for Christ and Pilate; who better than Thomas Buckner to step up to the plate for this gloomoid devotional work with its heartbreaking minimal strings and clarinet moans. The Cage piece is an earlyish one from 1957-58 which requires a lot of interpretation from the orchestra and pianist to make any sense from the 68 mini-sequences they have to choose from, and it emerges with all the bittiness that often makes Cage so frustrating to my ears. Kotik’s ‘In Four Parts’ is much more successful though, a good rattling battery of percussion, chimes, and prepared piano that makes even more sense when you realise its roundabout origins (partially inspired by the ballet of Merce Cunningham). Fine collection; the rest of their repertoire, unfortunately not here, also included works by Ligeti, Feldman, Wolff and Berio.

Bunch of live droneworks by Rutger Zuydervelt appearing as Machinefabriek on Vloed (COLD SPRING CSR138CD). Full-bodied and multi-textured slow works, kind of like Frippertronics except he makes them using prepared electric guitars laid on the table top and sometimes played with a violin bow, plus radio set, loop machine, and effects pedals. ‘Allengskens’ gets close to ambient music sometimes, but it has a lot of depth and volume, seeming to emulate the ebb and flow of tides with its rising-falling structure. ‘Drijfzand’ is more intimate, small sounds and delicate little notes of nostalgic vibe suspended in an airy-electronic structure. ‘Vrijhaven’ is heavy on the atmosphere with its terror-suspense chords and ominous plucking device that keeps scraping away insistently, and ‘Vloed’ is a rich and soaring piece. Monika Heorodotou’s photos of the sea leave us in little doubt as to the suggested theme of this release. Two of the pieces were recorded at the Bimhuis, the album was originally released in 2008 on Sentient Recognition, and ‘Vrijhaven’ is a bonus track only available here. Zuydervelt is a fine Dutch droner not a million miles away in tone and style from his countryman Frans de Waard, and while I would personally prefer more “rough edges” to this mode of music, it’s nice to find him on this UK label that usually features dark folk and extreme metal.

Bryan Day sent us an envelope in May 2011 with two releases from his Eh? Aural Repository, a sub label of Public Eyesore. Psychotic Quartet are four improvisers from Philadelphia, with Sphaleron (EH? 52); the combination of trombone, upright bass, violin and drumkit is a promising start, but the players rarely seem to connect with one another or flash up with creative sparks on this somewhat dreary outing of tuneless parps and scrapes. It might be nice if they actually did act a bit more “psychotic” instead of rambling politely along at this walk-in-the-park pace. Can You Listen To The Silence Between The Notes? (EH? 51) is a solo album by the Argentinian guitarist Federico Barabino, who also dabbles with feedback using his no input mixer. For 33 minutes, a belt of continuous humming noise is varied in tone very gradually; this is occasionally interrupted or overlaid with slow melodic guitar playing, at times coming across like a conceptual remake of the work of Kenny Burrell. Also in the envelope, Sectional (DIGITAL VOMIT DVR 058) by Seeded Plain, which is Bryan Day with Jay Kreimer, playing their own home-made instruments with some live electronics and customised software; the photograph with press release is quite appealing, with wooden frames, junk on tabletops, cables all over the floor and an odd tubular device that looks like a prototype modern lampstand from Ikea. Mostly non-musical scrapes and grumblings are the output from these lo-fi electroacoustic escapades, with little in the way of dynamic variation across each shapeless tune. There are some nice sonic moments of happy collisions to be derived from the three long pieces on this record, and some genuine invention taking place, but once again I find the actual performances rather listless and unspirited.

Paintings For Animals is Pearson Wallace-Hoyt making quite a sublime doomy noise drone on Kristeater (DEBACLE RECORDS DBL053). Some field recordings from the Olympia National Forest in Washington State apparently fed into these lumbering outbursts, but electronics and treated guitars were also used; parts of this record are very much in the Nadja mould of distorted overdubs and silted-up multitracking. I do like ‘Ahni Hansa’ for the way it manages to stutter out a very controlled form of terrifying deep noise without making the mistake of recycling the familiar “dark ambient” tropes. And ‘Satnod’, produced with the help of Mike Long’s cello, stands out as a harrowing march through a marshy Hell, a splendid diatribe of shrieking excess, groaniness, and loud volume. Elsewhere, the tracks meander and the album feels disorganised and insufficiently edited. Striking cover artwork is by James Nielsen.

Mombasa Love Songs

Just spun this delicious dose of 1950s exotica this afternoon, while dozing on the armchair and half-watching a Star Trek movie. Like many of these Righteous releases, it packs two half-hour LPs onto a single CD, but the skilled curators at work on this series do their themed pairings with considerably more care than some crutty budget label trying to save costs by cramming unrelated tracks together. Exotic Dreamers (RIGHTEOUS PSALM 23:39) starts off with an album of songs by Ethel Azama, originally released as Exotic Dream by Liberty in 1958. The story of it is that this Hawaiian singer was talent-spotted by exotica royalty Martin Denny, who set up a session for her with Paul Conrad, one of his arrangers. Although Azama, who is a very competent singer but not exactly in the same league as Julie London, Peggy Lee et al, would eventually settle into a career releasing albums of jazz / cabaret songs and standards, this debut LP is uncharacteristic, and stands out as a fine mix where jazz singing meets exotica orchestration – with sexy results! With numerous songs about colourful songbirds, typical “jungle” landscapes (‘Friendly Island’, ‘Green Fire’ and ‘Mountain High Valley Low’), one Arthur Lyman cover and of course an inevitable version of a chestnut from South Pacific, this is a heart-warming delight as irresistible as a coconut cream cocktail with spiced rum. ‘Shady Lady Bird’, a shoping-list ditty where the chanteuse likens her sexual wiles and charms to an assortment of avian specimens, is a particularly affecting belt of retro-sassiness.

Other half of this release is Mganga! by Tak Shindo, a composer who I never heard before but this little gem gives some serious competition to Tamboo! and Ritual of the Savage. In the 1960s Shindo became a major TV composer, but this 1950s album is like the above another suitably “jungle” themed piece of exotica folderol, with its flawless arrangements, bamboo flutes, chanting natives, pseudo-tribal drumming and evocative titles that would give heart failure to any serious student of anthropology. Its scattered references to African culture (Mombasa, Kenya and Mwanza are all namechecked) are ever so slightly undercut by the penultimate track, ‘Watusi Drum Dance’, which yokes ethnic musical impressions to this short-lived American dance craze of the early 1960s. There’s also ‘Port Of Trinkitat’, a tune which somehow avoided release on the classic Les Baxter travelogue LP Ports Of Pleasure. “Listen to the shifting, whispering sounds of these imagined neverlands” is the advice of Dave Henderson’s sleeve note. You see, Pablo Picasso wasn’t the only artist to have been influenced by African masks…and there’s an essay waiting to be written right there!