Tagged: progressive rock

Humanity Won’t Be Happy Until…


Socialism is still alive and well and thriving in Italy, if this release from Sparkle In Grey is anything to go by – and so is Progressive Rock and (to some degree) an interest in Italian library music for TV and movies…their Thursday Evening (GREY SPARKLE GSCD007 / LIZARD LIZCD 0093/ OLD BICYCLE RECORDS OBR010 / SHOW ME YOUR WOUNDS PRODUCTIONS LESION # 0012) is a convincing set of highly melodic tunes played with conviction by the four-piece of Carozzi, Lupo, Krostopovic and Uggeri, who use a lot of guitars and old-style buzzy synths, and their work is helped by four guest musicians. They are fond of string arrangements and the warm violins and cellos add a poignant melancholic touch to many tunes, sustaining the overall mood of world-weary sadness and heartbreak. What they’re heartbroken about is most likely the state of the world today…they start off by discussing the stress of their working week, and it seems that Thursday Evening has special meaning to the band as it’s the only time they can all rehearse together. Then the discussion somehow widens into talk about ethics and resistance and change, at which point you see the cartoony coloured figures on the front cover are actually an angry mob hungry for reform.

That’s about as far as it goes for the Sparkle In Grey call for insurrection, as they emphasise they don’t like to use slogans any more, so there are no politicised lyrics on the album, and instead just a few samples of vox pops which bring home their points of view. One of them occurs at the start of track two, a heartfelt ecological plea attempting to reverse the trend of monopoly capitalism for the sake of Mother Earth. The subtler strategy has been to release the album with a free pebble (I didn’t get one, because it’s just a promo copy); the purchaser is invited to email the band with suggestions for what to do with the pebble, and you then get sent a free track in return. If you buy the “Riot Edition”, the pebble is hand-painted. I have no doubt that this latterday proggy band are familiar with ‘Take A Pebble’, the 1970 ballad by Emerson Lake & Palmer, but they probably want us to use the pebble as an instrument for effecting change in some way. By way of example, the central character on the cover holds his yellow pebble aloft in a defiant pose. Jointly released by four labels (two in Italy, two in Switzerland). Arrived 11 October 2013.


From Saint Petersburg comes the latest instalment in Wozzeck‘s grand design, simply called Act 5 (INTONEMA int008); the idea has been that each release would be carefully numbered and planned in advance to emerge as significantly different from all the others in the series, so that where Act I was “aggressive free improvised noise”, Act 4 turned into an avant-garde doom metal project of great ferocity and power. Act 5 is a single piece and it lasts for precisely 40 minutes, although the sleeve notes indicate it’s actually in five separate parts. The five parts each last 40 minutes and have been layered together into a single concentrated composition. It reflects the band’s growing interest in “ordered and compositional music, but at the same time more conceptual and weird”…their current thinking has somehow allowed them to embrace the music of Evan Parker and Radu Malfatti and the texts of Samuel Beckett, so you know you’re in for something very extreme and very bleak. Ilia Belorukov, Mikhail Ershov and Alexey Zabelin are the composers and players, and it’s executed with synthesizers, laptops, the iPod touch, lots of percussion instruments (both real and virtual, I would expect), guitars, and multiple effects pedals. The work is built around percussion and electronics, played with an inhuman precision and near-brutal force; as the piece works through its layers, it’s like hearing large numbers of drum machines and sequencers battering us into submission. The march of the robots, all armed with hammers and industrial staple guns.

The work is through-composed to a manic degree, and the small amount of information I’ve gleaned from the thick booklet of notes, charts, staves and explanatory diagrams has been terrifying; it’s taking the idea of mathematical construction and serial composition about as far as it can go. The performance is manic, too; I started off thinking it was played by electric typewriters, and I ended up with images of shipworkers driving steel rivets into the hull of a ship, possessed by the sort of focus and intensity that only old Papa Joe could’ve inspired. I can tell you it’s music that starts out shocking, and grows gradually more berserk as it progresses, with additional layers of even more extreme and indigestible noise, sampled voices, and rhythms attempting to escape from the prison of the regimented grid, only to be dragged back into the frame again. The cover artworks restate this theme, the monochrome photos clearly showing how the tyranny of the grid operates in modern cities, through town planning, signs, railway stations, civic spaces, and even your living room; and the graphic design, cropping and framing these images with white borders, restates the grid motif yet again. In all, a most claustrophobic and overloaded listen, but like Sparkle In Grey above I expect that Belorukov and his team are urging us to take action against the lamentable condition of modern society. Will we win? When records like this exist, we stand a chance! From 7th October 2013.

Progressive? Moi?



The press release for Kongekrabbe is, it has to be said, slightly over-the-top and prone to hyperbole, although the idea of a twelve-piece democractic/anarchistic band from Norway is an exciting one. It’s difficult to deduce from the publicity sheet whether this is improvised in the studio or not: there is mention of two musicians being ‘the driving force behind the inventive material on [this] debut album’ and also mention that ‘the members of the band rehearse and arrange all the music jointly – without notes, but with wide-open ears and eyes’. Maybe I should just listen?

A noisy introductory piece leads into an almost ska-driven track, ‘Linselus/Due’ which also fleetingly recalls some dreadful 60s bands with its use of wordless vocals, a mad kind of Swingles Singers, if you know what I mean. These voices, a little more focussed this time, also appear in ‘Kongekrabbe’, the next track, weaving through some precise and careful brass arrangements. It calls to mind not only the dense arrangements of Terje Rypdal’s early works, but the jazz band Azimuth, and perhaps odd moments of Henry Cow (which is high praise indeed).

‘Partylus’ arrives like a demented ragtime song, before swiftly turning the corner into a more minimal moment which is then interrupted by the arrival of a brass band who are pushed aside by some violinists. In fact it’s hard to shake off the idea of musicians being elbowed aside by the next musician; the track is a kind of endless procession of moments that are never allowed to develop, are merely interrupted and pushed aside, although a female singer is allowed to outstay her welcome. It’s a confusingly structured and thought-out piece that to these ears lets down the album.

‘Lakselus’, which concludes the CD is a more intriguing piece which slowly develops from abstract soundscape into apocalyptic noise then unfolds into a new musical spectrum underpinned with percussive rhythms and then distant piano. The by now expected wordless vocals make an entry and spoil this otherwise standout piece.

If Skadedyr can roam their ‘broad musical landscape’ a little less, and perhaps talk to each other more about the type of music they want to play, they will produce even more original music. As it stands it’s a little bit pick’n’mix at the moment, underdeveloped and unfocussed, but exciting nonetheless.


Gushing Cloud
Beat Wings In Vain

Whilst the press release for Skadedyr mentions ‘an appreciation of psychedelic, progressive and outrageous’, that for Gushing Cloud’s new CD prefers the ‘realms of groovy electronic, thoughtful ambient, and noisy/experimental.progressive rock music’. It’s hard, however, to hear much of interest on this CD, which mostly sounds like bedroom synthesizer doodling.

Simplistic programmed grooves and beats underpin simplistic approximations of Tangerine Dream guitar and/or keyboards, which meander on towards promised aural epiphanies which never arrive; instead, each track drops away into another rhythm which gradually returns to the starting point.

The hyperbolic press release’s comparisons with Eno and Faust do nobody any favours, neither does the claim of ‘an organic earnestness’, as though some kind of honesty, truth or well-meaning intention might make the music good. This is dull, second-rate ambient noodlng that needs both disrupting and focussing to get anywhere with. When I say that I mean it has neither the chaotic freshness of Faust, nor the kind of focussed process or concept which often underpins Eno’s own work. I have no idea what Gushing Cloud is trying to do here, and I don’t think he has either.

Vinyl Venisons Part 1

Semelles De Fondation
Another nice French vinyl from the Bloc Thyristors label. The drummer Jean-Noël Cognard kindly keeps sending me these records and I’m sure there are least two more unopened items from him awaiting me in the backlog. The presentation of all of these Bloc Thyristors records is just so sumptuous. Thick card foldaround cover with silkscreened artwork by Marc-Antoine Beaufils, using subtle colour harmonies and combinations. And it’s pressed in light blue vinyl for that extra sky-blue flavour that dogs go for. The music on the grooves is a lively mix of jazz, improv and intellectual art-prog performed by under-rated geniuses and played on woodwinds and brass with a traditional bass and drums backing, plus additional modern-ness injected by live electronics and laptop. These tunes veer from gloomy dirge (‘Portiques Indéformables’ is a splendid plaintive groaner) to lively Miles Davis styled romps. Instrumental lines coil around each other like fast-growing tree roots, throttling each other until the sap flows like wine. All players have developed a very expressive sound, punchy and juicy, be it the bassist Benjamin Duboc with his well-rounded slaps or the clarinettist Michel Pilz murmuring like a fluent Venusian reptile in heat. Very sensual playing like painters smearing their daubs for the sheer delight of colours and light. I particularly like ‘Les Travées Basses Des Façades’ as a simple duo set between clarinet and bass (later joined by drummer), but the full band experience on ‘De Béton Et De Verre’ or ‘Pré-Tension’ is also exhilarating. And pre-tentiousness is something these Frenchers are not afraid to be accused of, even as they occasionally hark back to 1980s Rock In Opposition or 1970s French prog in their eclectic playing. 2010 recordings made in the Pierre Schaeffer studio. Probably you can get a copy of this from the Bimbo Tower shop in Paris.

Ryu Hankil / Hong Chulki / Nick Hoffman
Some vinyl overlooked since May 2012 from the Pilgrim Talk label. In these quarters we like Nick Hoffman and his many low-key projects which cover quiet improvised music, Black Metal, and power noise, but are mostly quite hard to classify. We also like the way he doesn’t boast or gab loudly about his achievements. This vinyl is also unassuming in spite of its freaky, bloodthirsty cover image, and the music resists simplistic appraisal. Sonne documents a trio comprising Hoffman, Ryu Hankil, and Hong Chulki and was recorded in Korea. American Hoffman is actively engaged in a hands across the water programme with Asian improvisers. He’s done more for Korea than the United Nations Security Council, that’s for sure. Both of the young Korean players here have moved away from their respective pop group / rock band beginnings, and taken turns into their own form of weird and far-out exploratory improvisation, one of them inspired to do so by Otomo Yoshihide. Now they both make odd noises with electrical devices, Chulki in particular choosing to subvert normal functions of his various playback devices. This shortish slab of vinyl has many of the label’s hallmarks, being decorated with old engravings and Hoffman drawings that invoke Satanic, morbid or esoteric themes, and the music itself is not explained at all. All we know is that it was recorded in a former industrial complex of some sort. Intentions, ideas, role-playing – even a simple instrument list – all of this contextual detail is denied to us, leaving us face to face with the stark void of strange and haphazard-sounding crackles and rumbles, interrupted by clonking percussive strokes. I much prefer it this way and while the music may occasionally appear baffling, boring and pointless, it is also very honest and has a rawness that is very bracing. For my previous speculations on the unique qualities of Pilgrim Talk releases, see this post. Limited pressing of 108 copies!


Domini Ascensionem: solid and brutal black metal fusion work flying off at unusual angles

Dodkvlt, III: Domini Ascensionem, South Korea, Misanthropic Art Productions, MACD  034 (2012)

Album No 3 from one-man black metal Finnish band Dodkvlt who I’d never heard of until just a month ago, “III: Domini Ascensionem” is a solid and brutal work that deserves to be brought to a wider audience, and might just be the break-through that Dodkvlt needs. The first track “Dark Void Architect” is a 12-minute opus that sums up the band’s style: it’s at once full-on heavy and aggressive, dense and raw in style and sound, grim and relentless in attitude, and apt to fly off at unexpected musical tangents. Even the opening bars of the song are unusual: they’re stately (synth) chamber music string work worthy of a Baroque concerto and through several passages in the song you can hear this orchestral loop repeat in the background. The rhythm and pace of the track swing from strong driving riffs to black metal storm blasts of fury to suddenly quiet passages of delicate solo piano melody. There’s some melodic hard rock in parts and some super-technical black metal riffing in others. All of this is laid over by incredibly demonic croaky vocals.

The rest of the album doesn’t quite reach the versatility of the opener if the songs are taken individually but they do boast some unexpected and interesting surprises. “A Curse upon this Wretched World” is very headbangingly groovy yet also features some unusual rhythms in parts and even a bit of sparkly space ambience that’s easily missed if you sneeze at the wrong time. As if to confuse listeners, the Dodkvlt man Lord Theynian brings back that orchestral loop from Track 1 into the dense structure. “As I Descend into the Bottomless Void” is fierce and uncompromising in its attack though it also has sections where the music appears to float in a huge empty cavern where there are no inhabitants and blackness is everywhere. About the ninth minute there’s an unexpected turn into post-metal rock bordering on lounge pop that very few bands would have thought of doing: Caina springs to mind as one of those bands not afraid to dip their toes into occasional easy-listening pop fluff.

It’s hard to keep up with the music as it changes a lot and there are no pauses between tracks so the album ends up sounding like a continuous hour-long drama with six varied if sometimes confusing movements. Suffice to say though that for an album that features a lot of improvised music, Lord Theynian’s ability to sustain the aggression and furious attitude through the entire recording and several episodes of melodic acoustic guitar, post-metal, classic strummed black metal, orchestral music loops, quiet solo piano interludes and the odd episode of space ambient is a marvel in consistency.

The album is best heard as one whole: there’s so much variety thrown at listeners nearly all at once though, and that can be a weakness in that the music might pass as a blur over many people’s heads and won’t get the appreciation it deserves. Probably the most important thing about this album is one that a lot of listeners won’t be aware of while they’re listening to it, and that’s the skill and restraint Lord Theynian has applied to structuring the music here: with so many different genres he can command, he’s arranged everything so every style of music can be heard clearly and there’s no overkill on any one style. The result is an album of varied music done in good taste and with respect for the different elements. Everything serves a purpose here. I sort of wish that the good lord had applied the same approach to his subject matter and his lyrics as they’re not that much out of the ordinary for black metal but that’s perhaps a minor point.

Contact: Misanthropic Art Productions

The Feather tipped the Serpent’s Scale: album inspired by vivid and unusual concept

Eagle Twin, The Feather tipped the Serpent’s Scale, US, Southern Lord, CD (2012)

Reading the fine print on the gatefold sleeve of this, Eagle Twin’s second album, and seeing ” … This album marks the conclusion of a deep, sometimes dark, shared personal journey for all involved …”, I was, I admit, afraid that this heralded the end of the desert doom metal rockers but from what I’ve seen on the Internet, Eagle Twin are in for the long haul but perhaps in a different, if no less thoughtful and literary direction. Members Gentry Densley and Tyler Smith draw lyrical inspiration from poet Ted Hughes, the Biblical story of Job who had to suffer endlessly and undergo a transformation in his relationship to God, the 20th century Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Compared to the first album “The Unkindness of Crows” which was dedicated to our favourite black birds that fought the sun and were scorched during the battle, “The Feather tipped the Serpent’s Scale” is a cleaner, almost rock’n’roll affair though still very heavy, dark and monumental. Here, the crows burnt by the sun are thrown back to Earth in the form of black snakes and must stay in their reptilian forms until they can be reborn and reclaim their true heritage.

The 18-minute “The Ballad of Job Cain”, cut into two 9-minute halves, is a roiling noisy work mixing quite complex percussion rhythms and beats derived from progressive jazz with twisting and tortured guitar drone chords. The atmosphere is intense, burning and malevolent. There’s a bit of throat-singing at the beginning which unfortunately doesn’t appear elsewhere on the album. Gentry Densley’s vocals still can descend very low to subterranean depths; his deep gravelly voice, as slow as the music is serpentine,  matches the vivid horror of the images of the two birds falling, condemned to crawl on the ground on their bellies. This two-parter is a restless beast, flitting from slow to mid-paced, filled with tension and turmoil, mirroring the agonies that the birds feel as they die and are reborn. (Well, one of them anyway as the other is called Cain and can never die – but of his fate, I remain in the dark as the album concentrates on his mortal brother’s destiny.)

“Lorca (Adan)” is a quieter and more measured affair: a sluggish pace and steady pace carry the almost dirge-like music dominated by long scything chords and Densley’s singing. About halfway through the track erupts in fury and there’s an extended instrumental section of controlled though simmering guitar aggression. The track segues into “Snake Hymn” through a cloud of searing hot guitar feedback noise; this is a major highlight of the album, very distorted in sound and featuring some incredible volume dynamics as the music dives into the quietest of quiet moments only to break out in a loud crash of abrasive guitar crunch and solid sub-bass riffing. Past the halfway mark, the track gets very chuggy with drums providing the driving force that energises Densley’s guitar-playing which sends out forceful flashes of guitar tone and melody.

We’re well and truly in the realms of snake mythology and symbolism by now, epitomised by “Horn-Snake-Horn”, a slow-burning piece on the mystical connections among snakes, fertility and renewal. Track 6 picks up the renewal theme and extends it into a legend of death and regeneration in which the mighty horned serpent heroically gives up its body to become mountains, landscapes, trees and ultimately birds. The epilogue in which he returns to life is celebratory for the most part but still has a dark mood. The bird has atoned for his past arrogance and presumption, and has sacrificed himself for the betterment of his fellow creatures and environment (this means he created of himself the Garden of Eden – what a hoot!); but it seems still that he has hard lessons to learn as a new path stretches before him – and what has happened to his brother in the meantime?

Most tracks are quite long and very busy, and sitting through the album in one hit, even though it’s actually less than an hour long, can be quite exhausting. It is truly an assault on the ears with complex jazz-influenced percussion rhythms and writhing guitar riffs and chords. The standard of playing and the level of consistency are very high; there is not one moment here that is wasted or should be edited for length. Eagle Twin have delivered an excellent album inspired by a strong, vivid and unusual concept redolent of Old Testament Bible absolutism, desert despair, snake symbolism and redemption through self-sacrifice. Aspiring young musicians, take note: all the technical prowess you can muster is as nothing if you don’t have a good theme or subject that can push you to creative and energetic heights.

I only wish – and here my gripes are my own personal preferences – that there was more throat-singing, that sometimes the music could be a bit cold to bring out the transformed birds’ new reptilian behaviour and nature, and that the album could blow out intensely hot and dry desert atmosphere along with cold, sliding leathery scales.

Contact: Southern Lord


German Oak: claustrophobic bunker music is a trip into deep black inner space and time

German Oak, self-titled, Flash Back, FBCD1001 

Originally released in 1972 and only selling eleven copies at the time (according to the Aquarius Records website) due to its meditation on Nazi German rule and World War II, this self-titled album by a German five-piece band has a very cold, strange and dark echoing sound: all the music had been recorded in a bunker. The album consists of extended rock-jazz instrumental jams with weird and very abstract rhythms dominated by blunted guitars, ghost drums and percussion, and other wailing instruments, some of which are identified as simply “noise”.

The atmosphere is very claustrophobic and the musicians play as though for their lives before the encroaching darkness crawls over their heads and shoulders, covering their eyes, mouths and ears, rendering them helpless and immobile and permanently entombed in the black bunker. There is quite a lot of tension especially in the suitably named “Down in the Bunker” where the very air, cold as it is, could be cut with a knife and the knife shudders briefly and freezes rock-solid.

The CD release consists of four tracks lasting just under 40 minutes and an extra three tracks including “Swastika Rising”. Of the four original tracks, “Raid over Dusseldorf” sounds the most psychedelic and trance-like, no doubt due to its driving rhythm loop and the dreamy, wobbly guitar tones that set up a swirling, spiralling ambience in which lead guitar melodies, tapping cymbals and a drumming groove take listeners on an extended trip through a time-tunnel vortex. This is a very delirious and mesmerising piece in spite of the underground conditions; come to think of it, the bunker studio setting enhances the music as each tone, riff or melody appears on the track as if emerging from unseen rabbit holes, to disappear back there once done, and so an element of surprise always seems to be hovering over the musicians’ jam.

“Swastika Rising” is notable for its creepy organ drone, electric guitar meanderings and its unfortunate ending (the tape cuts out) which lands us straight into a sample of a Nazi rally at which Adolf Hitler rants at the microphone, followed by a mellow-toned lead guitar solo over a surging yet choppy rhythm accompaniment. Contrary to its name, “The Third Reich” is a trippy, funky, mesmerising wander through inner space: probably not the kind of track folks on the Stormfront.org website will be discussing and dissecting any time soon. “Shadows of War” is a very muted track of organ drone followed by fragments of found sound, flotsam and jetsam effects: this piece lands the band close to the outright experimental and early industrial music territory inhabited by Throbbing Gristle, Monte Cazazza and SPK.

A very intriguing and remarkable album of dark, sinister ambience and moods, this deeply underground recording is worth finding and holding onto as much for its historical  context and place in German ’70s rock / pop music as for the music itself. The LP version apparently doesn’t contain the bonus tracks so the CD version is preferred.


Three Vinyl Varbins

After many CD releases, The Lickets finally made a vinyl LP. Here (on Earth) (INTERNATIONAL CORPORATION IC-011-A) contains just eight tunes with titles which speculate on the cosmos and its heavenly bodies, for all the world reading like chapter headings from a cosmological treatise by Robert Fludd or Paracelsus. Indeed all of its Renaissance science leanings can be discerned in the mystical cover art, which superimposes an anatomical human frame on top of a treated vista which combines pink-yellow clouds, the night sky, and the parched red trees of another planet. The strings of numbers at the base of this image confirm that The Lickets do not intend to ignore computer science in their world-view. Meanwhile the back cover is finding centres of psychic energy at various points on a city map, or a more general aerial view of our planet (more superimposed stars). Or perhaps these concentric circles indicate landing sites for extraterrestrial visitors. I find the sleeve more interesting than the music hereon, which while not at all unpleasant is not very challenging either. Simple major chords and slow arpeggios are strung out across rather uneventful, dreamy and near-ambient fields of syrup. The Lickets have tremendous control over their sound production and have developed a very polished and professional finish to their lushly-textured work, but compared to the days of 2005 when they made Fake Universe Man and produced lively, danceable instances of bizarre supermarket electro-pop, they seem to have less to say, in spite of all their advanced technique and studio-wise ability. This San Francisco combo used to keep a very low profile and their releases arrived with propaganda from their label pretending that the band didn’t even exist, and that International Corporation was in fact an entertainment conglomerate bent on taking over the world through music. Matter of fact that tactic was what appealed to me in the first place (similar strategy to The Residents, or Sudden Sway when they signed to a subsidiary of Warners). Released in 2011.

The item from Cold Spring Records is a split LP (CSR153LP) between Iron Fist Of The Sun and Burial Hex, and it’s quite a shocker. IFOTS‘s side is Grown Under English Ice, and it’s all the work of Brummie man Lee Howard, who’s been making records for about five years; Jennifer has already noted his one-take, icy nihilism (and an apparent fixation on Princess Di). As title indicates, this is a freezing cold and wintry work which is thoroughly steeped in a desperation and misanthropy that is peculiarly English, and to his credit Howard makes no concessions to international listeners, bellowing his unintelligible chants of hatred in a strong English accent. His remarkable yelling vocal style is his strongest point, particularly on ‘This Man Will Glow / Two Circles of Salt’, where he appears imprisoned in a living Hell with palpably thick walls of concrete. As he shrieks for deliverance from this grisly burial chamber, controlled feedback and vile electronic noise is shaped into pulsations that simultaneously hammer us like piledrivers and lash us like whips. He too, I expect, undergoes similar painful sensations as he pounds helplessly on the door of his cell. The record calms down slightly after that opening high point of agonised yowl, but continues with horrid synthesisers which almost resemble a sarcastic cartoon version of 1970s Kosmische music, with more unpleasant vocal murmurs and grunts. Smashing!

On Actaeon, Burial Hex offers us two suites ‘The Coming Of War’ and ‘Act Aeon’. I’m still trying to adjust to the fact that Clay Ruby, that seemingly affable and cowboy-hatted leader of US weird-folksters Davenport, has taken this dramatic turn away from songs, guitars and trancey melodies, and taken up a commission with the “dark ambient” brigade. In fact I have a whole CD by Burial Hex on this same label to look forward to. Of course Ruby has his own very personal take on the “cold Black Metal” genre, and the twists and turns of his warped personality are embedded in every note of Actaeon; as the record progresses, there are fewer reference points, no tunes of any kind, and the listener is lost in a strange and bleak world. Like the flipside of this split, it’s another celebration of the woes of the Hibernal season, and was “recorded in the throes of Winter 2011″. The only connection it has with IFOTS is that Burial Hex also uses shouty vocals, with the vocalist likewise poised on the edge of a histrionic screaming fit. The shrieks become even more unsettling, until it’s far from clear what sort of emotion might be depicted at all; it could be some new, diabolical strain of psychological blackness that goes beyond mere despair. These uncanny ululations are bolstered with wayward electronic music (maybe), unnerving sound effects, and an abiding tone of bleak nameless horror. Essential charred food for your black soul!

Datashock are a nine-piece set of German freaky-styled ensemble players from the state of Saarland, and you can hear numerous examples of their spaced-out musical tranceouts on Pyramiden Von Gießen (DEKORDER 052), an entire double LP complete with suitably cosmic colourful graphics printed on its sturdy gatefold, plus a baffling surrealist text by Jürgen Ploog which poses the conundrum “Sounds, what are they?”. The very full sound of this band seems to me to fit in perfectly with the aesthetic of Dekorder; even the owner, Marc Richter, makes solo records that are replete three-course meals of overdubbed keyboards that swell with drone like pastry horns full of whipped cream. Pascal Hector is the main man behind this troupe of free-wheeling hairies, and his own label Meudiademorte has represented many contemporary examples of the free-form fuzz genre – Vanishing Voice, Sunburned Hand, Silvester Anfang, etc. From their website’s polemic and the studied air of stoned insouciance and poised weirdness that exudes from the band photos, it’s clear Datashock would like to pay their respects to trippy and far-out 1970s prog of all stripe, including Pink Floyd, Amon Düül and (probably, though not explicitly named) Gong; while at the same time avoiding any accusations of holding on to the past. Well and good, but on the grooves of this record there just isn’t enough commitment to really getting lost in the realms of the unknown. Datashock have a pleasant sound and there are lots of instruments playing at once, but each tune follows the same formula: one four-bar motif, repeated ad nauseam with very slight variations, until the tape recorder runs out or the needle hits the end of the record. Too much of the record is slow and ponderous without ever being profound, and the sluggishness is wearisome. They never seem to leave their comfort zone, and the music lacks tension. I’d just like to hear this band really cut loose and get a lot wilder and noisier, instead of circling around in these self-regarding mutual admiration sessions.


Dynamo Queens and Kings

Illusions in Zurich

Four side-long pieces of excellent instrumental work from the trio Tetras on their double album Pareidolia (FLINGCO SOUND SYSTEM FSS-017). If you think 20-minute tracks are excessive, you’re actually getting off lightly, since these guys (who first assembled in 2009) usually opt to play for at least one hour or longer when they hit the performing arena with their set-up. It’s the percussionist Jason Kahn, with two Swiss players – Jeroen Visser on the electric organ, and the bassist Christian Weber. Like all well-versed contemporary musicians, they manage to incorporate a large bundle of modernist influences and aspirations into this simple arrangement, and are informed by experimental rock music, improvisation, free jazz, classical minimalist composition, and basic drone music too. Just take the first track for instance. The “surface” impression is that of a tight percussion-heavy jazz unit, until you listen in more closely and you discover Weber is playing acoustic bass figures that are as repetitious and menacing as early Pere Ubu records. Kahn likewise is filling all available space with his circular drumming patterns, leaning heavily on the bass toms (other reviewers have made a viable Jaki Liebezeit connection here). Meanwhile Visser is steadily pumping out basic two-note drones on his organ with a near-mechanical insistence and earning himself comparisons with Gareth Williams of This Heat. So far this is like abstract impressionist painting forced into a tight Mondrian grid.

Side 2 starts out as minimalist noise – an attenuated and coarse organ sound wheezing steadily over a small chiming percussion riff, the players maintaining their iron concentration with the implacable will of a grand inquisitor. The organ riff, perhaps assisted by the bass, grows into a more unsettling growler, hissing with serpentine threats. Side 3 is another manifestation of the trio’s protean skills, beginning as a monstrous cloud of thick droney noise, then settling into a skeletal riff where the tension and dynamics between the players are incredible; everything seems to depend on split-second responses and careful listening (which is what good improvisation is meant to be doing anyway). Few conservative jazz musicians, regardless of how advanced they may be, would allow themselves to be this simple; few rock musicians could play with this much grace. I’m very glad to see the organ returning as a credible instrument in this area (admittedly, the only example I can think of is Alexander Hawkins and Decoy), and while I can recommend this record to all lovers of organ music, it’s also fairly matchless as an example of tight, concentrated and completely natural improvised group playing, where the results are mesmeric and endlessly fascinating. Arrived 23 January 2012. The cover is apparently a luxury silkscreen artwork printed on thick foldover card 1.

Ticking away the moments…

I’ve recently come across an odd French film from 1972, Les Soleils De L’Ile De Paques. I haven’t watched it yet but I have the odd feeling that Beyond Man And Time (GENTLE ART OF MUSIC GAOM 009), a recent release from a German art rock band RPWL, might make an appropriate soundtrack. This unashamed “concept album” has high ambitions – the press notes mention Nietzsche, Plato, and philosophy, and the plan is to construct nothing less than a “topographic map of the new world”. Musical themes have been written for all the characters that appear on the journey, and each one also stands as an allegorical symbol – The Keeper, The Scientist, The Creator, The Fisherman, to name but four. As an unapologetic fan of progressive rock, and an unyielding defender of Pete Townshend’s decisions to create lame “musical themes” within his rock operas, I have no problems with any of this so far, and anything that namechecks Tales From Topographic Oceans (whether subconsciously or no) is aces with me. If only RPWL’s actual music were more exciting; all I hear from Yogi Lang and his crew is rather twee and tasteful songs with bland melodies and sung with audibly wide-eyed optimism, and despite the promises of eastern percussion and moog solos abounding, the album is mostly identikit Euro-rock, the sort of thing you might hear accompanying a fashion show in Hamburg, or a Berlin cable TV show. Too much politeness, not enough excess. The musicians are more than competent (in fact their technical skills make the entire proposition almost too smooth in places), and I don’t doubt Lang’s sincerity or his ideals, but if this supposedly “non-conformist” record really is “a plea for original thinking, dissent and liberation” then I think we have a right to expect music that is a good deal more challenging than this. Even the cover art is disappointing, uncertain whether it intends to be profoundly symbolist, or merely comical. Arrived 12 January 2012.

Words Are Not As Strange

Astonishing and highly original chamber-jazz from the Michael Vlatkovich Ensemblio, on An Autobiography Of A Pronoun (PFMENTUM CD067). I never heard of Vlatkovich before, but he’s been composing music for thirty years and has twenty releases in his catalogue, many of them released on his own ThankYou Records label. This Missouri-born trombonist, composer and arranger has been based in Los Angeles since 1973, and has performed around the world with numerous collaborators and groups. Working here with some topnotch American musicians (Jeff Kaiser, William Roper, Brian Walsh, Wayne Peet and many others), Vlatkovich delivers some of the most fascinating music in the jazz vernacular I’ve ever heard. His method inevitably involves the integration of improvisational passages with composed passages, but he stresses in his notes to this release that he has no interest in discussing his techniques, and would prefer his music to be “experienced emotionally”. Elsewhere, I learn that his structures tend to be simple and minimal, which is encouraging news and suggests that he’s found a way to power his compositions in such ways that the energy of his collaborating players is harnessed to the full. When I think of other musicians who have done similar things, e.g. John Zorn, Braxton or Cecil Taylor, the results are always powerful and effective, but you often have the sense of the “structure” in place which is driving everything; sometimes you can even hear the joins. Vlatkovich succeeds in hiding the joins, and the music just sweeps you away as directly as anything by Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus. Each piece is a delight of odd dynamics, concentrated musical information, and evidence of the many “variables” the composer uses in his integration actions. The track titles (see back cover) may strike you as a bit contrived or even too “cute”, but when you hear the music I think you’ll begin to sense the cohesion of the whole package. Indeed many of these pieces, with their deliberately awkward phrasing, tricky rhythms, and highly inventive melodies, come to resemble a sort of fractured story-telling or absurdist poetry. “There is a lot going on during portions of this CD”, claims the composer, and that’s putting it mildly. What a very pleasant discovery. Arrived 24 January 2012.

  1. Images of the Tetras cover are not mine, but have been copied from virtual-ritual.blogspot.com, junodownload.com, and flingcosound.com.

My Enslavement

The Undersea World of Phlebas the Phoenician

I’ve recently found the “September” bag of CDs, although there’s still a sizeable bunch of releases from the summer of 2011 not yet fully unwrapped. First today is a fine art piece of business from two Italian composers, Fabio Selvafiorita and Valerio Tricoli. For Death By Water (DIE SCHACHTEL ZEIT C07) they worked with a tremendous quantity of field recordings made in Italy, and then performed a kind of four-handed live mix on the tapes as if they were two concert pianists, playing the editing suite and mixing desk with their supple digits. As it happens, they managed to compress many hours of sound into a single 41-minute piece this way, but the main thrust of the work is to convey an incredible sense of space, distance and impossibly enormous vistas. “The space for me is the main topic of the composition”, confirms Fabio, in between mouthfuls of brushcetta. “A new imaginary space perception should always be the result”. This concern is clearly echoed in the striking cover art produced by dinamo milano, a landscaped vista which requires three panels of the digipak to express its complete latitude. While I was at first reminded of the sleeve art to the first two Blue Öyster Cult LPs drawn by Bill Gawlik, the artwork and music here both portray a near-desolate dimension of profound and static minimalism, only tangentially connected with the watery sources that fed into it. The canal or lake of the front cover is nought but a block of solid blackness; the waters on the disc, transmogrified and re-digitised like so much strained soup, have evolved into a murky blob of mysterious proportions. The listener will soon find themselves rather lost in the midst of this abstracted ocean, lacking compass or sextant to set their course. The reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was added at the eleventh hour as the finishing touch to their labours. Tricoli had at least one release on the Italian Bowindo label whose abiding aesthetic was, I recall, one of supreme bafflement. This one is less of a “question-mark special”, has plenty of fascinating incident layered into the minimal spaciness, and pound for pound it would made a nifty soundtrack for any tourist walking over the Bridge of Sighs.

There’s Orangey

Sulatron-Records from Hunfeld in Germany has sent quite a few groovnik items this year. To hand I have Electric Orange‘s Netto (SULATRON ST 1102) which arrived 5th September. This four-piece of players make an unashamed effort to emulate the glory years of Krautrock and Kosmische music from the 1970s and immerse themselves fully in that world with 100% commitment, using authentic period instruments – the shopping list of keyboard player Dirk Jan Müller includes mellotron, Farfisa organ, mini-moog, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes piano and a Leslie speaker, the sort of equipment line-up that reduces many musical instrument fetishists to a quivering bowl of jelly. They’re also skilled players and know how to combine rock-energy with cosmic noodling with ease. We’ve heard from them before, enjoyed ‘em, and this release doesn’t disappoint; it may not be especially inventive music, but if you like Krautrock and European prog from the 1970s, you will be in gatefold-sleeve incense-stick heaven within a matter of moments with these nine instrumental noodlers.

Me Myself an Eye

Ahh, here’s a nice lively jumping bean from Claude Spenlehauer of Myself who personally sent us a copy of Haro! (WHOSBRAIN RECORDS WHB-34) from his home in Strasbourg. It arrived 5th September but was released in May this year. Myself are a European three piece using drums, guitars, synths, bass, and live electronics to create a solid, thunking form of noise rock which is extremely exciting, especially with its chanted and shouty gruntoid-vocals that punctuate the loopy squeals and thuds. Myself play as though their very whiskers are on fire and they also seem to have a severe case of split personality which works in their favour, on the one hand trying for the sort of Neanderthal primal electric noise that might endear them to Sister Iodine, yet also keeping one ear firmly trained on their French 1970s art-rock legacy that includes Lard Free, Etron Fou Leloublanc, and even Magma at a stretch. Wild noise blended with tricky time signatures, in short. Result: a delicious spicy sizzling dish of unkempt free-jazz saxophone whoopness, souped-up stoner rock bass guitar, Math-rock throat-shredding vocals, and a leaden drum sound you could use as the foundation for a ten-storey building. Such energy. As cover art clearly shows, listening to this beasticle is like sweating it out for ten rounds with an angry bull.

Doesn’t Lose Suction

After that churning heat-blast, Deison‘s Night Sessions (SILENTES MINIMAL EDITIONS SME 1149) record of ambient electronics is positively glacial and soothing, a big dab of Valderma for my scalded buttocks. For this, 1990s electro-veteran Deison collaborated with a cabal of international Secret Men including Franck Vigroux, Teho Teardo, Philippe Petit, Scanner, Testing Vault, and others. The studio was an obscure rendezvous, everyone wore a cape and slouch hat to get there, and messages were transmitted by code. Track titles like ‘Hidden Orchestra’, ‘Sleepless Train’, ‘Insomnia’ and ‘Black Light’ are not only quite evocative, but are redolent of this album’s themes – the listener is plunged, almost instantly, into a dimly-lit nocturnal environment and starts to hallucinate in a sleep-deprived state, assisted by pulsating lights and the general air of uncertainty. Deison’s sounds may not be 100% inventive throughout, but he never sinks into default-keyboard-setting cliches, and this record does hew very closely to its declared themes and its chosen aesthetic blueprint. A true nightowl, Deison has his best ideas after dark and most of this record was made during the night hours, when he is at his most creative. Verily, a Cesare for our times. This arrived from Italy on 9th September.

Deliver No Evil, Live On Reviled

Received a couple of really great CDs by The Pitchshifters on 360° Records in Japan. Clearly the pair of them belong together – Palindromes (360R41) spelled backwards is Semordnilap (360R42), and the artwork of one is nearly a colour inverse of the other. Once you’ve figured out the abstruse track titling system, and understood that the minimal text printed underneath “resonance chambers” is about as much information as you’re ever going to learn about the band, then prepare for a treat with these delicious miniatures of gritty electropop tunes and instrumentals. Electronic keyboards with lush organ sounds and piping high tones play impossibly beautiful meandering melodies, set to the rhythms of simple pop beats (live drumming, not programmed). The overall sound is filtered through a slightly distorted veil that makes all the music seem nostalgic and distant, like watching a Japanese TV commercial from the 1960s on a tiny TV screen from 50 feet away, advertising a supremely elaborate and gorgeous toy plastic robot which you only ever owned in the childhood of your dreams. This odd music manages to be both upbeat and slightly sad at the same time, often within the same tune, which is a very fair accomplishment, and I do like the way its creators remain at one step removed from us, even to the extent of appearing to be half-absent from the making of the record. The Pitchshifters may or may not be one person, Hideto Aso. This is pop music that’s almost a force of nature, like crystals forming in a secret cave. Lovely packaging, too. The producer of the label, Taro Nijikame, apparently likes The Sound Projector very much and admires my world. Now I admire his.