Tagged: sound art

The Kryptokontur Factor

Here’s the third CD just prised out of the P16.D4 Passagen (MONOTYPE RECORDS mono58) box set. The story of Nichts Niemand Nirgends Nie is quite involved; originally released as a double album in 1986, it was a collaboration between P16.D4 and S.B.O.T.H.I., the latter of course being Achim Wollscheid who was the co-founder with Ralf Wehowsky of the important and seminal Selektion Records label. On this CD, we’re only getting the tracks from that double LP which were directly attributable to P16.D4, a selection process which thus excludes those tracks explicitly “composed” by Achim. However, since Achim transformed a lot of the original sounds on P16.D4’s studio tracks, it’s not always crystal clear where one man’s input leaves off and another begins. This amorphous and rather “blendy” quality seems to have permeated the whole of this record of 1985 recordings; somewhere, we seem to have lost a few rough surfaces and sharp edges, and the music / sound is generally less “prickly” than the two cactus plants I have impaled my ears on previously. However, the radical and rugged experimentation that characterises P16.D4 is clearly still in evidence. There are lots of conventional musical instruments being played, apparently – the track notes list them meticulously – but virtually nothing sounds familiar to our ears, bar the occasional moment of church organ which makes its way into the strange sonic minefield of ‘Virtuelle Altare’. Everything else – piano, double bass, synths, guitars, piano – has somehow been refashioned into various concoctions of evil, swamp-like gloop, pulsating with the life of a million teeming insects from Hell, and glowing with an eerie incandescence which we can only attribute to nuclear irradiation. One swallow brings the Spring, or at least a fatal ingestion of Plutonium.

As to “concept” and “realisation” of the music, RLW and Stefan E. Schmidt are responsible for the lion’s share of the studio tracks, although Roger Schönauer gets a credit on the highly memorable ‘My Last Words Will Be…’, a somewhat bleakified and ambiguous journey through a slow-moving fog, a yellow fog that thickens and coagulates the more we press on. It’s from the original side C of the double LP, so it’s live recordings – this particular project deploying pre-recorded tapes, played by two separate groups of participants. The use of the swimming pool as an instrument here is commendable. You could use ‘My Last Words Will Be…’ to induce a cheese-infested dream that would alarm any one of Windsor McCay’s Rarebit Fiends. This process-heavy album culminates in the only way it can – by recycling elements from the rest of the double LP in an orgy of reprocessing, and accordingly we get the pre-programmed chaos of ‘The Other Cellophane Upsurge’, where in just 8 and a half minutes RLW and Schmidt manage to make even the most solid of everyday objects appear doubtful, ambiguous and unfamiliar. If they’d been architects, they would have constructed a block of flats with disappearing floors that drop the dwellers to their doom in a pit full of bones, and ceilings that flip over 180 degrees to release a colony of live tarantulas into the room. NNNN – as RLW refers to it, for convenience – is superficially easier on the ears than the fragmented and reassembled rubble we’ve heard so far in the box, yet that sense of safety is a complete illusion. The record is in fact made even more subversive by dint of its smooth corners and gently sloping pathways; it’s a dose of strychnine concealed inside a chewy caramel. The CD release includes a 1991 piece, ‘Ephemeral March of the Dead Monks’, which was selected because it reused some of the live material from the original 1985 project. It’s coming from the same dark corner of the brain as ‘My Last Words Will Be…’, may even have some of the same content, yet is more extreme, spooked-out and ghastly than its brother, an intensified re-experiencing of that dream, only with a stronger brand of cheese.

CD1 reviewed here
CD2 reviewed here

Star and Crescent

Kaffe Matthews was the heroine of “real-time” live processing in the late 1990s, with her lively and spirited electronic transformations of improvised music which she did with LiSa software. She kindly sent us a copy of Yird Muin Starn (ANNETTE WORKS AWpd002) in February 2013, released on her own label and a collaboration with the film-maker and visual artist Mandy McIntosh. It’s a fairly “cosmic” release –  the title translates from old Scots into “Earth Moon Star” – and one might almost want to label it a concept album, or at least following in the traditions of certain 1970s prog masterpieces I know so well, were it not for the highly unusual take these two artists lend to their star-gazing themes. What emerges is not clumsy Erich Von Daniken rehashed drivel, but genuinely mysterious and sometimes haunting observations about the cosmos. The verbal half of the album, penned and sung or recited by McIntosh, contains explicit various space-bound themes, but written from an oblique angle: the ode to Neil Armstrong, likening him to a wandering Odysseus figure, is especially poignant, but there is also a narrative description of a Scottish meteorite (probably read from an early chronicle) delivered in crisp and didactic terms, and an “Earth Mother” hymn of sorts embodied in the song ‘Himiko’. Matthews meanwhile approaches the theme from a more abstract and structural position, and apparently uses data derived from star constellations as a means to reprocess her field recordings in the computer – said field recordings retrieved from the Galloway Forest, natch. Did I mention the duo have been working in Galloway for about two years now? This album is just one of a series of works they’ve been commissioned to make in that area, supported with money from the Scotland Forestry Commission, and the completed multi-media works in the series include The Galloway Spacesuits and the Three Sky Gazer Chairs. Given McIntosh’s undeniable Scots accent, whose sweet tones are present throughout over half of this album, and the numerous local references scattered through the lyrical and imagistic content, it’s probably not far of the mark to deem this a very site-specific work, one where the very environment itself has been recast and reworked into music by Matthews, in ways described above. The results are totally unique, and I can guarantee you have never heard the like…the best documentary / spoken word / poetry / song+electronic music / astronomy sound-art album of 2013!

Fee Kürten from Germany is also a visual artist and sound artist, and as Tellavision she has made Music On Canvas (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR111), a 45RPM 12-incher which was released in April 2013. Given the title of this mini-album, it’s possible she regards these songs as extensions of her paintings or drawings; if she did the cover art (it’s not credited), you can see the qualities that interest her, those half-finished and tentative lines brushing some parts of the canvas, with bold gestural marks of colour in others. In like manner, these songs are remarkably bold as studio constructions: using very stark instrumentation (guitars, drum machines, harmonica, keyboards) to build a framework which leaves yawning gaps to be filled by her vocals, said vocals quite exploratory in they way they search for the hidden or implied melody in each tune, and even more allusive and hard to fathom when you start looking into the content of the lyrics. In just ten short songs, your intrigue-ometer will be bubbling around the 98-degrees mark and you’ll know it’s time for you to come out of the oven, but is anybody waiting for you with a pair of oven gloves? Probably not Fee Kürten, who’s more likely to have taken off on an unexpected three-month trip to Asia without so much as a note to the landlord. The press notes are impressed by her “minimal pop aktion”, and liken her sounds to various manifestations of 1970s New Wave Music. I found her mannered vocals a tad difficult at first, and had the impression she sounded bored and unengaged, but I’ve since come to enjoy her “abstract expressionist pop”.

Lastly we have a Kim Gordon “side project”, and while I gather that this Body / Gate / Head was pretty much a one-off performance from 2012, her Body / Head group with Bill Nace has continued to be quite productive since 2011. Glare Luring Yo (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR099) sees Gordon and Nace playing with Michael Morley, the New Zealander who is Gate and was one third of The Dead C. Their three massed guitars were recorded in Massachusetts when they performed at the “Yod Space” and at Feeding Tube. If you can get hold of a copy of this vinyl item (released January 2013), you’ll be greeted with two interminable sides of slow, desolate, guitar grind, the sickening sensation of abject doom occasionally alleviated by Gordon’s harrowing vocals. Naturally, I was appalled on first spin of this pallid horror, but now I’m digging into the frozen ground and starting to discern some of the ultra-subtle guitar twangamaroos in the fabric, which we can attribute to these thirty deep-frozen fingers at work. There’s a sort of chilling beauty within this deathly and ethereal drift, even if it’s akin to the beauty of smouldering angels dissolving in the ruins of a chapel after a nuclear holocaust. One senses that prolonged listening would induce similar effects to a dose of nerve gas. Apparently the performance took place with a film screening; all I know about Catherine Breillat’s Une Vraie Jeune Fille is that I haven’t yet seen it, but it’s reckoned to be something of an overlooked cult gem of story-less surrealism and bizarre imagery, a 1976 oddity that’s just ripe for rediscovery by today’s jaded appetites. To heighten the pleasure of whatever wide-eyed audience of hungry wraiths turned up at Florence MA, said film was projected at a much slower speed than normal. Speculating, you could say that the trio of guitarists were playing in sympathy with that projection speed, but I think it’s more plausible to say the music has the effect of slowing down the rest of the world to its own inhuman pace, just by the power of amplified ultra-chill boniness. A car crash in slow motion. Hearing this is like being subjected to the Buffer Gas beam, resulting in masses of cold, slow-moving molecules which cluster about your face and neck.

Digital Tranquiliser

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Last heard from Arturas Bumšteinas, the Lithuanian genius, in around 2011 with his very interesting CD My Own Private Bayreuth about a Wagner festival and his failed attempts to get a season ticket for the event…although of course he also contributed ‘Opera Povera’ to a Pure project called No End of Vinyl in 2013. We got Sleep (An Attempt At Trying) (BOLT RECORDS BR K002) on 16 April 2013 and it’s released on the lovely Bolt Records imprint which dogs my life so much…I think this subsidiary of Monotype Records is largely curated by Michal Libera, and it so happens that this month I finally got around to reading his book about a sound-art exhibition which he put on some time ago…the book was called Making the walls quake as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers and he compiled this eclectic collection of essays / reprints with the help of Lidia Klein…it was for a major exhibition in Poland that took place in the latter half of 2012…very much connected with ideas about architecture, and sound in enclosed space…I should have jotted down my thoughts at time of reading but some of it is a really great read, while other chapters seem pointless, infuriating and a bit pretentious…but I always enjoy it when well-read people delve into obscure parts of written history and make abstruse and unexpected connections, even if some of the ideas are a bit far-flung…

The theme of the present album is sleep and insomnia, two subjects which mean a great deal to me personally…I’m certainly on the side of those surrealists who believed in the power of sleep and the notion that real life actually takes place in our dreams. My copies of Little Nemo in Slumberland are well-thumbed…I live by Nemo’s philosophy…my favourite parts of movies are dream sequences, even the really nasty one in Rosemary’s Baby…Bumšteinas here gives us nine languid tracks of syrupy and beautiful chamber music played a small team of excellent musicians including the woodwind player Ilia Belorukov who is doing great things in Russia with his Wozzeck projects…the work began in 2011 when Arturas had a commission from German Radio…he subsequently decided to transform the music he’d written into a “radio broadcast for insomniacs”…it’s about time we were catered for…why doesn’t the BBC do something like this for minorities? When he broadcast this much-needed event (he should have been awarded 15 medals for performing a public service), he got the radio producer and sound-artist Marcus Gammel to host it and provide a narration, hopefully spoken in muffled tones and filled with strange utterances from his Bremen tongue…the songs were credited to bands that don’t exist, like The Sleepless International. That’s not a band name, it’s the basis of an entire political movement! To cap it all the actual broadcast was interrupted by live telephone conversations with insomniacs who phoned in and started mumbling vaguely about their affliction, perhaps to be greeted by sympathetic ears of fellow sufferers. I’m not a massive fan of that sentimental movie Field Of Dreams, but the encouraging idea of “if you build it, they will come” certainly seems to have taken root on this occasion. I am half-reminded of the time when John Duncan did it with Tom Recchion (released as a record called Station Event) and without barely lifting a finger, he received some pretty unusual phone calls from listeners. The gentle provocation of art can push at some doors, even if it doesn’t always open them.

What we have on the CD appears not to be an actual document of that broadcast, but it does have songs and spoken word elements overlaid on the very woozy and amorphous musical constructions, and these may have been provided by the lyricist Kyrre Björkås. His vocals are half-asleep already, or else adopting a deliberately soothing and muffled tone so that not a single harsh syllable jumps out to disturb the mood. The sound of this music is also a gorgeous experience…never settling for a lazy drone, or any expected “ambient” cop-outs, the composer is working hard…he takes every opportunity to bend notes, mould them like liquid plaster, spin them into shapes like twisted epoxy resin…through meticulous methods, a virtual “pink cloud” is assembled from this intricate scored music of his. He also coaxes some beautiful sounds and tones from these strings, horns, keyboards, guitars and percussion, exhibiting a delicacy of touch that puts many to shame. His collaborators on this record must be applauded to the heavens for their sensitive and empathetic contributions. They have replaced their fingers with feathers, soft down from an eiderdown, so gentle is their fingering. Notice also sleeve artwork that features small picture of a sleeping pill capsule of some sort and remainder of typography resembles something you would purchase in the pharmacy…but it doesn’t feel like a dose of SOMA is being prescribed, the drug which causes the brain to stop thinking, and instead the album proposes music as a healthy alternative to drugs, as expressed in the phrase “substitute for insomnia medication”. In all a very coherent statement that adheres to its theme fixedly, is bound to have desired effects for the sleepless ones, may well induce imagistic dreams for many listeners, and is like drinking a draught of liquefied golden syrup.

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BlakesianWilliamness: a heady noise psychedelic journey of inner space

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Holism Gaea, BlakesianWilliamness, Heart & Crossbone, CDR-HCB042 (2013)

As its title suggests, this debut album by new duo Holism Gaea is inspired by the British poet / artist William Blake, in particular his early personal philosophy as expressed in his work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. I must admit I know very little about Blake and have not read that work but I hazard that some of its ideas on dualism in art and human existence prefigure Friedrich Nietzsche’s later concept of the development of art and culture in Western societies, revolving around two polarities of Apollonian order, structure and authoritarianism on the one hand, and Dionysian spontaneity, inspiration and creativity on the other. To be honest, I get very little sense of Blake’s early dualistic worldview from this recording and I think your enjoyment of the music need not depend on knowing any of the writer’s corpus.

The music is a mix of noise, tribal and space ambient, and post-industrial. “Antares Fall” leads off with a sinister beat against a weird spitting and hissing space-travel noise / electronica background. Cold sculptured tone effects form a repeating melodic motif while wubbly electronic sounds erupt and bubble continuously. The track develops into a lumbering majestic opus of mesmeric spooky voodoo rhythms and beats, runaway electronic thrills and flips, and echoes of a distant alien god looking over its cosmic creation and voicing more commands as galaxies and nebulae spring into being and fly out to the farthest reaches of the universe. Altogether this is a most strange and impressive opus that could well stand on its own as it draws in listeners and takes them on a trip through huge vistas of space at the speed of light. “But into the Wine Presses” is a more mysterious piece of spiralling noise and frothing texture over which sharp pin-prick tones dance lightly. “Ah! Sunflower” is a wonderful track of both early shuddering noise storm, eerie UFO lift-off effects and warm gentle cosmic-space tone ambience over which the Blake poem of the same name is recited.

More deliriously cosmic trance music, highly immersive to the point where it might be overwhelming and suffocating, follows: “The Argument” especially is a dark and sinister psychedelic mindfuck of wobbling rubber drone and abrasive texture crunch and shuffle. A robot voice detracts from the music which is forced to assume a more passive role while the vocals drone on but whenever the speaking stops, the noises and tones are able to fly as sky-high or as deep in the bowels of Sheol as they like. The album concludes with another epic space voyage that takes listeners deeper into realms and sub-realms of the extended universe as its branches stretch ever further into infinity. The sounds and textures quickly overflow the limits of restraint and boil into exaggerated clouds of noise chaos. The structure collapses and cannibalises itself, staving off final implosion where it can. But Dark Nemesis claims her own eventually.

This is quite heady music, highly absorbing especially when the singing or chanting ends and allows the instrumentals to launch themselves as far into the firmament of the heavens as they can. At times though some passages of music can become a bit comical possibly because the musicians let themselves go with the music and it flows or falls into excess. A lot of the music here is not exactly original; most parts will sound familiar to people already steeped in epic space-ambient psychedelia and it seems as if Blake’s early philosophy provides a convenient excuse for an all-embracing space-voyage soundtrack. But if you simply want music to transport you away into inner space, there are few recordings that can match this one for its consistency.

Hip and Deranged

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J Marks / Shipen Lebzelter
Rock and Other Four Letter Words
UK PARADIGM DISCS PD28 LP (2012)

Here’s a real one of a kind item from 1968, reissued in 2012 by Clive Graham on his own label…once in a while Graham gets his hands on some real freakeroonies, such as Beyond The Black Crack by Revd Dwight Frizzell and the indispensable Bunhill Row by Adam Bohman. Rock and Other Four Letter Words, as a partially spoken-word LP, also fits into his personal interest in the Sound Poetry genre, and he has played it on his radio show Sound Poets Exposed alongside the works of Peter Handke, Kenneth Gaburo and Lou Harrison.

The original album was put together by J Marks and Shipen Lebzelter, and released by Columbia Masterworks. The story of it is that J Marks had just compiled a paperback of this title for Bantam Books featuring photographs of contemporary rock stars by Linda Eastman, with quotes from Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, The Bee Gees, The Mothers of Invention… The record we now hear was built around his tape recordings of these interviews. I should say that this LP is very far from being the “album of the book”. In fact neither these tape snippets, nor the LP itself, really explain anything about the rock musicians or their music. Instead their statements are largely fragmented, cut up and rearranged with tremendous care to form ambiguous and witty collages. It’s form of electro-acoustic manipulation, and does in some sense qualify as “sound poetry”. At least four of the tracks here allow us to hear imaginary surreal dialogues and conversations taking place between Townshend, Page, Grace Slick, Tim Buckley, Lou Adler, the Dave Clark Five and other luminaries. In these meticulously assembled segments, can we expect the “truth” about rock music in 1968 to leak out, Burroughs-style, from these compressions and cut-ups? Hear (and read) to judge for yourself. On ‘Eine Kleine Hayakawa’, Marks edited together various out-take portions – strings of pauses, yawns, mutterings and stutterings from these genius rock stars, not necessarily to make them look stupid, but simply to create 90 seconds of gloriously loopy mouth-gibberish.

I suppose we might expect “rock music” to appear here somewhere, but apart from a “rock riff” supplied by J Marks on the first track, there isn’t much of it. There is gospel, soft pop, absurd songs, microtonal chanting, and an orchestra of session musicians playing all sorts (some of them are from a free jazz background, see below). It’s a verbal and vocal album – if I can state the obvious, there’s a lot of vocals on this album, and they’re producing a veritable tidal wave of verbal information, crashing against your brain in slow motion. “This is the Word” is the opening statement on the insert, as if we’re being read scripture from the Gospel of Rock. On top of the recorded voices and cut-ups, we’ve got two separate choirs – the Gregg Smith Singers and the Greater Abyssynian Baptist Choir, and occasional lead vocals from Marks and Lebeltzer joined by the soloists Hilda Harris and Carol Miller. Harris and Miller do a fine turn on ‘It’s True’, one of many easy-listening swoonalongs on the record, Lebeltzer recites a poem on ‘Essence of its Own’, and all four are featured on ‘Greatest Hits – Love Your Navel’, a vaudeville parody song with absurdist lyrics which would’ve felt right in place on the first United States Of America album (one of this disc’s progenitors, in my estimation; another would be Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy). Harris and Miller are also called upon to recite random words plucked from US sportscasts as the libretto for ‘Poop for Sopranos and Orchestra’, another grandiose nonsense which inflates the ridiculous into the size of a Macy’s parade balloon. To their credit, the very professional singers take it all perfectly seriously, never once cracking an audible grin. Can this possibly get any better?

Well, there’s Gregg Smith Singers who on side one perform ‘In the Middle of Nothing’ which is a gorgeous Fifth Dimension soundalike with a suitably smooth arrangement, but they also sing a remarkable free-form microtonal piece on ‘Essence of its Own’, worthy of a Ligeti choir piece. At moments like these it’s clear the record has an artistic side and the creators’ printed dedication to Karlheinz Stockhausen “who destroyed our ears so we could hear” is not merely empty posturing. Besides that, they somehow recruited Alan Silva to contract some of the session musicians, and he brought in some of his free jazz friends – Andrew Cyrille, Roswell Rudd, Stephen Furtado, Martin Alter…seems astonishing that CBS would have lavished all this money on such a bizarre project from two unknowns, but I suppose this was a more innocent time. The back cover blurb “Featuring a cast of thousands” isn’t far from the mark…and that phrase resonates nicely with the hucksterism promised by the front cover, which resembles a Barnum & Bailey circus poster as much as it’s inspired by Dada typography.

It’s one thing to zoom in on various odd aspects and single tracks of this unusual album, but the totality of it is a very well-integrated and strangely mind-sapping listen. It hangs together beautifully as a fuzzy, dream-like and hilarious-serious album. It’s a unique counter-culture statement of some sort – using themes from underground and mainstream rock, free jazz, gospel, easy listening, poetry, Burroughs cut-ups…and released on a major label. “Remarkably, it is also the first record either of them made,” points out Clive Graham in his sleeve notes. “Nothing of [their] later work compares with the grand scale of their debut.” Graham has done his research, too; J Marks appeared on one other album for the same label by the 1st National Nothing, a colourful rock-theatre combo from California who wound up in NYC. After this he seems to have become Jamake Highwater and is claiming a Native American heritage in his writings and documentary works. Lebzelter’s story is no less strange; he joined The Trees Community, a travelling Christian group of folkies who made a record called The Christ Tree in 1975, which has since acquired some of the same cultiness that attached itself to Father Yod. A fine reissue job, and particular care has been taken with the insert to approximate the wild typography of the original. Groovy! Mad! Intense & really subversive but reasonable!

Reflexion Interior

The item Eins Bis Sechzehn (CRONICA 069-2012) is by the sound artist Ephraim Wegner and the visual artist Julia Weinmann, with their audio and visual snapshots of old ruined hotels. Presumably they wander about these collapsing edifices while no-one is looking and operate their capture devices before a wedge of plaster falls on their heads. They present the finished work as a fairly short CD – just six tracks of field recordings – and a portfolio of full-colour photographs, very well printed and some of them folding out into friezes. Although at first glance / listen we may think we’re facing a rather empty and desolate set of surroundings, in fact there are minimal traces of human endeavour and past lives embedded in the recordings. We can hear something bumping about like the ghost of a portly man settling into a sofa or furniture removers operating a service lift. Also other signs of life, like birds twittering outside or the distant seashore. Evocative and airy, it’s quite a benign undertone here, and clearly not directed by Stanley Kubrick in the ruins of the Overlook Hotel while furrowing his beetling brow. I’m very much reminded of Michael J. Schumacher and his 2003 release Room Pieces – this one seems to be poking around in similar enigmatic blank zones. I haven’t read their lengthy explanation in the notes though, as I suspect it’s trying to overstretch a simple idea with one too many “resonances”.

Another nice printed book + CD package is GROC 1912-2012 (SONORIDAD AMARILLA) and may have emerged from a music festival in Sant Sebastia. Mostly printed in Spanish with English translations. Miguel A Garcia is involved, and so are Artur Vidal, Coco Moya and Alicia Grueso. The book is a puzzling set of fragmented texts, alongside equally baffling but very direct monochrome images, making me feel I’m wandering through a conceptual art exhibit from 1970s England rather than flipping the pages of a book. The CD is even more opaque, short tracks where nothing is really explained but which sound like captured output from the most avant-garde radio station ever to have escaped the attention of the authorities. There’s a gorgeous “distant” quality; you can almost see tiny figures moving about inside a small surreal TV set glowing with yellow light. Things may become clearer if you read the texts while listening. The book is a libretto, structured like scenes from a play (with very strange stage directions), and it’s possible to interpret everything as the soundtrack to a performance of a gently absurd drama, almost as empty as a Beckett drama, but without the despair. The creators are aiming at a certain open-ended framework so that the performance can “project into the viewer’s imagination”, and there are hints at painterly sensibilities at work what with the fleeting Kandinsky reference, and the fact that Groc translates from Catalan as “yellow”. It’s to everyone’s credit here that so much can be expressed in a small, compacted package, and this beguiling little gem will grow on all those who own it and live with it.

Segments (EM002) is the second release from Emitter Micro, the German label who sent us the 2 (3) Incomplete Triptychs cassette in a clear box. As HiFi / LoNoise, the trumpeter Louis Laurain is joined by the electronics of Pierce Warnecke for 21 minutes of thoroughly abstracted sound – starting as puffy blankets of “reduced improv” minimalism, then exploding into a more full-bodied broth of amplified buzziness. Evidence of strong concentration and focus from both players here. Has a refreshing “raw” quality; untreated surfaces which you could use as building blocks in modular self-assembly furniture, and transform your living quarters.

I’ll confess I’m struggling slightly to derive much meat from the wispy melodic bones of Twilight Peaks (SMERALDINA-RIMA 20), a Robbie Basho release which was reissued by the Belgian Smeraldina-Rima label in 2012. This may be because it was originally an unabashed New Age release, issued in 1985 by a New York organisation called The Relaxation Company on their Vital Body Marketing label, and existed as a cassette with a bland cover of soothing dimensions and packaged as “Rich & lyrical solo guitar”. Basho had his own reasons for treading the New Age music path; one possible motivation could have been that his music didn’t catch on as expected with the “folk music” audience, and by the mid-1980s when it seemed that New Age music was in the ascendancy, he decided to hitch his wagon to that twinkly star. Maybe it’s time for this overlooked genre to undergo some form of reappraisal. The writers Richard Osborn and Glenn Jones, who provide the notes to this release, need no such persuading and they write from the depths of their own experience; Jones, who produced this reissue from original tapes, was a friend of Basho and articulates the beauty and value of this music well, making a good case in a sympathetic manner. After all it’s fair to say that Basho has not sacrificed an iota of his skill or artistry here, and there’s still the focus and precision in the playing that characterises his earlier music. The overall saminess of the sound, and its rather thin over-processed patina, may start to grow wearisome to the ears after a while, but that’s the central paradox of this item; it might be a rare case of high art hidden within a bland and commercialised genre. This reissue adds three tracks not on the original cassette, including two live cuts; these live recordings have escaped the cosseting effects of the original studio production and have a slightly rougher edge; these extra 12 minutes may make all the difference to you if you’re considering adding this to your Basho collection. Tremendous cover art, but it’s a little bit misleading as to the musical content.

Wash Your Ears Out

End Of Silence
Auditorium
Ecocentric Records E.R.#177CD / Heart & Crossbone HCB039CD

The first release in 16 years from this German trio, which started as a spin-off from the grind-noise band Seven Minutes of Nausea. The roots of the band are apparent in the use of traditional musical instruments (guitar, bass, drums), however instead of short bursts of Anal Cunt-ish noise blurr, instead this album presents three long-ish tracks hybridising the genres of noise, dark ambient and drone.

The first track gets off to a frustratingly hesitant start, as an isolated cymbal crashes once every few seconds. The effect is not unlike Chinese Water Torture, as the listener waits desperately for something to happen. After about five minutes of this a distant warbling of guitar feedback enters. The drums become more varied, with plenty of frantic rolling toms, and a sort of droning duel between guitar and drums ensues. Interestingly, at one point, the drums even kick into blast beats, giving this the air of a noise/grindcore jam session, and perhaps the album’s only throwback to the sound of Seven Minutes of Nausea.

Track two is more on the dark ambient side, with a tremolo guitar sound playing against the backing of what sounds like a rusty garden gate. Minimal computery squelches lurk in the background, like grasshoppers hiding in undergrowth. The stereo-delayed tremolo feedback eventually becomes the sound of someone manically scraping their wet thumb against glass, with rain pattering in the form of cymbal hits. The feedback eventually builds into one single note – a thumb describing an endless circle on the rim of a wine glass. Halfway between hypnotic and maddening, depending on your personal preference for repetition. As always, the devil is in the details, and the slight sonic differences as the sounds rub up against each other are what provide the interest.

The final track opens with jittery static storms. Guitar feedback swells in and out, while a snare drum patters along randomly. Brooding and Lynchian ambience suddenly gives way to the harsh noise of squealing distorted synth. Bass wind gusts through the howling storm in what is the noisiest of the three pieces. Towards the latter stages of the track, watery blurbles of sound give the impression of a Kraken rising through the depths, or just possibly that the listener has fallen into the washing machine and is being given a thorough rinsing.

For the genre purists, this might be too busy and noisy to succeed as dark ambient drone, whilst the harsh noise heads might find elements of this too brooding and minimal. If you like a bit of variety in your non-musical sound however, you’ll find plenty to interest your ears here.

Strata: documenting sound worlds within nooks and crannies of urban landscapes

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Tarab, Strata, Unfathomless, CD U18 (2013)

For years the Australian artist Eamonn Sprod, working under the project title of Tarab, has been collecting field recordings and turning them into albums that explore and document the secret audio histories of vacant spaces in and among urban landscapes where ecosystems of plants and animals arise and thrive unseen and unnoticed by the dominant human inhabitants. His most recent album “Strata” focuses on the sounds of vacant and deserted lots and their surroundings in an area in northern Melbourne. Factories and warehouses back onto these forgotten areas on one side and on the other there is a small creek. A highway overpass runs overhead. Photographs, admittedly treated, of these places in the album sleeve design show a forlorn, almost post-apocalyptic desolate landscape in which feral grasses threaten to cover over evidence of a past human civilisation. The detritus of culture, discolouring and rotting and reverting slowly into scraps and dust, lie strewn over the ground, lacking any function and meaning for whichever life-forms still survive in this barrenness.

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The album has a very dark and foreboding air and the sounds therein intimate that the natural world is biding its time until such time as when it can reclaim the city-scape for itself again. There is a sculptural and dynamic quality to the noises that appear: among other things, we hear wind, the crackle of dry leaves, rusting industrial machinery ambience, distant thunder, aeroplanes buzzing in the distance, the vibrations of pylons and of what cables may be found beneath the concrete epidermis. The border between man-made and natural dissolves, everything inanimate takes on an animated quality and aspects of the natural world seem as machine-like and forbidding as does the traffic on the roads and in the sky. The microphones used to record the sounds are themselves featured on the album as they were often dragged around the ground and over the garbage and rubble or buried within pylons.

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It feels quite intimate and the entire tone of the recording for the most part is very soothing with few abrupt or jarring moments (one major exception occurring about the 22nd minute when a hail-storm suddenly erupts).  The production is clear which allows the sounds, even quite distant ones such as a choir of barking dogs, to be heard with great and precise clarity. The album has an amazingly polished feel without seeming to be precious. Even though individual field recordings are carefully spaced apart so you tend to hear one or maybe a couple of things happening, the album seems very rich in terms of texture, mood and volume dynamics.

This isn’t simply a collection of sounds from a particular small set of forgotten or spurned locations in Melbourne; “Strata” is as much an artistic composition as it is a document.

Metal Birds

I’m warming to the music of Noteherder & McCloud, an English duo who are really growing on me with their odd and inscrutable noise-filled approach to saxophone and electronics. Chris Parfitt does the strained hooting with his brassy soprano while Geoff Reader supplies the crackly boxes, and they both add voice elements too. We haven’t reviewed them since 2011 (their mini CDR Field Log), and I have the sense they can be pretty raucous and outspoken when the circumstances deem fit, but The Bottle Loose In The Drawer (SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER sok043) is slightly more reflective, subtle, and drawn-out; the full length album format gives a bit more space to their unique qualities, and each track stretches out into a puff-driven event showcasing the yowlage of the human throat or the metallic bell of a ghostly sax, accompanied with requisite doses of strange alien drone or bizarre electric twittering. The duo have a very eccentric and personal approach to instant music creation which I like very much. It would probably be a mistake to characterise N&M’s music as “jazz” or “improv” in any way, and to me it feels more like they are creating spontaneous sound-art installations, doing so in any environment in need of such an artistic statement. They change things for the better, wherever they play. To my mind, local councillors should sponsor musicians like this and send them out to any given spot in the city in need of attention, and give them free rein to cure the problem with sound art. Urban blight would soon be a thing of the past. From 24 January 2013.

Label boss of above release is Paul Khimasia Morgan, who walks everywhere in crepe sole shoes, so that none may anticipate his silent advance. He’s released a short performance piece called Eaves Drop (AURAL DETRITUS audet001) and it’s the first item on his own Aural Detritus sub-label. It’s taken from a Brighton concert where he performed with Jason Kahn, who also recorded it using the spindly tubes that grow from his forehead. 17 minutes of highly minimal slow music; there’s a piercing high tone at the start, overlaid in the middle with additional elements which might have been generated by a slow-motion underwater guitar played backwards with electro-magnets by dying turtles. Then we enter a realm of uncertainty, with small boxes being rearranged on an imaginary supermarket shelf of the mind. In a short space of time this impenetrably blanked-out sound art works itself through at least three or four timbral changes, which if closely attended will assume a certain dramatic flair. We’d hesitate to describe it as a “composition”; perhaps it’s more like the outline for a composition, presented in a short pamphlet where the pages consist of pencil notations that have been 90% rubbed out using a Staedtler Mars Plastic Eraser. From 24 January 2013.

Fancy cover, quality pressing, clever titles and grand ideas on Extant (THE GEOGRAPHY TRIP TRIP 002) the vinyl offering from OH/EX/OH, but only rather ordinary ambient drones within. Their musical plan is to offer a bleak and depressing experience on side one, with a slightly more hopeful message delivered on side two; this means we hear flat monochrome ambient music, interrupted only by a spoken-word quote which I suspect is a sample from a Planet of the Apes movie (it’s about a post-nuclear disaster), and a general sense that we are living through the last days of humanity with solemn music that proceeds at a leaden pace. The “Utopian Tones” of the B side make more prominent use of sequencers walking along at a brisk pace on ‘Close Encounters’, while on ‘With Nova A New Beginning’ we finally hear the identikit synth droning resolve itself into chords of some sort, instead of the usual nondescript blancmange. However, even this track is blighted with cliché, and feels like it should appear in a fourth-rate arthouse cinema film to coincide with a corny sunrise shot and a life-defining moment for the lead character. One would like to encourage this relatively new Manchester-based label (this is their second release), but this entire album is bogged down with over-familiar sounds and scant ideas. However the packaging, as indicated, is first-rate.

American players Steve D’Agostino and Ted Lee form the core duo of Zebu!, who have had their most recent record released by Feeding Tube Records – home to all that is currently bizarre in US underground rock noise. On Chill Wave (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR 082), Zebu! are clearly influenced by early 1960s surf music, a genre which was looked down on for a long time on account of its supposed naivete, but which has I think since been reclaimed into cultural appreciation, a process which may have begun with the Rhino Records compilations (The History Of Surf Music) in 1982. I’ll admit Zebu! exhibit plenty of energy in their rough music and evoke a suitably amateurish garage-rock feel through the flat recording, but I don’t like it much. They have no gift for a memorable melody, and their sloppy guitar work is an insult to the precision and care of The Surfaris, Dick Dale, The Challengers and Santo & Johnny (the creators of ‘Sleep Walk’), all of whom struck their guitar notes with a purposeful simplicity that these boys can’t hope to match. The saxophone work of guest player Peter Van Siclen is nauseating to my ears, and the band’s lapses into 1980s punk rock are embarrassing. “Classicist American instrumental ho-daddyism”, indeed!

Home Installation

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Various / Curated by Francisco López
A Tasty Swarm Of Small Signals
STÖRUNG STR008 DVD (2010)

The mathematical structure of this toothsome flock of diminutive electronic compositions is 7 (sound artists) x 13 (tracks) x 2 (minutes), amounting to 3 hours of sound art miniatures best enjoyed through ‘good speakers’ or headphones. Compiler, Francisco López answered the call of the Puertas de Castilla Cultural Centre in Barcelona, which houses the ‘Experimental Music Sound Archive’, consisting of his own vast accumulation of years’ worth of tapes, records and CDs; the goal being to promote experimental sound art more widely. It’s a noble enough cause, and ratified by a number of illustrious participants such as Lawrence English, Asmus Tietchens, Zbigniew Karkowski and notable others. Ordinarily, the nebulous designation of ‘sound art’ designates nothing to my ears so much as cold art galleries and audio wallpaper, but I’m pleased to find that the contents of this DVD – while unlikely to rank among any of the artists’ most staggering achievements – provide a solid listen from start to finish.

Expectations thrown swiftly into abeyance, work begins with the work of James Webb (hitherto unknown to me). His thirteen pieces proceed in a decidedly non-linear manner, from electro-crackling darkness to surveys of sub-oceanic pressure, and much in between. It’s like looking at a white wall, arrayed upon which one finds a cross-section of lesser-known Expressionist miniatures, which are pleasing enough to the eye, if minor in stature. Louis Dufort (also unknown to me) reprises Webb’s eclectic aural splatter approach, except with larger canvases, which are plastered with frenetic activity: sound bounces between expansive electroacoustic, organ drone and mildly abrasive noise. It’s largely stimulating, though once again, the abrupt transitions are both jarring and annoying reminder of the small servings being served.

Lawrence English delivers a baker’s dozen entitled ‘Densities in Air’, offering a more streamlined set of aural experiences, subtly penetrating: like a dentist’s drill to the eardrum. Sounds like there are a lot of natural locational recordings processed to sound more alien. Francisco López notches things up a few Hz, with near-visible aural settings that include trains grinding to a halt at space station and an filtered assortment of industrial warehouse ambiences. Nothing groundbreaking, granted (which would be out of place here), but warm, womblike throbs and gradual textural refinement should eventually bring relief to any headphone-equipped listener. Alan Courtis serves up similarly sinister scenery consisting of black sandpaper walls, skittering insectoid mechanics and hints of flickering, low (and uncomfortably high) frequency radio signals. If you lack a wide-open listening space, this might just be of help to you.

From agitated granules, Tietchens’s ‘Vektors’ snowball (or pearl) into and from earshot and distance, the resulting moments of near-silence resulting in some of the only seamless continuity on offer here; over time the atmosphere acquires the torrential texture of an underwater sandstorm: abrasive, but in a pleasantly exfoliating way. I was about to recommend close listening through headphones, but then some kind of extra-terrestrial insect invaded my ear canal. Also unconcerned with guest’s etiquette, Zbigniew Karkowski (alas, one of our more recent musical losses) zaps ostentatiously into last place with his 13 ‘Polyphases’, which range from thought-drowning lazer-fests, to trance-inducing, deep-core drilling. While Karkowski plays with a single theme, his sonic range is perhaps the greatest, and quite perceivable is his subtle frequency modulation, and near-sentient metallic shape shifting.

Track by track, there’s not a dull moment here, and while possibilities are inevitably limited (unlikely the artists sweated blood to produce this material), you get plenty for your money. With the proper sound system (which I lack), rewards will be much richer I daresay. That said, while the flaws barely require explanation, I’ll proceed anyway: the chief inconvenience with the format is evident from the outset: sound snippets too teasing at two minutes and stopping too suddenly. Ordinarily, this would mean structural development is inhibited by such a characteristic, but the brief duration is a congenital consideration, and the brief lifespan of each piece ensures that each is its own audio microenvironment. At the same time, it strikes me as odd that the effort has gone into compiling so curiously bodied a specimen as this, but perhaps Mr López (and assuming it was his say-so) fancied trying something a little more unusual (and affordable) than a more conventional multi-CD set. Perhaps it is simply intended, as stated, as ‘the beginning of a number of future projects’; the present document amounting to a sampler or a CV that will in turn lead to more substantial work. In any event, if you fancy turning your regular listening space into an installation space, then the portable (and reliable) means can now be yours for a nominal fee.

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