Tagged: spoken word

Robot Love

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Polish oddity of the week comes to us from Kamil Szuskiewicz, a Polish musician who’s had his other works published on Wounded Knife, Elementworks, and Slowdown Records. The text on Robot Czarek (BÔŁT RECORDS BR K008) is all printed in Polish, and I can’t find out much about it except it’s intended as a “sound cartoon”, “audio comic”, or more simply a radio play. Polskie Radio describes it as “the story of a sensitive machine”.

Listening to this entertaining work (all the libretto is spoken in Polish too) doesn’t reveal all the story’s secrets, but the trope of the robot / human dilemma and the “ghost in the machine” has been around as long as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and probably even earlier than that; a common theme with pulp science fiction writers too I should imagine. Sonically, Szuskiewicz’s composition is fascinating, a nifty blend of very simple music and sound effects served in small bite-size snippets, where brevity and repetition are the order of the day; these are structured either side of the dialogue, which is overlaid, spoken in overlapping sentences, and delivered by a number of actor’s voices – some of which are of course treated to sound like robots. Sometimes there’s a dialogue, sometimes the authority of the speaking voice makes me think we’re hearing a narrator advancing the plotline with his voiceover.

While the music and sound is mostly used to illustrate and illuminate the tale, it’s possible to enjoy it as a species of robotic toy-techno music, with its erratic beats, metallic tones, and warped minimal electronic effects. Guest saxophone players Ray Dickaty and Dave Jackson appear on two tracks, Piotr Zabrodzki did the recording, and the grey metallic artworks are by Paulina Okninska and Janek Ufnal. A highly successful blend of talents and an endearing work. The general tone of this piece appears to be both whimsical and melancholic, a wistful blend of emotions which seems uniquely endemic to the Polish race somehow. Treat this as a Polish update on Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine, with a more elaborate story and a more ambiguous interpretation of the same themes. This was also released as a cassette by Wounded Knife; if you download it, you also get a PDF of the libretto (in Polish). From 21 June 2016.

From the country and the concrete jungle

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Two more cassettes from Staaltape arrived 9th May 2016. It so happens both releases are by women, and very coincidentally the imagery on Rinus Van Alebeek’s collaged decorated envelope (which he customarily includes with every mailout) features the faces of women clipped from his vast stack of old magazines.

Patrizia Oliva has created Numen – Life Of Elitra Lipozi, a most beautiful work clad in a smoky black cover with just a single blue butterfly spray-painted on. The A side, titled ‘Danse Des Fantomes’, is dreamy and evocative and makes me a willing dancing partner of the proposed ghosts and spirits. Voices, loops, and even some vaguely operatic elements are refashioned by Oliva into something personal and strange. She’s playing with magnetic tape like a gifted child sets to work with a box of watercolours. I don’t know why musicians (like Michael Nyman) are drawn to the work of Oliver Sacks (this release includes dedication to that deep thinker). But Oliva may be trying, like Sacks, to map the strange pathways of the brain in her atmospheric and charged music.

The B side ‘A Day Long To’ showcases the “Annette Peacock” mode of this performer…vaguely jazzy free singing she emanates from an indefinable part of her singing apparatus, in an inflected and mannered mode…the lonely avant-ness of Joan La Barbara is notched back two degrees and edged a shade closer to a ghostly portrait of Ella Fitzgerald…by which I mean it’s not clear if she’s singing from her mouth, or her brain-waves. Of course the minimal arrangements that back her up are pretty inspired too, making the most of a studio housed in a matchbox and two rubber bands holding everything together. More tape loops and much dreamy unfinished music drifts into the ether. A nice not-quite-there quality, slightly balmy. Oddly the B-side feels to me like separate songs, where the A side feels like a mini-opera telling a story. Not all that’s here is a song; there’s one very effective piece which is extremely abstract, just repeated patterns, sound effects, and whispered / murmured voices, yet it’s uncanny and highly effective in its dream-like mood sustaining of same. The side ends with a fascinating anecdote about synaesthesia, how it’s possible to see music as colours, and how no two people who have the condition ever agree on what the “right” colour is. Interestingly, the condition was first recorded in medical history by another Dr Sachs, this time a German physician of the 19th century.

In all Patrizia Oliva not only has a singular vision but also a very delicate touch in the creation of her work which is determinedly “non-masculine”, which isn’t to say it’s feminine and decorative, but organised along non-aggressive lines, without the usual male need to follow structure blindly and rush to a contrived ending. “Patrizia lives in the country, surrounded by nature,” write Rinus helpfully. “One lady from the old world”. If that’s true, that’s one old world whose passing we will come to regret. Every commonplace remark made on Twitter hastens the death of these old worlds.

The tape by Valerie Kuehne is of a different order. I couldn’t find a title but it might be called Audiozone #3, part of a series; release is just identified by the two sides, called ‘Ball Side’ and ‘Other Side’. Patrizia Oliva is pleasantly balmy, while Valerie Kuehne is an inspired screwball, in the nicest possible way of course. “Valerie moves in the concrete jungle”, writes Rinus about this American performer. Her songs here feature a kind of demented folk-inflected chanting and yawping, for instance the opener ‘Haul Away Joe’, a sea shanty which requires the artiste to remake herself as a crusty nautical cove on board an 18th century rigger. A grotesque opener. ‘The Graviton’ is better, more of a shamanic free-form wailing trip…like a lost ESP Disk recording from such waywards as Erica Pomerance, much free warbling with plenty of percussion and manic performances from her side musicians. ‘Apocalypse Berliner’ is a spoken word recit which gradually becomes more, erm, impassioned…as she describes some situation which sounds like a grave social injustice, her sarcasm shoots through the top of the thermometer and she becomes positively demented with her passion and commitment to the cause. The sort of loopy radical who might have featured in any 1970 Hollywood hipster road movie made in the wake of Easy Rider. Then there’s ‘Long Long Sleep’, which is like a nightmare parody of Edwardian parlour music with its poised and mannered vocalising which over-stresses certain phonemes in an annoyingly pronounced manner. But you can still sense the underlying nuttiness…her cello work, just now beginning to surface among the chaos on offer, is also certainly highly distinctive and evidence of a wild, peculiar talent.

B side of this weirdie in tape form contains ‘Sunshine in the Sunshine’, which is her freakoid take on the Fifth Dimension pop hit, with emphatic singing, chaotic playing from the guest musicians, her mad cello sawing and her frantic attempts to stir up collaboration among all participants. A glorious mess. You’d hate to have her at your birthday party, unless you love to be embarrassed and mortified. A mostly solo work follows, ‘Architecture at Muchmore’s’, with its cracked all-over-the-show melody, and alarming dynamics which require these abrupt shifts of tempo and sudden bouts of intense delivery. Shocking, crazed. Voice and cello only, I think, were used to realise this insight into the cracks of Kuehne’s brain. After this it might be a piece called ‘Leader Eater’ but it’s getting harder to tell one track from another. Part of what we hear sounds like a confrontational performance-art piece that involves yelling at the audience, and further ingeniously complex songs where it’s a wonder she manages to sustain the difficult long tones which the tunes require. I’m a-warming to this release now…Valerie Kuehne is a very acquired taste, but you don’t get this exceptionally high degree of uncut humanity and honesty captured on tape every day. Ably supported by her side players, which include Natalia Steinbach. Alex Cohen, Hui-Chun Lin, The Columbia Orchestra, Matthew Silver, and others, she saws and sings away. Other releases by Valerie Kuehne include Dream Zoo and Phoenix Goes Crazy, both very obscure low-run CDRs.

The tape itself is a provisional attempt at an “album”. Rinus Van Alebeek made the selections and put it together, but didn’t get much in the way of preferences expressed by the creator, who’s presumably so creatively chaotic in her life that she doesn’t bother with bourgeois things like organisation and planning. So “it is not an album by Valerie; it is an album about her”, is the stated claim, along with an attempt to document the “subculture she is a part of”. This provisional aspect is even reflected in the cover, showing details from a notebook, where the track order and even the titles are subjected to much crossing-out and rethinking. Most intriguingly, the result “leads to a couple of obscure passages into 21st century life somewhere in the US.” What in the name of Condoleezza Rice does that mean?

Cultural and Educational Activity

Herewith the latest three cassette releases from Saint Petersburg’s finest underground label Spina!Rec, delivered here on 10 March 2016. As ever, the editions of physical product are tiny, and collectors of cassettes will have to move fast.

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SR023 is a split betwixt Dubcore and Andrey Popovskiy. Dubcore sounds more like it ought to be the name of a label, or a genre, but here it’s an art project which experiments with found sounds and/or field recordings. They offer two pieces under the heading ‘Tea-N-Pepsi’, an endearing latterday cafe society proposal if ever there was. ‘Tuning In’ is a delicious jumble of sources, a fractured radio broadcast. Nothing spectacularly new in the approach of cutting up and random assemblage, but I happen to like the results on this occasion. The creators are genuinely capable of surprising the jaded listener with their juxtapositions and exciting cross cuts. A distinctly urban feel emerges; railway stations, media messages, street sounds, electronic noise, static, and beats. Everything is served up in aggressive micro-second slices, pandering to the minuscule attention spans of our atrophied brains. ‘Theyyam’ by Dubcore feels slightly less paranoid and tense, even admitting the possibility of some pastoral undercurrents, and quieter passages, to the overall mix of unpredictability. Here the listener is intrigued and puzzled. While not as subtle or inventive as the tapes we get from Staaltape and Rinus van Alebeek, Dubcore are operating in much the same area. “Six multilayered tracks full of sounds and changes,” is the description from the website, adding that Dubcore began life as something to do with exploring long tracts of silence. It so happens this tape is the exact opposite of that strategy, and has resulted in a glorious clutter of sonic detritus. A nice one.

Andrey Popovskiy occupies Side B with his 30-minute epic ‘Kryukov’. If credit list rings true, Popovskiy is operating various chunks of hardware for playback of pre-recorded elements (turntable, cassette player, dictaphone, CD player, etc), plus a violin, and e-bow, and additional field recordings. Hard to detect much of this equipment on the finished product, though. It comes across rather like 30 mins of a fellow stumbling about the room not really knowing what to do next, like a lethargic musician trying out ideas, opening the window, or turning the TV on. The recording doesn’t present the music, but documents the event, so that we pick up a good deal of room tone, random sounds, TV or radio in the next room, and general atmosphere of life in a Saint Petersburg apartment. This description may make it all appear infuriating and trivial, but in fact ‘Kryukov’ is a compelling listen. “Different kinds of interaction with environmental sounds,” is how the website describes this episode; “sometimes you can hear contingently appearing sounds of spaces, sometimes it’s prearranged processed recordings.” A lot to explore and get lost inside, varying textures, stories, and effects.

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Open Readings (SR024) is a high-minded attempt to reclaim historic culture from the forces of Evil: “Barbarization of content, devaluation of moral and spiritual values and denial of cultural archetypes” are the declared Enemy, though the perpetrators don’t go into more detail about how this pernicious effect is coming about, or who are the agencies wreaking this vandalism. Are they talking about the media, television, movies, newspapers, the internet? I suspect many forces are culpable when it comes to dilution and bastardisation of culture. The retaliation from the Russian underground comes in the form of the spoken word, readings from “works of the best classical writers of the Silver Age”. In Russia, the Silver Age is the beginning of the 20th century, a highly productive time for experimental poetry, modernist novels, and short stories. On the A side, it’s done by Alexander Mashanov & Ilia Belorukov, who on ‘Blok’ (most likely named for the poet Alexander Blok) belt out short phrases and paragraphs, spoken in Russian, of course, as if words were weapons, to be fired like bullets from a gun. Inevitably, this approach soon develops into a clumsy form of rap music, the rhymes chanted aggressively over a clunky drum beat and tepid electro backing. In less than 11 mins, we’re barked to death. On the B side, the readings are done by Natasha Shamina with a musical backdrop by Sergey Kostyrko. Their ‘Vvedenskiy’ is less contrived than ‘Blok’, and instead of rapping the reading is delivered with the accompaniment of a menacing electronic growl, now and then turning into a nasty squeal, and contributing to the overall tension. The sense of purpose in Natasha Shamina’s steely speaking voice is unmistakeable; she may not be firing bullets, but you sense she’s staring at you with a disapproving eye, and is capable of acting as a silent assassin if the situation demands it. I prefer this B side; it makes zero concessions to entertainment, and demands your engagement with the content.

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SR025 is another split and represents another chapter in this label’s friendly and ongoing collaboration with the Finnish underground. Umpio is the Finn, from Turku; Kryptogen Rundfunk is the Russian. Both are solo acts. Umpio turns in a typically over-baked stew of sounds on his ‘Rio De Venas, Gusanos, Pulso Insectal, Craneocapsula, Bajo Hielo’, and by typical I mean this is the sort of purposeless over-dubbed melange which the Finns have always done so well. This “cunning sound synthesis” as the website would have it is all done by electronic means, digital and analogue working together for that rich “swampy” sensation. ‘Rio De Venas’ doesn’t really progress anywhere, but as a half-realised vision of an alien world, it’s fairly convincing. Pentti Dassum is the fellow behind this pleasing gumbo, and he runs a record label called Nekorekords and was involved in the mastering of over 100 Finnish underground releases, besides the production of about 40 of his own solo records and split releases.

Kryptogen Rundfunk offer us a live recording from 2015 from a venue or event called ESG-21. Feedback and electronic noise are used to create slow and doomy textures…they lurch gradually out of the speakers like so much tar-encrusted sludge, and the outpouring won’t stop until every available surface is covered in this unpleasant morass. Some occasional nice effects are achieved by Kryptogen Rundfunk’s remorseless execution, but in the final analysis he creates the sort of environment that drives you away rather than invites exploration. Dank, grey, gloomy; saps the vitality of most humans, kills many forms of plant life, poisons the air. Artyom Ostapchuk is the creator of this dismalness, and he has made a few sporadic recordings of his brand of industrial ambient death music since 2004 onwards.

The Doctor Is Sick, pt 5

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Part Five of the Doc Wör Mirran roundup.

Lastly here is Walm Art (Make Twentyeight / MT-575), the zaniest of the discs in this batch. It’s 38 tracks of insanity, noise and mayhem – voice works, poems, tunes, songs, electronic and tape malarkey..the track titles make little sense, and there’s an enormous credit list to add to the confusion. Taken on its own terms, Walm Art is not half bad, certainly in the tradition of The Faust Tapes or Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy, only far more playful in its experimentation. A true taste of absurdity in experimental music, and some of the individual music pieces are nothing to be ashamed of. To get anywhere near them, you have to go with the flow and subject yourself to all manner of irresponsible and crazed outpourings, spliced together with short ten-second noise experiments. A real fruitcake of an album. It’s DWM Release #125, was formerly titled Fred’s Got A Satelite Problem, and is “Dedicated To Zoogz Rift who would have liked it”. Well, if we’re name-dropping American loons and misfits, I’d like to think this album is more in the vein of Trumans Water, not that I ever got very far with listening to those records…

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I just found two more. A Tale Of Two Titties (Make Twentynine / MT-576) in title, cover and track titles resembles something Peter Griffin would have come up with when he was self-publishing porn books, and it’s a real mixed bag much like the Kunstlergruppe album – nice guitar ballads, electropop songs and uncategorisable tunes nestling alongside coarse and ugly one-joke noise recordings. Raimond appears with Ralf Lexis, Bernard Worrick, Denise Kusiak, Peter Schuster, and many other names, and the selections may or may not have been recorded “over the span of twenty odd years”. There’s some serious talent lurking in the half-mad sprawl that is a Doc Wör Mirran album…in the quest to stay out of the clutches of the music journalist’s pigeon-holing, it seems this kind of misdirection is their best tactic.

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Recipe For A Memory (Make Thirty / MT-581) does have some dates attached, and represents work from 1985 to 1993; the same names from Titties, along with Adrian Gormley, Russ Spiegel, Michael Wurzer, Volker Zippelius and John Griffith, elusive personalities dodging in and out of the fluid Doc Wör Mirran collective. The cover art for this one made me think of Karel Appel. The music is great too. I think ‘Die Berge Der Indianer’ is one DWM effort most likely to be mistaken for a Can bootleg, while ‘Remonstrancing A Taboo (Version 2)’ is the sort of techno-festival cosmic mush likely to have found favour with 1990s ecstasy-freaks when they rediscovered Gong and Hawkwind. Indeed much of the music is extremely approachable modern rock with experimental touches, and while I don’t care much for the songs and lyrics when they appear, there’s enough latterday Kraut groove here to make this one well worth investigation.

Mental Notes

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Last heard from Maja Osojnik as one half of duo Rdeca Raketa on their 2013 release, and before that she surfaced as the singer with Broken Heart Collector on their moving self-titled album in 2011. Here she is again with an impressive double album set Let Them Grow (ROCK IS HELL RECORDS RIP66 / UNRECORDS unrec11). Maja was born in Slovenia, but is based in Vienna just now. Let Them Grow is pretty much her solo, studio-based project, where she plays and sings everything including a rich mix of acoustic and electronic instruments and noise-generators, plus is credited with tape manipulation, “abandoned pianos”, radios sets, and installation tubes; she also acknowledges four musicians who she has sampled, including bass players Manu Mayr and Matija Schellander, the latter from Rdeca Raketa. Across four sides and 16 tracks, we soon enter into another world, an introverted and internalised landscape of the mind, an asylum for the disaffected. Make no mistake, this statement is the product of a restless and unhappy brain, as Osojnik explores her personal and very real mid-life crisis where she is no longer able to make any sense of the world, relationships with people and things seem to be unachievable, and she despairs at the possibility of communication. “I am amazed at how often this world is slipping out of my reach”, she observes helplessly.

Dealing with these psychological terrors through your art is always a good idea – I recommend it personally. It is good therapy. On Let Them Grow, Maja Osojnik makes artistic capital out of her own alienation, through a number of varied approaches. There are strange, cocooning drones, which envelop the listener in a sort of anti-womb environment, all billowing shrouds and unseen shapes moving in the background. There are songs which are as Teutonic and threatening in their melodic range as anything Nico ever recorded on The Marble Index, strident marching songs for a battleground of the psyche. There are spoken-word recits, accompanied by eerie non-musical backdrops, on which Maja unburdens her soul in fragments of broken text. All of these methods are likely to be analogous to the state of her troubled soul.

One interesting detail in the making of this album is her digital library of “rejects”, described here as “broken sound scraps”, which may be failed experiments, glitches or sound samples that went wrong. I like the idea that she is retaining and curating these errors, and then reworking them into the fabric of her music, without making a fetish out of the process or calling attention to it. As an artist, don’t throw anything away – that was advice I was given by one tutor. You never know what you’ll find in discarded sketches, doodles, or half-finished ideas. Today’s rejects are tomorrow’s mashed potatoes, or something like that.

You may think from this description that Let Them Grow is a cold and distant document of alienating tones and distressing texts, of no value to the listener except as a depressing bout of melancholia. Far from it. There’s an intellectual honesty and clarity to Osojnik’s work, by which I mean she is determined not to wallow in a swamp of unmixed emotional spew. Rather, she distils these feelings into sound poetry, into workable musical forms; hearing these can have an empowering, cathartic effect on the listener. Together, it seems we can work a way through the pain and uncertainty, and not get stuck in it. Perhaps we need more works like this in the world, as a way of understanding and dealing with these very common human feelings; Maja could take the place of 100 social workers, with her Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy. From 1st February 2016.

Hakmarrja: an unfortunate mess of industrial black metal on a global gulag tour

N.K.V.D., Hakmarrja, Italy, Avantgarde Music, CD AV243 (2014)

As no doubt fans of the Paris-based industrial BM band N.K.V.D. already know, “Hakmarrja” is the Albanian word for “revenge” but we should not infer that revenge is the main theme or one of the themes of this, the project’s second album and third major release. It probably could have been though – if there’s any society around that knows all about revenge, continuous payback from one generation to the next and institutional vendettas lasting centuries, then traditional Albanian folk culture has the copyrights on those traditions – because the album itself, in spite of the track titles suggesting separate songs with their own themes and narratives, comes over as one whole work that varies very little from one track to the next. (The band’s name refers to the Russian-language acronym of the law enforcement agency that existed during the later years of Josef Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union and which performed both routine police duties and tasks of a more sinister stereotypical secret-militia kind including kidnapping and killing people abroad.)

After an introduction of excerpts of various recorded speeches dating back to the period of Vichy France (1941 – 1944) in “Exordium”, we’re thrown into a world of deep black industrial horror: of inhuman, even demonic machine voices, grinding bass rhythms and jackhammer beats, oppressive atmospheres and spoken-word recordings from recent historical episodes in which police state terror ruled. The songs are all hard-hitting and monstrous in style. Yet for all that, however hard they try to impress, as the album progresses, the songs tend to sound more sensational and bombastic than thought-provoking and they fail to evoke feelings of horror and revulsion.

However much I try listening to this album, I end up getting lost about halfway through and have to struggle to the very end. The whole recording is a mess of ugly groaning monster vocals, uninspired machine rhythms and very little variation in atmosphere and emotion from one song to the next. If it were not for the lyrics, the songs would give no indication of what period of history they’re referring to: I suppose this might be N.K.V.D.’s way of saying that totalitarian police state rule knows and respects no culture or cultural traditions – but still, the odd reference to Serbian, Albanian or Ukrainian settings by way of brief sprinkles of folk music from those cultures before the jackboot comes smashing down on them might help buoy listeners.

At this point I start to wonder what the purpose of N.K.V.D. is, as it’s simply not enough to issue album after album of travelogue music through historical time and space just picking out countries labelled “totalitarian” or “police state”, as defined by Western history books. Listeners eventually will want to know what N.K.V.D.’s motives are, what the project’s real interest is in trawling through the history of authoritarian regimes, and whether the project will investigate how and why these regimes became what they were, when did they stop being authoritarian and why, and what political, cultural and economic conditions existed that encouraged the rise or fall of such governments. If we knew what all these were, we would be armed with the knowledge to prevent such regimes or to hasten their end, and N.K.V.D. among others would have performed an immense service to us all.

From The Outskirts

From November 2015, we have a set of 10-inch vinyl releases on the Belgian record label Okraïna, run by Philippe Delvosalle. All of them are decorated with colourful illustrations by Gwénola Carrère and are quite sturdy little packages. Already I feel a certain warmth and old-school charm verging on the quaint, with a visual art style which I can only describe as an emulation of a nameless “between the wars” style before modernism truly arrived. Also a sense that I ought to be cranking up my hand-wound Victrola to play these sides. They don’t play at 78 RPM, but I feel they should.

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Rose (OKRAÏNA #4) features two ten-inchers, both showcasing the work of Ed Askew. This American singer-songwriter is an underground folk hero to many, his reputation based to some extent on his 1968 record for the hip New York label ESP-Disk, an album variously titled Ed Askew or Ask The Unicorn. Its original cover art had the photo accidentally printed in negative; only the UK Fontana issue managed to get it right. Here, Askew is paired on the first disc with Joshua Burkett, sometimes called Yellow Beard, a contemporary hero of acoustic folkish song; his Gold Cosmos is one record I do recommend, but he’s been making other albums of interest since 1995. What we hear is a 2007 radio set recorded for WFMU, where Askew’s songs are interspersed with informal chat about his compositions and his albums’ history. The date coincides with the release of Little Eyes in 2005, one of his “comeback” albums, and some songs from that release are featured here. On the second disc, Askew teams up with Steve Gunn, a talented young guitarist from Landsdowne in Pennsylvania, and the duo perform a number of songs for another radio slot, this time from 2010, on the Greg Healey show. Nothing wrong with any of the music here, but Askew fails to excite; he lacks the fire or invention of Peter Stampfel, a true Lower East Side maverick beatnik, and is somewhat closer to the melancholic whine of Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine, but without any of Rapp’s acerbic bite. I mention both of these as possible contemporaries of Askew, and as ESP label-mates. Askew’s not one for melodic invention, or an original guitar style, rarely straying outside simple chord changes and progressions; and some of his lyrics may appear mawkish. But there’s no denying the sincerity of his intention, and the distinctive contours of his voice, even after 40 years, continue to exhibit a certain odd charm.

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Bring You Buzzard Meat (OKRAÏNA #3) is a team-up between Ignatz and Harris Newman, and is a 2008 studio recording; it was originally sold as a tour CDR in 2009, and is reissued on vinyl here. Belgian singer Ignatz (i.e. Bram Deven) first came our way in 2005 with his debut album for the K-RAA-K label, but the Canadian guitarist and studio engineer Newman is a new name to us; I see he’s made a few albums for Strange Attractors Audio House. The two met at a music festival and found they had a lot of common ground; a few live shows have resulted from their pairing. The five tunes here were performed with various guitars – electric, lapsteel, acoustic, and sonically speaking there’s a rich range of steel-string textures on offer here. The real innovation has been to combine this traditional folky guitar sound with an analogue synth, which on occasion – particularly on the astonishing ‘Political Song for Carla Bruni To Sing’ – creates a hair-raising, abrasive experience for the ears. The title track however is rather pedestrian circular noodling and finger-picking exercises, like a bad version of Leo Kotke; and the languid atmosphere of ‘Rise While You Fall’ is singularly lacking in tension, despite the attempts by the duo to foster a tone of melancholic doom with the hollow singing and the reverb effects. ‘Stray Dog’, with its treated surfaces, halting rhythms, and uncertain vocal moans, may come closest to realising the duo’s plan, which appears to be some sort of futuristic update on Country Blues idioms; at any rate, the label blurb calls it “equal parts science experiment and Geechie Wiley tribute”. I’ll give them a bonus point for name-checking Geechie Wiley, but next time when I order buzzard meat, please don’t bring me these slices of warmed-over turkey breast.

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Folk Songs Cycle (OKRAÏNA #6) is performed by the singer Éloïse Decazes and the keyboard player Delphine Dora, who plays piano and harmonium, adding occasional vocal harmonies. The 11 songs here are from an arrangement by the 20th century avant-garde composer Luciano Berio, who originally composed them for his wife Cathy Berberian to sing, with orchestral accompaniment; I imagine this proved quite a popular seller when issued as an LP on the RCA Red Seal label, though it’s equally possible audiences are divided. Something of the utter simplicity of the folk song is arguably lost when transposed to this faintly pompous classical setting, and Berberian’s performances can appear stilted. Decazes and Dora are anything but stilted, and they have clearly made a determined effort to return folk song to its basics, so these intimate recordings were realised with just one or two voices, with a piano or harmonium providing a very simple setting. The record is thus quite direct and has a homespun charm; at times, the women might almost be in their own front parlour at home, not recording for an audience. Neither of them has a particularly forceful or distinctive singing voice, but for the material they’re working with, this isn’t an issue. While I’m not about to sell my records by Shirley & Dolly Collins (listen to them if you really want to hear what you can do with a heavenly voice and portative organ or acoustic piano), these two girls from Auvergne are sure to find a place in your heart with their unaffected approach. The sleeve art resembles a sampler, which seems very much in keeping with the spirit of the work; I can almost imagine these two wearing hand-embroidered smocks at home! Éloïse Decazes made another record for this label with Eric Chenaux, now sold out, but you can hear the tracks on the Bandcamp page.

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Lastly, we have an unusual song-recit essay piece by Ed Sanders, called Yiddish Speaking Socialists of the Lower East Side (OKRAÏNA #5). This item originally saw light in 1991 as a cassette tape, so this reissue is its first release on vinyl. Ed Sanders is yet another ESP-Disk alumnus, famed as co-founder of The Fugs, although it’s Tuli Kupferberg who was arguably the more abrasive and agitational of this counter-culture duo; his 1967 solo album No Deposit No Return is a crazy record of subversive poetry formed from cut-ups of popular press adverts. Here, Sanders is telling a history of Jews settling in New York, doing so in a mixed style which is part narration, part poetry, part singing; he accompanies his vocals using a home-made electronic instrument which he calls the pulse lyre, and the melodic range throughout is severely restricted. Perhaps by accident, all of this tends to give the sensation of an excerpt from a lost opera by Robert Ashley. Yiddish Speaking Socialists follows a political bent, so you can expect references to Ellis Island, sweatshops, and various social injustices, and anecdotes about these recounted in a fairly stark manner; it seems that Sanders, like Robert Wyatt by the time he made the record Old Rotten Hat, wants to make sure his left-wing messages are in no danger of being misunderstood, so utter clarity and precision of expression is the order of the day. There’s also an overwhelming slew of historical detail; at the end of 20 minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve read an entire book, or had one read to you. This “personal essay” style is an intriguing song form, and it might be interesting to see what other poets and songwriters could do if they followed a similar approach. For the cover artworks, Gwénola Carrère has gone the extra mile in her attempts to illustrate and amplify Sanders’ themes, an effort which I do applaud, even if there is the risk that she is trivialising the serious issues into colourful innocent-seeming story-book images.

Can You Hear Me

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Steven Ball is one half of Storm Bugs, the experimental cassette noise band from the 1980s who have proven to be extremely influential and seminal, and he’s personally pursued interests in cinema, media and sound art since that time. For quite a while now he’s been experimenting with “found sound” sources and incorporating them into songs and performance; I saw him do it once at the Whitechapel in September 2014, and though my memory of it is already a bit hazy, I seem to recall he was reciting aloud the fragments of texts from whatever materials were played back, at random, through his headset. We in the audience couldn’t hear that source, so what emerged from Ball’s mouth was an exquisite string of chance poetry. He did it in a slightly hesitant, exploratory way, as though unsure if any of it meant anything.

That process is now feeding into song construction of some sort, and that’s what we hear on the mini CDR Life Of Barrymore (LINEAR OBSESSIONAL RECORDINGS LOR 065). There are other instances of this method Ball has sent us, but this one arrived here 1st October 2015. I should perhaps point out the “found sounds” are all derived from popular sources, in this instance broadcasts from British TV and radio. Ball uses both dialogue from fiction (e.g. episodes of Doctors or Eastenders) or documentary – if the latter term means anything in the context of today’s dumbed-down “docutainment” nonsense. Ball treats his samples of spoken word as though they were the lyrics of a song, or even the libretto for a mini-opera. A high-concept idea to be sure. I am reminded of the visual artist Tom Phillips, who in the 1980s spoke of an experiment which involved taking any picture postcard at random and assuming that it depicted a moment from a performance art piece, of which the “rules” governing its performance were unknown. The idea was to recreate those rules, and then go and perform the piece.

When Ball applies this method to the short songs here, we get odd effects such as we hear on ‘Lizzie Can You Hear Me?’ and ‘After Lucy’, where the banal soap opera dialogue acquires a mysterious depth and weight. This happens through a combination of factors: the chilling ambient music that accompanies it; the fact that it’s wrested out of context and we’re not really sure what it refers to; and the very serious manner in which Steven Ball intones the texts. These tracks, and the two before it using texts from LBC Radio and BBC Radio 4, remind me of Christopher Morris’s Jam; the combination of dark texts with ultra-slow ambient drone. There’s that same sense for the listener of being drawn into a deathly, unwelcome sleep. Morris used the pre-recorded music of others and treated it, Ball performs it all himself (played on guitar, accordion, and assembled by electro-acoustic methods) but the effect is still quasi-nightmarish. I’m starting to feel that this is how puzzled alien visitors from outer space must perceive us, as they monitor our doings through TV and radio broadcasts.

The most successful application of these techniques is reserved for the album centrepiece, and title track, ‘Life Of Barrymore’. This ten-minute mini-drama uses texts from a Jeremy Kyle Celebrity Special TV show. It’s got a fascinating dynamic; the first half appears to be Barrymore introducing himself to an audience in a shambling and apologetic way, and the music is hesitant, in sympathy with his uncertainty. The music gathers pace a little as his confidence appears to increase. Then abruptly we shift to a darker passage, where it gradually emerges that Barrymore is telling his side of the grisly story of his personal disaster and the notorious swimming pool incident. Details which we would prefer not to hear trickle out. The music freezes into a series of glacial tones, as the listener becomes increasingly aghast at the revelations. At the end, Barrymore is almost defiant, bravely attempting to assert himself against the accusations of the tabloid press, yet also standing on the cusp of cursing them all (and their readers) as if he wished to drag them down into a self-made Hell with him. Throughout, Ball delivers all the above content in the same dispassionate manner, forcing himself almost to act like a machine reading texts automatically. Yet a strange emotional power still leaks out.

Steven Ball may be asking pointed questions about celebrity and the media, or implying some critique in amongst all this, though I’m not sure if that is the point of the work. Personally I find celebrity culture banal, and shows like those of Jeremy Kyle and Matthew Wright to be extremely destructive and damaging to the national psyche. But I am being judgemental. Ball may or may not agree with me, but the process that is relevant here is how he has transformed his content into something unusual and striking, without being in any way patronising to the producers or the consumers of such content. From July 2015.

Word Elements

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Another release from Map 71, who we noted in 2014 with their self-titled debut. Once again Andy Pyne adds his electronic backdrops to the spoken-word rants of performance artist Lisa Jayne, and Wrong Element (FOOLPROOF PROJECTS PRJ039) is packaged in a printed booklet of poetry-prose and stark angular graphics by Lisa.

In these recordings, no trace of any effects (not even slight studio echo) added to Lisa’s voice, so it comes across as plain as a woman wearing no make-up, and her slightly confrontational edge leaves the listener little room for comfort. Her actual messages are a little obscure, and it takes rather a long time to reach the end of each stream-of-consciousness episode, by which point we’re almost lost in her interior world, forgotten where we began. She uses a lot of every-day slang and commonplace inflections, and starts out talking as if she’s about to describe nothing more outlandish than a boring bus journey through Barking and Dagenham. But the true subject matter in her mouth appears to be rather dark, and the subject only grows more intense and weird as she works out the problem through her continual verbalising.

This is original and strange. Pyne’s music still gets in the way for me, though. I noted this last time, and while his musical statements are okay per se, I’d say there’s a mixing problem or a balance problem if it’s tending to obscure key parts of the recit, which happens here more than once. For the title track, he provides a sequencer pattern which grows repetitive and irritating, although ‘Estuary’d’ is somewhat more inspired with its gloomy swamp-drone.

Overall the release feels a little thin on the ground; there are only three original cuts, including a very short one, amounting to about 12 minutes worth of music; the remainder is remixes, including a strange version of ‘Estuary’d’ which completely muffles and denatures the spoken-word parts until they become a gabble of surreal nonsense. From 26 June 2015.

These Discreet Organs

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We encountered the unique voice of Leslie Winer on the unusual album by Purity Supreme which she made with Christophe Van Huffel of Tanger, and which we noted in 2013 – where for some reason I convinced myself that she was a he. Perhaps it was something to do with the sound of her voice which led me into error. In fact this American poet and writer has had a distinctive career, including success as a model in the world of high fashion in New York (a milieu which I can only imagine would be extremely competitive, to say the least), and has also formed associations with seminal creators like William Burroughs and Jean-Michel Basquiat. She also found time to hook up with musicians like Jah Wobble and Kevin Mooney when in London, and her 1993 Witch album is regarded as seminal; some credit her with accidentally inventing trip-hop, with her languid vocal delivery over slow beats. It’s not hard to imagine a cult forming around Winer, some of which may be due to her androgynous appearance; she photographs very well, and must have inspired the formation of the image of Grace Jones (with whom she has worked). In every photograph, she manages to turn her look into a confrontation with the camera, and the audience.

By dint of their complete refusal to blend with the herd, such individuals live life on another circuit, I would like to think, by which I mean they don’t ride the monorail of celebrity status, but instead are led down byways and crossroads never trod by the feet of us mortals. Following this logic, it’s only natural that Winer would meet another genius-pariah such as Carl Michael von Hausswolff, a man who has systematically separated himself from the world using sound. They in fact coincided in 2011 in Lisbon, thanks to Philip Marshall of the Tapeworm label arranging the formal exchange of visiting cards with his silver salver. CM von Hausswolff is well-known in these pages as a fearless and near-confrontational explorer of the most remote and bleak zones in human psychology, often framing his work through the metaphor of buildings or places. Still speculating, I would like to think he at once recognised a kindred spirit in the mysterious and intractable Winer.

They made the record (1) (MONOTYPE RECORDS monoLP005) in 2011 but purely for their own entertainment (“just for fun” as the press notes would have it, although I somehow doubt that the word “fun” features much in the lexicon of that grim Swede) and certainly with no intention that an audience would ever hear it. And yet here it is released as an LP on the Polish label Monotype Records. Play this at your own risk. While not especially unpleasant on the surface, beware – the sound will gradually pull you in like a freezing whirlpool, and induce a lasting sense of despair and futility. The two components are simply drone and voice. Carl Michael’s shimmering, ice-cold electronic drones are both menacing and inhuman, inculcating the sense of terror and dread normally reserved for an imminent alien invasion. Leslie Winer’s texts are laced with messages about the sheer impossibility of life, and her cracked delivery is even more sardonic and world-weary than that of the master himself, William Burroughs. Michael Gira has gotten to a similar place, but he’s often had to do it by bludgeoning the listener and exerting much physical effort and sweat on his own behalf. What’s impressive here is the apparent ease with which both Winer and CMVH are able to reduce the entire world to rubble, simply with a withering glance and a murmured curse. Chilling! Received September, released October 2015.