Tagged: stringed instruments

Altered States

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Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang
The face of the earth
AUSTRIA IDEOLOGIC ORGAN SOMA011 LP (2013)

Think we last heard from this talented duo in 2011 with their wispy Aestuarium record, although there was also Kang’s solo LP Visible Breath in 2012…now with The Face of The Earth we have another record of stark and strong beauty, recorded in vivid depth and where every slow and still note rings true…much economy and grace, and not a single second wasted. Where those previous records were somewhat quiet and atmospheric, there’s a lot more steel and sinew to this present work, and the combination of stringed instruments (viola, setar) with Kenney’s singing voice is akin to dipping the brain in iced water. I welcome this update on “classical” minimalism 1 which is much warmer, feels less rigid and formal, and apparently allows space for some improvisation, more spirituality, and more external forces. The duo draw influences from the ancient – in the form of 12th century poetry – and the modern, by way of Kang’s Morton Feldman fixation, which is most apparent on the simple repetitions and phrases of ‘Mirror Stage’. If this gem doesn’t come close to realising Mortie’s ideal of the music score as a woven Persian carpet, then I quit. Apart from the Morton Feldman resemblance – and I would love to hear this duo record their rendition of ‘Rothko Chapel’, for instance – one other precedent for me would be the glorious music made by singer Haco with the cellist Sakamoto Hiromichi, such as on 2002’s Ash in the Rainbow. The album walks a tightrope between fragility and utter assurance; you feel the entire structure could be shattered if you so much as breath out of turn, yet the two avatars proceed with solemn conviction as they perform their taut, inscrutable, music.

It’s also clear the duo have imbued this single recorded statement with a lot of deep, hidden layers. The printed insert – for some reason, scored with perforations so it could be divided into four cards if need arises – refers to the “Wangsalan”, a form of riddle which comes to us from Javanese culture, appears in Gamelan music, and is sung by the female vocalist. Like any good parable (look at Aesop, the New Testament), a Wangsalan uses concrete images and recognisable descriptions to tap into the unknowables, the unseen, the “primordial knowledge” and philosophy that may form the fundament of the soul…and does all of this using “hidden wordplay” and buried references for the attentive listener to perceive and decode over time. As for concrete images, ‘the Chinese gazelle’s blood’ and the ‘slender inner spine of the coconut leaf’ are intriguing enough, even if their meaning is far from clear to me on today’s spin. Some of this content comes from a ghazal 2 written by Attar of Nishapur 3, while the track ‘Kidung’ – a breathy recital which sounds like an avant-ceremonial version of Eastern forms of music which I’m not remotely familiar with – is a “sung prayer in the Sudanese language of West Java”, personally translated by Kenney, and sung by her with the steely precision of a strange bird that is capable of shooting benign poison darts from its wings.

With this austere, still music with its studied trance-like patterns, the reference to prayer and to the “highest of all realms, the Great Protector”, and the cover art from NASA suggesting the effects of a cosmic out-of-body experience, Kenney and Kang have produced what amounts to a deeply spiritual statement with moments of unearthly beauty. Received November 2012.

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  1. By which I suppose I mean the long-form music of the 1960s and 1970s New York school.
  2. Ancient poetic form from 6th century, of Arabic origin, spreading to Asia in 12th century and associated with Sufi mystics.
  3. 12th century Persian poet, described as a mystic; documentation of his life very scarce; wrote “The Conference Of The Birds”.

Fog Day Afternoon

Luca Forcucci
Fog Horns
SUB ROSA NEW SERIES FRAMEWORK SR359 CD (2013)

I love fog horns. Or things that sound like fog horns. Or any sound that’s buried in the background, pulsing, bleeping, operating just below the surface yet conveying some very important information of some form. Unfortunately I don’t live near any body of water where fog horns are a necessity, otherwise I’d be hanging around the docks all day. So I am jealous that one day in 2011 Luca Forcucci landed in San Francisco after a long flight and was confronted by these murky whale-like sounds, unintended members of the wind instrument family known as fog horns. The title track is full of their distant heavy sighing. These sounds alone would make a fine track, but Forcucci mixes in vinyl cuts, beats and scratches. They seem really out of place, but somehow they work. No doubt the bird chirps and footsteps also help cook up this batch of Verfremdungseffekt stew. It’s quite an odd eleven minutes, but I dig such things. The next track is also about eleven minutes in length and consists mainly of waves crashing against the shoreline. These are occasionally filtered and ring modulated into high crackles. While waves are nature’s white noise and quite enjoyable, at eleven minutes all that water just becomes filler, since there’s not much else going on. Happily the final and longest track is a return to strange sonic mix of the opening track. “Winds” starts off with a filtered cistern like drone, to which Forcucci layers with water sounds, jangling objects, and a harmonious bass drone which sounds like its played on the neighbor’s stereo system at such a volume that its bleeding through the walls. Its there, but you can’t quite make it out. In reality it’s Michael Kott supplying cello murk and haze. The cello here answers the call of the fog horns, with its obscured warning.

Deison / Galán
Cayendo
LOUD! CD07 (2013)

Italian sound artist Deison met up with Sara Galán, a cellist based in Valencia, Spain for this short album of dirty electronics and processed cello drones and a sprinkle of field recordings. Like the cover imagery this is a hazy atmospheric affair, suggestive of a soundtrack to a film which doesn’t exist. No doubt it would be one with missing frames and peeling nitrate film stock. The cello sounds are marked by long single strokes intoned like foghorns along some lifeless port on a rocky coast. The electronic elements never take the center stage, as they seem to only work in service of the droning cello, acting to process it and thicken up the sounds, or add some faint morse code like dots & dashes. Some of the tracks sound like acoustic outtakes from My Bloody Valentine demo tapes after they’ve been taped over a dozen times and bathed in copious amounts of reverb. Despite the grey tonal palette this is a rather pleasant affair which grows upon me with each listen. Sometimes the indistinct sounds don’t hold up to scrutiny as there is not much there once you peel back the layers of smoke and fog. Smartly the runtime is only 35 minutes, which is just the right amount for this assemblage as anything longer would have diluted its strengths.

Simon Whetham
Never So Alone
CRONICA 073-2013 CD (2013)

An album of field recordings is never something new nowadays, so the question is how does this one make it any different, or rather, worthy of your leisure listening time in this world overloaded with sounds demanding your attention? I’d say you won’t regret listening to Never So Alone, as this one is pretty damn sweet. While it’s hard to present sounds that are not generated by yourself as being your own, Whetham does a fine damn good job of taking the sounds that he gathered and composing them into an album’s worth of material that held my attention for the duration of the ride. I didn’t hear any novel approaches to composing with field recordings, but Whetham does demonstrate a skillful hand and ear when it comes to assembling such sounds together to make them compelling and enjoyable. The sounds were gathered in Lisbon, Portugal in 2010. Throughout the 78 minutes divided into 7 tracks we hear heavy drones that could be air shafts or the time-stretched echoes of some ancient rusted water cistern, rain hitting window panes, metal objects being banged about while construction machinery grinds away, wind chimes overdubbed into a cacophonous wall of sound, long tones that are mutated into hypnotic organ sounds, sea waves hitting the shore filtered into oblivion, etc. Or maybe the sounds are not at all like what I describe. In any case this is a fine addition to the canon of field recordings.

Full Steam Ahead

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Martin Archer
Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites
UK DISCUS 43CD (2013)

By pure chance, I’ve recently been getting a hefty fix of seventies Brit prog jazz – written on a large scale – courtesy of the two Mikes (Gibbs and WestBrook). So, picking up on meta-musician and label magnate Martin Archer‘s Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites gives a rare continuity to my, ahem, listening regime. The rock fusion complexities of Martin’s more recent projects (Orch. of the Upper Atmosphere, Combat Astronomy) have taken a back seat for a while as Blue Meat… dives d-e-e-p into the world of the AACM-influenced, multi-directional jazz blowout. A less travelled route for sure.

Reuniting after a one-off gig a couple of years previous, this twelve-strong aggregation – made up of violin, vibes, piano, double bass, four percussionists and a wind quartet – finds Martin opting for a cameo role; eschewing the more common concept of the bandleader being at the very epicentre of the action. A perfect democracy is created where all the instrumental voices get more than a fair crack ‘o’ the whip. Though a special gold star must be awarded to violinist Graham Clark, whose lyrical and, at times, edge-of-seat bowing skills really do take this three-parter into other dimensions. All roads though, seem to lead to the vast machinations of the title track (don’t they always?), where twitchy free form dialogue seamlessly coalesces into a recurring theme that comes on like a twenty-first century homage to Johnny Dankworth’s “African Waltz” single from 1961. Strange but true.

So here’s yet another triumph from the Yorkshire quadrant. I’d defy you to name another label that consistently delivers a more solid body of challenging work than the house of Discus. And…as to the titling, I still don’t get quite why there’s an allusion to Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen’s Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favourites album of yore…country swing certainly isn’t on this agenda. Answers on a postcard please.

Action Vision

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You may recall we reviewed the lovely music of Neil Luck in October 2012, the London composer who gave us Last Wane Days, a truly unique operetta baroque-pop chamber piece – a real surprise for many a powdered wig. He also appeared with one cut on the GoldDust compilation for Slightly Off Kilter records. Luck it was who sent us Songs From Badly-Lit Rooms (SQUIB-BOX NO NUMBER), received here 13 March 2013, and another uniquely somehow very English piece of wailery and squealation it doe bee. As you can tell I am already lapsing into a Jacobean-era style of writing and speaking, a transformation I considereth most appte when hearing these sodden wood-panelled pieces of musicke, as I sitte beside the fire and peepe dartingly out of a small latch window. These airres fitte for the eares of our right royalle King were played by Tom Jackson the clarinettist, with the viola player Benedict Taylor ever by his side. Both are improvisers and performers well respected about the towne, and indeed have likewise found success beyond the seas. For many pieces the players doe buzz and humme at a frantic rate, as though pursued by two tigers from Oriental parts, or else find themselves besette with unwanted small insects crawling about in their nether garments. My advice would be to wear an iron codpiece and so preserve themselves from The Enemy. Also of interest are the different timbres and acoustic qualities, which vary from track to track; perhaps the titles indeed reflect the real-world locations for their performances. If so, most sensitive to the space of a chamber they have proven themselves. No man can listen and remain unmoved at such delicious sounds; barking, crying, hooting and issuing many a plaintive mew, both raising dreadfull clamours to the skies. The duo perform roped together like two sailors on board a shipload of tobacco, and communicate by unseen means that inform their every thought and move. In fine, most high recommendation for this moving and delightful recording. Now I must needs return to gutting my fish from Cheapside market, ere I expire from hunger.

ReverseAge

From 11 March 2013 we received a glorious eccentric and fiery recording of avant-rock solo antics by GR (i.e. Gregory Raimo from France). What an axeman he’s proving himself on these solid high-volume grooves. I’d like to meet his tailor. His A Reverse Age (MEXICAN SUMMER MEX140) is a glorious blast of psychedelic rockabilly noise, the musical fabric cut to shreds by his nasal poison vocalising which mows down eight beds of precious flowers and causes entire trees to wither and die with just one billow from Raimo’s diabolical breath. With his ‘Hymn to Pan’ and his ‘The Primitive Hoodoo’ he owns himself a willing convert to the anti-religion of The Cramps, while his thudding drumming style and raw recording approach fuel the excitement to boiling pitch. The highlight though is his rich and juicy guitar style, often-times heavily psychedelic and reminiscent of Gary Ramon of Modern Art / Sun Dial (or the glorious obscurity Jesse Harper). Fans of Alan Vega and The Fall from circa 1980-1981 should devour this flaming nugget at tremendous speed, using crocodile jaws to chew the slabs of meat. Excessive and flailing adjectives abound on the press release, describing this wild trip as an “argument between myth and reality”, but such unhinged language and frothing praise is quite justifiable in the face of this rockin’ gemuloid.

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Here’s the scrapey improviser Tim Olive with another release on the 845 Audio label sent to us from Kobe in Japan on 21 March 2013. He was carrying a metal pail full of old rusty bolts at the time. On Various Histories (845 AUDIO 845-2) he teams up with Katsura Mouri, a fabulously talented sound artist who works with turntables which are doctored with “prepared records”, percussive objects and pieces of metal. She’s been a member of BusRatch, DOOG, and herviviennestrap, but also performs solo and in 2009 she toured with other contemporary turntable manipulators eRikm, Martin Tetreault and Ignaz Schick; and has assembled a cunning multiple turntable set-up, like Philip Jeck used. This is the first I ever heard of Mouri, but I love her delicate approach; there’s none of the heavy-handedness, violence or sarcasm one sometimes finds with your basic turntabling types – present company excepted, of course – who seem intent on smashing the device, breaking records, or trying to single-handedly destroy the history of recorded music through the symbolic annihilation of this culturally-loaded (as they would see it) machine. Instead she works most sympathetically here with Tim, who plays pieces of metal amplified with guitar pickups, to create five intense pieces of heavily abstracted grey rumbly sound, rich with plenty of low bass grumbles and growls, most of the music hovering gracefully on the twilight zone where it might erupt into vicious anti-social table noise at the turn of a feathered cable. However, it never actually does that, and instead suffuses all emotions into this slowly-bubbling green soup of seething restraint. One listen to this shimmery-abraso beauty and I’m head over heels with Katsura Mouri’s playing style, now tempted to seek out her 2000 and 2002 BusRatch records for PARA discs.

One Harp, One Guitar

The Harp of the New Cambria

Yeah…Rock! Rhodri Davies finally discovers the power of heavy metal! For years this Welsh genius (improviser, composer, innovator) was known for producing extremely quiet and minimal music with his harp, often in the company of other minimal improvisers, although admittedly he was recently drawn to use of the ebow as a process whereby he could extend the resonating strings into a powerful, humming, ultra-long drone. As is well known we love his work here and some of his recent records (e.g. 2010′s Carliol with John Butcher) have been exemplary in terms of their stripped-down astringency, their frightening sense of purpose, their deep-frozen “core of ice” affect such that to listen was like being stabbed in the head with an icicle. Now on Wound Response (ALT.VINYL av038) he’s embracing amplification and distortion, and with these groovy cuts he’s turning himself into a Welsh avant-garde version of Jimmy Page or Leslie West, riffing away in gorgeous circular patterns with a strong sense of simple melodic drive, anchoring down his quicksilver inventions with a solid root note, and generally updating the blues / rock mode in his own shimmering image of palpitating atonal holydom. In fine this is the sort of harp record that Keiji Haino probably wishes he could have made, during that creative purple patch when he figured he was tough enough to play any instrument known to man and create a hideous racket on it, including the hurdy-gurdy which he memorably transformed into a shrieking wheezy monster of steel and wood. Now Haino must surrender his laurel wreath to a new victor.

Davies is getting this fab new sound from use of transducers, contact mics, a volume pedal, an overdrive unit and two amplifiers, the sort of setup that produced those side-long versions of ‘Dazed and Confused’ (although in fact a theremin was also used I believe). The volume pedal in particular is one of my personal favourite devices and isn’t used enough in my view, ever since Derek Bailey trod his well-brogued foot on one of them during his brief but memorable “electric” phase 1. Mostly of course the quality of the music here is produced not by means of electronic assistance, but through the sheer dazzling brilliance of Rhodri’s attack. Man, you could use these fingers to mow an entire field of wheat – he’s his own combine harvester! Speed and coruscating energy are the order of the day, at times making music that resembles the hammered dulcimer or autoharp of an acid-fried folk musician, perhaps named Barney Pembleton, on the most gloriously impossible folk-rock record that never existed and was in fact purposely suppressed by Elektra, Island and Transatlantic working in an unholy triumvirate of conspiracy to conceal dangerously good music from the crowd. Now through the gift of channelling the spirit of Barney Pembleton, Rhodri Davies has succeeded in unleashing that monster from the vaults. Lovely screenprinted card presentation on this beast, with drawings by the organist / composer Jean-Luc Guionnet, a Phil Begg recording, and title borrowed from the musician’s personal bookshelf of great literature. And it’s pressed in clear vinyl, which ought to be the clincher. From 26 October 2012, and a total goodie.

The Persian Version

Last heard from Yek Koo with her single Alone Together, now here she is with an entire album recorded for the same label called Love Song For The Dead C (EMERALD COCOON EC009). Yek Koo is Helga Fassonaki from Metal Rouge, working solo with guitar, percussion devices and her voice for this uncanny limited-edition vinyl item, released at the same time as her one-person show at the Human Resources gallery in LA. The order of the day on this highly discursive and ghostified dron-gronathon is a fairly skeletal approach to music-making, selecting bare twigs or bent wire sticks, remnants and rags of material and assembling them with the intuitive flair of a collage artist or maker of bricolage. These tunes unfold in real time, coming to life on the gallery wall rather than enduring a half-life as tracks etched into dead vinyl. There’s a gloriously delirious tone which the press notes describe as “drunkenly stumbling”, to account for the free-swimming odd mismatches of sound-generation here. The very body of each tune appears fragile, so brittle that it might shatter at any second, or so nebulous that you could disperse the entire album by turning on the fan. Yet Yek Koo’s music keeps on going, and the mysterious drug-like logic of her music is as potent as a spell from Circe burning evil incense blocks in her copper bowl.

Everything is suggestive of alienation and distance – distorted, weirdly-echoed effects, beautifully badly-played electric guitar to produce unearthly tones, an out-of-tune waily voice drifting in from a secret chamber – yet in the final analysis, it’s the most honest and intimate music you could hope for. It’s as though Fassonaki has found a completely instinctive way to outwit the subtleties of our own mind games and ego tricks, and bypass normal channels of communication to arrive at a very direct statement delivered from the heart. The label exhibits a certain pride in the “tradition of the great outsider sides of the early 90s”. Although “outsider” is becoming a commonplace term these days, the point is well made, and even the cover art with its simple pastedown wraparound is trying to forge a link with the 1990s “tradition”, if indeed there is one, when great underground music was packaged in master bags with paste-on covers (mainly for economic reasons) and released in near-secrecy. Of course this attentuated, formless wailing sound she makes isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but I personally am completely enchanted with this LP and it’s highly worthy of your attention. Received 22nd May 2012.

  1. Best heard on the classic LP Domestic and Public Pieces. Let me know if you ever find a copy.

We Free Kings

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Reines of the Stone Age

Reines D’Angleterre is Ghédalia Tazartès with Jo [Tanz] and Elg. This Globe Et Dynastie thing (BO’WEAVIL RECORDINGS WEAVIL 50) is probably a one-off affair realised in Berlin with help of Daniel Lowenbruck and recorded by Rashad Becker. Tazartès is doing his unearthly singing, vocalising and whispering in the midst of a whirlpool of bizarre electronic music, with some occasional filtered and repeated vocal interpolations, perhaps supplied by the other members of the threesome. I think this shows that wherever he goes and whatever he does, Tazartès helps everyone else realise their potential for exotic, hashish trance visions in sound, sometimes whether they know it or not. I expect anyone who has fallen within the orbit of this unusual character will never forget the experience. This isn’t to denigrate Jo and El-G though; we have come across their splendid work before when they worked as a duo called Opéra Mort, on one side of a single for Spleen Coffin. They have a fierce and uninhibited approach to electronics that allows them to lift up the top of the brain and observe what scurries within. In 30 minutes and five tracks, a surreal and nightmarish avant-Techno trip unfolds, dripping corrosively into your mind like a powerful drug. The deep-bass grunts of Uncle Ghédalia, murmuring away like a benign bullfrog, make it the perfect antidote to a bedtime story. From 13 August 2012.

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Ivar The Engine

The Norwegian label Hubro has built up a very fine catalogue of excellent instrumental music, much of it crossing genres in unusual ways. Bathymetric Modes (HUBRO CD2519) is a gorgeous item intended mostly as a solo showcase for musician Ivar Grydeland, an exceptionally able guitarist – and he also plays banjo, zither, ukulele and mandolin. I really enjoy the long track ‘Roll’ which is melodic, lively, spirited and comes with a danceable 4/4 beat courtesy of Jonas Howden Sjøvaag and his snare drum. The layers of string playing, especially the understated pedal steel guitar, are just sumptuous. Supple-fingered Ivar plays like a one-man Grateful Dead, and he’s arguably more technically advanced than eight full-size replicas of Jerry Garcia. ‘Roll’ turns out to be uncharacteristic of the rest of the album though, since the four instrumentals that follow are more about “abstract composition”, and Grydeland creates the basic platforms using his graphic synthesizer called the Terri-on. Wistful and melancholic tunes result, some of them embellished with tasty string work, but it’s getting a bit easy-listening and aimless by this point. Even so, ‘Roll’ flies like a seabird for eight glorious minutes of poignant yearning.

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Danger Man

Oren Ambarchi’s Audience Of One on Touch was an exceptional release from 2012, but we mustn’t overlook Sagittarian Domain (EDITIONS MEGO 144CD); at 33 minutes, we might think this piece is almost cut from the same cloth as ‘Knots’ from the Touch album, which as it happens was also a collaboration with string players. But instead of exploring rich fields of tonality like ‘Knots’, Domain is a single-minded night drive along a lonely road, the soundtrack to a spy thriller where the payoff to the story never comes. Oren plays most of it himself – guitar, drums, percussion and using a Moog for the bass, while three string players add cello, violin and viola drones around the halfway mark, although their contributions are heavily treated and at times seemed to have strayed in from a Middle Eastern recording or an Alice Coltrane out-take. Oren opts for a remorseless, minimal, clipped guitar riff (non-riff) that pares away at the soft fruit of your mind like a sharp knife, and he propels it on its deadly path with equally stern and no-frills drumming. The basic framework is like a stripped-down version of La Düsseldorf meeting up with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, almost mechanical in the execution, and it’s as though Oren is playing out a connection between krautrock and drum and bass by recreating these genres on his own terms. There isn’t much of a melody here, but the “topline” – for want of any other description – occasionally modulates into phased effects or droney guitar solos, just to break up the monotony. I seem to recall that David Bowie’s band tried all this around the time of the Lodger album, and the musicians found themselves in the same cul-de-sac as Klaus Dinger in short order. The difference is that Bowie played his wild card by overdubbing Adrian Belew guitar solos in a weird manner (Belew wasn’t allowed to hear the backing track), and Tony Visconti made several judicious edits to the sprawl to boil it all down into song form. Ambarchi by contrast seems intent on piling on the content to the max, and stretching our nerves beyond the point of endurance. The lack of any “resolution” to these taut 33 minutes is pretty heavy going on one level, but then Editions Mego have been edging their electronic minimalism into the zones of the cruel and vicious for some years now (e.g. Life – It Eats You Up, Guts, and The Iron Soul Of Nothing). However, I’d have little hesitation in pointing out that Oren is as much a studio whizz as Bowie; he recorded this whole thing in a single studio session, and it’s an utterly watertight, steel-belted production with not a single flaw in sight.

Only a Northern Song

here comes the sun img065

Barbara Romen / Kai Fagaschinski / Gunter Schneider
Here Comes The Sun
RUSSIA MIKROTON RECORDINGS MIKROTONCD23 CD (2012)

We all love The Beatles don’t we? (This is a rhetorical question.) And what better ironic, tongue-in-cheek way to commemorate those lovable Liverpudlian longhairs than to record an album of difficult avant-garde music and then name it after one of their most successful tunes. Ho ho, you guys! As a wholly irrelevant aside, I seem to recall that the Beatles’ tune “Here Comes The Sun” was the theme for the BBC’s flagship holiday programme presented by Cliff Michelmore back in the 1970s. And that George Harrison; he’s the man. He was always my favourite.

Anyway. Great to hear hammered dulcimer played by an accomplished technician in an improvised setting that doesn’t simply rely on the irresistible potential of simply scraping all those strings in “new and interesting” ways. Barbara Romen’s name is unfamiliar to me, but on the strength of her involvement in this release I’m going to search out more of her music.

This is a strong collection of six recordings, all very self-contained and unique in their own ways, but still standing together as a unified whole. The first track, “Who’s There?” offers a coherent appraisal of each of the player’s interests over a twelve and a half minute duration that seems to fly by. If I’d heard this piece at a concert rather than on a cd I think I’d feel slightly short-changed perhaps. The languorous way the players pluck at, agitate, trill and breathe on their instruments seems to collapse time, (at least during the first ten minutes – things get slightly more demanding toward the end), with overlapping long tones driving things gently along.

Next out of the six is another longish piece at fourteen minutes; “Feelings Without End”. Here, the dulcimer sounds more like a piano at the very beginning. During one listen, I admit I was beginning to get a little bored until a hail storm hit the house without warning at around 8 minutes and turned it all into something quite magical.

“Dazed And Diffused” – another bloated and hirsute rock n’ roll institution reference; this time Led Zeppelin, you jokers! – is shorter at just under six minutes, and crawls along on its face with a sense of panicked yet resigned dread. “The Last Words” incorporates gorgeously warm long tones. It is followed by the intriguingly titled “At The End Of The Tunnel There Is Always A Lie” which does nothing but perpetuate the feelings of unease instigated by “Dazed And Diffused”. The second half of the disc feels as though (though probably isn’t – I have no real evidence to back this up) the last three tracks are all part of one long improvisation, with ID positions inserted at appropriate points. This adds to the overall cohesive and structured nature of these pieces and enhances the enjoyment of same immensely.

Mikroton should be commended for their impeccable programming of quality titles and Here Comes The Sun is the latest in a line of top-drawer recordings released by this Russian label. Their impressive back catalogue features other great projects involving big names like Jason Kahn, Lee Patterson, John Butcher, Rhodri Davies, Mark Wastell, Tetuzi Akiyama, John Tilbury, Werner Dafeldecker, Keith Rowe and many more. Well worth spending some time investigating this label, I’d say. Let me know how you get on. Edition of 300.

Mikroton

Fifteen Strings

REcall

Gilbert Isbin & Scott Walton
Recall
USA PFMENTUM CD073 (2012)

The Lute. Not exactly the most popular of acoustic instruments in this day and age. With its roots in moorish culture (its father being the Oud), this twenty-four stringed creature really had its purple patch from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. So…trying to list lutenists of note isn’t a particularly easy task. I guess for many, classical virtuoso Julian Bream would come in at number one. But let’s not forget, it was the second instrument of choice for Jan Akkerman of Dutch progsters Focus. They’re also employed by doublet ‘n’ hose revivalists from seventies Britain: Amazing Blondel (LPs on Bell and Island records) and…didn’t Milord Sting suffer a commercial petit mort a few Christmases ago by unleashing a solo lute album on the unsuspecting public? It seemed then it was only Important Records’ soloist Jozef Van Wissem who could be seen to be taking the lute into century twenty-one. Not so fast. Another entry to the canon comes in the shape of Recall by Gilbert Isbin & Scott Walton. A collection of partly scored and partly improvised pieces that are constructed with the unusual pairing of Isbin’s lute with the thrummed/arco bass propulsion of Scott Walton. This well-mannered clash of left-field jazz, contempo chamber techniques and extensive experience in recording/gigging (collaborations including George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith, Jaap Blonk, Hugh Hopper a.o.), knit together as a winning example of boundary-blurring creativity. There’s nothing too spikey, too hectoring or overbearing on show; after all, the longest cut comes in at a more than manageable 3.21. “Knomish” for example, is an exercise in medieval mystery themes; a chase amongst the cloisters that concludes in some pretty busy finger-cramping fretwork. “Solace” and the lyrically sublime “Panting” point towards the same kind of inventive fizz and sparkle that was found in Feliu & Joan Albert’s standalone prog album from ’77 (albeit filtered through an ECM-styled ambience). This is all you could hope for in a two-man set-up such as this – totally receptive playing – with ears w-i-d-e open.

pfMENTUM Records, P.O. Box 928073, san Diego, CA 92192, U.S.A.

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Universal is Born


The lovely EM Records label in Japan has been busy with more of its characteristically wonderful reissues of scarce, choice and exotic items. All the below were received here 02 May 2012. I happened to visit Honest Jon’s Records in West London yesterday and found they were still stocking a few copies of the label’s older releases, some of which are out of print. I’m personally very excited to receive and hear I Saw The Outer Limits (EM1098CD) by Matsuo Ohno. The work of this exceptional Japanese electronic music composer is not exactly easy to come by. There were three CDs issued on King Records in 2005, but these volumes of The World of Electro-Acoustic Sound and Music are in the process of becoming collector’s items. If known at all, Ohno is probably best known to a Western audience through his soundtracks to the TV anime series Astro Boy, but that’s become something of an astral albatross for him. In fact he has a complex history behind him, working in documentary and nature films since the late 1950s, developing a very personal philosophy, and some details of his fascinating life have been recorded in the very simpatico sleeve notes to this release, written by the label owner Koki Emura. There are other and more obscure anime works, for example the work of Hiroshi Maname, which had an influence on this creator, and he also made his own innovative documentary films in the 1960s, including some highly personal film projects about the treatment of disabled and mentally ill children in Japan. He produced and directed a 1972 documentary following the Taj Mahal Travellers on tour.

In 1977 he scored the soundtrack for The War In Space for Toho, the large Japanese studio that produced the Godzilla movies, and he was commissioned by director Shinji Hinoki to produce an album of purely electronic music. I Saw The Outer Limits is the result, Ohno’s first release of non-soundtrack music, and an art statement in its own right. To emphasise the unique nature of Ohno’s music, Emura gently opines how much electronic music of the 1970s (and a lot of it was quite commercial and even sold well) was not only rather bland and boring to listen to, but also tended to simply recreate the sound of conventional instruments; many times we heard quite ordinary melodies being played on a keyboard, except that the keyboard happened to be a synthesizer. It’s worth bearing this in mind as you delve into the extremely subtle tonal shadings of Ohno’s work, which are the result of pure process – the sounds here can only be created by electronic means, and the only method to arrange them involved tape editing. While this is not wildly different from the techniques used by many classical electro-acoustic composers, the results here are blessedly free from theories of structure and compositional techniques. The music just floats…it makes a lot of electronic music seem clumsy and stilted with its delicacy and weightless grace. One senses that Ohno worked in a very intuitive way, and Emura for one is convinced that Ohno has “broken free from musical genre…also from the very framework of the standard composition process”. The other thing that listeners will notice is how strange and almost impersonal the work is, a quality which is another product of Ohno’s unique personality, his reluctance to preach or express direct messages in his music. Outer space music has rarely sounded so outer-spacey, in short – cold, distant, alien, and forlorn. The release comes with a bonus mini-CD of Animal Noise Music called Choju Gigaku, and the composer himself explains how this oddity came about for the World Expo in Japan in 1970. He himself is charmingly baffled as to why anyone would want to reissue this obscure item which was intended for a very limited audience and sold virtually zero copies at the time. For the rest of us music fanatics, prepare to be delighted for 12 minutes of electronic animals singing their beautiful little tunes. I think the label has also pressed this as a nifty seven-inch vinyl item. Essential purchase!

Portrait of a Prodigy (EM RECORDS EM1099CD / MEDITATIONS MEDI 02CD) collects a number of recordings by the enigmatic Indian flautist T.R. Mahalingham, remastered from 78 rpm discs of the 1940s and 1950s. Indian music is not quite in my line, but it seems this fellow did much to reinvigorate the Carnatic tradition with his attempts to put more voicing and emotion into his playing. In doing this he caused some controversy among the purists, and made matters worse by his slightly disreputable lifestyle; an occasional gambler who was not very reliable or punctual, often arriving late for concerts or storming off the stage in the middle of a performance. These however could be taken as indicators of his perfectionism in music, and signs of a temperamental genius. I’m not at all versed in the traditions here, so have nothing to compare it to, but my ears tell me his playing is clearly detailed, taut, and very meticulous. He may not exactly be the John Coltrane of the Carnatic flute, but his music is beautiful to listen to.

Another record guaranteed to expose my musical chauvinism and ignorance of world music is Diew Sor Isan: The North East Thai Violin of Thonghuad Faited (EM1101CD). This album compiles a number of mid to late 1970s recordings of this exceptional player of the Sor Isan. The Sor Isan is a fairly grating instrument and its keening sound may be an acquired taste to Western ears at first spin, but some will also love its rawness and direct qualities. It’s a very distinctive voicing you don’t hear too often. Thonghuad Faited is notable as one of the few players who managed to bring the instrument to the fore, and achieved notoriety as a soloist – again, going against the grain of tradition. The music is completely beyond my ken, and I’d be lost without the contextual notes provided by Chris Menist and Maft Sai (who also compiled the release) – they achieve an interesting blend of musicology and regional history in their concise essay, and bring the story to life. All of these tunes have something to recommend them, whether it be a syrupy ethnic drone, an intriguing vocal part, or even a lightweight easy-listening “rock” backdrop with drums and guitars. The other thing I like is that while the Thai violin is the “lead” instrument, it’s clearly nothing like the sort of musical excess we would associate with jazz, improv, or rock solos, and rather than relentlessly propelling forwards, the music keeps circling in on itself in a compelling manner.

On Istikhbars & Improvisations (EM1096CD) we hear the piano music of Mustapaha Skandrani. This is another example of a relatively obscure musician whom Koki Emura clearly regards as a hidden gem and one most worthy of wider exposure. This Algerian musician recorded this music of his piano improvisations in 1965 under the auspices of a French patron, and once again it is something I have never heard the like of. Skandrani was trained in the traditions of Arabic or Andalucian music, but in the late 1930s he came under the influence of a musician named Hadj M’rizek, who was on a mission to modernise and update the traditional forms of hawzi and shaabi music. It seems that the piano, that most European of instruments (the development of the well-tempered clavier, and indeed the entire Western scale, is a fascinating tale in itself, full of competing factions), was considered totally unsuitable for the rendition of the half-tones and microtonal structure found in Andalucian music. On these 18 short and exquisite piano improvisations, Skandrani provides plenty of evidence to the contrary. Admittedly the grand piano in question was tuned especially to accommodate him, but even so it’s hard not to be flabbergasted by the precision and assurance with which he executes complex runs of notes and tricky Middle-Eastern intervals. The dryness of the recording only adds to the husky, spicy flavour of the music. The album upset quite a few musical purists on its release, so perhaps Skandrani is a visionary “outlaw” who appeals to this label for the same reasons as Mahalingham above. Even so, Mustapaha Skandrani was highly respected and successful in his field, and did many great things for Algerian music in his lifetime. It’s surprising that this was his one and only recording.

028

Rapture of the Deep


Australian musicians Thembi Soddell and Anthea Caddy effectively give us a good dose of music from the bughouse on their Host (ROOM 40 RM448) CD. Through clashing atonal cello music with ghastly stabs from a keyboard sampler, they bounce acoustical mayhem off the walls of our padded cell, inviting the blindfolded ear to guess at the shapes that are force-fed through our respective feeding tubes. To increase the sense of apprehension, the musical attack lacks any sense of continuity, and the information is spewed outwards randomly, in horrid fragmentary bursts that don’t fit together. Any patient forced to endure this cruel and unusual treatment will be a candidate for the rubber room in short order. Three long tracks of this mental torture are available on a CD whose almost-blank packaging contains basic geometric shapes to further confuse the mind of the mentally ill as they are unwillingly engaged in vicious parodies of a psycho-geometric test. The second track not only has the best title – ‘A Shut In Place’, highly vivid description of a mental ward – but is also the most ominous music on the set, easily rivalling most sick industrial drones from the 1980s that used to rattle on about depravity and decay like kids playing in a trash-heap. Thankfully this bleak vision lasts only 8 minutes but it feels like an eternity to the prisoner, condemned to writhe in their straitjackets and beat head against bars in futile manner. One of the most effective “bedlam” music records I’ve heard, and I’ve heard ‘em all. From 11 April 2012.

Now for a good ocean-going record. This powerful maritime theme has been used by every musician from Benjamin Britten to Charles Hayward of This Heat, and more recently Isis. To be accurate Leaving Ocean For Land (DEBACLE RECORDS DBL075) is not exclusively set on the brine and is more of a transitory piece, depicting a nameless odyssey of doomed sea-dogs returning to the mainland with their scratchy beards and a poisoned cargo stowed in the hold. The suite is realised in seven parts by two important American doom-noise mystery merchants, Vertonen and At Jennie Richie. The former is Blake Edwards and has drilled inroads into the minds of many with his disturbing electric gougers, often released on his own Crippled Intellect Productions label. The latter act we have never been able to identify for certain, so reclusive is their identity, although their name is taken from the works of Outsider artist Henry Darger. On this joint work, the melded tones of queasy, nauseating electronic sludge are sewn together like eighteen rats in a seaman’s canvas bag. The slow glorp exudes a motion exactly like the swell of the waves on a sluggish Sargasso sea. Lurking in the mix are creepy disguised voices, murmuring unintelligible groans, rescued radio broadcasts from wracks and disasters. The seven parts segue into a compellingly nightmarish trip lasting 46 minutes, passing on the effect of being drawn slowly into an enormous maelstrom, or cataract. The evocative cover photographs depict a grim forgotten hulk ground ashore and encrusted with barnacles. The voyage did not prosper, methinks. From 17 April 2012.

For those who like a suggestive narrative undercurrent to their abstract music, you could do no better than bending an ear to In The Library of Dreams (POGUS PRODUCTIONS POGUS 21064-2) by Frances White. The album showcases six pieces of very delicate music by this award-winning American composer who has also been featured on soundtracks to Gus Van Sant films. The works have been realised by guest musicians, such as the string players David Cerutti and Liuh-Wen Ting, the flautist Ralph Samuelson, and the chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird. Small and mysterious sounds are one of her specialities, as shown on the two electronic pieces ‘Walk Through Resonant Landscape’ 5.1 and 5.2; they are simulated virtual worlds, replete with replicants of birdsong and insects, synthesised in a way that matches Pauline Oliveros and her Alien Bog. ‘The Ocean Inside’, scored for a small ensemble and using conventional acoustic instruments, is more romantic and melodic; but the same degree of attention is paid to tiny details, expressed in percussion and delicate woodwind-piano passages. The title track is the most evocative, both in its Surrealist title and loving execution, and Cerutti’s full-bodied work on the viola da gamba here is an apt soundtrack for wandering around the attic of the mind, a melancholy reminisce about clutching at near-lost memories. No post-modernist she, White is not afraid to imbue her work with meaning. From 17 April 2012.

Argentinian saxophonist Lucio Capece continues his explorations into long-form music on Zero Plus Zero (POTLATCH P112), on which four of the tracks are quite extensive (between 15-20 minutes) investigations into sound-generation. He does it by making unusual electro-acoustic interpolations between him and his instrument, for example the ring modulator, equalizers, cassettes, and applied objects; and ingenious use is made of cardboard tubes as well. That said, woodwinds only actually feature on two tracks here, the remainder being executed with the sruti box or by purely electronic means, such as sine waves or equalizers being fed through cardboard tubes. It’s a rather process-heavy album and sometimes I wonder whether the long durations are justified, but ‘Inside the Outside I’ is a truly heavy magnetized hum that could hypnotise a bucket of sand into thinking it was the Sahara desert, while its sister track ‘Inside the Outside II’ is an implacable throbbing beast, whose electronic pulsations move in and out of phase to suggest a vast reservoir of power. It is well that Capece has all this power at his disposal, but I’d also like to hear him do something a little more constructive with it than simply present this very static music. From 2nd April 2012.

We last heard from the London micro-label Foredoom Productions in May 2011 with four fine cassettes of abstract noise. This odd mini-CD is called -1 (FOREDOOM FD008) and is credited to VA AA LR, in fact the trio of Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan, and Louie Rice. The main event is eleven minutes of extremely puzzling digital noise, often very minimal and fugitive with lots of dropouts and empty segments, prompting the sort of “where-is-it” exasperation I normally experience when chasing the flies out of my bedroom. Gradually it turns into a highly abstracted digital glitch which has been rendered down into a strange pile of rubble. There’s a bonus track which delivers three more minutes in the same rubbly vein. Given how little actual content or variation there is on here, I’m inclined to wonder why it took three people to produce it. I would tend to characterise it as a slightly more refined version of the kind of intense digital mayhem we find on the label Copy For Your Records, only more approachable. The original release has sold out now, but most of it has been published on Soundcloud, along with more of their studio work. Received 10 April 2012.