Dasha Rush is a Russian DJ and techno producer who’s quite a name on what I suppose to be an international club “scene” and since 2004 has released a sizeable number of singles and the odd album for her own label Fullpanda Records, and the label Hunger To Create. But she’s also keen to showcase her experimental bent, which she does very convincingly on Sleepstep (RASTER-NOTON R-N 158), an album subtitled “Sonar Poems for my sleepless friends”. Since I’m personally drawn to almost any music (or artwork, or film) which explores the tropes of sleep, dreaming, somnambulism, oneiric conditions and trance states, my interest was immediately piqued by this slice of ambient-experimental minimalism. Dasha Rush uses all her techniques extremely sparingly and carefully, yet they yield maximum results – simple melodies, stripped-down patterns, spacey beats, dub echo effects…nothing is overstated…almost instantly, the sleeper is captured into a vivid, compelling dream-world, but unlike a Surrealist landscape which might be crowded out with Freudian symbols and mysterious incongruous imagery, Sleepstep is a strange and bare world of digital patterns, clean colours and mathematical shapes whose meaning is obscure. The album is almost entirely instrumental apart from a breathy vocal introduction which ushers into the portals of sleep, a track called ‘Dance With Edgar Poe’, an apt choice – who better among the historical writers of mysterious gothic tales to help frame this somnambulistic stroll through a shrouded world of dreams. Much to recommend in the stark simplicity of this release, and the clarity of Dasha Rush’s ideas; she is proud of what she calls her “stubborn and independent” streak and often wishes to place some distance between her work and the conventions of the overcrowded and competitive techno genre. Recommended to fans of Kraftwerk, Suicide, Techno Animal…from March 2015.
Hic Iacet, The Cosmic Trance into the Void, Iron Bonehead Productions, 12″ vinyl (2015)
The artwork for this album clearly indicates a meditation session gone mind-blowingly … hmm, dreadfully wrong, at least where human beings seeking enlightenment of a sort that they would be happy with might be concerned … but then, the recording is called “The Cosmic Trance into the Void” so it is intended to lull the listener into a frame of mind where consciousness slips away and the soul is transported, temporarily anyway, into the Black Infinite. Do not be surprised then if the album is more slow than fast and is sometimes repetitive and monotonous. Occasionally there is New Age Eastern-style exoticism in the form of acoustic percussion clash’n’burn with background drone and the use of chimes and deep sonorous chant.
The title track sets up our meditation activity with a crawling, grinding bass-heavy texture alternating with spasms of colossal riff chunks bashing into cymbals and stuttering snares while swamp-monster vocals snarl over the music. The band’s sound is the main highlight though plenty of goodies abound: it’s super-heavy, knuckle-dragging stoner death doom abrasion for the most part. Those Hic Iacet hombres can be fast if the situation demands. Though the music might be slow, pop-friendly melodies and riffs appear at a speed fast enough to be distinctive and easy to remember.
Our amigos serve up a mix of long and short tracks and generally the shorter pieces are medium-fast to fast and more focused than the long meandering tracks which sometimes lose their way. Obviously the short tracks are more death metal than stoner swamp doom and are easier to assimilate. The short tracks pull the album away from sounding too self-indulgent with the more trance-oriented pieces. Until Hic Iacet figure out how to maintain listener attention on the longer pieces, perhaps they should stick to offering a mix of more commercial song-oriented work and longer, more experimentally inclined music even at the cost of having a musically defined image and approach. It must be said the long tracks aren’t without their attractions: “Into the Bowels of the Absolute” features slab-loads of fearsome monster riffing, lots of blast-beat percussion (a bit skinny and skimpy for my liking, given that the band’s sound is so ferocious), some great guitar feedback improvisation and moments of sinister mysticism.
Track titles trace the journey made during this particular meditation session in which the soul traverses ever lower and deeper through levels of consciousness and existence. Is it possible to descend lower than Hell itself, to go deeper where even Satan and his demon battalions fear to go? Armed with their battery of stringed and percussive weapons, and maybe a few Hail Marys and swigs of sangre de toro, Hic Iacet fearlessly lead the way into blacker, more despairing territory. You can almost feel yourself transforming into an uber-demon … or maybe unter-demon … such are the horrors revealed by the rolling storms of deep guitar grind, stuttery drums and that mud-encrusted voice in tracks like “Maharkala” and the massive mammoth monster that is “The Catacombs of the Mandala” which all but churns and crushes any souls that follow it into pitch-black non-existence.
By the time you are finished, on the assumption that you have actually survived being crushed over and over again, you’ll be so far into the dark cosmos that Hic Iacet have led you into that Hell will look like the heavens above.
Appropriately enough the album was released on Iron Bonehead Productions since you really need the strength of an iron bonehead to last the distance … of just under 40 minutes!
Vasilisk, Mkwaju, Austria, Steinklang Records, CD SK78 (2014)
Originally released in 1988, this recording by the Japanese trio Vasilisk has been re-mastered and issued anew for a new generation of listeners keen on rhythmic and trance-like tribal electronic music with a goal of transcendence. The band’s stated intention is to create music for liberation and ecstasy. On “Mkwaju” (Swahili for “slash”) the intention seemingly adopts an African sheen and some musical influence and instruments from Africa itself as part of its search for spiritual freedom. The band appears quite respectful in its use of African symbols and influences and I think the members themselves might have sympathised in their own way with African peoples’ attempts to achieve spiritual communion through music, and identified with them.
A dark and very austere ambience reminiscent of some industrial bands of the period during which Vasilisk were issuing their original work (there were three albums in total) is present: Einsturzende Neubauten and especially SPK with their neo-primitivist excursions and identification with outsider groups like the mentally ill come to mind. Booming tribal trance rhythms come to the fore on tracks like “Photongnoul” and “Mkwaju I” but in a way that makes them sound very formal, remote and not at all inviting and convivial. When I listen to bands like Konono No 1 who emphasise very strong hypnotic rhythms in their music, I am always impressed by the joyful party atmosphere that is always present even as their lone members who do nothing on stage but oversee the action, in the manner of political elites spying on their people as they go about their daily lives, creep by quietly. For me, African trance music often takes place in situations of joy and inclusive celebration in spite of the hardships the musicians may experience in their daily lives. Here on “Mkwaju”, everything seems too ascetic and hermetic; while the performances are very good and the drumming especially reaches virtuoso levels of technical proficiency, the surrounding ambience isn’t all that conducive to inviting and relaxing listeners enough that they are ready to embark on their personal journeys towards an ecstatic state of spiritual communion and unity.
In this context there are some good tracks: “Fangs and Claws” might be an experiment in portraying oneness with our fellow animal travellers or in spirit possession. There is a very stylised air in its ritualism, and even the throat singing is so even in its tone, emotion and pace as to seem automatic rather than spontaneous. “And Dying Is All” is a powerful, surging track in its second half.
This is quite tasteful work but in its emphasis on solemnity and the ritual aspect of attempting and achieving transcendence, “Mkwaju” treads a very thin line between using repetition and rhythm as aids to hypnotism and alienating listeners with almost sterile and robotic music. The danger is listeners can feel as though they’re rushed on a safari through exotic rhythmic soundscapes – the short durations of the various tracks don’t help in this regard. Connection with the music is hard to make and without that, the dissolution of invisible mental and cultural barriers does not take place that would enable listeners to feel completely absorbed by the music and to be transported to unknown realms.
Contact: Steinklang Records
Raagnagrok, Man Woman Birth Death Infinity, Lotus House Records, LHRCD19 (2013)
If you can spare an hour to wrap yourself in some seriously spaced-out psychedelic drone trance music, here’s a richly sprawling offering from Raagnagrok, a UK-based duo who play electric sitar, guitar and keyboard electronics. The inspiration for the album was supposedly a strange gem that reacted in odd ways when exposed to certain clusters of broad and narrow range frequencies. Well, whatever set off the two musicians (Zali Krishna and Mark O Pilkington) on their musical journey, it was obviously a very beneficent one because though the music definitely seems very occult, it has a friendly, positive air and promises no hidden unpleasant surprises.
Track titles trace a narrative trajectory from creation and conception through birth, life and quest for meaning to transcendence and connection with the infinite. The music is best heard as one continuous work with pauses where tracks end and begin: the mood and total listener immersion and enthrallment are what is important here. The sounds are very beautiful with the quality of jewels and the music flows easily and gently. The musicians themselves seem quite carried away by the melodies and rhythms that stream from their fingers. Sparkling space ambient effects may be hard and cold but together with the music create stunning soundscapes that expand in your head.
As the album continues, there are however occasions where you wish the guys would take the music up to a more emotionally and musically complicated and even spiritually purging level: the journey through life is not always smooth and pleasant and the soul must confront karma from past lives. Negative karma throws up obstacles and development challenges and positive karma may lure a soul into deceptive pathways and rob it of the motivation and effort needed to turn a gift or good fortune into something that truly nourishes all who come into contact with the soul. The music can be too benign in parts when perhaps it needs to be ambiguous as to its intentions. Even the track “Death”, for all its grave and heavy tones and rhythms, seems a bit too pleasant.
The later tracks are superior to earlier ones as they strive for an epic feel and overcoming all earthly boundaries to connect with infinite grace. You can really sense the musicians knitting their brows and sweating hard as they labour over their instruments during the latter half of the album.
Niggling reservations about the even tone of the music aside, this epic trip will appeal to the inner hippie in us all who chafes at our daily routine as we willingly bind ourselves with invisible chains in our cage-like cubicles in the office and stare at flickering PC screens as reams of figures march down.
I’ve become very fond of this UK act, headed by one Darren Cunningham, responsible for all the little worlds of jewelled electronic beauty. Each track is a portal to an incredible universe of psychedelic sound gem tones, little science fiction melodies and unusual sinuous rhythms. The best track on this album, the third for Actress, is “Marble Plexus” – this is a delicate crystal of sharp hiss and constant rhythmic whisk with a frail, tentative synth melody over the sifting-sand texture. Yet the whole track sounds quite confident and self-contained with a distinctive swagger and personality. “Uriel’s Black Harp” which follows all too soon after, is another microworld of densely packed tones, fluttering or twisting and turning like an elongated stretch of sonic DNA untangling itself so it can reproduce.
“Shadow from Tartarus” is surprisingly heavy and subterranean with a grinding bass line that might not be out of place on a sludge doom metal album if it were slowed down. “Serpent” is another surprise: quite chirpy with a dancey little rhythm. It’s a nice piece though not one of the better tracks on the CD. “N.E.W” has a dreamy air and pleasant tones but is rather too repetitive for my liking.
Interestingly tracks have titles that suggest a dark direction being taken here, as though Actress were journeying in the underworld and encountering supernatural entities like shadows deep in Tartarus, ravens and serpents and mysterious landmarks such as the Tree of Knowledge. However several tracks are very repetitive so the mood at the beginning hardly changes or develops much; if something begins on a cheery note, the mood usually carries all the way through. The result tends to be a travelogue showing scenes from different parts of some kind of Hell – and a not unpleasant Hell at that. It’s probably not what Cunningham intended for “R.I.P” and I admit I find the earlier half of the album more interesting than the latter half. But if you like intelligently crafted electronic music with dubstep influences that dabbles its toes in abstract experimentalism and are not fussed about what Cunningham might have been trying to do here, then you will adore this recording: it’s worth getting just for “Marble Plexus”.
I think Cunningham is ready to make the kind of really abstract experimental electronic music halfway between one CD I reviewed some years ago, Mauricio Bianchi and Maor Applebaum’s “Environmental Meditations”, featuring long immersive industrial rhythms, and City Surgical’s “Gray Panic”, a dark ambient electronic / industrial recording; probably all he needs is a push into that territory of abstract experimental electronic / noise lite / industrial / ambient sonic swirl.
Contact: Honest Jon’s Records
Carbonscape, Artistry of Exhaustion III, www.carbonscape.bandcomp.com (2012)
Another online ambient offering from Tad Piecka who masterminds the black metal project Petrychor, this follows on from “Artistry of Exhaustion II”, also available online. Whereas that project drew on the sounds of nature, this offering takes on orchestral music, space music and ambient music from the 1990s, according to the website information. On the whole, this seems a calmer if less invigorating release than its predecessor: the music is smoother and less jagged in its delivery but it can be lush in parts. It still has to be heard as loudly as you can tolerate to pick up all the details.
First track “Draw Close, Let Us Sleep” is a peaceful work with soothing long sighing tones and pretty piano trills around the edges. It flows and ebbs throughout and draws the listener into its soft, tranquil world. “Stasis” is another pleasant piece that does what it says, staying static: it’s very quiet, very still at times. The intention is to immerse the listener deep in a meditative state, a state in which s/he can find calm and tranquillity and let the day’s worries melt away. Gradually though a darker mood begins to dominate the track, the air seems to grow chilly and the listener can find him or herself carried helplessly into a blacker, more sinister world.
“Wretched Wretched Liar” is a bit more how I like this kind of dark ambient music from Piecka: it’s not so pretty and can be surprisingly sharp and overwhelming in places, especially in the latter part of the track. It’s extremely quiet when it starts though I sense blustering winds in the background. Hoping that one day Piecka will release this set of three tracks on CD together with “Artistry of Exhaustion II” so that listeners can enjoy the music as it should be enjoyed. ” … Liar” turns out to be very melancholy and full of longing for something dear that is now lost, forever perhaps; the use of orchestral elements gives the track a mournful air and a lush feel.
I must admit I didn’t quite enjoy this work as I did “Artistry of Exhaustion II”: being a digital release doesn’t quite serve the music well here. I suspect on CD it would come across as a more full-bodied collection of music with more volume dynamics; the orchestral parts seem flat. Proof that online music as it is, is missing something that only music released on older formats retains: warmth and atmosphere. Some people might be concerned that kids who listen only to online music might get a warped sense of what music should sound like but with technology changing so quickly, online music must surely improve and it’s difficult to predict how it will influence young people’s music tastes and capacity to hear music.
The 1982 Trio – they simply call themselves 1982 – are three Norwegian players who play all-acoustic music with violin, harmonium and drum kit on Pintura (HUBRO CD 2510). With this simple set-up they achieve some remarkable sonorities and combinations of tones that are extremely satisfying, the extended notes of each violin stroke fusing with the languid sighs of the harmonium, allowing each taut percussion note from the drumkit to ring out like a small lead pellet from an airgun. In the hands of more impatient musicians, these instruments could lend themselves to performing modern jazz music of some sort, but 1982 are largely concerned with creating introspective, slow-moving and melancholic instrumentals, none of which have titles and are suitable for observing natural landscapes or under-furnished interiors. One of my personal favourite King Crimson pieces from the 1970s is a semi-improvised tune called ‘Trio’ which featured the interplay of David Cross’ violin and John Wetton’s bass with the mellotron playing of Robert Fripp. If you heard that, and you like it too, then Pintura is sure to please you. The clear, no-frills recording quality on this album is the work of Davide Bertolini working at the Grieghallen Studio in Bergen.
Full-bodied free jazz saxophone honk-a-ma-thon from Wolf Scarers, who are the duo of Keith Jafrate and Simon Prince. On Throat (THE NOISE UPSTAIRS NUS004) they both wield tenors like two Scots kings fighting with claymores, although Jafrate has an alto sax sellotaped to his midriff and Prince has a couple of flutes secreted in his enormous boots. Both these English hooters are long-established as musicians, but they never played together until relatively recently when they shared a bill at a Huddersfield music festival. I’m surprised to learn that, as they seem very comfortable with one another, their brass members locking together as perfectly as the antlers of two rutting stags, each one knowing instinctively when to offer support and proppage to his partner’s wilder flights of pufferment and zany toots. They don’t rely heavily on attention-getting over-blowing effects, and both have a facility with playing clear melodic passages and well-controlled quieter segments that contrast nicely with the more raucous and growly interludes. Listeners are especially advised to note the 27-minute marathon ‘Flagstone’, a highly sustained and accomplished piece of improvisation that flows and seesaws in flawless acrobatic fashion. As you can see the cover art promises plenty blood, broken glass and maybe even bare teeth, and while Wolf Scarers are not quite as all-out violent as that, this is a hot little baked potato. The label, The Noise Upstairs, is also an improv collective and venue which operates in Manchester and Sheffield.
Intense and ugly electronic noise abounds when we enter the undersea world of Horacio Pollard, a Berlin-living musician who spends some time in the UK and runs his Neigh Percent micro-label. Baracuda (NEIGH%MUSIC), like the vicious sharp-toothed saltwater fish which is its namesake, rips into you from the start with acid tones, obnoxious feedback, and harsh shrieking vocalising. Each track is a short episode which ends as suddenly as a nightmare trip to the sonic dentist of pain. Yet we may peel away these crusty layers of noisy cottage pie to expose the sweet filling within Pollard’s music. He controls his powerful forces as surely as an occult magus, yet also knows when to allow his alchemical serpents to slip off the leash and slither wildly into the air with their feathered scales. The further we go into this short album, the more dynamic and textured the music doth become, such as the very enjoyable (to me) two-minute ‘Shephards Prop’ which in this context is almost like pop music. In fact there might actually be a conventional pop-music record lurking somewhere at the bottom of this particular foetid trifle. However if you prefer long duration and relentless attack, then click on to the 10-minute ‘Itching-Togo’ where your predilections will be fully satisfied. Nine tracks are advertised on this CDR, although my version of VLC Media Player will only recognise eight of them, and #6 won’t play at all.
Now for some Italian avant-garde Techno on a Ukrainian label. The duo of Plaster are Gianclaudio Hashem Moniri and Giuseppe Carlini from Rome who profess a liking for the same things that would have endeared them to Kevin Martin in 1997 and might even have earned them a spot on his Macro Dub Infection compilations, to wit dark ambient tones and dubby beats. Platforms (KVITNU 20) certainly delivers plenty of atmosphere and the rich, bass-heavy throbs on tracks such as ‘Component’ and ‘Structure’ will simultaneously induce narcolepsy and invite you to move up to an imaginary dancefloor where you can sway your etherised body and stamp your paws like a tranquillised polar bear. When it comes to actual melodies, each track is brutally simple, and refuses linear development or variation in favour of monotony and stasis. I’m not quite as keen on the beat-less trancey numbers which feel a bit sketchy and samey, but there’s only a couple of these; the album closes out with longer remix-style dub cuts like ‘Rearline’ with its crunchy white-noise pulsations, the slow and murderous mood of ‘Double Connection’, and the minimal electro-screech of ‘Trasversal’. Arrives in an elaborate black and gold foldout cover designed by the lovely Zavoloka, and there’s a three-minute movie by their friend David Terranova (stop motion and slow motion manipulations of a ballet dancer, footage tinted in blue and black) included as a bonus on the CD.
For an album inspired by the architecture and potential instability of nuclear reactors in Japan, Biosphere‘s N-Plants is a surprisingly soothing and anodyne work. Looking at the titles and espying two tracks marked “Monju-1” and “Monju-2”, I had visions of something fairly sharp and really on the edge, noisy and rough-hewn, bubbly and bursting with bewildering textures. After several spins of this recording and trying to find some connection between it and the nuclear reactors referred to in the album titles, I’ve come to the conclusion that Geir Jenssen hasn’t got anywhere near getting to grips with the concept. Granted, he had completed the album before the earthquake and tsunami disaster that hit the Fukushima reactor in March 2011 but even before that, he should have done some homework and found that Japan’s nuclear reactor safety record over the last half-century or so is an absolute shocker with obfuscations, lies, bureaucratic buck-passing and inertia in the face of catastrophe the rule rather than the exception. If this information had been part of the concept, there would have been a message about human folly, the nature of a particular society and its control of dangerous technology, and a tension would have been generated that informs the music and might have made it vigorous, angry and energetic. Instead what’s on offer here is more soothing sonic wallpaper that I’ve been associating with Touch – and hey, this album is on the Touch label! – for several years now.
Let’s forget about the concept and just concentrate on the music. Yes, there is a sombre mood throughout the work but an album lasting some 50 minutes can’t rely on the same mood at the same level of intensity or depth all the way through. The melodies are pleasant enough but they’re not at all memorable or inspired. Heck, they sound a bit like they were computer-generated (and they might well have been). From one track to the next, we are not hit with any variation in sound, texture, pace or rhythm: the pieces tend to be repetitive rhythm chapters in one meta-work (well, that might have been the intention). There is a real lack of dynamism and I don’t feel that Jenssen is doing his utmost to put across any ideas or feelings in the music. It’s as if he walked over to one of his machines, flicked a switch and walked away, letting the equipment sort itself out.
Amazingly “Ikata-1” is a cheerful piece, repetitive and doing very little really apart from cycling in one spot. Even more surprising is “Monju-1”, another fairly cheery piece with a smooth melody that wanders up and down amid a cheesy synth slide and background giggles. Given that in 1995, a fire broke out at the fast breeder reactor in Monju and two to three tons of sodium leaked out which, if the stuff had come into contact with water, could have resulted in a huge explosion but forced a shutdown lasting some 14 years; and then another accident involving dropped machinery forced a second shutdown in August 2010, there would have been plenty of inspiration for something menacing, powerful an dynamic; but no, there is nothing to suggest that the Monju plant has ever had an interesting history.
On we go to “Genkai-1”, one of the most uninspired pieces of electronic plod I’ve had to endure: a bland melody blunders its way through the rhythm. We keep trekking and meet the Monju reactor again in “Monju-2”, with just the synth melody this time. Again, not a track that attempts to engage the attention, and so it is all the way to the end of the album: just very smooth, remote electronic melody.
This album does Biosphere and Touch no credit at all and simply reinforces my blinkered view that Touch releases these days are irrelevant if you’re searching for decent electronic instrumental music.