Tagged: turntabling

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.

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Deliberate Mistakes

Home Service

The latest entry in the Vernon & Burns catalogue sees this Glasgow duo teaming up with Lied Music, the duo of Luke Fowler and John W. Fail. Lost Lake (SHADAZZ SHA.11) is one of the stranger and darker emissions from these talented creatives, particularly if you care to compare it with the sometimes more playful assemblages of V&B, or the deliciously offbeat melodic avant-pop tunes created by Fowler as part of Rude Pravo. At first spin the record is a near-bewildering toasted-cheese sandwich, a concoction which contains at least a zillion ideas apparently thrown together any which way. Faced with such an array, discerning avant-LP listeners may want to reach for The Faust Tapes as one touchstone, but another credible precedent is the unearthly Bladder Flask LP 1, that ne plus ultra of cut-up sound art put together by a teenaged Richard Rupenus as if possessed by some fevered desire to surpass the worst excesses of the lunatic fringe end of the United Dairies catalogue. But the Bladder Flask release had the underlying sinister aim of sending all those who heard it mad, through highlighting the complete absurdity and futility of everything. Lost Lake has a more benign mission, thankfully. The album has been very carefully crafted, using sets of recorded improvisation sessions produced by the four players, aiming to resculpt the near-chaos of that source material into a coherent structure. Within that structure, fractured songs and equally fractured stories emerge; yes, a scrambled form of a radio listening or cinematic experience, which is an effect Vernon & Burns have striven for with a good deal of their work (and have produced many items expressly in radiophonic mode). As to the cinematic, Fowler is also a film-maker. There is a logic to this scheme, but it is hard to follow and weaves its way around in a highly secretive and intuitive fashion, like an errant underground stream full of eccentric fish and darting river-insects stained in unnatural colours. We could account for some of this quirkiness by pointing out that all four creators were involved in the refashioning process, rather than a single editorial hand behind the editing knife; one can imagine the clashing dynamism generated by four powerful personalities, each of them bending the path of events in their favour. Additionally, the source material itself was not exactly straightforward music to begin with, but created using the now-virtually-standard set-up of the modern improviser, that is amplified instruments, toys, found tapes, field recordings, and live electronics. From this rich stew, voices and tunes emerge from amid a varispeeded and highly layered humid aggregation of extremely strange sounds. And yes, like the Rupenus LP, it is quite absurdist, but I like to think it’s a fun and cartoony absurdity, rather than bleak and Beckett-like. That said, this aural bric-a-brac crawls out from a dark attic of the mind, and is as much an unsettling listen as it is entertaining. Corin Sworn’s cover art encodes all the above information quite perfectly. Using collage technique (naturally), it depicts a figure sitting on a sofa surrounded by hideously “tasteful” drapes and furnishings. This image of bourgeois normality is thoroughly disrupted by replacing the outline of the figure with fragments of urban horror and machinery, then further scrambling the visual schema with concentric rings and diagonal bars, suggesting the power of the aural emanations on the record. The album is, we are told, a sequel to a 2006 release called Lied Music vs Boy-Band Tax Returns, which we reviewed in our Vinyl Viands issue.

Pedal to the Metal

A promising experiment in steam-driven innovation is the one-sided 12-incher by DJ Mistakes (PHASE! RECORDS PHR-81). The two creators are Casey Farnum and Elliot Hess, who built a complex apparatus allowing them to power their turntables using bicycles; the cover art and the enclosed drawing, as if torn from the pages of the English comic illustrator Rowland Emmett, give some indication of the set-up and its concomitant paraphernalia. These drawings also reminded me of the sketches Hans Reichel used to include on his early FMP albums (e.g. Bonobo Beach), indicating how he assembled his own hand-built guitars. On the record, we actually hear live recordings of the infernal machine, made in Brooklyn in 2006-07 and also using gongs, microphones, a mixing desk, and of course records on the turntables. The artists may be slightly poking fun at the conventions of DJ culture, but also intend to put more spontaneity back into the artform, and they hark backwards to the time of the hand-cranked Victrola, harbouring a certain intellectual nostalgia for an undefined early modern period when “gears and bicycles were the stuff of aural and physical revolutions”. If I were a writer of the Ken Hollings school, no doubt I could bring forward numerous references to the place of the bicycle at key political moments of the Russian revolution, the First World War, or in the films of Eisenstein, thus making ingenious connections across political and cultural history. Farnum and Hess may even be attempting to begin that undertaking with their front cover collage, which although let down by rather murky printing, does suggest a darkened industrial landscape where the bicycle wheel on the horizon resembles part of a mining operation, and the two men in old-fashioned suits have their heads replaced, John Heartfield style, with objects which I assume are bicycle seats. Unfortunately, the record itself doesn’t live up to much of this promise, and is merely odd and amusing where it could be radical and wild. Some unusual moments can be heard, but it is mostly a lot of wobbliness and speed variations, which is pretty much what you’d expect. This arrived around June 2011.

The Charred Rise

The double LP Atonal Hypermnesia (MEGATON MASS PRDUCTS PIKADON002LP) by French avant-metallists P.H.O.B.O.S. is their third release and arrived here in June 2012. We last noted them in 2009 with their album Anœdipal, and this new release provides an even more remorseless manifestation of their craft. They began life in 2000 using the “conventional” four-piece set up of guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, and vocals, but from the start their driving mission has been to create a degree of sonic intensity that transcends the conventions of the many generic labels that are flung in their direction, including Black Metal, doom, stoner, sludge, noise, industrial, etc. As a matter of fact the principal creators are proud of their “maximal” approach to amplified noise, which while it may use a lot of churning, droning effects is arguably more “eventful” than any given release from the Sunn O))) school of imitators. They also aim to structure their tunes, rather than merely reverberating their Marshalls into infinity. Stefan Thanneur once again provides the cover artworks, but where the Anœdipal record made provocative use of religious icons, the keynote this time is heavy abstraction, a restricted colour range which allows only black (lots of it) and silver, and an allusion in the direction of geological formations, intended to suggest this is music that causes earthquakes or was engendered inside the crater of a volcano. As a listen, it’s very heavy going; treated guitars, much studio fog and choking drone effects, solemn vocal grunts, and relentless hammer-blow drums throughout. In fact I can’t stress enough how inescapable these drum beats are. They strike their way into the very fabric of the music like geologists’ mallets, and serve mainly to illuminate how trapped we are by the cavernous walls of this extreme sound. These drums make the entire sonic environment sound hollow, and start to make me feel hollow inside too. As to the guitar and electronics (if indeed that’s what we hear), they produce endless, clotted clumps of noise, and to endure them is like eating lumps of burnt coal or solidified nuclear waste. Certainly this is very well-crafted music and is quite some way removed from the more primitive end of Black Metal (e.g. Striborg, Bone Awl, and Beherit), and the elaborate titles such as ‘Solar Defrag’ or ‘Necromegalopolis of Coprolites’ point to a strongly intellectual influence on the work, adding additional layers of context to what is already an extremely dense statement.

  1. One Day I Was So Sad That The Corners Of My Mouth Met & Everybody Thought I Was Whistling, originally released in 1981 on Orgel Fesper Music.
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The Bag Is Ready

Une Saison en Enfer

Season Two (SOLAR IPSE #01) is the latest team-up of those two Italian improvisers Ninni Morgia and Marcello Magliocchi; last heard them doing their guitar and percussion duo thing on the 2011 Sound Gates LP, which we noted this summer. Both are radical inventors or reinventors of musical instruments, Magliocchi in that he creates his own percussive instruments from found objects but also has many extended techniques concealed up his long white sleeves. His approach to playing the bowed cymbal, for example, creates a dynamo hum of evil proportions on ‘Medusa’, its tidal swells sucking you into a fatal whirlpool for 9 minutes. On ‘Avoiding Traps’, his suffused cymbal fog effect is like a cloud of liquid metal alloys floating in the room, capable of nickel-plating both lungs instantly. The Sicilian guitarist Morgia is one of the busiest guitar-players on the planet, equipped with arms and fingers made of recycled Slinky Toys. He does everything he can on his electric guitar apart from strike a recognisable chord or hold down a note in conventional fingering manner. Instead, distortion and mutation are his watchwords, muffling strings at every opportunity or causing them to hoot and howl like animals, and activating his strumming right hand to more or less pounce on the strings like a cougar from a tree, making unexpected dives and leaps and occasionally even shredding the flesh with his long sharp claws. Which reminds me that, pound for pound, this album is much more aggressive than the rather wispy and mysterious Sound Gates, the latter record resembling at times an electro-acoustic foray into the tunnels of the cerebellum, much as we loved it. Season Two isn’t exactly the improv remake of ‘God Save The Queen’, but half of the tracks are quite short and punchy and characterised by a thunderous undercurrent of bass tones and a considerable amount of shrill noisy attack at the front end. The nine-minute ‘Thor’s Tunnel’ in particular should endear this duo to listeners who derive twisted kicks from the more feral and untutored guitar-drum noise assaults of MoHa! or Mouthus. There are sterner and more meditative tracks, but overall a raucous and passionate album on which there’s no denying the musicianly skills of both these artistes, who pay close attention to interactivity, detail and dynamics in every second of these live recordings, yet are still able to blast out with the force of a dozen red devils when the occasion demands it. Arrived 22 March 2012.

Tales from the Crypt

From 05 March 2012, we have Joke Lanz and his Münster Bern (CUBUS RECORDS CB 368). Me, I’m still reeling from the fabulous two double-LP compilations 1 of his Sudden Infant work which brought home to me the importance and influence of this outrageously unique personality, besides being shocking, hilarious and terrifying all at once. This item is less of a confrontational noise assault-performance thing and shows Lanz’s diabolical skills in working the turntables on a single 26-minute track which he recorded live in the cathedral at a music festival in Bern. It’s mostly a mind-sappingly odd and bewildering frieze of aural collage, with a string of disconnected sound events (music snatches, voices, sound effects and generally unrecognisable goop) following the dark logic of a mind which only its owner truly understands. Church bells give way to dripping-tap electronica bloops, then dissonant avant-guitar plucks, then a sobbing voice, a deeply troubling high-key whine, then a calm TV announcer’s voice; by about mid-point the vocal elements are becoming quite grotesque, with speeded-up repeats and loops rendering their every syllable as pure gibberish. It’s like viewing a series of surreal art objects in glass boxes arranged in a long line, creating an impression on your mind which grows more nightmarish and ridiculous the further into the gallery you walk with tentative step. I say this to emphasise the separatedness of Joke’s sounds; some turntablers like to confuse us with multiple overlays which crash together into a sonic pile-up in short order, but here each item is presented to us in almost stark isolation, with the accretion of sounds only gradually coalescing to form a semi-connected statement. The natural echo of the cathedral only increases that sense of isolation, and some of the noises here feel like silly little clowns or cartoon animals performing their zany turns in the most inappropriate possible setting before a cold or indifferent audience. The disruption to clear thinking is completed by the interventions of Joke’s stabbing finger, aggressively halting, reversing and rubbing the rotating discs with his radical take on the “scratching” technique. And what a powerful finger it is too. I mean, just look at that photo on the back cover. It looks like it’s hinged in three places, something you could pull out of a metal toolbox and use as a car jack. Lanz’s sense of jet-black humour seems to have been a key operator for this work, but the lasting effect of Münster Bern is one of total absurdity, a miniature portrait of the futility and folly of existence.

Jesus Couldn’t Drum

Curio of the day is this package called Don’t Drum for Other Girls (SEED RECORDS SEEDCD33) which arrived 23 March 2012 in an elaborate screenprinted foldout cover. This was sent to us by the Department of Music at Goldsmiths College in New Cross, and may represent a stage in a music/art student project. It’s credited to a band called Sleeps In Oysters, but they just did the basic music and numerous other creators have been involved in the realisation of this elaborate multi-media package. Luckily I have the latest version of VLC media player which is capable of displaying entire contents of disc in a menu, regardless of their file formats. There are about five original tunes by Sleeps In Oysters and some remixes-reworkings of same by Diasonic, John Oyster, DJ Arctic Roll, Liquid Chris H. and Christ. The songs aren’t much more than basic girl-pop with electro beat trappings and semi-punky guitar chords, with a nondescript girl vocalist intoning the lyrics with very little real passion or expression. As pop songs go, better melodies have been written. So far it’s something of a cocktail, but from what I can gather from the press notes which freely invoke everything from post-punk pop to modern-day girl bands, stopping off at Cyndi Lauper and 1980s power pop en route, that is exactly the intention. Oddly enough the reworked versions of the songs are more interesting to my ears; ‘He Drummed Part 2′ strips away almost all the song elements and offers us an attenuated mechanical whine blended with an ambient background tune, while something resembling a mad prepared electric violin is sawn apart with fiendish glee. John Oyster is responsible for that, and also the ‘Son Of Drum Mix’ of the title track which buries the basic tracks in a compressed echo chamber while bringing some insane drum machine tracks to the fore. Curious rather than exciting, but even so it just about manages to demonstrate how conventional pop can be recast as vaguely experimental music. Equally odd is the performance artist The Strangest Pet, who adds a twisted spoken narrative to another version of ‘He Drummed’. Then we come to the moving images segment, which is a pop promo video for the title song made by Carlos Saez of Madrid. It hasn’t improved the song for me much (third hearing in and it’s becoming rather grating) but care has gone into building the colourful pop-art props, and the images of the musicians running around the town dressed as outsize Korg synthesisers have an endearing quality. We also see the artistes inside their cramped cardboard boxes looking almost frantic, trapped, beating against the walls of a cell. The package includes generous number of photos of the video shoot, and the other visual elements are folders of image files – collage artworks created by an English artist LustrousChemistry (i.e. Paul Hearn), who also assembled the hand-made package for the release. A good effort in all, but what is it trying to communicate? The package is an odd mix of banality, cliché and experimentation, and any shared ground between the diverse talents involved is hard to discern. I can’t find the missing pazzazz factor that would make this very mixed package truly lift off for me. There may be some intended ironic subtext about pop music, but it’s nothing like as coherent as (say) X-Ray Spex, Bow Wow Wow, ABC or even Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

  1. My Life’s a Gunshot (Retrospective 1989-2009).
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Sentient Darknesses

Razine a Ruckus

Good contemporary French improv on Razine (MONOTYPE RECORDS MONO43), a team-up between the saxophonist Michel Doneda and erikm, the turntabling live electronics fellow. We last heard these two working together on the Ronda release Dos D’Ânes, where Jérôme Noetinger added his vicious electronic outbursts to the mix. Doneda can be capable of slow and minimal squealing, but he’s much livelier on these improvisations from 2009. He works well with erikm and the collaboration delivers good results. His rhinoceros pelt is soon filled with breadcrumbs from the crazy antics of erkim, and the pair deliver crazy sqwawks and illogical whoops a-plenty, be it free-form atonal sucking and sputtering from the saxophones, or surprising chatterments and hurlements from the sampling-electronics half of the act. On the first track that errant craziness is tempered with long passages of growly rumble, effected by the familiar ploy of using scratches and crackle from old rotating vinyl, but the feathers are heavily ruffled for the second half of this 22-minute essay, with fireworks and roman candles fizzing into the cold night air. Continuous live playing here which never lets up and creates almost an airless effect, but not an unpleasant one at all. The second cut is even livelier. Doneda manipulates and twists his sound until he’s wringing painful sobs and sighs from the bell of his sax as surely as an old floor-cleaner at the hospital wrings his mop into his pail. Erikm brings in further stabs and swipes from his boodle-box of samples: drumbeats, fierce noise, voices, and unrecognisable fragments, doling them out in tiny portions to fill our ears with seconds of glorious madness. A very disciplined squonk+electronica fest which makes for a compelling listen. Fine moody monochrome jacket too.

Runic Tunes

Gloomy power-electronics with sinister voices can be yours to enjoy on the new album by Hungarian band Heldentod, an entity that’s apparently been in existence since 2005 and may have produced one or two albums in the “dark folk” genre. On The Ghost Machine (COLD SPRING RECORDS CSR131CD) the cover beckons us in with images of hooded acolytes at a nameless ritual surmounted by a glowing rune, while on the disc there are eight tracks of abstract, dense and well-constructed drone-noise of an extremely sinister hue, each lasting around 5-6 minutes, but feeling more like an eternity of doom in each case. Keeping their sounds deliberately vague and shady, the better to populate these murky realms with shadowy figures, Heldentod varies the emotional pitch quite successfully across the album – ranging from the grisly & harrowing to the pessimistic & desolate, using brutal noise loops or dismal synth layers as needed. The album opens with a vocal recit spoken by Jill Lovinitnun, with its rather pretentious lyrics fed through an echo chamber, but luckily this turns out to be uncharacteristic of the remainder. Vocals do appear on some cuts, but the haunted satanic voice simply utters single words and allows technology to repeat them (as on ‘Incorruptible’); and the vocal element is just one more part of the heavy and occluded mix, buried and distorted to conceal its meaning and to increase the diabolical mood. The press release informs us that Heldentod have always expressed a number of key “themes” in their work, mostly to do with histories of the supernatural and the pagan, and continue to do so on The Ghost Machine. Although I found the near-histrionic pitch of this album a bit heavy going, I do enjoy its obsessive use of loops, patterns, and repeats, and it could prove to be the perfect company for an insomniac night in the middle of Winter.

The Ethereal Thing

Oddly enough Heldentod might just find they share some common ground with Candor Chasma, whose new CD Rings (OLD EUROPA CAFE OECD 152) was produced by the duo of Corrado Altieri and Simon Balestrazzi. Admittedly, Rings is very much an “art” CD and more refined in its approach than The Ghost Machine, which admits to its predilections right from the start, but they overlap in their shared interest in the unknown outer worlds and spirit-infested zones that lie beyond the human plane. Candor Chasma speak of the ‘The Third Void’ and ‘Hallucination Doors’ with some apparent relish, undertake experiments such as ‘Chemical Analysis of Ectoplasm’, and presume that the most fruitful time and place for communing with the spirit world will be ‘Inside the Ether at 06.00 A.M.’ Accordingly, their thickened droney electronic music is exactly like a dose of chloroform for the listener, slowly inducing intense hypnotic states with its pulsating throbs. Through these grey mists of sound, eerie distorted and whispering voices swim. Each track emerges as the aural equivalent of a 19th century photograph taken at a séance, an image confirmed by the cover painting made by Daniele Serra. There is also the suggestion of using the tape recorder to capture ghost voices, in the well-known tradition of EVP. This album has its strongest material on the first two tracks which do come very close to inducing the hoped-for trance states, and the duo list all of their equipment (synths, filters, FX, mixing desks etc.) on the inside cover, as if to reaffirm their faith in factual and tangible objects after having dabbled with the ethereal and emerged rather shaken from the experience. The last track ‘Apophenia’ may be intended as the keynote track. Well, it is certainly very long, but it’s also a bit aimless and feels rather thin and washed out after the intensity of the earlier tracks. Even so there is still plenty of ectoplasmic detritus to be scooped from its swirling interior by the questing ghost hunter. Ironically, apophenia is the scientific term for a phenomenon of human perception that can be used to explain away much of what we regard as paranormal activity. For more supernatural music with similar undercurrents, you may care to investigate Balestrazzi’s Magick With Tears label.

The Generation Game

The above records clearly have an interest in using electronic music to help their creators tell stories or weave elaborate musical fictions. On Generators (EDITIONS MEGO DEMEGO 024), we hear Keith Fullerton Whitman approaching electronic music production more from the basis of an interest in pure sound for its own sake. On the first of these two pieces, both lasting precisely 17 minutes and 34 seconds, he performed at a festival in honour of Eliane Radigue. Radigue is a French composer whose use of sine wave tones and minimalistic electronic drones is truly monumental, but even she is not interested in process for the sake of it, and much of her work is underpinned by a firm belief in transcendence and the passage of the soul. Whitman’s ‘Issue Generator (for Eliane Radigue)’ may not aspire to the same degree of spiritual grandeur, but it is an extremely accomplished and satisfying piece of music. Starting with simple elements, it builds logically and perfectly into something complex and rich and as three-dimensionally precise as a sculpture made out of laser beams. Gorgeous. The second piece ‘High Zero Generator’ was performed at the Baltimore High Zero festival, and is quite different. Where the first piece arrived at a species of melody through process-based methods, this one is more abstract and harder to fathom. Alien sounds spit out of the dark centre almost erratically, one voice crackling and fizzing like a malfunctioning electrode, while other voices sigh profoundly or shriek like swooping bats. Like the recent vinyl masterpiece from Lehn and Schmickler, this piece somehow recaptures the terror and strangeness of early electronic music from the mid 20th century, and reinjects it directly into the culture of 2012. I’m astonished to learn that these are two manifestations of the exact same performance piece, which was executed several dozen times over the course of a year’s touring by Whitman; the two versions on this LP were selected as being among the best examples of its realisation. From what I understand of the process developed by the composer, it represents something of a creative breakthrough in the use of digital and analogue computer-based tone generator systems in the context of live performance. Personally I would like to think it represents the beginnings of a backlash against music made with laptop computers. Musically and creatively, this is an innovative record that deserves your attention. Graham Lambkin drew the cover art.

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Three Vinyl Vostigans


First, long overdue notice for the latest Dancing Wayang Records production which we’ve had in the vinyl rack since May 2011. Anna Tjan oversees all aspects of production of releases on her label, always doing the recording in her studio, and in this instance the visuals too – the silkscreen cover was done by her and Midori Ogata, and she provided the insert photo too. Anicca (DWR 006) is a meeting between the English improvising vocalist Phil Minton and the cellist Okkyung Lee, a Korean-born player whose name is new to me, but she has built up a fine array of collaborative / solo records and performances, most recently on the Cold/Burn LP for Feeding Tube Records. On these 2009 recordings, both musicians are concerned with pushing their respective instruments to testing limits, in the process finding new ways of operation which result in sounds that are alien, terrifying, and fascinating all at once. But it’s collaborative work too, so the challenge for them both is how they wrap their complex mental contours around each other, each bringing respective unknown pasts and hidden dangers to the equation. Yes, every new improvisational collaboration is like a musical blind date. Lee and Minton have an elaborate sympathy-antipathy thing going, which can result in this LP’s most exciting moments of friction. To do this performing live in an all-acoustic situation where you have virtually nothing to hide behind and all mistakes are in the open is a fairly daunting proposition. As with a previous release on this label, the Corsano-Edwards release Tsktsking, Tjan’s task is not to edit or produce or amplify this meeting of minds, but simply to document it. And I have the feeling that “being simple” in the studio is not as easy as you might think; it’s always to Tjan’s credit that she achieves such credible results from the strict disciplines of basic documentary recording. Martin Davidson ought to be proud of her. 1 Like Tsktsking, Anicca can be a restrained and minimal listen at times, but it leaves you face to face with the stark drama being enacted before your ears. Perhaps it’s best just to stick with Christian Marclay’s sleeve note, with his long list of descriptive (and very accurate) verbs followed by the admission of defeat, “words are powerless when it comes to describing what Lee and Minton are doing here”. 350 copies were pressed.

Also more or less in the realm of improvised music, we have Sound Gates (ULTRAMARINE RECORDS UM009) from the Italian guitarist Ninni Morgia and the percussionist Marcello Magliocchi. Like the above record to some extent, it seems both players, Morgia in particular, are concerned with finding another “new voice” for the instrument, and making concerted efforts in that direction. But not doing so loudly, or dramatically. First impression of Sound Gates is an LP full of extremely subtle tones, and you have to burrow inside with your ears to pull out the platinum nuggets of invention. Morgia is admittedly using a few props and ladders to reach the high fruits on the improv tree, among them filters, effects pedals, and a bow on the strings; but ultimately it’s his innovative technique that matters, as he applies fingers to fretboard and strings of his electric guitar in such ways to coax out an impressive range of alien microtonal effects and variegated tones from that axe. Magliocchi taps his tuned drums with the grace of a mosquito landing on the leaf-pads of a jungle plant, applying himself with stern discipline and reining in the natural instincts of a drummer to play too many notes. Like Morgia he also generates far-out and almost disturbing sounds, oddly distant and almost inhuman metallic clangs which echo in a dismal corridor of loneliness. I’m impressed to learn that Magliocchi has a history of playing free jazz with some of the Afro-American greats, has recorded for the famous improv label Ictus (kind of like the Italian version of Incus), and has built and designed his own radical drum kits, objects which are as much fine art sculptures as musical instruments. The two players have put so much energy and effort into developing this constrained and almost forced technique that the actual recorded pieces can appear unfinished; there’s no real beginnings or endings or conventional rise-and-fall crescendo in the dynamics. You may think this makes for unsatisfying listening, but it doesn’t; all 11 tracks are like scattered pages torn from the notebooks of daring experimenters, and can set your mind racing with possibilities. This one is from Autumn 2011, released in September.

The picture disc item (CORE 003) is the third release on the excellent Corvo Records label, and it arrived in my clasping digits on 29 November 2011. The A side of this split is by Thorsten Soltau, cleverly manipulating turntables to create 18 minutes of ‘Grün Wie Milch’. I’ve never heard the turntabling method deployed to produce such interesting and sometimes uncanny results, but that’s because Soltau is an intelligent and exploratory artist, moving on from his previous efforts with digital sampling and actively trying to teach himself a new musical language and striving to get towards a form of musique concrète using this fairly limited set-up, which he describes as “two-dimensional”. By this, I suppose that it’s a method that doesn’t allow the range of control and experiment that you might get from editing tapes or sampling sounds, but once harnessed, the discipline can work highly in one’s favour. What we hear on the grooves is brilliant, controlled chaos, lots of loops, occasional wheeps of feedback from the tonearm, the usual crackling from old scratched discs, and grumbly layers of pure textural noise. Soltau allows the looped elements to work their rough mesmeric magic, but never falls asleep behind the controls as he is directing every second of this melded symphony; as a collagist, he leaves in all the rough edges of creation, as if showing us all the rips ans creases in the paper where he tore the image from the old magazine. The other impressive thing is that, despite using slowed-down voice elements, he scrupulously avoids the “narrative” trap that afflicts so many snatchers from old vinyl, and the work remains resolutely abstract. It’s like a form of broken electronic music, a barely-working but completely unique synthesiser with an unrepeatable set of programmed sounds. Fittingly, the graphics on this side depict a kind of crazy-paving visual effect, or the shards of broken information forming into patterns. Tremendous!

Preslav Literary School is Adam Thomas, a Berlin-based artist who also could be described as a sound collagist. His ‘Alamut’ was produced using tape recorders and electronics, and judging from the rather fey sleeve note is motivated by a very strong sense of time and place in the past, both lamenting and celebrating the fact that the past cannot ever be recovered. Nostalgia, to put it more simply. Certainly his slow pace and long sustained tones do evoke a certain elegiac mood, and at times may put you in mind of the work of William Basinski. The artwork for this side is a jumble of block-graphics that at first sight resembles a street map, which is revealed to be made up of smaller images of people, buildings, cars and dogs; the scrambled arrangement indicates the manner in which nostalgic memories can come to us in broken images. The musical interludes are punctuated with thoughtful stretches of near-silence, and it’s a much more spacey and contemplative work compared with the textural busy-ness of the flip. Preslav Literary School may or may not be using samples from records of orchestral classical music, or playing sustained chords on a keyboard, but he often arrives at the same sort of stately profundity as Tangerine Dream. The artworks for this fine release are by Armin Kehrer, and the item is limited to 300 copies.

  1. I’m thinking of his “music realistically documented” approach. For further reading, see here.
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The Cold Wind’s Grasp

Photo-Mechanical Transfer

The English trio of PMT play bass drums and guitar in a decidedly odd manner on Frosty Lee / THFCKWT EP (SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER SOK035). Not to say they’re especially loud or even “raw & primitive” in the manner of a latterday rockabilly combo. Their playing is full of stops and starts, half-patterns, lumbering and lurching about, as the trio move from uncertain doodling to confident riffing and back again, often in the space of a single 10-minute track. I suspect some of this unusual dynamic is due to simply turning the recording device on and off, but (for two tracks at least) that is an integral part of the listening experience of this bizarrely charming slab. In 1981, PMT probably would have been selling hundreds of cassette tapes of their brand of naïve sub-post punk discordancy. However it’s also clear that these players, who recorded this record in a South London tower block and a barn in southern England, have taken the 1990s “slacker” attitude and turned it into a philosophy that guides their every musical thought and action. The first two tracks have the insouciant druggy rehearsal-room feel, while ‘Frosty Lee’ is a more straight-ahead free-form rocky jam with the kind of exciting live edge that almost makes me think I’ve discovered a rare 1971 heavy-prog underground guitar group to match Captain Marryat. Nifty, edgy, vital playing throughout. Added bonus – no effects pedals whatsoever as far as I can hear. This arrived 17 January 2012.

The Carrion Crow

Further heaviness now from Wold, the obscure Canadian Black Metal trio. I may not have reported this in the pages of The Sound Projector, but I am a huge fan of Wold. When I first heard their 2005 release L.O.T.M.P. I thought I was dreaming – they have a fascinating nightmarish delirious quality to their intensive noise, like a much less benign version of the over-produced guitar wall records of My Bloody Valentine. Imagine my delight on receiving Badb (CRUCIAL BLAST CBR91) which predates L.O.T.M.P. by one year and was originally released on cassette by Regimental Records. This November 2011 reissue is thus most welcome. The trio of Obey, Operationex and Fortress Crookedjaw may or may not use conventional guitars and amplifiers to generate their scalding blasts, but the unsettling and nauseating properties which I cherish are still very much to the fore. They are kings of controlled distortion, using that element as a potent weapon of destruction, rather than a dark cloud to mask their activities. Behind walls of feral, manic riffing and vatloads of reverb effects, uncanny ghost notes and impossible musical sound events are unfolding and taking wing like verdigris-encrusted demons. At front of mix, the singer is ripping out his own lungs and tearing out his teeth via a painful throat operation in attempts to convey the brutal devastation passing before his eyes. Which brings us to the theme of Badb, which is attached to “the mythology of the war goddess”, an unpleasant spirit which apparently “lurks at the edge of the battlefield”. According to Irish mythology, she often took the form of a crow, ever-ready to peck out eyes and strip flesh from the bones of the fallen. More pertinent to this record is Badb’s ability to bring fear and confusion to the enemy, two emotions which will certainly flood your senses within seconds of hearing this wild album. In retelling the fantastic tales of this war-blackened shroud-hag with wings, Wold appear to me to be bringing back martial forces from ancient history (Alexander The Great, or even earlier) and somehow replaying them through modern technology. A painful and aggressive listening experience, but also a cathartic torture session that simultaneously celebrates and exorcises the horrors of mortal combat. Issued with a booklet of lyrics; the cover design for the booklet is just superb, a stark graphic showing Death astride a blackened and incandescent globe, with a carrion crow perched on his bony claw. What more potent image of nuclear holocaust could you wish for? Arrived 30 January 2012.

Winterreise

Another record which achieves similar degrees of bleakness to Wold is Winter (COPY FOR YOUR RECORDS CFYR009), by the duo of Wade Matthews and Alfredo Costa Monteiro. They do it by means of process art rather than extreme black metal, and they use a combination of amplified springs and motors, a radio set, digital processing, and field recordings. Nowadays the above shopping list is admittedly quite commonplace, but Wade and Alfredo destroy a lot of the competition with these highly textured and dynamic assemblages, their brows set permanently in a frowning and scowly attitude. Generally, the sound of Winter is quite heavy and rich, without a trace of the wispiness or uncertain dabbling that ruins the efforts of lesser men. Through crackle, burr, intensified drone and alien-sounding effects, the pair plod on through snowy wastes and cross frozen lakes wearing only raggedy newspapers on their feet, intent on reaching a lonely shack in the middle of nowhere. Potent and deeply mesmerising abstract greyness abounds in this music. One of three beauts received from this New York label on 16 January 2012.

Sweet Honey in the Rock

The Polish composer Michal Kedziora took about four years to produce all the tracks on Honey (ETALABEL ETA-CD 018), working under his Noiko guise and assisted by the turntablist Luke M. on three tracks, with mastering by Krzysztof Orluk. I suppose it took a long time to complete because it’s such a painstaking assemblage of samples, taken from a range of conventional instruments – clarinet, guitar, percussion, piano – which were then refitted into these pleasant and enjoyable instrumental jigsaws. It’s kind of like an avant-gardish ambient record with slow irregular beats and looped patterns, almost the sort of backdrops that Portishead would also have spent years working on for their second album before emerging from their windowless lair and waving the white flag to the representatives of their record company. The overall “fuzzy” vibe that I’m getting probably comes from varispeeding – a lot of the tracks are like dreaming about a walk through a 19th century drawing room filled with orange-coloured glue, only to stumble upon a wind-up musical box brought downstairs from the nursery. But then Luke M. adds the customary vinyl crackle sound as part of his contributions, adding greatly to the gentle hypnotic atmosphere with its lulling rises and falls. Noiko is not afraid of melody or even tastefulness, elements once considered to be the enemy of the avant-garde; indeed it sometimes feels like, given enough time, his skeletal chord frameworks could easily resolve into the chords for a tin pan alley song or jazz standard. These sentiments are not unforgivable, as the record was inspired by the birth of his daughter, although I can’t quite square those family-centric emotions with the photographs of the 8,000 ton merchant vessels on the cover. The record makes a virtue of the old-fashioned analogue equipment that was used in the mastering process, including a “tube saturator” invented by the engineer Andrzej Starzyk. Arrived 30 January 2012.

Canauxrama


Nice to see your man Reinhold Friedl taking a short break from all that complex microtonal electro-acoustic composition and intelligent renditions of 20th-century avant garde music for his Zeitkratzer Ensemble. Everyone in Berlin was getting concerned that he was spending too much time in front of that computer that translated the double-LP Metal Machine Music into musical notation. His Eight Equidistant Pure Wave Oscillators, While Slipping Very Slowly To A Unison, Textually Spatialised On Eight Speakers, Concret, 60 Minutes (ROOM 40 DRM405) is a monolithic piece of electronic minimalism of the sort that aspires to the condition of pure crystal, or a mountain, or a mountain made of crystal. Flip on your hi-fi amplifier and this disc creates a living, textured environment in your living room as you blast it out of the speakers. It’s timed to last precisely 60 minutes, which is recommendation enough in itself. Friedl’s rigid control of his sources allows this gently pulsating music to vary only according to strict conditions, rather than errantly sliding his filters and twiddling his mixing knobs, and even though it takes a very long time to reveal itself, a clear grid structure is at work here, underpinning these continual emanations like the steel girders supporting the Berlin Philharmonic. The work also has a very pure and clean sound, a sonic superstructure built from the highest of the elements to be found in the periodic table. The label speaks of the music’s “psycho-acoustic” properties, which I take to mean it will have an effect on your nervous system, or at least invite you to ponder what that effect may be; and the fact that, for one hour, it concentrates all your senses into the very act of listening. In like manner, a karate expert can focus all their bodily strength into their index finger by an act of sheer mental will, enabling the use of said digit as a car jack. Make no mistake, Friedl’s cleansing music can empower you to more or the less the same thing with your ears. In fact my own lugs were so stiffened after a session spent with this record, that I’m now thinking of renting them out as marquee tents. Available as FLAC download only (I’m making an exception to the usual rule about these).

Russell Haswell and Florian Hecker‘s Kanal GENDYN (EDITIONS MEGO 129) is also electronic music, also an hour long, but any resemblance with the above record ends at that point. It’s made using the GenDyn program which was originally invented by the composer Iannis Xenakis, as a means of exploring “stochastic timbres” by means of algorithms, and its principal innovation was to allow sound production and composition to become almost instantaneous. I assume that in the field of classical electronic composition, that was something of a breakthrough, especially when you hear these anecdotes about composers in the 1960s labouring for six months just to produce 30 seconds of computer-assisted sound. He began work on it in 1991, and as a computer program that enables composition of electronic music working to a few simple variables, it might be said to predate bespoke applications such as Max/MSP or SuperCollider which do the same things for a laptop user. Alberto De Campo steps into the frame next, the modernist composer who studied at Austria, wrote the user manual for the second version of SuperCollider, and in 2006 produced a concert derived from “sonifications of social data”. This, I assume, would involve the transformation of statistical tables from SPSS or similar database into audible soundfiles, a sort of “pure data” process which seems to have fascinated your laptop types for quite some time. De Campo also collaborates with Hecker and he provided the specific implementation of GenDyn which we hear on this record. It’s a largely insufferable outburst of chaotic spew which starts out sounding like trapped plastic bees in hives made of tupperware, and ends like digital renderings ot atomic bomb explosions. In between this you will hear many inhuman groans, burrs, buzzes, growls and clicking effects – the voice of a computer program mangling data in real time. Relentless, horrifying. The piece began life as the soundtrack to a Swiss experimental film called Kanal Video by Peter Fischli & David Weiss, which is a video exploring the sewage system of Zurich; said visual component may account for the severely claustrophobic nature of the sound on this release. The record apparently marks another stage in the ongoing research that these musicians are undertaking into the ideas and work of Xenakis. Sadly, I find Kanal GENDYN vulgar and coarse, and I can’t reconcile its techno-club inflected harshness with the subtlety and invention we hear on Xenakis’ own compositions. If this stereo version fails to satisfy your thirst for digital noise, then try the vinyl version (that’s right, one hour of sound on a single LP) or the DVD set. Both include explanatory notes and images which I don’t have access to.

Now for some music performed by human beings instead of machines. The K-Horns (SCHRAUM 14) album is very enjoyable and meaty improvised music, a collaboration between two German brass players and a French trio of percussionists called Suboko. All the members have rich histories in the areas of classical music, free improvisation, multi-media, DJ-ing, rock and jazz. The French drummer Pascal Gully weaves many complex networks of steely percussive nets and pounding bass toms, on top of which Laurent Berger (Regreb) adds spiky live electronics and more percussion, and the turntabler Nicolas Boutine (Bouto) lobs in unexpected stabs of crazy source material and random vocal smatterings from his decks. Meanwhile the tuba player Carl Ludwig Hübsch roars forth like an angry rhinoceros, grumbling up huge clouds of dissonant avant noise from his outsize bell. He’s my favourite player on the album, extemporising much like a genial academic professor booming away with benign authority in the auditorium. Roland Spieth, trumpeter to the gang, mutates his melodic bent into warped plastic shapes which melt around everything like multi-coloured macaroons. You’ve never met such slippery tones and wobbly lines outside of a De Kooning painting. There’s also tremendous volume and depth to these muscular 2009 studio recordings made in Karlsruhe, with none of your wimpy micro-tonalities or wispy sounds – just good old-fashioned frantic percussion clatter and thud, full-bodied brass puffery, and the exciting buzz of amplifiers set at high levels. It’s as dark and golden as the cover art almost manages to suggest – autumnal bites into plain chocolate flavoured with marmalade. My personal favourite tracks include the non-stop atonal japery of ‘Ein’ and ‘Zwei’, even if the combo do occasionally settle into an all-purpose drone-along groove on the latter cut; but the ‘Jahren’ cut, while quieter, allows for further exploration of the possible textures available in this unusual set-up, emphasising the breathy aspects of the brass section. ‘Vor’ is another strong track and showcases the chaotic, fun-loving aspect of this group, Bouto has a field day playing hob with his spoken word recordings, and the other players go for broke in an all-out explosion of parping, drumming and scattering about like crazed lizards. When I found a photo of the group making this record, it was almost a surprise to see them all sitting down, as the music conveys such strong sensations of movement and energetic activity. I’d use this for an exercise workout if I could be bothered to get out of my armchair once in a while.

The Populista Front

Schumann, Kagel and Ferrari refracted through the Warsaw kaleidoscope of imagination

From Poland in October we got these three items in the Populista series, curated by Michał Libera. All these are released on the Polish Bôłt label, with help and support from Monotype Records. The first one is Dichterliebe (BR POP01), a song cycle by Robert Schumann, the famed 19th century German romantic, here interpreted by singer Bernhard Schütz and Reinhold Friedl (of Zeitkratzer fame) on the piano. Classical music from this period is completely out of my line, but even a man with a tin ear like mine can perceive that this is an extremely – erm – imaginative rendition of the material. Schütz’s vocalising is clearly taking great liberties in his efforts to inject the florid material (sung in German) with as much emotional range as possible, and a conservatoire vocal trainer would probably turn pale and have a heart attack if he heard this. Plenty of attack and sustain in Friedl’s assured keyboard work, too, and the album is recorded in a decidedly non-quiet manner with plenty of room presence. So far, very impressive – classical music informed by an anarchic and playful spirit. Apparently the original lyric source for Dichterliebe is a long poem by Heinrich Heine, who was in fact very critical of the German romantic tradition and packed his lyrics with sarcasm and satire. This satirical tone seems to have been one of things that has informed Schütz’s singing here, as he bends the notes around the melody in a snide mocking way, occasionally punctuating the lyric with an angry growl.

Next we have Ludwig Van (BR POP02), an interpretation of a work by Mauricio Kagel created by the pianist Frédéric Blondy with DJ Lenar on the turntables. This is a much more complex piece than the above, more overtly experimental, and layered with twists and turns. Kagel was a German-Argentinian composer of the 20th century who also occasionally made films, one of which was 1970′s Ludwig Van, apparently a rather critical piece of avant-garde cinema which asked pointed questions about the ways in which later audiences had appropriated and interpreted Beethoven’s music. It is the soundtrack to this film which has, in turn, been reclaimed and reinterpreted in the current post-modern mashup we have before us, along with several other bits of source material including Werner Herzog soundtracks, a lecture by Alfred Cortot, samples of string playing and percussion music taken from contemporary improvisation records, and multiple other unknown sounds. It’s an indescribable puzzle piece, a crazy-quilt knitted together from mosaic-fragments of music, and virtually every second of sound appears to have a subversive intent or hidden meaning, one quote leading to another quote. It’s also glorious to listen to. What we’re hearing is a studio recording made at the Warsaw National Art Gallery, produced the same day as its premiere. Michał Libera produced it and had a hand in the mixing and assembly stage. A fabulous 32 minutes of delirious complexity which bends 19th century classical music into 20th century atonal composition, by way of very contemporary techniques (editing, turntabling, mixing, layering). Highly recommended!

Lastly there is another piece of modernism, Cycles Des Souvenirs (BR POP03), on which Rinus van Alebeek interprets the music of Luc Ferrari, the well-known French-Italian tape music composer. van Alebeek is a Dutch maverick conceptual artist whose opening conversational gambit is “I don’t make music”; he is in fact a writer who has long since abandoned traditional literature and its confines, and for some considerable time has been “writing” with the cassette recorder. It is an example of his unique sonic approach to documentary reportage, I suppose, that we hear on Cycles Des Souvenirs, a very compelling suite over an hour long which layers together several half-familiar domestic and everyday sounds along with half-whispered narrating voices, suspending everything in a very fluid and open-ended mix which quite clearly is not “composed” in any normal sense of the word. You do not sense an authorial hand directing the listener what to hear, and as such this record significantly revitalises the genres of field recording and tapework; it unfolds in a very natural way and you have no clear idea where it is going, or what to expect next. Who am I to say, but I feel intuitively that Luc Ferrari would certainly have approved, and this is very much in the spirit of his tape works.

The cover paintings by Aleksandra Waliszewska are also quite splendid, surreal faceless portraits not unlike the work of Magritte. Schumann has orange dribble running down his chin, the messiness of romantic slop staining his shirt collar. The Kagel cover shows a man whose face has apparently been sliced into floppy pieces of cured meat. The Ferrari cover is a white-faced mystic whose third eye is either an open wound or the female genitalia. By way of a press release, we were sent a copy of the Populista Dictionary, a witty and rather sardonic text which provides further oblique clues about the project 1. For example, “the dying 20th century shall never form a museum of performances but rather a garden of reactions. Even if from time to time it may make it (the 20th century of course) look ridiculous”. All of these Populista releases are radical reinterpretations of historical music, making it more meaningful for modern audiences, and deserve your investigation. We look forward to hearing more in the series. Michał Libera, true to his name, has found a way to liberate great music from the mausoleums of high culture, setting it free through the power of imagination.

  1. I have provided a large jpg of this document, but there is also a PDF version online.

The Ghost Train and The Ark


Chris Watson‘s El Tren Fantasma (TOUCH TO:42) is a new work where he’s using his field recording and editing skills to create an elaborate electro-acoustic collage, a suite of ten pieces which almost tells a story. It has something to do the with Ferrocarriles Nacionales of Mexico (whose logo even appears on the disk artwork) and “the music of a journey that has now passed into history”. When he began releasing his intense field recordings as music CDs to be listened to, Watson pretty much served up pieces of nature in the raw, including animal roars and bird song from some far-out exotic locations, and did not really attempt to tell stories very much; instead the trademark of his exacting liner notes was to detail the recording equipment used, give very precise map locations, and the precise time and date. He was the sonic scientist logging his experiments, in case anyone wanted to repeat them. Later, with the African suite on 2003′s Weather Report, he started to meld, merge and elide several recordings together, creating a much more narrative-like epic sweep across time and space, and also building a very exotic and “impossible” vision of reality. I would situate this “Ghost Train” record in this latter vein. With the splendid old photographs and map drawing that adorns the cover, this composition is a piece of sonic “magical realism”, Gabriel García Márquez as a series of vivid sound portraits. There are recordings of engines chugging along, on some quite antiquated machinery by the sound of things, and several stopping points in the journey where the listener is immersed in bird song, insects buzzing, and all the things that make the environment so vital and alive to Watson’s sensitive mics. The journey is framed, like a poem that uses ring-composition, with a railway announcer’s voice speaking in Spanish and English; while we’re exhorted to board the ghost train at the start of the piece, the final track sadly announces that the service is now closing down. It’s my guess that both of these clips must have been contrived in some way (they don’t feel like authentic documentary captures), but either way they are pure poetry. In the second one, this anonymous woman has so much finality in her tone she sounds like the voice of God, closing down the world.

Another way in which Watson’s technique has evolved is the fact he now allows post-production treatments; the most noticeable is that the sound of the engine machinery has been heavily processed so that, for a good deal of the record, it doesn’t really resemble a train at all, but has been filtered down into a series of digitally-smooth clunks, thumps and clanks. To put it another way, we’re hearing digital music that is fashioned using the rhythm of the train as a trigger device, like a studio drum programmer with his “gated drums”. In like manner, train whistle recordings are heavily echoed and stretched until they turn into ambient drone music. At first, this seemed to me to run counter to Watson’s original ethos of authenticity and truth in documentary recordings. But then it’s clear that El Tren Fantasma is not a documentary at all, but a valedictory paean for a vanished age of locomotion (something which is even more under threat with the menace of high-speed trains this century). As such, these treatments succeed in rendering the train into a true ghost, an echo of its former self, and its phantom runnings through tunnels and over dusty tracks become that much more poignant thereby.

It remains to mention two related precedents for this release. The first is Runaway Train (ASH 1.9), a 1994 release on Touch’s sister label Ash International. This is a “found” tape rather than a composition, but it has a life-or-death subtext which is not too far removed from El Tren Fantasma. The driver of Runaway Train may be about to end up as a ghost himself. There’s also something indefinably compelling about the distortion of the voices on both records; unexpected messages from the past. The second precedent is Pierre Schaeffer’s famous Étude aux chemins de fer from 1948, and Watson himself explicitly tells us El Tren Fantasma is “Inspired by Pierre Schaeffer’. Yes, both composers used the same source material and made music from the sounds of trains, but I think what’s also important is that Schaeffer’s early piece of tape collage is widely regarded as the first published statement of musique concrète, and is often used as a touchstone by others (Lionel Marchetti is one I can think of who has quoted it in his own work). Étude aux chemins de fer is as historically important as one of the earliest pieces of cinema – L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière Brothers (1895) which, very coincidentally, shows a train arriving at a station.

Philip Jeck‘s An Ark for the Listener (TOUCH TO:81) has been with us since 2010. Jeck has long been recognised as an innovator with turntables and old vinyl, and when I spoke to him in 2003 he seemed almost nonplussed to be held in the same regard as Christian Marclay. But it could be that the Dansettes and old records have become something of an albatross for Jeck, and this release may represent an attempt to evolve and expand his sound. Record players are here, but so are keyboards, minidisc recorders, a mixing desk, a bass guitar, and effects pedals. In fact at first spin it’s almost impossible to find the old reassuring swishes, crackles and stuck-record loops that have been Jeck’s signature sound for many years. Like Watson above, he’s going for a blending and layering approach that smooths out many of the rough edges, and transforms signals from vinyl into lush mixed chords of ambient music. At first, it seemed a bit too smooth for me, but a patient listen to the whole suite will reveal a tremendous amount of meticulous detail.

He’s doing it in the service of another meditational piece which, like Sand and Suite before it, involves contemplation of death, loss and bereavement in a very personal and heartfelt manner. In this case, it’s about five people drowning in the ocean in one particular verse of The Wreck of The Deutschland, a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins. The drowning nuns slowly reach an epiphany across seven long tracks and a two-part coda; along the way, the piece immerses us completely in its very fluid soundworld (‘The All of Water’), finds consonances between souls and shoals, and makes aural rhymes between church bells and ship’s bells. In Hopkins’ original poem, the ‘ark for the listener’ which may rescue mankind is a symbol of God’s compassion and mercy. It would not be inappropriate in the context to view the ‘Pilot’, named here on three separate track titles, as God himself, the pilot of the cosmic ship of mankind, and the religious of this work meet their fate stoically and prayerfully. I find resonances with the 2007 version of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic, another maritime ship-sinking valedictory work of tremendous import, to which Jeck added nostalgic textures with his turntables.

Phalanges of Doom


From April 12, received a bundle of items from Foredoom Productions, the first four numbers in the catalogue of this London-based small-run cassette and CDR label. Phalanx gives us FFF333 (FD001), on which he uses synth and voice in a set of “structured improvisations through time-based systems”. Two sides of looped and throbbing electronics are both called ‘Fields Of Rape’ referring to the rapeseed, a popular English crop grown for its oil yield, and the release has a matching yellow colour scheme. Proceeds quite nicely with drooling out its continuous sounds in its sub-Merzbow way, although I confess I’m having trouble extracting the “deeply-embedded” vocal components.

Ghoul and Vasco Alves have a split tape (FD 002) of two quite short pieces, while the cover continues the vaguely pastoral theme with its photograph of a dead fox, and its red colour scheme lets us know we’re in for a hot and hellish time worthy of “Mr Pitchfork”. The Ghoul side ‘Chant’ is highly effective, making use of records of Gregorian chant which are spun and distorted in highly imaginative ways; Ghoul appears to take a very physical (almost violent) approach to his work, wielding the stylus like a dagger and the turntable like the ratchet of a rack. A nightmarish listen emanates from these 15 minutes, which is encouraging given the way that particular source material was so heavily overused on so many sampling records since the 1990s. Vasco Alves’ ‘Female Prophet’ is not quite so direct in its sources, but this very dense and textured composition has its roots in radio transmissions, fed through keyboard set-ups and computer processors. While I enjoy the dynamic movements of this one (it mostly resembles the oral movements of a very sick giant trying to induce vomiting along a huge distended throat), there isn’t quite enough content in the surface sound to satisfy me.

FD 003 is also a split, by Andrew Perry and Utility, and its titles ‘Valour’ and ‘Lines of Force’ hint at the sort of power electronics that Mussolini would have used for teatime listening, and the release is illustrated with a photo of a headless statue suggesting the explosive results of the music’s effects on any given listener. In fact Perry’s ‘Valour’ isn’t really 100% harsh noise but it is extremely busy, a 25-minute assemblage that keeps undercutting its own continuity with many puzzling interruptions and samples of unrecognisable fragments (some of them quite unpleasantly noisy), but the main thrust of it is a jolly entertaining corsage of erratic repetitions and enriched electronic music. With grim determination, Perry drags us on a multi-layered and unstoppable road-trip through the infernal landscapes of an obsessive frotteur. Utility‘s ‘Lines of Force’ is less engaging to me, as I struggle to find any value in the unpleasant electronic tones that seep out of this “degenerative synthesiser workout”; I sense that Utility is relying a little too heavily on the automatic capacities of his machines to play back sequences ad nauseam. It becomes especially insufferable for the latter half of the piece, which is dominated by waves of shapeless static noise. Even so, the idea of “degenerative” music is appealing, and I would urge Utility to follow up on exploring that notion with more conviction for his next release.

FD 004 is Amplified Duo II by ARAR, and comprises a CDR and a cassette in a bag. Both media are presented in stylish jet-black packaging that includes info printed on transparent inserts. Here the team of Louie Rice and Vasco Alves deliver themselves of highly restrained and refined electronic tones, creating 19 minutes of minimal high-pitched whines on the CDR and a further 38 minutes of similar investigations on the tape, which is sometimes punctuated with low crackling, voices, and radio noises. All the work was produced through ‘bandwidth scanning’ of radio transmissions and played in real time alongside oscillating synths. Nothing wrong with this extremely minimalistic approach of theirs, but I find it lacks the concentration and intensity that would make it a truly satisfying listen, even if you push the volume up as high as you can. Still, the blank packaging – the plastic bag feels like something in which a secret agent would receive his sealed orders – is very much attuned to the near-anonymous feel of this music.

The only other comment I would make about these Foredooms is that it would have been helpful to have some way of distinguishing the respective sides of these cassette tapes, which are uniformly left blank. This is rather a drawback, especially when it comes to the split tapes.