Mountains of Light

Unseen are the mysterious group of UK players who have made it a point to adopt as low a profile as possible, without going so far as to extinguish their own identities or their own music. Their sporadic releases have graduated from low-run CDRs to slightly higher-run CDs, of which 2012 (HANDMADE IN ENGLAND RECORDINGS CDHMIER13) is the latest example. Paul Harnden, Wesley Smith, Aiko Machida and others appear on this 27-track CD of mostly-acoustic improvised oddness, whose credits privilege the list of instruments played over the names of the performers. The lengthy, indiscernible and wispy ensemble pieces that gradually emerge are interspersed with short cassette-tape bursts of paranoia and madness from their resident conspiracy-theorist ranting man, who logs every alien-abduction story and tabloid-inspired episode of weirdness onto his wobbly handheld recorder with his distorted voice. The musical events created by these talented and unassuming players are at all times filled with the excitement and tentativeness of genuine discovery; unlike some established improvisers who seem to find their way into their comfort zones within a matter of minutes and then stay there, Unseen do everything they can to keep the musical moment continually balanced on a razor-edge of anticipation, tension and uncertainty. And they’re so English; their best music has all the peculiar charm of a gentle rain-sodden afternoon in the countryside, a quality completely lacking in the assertive pop-art brashness of American contemporaries like No-Neck Blues Band. The doubt-ridden and ambiguous atmospheres transferred through listening will not be to the taste of all save the most intrepid Sound Projector explorers. Recommended, although I remain continually puzzled by the sleeve art for this release, which is a slightly détourné Gilbert Shelton cartoon, whose wild-eyed zaniness and garish colours are at odds with the music I hear.

Any Where Out of the World (STRUCTURES SONORES NO 2) is a title which might be Unseen’s motto, although in fact it’s a CD by Auton, a trio of Danish players who perform an affecting brand of moody chamber jazz music not unlike a slowed-down version of The Mothers of Invention but with much more charm and highly appealing chord sequences played with piano, vibes, strings and horns. The digipack sleeve unfolds two wings to reveal assorted curious images of loneliness and isolation, but the music’s warmth suggests that the action of removing yourself from the confines of worldly oppression and enclosure can only lead to good things, such as spiritual awareness and a sense of centredness in your inner being.

US improviser’s Erik Friedlander‘s CD Block Ice & Propane (SKIPSTONE RECORDS) is an account of road travels across the USA. It’s impressive how he manages to make his cello perform in ways highly appropriate to that country, making it sound like an Appalachian fiddle on one track and a steel-stringed guitar on the next, and all of these improvised pieces feel like they’re informed by American folk idioms. The booklet for this CD is packed with evocative old photographs and anecdotes that match track titles such as ‘Airstream Envy’ and ‘Valley of Fire’. If TV producers had any sense of adventure, this wistful music would be ideal the next time they send Stephen Fry off to America to make a documentary series.

Merzbow‘s latest team-up is with Richard Pinhas, of all people. Pinhas is the astonishingly talented French pioneer whose Heldon records in the 1970s were a revelation to me the first time I heard his LP Stand By, and continue to inspire new listeners to this day; it’s no exaggeration to state he’s managed to cross the philosophies of J G Ballard and Jean Giraud with the guitar sound of Robert Fripp, and thereby arrived at a cosmos-shattering glimpse into the infinite. He’s still making great records today. If you ask me, it’s the French half of the act which dominates Keio Line (CUNEIFORM RECORDS RUNE 278-279), a double-CD set of gloriously excessive, long and neo-psychedelic studio workouts which cannot help but mesmerise you with their complex fractal-esque structures; Merzbow’s aggressive volume, and his impatient speeds, have been toned down, muted and slowed, and generally relegated to provide sumptuous throbbing backdrops to Pinhas’s delirious guitar work. This record also exists in vinyl form, a triple LP released by Dirter Promotions in the UK, although the sleeve art to the CD release is arguably more interesting in terms of its rich visual detail and celebrations of fictional animal life.