Various Artists – Album Roundup

Posted on November 8, 2012

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Dialect – N.E. State Of Mind (hip-hop)

Killamari Records £0 DD

http://killamari.bandcamp.com/album/n-e-state-of-mind

As far as I know Dialect are no longer an active collective, although its members continue to release razor sharp and uncompromisingly independent hip-hop on their own account; they have released a lot of great music, and are clearly a mainstay of hip-hop in the Northeast, and this is the second album of unreleased tracks to appear on emcee Joe Eden’s Killamari Records imprint. You don’t expect a bunch of disparate tracks like this, recorded at different times for different reasons, to sound like an album as such when they’re bundled together for release, but there is a certain coherence to this music, a consistent aesthetic that makes it clear it’s a Dialect album, not a bunch of tracks by the crew’s various members. The rhymes speak truths of life in a working class that can no longer count on work; these are subjectivities formed in one place, with a very strong geographical identification, torn between local loyalty and a desperation to transcend their circumstances, and informed by a global culture. This is what the world looks like from South Shields. It’s not of course what the world looks like to everyone there, but it’s what it looks like to those unwilling to accept the mediocrity that a morally bankrupt elite would like to foist on them. It’s amazing how clearly the determination of these musicians rings out; they wear their skills as a token of their value, a value that they claim for themselves, not waiting for any authority, commercial or political, to grant it to them. It’s socially aware stuff, but rarely overtly political, which is perhaps the most radical position it could adopt. I’m amazed at the sheer quantity of material Dialect didn’t release, and the consistent quality of it. N.E. State Of Mind is mint, and that’s really all there is to say about it.

The Dropout Patrol – The Dropout Patrol (indie)

Altin Village & Mine Records avm047 €10 LP

http://dropoutpatrol.com

On the face of it The Dropout Patrol play fairly gentle indie pop-rock: it’s bass, clean guitar, drums and singing, and its musical materials are simply articulated chordal accompaniments to straightforwardly melodic songs. That doesn’t tell you any of the important things there are to say about this band, however; the vast majority of acts that could be described by the above sentence play anodyne, generic, conventional, unimaginative, trivial crap, but this is a record of intelligent, serious minded art. Eleven short songs offer the sorts of observation people often go to novels to find, but then most novels are crap too: this music is is quiet and still, for the most part, and it soon becomes apparent that its composition was a calm and thoughtful process, its insights extracted with care from its authors’ experiences. This is not music about the body’s reaction to sonic stimuli, or about the philosophical implications of aural psychedelia, or about pop-culture tribalism, or instrumental gymnastics, or any of the things most music is about; it’s meant to be thought provoking. It goes about its business by keeping things simple, musically, almost as though the harmonies and rhythms of the band are primarily there to create an atmosphere conducive to considering the lyrical content. Of course the relationship between words and music is always a complex web, and the meanings of the songs are never one thing or the other, but here their relationship is more like the arms’ length collaboration of recitative than the unified affective proclamations of a massed chorus. I’m not sure why so many German bands seem to write English lyrics, but if it works for them, it works for me, from ‘Other People’s Problems’ opening dismissal (‘fuck you/ and the horse you rode in on’) to MUYM’s exhortation to ‘make up your mind’. This is music worth paying attention to.

Uglyhead – The Garden (electro-doom)

Automation Records auto040 $10 CD $8 DD

http://automationrecords.bandcamp.com/album/the-garden

Slow and heavy, in the manner of doom, but based more on moving textures than the gnarled riffs of that genre, The Garden is constructed from a diverse palette of electronic and electro-acoustic sounds. Uglyhead is (at least for the purposes of this album) a production project, rather than a performing unit; the material collected here has been built up painstakingly from both found and composed materials – field recordings, synthesis, and instrumental sounds. Although guitar plays a prominent part in proceedings, it doesn’t dominate, and its sound is enveloping rather than discursive, sitting somewhere in a territory it shares with shoegaze and black metal, just a little too musically specific to be mistaken for ambient noise; on occasion, as in ‘Nerium’, the sound could pass for electro-industrial. The music seems primarily preoccupied with texture; that is certainly where most of its internal contrasts and developmental dramas are located, although it has to be said that the effect of its soundscapes is pretty consistent throughout. The musical materials favour slowly unfolding, ominous chord progressions, with most top-line melodic components delivered by (often surprisingly jaunty) synth sounds. The vocals, like the guitar, are produced for a sense of distance and a spatially expansive sound; the result is a music that has relatively little in it to engage the listener’s subjectivity, and evokes similarly distant, broad-brush themes, of an epic and disturbing nature. Much of it sounds like the soundtrack for an action horror movie, more or less. A lot of effort and creativity has gone into developing these sounds, and although their technical complexity tends to outstrip their affective diversity, The Garden is an immersive experience, very rewarding and involving to listen to.

Various Artists – Two Headed Beast (hip-hop)

Strange Gibberish/ Sassbologna Records $0 DD

http://strangegibberish1.bandcamp.com/album/two-headed-beast

Two Headed Beast is a joint compilation from Strange Gibberish Recordings and Sassbologna Records, two of America’s finest underground hip-hop labels/ collectives, both of which favour the avant-garde, the absurd, the critical and the extreme. I first came across S/G by means of a review submission from Fat Ross, who is featured here, but the majority of the artists are new to me: a compilation like this is a window into whole worlds of music, and many of the tracks are strikingly creative, promising happy hours of future exploration. The production approaches are as varied as they are leftfield, and although it’s all identifiably hip-hop, diversity and experimentalism are the order of the day. If there is a unifying factor it’s the strenuously independent and innovative approach to creative practice, a sense that all the music is motivated by a sincere commitment to artistic expression, with little thought for commercial potential, even in those tracks that eschew the most jarringly avant-garde sounds. In many ways, it’s their obscurity, their distance from the entertainment industry’s centres of power, that makes this unrelenting creativity possible; these are not artists fighting for a way ‘in’, or a way ‘up’, but artists who have found a way ‘out’, and are succeeding on their own terms. Doubtless most of them would like to be making their living doing what they love (and I have no idea how many of them are), but as long as their work reaches an audience that appreciates and understands it, then it renders the mainstream industry obsolete. The music on this free compilation is produced and distributed in an act of generosity; sure, it’s meant to raise profiles and generate income, but it’s basically about bringing you the sounds, not separating you from your cash, or encouraging your material aspirations. I wouldn’t want to ascribe any global intentions to such a heterogenous group of artists, but there is something artistically and politically radical about the fact that this music even exists. If you want to know where the edge is in hip-hop, Two Headed Beast is a good place to start.

Anti Social Orange Fireflies – R.O.A.R. (hip-hop)

$0 DD

http://antisocialorangefireflies.bandcamp.com/album/r-o-a-r

This young duo from New Orleans have a lot to say, and a good deal of self-assurance in saying it. This isn’t the identikit self-aggrandising boast-fest set to interchangeable boom-bap that often characterises young emcees’ first releases: most of the beats aren’t excessively unconventional, but they’re all interesting, all creative, and sometimes genuinely experimental, as in ‘Click, Clat’. Similarly, the rhymes are unlikely to overturn your assumptions about rap, but they consistently negotiate the territory of socially conscious autobiography without resorting to the obvious or the clichéd. The tone is generally serious, without being callow or melodramatic; this is measured and considered work that suggests experience. It has a degree of creative maturity and artistic coherence that is hard to tally with youth of its creators. There is an unsettling feeling to the music, an experiential account of the displacements and uncertainties of urban existence in an unequal society, but there is also a strong element of hope and spirituality; the combination itself is disturbing, like having Bob Marley holding a gun to your head, and the two strands collide in ‘Legend’, which is for me the creative heart of the album. There’s a good deal of optimism and aspiration in Anti Social Orange Fireflies’ determined creativity, but R.O.A.R. is devoid of empty positivity; instead it challenges life head-on, celebrating its darkness as it revels in its capacity to overcome it. This is a confident and accomplished debut, and a very enjoyable listen.

Helicopter Quartet – Helicopter Quartet (ambient rock)

£0+ DD

http://helicopterquartet.bandcamp.com/album/helicopter-quartet

Helicopter Quartet are a considerably less conventional sounding outfit than the lovely Catscans from whose ashes they have arisen. They also seem to have a more ambitious creative agenda, making music that is challenging, experimental, sometimes abrasive and always fascinating. As with the more uncontroversially post-rock sounds of their previous incarnation, this music articulates its meanings in the field of texture; sometimes those textures are made from melodic phrases, but it is always obvious that it is not the pitch series that is offered as significant, rather than the patterns printed by its repetitions of contour and variations of timbral colour. That Helicopter Quartet collects a far less approachable series of recordings than Catscans EP, without the rhythmic scaffolding that would allow us to imagine the sonic grain as the decorative surface of an essentially narrative utterance, serves to focus the listener’s attention squarely on the material aurality of the sound. The experience of listening is almost haptic in its mapping of meaning onto physical sensation, and its refusal of much established gestural grammar feels like a blindfold, demanding the exercise of neglected perceptual faculties. The music is generated by a guitar and a violin, both amplified and much processed, sometimes placid and atmospheric, and at other times overwhelming and distorted; complex relationships between field and figure are established in micro-episodic sequences, dynamics gently curving one moment and abruptly swerving the next. It is only for brief interludes, as in ‘Point Of No Return’, the final piece (of four), that a sense of transit emerges, as a slow tremolo of bowed double stops in the fiddle is joined by the pounding onrush of an overdriven guitar; from this dynamic peak, the music seeks silence, but seems unwilling to abandon its grip on time, ebbing slowly as the listener contemplates the incremental approach to, and swift retreat from ostinato. This is a record to immerse and transport.

The Light That Kills – Memory Of The Stone (ambient)

$0+ DD

http://thelightthatkills.bandcamp.com/album/memory-of-the-stone

The Light That Kills is (or was) a solo project of the extremely prolific and independently minded Scott Crocker. Its releases have been EP length prior to this one, which just about edges into album territory; this is a fairly meaningless distinction in any case, bearing in mind how much content The Domestics managed to squeeze into Keep It Lean’s twenty minutes, or how little is stretched out to seventy minutes on most commercial albums.Not that Memory Of The Stone is crammed with musical incident; just the opposite really. Its two long tracks are articulations of atmosphere, propelled by gentle electronic beats. ‘Logos’ is so tidal and cyclic that the metronomic time-keeping bypasses any sense of progression or narrative arc; it features a pulsating, breath-like synth sound, that phases and croaks like a glass didgeridoo heard underwater. There is a constant development of the sonic material, but it is a very subtle process, and the clearest meanings of the music lie in its continuities rather than its contrasts. ‘Unnamed Ages’ is more in-your-face, with sounds that while usually anything but abrasive, are quite chaotic and disordered, mainly occupying the middle and upper zones of the audible frequencies, supported at times by a simple bassline and a rather more submerged rhythm part than in the other piece. It is also episodic, moving between textural regions in a way that lends a greater sense of intent to its paradoxically less propulsive rhythms. Memory Of The Stone is not overly disturbing to listen to, but neither is it accessible, and it does not yield meanings easily: its purposes are obscure, and the atmospheres it evokes are gelid, abstract vapours with little sense of human frailty about them. Ambient music often sets out to provide easy listening without the cloying sentiment; if you drift off to this music you’ll find it asks far more questions than it offers comfort. Crocker’s creative practice here is demanding and rewarding in equal measure.

Killamari Allstars – Killamari Allstars (hip-hop)

Killamari Records £0 DD

http://killamari.bandcamp.com/album/killamari-allstars

Killamari Records largely functions as an informal netlabel at the nexus of a shifting web of associated emcees and deejays, although it makes occasional forays into physical releases. Its various associates work with each other in various combinations and guises, sometimes under the Killamari banner, and sometimes not. Its praxis is more curatorial and promotional than the traditional behaviours of a record label, even a small independent, offering a place for selected British underground hip-hop artists to post music that may well be available elsewhere: most of its releases are free to download, and the quality of the music that graces its Bandcamp page is consistently high. Much of it originates in the Northeast, though by no means all of it, and it has a long-standing connection to the legendary Dialect crew, of which the label’s organiser (Joe Eden aka Chattabox) is a member. Killamari Allstars are not a band or a crew, and although one track here is credited to that name (one that features a roll call of Killamari’s most accomplished rappers), the record is a label compilation, showcasing some of the earthiest, funniest, most honest, most intelligent hip-hop that’s being made anywhere that I know of. The sounds are mostly pretty old school, with a mixture of uptempo and more melancholy, reflective beats, while the rhymes are generally thought-provoking, one way or another. I wouldn’t like to generalise, as it’s a pretty diverse selection, but the tone is more socially conscious than it is formally experimental, and every track is creative, entertaining, ill, dope, sick and other positive adjectives. Top quality throughout.

Eve Blackwater – Stranger Danger (singer-songwriter)

$7+ DD

http://eveblackwater.bandcamp.com/album/stranger-danger

Stranger Danger makes a nice contrast to the other albums in this roundup, with its straightforward guitar and voice arrangements of soulful, lyrically focussed songs. The style is basically rock – the sort of acoustic rock that relates to blues, folk and country, rather than the sort of rock that relates to bulldozers and machine-guns. Eve Blackwater is a slinky, dramatic vocalist, with an engaging and playful delivery draped across a core of surprisingly steely strength. Her command of dynamics permits her to belt it out one moment, and assume a fragile vulnerability the next, although she usually inhabitants a humorous middle ground, and her songwriting combines sincerity and wit. There’s nothing about this record that is particularly arresting, other than Blackwater’s charisma as a performer, but that’s enough to carry it. The arrangements are built around her electro-acoustic guitar, augmented by a variety of basslines, subtle drum parts and lead guitar licks (including some nice, mellifluous slide). The guitar unfortunately sounds like it was plugged straight into the desk, with the distinctively harsh and brittle sound of a piezo pickup; a mic on the soundhole would have served much better to present the chords with a bit of wood and warmth. That reservation notwithstanding, Stranger Danger is an emotionally involving and entertaining record.

Pigeon Breeders – Luminous Debris (ambient)

$5 CD $0+ DD

http://pigeonbreeders.bandcamp.com/album/luminous-debris

Ambient music, even that which uses slightly more challenging textures than the ubiquitous new age pads, is usually a matter of synthesis and processing. For Pigeon Breeders it’s a matter of instrumental improvisation. As on Nocturnal Reveries, which I reviewed in June, they show themselves to be focussed and disciplined performers, achieving coherent and expansive atmospheres through a combination of long tones, simple motifs, and timbral manipulation. It’s impossible to guess how their working dynamic feels from the inside, but from the outside they sound like a very unified and co-operative group; they plainly listen very closely to one another, and demonstrate a pronounced clarity of artistic vision without recourse to the usual creative hierarchy of composition-arrangement-performance. This is music of great subtlety, in both sonic and affective terms: the smallest intervention is given space, and made to signify as clearly as the loudest, longest sounds, while the emotional content of the work is never obvious, never clearly affirmative, or melancholy, or disturbing, or contemplative. Instead, it weaves a complex skein of meanings and intimations around these and other poles, permitting the listener no easy summation or conventional symbolism, but demanding the same continued attention as that which went into its making. To my mind, for all that it refuses the conventional tropes of instrumental achievement, this is some of the most accomplished playing I’ve heard recently: to improvise with this degree of purpose and erudition is among the greatest challenges in music, and the resulting sound is deeply involving on many levels.

Congregations – Circular Ruins (ambient)

$5CAD+ CD $CAD0+ DD

http://congregations.bandcamp.com/album/circular-ruins

I often want to say ‘Twin Peaks! Blade Runner!’ when I’m reviewing ambient music, but I generally restrain myself because it’s a bit of an obvious response, and I feel like I’m probably allowing my own enthusiasms to cut in at a point somewhere before I’ve actually given the work a proper listen; I don’t want to insult artists by saying ‘yeah cool that sounds like Blade Runner’ when I don’t even know if they share my appreciation for that Masterpiece Of Modern Cinema, so it’s very pleasing to receive a submission whose creator claims as inspiration ‘Twin Peaks, Blade Runner and midnight drives’. The inspiration is manifest: the sounds describe atmospheres, spaces and journeys, to my ears at least. Harmonic materials are accompanied by gentle, ambient noise, washing in enough reverb to make it sound distant, and the inaccessible, aerial spaces between vast buildings at night are the obvious visual counterpart to these shadowy, epic soundscapes. This is dark blue music, weighted with menacing profundities, full of the detail that announces a whole world of truth behind its observations, and broad swathes of feeling that envelop the listener pelagically; its journeys are not trips with beginnings and ends, marked out on maps, but the experience of motion, of being uncoupled from geography and alone in a dark, beautiful and unknowable region. Circular Ruins addresses a specific, closely circumscribed set of emotional meanings with great conviction: the results are compelling.

Sturqen – Raia (experimental electronic)

€5 CD €0+ DD

http://sturqen.bandcamp.com/album/raia

Sturqen (on their Bandcamp pages) align themselves with power electronics. The sound of Raia is more gentle than that might suggest, but it certainly embodies an enthusiasm for the unexplored corners of synthetic timbre, and a refusal of the obvious candy-coatings that might be used to trick a mainstream audience into inviting it round for tea. Artists that are uninterested in the syntax and lexicons of conventional musical expression, as Sturqen seem to be, are often labelled ‘experimental’, but I think it’s more to the point to regard these pieces as explorations. There is something chaotic about this music, as though the practice of composition is too restrictive to contain all of its meanings: sounds attack the listener as if from nowhere, and the work seems as much an act of curation as one of generation, a collection of the sonic experiences David Arantes and César Rodrigues (its authors) had while mud wrestling a tag team of sociopathic synthesisers. At the same time, each piece is unified with continuities; sometimes a rhythm gathers its disparate weft, as in ‘Musgo’, and at other times, such as in ‘Riulu’, a particular combination of pitch and timbre recurs, making the other sounds feel like responses of some sort. Each element, once isolated and utilised, is not made into a museme in Sturqen’s private language, but is allowed to express its own sonic identity, and the listener is left to ascribe their own meanings to it. As a whole, as an utterance in a language whose significance is felt rather than understood, Raia’s effect is unsettling, and seems more directed at undermining any existing certainties than in proffering any novel insights. This is a music of pronounced existential indeterminacy, and while it is pretty challenging to its audience, it commendably leaves them the space to pursue their own explorations.

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Posted in: Music, Music reviews