The Ruby Kid – Strange Lively & Commonplace (hip-hop)
There are ‘pieces’ that are undeniably rap, and definitely not poetry, such as The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, and there are others that are undeniably poetry, and definitely not rap, such as John Donne’s Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going To Bed. This emphatic distinction is a matter of customary usage however, not of hard and fast definitions, and to look for the precise boundary between the two is to fall into an essentialist fallacy. Nevertheless, many assume the existence of such a defensible frontier, which can make for a strong reaction to its penetration, either of outrage or amazement. The Ruby Kid straddles that imaginary barrier without difficulty: the songs/poems/raps on Strange, Lively & Commonplace are both one thing and the other. Set to atmospheric and compelling beats, the lyrics inhabit their flows with funky precision, but are delivered with the conversational stress patterns that poets (and actors) often use to dissemble the metricality of verse. He is one of a number of young writers in a similar position regarding these two traditions of practice, and was recently featured in a Radio 1Xtra documentary alongside Kate Tempest, Polar Bear and Scroobius Pip; he claims the company flatters him unduly, but he’s talking out of his arse. This EP is proof of that. So what’s it like? Well, it’s not boom-bap with hands-up choruses, although it has the verbal texture of rap, and it has some deep, low-key funk in its beats; the lyrics play a long game, however, taking the whole length of these four tracks to spell out their meanings, and demanding continuous attention to process their unceasing streams of significance. There’s very little repetition, which is perhaps the strongest signal that this work isn’t exclusively located in the world of hip-hop, where the phonetic flavour and bodily impact of an exhortation is arguably more important than its semantic content; as such, there’s as much said in these thirteen odd minutes as in many full length albums. The Ruby Kid is a committed political activist, and it’s clear from this work that his commitment informs his art as much as anything else; that’s not to say that it’s a lot of earnest preaching, but that there’s a coherent vision informing the writing, one that sees the social, the personal and the political as facets of the same object, not separate realms. Poetry is always about subjectivities, the only topics to demand its nuanced precision of meaning; Strange, Lively & Commonplace tackles some big objectivities, but it locates them perceptively in the personal and particular. If you want to know more, you should listen. You should listen anyway. My only criticism of this EP is that there isn’t enough of it; I know The Ruby Kid is busy in the real world of politics and making a living, but I hope he makes time to produce a full-length soon. Maybe a book or two as well. He’s the real deal.
Solarno – God Rest Ye Merry Robotmen – A Holiday EP (electronica)
Christmas: it’s our native winter festival, appropriated and re-branded as part of an ideological campaign to subject our spiritual and cultural practices to hierarchical control. Although the power of the Christian church is largely broken, that still rankles. The extent to which it has been turned into a revolting and ethically bankrupt festival of overconsumption is entirely appropriate, since it is continuing its function of perverting peoples’ natural desire to have a party in the middle of winter into a scaffold for the means by which they are coerced and controlled. Nevertheless, that native instinct to share food and love in the dark night of the year makes it a special time for many families, and not many people take as cynical a view of the whole thing as I do (and I should hasten to add, I love the feast with my family in front of a roaring fire and all that malarkey, it’s just that I’m celebrating the Solstice, not Christmas). Jim Furey, the author of the music attributed to Solarno, is one of those many less cynical people. Now, it should be moderately predictable, given what I’ve just said, that I’m not a big fan of Christmas songs, and when musicians I respect indulge in such things I tend to move swiftly on without passing comment; God Rest Ye Merry Robotmen – A Holiday EP was submitted for review however, so I have no option but to talk about it (and yes, it was submitted before Christmas, this is how long it takes me). I don’t dislike it as much as you might be expecting however, or even at all; there are two reasons for this. The first is that I actually really like a lot of traditional carols, and Furey hasn’t made the fatal mistake of trying to write an original song about Christmas, but has adapted some well known seasonal melodies into dance tunes. The second is that said dance tunes are meaty slabs of groove and juicy synth sounds, put together with all the taste and skill he can muster, which as with all of his Solarno output is a considerable amount. The beats are basically techno: straight-line, hard-driving dance floor kickers. It’s not all four-to-the-floor, but it’s all insistent and directed rather than open and funky. The melodies are simply and effectively harmonised, the arrangements follow engaging narrative arcs, with breakdowns and builds pitched just right to keep you listening, but the greatest skill is in the sonic craftsmanship; the textures are assembled entirely from a variety of synthesiser patches, which requires a lot of close attention to timbral variety and impact if the end result isn’t to sound monotonous or claustrophobic. This is neither; in fact it’s a masterclass in arranging for synthesiser. If you listen closely there’s a lot going on, and a great deal of creativity, but if you don’t it’s just a really enjoyable sound.
Ayenalem – En Attendant EP (hip-hop)
It’s kind of hard to talk about vocal hip-hop without access to the lyrical meanings, but my French is too rudimentary to allow me to grasp more than the occasional word of what Ayenalem have to say. I have to say that I do listen to a lot of rap I don’t understand however, in French, Spanish, Arabic and other languages, and I find that speech has a music to it which is actually easier to hear when its literal denotations are unavailable. Part of the poet’s art is to relearn how to hear that music in their own language, to hear it as phonically concrete and to communicate that physical aesthetic to an audience that lacks the wherewithal to simply switch off their semiosis. I can hear that going on in these tracks readily enough; there’s a real pleasure in the texture of language, and the flows are infectious, owing as much to the Caribbean as to the United States. The beats swing and sway with funky depth, and there’s an invitingly human texture to them, thanks in large part to the guitar playing: a bass player and guitarist are credited as full members of the band, which gives us a hint as to their overall attitude to music making. A lot of hip-hop is made in a way that renders the relationship between words and music almost incidental, in production if not in reception, but this stuff is clearly composed in the round. Some of the songs are just that, songs, most notably the closer ‘On danse quand même’, which is a good song, not sounding for a moment like a hip-hop crew just ‘having a go’ at one. It may be that if I could understand the lyrics I’d hate this entire release, but it seems unlikely; everything I can pick up on from the sounds, and from Ayenalem’s online presence, suggests a crew with commitment, sincerity, generosity and a huge passion for their art. En Attendant is a hugely listenable EP; despite my inability to understand it, I love the sound of the French language, and it seems particularly suited to this kind of application (I love much French reggae too). The production is spot-on, it shows great musical skill, and showcases some sound creative decisions. Recommended.
Alun Vaughan – Lullabies (solo bass)
Alun Vaughan is unusual among solo bass performers in using a minimum of technological aids, eschewing in particular the live-looping devices used to such great effect by many players (of many instruments) in recent years. He simply straps on his six-string bass and plays. The results sound something like a guitarist doing fingerstyle, but of course the notes have a depth and girth that only a bass can generate, and the arrangements are perhaps a little less intricate than they might have been on guitar (although they are in fact rather more intricate than the work of most acoustic guitarists!). Vaughan exploits harmonics beautifully to give his arrangements the range and depth they need to keep the listeners attention, but his greatest strength is in his phrasing, which gives his melodies so much life they seem to possess an independent existence. Lullabies is a collection of five very short pieces, adding up in total to just over eight minutes of playing time; five lyrical vignettes of beguiling simplicity and transparent beauty, that don’t sound for a moment like a ‘bass record’. Vaughan is certainly a very gifted technician, and this material demands a highly developed technique, but that is far from being the point of these pieces; their point is simply to be, and then to cease, haiku-like in their brevity and clarity.
The Bluebottle Veins – It’s All Gone (blues rock)
Blues based rock with a raw and ragged delivery; sounds a lot like The Stooges in places, although they don’t describe their sound as garage. Back in the day when all rock was bluesy that’s exactly what they’d have been: no tastefully creamy overdrives here, just wild-eyed hairy distortion and songs presented with the kind of swagger that used to make rock feel dangerous. Nowadays you’d probably say it was on the lighter fringes of southern sludge, but who really gives a fuck? What matters is that it’s a superb sound. Four short well-crafted songs, a splendid lot of racket, and tons of (the right) attitude.
The Bordellos – Bring Me The Head Of Justin Bieber (noise rock)
I can’t think of a better use for the kind of alienated vocal misanthropy pioneered on disc by Ian Curtis than to launch a venomous psychic assault on the public face of the commercial pop slurry-pit. The Bordellos have a sound that combines that vein of early post-punk with ear-bleeding noise and distortion, which is always a bonus; ‘Dead Semen’ is a nice gentle acoustic number, but then we’re back to the serious business of despising at volume. ‘Like a soap-star writing a good book/ it ain’t gonna happen’ is a choice line from ‘Going Out Tonight’ but it’s one among many. Basically, this is brilliant.
H.L.I. – Avante/ The Juggernaut (hip-hop)
£0 CD (free with Omniglyph)
This shit is heavy, in every way. Darkness abounds, in its knurled bass, its disturbing soundscapes and its subterranean incantatory vocals. H.L.I. tend to explore lyrical themes that don’t immediately yield their subjects, leaving the listener with an unsettling sense of existential menace; this is poetry, speaking truths that can only be found between the lines, and it’s immensely powerful stuff. There’s skilled hip-hop being made every day, and it’s easy to find it these days, what with the internet and all that, but this is skill in the service of a singular and penetrating vision. The results are rewarding, but uncomfortable. It’s meant to be a teaser for their forthcoming album; well, I’m teased. I can’t wait.
Stakka Lyrics – “Home” the Remixes (hip-hop)
This is a collection of remixes of my (and apparently Stakka Lyrics’) favourite track from I still think it’s the 90s. It’s my favourite because having heard dozens of emcees charting their geographies, this is the first time I’ve heard one describing my hometown. And also because it’s a top rhyme of course, disarmingly humble and full of warmth; there are four remixes, two of them also included as instrumentals, all of them creative and engaging, but pretty diverse in their approach. I don’t know how often I can listen straight through to six versions of the same track, but they’re all mint.
Schwarz – Earthlink (electronica)
Automation Records $0.89 DD
Murderous bass reverberations enclose a purposeful groove, full of darkness and thunder, not to mention irresistible funk. ‘Earthlink’ is a natural born dancefloor imperative and a focussed exercise in textural creativity at the same time. It’s a lean, brutal mechanism with a purpose. This is the sound of angry sex.
Kylmyys – The Eternal (electronica)
‘The Eternal’, a Joy Division tune from Closer, is interpreted with a combination of mechanistic and human elements. This is music intended to bridge the flesh/ metal divide, with its slow, lugubrious march of sadness and its laminar mediations, its simultaneous echoes of the future, and of ecclesiastical early music. The flipside drops us into a warm soup of comforting pads and urban anaesthesia, structured first by a rigorously simple mid-register piano melody, and then a series of subtle sonic manipulations of increasing insistence. Both tracks are very skilled and erudite essays in atmosphere and soundscape.
Cex – Lorena (electronica)
Automation Records $0+ DD
Ok, I’ll come clean: I don’t know what the Baltimore club sound is like. Apparently Cex is part of that scene, and this track apparently bears some resemblance to its sounds. What it sounds like to me is some heavily dubbed-out electronica: the track has metalwork that’s right in your face, bass that rumbles inside you, and every other element is about a thousand miles away. It grooves, but it grooves diffusely, and there is so much space inside its soundworld you could park a car there. I don’t know if this is typical of the Baltimore sound, but if it is, I think I might move there. Very creative, very original and very enjoyable.
Kylmyys – Cosmosis (electronica)
Automation Records $0 DD
Brooding and melancholy seem to be favoured tropes for Kylmyyss, judging by the other single I’ve reviewed from them in this roundup. This one is less dark, but equally creative, its timbres morphing and flowing like melted cheese around its downtempo beats. It’s a very understated, but very accomplished piece of progressive electronica.