This post is dedicated to Steve Morton. Rest in peace, brother.
Dementio 13 – Last Test (electronica)
self released, 2013, DD album, 45m 38s
Worlds collide in Dementio 13’s latest release, albeit without the biblical histrionics and cataclysmic consequences that usually dance attendance on such events in fiction. There has always been more to Dementio 13 than the electronica with which he has populated his records, and he has always been a musician of unusual erudition, drawing his language from a huge range of sources across a selection of decades (roughly the last four) which have witnessed an unprecedented frenzy of musical innovation and invention. Those that read his frequently updated and always interesting blog will be aware that distinctly electro-acoustic devices have been appearing in his studio of late, such as bass guitars (always a welcome presence to my mind…) There are considerably more electro-acoustic elements to this album than there have typically been on his earlier releases, and although he has freely plundered the language of rock in the past, on Last Test the timbral materials of that more chaotic, haptic world come crashing into the ordered electronic territories his listeners have been accustomed to explore under Dementio 13’s guidance.
‘A Beat Called Don’, with which the album opens, begins with an electronic texture that could easily presage a dance tune, but when the hammer falls it sounds like a band, not a lone geek in a project studio. Historically, Dementio 13’s work has been notable for the degree of humanity with which he is able to imbue entirely electronic compositions, both in his sonic manipulations and and in the feel of the arrangements, so it’s nowt new that the track should have an organic feel, but it is new that its central riff should be performed on a bass guitar, with a potent, grinding distortion. What he has described in the past as ‘electronic post-rock’ seems to have evolved into, well, post-rock. It’s studio music, to be sure, and by no means all of the pieces collected on Last Test are dominated by electro-acoustic sound sources, but this is the sound of a committed musician doing something, not the sound of a composer planning, or an arranger constructing. There are more human elements, such as the vocal sample in ‘Really Far Away’, which gives the track a trip-hop feel, with its beat that hovers halfway between rock and some kind of heavy 90s dance music. Lyrical grace notes in the piano miniature ‘Pen Y Fan’ have a similar effect. Dementio 13’s creative journey, which sees a constant evolution in his sound from release to release, is one of increasing emotional directness; faced with the challenge of producing recordings alone, he has responded by successfully pursuing the means to put more and more soul into his music. There are still plenty of dance music elements in Last Test, and although they mostly have an acoustic vibe, the beats are predominantly lively, bouncy grooves; however, any expectations that may be elicited by stylistic cues are quite deliberately undercut. ‘Zenit’ is the tune that sounds most like a dance track, and there that feeling is counteracted by the wandering melody and unstable timbres. As always, Dementio 13 has produced a set of tunes that are listenable, intriguing and creatively rigorous, and he has done so in a way that represents a real progression from his earlier work. Last Test is emotionally powerful and musically dazzling work.
Hope and Social – All Our Dancing Days (rock)
self released, 2012, CD & DD album, 52m 58s
£0+ DD £1.60+ CD
All Our Dancing Days is a proclamation shouted from a clifftop into the teeth of the wind. Or something. I know, it’s their job to wax lyrical and mine to describe them (just the facts, ma’am), but honestly, that’s what it sounds like. I don’t mean they layer up their tracks with field recordings, just that the mix is the opposite of claustrophobic, keeping the band clearly located in space, and the emphatic gestures with which they write and articulate their songs are just the kind of exhilarated responses invited by the great outdoors. Even when the textures are dense, which they sometimes are, they are not cramped, and every voice has the elbow room to throw some shapes. What’s most impressive about the sound as a whole is the precise creative judgement with which Hope and Social balance simplicity and complexity, producing layered, sophisticated arrangements in which every element is directed to the one end; everything contributes to an irresistible emotional onrush, gathering listeners like a swollen river gathering tributaries and flinging them out into an ocean of possibilities. There are things to do, things to say, and most importantly, there is the room in which to do and say them.
The album employs a variety of sounds, and a diversity of approaches to arrangement and orchestration. There’s always an affective directness to Hope and Social’s music, which dominates the listening experience to the extent that it all seems very simple, but listening analytically reveals an enormous degree of care, invention and intelligence. The vibe is uplifting and optimistic, but the sincerity of the music is underlined by a sense of humour and irony that is not laid on with a trowel, emerging in the playfulness with which the it is presented. ‘Boxer’s Blood’ teases the listener, continually teetering on the brink of a huge, stadium chorus, which it has the good taste not to actually deliver; there are certainly some big moments, like the choruses of ‘One Way Home’ and the title track that follows it, but the arrangements never acquiesce to the demands of established formula. The texture is basically ‘indie-rock’, whatever that means, made up of largely pre-digested materials from rhythm and blues, country rock, new wave, 1980s ‘big music’, reggae, afrobeat and so forth; the brass scoring owes something to the brass-band tradition as well. There’s nothing here that anyone will find hard to get their ears around, but all of this heritage is employed with surgical precision to meet the emotional requirements of the material, rather than unreflectingly, by the yard, as an easy setting for some words and melodies; the dramatic narrative of the songs is as complex and subtle as their textures are accessible. If there’s any kind of an identifiable formula, it’s that the textures are built from layers of simple ostinatos, above which the melodies float at much larger rhythmic subdivisions; but if there’s a lesson for the music geek in all this, it’s that established stylistic conventions are there to be used like any other artistic material, that the creativity and sincerity with which they are employed will determine their power to move the listener, not their novelty or popularity. As usual, Hope and Social have released a self-effacingly accomplished record, that moves and entertains with huge heart and irresistible generosity.
Tori Tori Bird – Quiet Go Round (avant-pop)
self released, 2012, CD & DD album, 24m 7s
£5 DD £6 CD
It’s a nicely gnomic title, Quiet Go Round; one assumes it refers to an imaginary fairground ride, one that offers tranquility in place of excitement. This short album isn’t quiet in the same sense that ambient music can be; it doesn’t pursue quietness in a literal sense, as many artists in the experimental underground have in recent years, and there’s plenty of music here at a forward, energetic dynamic, but there is a sense of stillness to it. Tori Tori Bird are an acoustic ensemble, whose sound is built around a core combination of piano, drums and double bass; this is a combination that is well capable of hitting it hard, but the organic character of its sounds serves as a constant reminder of the silence that underlies them, and the arrangements on Quiet Go Round make use of a wide dynamic range. At their minima they are full of rests and pauses, while at their maxima they tend to rely more on intersecting, complexifying rhythms to build energy than they do on sheer volume, some heavy bass sounds notwithstanding.
Rica Minami’s vocal delivery is a gentle, breathy business, with a subtle sense of melodrama that is largely articulated through her diction; it’s precisely aligned with the whimsical ambiguities of the lyrics, which may be gauged from titles such as ‘Five Four Quil’ (largely in 15/8, in case you thought it was that obvious) and ‘Greyish white and blue’. Tori Tori Bird do use the word ‘pop’ in their efforts to describe what they do; they also use the word ‘classical’. Neither really gives you much of a clue; the particular combination of drum kit, piano and pizzicato bass is a specifically jazz texture, which makes that an inevitable evocation, but there is nothing of the conventional harmonic or rhythmic formulae of jazz in this sound. The only music it really puts me in mind of comes from the post-1960s European jazz tradition, which has tended to stray a long way from the American traditions of the blues and standard repertoire; the material features simple modalities and complex rhythmic inventions, arranged with an overriding concern for texture that makes the homophonic relationship between voice and accompaniment seem almost incidental. There is a commitment to creativity, to which any musical element is fair game, as can be heard in the dynamic modulations of a single repeated piano note that open ‘Daylight’. There are distinct and unique ideas in the arrangement of every tune on Quiet Go Round, for all of its brevity; the real measure of the band’s musicianship is the contrast between the sheer density of invention and the surface simplicity of the textures. The writing shows scant regard for conventional wisdom regarding the appropriate form of the pop song, in whatever genre, yet every tune here is more than accessible. The melodies invoke ethereal atmospheres, but they are very powerfully earthed by the sure-footed rhythm section feel, which is both deep and subtle. There’s no bombast, but the instrumental performances on this album are superb; it’s a truly unique and original sound, with a crystalline prettiness that, at its best, is simply and shatteringly beautiful.
Various Artists – Killamari Allstars Volume 2 (hip-hop)
Killamari Records, 2013, DD album, 58m 5s
Killamari Records is something of an umbrella; many of its releases are simply duplicated to its Bandcamp from the artists’ pages, although it has lent its name to a number of physical releases as well. It functions as much like a crew as a label, a loose and inclusive syndicate of associated emcees and producers; there are certain names that crop up more frequently than others, but the sheer diversity makes a compilation like this a constantly surprisingly and entertaining listen. The original Killamari Allstars was a superb album, and the sequel measures up. I have to conclude that hip-hop is going through some kind of a golden age, when music of this quality is available for free, and in such quantity too; most of Killamari’s releases are free to download, and its by no means the only source for top-notch, independent British hip-hop. It’s not a phenomenon that’s unique to this genre, but there seems to be a huge outpouring of creativity, of a remarkably high standard, as if the mere fact of having somewhere to make it available is enough to keep artists going; getting money for it, or even having it downloaded a significant number of times seems to be secondary. Some are getting more exposure than others, but there’s a living, breathing scene, founded on a sincere love for the music; the artists are fans and the fans are frequently artists.
The tone of Killamari Allstars Volume 2 is predominantly dark and downtempo, although the lyrics throughout are glittering with wit and humour, and even on the more lugubrious beats the flows can be ridiculously high energy, like Boomstick’s verses on ‘The Reaper’. More of these tracks are about atmosphere and lyrical depth than they are about infectious hooks and heavy beats; we’re eight tracks in before Bristolian Samuel Otis forces you up out of your chair with ‘Relax Yourself’, but by the time we get there we’ve had thoughts provoked, we’ve been impressed by some deep old school skills, and we’ve pissed ourselves laughing. There are contributions from a lot of the usual suspects, reminding us just how deep and diverse the Killamari roster is: ‘Samurai Death Bells’ reprises the formula of martial arts movie samples plus skittish, brilliant spitting that Rick Fury established on his 2012 album Fist Of Fury; Cleethorpes crew Estuary Heads’ ‘Tales Of Tarkini’ showcases Mista Smith’s lazy, menacing flow; Chattabox donates a brace of tunes, one a woozy, spatial remix of the title track from They Call Me… and as on the previous Killamari All Stars comp, there is one number credited to that ensemble, which features a dizzying succession of emcees to close out the release. This is just a random selection, and the artists from outside the core crew are just as brilliant, but there are too many great producers and lyricists involved in this album to give all credit where it’s due; just follow the link and read the tracklist. It’s all full-mental zarjaz excellence, from first boom to final bap.