Alun Vaughan – Introducing… Clump Mittens (avant-rock)
What I know about Alun Vaughan is limited: I reviewed a very nice solo bass performance album of his, and an EP in a similar vein, and I gather he gets up to quite a lot of jazzy malarkey. This short EP bucks that trend just a little bit. The dominant sound is a raw, punky rhythm guitar, but it gets put to a fair old variety of uses. The opening (title) track is a brief hardcore thrash, punctuated by the ‘Clumpville Borstal Boys Choir’ shouting the title (the only vocals on the EP) and some entertaining instrumental breaks. ‘2013’ retains the instrumental timbres, but it’s much more of a modern prog/math rock affair, with tricksy rhythmic interstices, and plangent lead guitar melodies. ‘Heart Shaped Bruise’ opens with more lead guitar prettiness, against some upper register bass chords, develops into quite a heavy rock ballad, forgets it’s a ballad, and concludes by reprising the intro. ‘Outburst’ is all low register punk heaviness, eschewing any melody more elaborate than an evenly repeated single note. ‘Nah Zippy Wah Wah’ introduces a slide, vowelling out a melody over a blues rock boogie, before setting off to explore some more spacey territory, especially once the breakdown crops up… I don’t usually describe the releases I review track by track, but I wanted to be clear on how different these tunes are from one another, before mentioning how unified and coherent the whole EP sounds. Vaughan’s website describes Introducing… Clump Mittens as a ‘5 song EP by [a] fictional prog punk band’, which I guess means that, despite the fancifully named roster of personnel listed on the Bandcamp page, it’s all the man himself. The consistency of the timbres helps, but there is a creative single-mindedness to the record that makes all these disparate approaches feel like facets of the same object; the EP is written, performed and recorded with a lightness of touch that makes it feel very fresh and relaxed. I may be wrong (such a frightening possibility looms continually on the horizon of writers who do as little research as me) but this doesn’t sound as though Vaughan was excessively meticulous about the work. That’s all to the good; the end result is entertaining and humorous, but also very interesting musically. It demonstrates a command of its musical materials sufficient to add something unique to the genre, and it features some superb playing.
Juice Aleem – MoorKaBa LightBikes/AnuMal (hip-hop)
Spinning Compass Records £4.74 DD
The young Spinning Compass label hints at a pretty exciting release schedule for 2013 on its website, but this Roots Manuva produced track from the veteran Birmingham emcee and Ninjatune stalwart Juice Aleem is the most high profile item on the agenda. With H.L.I. the label established a reputation for dark, disturbing complexity, creatively uncompromising rap that takes big risks and lands on its feet: this single ploughs a similar furrow. The spine of the original A-side is a relentless portamento bassline that heaps on the tension like cream on a sundae; Juice Aleem piles it up higher with with methodically regular phrasing and words that eschew bravado in favour of a grimly erudite existential ponder. It’s not without humour, in the lyrics and the delivery, but it offers little comfort; this is not music that makes you smile, but it is a very powerful, compelling sound. B-side ‘AnuMal’ (produced by Neurotic Nate) is darker and heavier if anything, with its thumping, crunchy bass and its intense lyrical themes, but the two tracks were given the right billing; ‘MoorKaBa Light Bikes’ has a schizoid extremity that borders on the sublime. The flip side is merely excellent. Ebu Blackitude’s tasty remix of the title tune has a lot of dub in it, and a less claustrophobic feel; Kashmere’s take on ‘AnuMal’ is the dynamic peak of the whole release, a tissue of constantly rising bass against descending treble, of battling sirens and lumbering menace. This is not a release with hooks, although if you’re a basshead the production will grab you, no question; it’s a release that invites you to either attend closely to its meanings, or to submit to their darkness. Either way it’s a hell of a listen.
Oopz – Rejected Ambient Jerk (electronica)
Robot Villain Records RVD007 $4 DD
I’ve not actually heard Idiot Box, Oopz’s debut release, but apparently this EP showcases his more ‘emo’ side. It’s lucky I’m not dressed yet, because I’m going to work later, and I wouldn’t have wanted this vomit all over my smart librarian outfit. Fortunately, aside from his reprehensible choice of terminology, the author of this music has a pretty good ear for groove, texture, melody and mood. Rejected Ambient Jerk is basically instrumental electronic pop, with glitchy sounds etching out stochastically individuated forms against a warm, pad-based canvas, while relatively diffuse beats drive the whole along at a canter. It’s rhythmically compelling, but never launches a full dance-floor assault, which makes for an engaging atmosphere with a strong sense of progression and movement. Oopz is erudite, in terms of electronic music, infusing his work with echoes of synth-pop, eighties house and techno, early trance, electro-industrial, IDM, dubstep, and other zones of practice, without situating it unequivocally in any one stylistic tradition. That’s not to say that it sounds like a weird mish-mash, or that it’s overtly eclectic; the music is stylistically well integrated and coherent, and none of its elements jars against the overall context. It sounds quite simple on the whole, although it is certainly complex in terms of its multiple layers of carefully crafted voices. The mood of the EP is calm, with a comfortable melancholy balanced by its gently funky beats, an optimistic sense that it relates a journey. There’s a good deal of care and expertise in the making of this music, and it’s a very engaging listen.
Pacific Loon – Growth (electronica)
‘Fall’, with which Growth opens, inverts the conventional wisdom of narrative dynamics, following an opening at the fullest texture and loudest amplitude, into which a beat is quickly introduced, with a progressive reduction of the track’s emotional temperature; the percussive elements disappear at around the halfway point, the texture gradually thins out, the volume eases off, and the pads and textures of the orchestration become less rhythmically emphatic, until we’re left with an extended passage of ambient drone. And really, the question this begs, is ‘why not?’ I certainly find it interesting to find out what happens when the stock manoeuvres of emotional narrative are reversed, evaded or modified, and while ‘Fall’ does not present a formula, it does set the stage for an imaginative approach to electronic composition. The orchestration is basically about synthetic ambient textures, all quite immersive and consonant, frequently supported by a simple beat; sustained tones are a feature, although Francesco Busiello’s approach is consistently creative, and those continuities are subject to ongoing timbral transformations. Pacific Loon is presented as a collaboration between the above-mentioned musician and visual artist Leana Pizzoferrato, whose processed photographs of scenes from the aquarium L’Oceanogràfic in Valencia provide the inspiration for each track; the images are included with the relevant track if you download the music from Bandcamp (via the link above), and contemplating them in tandem with each track is a worthwhile exercise. This is all about mood and atmosphere, and the experience is both calming and uplifting. It’s interesting that the images are in monochrome, and that it would be easy to talk about the sounds in terms of colour, but that simplification lends a placidity to their impact which is complementary to the music, and the experience of viewing/listening for me was that the formally ambiguous music coloured the more precise shapes of the images. This is a lovely piece of art on all levels.
Beef Supreme – Royal Bitch (hard rock)
Beef Supreme harbour few pretensions. They’re not out to revolutionise anything, or explore uncharted musical territories. They just play beefy, crunchy, old-school hard rock, and play it well. I don’t often slate any music I write about, and when I do my usual criticism is that something is generic; however, there’s a difference between music that sits comfortably in an established idiom and music that uncritically regurgitates a set of generic conventions. Royal Bitch, I’m pleased to say, falls into the former category. Of course it may be that I just happen to like this sort of thing, and I do, but I actually like all sorts of shit; what I really don’t like is music with nothing new to say whose authors think it does. No such problems in evidence here. Very few hard rock musicians live up to the vagabondage of their mythical landscape, but if they do, good luck to them; regardless, the tropes of the style elaborate a romantic fantasy that nobody mistakes for reality, and it’s that knowing consumption of the myth that is the real pleasure of this music. It’s not that it can’t have anything to say, or that it can’t accommodate serious lyrical concerns, but that this is the frame in which its meanings are expressed. Royal Bitch is a sexy, dirty, high-octane groove assault; witty, badass humour infuses its riffs and lyrics, which are performed with savagely effective feel and recorded with an awesome sludgey roar. There’s a lot to like about this EP.
Solarno – Magenta (electronica)
The usual way of giving a piece of electronic dance music a hook is to slap a cheesy, meaningless vocal on it, or a sample of same, or just some kind of pop-cultural reference. While I wouldn’t say there are many hooks per se on Magenta, Jim Furey aka Solarno takes a different approach to drawing in the listener; he uses a combination of melody and morphing atmospheric texture to make his music sound as human and inviting as any acoustic instrument, albeit in a different way. This is totally electronic music (possibly including the speech in ‘It’s Complementary My Dear Watson’), with driving four-on-the-floor beats, and smooth, translucent timbres, its dynamics driving a narrative contour that is built for the dancefloor, its breakdowns followed by moments of ecstatic release. Furey is not reinventing the wheel here, but he is forging a determined path, guided by a specific aesthetic, and with the creative vision to limit his palette, so that every track on the EP sounds as though it’s related to every other track. It’s not all made to the same formula: ‘Amor mi fa cantar ala Francesca’ is a gentler composition, with a dynamically complex piano opening, and eastern folk flavoured melodic flourishes, sounding a little like one of Afro Celt Sound System’s trademark slow builds. It eventually develops into a full techno beat, but with a much subtler intensity than, say, ‘Telekom’, or ‘Three Hours In Magenta’, which both hit it hard from early on. If he’s on a mission to demonstrate that this set of musical materials can cover a lot of different bases, it’s mission accomplished. This is definitely dance music, but it comports itself with elegance and refinement; there are some considerable production skills on display here, and a very creative sensibility. Magenta is well worth a listen.
(a is to b) – mróz (dark electronica)
Black Lantern Music £0+ DD
This project is a collaboration between Neil Morrison, the warped savant behind Word Or Object, whose latest insanity is reviewed below, and Marta Adamowicz, a performance artist from Poland. I gather they were originally going for something more accessible (even floor-filling), but their dark and twisted sensibilities won out, resulting in the disturbing sonic dis-aggregate that is mróz. The music has a regular pulse, and is orchestrated in organised ways, often with a tonal harmonic structure, but it is dominated by chilling, dusty timbres and sounds, whose dislocated syntax seems to question the very idea of a coherent, meaningful utterance. This is music to get lost in, but not in a happy, self-realising transcendence; it feels like it could be hard to find your way back from the places to which these compositions map routes. That’s the darkness of this music; its soundscapes are populated with quite distinct, clearly illuminated sonic objects, but their forms and relationships do not signify in the ways that received assumptions about music equip the listener to anticipate. There are ongoing, readily apprehensible markers of mood, especially in the closer, a cover of Bauhaus’ classic ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, and that mood is always a portentous one, without the promise of closure or revelation, but anything that appears to offer ‘content’, in the way that conventional music has trained us to expect it, frustrates that expectation with misanthropic glee. The music is carefully assembled, with close attention to sonic detail, and geeks like me will probably get distracted from the overwhelming affective assault by the craftsmanship, but it is all quite ruthlessly directed to its emotional ends, which are bleak to say the least. Don’t expect joy, dancing or celebration, but this is a very good record nevertheless.
Sky Flying By – Can You Say It With One Word? (post-rock)
Sky Flying By were never the thrashiest proponents of post-rock, but this latest release represents a distinct orientation towards silence. Its mood invites placidity and contemplation, perhaps even sadness, but it doesn’t seem to represent tragedy or loss, so much as lack, and a coming to rest. You would never call this ‘happy’, but it isn’t what you’d call ‘negative’ either. I’m not sure exactly how these sounds were made, but when it involves electric guitars it’s in a much less obvious way than on What’s The Farthest You Can See? which I reviewed last year. This release moves further into the territory indicated by that release, presenting essentially ambient affective soundscapes, although they are periodically supported by a beat. Continuous tones and string sounds are the order of the day, with wordless vocals or choral pads filling up the textures occasionally. The music is beautiful, in a way that neither imposes its aesthetic on the listener nor demands their response, but like all ambient music, offers to supply a background, the incidental music in the movie of your life. Obviously that only works when the mood is appropriate, but most people spend enough time stressed out or excessively busy to benefit from an oceanic experience like this all too brief EP. Post-rock often attracts adjectives such as oceanic, immersive, enveloping, pelagic, cinematic or expansive; Can You Say It With One Word? is all of those things, but it’s not generic by any means. It’s music that aims to prioritise the listener’s experience over its own status as an utterance. It’s very carefully crafted, and while it commands a limited emotional compass, within those bounds it is powerfully evocative. Excellent work.
Shotgun No Blitz – Letters To Myself (pop-punk)
Painted Ox Records $7+ DD
First off, let me say that if you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like this: as far as I can tell, it’s a fine example of it’s type. Furthermore, I should point out that it’s written, arranged, performed, recorded and produced with a good deal of skill and musicianship. All involved know their stuff. My issues with this release are creative ones; and again, I don’t wish to imply that there was a lack of care or thought in the making of these songs, but what seems to be missing from the process is a certain sense of critical distance. When singing a song with enormous passion and commitment, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the relationship between your delivery and your material; because if you don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said repeatedly in a similar manner by a large number of other artists you end up coming across like you’re just saying ‘hey, look at me, all the trivia of my life experience is really important’. I mean, everybody’s trivia is important to them, but unless you have some real insights then just blasting out your observations really intensely seems a bit self-obsessed. I love pop-punk as a genre, but the specific bands that really float my boat imbue their recordings with one vital ingredient that Letters To Myself lacks: humour. This is a band that needs to lighten the fuck up, stop taking themselves so seriously, and spend some time writing a few good jokes. Or not; I’m sure there are plenty of listeners out there with whose experience these songs will resonate, who will be excited and relieved to discover that someone else feels the same way, and who are young enough not to realise that everyone feels that way, or that dozens of other bands have already given voice to it.
WhoIsParadise – #Two4Se7en_EP (hip-hop)
The track ‘Two4Se7en / 365’ is a funky groove, with some deep flows from several emcees; the themes are (broadly) black pride and the importance of historical awareness, which are laudable, but nowt new. WhoIsParadise himself credits his political awakening to a Black Panther he met in prison, but said awakening doesn’t seem to have extended (to judge by the combination of a contrived Black Panther outfit and an objectified woman’s arse on the artwork) to an understanding of the mechanics and effects of commodification. I don’t want to get into a general assessment of the dude’s politics, but his self-identification as a ‘multipreneur’ should give you an idea how revolutionary his schtick really is. The music is solid, particularly the Skitz remix, and some of the rhymes are excellent, but as a political statement this is a lot more superficial than it tries to pretend. Revolutionary stylings in the service of self-promotion, but, fuck it, you can dance to it.
Word Or Object – Back From The Dead (electronic horrorcore)
_ULTRAyonic £0+ DD
I’m not too sure how this was made, whether it’s all electronic, or there’s some physical guitar playing involved (I’d lean towards the latter from the sound). It’s not generic grindcore, but it maintains important aspects of the aesthetic, such as harsh timbres, incomprehensible vocals, insanely short songs, and a profound sense of malevolence. Its author refers to it as a ‘bit of fun’, which it is; five songs, three and a half minutes, and pretty darn gnarly.
Faux Flux and Chattabox – Life In Motion (hip-hop)
Killamari Records £0 DD
A collaboration between an electronic producer quite new to the Killamari family and its prime mover, Life In Motion is a dark, brooding track, a soulful plaint to the frustrated dreams of youth, but not a regretful one. Chattabox knows how to be measured without diluting an iota of the funk in his flow, and Faux Flux’s spatial electronic production showcases a masterful combination of sonic invention and atmospherics. This is a very tasty piece of music.
Stuart McCallum – The Seventh Tree (electronica)
Naim NAIMCD185.1 £0 DD
An atmospheric and cinematic (fittingly for the guitarist of The Cinematic Orchestra) tune, that combines a sedately grooving drum pattern with a simple slow moving melody and expansive textures from a variety of sound sources. Quite low-key and melancholy, it is apparently inspired by the disappearance of the six trees for which Tokyo’s Roppongi district is named. It’s excellently crafted, and well worth a listen.
Colour Of Bone – Low Mode (electro-rock)
Crunchy synth bass co-exists here with grinding guitar noise, and their overlapping timbres carry an energetic and melodic song that sounds like an electro-industrial remake of the early eighties. There’s a lot of work and creativity in the sonic detail, and the arrangement is unpredictably inventive. It’s pretty intense, it slings some memorable hooks, and it’s very entertaining.
Cherry White – Dead From The Waist Down (blues rock)
From the introductory guitar riff, through the bass fill that brings in the beat, the road-hog drums themselves, to the silk and steel raunch of the vocal, Dead From The Waist Down is full of swagger and attitude. That kind of cocky, hedonistic disregard is the essential ingredient that bands like the Stones took from the blues and reshaped into the form that remains definitive of rock to this day; a lot of noisier and more arrogant bands totally fail to grasp this, but Cherry White hit the nail on the head every time. Obviously I’m a sucker for a soulful, melodic bass solo like the one featured here, but this song’s quality rests on the traditional virtues: some great hooks, loads of energy, an irresistible groove, and the sheer, undeniable fuck-off-ness of it.