The Interceptor – 4-zero-7 (coldwave)
self released 2013, DD album, 38m 18s
Concept albums are something that are probably most often associated with complicated rock music and high-falutin lyrics dealing with such themes as the importance of dragons as a symbol of self-realisation. Well, this is very definitely a concept album, but the music it includes is not rock, not complicated, and not endowed with any kind of lyrical content. There is a brief explanation on the Bandcamp page: 4-zero-7 relates the experiences and reminiscences of the eponymous interceptor droid 4.0.7 as it lies on the operating table after sustaining combat damage; eventually the technicians decide that it needs to be restored to factory settings, erasing its memory. Given that the music is entirely instrumental, the listener will need to read this explanation, and pay some attention to the track titles, if they want to get a sense of the intended narrative, but of course, as the medium of the tale is music, this is not necessary to enjoy the work, and the emotional sense of the story rings out like a bell irrespective of any such understanding.
The music is entirely electronic; in fact, it is made entirely in Reason 2.5 (which was released ten years ago this year), and uses a relatively limited selection of the sounds available in that application. Most of the synthesiser voices are smooth, uncial sounds, and although there is some resonance and distortion, the distortion often sounds as though it was obtained by overdriving some part of the internal signal path, to obtain a lo-fi effect. This is not a music of fat, wobbly basses, or indeed of any kind of timbral extravagance, but a music of chords and melodies. There are some propulsive beats in the music, but it is largely taken at a sedate pace, and even the most energetic pieces are far from frantic; the music is suffused with a sense of melancholy, and although Chris Saunders’ tongue is clearly in his cheek (apologies for inadvertently letting slip The Interceptor’s secret identity), it is emotionally sincere and curiously moving. Stylistically the album references some of the tropes of electronic dance music, and many of the tropes of 1980s synthpop, but it’s not bound by any of them, and although it doesn’t convey any startling sense of novelty, its sound is very much its own. Saunders’ ear is clearly alert to the subtleties and possibilities of the electronic medium, but as an arranger his skills are pretty old school, orchestrating the music intelligently in a complex and sophisticated tapestry of interwoven rhythmic and melodic ideas. From the hospital beeps that open 4-zero-7, to those that conclude it, the narrative arc is carefully expressed; there is both self-discipline and a great clarity of artistic vision in the way that Saunders places his musical materials at the service of the story, and avoids the many and obvious temptations to digress that emerge continually from the historical associations of his chosen palette. This record, as the account of a set of experiences, does not require a floorfiller, and although it uses four-on-the-floor beats and kinetic sequences, opportunities to ramp up the energy into arm-waving euphoria are passed over without comment. Most people don’t listen to records to hear a story, but the use that Saunders makes of narrative in 4-zero-7 is to give himself a peg from which to hang the emotional content of his music; to make an entirely synthetic canvas of sound feel human is not an unambitious creative aspiration, and despite the fact that his protagonist is actually a thinking machine, he succeeds emphatically. This excellent album is a very rewarding listen, and its relative simplicity belies the considerable skill and musicianship that went into making it.
Heidi Harris – Cut The Line (avant-folk)
Inner Ocean Records 2013, LP & DD album, 46m 16s
$16CAD+ LP $10CAD+ DD
The looping sounds that open this album, in an audio collage titled ‘Neck High In Moonlight’, give an indication of the diversity that is to come. An environmental ambience, a sharp inhalation, a chant-like melody, science-fiction synth noises, a simple fiddle phrase; these are the kinds of material from which the whole of Cut The Line is constructed, and the unruly collision of all these elements seems to evoke a jumble of subjectivities. This is important to what follows: although Heidi Harris’ creative voice is distinctive throughout, it is her avowed intent to ‘[cover] as many different perspectives as [she can] imagine’, and her effortless movement between a range of creative practices gives her shifts of perspective the clarity of cinematic edits. Despite this lucidity and precision, there is a sense of informality to the album, a sense that although it has clearly been produced with care, its various components have been placed together without an excessively meticulous process of shaping and adaptation, being permitted to find their own places and shape themselves to the greater context on their own terms. In some sense, its composition seems to have privileged the act of curation over the act of invention. Harris plays several instruments, sings, uses samples and field recordings, and transforms various sounds electronically; the finished music suggests that she uses each of these processes to discover sounds, and that the moment of creation is that at which they are combined. Phrases are frequently short, even rudimentary, and are employed like tesserae in a mosaic, with repetitions and small variations.
This album feels avant-garde, by which I mean that it is very apparent that it has taken a path away from conventional approaches to composition, orchestration and production, but it’s far from being forbidding or aggressively obscure. Instead it is gently disturbing; its refusal of banal and singular approaches to sound and meaning call into question any acquiescence to received or unreflecting notions in general. It evokes a world that is off-kilter in some way, or a way of seeing that is disconnected from the popular sense of reality, but it is not madness that it depicts, it is not a sick perspective. It is a dismissal of fixity, a willingness to accept and embrace the contingent, to explore the consequences of a motile subjectivity. The surface texture of the music is imbued with an aesthetic of the uncanny, but this sense of strange beauty, this oblique approach to the idea of the object, is present in Cut The Line on all levels. There is an oneiric quality to these songs, one which becomes more pronounced the more closely or analytically the listener attends to them. There is a sense of a distorting mirror held up to the world, or more to the point, of an optically perfect mirror held up to a world that the eye has been trained to distort. To achieve this sense it is necessary to employ familiar elements; Harris uses instruments such as the ukulele, the harp and the clarinet, which have approachable, organic characters, and she uses them to articulate melodic and harmonic materials of the sort that every Western ear has been familiarised with since birth. It’s never hard to find a way into her musical materials; it’s far more difficult to find your way out of them, but then, why would you want to? This is a thought-provoking and ethereally beautiful record.
The Brewdem – Broken Biscuits Vol.1 (hip-hop)
self released 2013, DD album, 41m 59s
The Brewdem are some kind of a meta-crew, a macro-crew, a crew-of-crews. Nine emcees, some of whom I’ve reviewed on their own or their sub-crew’s account in the past, and seven producers, which ditto. As such, Broken Biscuits Vol.1 is closer to a label sampler than it is to a regular mixtape, let alone an artist album. And yet somehow it flows so beautifully from track to track, and it showcases such a consistently compatible set of artistic sensibilities, that it has the coherence of an album. The music is indexed as four long tracks, but each of those is made up of several shorter cuts, and the full twenty-three tune tracklist is given on the Bandcamp page. These tracks are made by different producers, on different equipment, and furnished with verbals by different emcees, and it’s a pretty diverse set of material, but at the same time, it’s pretty clear that they’re all on the same page in certain important respects. For one thing, these musicians are obviously making independent hip-hop, not while they wait for something better to come along, but because they are genuinely committed to their own artistic visions, because they have stuff to say, are interested in the ways it can be said, and are well supplied with creative integrity. I don’t mean to suggest that they would say no to some commercial recognition, but these are not men who would be likely to compromise on their own ideas of quality in pursuit of it.
For another thing there are a lot of old school production values in play, which suits me fine, because I like boom-bap; the beats are still creative, even progressive in places, but they cleave tight to that funky dialect. There is a similar consistency of the overall tone; I suppose there’s a reason why all these people decided to be in one massive crew together, but you’d almost think that these recordings were made by one huge creative collective. The most distinct characteristic for me is the finely judged balance between humour and serious commentary. There’s hardly a bar without a joke in it, but even extended humorous conceits like Joey Prolapse’s ‘Death By Convenience’ are full of intelligence and darkness. Some of this music is basically just kinetic, visceral fun, but there’s also some very thoughtful work on the album, some erudite references, some careful analysis. The people making this stuff are awake, but they also understand why not everyone is, and remember how hard it was to get their eyes opened: they’re finding fulfillment in their creative endeavours, but a lot of their lyrics evince a keen understanding of social alienation, not to mention its popular psychotropic antidotes. While there’s not much on here that’s overtly activist, it’s all politically aware, not in a heavy-handed way, just in the way that all art is if there’s some clear thinking behind it. With its huge range of grooves and textures, and its often dazzling verbal skill-set, this is a very entertaining record, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I’m sure I’m not qualified to make general statements about British music, because I haven’t heard most of it, and I’m definitely not very knowledgeable about hip-hop (as I’m almost completely uninterested in the commercial variety), but this album contains some of the best independent British hip-hop I’ve heard.
Jellyspine Jenkins – lofi and buried (folk)
Quiet Songs Records 2013, DD album, 44m 29s
‘Lo-fi’ is a term that began its life as a perjorative, but ‘hi-fi’ is a particular kind of sound, not an intrinsic value, and as such it’s not really possible to speak of its opposite. ‘Lo-fi’, then, is another term for a specific sonic quality, and it has been valued by some musicians for almost as long as high-fidelity sound has been available in a domestic setting; sometimes it refers to an overwhelming impression of dirt and interference, but at others it simply implies a sort of rawness. As an aesthetic it has usually been associated with outsider music, with a rejection of dominant ideologies; sometimes it is a carefully contrived effect, and at other times it’s the consequence of an informal approach to recording and performance, but it’s a positive creative choice either way. Jellyspine Jenkins is theoretically new to me, but he’s actually the same man as Olds Sleeper, in the process of reviewing whose music I have waxed lyrical on the subject of lo-fi in the past; Jellyspine Jenkins takes the lo-fi aesthetic and extends it into a philosophy. What this does not mean is that everything sounds as though it was recorded on crappy equipment, but that the specific nature of the tools used to make this music is allowed to speak for itself. The music makes creative use of the gear at its maker’s disposal, and the fact that it is relatively rudimentary gear colours the sound in a particular way, without in any sense impairing it relative to music that’s been recorded on a five-thousand dollar guitar in a top flight commercial studio. This is an important point, because music is always precisely as good as the use that’s made of its materials, but many (or most) musicians (me included) tend to get hung up on stuff like the build quality of their instruments; stuff like that can impart particular characteristics, can enable specific approaches to music-making, but it is always secondary to the central question, which is ‘what are you going to do with the shit you’ve got?’
Clearly in Jellyspine Jenkins’ case it’s all a deliberate contrivance. As I understand (although the web presence is basic and uninformative) this music is mainly recorded using a cigar-box guitar, an improvised instrument made cheaply from reclaimed materials; but much of the music that inspires it stylistically was made in such a manner for reasons of poverty. The sounds that are employed here are drawn from blues and country, particularly from the rural, jug-band incarnations of the former. The songs are what lo-fi and buried is all about however, not the sound or the philosophy; these songs, in common with all the songs I’ve heard from this man in either of his musical identities, explore the edges of things, the outer extremities, the margins of society, or experience, or geography. I’m a big fan of this approach; most of the music I like is ‘extreme’ in some sense or other, and in a way, using rudimentary equipment and a lo-fi approach enables the musician to approach extremes more directly in some dimensions, certainly with regard to finding the limits of their instrument. There’s a sense in which this music is always right out on a limb, in common with many of its songs’ characters. These songs are pared back ruthlessly to raw nerves: some are arranged for an acoustic guitar and voice alone, others utilise tortured distortions and a heavy bass drum, and there are subtle technological interventions, like the atmospheric delay on the guitar melody in ‘home’ or the distorted vocal in ‘i don’t mean to bring you down’. There is a good deal of humour at work, and some of the songs have a strong redemptive theme, but the world they portray is a pretty bleak one. It’s not a depressive album, or an optimistic one; just a realistic one, and there’s not much in fiction that’s as bleak as reality. Every aspect of the way lo-fi and buried is put together makes it an unusually powerful vehicle for the meanings it carries. It’s strong stuff, and I could listen to it all day.