£4+ DD (available February 27)
This music is the brainchild of Michael Woodman, guitarist and vocalist in Thumpermonkey, written using the immersion composition techniques described in The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook. The method seems to work. I have no idea what method he employs when writing for Thumpermonkey, but that seems to work too, and for several reasons Eat Your Robot sound a lot like his other band. One reason is the lyrical style; another is the way the melodies are phrased; another is Woodman’s singing, which is highly distinctive; and equally important are his guitar playing and riff writing, which are a big part of Thumpermonkey’s sound. So although he’s working with a different rhythm section and doesn’t have the remarkable Rael Jones throwing his creative key- and guitarisms into the pot, I’d certainly have believed him if he’d passed this off as a Thumpermonkey release. I’m not sure (and I haven’t asked him about this) if there is any particular creative reason for Eat Your Robot’s existence, or if he, John Mackenzie and Mike Hutchinson just fancied doing something together. Either way, these are some excellent, idiosyncratic songs, performed with a great crunchy rock sound and considerable panache. Woodman is probably my favourite lyricist, and I say that as someone who generally prefers instrumental music, for no better reason than that almost all the lyrics I’ve ever heard have been total drivel; I’m rarely sure exactly what his songs are about (as I tend to be focussed more on what the instruments are doing than on trying to pick out every word), but they are definitely not about the sort of things rock songs are usually about, and nor do they use the same hackneyed vocabulary, yeah yeah baby woo. The musical structure of the songs is similarly creative, employing a varied and constantly changing phraseology that makes much of what passes for rock music sound dull and uninspired in comparison. If you’re specifically in the market for something that doesn’t sound at all like Thumpermonkey then That Winning Smile Of Dinner probably isn’t for you, but otherwise, it’s a musical utterance of iconoclastic brilliance, and you should make sure you hear it.
£3+ DD £4.50+ CD
Steampunk is a genre of fiction and style that takes many forms, from a joyful celebration of Victoriana to disturbingly bio-dysmorphic body-horror; Tom Slatter’s interests tend towards the murky darkness of the latter, and his music is largely directed at articulating unsettling character-driven narratives in such a setting. Through These Veins continues his efforts in this… vein, with dramatic, cinematic songs telling stories of scientific hubris, unhealthy creative obsession and personal tragedy. Slatter employs a bag of harmonic tricks that goes well beyond the rock basics (this is avowedly progressive rock, after all), but which is no more outlandish than the chords to be found in many sophisticated pop songs, and spices up the orchestration with sounds that, again, have long claimed their place in the rock arranger’s palette. Although there are some moments of in-your-face atonality (like the guitar licks towards the end of ‘I Am Not Your Heart’, the real focus is not on extending the language or challenging our ears with difficult musical materials, but on spinning out complex sequences of subtly shaded emotional colour, complementing the lyrical meanings with affective ones that either support them or cast them in a particular light. Slatter makes and records all of this music himself, without any label support or budget, and the EP does sound a little rough around some of the edges, but that only serves to enhance its power and passion to my ears. He’s a fine guitarist, an excellent arranger, an outstanding composer, and the author of an increasingly impressive body of work, to which Through These Veins is a more than worthy addition. Superb.
Knife Thrower’s Assistance is a musical collective with a deliberately limited lifespan, to whit, some gigs and a live album to be recorded therein. One of its members is the experimental freak-folk auteur Heidi Harris, and she’s taken the opportunity to enlist her comrades’ assistance in extending her prolifically diverse oeuvre. The sound of this EP will be familiar to Harris’s existing audience, but it benefits from the sound of a working group, sounding more consistent and coherent across its five songs than is sometimes the case; the presence of a deep, pillowy bass, sometimes very nicely bowed, driving several of the songs along also helps Harris’s habitually nuanced and ambiguous sound to find an anchor. For all that the approach is more conventional than usual, in terms of both musicianship and production values, it’s still pretty out-there creative; in a way the shift of emphasis highlights Harris’s songwriting, given that the construction of the recordings themselves is often a creative focus for her. Here we are encouraged by the context to listen more closely to the way that she combines melody, harmony and lyrics, with the other musicians providing solid, and frequently beautiful support, directing their playing to the song, rather than to any other creative agenda that may be in play. Piano, bass, bowed strings and Harris’s voice are the principal elements of the sound, but not the only ones, and the music is arranged with erudition and aplomb. If there’s one adjective I wouldn’t use to describe Strange Folklore, it’s ‘experimental’. This is not to say that it charts no new territory, but this is the sound of someone employing an established practice to get exactly the results they want, to stunning effect. This is a truly beautiful, and still pleasingly unconventional recording.
‘Cian # 2’, with which Túneles, opens, begins with a repeated dissonant piano figure, processed through a distorted delay which signals immediately that Joaquín Mendoza Sebastián recognises no boundaries to the play of his creative endeavour. Experimental in its abstract musical materials no more than in its concrete sonic substance, this EP does not rest on any set generic conventions, or permit any of the terms of its discourse to go unquestioned. Meanings are created in the manipulation of musical language as a malleable, plastic fabric, rather than as a defined system of stylistically determined signs, and articulated as much in the changing timbral character of the sound as in its pattern of pitches and rhythms. That we are so used, as listeners, to a particular sense of the musical, means that any such approach inevitably sounds challenging and ambiguous, generating tense atmospheres that range from the ethereal to the threatening. It’s an odd thing about music, as opposed to the visual arts, that the absence of the usual tokens of representation, such as consonance or tonality, necessarily tends towards certain emotional resonances; but for all that the atmospheres of Túneles are somewhat unsettling, they are far from disturbing or aggressively obtuse. Instead, I found its combination of vocal samples, processed acoustic and electro-acoustic instruments, short looping repetitions and tonal ambiguities both intellectually intriguing and aesthetically rewarding. There is more than a hint of humour and playfulness in the music, which makes it feel more welcoming than might otherwise be the case, and once you are able to engage with it on its own terms there’s a world of close attention to detail and subtly specific affective meanings to be enjoyed. Joaquín Mendoza Sebastián is a continually surprising and innovative artist, and Túneles is a very intelligent and stimulating example of his work.
Four cuts of laid-back, mid-tempo jazz funk, that place the emphasis firmly on melody, a steady groove and a blissfully luminescent atmosphere. This is not a vehicle for intense, testosterone fueled blowing or histrionically emotional expressive statements, although it is the platform for some shapely, well-crafted solos; The Lavender EP’s grooves, similarly, are not muscle-bound polyrhythmic manifestos, but measured, pulsating exercises in pocket and restraint. It’s an impeccable production, that doesn’t allow the pursuit of clarity and separation to leach the life out of the sound; the performances are given all the sonic space they need, and they really shine. This is what groove music should be about, devoid of grandstanding or overplaying, every note right on the money, and sitting exactly where it needs to be in the mix and the arrangement. The material and orchestration are pretty 70s in style (the one cover version is ‘Sandworms’ from Dave Matthews’s 1977 album Dune), but they have the freshness and sense of style that musicians only bring to music when they’re genuinely excited to be playing it. Tim ‘Love’ Lee of Tummy Touch Records has been championing the idea of ‘yes wave’ music, music of whatever style that’s full of positivity and celebrates virtuosity; I reckon The Expansions are exactly what he’s talking about. The mellow, sun-drenched vibe of their music is extremely hard to dislike, and their musicianship is a joy to hear.
Luminous Monsters is a project with form for producing music from the more gently atmospheric, psychedelic end of the drone-rock spectrum; this twenty-minute piece was composed for, and originally performed at an ambient music evening in Glasgow. I imagine some members of the audience to be found at such an event might have found The Dreaming Celestial slightly alarming, as it spends a considerable proportion of its duration sounding as though it’s about to launch into some hefty doom-metal riffage. It doesn’t, but its predominantly consonant, harmonically static soundscapes are shot through with an element of tension. It does build to a crescendo of both amplitude and density, by way of some quite active guitar melody with a Central European flavour, but relaxes again, to drift away in sonorous simplicity. Music of this sort is all about engendering a mood, and The Dreaming Celestial is about as good an example of how to do just that as you are likely to hear. Powerful, moving sounds.
Russian Winter Records $5+ DD $10+ CDR
‘Retro-futurist’ is a cultural buzzword that gets quite a lot of mileage these days, and it’s used in The Veil’s publicity materials, with some justification. The beats on this EP are constructed from a consistent palette of 1980s sounding electronic drum sounds and FM synthesis, which has the paradoxical effect of making the release sound a bit like a band recording, in contrast with the magpie eclecticism of most hip-hop production. The mixes and arrangements are much fuller and more sophisticated than old school electro hip-hop, which was characterised by a raw sparsity that somehow made it clear you were listening to the baby steps of a new musical practice; in fact, Cairoglyphs’ sound often bears more resemblance to synth-pop and dance music, the areas in which its sonic materials were first explored to the full. This is married to some intelligent lyrics, and tight, exciting flows, to produce a fusion of considerable virtue. Very well made stuff, dark in tone, and extremely compelling.
Poca play dusky, downbeat pop constructed from a jazz vocabulary; as such they have something of a trip-hop vibe to their sound, particularly when elements of electronic manipulation creep into the mix. I found more reasons to like them than mere nostalgia for the gloomy grooves of my youth, however; We Are is a band statement, not a disparate collection of producer led tracks, with a coherent ensemble sound that, while it is never remotely flash, is an essay in rhythmic precision and well-directed chops. While it is always easier to achieve a given degree of finesse in the studio, rather than on the bandstand, the crucial thing is to be aware in the first place that the kinds of subtle nuance on display here are even worth pursuing. Poca employ precisely modulated dynamics, instrumental timbres and ensemble textures to showcase their songs, which are not groundbreaking in approach, but which all display exemplary judgement in the use of harmony and the dramatic potential of formal structure. And being pop music, the central focus is always on the smoothly expressive vocal performances of Liis Hirvoja, which are as aesthetically savvy as they are skillfully executed. Beautiful, enveloping atmospheres, presented with a real sense of style.
Naim Edge Records £? (available March 31)
This is big, gestural music, with a dramatic sweep to it that harks back to the British stadium acts of the 1980s. There’s a generosity of spirit to Pylo’s sound, a sense of communality that invites the listener to learn the words and sing along; the first-person plural is prominent in ‘Simple Souls’, the opener, but more existentially solitary songs like ‘Climbing Through The Sun’ still make it clear that they are appealing directly to the audience’s ability to recognise their insights in their own experience. This is music about the stuff that connects us, and while the stuff that divides us can be a better source of creative ‘grit’, Pylo do a great job of celebrating without mawkishness or forced positivity. The mixes are spacious and dramatic, sparse arrangements built around piano or guitar, framing soaring, committed vocals, and situated in broad affective vistas of possibility, all performed with passionate restraint.
This EP is far less reliant on brute musicianly skill than any of the releases reviewed above, building more on the signifying potential of decontextualised or unexpectedly juxtaposed musical materials. Queasy, staggering reverbs destabilise tentative vocals, while brutally dry drum machines cut across acoustic samples without the mix coming down emphatically in favour of either. Melodies flirt with dissonance and song structures are resolutely too simple to sound like anything other than a deliberate critique of the conventional pop song. Stefan Blaylock’s textures are predominantly lean, and tend to leave the bottom end alone; for all that ‘high’ and ‘low’ notes are culturally constructed ideas, it’s impossible to dismiss the observation that treble gets the head nodding and bass moves the pelvis. This would be head-nodding music, if it offered such comforts as readily grasped melodies or easily comprehensible lyrics; as it is, it’s simply head music. Genuinely creative and adventurous experimental sounds.
Acoustic guitar is a dominant voice on this recording, its chords forming the heart of the arrangements; the electric has something to say as wll, but again, its rhythmic and harmonic statements predominate. There is melody, but it plays second fiddle to the chords, taking its place as an element in a pleasantly non-hierarchical whole. This (entirely instrumental) music is about mood and atmosphere, mostly on the warmly melancholic end of the spectrum; there are subtly effective sonic manipulations, but for the most part its textures are located firmly within an acoustic rock vocabulary, just a rhythm section following feelings, washing emotional statements across the page like pigment. When Fog Dissipates isn’t particularly challenging to the listener; 18 Seconds prefer a policy of aesthetic generosity, giving something lovely to our ears and leaving it at that.
Concrete, granular ambiences are shot through with subterranean resonances, producing an affective landscape that is certainly somewhat threatening in tone, but which also achieves the sort of indifferent emotional neutrality of natural phenomena such as tides and landslides. The only obvious human element that Synsophony provide is an extended vocal sample, which is slightly too low in the mix to make out in any detail; beyond that, even the schematic melodic materials to which the pitched elements are bent (a repeated descending sequential dyad) give the impression that they probably don’t concern us directly, and any meanings we may bring to them are our own, provisional at best and probably spurious. Rhythms emerge from the pulsating of the sounds, and from the dusty granularity that dominates the texture, resembling echoes more than compositional agency. Rabbit Hole an immersive and thought provoking experience.
Sucking The Blood Of Celestial Bodies kicks off with a noise abrasive enough to eliminate the kind of audience that might not be too interested in Cthulhu Detonator’s artistic intentions (like early Norwegian black metal bands lobbing rotting meat at the audience to weed out the sissies). There is harmonic content right from the off, however, lurking in the depths of the distortion, presumably a residue of whatever it is being distorted. Things do calm down presently, and ‘Silence Screamed The Moon Goddess’ articulates a spatial ambience of unseen malfunctioning electronics and electromagnetic hum; maximum amplitude is never the point, and the textures tend to have a lot of space in areas of the frequency spectrum, even at their most in-your-face. This is not a bludgeoning assault, and the effect is less claustrophobic than it is mysterious and disturbing. Very effective and inventive sound art, short on aesthetic compromise and long on creative determination.
Venomous Hamster $0 DD
This is a typically brief and direct track from Atomic Farmhouse, somewhat shorter than my average sneezing fit. It’s also typically creative and whacked-out, off-kilter, leftfield or whatever other adjective you’d like me to use to describe the cerebral, comedic and inventive extremes of underground hip-hop. Top whack malarkey, in beat, lyrics and flow.
€1.40+ DD €3.50+ CD
Late 60s style whimsy, that comes correct with Leslie speaker, harpsichord, jaunty rhythms, the ostentatious use of the word ‘strawberry’ and the quaint conflation of love with lurrve. And love is what this is a labour of, a perfect recreation of an era, with rather more exacting production values than were easily achieved at the time; Love Songs is not garage psychedelia, but the kind of pop that was produced in big studios with professional arrangers on the staff. Just two tunes (although The White Kites released an album shortly after this single), but enough to set out the stall. Lovely stuff, written, performed and produced to a very high standard.
Genre labels are slippery things; ‘chamber pop’ is the one that this tune arrived with, and it works for me, but it’s not really the sort of the thing the term was originally attached to in the 1960s. Moonlit Strangers is a piano led waltz, whose textures flow broad and deep with deft brass arrangements that owe more to British collieries than to American car plants. It’s a song of considerable dramatic sweep, that connects the epic to the ordinary with warmth and verve.