Various Artists – Album Roundup

Robots And Farm AnimalsVarious artists – Adventures In Psychohistory prt. 2: Robots And Farm Animals (electronica)

Milktoast Music DD $0

In the best tradition of underground music, it’s not entirely clear what Milktoast Music is; probably not a label in the traditional sense. More likely a collective of closely related musical projects, I would imagine. This album includes tracks from four of the six acts listed on their website, with those by Richard Pickman in preponderance, and several credited to the label, which are presumably collaborative efforts. The music is humorous and wantonly bizarre, although also quite accessible, and peppered with science-fiction samples. In style, it echoes the timbres of chiptune, with retro digital synths and drum-machines providing the sonic materials, while the music takes a variety of shapes: Durka Dub’s ‘Touch’ is pretty dubby, but most of it is some kind of stripped-down, jerky electro-funk. If you want to know more, you should listen, because this is not only very creative, it’s equally difficult to describem, as odd as a third ball and fantastically entertaining.


SeptemberThe Claudia Quintet – September (avant-jazz)

Cuneiform Records RUNE 377 $9.99 DD $16.50 CD

Under the guidance of percussionist-composer John Hollenbeck this is an ensemble that bucks the commonplace assumptions of jazz, and indeed it sounds like jazz only because its instrumental resources are predominantly characteristic of that tradition, not because its musical materials are in lock-step with the established idiom (as are far too many recordings by many fine improvisers). The compositions collected here, each named for a date in September, represent an attempt by Hollenbeck to counterbalance the overwhelming affective value of that now most famous of September days, whose impact is addressed directly on ‘September 12th: Coping Song’. (Apparently my birthday reminds him of lemons.) There is an enormous degree of invention and imagination in play here, ranging from the uni-tonal rhythmic developments of the opening ‘September 20th: Soterius Lakshmi’ to the melodic transcription a Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech in ‘September 29, 1936: Me Warn You’, and many other creative choices that rigorously discount the usual limitations and boundaries of jazz composition. There is a lot of probing improvisation from a band of extremely accomplished musicians, but there is an equal (or greater) amount of structured ensemble writing, and although much of the material is quite challenging to the ear, its radical force does not rob it of aesthetic appeal. Both fiercely intelligent and empathically beautiful, September is an album that can only have resulted from a sustained and intensive feat of concentration, with not a single lazy gesture or idiomatic cliché from start to finish. Extraordinary compositions, brilliantly performed.


Parts of the EntiretyTatvamasi – Parts Of The Entirety (avant-jazz)

Cuneiform Records RUNE 371 $9.99 DD $16.50 CD

Parts Of The Entirety comes with a shopping list of stylistic influences (in the publicity materials, not the sleeve notes); traditional Slavic folk music, avant-garde music, jazz, progressive and avant-rock, and Delta blues(!) are all ingredients in their sound, I am reliably informed. I prefer to make up my own mind about these things, but Cuneiform Records take a rather more balanced approach to their publicity than most labels, and after a good listen I reckon that’s an accurate summation of Tavtamasi’s basic sound. The band springs from a long period of contemplation and musical hiatus on the part of composer and guitarist Grzegorz Lesiak, and is an exploration of some pretty ambitious aesthetic themes, conducted from a position of determined creative integrity. It’s not about reinventing wheels, and there is a good deal of recognisable vocabulary from the lexicon of jazz and fusion, as well as some stirring and uninhibited blowing, especially from Tomasz Piatek on tenor; but the admixture of musical materials is integrated into a coherent new dialect, and while the list of genres I cited sounds like a fun stew to me, even if they were just thrown in together without much thought, the music on this recording is delivered with total stylistic conviction. Tavtamasi have made a new thing, and it’s a good new thing. The textures are mostly in rhythm-section-plus-lead territory, and much of Parts Of The Entirety’s emotional power comes from the committed playing and engaged interactions of the musicians, but there’s a sense of adventure that departs completely from the procedural conservatism of most modern jazz . Yet another fabulously inventive and beautifully performed release from Cuneiform!


Cobra FakirMiriodor – Cobra Fakir (avant-rock)

Cuneiform Records RUNE 368 $9.99 DD $16.50 CD $25.50 LP

This album contains some of the warmest, most consonant atonalities, and some of the most ambiguous, contingent functional harmony you’re likely to hear. The avant-garde is a diverse place, in which aspects of closely related creative practices can diverge quite radically; Miriodor have mastered the knack of making the sort of materials that sound intimidatingly demanding in the hands of many of their RIO associated contemporaries, sound entirely accessible, or even pretty. Using an instrumentation that draws primarily on the worlds of rock and folk music, much of the melodic and harmonic material belongs to a tradition that, while it has had its adherents within progressive rock for some decades, has most of its roots in European twentieth century art music, rather than the Afro-American sources that inform much of the avant-garde music that avows a connection to jazz. Improvisation is still a part of the music however, with several of the tunes resembling some kind of groove jam, albeit one with some rather disorientating melodic shapes and a sophisticated attitude to rhythm. Indeed, some of the pieces on Cobra Fakir were built around, or derived from, recordings of improvisations made during pre-production. This is an inventive and artistically rigorous band, however, and despite some relatively extended passages of static harmony, there is rarely a long wait to hear some tightly organised and ruthlessly complex material. There isn’t much more I can say about the musical materials in a review of this length; they feature a combination or erudite, intricate writing and intense, controlled performance, for an immersive and absorbing listening experience. An utterly superb record, as beautiful as it is challenging.


Static MotionSonar – Static Motion (avant-rock)

Cuneiform Records RUNE 374 $9.99 DD $16.50 CD

Originality can be an over-valued concept, in any art. Value and meaning can be founded on established practices and unique, particular truths can be found in the traversing of well charted territories; conversely, novelty is often mistaken for originality, and the pursuit of novelty can lead to some flimsy and superficial artistic statements. True originality rarely (if ever) results from a deliberate attempt to achieve it; rather, it emerges from the rigorous pursuit of a clear artistic agenda founded on genuine insights, be they aesthetic, formal, existential or intellectual. That is the kind of originality that Sonar achieve on Static Motion, although guitarist Stephan Thelen does note that he ‘consciously wanted the music to be different from anything else that was going on’; a desire to say something distinctive is not the same thing as the contrivance of originality, however, and the uniqueness of this music springs from an extremely clear and specific set of artistic concerns. The band take the greatest care to ensure the functional value of every element in their arrangements; the music is stripped down to bare bones, although those bones articulate a structure of remarkable depth and complexity, built from complex polyrhythms and tense, ambiguous tonalities. The ideas of motion and stasis are ones that I have returned to repeatedly, in attempting to find a critical language that can accommodate the most active music as well as the most diffusely ambient; rhythm talks to us about time and movement, whether we know it or not, and music either encodes a narrative journey, or delineates a space. Or more accurately, all music strikes a balance between those poles; but it rarely does so with the self-awareness that is implicit in the title of this album and explicit in the recordings collected on it. Two guitars, bass and drums, spell out the consequences and implications of precise starting points, achieving enormous informational density from laminations of extremely simple patterns and motifs; everything is contained within the ensemble, no voice emerging to insist on its own ‘self’ expression, every note allowed to signify only syntactically, in relation to all the others. There is, as intended, great tension and power in the music. One of the most remarkable, rigorous, and truly original records I’ve yet heard.


eCsTaSyRaoul Björkenheim / eCsTaSy – eCsTaSy (avant-jazz)

Cuneiform Records RUNE 373 $9.99 DD $16.50 CD

Guitarist Raoul Björkenheim has deep roots in the European jazz tradition, and in the ECM sound; it’s rare for the name of a label to serve as a valid stylistic signifier, but in this case it’s a label that has served as a standard for a broad movement that, while it is able to incorporate and articulate the founding American tradition, has crystallised and refined uniquely European contributions to the international language of jazz. Björkenheim has recorded for ECM, as leader and sideman, but he has a relationship with Cuneiform that goes back to 1996, which should lead us to anticipate a certain degree of experimentation in his creative practice. eCsTaSy is not as extremely unconventional an ensemble as many that can be found on that label’s roster, but this eponymous album is far from a straightforward mainstream modern jazz blow-fest. There are some hard-swinging passages, and some deep grooving funky ones, but the group is also able to take a step back from the chops-focussed assumptions of common practice, and explore other avenues, as in the extended meditation on sonority titled ‘Deeper’. The textures of their orchestrations are often pushed to breaking point in some way, sonic de-coherence marching hand-in-hand with highly organised collations of melodic material. Björkenheim’s vehemently filthy and penetrating guitar sound has a lot to do with this, as does the potent whiff of improvisational freedom (a whiff that is sometimes entirely cultivated, and sometimes seems indeed to spring from the unmediated hind-brains of the improvisers). This music incorporates most positions on the grand continuum of small-group improvisational jazz, from driving homophonic rhythm-and-blowing to avant-garde aleatorisms, such as those heard in ‘Through The Looking Glass’. There is little in the way of fundamental reassessment, but the group display an impressive capacity to mine new and particular meanings from the well-worked seams to which they apply themselves. Does player-focussed, tonal, improvisational jazz have unique and enlightening things yet to say? Yes, as long as it is populated by players willing to do the necessary work, and unwilling to rest on the achievements of the past. This album is characterised, but not defined, by extremely accomplished playing, and the vigorous intensity with which its utterances are delivered gives it a darkly celebratory feel, not a million miles away from the affective colours of heavy metal. I’m running out of superlatives this week, but this is an astonishingly good record!


volumeChewing Gun – -volume- (avant-rock)

$0 DD album

Chaos, grooves and mental noises abound on this record, which freely plunders the treasuries of several musical traditions; its primary materials come from rock and electronica, but the methods of those zones of practice are not always applied in predictable ways. Atmospheric, minor mode soundscapes co-exist with juddering sonic cut-ups and disorientating cross-rhythms; creative processing transforms ostensibly straightforward passages of melodic rock into threatening and perplexing riddles; samples lend gnomic significance to otherwise atavistic statements of rhythmic intensity. There is a constant dialectic between clarity and grit, not just in the production, but also in the affective landscape described by the music. While Chewing Gun do not make performance and musicianship a central feature of their work, they know how to lay it down hard, particularly in the groove department, using compelling rhythmic hooks to tie together materials that are often abrasive, and verging on atonality, into something that is darkly accessible and entertainingly uncompromising. This is a music full of details, with an almost baroque agglomeration of ideas packed into every song, but the result is always one of creative clarity, and the sound, though sometimes confusing, is never confused. Considerably less aesthetically challenging than many of the other albums I’ve reviewed in this round-up, -volume- is nevertheless a very disciplined and focussed work of art; this is an intensely stirring and comprehensively excellent album.


VTOLDementio 13 – VTOL (electronica)

£0+ DD album

I’ve been following Dementio 13’s career for several years now, which for many artists would mean that I’d heard a couple of albums, but in this case, given how prolific he is, I’ve had the opportunity to hear an exploratory creative journey in great detail. At the most basic level (i.e. a characterisation that will not do justice to the complexity and rigour of the work) this has been an investigation of means to put the ghost into the machine, to fill an almost exclusively electronic music with heart and soul. This is not an aim that has ever been pursued by tacking on axiomatically ‘expressive’ clichés, like guitar solos or histrionic singers, or by attempting to elide the technological nature of his sonic sources, although there have been well integrated contributions from singers and electro-acoustic instruments, and some organic sounding grit. During the course of his investigations Dementio 13 has also collaborated with a variety of artists, under his or their name, or under another aegis, such as the excellent Cwtch, his project with Australian vocalist Marie Craven (also known as Pixieguts), who is also one of the several collaborators that appear on this album. These collaborations have moulded and influenced his practice, but collaboration has become his modus operandi for VTOL, with only three out of fourteen tracks credited exclusively to Dementio 13. What’s immediately notable about this release is that it wears its electro colours proudly, with the confidence to sound unashamedly technological and digital, deriving its expressive power from melody, harmony and rhythm without emulating the timbres of rock, as Dementio 13’s work has at times in the past (he sometimes refers to it as ‘electronic post-rock’). It’s not until around the halfway mark, when we get to the entertaining ‘Alcohol’, a collaboration with Snippet, that we hear a guitar and some singing, and this does not become a feature; ‘Theme Four’ with virtuoso bassist Alun Vaughan also features some ‘actual’ playing, but in a very low-key way. There is a track with vocals from songwriter Ian Thistlethwaite, but most of the verbal content is in the form of spoken word, from Nita Disaster and Pixieguts. The musical materials are consonant, melodic, even poppy (there are certainly hooks, anyway), but they still invite engagement on a more than superficial level, with complexity emerging in the timbral and textural manipulations which are the mainstay of Dementio 13’s musical practice. Another truly superb record from a consistently forward-looking artist. Top whack malarkey.


CommunionBlack Walls – Communion (drone/ shoegaze)

Pleasence Records PR031 $8.99 CAD DD $21 CAD LP

These five compositions don’t come from a happy place; that’s neither here nor there in terms of their power as music, although it obviously colours them affectively, but they do come from a position of intensity, an emotional extreme, and that is relevant. Technique is not just instrumental facility, or compositional erudition, but it is also the capacity to pour a feeling into an utterance; when emotional intensity is accompanied by an adequate technique, remarkable things can happen. Communion is as much about the absence of its ostensible subject as its presence, and it is a statement made from a very exposed and isolated emotional locus; it sounds as though its author was right out there on a limb when he wrote and recorded the music, and clearly that extremity of experience inspired him. I don’t mean that in the commonplace and frankly lazy way the term is usually employed, that it ‘gave him some ideas’, but that it gifted him with the tools to build a vessel for his subjectivity at precisely the moment his identity could no longer contain it. I’m not speculating in a total vacuum here; when this album was submitted it came with a terse and gnomic account of its conception, and an invitation to enquire further. I didn’t, as I prefer to treat review submissions on the terms on which I receive them, but when I listened to the striking and powerful music it contains, these few words led me to the understanding I’ve outlined above. The music owes something to drone and doom, but it is very quiet, both in character and amplitude. Things move slowly, but not placidly, not with a sense of calm, but with a sense of being spent; there is a bewildered exhaustion to these songs, as though they were the exhalation that follows some great, draining exertion. There is also, at times, a powerful coherence, and the intimation that their sonorities are rooted in hard-won insights. Simple guitar patterns and slow incantations ooze like viscous liquid; beauty glimmers in the darkness.


Night Of A Thousand CrimesJB Newman & The Black Letter Band – Night Of A Thousand Crimes (rock noir)

£7+ DD

Dark melodrama is the order of the day on Night Of A Thousand Crimes. Where many interesting musicians do things that make the whole question of style a problematic idea, JB Newman & The Black Letter Band take style and make it the whole shplang in their whang. On the one hand this means that their music is extremely stylish, a smoky fusion of rock ‘n’ roll, jump blues and jazz that borrows the dark twang of 60s surf rock and strikes a pose like James Dean (or maybe more like Lou Reed’s metrosexual appropriation on the cover of Transformer). And on the other hand, it means that the significance of the music is articulated as much in its stylistic manipulations and juxtapositions as in its lyrics and melodies. The album is a formal exploration of the atmospheric fumes produced by various combinations of alchemical reagent; when Newman contacted me to request a review he mentioned Quentin Tarantino, Raymond Chandler, David Lynch, ‘backstreet jazz’, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, Motown, garage and The Twilight Zone. These are all quite audible in the band’s pungent sound, as are several of the last half-century’s darker songwriters. The musicianship is faultless, precisely evoking groove and atmosphere with a real sense of purpose, and the lyrics inhabit a mythical territory that renders urban banality as biblical epic. Newman’s vocals are the absolute heart of the album, however, striking a hugely charismatic balance between passionate commitment and hokey mannerism. This is an extremely intelligent and massively entertaining record, that seems not to take itself seriously enough to pack the punch it does. Truly splendid.


Love Or HateVA – Love Or Hate (hip-hop)

Strange Gibberish Records $0 DD

A Strange Gibberish compilation is a hard thing to summarise. This is about as independent and below-the-radar as hip-hop gets; I’m sure there’s more than a few contributors who would eagerly grab some profile and cash-flow, but none of them are chasing it by any means beyond making the best music they know how, and their outsider status leaves them free to make it exactly as they feel it. There’s some serious creativity on display here, in both production and emceeing, and a heavy dose of switched-on satirical humour. Of course I’m generalising, because there’s a huge diversity of artists and approaches on the album, and by no means everything is meant to be funny; but truly humourless work, like much of the slimy self-love that passes for mainstream hip-hop, is always a sign of insecurity. These artists know they’re being true to their creative vision, and it shows, in the catholic embrace of their enthusiasms and in the total lack of self-aggrandisement. In fact, everything that’s shit about commercial hip-hop is missing: there’s no valorisation of violence, no sexual commodification, no money-worship, and no tired clichés trotted out by way of nods to the tradition. Instead there’s a dazzling array of references and sonic erudition, groove and texture, sincerity and humour. I mainly listen to UK hip-hop, and I pay no attention at all to what’s happening commercially (seriously, I haven’t even heard of anyone famous since the mid 90s), but Strange Gibberish and their allied label SassBologna are my links to the music’s homeland (notwithstanding the odd British voice on this release). Here’s evidence of just how much talent and creativity is out there, almost invisibly getting on with being talented and creative, just because it wants to. There’s an incredibly high standard of work on this compilation, and it’s free. Totally ace.


Le Poison Qui Rend FouPresent – Le Poison Qui Rend Fou (avant-rock)

Cuneiform Records RUNE 383/384 $13.99 DD $23.10 2CD

Bearing in mind the amount of time, effort and creative energy invested in this album, its story is one of epic tragedy. Music of this complexity is not easily conceived, and once written, preparing it for performance or recording is a monumental task; I’ve spent just enough time working on music that is just challenging enough (i.e. not much and not very, by these standards) to have some intimation of exactly how difficult this music must be to play, and to remember. When the album was nearly completed, the record company executive responsible for financing it went missing, and completely abandoned the project in the middle of planning for a major tour in support of its release; the impact on the other people involved was huge, and Roger Trigaux, the band’s principal composer and guitarist, was deeply disillusioned by the experience, eventually divesting himself of his instrument and taking an extended sabbatical from music-making. The album saw release two years later, when a fan sent a tape of the sessions to Cuneiform Records, who originally released it in 1985, but the first incarnation of the ensemble had been permanently derailed. Had they received the necessary support to continue as a functioning unit… well, it’s pointless to speculate, but I’m sure the world lost some truly extraordinary music as a result. It’s a thankless task making ‘funny music’ at the best of times, as there is absolutely no correlation between effort and reward (other than creative satisfaction). This re-mastered re-release is a wonderful package, accompanying the studio sessions with some electrifying live recordings from around a year earlier, and some rare video footage of the early Present in concert. Present play rock music inasmuch as it is arranged for drum kit, electric bass, electric guitar and keyboards, but the harmonic and melodic materials of which the it is composed are firmly situated in the avant-garde wing of European twentieth-century Classical music. It is terrifying, exhilarating and enlightening in equal measure, and performed at an incredible level of musicianship. This is music of outstanding intellectual and aesthetic self-discipline, animated by an iron will and an uncompromising artistic vision, and performed to the very highest imaginable standards of precision and expressivity. It requires commitment from its audience, but that’s only fair, as it required an unreasonable amount of the same from its creators, and the rewards for close, open-minded listening are remarkable. Quite honestly, I think this is about as good as it gets.


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