Richard Pinhas and Yoshida Tatsuya – Welcome In The Void (avant-rock)
Cuneiform Records, Rune 391, 2014, DD & CD album, 1h 8m 13s
$9.99+ DD $16.50+ CD
Richard Pinhas and Yoshida Tatsuya are legendary figures in the French and Japanese experimental rock scenes, respectively. ‘Experimental’ is a term that implies a bit of diversity, and the projects they’ve been involved with have covered quite a range of approaches, so there is nothing predictable about this record, and nor would there have been, whatever it sounded like. Pinhas is a guitarist with a penchant for live looping technology, which he uses here to create shimmering skeins of sound rather than hard-edged rhythmic repetitions, mutating colour fields with texturally filigreed surfaces and pelagically roiling depths. He uses quite pronounced distortion, which takes the music into the fringes of noise, but it is soft and warm, amniotically inviting rather than harsh or aggressive; it is from the ebb and flow of the noise, the pulsations in its granular texture, that the rhythms of the music emerge. When artists expend so much of their creative effort on the manipulation of timbre it can be hard or impossible to associate specific sounds on a recording with specific practices or sound sources, so Tastsuya’s percussion may well be contributing to the texture from the outset, but it is not until around ten minutes into the main piece (there is a four minute introductory composition and an hour long ‘core’ piece) that anything identifiable as the work of a drummer can be heard. Once the drums do enter they quickly identify their player as a virtuoso, although his performance is not a litany of licks and fills; it is a confection of polyrhythmic texture building, from which it is sometimes difficult to extract a ground beat, while at other times its pulsing regularity couldn’t be more apparent. Rhythmic utterance is not distinct from timbral manipulation in Tatsuya’s playing, and the more active his statements become the more they sound as organically complex sonic surfaces, analogous to Pinhas’ soundscapes. The piece as a whole (after the clattering fanfare of ‘Part One – Intro’) is an epic narrative, characterised by long slow builds of dynamic intensity, timbral complexity, and textural density. There are several peaks and troughs during the course of the performance (which I am assuming to have been an improvisation, at least to be built around one), but each one seems to be in new territory, as though the listener were travelling through a mountain range and discovering a variety of landscapes. The sound has something in common with drone music, its long tones and continuities inviting a kind of detached close listening that imbues all events with pronounced dramatic weight; Pinhas’ guitar offers extended sheets of distortion, chiming chords, melodic motifs, all the things, in fact, one would expect from a rock guitarist, but with all of the clichés stripped away, and no identifiable hierarchy of value among his means of signification. Tonality is stable with an identifiable, unchanging point of rest, but is is somehow indeterminate nevertheless, audibly irrelevant to the central meanings of the work. Pinhas and Tatsuya present us with a work that is territorial rather than discursive, a landscape rather than a statement, and as a place to be it is extremely rewarding. These are two musicians with enormous experience and creative focus, bringing a considerable degree of skill and wisdom to the making of their art; the results are remarkable.
Hi Fiction Science – Curious Yellow (avant-rock)
Esoteric Antenna EANTCD 1010, 2014, DD & CD album, 38m 38s
£7.11 DD £10.95 CD
Hi Fiction Science bring together an interesting range of influences; according to their publicity material their early performances were reminiscent of motorik and Kosmische music, and although Krautrock would not necessarily spring to mind as a direct stylistic touchstone on listening to this, their sophomore album, it is full of the uncontrived psychedelia and timbral creativity that are that era’s legacy to the underground. Long, relatively unvarying, rhythmically measured textures provide a setting to vocal melodies that draw principally on the English folk tradition, in both contour and delivery. In fact, Maria Charles’ vocal style is almost enough to make the band come across as a folk-rock act, despite the lack of any other obviously folky elements. I tend to be pretty much out of the loop regarding ‘movements’ and ‘scenes’ in contemporary music (there’s too many of them to keep up with, and why would you bother, unless you were concerned with constructing the kind of spurious narratives about ‘important’ and ‘influential’ art that have made mainstream critical writing a useful brand of apologia for the political and economic elite?); so I couldn’t tell you anything much about this band’s immediate context, but I can say that there seems to be a huge variety of creatively inventive practices on the rock fringe these days, and Curious Yellow is an album that seems to me to be timely and relevant, in terms of that ongoing aesthetic discourse. The recordings collected here are long on atmosphere, and very short on generic gestures, although Hi Fiction Science do employ established phraseologies as their basic building blocks; however, there is no technical ostentation, and no unthinking reproduction of tropes or clichés. It’s definitely rock, and it is neither stylistically nor formally transgressive; but it presents its material with an uncontrived commitment to sonic character and emotional impact similar to that found in the crust-sludge-doom axis of underground rock, the important distinction being that there are a lot of similar sounding bands in that world, and I’ve never heard anything that sounds quite like Hi-Fiction Science. The music is progressive and inventive, composed and arranged with creative rigour, performed with great musicianship and pretty much devoid of bullshit. It’s not particularly complex from a formal perspective, but Curious Yellow manages to say a lot more, and to marshall a great deal more emotional power, than much more complicated rock music often does. The recordings come across like the work of a performing unit, rather than as studio constructions, with instrumental interactions and group dynamics built into the very fabric of the songs. It’s a beautiful, moving album, and an exceptional creative achievement.
Louise Petit – Louder Than Your Drum (Americana)
self released, 2014, DD & CD album, 49m 47s
£8+ DD £10+ CD
There’s a sense of freedom evinced by self-aware musicians that are completely secure in their ability to play the music they’re playing: it comes out in all aspects of their sound production, in subtly interactive dynamic shadings, in precise modulations of instrumental timbre, in nuanced and unpredictable variations of phrasing, and in all kinds of delicate mutations designed to make each note absolutely specific to the musical and lyrical meanings of each moment. Louise Petit writes lovely, sincere songs, with enough musical sophistication to make their affect bespoke, and enough simplicity to speak directly to almost any listener; but it’s the mutual solidarity, finely tuned ensemble textures and rhythmic security that she and her accompanists bring to the material that generate the sense of clarity, of beautiful, glimmering lucidity that suffuses Louder Than Your Drum. The songs employ the harmonic language and stylistic vocabulary of the ‘Great American Songbook’, specifically that part of it whose spiritual home is Nashville (and Topanga Canyon); primary triads are the meat and potatoes, and more exotic chords are skillfully employed to lend them weight, and to guide the melodies to their conclusions with a satisfying sense of inevitability. As a record this sounds more like a ‘band album’ than a ‘songwriter album’, the core trio of singer/guitarist/ukulelist Petit, Russ Sargeant on bass, and Tim Heymerdinger on percussion lending a sense of consistency and coherence which makes the whole collection of recordings into something that is very clearly a single creative utterance. All three know exactly what to do, and whatever my philosophical reservations may be regarding a sense of certainty (it’s nice, but it’s always illusory), their capacity, like professional tennis players, to place each note precisely, with exactly the right spin on it, offers the listener an experience that is unequivocally supportive. There are not very many surprises on the larger scale (no sudden outbreaks of distortion or dissonances – although the shouted argument that opens ‘Never To Return’ made me think the neighbours were at it for a moment), but there is a constant stream of unpredictable incident on the finer scale; where and how each element will land in the sequence of sounds that makes up each song is subject to the moment-to-moment discretion of the players, both supporting and extemporaneously determining the meanings of the compositions as they unfold. The arrangements feature a number of subtle complements to the core line up, some keyboards, some strings, even a choir on ‘Louder Than Your Drum’, but the sound is always the sound of the band. There’s some sadness in the songs, some regret, but a feeling of optimism is ever-present; there’s not much challenge to the listener as such, but that’s not what Louise Petit is about, and the music is far from generic. This is nourishing, generous art; granted, you have to pay for your copy, but it’s a gift.
Led Bib – The People In Your Neighbourhood (jazz)
Cuneiform Records, Rune 378, 2014, DD & CD album, 1h 12m 28s
$9.99+ DD $16.50+ CD
Led Bib are not completely out on a limb with their forward looking brand of modern jazz: there are other acts (not solely British acts led by drummers) focusing on contrapuntal, rhythmically focussed arrangements, liberating themselves from the constraints of Lydian-chromatic harmony, and looking stylistically towards popular music forms subsequent to those of the 1930s and 40s which continue to inform the mainstream of jazz to this day. But this group is one of the most prominent proponents of such approaches, and The People In Your Neighbourhood will have been eagerly awaited by those with a finger on the pulse of contemporary improvised music (whatever that is – personally I don’t have my finger on anything, as I think there are far too many pulses going on to treat anything as canonical). The music is performed by a reasonably ‘jazz’ line-up of twin altos plus a rhythm section, but it’s constructed from the girders and concrete of rock, planting its feet on the pulse with a resounding thud rather than bouncing off in the (by now clichéd) spring-heeled manner of the mainstream. This is not to say that Led Bib is disconnected from the tradition: there’s a great deal of good old fashioned hard blowing, and the phraseologies deployed by the players are recognisable; I’d have to know this band a hell of a lot better to know which alto is which, but one of them isn’t above quoting A Love Supreme in ‘This Roofus’, to pick one of many examples at random. However, the old stylistic barricades have long fallen, and this is a band that clearly understands what’s good about rock music. The approach taken on this album is not to produce forbiddingly outlandish sounds, and doesn’t feel overly avant-garde, although I would guess that latter term is appropriate; but what Led Bib do, with great originality and flair, is to create a fusion of methodologies. Fusions of style have been all the rage for a while now, but while it’s easy enough to bolt some metal riffs onto some rap, for example, such fusions often have limited creative potential (witness the once magnificent Ozomatli’s descent into generic latin rock). A fusion of methodologies between jazz and rock, which bridges the key characteristics of a commitment to probing exploration in improvisation on one hand, and the aggressively propulsive trance of the riff on the other, has historically gone mainly the other way, giving rise to the predominantly American jam-band movement pioneered by such acts as The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band. Led Bib are, as I said, not unique in this, but what they do extremely well is to fuse the sensibilities and approaches of both worlds, combining the freedom and flexibility of an improvising ensemble with the sheer headbanging impetus of rawk. This is not beetle-browed, thuggish music, but is as rhythmically and melodically sophisticated, as dynamically sensitive and as intelligently orchestrated as any (or most) jazz that you’ll hear anywhere. The album has a celebratory, playful feel, for the most part, although it has a broad emotional range, and is an exemplar for the sincere and un-flashy deployment of highly developed technique. In a world where rock itself has been liberated from the requirement to present its ideas in song format, this music speaks to the expectations of an audience that is no longer constrained to like either rock or jazz, folk or reggae, hip-hop or bossa. However, this is much more than the paragon of a new musical open-mindedness; it’s the work of a band that just happens to live in that world, and plays and writes with consummate skill, commitment and creative generosity.