Golden Diskó Ship – Invisible Bonfire (avant-pop)
Spezialmaterial Records SM046CD026, 2014, DD CD & LP album, 48m 17s
€8+ DD €10+ CD €20+ LP
Golden Diskó Ship drop the listener immediately into a vast reverberant space, in which percussion thuds like a carpenter’s mallet and sweet vocal melodies drift tentatively into scene… Thus begins ‘These thoughts will never take shape’, and indeed there is barely time for the music’s forms to register in the ear before they shift into something else: we are presented with a kind of deconstructed pop song, in which elements are presented serially, in isolation… Until, eventually, around halfway through, after an upper register surf-guitar figure has been presented on the song’s conveyer belt, they come together as the layers of a spacey, psychedelic pop texture. Eventually the guitar comes to predominate, but not until it’s been made very clear that it’s no more than an element in the palette. Many of these songs are, in fact, built around guitar parts, and have a feel reminiscent of some of the late 60s’ more far-out moments, but the production is more diffuse and disorientating than most records of that era, psychedelia having been above all a commercial music genre, and many of its distinctive electro-acoustic tropes being artifacts of the epoch’s limited audio technologies. Most of the sounds on Invisible Bonfire are highly processed and warped in some way, and the album comes across as much like a work of experimental sound-design as it does a collection of musical entertainments. But in the midst of these explorations are two anchor points, that broaden this music’s appeal considerably beyond the realms of abstract sound-art. One is the consistent use of stylistic referents, particularly in the droning, modal guitar playing, that point directly to a specific locus of cool, that historical and cultural moment where abstract- and pop-art collided with rock music for the first time in places such as Robert ‘Groovy Bob’ Fraser’s London gallery or Andy Warhol’s New York Factory. The other is the consistently appealing and accessible shape of the melodies and beats, that shoots a seam of bright, carefree shimmer through the weft of what might otherwise be a predominantly dark fabric. I don’t intend to imply that the album is creatively stuck in the past: there are many elements that definitively post-date the late 60s, such as the heavy synth-bass that cuts in dramatically halfway through ‘Movie theatre’, or the chittering electronic glitter of ‘Little stream’; the approach to production is also much freer, benefitting as it does from decades of intense development in fields as diverse as Krautrock and hip-hop. But there’s a sense in which the album stays true to an earlier vision, as though it were Golden Diskó Ship’s mission to place those resources by proxy into the hands of psychedelia’s pioneering musicians. Nor is this a contextually isolated practice, and much of this work is as closely related to ongoing musical discourses as it is to that musical history, growing in soil that is fragrant with the ambient tradition, with American freak-folk, with the fraying edges of electronic dance music, and other fertile territories. Most of all, this is ‘all-over’ music, where the melodic or rhythmic materials, the instrumental textures, the formal structures, the performance aesthetics, the sonic and timbral details are integrated completely into a single stream of sound. Its atmospheres are spatial, oneiric, awash with dappled fields of colour and swaying with hypnagogic drift, but its textures are not reduced to an indistinct blur: on the contrary, Invisible Bonfire is a feast of detail and invention, an only partially cloud-veiled world, with surface features coming into focus with startling clarity as it rotates below us.
Roughneck Riot – Out Of Anger (folk-punk)
TNS Records TNS039, DD CD & LP album, 46m 20s
£6+ DD £7 CD £10 LP
There are other bands, at least one of them very famous, that have fused melodic punk-rock with British folk music, but it’s still far from commonplace, and Roughneck Riot make a sound that is anything but generic. Their ensemble impact is raw and powerful, with rich, full-range guitars and deep, driving bass supported by Tez Walker with drumming that is almost orchestral in its scope; and despite the ragged edge to the music, both performance and production values evince extremely high professional standards. That slickness and precision is what allows them to bridge the gap between folk and punk so successfully: the acoustic instruments sit very comfortably in the mix, floating above the guitar with total clarity, but without robbing it of any of its power. And the clean, clear, integrated mix emphasises melody over noise, whether it’s supplied by Matty Humphries’ vocals, the full-voiced chords of Chris Green’s guitar, Humphries’ mandolin, Caitlin Costello’s banjo, Samuel Bell’s accordion, or even Ryan Taylor’s propulsively motile bass. Although the whole sound seems quite straightforward, the arrangements are crafted with impressive attention to detail, their constituent parts winding sinuously together, their rhythms dovetailed in ways that are often creatively surprising, although they are never anything but engaging and easy to feel. The songs have a rabble-rousing feel to them, and the punk arrangements bring out the subversive fire of the traditional-style melodies, putting me as much in mind of The Bothy Band as The Levellers, despite the more obvious comparisons that could be made. The music invites participation and communality, and it has an unmistakeable political heft to it, but the lyrical approach is far from obvious, often preferring a metaphorical conceit or an experiential account to the head-on presentation of an ‘issue’. Out of Anger sounds to me to be more concerned with celebration than with critique, although the title’s double meaning points to both, and songs do touch on ideas such as the alienated purgatory of the voiceless (‘Each Man’s Hell’), or the uncertainty of life as a cog in the capitalist machine (‘The Last of Us’). Roughneck Riot’s positivity is most evident in the irresistible vigour of their ensemble playing, although lyrics like ‘Resistance’, or the hunt-sab paean ‘This Green Unpleasant Land’ present a distinct sense of pride in the radical underground, in partial contrast to the exhausting anger that has animated most punk music for most of its forty-year history. There is certainly anger in this music, as the title makes clear, but, as it also implies, there is a great deal of emotional energy left to continue the struggle when anger hits its buffers. Here’s a band of striking creative clarity, who have not only got a fantastic, unique idea for a sound, but who have also got the skills to realise it completely. It’s hard to imagine how they could do a better job of it.
Sven Kacirek – The Nutcracker Sessions (experimental)
Naïve LC00540, DD & CD album, 48m 3s
€9.99 DD £10.09+ CD
This album is clearly born of a deep-seated affection for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. This is the sort of classical work that people grow up with, learning to love in the same way that people love Dickens; it’s the kind of music that, for many, says things like ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘Christmas’, ‘comfort’, and so on. Not for me, as I was raised in an atmosphere that regarded any formal music more recent than the seventeenth century with suspicion, and in which all culture of the nineteenth century in particular was held to be completely beyond the pale; but I get it. I understand the special place that the Nutcracker has in many hearts, and given the affection in which it is held in European culture as a whole, I am able to vicariously experience some of the homely warmth it radiates. As such, I can appreciate the way that Sven Kacirek’s recomposition of parts of the suite employs it as a source of aesthetic material, its expositions built around the simple and accessible beauty of Tchaikovsky’s melodies. This is not to say that Romantic aesthetics are accepted uncritically, but they are approached without confrontation, gently subverted to Kacirek’s own creative ends. There are fundamental differences in the way that music is understood between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first, although it might be argued that all theorisations are available in parallel today. Kacirek’s practice certainly draws on a different well from Tchaikovsky’s, which was founded on the conventional model of the heroic creative ego, with the melody as his surrogate, the central rhetorical thrust to which all other elements of the music are in service. This music is structured rather differently, and usually its central meanings are to be found in its textures: a combination of tuned and untuned percussion creates fields of sound and washes of colour from rapid, precise repetitions and ostinati. Melody is distinct, but it does not rise above its setting in the same manner as the subject of a portrait; instead it contributes its beauty to the whole, one sequence of signification among many. Such a methodology is familiar to me from the other recordings of Kacirek’s that I’ve heard, and he is not bound by any misplaced sense of reverence for his source material.
Different pieces from the suite are approached in different ways. ‘Arabian Dance’ takes the original as a point of departure for a wide-ranging percussion exploration, and we are a good way in before we hear an unequivocal statement of the melody; a modest string arrangement helps to recreate the delicate melodic shades of the source. ‘Pas De Deux’ is stripped of its bombastic drama for a delicate, but highly kinetic reinterpretation, whose increasingly syncopated stress patterns still recall the warmth and pomp of Tchaikovsky’s piece. In ‘Chinese Dance’ slinky syncopations displace the springy rhythms, with the tempo slowed to accommodate them; the atmosphere remains almost as light as the original, but with a more pronounced melancholy. ‘Trepak’ sounds, of all these pieces, the closest to a straight re-orchestration for percussion. ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ feels to me to be the core of the album, as central here as the original is in people’s recollections of the Nutcracker, and as the fairy’s dance is to the ballet: the piece of music itself is a rather insubstantial element of Tchaikovsky’s suite, but Kacirek imbues his piece with a compelling combination of ethereality and power, and outlines a complex affective narrative. The centrality accorded to this relatively brief source piece is really the key to Kacirek’s work as I understand it: this is a response to The Nutcracker rather than a re-orchestration, or even a re-interpretation. The title, The Nutcracker Sessions, suggests that the album should be heard more as the record of a process rather than the realisation of a composition, a sense reinforced by the understated clicks that bookend it, as though switching the recording on and off. This music is to be heard as the product of a particular time and place, it seems, aimed more at presenting what the experience of The Nutcracker is and has been for Kacirek than at re-casting it creatively or technically. And for this reason, the effect is not dissimilar to that of the original; it is an uncontroversially pleasant listen, full of pretty sounds and immersive atmosphere, for all that it is also an extremely sophisticated, nuanced and accomplished work of art.
Philip Lynch – At The Start / At Long Last (singer-songwriter)
Workbench Recordings WBR101, DD & LP album, 32m 33s
$7+ DD $16 LP
I’m pleased to have experienced this record as a 12” slab of black vinyl, both for its electro-acoustic properties (warmth, and more warmth) and for the associations it carries, the whole ritual significance of the physical ‘putting on’ of a recording. I don’t buy into any notions of ‘authenticity’, an idea which has, in my view, had a toxic effect on creativity in music; but I value sincerity, and the idea that music is something we should stop and pay attention to, rather than something that simply decorates the passage of time, is one which appeals to me. The production values of At The Start / At Long Last, for which we must thank the consistently creative James Beaudreau, invite us to ascribe value to each element of the recordings on their own terms, rather than packaging them up into a smoothly normalised, sweetly compressed rhetorical package. A distinct tubby bass sound, clear guitars, crisp drums and very subtly treated vocals, are bound together by the rules of rhythm and harmony rather than by digital artifice: such an approach is easy to read as retro, and indeed, the sounds and stylistic devices employed here are all at least thirty-five years old (in the case of the New Wave sounding ‘Unwind’ and ‘Breathing’). But thirty-five, fifty or a hundred years are an eyeblink in the history of culture, and to regard this music as old-fashioned or backward looking would be to miss the point entirely. Philip Lynch is not looking back to the ‘good old days’, or offering a contemporary take on Bob Seeger’s revoltingly conservative ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’; he’s using a set of stylistic materials, ranging from folk, through roots-rock to New Wave, which won’t get in the way. The language is well established, he knows it really well, and he can be reasonably confident that we do too. These songs are of the sort that straddle the boundary between music and poetry, lyrically nuanced, exploring human experience through ambiguous themes, and literary, character-based writing. Lynch does not regard himself as a font of wisdom, and he does not have a shopping-list of insights and issues he’s determined to feed us; the album feels more like someone thinking aloud, someone with the good sense to understand that things may be simpler than they appear, but that the answers to difficult questions are never obvious, or fixed. A representation of a disconnect at the heart of a relationship; the ambiguity around sadness and joy; a meditation on personal freedom and responsibility; a tale of a misunderstood free spirit; a determined assertion of individuality; a critique of the mechanisms of social validation… there is no argument here, no forceful agenda, but the territory over which he ranges gradually reveals his interests. This is a man who values the particular over the generic, the committed over the disengaged, the outsider over the herd, the creative over the mechanical, the free over the restricted, and the raw over the cooked. And I hope that I haven’t given the impression the musical components are incidental, or simply a means to an end: the meanings of the individual songs are written deep into the fabric of their melodies and harmonies, while Lynch’s broader concerns are immanent in the overall sonic, stylistic and performance approach. Deep grooves animate the arrangements, welded to shapely, penetrating melodies, often delivered by Beaudreau’s heartbreaking electric guitar. This is a record of precisely circumscribed ambition, as a consequence of which it is able to achieve what few artistic statements can: it resonates precisely with the experience of being human, for this listener at least, and offers, as Chris Ware said of Jon McNaught’s comic Dockwood, a compelling ‘argument … for the beauty of just simply being alive.’ It’s a construction of enormous skill and creative sensitivity, but manages to give the impression of just being, as easy and self-sufficient as a tree. This is music to nourish the soul.