Chris Saunders has released several more albums under the Interceptor rubric since he sent me this one, but he hasn’t submitted them for review, presumably because it’s taken me so long to get to this! I haven’t heard those yet, and this is old news now, but Angel In The Red Room is the first to feature guitar. Saunders is known as a noise-monger, and is responsible for various punk/metal rackets, but The Interceptor is an electronic project, in which he basically composes soundtracks for imaginary films, games and TV shows. It’s done for pure love, but his combination of sweeping atmospherics, rhythmic tension and melodic sincerity is bang on the nail, and this album, like its predecessors, suggests he should really be making a living at this. He just needs to find the right underground science-fiction grindhouse horror director and he’ll be away. Not that the music sounds horrific in itself: it’s very absorbing and accessible, the kind of stuff that can offer a good background to whatever you’re doing, but should you choose to pay attention, will reward you with a wealth of craft and detail. The electric guitar adds another dimension to the music, from palm muted emphases to power a tense build, to full heavy mode for action sequences like ‘Little Deaths’. It also injects a rock aesthetic into the music, which will broaden its appeal. Angel In The Red Room retains the retro-futurist feel of the earlier releases however: Saunders was spurred to begin this project when he swapped a guitar for a geriatric Mac with an antediluvian copy of Reason on it, and that’s where he’s still sourcing his electronic sounds. A restricted palette is a great spur to creativity, and this is some of the most creative post-rock music you’ll hear.
Adversum €22 12”
Twenty years from band formation to debut album release is not a bad gestation period. You’d imagine Manimalism must have it just how they want it at this stage; I can’t really judge that, but they certainly have it how I like it. They are a product of Norway’s legendary black metal scene, but like any ‘scene’, with regard to any good band, the reification of its most prominent artists’ characteristics made too strait a generic jacket to contain this gang of lunatics’ ideas. You can certainly hear the ‘blackness’ (no, not that ‘blackness’, the other ‘blackness’), in their love of dissonance and in their fuzzed-out, discohering guitar sounds, but the melodramatic vocals, which are a little too self-aware to register in the same way as symphonic metal singing, the relative clarity of the textures, and the melodically complex structures of the songs all make them sound like something else. In fact, if the textures were thinned out a little, or the guitars made a little less consistently heavy, they’d fit very happily into the darker, heavier end of the UK’s contemporary avant-prog scene, alongside bands like Thumpermonkey and Godzilla Black. This is a band with a commanding understanding of the resources of rock music, and notwithstanding their obvious affection for many of the stylistic landmarks of rock and metal, a desire to turn them to their own ends, to mark out some new affective territory in the menacing juncture between their ominous, doom-laden harmonies and the mischievous humour that informs the album. I understand that this recording is a faithful document of the band’s earliest material, some of which was originally released on a couple of demos in the 90s; it’s a pretty masterful piece of work, in terms of playing and production, and I look forward to hearing where they’ll go next. If the striking, theatrical and confident songwriting on Manimalism is anything to go by, it’ll be somewhere dark, humorous and very stimulating.
Cuneiform Rune394 $9.99+ DD $16.99+ CD
Silly imprecise terms like ‘avant’ and ‘experimental’ can serve as a rough guide to how weird, original, unconventional or inaccessible a piece of music is, without telling you anything whatever about the music. I put ‘experimental rock’ in brackets after the album title above, for the convenience of lazy readers, to indicate that Verse is a less generically stable work than the sort of things I tend to refer to as ‘avant-rock’, but the fact is that it’s no more or less experimental than the work of any creative artist in rigorous pursuit of their voice, and its only resemblance to rock is that it makes extensive use of an electric guitar. It’s one of the more difficult-to-describe records in this roundup, hence the waffling. Jonathan Badger employs a complex technical set up, triggering samples from his guitar as well as employing its electro-acoustic signal, and mainly works alone, although he has some collaborators on this album. It’s not ‘difficult’ music, as such: much of it is very pretty, like the wafting chords and ethereal vocal lines of ‘Nimbus’, but it may present some challenges to those who like their music to fit easily into established categories. Badger cites both post-rock and Minimalism as areas of interest, and although neither term tells anything like the full story, it is possible to hear both the textural, atmospheric explorations of the former, and the procedural techniques of the latter at various points in the album. Most of the pieces on Verse are essentially solo guitar pieces, structured around chordal patterns, often arpeggiated, but the extent of the signal processing and the extensive use of triggered sounds frequently obscures these origins. To attempt a fuller description would be futile: this is a very idiosyncratic, very beautiful, and intimidatingly rigorous piece of sonic art.
CAD$8+ DD CAD$15+ CDR CAD$30+ CDR limited ed.
Judging from the information on the Bandcamp page for this album, everything that sounds like an acoustic bowed or wind instrument here has been played or programmed from a sample library by Vincent Bergeron. This is no kind of a shortcoming: one of my first questions on hearing his music was ‘where on earth does he find musicians who can play this stuff?’. In terms of both metre and tonality the music on this album is very hard to grasp, and it is a very rare musician that could even attempt to reproduce such seeming randomness with accuracy. The apparent performing resources are those of a small avant-garde chamber ensemble: piano, string quartet (?), sometimes some horns or reeds, some electric and acoustic guitars, some percussion, some declamatory vocalisations. The material, melodically and harmonically, is very dissonant. Whether its dissonance derives from the kind of involuted chromaticism pioneered by Schoenberg, or from the effectively aleatoric intersections of a procedural approach akin to serialism, or from a freer pursuit of dissonance as a positive aesthetic is hard to tell without the pedantry of transcription and analysis, and largely irrelevant to the listening experience. The ‘whole work’ is a tripartite entity, with the album’s lyrical texts drawn from a long poem in French of the same title (which I haven’t read) – although Bergeron specifically states that the music was composed independently and the two combined subsequently – and an animated film (which I haven’t seen). The music can certainly be appreciated without recourse to these companions, although obviously the meaning of any art is contextual, and it may be that I am missing important aspects of Bergeron’s vision. Be that as it may, in common with the earlier Berger Rond recordings I’m familiar with, Même quand ils se fâchaient, on tendait l`oreille pour entendre creates an extremely compelling soundworld, one which challenges the listener to shape their mode of reception to the music rather than the other way round. The sounds do carry clues, in the form of a gestural rhythmic vocabulary, that helped me to form an affective response beyond the obvious tension evoked by the music’s atonality. Full of looping, unresolved cyclicities, and the constant frustration of closure, the album is a feast of invention, a free-associating peregrination that is as brilliant as it is singular.
ECM 2367 £10.21 CD
This album represents the complete fusion, in method and materials, of practices from either side of the jazz/Classical divide. Anja Lechner is a Classical cellist with a long-standing interest in improvisation, and the pianist François Couturier made his bones in the jazz tradition, but his music has been progressively less constrained by the categorical stylistic features of that world. To say that style disappears would be to ideologise these culturally and historically specific sounds, but inasmuch as the two traditions from which these musicians emerge are defined in relation to one another, the music on Moderato cantabile is very hard to situate. The material the duo interpret, other than that written by Couturier, is by composers who, while influential, are very much outsiders, and found their own paths outside the mainstream of European music. Komitas, the founding ethnomusicologist of Armenian music, Mompou the Catalan miniaturist, and the synthesist mystic Gurdjieff, all wrote with great assurance in manners that stood astride the Western art tradition and the exotic Other of their essentialist times. That sense of otherness is largely absent from the album, as any twenty-first century ear has been exposed to a great diversity of sounds, and this music mostly operates within the limits of tonal harmony, but its unfamiliarity (to me, and, I guess, to most listeners) sidesteps the sort of listening habits that can obscure a musician’s creative voice. Close attention to the recording without a historical context for the compositions affords a subtly shaded, gestural aesthetic, the kind of delicate, complex texture that can only be sustained in a duet. There is a deep, involved and involving beauty in both musicians’ sound production, and their union is one of intense mutual listening. A real understanding of the music’s history would doubtless enrich the experience, but as it struck my ears, its penetrating, insightful narrative is very nearly as good as music gets.
Cuneiform Rune397 $9.99+ DD $16.50+ CD
Although drummer Dylan Ryan is clearly the leader of this band (I’m pretty sure his name’s not on the cover for his pop-market bankability), there are few more coherent improvising ensembles recording. Actually, aside from obvious solos, I’m just assuming a strong element of improvisation in this trio: Ryan writes the tunes, but the music has that feel of immediate mutual responsiveness, and all three musicians play their parts with the kind of conviction that signals ‘I own this sound’, in a way that is difficult to emulate if someone else has prescribed every nuance. It’s loose, it’s free, and it’s also supremely disciplined and precise. Stylistically, and in the way it treats its musical materials, the band sits at a comfortable midpoint between jazz and rock, with a sophisticated command of harmony that nevertheless evinces a preference for simplicity. Players who are into jazz, and also into rock, tend towards a limited understanding of one world or the other, usually the former, but these musicians follow rock into its subterranean hideouts, clearly as familiar with sludge, doom and drone as they are with Hendrix or McLaughlin. This is an understanding that expands their expressive toolbox enormously: jazz musicians tend to be limited by their material resources, and only the most extraordinary improvisers can produce a tsunami of sound to rival the power marshalled by a band like Earth. Sand exhibit an extraordinary range here, from the most delicate lyricism, through earthy groove, to frothing, geologic fury. They offer nuanced, subtle performances in all three modes, and show a capacity to position themselves precisely and stably at any point on the continuum between them. This album is an emotionally involving, blisteringly powerful tour-de-force, showcasing an extraordinary level of musical awareness and instrumental skill.
Bad Elephant Music £5+ DD £10+ CD
Trojan Horse are another band with range. Dynamics are one thing… from sprightly, mischievous melodicism to apocalyptic volcanism, but there’s much more to them than that. Stylistically they touch base with classic prog without succumbing to its self-indulgence, or its uncritical acceptance of mainstream musical values; they are also far more willing to incorporate the odd and disturbing into their music than many of the cape-and-fireworks brigade. This is not to say that the music on World Turned Upside Down is predominantly atonal or inaccessible, but the band’s creativity is untrammelled by any fear of the strange, and they frequently sound as indebted to American hardcore or the weird world of pronk as they do to the bombast of old school prog. They also have a liking for rhythmic displacements and deliberately awkward stress patterns of the sort favoured in math rock, although their orchestration is a level of complexity beyond anything that could easily be classified as such, and there are many passages in their music which are completely devoid of such strategies. There are an enormous number of textures available to bass, drums, guitar and keyboards, and it is in the extent to which they realise that potential that Trojan Horse really shine here: the credits for this album suggest a particularly creative and democratic environment, with every member recording on guitar, keyboards or both, whatever else they may play as well. Every texture is bespoke, individually tailored to the song, and the arrangements are so full of variety that they glitter with unpredictability. For all that, this album bases its appeal on a pretty traditional set of musical values: shapely tunes, charismatic vocal delivery and strong grooves. These are not pop songs, and there is a great deal of psychedelic swirling, but there is no pointless noodling: every element here is in the music because its authors love it, but it is also there for sound structural reasons. Every recording is crafted in such detail and complexity that repeated listening just continues to reveal more and more of it. Brilliantly conceived, dementedly creative, and beautifully performed, this album is definitely top-whack malarkey.
$12+ DD $20+ 12”
This album opens with the crackling of a vinyl record, which over time will be reclaimed and absorbed by the physical medium, should you purchase it on vinyl, and play it often enough (both of which I would recommend). The loops and drones that accumulate above that base layer are more obviously to be heard as utterances, but the implication is clear enough: the music’s authors do not wish you to seek their personalities in these sounds, but present them as the traces of the material means they have used to create them. There are no structured melodies here, no rhetorical statements of tonal discourse: the second tune’s base layer is the sea, and that is perhaps an even apter metaphor. There is a sense of great calm to this music, constructed as it is from smooth, gentle skeins of guitar sound, stretched, laminated and manipulated into soundscapes that resemble the low hum of a city when all its more immediate noises are stilled. These seven compositions, each quite self-sufficient, but presented together as they are here, all very much of a piece, are the lacunae between signifying events, like the quiet between sirens in a dozing metropolis – and I return to that sense of the urban both because this record is explicitly presented as a paean to its authors’ adopted home of Los Angeles, but also because these ambiences do not, to my ears, have the earthy creak of a somnolent rurality. The sea, which washes against the wharves of many cities, seems more suited to the role of a fundamental background against which these textures and harmonies arise. Although it only appears explicitly at two points on the album, given that these are the only instances of figuration in a recording which otherwise has much in common with the colour-field tendency in abstract expressionism, it stands out as a metaphor for the experience the music offers: in these sounds we can be immersed, cleansed, transported, connected… or drowned. Erik Tokle and David J. Dowling, who together constitute There Is No Teenage Love, do not have things that they wish to say to us, but they have experiences they wish to share; experiences which they have richly imagined and painstakingly constructed. LAHEX is a moving, immersive soundscape, of penetrating beauty and fragile, sometimes heartbreaking humanity.
£5+ DD £10+ 12”
Intricate interlocking parts weave around each other in Contact Fix, sometimes propelling the listener forward with them, and sometimes loitering in a kind of anti-groove, the additive complexities of their phrasing pushing and pulling against the ground beat in such a way that its momentum is unleashed only on Alright The Captain’s warrant. This is music that demands your unceasing attention, punishing any inattentive head-nodding with successive feel changes and inversions of stress pattern: it offers itself up for the sweaty, atavistic communion that is celebrated when committed rock fans come together with their guitar-wielding priesthood, but you must be present at all times, as focussed on the band as they are on the technical demands of the music, or they will leave you behind. And that will be your loss, because these seven songs add up to a journey well worth undertaking. Elephantine heaviness punctuates the album, sometimes thickened with saturated synths reminiscent of industrial rock, but it’s part of a complex vocabulary, or more accurately an inflection of the vocabulary, a syntactic articulation whose function is help create the music’s dense affective signification along its axis of combination. In that sense, Contact Fix takes a more or less diametrically opposite approach to LAHEX, the album reviewed above – and not just in superficial terms of its relative degree of activity and incident: this is a music of the coherently articulated utterance, whose atmospheres are produced through a complex moment-to-moment response. It doesn’t ask its listener to placidly immerse themself in it, but burrows into the listener, forcing idea after geometrically perplexing idea into their frontal lobes. It’s not aggressively dissonant or arrhythmic, and each tune revolves around a solid tonal centre, so it’s not hard to stay with it, but it requires the active participation of its audience. The reward for that involvement is a sound that addresses the listener as a whole human being, emotional, intellectual and physical: there is (to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 3:4-14) a time to cry and a time to laugh, a time to stroke your chin and a time to sway, a time to headbang and a time not to headbang. Basically, Contact Fix is a time to enjoy some beautifully crafted, extremely individual, and viscerally exciting rock music.
In the several years since I became aware of Heidi Harris she has been a prolific releaser of recordings, in a bewildering array of incarnations and collaborations, although her creative practice has always remained a recognisable thread, and it’s been a pleasure to follow her through so much growth and change. Two of the tunes on this release are also to be found on a Knife Thrower’s Assistance EP I’ve coincidentally been listening to lately, which gives me the opportunity to hear how Harris’ material fares with different sets of collaborators. The answer, roughly, is that it retains a very clear compositional identity, but that she does not squander the opportunity to make some new music. This is one of her great strengths as an artist, that she keeps worrying away at the same concerns, and she keeps finding new and creative ways to approach them: for many musicians, artistic growth means trying a lot of disparate things in series, but there’s a real sense of direction here. Harris is exploring, and this, in the company of this team of intrepid companions, is how far she’s got: Go To Stay is her missive back home. With the solid electric bass contributed by Alex Busi and Marbar the music on this album sounds something like rock at times, which is a departure, and brings a new level of bodily engagement to a practice that can often lean toward the ethereal. The ethereal is still present, I’m glad to say, in the drifting glimmers that introduce ‘The Weight’ for instance, and there has always been a rootedness to Harris’ music, but now she has added an emphatic, earthy thump to her palette, which extends her affective range. The music here takes the stylistic materials of Americana as a point of departure, and depart it does, into lo-fi experimental soundscapes, happy accidents and fortuitous concretions, that I hesitate to call psychedelic because it is so much its own thing, and I don’t want to take any lazy shortcuts towards the language that might describe it. At times we are in clearly experimental, disorientating ambient spaces, and at others we are in very clearly structured songs, but I always get the impression that both poles of Harris’ practice are striving towards the same thing: to forge a listening experience that is as unique and unpredictable as life. Go To Stay is a beautiful, unique and genuinely progressive piece of work.
Cuneiform Rune404 $10+ DD $16.50+ CD $25+ 12”
According to this band’s drummer and guiding light, David J. Smith, the term ‘obscure knowledge’ is intended to refer to the understandings achieved through ritual (possibly under the influence of psychoactive plants) in some native American cultures. This seems to offer a good angle on the music, which certainly does not withhold its meanings, but offers them up willingly, in all their terrifying, world-changing glory. Without Smith’s clarification, the title suggest the occult, the arcane, the dusty tomes and learned procedures of ritual magick, but the music is more visceral than that, an ego-crushing death-trip that unifies the nihilistic abandon of The Stooges, the Odin-eyed intensity of Earth and the fuliginous erudition of Univers Zero. This is a music of truth through experience, of illumination through physical ordeal, an emetic astrogen offering the reality of flight for the trivial cost of… everything you hold dear. There is only one way to know the meanings of which this music is the vehicle, and that is to hear it. This is probably more head-bangingly heavy, and more riff-orientated than earlier Guapo releases (although I’m not good at rigorously revisiting back catalogue before I write reviews). It takes an ominous approach to tonality, but features extended outbreaks of stability, around which other musical elements swirl like the exploding gases at the event horizon of a black hole – Kavus Torabi’s repeated single note at the end of ‘Obscure Knowledge [Part I]’ is one of the most powerful pieces of guitar playing that I can recall hearing, and is more terrible in its singleness than any of the album’s excursions into atonality (of which there are several). Obscure Knowledge is not all riffs and fury, of course: there are extended passages of drone, drifting skeins of colour and atmosphere that are every bit as powerful as its most metal moments, and there are sequences of obsessive repetition, as though the band had made a pact to elicit an intensity of musical significance from a given figure, and they have exhausted all means to do so except to hammer it until its affective juices bleed out. Needless to say, they always do. The album also features some uncontroversially tonal, minor key chord sequences, such as the big riff at Part III’s central crescendo, and it’s in this capacity to outline contrasts that its real genius resides. Dynamic, textural, timbral and affective gradients are exploited to the full, not in the obvious melodrama of the sudden volte-face, but in a complex layering of all the elements of the music: the album’s three sections are as sophisticated and as complex as they are visceral and devastating. This is music with real range, an album of extraordinary, spine tingling power, and a striking musical accomplishment.
A lot of music sounds the same. This is noticeable in all styles and traditions, but in progressive rock (as in jazz) there’s a kind of ‘virtuosity floor’, on which many musicians settle: an over-reliance on virtuosic display leads many artists to adopt the kind of musical language that affords such display, in a generic performance of competence and rectitude. This contributes to the generic tropes of the style, which many second string creators adopt uncritically. There are several options for the artist who wishes to bypass or critique this received vocabulary: adopting a self-consciously avant-garde tonal or rhythmic language is one; another is to de-emphasise virtuosity in favour of songwriting, or noise-making, or whatever comes to hand, within the audible boundaries of your chosen style. Among the hardest approaches is to throw still more virtuosity at the problem, to play yourself out of the bind. That’s pretty much what O.R.k. do: they don’t overtly reject the tropes of prog, but rather than allowing those conventions to guide their utterances, they turn them to their own creative ends, and apply themselves with rigour and jouissance to the perpetual question, ‘what shall we play next?’ Their music is dark, humorous and unpredictable, and its textures evince as close attention paid to timbre and soundscape as to groove or melody. The band includes prog luminaries Pat Mastelotto and Colin Edwin in the engine house, but their less well-known front-of-stage comrades Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari on vocals and Carmelo Pipitone on guitar are clearly just as accomplished as anyone you’ve heard of. There is a lot of technical challenge in this material, but that is never the creative thrust of it, and it is often a question of just how well-realised it is, rather than that it is realised at all: crunchy, powerful riffs, intricate rhythmic interplay, copper-bottomed grooves, menacing minor melodies, shifting atmospheric soundscapes, instrumental finesse and ambiguous lyrical themes are deployed with casual aplomb, artistic self-awareness and a well-developed sense of fun. Inflamed Rides is the work of masters.