Max Uhlich – Hakiko (avant-folk)
$10+ CAD CD $0+ CAD DD
Abject and lonesome mid-fi folk, that drifts across the field of consciousness like a progession of washed-out, dusty photographs, before it becomes quite heavy and ominous towards the end of the album, and finishes with an unlikely cover of ‘Twerk’. One of Uhlich’s Bandcamp tags is ‘devotional’, and there is a sense of outsider ritual about this music, as though a set of the personal habits that make an individual were reified as doctrine: the songs are about something, certainly, but it feels like Uhlich is singing meaning to himself as much as he is singing meanings to us. Songs unfold at a steady pace, with static or slow-moving harmonies, unveiling impressions of unsettled anxiety, as honest as they are ambiguous. ‘Alone you cannot find God/ two persons are needed’ we are informed in ‘Niko’s Song’, but there is little sense that other person is any easier to find. Max Uhlich is grappling uncertainly (and with some humour) with big issues: as the theatre of his grapplings, Hakiko offers an involving and curiously touching experience.
Troy Meadows – Vol. III: Love Songs For Astronomers (avant-pop)
It’s hard to say what Troy Meadows is getting at: he’s probably getting at all sorts of things, but his way of getting at them is more readily grasped than the topics of his rather gnomic songs. This unconventional music is sadly humorous in affect, and seems to speak of a deep darkness, not necessarily as something threatening, but as something that just is – the background to experience. This is, of course, entirely appropriate to an album that draws on astronomy for its thematic imagery, and in places it is much lighter in tone. The real achievement of Vol. III: Love Songs For Astronomers is in the extent to which Meadows has gone to find a uniquely specific approach, tailored precisely to his irreducibly personal meanings. Acoustic guitars swim in lakes of reverb, vocals recede and approach, sometimes intimate, sometimes in huge echoing spaces, sometimes mordantly distorted. Songwriting becomes epigrammatic, and simple refrains are ridden like riffs. This is the real deal.
Dave Russell – Kaleidoscope Concentrate (avant-folk)
Dave Russell is as individual voice as you’re likely to hear. He is variously a writer of outsider SF, erotic poetry, romantic fiction, and songs, a singer, and an acoustic guitarist. In this last endeavour he is a gestural performer, with a vocabulary drawn largely from the English folk tradition – a tradition in which the guitar first appeared during the Second Revival of the mid twentieth century. He also avows a Flamenco influence, visible in his videos, which show a loose-wristed, percussive technique, where each fingertip strikes the strings independently. It resembles the rasgueado technique, but sounds little like Flamenco, being used to produce a rhythmically approximate strummed tremolo, rather than the precise intricacies of that tradition’s tocaores. This is emblematic of Russell’s whole approach, which sits midway between virtuosity and outsider naïveté: his musical compositions, his lyrics, his guitar playing, and his vocal delivery, all show elements of erudite complexity, but eschew the standards of the mainstream, clattering happily through territories usually traversed with circumspection. The songs are humorous and thoughtful, and the whole is beautifully particular.
Soft Machine – Switzerland 1974 (fusion)
Cuneiform RUNE395/396 $25+ CD+DVD
This CD + DVD bundle is a unique live document of Soft Machine’s brief but mind-blowing Alan Holdsworth era. One of few bands to successfully straddle the worlds of pop, rock and jazz, it was only at this point that they could boast an improviser who was truly in the first rank, globally. With Holdsworth’s guitar directing their broadsides they were a ship of the line, and fully deserving of their spot at Montreux in 1974. The performance is a fiery outpouring of fluid, rapid-fire riffs and dervish blowing, although it has its contemplative moments as well; Softs fans know this sound from Bundles, which was recorded shortly after this set, but there is a raw edge here, and hints of Holdsworth’s lunatic intensity, although his playing is mostly ‘inside’. The chance to see this outfit at work is unmissable, but this would be an important release just on audio, being, as it is, a new set from the golden age of fusion, and one that can stand comparison with any of the contemporary releases on which that history is built. The playing here (from all participants) is breathtaking, and the album is altogether top-whack malarkey.
Dementio 13 – The Dark Science (electronica)
It’s not always easy to tell what music is ‘about’; in the absence of a lyrical text it is always a question for the individual listener, but there should be plenty of common ground here in terms of what it feels like. There are some clues on the Bandcamp page, which might confirm any thoughts we were having that this seems darker than many Dementio 13 releases; if we take those clues at face value then we might surmise that The Dark Science is inspired by all that is bleak and uncanny in the British landscape, and this is an impression that is confirmed by the lonely imagery of Janice D. Soderling’s words (spoken by Marie Craven) in ‘Fissures’. I’ve encountered a few musical releases on such affective themes, but most have been in the stylistic territories of folk or doom metal: Dementio 13 continues to act as though it had never occurred to anyone that electronic sounds were a less fitting receptacle for human emotions than acoustic or electro-acoustic ones, and this record is one of his most powerful statements to date. It’s never happy dancefloor music, but there is a lot of dynamic and affective range within the parameters I outlined above; it is a predominantly melancholy work, but it is rich and varied, skilfully crafted as always, and satisfies on many levels.
Get The Blessing – Astronautilus (avant-jazz)
Naim naimcd221/naimlp222 £10.99 CD £17.99 LP £6.99 DD
Astronautilus opens with sounds that could hardly be better calculated to warn the conventional jazz aficionado that this is not for them. And then it goes on to do all the things that are notable about the music that they do like: which is to say, it breaks moulds and explores new territory through an innovative improvisation-based practice. The world of jazz and improvisational music has had doldrums: a deep, conservative inertia gripped it from the end of fusion’s first flowering (not that many already established artists didn’t continue to do interesting things), and it’s only in recent years that repertoire worship has ceased to be the primary token of creative validity. Get The Blessing, unique as they are, represent a distinctly British strand of trail-blazing, in which the lessons of free improvisation and atonality are absorbed into practice as strategies, rather than the ideologies as which they have long been framed. This album makes as much use of electronic manipulation as of any other dimension of music, elevating texture and riff to the level of melody. For too long have players felt obliged to demonstrate their capacity to blow through changes, but now the shackles are off, and Get The Blessing are showing us one of many exciting new directions. There’s a dark, simmering intensity to the music, a dangerous edge that reminds us how important risk is to creativity. This is beautiful and important.
Jumble Hole Clough – A List of Things That Never Happened (avant-funk)
This project is described by its author as a response to the rural and post-industrial landscape in which he lives, and earlier iterations of its production have presented the kind of spatial, ambient surfaces that might suggest. A List of Things That Never Happened opens instead with a driving avant-funk groove, reminiscent of mid-period Talking Heads as much as anything. It is still primarily an exploration of texture, however, and employs melody accordingly, in luminous, astringent skeins of harmonic gossamer that are draped across the music’s bones like mist, or in playful jabs of riff. One might imagine something bleaker or grimmer in response to the Yorkshire ruins of the Earth’s first locus of industrialisation, but Colin Robinson is not a bleak, grim man: he is a humorous man with a taste for the surreal, and his response to his locality is an indirect one (the refrain ‘it’s not a teardrop, it’s a coffin’ in ‘A sundial in the rain’ may be a reference to a Vox Phantom guitar, but I’m not sure what that has to do with Hebden Bridge). This then is a strange, often experimental record, but a very enjoyable and approachable one, with deep grooves and a joyful way with sound. True to form for the prolific Robinson, then: another excellent album.
Wonk Unit – Flying The Japanese Flag (punk)
TNS Records TNS045 £12 LP £7+ DD
This is a re-release of Wonk Unit’s first album on yummy TNS vinyl. If some bands take a few recordings to get their shit together, this isn’t one of them: Flying The Japanese Flag sounds like the work of a fully-formed creative entity, and although you can hear some development over their subsequent releases, it’s more a matter of moving on to other interests. The emotional rawness of this record is ascribed by Alex Wonk (in the TNS press release) to his personal circumstances at the time of recording; I can’t comment on that, but there’s an intensity to the material and performances that would be very hard to contrive artificially. The sound is basically that of melodic, high energy pop-songs played loud and hard, with a guitar sound that could strip paint: but within that formula, which could be applied to a lot of pretty mediocre bands, both obscure and insanely successful, Wonk Unit have an unmistakably particular sound, built on reflective, personal songwriting. Somehow both seemingly unmediated and exceedingly crafty, this is an album well worth re-releasing, and I expect it’s one that will be listened to for decades to come.
Armonite – The Sun Is New Each Day (prog)
Citing ‘soundtracks’ as an influence is often a sign that a band is given to interminable, formless walls of sound, especially if they use the term ‘post-rock’ anywhere in their publicity materials. Armonite do employ these terminologies, but their material is altogether more complex than they might suggest: where the archetypal ‘soundtracky’ post-rock act seems to be working to one long shot of a car driving across the American Midwest, The Sun Is New Each Day clearly evokes a whole range of locations, dramatic situations and affective states. The twelve pieces that make up the album feel scenic and programmatic, as though referring to something outside themselves, and consequently produce a powerful and engaging sense of narrative. Stylistically, the music is a sophisticated (ok, progressive) brand of instrumental rock, with acoustic elements, led melodically by the beautifully fluid violin of Jacopo Bigi, but it incorporates a wide range of global and Classical influences, and is clearly an ensemble effort, with no single voice predominating. Complex, infectious grooves are married to unsentimental but often deeply moving melodies and sophisticated harmonies in imaginative arrangements, and performed with impeccable feeling and clarity. This is a class act.
Richard Pinhas – Chronolyse (avant-rock)
Cuneiform RUNE30 $24+ LP $10+ DD
This is the first ever vinyl reissue of Richard Pinhas’ groundbreaking tribute to Frank Herbert’s Dune. Pinhas is one of the founders of avant-garde rock music in France, and made this record as a side-project under his own name while working with his legendary band Heldon. Side A consists of live modular synth improvisations recorded directly to tape, while side B embellishes an electronic base with Pinhas’ guitar and contributions from his Heldon bandmates. The purely electronic pieces display a huge timbral and textural range, offering a fascinating and powerful investigation of the possibilities of, what was at the time, state of the art musical technology. Pinhas exploited the full breadth of the stereo soundfield to startling, cinematic effect, and although the music is probably less programmatic than the track titles might suggest, it feels like a very engaged and sincere response to the book (and certainly a much more convincing one than David Lynch’s wrong-headed movie). When the Heldon cohorts add their voices to the long ‘Paul Atreides’, which fills side B, the music expands into a long, spatial jam, which drones and pulses cyclically. Knowing that Pinhas wrote his PhD on the relationships between time, science-fiction and electronic music, it is easy to speculate that this piece represents Paul Atreides as the realised Kwisatz Haderach, transcending spacetime in the spice-trance. Whether or not this speculation is valid, the music is a trippy fugal expanse that feels as deep as the universe. A truly extraordinary recording.
Sonar – Black Light (avant-rock)
Cuneiform RUNE414 $38+ 2LP $16.50+ CD $10+ DD
It’s never a bad thing when it’s hard to find the right language to describe a recording: if my stock of ‘writing about music’ phrases has nothing that seems relevant it suggests that I’m listening to something out of the ordinary. With Sonar, I find myself returning to my review of their previous record, where I focused on the intense creative rigour that informs their sound, and the originality that springs not from the pursuit of novelty but from their total commitment to an artistic vision. There is no generic label I could share that would impart any sense of this music’s forms, which are stylistically unique and rhythmically abstract, but in terms of instrumental resources and ensemble textures this is clearly a species of rock, its two electric guitars geometrically enmeshed in the warped, mutating geodesic of the bass and drums. At times it resembles math-rock, in its displacing rhythms, and the gritty clarity of the amp settings and production, but this is a superficial evocation. Sonar never buy into any of the conventional tropes of rock music, and produce their complex meanings in the generative Reichian interplay of their four voices, rather than by appeal to any established significations. There are no guitar heroes here, and no unreflecting insistence on volume as power, or distortion as passion. However intellectual the music’s inception, this shouldn’t suggest that it is dry or unaffecting: it is austerely and precisely beautiful, invoking an aesthetic that is extraordinarily engaging exactly because it is not like anything else. Black Light is the opposite of generic: it is utterly particular, in its form and in its effects. There is no higher praise I could give to an album.
The Scribes – Mr. Teatime And The End Of The World (hip-hop)
Reel Me Records £4+ CD & DD
Usually I take a dim view of people sending me someone else’s work for review under their own name, but as Mr. Teatime sent this album to The Scribes from the year 2074 (‘or something’) I guess he won’t object, as long as he gets proper acknowledgement after he’s born. And at least they name-check him in the title they’ve released it under, and by the time he records it money and copyright won’t be worth anything anyway. Staving off the awful loneliness with creativity, Mr. Teatime chose to construct his message in the form of a hip-hop recording, but this is an account of his experiences in the aftermath of human civilisation’s destruction at the hands of its autonomous robot servants. Though he joins forces with an underground resistance of mutants, he is, as far as he knows, the sole un-mutated human remaining. Fortunately he is both a skilled emcee and a creative producer, so the otherwise bitter pill of the news of humanity’s impending demise is sweetened considerably. Dark, glitchy rumbles; slow, tense beats; queasy threatening bass; agile, yet measured flows, and despairing, but surprisingly witty bars. As you listen, you can puzzle over the collection of clues and photographs that accompanied the recording in its journey from the future. I’m sorry to convey such grim tidings, but at least Mr. Teatime And The End Of The World will ease the passage of the next few tense decades. This is a very accomplished and entertaining release.