Calming River – The Ones That We Left Behind (alt-folk)
49+ dkk DD
Finger-picked arpeggios fall with the regularity and impersonal melancholy of rain, offset by a vocal delivery that is hesitant not in its phrasing, but in its timbre. The sound of this four-song EP is intimate, extremely close to the listener’s ear, and it is formed from the kind of performative gestures in which the proximity of the musician is most pronounced: this is sound as embodiment, its aesthetics rooted in an erotic of human frailty. Lyrically and melodically it is concerned with the concrete, with particulars, but it is an idea of the concrete that is as ephemeral as smoke and as fragile as eggshells – Calming River’s voice and guitar are joined by a husky violin whose shaky vibrato evokes a voice wracked by grief. This is not a jolly record, but it is an exceptional beautiful one, a piercingly perceptive set of emotional observations that will remain with you long after the last note has died.
The Little Unsaid – Can We Hear It? (folktronica)
This is a delightfully unlikely choice of track for a single release, with its lack of a hook or any discernible narrative, and its profoundly ambiguous lyric. A prodding electronic beat supports washes of strings, which move in parallel intervals and hang in the air like (or possibly with) harmonium chords; a lost children’s choir struggles to sing through a locked door. The narrator finds hope in uncertainty, and non-strophic melodic repetitions gradually accumulate into something anthemic, oceanic… which is gone before you realise it was there. An essay in understatement, and a deeply moving representation of experience.
Counting Coins – Don’t Look Down (punk-ska)
The irresistible prodding of Don’t Look Down’s rocksteady beat provides a head-nodding scaffold on which Counting Coins display an array of punk guitar sounds, ska-punk vocals (that drift fluidly in and out of rap) and gypsy brass. The tune dissolves into a swirling dub breakdown in its final third, before returning (at a strategically augmented tempo) to its predominant mode, an energetic unity of underground fury and the hot-blooded joie de vivre of the original Bohemians. This track is as entertaining and satisfying a contribution to the currently burgeoning brass-punk scene as you will hear anywhere.
Blitzkrieg Baby – Cannibal Commando (industrial)
Beläten €3+ DD
The sick fascination that keeps drivers’ eyes fixed on a grisly accident as they pass seems a reasonable analogue for Blitzkrieg Baby’s thematic concerns. The slow-motion catastrophe of modernity’s psychic disintegration provides ample material for a band interested in the darker aspects of experience, but many metal and industrial artists exploit such tropes simplistically for their superficial transgressive impact, appending them decoratively to atavistically celebratory outbursts aimed squarely at the mosh-pit or the dance floor. On Cannibal Commando these observations (of ‘cannibalism, war crimes, pre-pubescent murderers, world domination, and the end of civilization’) are allowed to shape the aesthetics of the music, and it’s not until the EP’s final track ‘Cut. Slash. Maim. Kill’ that a crowd-pleasing stomp emerges – even then it is at a menacing mid-tempo that is consistent with the cold and ominous affective landscape of the preceding tracks. This is an excellent, well-judged contribution to its genre, that combines clear-sighted creative judgement with an obvious pleasure in the manipulation of sounds and atmospheres.
Calico – Calico (math-jazz)
Small Pond £5+ DD £7+ CD £8+ 10”
Like many current British jazz acts (which is not how I would necessarily classify them), Calico look to a range of musical practices to structure their sounds. Perhaps it’s no more than the electric piano and the trumpet that relates them to that world: harmonically and rhythmically they have a more obvious kinship with the flamboyantly reserved methods of math- and post-rock. Melody is a textural resource here, not the dominating linchpin of a hierarchy, and atmosphere is everything in these subtly flavoured broths of aural colour. At the stop in ‘Fold A Winning Hand’, where the band re-launches at an augmented dynamic, the power they deploy is restrained, modulated precisely to the narrative demands of the EP as a whole, and that is perhaps where Calico stand out most clearly from other bands to whom they might be compared. This is a band with plenty in reserve, creatively and instrumentally, who know just when their point has been made: where atmospheric music is concerned that’s crucial. An over-egged pudding becomes a different variety of pudding altogether. The result of this mature approach to orchestration and arrangement is a beautiful and immersive twenty minutes of calm intensity.
Snem K – Pure Sun (house)
Emerald & Doreen EDR124 £7.84 DD
This is not the sort of thing I usually review, as it is neither experimental nor particularly unconventional, but I enjoyed it, so what the hell. This release includes nearly forty minutes of remixes, but the original track is is a chilled, lilting, conga-driven house beat, booted along by a pulsing subby bass with a strangely low-key vocal, that references the sort of pop-soul techniques that the genre favours while subtly subverting their values of potency and corporeal performativity. There’s almost nothing to it, which is a virtue in music designed expressly for the dancefloor; it is, as they say, ‘sun-drenched’, and a perfectly made vehicle for the lightly-drugged twirling communal trance of the summer party.
J’owl – Pulsatrix (cyberpunk jazz)
Kylmyys Kollective KKD003 $3+ DD (with sticker)
Jason Chamberlain’s saxophone sounds as a lyrically expressive voice of resistance in the midst of an urban dystopia formed from the implacable techno-hedonism of his electronic beats and soundscapes. His production techniques range from accessible hip-hop-based groove-making, to experimental glitch-wrangling, and at all points on that spectrum he is consistently creative in providing fruitful sources of expressive tension for his instrumental performances to play off. In a symbolic gesture of defiance, perhaps intended to mirror Pulsatrix’s sonic psychodrama, he also contributes to the discourse of social marketing in which many might assume that innovation is exhausted, proclaiming this release to be ‘the first cyberpunk jazz extended play to be released exclusively as a sticker.’ The subversive force of this intervention may not be apparent until you consider the anti-capitalist implications of his decision to make the EP a buck cheaper with the sticker than it is as a plain download… All such facetious observations aside, these are some excellent, ear-stretching productions, and the saxophone work is impeccable.
Hologram Teen – Post-Apocalypteacakes/ Tracksuit Minotaur (electronica)
Deep Distance DD32 £4.99 7” clear vinyl
The titles of these two tunes suggest an ambition to bring the mythic into conjunction with the prosaic. I’m not sure if that is necessarily borne out in the sounds they contain, but there is certainly a meeting of worlds here: the ominous gloamings of horror movie soundtracks bring a tongue-in-cheek chill factor to some entertaining dance beats. That those beats are not built for the generic demands of ‘single-issue’ DJs is all to the good, and these tunes are as creative as they are light-hearted. Morgane Lhote, whose project this is, has clearly recognised the benefits of combining an accessible aesthetic palette with a committed artistic agenda, and for such lean compositions there is a great deal of listening value here. Dark, fun, and very rewarding.
Bagarre – Musique de club (electroclash)
€3+ DD €8+ CD €12+ 12”
How to sum this up? Bouncy indie dance music built around vocal riffs? My French isn’t up to decoding many of the lyrics, but I get the impression that probably won’t matter too much – although I also get the impression they’re quite likely to be as funny and erudite as the music. This is definitely party music, and there’s something necessarily homogenising about immersion in the crowd, but rather than signalling its call to unity through the generic character of its sounds, Musique de Club is eccentric enough that it seems to address all the particular subjectivities of its listeners, inviting them all to put their quirks in the proffered cauldron and stir until some kind of hedonistic magic happens. The qualified summary above is not wrong, but there’s a lot more to Bagarre than that: there’s obvious humour, and a clear address to the corporeal, but that doesn’t stop them pursuing some interesting and unexpected creative avenues, and they are clearly using their heads as much as their hearts. It’s never easy to put ones finger on the characteristics that distinguish the good from the excellent, but to my ears at least, this falls into the latter category.
Venkman – Kakorrhaphiophobia (art-funk)
£3+ DD & CD
‘Funk’ can indicate a feel, or it can indicate a vocabulary; there’s no necessary reason for the two to coincide. Venkman are more interested in the vocabulary, and their music rarely places any great emphasis on the One. Precisely co-ordinated ensemble riffs are built from rapid-fire syncopations that locate a zone of intersection with the tight intricacies of post-hardcore and math-rock. The sounds are always light and crisp, however, and the vocal delivery makes clear Kakorrhaphiophobia’s debt to the traditions of African-American pop. The sound is a pretty, filigreed confection of interlocking melodic figures from voice, guitar, bass and trumpet, that skips over the pulse without settling heavily on any given beat. This ethereal but driving flow of articulations relies on a considerable degree of instrumental facility, but never showcases it for its own sake, and the EP as a whole does not labour the point, stating its case almost diffidently, with a cool and approachable aesthetic. A very accomplished and attractive release.
Daar – One-Way Expedition (prog-metal)
One Way Expedition goes in hard. It’s a polished, instrumental prog-metal EP, and it sets out its stall with some intensity in the opening ‘Portal’. Juicy dissonances give way to soaring fusion melodies, and a succession of time feels whizz past, feeling like scenes in a story rather than simply samples of Daar’s prowess. It can be a challenge to maintain interest and variety in instrumental rock music, but Daar pull it off without adopting a particularly outlandish vocabulary. In place of formal innovation we hear a sophisticated and technically precise deployment of the inherited language, incorporating a wide range of instrumental techniques, and a constantly mutating phraseology that draws on the breadth and depth of rock music’s resources. This music is all about the riffs, but it doesn’t sit on them for long, preferring to move on once the point is made, in compositions that are essentially through-composed, with little strophic repetition. Other than the title track, it’s fairly short on dynamic subtlety, which to be fair, is not something you’d necessarily expect given One Way Expedition’s stylistic touch-stones, but given the facility and maturity with which Daar approach their work it seems a shame they missed the chance to tell the more nuanced stories an exploration of that musical dimension might afford. Having said that, this is an extremely well-made EP, that is bursting at the seams with ideas, and a real pleasure to the ear.
Karda Estra – Future Sounds (avant-prog)
This EP does not seem to be programmatic in toto, as was its predecessor The Seas And The Stars, which chronicled the future collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, but Karda Estra releases often invite a narrative reception, and Richard Wileman is explicitly influenced by the tradition of soundtrack composition. (Incidentally, this and the above mentioned EP are available as a single album, Time And Stars, from the excellent Believers Roast label). There are certainly stories here – or at least, there are affective dramas, and if we wish to engage in the intellectually dubious but enjoyable practice of ascribing biographies to them, they don’t make that difficult! ‘Niall’, which features the expressive drumming of the Muffins alumnus Paul Sears, is presumably named for that guest musician’s son, who died serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq, while ‘Yondo’ is named for a short story by Clark Ashton Smith, the noted pulp horror author, so we are offered a few clues. However, too literal a mapping of concept to sound would likely do more to diminish than to enhance the experience, as much of this music’s value lies in its profound ambiguity. There is then a clear influence of the kind of avant-garde classical music that improbably found its way into commercial movies in the pre-war era, filtered through the scoring practices of the avant-prog/RIO tradition. There’s little here that breaks dramatically with my Karda Estra expectations, and not much sense that Wileman is attempting to break new ground, but the particularity and depth of this work shows that there remains a great deal more power and atmosphere to be mined from the rich seam of sonic esoterica that this project is tapped into. Future Sounds is as ear-stretchingly brilliant as I have come to expect from this extraordinary composer.
Marco Oppedisano – Resolute (experimental)
Spectropol $5+ DD $7+ CDR
This EP opens with the kind of tone worship more associated with the psychedelic extreme of metal, rather than the rock-appropriating experimental composition which characterises my, admittedly limited, experience of Marco Oppedisano’s work. Once the rich solar-geologic drones of ‘Breathe’ have died away, however, we are firmly in the latter territory, and ‘Flash Forward’, although its electric guitar tones invoke the histories of rock, is composed in the dramatically gestural, atonal, and radically investigatory mode that I am more familiar with. ‘Reflection’, which follows, bridges those two worlds seamlessly, mediating their encounter in a balanced synthesis – and is extremely pretty to boot, which is not always a given with this adventurous composer-performer! The remaining two pieces explore further affective regions and gestural themes with rigour, imagination and humour. Resolute is a challenging, intelligent and aesthetically potent recording.
Brad Fielder – Field Recordings (Americana)
Shive Records $3+ DD $5+ CD
Without being overtly lo-fi, the production of Field Recordings imparts a sense of distance, that impacts the listening ear with paradoxical intimacy. Brad Fielder’s voice on these recordings is dominated by his banjo and guitar, and though his delivery is predominantly relaxed, he seems sometimes to strain through an expanse of years and cultural values of the sort that separates an ethnomusicological field recording from its audience. Of course Fielder’s claim that these are field recordings is tongue in cheek, but it’s also a fair assessment of their ad hoc production conditions: every time he pressed record he happened to be playing a song, but all that was recorded was the sound of his home on an average day – and there is surely a sense in which a musician recording themselves is the ethnographer par excellence! This is good Americana, but although it is well-made, it is not the polished, professional repertoire music of the Nashville virtuoso, and it does not relate those same mythological narratives: it’s the simple musical practice of an individual giving voice to his own truths. It’s a rough-hewn kind of beautiful.
James Holt – Sanguine on the Rocks (alt-rock)
James Holt’s chord sequences have a sophistication, and a capacity to take off in unexpected affective directions, that is somewhat beyond the compass of the average pop song. Although his music never seems that out-there stylistically, there’s more than a whiff of European gypsy music in the gestural theatricality of his harmonies, and there are ‘progressive’ devices galore (transitional passages, feel changes, unison riffs etc). It never sounds like prog though, cleaving to a restrained kind of underground aesthetic even in the disco-referencing crescendo fanfares of ‘Contemplations’. Holt recorded every part himself, playing every instrument with chops, groove and dynamics. Most of the feels are pretty lively, but there is a good deal of range within the scope of that observation, and the light and shade serves to add considerable impact to the peaks. The songs are in a recognisable mode, the observational-confessional first person that is the default strategy of every aspiring singer-songwriter, but Holt traverses that well-ploughed furrow with gusto and originality. This is entertaining music, shot through with a humane emotional accessibility, its observations informed by some genuine insights into the fucked-up business of being a person. I would guess that, if you saw him play this material live, by the end of the show you’d be singing along whether you knew the words or not, and you’d probably be feeling well-disposed towards the strangers standing around you. Sanguine on the Rocks is a work of understated mastery, and as moving as it is accomplished.
Jasmine Power – Stories & Rhymes (jazz)
£3.99+ DD £10.99+ 12”
Stories & Rhymes opens with air and space, a lonely acoustic bass part that sits athwart the pulse, not quite dropping the hammer until Jasmine Power’s voice cuts across it, and lets us hear just how much grit there is to the groove. That sense of implication pervades this whole short release. Power is clearly singing from inside a tradition, but at times her delivery is so rigorously austere that the only aesthetic vocabulary in play is that of speech. Similarly in the arrangements: obbligatos are whittled down to slowly swelling semibreves, and even when the snare is channeling Magnus Öström, its breakbeats are pools of noise, not walls. These are simple but erudite songs, delivered with crisp delicacy by a band that could clearly shred, but has no need to. While no-one could accuse them of reinventing the vocabulary of acoustic vocal jazz, they make it their own, which is no mean feat in a region beset by so many territorial claims; and while some musicians in the avant-garde have certainly taken stillness and simplicity to far more pronounced extremes, the precision with which Power and her band take their place on that continuum speaks of a commendable creative clarity. The lyrical texts are as simple as the performances, as apparently direct but obliquely nuanced. Jasmine Power is, I gather, pretty young, but she seems precociously mature on this adroit and immersive EP.