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Friday, 17 December 2010

Review Of The Year 2010: 12 Albums

This is my review of the musical year. Not the world’s musical year, but my musical year. It’s been a year that involved very little live music, and not a huge amount of new recorded music as I’ve been very short of both money and hard disc space, but I have certainly heard a lot of interesting new releases. Enough to pick out a cool dozen that have made a particular impact on me, anyway. I’ve included links so you can listen (or in some cases just buy): so get reading, and don’t forget to comment at the bottom!
Vex’d - ‘Cloud Seed’
Planet Mu ZIQ260CD
Dark, grimy dubstep which takes more than a passing glance back at trip-hop, and displays a distinctly experimental bent. Of the new music I’ve acquired this year, not much has been in this vein, so this isn’t a best-of-the-bunch selection: it’s just one of the most creative and interesting listens I’ve encountered recently. Featuring a variety of guest vocals, from the Martina Topley Bird/ Beth Gibbons impression provided by Anneka, to the more badass sounds of Warrior Queen and Jest, this is a very varied album, on many grounds, but still very coherent as a whole, with its consistently dark and ominous atmosphere. Not much electronic music experiments with such a probing sense of enquiry.
Faderhead - ‘Black Friday’
L-Tracks LT006
I’ve previously reviewed this album at greater length, here: Faderhead is pretty uncomplicated stuff, in terms of its artistic strategy: it is industrial music, built for the dancefloor. Accessible, heavy, dark and irresistibly danceable, these tunes are crafted to perfection. This doesn’t have quite the audacity, or the ferocious intensity, of his previous two albums, but it has a lot of good tunes. Faderhead is one of the most skilled melodists and lyricists on the industrial scene, and those who appreciate the use he put those skills to on ‘FH2’ and ‘FH3’ will probably love Black Friday too.
Finntroll - ‘Nifelvind’
Century Media 9979600
Finntroll sing in Swedish, on mythological themes, and purvey a style that mixes black metal with folk music elements: these ingredients would normally add up to Viking metal, but Finntroll are Finnish, and their lyrics mainly revolve (I am informed) around the efforts of a Finnish troll king to repel invading Christians. The musicians’ skills bridge the two styles seamlessly, paying equal respect to each: the result is a perfect fusion to my ears, mixing the unfeasibly heavy with the jauntily melodic to produce a huge, ambitious soundscape of Wagnerian power and majesty. Epic, evocative music which sounds like the soundtrack to an equally epic movie full of battles and elaborate armoured headgear.
Negură Bunget - ‘Vîrstele Pamîntului’
Code666 Code 046
So clearly 2010 has been a black metal year for me, with two black metal albums being the only metal in my end of year review. No apologies, I love this stuff. Negură Bunget also play a folk/ metal fusion, this time from the Romanian tradition, and this album (recorded with an almost entirely new line-up) heavily emphasises the traditional elements. So much so that where the band comes in heavy with all the speed picking and blast beats of its black metal side, the mix often makes it sound like a tremolo percussion element, rather than the autocannon assault you might expect. This is an extremely creative, musically sophisticated album, with an epic feel similar to Finntroll, but also a far more subtle, ethereal atmosphere. 
Igorrr - ‘Nostril’
Ad Noiseam adn132d
Igorrr combines the least likely selection of styles imagineable. Breakcore, classical, industrial, folk and death metal all vie for space in this crowded scenario, but the beauty of it is that it just sounds like Igorrr. There’s never any sense that these sounds were not meant to go together. I mean obviously this is strange. Extremely strange. It’s some of the oddest tonal music I’ve ever heard, but it’s only odd because it is a very honest and direct expression of an individual’s creativity. It’s like an aural equivalent to James Joyce’s stream of consciousness writing, with its apparently random changes of direction and its non-sequiturs, but it is in fact highly organised music, and displays an unusually erudite mastery of its sonic palette. There’s humour, but there’s also a dead serious artistic integrity. Beautifully weird.
MC Frontalot - ‘Zero Day’
Level Up Records and Tapes B003AMAF3W
Frontalot spits with a flow that skitters crazily across the beat in a way that perfectly enacts the verbal rhythm of the half-distracted nerd, but stays immensely funky. Lyrically, ‘Zero Day’ seems more focussed on daily domestic existence than his earlier offerings, which took in a broader survey of geek culture, but that’s a balance thing: there’s still a tune on here about D&D, don’t worry. There are also, as you’d expect, some hilarious skits. MC Frontalot takes a wry, somewhat distanced, comedic if not quite satirical look at his subject matter, in contrast to, say, Beefy (who guests on ‘Disaster’), who writes heart-on-the-sleeve celebrations of nerd culture. There are no major departures from form on this album: production credits are shared with long time collaborator Badd Spellah, who also contributes to the beat making, which is fun and funky as ever. Deeply entertaining music, with lots of re-listen value, thanks to its highly referenced lyrical density.
Ozomatli - ‘Fire Away’
Downtown DWT70148
There’s a scene in Jackie Brown, where Samuel L. Jackson shoots Robert De Niro dead, looks at his corpse, and says: ‘What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit, your ass used to be beautiful!’ That’s more or less where I am with Ozomatli.  This album is a huge disappointment to me. There was no question about whether I would review it for my year’s roundup: for me, a new Ozo release is a big event. This band used to combine the deepest grooves, the widest stylistic compass, the illest rapping, and the most radical social awareness: Fire Away is anodyne, middle of the road pop pap. I have no clue why Ozomatli think this is the right direction to move in, maybe it will sell records for them, but personally, I can’t think of a single reason to listen to this album. Avoid it.
The John Butler Trio - ‘April Uprising’
Jarrah Records 82564682450
If you want something socially aware, emotionally literate, deep grooving and stylistically eclectic, forget about Ozomatli and turn to John Butler. This is earthy roots rock, totally straightforward yet sophisticated. There’s acoustic, electric and slide guitar, banjo, even a dash of funky clavinet in the mix, with deliberately simple structures supporting utterly spot on playing, with as solid a rhythm section as you will ever hear. There’s a lot of creativity and imagination here: on the outro to ‘Johnny’s Gone’ Butler’s electric slide morphs into a Tom Morello style noise and texture solo, and there are many other examples of sonic experimentation. It’s all so seamlessly well integrated  into the perfectly judged songwriting that you don’t really notice it: it just sounds like one of the funkiest, most soulful bands you will ever hear.
Unter Null - ‘Moving On’
Alfa Matrix AM-1096-CD
Erica Dunham has never let her Unter Null project sit still creatively. The contrast between ‘The Failure Epiphany’s dark electro-industrial dance music and ‘Neocide’s powernoise is stark, and with ‘Moving On’ she is clearly moving on again. There’s plenty here that’s danceable, but this album doesn’t pander to the dancefloor: there’s no equivalent tune to her huge hit ‘Sick Fuck’, other than ‘Obligatory Club Hit To Appease The Masses’. Instead, there’s a huge variety of textures and moods, quite a lot of soft synth pads and piano parts, and the skillful employment of techniques and sonic material from right across the broad field of industrial music and dark electronica. This is creative and serious music, but still as hard and dirty as ever.
VA - ‘Noughties Niceness’
Tummy Touch Records (no catalogue number)
This album is a free (yes free) digital download, available to Tummy Touch’s Facebook fans. I don’t know if they’ll negotiate for non-Facebook people, but I think it would be worth asking, they are nice people. I’ve already reviewed this at some length here: It is a fairly random survey of the Tummy Touch roster, chosen ‘quickly would be the honest answer. But I guess they're faves from the last few years.’ Well, there are some fantastic acts on Tummy Touch so the boss’ faves translates as ‘some real treats’. Everything here is totally individual and idiosyncratic (oddball even), and highly accomplished one way or another. A few listens to this and I had acquired more than one new favourite song. Really, I can’t overstate the quality: stylistically it runs a fair gamut, but it’s generally rock and electro of the indie/ alternative/ punky variety. Download this album, love it (inevitable), and then buy some stuff from the Tummy Touch online store, which is all very reasonably priced.
VA - ‘Endzeit Bunkertracks Act V’
Alfa Matrix AM1146FCD
The latest installment in Alfa Matrix label’s flagship compilation series, this 4CD package delivers just as much juicy, stompy, noizy industrial madness as its predecessors. Pretty much every track is a potential floor-filler: as you’d expect the beats are heavy, grinding jackhammers, and the lyrical content ranges from the darkly horrific, through the ludicrously sexual, to the blackly humorous. Stand-out tracks for me are Xykogen ‘Mthrfkr’, Captive Six ‘Noizemaker’, Shaolyn ‘More Bass In All Frequencies’, Nachtmahr ‘War On The Dancefloor’ and Katastroslavia ‘Completely Normal’. But you know what?  Ask me tomorrow and I’ll name another five: they’re all good!
The Dave Holland Octet - ‘Pathways’
Dare2 DR2-004
Dave Holland is a living treasure: he’s the Charles Mingus of our era. A formidable composer/ arranger, a ferocious bass player, but above all, an outstanding bandleader, capable of eliciting performances of face-melting intensity and commitment from his players. ‘Pathways’ returns to the core personnel of his phenomenal early noughties quintet, with extra horns to enable richer harmonic scoring: the heart and soul of this music is the blowing, which delivers a constant stream of ideas, passion, creativity and novelty, obviating the need for major stylistic innovations. Undoubtedly my album of the year.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Review: Noughties Niceness compilation from Tummy Touch Records

I have to admit to a possible journalistic bias: I did spend some time in Cambridge with the (then beardless) boss of Tummy Touch Records, improvising verbal psychedelic jazz performances in public parks in the middle of the night (without any audience), wearing an orange jumpsuit. However, I should continue this disclaimer by admitting that I fail as a music journalist, and was unable to exploit this high level industry contact: I sent Tim a message on Facebook to request some background on the compilation, but he either didn’t get it or doesn’t wish to encourage stalkers. Oh well, his loss: my blog is obviously so widely read he could have finally taken his label to the big time. No, wait, I seem to be reviewing it anyway…
[This is now completely untrue, Tim did get back to me, and said ‘Erm, how did I choose them? Quickly would be the honest answer. But I guess they're faves from the last few years.’ But it makes for a much more amusing story if I say he didn’t.]
I’m going to attack this track by track, since it’s a compilation, and I won’t pretend to be an expert on the Tummy Touch roster, so I’ll do a bit of research, but basically I’ll be telling it how I find it (which is all good, incidentally). First though, I should say that it does have a certain coherence as an album, despite the disparate stylistic proclivities of the artists represented.
Noughties Niceness kicks off with a minimalist funk tune by Zook, titled ‘Bastinado’. I really like this. It is an object lesson in simplicity as vehicle for a sophisticated musicality: memory is probably my weakest area as a musician, but by the time I’d listened to this once I knew how to play every note in the bass and guitar parts, without needing to pick up an instrument to check. That’s how simple this is. It’s like ‘Green Onions’ (a record with nothing extraneous in it) with all the fat trimmed: in fact it makes Booker T And The MGs sound like self-indulgent prog noodlers. ‘Bastinado’ means ‘a sound beating with a stick or cudgel’ … no, I don’t know either.
Next up is UR Mummy from Niyi, but if you think you know what Niyi sounds like, you’re wrong. This is completely daft. It is far less of an obvious floor filler than most of what he puts out, far less commercially produced, and it has an infantile, suggestive lyric so silly it borders on genius. The beat is the kind of bare bones electro you might expect to find lurking on a Miss Kittin album, and the chanted vocal hilariously celebrates it’s own inarticulacy with lines like ‘I think inter-generational love/ is frowned upon/ far too much today/ … / so if I’m wrong/ well, I’m just wrong’. This is actually a clever, witty piece of music when you start to think about it, very danceable, and even sexy (‘I’d like to wipe her worksurfaces down’!)
Coco Electrik’s remix of The Phenomenal Handclap Band follows, ‘Dim The Lights’. This is a brutally shuffling fusion of electro-pop with 60s rock, garnished with some stuttery, heavily processed vocals, and there’s not much point describing it any further except to say it’s eminently listenable and curiously danceable.
Quad Throw Salchow have the least comprehensible name of any act on the compilation, but there are other reasons to like them too: the music for example. An overdriven bass single-mindedly hammers out a two note riff, while a synthesizer sparsely decorates it with a small palette of textures, and hoarse, intense but controlled vocals deliver a message that is as ominous as it is obscure. ‘Fate will Find You’.
More overdriven bass follows, though not to the point of distortion. Tim ‘Love’ Lee contributes a remix of a song called ‘No Search’ by a band called Striplight. Striplight purvey spiky, arty post-punk with declamatory vocals, which in this song tell a tale of self-destructive devotion not unrelated to Depeche Mode’s ‘Stripped’.  Which is to say it uses flaying as a metaphor for undressing.
And by now it’s surely becoming apparent that I’m an incorrigible geek for bass sounds… Crazy Girl’s ‘Regs’ is animated by a rapid fire pickstyle bass riff that sounds like it was recorded by micing an (overdriven) Ampeg SVT, but that’s not really interesting so I’ll tell you about the song instead. ‘Regs’ is a vitriolic, stream of consciousness rant against the mediocrity of the socially aspirational. The bass dominates the mix, but there’s guitar there too, also with the sound of a vintage amp, pushed hard through a twangy spring reverb, later joined by an equally vintage sounding electric piano: it’s hard to put a finger on the musical style, which is a modern take on the late 60s underground, but you could maybe call it psychedelic surf-garage (if a high syllable count doesn’t bother you). There’s something unhinged about this, in a very good way.
Patrick and Eugene contribute a cockney novelty song celebrating the gentle side of English drinking culture, a very likeable ditty with a twist in the tail, called ‘Saturday Night’.
So far the quality of everything on this compilation has been extremely high, but it’s saved some of the best until last. Before we go any further, I should point out that I definitely don’t tend to favour wordy, literate songs over more dance focussed offerings: in fact most of my favourite music doesn’t even have vocals. So let’s be clear, I’m not rating these tracks highly because I prefer a nice song: of the last four tracks, three are vocal tunes, and all three strike that perfect balance between lyrics, melody, style and all the other elements, where everything works in unity to express the meaning of the song.
Sargasso Trio’s ‘Heels On Fire’ is probably not a love song, but it’s an appreciation song, a song about the chemistry of the dancefloor. Not the dancefloor of some industrial scale club, all huge sub stacks and robotic lights; I imagined an upstairs room in a house with the windows open on a moonlit summer night, and the turntable skipping as drunken happy people bounce the floorboards. It’s pointless for me to try and paraphrase, or even to really describe a song like this. I can only express my admiration: for the way it avoids the obvious verbal route; for the way it is sexy without being overtly sexual; for the way it conveys a sense of the very specific value of an individual; for the way the groove is a part of the poetry, rather than simply a setting for it. This became one of my desert island discs by the third or fourth listen.
Turner Cody is a latter day beat poet: this plays both for and against him, as the beat poets were also a major influence on someone he sounds very like on ‘Corner Of My Room’, namely Uncle Bob. I know a little of Turner Cody’s work (although I’m not generally a big follower of singer songwriters), and although that influence is always present, there’s something about the vocal delivery on this track that makes it sound like an overt homage to, or even a pastiche of Bob Dylan. Which is not to say I’m accusing him of being a mere imitator: this is very much his performance of his words, it’s just that there is a clear relationship in his choice of words, and in his very clear enunciation of articles (definite and indefinite). Some of his verbal imagery is absolutely staggering, audacious even, and I won’t steal any thunder by putting spoilers in this review: you need to hear this track.

The next artist, Circuits, play new wave rock with a streak of reggae running through it, sometimes sounding like a more earnest version of The Police. The track included here is a dub (‘Fully Bearded Dub’), which accentuates that influence. It sounds as though someone set out deliberately to make a dub tune with no compound meters in it: even when the delays interfere with each other they don’t make triplets! It’s a really cool sound — and I don’t know why so many tracks on this compilation have such a fantastic bass sound, it’s like a masterclass in recording bass! — which breaks down into a bass led punk outro.
And as the last notes of The Circuits die away, the most enigmatic of this album’s offerings gently and unassumingly begins. I have no idea why Tara Busch chose to invent the name ‘Pilfershire Lane’ for this tune, as there’s nothing I can detect here that has anything to do with pilfering. Ambiguity is a good thing in a lyric as far as I’m concerned, however, so no matter. Busch is an excellent melodist, and does a nice line in chord sequences of the sort that pivot key changes on a tierce de Picardie. ‘Pilfershire Lane’ is a long and complex number, with a lot of sections: lyrically it seems to be someone in old age expressing nostalgia for the idyll of their childhood, and clinging onto their memories as a talisman against an uncertain future. It’s clearly set in the future as they are looking back to 1970, which is when I was born, and I’m not ‘old and grey’ yet. Stylistically it moves from a simple piano accompaniment, to an old style prog feel (like early Floyd) and back again, before an extended atmospheric outro, with church bells, choral vocals and background noises. Clearly I’m struggling to describe this, it’s far too complex to paraphrase, so I’ll say this: it never comes off as sentimental, it remains robustly ambiguous throughout, it is sonically and musically extremely sophisticated, and also very soulful in a curious way, and I like it a lot. I still have the impression there’s a lot I don’t get about Tara Busch’s work though!
Obviously this compilation doesn’t present the sonic consistency an album does when it’s the product of a single set of recording and mixing sessions; and the types of song and arrangement presented are incredibly diverse; but these tracks all display some kind of uncompromised artistic integrity. There is a certain commitment to pursuing a set of creative aims, a certain unwillingness to be bound by convention or fashion, that has obviously informed the decisions to sign these acts and to include them on this collection. It all comes across somehow as though there’s a single brain behind it. A big, and clever brain, whose past and future activities it would be worth taking an interest in.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Best Of Live Unsigned part I

What follows is a representative sampling of the artist reviews I've been writing for Live Unsigned: it was going to be 12, but I did well to hold myself back to 14! Please follow the links and look at the artist pages on the site to find out when and where they're playing.

The Turbo A.C.’s
Turbo indeed. This is turbocharged, twangy surf punk that gives Agent Orange a run for their money, with it’s big anthemic choruses built for shouting along from the mosh-pit. Tight as a nut, raw as sushi, and more in-your-face than your teeth. Do not go to their gig to stand at the back and look cool: this is a band that really lays it on the line, and they deserve nothing less in return.

Lester Clayton
Grooving, rootsy, acoustic good-time rock, that reminds me of John Butler in a lot of ways: sophisticated but simple songs; top flight musicians with a deep, downbeat feel; and an irrepressible funkiness that comes through whatever else is happening. Real quality stuff, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Maximum RNR

This is refreshing: a punk/ hardcore/ metal band that sounds more punk than metal. Richly distorted guitars hark back to an earlier form of metal than most such fusions, from an era when the word ‘extreme’ was not yet debased through overuse. Frenetic beats sound like Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, with drumming that proves you don’t need a double kick to sound like a force of nature. Love it.

Folky and bluesy vocals accompanied by arrangements that sound sometimes very traditional (in the folk sense), and sometimes very twentieth century (in the classical sense), finding echoes of that additive circularity that links minimalism with the gamelan. All of which sounds very abstract, but the resulting sparse sound world is a very habitable, welcoming place, full of ethereal warmth and melody.

Mojo Fury
It’s always refreshing when a band describes their music as ‘rock’, rather than ‘nuanced post-genre neo-gregorian rock’, or some such. Mojo Fury are as good as their word: it’s not heavy rock, it’s not soft rock, it is straight ahead ass-kicking songs-and-riffs drums-bass-and-guitar rock. Impassioned vocals, pretty melodies, driving grooves, well balanced songs, great playing.

Logistic Slaughter

I have to make an admission regarding extreme metal: I can rarely make out the lyrics, and I rarely go to the trouble of finding out what they are. It’s not because I’m old, it was always that way… for me, those genres of music are all about the visceral impact of the performances. Logistic Slaughter are nothing if not visceral: this is a demonic, hellish, overwhelming psychic attack of grindcore malevolence, and I’m loving the abuse!

Christine Owman
‘I don’t need to stand out of the crowd. I just don’t want to be a part of it.’ So says Christine Owman on her MySpace, and as a manifesto for her music making, it’s something she stands by. Her music doesn’t grab you by the throat; it doesn’t rub your face in its dissonance or difference, but it follows its own distinctive path, a gentle, tentative, experimentalist exploration of the edges of acoustic songcraft. Robert Plant is a fan, and you can hear why.

The Good The Bad
Atmospheric and idiosyncratic garage surf, performed with swaggering determination on guitar, drums and baritone guitar. They say they play ‘surf and flamenco’ but it sounds more like a spaghetti western soundtrack on crystal meth. They have no singer because they ‘couldn’t find one that would stand behind the drummer’ and their songs are numbered rather than named.Oh, and they are absolutely superb.

Susie Asado
Observational, descriptive, literary, wordy but musical songs. Susie Asado presents her material very simply and sparsely, and you can hear why: any messing about would get in the way of these very intelligent and fragile slices of work. Listen closely, and prepare to be charmed.

Sink’s music is non-formulaic improvisation: I use that term to mean improvisation that doesn’t follow formulae such as key centres, chord sequences, or metronomic rhythmic frameworks. As such it demands a certain commitment from the listener, and a very open pair of ears. These spacious soundscapes incorporate found sounds with instrumental performance, and evolve gradually, hinting at the self generative qualities of minimalism. Difficult, excellent sound art.

1000 Robota
This band is entirely too original and creative to be adequately described in a paragraph: they could be refugees from the 80s underground, but they look far too young. Guitars are utensils of aural deconstruction, layered texturally against propulsive, mechanistic slabs of bass and drums, surmounted by vocals that sound bored and wistful by turns. Engaging and unpredictable.

Banane Metalik
A scary onslaught of a punked out psychobilly horror show, with lyrics in French and occasionally English. Screaming, thrashy electric guitars predominate, but when he gets the chance to step forwards the bull fiddle player shows he can slap like Lee Rocker. This exhilarating band is the real deal.

Snarky Puppy
The first few bars I heard from this outfit reminded me immediately of uber-fusioneers Tribal Tech’s more technologically experimental moments, or Herbie Hancock’s 80s electro period. They describe their sound as ‘showtunes’ on MySpace, but they’re joking: this is creative jazz-fusion with an emphasis on danceable groove and texture. There are solos, and playing of the highest order, but this is no noodlefest. Egos are in check and the music is mind-blowingly good.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Zen And The Art Of Improvisation

Where does improvising end, and just playing something start? At the hands of a truly creative, switched on musician, that line is never crossed. And before that statement is going to make any sense whatsoever, I’ll need to explain myself a bit.

Improvisation can mean a lot of things to different people. To many, it means taking a harmonic or other technical framework, and rattling around inside it until all its nooks and crannies have been explored. This is what happens in most jazz, the spiritual home of improvisation as an organised musical practice: that’s what was going on when Coltrane spewed out sheets and sheets of filigreed detail over chorus after chorus of a standard. He was exploring all the possibilities, filling all the wrinkles of the harmony with his musical awareness, like molten latex pouring into a mould.

To some, improvisation means taking a framework, a selection of notes, and wailing on it, like Neil Young beating crap out of his guitar until it starts to weep, or B.B. King seeming to extract a whole melody from the bends and slurs he applies to just three notes of the blues scale.

And then there are those to whom improvisation means reinventing the wheel, sixty times a minute. To this group any recognisable phrase is a failure of the imagination, an inability to invent instead of falling back on the hackneyed and the formulaic. Of course that’s an extreme: Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ is full of identifiably post-bop phraseology (mainly from Freddie Hubbard), but it made the case for an approach in which every element of music is up for grabs, at any time.

There are in fact, I’m sure, as many ideas of improvisation as there are improvisers, or people who have thought about it, covering every point on the spectrum between the poles described above, and probably several other poles I haven’t even thought of. The point is though, that to most people, improvising means ‘making it up as you go along’, and what is being made up is usually conceived as a series of notes, a melody. How then, can anyone be said to be improvising, when they are just, to pick an example at random, playing the bassline from the outro of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’?

The key is to be found in the practice of the free improvisers, those musicians who set out to produce something non-formulaic. What these people discover is that it’s increasingly difficult to generate novelty from a selection of notes. Improvisers have adopted some procedures from serialism, using tone rows to defeat the ear’s search for a recognisable tonality; the trouble they run into there, with an approach that organises the twelve tones of Western modality in an essentially arbitrary way, is that there are a finite number of note combinations. There are a lot of them, to be sure, but there is nothing unique about any of them: there is no untrodden path, no unexpressed formula to be found in any chromatic sequence. And so, it becomes necessary to look at the other elements of music.

Any secondary school music classroom is likely to have some of the following terms written on the wall: pitch, rhythm, timbre, harmony, dynamics, form. I’ve been talking about pitch, but of course any of these elements is a potential venue for improvisatory exploration. Free and experimental improvisors have explored many possibilities for developing musical meaning through these avenues: granted, traditional improvisation involves the manipulation of these elements, to a lesser degree, but the central thrust of that kind of blowing is always the melody. It’s the uncompromisingly non-formulaic improvisers who have most obviously taken the other elements and used them as primary materials for music making: what I want to suggest is that many musicians are improvising with some of these other musical elements even when they’re playing a set melody.

There’s a lot of choices to make when you play a melody, or a rhythm section part such as a bassline. How long should each note be? Should they be right on top of the beat, or a little ahead or behind? Should there be any vibrato on each note? If so, should it be terminal vibrato, or all the way through the note? How wide and fast should the vibrato be? What kind of timbre should be used - e.g. should a bassline be played by plucking near the bridge for a trebly sound, or near the fingerboard for a deeper, warmer sound? How should the line be phrased?

Most players will evolve the way they play a line through practice and rehearsal, until they arrive at answers to all these questions that work for them. It’s always necessary to remain aware of how those choices relate to what’s going on around you however: for instance if I’m playing in a venue that has a boomy acoustic I will make my sound less bassy, and play most of my notes more staccato, in order to avoid muddying up the band sound too much. I try to be as aware as I can be of issues like that, but the possession of a really finely honed awareness of how all the choices you can make interact with all the things that are going on around you is what separates the truly great musicians from the rest of us. These are the musicians who are always improvising.

So sure, they play all the notes you expect to hear when you hear the outro from The Chain: but when I play it, I play those notes because that’s how it goes. A master musician, a permanent improviser, is choosing those notes, because they are the right notes, just as they are choosing the note lengths, and allowing the music to breathe in a way that makes it flow instead of plodding. They could play anything at any time: they have come, as an improviser, to a musical framework, and they are going to make choices appropriate to their aims within that framework. The aims and the framework may be given by somebody else, but the choices made within them belong to the player, and this is equally true whether a jazz trumpeter is going to blow on a set of changes, or a session bassist is going to read a rock line from a chart, or an experimental tabla player is going to improvise with no reference points except the other players they will be playing with.

The point is that some players have that ‘always on’ level of total musical awareness, and the rest of us can, and should, aspire to it. What that means is trying to be aware of the other possibilities while we play what we have to play, and consequently of why we are playing exactly what we are: we’ll always be aware of the more nearby possibilities, such as minor variations in dynamics, but ultimately there is a whole world of music we could be holding in our head, and, crucially, relating to whatever we are playing. And the more of the big wide world of music we are conscious of as we enact our little part of it, the closer we come to that Zen state, of never ceasing to improvise.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Review: 'Black Friday' by Faderhead

L-Tracks Records LT006
Faderhead has built his career on bringing a funky accessibility to industrial music: he’s not afraid of distortion, in his beats or his vocals, but has proven quite willing to embrace melodicism when it suits his artistic purposes, and he has always put danceability ahead of any ideological commitment to noise. In short, his detractors would argue, his music is commercial, industrial-lite floor fodder. The truth, unsurprisingly, is rather more complex.
Most people who only know Dirtygrrls Dirtybois and TZDV would be surprised by the contents of FH albums. There are certainly plenty more tracks in there that perpetuate the vodka swilling, pussy hound, party animal persona that is the hook on which Faderhead’s public image is hung. Then there are the ballads: raw, angsty, hook filled melodies, sometimes sounding like Nine Inch Nails, and at other times (providing ammunition to the detractors) like an industrial version of Linkin Park. And then there are the tracks that don’t fit either mold, or either set of preconceptions: tunes like Mattaku from FH1, or Storm Sparks Structure from FH2, that refuse to yield any easy reading when you start trying to unpick them lyrically.
It’s something of a sad reflection on the industrial scene that this degree of diversity could be characterised as ‘sounding like totally different bands’ (as the man himself put it in a recent interview): to my ear Faderhead’s output actually has one of the more coherently individual sounds to be found in industrial music. The trouble is that the industrial music audience is used to bands that (in essence) put out the same track repeatedly with different samples, and can sound so like one another that rigid adherence to a particular stylistic feature can be the only way for a project to maintain its distinctiveness.
In the same interview (on Faderhead describes Black Friday’s production as ‘more ‘produced’, more layered … generally more dense, with … fatter sound and better mixing’; that’s one way of describing it. Another would be to say it sounds more like other industrial acts. For me, a big part of the Faderhead sound is its sparse quality, the fact that there are spaces in the soundstage, room for the beats to breathe and express their true point of distinction, which is that they are about a thousand times as funky and danceable as the stomp peddled by most other industrial acts. Here there is certainly an increase in kinetic force, there is that power that comes from a wall of sound expertly engineered to precisely fill the available headroom, but there is also a step away from the individuality of the earlier albums.
Black Friday is an album with a story to tell. The tracks are written and sequenced to a narrative structure, in which some decadent rivethead types get to the end of their wage slave week, and hit the tiles for a night of debauchery that goes horribly wrong in some unspecified manner. A short film will be released in November, with a soundtrack of extracts from the album, in which the story should become clearer, but I could pick out the general shape of it from the album.
The album opens with a pleasingly dark and twisted intro track, which might be over dramatising things a little, in the way it makes working for a living sound like forced labour under murderous conditions. ‘5pm it’s time to leave, escape from the machine’ goes the next track, which pulls Faderhead’s trademark harsh to melodic manoeuvre, and does a more convincing job of expressing the way that wage slavery crushes the human soul.
The narrative dictates the pace of the album, as it should if that’s the way he’s playing it, and so we have two consecutive ballads, laden with all the grim power we’ve come to expect from a FH ballad: I guess the story’s protagonists have come home from work, and are variously pondering suicide and loneliness, before their mutual attraction (portrayed in ‘Baby Firefly’) drags them out for a night on the tiles.
From this point on the album is pure floor fillers. The party gets going, it turns nasty, and then we’re played out with a mellow instrumental outro. Exactly what happens, and where it all goes wrong is a matter for conjecture, and there’s not much point me giving a detailed description of how I read the story. ‘Destroy Improve Rebuild’ is the album’s pre-release single, and lays it down heavy in the manner of TZDV, especially the syncopated, spiky synth figure that brings it in. ‘Aim To Misbehave’ has some of the album’s best lyrics: ‘It’s time to wear those shades at night/ Let’s be misunderstood’ is a rivethead’s manifesto, and other lines hark back again to TZDV with their evocation of a hard and dark club scene.
‘Pussy Rules’ is less easy to fit into the Faderhead oeuvre, and I predict it will both divide opinion, and become the most requested track from the album. It is, on the face of it, pretty cheesy, and it’s not clear to me whether it is a deliberate representation of the shallow emptiness of the dancefloor meat market, or an unreflecting celebration. I’m leaning towards the former interpretation, but there’s a lot to celebrate in that world as well, and this is a damn’ sexy song in it’s own right. Shaolyn’s guest vocal is less explicit than on some notorious tracks, but still pretty direct: there is vocoder lashed all over Faderhead’s vocal, which makes him come across like an industrial version of some six pack flashing R ‘n’ B lothario. I only hope the effect is deliberate.
I have no idea what ‘The Way To Fuck God’ is getting at but it’s vintage, angry, pounding Faderhead: I know this track will stand the test of time. I suspect Corpus Crisis of being the key to the meaning of the whole shebang/ story/ album. It’s lyrics suggest a frustration with, and rejection of the story so far, while it’s soundscape is full of juicy noise and harshness. But who knows?
In the final analysis Black Friday hangs together in the way an album should: it has its own specific set of production values, which means the tracks cohere sonically, and the whole thing sounds like a single work. If you are aware of the narrative framework as you listen, it contributes to the sense of cohesion: whether it really succeeds in what it sets out to do I’ll feel better able to judge when I’ve seen the film, and I have a little more idea what its intentions are.
It’s a cliché, and a dangerous one, to accuse later albums of failing to live up the early ones. It usually means the accuser’s ears are not open enough to appreciate artistic growth, although it is certainly often true that an artist’s early work has a freshness, a focus or a clarity of vision that is hard to maintain. In the case of Faderhead I think the first album, FH1, is full of potential, which is realised on FH2 and FH3. With Black Friday, he has made a real and courageous effort to move on, and find a new artistic strategy, and in many senses he has succeeded. Sadly, as I intimated earlier, I feel the success has come at the cost of some of the project’s distinctiveness.
Perhaps it is simply that the songs have been made to serve the story arc, and I should be considering the whole more than the parts, but I don’t hear any truly stand out tracks here. I love this album: there are a lot of excellent tunes, and I can’t wait till I get the chance to put some of them through a big sound system, but there are several tracks on FH2 and FH3 that left my jaw on the floor in a way that, after listening to Black Friday, it isn’t.