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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.