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Monday, 28 February 2011

Weekly Roundup: All the Music News And Writing I Happened To Come Across And Thought Was Interesting

This is the first in what I hope will be a weekly report on my blog. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, or definitive, or tell you everything you need to know about the music business. It’s not ‘Music Week’, it’s ‘What I Randomly Encountered This Week. Just a bundle of links to interesting stories, and a brief account of why I think they’re interesting.
More very sound and sensible advice for the DIY musician from Matt Stevens and Live Unsigned.
A couple of interesting reports from TechCrunch. Firstly, MySpace’s downward spiral continues (hooray!). Secondly, the next version of OSX is expected to do away with an optical install disk, clearing the way for more Apple computers to ship without an optical drive, and thus causing the death of the CD. Huh? That’s going to stop the people who currently buy music CDs from wanting to continue? Bullshit, but an interesting development, anyway.
Very sad news irrespective of who it happens to, but X-Ray Spex and Poly Styrene are important landmarks in the history of British underground music.
The Beastie Boys are releasing a new album in April, 'Hot Sauce Committee Pt.2'. That is all.
Further portents of the death of the music industry. I wish it’d hurry up and die. There’s only one kind of industrial music I like and that’s industrial music. If you see what I mean.
An informed perspective on paperless ticketing.
Heartfelt thanks to Faderhead for sharing this one. A philosophical discussion of the value of music, that deals with stuff that everybody involved in music should be thinking about and discussing.
And finally, thanks to Matt Stevens for finding this one. Those DIY musicians lucky enough to be famous still need some financial leverage to reach their large numbers of fans, and The Libertines are turning to venture capitalists to provide it.
There will be another album review on Wednesday (of the fascinating ‘Oi! A Nova Música Brasileira!’ from Mais Um Discos) and another on Saturday, and a further weekly roundup in a week’s time. Until then, be bad and do things I wouldn’t do.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Album Review: Los Chicharrons - ‘Roots Of Life’

Los Chicharrons - ‘Roots Of Life’ (2010)
Tummy Touch Records TUCH2022CD, CD album, £6.99
There’s a certain feel that you get with a live rhythm section, a certain unmistakeable vibe of musicians responding to each other, and when they’re really good, they get that incredible tight/ loose thing happening, that, for me, is more danceable than anything else on the planet. So, there I was, on my first listen through to this album, digging the afro-funk beats, not paying too much attention, and then the track Bamako came on and sent me scrambling for the insert. ‘I know that groove,’ I thought, ‘that’s Mike Clark and Paul Jackson! Who’s playing on this album?’
And then I had to slightly adjust my view of electronic music. I listen to a lot of electronic music, across a wide range of genres, and most of it is identifiably electronic within half a bar: then there are the various brands of house music, that sound like a band grooving to start with, but are just too regular, precise and consistent to sound human when you listen. But this album has some of the most alive, natural sounding programmed bass and drums I’ve ever heard. I mean, okay, I don’t want to be too hyperbolic, I’ve heard some good, live-sounding feels, but this stuff had me fooled, and I am a major rhythm section nerd.
Listening more closely to Bamako, it lacks Paul Jacksons trademark upper register licks, and it’s too consistently repetitive to be him, but it’s a masterful recreation of that feel: other tunes, such as Roots Of Life, have a house feel, but still a very loose, human groove, with really sweet, organic sounds.
There’s a lot more to this album than drum and bass grooves. One thing that helps the live feel is that on most of the tracks there is manually played percussion, that slots precisely into the feel and the soundstage. There’s also some earthy, grooving brass, a smattering of guitar, and the vocals.
The vocals are what makes this record truly come alive. I don’t know as much as I’d like about West African music, but the singers are Malinese, and I think (from my limited experience) they’re from the Bamana musical tradition. There are men and women, with a variety of voices, but what they share is an expressive exuberance, a rhythmic melodicism, and a declamatory character that is never shouty, but always sweet and mellifluous, however powerful.
The first tune I heard was Ma Do Nar, which is included on the free Tummy Touch 2011 Teaser. It’s built around a bass tumbao that would’t sound out of place on a Los Van Van record, and layered with percussion, brass and a simple piano montuno, prodding away low in the mix: soaring over the top is a magnificent vocal performance from Saramba Koyaté. The thing about this tune, is that it doesn’t sound like a multicultural fusion: West Africa has had a long association with Cuban music, so the combination of voice and groove is not too surprising, but the main factor is that, once again, it sounds like a band playing the tune, sat in a studio together and jamming out a live take.
There are many wonderful moments among this album’s eleven tracks: the truly polyrhythmic groove on Koko; the (presumably programmed) bala and kora intro on Kounandi; the deep funk, and call and response vocals of Equal Opportunity. I could go on.
At the end of the day this is a producer record: two guys set out to make a album. They’re obviously possessed of real musical knowledge, but rather than renting a studio and tuning up their instruments, they prepared by jumping on a plane to Mali. What they came up with is musically deep, an irresistible call to get up and dance, and a consummate example of the producer’s art.
It would be interesting to find out about their working process: I’m wondering especially whether they started with the grooves, or did they record the vocals and then build the tracks around them? Either way, they’ve taken a variety of musical sources, both recorded and programmed, from a huge range of musical traditions, and combined them in a way that is so amazingly well integrated that it sounds like they just recorded a band. The arrangements are perfect, with that organic feel that normally arises from musicians negotiating their place in proceedings over a period of rehearsal and performance, and the mixing is so perfectly judged that all its artifice completely disappears.
But in the glory days of big money record production, both of those jobs would be carried out by hired hands: the producer’s task is to understand and steer all of the different processes involved in making recordings, to maintain a consistent sound and feel, to develop a narrative across and through all the cuts of an album, and ultimately to use their own (often technically undeveloped) musicianship to make the right creative decisions. These are the decisions that make the difference between a track that may have all the elements in place, but doesn’t quite work, or an album that may contain some great tracks, but just sounds like they were randomly assembled, and a product that simply sings with creative coherence and sonic integration, like this one does.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Guest Album Reviews by CB: Akelei - ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’ and Raving Season - ‘The Brightness of my Disaster’

For this Wednesday’s post I’m handing my blog over to a very good friend of mine (who I’ve never met, the internet is a wonderful thing). CB has been responsible for pointing me at some amazing music over the last couple of years, much of it ranking among the best new sounds I’ve encountered in that time. Out there bands like Igorrr or Negura Bunget, that I would never have stumbled across without his help, because he, like me, is a digger, a music terrier, who operates on the assumption that if you’ve already heard of it, it’s probably not worth your time. What he has to share with us here is a brace of very progressive bands from the doomy, epic end of the metal spectrum.

Raving Season - ‘The Brightness of my Disaster’ (2009)
self released, CD EP, €8
An Intricate Game of Agonising Beauty and Beautiful Agony.
Three ladies and four gentlemen from Italy. Influences ranging from chamber music to Opeth and perhaps even Agathodaimon. One five track EP. A self released gem, holding as much promise as it does beauty. 
Raving Season are a young Italian band that has, to this point in time, only one release, the EP reviewed here - although there is, so claims the band, a debut album in the making. So, whilst I sit here in restless anticipation, waiting for the day of its release, let me share with you my enthusiasm for this talented collective and the potential they manage to display in five chapters of impressive technical maturity and suprising variety.
The Brightness of my Disaster opens with a short, acoustic track. At best, it could be described as neoclassical, or perhaps, soundtrack material for European art films. It is a low and slow, dreamy, melancholy piece which sets the emotional pace for the rest of the album very well as it leads into the first 'real' track of the album – a track that begins with strings, piano and Judith's angelic, operatic vocal. When I say operatic, though, I don't mean pompous, Tarja-esque showing off. The first minute and twenty seconds are much more intimate, much more like a chamber piece. Following that, whispers and acoustic guitars are reminiscent of Opeth but pick up the vibe, set up by the intro and the first part of the song, wonderfully. 
Speaking of Opeth, remember how Mikael Akerfeldt busts our collective balls by slashing across the acoustic, whispery parts with his epic grunt?
10 seconds of whispering and acoustics, and Federica, the other female vocalist, achieves just that. Yes, she's a growler. And what a growler! Her growl tears into the song, forcing it into a new dimension altogether. And then... then Judith joins her, the vocals entwine, the guitars pick up pace and perform a few decidedly prog-death stunts … and I think to myself, hey, we're 3 minutes into the second song, under 5 minutes into the album, and enough has happened to fill half a page or more just trying to keep track and describe. And that, that is exactly what this EP is about. Though always in tune with the melancholy vibe, established by the intro, always true to the central idea, compact and sensibly assembled, it is full of turnarounds, surprising shifts in pace, style or even genre. However, each and every element, each and every segment flows into one seamlessly. 
The quality of the musicianship is undeniable – the instruments sound as raw as they sound tight and precise. As if the band had been at this for over a decade. Hey, who knows, maybe they have? After all, one can't have this much going on without some genuinely mad skills and mileage, right? And if they really have been together since no earlier than 2005, the mad skills are very mad and exceptionally skillful indeed! The compositions are extremely mature as well, never trading off the whole to show off a particular element. This is so much more than progressive death or doom metal. It's gothic, it's atmospheric, it can be aggressive, heavy, ruthless, intricate, gentle, crushing... 35 minutes provide more in terms of variety and intensity than some bands have managed in their entire careers! 
And let me return to the quality of Judith's vocals. Simply angelic. Crystal clear, with a solid range and the ability to weave in an unexpected element here or there. Listen attentively. As for the grunts, Federica simply blows me away. You won't mistake her for an angel, but she does make a damn good death metal demon. Low as a deathmetal grunt, but with the vicious emotion of black metal delivery, her vocal work fits the album perfectly. Perhaps unlike most female grunters, she doesn't simply go for raw power. The lady delivers in a way that makes you believe she means every single word of the lyrics. 
The album's biggest shortcoming is the production – a bit on the quiet and fuzzy side, it sometimes masks or dulls the intensity of the musical delivery. However, let us remember that this is a debut EP, self released. No major metal label backed up the making of this precious work of art. 
Oh, and there's another one.
It's simply way too short.
Raving Season, please release the full length soon!

Akelei - ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’ (2010)
self released, digital download album, £free
A Soothing Sonic Inner Sanctum of the Soul.
With various unavoidable websites screaming about Brit's Pears and their new 'album', with random people online and off attempting to convince me that Burlesque is not merely an exercise in recycling (anything featuring Cher… Cher herself… is an exercise in recycling in my humble opinion) but a genuinely good musical movie, with all the rage and raging around teenage pop, twenty-something 'rock' and 'true underground', often as blatantly market driven as the rest, I find myself craving sanctuary. 
A sanctuary that is not my usual fare of extremes, experimentation or raw-as-fuck attitude.
Something, somewhere, soothing yet engaging.
Something, somewhere, where genuine emotion and atmosphere reign, where unpretentious, organic playing helps crystal clear vocal work convey lyrical messages.
Enter Akelei.
The Dutch doomsters' music is all of the above and more. Akelei play melancholy, emotion laden doom metal, laced with aspects of gothic, post-rock and shoegaze. Perhaps, upon reading these words, one would think, hey, deja vu? However the brilliance of the band lies not in the genres or genre elements themselves. The brilliance of Akelei lies in the way they bring it all together. So, let us take a look at the 'all' that they so skillfuly fuse in their rich, rewarding music.
Doom metal only acknowledges two paces. Slow and slower. Akelei keep it firmly in the realm of slow, never sacrificing the outstanding atmosphere to adopt a more 'extreme' sound, be it by slowing down or speeding up. However, the pace does not mean a lack of variety. Take the very first song from the album, for example – Verlangen. Clocking in just over 11 minutes, there is still a lot going on in the very first two. Beats and melodies change and flow naturally, never once remaining in one place for too long, yet never in a hurry.
The guitarwork, the foundation of everything metal, combines slow  and heavy doom riffs, not too big on fuzz, with clean, minimalist melodies and sweeping shoegazy passages. Mad props to the boys here, because they manage to build a full, rich sound, fusing the elements into a sonic wave where so many bands sound as if they build their thing from lego with bits and odd ends sticking out everywhere. 
The transitions are simply brilliant, soft and smooth even when the shift from a gentle, clean sound to thick and heavy riffage in itself presents the listener with a rather intense contrast. Imagine being hit by the proverbial doomhammer, except that it's wrapped in silk this time. Overall, the guitarwork of Akelei sweeps over you, wraps itself around you and refuses to let go, whispering and chanting along with the vocals.  
Ah yes, the vocals. All of the songs are sung in Dutch, a language that isn't very common in the world of metal in general, perhaps somewhat more so in the doom and black realms. The language fits the songs perfectly and the voice, oh, that voice! There is something almost sacral about the choruses, something meditative about the phrasing… it's rich and expressive, it's there, working perfectly with the instruments, driving that message through, unstoppable, focused upon the delivery, like a funeral procession. However, it is the vocal work that allows for a glimmer of sunshine, that elusive spark of hope that gives the music of Akelei an even more unique vibe. 
The album features one more pleasant surprise, guest female vocals on a song. A duet with a no nonsense title Duett – which, of course, translates to duet. Sung in Dutch and Norwegian. The formula is beyond description. As a matter of fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best male / female vocal duets ever heard in either doom metal or its gothic rock cousin.
Although the album is divided into five songs, it would be rather pointless to dissect the pieces. In fact, it would be blasphemous. ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’ is an ocean. Ever in motion but a solid, unified entity, full of fascinating details to explore though none of them fascinating to the point where one could forget or ignore the majesty of the whole.
Go to and dive in headfirst – the band has put up all of their music for free! I guarantee you, even if melancholy doom metal is not number one on your list, this masterpiece won't leave you cold. You might even end up ordering the actual albums in spite of the mp3s being free. I know I did.
P.S. Once downloading, be sure to also grab the single ‘Dwaalur’ that is on the band's Bandcamp site. It was, they claim, a song intended for the album, but then left on its own. A good call. The song is a priceless display of the versatility and potential that Akelei have. True to the urban melancholy and genuine emotion that permeates ‘De Zwaarte van het Doorstane’, Dwaaluur is musically reminiscent of acts such as Dead can Dance or Arcana.
In short, the only thing exceeding the briliance of Akelei today is the potential they have for the future.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Gig Review: Lemonparty Presents at the White Horse in Sudbury.

The first Lemonparty Presents was a lot of fun, and showcased some very high quality acts, so I went along to the second of these monthly gigs with high hopes. I don’t know if future shows will continue in this vein, but the first two have been stylistically themed: first we had a ska/ punk/ brasscore evening, plus Lemonparty’s own very entertaining funk rock; and on the second we had a funky/ hip-hop (ish) theme. I enjoyed the night, but it wasn’t quite up to the standard of the previous month’s offering.
First up were Paperstreet House, who opened with a Chilli Peppers cover that left me a little underwhelmed: they were quite loose, and the performance lacked conviction. However, once they moved onto their own material they hit their stride: their sound is more disco-punk than funk-rock, with a bit of a Talking Heads feel to it. At their best they were very funky, with a nice, wide, spacious fat-back groove. They quite often attempted to use feels that were a bit too busy though, or maybe just under rehearsed, and they simply weren’t tight enough to pull off everything they attempted. On their Facebook it says that their style of music is ‘shit’. This is very far from the truth, but it gives you an idea of their diffidence, which is pronounced, and funk is not a style that works well with a diffident delivery: if they had a bit more self belief, and laid down their grooves with a lot more conviction, this band would be excellent. As it was, I enjoyed their set, but I sometimes had to work quite hard to stay with them, and the deepest groove they played was on a straight rock number.
Up next was Kerr McIlwarith, who was advertised in publicity for the night as ‘sexy acoustic rap’: I can’t comment on the sexy, though it was certainly acoustic, but I didn’t hear him rapping. He has a nice line in funky acoustic strumming, with a very kinetic approach that suits a solo performer, particularly one that’s slotted into the bill between two electric acts. Vocally however he had a weak delivery, not helped by a mic technique that saw him frequently drifting off axis, to the extent that it was hard to get the sense of the songs. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with his vocal technique, but like Paperstreet House he seemed diffident. If he lost his reserve, and committed fully to his performance, I think he could be a compelling singer.
A lack of passion, or commitment to vocal delivery, is not an accusation that could be leveled at Newtons Apple. This four piece plays tight, funky rock, with a good groove and bags of soul. Their singer is everything you could want to front a band: good looking, self-assured, with a charismatic delivery, excellent vocal technique, and a convincing ballsy, bluesy style; plus she’s a decent electric guitarist. Why she wasn’t standing in the middle is a bit of a mystery, as she was definitely the centre of attention, her animated manner the very antithesis of what preceded her. The band were quite noticeably tighter live than on the tracks I’d listened to online before the show, which is a pleasing inversion of the norm. The drummer didn’t stick his head above the parapet much, but kept the whole thing tied together, whatever was happening in front of him. The three performers up front each had their own distinctive style, and seemed very natural, relaxed on stage and comfortable in their skin. The guitarist eschewed any rock star posturing in favour of a natural, no fronting geekiness (that’s meant as praise, I’m a proud geek myself), while the bass player, who purveys a nice line in soulful vocals herself, was extremely chilled out, interacting humorously with the audience. She was however, quite forgetful, and would occasionally throw her hands up with a shrug and sit out half a chorus until it came back to her, and there were a few moments when the band as a whole fell into a bit of a shambles. And tight as they were on the whole, there were moments in most songs where the time feel became a bit imprecise for a few bars: Newtons Apple are definitely the closest thing to the finished article I saw during the evening though. This band has so much going for it, in terms of good material, musically and visually engaging performers, and a distinctive sound and image, that I hope they put in the time to tighten up and iron out all the wrinkles. Because, if they’re willing to work for it, they definitely have the potential to go places.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Album Review: VA - ‘Electronic Body Matrix’

‘Electronic Body Matrix’ (2011)
Alfa Matrix, 4CD box plus download card, €30
I recently picked up a copy of The Guardian’s ‘Guide’ supplement which had a picture of a girl in stylish 40s type clothing, holding a Telecaster, on the cover. I was intrigued by her look, so I read the article: I found out a lot about her visual style, her background, her creative process and so on. What was notable by its absence from the piece, was any attempt to describe her music. Sure, I found out that she sings with a wide dynamic range; that at one point she wrote songs ‘influenced by flamenco and Debussy and Wong Kar-wai movies’; and that her music is ‘heavy and close’ and ‘dogmatically dreamlike, yet strangely precise.’ So you tell me, what does she sound like?
This is nothing unusual. It is entirely characteristic of writing about popular music, even in a context that purports to give it its due respect as serious art. In no other area of culture would it be considered acceptable to write reviews and features without any reference whatever to the specific characteristics of the cultural object under scrutiny, but the sad fact is that the majority of music writers do not have any real understanding or knowledge of what they’re listening to, or the language to describe it.
Now I’m a moderately capable musician, with a degree level education in music, and it would be easy for me to throw in a few technical terms and look down my nose at people, so let me be clear. I would not for a second argue that a lay person can’t properly understand a piece of music, or adequately describe it: you don’t need to be able to recognise and name scales or time signatures to do justice to something. There is some fine music writing that talks in terms of instrumental texture, comparisons to other music,  the experience of listening to it, and genre. But it is heavily outnumbered by writing that is exclusively concerned with issues that, while not necessarily extraneous to the music, are separate from it.
My unique selling point as a music writer, I’m sorry to say, is that I write about the music.
And having said that, I have an album to review here that I can’t possibly approach through close listening and musical analysis. This bastard is 8.3 hours long! A compilation on this scale is very difficult to appreciate as an album per se: as a programmed sequence of tunes it is so long that it’s a challenge to even hold its narrative arc in your mind, let alone find something interesting to say about it.
Alfa Matrix have a history of putting out incredibly high quality, comprehensive and generically definitive compilations, most notably their Endzeit Bunkertracks series, which taken as a whole is a 20 CD survey of contemporary industrial music (with an understandable bias towards Alfa Matrix artists). The title of Electronic Body Matrix is a play on words with the genre ‘electronic body music’, more usually abbreviated as EBM: I had better digress again.
Industrial and EBM are two closely interconnected genres, and there is a good deal of disagreement about whether one is a subset of the other, or whether they are completely separate. Industrial music was originally a genre of experimental electronic music centred around the label Industrial Records in the UK, but it has come to refer to a style of harsh and dark electronic dance music (sometimes qualified as ‘electro-industrial), which bears the same kind of relationship to mainstream electronica that metal bears to rock. Inevitably there are a bazillion sub-genres, and the word ‘industrial’ is applied as an adjective to many other styles, as in industrial techno, industrial metal and so on.
EBM on the other hand was a dance music from it's inception, as an early 80s fusion of electronica with industrial elements (although Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk had coined the term much earlier). It is characterised by chunky, jerky synthesiser parts, over minimally syncopated rock-like programmed drums, rather than the pounding, often funky, dancefloor beats that anchor most electro-industrial music, with distorted or trance-like synths floating on top. Its vocals are usually recorded clean, but often delivered in a declamatory, shouted style.
As I've said, industrial music is a confusing web of interrelated sub-genres, the boundaries between which can be hotly contested. Some claim EBM as a subset of industrial music, but there are hardcore EBM fans who vehemently proclaim it's independence as a parallel genre. To those looking at both scenes from the outside (and I try to look at all scenes that way when I'm writing) this may seem a pretty incomprehensible argument. My personal view of genre is that it is impossible to police its definitive boundaries, and that an excessive concern with it leads to generic (i.e. bland) music, but that it is a very useful shorthand for listeners discussing and comparing music. It is at its most useful when its labels are applied flexibly to musical characteristics, and at its most counter-productive when they are applied rigidly to social or historical groupings (scenes or movements).
Of course it's pointless to pretend that it isn't used in both ways, and it would be impossible to discuss a genre without acknowledging its historical origins, but when a plethora of sub-genres arise, I for one feel it gets a bit silly if there is no clear musical distinction, or if they need a whole string of adjectives (as in 'misanthropic technical death grind', to pluck an example from the ether). However, it’s really only in terms of genre that one can have a meaningful discussion about a release of this nature.
This compilation includes tracks from artists that are clearly EBM, such as Spetsnaz, from artists that might be said to straddle the boundaries of the genre, like Leæther Strip, from artists that aren't usually EBM but sound like it in this case (Nachtmahr), and also tracks that don't sound like EBM, and are from artists that aren't associated with EBM, such as ASCII.Disco’s ‘Jawbreaker’. So what is it, if anything, that ties all this together?
Well, to be honest, this album covers mainly the same ground as the Endzeit Bunkertracks series, but the weighting has changed: there is no power noise, and there is a lot more EBM, unsurprisingly; most other electro-industrial genres are represented, but there is less of the harsh end of the spectrum, less aggrotech, and more futurepop (which is a very closely related genre to EBM). It certainly sounds (particularly to ears unused to industrial music) very much of a piece: the combination of genres does not jar. There are very few of the ludicrously explicit lyrics that are common in electro-industrial music, although Uberbyte and Noisuf-X deserve an honourable mention in this regard, for ‘Money Shot’ (‘tongue fucking/ asshole licking/ cyber cyber cyber/ whore/ anal douching/ lesbian/ POV/ cock cock cock cock/ pussy cock/ pussy pussy cock/ pussy cock/ pussy cock/ money money money shot’) and ‘Fucking Invective’ (‘shit/ fuck/ bitch/ suck it quick’) respectively.
The EBM acts featured here range from some of the genre’s founders, Nitzer Ebb (with a remix of a track from their recent ‘Industrial Complex’ album, which is my favourite of theirs, although the EBM purists will be horrified to hear me say it) and Front 242 (so important to the genre that International EBM Day is celebrated on 24/2 every year), to the merely ten year old Spetsnaz, and recent upstarts like Agrezzior, whose excellent ‘Shout’ is archetypal headbanging, shouty EBM.
Studio X contribute a tune called ‘Body Music’, whose refrain is ‘electro/ body/ music’, but confusingly, it’s not EBM: it’s industrial techno, or hard trance (you choose). Nachtmahr, an industrial techno act, are represented by a tune called ‘Mädchen In Uniform’, which sounds very EBM: I have to concur with the singer’s appreciation of girls in uniform, but I can’t work out why he sounds so angry about it.
The download card provides a few gems: ‘The Final Destruction (Ionic Vision mix)’ from Red Industrie feat. Sara Noxx takes a mid-tempo route to a laconically ominous mood that I enjoyed a great deal. Virgins O.R. Pigeons’ tune ‘Born In Sin (De_Tot_Cor mix)’ has been doing the rounds of the compilations for a while, but it’s a favourite tune of mine, and it’s nice to hear it included here. It’s strange to find Unter Null curated as EBM, but anything Erica Dunham does is fantastic in my book (including her bacon flavoured confectionery), so I was pleased to find ‘Broken Heart Cliché (Kant Kino mix)’ included for those who have’t got all the remixes already; it’s followed up with the lovely ‘Miles From Here’, also an Erica Dunham tune, released under the name of Stray.
There are one hundred and twelve tracks here if you include the downloads, so it would be pointless for me to attempt to give more than a random sampling any individual attention. The question I need to answer is, is this collection worth the relatively large number of spondoolies you’ll be asked to swap for it?
For strangers to industrial music, it’s a fantastic introduction. It gives some sense of the diversity of the style, but it avoids the most abrasively harsh material, which can be offputting to unhabituated ears. It presents a real opportunity to explore, by including a lot of material in its own right, which will take quite some time to absorb, and by offering an introduction to a huge range of acts for further investigation. It should be noted, however, that some very important acts are not represented here, and you should never take a compilation from a label with its own roster of artists as representative of a genre: it’s fair enough, they have records to sell.
For DJs it’s a superb resource: as with Endzeit Bunkertracks you can expect a lot of tunes to become ubiquitous pretty quickly, and you will need to be wary of sourcing too much of your sets from this, because there’s a certain interchangeability among the (particularly internet radio) DJs who use the best known industrial compilations. There are a lot of excellent tunes here: I can’t recall any duds, so that’s 112 excellent tunes, but obviously they’re not all going to be right for every set. You certainly can’t pull them out at random and expect to end up with an EBM set, because as I’ve said, there’s a lot in here that isn’t.
I’m not special enough to get review copies from big shot labels like Alfa Matrix, so I shelled out for this, and I turned out to have fourteen of these tracks already (in the mixes included), but am I feeling ripped off? No way! I’m not likely to listen to this as a complete album very much, but it’s added a rich seam of creative, crunchy industrial goodness to my music library, and I’m very happy with it.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

CD Review: Matt Stevens and Hobopope and the Goldfish Cathedral

Matt Stevens - ‘Ghost’ (2010)
self released, digital download, £ name your price
This is an instrumental album of acoustic guitar music. Which could mean any of a number of things: it’s not Rodrigo y Gabriela; neither is it Egberto Gismonti; and no, it’s not Eric Roche either. It’s Matt Stevens. I’ve heard it described as acoustic prog, but that doesn’t really help me tell you what it sounds like.
Equal parts unassuming, melody focussed composition and studio cleverness, this is music that manages to be highly individual and distinctive without being obviously transgressive or generically unstable. It’s easy to listen to, but a very long way from easy listening. I like the way it refuses to push its inventiveness at you, but sits there, waiting for your close attention, and ready to reward you if you give it.
‘Ghost’ is not a virtuoso guitar record, which is a good thing in my book. Not that I object to virtuoso performances, but it’s easy for guitarists who are merely extremely good players to fall into the trap of thinking we’d like to listen to their technique for an hour or so. Matt Stevens is clearly a player, but there are no parts on here that couldn’t be executed by any reasonably well versed guitarist.
What this is about, to my ear, is texture. I mean, clearly a great deal of thought has gone into the rhythmic and melodic elements of these compositions, but their short phrase cyclicity turns melodic fragments into textural musemes, either to be layered and accumulated for dynamic intensity, or to be isolated and exposed for narrative impetus.
Of course there is long phrase melodicism as well (or ‘solos’, as I would call it if I was in a less obscure mood), which is where Stevens’ very creative and intelligent ear for improvisation is showcased. Well, to be honest, I have no idea whether they’re improvisations or not, but they sound like they are, which, in my book, is a Good Thing.
What strikes me most forcefully there is the distinctive approach to ‘out’ playing. Playing ‘out’ is where an improviser plays notes that don’t necessarily relate closely to the harmony: they’re not ‘right’ notes. Where this is usually done is either in certain minor key harmonies, which are already unstable, and can absorb a good deal of chromaticism, or in a tightly sequenced series of repeated motifs, where the strong melodic shape, established with ‘right’ notes, makes the ear happily accept the ‘out’ notes. Another approach is to simply diverge from the harmony and go off on your own path, effectively establishing an alternative key centre, a polytonality.
Perhaps because it only happens when he is playing long phrase, non-repetitive melody, Matt Stevens’ outside playing seems to take the form of an episodic polytonality, pulling away from the harmony, and building tension like a rubber band, but releasing it quite quickly, before the listener has any chance to get lost. I don’t think I know of any other soloist, in rock or jazz, who does quite the same thing: it’s a very distinctive, rather unsettling, and highly musical effect.
If I have a criticism of this album, it is that the mood is very similar across all of the tracks. There’s a good deal of variety in texture, in the musical materials that are used, and in the use to which they are put: it’s far from ‘samey’ in that sense. But emotionally, each tune seems to be in a similar place, and as a consequence, although there is a continuous impression of musical impetus, the album does not have much overall sense of journey or narrative.
There’s a lot I could tell you about this recording. The way each tune seems to describe a place or an experience, with all the atmosphere and specificity of memory. The clever sonic manipulations. The way dynamics are handled with a beautifully controlled modulation of instrumental density, rather than volume. The very subtle, but deeply involving sense of forward motion that obtains even when the music seems to be at a standstill, with melodic fragments just hanging in the ether.
But the main thing I need to tell you is that this is heartfelt, moving music, that is not trying to be clever, but simply trying to communicate. I’ve listened to this a hell of a lot, and I’m still finding new things in it. Matt Stevens is a rare compositional talent and I’m looking forward to his next release with bated breath.

Hobopope and the Goldfish Cathedral - ‘Dusty Curtain Face’ (2007)
self released, CD, £1
I’ll start this review with an apology: I’m going to mention Cardiacs a lot. I’m sure there are a lot of deeply obscure bands out there that could also bear a comparison with Hobopope and the Goldfish Cathedral (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the first part, or maybe HATGC), but I don’t know about them, more’s the pity.
I say ‘more’s the pity’ because I like this sort of thing. You may be wondering what ‘this sort of thing’ entails, and the answer is simple: pronk.
This is a genre label, a contraction of ‘progressive punk’, which refers to a fusion of punk aesthetics and instrumental texture, with a progressive and sophisticated approach to the selection and use of musical materials. It is a term most frequently applied in relation to Cardiacs (although chief Cardiac Tim Smith prefers to refer to his music as ‘pop’; if we take genre labels as a convenient shorthand used to give music lovers a general idea of what a band might sound like, then I can’t begin to describe how utterly ludicrous that is!)
So pronk is a good starting place for HATGC, as is saying that it sounds a bit like Cardiacs: when I first heard them play (or him, as the multi-talented Paul Rhodes was making do with just a backing tape for a band), I thought ‘that sounds like Cardiacs’. Which is the only time I’ve heard any band other than Cardiacs and thought that. I’m going to leave Cardiacs alone now, because they are indeed an obvious influence, and Rhodes is a big fan, but he also has a musical brain of his very own, and it is an imaginative and creative one. His music is anything but derivative, and it has lot of unique features what he made up without copying a famous band.
One of the first things you might find is that a lot of the melodies don’t sound normal. That’s because they’re not. Normal melodies are based on one of a handful of musical scales: a lot of the melodies on this album sound to me as though they’re based on the whole tone scale, which is not one of those handful of scales. It is a symmetrical scale, which means that any one of its notes can equally well serve as the root note of any given phrase, leading to a sense of ambiguity and, well, rootlessness. This puts a slant on the music from the word go: it gives it a weird mood, as though you had unwittingly crossed into a parallel, similar, but subtly different universe.
Another thing that’s odd is the phrasing. Chords (and melodies) tend to be sequenced in long, meandering chains, that don’t come to a logical conclusion like a harmonic rhythm normally does, and that don’t cycle round in nice predictable little sub-phrases so that we’ll find it easy to sing along. Rhodes, sadly for those who want a sing along, and happily for me and other weirdos of a similar disposition, is not about to switch off his imagination in order to make things easier for us to digest.
Rhythmically the music usually sounds straightforward, at a basic level, but over the ground beat are layered all kinds of displacements, odd numbered groupings and abrupt gear changes in and out of half time, which has an effect on the listener nearly as unsettling as the unconventional melodic resources.
All of this is very clever, but it’s not about being clever: it’s about making sounds that are challenging, that demand your attention, and do not just remind you of something else you’ve heard. Most of the instrumental textures will be familiar from the heavier end of the rock spectrum, but that’s like saying the instruments used in the Rite Of Spring are the same as some of the ones in the Marriage Of Figaro: it doesn’t give you much warning!
Personally I find this music deeply satisfying to listen to: it is stimulating, intriguing, intelligent and passionate in a way that doesn’t jump about and draw attention to itself, but almost hides behind its ostensible weirdness. And it doesn’t entirely eschew the cheap tricks of less uncompromisingly creative music: I’ve just been having a very nice metal-head type time listening to the bizarre acid-thrash mayhem of B.I.A.B.W.A.B.I., the album’s final track.
There is singing. It’s kind of submerged in the mix, and I generally pay as much attention to the lyrics as I think the artist wants me to: in other words, if there are lyrics on the CD insert, or in an obvious place on the website, I’ll pay close attention to what the songs are ‘about’, but if they’re hard to hear and not reproduced, I’ll assume that they’re not crucial to an understanding of the music. It’s pretty clear these are not ‘ooh baby I love you’ songs or ‘feel the rhythm’ dancefloor anthems, but beyond that, I wouldn’t like to say. If that means I’ve totally missed the entire point of the album so be it.
In conclusion, this is not for the faint-hearted, or the closed-minded. This is for the open-eared listener with a willingness to embrace new sounds, and to be taken on a journey without continually clutching at generic reference points. It is some of the most creative and technically accomplished music I’ve come across recently, and also some of the most intelligent.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Review: Wytchazle - 'Sunrise' and The Grammar Club - 'MC Horse Rides Again'

‘Sunrise’ (2010), self released, CD, £8.50
Wytchazle are an acoustic duo, performing in my neck of the woods (the east of England) for the most part. They were both experienced musicians in their respective fields before they came together: Daisy Windsor as a singer songwriter, and leader of a hard working acoustic band, The Floozies; and Robert Foster as a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, record producer and author of a multitude of library music albums. Their arrangement is essentially that Daisy does what she does, and Rob uses his plenitude of skills to embellish, frame, enhance and polish it.
There are a couple of standards on here as well, where Rob accompanies and Daisy concentrates on singing. Daisy’s vocal delivery is different here from her treatment of her own material, but it is still recognisable, and certainly not mannered. She adjusts to the demands of the idiom, and applies the right nuances of expression to bring out the nuances of the lyrics, which is a challenging task with standards. Rob provides an idiomatic and tasteful reading of the harmony, on piano for My Funny Valentine, and on guitar for Summertime, which he approaches in more of a folk/ blues manner.
A lovely aspect of Daisy’s singing that comes through on this recording, and tends to disappear live, is the way she uses her breath: on the standards a ‘native’ jazz singer might think it technically correct to elide their inhalations, but here they add a fragile, ghostly sense of humanity. On her own material her inhalations often provide a rhythmic counterpoint to her deep, smooth, heartfelt singing.
Rob’s guitar and piano work throughout this album is impeccable, fluent, and impressively inventive, with a great tone and masterful control of dynamics. I was particularly taken with his varied and mellifluous blues rock obbligatos to Daisy’s vocal on Ruby.
As a composer Daisy has a found a voice that is distinctly her own: she tends not to approach her themes obliquely, preferring to find images and situations that can speak for themselves, and present them in simple language, short on embellishment or adjective and long on observational integrity. Her themes are not big themes, and they are not presented in a way that is overwhelmingly dramatic: lyrically, melodically and harmonically, hers are gentle songs, but they are often touching, and if you let them in, they can be moving.
This recording comes across as though it was made with very clear goals in mind, and that great care was taken to achieve them. It doesn’t beat you around the head with its accomplishments, in terms of either performance or production, but in both areas it is very skillfully realised, and more or less perfectly formed.

‘MC Horse Rides Again’ (2010), self released, digital download, free
Ever since I became aware of his existence Beefy has been my favourite nerdcore artist, both for his supremely funky flow, and for the fact that he brings heartfelt sincerity to a table characterised by a dry, distant irony. This is not to say that his lyrics are not humorous, and often satirical, but sometimes he just has some shit he wants to say, so he says it. I like that about him.
For those not in the know, nerdcore is an underground genre of hip-hop, in which geeky (predominantly white) rappers, with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, explore, satirise and celebrate aspects of geek culture and experience. It can be hilarious, intellectually stimulating, and occasionally moving.
Beefy is just a piece of The Grammar Club: ostensibly it’s a duo set-up, featuring him and singer Shael Riley, but it’s a wider collaboration than that, featuring no fewer than ten credited producers and ten featured artists (most of whom are the same people).
Nerdcore has really come of age: it used to be that some weak flows and dodgy production could make the cut, but standards are rising, and this is another release that raises the bar a little. The beats here are pretty organic, and although deeply funky they have a rock feel, like a slightly more electro Optimus Rhyme. There are a lot of instrumental parts that were tracked by the collaborators, which helps to make the whole thing more coherent, consistent and band-like.
The songs are full of the baroquely hyper-referential wit that you’d expect from a group of instigators at the top of the nerdcore game, but there is also a real concern for mood and storytelling. Rather than the extended, emotionally unengaged satires that even some of the best nerdcore artists create, these recordings are well rounded and satisfying.
Breaking Up With Brett, a song about the relative attractions of ‘nice’ and ‘bad’ girls, takes an old theme and makes it freshly entertaining, while Unemployment is really a taunt directed at the welfare system that funded Beefy’s early recordings; No Homo is a very funny and well observed tale exploring a young man’s reaction to a school friend’s coming out. Beefy’s best contribution is the dark and menacing A Team By Myself, in which he celebrates his considerable girth, although not without touching on the emotional difficulties of possessing such an impressive figure.
For me however, the show is stolen by Kabuto The Python, in character as MC Horse, with his rap on Crashing Cars and Awarding Stars. This is funny, funky, deeply nerdy, and satirises the vocabulary and word play of mainstream, sub-gangsta rap beautifully.
I found this album an extremely enjoyable listen: it made me laugh out loud, and it made me want to move, and you can’t ask for much more from any but the most exceptional recordings. I’d recommend it to existing nerdcore fans, and also as a good introduction to the style for anyone who’s ready to dip their toe in the waters of geek culture’s very own musical genre.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Review: Sons Of Icarus, Shrine ’69 and Ed Ache at The White Horse in Sudbury

Sons of Icarus Guildford
Shrine ’69 Sudbury
Ed Ache Colchester
Ed Ache, opening proceedings for the evening, presents a nice visual conundrum. What you see is an extreme dreadhead perched crosslegged on a barstool like a pixie on a toadstool, brandishing a ukulele. Don’t be deceived by his resemblance to something off a Gong album cover: he’s about to play some shouty sweary punk at you.
Sadly only two songs were ukulele numbers, before he switched to guitar, with which he’s evidently more comfortable, but he plays both pretty good. The material was about half and half funny and sincere: one that struck me in particular was ‘Living In A Fucked Up World’ about child on child violence, but they were all good songs; catchy tunes, witty lyrics, and entertaining arrangements. (He doesn’t look old enough to have written the one about making £12.50 a day in a factory though!)
In fact entertaining is the word for the whole performance: Ed has a very easy manner with the audience, and gets them involved right away. He’s a solid, rapid-fire strummer, with enough technique to keep it interesting musically: there were a couple of stumbles, which no-one would have noticed if it wasn’t for his impressive ability to pepper his songs with a running commentary on the quality of his guitar playing!
Given his unusual combination of appearance, material and performance style, Ed Ache is pretty unique, and he’s a consummate solo performer, so I strongly recommend you see him play if you get the chance.
Next up was Shrine ’69 on their first outing. They play a very retro brand of bluesy heavy rock, with a lot of southern swampiness in it, and some pleasing moments of stoner doom. The songs are long, spaced out, jam-like things, rich with thickly ladled, syrupy, saturated psychedelic guitar sounds. It’s not a noodly nod-fest though: they can really kick it, and despite the obvious doom influences, most of their riffery is of the mid-tempo hard rock boogie variety.
So they’re not exactly breaking fresh ground, but I don’t imagine that’s what they set out to do, and their material is far from generic: it is idiomatically aware, carefully arranged (for example in the relationship between the vocal melody and the guitar line), and sonically well crafted. The performances were solid and hard-grooving, with nicely locked-in bass and drums and some very tasty guitar work. The singer seemed a bit nervous, but he made an effort to interact with the crowd, and he’s got a good voice, with a bluesy-screamy Plant-ish approach.
Visually it’s the guitarist and bass player that keep the retro flame burning: they could both easily fit in on stage with the Allman Brothers in their heyday, and they know how to use their hair as well. All in all the band gave a committed, loud, musical and involving performance, with some great material performed to a high standard. This was an impressive debut for Shrine ’69, and I look forward to hearing more from them.
Sons Of Icarus have a classical reference in their name, Icarus, who… no wait, Icarus didn’t have any sons. He just drowned following an early aviation mishap. Well, whatever, it’s a pretty cool name.
What they do is rock. Full throttle, leaded-petrol, straight ahead, JD swilling, grinding hard rock. Their singer is an out-there performer, with the skinny, decadent swagger of a latter day Keith Richard, an accomplished technician with bags of power and expressivity, and no mean guitar player to boot, wringing some nice sounds out of his Bigsby-ed up Tele. The bloke standing next to him was a seriously good guitarist, as much for his sonic craftsmanship as for the licks he was slinging around. The bass player is a rock solid player, with some nicely expressive upper register excursions, and a lot of stagecraft (although I did wish he’d shut up with the slap and walking bass noodling between numbers). The drummer is tight and crisp, not prone to drawing attention to himself, but an excellent, powerful player.
So there’s nothing fancy, no frills, just a huge, heavy groove, some stratospheric melody, and a stage filling, attention grabbing, charismatic performance. Which is a perfect recipe for a good night out: the world is full of bands that want to invent something new, but lack the creativity to make it worth doing, or that are so desperate to be liked they have to play dull-as-ditchwater hipster approved indie-easy-listening, and it’s great to see a band that says ‘that old shit is the bollocks, let’s take it to the stage!’
The songs were catchy, well crafted excuses for monster riffery, and as a unit the band moved with the thunderous unity and precision of a monster truck display team. Sons Of Icarus hail from Guildford, but I hope we’ll see them this way again soon.