Sagan Lane - Funambule (ambient/ acoustic)
Naplew Productions, 2011, DD album, £2.99
Most of the tracks on this album are equipped with a skeleton of strummed guitar or programmed beats, although a couple are composed of invertebrate electronic ambience. But when the beats are hard, as on ‘Transience’, the mood is one of gentle contemplation; even a track like ‘Mikodeau’, which is just vocals and guitar, sounds very much of a piece with ‘Standover’, which is a slab of fluffy electronica with a spoken French vocal. For me, this collection of recordings is a good argument for the survival of the album format: a series of recorded works, conceived under some unifying creative condition, and presented together as a single entity, has a value that is greater than the sum of a playlist. These tunes present a diversity of textures and stylistic features, but the whole sounds unified and consistent.
The term ‘ambient’ will suggest something gentle to most people: that’s an appropriate assumption here, as although some tracks are strange or eerie, their weirdness is of a non-confrontational and pleasing variety. This gentleness should not be mistaken for a lack of substance however: there is a probing creativity at work here, and a challenging concern with questions of identity is evident in the lyrical text.
The conflict between the constructed nature of identity and our strong desire to feel our sense of self as something innate is a recurring theme here. The self in these songs is almost a cypher, devoid of certainty or inherence, drifting between past and future, a construct of both, but also their author. Identity is shown as distinction from the other, and related to intolerance; as a construct of self-examination; as an act of defiance; as an agglomeration of choices and experiences; as a process of transformation; but never as a given.
This rigorous and clear sighted representation is in stark contrast to the usual dramatic agents of popular song, whose identity is so much a given that they are archetypes more even than stereotypes; the songs equally eschew the false certainty of narrative closure, and the overriding sense is consequently one of ambiguity. This sense is no more to my mind than a representation of experience that is unclouded by the illusion of certainty: there is no ambiguity of meaning, which while complex, hard to pin down and impossible to paraphrase, is expressed with an admirable precision, perfectly embodied by the precise rhythmic structure of the beats in harness to the atmospheric and hypnotic soundscapes.
My French is very poor, so I won’t attempt to talk about the two songs whose lyrics are in that language, although I will say that Google Translate’s opinion was as hilarious as ever… I’ve often sought out music in other languages simply because not understanding the lyrics is often preferable to being annoyed by them: in this case however I find myself anxious to know what puzzle boxes of nested meanings they might contain.
At times, for me, the textures of Funambule recall the moods of Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album, but its atmospheres are very much its own, and it is both a more serious work, and despite its highly technological nature, a more organic one. There’s a very fertile chemistry at work between the two collaborators who produced this recording, which succeeds in expressing some challenging and thought provoking meanings without bludgeoning the listener: instead they are lulled into a receptive state, and the music’s uncanny, astringent aesthetic smuggles its subversion past the listener’s dormant preconceptions. Beautifully oblique, and obliquely beautiful.
Review: Käfer K - Von scheiternden Mühen (post-punk)
LALA Schallplatten, 2011, LP album, €12
Spatial, textural guitarscapes are the order of the day for Käfer K, achieved without the aid of much in the way of effects. They keep their sound consistent throughout, with harmonised twin guitar arrangements that use a light natural overdrive, panned left and right to emphasise the two separate voices, but playing in very close rhythmic parallel. The bass is tight, warm and full, while the drums are crisp but spacious, and use a lot of ride where other drummers would use the hat. Overall it’s a dramatic sound, and though it has an intimacy, it’s a big sound, which would not be dwarfed by a big stage.
Every aspect of the sound is carefully crafted, with imagination and attention to detail evident in every instrumental part, and the band is as tight as a nut, with a kinetic and propulsive feel. The arrangements are spare and disciplined, and every note has its part to play in supporting the central argument of each song.
And yes, they do sound as though they’re arguing a position, but owing to my poor language skills, I couldn’t even hazard a guess. The German lyrics are more declaimed than sung, for the most part, in a voice that cracks with emotion, and strains with a determination to be heard. The songs have simple chords, but the arrangements interpret them into great waves of textural and melodic feeling, that would be very listenable as instrumental tunes.
The production is more or less perfect, showcasing the band’s sound with precision, depth and power without ever drawing attention to the studio artifice involved, and crucially, without over-compressing in the pursuit of punch. The mix puts the vocals at just the right distance from the listener (a little behind the band I think, but it works!), and every element of the sound is clearly distinct, yet completely integrated.
The experience of listening to Käfer K without knowing German is a little strange, as the lyrics are delivered with a great sense of urgency, and I found it hard to avoid thinking there must be a message. I don’t imagine this is a band that sings about dancing at nightclubs, or being in love, but I may be entirely wrong. Overall I feel nourished by the complex simplicity and serious intent that animates this album: the music is out there, and visceral, but because it is innovative and creative it gives food for thought as well as feeling.
Everything about this band seems to illustrate the seriousness with which they have pursued their goals. Their material, and finely honed arrangements, are encapsulated in passionate but controlled performances, and nothing blurs the edges of their artistic practice. This high powered, intelligent, yet visceral music pleased my brain and excited my ears.