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Sunday, 15 May 2011

Reviews: Knifeworld and Archangel

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Knifeworld - Dear Lord, No Deal (psychedelic rock)
Believers Roast, 2011, DD EP, 19m 14s, £TBA

Kavus Torabi, Cardiacs guitarist, among many other things, originally pursued Knifeworld as a solo endeavour, but this EP marks the beginning of the project’s recorded life as a six piece band with a permanent membership. The initial release, Buried Alone: Tales of Crushing Defeat, had a particular sound, and a coherent one, from which this release is quite distinct, texturally at least. Dear Lord, No Deal has a denser, fuller sound, but it still pursues the same general aesthetic and formal agenda.
There is certainly some resemblance to Cardiacs, in terms of the complex arrangements, with contrasting sections, intricate rhythms and unexpected melodies, even in tunes less than three minutes long. The sound is very much its own however: despite obvious similarities of approach, and a decidedly avant-garde attitude, Knifeworld has a more accessible sound to my ear. It would be fair to place both acts in the same genre, but they are both pretty genre-defying, and the most striking similarity is a commitment to continual creative alertness, and a refusal to deal in clich├ęs or unexamined stylistic gestures.
The instrumental sound is led by the guitar, with keyboards and woodwinds fattening it up, and for the most part it moves as a whole with the bass and drums, nailing off-kilter accents, tempo and feel changes, and dynamic transformations with casual aplomb. This is the work of some extremely accomplished musicians, to say nothing of the attention to detail and constant invention in the compositions and arrangements. All of which may be making you think it sounds dead clever, and possibly a bit much like hard work to listen to, but this is eminently listenable music, and all of its intricacies, are employed in the service of the tales it spins, and the plumes of atmosphere it emits. This music goes places, never outstaying its welcome, or milking a hook, though there is plenty of catchy melody.
The EP contains three tracks, two ludicrously short (below three minutes) and one ludicrously long (over fourteen minutes). The short ones are crammed with incident, and highly involving combinations of melody and harmony: ‘Pilot Her’ is a high energy affair, driven along by rapid fire guitar crunch, while ‘Dear Lord, No Deal’ harks back to an early phase of musical psychedelia, with its faintly mischievous minor melody and its processed vocals. The long one, ‘HMS Washout’, makes good use of its epic scope, and although I wasn’t sure what story I’d been told, it made me feel like I was watching a play, with its sequence of dramatic expositions, each with its own dynamic and instrumental character, from melodic rock to rapid atonal saxophone improvisation. Don’t expect too much of a singalong, or conventional song structures: just follow the musical narrative as it unfolds. I promise you won’t be bored.
Dear Lord, No Deal has most bases covered, in combining musical sophistication, highly developed instrumental skill, and a demanding standard of creativity with artistic integrity: there will be those for whom it’s just a little too out there, or demands a little too much attention, but for anyone willing to approach it with open ears it represents a deeply satisfying listen, that reveals a little more detail with each return visit.

Archangel - Project Rave (8-bit/ IDM/ techno)
self released, 2011, DD album, 31m 38s, $free

It’s unclear how much of this album might have been created using the genuinely simple digital resources it seems to utilise, and how much use was made of rather more sophisticated plugins standing in for them, but either way, there’s a lot more processing than would be permissible on purist chiptunes (i.e. some). The 8-bit vibe is convincingly nailed regardless, and I for one have very little time for purisms of any sort. This music’s agenda is to celebrate its digitalism, which it manages to present in a way that is surprisingly organic.
The artwork depicts what I suspect to be a frame from the original 1970s Star Wars comic (my introduction to the franchise, since illicit copies preceded the movie to these shores), and it is redolent of the first phase of mass geek culture. Odd for something so modern to inspire so much nostalgia, but it is perhaps the defining characteristic of post-modernity that culture is filled with a reflexive, contemporaneous self-nostalgia. 8-bit as a musical form is probably practised and enjoyed as much by those too young to remember a time when game soundtracks sounded that way, as by greying second-gen geeks like myself. And just as their sophisticated tastes made a digital remastering of the Star Wars franchise worthwhile, there is a real need in audio culture for updated chiptunes like these.
Irrespective of the means by which Archangel generates these sounds, there is a layering of properly 8 bit voices with more sophisticated synth sounds, and both are processed in various ways. A judicious use of reverb or delay can make these pure sines sing out in a decidedly musical way, and also creates a useful sense of distance: unprocessed, such voices can sound as though they are going off inside your skull, especially if you listen on headphones. Compositionally, the same circle is squared, in roughly the same way, combining the sing-song simplicity of 8-bit with the denser rhythms of techno and even electro-industrial.
Truly 8-bit music lacks percussion sounds by definition, although primitive sampling was used in gaming hardware from the late 80s onwards: Archangel ignores such constraints on beat-making, I’m glad to say, although some tunes either eschew, or downplay drum voices. ‘Part Two’ is dominated in the mix by an analogue sounding synth sound, but it has a driving techno beat submerged in its complex, layered soundstage. The three tunes that follow it, however, have a distinctly electro-industrial flavour, verging on powernoize, not in the sounds they employ, so much as in the way the beats are constructed. There is some serious, fist-pumping, dancefloor stomp potential in this album, and I could easily envisage dropping ‘Pel The Power Robot’, for example, into a set of rather less thoughtful or intelligent tunes.
A considerable creative effort has gone into making this music: its artistic focus is more on its specificities of timbre, and the precise manipulation of its stylistic vocabulary, than on any compositional complexities. 8-bit is a genre whose central characteristic is its simplicity, but Project: Rave retains the value of that while manipulating its materials to create a relatively nuanced statement. Generating atmospheres that are spooky or amusing by turns, this album gives great geeky satisfaction, without sacrificing on kinetic energy, and while I doubt I’ll have it on heavy rotation for long, it’s undoubtedly catchy enough to bear repeated listening. A very fun and individual project.

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