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Steve Lawson - 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything (ambient)
Steve Lawson - 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything (ambient)
Pillow Mountain Records, 2011, DD album, 1h 21m 21s, £TBC
I review quite a variety of recordings that are experimental, avant-garde, unconventional or just plain uncommercial, and it is often hard to find an appropriate genre tag to put at the top, and to file them under in my collection. Usually the artists are no help at all, and leave ‘genre’ blank in the ID3 tags. It was nice to receive some music from an artist who’s willing to commit himself to a genre: it doesn’t, after all, represent any kind of an obligation, or endorsement of genre boundaries, but just a friendly gesture to the listener, and a willingness to describe the music in terms its potential audience will understand. So if Steve Lawson says this is ambient, that’s good enough for me.
The pieces on this album are indeed highly atmospheric, but don’t let this lead you to believe that ambience is all, or even principally, what the music is about. The principal quality of these tunes, their defining feature, and the central locus of Lawson’s creative effort, is melody. Pretty, haunting, lyrical melody, with a clear debt to jazz, but possessed of a self-confident harmonic simplicity, runs through this album like the plot of a novel. Perhaps it is because he is well established in the live-looping solo bass scene that Lawson feels he has nothing to prove, but the predominant impression is of someone who, as a player and a man, is comfortable in their skin. Musically straightforward, devoid of technical gymnastics (although not without technical accomplishment, as evident in the consistently burnished tone), and not especially challenging to the listener, this is an album with stories to tell, but no axes to grind.
Bass guitars, particularly when processed, are capable of an astonishing variety of sounds, and those with six strings and twenty-four frets have a range of over four octaves, so it is by no means predictable what a solo bass artist will sound like. Steve Lawson’s method here is predominantly to loop some harmony, either gently kinetic plucking, or arrhythmic pads, and then to improvise melody on top of it. ‘Travelling North’ has a low key percussive element, and ‘Moon Landing On What’ revolves entirely around the manipulation of synth-like sound washes, but the majority of the recordings have a straightforward homophonic texture. There are many and varied manipulations of the instruments’ sound, but these serve to enrich and deepen the atmosphere, rather than drawing attention to themselves.
I’ve had occasion recently to consider carefully the relation between words and music, while reviewing vocal songs: the pieces collected here are articulated entirely through the voice of Lawson’s fretted and fretless bass guitars, but he introduces a verbal, semantic element through his inclusion of detailed and specific sleeve notes. This album, at over eighty minutes in length, will only be available as a download, and the download will include a text file of some sort (my review copy came with a PDF which may or may not be identical to the release notes). For each recording there is a paragraph which sets out the intention behind the title, and effectively tells us what the music means, to Lawson himself, at any rate. It is very interesting to know what he was thinking about at the time that each track was composed/ conceived/ improvised/ assembled; how close the feelings they will engender in their listeners are to the feelings that inspired them is a matter for individual reflection, but as with the lyrics to a song, the short essays Lawson provides constitute an added dimension to the experience of the music. If his creative vision presents any kind of challenge or difficulty, it is a challenge to engage actively with the music, and to relate his explicitly intended meanings to those we bring to, or read into it.
I’ve recently reviewed work from two other solo bass performers, and in both cases it was work that got in your face in a rather more direct way. In the case of Russ Sargeant it is aesthetically challenging music, in that, while pretty on the surface, it engages with some painful emotional subject matter; and with Simon Little, there is a far stronger focus on timbral and textural invention. The ‘sleeve’ notes provide an insight into the reasons for this difference: Lawson, so far as I can discern, seems to be having a deeply satisfying, creative, stimulating and inspiring time. To put it simply, he sounds as happy as a pig in shit.
Even on ‘I Will Fix It Tonight By Dining On Artichokes’, where he explores the cracks between tonal and atonal improvisation, and employs some moderately disruptive processing, there is a sense of the pastoral to his playing: the atmosphere he generates is certainly a long way from being disturbing or difficult. Similarly, in ‘Travelling North’, he employs a fizzing, saturated distortion, that could so easily have sounded heavy, but it sits happily in his warm, consonant harmonies, and sinks without a ripple into his soundworld.
In fact, a sense of the pastoral is something I take from the entire album. The pastoral is a somewhat neglected genre in modern popular music, but perhaps less so in the kind of experimental, solo bass performances that are often (to my great irritation) labeled as ‘new age’. Much of this music functions, to my ear, as a celebration of a relatively static life experience, of the author’s daily bread, rather than their adventures; if there is any disjunct between Lawson’s avowed intentions and my listening experience, it is that I hear rather more melancholy than he ascribes to his work, but there is a very strong sense of place, and of experience. These are the moods of phases of life, like the ebb and flow of the long hot summers of childhood.
The danger of such gently ambient music, with it’s lack of sharp corners, or rhythmic and harmonic tensions, is that it can slip by almost unnoticed. Indeed, the idea of ambient music was initially as much to be an environmental condition as a creative discourse. I rather doubt that Steve Lawson wants anyone to ignore his music, or to relegate it to the status of aural wallpaper, but there is a marked absence of obvious drama or pain in his subject matter, and at times it verges on the anodyne. It is of course any creative person’s right to use their work as an expression of their self, and their lived experience, but audiences like to hear stories, journeys, and the release of tension. Myself, I like diversity, and I find it satisfying to hear music that engages with emotional materials of a less obviously creatively promising nature: the flip side of an audience’s need to hear some kind of dialectic, is that the kind of positive, uncontroversial experiences we value most in our lives are the hardest to give voice to. Any songwriter will tell you how hard it is to write a happy song that doesn’t sound cheesy or sentimental. This music is neither: many listeners will let it waft gently through whatever else they are doing; those that listen closely will be rewarded with insights of a subtler and gentler sort than they may have been expecting.
available May 18
The Fierce And The Dead - If It Carries On Like This We Are Moving To Morecambe (post-rock)
Spencer Park, 2011, CD album, 37m 25s, £7
This album contains, but does not start with, the follow up to TFATD’s initial release, Part 1, an EP consisting of a single eighteen minute track called ‘Part 1’. ‘Part 2’ is only a little over five minutes in length, but it does cram a remarkable amount of dramatic incident into that span. What this band does, to unfairly summarise them, is texture and dynamics: rhythmically they evince a measured, regular propulsiveness, that reminds me of driving, and melodically they are conventionally tonal, though inventive. But their textures are works of careful sonic craftsmanship, and the totality of their sound is so unassumingly engaging that when their arrangements swoop through steep gradients of changing density and volume, the listener is carried along like a twig on a tsunami.
This is instrumental rock, but it is not your daddy’s instrumental rock. Where are the overtly complex stop time passages? Where are the schlong-waggling stratospheric guitar solos? Where is the pointlessly shred-tastic bass solo from a player who has gone ba-dum on the root for the rest of the album? As you can tell, my first exposures to instrumental rock did not impress me much, but at some point in the nineties, some musicians began to get more interested in exploiting neglected areas of the guitar band’s potential soundworlds, laying a stylistic and creative foundation (frequently labelled ‘post-rock’) which TFATD take as a point of departure.
First a word about guitarist Matt Stevens, since his voice is the main source of sonic variety. He’s not a virtuoso: he’s an extremely fine player, but I’d know his sound anywhere. A virtuoso is a player who can play anything, precisely as its composer requires, and can act the part of any player on demand: as soon as Matt plays a single note line, his note choice, his phrasing, and his ethereally light, slow vibrato betray him. In other words, he has personality as a player. He does not, however, have the arrogance to think that his personality alone is enough to carry an LP sized album, and he makes liberal use of his strongest asset, one that has enabled him to record hours of highly listenable music with just an acoustic guitar: his imagination.
The sheer range of approaches and methods to sound production on this album is impressive: there are picked and strummed chords, using sounds that are processed to various degrees (‘The Wait’, ‘Daddies Little Helper’); there are eBowed, or otherwise finagled attack free, arrhythmic soundscapes (‘Hotel No.6’); there is distorted tremolo thrashing, as in the crescendo of ‘H.R.’, and semi-random atonal insanity in ‘Landcrab’ that reminds me of Gregg Ginn (of Black Flag). While Stevens messes about, Kev Feazey (bass) and Stuart Marshall (drums) steer a path that is necessarily exact and rectilinear, but not without its own moments of frothing intensity, as in the noise-rock riot that is ‘Landcrab’. Here Marshall eschews fills and rolls in favour of clattering trills and flams that lift his beat into jackhammer territory, while Feazey uses the kind of clanking, overdriven sound that used to require a Rickenbacker in the days before digital processing. Contrast this with the incredible subtlety of Marshall’s involvement in ‘Hotel No.6’ (and Feazey’s absence).
The way I’m going on, you’d think this was an electric Matt Stevens album, and that Feazey and Marshall were his sidemen. In fact, the album sounds very much like a band album: the rhythm section is more than a supporting character. This is mature, multi-faceted music, and there is a lot more to it than a succession of textures and dynamic levels. Compositionally, that regular, rectilinear bass and drums sound structures these pieces overtly, like the external girders and service ducts of High-tech architecture. They almost seem to say: ‘here’s the music. That Matt Stevens is going to decorate it.’
These two supremely solid and locked-in players do not play fills: I don’t think I can recall a single outbreak of engine room lyricism anywhere on the whole album. I can’t speak from personal experience of the drums, but unless you are a bass player you have no clue how difficult that is for Kev Feazey! What they do is deeply expressive, nevertheless, in the way that they work with rhythmic stress patterns: they do this in a way to develop forward motion, certainly (and this album is hugely kinetic), but also to build tension, utilising the subtlest of syncopations and note length variations to establish expectations and atmospheric directions. They provide an object lesson in how to put meaningful content into simple, functional musical structures, without resorting to technical showmanship.
On two tracks the three core members of TFATD are joined by saxophonist Terry Edwards, who has played for Lydia Lunch and Nick Cave, among other notables, and who seems to be a fellow traveller, aesthetically. On the predominantly gentle ‘Daddies Little Helper’ he focusses on manipulating his tone, and on making simple, pleasing note choices. He also picks up very effectively on the angularity of the rhythm section, and trades funny noises with Stevens in the final section, giving the album its sole moment of recognisable humour (other than its title). On ‘Andy Fox’ he builds slowly, with the track, until he is honking, squawking, frantically trilling and generally going mental, until he seemingly runs out of breath, and the tune expends itself in a gentle wash of harmonic colour, which fades away, and with it the album.
This album sounds very much a part of the same creative project as their first release, from January 2010. It has a similarly dramatic, cinematic quality, and although it is broken into short tracks, it has that same epic sense of journey. For a relatively avant-garde, creatively uncompromising piece of work, If It Carries On Like This We Are Moving To Morecambe is a strikingly entertaining listen. Its emotional tenor is not of the jolliest, with a tense, ominous and melancholy atmosphere, relieved by moments of cathartic, angry thrashing, but there is such a strong sense of narrative that the effect is not harrowing, so much as moving. I hope this band receives some recognition, because this kind of intelligent, soulful, undiluted creativity deserves exposure, and could teach a few vocal guitar bands a thing or two about arranging.
available May 16