Saturday, 26 January 2013

Decoy with Joe McPhee - Spontaneous Combustion (OTOroku)

Decoy is the trio of John Edwards (double bass), Alexander Hawkins (Hammond B3) and Steve Noble (drums); on this recording of a live date at the Cafe Oto they were joined by the great Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet and alto sax.

Recordings of live performances are double edged in terms of appeal to the listener. On the one hand it offers a document of the evening to those that didn't attend; but on the other hand, it can't really hope to fully capture the ragged glory of an improv band in full swing. You miss the looks of concentration, the atmosphere in the room, the full experience of being in front of a great band with a group of likeminded people. These thoughts evaporate in the face of this brilliant album. Like another recording from the same venue, Alan Wilkinson trio's 'Live at Cafe Oto', this is an essential album for fans of free jazz and adventurous music.

The first half of side A is an exercise in understated restraint. The sound is full of faltering percussive hits and gong work from Noble; sawing dissonance from Edwards and upper register squeaks and lip smacking blurts from McPhee; Hawkins' presence isn't properly felt until several minutes in when he begins cycling through several melodic mutations under McPhee's increasingly strident runs and Miles-like extended drones. The air is thick with possibility and promise, each musician adding subtle shading and colour to each other’s playing. At ten minutes in, the band stumbles into a downhill race; Hawkins splashing thick stabs of Hammond everywhere while the rhythm section lock together in the usual Edwards/Noble mind-meld; McPhee sits back throughout, waiting for an entrance. And what an entrance! He finally enters the fray with long soulful notes strung like wilted bunting over the rest of the bands rumble and clatter. It quietens them to a murmur.

McPhee switches to alto sax for the B side and immediately ties a thick knot of sound which he picks at and unravels over the course of the next few minutes. Edwards is especially good on this side, taking a great solo where he grinds and scrapes his bass into oblivion over Nobles sparse spidery interventions. The band then embark on what sounds like a no-wave swing section before the reappearance of McPhee, blowing mournful contours into every stretch of sound, occasionally erupting in screams and violent blurts; Hawkins, again filling the air with vivid curtains of noise.

The playing individually and collectively is tremendous; each player sitting out for lengthy periods but re-entering with passionate commitment at the perfect moment. The recording is pin-drop clear. The audience were either edited out for most of the performance or were watching with rapt, silent attention; I suspect the latter. The intermittent cries and cheers throughout made me regret not being there but determined to catch the band when they play with Marshall Allen at the end of March.

This sounds like a truly special performance; exciting, reflective, full of action and incident; there is far too much going on to take in at one listen. Perhaps this is the benefit of the live recording, what is lost in not being there is regained in an ability to listen repeatedly, going back to moments you may have missed in the general stunned impression of the whole thing.

Listen to an excerpt and buy the album from here.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Birthdays, Dalston: Pete Swanson, Mark Fell, Evian Christ (DJ set), Raime (DJ set) – 14th January 2013

After DJ sets by Raime and Evian Christ, Mark Fell made his way through the audience, took to the stage and proceeded to bend time for the elastic duration of his slot.  He unleashed taut airburst beats that hung in space for mere moments before being dragged through his mangling software, emerging on the other side as atomized slivers of themselves.  He confused the mind and feet with brief sections of 4/4 before smashing off the grid into an ultra-abstract syncopation; like Chicago Footwork melted by the Stuxnet virus.  The other main element: the glassy synths, made some parts sound like a fog-bound Autechre, lost in a blizzard of their own complexity.  The set was a brain straining manipulation of time; any musical narrative was stretched into malleable non-shapes with impossible angles.
Mark Fell did nothing to prepare the audience for the punishment about to be dished out by Pete Swanson who continued his Techno/Noise explorations with a violent set which at times became almost physically oppressive.  Its ugliness and gigantic volume, the loudest I’ve ever experienced, inspired looks of rapture and hysterical screams from some members of the audience; one particular person called for more.  Whatever he wanted more of wasn’t clear, but whether it was volume or savagery, it would have been an unreasonable request to expect ‘more’ of it.  The air was thick with sound; this combined with the darkness and fierce strobes, caused a sense nulling disorientation.  I have no idea how long it went on for, it could have been hours, minutes or days; I seem to remember my animal flight response instinct kicking in at one point when I had a weird urge to flee the venue.  This compulsion wrestled with the pleasure gained from being obliterated by the screaming machine noise coming out of the amps.
Concealed behind a wall of people stood at the front of the stage, Swanson crushed the audience under flaming wheels of melting electronics; the thumping beat giving the audience something to cling to, no matter how scorched it was.  The debate around whether Techno is inherently incapable of dialogue with Noise, that mixing automation and chaos does nothing to span an unbridgeable gap, was largely irrelevant on the night; all I could think about was the sheer immensity of what Swanson can produce with a few boxes and wires.  The frame thrown up by the constant techno thump was alive with squirming maggots of tortured circuitry and howling gusts of sharply granulated metallic noise.  There was a deluge of splattered sound that invaded the ears like shrapnel while the body shook with every percussive concussion.  It was smothering and painfully confusing in the best possible way, it was an overwhelming mind hammering performance.  If ever an artist was to find the ‘brown note’ it must surely be Swanson.

An amazing evening, but a bit heavy for a Monday night if I’m honest.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Daphne Oram - The Oram Tapes: Volume 1 (Young Americans)

The first volume of ‘The Oram Tapes’ is a treasure trove.  Daphne Oram is an important artist in the history of electronic music, if a neglected one; her work casts a long shadow over those currently working in the field, and on into the future.  Deeply weird, this is a revealing listen for those who associate early electronic music with the utopian space blips ‘n’ bloops of the Radiophonic Workshop.  For instance, ‘Oxford’ sounds like a sinister tour through a warehouse of dangling chains and echoing noise.
It sounds like much recent electronica even discounting the mining of her work done by Broadcast, the Ghost Box label, and other related Hauntologists.  The beginning of ‘Eton’ sounds like The Caretaker until it goes all musique concrete and the giggling munchkins appear.  ‘The Innocents – Savage Noises (Excerpt) (1961)’ could be Wolf Eyes or early Yellow Swans.  ‘Wool (1967)’ is like Drukqs-era Aphex Twin.  Some of the sounds on here will be familiar to any fan of 1960’s sci-fi but with an eerie edge, ‘Hamlet – Youth Theatre (1963)’ could easily be confused with Raime or Demdike Stare with its glassy ringing harmonics, tape crackle and subterranean bass explosions.
Elsewhere, there are several demonstrations which allow a fascinating insight into Oram’s working methods.  ‘Hydrogen Tones’ has Oram explaining how a spectroscope reading of Hydrogen can be translated into tones.  ‘The Oramics Demonstration’ describes her development of a new way of scoring musical notation through computers fed with the graphical representations of sound.
I have emphasised the modern relevance of this material but it exists perfectly in isolation, I mention it mostly to display her prescience and genius; its relevance to today’s trends is beside the point.  She was capable of creating total sound-worlds, and possessed an instinct for the alien that makes much of her music seem completely ‘other’ and transmitted from the future.
This is required listening for those interested in the elementary particles of electronica or electronic music in general.  It is a revealing, educational and often unsettling tour through the Oram archive.  The best part of the album is the‘Vol 1’ in the title and the promise of more to come.  The Young Americans label and Goldsmiths College have done a great job in putting this together.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Café Oto, 9th January 2013: Alan Wilkinson + Steve Noble + John Edwards

Fresh from a brilliant performance with Alex Ward at Boat-Ting, the city’s best rhythm section join Alan Wilkinson for a great night at the Café Oto.
In terms of group dynamics, the players often furiously locked antlers; John Edwards’ (bass) eyes were screwed shut in concentration, finding gaps in the interplay in which to pour bowed arcs of sound.  Steve Noble (drums) created a constellation of beats in an impressive feat of plate-spinning that constantly contained the groups’ near-chaos without acting as a brake, a punk intensity aligned with the deep listening and symbiosis of free improv.  Alan Wilkinson (saxophones) at times appeared to be an almost Dada-like performer, an anti-art agitator; muting the sound of his instrument with his thigh while creeping around the floor like a crab or making farting and gasping sounds into the bell of the saxophone.  Wilkinson’s playing never lacks fire but doesn’t trade musicality for brute force.  Recognisably ‘jazz’ sections abounded between the utter tumult he unleashed the rest of the time; his alto full of soul and spiked melodic contours, his baritone playing adding a rasping power and fog-horn honk.  Noble and Edwards, as ever, stoked the flames from within a boiler room of rumble and clatter, nuts and bolts straining to contain the pressure.
Highlights included: a second set ear-ripping squeak from Wilkinson that elicited shouts and laughter from a battered audience, and Wilkinson forcing the rest of the group into silence at one point after he blew air through the tubes of the sax like a John Butcher solo without the close micing; he declared Edwards and Noble ‘amateurs’ with ‘no stamina’ for collapsing into silence; Noble replied ‘we may have no stamina Alan, but we have taste.’  The audience cried for more stamina and on they rumbled.
For an evening of ecstatic noise, look no further than this trio.  Full of sound and fury, but far from empty.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Boat-Ting, 7th January 2013: N.E.W, Barrel, Matt Chilton + Sharon Gal + Anthony Donovan

This week, Boat-Ting hosted the mighty N.E.W who opened the evening with a predictably dramatic set.  Despite being rapturously noisy, they also reward deep listening; the interplay is fascinating and reveals the group to be no mere macho blustering thunder band.  Their sturm und drang is complicated by light and shade and surprising U-turns; one stormy passage abruptly gave way to what sounded (very) briefly like an obliterated scorched-earth calypso.  The players meld with their instruments; John Edwards utilised the full body of the bass; Alex Ward leant back precariously in his chair when he unleashed a riotous punk section; Steve Noble seemed to materialise different sticks and percussive tools into his hands from the air, his kit an extension of his limbs.  Another aspect to Noble’s playing is that he is never just a “god of the gaps”, filling the spaces with rolls and flourishes; he is a fully committed driving force in any configuration of players I’ve witnessed.  This was spontaneous music at its best; whether bouncing call-and-response blurts between guitar and drums, or the lowering cattle and whale song Ward and Edwards at one point conjured up.  They are, individually, incredible musicians and soloists, but in this combination, rotate around a collective point of gravity.  N.E.W. are a crack improv unit, playing opposite a Walkabout bar, on a swaying boat, like a commando group, deep behind enemy lines.  As Sybil Madrigal, Boat-Ting's captain, said at the close of the set, “fucking brilliant.”
Barrel were a trio of Ivor Kallin (viola), Hannah Marshall (cello) and Alison Blunt (violin) who played a broken Avant-chamber romanticism.  Kallin scraped out upper register squeaks and creaking-door horror film groans.  Marshall was an impressive soloist, often using her cello percussively and launching lightning strikes of quick insectoid scrabble.  Kalinn vocalised odd buzzes and gagged-mouth burble throughout with Blunt joining with low-key operatics.  The group explored the full range of sounds available to them; Kalinn occasionally sounding like he was making a sausage dog out of uncooperative balloons*; they ranged from beautiful sweeping tones to harsh rasping abstraction; the dynamics of a string trio often subverted and mangled into a blur of Morse-code un-music.  An almost inaudible section prompted a clap from an audience member that caused the band to collapse into giggles with Blunt saying, “I think they want us to stop”; Kalinn played a final note and the real applause began.  This was a fun and light-hearted close to some very serious music.  Barrel are a difficult and fascinating listen.
One of the virtues of Boat-Ting is the total sound environment behind the music; the slamming of a toilet door; the rattle of change behind the bar; the knock of a pint glass against a wooden table and the almost audibly tangible straining of curious ears, mixes with the often complementary mess of noise coming out of whatever band happens to be playing.
We moved into less comedic territory with the final group; an ensemble of Sharon Gal (vocals), Matt Chilton (laptop) and Anthony Donovan (guitar and electronics).  They began with the boat reverberating with Gal’s treated and processed croaks and Chilton’s clanking chains.  Donovan smashed what appeared to be Styrofoam into the strings of his bass guitar and bowed dark waves of noise out of it.  The manipulations of the groups’ noise through the laptop pushed an already disturbing swamp of sound into the realm of genuine menace.  Gal was a commanding presence; her whoops, sighs, croaks and strangled coughs giving Chilton ample material to warp and deconstruct into a dark peripheral static.  Their set was frightening and troubling in the best possible way, full of feedback and shrill drilling whistles; Donovan offered occasional shelter with warm bass tones before casting us back out with violent string slashing.  The group created a thrilling signal/noise confusion like prime Wolf Eyes; consisting of inhuman shrieking, electrical buzz, lacerating noise and sci-fi gloop.  Gal’s voice and mad gibbering were translated into Exorcist levels of fierce wailing and cat-hissing protest.  She was a demonic preacher, flaying her converted on an altar of smashed effects pedals and blown amps.

*With thanks to Elliott for this comment.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

KTL – V (Editions Mego)

This duo of Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg is a fertile pairing, possessed of unholy drone skills.  ‘V’ is about as unsettling an album as you could hope to be freaked out by; it is deeply eerie while also infused with a stark and uncanny beauty.
The album demands close and repeated listening despite being bleak, forbidding and intimidating; there is a great deal occurring within and around its shifting blocks of sound.  Utterly absorbing, it rewards the listener with a sound world of stunning physicality; it builds thin vibrating gossamer branes of drone that clash with deep gulfs of echoing reverb and rumble.  It also contains material of a more ethereal nature; a skywards-gazing openness.
‘Phill 1’ sounds like looped tape-based computers locked in a deathly embrace with whistling electronics and wind-blown guitar strings.  ‘Study A’ is an exercise in poignant taut wire harmonics, like a 10 mile long steel fence vibrating in a gale.  ‘Tony’ is more austere, consisting of an undulating buzz and aquatic clanging.  Each of these tracks examines its drone in fascinating detail; at times close up and violent, at others distant and more easily graspable.
‘Phill 2’ is one of the very best pieces of music to emerge from 2012.  It sounds ageless and eternal like an Ansel Adams photograph of an enormous tree, gnarled and ancient.  The slow swoop of massed strings and blasted gales of brass evoke the tides, the encroachment of dunes, the division of cells, and the slow pan of stars across a night sky.  It is simply and profoundly beautiful while exhibiting a toothed savagery in its uncompromising volume.  It opens a gulf of terrible beauty constructed from wood, wires, bodies and the crackle of electricity.  This masterpiece is sadly temporary and ends in a heat-death of flat silver emptiness, as shrieking electronics overwhelm the orchestra.
No review of ‘V’ could possibly be complete without mentioning how utterly terrifying the final track ‘Last Spring: A Prequel’ is.  The vocals are in French and so incomprehensible to me, but they seem to alternate between someone pleading in agony and their painful transformation into a gravel-throated demon.  The voice is subtly adorned with disturbing ambient noises.  Footsteps in a deep, long forgotten sewer.  The dripping of rusted pipes.  The flutter of insect wings.  The distant slamming shut of filing cabinets filled with meat.  It sounds like a field recording of hell.
‘V’ is a remarkable album; it will feed the brain and chill the bones; an intelligent and fiercely singular work of genius.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Laurel Halo – Sunlight on the Faded (Hyperdub)

On her new single, Laurel Halo proves herself to be a genius of the cracked and warped pop song as much as an experimental electronic artist.  ‘Sunlight on the Faded’ continues from her work on the album ‘Quarantine’ with its deeply weird but emotionally evocative tale of dislocation.  This is a beautiful but uneasy take on human impenetrability and emotional distance.  The music is a frantic wobble of sub bass, computer glitch and lush synth.  This machine element works in contrast to Halo’s nakedly honest and unadorned singing voice, a perfect counterpoint to the alien software mangling beneath it.
Laurel Halo continues to be one of our most intriguing contemporary electronica artists.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)

‘Luxury Problems’ continues Andy Stott’s explorations into ‘knackered house’ and the outer limits of molten techno.  Those who haven’t yet experienced the flayed rawness of his previous two EPS ‘Passed Me By’ and ‘We Stay Together’ should do so without delay.  ‘Luxury Problem’ doesn’t quite have the same impact as these releases but manages to build on the previous work and suggest new avenues to pursue.
The best of this album is excellent and is amongst the best electronica of 2012.  Opener ‘Numb’ displays all of Stott’s masterful production skills.  It begins with a looped and chopped vocal sample that is folded, compressed, dropped into pools of echo and edited into soft hiccup-beats as a cold void of drone whistles in the background.  A fade into silence introduces a muffled machine press that violently imposes order for the rest of the track.  The whole thing is icily forbidding but captivating.
‘Sleepless’ is also great, a perfect showcase for his ‘knackered’ aesthetic; everything sounds degraded, burnt, and in some way compromised; as if every sound has been buried and dug up again a few weeks later.  The title track is another highlight, the House rhythm undermined by crackle, industrial scraping and a complete absence of the hedonism you would normally associate with the genre; this is House for abandoned oil rigs and haunted moon bases.
The rest of the album isn’t nearly so successful; ‘Lost and Found’, ‘Sleepless’ and ‘Expecting’ sound like sketches and don’t seem fully realised.  They lack any interesting arrangement and have none of the intricacy found in the better tracks.  Also, ‘Up the Box’ loops a stoned jungle break for a few minutes to no great effect.
‘Luxury Problems’ would have benefited from being an EP rather than a full-length but the best on here can only inspire further interest in Stott’s sand-blasted vision.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Boat-Ting, 17th December 2012: Mark Sanders + Shabaka Hutchings, Steve Noble + Alex Ward, Tom Jackson + Benedict Taylor + Chris Cundy + Ashley John Long, Sybil Madrigal + Alex Ward

The ever brilliant Boat-Ting kicked off its final gig of 2012 in fine style with a duo performance by Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone and Mark Sanders behind the drums.  Beginning with a cautious storm-gathering opening, the duo constructed an increasingly complex structure, heavy on the skronk with Hutchins bouncing and rolling on his feet.  A second section saw a more abrasive textured approach; Sanders scraped bowed metal shrieks from his set and softer sighs collided with harsh bell clashes.  Hutchins switched to clarinet and emitted sharp squeaks and whistles to hang in the air around which Sanders crashed and rumbled.  This was a rewarding and intuitive performance.
Next, was a duo of Steve Noble (drums) and Alex Ward (guitar), two thirds N.E.W, who thrashed out a turbulent beast of a set.  A violent profusion of activity would often stop in a sudden silence no less loud than the noise preceding it.  Noble and Ward are two musicians who can flip from a zen-like calm to arse-kicking heaviness in a heartbeat; a duo equally as capable of savage riffing as an exploration of hypnotic drone.  They occasionally stumble around like a drunk trying to fit keys in a door only to fall through the entrance into a period of suddenly sober reflection.  As an improv group, they possess a level of psychic communion that is stunning to watch, like a metal band of higher beings from Titan, methane flowing through their veins and enormous twitching bulbous brains visible under glass helmets.
The third act of the night was a quartet featuring Tom Jackson (clarinet), Benedict Taylor (viola), Chris Cundy (bass clarinet) and Ashley John Long (double bass).  The group rattled out a shivering Penderecki-like glassiness of aching chamber discordance.  Ashley John Long was often a manic presence, contorting himself around his bass while the rest of the band smeared a micro gestured mess which at times built into an avian cacophony.  The group recalled the music of Xenakis in their practice of microscopically precise activity; the group also excelled on a macro level when they locked into an impressively weird scraping and honking.
The final performance of the evening was a duo of Sybil Madrigal (poetry) and Alex Ward (clarinet).  Sybil was an imposing presence throughout, spinning herself as a “word monger for free”.  It was her evident joy in mongering those words that made the performance so gripping.  At times quite Joycean, “fingers buried deep in brainy box”, at others violently funny, “we are the untermensch, sniffing Satan’s bollocks.”  The highlight was a tale of obsessional love which featured the immortal line, “I love you so much I want to fuck your brother up the ass with a dildo while you watch.”  This was all spat out with an intensity that buried Alex Ward’s polite adornment.
I cannot think of a better gig to have ended my concert-going year with.  Long live Boat-Ting and all who sail in her.