Live Report: A Selection of Concert Reviews for Londonears (2012)

Unlike the other magazines I write for, Londonears doesn’t have a page for each writer containing every one of their contributions. However, I’ve done some digging on the ‘Net and found the below articles, which cover the range of gigs I’ve been lucky to cover in 2012. And yes, I go to Cafe Oto a lot, I know!

01/02: James Ferraro, The Dome

It was a controversial decision by The Wire to select Far Side Virtual by American post-everything song-smith James Ferraro as their album of the year. Ferraro is undoubtedly an exciting and genre-pushing talent, as demonstrated on 2010’s odd and unsettling hypna-nightmare Night Dolls With Hairspray, but for many he’s something of a court jester, toying with the tropes of modern music in amusing ways, but far from a seminal or important artist in his own right. However, despite my misgivings over Far Side Virtual, or maybe because of them, I was very keen to see how Ferraro -and which Ferraro- would approach this live appearance.

The Dome is a cute venue somewhat resembling a school hall, a fitting choice according to one punter I met, as this show was apparently going to be “chintzy”. If so, someone forgot to tell the supporting acts. Youngster Felix Lee, who came on after what seemed an age of waiting, seemed determined to go for sonic assault over chintzy glamour as a clatter of what appeared to be over-driven video game samples was launched from his laptop over punishing bass rhythms half-way between Vex’d and Venetian Snares. You got the sense that Lee has listened to a fair bit of dubstep in his time, but his music lacked the clarity of the best acts from that scene, and even in a noise gig this would have seemed too unfocused and schizophrenic, as he lurched from one sonic idea to another with barely the space to breath. At one point, he did seem to latch onto a lush synth melody, but it didn’t last and was too quickly dissolved under a laden avalanche of cheap effects and random noises.

Palmistry couldn’t have sounded more different if he’d performed with a ukelele and harmonica, although like Felix Lee, he relied on his laptop to create his melodies. I say “create”, the correct term would be “play”, as it seemed obvious that everything here was pre-recorded. Like Felix Lee, you could feel the influence of dubstep (not surprising, given the man’s South London roots), with spectral hip-hop beats and crystalline synth melodies creating a sense of late-night, post-party ennui as he intoned inaudible lyrics in a high-pitched croon like a cockney Toro Y Moi. Sadly, his voice was too weakly mixed to really convey the emotions of his otherwise infectious and well-produced post-R’n’B tunes, whilst the sight of him constantly leaning into the laptop between tracks was a distraction from any atmosphere he could have built up. Palmistry has a well-defined sound, but it’s one that is better suited to clubs and parties than live concerts like this one.

So it was left to the main man himself to up the ante somewhat, which he initially did with some gusto: the lights in the room went out and a low, heavy bass line wobbled over the by-know expectant audience, evoking the Kuedo of “Starfox”, but with a harder edge. Whatever you may make of Ferraro as a songwriter or musician, his ability to adapt his overflowing creativity to diverse genres, and merge them together so emphatically, is impressive, and this talent was on full display at The Dome, as he collided dubstep (the word du jour, apparently) with widescreen prog-rock synth and jittery steel drum rhythm for an awe-inspiring opening track. Later on, he’d channel Moon Safari-era Air, with graceful melodies and elegant, delicately-poised ambience. But, as with Felix Lee, after a while you got the feeling that any real progression, musically, was limited, as Ferraro jumped styles with the enthusiasm of someone with ADHD. As such, it felt less like a live concert than a maniacal DJ set broadcast from some dystopian future. Frustrating and enthralling almost in equal measure, Ferraro mangled pop archetypes in ways that unsettled, but somehow managed to feel acutely familiar. I’m not sure what the true worth of such a scatter-gun approach is, but it certainly makes for an interesting show, albeit one that I can’t quite say I enjoyed.

28-29/02: Keiji Haino Two-Day Residency (Cafe Oto)

This was Japanese great Keiji Haino’s second residency at Cafe Oto in under a year, but if anyone was expecting a similar pair of shows to 2011 they don’t know Haino very well. Plus, they must have got quite a shock. If last year’s performances were out there, the second night of this residency was positively alien. And all the better for it.

The first night saw Haino paired up with virtuoso British improv drummer Steve Noble, whose drum kit was so enormous, it would have given Motorhead’s “Philthy” Taylor pause for thought. Beforehand, a packed Oto was treated to a solo performance by American singer and musician Heather Leigh, who very much set the tone of convention-subverting by gloriously mangling a pedal steel guitar in ways that would have made even Ben Keith wince. She started however by tapping out a quiet drum rhythm and singing in a crystalline voice redolent of early-seventies English folk stars like Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson and Anne Briggs. Coming as she did just a few weeks after Jessika Kenney, Oto goers have really been spoiled of late when it comes to singers! As with Kenney, this had the solemnity of a recital or incantation, Leigh’s exquisite keen echoing around the walls of the venue.

In comparison, the way she tore into her pedal steel guitar after ditching the drum was positively brutal, with molten, saturated solos pouring over the audience in a manner reminiscent to Les Rallizes Denudes, the ragged sounds somehow mirroring Leigh’s fierce wailing. At other times, she slowed the pace to produce insistent, buzzing drones over which to moan and whisper, resulting in a positively haunting performance that was only slightly undermined by the apparent unpredictability of the pedal steel.

Haino’s duo with Steve Noble was, at first glance, most notable for the fact that the Japanese enigma was forgoing vocals to focus on his guitar interplay with the drums. This was therefore a demonstration of Haino at his most improvisational, and the performance was anchored in avant-jazz in the AMM mould. His opening notes were staccato and blunt, with little by way of effects, whilst Noble teased unpredictable patters and strikes out of his array of percussive instruments, leaping from gongs to cymbals to his huge drums like a whirling dervish. The sounds came across as random explosions, with passages of near-silence abruptly giving way to percussive clatters and sustained guitar roars. Then suddenly, they leaped into full chaotic freak-out mode, with Noble sending his small gongs and bowls flying as he pummeled the skins, unleashing a veritable thunderstorm of raucous sound. Meanwhile, Haino switched on the fuzz and feedback, his guitar screaming like a beast possessed, with molten solo after molten solo cascading out of the amps. Just as quickly, they’d revert back to contemplative mode, Haino twisting and twitching his strings with the delicate touch of a brain surgeon. The interplay between the two was bewitching, considering they never spoke a word to each other, as they effortlessly jumped from sparse improvisation to full-on free-form rock. Perhaps it was because I was seated next to him, but it seemed that Noble was guiding proceedings, his sensitive, graceful balance of inventive touches and pure strength providing an apt platform from which his partner could explore his own techniques on guitar.

If the first night was good, the second was simply transcendental, and like nothing I’d ever witnessed from Haino (and I’ve seen some majestic gigs by the man!). Phil Minton was chosen to open, a clear indication that, where it had been absent from Haino’s set the previous night, the voice was going to be the centrepiece of the second show.

Minton is a singular figure in modern singing, if you can even call it that. He doesn’t use instruments, and as he perched on a tool before a single microphone, with little effects in place, he seemed more like a quiet and mild librarian than the true pioneer he undoubtedly is. But when he started to sing, there was no question: it may be bereft of rhythm and even tangible melody, but the way Phil Minton manipulates every aspect of his vocal chords is awe-inspiring. He ran the gamut, with odd and unsettling ululations, twitters, hisses, warbles, whistles, belches and borborygmi segueing in and out of each other following the unpredictable impulses of their enunciator. There were no words to focus on, but Minton still conveyed considerable emotion, contorting his body as if miming some incomprehensible opera or play. As with the Haino/Noble duo, the performance was notable for the unexpected shifts in volume and intensity, as meditative hums made way for angry wails and melancholy moans. For some, this may have just seemed like a sequence of silly noises, but it was no such thing: Minton controls his voice like an opera singer, and for all its sparseness, this was a truly fascinating spectacle.

How to describe the ensuing performance by Haino, however? Like Minton, he went for solo vocals only, with his guitar sat beside him obviously some sort of oblique joke (and, contrary to his reputation and appearance -all jet-black clothes and impenetrable shades- there is a lot of humour behind Haino’s work. Sometimes!). Initially, his set was as quiet as possible, with restrained breathing and a high-pitched hum like the distant cries of a newborn baby. Slowly, Haino built this hushed opening into a choked gargle that escalated into a piercing, unsettling shriek, accentuated by the hyper-sensitive microphone that made every sound envelop the room. Deep rumbles at the back of his throat, that throbbed like bass lines at a dubstep gig, were followed by his trademark throat-rupturing roars. There is something almost demonic about Keiji Haino when he’s in a mood like he was on this second night, and with his loose-fitting clothes resembling a set of ceremonial robes and his guttural growls pervading the acoustic space at Cafe Oto, his voice seemed to morph, as if emanating from the dark, heathen and frightening pits of the earth. When he pressed the microphone against his throat, as if impaling himself on the very tool of his sound, the ensuing feedback-drenched torrents of noise (and by now the once-quiet set had evolved into full-on noise) actually made the concrete floor beneath us shudder. Not many artists are capable of blowing themselves away, but Keiji Haino made his first set the previous night seem positively tame as he channeled his voice into an apocalyptic whirlwind of furious noise.

But, even in this state of grim aggression, Haino showed he had more strings to his bow than such an onslaught would suggest. Stepping to a second mic, he changed tack completely, intoning a beautiful, prayer-like lament that echoed with cathedral-like reverb, his voice high, soothing and mellifluous. Using a loop station, he slowly built up layers of the sound, transforming himself into a ghostly choir, for the residency’s most poignant and arresting moment.

Before gloriously ripping it all to shreds! Unplugging these mics from his pedal rig, he picked up a handheld one and turned it into an instrument of terrifying mayhem, tearing down his previous solemn piece with ferocious glee. Saturated loops clashed into his live rants and moans, building into a squalling, screaming wall of sound not far removed from the electronic noise of Prurient. Only Haino did it solely with that incomparable voice. Curled into a near-foetal position, clutching the microphone like a treasure, he seemed both defeated and, through the near-magick energies of the sense-crippling noise he was creating, oddly defiant. When he closed the piece with a quiet return to his softer keening moan, I realised I’d been holding my breath, such was the tension and intensity on show. And yet, for all its ferocity, what shone through the entire, hour-long performance was the sheer beauty of Keiji Haino’s vision. It doesn’t matter if he’s mauling a guitar, hovering over an air synth or shredding his throat with that punishing vocal style, he’s always himself, always focused and always able to transport his audience. Over two nights, he did just that, and with unrivaled power. The next residency can’t come quickly enough, even though I wonder how he’ll top the second night’s performance.

– Sarat Babu (image)

03/04/2012: Charlemagne Palestine & Oren Ambarchi, Cafe Oto

 Just the one set on this night, but what a set. For over an hour, American experimental veteran Charlemagne Palestine and Australia’s Oren Ambarchi delighted and amazed in a concert that covered the gamut of modern non-mainstream music.

The concert in fact started before all the punters were through the door, with a patient laptop-based drone filling the room, ebbing and flowing around pre-recorded piano notes redolent of Palestine’s Strumming Music whilst he and Ambarchi chatted and the audience ordered in their rounds of beer and organic cider. I’d seen Lou Reed do something similar when performing with his Metal Machine Trio, but this felt altogether warmer and more involving. Until the introduction of what appeared to be the sample of a woman’s climax distorted to resemble a child’s whines and cries, that is. This sudden eruption of found sound -with all its sinister undertones- brought a sense of disquiet to this seemingly benign overture, blurring the lines between meditative drone and confrontational performance.
With a click of the mouse the drones intensified and diffuse beats dropped in, turning proceedings into something resembling TG at their most expansive. Not what I expected, and positively thrilling.

Then the sonic pile-up was cut short, leaving just a sustained drone which itself made way for gentle glass playing from Ambarchi and Palestine as the pair set up their stalls. They are both noted for their ability to slide from heavy noise to near-silence, and that knowledge imbued this opening with a mixture of tranquility and, perhaps paradoxically, tension. It’s rare that I wonder where a “drone” performance will go next, but I did on this occasion.

Such is Palestine’s association with drone and minimalism, it is easy to forget his mastery as a vocalist. His singing is abstract, mere chanting, but filled with pathos, dredged up from somewhere deep within. With only the gentle melodies conjured by the glasses as accompaniment, his voice became a beacon of emotional intensity, the kind of untethered feeling most singers can only hope for. There was something even hauntological about it, a voice that resonated deep in the soul but unspecific, like a barely-recalled memory.

The poise of this segment would carry through the rest of the performance, even as the duo stretched their wings into more esoteric and experimental territory. With Ambarchi still running his finger over his glass, Palestine took to the piano, coaxing out repetitive notes with increasingly insistent force. As Palestine increased the tempo, Ambarchi pulled out his guitar and slowly immersed a hesitant, piqued drone into his compadre’s flurry of notes. There was something cinematic, even symphonic about their seamless interplay, the contrast between Palestine’s single-toned arpeggios and Ambarchi’s gradually-imposing guitar building on the sum of their meagre parts to gradually approach something almost epic. With a deftness of touch remarkable in the context of what was evidently an improvisation, the piece segued neatly into more vocalising by Palestine which, allied to Ambarchi’s shifting, reverbed guitar lines, pitched matters into dark, cavernous territory. The pair maintained this elegant dichotomy throughout, alternating between the meditative earthiness of Pran Nath and a disquieted futurism akin to post-punk or Cluster-esque kosmische. Again, I can’t help but compare this mutant symphony to the more overtly mannered and less genre-defying expressions of the UK’s hauntology scene.

Despite this heady and potent cocktail, Palestine’s utterly beguiling and childlike humor was never far away as he at one point called -repeatedly- for Ambarchi to head to the drum kit, something the Australian good-naturedly responded to by upping the volume on his guitar loops and ignoring his colleague’s shouts for “DRUMS!”. When he did relent, the resulting storm of sound, with passionate crashes of the cymbals and ragged piano, was akin to free jazz in its intensity, even including a motrorik segment that segued back into the disembodied child-woman howls of the opening period. Palestine returned to his laptop, the drone intensified to near-deafening levels and Ambarchi doggedly peppered out his beat in true Jaki Liebezeit tradition as the piece slowly but intensely edged to a close.

There is a lot to say for the short sets that usually make up a show at Cafe Oto, especially the way they allow you to see at least two acts, often of wildly varied artists. But a single, lengthy and powerful concert like this carries just that bit more potency. It was a glorious work of art that unfolded before the audience on this chilly April evening, made all the more electrifying by the patient, passionate and considered way its creators went about their work.

– Fabio Lugaro (images)

07/04: Michael Gira + Grouper, Cafe Oto

Despite chilly spring temperatures outside, Cafe Oto was turned into a veritable sauna by the press of bodies gathered around the stage area, the full house easily understandable given the reputations and calibre of the two artists present for this London leg of the Counterflows festival, a curious and diverse event also held in Glasgow and Berlin.

Grouper, aka Liz Harris, has emerged as one of the most popular and critically-celebrated entities of what has become known as hypnagogic pop. The omnipresent fuzz and haze that coats her vocals and guitar encapsulates a feeling so elusive, her music somehow embodies memories listeners didn’t even know they had.

Live, it’s somehow a different proposition, despite the use of abstract video images that enhanced the sense of mystery and faded memory. With her discreet plucking of guitar strings leading into resonant feedback hum and muted arpeggios, and with her hypnotic, incomprehensible voice drenched in echo and chorus, the whole set felt otherworldly. However, despite such potentially emphatic tools, what dominated was Harris’ use of tapes powered by walkmans to provide backing tracks and atmosphere. Whilst the use of walkmans (walkmen?) was an intriguing throwback to the past that fits with Harris’ faded approach to disjointed pop, her demeanor was so detached, even aloof, as to render things beyond enigmatic, and her delicate guitar motifs and elegant voice usually made way after a few minutes of each track for listless drones from the tapes. Perhaps appropriately, given where I was seated, mostly what I could see of Grouper was Harris’ shadow playing against the back of the wall. There was considerable beauty in the music and performance, but the risk of making oneself so unobtrusive, is that any performance -such as it is- can feel insubstantial.

In comparison, former Swans leader Michael Gira’s performance felt like it was right in your face. As he tuned up, the ex-industrial terrorizer sat with a serene look on his face, strumming an electro-acoustic guitar amped so loud it shook the ceiling. His set was made up by a mixture of songs taken from his Swans, Angels of Light and solo catalogue, but all were delivered with such intensity and brute force that he captured the audience from the first note and never let go, as if determined to force a communion with the people in the room. Such is the man’s aggressive singularity as a singer and performer, he could have delivered a series of gospel spirituals and novelty songs and still sounded uniquely… Gira.

As powerful and even intimidating as his guitar-playing was, it’s Gira’s vocalising that initially struck a chord: his voice was that of a man possessed by demons, starting with a long-drawn-out moan set somewhere between a shredded Buddhist chant and the exhortations of a southern preacher.

As ever, Gira’s lyrics are dark and imagistic, their starkness heightened here by the sparseness of the music. Stylistically, the latter fell somewhere between the fire and brimstone country rock of Woven Hand and, somehow, the dense, claustrophobic and mechanized rock of Gira’s early Swans output. And whether he was delicately strumming the strings, banging his foot on the ground or thumping out minor chords, what dominated was the man himself: his sunken gaze, deceptively calm face and his voice, pitched somewhere between a drawl and a raucous snarl.

He may have been seated throughout, but this was a man who held the audience in his grasp. Between songs he was hilarious, joking about his sound and embarking on rib-tickling raps about Bob Dylan and The Shining, but when the riffs and arpeggios started it was all about the songs: all of them brutal, haunting and burningly intense. The highlight, even amongst the Swans and Angels of Light tracks, was “Blind”, from Gira’s solo album Drainland, where the quieter passages filled the room with solemnity, the audience on tenterhooks, before he blasted eardrums and hearts with an overpowering roar and unfettered acoustic guitar noise when he hit the chorus. It might have been solo acoustic, but it was as electrifying as a full-band assault. Halfway between the sparseness and intimacy of a sixties folk show, and the relentless sturm und drang of heavy rock, Michael Gira’s set was baffling, enthralling and, above all, very, very loud.

15/04: Gavin Bryars with Philip Jeck – The Sinking of the Titanic, The Barbican

The terrible events of April 14th/15th 1912, when the supposedly unsinkable giant ocean liner RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank into the freezing waters of the Atlantic, claiming the lives of 1514 people, resonated potently and dramatically at the time and through the ages. It seemed to herald the end of the industrial revolution, as mankind was proved to have failed in its bid to gain dominion of nature, whilst simultaneously throwing a magnifying glass onto the economic and social inequalities that underpinned that period of drastic technological development. In retrospect, the cataclysm can almost be seen as the first introduction into a new century that would be forever blighted by war, civil unrest, colonial strife, social inequality and greed.

With the hundredth anniversary falling last weekend, it seems every opportunity has been seized upon to cash in on that fateful night, from TV shows and art exhibitions to the rather undignified rehash of James Cameron’s Oscar-winning 1997 blockbuster, duly upgraded to 3D. And amid all the noise and remembrances, it could have been easy to forget that perhaps the most emotionally powerful, and artistically resonant work to be inspired by the great ship’s demise was open-ended composition The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars. Initially composed (and unfinished) in 1969, it saw its first performance in 1972, before being committed to eternity in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. Bryars has often returned to his signature piece, updating and modifying it as he goes along, most notably in 2007, when he recorded a version in Italy and brought on-board noted turntable artist Philip Jeck to add further atmosphere, something he did again at The Barbican last weekend.

The strength of Bryars’ piece is in its understatement. He doesn’t make any grandiose statements on the global and historical implications of the Titanic’s sinking, nor does he attempt to overly dramatise and sensationalise what occurred. Instead, he hones in on the human soul contained in every one of us, and of course in the bodies of those who set sail on that fated voyage. Inspired by reports that the ship’s string band, who all perished that night, had carried on playing throughout the disaster, particularly a hymn known as “Autumn”, Bryars, by looping and expanding on that one, sorrowful melody, goes right to the heart of the pain and loss experienced those one hundred years ago.

As ever, The Sinking of the Titanic, as played at the Barbican, started slowly, perhaps even more subdued than on previous versions I’d heard. The two string quartets, horn and woodwind players, and guitarist, remained silent, as Philip Jeck unfurled a shifting crackle of vinyl and buried sound effects, accompanied only by interjections on percussion. Above the musicians’ heads, a pair of screen displayed old footage of the Titanic preparing to set sail, the grainy, jumpy footage fitting well alongside the haze and hiss emanating from Jeck’s turntables. The percussionists sounds -bowed xylophone, chimes and subdued cymbals- evoked the sounds of groaning, creaking machinery, a surprisingly precise soundtrack to what was unfolding on-screen.

When the strings gently kicked into the haunting melody of “Autumn”, the focus of the films shifted to awkward close-ups of people apparently readying to board the world-famous vessel. The emotional impact was immediate: these faces contained innocence, hope, joy, but the juxtaposition of the music imbued everything before my eyes with extreme pathos, even as these ghostly portraits made way for images of the Titanic sliding away from Southampton. In many ways, it was the performance’s most striking and saddest moment.

If you are familiar with The Sinking of the Titanic, you will know that from there, the piece progresses over insistent repetitions of this central motif. The intensity of the playing ebbed and flowed, getting louder at points, with the oboe and tuba coming in at the loudest moments, an element of discord that seemed to accentuate the underlying tension and trepidation that hindsight conveys on the story of the Titanic first and only voyage. Recordings of survivors’ voices, distorted by time, slid in and out of the graceful string tune, the screens switched to omnipresent footage of water overlayed by decaying images of documents possibly listing the names of those lost, and all the while there was “Autumn”, or Bryars’ version of it, and Jeck’s crackle, snatches of parallel tunes and sound effects.

Philip Jeck’s presence felt invaluable to me. He heightened the tension as loud drones and even beats clattered into the tranquil atmosphere, offsetting the ensemble’s patient diligence with unsettling unpredictability. The main, repeated and manipulated, melody, at times subsumed by the vinyl’s haze, became an echo in time, and I can’t help but think of the alleged fact that one rescue ship reported hearing the Titanic’s distress calls up to an hour and a half after she had disappeared under the waves. Did the band continue to play even as the water swallowed them whole? It’s unlikely, but if so, could some of those poor souls left to freeze still hear “Autumn” resonating through the bubbles and murk? The magic of Bryars’ composition, and the stillness of its performance, is that it doesn’t seek to provide answers or influence our thinking on what happened back in 1912. It just drifts, like debris, into our ears and hearts. The only leads it gives us are emotional: photos of the dead appeared on the screen, alongside footage of grim-looking icebergs at the music’s loudest moments. Fear, uncertainty and sorrow dominate, alternating with the images and the shifts in the music, as Bryars’ new passage (composed for these renditions) built new layers on top of what had preceded. Yet “Autumn” never truly went away: it hovered, gentle and melancholic, like a nagging, yet beautiful, memory.

At the very end, a couple of lines appeared on the screen, taken from some news bulletin or poster, that perhaps best encapsulated Bryars’ self-effacing vision for The Sinking of the Titanic. One was “Graveyard of the Sea”, and few words could better describe the sense of overwhelming terror that the sea can represent, and did on April 15th 1912. I was reminded of a track title, funnily enough, from Philip Jeck’s last album, An Ark for the Listener (which was also inspired by a maritime disaster): “The All of Water”. As the Titanic descended into the depths, all their would have been for those trapped onboard was water: black, unforgiving, cold. The other line was “For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more”, a psalm. The Sinking of the Titanic is about remembering something lost forever: a ship, and those that died as it sank. As those two lines sunk into my mind, the piece slowly came to a close with a final, mournful rendition of “Autumn”. The sheer emotion it -and, for me, those two lines- had engendered left the audience dumb for the briefest of moments before applause rang around the hall. Perhaps that was the concert’s most powerful moment: a blissful, contemplative, silence.

– Pete Matthews – Feast of Music (images)

18/04: Nate Young + Dylan Nyoukis, Dalston Victoria Pub

I have a very soft spot for Dalston’s Victoria pub, and not just because it was the scene of the first (and so far only) gig I’ve played, but because it’s a thoroughly excellent venue, with a spacious performance space, good sound and, for London, rather cheap beer. Also, the contrast between the rowdy music and grungey audience, and the small band of older gents in the bar playing pool and chatting about Africa, added a dash of surreal humour to matters.

Quite what these guys would have made of the sounds wafting out of the backroom area is anyone’s guess. With the opening act having canceled, we were treated to the meat of matters from the get-go, with Scottish sound poet-meets-noise-destroyer Dylan Nyoukis delivering a startling set halfway between a recital and performance art. His first piece involved the kind of scat-like vocalisations pioneered by Phil Minton. Belting along at speed, Nyoukis’ twisted hoots, growls and noises didn’t quite match Minton’s for pathos and inspiration, but it was a remarkable feat of grueling endurance, especially when he repeatedly bleated “Is it supposed to sound like that?” over and over, as if asking the audience to explain the strange direction his mind and mouth had propelled him on.

This amusing and challenging exploration of the nature and extent of the human voice continued to be the focus of Nyoukis’ performance, as he followed his Minton experiment with a pair of poems delivered in a strong Scottish accent with intense, accentuated enunciation that effectively emphasised and added impetus to his words. Meanwhile, he used a tape recording of his own voice repeating phrases back at him under a veil of hiss. This was spoken word noise, with a similar brutal aggression, albeit one mellowed by hilarious lines and a final flourish that saw Nyoukis don a wig and makeup before cramming nearly the entire contents of a jar of pickles into his mouth. It felt like COUM Transmissions had been collided with Queer artist David Hoyle, both intellectually arresting and uproariously enjoyable.

Nyoukis was followed by Wolf Eyes and Demons alumnus Nate Young, one of the senior figures of US noise. If his initial demeanour seemed to be that of a laid-back folk singer, the sounds he produced predictably ripped any such notions to shreds.

On his solo material, Young, like his Wolf Eyes’ buddy Mike Connelly, shows a palpable interest in the creepy soundtracks of vintage horror movies, and this set was no different, as echo-drenched drones rumbled over the assembled throng, seeming to have been recorded as they emanated from the dark depths of the Appalachian caverns featured in British horror The Descent. The music was instantly sinister, with looped, unfathomable interjections of sound that stridently pierced the ether before folding in on themselves. For the most part, Young manipulated his synths and effects pedals with the delicate grace and thoughtfulness of an alchemist, his every touch showing a mastery of the noise he created. At times, however, he retreated into a quasi-meditative pose, eyes closed, feeling and absorbing the sounds in tandem with his audience even as he created them and elevating the performance above mere horror noise and into a sort of spiritual communion of the most ragged kind.

Yet you could hardly compare Nate Young’s music to that of the kind of intellectual drone composers who overtly strive for transcendence: it was too visceral, even basic, for that, being anchored at times in a sort of mutated, tortured blues music. It’s something he has explored more distinctly in his Stare Case project, and which seeped into this set via his distorted harmonica solo and the ragged rhythmic pulsations that accompanied it. Later, he cranked up the aggression, building a torrent of mutilated, screaming drones over throbbing bass synth and connecting the dots between the muted brand of moody Midwestern noise he is most closely associated with, and the furious horror prog of Goblin and the more industrialised noise of Prurient and Kevin Drumm.

The music of Nate Young is full of industrial clanks and groans, but also desolate empty spaces and bursts of dry air that seem to threaten to clog the lungs. On this chilly April evening, the darkest corners of America’s hinterland were conjured up in a London pub. My assertion that Wolf Eyes is one of the very best modern bands (of any genre) is based on the quality of offshoots like Nate Young’s solo material. No matter how abrasive or contemplative he gets, what primes is the atmosphere, and he’s become a master of maintaining just that, be it on record or live.

21/06: Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Cafe Oto

Discovering German duo Cluster was for me something of a turning point/epiphany for me, as the colossal, galaxy-wide and slowly-evolving drones of their 1971 debut album seemed to signpost towards a new way of understanding music, and how to listen to it. Thanks to them opening up my ears, I’ve become a student of drone and just intonation, from Tony Conrad to Pauline Oliveros, Takehisa Kosugi to Nadja. So when they split up a year ago, I was more than a little despondent, but the silver lining has been the ongoing solo and collaborative career of Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

The opening act was a British synth musician going under the name of Petrels, who matched his name with a set of drifting drone that reminded me of the current Dalai Lama of synth, Oneohtrix Point Never, although where the latter aims for something futuristically cosmic, Petrels leans more towards moody ambience linked to psychogeographic coastal imagery, with a backing video of muggy footage to emphasise matters twofold. Centred on a series of slowly-evolving Korg chords, manipulated, extended and enhanced to create dense bubbles of watery melodies, Petrels’ music could have beamed out of the Spectrum Spools stable, with a similar tendency towards woozy futurism, although his skill at lingering over certain notes and tones enhanced the music in ways that most synth acts can’t equal. If Petrels had one issue on the night, it was that his music clearly owed a substantial debt of influence to Cluster, and therefore Hans-Joachim Roedelius. I can appreciate the reasoning behind choosing Petrels for a Roedelius gig, but there was always a risk that the student would be overshadowed by the master, which would have been unfair on Petrels.

As it turned out, Roedelius chucked out a beauty of a curveball, delivering a set that even this stupid fanboy couldn’t expect. Initially, it was pure latter-day Cluster, with dense synth drones, snippets of inchoate field recordings and ghostly loops echoing the minimalism of early Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros. But he unexpectedly switched to the piano and began to unfurl a series of mournful melodies (“lullabies”, as he called them) that danced in and out of his loops and glitches, combining with them to produce a form of cinematic post-pop akin to Joe Hisaishi’s melancholic scores for Takeshi Kitano’s most contemplative films such as Hana-Bi or Dolls. It was so unforeseen, at least by me, that I found myself wrapped up in the emotion. A great artist can often be defined as one who will absorb his or her audience in his music. In that respect, Roedelius is imperious.

His musical world is deceptively simple: piano, synth and computer noise, but also wondrous: a bizarre reverie that drifts effortlessly between glitch, deep listening and industrial ambient. In comparison to the overt, almost cheesy futurism or glossy drone of the modern synth set (as referenced before), Roedelius’ music remains tantalisingly abstract, one that builds up incrementally and elusively, but delivers one hell of an emotional kick. Because, as the drones, synths and loops were led in a merry waltz with themselves, Roedelius, on piano, emerged as an experimental cousin of Michael Nyman and Wim Mertens, his music imbued with the same potency those guys can conjure with mere piano chords, but also with the forward-thinking ingenuity that will forever link him to the avant-garde. The way he so expertly juggled these elements at Oto, with modesty and precision, shows that, even at over 70, Hans-Joachim Roedelius is an artist worth admiring and following. I can’t wait for his next album.

– Fabio Lugaro (images)

22/06: Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras Meet the Congos, Village Underground

I had somehow managed to not notice that there would be an opening act for this much-anticipated concert, so was somewhat surprised when three musicians who clearly weren’t Cameron Stallones (aka Sun Araw), M. Geddes Gengras or The Congos take to the stage. That surprise quickly turned to delight as I realised said trio was none other than dubstep legends in the making King Midas Sound. They opened their set in a hail of noise out of which emerged a series of measured piano chords supporting the smooth voice of vocalist Roger Robinson. Played in near darkness, with Kiki Hitomi swaying woozily and joining her high-pitched yelp to Robinson’s singing, whilst producer Kevin “The Bug” Martin expertly juggled beats, samples and turntables, this opening felt a little like the graceful pop of a David Sylvian or Talk Talk, and I found myself anxiously anticipating the inevitable crush of heavy bass that the trio is so renowned for.

I was not disappointed. The bass hit me like a tidal wave, wobbling and rearranging my innards, its head-filling swathe surrounded by ghostly effects and Hitomi’s heavily reverb-ed vocals. In Martin’s able hands, tracks both familiar and new were transformed, chopped and re-modeled into a single, hypnotic, yet infinitely danceable, whole, into which Robinson and Hitomi dipped and weaved their symbiotic voices, sometimes together, sometimes apart, sometimes operating a haunting call-and-response. Despite the trio’s visual differences (elegant lovers’ rocker, oddball Japanese sprite and tracksuit-clad white dance fanatic), they enmesh perfectly, combining their disparate influences and tastes under the umbrella of deep bass to create a modern form of dancefloor music. Sure, they might have their roots in Caribbean dancehall (as hinted by a wicked sampled cover of Black Uhuru’s “Shine Eyed Gal”), but they’ve then transformed and transmogrified those roots here in London to create something that can be played in clubs from New York to Bangkok. A lot of bands and producers look to the past to create the present dancefloor sounds. King Midas Sound go one further in creating something truly futuristic, and I swear what I heard at The Village Underground could have just as easily been used to soundtrack Blade Runner or Gattaca as it was to shake the walls of this Shoreditch venue.

After such a great opening set, Sun Araw and the gang stood the risk of seeming a bit retro, or at least less forward-thinking, in comparison, although it would be silly to equate the two. But it must be said, that where King Midas Sound transcend time in a way, Sun Araw’s music tends to merely use the past as a means to enjoy and manipulate the present. It’s not as avant-whatever, but it does re-calibrate archetypes of popular music in inventive ways. Perhaps most inventive of all is allying himself (along with his his California-based ally M. Geddes Gengras) with veteran reggae legends The Congos, whose Heart of the Congos album remains a milestone of the genre. Whilst the importance of reggae to Sun Araw is undeniable, he so distorts and fuzzes up all his influences that a collaboration with such a typical reggae act seems odd, and certainly brave.

And stone me, for guys who, in some cases, are pushing 70, The Congos are an amazingly energetic bunch! And make no mistake, the quartet from Kingston were the focal point of this set, despite their numerous shout-outs to Stallones, as the rousing reception they got demonstrated. They danced, occasionally banged drums, and, crucially, combined their vocals in perfect that harmonies that, whilst occasionally drowned by the music, show few signs of wear and tear.

Musically, there was a full band joining Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, with drums, sax, bass and guitar joining the headline duo’s synths (and in Stallones’ case, a second guitar), and came on very much like vintage Sun Araw, with wobbly, sub-aquatic guitar lines, gloopy bass and hazy synth swirls. At first, the inherent jerkiness of this music sat a bit uncomfortably with The Congos’ harmonies, and they seemed to struggle to fit their traditional-style melodies with the band’s awkward blend of mutant reggae and cosmic p-funk. But, as everyone settled and drank in the crowd’s enthusiasm, The Congos created a party atmosphere, enhancing the music even at the times when it didn’t really fit, through a combination of relaxed spirituality, amusing eccentricity and sheer cheerfulness. As the set progressed, some tracks slipped out of the warped cyber-funk of the first tracks in favour of straight-ahead reggae, and these proved to be the most immediately enjoyable moments of the set, bar an ecstatic, almost Afrobeat, final track, propelled by the frenetic, friendly charisma of the four veterans standing centre stage.

Heart of the Congos is rightly heralded as one of the great, forward-looking reggae albums of the seventies, and by joining Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, The Congos proved they still have a will to explore and expand on their sound. Live, this sense of adventure certainly made the music interesting, but what sticks in my mind two days later remains the Jamaican singers’ inherent, easy and infectious charm.

19/07: Yndi Halda + John Chantler, Hoxton Hall

Ok, how did I end up in hipster central? Being in Hoxton on a Thursday night, to see a “post-rock” (man, I hate that term) band known for their emotional songs, meant jostling for space with lots of people with ample facial hair and oddly-proportioned trousers, and the need to dodge untold numbers of fixie bikes on the way to the venue. Fortunately, Hoxton Hall is a charming space, decently-sized but intimate, and one well suited for the acts on display on this occasion.

Although, to be honest, I’m not sure what many of the gathered hipsters will have made of John Chantler, who is none other than John from Cafe Oto, something I discovered to my surprise (putting two and two together and making, well, nothing, because I’m too dim!). There was nothing “rock”-related about his set, which featured juddering electro-noise generated on what looked like a massive typewriter, but I’m sure was actually a hefty modular synth. His main asset was his excellent use of stereophonics, which allowed each sound to be amplified and intensified as they emerged on one side of the room, danced and shimmered across the whole spectrum like pixies jigging through the air, before dissipating into the void. Initially very abstract, his compositions gradually settled, building up mechanical tones and edgy percussive noises into a dense and imposing wall of digital drone, which he’d then dissipate with ragged grace. Silence and noise, rhythm and inertia, were juxtaposed as if sparring in a boxing ring and some of the structures, particularly the way the different noises succeeded and swerved around one another, but with a subliminal rhythmic pulsation underneath, reminded me of free jazz, in the same way Keith Fullerton Whitman’s similar avant-electronica does. For his second piece, the rhythms became more present, as if Kraftwerk were jamming with Bootsy Collins in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future. I found it positively thrilling, but would have gladly handed over a bucket-load of pennies for the thoughts of the gathered Yndi Halda fans (pah – they probably would have shattered my pompous lowly expectations: full credit, after all, to the headliners for bringing John on-board – James Vella, their guitarist, was effusive in his praise for him via e-mail)

If there was room to sit down during the opening act, Hoxton Hall was positively rammed by the time Yndi Halda clambered on-stage and crept into the wonderful “Dash and Blast” from their -so far- sole release, Enjoy Eternal Bliss. I suppose this should be confession time: I fricking love that album/EP, and for a while it reignited my faith in the artistic relevance and potency of “emotional” instrumental rock. Sure, it appears to have turned out to be a lovely blip in an increasingly dull sea of mediocrity, as the “post-rock” scene has become more fixated on its own formula and navel than just about any genre I can think of, apparently unaware of the inanity of the term itself (it’s not “post” anything just because you remove the vocals, for f***’s sake!). But I guess I was hoping that Yndi Halda would confirm all the emotions I felt at 21, when I would sit alone in my tiny studio flat and swoon to the quiet-loud-quiet-loud compositions of Godspeed, Explosions In The Sky, et al. I may object to the term “post-rock” (mostly because it simply doesn’t apply to the bands in question), and find a lot of the music hopelessly generic and manipulative, but, like shoegaze, it connects with the pain and wistfulness of youth like few other “rock” genres. Basically, I’m saying sue me – I was hoping Yndi Halda would make me cry!

And “Dash and Blast” is a sure fire winner, a “post-rock” crowd-pleaser if ever there was one, and the band reproduced it exquisitely. Their focal point -despite the presence of singer/multi-instrumentalist James Vella- is the violin of Daniel Neal, which dances up from the centre of the mix, elegant and ethereal, imbued with more emotion in the gentle strokes he performs than most bands can provide across their entire catalogue. It’s weird: as I was standing by the stage, part of me wanted to bemoan the relatively uneven sound quality and overly bright stage lights that detracted somewhat from the potential intimacy of the music, yet all I could focus on is that violin. Kudos to the other band-members as well, for their delicate interplay and measured balance of loudness and silence helped give Neal the space he needed to soar. “Dash and Blast” and the other tracks from Enjoy Eternal Bliss may be built around similar quiet-loud-quiet-again structures to many of the Godspeed Brigade, but, as with the much-lauded Canadians, the violin gives them that much more grace, and a folky undertone throwing back to fellow Canterbury adventurers of decades past such as Caravan or even Soft Machine. For all the familiarity of the song construction, it’s nearly impossible to not get swept up by the music, even for a cynical old bastard like me.

In comparison to the swoops and lulls and dynamic shifts of the Enjoy Eternal Bliss material, a lot of Yndi Halda’s new stuff, most of it vocals-led, feels less immediate and less developed, something that is all the more surprising given that it’s been five years since that album was released, so you’d think they’d have had time to flesh things out. Shorter and less elaborate, they didn’t stick in the memory, although again, the acoustics probably played a significant part in this, with Vella’s voice barely carrying above the music.

It will be intriguing to see where Yndi Halda go from here, and what their next album sounds like. This concert didn’t feel like a showcase for the new material so much as a celebration of the band as a whole, which, on the strength of their performances (flawlessly recreated songs, lots of charisma for Vella and Neal), was well-deserved.

20/07: Excepter + Helm, Cafe Oto

Blame the recession, the (then) upcoming Olympics, or the unexpectedly good weather, but Cafe Oto was unusually quiet for the arrival of one of America’s most singular bands, synth improvisers Excepter. Add Helm into the mix, and the relative sparseness of the crowd was downright odd. Not that I was complaining mind: front-row seats!

In the spirit of the headliners, Design A Wave, aka Tom Hirst, produced a synth-heavy set, but in a very different fashion to Excepter. Stood behind his robust Kawai, Hirst delivered a series of concise, tuneful synth-pop tracks very much in the vein of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Soft Cell and The Royal Family & the Poor. Drum machine beats pattered along monotonously, whilst the Kawai lines swirled or shuddered over the top, the whole thing drenched in a certain retro nostalgia. Most notable were Hirst’s vocals, delivered in a deadpan, Daniel Miller-esque manner and overflowing with bleak lyrics that acted as a sinister counterpoint to the energetic brightness of the music (one highlight included “I call you on the telephone/to insult you”). The vocals were certainly a nice touch, but something felt lacking, perhaps because Hirst’s need to juggle singing with producing the music means everything felt very static. In comparison, the freedom allowed to Marc Almond or Andy McCluskey -for example- by operating in a duo or band meant that both carried arresting live presence, whatever one thinks of the music.

Interestingly, Design A Wave’s debut EP was released on Alter, a cool label run by Luke Younger, who appeared at Oto as Helm, one of the premier noise acts currently operating. This was my third time seeing him, and he just gets better and better. If his latest album, Impossible Symmetry, released on PAN earlier this year, was good, live Helm is something else, as his considered (yes, considered) approach to the archetypes of power electronics gains full force when blasting through a PA. This set, combined of what felt like new improvisations and a diversion via a bit of Impossible Symmetry, was dominated throughout by Younger’s perfect balance between heavy, reverberating drones, and screeching, ear-shattering noise. Each sonic flourish and ingredient was added with expert precision, allowing minute details to pierce the walls of sound and expand the ever-evolving adventure that represents a Helm live set. Here, he juggled subdued tape loops with industrial-strength screes and squalls, the combination lending his music a weird sort of forward momentum, like Throbbing Gristle at their most belligerent and percussive (“Tesco Disco”, maybe?). Helm increasingly represents the future of intelligent noise music, bridging as he does the gaps between the all-out assault of the Macronymphas of this world with something akin to musique concrete.

I went on a bit about synths when introducing this article, but there’s something more of a punk band about Excepter. Or maybe a techno act. Or both. Or neither. Herein lies surely their greatest asset: no matter how familiar many of the sounds are, it’s impossible to properly pin them down, which is surely the mark of a great band. For all the emphasis on improvisation and avant-garde considerations, Excepter hit the ground running here with a pop/dance approach not so far removed from Design A Wave’s, at least at first. As thumping techno beats underscored soaring synth, “leader” John Fell Ryan banged a single snare drum and muttered incoherently into his microphone, looking like a beach bum equivalent of Tony Conrad with his wrap-around shades, felt hat and hawaiian shirt. Things took a turn for the weird as his co-vocalist and wife Lala crawled around the instruments, shuddering in a somewhat disturbing parody of dance. Melodically, the music of Excepter is based on repetition and intensity, layers of electronic bliss getting piled on top of one another as the Ryans jiggle, chant and occasionally add their own flourishes to the hypnotic sub-melodies (her on synth and flute, him on percussion). There’s a definite attitude of incessant defiance about them (it might be John Ryan’s morose demeanor), whilst Lala’s twisted take on dance evokes performance art, yet all the while the room shakes with the driving synth patterns and pounding beats of their two acolytes, stoical behind their massive keyboards. Deliberately fraying the tropes of every genre they dabble in, the flute or drum flourishes became delicious aberrations, a tug-of-war between airy psychedelia and edgy punk muscularity. It’s like krautrock played by bone-headed hardcore punks who’ve somehow also done a degree in avant-garde composition. Despite their abstractions and impenetrable ethos, there is something irresistible and awkwardly satisfying about Excepter.

11/08: PiL, HMV Forum

 “Good evening Kentish Town!” intones the man once known as Johnny Rotten as he strides onstage flanked by the best incarnation of PiL since the release of Metal Box. This is obvious from the moment they launch into a loping, rambunctious rendition of “This Is Not A Love Song”, all razor-blade guitar that somehow sounds like a synth and funky rhythm, with John Lydon still in possession of his trademark vocal style, pitched somewhere between snarl and whine, as he swaggers around on stage in baggy trousers and loose-fitting semi-combat jacket. If ever I had doubts they could deliver so many years after their best records, PiL have dismissed them from the get-go.

This live version of “This Is Not A Love Song” encapsulates in a few minutes encapsulates the enduring potency of this newly-assembled PiL: locked inside its sinewy grooves, you can still feel the punk spirit of ‘77, only transported, refracted and transmogrified through funk, reggae and disco. A lot of bands since the first post-punk explosion have stirred their spoons in this fertile melting pot, but only PiL managed it with such tuneful abrasion. As back catalogue and new tunes are thrown out over the audience, it is striking how forceful, but also how infectiously danceable each every song on the set list is. Only a couple of slow-burning long dub-rock pieces distract from the implacable funkiness that steamrolls off the stage.

This model has been set in rock’n’roll stone since First Edition, and the reason why this year’s This Is PiL is such a gem is that it re-connects with the primordial post-p-funk of those halcyon years without being merely a throwback. At the Forum, tracks like “One Drop” and “Deeper Water”, already so great on record, take on a new life, and segue seamlessly out of the riffs, bass and drums of classics such as “Swan Lake”. Lydon and co. present a solid body of work, a 30-year reflection of rock music that is never satisfied but always looking forward. In the hands of Lu Edmonds (guitar), Scott Firth (bass, keys), Bruce Smith (drums) and John Lydon, “Albatross”, in particular, becomes a rambunctious jam, stretched beyond the confines of its studio performance, but still 100% funky, grimy and psychedelic. 100% PiL, in other words. Jah Wobble and Keith Levene may be missing (and trying to recreate their own version of the myth), but with these guys at the reins, there’s no doubt John Lydon is the one holding the candle.

And make no mistake, Lydon is the king of this weird little kingdom. He exhorts and berates the crowd, glares out over his microphone with those singular eyes, and hilariously demands better sound by shouting “Walter at the altar – more bass!” Forget the butter adverts – John Lydon remains as idiosyncratically, brilliantly, belligerent as ever, as he castigates (somewhat unfairly) the security staff for preventing people from dancing. When he introduces that uncompromising slab of anti-theist post-metal, “Religion”, his anger and righteous rock attitude shine through unabashed: “Lock up your kids – the priests are coming!” Few rock stars these days would be so bold, in an age where criticising religion is such a thorny issue.

Even enthralled by this unique personality, I’m left above all in thrall to his voice. Lydon will always be known for the gob-filled sneer of “I am an antichrist”, but deserves so much more. His high-pitched warble is perfectly pitched to the music of every one of these tracks, whether ramming home a point with snarled aggression, as on “Religion”, or dancing around Edmonds’ guitar on “Swan Lake” as if locked in a weird waltz with the music itself. He may be a buffoon, but Lydon comes so close to being both priest and poet that he’s one of the most easily forgivable megalomaniacs in rock.

27/08: Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, Cafe Oto

 It takes just a few notes from the massed horns of Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, Gail Brand, Ian Smith and Byron Wallen to make me wish I’d been free on the 26th for the first night of this 2-day residency.

Two markedly different sets make up this concert, and yet Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s unique vision traverses both. In the first, he and the other aforementioned brass players are supported by John Coxon, who provides a dense electronic background whilst they unfurl their dizzying improvisation in a manner resembling a flight formation. Trumpeters Ian Smith and Byron Wallen occupy the flanks, literally, and their initial solos alternate between gasping, flighty tremolos and full-on fire music blasts. Meanwhile, Gail Brand on trombone provides a solid bedrock of deep tones, whilst Wadada hunches over two microphones placed at his feet, seeming to be directing his convulsive blasts into the ground. After this abstract overture, the quintet settles into a sweeping, quasi-orchestral mini-suite, almost akin to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain material, only with Coxon’s deep, convulsive drones adding an undercurrent of industrial-esque unease. Slowly, the piece grows, almost organically, finely balanced between abrasive “new sound’ a la Coltrane, Ayler or Shepp, and a form of beatific cosmic modality. If Ian Smith, Wallen and Brand each bring distinct voices to the table, especially Brand’s entrancing and melodic deep, resonant tones, with Smith the most democratic of leaders, the piece still coalesces around him (indeed, the piece at times closely resembles the title track of his Divine Love album), and it is the Mississippian’s crystalline solos that stand out most of all. The only slight problem in an otherwise blissful set is that Coxon’s electronics occasionally sat somewhat awkwardly with the brass instruments. But that’s a small quibble indeed.

If the first set was challenging but ultimately entrancing, the second is altogether more muscular, a beast of free jazz that sees Smith bolstered by drummers Charles Hayward (formerly of This Heat, no less) and Steve Noble, plus vibist Orphy Robinson. The two drummers instantly launch into frenetic, hard-hitting polyrhythms, as if competing with one another for potency, both in their inimitable styles that they somehow manage to mesh together into a rapidly-shifting whole. Robinson could have been swallowed by such a tidal wave -especially as Smith seems content to just listen and let the percussionists find their groove- but instead his vibraphone becomes a welcome counterpoint to Hayward and Noble’s heaviness, as he weaves graceful, airy lines around and in-between their propulsive clatters and thumps.

When Smith joins the fray, it’s with a thrilling wah-ing solo that dances around the sturm und drang, and the piece rapidly grows into a wild slab of pure fire music, with the trumpeter’s open-ended solos matching his backers’ percussive drive with stabbing staccato notes whilst also sliding in and out of soaring melodic lines.

Ever the democrat, Smith again pulls back at one point to allow for a triple-edged percussion solo in which Hayward and Noble again showcase their innate ability to play around and inside each other’s styles, with Noble showcasing his frenetic ability to pound away whilst also ripping jolting clatters from small cymbals he places on his snare. But in many ways Orphy Robinson shines brightest of the three, matching the other two for volume (including some thumping bass notes drawn out of a pedal), but also holding the melody together with his bright and clear-sounding tones. Then Smith kicks back in to tie everything back together in a sweeping final movement that, for all its “noise”, also delves unexpectedly into moments of tranquility, with clear influences taken from African music and even samba. If Gram Parsons claimed to have invented “cosmic American music”, I think the strange and disparate sounds in an Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith concert must constitute “cosmic global music”. And all the while, he diligently points his horn at his feet. Jazz has sometimes been described as a “cry to heaven”. It seems that Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is trying to conjure that heaven up from under our feet.

19/10: Gnod, Goat, Teeth of the Sea, The Lexington

In many ways, it’s comforting to know that psychedelic rock is still out there – alive, fresh and increasingly heavy. Like many a former college kid, I spent several of my formative years smoking pot whilst tripping out to the likes of Love, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, their music gaining significance with each new hit. The fact that those acid-drenched guitar licks and woozy Wurlitzer chords still resonate with modern bands is, however, testimony to the fact that there was always more to psych-rock than to act as a mere supplement to drug-induced inertia. Scratch away at the incense burns and trippy album covers, and much of psych-rock, past and present, still packs a punch.

That much is clearly on display at the Lexington, as three of the most feted modern-day psych acts, all on Rocket Recordings, take to the cramped stage, turn on the multi-coloured videos, dim the lights and launch into their disparate takes on the legacy of Hendrix, Joplin, Garcia et al. Gnod are the heaviest of the three, distilling a form of languid-yet-crushing psych-metal that collates strands of trippy krautrock (Amon Duul II, in particular) and buzzing West Coast acid rock and then slams it through a filter that’s equal parts Blue Cheer and Writing on the Wall. The lead singer’s distorted, echo-drenched vocals, meanwhile, evoke Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, his howls and groans looping over themselves into a formless choir. The highlight of their pummeling set is “Tony’s First Communion”, on which the drummer lays down a groove reminiscent of Werner “Zappi” Diermaier’s slovenly backbeat on Faust and Tony Conrad’s “From the Side of Man and Womankind” under layers of raucous guitar drones and freeform solos. To my relief, the band refuses to give in to the temptation to switch away from this minimalist plod, driving the track with pig-headed determination until it collapses in a blare of feedback and acidic raucousness. Sure, the drummer sometimes drops the beat, and it gets a tad messy across the set, but Gnod have energy to burn and potent riffs aplenty, meaning they’re one of the most satisfying psych acts in the country.

Goat arrive in London on the back of many positive column inches in the alternative music press and a surprisingly solid chart position in their native Sweden for their debut album. Apparently, this is their first-ever live performance, but you wouldn’t know it by their confident performance and unique collection of stage presences. Their sound is a cohesive fusion of upbeat psych-rock and Middle Eastern textures, notably the presence of two maraca-shaking female singers in kaftans whose combined voices are both uplifting and strangely spiritual. Wearing face paint and masks, the band look strange, but the music is tight, with undulating, supple rhythms and lots of fast-paced guitar riffage. Goat are certainly fun, leading the crowd in excited dances, but somehow their quirkiness feels distractingly gimmicky.

Teeth of the Sea’s debut album, Orphaned by the Ocean was one of the best releases of 2010, a subtle and enthralling blend of psych, metal and noise. Since then, they’ve evolved considerably, first upping the synth quotient and now expanding their previously-minimal drum kit to allow Mat Colegate to add extra propulsion to a brand new set of tracks that completely re-work not just Teeth of the Sea’s sound, but that of modern psych altogether. Mixing live drums with drum machines, and with luscious synth lines soaring over the top, occasionally joined by Jimmy Martin’s stabbed guitar licks, the band builds up a vibrant hybrid form of punkish dance layered with shimmering post-psych flourishes. Like Gnod, they use colourful abstract visuals, but Teeth of the Sea’s new musical direction is more brittle and lithe than the Mancunians’, the psychedelia coming from the mesmeric nature of their rhythmic pulsations and the melodic blend of Martin and Mike Bourne’s synths. The closest musical cousin to this set I can think of would be Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport, except that Teeth of the Sea have not forgotten their noisy roots amongst the beats and the synths, with a current of grit and gristle underlying every note. At the Lexington, they demonstrate that they remain one of Britain’s most exciting, forward-facing acts, with members who are not afraid to embrace different genres and constantly push their sound forwards. I now can’t wait for their next album!

– Kimberley Powenski (images)

22/10: Acid Mother Temple + Hey Colossus, Corsica Studios

Last time I was at Corsica Studios, it was for an all-night showcase of blistering noise-techno supplied by angry-looking men in combat gear hunched over synths, laptops and beat-up effects pedals. Tonight’s concert was at a more reasonable hour (as I edge grumpily towards 30, these things become important) but there was still the kind of intense volume and attitude you’d expect from these two metal/psych stalwarts.

Birmingham-based outfit Hey Colossus have slowly been making waves and are increasingly viewed as one of the best -and most brutal- metal acts in the country, and they seem determined to prove themselves worthy of such a tag from the get-go in South London. If they have a mantra, it’d be “Let’s pound these fuckers to the ground! Even if we go down with’em!” It’s an attitude that imbues their set with tension and aggression, with varying results. Compared to their full throttle Happy Birthday album, my main reference point when it comes to Hey Colossus, they initially hit the ground at a loping pace, neatly sidestepping the hardcore edginess I expected in favour of a grindingly obtuse mixture of post-rock and something approaching doom metal, but filtered through Godflesh’s industrial nihilism. The deployment of three guitarists allows the band to juxtapose styles whilst maintaining a vice-like grip on that transcendent seraphim of metal: the riff. Swirling or grunting around a sturdy rhythmic column, the three guitarists trade sludgy chords for spiralling arpeggios, a six-string equivalent of hanging, drawing and quartering, even as the vocalist barks and howls his vocals at the audience like misanthropic hiccups.

The rest of their set sees Hey Colossus juggling a series of stylistic amalgamations, lurching from thrashing hardcore to morose psychedelic doom. The longer workouts are the most memorable (there’s only so much crusty punk-metal I can take before becoming bored, and I think that limit was set by Big Black’s first two albums – plus, let’s face it, Motörhead kicked everyone in the balls from the get-go, making any subsequent collision of punk and metal obsolete before it was even dreamt up), especially a wonderfully punishing final track that kicks off at 100 mph before descending into the scorched catacombs of miasmic doom, complete with suitably unintelligible black metal-esque vocals. Hey Colossus’ songs don’t quite live up to the band’s undeniably infectious attitude, but they possess that essential ingredient that I consider requisite for any self-described “heavy” band: the sense that everything could collapse into chaos at any moment.

In a funny way, Acid Mothers Temple sound like they’re teetering on the brink of that same ramshackle abyss, but equally demonstrate such confident interplay that it’s clear that all risk of disintegration is illusory. This set is very similar in feel (and line-up) as the last I saw them in this same venue over 12 months ago, and it’s one dominated by the opposite personalities and stage presences of guitarist Kawabata Makoto and synth wizard Hiroshi Higashi, with the simultaneous contrast and symbiosis between the two tugging the Japanese legends’ psychedelic rock in different, but not totally incompatible, directions. Higashi is a master of the Hawkwind-ish psychedelic flight of fancy, his omnipresent sweeps and surges barging into and then dissolving into the grooves set up by the band’s solid rhythm section like an intrusive but ultimately welcome guest at the weirdest dinner party ever held. In contrast, Kawabata is the band’s focal point, but equally its wild card, spraying out wah-laden riffs before calmly lurching into acid-drenched hard rock solos. As much as Higashi provides comedy with his goofball dancing, and enraptures with his mesmeric calm, my eyes are constantly drawn back to Kawabata, with his improbable curls and perfect synthesis of Hendrix, Iommi and Kaukonen on the axe. Journalists and musicians will often oversell the importance of the electric guitar, but in Kawabata’s hands it’s suitably hypnotic.

Speaking to me via e-mail, Kawabata explains that the entire set is an improvisation, which is all the more notable given the slickness of the quintet’s interplay. Part of me wishes they’d whack out some of the material from their impressive latest album, Son of a Bitches Brew, but when they roll trippily into the unparalleled guitar lines (is it a solo or a riff?) of “Pink Lady Lemonade”, which sees Kawabata channel Neil Young and Manuel Göttsching, it’s hard to have any complaints. “Pink Lady Lemonade” may be AMT’s greatest moment, a wonderful melange of every influence that the band crystallises even as they wear them on their baggy sleeves. A bristling, noisy, improvisation angrily cleaves the track in two, dragging it into the aforementioned chaos zone, but, improbably, the band bursts out of the mess and back into “Pink Lady Lemonade”, Kawabata’s guitar slaloming through the muggy air inside Corsica Studios and hypnotising every audience member like an instrumental cobra. I’m reminded of the first time I saw Neil Young play “Words” on stage, obliterating the entire preceding Primal Scream set with just a few notes; sometimes a simple riff or arpeggio can surpass every instrument, melody and noise thrown over a crowd by any other band. This was one such moment.

I imagine that for many, the evening’s highlight will have been the moment Makoto Kawabata used lighter fluid to set fire to his guitar before destroying it and doing the same to the next one. It’s certainly memorable, but I’ve seen it all before. So best to use my mind’s ear to lock onto that eternal guitar progression from “Pink Lady Lemonade”. I’m not sure I’ve seen Acid Mothers Temple at their best tonight, but that track, and the way it swallowed me whole, won’t leave me anytime soon.

21/11: Laurel Halo, Plastic People

Right artists, wrong venue. Opens late. The bouncers subject us to the kind of over-zealous body search (chewing gum is not allowed at Plastic People, for some reason) you wouldn’t even expect at JFK airport. Beers cost £4 a bottle (in my world, this is a seriously big deal). The performance space is cramped and overfilled, the temperature swiftly rising. It says much about the world current music fans live in that we are prepared to fork out excessive amounts of money to receive such overt contempt and be subjected to this kind of discomfort. Oh well, it’s part of the Shoreditch (or London, if Koko, the Forum and the Apollo are anything to go by) experience, right? As I crane over a sardine-like mass midway through Laurel Halo’s set, I quietly thank the ether for Cafe Oto and The Vortex’s ongoing existence. Without them, the London live experience would be noticeably poorer.

But I digress. The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic delivered one of the best albums of 2011 in the form of his self-titled debut, but it was based on dark-folk string arrangements and echo-laden drum sounds. How would he convert this dense-yet-elaborate sound to such an intimate club venue as Plastic People (capacity – supposedly- 100)? Remarkably, using just an Elektron sampler/sequencer, he manages to create a set that balances the doom-laden atmosphere of his album with a potent dancefloor twist. With neat black and white excerpts from Tarkowsky’s Stalker playing behind him, Krlic unleashes room-shaking sub-bass and shuddering beats, pitching the traces of The Haxan Cloak that linger in the fault-lines between his post-dubstep rhythms into a minimalist form of dark industrial techno, somewhere between Demdike Stare and Vatican Shadow. Like those artists, The Haxan Cloak’s music (in this format at least) functions mostly on a purely visceral level, with the grinding rhythms and bursts of synthetic noise filling the space in the room before seeping over the audience’s perceptions. A photo I take (in the pitch black of the room – the ideas we have sometimes) captures the spirit of this set rather well: Krlic himself is subsumed by shadow, completely invisible, whilst the hazy reflections of LED lights shining out of the synth cast a ghostly shimmer that dissolves into abstraction as the shadows close in. There’s dance and synthetic music running through The Haxan Cloak’s music, but these details are quickly subsumed by the sheer, blackened weight of the sound being unfurled.

Laurel Halo, in comparison, is relatively bouncy once she decides to come on in a room now packed beyond belief and rapidly reaching sauna-esque temperatures. Wearing a Hyperdub tee-shirt, and with her hair tied in a ponytail, she jerks and shakes almost aggressively as she darts between the various synths, sequencers and samplers that make up her impressive bank of electro tools. Surprisingly, she veers away from the song formats that made up her recent -and, in my opinion, rather poor- Quarantine album, instead dropping her voice in as yet another sample and combining the disparate sounds into a dislocated, intensely rhythmic form of disjointed techno. In many ways, this feels more like a DJ set than the pop-ish concert I’d been expected, with more frenetic beats and lumbering bass than featured on either Quarantine or her Hour Logic EP, but with the crowd pressing around her, any chance of responding physically to the music is rendered impossible, which is a shame, because these rhythms are improbably infectious after the slothful moodiness of her recorded output, with r’n’b and even disco filtered artfully around the hypnagogic-esque synth washes and post-house melodies, like Larry Levan by way of Rustie. So again, Plastic People becomes the biggest hindrance to what could have been a revelatory -if somewhat overly-synthetic- performance. After all, it’s hard to imagine Levan, for example, would ever have tolerated having his music hemmed in by his own crowd. I’m all for the intellectualisation of dance music (and you can tell this crowd takes Laurel Halo very seriously), but not if it’s to the detriment of its main purpose: to make you, well, dance.

28/11: Luke Younger & Tom James Scott, Cafe Oto

This is the kind of night places like Oto live for, in a way. We all love it when big names from the fringes of rock (Michael Gira, Nadja…) or underground and jazz icons (Haino, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell and God knows how many others) fill the small, incomparable venue in East London, but there’s always something a bit special when you’re presented with the work of lesser known acts with no idea what to expect.

lll人

London-based trio lll人 provide an intriguing take on free jazz. Saxophonist Seymour Wright is your typical hard-blowing free-former in the violent style of Mats Gustafsson, and has an able partner in the muscular form of drummer Paul Abbott. At times, their interactions evoke the barnstorming proto-No Wave of Arthur Doyle’s Alabama Feeling, but the real joker in the card is Daichi Yoshikawa on what is rather mistakenly described as electronics on the Oto website. Rather, he uses a contact mic, heavily processed, to create strident, percussive noise swoops that pitch the set into a form of chaotic noise/jazz hybrid. At his most sensitive, his improbably loud, distorted and saturated punctuations seem to mirror the tone and textures of the drums and sax, but at others he threatens to completely overwhelm his band-mates. Briefly the trio flirt with near silence, but these moments rarely last before the bludgeoning contact mic resumes its battering. This is one of the limits of mixing “free” music with noise, and in a set that is slightly too long, lll人 rarely seem able to overcome it.
RIE NAKAJEMA + ANGHARAD DAVIES

It contrast to lll人’s raucous assault, Rie Nakajima and Angharad Davies demonstrate an exquisite focus on the more intricate side of musical creation. Nakajima’s “instruments” consist of evidently self-made wind-up objects that she activates and then sets against various household objects such as plates or bowls before placing the resultant “instruments in various places around the room. Meanwhile, Davies prowls the room, occasionally settling on a vacant chair or standing stock still, all the time playing muted repeated notes on a mic-less violin. With both artists reducing their interactions to exchanged glances, and constantly maintaining a certain distance between each other as they roam through the audience, what unfolds becomes more a work of performance art than a music set. Initially, the sounds are quiet, almost inaudible, but as a hush descends over the gather spectators, the multi-layered buzzes, clicks and rattles build into a fascinating cloud in and out of which dances Davies’ elegant violin minimalism. With both performers constantly shifting their spatial position, the unfolding music is constantly unpredictable, an ever-shifting environment of sound which develops with the patience of a zen Buddhist ritual. It is surely the stand-out performance of the night, and Nakajima and Davies’ remarkable attention to detail and focus on the physicality of quiet sounds is a revelation.

LUKE YOUNGER + TOM JAMES SCOTT

Luke Younger, under his Helm moniker, is a potent force on the modern noise scene, but, if this show is anything to go by, his work under his own name is a much quieter affair. Tonight, he is joined by Tom James Scott on piano, who starts the set by playing quiet, reverberating tinkles of the ivories whilst Younger peers pensively at his electronics and mixing desk, as if drinking in his partner’s sounds. When he does join in, it’s by unfurling a series of subdued percussive tones and discreet drones, which combine with Scott’s piano to create a form of organic-sounding ambient in the style of Eno and Harold Budd’s The Plateaux of Mirror. Luke gradually introduces more textures, but these are like drops of water that dissolve into the overall pool of music. You couldn’t get much further from the brittle industrialism of Helm. With some of the piano apparently being looped, it’s not always easy to follow what Scott and interest repeatedly drifts towards Younger as he introduces new sounds, although these rarely settle in the memory. It’s always the risk with ambient music: it can often seem a little dry and detached when performed live, especially if there’s no performance or context for the audience to latch onto.

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2012’s Noises In The Ether: A Rum Music Special (December 13th, 2012)

Ok, so the title of this piece is also a bit of a shameless nod to my radio show, Noise in the Ether, but it’s also a neat and relevant way of describing how noise music has evolved in recent years, culminating in some thoroughly fascinating releases in 2012 that have taken the genre by the scruff of the neck and hauled it into new areas, maybe even into a new era.

Only last year, when asked to select my top albums of the previous 12 months, I included two harsh noise works: Werewolf Jerusalem’s monolithic 4CD set Confessions of a Sex Maniac and Vomir’s Application À Aphistemi. This was par for the course as far as I was concerned: harsh noise rules!

This year – nada. Zilch. Not one. Which is not to say that there haven’t been any decent harsh noise releases (Kevin Drumm’s Relief may not match the potency of Sheer Hellish Miasma, but it’s still a wonderfully gnarly little bastard), but rather that what is being done in new ways to noise is much more fascinating. In 2012, these new strains have finally started to take precedence over their traditional alternatives. And just like that, I’m actually using the word “traditional” to describe noise. I didn’t see that one coming.

“New” is a relative term, it should be noted, and a lot of noise’s recent evolutions stem from a certain amount of rear-view mirror gazing. It’s sometimes hard to imagine it now, but noise’s origins lie not in the sweaty underground bars where its harshest variants now get an airing, but rather in the heady experimentalism of the avant-garde – something that’s still being explored today.


Helm

Take Londoner Luke Younger, aka Helm, for example. Younger takes sampled and found sounds, a technique familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the world of experimental music, filters them through effects and joins them to gritty electronics in order to create a sound world that reflects the environment of London’s urban jungle. In approach, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the Futurists, with their emphasis on and interest in “regular” and “non-musical” sounds for musical creation; whilst the ultimate outcome evokes the immersive, sensually evocative musics of “cosmic” minimalists and drone artists such as Cluster, LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman, whose pieces often suggest a sense of place as much as sound processes. Helm’s Cryptography from 2011 felt like sonic experiments conducted with household objects or sheets of metal, but this year’s Impossible Symmetry (PAN) took things a level higher, with urban field recordings providing a tangible backdrop to rough, rolling industrial drone.

This approach is mirrored by Ohio’s Mike Shiflet, whose Merciless album (Type) takes the age-old noise/avant-garde trope of manipulating and distorting pre-recorded tapes as well as conventional instruments such as guitar and synthesiser, transforming familiar sound sources into walls of incoherent, belligerent, saturated noise. Both these artists (I’m tempted to call them “composers”) join the likes of Joe Colley in pursuing noise as a form of acousmatic music and musique concrète in the French avant-garde tradition.

It’s therefore appropriate that this year has seen three excellent reissues on Editions Mego of seminal Groupe de Recherches Musicales recordings, where the likes of Bernard Parmegiani (sounds of trains, water, furniture) or Luc Ferrari (the human voice) transformed everyday noises into musical compositions, many of them so jarring in texture as to fall at times into noise territory. Coincidentally, Mego also released Hecker’s Chimerization, which took the principals of Luc Ferrari’s voice manipulation on Presque Rien (not to mention works like ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ by Alvin Lucier and Cage’s ‘Indeterminacy’) to particularly abrasive and sonically mangled levels.


Mats Gustafsson

Perhaps not surprisingly, another “out-there” realm where noise elements (saturation, dissonance, atonality) are still de rigueur is free jazz and improv, and for anyone who feels that need to have his or her ears given a right old kicking, you generally don’t have to look much further than saxophonists Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson, both of whom have released some wonderfully skronking stuff in 2012 – and I say that in full knowledge that both are much more sensitive and complex players than their reputations might have you believe.

Gustafsson is often the more overtly abrasive of the two, as demonstrated on the collaborative album between his band Fire! and Australian drummer/guitarist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – A Hand (Rune Grammofon), where Ambarchi’s seething, feedback-drenched guitar noise is slammed into a squalling torrent of notes from Gustafsson, underlined by raucous, all-over-the-place drumming from Fire!’s Andreas Werliin. Gustafsson is more restrained on Baro 101 (Term), recorded with Ethiopian krar player Mesele Asmamaw and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, but still finds time to pepper the air with some wonderfully saturated notes whilst Asmamaw cranks the strings of his krar like someone stretching out a washing line to breaking point.

Brötzmann, meanwhile, delighted with two fantastic live releases this year, the jazz-heavy, exquisitely-performed Yatagarasu (Not Two Records) featuring Masahiko Satoh warping his piano and Takeo Moriyama on drums; and …The Worse The Better (Oto Roku) with Steve Noble and John Edwards. Both saw Brötzmann unfurling an arsenal of sax assault, from elegant jazz lines to barnstorming free blowing, with …The Worse The Better being particularly hard-hitting.

In a different style somewhat, Rhodri Davies blew the doors off any preconceptions anyone might have when it comes to harp music with his ear-shattering Wound Response (alt. vinyl) album, transforming his elegant instrument into a wall of crunching distortion. Improv and free jazz are too often seen as being too highbrow for noise fans, but if you really want to get a fix of full-on saturation, any of the above would easily satisfy your needs.

For listeners wanting a more traditional approach to noise, you can’t really go wrong with the Midwest scene that swirls around Wolf Eyes, but even those guys have started transforming the way they approach sound, with the forbidding atonality of Human Animal very much a thing of the past. Former member Aaron Dilloway released one of the year’s best noise records in the form of Modern Jester (Hanson), a titanic adventure taking in tape distortion and faltering percussion. Where previous Dilloway albums such as Bad Dreams were potent sonic assaults, Modern Jester is more nuanced, with a sly sense of humour, woozy harmonics and welcome experimental forays.

Mike Connelly, another Wolf Eyes alumnus, has meanwhile continued to explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche via his Failing Lights project, with Dawn Undefeated (Dekorder) a triumphant follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut and a world away from his more gnarly works as part of Hair Police. Eschewing harshness almost completely, Connelly’s tableaux are haunted by the atmospheres of horror films and sinister folklore, like more brittle, sickened takes on the hauntological explorations of Demdike Stare or The Eccentronic Research Council.

Nate Young’s solo music also functions on a more liminal level than what he’s done with Wolf Eyes, as he demonstrated during a concert at Dalston’s Victoria pub in the Summer, all murky synths, propulsive half-rhythms and bursts of unexpected static. All three of these artists seem to share an interest in the haunted textures and ectoplasmic sounds that lie dormant in the interstices between defined sounds. The results of their attempts to conjure them up – acting as musical mediums – are often fascinating, and always as troubling as anything emerging from the harsh noise scene they used to (perhaps reluctantly) represent.


William Bennett as Cut Hands

But the biggest transformation noise has been through of late has been its unexpected integration with dance music, as espoused by two of its most iconic figures. William Bennett needs no introduction as one half of power electronics pioneers Whitehouse, but his solo work as Cut Hands has taken his work in interesting new directions, integrating polyrhythmic percussion with excoriating electronic noise textures. This year, he followed up on his 2011 debut Afro Noise Vol. 1 with a more fleshed-out sequel named Black Mamba (Susan Lawly). Bennett’s approach is intensely physical, with fiercely metallic and jarring beats layered over mesmerising synth melodies. Live, he thrashes from side to side, eyes closed and mouth open, as disturbing footage of colonial-era Africa plays out behind him. In the best techno tradition, the highly rhythmic nature of Cut Hands’ music speaks to legs and arses as much as to the ears. It’s is nowhere near as brutally aggressive as Whitehouse, but Bennett’s unnerving performances and the troubling ambiguity surrounding the project’s imagery trace a line straight back to the provocation and belligerence with which one associates power electronics.

The same applies to Vatican Shadow, aka Dominic Fernow of Prurient fame, who has unleashed several releases this year, including a reissue on Type of his amazing Kneel Before Religious Icons tape and several albums and cassettes of new material, including Ornamented Walls (Modern Love) and Ghosts of Chechnya (Hospital Productions). Again, Vatican Shadow can’t hold a candle to Prurient when it comes to sheer aural assault, but that doesn’t mean that Fernow’s history in noise doesn’t seethe away beneath the surface rhythms. Vatican Shadow’s music (which could be seen as an extension of Fernow’s most recent Prurient album, Bermuda Drain) is centred on looped, repetitive drum machine beats in the tradition of Muslimgauze, British industrial techno artists like Surgeon and Regis and even Berliners like Porter Ricks and Basic Channel. These rhythms are overlaid with moody synth lines and – like Cut Hands – accompanied by dark, ambiguous imagery, in this case military iconography and jargon.

With both Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow, the short, punchy tracks seem well tailored for the dancefloor, but repeated exposure, especially live, highlights how much this new music owes to what both artists have done before, even if they now perform in clubs rather than warehouses or pub backrooms. The beats and melodies are monomaniacally repetitive, beyond anything most techno producers would deem conceivable, and what tunes one can detect are icy and bleak, dragged towards the shadows by sudden bursts of fuzz or metallic clangs, with none of the warmth one tends to associate with dancefloor-oriented music.

Instead, Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow (and, I hasten to add, Raime, whose debut album Quarter Turns Over a Living Line on Blackest Ever Black was less fierce than the other two, but still channeled some of the same spirit in marvelous ways), can be seen to be evolving noise in a semi-circular fashion, twisting it back towards the industrial aesthetics of the eighties while simultaneously dragging it forwards via techno and house. It perhaps a weird way to evolve, but damned effective. And let us not forget former Yellow Swan Pete Swanson, whose Pro Style EP (Type) has continued in the direction he hinted at on last year’s Man With Potential album, with jittering, seductive beats drowning under tidal waves of angry, glitchy electronic noise.

Taking all the above into account, it’s hard not to marvel at the journey noise has taken as it edges closer and closer towards something resembling mass public awareness. It’s not even unusual to hear traces of noise filtering into rock, pop, dubstep, hip-hop or dance: Ital’s Dream On has a definite noisy aspect to its ultra-bright synth explosions, Death Grips’ overdriven punk-rap occasionally evokes Lightning Bolt, and Holly Herndon’s Movement, another of the year’s top releases, is perched between noisy avant-garde explorations and full-on dance-pop. Even my own music as Frayed has been “tainted”, moving away from the monolithic harshness I initially embraced (and considered par for the course) on my first album in January in favour of more open, measured sounds and ideas by my fourth.

On the flipside, there’s always the lingering concern that if noise is completely removed from the grimy underbelly it has made its home, and set up for good in art centres and clubs, it’ll end up watered down to something aseptic and harmless, or elitist and high-minded. Noise is meant to be visceral and unsettling. But that’s a question for another day. Right now, as 2012 closes as a landmark year for the genre, noise is branching out, its feet still embedded in the backrooms of smelly pubs but with its eyes casting around for new ideas and new horizons.

A Quietus Interview: Mengamuk by Vindicatrix (December 6th, 2012)

In a “self-interview” conducted with himself in 2005 regarding his film Edvard Munch, famed British director Peter Watkins explores the unusual sense of time in his work: “The film [works] in a complex structure, one in which past, present and future swirl in and out of each other, in which complex patterns of repetition, fragments of memory, recurring motifs, the use of sound, the breaking of rigid synchronisation […] all play a key role… as they do in the lives of each of us”. That sentence could almost been seen as a manifesto for all the hauntology/hypnagogia acts that have sprung up in the last few years, but no act out there really encapsulates it like Vindicatrix. After all, his debut album, Die Alten Bösen Lieder, apart from showcasing his out-of-time voice, was a bizarre collision between fitful electronica/techno and, of all things, traditional German song. It’s hard to get a more fragmented use of the sense of time than that.

Mengamuk is both an advancement on and departure from the material Vindicatrix aka David Aird laid down on Die Alten Bösen Lieder. Unlike on that album, Aird seems to be less concerned with a set period in time and underlying style (German lieder), but rather with unveiling and even unleashing his own, deeply personal visions of the modern era, even if doing so means casting his eyes both forward and backwards in time, meaning there’s a stronger emphasis on the electro, industrial and dub techno influences that were already present on his debut. Indeed, the Mordant Music website describes Mengamuk as “bass music”, and whilst that seems a stretch, it’s nonetheless obvious that Aird has had his ears more closely trained to the sounds emanating from London’s clubs, be it dubstep or the darkened techno of the Blackest Ever Black crew. Both ‘Truceless Warfare’ and ‘Remote Viewers’ are wonderfully uneasy takes on dance music tropes, involving queasy, sub-aquatic beats and coiled synth lines edging forwards in uneasy alliance. Where Vindicatrix deviates most effectively from the rest of the “alternative” dance artists out there is that these rhythms rarely, if ever, form the backbone of the tracks, with his singular voice (more of that later) acting instead as a disconnected counterpoint, dragging the melodies into unfamiliar territory. ‘Remote Viewers’ is the closest he ever comes to recognisable techno tropes, in the same manner as Die Alten‘s ‘Dein Scwert’ but, like that song, preserves enough obliqueness to ensure it won’t be spinning on many Fabric DJs’ turntables anytime soon.

Trying to find connections between Aird and, say, Burial or Kode 9, however, is one of many red herrings he tends to pitch the listener’s way. Perhaps his closest musical cousins would be industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle (again, blurring lines between past and present…). Like his illustrious predecessors, Aird demonstrates an ambivalence towards percussion that means that tracks lurch and stumble with mechanical precision, as if refusing to be sucked into the kind of rhythmic organicness that characterises “regular” percussive music. Rhythm patterns stop and start, always at a distance from whatever else is going on, by turns dissolving into abstract quietude or baleful slabs or grimy noise, very much in the spirit of TG’s Second Annual Report, before the bass pulsations and metallic clumps combine again, bouncing off their creator’s moody, often unintelligible vocalisations.

The second half, which includes the atmospheric, slovenly ‘Only Flashes (What Was the Nature of the Catastrophe)’ and ‘Runaway Prey’ (which sounds not too dissimilar to TG’s ‘Convincing People’ played at the pace of ‘Persuasion’). Like TG, the resultant tunes reveal a form of murky psychogeography, with industrial clangs and gloomy atmospheres evoking cramped, rain-sodden cities and unfriendly wilderness. It’s always hard to judge how much of this is an artist’s intent, and it’s certainly less clear with Vindicatrix than with TG (despite Baron Mordant’s stream-of-consciousness blurb that takes in Camberwell, Terrengganu, the DLR and Basingstoke), but it’s the result that matters, and it’s hard not to associate vistas of dread skies and oppressive industry running through the music on Mengamuk.

The construction of the tracks will also draw inevitable comparisons with latter-period Scott Walker, as will – and has – Aird’s distinctive croon. Like Walker on his seminal Tilt and The Drift albums, Aird tends to build his pieces using “blocks” of sound, contributing to the jarring juxtapositions mentioned above. On opener ‘Cellophane’, wispy atmospherics cradle Aird’s fragile moan before creaking metal sound effects slide into view. As the track dissolves into noisy percussive abstraction, Aird leaps to the fore, howling “I need an organ! / What’s an organ between friends?”, a line so bizarre it manages to dodge being camp and turns out to be rather thrilling.Like Walker, David Aird seems inhabited by his music, conveying a visceral physicality that also draws comparisons with the likes of Antony Hegarty and Marc Almond. He shares little of their romanticism however, instead proposing a bleak and unsettling vision, like something out of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Ultimately, Vindicatrix’s close resemblance to Scott Walker is yet another false start, as the way he tugs at history, both musical and social, while drawing in reference points in what filters out of his radio and the art scenes he frequents, is decidedly idiosyncratic. Mengamuk is the best embodiment of his complex vision to date, and stands as a rather unique work of art.

A Liminal Review: Chimerization / شیمرسازی / Chimärisation by Hecker (November 26th, 2012)

In genetics, a chimera is a living organism (it can even be a human) with two separate sets of genes, inspired by the mythological monster of Greek mythology that was part lion, part goat and part snake (the goat part’s a bit lame, but the rest surely kicked ass). Florian Hecker uses the term chimerization to describe the mental process whereby we associate voices to certain physical characteristics. Both interpretations (genetic and Hecker’s own, not so much the goat and the snake) feel particularly apt when listening to these three records.

An experimental piece of writing by Iranian writer Reza Negarestani, The Snake, the Goat and the Ladder (A board game for playing chimera), more goats and snakes, serves as the base text on all three albums, each time recited by a series of speakers in either English, German and Farsi. The voices were recorded in anechoic and sound-attenuated chambers to further blur the lines between what is heard and what is felt, before being disassembled even more thanks to Hecker’s electronic noise effects. What is most startling is how the idiosyncrasies not just of each language but each voice manage to pierce through these decidedly experimental contexts and impart themselves upon the listener.

When considering an experimental sound or music work based on the human voice, it’s hard not to think of Alvin Lucier’s seminal I am sitting in a room, and, although that is not wholly-unjustified in the case of Chimerization, there are very different considerations at play here. The anechoic and sound-dampening recording environments have a somewhat similar way of distorting or rather rearranging the inherent sound of the voices, but in this case, rather than bask in the text’s gradual reduction into noise, the interjections of Hecker’s noises and tones serve instead to focus the listener’s attention on the lines that are intelligible. Negarestani’s writing traverses a range of themes, many of them too lofty for this listener, taking in philosophy, metaphysics, game theory and religion. At times, the voices are distorted beyond recognition as being human, at other the words draw you in before Hecker shifts the perspective with a sudden burst of gristly static or pulsating rhythmic throbs. On top of this, as has been noted, at least one of the English-language speakers is not doing so in his native language, further blurring the parameters of what is being heard, and its context. It would be interesting to know if similar differences of accent are present in the German and Farsi versions.

Above all, the constant shifts in pitch or intensity of the voices reinforces rather than undermines (as could have been the case in lesser hands) Hecker’s notion of chimerization. Each voice is therefore multiplied, and the impressions one develops of the speakers’ physical appearances becomes warped, a gallery of potential interlocutors. Equally, by expanding the project to take in three different languages, Florian Hecker has produced a profoundly democratic work, one that takes in the entirety of humanity, both male and female (and again, the effects mean even gender boundaries become inchoate). You get the feeling that, with more time and money, he’d have been tempted to do a version of Chimerization in every language on the planet, like a modern day answer to Stockhausen’s Hymnen.

The use of anechoic chambers brings one final reference point into sharp focus: John Cage. Like Hecker, Cage produced music that was divorced from familiar melodic and constructive constraints, with a focus on the more everyday producers of sound. And what is more everyday than a human voice? He may not tower as impressively over the vista of experimental music as Cage, Stockhausen and Lucier do, but Chimerization is more proof, after great works like Acid In The Style of David Tudor or Sun Pandämonium, that Hecker is a worthy inheritor of their tradition(s).

A Quietus Interview – Supremely Demolished Beats: An Interview With Pete Swanson (November 21st, 2012)

The release of Pete Swanson’s Man With Potential at the end of last year caused quite a stir both within and outside the noise community. Swanson was one half of famed noise duo Yellow Swans, who had achieved considerable critical success with seminal psych-noise albums Psychic Secession, At All Ends and Going Places, before disbanding in 2008.

Compared to their dense layers of hazy, caustic drone, the beat-driven, post-techno assault of Man With Potential was both a surprise and a triumphant evolution. Since then, Pete Swanson has continued to explore this furrow with the Pro Style EP, but has also found time, alongside his studies, to revive his Sarin Smoke project with Tom Carter of Charalambides. Their Vent album is one of this year’s best releases, and proceeds from sales of the album will go to helping Carter with his medical bills following a serious case of pneumonia last year.

The Quietus caught up with Pete via e-mail to discuss Sarin Smoke, his solo career and how he views his music’s evolution.

We should probably start with Sarin Smoke. How is Tom doing? How did the project get together?

Pete Swanson: Tom is on the road to recovery. He’s been back in New York for a few months and his health has been improving slowly. His body went through a lot leading up to and during his hospitalisation last summer so it’ll take some time for him to fully bounce back. But in general, he’s back to playing occasional shows and his energy and enthusiasm are as strong as they’ve ever been.

Tom and I started playing in 2005 or so in Badgerlore, which was the two of us, Rob Fisk and Ben Chasny. We all really enjoyed playing together and experimented a bit with instrumentation and combinations of players since we all had several other projects going on. Tom and I ended up recording an LP for Three Lobed and a one-sided LP for Wholly Other around that time. I hadn’t played guitar with anyone for years at that point, and it was great to play with such a sympathetic musician. Tom and I both left Oakland after recording and before any of our records had been released.

Following the breakup of Yellow Swans, I got back into playing guitar more, and Tom and I were booked on the same bill in Oakland, a few days before the 2010 installment of On Land. Tom’s solo set that night was very different to what he had been doing when we had last played together – with this sort of dying battery, hyper layered, monolithic psychedelia that really jived with what I was doing at the time. We decided to close the show with a collaborative set, which was only the second Sarin Smoke concert. Fast-forward a year and I found out that I was moving to New York for graduate school. With Tom so close geographically, it would’ve been ridiculous for us not to play.

How did you guys go about making Vent? Is it mostly based on guitar?

PS: Vent is entirely guitar. I don’t want to limit the future possibilities of the project, but I’ve always seen the project as a guitar duo that plays psychedelic rock in some form. There are no synthesisers or anything, it’s just densely layered guitar. It’s a relief for me to be in a project where I’m not focusing on routing and wiring and instead can focus on something with such a tactile interface.

Both Tom and I are invested in improvisation and all of our recordings have resulted from the two of us banging out some sonic common-ground in real time. We do have conversations regarding what we think is successful about one improvisation over another and we both will propose potential shifts in direction, but our music happens spontaneously.

Do you find improvisation easy and the best way to record?

PS: One aspect of contemporary music that I really loathe is the focus on perfection in recording. I generally see the processes that have been developed for creating records as promoting a premium on “correctness” and diminishing the emotional potency of the original performance. While I have some preconceived framework for just about everything I do, there is always a strong improvisational element and I always track everything live to stereo. I don’t get hung up on mixing at all, I just track everything live, throw away 99% of everything I record because it’s not up to standard, and then sit on the solid tracks until I’ve got something resembling a release together.

I think it’s very important for musicians to be willing to scrap their work for the sake of the integrity of their discography. So many artists treat their work with such high regard and I see that working against those artists. Just like the pursuit of improvement in recording quality and doing things the “correct” way. I always encourage people to develop their own recording process so they have more control over how their work is presented. Additionally, the quality of the recording is often as important as the content of the recording, and having a unique presentation of sound can be very compelling. So many people make serious mistakes by going into the studio as opposed to just digging deep into their own process and developing their own sound that is appropriate for their own work.

Do you think you’ll get the opportunity to tour with that material?

PS: With Sarin Smoke?  I’m not sure Tom would be up for a grueling schedule like that and I’m extremely busy with grad school. I have enough trouble scheduling tours for my solo work.

How does working with Tom differ from your collaborations with other artists such as Gabriel [Saloman, the other half of Yellow Swans]? Do you approach each collaboration differently?

PS: Every collaboration requires a different approach. If I’m able to work with someone over a longer period of time, I’ll develop a set-up that is appropriate to the dynamic dictated by our shared aesthetic goals

You’ve also this year worked with Mike Shiflet – how did that come about and what was it like?

PS: I’ve known Mike for years. He booked a Yellow Swans show on our first US tour in 2004. We’ve been in touch fairly regularly since then. He wrote me asking about the possibility of a split and it was an easy call. I love where Mike’s taken his music over the last few years.

The whole noise scene from that era seems to remain pretty close-knit, despite aesthetic deviations and geographic shuffling. I’m very appreciative of the fact that I first gained some recognition in such a small and inclusive subculture of people who remain creative and engaged.

You’re considered to be one of the major figures on the American and international noise scenes. How do you feel your music has evolved in that respect? Do you have much involvement with noise music, beyond your own?

PS: I don’t really consider myself to be a “major figure” at all. There’s regard in certain circles, but on the larger scale, very few people are interested in my work…

I’ve always felt like an outsider in any culture I’ve been involved in. When Wolf Eyes, Hair Police, No Fun, etc were going on, I was on the far end of the US in Portland, fairly removed from what was going on in the Midwest and out east. I was very focused on representing noise/experimental music on the West Coast when Yellow Swans was having some degree of success, because hardly anybody else was representing that work. I stopped running a label and putting on shows and mastering stuff for other folks, mainly because of time constraints brought on by my pursuing education and prioritising that over my musical activities. I do still try and help out people whose work I hold in high regard and advocate for artists to get onto bigger labels. I do this sort of thing very rarely, most recently for Bulbs and Justin Meyers.

In general, I’m much less engaged with social music culture than I’ve ever been, and spend a lot more time listening to new music and working on my own sounds. I wish I had more time to be more engaged with music, but I’ve made some pretty serious choices the last few years and I’m resistant to put that all on hold to go play shows and put out tapes again. It would feel like a step backwards for me.

I’m actually constantly alienating people in the noise community with my work as I move forward. Some of my choices have turned off harsh noise folks, drone folks, etc. I can’t be concerned with appealing to any particular micro-audience, and I hope that each of my major release loses a few listeners and gains more. If you’re not turning people off, you’re not progressing.

How would you say your music has evolved, from the early days of Yellow Swans to now?

PS: I don’t believe it has changed very much. I’m still concerned with creating extremely cathartic, physical electronic music. I think the greatest development has been regarding clarity of vision. There’s a lot that hasn’t changed at all.

Yellow Swans were a much-admired and popular duo. Do you miss performing and recording with Gabriel? Were you aware of the impact Yellow Swans had at the time?

PS: I’m still not sure I understand the impact that Yellow Swans had. We were always aesthetically marginal, but had a lot of critical success. That didn’t translate into money or record sales, but it did allow us to travel a lot and to put out a lot of music. Since I hadn’t been playing live much for several years, I didn’t ever really see the impact of Going Places, but since I’ve been touring more and getting back in touch with music-world types, I’ve got a lot of very positive feedback for the work Gabe and I did.

The greatest reward for me has been meeting people like Tom Krell from How To Dress Well and a few of the guys involved with Tri Angle records who are all younger artists who are doing excellent, highly-regarded work that have all voiced appreciation for Yellow Swans. It’s very flattering to see your previous work be assimilated into others’ work. It’s a similar style of influence that groups like the Stooges and Velvet Underground wielded in their time, they were the bands that inspired generations of music. I doubt Yellow Swans will have the same degree of effect, but it’s amazing to me that that work is still relevant to younger people who are just starting their music careers.

I miss Gabe for sure. We had a very close working relationship for seven years. He’s still a good friend and we keep up. I don’t miss working with him though. I’m very happy for my autonomy, and my current life demands make collaborating with someone full-time completely impossible. I don’t think there will ever be a Yellow Swans reunion, but I think that people can scratch that itch via my work or by Gabe’s work. He’s got an LP coming out on Miasmah at the end of November that I think will resonate with some Yellow Swans fans. Hopefully we’ll hear more from him. He works a bit more slowly than I do…

Do you find that your solo releases are informed by both your previous work with Yellow Swans and your collaborations with other artists? I would venture that Going Places seems to have echoes in Man With Potential

PS: There is absolutely continuity between Yellow Swans and my solo work. I spent years developing an instrument (comprised of many elements) and an approach to playing. I don’t think I could fully reject that history at this point. I’m focused on process and constraints for producing my music, and many of the elements that were used throughout Yellow Swans are now used in my solo work. Virtually nothing has changed beyond the primary sound sources. I traded my bandmate for a modular synthesiser.

If you go back through the discography of Yellow Swans, you’ll find several elements recurring in Man With Potential. In certain regards, MWP addresses similar concerns that I was attempting to address in Bring The Neon War Home. Everything I do is part of this trajectory that is informed by my taste, my experiences and the developing processes and playing strategies that I’ve employed. Old fixations pop back up all the time.

Man With Potential received a lot of praise when it was released. Were you prepared for such a reaction?

PS: I had zero expectations for Man With Potential. I recorded the album in December 2010, it came out a year later. Between recording and releasing the record, I moved across the country to start an extremely demanding academic program at Columbia University, so all of the critical success of the record has only recently turned into any feasible opportunities for me to capitalise on. My program has slowed slightly and I can make occasional weekend trips to Europe for festivals, but that’s about the extent of what is possible for me currently. I just have to study on the plane.

It was also a departure from your previous solo material, with a use of beats and synths over guitar drones, almost sounding like techno. Have you always had an interest in techno and other forms of “dance” music? Could you imagine tracks such as ‘Misery Beat’ being played in a club?

PS: I don’t really think Man With Potential is that much a departure. It seems like there is some critical consensus that it is new for me, but there was a long build-up through several of my tape releases until I got to my split LP with Rene Hell and the Challenger tape, which are more direct predecessors to MWP. There were also a lot of beats in Yellow Swans music through the years, but most writers seem to be most familiar with At All Ends and Going Places, which were the least beat-oriented of the records.

If you listen to all of my music, you’ll hear some consistency in sound vocabulary with repetitive melodic patterns, drum machines, frenetic high-end noise. The inception of Yellow Swans was based on a desire to make electronic music that was physical and cathartic. Both Gabe and I came out of an avant-hardcore background and all of our friends were getting into techno and IDM, we both found the music to be intriguing, but not impacting. I connect to a lot of that music now more than I did when I was younger, but I’m also more successful at making electronic music that is aggressive and cathartic.

Listening back, MWP is the record of mine that is most explicitly informed by Chain Reaction.  My current work is maybe more informed by Drexciya. Both are artists/labels that I’ve been interested in since my early twenties. It’s not like I only listen to noise…

I actually recorded the track ‘Pro Style’ with the intention of making a ‘dancefloor’ track. The 12″ is sort of my play on the 12″ form, and I actually would love for it to be played out. I think the same could feasibly happen with ‘Misery Beat’, but the music remains pretty outre despite my attempts to make tracks that are dancefloor-ready.

How did you go about creating the album? Did you have to approach it in different ways to previous material?

PS: I recorded Man With Potential during the same three-week session as I Don’t Rock At All using the exact same approach that I used for Going Places and the vast majority of Yellow Swans material. It was all recorded live to stereo and then edited down to more essentialised forms of the pieces that I was working with. I would set up a particular sound vocabulary for each piece and then I would improvise on that framework for an hour or two. There are no overdubs, no digital treatments. It’s all live, improvised electronics. On I Don’t Rock At All, it was all live, improvised guitar recorded and processed using the exact same methods.

Do you feel the Pro Style EP is a progression on Man With Potential? Is this a sign that you’ve “made your home” in beat-driven music?

There’s no way I’ll be stuck on beat-driven music forever. It’s a form I find interesting right now, and since I’ve been so inactive, it’s taking a bit longer for me to get bored with the approach. Following Man With Potential‘s release, it was made very clear to me that there was interest in seeing this music in a live context, so these EPs I’ve been working on lately, including Pro Style, all result from the process of trying to hash out how to make this music work in a live context. Since the music uses such complicated gear and routing, there’s absolutely no way I could perform a piece consistently, so I had to devise a way of making the music that has a consistent impact and features a similar vocabulary to MWP. It was an interesting challenge, and the recent work I’ve done and the shows I’ve been playing have been a hell of a lot of fun.

So can UK audiences hope to see you perform over here soon? Are you planning any further releases?

PS: I’m currently working on a few UK shows in January. Due to my academic schedule, I can’t really hit the road to the degree that I did previously. My live dates are increasingly rare, so if you want to see me play and I’m coming somewhere in your area, it may be years before I make it back.

I’ve got a few releases in the works. The next thing will be the Punk Authority EP on Software. It’ll come out in March and is basically a mini-album. 32 minutes of supremely demolished beats with more melodic hooks.

A Quietus Review: Black Mamba by Cut Hands (November 19th, 2012)

Black Mamba seems to almost be defying those people who find William Bennett’s Cut Hands project unpalatable to say he’s only interested in provocation and discomfort through sound. If anything, Bennett sounds almost sensitive across these twelve tracks. If you’re a noise fan, this may not be a good thing, but this is Cut Hands, and there’s always more to Bennett’s music than first impressions. It just depends on how those first impressions percolate through the experience of listening to Black Mamba.

The title of Cut Hands’ last album, Afro Noise Vol.1 highlighted Bennett’s background as much as it did the new directions he was forging. The abrasive percussion was certainly inspired by African and Haitian rhythms, but they were saturated to the extreme, transformed into a brutal form of techno that had its roots in Whitehouse’s power electronics assault. Not to mention the visuals he deploys at concerts: unsettling footage of colonial times and rituals, all designed to play on his audience’s preconceptions and (dare I say it?) prejudices by remaining resolutely ambiguous. Smart but unflinching, Cut Hands seemed to prolong, rather than divert from, Whitehouse’s equally blunt explorations of themes of rape and murder, albeit more subtly.

Black Mamba, on the other hand, takes its name from a poisonous snake, and, like a snake, this second album is coiled, ready to strike, full of tension, but without the release of violence that characterised Afro Noise. In fact, certain tracks are positively mellow, and, from the brief opener ‘Witness The Spread of the Dream’, with its Vangelis-esque synth and robotic spoken-word lyrics, there is an element of sci-fi sensitivity about this album, the same sort that dominated the best eighties synth-based music, from Cabaret Voltaire to the early Human League albums. The more acute presence of synths opens up Cut Hands’ music, creating a futuristic canvas that widens the scope of Bennett’s beats, pulses and thunders. In fact, come the dreamy, hazy ‘El Palo Mayombe’ and ’54 Needles’, the stretched ambience starts to feel a lot closer to the atmospheres of actual African music than any of the rough and tumble of his abrasive percussive salvos, suggesting wide-open vistas and beautifully wild landscapes. Elsewhere, such as on ‘Brown-Brown’, his percussion is more minimal and stripped down than expected, the connection to mysterious pre-European rites and rituals more openly courted. It’s an intriguing direction for Bennett to take, but I’m not sure it’s one many of his hardcore fans will appreciate.

Rest assured, noise fans, however, because this coiled reptile of a record does still strike, albeit less frequently than Afro Noise Vol. 1. The title track is possibly Bennett’s finest achievement to date under the Cut Hands guise, a throbbing, angry, pulsating mass of brittle rhythm that shifts in velocity with belligerent force, with similar metallic stridency to ‘Stabbers Conspiracy’ off his last record, only with greater, and more exciting, variation in the tempos. ‘No Spare No Soul’, meanwhile, features lurching, scratch-like synth that wouldn’t feel out of place on a drum & bass or jungle record. Bennett has slowed down the pace across Black Mamba, but when he goes for the attack, he’s definitely aiming for the jugular.

Black Mamba in many ways suffers in comparison to its exalted predecessor. It’s less abrasive, more considered, and that’s bound to rankle with more than a few power electronics fans, this writer included. Maybe it’s Bennett shying away from the – in my opinion overstated – “controversy” of his debut, although I doubt it. More likely it’s just a case of expanding the horizons of what Cut Hands means and represents, and for that I salute him. It would be great to see these tracks fleshed out in a live setting (one that’s not a club, it must be said). Until then, whilst there’s loads to enjoy on Black Mamba (seriously, the title track is a fucking killer), I currently find myself returning to Afro Noise with more enthusiasm.

A Quietus Review: Nude by The Irrepressibles (November 15th, 2012)

The Irrepressibles’ singer and composer Jamie McDermott will draw inevitable comparisons with Antony Hegarty and Rufus Wainwright, and not just because he sings unapologetically about his homosexuality (and why should he need to apologise?) or because his music is generally designated as belonging to the “chamber pop” genre (“chamber pop”, really? I might be bloody juvenile, but I can’t believe people can say that with a straight face). No, the comparisons will mostly stem from McDermott’s staggeringly beautiful voice, one which mirrors Wainwright’s for technique and Hegarty’s for emotional power.

When I saw McDermott performing in David Toop’s Star-Shaped Biscuit opera at Snape Maltings, his voice was an aspect that, for me, defined the entire show, and his classical training shone like a beacon of dexterity. Nude‘s lead single ‘Arrow’, meanwhile, is a perfect, and irresistible, demonstration of this prowess in a pop context. On the surface, ‘Arrow’ is a straight-ahead pop song, somewhat in an Elton-John-meets-Antony style, and one this writer wouldn’t normally go for, as I’m generally wary of pop ballads that start with nice string arrangements and ambulating piano melodies and build into a grandstand climax. I’ve just heard too many of them. But McDermott’s brave and frank exploration of gay sexuality (“Our bodies entwined”) and homophobia (“When you were the age 15 / they shot the arrow at you”), combined with his voice, transcend the familiar archetypes to stretch into territory that may not be 100% new, but contains such emotional potency that it left me with goosebumps. Jamie McDermott’s voice scales improbable heights, from a husky low moan to a glorious falsetto, with such control that each note is pitch perfect. In anyone else’s hands (except maybe Antony’s), ‘Arrow’ might seem maudlin or predictable. With Jamie McDermott singing, however, it becomes a dramatic and emotionally affecting paean to troubled love, and a single that deserves to become a smash hit.

Despite its “chamber pop” tag, Nude is a remarkably varied and unpredictable album, veering from the hushed instrumental opener ‘Time Passing’ to the driving dance-pop gloss of ‘The Ship’, with its 4/4 beats and singalong chorus. Whilst mostly employing strings and piano, the musicians also pick up guitars, percussion and synths, all in the service of McDermott’s singing. Whilst this eclecticism sometimes undermines the whole (although not to the extent of Wainwright’s most recent albums), at times the results border on the spectacular. ‘Tears’ features twice, first with a languid “prelude” based around McDermott’s anguished moan and soothing choir samples, followed further into the album by a stomping, almost dancefloor-based reprise straight out of a Pet Shop Boys album. The song is centred on a touching lyrical leitmotiv: “Tears of a clown”. It’s a familiar image, that of the heartbroken court jester, but in a gay context it seems to convey even greater significance. I for one, during my teenage years, would compensate for my lack of “proper” masculine traits by clowning around and making jokes, to hide inner conflict. The contradiction between the track’s infectious melody and these mournful undertones is striking.

But, as with Antony Hegarty, McDermott’s singular vocals find their greatest range on the numerous ballads that pepper the album, from ‘Pale Sweet Healing’ and its slowly-building gravitas and dramatic finale, to the restrained orchestral soul-bearing on ‘Two Men In Love’. The album’s apex, apart from ‘Tears’ and ‘Arrow’, however, is surely ‘New World’, a song that builds and builds from a quiet intro into a soaring, heart-rending gale of subtle electro textures, melancholic piano runs and sweeping strings. Comparisons become almost moot by this stage, but the closest I can think of would be a cross between ‘Why’-era Annie Lennox and the crisp electronic balladry of OMD’s ‘Joan Of Arc’. And I’m not even close, really. As ever, McDermott sails alongside and above the melody, reaching astounding levels of emotive strength as the song builds to its heady climax. It’s the track on which his ululations, moans and cries fly closest to the see-sawing sonic bliss I witnessed at Snape Maltings.

Nude will probably not appeal to all listeners. It’s very overwrought, sometimes confusingly eclectic, and even in these enlightened times I can imagine some listeners will be put off by the “gay” content. I also think The Irrepressibles must be even more spectacular live. These songs seem to fit a live format more than a studio. But its strengths far outweigh any minor quibbles and inconsistencies, mainly because McDermott has a voice that few can match. That he’s also capable of flourishing expressive turns of phrase and arrangements is like icing on an excessive, yet arresting, cake.