A Quietus Review: Through a Pre-Memory by Äänipäa (November 19th, 2013)

Surely there must have been some risk in bringing together Mika Vainio, formerly one half of post-techno destructo-craftsmen Pansonic, and the lord of thunderous, ear-splitting doom riffs Stephen O’Malley, of SUNN O)))! I mean, wasn’t there a chance that two such intense, brooding wagers of sonic warfare would set off some sort of alchemical cataclysm if brought together? On the evidence of Through A Pre-Memory, the apocalypse was not unleashed when they combined as Äänipäa, but with Khanate’s Alan Dubin joining on vocals, they didn’t half come fucking close.

Which is not to say that Through A Pre-Memory is some massive trawl through the netherworld of sub-bass drone and scorched-earth industrial techno. Both Vainio and O’Malley have gradually transcended their roots to subliminally take in wider palettes, from jazz to avant-garde composition, via musique concrète and psychedelia. Recent releases on O’Malley’s Mego-sponsored Ideologic Organ imprint, for example, have included Eyvind Kang and Jennifer Kenney’s crystalline folk, the multifaceted electronica of Mats Lindstrom and Iancu Dumitrescu’s spectral noise compositions. Far from being the extremist misanthropes the more narrow critics might describe them as, Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley are perpetually curious sonic explorers, and Äänipäa gives them the opportunity to push this curiosity to its natural conclusion.

Having said all the above, it is unsurprising that Through A Pre-Memory‘s opening salvo, ‘Muse’ doesn’t start in a hail of noise, but rather in a style best described as “patient”, as a muffled, apparently sampled, voice intones in what sounds like German (but could be Dubin), buffeted by throbbing deep bass notes, martial spurts of robotic percussion and looming, suspended doom guitar chords. The mood on ‘Muse’ is considered, with O’Malley and Vainio taking their time to explore both silence and noise in alternating expanses of sound and near-sound, with every detail displayed in stark relief. There are gristly electronic lines, shimmering synth lines and crashing riffs, all seeping in and out of a blank, abstract canvas of quietude. It’s both startling and absorbing, the perfect demonstration of sonic sleight-of-hand, because twelve minutes in O’Malley ups the ante with some trademark extended riffs as Alan Dubin joins the fray, screaming himself raw over a girl he waited for but lost, his delivery both terrifying and overflowing with pathos. Vainio, with his repetitive beats, and O’Malley, with his crunching feedback snarls, never rush matters, instead allowing this moody slab of introspection to inch inevitably towards collective psychosis under Dubin’s wild-eyed invectives over 21 claustrophobic minutes. Metal-infused music hasn’t been this deliriously overwrought since Khanate’s Clean Hands Go Foul had a belated release in 2009. Vainio may be adding texture, but with Dubin’s rasp, this is pure, unrestrained, blackened doom.

‘Towards All Thresholds’ and ‘Mirror Of Mirror Dreams’ give the Finn more space to influence the overall sound, with drifting drones superimposed on top of each other ad infinitum and hypnotic post-techno grooves dominating the former; whilst crystalline synths and gravelly guitar lines dance a slovenly waltz over the near-18 minutes of the latter, as if the two tracks act as opposing motifs on the soundtrack of an avant-garde horror movie. ‘Watch Over Stillness/Matters Principle”, however, returns matters to the bleak, abstract scorched earth of ‘Muse’, and is the better for it, with Alan Dubin again at the centre of this grim, perversely operatic suite. Again, Mika Vainio excels at setting out pounding, yet focused, drum machine beats and shadowy electronic textures, leaving it to O’Malley to frame Dubin’s multi-tracked ravings with his guitar, as he did so well – sorry if I’m labouring the point – in Khanate. The intermittent stillness evinced on ‘Muse’ is pushed to its apex here, as the track drifts almost listlessly at times, a hazy fog of imagined shades and potential explosions. When they do burst forth, they’re all the more potent from the anticipation.

I’ve recently been listening to a number of early records released on ECM, that formidable bastion of avant-garde jazz and minimalist modern composition. Of course, Äänipäa do not actually sound like Jan Garbarek or Ralph Towner, but, in their own chaotic, ever-so-slightly-demented way, they espouse something of the German label’s early aesthetic, namely a desire to play with the contours of volume and silence, and where those two phenomena overlap. This is techno-metal, so it’s more boneheaded than jazz, but the respective backgrounds of Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley mean the above comparison is not such a leap. This is noise music with brains, and another album on Editions Mego that challenges our perceptions of music and sound. Oh, and it will fucking rip your ears off at full volume.

A Quietus Review: Watching Dead Empires In Decay by The Stranger (October 31st, 2013)

It’s often tempting to view the many different projects guided by James Kirby as different facets of the man’s personality. V/Vm was Kirby the prankster with a wry grin, gleefully distorting the contours of ubiquitous pop songs. As The Caretaker the Stockport-born artist delves into the cobwebbed basement of memory, both his own and that of others, mournfully lamenting in its fragility and ultimate loss. As Leyland Kirby he is often at his most emotionally raw, examining, dissecting even, his feelings in the company of his listeners, which makes the experience of albums like Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was and Eager To Tear Apart The Stars both exquisite and somewhat painful. Of all his diverse incarnations, The Stranger remains the most obscure and unfathomable. It’s also the darkest visage Kirby cares to share with the world.

2008’s Bleaklow was rooted in landscape, exploring the northern English moors near where Kirby grew up, and seemed to share an affinity with the dark ambient of Lustmord, Lull, Hoedh et al. Watching Dead Empires In Decay is much more layered and unpredictable in scope. Perhaps Kirby’s environment – he was living in Berlin for a number of years – has rubbed off on him. His work as The Caretaker and under his own name possesses a certain British quirkiness, leading comparisons to be drawn with acts like Demdike Stare and the Ghost Box stable.

This version of The Stranger is less anchored in time and place, but echoes of Berlin’s electronic scene seem to find a resonance in the dense layers of sound that unfurl on Watching Dead Empires In Decay. It’s often just a shuffling beat, quickly swallowed by walls of texture, or a wobbly electronic structure that suggests a whiff of the dancefloor before dissolving, but it’s there, like a ghost fighting against everything else Kirby deploys. These casual insinuations are at times almost imperceptible, but they succeed in destabilising the entire album. It’s not the memory music of his other releases, but it does operate in a world where the fabric of reality is crumbling and frayed, a good reflection of the greying album art (which is superb). In short, Watching Dead Empires In Decay is a wonderful enigma of an album.

From the off the album feels windswept and shadowy, with opening track ‘We Are Enemies But Not Here’ starting with palpable menace, with grumpy-sounding industrial creaks and crashes buffeted by swirling white noise. From there, Kirby evolves the record gradually, dropping in a muted rhythmic pulsation on ‘So Pale It Shone In The Night’, like the sound of tram wheels rolling through a deserted city centre at night, with chimes ringing out forlornly in the background.

The Stranger’s music feels both artificial and earthy, like a combination of electronic devices and snippets of found sounds. ‘Spiral of Decline’ could be the spine of a Raime or Regis track, reduced to the bare bones of beats and creaking electronics, although, again, the exact nature of what is being used is hazy. ‘Where Are Our Monsters Now, Where Are Our Friends?’ is the most enigmatic track on the album, with a backbeat that could have been found on an old synth-pop or trip-hop track filtered through a gossamer curtain of decay and fuzz. If Watching Dead Empires In Decay is an image of Kirby’s world, then it’s a purposefully elusive and nocturnal one, the soundtrack of a man who never sleeps, which, given his output, I’m not sure James Kirby does. Where so much dark electronic music feels cold and impassive, The Stranger’s contains a heart of real warmth and humanity, more sorrow than robotic angst.

This emotional core keeps the album from ever disappearing into the arsehole of formulaic electronica. The Stranger’s identity, as a musical concept, is as vague as the output Kirby weaves. The Stranger could be a ghost, or a Third Man-like figure of mystery and darkness. Maybe he’s intended to be some sort of fusion of man and machine, one of Gary Numan’s replicas. But with Kirby at the helm, the project becomes so much more than a sum of musical parts and obtuse intrigue, crystallising into a very real expression of humanity, albeit one that is blurred and confused. I’m not sure if it was intended or not, but on Watching Dead Empires In Decay, James Kirby succeeds in reminding us of who he is, stranger or not.

A Quietus Feature – 30 Years On: Soul Mining By The The Revisited (October 23rd, 2013)

One of the most charming quirks of the very early eighties was the unexpected popularity and commercial success of the most enigmatic of pop music. In 1982, impressively-coiffed British quartet Japan were rewarded after years of near-misses when their positively minimalist single ‘Ghosts’ climbed to number five in the UK charts. A year earlier, New York avant-gardist Laurie Anderson performed even better, as her eight-minute mini-suite mixture of pop and spoken word, ‘O Superman’ hit number two. When you think of it, even the likes of Soft Cell or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark seem quite unlikely as stars, with their peculiar dancing, affected vocals and dry, skittish percussion on singles like ‘Tainted Love’ and ‘Enola Gay’. But, aside from The Fall and the Associates, few “bands” of the early post-punk years were as popular despite being positively eccentric as Matt Johnson’s The The.

I’ve seen The The described as both synth-pop and post-punk, but neither term really seems to fit. In fact, for their first releases, including this debut album proper, they weren’t even an actual band. Only the enigmatic Matt Johnson features on all seven tracks, often playing multiple instruments in a kind of megalomaniacal desire to keep absolute control over his creation. But, given how long it appears to have taken him to make his mark (a first album, Burning Blue Soul, was released in 1981, but under his own name, and he found getting an actual band up and running more than a little difficult), it’s hard not to find some sympathy with Johnson’s determination. In this context, it’s no wonder that Soul Mining is no joyful debut from a confident young whippersnapper, but rather a claustrophobic and cynical slab of self-loathing and barely-restrained fury.

Much has been made of the current generation of synth-wielding artists who appear to have elevated bedroom-composed music to an art form. Well, Soul Mining may have been recorded in a couple of studios, but it crystallises the inner world of the bedroom-based singer-songwriter to perfection. Its opening salvo, ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ and ‘This Is The Day’ are two sides of the same isolated coin, the former a despondent musing on inertia, the latter a more upbeat look at potential futures. ‘I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)’ features pounding, almost metallic rhythm stabs, almost of the sort you’d get on a same-period Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Dept. album, aligned with see-sawing bass lines, snippets of radio static and fuzz-laden guitar. Johnson practically eviscerates himself emotionally in lyrics such as “All my childhood dreams/ Are bursting at the seams/ And dangling around my knees” and, in the chorus, “Another year older and what have I done/ My aspirations have shriveled in the sun”. Anyone who has ever felt that their life failed to live up to expectations will instantly connect to such self-laceration, which reaches fever pitch as he closes on a repeated mantra of “My mind has been polluted/ And my energy diluted”, over and over again. It’s quite ironic that Johnson manages to conjure up such a potent and determined piece of deformed pop whilst simultaneously lamenting his own lack of focus.

The response to this attack of self-doubt comes, after a fashion, on ‘This Is The Day’, although it starts out with a bleary-eyed “day after the night before” vibe. Johnson quickly decides, though, that things can only get better from here, as he loudly proclaims, “This is the day your life will surely change/ This is the day when things fall into place.” Accordion and fiddle lend the track a more pastoral vibe that contrasts nicely with its predecessor’s moody rock sound, whilst its catchy melody was surely deserving of better than its eventual chart position of number 71. These two tracks set out the spirit of Soul Mining, which vacillates between a certain forlorn romanticism (‘Uncertain Smile’) and fierce cynicism (the slow-burning faux-soul of ‘The Sinking Feeling’). At a time when pop was aiming for short, sharp bursts of infectious musicality, Matt Johnson’s melodies must have seemed quite alien, with frequent temporal shifts, such as on the loping, hazy ‘The Twilight Hour’ or the multi-faceted title track. There are hints of progressive rock at some points, whilst elsewhere the album nods towards where Mark Hollis would take Talk Talk later in the decade.

It all culminates fantastically with the unfathomable and unexpected dance epic ‘GIANT’, a track that coalesces Johnson’s pop sensibilities with his innate sense of disillusion into nearly ten minutes of p-funk bliss. In his best mix of croon and snarl, Johnson declares “I am a stranger to myself” before going on to lament his fear of both God and Hell, sounding like a man torn up by his terror. Zeke Manyika provides funky African rhythms whilst synthesizers zip and fly in all directions, guided by supple bass and snaking guitar licks. The percussions builds into a storm of pounding beats (courtesy not just of Manyika but also Foetus’ JG Thirlwell) as Johnson wails out “How could anyone know me/ If I don’t even know myself”, his voice seeming to give out through exhaustion to be repeated by a multi-voiced chant. ‘GIANT’ is a weird closer that really shouldn’t be. It’s fun and irresistibly groovy, but this simple pleasure is subtly tainted by the raw angst of the lyrics, and the increasingly claustrophobic repetition of rhythms and voices. It’s Soul Mining and The The in one track: catchy, musical, but also strangely obtuse and unfathomable.

After Soul Mining, The The would grow in strength as Matt Johnson brought an overt political angle to his lyrics, heightening the universality of albums like Infected and Mind Bomb by turning ever-so-slightly away from his debut’s moody introspection. He even allowed The The to become a proper band after 1986 or so, and forged a singular career, often at the same skewed angle away, but never disconnected, from pop music that he started with in 1983. Soul Mining is in every way a perfect starting point, and one of the best albums of the eighties to boot.

A Quietus Review: Master by Teeth of the Sea (October 4th, 2013)

Keeping track of the continual evolution of London-based post-everything-and-anything quartet Teeth of the Sea has been fascinating from the moment their emphatic debut, Orphaned By The Ocean hit the stores in 2010, amid much praise from the music press and none other than everyone’s favourite weirdo Julian Cope. The band instantly struck this reviewer as being a unique entity, with comparisons to other acts seeming ridiculous, and references to influences only painting part of a dramatic picture. The album mixed sparse noise with trumpet-driven psychedelia and hints of expansive krautrock-ish prog, but never coalesced into any of them, instead existing in a world of its own, one where grace and discord existed in a troubled harmony (of sorts).

From that impressive starting point, Teeth Of The Sea have continued to challenge themselves, refusing to drop into the kind of self-satisfied comfort zone that blights so many “rock” bands. And with Master, they’ve made their biggest leap forward yet, with the band members leaping across genre divides with a confidence and sure-handedness that shows them at the peak of their powers. With casual boldness, they embark on something approaching a concept album centred around a theme seemingly lifted out of the world of Philip K. Dick-style psychedelic science fiction. Despite rarely using lyrics, Teeth of the Sea manage to recreate a mind’s-eye view of a world in which humans and machines have become intermingled, perhaps perversely. This sentiment is echoed in the cover art, featuring an x-rayed man soaring skywards through a garishly-coloured neon sky. It’s spectacular, yet somehow unsettling, an LSD-fuelled vision of a chaotic future; and it’s one that filters throughout Master‘s nine tracks.

When I first heard some of the material on Master at a concert last year, I was staggered at the new direction Teeth Of The Sea were taking. Jimmy Martin’s instantly-identifiable guitar roar was scaled back, shimmering synth lines dominated, and Mat Colegate drove the set with martial drum beats taking in krautrock and techno simultaneously. It was thrilling, an absolute rush, but quite a curveball. Master ties past and present together more neatly, coming on as a heady cocktail of rhythmic electronica, heavy rock and gnarly Van Der Graaf-like progressive rock. After a brief opening snippet, the album kicks in righteously with ‘Reaper’, a soaring, emphatic track that borders on the anthemic. The band pile up the synth riffs and hypnotic beats, melding electronic and acoustic until the two become a single organism, a musical cyborg marching resolutely onwards and upwards. The rhythm, so sharp and repetitive, brings to mind the kind of thing Martin Rushent would have deployed with a Linn drum machine on The Human League’s Dare! in 1981, and yet, having seen Colegate in action, I can testify that the man has the kind of metronomic rigour to match any machine. As the synths build up in Moroder-esque layers, Martin drops in fuzzed-out non-riffs that snake and swirl around the main melody like digital static.

‘The Servant’ outlines the album’s psychic universe, as an emotionless, looped voice intones moodily about “November in what remains of the city” over brooding digital hiss and distant horn moans. ‘Black Strategy’ picks up where ‘Reaper’ left off with driving rhythms, although its pace is more redolent of mid-period Cabaret Voltaire than vintage Moroder, the atmosphere emphatically established as one of sombre dystopia. The track bleeds into ‘Pleiades Underground / Inexorable Master’, on which Martin treats himself to some molten doom-inflected riffs and fuzzy feedback. As the album evolves, Teeth of the Sea pull in strands of influence ranging from Throbbing Gristle to the darkened dub of a Raime or Dalhous, with the emergence of the trumpet adding a distinct sense of melancholia and unease.

The album ends on a truly emphatic note with the rapturous ‘Responder’, ten minutes of bliss that evolves from slow-burning, broiling noise textures into a floor-pounding dancefloor epic buoyed by an infectious back-beat and raucous trumpet blasts. With its gnarly opening and sweeping final segment, it neatly condenses the various moods, textures and sounds of Master into one track, signing off on the highest of peaks. If Fuck Buttons hadn’t gone stadium-sized, and instead expanded on the brittle edges of their superlative debut Street Horrrsing, they might have ended up sounding as weird, majestic and abrasive as Teeth of the Sea do on Master. One thing’s for sure: these tracks probably won’t end up soundtracking a major sports event.

A Quietus Review: Armed Courage by The Dead C (September 25th, 2013)

In this writer’s opinion, The Dead C might just be the best rock act currently active (despite strong competition from the likes of Skullflower, Keiji Haino and Zs, none of whom are quite so rock-centred), precisely because they refuse to become complacent in a genre that allows for far too much room for doing the same thing over and over, to dispiriting levels of popular and critical acclaim (see the fawning reception accorded to My Bloody Valentine’s dreary and uninspired MBV).

As the edge and sense of adventure seems to be getting increasingly sucked out of what was once the most rebellious of musical genres, The Dead C seem more and more to be a refreshing vision of an alternative, more challenging approach to rock, far removed from the pop posturing of so-called ‘indie’ or the delusional pretension of the ATP crowd (Deerhunter, MBV et al.). Listen to The Dead C, and the bland, BBC spittle-coated, coma-inducing celebration of repetition and conformity that is Glastonbury, with its roll call of identical poser bands in skinny jeans, seems a world away, ready to be consigned to the same dustbin of mediocrity as any of the multitude of Ken doll boy bands that the X-Factor vomits out. Which is a nice dream to dwell on.

Which is not to say The Dead C are infallible, of course, and, truth be told, Armed Courage will not go down in avant-rock history as a work that sits alongside past masterpieces like Harsh 70s Reality or The White House. It’s probably not as good as 2010’s Patience. But it’s still a fucking roller coaster of a ride over, above and beyond the tropes of rock music, taking in as it does an overwhelming variety of styles and influences and mixing them together in a great big out-there blender over two colossal 20-plus minute workouts. Truth be told, it is only the tracks’ length that poses a problem, because there is a heavy dose of righteous noise belted out throughout Armed Courage. Side A is taken up by the predictably-named ‘Armed’ (you can easily guess what the other track is called), and it kicks off in a haze of guitar mulch and fluttered drum rolls, a constantly broiling miasma that seems perpetually set to burst into full blown anarchy. Improvisation is a key factor in The Dead C’s recording process, and you can hear guitarists Bruce Russell and Michael Morley probing and darting around each other, safe in the knowledge that Robbie Yeats’ supple rhythmic backbone will always be there to catch them if they fly too close to the ether of chaos.

When Yeats drops out, ‘Armed’ does drift a bit, but it’s the kind of feedback-drenched haze that will slate the needs of, say, fans of Sonic Youth (at their noisy best). The Dead C often seemed to me to be SY’s slightly deranged alter ego, a band born out of the same culture but who refused to echo Thurston Moore et al’s occasional nods towards mainstream expectations. Like many, I was saddened by Sonic Youth’s demise (although Kim Gordon in particular has gone one to release some truly righteous sounds since then), but, gratefully, The Dead C continue to press on, honing and expanding on everything SY promised but only occasionally delivered. ‘Armed’ gathers pace and intensity about ten minutes in, as Yeats’ – otherwise strangely restrained in the mix – kicks out a repetitive martial beat, like a punk take on Neu!’s motorik stride, somehow galvanising Russell and Morley into a furious torrent of guitar mayhem. It matters little that the track starts to dissolve into unfocused sub-Crazy Horse drifting as it grinds to a close: yes, ‘Armed’ is too long, but that middle section is so brutal and unrestrained that all excess is swiftly forgiven.

Initially, ‘Courage’ is more restrained, with synthesizers buzzing inchoately around plucked arpeggios and lonesome one-note interjections from one of either Morley or Russell. Yeats channels the spirit of a free-jazz improviser, scattering rhythms in unpredictable bursts of cymbal or snare rolls. The synth drone builds into a moody cloud and Morley leans in with his trademark groaning vocalisations, the words always just out of reach for the listener. As the piece gathers pace, the noise levels rise, the synths gradually layering themselves over chugging riffs and insistent rhythm. The momentum is acutely akin to the most forceful of krautrock classics, such as Neu!’s debut or Harmonia’s Deluxe, but -and again, this could be a sign of a track overly extended- the trio refuse to stay locked into this groove for long, instead doing a completely about turn and deconstructing their music to its bare bones, with minimal guitar progressions, hesitant synth wobbles and restrained percussion, continuing in this vein in fits of noise followed by near-silence until the track fades into the ether.

Armed Courage will probably be best loved by Dead C fanatics like me, but if anyone unfamiliar with the band who feels the rest of rock is becoming a tad sterile, I can only urge you to ignore the bloated fanfare around such dinosaurs as My Bloody Valentine, Deerhunter or Nine Inch Nails and slap this hulking monolith of a record on your player. It doesn’t necessarily break down the boundaries of rock music, but it sure as shit gives them a good kicking.

A Quietus Review: Engravings by Forest Swords (August 30th, 2013)

Three years ago, Matthew Barnes emerged from The Wirral with an almost album-length EP, Dagger Paths. It immediately caught the attention of the music press with its strange, blurry mixture of psychedelic pop and languid dubstep. Engravings follows the same vein, but with Dagger Paths‘ rougher edges honed into a series of enigmatic spectral half-songs that swirl and bite in successive layers of oblique, occasionally abstract, textures.

To record Engravings, Barnes made the audacious choice of mixing his tracks outdoors, immersing himself in the supposedly spiritually-charged environment of the Wirral peninsula. As such, even if his music descends from the tradition of dubstep and UK house, it is also imbued with a nebulous sense of mystery comparable to vintage English folk acts such as Forest and Mr Fox, as well as more recent weird psychedelic outfits like Hacker Farm, IX Tab and Eric Zann. Most of the tracks feel slightly windswept and spacious, even as they teem with little sonic details, as if Barnes is trying, in a slightly evasive way, to recreate a mind’s eye image of the shores and rocky outcrops of his home territory.

Having said that, the focus on Engravings isn’t narrow, and, as on Dagger Paths – a record adorned with an eerie image of a Japanese geisha – Barnes dots his tracks with flourishes that evoke a wider, perhaps dreamlike, world. On opener ‘Ljoss’, for example, a flurry of Spanish guitar segues into slaloming notes that appear to be performed on an electrified koto. Similar unexpected flourishes creep into pretty much every track, in the form of distended woodwinds on the gorgeous ‘Thor’s Stone’ (a reference to a stone slab local to Barnes that was supposedly used for Viking sacrifices) or bursts of sampled choir and orchestra on ‘Irby Tremor’, which are distorted in a manner redolent of The Caretaker, only with a focus outward rather than into the recesses of the mind.

Three years ago, critical consensus seemed to mostly draw parallels between Forest Swords and the American bedroom scenes rather stupidly dubbed chillwave and witch House, but, truth be told, Barnes’ music seems closer in spirit to the melancholic dubstep of Burial, occasionally even blurring into the bass-heavy lovers’ rock mutation that is King Midas Sound. Beats are heavy and slow, with none of the sort of scatter-gun immediacy of the post-dubstep scene.

Industrial textures that echo Liverpool’s maritime tradition abound, while the bass, which is admittedly more withdrawn than on pure dubstep, keeps everything ticking along like a steady heartbeat. Equally similar to Burial is the meticulous cohesion of these tracks, exemplified by the lush centrepiece ‘An Hour’. Over exotic, Eastern-sounding textures that could have been sampled from Tin Drum-era Japan, disembodied voices mesh and meld in a foggy lament that is both touching and hypnotic. Most of the tracks on Engravings feel like torch songs that have somehow drifted out of aural focus, like blurred photographs or smoky black and white film footage. But where acts like Grouper or Lee Noble seem to be deconstructing song altogether, Barnes seems to be engaged in a more subtle exercise, assembling strands of song formats into elliptical constructions with absolute precision.

 

A Quietus Review: La Bas by JFK (August 28th, 2013)

Anthony diFranco has spent the past couple of years painstakingly excavating his numerous solo ventures (Ethnic Acid, Ax, JFK) and reissuing them on CD and vinyl. In the process, he has revealed himself to be one of the most striking and significant figures to have emerged, via his Ramleh pal Gary Mundy’s Broken Flag label, from the UK underground. OK, admittedly, he has emerged into slightly less dense shadow than before, but one can only hope that this CD will add to the recent Ax and Ethnic Acid compilations and finally grant diFranco the recognition he deserves. Because, whilst he may have, by virtue of his age, come along after Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Whitehouse had already unleashed the grim and provocative genres that are industrial and power electronics, he can proudly call himself one of those band’s most forward-looking disciples.

That he is still taking all of his various projects forwards with the same verve and talent is testament to his abilities and open-mindedness. Indeed, recent Ethnic Acid live performances have seen him take in both munged-out techno and harsh wall noise, in a significant departure from his brittle, DIY early material, a sign that diFranco will not be content to let these compilations of older material serve as some sort of epitaph.

Of the three projects, JFK seems the most beholden to its immediate forbears, and LA BAS comprises ten punchy, aggressive tracks that distill the murky malevolence of TG and SPK with Whitehouse’s more rambunctious, fast-paced assaults with a hint of Cabaret Voltaire mutant swing thrown in for good measure. And yet, as young as diFranco was at the time (the album covers ages 15 to 20, fer chrissakes! When I was 15, I was just beginning to learn that ‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65, and at 20 was pretending to hate Pink Floyd to annoy my mates), it is never overtly derivative of his better-known forbears, so most comparisons only serve to give an idea of his overall sound, but can’t hope to get to the heart of what makes JFK so infectiously enjoyable, even in its most sinister moments.

From the moment the album (and it feels more like a cohesive long player than a compilation) jumps out of the speakers with grinding instrumental ‘Big Fat Sin’, it never relents, careering forwards with a verve and aggression that is positively punk, and indeed actually reconnects power electronics to its roots in that genre. ‘Omen’ introduces diFranco’s vocals, which rarely crop up on other projects, which is a shame as he has the kind of snotty snarl that the likes of Stephen Mallinder and Mars’ Sumner Crane wielded so effectively. The vocals are mixed low, so deciphering the lyrics is tricky, but diFranco’s delivery conveys an enormous amount regardless, pitched somewhere between menace and youthful romanticism, the voice of someone turned cynical at a young age.

One of the album’s standout moments, ‘Aktion In A 10/6’ crystallises the aura of JFK into seven hard-hitting minutes of frothing post-punk. Over metronomic, stripped-down drum machine beats, diFranco unleashes torrents of blurry feedback and howls dejectedly like an alternately threatening and distraught rejected lover. The abstract lyrics convey the same sort of sexual violence that emanates from The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’, but with an added sense of disenchanted romanticism.

The pace of the track, compared to more frenetic tracks like ‘Omen’ or the almost catchy ‘Sexodus’ (which is bolstered by mad guitar riffage and noise from Skullflower’s Matt Bower), is slovenly and repetitive, the kind of industrial grind that makes the genre so challenging and refreshing at once. The album’s centrepiece, meanwhile, is the 12 minute noise and found sample collage ‘Will To Love’, a work so belligerently obtuse and abstract that it can’t fail to evoke Throbbing Gristle at their most deconstructed.

LA BAS is the sound of a man still finding his feet, yet already so confident in his vision that it deserves to be recognised as an industrial masterwork like those of some of the aforementioned bands. Balancing infectious punk-rock structures with fierce noise, abstraction, drone and atonal textures, Anthony diFranco comes up with something truly hybrid that has endured the test of time far better than quite a number of his better-known contemporaries such as 23 Skidoo and Clock DVA.

A Quietus Interview – Pure Undisturbed Reality: An Interview With Stara Rzeka (August 14th, 2013)

Despite being comparatively unknown within the wider world, Poland’s alternative music scene is in diverse, forward-thinking and exciting health at the moment. From ferocious metal to tonal explorations and avant-garde jazz, via aggressive alt-rock and novel takes on techno and dubstep, there’s a huge swathe of Polish artists that merit far more interest than they’re currently receiving.

Among the myriad innovative individuals currently making the country feel like such fertile musical territory, Jakub ‘Kuba’ Ziołek stands as a key figure, having made his name as a member of some of the most intriguing and exploratory groups in the country. They include Innercity Ensemble, an improvisation-based collective whose wide-ranging pieces draw from members’ backgrounds in jazz, post-industrial and electronic musics, Ed Wood, and Alameda 3, who are due to release a new album in the near future.

However, 2013 has shed fresh light on Ziołek’s singular approach to rock, metal and folk-leaning traditions with the release of his first full album as Stara Rzeka, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. The album is both astonishing and beguiling, composed on an acoustic guitar but broadening to draw from a wide mix of styles – folk, krautrock, black metal – with a radical and open-minded attitude that makes the resultant music impossible to pigeonhole. It’s already reached the upper echelons of the Quietus’ albums of 2013 so far list, with Quietus editor John Doran describing it thus: “it shifts through sparse BM moves that remind one of Norwegian second wavers Thorns, and through the arboreal drones of early Growing, before ending on a celestial cover of Nico’s ‘My Only Child’ with speaker destroying drone metal.”If there is any justice in the world, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem should be the vehicle to propel Ziołek to attention in the alternative music community well outside his home country. Fascinated by the oblique and beautiful world of Stara Rzeka, the Quietus caught up with him via e-mail to discuss the album, the tensions and connections between humans and nature, and his own remarkable perspective on music.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself and Stara Rzeka? I know you’ve performed and recorded in a number of outfits, such as Ed Wood and Innercity Ensemble, but when did you start working as Stara Rzeka?

Jakub Ziołek: My background is in metal and hardcore music, and it still plays an important role in bands like Ed Wood or Alameda 3, or even in Stara Rzeka. I like radical, material sounds… Even in ambient or acoustic music, I like sounds to be massive and extreme. I participate in numerous different bands. Innercity Ensemble is a free-form improvisational collective of seven musicians, a band blending jazz, post-industrial, psychedelic and ambient music. Hokei is a RIO and post-rock-influenced sci-fi phantasmagoria with two drum kits. Alameda 3 is, in a sense, a continuation of Stara Rzeka, but a little more rock-influenced. T’ien Lai is, in a way, a tribute to so-called ‘krautrock’ and bands like Cluster or Popol Vuh. Kapital is a mix of electro-acoustic experiments and extreme space-psychedelic music. Stara Rzeka is three years old, but I only started playing live last year.

How do you feel Stara Rzeka differs from your other projects? I believe it’s a completely solo project?

JZ: The whole idea of Stara Rzeka, and also Alameda 3, T’ien Lai and Kapital, is for them to be completely DIY bands, and I think that those bands should be responsible for recording and mixing their material. I have no money to pay for a real studio, so everything is done DIY style. I know nothing about mixing, but I work very hard listening to the music and doing the best I can for it to sound satisfying enough. Stara Rzeka doesn’t really differ from my other bands. They’re all a part of the same story.

Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is remarkable in the way it takes in a wide variety of genres and styles, including heavy rock similar to black metal, folk, electronic music and drone. Are these genres that you have been versed in a long time? What – if any – were your influences when making the album?

JZ: It may sound trivial but the only true influence is the German music of the 70s. For me, it’s the most important legacy in post-World War II European music – Kraftwerk, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Can, Faust, Neu, Amon Düül II, Guru Guru and many, many others. [They had] diverse, original, inspiring concepts that never concealed the pure experience of sound. There are also many other artists that I admire: Robert Fripp, Keiji Haino, Richard Pinhas, Loren Connors, Robbie Basho, My Cat Is An Alien, Sun City Girls, Charalambides, David Hurley… and there’s philosophy. I don’t listen to music a lot, but I read a lot. Very little fiction, mostly just scientific and philosophical books. I’m more inspired by books than by records, although I don’t consider music to be purely intellectual. Quite the opposite.

I believe the songs were initially composed on acoustic guitar. What made you want to flesh them out with other instruments and musical styles? Do you play all instruments on the album?

JZ: Yes, I play all the instruments on the album. 90% of the time I compose on the acoustic guitar because I live in a flat and I cannot play loud music at home. I practise a lot on the acoustic guitar, and hope that in the future it will be my only field of expression.

Was it a challenge to juxtapose these varied styles whilst still maintaining the album’s coherence? It’s something of a triumph that, for all its frequent evolutions, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is so focused and cohesive.

JZ: I never hoped for it to be musically cohesive. If it is, it’s just pure coincidence. It’s conceptually coherent. It’s focused on the concept that mankind should consider the loss of the connection with its humanistic tradition of Renaissance and Enlightenment as a gain, not a loss… and that objective reality (not only nature) is not something that mankind is supposed to conquer and defeat. It’s connected to us but keeps its own autonomy. We must learn how to communicate with it, not conquer it. I realise that this is not a new or original concept…

I believe metal music, notably black metal, is quite popular in Poland. Are you a big fan of black metal? What is it that draws you to it?

JZ: Metal music is popular in Poland, but I don’t think black metal is popular. Of course there’s Behemoth, but it’s not really black metal, and Nergal is a celebrity in Poland like Paris Hilton is in the U.S. There are great black metal bands in Poland nowadays: more old-school like Mgła and more avant-garde like Furia and Thaw (just to name a few). To me black metal, along with doom metal, is the only metal music that’s devoid of the testosterone aspect of sound, which makes metal music just a continuation of a penis-oriented rock & roll music. Black metal is a negation of humanism and hence [a negation of] the oppression of men over women… the sex factor disappears in black metal. It’s subject is asexual, like a ghost. This is one of the reasons why I think of black metal as very closely connected to the truth of nature and its pure, undisturbed reality. I don’t support any right-wing connotations in black metal, or nationalistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Varg Vikernes-style bullshit.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I speak no Polish, but note that some of the lyrics are in English. What was the thought process behind singing in English? Are most of the lyrics in Polish?

JZ: Actually, only ‘My Only Child’ is in English and it’s a cover. The rest of the album is sung in Polish. To me, the voice is just another instrument. I listen to music from around the world and I love to hear songs sung in other languages than English. It makes them more mysterious to me. I try to interpret in my own way the meanings of words in those songs… even if they may be originally just shitty love songs. To me they sound magical.

Stara Rzeka means Old River in English, and in your biography I read that you have a keen interest in nature and its preservation. Has that always been the case? Do you garner particular inspiration from landscapes that surround you?

JZ: I don’t feel comfortable living in the city and I seize every opportunity to go out to some rural areas. Nature and the way it connects within itself and with people is very important to me. Sounds of nature are beautiful and purifying. But I don’t mythologise or idealise the countryside or nature in general. Also, I don’t think of nature as some kind of unity (contrasted to another unity – culture). Actually, to me, there’s no nature, just various forces and material objects that need to be considered in their autonomy.

The combination of electric and acoustic sounds on the album suggests a desire to explore a sense of conflict in humankind’s interaction with nature. Is this a fair assessment? Do you see Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem as having something of a political or social commentary at play?

JZ: Yes, there is some political background behind this music. People must stop thinking of nature as a beautiful, innocent virgin that should be conquered. But, to me, this thinking deals with the whole objective, material reality (natural or artificial). Material objects are not the neutral background of our lives, they constitute our world and our thinking of ourselves. We must learn how they are and how they act in their own autonomy. Again, I realise that these ideas are not my original concepts. I’m just deeply devoted to them, so I like to talk about them.

I was struck by the potency of the folk aspect of your music on hearing the album the first time. Little is known here in the UK about traditional Polish music. Do you see yourself as part of that sort of tradition?

JZ: I don’t consider Stara Rzeka to be a folk band. I don’t know much about traditional Polish music as well and there are no traditional Polish folk tunes on Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. Folk music has great power and I sense truth in this music. But, I don’t see a reason I should consider Polish folk music to be more important than, say, Thai folk music.

I’m reminded of many English folk bands of the 60s and 70s who shied away from modernity in order to explore ancient, sometimes pre-Christian traditions, as well as more modern Scandinavian acts who do the same thing, such as Tenhi and Wardruna. Do you feel an affinity with any of those bands, both past and present?

JZ: In Poland, there was this great band Księżyc – sort of medieval, pagan folk music. Their music had some amazing primordial aura – a deep journey into unconsciousness of the senses. I admire Księżyc, but Stara Rzeka is something different. I don’t care much about past and tradition, I’m more future-oriented.

When I went to OFF Festival in Katowice last year, I was impressed by the quality and diversity of the local bands, but also thought it was a shame that they were often on very early in comparison to the big American and British bands. What is your view on the Polish music scene? Do you think it’s harder for Polish acts to gain the recognition they deserve?

JZ: It’s great that you’ve noticed the fact that Polish bands are not treated with respect they deserve. It’s an effect of a servile mentality and inferiority complex. British and American bands are seen as the great lords that honour Poland just by their presence in our little country. Just take a look at numbers: My Bloody Valentine gets 150,000 Euro for their concert at OFF Festival this year, my band Hokei gets 500 Euro (and it’s mostly public money!) Stara Rzeka plays at 16.00… Just imagine black metal-drone ritual, in the beautiful August sun with fifteen people attending, at this early hour. This is a real problem with big festivals, because club concerts and small festival organisers also suffer from the thoughtlessness of the big festival policy.

And the Polish musical scene is amazing! It’s absurd to compare Polish music to American or British. Different worlds, different traditions, different financial and political environments. But very often I find Polish artists more interesting than British or American ones (and I’m not a patriot)… Just check the work of Wacław Zimpel (Hera), Mikrokolektyw, The Kurws, Piotr Kurek, Napszykłat, Macio Moretti (LXMP, Shofar, Baaba, Mitch&Mitch). And those are just few artists whose names came into my head at the moment.

I can imagine that it might be a challenge to bring this music, which is so diverse and multi-faceted and subtle, into a live setting. Have you performed many concerts? If so, did this throw up any specific challenges?

JZ: The first few concerts were very difficult for me technically (using acoustic and electric guitar in one song is not easy). I decided to make it more simple but more condensed and intense. I think it’s good when live performance differs from what can be heard on an album. Those are two different things. I hate it when bands play their albums live note by note.

What are your future plans? I believe the album is set to get a new pressing, which is great news.

JZ: Yeah, the first pressing sold out very quickly. Both CD and cassette. Currently I’m working on split cassette with two artists from Poland. Stara Rzeka’s new album will be released next year.

Stara Rzeka’s Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is out now via Instant Classic.

A Quietus Live Report: Antony and the Johnsons at the ROH, July 25th 2013 (August 1st, 2013)

I will often bore my more unfortunate friends to tears by constantly harping on about the idea of expectation in popular music (I say “friends”, plural, but it’s mostly my long-suffering partner). If there is one thing in a concert or record that will endear a rock or pop act to me, it’s their ability to surprise me or confound my expectations. It’s for this reason that I consider the latest Deerhunter, My Bloody Valentine and, arguably, Bowie albums to be beyond dull, whilst The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual stands as one of the best albums of the year. If I needed more of the sound of 1991 from Kevin Shields et al, I’d have just played Loveless again, perhaps in surround sound.

Antony Hegarty manages to surprise me from the moment tonight’s performance gets underway in the elegant surroundings of London’s plush Royal Opera House, as the concert starts with a bizarre dance/performance art intro by a woman dressed in an outlandish bird-like outfit (the show is called Swanlights) over coarse, driving lines of reverberating electronica. It’s a baffling, almost abstract overture, one that doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the show, but throws a decisive spanner in the works from the get-go, proving that Hegarty cannot be so easily shoehorned under the “chamber song” label as I had thought. Indeed, even though the rest of the concert features (mostly) familiar songs, as always guided by piano and fleshed out by lush orchestral arrangements performed admirably by the Britten Sinfonia, there is a constant sense that Swanlights offers Antony the chance to reconsider his past output in new(ish) light.

Compared to other performances I’ve seen of Hegarty’s (on the internet), in Swanlights he takes leave of the piano to stand centre stage, resplendent in a white gown and amplifying the emotional impact of his songs with simple gestures and movements, the whole performance given an almost spectral quality through the use of lights and lasers. I have to admit to being less impressed, or maybe more baffled, by the large, apparently cardboard sculpture that looms over his head like an abstract comet, or the sequence of screens that gradually lift to reveal the Sinfonia, but these are minor quibbles in a stage design that otherwise finds the right balance between the intimacy that befits Antony Hegarty’s music and the loftiness that a venue like the ROH might require.

But of course, the main draw of Swanlights is the songs. Hegarty has built up a solid, often spectacular set of lush ballads, and the audience in Covent Garden clearly adore every moment. Fans of I Am A Bird Now, his 2005 hit record, will have been disappointed at the lack of songs from that album (only ‘For Today I’m A Boy’ made the cut), but I think Hegarty can be forgiven for being sick to death of them. Highlights are numerous, from the lush, cinematic glory of ‘Cripple And The Starfish’ and ‘I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy’, to the more stripped-down grace of ‘The Crying Light’ and ‘Another World’, via a wonderful surprise in the form of a hilarious cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’. Like I said, I like to be surprised and, even if most songs are similar to their studio counterparts, except bolstered with greater orchestration, the mere presence of such a curveball as a pop/r’n’b smash hit is enough to have me smiling. Hegarty is an endearing, touching performer blessed with a miraculous voice, and to have his work displayed and celebrated in such surroundings, propelled by such talented musicians and emphasised with light and shadow, is a thrill unto itself. Everything else is icing on a truly lovely cake.

A Quietus Review: The Word As Power by Lustmord (July 16, 2013)

Dark ambient has rarely impressed me as a genre, with each release tagged under the style merely seeming to be engaged in a tiresome battle to outdo other releases in the massive bleakness stakes, but without the dynamism and aggression of other “dark” genres such as doom metal or noise. But, if anyone has put forward dark ambient as a relevant and significant genre, it’s Brian Williams, aka Lustmord. Over the years, he has racked up an impressive tally of critically-praised albums, with 1995’s joint album with Robert Rich, Stalker, a notable high point.

The Word As Power is one of the boldest steps forward in Lustmord’s entire canon, focusing as it does on the human voice over the usual dark ambient tropes such as synthesizers and guitars. Each track on the album seems like a capsule of time and atmosphere that lingers outside of actual time and space, existing in its own universe where the boundaries of language are surreptitiously blurred and the songs that ensue and imbued with a beautiful sense of mystery.

It helps that Williams has brought together a stellar cast of vocalists, including Tool’s Maynard James Keenan and Jarboe, formerly of Swans. In the capable hands of these singers, the songs, be they wordless mantras or incantatory half-chants, are given a potency bordering on the sacred, although this is a religious fervour steeped in oblique, shady paganism. I can imagine Julian Cope or Genesis P-Orridge digging The Word As Power. With the vocals given centre stage, the music of Lustmord is elevated beyond mere “darkness” and is offered as something transcendental or deeply meaningful, the clear, crystalline simplicity of the compositions belying the length of time – five years – it took Williams to create this work.

In this context, it takes a while for the musical force behind The Word As Power to sink in, as it is easy to get absorbed into the layered voices and hear nothing else. But Williams works well within the parameters set by focusing on vocals, allowing them to billow, even soar, by sketching out a musical background as emphatic as it is unobtrusive. The first two tracks, ‘Babel’ and ‘Goetia’ centre on the voices, both sounding like more sinister takes on The Bulgarian Voices and Tuvan throat singing, evoking the timeless melancholy of Angelite and Huun Huur-Tu’s Fly, Fly My Sadness, only recorded in an underground cave.The abstract vocalisations reverberate and double up on themselves, surrounded by murky sub-bass and almost imperceptible electronics. On the lengthy ‘Chorazin’, however, Williams makes his presence more palpable, with grim, slow-moving electronic textures and subdued rumbles cushioning the mournful vocals in layers of malignant drone. You could imagine any of these seven tracks serving as the soundtrack to an atmospheric horror film, one where the anchors of modern life are ripped away from the protagonists, leaving them untethered in a world as alien as it is terrifying.

Lustmord’s music takes its time, but it’s hard not to get absorbed into its shadowy netherworld, even if all meaning and sense in there stay resolutely out of focus.