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.

A Quietus Retrospective – Oil On Canvas by Japan (July 19th, 2013)

In many ways, Oil On Canvas is something of an odd swansong for a band that were, in this writer’s opinion, the most fascinating of the late-seventies and early-eighties “synth-pop” acts, if Japan can even be described as such. By the time 1982 rolled towards its conclusion, the quartet’s long slog towards recognition and success -which had seen them bang heads against the wall since 1978’s ‘Adolescent Sex’- had been spectacularly rewarded with the surprise chart success of 1981’s Tin Drum and its slow-crawling single ‘Ghosts’, performed with icy detachment on Top Of The Pops in March of 1982 on its way to number five in the charts. Lead singer David Sylvian had even received the dubious crown of “most beautiful man in pop”. Most bands would have received this belated adulation with relish and milked it for all it was worth, but for Japan it represented a final flourish, as Oil On Canvas was recorded live a month before they parted ways and released posthumously in June 1983.

Oil On Canvas is not just odd because it caps a fine musical catalogue with a series of familiar songs played live, but also simply because it is a concert recording. Much had been made of Japan’s somewhat impersonal stage presence over the years, so to decide to bid farewell with a live album could have been the ultimate wet fart of a climax. Maybe for some, it was. For me, Oil On Canvas crystallizes what was so brilliant about Japan in one neat statement. Tin Drum and Gentlemen Take Polaroids might be their definitive works of art, but, if anyone I know asks me where to start when deciding to explore Japan’s oeuvre for the first time, I generally point them towards this (beautifully-packaged, it must be said) double album and film (now available on DVD). The criticism might have something to do with the lack of stage banter or pyrotechnics one usually associates with a live album, at least those of us used to iconic rock statements such as Live At Leeds by The Who or Slade’s Alive!, but that misses the point somewhat. Japan never intended their music to be mere sweat-inducing, high octane entertainment. Even during their early days as something of a punk-glam hybrid, they, and especially Sylvian, were too thoughtful, too introverted to get a crowd pogoing like dervishes, as they quickly found out during a disastrous tour supporting Blue Öyster Cult.

The synthesizer fervour that gripped Britain in the wake of Kraftwerk and The Human League’s late-seventies output was particularly beneficial to Japan, who, seemingly overnight, ditched the platform boots and wild hair, refined their make-up, slowed down their sound to take in swirly synth textures and loping fretless bass, and emerged in 1979 with Quiet Life, an album that pushed the elegant, improbably-coiffed Sylvian into the limelight, aided and abetted by some of the band’s best songs, such as the pleasingly camp title track, the driving ‘Fall In Love With Me’, the ice-cold ‘Despair’ and a delightfully rigid take on the Velvet Underground classic ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. Quiet Life deserves to be placed alongside Travelogue, Mix-Up and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark as one of the key early British synth-based pop/rock albums, as it defined a very European form of detached, sexually-ambiguous and thoughtful art-pop, one not too dissimilar to what the ever-prescient David Bowie had delivered two years earlier with Low.

Quiet Life became a springboard to send Japan into radically bold new territory. The album followed its two predecessors in garnering very little interest in the UK, but Sylvian’s beautiful features, tight-fitting suits and elegant quiff helped make them stars in the country that gave them their name. Struggling to get noticed at home, they could fill the Budokan in Tokyo, and this exposure to a brand new culture seemed to fire Sylvian’s synapses, as 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids took the sound of Quiet Life and refined it into a series of oblique, almost cinematic avant-pop creations that exquisitely surround the frontman’s woozy post-Bryan Ferry croon in layers of pop textures that sounded like little else by Japan’s contemporaries. As well as Sylvian, Japan featured the talents of his brother Steve Jansen on drums, a polyrhythmic genius behind the skins, the late, great Mick Karn, whose bouncing fretless bass made Japan instantly recognisable and was also a dab hand at the sax and clarinet, and the increasingly moody and atmospheric ambient synth flourishes of keyboardist Richard Barbieri. Together, they transcended the very notion of “synth-pop”, rendering the term completely useless as a way of describing towering, crystalline mini-masterpieces like ‘Methods of Dance’, ‘Swing’ and ‘My New Career’. Only guitarist Rob Dean was an uneasy fit in Japan’s meticulous form of synergy, and he promptly left before the band recorded its masterpiece, Tin Drum, in 1981.

Too much has been written about Tin Drum for me to be able to really add to its reputation. Suffice be it to say that it is unique in pop history, a fearlessly ambitious, unusual and conceptual work of art that defies genre categorisation. That it became a hit and spawned a top five single, makes it all the more startling, because I doubt there are many hit records this chart-unfriendly. But tensions within the band, and David Sylvian’s increased hostility to the limelight spelled the end for Japan just as they were becoming huge, leaving Oil On Canvas with the unenvious task of seeing them off in style. Which it does, even if it could never come close to matching Tin Drum for brilliance (it features most of that album’s tracks after all), and will surely therefore be condemned to be viewed as an afterthought by a band whose singer’s mind was already on his (marvellous) solo career.

But if you watch the film that accompanies Oil On Canvas, and was recorded at the same concert, it’s clear that Japan weren’t the sterile live act many have claimed. They were no Sex Pistols or The Clash, but their demeanour suits the music they play to a tee. You can almost hear women (and probably some men) in the audience swooning as Sylvian strides onto the stage midway during the lugubrious ‘Sons of Pioneers’, and the man looks like a suave android in his neatly tailored grey suit, peroxide blonde hair barely moving as he sways in front of the front row, his sensual voice caressing the senses. Mick Karn performs weird crab-like dances as he thumps his bass, sliding to and fro across the stage, whilst Barbieri remains statuesque and impervious behind his banks of keyboards. Perched above them all, Steve Jansen cuts a cool figure behind his kit, earphones sitting on his head to make sure he doesn’t miss a beat. Joining the quartet is guest Masami Tsuchiya to flesh out the tracks with guitar, keyboards and tapes. On each track, they are all bathed in subtly-applied lighting of various colours, the beams glinting off the neck of Karn’s bass. He and Sylvian captivate the most, their gentle movements coming on like a restrained choreography based on kabuki theatre. Oil On Canvas, as a performance, enhances the status of Japan’s music as the most perfectly-realised combination of east and west inside a pop format. It’s no wonder the band, and Sylvian in his solo career, would work so much with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yukihiro Takahashi and Tsuchiya.

Highlights abound, from the early twin onslaught of ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Swing’, the former bleeding into the latter via moody, rumbling synth ambience; through a rapturously-received rendition of ‘Ghosts’; blistering takes on ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’ (with stirring guitar noise from Tsuchiya) and ‘Methods Of Dance’; and culminating in a rousing finale of ‘The Art of Parties’, all of which combined make me feel very jealous of the Hammersmith audience. Critics will moan that the songs are almost note-for-note recreations of their studio counterparts, and I agree that the film is the better medium to absorb Japan’s curious form of stagecraft, especially as it is bolstered by gorgeous abstract footage of Chinese life and scenery, but I think hearing such beautiful music with the added cheers and applause only enhances the tracks. It should also be noted that there’s a bit of sly humour at play on Oil On Canvas, as three studio instrumentals, composed by Sylvian, Jansen and Barbieri are dropped into the tracklist, as if the band is deliberately blurring the lines between stage and studio. I’m sure they were well aware of their critics’ complaints, and maybe the title track, ‘Voices Raised In Welcome, Hands Held In Prayer’ and ‘Temple Of Dawn’ are their way of pointing out that they don’t give a shit. They also serve to point in the direction Sylvian and, to a lesser extent, Jansen and Barbieri (as Dolphin Brothers) would take after Japan had been disbanded.

Oil On Canvas is ultimately an oddity because it serves as both a great introduction to Japan, and as the final chapter in their existence (discounting Rain Tree Crow). As such, it has a strong emotional pull for the Japan fan, and offers a neat way in for the rest of the world. It’s probably not an essential record, as I noted, but it’s a damn fine one by a damn fine band.

A Quietus Live Report – William Basinski & Fennesz at St John in Hackney Church (July 17th, 2013)

The beautiful, lofty interior of the lovely St. John in Hackney church in Clapton was a fitting location to drink in the subtle, gentle tones of both these heavyweights of ambient music. Their sets were considerably different (and I should imagine that Helm – whose opening performance I sadly missed – also served up something wildly at odds with what came afterwards), but both reverberated around the hall, textures seeming to drift off the walls and out of nooks and crannies organically, meaning even the quietest moments in Basinski’s rendition of ‘Nocturnes’, from his recent album of the same name, were loaded with a palpable physicality.

When I last saw Fennesz, at last year’s OFF Festival in Poland, his set was probably the most intense, brooding and overwhelmingly noisy one of the entire three days, possibly even outdoing headliners Swans. In Clapton, he opted for something more nuanced, building a complex piece around a foundation of throbbing bass drones, its wobbly sound suggesting Fennesz owns one of Throbbing Gristle’s Gristleizers. After an initial phase of drifting textures, he settled into a form of melancholic ambient drone dominated by shimmering synths and a ghostly sampled choir, redolent of his 2008 album Black Sea’s grim, windswept melancholia. If the driving industrial intensity of his set in Poland was, for the most part, absent, it was replaced with a slow-burning blend of quiet and loud, as texturally elegant as it was unpredictable, as Fennesz dropped in robust guitar riffs bolstered with blissful feedback. Despite a rather aimless closing segment, the set, settling in the interstices between noise, drone and ambient, but impossible to clearly pin down, displayed Fennesz’s sonic dexterity to the full.

William Basinski cuts a striking figure as he takes his seat behind his laptop with his towering hair and smart black get-up. The forty minutes of ‘Nocturnes’ seemed to stretch and expand, the sound enveloping the inside of the church like a blanket. Performing in almost total darkness, Basinski made good use of sparse visuals which, projected against the back wall of the church, reflected the moody atmosphere of the music, as gossamer images of the full moon faded in and out of a blurry haze. Unlike the more straightforwardly emotive pieces on his Disintegration Loops series, ‘Nocturnes’ is ambiguously pitched somewhere between mournfulness and pent-up anger, a slow-burning mood piece that’s as spectral and dark as its title suggests. Basinski barely moved a muscle as he built up the loops incrementally before doubling back on them and allowing them to dissolve into the ether, with a sense of tension seeping in when the sounds dropped out altogether, leaving brief, beautiful moments of silence. ‘Nocturnes’ is one of Basinski’s most minimal pieces, and it was hard not to admire his single-minded determination to reproduce it in full, even as the glacial pace clearly caused some attendees to fidget in their seats.

A Quietus Review: Yggdrasil by Wardruna (June 28th, 2013)

Listening to the music of Wardruna feels like a travel back in time, but to an age that maybe only ever existed, and continues to exist, in the minds of its creators and, by extension, those who dare to delve into this strange, and sometimes unsettling, world. Yggdrasil is the second part of a trilogy based on 24 ancient Scandinavian runes known as the elder futhark, and the trio of vocalist Lindy-Fay Hella and former Gorgoroth members Einar Kvitrafn Selvik (instruments) and Gaahl (vocals) duly sing lyrics in Old Norse and Proto-Norse in addition to their native Norwegian, and are joined by famed Icelandic rímur (a form of traditional epic poetry set to music) composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and singer Steindór Andersen, effectively broadening the scope of their project beyond the confines of the core trio’s homeland. I may not understand the words, but an aura of pagan folk authenticity permeates each song.

Listening to Yggdrasil is like being taken on a journey, from the opening nature sounds (several of the tracks were recorded outdoors) and moody chants that usher in ‘Rotlaust tre fell’, you are transported to dark, snow-covered forests, surrounded by what sounds like a cluster of incantatory pagan sorcerers. The blend of voices is sumptuous, from Ghaal’s harsh, low snarl to Lindy-Fay Hella’s sweeping soprano, with the other singers nestling somewhere in between. As the tracks build up, these multi-faceted voices merge, splinter and contrast with one another, adding dramatic, even cinematic potency to their oblique narratives. Second track ‘Fehu’ is a gorgeous demonstration of this, as Hella’s graceful ululations echo the earthier tones of her compadres to a backdrop of driving percussion and swirling violin and mandolin melodies. I’m instantly reminded of the wind-swept post-Fairport Convention debut by Sandy Denny, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, and, naturally, Comus’ pitch-black take on English folk.

Such comparisons to vintage British folk, however, only paint part of the Wardruna picture, because Yggdrasil is by no means retro-sounding, with traces of Selvik and Ghaal’s black metal roots filtering into the songs to colour them with a sense of deep foreboding. A lot of modern metal, notably doom, explores the primeval power inherent in nature, and Wardruna achieve something similar, but using droning strings, metronomic percussion and massed vocals instead of crushing bass and guitar riffs, arguably with more emphatic results, especially when deployed amidst sounds of crashing thunder, footsteps crunching on snow and driving rain. Wardruna’s music sounds alive, as if the nature the group so effectively evokes has seeped into the listener’s synapses. Again, you don’t have to understand the lyrics to feel affected by them.

Perhaps Wardruna’s closest musical cousins are the likes of Finland’s Tenhi or America’s Wolves In The Throne Room, bands who, similarly, cross the borders between European folk’s arcane origins and black metal’s theatrical malevolence. But where those two bands crawl through the murk with frenetic, single-minded determination (with spectacular results), Yggdrasil lives up to its name – that of the giant tree central to Norse mythology – by stretching out into both darkness and light, a musical ying and yang, like branches creeping into sunlight as they grow up out of a shadowy forest.

A Liminal Review: November by Dennis Johnson (June 25th, 2013)


This work of art – for that is the word – has pretty much been lost for the best (or worst?) part of fifty years, so before any reviewing gets underway, I need to offer profuse thanks to both Irritable Hedgehog in the US and Penultimate Press here in the UK for going the extra one hundred miles in order to share it with us today in 2013. Reading the accompanying notes by author and composer Kyle Gann on the album’s Bandcamp page, it quickly becomes clear that this release of November was quite the labour of love, with Gann having painstakingly recreated the piece’s score from a damaged cassette he was given in 1992 by LaMonte Young, the man generally regarded as the father of minimalism. From the tape, and a manuscript sent to him by Dennis Johnson himself, Gann has restored November to something approaching its supposed actual length (six hours), with a four-hour work that easily eclipses the 112 minutes he was working from with the tape.

November is performed entirely on piano, thus anticipating LaMonte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, not to mention the works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. In fact, the more I listened to it, the harder it was to conclude that it is November, and not Young’s Trio for Strings, that represents the first true work of minimalism, which is certainly Gann’s intimation. The piece, divided here into four hour-long discs, is built around a gradually evolving progression of slow-burning motifs, starting with two notes that are then repeated and added to with a third, and so on, a style that would take hold in minimalism over the next two decades. It evolves at a glacial pace, each note held and sustained for various lengths of time, allowed to reverberate in the air and in the mind. One immediately thinks of Michael Nyman’s Decay Music, also for piano, although there is a deceptive simplicity at play in November that elevates its emotional potency above that of Nyman’s work. Like The Well-Tuned Piano, its emphasis lies in tonality and, most astonishingly, improvisation, meaning it has the potential – now that it has been revived – to evolve and develop independently of Johnson (now in his seventies) and Gann, who performed November when it was recorded. Even as one is aware of hearing the same notes being played, the way Johnson juxtaposes them and then builds them up means each hearing is something of a revelation.

The cover image Irritable Hedgehog and Penultimate Press have chosen perhaps gives a better sense of what November is like than any explanation I can muster out of my feeble brain. A dark forest lies blanketed in fog, the photograph transmogrified by means of a filter that imbues this stark vista in a soft, violet hue. It’s an image that of course resonates with the piece’s title, its promise of winter and stark horizons. It’s a photo that reflects the often austere quality of Johnson’s music, but, equally, the warm texture of the colours hint at a certain gentle melancholia, one that percolates through the spaces between the notes and tones and worms its way into the listener’s heart. Of all the great minimalist works, November is the one that seems to find an echo in the more overtly emotional drone and ambient recordings, from Brian Eno’s Music for Airports to William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops.

Whether or not November actually represents the birth of minimalism as we know it today is a red herring. What matters is that, through Kyle Gann and his team’s hard work, it has been born anew, finally getting the release it most certainly deserves. It’s a beautiful work, with the kind of resonant power that elevates the great works mentioned above, and sits comfortably alongside them and many others. Hopefully this won’t be the last lost masterpiece by Dennis Johnson and the other early minimalists (such as Terry Jennings and Young himself) to see the belated light of day.