A Dusted Review: Circuitous by Afrikan Sciences (December 23rd, 2014)

I might be wrong, but I’m struggling to think of a major jazz artist who has had as much of an influence on 21st century music as Sun Ra, at least outside the mainstream. Unlike arguably more illustrious giants, from Miles Davis to Coltrane via Charles Mingus and Bill Evans, Ra’s importance is not constrained to jazz (ok, Davis was also an important figure for funk), reaching way beyond the genre’s confines to filter into modern composition, hip-hop and electronic music, the latter being the realm where Afrikan Sciences, aka Eric Douglas Porter, comes in. The music onCircuitous is based on immediately recognisable dancefloor-friendly electronic foundations, but ones that are quickly transformed by a production approach that defies categorisation and the constraints of genre. So, from the get-go Sun Ra’s musical philosophy, one that saw him release albums as wildly different as Strange Strings and The Magic City, is outlined in the very fabric of Douglas’ music.

At the heart of Sun Ra’s musical explorations was the idea of “Afro-futurism,” the concept that modern technology could unlock a bright future for the world’s long-oppressed black populations either beyond the stars or underneath the ocean. Combined with a fascination with the ancestral musical traditions of Africa, this unlocked a fertile sonic landscapes where new instruments were used to channel musical idioms stretching back and forwards in time, ones that would be unique to people of African descent. This has clearly resonated with many subsequent African-American artists, not least in electronica, where Drexciya, Shabazz Palaces and Flying Lotus have picked up the baton and run with it, possibly beyond anything Ra could have anticipated. Douglas’ approach is more opaque than those artists. His live sets deftly meld electronic and acoustic instrumentation (notably upright bass) based essentially on ever-evolving improvisations. As such, the tracks on Circuitous feel loose and unpredictable, driven by constantly shifting rhythmic bursts that never seem to settle.

These bursts of rhythmic dexterity are, to an extent, at the core of what makesCircuitous so enthralling.  They bewilder almost as much as they seduce. There is the skeleton of a dancefloor-aimed album here, but Douglas’ flights of fancy, taking in jerky polyrhythms and sudden temporal shifts, never allow the tracks to properly settle into anything that will get most clubbers shaking.

A classic case is “Reddin Off”, which starts off with organic-sounding kick drum pounds redolent of traditional African music before lurching into a more minimal synthetic groove driven by insistent snares. Melodically, meandering synth lines and warbly piano dominate, as warm and inviting and bolstered by seductive bass as a house track (“Evolved in Twists”, “Circuitous”) or stark and austere with ambient flourishes, as on the pulsating “Feel” and the positively retro-feeling (in the same way as Ralph Cumbers’ Some Truths project or the Ghost Box lot) “The Image”. The album stretches most resolutely into futuristic post-Drexciya (and post-Ra) territory on the jazz-inflected second disc, where tight, unflinching rhythms are buffeted by increasingly buzzing synth lines and mechanical sound effects.

Circuitous is, with its vague track titles, fractured melodies and twisted rhythmic patterns, an album that lives up to its name. This is abstract dance music that would sit remarkably comfortably between dancefloor and, say, art gallery space, although how much exponents of the former will take to it would be a matter worth checking out. Above all, Douglas resolutely avoids turning his references to African music into something clichéd or formulaic, a neat sidestep William Bennett should take note of for his next Cut Hands release. Circuitous is a subtle, endlessly detailed combination of cultures and styles, and an album that points more sturdily to the future than most electronic albums out there.

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A Dusted Review: Return the Tides/ Ascension Suite & Holy Ghost by Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP (December 18th, 2014)

New Jersey-born, Chicago- and Brazil-based cornetist and electronic musician Rob Mazurek recorded Return the Tides just two weeks after the tragic passing of his mother, and this sense of loss traverses the album from start to finish, making it one of the most affecting avant-garde jazz albums I have ever heard. Avant-garde music is hardly renowned for its emotionality, with artists more concerned with loftier ideas than how sad or happy they feel. Mazurek has achieved something remarkable here: an album of intelligent, form-defying music that is guided by a very human heart.

From its very psychedelic sleeve to the tight melange of sounds contained in the wax,Return the Tides doesn’t really feel like a jazz album at all. Mazurek has been influenced by science fiction writers such as Stanislaw Lem and Samuel R Delany, and the printed work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, for quite some time, and this fascination with where the world is heading (if anywhere) has infused itself into his music, pushing him and his bands to try and reimagine the ever-shifting cosmos inside a studio or concert hall.

Almost inevitably, such a broad, voracious approach leads to the breakdown of barriers between genre, to the point that the title track emerges out of the collapsing remains of elegiac opener “Oh Mother (Angel’s Wings)” with crashing drum rolls and a see-sawing rabeca riff that could have been lifted straight out of Van der Graaf’s live album Vital. Indeed, much of Return the Tides has a strong progressive rock feel, bringing to mind live Larks’ Tongues Era-era King Crimson or the Soft Machine of Third, as well as VdG.

There is however, a more psychedelic edge to Mazurek and his band’s jazzy rock, mind, and although not as heavy, it’s not too much of a leap from Return the Tides to the Acid Mothers Temple of Univers Zen ou de Zéro à Zéro or early Hawkwind. The resemblance with heavy psychedelic rock is particularly strong around the mid- to end-point of tracks when the five musicians lock into rambunctious jams dominated by free-form sax squalling and heavy layers of distorted electronics.

Of course, this approach will be familiar to fans of free jazz as much as psych heads, and in both cases Mazurek connects with long-explored notions of cosmic transcendence and spirituality, something clear in the allusions to two great free spiritual jazz artists in the album’s title. More than just an elegy to his mother, Return the Tides is a reflection on the majesty and enormity of the universe and the fragility of life.

The Brazilian band assembled for the occasion is perfectly in synch with Mazurek’s emotions and drive, and the moment on “Let the Rain Fall Upwards” when six voices call out over a dense tapestry of synthesizer drone and shimmering textures is singularly thrilling, almost scary. The playing is impassioned throughout the albums hour-long duration, moving seamlessly from hard blowing ferocity to abstract contemplation, and even the heavily dominant drums and synths never become overbearing.

I can well picture the musicians at the end of the session, drained and sweating, driven to exhaustion by the whirlwind they’ve just put themselves through. Indeed, the last few minutes of “Reverse the Lightning” are particularly arresting, as chanting voices emerge from absolute silence to harmonize together, a last moment of peace after a storm of feeling.

A Quietus Review: The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? by Nazoranai (December 12th, 2014)

It feels weird writing this about a record that has Keiji Haino on it, but it sounds like all involved in making The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? were having one heck of a ball in the process. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s the vibe you get. And why not? After all, all three of Haino, Oren Ambarchi (on drums here) and Stephen O’Malley (of Sunn O))) fame – here on bass) have done more than their share for the cause of serious experimental rock music (and beyond), so fair dues to them if Nazoranai has become their way of letting their hair down (OK, Keiji Haino’s hair is always down, so that’s a shit metaphor). These are three amazing musicians, but there’s no hiding from the fact that The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? has a silly title and is essentially made up of four unending jams that could have been made by three drug-fuelled hippies getting off on hearing Blue Cheer for the first time. Three hugely talented hippies, I’ll grant you, but they’re still having a laugh.

In many ways, it should come as no surprise to find that Keiji Haino likes a bit of fun as much as the next man, and indeed at every one of the multitude of gigs I’ve seen him perform, I’ve been straining my eyes to spot an indiscreet sardonic smile creep to his lips. Here’s a diminutive 62-year-old man with waist-length grey hair plugging away at his indefatigable muse with nary a regard for trends or even previous musical history. After forty-odd years of it, he must be either mad, a joker or a visionary, and maybe, just maybe The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? proves he’s all three. After all, this isn’t the first album the man’s been involved with to sport ridiculous album and track titles, and I don’t think one can solely put that down to something being lost in translation. When it comes to Nazoranai, they read like cheeky haikus, and The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? certainly abounds with the sort of opaque mystery and brutal musical deconstruction-cum-poetry that has defined the best (read: most serious) of Haino, O’Malley and Ambarchi’s work. Second track ‘Will Not Follow Your  Hoax Called History’ features a slovenly groove and some truly morose soloing on guitar from Haino, whilst elsewhere he hops from his axe to air synths, always producing similar vats of molten feedback. Rest assured, even if this is a bit of a “fun” album, fans of Haino’s singular form of non-rock mayhem will get all their requisite hits.

In fact, in many ways, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? shares some similarities with the work of Haino’s other trio featuring Ambarchi, as part of which they are joined by Jim O’Rourke. It’s just that here, with O’Malley bringing his particular brand of monomaniacal doom worship as opposed to O’Rourke’s instrumental dexterity, the accent is on heaviness and volume rather than pushing the boundaries much. Effectively, this is a power trio, nothing less and little more, and for all that these three love a bit of improvisation and noise, you can hear the history of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, Cream, Sleep and Grand Funk Railroad pulsating through these four tracks. And I think there are very few rock fans out there, especially of the harder variety, who haven’t at some point dreamed of being in a power trio. There’s something about the limited format that has consistently led to the most stripped-down, over-amped and gloriously plodding rock & roll you’ll ever hear, even as today technology allows duos and even solo acts to get in on similar action.

So, no, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? is not a key release by any of these three dudes. But it’s heavy like Mainliner is heavy, Ambarchi’s drumming is like a whirlwind of cymbal crashes and Haino’s guitar could carve boulders out of mountains. It’s a fun slab of obnoxious rock-gone-mad, and sometimes that’s all you need of an evening.

A Quietus Review: Nimrod is Lost in Orion and Osyris in the Doggestarre (December 8th, 2014)

Behind these enigmatic project and album title lies Richard Skelton, a man who has emerged over the last few years as one of the UK’s most exciting and reliable modern composers. I’m generally wary of the term “psychogeography” with regard to music, but Skelton is the exception to my unscientific rule, because his elegant string compositions, in which he builds up layers of atmospheric drones (many recorded outdoors), manage to convey such a potent sense of place (barren Lancashire moors, rugged Irish coastlines, the epic landscapes of the Lake District) that to delve into them is to be transported. Skelton’s music is so organic, you can almost smell rain and feel gusts of wind on your skin whilst listening to and album like Landings.

The fact that a name like The Inwards Circles suggests a band rather than a solo artist is perhaps not a coincidence, as Skelton channels multiple realities on Nimrod, rather than focusing on his immediate surroundings. Even if his previous work provided -for the listener at least- a quasi-imaginary vision of actual territories, here those lands dissipate almost as soon as they appear to coalesce in the mind, as if the artist is desperately trying to recreate in sound vistas he only gets the briefest of glimpses of. In the majestic book that accompanies the album, he writes: “Nor are only dark and green colours, but shades and shadows contrived through the great volume of nature, and trees ordained not only to protect and shadow others, but by their shapes and shadowing parts, to preserve and cherish themselves.” These words hint at an exploration beyond immediate reality and into nebulous, tenebrous realms that never shape into concrete forms.

In a recent interview with the Quietus, Skelton asserts that he “wanted to draw attention to the role that the imagination plays, even when dealing with ‘real world’ landscapes” and, to be honest, it would be hard to come up with a better way to describe the music on Nimrod. When I first read about the album, I assumed for some reason that his strings would take a complete backseat to electronic processes, but the reality is far more nuanced. The acoustic natures of cello and clarinet are certainly toyed with and deconstructed, but still lingers like an echo. On the superlative 11-minute opus ‘An Art To Make Dust Of All Things’, deep low-end drones ebb and flow like sheets of rain coming off a mountain-top, whilst familiar scrapes evoke a landscape in thrall to nature’s whims. But as the piece develops, more and more distortion muddies the waters and obscures the actual nature of what one hears, like a gale swallowing up words even as they leave the speaker’s mouth. The result is more immediately dramatic than the subdued melancholia of Landings orSuccession, with something approaching an oblique narrative arc.

Although beautiful in its own right, Nimrod is best absorbed in tandem with Skelton’s writings. These sketch out half-formed vignettes of experiences half-remembered or imagined, twisting a tale as labyrinthine as it is evocative. In the aforementioned interview, Skelton refers to a line by Dorothy Wordsworth: “walked, I know not where”, and it’s this that sums up the experience of delving into Skelton’s words as other senses are subsumed by his music. It’s rarely clear if the texts are actual events, thoughts or memories (a paragraph like “I wish I could have gone with you. I longed to slip out unseen, and to run away by myself in amongst the hills and dales. Erratic and vagrant instincts tormented me, and these I was obliged to control, or rather suppress, for fear of drawing attention.” is laden with potential meanings never clarified), but, combined with the brooding accumulation of hazy textures on the record, they pain something abstractly beautiful, making Nimrod simultaneously the most difficult and most rewarding of all of Richard Skelton’s works.

A Dusted Review: Rituals by David Shea (November 21st, 2014)

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David Shea is an American avant-garde composer and occasional turntablist who has released records on experimental labels including Sub Rosa and John Zorn’s Tzadik, but who has clearly found an even more suitable stable in Lawrence English’s Room 40, on whichRituals see the light of day. The bulk, if not all, of the material(s) on Rituals was recorded in English’s native Australia, and from field recordings taken in the bush to the very psychological fabric of the album, it’s a work imbued with the spirit of that distant continent. From simple sources (found sounds, instruments, voices), Shea interweaves and juxtaposes each element into a rich sonic tapestry that instantly makes Rituals a challenging and invigorating experience.

A title like Rituals of course suggests a spiritual dimension, and Shea takes inspiration from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions of east and southeast Asia. He opens the album with a more “western” (for lack of a better word) single voice incantation pitched somewhere between Popol Vuh’s Hosianna Mantra and the devotional folk music of Armenia, that almost imperceptibly transforms into an extended chanted period seemingly recorded inside a Buddhist temple. The incantatory vocalisations are melded together and then buffeted by all-encompassing drones on harmoniums, horns and strings that suggest a primordial force.

The vibrations become almost painful when played at high volume. All this comes within the first few minutes of “Ritual 32,” the album’s potent opening movement. As the voices recede, a piano takes over, playing out a circular, low-key melody in the post-jazz tradition of Keith Jarrett circa The Köln Concert. As with Jarrett’s masterpiece, what could have easily been puerile noodling is masterfully kept in check to be elevated into something affective and emotional, whilst lingering moments of decay evoke the minimalist piano works of Michael Nyman and LaMonte Young. By the time the voices return, “Ritual 32” has become an otherworldly experience as opposed to a mere composition, and the transition into an almost gamelan-esque final coda seems perfectly appropriate. Shea claims that a ritual “puts the experience of listening at the centre of the works,” and this has rarely been more true in music than on this opening masterwork.

Far from overshadowing what follows, however, “Ritual 32” merely sets the tone for an album that maybe errs on the side of excessive lengthiness but always stays true to its composer’s philosophy of sound and desire to create a work that’s truly immersive. Field recordings dominate “Emerald Garden” and “Wandering in the Dandenongs” in very different ways. On the former they are surrounded by clusters of abrasive white noise, movie-soundtrack eerie synths and austere moments of contemplative drone.

In the latter the harsh environment of the Australian outback is recreated initially with the fidelity of a Chris Watson piece, although Shea quickly shows his interest in the music of Luc Ferrari as all preconceptions of field recordings are destabilised.Lo-fi flutes and recorders kick in around five minutes in, joined by other primitive instruments such as hand drums, whilst the sounds of birds and insects are amplified, as if the listener has just stumbled onto some bizarre, substance-fueled campfire ritual during which perception itself is rendered unreliable and more than a little treacherous. Less imposing than the similarly-lengthy “Ritual 32,” “Wandering in the Dandenongs” achieves similar results by simply being unfathomable and oblique.

Throughout Rituals there is an insistence on focusing on the very impact of music upon the physical realm, as if this could somehow make for a crossover into domains far beyond human perception. It’s no surprise to see Australian multi-instrumentalist and prolific composer Oren Ambarchi crop up on two tracks (notably the emphatic incantatory closer “Green Dragon Inn”), not to mention Lawrence English on another, because both have attempted similar experiments in traversing planes through sound. I’m no spiritualist, but Shea makes a compelling case on Rituals, his deep, resonant, vibrating assembly of tones, drones and sounds reaching deep into the listener’s body, causing it to tremble with cymatic force.

A Dusted Review: Faith in Strangers by Andy Stott (November 19th, 2014)

The evocative, monochrome artwork that adorns every Andy Stott release for Modern Love is like a mirror for the stripped-down, minimalist brand of dance music that the Manchester-based producer distills. However, this only tells a part of the story of an artist in constant evolution, drawing together strands of music both dance floor-orientated and otherwise to create his own vision of electronica. 2012’s Luxury Problems felt like a conclusion, or at least a crystallization, of all the influences that had fueled Andy Stott, from Joy Division to dubstep, resulting in a perfectly-formed capsule of Northern English dance, and left us grateful listeners wondering where he could go next.

As it turns out, “next” means a return to basics, and Faith in Strangers retains little ofLuxury Problems’ hermetic universe, instead sees Stott reaching out and grabbing, almost hungrily, a wealth of sounds and styles. There is, however, one constant, namely the shape-shifting vocals of Alison Skidmore, Stott’s former piano teacher, who featured already on Luxury Problems. If on that album she was, consistent with Modern Love’s “hauntological” aesthetic (see Demdike Stare), a ghostly, elusive presence, on Faith in Strangers she often stands front and centre, with Stott contorting his music around her crystalline words and eructations.

This eclecticism delivers mixed results. Luxury Problems showcased Stott’s remarkable talent for crafting infectious, hypnotic rhythms: snaky, tremulous beats that owed in part as much to the unflinching repetition of the Durutti Column or Joy Division as they did to dubstep or techno. Here, the rhythm is stripped away on numerous tracks in favour of swathes of ambience and industrial drone textures. It certainly makes for a more expansive work, but loses some of the immediacy that defined Stott’s music as recently as on Drop the Vowels, released earlier this year in tandem with Miles Whittaker from Demdike Stare (as Millie & Andrea). The rhythmic backdrop on tracks like “On Oath” and “Science and Industry” are spindly and minimal in the way Suicide’s primitive drum machines were, and inevitably dominated by the combinations of synths and Skidmore’s Beth Gibbons-like voice. Elsewhere, the title track feels beamed out of the mid-1990s, Stott’s avowed admiration for Cocteau Twins shining through and again driven by the vocals, even if these are as wispy as mist.

The shift in focus can leave a seasoned Stott fan bemused, but you have to salute the man’s creativity and versatility. On a number of occasions, he expertly draws a line between old and new styles.  Tracks like “Violence” (a masterpiece) and “How It Was” evoke memories of trip-hop acts like Massive Attack and more recent electro-dance contortionists such as Actress or Burial. “Violence” is simply incredible, with cavernous passages of baleful silence punctuated only by menacing electro blurts and Skidmore’s isolated moaning. When the beats and bass kick in, they go straight for the guts with the kind of shuddering force you’d hear at a Raime or King Midas Sound gig.  The tempo is reduced to almost overwhelming levels, as saturated low-end tumbles and crumbles forward unrelentingly. There’s little doubt “Violence” and the more industrial-sounding “No Surrender” will form the centrepiece of any forthcoming Andy Stott live set, although, if Faith in Strangers proves anything, it’s that predicting what the man will do next is impossible.

A Dusted Review: Loor by Kemper Norton (November 18th, 2014)

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The recent video for “All Through the Night,” one of this bizarre album’s most arresting tracks,  manages to capture not only the chill romanticism of the track, a reworking of an old Welsh folk song, but the eerie drone-meets-folk atmosphere that flows through all 46 minutes ofLoor.

In the animated vignette, which evolves almost like a short, a featureless skeletal figure wanders through a barren, snow-covered husk of a city, mournfully serenaded by Kemper Norton’s deadpan tones and promises of future deliverance. It’s both surreal and emotional, a Kafka-esque dream narrative in which the ghosts of reality toy with more fictional phantoms. Norton has described his music as “nocturnal,” and this has never been more true than on Loor — hardly surprising given that means “moon” in Cornish.

Kemper Norton is a somewhat mysterious figure (I’m pretty sure that’s not his real name, for Kemper Norton used to be a collective of sorts), a teacher by day and sonic deconstructionist at night. He has notable attachments to West England’s Hacker Farm group, and his music shares their mixture of Coil influences, electronic abrasion and esoteric flourishes. He is however more song-focused than the Hacker chaps, his compositions tapping into the rich British musical DNA of traditional folk, Warp stable mates Boards of Canada and Broadcast, and ethereal pop. Little surprise then that his music cropped up on last year’s incredible Outer Church compilation of weird British hidden treasures. The music of Kemper Norton seems to exist between two realms, as folk songs under-laid with synthetic drones and clipped rhythms: the country and the city, the past, the present and the future all bleed into one another like paint dribbling down a canvas.

If such a multi-faceted approach may seem a bit austere and imposing, well, in a way it is. Loor requires time to be grappled with. Norton’s voice is soft and inexpressive, but his lyrics seep with boiling emotions, a contradiction in and of itself. On “Cityport of Traps,” he laments the fate of a couple separated when the man left the country to live in the city only to perish in its dark recesses. Norton’s delivery, as well as on thede facto opener “Ostiaz” reminds me of the old folk song “Baloo My Boy” as rendered in the disturbing English Civil War head-trip of a film A Field In English: the stanzas lope and fold over on themselves, the words conveyed in an olde englishe style that is both charming and, in Norton’s mouth, slightly unsettling. In conversation, he comes back to themes of ghosts and the supernatural, and by resurrecting a singing style that even the likes of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake failed to latch onto, he drags the twilight realms into foggy relief, like conversations by neighbors you didn’t know you had heard through a bedroom wall separating your house from the abandoned one next door.

By focusing on such elusive fragments of details (memories, ghosts, lost friends, even fragments of melodies he’d already toyed with), Norton is able to build up layers of sounds and details that only truly emerge after repeated listens, displaying a sonic mastery that is rare even in the field of experimental electronica. Loor features a wide array of instruments (guitars, harmonium, piano, mandolin, if these ears are correct) but most tracks are dominated by crumbling electronics that shimmer and crackle around the organic-sounding elements like clouds looming in a night sky.

The term “psycho-geography” is bandied about far too often in music analysis these days, but it’s one that certainly applies to Loor (track titles such as “Lyoness Anthem” and “Cravendale Round” hint at actual locations although their meanings are shrouded in myth and Kemper’s own very personal context). Pleasingly, Norton makes no attempt to lead the listener by the nose in this regard, instead allowing his dreams and memories to form abstract sketches that still resonate as if we were there. It’s a portrait of the UK as a ghostly, post-modern Avalon, where legends and reality overlap, and where one man’s imagination swerves between the two to render a portrait in sound.

Equal parts troubling, mysterious, romantic and touching, Loor is a sonic journey into a realm I didn’t know existed and which would be inaccessible without Kemper Norton’s guiding hand. Of course, Loor is so beautifully weird, you might hesitate before accepting it next time he offers.