A Dusted Review: Modern Streets by Beat Spacek (February 10th, 2015)

We’re only in February, and the trend in British dance/electronic music of using beats and synths to map the psycho-geography of the country’s inner city life has been established. It’s hardly a new concept, but rather one that gathered ahead of steam as dubstep’s emerged in the early noughties. The trend culminated in 2014 with records like Islands by LV and Josh Idehen and Actress’ Ghettoville. Beat Spacek (aka Steve Spacek) has now thrown his hat into the ring with Modern Streets, its title a clear indication of the intentions on the album. But the 13 tracks that make up this particular slice of London existence are at once baffling and fractured, starting in the present before stretching back in time whilst simultaneously aiming to open a slender aperture into the distant-ish future.

From the sounds that emanate from Modern Streets, Spacek has been keeping his ear to wildly varied array of musical pulses percolating through the sound systems of the UK’s diverse and multicultural capital. He clearly has his roots in the whirlwind of colliding song forms that made up the early 1980s’ synth-pop/post-punk/neo-ska/industrial scene. If it’s hard to imagine what that would sound like, well it turns out it’s essentially pop music. Of course, I don’t mean pop in the sense of Taylor Swift or Charles and Eddie or Kylie Minogue, but by distilling his various influences past and present into crisp songs, Steve Spacek has, as Beat Spacek, come up with a rather unpredictable form of pop music.

This isn’t immediately apparent, as each one of these very individualistic tracks is defined by its difference to the others. “I Wanna Know” is driven by a minimalist drum machine beat not a million miles from Martin Rev’s similar pummeller on Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, whilst “Tonight” is introduced by a slinky High life rhythm and jerky percussive eructations. Meanwhile, “I Want You” is coldly romantic in the manner of a Cut Copy track and Spacek ladles echo and reverb on his vocal in the manner of a Jamaican dub producer on “Stand Firm”. It all must sound garishly eclectic, but somehow he manages to keep a firm grip on the reins of these disparate sounds, something even more impressive when you learn that he worked mostly with iPad and iPhone apps, something which perhaps explains the brittle nature of some of these tracks. Spacek’s voice is a particular asset in maintaining this unexpected cohesion. He mostly employs an airy falsetto that is rich in emotion, but on the futuristic hyperactive love ballad “Inflight Wave” and the stark synth-pop of “Go Back to School”, for example, he switches to a low robotic croon that is somehow both more and less human than his more overtly emphatic vocal style elsewhere.

Coincidentally, whilst I was drinking in the heady cocktail of Modern Streets I was also delving back into early Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, perhaps (along with Japan and Associates) the most idiosyncratic of the UK’s synth-pop pioneers. Like Beat Spacek, OMD’s Andy McCluskey lurched between lush pop romanticism and awkward, imprecise commentary on the world around him. Of course, OMD’s palette was more restricted to post-Kraftwerk synth-worship and McCluskey was more outwardly focused than Spacek’s London-centric inward gaze, but, between the hypnotic repetitiveness of the rhythms deployed and the infectiously bright simplicity of their synth lines (analogue back in 1980, produced on a phone of all things in 2014), somehow OMD and Beat Spacek share a commonality, a refusal to let the harshness of these modern streets or global insecurity detract from forging a bloody good melody and heartfelt lyric.

For all the artificiality in how Modern Streets was made, it’s a starkly personal album, with Spacek really laying his soul to bear on certain tracks, especially “I Want You”, with it’s mantra-like chorus rivalling Dylan’s “I Want You” for persistence. Only the title track and one or two other songs overtly deal with mirroring London life, but then what is life if not personal, informed by one’s own emotions and desires? Time will tell if Steve Spacek has succeeded in anticipating the future of dance music by refracting the past through the prism of the post-dubstep world, or indeed whether Modern Streets lives up to its title. But as a portrait of a man in a city sharing his thoughts and feelings, it’s strikingly effective, all the more so for being so far-reaching.

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A Quietus Review: Coin Coin Chapter Three – River Run Thee by Matana Roberts (February 4th, 2015)

“The South”, Matana Roberts intones portentously at the beginning of “All Is Written”, the opening track of the third chapter (of a planned 12!) in her Coin Coin series. With just two words, said in a voice laced with gravitas, Roberts outlines exactly what is to follow: a visceral, foreboding and unflinching evocation of the hideous history, and complex legacy, of the American slave trade. It’s her most harrowing work to date in the series, and as such, where chapters two and three retained much of the jazz tradition she was previously associated with (perhaps erroneously), River Run Thee is a broiling, uncompromising work that rips down genre barriers altogether.

Roberts’ saxophone still features prominently, of course, but it is one brush amongst many used to paint a vivid tapestry of the plight of so many people hauled in chains from Africa to states like Louisiana and Mississippi. Instead, Roberts turns to her voice, already a prominent feature on Chapters One and Two, but which is raised here to a Greek chorus that ties every strand of River Run Thee together. She alternates between mournful singing and looped and superimposed spoken texts sourced from the time she explores. Her voice is crystalline but laced with emotion, particularly on the ten minutes of ‘All Is Written’, on which she seems to encapsulate the feelings of so many in one phrase. “Why do we try so hard?” she moans, her voice cracking in the process. It’s a sentence that has echoed through centuries of civil rights struggles: why do we try so hard to make things better when the odds are stacked so resolutely against us? Why do we keep risking our lives to make a difference? Is the price worth paying? Of course, in the context of slavery, it takes on another meaning, questioning how it has come to pass that people have toiled away in backbreaking labour for the sole benefit of idle overlords.

‘All Is Written’ is nothing short of epic. Roberts’ imagery is vivid, and one can practically feel the beating southern sun and smell the swampy air as she evokes weeping willows and flashes of horrific violence, always present but alluded to rather than explicitly depicted, which is somehow all the more troubling. Throughout the album, the narratives glide across one another, taking the listener from a slave dhow in Zanzibar to a sun-baked plantation, touching on themes of religion, fate and justice, and the tracks duly bleed into one another, transforming River Run Thee into a symphonic collage on which wailing extended sax notes and lamenting voices raise themselves into the ether and seem to ask little more than “Why?”.

Without a band to work with, Roberts turns to electronics to bolster her singing and saxophone, and the results make River Run Thee the most vividly potent of the Coin Coin series (so far). The last moments of ‘All Is Written’ dissolve into a carpet of oscillating drones, as if the myriad voices are being swallowed by the storms of time, only to re-emerge as a ritualised chant as the track segues into its follow-up, ‘The Good Book Says’, backed by gristly bursts of sound that one would more expect to hear on a noise album. Allowing the tracks to seep seamlessly into one another allows Roberts’ to build a grandiose vision with the most minimal of means, and even if each song tells its own story, the elliptical nature of these vignettes works best when approached as a whole, especially when Roberts sweeps background drones, voices (sampled and her own) and sax together as on ‘Always Say Your Name’ and ‘Nema, Nema, Nema’.

Unlike the first two chapters, which dealt with more explicit stories delivered through more conventional musical structures, River Run Thee hones in on the tragedy and violence that lay at the core of the slave trade, coiled like murderous snakes. Matana Roberts’ music is similarly taut, bristling with angry textures and gasps of accusatory outbursts. Some of the samples even recall the most apocalyptic side of Constellation label-mates Godspeed You! Black Emperor, although Roberts’ music is more real, less portentous and ultimately more affecting. The album climaxes with the voice of Malcolm X as he attempts to deny accusations of racism, such a striking paradox that it projects Roberts’ portrayal of the African-American experience away from its painful past and into the unstable present. In light of recent events in Missouri, New York and elsewhere, no album you hear this year, or probably any other, will be as important and relevant as Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee.

A Dusted Review: String Studies by Deas (January 27th, 2015)

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Luke Younger’s Alter label is aptly named, given the way releases he puts out tend to manipulate and transform the very foundations of the music genres they approach. Take Basic House’s Oats, from 2013, an album with a title evoking Basic Channel and dance music but the music on which was traversed by tense industrial drones, gristly textures and an overarching atmosphere of unease. Dance music for people with a queasy stomach, maybe. Younger’s music as Helm also straddles genres, taking ambient and drone and flipping them over to reveal a noisier undercurrent upset by samples and found sounds that evoke decaying landscapes and shadowy back alleys. And so it is with String Studies, a rare foray on record into electronics by Robbie Basho-inspired guitarist Cameron Deas (apparently his real name), an album that bears few traces of the Englishman’s instrument of choice, even as it forms the basis of these eight tracks.

String Studies is a tricky work to define, but I suppose it sits most accurately in the electronic category known as “glitch”, made famous by alva noto and Ryoji Ikeda on Raster-Noton. All eight tracks are dominated by sheets of scabrous, high-pitched electronic crackles, as if Deas has managed to amplify the internal sounds of a broken computer as it tries vainly to run through its programmes. Like all glitch, this is not easy music to digest, the polar opposite of easy listening, but where so much of the genre seems to these ears a bit sterile, there is something lurking under the layers of mulch on String Studies that encourages, and the rewards, repeat listens.

This is almost certainly down to the source material. Deas uses samples of his 12-string acoustic guitar as the basis for each composition, filtering them through a modular system to produce what are, under the circumstances, astonishing results. The temptation is to try and strain through the gristle and crunches to try and piece together the pieces’ origins in the acoustic world, and indeed at times this bears fruit. On the second track, for example, what sounds like a solitary chord is amplified and laden with echo, its cavernous resonance piercing Deas’ synthetic textures like a tolling bell. At times, rather than guitar strings, the source sounds come across as piano notes extended and reverbed, which is a remarkable transformation and one that acts as a curveball against unhelpful expectations. Consciously or not, the listener is compelled to create his or her own sources for the sounds heard under the electronics, and it’s a measure of Deas’ control that these half-grasped intimations are often contradictory and varied, especially when one considers the minimalism of his set up.

However, it’s better to draw away from the fine details and allow Deas’ music to unfurl as a whole rather than a sum of parts. Essentially, and despite a certain resemblance to Sun Ra’s Strange Strings that, I kid you not, goes beyond a similarity of title, String Studies is a sort of glitchy noise album, with the kind of massed textures that define the works of The Rita or Younger’s Helm project, albeit in a completely different style. At times, submerged by the onslaught of crippled tones, it seems that disembodied and not particularly friendly voices are calling out from beyond the scratchy ether Deas creates, at others he seems to embrace a caustic form of minimalism. String Studies is cold and abrasive, but it’s not inhuman. You just need to embrace it to find the depths Deas plays with.