A Dusted Review: Atria by Jessika Kenney (March 27th, 2015)

Washington state native Jessika Kenney has the most important quality needed for a westerner exploring musics from far-flung cultures that are intrinsically different to the one she was born into: she has a knack for homing in on the emotional core of each song she explores. Of course, it helps that she is something of an expert in Indonesian and Persian music, although she admits to making “errors and delusions” on this album. If you can spot them, I’d love to know what they could possibly be, as all of Atria sounds exquisite from where I’m seated, pretending to my other half that I’m managing our bills. But, equally, her voice is so resonant and majestic that, even in a foreign language she is able to conjure up such a storm of feeling that it is impossible to question this music’s authenticity. It’s one of those voices, and one of those spirits, that make you forget that she even has backing performers (including her partner, violist Eyvind Kang, and a series of gamelan players), such is the way she unselfconsciously takes center stage and brings the music close to her own soul.

Atria is intriguing and beguiling on so many levels, Kenney’s voice being just its prime attraction. As mentioned, the music is essentially gamelan, albeit played at a pace I have rarely heard. These songs evolve gradually, often with minimal percussive thrust, with bells and bowls resonated until they produce echo-y drones that interlace with Kang’s measured viola lines and Kenney’s extended vocalizations. Any effects of note are on her singing, as her crystalline wordings are extended or superimposed to create a shimmering choir, most effectively on the album’s centerpiece, the 11-minute “Sarira Tunggal” and its follow-up “Pamor.” These are intricate compositions, with several angles and facets to them, much as the Roman edifices that (sort of) give the album its title would have had. On the busier “Wiji Sawiji Mulane Dadi,” field recordings of birds and bubbling streams combine with flute to evoke a pastoral atmosphere that fans of Indonesian music will be familiar with, but also anyone with a taste for English folk (the flute features heavily on albums by Comus and Mr. Fox) or traditional Indian music.

This poise, restraint and precision in both composition and delivery dominates Atria, but never over-dominates it. Indeed, opener “Her Sword I” is almost groovy in a spiritual sort of way, with gentle patters on hand drums and a gorgeous central melody that is infectious without being intrusive, once again leaving ample room for Kenney’s voice to positively soar outwards. Whether deep or stretching into higher registers, her singing is never short of note-perfect, something demonstrated most expertly on the winding lines of “Sarira Tunggal” and the two versions of “Her Sword” that bookend the album, the second more minimalist and sparser than the opener, and therefore all the more dominated by the vocals.

As far as I can gather, Kenney sings entirely in Farsi, but this is largely immaterial beyond marveling at how immersed in the language and ancient musical traditions of Persia she is. Even in less-than-mystical English, Kenney would sound as exquisite as she does here and, for all the quality of the music and instrumental performances on Atria, it’s greatest achievement is how it elevates Jessika Kenney into the ranks of the world’s premier vocalists.

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A Dusted Review: The Ark Work by Liturgy (March 19th, 2015)

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Black metal fans can be a prickly bunch. I was once verbally taken to task by a BM-er(can I use that?) for professing an admiration for SUNN O))). This chap, who is otherwise the nicest person you could meet, was almost apoplectic with rage at the mere thought. I don’t quite remember all the details, but the words “fucking posers” were used frequently, which I found odd from someone who admires people who smear their faces with fake-looking “corpse-paint”. But this aesthetic purity is part of BM’s appeal to its purists, and whilst I am more drawn to the way the likes of SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room twist its rather formulaic bedrock in innovative ways, certainly much more than the legion of Mayhem-alikes that make up “real” black metal, well apparently that’s misguided or something. It’s all very intense, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really.

Still, I think I will be siding with the BM-ers when it comes to Liturgy, who surely must have been founded predominantly with the ambition to well and truly rile up people like my SUNN O)))-hating friend. The most common description I found for them from BM circles was “fucking Brooklyn hipsters playing at black metal”, and whilst that’s probably true on some of their earlier output, on The Ark Work feels misleading. The BM-ers are right: The Ark Work is certainly not black metal. The problem is that it’s really not much else, either. Indeed, even after repeated listens, it comes across not so much as an album but as a sort of formless mass, which could be a good thing, in the right hands, but here does little more than baffle and exasperate.

Essentially, what you have here is a band acting being too clever for its own good. From the opening trumpet blares of “Fanfare”, The Ark Work feels overloaded, saturated with a non-stop barrage of sounds, from glockenspiels and bagpipes to chimes and bombastic synthesizer patterns. At a push, it could share with black metal the sonic desire to grab listeners by the throat and provide a truly visceral and atavistic experience. There’s also a lot of blast beating going on, although the results sound more like Pelican than Bathory. But the problem at heart is not actually that Liturgy like to throw some experimentation into their black mass — I’ve already mentioned SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room, but could also point to experimental flourishes in acts like Ulver and Burzum — it’s that the way they do it is bombastic and knowing: there is none of metal’s (of any style) darkness and atavism, both replaced by a smug attempt to outwit and outmanoeuvre both audiences and the bands they claim to share a lineage with.

Then again, maybe the whole black metal thing with Liturgy is a red herring, or a practical joke, despite leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s essays that suggest the contrary and much-vaunted philosophy degree. The sheer grandiosity of these tracks, the way the band pile up sounds to a dizzying degree suggests more affinity with the most excessive prog- or post-rock bands (I’ve already mentioned Pelican, but you could even chuck Marillion or Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the there as well), but with any space ripped out altogether. And the vocals, whilst unintelligible in a way that Attila Csihar might appreciate, are so dull and inexpressive that any coherent emotional or intellectual content is rendered unintelligible. All in all, I’m sure there are those who will find something profound behind the morass that is The Ark Work, but just as many might find it nothing more than surreal joke. To be honest, neither situation seems true, it’s more a case that there is nothing much to glean from the album whatsoever. Now where did I put my Leviathan albums?

A Quietus Review: Excerpts by John T. Gast (March 18th, 2015)

Make a cursory search on the Internet for John T. Gast (presumably not his real name) and it won’t be long before the words Hype Williams pop up. Gast worked as a co-producer with Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt on their Black Is Beautiful album and appeared on Blunt’s solo effort The Redeemer and with Copeland on UKMerge. It’s little surprise, therefore, that Excerpts shares some of the duo’s oblique, genre-contorting aesthetic. It’s advisable to focus on that, before retracting to view the intrinsic differences which ensure Gast never comes across as a lesser light riding on the coat-tails of more illustrious and talented pals.

The similarities certainly abound: a lot of Excerpts is woozy and layered in ectoplasmic murk that slides into the orbit of hauntology but, like Hype Williams, a sly sense of humour lurking beneath the surface means his music rarely comes across as nostalgic or retro. The lines between past and current influences and reference points, from TV to music to film to video games, are blurred, often quite literally. Gast slathers electronic gunk all over his tracks until their structures become impenetrable, or twists and distorts vocal snippets, in a manner DJ Screw would have baulked at, to the point that actual words are transformed into slabs of inchoate moaning. It’s altogether more overtly moody and austere than recent broadcasts from the Hype Williams world, harking back to their untitled debut over Black Is Beautiful’s playful aesthetic. Like Untitled, Excerpts is slow-paced (for the most part), grainy and sombre, with crumbling synth textures clustered around skeletal rhythmic shuffles and most human interjections rendered opaque, like ghostly shades mewling in the dark.

While Hype Williams seemed resolutely anchored in a phantomatic Gotham-styled urban setting, the liminal universe on Excerpts is harder to pinpoint. At times, the analogue synths deployed on ‘Sedna’ and ‘White Noise/Dys’ definitely evoke the tradition of the Ghost Box stable and Moon Wiring Club more than Hype Williams’ dubstep heritage, whilst titles like ‘Shanti-ites’ and ‘Green’ have a distinctly pastoral vibe that resurges in the music (the former features a dramatic gloomy choir like something out of the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack, whilst the latter is dominated by woozy organ drones). A wander through Gast’s website throws up all manner of weird artefacts, from photo collages of war and terrorism, to pictures of Northern Irish murals, to abstract imagery seemingly beamed out of the mind of a madman, via YouTube videos of Neil Young’s ‘Will To Love’ (the wooziest love song ever) and martial arts tournaments. I’m sure someone smarter than me could come up with some profound overriding message, but I’m not sure that’s even the point. Like early Hype Williams, John T. Gast cultivates a sense of mystery, and even his droll flourishes, like the 45 seconds of vocal deconstruction that is ‘£’ are part of that enigmatic nature.

Where Excerpts really gets interesting, in fact, is when Gast hits the accelerator and plows headlong into dancefloor-oriented material. ‘Infection’ and ‘Congress’ form a sharp one-two punch at the start of the album, all infectious repetitive beats, smooth synth lines and elusive vocal loops, in the grand style of Kassem Mosse or Drexciya (or even The Field), but with a few industrial edges thrown in for good measure. He peaks magnificently on ‘Claim Your Limbs’, on which a dark, brooding atmosphere dominated by crashing snares is undercut by the sheer catchiness of the track’s relentless forward motion. To return to that vague world that is hauntology, on these tracks I’m ultimately reminded of the fantastical flights of dance fancy of Umberto’s Confrontations album or Pye Corner Audio’s Sleep Games.

At times, John T. Gast seems to play the mystery card a bit too intently, but that seems an increasingly common conceit in a lot of electronic music these days. Maybe he’ll one day follow Blunt and Copeland into a brighter limelight, but for now he appears to be focusing on defining his own style, one that hurdles a multitude of styles, not always coherently, but with singular verve and commitment.

A Dusted Review: Skullsplitter by Eric Chenaux (March 11th, 2015)

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Skullsplitter is an example of how often assumption can be the mother of all fudge-ups. Foolishly embracing ignorance over journalistic rigour, I plumped for the ill-informed presumption that this was going to be yet another album by a North American guitarist (I’d established that much) with a large collection of Robbie Basho and John Fahey records and a surely over-hyped skill at fingerpicking. There have been quite a few of those of late, none of them worth noting with the same enthusiasm the masters. But as it turns out, Eric Chenaux is galaxies away from American Primitivism as it is generally understood (maybe this is Canadian Primitivism?), as a composer, guitarist and, crucially, singer. Indeed, he sits somewhere at the crossroads of multiple styles, and Skullsplitter sounds totally unlike any other solo album I’ve heard this year. So that’s taught me a lesson.

Chenaux’s music is both familiar and bizarre, which is predominantly down to the way he melds acoustic and electric guitar. His approach to the acoustic is consistent with the American Primitive scene, albeit played at a slower pace: he gently plucks notes on nylon strings, coaxing out gentle melodies that form the backbones of most of the nine songs on the album, often underlining them with subtle electronic textures and ambient-esque melodica lines. These simple frames are then built upon when Chenaux plucks up his electric guitar and feeds into wah pedals and other effects that seem to collide with one another rather than meld into extensions of the acoustic melodies, creating offbeat song structures that seem to pull away from one another even as he tugs them into a whole. Chugging half-riffs and warbling solos swim around one another, sometimes looped, at other seemingly improvised on the fly, twisting the basic, immediately recognisable formulas at the heart of his songs into new, unfamiliar forms.

On opener “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, for example, woozy wah-wahed notes wibble and wobble behind a lead melody played on unamplified electric guitar whilst lower notes wooze along listlessly underneath. It’s probably the most peculiar track onSkullsplitter, hazy and punch-drunk, possessed by a strange form of melancholy even as, lyrically, Chenaux lurches into the surreally humourous (“Have I lost my eyes?/Is that twinkle in my mind?”). On the lengthy “Poor Time”, his shaky, kazoo-like notes on electric (I’m reminded a bit of some of Rusty Kershaw’s playing on Neil Young’s On The Beach) bounce around somewhat aimlessly, with only the most minimal of picked acoustic notes to guide them; whilst Chenaux’s instrumental take on the classic “My Romance” is all extended feedback-laden notes and echoey drone. This unpredictability is key to Chenaux’s music: at times he seems to be deliberately confounding familiarity.  Maybe he’s aware that presumptuous fools like me are out there.

But if that sounds needlessly opaque, fear not, for coherence on the album is assured through Chenaux’s singular voice. It’s a delicate croon, somewhere between Antony Hegarty and Bryan Ferry, with perhaps a hint of old timers like Sinatra (hence “My Romance”, even if performed without vocals). It’s a warm, melancholic sound, which reaches aching heights of potency on the title track, a simple, heart-rending tune on which Chenaux tunes his guitar to sound like a muffled organ (I’m assuming — that word again — that it is a guitar) leaving a wide tapestry on which to unfurl his lustrous, emotionally resonant vocals. And this might be the only real flaw on Skullsplitter: whilst on some tracks, such as “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, the weird structures and deformed melodies might be intriguing or even striking, at other times they sit awkwardly alongside Chenaux’s pristine meditations on love and loneliness, striking jarring notes that ultimately undermine the listener’s ability to fully lose oneself in the music.

That’s a minor quibble, however, and one that fades as the best tracks unfurl their graceful wings, with even some of the instrumentals hitting with a similar force as “Skullsplitter” and closer “Summer & Time”, and I’ve found myself drifting back to this album time and time again, seeking comfort in its woozy warmth. Skullsplitter is ultimately that: comforting, even more so than it is odd, and in either case, Eric Chenaux kicks my silly preconceptions into the dirt.

A Dusted Review: The Last Train by Roger Turner and Otomo Yoshihide (February 19th, 2015)

In improvisation, silence matters almost as much as the actual playing, something that is immediately apparent on The Last Train, a welcome pairing between Roger Turner, one of the UK’s most vaunted drummers, and Japan’s Otomo Yoshihide, a multi-instrumentalist of wide-reaching tastes and skill, here flexing his considerable musical muscles on electric guitar. I’ve lost count of the number of “free” bands/duos I’ve seen over the years who appear ignorant of that important fact, preferring to square up to or blare over one another in an apparent attempt to assert dominance or prove his or her musical credentials. Seriously, folks, rein it in: if you do, you might actually hear your fellow musicians, surely the fundamental ingredient for group improvisation.

Well, Turner and Yoshihide are old hands, veterans even, and this is not their first foray into free improv by a long shot. The resulting moments on The Last Train where the music of either or both players recedes are fascinating, even captivating, glimpses of two musicians sounding each other out and intuitively plotting where they’ll go next. The album was recorded live, so from the get-go this implied potential fills the ether, as “The Wait” emerges from the speakers with the hum of an amp and the barely-perceptible sound of both men shifting as they take up their positions. At first, their progress is slow, with Turner’s muted, but rapid, patters on cymbals and the edges of his drums flittering around extended single notes from Yoshihide. Every time they build up some momentum, they immediately pull back, creating a tension that only occasionally breaks as Turner cranks up the barrage on what sounds like an infinite number of percussive devices (having seen him live, his set-up is a veritable treasure trove of bells, chains, bowls and blocks), with Yoshihide a relatively mellow sounding board.

The reason for such a tentative approach only gradually reveals itself. By dwelling on lengthy single notes, Yoshihide allows his guitar’s feedback to build up, and as The Last Train unfurls with ghostly patience, he carefully molds the increasingly molten sounds emerging from his six-string until at times it barely sounds like a guitar at all. This all bursts into life on “The Sign,” with Turner dancing around Yoshihide’s squalling half-solos like a dervish, but they almost immediately sit back again for the first half of “Crack’s” expertly crafted 11 minutes. Here, Turner’s jangles on bells and bowls imbues the music with a gamelan-like ritualism, whilst Yoshihide’s guitar acts as a bass-heavy foundation allowing the drummer to throw out percussive blasts and clashes in controlled abandon. “Crack” ultimately culminates with an exhilarating bout of sturm und drang, with Yoshihide coming on like Keiji Haino and Turner channelling the spirit of Tony Williams via Keith Moon, but the will-they-or-won’t-they? build-up is just as thrilling.

Fataka is rapidly becoming a truly essential record label. With The Last Train they’ve added another exciting string to their improvisational bow. Otomo Yoshihide and Roger Turner may have both contributed to more “important” records than this brief session, but here they are in their element, two master musicians exhibiting every skill and talent that makes improv such an exciting and unpredictable genre. And they do so with remarkable—and essential—patience.

A Dusted Review: Xe by Zs (February 18th, 2014)

It took a while for a simple fact to sink in over the course of my first few listens of Zs’ new album, their first full salvo as a trio: Xe was recorded live in one take, with scarcely more than the barest minimum of studio work after laying it to tape. I’ve always known that Sam Hillmer, Greg Fox and Patrick Higgins are gifted improvisers, but given the layered nature of previous albums such as 2010’s epic, multi-facetedNew Slaves, to emerge with such a free-flowing, hard-hitting work is remarkable.

A fair amount of rehearsal and practice must have gone in beforehand, for Xe is a tight and taut beast, each musician sounding out his fellow brethren in long periods of methodical, restrained rhythmic pulsations with little in the way of soloing or flourishes before the trio breaks into the realms of free-form, sax-driven post-everything one associates with Zs. If there is a degree of free improv at the heart of Xe, then it is carefully marshaled, and the results may be Zs’ most cohesive album to date and proof that this trio format offers a richness of potential that was possibly missing before. After all, as any Neil Young, Dead C or Fushitsusha fan will tell you, there’s virtue in directness.

Musically, Greg Fox stands out on Xe, paradoxically because his drumming is more often than not defined by restraint rather than muscularity. His polyrhythmic patterns anchor the music like a metronome, and this Jaki Liebezeit-esque focus filters to Higgins and Hillmer, both of whom aim for texture over force. From a listener’s perspective, this approach requires rather a bit of patience, as the opening pile driver that is “The Future of Royalty” segues into the more ambient, electronic haze of “Wolf Government”, which is dominated by fog banks of gristly textures, grimy oscillators and the occasional parp from Hillmer. Then Higgins breaks in with a free-form, jazzy solo before embarking on a seemingly never-ending set of pizzicato arpeggios that herald the slide into one of the album’s two centrepieces, “Corps”. It’s a strange track, a looping, slab of waltz-infused, circular motorik with surprisingly soulful, plaintive moans from Hillmer’s sax. Fox again sets the standard with rolling toms and only the most occasional cymbal crash, accelerating or decelerating seemingly at random. For a band supposedly anchored in “math-rock” (I’m still not 100% sure what that’s supposed to mean), it’s remarkably minimal in the Terry Riley/Steve Reich sense, something reflected in the sparse artwork by Tauba Auerbach.

“Corps” is a long listen, albeit an intriguing one, at 12 minutes, but there is release when it finally breaks apart into flutters, then blasts, of sax and noise and abstract rim shots followed by crashing cymbals from Fox. The even longer title track is Xe’s highlight, Zs taking some of the more sparse, minimalist and circular themes developed on “Corps” and the shorter tracks and expanding them into a gargantuan suite one which the trio lurches from restraint to freak-out with telepathic ease.

Xe is a refreshing glimpse of a band captured in its most primordial state, and for all their clinical musical intellectualism, the album also offers snippets of Zs’ odd sense of humour, not to mention each player’s unique talents and virtuosity. It’s therefore a reminder of how difficult they are as a band to pin down, because even at their most stripped down, they never cease pursuing new directions.

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.