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

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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.

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A Liminal Review: Licht, by Shampoo Boy (June 13th, 2013)

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Blackest Ever Black has gained a reputation for exploring the nocturnal underbelly of dancefloor-oriented music. Acts like Raime, Regis, Tropic of Cancer and the current incarnation of Dominick Fernow’s Prurient have taken the archetypal elements of dubstep, techno, ambient dub and even pop and layered them with murky drones, shadowy synth sub-melodies and piercing industrial noises, deconstructing our expectations of how these genres operate. Witnessing people shaking their butts and bobbing their heads to Raime’s ghostly post-dubstep, and then bouncing up and down to shattering noise techno being spat out by Regis is a live experience I won’t forget anytime soon. Cabaret Voltaire were right: you can dance to this stuff, albeit in odd ways.

Shampoo Boy marks something of a new direction for the label if one were, perhaps mistakenly, to only focus on the above context. But BEB has always been more about vibe than sonics, so while Licht may not share much of the musical genetics of a Regis or a Young Hunting, its grim atmosphere is right up there with the darkest of BEB releases. It may even be the most oppressive, bleak (a word that may crop up again in this review) release on the label so far, which is saying something.

Shampoo Boy is made up of Editions Mego head, Fenn O’Berg and Pita member Peter Rehberg on electronics, guitarist Robert Schachinger (of schlager band Der Scheitel!) and experimentalist Christina Nemec on bass, and there is consequently a feel of ‘rock’ or  ‘metal’ , albeit at their most atonal, deconstructed and experimental (rest assured, this is not rock music by any stretch). ‘Loch’ bubbles ominously from the get-go, with juddering bass drones skittering about over sliding guitar lines and a snarling tapestry of caustic electronic wall noise, while echoing voices intone threateningly in the background. The track has the subterranean feel of recent drone metal at its most self-consciously ritualistic, evoking the likes of Sachiko and Rinji Fukuoka’s άTOMO∑ and Emme Ya’s Chthonic Transmission. Indeed, it wouldn’t have been a surprise overall if Licht had come out on a label such as Cold Spring, at least on the evidence of ‘Loch’.

There is, however, more to Shampoo Boy than doom and gloom, as evidenced by the playful name the trio have chosen for themselves, and the moments of pristine clarity regularly break through the shadows and gloom. ‘Loch’ and its follow-up ‘Fall’ represent the height of the album’s bleakness (there you go!), the latter reaching into similar territory as Rehberg’s duo with Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))), KTL. Schachinger unleashes great waves of saturated sub-riffs from his guitar as Rehberg suffuses the atmosphere with omnipresent industrial gristle, every tone as downcast as the track’s title might suggest. When Nemec intervenes, its to whack out the kind of earth-shuddering noise you might find on, well, a Sunn O))) record, with each note drawn-out as much as possible. But even here, there are warmer textures, with Rehberg dropping in warm, shimmering chords to blur the lines of the track’s momentum, shifting it from pure terror to something more nuanced. Meanwhile, on ‘Gift’, Shampoo Boy touch vaguely on a form of morose psychedelia, with Schachinger’s guitar sounding like a lost, lonely horn call emerging from a dark well of distortion and noise, buttressed by plaintive, almost wistful, piano notes. The trio descend as deep as, say, KTL or To Blacken the Pages, but they seem to cast eyes towards the light, making Licht a lot less easy to lazily label ‘dark’ music. Closer ‘Still’, while hardly cheerful, relaxes the claustrophobic drone into near-silence, allowing Nemec’s low bass underbelly and Schachinger’s drifting guitar arpeggios to generate an oblique form of sonic warmth.

A Liminal Review: Blaze Colour Burn (June 4th, 2013)

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Thrill Jockey have had a busy year, releasing over twenty albums since January, most of them variations of the avant-rock and drone/ambient styles the label has become associated with. Blaze Colour Burn is an altogether more abstract creation than, say, Black Pus’ All My Relations or the latest Barn Owl album, and perhaps the oddest release on the label for quite some time, maybe even since Thrill Jockey first started; and indeed, it is the first in a series of releases set to appear on the label that will explore less conventional genres such as electro-acoustic compositions and field recordings. If future works are as good as Blaze Colour Burn, the TJ people could be about to embark on a triumphant new path.

Fans of Mouse on Mars will of course be used to witnessing St Werner in full deconstruction mode, but on Blaze Colour Burn, he takes the duo’s unusual approach to genre convention into fresh and surprising new territories. The album is centred around two pieces, ‘Cloud Diachroma’ and ‘Spiazziacorale’ (the latter divided into two separate tracks) that provide the backbone and best moments, crystallizing the German composer’s vision, albeit abstractly. ‘Cloud Diachroma’ opens the album in a storm of muted electronic wobbles and streaks of brittle, processed drone, possibly produced on guitar but, if so, distorted to the point that they resemble saturated bursts of barely-marshalled white noise. There is a grim dynamic at play here, especially when the piece recedes into brooding, diffuse ambience, but also a playfulness, as if St Werner is sharing a process of exploration with us in real time, allowing the track to evolve almost organically, unpredictably, never collapsing into bleak oppression as many a dark ambient act might do. ‘Cloud Diachroma’ belongs to the tradition of moody drone that includes early Cluster or Tangerine Dream and, like those doyens, he’s too smart to merely wallow in distortion and darkness. This ambiguous approach breathes space and air into his compositions. Closer ‘Sipian Organ’ is subtly upbeat, with see-sawing organ drones and crackling synth effects that never settle but rather bubble and sway woozily, while a persistent, heartbeat-like underlying pulsation gently goads the piece forwards. It’s an almost elegiac conclusion to the album, one that confounds the impact of what has been before.

The two segments of ‘Spiazzacorale’ differ markedly from the condensed, shifting drone and fluttery electronica of ‘Cloud Diachroma’ and ‘Sipian Organ’, instead touching into an electro-acoustic tradition in which “real” sounds are melded into music, sometimes jarringly, sometimes elegantly. Both parts were taken from a recorded performance that took place in a public piazza in Italy and which featured live musicians on a variety of instruments. On top of that, the audience from the performance plays an integral part of the sounds St Werner has subsequently edited into seven and eleven minute tracks. ‘Spiazzacorale B’ starts with an unsettled electronic buzzing that is punctuated by the random coughs of either a musician or an audience member. After a brief passage of silence, a flute orchestra and vibraphonist are gradually introduced, their massed hums and resonating tones sounding more like a ringing glass played by Charlemagne Palestine, albeit reverbed to the max. They are joined by a mournful sax solo and the chattering voices of punters inside the piazza’s cafes. St Werner effectively breaks down the barriers between performance and studio wizardry, between the listener and the outside world. This is even more tangible on ‘Spazziacorale A’, where the field recordings of voices, instrumental passages and street sounds become ghostly semi-presences, constructing an environment that is immediate, even familiar, and yet somehow forever out of reach. Jan St Werner conducts these samples and welds them to electronic drone elements with the (sleight of) hand of a master, reviving the acousmatic music of Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani for the digital age. That this duo of steadfastly avant-garde adventurism sit so comfortably alongside the more immediately recognisable sounds on the rest of Blaze Colour Burn signals a remarkably coherent, yet exploratory, vision.

Liminal Reviews: Liminal Minimals, May 2013 (May 31st, 2013)

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John Butcher, Tony Buck, Magda Mayas, Burkhard Stangl – Plume (Unsounds)

This lengthy album brings together two trios based around the backbone of saxophonist John Butcher and The Necks’ Tony Buck on drums. The first, ‘Flamme’ sees the pair joined by Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl, who plays peppery acoustic notes in a style that evokes Derek Bailey, minus the Englishman’s acerbic humour and penchant for pure dissonance. Indeed, the thirty-minute epic is remarkably restrained, with Stangl and Butcher exploring the outer limits of their instruments’ potential for quietness and diffuse textures, the former plucking abstractly at his strings, the latter releasing bubbly or hissing tones that sound as much like air or samples as they do sax notes. On both tracks, Tony Buck takes as much pleasure in gently coaxing unexpected sounds from his kit using bows and brushes as he does in building up any precise rhythmic direction. The second track, ‘Vellum’, another mighty, sprawling work, is the best of the two, as Buck and Butcher, joined here by pianist Magda Mayas, build up several heads of steam over nearly forty minutes, with Mayas countering Buck’s clatters and shakes and Butcher’s squalls with some righteous manipulation of her piano’s strings. These raucous passages are juxtaposed with several more intricate ones showcasing the trio’s ability to stretch out on each instrument in ways that are always both surprising and expertly balanced.

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Implodes – Recurring Dream (Kranky)

More moroseness, as Implodes follow on from their bleak debut Black Earth with another slab of woozy, despondent post-shoegaze noise rock. As with Vår [see below], the band’s influences are quite clear, nestling themselves as they do in the shadowy corner where gothic miserabilism nestles down discontentedly with fuzzed-out guitars and hushed vocals, a territory previously explored with much success by Cranes. Implodes don’t quite match their forbears for seething, haunted intensity, but there are many moments of true beauty on Recurring Dream, from the bleak, blasted pop-rock ‘Scattered in the Wind’ (surely a potential hit among fans of this type of music) to the seething metal storm of ‘Ex Mass’, which sounds like a Jesu outtake, via the deceptively graceful funereal march of ‘Sleepyheads’ and the towering mast of distortion and Peter Hook-inspired bass thumps that is ‘Necronomics’. On each track, the vocals are folded deep into the mix, imbuing everything with a ghostly, evasive atmosphere, like dry ice rolling over an audience at a rock concert. If you can imagine Sofia Coppola one day making a film that is not quite so obviously self-satisfied as most of her previous ones, she could very well choose Implodes to provide the soundtrack. It couldn’t be worse than sodding Phoenix…

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People of the North – Sub Contra (Thrill Jockey)

This side project by Kid Millions and Bobby Matador of Oneida doesn’t actually feel like one at all, such is the duo’s focus and commitment across the bruising 39 minutes of Sub Contra. People of the North certainly shares a lot of the pair’s parent band’s whacked-out psychedelicism, but, stripped to the bare bones of drums, synths, keys and vocals (with a few additional flourishes here and there from their Oneida pals), their music is more abrasive and minimalist. ‘Drama Class’ kicks the album off at a fractured, unpredictable pace, with Matador’s ramped-up organ weaving a curtain of malevolent drone that sits impassively in direct contrast with Millions’ constantly-shifting, freeform drum rolls and fills. Occasionally, Matador lurches forward to churn out some unintelligible lyrics, but for the most part, ‘Drama Class’ is as monomaniacal and immovable as a brick wall, the kind of intense drone metal perfected in less gleefully contrarian fashion by Windy and Carl. ‘Coal Baron’ is markedly more relaxed, the duo relying on drifting synth patterns, à la Klaus Schulze and low-end hum, with Kid Millions’s drums remarkable by their absence, while the two-part ‘Sub Contra’ suite sounds like Throbbing Gristle jamming with Han Bennink, all jazzy drums and bubbling, industrial drone. To wrap things up, Millions and Matador save the most expansive piece, ‘Osage Orange’, for last, taking the listener on a gruelling journey through repetitive looped electronics and warbling bass frequencies that morph into shimmery synths and a positively martial rhythmic thud before receding into near-silence as the fourteen minutes draw to a blissful close. People of the North don’t really break new ground in psychedelic music on Sub Contra, but they display a refreshingly gnarly take on the genre.

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Vår – No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers (Sacred Bones)

I have to hold my hand up here: I’m a bit of a sucker for moody, monochrome post-punk, and have been ever since I first discovered Joy Division as a perpetually morose 18-year-old. So, even if No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers comes on the back of much publicity surrounding singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s main band, Iceage, and steeped in a wealth immediately-recognisable influences, I can’t help but find myself enjoying nearly every track as if I was actually one of the pale young waifs that make up its target audience. The entire album is coated in an atmosphere of foggy disillusion, as Rønnenfelt and co-singer Loke Rahbek sketch out their mournful vignettes on wispy synths and the occasional pounding march of drum machine beats. Their two voices are nicely contrasted: Rønnenfelt, on the one hand, yelps like a frightened cousin of The Cure’s Robert Smith, whilst Rahbek possess the grimy snarl of a young Adrian Borland out of The Sound. Both bands are among Vår’s obvious influences, but the Danes carefully balance their clear debt to predecessors with a keen ear for melody and songcraft. The NME have got predictably over-excited and proclaimed No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers as the Faith for the 2010s generation but, while that’s more than a little hyperbolic, there are several great moments on the album, especially when the quartet rack up the beats and go (admittedly with downcast eyes and pouty lips) for the jugular, as on the delicious pair of post-punk pounders ‘The World Fell’ and ‘Pictures of Today / Victorial’.

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Jozef Van Wissem – Nihil Obstat (Important Records)

There is something so simple about Dutch lutist Jozef Van Wissem’s music, and yet it is surely this simplicity that makes it so instantly affecting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the instrument he uses, the tracks on Nihil Obstat seem to be beamed in from a time long since passed, but that doesn’t mean they sound dated, quite the opposite. Van Wissem connects with a sort of collective sensitivity in a way that is not dissimilar to the liminal sensations initiated by the music of American primitive artists like John Fahey and Sandy Bull, especially as the latter was an adept of the oud, which carries a similar sound to the lute. Van Wissem’s notes on each of these six tracks are as clear as a mountain stream, and just as resonant, whether he’s unfurling deeply melancholic sentiments, such as on the harrowing ‘Apology’, or playing something bouncy and playful like the ten-minute madrigal ‘Where you lived and what you lived for’, with its hints of ‘Greensleeves’. There is an emotional potency on display on Nihil Obstat, like with fellow “somewhat minimalist” composer Richard Skelton’s electric guitar sketches or the hazy piano compositions on Lubomyr Melnyck’s recent Corollaries album, more proof of just how much one can achieve with minimal means.

A Liminal Review: No Answer: Lower Floors (May 9th, 2013)

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The personnel changes, but Wolf Eyes continues unabated. Following Aaron Dilloway’s lead, Mike Connelly has now departed the Midwest noise icons’ fold, to concentrate on his solo work and other projects such as Hair Police. His replacement, ‘Crazy’ Jim Baljo, is apparently a more ‘musical’ presence than the Failing Lights man, but No Answer: Lower Floors retains that unique flavour that makes Wolf Eyes what they are, even if it is decidedly less abrasive and mean-sounding than, say, 2006’s Human Animal.

Much of this continuity can be put down to the fact that, whilst Dilloway and Connelly may have left the fold, they remain firmly entrenched in the band’s inner circle and both contribute to No Answer: Lower Floors, whilst the other two members, founder Nate Young and long-standing sax/electronics player John Olson, have also had numerous side-projects and solo offerings, notably their Stare Case duo, Young’s work in Demons, and his recent Regression series of releases. All of these various sonic offerings percolate into No Answer: Lower Floors, making it a sonic melting pot that paradoxically is one of the most cohesive-sounding albums the band has ever put out, tracing clear lines back into the band’s history, as well as that of noise music itself. No Answer: Lower Floors is a strong retort to anyone who thinks that notions of regression automatically discount the possibility of progress. If Nate Young has made regression his calling card, he and his two partners excel at using that process to move forwards. Back to the future, if you will, notably via the dank futuristic electronic music of Cabaret Voltaire.

I don’t mean the harsh disco Cabaret Voltaire of ‘Yashar’, or even the robotic goth-funk of Three Mantras, but rather the spectral, minimalist industrial grind of Mix-Up and Voice of America. ‘Choking Files’ and the almost punchy ‘Born Liar’, for example, immediately evoke classic early-period Cabs tracks like ‘Kirlian Photograph’ and ‘The Voice of America/Damage is Done’, reminding us both that Cabaret Voltaire are as important to industrial music as, say, Throbbing Gristle, and also that there has always been a sense of melody underpinning Wolf Eyes’ angry noise. These are songs, or as close as noise gets to that craft, and the elegance and intelligence with which they’re crafted is impressive. Baljo’s guitar is brittle and buzzing, melded into the electronics to produce clouds of billowing, saturated drone. The Cabaret Voltaire comparison is apparent in the way drum machine beats heave and wooze underneath the gristle and grit, as fitful and sickly as on the Sheffield band’s cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Here She Comes Now’, whilst Nate Young’s distant, disconnected vocals have haunting traces of Stephen Mallinder in his belligerent pomp. Where the two bands differ significantly is that, whilst The Cabs encouraged dancing -albeit somewhat perversely- at their gigs, and dropped driving post-punk pounders like ‘No Escape’ and ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’ among their grittier pieces, Wolf Eyes make no such concessions to easy listening. No Answer: Lower Floors may be more tune-based than previous offerings, but it still overflows with currents of unease and moments when the culmination of shadowy vocalisations and unsettling mood noise draw from the imagery of low-budget horror flicks, much like the Regression albums and the creepier moments of Connelly’s Failing Lights.

Beyond the subtle stylistic shifts and nods to industrial tradition (the lengthy ‘Confession Of The Informer’, dominated by uneasy silences, unintelligible vocal snippets and surging synth and sax wheezes, immediately brings to mind TG’s ‘Hamburger Lady’, only with the lyrics reduced to ghostly abstraction), it’s the cohesion of Wolf Eyes’ vision that impresses on No Answer: Lower Floors. Shades of Stare Case’s dismembered blues and Nate Young’s solo synth mauling traverse the album, even as it stretches into new areas. It may not be as brutal as Human Animal or Burned Mind, but it is as unsettling as those two landmarks, and just as clearly part of the Wolf Eyes universe, one that gets more peculiar and potent with every passing year.

Wolf Eyes “Choking Files” from De Stijl Records on Vimeo.

Liminal Reviews: Liminal Minimals, April 2013 (April 30th, 2013)

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Ensemble Skalectrik – Trainwrekz (Editions Mego)

Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards has found a nice home for himself on Editions Mego, and this is another offering of saturated, noise-inflected electronica from the Briton, this time under the Ensemble Skalectrik moniker. Trainwrekz, as its title suggests, contains some of Edwards’s most abrasive and vicious work to date: six concise and moody vignettes dominated by twisted synths, untethered found sounds and unsettling industrial noises. ‘Wrektoo’, for example, is dominated by sampled gunshots and bubbling, watery found sounds alongside metallic clangs and thuds that sound like they were recorded in a disused factory. ‘Wrekfore’, meanwhile, juxtaposes repetitive electronic mini-drones with swirling futuristic textures that could have been lifted from the archives of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The influence of industrial pioneers like SPK and Throbbing Gristle is clear, but Edwards’s scope is broader than that, and subtle injections of humour and hauntology, along with his use of the letters ‘W’ and ‘Z’ and a clear experimental bent, make me think of the late, great artist Jeff Keen, whose sonic creations recently appeared on a recent compilation by Trunk Records. Good company indeed!

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Jacob Kirkegaard – Conversion (Touch)

Conversion sees Danish sound artist and composer Jacob Kirkegaard re-interpret two of his more experimental sound creations as instrumental compositions, performed by his fellow countrymen Scenatet. The first, ‘Labyrinthitis’, was initially produced using sounds created by the composer’s own ears (!), a form dubbed “oto-acoustic music”. Here, these vibrations are reinterpreted as overlapping, ever-evolving string drones, starting off in a fragile high register, before more insistent, extended lower tones shimmer out of the omnipresent haze. While the original may be more surprising, ‘Labyrinthitis’ is steeped in the tradition of slow-burning minimalism, and the way Scenatet recalibrate Kirkegaard’s organic source as stirring, increasingly present micro-tones that is deeply affecting. ‘Church’, meanwhile, initially started out as field recordings captured in an abandoned church near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On Conversion, Scenatet recreate the ambiance of emptiness and vastness suggested by the piece’s origin, again creating a work of music that evolves gradually in and out of near-silence, to deeply dramatic effect.

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Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou – The Skeletal Essences of Voodoo Funk (Analog Africa)

Analog Africa deserve a medal for the way they’ve gone about digging out some of the most obscure -and best- music from that continent currently available in a market that keeps growing and growing. Benin has proved a particularly fruitful hunting ground for the label. Given its geographic location, sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo, with Ghana close by, it’s unsurprising that many tracks on this compilation seem infused with afrobeat and highlife influences, but it also stands apart from those more famous genres, not least due to the French lyrics that pop up on a couple of the numbers. The term “skeletal”, used in the title feels appropriate, because there is a brittle, stripped-down quality to the orchestra’s polyrhythms, while horns are used sparingly, like flashes of colour splattered on a canvas, bringing to mind a more stripped-down take on early Osibisa rather than, say, Fela Kuti’s high-energy funk. One of the standout tracks is ‘N’Goua’, which moves at a sensual, languid pace, with loping bass, drums and percussion serving as a solid foundation for the vocals, sax spurts and twisty, winding guitar solos. On ‘Vi E Lo’, meanwhile, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou turn their gaze across the Atlantic to take in Latino influences, further fleshing out their musical palette. The band produces music that straddles genre, but which is always haunting in its melodic and rhythmic grace.

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Charlemagne Palestine and Z’ev – Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear (Sub Rosa)

Charlemagne Palestine first started playing bells in the sixties, during his student days, and there’s always been a trace of their chiming overtones in his music for other instruments, notably in the way he repeats piano notes and in his use of glass. Here, he teams up with enigmatic American percussionist Z’ev for three pieces that juxtapose Palestine’s see-sawing carillon with quiet rhythmic patterns. The drums are pitched low in the mix, at times barely audible, but Z’ev follows Palestine’s every temporal shift with dogged determination. Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear is a minimalist affair, driven by the Palestine’s patient repetitions, which instantly recall his Strumming Music triple-album, also released on Sub Rosa. On the second piece, these hypnotic harmonics are countered by moody drones that pull Palestine into Z’ev’s orbit, leaving tense moments of expectant quietness. This tension forms the bedrock of Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear, with both musicians clearly keeping a keen ear on what the other is playing at all times. As such, the album bears little of the natural spirituality and reflectiveness induced by a lot of minimalism, with Palestine and Z’ev refusing to lapse into blissful contemplation. It closes with a dissonant 8-minute duel where Z’ev’s industrial clatters are (naturally?) reverbed to the max, a jarring conclusion – and all the better for it.

A Liminal Live Review: Gravetemple, Cafe Oto, 13-14 April 2013, with Russell Haswell and Crys Cole (April 22nd, 2013)

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This weekend features the fourth -and heftiest- showcase thus far of Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ sub-label, with the SUNN O))) guitarist himself featuring on both nights as part of Gravetemple, perhaps his most experimental act (which is saying something) and which features occasional SUNN O))) members Oren Ambarchi and Attila Csihar. Unsurprisingly, Cafe Oto is sold out on both nights, making it perhaps a daunting prospect for the respective nights’ opening acts Russell Haswell and crys cole, especially the latter.

Haswell at least almost matches Gravetemple for loudness, which takes some doing. The Englishman’s set starts with some precise sound manipulation of field recordings, notably wind and rain introduced by glooming bell tolls. It sometimes evokes the sensitive, evocative work of Chris Watson or, to a lesser degree, Thomas Köner, but the weather sounds slowly dissolve into jittery flutters that may or may not have started their sonic lives as bird wing samples but, if so, are transformed here into jarring industrial thuds and klangs over which Haswell gradually layers pounding synth oscillations. Haswell starts his performance seated at his laptop, but as the piece pitches into a shattering noise climax, he rises to his feet, twisting the buttons on a distortion pedal as the barrage of screeching drone swamps over the audience. It serves as a taste of what Gravetemple will provide later on the first night, the sort of noise wall The Rita would be proud of. I’m not sure what some of the hip SUNN O))) fans are making of it.

On the second night, however, Canadian sound artist crys cole provides a remarkable contrast to the crushing volume of her fellow performers with a set that is strikingly quiet, to the clear frustration of some audience members (London audiences, eh?). Using several percussive (especially a brush stick) or “non-musical” implements amplified by a couple of contact mics. cole’s website describes “a fascination with microsonics that test the limits of audibility and intentionality”, and the ambiguity of the sounds she produces, bolstered by hissing vocal interventions, is interesting, at times even fascinating, but, as many have noted, there can be an element of quietness for quietness’ sake to music like this. The most assertive moments are when she rubs a microphone on a sheet of metallic paper, which delivers distorted crackles but, with cole clearly frustrated by some spectators impatience, the set ends too soon for it to gather any momentum.

The signs that Gravetemple have been planning to be as loud as Oto will allow are apparent from the sound check, which apparently drew complaints from the theatre next door and has the windows rattling as the punters queue outside. Despite this, there’s a great contrast between their two sets, with the first being ear-shattering whilst the other is more nuanced and ultimately nothing short of triumphant. On the first night, Attila Csihar kicks off proceeding by rasping ominously into his microphone (I can’t make out the words, and he tells me afterwards that he mixes languages and even his own invented words) whilst Ambarchi and O’Malley sit impassively with their guitars on their laps. Csihar’s vocalisations are typically dramatic, enhanced by effects that stretch and loop his voice until it becomes a sinister one-man Gregorian choir. When Ambarchi and O’Malley join the fray, they immediately kick into feedback-heavy, sustained doom metal notes at full volume, instantly evoking SUNN O)))’s cavernous take on metal tropes. The volume is quite simply deafening, with the notes held so long that the feedback shudders into one’s guts and rattles the bones. As the low, thundering riffs build and build, often in tandem, the music takes on the texture of minimal drone, with Csihar happy to sit back with his eyes closed and absorb the wall of noise. Gradually, O’Malley starts to crack out some repetitive riffs, whilst Oren Ambarchi distorts and mangles scatter-gun solos via an Electro-Harmonix effects pedal, throwing out metallic, almost industrial noises that only serve to ratchet up the volume levels. Meanwhile, Csihar refuses to let the guitars overwhelm his singing, his bank of effects twisting and contorting his vocals into a series of alien chants. When Ambarchi takes to the drums to bring the piece to a rambunctious close, it seems almost like an afterthought, the volume of O’Malley’s riffage almost completely masking his brittle polyrhythms.

Csihar admitted to me that Gravetemple’s first set was a bit too loud and ramshackle, and boy do they make amends on Sunday. This time proceedings are started with the guitars, and more of the familiar, imposing and loud doom riffs, with similar levels of monomaniacal sustain as Ambarchi and O’Malley displayed on Saturday, although with greater levels of understanding and variety. O’Malley once again unfurls some sturdy riffs, whilst Ambarchi almost transforms his axe into a six-stringed noise generator. Csihar’s vocals are even more imposing this time, as he has more space to weave his oblique narratives into the mix. Midway through the set, the volume drops, allowing for expansive, droning flourishes married to Csihar’s gothic rumbles and saturated moans. With a more subtle approach than the previous night, Gravetemple display the full range of their talents, enhancing how open-minded the trio is, and how they use metal archetypes as a mere launching pad to explore more diverse sonic realms. They slowly twist and re-build a piece that increasingly takes on epic proportions, culminating in a mantra-like finale where O’Malley’s righteous guitar playing and Csihar’s incomparable vocal turns fly ever-upwards, propelled by another bout of octopus-like drum thrashes from Ambarchi, this time properly amplified to transform the sound into an almost psychedelic workout. It’s all brought to a thrilling close when Ambarchi pounds on a gigantic gong, leaving O’Malley’s dying notes and Csihar’s final invectives to be drowned out by the audience’s rapturous applause. This showcase at times risked falling into self-indulgence but, guided by these three stalwarts, ended on a note that touched on transcendence.