A Quietus Review: Games Have Rules by Function and Vatican Shadow (October 1st, 2014)

This isn’t the first time ambient music has been used to present a musical tableau of a city, but it’s certainly a surprising choice from these two artists. Function, aka David Sumner, was after all one third of acclaimed electro deconstructionists Sandwell District, whose abrasive take on techno and dance provided a timely–and uneasy–injection of energy to familiar forms back in 2010 and 2011. Vatican Shadow, meanwhile, is an alias of Prurient’s Dominick Fernow, a man who may have transcended his noise background some time ago but who is still associated with words like “harsh”, “brutal” and “angry”. How is it possible, many may ask, that they’ve turned away from their familiar edginess in favour of ambient music?

It’s a dumb question, of course. Fernow and Sumner are experienced and talented producers, so they can do whatever they like with us fans, safe in the knowledge that the results are likely to be at least interesting and more likely exciting. Having said that, it still comes as surprise that Games Have Rules is quite so quiet. I mean, the album is a sonic reflection of the duo’s current city of New York (at night), and in my experience, it’s not a particularly quiet place. But by dropping the volume levels, Fernow and Sumner hone in on the minutiae of their city at night, the background textures of their experience and the intricate details that mostly go unnoticed by the masses. The album is imbued with a sort of listless melancholia, as if recorded in the witching hour between midnight and dawn after too many hours of excess and clubbing. Despite having only the faintest esquisse of thematic and sonic similarities, the mournful music of Burial immediately springs to mind when listening to Games Have Rules.

Set alongside the main body of both artists’ work, Games Have Rules therefore feels like a withdrawal, the title hinting at a reluctance to engage with dynamics of late-night social interaction, which would hardly be surprising given how little their austere musics are linked, even at their most beat-heavy and danceable, to the standard night out requirements of revelry and jollity. Most of the tracks drift and linger like the wisps of smoke emanating from vents in the Big Apple’s pavements, with rhythm seemingly surrendered to the sort of brooding ambience you’d expect on a Tim Hecker album. Listen closer (this album massively rewards listens on the headphones) and sullen sub-techno beats emerge like caterpillar tracks running under a vehicle. Jittering sonic eructations, bleeps and bloops are scattered over most of the tracks, lingering, inchoate like distant sirens and machinery heard through a hotel room window. There’s an emotional strand running through Games Have Rules but–perhaps because distinguishing who is doing what is impossible–it’s subdued and ambiguous, something which adds to the album’s crepuscular nature.

Games Have Rules may represent a shift for both Fernow and Sumner but it’s far from the dramatic change many might think. Instead, it represents an intriguing evolution by two artists who seem to delight in tweaking electronica to elicit fresh impressions of modern urban dystopia. It might not be an essential statement by either artist, but it lingers in the memory like a troubling dream in the small hours of the morning.

A Quietus Review: Four Track Mind by Ekoplekz (September 9th, 2014)

What a year it has been for Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards. March saw the release of his most fully-realised album to date, Unfidelity, on which his surreal blend of motoric techno and ectoplasmic DIY hauntology reached its most direct, sinewy peak. To my mind, Edwards has surpassed all other similar artists in the way he has drawn a line between quasi-dancefloor friendly melodic electronica and an austere form of post-industrial kosmische rooted in English eccentricity, folklore and arcana. His move to Planet Mu for Unfidelity crystallised his various inspirations (“influences” is somehow inappropriate) into something more focused than before, and he’s elevated the vision on that album even higher with Four Track Mind.

Most of the tracks on Four Track Mind were recorded around the same time as those on Unfidelity, but the mood is notably different. For all its inherent queasiness and nods to the austere industrial electronica of Robert Rental, Unfidelity was an almost bright and upbeat album, the murk of previous releases replaced with driving techno beats and Harmonia-esque synth layers. On Four Track Mind, Edwards lingers over his tracks, with four of them stretching past the eight minute mark. An atmosphere of sombre contemplation looms over the album like a pall of smoke, an introspective yang to Unfidelity’s sardonic energy. If the album’s title suggests a collection of lo-fi afterthoughts tacked on to its predecessors coat-tails, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a fully fleshed-out work that evolves almost like a concept album, and it’s a journey that takes the listener into the murkier recesses of Nick Edwards’ psyche.

‘Return To The Annex’ is the track that best epitomises the central motif on Four Track Mind. Over languid, swirling synths, Edwards deploys a series of stark clatters and an eerie recording of himself as a child talking to his long-deceased father. There’s a lot of talk about how acts like Ekoplekz (Demdike Stare, Broadcast, the Ghost Box lot) play with themes of memory, but it’s for any of them to delve into such personal material. The track is evocative and unsettling, with Edwards expertly overlapping loops and and percussion, delicately creating a miniature suite that lingers long after its ten minutes have expired. ‘Ariel Grey’ is similarly ethereal, an intricate collage of looped vocal echoes, throbbing electronic lines and aquatic effects, whilst ‘Tantrikz’ edges along on an hypnotic krautrock-ish backbeat, perhaps the clearest nod towards influences like Harmonia and Cluster that Edwards allows himself on the album. Even the shorter, faster-paced tracks on Four Track Mind contain trace elements of taut emotions, such as the driving mutant techno of ‘Reflekzive’, which is propelled by twitching beats and a sweeping phantom choir, or the bouncy, echo-laden ‘Interstice’. Edwards’ liberal use of reverb and echo means each track, no matter how short, seems to stretch time, with the likes of ‘Reflekzive’ and ‘Dvectif’ sounding like horror movies soundtracks compressed into bite-sized form. Four Track Mind is, for all the occasional moments of snide levity and gallows humour, a grim and haunting listen.

A rather lazy shorthand has grown up when it comes to discussing a lot of this new British electronica (or hauntology, if you prefer), with consistent references to seventies TV shows like Doctor Who or The Owl Service and public information videos. Sure, Nick Edwards’ analogue synths have a few sounds you might hear on vintage sci-fi TV, but, on listening to Four Track Mind a rather different visual artefact from the seventies crept into my mind: Ian Merrick and Michael Armstrong’s horrifying 1977 low-budget thriller The Black Panther. The film tells the true story of serial killer Donald Neilson, who killed three village postmasters and kidnapped heiress Lesley Whittle in 1975. I don’t know if Edwards ever saw the film (an outraged press, probably trying to make up for their own role in the botched rescue attempt of Whittle which may have led to her death, accused the directors of exploitation and The Black Panther was effectively buried for decades), but the oppressive, austere nature of the music on Four Track Mind seems to hark back to that not-so-lost England of grim suburbia, crumbling industrial landscapes and sordid violence.

It’s hard not to regret that Four Track Mind won’t see a wider release than the few hundred vinyl copies Planet Mu are going to put out, but I can see why Unfidelity was given precedent: it’s the more open, “accessible” (not quite the right term when dealing with Ekoplekz) and concise work. But Four Track Mind is more than its predecessor’s morose cousin: it’s a triumphant work in its own right, more intimate and intense, and confirms Nick Edwards as one of the most exciting artists of the year.

A Quietus Feature: On the Beach by Neil Young 40 years later (September 8th, 2014)

In a curious twist of coincidence, I’m writing this anniversary piece not long after the release of a long-awaited live album culled from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s legendary 1974 tour, which took place not long after On The Beach was released. Together, they encapsulate the creative and personal whirlwind that was Neil Young’s life as the seventies reached their midway point.

The CSNY tour represented in many ways the apex of Young’s commercial resonance amongst rock’s pantheon of giants. Two years earlier had seen the release of the smash hit Harvest, its delicate country-folk catchiness propelling the enigmatic Canadian to the top of the charts amid a wave of popular acclaim. His decision in 1969 to hook up with former Buffalo Springfield sparring pal Stephen Stills in CSNY, rock’s premier supergroup, had exposed his eccentric take on folk and rock to a wider audience, and Harvest represented an almost inevitable conclusion to that suddenly raised profile. Despite previous alternative success in the form of 1970’s After The Goldrush, Harvest propelled Young to the very top of the singer/songwriter pile, with rewards aplenty to boot.

Almost immediately, however, the dark side of fame took hold of Young’s life with a vice-like grip. As he prepared to embark on his biggest-yet tour in support of Harvest, his alter ego in his garage-rock band Crazy Horse, Danny Whitten, died of a heroin overdose mere hours after being fired from tour rehearsals by Young. The concerts went ahead under a cloud, with an increasingly alcohol-fuelled Neil finding himself at odds with his band and his audience, who couldn’t relate to the unhinged, hard-edged songs he took to hurling at them in lieu of Harvest-esque folk-pop. The tour was captured in all its lo-fi glory on Time Fades Away (still unavailable outside of its original vinyl pressing), which served as the first sign that Young was, in his words, “heading for the ditch”.

In the space of a few months, the sunny* outlook of 1972 was erased completely. After Time Fades Away, Young – still grieving the death of Whitten, which was compounded by the similar demise of roadie Bruce Berry – took the remains of Crazy Horse and old stalwarts Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith into an improvised studio to lay down his first masterpiece of the dark recesses of the soul, Tonight’s The Night. Recording at night in a series of tequila-fueled sessions, TTN is bleary-eyed, barely in tune and totally phenomenal, perhaps all the more so because it can still shock CSNY and Harvest fans to the core. And if TTN was acclaimed by all involved as a cathartic experience, there was enough of its morbid malevolence still lurking in Young’s soul by the time the sessions for On The Beach came along in early 1974. As such, the trio of Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night (released tardily in 1975) remains one of the greatest and bleakest sequences of albums ever recorded by a major recording artist.

Just as Tonight’s The Night was guided – for want of a better word – by tequila, so too were the On The Beach sessions dominated by a rather different concoction. Ben Keith had introduced Young to a tubby and wild fiddle player called Rusty Kershaw and, while he only features on two songs, the latter’s influence, notably potent hash cakes named “honey slides”, cast a rather woozy shadow over proceedings. Indeed, one of the producers would report to peering through the glass separating the booth from the recording space in a vain attempt to locate the musicians, such was the pall of smoke and darkness that hung over the protagonists. If the album’s title and gorgeous cover suggested a change from Tonight’s The Night’s blackness, the sessions and what they produced were as gloomy as ever. With his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress (the mother of his first child) in tatters and his booze and drug consumption increasingly rampant, Young poured out his angst and anger over the roughest, most sparse music in his career to date (yes, even more so than TTN).

Consequently, whilst it’s not as punishing as TTN, sonically, On The Beach is not for the faint of heart. The bouncy opener ‘Walk On’ aside, most of the album is given over to bitter musings on the emptiness of fame and relationship breakdowns. For the latter category, Young resurrected an old unreleased song, ‘See The Sky About To Rain’, recorded at snail’s pace and laced with funereal electric piano. ‘For The Turnstiles’, meanwhile, is just Young and Keith on banjo and dobro respectively, striving to sing in tune a cracked exposé of the stadium rock scene and ‘Vampire Blues’ points to another future favourite of Young’s bugbears: the destruction of the environment. This is Young at his most disillusioned, and his fury is distilled into raw viciousness on the third track of the first side, the apocalyptic ‘Revolution Blues’. Over an almost funky rhythmic backing provided by Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band (man I wish he’d played with them more often!), Young channels the spirit of Charles Manson, culminating in a harsh incantation: “I hear that Laurel Canyon/ Is full of famous staaaaaars/ But I hate them worse than lepers/ And I’ll kill them in their caaaaars!!!!” In any decade, even now, this would be seen as dark, even controversial stuff; coming from a huge star at the height of his fame in 1974, it could have been career suicide.

For all the first side’s excellence, though, the three tracks that make up side B of On The Beach, starting with the title track, possibly represent Neil Young at his absolute peak. ‘On The Beach’ is heart-rending blues played with absolute anguish as Young contemplates his collapsing world in unflinching detail: “Though my problems are meaningless/ That don’t make them go away”. ‘Motion Pictures’ is another minimal dirge aimed as a last farewell to Snodgress, with Young’s world-weary voice accompanied simply by hand-patted drums, plonking bass and the occasional wurble from Kershaw’s slide guitar. Finally, the album comes tumbling to a close with exquisite emotional potency with the epic, blearily psychedelic song-poem that is ‘Ambulance Blues’, a strange voyage through Young’s past in Canada to his traumatised presence via a few meanderings into the realms of politics and music criticism.

Of all Young’s albums, On The Beach may be the hardest to describe musically, such is the way it sits between identifiable genres. It seems to have emerged, blinking but oddly full-formed, from the darkest chasms of Neil Young’s heart and mind, with Kershaw, Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, drummer Ralph Molina and the other guest performers layering sounds onto his vision and basic outlines with intuitive ease. Maybe honey slides generate telepathy. On The Beach wasn’t a commercial success, as audiences continued to be baffled by its sombreness, and it suffered the same fate as Time Fades Away until 2003 when it saw a belated CD and vinyl reissue, but it now has deservedly earned a place of true favour with Young aficionados. And to come back to CSNY, when Young brought the likes of ‘Ambulance Blues’ and ‘Revolution Blues’ to the almighty party, his erstwhile colleagues were beyond taken aback, with David Crosby begging off having to play on the latter. Yet, forty years down the line, I will find myself reaching for this unrelenting masterpiece far more often than Déjà Vu.

* For what it’s worth, a closer look at the lyrical content of Harvest shows considerable nuance in its supposed cheeriness. Yes, Young was in love and successful, but from the slightly wistful surrealism of ‘Out On The Weekend’ to the anti-racist rant that is ‘Alabama’, via the cautionary and slightly chilling ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ and the title track’s Southern Gothic chill, Harvest is actually anything but a simple ray of James Taylor-esque sunshine. How could it be otherwise with Neil Young?

A Quietus Review: My Love is a Bulldozer by Venetian Snares (July 10th, 2014)

The latest album from Aaron Funk starts off in the manner of the vehicle in its title, with ’10th Circle Of Winnipeg’, a truly superlative track in the Venetian Snares canon. The title makes clear what Funk thinks of Manitoba’s capital city, and the track is suitably moody, claustrophobic and bleak. As has been his wont of late, Funk melds electronics and breakbeats with strident string lines, creating a bizarre hybrid of high-octane dance music and modern classical, whilst a female voice (sounding remarkably similar to Billie Holiday, heard on 2005’s Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, Funk’s masterpiece) gloomily intones about snow, emptiness, hatred and the meaningless of life. Jazz-like percussion is deftly interchanged with breakcore thunder and wobbly bass, the track meandering expertly in the interstices between genres and styles. It’s a potent opener, and, much like the baroque, outlandish artwork, sets the tone for My Love Is A Bulldozer.

After such an imposing start, the rest of My Love Is A Bulldozer was bound to struggle to keep the standards up, but even with this in mind, it’s a confusing and muddled album. On Wikipedia, that ever-reliable bastion of authoritative information, Funk’s music is described as both breakcore and, more surprisingly, modern classical, and at various -brief- instances on My Love Is A Bulldozer he seems to be trying to live up to this description as he strips away beats and synths altogether in favour of more orchestral instrumentation. Rarely, however, do moments like ‘Deleted Poems’ and ‘8am Union Station’ go beyond being mere ambient sketches using classical instruments as opposed to actual compositions with much depth, and next to the full-throttle breakcore of later tracks, they sound quite incongruous.

To compound matters, Funk’s use of strings in overtly techno/breakcore tracks, from the crude title track (“Only you can make my dick feel like this”, Funk croons. Really, Aaron?) to even more successful pieces such as ‘Shaky Sometimes’ is a long way from possessing the focus and sensitivity displayed on Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. I know that Venetian Snares has always been a hyperactive entity, but at times My Love Is A Bulldozer feels like it was made by an acute ADHD sufferer after a seven-day coke and Pro Plus bender.

A lot has been discussed about Funk’s singing, often negatively, but, whilst he doesn’t have the best of voices, it’s hardly terrible. Mostly he deploys a sort of early-80s gothic moan, but there are some more varied moments, such as a descent into black metal-ish primal screaming on ‘1000 Years’ or the slightly unsettled yelping on ‘Your Smiling Face’, on which Funk sounds a bit like a less talented David Bowie circa Hours (at a push, I’ll admit). His lyrics are always as bleak and intense as the female voice on ’10th Circle Of Winnipeg’ suggested from the get-go, although rarely with much depth or revelatory contemplations.

Basically, My Love Is A Bulldozer is best when Aaron Funk does what we’ve always known he excels at: distilling bludgeoning, frantically-paced breakbeats in jazzy clusters, supported by his unique ability to blend in other textures, be they strings, voices, samples or electronics. Ambition is hardly a fault, but it’s clear that on this latest salvo, Funk tends to overreach himself.

A Quietus Interview: At One With Chaos & Abandonment: The Irrepressibles Interviewed (June 19th, 2014)

The first thing that hits you when listening to Nude, the superlative second album by London-based art-pop group The Irrepressibles, is the vocal power of lead singer and songwriter Jamie McDermott. McDermott’s capacity to wrench heartfelt, overwhelming emotion with every word that emerges from his mouth brings to mind Antony Hegarty, with whom he also shares a penchant for lyrics that openly and honestly explore issues surrounding homosexuality and gender. Over the past few months, The Irrepressibles have been touring incessantly, including a trip to Russia – home of some of the most homophobic laws in Europe – and have also returned to the material on Nude for three EPs that showcase the wide tapestry of the band’s sound. Nude: LandscapesNude: Viscera and Nude: Forbidden contain alternate versions of tracks from Nude as well as new material and remixes, but they differ wildly from one another, together creating an alternative vision of McDermott’s inner and outer world from the original album. The Quietus met with Jamie McDermott to discuss these three differing soundscapes, the honesty of his lyrics and that remarkable voice.

How are you? It seems like it’s been a busy year for you…

Jamie McDermott: [Laughs] Yeah, I dunno. It’s sort of like heaven and hell at the same time, it’s been pretty extreme. For a lot of musicians at the moment, it’s like you’re making music and managing to get by living on very little. I live on a council estate, which is really quite rough and harsh, and the next extreme is getting on a plane getting booked at the Academy Of Music and hearing opera being played! It’s quite extreme for musicians.

Nude, your second album, was released to considerable acclaim in 2012. Could you tell me a little bit about its creation?

JM: It was quite difficult, because we knew we needed to make the second record as soon as we could, as the first had come out in 2010 and there was quite a lot of pressure to make the second. I wanted to make a very different statement, but also to make it in a way that wasn’t contrived. The idea was to do something that was both visually and lyrically honest about my sexuality. I wanted to make something that kind of communicated the experiences I’ve had growing up as a young gay man. I took songs that I’d written from various times, when I was a lot younger, and felt I could give them an arrangement that would set them in a time. I used 80s and early 90s-style electronics and then, as with Mirror Mirror, I used orchestration, but instead of orchestrating it in a very polyphonic way, I wanted to make something that was a bit more American and filmic. A use of strings that doesn’t have a specific style, so I used the strings in a way that was a bit more about memory and time, rather than being set in time.

That’s how the record came together, but when we handed it over, we had a difficult process because the label decided they didn’t want it, so we had to find a different way of releasing it. And that was a really big challenge. We’d made this thing which, for the time, was very honestly gay in a way that many artists weren’t really doing in terms of mainstream music. Now, there have been a lot of artists that have done similar things, even people like Goldfrapp – who’s done music that deals with gender and homosexuality – which is fantastic, but at the time, it was a bit like “woahh… ok”.

So it’s been quite a difficult couple of years, but the finishing line was, for me, performing at the first ever gay wedding in the UK, singing ‘Two Men In Love’, and performing out in Russia, being part of the movement and meeting with the LGBT resistance. It was really interesting to be involved with the LGBT movement worldwide, including with our videos, which is hard to do with no budget [laughs]. People say “It doesn’t look aesthetically very good”, and it’s like “Yeah, but we don’t have any money!”

Could you please give me a bit of background on The Irrepressibles, and how the band was formed?

JM: We’ve had about two or three incarnations of the band. The first one was back in 2002, and we were a band for about three years until two of them got married and decided to move away. It had been so intense, trying to make a budget work, but we had a great time, running nights such as at Candid and putting on interesting artists. I then went on to do a site-specific performance choir, but someone was trying to do something similar to the Irrepressibles and put an advert on Drowned In Sound, so I got a bit angry and decided to put a band together again. I put an advert out, and ended up with more orchestral instruments. As someone who isn’t trained as a composer, I didn’t really know what they were, so would just have a listen and then, once they were in my head, I could just sing parts and figure out what to do. That band started in 2005, and we eventually got signed in 2010.

You’ve recently released three EPs, also called Nude, that sort of reimagine and transform the songs from the Nude album, whilst also combining them with unreleased tracks. What made you decide to return to the Nude recordings?

JM: Well, Nude originally was a record that I’d made by myself as a solo artist, just with guitar and voice, and it was very similar to Nude: Viscera, the second EP. So, when I came to do Nudeas a studio album with The Irrepressibles, it was more focused on telling my story as a gay man growing up, so sonically I wanted to bring in elements of electronica as well as carry on the lineage of Mirror Mirror. So, it became a very different record and some tracks didn’t fit. It wasn’t that they were outtakes, they just didn’t fit. There was also a kind of time limit, we needed to get the album finished. But tracks like ‘Not Mine’ and ‘Forbidden’ were part of the same message, and I’ve always wanted to make statement albums and not just the same album over and over again. I want to make different sound worlds with specific messages. So, I felt these songs needed to be released in some way, but they didn’t combine into one second record, like a Nude Two.

The stuff that was more rock and more visceral came from a time when I used to be an indie-rock kind of singer. Then there was the stuff that I’d performed solo, versions of ‘Arrow’ and so on, that were very different versions that I was actually quite nervous of performing without the other musicians. But I did it in Paris, and people were actually quite moved by it and said I should perform that way. It ended up online and people were asking where they could hear these versions, and so there was a reason to release them as well. And then there were the electronic tracks, like ‘Forbidden’ and ‘Edge Of Now’ that needed to be put out somehow, especially as we’d had these remixes done. For example, Ghosting Season, the Mancunian duo, did remixes of ‘Arrow’ and ‘Forbidden’, and I really love their work, as well as iamamiwhoami, who remixed ‘New World’. It seemed like the right thing to do, to create these three EPs, kind of like a band doing a live album, a kind of add-on.

It also allowed us to perform in different ways. A lot of people expect to hear a replication of the album [when it’s performed] live, and Nude is symphonic and electronic, with quite medium-scale production values. So, it’s quite difficult to replicate onstage. I don’t want people to come expecting one thing from the album and then hearing something else, so the idea is that if we release these EPs, people will get an idea of what to expect on tour. So we toured Nude: Landscapes in the UK and the US and then took Nude: Viscera on a more extended tour in the UK. And we’re about to do a more expansive tour in the USA. It’s kind of blown up a little bit, so we’re going out to Tel Aviv and Greece… Eventually, we’ll come back and do the full Nudespectacle, so we can do the more visual side of my work as well. It’s really nice, though, to play onstage and just be in the moment, rather than as part of something that’s very choreographed and set. That’s very tight, whereas with just piano and strings, using loop pedals, and with the “rock” EP, there’s a chance to be in the moment, which is just great. And I can sing more! Because I fucking love singing [laughs].

You’ve kind of touched on this, but does each EP represent a different facet of The Irrepressibles, in some way?

JM: It’s interesting, because some bands set out with a very specific idea of what they want to do, with a clear mission, but I never did that with The Irrepressibles. The mission statement was always to be like the name is: unrestricted. It can be quite confusing to people, because we’ve kind of moved from what was a rock-pop style into something that’s more electronic or whatever. There isn’t a sound of The Irrepressibles. Somebody mentioned that there is a sound that you can hear throughout everything that “says” The Irrepressibles, but in terms of style, I’m completely at one with chaos and abandonment.

Also, I think I’ve been very much a control freak with The Irrepressibles, but I’m still very interested in collaboration and it’s been very interesting to have people remix stuff. I just gave them free reign, and it’s the same when we do music videos. We’ve just done some music for a Shelly Love film. She’s making a trilogy of films based on the Forgotten Circus, and I’ve just written some music for the first short film, which was, in a way, more in the style of Mirror Mirror. It’s nice to suddenly be in a room full of orchestral instruments and write just by singing parts while I’m in the room, before going into the studio working with electronics. Maybe it’s because I’m gay, but I’m very open! [laughs]

What made you decide on which songs should be performed in a certain way?

JM: Mainly, it was just informed by what they were. On the first EP, people wanted the orchestral version of ‘Arrow’, before I’d built it up with electronics, so that was already there, same with the live version of ‘New World’. Then I was asked to do a cover by an American film company, and I’d never wanted to do covers, so it had to be something that meant something emotionally to me in this time, and ‘Always In My Mind’ seemed right. I love that song, the sentiment is so powerful.

What is the meaning of each EP’s title?

JM: With each title, it kind of has a double concept, it some ways. Nude: Landscapes is to do with expanding the landscapes with loop pedals. All the arrangements are being built on top of each other, so there’s a sense, for me – and I know this sounds kind of spiritual! – of there being a line put into the loop that is then a memory that you then build upon, and it becomes a reflection of the memory. I actually really enjoy that way of arranging. I’ve always done it, really, but the loop has allowed me to really expand that. In ‘Arrow’, for example, the ending is massively orchestrated: it’s got loads of different lines that are to do with emotions. When it’s the electronic version, it’s quite difficult to hear that, unless it’s through a really big speaker system at a concert. So, it’s nice to release it in this way. All the arrangements on Nude: Landscapes are to do with expanding landscapes, taking something from minimalism and expanding it into a landscape to do with time and memory.

With Nude: Viscera, it’s kind of two things. One, catharsis, so on a track like ‘Not Mine’, it’s something that’s very in the stomach and emotionally there, but also in the same sort of place there’s sex. So the song is all to do with sex and the visceral, really. They were all written at a time when I was discovering my sexuality, or that were about the end of something. ‘Now That My Lover Is Dead’ and ‘Not Mine’ are about the end of a relationship, and they’re quite bitter and visceral. It’s exploring sex and sexuality, and it’s interesting to perform that way, viscerally, onstage, and it just be about not being restrictive, which electronic music can be. I always find electronic music to be like orchestral, because in a way it’s quite mystical and magical, but it’s also more elemental, like furniture or glass orbs: it’s got a shape to it. Working with orchestration is often more linear, where rock music comes from there [points to his stomach].

On the electronic record, Nude: Forbidden, the electronic tracks are all focused on time and memory, and their connections with sexuality. It’s darker, and [tied in with] the videos. So, the video for ‘Forbidden’ is about a boy discovering at a very young age that he’s in love with his best friend, whilst ‘Edge of Now’ is a fucking dance of defiance, with lots of different people from the LGBT community dancing completely naked, so it’s not about lifestyle, y’know, putting clothes on to say, like, “I’m a lesbian, this is how I dress, because that’s my choice”. No, it’s stripped bare, completely naked, “this is physically who I am, but this is my sexuality depicted in the video”. It was interesting. We had straight guys in the video as well. It’s also one of the earliest songs, I wrote it when I was about eighteen, and it’s about the bullying I’d experienced. I was bullied viciously, and so it’s about trying to break free from the restrictions and constraints people try to put on you. So it’s connected to ‘Arrow’, and to the album.

I have to ask you about your voice. I saw you at Snape Maltings two years back (singing in David Toop’s opera Star-Shaped Biscuit), and I found it to be extraordinary, and it’s the same on record. How do you achieve such an amazing vocal prowess?

JM: There are a couple of ways of approaching the voice, I think. The way I approach my voice is very Afro-American in its technique. I was trained in rock, soul, gospel and jazz, and was originally a rock singer, and I learned what’s called “head-voicing” in Afro-American style, which is just the voice that resonates in the head. In classical music, it’s called the countertenor, but it’s slightly different in its technique. I was never classically trained. In classical training, a lot of it is to do with control, physically, and it’s a very different approach. In Afro-American styles of singing, it’s more about letting the diaphragm or the body release, so it allows me to move from head resonance into something that’s within a larynx mix, more like a jazz crooner. I never use baritone, I don’t really know how to do it. As I used to be a rock singer, I sometimes push my chest forward to use to full voice.

It’s all bits that are to do with Afro-American styles of singing, but I think in the context of working with string instruments, it’s become a little bit more like a classical countertenor, even if it isn’t one. I could never achieve the control, I don’t think, in terms of singing so many notes per second. I tried to learn some Schörnberg. Lore Luxembourg, who was also at Snape, tried to get me to sing some Schörnberg, and I was like “Ummmm, I can’t read music!” [laughs]. It was very difficult, but she was very adamant I should try. I’ve always sung, since I was a child, and a lot of singers tend to develop a thing called “singing Tourette’s” – we basically can’t stop singing, all the time! [laughs] It’s obsessive, you’re always in your voice, always exploring what it can do, and exploring emotions with it.

You’ve mentioned your sexuality. Do you feel LGBT artists have a duty, of sorts, to speak out about LGBT issues in their art?

JM: I don’t think they have a duty. There’s a lot of amazingly talented gay artists, but, I dunno… I can’t really say what other people should do, but, for me, it’s really upsetting to hear that kids have killed themselves because they were being bullied for being gay. I was viciously bullied, and still do get it – I got hit not long ago on tour, in the street. I get heckled all the time. In this country, we’re very lucky, but there’s still a lot to do and say. For me it’s like, why not express your experience fully through art and music? ‘New World’, the video and song, are what I experienced. To say that message clearly was important. It’s fun to just make music, but I think it’s important for LGBT people to make work that communicates their life expressively. I’ve always thought of pop music as being about communicating something.

Has the reaction to your lyrics been a mostly positive one?

JM: We’ve had messages from the National Front, we’ve had Christian groups, and all kinds of things said online. But we’ve never experienced anything in a big way. When we went to Moscow, it took the technicians eight hours to deal with things technically, we nearly couldn’t go onstage. When we did, they refused to turn the sound on, one of the drummers had to throw his sticks to get them to turn on the video for ‘Arrow’. I dunno… I’m just kind of in it, I can’t really intellectualise it. I’ve always made music that is honest, I think it’s part of my personality. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but I’ve kind of left behind the emotional worry about what I’m saying, because I get so involved in the creative process.

The Irrepressibles’ album Nude and the three Nude EPs are all out now

A Quietus Live Report: Richard Skelton and the Elysian Quartet at St Luke’s, London (June 17th, 2014)

The lovely, intimate and acoustically-exquisite St Luke’s on Old Street could almost have been built with Richard Skelton in mind. His music shares some of the venue’s sparseness, and it is given extra dramatic potency as it fills the room, rebounding gracefully off the ceiling and walls.

Tonight’s show features three pieces inspired by Skelton’s residency at Snape Maltings in Suffolk last December. Throughout his stay in Snape, he explored the surrounding landscapes, drawing particular inspiration from the river Alde and the expansive marshlands surrounding it, which eventually lead to the sea. It’s a familiar approach from Skelton, whose numerous wonderful albums have all been imbued with a sense of location and landscape, often very specific ones. And rivers have long featured prominently in that equation, although perhaps not as much as at St Luke’s.

Most fascinating, perhaps, is the “recruitment” of the Elysian Quartet for the three pieces, which, before the actual show, seemed to be an attempt to flesh out Skelton’s music by adding a cello, viola and two violins. In fact -and this is testament to Richard Skelton’s talent as a composer- the addition of the Elysian Quartet takes his music much further than merely adding some instruments, and indeed, all three pieces are evocative of Skelton’s previous body of work, whilst also branching out into new territory.

The first piece, ‘EA’, sounds instantly familiar for any fan of Skelton, with low, mournful drones from all instruments, the man himself using a bowed bouzouki. “Ea” is an old Anglo-saxon word for “river”, and the slow-moving ebb and flow of the cello and bouzouki in particular sound like the effortless sea-wards drift of a body of water: patient, languid and eternal. As the piece progresses, one of the violinists starts a repeated series of short, almost pizzicato notes, as if we’re suddenly joined on this river journey by a fluttering bird. The bird theme returns on the second work, ‘Above/Below’, performed solely by the Elysian Quartet. The four players swirl and drift around one another, notes tumbling out in flurries or gracefully unfurled like opening flowers. Skelton’s intense relationship with nature is encapsulated on ‘Above/Below’, as he thoroughly researched the different species of bird he encountered whilst in Suffolk. The result is a piece that, whilst evidently performed on strings, manages to conjure up thoughts and images of birds in the mind’s eye. Even if he isn’t performing, Skelton’s alchemical touch is at the heart of this music.

Skelton returns for the final piece, ‘Mimesis’, which is by far the most dramatic of the three. Inspired by the flood warnings that dot the riverbanks of the Alde, Skelton has managed to crystallise the angst and distress of last winter’s dreadful floods in the west of the country by metastasizing them into a nightmare projection of a similar catastrophe hitting Suffolk. The drones are no longer mournful but angry and portentous, the instruments often pitched at odds with each other, tempo-wise. By the end of the piece, the strings of Skelton’s bow are hanging raggedly and a thrilled hush permeates the audience. This set transcends anything Richard Skelton has released on CD or record, and confirms him as a great modern composer with a rare talent for translating memories and dreams into musical reality.

A Quietus Review: Flying Fantasy by Alexander Turnquist (June 13th, 2014)

Perhaps the most strikingly beautiful thing about Flying Fantasy is that it’s born out of a period of awful pain for young composer/guitarist Alexander Turnquist. After a seized-up nerve in his hand required surgery and for him to re-learn how to play the guitar, work on the album was further thrown into disarray by a severe bout of meningitis that he is still overcoming. I think the word is “crikey”, and many would have thrown in the towel and given up on their art after so much duress. Instead, it appears to have galvanised Turnquist, resulting in an album that is traversed by pain but aims towards beauty as a form of balm.

Turnquist is a remarkable 12-string guitarist, and if it has been considerably diminished by illness, it doesn’t show on Flying Fantasy. Like nearly every fingerpicker that emerges from America, comparisons to John Fahey and James Blackshaw have been bandied around, but Turnquist sounds unlike either. His notes tumble out of his guitar in cascades, liquid myriads of melody that shimmer with emotion and feeling. On their own, they would lend a starkness to Flying Fantasythat would possibly not cover the breadth of Turnquist’s vision, but as he’s also a talented composer, he has succeeded in creating a sequence of lush, varied and ambitious tracks on which to flesh out the foundations set by his guitar.

On the album’s opener – and most effective track – ‘House Of Insomniacs’ (a reference to hospital, maybe?) is a demonstration of fluidity and control in equal measure. After a short overture of resonating plucked chords, the piece gathers momentum with a driving central guitar melody that Turnquist adds to and embellishes whilst also allowing lingering moments of contemplative silence. The introduction of lustrous strings, melancholic piano and dramatic horns, not to mention a ghostly wordless choir swells the track up to near-symphonic levels, the circular nature of Turnquist’s music never becoming redundant or repetitive, instead allowing the listener to hone in on details, or sit back and let the music fill the senses. Every track feels delicate, fragile even, as if instilled with the essence of the butterflies that adorn Flying Fantasy‘s cover.

More portentous than its predecessor, ‘Finding The Butterfly’ is dominated by mournful violins, an almost doomy organ and the restlessness of Turnquist’s guitar, which surges and recedes in a flurry of high-pitched arpeggios. The horn arrangements are most effective on ‘Red Carousel’, an homage to Ray Bradbury’s surreal horror novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, settling uneasily around the central guitar-and-voice duet like ominous clouds. The title track, meanwhile, is almost austere by comparison, with loamy electronics, drifting ambience, and the most minimal of twelve-string interjections. The imagery conjured up is one of vacant shorelines and parting clouds, a nicely understated expression of hope after hardship, and a strangely moving counterpart to the album’s busier moments. On Flying Fantasy, Turnquist neatly sidesteps the temptation to brood over his recent traumas, instead offering a more nuanced, gently unpredictable expression of pain and redemption, and the album, whilst tantalisingly brief, is all the better for it.

A Quietus Review: Delta by Mai Mai Mai (June 9th, 2014)

Delta is one of those albums that feels like it has emerged, fully-formed and wonderfully weird, from a parallel universe or sickly secret society that we’ve never heard of but always suspected might be lying underneath our own. In reality, this mysterious world is the multi-faceted musical underground of Italian capital Rome, for which Toni Cutrone is one of the foremost poster boys as Mai Mai Mai and in noisy, psychedelic bands like Hiroshima Rocks Around, not to mention through his work as a venue owner, label boss and organiser of the Thalassa festival in the Eternal City. It makes sense, therefore, that Rome seems to inhabit Delta, an album that is as busy as its home city, and just as enigmatic.

More specifically than Rome as a whole, it’s the working class, socially and ethnically diverse district of Roma Est, the setting for many an iconic Italian film, that informs much of the capital’s underground scene, but Mai Mai Mai’s music feels more outward-looking. Cutrone is a well-travelled individual, born on an island in the Aegean sea, and, of course, the title itself hints at the other historical giant of the Mediterranean, Greece. Delta stretches back and forwards through time, reaching into the past to toy with Cutrone’s memories and the wider scope of history, before re-imagining these capsules of the past in a muddled, genre-less present and future. The memories are suggested by field recordings garnered from around the Mediterranean, echoing Cutrone’s childhood spent following his parents from country to country and dissolving distinct references into a pool of combined sound worlds. Instantly, the UK “hauntology” scene of Demdike Stare and others springs to mind, but there is a playfulness behind Mai Mai Mai that many a British act seem to lack. Tracks bubble with wobbly analogue synthesiser lines and drones, consistently disturbed and unsettled by bursts of gristly noise. Beats are dropped casually into tracks, deployed sparingly but with subtle rhythmic force. Delta feels alchemical, a smartly distilled collection of sounds brewed together into a heady cocktail of genre-less, arrhythmic post-everything.

There are nonetheless certain references points that emerge as signposts across the four tracks that make up the album. Second track ‘Βυζάντιον’ is a listless slice of electro/noise/drone, all moody sci-fi synths and muted post-dubstep micro-beats, but the presence of a Christian choir in the background unsettles the track’s dynamic, injecting a pall of unease. Italy is a country dominated by Catholicism, but Cutrone draws a curious parallel between the established church and an inchoate form of paganism, as if the churches of Italy had all been built on the smouldering ashes of wicker men. Equally, the sound lexicon of Italian giallo and gothic horror is forever close toDelta‘s shifting surface, imbuing the album with a distinct sense of unease and threat, and the Catholic references only seem to enhance this, echoing Goblin’s soundtrack for Dario Argento’s baroque masterpiece Suspiria. Elsewhere, modernity and the past collide viciously on ‘τετρακτύς’, which sounds like early Cabaret Voltaire recorded in an abandoned Fiat factory.

At 29 minutes, Delta doesn’t really deserve to be called an album, but Cutrone deserves admiration for how much he crams into such a short space of time, preventing the listener from ever locking the record into the straightjackets of genre and influence. Cutrone emerges as a wholly individual character, similar to the likes of Failing Light, Hacker Farm or 1612 Underture, but equally completely different. Delta is a weird object, and unlike anything else you are likely to hear in 2014. I can’t wait to hear what happens when he stretches things out a bit

A Quietus Review: Altamont Rising by Shift (June 5th, 2014)

 

As Paul Hegarty noted in his marvellous book Noise/Music: A History, noise is defined by what it’s not: it’s not melodic, it’s not song-based, it’s not accessible. It’s meant to be hard to listen to. Thing is, though, if you go to a noise gig in some backroom of a pub, fans like me might be being challenged, but we’re fucking loving it, and audiences rapidly transform into moshing hordes of delighted head-bangers, regardless of how abrasive or loud the music is. Meanwhile, textures from noise have percolated their way into more mainstream genres, from dub-pop to dance music. So, in 2014, can noise still make a listener feel uneasy or prone to declaring “this is not music”?

I don’t know the answer, although my Vomir records tend to make my friends roll their eyes or scream at me to turn the stereo off, so maybe it’s down to personal taste rather than something inherent to noise. Whatever the case, Altamont Rising by Swedish noise-head Shift is certainly a troubling listen, and a sharp reminder of the visceral potency of harsh noise. As the title suggests, Willford takes the tragedy at the 1969 Altamont festival – where a black teenager, Meredith Hunter, was killed by Hell’s Angels during the Rolling Stones’ set – as a starting point to explore dark and sinister themes. Also plundered are two films, Apocalypse Now and Valhalla Rising, and Shift uses these three topics to misanthropically take up position against humankind’s fractious relationship with nature, clearly concluding that homo sapiens is, in general, a pretty crap species. Fair point, but, as so often with noise, any clear position is hard to pin down, drowned in waves of crashing noise, with only snippets of brutal sampled movie dialogue or re-worked Stones’ lyrics indicating where Shift stands, albeit obliquely. Such ambivalence is typical for noise and power electronics, and will do nothing to dispel the long-standing debate about how the genres lead to or allow the expression of far right political views. I don’t know where Shift stands on such matters, and in such circumstances it’s better to leave interpretation behind and focus on the music.

In Shift’s case, it’s pretty simple: Altamont Rising is a gnarly beast of pure harsh noise that somehow feels refreshing in 2014, even if it breaks no new ground. After so much genre cross-pollination in noise, getting assaulted by a full-on blast of saturated electronics and gut-shaking sub-bass feels like a release, a return to basics done well, in the grand tradition of Whitehouse, Merzbow (circa Venereology) and The Cherry Point. The aforementioned sampled dialogue (notably grisly when taken from the violent viking film Valhalla Rising), deployed on ‘The Raptors Talons Tore At Their Flesh’ and ‘Rising’ are buried under waves of garbled harsh tones and ever-shifting drones, whilst Shift’s own vocalising is a hideous, incomprehensible shriek of the kind you’d expect on a black metal album.

On ‘They Don’t Suffer Enough’, the vacillating bursts of noise develop a kind of propulsive forward momentum, the shifts building up like ruptured backbeats overdriven in an apocalyptic harsh techno set performed at the end of the world. The album’s apex is ‘Shelter’, on which, over the sound of the Altamont crowd’s chaotic terror, Shift howls the iconic lyrics of the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’, “Rape! Murder! It’s just a kiss away,” like a demented sanatorium inmate. If there’s nothing new or particularly edifying about Altamont Rising, it fills the noise brief of being difficult to enjoy and standing at the antithesis of what music was traditionally meant to represent. In the somewhat aimless world that is the noise underground in 2014, it feels almost like a call to arms.

A Quietus Review: Psychedelic Judgeman Comes, He Has The Cherry Blossom On The Shoulder by Psyche Bugyo (May 23rd, 2014)

 

Even amid the myriad offshoots that frequently peel away from the supersized parallel universe inhabited by Acid Mothers Temple and The Melting Paraiso UFO, Psyche Bugyo deserves much note, primarily because it manages to out-weird its parent band. Ostensibly a concept album based on a loose narrative surrounding samurais and ninjas, Psychedelic Judgeman Comes, He Has The Cherry Blossom On The Shoulder is mostly an opportunity for AMT bassist and vocalist Tsuyama Atsushi to go wild in a majestic homage to classic British heavy rock, and he and his team blow the fucking doors off in the process.

In essence, the concept and storyline behind Psychedelic Judgeman are immaterial, and I doubt even Japanese speakers would be able to get much of it, given the sparseness of the way Tsuyama deploys his lyrics and how nonsensical the delivery is. His eructations sound more like mantras, peppered by scattered woops and hysterical laughter; they’re both silly and unsettling, even when he lapses into deranged English on ‘Psychedelic Judgeman’. What really marks Psychedelic Judgeman as a mini triumph of modern day psych is the way in which obvious influences (Cream, King Crimson, Free, Van der Graaf Generator) are fed into a magimix, reduced to a seamless paste and then spat back out as three tracks of burning, broiling hard-edged trippiness.

Take the wacky opener ‘Ore No Abarenboshogun’. Driven by circular organ riffs and open-ended twin guitar solos like the improvisational parts by In The Court Of The Crimson King-era KC, it builds into a typically AMT-esque wall of constant playing, a jam session elevated to rock & roll art. At intervals, when Tsuyama takes to the microphone, the band lurches into a soaring coda based on The Animals’ ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, which dissolves back into the main melody as Tsuyama’s vocals descend into ominous babbles and grunts. The drummer sounds like Michael Giles, the saxophonist more like Van der Graaf’s David Jackson, whilst there’s no end of references for the organ: take your pick from Wakeman, Emerson or Banton. At fifteen minutes in duration, ‘Ore No Abarenboshogun’ sounds like the middle section of ‘Twentieth Century Schizoid Man’ extended into an endless, freeform jam throughout which Psyche Bugyo are somehow able to keep things together, their interplay bordering on the telepathic. It’s probably the most ferociously gleeful and hard-hitting of the album’s three tracks; a teleport through time to the height of seventies’ prog-rock’s gestatory phase, when it viscerally promised so much more than its later decades would ultimately provide.

After such an unfettered opener, the 34-minute title track and centrepiece is more conceptual and varied, starting with a similar driving opening section as ‘Ore No Abarenboshogun’, although sounding here more like John Peel’s erstwhile protégés Tractor merged with Cream than King Crimson. Drums crash and thunder, organs are overloaded to the max and the guitars rip up an almighty tornado of ecstatic feedback and noise. Just over ten minutes in, the pace switches instantaneously to a slow-paced heavy ballad akin to Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’, or, perhaps more pertinently, ‘Kokoro’ by Japanese seventies explorers Far East Family Band. The solos here are exquisite, aching with bluesy emotion, the space opening up behind the guitarists to really pour out their notes. This section builds and builds, exploding with stadium-wide intensity, before disintegrating into a miasma of noise that betrays the band’s roots in Acid Mothers Temple. ‘Psychedelic Judgeman’ ends with a rapid-fire proto-metal dash to the finish line, mimicking ‘Siberian Khatru’, the finale from Yes’ seminal Close To The Edge.

After such a dramatic central track, closer ‘Son of Mr Livingfellow’ feels tacked on, its folky acoustic guitars, massed vocals and ever-changing tempos at odds with the burning intensity of ‘Psychedelic Judgeman’. Maybe that’s for the best, and a folk-rock closer that nods towards the weird end of British psych (The Incredible String Band or Jan Dukes de Grey, perhaps) is no hardship. It also feels a lot closer to a number of Japanese bands like the aforementioned Far East Family Band or J.A. Caesar, proving that Psyche Bugyo are much more than the sum of their influences. Psychedelic Judgeman Comes, He Has The Cherry Blossom On The Shoulder is an album that sits out of time, for it could have been made at any time since 1968. There’s no higher compliment one could pay to a band bearing their inspirations so brazenly on their sleeves.