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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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