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.

A Dusted Review: Rituals by David Shea (November 21st, 2014)

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David Shea is an American avant-garde composer and occasional turntablist who has released records on experimental labels including Sub Rosa and John Zorn’s Tzadik, but who has clearly found an even more suitable stable in Lawrence English’s Room 40, on whichRituals see the light of day. The bulk, if not all, of the material(s) on Rituals was recorded in English’s native Australia, and from field recordings taken in the bush to the very psychological fabric of the album, it’s a work imbued with the spirit of that distant continent. From simple sources (found sounds, instruments, voices), Shea interweaves and juxtaposes each element into a rich sonic tapestry that instantly makes Rituals a challenging and invigorating experience.

A title like Rituals of course suggests a spiritual dimension, and Shea takes inspiration from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions of east and southeast Asia. He opens the album with a more “western” (for lack of a better word) single voice incantation pitched somewhere between Popol Vuh’s Hosianna Mantra and the devotional folk music of Armenia, that almost imperceptibly transforms into an extended chanted period seemingly recorded inside a Buddhist temple. The incantatory vocalisations are melded together and then buffeted by all-encompassing drones on harmoniums, horns and strings that suggest a primordial force.

The vibrations become almost painful when played at high volume. All this comes within the first few minutes of “Ritual 32,” the album’s potent opening movement. As the voices recede, a piano takes over, playing out a circular, low-key melody in the post-jazz tradition of Keith Jarrett circa The Köln Concert. As with Jarrett’s masterpiece, what could have easily been puerile noodling is masterfully kept in check to be elevated into something affective and emotional, whilst lingering moments of decay evoke the minimalist piano works of Michael Nyman and LaMonte Young. By the time the voices return, “Ritual 32” has become an otherworldly experience as opposed to a mere composition, and the transition into an almost gamelan-esque final coda seems perfectly appropriate. Shea claims that a ritual “puts the experience of listening at the centre of the works,” and this has rarely been more true in music than on this opening masterwork.

Far from overshadowing what follows, however, “Ritual 32” merely sets the tone for an album that maybe errs on the side of excessive lengthiness but always stays true to its composer’s philosophy of sound and desire to create a work that’s truly immersive. Field recordings dominate “Emerald Garden” and “Wandering in the Dandenongs” in very different ways. On the former they are surrounded by clusters of abrasive white noise, movie-soundtrack eerie synths and austere moments of contemplative drone.

In the latter the harsh environment of the Australian outback is recreated initially with the fidelity of a Chris Watson piece, although Shea quickly shows his interest in the music of Luc Ferrari as all preconceptions of field recordings are destabilised.Lo-fi flutes and recorders kick in around five minutes in, joined by other primitive instruments such as hand drums, whilst the sounds of birds and insects are amplified, as if the listener has just stumbled onto some bizarre, substance-fueled campfire ritual during which perception itself is rendered unreliable and more than a little treacherous. Less imposing than the similarly-lengthy “Ritual 32,” “Wandering in the Dandenongs” achieves similar results by simply being unfathomable and oblique.

Throughout Rituals there is an insistence on focusing on the very impact of music upon the physical realm, as if this could somehow make for a crossover into domains far beyond human perception. It’s no surprise to see Australian multi-instrumentalist and prolific composer Oren Ambarchi crop up on two tracks (notably the emphatic incantatory closer “Green Dragon Inn”), not to mention Lawrence English on another, because both have attempted similar experiments in traversing planes through sound. I’m no spiritualist, but Shea makes a compelling case on Rituals, his deep, resonant, vibrating assembly of tones, drones and sounds reaching deep into the listener’s body, causing it to tremble with cymatic force.

A Dusted Review: Faith in Strangers by Andy Stott (November 19th, 2014)

The evocative, monochrome artwork that adorns every Andy Stott release for Modern Love is like a mirror for the stripped-down, minimalist brand of dance music that the Manchester-based producer distills. However, this only tells a part of the story of an artist in constant evolution, drawing together strands of music both dance floor-orientated and otherwise to create his own vision of electronica. 2012’s Luxury Problems felt like a conclusion, or at least a crystallization, of all the influences that had fueled Andy Stott, from Joy Division to dubstep, resulting in a perfectly-formed capsule of Northern English dance, and left us grateful listeners wondering where he could go next.

As it turns out, “next” means a return to basics, and Faith in Strangers retains little ofLuxury Problems’ hermetic universe, instead sees Stott reaching out and grabbing, almost hungrily, a wealth of sounds and styles. There is, however, one constant, namely the shape-shifting vocals of Alison Skidmore, Stott’s former piano teacher, who featured already on Luxury Problems. If on that album she was, consistent with Modern Love’s “hauntological” aesthetic (see Demdike Stare), a ghostly, elusive presence, on Faith in Strangers she often stands front and centre, with Stott contorting his music around her crystalline words and eructations.

This eclecticism delivers mixed results. Luxury Problems showcased Stott’s remarkable talent for crafting infectious, hypnotic rhythms: snaky, tremulous beats that owed in part as much to the unflinching repetition of the Durutti Column or Joy Division as they did to dubstep or techno. Here, the rhythm is stripped away on numerous tracks in favour of swathes of ambience and industrial drone textures. It certainly makes for a more expansive work, but loses some of the immediacy that defined Stott’s music as recently as on Drop the Vowels, released earlier this year in tandem with Miles Whittaker from Demdike Stare (as Millie & Andrea). The rhythmic backdrop on tracks like “On Oath” and “Science and Industry” are spindly and minimal in the way Suicide’s primitive drum machines were, and inevitably dominated by the combinations of synths and Skidmore’s Beth Gibbons-like voice. Elsewhere, the title track feels beamed out of the mid-1990s, Stott’s avowed admiration for Cocteau Twins shining through and again driven by the vocals, even if these are as wispy as mist.

The shift in focus can leave a seasoned Stott fan bemused, but you have to salute the man’s creativity and versatility. On a number of occasions, he expertly draws a line between old and new styles.  Tracks like “Violence” (a masterpiece) and “How It Was” evoke memories of trip-hop acts like Massive Attack and more recent electro-dance contortionists such as Actress or Burial. “Violence” is simply incredible, with cavernous passages of baleful silence punctuated only by menacing electro blurts and Skidmore’s isolated moaning. When the beats and bass kick in, they go straight for the guts with the kind of shuddering force you’d hear at a Raime or King Midas Sound gig.  The tempo is reduced to almost overwhelming levels, as saturated low-end tumbles and crumbles forward unrelentingly. There’s little doubt “Violence” and the more industrial-sounding “No Surrender” will form the centrepiece of any forthcoming Andy Stott live set, although, if Faith in Strangers proves anything, it’s that predicting what the man will do next is impossible.

A Dusted Review: Loor by Kemper Norton (November 18th, 2014)

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The recent video for “All Through the Night,” one of this bizarre album’s most arresting tracks,  manages to capture not only the chill romanticism of the track, a reworking of an old Welsh folk song, but the eerie drone-meets-folk atmosphere that flows through all 46 minutes ofLoor.

In the animated vignette, which evolves almost like a short, a featureless skeletal figure wanders through a barren, snow-covered husk of a city, mournfully serenaded by Kemper Norton’s deadpan tones and promises of future deliverance. It’s both surreal and emotional, a Kafka-esque dream narrative in which the ghosts of reality toy with more fictional phantoms. Norton has described his music as “nocturnal,” and this has never been more true than on Loor — hardly surprising given that means “moon” in Cornish.

Kemper Norton is a somewhat mysterious figure (I’m pretty sure that’s not his real name, for Kemper Norton used to be a collective of sorts), a teacher by day and sonic deconstructionist at night. He has notable attachments to West England’s Hacker Farm group, and his music shares their mixture of Coil influences, electronic abrasion and esoteric flourishes. He is however more song-focused than the Hacker chaps, his compositions tapping into the rich British musical DNA of traditional folk, Warp stable mates Boards of Canada and Broadcast, and ethereal pop. Little surprise then that his music cropped up on last year’s incredible Outer Church compilation of weird British hidden treasures. The music of Kemper Norton seems to exist between two realms, as folk songs under-laid with synthetic drones and clipped rhythms: the country and the city, the past, the present and the future all bleed into one another like paint dribbling down a canvas.

If such a multi-faceted approach may seem a bit austere and imposing, well, in a way it is. Loor requires time to be grappled with. Norton’s voice is soft and inexpressive, but his lyrics seep with boiling emotions, a contradiction in and of itself. On “Cityport of Traps,” he laments the fate of a couple separated when the man left the country to live in the city only to perish in its dark recesses. Norton’s delivery, as well as on thede facto opener “Ostiaz” reminds me of the old folk song “Baloo My Boy” as rendered in the disturbing English Civil War head-trip of a film A Field In English: the stanzas lope and fold over on themselves, the words conveyed in an olde englishe style that is both charming and, in Norton’s mouth, slightly unsettling. In conversation, he comes back to themes of ghosts and the supernatural, and by resurrecting a singing style that even the likes of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake failed to latch onto, he drags the twilight realms into foggy relief, like conversations by neighbors you didn’t know you had heard through a bedroom wall separating your house from the abandoned one next door.

By focusing on such elusive fragments of details (memories, ghosts, lost friends, even fragments of melodies he’d already toyed with), Norton is able to build up layers of sounds and details that only truly emerge after repeated listens, displaying a sonic mastery that is rare even in the field of experimental electronica. Loor features a wide array of instruments (guitars, harmonium, piano, mandolin, if these ears are correct) but most tracks are dominated by crumbling electronics that shimmer and crackle around the organic-sounding elements like clouds looming in a night sky.

The term “psycho-geography” is bandied about far too often in music analysis these days, but it’s one that certainly applies to Loor (track titles such as “Lyoness Anthem” and “Cravendale Round” hint at actual locations although their meanings are shrouded in myth and Kemper’s own very personal context). Pleasingly, Norton makes no attempt to lead the listener by the nose in this regard, instead allowing his dreams and memories to form abstract sketches that still resonate as if we were there. It’s a portrait of the UK as a ghostly, post-modern Avalon, where legends and reality overlap, and where one man’s imagination swerves between the two to render a portrait in sound.

Equal parts troubling, mysterious, romantic and touching, Loor is a sonic journey into a realm I didn’t know existed and which would be inaccessible without Kemper Norton’s guiding hand. Of course, Loor is so beautifully weird, you might hesitate before accepting it next time he offers.

 

A Quietus Review: They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them by Robert Curgenven (November 4th, 2014)

This album, London-based Australian artist Robert Curgenven’s second in the space of a few months, is centred on themes of colonisation: of land, of peoples, of the environment. As the title suggests, Curgenven obviously takes a dim view of how the privileged and powerful (white colonial powers in the 18th-century, land-grabbing mega-corporations and so on) have gone about achieving their supremacy over the planet and those of its inhabitants less able or inclined to snatch and burn; and even suggests that payback is imminent, and bound to be messy for those involved. Of course, as with the musings on the seascapes surrounding Cornwall (where his ancestors hail from) that formed the basis for previous opus Sirène, these concepts are ambiguous and abstract, refracted through the myriad details and clever compositions that make up the music on They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them.

On his website, Curgenven provides links to numerous studies, interviews and reports that flesh out the ideas I mentioned above and extend his ruminations beyond the experience of Australia, notably its beleaguered and oppressed indigenous peoples, into reflections on colonialism and racism as global issues. An interview with Achille Mbembe on the Eurozine website provides intellectual background to the ways in which colonial attitudes, supposedly driven by humanism and universalism, became vehicles for violence, war and ecological disaster. Mbembe posits “post-colonial theory” as a means to move beyond the hangover from Europe’s darkest legacy after the Second World War, and reading his articulate arguments becomes more and more affecting when we consider tragedies like the Rwandan genocide and the ongoing wars in (amongst others) Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all direct fall-outs from colonial abuse. Returning back to Australia, there are clear cases where the country’s imperialist past have continued to filter into public attitudes, to the point that the current Prime Minister Tony Abbott even insouciantly claimed that Australia “unsettled” before the British showed up. Niall Ferguson may praise British Imperialism as much as he likes, but, from the plight of Australian indigenous peoples to the anti-gay laws countries such as Uganda and Jamaica inherited from their former colonial powers, the negative effects of European dominion over other lands has rippled through history to the present day. Achille Mbembe’s “post-colonial theory” is as vital as it has ever been, and so therefore is They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them.

Amongst the various recommendations, some of which I mentioned above, is Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 masterpiece Walkabout, in which two rich English children find themselves abandoned in the Australian desert and are rescued by an Aboriginal youth who stumbles across them whilst on a rite of passage involving spending several months isolated in the desert. To assemble the various parts of what became They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them, Curgenven, over ten years, embarked on his own walkabout, after a fashion, amassing a series of field recordings from remote parts of his home country, and these form the backbone of the album’s two tracks. Anyone who heard Sirène will already be familiar with the Australian’s deft touch at mixing, and here the sounds of buzzing flies, gusts of wind and bird calls are gently intermingled with manipulated pipe organ drones, amorphous guitar feedback and a mixture of dubplates, turntables and oscillators. The pieces evolve organically, each detail emerging from the mix to paint a vivid mind’s-eye picture of a landscape both familiar and unsettlingly fractured, as if Curgenven has unearthed a dark underbelly under the desert’s sands or the pavements of a city. The album’s glacial pace lends a weightiness to the music, forcing concentration even as the composer refuses to coalesce his music into something overt or demonstrative. Just like Walkabout, there is as much to be learned from what isn’t clear on They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them than from what is.

Given the grim subject matter of this album, it’s no surprise that They Tore The Earth And, Like A Scar, It Swallowed Them is a taut, even gruelling listen, its angry undertones reminiscent of another great work of field recording-based musique concrète from earlier this year, Valerio Tricoli’s Miseri Lares. But in the more peaceful moments, when the crumbling textures recede into shimmering suspended tones, there’s also a peacefulness, as if Curgenven, perhaps inspired by Achille Mbembe and the prospect of formerly colonised people shaking off the yoke of history and the plunder of their natural resources, can see new signposts towards how we can reverse trends once seen as inevitable. First and foremost, this is the second beautiful and beguiling work of art Robert Curgenven has treated the world to in 2014, and maybe such small mercies are worth treasuring in such troubled times.

A Dusted Review: Draconis by Skullflower (October 30th, 2014)

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Listening to the music of Skullflower is a psychedelic experience in the same way that staring at a blank wall or ceiling in the dark whilst on acid, drunk out of your skull and/or high on grass (delete as applicable) can be. It’s as overbearing and unwavering as the open-ended violin drone compositions of Tony Conrad or the blasted walls of sound spat out by the likes of Vomir or the Rita. It’s proof that a full-on sonic assault can, in the right context, be as blissful and, I’ll say it again, psychedelic as the tripped-out musings of a Grateful Dead or Amon Düül II. It just takes more patience and a willingness to enter into labyrinthine minds of Matt Bower and Samantha Davies. Bower, in particular, has been ploughing this arcane, extreme furrow for the best part of 30 years, gradually honing it until he’s reached something approaching “tantric noise,” like Pärson Sound with the acoustic circular melodies replaced by unending acidic mechanical bile.

For Draconis, the duo returns to the absolutist vein of 2006’s Tribulation and Strange Keys to Untune God’s Firmament from four years later: this latest album, is impossibly long. The tracks bleed into one another like melting glaciers and the primitive song structures of 2011’s superlative Fucked on a Pile of Corpses are whittled away by saturation and excruciating volume. But compared to those two releases, Skullflower have been given (or gave themselves) license to flesh things out a bit, notably via the lush packaging. The album comes in a six-panel double-digipack, complete with a 16-page booklet overflowing with lush illustrations and bizarre photographs that both detail Draconis’ thematic concerns and deepen the mystery.

Bower has long had a fascination with arcana and mythological lore, although his focus is, as ever, enigmatic. The paintings that adorn these pages are abstract yet sinister, with vivid colours and strangely animalistic shapes creating an unerring sense of moody drama, as if we’re gazing at ancient humankind’s primitive attempts to recreate the legends of the earth’s creation or the epic battles of Norse mythology. Obscure symbols crop up here and there, whilst sketches and texts evoke trees, dragons and pyramids under the stars, drawing lines in myth and science from the north of England to Bhutan via ancient Egypt and the Hindu goddess Kali. Keeping things as vague and mysterious as possible only accentuates the album’s heady form of lyrical psychedelia. I cannot pretend to understand Bower and Davies’ vision, for I do not have their knowledge or imagination, but it sucks you in like a tornado, because you can’t help but try to figure it out.

“Tornado” is also a great metaphor for the music on Draconis. Each track on disc one is a veritable maelstrom of noise with extensive layer of “strings” (live they focus on guitar and violin, but sometimes I swear I can hear synths on Draconis, albeit bludgeoned into abstraction by effects) superimposed and swirling around one another like gales of wind blowing in every direction at once. Disc two is slightly more nuanced, from the two-minute opener “Alien Awakening” (there are aliens in here as well!) that sounds like Keiji Haino recorded in a wind tunnel mid-solo to the epic musical tapestry of 15-minute closer “Dakshinikalika” via “Dresden Spires”’ crumbling blocks of industrial crunch.

These are some of the most epic and evocative tracks ever released by Skullflower: huge slabs of metaphysical noise with the awe-inspiring primeval-ness of ancient stone circles, ice-capped mountains or ruined industrial buildings. In translating nature’s mystery and majesty into noise, Skullflower have thrown a curveball into the genre’s progression, taking out of sweaty club spaces and into somewhere more spectral, contemplative and, yet again, psychedelic. It’s no wonder the band mention Popol Vuh on the label’s website.

But should anyone reading this be tempted to regard Bower and Davies as little more than two slightly unhinged hippies with a taste for noise and post-pagan mumbo-jumbo, I urge you to check out their back catalogue and anything else you can find on them. There’s a vein of sly, sardonic humour that runs through their entire work (encapsulated here by a picture of their cat looking bemused in the booklet), whilst all this sturm-und-drang conceals first and foremost a deep sense of humanity: our past, our present, our future, our emotions and our fears.

It’s hard to tell if this hour and fifteen minutes of noise and drone is a definitive Skullflower statement, but it does what all great music must: it throws open the doors of possibility, asks more questions than it answers, and aims for something beyond the mundanities of reality.

A Quietus Review: Blood for the Return by Mirage (October 16th, 2014)

The story behind this album, and how it came to light, reads like a weird piece of psychological thriller fiction. Todd Ledford, whose Olde English Spelling Bee label is being reactivated after a lasting hiatus to release Blood For The Return, tells the story in all its bizarre glory here, but, to keep it short, Mirage is the one-man project of a man claiming to be 19 years of age and going by the name of Robin Nydal (geddit?), who records from his bedroom at his parents’ place. Of course, that’s not his real name and, as Ledford quickly found out, Mirage isn’t 19. Indeed he has been claiming to be a 19-year-old recording at his parents’ place for a few years, and the artwork used onBlood For The Return has already cropped up on other projects “Nydal” has worked on. Of which there have been many. Looking past the weirdness and smoke and mirrors of Mirage’s back-story, however, and what emerges is the image of a perhaps troubled and certainly intense young man with, as the album demonstrates, a very precocious talent.

Blood For The Return stems from the bedroom pop tradition of the mid-noughties known as “hypnagogic pop”, and whether or not such a sub-genre even realistically existed, it certainly harks back to very early Ariel Pink and acts like James Ferraro and Rangers, although more in terms of sound than content. Indeed, there is none of the video game, cartoon, Internet or TV show ephemera that popped up like half-formed memories on most “hypnagogic pop” albums of the past, with Nydal’s nostalgia steeped firmly in pop tropes of decades long revolved, from The Beach Boys to ELO via Fleetwood Mac, Van Dyke Parks and even prog acts like Genesis or Yes. You’ve got to have some ambition in you to want to emulate most of those whilst recording in your bedroom, and yet, in some ways, Nydal comes damn close. Whilst anything approaching the expanse and scope of, say, ‘Close To The Edge’ or ‘Supper’s Ready’ would be pretty much impossible, Blood For The Return nonetheless brims with intricate details and surprise shifts, all drenched with smothering layers of distortion – sometimes too many of them.

Locked inside these walls of sound are often striking melodies, especially on the loping title track, which opens the album with considerable force, or tracks like ‘Hubbard’ and ‘Do You Remember’, the latter almost single-worthy in its concise urgency and irresistible layered harmonies. Nydal’s lyrics, when audible, are oblique in the sunkissed poetic style of a David Crosby or, again, Ariel Pink, who would probably relish a line like “My Poison Oak and vine, we mate in the water/Boot thigh, lip and tongue all fit for the slaughter”, from the quasi-glam and sensual ‘Children Games’. Stripped of any real context (beyond all the above sleight of hands), however, the album as a whole often fails to match these oddball heights. Nydal’s monomaniacal drive has allowed him to transcend his production limitations in part, but at times it’s hard not to worry that all the illusions and misdirection might betray an occasional lack of focus, especially when bruising distortion is the main sonic tool used to bolster his compositions.

Having written all that, it’s hard not to be charmed by Blood For The Return. After all, Mirage may wear his influences overtly on his sleeve, but he still brings a forceful personality, even to the most undeveloped of these songs. As a figure in the shadows fleshing out his dreams of genres gone by, Mirage is a seductive presence, and his music casts a weird, occasionally uneasy spell.

A Dusted Review: This World Is Not My Home by Kleistwahr (October 15th, 2014)

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This is going to sound much more disparaging than intended, but the music of Gary Mundy’s Kleistwahr can literally shift a hangover. But I swear on it as a cure for next day alco-flu. A few years back, Mundy (as Kleistwahr) was the first act on the third day of a Festival celebrating the legacy of his influential and much-missed Broken Flag label. The previous night’s back-to-back onslaught of Matt Bower’s Black Sunroof! and Consumer Electronics had been visceral, not just because of the harsh music they threw at the audience, but also because I’d rather unwisely downed what felt like six gallons of beer along the way. It was therefore with painful skull and some trepidation that I approached the stage for Mundy’s solo set, knowing the man’s predilection for high volume.

But instead of making my head pound more, the sonic waterfall he unleashed swept my brain clear, leaving me light-headed, alert and gasping for more. Mundy is capable of similar feats of intensity as one half (or occasionally a third or fifth) of his most famous act, Ramleh, and maybe it was the after-effects of the previous night’s over-indulgence, but on that afternoon, noise had never felt so beautiful to me.

I’ve been desperate for a new Kleistwahr album ever since. 2007’s The Return (Outer Bounds of Sound) was an excellent record, but failed to replicate the emotional and physical catharsis that Mundy provides in a live setting. This World Is Not My Home, which comes delightfully wrapped in a sleeve aping classic Broken Flag releases, feels like a concert recording, 39 uninterrupted minutes of blasted noise, subsumed melodies and aching drone. Armed with a gaggle of his trusty effects pedals, an electric guitar and a primitive synthesizer, Mundy builds up a noise suite of endlessly shifting tempos and form, each phase gracefully bleeding into the next. As if recorded live, This World Is Not My Home seems to kick in mid-way through a drifting guitar solo, with Mundy displaying his dexterity on that instrument via a pained, sweeping motif that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. Very quickly, however, the noise kicks in, with gritty wall noise vomiting over a sinister vocal sample. At times, with both guitar and noise generators, the saturation reaches a feverish level, straining the very extremes of pitch and timbre.

As brutal and harsh as Kleistwahr can be, however, there is more to This World Is Not My Home than just power electronics. I’ve already mentioned Mundy’s talent as a musician, but more important is his humanity. He probably won’t thank me for writing this, but his approach is atypically sensitive for a genre that relies more often on misanthropy and aggression. In an interview I did with him and his alter ego in Ramleh, Anthony diFranco, Mundy explained to me that the lyrics on their most recent (and astounding) Malediction album include the line “Please forgive me” repeated over and over, like a despairing, self-flagellating mantra.

For all the throbbing gristle and shades of darkness on This World Is Not My Home, its principal feeling is one of melancholy, its title hinting at the despair of someone who feels he doesn’t belong in the world. The album is the expression of Mundy’s attempts to find his space, and as the track draws to a close on a sea of wailing feedback and his inchoate vocalisations, one is assailed by an acute sense of loss, mournfulness and, deep within these static grooves­– hope. This World Is Not My Home is the most emotionally affecting noise album I’ve ever heard, and is therefore somehow positively reassuring, despite the gloom.

It reminds me why I was so impatient for it to see the light of day, and in its dying moments, as Mundy’s voice reaches for a naked emotionality, it becomes hard to stem the tears. That’s not what a noise album is supposed to do to you, but then, as this album makes abundantly clear, there isn’t another noise artist like Gary Mundy.

A Quietus Review: Pedwar by Rhodri Davies (October 8th, 2014)

Rhodri Davies is not a unique artist and musician, but he’s pretty close. Just like Okkyung Lee with the cello and John Butcher on the saxophone, Welsh harpist Davies totally deconstructs, reimagines and explores his instrument, at times to the point of making it utterly unrecognisable. At times on 2012’s Wound Response, the results were astounding, the harp practically transformed into a vicious noise generator, which Davies then manipulated in ferocious ways, creating one of the most explosively beautiful albums of that year.

Wound Response features in this new box set on alt.vinyl, along with two other previous works as well as his latest, An Air Swept Clean Of All Distance. While there are some similarities between these albums (with the exception of the one-track drone masterpiece ‘Over Shadows’, and even that bears the same formal curiosity and rigour that has long characterised Davies’ work), each one stands as a unique work of art in its own right, with rich details and colourations. The tools are often the same, mind you: harps of varying sizes are manipulated using fans, EBows and other implements, either extending or reducing notes into blocks of sound and texture that appear to rip the instrument’s rulebook up altogether. After all, the harp is perhaps more linked to past musics than any other instrument bar the harpsichord, so to hear it so transformed is both a thrill and a challenge. The term often used for Rhodri Davies’ music is “reductionism”, but the term seems unfitting when the results are so captivating.

Wound Response is, as I’ve written, pretty brutal, a series of crunching robust vignettes that are almost punk-like in their muscularity. Davies’ small harp sounds almost like a guitar, and it’s little surprise that he previously played with Derek Bailey. This is not mere noise, however, and the Welshman is a virtuoso musician, with each track following a dynamic path, as Davies plucks away furiously at the strings, tumbling from one motif to another with balletic dexterity. In doing so, he actually goes against the conventions of what harpists are taught, going so far as to attack the strings with a plectrum. I can see where the term reductionism came from given the probable repercussions of this method (harp’s aren’t exactly robust), but again, it doesn’t sit well given the heights Davies reaches. Trem (from 2001) follows a similar pattern, although it’s shorter and denser, with Davies using free jazz and free improv techniques (crocodile clips on the strings, holding a tamborim against a string whilst bowing close to the soundboard, depressing all seven pedals at once) in front of an audience who must have been as bewildered as they were thrilled. Once again, the harp’s sound is completely transformed, oscillating between clusters of feedback and parping notes that sound like a cross between a trumpet and a piano. Although in a way more minimalist and eclectic than Wound Response, Trem is equally potent and abrasive and a good insight into what a Rhodri Davies concert could perhaps be like.

In contrast, Over Shadows is almost delicate. Although Derek Bailey apparently wasn’t much impressed with Davies’ use of EBows, the latter persisted and the single 30-minute piece that constitutes Over Shadows is in its way as stirring as Wound Response or Trem. Eliane Radigue has previously composed especially for Davies, and there’s something of her patient, unflappable style on Over Shadows, as slow, hesitant drones slide in and out of perception like sluggish waves on a lakeside beach. Davies toys with varied tunings, almost in the “militant tuning” ethos of a LaMonte Young, Pauline Oliveros or Tony Conrad (only quieter than the latter) and the piece gradually builds up into a resonant sonic edifice in which details shimmer and surreptitiously shift like light playing across a window.

The same lap harp as on Wound Response is used again on An Air Swept Clean Of All Distance, but the results could not be more disparate. Eschewing amplification and limiting the number of strings used, Davies accentuates the instrument’s versatility and improvisational possibilities as he relies on his thumbs and fingers to extract texture and rhythm from the harp. An Air Swept Clean Of All Distance vaguely recalls Bill Orcutt’s recent solo acoustic guitar output, but also harks back in no small fashion to the traditional music of Davies’ native Wales, as if he’s reimagining folk for the improvisational age. On each of these albums, Rhodri Davies achieves marvels by almost counter-intuitively imposing rigid parameters on his music, from the tools he uses to the way the albums are recorded. In each case, he finds fresh ways to interact with his harp and fresh ways to jerk his listeners’ preconceptions. That, for me, is the mark of all truly great music and musicians, and Rhodri Davies is certainly one of the latter.

A Quietus Review: Flatland by Objekt (October 7th, 2014)

It might just be me, but it seems there are few musical genres more fractured and disparate than modern electronic dance music. I know, I know, rock has also become hugely diverse, especially in the wake of punk’s year zero and with the advent of cheaper recording equipment, and even more “niche” genres like noise and metal (especially the latter) have splintered into many sub-genres. Hell, even pop, supposedly just a simple vehicle for mass consumption, has seen itself transformed into an underground phenomenon produced on lo-fi gear by bedroom enthusiasts with wide-ranging influences that have fully distorted its original aim in wildly interesting and mysterious ways. And of course, dance music’s basis in electronica, with all its twists and permutations, from ambient to industrial via hip-hop and kosmische, and the prevalence of laptops making it so accessible, was always bound to be open to countless perspectives. But despite all this, the evolution in the last decade has been remarkable, and all over the world a wealth of different clubs are gearing their sound systems towards a bewildering array of niche styles, from murky dubstep to clinical minimal techno, high-octane grime to jerky footwork. It’s hard to know where to start, and I admit that sometimes I find myself lost amongst the wealth of breakbeats, synth lines and sub-bass that currently populate my iPod, much as I love it all.

I don’t know if it was his intention, but on Flatland, Berlin-based producer/DJ Objekt, aka TJ Hertz, appears to have embarked on the unenviable mission of trying to draw together and consolidate all these various approaches to dancefloor music. At times, it even seems like he’s spent hours poring over the entire back catalogues of forward-thinking labels like Hyperdub, Kompakt, Keysound and Werkdiscs, and somehow attempted to join the dots between them. It’s no wonder, really, that Flatland is being put out by PAN, a label about as audacious and on-the-pulse as any. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his main wells are the London and Berlin scenes of the last decade or two, but there are even hints of Drexciya, Detroit techno and Chicago house in here as well: an infectious beat here, a smooth synth melody or distorted voice there. Indeed, in contrast to some of the more rugged, shifting and gritty productions you might find on the post-dubstep scene in the UK’s capital, such as Actress, Burial, LV or early Hype Williams, Hertz’s production is crisp and clear, not quite in the line of ambient techno producers such as The Field or Porter Ricks, but nonetheless imbued with a hypnotic melodic focus. On his first album, Objekt seems to be imagining himself delivering a live set, complete with formless drone interludes.

And yet, there is some of dubstep’s midnight vibe on Flatland, with heaps of echo amplifying certain sounds to coat some tracks in a certain melancholic aura. It’s possible that Hertz is taking his cues more from funky (or is it wonky? See, lost again!) producers over here such as Zomby, Joy Orbison or Ikonika, and there is an element of the latter’s crisp formalism on tracks like ‘Dogma’, although without the widescreen synth overloads. Like a lot of modern Berlin-based producers, Objekt’s strength lies in his ability to churn out beats, and most tracks on Flatland are wondrously infectious, with repeated snares and kick drums locking into a sort of perpetual repeated motion. Tracks like ‘One Fell Swoop’, ‘Ratchet’ and ‘Strays’ (what a superb opening salvo, by the way: 15-odd minutes of body-shaking bliss) canter forwards like trains, locking into unbreakable grooves that remain untroubled by the synthetic noises and swoops of synth that Hertz layers on top of them. Objekt is an intriguing character, very much in tune with PAN’s experimental credentials, but this album also hints at a potential future as a room-filler in any club he chooses, were that what he wanted. Even the slower tracks are traversed with rhythmic potency.

Despite all the above comparisons, Flatland somehow exists in what feels like an hermetically sealed world of its own, an ethos espoused by the title and the austerity of Objekt’s approach, even at his most melodic. A lot of the recent electronic music I’ve heard, especially in the UK, has dealt expressly with the socio-political unease of our times, be it Actress’ Ghettoville or Vessel’s recentPunish, Honey. Objekt dodges such considerations altogether, and perhaps offers Flatland up as a slice of escapism. After all, that’s what dancing the night away in a sweaty club is really all about, isn’t it? Flatland feels perfectly formed out of the clay of a multitude of styles, and, with rhythms this tight, it’s something of a triumph, even if it reflects nothing back but strobe lights.