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

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

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

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

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

A 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: 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 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 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 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 Dusted Review: Sirène by Robert Curgenven (September 9th, 2014)

Robert Curgenven is an Australian composer and sound artist currently based in the UK, whose work on Sirène is deeply affected by his roots in Cornwall. Cornwall is a land steeped in history and mythology, with a landscape dominated by rugged valleys, windswept moorland and battered coastlines. Curgenven’s focus is on the sea, as indicated by the title, and he manages to convey something of the grandiose potency and inherent menace the ocean has represented to so many Cornish people over the centuries. The waters are choppy and treacherous off the Cornish coast, and so represented a clear danger to local people who, paradoxically, relied on the sea for their very existence, as their main source of food.

Curgenven turns to the figure of the siren to reincarnate this dichotomy in musical form, notably on the almost-title track “Ressuscitant de l’étreinte de la Sirène”, which roughly translates as “Revived from the siren’s embrace,” converging the myth of Odysseus onto the Cornish coast and later, on “Turner’s Tempest,” drawing in references to British painter JMW Turner, one of whose proto-impressionist paintings adorns the front cover, and the epic narratives of Shakespeare. His music is similarly evocative: Curgenven uses field recordings of pipe organs captured in churches around Cornwall and, with only a bit of EQ as effect, elegantly layers them one on top of the other to create languid but ever-shifting and evolving soundscapes. The three pieces swirl and shimmer like the water the album’s title suggests, their apparent listlessness slowly revealing itself to contain swells of tension and subsequent release. Much like Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes/Gradual Requiem (reissued earlier this year), Sirène is a minimal record, but one that, by connecting to even obscure psychogeography, is rich with emotional resonance and subtle hidden meanings.

Picking out the individual tracks on Sirène would be an exercise in futility, because it feels more like a suite, with the different movements gently folding into one another. Curgenven displays a deft touch at both performance and editing, with individual tones sustained almost to breaking point on “Cornubia” whilst elsewhere the sounds recede into near-silence or linger as impenetrable sustained drones. Again, the imagery of rippling tides and whistling wind is impossible to ignore, and bathes the album in a reflective, melancholic glow. Despite “only” using pipe organs, it’s one of the most absorbing and affecting albums I’ve heard all year. To embark upon listening to Sirène is to take a sensual and liminal journey: into the imagined past, over the mythological oceans, beyond the realm of reality.