A Dusted Review: Atria by Jessika Kenney (March 27th, 2015)

Washington state native Jessika Kenney has the most important quality needed for a westerner exploring musics from far-flung cultures that are intrinsically different to the one she was born into: she has a knack for homing in on the emotional core of each song she explores. Of course, it helps that she is something of an expert in Indonesian and Persian music, although she admits to making “errors and delusions” on this album. If you can spot them, I’d love to know what they could possibly be, as all of Atria sounds exquisite from where I’m seated, pretending to my other half that I’m managing our bills. But, equally, her voice is so resonant and majestic that, even in a foreign language she is able to conjure up such a storm of feeling that it is impossible to question this music’s authenticity. It’s one of those voices, and one of those spirits, that make you forget that she even has backing performers (including her partner, violist Eyvind Kang, and a series of gamelan players), such is the way she unselfconsciously takes center stage and brings the music close to her own soul.

Atria is intriguing and beguiling on so many levels, Kenney’s voice being just its prime attraction. As mentioned, the music is essentially gamelan, albeit played at a pace I have rarely heard. These songs evolve gradually, often with minimal percussive thrust, with bells and bowls resonated until they produce echo-y drones that interlace with Kang’s measured viola lines and Kenney’s extended vocalizations. Any effects of note are on her singing, as her crystalline wordings are extended or superimposed to create a shimmering choir, most effectively on the album’s centerpiece, the 11-minute “Sarira Tunggal” and its follow-up “Pamor.” These are intricate compositions, with several angles and facets to them, much as the Roman edifices that (sort of) give the album its title would have had. On the busier “Wiji Sawiji Mulane Dadi,” field recordings of birds and bubbling streams combine with flute to evoke a pastoral atmosphere that fans of Indonesian music will be familiar with, but also anyone with a taste for English folk (the flute features heavily on albums by Comus and Mr. Fox) or traditional Indian music.

This poise, restraint and precision in both composition and delivery dominates Atria, but never over-dominates it. Indeed, opener “Her Sword I” is almost groovy in a spiritual sort of way, with gentle patters on hand drums and a gorgeous central melody that is infectious without being intrusive, once again leaving ample room for Kenney’s voice to positively soar outwards. Whether deep or stretching into higher registers, her singing is never short of note-perfect, something demonstrated most expertly on the winding lines of “Sarira Tunggal” and the two versions of “Her Sword” that bookend the album, the second more minimalist and sparser than the opener, and therefore all the more dominated by the vocals.

As far as I can gather, Kenney sings entirely in Farsi, but this is largely immaterial beyond marveling at how immersed in the language and ancient musical traditions of Persia she is. Even in less-than-mystical English, Kenney would sound as exquisite as she does here and, for all the quality of the music and instrumental performances on Atria, it’s greatest achievement is how it elevates Jessika Kenney into the ranks of the world’s premier vocalists.

A Dusted Review: Skullsplitter by Eric Chenaux (March 11th, 2015)

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Skullsplitter is an example of how often assumption can be the mother of all fudge-ups. Foolishly embracing ignorance over journalistic rigour, I plumped for the ill-informed presumption that this was going to be yet another album by a North American guitarist (I’d established that much) with a large collection of Robbie Basho and John Fahey records and a surely over-hyped skill at fingerpicking. There have been quite a few of those of late, none of them worth noting with the same enthusiasm the masters. But as it turns out, Eric Chenaux is galaxies away from American Primitivism as it is generally understood (maybe this is Canadian Primitivism?), as a composer, guitarist and, crucially, singer. Indeed, he sits somewhere at the crossroads of multiple styles, and Skullsplitter sounds totally unlike any other solo album I’ve heard this year. So that’s taught me a lesson.

Chenaux’s music is both familiar and bizarre, which is predominantly down to the way he melds acoustic and electric guitar. His approach to the acoustic is consistent with the American Primitive scene, albeit played at a slower pace: he gently plucks notes on nylon strings, coaxing out gentle melodies that form the backbones of most of the nine songs on the album, often underlining them with subtle electronic textures and ambient-esque melodica lines. These simple frames are then built upon when Chenaux plucks up his electric guitar and feeds into wah pedals and other effects that seem to collide with one another rather than meld into extensions of the acoustic melodies, creating offbeat song structures that seem to pull away from one another even as he tugs them into a whole. Chugging half-riffs and warbling solos swim around one another, sometimes looped, at other seemingly improvised on the fly, twisting the basic, immediately recognisable formulas at the heart of his songs into new, unfamiliar forms.

On opener “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, for example, woozy wah-wahed notes wibble and wobble behind a lead melody played on unamplified electric guitar whilst lower notes wooze along listlessly underneath. It’s probably the most peculiar track onSkullsplitter, hazy and punch-drunk, possessed by a strange form of melancholy even as, lyrically, Chenaux lurches into the surreally humourous (“Have I lost my eyes?/Is that twinkle in my mind?”). On the lengthy “Poor Time”, his shaky, kazoo-like notes on electric (I’m reminded a bit of some of Rusty Kershaw’s playing on Neil Young’s On The Beach) bounce around somewhat aimlessly, with only the most minimal of picked acoustic notes to guide them; whilst Chenaux’s instrumental take on the classic “My Romance” is all extended feedback-laden notes and echoey drone. This unpredictability is key to Chenaux’s music: at times he seems to be deliberately confounding familiarity.  Maybe he’s aware that presumptuous fools like me are out there.

But if that sounds needlessly opaque, fear not, for coherence on the album is assured through Chenaux’s singular voice. It’s a delicate croon, somewhere between Antony Hegarty and Bryan Ferry, with perhaps a hint of old timers like Sinatra (hence “My Romance”, even if performed without vocals). It’s a warm, melancholic sound, which reaches aching heights of potency on the title track, a simple, heart-rending tune on which Chenaux tunes his guitar to sound like a muffled organ (I’m assuming — that word again — that it is a guitar) leaving a wide tapestry on which to unfurl his lustrous, emotionally resonant vocals. And this might be the only real flaw on Skullsplitter: whilst on some tracks, such as “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, the weird structures and deformed melodies might be intriguing or even striking, at other times they sit awkwardly alongside Chenaux’s pristine meditations on love and loneliness, striking jarring notes that ultimately undermine the listener’s ability to fully lose oneself in the music.

That’s a minor quibble, however, and one that fades as the best tracks unfurl their graceful wings, with even some of the instrumentals hitting with a similar force as “Skullsplitter” and closer “Summer & Time”, and I’ve found myself drifting back to this album time and time again, seeking comfort in its woozy warmth. Skullsplitter is ultimately that: comforting, even more so than it is odd, and in either case, Eric Chenaux kicks my silly preconceptions into the dirt.

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

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

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

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

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

A Dusted Review: Slant of Light by Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler (September 24th, 2014)

The most remarkable thing about this intimate, almost self-effacing record is that it was crafted via a series of improvisations. You wouldn’t think so, to listen to it. Mary Lattimore is a harpist who has played with Wreckmeister Harmonies and Kurt Vile, among others, and her preferred instrument is hardly the first to spring to mind when someone mentions the word “improvisation”. However, in Jeff Zeigler, who enmeshes elegant synthesizer drones with her fragile plucked notes, Lattimore has found a perfect foil and, although slight, Slant of Light contains a number of moments of real beauty.

It would be an easy shorthand to describe the four concoctions they came up with during a snowstorm in Philadelphia as ambient, but that wouldn’t be taking into account the intricate details present on each track. This is not just a case of someone playing a harp over some random electronics, but a sequence of elaborate conversations between the two artists, a coming together of thoughts and minds. It is, mind you, a slow-paced record, as one would expect, with opener “Welsh Corgis in the Snow” (I’m none the wiser) setting the tone: languid notes from Lattimore dance around a blanket of shimmering aquatic drone from Zeigler. The Arctic conditions of that Pennsylvania winter seem to have filtered through the walls and right onto the tape, such is the detached, stripped-down nature of the record, and yet repeated listens reveal hidden depths of warmth and emotion. “The White Balloon” (at three minutes the shortest track) is a swirling waltz of gliding arpeggios from Lattimore and sliding electronic textures by Zeigler, and the overall effect is of being snuggled under a blanket by a warm fire in some cabin out in the Appalachian forests. Lattimore and Zeigler clearly enjoy playing together and this pleasure seeps its way into their music’s otherwise simple structure.

“Echo Sounder” follows this vein of contemplative, emotional introspection, almost at the risk of becoming cloying or predictable despite the elegant playing from both artists, but closer “Tomorrow is a Million” rescues Slant of Light from the clutches of sentimentality by effectively flipping the entire concept of the album on its head. Instead of plucking her strings to produce pretty notes, Lattimore rubs and scratches them, reducing the usually rather saccharine harp to the sound of an atonal acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, Zeigler’s electronics become more threatening, shadowy interjections of noises daubed in echo, like phantasmagorical figures shoving their into focus on damaged 8mm film. The piece grows in intensity, the harp’s strings stretched to snapping point and, after so much prettiness on the preceding three tracks, the effect is frankly spooky. The morose, inchoate end segment only adds to the unease.

In the first paragraph, I described Slant of Light as “slight”, and unfortunately, at only four tracks and 30 minutes in length, it feels a tad under-developed. But there are some truly lush moments in the first half, and “Tomorrow is a Million” points to immense potential on the second. I just wish Mary Lattimore and Jeff Zeigler could have sense this when recording and taken some time to take “Tomorrow is a Million” further.

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.