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.

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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.

A Dusted Review: Don’t Know, Just Walk by Mike Weis (August 11th, 2014)

The idea of America as a “new country” is so ingrained in most minds that it almost becomes easy to forget that it’s only white, “Western” society there that is relatively young. It also shortens the gap between the modern nation’s founding and the most recent century-and-a-half of rapid development, from rural ex-colony into the world’s premier industrial and technological nation of the world.

As such, the mythical, primeval history of what is now the USA only rarely trickles into modern life and culture. While there exists in Europe, notably the UK, a sense that music can be used to reconnect with primordial pre-modern societies and histories, whether real or imagined (sometimes referred to as hauntology), such a scene in the US is harder to pinpoint or even identify, maybe because of its size, or because Europeans only arrived in the 17th century and rather quickly went about reducing the numbers of the native population. Nonetheless, artists trying to probe the ancient hidden reverse under the concrete and bricks do exist in the USA, usually in the Midwest, Deep South or around the Great Lakes, and Mike Weis, drummer for hazy post-rockers Zelienople, has encapsulated this veiled territory with acute beauty on Don’t Know, Just Walk.

The album was created in the wake of Weis’ diagnosis with prostate cancer, and inspired by wooded areas and fields in Michigan and Indiana, where he recorded the delicately-applied field recordings that traverse Don’t Know, Just Walk’s three tracks. The title refers to a form of Korean zen buddhism, and Weis uses that faith’s teachings to muse on death and mortality in a way that is reflective, sombre and ultimately life-affirming.

The three compositions on Don’t Know, Just Walk form a sort of suite, with the track titles even combining to form an enigmatic sentence: “The Temple Bell Stops,” “But The Sound Keeps Coming,” “Out Of The Flowers.” The epic, twenty-minute opener releases the listener into the inner and outer worlds of Mike Weis instantly, as spooky, muted voices intone ominously over a sparse tapestry of electro-acoustic drones and crisp field recordings. The feeling is of being lost deep in a forest at dusk, surrounded by buzzing cicadas, crunching leaves and shades of something altogether more sinister. Weis takes his time to construct his music, slowly adding layers of instruments and electronics until, almost of a sudden, the air is filled with sound. Although percussion is used sparingly, as a drummer Weis not unexpectedly unleashes his kit about four minutes in, again methodically accumulating repetitive kicks and swathes of cymbal crashes until — blended with arch synth noise — they form a seamless ocean of unfettered drone.

At other times, Weis is content to leave wide-open spaces in his music, with only faint interruptions to break a heavy silence. These well-placed shifts in tempo and volume serve to enhance the atmospheric potency of “The Temple Bell Stops”, and a strange form of oneiric psychogeography seeps into the mind’s eye like a ruptured narrative. When Weis returns to the drum kit, first to hammer mercilessly on his cymbals before segueing into gamelan-like tribal percussion, it somehow feels perfectly logical. Mike Weis sucks you into his world entirely on this album, and in one track the spell is cast.

The rest of the album continues the motifs laid out on “The Temple Bell Stops”, with the 18-minute “But The Sound Keeps Coming” acting as a more docile mirror of its predecessor, with an emphasis on field recordings, notably bird calls. The broiling, contradictory emotions and innate darkness of “The Temple Bell Stops” give way to something more peaceful and relaxed, at least at first, before a strange ritual, embodied by more tribal percussion and crackling drones breaks apart the tranquility. The track carries the same sense of mysterious, untamed oddness as the first album by Britain’s The Haxan Cloak, as if this music is being generated in tandem with nature rather than in spite of it. If someone were to soundtrack the awakening of long dormant forest spirits in America’s heartlands, this is probably what it would sound like.

It’s not often that a musical artist will react to personal strife or difficulty by producing something universal, but Mike Weis has achieved just that. By braving his illness stoically and taking off into the wilds, he has reconnected with something arcane and mystical that resonates enduringly in the collective (sub)consciousness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dusted Review: d/evolution by LCC (May 8th, 2014)

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Spanish duo LCC — formerly LasCasiCasiotone — blur the lines between styles, sounds and emotion until the music on d/evolution becomes a haze out of which emerge sounds, hints of genre and textures in a grim, airtight approximation of electronica. For some reason, the title of a This Heat song, “Music Like Escaping Gas,” springs to mind. LCC’s music seems to be built around field recordings: gusts of wind, wheezing air vents, clanking machinery and crumbling surfaces (both natural and artificial), but these are so processed and re-configured that their exact nature is uncertain, imbuing the album with an abstract, intangible atmosphere. What remains is music, escaping wispily out of the speakers.The d/evolution reflects on the uneasy relationship between humankind and the natural world it has evolved out of. In this context, the uneasy sounds of technology that bubble out of an ambient haze and phantomatic wordless vocals on opener “Chróma” instantly create tension that intensifies as the track progresses, the dense background drones growing in intensity whilst the machine continues to crank repetitively and unsuccessfully against the impassive surface it’s abusing. This tension, however, is mostly muffled and diluted across d/evolution, as if perceived through dense fog, an approach that seems at odds somewhat with the overtly political and ecological message LCC appear to be straining towards. Even when things reach breaking point, the end result is generally a quiet recede into the increasingly opaque tapestry the duo creates.

Viewed differently, d’evolution represents a challenge, with Ana Quiroga and Uge Pañeda throwing the gauntlet down to the listener. Just as the found sounds they employ are hard to identify, so is the underlying statement blurred and left out of reach, as if the album’s creators are demanding we come to the same conclusions as them without their aid. For some, this refusal to make an overt declaration on such serious issues as climate change or ecological damage might represent a cop out, but alternatively, d/evolution can be seen as a personal and intimate rumination, one that would be poorly served by aggressive slogans or pap sound bytes. Or maybe LCC’s core sentiment is immaterial. Its pervasive mood of disquiet and coldness means that it’s clear something dark is at play, and whatever that may be is up to each individual listener. You decide, essentially.

With so much ambiguity and mystery at play, defining d/evolution in the context of modern electronic music is an exercise in futility. At times, its grim ambient synth drones and buzzing bass drones sound like an extension of Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land, at others, when Quiroga and Pañeda deploy spindly beats, they edge into the ambient dub landscape of Drexciya and Porter Ricks.  They even venture into dubstep territory, most successfully on the Raime-like “Calx” and the insistent, quasi-industrial, head-bobbing buzz-and-drone slice of excellence that is “Titan”, where, for a brief moment, the murk of previous tracks (and the opening bars of “Titan” itself) are swept aside in favour of a brutal slab of hypnotic, widescreen alt-dance.

Ultimately, messages mean little in the context of modern electronic music. Just as Demdike Stare’s glances back into myth and history only form a sketched climate for their take on hauntology and dub, so d/evolution is best savoured less as a statement than as a remarkable work of forward-looking electronica, one that moves beyond most barriers we scribes try to erect.