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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dusted Review: 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 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.