A Quietus Review: Excerpts by John T. Gast (March 18th, 2015)

Make a cursory search on the Internet for John T. Gast (presumably not his real name) and it won’t be long before the words Hype Williams pop up. Gast worked as a co-producer with Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt on their Black Is Beautiful album and appeared on Blunt’s solo effort The Redeemer and with Copeland on UKMerge. It’s little surprise, therefore, that Excerpts shares some of the duo’s oblique, genre-contorting aesthetic. It’s advisable to focus on that, before retracting to view the intrinsic differences which ensure Gast never comes across as a lesser light riding on the coat-tails of more illustrious and talented pals.

The similarities certainly abound: a lot of Excerpts is woozy and layered in ectoplasmic murk that slides into the orbit of hauntology but, like Hype Williams, a sly sense of humour lurking beneath the surface means his music rarely comes across as nostalgic or retro. The lines between past and current influences and reference points, from TV to music to film to video games, are blurred, often quite literally. Gast slathers electronic gunk all over his tracks until their structures become impenetrable, or twists and distorts vocal snippets, in a manner DJ Screw would have baulked at, to the point that actual words are transformed into slabs of inchoate moaning. It’s altogether more overtly moody and austere than recent broadcasts from the Hype Williams world, harking back to their untitled debut over Black Is Beautiful’s playful aesthetic. Like Untitled, Excerpts is slow-paced (for the most part), grainy and sombre, with crumbling synth textures clustered around skeletal rhythmic shuffles and most human interjections rendered opaque, like ghostly shades mewling in the dark.

While Hype Williams seemed resolutely anchored in a phantomatic Gotham-styled urban setting, the liminal universe on Excerpts is harder to pinpoint. At times, the analogue synths deployed on ‘Sedna’ and ‘White Noise/Dys’ definitely evoke the tradition of the Ghost Box stable and Moon Wiring Club more than Hype Williams’ dubstep heritage, whilst titles like ‘Shanti-ites’ and ‘Green’ have a distinctly pastoral vibe that resurges in the music (the former features a dramatic gloomy choir like something out of the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack, whilst the latter is dominated by woozy organ drones). A wander through Gast’s website throws up all manner of weird artefacts, from photo collages of war and terrorism, to pictures of Northern Irish murals, to abstract imagery seemingly beamed out of the mind of a madman, via YouTube videos of Neil Young’s ‘Will To Love’ (the wooziest love song ever) and martial arts tournaments. I’m sure someone smarter than me could come up with some profound overriding message, but I’m not sure that’s even the point. Like early Hype Williams, John T. Gast cultivates a sense of mystery, and even his droll flourishes, like the 45 seconds of vocal deconstruction that is ‘£’ are part of that enigmatic nature.

Where Excerpts really gets interesting, in fact, is when Gast hits the accelerator and plows headlong into dancefloor-oriented material. ‘Infection’ and ‘Congress’ form a sharp one-two punch at the start of the album, all infectious repetitive beats, smooth synth lines and elusive vocal loops, in the grand style of Kassem Mosse or Drexciya (or even The Field), but with a few industrial edges thrown in for good measure. He peaks magnificently on ‘Claim Your Limbs’, on which a dark, brooding atmosphere dominated by crashing snares is undercut by the sheer catchiness of the track’s relentless forward motion. To return to that vague world that is hauntology, on these tracks I’m ultimately reminded of the fantastical flights of dance fancy of Umberto’s Confrontations album or Pye Corner Audio’s Sleep Games.

At times, John T. Gast seems to play the mystery card a bit too intently, but that seems an increasingly common conceit in a lot of electronic music these days. Maybe he’ll one day follow Blunt and Copeland into a brighter limelight, but for now he appears to be focusing on defining his own style, one that hurdles a multitude of styles, not always coherently, but with singular verve and commitment.

A Dusted Review: Modern Streets by Beat Spacek (February 10th, 2015)

We’re only in February, and the trend in British dance/electronic music of using beats and synths to map the psycho-geography of the country’s inner city life has been established. It’s hardly a new concept, but rather one that gathered ahead of steam as dubstep’s emerged in the early noughties. The trend culminated in 2014 with records like Islands by LV and Josh Idehen and Actress’ Ghettoville. Beat Spacek (aka Steve Spacek) has now thrown his hat into the ring with Modern Streets, its title a clear indication of the intentions on the album. But the 13 tracks that make up this particular slice of London existence are at once baffling and fractured, starting in the present before stretching back in time whilst simultaneously aiming to open a slender aperture into the distant-ish future.

From the sounds that emanate from Modern Streets, Spacek has been keeping his ear to wildly varied array of musical pulses percolating through the sound systems of the UK’s diverse and multicultural capital. He clearly has his roots in the whirlwind of colliding song forms that made up the early 1980s’ synth-pop/post-punk/neo-ska/industrial scene. If it’s hard to imagine what that would sound like, well it turns out it’s essentially pop music. Of course, I don’t mean pop in the sense of Taylor Swift or Charles and Eddie or Kylie Minogue, but by distilling his various influences past and present into crisp songs, Steve Spacek has, as Beat Spacek, come up with a rather unpredictable form of pop music.

This isn’t immediately apparent, as each one of these very individualistic tracks is defined by its difference to the others. “I Wanna Know” is driven by a minimalist drum machine beat not a million miles from Martin Rev’s similar pummeller on Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, whilst “Tonight” is introduced by a slinky High life rhythm and jerky percussive eructations. Meanwhile, “I Want You” is coldly romantic in the manner of a Cut Copy track and Spacek ladles echo and reverb on his vocal in the manner of a Jamaican dub producer on “Stand Firm”. It all must sound garishly eclectic, but somehow he manages to keep a firm grip on the reins of these disparate sounds, something even more impressive when you learn that he worked mostly with iPad and iPhone apps, something which perhaps explains the brittle nature of some of these tracks. Spacek’s voice is a particular asset in maintaining this unexpected cohesion. He mostly employs an airy falsetto that is rich in emotion, but on the futuristic hyperactive love ballad “Inflight Wave” and the stark synth-pop of “Go Back to School”, for example, he switches to a low robotic croon that is somehow both more and less human than his more overtly emphatic vocal style elsewhere.

Coincidentally, whilst I was drinking in the heady cocktail of Modern Streets I was also delving back into early Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, perhaps (along with Japan and Associates) the most idiosyncratic of the UK’s synth-pop pioneers. Like Beat Spacek, OMD’s Andy McCluskey lurched between lush pop romanticism and awkward, imprecise commentary on the world around him. Of course, OMD’s palette was more restricted to post-Kraftwerk synth-worship and McCluskey was more outwardly focused than Spacek’s London-centric inward gaze, but, between the hypnotic repetitiveness of the rhythms deployed and the infectiously bright simplicity of their synth lines (analogue back in 1980, produced on a phone of all things in 2014), somehow OMD and Beat Spacek share a commonality, a refusal to let the harshness of these modern streets or global insecurity detract from forging a bloody good melody and heartfelt lyric.

For all the artificiality in how Modern Streets was made, it’s a starkly personal album, with Spacek really laying his soul to bear on certain tracks, especially “I Want You”, with it’s mantra-like chorus rivalling Dylan’s “I Want You” for persistence. Only the title track and one or two other songs overtly deal with mirroring London life, but then what is life if not personal, informed by one’s own emotions and desires? Time will tell if Steve Spacek has succeeded in anticipating the future of dance music by refracting the past through the prism of the post-dubstep world, or indeed whether Modern Streets lives up to its title. But as a portrait of a man in a city sharing his thoughts and feelings, it’s strikingly effective, all the more so for being so far-reaching.

A Dusted Review: String Studies by Deas (January 27th, 2015)

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Luke Younger’s Alter label is aptly named, given the way releases he puts out tend to manipulate and transform the very foundations of the music genres they approach. Take Basic House’s Oats, from 2013, an album with a title evoking Basic Channel and dance music but the music on which was traversed by tense industrial drones, gristly textures and an overarching atmosphere of unease. Dance music for people with a queasy stomach, maybe. Younger’s music as Helm also straddles genres, taking ambient and drone and flipping them over to reveal a noisier undercurrent upset by samples and found sounds that evoke decaying landscapes and shadowy back alleys. And so it is with String Studies, a rare foray on record into electronics by Robbie Basho-inspired guitarist Cameron Deas (apparently his real name), an album that bears few traces of the Englishman’s instrument of choice, even as it forms the basis of these eight tracks.

String Studies is a tricky work to define, but I suppose it sits most accurately in the electronic category known as “glitch”, made famous by alva noto and Ryoji Ikeda on Raster-Noton. All eight tracks are dominated by sheets of scabrous, high-pitched electronic crackles, as if Deas has managed to amplify the internal sounds of a broken computer as it tries vainly to run through its programmes. Like all glitch, this is not easy music to digest, the polar opposite of easy listening, but where so much of the genre seems to these ears a bit sterile, there is something lurking under the layers of mulch on String Studies that encourages, and the rewards, repeat listens.

This is almost certainly down to the source material. Deas uses samples of his 12-string acoustic guitar as the basis for each composition, filtering them through a modular system to produce what are, under the circumstances, astonishing results. The temptation is to try and strain through the gristle and crunches to try and piece together the pieces’ origins in the acoustic world, and indeed at times this bears fruit. On the second track, for example, what sounds like a solitary chord is amplified and laden with echo, its cavernous resonance piercing Deas’ synthetic textures like a tolling bell. At times, rather than guitar strings, the source sounds come across as piano notes extended and reverbed, which is a remarkable transformation and one that acts as a curveball against unhelpful expectations. Consciously or not, the listener is compelled to create his or her own sources for the sounds heard under the electronics, and it’s a measure of Deas’ control that these half-grasped intimations are often contradictory and varied, especially when one considers the minimalism of his set up.

However, it’s better to draw away from the fine details and allow Deas’ music to unfurl as a whole rather than a sum of parts. Essentially, and despite a certain resemblance to Sun Ra’s Strange Strings that, I kid you not, goes beyond a similarity of title, String Studies is a sort of glitchy noise album, with the kind of massed textures that define the works of The Rita or Younger’s Helm project, albeit in a completely different style. At times, submerged by the onslaught of crippled tones, it seems that disembodied and not particularly friendly voices are calling out from beyond the scratchy ether Deas creates, at others he seems to embrace a caustic form of minimalism. String Studies is cold and abrasive, but it’s not inhuman. You just need to embrace it to find the depths Deas plays with.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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