A Quietus Review: Islands by LV & Josh Idehen (October 3rd, 2014)

Over the years, we’ve become used to grime and dubstep as vehicles for a portrayal of the UK’s urban hinterland: the tough inner-city estates, the lonely bus rides through decaying suburbia, the overarching threats of gangs, police and drugs, the heady rush of post-dancefloor euphoria giving way to end-of-the-night melancholia. These have come to define our city nights like a tapestry culled from the minds of millions of young revellers and city dwellers, a collective database as indefinable and romanticised as it is visceral and universal. In grime in particular, MCs spit, yelp and bellow sketches of their day-to-day experiences, allowing a tiny insight of their lives before the songs fade and the shaking bass ushers us towards the dancefloor.

It’s rare that an artist will open up to the extent that it feels like you’ve been given access to his or her deepest thoughts and feelings. The aforementioned universality detracts from the personal beyond the fleetest of glimpses, but Josh Idehen seems to take little interest in convention or stylistic mores, and his is a vision more coherent and formally narrative than any other MC I’ve come across, at least in these days when the solo underground grime artist à la early Dizzee or Wiley has taken a backseat to (often striking) collaborative efforts such as The Bug’s Angels & Devils and ubiquitous chart-topping bubblegum-hop. Idehen comes across on Islands as a romantic, a drifter and a story-teller, a narrator transmitting those same dirty roads, reverberating clubs and cramped council flats to us via his own experiences, emotions and musings.

In production duo LV, Idehen has chanced upon the ideal collaborators. Routes, their debut album together, was pretty much a portrait of London in music, very much in the vein of Keysound label owners Dusk and Blackdown’s Margins Music, with Idehen’s vocals pared down to soundbites dropped around LV’s post-dubstep malaise. On Islands, the MC is given the centre stage, dominating tracks that become actual songs, with a considered variation in tempos and styles. On the one hand, there is a descriptive narrative: Idehen continues some of the ideas of Routes–and trends in grime and dubstep in general- on tracks like ‘Double Decker Backseat’ and the hopelessly irresistible single ‘Imminent’, constructing vivid, expressionist images of London’s darker underbelly. The former is essentially wordless, Idehen’s lyrics laden with effects until it almost becomes a slur (and who living London hasn’t boarded a late-night bus barely able to articulate the simplest of thoughts). It’s a prime example of how even when Idehen takes a back seat of sorts (no pun intended), the empathy between him and LV allows his overall message to shine brightly. ‘Imminent’, meanwhile, is a disturbing half-dialogue based on an overheard conversation brimming with murderous intent: “Dat boi, dat boi, dat idiot/Thinks he’s grime, thinks he’s brilliant/He don’t know his time is limited/Can’t see his end is imminent/Imminent/Imminent/Imminent/Imminent”. The track is all the more chilling for its cantering along squelchy bass and infectious snares, overflowing with hooks even as the protagonists prepare themselves for fictional violence.

The trio don’t limit themselves to mirroring London’s neon-lit darkness, with Idehen using such stories to paint the world in which he, a Nigerian Briton raised in Benin City, deals with life, love and loss. I’d go so far as to state he lays his soul out like an open book on Islands, such as on the otherwise inconsequential 56-second ‘Obsessed’ in which Idehen plays the forlorn abandoned lover. ‘Island’, another third-person tale but one that feels more personal than ‘Imminent’ and ‘Shake’, is a dark lament on unrequited love and jealousy set to a gentle ambient backing that wouldn’t be out of place on King Midas Sound’s Waiting For You.

The two angles on Islands coalesce most impressively on ‘Run Down’, a wonderfully morose shuffle documenting Idehen’s anticipation for the oncoming night that starts out with shifting electronic drones and faint rhythmic shifts before lurching into a finger-clicking deconstructed 4/4 groove that is just the right side of catchy to get you itching for the dancefloor. LV are remarkably adroit tunesmiths, able to navigate the fine lines between minimalism and melodicism without ever descending into dry formalism or familiar clichés. Josh Idehen has a voice that is just as expressive and powerful, whether he’s belting out the fast-paced rap of ‘Imminent’ or the more sensual, evocative neo-soul of ‘Islands’. I doubt there will ever be another great leap forwards in UK urban music, but these guys certainly push the envelope further than most.

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: Palm Tree Fire by Slackk (September 19th, 2014)

The concept of “instrumental grime” — and indeed “instrumental hip-hop” as whole — baffled me at first. I couldn’t understand why anyone, even the most talented producer, would want to deprive their tracks of the flow of an MC, which fills the space of hip-hop music and provides the focus of the songs. But of course, the advent of new technologies (notably laptops) and a fresh contextualisation of UK hip-hop, which is no longer only a vehicle for the voice of disaffected black youth but increasingly a realm favoured by hip white folks, means there is more room to explore the limits of grime, which, much as with rock, has perhaps inevitably led to a removal of vocals from the genre altogether.

The results are often mixed, the raw passion of a Flowdan, a Warrior Queen or a Spaceape stripped away leaving, even in the case of old hand Terror Danjah, a rather uncomfortable and repetitive austerity. It could simply be that not everyone’s a Kevin Martin, but I have long suspected, much like that bloke back in the 1950s who didn’t think much of rock’n’roll, so I’m likely incorrect — that instrumental grime is not a genre that will stick around for long.

That said, Liverpool’s Paul Lynch could be the guy to give it the much-needed injection of oomph. Lynch has been involved with grime pretty much since day one, and has developed into something of an authority on it via his Grimetapes blog and the Boxed crew. This wide-reaching, encyclopaedic knowledge therefore informs the entirety of Palm Tree Fire, making it a sort of journey across grime’s entire spectrum. You’d expect it therefore to be almost schizophrenically eclectic, but Lynch combines astute judgement with a remarkable melodic sensitivity.

At times, Palm Tree Fire feels like a journey through both space and time, starting with the muscular title track, which features gruff sampled male shouts, staccato beats and moody bass lines; and winding through 14 other vignettes before concluding with “Kit and Holly,” a peculiar (certainly un-grime), organic snippet dominated by xylophones sounds that could have been plucked from a children’s TV show, birdsong and atmospheric hesitant synths. The contrast between the opener’s macho swagger and the almost fragile textures on “Kit and Holly” could almost serve as a metaphor for Palm Tree Fire in its entirety.

Along the way, Slackk treats us to the entire panoply of grime’s various evolutions. Snares like machine gun fire rattle ominously at detached intervals under metronomic hi-hat bursts and see-sawing high-pitched synths on “Intercept” and “Jackal,” pulsating with futurist dystopianism. “Millipede” and “Three Kingdoms” are the epitome of the new sub-genre called “sinogrime” where synths that sound like they’ve been lifted from 80’s art-pop band Japan’s Tin Drum sway over analogue-sounding percussion that shifts in unpredictable tempos far removed from grime’s traditional full-on rhythmic assault. There’s even the occasional “eastern”-sounding wind instrument for good measure. “Sinogrime” is certainly an interesting proposition, as Fatima Al-Qadiri recently displayed on her Asiatisch album, but, in the hands of Westerners, it can quickly descend into bland formalism and vaguely coarse stereotyping. Lynch dodges that bullet on the lush “Three Kingdoms,” but “Millipede” is pretty dull.

It’s a rare thing, but Palm Tree Fire’s eclecticism proves to be a strength, as Lynch’s scattergun approach may be erratic, but when it hits the nail on the proverbial, the absence of MCs becomes as irrelevant as it would in any other genre of electronic music. “Bullfight” shares the title track’s aggressive rhythmic propulsion, even edging towards a form of industrial dance akin to Vatican Shadow (with whom Palm Tree Fire’s artwork shares a certain aesthetic). But the real triumphs are an involuntary triptych formed by “Crafty Tiger,” “Litherland” and “Puma Walk.” All three are dominated by mournful synth lines developing into crystalline melodic patterns, linking Lynch’s grime DNA (encapsulated by the juddering beats he deploys) with the more restrained pop of the early ’80s synth revolution. It’s not quite Duran Duran, rest assured, nor is it as austere as early Human League or Robert Rental, but there’s an emotional strain running through these three tracks. By extension, they carry the rest of Palm Tree Fire beyond mere genre exhibition and into something more personal and resonant.

Because I fell in love with grime through the clipped, punkish energy of Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner and Wiley’s Playtime is Over, I still find the absence of vocals on these tracks a bit disconcerting. But by maintaining a remarkable coherence over so many tracks and sub-genre shifts, Slackk demonstrates just what can be achieved in instrumental grime, taking it beyond the genre’s parameters and towards something more universal.

A Dusted Review: Punish, Honey (September 16th, 2014)

Vessel’s Seb Gainsborough is part of Bristol, England’s Young Echo collective, but his solo material differs considerably from that of his peers. While the other Young Echo producers mostly play with the familiar, albeit frayed, contours of minimalist dubstep, grime and techno, Gainsborough has, with Punish, Honey, pushed those tropes into esoteric new realms. There’s still a hint of techno running through the backbone of the album’s tracks, his novel approach and formal structures sound like very little else coming out of the UK’s club culture. It’s small wonder Gainsborough has made a home for himself on Tri-Angle Records, a label that has previously given us superlatively spooky beat-based salvoes by The Haxan Cloak, Holy Other and Balam Acab. Tri-Angle had already released the previous Vessel album, Order of Noise, a more straightforward ambient/electro/dubstep work the title of which might have been more suited for this release. On Punish, Honey, Gainsborough deploys a series of homemade instruments such as metal sheets for percussion and flutes made out of dismantled bicycles.  Consequently, while the album retains an echo of the reverb-heavy post-dubstep of its predecessor, it’s also a more abrasive, unsettling listen, touching on a heritage that stretches back to the early days of industrial music. Indeed, even the synth passages have a lo-fi edginess to them that would not sound out of place played by Chris Carter circa 1980. On “Red Sex,” see-sawing synth lines stretch back and forth like muffled dub sirens over a crunching metallic shuffle and buzzing synthetic gristle. It’s part dub, part industrial clamour and instantly evokes the dilapidated factories and wind-whipped parking lots that still dot much of what used to be England’s industrial heartland. Vessel’s greatest connection to vintage dubstep lies in this cold, unflinching liminal vision of modern urbanity.

Gainsborough claims he set out to consider the meaning of “Britishness” (a tediously overused term by politicians and newspaper hacks). With track titles like “Black Leaves and Fallen Branches” and “Kin to Coal”, such ambition is clearly laid out, although any conclusions made are abstract and tinged with inchoate morosity. Be warned: there is none of dubstep’s hazy sensuality and end-of-party emotionality onPunish, Honey. In the two years since Order of Noise, Vessel’s music has edged into the shadowy realms of a new strain of underground techno, a nebulous demi-monde inhabited by the likes of Regis, Sandwell District, William Bennett’s Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow.

Vessel may be less jagged and brusque than those other acts, but by injecting his music with a bit of clatter and creak, he’s exploring similar territory and coming up with an equally austere sonic vista. It’s a subtly beautiful combination: when Gainsborough returns to techno beats on Punish, Honey, such as on album highlights “Anima”, “Kin To Coal” and “DPM” and meshes them with the darker, more industrial atmospheres that dominate the album, the results are truly thrilling, mechanized dance for a post-industrial age.

A Quietus Review: Four Track Mind by Ekoplekz (September 9th, 2014)

What a year it has been for Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards. March saw the release of his most fully-realised album to date, Unfidelity, on which his surreal blend of motoric techno and ectoplasmic DIY hauntology reached its most direct, sinewy peak. To my mind, Edwards has surpassed all other similar artists in the way he has drawn a line between quasi-dancefloor friendly melodic electronica and an austere form of post-industrial kosmische rooted in English eccentricity, folklore and arcana. His move to Planet Mu for Unfidelity crystallised his various inspirations (“influences” is somehow inappropriate) into something more focused than before, and he’s elevated the vision on that album even higher with Four Track Mind.

Most of the tracks on Four Track Mind were recorded around the same time as those on Unfidelity, but the mood is notably different. For all its inherent queasiness and nods to the austere industrial electronica of Robert Rental, Unfidelity was an almost bright and upbeat album, the murk of previous releases replaced with driving techno beats and Harmonia-esque synth layers. On Four Track Mind, Edwards lingers over his tracks, with four of them stretching past the eight minute mark. An atmosphere of sombre contemplation looms over the album like a pall of smoke, an introspective yang to Unfidelity’s sardonic energy. If the album’s title suggests a collection of lo-fi afterthoughts tacked on to its predecessors coat-tails, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a fully fleshed-out work that evolves almost like a concept album, and it’s a journey that takes the listener into the murkier recesses of Nick Edwards’ psyche.

‘Return To The Annex’ is the track that best epitomises the central motif on Four Track Mind. Over languid, swirling synths, Edwards deploys a series of stark clatters and an eerie recording of himself as a child talking to his long-deceased father. There’s a lot of talk about how acts like Ekoplekz (Demdike Stare, Broadcast, the Ghost Box lot) play with themes of memory, but it’s for any of them to delve into such personal material. The track is evocative and unsettling, with Edwards expertly overlapping loops and and percussion, delicately creating a miniature suite that lingers long after its ten minutes have expired. ‘Ariel Grey’ is similarly ethereal, an intricate collage of looped vocal echoes, throbbing electronic lines and aquatic effects, whilst ‘Tantrikz’ edges along on an hypnotic krautrock-ish backbeat, perhaps the clearest nod towards influences like Harmonia and Cluster that Edwards allows himself on the album. Even the shorter, faster-paced tracks on Four Track Mind contain trace elements of taut emotions, such as the driving mutant techno of ‘Reflekzive’, which is propelled by twitching beats and a sweeping phantom choir, or the bouncy, echo-laden ‘Interstice’. Edwards’ liberal use of reverb and echo means each track, no matter how short, seems to stretch time, with the likes of ‘Reflekzive’ and ‘Dvectif’ sounding like horror movies soundtracks compressed into bite-sized form. Four Track Mind is, for all the occasional moments of snide levity and gallows humour, a grim and haunting listen.

A rather lazy shorthand has grown up when it comes to discussing a lot of this new British electronica (or hauntology, if you prefer), with consistent references to seventies TV shows like Doctor Who or The Owl Service and public information videos. Sure, Nick Edwards’ analogue synths have a few sounds you might hear on vintage sci-fi TV, but, on listening to Four Track Mind a rather different visual artefact from the seventies crept into my mind: Ian Merrick and Michael Armstrong’s horrifying 1977 low-budget thriller The Black Panther. The film tells the true story of serial killer Donald Neilson, who killed three village postmasters and kidnapped heiress Lesley Whittle in 1975. I don’t know if Edwards ever saw the film (an outraged press, probably trying to make up for their own role in the botched rescue attempt of Whittle which may have led to her death, accused the directors of exploitation and The Black Panther was effectively buried for decades), but the oppressive, austere nature of the music on Four Track Mind seems to hark back to that not-so-lost England of grim suburbia, crumbling industrial landscapes and sordid violence.

It’s hard not to regret that Four Track Mind won’t see a wider release than the few hundred vinyl copies Planet Mu are going to put out, but I can see why Unfidelity was given precedent: it’s the more open, “accessible” (not quite the right term when dealing with Ekoplekz) and concise work. But Four Track Mind is more than its predecessor’s morose cousin: it’s a triumphant work in its own right, more intimate and intense, and confirms Nick Edwards as one of the most exciting artists of the year.

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 Review: My Love is a Bulldozer by Venetian Snares (July 10th, 2014)

The latest album from Aaron Funk starts off in the manner of the vehicle in its title, with ’10th Circle Of Winnipeg’, a truly superlative track in the Venetian Snares canon. The title makes clear what Funk thinks of Manitoba’s capital city, and the track is suitably moody, claustrophobic and bleak. As has been his wont of late, Funk melds electronics and breakbeats with strident string lines, creating a bizarre hybrid of high-octane dance music and modern classical, whilst a female voice (sounding remarkably similar to Billie Holiday, heard on 2005’s Rossz Csillag Alatt Született, Funk’s masterpiece) gloomily intones about snow, emptiness, hatred and the meaningless of life. Jazz-like percussion is deftly interchanged with breakcore thunder and wobbly bass, the track meandering expertly in the interstices between genres and styles. It’s a potent opener, and, much like the baroque, outlandish artwork, sets the tone for My Love Is A Bulldozer.

After such an imposing start, the rest of My Love Is A Bulldozer was bound to struggle to keep the standards up, but even with this in mind, it’s a confusing and muddled album. On Wikipedia, that ever-reliable bastion of authoritative information, Funk’s music is described as both breakcore and, more surprisingly, modern classical, and at various -brief- instances on My Love Is A Bulldozer he seems to be trying to live up to this description as he strips away beats and synths altogether in favour of more orchestral instrumentation. Rarely, however, do moments like ‘Deleted Poems’ and ‘8am Union Station’ go beyond being mere ambient sketches using classical instruments as opposed to actual compositions with much depth, and next to the full-throttle breakcore of later tracks, they sound quite incongruous.

To compound matters, Funk’s use of strings in overtly techno/breakcore tracks, from the crude title track (“Only you can make my dick feel like this”, Funk croons. Really, Aaron?) to even more successful pieces such as ‘Shaky Sometimes’ is a long way from possessing the focus and sensitivity displayed on Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. I know that Venetian Snares has always been a hyperactive entity, but at times My Love Is A Bulldozer feels like it was made by an acute ADHD sufferer after a seven-day coke and Pro Plus bender.

A lot has been discussed about Funk’s singing, often negatively, but, whilst he doesn’t have the best of voices, it’s hardly terrible. Mostly he deploys a sort of early-80s gothic moan, but there are some more varied moments, such as a descent into black metal-ish primal screaming on ‘1000 Years’ or the slightly unsettled yelping on ‘Your Smiling Face’, on which Funk sounds a bit like a less talented David Bowie circa Hours (at a push, I’ll admit). His lyrics are always as bleak and intense as the female voice on ’10th Circle Of Winnipeg’ suggested from the get-go, although rarely with much depth or revelatory contemplations.

Basically, My Love Is A Bulldozer is best when Aaron Funk does what we’ve always known he excels at: distilling bludgeoning, frantically-paced breakbeats in jazzy clusters, supported by his unique ability to blend in other textures, be they strings, voices, samples or electronics. Ambition is hardly a fault, but it’s clear that on this latest salvo, Funk tends to overreach himself.

A Quietus Interview: At One With Chaos & Abandonment: The Irrepressibles Interviewed (June 19th, 2014)

The first thing that hits you when listening to Nude, the superlative second album by London-based art-pop group The Irrepressibles, is the vocal power of lead singer and songwriter Jamie McDermott. McDermott’s capacity to wrench heartfelt, overwhelming emotion with every word that emerges from his mouth brings to mind Antony Hegarty, with whom he also shares a penchant for lyrics that openly and honestly explore issues surrounding homosexuality and gender. Over the past few months, The Irrepressibles have been touring incessantly, including a trip to Russia – home of some of the most homophobic laws in Europe – and have also returned to the material on Nude for three EPs that showcase the wide tapestry of the band’s sound. Nude: LandscapesNude: Viscera and Nude: Forbidden contain alternate versions of tracks from Nude as well as new material and remixes, but they differ wildly from one another, together creating an alternative vision of McDermott’s inner and outer world from the original album. The Quietus met with Jamie McDermott to discuss these three differing soundscapes, the honesty of his lyrics and that remarkable voice.

How are you? It seems like it’s been a busy year for you…

Jamie McDermott: [Laughs] Yeah, I dunno. It’s sort of like heaven and hell at the same time, it’s been pretty extreme. For a lot of musicians at the moment, it’s like you’re making music and managing to get by living on very little. I live on a council estate, which is really quite rough and harsh, and the next extreme is getting on a plane getting booked at the Academy Of Music and hearing opera being played! It’s quite extreme for musicians.

Nude, your second album, was released to considerable acclaim in 2012. Could you tell me a little bit about its creation?

JM: It was quite difficult, because we knew we needed to make the second record as soon as we could, as the first had come out in 2010 and there was quite a lot of pressure to make the second. I wanted to make a very different statement, but also to make it in a way that wasn’t contrived. The idea was to do something that was both visually and lyrically honest about my sexuality. I wanted to make something that kind of communicated the experiences I’ve had growing up as a young gay man. I took songs that I’d written from various times, when I was a lot younger, and felt I could give them an arrangement that would set them in a time. I used 80s and early 90s-style electronics and then, as with Mirror Mirror, I used orchestration, but instead of orchestrating it in a very polyphonic way, I wanted to make something that was a bit more American and filmic. A use of strings that doesn’t have a specific style, so I used the strings in a way that was a bit more about memory and time, rather than being set in time.

That’s how the record came together, but when we handed it over, we had a difficult process because the label decided they didn’t want it, so we had to find a different way of releasing it. And that was a really big challenge. We’d made this thing which, for the time, was very honestly gay in a way that many artists weren’t really doing in terms of mainstream music. Now, there have been a lot of artists that have done similar things, even people like Goldfrapp – who’s done music that deals with gender and homosexuality – which is fantastic, but at the time, it was a bit like “woahh… ok”.

So it’s been quite a difficult couple of years, but the finishing line was, for me, performing at the first ever gay wedding in the UK, singing ‘Two Men In Love’, and performing out in Russia, being part of the movement and meeting with the LGBT resistance. It was really interesting to be involved with the LGBT movement worldwide, including with our videos, which is hard to do with no budget [laughs]. People say “It doesn’t look aesthetically very good”, and it’s like “Yeah, but we don’t have any money!”

Could you please give me a bit of background on The Irrepressibles, and how the band was formed?

JM: We’ve had about two or three incarnations of the band. The first one was back in 2002, and we were a band for about three years until two of them got married and decided to move away. It had been so intense, trying to make a budget work, but we had a great time, running nights such as at Candid and putting on interesting artists. I then went on to do a site-specific performance choir, but someone was trying to do something similar to the Irrepressibles and put an advert on Drowned In Sound, so I got a bit angry and decided to put a band together again. I put an advert out, and ended up with more orchestral instruments. As someone who isn’t trained as a composer, I didn’t really know what they were, so would just have a listen and then, once they were in my head, I could just sing parts and figure out what to do. That band started in 2005, and we eventually got signed in 2010.

You’ve recently released three EPs, also called Nude, that sort of reimagine and transform the songs from the Nude album, whilst also combining them with unreleased tracks. What made you decide to return to the Nude recordings?

JM: Well, Nude originally was a record that I’d made by myself as a solo artist, just with guitar and voice, and it was very similar to Nude: Viscera, the second EP. So, when I came to do Nudeas a studio album with The Irrepressibles, it was more focused on telling my story as a gay man growing up, so sonically I wanted to bring in elements of electronica as well as carry on the lineage of Mirror Mirror. So, it became a very different record and some tracks didn’t fit. It wasn’t that they were outtakes, they just didn’t fit. There was also a kind of time limit, we needed to get the album finished. But tracks like ‘Not Mine’ and ‘Forbidden’ were part of the same message, and I’ve always wanted to make statement albums and not just the same album over and over again. I want to make different sound worlds with specific messages. So, I felt these songs needed to be released in some way, but they didn’t combine into one second record, like a Nude Two.

The stuff that was more rock and more visceral came from a time when I used to be an indie-rock kind of singer. Then there was the stuff that I’d performed solo, versions of ‘Arrow’ and so on, that were very different versions that I was actually quite nervous of performing without the other musicians. But I did it in Paris, and people were actually quite moved by it and said I should perform that way. It ended up online and people were asking where they could hear these versions, and so there was a reason to release them as well. And then there were the electronic tracks, like ‘Forbidden’ and ‘Edge Of Now’ that needed to be put out somehow, especially as we’d had these remixes done. For example, Ghosting Season, the Mancunian duo, did remixes of ‘Arrow’ and ‘Forbidden’, and I really love their work, as well as iamamiwhoami, who remixed ‘New World’. It seemed like the right thing to do, to create these three EPs, kind of like a band doing a live album, a kind of add-on.

It also allowed us to perform in different ways. A lot of people expect to hear a replication of the album [when it’s performed] live, and Nude is symphonic and electronic, with quite medium-scale production values. So, it’s quite difficult to replicate onstage. I don’t want people to come expecting one thing from the album and then hearing something else, so the idea is that if we release these EPs, people will get an idea of what to expect on tour. So we toured Nude: Landscapes in the UK and the US and then took Nude: Viscera on a more extended tour in the UK. And we’re about to do a more expansive tour in the USA. It’s kind of blown up a little bit, so we’re going out to Tel Aviv and Greece… Eventually, we’ll come back and do the full Nudespectacle, so we can do the more visual side of my work as well. It’s really nice, though, to play onstage and just be in the moment, rather than as part of something that’s very choreographed and set. That’s very tight, whereas with just piano and strings, using loop pedals, and with the “rock” EP, there’s a chance to be in the moment, which is just great. And I can sing more! Because I fucking love singing [laughs].

You’ve kind of touched on this, but does each EP represent a different facet of The Irrepressibles, in some way?

JM: It’s interesting, because some bands set out with a very specific idea of what they want to do, with a clear mission, but I never did that with The Irrepressibles. The mission statement was always to be like the name is: unrestricted. It can be quite confusing to people, because we’ve kind of moved from what was a rock-pop style into something that’s more electronic or whatever. There isn’t a sound of The Irrepressibles. Somebody mentioned that there is a sound that you can hear throughout everything that “says” The Irrepressibles, but in terms of style, I’m completely at one with chaos and abandonment.

Also, I think I’ve been very much a control freak with The Irrepressibles, but I’m still very interested in collaboration and it’s been very interesting to have people remix stuff. I just gave them free reign, and it’s the same when we do music videos. We’ve just done some music for a Shelly Love film. She’s making a trilogy of films based on the Forgotten Circus, and I’ve just written some music for the first short film, which was, in a way, more in the style of Mirror Mirror. It’s nice to suddenly be in a room full of orchestral instruments and write just by singing parts while I’m in the room, before going into the studio working with electronics. Maybe it’s because I’m gay, but I’m very open! [laughs]

What made you decide on which songs should be performed in a certain way?

JM: Mainly, it was just informed by what they were. On the first EP, people wanted the orchestral version of ‘Arrow’, before I’d built it up with electronics, so that was already there, same with the live version of ‘New World’. Then I was asked to do a cover by an American film company, and I’d never wanted to do covers, so it had to be something that meant something emotionally to me in this time, and ‘Always In My Mind’ seemed right. I love that song, the sentiment is so powerful.

What is the meaning of each EP’s title?

JM: With each title, it kind of has a double concept, it some ways. Nude: Landscapes is to do with expanding the landscapes with loop pedals. All the arrangements are being built on top of each other, so there’s a sense, for me – and I know this sounds kind of spiritual! – of there being a line put into the loop that is then a memory that you then build upon, and it becomes a reflection of the memory. I actually really enjoy that way of arranging. I’ve always done it, really, but the loop has allowed me to really expand that. In ‘Arrow’, for example, the ending is massively orchestrated: it’s got loads of different lines that are to do with emotions. When it’s the electronic version, it’s quite difficult to hear that, unless it’s through a really big speaker system at a concert. So, it’s nice to release it in this way. All the arrangements on Nude: Landscapes are to do with expanding landscapes, taking something from minimalism and expanding it into a landscape to do with time and memory.

With Nude: Viscera, it’s kind of two things. One, catharsis, so on a track like ‘Not Mine’, it’s something that’s very in the stomach and emotionally there, but also in the same sort of place there’s sex. So the song is all to do with sex and the visceral, really. They were all written at a time when I was discovering my sexuality, or that were about the end of something. ‘Now That My Lover Is Dead’ and ‘Not Mine’ are about the end of a relationship, and they’re quite bitter and visceral. It’s exploring sex and sexuality, and it’s interesting to perform that way, viscerally, onstage, and it just be about not being restrictive, which electronic music can be. I always find electronic music to be like orchestral, because in a way it’s quite mystical and magical, but it’s also more elemental, like furniture or glass orbs: it’s got a shape to it. Working with orchestration is often more linear, where rock music comes from there [points to his stomach].

On the electronic record, Nude: Forbidden, the electronic tracks are all focused on time and memory, and their connections with sexuality. It’s darker, and [tied in with] the videos. So, the video for ‘Forbidden’ is about a boy discovering at a very young age that he’s in love with his best friend, whilst ‘Edge of Now’ is a fucking dance of defiance, with lots of different people from the LGBT community dancing completely naked, so it’s not about lifestyle, y’know, putting clothes on to say, like, “I’m a lesbian, this is how I dress, because that’s my choice”. No, it’s stripped bare, completely naked, “this is physically who I am, but this is my sexuality depicted in the video”. It was interesting. We had straight guys in the video as well. It’s also one of the earliest songs, I wrote it when I was about eighteen, and it’s about the bullying I’d experienced. I was bullied viciously, and so it’s about trying to break free from the restrictions and constraints people try to put on you. So it’s connected to ‘Arrow’, and to the album.

I have to ask you about your voice. I saw you at Snape Maltings two years back (singing in David Toop’s opera Star-Shaped Biscuit), and I found it to be extraordinary, and it’s the same on record. How do you achieve such an amazing vocal prowess?

JM: There are a couple of ways of approaching the voice, I think. The way I approach my voice is very Afro-American in its technique. I was trained in rock, soul, gospel and jazz, and was originally a rock singer, and I learned what’s called “head-voicing” in Afro-American style, which is just the voice that resonates in the head. In classical music, it’s called the countertenor, but it’s slightly different in its technique. I was never classically trained. In classical training, a lot of it is to do with control, physically, and it’s a very different approach. In Afro-American styles of singing, it’s more about letting the diaphragm or the body release, so it allows me to move from head resonance into something that’s within a larynx mix, more like a jazz crooner. I never use baritone, I don’t really know how to do it. As I used to be a rock singer, I sometimes push my chest forward to use to full voice.

It’s all bits that are to do with Afro-American styles of singing, but I think in the context of working with string instruments, it’s become a little bit more like a classical countertenor, even if it isn’t one. I could never achieve the control, I don’t think, in terms of singing so many notes per second. I tried to learn some Schörnberg. Lore Luxembourg, who was also at Snape, tried to get me to sing some Schörnberg, and I was like “Ummmm, I can’t read music!” [laughs]. It was very difficult, but she was very adamant I should try. I’ve always sung, since I was a child, and a lot of singers tend to develop a thing called “singing Tourette’s” – we basically can’t stop singing, all the time! [laughs] It’s obsessive, you’re always in your voice, always exploring what it can do, and exploring emotions with it.

You’ve mentioned your sexuality. Do you feel LGBT artists have a duty, of sorts, to speak out about LGBT issues in their art?

JM: I don’t think they have a duty. There’s a lot of amazingly talented gay artists, but, I dunno… I can’t really say what other people should do, but, for me, it’s really upsetting to hear that kids have killed themselves because they were being bullied for being gay. I was viciously bullied, and still do get it – I got hit not long ago on tour, in the street. I get heckled all the time. In this country, we’re very lucky, but there’s still a lot to do and say. For me it’s like, why not express your experience fully through art and music? ‘New World’, the video and song, are what I experienced. To say that message clearly was important. It’s fun to just make music, but I think it’s important for LGBT people to make work that communicates their life expressively. I’ve always thought of pop music as being about communicating something.

Has the reaction to your lyrics been a mostly positive one?

JM: We’ve had messages from the National Front, we’ve had Christian groups, and all kinds of things said online. But we’ve never experienced anything in a big way. When we went to Moscow, it took the technicians eight hours to deal with things technically, we nearly couldn’t go onstage. When we did, they refused to turn the sound on, one of the drummers had to throw his sticks to get them to turn on the video for ‘Arrow’. I dunno… I’m just kind of in it, I can’t really intellectualise it. I’ve always made music that is honest, I think it’s part of my personality. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but I’ve kind of left behind the emotional worry about what I’m saying, because I get so involved in the creative process.

The Irrepressibles’ album Nude and the three Nude EPs are all out now

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 Quietus Review: Signals by Wen (May 19th, 2014)

Owen Darby, aka Wen, uses his music in a way that – grumpy old fart alert – I wish more artists would these days: with a distinctly political edge. It may not be the overt sloganeering of the flower power generation, or the angry hectoring of punk’s first flourish, but by clearly anchoring his visions of garage and grime within the urban jungle of modern Britain, Darby makes a statement, and it’s one worth picking out of his synths, beats and basslines.

“Big up my family,” declares a young MC sampled on the opening intro track, before declaring “This UK is real!” These words, snatches of bars sampled from grime MCs and tracks that have inspired Darby, encapsulate a divide that has been bubbling closer and closer to the surface in modern Britain: the “us and them” narrative, developed into political agenda through Tory policies and the press. People and their families are no longer simply that – they may now potentially be viewed as scroungers costing the taxpayer (even if they’re in work), job-thieving immigrants depriving indigenous Brits, or feral youth waiting on every street corner to rob and assault the righteous. The true existences of people are rendered immaterial by stereotypes. Accordingly, Wen’s music is cold, distant and dispassionate, a fractured vision of a splintered London society. Words emerge from glassy layers of electronics and jerky beats, never present long enough to be identified or clearly interpreted; lost voices appealing to indifferent ears.

Aside from this veiled socio-political context, the austerity (another topical word) of Signals is a sign of the way grime and grime-inspired music has evolved in the decade-and-a-bit since the genre first burst onto the underground club scene and pirate radio. With grime having found its way to the pop charts repeatedly over the years, those artists still attached at root level have continued to strip their music back to its core. The rhythms on Signals are juddering and skeletal, the bass a ghostly half-presence reminiscent of Burial’s phantom dubstep. With the exception of ‘Time’, which features Parris, the song element of MC-led grime is removed altogether in favour of slogan-like one-liners that jerk in and out of songs like scattered graffiti, culminating in the threatening lines of “Your neck should be swinging, bruvva!” belted out on ‘Swingin”, an eruption of violence that feels scarily real in Wen’s reconstructed London. Signals is a mirror vision of Britain’s capital, all wide spaces, ice-cold nocturnal vistas and hints of blaring modernity. Synth sounds conjure up the constant bleeping of smart phones and outdoor advertising, creating a schism between the earthy urban sounds of the people whose voices interject across the album, and the constantly shifting city that surrounds them, or even hems them in.

Signals is a vital, exciting album, precisely because it walks this fine line between aesthetic detachment and the gritty effervescence of a sketched reality. Several of the tracks are inherently danceable, echoing grime’s essence as a dancefloor genre, while others are arch and underlined by a current of moody despondency. Like mid-noughties albums like Burial’s self-titled debut or Wiley’s Playtime Is Over, this is underground electronic music that emphatically and ambiguously conjures up London; and the reflection Wen throws back at the world is harsh, seductive and questioning in equal measure.