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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dusted Review: The Last Train by Roger Turner and Otomo Yoshihide (February 19th, 2015)

In improvisation, silence matters almost as much as the actual playing, something that is immediately apparent on The Last Train, a welcome pairing between Roger Turner, one of the UK’s most vaunted drummers, and Japan’s Otomo Yoshihide, a multi-instrumentalist of wide-reaching tastes and skill, here flexing his considerable musical muscles on electric guitar. I’ve lost count of the number of “free” bands/duos I’ve seen over the years who appear ignorant of that important fact, preferring to square up to or blare over one another in an apparent attempt to assert dominance or prove his or her musical credentials. Seriously, folks, rein it in: if you do, you might actually hear your fellow musicians, surely the fundamental ingredient for group improvisation.

Well, Turner and Yoshihide are old hands, veterans even, and this is not their first foray into free improv by a long shot. The resulting moments on The Last Train where the music of either or both players recedes are fascinating, even captivating, glimpses of two musicians sounding each other out and intuitively plotting where they’ll go next. The album was recorded live, so from the get-go this implied potential fills the ether, as “The Wait” emerges from the speakers with the hum of an amp and the barely-perceptible sound of both men shifting as they take up their positions. At first, their progress is slow, with Turner’s muted, but rapid, patters on cymbals and the edges of his drums flittering around extended single notes from Yoshihide. Every time they build up some momentum, they immediately pull back, creating a tension that only occasionally breaks as Turner cranks up the barrage on what sounds like an infinite number of percussive devices (having seen him live, his set-up is a veritable treasure trove of bells, chains, bowls and blocks), with Yoshihide a relatively mellow sounding board.

The reason for such a tentative approach only gradually reveals itself. By dwelling on lengthy single notes, Yoshihide allows his guitar’s feedback to build up, and as The Last Train unfurls with ghostly patience, he carefully molds the increasingly molten sounds emerging from his six-string until at times it barely sounds like a guitar at all. This all bursts into life on “The Sign,” with Turner dancing around Yoshihide’s squalling half-solos like a dervish, but they almost immediately sit back again for the first half of “Crack’s” expertly crafted 11 minutes. Here, Turner’s jangles on bells and bowls imbues the music with a gamelan-like ritualism, whilst Yoshihide’s guitar acts as a bass-heavy foundation allowing the drummer to throw out percussive blasts and clashes in controlled abandon. “Crack” ultimately culminates with an exhilarating bout of sturm und drang, with Yoshihide coming on like Keiji Haino and Turner channelling the spirit of Tony Williams via Keith Moon, but the will-they-or-won’t-they? build-up is just as thrilling.

Fataka is rapidly becoming a truly essential record label. With The Last Train they’ve added another exciting string to their improvisational bow. Otomo Yoshihide and Roger Turner may have both contributed to more “important” records than this brief session, but here they are in their element, two master musicians exhibiting every skill and talent that makes improv such an exciting and unpredictable genre. And they do so with remarkable—and essential—patience.

A Dusted Review: Xe by Zs (February 18th, 2014)

It took a while for a simple fact to sink in over the course of my first few listens of Zs’ new album, their first full salvo as a trio: Xe was recorded live in one take, with scarcely more than the barest minimum of studio work after laying it to tape. I’ve always known that Sam Hillmer, Greg Fox and Patrick Higgins are gifted improvisers, but given the layered nature of previous albums such as 2010’s epic, multi-facetedNew Slaves, to emerge with such a free-flowing, hard-hitting work is remarkable.

A fair amount of rehearsal and practice must have gone in beforehand, for Xe is a tight and taut beast, each musician sounding out his fellow brethren in long periods of methodical, restrained rhythmic pulsations with little in the way of soloing or flourishes before the trio breaks into the realms of free-form, sax-driven post-everything one associates with Zs. If there is a degree of free improv at the heart of Xe, then it is carefully marshaled, and the results may be Zs’ most cohesive album to date and proof that this trio format offers a richness of potential that was possibly missing before. After all, as any Neil Young, Dead C or Fushitsusha fan will tell you, there’s virtue in directness.

Musically, Greg Fox stands out on Xe, paradoxically because his drumming is more often than not defined by restraint rather than muscularity. His polyrhythmic patterns anchor the music like a metronome, and this Jaki Liebezeit-esque focus filters to Higgins and Hillmer, both of whom aim for texture over force. From a listener’s perspective, this approach requires rather a bit of patience, as the opening pile driver that is “The Future of Royalty” segues into the more ambient, electronic haze of “Wolf Government”, which is dominated by fog banks of gristly textures, grimy oscillators and the occasional parp from Hillmer. Then Higgins breaks in with a free-form, jazzy solo before embarking on a seemingly never-ending set of pizzicato arpeggios that herald the slide into one of the album’s two centrepieces, “Corps”. It’s a strange track, a looping, slab of waltz-infused, circular motorik with surprisingly soulful, plaintive moans from Hillmer’s sax. Fox again sets the standard with rolling toms and only the most occasional cymbal crash, accelerating or decelerating seemingly at random. For a band supposedly anchored in “math-rock” (I’m still not 100% sure what that’s supposed to mean), it’s remarkably minimal in the Terry Riley/Steve Reich sense, something reflected in the sparse artwork by Tauba Auerbach.

“Corps” is a long listen, albeit an intriguing one, at 12 minutes, but there is release when it finally breaks apart into flutters, then blasts, of sax and noise and abstract rim shots followed by crashing cymbals from Fox. The even longer title track is Xe’s highlight, Zs taking some of the more sparse, minimalist and circular themes developed on “Corps” and the shorter tracks and expanding them into a gargantuan suite one which the trio lurches from restraint to freak-out with telepathic ease.

Xe is a refreshing glimpse of a band captured in its most primordial state, and for all their clinical musical intellectualism, the album also offers snippets of Zs’ odd sense of humour, not to mention each player’s unique talents and virtuosity. It’s therefore a reminder of how difficult they are as a band to pin down, because even at their most stripped down, they never cease pursuing new directions.

A Quietus Review: Coin Coin Chapter Three – River Run Thee by Matana Roberts (February 4th, 2015)

“The South”, Matana Roberts intones portentously at the beginning of “All Is Written”, the opening track of the third chapter (of a planned 12!) in her Coin Coin series. With just two words, said in a voice laced with gravitas, Roberts outlines exactly what is to follow: a visceral, foreboding and unflinching evocation of the hideous history, and complex legacy, of the American slave trade. It’s her most harrowing work to date in the series, and as such, where chapters two and three retained much of the jazz tradition she was previously associated with (perhaps erroneously), River Run Thee is a broiling, uncompromising work that rips down genre barriers altogether.

Roberts’ saxophone still features prominently, of course, but it is one brush amongst many used to paint a vivid tapestry of the plight of so many people hauled in chains from Africa to states like Louisiana and Mississippi. Instead, Roberts turns to her voice, already a prominent feature on Chapters One and Two, but which is raised here to a Greek chorus that ties every strand of River Run Thee together. She alternates between mournful singing and looped and superimposed spoken texts sourced from the time she explores. Her voice is crystalline but laced with emotion, particularly on the ten minutes of ‘All Is Written’, on which she seems to encapsulate the feelings of so many in one phrase. “Why do we try so hard?” she moans, her voice cracking in the process. It’s a sentence that has echoed through centuries of civil rights struggles: why do we try so hard to make things better when the odds are stacked so resolutely against us? Why do we keep risking our lives to make a difference? Is the price worth paying? Of course, in the context of slavery, it takes on another meaning, questioning how it has come to pass that people have toiled away in backbreaking labour for the sole benefit of idle overlords.

‘All Is Written’ is nothing short of epic. Roberts’ imagery is vivid, and one can practically feel the beating southern sun and smell the swampy air as she evokes weeping willows and flashes of horrific violence, always present but alluded to rather than explicitly depicted, which is somehow all the more troubling. Throughout the album, the narratives glide across one another, taking the listener from a slave dhow in Zanzibar to a sun-baked plantation, touching on themes of religion, fate and justice, and the tracks duly bleed into one another, transforming River Run Thee into a symphonic collage on which wailing extended sax notes and lamenting voices raise themselves into the ether and seem to ask little more than “Why?”.

Without a band to work with, Roberts turns to electronics to bolster her singing and saxophone, and the results make River Run Thee the most vividly potent of the Coin Coin series (so far). The last moments of ‘All Is Written’ dissolve into a carpet of oscillating drones, as if the myriad voices are being swallowed by the storms of time, only to re-emerge as a ritualised chant as the track segues into its follow-up, ‘The Good Book Says’, backed by gristly bursts of sound that one would more expect to hear on a noise album. Allowing the tracks to seep seamlessly into one another allows Roberts’ to build a grandiose vision with the most minimal of means, and even if each song tells its own story, the elliptical nature of these vignettes works best when approached as a whole, especially when Roberts sweeps background drones, voices (sampled and her own) and sax together as on ‘Always Say Your Name’ and ‘Nema, Nema, Nema’.

Unlike the first two chapters, which dealt with more explicit stories delivered through more conventional musical structures, River Run Thee hones in on the tragedy and violence that lay at the core of the slave trade, coiled like murderous snakes. Matana Roberts’ music is similarly taut, bristling with angry textures and gasps of accusatory outbursts. Some of the samples even recall the most apocalyptic side of Constellation label-mates Godspeed You! Black Emperor, although Roberts’ music is more real, less portentous and ultimately more affecting. The album climaxes with the voice of Malcolm X as he attempts to deny accusations of racism, such a striking paradox that it projects Roberts’ portrayal of the African-American experience away from its painful past and into the unstable present. In light of recent events in Missouri, New York and elsewhere, no album you hear this year, or probably any other, will be as important and relevant as Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee.

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.