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 Quietus Interview: Jamie McDermott of the Irrepressibles, Alexander Geist, Ebe Oke and MJ Woodbridge (March 18th, 2015)

It’s been a busy couple of years for The Irrepressibles’ Jamie McDermott. The critical and commercial success of the band’s second album, Nude, a celebration of and reflection on male homosexual love, has shot the singer to new heights of recognition, resulting in a series of well-received tours that have taken him and his bandmates around the world, from the United States to Russia and beyond. Last year saw a series of EPs expand on the premise and aesthetic of Nude, often stripping away the album’s lavish electronics and symphonic textures to reveal the heartfelt lyrical honesty underneath. Now residing in Berlin, McDermott will be back on UK shores on March 20 for a one-off spectacle at Islington Assembly Hall, London, which will see The Irrepressibles recreate Nude in all its glory, bolstered by support from genre-pushing queer acts Ebe Oke, Alexander Geist and MJ Woodbridge. The Quietus caught up with Jamie, Ebe, Alexander and MJ in September to discuss what audiences can expect from the show and what it means to be a gender- and sexuality-bending musician in the 21st century.

How are plans for the show coming along?

Jamie McDermott: Speaking for myself, we’re just doing the elements that will make up the main show, because at the moment we’re touring Nude: Viscera, which is more rock-focused with strings, but also doing some Nude: Landscapes. Hopefully, there might be some more videos, so that’s something else I’ve been doing, but I know that Ebe has also been rehearsing for the show.

Without giving away too much, what can people expect from the Nude spectacle?

JM: It’s going to be a full event. We have music that’s kind of part of the arts and culture aspect of music, more acoustic, more symphonic at the beginning. We’ve got Ebe’s music, which he’ll explain himself, but which has elements of classical music and queer avant-garde tradition. And The Irrepressibles’ set will move from moments that are with just piano and guitar and other stuff that’s more rock, more visceral and more sexual, with electronics. It will be audiovisual, so something that’s not only explained through sound, but also through video work and movement. It all helps express the message of Nude, which is my story as a homosexual guy growing up, a discourse on sexuality and art.

It sounds like it’s going to be a ‘big’ show. Is it the most ambitious one you’ve done?

JM: It will be the biggest one since we played Mirror Mirror [The Irrepressibles’ first album] at the Barbican, so this is us bringing the big spectacle of the second record to London, and after that show’s finished, we’re going to the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen for MJ Woodbridge and Alexander’s performances. So we’ve got a lot of different artists who are part of the new movement of LGBT artists in music, or at least artists who happen to be LGBT.

I was going to ask – is there a new movement of LGBT artists in music, or are you all artists who happen to be part of the LGBT community?

JM: For me, with Nude, it was necessary to say something very clear and confident about being gay and working in art, and, with the event, it’s become a beacon for a little moment of artists who are so different, but are able to be honest about their sexuality. There are so many artists around, from Owen Pallett to Antony to Grizzly Bear, and it’s all happening now. It’s a movement, I think, and we’re just one part of that movement.

Alexander Geist: I think, in the queer community, there are people who don’t necessarily have homosexual sexual identities but are still part of that community, and it will be great to have people like that involved.

Ebe Oke: I personally don’t feel as though I’ve fully found my tribe yet. Although I relate to the LGBT community I don’t feel adequately represented by it. My sense of gender and sexuality is mutable. I’m a sky person and lean toward sapiosexual tendencies.

It sounds like it’s going to be quite different to shows you’ve been doing of late, Jamie, with much more stripped down shows…

JM: I think it was really important for me to do that, because a lot of people thought Mirror Mirror was all about flamboyance and things being decadent, which it wasn’t, it was about the European tradition and flamboyance, but more in terms of art’s connection with fashion and how there’s a connection between the visual and sound. With Nude, it was interesting to strip it back and focus on the elements to make it more visceral. When I look at the spectacle, it’s not coming back to something that’s grand, it’s more hearing all of it and it may be one the last concerts of Nude, so it’s a bit like, ‘Here is all of it, and this is what this work was about’.

That suggests you might be working on new material. Is there anything you can tell at this point about that?

JM: I am working on new music, but I don’t know if I want to talk about it yet, because I don’t want to jinx it! I’m not in any way precious or arrogant in any way, but it’s always such a strange process for me, making music…

How many musicians are currently in The Irrepressibles?

JM: It varies. Sometimes there’ll be three, sometimes there’ll be five, sometimes there’ll be eight. When we started doing Nude, we didn’t work with a woodwind section anymore, but it will still be a large ensemble.

How did you all end up crossing paths with Jamie and getting onboard? Who wants to go first?

AG: I’ve known Jamie for a long time, we have mutual friends, and I saw The Irrepressibles when they were a four-piece before the first record came out seven or eight years ago. I opened for The Irrepressibles last summer, and we’ve worked together for some time.

EO: I first discovered Jamie’s music at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s club years ago. He’s become a trusted friend and confidante. His empathy and capacity for feeling is astounding.

I’ve listened to all your musics, but what will your performance involve on the night?

AG: I’m going to have two backing singers and one musician. It’ll be mostly electronic music, inspired by late-70s and early-80s synth music. The lyrical output is inspired by someone like Morrissey, sort of wry and somewhat political and somewhat obnoxious, but sort of cinematic in scope. And you’re going to have a great time!

EO: I discovered The Irrepressibles because an ex-boyfriend took one of their early shows at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Jamie and I became friends and I worked with two of his former band members on my first record. You could definitely say that some of my music is quite minimal, but I think it’s actually quite varied. I don’t think I have one specific style. For the show, I’m going to work with a string trio and some electronics. I’m going to be presenting some music that I’ve written for my next record, which is going to be an electronic record.

MJ Woodbridge: I’m the new girl! A good friend of mine/manager got in touch with Jamie and he invited me for the night. My live show for this is going to be stripped back, possibly acoustic guitar and me on vocals, playing my original songs and some covers of big gay anthems that I turn into my style.

EO: ‘Big gay anthems’?

MJW: I do Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’ and a Britney Spears song and a Mariah cover, which I kind of mash up into one of my original songs.

How do you three feel about this notion of an LGBT musical community? Is that something that was high up on your mind when you got involved with the Nude spectacle?

EO: I’m always excited to discover new queer artists. My understanding of being queer is that it deviates from the traditional stereotypes we’ve been conditioned with. I feel this queerness carries with it a sense of freedom from conformity but not necessarily. I look back at writers like Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Rimbaud, William S. Burroughs and artists like Claude Cahun and applaud them for their bravery in paving the way through such nebulous territory. I like to believe that the queer spirit is at an advantage for being somewhat ill at ease in the world and for often having a broad range of gender identities to perceive from. For me being queer is not limited to homosexual or bisexual people. Heterosexual people can also be queer. Although queerness is becoming more widely integrated into the fabric of our society, let’s not forget Alan Turing and Wilde who were prosecuted for being true to themselves less than a century ago. Let us also be fully aware that queer people are being hunted down and brutally executed in Africa and the Middle East. I want the scope of my conscience to include everyone.

One of the things I find really beautiful about Jamie’s work is how honest and upfront it is. Do you think it’s easier now to be that honest about one’s sexuality?

AG: I don’t feel like I have much choice about being upfront about my sexuality or gender identity. A lot of people decide it for you, but I’m certainly not going to beat around the bush. Things are different from one day to the next, and from one place to the next, you can be hassled or you can be adored, but all that matters is to hold on to who it is you are. Maybe culturally things are opening up, which is great, but you have to be aware of how culture works, and how it always finds something subversive and then gives it a marketing angle. We can be grateful for culture opening up, but be careful because you don’t want to be used to promote nachos or Burger King or something.

JM: I think it’s great, though, when a massive company makes a stand [for equality]. I think a lot of people have big issues with what they call the normalisation of LGBT society, but I think homosexuality is always going to be an anomaly, because we are by default one in ten. But homosexuality is about love, so it’s not unusual. You can be heterosexual and unusual.

When we spoke last, Jamie, you told me about how difficult it was to perform in Russia. Do you still get different reactions from crowds from place to place?

JM: I think now that heterosexual men are more comfortable with themselves and therefore comfortable with there being gay men who fall in love with other men. Things have changed vastly throughout the world but there obviously still are many places where it’s difficult. I just performed recently in Rome and I was concerned because they have recently tried to put a stop on gay marriages being recognised in Italy, which we think of as being a very modern country. So the concert became a bit more political, even somewhere like Italy.

Jamie’s music is very autobiographical. Do you three have a similar approach?

EO: My music is often autobiographical even if it’s not directly about experiences from my life. I incorporate various ways of writing that can include the induction of trance-like states often leading to lyrics reflecting the inner world. It gets fun when you find creative ways to weave the outer and inner worlds together. I’ve written a few character studies of people in my life. For instance, my song ‘Nissa’ is about a very dear friend whose work as a dancer and performance artist has had a significant influence on me as an artist.

MJW: My music used to be based on the whole LGBT thing but now it’s more personal and helps me discover who I am. It’s the journey rather than the end product. I don’t necessarily set out to write about specific issues – although I have – and I think my work is more conceptual.

JM: I think we now have the ability to be more graphic, be it in music or on television or whatever, and the great thing is this reaches a heterosexual audience and not just a gay one. It’s like when Jim Carrey was in I Love You Phillip Morris and he was getting ripped to pieces in interviews [for the graphic content] and he was like: ‘Is this still an issue? How is it still an issue?’

Finally – are you looking forward to the show? Nervous at all?

EO: Yes, I’m nervous. I’ve got some new songs that I am still working out parts for. If they aren’t ready we will perform them anyway and play with the uncertainty. I often throw improvised passages into my set. The setlist has changed a few times but we will perform some piano-led songs along with electronic works that are a nod to my next record. I work with an incredible ensemble. I’m very lucky!

JM: I’m always nervous before every gig! But for me, it’s such an important, cathartic process, so it’s a bit like a séance or therapy between me and the audience. You’re exploring things, some of which may be quite dark, through performance. It helps me find peace.

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

image


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

image

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.

 

A Dusted Review: Slant of Light by Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler (September 24th, 2014)

The most remarkable thing about this intimate, almost self-effacing record is that it was crafted via a series of improvisations. You wouldn’t think so, to listen to it. Mary Lattimore is a harpist who has played with Wreckmeister Harmonies and Kurt Vile, among others, and her preferred instrument is hardly the first to spring to mind when someone mentions the word “improvisation”. However, in Jeff Zeigler, who enmeshes elegant synthesizer drones with her fragile plucked notes, Lattimore has found a perfect foil and, although slight, Slant of Light contains a number of moments of real beauty.

It would be an easy shorthand to describe the four concoctions they came up with during a snowstorm in Philadelphia as ambient, but that wouldn’t be taking into account the intricate details present on each track. This is not just a case of someone playing a harp over some random electronics, but a sequence of elaborate conversations between the two artists, a coming together of thoughts and minds. It is, mind you, a slow-paced record, as one would expect, with opener “Welsh Corgis in the Snow” (I’m none the wiser) setting the tone: languid notes from Lattimore dance around a blanket of shimmering aquatic drone from Zeigler. The Arctic conditions of that Pennsylvania winter seem to have filtered through the walls and right onto the tape, such is the detached, stripped-down nature of the record, and yet repeated listens reveal hidden depths of warmth and emotion. “The White Balloon” (at three minutes the shortest track) is a swirling waltz of gliding arpeggios from Lattimore and sliding electronic textures by Zeigler, and the overall effect is of being snuggled under a blanket by a warm fire in some cabin out in the Appalachian forests. Lattimore and Zeigler clearly enjoy playing together and this pleasure seeps its way into their music’s otherwise simple structure.

“Echo Sounder” follows this vein of contemplative, emotional introspection, almost at the risk of becoming cloying or predictable despite the elegant playing from both artists, but closer “Tomorrow is a Million” rescues Slant of Light from the clutches of sentimentality by effectively flipping the entire concept of the album on its head. Instead of plucking her strings to produce pretty notes, Lattimore rubs and scratches them, reducing the usually rather saccharine harp to the sound of an atonal acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, Zeigler’s electronics become more threatening, shadowy interjections of noises daubed in echo, like phantasmagorical figures shoving their into focus on damaged 8mm film. The piece grows in intensity, the harp’s strings stretched to snapping point and, after so much prettiness on the preceding three tracks, the effect is frankly spooky. The morose, inchoate end segment only adds to the unease.

In the first paragraph, I described Slant of Light as “slight”, and unfortunately, at only four tracks and 30 minutes in length, it feels a tad under-developed. But there are some truly lush moments in the first half, and “Tomorrow is a Million” points to immense potential on the second. I just wish Mary Lattimore and Jeff Zeigler could have sense this when recording and taken some time to take “Tomorrow is a Million” further.

A Dusted Review: Sirène by Robert Curgenven (September 9th, 2014)

Robert Curgenven is an Australian composer and sound artist currently based in the UK, whose work on Sirène is deeply affected by his roots in Cornwall. Cornwall is a land steeped in history and mythology, with a landscape dominated by rugged valleys, windswept moorland and battered coastlines. Curgenven’s focus is on the sea, as indicated by the title, and he manages to convey something of the grandiose potency and inherent menace the ocean has represented to so many Cornish people over the centuries. The waters are choppy and treacherous off the Cornish coast, and so represented a clear danger to local people who, paradoxically, relied on the sea for their very existence, as their main source of food.

Curgenven turns to the figure of the siren to reincarnate this dichotomy in musical form, notably on the almost-title track “Ressuscitant de l’étreinte de la Sirène”, which roughly translates as “Revived from the siren’s embrace,” converging the myth of Odysseus onto the Cornish coast and later, on “Turner’s Tempest,” drawing in references to British painter JMW Turner, one of whose proto-impressionist paintings adorns the front cover, and the epic narratives of Shakespeare. His music is similarly evocative: Curgenven uses field recordings of pipe organs captured in churches around Cornwall and, with only a bit of EQ as effect, elegantly layers them one on top of the other to create languid but ever-shifting and evolving soundscapes. The three pieces swirl and shimmer like the water the album’s title suggests, their apparent listlessness slowly revealing itself to contain swells of tension and subsequent release. Much like Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes/Gradual Requiem (reissued earlier this year), Sirène is a minimal record, but one that, by connecting to even obscure psychogeography, is rich with emotional resonance and subtle hidden meanings.

Picking out the individual tracks on Sirène would be an exercise in futility, because it feels more like a suite, with the different movements gently folding into one another. Curgenven displays a deft touch at both performance and editing, with individual tones sustained almost to breaking point on “Cornubia” whilst elsewhere the sounds recede into near-silence or linger as impenetrable sustained drones. Again, the imagery of rippling tides and whistling wind is impossible to ignore, and bathes the album in a reflective, melancholic glow. Despite “only” using pipe organs, it’s one of the most absorbing and affecting albums I’ve heard all year. To embark upon listening to Sirène is to take a sensual and liminal journey: into the imagined past, over the mythological oceans, beyond the realm of reality.

A Quietus Feature: On the Beach by Neil Young 40 years later (September 8th, 2014)

In a curious twist of coincidence, I’m writing this anniversary piece not long after the release of a long-awaited live album culled from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s legendary 1974 tour, which took place not long after On The Beach was released. Together, they encapsulate the creative and personal whirlwind that was Neil Young’s life as the seventies reached their midway point.

The CSNY tour represented in many ways the apex of Young’s commercial resonance amongst rock’s pantheon of giants. Two years earlier had seen the release of the smash hit Harvest, its delicate country-folk catchiness propelling the enigmatic Canadian to the top of the charts amid a wave of popular acclaim. His decision in 1969 to hook up with former Buffalo Springfield sparring pal Stephen Stills in CSNY, rock’s premier supergroup, had exposed his eccentric take on folk and rock to a wider audience, and Harvest represented an almost inevitable conclusion to that suddenly raised profile. Despite previous alternative success in the form of 1970’s After The Goldrush, Harvest propelled Young to the very top of the singer/songwriter pile, with rewards aplenty to boot.

Almost immediately, however, the dark side of fame took hold of Young’s life with a vice-like grip. As he prepared to embark on his biggest-yet tour in support of Harvest, his alter ego in his garage-rock band Crazy Horse, Danny Whitten, died of a heroin overdose mere hours after being fired from tour rehearsals by Young. The concerts went ahead under a cloud, with an increasingly alcohol-fuelled Neil finding himself at odds with his band and his audience, who couldn’t relate to the unhinged, hard-edged songs he took to hurling at them in lieu of Harvest-esque folk-pop. The tour was captured in all its lo-fi glory on Time Fades Away (still unavailable outside of its original vinyl pressing), which served as the first sign that Young was, in his words, “heading for the ditch”.

In the space of a few months, the sunny* outlook of 1972 was erased completely. After Time Fades Away, Young – still grieving the death of Whitten, which was compounded by the similar demise of roadie Bruce Berry – took the remains of Crazy Horse and old stalwarts Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith into an improvised studio to lay down his first masterpiece of the dark recesses of the soul, Tonight’s The Night. Recording at night in a series of tequila-fueled sessions, TTN is bleary-eyed, barely in tune and totally phenomenal, perhaps all the more so because it can still shock CSNY and Harvest fans to the core. And if TTN was acclaimed by all involved as a cathartic experience, there was enough of its morbid malevolence still lurking in Young’s soul by the time the sessions for On The Beach came along in early 1974. As such, the trio of Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night (released tardily in 1975) remains one of the greatest and bleakest sequences of albums ever recorded by a major recording artist.

Just as Tonight’s The Night was guided – for want of a better word – by tequila, so too were the On The Beach sessions dominated by a rather different concoction. Ben Keith had introduced Young to a tubby and wild fiddle player called Rusty Kershaw and, while he only features on two songs, the latter’s influence, notably potent hash cakes named “honey slides”, cast a rather woozy shadow over proceedings. Indeed, one of the producers would report to peering through the glass separating the booth from the recording space in a vain attempt to locate the musicians, such was the pall of smoke and darkness that hung over the protagonists. If the album’s title and gorgeous cover suggested a change from Tonight’s The Night’s blackness, the sessions and what they produced were as gloomy as ever. With his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress (the mother of his first child) in tatters and his booze and drug consumption increasingly rampant, Young poured out his angst and anger over the roughest, most sparse music in his career to date (yes, even more so than TTN).

Consequently, whilst it’s not as punishing as TTN, sonically, On The Beach is not for the faint of heart. The bouncy opener ‘Walk On’ aside, most of the album is given over to bitter musings on the emptiness of fame and relationship breakdowns. For the latter category, Young resurrected an old unreleased song, ‘See The Sky About To Rain’, recorded at snail’s pace and laced with funereal electric piano. ‘For The Turnstiles’, meanwhile, is just Young and Keith on banjo and dobro respectively, striving to sing in tune a cracked exposé of the stadium rock scene and ‘Vampire Blues’ points to another future favourite of Young’s bugbears: the destruction of the environment. This is Young at his most disillusioned, and his fury is distilled into raw viciousness on the third track of the first side, the apocalyptic ‘Revolution Blues’. Over an almost funky rhythmic backing provided by Rick Danko and Levon Helm of The Band (man I wish he’d played with them more often!), Young channels the spirit of Charles Manson, culminating in a harsh incantation: “I hear that Laurel Canyon/ Is full of famous staaaaaars/ But I hate them worse than lepers/ And I’ll kill them in their caaaaars!!!!” In any decade, even now, this would be seen as dark, even controversial stuff; coming from a huge star at the height of his fame in 1974, it could have been career suicide.

For all the first side’s excellence, though, the three tracks that make up side B of On The Beach, starting with the title track, possibly represent Neil Young at his absolute peak. ‘On The Beach’ is heart-rending blues played with absolute anguish as Young contemplates his collapsing world in unflinching detail: “Though my problems are meaningless/ That don’t make them go away”. ‘Motion Pictures’ is another minimal dirge aimed as a last farewell to Snodgress, with Young’s world-weary voice accompanied simply by hand-patted drums, plonking bass and the occasional wurble from Kershaw’s slide guitar. Finally, the album comes tumbling to a close with exquisite emotional potency with the epic, blearily psychedelic song-poem that is ‘Ambulance Blues’, a strange voyage through Young’s past in Canada to his traumatised presence via a few meanderings into the realms of politics and music criticism.

Of all Young’s albums, On The Beach may be the hardest to describe musically, such is the way it sits between identifiable genres. It seems to have emerged, blinking but oddly full-formed, from the darkest chasms of Neil Young’s heart and mind, with Kershaw, Keith, bassist Tim Drummond, drummer Ralph Molina and the other guest performers layering sounds onto his vision and basic outlines with intuitive ease. Maybe honey slides generate telepathy. On The Beach wasn’t a commercial success, as audiences continued to be baffled by its sombreness, and it suffered the same fate as Time Fades Away until 2003 when it saw a belated CD and vinyl reissue, but it now has deservedly earned a place of true favour with Young aficionados. And to come back to CSNY, when Young brought the likes of ‘Ambulance Blues’ and ‘Revolution Blues’ to the almighty party, his erstwhile colleagues were beyond taken aback, with David Crosby begging off having to play on the latter. Yet, forty years down the line, I will find myself reaching for this unrelenting masterpiece far more often than Déjà Vu.

* For what it’s worth, a closer look at the lyrical content of Harvest shows considerable nuance in its supposed cheeriness. Yes, Young was in love and successful, but from the slightly wistful surrealism of ‘Out On The Weekend’ to the anti-racist rant that is ‘Alabama’, via the cautionary and slightly chilling ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’ and the title track’s Southern Gothic chill, Harvest is actually anything but a simple ray of James Taylor-esque sunshine. How could it be otherwise with Neil Young?

A Dusted Review: Commune by Goat (September 4, 2014)

Try as I could, I remained singularly unmoved when masked Swedish psych-boppers Goat first sashayed into the world’s collective conscience about two years ago. I didn’t bite, but as a committed fan of psychedelic music since my teenage years (starting with Jefferson Airplane and Amon Düül II), I was more than willing to give them a second chance. After all, I may not have liked the slightly gimmicky nature of the band, but Goat can certainly churn out an infectious beat.

Goat unashamedly looks into the past to fuel its musical synapses, and, more importantly, the band casts its net fearlessly, drawing in African and Asian influences as well as nods to the traditional music of their home nation. If all that sounds insufferably hip, well that’s because it is in a way, but these are talented musicians and their plundering is never anything less than respectful and tasteful. On Commune, the African inspiration is particularly prevalent with jerky polyrhythms popping and fizzing through tracks like “Talk to God” and “The Light Within” with the energy of the Africa 70 circa 1977.

Which is not to say the music sounds like a pastiche, because Goat is canny enough to emphasize other influences (the brief instrumental “To Travel the Path Unknown” sounds positively Brazilian) and veer off into more straight-ahead rock before sounding like a covers band of whichever influence they’re mining. The band also clearly likes a wah-ed out riff and massed vocals; “Goatchild,” for instance, sounds closer to Woodstock than Lagos. To its credit, the band generally maintains a sense of cohesion on Commune, even as the songs fly off in so many directions.

The album’s title, and track titles like “Talk to God”, suggest a certain religionism, but the two female vocalists’ delivery is so blank and impersonal that most of the lyrics are pretty unfathomable.  As a result, Commune’s religious undertones never feel preachy. They do, however, feel contrived, and this is where the band falls down a tad. I just don’t believe them. They claim to build their songs up in lengthy improvisation sessions, but you wouldn’t gather that on listening to them. They wear masks, but it’s not clear what this anonymity achieves, beyond being a good selling point to the gullible and faddish. Commune is imbued with a certain spirituality, but beyond nabbing the musical traditions of faith music in Asia or Africa (chanting, ritual performance, etc.) and throwing in some rock ’n’ roll, I’m not sure what —if any — message is being conveyed on this album.

The best psych music of recent times (Gnod, Acid Mothers Temple, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Sunburned Hand of the Man, to name four) has been defined by slow build-ups and a true sense of individuals coming together, dissolving their egos for the common good and setting the controls for deep space. Hell, it worked for Hawkwind. Goat are a bit too tight and knowing to be transcendental or truly trippy, for now at least, although the Afro-beat leanings that crop up all over Commune point at avenues rich in potential out-of-body experiences.

A Clash Magazine Feature: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere 45th Anniversary

In 1969, Neil Young was a little-known professional musician eking out a fledgling career in Los Angeles. He had known brief fame as part of Buffalo Springfield, and released a poorly received debut solo album – but success of the kind enjoyed by his former Springfield pal Stephen Stills, flying high as part of supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, eluded him.

For most, Young’s rise to significance starts at the time he joined CS&N in the summer of 1969 and culminates with the celebrated albums ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970) and ‘Harvest’ (1972), the latter achieving mainstream impact with its hit single ‘Heart Of Gold’. But that puts too great a value on commercial success.

Rather, the starting point for Young as visionary rock musician is ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’, an album that arguably represents the greatest leap forward of his early career. Put simply, ‘Everybody Knows…’ is one of the groundbreaking albums of alternative rock, a blueprint for so much of what has followed over the last 45 years, and deserves to be revered in the same manner as The Stooges’ eponymous debut or ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’. It’s punk before punk, grunge before the term had been thought up.

Bumming around LA’s underground in search of inspiration, Young stumbled upon a local garage rock band called The Rockets, with whom he jammed a bit, literally in their garage. He quickly developed a rapport with their rhythm section: Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums) and Danny Whitten (rhythm guitar). Hijacking the trio, he renamed them Crazy Horse and immediately hit the studio, backed by his inestimable producer David Briggs, who had worked on his debut LP.

But where ‘Neil Young’ had been a labour to produce, the sessions that led to ‘Everybody Knows…’ were a breeze, with Young forming an almost telepathic kinship with the Horse, and Whitten in particular. Whitten was an ace guitarist, but also had a background in doo-wop, meaning he could also sing. The formerly microphone-shy Young – whose voice was considered “weird” by many – rose to the challenge.

Yet it’s Young’s music that was really transformed by Crazy Horse. The simple rhythmic framework offered by Molina and Talbot opened up acres of space for Young to cut loose and develop a ragged, open-ended form of garage rock that is as heady as it is basic. Some of his folk heritage remains, in the form of the gentle ballad ‘Round & Round’, and the country rock title track. But ‘Everybody Knows…’ is dominated by intense, to-the-point, emotionally direct rock, epitomised by the crisp, driving ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and two epic pieces, ‘Down By The River’ and ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’, on which minimal, repetitive rhythm patterns allow Young to plug his Les Paul straight into his heart and tear out some of the most beautiful solos in rock history.

‘Everybody Knows…’ is not fancy, overdubbed, or elaborate: it’s rock ‘n’ roll at its purest and most authentic.

Young would go on to a unique and wildly successful career, twisting between genres and following his own muse, but he took the blueprint he forged on ‘Everybody Knows…’ and kept it close to his heart, returning to the Horse sporadically over the years with stellar results – ‘Zuma’, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, ‘Ragged Glory’ and 2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’ – but also applying the stripped-down ethic to seminal masterpieces such as ‘On The Beach’ and ‘Tonight’s The Night’, both of which also share the doom-laden vibe of ‘Down By The River’.

Forty-five years on, it still sounds as fresh and innovative as ever, and in its sly humour, ragged riffs and searing solos lie the seeds of countless bands, many of whom have tried to emulate Young, never to succeed.