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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Dusted Review: Persistence of Vision (April 21st, 2014)

VHS Head is the pseudonym of the enigmatic Adrian Blacow, and he uses it as a vessel for some of the most bizarre, unfathomable electronic dance music you will find. Blacow uses old, library-sourced VHS tapes (hence the name), in this case apparently horror films, and then dissects them and splices them back together into high-octane dance floor pounders, of a weird sort.

Demdike Stare mines similar territory to VHS Head, but uses it to conjure up subliminal vignettes mirroring nightmare visions of collective unease, as if the ghosts of the Pendle or Salem witches and the Witchfinder General could be recreated as music. Blacow’s music is wrenched from any clear context, a sort of flipside on the coin of hauntology. There are none of the wispy drone textures, bursts of noise and muted vocal samples that dominate the works of other horror plunderers, replaced instead by jerking break beats, unsettled synth melodies and ever-shifting tempos.

This frenetic energy makes for an often thrilling, but equally distracting, listen. Some songs bristle with melodic hooks and rhythmic propulsion, especially the exciting opener “Enter The Devil,” where pounding techno beats collide with swooping synth lines. “Frozen,” meanwhile, is dominated by seductive, see-sawing synth lines that sound like a madly entwined Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre reimagined for a 21st-century dance floor.

In this context, however, the fact that these tracks started out as spools of horror film VHS tape is somewhat immaterial. Blacow makes seductive, hyperactive dance music that feels as far from a video nasty as the latest Burial EP. Snippets of mutated dialogue (“Don’t look in the closet!” intones a grim voice on the track of the same name), and track titles such as “Mutant Nights” and “Tracking the Moon Beast” hint at the nightmarish and phantasmagorical, but the brightness of the synths and booty-shaking beats render such references bewildering rather than unsettling.

As such, Persistence of Vision is an exhausting listen. The VHS extracts are so distorted, I assume for copyright reasons, that there is no sense of the music’s place outside of Blacow’s head, and, to an extent, the dance floor, although you’d be hard-pressed to keep up the album’s pace all night. When Blacow’s blender approach clicks, the results are a kaleidoscope of weirdness and sensation, but at other times one is left reeling in a sonic environment without a structural anchor.

A Dusted Review: Confrontations by Umberto (April 25th, 2013)

Matt Hill has made a name for himself as Umberto for his subtle exploration of the legacy of horror movie soundtracks via shifting melodic patterns that owe as much to pop as Goblin. This, of course, has led him to be conflated with the swelling ranks of “hypnagogic pop” acts, something exacerbated perhaps by his presence on that sub-genre’s flagship label, Not Not Fun. He returns to the label for Confrontations, a dramatic shift from both his breakout release, Prophecy of the Black Widow, and follow-up, Night Has a Thousand Screams.

Prophecy of the Black Widow was dominated by the spirit of vintage Italian horror, from Dario Argento’s Technicolor terror to the splattery gore of Lucio Fulci, but the synth heavy doom-prog of composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti was intercut with murky drum machine beats and woozy pop melodies. It led to a sort of schizophrenic musical strand: not quite film soundtrack, not quite pop, and, to these ears, it wasn’t an entirely successful exercise, especially when compared to the authentically unsettling music of Failing Lights or Nate Young’s Demons. On Confrontations, Hill has turned to the imagery of sci-fi horror, the cover art clearly echoing creepy alien invasion movies like Body Snatchers and They Live. Indeed, the latter film’s director John Carpenter is a clear influence, for his scores effectively pioneered the potential of lo-fi synths and electronic percussion creating evocative musical accompaniments to horror and sci-fi.

Confrontations, however, doesn’t feel like an actual soundtrack, or even a pastiche of one, as opposed Umberto’s previous albums. Instead, whilst there is a vague semi-narrative strain running throughout, Confrontations is best appreciated as a bloody good dance album. “Night Fantasy” opens the album in style, with loping bass synth rolling under glossy undulating synth patterns and minimalist electronic snare beats. The overall effect may be futuristic, but rather than merely echoing sci-fi soundtracks, instead what springs to mind are the best outfits from Germany’s Kompakt label, such as The Field and Wolfgang Voigt. There’s a warmth underneath the detached synth lines and nearly every track, especially the aforementioned “Night Fantasy” and its follow-up, the disco-tinted “Initial Revelation,” which is all swirling synths and monomaniacal beats, would function superbly in a club alongside those doyens of European tech-house. “Confrontation” sees Hill relax the pace somewhat, and drop in a ghostly sampled choir, bringing it closer to his earlier work, but it still overflows with sweeping synths and oscillating sequencers. Only the arrhythmic “Dead Silent Morning” and the tempo-shifting epic “The Summoning” feel like scores, in a Ballardian style Gary Numan and John Foxx would have loved back in 1981.

Umberto, like many a “hypnagogic pop/hauntology” act, seemed to me increasingly obsolete as the genre’s 2010 heyday receded further from view; even the Ghost Box crew struggle to garner the same enthusiasm as before. Confrontations throws that notion into the ditch, building expertly on Hill’s previous work as a soundtrack impersonator/jester (“The Summoning” is so evocative as to produce visions of soaring UFOs descending on the world’s population), but moves into new realms where these affectations collide with the dancefloor with so much confidence, it’s a wonder he didn’t try this before. I am usually loath to use words like “triumph”, but Confrontations is damn close: it’s atmospheric, infectious and enjoyable. I can’t really praise it higher than that.