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.

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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 Dusted Review: I Shall Die Here by The Body (August 15th, 2014)

I Shall Die Here sits at the confluence of different genres without ever sounding confused, incoherent or ill-defined. Quite the opposite in fact: these six tracks are as solid as a boulder slamming relentlessly towards you down a mountain side. I Shall Die Here is, put simply, the most brutal and unforgiving album released in many a year, one whose sheer extremism even puts most black metal to shame.

And it is a metal album at heart, but drummer Lee Buford and singer/guitarist Chip King made the bold move to pitch their traditional-sounding heavy doom into a black hole of new found textures, turning in the process to The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic. On paper, the two-piece’s taut riffage and plodding drums might not have lent themselves to Krlic’s more subtle, shadowy and echo-laden world, but by working so closely in tandem (it is generally hard to tell whose input one is hearing at any given time, beyond the drums, vocals and guitar), the result is a spectral nightmare vista where The Body’s metal is opened up from the inside and spread outwards, the resultant spaces filled with murky textures and morose electronic drones.

It’s a bit of a cliché for doom metal bands to ladle on misanthropy and despair like custard over an apple pie, but few do it as well as The Body. The album and track titles all allude to pain and misery: “To Carry the Seeds of Death Within Me,” “Alone All the Way,” “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain,” but the duo (and Krlic) resist the temptation to just hurl anguished screams and overdriven riffs at their listeners, instead exploiting the sense of emptiness and desolation that has become the hallmark of much of the post-dubstep electronic scene, from Logos and Wen’s urban dystopias to Krlic’s own oppressive electronica.

“To Carry the Seeds of Death Within Me,” for example, opens the album with a distorted scream (I can’t tell if it’s electronic feedback or a heavily manipulated vocal, but either way, it’s unsettling) and monolithic, repetitive drum crashes from Buford. The use of repetition locks the band and the listener into an oppressive cycle, enhancing the sense of unease as mauled guitar sub-riffs and incoherent vocalisations by King join the fray. The track builds up, but also ebbs and flows, with Krlic’s shimmering electronics upsetting the rhythmic forward motion and incremental voume increase, destabilising any sense of familiarity as full-on metal makes way for echo-laden near-silence and metronomic electro beats. It’s disorientating, and all the more emotionally potent for it, especially when a last choked scream from King segues into the muted sampled voice on “Alone All the Way.”

On the face of it, “Alone All the Way” is a more “traditional” metal salvo, but again, the rhythm is constantly shifting, and King’s voice is little more than a distorted shriek, all meaning lost to the winds. Buford really shines, as another quasi-dubstep middle section makes way for a rolling martial drum-beat that sounds like it could have featured on an Oneida or Boredoms record. It’s almost psychedelic, or even funky, and another sign that nothing is as it seems on I Shall Die Here. “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain” is another highlight, with gristly electronics and hypnotic beats combating with King’s murderous howl, the track slowly building into a full-on conflagration where noise, industrial and shades of mutated techno collide into a furious maelstrom of sound. I feel a bit too much has been made of the “noise” aspect of The Body and I Shall Die Here, but “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain” certainly sounds like something you’d hear on a Cold Spring release.

I Shall Die Here is not an easy record to get through, and its unrelenting fury and horror will be too much for many. Chip King’s screams can also grate at times, although he mixes things up nicely as the album progresses. But for those with a strong constitution, I Shall Die Here is a reminder that metal needn’t be restricted by the conventions laid down over the past four decades, that it’s a genre that, when opened up and broken down into individual parts offers a wealth of experimental possibilities. In The Body’s case, they’ve used Bobby Krlic’s influence to project a world of darkness and death, and all power to them because, in doing so, they’ve created one of the most haunting and terrifying metal albums since the legendary Khanate broke up.

A Dusted Review: Teenage Tapes by D. Edwards (March 24th, 2014)

Delroy Edwards is best known for his seductive yet stripped-down house concoctions for labels such as L.I.E.S. and L.A. Club Resource. You won’t hear much of that on Teenage Tapes, his debut “album” which sees the light on the aptly-named (and Boomkat-affiliated) Death of Rave. Connoisseurs of Edwards’ music have always known that there was more to him than a desire to get bottoms shaking on the dance floor, but surely even that awareness will do little to prepare for the gnarly sounds that bubble out of these two sides of vinyl.

First things first — the fact that this record is being promoted as an album is beyond ridiculous and tantamount to mockery of anyone who actually gives a shazam about what the word “album” means. Clocking in at a miserly 29 minutes, Teenage Tapesis, and I cannot be too emphatic about this, NOT an album. It’s an EP, or at best a mini-album, and to advertise it as anything else, given the price of vinyl, is little more than contemptuous on The Death of Rave’s part. Rant over.

It’s all the more of a shame, because Edwards’ bedroom experiments have a lot going for them, but are immediately hamstrung by perceptions. As limited as the music on Teenage Tapes is, Edwards still comes across as an adolescent ingenue, drinking in a wealth of styles and refracting them through the prism of his bedroom window. With a bit more time to absorb these refractions, one might have been able to find hidden layers of meaning.

On an album of such a short running time, however, the standouts were bound to be the long ones, especially when Edwards cracks out the drum machine and indulges in what he’s perhaps best at: beats. The third track (they’re all untitled), marries grim synthetic noise with juddering beats, halfway between William Bennet’s Cut Hands project and the dance floor. The closer, “Untitled 8” I guess, has a jerky bass pulse that’s straight out of the UK post-punk scene, whilst the sixth track sounds like a minimal techno exercise, only shorter.

The other, shorter, sketches ping between moody ambience and gristly noise, with the fifth track sounding as headily brutal as a Werewolf Jerusalem CD, only — once again — shorter.

I’m reminded of the two archival releases by erstwhile Skullflower guitarist Stefan Jaworzyn, both released this year. Like Teenage Tapes, they collate the archival works of a noted underground player, recorded when said individual was barely out of short trousers. But where Eaten Away By Shadows and Drained of Connotationdisplay a prescience and innovative spirit way beyond Jaworzyn’s age of the time,Teenage Tapes often feels unfinished or stunted.

I’m sure a great many musical wannabe has, in his or her spare time, dabbled with arcane synths and random noise generators. Stefan Jaworzyn shows how potent this naive experimentation can be. But, more often than not, such exercises are best consigned to memory, which is something Delroy Edwards probably should have born in mind when he stumbled across these teenage tapes.

I’m not saying these are bad sounds, no matter how ridiculous Death of Rave have been in selling Teenage Tapes as an album, but one has to wonder what point is served by presenting them to the world.

A Quietus Review: Konstellaatio by Ø (January 30th 2014)

Mika Vainio’s work as one half of Pansonic, as well as collaborative recordings such as 2012’s Venexia with Kevin Drumm, Axel Dörner and Lucio Capece, often goes hand-in-hand with descriptives like “harsh” or “abrasive”, but his solo work as Ø has long displayed a more introspective side, befitting a man of such wide-ranging influences and interests. However, up until Konstellaatio, the music of Ø was still largely based on a skeletal form of minimal techno, its softer edges anchored in rhythm and forward motion. On Konstellaatio, however, Vainio takes a more considered, quasi-ambient approach, preferring to explore textures and the boundaries between heard sounds and silence.

The idea of quietness in music has been garnering quite a few column inches of late, and its merits are a subject of increased debate. Vainio neatly sidesteps any overstatement or insistence on silence, simply because it at no point feels like his core consideration. Rather, the spaces between sounds on Konstellaatio serve as keenly placed interludes that adeptly frame Vainio’s every audible interjection. And, whilst this is the most mellow I’ve ever heard Vainio get, it’s not some contrived genre exercise, and he is quick to reinforce this, as familiar bursts of ear-shattering static and other austere jolts frequently perturb the drifting course of the album’s album hour-plus duration.

Opener ‘Elämän puu’ is a sinister sequence of distant synth clouds and tingling chimes, insterspersed with murky bass throbs and warmer – yet, somehow, equally unsettling – organ drones. Here Vainio impresively manages to conjure up an evocative and atmospheric tableau using his usual limited palette of electronics, with extremely minimal means. Indeed, despite rarely cranking up the decibels, by second track ‘Kesäyön haltijat’, Vainio has already woven a tapestry of creepy, almost phantasmagorical resonances, a burst of saturated static making way for plodding snare and kick drum rhythms over which wisps of shimmering chimes hang like lurid cobwebs.

It’s this strange balance that makes Konstellaatio both so beguiling and – occasionally – frustratingly elusive. It’s an album best listened to at high volume on headphones, so as to better take in the ever-shifting textures and their surgically precise arrangements. As with Pansonic, albeit with less ferocity, he toys with frequencies and pitch with a subtle compositional dexterity and thoughtfulness that will certainly please electronica theorists and erudites, and offer much to write and discuss in lofty terms. But there’s as much humour and playfulness to Vainio’s music, and too much analysis detracts from the immersive pleasure of revelling in the grim and brooding atmosphere of Konstellaatio. A concentrated listen exposes the senses to hidden menaces, lurking as undercurrents beneath the pregnant silences and haunted shivers of synth.

Konstellaatio is a monochrome work of stark contrasts. Its sounds emerge from shadows fleetingly, before dissolving once again to leave tense, bleak emptiness. It rewards multiple studious listens in order to piece together Vainio’s deceptively rich vocabulary, but could equally serve as the soundtrack to an expressionist horror film. As such, it’s a hard album to pin down, but trying to do so is an experience in and of itself.

 

A Quietus Review: La Bas by JFK (August 28th, 2013)

Anthony diFranco has spent the past couple of years painstakingly excavating his numerous solo ventures (Ethnic Acid, Ax, JFK) and reissuing them on CD and vinyl. In the process, he has revealed himself to be one of the most striking and significant figures to have emerged, via his Ramleh pal Gary Mundy’s Broken Flag label, from the UK underground. OK, admittedly, he has emerged into slightly less dense shadow than before, but one can only hope that this CD will add to the recent Ax and Ethnic Acid compilations and finally grant diFranco the recognition he deserves. Because, whilst he may have, by virtue of his age, come along after Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Whitehouse had already unleashed the grim and provocative genres that are industrial and power electronics, he can proudly call himself one of those band’s most forward-looking disciples.

That he is still taking all of his various projects forwards with the same verve and talent is testament to his abilities and open-mindedness. Indeed, recent Ethnic Acid live performances have seen him take in both munged-out techno and harsh wall noise, in a significant departure from his brittle, DIY early material, a sign that diFranco will not be content to let these compilations of older material serve as some sort of epitaph.

Of the three projects, JFK seems the most beholden to its immediate forbears, and LA BAS comprises ten punchy, aggressive tracks that distill the murky malevolence of TG and SPK with Whitehouse’s more rambunctious, fast-paced assaults with a hint of Cabaret Voltaire mutant swing thrown in for good measure. And yet, as young as diFranco was at the time (the album covers ages 15 to 20, fer chrissakes! When I was 15, I was just beginning to learn that ‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65, and at 20 was pretending to hate Pink Floyd to annoy my mates), it is never overtly derivative of his better-known forbears, so most comparisons only serve to give an idea of his overall sound, but can’t hope to get to the heart of what makes JFK so infectiously enjoyable, even in its most sinister moments.

From the moment the album (and it feels more like a cohesive long player than a compilation) jumps out of the speakers with grinding instrumental ‘Big Fat Sin’, it never relents, careering forwards with a verve and aggression that is positively punk, and indeed actually reconnects power electronics to its roots in that genre. ‘Omen’ introduces diFranco’s vocals, which rarely crop up on other projects, which is a shame as he has the kind of snotty snarl that the likes of Stephen Mallinder and Mars’ Sumner Crane wielded so effectively. The vocals are mixed low, so deciphering the lyrics is tricky, but diFranco’s delivery conveys an enormous amount regardless, pitched somewhere between menace and youthful romanticism, the voice of someone turned cynical at a young age.

One of the album’s standout moments, ‘Aktion In A 10/6’ crystallises the aura of JFK into seven hard-hitting minutes of frothing post-punk. Over metronomic, stripped-down drum machine beats, diFranco unleashes torrents of blurry feedback and howls dejectedly like an alternately threatening and distraught rejected lover. The abstract lyrics convey the same sort of sexual violence that emanates from The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus In Furs’, but with an added sense of disenchanted romanticism.

The pace of the track, compared to more frenetic tracks like ‘Omen’ or the almost catchy ‘Sexodus’ (which is bolstered by mad guitar riffage and noise from Skullflower’s Matt Bower), is slovenly and repetitive, the kind of industrial grind that makes the genre so challenging and refreshing at once. The album’s centrepiece, meanwhile, is the 12 minute noise and found sample collage ‘Will To Love’, a work so belligerently obtuse and abstract that it can’t fail to evoke Throbbing Gristle at their most deconstructed.

LA BAS is the sound of a man still finding his feet, yet already so confident in his vision that it deserves to be recognised as an industrial masterwork like those of some of the aforementioned bands. Balancing infectious punk-rock structures with fierce noise, abstraction, drone and atonal textures, Anthony diFranco comes up with something truly hybrid that has endured the test of time far better than quite a number of his better-known contemporaries such as 23 Skidoo and Clock DVA.

A Quietus Review: The Word As Power by Lustmord (July 16, 2013)

Dark ambient has rarely impressed me as a genre, with each release tagged under the style merely seeming to be engaged in a tiresome battle to outdo other releases in the massive bleakness stakes, but without the dynamism and aggression of other “dark” genres such as doom metal or noise. But, if anyone has put forward dark ambient as a relevant and significant genre, it’s Brian Williams, aka Lustmord. Over the years, he has racked up an impressive tally of critically-praised albums, with 1995’s joint album with Robert Rich, Stalker, a notable high point.

The Word As Power is one of the boldest steps forward in Lustmord’s entire canon, focusing as it does on the human voice over the usual dark ambient tropes such as synthesizers and guitars. Each track on the album seems like a capsule of time and atmosphere that lingers outside of actual time and space, existing in its own universe where the boundaries of language are surreptitiously blurred and the songs that ensue and imbued with a beautiful sense of mystery.

It helps that Williams has brought together a stellar cast of vocalists, including Tool’s Maynard James Keenan and Jarboe, formerly of Swans. In the capable hands of these singers, the songs, be they wordless mantras or incantatory half-chants, are given a potency bordering on the sacred, although this is a religious fervour steeped in oblique, shady paganism. I can imagine Julian Cope or Genesis P-Orridge digging The Word As Power. With the vocals given centre stage, the music of Lustmord is elevated beyond mere “darkness” and is offered as something transcendental or deeply meaningful, the clear, crystalline simplicity of the compositions belying the length of time – five years – it took Williams to create this work.

In this context, it takes a while for the musical force behind The Word As Power to sink in, as it is easy to get absorbed into the layered voices and hear nothing else. But Williams works well within the parameters set by focusing on vocals, allowing them to billow, even soar, by sketching out a musical background as emphatic as it is unobtrusive. The first two tracks, ‘Babel’ and ‘Goetia’ centre on the voices, both sounding like more sinister takes on The Bulgarian Voices and Tuvan throat singing, evoking the timeless melancholy of Angelite and Huun Huur-Tu’s Fly, Fly My Sadness, only recorded in an underground cave.The abstract vocalisations reverberate and double up on themselves, surrounded by murky sub-bass and almost imperceptible electronics. On the lengthy ‘Chorazin’, however, Williams makes his presence more palpable, with grim, slow-moving electronic textures and subdued rumbles cushioning the mournful vocals in layers of malignant drone. You could imagine any of these seven tracks serving as the soundtrack to an atmospheric horror film, one where the anchors of modern life are ripped away from the protagonists, leaving them untethered in a world as alien as it is terrifying.

Lustmord’s music takes its time, but it’s hard not to get absorbed into its shadowy netherworld, even if all meaning and sense in there stay resolutely out of focus.