A Dusted Review – Stoner Rock by Bong (March 8th, 2014)

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“The more you think, the more you stink,” Neil Young and Crazy Horse producer David Briggs used to say, by way of explaining the way they went about crafting the band’s rough-edged form of intoxicating garage thrash. The principle was simple: The Horse’s heyday was during the era of grandiose prog and hard rock, but Young and Briggs achieved more transcendence than most of their contemporaries by sticking to a simple formula and never letting it get watered down by excessive overdubs or fancy production values.

I’m not sure if British doom metallers Bong have ever used that exact motto (and they sure sound ornate when compared to Crazy Horse), but there is a feeling on the ironically titled Stoner Rock that this band knows what it does best and has decided to run with it as far as possible.

Two of the genre’s founding fathers, Earth and Sunn O))), may have decided to elaborate on their heavy riffage by adding new textures, style or even by bending it to fit other musical varieties, but Bong is having none of it. For the duration of two monolithic, impenetrable tracks, it churns out a stream of repetitive, slow-burning riffs that straddle an omnipresent rhythmic base of plodding drums and fuzzed-out bass. It’s so boneheaded, so single-minded that it works when all reason suggests it shouldn’t. Do we really need another album of sloth-paced doom metal? Do we really need it to last for more than an hour over only two tracks? You wouldn’t think so, but Stoner Rock is pure sonic bliss, the kind of ear assault that, like the most brutal noise or most stately minimalism, burrows its way into the soul simply because it will not be moved. Put simply, there’s power in stubborness.

I’m aware this is starting to sound a bit like doom OCD, or the kind of elitism black metal fans have recently been accused of. There’s no doubting that some of the best music of the last few years has been crafted by bands and artists willing to twist doom’s fundamentals into fresh and invigorating new mutations, from Sunn O))) and its offshoots’ avant-garde genre-bending theatricality to Om’s cosmic spirituality, via Black Boned Angel’s hour-long meditation on the First World War on Verdun, Orthodox’s bizarre jazz inflections and Khanate’s brutal destructivism. All of the above have pride of place in my album collection, but I refuse to believe that Bong’s dogged pounding is in some way less worthy. Like Moss’ colossal Cthonic Rites, Stoner Rock gains power from repetition.

Yet listen closely and this is more than a brain-pounder. Bong’s guitars don’t just repeat themselves; they positively swirl, like whirlpools bursting out of Charybdis’ demonic maw. Beneath the fuzz and drone, a lone axe peals out a more majestic, open-ended solo, à la Manuel Göttsching, imbuing both “Polaris” and “Out of the Aeons,” Stoner Rock’s interchangeable slabs of sonic magma, with an energy bordering on the cosmic.

Even the somewhat comical spoken-word incantations can’t detract from this music’s hypnotic beauty. To listen to Stoner Rock at full volume is to lapse into a blissful trance where the world slides away to be replaced by fuzz, distortion and that sole guitar probing for the skies.

Frayed Expression I: Grey Rose (February 2012)

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Grey Rose is a noise release in four parts from FRAYED, centred around the poem of the same name.

“Grey Rose.

I stood apart from the tulips in the sun/growing so tall/all of a sudden/as I smiled in the rain/so fleeting before sparkling scythes/cut me down.

I writhed in sodden attempts at speech/Soaking teardrops away from appearance/To beat prose and peer pressure/Clumsy/I dropped friends and attention/Like Gregory/So awkward/But without ever dancing on my back/In the end

Grey Rose.

I stole kisses and understanding/Stretched out on my tiny bed/Took them down to my level/And then hid my gaze in jest/I grew food on my face and squinted through aches and gnashed at bitter metal/To no effect

I was perpetually there/Court jester with an audience of thousands or tens/I courted and won/Only to turn and find/No-one

Metal, pus, glass and doubt/Melted down/Now thirty and rising/A warm bed and more rain at the window/Making history out of personal nothings/A life unfinished/A rose untended/In the damp

Grey Rose.”

All devices actioned by FRAYED.

The album can be listened to and downloaded here

Frayed Expression II: Kool-Aid (February 2012)

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This album was inspired by a harrowing documentary on the terrible events at Jonestown. This Frayed expression looks to explore the undeniable charisma of the cult’s leader, Jim Jones, and the torment some of his followers must have gone through at the last moment. As sourced from the infamous “Death Tape” that surfaced after those dreadful events.

Kool-Aid is dedicated to the victims of Jim Jones’ megalomania.

This album can be bought here

Liminal Concert Review – Praise for Jonny: Andy Stott, Cut Hands, Dalglish and Ship Canal at The Vortex, London (April 3rd, 2012)

Cut HandsThis concert marked the end of Exotic Pylon’s series of gigs at London’s prestigious jazz club The Vortex, and was the last of four nights that brought in a range of experimental and electronic artists, from Cindytalk to Black to Comm, Vindicatrix to Alexander Tucker. The end of Exotic Pylon’s association with The Vortex is a real shame, not just for the music but also because it means we won’t get to enjoy the enthusiastic and indefatigable personality that is Jonny Mugwump. This article serves as a lament to the end of this unique collaboration. As on previous occasions, this was a great line-up and a stirring show. I was left despondent that I’d not been able to attend the other three nights.

When I first saw him perform at this very same venue back in September or so, I had been rather underwhelmed by the laptop-based electronic music of Ship Canal. But time has allowed him to develop and intensify his sound, which is still reliant on his trusty PC, with clouds of electronic atmospheres drifting or edging into aural focus. Where he really has improved is in the use of beats, dropping edgy, dubstep-like percussion into the dense mix of synth lines, tape loops and uneasy samples. The juxtaposition between the beats and the electronics created an uneasy form of dilapidated techno that had the audience shaking in a disjointed parody of dance. My initial reservation about Ship Canal’s music, that he shifts too abruptly between different textures or sounds before the listener has had a chance to settle into what he or she is hearing, still stands, but this first set was a very solid amuse-bouche for what was to follow.

Dalglish’s Dalglish Benacah Drann Deachd was one of my favourite albums of last year, a haunting compilation of evocative post-techno traversed by the memories and emotions of its creator, coming across as a weird internal monologue re-calibrated for the dancefloor during the dying embers of a club night. At The Vortex, however, Chris Douglas proved to be a very different animal altogether. Yes, the gloomy synth ambience and moody crackle were still very much present, but everything was cranked up a notch, with near-IDM percussion driving everything with muted, yet strident, energy and each melody (track?) blended into the next to create a single wall of ever-shifting, troubled electronic mulch. It didn’t so much have a groove as wash over you like a sandstorm, with rugged details popping up here and there to punctuate the morass. Like Ship Canal, Dalglish remained seated behind his laptop, but his apocalyptic take on avant-techno packed a much more disquieting punch.

Judging by the heaving throng that massed into the venue (I’ve never seen The Vortex so packed), Cut Hands, aka ex-Whitehouse frontman William Bennett, was the star act on the bill, and he duly produced a beast of a set. He was actually more subdued than when I saw him last year at The Basing House, standing over his laptop and machines and only occasionally turning his gaze from them to jerk around like a possessed puppet or stare enigmatically at the audience. The sound was no less brutal, however, as deep, rumbling bass tones and nerve-jarring beats -sounding like a million djembes processed through the mother of all distortion pedals- assaulted the auditorium like machine gun bullets under brittle bursts of piercing synth tones. A track like “Stabbers Conspiracy”, from Afro Noise Vol.1, gained so much potency in a live setting, its shrill percussive clangs scattered around the room like sonic ball bearings. On slower-paced pieces, the bleak, oppressive nature of Cut Hands’ music really came to the fore, reinforcing its ties to the power electronics and industrial scenes of Bennett’s past. Beyond the music, what really stood out were the visuals. I’ve long lamented the lack of stage presence of many electro/dance/synth performers, and Bennett is the perfect antidote for many of his peers’ sanguinity: strange, unsettling footage of African people engaging in ancient rituals and struggling with the conditions of Imperialism enhanced the anti-colonial critique behind Cut Hands’ work. Typically with Bennett, though, his stance through these videos is unflinchingly ambiguous, with the ever-present images both haunting and disturbing.

After the full sensory assault of Cut Hands, it seemed Andy Stott was aiming to lighten the mood somewhat, although the audience was close to ecstatic as Bennett left the stage and many promptly headed for the door. I had always associated Stott with the sort of minimal, haunted electronica of Burial and Actress, but at The Vortex he seemed to head more into dub techno territory, with the bass heavier than any preceding act, its smooth, loping lines driving the synth melodies forward with palpable funkiness. This was a set apparently aimed to get the crowd dancing, and he surely succeeded. Stott’s strength is that he plays with melodies that, in the context of dancefloor music, are off-kilter and abstract, but allies them to rhythms that throb and pulsate with the energy of classic dubstep. It was a rousing, invigorating set to conclude a celebratory evening, and indeed – if what I’ve been told is true – a triumphant four days. A fitting farewell to Jonny Mugwump’s association with The Vortex. Thanks Jonny!

Cut Hands image by Scott McMillan

A Liminal Review: Earth by Black To Comm (March 12th, 2012)

For his first release on De Stijl, Black To Comm, aka Marc Richter decided to document his soundtrack to a short film by Korean artist Ho Tzu Nyen. It’s a typically leftfield concept from Richter, and it’s just a shame I haven’t been able to track down a copy of the film (also called Earth) to assess the merits of this album as a soundtrack. However, as a piece of music, despite the absence of its visual counterpart, Earth stands up very well on its own. As with his landmark Alphabet 1968 album, released in 2008, the musical focus on Earth is the use of found sounds, shellac record manipulation and hesitant electronic drones to create dense, yet elusive, sonic tapestries that slowly unfold to envelop the listener in a blanket of mystery and sensuality. On Earth, Richter achieves this with even more consistency than on Alphabet 1968, which is surely down to the fact that it’s a soundtrack.

Apart from his own experiments with ghostly shimmers of elusive atmospherics, Richter brings one particularly potent element to the fray on Earth, and that is the distinctive voice of David Aird, best known for his work as Vindicatrix, and who released one of my favourite electronic albums of the last two or three years in Die alten bösen Lieder on Mordant Music. Aird’s vocals are sensual and rather mannered, as befits someone with a penchant for traditional German folk song. On ‘Stickstoff II’, he comes on like a clone of Scott Walker, with a deep, enunciated croon that glides perfectly over the humming, droning and occasionally squalling musical background, bringing a palpable human edge to what otherwise could be an abstractly cold piece. And throughout Earth it’s of erstwhile pop star Walker that one thinks even when listening to the music, albeit the Scott of Tilt and The Drift rather than Scott 4. On ‘Stickstoff II’ and ‘Water’, Richter and his collaborators’ mixture of field noise, singing bowls and looped vinyl form the kind of “blocks of sound” Walker used to describe his most experimental work, albeit stretched slowly across entire tracks rather than dispersed across individual songs. Additionally, the scratchy vinyl loops and murky samples evoke the crackling ambience of Philip Jeck whilst the sudden surges of unusual found sounds had me thinking of Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin’s Air Supply. Earth does not feel out of place alongside such avant-garde classics.

The concept behind Ho Tzu Nyen’s film -from what I can gather- is a cyclical exploration of sleep, awakening, decay, life, death and resurrection inspired by classical European painters such as Caravaggio and Delacroix, and Richter’s music on Earth is similarly circular and based on collage, with elements building uneasily up on top of one another, then slowly dissolving into further expanses of moody, haunted atmospherics. The twisted bodies locked in decrepit surroundings on the cover art (taken from the film) are refracted through Aird’s plaintive voice, his cries becoming the sound of despairing souls caught in some oblique post-apocalyptic landscape. Almost imperceptibly, Richter and Aird manage to suffuse Earth with substantial pathos, bringing it closer and closer to its cinematic inspiration.

For all that, Earth does leave you wishing you could see Ho Tzu Nyen’s film, but maybe that was to be expected. As a soundtrack, it appears tied to the duration and themes of the work that it reflects and it may seem a bit abstract without the visual reference for some. Yet it has to be said that Richter has managed to create something singular and worthwhile despite this slight impediment, and for that he deserves an awful lot of credit. Earth is a great addition to Black to Comm’s increasingly intriguing body of work.

A Liminal Review: Biokinetics by Porter Ricks (March 7th, 2012)

My first thought on hearing Biokinetics was quite simply “How the hell did I manage to miss this one?” Yes, it’s that good and, when you consider it was originally recorded in 1996, it should have been a landmark album of its day, and a cornerstone of nineties electronica. And indeed, the EPs and subsequent CD garner a bit of underground interest back then but, being a massive neophyte in terms of techno back then, I contrived to miss it altogether.

Luckily, the wonderful Type label has reissued Biokinetics on both CD and vinyl, meaning I was able to quickly right the wrong and absorb this groundbreaking album before singing its praises here. It’s defined in most columns as ‘dub techno’, perhaps mainly due to its release on Chain Reaction, and the bass is suitably massive on tracks like ‘Nautical Dub’ and ‘Port of Call’, pounding with room-shuddering intensity while rampaging beats drive each piece with frenetic energy. But, in truth, there is little to equate the material on Biokinetics, with its icy synths and futuristic undertones, with actual dub, and it has none of that genre’s earthy calm. Instead, Porter Ricks (a duo made up of Germans Andy Mellwig and Thomas Köener) were essentially blazing a trail into a style that would become more popular in the ensuing years: minimal techno. This is especially apparent on two of the album’s shortest tracks, ‘Biokinetics 1′ and ‘Port of Nuba’, where the components are stripped down to sparse, metronomic beats and stuttering oscillations on sequencers. Although undoubtedly busier and more soulful than, say, Alva Noto or Gas, the emphasis across the album is on repetition and delicateness, as patterns are paired down to their most insistent minimum, and then sustained over durations that, for dance music, are pretty long.

The two twelve-minute opuses that bookend the album are cases in point. On ‘Port Gentil’, a slinky beat is countered by repeated sequencer patterns with only the faintest of adornments from synthesizers and found sounds. The result owes almost as much to ambient music as it does to dancefloor techno or dub, hardly surprising given that Köener is one of the foremost (yet most enigmatic) figures in ambient. The atmosphere on ‘Port Gentil’ is ghostly and ephemeral, and while it certainly has a groove you can dance to, it somehow feels too esoteric for something so primal, while also prefiguring the more overtly psychedelic disco/techno crossovers of Lindstrøm and The Field, especially with its focus on looped motifs and repetition. Closer ‘Nautical Zone’, meanwhile, emerges gradually out of an ozone of synth drone, with shaky rhythms that always feel – perhaps appropriately, given the track’s title – submerged, as if heard underwater. Its a graceful and mystical approach that ties Biokinetics in less with minimal and dub techno than with the oddball electro of Detroit legends Drexciya, something heightened by the frequent references to water.

With so much happening in such an understated way (temporal and atmospheric shifts are undertaken gradually, almost to the point of being imperceptible), Biokinetics can be a strange beast to appreciate. You can easily hear how some of these tracks would rock a club audience, especially the raucous ‘Port of Call’, which feels tailor-made for Berlin’s Berghain super-club. On other tracks, the duo’s often bare bones take on techno feels positively oblique. But in between the lines, the atmosphere on each track primes, and you find yourself honing in on gentle waves of hypnotic drone and ambience. The end result is something not unlike the deeper moments of dubstep (such as Burial or King Midas Sound), a genre that Biokinetics surely anticipates. The haunting melodies under the beats flit around the edges of straight-ahead techno, drawing the album deep into more contemplative, reflective spaces akin to the dark explorations on Köener’s solo album Permafrost (also reissued recently by Type). This exquisite sense of poise and restraint means Biokinetics is not really a dancefloor album. Instead, like the most emotionally-resonant dubstep, it feels more like a soundtrack to the last few dances in the club followed by the bus ride home. It drifts and teases and pulls at the heart-strings, a graceful culmination of the disparate strands of post-modern, slightly alienated, urban music. That it was released back in 1996 makes it all the more remarkable and reinforces the fact that I was surely an idiot to have missed it at the time. Thanks to Type, all those like me can make up for lost time.

A Liminal Review: Keith Fullerton Whitman – Generators (February 20th, 2012)

I have to admit that for a while, I considered Keith Fullerton Whitman to be little more that a well-placed label owner. His online music website, Miramoglu, certainly included the cream of modern music, but was that enough to consider him as a truly great musician in his own right? His recent appearance at London’s CAMP soon showed me the error of my ways, as his mastery of intricate electronic sounds and technology blew me away, and left me wishing his phenomenal set has been longer. In truth, his 2010 Disingenuity/Disingenuousness album had already started to set the record straight, but Generators seems set to be a Tonight’s the Night or Berlin moment. Ok, that’s a bit of a silly claim, given this is a 35-minute long live recording of electronic experimentation, rather than a zeitgeist-defining rock opus; but somehow this feels like one of those moments when you realise that an artist has totally and completely tapped into whatever it is that makes his or her music intrinsically relevant and timeless.

Despite the above, it would be easy to lay the credit of Generators’ quality at the door of Eliane Radigue. After all, the first track, ‘Issue Generator’, is dedicated to her; and her aura has become almost impregnable in recent years, as the world re-discovers masterpieces like Triptych and Transmortem-Transmamorem. But where KFW may have wanted to send a credit out to the great French composer on ‘Issue Generator’, he quickly transcends her influence to start exploring new territories. He starts off with a low bass synth hum, in typical Radigue style, but gradually drops new and unexpected elements into the mix, from bouncing, chirpy electronic effects to hazy passages of sequenced drone rhythms. It may be busier than most of Eliane Radigue’s work, but ‘Issue Generator’ shares the great French composer’s patience, and you can almost hear the audience’s hushed breathing as they hang on every sound Whitman produces. Where my appreciation of Whitman had until now been guided by his propensity for abrasive, caustic electro-noise, on ‘Issue Generator’ he shows himself to be a master of texture, as he considerately moulds each sonic element into an elegant, cohesive whole. The whole point of influence is that it should encourage the influenced artist to take the elements of another artist he or she loves and explore them in new ways, as opposed to merely copying them. Keith Fullerton Whitman demonstrates that emphatically on ‘Issue Generator’, and it’s a truly wondrous piece of modern electronic drone.

‘High Zero Generator’, recorded on a separate night, pitches the album back into what, for me, feels like more familiar and abrasive territory. It’s ostensibly the same track, but recorded using different methods. Here, a percussive line that sounds like a basket ball bouncing on a court is captured, re-processed into Whitman’s machinery and then spat out like a pinball trapped in a gigantic arcade machine. Meanwhile, bursts of incoherent static and high-pitched noise erupt from the speakers like aggressive punctuation marks, piercing the senses and imbuing the piece with a heady, unsettling physicality. And yet, despite this, you still get the sense that Whitman is a composer (and I am not using the word lightly) with one eye on the avant-garde drone of the aforementioned Radigue and her Deep Listening peers. Some of the most intense moments on ‘High Zero Generator’ are the near-silences, when the gritty noises are pulled back and, as a listener, you are left hanging on the ensuing emptiness, unsure of the direction that Whitman is going to launch his music on. Like ‘Issue Generator’, ‘High Zero Generator’ evolves patiently and thoughtfully, with each noise or drone or pulsation expertly placed alongside the ones that preceded it. KFW approaches his music with the subtle dexterity of a molecular biologist, and in that respect he is as much of sound sculptor as, say, Florian Hecker.

So, it took me a while to realise that Keith Fullerton Whitman deserve a place amongst the true greats of electronic music. More fool me, and if you still harbour such doubts, I sincerely hope you’ll check out Generators. It may not quite be a Tonight’s the Night moment, but good heavens, it certainly comes close.