A Dusted Review: Circuitous by Afrikan Sciences (December 23rd, 2014)

I might be wrong, but I’m struggling to think of a major jazz artist who has had as much of an influence on 21st century music as Sun Ra, at least outside the mainstream. Unlike arguably more illustrious giants, from Miles Davis to Coltrane via Charles Mingus and Bill Evans, Ra’s importance is not constrained to jazz (ok, Davis was also an important figure for funk), reaching way beyond the genre’s confines to filter into modern composition, hip-hop and electronic music, the latter being the realm where Afrikan Sciences, aka Eric Douglas Porter, comes in. The music onCircuitous is based on immediately recognisable dancefloor-friendly electronic foundations, but ones that are quickly transformed by a production approach that defies categorisation and the constraints of genre. So, from the get-go Sun Ra’s musical philosophy, one that saw him release albums as wildly different as Strange Strings and The Magic City, is outlined in the very fabric of Douglas’ music.

At the heart of Sun Ra’s musical explorations was the idea of “Afro-futurism,” the concept that modern technology could unlock a bright future for the world’s long-oppressed black populations either beyond the stars or underneath the ocean. Combined with a fascination with the ancestral musical traditions of Africa, this unlocked a fertile sonic landscapes where new instruments were used to channel musical idioms stretching back and forwards in time, ones that would be unique to people of African descent. This has clearly resonated with many subsequent African-American artists, not least in electronica, where Drexciya, Shabazz Palaces and Flying Lotus have picked up the baton and run with it, possibly beyond anything Ra could have anticipated. Douglas’ approach is more opaque than those artists. His live sets deftly meld electronic and acoustic instrumentation (notably upright bass) based essentially on ever-evolving improvisations. As such, the tracks on Circuitous feel loose and unpredictable, driven by constantly shifting rhythmic bursts that never seem to settle.

These bursts of rhythmic dexterity are, to an extent, at the core of what makesCircuitous so enthralling.  They bewilder almost as much as they seduce. There is the skeleton of a dancefloor-aimed album here, but Douglas’ flights of fancy, taking in jerky polyrhythms and sudden temporal shifts, never allow the tracks to properly settle into anything that will get most clubbers shaking.

A classic case is “Reddin Off”, which starts off with organic-sounding kick drum pounds redolent of traditional African music before lurching into a more minimal synthetic groove driven by insistent snares. Melodically, meandering synth lines and warbly piano dominate, as warm and inviting and bolstered by seductive bass as a house track (“Evolved in Twists”, “Circuitous”) or stark and austere with ambient flourishes, as on the pulsating “Feel” and the positively retro-feeling (in the same way as Ralph Cumbers’ Some Truths project or the Ghost Box lot) “The Image”. The album stretches most resolutely into futuristic post-Drexciya (and post-Ra) territory on the jazz-inflected second disc, where tight, unflinching rhythms are buffeted by increasingly buzzing synth lines and mechanical sound effects.

Circuitous is, with its vague track titles, fractured melodies and twisted rhythmic patterns, an album that lives up to its name. This is abstract dance music that would sit remarkably comfortably between dancefloor and, say, art gallery space, although how much exponents of the former will take to it would be a matter worth checking out. Above all, Douglas resolutely avoids turning his references to African music into something clichéd or formulaic, a neat sidestep William Bennett should take note of for his next Cut Hands release. Circuitous is a subtle, endlessly detailed combination of cultures and styles, and an album that points more sturdily to the future than most electronic albums out there.

Advertisements

A Quietus Review: Flatland by Objekt (October 7th, 2014)

It might just be me, but it seems there are few musical genres more fractured and disparate than modern electronic dance music. I know, I know, rock has also become hugely diverse, especially in the wake of punk’s year zero and with the advent of cheaper recording equipment, and even more “niche” genres like noise and metal (especially the latter) have splintered into many sub-genres. Hell, even pop, supposedly just a simple vehicle for mass consumption, has seen itself transformed into an underground phenomenon produced on lo-fi gear by bedroom enthusiasts with wide-ranging influences that have fully distorted its original aim in wildly interesting and mysterious ways. And of course, dance music’s basis in electronica, with all its twists and permutations, from ambient to industrial via hip-hop and kosmische, and the prevalence of laptops making it so accessible, was always bound to be open to countless perspectives. But despite all this, the evolution in the last decade has been remarkable, and all over the world a wealth of different clubs are gearing their sound systems towards a bewildering array of niche styles, from murky dubstep to clinical minimal techno, high-octane grime to jerky footwork. It’s hard to know where to start, and I admit that sometimes I find myself lost amongst the wealth of breakbeats, synth lines and sub-bass that currently populate my iPod, much as I love it all.

I don’t know if it was his intention, but on Flatland, Berlin-based producer/DJ Objekt, aka TJ Hertz, appears to have embarked on the unenviable mission of trying to draw together and consolidate all these various approaches to dancefloor music. At times, it even seems like he’s spent hours poring over the entire back catalogues of forward-thinking labels like Hyperdub, Kompakt, Keysound and Werkdiscs, and somehow attempted to join the dots between them. It’s no wonder, really, that Flatland is being put out by PAN, a label about as audacious and on-the-pulse as any. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his main wells are the London and Berlin scenes of the last decade or two, but there are even hints of Drexciya, Detroit techno and Chicago house in here as well: an infectious beat here, a smooth synth melody or distorted voice there. Indeed, in contrast to some of the more rugged, shifting and gritty productions you might find on the post-dubstep scene in the UK’s capital, such as Actress, Burial, LV or early Hype Williams, Hertz’s production is crisp and clear, not quite in the line of ambient techno producers such as The Field or Porter Ricks, but nonetheless imbued with a hypnotic melodic focus. On his first album, Objekt seems to be imagining himself delivering a live set, complete with formless drone interludes.

And yet, there is some of dubstep’s midnight vibe on Flatland, with heaps of echo amplifying certain sounds to coat some tracks in a certain melancholic aura. It’s possible that Hertz is taking his cues more from funky (or is it wonky? See, lost again!) producers over here such as Zomby, Joy Orbison or Ikonika, and there is an element of the latter’s crisp formalism on tracks like ‘Dogma’, although without the widescreen synth overloads. Like a lot of modern Berlin-based producers, Objekt’s strength lies in his ability to churn out beats, and most tracks on Flatland are wondrously infectious, with repeated snares and kick drums locking into a sort of perpetual repeated motion. Tracks like ‘One Fell Swoop’, ‘Ratchet’ and ‘Strays’ (what a superb opening salvo, by the way: 15-odd minutes of body-shaking bliss) canter forwards like trains, locking into unbreakable grooves that remain untroubled by the synthetic noises and swoops of synth that Hertz layers on top of them. Objekt is an intriguing character, very much in tune with PAN’s experimental credentials, but this album also hints at a potential future as a room-filler in any club he chooses, were that what he wanted. Even the slower tracks are traversed with rhythmic potency.

Despite all the above comparisons, Flatland somehow exists in what feels like an hermetically sealed world of its own, an ethos espoused by the title and the austerity of Objekt’s approach, even at his most melodic. A lot of the recent electronic music I’ve heard, especially in the UK, has dealt expressly with the socio-political unease of our times, be it Actress’ Ghettoville or Vessel’s recentPunish, Honey. Objekt dodges such considerations altogether, and perhaps offers Flatland up as a slice of escapism. After all, that’s what dancing the night away in a sweaty club is really all about, isn’t it? Flatland feels perfectly formed out of the clay of a multitude of styles, and, with rhythms this tight, it’s something of a triumph, even if it reflects nothing back but strobe lights.

2012’s Noises In The Ether: A Rum Music Special (December 13th, 2012)

Ok, so the title of this piece is also a bit of a shameless nod to my radio show, Noise in the Ether, but it’s also a neat and relevant way of describing how noise music has evolved in recent years, culminating in some thoroughly fascinating releases in 2012 that have taken the genre by the scruff of the neck and hauled it into new areas, maybe even into a new era.

Only last year, when asked to select my top albums of the previous 12 months, I included two harsh noise works: Werewolf Jerusalem’s monolithic 4CD set Confessions of a Sex Maniac and Vomir’s Application À Aphistemi. This was par for the course as far as I was concerned: harsh noise rules!

This year – nada. Zilch. Not one. Which is not to say that there haven’t been any decent harsh noise releases (Kevin Drumm’s Relief may not match the potency of Sheer Hellish Miasma, but it’s still a wonderfully gnarly little bastard), but rather that what is being done in new ways to noise is much more fascinating. In 2012, these new strains have finally started to take precedence over their traditional alternatives. And just like that, I’m actually using the word “traditional” to describe noise. I didn’t see that one coming.

“New” is a relative term, it should be noted, and a lot of noise’s recent evolutions stem from a certain amount of rear-view mirror gazing. It’s sometimes hard to imagine it now, but noise’s origins lie not in the sweaty underground bars where its harshest variants now get an airing, but rather in the heady experimentalism of the avant-garde – something that’s still being explored today.


Helm

Take Londoner Luke Younger, aka Helm, for example. Younger takes sampled and found sounds, a technique familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the world of experimental music, filters them through effects and joins them to gritty electronics in order to create a sound world that reflects the environment of London’s urban jungle. In approach, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of John Cage, Pierre Schaeffer’s Groupe de Recherches Musicales or the Futurists, with their emphasis on and interest in “regular” and “non-musical” sounds for musical creation; whilst the ultimate outcome evokes the immersive, sensually evocative musics of “cosmic” minimalists and drone artists such as Cluster, LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman, whose pieces often suggest a sense of place as much as sound processes. Helm’s Cryptography from 2011 felt like sonic experiments conducted with household objects or sheets of metal, but this year’s Impossible Symmetry (PAN) took things a level higher, with urban field recordings providing a tangible backdrop to rough, rolling industrial drone.

This approach is mirrored by Ohio’s Mike Shiflet, whose Merciless album (Type) takes the age-old noise/avant-garde trope of manipulating and distorting pre-recorded tapes as well as conventional instruments such as guitar and synthesiser, transforming familiar sound sources into walls of incoherent, belligerent, saturated noise. Both these artists (I’m tempted to call them “composers”) join the likes of Joe Colley in pursuing noise as a form of acousmatic music and musique concrète in the French avant-garde tradition.

It’s therefore appropriate that this year has seen three excellent reissues on Editions Mego of seminal Groupe de Recherches Musicales recordings, where the likes of Bernard Parmegiani (sounds of trains, water, furniture) or Luc Ferrari (the human voice) transformed everyday noises into musical compositions, many of them so jarring in texture as to fall at times into noise territory. Coincidentally, Mego also released Hecker’s Chimerization, which took the principals of Luc Ferrari’s voice manipulation on Presque Rien (not to mention works like ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ by Alvin Lucier and Cage’s ‘Indeterminacy’) to particularly abrasive and sonically mangled levels.


Mats Gustafsson

Perhaps not surprisingly, another “out-there” realm where noise elements (saturation, dissonance, atonality) are still de rigueur is free jazz and improv, and for anyone who feels that need to have his or her ears given a right old kicking, you generally don’t have to look much further than saxophonists Peter Brötzmann or Mats Gustafsson, both of whom have released some wonderfully skronking stuff in 2012 – and I say that in full knowledge that both are much more sensitive and complex players than their reputations might have you believe.

Gustafsson is often the more overtly abrasive of the two, as demonstrated on the collaborative album between his band Fire! and Australian drummer/guitarist Oren Ambarchi, In The Mouth – A Hand (Rune Grammofon), where Ambarchi’s seething, feedback-drenched guitar noise is slammed into a squalling torrent of notes from Gustafsson, underlined by raucous, all-over-the-place drumming from Fire!’s Andreas Werliin. Gustafsson is more restrained on Baro 101 (Term), recorded with Ethiopian krar player Mesele Asmamaw and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, but still finds time to pepper the air with some wonderfully saturated notes whilst Asmamaw cranks the strings of his krar like someone stretching out a washing line to breaking point.

Brötzmann, meanwhile, delighted with two fantastic live releases this year, the jazz-heavy, exquisitely-performed Yatagarasu (Not Two Records) featuring Masahiko Satoh warping his piano and Takeo Moriyama on drums; and …The Worse The Better (Oto Roku) with Steve Noble and John Edwards. Both saw Brötzmann unfurling an arsenal of sax assault, from elegant jazz lines to barnstorming free blowing, with …The Worse The Better being particularly hard-hitting.

In a different style somewhat, Rhodri Davies blew the doors off any preconceptions anyone might have when it comes to harp music with his ear-shattering Wound Response (alt. vinyl) album, transforming his elegant instrument into a wall of crunching distortion. Improv and free jazz are too often seen as being too highbrow for noise fans, but if you really want to get a fix of full-on saturation, any of the above would easily satisfy your needs.

For listeners wanting a more traditional approach to noise, you can’t really go wrong with the Midwest scene that swirls around Wolf Eyes, but even those guys have started transforming the way they approach sound, with the forbidding atonality of Human Animal very much a thing of the past. Former member Aaron Dilloway released one of the year’s best noise records in the form of Modern Jester (Hanson), a titanic adventure taking in tape distortion and faltering percussion. Where previous Dilloway albums such as Bad Dreams were potent sonic assaults, Modern Jester is more nuanced, with a sly sense of humour, woozy harmonics and welcome experimental forays.

Mike Connelly, another Wolf Eyes alumnus, has meanwhile continued to explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche via his Failing Lights project, with Dawn Undefeated (Dekorder) a triumphant follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut and a world away from his more gnarly works as part of Hair Police. Eschewing harshness almost completely, Connelly’s tableaux are haunted by the atmospheres of horror films and sinister folklore, like more brittle, sickened takes on the hauntological explorations of Demdike Stare or The Eccentronic Research Council.

Nate Young’s solo music also functions on a more liminal level than what he’s done with Wolf Eyes, as he demonstrated during a concert at Dalston’s Victoria pub in the Summer, all murky synths, propulsive half-rhythms and bursts of unexpected static. All three of these artists seem to share an interest in the haunted textures and ectoplasmic sounds that lie dormant in the interstices between defined sounds. The results of their attempts to conjure them up – acting as musical mediums – are often fascinating, and always as troubling as anything emerging from the harsh noise scene they used to (perhaps reluctantly) represent.


William Bennett as Cut Hands

But the biggest transformation noise has been through of late has been its unexpected integration with dance music, as espoused by two of its most iconic figures. William Bennett needs no introduction as one half of power electronics pioneers Whitehouse, but his solo work as Cut Hands has taken his work in interesting new directions, integrating polyrhythmic percussion with excoriating electronic noise textures. This year, he followed up on his 2011 debut Afro Noise Vol. 1 with a more fleshed-out sequel named Black Mamba (Susan Lawly). Bennett’s approach is intensely physical, with fiercely metallic and jarring beats layered over mesmerising synth melodies. Live, he thrashes from side to side, eyes closed and mouth open, as disturbing footage of colonial-era Africa plays out behind him. In the best techno tradition, the highly rhythmic nature of Cut Hands’ music speaks to legs and arses as much as to the ears. It’s is nowhere near as brutally aggressive as Whitehouse, but Bennett’s unnerving performances and the troubling ambiguity surrounding the project’s imagery trace a line straight back to the provocation and belligerence with which one associates power electronics.

The same applies to Vatican Shadow, aka Dominic Fernow of Prurient fame, who has unleashed several releases this year, including a reissue on Type of his amazing Kneel Before Religious Icons tape and several albums and cassettes of new material, including Ornamented Walls (Modern Love) and Ghosts of Chechnya (Hospital Productions). Again, Vatican Shadow can’t hold a candle to Prurient when it comes to sheer aural assault, but that doesn’t mean that Fernow’s history in noise doesn’t seethe away beneath the surface rhythms. Vatican Shadow’s music (which could be seen as an extension of Fernow’s most recent Prurient album, Bermuda Drain) is centred on looped, repetitive drum machine beats in the tradition of Muslimgauze, British industrial techno artists like Surgeon and Regis and even Berliners like Porter Ricks and Basic Channel. These rhythms are overlaid with moody synth lines and – like Cut Hands – accompanied by dark, ambiguous imagery, in this case military iconography and jargon.

With both Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow, the short, punchy tracks seem well tailored for the dancefloor, but repeated exposure, especially live, highlights how much this new music owes to what both artists have done before, even if they now perform in clubs rather than warehouses or pub backrooms. The beats and melodies are monomaniacally repetitive, beyond anything most techno producers would deem conceivable, and what tunes one can detect are icy and bleak, dragged towards the shadows by sudden bursts of fuzz or metallic clangs, with none of the warmth one tends to associate with dancefloor-oriented music.

Instead, Cut Hands and Vatican Shadow (and, I hasten to add, Raime, whose debut album Quarter Turns Over a Living Line on Blackest Ever Black was less fierce than the other two, but still channeled some of the same spirit in marvelous ways), can be seen to be evolving noise in a semi-circular fashion, twisting it back towards the industrial aesthetics of the eighties while simultaneously dragging it forwards via techno and house. It perhaps a weird way to evolve, but damned effective. And let us not forget former Yellow Swan Pete Swanson, whose Pro Style EP (Type) has continued in the direction he hinted at on last year’s Man With Potential album, with jittering, seductive beats drowning under tidal waves of angry, glitchy electronic noise.

Taking all the above into account, it’s hard not to marvel at the journey noise has taken as it edges closer and closer towards something resembling mass public awareness. It’s not even unusual to hear traces of noise filtering into rock, pop, dubstep, hip-hop or dance: Ital’s Dream On has a definite noisy aspect to its ultra-bright synth explosions, Death Grips’ overdriven punk-rap occasionally evokes Lightning Bolt, and Holly Herndon’s Movement, another of the year’s top releases, is perched between noisy avant-garde explorations and full-on dance-pop. Even my own music as Frayed has been “tainted”, moving away from the monolithic harshness I initially embraced (and considered par for the course) on my first album in January in favour of more open, measured sounds and ideas by my fourth.

On the flipside, there’s always the lingering concern that if noise is completely removed from the grimy underbelly it has made its home, and set up for good in art centres and clubs, it’ll end up watered down to something aseptic and harmless, or elitist and high-minded. Noise is meant to be visceral and unsettling. But that’s a question for another day. Right now, as 2012 closes as a landmark year for the genre, noise is branching out, its feet still embedded in the backrooms of smelly pubs but with its eyes casting around for new ideas and new horizons.

A Liminal Review: Impossible Symmetry by Helm (June 11th, 2012)

Helm’s Cryptography was one of the highlights of 2011, an album that clearly descended from a noise tradition, but one on which Luke Younger carefully and intricately included elements of found sounds, drone and ambience to create something that elevated the noise elements in a manner not unlike his American counterparts Joe Colley, Mike Shiflet and Kevin Drumm, ably bridging the gap between all-out sonic assault and avant-garde composition.

On Impossible Symmetry, Younger seems to both flex his considerable muscles and broaden his scope in even more nuanced and subtle directions. ‘Miniatures’ opens the album in a fug of submerged drone, a creeping, creaking and groaning soundscape that taps into the collective psycho-geography of his London home. He has previously discussed hearing sounds on the underground and wanting to use them in his recordings, and in my mind’s eye ‘Miniatures’ is a musical reflection of East London, where Overground trains, with their electric hum, rush past my balcony,  and strange metallic sounds emanate from the garage across the road. At the same time, the piece works as music, the buzzing drones and whispers of noise combined expertly in the manner of Throbbing Gristle circa ‘After Cease to Exist’ or the time-distorting ambient works of Thomas Köner and SleepResearch_Facility.

Meanwhile, ‘Liskojen yö’ could almost be described as ‘Helm goes dubstep’, as a looped, choppy drum pattern provides a solid rhythmic bedrock over which Younger drops in throbbing bass wobbles, atmospheric chimes and piercing industrial clanks, the track slowly devolving into abstract noise. It’s the strongest moment on the album – a grimy, almost dark ambient, take on Pansonic’s icy techno and the overtly phantomatic post-electronica of Raime and Regis.

Compared to Cryptography, Impossible Symmetry has a stronger focus on electronics, and this helps emphasise its murky, oppressive atmosphere. The B side’s three shorter pieces overflow with intense, haunted textures that slowly immerse the listener in their murk. If there are supposed to be echoes of London in here, then it’s of shady back alleys, rain-washed streets and gritty urban jungle. On ‘Arcane Matters’, Younger’s oozing haze is punctuated by abrupt bell clangs that toll menacingly over faint samples of children chattering. ‘Stained Glass Electric’ seethes with hissing static and high-pitched noise, like a gale sweeping across London Fields on a December evening, elusive crackles and thuds evoking both rainfall and footsteps in the dark. ‘Above All and Beyond’ ends the album on its most mysterious note, as fizzing bubbles and whistles that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Emeralds album seep out of the shadows, hinting at futuristic visions locked inside Helm’s somber vision.

Luke Younger’s continued development and exploration are fascinating to witness, with each album seemingly more advanced, more adventurous and more unsettling than the last, making his a unique voice in UK noise, one that fits perfectly with the rest of PAN’s exceptional roster.

Liminal Concert Review: Keith Fullerton Whitman, Rene Hell and Andre Vida at CAMP Basement (October 21st, 2011)

Epitomising the eclectic nature of the PAN label, this CAMP gig featured three rather different performers (I missed Heatsick, who were due to appear first in a duo with Andre Vida, but were, I later learned, tacked on at the end, after most people had left). First up was Andre Vida on his own, for a very brief set of solo sax-and-vocals. As an admirer of Evan Parker and John Butcher, I was delighted (and very pleasantly surprised, given who he was supporting) by the appearance of this jazzy, almost funky, bespectacled man who hummed and moaned between blasts of elastic sax solos and percussive thumping of the pad cups. Compared to the aggressive electronic music that was to follow, there was something slinky and seductive about Andre Vida’s minimalist sax music, with his absurd vocalisations almost approximating a jazzy take on hip-hop.

But sadly, and this was to be a theme for the night, Vida was only on for about 10 to 15 minutes, a paltry duration even for an opening act. Quite how he would have built on the two pieces he performed is debatable, given the restrictive nature of his approach, but it would have been nice to find out. Rene Hell, aka Jeff Witscher, who has released two excellent albums on Type, wasn’t on for much longer, which was even more frustrating as he seemed to be cut short just as he was gathering a head of steam, and looked none too pleased to have to vacate the stage so soon. Where his debut album Porcelain Opera (2010) was a stripped-down synthesis of oddball techno and krautrock-ish anti-rock, his live set featured a dense wall of aggressive synth that he then overloaded with a morass of scatter-gun noise effects, as if someone has chucked a tennis ball into a room of over-driven amplified xylophones and bells. What did remain from Porcelain Opera was the coldly driving rhythm patterns, careering forwards as if the spirit of Klaus Dinger had been locked inside a drum machine on Witscher’s desktop.

My initial instinct was that Keith Fullerton Whitman (KFW), as headliner, had been given preferential treatment over his support, but even his set was little more than an hour, if that. Again, it was a massive shame, as the Miramoglu boss is clearly one of the most exciting and forward-thinking electronic artists out there. He’s famous for having plundered just about every genre and sub-genre of electronic music out there, and as one of the guys from Teeth of the Sea mentioned to me, you’re never sure which KFW you’re going to get, but on this night he was revved up in full noise/electro mode, in the manner of his recent Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness album, using a lap-top and massive analogue synth to unleash a tidal wave of bleeps, hisses, roars and crackles over the auditorium, the whole chaotic miasma colliding, dissolving and reassembling as if, as my friend (for whom it was the first experience of such sounds) described it, “10 000 computers were having their own apocalypse whilst their owners tripped on MDMA”. A surreal image, for sure, but somehow fitting for KFW’s apocalyptic sound. Underneath the high-pitched noise, a gut-wrenching bass rumble shook the floor and my insides, anchoring the morass to a protean groove that you had to close your eyes to follow and absorb. There’s a slender point when atonal noise and sheer bliss become one and, like Werewolf Jerusalem or Tony Conrad, Keith Fullerton Whitman knows how to hit it.

But again, it was over too soon, with nary an encore to satiate the delighted, but – if I’m anything to go by – slightly disappointed, punters. If I had the audacity to recommend anything to the promoters Upset the Rhythm, it would be to either limit the number of acts or choose a venue that stays open longer. With both KFW and Rene Hell, you got the distinct feeling they had to shut down just as they were getting going, and that’s seriously unsatisfying for both audience and, I am sure, performers. I can still take comfort with the memory of some amazing sounds, plus my already well-worn copies of Disingenuity b/w Disingenuousness and Porcelain Opera, but it could have been oh so much more.

Photos by Scott McMillan