A Quietus Review: The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? by Nazoranai (December 12th, 2014)

It feels weird writing this about a record that has Keiji Haino on it, but it sounds like all involved in making The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? were having one heck of a ball in the process. I could be wrong, of course, but that’s the vibe you get. And why not? After all, all three of Haino, Oren Ambarchi (on drums here) and Stephen O’Malley (of Sunn O))) fame – here on bass) have done more than their share for the cause of serious experimental rock music (and beyond), so fair dues to them if Nazoranai has become their way of letting their hair down (OK, Keiji Haino’s hair is always down, so that’s a shit metaphor). These are three amazing musicians, but there’s no hiding from the fact that The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? has a silly title and is essentially made up of four unending jams that could have been made by three drug-fuelled hippies getting off on hearing Blue Cheer for the first time. Three hugely talented hippies, I’ll grant you, but they’re still having a laugh.

In many ways, it should come as no surprise to find that Keiji Haino likes a bit of fun as much as the next man, and indeed at every one of the multitude of gigs I’ve seen him perform, I’ve been straining my eyes to spot an indiscreet sardonic smile creep to his lips. Here’s a diminutive 62-year-old man with waist-length grey hair plugging away at his indefatigable muse with nary a regard for trends or even previous musical history. After forty-odd years of it, he must be either mad, a joker or a visionary, and maybe, just maybe The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? proves he’s all three. After all, this isn’t the first album the man’s been involved with to sport ridiculous album and track titles, and I don’t think one can solely put that down to something being lost in translation. When it comes to Nazoranai, they read like cheeky haikus, and The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? certainly abounds with the sort of opaque mystery and brutal musical deconstruction-cum-poetry that has defined the best (read: most serious) of Haino, O’Malley and Ambarchi’s work. Second track ‘Will Not Follow Your  Hoax Called History’ features a slovenly groove and some truly morose soloing on guitar from Haino, whilst elsewhere he hops from his axe to air synths, always producing similar vats of molten feedback. Rest assured, even if this is a bit of a “fun” album, fans of Haino’s singular form of non-rock mayhem will get all their requisite hits.

In fact, in many ways, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? shares some similarities with the work of Haino’s other trio featuring Ambarchi, as part of which they are joined by Jim O’Rourke. It’s just that here, with O’Malley bringing his particular brand of monomaniacal doom worship as opposed to O’Rourke’s instrumental dexterity, the accent is on heaviness and volume rather than pushing the boundaries much. Effectively, this is a power trio, nothing less and little more, and for all that these three love a bit of improvisation and noise, you can hear the history of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Blue Cheer, Cream, Sleep and Grand Funk Railroad pulsating through these four tracks. And I think there are very few rock fans out there, especially of the harder variety, who haven’t at some point dreamed of being in a power trio. There’s something about the limited format that has consistently led to the most stripped-down, over-amped and gloriously plodding rock & roll you’ll ever hear, even as today technology allows duos and even solo acts to get in on similar action.

So, no, The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already..? is not a key release by any of these three dudes. But it’s heavy like Mainliner is heavy, Ambarchi’s drumming is like a whirlwind of cymbal crashes and Haino’s guitar could carve boulders out of mountains. It’s a fun slab of obnoxious rock-gone-mad, and sometimes that’s all you need of an evening.

A Quietus Review: Through a Pre-Memory by Äänipäa (November 19th, 2013)

Surely there must have been some risk in bringing together Mika Vainio, formerly one half of post-techno destructo-craftsmen Pansonic, and the lord of thunderous, ear-splitting doom riffs Stephen O’Malley, of SUNN O)))! I mean, wasn’t there a chance that two such intense, brooding wagers of sonic warfare would set off some sort of alchemical cataclysm if brought together? On the evidence of Through A Pre-Memory, the apocalypse was not unleashed when they combined as Äänipäa, but with Khanate’s Alan Dubin joining on vocals, they didn’t half come fucking close.

Which is not to say that Through A Pre-Memory is some massive trawl through the netherworld of sub-bass drone and scorched-earth industrial techno. Both Vainio and O’Malley have gradually transcended their roots to subliminally take in wider palettes, from jazz to avant-garde composition, via musique concrète and psychedelia. Recent releases on O’Malley’s Mego-sponsored Ideologic Organ imprint, for example, have included Eyvind Kang and Jennifer Kenney’s crystalline folk, the multifaceted electronica of Mats Lindstrom and Iancu Dumitrescu’s spectral noise compositions. Far from being the extremist misanthropes the more narrow critics might describe them as, Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley are perpetually curious sonic explorers, and Äänipäa gives them the opportunity to push this curiosity to its natural conclusion.

Having said all the above, it is unsurprising that Through A Pre-Memory‘s opening salvo, ‘Muse’ doesn’t start in a hail of noise, but rather in a style best described as “patient”, as a muffled, apparently sampled, voice intones in what sounds like German (but could be Dubin), buffeted by throbbing deep bass notes, martial spurts of robotic percussion and looming, suspended doom guitar chords. The mood on ‘Muse’ is considered, with O’Malley and Vainio taking their time to explore both silence and noise in alternating expanses of sound and near-sound, with every detail displayed in stark relief. There are gristly electronic lines, shimmering synth lines and crashing riffs, all seeping in and out of a blank, abstract canvas of quietude. It’s both startling and absorbing, the perfect demonstration of sonic sleight-of-hand, because twelve minutes in O’Malley ups the ante with some trademark extended riffs as Alan Dubin joins the fray, screaming himself raw over a girl he waited for but lost, his delivery both terrifying and overflowing with pathos. Vainio, with his repetitive beats, and O’Malley, with his crunching feedback snarls, never rush matters, instead allowing this moody slab of introspection to inch inevitably towards collective psychosis under Dubin’s wild-eyed invectives over 21 claustrophobic minutes. Metal-infused music hasn’t been this deliriously overwrought since Khanate’s Clean Hands Go Foul had a belated release in 2009. Vainio may be adding texture, but with Dubin’s rasp, this is pure, unrestrained, blackened doom.

‘Towards All Thresholds’ and ‘Mirror Of Mirror Dreams’ give the Finn more space to influence the overall sound, with drifting drones superimposed on top of each other ad infinitum and hypnotic post-techno grooves dominating the former; whilst crystalline synths and gravelly guitar lines dance a slovenly waltz over the near-18 minutes of the latter, as if the two tracks act as opposing motifs on the soundtrack of an avant-garde horror movie. ‘Watch Over Stillness/Matters Principle”, however, returns matters to the bleak, abstract scorched earth of ‘Muse’, and is the better for it, with Alan Dubin again at the centre of this grim, perversely operatic suite. Again, Mika Vainio excels at setting out pounding, yet focused, drum machine beats and shadowy electronic textures, leaving it to O’Malley to frame Dubin’s multi-tracked ravings with his guitar, as he did so well – sorry if I’m labouring the point – in Khanate. The intermittent stillness evinced on ‘Muse’ is pushed to its apex here, as the track drifts almost listlessly at times, a hazy fog of imagined shades and potential explosions. When they do burst forth, they’re all the more potent from the anticipation.

I’ve recently been listening to a number of early records released on ECM, that formidable bastion of avant-garde jazz and minimalist modern composition. Of course, Äänipäa do not actually sound like Jan Garbarek or Ralph Towner, but, in their own chaotic, ever-so-slightly-demented way, they espouse something of the German label’s early aesthetic, namely a desire to play with the contours of volume and silence, and where those two phenomena overlap. This is techno-metal, so it’s more boneheaded than jazz, but the respective backgrounds of Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley mean the above comparison is not such a leap. This is noise music with brains, and another album on Editions Mego that challenges our perceptions of music and sound. Oh, and it will fucking rip your ears off at full volume.

A Liminal Live Review: Gravetemple, Cafe Oto, 13-14 April 2013, with Russell Haswell and Crys Cole (April 22nd, 2013)


This weekend features the fourth -and heftiest- showcase thus far of Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ sub-label, with the SUNN O))) guitarist himself featuring on both nights as part of Gravetemple, perhaps his most experimental act (which is saying something) and which features occasional SUNN O))) members Oren Ambarchi and Attila Csihar. Unsurprisingly, Cafe Oto is sold out on both nights, making it perhaps a daunting prospect for the respective nights’ opening acts Russell Haswell and crys cole, especially the latter.

Haswell at least almost matches Gravetemple for loudness, which takes some doing. The Englishman’s set starts with some precise sound manipulation of field recordings, notably wind and rain introduced by glooming bell tolls. It sometimes evokes the sensitive, evocative work of Chris Watson or, to a lesser degree, Thomas Köner, but the weather sounds slowly dissolve into jittery flutters that may or may not have started their sonic lives as bird wing samples but, if so, are transformed here into jarring industrial thuds and klangs over which Haswell gradually layers pounding synth oscillations. Haswell starts his performance seated at his laptop, but as the piece pitches into a shattering noise climax, he rises to his feet, twisting the buttons on a distortion pedal as the barrage of screeching drone swamps over the audience. It serves as a taste of what Gravetemple will provide later on the first night, the sort of noise wall The Rita would be proud of. I’m not sure what some of the hip SUNN O))) fans are making of it.

On the second night, however, Canadian sound artist crys cole provides a remarkable contrast to the crushing volume of her fellow performers with a set that is strikingly quiet, to the clear frustration of some audience members (London audiences, eh?). Using several percussive (especially a brush stick) or “non-musical” implements amplified by a couple of contact mics. cole’s website describes “a fascination with microsonics that test the limits of audibility and intentionality”, and the ambiguity of the sounds she produces, bolstered by hissing vocal interventions, is interesting, at times even fascinating, but, as many have noted, there can be an element of quietness for quietness’ sake to music like this. The most assertive moments are when she rubs a microphone on a sheet of metallic paper, which delivers distorted crackles but, with cole clearly frustrated by some spectators impatience, the set ends too soon for it to gather any momentum.

The signs that Gravetemple have been planning to be as loud as Oto will allow are apparent from the sound check, which apparently drew complaints from the theatre next door and has the windows rattling as the punters queue outside. Despite this, there’s a great contrast between their two sets, with the first being ear-shattering whilst the other is more nuanced and ultimately nothing short of triumphant. On the first night, Attila Csihar kicks off proceeding by rasping ominously into his microphone (I can’t make out the words, and he tells me afterwards that he mixes languages and even his own invented words) whilst Ambarchi and O’Malley sit impassively with their guitars on their laps. Csihar’s vocalisations are typically dramatic, enhanced by effects that stretch and loop his voice until it becomes a sinister one-man Gregorian choir. When Ambarchi and O’Malley join the fray, they immediately kick into feedback-heavy, sustained doom metal notes at full volume, instantly evoking SUNN O)))’s cavernous take on metal tropes. The volume is quite simply deafening, with the notes held so long that the feedback shudders into one’s guts and rattles the bones. As the low, thundering riffs build and build, often in tandem, the music takes on the texture of minimal drone, with Csihar happy to sit back with his eyes closed and absorb the wall of noise. Gradually, O’Malley starts to crack out some repetitive riffs, whilst Oren Ambarchi distorts and mangles scatter-gun solos via an Electro-Harmonix effects pedal, throwing out metallic, almost industrial noises that only serve to ratchet up the volume levels. Meanwhile, Csihar refuses to let the guitars overwhelm his singing, his bank of effects twisting and contorting his vocals into a series of alien chants. When Ambarchi takes to the drums to bring the piece to a rambunctious close, it seems almost like an afterthought, the volume of O’Malley’s riffage almost completely masking his brittle polyrhythms.

Csihar admitted to me that Gravetemple’s first set was a bit too loud and ramshackle, and boy do they make amends on Sunday. This time proceedings are started with the guitars, and more of the familiar, imposing and loud doom riffs, with similar levels of monomaniacal sustain as Ambarchi and O’Malley displayed on Saturday, although with greater levels of understanding and variety. O’Malley once again unfurls some sturdy riffs, whilst Ambarchi almost transforms his axe into a six-stringed noise generator. Csihar’s vocals are even more imposing this time, as he has more space to weave his oblique narratives into the mix. Midway through the set, the volume drops, allowing for expansive, droning flourishes married to Csihar’s gothic rumbles and saturated moans. With a more subtle approach than the previous night, Gravetemple display the full range of their talents, enhancing how open-minded the trio is, and how they use metal archetypes as a mere launching pad to explore more diverse sonic realms. They slowly twist and re-build a piece that increasingly takes on epic proportions, culminating in a mantra-like finale where O’Malley’s righteous guitar playing and Csihar’s incomparable vocal turns fly ever-upwards, propelled by another bout of octopus-like drum thrashes from Ambarchi, this time properly amplified to transform the sound into an almost psychedelic workout. It’s all brought to a thrilling close when Ambarchi pounds on a gigantic gong, leaving O’Malley’s dying notes and Csihar’s final invectives to be drowned out by the audience’s rapturous applause. This showcase at times risked falling into self-indulgence but, guided by these three stalwarts, ended on a note that touched on transcendence.

A Quietus Review – Sonic Communication: Stephen O’Malley Talks Ensemble Pearl & Gravetemple (April 10th, 2013)

Stephen O’Malley must be one of the hardest-working men in metal. As well as being one-half-to-one-quarter of increasingly popular doom/drone powerhouse Sunn O))), he’s also been a member of a number of iconic metal acts over the years, from Khanate and KTL to Gravetemple, taking in a range of collaborators such as Eyvind Kang, Timba Harris, Attila Csihar, Boris and members of Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter, many of whom have cropped up on recent Sunn O))) albums.

His latest project to see an album release is Ensemble Pearl, an international quartet that includes Atsuo from Boris on drums, Michio Kurihara of Ghost and Boris on guitar, and William Herzog, from The Sweet Hereafter (amongst others) on bass, completed by O’Malley’s trademark guitar mauling. Their self-titled debut album was released last month on Drag City, and sees O’Malley expanding the palette of his heavy music in new and exciting ways. Meanwhile, Ideologic Organ, the imprint O’Malley runs under the umbrella of Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego, will this month reissue a humungous demo album by Gravetemple, the guitarist’s trio with former Mayhem and current Sunn O))) vocalist Attila Csihar and multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi. This release will follow a two-night residency by the trio at London’s Cafe Oto this weekend, on the 13th and 14th of April.

Even with so much going on, The Quietus managed to catch up with O’Malley over the phone to discuss Ensemble Pearl, the weight of Sunn O)))’s popularity on his other projects, Ideologic Organ, and just how awesome a band Boris are.

How did Ensemble Pearl get together and start recording?

Stephen O’Malley: I was commissioned to make some music for a theatre piece in 2008 or 2009. That piece ended up being called “This Is How You Disappear”. One of the producers was a Japanese theatre company, so some of the work ended up being done in Japan, [and] so I was invited to work with some Japanese musicians in Japan. Of course, it was a great opportunity to do stuff with Atsuo and the Boris people again. They were really excited about it too, so we went into the studio under that commission.

We spent a week recording music in Tokyo and it was really productive, a really great time. Bill Herzog came over to work on that too. He’s been involved with Sunn O))) and was on the Altar album we did with Boris too. He’s played in the band and stuff like that and is also the bass player for Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter. Furthermore, he’s a very old friend of mine and Greg’s [Anderson, from Sunn O)))], we’ve known each other since the late ’80s, so it was great to invite Bill to come out too. After [that week], some of the material ended up being worked on for that score, specifically, but we didn’t go back to the entire [Ensemble Pearl] session until later. We kept going back to the rough mixes and, two years later, we decided to go back at it and finish that session as an album. We worked with Randall Dunn, our old ally, and voila! There it is. [laughs]

What’s the meaning behind the name Ensemble Pearl?

SO’M: I was kind of obsessed with this album called The Pearl by Brian Eno and Harold Budd. I think it’s from the early ’80s… Not so much with the music or the concept or anything, but the mood of that album is really incredible and somehow that was on my mind. And we just wanted to put a name to it. It’s not anything special, but it kind of means exactly what it says. It’s kind of… true. People like Michio, working with you, it’s really special, for me. Any collaboration is special, but that seemed to fit there. And the mood of that album I mentioned was a driving direction for characteristics not only for that session, but also for the music I was trying to do for that theatre piece.

Ensemble Pearl – ‘Painting on a Corpse’

As you referenced, you’ve worked with Atsuo and Bill in the past, so Ensemble Pearl has drawn comparisons with Altar. Do you think that’s a fair reflection of Ensemble Pearl?

SO’M: Well, maybe superficially because it involved some of the same people coming back together again. But on the other hand, you can see it as a continuation of a really long friendship and relationship between Atsuo and me. We’ve known each other for a long time. Altar was a great moment in Sunn O)))’s history, and in my own personal experience of playing music and being in the underground. It represented what is possible to do with a DIY project – which is what it was! – and it was pretty complicated, so it was incredible to put that together.

I had never played with Michio before that recording session [for the theatre score], so he was a new collaborator for me. Of course, he’d been involved with Boris for a few years at that point. It was pretty amazing – he’s an enigmatic musician, so seeing his technique, especially playing with tape, was pretty mind-blowing and unique.

I think that the spirit of Altar was very special to that period of time itself, and it also involved a lot of other people. Ensemble Pearl is not a continuation of Altar directly, but it seems that, as time goes on, a lot of comparisons are made to your history, just because there are more touchstones for people to try and understand the music itself. Which I think is positive, but at the same, of course there are going to be references to other records that I’ve played guitar on, or Bill played upright bass on, because those personalities are present. And hey, if we could ever have a chance of repeating the spirit of Altar, in any project, that would be extremely positive, because it was a really great moment.

You seem to regard it as a high-water mark…

SO’M: It’s one of them, that’s for sure. Even more than the music, for me it’s about the companionship of the players and that type of chemistry, which honestly doesn’t exist between all those people anymore. It was a period of time when we really came together. I think that the Ensemble Pearl session was very focused and telepathic, in a way, but it was much more private because there were four people involved and it was in a small studio. Altar involved 15 people, maybe, in total, and it was in Seattle, which is where Sunn O))) comes from, and a lot of the people were local. Boris came over specifically for it, and then we toured together as well. Eventually, we played some concerts together as Altar, which was a circus, but it’s one of the high-water marks, for sure.

Do you ever feel that comparisons with what you’ve done as Sunn O))), in particular, can overshadow projects like Ensemble Pearl?

SO’M: Of course. It’s the most recognised of all the music I’ve done, so it seems like a lot of people come to what I’m doing from that point of view as the main background, which is great. From my viewpoint, it allows me to do more, because there’s more interest. But I’ve done a lot of other music besides Sunn O))) in the past, before Sunn O))) was around. As a musician, there are different levels of importance on different performances, I suppose. I think it’s kind of a miracle that people are following this stuff, anyway. With Sunn O))), we’ve always said that we want to make the music to please our expectations, and it’s amazing that other people come along for it. I don’t want to compare something like Ensemble Pearl [to Sunn O)))], but if someone comes to this record because they know Sunn O))), or they know Boris, or they know Jesse Sykes, or they like the Altar record and think there’s some relation there, then that’s great. Time goes on, and this is a more current realisation of music for me, so if people want to follow that, it’s a gift that allows me to continue to do these abstract projects.

‘Blood Swamp’, taken from Sunn O))) & Boris’ Altar LP

It’s interesting that you use the word “abstract”. Do you see Ensemble Pearl as a follow on from the more experimental aspects of Sunn O)))?

SO’M: No, I don’t approach it from Sunn O))), y’know? It’s a separate thing, and we went in with different references. Music written for different vibes. Sunn O))) is a different animal, man. It’s a beast, and Ensemble Pearl is very focused… Of course, it’s experimental – it’s not a pop record! – it has a different purpose and has its own individual point to make, musically, and mood to achieve.

Were the tracks composed in advance, or were they improvised at the point of recording?

SO’M: I wrote a lot of the music in advance and we worked on that together as a group. There’s some improvisation too, and a lot of writing in the studio, but most of it came from parts I had written, or wrote in the studio. Improvisation is a critical tool for any record or band I’ve ever been involved with, and that’s certainly true about developing music in the studio. We developed it all, as a group. You can’t really write for Michio! You can show him and he extrapolates like an astronomical version of your score, or a weather pattern [laughs]. It’s great. Atsuo is someone I’ve worked with on a bunch of stuff and I think we really understand each other. He really helped develop the character of that music in the studio and the production of the material.

It sounds like there’s a special chemistry between you guys.

SO’M: I hope so. I felt it. I’ve got a long history with Atsuo. I met that guy in 1994, maybe, in Seattle and have kind of followed Boris all the time. We ended up doing some tours together, made Altar, they brought us over to Japan the first time, introduced me to a record label that puts out Sunn O)))’s records in Japan. He’s like an old ally. Same with Bill. When Michio got together with Boris, it was a leftfield decision that really worked well and transformed that band, heavily. It was cool to see. I love watching Boris go through all these chameleon stages. It’s pretty interesting, even if I don’t connect with all those stages. I appreciate it as a long-term conceptual work.

They’re one of the only bands capable of releasing two completely different albums on the same day!

SO’M: Exactly! It demands that people following them have a curiosity, even if they might be quite violently opposed to some of the moves [laughs]. The reason they might react that way is that they love certain stages of that group so much. It’s risky for Boris to do that, but on the other hand, one thing that might be observed is that they have a lot of trust in their audience to be intelligent and open-minded to track all of them.

Ensemble Pearl

Loren Mazzacane Connors once said in an interview that he could sort of tell if a band or artist was Japanese just by hearing them, especially the guitar. Do you think there’s a distinctive “sound” to Japanese rock or metal?

SO’M: Well he has direct contact with some of the hottest personalities. I mean hot in that it’s like a flame, where, if you get too close, you sort of get toasted [laughs]. I wouldn’t go that far, instantaneously knowing they’re Japanese, but there’s a quality, especially in rock, where they kind of get into psychedelic and improvised abstract realms automatically. It’s like a strange filter… It’s silly to generalise, but some of my favourite Japanese musicians and bands and albums seem to have a distortion of the very identifiable, regular forms of music. Early Boris sounded like Melvins, in some way, to be quite short, but you knew it wasn’t some band from Missouri playing slow riffs. It was touched a little bit by the psychedelic vibe, and there are a lot of groups like that, that have that filter. But I would never want to be able to identify a person’s nationality by their playing, unless it’s like a traditional folk music. Not with modern music – that would be a shame! But I see his point, I think…

That’s what good about Ensemble Pearl: it’s an international band, not just American, or Japanese, or even both. It’s wider than that.

SO’M: Y’know, it represents a Boris character too. They spent a lot of time touring in the US, and almost as much in Europe. They made a huge effort to do that, and it’s difficult to do, y’know, to travel across different continents. It’s not just one or two tours, we’re talking 15 years of touring, for them. Like I said, the first time I saw them was on their first tour, in ’94, with The Thrones, and we were blown away by this band we’d never heard about. Sometimes bands that are internationally-recognised aren’t as popular in Japan, or vice-versa, but they’ve achieved a balance because of their persistence and determination.

Like Sunn O)), they’re very loud, so it must be demanding on you, the artists…

SO’M: I think any live show is, at the same time, extremely energising and extremely exhausting. One reason you do tours is that you don’t recognise that exhaustion [laughs], and just bathe in this rite, this powerful energy, daily. But I wouldn’t change it for anything, it’s a gift to be able to do live shows like that.

What was behind the decision on Ensemble Pearl to get Eyvind Kang involved on a track (‘Wray’)? I know you’ve worked with him on Sunn O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions.

SO’M: Well, the second part of the production of that album took place at the end of 2011, and we decided to finish it as an album. I spoke with Randall Dunn about mixing it in Seattle at a studio with a great API desk and take an analogue turn with it. So we went to Seattle and did that, and a lot of the production decisions were made at that point. It defined the character of what we were looking for, with a production heavily inspired by ’50s rock or surf music, in a way, from our point of view. It might not be very obvious, but it’s something Randall and I have talked about for a long time.

Anyway, Eyvind’s living in Seattle and he’s someone I’ve been working with and collaborating with in different ways, so I invited him to come contribute to the record. The thing is, ‘Wray’ is primarily a piece by Timba Harris. He’s another viola player, and a friend of Eyvind’s. We worked with both of them on some Sunn O))) records and stuff. Eyvind came in and did an electric violin solo on ‘Sexy Angle’, but Timba Harris is very present on ‘Wray’, although it’s not only him. But besides those two moments, everything on the album is purely Michio, Atsuo, Bill and myself. There are no synthesisers or other types of instruments, it’s only guitars, bass and drums. And percussion! I want to make that clear. There are nice illusions on the record, people are hearing different things on different tracks. The ‘Giant’ track seems to be sparking people’s imaginations as far as the instrumentation is concerned, [yet] that track is purely guitar, purely Ebow guitar played by Michio. So, again, we’re working with this idea of phenomenology and spectral music in a way, but more for rock than contemporary music.

Is it a sense of going for the source, getting things back to a more streamlined structure, in a way?

SO’M: For me, there’s nothing like being in a room with people you connect with and just making music right there. That’s the best way of writing music, and that’s what Ensemble Pearl was. A lot of stuff I’ve worked on has involved more production or taking things from one place to another and adding elements here and there. But Ensemble Pearl was recorded in a very small studio, the four of us meeting every day for seven days or something, and getting on with it, as a band. For me, that’s the source, that’s the way I started playing music and I know that’s how a lot of these other guys started playing music too.

William Herzog, as you mentioned, performs with Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter, so there’s a folk/country background there. Do you think there’s an element of that in Ensemble Pearl, with the open spaces that exist across the album?

SO’M: Bill’s done a lot of bands. He was in a band called Citizens Utilities, on Mute. He plays with a guy called Joel Phelps in a band called The Downer Trio, where he actually plays drums. He’s played bass on all the Jesse Sykes albums, I think, and toured with her a lot, and he’s also an amazing singer. I don’t think his point of view for music is genre-based, it seems to me he’s always searching for the correct character to introduce into the music, but then again he’s like a real musician kind of guy. I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a country music influence in Ensemble Pearl, but then again the entire background of every player is involved at the point of playing, so it’s possible, I guess. I didn’t think of that. Bill is more open-minded…

I didn’t necessarily mean to infer that it came from Bill, specifically, but there are a couple of tracks that made me think of recent Earth records, like Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, and I wondered if that was planned in advance.

SO’M: I love Dylan [Carlson]’s playing and the Hex, Or Printing in the Infernal Method record has been influential. I don’t think I’d heard the recent records when [Ensemble Pearl] was recorded, but I won’t deny Dylan’s influence, for sure. The Hex record has such beautiful space and spare playing, and I can hear that in Ensemble Pearl.

What are the next plans for Ensemble Pearl? Are you planning to tour and release some more material?

SO’M: I’d love to work on a second record, and we’ve talked about meeting and doing that. I’m not sure about live shows. I guess it depends on an opportunity or an invitation that would allow us to fly everyone to the same place. Boris is quite active, as you know, it seems they’re doing a lot of touring this year. Maybe that would open up some opportunities to do an Ensemble Pearl concert or set up shows or something, but there’s nothing planned right now. It’s kind of in a holding pattern, I guess. The record has come out and got a really great reaction, more than I was expecting, which is very pleasant, of course. Hopefully, if there’s an opportunity presented…

Something like All Tomorrow’s Parties.

SO’M: Yeah, something like that. I don’t expect anything from anyone in that way, but hey, we’ve had support to do much more complicated logistics before, so it could happen. But one thing is sure, which is that we’ve talked about getting together to work on another recording, which I would really love to do, possibly with a vocalist involved.

Excerpt from Gravetemple’s Ambient/Ruin LP

This month or next will also see the reissue on Ideologic Organ of Gravetemple’s Ambient/Ruin. What was the impetus behind that?

SO’M: Well, that was originally a demo that we made in 2008 for a small tour. It was released in 300 copies at that time. I just wanted to put some material on vinyl, and I loved those recordings. They’re pretty strange! We’re spending a lot of time in Europe this year, and we decided to try and play together again as a trio, doing a bunch of concerts. Again, this is a group of people, Attila, Oren and myself, who have been playing stuff together for several years now, since 2003 or 2004, so it’s a continuation of a longer musical relationship.

I wanted to have something tangible to have as a souvenir of those concerts and also to bring it out there. Attila is especially great on this record, he did a lot of his recordings in Japan when he was visiting Mount Fuji. It’s kind of a concrete record, in a way, in our way. That group did about three tours and put out three recordings so far, and this is the second one. It’s not new material at all, but it’s relevant. Before this tour, we’re going to spend some days in a studio in London, actually, working on, y’know, whatever. Stuff to play live. It’s primarily improvised, so I want to get the chemistry going again. It could be the beginning of a series of releasing these other CDs on vinyl, and maybe new material too.

It’s quite different than Ensemble Pearl in most ways [laughs], but the similarity, and also the similarity with Sunn O))) and all my different projects, which seem quite disparate at times but actually are not, is that it’s based on collaboration, friendship and camaraderie between the musicians. The communication is possible at a very deep level, and then the sonic results can be quite different, but that type of really human communicative experience is the whole reason to do any of that stuff. I’m really lucky to have several friends with pretty strong identities and ideas to be able to do that with.

Would I be right in thinking that, for Ambient/Ruin, you guys all recorded your parts separately, and then put them together at a later date?

SO’M: Like I said, it was a demo before a tour, so we wanted to work on something constructive before getting together on a stage. Some of the material was actually recorded live from a tour of Israel we did, and, like I said, it’s a kind of concrete thing that we did in that way. We were trying to take a flavour and then build something together, and even though that process was not done in person, it did inject some vitality into the pre-production of those concerts. Oren, especially, is so productive and has so many ideas for production…

I can imagine working with Attila Csihar must be an unique experience. He’s a phenomenal vocalist.

SO’M: Definitely! It’s very simple: he’s a legend [laughs]. Let’s leave at that. He’s an unique musician and an incredibly generous person. He’s a legend. He’s Attila.

For the upcoming concerts at Cafe Oto, will Gravetemple be performing material from Ambient/Ruin or will it be totally new?

SO’M: It’ll probably be totally new. It’s not supporting a demo from 2008! And anyway, playing at Cafe Oto encourages improvisation. That’s why we wanted to do that, and I’m glad they were up for that, too. It could potentially be quite blistering in that space, but not necessarily. We’ll see what happens. The idea is that we’ll be in the studio, as I said, in London, for two days, and I think it could be super-productive, actually. I hope so.

This will be your fourth showcase at Cafe Oto for Ideologic Organ. Are you liking running the label?

SO’M: Yeah, I like it. I’m not the right person to run a record label as a business, I suppose, but luckily Ideologic Organ is a partnership with Editions Mego, so I’m more of a curator and the business side of things and the distribution are taken care of by them. I’m pretty fortunate, and have been able to bring out some incredible recordings by people. There will be more things happening this year, as well. I don’t know what the full lifespan of this label will be, but it’s also prodigious, so far.

Thank you so much for your time, Stephen, it’s been great to talk to you.

SO’M: Thank you for taking an interest. Have a nice Easter. Go egg a church!

Gravetemple play at London’s Cafe Oto this Saturday 13th April and Sunday 14th April. For information and tickets, click here. Ensemble Pearl is out now on Drag City. Gravetemple’s Ambient/Ruin is released this month on Ideologic Organ.

A Liminal Review: Ambient/Ruin by Gravetemple (March 25th, 2013)


Gravetemple is one of many side-projects of Sunn O)))’s prolific guitarist Stephen O’Malley, and it competes with KTL for the honour of being the most experimental. This is hardly surprising when one considers that Australian avant-rock and drone guitarist Oren Ambarchi, as well as the ever-surprising former Mayhem vocalist Attila Csihar make up two further quarters of the line-up (when Ambient/Ruin was recorded in 2008, they’d added drummer Matt Sanders to the original trio). If all three have long displayed their metal credentials, something already well documented on their 2006 debut, The Holy Down, Ambient/Ruin showcases their ability to stretch the genre’s conventions, often to breaking point.

It’s not easy to immediately spot the “ambient” in this album, the “ruin” though, quickly jumps out from its twisted grooves: a sense of decay and darkness lies in O’Malley’s fuzzy, subterranean riffs, which are melded with moody electronic textures and Csihar’s black metal growl. However, the second side of four quickly establishes parameters that are far removed from standard “dark” metal, as sounds of running water and hushed rasps from Csihar introduce a seventeen-minute epic that is all about texture and subtlety over punishing aggression, with O’Malley and Ambarchi building up a steady, immovable drone on a mixture of synths and guitar that lingers heavily in the ether, pregnant with menace as Csihar’s apocalyptic vocals intone the blackest of sermons. If we can describe this music as “ambient”, it is ambient born from the ruins of metal music, as dark and haunted as anything by the likes of Lustmord or Soliloquy for Lilith-era Nurse With Wound, but with the steadfast, trance-like compositional presence of a Phill Niblock or CC Hennix piece. If some aspects of Sunn O))) can seem a tad camp, Gravetemple is nothing of the sort: the third side follows on from the second with a similar, albeit more caustic drone filling up the sound space, punctuated (punctured?) along the way by grim industrial effects and ever more cataclysmic vocalisations from Csihar, who might use words more than Hennix or LaMonte Young, but surely can be seen as something of an heir to their singular dedication to stretching vocal sounds into abstract realms.

A passage of near silence slices through this opening segment, replaced by an almost incongruous hum, like a fridge in an empty room (can a fridge be heard if no-one’s there to hear it?), as if the quartet is suggesting that ruin and darkness surround our everyday lives. From there, we are drop-kicked in the gut as Sanders unleashes a furious, typically black-metal blast beat and Attila rips his throat out in the grand old tradition of Nocturno Culto on early Darkthrone records. Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi still resist the temptation to descend into predictable riffology, however, instead twisting and transforming their feedback and synth drones into an ear-assaulting high-pitched tone that swirls around and above Sanders’s earthy pummeling like a malignant cloud.

Gravetemple are a difficult act to pin down, and this reissue only adds to the mystery. Ambient/Ruin is a hefty slab, yet it’s also elusive, moving through textures and styles in ways both disheveled and jarring, which might have something to do with the fact that each member recorded his parts in different locations to his bandmates. However, the way Ambarchi, O’Malley, Csihar and Sanders combine their talents and traditions to create a work that edges beyond metal and into the avant-garde is impressive (even imposing), and at times far more successful in this aim than anything Sunn O))) have achieved to date.

A Quietus Review: The End by Black Boned Angel (February 27th, 2013)

Ahh, Sunn O))). Somehow you’ve managed to pull off the improbable, and make dirge-like drone/doom metal trendy. How did you do it? And where does it leave metal? How long before a doom band is on Jools Holland’s show, or worse, Graham Norton’s?

It may seem a far-fetched notion, and yet an avalanche of droney metal bands have followed in Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley’s wake, whilst the pair can fill London’s Koko with ease. It even seems to have caused something of a schism in the metal community, with more than one black metal fan describing Seattle’s hooded heroes as “pretentious hipster bullshit” to me. But, should the day come that drone/doom metal gets an airing on Radio 1, I’m pretty sure it won’t be Black Boned Angel, and not just because The End represents the final chapter in this particular Campbell Kneale (of Birchville Cat Motel fame) adventure. Black Boned Angel is, to put it mildly, a gnarly beast, and The End is a fittingly fucked-up swansong. Methinks the mass media will be all too happy to let this one slip under the radar. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

‘Part One’ is essentially everything you want to hear from a doom band condensed and then sublimated over 20 minutes. The initial riffage is very much in a Sunn O))) or early Earth vein, hard, sludgy and drenched in distortion, with a similar single-minded dedication to drawing out the guitar’s low end rumble. It’s a weird combination, in a way, of the expansive and the claustrophobic, evoking a vast and beautiful landscape that, for some reason, is populated only by serial killers and ravenous beasts. This primordial soup of feedback and drone is occasionally punctuated by metronomic percussion (which serves only to underline the monolithic nature of the massed ranks of guitar sludge) and a series of vocal interjections, each more barbaric than the last. Kneale sounds like he’s channeling every lost soul from beyond the veil, starting with a raspy guttural snarl that rises and multiplies until it’s become a veritable chorus of deranged Varg Vikerneses circa Hvis lyset tar oss. The pace and atmosphere on ‘Part One’ are gruelling, and Kneale and his compadre James Kirk make zero concessions for ease of listening, instead acting as if they’re servants of Loki throwing back the gates of Hell, laughing hysterically as the assembled ghosts and demons sally forth. A slightly overblown comparison perhaps, but then metal music this determinedly base has a tendency to bring out my inner Julian Cope.

The End is not all sludge riffs and ogre-esque vocals, mind. As the album unfolds, Kneale and Kirk display a keen ear for dynamics, as well as a certain gracefulness that sees them use their subterranean drones as a platform from which to soar, for want of a better word. As ‘Part One’ gathers pace, previously inaudible textures reveal themselves like sunbeams piercing blackened clouds, lifting Black Boned Angel out of pure marshland dirge and into something closer to the likes of Nadja, The Angelic Process or even Jesu. Frenetic polyrhythms break the onslaught of fuzz, an octopus-like smattering of toms that’s redolent of Klaus Schulze on Ash Ra Tempel’s seminal self-titled debut. Only here, there are no trippy acid arpeggios from Manuel Göttsching for the drummer (or drum machine) to play off, but rather a constant one-note riff played by a perverted cousin of Tony Iommi with one foot firmly planted on the feedback pedal.

In contrast, the even longer ‘Part Two’ opens on a wave of angelic synth drone, as if the apocalypse of the previous track were nothing but a heady nightmare. Campbell Kneale is in no mood for relaxation, though, and the cavernous riffs return with a vengeance and an even more single-minded commitment to lingering over each note ad infinitum. By the time the drums and voices have kicked in, Nadja-style, the track has been dragging its beleaguered carcass along for ten minutes and any attempts at standard musical construction is rendered impossible. As a listener, you just have to release yourself and allow the whirlpool of axe worship/mutilation to suck you into its gaping maw and submerge you with distortion, before it dumps you, gasping and laughing hysterically, into a beatific pool of spacey ambience and muted bass rumbles.

After such a double-barrelled assault, the 13-minute closing segment is always going to feel like an afterthought, although I very much doubt it was, such is the excellent poise and compositional sense that Kneale and Kirk display across The End. It’s a fantastic close to a ten-year career, and, for anyone who might lament Black Boned Angel’s demise, just stick this on repeat and let the riffs bite your head off. And then check out Kneale’s “new” project, Our Love Will Destroy The World. As with The End, the agony will be ecstatic.

A Liminal Interview – “It’s a conversation”: An interview with Steve Noble (October 4th, 2012)

Steve Noble is a key figure on the UK improv scene, having played with everyone from Derek Bailey to Wadada Leo Smith, via Peter Brötzmann and Keiji Haino. A masterful force on drums, Noble has developed a unique style that is both muscular and elegant, pushing the boundaries of jazz and rock drumming while simultaneously bringing them together, notably as a former member of post-punk outfit Rip, Rig and Panic, noise/drone band Aethenor, and through notable collaborations with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley. Earlier this year, the pair released the much-lauded St Francis Duo LP, and Noble is set to appear at Tusk festival in Newcastle in October. Ahead of that date, The Liminal caught up with Steve to discuss his evolution as a drummer, the musicians he likes to play with most, and what he makes of the UK improv scene, both past and present.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself? Have you always been a drummer?

Well, yeah. I started when I was about ten. I always wanted to be a drummer, although what does that mean when you’re eleven or twelve? I moved to London when I was 17, worked for a bit to earn money for some equipment, quit the job and knuckled down. I was a bit of a snob. When I got my first drum set, when I was 12, I was given a book about the Paiste Cymbal Company, which included the Roxy Musics and the Zeppelins and all that, but also all the European improvisers, because Paiste existed in an era before everything had to make money. So, the drum magazine I also bought on the same day featured a bunch of people with drum sets that you couldn’t sell. There wouldn’t be three pages of an article about a drummer followed by four pages of adverts, so that relationship was very different. So, this book included the Benninks, the Oxleys, all these people who had very bespoke drum sets. Melody Maker also had a section on jazz, so you’d get this drip feed of other musics. Now, with the web, you know where to find this stuff. People say it’s easy, but it’s not, you still have to find it. I was very much into rock music, like The Who, who I saw once, and even met Keith Moon!

I was intrigued by jazz and improv, even if I didn’t always understand improv. You’d have these huge drum sets. It was people looking for a different route, so I lost interest in rock, although I feel I was a bit of a snob, looking back. I mean, now I look back, and have to say John Bonham was fantastic, I think. With very early Zeppelin, it seemed that Plant didn’t really know what he was doing, so it was just the trio. Now, I’m looking at how I can apply the spirit of improv across the board. 

You are considered to be a key figure on the UK improv scene. How did you become involved in that?

Like I say, I was interested in it. It always seemed logical to me, to improvise, and I know that some people think that’s odd. With a lot of musicians, if you take away the music, or the idea of form, then they’re fucked. In about 1985, I put on a festival with two other guys my age, at the old London Musician’s Club in Camden, featuring young musicians from around Britain, and in the improv scene, 40 is young, so we’re talking very young here! On the last evening, Derek Bailey was in the audience and I went up and introduced myself and asked if he’d like to play with me. A couple of months later, the phone rings and he asked if I wanted to go and play with him in Greece. I’ve been joking a lot recently with other musicians that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s difficult sometimes, but I was a bit cocky, an upstart, but if you don’t try… But that was the start of a very lovely musical partnership and friendship.

I actually bought the CD you recorded with him, Out of the Past, when I saw you perform with Wadada Leo Smith at Cafe Oto. It’s amazing, and it’s very interesting to hear him play with so much feedback…

It’s good, isn’t it? It was such a joy to play with him, I must say. But that was Derek… I enjoy sound, I play the drums. Doesn’t matter really if it’s a bit jazzy, or raucous, or whatever, it’s about sound, and I don’t have a problem working with Stephen O’Malley or Gary Smith and Michael Morley, because for me I’ll be working with sound. With Derek, I’ve always loved his sound and his playing. I’ve never had a problem with his playing, and I think a lot of people do. The interesting thing with Derek is that he was one of the top sessions players at one time. Not the elite like Jimmy Page, but in the top, and he (Bailey) saw that it was coming to an end and realised he wasn’t doing what he wanted to do, and to develop that style is magnificent. People like that, like Phil Minton, I mean, where’s he coming from? Beckett? It’s incredible.

A lot is now being written about the UK improv scene, but what was it like being in the middle of it?

Interestingly, there wasn’t the other side of it, which is, to generalise, the noise and electronic side. It was very much a divide where if you didn’t come out off jazz, you couldn’t play and a lot of people were just dismissed, which is all absolute rubbish. I still argue with musicians about that, ones who say “They can’t play”. Well, so what? They’ve got a great group. It’s about the result.

It was a very small scene. There was a little period in the early eighties when there was funding for a guy called Anthony Woodward to do a festival at the ICA, with almost 14 concerts. It helped bring new-ish people, like Diamanda Galas, in, but also the hardcore element of improv music and people like Roscoe Mitchell. But that just fell apart. But now, things have developed, perhaps through lottery funding, and we’ve had an explosion of festivals like Tusk. It’s always been a struggle in Britain. If you look historically, you can perhaps build up [the British scene’s] importance, and perhaps it is important, but the opportunities were very rare. It’s not all about funding, but if you’ve got to fly someone in, how do you do that [without funding]? Cafe Oto’s been good, but it is difficult. But things develop, and you’ve got to move on. I’m fortunate.

Do you think other countries are more open to improv, or have been in the past?

It’s a bit of a generalisation, but you could say that a lot of the European countries have always had a greater respect for the wider arts, so there’s a lot more money. It’s just accepted. But they don’t necessarily have the same popular music culture that we do, so maybe that stops the funding here. I don’t know. Are we heathens? We seem to generate interesting musicians in any area, not just avant-garde or improv music, but even classical players have to go abroad. Again, the word ‘funding’ is always there. I was playing in France, and I was joking with John Edwards, the bass player, because we looked out and the crowd was made up of a wide range of ages, and 50/50 women to men, and we just thought “This is how it should be”. But that’s just the way it is. If I have to play in front of an all-male audience, so be it… But I know musicians from Austria, Switzerland, Germany who get sent all over by their governments. I’ve had a promoter from Canada come up to me and say “You must be pissed off with me for never giving you a gig, because your government won’t pay for your flight”. You can get upset with it, but I’ve chosen to live here.

You realise that, throughout the mainstream media, there isn’t anything in this country. I’m sure that if you could put a little bit on television, not just jazz or improv, but all areas, and keep it going, the difference in audiences would be phenomenal. Why can’t the BBC realise that they should represent all different musics? I know they have to compete with Sky and ITV, but even on the radio, it’s slipping… That’s why Cafe Oto is such an important place. But even they kept getting asked about Arts Council funding when they were interviewed by The Guardian! It was like reading The Daily Mail!

I read that you studied under Nigerian drummer Elkan Ogunde. What was that like? Were you drawn to the tradition of African percussion, which is of course very different to European or American drumming?

Well, I used to buy Folkways records, which released a lot of African music. There was an advert in Compendium, which was a very good left-leaning bookshop in Camden in the 80s, and this guy was advertising for people to come and drum with him. He was a fantastic drummer, and would perform in kindergartens and primary schools, and asked me to come along. So we’d do these workshops, and then do gigs. His thing was about which drum plays to which part of the body, which was fascinating, and it was a nice feeling to be playing with him at age 18 or 19. But I know who I am and where I’m from so, while it was amazing to do and I learned a lot, I never wanted to try and sound like an African drummer. I can’t do Nigerian drumming, but I can learn from it. There’s a beat in there, fundamentals, that run through music around the world, in Nigerian drumming or Bo Diddley or Cuban music.

Was it difficult to incorporate what you learned with Elkan Ogunde into your own playing?

Not really. When I met the Rip, Rig and Panic people [the post-punk band that Steve worked with that included Neneh Cherry and Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith from The Pop Group, among others], we both went and played with them. I wasn’t trying to emulate what he was doing, it was more a question of “How does he get that drive?” It’s the same thing with Bonham. With his drumming, it’s about triplets, and that the hardest thing to play, because you’re demanding a lot from your body. A lot of rock drummers don’t get that. It’s more about feeling than technique. I’ve loved playing with Peter Brötzmann and John Edwards, and his (Brötzmann’s) strength is amazing, and there’s a lot of form going on, but he steps in and out, so that, while it’s about listening, there’s a lot of freedom, so John or I can step in rather than just follow Peter. It’s a conversation.

You’ve worked with a number of different artists, as we’ve discussed. Do you have a favourite person to play with? I know you’ve done a lot of work with John Edwards…

I think it depends what you’re looking for. It’s not pre-judging, but with John and Alex Ward, the guitarist and clarinet player, and the groups we’ve formed, like NEW with Alex and John, I’ve been looking to play with people who can cover all the areas, whether it’s rhythmic, melodic or abstraction. But if you’re suddenly phoned up to join a group for a one-off, then you do that. I like working with John a lot, maybe because we’ve known each other a long time. I know I can play rhythmically and abstractly, because I’m not looking for him to join my rhythm. I can work rhythmically just by hearing his textures and colours. So there are definitely people I’m more comfortable with, and people I know will give as near to 100% as possible each time. Alex and John are a core group, but there are so many players, and if there’s an opportunity to play with certain players, I’d love to take it. There are some people with whom you don’t have to discuss what you’re going to do, and it’s not just a generational thing. I hope there’ll be other people coming along, although sometimes there doesn’t seem to be!

Maybe it’s because there’s an overload of easy-to-access “indie” rock out there, and new players just aren’t drawn to improv anymore because rock is easier or more easily available…

But if you take Alex Ward, he’s a guy who loves his rock music and always introduces me to new bands. That’s how I discovered Lightning Bolt and thought they were fantastic. I love their bass sound, and the drummer’s great. And I love the voice. But I was asking Alex about British bands and he told me the most interesting ones are coming out of Europe or America, because they’re not trying to “be an indie band” or “cool”.

When I saw you perform with Keiji Haino at Cafe Oto, you used a lot of small cymbals and singing bowls, which evoked the Gamelan traditions of Asia, and the wider field of Asian percussion. Do you have an interest in the wider range of global percussive styles?

Very much so. I’ve always had an interest in what I guess most people don’t term ‘World music’ because that suggests the pop music of a country, but as I said, I used to buy Folkways records and so on. When I arrived in London, there were a lot of late-night cinemas, so you’d go and see a late-night movie after a gig. Fellini’s Satyricon was one of the films I saw, and it’s just full of this “ethnic” music. In the end scene, with the Minotaur, there’s a Balinese monkey chant, and I didn’t know what it was until I saw The Pop Group live one night. They always had great music over the PA before their sets, stuff like Pierre Henry, and on this occasion they were playing that monkey chant. So, you slowly understand, by buying music and making mistakes, that there’s this incredible range of music out there. There’s great music everywhere and I’ve always enjoyed listening to music from everywhere, and it’s even easier with YouTube nowadays.

We mentioned the Keiji Haino gig, which was very heavy, and earlier this year, The Liminal reviewed the St Francis Duo album you recorded with Stephen O’Malley, whom you also perform with in Aethenor. Do those guys, and others, perhaps bring out your inner metal-head?

Not really. I’m not going to go back and piledrive the beat for ten minutes. When I got the call from Daniel [O’Sullivan, keyboardist in Aethenor] to come and play, what I liked about Stephen is that he was Stephen. A lot of people think “Oh, this is improv, I’d better play like Derek Bailey”, but Stephen’s thing, for me, is sound. We’d have a couple of soundchecks where it was just him and me, and we’d just do what we do, and it works. After the first night of that duo at Cafe Oto [for St Francis Duo], I told Stephen that I liked him because he’s a slow guitarist. He was a bit taken aback by that, but I it’s not a criticism. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like circles, and whilst mine is very fast and small, his is much larger, so I can work with it because you don’t have to hit the same point all the time. There are a lot of people who are technically very good, but you’re not quite drawn in by their sound. Again, I’m not hung up by people’s technical ability – that’s bullshit. With Stephen, I like that sound, those huge chords that dissipate slowly while you’re capturing them.

It comes back to that American thing. There were some great British groups in the post-punk days, that I grew up around, bands like This Heat and The Pop Group, and you just think “What went wrong?”. It became the New Romantics! It’s astonishing… Maybe the politics changed. And that’s gone.

You mention the politics, and of course in the eighties Thatcher came along and it became the “Me generation”, but a lot of improv artists tend to come from the Left. Do you think there’s a political strain running through the improv scene and what you do?

Maybe. But I played with Iancu Dumitrescu, the Romanian composer, for a gig was organised by the Association of Musical Marxists, at Conway Hall, and hardly anyone was there. The organisers told me they’d done lots of publicity, with flyers handed out at political events, and you think “Well no wonder you haven’t got an audience!” I think the people in politics don’t necessarily like avant-garde music. And I don’t think you have to. Generally, there is a political element, because if you’ve got four musicians onstage improvising together, they’re all equals. Everyone’s the composer and the lead player. It’s not a hierarchy. But I prefer not to look at it as a political statement. I’ve always wanted to shy away from that. It’s too easy to make pat statements and, as you grow up, you realise there are good people everywhere. I’ve never wanted to align myself with that, but you’re right that, particularly in the seventies, there was a lot of it. But that’s the good thing about Oto: it’s not aligned to anything. It’s just about contemporary music.

What should people expect from you at Tusk? Will you be doing a solo show?

Good question! No, I’m going to be playing with Michael Morley [of Gate and The Dead C], who’ll be playing as Gate, and Gary Smith, the English guitar player. I did a couple of private sessions with him a few years ago… I don’t know Michael, but I’ve seen a couple of videos on YouTube. Will I do more? I don’t know. It’s great that the tradition of putting people together is there. I think they’ve done that before, when [Chris] Corsano did a set with two guitarists. It’s a nice venue: small, intimate, good sound… I think it’ll be loud, and I hope it’ll be a blast.

Finally, have you got any records coming out, or other future plans?

Yeah, I’ve just finished mixing a NEW album, that’s Noble-Edwards-Ward, for a guy who was making a film about British improvised music. He came over to London and recorded us at Oto in January, and hopefully some of it will be in the film, but then he also said he wanted to release it as an LP. There’s another Oto recording coming out by Decoy, my other trio, with John Edwards and Alexander Hawkins on Hammond organ, hopefully by December. I’ve got a few others in the can, including a duo with Alex Ward. You know how it works: these days you print 500 or 1000 and get them out!

Photo courtesy of Dave Knapik

A Liminal Live Review – A thousand dark voices: Phurpa, Colin Potter and Slomo at Cafe Oto, June 9th, 2012 (June 14th, 2012)

The second showcase of Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ label at London’s Cafe Oto was markedly different to the first, held back in February. Then, audiences were treated to the delicacy, poise and elegance of Elodie, Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang, but anyone who had listened to Phurpa’s Trowo Phurnag Ceremony album before crossing the threshold this time would have known to expect something a lot darker and louder this time around.

Slomo is a duo made up of Chris “Holy” McGrail and Howard Marsden. McGrail has long been known for his association with Julian Cope, and there was some of the spirit of the ‘Archdrude’ in his use of double-necked guitar, as he patiently coaxed deep, heavy drones from his 18 strings. Meanwhile, Marsden used a large Korg synth to plough a trench of throbbing sub-frequencies around McGrail, the duo combining to edge close to the kind of floor-shaking intensity that O’Malley himself has indulged in over the years in Sun O))) and Gravetemple. There was even a hint, towards the end, that Slomo were, for all the near-industrial murkiness of Marsden’s synth, edging into the kind of spacey post-metal territories of latter-period Earth, as McGrail used an e-bow to coax a single, continuous, high-pitched note out of his guitar, allowing it to drift while he played a discrete harmonium. There is a tendency for this sort of music to drift aimlessly, and maybe some other instruments would have added a bit of variety, but I think to dwell on this would miss the point; Slomo’s music demands that you sit back and let it roll over you.

Like Holy McGrail, Colin Potter is known for his association with one of the UK’s most esoteric underground figures, in his case Steve Stapleton and Nurse With Wound, although, as this performance demonstrated, he is an innovative musician in his own right. Stood behind an impressive array of devices and pedals, he introduced his set in jovial fashion, injecting a dose of eccentric humour and good-naturedness to what could have otherwise been a rather dour, serious evening. Despite some initial technical glitches with a CD player, he quickly got into his stride, conjuring up a dense veil of sound using untethered synth drones, sustained electric guitar and loops. The piece – jocularly named ‘What Could Go Wrong?’- bore strong echoes of early Cluster, who likewise distorted and mangled electric instruments to create heady musical concoctions as hypnotic as they were experimental. With his amiable manner, Potter also, somehow, evoked a folk-singer of the sort hailed in Rob Young’s Electric Eden (this might have something to do with his ever-so-vague resemblance to Ewan MacColl), and his brief but lovely set was a warm and melodic counterpoint to the doomier ones that bookended it. (As an aside, I have since seen Nurse With Wound, opening for Sunn O))) at Koko, and while it is clear the heart of the band is Stapleton, there was no denying that the architect of their multi-faceted industrial music was Potter, as he mixed and arranged what his partners produced while also dropping in key elements of his own).

And then came Phurpa. I should probably kick off immediately by saying that this was the longest set I’ve experienced at Oto, and probably their longest ever for an evening with three acts. After about an hour of the Russian trio’s cavernous, intimidating chanting, I had to make a break for the bathroom, anxious that I’d miss the climax of their performance, but was informed they still had at least another hour in them!

Predictably, some of the audience didn’t really appreciate this bloody-minded approach, and gradually each renewed gurgle and rumble from the trio was met with incredulous whispers and folks heading for the door. Their loss, because as the noisier punters took their leave, something akin to a hush descended on those remaining, providing the perfect curtain of rapt fascination to tune in properly to what fast became a strange, unsettling ritual. You don’t have to be a follower of the pre-Buddhist Bon religion to be able to release yourself into the strange realms of Phurpa. Under a fug of pungent incense, the trio huddled, sitting cross-legged in their black ceremonial robes around their aged percussion and horn instruments, and patiently, doggedly, intoned their harsh, nocturnal mantras, their voices never relenting, never receding, even when they sprinkled their hoarse drones with minimal percussion. The only respite, if you want to call it that, was when leader Alexei Tegin blasted out echoing notes on his colossal horn. It was almost peaceful, although a very different sense of peace to that conjured up by Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang four months previously.

Though the band hardly move and barely deviate from their established sonic formula, the close-up Phurpa experience still resonates more potently than on record. Lying on my back in front of them with my eyes closed, shutting out the occasional chatter of less respectful audience members and honing into their enmeshed alien, my sense of place and time became untethered. And given the intrinsically dark and primordial nature of Phurpa’s music, I found my mind wandering to weird and sinister places on the currents of their tenacious drone, as I pictured myself stumbling into an icy cave under the Himalayas and finding a trio of ancient zombie monks locked in an eternal cycle of chanting. The music is disquietingly beautiful, but at the same time, you fear that if they notice your presence, they might just remember that they require living human flesh to survive. A daft daydream perhaps, but one that seemed apt as I lay sprawled,  quailing beneath the impregnable wall of voices conjured by this most mysterious outfit.

A Quietus Review: V by KTL (May 8th, 2012)

Mark Fell’s surprisingly bright and colourful artwork hides a dark and wondrous monster of an album, the long-awaited latest chapter in KTL’s enthralling saga of sonic unease. Yet if the cover doesn’t quite herald the kind of synth explorations that have started to crop up on a lot of noise musicians’ work of late, V does see Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg develop the sonics of their palette in new ways.

The music of KTL is anchored in the lowest frequencies of both electronics and guitar, and the first half of V perpetuates this obsession, ‘Phill 1’ evolving patiently and murkily via intense drones that envelop and submerge the listener – smothering, claustrophobic yet at the same time beautifully textured, with O’Malley’s restrained guitar tone rumbling away underneath a duvet of dense modular synth lines… or rather one line, extended and amplified until it fills every nook and cranny of space and even, if you listen to it in the right frame of mind, time. This power, this all-encompassing envelopment that the duo creates, has long been their signature, and its stamped on the entirety of V, with the same brutality as before, but with an extra injection of subtle elegance.

The description on Editions Mego’s website mentions that V “tackles the complex working processes of the European avant-garde”, and you can certainly detect an influence of a piece like Alexander Knaifel’s gentle, subtle Blazhenstva, or even the music of Arvo Part, on ‘Phill 1’ and its partner track, ‘Phill 2’, on which string arrangements by Johan Johannson performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra meld with the nebulous sounds conjured up by KTL, circling their dank drones with flights of moody yet symphonic grace.

On ‘Phill 2’, and the bass-heavy, anxiously percussive ‘Tony’, at times all sounds seem to recede, leaving gaps that feel like air filtered into a airtight room. Indeed, lulls, restraint and near-silence crop up across V, feeling like a ballast against the grim murk conjured up by O’Malley and Rehberg, opening up the vista of their music and again throwing back to the hesitant modern composition of Knaifel or even Cornelius Cardew.

On ‘Study A’ and ‘Tony’, however, their gaze seems to also cross the Atlantic, with the electronic and metallic drones stretched out and reinforced with a focus and tonal emphasis that evokes American avant-garde minimalist masters such as Pauline Oliveros, LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad. ‘Study A’, in particular, sees Rehberg’s synth drones come remarkably close to sounding like a sustained violin tone, and V has a similar ability to swallow the listener up like a musical whale as works like ‘Four Violins’ or ‘Inside The Dream Syndicate’, although KTL’s marine mammal has pretty razor-sharp teeth.

This diversity, even one so well-anchored in familiar formal territory (nothing ever lets you forget that this is a KTL album), gives fresh impetus to O’Malley and Rehberg’s music. Albums I and II, their most complete works to date, were powerful and absorbing, but with an emphasis on the kind of post-metal dark ambience that anchored them resolutely in a sub-genre of drone where atmosphere of the most deliberately terrifying kind primed over texture and experimentation. “Horror music”, I like to call it, and while it is a sub-sub-genre that has thrown up many sordid delights of late (Failing Lights, Xela, William Fowler Collins and Black Mountain Transmitter, to name but four), I always felt that, with Rehberg and O’Malley’s pedigree, KTL could – and would – eventually go further. They’ve done that emphatically with this latest opus.

The second half, in particular, is astounding, as Johansson’s aforementioned string arrangements on ‘Phill 2’ build a majestic frame around the crackling, ghostly atmospheres of his collaborators, edging the piece ever upwards even as the subsonics at the track’s core drag it into a well of near-total obscurity. The album then closes on a note of sheer, unmitigated horror, as if to both drag KTL back to their roots and use their experimentation to pass definitively through the mirror and over to a land of shadows and nightmares. ‘Last Spring: A Prequel’ is based on a piece written by long-time collaborator Dennis Cooper, the notorious author of provocative, murderous gay fiction; and the text is spoken, in French, by Jonathan Capdevielle, a collaborator of artist Gisele Vienne, whose installation lent the track its title and serves as its atmospheric template.

Capdevielle’s vocals on ‘Last Spring: A Prequel’ are nearly impossible to describe. Seemingly taking on two characters, or a schizophrenic arguing with his own internal demon, he switches with disturbing ease between a plaintive plea and a monstrous snarl that could have been taken directly from one of “possession” recordings in the Okkulte Stimmen collection. His rasps, moans, cries, whispers and poisoned invectives creep towards the listener, feeling like a presence in the room, whilst KTL unfurl a haunted atmosphere of blighted, quiet phantasmagoria, as if tuning a radio to pick up the unintelligible voices of evil ghosts hovering just behind a veil of ectoplasm. The piece had me fidgeting with both disquiet and marvel, and it took a while for me to clear my head of it.

V cements KTL as more than just a side-project of two of modern underground music’s most celebrated figures, crystallising their vision and expanding it beyond everything that they – and other drone artists operating in the same field – have done before. It retains their sinister stamp, but takes the fear into new realms, like demons breaking out of the ground into muted sunlight.

You can also read this review, complete with Spotify playlist, here