A Dusted Review: The Ark Work by Liturgy (March 19th, 2015)

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Black metal fans can be a prickly bunch. I was once verbally taken to task by a BM-er(can I use that?) for professing an admiration for SUNN O))). This chap, who is otherwise the nicest person you could meet, was almost apoplectic with rage at the mere thought. I don’t quite remember all the details, but the words “fucking posers” were used frequently, which I found odd from someone who admires people who smear their faces with fake-looking “corpse-paint”. But this aesthetic purity is part of BM’s appeal to its purists, and whilst I am more drawn to the way the likes of SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room twist its rather formulaic bedrock in innovative ways, certainly much more than the legion of Mayhem-alikes that make up “real” black metal, well apparently that’s misguided or something. It’s all very intense, which shouldn’t be a surprise, really.

Still, I think I will be siding with the BM-ers when it comes to Liturgy, who surely must have been founded predominantly with the ambition to well and truly rile up people like my SUNN O)))-hating friend. The most common description I found for them from BM circles was “fucking Brooklyn hipsters playing at black metal”, and whilst that’s probably true on some of their earlier output, on The Ark Work feels misleading. The BM-ers are right: The Ark Work is certainly not black metal. The problem is that it’s really not much else, either. Indeed, even after repeated listens, it comes across not so much as an album but as a sort of formless mass, which could be a good thing, in the right hands, but here does little more than baffle and exasperate.

Essentially, what you have here is a band acting being too clever for its own good. From the opening trumpet blares of “Fanfare”, The Ark Work feels overloaded, saturated with a non-stop barrage of sounds, from glockenspiels and bagpipes to chimes and bombastic synthesizer patterns. At a push, it could share with black metal the sonic desire to grab listeners by the throat and provide a truly visceral and atavistic experience. There’s also a lot of blast beating going on, although the results sound more like Pelican than Bathory. But the problem at heart is not actually that Liturgy like to throw some experimentation into their black mass — I’ve already mentioned SUNN O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room, but could also point to experimental flourishes in acts like Ulver and Burzum — it’s that the way they do it is bombastic and knowing: there is none of metal’s (of any style) darkness and atavism, both replaced by a smug attempt to outwit and outmanoeuvre both audiences and the bands they claim to share a lineage with.

Then again, maybe the whole black metal thing with Liturgy is a red herring, or a practical joke, despite leader Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s essays that suggest the contrary and much-vaunted philosophy degree. The sheer grandiosity of these tracks, the way the band pile up sounds to a dizzying degree suggests more affinity with the most excessive prog- or post-rock bands (I’ve already mentioned Pelican, but you could even chuck Marillion or Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the there as well), but with any space ripped out altogether. And the vocals, whilst unintelligible in a way that Attila Csihar might appreciate, are so dull and inexpressive that any coherent emotional or intellectual content is rendered unintelligible. All in all, I’m sure there are those who will find something profound behind the morass that is The Ark Work, but just as many might find it nothing more than surreal joke. To be honest, neither situation seems true, it’s more a case that there is nothing much to glean from the album whatsoever. Now where did I put my Leviathan albums?

A Dusted Review: Slant of Light by Mary Lattimore & Jeff Zeigler (September 24th, 2014)

The most remarkable thing about this intimate, almost self-effacing record is that it was crafted via a series of improvisations. You wouldn’t think so, to listen to it. Mary Lattimore is a harpist who has played with Wreckmeister Harmonies and Kurt Vile, among others, and her preferred instrument is hardly the first to spring to mind when someone mentions the word “improvisation”. However, in Jeff Zeigler, who enmeshes elegant synthesizer drones with her fragile plucked notes, Lattimore has found a perfect foil and, although slight, Slant of Light contains a number of moments of real beauty.

It would be an easy shorthand to describe the four concoctions they came up with during a snowstorm in Philadelphia as ambient, but that wouldn’t be taking into account the intricate details present on each track. This is not just a case of someone playing a harp over some random electronics, but a sequence of elaborate conversations between the two artists, a coming together of thoughts and minds. It is, mind you, a slow-paced record, as one would expect, with opener “Welsh Corgis in the Snow” (I’m none the wiser) setting the tone: languid notes from Lattimore dance around a blanket of shimmering aquatic drone from Zeigler. The Arctic conditions of that Pennsylvania winter seem to have filtered through the walls and right onto the tape, such is the detached, stripped-down nature of the record, and yet repeated listens reveal hidden depths of warmth and emotion. “The White Balloon” (at three minutes the shortest track) is a swirling waltz of gliding arpeggios from Lattimore and sliding electronic textures by Zeigler, and the overall effect is of being snuggled under a blanket by a warm fire in some cabin out in the Appalachian forests. Lattimore and Zeigler clearly enjoy playing together and this pleasure seeps its way into their music’s otherwise simple structure.

“Echo Sounder” follows this vein of contemplative, emotional introspection, almost at the risk of becoming cloying or predictable despite the elegant playing from both artists, but closer “Tomorrow is a Million” rescues Slant of Light from the clutches of sentimentality by effectively flipping the entire concept of the album on its head. Instead of plucking her strings to produce pretty notes, Lattimore rubs and scratches them, reducing the usually rather saccharine harp to the sound of an atonal acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, Zeigler’s electronics become more threatening, shadowy interjections of noises daubed in echo, like phantasmagorical figures shoving their into focus on damaged 8mm film. The piece grows in intensity, the harp’s strings stretched to snapping point and, after so much prettiness on the preceding three tracks, the effect is frankly spooky. The morose, inchoate end segment only adds to the unease.

In the first paragraph, I described Slant of Light as “slight”, and unfortunately, at only four tracks and 30 minutes in length, it feels a tad under-developed. But there are some truly lush moments in the first half, and “Tomorrow is a Million” points to immense potential on the second. I just wish Mary Lattimore and Jeff Zeigler could have sense this when recording and taken some time to take “Tomorrow is a Million” further.

A Liminal Review: Blaze Colour Burn (June 4th, 2013)

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Thrill Jockey have had a busy year, releasing over twenty albums since January, most of them variations of the avant-rock and drone/ambient styles the label has become associated with. Blaze Colour Burn is an altogether more abstract creation than, say, Black Pus’ All My Relations or the latest Barn Owl album, and perhaps the oddest release on the label for quite some time, maybe even since Thrill Jockey first started; and indeed, it is the first in a series of releases set to appear on the label that will explore less conventional genres such as electro-acoustic compositions and field recordings. If future works are as good as Blaze Colour Burn, the TJ people could be about to embark on a triumphant new path.

Fans of Mouse on Mars will of course be used to witnessing St Werner in full deconstruction mode, but on Blaze Colour Burn, he takes the duo’s unusual approach to genre convention into fresh and surprising new territories. The album is centred around two pieces, ‘Cloud Diachroma’ and ‘Spiazziacorale’ (the latter divided into two separate tracks) that provide the backbone and best moments, crystallizing the German composer’s vision, albeit abstractly. ‘Cloud Diachroma’ opens the album in a storm of muted electronic wobbles and streaks of brittle, processed drone, possibly produced on guitar but, if so, distorted to the point that they resemble saturated bursts of barely-marshalled white noise. There is a grim dynamic at play here, especially when the piece recedes into brooding, diffuse ambience, but also a playfulness, as if St Werner is sharing a process of exploration with us in real time, allowing the track to evolve almost organically, unpredictably, never collapsing into bleak oppression as many a dark ambient act might do. ‘Cloud Diachroma’ belongs to the tradition of moody drone that includes early Cluster or Tangerine Dream and, like those doyens, he’s too smart to merely wallow in distortion and darkness. This ambiguous approach breathes space and air into his compositions. Closer ‘Sipian Organ’ is subtly upbeat, with see-sawing organ drones and crackling synth effects that never settle but rather bubble and sway woozily, while a persistent, heartbeat-like underlying pulsation gently goads the piece forwards. It’s an almost elegiac conclusion to the album, one that confounds the impact of what has been before.

The two segments of ‘Spiazzacorale’ differ markedly from the condensed, shifting drone and fluttery electronica of ‘Cloud Diachroma’ and ‘Sipian Organ’, instead touching into an electro-acoustic tradition in which “real” sounds are melded into music, sometimes jarringly, sometimes elegantly. Both parts were taken from a recorded performance that took place in a public piazza in Italy and which featured live musicians on a variety of instruments. On top of that, the audience from the performance plays an integral part of the sounds St Werner has subsequently edited into seven and eleven minute tracks. ‘Spiazzacorale B’ starts with an unsettled electronic buzzing that is punctuated by the random coughs of either a musician or an audience member. After a brief passage of silence, a flute orchestra and vibraphonist are gradually introduced, their massed hums and resonating tones sounding more like a ringing glass played by Charlemagne Palestine, albeit reverbed to the max. They are joined by a mournful sax solo and the chattering voices of punters inside the piazza’s cafes. St Werner effectively breaks down the barriers between performance and studio wizardry, between the listener and the outside world. This is even more tangible on ‘Spazziacorale A’, where the field recordings of voices, instrumental passages and street sounds become ghostly semi-presences, constructing an environment that is immediate, even familiar, and yet somehow forever out of reach. Jan St Werner conducts these samples and welds them to electronic drone elements with the (sleight of) hand of a master, reviving the acousmatic music of Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani for the digital age. That this duo of steadfastly avant-garde adventurism sit so comfortably alongside the more immediately recognisable sounds on the rest of Blaze Colour Burn signals a remarkably coherent, yet exploratory, vision.

Liminal Reviews: Liminal Minimals, May 2013 (May 31st, 2013)

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John Butcher, Tony Buck, Magda Mayas, Burkhard Stangl – Plume (Unsounds)

This lengthy album brings together two trios based around the backbone of saxophonist John Butcher and The Necks’ Tony Buck on drums. The first, ‘Flamme’ sees the pair joined by Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl, who plays peppery acoustic notes in a style that evokes Derek Bailey, minus the Englishman’s acerbic humour and penchant for pure dissonance. Indeed, the thirty-minute epic is remarkably restrained, with Stangl and Butcher exploring the outer limits of their instruments’ potential for quietness and diffuse textures, the former plucking abstractly at his strings, the latter releasing bubbly or hissing tones that sound as much like air or samples as they do sax notes. On both tracks, Tony Buck takes as much pleasure in gently coaxing unexpected sounds from his kit using bows and brushes as he does in building up any precise rhythmic direction. The second track, ‘Vellum’, another mighty, sprawling work, is the best of the two, as Buck and Butcher, joined here by pianist Magda Mayas, build up several heads of steam over nearly forty minutes, with Mayas countering Buck’s clatters and shakes and Butcher’s squalls with some righteous manipulation of her piano’s strings. These raucous passages are juxtaposed with several more intricate ones showcasing the trio’s ability to stretch out on each instrument in ways that are always both surprising and expertly balanced.

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Implodes – Recurring Dream (Kranky)

More moroseness, as Implodes follow on from their bleak debut Black Earth with another slab of woozy, despondent post-shoegaze noise rock. As with Vår [see below], the band’s influences are quite clear, nestling themselves as they do in the shadowy corner where gothic miserabilism nestles down discontentedly with fuzzed-out guitars and hushed vocals, a territory previously explored with much success by Cranes. Implodes don’t quite match their forbears for seething, haunted intensity, but there are many moments of true beauty on Recurring Dream, from the bleak, blasted pop-rock ‘Scattered in the Wind’ (surely a potential hit among fans of this type of music) to the seething metal storm of ‘Ex Mass’, which sounds like a Jesu outtake, via the deceptively graceful funereal march of ‘Sleepyheads’ and the towering mast of distortion and Peter Hook-inspired bass thumps that is ‘Necronomics’. On each track, the vocals are folded deep into the mix, imbuing everything with a ghostly, evasive atmosphere, like dry ice rolling over an audience at a rock concert. If you can imagine Sofia Coppola one day making a film that is not quite so obviously self-satisfied as most of her previous ones, she could very well choose Implodes to provide the soundtrack. It couldn’t be worse than sodding Phoenix…

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People of the North – Sub Contra (Thrill Jockey)

This side project by Kid Millions and Bobby Matador of Oneida doesn’t actually feel like one at all, such is the duo’s focus and commitment across the bruising 39 minutes of Sub Contra. People of the North certainly shares a lot of the pair’s parent band’s whacked-out psychedelicism, but, stripped to the bare bones of drums, synths, keys and vocals (with a few additional flourishes here and there from their Oneida pals), their music is more abrasive and minimalist. ‘Drama Class’ kicks the album off at a fractured, unpredictable pace, with Matador’s ramped-up organ weaving a curtain of malevolent drone that sits impassively in direct contrast with Millions’ constantly-shifting, freeform drum rolls and fills. Occasionally, Matador lurches forward to churn out some unintelligible lyrics, but for the most part, ‘Drama Class’ is as monomaniacal and immovable as a brick wall, the kind of intense drone metal perfected in less gleefully contrarian fashion by Windy and Carl. ‘Coal Baron’ is markedly more relaxed, the duo relying on drifting synth patterns, à la Klaus Schulze and low-end hum, with Kid Millions’s drums remarkable by their absence, while the two-part ‘Sub Contra’ suite sounds like Throbbing Gristle jamming with Han Bennink, all jazzy drums and bubbling, industrial drone. To wrap things up, Millions and Matador save the most expansive piece, ‘Osage Orange’, for last, taking the listener on a gruelling journey through repetitive looped electronics and warbling bass frequencies that morph into shimmery synths and a positively martial rhythmic thud before receding into near-silence as the fourteen minutes draw to a blissful close. People of the North don’t really break new ground in psychedelic music on Sub Contra, but they display a refreshingly gnarly take on the genre.

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Vår – No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers (Sacred Bones)

I have to hold my hand up here: I’m a bit of a sucker for moody, monochrome post-punk, and have been ever since I first discovered Joy Division as a perpetually morose 18-year-old. So, even if No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers comes on the back of much publicity surrounding singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s main band, Iceage, and steeped in a wealth immediately-recognisable influences, I can’t help but find myself enjoying nearly every track as if I was actually one of the pale young waifs that make up its target audience. The entire album is coated in an atmosphere of foggy disillusion, as Rønnenfelt and co-singer Loke Rahbek sketch out their mournful vignettes on wispy synths and the occasional pounding march of drum machine beats. Their two voices are nicely contrasted: Rønnenfelt, on the one hand, yelps like a frightened cousin of The Cure’s Robert Smith, whilst Rahbek possess the grimy snarl of a young Adrian Borland out of The Sound. Both bands are among Vår’s obvious influences, but the Danes carefully balance their clear debt to predecessors with a keen ear for melody and songcraft. The NME have got predictably over-excited and proclaimed No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers as the Faith for the 2010s generation but, while that’s more than a little hyperbolic, there are several great moments on the album, especially when the quartet rack up the beats and go (admittedly with downcast eyes and pouty lips) for the jugular, as on the delicious pair of post-punk pounders ‘The World Fell’ and ‘Pictures of Today / Victorial’.

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Jozef Van Wissem – Nihil Obstat (Important Records)

There is something so simple about Dutch lutist Jozef Van Wissem’s music, and yet it is surely this simplicity that makes it so instantly affecting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the instrument he uses, the tracks on Nihil Obstat seem to be beamed in from a time long since passed, but that doesn’t mean they sound dated, quite the opposite. Van Wissem connects with a sort of collective sensitivity in a way that is not dissimilar to the liminal sensations initiated by the music of American primitive artists like John Fahey and Sandy Bull, especially as the latter was an adept of the oud, which carries a similar sound to the lute. Van Wissem’s notes on each of these six tracks are as clear as a mountain stream, and just as resonant, whether he’s unfurling deeply melancholic sentiments, such as on the harrowing ‘Apology’, or playing something bouncy and playful like the ten-minute madrigal ‘Where you lived and what you lived for’, with its hints of ‘Greensleeves’. There is an emotional potency on display on Nihil Obstat, like with fellow “somewhat minimalist” composer Richard Skelton’s electric guitar sketches or the hazy piano compositions on Lubomyr Melnyck’s recent Corollaries album, more proof of just how much one can achieve with minimal means.

A Dusted Review: V by Barn Owl (April 9th, 2013)

 

It seems logical to this writer that the first question a listener must ask him or herself upon the first listen of an album by a familiar artist should be “Does this record surprise me?”. Against expectations, the latest album by San Francisco drone duo Barn Owl does just that. Recent releases, such as 2010’s Ancestral Star, were dominated by thick, pungent guitar drones in a style reminiscent of Earth in their post-Hex; Or Printing in the Infernal Method incarnation. But V is remarkably different, owing more to the traditions of dark ambient music and the current dub underground.

And it’s amazing what a change of tack can do to make an act sound fresh and intriguing. “Void Redux” seeps out of the speakers like a wraith clambering out of a barrow, probably because Evan Caminiti has been busy exploring the murkier depths of drone over the last 12 months via solo albums Night Dust and Endless Sleep, both of which have echoes in this song’s moody, crystalline gauze. Plucked bass notes pick out a repetitive refrain over which Caminiti and Jon Porras sprinkle minor-key synth lines like so much poisonous pixie dust. The remit is clear: Barn Owl have turned their gaze away from the dusty vistas of their recent Earth-inspired output and are instead considering, with dead eyes and more than a little dread, the cavernous depths of the human psyche. As “Void Redux” dissolves in a chorus of disembodied voices that sounds like undead monks, the first things that springs to mind is Popol Vuh’s timeless score for Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Suffice to say that V is an intense and brooding record.

Such a premise, as fragmented as it is (this is not music that is driven by anything as obvious as a concept), could easily become predictable, but Porras and Caminiti refuse to be sucked in by convention. “The Long Shadow” is initially centered around graceful, albeit down-tuned, guitar arpeggios that build into a haze of six-string drone that’s as indebted to shoegaze as it is to the bleak ambient tradition set out in “Void Redux” or Earth’s countryfied doom. In contrast, “Against the Night” is dominated by sweeping synths that wouldn’t feel out of place on an early ‘70s Klaus Schulze album or played out underneath pulsating bass lines and dub rhythms on a Tri Angle Records release. Far from resting on their laurels, Barn Owl demonstrate a remarkable ear for the various forms and styles of modern music, and incorporate them expertly into their own aesthetic. Hell, track titles such as “Blood Echo” and “The Long Shadow” wouldn’t have seemed out of place on a black metal album!

It all coalesces on the 17-minute closing epic “The Opulent Decline,” which gradually evolves over its hefty duration, taking in most of the preceding five tracks’ material. Barn Owl mostly avoid the major trapping of this kind of drone/ambient music (which can quickly fade into the background, imprisoned by its own natural inertia). Instead, the duo allows the music time to develop almost organically, without rushing, whilst maintaining a sense of dynamism that guards against boredom. V may be more intimate and introverted than Ancestral Star or Lost in the Glare, but it is no less cinematic. It’s a remarkable return to the fore for Porras and Caminiti.