A Quietus Live Report – William Basinski & Fennesz at St John in Hackney Church (July 17th, 2013)

The beautiful, lofty interior of the lovely St. John in Hackney church in Clapton was a fitting location to drink in the subtle, gentle tones of both these heavyweights of ambient music. Their sets were considerably different (and I should imagine that Helm – whose opening performance I sadly missed – also served up something wildly at odds with what came afterwards), but both reverberated around the hall, textures seeming to drift off the walls and out of nooks and crannies organically, meaning even the quietest moments in Basinski’s rendition of ‘Nocturnes’, from his recent album of the same name, were loaded with a palpable physicality.

When I last saw Fennesz, at last year’s OFF Festival in Poland, his set was probably the most intense, brooding and overwhelmingly noisy one of the entire three days, possibly even outdoing headliners Swans. In Clapton, he opted for something more nuanced, building a complex piece around a foundation of throbbing bass drones, its wobbly sound suggesting Fennesz owns one of Throbbing Gristle’s Gristleizers. After an initial phase of drifting textures, he settled into a form of melancholic ambient drone dominated by shimmering synths and a ghostly sampled choir, redolent of his 2008 album Black Sea’s grim, windswept melancholia. If the driving industrial intensity of his set in Poland was, for the most part, absent, it was replaced with a slow-burning blend of quiet and loud, as texturally elegant as it was unpredictable, as Fennesz dropped in robust guitar riffs bolstered with blissful feedback. Despite a rather aimless closing segment, the set, settling in the interstices between noise, drone and ambient, but impossible to clearly pin down, displayed Fennesz’s sonic dexterity to the full.

William Basinski cuts a striking figure as he takes his seat behind his laptop with his towering hair and smart black get-up. The forty minutes of ‘Nocturnes’ seemed to stretch and expand, the sound enveloping the inside of the church like a blanket. Performing in almost total darkness, Basinski made good use of sparse visuals which, projected against the back wall of the church, reflected the moody atmosphere of the music, as gossamer images of the full moon faded in and out of a blurry haze. Unlike the more straightforwardly emotive pieces on his Disintegration Loops series, ‘Nocturnes’ is ambiguously pitched somewhere between mournfulness and pent-up anger, a slow-burning mood piece that’s as spectral and dark as its title suggests. Basinski barely moved a muscle as he built up the loops incrementally before doubling back on them and allowing them to dissolve into the ether, with a sense of tension seeping in when the sounds dropped out altogether, leaving brief, beautiful moments of silence. ‘Nocturnes’ is one of Basinski’s most minimal pieces, and it was hard not to admire his single-minded determination to reproduce it in full, even as the glacial pace clearly caused some attendees to fidget in their seats.

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Liminal Reviews: Liminal Minimals, April 2013 (April 30th, 2013)

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Ensemble Skalectrik – Trainwrekz (Editions Mego)

Ekoplekz’s Nick Edwards has found a nice home for himself on Editions Mego, and this is another offering of saturated, noise-inflected electronica from the Briton, this time under the Ensemble Skalectrik moniker. Trainwrekz, as its title suggests, contains some of Edwards’s most abrasive and vicious work to date: six concise and moody vignettes dominated by twisted synths, untethered found sounds and unsettling industrial noises. ‘Wrektoo’, for example, is dominated by sampled gunshots and bubbling, watery found sounds alongside metallic clangs and thuds that sound like they were recorded in a disused factory. ‘Wrekfore’, meanwhile, juxtaposes repetitive electronic mini-drones with swirling futuristic textures that could have been lifted from the archives of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The influence of industrial pioneers like SPK and Throbbing Gristle is clear, but Edwards’s scope is broader than that, and subtle injections of humour and hauntology, along with his use of the letters ‘W’ and ‘Z’ and a clear experimental bent, make me think of the late, great artist Jeff Keen, whose sonic creations recently appeared on a recent compilation by Trunk Records. Good company indeed!

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Jacob Kirkegaard – Conversion (Touch)

Conversion sees Danish sound artist and composer Jacob Kirkegaard re-interpret two of his more experimental sound creations as instrumental compositions, performed by his fellow countrymen Scenatet. The first, ‘Labyrinthitis’, was initially produced using sounds created by the composer’s own ears (!), a form dubbed “oto-acoustic music”. Here, these vibrations are reinterpreted as overlapping, ever-evolving string drones, starting off in a fragile high register, before more insistent, extended lower tones shimmer out of the omnipresent haze. While the original may be more surprising, ‘Labyrinthitis’ is steeped in the tradition of slow-burning minimalism, and the way Scenatet recalibrate Kirkegaard’s organic source as stirring, increasingly present micro-tones that is deeply affecting. ‘Church’, meanwhile, initially started out as field recordings captured in an abandoned church near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On Conversion, Scenatet recreate the ambiance of emptiness and vastness suggested by the piece’s origin, again creating a work of music that evolves gradually in and out of near-silence, to deeply dramatic effect.

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Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou – The Skeletal Essences of Voodoo Funk (Analog Africa)

Analog Africa deserve a medal for the way they’ve gone about digging out some of the most obscure -and best- music from that continent currently available in a market that keeps growing and growing. Benin has proved a particularly fruitful hunting ground for the label. Given its geographic location, sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo, with Ghana close by, it’s unsurprising that many tracks on this compilation seem infused with afrobeat and highlife influences, but it also stands apart from those more famous genres, not least due to the French lyrics that pop up on a couple of the numbers. The term “skeletal”, used in the title feels appropriate, because there is a brittle, stripped-down quality to the orchestra’s polyrhythms, while horns are used sparingly, like flashes of colour splattered on a canvas, bringing to mind a more stripped-down take on early Osibisa rather than, say, Fela Kuti’s high-energy funk. One of the standout tracks is ‘N’Goua’, which moves at a sensual, languid pace, with loping bass, drums and percussion serving as a solid foundation for the vocals, sax spurts and twisty, winding guitar solos. On ‘Vi E Lo’, meanwhile, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou turn their gaze across the Atlantic to take in Latino influences, further fleshing out their musical palette. The band produces music that straddles genre, but which is always haunting in its melodic and rhythmic grace.

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Charlemagne Palestine and Z’ev – Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear (Sub Rosa)

Charlemagne Palestine first started playing bells in the sixties, during his student days, and there’s always been a trace of their chiming overtones in his music for other instruments, notably in the way he repeats piano notes and in his use of glass. Here, he teams up with enigmatic American percussionist Z’ev for three pieces that juxtapose Palestine’s see-sawing carillon with quiet rhythmic patterns. The drums are pitched low in the mix, at times barely audible, but Z’ev follows Palestine’s every temporal shift with dogged determination. Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear is a minimalist affair, driven by the Palestine’s patient repetitions, which instantly recall his Strumming Music triple-album, also released on Sub Rosa. On the second piece, these hypnotic harmonics are countered by moody drones that pull Palestine into Z’ev’s orbit, leaving tense moments of expectant quietness. This tension forms the bedrock of Rubhitbangklanghear Rubhitbangklangear, with both musicians clearly keeping a keen ear on what the other is playing at all times. As such, the album bears little of the natural spirituality and reflectiveness induced by a lot of minimalism, with Palestine and Z’ev refusing to lapse into blissful contemplation. It closes with a dissonant 8-minute duel where Z’ev’s industrial clatters are (naturally?) reverbed to the max, a jarring conclusion – and all the better for it.

A Quietus Interview – Perceptions Of Sublime Simplicity: Thomas Köner Interviewed (April 17th, 2013)

Thomas Köner is a German composer and multimedia artist who has become renowned worldwide for his exploration and recreation in sound of remote, icy landscapes, generally situated geographically within the cold borders of the Arctic Circle. 2012 was a vintage year for Köner, one that saw his first album for Touch, Novaya Zemlya, released to rave reviews, and the reissue on Type of Porter Ricks’ 1996 album Biokinetics, the seminal debut of his dub techno duo with Andy Mellwig. Both albums showcase Köner at his very best, be it deploying abstract drones, whipping wind and crisp noises in thoughtful and evocative ways on Novaya Zemlya; or displaying an acute sensitivity to space and rhythm as one half of Porter Ricks. All of which has made him a perpetually fascinating figure in modern electronic music. The Quietus caught up with Köner to discuss his recent output, the contrast between live music and studio production, and the appeal of desolate, remote landscapes as inspiration for composition.

I saw you perform in Brussels, at the Meakusma event. What did you make of the concert? Were you pleased with how it went?

Thomas Köner: I liked it. I was impressed by the space [Brigittines Chapel]. I had prepared a different set for the night, different music things and some visuals, but when I saw [the venue] I changed it, switched off the lights. It was better in the afternoon, because you got a pitch-black space, without lamps, just tiny rays of sunlight from outside that would seep through the blinds. It was a magic moment.

Did you stay for the club night afterwards?

TK: Yes, I had a look, but didn’t stay longer than midnight.

How do you approach performing live in comparison to recording in the studio? Do you have to set up differently?

TK: Oh yes, they are completely different tasks, like swimming and skating: they’re both related to water but completely different. I don’t really think you can compare them. In classical music, the whole concept is completely disconnected. They’re celebrating (for example) a pianist who has never created a piece of music themselves and is just playing something they’ve found, the score, but still we consider this pianist to be a great artist; whilst the composer, who would have been in a similar situation, writing this music in the studio. They have two jobs that have their own qualities and talents, but I don’t think you can compare them to each other.

Did you perform tracks from your albums at the Brigittines Chapel, or do you only improvise when performing live?

TK: Yes, both [laughs]. I am composer of these things, so whatever I try that I didn’t write before would qualify as improvisation. And the moment you do it again, it probably becomes a pattern. In improvised music, [the musicians] have patterns that had been conceived once and that become like words, words that maybe don’t mean much, but if you shape a very nice sentence, you can even have hope to write a novel! On one level these would be improvisations, but you still have a sense of shape and form, even in things that are completely new. It was a bit different at Brigittines but usually I have two parts, one very known and the other completely unknown even to me. If you have a nice audience, you can test-drive things. You can never be sure that something is interesting for somebody else just by presenting it. It’s a collaborative thing. You want to be providing inspiration and an experience, so feedback is very important to me.

I was intrigued by the fact that, as you mentioned, you performed entirely in the dark. Could you please explain what the idea is behind this?

TK: From my personal experience, it’s a bit tedious to have a visual capacity that is not really in charge of everything. I find it a bit distracting, like in a symphony orchestra when they’re doing funny movements or playing with their ties. I would prefer it if they switched off the lights and let us enjoy the acoustics. Things like vibrations, which are felt. The other approach is to present something visual along with the music, which can also be distracting or counterintuitive. Also, we have a situation where you can hardly find anyone doing contemporary research in sound in a way that you would find satisfying to watch. [In my case, using] a laptop and a little plastic keyboard… You know what I mean.

The most interesting concerts are the ones that have the ability to be a complete failure. My most satisfying musical expression is a collaboration I do with the filmmaker Jürgen Reble and a performance we call ‘Alchemy’, where he projects a film loop and treats the loop with chemical as he’s projecting it. You really see what destructive or transformative changes appear on each film frame. I place a lot of microphones inside the projector and on the sound desk and the whole soundtrack is an amplification of the treatments. If Jürgen were to smash a cup of his liquids on the film and therefore the microphones, all the fuses would probably blow! There’s always a sense of immediate disaster. That’s very inspiring for me, but those are very rare situations.

Novaya Zemlya was one of my favourite albums of 2012. Why did you choose the island of Novaya Zemlya for inspiration?

TK: Some years ago, I was talking with a Russian soldier in Murmansk who had been stationed on Novaya Zemlya. I have a very keen interest in all things Arctic, so I was determined to deliver a topography of this space.

Without giving away too many trade secrets, how did you go about creating the tracks on Novaya Zemlya?

TK: When I’m composing, I don’t use the computer in the way I would in a concert. I do have a lot of instruments in my studio that I play and record and somehow arrange. All the inspiration for how the sound develops is something in the sonic quality of each event which is just extended in a way that becomes a commentary of the sounds that I play in the first place. For this piece, there are analogies to the situation in Novaya Zemlya and Arctic places: the military zone, the destruction… There are several versions of the piece, and the one that became the official one was maybe number five or six. I kept removing bits until it could not be perceivable as a musical flow. It became a sort of vast emptiness.

Where do you think your interest in remote, cold places stems from? How do you achieve the distinctive aesthetics on albums like Permafrost and Novaya Zemlya?

TK: [Laughs] I was probably born with it. I don’t recall getting a letter! I find it rather obvious to have a landscape that is so open yet also so intimate and dangerous and which speaks to your sense of beauty or your perception of sublime simplicity. These are things which you can also search for in music.

Your albums seem at first to be very austere, but further listening reveals layers that are very emotionally resonant. Would you agree? Is this a difficult to maintain that balance?

TK: Absolutely! The difficulty always borders on being completely idiotic, because you can easily perform very interesting things if you use the classical elements of music, as they have been used successfully for centuries, things like harmony and melody and rhythm: all these things that are readily available. Instead, if you refrain from using all those, and just work with leftovers and the spaces you design in-between these leftovers, it’s not a very desirable task, to be honest. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it!

Do you also have, in a way, a desire to recreate the environments of places like the Arctic circle via music? Would the term ‘psychogeography’ apply to what you do?

TK: I think I’m more interested in providing something like a layer that is also part of the environment I find myself in when I’m not in the Arctic. A lot of music lovers are based in urban situations and cities. So, even if you’re travelling in the Arctic, you’re still never there because what constitutes you, as a self, is a model and the environment is apparently created by the brain. It’s a representation in consciousness, a mental image, not an optical image. It’s the same for the sounds and for all the impressions that you could get. In a way it’s not even interesting to go to these places, because what is interesting to have a narrative that unfolds as a part of your life story. It’s all internal, a representation of impressions, which could happen anywhere. The music I do could filter impressions that you have, in your place, something you have created, rather than an illustration of [somewhere else].

Can you see yourself recording an album centred on somewhere geographically different, such as a desert or tropical island? I imagine you’d need to change your aesthetic and use different sounds…

TK: Certainly, yes, sure! Physical temperature is somehow correlated to speed, and speed is related to tempo, in music. In cold places, everything happens slowly. Movements are slowed down compared to things in a boiling volcano. The question for me is always whether it makes sense.

Last year also saw the reissue on Type of Porter Ricks’ Biokinetics, another fantastic album. Have you always been interested in beat-based music?

TK: I have very good memories of that project. We are still doing some things together… I’m very interested in music, and that of course involves beat-based music. I’m still very interested in it, in terms of composition and current discussions of how it’s been evolving. The difference between that and what I showed at Brigittines is that, with a beat-based approach, you are limited in a much stronger sense. You have fewer tools and you can never have empty spaces. It’s part of the service, but you can’t leave things too open for imagination, which I think is interesting for an audience. The beat and rhythm are so simple, in this context, that I always think that it’s the first thing you could abandon. But obviously not, because it’s the first thing that appears and the last thing to go in a club night. It’s kind of a paradoxical situation, but I love it.

I imagine the Porter Ricks tracks involved a very different creative process to your solo material. Would I be right?

TK: Not really! Should it? No, it shouldn’t. There are things that repeat [in beat-based music]. If you use a hi-hat, there are changes in its appearance but it will always repeat as a hi-hat, and there’s an element of luxury to be able to enjoy music [like Novaya Zemlya] that only repeats at a very small level. For Porter Ricks, we had elements that were repetitive, but others that weren’t. It was like buying the easiest ticket to get in and then to do what we’d do anyway.

And you are still working with Andy as Porter Ricks?

TK: It is a process. Andy is busy doing some compositions that he wanted us to do, but we haven’t recorded in a long time. You can’t do everything everywhere.

Finally, do you have any other albums and/or concerts in the pipeline?

TK: Yes… [laughs]

Ooh, is it all a bit of a secret?

TK: No, there should be a new album for Touch. We will continue this exploration we started with Novaya Zemlya, and that should be this year. I’ll continue to do re-releases of my work, as well as a DVD of a piece I did in 2009 for the hundredth anniversary of the Futurist movement. It had a strong visual component. I’m doing more concerts, including London in April, and I’m soundtracking a silent film by Murnau for the Louvre, which will be shown in June. Things like this! Concerts are rather boring. They just happen! I would prefer not to do them, but there are so many interesting things going on around them, and so many things I learn about my music and how it behaves in unexpected situations. And of course there’s the service of doing something that someone might find interesting.

Thomas Köner plays live at the Denovali Swingfest in London this Sunday, 21st April, at the Scala in King’s Cross. For more information and tickets click here.

Live Report: A Selection of Concert Reviews for Londonears (2012)

Unlike the other magazines I write for, Londonears doesn’t have a page for each writer containing every one of their contributions. However, I’ve done some digging on the ‘Net and found the below articles, which cover the range of gigs I’ve been lucky to cover in 2012. And yes, I go to Cafe Oto a lot, I know!

01/02: James Ferraro, The Dome

It was a controversial decision by The Wire to select Far Side Virtual by American post-everything song-smith James Ferraro as their album of the year. Ferraro is undoubtedly an exciting and genre-pushing talent, as demonstrated on 2010’s odd and unsettling hypna-nightmare Night Dolls With Hairspray, but for many he’s something of a court jester, toying with the tropes of modern music in amusing ways, but far from a seminal or important artist in his own right. However, despite my misgivings over Far Side Virtual, or maybe because of them, I was very keen to see how Ferraro -and which Ferraro- would approach this live appearance.

The Dome is a cute venue somewhat resembling a school hall, a fitting choice according to one punter I met, as this show was apparently going to be “chintzy”. If so, someone forgot to tell the supporting acts. Youngster Felix Lee, who came on after what seemed an age of waiting, seemed determined to go for sonic assault over chintzy glamour as a clatter of what appeared to be over-driven video game samples was launched from his laptop over punishing bass rhythms half-way between Vex’d and Venetian Snares. You got the sense that Lee has listened to a fair bit of dubstep in his time, but his music lacked the clarity of the best acts from that scene, and even in a noise gig this would have seemed too unfocused and schizophrenic, as he lurched from one sonic idea to another with barely the space to breath. At one point, he did seem to latch onto a lush synth melody, but it didn’t last and was too quickly dissolved under a laden avalanche of cheap effects and random noises.

Palmistry couldn’t have sounded more different if he’d performed with a ukelele and harmonica, although like Felix Lee, he relied on his laptop to create his melodies. I say “create”, the correct term would be “play”, as it seemed obvious that everything here was pre-recorded. Like Felix Lee, you could feel the influence of dubstep (not surprising, given the man’s South London roots), with spectral hip-hop beats and crystalline synth melodies creating a sense of late-night, post-party ennui as he intoned inaudible lyrics in a high-pitched croon like a cockney Toro Y Moi. Sadly, his voice was too weakly mixed to really convey the emotions of his otherwise infectious and well-produced post-R’n’B tunes, whilst the sight of him constantly leaning into the laptop between tracks was a distraction from any atmosphere he could have built up. Palmistry has a well-defined sound, but it’s one that is better suited to clubs and parties than live concerts like this one.

So it was left to the main man himself to up the ante somewhat, which he initially did with some gusto: the lights in the room went out and a low, heavy bass line wobbled over the by-know expectant audience, evoking the Kuedo of “Starfox”, but with a harder edge. Whatever you may make of Ferraro as a songwriter or musician, his ability to adapt his overflowing creativity to diverse genres, and merge them together so emphatically, is impressive, and this talent was on full display at The Dome, as he collided dubstep (the word du jour, apparently) with widescreen prog-rock synth and jittery steel drum rhythm for an awe-inspiring opening track. Later on, he’d channel Moon Safari-era Air, with graceful melodies and elegant, delicately-poised ambience. But, as with Felix Lee, after a while you got the feeling that any real progression, musically, was limited, as Ferraro jumped styles with the enthusiasm of someone with ADHD. As such, it felt less like a live concert than a maniacal DJ set broadcast from some dystopian future. Frustrating and enthralling almost in equal measure, Ferraro mangled pop archetypes in ways that unsettled, but somehow managed to feel acutely familiar. I’m not sure what the true worth of such a scatter-gun approach is, but it certainly makes for an interesting show, albeit one that I can’t quite say I enjoyed.

28-29/02: Keiji Haino Two-Day Residency (Cafe Oto)

This was Japanese great Keiji Haino’s second residency at Cafe Oto in under a year, but if anyone was expecting a similar pair of shows to 2011 they don’t know Haino very well. Plus, they must have got quite a shock. If last year’s performances were out there, the second night of this residency was positively alien. And all the better for it.

The first night saw Haino paired up with virtuoso British improv drummer Steve Noble, whose drum kit was so enormous, it would have given Motorhead’s “Philthy” Taylor pause for thought. Beforehand, a packed Oto was treated to a solo performance by American singer and musician Heather Leigh, who very much set the tone of convention-subverting by gloriously mangling a pedal steel guitar in ways that would have made even Ben Keith wince. She started however by tapping out a quiet drum rhythm and singing in a crystalline voice redolent of early-seventies English folk stars like Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson and Anne Briggs. Coming as she did just a few weeks after Jessika Kenney, Oto goers have really been spoiled of late when it comes to singers! As with Kenney, this had the solemnity of a recital or incantation, Leigh’s exquisite keen echoing around the walls of the venue.

In comparison, the way she tore into her pedal steel guitar after ditching the drum was positively brutal, with molten, saturated solos pouring over the audience in a manner reminiscent to Les Rallizes Denudes, the ragged sounds somehow mirroring Leigh’s fierce wailing. At other times, she slowed the pace to produce insistent, buzzing drones over which to moan and whisper, resulting in a positively haunting performance that was only slightly undermined by the apparent unpredictability of the pedal steel.

Haino’s duo with Steve Noble was, at first glance, most notable for the fact that the Japanese enigma was forgoing vocals to focus on his guitar interplay with the drums. This was therefore a demonstration of Haino at his most improvisational, and the performance was anchored in avant-jazz in the AMM mould. His opening notes were staccato and blunt, with little by way of effects, whilst Noble teased unpredictable patters and strikes out of his array of percussive instruments, leaping from gongs to cymbals to his huge drums like a whirling dervish. The sounds came across as random explosions, with passages of near-silence abruptly giving way to percussive clatters and sustained guitar roars. Then suddenly, they leaped into full chaotic freak-out mode, with Noble sending his small gongs and bowls flying as he pummeled the skins, unleashing a veritable thunderstorm of raucous sound. Meanwhile, Haino switched on the fuzz and feedback, his guitar screaming like a beast possessed, with molten solo after molten solo cascading out of the amps. Just as quickly, they’d revert back to contemplative mode, Haino twisting and twitching his strings with the delicate touch of a brain surgeon. The interplay between the two was bewitching, considering they never spoke a word to each other, as they effortlessly jumped from sparse improvisation to full-on free-form rock. Perhaps it was because I was seated next to him, but it seemed that Noble was guiding proceedings, his sensitive, graceful balance of inventive touches and pure strength providing an apt platform from which his partner could explore his own techniques on guitar.

If the first night was good, the second was simply transcendental, and like nothing I’d ever witnessed from Haino (and I’ve seen some majestic gigs by the man!). Phil Minton was chosen to open, a clear indication that, where it had been absent from Haino’s set the previous night, the voice was going to be the centrepiece of the second show.

Minton is a singular figure in modern singing, if you can even call it that. He doesn’t use instruments, and as he perched on a tool before a single microphone, with little effects in place, he seemed more like a quiet and mild librarian than the true pioneer he undoubtedly is. But when he started to sing, there was no question: it may be bereft of rhythm and even tangible melody, but the way Phil Minton manipulates every aspect of his vocal chords is awe-inspiring. He ran the gamut, with odd and unsettling ululations, twitters, hisses, warbles, whistles, belches and borborygmi segueing in and out of each other following the unpredictable impulses of their enunciator. There were no words to focus on, but Minton still conveyed considerable emotion, contorting his body as if miming some incomprehensible opera or play. As with the Haino/Noble duo, the performance was notable for the unexpected shifts in volume and intensity, as meditative hums made way for angry wails and melancholy moans. For some, this may have just seemed like a sequence of silly noises, but it was no such thing: Minton controls his voice like an opera singer, and for all its sparseness, this was a truly fascinating spectacle.

How to describe the ensuing performance by Haino, however? Like Minton, he went for solo vocals only, with his guitar sat beside him obviously some sort of oblique joke (and, contrary to his reputation and appearance -all jet-black clothes and impenetrable shades- there is a lot of humour behind Haino’s work. Sometimes!). Initially, his set was as quiet as possible, with restrained breathing and a high-pitched hum like the distant cries of a newborn baby. Slowly, Haino built this hushed opening into a choked gargle that escalated into a piercing, unsettling shriek, accentuated by the hyper-sensitive microphone that made every sound envelop the room. Deep rumbles at the back of his throat, that throbbed like bass lines at a dubstep gig, were followed by his trademark throat-rupturing roars. There is something almost demonic about Keiji Haino when he’s in a mood like he was on this second night, and with his loose-fitting clothes resembling a set of ceremonial robes and his guttural growls pervading the acoustic space at Cafe Oto, his voice seemed to morph, as if emanating from the dark, heathen and frightening pits of the earth. When he pressed the microphone against his throat, as if impaling himself on the very tool of his sound, the ensuing feedback-drenched torrents of noise (and by now the once-quiet set had evolved into full-on noise) actually made the concrete floor beneath us shudder. Not many artists are capable of blowing themselves away, but Keiji Haino made his first set the previous night seem positively tame as he channeled his voice into an apocalyptic whirlwind of furious noise.

But, even in this state of grim aggression, Haino showed he had more strings to his bow than such an onslaught would suggest. Stepping to a second mic, he changed tack completely, intoning a beautiful, prayer-like lament that echoed with cathedral-like reverb, his voice high, soothing and mellifluous. Using a loop station, he slowly built up layers of the sound, transforming himself into a ghostly choir, for the residency’s most poignant and arresting moment.

Before gloriously ripping it all to shreds! Unplugging these mics from his pedal rig, he picked up a handheld one and turned it into an instrument of terrifying mayhem, tearing down his previous solemn piece with ferocious glee. Saturated loops clashed into his live rants and moans, building into a squalling, screaming wall of sound not far removed from the electronic noise of Prurient. Only Haino did it solely with that incomparable voice. Curled into a near-foetal position, clutching the microphone like a treasure, he seemed both defeated and, through the near-magick energies of the sense-crippling noise he was creating, oddly defiant. When he closed the piece with a quiet return to his softer keening moan, I realised I’d been holding my breath, such was the tension and intensity on show. And yet, for all its ferocity, what shone through the entire, hour-long performance was the sheer beauty of Keiji Haino’s vision. It doesn’t matter if he’s mauling a guitar, hovering over an air synth or shredding his throat with that punishing vocal style, he’s always himself, always focused and always able to transport his audience. Over two nights, he did just that, and with unrivaled power. The next residency can’t come quickly enough, even though I wonder how he’ll top the second night’s performance.

– Sarat Babu (image)

03/04/2012: Charlemagne Palestine & Oren Ambarchi, Cafe Oto

 Just the one set on this night, but what a set. For over an hour, American experimental veteran Charlemagne Palestine and Australia’s Oren Ambarchi delighted and amazed in a concert that covered the gamut of modern non-mainstream music.

The concert in fact started before all the punters were through the door, with a patient laptop-based drone filling the room, ebbing and flowing around pre-recorded piano notes redolent of Palestine’s Strumming Music whilst he and Ambarchi chatted and the audience ordered in their rounds of beer and organic cider. I’d seen Lou Reed do something similar when performing with his Metal Machine Trio, but this felt altogether warmer and more involving. Until the introduction of what appeared to be the sample of a woman’s climax distorted to resemble a child’s whines and cries, that is. This sudden eruption of found sound -with all its sinister undertones- brought a sense of disquiet to this seemingly benign overture, blurring the lines between meditative drone and confrontational performance.
With a click of the mouse the drones intensified and diffuse beats dropped in, turning proceedings into something resembling TG at their most expansive. Not what I expected, and positively thrilling.

Then the sonic pile-up was cut short, leaving just a sustained drone which itself made way for gentle glass playing from Ambarchi and Palestine as the pair set up their stalls. They are both noted for their ability to slide from heavy noise to near-silence, and that knowledge imbued this opening with a mixture of tranquility and, perhaps paradoxically, tension. It’s rare that I wonder where a “drone” performance will go next, but I did on this occasion.

Such is Palestine’s association with drone and minimalism, it is easy to forget his mastery as a vocalist. His singing is abstract, mere chanting, but filled with pathos, dredged up from somewhere deep within. With only the gentle melodies conjured by the glasses as accompaniment, his voice became a beacon of emotional intensity, the kind of untethered feeling most singers can only hope for. There was something even hauntological about it, a voice that resonated deep in the soul but unspecific, like a barely-recalled memory.

The poise of this segment would carry through the rest of the performance, even as the duo stretched their wings into more esoteric and experimental territory. With Ambarchi still running his finger over his glass, Palestine took to the piano, coaxing out repetitive notes with increasingly insistent force. As Palestine increased the tempo, Ambarchi pulled out his guitar and slowly immersed a hesitant, piqued drone into his compadre’s flurry of notes. There was something cinematic, even symphonic about their seamless interplay, the contrast between Palestine’s single-toned arpeggios and Ambarchi’s gradually-imposing guitar building on the sum of their meagre parts to gradually approach something almost epic. With a deftness of touch remarkable in the context of what was evidently an improvisation, the piece segued neatly into more vocalising by Palestine which, allied to Ambarchi’s shifting, reverbed guitar lines, pitched matters into dark, cavernous territory. The pair maintained this elegant dichotomy throughout, alternating between the meditative earthiness of Pran Nath and a disquieted futurism akin to post-punk or Cluster-esque kosmische. Again, I can’t help but compare this mutant symphony to the more overtly mannered and less genre-defying expressions of the UK’s hauntology scene.

Despite this heady and potent cocktail, Palestine’s utterly beguiling and childlike humor was never far away as he at one point called -repeatedly- for Ambarchi to head to the drum kit, something the Australian good-naturedly responded to by upping the volume on his guitar loops and ignoring his colleague’s shouts for “DRUMS!”. When he did relent, the resulting storm of sound, with passionate crashes of the cymbals and ragged piano, was akin to free jazz in its intensity, even including a motrorik segment that segued back into the disembodied child-woman howls of the opening period. Palestine returned to his laptop, the drone intensified to near-deafening levels and Ambarchi doggedly peppered out his beat in true Jaki Liebezeit tradition as the piece slowly but intensely edged to a close.

There is a lot to say for the short sets that usually make up a show at Cafe Oto, especially the way they allow you to see at least two acts, often of wildly varied artists. But a single, lengthy and powerful concert like this carries just that bit more potency. It was a glorious work of art that unfolded before the audience on this chilly April evening, made all the more electrifying by the patient, passionate and considered way its creators went about their work.

– Fabio Lugaro (images)

07/04: Michael Gira + Grouper, Cafe Oto

Despite chilly spring temperatures outside, Cafe Oto was turned into a veritable sauna by the press of bodies gathered around the stage area, the full house easily understandable given the reputations and calibre of the two artists present for this London leg of the Counterflows festival, a curious and diverse event also held in Glasgow and Berlin.

Grouper, aka Liz Harris, has emerged as one of the most popular and critically-celebrated entities of what has become known as hypnagogic pop. The omnipresent fuzz and haze that coats her vocals and guitar encapsulates a feeling so elusive, her music somehow embodies memories listeners didn’t even know they had.

Live, it’s somehow a different proposition, despite the use of abstract video images that enhanced the sense of mystery and faded memory. With her discreet plucking of guitar strings leading into resonant feedback hum and muted arpeggios, and with her hypnotic, incomprehensible voice drenched in echo and chorus, the whole set felt otherworldly. However, despite such potentially emphatic tools, what dominated was Harris’ use of tapes powered by walkmans to provide backing tracks and atmosphere. Whilst the use of walkmans (walkmen?) was an intriguing throwback to the past that fits with Harris’ faded approach to disjointed pop, her demeanor was so detached, even aloof, as to render things beyond enigmatic, and her delicate guitar motifs and elegant voice usually made way after a few minutes of each track for listless drones from the tapes. Perhaps appropriately, given where I was seated, mostly what I could see of Grouper was Harris’ shadow playing against the back of the wall. There was considerable beauty in the music and performance, but the risk of making oneself so unobtrusive, is that any performance -such as it is- can feel insubstantial.

In comparison, former Swans leader Michael Gira’s performance felt like it was right in your face. As he tuned up, the ex-industrial terrorizer sat with a serene look on his face, strumming an electro-acoustic guitar amped so loud it shook the ceiling. His set was made up by a mixture of songs taken from his Swans, Angels of Light and solo catalogue, but all were delivered with such intensity and brute force that he captured the audience from the first note and never let go, as if determined to force a communion with the people in the room. Such is the man’s aggressive singularity as a singer and performer, he could have delivered a series of gospel spirituals and novelty songs and still sounded uniquely… Gira.

As powerful and even intimidating as his guitar-playing was, it’s Gira’s vocalising that initially struck a chord: his voice was that of a man possessed by demons, starting with a long-drawn-out moan set somewhere between a shredded Buddhist chant and the exhortations of a southern preacher.

As ever, Gira’s lyrics are dark and imagistic, their starkness heightened here by the sparseness of the music. Stylistically, the latter fell somewhere between the fire and brimstone country rock of Woven Hand and, somehow, the dense, claustrophobic and mechanized rock of Gira’s early Swans output. And whether he was delicately strumming the strings, banging his foot on the ground or thumping out minor chords, what dominated was the man himself: his sunken gaze, deceptively calm face and his voice, pitched somewhere between a drawl and a raucous snarl.

He may have been seated throughout, but this was a man who held the audience in his grasp. Between songs he was hilarious, joking about his sound and embarking on rib-tickling raps about Bob Dylan and The Shining, but when the riffs and arpeggios started it was all about the songs: all of them brutal, haunting and burningly intense. The highlight, even amongst the Swans and Angels of Light tracks, was “Blind”, from Gira’s solo album Drainland, where the quieter passages filled the room with solemnity, the audience on tenterhooks, before he blasted eardrums and hearts with an overpowering roar and unfettered acoustic guitar noise when he hit the chorus. It might have been solo acoustic, but it was as electrifying as a full-band assault. Halfway between the sparseness and intimacy of a sixties folk show, and the relentless sturm und drang of heavy rock, Michael Gira’s set was baffling, enthralling and, above all, very, very loud.

15/04: Gavin Bryars with Philip Jeck – The Sinking of the Titanic, The Barbican

The terrible events of April 14th/15th 1912, when the supposedly unsinkable giant ocean liner RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank into the freezing waters of the Atlantic, claiming the lives of 1514 people, resonated potently and dramatically at the time and through the ages. It seemed to herald the end of the industrial revolution, as mankind was proved to have failed in its bid to gain dominion of nature, whilst simultaneously throwing a magnifying glass onto the economic and social inequalities that underpinned that period of drastic technological development. In retrospect, the cataclysm can almost be seen as the first introduction into a new century that would be forever blighted by war, civil unrest, colonial strife, social inequality and greed.

With the hundredth anniversary falling last weekend, it seems every opportunity has been seized upon to cash in on that fateful night, from TV shows and art exhibitions to the rather undignified rehash of James Cameron’s Oscar-winning 1997 blockbuster, duly upgraded to 3D. And amid all the noise and remembrances, it could have been easy to forget that perhaps the most emotionally powerful, and artistically resonant work to be inspired by the great ship’s demise was open-ended composition The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars. Initially composed (and unfinished) in 1969, it saw its first performance in 1972, before being committed to eternity in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label. Bryars has often returned to his signature piece, updating and modifying it as he goes along, most notably in 2007, when he recorded a version in Italy and brought on-board noted turntable artist Philip Jeck to add further atmosphere, something he did again at The Barbican last weekend.

The strength of Bryars’ piece is in its understatement. He doesn’t make any grandiose statements on the global and historical implications of the Titanic’s sinking, nor does he attempt to overly dramatise and sensationalise what occurred. Instead, he hones in on the human soul contained in every one of us, and of course in the bodies of those who set sail on that fated voyage. Inspired by reports that the ship’s string band, who all perished that night, had carried on playing throughout the disaster, particularly a hymn known as “Autumn”, Bryars, by looping and expanding on that one, sorrowful melody, goes right to the heart of the pain and loss experienced those one hundred years ago.

As ever, The Sinking of the Titanic, as played at the Barbican, started slowly, perhaps even more subdued than on previous versions I’d heard. The two string quartets, horn and woodwind players, and guitarist, remained silent, as Philip Jeck unfurled a shifting crackle of vinyl and buried sound effects, accompanied only by interjections on percussion. Above the musicians’ heads, a pair of screen displayed old footage of the Titanic preparing to set sail, the grainy, jumpy footage fitting well alongside the haze and hiss emanating from Jeck’s turntables. The percussionists sounds -bowed xylophone, chimes and subdued cymbals- evoked the sounds of groaning, creaking machinery, a surprisingly precise soundtrack to what was unfolding on-screen.

When the strings gently kicked into the haunting melody of “Autumn”, the focus of the films shifted to awkward close-ups of people apparently readying to board the world-famous vessel. The emotional impact was immediate: these faces contained innocence, hope, joy, but the juxtaposition of the music imbued everything before my eyes with extreme pathos, even as these ghostly portraits made way for images of the Titanic sliding away from Southampton. In many ways, it was the performance’s most striking and saddest moment.

If you are familiar with The Sinking of the Titanic, you will know that from there, the piece progresses over insistent repetitions of this central motif. The intensity of the playing ebbed and flowed, getting louder at points, with the oboe and tuba coming in at the loudest moments, an element of discord that seemed to accentuate the underlying tension and trepidation that hindsight conveys on the story of the Titanic first and only voyage. Recordings of survivors’ voices, distorted by time, slid in and out of the graceful string tune, the screens switched to omnipresent footage of water overlayed by decaying images of documents possibly listing the names of those lost, and all the while there was “Autumn”, or Bryars’ version of it, and Jeck’s crackle, snatches of parallel tunes and sound effects.

Philip Jeck’s presence felt invaluable to me. He heightened the tension as loud drones and even beats clattered into the tranquil atmosphere, offsetting the ensemble’s patient diligence with unsettling unpredictability. The main, repeated and manipulated, melody, at times subsumed by the vinyl’s haze, became an echo in time, and I can’t help but think of the alleged fact that one rescue ship reported hearing the Titanic’s distress calls up to an hour and a half after she had disappeared under the waves. Did the band continue to play even as the water swallowed them whole? It’s unlikely, but if so, could some of those poor souls left to freeze still hear “Autumn” resonating through the bubbles and murk? The magic of Bryars’ composition, and the stillness of its performance, is that it doesn’t seek to provide answers or influence our thinking on what happened back in 1912. It just drifts, like debris, into our ears and hearts. The only leads it gives us are emotional: photos of the dead appeared on the screen, alongside footage of grim-looking icebergs at the music’s loudest moments. Fear, uncertainty and sorrow dominate, alternating with the images and the shifts in the music, as Bryars’ new passage (composed for these renditions) built new layers on top of what had preceded. Yet “Autumn” never truly went away: it hovered, gentle and melancholic, like a nagging, yet beautiful, memory.

At the very end, a couple of lines appeared on the screen, taken from some news bulletin or poster, that perhaps best encapsulated Bryars’ self-effacing vision for The Sinking of the Titanic. One was “Graveyard of the Sea”, and few words could better describe the sense of overwhelming terror that the sea can represent, and did on April 15th 1912. I was reminded of a track title, funnily enough, from Philip Jeck’s last album, An Ark for the Listener (which was also inspired by a maritime disaster): “The All of Water”. As the Titanic descended into the depths, all their would have been for those trapped onboard was water: black, unforgiving, cold. The other line was “For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more”, a psalm. The Sinking of the Titanic is about remembering something lost forever: a ship, and those that died as it sank. As those two lines sunk into my mind, the piece slowly came to a close with a final, mournful rendition of “Autumn”. The sheer emotion it -and, for me, those two lines- had engendered left the audience dumb for the briefest of moments before applause rang around the hall. Perhaps that was the concert’s most powerful moment: a blissful, contemplative, silence.

– Pete Matthews – Feast of Music (images)

18/04: Nate Young + Dylan Nyoukis, Dalston Victoria Pub

I have a very soft spot for Dalston’s Victoria pub, and not just because it was the scene of the first (and so far only) gig I’ve played, but because it’s a thoroughly excellent venue, with a spacious performance space, good sound and, for London, rather cheap beer. Also, the contrast between the rowdy music and grungey audience, and the small band of older gents in the bar playing pool and chatting about Africa, added a dash of surreal humour to matters.

Quite what these guys would have made of the sounds wafting out of the backroom area is anyone’s guess. With the opening act having canceled, we were treated to the meat of matters from the get-go, with Scottish sound poet-meets-noise-destroyer Dylan Nyoukis delivering a startling set halfway between a recital and performance art. His first piece involved the kind of scat-like vocalisations pioneered by Phil Minton. Belting along at speed, Nyoukis’ twisted hoots, growls and noises didn’t quite match Minton’s for pathos and inspiration, but it was a remarkable feat of grueling endurance, especially when he repeatedly bleated “Is it supposed to sound like that?” over and over, as if asking the audience to explain the strange direction his mind and mouth had propelled him on.

This amusing and challenging exploration of the nature and extent of the human voice continued to be the focus of Nyoukis’ performance, as he followed his Minton experiment with a pair of poems delivered in a strong Scottish accent with intense, accentuated enunciation that effectively emphasised and added impetus to his words. Meanwhile, he used a tape recording of his own voice repeating phrases back at him under a veil of hiss. This was spoken word noise, with a similar brutal aggression, albeit one mellowed by hilarious lines and a final flourish that saw Nyoukis don a wig and makeup before cramming nearly the entire contents of a jar of pickles into his mouth. It felt like COUM Transmissions had been collided with Queer artist David Hoyle, both intellectually arresting and uproariously enjoyable.

Nyoukis was followed by Wolf Eyes and Demons alumnus Nate Young, one of the senior figures of US noise. If his initial demeanour seemed to be that of a laid-back folk singer, the sounds he produced predictably ripped any such notions to shreds.

On his solo material, Young, like his Wolf Eyes’ buddy Mike Connelly, shows a palpable interest in the creepy soundtracks of vintage horror movies, and this set was no different, as echo-drenched drones rumbled over the assembled throng, seeming to have been recorded as they emanated from the dark depths of the Appalachian caverns featured in British horror The Descent. The music was instantly sinister, with looped, unfathomable interjections of sound that stridently pierced the ether before folding in on themselves. For the most part, Young manipulated his synths and effects pedals with the delicate grace and thoughtfulness of an alchemist, his every touch showing a mastery of the noise he created. At times, however, he retreated into a quasi-meditative pose, eyes closed, feeling and absorbing the sounds in tandem with his audience even as he created them and elevating the performance above mere horror noise and into a sort of spiritual communion of the most ragged kind.

Yet you could hardly compare Nate Young’s music to that of the kind of intellectual drone composers who overtly strive for transcendence: it was too visceral, even basic, for that, being anchored at times in a sort of mutated, tortured blues music. It’s something he has explored more distinctly in his Stare Case project, and which seeped into this set via his distorted harmonica solo and the ragged rhythmic pulsations that accompanied it. Later, he cranked up the aggression, building a torrent of mutilated, screaming drones over throbbing bass synth and connecting the dots between the muted brand of moody Midwestern noise he is most closely associated with, and the furious horror prog of Goblin and the more industrialised noise of Prurient and Kevin Drumm.

The music of Nate Young is full of industrial clanks and groans, but also desolate empty spaces and bursts of dry air that seem to threaten to clog the lungs. On this chilly April evening, the darkest corners of America’s hinterland were conjured up in a London pub. My assertion that Wolf Eyes is one of the very best modern bands (of any genre) is based on the quality of offshoots like Nate Young’s solo material. No matter how abrasive or contemplative he gets, what primes is the atmosphere, and he’s become a master of maintaining just that, be it on record or live.

21/06: Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Cafe Oto

Discovering German duo Cluster was for me something of a turning point/epiphany for me, as the colossal, galaxy-wide and slowly-evolving drones of their 1971 debut album seemed to signpost towards a new way of understanding music, and how to listen to it. Thanks to them opening up my ears, I’ve become a student of drone and just intonation, from Tony Conrad to Pauline Oliveros, Takehisa Kosugi to Nadja. So when they split up a year ago, I was more than a little despondent, but the silver lining has been the ongoing solo and collaborative career of Hans-Joachim Roedelius.

The opening act was a British synth musician going under the name of Petrels, who matched his name with a set of drifting drone that reminded me of the current Dalai Lama of synth, Oneohtrix Point Never, although where the latter aims for something futuristically cosmic, Petrels leans more towards moody ambience linked to psychogeographic coastal imagery, with a backing video of muggy footage to emphasise matters twofold. Centred on a series of slowly-evolving Korg chords, manipulated, extended and enhanced to create dense bubbles of watery melodies, Petrels’ music could have beamed out of the Spectrum Spools stable, with a similar tendency towards woozy futurism, although his skill at lingering over certain notes and tones enhanced the music in ways that most synth acts can’t equal. If Petrels had one issue on the night, it was that his music clearly owed a substantial debt of influence to Cluster, and therefore Hans-Joachim Roedelius. I can appreciate the reasoning behind choosing Petrels for a Roedelius gig, but there was always a risk that the student would be overshadowed by the master, which would have been unfair on Petrels.

As it turned out, Roedelius chucked out a beauty of a curveball, delivering a set that even this stupid fanboy couldn’t expect. Initially, it was pure latter-day Cluster, with dense synth drones, snippets of inchoate field recordings and ghostly loops echoing the minimalism of early Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros. But he unexpectedly switched to the piano and began to unfurl a series of mournful melodies (“lullabies”, as he called them) that danced in and out of his loops and glitches, combining with them to produce a form of cinematic post-pop akin to Joe Hisaishi’s melancholic scores for Takeshi Kitano’s most contemplative films such as Hana-Bi or Dolls. It was so unforeseen, at least by me, that I found myself wrapped up in the emotion. A great artist can often be defined as one who will absorb his or her audience in his music. In that respect, Roedelius is imperious.

His musical world is deceptively simple: piano, synth and computer noise, but also wondrous: a bizarre reverie that drifts effortlessly between glitch, deep listening and industrial ambient. In comparison to the overt, almost cheesy futurism or glossy drone of the modern synth set (as referenced before), Roedelius’ music remains tantalisingly abstract, one that builds up incrementally and elusively, but delivers one hell of an emotional kick. Because, as the drones, synths and loops were led in a merry waltz with themselves, Roedelius, on piano, emerged as an experimental cousin of Michael Nyman and Wim Mertens, his music imbued with the same potency those guys can conjure with mere piano chords, but also with the forward-thinking ingenuity that will forever link him to the avant-garde. The way he so expertly juggled these elements at Oto, with modesty and precision, shows that, even at over 70, Hans-Joachim Roedelius is an artist worth admiring and following. I can’t wait for his next album.

– Fabio Lugaro (images)

22/06: Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras Meet the Congos, Village Underground

I had somehow managed to not notice that there would be an opening act for this much-anticipated concert, so was somewhat surprised when three musicians who clearly weren’t Cameron Stallones (aka Sun Araw), M. Geddes Gengras or The Congos take to the stage. That surprise quickly turned to delight as I realised said trio was none other than dubstep legends in the making King Midas Sound. They opened their set in a hail of noise out of which emerged a series of measured piano chords supporting the smooth voice of vocalist Roger Robinson. Played in near darkness, with Kiki Hitomi swaying woozily and joining her high-pitched yelp to Robinson’s singing, whilst producer Kevin “The Bug” Martin expertly juggled beats, samples and turntables, this opening felt a little like the graceful pop of a David Sylvian or Talk Talk, and I found myself anxiously anticipating the inevitable crush of heavy bass that the trio is so renowned for.

I was not disappointed. The bass hit me like a tidal wave, wobbling and rearranging my innards, its head-filling swathe surrounded by ghostly effects and Hitomi’s heavily reverb-ed vocals. In Martin’s able hands, tracks both familiar and new were transformed, chopped and re-modeled into a single, hypnotic, yet infinitely danceable, whole, into which Robinson and Hitomi dipped and weaved their symbiotic voices, sometimes together, sometimes apart, sometimes operating a haunting call-and-response. Despite the trio’s visual differences (elegant lovers’ rocker, oddball Japanese sprite and tracksuit-clad white dance fanatic), they enmesh perfectly, combining their disparate influences and tastes under the umbrella of deep bass to create a modern form of dancefloor music. Sure, they might have their roots in Caribbean dancehall (as hinted by a wicked sampled cover of Black Uhuru’s “Shine Eyed Gal”), but they’ve then transformed and transmogrified those roots here in London to create something that can be played in clubs from New York to Bangkok. A lot of bands and producers look to the past to create the present dancefloor sounds. King Midas Sound go one further in creating something truly futuristic, and I swear what I heard at The Village Underground could have just as easily been used to soundtrack Blade Runner or Gattaca as it was to shake the walls of this Shoreditch venue.

After such a great opening set, Sun Araw and the gang stood the risk of seeming a bit retro, or at least less forward-thinking, in comparison, although it would be silly to equate the two. But it must be said, that where King Midas Sound transcend time in a way, Sun Araw’s music tends to merely use the past as a means to enjoy and manipulate the present. It’s not as avant-whatever, but it does re-calibrate archetypes of popular music in inventive ways. Perhaps most inventive of all is allying himself (along with his his California-based ally M. Geddes Gengras) with veteran reggae legends The Congos, whose Heart of the Congos album remains a milestone of the genre. Whilst the importance of reggae to Sun Araw is undeniable, he so distorts and fuzzes up all his influences that a collaboration with such a typical reggae act seems odd, and certainly brave.

And stone me, for guys who, in some cases, are pushing 70, The Congos are an amazingly energetic bunch! And make no mistake, the quartet from Kingston were the focal point of this set, despite their numerous shout-outs to Stallones, as the rousing reception they got demonstrated. They danced, occasionally banged drums, and, crucially, combined their vocals in perfect that harmonies that, whilst occasionally drowned by the music, show few signs of wear and tear.

Musically, there was a full band joining Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, with drums, sax, bass and guitar joining the headline duo’s synths (and in Stallones’ case, a second guitar), and came on very much like vintage Sun Araw, with wobbly, sub-aquatic guitar lines, gloopy bass and hazy synth swirls. At first, the inherent jerkiness of this music sat a bit uncomfortably with The Congos’ harmonies, and they seemed to struggle to fit their traditional-style melodies with the band’s awkward blend of mutant reggae and cosmic p-funk. But, as everyone settled and drank in the crowd’s enthusiasm, The Congos created a party atmosphere, enhancing the music even at the times when it didn’t really fit, through a combination of relaxed spirituality, amusing eccentricity and sheer cheerfulness. As the set progressed, some tracks slipped out of the warped cyber-funk of the first tracks in favour of straight-ahead reggae, and these proved to be the most immediately enjoyable moments of the set, bar an ecstatic, almost Afrobeat, final track, propelled by the frenetic, friendly charisma of the four veterans standing centre stage.

Heart of the Congos is rightly heralded as one of the great, forward-looking reggae albums of the seventies, and by joining Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, The Congos proved they still have a will to explore and expand on their sound. Live, this sense of adventure certainly made the music interesting, but what sticks in my mind two days later remains the Jamaican singers’ inherent, easy and infectious charm.

19/07: Yndi Halda + John Chantler, Hoxton Hall

Ok, how did I end up in hipster central? Being in Hoxton on a Thursday night, to see a “post-rock” (man, I hate that term) band known for their emotional songs, meant jostling for space with lots of people with ample facial hair and oddly-proportioned trousers, and the need to dodge untold numbers of fixie bikes on the way to the venue. Fortunately, Hoxton Hall is a charming space, decently-sized but intimate, and one well suited for the acts on display on this occasion.

Although, to be honest, I’m not sure what many of the gathered hipsters will have made of John Chantler, who is none other than John from Cafe Oto, something I discovered to my surprise (putting two and two together and making, well, nothing, because I’m too dim!). There was nothing “rock”-related about his set, which featured juddering electro-noise generated on what looked like a massive typewriter, but I’m sure was actually a hefty modular synth. His main asset was his excellent use of stereophonics, which allowed each sound to be amplified and intensified as they emerged on one side of the room, danced and shimmered across the whole spectrum like pixies jigging through the air, before dissipating into the void. Initially very abstract, his compositions gradually settled, building up mechanical tones and edgy percussive noises into a dense and imposing wall of digital drone, which he’d then dissipate with ragged grace. Silence and noise, rhythm and inertia, were juxtaposed as if sparring in a boxing ring and some of the structures, particularly the way the different noises succeeded and swerved around one another, but with a subliminal rhythmic pulsation underneath, reminded me of free jazz, in the same way Keith Fullerton Whitman’s similar avant-electronica does. For his second piece, the rhythms became more present, as if Kraftwerk were jamming with Bootsy Collins in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future. I found it positively thrilling, but would have gladly handed over a bucket-load of pennies for the thoughts of the gathered Yndi Halda fans (pah – they probably would have shattered my pompous lowly expectations: full credit, after all, to the headliners for bringing John on-board – James Vella, their guitarist, was effusive in his praise for him via e-mail)

If there was room to sit down during the opening act, Hoxton Hall was positively rammed by the time Yndi Halda clambered on-stage and crept into the wonderful “Dash and Blast” from their -so far- sole release, Enjoy Eternal Bliss. I suppose this should be confession time: I fricking love that album/EP, and for a while it reignited my faith in the artistic relevance and potency of “emotional” instrumental rock. Sure, it appears to have turned out to be a lovely blip in an increasingly dull sea of mediocrity, as the “post-rock” scene has become more fixated on its own formula and navel than just about any genre I can think of, apparently unaware of the inanity of the term itself (it’s not “post” anything just because you remove the vocals, for f***’s sake!). But I guess I was hoping that Yndi Halda would confirm all the emotions I felt at 21, when I would sit alone in my tiny studio flat and swoon to the quiet-loud-quiet-loud compositions of Godspeed, Explosions In The Sky, et al. I may object to the term “post-rock” (mostly because it simply doesn’t apply to the bands in question), and find a lot of the music hopelessly generic and manipulative, but, like shoegaze, it connects with the pain and wistfulness of youth like few other “rock” genres. Basically, I’m saying sue me – I was hoping Yndi Halda would make me cry!

And “Dash and Blast” is a sure fire winner, a “post-rock” crowd-pleaser if ever there was one, and the band reproduced it exquisitely. Their focal point -despite the presence of singer/multi-instrumentalist James Vella- is the violin of Daniel Neal, which dances up from the centre of the mix, elegant and ethereal, imbued with more emotion in the gentle strokes he performs than most bands can provide across their entire catalogue. It’s weird: as I was standing by the stage, part of me wanted to bemoan the relatively uneven sound quality and overly bright stage lights that detracted somewhat from the potential intimacy of the music, yet all I could focus on is that violin. Kudos to the other band-members as well, for their delicate interplay and measured balance of loudness and silence helped give Neal the space he needed to soar. “Dash and Blast” and the other tracks from Enjoy Eternal Bliss may be built around similar quiet-loud-quiet-again structures to many of the Godspeed Brigade, but, as with the much-lauded Canadians, the violin gives them that much more grace, and a folky undertone throwing back to fellow Canterbury adventurers of decades past such as Caravan or even Soft Machine. For all the familiarity of the song construction, it’s nearly impossible to not get swept up by the music, even for a cynical old bastard like me.

In comparison to the swoops and lulls and dynamic shifts of the Enjoy Eternal Bliss material, a lot of Yndi Halda’s new stuff, most of it vocals-led, feels less immediate and less developed, something that is all the more surprising given that it’s been five years since that album was released, so you’d think they’d have had time to flesh things out. Shorter and less elaborate, they didn’t stick in the memory, although again, the acoustics probably played a significant part in this, with Vella’s voice barely carrying above the music.

It will be intriguing to see where Yndi Halda go from here, and what their next album sounds like. This concert didn’t feel like a showcase for the new material so much as a celebration of the band as a whole, which, on the strength of their performances (flawlessly recreated songs, lots of charisma for Vella and Neal), was well-deserved.

20/07: Excepter + Helm, Cafe Oto

Blame the recession, the (then) upcoming Olympics, or the unexpectedly good weather, but Cafe Oto was unusually quiet for the arrival of one of America’s most singular bands, synth improvisers Excepter. Add Helm into the mix, and the relative sparseness of the crowd was downright odd. Not that I was complaining mind: front-row seats!

In the spirit of the headliners, Design A Wave, aka Tom Hirst, produced a synth-heavy set, but in a very different fashion to Excepter. Stood behind his robust Kawai, Hirst delivered a series of concise, tuneful synth-pop tracks very much in the vein of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Soft Cell and The Royal Family & the Poor. Drum machine beats pattered along monotonously, whilst the Kawai lines swirled or shuddered over the top, the whole thing drenched in a certain retro nostalgia. Most notable were Hirst’s vocals, delivered in a deadpan, Daniel Miller-esque manner and overflowing with bleak lyrics that acted as a sinister counterpoint to the energetic brightness of the music (one highlight included “I call you on the telephone/to insult you”). The vocals were certainly a nice touch, but something felt lacking, perhaps because Hirst’s need to juggle singing with producing the music means everything felt very static. In comparison, the freedom allowed to Marc Almond or Andy McCluskey -for example- by operating in a duo or band meant that both carried arresting live presence, whatever one thinks of the music.

Interestingly, Design A Wave’s debut EP was released on Alter, a cool label run by Luke Younger, who appeared at Oto as Helm, one of the premier noise acts currently operating. This was my third time seeing him, and he just gets better and better. If his latest album, Impossible Symmetry, released on PAN earlier this year, was good, live Helm is something else, as his considered (yes, considered) approach to the archetypes of power electronics gains full force when blasting through a PA. This set, combined of what felt like new improvisations and a diversion via a bit of Impossible Symmetry, was dominated throughout by Younger’s perfect balance between heavy, reverberating drones, and screeching, ear-shattering noise. Each sonic flourish and ingredient was added with expert precision, allowing minute details to pierce the walls of sound and expand the ever-evolving adventure that represents a Helm live set. Here, he juggled subdued tape loops with industrial-strength screes and squalls, the combination lending his music a weird sort of forward momentum, like Throbbing Gristle at their most belligerent and percussive (“Tesco Disco”, maybe?). Helm increasingly represents the future of intelligent noise music, bridging as he does the gaps between the all-out assault of the Macronymphas of this world with something akin to musique concrete.

I went on a bit about synths when introducing this article, but there’s something more of a punk band about Excepter. Or maybe a techno act. Or both. Or neither. Herein lies surely their greatest asset: no matter how familiar many of the sounds are, it’s impossible to properly pin them down, which is surely the mark of a great band. For all the emphasis on improvisation and avant-garde considerations, Excepter hit the ground running here with a pop/dance approach not so far removed from Design A Wave’s, at least at first. As thumping techno beats underscored soaring synth, “leader” John Fell Ryan banged a single snare drum and muttered incoherently into his microphone, looking like a beach bum equivalent of Tony Conrad with his wrap-around shades, felt hat and hawaiian shirt. Things took a turn for the weird as his co-vocalist and wife Lala crawled around the instruments, shuddering in a somewhat disturbing parody of dance. Melodically, the music of Excepter is based on repetition and intensity, layers of electronic bliss getting piled on top of one another as the Ryans jiggle, chant and occasionally add their own flourishes to the hypnotic sub-melodies (her on synth and flute, him on percussion). There’s a definite attitude of incessant defiance about them (it might be John Ryan’s morose demeanor), whilst Lala’s twisted take on dance evokes performance art, yet all the while the room shakes with the driving synth patterns and pounding beats of their two acolytes, stoical behind their massive keyboards. Deliberately fraying the tropes of every genre they dabble in, the flute or drum flourishes became delicious aberrations, a tug-of-war between airy psychedelia and edgy punk muscularity. It’s like krautrock played by bone-headed hardcore punks who’ve somehow also done a degree in avant-garde composition. Despite their abstractions and impenetrable ethos, there is something irresistible and awkwardly satisfying about Excepter.

11/08: PiL, HMV Forum

 “Good evening Kentish Town!” intones the man once known as Johnny Rotten as he strides onstage flanked by the best incarnation of PiL since the release of Metal Box. This is obvious from the moment they launch into a loping, rambunctious rendition of “This Is Not A Love Song”, all razor-blade guitar that somehow sounds like a synth and funky rhythm, with John Lydon still in possession of his trademark vocal style, pitched somewhere between snarl and whine, as he swaggers around on stage in baggy trousers and loose-fitting semi-combat jacket. If ever I had doubts they could deliver so many years after their best records, PiL have dismissed them from the get-go.

This live version of “This Is Not A Love Song” encapsulates in a few minutes encapsulates the enduring potency of this newly-assembled PiL: locked inside its sinewy grooves, you can still feel the punk spirit of ‘77, only transported, refracted and transmogrified through funk, reggae and disco. A lot of bands since the first post-punk explosion have stirred their spoons in this fertile melting pot, but only PiL managed it with such tuneful abrasion. As back catalogue and new tunes are thrown out over the audience, it is striking how forceful, but also how infectiously danceable each every song on the set list is. Only a couple of slow-burning long dub-rock pieces distract from the implacable funkiness that steamrolls off the stage.

This model has been set in rock’n’roll stone since First Edition, and the reason why this year’s This Is PiL is such a gem is that it re-connects with the primordial post-p-funk of those halcyon years without being merely a throwback. At the Forum, tracks like “One Drop” and “Deeper Water”, already so great on record, take on a new life, and segue seamlessly out of the riffs, bass and drums of classics such as “Swan Lake”. Lydon and co. present a solid body of work, a 30-year reflection of rock music that is never satisfied but always looking forward. In the hands of Lu Edmonds (guitar), Scott Firth (bass, keys), Bruce Smith (drums) and John Lydon, “Albatross”, in particular, becomes a rambunctious jam, stretched beyond the confines of its studio performance, but still 100% funky, grimy and psychedelic. 100% PiL, in other words. Jah Wobble and Keith Levene may be missing (and trying to recreate their own version of the myth), but with these guys at the reins, there’s no doubt John Lydon is the one holding the candle.

And make no mistake, Lydon is the king of this weird little kingdom. He exhorts and berates the crowd, glares out over his microphone with those singular eyes, and hilariously demands better sound by shouting “Walter at the altar – more bass!” Forget the butter adverts – John Lydon remains as idiosyncratically, brilliantly, belligerent as ever, as he castigates (somewhat unfairly) the security staff for preventing people from dancing. When he introduces that uncompromising slab of anti-theist post-metal, “Religion”, his anger and righteous rock attitude shine through unabashed: “Lock up your kids – the priests are coming!” Few rock stars these days would be so bold, in an age where criticising religion is such a thorny issue.

Even enthralled by this unique personality, I’m left above all in thrall to his voice. Lydon will always be known for the gob-filled sneer of “I am an antichrist”, but deserves so much more. His high-pitched warble is perfectly pitched to the music of every one of these tracks, whether ramming home a point with snarled aggression, as on “Religion”, or dancing around Edmonds’ guitar on “Swan Lake” as if locked in a weird waltz with the music itself. He may be a buffoon, but Lydon comes so close to being both priest and poet that he’s one of the most easily forgivable megalomaniacs in rock.

27/08: Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, Cafe Oto

 It takes just a few notes from the massed horns of Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith, Gail Brand, Ian Smith and Byron Wallen to make me wish I’d been free on the 26th for the first night of this 2-day residency.

Two markedly different sets make up this concert, and yet Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s unique vision traverses both. In the first, he and the other aforementioned brass players are supported by John Coxon, who provides a dense electronic background whilst they unfurl their dizzying improvisation in a manner resembling a flight formation. Trumpeters Ian Smith and Byron Wallen occupy the flanks, literally, and their initial solos alternate between gasping, flighty tremolos and full-on fire music blasts. Meanwhile, Gail Brand on trombone provides a solid bedrock of deep tones, whilst Wadada hunches over two microphones placed at his feet, seeming to be directing his convulsive blasts into the ground. After this abstract overture, the quintet settles into a sweeping, quasi-orchestral mini-suite, almost akin to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain material, only with Coxon’s deep, convulsive drones adding an undercurrent of industrial-esque unease. Slowly, the piece grows, almost organically, finely balanced between abrasive “new sound’ a la Coltrane, Ayler or Shepp, and a form of beatific cosmic modality. If Ian Smith, Wallen and Brand each bring distinct voices to the table, especially Brand’s entrancing and melodic deep, resonant tones, with Smith the most democratic of leaders, the piece still coalesces around him (indeed, the piece at times closely resembles the title track of his Divine Love album), and it is the Mississippian’s crystalline solos that stand out most of all. The only slight problem in an otherwise blissful set is that Coxon’s electronics occasionally sat somewhat awkwardly with the brass instruments. But that’s a small quibble indeed.

If the first set was challenging but ultimately entrancing, the second is altogether more muscular, a beast of free jazz that sees Smith bolstered by drummers Charles Hayward (formerly of This Heat, no less) and Steve Noble, plus vibist Orphy Robinson. The two drummers instantly launch into frenetic, hard-hitting polyrhythms, as if competing with one another for potency, both in their inimitable styles that they somehow manage to mesh together into a rapidly-shifting whole. Robinson could have been swallowed by such a tidal wave -especially as Smith seems content to just listen and let the percussionists find their groove- but instead his vibraphone becomes a welcome counterpoint to Hayward and Noble’s heaviness, as he weaves graceful, airy lines around and in-between their propulsive clatters and thumps.

When Smith joins the fray, it’s with a thrilling wah-ing solo that dances around the sturm und drang, and the piece rapidly grows into a wild slab of pure fire music, with the trumpeter’s open-ended solos matching his backers’ percussive drive with stabbing staccato notes whilst also sliding in and out of soaring melodic lines.

Ever the democrat, Smith again pulls back at one point to allow for a triple-edged percussion solo in which Hayward and Noble again showcase their innate ability to play around and inside each other’s styles, with Noble showcasing his frenetic ability to pound away whilst also ripping jolting clatters from small cymbals he places on his snare. But in many ways Orphy Robinson shines brightest of the three, matching the other two for volume (including some thumping bass notes drawn out of a pedal), but also holding the melody together with his bright and clear-sounding tones. Then Smith kicks back in to tie everything back together in a sweeping final movement that, for all its “noise”, also delves unexpectedly into moments of tranquility, with clear influences taken from African music and even samba. If Gram Parsons claimed to have invented “cosmic American music”, I think the strange and disparate sounds in an Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith concert must constitute “cosmic global music”. And all the while, he diligently points his horn at his feet. Jazz has sometimes been described as a “cry to heaven”. It seems that Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith is trying to conjure that heaven up from under our feet.

19/10: Gnod, Goat, Teeth of the Sea, The Lexington

In many ways, it’s comforting to know that psychedelic rock is still out there – alive, fresh and increasingly heavy. Like many a former college kid, I spent several of my formative years smoking pot whilst tripping out to the likes of Love, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, their music gaining significance with each new hit. The fact that those acid-drenched guitar licks and woozy Wurlitzer chords still resonate with modern bands is, however, testimony to the fact that there was always more to psych-rock than to act as a mere supplement to drug-induced inertia. Scratch away at the incense burns and trippy album covers, and much of psych-rock, past and present, still packs a punch.

That much is clearly on display at the Lexington, as three of the most feted modern-day psych acts, all on Rocket Recordings, take to the cramped stage, turn on the multi-coloured videos, dim the lights and launch into their disparate takes on the legacy of Hendrix, Joplin, Garcia et al. Gnod are the heaviest of the three, distilling a form of languid-yet-crushing psych-metal that collates strands of trippy krautrock (Amon Duul II, in particular) and buzzing West Coast acid rock and then slams it through a filter that’s equal parts Blue Cheer and Writing on the Wall. The lead singer’s distorted, echo-drenched vocals, meanwhile, evoke Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge, his howls and groans looping over themselves into a formless choir. The highlight of their pummeling set is “Tony’s First Communion”, on which the drummer lays down a groove reminiscent of Werner “Zappi” Diermaier’s slovenly backbeat on Faust and Tony Conrad’s “From the Side of Man and Womankind” under layers of raucous guitar drones and freeform solos. To my relief, the band refuses to give in to the temptation to switch away from this minimalist plod, driving the track with pig-headed determination until it collapses in a blare of feedback and acidic raucousness. Sure, the drummer sometimes drops the beat, and it gets a tad messy across the set, but Gnod have energy to burn and potent riffs aplenty, meaning they’re one of the most satisfying psych acts in the country.

Goat arrive in London on the back of many positive column inches in the alternative music press and a surprisingly solid chart position in their native Sweden for their debut album. Apparently, this is their first-ever live performance, but you wouldn’t know it by their confident performance and unique collection of stage presences. Their sound is a cohesive fusion of upbeat psych-rock and Middle Eastern textures, notably the presence of two maraca-shaking female singers in kaftans whose combined voices are both uplifting and strangely spiritual. Wearing face paint and masks, the band look strange, but the music is tight, with undulating, supple rhythms and lots of fast-paced guitar riffage. Goat are certainly fun, leading the crowd in excited dances, but somehow their quirkiness feels distractingly gimmicky.

Teeth of the Sea’s debut album, Orphaned by the Ocean was one of the best releases of 2010, a subtle and enthralling blend of psych, metal and noise. Since then, they’ve evolved considerably, first upping the synth quotient and now expanding their previously-minimal drum kit to allow Mat Colegate to add extra propulsion to a brand new set of tracks that completely re-work not just Teeth of the Sea’s sound, but that of modern psych altogether. Mixing live drums with drum machines, and with luscious synth lines soaring over the top, occasionally joined by Jimmy Martin’s stabbed guitar licks, the band builds up a vibrant hybrid form of punkish dance layered with shimmering post-psych flourishes. Like Gnod, they use colourful abstract visuals, but Teeth of the Sea’s new musical direction is more brittle and lithe than the Mancunians’, the psychedelia coming from the mesmeric nature of their rhythmic pulsations and the melodic blend of Martin and Mike Bourne’s synths. The closest musical cousin to this set I can think of would be Fuck Buttons’ Tarot Sport, except that Teeth of the Sea have not forgotten their noisy roots amongst the beats and the synths, with a current of grit and gristle underlying every note. At the Lexington, they demonstrate that they remain one of Britain’s most exciting, forward-facing acts, with members who are not afraid to embrace different genres and constantly push their sound forwards. I now can’t wait for their next album!

– Kimberley Powenski (images)

22/10: Acid Mother Temple + Hey Colossus, Corsica Studios

Last time I was at Corsica Studios, it was for an all-night showcase of blistering noise-techno supplied by angry-looking men in combat gear hunched over synths, laptops and beat-up effects pedals. Tonight’s concert was at a more reasonable hour (as I edge grumpily towards 30, these things become important) but there was still the kind of intense volume and attitude you’d expect from these two metal/psych stalwarts.

Birmingham-based outfit Hey Colossus have slowly been making waves and are increasingly viewed as one of the best -and most brutal- metal acts in the country, and they seem determined to prove themselves worthy of such a tag from the get-go in South London. If they have a mantra, it’d be “Let’s pound these fuckers to the ground! Even if we go down with’em!” It’s an attitude that imbues their set with tension and aggression, with varying results. Compared to their full throttle Happy Birthday album, my main reference point when it comes to Hey Colossus, they initially hit the ground at a loping pace, neatly sidestepping the hardcore edginess I expected in favour of a grindingly obtuse mixture of post-rock and something approaching doom metal, but filtered through Godflesh’s industrial nihilism. The deployment of three guitarists allows the band to juxtapose styles whilst maintaining a vice-like grip on that transcendent seraphim of metal: the riff. Swirling or grunting around a sturdy rhythmic column, the three guitarists trade sludgy chords for spiralling arpeggios, a six-string equivalent of hanging, drawing and quartering, even as the vocalist barks and howls his vocals at the audience like misanthropic hiccups.

The rest of their set sees Hey Colossus juggling a series of stylistic amalgamations, lurching from thrashing hardcore to morose psychedelic doom. The longer workouts are the most memorable (there’s only so much crusty punk-metal I can take before becoming bored, and I think that limit was set by Big Black’s first two albums – plus, let’s face it, Motörhead kicked everyone in the balls from the get-go, making any subsequent collision of punk and metal obsolete before it was even dreamt up), especially a wonderfully punishing final track that kicks off at 100 mph before descending into the scorched catacombs of miasmic doom, complete with suitably unintelligible black metal-esque vocals. Hey Colossus’ songs don’t quite live up to the band’s undeniably infectious attitude, but they possess that essential ingredient that I consider requisite for any self-described “heavy” band: the sense that everything could collapse into chaos at any moment.

In a funny way, Acid Mothers Temple sound like they’re teetering on the brink of that same ramshackle abyss, but equally demonstrate such confident interplay that it’s clear that all risk of disintegration is illusory. This set is very similar in feel (and line-up) as the last I saw them in this same venue over 12 months ago, and it’s one dominated by the opposite personalities and stage presences of guitarist Kawabata Makoto and synth wizard Hiroshi Higashi, with the simultaneous contrast and symbiosis between the two tugging the Japanese legends’ psychedelic rock in different, but not totally incompatible, directions. Higashi is a master of the Hawkwind-ish psychedelic flight of fancy, his omnipresent sweeps and surges barging into and then dissolving into the grooves set up by the band’s solid rhythm section like an intrusive but ultimately welcome guest at the weirdest dinner party ever held. In contrast, Kawabata is the band’s focal point, but equally its wild card, spraying out wah-laden riffs before calmly lurching into acid-drenched hard rock solos. As much as Higashi provides comedy with his goofball dancing, and enraptures with his mesmeric calm, my eyes are constantly drawn back to Kawabata, with his improbable curls and perfect synthesis of Hendrix, Iommi and Kaukonen on the axe. Journalists and musicians will often oversell the importance of the electric guitar, but in Kawabata’s hands it’s suitably hypnotic.

Speaking to me via e-mail, Kawabata explains that the entire set is an improvisation, which is all the more notable given the slickness of the quintet’s interplay. Part of me wishes they’d whack out some of the material from their impressive latest album, Son of a Bitches Brew, but when they roll trippily into the unparalleled guitar lines (is it a solo or a riff?) of “Pink Lady Lemonade”, which sees Kawabata channel Neil Young and Manuel Göttsching, it’s hard to have any complaints. “Pink Lady Lemonade” may be AMT’s greatest moment, a wonderful melange of every influence that the band crystallises even as they wear them on their baggy sleeves. A bristling, noisy, improvisation angrily cleaves the track in two, dragging it into the aforementioned chaos zone, but, improbably, the band bursts out of the mess and back into “Pink Lady Lemonade”, Kawabata’s guitar slaloming through the muggy air inside Corsica Studios and hypnotising every audience member like an instrumental cobra. I’m reminded of the first time I saw Neil Young play “Words” on stage, obliterating the entire preceding Primal Scream set with just a few notes; sometimes a simple riff or arpeggio can surpass every instrument, melody and noise thrown over a crowd by any other band. This was one such moment.

I imagine that for many, the evening’s highlight will have been the moment Makoto Kawabata used lighter fluid to set fire to his guitar before destroying it and doing the same to the next one. It’s certainly memorable, but I’ve seen it all before. So best to use my mind’s ear to lock onto that eternal guitar progression from “Pink Lady Lemonade”. I’m not sure I’ve seen Acid Mothers Temple at their best tonight, but that track, and the way it swallowed me whole, won’t leave me anytime soon.

21/11: Laurel Halo, Plastic People

Right artists, wrong venue. Opens late. The bouncers subject us to the kind of over-zealous body search (chewing gum is not allowed at Plastic People, for some reason) you wouldn’t even expect at JFK airport. Beers cost £4 a bottle (in my world, this is a seriously big deal). The performance space is cramped and overfilled, the temperature swiftly rising. It says much about the world current music fans live in that we are prepared to fork out excessive amounts of money to receive such overt contempt and be subjected to this kind of discomfort. Oh well, it’s part of the Shoreditch (or London, if Koko, the Forum and the Apollo are anything to go by) experience, right? As I crane over a sardine-like mass midway through Laurel Halo’s set, I quietly thank the ether for Cafe Oto and The Vortex’s ongoing existence. Without them, the London live experience would be noticeably poorer.

But I digress. The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic delivered one of the best albums of 2011 in the form of his self-titled debut, but it was based on dark-folk string arrangements and echo-laden drum sounds. How would he convert this dense-yet-elaborate sound to such an intimate club venue as Plastic People (capacity – supposedly- 100)? Remarkably, using just an Elektron sampler/sequencer, he manages to create a set that balances the doom-laden atmosphere of his album with a potent dancefloor twist. With neat black and white excerpts from Tarkowsky’s Stalker playing behind him, Krlic unleashes room-shaking sub-bass and shuddering beats, pitching the traces of The Haxan Cloak that linger in the fault-lines between his post-dubstep rhythms into a minimalist form of dark industrial techno, somewhere between Demdike Stare and Vatican Shadow. Like those artists, The Haxan Cloak’s music (in this format at least) functions mostly on a purely visceral level, with the grinding rhythms and bursts of synthetic noise filling the space in the room before seeping over the audience’s perceptions. A photo I take (in the pitch black of the room – the ideas we have sometimes) captures the spirit of this set rather well: Krlic himself is subsumed by shadow, completely invisible, whilst the hazy reflections of LED lights shining out of the synth cast a ghostly shimmer that dissolves into abstraction as the shadows close in. There’s dance and synthetic music running through The Haxan Cloak’s music, but these details are quickly subsumed by the sheer, blackened weight of the sound being unfurled.

Laurel Halo, in comparison, is relatively bouncy once she decides to come on in a room now packed beyond belief and rapidly reaching sauna-esque temperatures. Wearing a Hyperdub tee-shirt, and with her hair tied in a ponytail, she jerks and shakes almost aggressively as she darts between the various synths, sequencers and samplers that make up her impressive bank of electro tools. Surprisingly, she veers away from the song formats that made up her recent -and, in my opinion, rather poor- Quarantine album, instead dropping her voice in as yet another sample and combining the disparate sounds into a dislocated, intensely rhythmic form of disjointed techno. In many ways, this feels more like a DJ set than the pop-ish concert I’d been expected, with more frenetic beats and lumbering bass than featured on either Quarantine or her Hour Logic EP, but with the crowd pressing around her, any chance of responding physically to the music is rendered impossible, which is a shame, because these rhythms are improbably infectious after the slothful moodiness of her recorded output, with r’n’b and even disco filtered artfully around the hypnagogic-esque synth washes and post-house melodies, like Larry Levan by way of Rustie. So again, Plastic People becomes the biggest hindrance to what could have been a revelatory -if somewhat overly-synthetic- performance. After all, it’s hard to imagine Levan, for example, would ever have tolerated having his music hemmed in by his own crowd. I’m all for the intellectualisation of dance music (and you can tell this crowd takes Laurel Halo very seriously), but not if it’s to the detriment of its main purpose: to make you, well, dance.

28/11: Luke Younger & Tom James Scott, Cafe Oto

This is the kind of night places like Oto live for, in a way. We all love it when big names from the fringes of rock (Michael Gira, Nadja…) or underground and jazz icons (Haino, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell and God knows how many others) fill the small, incomparable venue in East London, but there’s always something a bit special when you’re presented with the work of lesser known acts with no idea what to expect.

lll人

London-based trio lll人 provide an intriguing take on free jazz. Saxophonist Seymour Wright is your typical hard-blowing free-former in the violent style of Mats Gustafsson, and has an able partner in the muscular form of drummer Paul Abbott. At times, their interactions evoke the barnstorming proto-No Wave of Arthur Doyle’s Alabama Feeling, but the real joker in the card is Daichi Yoshikawa on what is rather mistakenly described as electronics on the Oto website. Rather, he uses a contact mic, heavily processed, to create strident, percussive noise swoops that pitch the set into a form of chaotic noise/jazz hybrid. At his most sensitive, his improbably loud, distorted and saturated punctuations seem to mirror the tone and textures of the drums and sax, but at others he threatens to completely overwhelm his band-mates. Briefly the trio flirt with near silence, but these moments rarely last before the bludgeoning contact mic resumes its battering. This is one of the limits of mixing “free” music with noise, and in a set that is slightly too long, lll人 rarely seem able to overcome it.
RIE NAKAJEMA + ANGHARAD DAVIES

It contrast to lll人’s raucous assault, Rie Nakajima and Angharad Davies demonstrate an exquisite focus on the more intricate side of musical creation. Nakajima’s “instruments” consist of evidently self-made wind-up objects that she activates and then sets against various household objects such as plates or bowls before placing the resultant “instruments in various places around the room. Meanwhile, Davies prowls the room, occasionally settling on a vacant chair or standing stock still, all the time playing muted repeated notes on a mic-less violin. With both artists reducing their interactions to exchanged glances, and constantly maintaining a certain distance between each other as they roam through the audience, what unfolds becomes more a work of performance art than a music set. Initially, the sounds are quiet, almost inaudible, but as a hush descends over the gather spectators, the multi-layered buzzes, clicks and rattles build into a fascinating cloud in and out of which dances Davies’ elegant violin minimalism. With both performers constantly shifting their spatial position, the unfolding music is constantly unpredictable, an ever-shifting environment of sound which develops with the patience of a zen Buddhist ritual. It is surely the stand-out performance of the night, and Nakajima and Davies’ remarkable attention to detail and focus on the physicality of quiet sounds is a revelation.

LUKE YOUNGER + TOM JAMES SCOTT

Luke Younger, under his Helm moniker, is a potent force on the modern noise scene, but, if this show is anything to go by, his work under his own name is a much quieter affair. Tonight, he is joined by Tom James Scott on piano, who starts the set by playing quiet, reverberating tinkles of the ivories whilst Younger peers pensively at his electronics and mixing desk, as if drinking in his partner’s sounds. When he does join in, it’s by unfurling a series of subdued percussive tones and discreet drones, which combine with Scott’s piano to create a form of organic-sounding ambient in the style of Eno and Harold Budd’s The Plateaux of Mirror. Luke gradually introduces more textures, but these are like drops of water that dissolve into the overall pool of music. You couldn’t get much further from the brittle industrialism of Helm. With some of the piano apparently being looped, it’s not always easy to follow what Scott and interest repeatedly drifts towards Younger as he introduces new sounds, although these rarely settle in the memory. It’s always the risk with ambient music: it can often seem a little dry and detached when performed live, especially if there’s no performance or context for the audience to latch onto.

A Liminal Review: Novaya Zemlya by Thomas Köner (June 20th, 2012)

The term “psychogeography” is often used, and possibly misused, by music journalists these days, including myself. It is a very tempting and useful shorthand when discussing the likes of Burial, Demdike Stare and Richard Skelton, but not always appropriate, at least if you understand “psychogeography” in the same terms as the Lettrist movement, who coined it, did. Luckily for us scribes (especially those, like me, who want to seem smarter than they are), language evolves, and if there is an album most fitting to be described in terms of psychogeography, it is this fascinating new opus by German ambient great Thomas Köner.

Which is ironic, in a way, because the prefix in psychogeography, by definition, suggests people. The presence of minds that populate space. Yet Köner has chosen to create a piece of music – and, despite consisting of three tracks, Novaya Zemlya feels very much like a single piece – that reflects one of the most extreme, unpopulated and far-flung places on earth, an archipelago in Northern Siberia whose indigenous population were relocated by the Soviet authorities so that it could be used for some of the most powerful nuclear tests in human history. If that wasn’t foreboding enough, it is also the easternmost place in Europe, and situated very close to the Arctic wastes. This subtext of Cold War, diaspora and isolation was always going to be perfect inspiration for Thomas Köner, a man whose work has long been renowned for it austerity and desolation, and who had already established his fascination with, and ability to map out a musical semaphore for, the bleak wastelands close to the North Pole on his seminal early-nineties trio of albums Nunatuk Gongamur, Teimo and Permafrost.

Novaya Zemlya differs from the aforementioned trio through the specificity of the location he seeks to evoke, although obviously few people who hear it will have ever visited the titular archipelago. But the charged historical and geographical contexts of the place, those of one buffeted by time and the elements, imbue the album with a greater resonance even than Permafrost, and with a more emphasised sense of what Thierry Charollais refers to in his liner notes as “metaphysical geography” than ‘97’s Nuuk. Only minimal information about Novaya Zemlya is needed to feel absorbed, and, in the right conditions, even overwhelmed by this album.

One of Köner’s greatest strengths is his use of silence. Novaya Zemlya is a quiet album, with some sounds verging on the imperceptible, but that doesn’t affect the potency. Instead, sounds are perceived at a clear distance, from the crackle of a radio to remote industrial groans that instantly bring to mind those nuclear tests. This ability to so expertly control the spatiality of his music is a talent I’ve seen in few “ambient” artists apart from Köner, and one that forces concentration (this is not the kind of ambient music you can put in the background), and from this coerced engagement the psychogeography builds, one of pure austerity and bleakness, as dark as any more openly tenebrous noise or drone album. This music is tangible, for all the prolonged silences and elusive field recording snippets, and therefore unsettlingly immediate. Landscapes surge into consciousness on the back of deep, reverberating drones and cavernous low-end pulsations: ice and glaciers drift on the Bering strait, machines can be heard releasing their toxic radium under the islands’ rocks, and sheets of constrained white noise evoke the howling winds that whip and slam against this far-off no-man’s land. The imagery is potent, even if it is essentially devoid of romanticism: there is a hint of Touch labelmate Chris Watson to Thomas Köner’s grim musical portrayal of this forbidding outcrop of humanity and geology.

Such bleakness could quickly become overbearing and hostile were it not for Köner’s equally innate sense of melody. Indistinct exoskeletons of tunes emerge from the silences or screes like delicate wafts of air, inchoate burbles and trickles that nuance the emotional potency of the album, lifting it from pure bleakness to something more ambiguous. Novaya Zemlya is not merely a cold and impersonal geographical study, but rather a consideration of the natural and human impacts on a random, but intriguing, parcel of land. Each time the haze breaks and a melodic line pierces the subsequent aural space, Novaya Zemlya is imbued with something approaching pathos, or at least a wistfulness and thoughtfulness to counterbalance the oppressive claustrophobia that dominates a lot of the rest of the album, especially the first track. In fact, if any image dominates the curious psychogeography of Novaya Zemlya, it’s unsurprisingly the rain-lashed and blurry cover photo: this land (and its people, for there are still people on Novaya Zemlya) is bleak but not ruined, desolate but not destroyed. This watery, indistinct vista brings to mind the great post-nuclear film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, with its isolated protagonists drifting through a harsh and unforgiving landscape in search of existential fulfilment: the Novaya Zemlya of Thomas Köner is a distant, blighted world, one punished by time, space and history, but, crucially, one still inhabited by the presence of humanity and desire.

www.touchmusic.org.uk

A Liminal Interview: Philip Jeck (October 12th, 2011)

An Aggregation of Small Gains – An Interview with Philip Jeck

Philip Jeck

Philip Jeck is one of Britain’s most exciting and innovative experimental musicians, using turntables and vinyl records to create expansive and emotionally affecting soundscapes. His latest album An Ark for the Listener (released last year on Touch) was our Uranus prize winner this year. The Liminal recently visited Philip Jeck in Liverpool to discuss the album, his evolution as an artist, and the importance of emotion in music.

The Liminal (spotting Philip’s HMV bag): Ooh, done some shopping? Anything good?

Philip Jeck: I’ve been commissioned to do a piece for the re-release of Cendrillion ou la Pantoufle, the black-and-white French film that’s basically the story of Cinderella. It’s a bit like a primary school play, even though the colouring is beautiful. Different Touch artists got allocated ones, and there are one or two much better ones, but Cendrillon does have some naive charm. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this, but I thought maybe I should listen to some ballet music of the story and I listened to it online, bought this CD of Prokofiev, which features a suite of Cinderella, and I like him as a composer, so I’m going to work with that, and do something with that for it.

TL: So it’s a silent film?

PJ: Silent yeah, and it was coloured at the time, not colourised later, but actually hand-coloured, painstakingly painted onto the negative, frame by frame. Luckily it’s only on the last few minutes!

TL: Do Touch get contacted regularly for projects like that?

PJ: A bit, yeah. I get a fair amount of work through Touch, Touch put on events and stuff. In fact, my next gig is going to be for Spire at Lincoln Cathedral, put on by Mike (Harding) and Charles Matthews, it was their idea. That’ll be next month. The 21st I think…

TL: Approaching your live material, I recently saw you at The Vortex and thought it was fascinating – what were your thoughts on how the show went, how it was organised?

PJ: I don’t know (organiser) Jonny Mugwump very well, but he contacted me ages ago and I couldn’t do the gig at the time, but then the Vortex date came up and I agreed to it ages ago. I still like to do small venues if people are looking to promote stuff like that.

TL: Because you’ve done some pretty big venues, haven’t you?

PJ: Oh yeah, exactly, and I do have an agent who gets me work, sometimes for a lot of money, but -and I’ve told my agent this- where do things start if people can’t put on small events, and where do people start? So I’m happy to support small events like the one at the Vortex. I know how tough it can be.

TL: Your sound is quite ”big”, and fills space quite dramatically. Do you have to adapt your set-up depending on the size of the venue and proximity to the audience?

PJ: Not the set-up. What I have is really versatile, but I do adapt what I play, absolutely, to the what the venue is. The Vortex is quite small, but there’s not much noise, from the bar and whatnot. I’ve played in some bar-type places that were very noisy, which I really don’t like playing much, because you feel you have to really pump it up, which makes it very hard to be subtle and quiet, and I don’t like that. I’ve had some very interesting experiences of dealing with that, where I’ve felt I’d have to play really loud because of the noise from the bar and so on. Don’t believe it if they tell you the bar will be closed when you’re playing! But the Vortex was ok in that respect.
My ideal venues are concert halls that are made for playing.

TL: The choice of Lincoln Cathedral is very interesting then, for your next show. There was a retrospective of Eliane Radigue’s music in London this year, and they specifically chose churches, and like hers, your music, whilst very different, has moments where almost the absence of music is as important as the music itself…

PJ: Yeah, it’s to do with the space, and being able to have control of the sound, and allowing the natural accidents to come in, as opposed to the noise of the venue. I really do like her stuff a lot, because her sound inhabits the world and takes you somewhere else. I do it in a different way, but that’s always what I want to do: that thing that takes you away, or emotionally affects you – I always strive to find that thing that goes a little bit higher or further.

Philip Jeck

TL: The reverse of the large venues is that you recently performed at a retirement home. That’s quite leftfield, even for a Touch artist! How did that come about?

PJ: That was for a residency, up in Cumbria, at Barrow-in-Furness. There’s a festival called FON, Full of Noises, so I went up there to perform in a very beautiful church, one of the only Byzantine-style churches in the UK. Barrow-in-Furness has lost most of its industry, so it’s a bit run-down, there’s quite a lot of unemployment and most of the shops on the high street are shut, but just outside the town there’s the beautiful church and that’s where they put on the final performances for FON. The festival has a relationship with this residential home, and they go in there to meet the residents, play them their favourite records, so they asked if I would play there.

I was a little bit nervous at first which, when I look back on it, was a little bit patronising. I went there at 11 o’clock in the morning, and set up in the lounge area, and after being introduced, talked a little bit about my history and mentioned that my music can be a little bit discordant, which I probably shouldn’t have said, because a lot of those people grew up with the same musics as me, and the response was really very good. Some people left, which is fine – it happens all the time (laughs); but afterwards several people came and had a chat with me, to tell me what they had related to, which I was really chuffed about.

It was quite mellow, there was only a little sound system, and no sub-bass like at the Vortex, but it was good, and it taught me some lessons about not pre-judging your audience.

TL: Your main tool is vinyl, and old vinyl at that, which brings a kind of connotation of time and memory, which may have resonated with that audience. Leyland Kirby, as the Caretaker, uses vinyl to reflect on memory and even Alzheimer’s, whilst Christian Marclay uses it as an art tool, rather than music. Discovering your music was revelatory in the way that vinyl and the turntable can be played as an instrument. How did you get into that approach and why?

PJ: I always loved music, right from childhood, all types of music. I learned a bit of guitar when I was younger, but what I could play with it just didn’t interest me. I could draw and paint, and write reasonably, so I went to art college, Dartington College of Arts, where there was a music department, and in the 70s one of the requirements was that you spent one day a week in a different department to your own, so I joined the theatre department once a week.

They had great people who came down to teach and hold workshops, especially in the theatre department. I like the ephemeral thing with theatre, things happening in the moment.

To make a bit of money, I ended up working for a roofing company for much longer than expected, 3 years instead of six months! A friend of mine who was working in physical theatre and performance in London offered for me to come down to work during my holidays, and I realised what I was missing. After that, I got to know people involved in theatre and dance and got to know people from the London Musicians’ Collective, which saw me get into DJ-ing on turntables. In 1979, I went to New York, went to a few clubs and picked up a load of 12” singles, not so much the early hip-hop, like Grandmaster Flash, more people like Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons, who were doing long-form mixes. Walter Gibbons was particularly a big influence on me.

So I bought a second turntable, a little mixer, and started out sort of trying to copy those guys, but it wasn’t so long before I wanted to bring other things, all sorts of new records, into the sound, but when playing for parties or clubs, it’d clear the dancefloor, particularly at that time, when 4 to the floor was so popular. But I didn’t want to do that really, there were better people than me at it, and I’d get bored and want to chuck other stuff in there. Compared to what I do now, the changes were probably pretty fast, and over time I’ve just slowed it down, as the most important thing is how you move from one thing to another.

I started meeting other musicians who were doing stuff, started playing with them, and my music really started to develop when I started working with a dancer/choreographer in early-83 or 84. He had an agent in Holland who got us tons and tons of work, in Europe and the States. I was still just starting out with vinyl records, so I learnt on the road. I got paid to develop. At first, his work was improvised, but he soon got well known enough to have his own company and develop choreographs with a troupe of dancers. I still worked with him, from ‘84 to maybe ‘90, so about 6 years on the road.

TL: That’s really fascinating, as one might not think your music would work with dance, but much in the way Merce Cunningham worked with avant-garde music, I can see it being an interesting combination.

PJ: Yeah, I work with a lot of dance companies. My partner Mary is involved in dance, and I’ve met a lot of dancers. I used to live at Butler’s Wharf in London, right next to one of the first independent dance studios, which evolved into Chisenhale Studios, which we built and ran. We also used to put on a lot of performance work and music. It depends on what area of dance you do. I worked with a lot of improvisatory dancers. I haven’t done so much of late, but you pick and learn from all those things.

To pick up on what I was saying though, music was my thing and my way into it was through the DJ-ing, trying my best to be a bit straight-ahead disco and since then it’s been an evolution into what I’m doing now. I don’t think I’ve ever made any huge changes, but if you look back five years, you see the evolution.

TL: It’s even evolved from album-to-album…

PJ: Absolutely. I don’t want to do one that’s exactly like the last one. Between a couple there was quite a long gap, because I’d done things that weren’t as good as what was on the last album, so I scrapped what I was doing. It’s got to be at least as good as the last one, in my head.
And the last one (note: An Ark for the Listener) was a real conscious decision to do something about one thing: a verse out of a poem.

TL: Indeed, and I was going to ask you about that. As you say, it was inspired by the 33rd verse of The Wreck of the Deutschland. What exactly drew you to that poem, and that verse in particular?

PJ: There were a few serendipitous moments, really. I got asked to do something at King’s Place in London, for the Bubbly Blue and Green Festival, which is to do with the sea, and I think they asked me because I’d done that album with Gavin Bryars (note: The Sinking of the Titanic, also with Alter Ego). At first I thought “no”, as that wasn’t my piece, it’s Gavin’s, but then I remembered The Wreck of the Deutschland. It’s not my favourite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, it’s too bloody long-winded, but I really rate him as a poet. So I read through it, and just this one verse, even that one line, “An ark for the listener”… and I thought “Fucking hell – what an amazing line!”.

I think, because I’d had to plough through the poem every time I read it, I’d missed the subtleties, so I thought I’d just concentrate on this one verse, this one stanza and try to understand it in my own way before making sound around it, but not to illustrate it.

Before doing King’s Place, I’d done a concert here in Liverpool, and recorded it, and so much of that recording suggested the sea to me, so for several concerts then-on, that was in my head. I try to record most concerts I play, so I had all this material, which I spent a long time editing, as with every CD I do. Some tracks on An Ark for the Listener might consist of 4 or 5 concert excerpts…

As an aside, the difference between making a CD or record for people to listen to at home and a concert is considerable. I have no control over what people will listen to it on at home, so you really have to think about that when making an album. I’ve done a couple of live shows that were unedited, such as the Live at the ICC in Tokyo, but most of my records involve a lot of editing, so they’re a completely different experience to seeing me live. For An Ark for the Listener, 80% was taken from live performances, but I’m constructing from these live pieces to make something to go into peoples homes.

TL: It’s interesting that you were attracted by that one verse, because it has a lot of the same qualities as your music – it’s slightly abstract, such as the line “The All of Water”, but it’s very emotionally evocative…

PJ: Exactly, that’s why I chose it – it rang so many bells! There are a lot of verses in that poem that did not have that effect but I remember getting to that one and going “My God, this is incredible, this is so like what I do!”

TL: And emotion is very central to what you do. We can talk a lot about the experimental or avant-garde side to your work, but one thing that keeps coming back, which isn’t the case with a lot of experimental musicians, is the sense of emotion. Is that difficult to put into music?

PJ: Yeah it is. You have to be prepared to throw yourself into it. When I play, I do feel drained afterwards. Sometimes when I’m playing I get choked up… I’m not sure where it comes from, but over the time I’ve been doing it, for me the times when I’m most successful is when I’m the most attuned to what’s happening. So, when I’m playing, the thing I want most is that the music moves me, so when I find those moments I’ll either expand on them, add to them; or the opposite, I’ll just try to hold the moment, that small sound, that emotional content. It’s about trying to distill that sound, which is also in a way what I do when I’m editing: distilling that moment. And yeah, it has to move me, or it won’t move anyone else. A lot of it is in the moment, and I don’t know what will happen during the concert, which makes me nervous. Because it means something to me, I put pressure on myself. You shouldn’t become blase about what you do.

TL: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the narrative approach that traverses An Ark for the Listener seems different to previous albums, which were made up of collections of songs. They might have had recurring themes, such as Sand, but this one has more of a narrative…

PJ: Well, yeah, because, in my head, I was following that verse, so every time I worked on it, I kept going back and asking “Does this relate to this?”, and in fact the orders of tracks got switched around, and a couple of separate tracks got combined, like the first track. I swapped the order around a few times, and even re-edited stuff. When I make an album, I make a rough demo version, which I then put away for two or three weeks, then I listen to it again, to listen to it as an independent listen. So I can pick out what doesn’t fit, or where there’s not enough in a track. And I do that a few times before sending my master to Touch to get their feedback and the final master.

TL: That narrative approach: was that more difficult than doing a track like “Pax” (note: from Stoke), which was based around a single old vinyl record?

PJ: I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult… It’s longer, but not more difficult. There’s one fantastic phrase which has stuck with me since I first heard it, about the now very successful British cycling team. The head coach talked brilliantly about the training and everything, and said this one line: “In the end, it’s just the aggregation of small gains”. I thought, “How great is that? I do that when I’m editing my CDs!” You’re doing that the whole time, just a little step up here and there. You just work with each moment.

TL: Was the way you approached An Ark for the Listener change the way you created the music? The crackle of vinyl that permeates previous albums seems more restrained – did you use different instruments or equipment?

PJ: Yeah. The records I used were probably a little bit newer, with fewer scratches. There’s a fair amount of bass guitar on there, through a lot of effects. So the organ sound is actually bass guitar. Some of the records were pristine. It wasn’t a really conscious decision, but “The All of Water”, for example, was a brand new record of a baroque harpsichord piece, still shrink-wrapped. I thought it sounded just like the sea, so I did a lot of cutting up and slowing down of that. I probably did more processing on An Ark for the Listener than on most of my previous records, I used a lot effects. Actually, one or two tracks have been through processing three or four times, which would have edited out a lot of the crackle and given it that submerged sound.

Philip Jeck

TL: The Sea seems to crop up quite a lot in your album titles, and you worked, as you said, with Gavin Bryars of The Sinking of the Titanic… Is that from living in Liverpool?

PJ: That’s why I liked that line ‘the all of water’: you stand by the sea and it is “the all”. You stand on a cliff-top looking at the sea, and I find it’s completely emotionally overwhelming. I have a fear of water, as well as admiration, the mass of it, so if I want to conjure up some emotion along those lines, I only have to think about being on a boat.

For the titles, there was a bit of a break away, because I’d got myself perhaps into a bit of a trap by having albums all beginning with ‘S’, and after Sand, I thought, “this is crazy”; it was getting very hard to think of a title. And since Surf, the titles have come some time after the recordings, and Stoke for example was thought up by Touch. So another switch was that in this case, I decided to start with the title, with that line that just jumped out at me. It was the title before I’d really made that much music. I felt I was getting stuck.

TL: Is there another album in the pipeline?

PJ: Not really… I don’t know what will be next. I’ve been doing stuff with Ted Reiderer who runs Never Records, and went to the Merge Festival. I met him last year at the Biennial here in Liverpool, and did some work with him at the time, and he then sent me some vinyl, that I worked with and sent back, for him to then work with and send back, and we did this three or four times, so there might be a record out of that. At Merge, he got a bunch of musicians: an accordionist, guitarists, a singer… and they played songs that were live cut to vinyl, which Ted then handed to me to work with; it was great, really interesting. Hot off the press vinyl: brilliant! There were six made. I’ve kept a couple, and Ted kept a couple and a couple went to Touch. I think they’re going to be auctioned off to help an Iranian guy fight extradition back to Iran.

TL: That’s amazing. Back to your beginnings as a DJ and then working with turntables – you were very much a pioneer of what has become somewhat ubiquitous, with guys like The Caretaker and Burial also using vinyl. What do you make of this emerging scene?

PJ: Well, there’s really nothing new under the sun, I mean, John Cage was working with vinyl in the fifties, and someone told me this European guy was doing it in the forties, even. I have mixed feelings about it, I think; there are people I like, people I don’t like, as with anything. But I’m glad people are doing it, but I don’t have any feeling either way. You mentioned Christian Marclay, what was interesting with him were the possibilities he threw up. I met him in the eighties, when I was just starting out, and seeing what he was doing with records was important, but it was more about the possibilities, which are endless. And the important thing is what you bring to it yourself.

TL: Do you ever work, as Marclay does, with other musicians, such as guitarists? I know you had Spire, of course…

PJ: Yeah, all sorts of musicians. It’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed over the years: playing other people’s songs, other people’s work. I’ve worked with Jah Wobble, with Deep Space, and toured with them. I was on an album with a lot of musicians for that, and I’ve also worked in a much smaller setting, with Jah Wobble and Jaki Liebezeit of Can, whom I was working with earlier this year in Ireland. He has a band called Drums Off Chaos, who were invited to the Kilkenny Festival, and Jaki suggested they work with me. I enjoyed working with three drummers, and Jaki does these intricate, slow-shifting patterns, which are unbelievable.

TL: I’m quite jealous – you’ve worked with my favourite bassist and drummer!

PJ: But I’ve also worked with Gavin Bryars, as we said, and with an Austrian composer called Bernhard Lang, and we’re going to perform a piece at the Huddersfield Music Festival in November, having done so before in Berlin, along with Alter Ego. I’ve done a few pieces with Bernhard before, including one with Steve Lacy.

It is a challenge, but most of the musicians I’ve met, from all sorts of fields, enjoy all sorts of music, and they appreciate stuff that has integrity and feeling in it, rather than where it comes from, so it’s possible to work with people from all sorts of fields. They shouldn’t shift from what they do, but I’m completely open to working with any musician.

I wouldn’t say it’s a solo trip: when I play with Jah Wobble, it’s his band, and there’s a lot to do with improvising, same with Gavin Bryars: it’s his music. But they know how I play.

TL: You also do installations, still working with vinyl, what’s the inspiration for that?

PJ: It’s more work with records, and I did one for the Biennial here in Liverpool, installed in an area here that’s sort of clubland. One club went bust, and we were allowed to do an installation in there. I looked around the space, and there was one amazing room with sunken parts in the floor. So I filled the sunken part with water, and threw vinyl records on the water with bits of polystyrene underneath to keep them floating and stuck together, and a pump to make the water circulate. So the records looked like lily-pads.

On either side, I had about 25 record players, placed a little like the terracotta army in China, like an excavation that someone had dug up. I used records of spoken word to do with Liverpool. Meanwhile, I’d used boom boxes to record cassettes of stuff off local radio, about the history of Liverpool, and made up CDs to play on repeat, with long gaps and silences.

A couple of years before, I worked with a friend of mine for the Capital of Culture on an installation in the Botanical Gardens, using recordings of people talking about the trees there, and mixed that with a little bit of sound of the radio playing low at night, with nothing there but the presence of the air waves. I hung all these boom boxes in the trees, so as you walked around you could just hear these voices in the dark, talking about the trees. I called it ‘Pool of Voices’, as Liverpool is ‘The Pool’. So there’s quite a bit about Liverpool. My impressions of Liverpool.

TL: It kind of reminds me of the Terrence Davies film Of Time and the City, you’re in a way channeling the city’s history…

PJ: Yes, exactly, that’s a great film, and this is an incredible city, and amazing city. I’ve seen it change, been transformed. I enjoy living here…

TL: Before I wrap up, it’s been a busy couple of years, do you have a packed timetable still to come?

PJ: I wouldn’t say it’s packed, there are gaps and stuff, but I quite like that. I wouldn’t want to be working all the time, but there’s been a lot of work this year, despite the financial state where people can put on less events. I don’t think I’ll be working in Greece again anytime soon, though!

First two images by Scott McMillan, third by Andrew Bowman.

You can also read this interview here, complete with a cracking video: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/10/an-aggregation-of-small-gains-an-interview-with-philip-jeck/

Liminal Live Review: Philip Jeck, Time Attendant, Kemper Norton, Ship Canal (and Bruce Gilbert) – London Vortex, Friday September 16th 2011

Philip Jeck

I’m rather ashamed to admit that this represented my first visit to Dalston’s much-admired Vortex. I suppose an evening of electro-acoustic drone, ambient and noise may have been an odd choice for a baptism, given the venue’s status as London’s premier experimental jazz location, but any chance to catch the great Philip Jeck live can never be missed. Deserved winner of The Liminal’s Uranus Prize earlier this year, Jeck is a true gem among Britain’s experimental composers and musicians, and it was a delight that erstwhile The Wire contributor Jonny Mugwump’s Exotic Pylon were able to secure him. Especially given that much of the rest of the line-up was somewhat underwhelming, if I’m brutally honest.

I must admit to a certain degree of scepticism when it comes to live solo laptop-only music.  While I did appreciate the aesthetically-pleasing -if a tad rote- visuals playing behind opening act Ship Canal – who at times conjured up some dense, throbbing drones – nothing really captured my imagination.

Kemper Norton’s set was also a little frustrating, especially as he lost all momentum by interrupting himself part-way through to fiddle with his set-up. He had a somewhat baffling array of tools at his disposal, including a PC, synths and harmonium, which he flitted between with almost distracting frequency. Again, there were quite a few good elements in the set, especially the harmonium, but by constantly jumping between sounds, with jarring transitions, they became so disparate and rarely sat cohesively as a whole. The second portion of his set was actually more entrancing, culminating in a bizarre, off-key and affecting vocal piece, but  a lot of the wind had gone out of his sails by this point, with most of the audience no longer listening, and I was left scratching my head.

I should at this point mention that, while a lot of what was going onstage up to this point left me nonplussed, we were at least treated to some mind-frazzling tunes between sets courtesy of DJ Beekeeper, aka Bruce Gilbert, formerly of art-punks Wire and still a hugely relevant musical force. It goes without saying that I probably would have preferred to have him perform than merely DJ, but his leftfield choices certainly made the intervals between sets more interesting than the norm.

Where Ship Canal and Kemper Norton had been all over the shop, third act Time Attendant presented electronic noise/drone of the first order: dense, compact slabs of digital musique concrete that managed to be both busy and monolithic, as waves of synth mess segued into pounding techno beats, all mixed in time to a slide-show of what appeared to be the artist’s own paintings and photos. A bit of an ego trip, perhaps, but Time Attendant showed a clarity of vision and musical cohesion that dwarfed those of his two predecessors. And I happily forgive any arrogance when the bass notes are that heavy.

But if the first two acts were uneven, and the third rock solid, the evening’s piece de resistance, Philip Jeck, was simply on another planet, to use an exhausted cliche (might not be the only one – Jeck’s music has the ability to make me lose my linguistic dexterity somewhat). In comparison to the videos, darting around and occasional posturing of the preceding trio, the Liverpool-based artist’s performance was understated, as he remained seated throughout in front of his mixing console, effects pedals and pair of battered-looking turntables. Eyes half-closed, seemingly lost in his music from the off, Jeck projected an aura of calmness and contemplation that had the audience, certainly me, rapt.

Comparisons to current The Wire cover star Christian Marclay are misleading but inevitable, given their common use of weathered vinyl to create avant-garde compositions, but for my money (and having seen both live), there is something so much more seductive and powerful about the Briton’s compositions, which is saying something. As the LPs wobbled and span on themselves, Jeck delicately twisted knobs and pressed buttons in front of him, creating an almost solid cloud of sound that poured into the room, filling every space around me, and inside me, unfathomable crackles, wooshes, haunting half-melodies and troubled drones engulfing me with every twist of his wrists or toggle of the stylus. This was sound not so much being played as sculpted, Jeck’s thoughtful manipulations smoothing out rough edges or creating unexpected jagged ones with an intuition worthy of Michelangelo faced with a slab of marble. Hyperbole? Maybe, but it’s hard not to when hearing and seeing Philip Jeck live.

Above all, where Philip Jeck elevates himself above the night’s other performers, and indeed over a great many modern British and international improvisers, is the unfettered emotion he brings to what could, in other hands, be overly cerebral, even cold, music. Part of this is surely down to the records he chooses, but more than that it’s Jeck’s apparently innate sense of flow, as he slowly builds up layers of sound, before dissipating them into waves of new, quieter ones, and so on.

As Jeck’s immaculate sounds rolled out of the speakers and over my senses, I found myself detaching my eyes from the stage to stare out of the window at the rapidly emptying square outside The Vortex. Something in the way the quiet, lamp-lit space glowed in the night, surrounded by darkened buildings and silent vehicles, seemed to reflect the stark, crepuscular music being sculpted in front of me: something melancholic, lonely and beautiful. When I later found myself wandering those streets, with the echoes of crumbling vinyl and quiet distortion still drifting through my head, I felt a strange sort of inchoate peace. Philip Jeck’s music will do that to you. It makes it hard to describe properly in words, which I guess should be your cue to track down his records or go to his next gig. Lucky you.

Philip Jeck image by Scott McMillan.

You can also read this concert review here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/09/philip-jeck-time-attendant-kemper-norton-ship-canal-and-bruce-gilbert-london-vortex-friday-september-16th-2011/