A Quietus Review: Excerpts by John T. Gast (March 18th, 2015)

Make a cursory search on the Internet for John T. Gast (presumably not his real name) and it won’t be long before the words Hype Williams pop up. Gast worked as a co-producer with Inga Copeland and Dean Blunt on their Black Is Beautiful album and appeared on Blunt’s solo effort The Redeemer and with Copeland on UKMerge. It’s little surprise, therefore, that Excerpts shares some of the duo’s oblique, genre-contorting aesthetic. It’s advisable to focus on that, before retracting to view the intrinsic differences which ensure Gast never comes across as a lesser light riding on the coat-tails of more illustrious and talented pals.

The similarities certainly abound: a lot of Excerpts is woozy and layered in ectoplasmic murk that slides into the orbit of hauntology but, like Hype Williams, a sly sense of humour lurking beneath the surface means his music rarely comes across as nostalgic or retro. The lines between past and current influences and reference points, from TV to music to film to video games, are blurred, often quite literally. Gast slathers electronic gunk all over his tracks until their structures become impenetrable, or twists and distorts vocal snippets, in a manner DJ Screw would have baulked at, to the point that actual words are transformed into slabs of inchoate moaning. It’s altogether more overtly moody and austere than recent broadcasts from the Hype Williams world, harking back to their untitled debut over Black Is Beautiful’s playful aesthetic. Like Untitled, Excerpts is slow-paced (for the most part), grainy and sombre, with crumbling synth textures clustered around skeletal rhythmic shuffles and most human interjections rendered opaque, like ghostly shades mewling in the dark.

While Hype Williams seemed resolutely anchored in a phantomatic Gotham-styled urban setting, the liminal universe on Excerpts is harder to pinpoint. At times, the analogue synths deployed on ‘Sedna’ and ‘White Noise/Dys’ definitely evoke the tradition of the Ghost Box stable and Moon Wiring Club more than Hype Williams’ dubstep heritage, whilst titles like ‘Shanti-ites’ and ‘Green’ have a distinctly pastoral vibe that resurges in the music (the former features a dramatic gloomy choir like something out of the Eyes Wide Shut soundtrack, whilst the latter is dominated by woozy organ drones). A wander through Gast’s website throws up all manner of weird artefacts, from photo collages of war and terrorism, to pictures of Northern Irish murals, to abstract imagery seemingly beamed out of the mind of a madman, via YouTube videos of Neil Young’s ‘Will To Love’ (the wooziest love song ever) and martial arts tournaments. I’m sure someone smarter than me could come up with some profound overriding message, but I’m not sure that’s even the point. Like early Hype Williams, John T. Gast cultivates a sense of mystery, and even his droll flourishes, like the 45 seconds of vocal deconstruction that is ‘£’ are part of that enigmatic nature.

Where Excerpts really gets interesting, in fact, is when Gast hits the accelerator and plows headlong into dancefloor-oriented material. ‘Infection’ and ‘Congress’ form a sharp one-two punch at the start of the album, all infectious repetitive beats, smooth synth lines and elusive vocal loops, in the grand style of Kassem Mosse or Drexciya (or even The Field), but with a few industrial edges thrown in for good measure. He peaks magnificently on ‘Claim Your Limbs’, on which a dark, brooding atmosphere dominated by crashing snares is undercut by the sheer catchiness of the track’s relentless forward motion. To return to that vague world that is hauntology, on these tracks I’m ultimately reminded of the fantastical flights of dance fancy of Umberto’s Confrontations album or Pye Corner Audio’s Sleep Games.

At times, John T. Gast seems to play the mystery card a bit too intently, but that seems an increasingly common conceit in a lot of electronic music these days. Maybe he’ll one day follow Blunt and Copeland into a brighter limelight, but for now he appears to be focusing on defining his own style, one that hurdles a multitude of styles, not always coherently, but with singular verve and commitment.

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A Dusted Review: Skullsplitter by Eric Chenaux (March 11th, 2015)

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Skullsplitter is an example of how often assumption can be the mother of all fudge-ups. Foolishly embracing ignorance over journalistic rigour, I plumped for the ill-informed presumption that this was going to be yet another album by a North American guitarist (I’d established that much) with a large collection of Robbie Basho and John Fahey records and a surely over-hyped skill at fingerpicking. There have been quite a few of those of late, none of them worth noting with the same enthusiasm the masters. But as it turns out, Eric Chenaux is galaxies away from American Primitivism as it is generally understood (maybe this is Canadian Primitivism?), as a composer, guitarist and, crucially, singer. Indeed, he sits somewhere at the crossroads of multiple styles, and Skullsplitter sounds totally unlike any other solo album I’ve heard this year. So that’s taught me a lesson.

Chenaux’s music is both familiar and bizarre, which is predominantly down to the way he melds acoustic and electric guitar. His approach to the acoustic is consistent with the American Primitive scene, albeit played at a slower pace: he gently plucks notes on nylon strings, coaxing out gentle melodies that form the backbones of most of the nine songs on the album, often underlining them with subtle electronic textures and ambient-esque melodica lines. These simple frames are then built upon when Chenaux plucks up his electric guitar and feeds into wah pedals and other effects that seem to collide with one another rather than meld into extensions of the acoustic melodies, creating offbeat song structures that seem to pull away from one another even as he tugs them into a whole. Chugging half-riffs and warbling solos swim around one another, sometimes looped, at other seemingly improvised on the fly, twisting the basic, immediately recognisable formulas at the heart of his songs into new, unfamiliar forms.

On opener “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, for example, woozy wah-wahed notes wibble and wobble behind a lead melody played on unamplified electric guitar whilst lower notes wooze along listlessly underneath. It’s probably the most peculiar track onSkullsplitter, hazy and punch-drunk, possessed by a strange form of melancholy even as, lyrically, Chenaux lurches into the surreally humourous (“Have I lost my eyes?/Is that twinkle in my mind?”). On the lengthy “Poor Time”, his shaky, kazoo-like notes on electric (I’m reminded a bit of some of Rusty Kershaw’s playing on Neil Young’s On The Beach) bounce around somewhat aimlessly, with only the most minimal of picked acoustic notes to guide them; whilst Chenaux’s instrumental take on the classic “My Romance” is all extended feedback-laden notes and echoey drone. This unpredictability is key to Chenaux’s music: at times he seems to be deliberately confounding familiarity.  Maybe he’s aware that presumptuous fools like me are out there.

But if that sounds needlessly opaque, fear not, for coherence on the album is assured through Chenaux’s singular voice. It’s a delicate croon, somewhere between Antony Hegarty and Bryan Ferry, with perhaps a hint of old timers like Sinatra (hence “My Romance”, even if performed without vocals). It’s a warm, melancholic sound, which reaches aching heights of potency on the title track, a simple, heart-rending tune on which Chenaux tunes his guitar to sound like a muffled organ (I’m assuming — that word again — that it is a guitar) leaving a wide tapestry on which to unfurl his lustrous, emotionally resonant vocals. And this might be the only real flaw on Skullsplitter: whilst on some tracks, such as “Have I Lost My Eyes?”, the weird structures and deformed melodies might be intriguing or even striking, at other times they sit awkwardly alongside Chenaux’s pristine meditations on love and loneliness, striking jarring notes that ultimately undermine the listener’s ability to fully lose oneself in the music.

That’s a minor quibble, however, and one that fades as the best tracks unfurl their graceful wings, with even some of the instrumentals hitting with a similar force as “Skullsplitter” and closer “Summer & Time”, and I’ve found myself drifting back to this album time and time again, seeking comfort in its woozy warmth. Skullsplitter is ultimately that: comforting, even more so than it is odd, and in either case, Eric Chenaux kicks my silly preconceptions into the dirt.

A Quietus Review: Blood for the Return by Mirage (October 16th, 2014)

The story behind this album, and how it came to light, reads like a weird piece of psychological thriller fiction. Todd Ledford, whose Olde English Spelling Bee label is being reactivated after a lasting hiatus to release Blood For The Return, tells the story in all its bizarre glory here, but, to keep it short, Mirage is the one-man project of a man claiming to be 19 years of age and going by the name of Robin Nydal (geddit?), who records from his bedroom at his parents’ place. Of course, that’s not his real name and, as Ledford quickly found out, Mirage isn’t 19. Indeed he has been claiming to be a 19-year-old recording at his parents’ place for a few years, and the artwork used onBlood For The Return has already cropped up on other projects “Nydal” has worked on. Of which there have been many. Looking past the weirdness and smoke and mirrors of Mirage’s back-story, however, and what emerges is the image of a perhaps troubled and certainly intense young man with, as the album demonstrates, a very precocious talent.

Blood For The Return stems from the bedroom pop tradition of the mid-noughties known as “hypnagogic pop”, and whether or not such a sub-genre even realistically existed, it certainly harks back to very early Ariel Pink and acts like James Ferraro and Rangers, although more in terms of sound than content. Indeed, there is none of the video game, cartoon, Internet or TV show ephemera that popped up like half-formed memories on most “hypnagogic pop” albums of the past, with Nydal’s nostalgia steeped firmly in pop tropes of decades long revolved, from The Beach Boys to ELO via Fleetwood Mac, Van Dyke Parks and even prog acts like Genesis or Yes. You’ve got to have some ambition in you to want to emulate most of those whilst recording in your bedroom, and yet, in some ways, Nydal comes damn close. Whilst anything approaching the expanse and scope of, say, ‘Close To The Edge’ or ‘Supper’s Ready’ would be pretty much impossible, Blood For The Return nonetheless brims with intricate details and surprise shifts, all drenched with smothering layers of distortion – sometimes too many of them.

Locked inside these walls of sound are often striking melodies, especially on the loping title track, which opens the album with considerable force, or tracks like ‘Hubbard’ and ‘Do You Remember’, the latter almost single-worthy in its concise urgency and irresistible layered harmonies. Nydal’s lyrics, when audible, are oblique in the sunkissed poetic style of a David Crosby or, again, Ariel Pink, who would probably relish a line like “My Poison Oak and vine, we mate in the water/Boot thigh, lip and tongue all fit for the slaughter”, from the quasi-glam and sensual ‘Children Games’. Stripped of any real context (beyond all the above sleight of hands), however, the album as a whole often fails to match these oddball heights. Nydal’s monomaniacal drive has allowed him to transcend his production limitations in part, but at times it’s hard not to worry that all the illusions and misdirection might betray an occasional lack of focus, especially when bruising distortion is the main sonic tool used to bolster his compositions.

Having written all that, it’s hard not to be charmed by Blood For The Return. After all, Mirage may wear his influences overtly on his sleeve, but he still brings a forceful personality, even to the most undeveloped of these songs. As a figure in the shadows fleshing out his dreams of genres gone by, Mirage is a seductive presence, and his music casts a weird, occasionally uneasy spell.