ALBUM REVIEW

Monolith Cocktail

Metamono   ‘Creative Listening’    29th February 2016

Following the London trio’s debut album With The Compliments Of Nuclear Physics in 2013, the Metamono mavericks once again apply the “back-to-basics” mechanics of an age devoid of algorithms and automation. Not for them the aloof and cold-calculated machinations of Kraftwerk. The ingenuity and homemade tinfoil drum pads perhaps. But embracing the complete abandonment of the human, for a soulless synchronisation with the machine? Forget it.

The same goes for the direction of synthesizer-based music in general. In its many forms enervated by a “hands off” approach, with technology taking over completely and demoting the artist to by-stander at his own gig, just pushing light show friendly buttons at opportune moments and nodding their heads to the pre-ordered laptop soundtrack.

And so, with a manifesto of intent and purpose to back-up their dismissal of the contemporary electronic music scene, Metamono adopt a more humanistic, personal, and at times, humorous approach to making music and performing. Informed by the Zodiak Free Arts Club patrons of the late 1960s, Eno’s Another Green World and the early developments in techno, Metamono compose improvised misadventures on – by technological standards – antiquated equipment. Retro-futurism played in an often happenstance manner, it helps that the trio boast the combined knowledge and experience of Jono Podmore, Paul Conboy and Mark Hill.

Attuned to the Musik Von Harmonia, Klause Schulze and Asmus Tietchens but without pretension and with a sense of mischievous on the surface, there is also a sense of protest and omnipresent unease at the course of history. Despite a lack of vocals, song titles and snatches of untethered broadcasts hint at the group’s wider concerns. The creation of their music is activism in itself to a degree. However, stepping into the light, a sense of optimism prevails the trio returning decades later to the positive explorations that motivated their initial studies and love for the genre.

 

Stripping away some of the “clutter-clatter” of their last album, Metamono find more space on Creative Listening. Featuring material from their BFI commissioned Secrets Of Nature soundtrack, performed live and premiered in 2014, their second album has an earthly, naturalistic appeal, as well as reaching for the stars. The Secrets Of Nature was a fond accompaniment to the pioneer filming techniques of time lapse and micro cinematography used to chronicle the wonders of nature at the turn of the last century. Name checking the progenitor of that technology, Metamono drop a blossoming, unfurled homage to Percy Smith, and later on with the album’s finale, ‘Birth Of A Flower’ ponder over those wondrous moments captured for prosperity to the tune of tinfoil percussion, obscured transmissions from a laboratory radio, and the microscopic magnifications of flora and fauna as transmogrified through a hair brain analogue network of machines. Zooming out from terra firma, into the expanses of space, Metamono climb aboard a Soyuz rocket on the whistling, bubbling and rambunctious ‘Cloth Ears’. Eyebrow raising sounds bounce off Sputnik transmitting satellites as some unidentified radio show interviewee likens his studied sonic diffusions tot “the sound of bacon crackling in the background”.

Serendipitous lunar mapping with the echoes of The Orb’s distant ambient barrowed voices and Qluster’s piano notes reverberating across George Melies’ A Trip To The Moon inform the ‘Ugla’ soundscape, whilst serenity, of a sort, reigns on the cascading Sci-Fi eastern bloc soundtrack ‘Cocooned’, and a kinetic space theatre, as directed by the Ballet Ruses, shuffles between lolloping Mouse On Mars intersected nodes and pure daftness on ‘Daddy’.

 

Staying close to their “instrumentarium” of wide-eyed discovery, the Metamono do vary the blueprint circuitry very slightly on their second album. With a certain confidence and far more room to manoevre around in, Creative Listening lingers for longer in dreamy expanses, the awkward piques and peculiar left field object sounds acting in a more harmonious union with the melodies. Essentially the Metamono continue to offer an alternative to the dullness and anonymity of the contemporary electronic music scene.



Words: Dominic Valvona



NEW MUSIC ROUND UP


Monolith Cocktail


Inundated with solicited requests for reviews/features/interviews and even just the most tenuous and brief of mentions, the Monolith Cocktail (and this is a good thing by the way; we’re not bemoaning our increasing popularity) is currently snowed under with releases.

In an attempt to hone in and clear some of the more interesting of the backlog, here is a round up tracks we’ve been sent over the last few weeks, which includes the interstellar voyages of LNZNDRF; the Holy Mountain drone and drudgery of the Spanish Underground’s G.D.D.L.F; the acid hallucinations of the Casual Strangers; the expansive crystalline anthems of Snowball II; and the latest shoegaze waltz of protestation from Vukovar.

LNZNDRF    ‘LNZNDRF’    (4AD)

Whilst The National’s frontman Matt Beyninger has gone all 80s alternative pop Talk Talk with EL VY, the Ohio group’s Devondorf brothers, Scott and Bryan, have joined forces with Beirut band member Ben Lanz to form the interstellar overdrive LNZNDRF. Another 4AD love-in, the trio has added another tier to the record label’s family tree by signing to the label. Not so much a side project or even complimentary extension of their main band activities, the trio venture untethered into the moterik and progressive psych realms: just passed the Chariots of the Gods, but not quite setting the controls to the heart of the sun.




Their self-titled debut peregrination has taken a while to materialize; the band having first got together in Auckland in 2011. Recorded in the venerable settings of a church in Cincinnati over a three-day period, the originally extemporised jams were edited and cut into more palatable tracks. Driven by a Klaus Dinger beat and Jaki Liebezeit’s internal metronome, LNZNDRF progress through astral enlightened plains, romanticised ancient sacred cities and grand scale landscapes. Influenced heavily by Krautrock, the trio sometimes sounds as if they’ve learnt the same tricks as the late The Secret Machines, especially on the epic traversing but thunderous ‘Beneath The Black Sea’. ‘Mt. Storm’ however, is a Gothic Teutonic dragged post rock dirge anthem that sounds like The Cult and Besnard Lakes stranded on Venus. By the fourth song, ‘Kind Things’, we’re riffing on MGMT, lolloping around in electric bliss to the new age of pop, and later on cruising across a version of Cliff Martinz’ Drive soundtrack set in the world of Tron. But the reverberating presence of the Germans is never far behind, as Harmonia’s expansive waves and magical meditative melodies eat up ‘Hypno-Skate’.

In modulating intrepidness, the LNZNDRF astronauts give the Krautrock and progressive rock influences an inspired trip around the cosmos, landing their ship beneath ancient seas and on the walls of the world’s most ancient city for a most entranced psychedelic and neon-lit electric experience.





Snowball II   ‘I Can Come’





One of the more interesting and ambitious sounding tracks to make its way to us recently is from the Los Angeles band Snowball II. Self-styled shoegazers, hailing from the Californian coast, the group’s impressive, expansive sound is a blend of clean and shimmering dreamy grandiosity. Led by the 23-year old multi-instrumentalist and producer Jackson Wargo, the former Berklee College of music student indulges in the kaleidoscopic typography of psychedelic pop: namely the Animal Collective.

Lifted from their debut album ?, ‘I Can Come’ features a mix of Panda Bear and Jónsi Birgisson vocals soaring over cascading sparkly synths, tom pattered beats and a whirling atmosphere of Mew and Sigur Ros landscaping. Twinning L.A. with the crystalline atmospherics of Iceland, Snowball II creates an immersive and diaphanous sonic experience, with visuals to match (catch the Kevin Anton and, Cloud troubadour, Tyler Taormina co-directed video above).

The upcoming, self-released, album is due out on March 11th. If the single is anything to go by it look set to be one of the year’s highlights.


Casual Strangers    ‘Pink Panther/ Holocene Dream’





This band of Austin, Texas dreamers first appeared on our radar back in 2015 with their esoteric outback trip ‘Kangarang’. We mentioned then that the psychedelic meanderers were busy crafting a follow up LP to their self-titled debut of 2014. And now we finally have confirmation that it will be released on 26th February 2016.

The LSD inspired Pink Panther album features both the title track and ‘Holocene Dream’ songs featured above and below. The first of these is a Tangerine Dream immersion into Tropicana oceans, with dampened languid heartbeats and modulating synth notes that recall 80s American VHS slasher and Giallo soundtracks. It sounds like the bounding echoes of The Man Who Fell To Earth, a missing piece of the film’s soundtrack. The latter of the two is just as dreamy and unworldly, yet has a far busier drum section, and squall of electric guitars, with hints of Ash Ra Temple’s mind bending meditations, played on evocatively inspired lunar landscapes. You can hear that the Casuals have expanded the space in their music, and charted new territories, though as ever there is a spark of Krautrock reverence at play – even one of the album’s tracks is named after the Teutonic titan supergroup, The Cosmic Jokers. Here’s the full track list.

Track Listing:

1) Holocene Dream (3:56)

2) Cosmic Spaghetti (5:00)

3) Kangarang (4:12)

4) Brinca! Brinca! (2:45)

5) Turing Test (7:12)

6) Cosmic Jokers (3:20)

7) Pink Panther (3:31)

8) Lost Coast (2:48)

9) Future Passed (3:09)

10) Little Lids (10:45)




G.D.D.L.F   ‘Andrómina’





The mysterious cult that is one of Spain’s premier underground bands, the veiled acronym G.D.D.L.F (or Guerra Despues De La Fiesta in longhand), has appeared a few times on the Monolith Cocktail. Featured in our “notes from the Spanish underground” exposé, a few years back, they caught our ear with their entrancing brand of shoegaze noir and esoteric drones. Continuing to navigate a similar pathway from the daemonic to the transcendental, their latest LP Andrómina takes the Jesus And Mary Chain up the Holy Mountain.

Haunted by the dreaded hum of Latin incantations, Velvet Underground Byzantium dirges, sleazy morose BMRC guitar and tambourine shaking, and Goth malaise, the brethren drag their way towards an eventual release.



 Vukovar   ‘The Blood Garden’    (Small Bear Records)

Impressing with us with the 2015 downtrodden anthem protestations Emperor LP (so much that we placed it in our choice albums of the year post), Vukovar release another plaintive maelstrom of Joy Division doomed malady, the beautifully tortured The Blood Garden single.

The title track builds gradually from a heart aching imbued Wedding Present to a swirling, noisy and animal carcass-beating pulse surge of energetic discourse. Lifted towards a Spacemen 3 like veneration, a chorus of voices gives the song some hope at least. Accompanying the lamentable showcase song is both live and concatenate versions of the (keeping the Jason Pierce connection going) Spiritualized meets an Oriental obsessed New Order, ‘Part 1: Ms Kuroda’s Lament’. ‘Part 2: Ms Kuroda’s Lament (The Sailor)’ brings a new character to the original Emperor featured track, but adds a vortex sucking haze of backward taped guitar and drums to the Aztec Camera on Mogadon vibes. Recorded at one of Glasgow’s backstreet hideaways, the Old Hairdressers, a live heavier version of that original song is brutal, and is so loose at times it threatens to fall apart. It is however an honest performance.

Still fiddling with romantic and earnest protest whilst Olympus burns, the Vukovar are fast becoming one of the best underground bands in the UK. The Blood Garden single keeps up the pressure.




Words: Dominic Valvona

FILM  REVIEW


Monolith Cocktail - Hateful Eight image


Our Franco-Turkish critic Ayfer Simms puts up a staunch defence of Quentin Tarantino‘s bloody, embittered western, The Hateful Eight

Who would have thought that one review from Le Monde, the famous French daily paper would have almost stopped me from seeing the Hateful Eight?! To summarise the French reviewers’ position in a few lines: “Superficial characters, lack of subtlety, a mixture of genres that do not work together, no sense of humour, promotion of misogyny and racism for the sake of shocking the audience, because, venture the critiques, we all know very well that Tarentino is NOT racist; the movie lacks inspiration despite the big names, the result is a pastiche of himself”. After hearing this, my shoulders dropped and I genuinely felt disappointed with Tarentino who had let us down… However, on a bizarrely blizzard-y Istanbul evening, I was dragged to see it (though I tried to suggest a different movie, any movie, in a last attempt to avoid the disastrous film). After watching it, I was covered in shame, which quickly transformed into anger. Le Monde was utterly wrong and had almost prevented me from seeing a good movie: Tarentino, the god of screenplays had struck again, even exceeding some of his older movies.

 

The Hateful Eight, with an atmosphere worthy of The Shining, or The Exorcist, opens up with a long shot of a sculpture of a very lonely Jesus, wrinkled in pain, buried under a white, trenchant snow, alive and dead at the same time; a Jack Torrance frozen in his track, wrapped up in a blanket, stuck in a forever coo coo world and the insistence on this tragic figure is a prelude to what follows.

Ennio Morricone’s name appears with all the weight of his glorious past, Tarentino by collaborating with such a persona embraces a whole genre to give it life again. While the French critiques judge the mixture of genres distasteful, western, mystery, the achieved result is on the contrary explosive and original: Pounding, resonating into the big wide snowy mountains, like the steps of the devil himself.

 

The characters enter the scene as if trespassing in the hall of Hell, for the last judgment, only it is done by no other gods than their own enemies, disguised perhaps as a Miss Marple, a Poirot; a black American who happens to have an Abraham Lincoln letter in his pocket…

The little lodge in the mountains becomes a stage filled with humorous ghosts like characters, with nebulous past, a kind of Sartrean Huit-clos. We are here entrapped with heavy weight violent souls who have wit and human traits: soldiers and bandits who have not yet realised they had holes in their stomachs, lying lifeless somewhere, on the back of a horse, victims perhaps of some bounty hunters? Carrying on their back all the nasty deeds they have done as if now that bag had become a thing they carry clumsily, like chains at their feet.

They are heroes; they all have fame, and guts with their fearless criminal’s stance, yet they enjoy a good cup of coffee with the precision of a Dale Cooper…and the warmth of good blankets!

 

We travel to battlefields, prisons, and to a big wide land, to the years following the American Civil war without leaving the room, to the town we are promised to reach but never do… Red rock Hell itself? The promised land of justice for the crooks? Each character is likeable, original to the extent that we fear for their safety in this intrigue that reminds us of “Ten Little Niggers” from Agatha Christie – the original title is still used in France but was changed to “And then there were none” in the US in 1939.

And misogyny? Because of the scenes of hitting a woman? Tarentino’s female characters have nothing to envy from any of the men…Jacky Brown, Kill Bill, Daisy Domergue… if anything he promotes equality of genders, these women do a hell of a good job defending themselves. Jennifer Jason Leigh, and her character have such a presence, when she gets a bash it is not for her safety that we worry, the twinkle in her eye only calls for respect…Racism as a mean of provoking the audience? Frankly, I am not sure where the French critiques have pulled that one from, but I’ll give it a pass. This movie is a masterpiece as far as I am concerned.

Words:  Ayfer Simms


LIVE REVIEWS

Vieux Farka Toure

Bixiga 70 supported by Kefaya,  Drygate Brewery, Glasgow (30th January 2016)

Vieux Farka Touré Moussu supported by  T e lei Jovents,  Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow (31st January 2016)

Expanding its remit over the years to include a more universal mix of musical styles and traditions, Glasgow’s ever-expansive Celtic Connections festival brought some impressive acts to the city this year.

You can’t fail to notice the “Celtic” in the title. And though there was a strong showing from artists yearning, pining and sentimentally paying homage or, nostalgically recreating it, there were also those artists whose music took it to pastures new. Not only would you have found omnivorous takes on the Celtic template, but thankfully, an abundance of musicians from the “world music” stage, untethered to European tradition.

Over two consecutive nights – just a snapshot of the festivals 300 events; spread over twenty venues in Glasgow – we were musically transported to the Middle East, Brazil and Mali. Celtic Connections grand finale ended on a high with Saturday night’s Bixiga 70 and Kefaya performance at the Glasgow craft beer institution, the Drygate Brewery, and Sunday’s Vieux Farka Touré and Moussu T e lei Javents performance at the Mitchell Theatre.


Saturday

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Even though the tail end of storm Gertrude threatened to drown the arriving audience, the sweltering carnival atmosphere of São Paulo’s Afro-Brazilian collective Bixiga 70 soon dried us all out; erasing all memory of the night’s unpleasant maelstrom. But before the good times can begin, we had the warm up act, “a collective within a collective”, the transglobal Kefaya. Baring the unofficial protestation-rallying cry of the Arab Spring, translated into English as “enough”, the London-based group laid on the third of their performances at the festival with aplomb. Working with such leading luminaries of their tradition as the Indian vocalist Shankar Mahadevin, Kefaya remained an instrumental traversing experience that night.

Even in a festival packed with virtuosos, one of the group’s founders, Giuliano Modarelli, will take some beating on the acoustic guitar. Elements of Spanish, Greek, Turkish and the Middle East merged in an undemarcated fashion. The synchronisation with fellow founding member, pianist Al MacSween, is well rehearsed but sounds entirely organic. Those celestial, phaser affected and often Rhodes sounding keys of MacSweens glide and dance around lightly but sonorously. As if to prove their borderless, free roaming across the musical map spirit, they absorb influences from Palestine, the Mediterranean and Africa – hear there evocatively enough and Afro rhythmic lamenting, but not so well entitled, ‘Bubbling Brook’. Drawing on political folk songs and anthems, and sounding like an Agitation Free jazz collective riffing on progressive rock and atavistic roots music, their seamless self-titled “guerrilla jazz” brand of activism recalls the Goran Kajfes Subtropic Arkestra, Radio Tarifa and the late 60s keyboard chops of Herbie Hancock when he sat-in with Miles Davis.

It all comes together to form the most mesmerising and effective of soundtracks, and even has a Celtic musical connection, with the Irish bodhran drum practitioner Cormac Byrne joining the quartet that night, adding a touch of the Gaelic rhyme to the already rich melting pot. They finished on, unless my ears deceived me, an Arabian meditation entitled ‘Daesh’, another trance like conjuring of a mystical vista, both mysteriously exotic and, for obvious reasons, threatening. Constantly changing their set up, this might have been one of the only occasions to catch this particular quintet. They will soon release their debut LP, Radio International, which I hope will fairly represent their tremendous live skills.




Respectfully remaining seated during the Kefaya experience, even though they soared and tapped out a groove you could dance to, the evening’s main attraction took little time in seducing the audience to its feet. We sure needed the group’s natural sunny disposition and Afro Latin styled release.

Speaking Fela Kuti as though they were born to it, the São Paulo ten-piece not only takes its name from one of Afrobeat’s most famous coveted bands but also embraces it fully. Despite a contemporary penchant and adoption of Kuti’s blueprint infectious raw rhythms, there are very few bands today that transcend it or, use it adventurously, even uniquely. Bixiga 70 is fortunately one such band that does take it to another level. A premier outfit, lending the inimitable Brazilian spirit to the exciting environment of a legendary Lagos nightspot in the 1970s, they perform tracks from the group’s last two albums, Occupai and III. Matching Kuti’s polyrhythms with Fania All Stars percussion, South American cumbia and carimbo and a hard-working horn section, Bixiga launch into their set with consummate showmanship. Adding an electric shock to their recordings, even previously calmer reflective instrumentals suddenly sound busier, fuller and alive. With Christ the Redeemer himself sharing percussion duties; a trombone player given the most breath sapping giddy solos of the night (we were all in awe at the prowess of Douglas Antunes); and various other phenomenal performances, this was among the very best live performances I’d ever seen.

Swaying in time, sauntering and encouraging us all to join in the most rambunctious of dances, Bixiga flaunted a dizzying cornucopia of San Francisco cop shows, Yusef Lateef, Antibalas, Hailau Mergia, Shaft in Africa (if Kuti and ginger Baker had scored it) and samba. By the end of their tropical fusion set, the entire venue was dancing in the aisles. For one night only, the city was an unofficial atelier of the group’s native São Paulo.





Sunday

Across the city the next evening, in the auspiciously housed Glasgow Mitchell Theatre, one of Mali’s leading electric guitar legends, Vieux Farka Touré also roused a seated auditorium to its feet. As amiable as ever, Touré broke up his trance like and meditative amped-up Saharan blues grooves with odd encouragements for the “good people of Glasgow” to let loose and enjoy themselves. Arriving from his native Mali of 40° heat and unabated wall-to-wall sunshine to the miserable Glasgow weather, Touré joked about the contrasts. Yet his style of northern and southern Malian traditions mixed with contemporary rock, jazz and traversing blues translates perfectly to an audience accustomed to the damp climate.

Closer to home, his support act for the night, which seemed on first sight an incongruous choice, soon made sense. Moussu T e Lei Jovents hail from the old European gateway of Marseilles. Informed by a nostalgia for a time when the famous port saw a steady stream of people moving between the African continent and France in its heydays of the 1920s and 30s, the band return to that era musically when the region was one big melting pot of shared cultures. Mainly a tourist destination, always though a good spot for the artists, Marseille has suffered some of the same problems as Glasgow – especially in the shipbuilding industry. In jovial nonchalant showmanship, Moussu T e Lei Jovents act out their wry witticisms with resigned irony. Dressed and performing in stereotypical fashion of the earnest put-upon factory worker of French farce, the group ad lib with equally clichéd props and observations from Glasgow. “Insert here”, they change the template music hall songs with an attempt to embrace the “gin alley” idiosyncrasies of the city – a song in dedication to the local inebriated woman who chewed their ear off in a bar, and swigging throughout from cans of the local Tenants larger. Yet at its heart there is a serious message, a staunch defense of the local Occitan language – which when mentioned tonight, got a few cheers from the audience.




In a gentle knock-about fashion the band liltingly play out scenes from old Marseilles, musing between the provincial and worldly they sound like La Plage Boys holidaying in Brazil. The group’s vocalist Tatou, in the role of a wise and grouchy labour gang leader (the only prop missing, a Gauloises dangling from his mouth; though at one point he walks off stage for a mock cigarette break), interacts in a form of staged camaraderie with his percussionist, banjo player, drummer and bassist. Later on, the banjo player will be asked to duet with Vieux Touré, exchanging the southern French style with his Malian blues one. With some audience participation – a swaying sequence of moves here and a seagull impression there – Moussu T e Lei Jovents began to warm to the crowd. Well staged, relaxed and gentle, they were in the end a perfect counter to Vieux’s energetics.




Often referred to, in flattering tones of course, as the “Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara”, Vieux Farka Touré is indeed a virtuoso. But rather than set fire to his electric guitar in a blaze of teeth-chewing acrobatics or, play whatever he feels like without informing his backing band, our latter day guitar talent plays with a far lighter, attentive touch. The son of the late esteemed multi-instrumentalist and singer Ali Farka Touré (who is paid tribute to that evening), Vieux integrates fluidly the lineage of his Mali homeland’s distinct desert blues with an abundance of global styles. His recent collaboration with the American singer Julia Easterlin on the Touristes album encapsulates the ease with which he works; the process of lending his signature tone to a number of experimental covers by Dylan, Fever Ray and Nirvana, as well as gilding and cradling an African tribute to his old man (a version of the West African classic ‘Kaira’ entitled ‘Little Things’), showcase his many talents. However, Vieux would draw upon songs from his Mon Pays, The Secret and Fondo albums, flanked by his favoured, and incredibly erudite, backing band of Jean-Alain Hohy on bass, and Jean-Paul Melindji on drums.

Vieux built up momentum gradually with apparent ease that night. Locked in with his faithful comrades to an entrancing and deeply resonating set list, he moved like flowing water between shoe-shuffling meanders and more fiery Bamako club movers. Synching perfectly throughout, his stunning dexterous and accentuated finger work cascading in a repetitive motion, Vieux shows no signs of effort on his face even as he plays a thousand notes per second. Amiable as I’ve said, our maestro chatted with the audience, asking after our welfare and imploring us to have a good time. Though it’s impossible to not be enticed by the African rhythms infectious nature, there are many poignant words to be found in Vieux’s work. His 2013 LP Mon Pays (“My Country”) was a lamentable cry for peace in Mali, which unfortunately went unheeded. A pause and thought followed by an impassioned plea to the continuing problems in the region was met with Glaswegian solidarity.

Like the equivalent of a Billy Graham concert, even the infirm and elderly rose to their feet: Walking sticks tossed to the side, hip replacements worked-in, the congregation moved forward by the end of the night into the aisles and space in front of the stage to show their appreciation. It was a reverberating performance from Vieux, spellbinding and adroitly composed; the perfect end to Celtic Connections 2016 festival.

Words: Dominic Valvona




ALBUM  REVIEWS


Monolith Cocktail

Sidestepper   ‘Supernatural Love’   (Real World Records)

RAM   ‘6: Manman M Se Ginen’





Sharing a love of the atavistic songbooks and instrumentation of their respected homes in both Colombia and Haiti, and both making recording comebacks of a sort, the electro-cumbia progenitors Sidestepper and power-house RAM have reworked their signature sounds for their latest albums, Supernatural Love and 6: Manman m se Ginen. Independent of each other, the two collectives will unveil their anticipated LPs on February 5th, both of which rework ancestral Latin and Hispaniola music and ritual with a shock of contemporary, joyous, oomph!

Entrenched in the colonial and art deco mixed architectural beauty of Bogota’s most historic barrio La Candelaria, Sidestepper have gone back to the basics, but embraced a whole host of musical styles on their first album in a decade. Co-founded in 1996 by former Real World Records studio engineer and producer/DJ Richard Blair, who originally travelled to Colombia in the mid 90s to work with Afro-Colombian folk star Toto La Momposina, but decided he loved the culture and music so much he’d stay for good, and local singer/songwriter/producer Iván Benavides, Sidestepper were renowned instigators of the electro-cumbia fusion that swept its way across the clubs of Medellin, London and New York. Changing personnel over the years, the free flowing collective has remained a potent and innovative force in connecting the local salsa and cumbia rhythms with the bass and trance movements.

Bored however with hearing the same old “kick, snare and hi-hat”, Blair and reinvigorated Sidestepper line up that features virtuoso percussionist Juan Carlos ‘Chongo’ Puello and “soulboy/vocalist” Edgardo ‘Guajiro’ Garcés joining the band’s lead singer Erika ‘Eka’ Muñoz and guitarist Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo, has changed direction with an adventurous and ‘supernatural love’ for the roots of Colombian music.

A sauntering whistling backing track here and a sunny rhythmic sway there, the whole album has a more or less relaxed feel to it. The South American vibe is present of course, but the beautifully caressed and articulate guitars could be from the Mali desert or Nigerian delta, and the sweetly reverent backing vocals could be from the South African townships. Though the opening duo of tracks, the soulful hand drum exhortation accompanied ‘Fuego que te Liama’ and gentle sweetly-laced shaman trip ‘On The Line’, are quintessentially Latin, even with the guest singer Elkin Robinson’s Anglo-Caribbean lilt on the latter. But by the third, and title, track we’re in a free-spirited realm, with the band jamming through the loosest of psychedelic folk and dub rhythms. Guest vocalist Andrea Echeverri is given the lead, though Blair pitches in on this almost gospel like slice of Californian valley soul as played by The Bees. Cut from the same cloth, but with a slight twist, the album’s finale ‘Supernatural Soul’ continues the good time vibes, but sounds like the late Michael Karoli of Can, during their Future Days era, has slipped in on guitar. Meanwhile, the spiritual trope ‘Song For The Sinner’ could be The Beta Band’s lost South American lament, and the two-part dreamy celebration of life ‘La Flor y La Voz’ merges bass synth with hints of a Massive Attack style aria.

Supernatural Love is a bright, flowing encapsulation of the current Colombian music scene, with sonic feelers reaching out across the continent and towards Africa. Unrushed and organic, with exceptional musicianship throughout the collective return with one of their best albums yet, merging gospel, soul, cumbia, salsa, Afro-Colombian, folk, psych and dub seamlessly together to produce something infectiously fresh.


Monolith Cocktail


Although still playing their residency gigs at the Hotel Oloffson, jamming with the likes of Arcade Fire, in Port-au-Prince and playing live throughout the world, the mizak-rasin (a style that combines traditional Haitian Vodou with folkloric and rock and roll music) powerhouse RAM, have remained absent from the recording studio for the past decade. In the tumultuous world of Haitian politics, the infamous and legendary RAM have managed to survive despite their synonymous protestations against the military junta that seized power during the early 90s, and subsequent leaders: As Morse himself puts it, “Our existence is a political statement”. Death threats and sabotage almost derailed the band on numerous occasions during the last twenty-five years, yet they remain stoic and ever critical of the government, taking up musical arms with the much put-upon population: disheveled and hit with devastating natural terrors such as the 2010 earthquake; served by a continuation of corruptible and shaky governments.

Named after the initials of their road well travailed founder Richard A. Morse, RAM perform an entrancing spectacle of the ritualistic. Morse, originally born in Puerto Rica but brought up in Connecticut, spent the 80s rubbing shoulders with the polygenesis New York art and music scene’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol’s factory. His interest piqued by the new wave’s adoption of Afro-diaspora rhythms and world music (see Brian Eno and Talking Heads), Morse decided to travel to his native homeland to study the Haitian sound.

The son of Haiti folk legend Emerante de Pradine, Morse was already well aware of his ancestral roots, but had yet to indulge in or absorb the rich history of the island fully. After an initial short trip, Morse found himself it seems so seduced and inspired by Haiti’s culture that he decided to stay for good. Marrying local dancer and singer Lunise, he kick started the frenzied, rambunctious RAM, channeling the ideas he picked up on in New York and merging them with the signature instrumentation and sounds of the local Vodou belief and the drifting currents of the Caribbean and Africa. It would be a local and then international hit, with Morse’s band even lending a song to the Tom Hanks starring Philadelphia film soundtrack. But despite the success, Morse withdrew back further into the Haitian psyche, and started singing in the local dialect, Kreyol.

Back then after a hiatus, RAM once again take up the peoples struggle on their new album; a record whose feverish and yearning rhythms fall congruously into “two families”: as Morse points out, “The drums with turning pegs are from Africa. Haitian rhythms are played on drums that don’t have pegs. They are tuned with cords and string, and are indigenous inspired.”

Hurtling into a blurting saxophone punctuated stonk, RAM almost trip over the speeding rhythms on the opening ‘Papa Loko (Se Van)’. And later on they repeat this storming of the barricades with the equally freefalling, saxophone harassed Ethnio-jazz and Ska frenzied ‘M’prai Dòmi Nan Simityè’ – a song dedicated to the top hat-sporting spirits of death, life and procreation. Elsewhere the album is stripped off its ferocity, replaced by gentler island breezes and ambling sweet West African highlife. ‘Koulou Koulou’ is a perfect example of this; the hymn like soothing Kreyol vocals of Lunise wafting over a sauntering highlife backing. Or on the disarming plaintive ballad ‘Ogou Oh’, which begins with a Popol Vuh like soothing but venerable piano and later breaks out into a tribal drumming ritual.

Constantly moving, transforming often-complex interplay with transcontinental imbued high energy and the local carnival spirit, RAM combine their activism and messages of hope and struggle with a strong evocative and infectious groove. Manman M Se Ginen is a beguiling and infectious album, full of tradition but electrified for a contemporary audience.

Words:  Dominic Valvona





ALBUM  REVIEW


Monolith Cocktail

Nillo & Sentidor And Friends    ‘SIBÖ Revisited’
(Sounds And Colours)

After creating an empirical third plane from the mystical atavistic chants of Costa Rica’s indigenous tribes and the contemporary sound of tropical bass and experimental electronica, Nillo & Sentidor, with an extended cast of congruous ‘friends’, revisit 2015’s original hallucinogenic SIBÖ. Inviting both diaphanous trance-like and equally trip-y reinterpretations of their work, Brazilian producer Sentidor (João Carvalho) and native Costa Rican musical ethnologist Nillo (Johnny Gutierrez) now expand their soundscape across the globe.

Originally built around the catalyst “spiritual guidance” of the Ngäbe tribe’s voices, the source material remains in some form or another throughout: either wafting in the background or gradually enervated to just a trace, yet always evocatively omnipresent. For the most part subtle and nuanced, tweaked with the signature touches of the contributors, this remix special is more like an extension of Nillo & Sentidor’s field studies.

One of the more harmonious of these reinterpretations, by the ‘Byzantine disco” remixer Zouyina (aka C Love), opens the album with a tropical soaked drift through the fauna version of ‘El Río’; resplendent with sucked backwards kinetic percussion and a wobbly South American sauntering beat. A possession of equally organic tracks follow, with an ancestral trek through the psychogeography undergrowth with Pigmaliaõ’s haunting Latin version of ‘Lamento del Chamen’, and the romantic string accompanied trip hop Wolf remix ‘Casa da Minha Alma’. Meanwhile, treading ever deeper, Chico Correa’s Gaia breakbeat reinvention of ‘Lune Noire’  meanders into ever stranger disjointed territories, and Sainte Vie’s Perspective merges minimalist electronica with the Future Sound Of London on the island’s outer body chorus of heavenly singing ‘Montanha’. It’s not until we reach Antigris’ warped cybernetic treatment of ‘El Viaje de Kamala’ that we hear the original material taken out of its comfort zone.  Antigris’ vision of Costa Rica is transformed into some mysterious alien subterranean; metallic rings echo as a feasting insect like creature scrabbles about in the gloom. The darkest rework on the album breaks the harmonious esoteric spirit of the jungle, sounding an ominous augur of not only the beauty but also the fear of the environment.

 

This is the most complimentary of returns to the original evocative and mystical SIBÖ soundscape, the global interaction adding a further layer of experimental sophistication. Certain themes, sounds and textures are extended, lifted or submerged with attentive ears, changing that source material just enough to become something new and refreshing. Harmonious with only the odd surprise, those who loved the 2015 collection of “electronic reinterpretations of the past” won’t be disappointed by this “revisit”.

Words:  Dominic Valvona





Monolith Cocktail

Akauzazte   ‘Etazuaka’   (Co-released by Màgia Roja and Akauzazte)
Order Etern  ‘Revolució Soterrada’  (Co-released by Màgia Roja and Tesla Tapes)

Not that we never welcome news of the Barcelona-based label coven Màgia Roja and their daemonic experimentalist howls and Sabbath ritual releases that beckon from the abyss, but still on a high from the recent New Year celebrations, I’m loathed to be pulled back into the pit of discord and damnation this soon after Christmas. Scorched and branded with mysticism and the occult, the duo of new releases from the label is both caustic and harrowing. The first of these, plucked from relative obscurity, is the abattoir blues imbued misadventures of the Akauzazte, who it seems are mounting their fiercest and creatively strong attack yet, as they threaten to launch themselves like a plague upon all our houses with their Etazuaka opus. Label stalwart Victor Hurtado and his Qa’a comrade Yarei Molina meanwhile, enact an apocalyptic séance of dread and resignation on their Revolució Soterrada album; mourning the bleak realties of our times under the banner of the Order Etern.

Emerging from the ether many moons ago, Màgia Roja first came to our attention in 2009 with the mystical Chi’en LP from the I:Ching and Egyptian inspired Qa’a – both stamped with approval by me and the Archdruid Julian Cope at the time. The witch ascetic adorned label has continued to push its mix of industrial, black metal, drone and Krautrock with various shades of esoteric glee and dread, following up that original behemoth megalithic with the Throbbing Gristle meets Boris wallowing Coágul and the nihilistic, minimalism of the Joachen Arbeit & Huan partnership. Bleak but often complex, unsettling but often interesting, you never quite know what they’ll release next.

Hailing from the autonomous Basque country, Akauzazte have more less been left to their own devices and tortures, recording umpteen albums of post rock noise in the abandoned Azkoitia slaughterhouse they call home. Guided by the dual discord and ritualistic force of the Missing Foundation and Swans, the group trudges through a dark, troubling landscape of Byzantine horror and Himalayan occult on their first ever-double album. This allows the group more time to create the miasma, as they delve deeper and further into the unknown unrushed. Incantation style vocals waft or fill the horizon in suffused spookiness, as every instrument and found object (the imagination shudders) from the factory is used to produce an unnerving black metal/industrial rural soundscape. Not always heavy and knocking on damnations door, odd references of straight laced Teutonic pop, the dead Skeletons, Amon Düül II, Psychic TV and the Velvets appear liberally throughout. Granted they are but fleeting in the often-draining musical experience that awaits the listener. Still, if you are brave enough, or you’re curious, Etazuaka is a complex and multilayered beast. You just have to put the work in to get something out.





No less troubling and disturbingly imaginative the latest Màgia Roja sanctioned team up of Qa’a band member’s Victor Hurtado and Yarei Molina is a caustic transmission from the center of a disintegrating Europe. Draped in the Order Etern flag of plaintive, howled resistance, the duo mourns the grumbling desolate landscapes of urban and moral desolation as they drum up a funeral pyre to Spain’s bastions of poetic horror, Goya and Lorca. Old ghosts appear alongside the new; beckoned back from beyond the ether: a TV set from The Poltergeist comes to life with a echoed augur of future dread, and possessed vocals emanate from hollowed out desperate visions.

A strange brew indeed, mixing electronics with buzz saws, soldering equipment and a cannonade percussion of metallic reverb the new but atavistic preoccupied Order sound like a pissed off The Normal, or a stripped backed and hostile Einstürzende Neubauten jamming with Sunn O))). A machine horror show, delivered from cursed instruments, Revolució Soterrada beats out a persistent bleat of pained resignation, the vocals becoming ever more unhinged and desperate; this is anything but an easy ride into the chasm. Not for the faint hearted, both releases belong to the dark recesses of resistance in a world that is creeping towards an ever uneasy and often dystopian epoch. With no easy answers let alone questions and confusion reigning, Spain’s underground attempt to create various distraught symphonies for the present malaise.



Words:   Dominic Valvona




LP  REVIEW

Paul Hawkins & The Awkward Silences - Monolith Cocktail

Paul Hawkins & The Awkward Silences   ‘Outsider Pop’   (Blang Records)

The Kent estuary polymath Ian Button has made his end of the London train line home a hub for many maverick pop, folk and alternative artists over the years. The former guitarist with Death In Vegas, producer and collaborator with Darren Hayman and Mary Epworth, has brought out a series of albums himself on his own Gare Du Nord label; the last of which, under the banner of his Papernut Cambridge alter ego, Nutlets, was a Pin Ups style salute to fondly remembered songs from his youth: reinterpreted with a fond sepia glow, a collection of mostly forgotten and uncool tracks given a new lease of life.

On the third album with the gnarled antifolk troubadour Paul Hawkins, Button’s penchant for disarming the inner turmoil, isolation and beak realities of life in glorious pop washes works well on the white funk meets loosely played no wave Outsider Pop album. This pop approach works wonders with Hawkin’s often dry and resigned lyrics, which also benefits from the addition of Mary Boe, who sounds like a cross between Debbie Harry and a coy diner waitress. Boe acts as doo-wop Annie chewing gum chorus to a peeved (and for good reason) Hawkins. Though she also gets to lead at times; especially on the twee resigned Leonard Cohen does a cryogenic Disney parody, ‘Walt Will Rise Again’.

Hawkins, billed in his bio as a Daniel Johnston-esque figure, still retains the same grizzled discord as before and still follows Nick Cave into the night darkly: his eerie black comedy and twanged Gothic rock and roll spectre looms large on ‘Johnny’ and on the bell tolled plaintive ‘The Black Hound Of The Western Wood’. Yet this latest songbook collection also sounds like a vague covers LP, or a bastardised appropriation of influences rebooted for a cynically romantic take on modern life. Hawkins and his Awkward Silences enact the late great dame himself, David Bowie, on ‘The Precautionary Principle’, taking ‘China Girl’ for a spin, and steering close to the Scary Monsters era on the opening disco slop anthem ‘How We Lost The War’ – both brilliant stand out tracks from the album. The idiosyncratic blues of the ‘Day I Saved The World’ is sweetened with a languid mix of Carl Douglas and Hot Chocolate and ‘The Canonbury Witch Trials’ takes a cool ESG bass line into the murky underbelly of our dependence towards lucre. Other foibles of inspiration come from REM, The Fall, Toto and The Art Of Noise; reflecting a much broader sound than before. These no wave, white funk, pop melodies then, act as a Trojan Horse, the themes far from advocating a hedonistic lust for life or, suggesting the listener suppress the doldrums of modern life, are filled with malcontent at the state of the world.

Lethargically executed and quintessentially an antifolk statement of protest, Outsider Pop is a highly infectious album of pop parodies that penetrate the bland veneer of the contemporary irksome vacuum known as the mainstream. Shambling discontent at its finest.



You may also like to try these equally anti-pop statements of intent too…


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vukovar - monolith cocktail

Words:  Dominic Valvona




Rubble Kings OST


Happy New Year from Rapture & Verse, back after an extended period in Christmas rehab, playing catch-up while the rest of the hip-hop world gropes for the snooze button and assembling a ragtag grab bag for the first of the year. Thought ‘Hotline Bling’ was the smash of 2015? So good, Young Money kinda forgot to nominate it for the Grammys. Wu-Tang’s million-dollar one off LP found a buyer, though it went to someone whose ebay rating wasn’t exactly spotless. KRS-One had a pop at LL Cool J, seemingly because words failed him in a freestyle (he’s since apologised). Elzhi found himself under fire for helming a Kickstarter album fundraising and appearing to have kept all the money for himself (genius!).

NWA are now Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, and Ghostface and DOOM are once again putting feelers out for a collaborative album. In a month of fallen musical icons, hip-hop mourned the loss of king beatsmith Mark B; his teaming with Blade created a watershed, millennium classic in ‘The Unknown’, and the infectious rush of ‘Move Now’ with Tommy Evans was the last good thing to happen to Soccer AM.




Get your sat-navs set up nice and early for Dirty Dike & Sammy B-Side, doing three UK dates in Jan/Feb as part of their prawn-sucking European tour, while all the High Focus lot turn over Brighton’s Concorde2 on Feb 5th. De La Soul’s Maseo shows off his 7-inches at London’s Book Club in February, and March has Roots Manuva at Manchester Gorilla, and Pharoahe Monch doing Highbury’s The Garage.

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Singles/EPs

As the world dictates, we’ll begin with Kanye West. A new album, ‘Swish’, is coming soon: the appetisers ‘Real Friends’ (doing sullen, but in a good way), and ‘No More Parties in LA’ (in snippet form, funky heat with Kendrick Lamar), make for ominous listening for hip-hop’s mere mortals. Talking of Kendrick, Dr Dre protégé Anderson Paak delivers the very butterfly-pimping ‘Come Down’, a crowd-converging song-and-dance set in motion on the boards by Hi-Tek.


The Kuartz remix of Matt Love’s ‘What You Want’ is a no-nonsense 7”; pushed hard by Manchester’s Prodigal Sons, it calculates whiplash with its drums with wisps of sensitive organ running down the middle. The ante-upping of Granville Sessions is full of rock guitars, rallying trumpets and what must be a bit of reverse psychology by calling their live rollick ‘Leave It’. Hounding hip-hop’s basics as Mongrels, Kid Acne and Benjamin’s British bulldog spirit sinks teeth into ‘You Dig Raps?’, backed by a ribbiting b-boy remix of ‘Combat Divers’ from New York’s Scotty Hard. Fighting the starburst that is Sumgii’s squeaky synth seesaw, Illaman thumbs his nose and pokes his tongue out at rivals (well, not that politely) that he reckons are ‘Pants’.

Yamin Semali quietly perfects his craft on the sweet, soul-rich winner ‘Go to the Point’, and features on the similarly honey-drizzled ‘The Good Life’, belonging to Bambu de Asiatic.  Beneficence and Inspectah Deck ride horns like Butch and Sundance on ‘Digital Warfare’, which should segue just lovely into Prhyme & Joey Bada$$’ ‘Golden Era’; a pair of quick on the draw janglers shot right out the ‘realness’ manual. Just to ram home the point, Royce da 5’9”, prowling like a hangman, asserts ‘They Don’t Make Them Like This Anymore’, “walking around like a one-man arm press.”

The majestically named Ron Jon Bovi are wanted dead or alive on the grimy ‘Time Tunnel’ – shredding the poodle perms are Casual and Phat Kat, in control of handling a white hot potato. Giving it both barrels when it comes to preserving an invincibility of ignorance, Al Shid’s A+ ‘Clubba Lang’ steams into a J-Zone funk clatter. For fast lane energy drink mainliners, Felix Snow has Dominique Young Unique flying out the traps on ‘Touch That’.



Albums

With the Doppelgangaz’ charmingly titled latest ‘Beats for Brothels 3.5’, it’s hard to know if the instrumentals suit the settings; the Monolith Cocktail budget won’t let us find out for definite either. It is however a clear and calm collection unhurriedly glistening with optimism (but not so evangelical for the cloud rap set). Bar the odd moment of trepidation, it’s not sleazy at all, tailor made for all imminent cold snaps.




Six-strong six shooters and fairytale flunks Badly Promoted Geniuses are ‘Sorry Not Sorry’. Flying the flag for naturally grubby, lard-bathed UK hip-hop that couldn’t give a monkeys (artistically described as “17 tracks of unbridled, unapologetic fuckery”), they gang up with hoods down and brims low on a funky backwash of beats eating into your new year’s hangover.

New York gang documentary Rubble Kings comes with an OST featuring Run the Jewels, Ghostface Killah, Mr Muthaf*kin eXquire and Bun B. Perfectly cast to occupy crumbling concrete jungles and the wrong side of the rails, and facing off against plots of snaking, hurricane funk, it’s a win-win: fans of the film will need the soundtrack, and those who haven’t seen the doc precipitating the hip-hop revolution will be happy to take the music as a standalone.




As an outlet to release tension, ‘The Last Ronin’, the stomping ground of Fong-Sai-U, is one of those F-the-world albums that opens windows and gives the neighbours what for. Not headless, not radical, and not perfect, but for its dumbbell-crushing stimulation whipping up the odd soul storm and yelling come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough, it’ll light a spark under couch potatoes.

‘King Push: Darkest Before Dawn – The Prelude’ is a mouthful not reflective of Pusha T’s buffing of his throne. Devastatingly laconic as ever over skinny, tense beats that then burst from its tight coil, PT calls a blackout on opposition. Best listened to through tinted headphones, it plays the hitman with a busy schedule as he’s in and out within half an hour.

Marvelous Mag’s year closing project ‘Selfless Acts’ smoothes everything out so the sunroof comes into play and the coast-to-coast flavours flood out. Murs & 9th Wonder are back in cahoots for a sixth time: their forecast of ‘Brighter Daze’ is the accepted understanding of 9th as the steady soul controller and Murs being as roguishly listenable as ever. We’ll let Busta Rhymes review his ‘The Return of the Dragon’- “y’all know how we do it, everything colossal.” As a roundabout sequel to ‘The Abstract and The Dragon’ it’s nowhere near as good (and that’s not just down to the absence of Q-Tip), though a re-up of ‘I Got 5 On It’, a vast guestlist and zero price-tag give it enough ear time.

Stop, look and listen: the anxiety of Sleaze & Sam Zircon; Tekh Togo’s fashion/hollow tips, and a head-to-head with Cappo.











Words:   Matt Oliver



David Bowie a tribute - Monolith Cocktail


Promising so much, David Bowie upped his game in the mid 90s. He threatened us with a new art decade but after two (in our opinion successful) reinventions he resorted back into the confines of statesman rock and pop. Vocally harangued at the time by critics and fans for the pretensions of Outside, his industrial bleak artistic murder mystery marked a return to his first love: contemporary art. In his reinvigorated role as Modern Painter magazine patron, correspondent and even hoaxer (part of the team that instigated the infamous Nat Tate debacle; the most famous American Abstract Expressionist that never existed), Bowie staged his conceptual comeback. I for one loved it. I even went to Wembley Arena in 1995 to catch the London leg of the tour – a bewildered and miffed audience smiled and clapped along until they realised that Bowie would not be performing his usual back catalogue tour de force.

Another leap, and Bowie in tattered Union Jack frock coat, embraced drum and bass for his 1997 Earthling LP. He would of course be goaded by many for his youth culture adoptions, but Earthling offered a vigorous, political and fiery platform for Bowie to vent his anger.

Faltering as the millennium loomed, even though Bowie was now the augur of the internet, soothsayer of the future, his next trio of albums would turn to face the past. Reflective, he returned to the melody and songwriting craft of yore as he composed three albums of solid but far from cutting edge material. It would be disingenuous to suggest that Heathen, Hours and Reality were disappointing; the march of time has allowed them to breath and unfurl their lyricism and gentle considered melodies slowly.

Taking it for granted that he would be with us forever, an omnipresent feature of the cultural landscape, Bowie’s health took a near fatal turn in 2004 as he suffered a heart attack after coming off stage. Reducing his schedule and commitments as he recuperated, Bowie made sporadic appearances, collaborating with various artists, from Scarlett Johansson to David Gilmour, The Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio, and all but retiring from playing live. You can never call it a comeback as such, but Bowie surprised everyone in 2013 with his most impressive songbook in a decade, The Next Day. Looking back with wistful fondness on his Berlin years with the teary-eyed plaintive ‘Where Are We Now?’, he was once again reunited with Tony Visconti.

Released with little fanfare, keeping critics on their toes, The Next Day was universally accepted as a nostalgic, straighter laced, rock album, with little in the way of gimmicks and distractions. As it is, this album sounded like the beginning of a final fond farewell. But it would be the recently released, last week, Blackstar that confounded and really caught all of us out. The curtain call, Bowie bowed out on a morose but emotively startling eulogy.

Death has always plagued the music of Bowie. As a young slip of a man in 1972 he covered Jacques Brel’s harrowing ‘My Death’, and the stench of a morbid and poetic curiosity for it has permeated throughout his work. Yet Blackstar felt unusually elegiac. It now seems obvious that this was a man facing the end; his final release for posterity. And that is where we end our four-part tribute. But dry those eyes, for below you will find the last haul of Bowie albums; from Outside to Blackstar.


1.Outside (Arista/BMG) 1995

Outside

With ‘five years’ remaining until the new millennium, Bowie, tapping into the anxiety and quest for spiritual relief, returned to his first passion: contemporary art.

Back with his most innovative collaborator, Brian Eno, he dredged the bottomless pit of morose and despair. Dreaming up a morbid tale of future sacrificial performance art, gone wild, and taboo breaking cybernetics he narrated a woeful diegesis through a series of ‘verbasier programmed’ characters.

Disturbing to say the least, our ‘cracked actor’ pitches an avant-garde ‘whodunnit?’, set in a parallel bleak world where the self-mutilated gestures of Günter Brus (the patriarchal figurehead of body art) and ‘the orgiastic mystery theatre’ of Hermann Nitsch have been taken to new, hyper, extremes of blood-letting.

Led by the investigative diary of art crime detective Nathan Adler, a cryptic cut-up of Burroughs/Burgess language is used to not just explain the circumstances that befell the poor victim Baby Grace, but also delve into the collective psyche.

Out on a limb musically, Bowie’s home life may have been content, yet something suddenly propelled him to bravely create a depressive requiem. Easily the best, if not most original, material since Scary Monsters, 1.Outside was entirely written in the studio as the band extemporized: motivated by Eno’s synonymous oblique strategy cards.

Scott Walker lost in cyberspace; the industrial melancholy is at its most anguished on ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ (a version was used on the, Bowie as Warhol starring, tragic biopic of Basquiat, directed by Julian Schnabel), yet a more reved-up, pummeling bombastic variant is used on ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ (perfectly playing out David Fincher’s Seven).

Leaving many fans bemused (as I myself witnessed on the Outside tour, the baying audience pleading for the greatest hits package), the philosophical snuff opus seemed puzzling to those familiar with the pop-lite Bowie. Thankfully Bowie cut loose the shackles of commerciality for a contemporary blast of shock and dread.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson (single), Hallo Spaceboy (single), We Prick You

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

A Small Plot Of Land, The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction, I’m Deranged



Earthling (BMG) 1997

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Remarkably even though these were the halcyon days of guitar-band driven, and nostalgic, Britpop, dance music, predominantly drum ‘n’ bass, was also basking in the glow. Thanks in some small part to the crossover success of the movement’s big players, Goldie and Roni Size.

Plucking objectively from his orbit of influences, Bowie adopted the drum ‘n’ bass principles for a dynamic, steely ‘textural diary’, both discordant but surprisingly melodic and erudite.

Embracing technology with gusto, Earthling would be digitally recorded, though all the skittish drum loops and bass lines would be performed live first before being cut-up to fit around Bowie’s arrangements at a later date.

Recorded on the cusp of a great change politically, Earthling’s concerns and observational objections were written before the tidal change in UK government. However those postulations, from an artist living aboard in New York, spoke more about America, or to be exact, its foreign policy, both militarily and culturally. ‘Dead Man Walking’, taken from death row, and the sardonic harsh rebuke ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’ (originally recorded for 1.Outside with Eno) alluded to the polymath’s discomfort with that adopted home; especially the ‘McDonalds’ effect of capitalist colonialism.

Of curse, standing like the bulldog spirited equivalent of a figure from Caspar David Friedrich’s nationalistic landscape paintings, Bowie with his back to the audience gazes out onto the green and pleasant English countryside: his natural embryonic home. Wearing an Alexander McQueen designed (cool Britannia ruled the waves after all) Union Jack coat, Bowie’s frayed and battered garment is a sad reflection of the exuberant excitement of Pete Townshend’s heady mod era version.

Appropriating the Prodigy and Underworld, and fashioning veiled, nuanced auguries on ‘Battle Of Britain (The Letter)’, his heart still belongs to Blighty.

Almost without a blemish, the album is Bowie’s most accomplished and challenging work, alongside Outside. It would however mark a slow decadence into a more smoother, mature sound that would guide the artist through the late 90s and into the noughties.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

Little Wonder (single), Battle Of Britain (The Letter), Dead Man Walking (single), I’m Afraid Of Americans (single)

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Looking For Satellites, Seven Years In Tibet



Hours… (Virgin) 1999

Hours

Cradled in the youthful luminosity of a ‘born again’, flowing locks, Bowie’s damaged enervated Earthling self lies exhausted. Its purpose served, Earthling’s probing dynamism and confrontational cyber style attack was toned down for a softer, meditative approach, on the eve of a new millennium.

Facing the tides of change and his own mortality (again), Bowie sought solace from his back catalogue (an exercise repeated recently on The Next Day).

Wallowing in a self-pitted state of pained irreverence; the gentler incarnation was separated into the roles of mature, downcast, romantic and internet crusader: a spirit of collaboration with fans via his personal BowieNet hub called for lyrical inspiration, the lucky winner’s contribution appearing on the song ‘What’s Really Happening’.

The lion’s share of the Hours… set list was recycled from a soundtrack that both Bowie and his tenure sparring partner Reeves Gabrels had composed for future dystopian online game, Omikron – The Nomad Soul. Surprisingly this material was quite commercial and light, though that sophisticated ‘Trojan horse’ method of making melancholic and sad themes palatable, worked extremely well on the paean to aging and lovelorn memories, ‘Thursday’s Child’. A congruous series of laments follow suit, with wistful, weeping guitar laden forlorn ditties such as ‘Something In The Air’ and ‘Survive’.

Appropriating his own earlier work, the mooning Americana twanged malady ‘I’m Dreaming My Life’ and gnarling stutter riff ‘The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell’ (referencing The Stooges ‘Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell’), sound like lost Tin Machine recordings, whilst stirring vignette ‘Brilliant Adventure’, sounds like a passage of contemplative spiritualism from the ‘Moss Garden’ of Heroes.

Playing it safe – though a punctilious, methodical Bowie is better than no Bowie at all – our ersatz starman stuck to nostalgia.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

Thursday’s Child (single), Seven (single), The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell (single)

 

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Something In The Air, Brilliant Adventure



Heathen (ISO/Columbia) 2002

Heathen

Despite the commentators and critic’s attempts to project their own neurosis of emptiness upon the post 9/11 Heathen, Bowie insisted that he had no intention of directly addressing that momentous event. Of course it’s inconceivable that the Twin Towers of doom couldn’t have dented or made an impact on his psyche, after all he lived closer enough to ground zero.

But most of the material had already been recorded prior to this, with songs taken from his nostalgic Pin Ups for the twenty first century, Toy album: a reworking of lesser known ditties, blue eyed soul and vaudeville from the mid 60s to early 70s, which included ‘In The Heat Of The Morning’, ‘Conversation Piece’ and even the old Davy Jones and The Lower Third single, ‘You’ve Got A Habit’.

Never officially released, this saccharine, rose-tinted look back to fonder, innocent times, was another attempt by Bowie to wallow in the past. The anxiety of a new millennium, ‘degradation of mankind’ and basic need for meaning prompted our troubled polymath to write some elegiac and emotional laments; his best for a number of years. In part the return of Tony Visconti as co-producer, spurred Bowie on to once again push the envelope, though Heathen was still only a moderate shadow of the bolder RCA epoch. Visconti’s gilded production values nudged the ambient lilting washes, attentive horns, tender strings and vapour trail effects in the right direction.

Hardly lacking culture or principles, Bowie’s Heathen appellation rings truer to the word’s other meaning, ‘a person who doesn’t belong to a widely held religion.’ In a manner the plaintive and layered lyrics fumble in a vacuum of confusion, cast adrift of answers and spiritualism.

The album begins well with the opening theatric, hallowed synth requiem of ‘Sunday’; a glimmer of the nuanced quality found back in the 70s.

The Pixies (‘Cactus’) and UFOddity, Norman Carl Odam (the spark for Ziggy Stardust), supply the covers, the last of those stardust cowboy voyages into the ether, ‘I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship’, given a real ham performance.

Surprisingly the stirring waltz like weepy to memories, ‘Slip Away’ (originally earmarked for Toy, under the title of ‘Uncle Floyd’) has an air of Chrissie Hynde about it, especially in the bridge’s melody.

A reunion with Pete Townshend (last heard contributing to ‘Because You’re Young’ from Scary Monsters) on the understated, but melodically sweet, ‘Slow Burn’ takes time to disrobe its charms whereas the glib addition of David Grohl’s unmemorable guitar waffle on Neil Young’s 1968 paean, ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, seems a populist stab at endearing Bowie to the stadium rock crowd.

Progressively superior to Hours… in every way, the aching heart of Bowie awakened from lethargy, demanding a ‘better future’.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

Cactus, Slip Away, Afraid, A Better Future, Everyone Say ‘Hi’ (single)

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Sunday, Slow Burn



Reality (ISO/Columbia) 2003

Reality

Making the most of his creative flow, Bowie’s next critically assiduous, soul-searching suite would draw from the ‘oil well’ of despair.

The hyper ‘reality’ that permeated throughout this sophisticated album reflected a woeful climate, specifically the unfolding drama in the Middle East. Allusions to neocon diplomacy, nepotism of the most colonially threatening kind and the crescent of Islam are interspersed with more pining romanticized themes of loss.

Assembling a ‘dream team’, Bowie’s backing group once again swelled with the talents of Mike Garson (piano), Tony Visconti (production duties), Earl Slick (guitar) and Carlos Alomar (guitar) – both veterans of Young Americans. Slick and Visconti would of course go onto to form part of The Next Day recording hub.

That quality and old camaraderie proved every bit as tightly dynamic, Reality unequivocally the thin white duke’s best work since Earthlings.

Again, Bowie insists on appropriating or at least resorting to past endeavors, recalling Outside on his sardonic hustled cover of Jonathan Richman’s ‘Pablo Picasso’; Tonight on the samba weepie ‘Days’; and Black Tie White Noise on the thinly veiled indicative Dick Cheney putdown, ‘Fall Dog Bombs The Moon’: Bowie at his bleakest; “The blackest of years that have no sound, no shape, no depth, no underground/What a dog!’

An augury of what was to follow in 2013, the thumping kickdrum, rollicking anthem ‘Never Get Old’ has a resounding statement of intent from the artist: “Never ever gonna get old!” In character he may be, but Bowie’s cry against mortality is a personal one, echoed in the present. Unfortunately bowing to the so-called market forces – regardless of artistic values and sanctimonious vitriol, he always had an eye for making dough – Bowie lent the tune to mineral water brand Vittel, appearing in an advert which has an uncanny resonance with the recent ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ video.

For various reasons outside his control, namely the poor sods heart attack, Bowie had to wait eight years to produce another volume of reactionary post-millennium blues. The Next Day, despite the decade-long absence from recording, picks up where Reality left off.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

New Killer Star (single), Pablo Picasso, Never Get Old (single), Reality

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

She’ll Drive The Big Car, Try Some Buy Some



The Next Day (ISO/Columbia) 2013

The-Next-Day

The Flaming Lips cheekily entitled a song ‘Is David Bowie Dying?’ in 2012, a glib reference to the constant chatter and conniption ‘concern’ that’s followed the ‘thin white pensioner’ around since his heart attack in 2004. Forget all the curatorships, appearances and guest spots, which Bowie has since carried out, many of us have already talked him into an early grave.

Sure, The Next Day swells with morose reflections and speaks of mortality; after all he is a survivor, part of the fortunate baby boomer generation who rewrote the rules and played fast and loose with the establishment, yet they are now benefactors of a culture that still idolizes its stars in their dotage: The old order hanging on for dear life.

Perhaps we expect Brian Eno and Tony Visconti to still be around, but Iggy? This is the paradox, because despite the obvious iconic casualties who died in their Byronic youth, Bowie and his peers who dabbled just as much and dangerously, have made it: the aging winners, still relevant and still able to command the public’s attention.

Less an obituary, more a testament to endurance, this latest cryptic trove of unrequited loss, fame and choked back reminiscence is attributed to a cast of damaged and forlorn psyches: from a WWII veteran desert rat soldier to the protagonist of a High School shooting.

Appropriation of not just his own revered image – Jonathan Barnbrook subverts the iconic Heroes posed cover, referencing Bowie’s Berlin years, a constant theme throughout – but also his past musical glories, our contemplative host seems to be far too coy and aware of his own stature; the decade lay-off prompting Bowie to reintroduce us to the back catalogue as though we’d forgotten it.

Scrutinized to the nth degree, The Next Day’s real achievement is its secrecy and how with such a large cast of musicians and contributors that Bowie kept his two-year project under wraps in an, somnambulist endorsed, privacy-free Internet world.

Marketed in what first appeared as an almost caviler, ‘out-of-the-blue’, fashion the album’s precursor elegiac Berlin travelogue, ‘Where Are We Now?’, wept openly upon the public, followed by the musings on our contradictory relationship with celebratory, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, both released without prior warning.

Taking a leaf out of his, arguably, biggest influence Scott Walker’s own imposed locked away method of making music, Bowie wished to remain in a sort of remote exile, avoiding interviews, performances and public appearances, instead putting all his effort and belief into occasional musical edicts. Observing us from a distance, Bowie ponders from a relaxed state of privilege, amused at his own luck and survival.

 

Decreed as the leading highlights of the album by the majority –

The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (single), Where Are We Now (single), The Boss Of Me, Heat

Pay attention to those often overlooked beauties –

Valentine’s Day, If You Can See Me, Heat



‘★’   (ISO/RCA) 2016

Blackstar cover art - Monolith Cocktail

With hindsight, ‘★’ now seems an obvious epitaph. The clues where all there. The afterlife, resurrection and a string of final farewells hang over the album like a ticking countdown to David Bowie’s death. He did it all of course with a grand flourish, and in some cases, beautifully. Not wholly plaintive and morose then, his eulogy dared to offer up intriguing and ambiguous thoughts. The music itself both referencing some of his most experimental and edgy work, from Diamond Dogs to Outside, and up until the last, daring enough to experiment as he adopted a West Village jazz troupe to play rock music in off-kilter, cerebral manner.

If it is true, Brian Eno’s tribute in recent days referred to a possible return to the duos Outside project: “About a year ago, we started talking about Outside – the last album we worked on together,” Eno wrote. “We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that.” Muted it seems as a serious potential, the often morbid, avant-garde and industrial art school concept album feels like it did seep into the fabric of, or at least influence  ‘★’ to some extent. I for one will be gutted that he never made it. Cancer got there first. And so we will never know how that Eno reunion would have turned out.

Looking back now, only actually a week on, at my review I was properly a little harsh on poor Bowie. Songs I mostly dismissed have seduced me since. Though, as I unfortunately pointed out, it did feel like an eulogy and was obsessed with mortality. And now we all know why. Yet I will stand by it, as Bowie’s death shouldn’t change, what I believe was a balanced critique.

So here it is again in full in case you missed it or need reminding:

 

Still preoccupied with that old messiah complex and the anxieties of the times, David Bowie unveils his latest ode to resurrection ★ (pronounced Blackstar). Preoccupied with jazz, though as we’re told like a mantra, “This isn’t a jazz album. Its a rock album played by jazz musicians”. There is a fundamental difference. Off-kilter leanings and daft nuances from the progressive jazz catalogue permeate this album, but that is all. There is no sudden embrace of be or hard bop, or spiritual, modal or psychedelic consciousness. There isn’t even any traces of that much maligned and cringe worthy offshoot “fusion”. Instead, Bowie’s recently recruited hip West Village jazz troupe adds an inventive, fresh lilt to the favoured rock and pop music tropes to create something unique. It shouldn’t come as a surprise however, his very first musical stirrings being on the saxophone as the young Mod about town in the early 60s before he changed his name from the one his mother gave him, David (Davy) Jones, to the immortal Bowie. The long hairs of the psychedelic age beckoned and Bowie cut loose the restraints of jazz to wear dresses, take on mime and reinvent himself as a cerebral vaudeville troubadour.

He raises, he soars and than he falls, Bowie’s usual cycle of creativity builds and than wears out each new character he adopts. Yet left to his own devices, somewhere out in a metaphysical space, Major Tom is still causing Bowie sleepless nights it seems. The title track from his ‘Wide Eyed Boy’ meets Outside, ‘Blackstar’, was accompanied by a video that featured an unnamed astronaut, fallen and lain dormant covered in dust in Bowie’s apocalyptic cryptic world. Whether he comes to bury old ghosts or inject life into them, the leitmotif of resurrection once again looms large. Mortality preys upon his mind, and why wouldn’t it, as his own trifles with death and the rate of ageing starts to take its toll. Despite the shuffling but tight jazz drum breaks and mourning on a New York dock scene saxophone, these elements are attentive, dampened even, and composed. The title track a flat beat ten-minute minor opus, rich with hints of Black Tie White Noise, Diamond Dogs (6:50 minutes in) and some melodious reverent classicism, is a song in more or less three parts. Strewn with those obligatory clues and references (which have nothing to do with ISIL and the present Syrian crisis we’re told) it is an ambitious if ambiguous start, and like many songs from the Bowie cannon, its cunning and complexity unveils itself on repeated plays.

So far meeting with worldwide acclaim form critics – the ones allowed to actually hear the LP in its entirety before the official release – Blackstar is musically an improvement on the straighter laced rock songbook of The Next Day. That record is now considered a songbook of nostalgic reminisces; yet he apes if not carries on with the same concerns on this short – more a Station To Station in length and track numbers – follow up. He has even brought back or decided to return and finish the story of The Man Who Fell To Earth, revisiting the tragic alien stuck in exile figure of Thomas Jerome Newton for a Broadway play entitled Lazarus – see, again with the resurrections! Stupefied with the vices and almost resigned languid resentments of Earth, Walter Tevis’s original character made pallid flesh by Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s stunning, evocative movie adaptation, was last seen in a near somnolent state more or less beaten, his mission failed and his love ones dying in the drought that parched his native homeland. The second track to be shared from the album, Lazarus features that recurring sweetly forlorn saxophone – found throughout the back catalogue -played over a maudlin, and at first very stark, indulgent wallowing backing track. With usual ambiguity, Bowie once again croons about scars, heaven and breaking free, his slow building indulgence unfurling its depth and maladies at a crawl. Closer to Heathen and Reality, Lazarus is influenced to a degree by the critics darlings of the music scene Kendrick Lamar and Death Grips but sounds more like TV On The Radio and The XX.

Already gaining airplay and floating around for a while, ‘Tis A Pity She Is A Whore’ is golden Bowie, and the track that gave life to the rumours of his acquired penchant for jazz. Riffing on the infamous 17th century John Ford tragedy of the same name, a forlorn crooning Bowie sings oblique lines over a plaintive saxophone and heavy drum barrage on the fieriest track from the album. In a similar mode, a new punchier version of 2014’s ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ is a less shaky untethered rock and speedy break beat hurtling improvement. And once again features a resigned downcast Bowie taking on the role of a sucker-punched sap. This leaves a trio of material that hasn’t until the album’s release been aired or teased out over the net. ‘Girl Loves Me’ has a harassed Bowie yodelling, wistfully sighing and yearning with his Berlin trilogy style vocals to a methodical striding march, as he converses in a mix of Polari and A Clockwork Orange. Quite a change in tempo and style, ‘Dollar Days’ is again a reflective take, perhaps even a regrettable lament. Plaintive in a ballad style, Bowie almost eulogising, the lyrics are delivered and beautifully caressed. In a similar vein, the album’s finale ‘I Can’t Give You Everything’ is another wistful dip back into the Black Tie White Noise album. Repeating a most poetic set of verses that both unravel and confound, it is a majestic, diaphanous if sad curtain call.

 

Despite the gloom, Bowie is still a sprightly creative artist, celebrating his 69th birthday with a new album that stretches the imagination and puts most of his peers to shame. Of course, it still isn’t as daemonic, unsettling and untethered to the boundaries of pop and rock music as we’re led to believe; Scott Walker this ain’t, Bowie still transmogrifying his Crowley/Kabbalah/Nietzsche/Occult/Norse and beyond cycle of references into a more sellable pop format no matter how many genres he absorbs. Walker has gone into the abyss in comparison and almost removed any earthly links to melody and song structure. Can the same be said for Bowie despite his recent long-winded jazz influenced opuses?

Saying that, this could be the most pure, at least concerned, version of Bowie yet. Resurrected free of his characterisations, the gilded “Blackstar” is just as uneasy and scared at the anxieties, stresses and daunting prospects of the future as the rest of us. Fame, celebratory is mere smoke after all and offers little in the way of comfort and safety in the face of the impending end times. Yet despite being easily his best album since Earthling, Blackstar is still underwhelming and falls short of being a classic. It isn’t even as experimental as Outside, which is a criminally underrated album, and lacks a real punch. But it is moving in the right direction, and instead of listening to those younger hip cats, he’d be better off paying more attention to that other famous Capricorn Scott Walker.



A Celebration Part 1

David Bowie tribute Monolith Cocktail



Part 2

Young Americans



Part 3

Let's Dance



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