Tickling our Fancy 044: Baba Zula, Piano Magic, Dearly Beloved…
January 12, 2017
New Music Reviews Roundup
Words: Dominic Valvona
Welcome back to the first review roundup of 2017, which gets off to a grand start with this dazzling cornucopia of new releases from Baba Zula, Dearly Beloved, Hanitra, Mikko Joensuu, Piano Magic, James McArthur and Pawlowski, Trouvé & Ward.
In this edition of my regular review roundup we have the grand sweeping gestures of Mikko Joensuu’s second album in the Amen cycle; the second idiosyncratic folk and country idyllic songbook from James McArthur; some tender sounds “from the heart of Madagascar” in the shape of the Island’s talented songstress Hanitra; plus a bit of hardcore from the Dearly Beloved. There’s also a trio of special anniversary releases, the first, a triumvirate of solo work from Pawlowski, Trouvé & Ward, celebrating the tenth birthday of Jezus Factory Records, the second and third mark the twentieth anniversaries of both the chamber pop dreamers Piano Magic, who have chosen to have one last fling before disbanding this year, and the polygenesis dub Istanbul outfit Baba Zula.
Baba Zula ‘XX’
Released by Glitterbeat Records, 27th January 2017
Bastions of a psychedelic Istanbul scene, they’ve arguably made their very own, the omnivorous Anatolian Acid Mother Temple of dub-styled Baba Zula have been melding all their many musical inspirations together for twenty years now. Co-founded by Osman Muret Ertel and Levent Akman in 1996, the kaleidoscopic group originally sprung from Ertel’s previous ZeN Outfit as a one-off soundtrack project for a film director friend. Two decades later and we can surely assume that Baba Zula won out.
Inspired by the first wave of Turkish bands, that grew out of a previous generations atavistic folk scene, in the 1960s, notably the psych pioneers Moğollar, Ertel and Akman helped revitalize an age of experimentation, lost during the tumultuous upheavals of Turkey’s coups in the 70s and 80s. Politically acute, challenging the authorities with trance-like joyous expression, Baba Zula are once again finding themselves overshadowed by developments in their own backyard. And so just when we and their comrades need them that discerning label of new musical discoveries from the African continent and beyond, Glitterbeat Records, have decided to celebrate the band’s legacy with a generous double helping of reimagined material and a whole host of transmogrified dub treatments from congruous bedfellows and admirers alike – including the Mad Professor, Dr. Das and Glitterbeat’s quasi in-house band Dirtmusic.
Choosing a unique method of documenting that twenty-year career (and counting), Ertel explains: “None of the pieces here are in their original forms. Instead, we picked remixes, re-recordings, collaborations, live tracks, all the possibilities, but none of these have been released before.”
Transformed but not enough to completely obscure the source, the first of these two CDs (or albums) travels back and forth across the decades, with the earliest example being the feverish female protagonist orgasm over a DJ Shadow backbeat Erotika Hop from 1997, and one of the latest, a nine-minute Tamikrest-on-an-exchange-trip-to Byzantine Aşiklarin Sözu Kalir (otherwise known as “External Is The Word Of Poets”). Elsewhere you’ll find the group’s biggest hit to date, Bir Sana Bir De Bana (“One For You And One For Me”) playfully re-styled as a Gainsbourg-on-the-Bosphorus duet between a French woman and an Armenian man.
Opening this meandering journey, Ozgür Ruh showcases the group’s signature languid dub sound; a free-spirited melting of ascending, whirling electric saz (a long-necked lute-like instrument), accentuated brushed bendir hand drums, longing male and female vocals and a cosmic Jamaica blown off course towards the Adriatic, vibe. However, there’s no mistaking the band’s roots on Biz Size Asik Olduk; a curious dervish romance with the candor and atmosphere of a desert blues serenaded camel caravan trail. The final two tracks are live. There’s, what sounds at first like a tuning-up session, kosmische freestyle Çöl Aslanlari performance from the Bada Bing in Berlin (handed over to Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke to mix) and a nineteen-minute experimental reverb-heavy dub odyssey version of Abdülcanbaz from the Piraeus Resistance Festival In Greece to lose oneself in. Both are great examples of their untethered abandon and float-y transcendental mesmerism.
The accompanying (mis)adventures in dub companion is a veritable feast of the most somnolent drifting mixes. It helps that Baba Zulu’s exotic vapours lend themselves so well to dub, imbued as they are by it. But with no limits set and with a litany of dub explorers allowed a free-reign to remodel, the band’s material is swathed in so much echo that it almost disappears into the ether.
The first few tracks are by the group themselves and someone known as “arastaman”. Reshaping their own catalogue and sound they use the lingering traces of a song and submerge beneath a smog of warbled theremin and phaser effects on Alem and cut up the vocals on a mind-bending Ufak. Guest mixes include the radical Asian Dub Foundations’ Dr Das and his Uncle style heavy shake-up of Iki Alem; Dirtmusic’s mysterious lunar sandscaped ‘Hopche’; and The Mad Professor’s quartet of polygenesis traverses: merging a South American tropical groove to the Istanbul guitar cycles of ‘Baso’ and playing with the convulsing vocals and howling calls of ‘Erotik Adab’.
To a backdrop of continued violence (at the time of going to press there’s been both the shootings at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub and the car bomb/gun attack on the courthouse in Izmir, in just the last two weeks alone) and heightened turmoil, caught in the midst of suppressive regime currently removing dissenting and alternative voices from the street with the most tenuous of reasons it’s hardly surprising that many wish to escape the realities of daily life. Baba Zula know more than most how dire the situation is; Ertel’s own late uncle, a journalist, was tortured and imprisoned for his troubles. Though highly entrancing and mostly destined for psychedelic shindigs this eclectic voyage is every bit the rallying call of protestation; just existing amounts to a form of dissention in the face of increasing nationalism. Here’s to another twenty years of stirring the omnivorous musical stew.
Dearly Beloved ‘Admission’
Released by Aporia Records, January 27th 2017
Recorded through Dave Grohl’s acquired custom-built 70s Neve 8028 analogue console, at his famous Studio 606, the desk that that facilitated Nirvana’s Nevermind has imbued the latest steely hardcore row from the Dearly Beloved duo. Still thundering along at a furious velocity, thrash-powering their way through a scowling mix of Black Flag, Black Sabbath and The Pixies, the dynamic Niva Chow/Rob Higgins gut-thumping and bewailing partnership have acquired an extra, controlled, ingredient of grunge.
More suffused, the light and shade of Admission rages in a thoughtful depth between dystopian drones and full-on esoteric rock’n’roll, ala a Mogadon induced Royal Trux in a switchblade scuffle with The Black Keys – the opening RIP track showing a flair even for southern boogie blues, albeit a very noisy one. For a band that fluidly absorbs a litany of hardcore, punk and doom influences, Admission is surprisingly melodic and nuanced. And so you’re are just as likely to hear echoes of Placebo and the Moon Duo as you are Death From Above 1979, and run through not just broody miasma moods but also fun-thrilled frolics.
Whipped into shape (not literally of course!) by Ramones and Misfits producer Daniel Rey who laid out a relentless schedule that had the duo rehearse in a East L.A. sweatbox for eight hours a day for a week, the Dearly Beloved for the first time entrusted an outsider to sit behind the controls. As it turns out, the road-tested and solid work out sessions have captured the duo’s live energy perfectly, delivering a lean, sinewy, heavy-as-fuck rage with all the indulgences and chaff taken out. That tumultuous, controlled but far from caged performance matches the turbulence of the times we’re living in.
Pawlowski, Trouvé & Ward ‘Volume 2’
Released via Jezus Factory Records, January 20th 2017
A decade on from the last Mauro Pawlowski, Rudy Trouvé and Craig Ward triumvirate compilation of solo work and to celebrate the tenure of the label vassal of so many Belgium borne alternative rock projects, Jezus Factory Records have now released a long-awaited follow up; named simply Volume 2. All at one point or another members of Belgium’s, arguably, most famous export dEUS, all three musicians have also shared a highly complex interlocking relationship; each serving together in a rambunctious myriad of side projects, team-ups and explorations, most notably The Love Substitutes, iH8 Camera and Kiss My Jazz: if anyone could ever be bothered, it would make a convoluted but interesting rock family tree diagram. Crossing over and extending beyond the dEUS hub it feels like the common bond of releasing their material on Jezus Factory could see the trio join forces at any moment.
Showcasing their individual flights of fantasy, this second volume of solo work is sometimes bizarre, often curious and occasionally silly; traversing the more serious glacial suffused drones of Ward’s four-track travail; the guitar and post-punk synth of Trouvé; and the killer-ziller-driller lunacy of Pawlowski’s imaginary 80s movie soundtrack, complete with commercial breaks!
A familiar face on the Monolith Cocktail, the erudite Scottish guitarist/composer Craig Ward was originally invited many moons ago to holiday in the Belgium city of Antwerp by dEUS and Zita Swoon stalwart Stef Kamil Carlens. Somehow instead of returning home, he stayed and signed-up for in a stint in a local band, Kiss My Jazz, before inevitably joining the dEUS fraternity; playing guitar and delivering vocals on the In A Bar Under The Sea and The Ideal Crash albums. Ward subsequently left to form both The Love Substitutes and A Clean Kitchen Is A Happy Kitchen. More recently he’s carved out a solo niche for himself with the suitably evocative ambient suite New Third Lanark whilst also running a guesthouse in his native Scotland. Earlier in 2016 he was awarded a Scottish Arts Council grant to complete his ambitious solo opus Leave Everything Move Out, which was actually recorded in France with the Grammy Award winner David Odlum. Sticking to the same tone of moody strangeness and drawn-out drones, his environmentally descriptive quartet of soundscapes cover the territory of Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream. Ward circumnavigates with a touch of subtle gravitas the mysterious veiled landmarks, circling the behemoth omnipresence of Mount Betsy; hovering In The Wet Maze; dreamily rowing the topographic ocean from Island To Any Islands; and lurking in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Sunless compression of resonating guitar notes and heavy-leaden synth modulations. It’s classic Ward at his deepest.
Still holding down the day job as a member of dEUS, Pawlowski has really gone for broke on this compilation with his 80s pastiche soundtrack. A quick run-through of the CV is needed first before we go into the details. Pawlowski originally rose to fame in the Evil Superstars, until they called it quits at the peak of their career. He went on however to release the Dave Sardy produced album Songs From A Bad Hat and launch a string of experimental groups and collaborations, including a Dutch language folk LP under the Maurits Pauwels appellation, and the Hitsville Drunks and Gruppo Di Pawlowski (recorded incidentally by Steve Albini) projects.
Throwing a tongue-in-cheek (I assume) curveball at 80s cinema, his eleven-track mix of Casio demo display crescendos, yapping seal noises, and Carpenter meets John Hughes is pure bonkers. There’s bad acid telly binges and garbled industrial menace aplenty, but the best is saved until last with the finale firework exploding retro tribute to AM college radio rock, Starught: a mix-up of Strangers When We Meet era Bowie, The Cars, Queen and Boston, it is an unashamed punch-in-the-air love song anthem. Pawlowski’s contribution is certainly the most varied and odd, detached from the more serious and dour tones of his album mates.
The final leg, the baton handed over to Trouvé, fluctuates between the stripped guitar sounds of The Durutti Column and a 80s homage of despondent Visage and Soft Cell synth maladies. Originally a founder member of dEUS but tiring of the group’s major label success and all the bullshit that comes with it (the band’s debut was released on Island Records), Trouvé left to form the Heavenhotel Presents label and play in the Ornette Coleman inspired experimental project Tape Cuts Tape, the The Mechanics (with Pawlowski) and the “all star” improvising iH8 Camera.
With a wealth of experience and enough of an eclectic swag of influences behind him, from post-punk to avant-garde jazz, ready to surface at anytime, his twelve-strong contribution of meditative and considered explorations reflects an omnivorous craving. And so one minute you’ll hear a hint of Spiritualized or DAF, the next minute, John Cale, yet the underlying sound remains signature Trouvé.
A decade in, weary and beleaguered with the current Brexit woes (just wait until it’s actually been triggered and unraveled), Andrew Bennett’s showcase label for music from the nation that unfortunately symbolizes both the best and worst excesses of the EU, has a challenging future ahead of it. There’s no signs however of fatigue nor a dip in quality or originality; Pawlowski, Trouvé & Ward still producing the goods no matter what the augurs foretell.
James McArthur and the Head Gardeners ‘Burnt Moth’
Released via Moorland Records, 20th January 2017
Conjuring up an idyllic image of sipping Cider with Rosie on the back of Constable’s Hay Wain, Welsh-born troubadour James McArthur and his Head Gardeners troupe return with another lilting album of bucolic folk and country songs on Burnt Moth.
Following up on the Strange Readings From The Weather Station debut, which announced McArthur’s move from backing Paul Weller on drums to fronting his very own songbook, this second peaceable collection continues to wander a perpetual end of summer into early autumn seasonal landscape. Picking away and plucking attentively in the style of Bert Jansch or Mike Cooper, the serenade-style poetic musicianship on display is effortlessly timeless, yet the often meandering lyrics chime with the contemporary themes of an ever-changing society moving unabated towards a digital, even virtual, immersion: encroaching on the tranquility and earnest pastoral ideals of a slower-paced more personal interactive world, which to all intents and purposes is proving a sanctuary from the fully-connected hum of the internet.
Mostly acoustic, McArthur is also accompanied throughout by an accentuated backing of burnished and dampened drums, slowly released from its quivered tension strings (all co-written and arranged with Jim Willis, who also plays mandolin on the album), rustic pining pedal steel guitar and on the classically leaning yearned To Do the lulling coos of guest vocalist Samantha Whates. Not only assisting McArthur in the making of this album but also chipping in with backing vocals and bass on the roulette wheel of lovelorn fortune, Evens On Green, is Joel Magill of the psychedelic Canterbury band Syd Arthur.
Burnt Moth is a charming sun-dappled tapestry of McCartney-esque, and on the title track finale, Harry Nilsson (fronting a dreamy Morricone romance) idiosyncratic storytelling and musings. McArthur is in no hurry to reveal and unfurl the album’s many nuances and beauty; toiling away gently to create a most enjoyable and thoughtful songbook.
Mikko Joensuu ‘Amen 2’
Released by Svart Records, end of 2016.
The middle of an ambitious all-expansive soul-searching trilogy, the second Amen chapter finds a vulnerable Mikko Joensuu rising from the porch of his cabin retreat to step forth into the radiant majesty of the Finnish landscape. Finding an obvious awe-inspiring beauty in the stunning vistas yet equally overwhelmed, Joensuu attempts to cope with his troubled past. An epiphany if you like, the Finnish troubadour “lost his religion” a while back and has since been attempting to draw back from a mental abyss. Imbued with the candid soul and gospel of Jason Pierce’s Spiritualized and the melodious drone of My Bloody Valentine, Joensuu’s second album in this triumvirate cycle balances the ethereal with a tumultuous chorus of peaks and lows; the opening Drop Me Down opus for example gently builds from the diaphanous to a nosier cacophony of horns. Even when the fuzz, distortion and tribal backbeat dynamics are let loose the dappled light pours in.
An alternative questioning and sincere hymn supported by the North Finnish veranda, Amen 2 is a grandiose stunning visceral work of art.
Released by ARC Music, 6th January 2017
An unofficial cultural ambassador for her homeland of Madagascar, the sagacious and much-celebrated talented songstress Hanitra sheds light on both the personal and environmental plights of the unique Indian Ocean Island and the universal suffrage of women in the wider world on her latest album Lasa.
For many, Madagascar continues to be an enigma: Famous unfortunately as the title of a DreamWorks animation franchise, but apart from its reputation as a colourful menagerie for all kinds of exotic wildlife and fauna, it remains a mystery to many. Musically speaking it has attracted a host of composers and musicians, including the recently revived French ethno jazz maestro Jef Gilson with his Et Malagasy masterpiece.
Almost as an anthropological experiment and survey Madagascar’s isolation and history has fascinated many. Lying off the southeastern coast of Africa, it’s strategic position has made it a popular port-of-call for traders and explorers, though many literally bumped into it unaware it existed. Despite a litany of famed travellers, from the Arabs to Marco Polo, recording its discovery over the centuries, it would be France that colonized it. However, whether warranted or not, conquerors and traders alike left traces, resulting in a cross-pollination of influences including music. On Lasa you can hear this legacy well with elements of jazz, the Balearics, Arabia and even the reverberations of an old Afghanistan – resonating from the evocative sound of that country’s lute-like rubab instrument; used to plaintive dreamy effect throughout on this album – entwined with a distinct foundation of Madagascar folk and gentle African rhythms. But it’s the award-winning siren’s vocals, flexing with élan, which encompass this imbued richness. Inherently timeless, fluidly moving between cooing, almost lullaby, and effortless soaring tension, Hanitra’s voice subtly matches the themes of her album without showboating. The double-meaning title song for instance, translated from the Malagasy dialect as to “go past”, is an elegy of a sort to the French-Canadian singer Lhasa de Sela, who passed away in 2010 from breast cancer. Yet this touching tribute to a singer is far from sentimental; its Middle Eastern permutations and tenderness sweet and reflective rather than downcast and lamentable.
Soothingly in an array of colourful hues and tones, Hanitra addresses the themes of maltreatment, meted out both physically and psychologically towards women, on Eka and Avia, deforestation, in particular the devastating environmental costs of cutting down and selling Madagascar’s rosewood, on Mivalo, and another of those tributes, this time to the Vezo fishermens wives on the Island’s southeastern coastlines, eking out a hard living, on the oceanic motion Ampela. There’s celebration, paeans even, with the relaxed, lilting defense of same-sex marriage on Myriam and an invitation to dance in joyful abandon on Lalao. Whatever the emotion, Hanitra articulates her concerns and protestations with a soulful sincerity.
Lasa’s extended title is “from the heart of Madagascar”, and this is very true, yet the Island’s melting pot of musical influences and Hanitra’s own global travels mean this album is in fact universal.
Piano Magic ‘Closure’
Released by Second Language Music, 20th January 2017
Calling time on a twenty-year career with one last swansong, the Anglo-French Baroque indie dreamers Piano Magic echo the sentiments and themes of their 2000 song No Closure on their final majestic and profound album, Closure.
The self-proclaimed purveyors of “ghost rock”, formed at the height of the Britpop, have traversed and mapped out a moody romantic pathway for themselves over the years. Originally starting out as a lo-fi electronica trio in 1996, soon finding favour with John Peel, Piano Magic gradually grew into a full-on tour de force alternative rock band as the millennium drew near; recording amongst their notable cannon both a soundtrack for the Spanish director Bigas Luna’s Son De Mar and the Writers Without Homes album, which famously featured the folk legend Vashti Bunyan – who emerged from a 30-year musical silence to dust off the quelled vocal chords for the band. Still far off his critical-applauded born again renaissance as a “torch singer”, that same album also featured the dour talents of John Grant; just one of many collaborations over the years, the band also working at one time or another with Alan Sparhawk of Low, Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance, Cornershop and Tarwater. Closure is no different in featuring a suitably congruous number of guest spots, with Peter Milton Walsh, singer of the fellow chamber pop, Australian band, The Apartments channeling Mick Harvey, and Oliver Cheer (aka Dollboy) providing a south of the Rio Grande style swooning brass accompaniment on the Choir Boys-travail-a-literary-rich-Outback Attention To Life. Offering harmonic and atmospheric support on backing vocals, Josh Hight of Irons can be heard wafting about on the album’s opening grandiose and subtle opus title track and the stripped-down electro pop, in a quasi New Order style, Exile.
Drawn to a despondent melancholy, a most diaphanous one at that, the sagacious founder member and songwriter Glen Johnson is aided in this enterprise by Franck Alba (guitars), Jerome Tcherneyan (drums, percussion), Alasdair Steer (bass) and the band’s original drummer from their debut gig at the infamous Wag Club, Paul Tornbohm, now providing keyboards. Wounded and troubled as ever by the lingering traces and ghosts of past relationships and liaisons, Johnson’s resigned poetics attempt to meet head-on those feelings he just can’t seem to lay to rest: as Johnson calls it, the “mythical formal conclusion”, the need to “move on” from broken relationships is not so easy. And so he croons, “Let’s get this thing sewn up” on the Morricone meets Ry Cooder cinematic title track, knowing full well that “…you never get closure.” The supernatural echoes of a lost love, channeled through a dusty answering machine message séance, on Landline leave the singer’s voice paled and weakened; lamenting loss form the far side of the ether. Marooned as a passive onlooker to the goings-on in the backstreets of his southeast London neighbourhood, a voyeuristic, removed Johnson (in Talk Talk mode) vanishes almost completely before our very ears. The song’s sad lyrics it must be said are a most beautiful kind of misery.
Magnificent in their despair, the musicianship poised, purposeful and subtly stirring, Piano Magic’s last ever fling is one of the band’s most accomplished, and definitely one to savour. As near perfect as any Piano Magic suite can be, Closure proves that you can perhaps after all find a satisfactory ending.