EP REVIEW/Graham Domain

Sis ‘Gnani’
(Native Cat Recordings) 

Gnani is an excellent 6 track EP channelling the Spirit of Alice Coltrane via 70’s vintage synths / keyboards, tape loops, afro-beat and chilled jazz and dance rhythms. The music created, a kind of chilled spiritual jazz /dance hybrid – a music of calmness, reflection and spiritual re-birth. It engenders feelings of carefree spring days, untroubled moments of discovery, the joy of just living! Its creator Sis, is the alter-ego of singer and muti-instrumentalist Jennie Gillespie Mason.

The first song ‘Double Rapture’ sounds like a lost chilled dance remix of Everything But The Girl. Analogue Synths vibe alongside a drum machine and percussion giving it a laid-back feel while the calming soft vocal sounds both, of the future and of the past.

‘Wooie’ is a catchy song with a distorted beat. It has a feel of something recorded in the mid 1980’s and rhythmically sounds almost like a cross between ‘Sledgehammer’ era Peter Gabriel and Talking Heads. If this song had been released as a single in 1985 with a cut-up photo animation video it would have been a hit!

‘Flower in Space’ is the longest song at around 6 minutes. It begins with a looped piano motif, as Sis sings of the man without lips who is speaking, who sees without eyes, the man without ears who listens…from a flower in space. The song takes on a spiritual dimension as the Eastern sounding music builds up and philosophical words are spoken on top. Soft echoing synths underplay the melody as the words once again make an emotional connection ‘I had another dream, the end of suffering’. Melodies spiral from the depths as the music devolves into mid period EWF cosmic noodling, finally ending with a dawn chorus of inter-galactic bird song to greet the new day! A strange but rewarding track that gets more seductive with each listen.

‘Light Is There’ begins with vocal harmonies and a short sampled ethnic song melody. The walking cosmic frequencies that underpin the high range girl harmonics add to the universal one-ness of being before eventually trailing off, leaving a hand-clap rhythm and shooting stars burning up the night sky!

‘Embodiment’ is a kind of restrained dance song uplifted by live percussion and acid-house hi-hat. It is propelled at various moments by deep synths, organ, Fender Rhodes, 70’s Wow synths, strange whirling bee sting noise, and later on by intermittent outbreaks of modal jazz clarinet. The vocals hide in the music with melody low on the agenda making it the least interesting song on the EP.

The final track ‘Gazelle Rites’ is an instrumental that starts off sounding like a Lonnie Liston Smith out-take from the 70’s with its Fender Rhodes riff and wobbly bass synth, soon augmented by a funky clavinet giving it a slight Stevie Wonder vibe for a few moments. It is my favourite track, with its minimal use of some great sounding vintage keyboards and analogue synths (B3 Hammond Organ, ARP Odyssey among them). Splendidly Cosmic!

Overall, the EP presents a transformative journey. Moving from a feeling of detachment at the outset, a feeling of being on the outside looking in, by the third song the calming and slightly surreal music has become more spiritually uplifting, inventive and liberating. The underlying message – accept yourself and heal. A wonderful EP that becomes more addictive with each play.

PLAYLIST SPECIAL

Another eclectic spread of all the artists/bands/ensembles/collaborations that have piqued our interest, warmed our hearts and got us thinking during March, the Monthly playlist collects tracks from all the reviews, mentions during the last 31 days on the blog. There are also a number of tracks that got away, or we just didn’t have room for.

We have Matt Oliver once more on the rap control, picking another essential showcase of new hip-hop cuts from Your Old Droog, Fly Anakin, Juga-Naut, The God Fahim and Jesht. Plus a myriad of borderless picks from every genre imaginable; including tracks from El Khat, Koma Saxo, Big Thief, Sweeney, ASSASSUN, Crows, Alice Dreamt, Kick, Adam Walton, Kristine Leschper and plenty more.

THOSE TRACKS IN FULL ARE:::

Paten Locke & Edan  ‘Fried’
Koma Saxo w/ Sofia Jernberg ‘Koma Krig (Ft. Lucy Railton & Maria Reich)’
El Khat  ‘Djaja’
Terakaft  ‘Jagwar’
Etienne Jaumet & Fabrizio Rat  ‘Rive Opposte’
Big Thief  ‘Time Escaping’
Tone Of Voice Orchestra  ‘That Kind Of Day’
Pussy Riot w/ Vérité & Latashá  ‘Laugh It Off’
Martha D Lewis  ‘Dawn’
Sweeney  ‘The Break Up’
ASSASSUN  ‘Over Again’

Le Pietre Dei Giganti  ‘Ohm’
Bleak Soul  ‘Mundane, USA’

Kick  ‘Sirens Never Sleep’
Nova Charm  ‘Over.Loading’
Exociety  ‘Good Grief (Ft. Rav, Kill Bill: The Rapper, Scuare & Airospace)’
Raw Poetic & Damu The Fudgemunk  ‘Chewing Gum’
Fly Anakin  ‘Sean Price’
Neuro… No Neuro  ‘Take A Step Outside Of Yourself’
Mai Mai Mai  ‘Fimmine, Fimmine (Ft. Vera Di Lecce)’
Your Old Droog  ‘.500’

Flying Monk  ‘Fuck The Fame (Ft. Axel Holy)’
Elzhi & Georgia Anne Muldrow  ‘Every moment (Ft. Dudley Perkins)’
PLOP & JUNNU  ‘Totnoy’
Tom Caruana  ‘3000 Volt Scarf (Ft. Lee Scott & Jazz T)’
Psych Major ‘Peace Bridge (Ft. Jamal Gasol, Wyze Wonda, DNTE & Toneyboi)’
J Scienide  ‘Danceteria’
Juga-Naut  ‘Dressed As Myself’
V Don & Sauce Heist  ‘Wray & Nephew’
The Other Guys  ‘Crepes And Breaks’
Isambard Khroustaliov  ‘Cryptoersatz’
Simon McCorry & Anthéne  ‘Distant Glitter’
Leaf Dog & BVA  ‘Devil’s Breath’

Stinkin Slumrok  ‘SHOW ME’
Jehst, Confucius & Mr Brown  ‘Daily Planet’
The God Fahim  ‘4 Matic’
Nicolas Zullo  ‘Strano Siero’
Chlorinefields  ‘Finally’
The White Russian  ‘B Child’
Shelterheart  ‘Empty Pockets’
The Lancashire Hustlers  ‘Happiness On A String’
David Åhlén  ‘My Only Treasure’
Rodrigo Bragança  ‘Third Walkers’
Fatoumata Diawara  ‘Dji L’eau (Malian Movement)’
Amaru Tribe  ‘La Serpiente’

Istanbul Blues Kumpanyasi  ‘Keep The Lord (In You) – Live’
Papercuts  ‘Palm Sunday’
Crows  ‘Garden Of England’
Alice Dreamt  ‘All Those Little Things’
Harry Christelis & Pedro Velasco  ‘LD13’

Alex Izenberg  ‘Egyptian Cadillac’
Bart Davenport  ‘Billionaires’
Carl Erdmann  ‘Turritella Flats’
Σtella & Redinho  ‘Charmed’
Adam Walton Cloudbursts II’
Kristine Leschper  ‘Carina’
Pjusk  ‘Aftenblå’

A LOOK AT WHAT’S OUT THERE: Dominic Valvona’s Reviews Roundup

PHOTO CREDIT: Iveta Rysava.

Amine Mesnaoui & Labelle ‘African Prayers’
(Lo Recordings) 1st April 2022

Back again conducting wonders, Jérémy Labelle finally makes the album he always dreamed of with friend and musical partner, the Moroccan-in-Paris pianist, Amine Mesnaoui, 15 years after first crossing paths on the Seine riverbank. As backstories go it’s a fated one, Labelle DJing a Techno set (just one of many musical genres under his belt) suddenly leaping into action to save his future collaborator and party attendee, drowning in the iconic river. Thrown together under the most insane conditions, both musician-composers formed a bond, which is now transduced into a most atmospheric mood suite of atavistic ritual, ceremony and futurism.

Already riding high this year off the back of his expansive universal vision of Maloy music and the classical, this January’s Éclat album, Labelle now appears alongside his classical and jazz studied foil on a both electroacoustic and avant-garde transformation of the North African, but more specifically Moroccan, Gnawa Ritual of the Seven Colours liturgy.

Performed traditionally with the entrancing music of the ‘maâlem’ masters and the spiritual guidance of a ‘shuwafa’ (a clairvoyant, of a kind) this important communion, invocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine ‘demiurgic’ activity calls for the seven saints and ‘mluk’ who are all represented by various shades of colour – hence the name. To go deeper into the meaning, this ritual represents a prismatic decomposition of the original light/energy; the first sacrifice and genesis of the universe as outlined in this Islamic belief and form of religious songs, rhythms, poetry and dance.

However, instead of the signature hypnotic scratchy, scrapped energy of the ‘guembri’ we instead have Mensnaoui’s modified brassy, buzzy resonating piano, which has various objects, props inserted into its strings, and Labelle’s array of electronic interactions and effects to stimulate the mystery and ethereal prayer of that arcane ritual. The mood is every bit as mystical and venerable, only those colourful representations now extend into Cage-style modern classical experimentation, deconstructive spiritual jazz and electronica.

‘Lueur’, ‘white” the colour of the Gnawa religion itself, does have a hint of spindled desert contouring Arabia yet features softened but deep bass stamps and thuds and quivery trills of something otherworldly. Those ‘celestial spirits’ are invoked on the “dark blue” shaded ‘Pérjastre’, stirred up by both chimed and spidery runs up and down the piano’s strings, the sound of softened foot pedal movements, percussive shimmers and breaths from the ether.

The rhythms really get moving on the colour ensemble of ‘Krazé Muneataf Tanzen’, the tribal and avant-garde coming together in a reimagined dance that evokes a meeting between Jeff Mills and Afrikan Sciences. On the aquatic, liquid ‘Bleu Noir’ (the album’s lead single, and in case you didn’t guess, represents the colour “light blue”, a symbol of the ocean and sky) Mesnaoui plays freely with trickled and cascading notes, sounding not that far off from the experimental works of Abdullah Ibrahim.

Familiar African percussion, cattle and long tubular bells and piano turn into electrified forms of futurism. It’s certainly a different perspective, playful, explorative yet attuned to the source material, inspiration. This is Gnawa music and ritual as you’ve never heard it; moving into new realms of sonic enterprise. Just don’t wait so long next time guys, as this is a match made in the elementals. 

   

Nicolas Zullo ‘Credendoti Montagna’
(Ibexhouse) 18th March 2022

The Italian philosophy student turn songwriter Nicolas Zullo interprets and translates a fertile imagination into a lucid dream theatre on his debut solo album, Credendoti Montagna: that’s “believing you are a mountain” to my non-Italian speaking friends.

Unravelling a most poetic psyche, Zullo is aided by Mirko Bianchini on bass, Eduardo Dinelli on drums, Umberto Ciccarelli on keys and the notable Alessandro Fiori on synths, violin and choirs; he also helps to record these enigmatic songs, journeys of the mind, which gently unfurl to traverse the Renaissance, psychedelic, folk, prog, Britpop, 70s soft rock and spells of 60s troubadourism.

Imbued with the bellissimo diverse splendours of the Viareggio, with its gorgeous coastlines, lakes and mountains, these softened studies move with ease through a magical world: simultaneously Freudian and Flyodian! That’s both a Syd-era Pipers At The Gates Of Dawn and a post-Syd Dark Side Of The Moon meets The Wall versions of the Floyd I might add. Unconsciously perhaps, though Zullo name checks a list of artists he grew up absorbing, there’s a light of touch lean towards the Floyd across at least half this album. That and beatified echoes of 10cc, Tame Impala, The Beatles, Ralph McTell, Donovan, Dylan’s harmonica, and 60s/70s Italian cinema soundtracks. Although the part cabaret, part circus trippy ‘Se Fussi’ (“if I were”) is like a Sgt. Pepper Jacques Brel.   

Submerged into an enchanted songbook and subconscious of swoons, swirls, romanticism and reflection the listener will find the soft, almost pop-lit with touches of the neoclassical, just quirky enough to hold the attention. Throughout a bathos and pathos of interpretation, and an escape from the ugly machine, there’s a lovely fluid lyricism – OK I’m going on the timbre, candour, feeling, as despite my name and roots I cannot speak Italian. Zullo has crafted a spellbinding, impressive debut, a magnificent, sensory dream-realism of scale and erudite musicianship.    

Bart Davenport ‘Episodes’
(Tapete Records) 25th March 2022

A revolving door of labels, from mod to blues singer and soft rock troubadour, Bart Davenport seems to inhabit them all, and many others, on his new episodic songbook.

There’s a certain 60s backbeat in evidence, and chinks and brassy rings of The Beatles and The Byrds, Powerman era Kinks, crooning swoons from the Scott Walker playbook (a sort of reminiscence of ‘Deadlier Than The Male’, removed to Turkish shores, on the eastern psych Ipcress Files scored ‘Naked Man’)and 70s singer/songwriter vibes. Fans of the L.A. artist will feel comfortable anyway, as Bart, in a disarming, melodically timeless fashion, immortalises idiosyncratic characters, lovelorn remiss and more psychedelic episodes from an everyday diorama.      

Bart’s joined in this enterprise by regular band mates Jessica Espeleto (on bass) and Wayne Faler (on lead guitar). The invitation is however extended beyond those two regulars. Complimenting the Davenport combo is drummer Graeme Gibson, who eases that backbeat I mentioned on the album’s wanton Baroque and Glenn Tilbrock-like ‘It’s You’ (one of my favourites by the way); percussionist Andres Renteria (of Jose Gonzales and Roderigo Amaranto note), providing sauntered shakers and (I take it) the quasi-Curtis Mayfield soft soul hand drums on the tropicola-like George Michael on AM radio ‘Easy Listeners’; and Aaron M. Olson, adding inspiral suffused organ to the second eastern-psych, with Spanish flourishes and deft Rolling Stones guitar scales, ‘Strange Animals’.  Aaron has already, in the past, produced the Bart & The Bedazzled’s previous album Blue Motel, so he knows this set-up well. Swelling with subtle cinematic, romantic and sentimental strings, Dina Macabee lays down a number of original arrangements; notably on the Greek/Med serenaded ‘Billionaires’ and more acoustic folk-psych yearn ‘Alice Arrives’. The first of those is a quite forlorn, if laughable wistful window in on the tech giant oligarchs: messers Bezos, Gates and Zuck radiating a deep sadness and emptiness, as witnessed by our troubadour. They soon have the last laugh as they board a rocket bound to some new idyllic utopia they can fuck up. The second of these songs uses a befitting psychedelic language of paisley and flowery acid-folk, a mix of Fairport Convention acoustic backing and Ralph McTell delivery.

Bart proves he has an ear for a familiar tune, as he regales heartfelt declarations, ambles through modern life and interacts with a strange cast. His melodious craftsmanship often hides, at least some, of the deeper social tragedy and lamentable ills of a world in deep shit. Yet, it’s all there in full comical glory. Episodes will really grow on you as a first rate songbook from an artist who knows how to write a good tune. 

Harry Christelis & Pedro Velasco ‘Scribbling’
(Ubuntu Music) 25th March 2022

It’s a title that suggests the mere scribbled doodles, unplanned accumulations of two musicians idling away their time until something more meaningful, better comes along to focus on. In fact the congruous (as it would appear) and adroit partnership of acclaimed guitarists Harry Christelis and Pedro Velasco is anything but: improvise most certainly but skilfully measured and crafted all the same.

Both based in London – though of course Pedro is originally from Portugal – and so crossing paths over the years (actually first coming together to play at a concert in 2016 in the capital) via their respective improvised experimental and jazz set-ups (from Harry’s part in the Walrus Trio, Jamie Doe’s The Magic Lantern and his very own Moostak Trio, to Pedro’s own trio, Akimbo and Machimbombo led turns), this pairing once more teamed-up, just before lockdown restriction in the December of 2020. As the pandemic (hopefully) ebbs and life in the UK gradually starts to look more normal, those mental strains of isolation and themes of disconnection now seem almost to pale insignificance to the onset of war in Eastern Europe. Scribbling’s intentions remain just as relevant, important, to find solace, a space in which to escape the distractions of our modern overpowering Internet age. As a platform to ‘focus, to develop’ and measure time in a more serene way this album of both shared and individual composed mood music gently evokes and mines each artist’s state of mind and musings at that particular point in time.

Chimes, gestures, subtle phrases and caresses of the blues, jazz, neoclassical, Iberian evoke everything from late Clapton and Ferderico Balducci to Myles Cochran and Pink Floyd. Pedro’s off world hovered ‘Nos Entrentos do Silênco’ (“In between the silence”) even has an air of the Kosmische about it: a bit of Ash Ra Tempel perhaps. Laidback jazzy summer wine melodies share the space with atonal mirages and more abstract vignettes; tracks that concentrate more on the effects, spidery finger tabs on buzzing electrified guitar strings and the sound manipulation, contouring of amp hums and reverb.

Both guitarists never seem to indulge themselves, nor overfill that special emotive space with excessive soloing. There’s even room for the synthesized, with a constant presence of ambient waves, drones, tape reversals, tubular metals and more sci-fi computerised sums. Together these elements, atmospheres add mystery, calculation, and the cosmic to proceedings: the electronic bits on the opener, ‘Paul’s Closet’, even reminded me of a very early Aphex Twin.   

A fine balance of contemplation, the measuring of time in a reflective way, and pedal board hardware trickery is struck. The artful and obvious articulate skills of both Harry and Pedro emote far deeper connections, descriptions and horizons than mere daubing’s. Scribbling is a fine piece of sagacious, subtle musicianship.

Yamash’ta & The Horizon ‘Sunrise From West Sea Live’
(WEWANTSOUNDS) 1st April 2022

Reissue specialists WEWANTSOUNDS (their caps lock signature not mine) continue to drop rarities, cult favourites and avant0garde eccentricities with the first ever reissue of Yamash’ta & The Horizon’s ’71 dream team live special, Sunrise From West Sea. This edited down spilt peregrination of freefrom jazz, kool-aid and Fluxus-like classical deconstruction, performed at the Yamaha Hall in Tokyo on April 18th of that year, can now be yours on vinyl; remastered, it should be added, from the original tapes. 

The Julliard and Bekrlee alumni and Japanese genius Stomu Yamash’ta assembles an enviable cast, joined in this far-out improvisation by fellow jazz pianist compatriot and Berklee student Masahiko Satoh, the Julian Cope Japrocksampler noted and Fluxus instigator/composer/violinist/artist Takehisa Kosugi on electric violin, and electrified shamisen player (a traditional three-string Japanese instrument played with a ‘bachi’ plectrum) Hideakira Sakurai. All together, untethered from reality and the rules of composition this Japanese quartet inhabits an alien soundscape of the submerged and wildly bendy!

From the depths of Atlantis to the South China Seas into an archipelago of Pacific Island native drumming circles, the associations are free and loosely ethnological and yet beyond any real tangible geography that exists.

As you might expect from a critically renowned percussionist (hailed no less by John Cage, who he worked with on occasion, as one of the world’s best) there’s plenty of hand-drumming and rasps, thrashes of obscured percussive instrumentation to be found, both serial and galloping or, slapped into something that resembles a rhythmic propulsion. In the meantime Satoh seems to scratch and physically pull at the inner workings of his piano; occasionally tinkling with actual recognisable notes. Taj Mahel Traveller Kosugi pinches, strains and bows away at the catgut; somehow making the electric-violin sound otherworldly, wailing and quivered. In a similar vein Sakurai transports us to some abstract, primordial vision of the Far East, again, only now and then offering his shamisen instrument an easy ride with recognisable frayed stirrings and yearns.

‘Part 2’ is almost filmic in places, which is unsurprising as both Yamash’ta and Satoh were engaged in or, about to score some movies. Yamash’ta already well versed having a collaborative relationship with the English conductor Peter Maxwell Davies, who’s score for Altman’s 1972 Images movie would feature his contributions, also instigated, ran the Red Buddha Theatre and had his music used in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and later, the BBC’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Satoh would most notably go on to provide the score for the 1973 cult erotic psychedelic anime Bellodonna of Sadness.

Four avant-garde travellers cross paths and dream about the life-giving forces on the West Sea horizon in a show of explorative mania, trepidation, supernatural and cosmic hovering. This is a weird performative space of tightrope walked resonated string instrument drama, whale song, shuttled percussion and abstract forces. The sort of thing Cope would lap up and recommend to the head music community.

Ben Vida And Lea Bertucci ‘Murmurations’
(Cibachrome Editions) 1st April 2022

Stalwarts of the NYC experimental scene Ben Vida And Lea Bertucci appear together for the first time as an electroacoustic and transformed voice duo. At opposite sides of the same mountain in the famous arts and music retreat of Woodstock, both artists initially began conversing as friends before taking the plunge and developing a special ‘non-hierarchical’ improvised collaboration.

Although more or less obscuring, coating in various effects each other’s contributions, murmurs of Lea’s wind instruments and rasped, reedy saxophone can just be detected amongst the magnetic fizzles and slithery, tentacle tape thrashing. Live tape manipulation, modular synth, sampling, real-time instrumental and vocal improvisation are all set in motion to create an often alien, avant-garde and often low-grade industrial atmosphere; a cosmic soundtrack and art gallery installation score.

It constantly feels as intimate as it does expansive, with the looming and hovering presence of some kind of extra-terrestrial craft. There are hums, pulses that could be motors, and the sound of rippled propellers in the air. Some passages even evoke the lunar. Yet there’s also the resonance of some eco-system: strange bird echoes, insects chatter and the most humid of sub-tropical heats buzz – think A.I. exotica of Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama.

Fluted hinged and solar windy funnelled real instruments blow across a sulphur spool of vapour and wispy ghostly waves. Occasionally you can hear the most un-rhythmic of tub patters in that atmosphere.

Both artists work with the human voice too, offering Cuushe-like utterances of an undefined language, and on the album’s title-track, a transformed, broken-up conversation between Ben and Lea. Phonetic breakdowns, sucked up and reversed snippets of dialog turn into harped arias and the giggles.

This could be a static-charged paradise or a virtual existence in the bubble, whatever it is Murmurations has some strange, explorative sonic worlds and new esoteric-like communication processes to draw the listener in.        

Kumo ‘Three Tigers’
(Self Release)

Unless you’re Chinese or a student of that country’s culture or, like the electronic polymath Jono Podmore, an acolyte of its martial arts (in this case the Taoist-imbued Tai Chi), it may very well have escaped your notice that 2022 is the year of the ‘Tiger’.

Born under that Chinese Zodiac cycle myself I was always curious to its omens, augurs. Of which, the Tai Chi teaching Jono seems to have predicated an omen, a very bad one, when asked by a student back in February (the official start of the Chinese calendar) what to expect in the year of the Tiger. His answer: war! And so perhaps we can blame him now for what’s happened in light of the invasion of Ukraine – only kidding.

However, we’re informed that despite this magnificent animal’s more dangerous attributes, ‘there are many tigers’ to decipher, to draw meaning from: the ‘strength’ to overcome problems, its beauty, even calmness.

Exploring all these aspects, traits and metaphorical quandaries, symbols Jono draws from the atavistic Tai Chi teachings on his latest Kumo alias release. And just like that regal big cat’s dualism – ‘a force for peace and reconciliation as a harbinger of war’ – the trio of electronic encapsulations, calligraphy brushed evocations, are a surprising mix of the experimental and dynamic.

In a more serene setting the opening ‘Tiger Lies Down’ surveys an electrified Spring landscape of lush flowing, cascaded waters, our magnificent beats wandering an ambient-charged calm that encourages tranquillity and meditative pause: at least a moment to retract those claws anyway. Undulating this natural scene is a subtle, nuanced bobbing Orb and Banco da Gaia like trance beat, synthesized percussive shimmers and dissipating steam. Things do turn a little wild at the end with a contortion of transmitted wiry signals; a sound that will return later on.

Upping the energy, ‘(Retreat To) Ride Tiger’ prowls a techno and house infused bob and bounce beat of Jeff Mills, Juan Atkins and Felix Da Housecat coming together for Basic Channel. Representing the tiger’s reluctance to take passengers, but taking that wild ride anyway, the waves, dance pulses, glints of spiritual mystery and danger keeps on coming.

The final push to holy peaks brings our subject to the mountains for perhaps the most serial, explorative track of the three. Edging through tubular bamboo and undergrowth, Jono guides us through an arching, bendy and looming electronic terrain. Oscillating spirits, the echoes of a sacred space envelope a sensory tread. Those signal frequencies from the fist track make that return I mentioned, as the tone become more otherworldly, mythical and cosmic.

Neither in the spirit of Eno’s own Tiger mountain excursions nor in the manner of Orientalism, Jono surprises with a soundtrack representation devoid of those Chinese musical signatures. Instead, traversing ambient, techno, soundscaping and the kosmische he paints a unique homage, respectful acknowledgment to China’s ancient symbolism and the most majestic, powerful (unfortunately endangered; much of which is down to the Chinese themselves hunting them down to extract their magical properties for medicines) of creatures. Juts please don’t act the Cassandra again! We have enough on our plates already without more predictions!

Adams, Dunn & Haas ‘Future Moons’

New York postcard penpal Andy Haas (you can find Andy’s Covid years series of regular Museum of Modern Art imbued postcards on our Instagram account) with regular Toronto foil Matthew ‘Doc’ Dunn and Kieran Adams travel untethered to one of our nearest constellations and beyond on the starry Future Moons.

A contortion of wailed avant-garde, galactic freeform jazz, cosmic courier kosmische and far-out peregrinations, each sonic astronaut brings something both different and explorative to the far-flung outer limits.

But before we travel any further, a little provenance is needed. Adams CV includes the synth pop group DIANA and various stints alongside Bonjay, the Weather Station, and Joseph Shabason. His latest project is Vibrant Matter. Dunn’s been a chief instigator in the experimental Canadian scene, most notably as the driver behind The Cosmic Range collective. Haas’ near five-decade career includes the Canadian new wave trailblazers and international hit makers Martha And The Muffins, and an enviable catalogue of collaborative ensemble projects with Mar Ribot, Zeena Parkins, John Zorn, Ikue Mori, Don Fiorino, U.S. Girls plus Dunn’s Cosmic Range. Here and now, Haas’ fluted, spiralled and wild signature saxophone contours and trilling blowouts veer off like a mirage of Sam Rivers, Pete Brützmann and former foil Zorn as Adams and Dunn’s drums and electronic apparatus run amok in hyper space, hinting at Ilhan Mimaroglu, Anatoly Vaprirov and Dzyan.

Within that swanned nebula and astral worship there’s oboe-like sounds from a removed Arabia, strangled screams, flailed wails and cries and library music like leaps, bubbly chemistry, space gate light speed tripping, holy disorder and modal jazz blues: sonnets, screaming declarations and flowery offerings to majestic universal bodies. Strung-out in the highest heavens of space this exploratory, expressive trio navigate an abstract starry passage to new dimensions.    

How You Can Help Us Continue In 2022:

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

EP REVIEW/Graham Domain

Stepbrothers featuring The Honourable Ted ‘EP’
(German Shephard Records)

In his early songs Tom Waites championed the downtrodden, the underclass. Individual in both his music and character, he was a flawed human being like the rest of us, but one that would continue to evolve into a truly original artist. If Tom Waites had been born in England, he would no doubt have come from the North of England – a place where the belief in Freedom, Human Rights, Humanity and Justice for All, has always been prevalent and important. A place where Individuals can still feel valued. This three track EP has been made by two such Individuals, set up for ridicule or sainthood and not caring which! Ian ‘Moet’ Moss is singer with Manchester groups The Hamsters and Four Candles and is a serial collaborator, recording albums with a diverse rota of musicians including 2 Lost Souls, Dave Thompson, Kill Pretty and The Parasite. Like Tom Waits he is a maverick, a one-off original and someone prepared to stand up and be counted. He once took on a club full of racist Nazi skinheads on his own and won – they soon left.

The first track on this new collaborative EP as Stepbrothers is ‘Dance Like A Monkey’. A barroom Supertramp piano soon gives way to a mad lyrical dance outlining the perils of following the rules in a Capitalist society – where the majority appear to be willing to do anything (dance like a monkey) for the right price! If everyone in the West is initially indoctrinated into believing in the great God money as the way to freedom, many soon spot the ruse and see the fatal flaw in conforming to this form of societal mind control. But most are still too scared to stray far, for it’s a hard road to follow. The experts espouse that ‘Thinking for yourself’ is surely unnatural and the trail is littered with pamphlets on Mindfulness and Mental Health helplines! Anti-depressants are the order of the day and are doled out to anyone feeling uneasy with the greed, selfishness, and ‘everyone for themselves’ nature of the modern world. You must be ill and suffering from ‘Anxiety’ if you get upset so easily, YOU are sick (not society) and you need to be drugged to make you insensitive and compliant, like the rest. Yet, there are still some who stubbornly stick to their principles, won’t be told, won’t be bought – ‘chisel me down and you will not find a laughing clown’ sings Ian. Such people are literally a dying breed!

‘The Dissident’ continues the theme of the outsider with the tale of a singer, living in Russia but opposed to the authoritarian state, he is told what to sing and where. Reliant on singing for his livelihood he is forced to comply or be banished to the labour camps of Siberia. The Magadan Theatre, named after the Marxist novelist, playwright and activist Maxim Gorky, is name-checked in the song, perhaps as a symbol of the fight against oppression. Or maybe as a nod to the all-consuming nature of the authoritarian state: Magadan State Puppet Theatre is based there.

The EP ends with the song ‘Daliphant’ referencing the surreal nature of Salvador Dali’s paintings and his creation of the implausible Elephant Giraffe hybrid! Nature itself often offers up surprising and original creatures, so what may seem unlikely to a logical mind is often proved wrong. Dali embraces the possibilities of life – the ‘what if’, the unusual as normal.

A great EP of original individual songs hand-made by humans for humans! Released as a download by German Shephard Records – Buy it now!

WORDS: Dominic Valvona

Credit: Niccolo Berretta

Mai Mai Mai Ft. Vera di Lecce ‘Fimmene Fimmene’
Released through Maple Death Records ahead of the May released album Rimorso

Drawn once more towards the Apulia corner of Italy’s deep south – the jiggered stiletto-like heel of the country’s roughly contoured boot – the Italian experimental electronic and noise artist Mai Mai Mai conjures up another extraordinary vision of gothic ethnological collective toil and ethereal voiced mirages with his brand new single.

Premièred ahead of the ‘colossal’ double-album Rimorso (released 20th May) ‘Fimmene Fimmene’ summons up the spirited protestations of the women labouring in the tobacco fields as part of an extended sonic and vocal psychogeography of Italy’s southern Mediterranean regions. Following in the wake of previous scopes in this area, Mai Mai Mai’s signature blend of southern Italian folklore, industrial drone, proto-techno and punishing miasmic electronica is wiped clean, the heavy sampling and sound manipulations of the past shed with a focus now on the human. And so, as this intoxicating invocation proves, the collaborative door is left wide open to an array of mostly fellow Italian foils, contributors who use both their voices and instruments to transform and investigate Italy’s past and traditions. Step right up the Salento siren priestess Vera di Lecce whose incredible translucent wraith evocations channel not just the traditional but the supernatural and the magical too. A vocal and dance performance member of the lauded ethnic electrifying ensemble Nidi d’Arac turn prolific soloist with a penchant for making magical aggressive synth and exotic percussive potions, and practitioner of the age-old dances of the Apulia, now recasts one of its protest songs as Mai Mai Mai lays down a reverberated pronounced drum beaten march, haunted and scented atmospherics and crystal synthesised shimmers, sparkles.

A two-way mirror between worlds; a communion with troubled souls, ‘Fimmene Fimmene’ is a beautiful hallucination of the mysterious and sorrowful, which you can now experience for yourselves:

The inaugural single from the upcoming double-album is just one piece of a greater work that sees the noted artist morph our understanding of traditions and nostalgia.

An album of deep re-interpretive connective Italian collaborations – with the exceptions of the brilliant maverick Mike Copper, on ‘Mediterranean Gothic’, and the Beirut-born Youmna Saba, on the thematic ‘Nostalgia’ –  Mai Mai Mai revisits a piece by the Puglia polyphony voiced female quartet Faraulla with the Rome-based techno-outsider Cosimo Damiano and percussionist ensemble Ars Ludi, on the track ‘Sind’; invites Nziria to hover over the slow thump chopper pulsating techno serenade ‘Musica Nova’, a loosely based vision of the Musicanova orchestra’s own ‘Pizzica Minore’. The album is bookended by the visceral voice of electro-Arabian-punkster Maria Violenza (the solo project alias of the Rome-based Cristina Cusimano), on the obscure folk transformation, reconfigured as a southern gothic mix of enchanted filtered choir and hypnotic voodoo drumming, ‘Secondo Coro Delle Lavandaie’, and ‘Antiche Memorie’, which features longtime Franco Battiato foil, the percussionist and composer Lino Capra Vaccina

Rimorso promises to be a whole ‘new ritual’ that turns absence into presence; dismantling nostalgia for consummation, framed as an immersion into the ‘temporal disjunction we are experiencing through the essence of (the) human fabric’. You can order that album here.

Mai Mai Mai also has the following dates set-up for a April tour with GNOD:

Apr 6th – GENT @ TREFPUNT
Apr 7th – UTRECHT @ DB’s
Apr 8th – PARIS @ ESPACE B
Apr 9th – NANTES @ LES ATELIERS DE BITCHE
Apr 11th – LYON @ LE SONIC
Apr 12th – ZURICH @ HELSINKI
Apr 13th – GENEVE @ LA CAVE12
Apr 15th – RAVENNA @ BRONSON
Apr 16th – VERONA @ COLORIFICIO KROEN
Apr 17th – NOVA GORICA @ MOSTOVNA
Apr 18th –  LJUBLJANA @ GALA HALA
Apr 19th – WIEN @ CHELSEA
Apr 20th – BRNO @ KABINET MUZ
Apr 21st – PRAHA @ UNDERDOGS
Apr 22nd – BERLIN @ URBAN SPREE
Apr 25th – BRUXELLES @ MAGASIN 4
Apr 26th – BREDA @ MEZZ
Apr 27th – LILLE @ LA MALTERIE

Mai Mai Mai is the nom de plume of Toni Cutrone, occasional foil of GNOD and one of both Italy and the wider EU’s most well known experimental artists. Highly prolific, Toni’s released music through Boring Machines, Yerevan Tapes, Not Not Fun, God Unknown, Instruments Of Discipline, La Tempesta International and now the Maple Death label, and worked with a myriad of artists that includes Lina Capra Vaccina, Luciano Lamanna, go Dugong and Maria Violenza. There’s also been various music scores for documentaries, short movies and a project with the fashion house Gucci.    

Photo Credit: Niccolo Berretta

ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

Bleak Soul ‘Shouting With Nothing To Say’
(Beth Shalom) 11th March 2022

Thankfully there’s so much more to the despondent, forlorn Bleak Soul alias of the former As It Is band member Benjamin Langford-Biss: but we shall come to that later.

Free of artifice, and indeed living through some of the bleakest of times, and just as pissed at the tech giant evangelists who’ve overstated goodwill by skewering our connectivity to their own ends, Benjamin is more than a little miffed at the continual struggle to both succeed in and feel wanted in an algorithm led state. In the new album’s press package, in candid flow, he puts his finger on the mentally draining and divisive failures of the Internet; or rather the manner in which those with the biggest gob, and those who are willing to share every minute of their on-trend vacuous lives (where even mental health has been hijacked to suit whatever purpose it sells, or is used to attract more followers).

The 24/7 feeds of attention grabs can – if you let it or get swallowed in to its orbit – pressure you into self-doubt. It could lead to, as this affected troubadour puts it; a “self-aware reflection on my own need to tell a story in order to feel like I have purpose.” This is both a very honest statement and also a sad state of affairs.

Shouting With Nothing To Say, the second album under the Bleak Soul name, is an exploration of that sentiment; a mood board of feelings let loose into the world that spans the time Benjamin spent intensively touring as part of the Brighton-based transatlantic rockers As It Is (which he stepped back from a few years back) and the here and now. And so we have a musical photo book of memories that both with a certain weepy malady and more rawkish tumult notes lyrical chapters, catharsis, momentary emotional draws, but above all document life changes.

This soundtrack album features recurring motifs and vignettes and time lapsed returns to memorable realisations. In that mode Benjamin keeps coming back to a freezing cold Denver; the backdrop scene of miserable scores for weed, the sofa surfing lifestyle and a cab ride into divided America – our passenger regretting but keeping quiet whilst the driver vents his spleen and hands out unwanted advice. There’s some nice songwriting touches, moments of bathos and pathos in this Denver trilogy; the ‘2015’ visit recall is in a gentle acoustic style, whilst the first return trip, in ‘2018’, has a warmed feel of trip-hop like drums, cooing atmospherics and what sounds like a bottle-tapping marimba. ‘2019’ is dreamy in the beginning but then opens the door to thunder deep thudded timpani. Within that cycle Benjamin is both lost and found; delivering with wistful ease a contradiction of feeling simultaneously “dying inside” yet achingly sighing that he’d “kill to be there” back in an ice-covered car park, shivering and facing a near-fatal crash.     

 Oh, there’s pain in these songs all right; played out to both more sparse, haunted and intimate atmospheres, or, with a full amped-up rock band in support. You hear the amp buzz and a click in the dying seconds of the burnished cymbal, synthesized and watery piano emotive vignette ‘Nothing To Say #01’ before it rips into the powered-up, grunge-y rocking single ‘Mundane, USA’: a sort of wake-up but also a sanctuary emotional state in which Benjamin finds comfort as he yearns for the simpler things that make us all human. Em Lodge form the rock band Delaire The Liar guests on the next rocker, ‘Forever Age’; shadowing Benjamin, but also in apparitional diaphanous mode cooing far more lofty heights on a lamentable quasi-duet of flange guitar U2 like strains and neon flickers. The downcast ‘Void We Share’ looks into a soulless matrix; even going as far as to sound a bit like a mix of trip-hop Bowie, Gary Numan and, later on, a baggy House Of Love. It must be said that the electrified woozy weepy ‘Broken Neon Light’ isn’t a million miles from R.E.M.

O.K. so I’d admit Bleak Soul is a fairly correct appellation: there is indeed plenty of suffering and plaintive resignation on display. Yet Benjamin brings it back round with a healthier dose of canoodled optimism on the ‘End Credits/Title Track’ finale: an acoustic Why? that follows on from an actual vocal-less (‘Nothing To Share #02’) regression back to a musical mobile twinkled cot: a geometric mirror-y return to a less worldly, knowing safe haven.  

Shedding anxieties with a rawness that’s neither whining nor irksome, Benjamin’s bleak shadowed soul unloads: and you should listen: A very rich, musically changing songbook that would make a great, if at times painful, photo album soundtrack.

CELEBRATIONS: In case you missed it, the Monolith Cocktail recently reached the 500th edition of Our Daily Bread posts. To mark the occasions we’ve put together, in chronological order, three behemoth size playlists featuring a track from every release featured over the course of that, so far, decade-running series.

https://open.spotify.com/user/dominicvalvona/playlist/0TOAkEliwHhMX0qcLDKND8

Brian ‘Bordello’ Shea’s Rave Reviews Roundup

Singles/EPS.

Papercuts ‘Lodger’
(Labelman) 1st April 2022

The press release describes this lovely slice of 60’s influenced psych as “woozy West Coast Psychedelia”: and for once the press release got it right. It must be a red flag day or at least a woozy psychedelic coloured one, for this is a smashing single, smashing being my word of the day, one that is said in an archetypical working class northern way with flat cap and everything, maybe even a whippet by one’s side and married to a girl called Vera who I shall call our Vera and say our Vera is a grand lass and is partial to a bit of woozy West Coast Psychedelia. So is well chuffed with this foot tapper.

Adam Walton ‘Cloudburst EP’
(The Immediate)

This is a rather beautiful 4 track EP of acoustic wonder; songs that skirt and skate around the mind, plucking at the heartstrings, reminding me how much I used to like Ben And Jason albums and why songs of mellow introspection can sometimes scream and move and excite you as much as an angst ridden punk rocker of a number, as these 4 songs prove. An acoustic guitar and talent for melody is sometimes all you need and Adam Walton has both of these things. An EP to cherish and hold close, and fans of Elliot Smith and McCartney acoustic balladry circa 1968 should really enjoy this.

Pit Pony ‘Black Tar’
(Clue Records)

Ah, the joyful sound of young people with guitars is something I will never get tired of when it is performed with such passion and style. They give one hope for the future, and I think Pit Pony might have a future worth living, with all their angst and youthful musical aggression and attitude. They certainly seem to be a step up from a lot of the alt guitar bands I get clocking up my email. A band to watch I think.

Crows ‘Garden Of England’
(Bad Vibrations Records)

A tromboncino of a track is what we have here. Yes, a true piece of British rock ‘n’ roll or punk ‘n’ roll if you like or, even if you do not like I am at this point in life uncaring one way or another but either way a rather good soundtrack to kick around the decaying corpse of Brexit. Yes, how well did that go.

Oh Boris, you are a cunt, but sadly you are not alone in that field of nationalistic gung ho-ness; how your supporters must be slapping themselves on the back at their good sense because how on earth would we be getting through the pandemic without your leadership qualities, and I am sure we have the right man at the helm steering us through the troubled European waters of the Ukraine invasion. We need songs and bands like this singing songs of life and politics. As the great Edwyn Collins once sang, “too many protest singers not enough protest songs.” So thank the lord for the likes of the excellent Crows, showing that there is life in the old guitar yet.

Albums..

The Monochrome Set ‘Allhallowtide’
(Tapeate Records) 11th March 2022

Allhallowtide kicks off with the title track, which is a rather fetching 60s beat band croon of a track, part Scott Walker part The Left Banke. And a fine way to kick off this the latest album from the guitar band veterans. And what a fine and enjoyable album it is as well; a true black polo neck jumper of an album; the kind of album that would soundtrack Napoleon Solo and April Dancer nights of near passion; a pure beatastic swirl of sophistication, all whammy bar red Fender guitars and whirling organs.

Shelterheart ‘Shelterheart’
(Perpetual Doom) 8th April 2022

This album is nothing more or nothing less than a well written well-crafted album of songs; songs that dip their toes in pop, folk and Americana with some rather fine embellishments, with ‘Empty Pockets’ reminding me of both ELO and Wilco. It will no doubt be the radio hit of the bunch. I feel shelterheart could well be one of those albums the more you listen to it more the hooks and melodies will take hold and slowly become part of your everyday life and soundtrack any part of your day. This is an album that could quite as easily be listened to over breakfast as to before winding down for the day, its own sweetness and melancholy etching its way onto your heart.

Chlorinefields ‘Reclaim Your Brain’
(Radical Documents)

Chlorinefields make rather a beautiful easy laid-back lazy wash of a sound: the sound of a hug maybe. Gently strummed guitars and floating vocals casts you adrift in a sea of indie tranquillity; a hypnotic journey into the mind’s eye, slightly psychedelic slightly muffled FM radio hidden under the pillows of your bed, the quilt holding the tales of all those names you so long to utter in the throes of passion. The soundtrack to the unmade film playing in your head; an explosion of silent thoughts and lackadaisical wishes, this is the sound of a young person’s dream and a rather beautiful and pleasing dream at that.

Plastic Candles ‘Dust’
(Paisley Shirt Records)

There is something utterly bewitching about this release. It has a lo-fi warmth that one can lose themselves in. It’s how I imagine the My Bloody Valentine bedroom demos might have sounded, except I probably prefer Plastic Candles subtle beautiful madness to the out and out bombast of MBV.

The Plastic Candles have mastered the art of a frayed melody: as so many tracks on this album demonstrates all too well. The final track on the album ‘Pacific Blue’ is well worth the price of the cassette on its own, the sound of a chocolate heart melting on the lips of the one you so long to kiss. One of the most beautiful tracks I have heard this year. Another fine release from the quite essential Paisley Shirt Records.

A LOOK AT WHAT’S OUT THERE/
Dominic Valvona’s Roundup

ALBUMS/LONGPLAYERS

El Khat Aalbat Alawi Op. 99’
(Glitterbeat Records) 25th March 2022

Photo Credit to Matan Caspi

First off, this is an incredible album; an incredible energy and an incredible elliptical disjointed clattering and snozzled, heralded horn blown fusion of the music carried out of the Yemen, the greater Middle East and North Africa. The Eyal el Wahab led Arabian swirled and rhythmic jolted El Khat (named after the popular chewed drug) are simultaneously diy, even punk whilst also creating a bombastic and hypnotising dynamism. 

In the melting pot of Tel Aviv-Yafo and in the more isolated – cut-off from the digital and online world – deserts the self-taught cellist (despite not, at the time, being able to read music, managing to join the Jerusalem Andalusian Orchestra) El Wahab and his band use both regional instruments and reconstituted junk to make a wild border traversed sound like no other. A collage of influences, initially sparked off by the Qambus electric sampler of traditional music from the 1960s (the ‘Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s From Yemen’ compilation to give it the full title), the group’s second album rewires its Yemen roots and faint, distant musical memories with the psychedelic, garage-rock, gnawa, Ethio-jazz and the raw.

A fondly, missed and remembered culture lies at the heart of this album. Throughout the tensions in the Arabian Peninsular in the last century, and ever since the formation of the Israel state in the aftermath of WWII, Yemen’s Jewish population (which was considerably large), but many others too, were forced to leave their homes for sanctuary. And so many, through no fault of their own, have found themselves decamped, living in Israel like the El Khat band – some for a generation, others for at least three or more. This is where that fusion meets at the crossing; one that sounds like Lloyd Miller conducting a Cairo marching band kicking a tin can down the Kasbah, or, a melodic rattled chaotic brilliance of Zafer Dilek, Salah Rageb, Bargou 08, Yontan Gat and nimble Tuareg guitar soloing. I’d even suggest that they’re bedfellows of their Glitterbeat Record label mate’s blk/JKS: a merger of the atavistic and something entirely exciting and fresh.

The album title itself shares this undertaking of piecing together in a new way, their influences. The “alba” part of “Aalbat” references a small tin box that can contain ‘many treasures’, the “Alwai” is a homage to the popular late Yemeni singer Faisal Alwai, and the “Op. 99” bit intended to give the compositions “the same respect as Western classical music”.  

Despite the impact of Covid restrictions in Israel, forced to record separately (although during an easing of those rules, El Wahab was able to usher a chorus of seven people into his living room) and delayed by a self-imposed offline retreat into the expansive desert for six months, it all comes together like a live, unpredictable performance.

Familiar Middle Eastern spices, dances, celebrations and string-frayed bowed and rubber-band like elasticated rhythms are layered with staggering, sometimes drunken stomped, bounced, bounding drums. Mergia organ dabs sit alongside beautiful and swimmingly trilled vocals as hazed connections to the Yemen homeland drift in and out of focus. Some of the distinctive sounds can be traced back to El Wahab’s carpentry skills, building unique instruments from thrown-away scrapes of metal, wood and plastic: hence at least a partial diy, homemade ascetic. Although he’s long since left that Jerusalem orchestra, El Wahab conducts, leads his very own clever ramshackle vision fit for a world in turmoil, of mass emigration. Aalbat Alwai Op. 99 builds a bridge between past longings and a chaotic future of sonic possibilities and polygenesis crossovers. Turning throwaway trash into a freeform expression of vitality, importance but also the social-political, El Khat turn the humble tin can into a resonator that sends out shockwaves across the globe.

Tone Of Voice Orchestra ‘S-T’
(Stunt Records) 11th March 2022

What do you get if you cross radio hall, echoes of Jazzmeia Horn, Solange and Middle Eastern vocals with folk music, sea shanties, the woody stretched bounce of Henri Texier and swoons across the Turkish border? I’ll tell you. You get the soulfully lush, quasi-classical transglobal collaboration between the Danish indie singer-songwriter Trinelise Væring and award-winning saxophonist Fredrik Lundin; helped by an expanded cast of singers and eclectic musicians. 

Although this is a Danish enterprise the Tone Of Voice Orchestra evokes a myriad of influences; from the Celtic to Eastern Europe; from India and beyond with their debut album offering.

Vocally, in unison throughout, the lyric book is straight from the R&B and soul songbook; with yearned and wistfully lush ditties on female empowerment, broken down relationships and moving on, plus the foibles, frustrations of living in the modern epoch. All of which are diaphanous, light yet powerfully delivered. The opener, ‘He Loves Her For It’, kind of skewers that modern feel with voices, words and music more in keeping with some hurdy-gurdy churned droned timeless folky shanty. At times this open-ended fusion sounds like a Nashville En Vogue dropped off in a chain dragging Anatolia soundscape (‘You Saw Yourself Out’), and at others, like a yearned pondered Arun Ghosh caravan (‘Kom Hjemtil Mig’). 

For his part, Lundin oozes jazzy saxophone sophistication with straight-up circling breaths, some smooching and then more abstract feelers for time, landscape and mood: on one occasion seeming to mimic a harmonica!

Gypsy encampments, meanders across the Balkans, lingering’s of old Iberia and Rajasthan, and exotic camel-motioned creeps through jungles beckon on an album of slinking and rolling beautiful mooching, swells and gravitas. A very impressive start to a multifaceted dynamic to seems to easily sit between the contemporary and past.

Kristine Leschper ‘The Opening Or Closing Of A Door’
(Anti- Records) 4th March 2022

A rekindled lush, if somnolent with yearns and longing, affair with the things that really matter, Kristine Leschper absolutely wows on her sublime new album rebirth.

Detached from the post-punk Mothers, Kristine has given herself the space to reassess, to reconnect and importantly create something anew and utterly spellbinding.

Despite a complexity of thematic strands, imbued in part by the poetry, activism and essayist statements of the late iconic writer June Jordan, Kristine adopts a languid, sensory wonderment that’s almost childlike. More natural, organic than synthesized – although there’s a suffusion of atmospherics, light arpeggiator and electronic waves that congruously boost the mood, or, give certain songs an almost outside-of-itself cosmic push – this gorgeous sounding album beautifully meanders, glides and drifts through a fluted and willow-whistled woodland of first-rate multi-layered arrangements and emotional pulls.

Within that magical world there’s glimmers of Eerie Wanda, ‘Uncoiled’ Diva Moon and Mazzy Star against the imaginative Panda Bear. Songs like the opening semi-pastoral ‘This Animation’ take time to build and change; growing naturally (that word again) from a pipped forest introduction to a slow-release of buoyant bass and more grand drumming drama. It grows stronger and more delightfully surprising as it goes on. Importantly, Kristine is looking at a rafter of emotions, sentiments in a less than ideal, imperfect world, and so rather than progress in a linear fashion, songs, lyrics, feelings all circle back around and offer tangents; especially musically with the funkier DFA Records laxed disco-yearn, almost resigned, ‘Blue’.

Hallowed organs, hand claps and bottle-like tapping percussion, gentle lingers of piano and a general sense of airiness and space are just a few elements that permeate this parchment of woodwind concertos, folk, intricate electronica and dreaminess.

The lyrics themselves are poetic, vulnerable and constantly loving: none more so than on the album’s final, stripped to just a piano and voice ‘Thank You’, which brings down the house with a sweetened gesture of thanks to those who’ve helped keep Kristine afloat in trying times. The fleeting, like “moonbeams”, empirical words, scenes are given weight, tethered in voice and sound with a real depth that seems in practice too be lightly administered. But that’s the genius of this whole album, a laid bare language of great importance made so lushly engaging as to sound like the very opposite; light enough to float off into the expanses.

I’m probably making a right hash of this review, fumbling around to show it in the right light, but The Opening Or Closing Of A Door is difficult to capture. A new chapter in the life of a highly talented musician, composer, this delightful album is one of the best I’ve heard in 2022. There’s no doubt in my mind that this move has been creatively a success, and it will take some beating to be knocked out of the final year lists.         

The Lancashire Hustlers ‘Big Ask’
(Steep Hill) 25th February 2022

It’s a half full cup of ‘pukka’ brand tea kind of attitude that unfurls in a disarming manner on The Lancashire Hustlers sixth studio album proper: Big Ask. As always melodically ambrosian and nostalgic the Southport duo harmoniously sound simultaneously reassuring yet defeated on a songbook of ‘bittersweet melancholy’ and softly rolling lover’s paeans; love letters to the 60s and early 70s.

Between them Ian Pakes and Brent Thorley fill the space of a mini studio band and orchestra; sharing a myriad of eclectic instruments, many of which can found adding both exotic and psychedelic chimes, afterglows and bell rung eastern delights.

Like a Neil Finn led Honeybus or Revolver era Beatles breaking bread with Emitt Rhodes, this, now 25-year spanning, partnership washes through societal and romantic disenchantment, but also praise those muses, lovers that make them better people. In the first of those thematic camps the almost pleaded melodious ‘Your Cool Reactions’ finds the lads frozen out, unable to read that love interest’s face, whilst a harmony of The Kinks, solo McCartney and a reminiscent ‘Out Of Time’ tune accompanies a beautifully resigned vocal. The esoteric in comparison, and filmic even, malady ‘Surrender’ sees the lads “wavering” on the brink of giving in. Still, songs like the Slim Chance painted gypsy caravan amble along a blooming hedgerow landscape ‘Bluebell Panther’, and the lost See For Miles label compilation nugget, via Robert Wyatt and a happy-go-lucky Velvets, ‘Happiness On A String’ seem to suggest more sentimental declarations.  

There’s also fleeting moments that lead to a lifetime of unsaid connective destiny and bliss (the universal spark, glassy bulb troubadour paean ‘We Knew It Though We Do Not Know’), and feelings of missing out as time slips away (the cowboy booted stirrups jangling southern blues organ imbued ‘No Patience’).

Dreamily and at times in a soulful slinking mood, echoes of Labi Siffre, Roger Bunn, John Compton, Bacharach, Jimmy Campbell and Fleetwood Mac permeate this comfortably light songbook of well-crafted, instantly memorable tunes. Everything, in a true distinctly English way, sounds and feels better over a cup of tea, and I’ll enjoy my ‘organic’ ‘peace’ labelled teabag gift supplied with the lad’s album: thanks for that Ian and Brent.

The Lancashire Hustlers once again, like a northern England Every Brothers, harmoniously and with a real sense of melody read the tea leaves to create a cherished collection of lovelorn malady and magic.     

Koma Saxo w/ Sofia Jernberg ‘Koma West’
(We Jazz) 18th March 2022

A pleasant change in direction (of a sort) from the contorting saxophone heavy (hence the name) Koma Saxo as the dynamic ensemble expand their ranks and conjure up a sort of Scandinavian version of Ornate Coleman’s concerto American suite, as remixed by J Dilla and Leafcutter John.

The core sax brethren once more transform and disguise a suffusion of alto, soprano, tenor and slide, and double-bassist, pianist, percussionist, sampler Petter Eldh leads. Only now we have the addition of the aria-like and lucid ethereal voice of Sofia Jernberg permeating evocations of Linda Sharrock and airy diaphanous airiness to enjoy. Which works extremely well in offering some vocalised lulls, waves, syllables, vowels and intonation to the reworked jazz sounds. 

Koma West as the name might indicate, references a conceptual geographical theme; the West part marking a soundtrack inspired and imbued by Petter’s west coast Swedish roots. To be specific, the formative years spent in the town of Lysekil, which sits at the southern tip of the Stångenäs peninsula, at the mouth of the Gullmarn fjord. A magical untethered purview of that landscape’s outstanding beauty, drum breakbeats converge with woodwind sprites, a skiffle simmer of jazz, the orchestrally classical and homegrown folk on an album suite of the organic and electrified.

Leitmotifs of a Scandinavian Bernstein and Prokiev can be heard in tandem with flowery levitations and a shadowy reverberation of a tune-up on the opening ‘Lo Ve Ko Ma’. Pastoral sounds, the transparent fleeted appearance of some concerto and room full of voices weave in and out of a woody and tinkled piano passage. It’s at this point that Koma Saxo sound almost like an entirely different group; nearly wholly acoustic, in a mirage of the dreamy. ‘Croydon Koma’ (strange change of location) sees the familiar Mo Wax-esque breaks return as Petter stretches the thrummed double-bass strings and a chorus of saxophone hoots and rasps.

An ode to the flowery landscape feature ‘Kaprifol’ finds this ensemble conjuring up a soulful R&B and Lee Dorsey-like classical puppetry; a lushly decorated wander amongst the fauna that takes on a Southern states of America backbeat feel. Talking of the south, there’s a hint of New Orleans on the high rising sax peppered, rattled double-bass Swedish jazz bolero ‘Koma Fred’.

Mother nature’s son collaborates with the incredible, lofty and airy meandered lyricism and utterances of Sofia to conjure up dolphin echoed coastlines, a menagerie of instrumental evoked bird life, the local folkloric traditions and something approaching a starry cosmic ceiling. Keeping it rooted in a childhood home, Petter’s “momvillian” mum, Kiki, is drafted in to play a repeated shortened concertinaed accordion riff on the hip-hop(ish) attitude ‘Ostron Accordion’.

A family affair, return to nature and a cosmic whole, the Koma Saxo with more than a little help from their friends (the highly thought of and lauded Kit Downes on piano, plus Maria Reich on violin and Lucy Railton on cello) take a pleasing and innovative turn in the road to match their often freshly chaotic jazz, elements of John Zorn and Alfa Mist, and the lofty. A contemporary woodland orchestra and untethered voice falls in with exciting, often broken-up, staccato jazz to musically score an inspiring Swedish topography. The spirit of collaboration lives on.

Kick ‘Light Figures’
(Anomic Records/Dischi Sotterranei/Sour Grapes) 16th March 2022

A dissected grind and more dreamy investigation of love’s opposing forces, we have the rubbered-up, sadomasochistic, the materialistic and the wanton lamented kinds as backdrop for Kick’s new album Light Figures. The Brescia ‘sweet noise’ makers duo, beefed up by a number of guests, and ‘curated’ production wise by Marco Fasolo, dig into a number of complementary opposites as they reach out to the dark side of our personalities and various wept augurs about self-destructive behaviour.

Despite the sometimes serious, dark nature and the brilliantly broody post-punk menace and industrial slicing, Chiara Amailia Bernardini’s vocals ache a certain melodious lushness; cooing and swooning occasionally like she’s fronting a 90s alt-rock or shoegaze band: a bit of Throwing Muses, Breeders. Often it recalls a leather-strapped Ravenettes and their version of knowing 60s backbeat girl group crushes. Chiara’s voice however, is more in keeping with a scorned, provocative PJ Harvey on the BDSM flange-affected ‘Rubberlover’, which also features a/lpaca’s Christian Bindelli aiding a salacious repeated “punish me” mantra about power versus submission. Over her trebly, Banshees and Ester Poly like basslines Chiara is more tauntingly alluring on the mythical allegorical ‘Sirens Never Sleep’; these Greek tempests luring sailors on to the deadly rocks through their mystical hypnotic voices sitting in for their all-too-real dangerous counterparts on the Internet; coaxing us all down misdirected rabbit holes and leading us astray.

Contorted guitar string scrapes from Chiara’s foil Nicola Mova bolster the cold steel grist, the gnarling and gnawing sinister spells, the piercing feedback that often seeps into the gothic. Yet by the album’s third track, ‘Eleven’, the mood evokes an acoustic and spindly chimed accompanied Renaissance set piece; a haunted pastoral dreamy romanticism, though the language (swapping between English, their Italian mother tongue and a completely made-up cadence) is thoroughly modern. ‘Viole’ is another one for the dreamers, featuring as it does a Prokofiev like fluted fairy tale wind instrument contribution from C’mon Tigre and Calibro 35’s Beppe Scardino, and a Shacks-esque languid float-y-ness. Sleepwalking into a climate apocalypse, the finale ‘Atlandtide’ features a doomy gnawed bass, yet seems to waltz towards its fate.  It must be said that the duo and friends sound better when the bass and guitar growl, wails and sounds cool-y detached than in hallucinatory, languorous mode; when the fuzz and gristle have an unsettling mood, a leaning dread of Giallo post-punk. Light Figures seems to balance that bruised, scarred heart with the wispy and drifting, baiting and cooing protestations and resignation all the while. If bands like Peter Kernel are your crush then get a load of Kick; they’ve converted this critic.

Pjusk ‘Sentrifuge’
(Somewherecold Records) 18th March 2022

Shaping washed-out, layered abstractions of thoughts, time, moods and places from out of the “modular system” apparatus and what sounds like the air itself, the Norwegian electronic artist Jostein Dahl Gjelsvik tries something a little different with his newest Pjusk release.

Subtly sculpting ambiguous, mysterious ambient worlds that never quite settle – traversing as they do the dreamy, otherworldly, fabled and cosmic planes -, Jostein’s inaugural release for the crazily prolific Somewherecold imprint favours slow builds and reverberated undulations that merge the organic and mechanical; a soundtrack in which the reedy rasps of an obscured instrument can conjure up Tibetan mystique whilst pondering a cloudless, incandescent blue evening sky, or, convey kosmische-like space freighters travelling towards alien paradises.

Modulations, sine waves, chinked and chimed bottles, metallic purrs and burns, zip-wires, liquefied shapes, solar winds, mirrored reversal effects are used to create visions of a propeller-propelled leviathan machine hovering over beautifully rendered landscapes. The tinkling of a buoy on a topographic ocean; a patchwork of firework stars; ethereal cosmic sirens; places in which gravity doesn’t exist, Jostein’s centrifugal motioned ship glides across and lands amongst some magnificent contemplative and stirring scenes.

Occasionally a quiet synthesised beat, some drum pad rhythm adds a semblance of direction and propulsion. Traces too can be felt, heard of distant radiowaves, broadcasts; the drifted resonance of voices and music caught in the atmosphere. Shades of neoclassical Roedelius, some of Tim Story’s piano touches, a little bit of Mapstation, Edgar Frosse, Air Liquide and early Aphex spring to my loosened mind, on what is a really impressive slow-moving modular and tonal piece of escapism.    

 

Anthéne & Simon McCorry ‘Mind Of Winter’
(Hidden Vibes)

“In the bleak mid-winter”, or not as the case maybe, as the considered partnership of Monolith Cocktail regular, the cellist polymath, Simon McCorry and guitar manipulator Brad Deschamps contour a wintery soundtrack of beauty and meditation.

Inspired by the late American modernist poet Wallace Stevens and his ‘epistemology’ school of sublime poetics ‘The Snow Man’, both experimental artists come together to draw an abstract atmosphere and landscape around that poem’s counterbalance mind set of beautifully described coldness and existential feelings of ‘nothingness’.

Although produced during the pandemic, events have been overshadowed in recent weeks by the heinous invasion of Ukraine, and so the fact that this ambient winter’s tale has found a home on the Ukrainian label Hidden Vibes seems to now carry more weight and resonance. But this incredible merger of obscured, veiled cello and effected guitar, field recordings and occasional bobbing tongue-drum knocked beats describes a season of evocative shaped electric-charged cumuliform and nimbostratus clouds, faraway glimmers of the Spring light and melted snow; the very opposite of a nuclear winter auger – which considering the despotic madman behind the button is Putin, doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

Under his Anthéne alais, Brad perfectly matches, under rides and envelopes Simon’s subtle arches, long drawn sustained bows and tonal gauze with threaded, drifted guitar notes, phrases, flange-like reverberations and radiowaves. In this Winter sky static crackles and piped metallic whistles signal dense clouds brushing against each other, whilst on the ground primordial hazy stirrings evoke both the mysterious and foreboding.

Serenity follows in the wake of more concentrated forces; field recordings of climbing over rocks and footsteps across wooden floors mark the presence of human interaction in this atmospheric space. There’s a real gravity to this poetic imbued soundtrack, an essence of the elements and movement. The Mind Of Winter is nothing less than a sublime turn and adroit piece of ambient conjuring from the congruous collaborators.

THE SHORTS

A ‘FOR UKRAINE’ SPECIAL:

As Imperialistic Putin makes good on his ten year plus campaign of lies, deceit and conquer, with the invasion of Ukraine, the millions watching on in despair have been unanimous in their support of that nation’s struggle against a Tsarist despot attempting to rewrite history.   Whilst it is still uncertain just what heinous crimes he’s plotting – whether it will stop at the Ukraine, continue into former conquered Tsarist or Soviet territories, or manifest in a corridor to the Balkans -, our friends in the whole of Europe, Britain, North America and beyond have been rallying to the cause (a staggering £100 million has so far been raised in the UK, as if of the 7th March). Musicians have been among the first to turn-around projects, release special records, compilations in aid of the many charities working to help the immense refuge crisis; to bring the essentials to those fleeing and those trapped in cities and towns under siege. Here are just some of those good souls, donating the proceeds to this cause.

Note: unless dated, all release available from now.

Various ‘I Won’t Give Up’

A dramatic outpouring of grief and horror at the heinous events unfolding in Eastern Europe, the #iwontgiveup project brings together over twenty Czech, Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian musicians to express opposition to the war in Ukraine; sending a clear message to the world that “we are all in this together”.

A combination of the well-known songs ‘Obijmi’ (Hug me) and ‘Bez boj’ (Without Fighting) by the cult Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy this new version was produced by the Czech Republic-based producer and musician Igor Ochepovsky. It features a cross Eastern European cast that includes the studio drummer and singer David Koller, actor and singer Igor Orozovič, singers Monika Načeva and Lenka Dusilová, guitarists Michal Pavlíček and Nikita Krein, accordionists Aliaksandr Yasinski and Roman Zabelov, guitarist and balalaika player Kirill Yakovlev, double bassist Taras Volos, violinists Vartui Saribekian and Natalia Lisniak, cellist Simon Marek, violist Jan Forest, domra player Kateryna Vatchenko and pianist Olesya Ochepovskaya.

“For Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians these are absolutely iconic songs that we all know well. Our nations and lives are connected not only by the melodies, but also by the themes of love, hope, courage and determination. The musicians involved are some of the finest artists I know. Apart from our love for music, we are also united by our dissenting attitude towards current events,” says Igor Ochepovsky, explaining the background of the project.

The recording of the song took place on Monday, 28th February, four days after the start of the war in Ukraine, in Boris Carloff’s Soundevice studio.

“When my wife Alena woke me up on Thursday morning with the news that the war had really started, I was shocked. I immediately wondered what I could do. We sent money to charities, I called all my friends in Ukraine and Russia, and checked to see if I could help at the borders. However, I am a musician, I speak to people through music. So Alena and I sprung into action and within two days we had everything arranged. Those involved cancelled their original plans to support the project, for which they deserve a big thank you,” says Ochepovsky.

Escupemetralla ‘Maldacena Duality’
(Single Track also featured on Side-Line Magazine’s Face the Beat 7: Session 7 compilation)

Mad, bad and dangerous to know, those dark purveyors of obscene twisted experiments, Escupemetralla are back with a hadron collider of regurgitating, churned science fiction mania and buzzing occult unease; a vortex trip down a Black Hole.

Appearing on its own merits via their own dark arts platform, ‘Maldacena Duality’ also appears for a good cause on the latest Face The Beat compilation from Side-Line Magazine. 129 tracks, listed in alphabetical order, the seventh session of menacing, scarred darkened sub genre electronica sees the proceeds go towards various charities plus the humanitarian crisis in Eastern Europe.   

Solidarity ‘Blue And Yellow’ & “Yellow And Blue’
(Binaural Space)

The effort made during the last two weeks has brought a tear to my eye, with so many artists bonding together over the Internet to quickly turn-around projects like this one to raise money for various charities and the relief effort in Ukraine. Everyone deserves a pat on the back, they really do. Featuring another enviable cast of electronic, neoclassical and experiment artists, the Prague-based label/artist Binaural Space has released two Ukrainian flag colour coordinated compilation stunners.

Familiar to regular Monolith Cocktail readers/followers, volume two (Blue And Yellow) favourites like the polymath cellist Simon McCorry (who appears with Anthéne in one of my album reviews above), the ever-brilliant Whettman Chelmets and lower case minimalist genius Andrew Heath amongst the likes of Jad Baron, Dirk Jacobs, Greg Nieuwsma (another MC featured review in 2021) and Selvedge.  Volume One of this moiety features MC regular Toxic Chicken and SEODAH, alongside Ash Electric, XENNON and Kodomo. Buy them both now.

The Post-Everything Collective & Friends Present: ‘Ukrainian Relief Compilation’
(The Post-Everything Collective) 31st March 2022

We did post this one up directly onto the FB page last week, but in case you missed it, another impressive compilation of eclectic finds and nuggets from the Post-Everything crew.

A staggering 60-track behemoth of a compilation, so chances are there will be something to suit every taste. A lot of stuff on here I’ve never heard of, so will enjoy digging. 100% of the profits are going towards the Save The Children foundation for Ukraine. 

Various ‘Music For Ukraine’
(We Jazz)

Our favourite European jazz imprint/festival/shop We Jazz has pulled it out the hat with an enticing compilation of previously unreleased goodies. If you have followed us over the years you’ll know just how much the blog rates this jazz label; probably reviewing, featuring three quarters of their entire catalogue at some stage.

No highlights, as they are all worthy great selections from the label roll. There’s some really great material on here, enviable in fact. So sort it out and get handing over that cash.

100% of all proceeds go towards humanitarian aid in Ukraine via verified charity sources. All donations will be announced. 

Various Artists ‘Pacification’
(Chitra Records) 18th March 2022

American ambient specialists Chitra Records is putting out a twenty-track compilation next week. Some great names on this one, including Federico Balducci &  fourthousandblackbirds, who’s last collaboration received a favourable review from me. Pulling no punches, they’ve contributed the ‘Up To 15 Years in Prison And Fines Of Up To 5 Million Rubles’ track; reference to the recent passed laws of stamping out all protest and revulsion at Putin’s grand plans of conquest. Starring alongside them are Sebby Kowai, Adrian Lane and FlownBlue.

All proceeds from the digital sales of the compilation on Bandcamp for the first two weeks from the release date (until March 21, 2022) will be sent to the Red Cross Society of Ukraine.

ALBUM REVIEW/Graham Domain

Sweeney ‘Stay For the Sorrow’
(sound in silence)

This is the fourth solo album by Jason Sweeney (based in Southern Australia) and what a great record it is; a forlorn song cycle of break-up, sadness, mental illness, loneliness and the pursuit of love.

The influences are many – Mark Hollis, Talk Talk, Cousteau, Ian McCulloch, David Sylvian, Scott Matthew, Galaxy 500, David Ackles, Max Richter, Oren Lavie, John Grant, Perfume Genius, Scott Walker, to name a few, but Sweeney somehow manages to rise above them all and produce a great album that sounds like himself.

The first song ‘Lonely Faces’ reminds me of Cousteau in the vocal phrasing – a plaintiff, mysterious piano with a nice melody. On the chorus his vocals take on an Ian McCulloch vibe (circa Heaven Up Here – A Promise) as he cries …Be Alone. A great track. The next song, ‘The Break Up’ has echoes of early Talk Talk and Mark Hollis with its icy programmed synths and electronic drums. While ‘Home Song’ is a moody slow song with descending piano chords and string synths. Here, all hope seems lost as he mumble-sings ‘saved from this Hell outside’ before the song ends with the forlorn repeated plea to his lover to please come home…

‘Fallen Trees Where Houses Meet’ has a very David Sylvian like title but sounds vocally somewhere in-between Galaxy 500 and David Ackles. The music is a programmed keyboard pattern repeated with icy siren synths as Sweeney sings ‘You tell me there’s no moon tonight’ and other oblique lines creating a fairly atmospheric song that fades out too soon, before it has a chance to progress. ‘You Will Move On’ meanwhile, sounds like a semi-robotic hesitant alien computer trying to communicate. I would have liked to listen to this song again but the link blocked me – such is technology! It reminded me of the great, forgotten, Phillip Jap, atmospheric, a cry for help! ‘Years’ has echoes of the emotional Scott Matthew (the Australian, not the Scott Matthews from Wolverhampton) as Sweeney sings …the fear of life, the fear of death… dreams of life, dreams of death …years go by – the anxiety eventually giving way and opening up to summer birdsong at the end (the light at the end of the tunnel)!

The stand-out song, for me, is ‘Anxiety’ – a lilting piano song, almost upbeat, catchy like Covid, cheerful like Tommy Steel with bipolar, as he sings ‘I may die from anxiety, I can feel it killing me, gnawing inside painfully’. It is actually a beautiful song of sadness, mental illness and slow recovery.

‘Dear Friend’ finds a tired half-asleep drum machine talking to a drunken string machine as a Bryan Ferry song plays at the wrong speed on the jukebox. Reminiscent again of Talk Talk or perhaps even Icehouse. The only miscalculation on the album is the song ‘To Be Done’. Lyrically it’s like a song Stuart Staples might write but is ruined by a middle part that is a direct steal from David Sylvian’s ‘Maria’ – so obvious, he should have scrapped it! The final song ‘I Will Be Replaced’  finds the singer replaced in a relationship by another man, while he despairs to know why? A sad George Michael Careless Whisper saxophone plays to heighten the misery.

Overall, a very good, deep album of songs about sadness, loss and the continual search for love. It is an album where the sadness and struggle are somehow inspiring and uplifting. Highly recommended.

ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

John Howard ‘LOOK! The Unknown Story Of Danielle Du Bois’
(Kool Kat Musik) 11th March 2022

Depending on how you measure success of course, you could view John Howard’s career in two ways: the artistic kind (which is really the only one that counts at the end of the day) and the stardom kind. Failing in the later stakes after the damp squib that followed in the wake of the piano-player-songwriter’s 1975 debut on a major label, Kid In A Big World, John’s career hit the rocks; restricted on various occasions by a both idiotic and sympathetic cadre of managers, publicists, producers, labels and well-wishers. All to no avail.

However, through a myriad of anecdotal relayed projects (all written down by the raconteur troubadour, so far, in three volumes of entertaining autobiography) continued across the 70s and 80s, John had to wait until the noughties to finally pick and choose his projects, and to work with whom he wished: on his own terms. Arguably more successful and creatively on fire now than he ever was in the heady heydays of the 70s, he’s enjoying himself; able at last to bang out a concept album without the merest hint or resistance or scoff.

Personally, I’m still holding out for a sequel to the longform cerebral Across The Door Sill album from 2016, and a cover album of Beach Boys maladies, but until then, here’s John’s latest opus; arriving off the back of a rich prolific run of records.

Although billed as a musical concept songbook based on the fictional transgender character Daniel Wood, later to transition into the Paris cause célèbre Danielle Du Bois, LOOK! The Unknown Story Of Danielle Du Bois is a barely veiled sympathetic magnum opus to the late April Ashley. Perhaps amongst the first men to go through sex reassignment surgery at a time when it was so taboo that you had to fly out to a clinic in Casablanca, April’s own life story mirrors that of John’s fictional creation. But I also detect something of, parallels with, John’s own story of escape and search for identity; only allowed to live out his true homosexual spirit when moving away from home to London, where he thrived.

And so, this is a story of identity, rebirth and the lengths someone is willing to go to accomplish their dreams; to transition and discard a previous life, even if it comes back to haunt them: which it does. However, the projection of Daniel Wood is different to that inspired biography, with the boy wonder, despite various travails, a bullying WWII veteran father and a puzzled mother, making it big in the burgeoning music scene of the late 50s and early 60s. With his hit carousel and theatrical harpsichord furnished ‘Every Day A New Adventure’ wowing both national and international audiences alike, the bucks and offers come flooding in. There’s even talk of a Hollywood movie biopic. But Daniel’s journey ends here, as Danielle’s begins: the young pop star leaving it all behind, bound for that reassignment appointment at an exclusive clinic in Paris.

As Daniel is left behind to be dredged back up as a “whatever happened to?” salacious redtop exposé decades later, a new belle hot foots it around the Paris cabaret circuit, struts it out in style through the salons of the exclusive bohemian and arts set; later adored as a sensation and heroine of the LGBT plus community. In another age, able to live as they always wanted, the final deathbed dream sequence reimagines, in theatrical staged pomp, the school daze that never were; played out to a camp rock ‘n’ roll and glam musical accompaniment, a dying, fulfilled Danielle is whisked away by guardian angels to a fantastical classroom of the 1950s to perform an upbeat cast number as the woman she always knew she was.

Despite being of the times and almost overtly on-trend, this album feels like unfinished business; more the ambitious follow-up to Kid In A Big World then a follow-on from his recent catalogue. Musically too, this seems a 70s conceptual piece – not that there’s anything wrong with that – with shades of early Elton & Bernie, Gilbert O’ Sullivan, Bruce Johnston, pre-disco Bee Gees and even a tint of Russell Meal vocally.

In the linear story’s feather boa panache and garish swished parades through the French capital (and even namechecked alongside a soiree of French stars that includes Brigitte Bardot, Gainsbourg and references to the intelligencer: see Jean Genet) there’s a decadent air of Charles Aznavour. And although of course musically at opposite ends, there’s The Who’s Tommy mirror symbolism (both to gaze into but ultimately smash) going on, and the bookend framing of an overture and a reprise. ‘Last Night He Woke Up Screaming’ is the overture of a kind, moving through a slightly ominous nursey rhyme, a sorrowful church organ service, and a lushly swooned backstory; the reprise, ‘A Place In Time (After-ture)’ repeats that dissonant lullaby whilst revisiting musical passages, refrains and touching melodies from the entire album.

John does however evoke a more contemporary Rufus Wainwright on songs like the descriptive left banke accordion wafted goodbye plaintive ‘Good Day Daniel’, and on the cabaret celebration in the face of mortality and aging ‘Still Gorgeous’: a raunchy anthem that ‘brings down the house’.     

Filled with brocade and gilded sentiment, chamber orchestrated swells and stage musicals, LOOK! The Unknown Story Of Danielle Du Bois shows a full gamut of variety; a showcase for John’s musicianship, arranging skills and song writing. A perfumed, lush songbook fit for the stage, John’s homage to his late friend shines a sympathetic light on not just April’s travails but those transgender trailblazers (and I’d put the late Jan Morris in that list) that struggled, and still do, to lead the life they should without recrimination and prejudice. All very platitude inducing, but correct nonetheless. John Howard once more has that magic touch, seemingly in his elements, the sagacious polymath enriching us all with his best work five decades on from his initial break. Not many artists can do that.

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