DOMINIC VALVONA’S ECLETIC REVUE

Al-Qasar ‘Who Are We?’
(Glitterbeat Records) 16th September 2022

Bubbling up from the Barbès Algerian enclave of Paris (the 18th Arrondissment boulevard that’s home to the yet to be gentrified and tourist-friendly passed Little Algeria community) and crisscrossing continents, the Al-Qasar group fuzz-up and electrify the sound of Arabia and its diaspora.

Helmed by instigator-in-chief Thomas Attar Bellier that neighborhood bustle is elevated and blasted back out into the world at large, absorbing and picking up sonic waves, spikes from Northeast Africa to a hardcore California and a rich tasting Sublime Porte.

It all helps of course that Attar Bellier is a global nomad, having lived in New York, Lisbon and Paris, but also having worked in the recording studios of L.A. during that circumnavigation of multicultural living he produced enough tracks of his own, releasing the well-received Miraj EP.

I get the impression that this is a fluid project, but at the time of this, the debut longplayer, Attar Bellier has opened up the ranks to include Jaouad El Garouge on vocals and a number of instruments synonymous with Moroccan Gnwa and North African traditions, Guillaume Théoden on bass and sub-bass duties, Nicolas Derolin on a myriad of percussive and hand drum instruments and Paul Void on drums. That seems the core anyway, but in this electric saz tangling and psychedelic post-punk rich sound there’s a cast of guest pioneering musicians to add yet another layer, another sonic perspective.

From the start there’s Sonic Youth’s guitar-sculptor Lee Ranaldo providing multi-layers of sustain, whines and abrasions to both the opening Swans meet Faust squall turn spindled and more familiar Middle Eastern electric fez intro ‘Awtar Al Sharq’, and the second, dervish-spun spirited and phlegm-voiced tour of Anatolia, The Balkans and Arabia, ‘Awal’.

That legend of the California punk scene, miscreant Dead Kennedys founder Jello Biafra goes free-radical on the staccato jangling ‘Ya Malak’. In a kind of John Sinclair mode, he reads out a poignant translation of a poem by the famous Egyptian revolutionary poet Ahmed Fouad Negam, updated for the cataclysmic state of the world in 2022, and the crumbled, violently oppressed post Arab Spring. This is where, despite the Cairo-futurism, the rattled and slapped hand drum energy, that the political motivations, the despair and anger comes to the fore; all that history, the post-colonial tumult and also fall-out from an Arabian-wide protest movement seeking modernization, the right to earn and end to greed. Read through a tiny transistor style radio Biafra’s agitator spirit turns this into a sort of Arabian Fugazi.

Moving on, but just as political, the New York-based Sudanese vocal doyen Alsarah (of Alsarah & The Nubatones renown) brings her impressive expressive outpourings and trill to the rattlesnake desert song ‘Hobek Thawrat’. In that soulful, rising loved-yearned voice there’s a protest against the coup on her homeland, the chorus itself repeating a slogan from the recent demonstrations. A sound of the Sahel, the women folk of Tinariwen and a little Bab L’Bluz Gnawa hover over this beautifully delivered protestation.

It runs throughout, this sound’s birthplace, but Al-Qasar pay a special homage on the (so good they name it twice) ‘Barbès Barbès’, which also features the electric oud pioneer Mehdi Haddab (of Speed Caravan note). Metal work drums, a nice rolling groove and souk candour prove a friendly hustled soundtrack for a meander in the heavily African outpost. Haddab gets a solo of a kind, providing a romanticized, poetic and folksy oud, with bursts of blurred quickened neat fretwork that borders on Baba ZuLu style psychedelic rock.

The finale, ‘Mal Wa Jamal’, features the longing ached vocals of the Egyptian singer Hend Elrawy soaring over an inspirial organ and almost post-punk push. Elraway’s beautiful wails prove disarming as the song’s lyrics concern a female-centric outlook on prostitution and its consequences. There’s attitude certainly, but it’s all wrapped up in a fizzled, fuzzy and mystical film of Arabian dance and fantasy. No surprise that they’ve been added to the Glitterbeat Records label roster, an imprint for just this sort of fusion; one in which you’ll hear an Arabic Muscle Shoals merging with Anatolian psych, a touch of Electric Jalaba and Şatellites if remixed by Khalab. A brilliant package of transformed traditions wrapped up in electrifying futurism; the sounds of Arabia, North Africa and beyond are thrust into a dynamic, unifying and eclectic direction. 

Clear Path Ensemble ‘Solar Eclipse’
(Soundway Records)  9th September 2022

Out of the Wellington jamming session hothouse incubator and blossoming jazz scene in New Zealand Cory Champion rides the sun-birched rays and waves to cook-up a congruous album of many flavours. From a knowing position the jazz percussionist flows freely between a 70s ECM back catalogue of inspirations and the funk, fusion, spiritual and more freeform genres of his chosen art form.

Under the Clear Path Ensemble alias – his second such alias, also going under the Borrowed CS title when making leftfield deep house and techno cuts – Champion channels both Latin and Uniting Of Opposites style brassy Indian reverberations on the golden ‘Kihi’; offers up an acid jazz turn retro zippy-zappy late 70s disco funk fusion on ‘Drumatix’; and magic’s up a post-Bitches Brew Mile Davis band mystery of African-flavoured marimba and jug-poured, lava-lamp liquid cosmic spiritualism on ‘Revolutions’. But the mood, musicality changes again when we reach the jazzy-suspense score ‘Absolvo’: an early 70s cool cult vision of a Lalo Schifrin thriller.  

The finale, ‘Tennis Ball’, could be said to have taken Liquid Liquid’s percussion, beats and a bit of the Style Council’s laidback washy soul-funk. And the dreamy seasonal solstice ‘Sunrise Motif’ finds a blend of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the willowy fluted bucolic and Nate Morgan. All the while translucent bulb-like notes flow or float from the vibraphone as other light-footed percussive vibrations dance and softly quicken the pace.    

A harp run here and muffled, mizzle sax or trumpet there; a touch of electric piano and pining strings on anther track; all elements that come together across a changing groove.

Clive Zanda meets a less busy Michael Urbaniek on a minor jazz odyssey of nostalgic but very much alive and contemporary fusions, Champion’s second album in this role is a sophisticated, smooth but also freeform set of moods, visions and counterflows. It proves a perfect fit for the eclectic and much-praised Soundway label.

Forest Robots ‘Supermoon Moonlight Part Two’
(Subexotic)

After an initial redolent arpeggiator wave of Roedelius, a rainbow of trance, vapoured breathed coos and transience follows, marking what will be an entirely different kind of record for the Californian electronic artist and topographical trekker Fran Domingeuz.

Under the Forest Robots alias/umbrella, Fran has produced numerous adroit, studied and evocative ambient and neoclassical soundtracks to the myriad of landscapes and forest trials he’s traversed over the years. As the world dramatically succumbed to a global pandemic, and the chance to escape to the wilds became scarce, the signature form stayed but now the music was suddenly a therapy and a vehicle for channeling the anxiety, stresses of such uncertain times.

Now (thankfully) with the worse behind us, Fran emerges with the ‘long gestating’ follow-up to Part One of his Supermoon Moonlight suites from 2018. Although recording sessions for Part Two started back in 2019 it has taken a while to finally process the last couple of years and to finish and release this beautifully conceived album of suffused and uplifting hope.

The geography and National Geographic almanac proverb-like and Zen titles remain (‘All The Rivers Born In The Mountains’, ‘Wind Always Runs Wilder Along The River’s Current’) but the underlying theme has Fran exploring the complexities of parenthood and the ‘kind of spiritual and emotional legacy a father would wish to leave for his kids.’ A warming sentiment and inspired prompt makes for a very different kind of album though. From the same gifted mind and ear yet swimming in the sine waves of trance, synth-pop, 90s techno and dance music this is relatively a new but welcoming direction, expansion on his signature sound.

Upbeat as much as reflective, the feel is often dreamy; the gravity and awe of nature gently present; cut-out mountainsides, flowing connective rivers and a canopy of redwoods, the stage is set as stars shoot across the night skies and moonbeams illuminate.

In the slipstream and bubbled undulations The Beloved shares space with The Orb, Stereolab, 808 State, Sakamoto, Vince Clarke, Boards Of Canada, I.A.O., the Aphex Twin and Ulrich Schnauss. This is a beautiful combination that filters the aftermath of the rave culture, the burgeoning British minimal techno scene of the early 90s Warp label, 80s synth-pop and electronic body music. Yet there’s room for a certain crystallised chilled sparkle of the Chromatics and the Drive time moody, ruminated dry-ice scores of Cliff Martinez within that beat-driven glow. And the elements of charcoal fires crisply burning and flickering, and the poured waters have a certain Luc Ferrari influence – albeit far less avant-garde.

Playful and sophisticated with a surprising dance-y pulse and radiant outlook, Part Two should act as a testimony to an inspired and inspiring composer. I think his kids will be rightly proud of their dad and his musical legacy: electronic music with a soul and purpose.      

Machine ‘S-T’
(WEWANTSOUNDS)

Back again in The Perusal (becoming a 2022 regular) those vinyl specialists at WEWANTSOUNDS have remastered and pressed that rarest-of-rare conscious-soul-funk LPs, the obscure assembled Machine’s self-titled debut (and only) album from 1972.

The rumour-mill is strong on this one; the cause of its £500 plus price tag on Discogs believed to be a result of either a very limited release or no release at all – shelved as it were. It could be down to the sheer quality of the competition, arriving as it did in the wake of similar social-political soul as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly (but also his albums previous to that). Both prove a massive influence on this smooth and funky eight-track showcase.  

What we do know however is that the make up of this group included a trio of well-rehearsed session players from the All Platinum Studios stable in New Jersey. That included main man Michael Watson on vocals and guitar, bass-player Curtis McTeer (also playing with labelmates The Rimshots) and drummer Donald McCoy, who were then fattened out with the organist/pianist Ray Jones, another bassist, Frank Prescod, and both Dee and Cordy Pridges on horns. On the same label and one of the most established, successful acts The Whatnauts lent both their backing vocalists and, rather oddly, their manager (credited on percussion) Bunch Herndon to this widening lineup. And on top of all that, the notable Sammy Lowe (arranging for such distinguished company as Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and James Brown) offers a subtle suite of strings to the mix, taking it down the Rotary Connection route.

The Whatnauts prove a pretty integral ingredient to the Machine track list, lending both the ‘Only People Can Save The World’ and ‘Why Can’t People (Be Color Too?)’ songs to the album. Machine keep the sentiment of both, but add both an almost bucolic and pastoral gospel-rayed yearn to the first, and up the Gator funk and Stevie Wonder boogie on the Sly Stone on-message second.

They open on the relaxed but simmered Southern-funk-hits-the-streets-of-NYC style ‘Time Is Running Out’. Fred Wesley & The J.B.’s buzzy licks meet Maxayn attitude sass, sweet sax and touch of ‘Brotherman’ The Final Solution on a conscious-political workout – the repeated vocal refrain apparently ad-libbed.

Very much of its time and again on-message, ‘World’ tunes into the Vietnam War and its impact on and confliction with the African-American community. The actual groove is quite percussive with a touch of The Temptations Psychedelic Shack, Mayfield and The Meters.

There’s a seagull hovering harbor scene, not a million miles away from Otis’ wistful gaze, on the gear-changing ‘Trails’. It starts with that atmospheric rumination, a hint of the Latin and some romantic allusions before quickening into a banjo-rhythmic strumming West coast jive. It then goes on to wail and cry with a sequel of electric guitar. ‘Lock Your Door’ however could be a lost Northern Soul dancer, and the balladry pined ‘Boots In The Snow’ is another of those Marvin Gaye try-outs, with a touch of 70s Motown.

An enervated Nat Turner, Undisputed Truth, Mary Jane Hooper, Johnny Pate with those Mayfield and Gaye inspirations, Machine stepped-out to lead their own socially conscious project. But whilst the elements are all present, the sound isn’t quite unique enough, overshadowed as they were by a multitude of bands/artists working in the same groove and message. Still, at least you can now own a real rarity without forgoing this month’s rent, gas or mortgage payment. And it’s well worth a spin at that.

Noah ‘Noire’
(Flau Records) 26th August 2022

Ever the diaphanous siren of soothed vaporous experiments and song, the Hokkaido-born artist Noah once more drifts and floats across a sophisticated combination of futuristic etudes and distilled electronica. Following on from the beautiful balletic-inspiredÉtoile (given a glowing review by my good self), this latest emanation of whispered and cooed translucence is just as lovely and swathed in dreamy effects.

A collection of tracks from between a pre-Covid era of 2015-2020, the Noire album is awash with studied yet effortless sounding sonic theme variations; a nine-track congruous suite that riffs on Noah’s signature of ghostly plinky-plonked semi-classical piano (occasionally an electronic one by the sounds of it) and minimal 808-style synthesized waves, percussion and bobbled beats.

Noah’s breathless vocals and atmospherics seem to be reaching us from the ether: often just the reverberations of some distant hazy whisper. The opening transparent slow spiral ‘Twirl’ could be a distant relation to Julee Cruise; an enchanted but haunted echo from a palatial ballroom, yet still highly intimate. ‘Odette’ oozes languorous modern soul and R&B, like Solange drifting over the Boards of Canada.

Undulated by softened kinetic ratchets, screws and turns there’s a coming together of purposeful techno and more rhythmic retro house beats, enervated as to never overpower the general woozy and beautifully longing mood. 

Shorter reflections, pieces are balanced by extended tracks and the heavenly, bobbing and echoed looped single ‘Gemini – Mysterious Lot’; the sound relaxing as it moves from transformed Sakamoto to cool dreamy pop.

Remaining something of an enigma Noah appears and then floats away, leaving a lingering presence with music created in a dream. Noire is another great, captivating showcase for that talent.

Lampen ‘S-T’
(We Jazz) 9th September 2022

A re-release of a kind, in case you both missed it the first time around or because of its limited run on CD, the free and post-jazz Finnish duo Lampen are now offering their 2020 self-titled album on vinyl for the first time – a very nice package it is too.

I would be one of those people that did miss it the first time around, and so I now find myself discovering its highly experimental, explorative qualities, imbued as they are by the Japanese art of “kintsugi” (or “golden joinery”), the repairing art of mending areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver and platinum. As much a philosophy as a method of repair, the breaks and cracks are treated and documented rather than disguised or thrown away.

The binding metal dust is like a woven vein and testament to that object’s knocks and history. With all its obvious metaphors the Lampen lads are less than careful, seeming to deconstruct and rebuild simultaneously in an act of free-spirited concentration: if that makes sense. For they break and stretch the performances yet, because their craft is obviously brilliant, they seem to always be in unison, synchronicity throughout.

Across five crawling and more crescendo splashed tracks, guitarist Kelle Kalima and percussionist/sampler Tatu Rönkkö rattle and wane; bend and set in motion a tumult of krautrock, progressive, industrial, post-punk, psychedelic and avant-garde workouts and soundtracks. In abandoned rusted turbine dominated factories, mysterious chambers but also hovering over lunar terrains Lampen evoke hints of Rhyton, Peter Giger, Krononaut, The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Orchestra, King Crimson, Faust and The Mosquitoes. All good and appealing to those like me longing to hear jazz pushed into such directions.

Rather surprisingly, amongst the sustained drones, harmonic pings and sculpting Kalima’s guitar bursts into acid-country indie-rock territory – think, of all people, John Squire on the Stone Roses second album. There’s even spots of no wave and dub to be found emerging from various tangents and untethered directions.

Impressive throughout, whether that’s in slow motion or more maelstrom driven bursts, Lampen’s debut album is a barely contained, unnerving in places, cranium-fuck of excellent moody jazz and industrial resonating experiment. Second time around then, the duo offer us another chance to indulge in their brand of unbridled post-jazz. I think you should take them up on the offer.

Qrauer ‘Odd Fazes’
(Nonostar) 22nd September

Following on from their debut Heeded showcase for Alex Stolze’s burgeoning Nonostar label back in April, arrives an extended debut album from the German electronic duo Qrauer, who transduce chamber music, the semi-classical and percussive into a sophisticated transformation of minimalist-techno and intelligent EDM suites.

The combined, refined but ever open skills of percussionist, producer and remixer Christian Grochau and his foil the pianist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Ludwig Bauer come together to fluidly remodel their chosen instruments into a both mindful and danceable work of electroacoustic moods and soundscape sonic worlds.

Instead of a pulled-together album of 12”’s and mixes and the like, Odd Fazes feels like a complete journey from beginning to end, with shorter more ambient gazing vignettes alongside longer more evolving pieces. And so you have the trance-y, droned and transformed glitch-y orchestral spell of the incipient stirring ‘Reg. Capture’ followed immediately by the polyrhythmic, clean percussive and galvanized EDM noirish ‘Drumthrives’. Or the Drukqs era Aphex Twin piano – played on a distant echo-y stage – beautifully, but slightly off-kilter, resonating ‘Fuq’ following on from the Artificial Intelligence series trance and suspense soundtrack ‘Cool Edit’. This offers a variation and nice set of breaks between the more techno pumped movers and sonic imaginations.

Later on, Nonostar labelmate Anne Müller adds her swoonstress cello to a couplet of evocative tracks. The first of which, ‘Rund’, has an air of the Aphex Twin (again) about it. Circling bowl rings, kinetic twists and percussive itches are woven into a mild tempo EDM pulse as Müller’s trembled and attentive cello saws and plucks are turned into repeating, recontextualized beats or motifs. On ‘Oval’ the adroit, experimental cellist seems to revive some of her stirring, pining gravitas from the Solo Collective project she shares with both Nonostar founder Stolze and, another labelmate, Sebastian Reynolds. There’s also a hint, I think, of fellow cellist and experimental artist Simon McCorry too on this deeply felt mournful piece.  

Multi-textured with a constant movement and undulated beat that builds and builds yet never settles for the predictable euphoric, anthem moment, there’s a lot of clever, purposeful work at play. I haven’t even mentioned the layers of satellite and moon-bending refractions, nor the cosmic flares, the droplets of notes, cooed waveforms, fizzes and experimental recondite sound sources that have been meticulously thought-out. Again, just like the Heeded EP, the debut album is another cerebral rework of electronic body music, techno, EDM and the classical; a complete dancefloor-ready and mindful journey. 

Simon McCorry ‘Scenes From The Sixth Floor’
(Shimmery Moods)

Turning the worries and mental strains of ill health into something creatively rewarding, the highly prolific cellist sound sculptor and composer Simon McCorry is thankfully back on the experimental electronic scene after a stay in hospital last Christmas. After a period of healing, recuperation, McCorry assembles a sort of soundtrack to that worrying, anxious period.

Following a loose ‘mental thread’ (as he puts it) Scenes From The Sixth Floor is an evocative and ruminating work of both studied ambient peregrinations and post-club techno comedowns; beginning with the cult kosmische drop through Tarkovsky’s glass portal, ‘Falling Through The Mirror Backwards’. Part illusion, part Moebius scores Hitchcock’s Spellbound, it’s the sound of our composer freefalling through a gauzy blanket, unable to latch onto the sides or gain traction as he spirals in sedated state to earth. Yet this there’s also no panic, rather a hallucinatory feel.

The next track, ‘Fragmentation’, is the first of two pieces developed from previous commissions/projects. Originally, albeit loosely, based on a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party dance piece, the landscape on this piece is less Lewis Carroll surrealism and more an evolving soundtrack that absorbs Bleiche Brunnen period Asmus Tietchens, Bernard Szajner sci-fi, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter and Sven Vath.  From the primal liquid blobs to the supernatural and futuristic, McCorry creates a whole atmospheric world before building steadily towards a patter beat of early 90s set techno (R&S/Harthouse).

Another developed idea, ‘The Sea Of Stories’ takes its cue from Philip Ridley’s feted Moon Fleece book – an intense and thrilling exploration of memory and identity. One of the only tracks with which you can hear a mostly untreated, transformed as it is, cello, McCorry’s instrument of virtuoso choice aches and arches movingly whilst a constant arpeggiator waterfall cascades onto shimmered, light catching waves. Be careful, if you close your eyes you could just find yourself carried away on the tide.

Up above now to the skies and the stirring and soaring ‘The Secret Life Of Clouds’. A beautiful if almost little mysterious, unsure passage, I picked up Schulze, Frosse and even a touch of Air Liquide on this natural phenomenon. But it’s Roedelius’ fairground piped style of playfulness and new classical analogue electronica that’s felt on the arpeggiator-bounced ‘Surfacing’; although this mood changes with another of those post-club undulations, pitter-pattering way at the end.    

Tubular marimba and small thrusts of Kriedler and Pyrolator make up the mid-temp techno styled ‘Earth Best’, and the angrier entitled ‘Day Of Wrath’ has a certain European yearn and another echo of Roedelius’ whistled Bavarian fairground vibes. The cello, which remains pretty much hidden throughout the album, now starts to materialize, producing a weepy bowed melody and sense of purpose.  Constantly enriching the ambient genre and beyond McCorry has bounced back with a reflective and developed soundtrack of perfectly crafted and moving compositions, some of which contain a certain mystery, dreamy-realism that remains to be deciphered. Proving the cello still has some way to go as an imaginative and explorative tool, the gifted player finds new tones, textures and spells of magic to further that instrument’s sound, use and reach. It’s good to have him back is all I can say. And this album further cements an already impressive reputation as a true innovator and master of the form.  

REZO ‘Sew Change’
30th September 2022

Shy of just eighteen months the Irish duo of REZO follow up last year’s debut album Travalog with another relaxed, gentle-of-touch songbook, Sew Change. The seeds of this particular brand of disarming but deeply moving craft were sown from a distance, with both partners in this project recording their parts in separate locations on that debut. Nothing quite concentrates the mind as an epidemic and its confinement, and so the introspection flowed on that record, which despite the distance geld perfectly: in keeping with both musician’s Ireland and Med environments, the music effortlessly blended a touch of the Balearics with more soft-peddled Americana and singer-songwriter material.

As a sort of bridge back to Travalog, the spoken-word return down memory lane family themed ‘You Are What You Wear’ repurposes the sleepy, laidback rolled and Damon Alban-esque with a lick of Baxter Dury ‘Life During Lockdown’ backing. Only this time there’s an additional soulful female cooed chorus and the subject is Colm O’Connell’s family-run knitwear factory in the city centre of Dublin. Within that idyllic-natured return to a more carefree childhood, the whole gamut of life, death and remembrance is narrated both fondly and poignantly.

Concentrating on what’s most important, attempting to right some wrongs and holding one’s hands up to past mistakes, Colm and his foil Rory McDaid ease through some highly sensitive subjects to a musical accompaniment of Americana (once more), synthesized shading and gentle spacey takeoff sparkles, enervated bobbing dance music, piano-led balladry and wistful acoustics. However, within that scope they evoke a Muscle Shoals spiritual Rolling Stones, and a little Billy Preston, on the gospel organ sustained (with a cheeky hint of ‘Let It Be’ I might add) ‘I’m Not Enough’.      

Talking of the sensitive, and careful not to cancel themselves in the process, the duo filter their concerns on the increasingly problematic and volatile theme of cancel culture on the Med-twanged, gauzy ‘Erays’. Like passing through gargled spacy waters and a dry-ice machine they make sure to carefully word their take; misspelling “Erase” as a nod to rays of sunshine and hope in this struggle over censorship. They also seem to tackle teenage suicide and mental health issues on the iconic Dublin Nine Arches set drama ‘Boy On A Bridge’, and explore the grief of dementia by marrying solo McCartney to the Eels on the synth undulating ‘Sometimes’.

Already included on July’s monthly playlist, ‘Your Truth’ still stands out as one of the album’s best offerings. On a song about the cost of “freeing your mind”, or the indulgences of going too far, that Americana feel is taken in a novel direction with softly padded congas, a smooth bass and veil of psychedelic-indie ala later MGMT – I’m also positive I can also hear a touch of TV On The Radio.

In its entirety Sew Change is a completely realised album of reminisces, reflections and softly hushed reconciliations, set to a gentle wash of the spiritual, Irish snug and saloon bar piano, a lilted Dylan-esque lyrical cadence (see the nativity-evoked ‘Hiding In Plain View’) and hazy suffusion of synth. The duo expand the palette without upsetting the formula to produce a complimentary follow-up every bit as slowly captivating.  

John Howard ‘From The Far Side Of A Far Miss’
(Kool Kat)  9th September 2022

Following in the slipstream of his third and final volume of memoirs (In The Eyeline Of Furtherance) the singer-songwriter John Howard, with the wind in his sails, is back with yet another album. But instead of the usual songbook formula this is a continuous one-track work of disarming, gentle brilliance that runs to over thirty-five minutes.

You could say it was a return to Howard’s long form songwriting experiments of 2016 and the Across The Door Sill album, or perhaps even a reaction to (one of his heroes of the form) Bob Dylan and his Boomer odyssey ‘Across The Rubicon’, which more or less charts an entire epoch. Howard is a bit younger than Dylan of course, but both artists seem to be making some of their best work at this stage in their lives: uncompromising and unburdened by expectation or the need to suck up to fashions, labels, even the public they share an envious position. That Dylan mini-opus only lasted a mere seven-minutes in comparison, whilst Howard’s grand effort runs and runs, covering as it does a lifetime as a proxy soundtrack to his series of autobiographies.

Far more melodious than his hero’s reflections, this scrapbook photo album reminisce features Howard’s signature balladry-troubadour and stage musical verve of poetically candid prose, sung both wistfully and with a certain yearn.

Love is all though as Howard sets scene after scene, analogy after analogy; reconciling his past to a watery-mirrored piano-led score that’s constantly moving, picking up suffused strings, Dylan’s harmonica, a bucolic burnished harpsichord, a planetarium mood piece starry synth and light dabbing’s of congas and shaker. In what could be a reference to his own semi-cover version album Cut The Wire, there’s a hint of the Incredible String Band and also Roy Harper about this extended performance; especially Howard’s version of the former’s ‘In The Morning’. Later on it’s a lilt of The Beach Boys, bobbing on the “ripples of forever” line. Yet it’s unmistakably a John Howard sound, a lovingly executed piece of songwriting that more than holds its own across thirty-five minutes plus of ebbing drama.

But this is also a two-way conversation with Howard playing both sides of a long affair; the part of old lovers and new, friends, acquaintances and family, their words echoing now in the mists of the time that’s left. Dylan, that recurring idol, acts as a silent partner in one such discourse, as Howard sings about artistic integrity and his inspirations, a pantheon of uncompromising doyens. And in that same particular passage we also have Monroe and the Fab Four popping up; a Hard Days Night Beatles name-checked in what is both a celebrated yet fraught with delusion and remembrance chapter on this long winding road.

I particularly enjoyed the more salt-of-the-earth café scene diorama; Howard in voyeuristic mode describing a very unlikely cast, using both a kid who’s reading a Russian literary titan and a priest faraway in reflective thought (perhaps regret) as conduits for naming even more idols and favourites: “The kid who’s reading Tolstoy, listening to The Rolling Stones; I can hear old Jagger’s laughter floating from his phone.” Great lines by the way. The priest is “remembering Bowie’s Low”, which could of course be a reference to the same priest featured in the lyrics to ‘Five Years’ now contemplating a life that’s perhaps not all it seems.

Addressing, redressing whilst swanning through fantasies of a swish Ritz, 5th Avenue and Caesars Palace, imaging an alternative stratospheric career trajectory, headlining the Albert Hall, Howard takes us on a rolling, fluctuating journey through of his thoughts, dreams (realized and abandoned), regrets and hurt. By the end of this epic piece the final phrase, sung in a lasting glow, says it all: “It simply is what it always was”. Dylan couldn’t have put it much better.

An ambitious undertaking, From The Far Side Of A Far Miss is the work of an artist still willing to take chances and explore. Whilst his peers rely on the back catalogue, or drum out the same music they made over fifty plus years ago, Howard seems entirely comfortable in his own skin as a wiser yet still spritely young-at-heart artist composing music on his own terms. Fresh new introspections, concepts abound as he shows there’s still so much more to share and create.

Yara Asmar ‘Home Recordings 2018-2021’
(Hive Mind Records) 16th September 2022

The latest discovery on the Hive Mind radar emanates from Beirut, with the serialism and tonal atmospheres, ambient and minimal semi-classical melodies of Yara Asmar.

In a tumultuous climate, referenced in a sampled conversation piece on ‘Is An Okay Number’ and in the unsaid but moody reflections and vaporous drifts that push out into the unknown and untethered, the twenty-five year old multi-instrumentalist, video artist and puppeteer manages to often leave the earthly mess of a region in crisis and float out above the city.

From an airy viewing platform we can identify swirls, waves, gauzy veils and echoes of the concertinaed (courtesy of Asmar’s grandparents’ accordion), tubular metallic rings and tingles (that will be the metallophone), a serious but graceful piano, a music box, hinges and searing gleams and a beatified magical spell of Christian church liturgy. The latter source was recorded by Asmar from church hymnal services around the Lebanon; transduced into the hallowed yet otherworldly and mysterious, given a gentle waltz-like ghostly quality and only sense of a presence. A reference to country’s much troubled religious turmoil? The art of remembrance? Spiritualism? Or the familiar sounds of an upbringing? Whatever the reason it sounds both equally as ethereal, as it does supernatural: passages into other realms.

Tracks like ‘We Put Her In A Box And Never Spoke Of It Again’ are almost lunar in comparison to those hymns; lending a moon arc of Theremin-like UFO oscillations and cult library cosmic scores to this set of peregrinations and field-recordings. Yet for the most part this is a truly dreamy, translucent and amorphous album of delicate classicism, explorative percussion and ambient; an ebb and flow of reverberations and traces of moods, thoughts that literally floats above the clouds and out beyond the Lebanese borders. These home recordings recorded onto cassettes and a mobile phone capture something quite unique, in what are the most unique of times.   

Valentina Magaletti & Yves Chaudouët ‘Batterire Fragile’
(Un-Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi) 23rd September 2022

Is it performance art or just performance? Probably both as the lauded drummer extraordinaire Valentina Magaletti once more sits behind the artist Yves Chaudouët’s conceptualized porcelain drum kit.

If you follow either of these artists then you’ll know that this is the second installment of recordings to be taken from the original project back in 2017. Conceived by the painter turn multimedia artist Chaudouët as an exploration in texture and friction, wood, metal and rubber were all added to the porcelain kit; the effects of which, in the hands of such an accomplished musician traverse the concrete, avant-garde, art rock, breakbeat, the classical and freeform and dark jazz.

It’s been a couple of years since I last featured the highly prolific composer/producer and percussionist Magaletti, featuring her ‘tropical concrete’ communal with Marlene Riberio, Due Matte. In this space Magaletti continuously rattles, rolls, skids, skiffles, dusts and lays spidery tactile rhythms and strokes down as mooning, wailed and frayed bowed primal supernatural atmospherics stir.

We could be in Southeast Asia, Tibet or West Africa, even the Caribbean with passages that sound like steel drums bouncing away. We could also be in a subterranean chamber as resonating echoes of this tinny, metallic and deadened kit ricochet of the walls. Reductionist theatre, ceramic jazz, a paranormal drumming séance, the mood isn’t always easy to gauge. But as experimental as it is Magaletti is constantly rhythmic throughout; switching yet always hitting a beat, and even in some parts something that resembles a groove. An exercise on concept but also percussive, drumming performance, this collaboration straddles both the art and musical camps to bring us something quite different yet always engaging, interesting and virtuoso.  

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.

ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

Forest Robots ‘Horst & Graben’
(Elm Records) 1st September 2021

Subscribing to the ambient version of the National Geographic (though I might christen this particular style as ‘Notional Geographic’), arduous cross-country and mountain trekker Fran Dominguez once more sonically contours the landscape and the pondered philosophical quandaries that it evokes.

Under the Forest Robots alias, nature’s son has found a peaceable, if at times dramatic, escape from the divisive stresses of the last four years by taking to the great American outdoors; finding not only solace but various Taoist posed metaphors of a simpler, ideal life spent in unison with nature.

The music might be slow, purposeful, but Dominguez isn’t one to rest on his laurels having released a number of top quality ambient map readings during the pandemic. The geological entitled Horst & Graben (in case you need to know, or if sitting your geography tests, ‘Horst’ is a raised block of the Earth’s crust that has lifted or has remained stationary whilst land either side has subsided, and ‘Graben’ is a depressed block of a planet or moon’s crust bordered by parallel faults) is his second minor opus this year; following on from the March released Amongst A Landscape Of Spiritual Reckoning.

Still imbued by a litany of ambient and neo-classical forbearers, the new traverse is perhaps Dominguez’s most out and out kosmische sounding album yet. Navigating fauna, chasms, peaks and allegorical waters the soundtrack pays homage to Cluster, Harmonia and solo Roedelius, and Eno and Bowie’s ‘Moss Garden’ in the ‘Neuköln’ neighborhood. To these ears there’s also a touch of Andrew Heath’s (who coincidently collaborated with Roedelius) lower case form of sparse and serial piano playing.

But this particular touching, often moving album is also imbued by the award-winning examinations of the acclaimed biologist and author David George Haskell; most notably his 2017 book, The Songs Of Trees, which looks at our innate connection with tree. Dominguez uses the author’s stories as a diving board for his own existentialist contemplations, reflections and spiritual peace of mind, but also prompts a lot of hard thinking on the hot topics of the last few years too: can we, for example, reconcile our differences, ideologies and work together on solving climate change?

Every philosophically poetic entitled track finds a balance between glades of natural light, organic paced reveals and more cosmic, elevating spells: the most stunning kosmische blaze of them all is left until the end, on the Harmonia redolent mouthful, ‘In The Aftermath Of Rain No Grain Of Sand Remains Unstirred’. It’s a subtle affair with enervated moments of a polygon windows Richard James, but mostly the Forst secluded stirrings of the whole Cluster and Harmonia experiment (especially that triumvirate of Rothar, Roedelius and Moebius); all transformed through Dominguez liquid droplets, vapours, clean and beautifully descriptive filters. Here’s hoping those calm quandaries will rub off on the angry, riled masses, because we could sure do with a healing balm of musical inspiration right now.

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.

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