Reviews Roundup: Dominic Valvona




Each month Dominic Valvona brings us the most eclectic recommendations roundups, with reviews of albums, singles and EPs from across the globe and genres.

 

This latest edition includes a brand new album of unsettling cosmic traverses from Krautrock and Berlin guitar legend Günter Schickert – working with Ja, Panik main man Andreas Spechtl – based around the concept of his home city’s transport system and a moth; the return of the peaceable voiced folk maiden Katie Doherty and her The Navigators pals; the debut album of Latintronica, psych, prog and Kosmische peregrinations from the Argentine artist Santiago Córdoba, ‘En Otres Lugares’; a trio of World Music showcases from the prolific ARC Music catalogue, with collections from the Vietnamese zither maestro Tri Nguyen, the co-production and musical Sufi mystical transforming partnership of Abdesselam Damoussi & Nour Eddine and traditional Thrace mythological imbued Rodopi Ensemble; the debut solo album of ‘attic noise’ from Benelux alt-rock scenester Heyme Langbroek; and the brilliant new album of sentimental dreampop from Toronto musician Charlie Berger, under his newest incarnation With Hidden Noise.

There’s also the upcoming playful psychedelic pop and tropical lilted dance around the Berlin architecture EP, Rooftop Trees, from Aurélien Bernard – under his 3 South & Banana alter ego; the latest in a line of singles from the Oxford-based Swedish angulated indie pop songstress Julia Meijer;and the profound afflatus elegiac opener, ‘When You’re Gone’, from the marital fronted Settle band Society Of The Silver Cross.



Albums

Günter Schickert ‘Nachtfalter’
(Bureau B) 15th February 2019


Notable progenitor of flanging echo-pedal guitar, free-jazz instigator of the traversing cosmic GAM, No Zen Orchestra and Arumaruma (among the least obscure succession of groups), the Berlin Krautrock legend Günter Schickert continues, like so many of his surviving WWII born and Boomer generation comrades, to circumnavigate the sonic unknown; probing for tears in the fabric, looking to penetrate new horizons.

An extension of Schickert’s previous solo flights of guitar exploration – the 1975 Brain label debut Samtvogel, and the Sky label follow-up of 1980 ÜberfälligNachtfalter features all the signature echo-y reverberations and waning searching guitar accentuations. Recorded back in the summer of 2018, in collaboration with Ja, Panik navigator Andreas Spechtl, who refashioned Schickert’s untethered live performances, adding his very own drum accompaniments and loops, this instrumental album evokes both the cosmic mysticism of Ash Ra Tempel and the more haunting, ominous deep space Kosmische of Tangerine Dream. Spechtl’s production, drum patterns and effects however, add a touch of tubular metallic sheen, futuristic tribal percussion and nuanced Techno to the otherworldly, often threatening, mood.

There are two inspirations at work on this LP; the naturalistic progress and presence, and then demise, of the moth that this album is named after (this said moth also features in the artwork) and the motion, rhythm of public transport in the city of Schickert’s birth. As the artist himself says, “I was born in Berlin and I am a true city child.” And like so many before and after, the city has left it’s indelible mark; the beat (not to be confused with the Dusseldorf birthed ‘motorik’ rhythm of Klaus Dinger) on Nachtfalter mirrors the industrious clang, rattle and cycle of Berlin’s metro and buses to an extent, though the northern European atmosphere of the city’s psychogeography attracts a more darker, eerie misaim throughout. The opening ‘Nocturnus’ (as the title might imply) is especially creepy with its Kubrick monolith pulse and unsettling conch shell horn – imagine Faust and Tangerine Dream invoking the arrival of a cosmic Viking long ship, emerging from the mists. The final all-encompassing merging of Schickert’s full gamut of guitar manipulations and strides, ‘Reflections Of The Future’, even evokes moments of John Carpenter’s synth-tracked horrors.

Despite the heart-of-darkness moods and craning instrumental eulogies to the moth that by happenstance entered the studio (clinging to the ceiling all night before dropping dead the next morning) during recordings, there are occasional bursts of energetic thumping rhythm: bordering on juddering Electro on the gliding, county bowed guitar arching and leaning ‘Wohin’ (which translates as ‘Where’: indeed where?!!). There are glimmers of light to be found amongst the darkened unknowing mystery, and far from suppressive and heavy, Schickert’s guitar roams freely, drifting, wafting and expansively has he accents the spaces before him.

An impressive cool transformation of the guitar innovator’s echoed enveloping signatures and traverses, Nachtfalter benefits enormously from Spechtl contemporary and energetic production. A dynamism and touch of modern electronica is added to the Krautrock messenger’s articulations to produce a most unsettling, interesting of musical experiences.




Santiago Córdoba ‘En Otros Lugares’
(Sounds And Colours) 8th February 2019





A gateway to everything worth celebrating (as much as it might also be confounding and a mystery to many) about the South American and Central American continent, the Sound And Colours hub, which includes one of the most in-depth of reference and news sites, guide books and events, has proved a rich essential source for me. Whether it’s through the site’s cultural, political and historical purview style series of accessible guides to Peru, Brazil and Colombia, or their considered catalogue of music projects, I’m kept up-to-speed and introduced to some of the continent’s most interesting artists and scenes. The latest of which is the emerging and burgeoning solo artist Santiago Córdoba, who releases his panoramic multi-city composed suite En Otros Lugares on the site’s in-house label this month.

 

ormerly a percussionist band member of the ‘revolutionary’ Tango outfit Violentango, the Argentine born Córdoba left his native home in 2016 for a ‘peripatetic’ life, moving from one place to the next; making a fleeting base of operations for himself in Madrid, Italy and Beirut. Backpacker travails and the sounds of each short-stay imbue this eclectic travelogue; though these often free-spirited peregrinations also stir up cosmic, magical and transcendental horizons as much as the Earthly: As the album title itself alludes, En Otros Lugares translates as “in other places” or “elsewhere”.

Both geographically and musically diverse, the opening panorama, ‘La Llamada’ (“the flamed”), traverses an amorphous Andean outback landscape, filled with ghostly echoes, arid hums and a trance backing, whilst Fuck Buttons meet School Of Seven Bells astral planning over the Amazon on the progressive psychedelic ‘A Dos Leagues’ (“two leagues”).

Post-rock influences merge with Latintronica, 2-Step, free-jazz crescendos, the Kosmische, Refree like harmonic plucks and brushed guitar, and radio transmissions tuned to poignant past figures of interest on a condor flight of fantasy and mystical voyage of thoughtful meditation.

The former Tango agitator expands his tastes and picks up a host of new instruments to fashion an impressive ambitious slow-burner of a debut album. Another brilliant South American export.






Katie Doherty & The Navigators ‘And Then’
(Steeplejack Music) 25th January 2019





Sidetracked, in a positive and inspiring way, by a detour into stage production, folk maiden Katie Doherty has probably taken a lot longer than she envisioned to release another album.

The award-winning songwriter released her debut, Bridges, to favorable reviews back in 2007 and went on to share the stage with such luminaries as Karine Polwart, the McGarrigle Sisters and Ray Davis on a giddying trajectory, before (as Doherty herself puts it) ‘life got in the way’. In that time Doherty, far from idle, took on roles as both a composer for a number of Northern Stage productions and as a MD for a Royal Shakespeare Company production. It is these roles, and ‘broadening’ of horizons that now inform Doherty, her Navigators (Shona Mooney on fiddle and vocals and Dave Gray on the button accordion melodeon) and wider backing group (which includes more chorus vocalists, a cellist, percussionist and double bassist) on the concertinaed pastoral theatrical And Then.

Three tracks specifically sound like they were plucked from the stage. And in a roundabout way they were; the peaceable air-y bellowed shanty dedication to ‘leaving a beloved city behind’ ‘Yours’ and gentle-building lulled symphony finale ‘We Burn’ were both originally commissioned by the November Club for ‘Beyond The End Of The Road’, and the enchanting picturesque scene-setting waltz ‘Heartbeat Ballroom’ was commissioned by the Wallsend Memorial Hall for the reopening of the town’s grandiose ballroom.

Marking ‘change’ in various forms and analogies Doherty’s themes encompass the change of the seasons, the life-altering change of bringing up a child in a changing society hooked-up 24 hours to, an often, poisonous internet, and the rapidly escalating changes in society as a consequence of the equality debate: Doherty, in the shape of an enervated ‘anti-apology’ framed protest, takes a dignified stance on the album’s title track, giving a more considered intensity to a R&B pop-folk backing as she reassures us that “This is not war music. This is not a fighting song.”

Such heavy important anxieties, such as the pressures of expectation (epically in our validation age of social media shaming, easy inflamed indignity and virtue signaling) and responsibility are woven into a lovely songbook, as Doherty’s lightly caressing vocals waft and dance to a mix of Celtic tradition, snow flurry landscape malady, buoyant sea motion affairs of the heart and Eastern European travails.

After years spent away from the studio, Katie Doherty emerges with a purposeful and composed reflective collection of distilled folk.




Heyme ‘Noise From The Attic’
(Jezus Factory) TBA





Spending much of his formative musical education in the Benelux, playing with a litany of alternative underground rock and experimental angulated Antwerp bands (Kiss My Jazz, IH8 Camera and Lionel Horowitz & His Combo), the Dutch-born musician Heyme Langbroek now sets out on a solo mission with his curious debut, and self-explanatory entitled, album Noise From The Attic.

Settling (for the last six years at least) in Poland Heyme puts all his past experiences into an understated album of songs and instrumentals created by the use of a loop station; Heyme using this unit to build a basic track which he then plays over the top of with various overlapping melodies, rhythms and improvisations. A quaint routine, Heyme’s attic noises, as the title makes clear, were all recorded in the said attic garret of his house, mostly on alternate Sundays. It might be nothing but by choosing the traditional day of liturgy worship to record his music on, it could be read as a metaphor for cathartic release; unburdening ideas, sentiments and regrets at the altarpiece of a home-recording studio.

Tethered to the past as much as moving forward experimentally, Noise From The Attic is imbued by many of the same performance recording techniques as used by the Antwerp collective of Kiss My Jazz; a group that Heyme served with alongside members from, perhaps Belgium’s most revered and recognized alt-rock group, dEUS. Heyme even reprises one of the band’s estranged songs, ‘Burn In Hell’; a woefully mooning ‘fuck you’ break-up submerged beneath a vacuum of Hawaiian rock’n’roll warbles. On the remainder of the LP he despondently wanes to a suffused template of Casio keyboard like presets, snozzled oozing Roxy Music and Hansa Studio Bowie saxophone, forlorn northern European melodies and chugging guitar. Within those perimeters the moody attic troubadour of alternative lo fi brooding pop does a Sparks, on ‘Klara’, evokes 70s era Floyd, on the mentally fatiguing ‘Paranoid’, adopts Blixa Bargeld’s tonsils and trans-European malady, on ‘Where She Goes (She Goes)’, and channels Eno’s ‘Another Green World’, on the far from discordant row, ‘Noisz’.

Showing the ‘proverbial’ Dutch courage, unloading worn, grizzled sentiments the solitary Heyme provides one of the year’s most peculiar reflective solo experiments. Fans of the solo work of the former dEUS guitar triumvirate of Rudy Trouve, Mauro Pawlowski and Craig Ward will find a fourth such inspired maverick to add to the list.






With Hidden Noise ‘Beside The Sea’
(Loss Leader Records) 18th January 2019





Rising with a certain languid tremble from the nocturnal wintery Canadian frontiers before dissipating back into the ether of a somnolent dreampop soundscape, Charlie Berger under the guises of his newest project, White Hidden Noise, wafts in and out of a fluxes state of pining and sighed romanticism.

Well versed in the dreampop, shoegaze and slowcore departments the Toronto musician-singer-songwriter’s diaphanous brooding album is a congruous continuation in a career that includes stints with Soft Wounds, Slowly and Tone Mirrors, and the launch of his own diy label, Loss Leader Records – of which this LP is released through. In that mode, with influences like Low (a huge influence in fact), Cigarettes After Sex and The Red House Painters lingering throughout the wistful fabric, the veiled Beside The Sea opus dreams big. Berger woos expansive heartache across the panoramas; meditating on the loss of memory to a considered purposeful backing that builds from suffused lulls to gradually built-up and swelled indie-shoegaze choruses.

The album title and gentle prompts, including the artist’s own guidance that this eight-track suite could be “moody late night driving music”, pretty much sets the listener up as to the mood, environment and sentiment. Amongst the bendy tremolo flanges and placid rhythms of the brushed cymbal and echo-y forlorn, the trio of songs, ‘The Other Korea’, ‘Close The Door’ and ‘Look’, placeably break out from their dreamy state into beautiful shoegaze-y Britpop anthems – hues of Slowdive, Gene and Sway drift around in the general absorption of influences.

It could just be me, but I can even hear a touch of early REM in the fanned-drift and soft pained harmony of ‘Further More’ and The Bends era Radiohead on the opening tenderly swooned ‘Window’ metaphor heavy plaint.

Berger’s yearned and pined ‘drive time’ soundtrack beckons the listener into a moody dreamy atmosphere of emotive outpourings; the subject of these songs remaining a lingering presence, lost, with only the traces of those memories remaining. Beside The Sea is a beautiful album – ok, some tracks do overstay their welcome – that reimagines Low as a British 80s dreampop combo.






Rodopi Ensemble ‘Thraki-Thrace-The Path Of Dionysus’
(ARC Music) 25th January 2019

Abdesselam Damoussi & Nour Eddine ‘JEDBA-Spiritual Music From Morocco’
(ARC Music) 25th January 2019

Tri Nguyen ‘The Art Of The Vietnamese Zither-Đàn Tranh’

(ARC Music) 22nd February 2019




Among the most prolific of world music and folk labels the ARC Music catalogue spans eras, genres and geography: In-depth surveys, collections and performances from the Welsh vales to Andean Mountains, from the South African veldts to Arctic Tundra. Probably sending us the most CDs of any label on a weekly basis, ARC’s diverse schedule is always worth further inspection, even if the cover art and packaging suggests the kind of CD you might pick up from a garage – filed under ethnocentric muzak. Far from it, each release is always a showcase of adroit musicianship with only the best examples of every style and tradition covered.

Usually built on the foundations of each respective artists or troupe’s heritage, these albums offer a contemporary twist on occasion: even a fusion.

Not so much randomly but just taking a trio of recent releases from the ARC stable we find three very different examples of this with the music of the atavistic recalled Thracian imbued Rodopi Ensemble, the masterful Vietnamese zither expert Tri Nguyen and Sufi-inspired advocates of Moroccan spiritual music partnership, Abdesselam Damoussi & Nour Eddine. All three commit a new energy to very old forms, and merge with influences outside their source material.

 

The first of this trio reverts back to the ancient moniker of what was straddling region that encompassed Southern Bulgaria, North West Turkey and the tip of Greece, Thrace; an area dominated by the 240 Km stretching mountain range behemoth that lends its name to this quintet’s ensemble, Rodopi. Steeped in Greek mythology, the Rodopi is synonymous for being the final resting place of Queen Rhodope and her husband King Haemus of Thrace; the lovers, so it is told in legend, rather unwisely offended the Gods Zeus and Hera, and were punished by being turned into the said mountain range.

Inspired by this homeland, Rodopi musically travel through Ottoman dervish, fluting Egyptian and Balkan folk on an erudite and immaculately performed collection of matrimonial, free form and scarf-waving giddy dances. Providing a swirling, but when acquired equally poised forlorn performance, the spindled spiraling lute and Kanun, heavy range of percussion (from the exotic ‘riqq’ to ‘dara-bakka’ and bendir’), swooned clarinet and weeping violin conjure up a vivid homage to a continuously changing landscape. In dual-language, songs and titles cross between Greek and Turkish; wrapped up in the obvious history of the two former dominant Empires: whether it’s in the traditional romantic flower and fauna metaphorical accompaniment of Asia Minors Greek refugees ‘Menexédes Kai Zouboulia’ (Violets And Hyacinths), or, in the tribute to the ensemble’s late clarinetist, Sol Hasan, on the improvisational ‘Roman Havasi’ (The Air Of Gypsies).

A wonderful dance of yearning remembrance and tradition, the music of Thrace is brought back to life with a touch of contemporary dynamism, flair and love.



Presenting the Vietnamese Zither, otherwise known as the sixteen-string Đàn Tranh, in a new light, ‘bi-cultural’ practitioner Tri Nguyen uses both his classical Western training and Vietnamese ancestry to delicately accentuate a collection of poetically brush-stroked scenes and moods. This congruous marriage of forms and cultures often results in moments and swells that evoke the gravitas of the opera or ballet, yet seldom drown out the light deft touches of the lead instrument.

Just as renowned for his adroit pianist articulations as he is for bringing the Đàn Tranh – a cousin of the Chinese ‘guzheng’, Japanese ‘koto’ and Korean ‘gayageum’ – to a wider international audience, Nguyen caresses a diaphanous web of descriptive quivers over classical strings and percussion on this latest showcase.

Emphasizing his native homeland and the countries that border it he mirrors the elements (the flow of a stream; the droplets of gentle rain), wildlife (the blackbird singing proudly; a galloping stoic horse) and moods (a contemplative sad refrain that ushers in a seasonal and metaphorical change; the joy of returning home after a sojourn spent away).

From lullaby to the Imperial, whether it’s a picturesque meditation or a tale from the time of China’s Three Kingdoms, the musical performances are beautifully immaculate. In truth, too classical and varnished for my taste, I have to admire the faultless musicianship.






Personally the more interesting for me of these three ARC titles is the co-production partnership of Moroccan composers Abdesselam Damoussi and Nour Eddine, who bring together a cast of authentic Sufi singers and musicians on the dynamic Jedba album showcase.

With backgrounds in everything from Hip-Hop to Jazz, Rock, Electronica, World Music and (in Eddine’s case) the Vatican’s vaults of Classical music, both musician-producers provide an exciting backing of bombastic percussion and hypnotizing rhythms to the venerable spiritual mystique of the Sufi tradition. Literally invited and transported into the studio from their impromptu performances in the famous walled marketplace of Jemaa el-Fnaa, located in the heart of Marrakech, a cast of mystics, poets and players from various tribes and disciplines gathered together for one collective exchange: The “Jedba” of the title referring to a collective dance in which people from multi faiths including Jewish, Christian and Muslim hold hands in a symbol of harmony and friendship; “united in love of the divine”.

The magic is in the fusion, as instruments as exotic and diverse as the wind equivalent of the Scottish bagpipes, the ‘ghaita’, rasps over a swanning break beat like percussion on the opening title-track, or, Arabian female tongue trills excitably warble in divine celebration over a dramatic filmic bounding accompaniment on the song-of-praise ‘Allah Hay’. Encompassing Berber desert rock, the adoring commanding vocals of Yemdah Selem (the ‘diva’ of desert music as Damoussi puts it), the solitary prayers of the bred and born Sufi and imam of a mosque in Tangiers, Said Lachhab, and giddy dance, the chants and exaltations of these Marrakech street performers is given a new dynamism and energy via the dual purpose of preservation and in beaming this entrancing mystical tradition to a new audience.





EPS

3 South & Banana ‘Rooftop Trees’
(Some Other Planet Records/Kartel) 1st March 2019





Stepping-out from the sunny-dispositional ranks of the psychedelic indie and tropical lilted London-based Cairobi – formerly, for a decade previous to the name-change in 2017, Vadoinmessico – the group’s drummer Aurélien Bernard follow’s up on his last two singles with a new EP of bright disarming soft-shoe shufflers.

The French-born but Berlin-based all rounder uses his adoptive home as inspiration, though musically the compass is pointing towards the tropical equator. The angulated skip and catchy opening track, ‘Magdalen Eye’, treats Berlin as a jump-off point; its architecture and history (where do you start?!!) echoing and reverberating in what sounds like a psychedelic dream pop with Nirvana grunge drop Ariel Pink. It also reminds me of the recent brilliance of fellow French new wavers, grunge and indie sensations Brace! Brace! The very French-esque float-y and whistle-y ‘Soleil’, sung in the native tongue, wistfully bids farewell to the long Berlin winter as the “first warmer sunny days of April” ease in.

Named after one of Bernard’s previous singles, the four-track EP includes 2018’s ‘Rooftop Trees’ and ‘Fake Jungle’ records. The first of which poses a meditation on the tensions between man-made and natural structures to a woozy psychedelic jaunt: Literally dancing to architecture, Bernard dapples the catchiest of psych and cool Gallic pop on a concrete environment. The latter, rather unbelievably, was inspired by a one-off jam session with James Brown (a throwback to Bernard’s days as a session drummer in Las Vegas), and sounds like a swimmingly Malian Syd Barrett produced by Nino Ferrer.

Light and jaunty but with a depth and sense of concern, Bernard’s oddly entitled 3 South & Banana alter-ego delivers a sumptuous cantaloupe lolloping EP of playful catchy brilliance.







Singles

Julia Meijer ‘Train Ticket’
15th March 2019





It seems almost obligatory, at least in the last decade, to affix the fatuous term of Scandi-pop to every single artist or band emerging from Sweden: whether they play guitars or programme synths. Native Swede songstress-musician Julia Meijer is no different. Even though she lives in Oxford her taciturn, slightly skewed angulated indie-pop sound falls easily into the Scandi-pop fold of classification.

With a string of singles behind her, Meijer is finding her feet; trying out new things on every one, with the only real consistency being quality and depth.

The latest, Train Ticket, is no different. A collaborative affair that features a couple of Guillemots in the ranks (Greig Stewart on drums and Fyfe Dangerfield on suffused low-ray burnished Hammond organ) and Oxford’s busiest polymath of the moment Sebastian Reynolds (Flights Of Helios, the Solo Collective, Mahajanaka project) on swallow undulated synth duties, Meijar’s musical partners construct a counterbalance between a Kate Nash fronted New Young Pony Club version of art school indie and looser, almost, quasi-Talking Heads African lilted mirage-y chorus.

Every bit as taut and tense as Meijer planned – reflecting the lyrical anxious sentiments of uncertainty, expectations and disappointments –yet bendy and supple when that same tension is lifted, the page-turning autobiographical Train Ticket proves to be yet another sophisticated slice of unsure protagonist yearned pop, and wrangled, just raw and edgy enough, indie.

Still adapting and evolving, Julia Meijer has laid down a quality series of singles thus far, all slightly different. We’ll be able to soon experience the full effect when she delivers that debut album, Always Awake, in May.




Society Of The Silver Cross ‘When You’re Gone’





Feasting out on the strength of their most afflatus (and only) single, ‘When You’re Gone’, the venerable marital-fronted Society Of The Silver Cross have built up quite a momentum and drawn some considerable weighty acclaim. Wafting on to my radar at the end of last year – included on the last Monolith Cocktail ‘choice’ playlist of 2018 – this bellowed harmonium and zither-droned esoteric profound elegy reimagines the Velvet Underground led by a lapsed-Catholic Kurt Cobain.

Achingly diaphanous despite its forlorn succinct wise cycle of lyrics (“When you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone. We’re only here for a while. We’re only here for a day.”), this humbled sea shanty-motion mystery was in part inspired by the band’s husband and wife protagonists’ travels across India; part of that Velvet imbued sound enacted by the Indian auto-harp, the shahi baaja.

With the spotlight drawn towards this Seattle outfit’s Joe Reineke and Karyn Gold-Reineke partnership, the Society Of The Silver Cross does also include a small but extended cast of enablers on an accompaniment that features the mellotron, accordion and host of similar evocative instruments.

Vividly dreamy in a plaintive humbled atmosphere filled with various visual references of haunting iconography, Society Of The Silver Cross’s inaugural single is a most sagacious opener; a stark but confident creation of real quality and depth that merges the underground with Gothic Americana. Brilliant.





Words: Dominic Valvona

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DOMINIC VALVONA’S ESSENTIAL REVIEWS ROUNDUP 





Reaching the sixtieth edition of my eclectic music revue – that’s roughly 500 albums over the last four years – I find an as ever eclectic mix of albums from around the globe; from South Africa to South Korea; from Brazil to Sweden and France.

Searching out the best or at least notable and interesting releases from the last month or so then, my latest circumnavigation includes the Brazilian composer/guitarist Rodrigo Tavares first album on the new Hive Mind Records label, the traversing amorphous road trip Congo, and the second soundtrack-like collaboration between Hampshire & Foat, the yearningly beautiful fairytale suite The Honey Bear. I also take a look at the ambitious debut album from the Oxford-based expansive indie pop and celestial electronic collective Flights Of Helios (Endings); the international debut release of Korean avant-garde, soundscape and minimalism rising star Park Jiha’s Communion; another numeral entitled free-jazz and Kosmische blowout from the USA trio Perhaps; the fourth album of matriarchal harmonious a cappella from the South African vocal group, the Afrika Mamas; a reissue of the obscure Swedish prog and heavy rockers Bättre Lyss’ 1975 private pressing Till Den Sträng Som Brast Än Att Aldrig Spänna En Båge; and the impressive ‘deluxe’ edition of the pop-revisionist chanson album À Ta Merci by French sensation Flora Fishbach.

Hampshire & Foat  ‘The Honey Bear’   Athens Of The North, 28th February 2018

 

As with all fairy tales, the roots of these often enchanting stories lie in real psychological trauma and truths – forewarning metaphors aimed at finding happy endings, yet alerting to the dangers of a myriad of human failings: ones we all share by the way. The congruous partnership of jazz pianist/composer Greg Foat and ex-Bees multi-instrumentalist Warren Hampshire – both natives of the Isle Of Wight, which they use as a base, retreat and inspiration for much of the music on this their second album, as a collaborative duo, together – are ambiguous about the narrative that underpins the charmingly weaved The Honey Bear album, but the references and themes are all signposted well enough to be deciphered.

Based on an imaginative fictional children’s book, each instrumental track attributed to one of its chapters, The Honey Bear could be read in a number of ways; alluding as it does to sagacious rumination, the passing of time and seasons, innocence and of course the travails of addiction, the search for the magic elixir of life. You can substitute ‘honey’ for as many different substances and desires as you want; the kooky candy stitched honey bear that merrily jaunts into a magical if ominous woods on the cover may be all sweet and light, but that innocence is tested in the beautifully yearning bucolic soundtrack.

Foat – riding high creatively off the back of a stunning run of well-thumbed sci-fi novel and library music imbued jazz albums with the Jazzman label – and his Island compatriot Hampshire – no less accomplished, the former Bees band member turned in an equally adroit, articulate performance on the duos last highly praised collaboration, Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand – in what seems like no time at all, embark on their second peaceable relenting journey for the Edinburgh label, Athens Of The North. Always developing and exploring with each release, the duo take a romantic diaphanous traverse through the pastoral; a fantastical world of Ralph McTell folksy storytelling, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (Peter And The Wolf especially), both cult Eastern European dreamscape and Wiccan fable inspired English cinema of the 70s, the Jewish traditional music of Central Europe, and Kosmische (the fluctuating analogue synth whirling that undulates beneath the field recorded buzz of The Hive). An interplay that works well, featuring the string composed arrangements of Foat and Hampshire’s borderless guitar narratives, an album that was envisioned on the Jurassic coastline of Ventnor – about as far east as you can go in the UK – and added to in Edinburgh, travels well across national demarcations, picking up a myriad of inspirations on its 500 mile journey.

 

Following, what might be either a solace or (honey) trap, our lolloping protagonist starts this wandering album with a comforting patchwork accompaniment of gentle plush strings and the fluttery charming song of the flute; meandering towards the warbled and trilling bird call of a Brothers Grimm forest diorama – a certain ache and sadness subtly coming through a beautifully played suite. During an expedition to locate the honeyed prize, the listener is dreamily introduced to characters, the weather and metaphorical objects of desire and reflection.

Expressionistic pucks articulate the clawing scratch of Crow’s Feet – perhaps another analogy to ageing, for obvious reasons -, whilst the cliff or beach head environment – featuring real field recording sounds of seagulls, surf and of course a fly – of the wandering meditative beachcomber and his only companion in this isolated paradise, The Fly And I, feature the most subtle, minimal of acoustic guitar. Almost melancholic and heartbreaking in comparison, the stirring Winter Bound majestically sweeps in storm clouds, as the mood turns sentimentally mournful. Yet without doubt it is the album’s most painfully beautiful track. It doesn’t last long, this sadness, as the mood is lightened with the folksy down-the-rabbit-hole enchantment of Honey Dreams, and the entrancing evergreen Polynesian/South Seas floating The Elderflower. By the time we reach the closing Honey For A Penny, it feels like the clouds and sorrow have dissipated; the burden lifted, as we reach a sort of slow joyful release; played out to a fluttering ascendant flute and tranquil troubadour rhythm guitar.

Plush, often sumptuous, Hampshire & Foat continue to create beautifully articulated narratives and imaginary soundtracks for as yet unmade films. This children’s fairytale is certainly sweet and lilting, yet wise: analogy laden, waiting to be unpicked and interpreted. For Foat it proves a welcome escape from the jazz scene; a showcase for his arrangement skills – with the piano lid firmly shut on this project. For Hampshire, it is another gentle encapsulation of his wandering guitar compositions; unbridled free to roam where the mind takes him across cultures and time.

And to think, without the generosity of others via a crowd funder initiative this album might have never seen the light of day. Those who pledged have been well rewarded with a most gorgeous, yearning and evocative soundtrack.






Rodrigo Tavares ‘Congo’   Hive Mind Records, Available now digital release/Vinyl version 15th March 2018

Far too early of course to define a burgeoning label with only two releases on its roster, but the new amorphous traversing post-rock and jazz travelogue from Brazilian guitarist/composer Rodrigo Tavares shares a similar meditative and spiritual yearn with Hive Mind Records inaugural Maalem Mahmoud Gania communion Colours Of Night.

The spiritual here is represented in Congo’s genesis; the catalyst for Tavares soundtrack inspired by, in part, a visit to the controversial ‘spiritual healer’ John of God – a medium, psychic surgeon of dubious repute -, who lives in the remote central Brazilian town of Abadiânia. The meditative, in this case, runs throughout the suggestive instrumental passages and vignettes that ponderously drift, cascade and ebb across a real and imagined borderless global soundtrack.

Tavares is joined on this ambiguous journey by a host of complementary musicians on accentuate sliding double-bass, brushed and sauntering drums, splashing, softly trickled percussion, octave ascending light Fender Rhodes, the subtlest of Ayers vibraphone notes, pining saxophone and a harmonic twanging, jazzy dreamy guitar.

Suffused throughout are lingering traces of ACT label jazz, minimalism, Tortoise post-rock, Brazilian legends Joâo Gilberto, Dorival Caymmi and Tom Jobim, and removed by quite a few degrees, a hint of the free-form untethered to any easy classification, evolving guitar experimentation of the Sun City Girls – as it happens a show in a remote former gay bar in Brazil by the same band was one of the stopovers on Tavares ‘transformative road trip’; the fruits of which and experience laying down the creative foundations for Congo.

Amorphous as I said before, though there’s no mistaking that South American influence, you could just as easily be anywhere along the Atlantic coastline splashing in the surf on the opening dreamy Rosa Rio, and be transported to Moorish Spain on the romantically mysterious sketch, Cidade Sol II. Still, there’s plenty of that Latin American vibe to be heard on these waterfall and mountain peregrinations; especially on the progressive movement A Raposa E O Corvo and the sauntering De Roda.

Truly transglobal, Tavares helps take Brazilian music – like his fellow compatriot Sentidor – into often trance-y, unburdened and unlabored directions. With few rough edges, this congruous soundtrack makes for a ruminating, thoughtful smooth journey.






Park Jiha  ‘Communion’   tak:til/Glitterbeat Records, 2nd March 2018

Circumnavigating the globe to bring much-needed exposure to new sounds, Glitterbeat Records imprint tak:til gives a second wind to a suite of acuity serialism from Southeast Asia. Released originally in South Korea in 2016, the neo-classical musician/composer Park Jiha’s debut solo album Communion is given an international release by the German-based label or repute.

Inspiring what we’re told is a burgeoning Korean music scene (well, an alternative to the K-Pop craze), a chief progenitor of the movement Jiha alongside collaborative partner Jungmin Seo originally melded the country’s musical heritage with an eclectic range of contemporary sounds as the 숨[suːm] duo in 2007. Releasing the highly influential regional albums Rhythmic Space: A Pause For Breath (2010) and 2nd (2014), Park and Seo crossed the time zones to perform at both WOMAD and SXSW.

Congruously putting the duo on hold to explore a more ‘personal’ and minimalistic ‘musical vocabulary’ as a solo artist, Jiha dexterously balances the air-y abstract breathes of the ‘piri’ double reed bamboo flute, the searing twang of the ‘saenghwang’ mouth organ and the softly paddled patter of the ‘yanggeum’ hammered dulcimer in what is a dialogue between a dulcet calm, the meditative and an entangled dissonance.

Each of these instruments represents a different voice: each one expressing certain sensitivity or a sharpened pique. Along with the equally expressive accompaniment of Kim Oki’s trilling, wildly intense tenor saxophone and yearned bass clarinet, John Bell’s gentle resonating vibraphone, and Kang Tekhyun’s tubular trickling and rattling atmospheric percussion, Jiha’s untethered compositions also articulate the solemn of a holy retreat – the monastery in Leuven, Belgium to be exact; a space used by Jiha’s band to rehearse -, the flow and cascading beauty of water, reverberations from the moon, and the passing of time itself – measured out on the fluctuating rapid movement of a seconds hand and the slower candor tick of an hour hand on the springs, cogs and coil microseism, Accumulation Of Time.

 

Quite tender in the beginning, each track builds a poetic minimalistic and avant-garde jazz interplay between all the numerous traditional instrumentation. It must be said that the tenor sax takes a leading role in piercing the serene and often majestically plucked performances of Jiha, pleading and occasionally pained, even squealing as it does in aching ‘communion’. Sometimes hypnotic, sometimes at a fever pitch of discordant beauty, a balance is cleverly struck between intensity and the attentive. At its most quiet and abstract, you can hear the most delicate of controlled breathing, blowing across the reed. At its most liberated, set free, those same breathes become harsh and attacking.

Transforming Korean traditions into a more experimental language that evokes the avant-garde, neo-classical and jazz yet something quite different, Park Jiha’s tranquil to entangled discourse evocations reach beyond their Southeast Asian borders both musically and metaphysically into something approaching the unique.






Afrika Mamas  ‘Iphupho’   ARC Music, 23rd February 2018

 

Released in the year of what appears to be pique matriarchal fight back in the West, the gorgeous sounding 6-piece a cappella group Afrika Mamas remind us of the travails and hard won freedoms of women from outside the European and North American bubbles. In a year in which we rightly celebrate the achievements of the Women’s suffrage movement in attaining the ‘vote’, the indigenous women of South Africa would have to wait an age longer to not only get that same vote but to also overthrow the entire Apartheid system that had, until the 1990s, kept them segregated by race. Though Nelson Mandela rightly stands as the bastion of reconciliation and unity, the right leader at the right time as history would have it, it is the strong prevailing character and struggles of the country’s matriarch that deserves recognition now; celebrated and cherished on the Mamas’ fourth album together, Iphupho.

Mandela’s legacy can’t help but cast an omnipresent shadow over everything in South Africa; especially as his party have failed in many ways to build on his foundations, with talk of high-level corruption and a ruling government that over the past year has fought to remove the controversial President, Jacob Zuma – who as this goes live has since resigned and stepped down, replaced by the ANC candidate and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, in the face of mounting opposition and an untenable position caused in part by his connections to the wealthy, Indian-born Gupta family. From the most beautiful soprano to the contralto bass, the all-female close-harmony group pays an almost effortlessly soulful paean to ‘Madiba’; Sister Zungu’s penned tribute, which borders on the gospel, touchingly thanks the late leader for bringing, amongst other things, free education to children in primary schools and for getting free school uniforms and food for those children from the most deprived families.

 

Iphupho meaning ‘the dream song’ is itself a reference to the Mamas’ own struggles and ambitions in bringing the Zulu heritage to a wider audience. Made-up of single mothers from Durban striving to make their way in a male-dominated industry, the ladies hope to emulate the success and reach of the four times Grammy award winners, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Vocal wise they are sensational; perfectly pitched, pure and soothing.

The stories, anecdotes and themes of their songs highlight the daily lives and practicalities of survival in a climate of injustice and poverty; exasperated by the hindrance of the menfolk. Despite being tired in some cases of men – Ulwabishi (which means ‘rubbish’), penned by the group’s Sindisiwe Khumalo, makes a languidly cutting disapproval of those men who don’t support their families; instead hanging around, causing a nuisance and not looking for work, yet demanding their food on the table when they dictate – the group recorded this latest album at the famous Sibongiseni Shabalala co-founded United Rhythm Studio with top world music producer and maskandi tradition guitarist Maghinga Radebe. The lyrically named Shabalala is of course the son of Ladysmith Black Mambazo founder and former musical director Joseph – a group he himself joined. That influence can be felt suffused throughout Iphupho with the ‘a cappella’ style they’ve adopted, the ‘isicathamiya,’ a predominantly male vocal Zulu tradition. Those traditions, rolling back and forth from the lead call and backing chorus response are evoked on the lush veld-rolling lament to the plight of the KwaZulu dwellers of Natal on Lapha KwaZulu, and soothing lullaby heartache of ‘my mum is ill’, uMama Uyagula.

Enjoying a real momentum musically and culturally over the last decade, with South African artists as diverse as Die Antwoord, Dope Saint Jude, Spoek Mathambo, and scenes like the Shangaan Electro craze, a small but interesting touch of the contemporary makes its way into the Mamas more traditional rootsy vocal music with the guest appearance of leading South African beatboxer Siyanda Pasgenik Makhathini. He adds a down tempo sort of trip-hop meets R&B percussive rhythm to the Mamas’ graceful if ominously low harmony Ispoki – a song penned by group member Sibongile Nkosi about her father’s belief in the ‘bad spirits’ that make a nuisance of themselves outside his home at night. The only other accompaniment (the only actual instrumentation) is the jangle of percussion and a smattering of hand drums on Ulwabishi from Ayernder Ngcobo. Other than that it’s all down the clear lush, tongue-clicking and strong bass vocals of the ladies.

Highly impressive, articulated beautifully and at times spiritually soaring, the Afrika Mamas thoroughly deserve a place on the global stage. They bring a much-needed perspective, strong and defiant yet achingly blissful and majestic.






Flora Fishbach   ‘À Ta Merci’   Blue Wrasse, Available Now

The French music press we’re told have fallen hook, line and synth for the alluring contralto voice of Flora Fishbach, who’s 80s revisionist pop twist on chanson oozes with such sophistication that its difficult not to embrace. Fishbach picked up the album révélation award at the Le Prix des Indés for best independent debut LP, winning high praise and plaudits galore ever since. Looking to make a similar impact across the Channel, the ‘bohemian darling’ has just released a deluxe edition of her electro pop requiem À Ta Merci. That decision is more or less echoed in the album’s title, which translates as, “at your mercy”.

Featuring the original running order and a bonus septet of gorgeous live recordings, this aloofly chic, yet theatrical, and especially when performing, animated, album recasts Françoise Hardy as a disco pop and electro swooned crooner. Effortlessly channeling the vaporous dreamy pining of Kazu Makino on the moon dust sprinkled fantasy title-track and ambient textured, synthesizer bas bubbling yearned lament Un beau langage, and a Gallic Alison Goldfrapp on the opening ice-y cool malady Ma voie lactée, Fishbach adds a French nuance and sensibility to the synthesized pop ascetic: a signature you could say that despite the revivalist backing of electronic drum pads, post punk sass, Moroder arpeggiator, Rococo harpsichord and hi-energy is unmistakably contemporary and French.

À Ta Merci is a warm album despite the clandestine thriller backing of songs such as the haunted, bell tolled theatre Feu; the soundtrack skipping and modulating through Clavinet boogie, Madonna (the earlier queen of MTV era), Chateau opulent disco, Air and even the fathers of French synth pop, Space.

The bonus material is by contrast, and for obvious reasons stripped of its cleaner production, more intimate with a harder edge. The title-track, recorded at the famous and fateful Bataclan in 2017, maintains a full backing but sounds purposeful; Fishbach sounding emotionally raspy and poised on a version of the original that features an almost venerable pause. Live Le Meilleur de la fête becomes a post-punk Bowie tangoing with Talking Heads. The venerability on these live performances is at the forefront, emotionally starker and raw.

In an industry burdened by a zillion synth-pap artists it will really take some effort from an individual voice to break through. With the momentum already building in France and with the recent runaway success of music press darling Christine And The Queens (who I personally find utterly dull) I’m sure the UK will embrace this sophisticated chanteuse. She’s certainly impressed me enough – what’s not impressive about referencing the philosophical aloof quandary that is Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” (“I am another”) on a tropical slinking crystalline pop song, Un Autre Que Moi (“Another Me”) – to recommend her as one to watch in 2018.






Flights Of Helios  ‘Endings’  Available now

 

Full on expansive; up amongst the mythological heavens that have inspired the Oxford collectives Titan harbinger of the sun band name and lyricism, Flights Of Helios go deep and spatial on their debut album, Endings.

A credible Everything Everything. A space pop indie band with metaphysical intentions dreaming big, Flights Of Helios bring together a quintet of musicians, producers and composers with backgrounds in a wealth of genres: Seb Reynolds (no stranger to this site) on sonic layering and production duties, Phil Hanaway-Oakley on bass and vocals, Chris Beard on lead vocals, James Maund on guitar texturing and James Currie on drums.

Featuring both previous singles and new material, Endings flights of panoramic fantasy are certainly ambitious; an epic undertaking from a collective who’ve previously honed their balance of space rock, drones, indie and post-rock on a number of celestial transcendental remixes and projects. Far more interesting when touching on the venerable, alluding to spiritual, heavenly or otherworldly elements than when more grounded, the Helios sun worshippers sound like Kasabian on the motorik shuffled cyclonic Factory – a lyrical response we’re told to the Spanish auteur Alejandro Iñãrritu’s convoluted film Biutiful – and an esoteric Klaxons on the haunted, brooding implosion to the enchantress folkloric demons Succubus – who take, so the legend dictates, on the form of an alluring seductress to reel in their male prey. Both of these tracks, previous singles, have more of an urgency and thump about them, whereas the rest of the album’s quartet of, often vulnerable, opuses are allowed the time and subtlety to expand.

The opening twelve-minute Donalogue, a transmogrified version of the traditional a cappella Irish folk ballad, builds and builds. This oscillating cosmological hymn to spurned love introduces us not only to each of the collective’s individual components and the building blocks of the Helios sound, but also the angelic choral quality of Beard’s lofty vocals. Swooning, often fragile, and at times not even decipherable – uttering vowels and mouthed shapes instead of words – Beard stretches his range, helped by Hanaway-Oakley who also provides support.

Remodeling another key influence, alongside atavistic Celtic inspirations, they turn the Bleeding Heat Narrative’s Cartographer track into a hallowed ethereal eulogy. Lingering in a plaintive beauty of angel-kissed whispery synth, reverberated vocals and slow drums, this trance-y swansong sounds like I See You era XX, the Arcade Fire and A Dancing Beggar in a holy communion.

Lolloping in a constant swill of stormy tides and paranormal Gothic metaphors, one of the album’s most striking tracks, Funeral, pitches esoteric Americana and progressive electronica on the high seas. Bashing against the rocks in a barrage of swells, what starts out as Depeche Mode and Radiohead slowly builds like an improvised trip into energetic psych garage.

Evolving within the perimeters of each track, Funeral encapsulates the organic transformations that propel the group forward into such epic grand spaces, creating cerebral sensibility escapist music for a pop and indie audience. Rather than ‘endings’, Flights Of Helios have produced the sonic building blocks for a glowing future under this their most panoramic collective umbrella.






Bättre Lyss  ‘Till Den Sträng Som Brast Än Att Aldrig Spänna En Båge’   Sommer, February 22nd 2018

 

From a label I’ve previously had no experience with, another rarity from the 70s Swedish heavy and progressive rock vaults to drool over with the first ever reissue of the obscure Bättre Lyss group’s private pressing Till Den Sträng Som Brast Än Att Aldrig Spänna En Båge.

Notable for featuring guitarist Anders Nordh of LIFE fame (check out their highly impressive self-titled album from the early 70s) as an outlier member of the Bättre Lyss core trio of Rolf Hammarlund (vocals, bass), Christer Palmquist (vox, acoustic guitar, piano) and Rolf Johansson (drummer and songwriter), the group adopted a whole myriad of rock music influences on this rare find: the soft kind, the glam kind, the progressive kind and the American West Coast psychedelic heavy kind.

Formed during 1973-1974 by mutual friends Hammarlund and Palmquist, the duos first furors together were written in English. Johansson joined just after they switched to singing in the native tongue, and in time to record the group’s debut album, released a year later in ’75. Bolstered, as you will hear, by a number of talented extended pals on guitar, saxophone, flute and organ the group attempt in their own inimitable way to do justice to soft rock power balladry and epic rock outs. Sounding at any one time like 1st era Bee Gees cutting up rough with Spirit on the energetic opener Göta Lejon, or a Scandinavian Bread on the following heart-yielding Emma, or indeed King Crimson on the slightly menacing, slinking saxophone keen Vapnet, they seem to change the nuance and adapt their sound to each song. And so at times it sounds more like a collection of recordings than complete album. The only constant in fact is the often enervated, softly sweet vocals, which do, it must be said, occasionally soar and utter anguish.

Though I can’t fault the musicianship, and there are more than enough convincing, if sentimental, songs to grab you on this album, they can’t help but bare an uncanny resemblance to Blonde On Blonde, Savoy Brown, Forest, Humble Pie, Mott The Hoople, even Boston, throughout. There’s a total of four guitarist too, each one displaying telltale signs of riffage and refrains, bends and pleading lines from the era.

Lilting and flowing between troubadour piano and full-on progressive jamming, this more than competent Swedish slab of rock is well worth reviving. It also offers another look at the, probably largely unnoticed, developments in the Swedish head music scene; picking up what is essentially a rare marriage between the heavy stuff and a more commercial melodic sensibility.






Perhaps  ‘V’   Cassette version available now via Important Records, Vinyl also available now, via Riot Sunset

I can’t be expected to keep tabs on every exciting, mad or Kool-aid chalice glugging band from a scene that is over-subscribed with a landfill sites worth of promising, but quickly disappearing into obscurity, releases. Of course it doesn’t help that the psychedelic-Krautrock-Kosmische-whatever genre is also filled with the most unimaginative and cover-band like pastiches of groups that originally did it so much better. Yet once in a while, finding its way into my inbox, there is a rare find. For ‘head music’ aficionados then, a three-piece of Teutonic, free-jazz, cosmic explorers from Boston, Massachusetts known as Perhaps – an open-ended moniker, without a question mark in sight, that alludes to possibility.

Scant information is provided, only that their origins go back as far as the year of their debut album, Volume One, in 2012, and that the line-up comprises of ‘ringleader’ and bassist Jim Haney, drummer Don Taylor and guitarist Sean McDermott. Unsurprisingly picking up on a few inspired vibes during their collaborations and tours with the rambunctious Acid Mothers Temple and one-time shaman poet Can member Damo Suzuki, Perhaps go all out free-spirited psychedelic and Kosmische on their fifth numeral entitled album V.

The sole track of this album performance, Mood-Stabilizer is a thirty-seven minute continuous ebbing and flowing contortion jam of floating louche saxophone, fret scratching and tangled guitar, and stop/start drums that hints at the Acid Mothers (of course), Brainticket, Guru Guru, Embryo, Agitation Free and in one particular segment, a Mogadon drugged Amon Duul II.

From topographic submerged guitar pangs to tubular fuzzy vortexes and squalls, the trio travel via the primordial soup to gaze into deep space. Moving like a liquid and gaseous entity throughout a combined atmosphere of wafting, languid jazz and more dissonance fuzz frazzling waves of spiraling noise, it’s surprising to hear them meander, almost sexily, into slow jam Funkadelic territory in the first third of this meta space exploration. Whilst at their most heavy they slip into PiL.

Honing their own signature interpretation of the music that so inspires them, Perhaps’ oscillating heavy, Ash Ra commune trip shows a real depth and intelligence; a group sucked in the portal, taking their time to build a space-rock, free-jazz blowout of a journey. Enjoy hitching a transcendental ride into the deepest trenches of contemporary ‘head music’: no ticket required.





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