Album Reviews
Words: Dominic Valvona
Photo Credit: Aziza Brahim taken by Ana Valiño






This week’s recommendations and reviews (for the most part) share a musical hunger for the polygenesis; combining and merging a cornucopia of international sounds and cultures to spread a message of universal suffrage. A case in point, the ever-evolving North-of-England assemblage of migrants and refugees, Rafiki Jazz feature voices and musicians from all over the globe: from Arabia to India. Their fourth and upcoming captivating album, Saraba Sufiyana, is featured in this roundup. Channeling a mystical Maghreb, the French trio of Karkara goes heavy and transcendent on their new acid-doom-rock epic, Crystal Gazer. The Belgium outfit Compro Oro manages to circumnavigate a myriad of international destinations without leaving the suburbs of their native home on the new dance jazz LP Suburban Exotica, and UK producer Dan Harper, under the Invisible System title, once more transforms the traditional and courtly music of Mali, on the new album Dance To The Full Moon. Closer to European shores, Xylouris White, the Hellenic framed project of Dirty Three drummer Jim White and Greek lute player Giorgos Xylouris, release a fourth installment of their Cretan soundscapes, The Sisypheans.

Leading the charge this week though is the encapsulating soulful Aziza Brahim with her upcoming new album, Sahari. Born in the hardened landscape of a Saharawi refugee camp on the border of Algeria and the Western Sahara, the beguiled vocalist now lives in a state of exile in Spain. Her latest album continues to draw attention to not only that plight but also that of all refugees on an album that tries some a little bit different musically.

Something a little different, and away from this general thread of global initiatives, Belgium composer Alex Stordiau releases his inaugural album of Kosmische imbued neo-classical visions, Poking Your Imagination, for Pure Spark Records.

Preview/Feature




Aziza Brahim ‘Sahari’
(Glitterbeat Records) Album/ 15th November 2019


Bringing the message of the displaced Saharawi people to the world stage, Western Saharan musician/activist Aziza Brahim follows up both her critically rewarded 2014 album Soutak, and the no less brilliant 2016 serene protest of poetic defiance Abbar el Hamada album with her third for Glitterbeat Records, Sahari.

Born in the hardened landscape of a Saharawi refugee camp on the border of Algeria and the Western Sahara, beguiled vocalist Aziza embodies the wandering spirit of her people; their settled, though often borderless and disputed lands, previously claimed by Spain, were invaded in 1975 by Morocco. Though made up of many tribes with many different goals the Saharawi people mounted a fight back. It was in this climate that Brahim was hewed. Exiled in effect, her travails have extended to Cuba, where she was educated as a teenager, and Barcelona, where she now resides and makes music.

Imbued as ever with the desert soul of that disputed region, the latest record, with its visual metaphor of optimism in even the most desperate of backdrops and times – dreams of growing up to be a ballerina proving universal – attempts to marry the beautifully longing and heartache yearns of Brahim’s voice to a number of different styles and rhythms: A subtle change towards the experimental.

Previous encounters have channeled the poetic roots of that heritage and merged it with both Arabian Spain and the lilted buoyancy of the Balearics. Working with the Spanish artist Amparo Sánchez of the band Amparanoia, Brahim has chosen to add a congruous subtle bed of synthesized effects to the recording process: before performing live in the studio, but now recording in various places, the results collected together and pieced together in post-production. This methodology and sound furnishes Brahim’s longing traditional voice with certain freshness and, sometimes, shuffled energy. Songs such as the loose and free ‘Hada Jil’ lay a two-step dance beat underneath a desert song drift. Later on there are dub-y rim-shot echoes and undulating waves of atmospheric tonal synthesizer underpinning that blues-y startling timbre. However, the most surprising fusions to be found on Sahari are the Compass Point reggae-gait ‘Las Huellas’ and the Arabian soul channeling Fado ‘Lmanfra’. There’s even room for a piano on the balladry ‘Ardel el Hub’; a song that plaintively conveys the “impossibility of returning home”, a sentiment the activist Brahim is only too familiar with – denied entry or the right of return, effectively in exile.

The sound of the Sahrawi is never far off, despite the technological upgrade. That most traditional of handed-down instruments, the “tabal drum”, can be heard guiding the rhythm throughout; rattling away and tapping out a beat that changes from the threadbare to the clattering. Brahim’s vocals are as ever effortlessly enriching, captivating and trilling. I dare say even veracious.

Articulating a broader message of global suffrage, Brahim once more encapsulates the sorrows of the exiled and stateless on a sumptuous album, The wanderer and Saharan siren invites new dynamics without changing the intrinsic character and message of her craft, yet ventures beyond those roots to embrace bold new sounds. A most fantastic, poetic songbook that will further cement Brahim’s deserved reputation as one of the deserts most serene artists.






Reviews

Compro Oro ‘Suburban Exotica’
(Sdban Ultra) Album/ 18th October 2019





Illuminating Belgium suburbia with a cornucopia of entrancing and limbering sounds and rhythms from across the world, Compro Oro transport the listener to imaginative vistas on their latest album of jazz imbued exotics. Making waves as part of a loose jazzy Benelux scene, the troupe have even managed to rope in the help of Ry Cooder’s accomplished scion, the multi-instrumentalist talent Joachim Cooder, who adds an “effects-laden” mbira and percussion to a trio of imaginative tracks.

Like their comrades on that scene, Black Flower, the Compro sail into various melting-pot rich harbors, soaking up the atmosphere and embracing what they found, weaving the multilingual sounds into a vibrant soundtrack of tropical new wave pop, dance music, alt rock ‘n’ roll, Turkish-psych and Ethno-jazz fantasy. Cal Tjader, Mulatu Astatke and Marc Ribot are all cited as inspirations, their indelible mark suffused throughout this LP. Add to that trio a strange interpretation of Herbie Hancock (on the Somalia ease-up ‘Mogadishu’; imagine the Dur-Dur Band floating on a kooky jazz cloud above the tumultuous city), Soulwax (on the palm tree Latin dance funk ‘Miami New Wave’) and a rewired Modern Jazz Quartet (that will be the often twinkly and trickling use of vibraphone, but also the marimba too). The curtain call thriller ‘Kruidvat’ even evokes the darker stirrings of later period Can, and the wafting ambiguous snuffles of Jon Hassell.

For the most part dreamy and under a gauze-y veil, Suburban Exotica sashays and drifts across a musical landscape of Arabia, Anatolia, Eastern Africa, The Caribbean and Hispaniola without setting foot outside of their Belgium front door. The more you listen the more you discover and get out of this brilliant dance album of borderless jazz. What a treat to the ears and feet.





Invisible System ‘Dance To The Full Moon’
(ARC Music) Album/ 25th October 2019





An apt hand in transforming the traditional sounds of Mali, the British producer Dan Harper’s experiment in this field stretches back two decades; set in motion by the rudimental laptop-produced Acid Mali project he created whilst working as a Capacity Builder for a local Malian environmental NGO. So taken was Harper with the country, he ended up not only meeting his future wife there but setting up home and a studio in the capital, Bamako. His wife, Hawa, would introduce Dan to childhood friend and renowned guitarist Bandjougou, who in turn would bring in tow the dusty soulful rich vocalist Sambou koyaté to sing for him. Both artists appear on this new album alongside the griot siren Astou Niamé Diabaté, who as it turns out sang at Dan and Hawa’s wedding.

Taken from the same recording sessions as Dan’s previous album, Bamako Sessions, his latest transportive exploration under the nom de plume of Invisible System, once more lends an electrified and synthesized pulse to the spiritual soul of Malian music. Originally put together in a more languorous fashion with a variety of musicians coming and going, jamming in a mattress proofed room in a rented house in the capital, Dance To The Full Moon took shape at the end of a tumultuous and violent period in Mali’s history. Experiencing firsthand (literally on Dan’s own doorstep) the terrorist attacks that followed in the wake of a, finally curtailed, Islamist insurrection and the ongoing war between Mali’s government in the West and the Tuaregs of the North and Eastern desert borders, fighting to set-up an autonomous region, known as the Azawad. Though a certain stability has returned in part to Mali, attacks still occur sporadically; the effects of which permeate throughout the work of the country’s artists, the majority offering a conciliatory tone with the emphasis on unity and understanding. With that in mind, Dan’s album is rich with passionate expressive longing and intensity; the varied juxtapositions of the griot tradition and less rural, more urban vocals combine to deliver some startling performances.

The gently resonate accents and fanned waft of the Malian guitarist’s Kalifa Koné and Sidi Touré accentuate the brilliant vocal parts; a gathering of powerful griot acolytes, singers and even a rapper (Mali rap star Penzy) that includes the already mentioned trio of Bandjougou, Koyaté and Diabaté spiral between the sweetened and intense, the hymnal and physical. Dan boosts and filters those strong performances with a production of techno, modern R&B, dub and futuristic post-punk that sonically weaves in echoes of Massive Attack, Daniel Lanois, King Ayisoba and Dennis Bovell.

Nothing can ever truly improve upon the roots and soul of the traditional courtly music of Mali, its desert blues and Bamako rock of course, but you can push it into exciting directions. Dan’s rewired buzz and pulse does just that, giving a kick and lending an attuned production to the Mali soundscape.



Alex Stordiau ‘Poking Your Imagination’
(Pure Spark) Album/ 30th September 2019





Enticing former label mates from Edinburgh’s Bearsuit Records to his burgeoning venture Pure Spark, Tokyo electronic wizkid Ippu Mitsui welcomes the Brussels based composer Alex Stordiau to the ranks. Featuring alongside House Of Tapes Yuuya Kuno, Stordiau also previously appeared on the Mid Lothian Bearsuit roster – mentioned on this very blog for his standout Vangelis-style voyager waltz into the cosmos ‘Fulfilling Eclipse’, from the label’s The Invisible And Divided Sea compilation.

Like a missing neoclassical Kosmische suite from the Sky Records vault, Stordiau’s inaugural album for Mitsui’s imprint is a serene, though often dramatically stirring, exercise in sculpting retro-electronic soundtracks.

With a classical background, studying at various Belgium conservators, Stordiau combines elements of cascading, romantically accentuated piano and suffused strings with synthesized and computer programmed sine waves, glassy tubular glistened percussion and vaporous sweeps.

The Belgium visionary often works with Bristol musician Lee Williams, who plays, among other things, both electric guitar and bass, and sometimes drums. It sounds as if Williams is present once more, on hand with warm ponderous bass and the odd bit of wilder kooky lead guitar.

Track titles on Poking Your Imagination only go so far in describing each composition’s route on an album of undulating mood pieces. The opening descriptive ‘In The Tepid Shine’ is pure escapist air-bending; crafting vague echoes of Jean Michel Jarre with Roedelius’ more beautifully spherical elevations. Most of these tracks waver over the course of duration; changing or pausing between parts, starting off like the Blade Runner neon skyline lighted ‘Tree Healing’ with a darker, theatrical classical grandeur but suddenly joined by drums and a touch of Vangelis sci-fi. Elsewhere you’re bound to identify the space peril looming shadow of Tangerine Dream and the more popcorn kookiness of Cluster amongst the Baroque cathedral and gravity arcing visions.

A panoramic, mostly cosmic soundtrack of classical Kosmische and humanized electronica, Poking Your Imagination is an assiduous suite of the mysterious, scientific and dreamy.





The Mining Co. ‘Frontier’
Album/ 25th October 2019





Not that you can detect it from his lilted peaceable, if hearty, Americana burr, or the Western-alluded nom de plume that he goes under, but singer/songwriter Michael Gallagher was born in Ireland. Obvious now you’ve read his actual name I know, but just sound wise, it is difficult to hear that Irish bent. In a similar vein to such luminaries as Simon Bonney, the County Donegal troubadour subtly channels a timeless vision of the lyrical, pioneering old West (and South for that matter) on his new LP, Frontier.

Via a Nashville, Texas and New Mexico panorama, Gallagher tailors personal anxieties of disconnection, dislocation and growing pains with familiar old tropes on a songbook of “hangdog” country fare. A romantic album at that, with shades of a pining Josh T. Pearson, The Thrills, Lee Hazlewood, Tom Petty and the Eels, Frontier showcases the artist’s most tender swoons and yearnings. This is a soundtrack of purposeful blues, skiffles and mellow gospel, all softly laced with a subtle echo of Mariachi horns and tremolo twang.

Various memories of a childhood back in Ireland (the night Elvis died sounding a special resonance on the lilted lap-steel rich ‘The Promised Line’) and phobias (a rational fear in my book of flying inspiring the country-prayer ‘Empty Row’) are transported to wistfully articulate American musical settings; a landscape and sound it seems Gallagher belongs.

The third such album from his The Mining Co. alter ego, Frontier is full of romantic intent and stirring candid cathartic heartache; a shuffling songbook handled with care and tenderness that will unfurl its charms over time.




Xylouris White ‘The Sisypheans’
(Drag City) Album/ 8th November 2019





Less a Greek tragedy, more a kind of acceptance of one’s fate (or, play the hand you’re dealt and make the best of it), the Hellenic inspired collaboration project of Giorgos Xylouris and Jim White take their lead on the purgatory fate of boulder carrier Sisyphean from Albert Camus: to a point.

The absurdist doyen once wrote a famous tract on that Greek fella’s predicament: Punished by Zeus to roll a large boulder up a mountainside in Hades, each time he reached the top the boulder would roll right back down to the start. And so the process began all over again: An endless, thankless trudge and metaphor for all the all too real daily grind of life outside the mythological imagination. Or so you’d think. Camus however saw it not has a pointless waste of effort and slow punishing meaningless task but as a challenge: noble even. That Sisypheans’ repeated burden should be seen as an achievement, that the struggle should be enough to “fill a man’s heart”. Sisyphean has accepted his it and so should you, or, words and sentiment to that effect.

Of course, even deeper contentions can be found in Camus’ essay; how our tragic figure confined to a limited limbo landscape created in his mind a whole universe from it. Xylouris and White themselves pondered how he might experiment with carrying that burdensome rock; alternating hands, carrying behind his back and so on. Essentially though, this is about experiencing, seeing and discovering anew each day with a concentrated mind the things you take for granted: especially your surroundings. The duo initially turn to the atavistic in conveying these ideas and sentiments; using the suffused blown stirrings of the Greek flute (Aulos) and vibrato resonating spindly fanning tones of the laouto (a long-necked fretted scion of the lute family). In addition to these two lead instruments, the scene is set with shrouded misty and soulfully yearned voices, Giorgos’ son Nick on cello and on the serialism waning moodscape second track a ‘Goat Hair Bowed’ instrument. And so a sweeping, mournful at times, traverse that takes in dancing Grecian figures, wedding celebrations, bewailed lament and travels to the furthest reaches of the Greek borders: sailing at one point into the tumultuous mysterious vision of the much-disputed and fought over ‘Black Sea’.

However, the both taught and freeform, skittish experimental percussion and breaks of Dirty Three drummer White adds another dimension to the rootsy and earthy feel. Always tactile and congruous, White lifts or underpins certain tracks with avant-garde taps, clutters, rim rattles and jazzy frills and crescendos. A touch of progressive jazz, even Krautrock, that sends this project into more contemporary climes.

Between the chthonian and ethereal, the philosophical and viscerally dreamy, The Sisypheans minor epic is an extraordinary musical peregrination worth exploring: Music for the cerebral and the senses.




Rafiki Jazz  ‘Saraba Sufiyana’
(Konimusic) Album/ October 2019





It’s no idle boast to suggest that the North of England based Rafiki Jazz could be one of the most diverse groups on the world stage. Testament of this can be heard on the troupe’s previous trio of polygenesis albums: an untethered sound that simultaneously evokes Arabia, the Indian Subcontinent, Northern African, the Caribbean, South America and Balkans.

With representatives from nearly every continent, many of which have escaped from their homelands to find sanctuary in the UK, Rafiki Jazz is an ever-evolving ensemble of migrants and refugees alike coming together to produce sweeping divine borderless music.

Their latest visionary songbook is a filmic panoramic beauty, no less worldly and stirring. The opening diaphanous spun ‘Su Jamfata’ encapsulates that perfectly; mirroring the group’s musical freedom and spiritual connection; lilting between a myriad of regions with stunning vocals that evoke both Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The following floaty and ethereal well-of-sorrows ‘Azadi’ even features a Celtic and folksy air (one that is repeated later on). This is in part due of course to the guest performances of both the English fiddle extraordinaire and songwriter Nancy Kerr and traditional Gaelic singer Kaitlin Ross. A third vocal addition, Juan Gabriel, can be heard lending a guttural throated underbelly to an already eclectic chorus of singers.

Buoyant tablas and spindled kora sit in perfect harmony with Arabian oud, tropical steel drums, the Brazilian berimbau and the varied voices of Sufi, Hebrew, Hindu, Egyptian-Coptic and Islamic, without ever feeling crowded or strained.

Saraba Sufiyana translates as “mystic utopia”, a title that epitomizes the group’s curiosity and respect for other culture as they build a brave new sonic world of possibility. One that takes in all the dramas and woes of the current international crisis and the lamenting poetry of venerable hardship – the final quartet cycle of prayer and spiritual yearning, ‘My Heart My Home’, beautifully conveys a multitude of gospel and traditional religious plaint, ending on the stirring Hebrew field song ‘Shedemati’. Twenty years in and still improving on that global remit, Rafiki Jazz delivers a magical and rich fourth LP. Devotional music at its most captivating and entrancing.



Karkara ‘Crystal Gazer’
(Stolen Body Records) Album/ 25th October 2019





There’s a hell of a lot wind blowing throughout the mystical and spiritually Toulouse trio of Karkara’s Crystal Gazer epic. North African wind that is; the exotic charms and mystery of the Maghreb on a swirling breeze, flows through and introduces each incantation heavy communal transcendence.

The mirage-shimmery title-track vignette even features a sirocco echo of ghostly enervated Tuareg desert guitars, whilst the electrified speed freak ‘Zarathoustra’ doesn’t just allude to Nietzsche’s infamous Thus Spoke but astrally heads back to the founding father of that mystical Persian faith via an eastern Link Wray and Gothic soup of Krautrock jazz and acid rock.

The counter flow breathes of another desert also permeate this LP, the sound of a veiled didgeridoo constantly present in building atmosphere and mysticism. Loud and physical, though not without some sensitivity, the trio chant, howl and pray their way through a vortex of flange and fuzz as they soar over a fantastical landscape that takes in the southern constellation star of “proxima centauri” and the gates of the Tunisian Medina, ‘Jedid’.

Allusions to seers, mystics and Gothic romantics abound, whilst the musical inspirations fluctuate between heavy space rock (Hawkwind) and Krautrock (Xhol Caravan, Embryo), post-punk (Killing Joke) and baggy (Stone Roses on a bum ride), and spooked, sleazy rock’ n ’roll (Alan Vega).

Transcended Tangier trips, Karkara aren’t exactly the first group to occupy this space, but they do it with volume and dreamy élan.




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Melt  Yourself  Down  to  Sam  Zircon

Monolith Cocktail - Cabo Verde

Welcome to part two of our eclectic ‘choice albums of 2016’ feature, which starts with Melt Yourself Down‘s seething trans-Egypt-Nubia-London jazz funk and post-punk fusion Last Evenings On Earth and ends on Sam Zircons psychosis-induced Anxiety Skits hip-hop peregrinations. 

Lined up in alphabetical order then, our favourite new and reissued albums from 2016 are of course considered to be the most interesting, vibrant and dynamic of the year’s releases. But the best? Granted, to make this list you have to make some sort of impact, but we’d never suggest these entries were categorically the best albums of 2016, even if that might be true. Instead our list is an indicator of our amorphous tastes, rounding up a year in the life of the Monolith Cocktail, and we hope, introducing you to titles and artists/bands that may have dropped below the radar.

Choice picks from Dominic Valvona, Matt Oliver and Ayfer Simms.




Melt Yourself Down  ‘Last Evenings On Earth’   (Leaf Label) 

Monolith Cocktail - Melt Yourself Down

Unbelievable that we never had room to review this withering polygenesis explosion of jazz, funk, no wave, dub, electro and post-punk on its release; it is after all what the Monolith Cocktail was started for. A trans-North African travail of sounds and mysticism channeled via the Blurt/Konk/ESG scene of 80s melting pot New York and PiL hangout London of the late 70s Last Evenings On Earth is a seething tension and prowling doomsday soundtrack for our times. Pulled together from a cornucopia of Afrobeat, spiritual and conscious jazz bands – including Sons Of Kemet, The Heliocentrics, Mulatu Astatke, Zun Zun Egui and Transglobal Underground – and headed by former Acoustic Ladyland saxophonist Pete Wareham, Melt Yourself Down straddle esoteric Egyptian funk, Roman galley paursarius drumming, a coherent James Chance and the clarion calling horns of Jericho. It’s nothing short of exhilarating.


Mongrels  ‘Attack the Monolith’  (Invisible Spies)

Monolith Cocktail - Mongrels

“A couldn’t-give-a-monkeys classic…their focus on the basics is undiluted, making the mundane darkly humorous”.  MO

Resurrected by Sheffield hip-hop superheroes Benjamin Hatton and Kid Acne (remember, don’t fuck with Eddy Fresh), the Mongrels respawn was a very British affair cataloguing mind boggling artefacts like a mad scientist emptying an Argos book and TV Times from a time capsule, but was never found minding its Ps and Qs. The arid wit and on-point delivery billowing from a beaten up mic, went glove-like with old skool boom bap frayed around the edges and pushing the reds. New Kingdom’s Sebash revelled in his role as honorary third member – a collaboration whose relevance wasn’t lost on the lyricism – by rabidly spoiling any remaining British primness. Topped off by being released as a painstakingly put together vinyl package, and you have a labour of love that bangs from South Yorks to New York.

Read original review here…


Melody Parker  ‘Archipelago’ 

Monolith Cocktail - Melody Parker

‘The musicians behind Melody Parker form an orchestra unique for each track; kindling the day with its bright and dense aura. The early morning sun burns the dusty tarmac; the city, the village, the town, the burg wakes up in style. Festivity and pleasure exude from the album.’  Ayfer Simms

Bounding between imaginary locations and timeframes, from WWII boogie-woogie to Otterman tango, the idiosyncratic Melody Parker sings her magical songs from the belfry and the minaret. A chamber pop version of the Dirty Projectors and Bjork, dreamily fluttering and fluctuating all the way, Parker embraces the atavistic romance of the accordion one minute and liltingly sways to the echoes of the Hawaiian slide guitar the next.

Read the full review here…


L’Orange & Mr Lif  ‘The Life & Death of Scenery’  (Mello Music Group)

Monolith Cocktail - L'Orange and Mr Lif

“Classily, caustically executed…as the national anthem bangs drums of death, it’s worth sneaking a listen to come blackout.”  MO

Just pipping Mr Lif’s other release this year by a hair’s breadth – Don’t Look Down, a very fine album that walked a thin line between introspection, life coaching and role playing – The Life and Death of Scenery showed that the concept album isn’t dead, that skits can still work if they’re done correctly, that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and that such opuses don’t have to be 80 minute-plus rambles. With producer L’Orange quietly but quickly assembling a top drawer back catalogue of collaborative LPs (Jeremiah Jae, Kool Keith), his artistry paired with the Boston emcee’s distinctive flow hitting a nimble apex explored a “light-hearted dystopia” – words deserving of instant exploring while igniting a minor fear factor. Pure theatre that doesn’t hang around in taking you to strange new places, without resorting to cliché.

Read the original review here…


Edward Penfold   ‘Caulkhead’  (Stolen Body Records)

Monolith Cocktail - Edward Penfold

 

‘Gargling with the electric kool aid, swimming in a soft gauze of vaguely familiar Syd Barrett, Kevin Ayers, Pete Dello and Idle Race-isms, Penfold joins the best of England’s bygone eccentric songwriters. Like some profound demos recorded for posterity, dusted off for future generations, his heavily compressed single-track tape machine obscurities sound simultaneously nostalgic and modern; evocating both the louche shimmer of The Beatles LSD experiments in swaddled hallucinogenic sounds and the lo fi enervated personifications of Greg Boring and Ty Segall.’  DV

Isle of Wight émigré in Bristol Edward Penfold wistfully hones his native homeland’s outsider spirit of maverick, if languid, poetics and hazy, blurry psychedelia on his debut solo effort Caulkhead – the nickname given to anyone who wasn’t born there. Capturing perfectly the sense of isolation, strung-out and detached from reality, the despondent themes tune into the literary and musical psychedelic mavericks that made the Island home during the last couple of hundred years and of course the orginal festival legacy, Ed weaves a unique lo fi typestry of the bucolic and Victorinia. Almost soporific in parts, untethered and close to slowly drifting away off into the ether, Ed manages to convey the mood effortlessly.

Read the full review here…


Raf And O  ‘Portal’

Monolith Cocktail - Raf and O Portal

‘Sucked through a Portal into a parallel musical universe, the idiosyncratic London duo of Raf Mantelli and Richard Smith submerge the listener once again into their beguiling futuristic panorama. Re-imagining a world in which a Memory of a Free Festival arts lab and Gemini Spacecraft Bowie enmeshed with Portishead, Raf and O’s gothic and magical references are twisted to conjure up ominous visions, to a backing track of free-spirited avant-jazz drumming, trip-hop and contorted machine music.’  DV

And so whilst a multitude of bewailing and lamentable artists outpoured their grieve over Bowie’s death this year, and ignored just why the creative force was so lauded in the first place, at least the amorphous London duo of Raf And O could be depended upon to pay homage by continuing to orbit around the pheripherials of the avant garde. With the most strung-out and tactile cosmic lulled space age version of the crooning soul incarnated Bowie’s ‘Win’ ever recorded, the maverick double act blessed his passing. However, what their most impressive release to date showcased best was the duo’s challenging cybernetic baroque and progressive trip-hop sound, of which no one else on the radar can come close. Through the imaginary interdimensional Portal we go!

Read the full review here…


RAM   ‘6: Manman M Se Ginen’

Monolith Cocktail

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

Although still playing their residency gigs at the Hotel Oloffson, jamming with the likes of Arcade Fire, in Port-au-Prince and playing live throughout the world, Richard A. Morse‘s mizik-rasin (a style that combines traditional Haitian Vodou with folkloric and rock and roll music) powerhouse ensemble RAM have remained absent from the recording studio for the past decade. Until now. Returning to take up the peoples struggle on wax with a record whose feverish and yearning rhythms fall congruously into two spheres of influence; both the Haitian and African rich fusion of the atavistic and modern have never sounded better together. The group hurl themselves headfirst into the tumultuous chaos with a frenzy of blurting saxophone punctuated stonks and barricade storming freefalling Ethno-jazz and Ska frenzies; reflecting the recent tumultuous upheavals and trauma of both the political and natural disasters that have rocked the Island. Elsewhere the album is stripped off its ferocity, replaced by gentler island breezes and ambling sweet West African highlife. ‘Koulou Koulou’ is a perfect example of this; the hymn like soothing Kreyol vocals of Lunise wafting over a sauntering highlife backing. Or on the disarming plaintive ballad ‘Ogou Oh’, which begins with a Popol Vuh like soothing but venerable piano and later breaks out into a tribal drumming ritual. Magical and rambunctious in equal measure.

Read the full review here…


Xenia Rubinos   ‘Black Terry Cat’  (ANTI-)

Monolith Cocktail - Xenia Rubinos ‘Black Terry Cat’

Xenia Rubinos wants to bite, deep. She sings like an intimidating snake in the outback, her venom appears thick and long, like a spitted chewing gum from the mouth of another, yet she is like candy. She must understand the coarse skin of the enemy, perhaps teach a few lessons, she must not fear but simply face it, sing with it, groove with it, with tunes that make our tendons tremble. Disguised in an urban daredevil, there’s no real grudge here, style and subjects are up to date, the banter is mutual, the succeeding embrace even stronger. Her battle of the raised fist is to boost consciousness, for the better and worse but really for the better.’  AS

With far more roots, soul, jazz and sazz than anything her more celebrated counterparts could ever produce, Xenia Rubinos flamboyant rage is delivered with a salacious wit and sensibility sadly lacking elsewhere in the mainstream. Whilst plaudits are given to Beyonce and her camarilla of uber-protesters – which failed spectacularly in the face of “Trumpism” -, Rubinos subtle but no less enraged cornucopia of influences (from R&B to rock) are the true voice of authenticity. And what a voice! Once heard never forgotten, a distinctive mix that both soothes and jolts but always remains soulful and warm. And the somewhat controversial ‘Mexican Chef’ is one of the year’s best tracks by far. This is just a great album by a great talent: simple as.

Read the full review here…


Noura Mint Seymali   ‘Arbina’   (Glitterbeat Records)

Monolith Cocktail - Noura Mint Seymali

‘Continuing to in-trance, constantly moving in a rotating spell, Noura’s follow-up Arbina, we’re told, ‘delves deeper into the wellspring’ of her Moorish roots. And with recent tumultuous events, not only in West Africa but also throughout an increasingly insecure world, Noura reaches for the divine: the album title of Arbina being an appellation for God.’  DV

Emerging from the shifting sand-dune landscape of Mauritania in 2014 with one of the year’s most captivating, and at times almost uniquely otherworldly, albums, Tzenni, the griot chanteuse Noura Mint Seymali returned with an equally heady intoxicating embodiment of the ‘trans-Saharan’ culture and spiritual sounds of worship. With a familiar signature of drowsy slinking low-end bass lines, propulsive swirling breakbeat drums and tremolo quivering spindly alien guitar (provided by Noura’s husband, the adroit masterful Jeiche Ould Chighaly), there’s a certain confidence and refinement on this, the second of Noura’s international releases. Closer in momentum and candour to the previous album’s ‘El Barm’ and ‘El Mougelmen’  tracks, Arbina widens its scope; stretching the desert blues and psych funk template to accommodate twangs and inspirations from further afield. Always at one with the textures and contours of her homeland, the time signatures also continue to breezily, almost surreptitiously, change at will, with many of the songs on this album changing from one rhythm to the next halfway through. Meanwhile Noura’s amplified vocals resonate strongly, lingering loudly; the poetic and lyrical storytelling griot tradition thrust into a new century with renewed energy and musicality. Passionate throughout yet attentive and controlled, that melodious voice is even richer and soulful than before. Working in a circular movement, Noura’s vocals are both celestial and earthly, as the songs of veneration and guidance flow in waves or, repeat in an impressive breathless mantra. It is another magical peregrination from the Mauritanian soulstress.

Read the full review here…


Sidestepper   ‘Supernatural Love’   (Real World Records)

Monolith Cocktail

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

Sharing a couple of commonalities and passions with another choice album and group, RAM and and their Manman M Se Ginen album, the electro-cumbia doyans Sidestepper have also made a comeback after a recording sabbatical, returning with sauntering diaphanous embodiment of their Bogota barrio, La Candelaria, on Supernatural Love. Joyous, an evocation of that city and the Colombian music scene both atavistic and contemporary, they weave the most free-spirited and soulful becalming soundtrack; repeating leitmotifs and letting the energy and music just carry itself to where it needs to go. Co-founded in 1996 by former Real World Records studio engineer and producer/DJ Richard Blair, who originally travelled to Colombia in the mid 90s to work with Afro-Colombian folk star Toto La Momposina, but decided he loved the culture and music so much he’d stay for good, and local singer/songwriter/producer Iván Benavides, Sidestepper were renowned instigators of the electro-cumbia fusion that swept its way across the clubs of Medellin, London and New York. However, bored with hearing the same old “kick, snare and hi-hat”, Blair and a reinvigorated Sidestepper line up that features virtuoso percussionist Juan Carlos ‘Chongo’ Puello and “soulboy/vocalist” Edgardo ‘Guajiro’ Garcés joining the band’s lead singer Erika ‘Eka’ Muñoz and guitarist Ernesto ‘Teto’ Ocampo, has changed direction with this adventurous and ‘supernatural love’ for Colombian music’s roots.

Read the full review here…



 

Si-Phili  ‘The 11th Hour’  (Phoenix Recordings)

Monolith Cocktail - Si-Phili

 

“Simply unstoppable. A mic crusher with a touch of class, the heart of a lion and machine gun lungs”.  MO

Go hard or go home. All or nothing. Never give less than 100%. Ready to battle, whatever the time of day. Show-n-prove, call-n-response, leading to crowd surfs. Introspection to give the hurricane an angle of humanity, without dousing the flames. Stacking up punchlines that are then sent cartwheeling over non believers like giant Jenga bricks. A kickstart to your day, and a gee up to get you out of a fix. The right way to do things, both in UK hip-hop and life in general. All over a premium selection of boom bap and soulful stoking of the fire, provided by Richy Spitz, Urban Click, Leaf Dog and Pete Cannon. The sheer focus, belief and single-minded consistency of Si Phili, a standard bred from his Phi-Life Cypher days, is a rampage that can only be admired. ‘The 11th Hour’ has the mic veteran approaching national institution status.

Read the full review here…


Soundsci  ‘Walk the Earth’ (World Expo)

Monolith Cocktail - Soundsci

“Big funk, no front; ‘Walk the Earth’ is up there with hip-hop’s best for the year.”  MO

So good in fact that we forgot to review first time round. Amateurs. Anyway, enriched funky beats and liquid mic swaps from the Soundsci crew, who proved their reliability with ‘Walk the Earth’ maximising the performance bests of Solesides and Jurassic 5. Giving a knowing look to show promoters everywhere, in no small part due to the involvement of the Herbaliser‘s Ollie Teeba, the crew’s third album has a precision at its core liable to explode into the front rows of the crowd. And while not bragging about how versatile they most definitely are, there’s a lot here for everyone to grab a piece and go home happy with.


Teksti-TV 666   ‘1,2,3’   (SVART Records)

Monolith Cocktail - Teksti-TV 666

‘Probably as influential as it’s ever been, one of the most over-used, misunderstood and clichéd influences, Krautrock – a missive if ever there was one – occasionally acts as a springboard to more interesting and unique places. Teksti-TV 666 takes it towards a gothic CBGBs, as motorik goes “hey, ho”.’  DV

Despite the USP boast of featuring six guitarists in their lineup, Finland’s Teksti-TV 666 manage to quell the egos and rein-in the resulting maelstrom with a driven but attentive light and shade style Krautrock/Punk fusion. More a showcase than an album proper, SVART have pieced together the group’s previous three EPs for an attack on the senses.

Though a million others have tried to bend and hone Krautrock to deliver something fresh, Teksti-TV have injected a speedball cocktail into the motorik pulse of Neu!, merging it with spiky monotone fun of The Ramones and the gothic shoegaze and drones of umpteen 80s bands. Every song is an epic in itself, building up gradually with finesse; running through the full gamut of emotions before a final release. Edgy and moody enough to suggest the ominous and despondent, and hard enough to shake the rafters, the miasma that threatens to engulf is always eased up on for something calmer and celestial. Finland’s multi-limbed guitar cacophony is quite unique; transforming their influences with as much humour as fury.

Read the full review here…


Various Artists  ‘Khmer Rouge Survivors – They Will Kill You, If You Cry’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Monolith Cocktail

 

Growing in stature and reputation Glitterbeat Records continue to release many of the best, most influential contemporary albums and collections from around the world. Expanding on their original West African remit under the adroit stewardship of musician/producer Chris Eckman, they have also brought us various evocative and profound records from some of the least represented locations including South East Asia. Sending Grammy-award winning producer and celebrated author Ian Brennan to capture the dying art and memories of Vietnam veterans for the startling Hanoi Masters testament last year, they’ve followed up in 2016 with an equally vivid and harrowing account from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge survivors.

Proving that the roots and primal howl of the blues is every bit as entrenched in the Cambodian delta as the African and the Americas, those who suffered at the hands of Pol Pot’s genocide recall and lament on their own experiences: both as a therapy and to remind a new generation brought up in a completely different age, almost ignorant of the country’s recent past, of the trauma and turmoils that for many still run deep. As raw and captivating as you’d imagine, Brennan’s hands-off, in-the-moment, approach to production allows these battle-scarred victims an ad-hoc platform to share their sad but diaphanous songs globally.

Read the Ian Brennan interview here…


Various Artists   ‘Hidden Musics Vol 2.  Every Song Has Its End:  Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Monolith Cocktail - Every Song Has Its End - Sonic Dispatches from Traditional Mali (2400)

‘Though no less an achievement, the second volume in Glitterbeat Records “Hidden Musics” series offers the full gamut not just musically but visually too, and is a far more ambitious documentation of a troubled country’s lost tradition than last years Hanoi Masters survey. Expanding to include 11 concatenate videos, Every Song Has Its End is the most complete purview of Mali’s musical roots yet. This is due to the project’s mastermind Paul Chandler, who has documented Mali’s music scene for more than a decade. With an enviable archive of recordings and interviews, Chandler has at last found the perfect testament to Mali’s past.’ DV

Glitterbeat Records once again feature heavily in our ‘choice albums features’ with a quartet of releases making the grade this year, including Paul Chandler‘s compilation and accompanying film panoply, Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali. Recording, before it disappears forever, the fragile Mali atavistic roots, which prove far more polygenesis than you’d ever imagine, a diverse range of cultures have left their indelible mark upon the landscape and population. Forgotten in some extreme cases, ignored or considered as Mali’s past by new generations, maestros of the 6-string Danh, such as Boukader Coulibaly, and the Balafon, Kassoun Bagayoko, are celebrated and interviewed for this collection. Whether it’s traversing the Gao region in the northwest to record the earthy desert pants of the female vocal ensemble, Group Ekanzam, or capturing a Sokou and N’goni love paean performance by Bina Koumaré & Madou Diabate in the heart of the country, this chronicle of the pains, virtues, trauma and spirit of the country’s musical heritage is an extraordinary love letter and testament to Mali.

Read the full review here…


Various  Artists   ‘Space Echo –  The Mystery Behind The Cosmic Sound Of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed’   (Analog Africa)

Monolith Cocktail - Cabo Verde

‘Selected for our enjoyment by the Celeste/Mariposa crew, a sound system based in Lisbon, Mexico-based producer Deni Shain, and Analog Africa’s founder Samy Ben Redjeb, this compilation offers an undeniably infectious dance soundtrack for the summer.’ DV

350 miles adrift of the West African coast Cape Verde lies almost isolated out in the Atlantic Ocean. But this former overseas ‘department’ of Portugal fatefully, so the local legend goes, happened to be stuck in the exact right place when a shipment of the latest Rhodes, Moog, Farfisa, Hammond and Korg synthesizers and keyboards bound for the Exposição Mundial Do Son Eletrônico Exhibition in Rio De Janeiro ended up marooned on one of the archipelago’s ten volcanic islands in 1968. The real story grows ever more mysterious, as the cargo, destined to reach a promising market in South America, disappeared off the radar on a calm morning the same day it set sail from Baltimore and ended up 8km away from the Cape Verde coastline in a field near the village of Cachaço. And so a new era in the Island’s musical development was borne as the melting pot of Mornas, Coladeras, carnival and previously prohibited – deemed far too risqué and sensual by the Portuguese overseers- Funaná styles of music were given a new lease of life and modern twist by the booty of futuristic sounding synthesizers. However, despite the emphasis on the strange space like emulations and modulations of the keyboard technology and its impact on the Cape Verde music scene, this compilation is really about a former suppressed colony finding its own independence; revitalising once banned traditions and giving them, for the time, a unique twist.

Read the full review here…


Verbal Kent & !llmind  ‘Weight of Your World’ (Mello Music Group)

Monolith Cocktail - Verbal Kent & !llmind

“Sarcastic punchlines wired to a big-assed boom-bap plunger…dominant, imposing music to lay warpaths by”.  MO

Mello Music Group reeled off killer album after killer album in 2016, boasting a roster of underground burners plentiful in their potent variety. Within something of an internal Venn diagram, Apollo Brown gave soul a kickstart/kick up the jacksie so that Ugly Heroes comrades Red Pill and Verbal Kent (‘Everything in Between’) and Skyzoo ‘(‘The Easy Truth’) could demonstrate parallels in muscular grace, heaviness done with heart. Verbal Kent and !llmind’s ‘Weight of Your World’ warned that “beggars who are choosers are heading for bruises”, and while all three are worthy picks, we’ll plump for the latter. With the added advantage of being absolutely free, it’s cocksure enough to seemingly look at clubs with disdain before slyly leading with its elbows, laying down battle humour with the jib of vintage Canibus and Jadakiss that would reduce ciphers to smithereens, and packing a mean strut at all times. All hail the power of being pissed off.

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Wovenhand   ‘Star Treatment’  (Sargent House/Glitterhouse Records)

Monolith Cocktail - WovenHand

‘Inspired in a wondrous and metaphysical sense by humanities navigational dependence, worship and cultural fascination with the stars, David Eugene Edwards sets out on another esoteric Americana adventure on his latest opus, Star Treatment. The former 16 Horsepower front man saddles up and unfurls the Wovenhand banner, traversing the great western plains of historical reality and literature to produce a gothic Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee meets the Egyptian Book Of The Dead.’  DV

Spiritual interdimensional peregrinations abound on David Eugene EdwardsWovenhand epic. Linking parallels between atavistic tropes of loss, wisdom, a sense of wonder and nature with the original holy lands and the new world promised land of America’s west. Working on many levels with this star-guided concept, Edwards meta panorama may look towards the night skies yet it also digs beneath sacred ground to conjure up the ancestral; mixing America’s indigenous culture, ritual and ceremony with those of the most ancient mariners and travellers from the ‘fertile crescent’. This is an ambitious piece of work, taking as it does Americana to another more ambitious and afflatus level, as expansive and full of gravitas as the landscapes he searches.

Read the full review here…


Sam Zircon  ‘Anxiety Skits’  (Blah)

Monolith Cocktail - Sam Zircon

“The ultimate instrumental downer on eggshells…an excellent, tantalisingly poised headswim against the tide.”  MO

On the impressively individual Blah Records, another UK imprint to have a blinder of a year with releases from Morriarchi, Bisk, Blak Josh and Sleazy F Baby, typically it was one of the labels silent assassins who wore a ruling crown of thorns for the last 12 months. In a year when instrumental sets were pleasingly still doing a brisk trade, Sam Zircon forwent the usual rub downs of funk and soul loops and picked off opposition by pricking goosebumps with a harrowing virus. Anxiety Skits plays like the recovered footage of an explorer long lost to the wilderness, but whose demise you can only assume was grisly and/or involving hypothermia. Catching some of the implied psychoses of Company Flow’s ‘Little Johnny from the Hospitul’, you know Zircon is doing his job when disorientating frostbite starts developing around your headphones.

Read the original here…


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