ALBUM REVIEWS/Dominic Valvona





Easing the boredom of coronavirus lockdown, join me from the safety of your own home once more on a global journey of discovery. Let me do all the footwork for you, as I recommend a batch of interesting and essential new releases from a myriad of genres. All of which I hope you will support in these anxious and trying times. With all live gigs and events more or less quashed for the foreseeable future, buying music (whether it’s physical or through digital platforms) has never been more important for the survival of the bands/artists/collectives that create it.

As international as ever, this month’s revue includes not one but two releases from the wellspring of Highlife music, Ghana – though only one of these is contemporary, and only one could be considered a link to that signature sound. First, the sixth volume in Glitterbeat RecordsHidden Musics series is, as its title may suggest, a more elegiac-framed affair of rustic processional performances: Fra Fra ‘Funeral Songs’. The second, Edikanfo’s The Pace Setters is the first ever reissue of an iconic 80s album from the Afrodsico troupe, produced, with the lightest of touches, by Brian Eno. From South America, the ever-changing Miguel Sosa (formerly of The Strumpets and IH8 Camera) releases another album under a new alias and with a new sound, Plano Remoto. Japan-based polymath Paul Thomas Kirk, under his Akatombo alias, is granted a (almost) twenty-year spanning highlights collection of discordant gloom industrial dance music by the Japanese label So I Buried Records. From Haiti, we have the collaborative voodoo communion between the locals Chouk Bwa and the Belgium dub electronica duo The Ångströmers, Vodou Alé. And from Kenya, guitarist Fadhilee Itulya releases his debut album fusion of Omutibo music.

Closer to home, though imagining all kinds of cosmological and spiritual visions, Sebastian Reynolds releases a ‘universal’ escapist EP of peregrinations, and Austrian saxophonist Muriel Grossman is granted a showcase of her spiritual jazz suites from the Jazzman label.

Chouk Bwa & The Ångströmers   ‘Vodou Alé’
(Bongo Joe Records)   LP/22nd May 2020





Like so many others before them, allured to the voodoo hypnotism of the shared Hispaniola Island of Haiti, Belgian production duo The Ångströmers spent a residency immersing and absorbing the local fusion of ‘mizik rasin’, and working with the Gonaïves-borne collective of Chouk Bwa. A hybrid of roots music tradition, the voodoo ceremony enchantments brought over to the Island from the Congo, the folkloric and rock and roll, mizik rasin has been made famous in more recent decades by Richard A. Morse’s acronym Haiti collective RAM, who have in turn welcomed curious acts such as Arcade Fire and tUnE-yArDs to its propulsive rhythm. The late Afrobeat rhythm king Tony Allen also spent time there working with local musicians on the Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra project in 2017. It’s easy to see why; the invigorating lively, often locked-in rhythms and spiritual call prove intense and inviting: to dance music artists especially.

The synthesis of Soukri voodoo polyrhythms and bassier dub electronica on this collaboration proves so attuned to both sensibilities and in-sync as to be difficult to separate the natural ritual from the augmented and synthesized. The furious, rushing hand-drumming is subtly reinforced and layered up for the most part with pulsating and throbbing undulations, atmospherics, phaser, echo and reverb reversal effects; all of which are used sparingly and wisely, and even sensitively.

A yearning plaintive procession of voices, both earthly and soulfully, emerge from the swirled vapours to lament Haiti’s tragic run of ecological disasters; the lead single ‘More Tan’ a bobbing and clattery beat with sonorous fuzzy bass lends a moving tribute to all those unfortunate souls affected by a quartet of devastating hurricanes and the Armageddon earthquake of 2010, which killed tens of thousands and left hundreds of thousands displaced, at the mercy of the elements, disease and a destabilized authority.

A primal ceremony of tumbled, fluttered cylindrical rhythms sucked into a vortex of warped dub and ringing oscillations, this collaborative union proves just how intoxicating and electrifying the voodoo spell can be. Given a sympathetic undercurrent and resonance of atmospheric electronica, the ritual sound and outpour of Haiti is reframed, guided into the 21st century. Not so much a novel direction as a subtle electronic music boost to tradition.






Muriel Grossmann  ‘Elevation’
(Jazzman)  LP/15th May 2020





Many jazz greats have of course attempted it, the ‘elevation’ of not just the form but consciousness itself. The Egyptologist anointed Pharoah Sanders even named an album after it; an ascendance at a time when jazz was embracing its spiritual roots and historical gravitas: a return to the source in Africa.

The supremely talented saxophonist bandleader Muriel Grossmann, imbued with that same spirit of vague conscious mysticism and experimentation, has now named one of her own impressive Afrojazz odysseys after that totem of an influential album. It won’t come as any surprise to find that the Pharaoh just happens to be one of Grossmann’s influences, alongside such luminaries as John and Alice Coltrane, Lester Young and Eric Dolphy; all of which permeate throughout this survey of the European jazz star’s recent(ish) work.

A sort of introduction for those unfamiliar with an artist who’s spent the last two decades on the European scene, playing with the likes of Joachim and Rolf Kühn, Wolfgang Reisinges and Thomas Heidepriem, the impeccable Jazzman label have chosen to represent Grossmann’s catalogue with suites from the 2016 Natural Time and 2017 Momentum albums; a moiety almost of complimentary records.

In all a quintet of congruous traverses, from a duo of albums, Grossman’s own Elevation seems a fully realised, interconnected and flowing oeuvre that could have been recorded all at the same session, only yesterday. An adventure across desert contours, on the caravan trail in search of enlightenment and jazz nirvana; the impressively invocative saxophonist and her troupe of regulars turn in a fantastical panoramic opus.

We start with the latter of those albums and a trio of pyramid backdrop numbers that pay homage to the Coltranes (especially Alice), the Pharaoh, Archie Shepp and Greenwich-hip era Albert Ayler. That guiding light title-track is a ten-minute plus extravaganza of splashing drums, oozing and swaddled sax and mini plucked out guitar solos. It sounds like the group is on an opulent trinket laden barge. At first lingering, trembling and stirring in milder Nile waters, the action hot’s up as the river becomes more animated and choppy. Grossmann literally spirals towards the stars; giddily blowing so fast that her trademark instrument turns into a clarinet at one point. Almost easing into the shimmery resonating ‘Rising’, the quartet sumptuously treads further along a mysterious pathway. Uros Stamenkovic brushes the sand off his flighty drum kit, and Radomir Milojkovic bends and picks out a dizzying frill of notes on guitar as Grossmann flitters and flutters on another of these conscious trips.

Still gliding or walking that same North African jazz geography, both ‘Your Peace’ and ‘Peace For All’ may very well have furnished another album, but embrace and breath the same spiritual to experimental jazz air. Shifting sands move underfoot on the first of those dusky shufflers, whilst Eastern mystical chimes and serenity make way for progressive soulful sax, successions of deft guitar licks and burnished drums on the second of those mirages.

Hardly a slavish attempt at reproducing Grossmann’s inspirations, Elevation is an impressive, evocative continuation of those forbearers blueprint. A showcase of exploratory jazz left free to follow those same forbearers by a group of European avant-gardists.



Edikanfo  ‘The Pace Setters’
(Glitterbeat Records)  LP/8th May 2020





Depending on who you listen to, inventive leftfield, ambient music doyen Brian Eno and his part in propelling the Ghanaian troupers Edikanfo to international attention (if for only the briefest of moments), off the back of their dynamic rich bustling debut album, was either merely down to “endorsement” or more to do with his key production skills. The fact that his indelible mark is light, if almost hidden, would suggest a less than fleeting relationship with the eight-piece Afrodisco group. Yet stage-manage the production of this Highlife funk fusion he did.

That endorsement, usually a sign of quality and importance, is shared by self-appointed one-man Ghanaian music industry mover-and-shaker Faisal Helwani. A forceful character in a time when you had to be forward and sometimes ungracious in getting results, Helwani was responsible in kick-starting the modern Ghana scene; setting up the now legendary Napoleon Club complex in the capital of Accra. Club, casino, restaurant and studio – Accra’s first professional recording studio; known as the less than imaginary but history cementing Studio One – all in one, the Napoleon became a lively exchange hub of activity and a hothouse for both emerging and established talent, inside the region and outside of it. With a finger in every conceivable pie, from running the studio to managing, publicizing and contracting bands, Helwani’s grip was strong and nebulous. As Eno – who offers linear notes insight on what is the very first reissue of Edikanfo’s influential and justifiably entitled The Pace Setters album – divulges: ‘Although undoubtedly an important figure in the African music scene he was quite a possessive man. There was a fair amount of grumbling going on among the musicians, who had pretty poor lives. After some of their appearances the band ended up actually owing Faisal money since he owned their equipment and hired it out to them for shows.’

Eno hit upon a novel way of sending the band some money as a thank you, fearing it wouldn’t reach them unless it fell directly into their hands: ‘All the musicians liked the beret I wore at the time, so I had the idea to send one to each of them as a gift – which would be a kind of Trojan horse for the real gift. Back in New York my girlfriend Alex, who had come to Accra with me, carefully sewed a few hundred dollar bills into the rim of each beret and somehow I got a message to them which said ‘DON’T OPEN THE BERETS WHEN FARISAL’S AROUND!!’ It worked…one of the musicians later told me he’d bought a small farm in Central Ghana with his hat-money.’

Helwani had initially approached Eno as a publicity coup after reading about his fostering interest in African music. The impresario invited him as ‘international observer’ to the biennial Festival Of African Song And Dance. It didn’t take long to leap from that to producing Helwani’s recent upcoming electric signing. Staying for around a month, Eno spent time and effort with Edikanfo, who’s live, busy sound proved problematic for the studio manipulator, unaccustomed as he was to recording a live band all at once. Without nearly enough mics for the task at hand, Eno was forced to think on his feet and to eventually just let the performances happen with as little interference as possible. Upon returning to NYC – Eno’s base at the time in the later 70s and early 80s – he released upon listening back to these electric sessions that, for once, his post-production magic as redundant. And so The Pace Setters is a relatively pure, unburdened sound without augmentation; closer to capturing the group’s famed live performances: the sweat and all.

Formed just a couple of years before; Edikanfo would quickly build a momentum after colliding with Eno’s ascended star. His brand soon shone a light that very quickly went out. Brought to an international stage, the octet rose just as their native country was plunged once more into political tumult. A second coup by the military leader-politician Jerry John Rawlings at the end of 1981 removed the civilian government he initially put in place – set up after Rawling’s original junta-led coup in 1979. Ghana had been relatively lucky, having escaped such violent upheaval up until then. Concentrating the mind somewhat and pushing Rawlings into action, the soon-to-be leader was on the former governing power of General Fred Akuffa’s execution list. When he did take over, Rawlings implemented a spot of his own ‘house-cleaning’ of former officials and supporters. The shock of which led to demonstrations, which in turn led to elections; though Rawlings would still win, being re-elected again and again, staying in power until 2001. The early days of power would be severe however, with curfews that soon ‘gutted’ not only the economy but also the live music scene. Restrictions and harassment proved so bad that Edikanfo were forced to part company, scattering overseas.

Now though, almost four decades after their spotlight burned most bright, bandleader, bass player and songwriter Gilbert Amarty Amar and those band mates that survived are back with a new tour prompted by the reissue of their seminal debut. In what can only be described as a laser beam reflective mirror ball of Afrodisco and Highlife funk, The Pace Setters is a humid fusion of sweetened lullaby serenades and busier sunburst dances. A shared effort with near enough each member of the troupe offering up a track, there’s a mix of timings, themes and rhythms. Tracks like the opener ‘Nka Bom’ celebrate “togetherness” with sun-blessed horns, dappled electric piano and open hi-hat bustle, whilst the elastic bass noodling, springy and Orlando Julius loose jazz swaddled ‘Gbenta’ is both peaceable and relaxed. Hints of Osibisa can be found on the lulled hymn like vocal beauty ‘Moonlight Africa’, which puts a faster hustle of drums and bass underneath the twinkled organ caressed chorus of sweetly laced voices. At all times (well nearly) the bounce of refracted laser disco beams ricochet off the brass and rafters.

What a great album: true to its name, setting a sometimes blazing, and others, a sometimes-sashaying pace. Forget the fact it’s now forty years old, turn the mother up and shake-off the woes and weight of life in lockdown. Edikanfo’s 1981 classic is still alive and magical in the here and now; sending us with verve towards the summer: even if that summer is very different to any most of us have ever experienced. Enjoy this most worthy repress.




Fadhilee Itulya   ‘Kwetu’
(Naxos World)   LP/8th May 2020





Though the Kenyan guitarist turn frontman has been around for a decade the Kwetu album of belonging and questioning, released via a re-invigorated Naxos World, is Fadhilee Itulya’s debut.

Channeling what sounds like a lifetime into that inaugural record, Fadhilee combines his Kenyan roots with more contemporary rock, soul, blues, and on the album’s one and only attempt at a celebratory sun-praised club mix, Balearic dance music. Creating a bridge between the more earthy, unspoiled authenticity of tradition and more polished pop production of a modern studio, Fadhilee draws on the Luhya and Isukha peoples of Western Kenya and their ancestral dances, ceremonies and instruments. This includes the duel guitar and empty incessantly tapped soda bottle accompanied chanted Omutibo, and the Isukuti drums of the celebratory dances performed amongst the latter of those communities. The driving syncopated rhythms of Omutibo were developed during the 1950s, into the 60s, before falling out of favour in the 70s. It forms a foundation on the Swahili entitled ‘Kwetu’ song; a title-track that translates as “home”, but carries more weight in what Fadhilee encapsulates as, “a place where I am welcome.” That could be anywhere, not just his homeland, as this is an album as much about international unity and liberation as a songbook that passes commentary on the closer-to-home social and political problems in Kenya.

Language is another constant theme, with Fadhilee switching effortlessly from Swahili to English to the chanted Luhya.

Sprinkled throughout this generous album, the rustic tapped bottle ringing, hand drum propulsed rhythms and chorus of dusty-soul chanting and more enthusiastic female trilling traditions sit alongside smoother, finessed performances: though it all feels like a intimate live session. The album opens with the reedy and flighty “prayer” of ‘‘Afirika’; an opening salvo that sets up the smooth reggae and jazzy-rock sound of Fadhilee’s lilted guitar and the accompanying backing of a rich harmony chorus. It also introduces us to the folksy flute-heavy collaboration of guest musician Adam Adiarra, who’s instrument flutters, weaves and floats throughout that opening introduction. More sauntering rhythms beckon on the spiritually lulled, twinkled piano tribute to women and motherhood ‘Mama’. Whilst the electric sunny funk ‘Tabasm’, which translates as “smile”, works up a fusion of flange-rock and gospel.

Despite moments of intensity and urgency, wilder electric guitar frills and the untethered breaks of tribal ceremonial passion, Kwetu is a mostly gentle, soulful affair. A peaceable showcase for an artist honed on tradition but pushing forward. A commercial album of smooth Kenyan fusions with some rougher edges, Fadhilee’s debut shows an artist as comfortable with the modern studio as he is with the in-situ rustic roots of the Kenyan grasslands.



Akatombo  ‘Discordia: 2003-2020’
(So I Buried Records)   Album/25th May 2020





From a label synonymous for unleashing the sludge-dread rock of those ominous bearers of doom, Qujaku, comes a sort of ‘best of’ collection of similarly caustic menace from the Scottish post-punker turn industrial electronic composer Paul Thomas Kirk. As it turns out, a logical creatively successful leap for the one-time band member of the 80s punk agitators The Actives, Kirk’s magnetic-charged Akatombo avatar fuses, fries and beats-into-shape remnants of that post-punk past. Based in Hiroshima the musician, producer, filmmaker, photographer and label boss has released a quintet of albums, all but one of them under his own Hand-Held Recordings imprint, since 2003. Collected together here is a smattering of buzzy dissonance and growling electronic transmissions from each of the album’s, plus one previously unreleased track, ‘Oblique & Fearless’: a cause metallic evocation of techno punk and Reznor chained industrial dread.

Going back to the beginning, 2003’s inaugural augury Trace Elements – released via the SWIM label – is represented by the Japanese trip-hop Western soundtrack ‘Humid’, the rough UNKLE trip-breaks with snarling bass ‘Overheat’, and dub-y reverb spiraling ‘Ponderlust’. Six years later Kirk would release the Unconfirmed Reports album under his own label. Taking the sonic exploration further towards the experimental, the frizzled distortion and Aphex Twin clattering of ‘A Prior Disengagement’ and Barry Adamson spy thriller tremolo with DJ Shadow drum breaks ‘SSRI’ mark that album’s evolving range and scope. 2011’s False Positives lends the Basic Channel tuned unfolding Kitchen-sink drama ‘Kleptocrat’ and cylindrical, muffled voiced ‘Precariat’ to this compilation.

The prize of opening this Discordia falls to the ominous moist chamber atmospheric ‘Click/Bate’, taken from the 2015 album Sometime, Never. Both lurking in the dark web subterranean yet also communicating with orbital space waves, this bleak vision reimagines The Orb on a downer. Reaching further into the esoteric sound, most recent album Tensile Strength is represented by a trio of industrial, ringing noisy visitations and broadcasts: ‘Debug. Injector’ is a churning vortex of the haunted, whilst the album’s title-track is full of punk snarls.

Veering between the heavy dance music of The Chemical Brothers and the sonorous metal machine music of Emptyset, and between the steaming razor breaks of UNKLE and the industrial wilding of Einsturzende Neubauten, Kirk’s Akatombo manifestation is channeled into a pretty decisive collection of highlights. Too driven to be classed as ‘mood music’ or dark soundtracks, the dystopian discord of Kirk’s sonic augurs and emotions could even be considered dance music: albeit on the fringes of a doomed dancefloor. A great showcase anyway for an electronic artist working in the gloom.






Sebastian Reynolds   ‘The Universe Remembers’
(Faith & Industry)  EP/22nd May 2020





Oxford-based polymath Sebastian Reynolds has finally found the time in his prolific schedule of collaborations, remixes, session work and productions to create his very own solo soundtrack of various eschatology inspired peregrinations. The Universe Remembers EP’s quintet of traverses drifts and wafts across an ambiguous, often vaporous, soundscape of neo-classical composition, retro futurist production, swanned Tibetan mystical jazz, both languid and accelerated running breakbeats, and ghostly visitations – haunted narrated extracts from T.S. Eliot’s all-encompassing philosophical, religious and metaphysical Holy Grail purview The Wasteland can be heard in a fuzzy echo on the EP’s title-track and single.

A cosmological junction of dystopian literature and the Buddhist/Daoism, The Universe Remembers is, as you might expect from a composer/multi-instrumentalist/producer who’s created music as varied as the transcendent Southeast Asian Manīmekhalā score that accompanied the multimedia Mahajanaka Dance Drama and the visceral chamber pieces of his collaboration with the pan-European Solo Collective trio, a mix of evocations simultaneously as dreamy as they are ominous and mysterious; and as contemplative as they are resigned to the fates.

Framed as a distillation of previous incarnations, namely the Keyboard Choir and Braindead Collective, the sound and sonic landscape channels the peaks and descending remembrance of a musical lifetime, with some of the material taken from various periods over the years, transformed and attuned for a concept of Theology; the part that’s concerned with death, judgment and the final destiny of the soul and humankind: Not too big a concept then.

Previously premiered on the Monolith Cocktail the guest produced title track features the attentive skills of Capitol K (who’s label is also facilitating the release of this EP) guiding a musical odyssey of twinkled trembled cascaded piano, slow beats and the mystical fluttering, spiraling and drifting clarinet of guest contributor Rachel Coombes. Featuring Seb’s penchant for the glitch-y piano resonance of Susumu Yokota and a most strangely sourced sample of the revered writer Anthony Burgess purchasing a Bösendorfer piano in Harrods, this magical escapist suite wafts between the snake charmer bazaars of Egypt and Calcutta, the Hitchcockian and avant-garde. It must be emphasized at this point that Burgess’ dystopian visions have had a profound effect on Seb; especially his most famous slim novel A Clockwork Orange. Seb has previously performed at the Burgess Foundation with the Solo Collective and even (in the last week) written a guest post for their website. Not that anything on this EP is even close to aping the synonymous ominous switched-on Bach of Wendy Carlos’ score for the Kubrick vision of that most famous futuristic nightmare.

Opening reverberating vapour ‘Amoniker’ builds a suffused trilled melodic swathe of pastoral merry evocations from a past epoch, smatterings of jazz, and distant masked break-beats around an increasingly echoing and delayed layered counting iteration. Doing what he does best, Seb finds and then takes original samples to explorative new soundscapes and worlds on the EP’s curtain call, ‘You Are Forgotten’. The Oxford polymath uses the baritone like resigned mooning vocal from the track of the same name by Desmond Chancer & The Long Memories as a foundation for a suffused saxophone swaddled and pining (courtesy of Adam Davy) slice of retro-futurist electronica. Spiritual manna phrases like “no memory”, ”no legacy” and “universal” drift into focus from a constructed ether to echo dramatically over the mysterious and masked invocations.

Keeping to the holy mountain of awe footpath, the totem of endurance, mysticism, beauty and immensity ‘Everest’ once more features those Tibetan evoking horns and cosmic awakenings. It also features not so much guitar performances as the essence of lingering notes and wanes (attributed to collaborators James Maund and Andrew Warne) on an ascendant score of both the celestial and peaceable.

If you love your trance, esoteric mysticism, trip-hop, the new age, satellite jazz and the poetic, then stick on The Universe Remembers and be transported to wondrous and meditative planes.




Plano Remoto  ‘Plano Remoto’
(Jezus Factory)  LP/11th May 2020





Whether its ennui or a conscious decision to keep critics, and his audience, on their toes the Argentine maverick Miguel Sosa once more changes direction on his latest album for the marvelous cottage-industry label, Jezus Factory. Sosa’s previous peregrination, Bermudas, was an analogue patchbay cosmic psychogeography of the infamous Bermuda Triangle region; filed under yet another alter ego, the Moog and ARP soundtrack homage Cassini Division. Prior to that the Jezus Factory stalwart had spent a tenure living in Antwerp, instigating or joining all manner of Belgian bands, from IH8 Camera to Strumpets and Parallels. The Strumpets would mutate into Angels Die Hard when Sosa had to return back home.

His latest venture, Plano Remoto, ropes in bass player/singer Mike Young, old pal and the owner of the TDR Studio in Buenos Aires Lucas Becerra, on drums, and Nico Courreges on double-bass. The results of two years of studio jamming and a build-up of Tascam recordings, this informal set-up’s self-titled debut (though it could easily be the first and only LP from this incarnation) is a right old mix of styles and ideas. A return, of sorts, to songwriting it starts with a day dreamy Gilberto Brasilia sandy lull of “la las” and pop with the strangely entitled ‘Bossa Zombie’ – the first part of that title is obvious, the second…not so much. Sosa and friends go on to jangle through removed versions of Bad Finger meets The Olivia Tremor Control balladry, harmony power pop (‘Leona’), Jeff Lynne “ahing” psychedelic anthems (‘Mel’), early 60s European new wave cinematic spell casting circus scene-set jazz lullaby (‘Fantasma’), and Baroque retro-futurist galactic love (‘Sandra’).

You may very well also pick up moments of Alex Harvey showmanship prog, soft rock furnishings and what sounds like an ominous Clockwork Orange space march on an album both simultaneously odd but also essentially pop. It’s a form of songwriting slightly askew and novel, yet pleasant, melodic and comfortable to the ear. God knows where Sosa will take us next.






Fra Fra   ‘Funeral Songs’
(Glitterbeat Records)  LP/24th April 2020





No stranger to this site, Grammy Award winning producer, author and peacemaker Ian Brennan has appeared countless times; namely as the in-situ producer on a myriad of unfiltered and direct performances and as the subject of an interview in 2016. Continuing his collaboration with Glitterbeat Records, Brennan is back with another chapter in the global expletory label’s Hidden Musics adventure; a series that unearths performances from ad-hoc musicians, located in some of the most remote, off-the-beaten-track, environments.

The sixth volume in this collection follows on from excursions to Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam and Mali, landing somewhere on a dusty road outside the northern Ghana hub of Tamale. Brennan once more entices a captivating set of recordings with as little interference as possible. Those previous records, whether it was capturing the evocative war-scarred yearns of both survivors of the Vietnam War or Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge apocalypse, or lending a voice to the suffering plight of the Abatwa people in the border regions of a post-genocide Rwanda, all adhere to the American producer’s signature technique of less is more. As Brennan himself put it in his How Music Dies (or Lives) book in 2016: ‘My concern is not cultural authenticity, but emotional truth and uncloying performances. Purity without baggage.’

Brennan is not in the business of earnest backslapping or ethnography, rather, he wishes to just make what he calls ‘candid and new punk and dusty records.’ Forget Lomax and company, Hidden Musics is less an exercise in preservation and archiving, and more a trailblazing exposure of relatively unburdened magic outside the confines and restrictions of Western music.   Responsible for all but one of the series – that being Paul Chandler’s Every Song Has Its End sonic dispatch from Mali survey -, Brennan focuses once again on the extremely localized sounds of his destination.

Fra Fra, the colonial name given to this particular tribe found in the northern part of Ghana, is a convenient name for just a trio of musicians who perform the funeral songs, plaints and paeans traditions of the country. A reversal of the north/south divide, it is northern Ghana that is synonymous for its wellspring of blues. That roots lament can be heard in the rustic, rudimental and springy performances of this group of locals. Led by the appropriately named Small, ‘a man who celebrates his diminutive size rather than seeing it as a lack of’, this trio proved difficult to capture. In part this was down to the processional manner of their playing style delivery; a manner that has more than a passing resemblance to New Orleans marching bands, which isn’t hard to figure when you consider the enforced enslavement of Ghanaians who passed through or made their home in the burgeoning port. So Brennan was forced to go for ‘coverage’ instead of precision, as Small and his wingmen gyrated in circles on the gravel floor.

Playing better (so they’d have us believe) when drunk on the production’s beer quota, inebriation seems to have lubricated proceedings for the better. With just the poor imitation of a guitar – the two-string Kologo – and its rusty percussive jangle of dog-tags that hang around the neck, and the tiny boned mouth flutes – which the Fra Fra call ‘horns’ – the funeral laments on this record are a grieving plea between the earthy and hidden spiritual forces. Primal, hypnotic with various sung utterances, call-outs, hums and gabbled streams of despondent sorrow the personable process of grief is opened up to a new audience. Not as mournful however as I’ve described, the cadence of voices, the scraped tremulous rhythms are often energetically poetic and bluesy: albeit far removed from what most people would recognize as the blues.

A chorus and a twang-y, hollowed-out and sporadic accompaniment of serial instrumentation deliver fatalistic subject matters, such as the destiny of orphans and the pining for loved ones.

Sadly we will hear a lot more funeral music before this Covid-19 epidemic ends, which is yet, and we hope it won’t, to hit Africa on the scale that it has in Europe and North America. For those in lockdown discovering music in its purest forms, the sixth showcase in the Hidden Musics series is another essential, unique taste of the sonic road less travelled. A record in which Brennan remains merely the ghostly facilitator.






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ALBUM REVIEWS/Dominic Valvona


 

Easing the boredom of coronavirus lockdown, join me from the safety of your own home once more on a global journey of discovery. Let me do all the footwork for you, as I recommend a batch of interesting and essential new releases from a myriad of genres. All of which I hope you will support in these anxious and trying times. With all live gigs and events more or less quashed for the foreseeable future, buying music (whether it’s physical or through digital platforms) has never been more important for the survival of the bands/artists/collectives that create it.

This month’s spread of featured bands and artists dreams of more exotic and mysterious places, but hail from Europe. From Germany with the new impressive filmic chthonian Techno suite there’s Die Wilde Jagd, from Sweden the collective noise welders, Orchestra Of Constant Distress, and from Finland the debut LP from renowned jazz bassist and now bandleader, Antti Lötjönen.

Back in the UK there’s a new ambitious classical experimental suite from iyatra Quartet and ambient and electronic music releases from Ryan Bissett’s – under the Halftribe title –and ennui composer Sad Man.

I do however leave the borders of Europe with a short stopover in Ghana, with Santrofi’s debut revamped Highlife special, and Madagascar, with a compilation of early cuts from Damily.


Santrofi   ‘Alewa’
(Outhere Records)   24th April 2020


 

A love letter to Ghana’s golden age status as an incubator for some of the Africa’s greatest performers and bands in the 1960s and 70s; home of the, arguably, most influential music style to emerge from the continent in the 20th century, Highlife; Accra-based fusion Santrofi enthusiastically bridge past glories with a contemporary generation who’ve all but forgotten their roots. A reintroduction to Ghana at a time when its reputation as a hothouse for talent was at its nadir – when luminaries like Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela and Orlando Julius came looking for a new sound, eager to sup liberally from the explosive scene – the band’s debut album Alewa champions the sunny-disposition Highlife style whilst adding some modern licks and on-trend dances – the Nigerian hip-hop dance Shaku Shaku and South African street dance Gwara Gwara, created by DJ Bonge – to the mix.

A result of a merger of show and marching bands, dancehall jazz and homegrown influences Highlife evolved to absorb all manner of styles and instruments over time, including soul and funk, but maintained it’s sunshine bleached heralded horns, thinly spindled polyrhythm guitars and lilted but infectious grooves. Kuti would merge it most famously with the blazing R&B, soul and funk sound from across the Atlantic to invent Afrobeat, others would ‘up’ the jazz elements or inject it with some psychedelic rock.

Santrofi bandleader and bassist Emmanuel Ofori knows more than most how important this legacy is having rose up the ranks performing with legends like Ebo Taylor and Pat Thomas and the Kwashibu Area Band. Yet his eight-piece collective – who’ve toured with Gyedu Blay Ambolley, the mighty Osibisa, and George Darko – have a reputation for backing the pop sensation Sarkodie and the Nigerian “superstar” 2Face Idibia in recent years. Now though they return to the roots, channeling the heritage not just musically but the etymology and myth. The band name Santrofi itself derives from the mythology of the Akan – a meta-ethnicity of people living in the southern parts of Ghana, but also found in the Ivory Coast -, and refers to the rare, precious bird that brings bad luck to those that hunt or entrap it: a caged bird style analogy. The debut album title refers to the popular black and white striped sweet; used in this case as a symbolic metaphor for racial unity and cohesion.

Ebo Taylor and his peers can be heard throughout this swimmingly soulful and gorgeous sounding showcase. It’s unmistakable when listening to the sweetened swinging lullaby-like title-track, and golden, softly blown horn blasting funky ‘Kwaa Kwaa’. The opening ‘Kokroko’ however kicks off the album with an earthy tribal rhythm and live party feel that includes whistles and call-and-response. It also features fellow Ghanaian, the poet/author/MC Fapempong setting the mood; holding court on a groove that’s part gabbled dance, partly hymn. The re-tuned radio “United States Of Africa” speech – first propounded by Marcus Garvey in his 1924 poem – ‘Africa’ has a more bluesy rock feel, whilst its an imaginary Stax revue backed by Al Green that’s evoked on the organ humming sultry R&B ‘Mobo’.

A refreshing homage to the Highlife phenomenon (unfairly overshadowed by its Afrobeat scion), Alewa may channel past triumphs, yet this isn’t just a straight-up tribute act, but a modern fusion that proves its relevance and enduring soul-power. Let the sunshine in: Highlife is here to stay.




Die Wilde Jagd   ‘Haut’
(Bureau B)   17th April 2020

Birthed into another chthonian landscape of incipient stirrings, Sebastian Lee Philipp’s third such ambitious experimental suite continues where the previous eerie 2018 LP, Uhrwald Orange, left off: Lurking, stalking and disappearing into a recondite mystery of esoteric electronica and Techno. Earthy then, with evocations of a wild, veiled terrain populated by the whispering bewitched, strange rituals and metaphysical forces, Haut is a brilliantly realized slow-burning expansive supernatural soundtrack imbued with elements of Krautrock, Kosmische, the psychedelic, avant-garde, industrial and atavistic.

Once more joined by co-producer foil Ralf Beck – absent on Phillipp’s more or less solo outing, Uhrwald Orange – and live performance drummer Ran Levari, Die Wilde Jagd’s instigator songwriter/producer channels notions of memory, premonition and birth into a filmic quartet of drawn-out chapters. The opening minor-opus ‘Empfang’, which translates as “reception”, takes its time to emerge from the undergrowth; four minutes of ambient throbs, finger cymbal chimes and daemonic slithers before the first signs of Levari’s drum kit kicks in and takes off like a communion of Daniel Lanois and the Chemical Brothers. All the while sounds from the wilderness – like a crow’s croak and a regular occurring cold wind – encroach on the live instrumentation and sonic bed of synthesized pulses and motions. By the end of this thirteen-minute offering the magical Germanic-folk song of special guest vocalist Nina Siegler pricks the ominous chills to bleed over into the album’s, and project’s, only duet, ‘Himmelfahrten’.

Not so much a change in scenery as a mantra Whicker Man maypole entanglement between the Maid of Orleans and Philipp, the ‘ascent’ – as it translates into English – is part ritual, part ceremonial procession. Owl totems hoot on a hypnotic sweet chorus conjunction that invokes the Velvet Underground, GOAT, Acid Mothers Temple and Perpetuum Mobile period Einsturzende Neubauten.

‘Gondel’ – which doesn’t the lexicon to work out means “gondola” -, with its toiled, less rhythmic drumming reminded me of Jean-Hervé Perron and Zappi Diermaier’s more modern Faust partnership. A percussive rich mystery, echoes of operatic voices linger in what sounds like a very windy passage way.

There’s a pendulous motion to the album’s abstracted finale, ‘Sankt Damin’ – which I think is St. Damian, one half of the canonized Arab twin physicians who plied their trade for free on the Syrian coastline; two of the earliest Christian martyrs. Somewhere between courtly Medieval and the more ancient, there’s a whiff of the Dead Skeletons and the Velvets Byzantium vapours on this wispy blown stark wandering.

It’s certainly an imaginative world that awaits the listener on the Die Wilde Jagd’s third grandiose experiment. One that takes a breather, holding back on the beats and kicks for a more expansive and creeping sound production; those anticipated reveals kept on a tight rein. A sign of real quality and patience, Haut marks both a continuation but slight change in the dynamics as Philipp and Beck further erode and stretch the perimeters of Techno and electronic music.




Orchestra Of Constant Distress   ‘Live At Roadburn 2019’
(Riot Season Records)   10th April 2020


 

An unholy alliance of Scandinavian extreme dissonance, the caustic noisy Orchestra of Constant Distress unleashes another solid wall of sonic experimentalism on an already anxious public in lockdown. Well not entirely on solid lump, because despite the squalling feedback, heavy, heavy sustain, grinding wanes and monolithic density the collective sound is not always so daemonic and unwieldy that snatches of rhythm and even splinters of lightness can’t be found in the seething menace.

Pulling together fuzz freaks and industrial welders from miscreant scenesters The Skull Defekts and Brain Bombs, the Orchestra’s latest live release – taken from a performance at the Roadburn Festival in Holland, in 2019 – is a near tumult of black magik, space rock, propulsive post-punk, chthonian drones and heavy metal. Sawing through pylons, squealing towards the primal, the repetitive distress of this mortuary malady reimagines a heftier, drum snapping Sunn O))), or, Boris with a rhythm, or, a Mogadon induced Death From Above. At times, despite the discordant violence, they sound positively psychedelic.

A pulsating, ghoulish and stirring noise, the Orchestra bends the squall and noise to their will on a warped oscillation generator of uncomfortable energy.





Halftribe  ‘Archipelago’
(Sound In Silence)   16th March 2020


 

Another understated ambient suite from the purveyors of unobtrusive experimental soundscapes, Sound In Silence, the latest deep cut on the label’s roster is a lightly touched pulsation of geographical and mysterious soundtracks by the Manchester-based producer/DJ Ryan Bissett.

Under the Halftribe title, Bissett’s fifth long-player Archipelago subtly layers resonated hums, drones, throbs, glimmers and metallic tubular sounds with refracted suggestions of light and various imagined atmospheres. Though most of the titles allude to descriptive actions and contemplative thoughts of the enormity of it all, there’s always a sense of movement and environment to be found. The opening long fade ‘Exposed’, with its gleams and submerged washes, evokes a tropical location, and the angelic and monastery-like ghostly choral drifting title-track goes beyond the earthly towards the celestial.

Whilst transportive, what sounds like swells of new age gamelan can be heard on both the veiled wafting ‘Fader’ and lost transmission from the tropics ‘Drops’. Avant-classical elements, such as a low bowed cello sound and floated piano, quiver and plonk amongst Kosmische entrancing improvised instruments and pond-like ripples and hollowed-out bass-y wooden reverb on an ambiguous album of the haunting and serene; the masked and spacious.

Bissett reminds us that we’re all ‘Just Dust’. Which may be, yet what a contemplative musical conjuring we humans can produce in light of that lamentable certainty. This Archipelago is a small testament to that.






Sad Man  ‘Indigenous Mix 3’
1st April 2020


 

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Coventry’s avant-garde garden shed boffin Andrew Spackman has produced his best electronic music indulgences under the resigned Sad Man moniker. His most prolific incarnation, the former Duchamp favoured Nimzo Indian defense chess move sonic explorer has balanced an ennui for chaos with a passion for Techno rhythms and beats: even if all semblances of anything musically consistent are bombarded with constantly warped manipulations and curveballs.

Following in the wake of this year’s fully realized The King Of Beasts album is the third in the Sad Man series of radical reworks, Indigenous Mix 3. Essentially a transmogrified remix of that same LP; the original Beast tracks shimmer, burble, twist, shift and flex to a new ever-changing treatment.

Often these new mixes prove more flowing, even grooving: some could even be described as spasmodic dance music. ‘Teleprompter’ gets the party off to a twisted start; Tibetan reverberations meet woody mechanics, acid licks, Aphex girders of polygon light and dreamy iterations. The following tetchy beat generator ‘Trespass’ has some nice touches, and even reminded me of Wagon Christ at his most fucked-up. As the title suggests, and keeping at least a lingering trace of that city’s exotic atmosphere, ‘Marrakesh’ channels Orbital and LFO into a industrial spindled mooning otherworldly enigma. It’s the late and much-missed Andrew Weatherall that pops up on the mirror-y dub, Mogadon time-lapse ‘Carbonated’.

Elsewhere Chicago House rubs up against air-y wonked weirdness on ‘Kalafornia’, and A Guy Called Gerald goes into meltdown on the broken-up ‘The Physician’.

An unconscious stream of ideas and tinkering’s; remodeling hints of Warp, Ninja Tunes, Leaf, acid and breakbeat, Spackman let’s loose once more with another cracking volume of mixes. This series is proving to be amongst some of his best work yet.





iyatraQuartet   ‘Break The Dawn’
24th April 2020


 

A veritable escapist odyssey that connects past with the contemporary, the latest timeless concerto from the multifaceted instrumental UK quartet transports the listener to both poetically stirring histories and landscapes.

Imbibed by individually strong and impressive classical CVs and a shared experience of study at the Royal Academy Of Music, the iyatraQuartet merge a penchant for India and Arabia with closer-to-home influences. The latest album’s opening bowed, sustained tremulous theater sea-shanty, ‘Black Sea’, for example is inspired by the former poet laureate (1930-1967) John Masefield’s tumultuous Sea Fever poem. Encouraging many classical homages before them, iyatraQuartet’s take on this classic travels on the mud banks of a hardy landscape with an attentive score of earthy sawing violin and cello, and skimmed and pattered frame drum; yet as with many of the tracks on this LP, they somehow manage to also evoke Eastern European folk music too. ‘Dompe’ goes much further back historically, to the Tudor epoch of Henry VIII, taking one of the earliest surviving “renaissance” keyboard manuscripts – the author composer of which remains unknown – ‘My Lady Carey’s Dompe’ as a foundation, they at first spindly and daintily walk through a dewy pastoral tapestry of float-y clarinet, glistened cobwebbed percussion and quill-etched mournful violin before evoking a hint of the Balkans. This is also the first suite to include a leitmotif of mantra like chants; a unison of choral voices emerging from the veils. ‘Alpine Flowers’ meanwhile, takes its inspiration from memorial plaques displayed at Oxford’s Somerville College Chapel, commemorating ‘significant’ women from the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. Almost jazzy and smoky in feel, there’s a hint of a mysterious geography that errs towards the Native Indian.

Gravitating towards India, both musically and religiously, the rebirth celebratory rejoice themed title-track weaves countless personal connections into a number of tunes. The group’s name, pronounced “ey-at-ra”, is even taken from the Hindu expression for travel, “yatra”. Mostly obvious the morning Raga transformation ‘Bhairav’, refers to the many contrasting aspects of Bhairava (a manifestation of Shiva), who created and then dissolved the three stages of life. That trio of universality is mirrored by a quiet incipient moody bowed, droning and strummed section, followed by quivered wails, clarinet honks and scrapes and busy tablas. It helps that the quartet’s co-founder and violinist maestro (to name just one instrument among her repertoire) Alice Barron studied South Indian violin techniques with the country’s star turn duo, the Mysore Brothers.

Continuing that thread, the joyful classical meets Swami ‘Chandra’ was originally written for the Indian sire of the title, Chandra Chakraborty, in 2017. The swayed, swan-like melody is based on, of all things, a medieval plainchant, woven into a Raga Yaman. It’s a dusky beauty of a fusion, with ascendant violin and airy clarinet: gracious in fact.

Sweeping across musical panoramas, the quartet reach out towards the Middle East with the sand dune contoured ‘Lama Bada’. Born out of a fruitful meeting with Basel and Mohammed ‘Taim’ Saleh of the Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians that turned into the 2018 touring The Songs Of Syria project, this atmospheric romantic piece utilizes Arabian love stories for a reverent camel ride.

Impressive in scope with instruments from folksy Ireland, rootsy Africa, mystical Tibet and of course pan-Europe, Break The Dawn is an ambitious reading of experimental classical music that doesn’t easily take to defining. Reminding me of the escapist Balkan trio Širom, but with chamber strings, the iyatraQuartet conjure up an imaginative time-spanning sound; performed with assured skill and an open mind.




Antti Lötjönen  ‘Quintet East’
(We Jazz)  17th April 2020


 

Highly active as a bassist on the flourishing Finnish jazz scene with such notable groups as The Five Corners Quintet, 3TM and the Aki Rissanen Trio, Antti Lötjönen now steps out as bandleader on his debut longplayer, Quintet East. Bringing with him a whole host of “hard hitters” Antti leads 3TM band mate and saxophonist Jussi Kannaste, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, drummer Joonas Rippa and Koma Saxo supergroup saxophonist Mikko Innanen on a free-jazz, hard bop and serenaded jazz exploration.

Released just a day before his 40th birthday milestone, this debut offering is a culmination of all that experience and learning. And so you’re just as likely to hear echoes of Sonny Clark and Wayne Shorter as you are the Arild Andersen Quartet and the avant-garde.

The bassist’s signature instrument however, though always present, is never overbearing, and seldom brought to the front. Whilst highly articulate, sometimes physical, the double bass in this instance offers a constant bowed rhythm and sense of depth. Occasional elasticated noodling and skips are always great to hear when the rhythm picks up, but soloist style showcases are kept to a couple of ‘Monograph’ series vignettes: The introductory ‘Monograph I’ features a quietly plucked and flexing bass, spring and meandering; ‘Monograph II’, a sort of tuning exercise in which the bass takes on the characteristics of a cello.

There’s plenty of nicely untethered, if never too loose, performances from Antti’s ensemble. ‘Erzeben Strasse’ has a European title but finds the quintet traversing Bernstein, Be Bop and Lalo Schifrin on a journey that sets out with a breezy rhythm, swaddling sax, spiraling Miles Davis style trumpet and a laid back bounce but ends on a much busier dampened drumming off-kilter skip. Alluding to the mid to late 70s satirical soap opera of the same name, ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’ is another evolving instrumental piece; starting out with snuggled romantic sax, fluting trumpet and a flitting meander, the track then gets going with some big band theme tune vigor. ‘Pocket Yoga’ (is that a euphuism?) has some nice runs and nozzled horns and drums that just keep on moving, and the spiritual jazz leaning, increasingly erratic honked ‘Oblique’ evokes Electric Byrd. ‘La Petit Lactaire’, as the title may suggest, is a wholly Euro-jazz serenade; the mood set to a snuggly scene on the Left Bank.

Swaddled between the experimental and familiar warmth of American jazz in the late 50s and 60s, Antti has bridged the decades to produce a musical showcase as meandrous as it is intense and busy; as traditional as it is modern. A great start as a bandleader, but Quintet East also extolls the talents of an extraordinary proficient and prolific Finnish jazz scene.





Damily   ‘Early Years: Madagascar Cassette Archives’
(Bongo Joe)   24th April 2020


 

As worldly as I am, I have to level with you. Until this attest discovery from the crate-digging folks at Bongo Joe arrived, the frenzied, ceremonial and ritual rooted sound of Madagascan ‘Tsapiky’ had completely passed me by. This handy little collection however proves an inviting introduction to not only this unusual busy music but also one of its most celebrated proponents, Damily.

Hailing from the southwestern region of the Island, where tsapiky is prevalent, Damily has molded the foundations laid down in the 1970s to create a idiosyncratic fusion of blistering bluesy rock guitar, innocent sounding high-pitched vocals, lo fi tech and galloping, on the move, percussive rhythms. This compilation hones in on the early years, picking through the tape archives to highlight Damily’s burgeoning beginnings: This is the Madagascar star unfiltered if you like.

Originally, as so many of his peers and forbearers did, learning to play as a poor kid on the most rudimentary of knocked-together, nylon-stringed guitars, and despite lacking the length in his small fingers to reach the low strings, Damily flourished. Giving the music a unique characteristic initially, he developed a technique of releasing the two bass strings as his other fingers were hitting the higher strings – other guitarist with similar disadvantages, or because they just preferred it, just moved the lowest string completely. The results gave a more aggressive attacking sound that was soon adopted by a host of artists; so many in fact that it has become a signature of this electrified genre ever since.

Sung in the Island’s Malagasy dialect, the racing fusion of lilted sweetened gospel soul, spindly and flicked electric guitar, jostling and skiffle like percussion has echoes of South Africa township polyrhythm rock and Afropop. Almost childlike vocals joyfully skit across patted, skipping padded drums – the sticks made from the pelts of the humped Zebu cattle – and what sounds like a pan-pipped melody on the opener ‘Zaho Va’; and you can hear, what sounds like, Casio presets and splashes of cymbal on the delightfully scrappy ‘Mangebakbake’.

Threatening to collapse or trip over itself throughout, the diy produced trotting rhythms somehow keep going. And Damily’s reedy guitar runs, phrases and trills nearly overload the system at one point, staying just the right side of discord, and staying just about in tune.

Back to the foundations, with a smattering of tracks from ’95 to 2020, the Early Years is a refreshing collection of an artist in development: finding his style. You don’t need all the baggage or investigation to appreciate it, better still enjoy the distinctive sound. Just open your ears, sit back and be taken to new thrilling musical escapes: Yeah, that’s the sound of a recommendation.






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

Album Reviews
Words: Dominic Valvona




After a short but knackering break from the site – moving house if you must know -, and with a waiting period nearly as long as the proroguing of parliament, as my broadband was activated – surely in this day and age it can’t seriously take over two weeks to be connected – I’m back with another eclectic roundup of the curious and recommended.

An international affair as ever, flying the flag for Colombia, the Bogotá union of Los Pirañas provides a cultish, kitsch and cosmic psychedelic cosmology on their third album, Historia Natural. Back across the Atlantic, and to Nigeria, I take a look at the seminal 80s Highlife-meets-Caribbean Osondi Owendi LP from the legendary Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, whilst in Europe, the Chateau Rouge borne project Bantou Mentale rewires the sounds and energy of the Democratic Republic Of Congo to create a dynamic and soulful new sound for the 21st century chaos. I also find much to enjoy about the Flemish language rewiring of Calypso and Savoy era jazz classics and obscurities from one-time dEUS guitarist Mauro Pawlowski – going under just one many of his alter egos, Maurits Pauwels.

Closer to home, a couple of UK releases, the first, Feel It Go Round, from the folksy psychedelic Oxford-based sibling led Catgod, and the second, Scottish Space Race, from the Glasgow ‘head music’ group The Cosmic Dead.

Finally, I take a look at a duo of albums that rewire and channel the influence of Robert Wyatt; the first, by Max Andrzejewski and his Hütte troupe of friends, pays a special homage to the maverick’s back catalogue, whilst the second, from the alternative pastoral Cold Spells, resonates with his more vulnerable fragile qualities.


Bantou Mentale ‘Bantou Mentale’
(Glitterbeat Records) 25th October 2019



A sizzle. A static shock, a charge that most importantly signals something is changing in the musical fabric; a signal of something dynamic but also something dangerous, a mirror image of the real world, the real refugee and migrant experience and chaos. Vivid and fresh being the optimum words as the Bantou Mentale vehicle shakes up the melting pot convergence of Paris’ infamous Chateau Rouge; addressing assumptions/presumptions about their native Democratic Republic of Congo home in the process. Not so much explosive, the electric quartet seem relaxed, even drifting as they channel the soul and spirit of co-operation; opening up aspects of the DRC culture and humility often lost or obscured in the noise of negativity – and the Congo has had more than its fair share of violence and tumult both pre and post Colonialism.

More light (enlightenment even) than darkness, the rim-shot echo-y untethered sonics chime as much with dub and Afro-psychedelic soul traverses as they do post-punk and a contemporary hybrid of various dance trends. But before we go any deeper, a little background information, some providence is needed.

Drawn from a rich selection of Kinshasa (and beyond) sonic propulsive outfits and artists, including Staff Benda Bilili, Konono No.1, Koffi Olomide, Jupiter & Okwess and Mbongwana Star, concept guy (for this is a project, a statement, that moves beyond music to encompass performance and visuals), drummer and singer/songwriter Cubain Kabeya, guitarist Chicco Katembo and singer Apocalypse have all been around the block, fronting or backing every fresh new development on the Paris scene. Closing the circle, the Irish born and Parisian raised all-rounder and producer Liam Farrell (professionally known as Doctor L) brings an equally impressive resume to the dynamic venture; working with such luminaries as Tony Allen and Babani Koné. Cubain and Katembo both previously worked with Damon Albarn back in 2010 as part of the Kinshasa One Two album, whilst Farrell has collaborated with Cubain on a number of electro-fried African dance projects: Black Cowboys and Negro-P.

Here and now they combine forces with scenester Apocalypse to push the envelope further still, merging the industrial with 2-step, d-n-b, electro, hip-hop, soukous, ndombolo, grime, funk and rock. Everything except the DRC’s rumba; far too smooth for the raw energy and prescient turmoil that the Mentale are articulating.

Borne in the furnace of a riotous, equally hostile city, this latest album follows the migrant’s plight like a pilgrimage, commentating sorrowfully on a pitiful existence traversing deserts on the way to escape – as documented on the reimagined PiL trip-toeing with a dub-transformed Ben Zabo in the wilderness ‘Zanzibar’. Though they also celebrate the fellowship and “wild uncertainty” of the migrant’s progress on the album’s scatter-like ratcheting and kinetic beat homage to the African village diaspora where it all started, ‘Chateau Rouge’: for the band but also the destination for so many migrants too. There’s also cautionary advice on this adventure in the form of the wanton mirage-flange prayer style ‘stay out of jail’, ‘Boloko’.

But for the most part this album is suffused with reverb-relaxed intentions of peace; underscored with a subject close to the quartet’s heart, the travail and inhumanity that has been inflicted on the peaceable Batswa (or Batshua) people by their own community, the ‘Bantou’ of the band name. These atavistic people, guardians of the environment – if not forced out or persecuted -, the Batswa are known by the more derogatory term of “pygmy”. Though once respected for their deep knowledge of nature and close connection with the land, they have been colonized, enslaved and derided by not only the Bantou but also various forest tribes and colonial powers. In more recent years though their story and culture has been shared. Label mate of a kind, and on-hand producer Ian Brennan has even recorded the Why Did We Stop Growing Tall? of Rwanda “abatwa” for Glitterbeat Records Hidden Musics series , and documentaries, such as Livia Simoka’s Extreme Tribe: The Last Pygmies, have shone a light on these communities. In a chance meeting with a Batswa named Wengy Loponya Bilongi, Cubain traveled into the bush and spent time with the “genies of the forest”, as they’re known in more compassionate, complimentary circles. This journey was captured by the filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye for the Pygmy Blues film; a journey that has changed Cubain, and now informs at least some of the underlying messages of respect and peaceful reconciliation that are suffused throughout this album.

Kinshasa reloaded; Bantou Mentale is a thoroughly modern sonic vision of peaceful cross-border fraternization. Lingering traces of Jon Hassell & Eno, Radio Tarifa, UNCLE, TV On The Radio and even label mates Dirtmusic are absorbed into an electrified subterranean of frizzles, pylon-scratches and hustle-bustle. Above all, despite the subject matter, despite the polygenesis sonic hubbub this is a soulful soundtrack: cooperation ahead of fractious division and hostility. A more positive collaboration for a 21st century chaos.





Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe  ‘Osondi Owendi’
(Hive Mind)  6th September 2019

Reviving an unassuming Highlife classic from the mid 80s, the Brighton-based vinyl and cassette specialists Hive Mind have chosen to push the laidback balmy saunter delights of the Nigerian legend Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe for their next ‘choice’ release.

First appearing on the Lagos scene in 1958 as a crooning Nat King Cole influenced vocalist with the Steven Amechi led Empire Rhythm Skies Orchestra, the regally entitled Chief Stephen released his debut single, ‘Lagos Life Na So So Enjoyment’, the following year. He’d soon become an important and pivotal figure on the Nigerian scene for decades to come.

Produced at a time when Nigeria’s once popular and dominant Highlife had lost some of its appeal, superseded not only by Fela Kuti’s more explosive Afrobeat marriage of that same style to funk, soul and R&B but a post Biafra War generation cultivated on the music of America and looking for something with a rawer, sometimes hostile, edge, Chief Stephen’s Osondi Owendi LP chimed with the more relaxed, soothing undulations of the 50s and 60s, and the lullaby lilting sounds of South Africa. Sweetly laced with those signature gentle Highlife swinging and singing horns and busy percussion, the two lengthy workouts drift on a raft anchored in the Caribbean, as waves of those Island’s calypso swash are suffused with the sounds of Nigeria.

More or less translated from the old Igbo adage as “what is cherished by some is despised by others”, the album’s title track is a beautifully conceived meander of soothing vocals, rattling and tub-thumping rhythms, scraping percussion and tethered but loose solos: from cupped Afro-Cuban cornet trumpet to thin wah-wah guitar riffs. The searching accompaniment, ‘Nigeria Kanyi Jikota’ is an extension of that relaxed spirit; a downtown canter with a dash more brassy resonance and Spanish Hispaniola frills.

A less intense alternative, more in keeping with the smoother production of 80s soul, the Chief’s quilted shimmy and sway is a tropical fused balance of congruous sweltering sounds; the perfect last dance of the summer season.






Max Andrzejewski’s Hütte ‘Hütte And Guests Play The Music Of Robert Wyatt’
(Why Play Jazz) 4th October 2019



Meandering both playfully and experimentally outside the lucid, often serendipitous, guidelines of their idiosyncratic muse Robert Wyatt, Max Andrzejewski’s Hütte and guests style ensemble pay homage to the fated maverick’s surreal and unpredictable back catalogue.

Originally formed for the 42nd Leipzig Jazztage, bandleader, drummer and vocalist Andrzejewski’s adroit sextet chose to perform the music of the much-cherished icon for a tribute program themed around British jazz artists. Remaining together beyond that inaugural performance they decided to record their unique takes of Wyatt’s original material for posterity.

Counterbalancing the former Soft Machine and Matching Mole alternative-England visionaries’ venerable fragility with his whimsical sense of humour and play, they offer a dreamy tension of free-falling avant-garde jazz and elasticated limbering breaks. Riffing wondrously throughout on their well-chosen track list, picked from across four decades and eight albums, the fluid troupe accentuate the longer, more realised peregrinations and extend some of Wyatt’s shorter mumble-y musings. Fro Wyatt’s interregnum years between the Soft Machine and (albeit with a host of facilitators and collaborators) his solo run there’s a synth-y cosmic soul vision of the 1972 Matching Mole prog and organ heavy (veering towards The Nice) ‘Instant Kitten’ that sounds like a jazzy reworking of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, and a skippy, gently tumbling soothing take on the Maoist-faux period operatic lament ‘Starting In The Middle Of The Day We Can Drink Our Politics Away’, taken from the Mole’s Little Red Record – marking not only Wyatt’s, far from flirtatious, commitment to Communism (though we won’t hold that against him) but informing his worldly view.

The fantastical Floydian progressive jazz meets Wind In The Willows road trip nursery rhyme moiety of ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road’ and ‘Little Red Robin Hood Hits The Road’, taken from Wyatt’s 1974 Rock Bottom LP, are faithfully recreated, leaving just enough space and room to be stretched and remodeled into timeless traversing drifts. Band member Cansu Tanrikulu’s high-falutin fluting untethered and Nordic-soul bent vocals on the latter – they’ve chosen to turn the former into a vocal-free instrumental piece – grow increasingly raspy, croaky and almost sulky as she not only sings Wyatt’s original lyrics but Ivor Cutler’s original faux-Scottish Jamaican burr poetics on this whimsical if unsettling piece. Of course, the album that these two choices comes from, Rock Bottom, remains an important turning point for Wyatt, creatively and personally; the almost fatal accident that led to his paraplegic brittle state happened during recording sessions for the album.

Slipping into the oddness of Wyatt’s 80s catalogue, the ensemble transforms the 1982 Eno meets Indian tabla quirk ‘Grass’ by adding an undulation of vibrating, dipping and chirping retro-electronica and tripping vocals. Paying a funny sort of homage to his writing-partner and wife, illustrator/lyricist Alfreda Benge, the bubbled, lax jazzy and vocally mumbled ambling ‘Duchess’, from the 1997 daydreaming LP Shleep, is taken on a particularly meandrous journey. The canter of the old nursery-rhyme riff is further eroded on this tiptoeing version; Tanrikulu applies a cocktail jazz swoon and croon to the original passive/aggressive lyricism.

From this millennium the Jon Hassell breaks bread with Talk Talk venerable ‘You You’, from 2007’s guest-heavy Comicopera, is swerved towards Skip Spence and The Velvet Underground, and the Sparks-esque choral synth elegy to the maligned ‘Cuckoo Madam’, from the 2003 Cuckooland LP, is lent a sympathetic romantic malady.

A seriously good tribute to every facet of the Wyatt sound, with some surprising choices (not all the most obvious jazz-friendly ones neither) Max Andrzejewski’s Hütte and guests fill every nook and twist with something worth listening to. Learning from one of the best, they inhabit but also revive the, unfortunately retired, maverick’s back catalogue with élan and dexterity.



Los Pirañas ‘Historia Natural’
(Glitterbeat Records) 11th October 2019



A proxy “supergroup” of celebrated Colombian musicians, the Los Pirañas   features a triumvirate of Bogotá players from such luminary bands as the Meridian Brothers, Chúpame el Dedo, Frente Cumbiero, Ondatropica and Romperayo. Pals and collaborators since High School, the coalesce trio of Eblis Alvarez, Mario Galeano and Pedro Ojeda return to those school daze roots twenty five years later on their new, and third, album together, Historia Natural.

Harking back to more unburdened and carefree times with a sense of idolized unabashed joy, Los Pirañas   play loose with their influences; transducing decades worth of Colombian culture into a quivery retro-futurist purview.

Yet, though they saunter and sway to the native rhythms throughout this zippy, tropical album there’s a cross-pollination of source material and references from outside the South American idyll woven into the kooky tapestry: ‘Palermo’s Crunch’ take’s its name from the bustling cornucopia capital port city of Sicily, and its musical direction from Tex-Mex 60s garage bands, The Monkees and California surf music to create a lunar Pradomar surf soundtrack.

From Bogotá to Barranquilla, throwing together everything from Cumbia, Afro-Colombia, Champeta, Salsa and Mambo Loco they reignite a familiar backdrop to gallop and canter across a reimagined cosmology. Most of the time this sounds like a tropical island marooned Joe Meek and Les Baxter, and at other times, a quirky oscillating rave-up of the Julián y Su Combo and a hornless version of Glitterbeat label mates Sonido Gallo Negro. They do all this with a lively, sometimes silly, FX heavy backing of retro-calculating computers, kazoos, bee-trapped-in-a-jar and tremolo guitar and a constantly busy tapping, tinkering, rattling and scraping percussion that flows between the relaxed and erratic.

A fun oddity of the traditional, psychedelic and kitsch, Historia Natural conjures up an imaginative fertile landscape of surfin-bird Caribbean facing Colombian beaches, UFO landing site mountain tops, abandoned mythological temples, volcanoes and piranha-infested rivers on what is one hell of a trippy cultish South American lark.






The Cold Spells ‘Interstitial’
(Gare du Nord) 11th October 2019



Tentatively hoping that the English duo’s 2018 self-titled debut (which made our “choice albums of the year” features) wasn’t just a fluke I’m happy to announce that their 2019 follow-up, Interstitial, is every bit as subtly plaintive and melodically beautiful as that record.

A lucid meander across a divisive, anxious landscape in turmoil, Tim Ward and Michael Farmer’s Cold Spells ruminations ponder on the spaces between both the more incidental and loftier metaphysical. This “interstitial” state is a Kosmische folktronica vision; a pylon-dotted pastoral countryside, where the psychic resonance of history bleeds into the present stasis; a place in which Georgian tavern poesy and lamentable tragedy converge with the Canterbury and 60s psychedelic folk scenes.

Vocally they marry the despondent but beatific fragile lyrical profoundness of Robert Wyatt with the estuary lilt of Damon Albarn, musically, the Incredible String Band, Shirley Collins and Davy Graham with the subtlest of synth-generated undertones, undulations and atmospherics: reminiscent in places of both Arthur Russell and Broadcast. It’s a seemingly familiar soundtrack, yet there’s something quite different going on as the duo squeeze what they can out of their influences. And so just when you might have a handle on the Faustian deal-with-the-devil rustic-psych, ‘For All Us Sorry Travellers’, the Thackeray-etched lyricism suddenly jolts with a well-timed, pushed into the present, use of the word “cunt”: In what seems to be an 18th century English sorry tale, with the protagonist spilling his woes from atop of a perched chair, a noose around his neck, suddenly resonates with suicidal despair in the here and now. This counterpoint between timelines continues, suffused, throughout the album. Songs such as the opening ‘Leviathan’ balance a maudlin balmy charm with a codex of aerials and intermittent broadcast signals, and the instrumental title-track interlude imagines an Eagle Comic’s envisioned spaceport in the idylls of a twill English meadow: though it must be said, the album closer, ‘You Play My Mistakes’, stands out for its plaintive Soho lounge bar feel, more in the mode of Scott Walker.

Understated in execution, this sophisticated album gently unfurls its serious ruminations and forlorn slowly to reveal a melodious pastoral-cosmic treasure every bit as deep and unassuming as their magnum opus debut.





Maurits Pauwels en de Benelux Calypso ‘Tien Toppers Uit Trinidad’
(Jezus Factory) 23rd August 2019



Even for a label that prides itself on pushing beyond the alt-rock cliché to discover and then promote new and interesting finds from the Benelux countries, the latest curiosity and change (again) in direction from one-time dEUS guitar-for-hire Mauro Pawlowski could be considered a surprise even by the standards of Jezus Factory Records output. Used to releasing a multitude of projects and sidebars from a host of Northern Europe’s rockers, a Flemish-style rave-up of Calypso music classics and obscurities raises eyebrows. Happily it works, as the sound of the Caribbean is given a rambunctious Lutheran makeover.

Under the Dutch native tongue alter ego of Maurits Pauwels, Mauro and his troupe take on the Calypso sound and the age in which it was most influential; adding Savoy label, be-bop, New Orleans’ ragtime jazz, dancehall and, on the LP’s most surprising break from the formula remit, ‘Alleen een Dwaas’, a kind of mish-mash of saddened progressive balladry and requiem Procol Harum.

Jostling to a backing track accompaniment of cupped and heralding brass, tumbled toms and saloon bar tonk (no honk) piano Mauro and his band sumptuously roll between vine-swinging Jungle Book, Caribbean cruise ships, be-bop joints and Egyptian art deco gin palaces; atmospheres in which you’re likely to hear the jovial Byron Lee, Lloyd Miller, New York Jazz Ensemble, Mighty Sparrow and Dizzy Gillespie rubbing up against more contemporary wry and serious themes: “dancing whilst thinking” as it’s billed.

It works well, as I said, another string to a crowded bow and one of Mauro’s most brilliantly executed and absorbing vehicles yet. And that’s from someone who’s back catalogue features over 90 projects. Take a punt and a swing whilst this limited edition release is still available.





Catgod ‘Feel It Go Round’
September 2019



Less an adoration style worship of a feline deity and more a peaceable, if deep, gentle collection of modern sonnets, the Oxford based Catgod attempt to make sense of all life’s woes with the subtlest of touches on their debut LP, Feel It Go Round.

Fronted, if that’s the right word, by the dual vocalist siblings Robin Christensen-Marriott and Catherine Marriott this gauze-y, dreamy, on occasion haunted, folksy troupe wind through a contemporary Southeast of England landscape in hushed, diaphanous tones.

Somehow making the daily humdrum trudge of commuting sound like a John Martyn psychedelic mirage of beautifully lulled harmonies and hazy-light dappled wistful heartache, they can turn the most mundane into the magical. The song in question here, ‘New Cross’, almost romanticizes Robin’s commute between East London and his Oxford home; immortalizing familiar locations (obviously the title itself but also Dalston) in ruminating song. Standard tropes appear in the form of mortality anxiety on the wonderfully, if plaintive, Catherine lead ‘Heartbeat In My Hand’, and the tumult of a difficult relationship is dramatized on the drowning-in-the-mire of ‘Cold, Numb And Empty’. A concern of our times however, the unease of privacy erosion and validation in an increasingly infringing social media epoch is mused over on the wistful malady chorus piece ‘What They Think’.

Musically untethered in folk and country, Catgod surprisingly often sound like a pastoral hybrid of Radiohead and Lamb at their most interesting and trip-hoping psychedelic: The flute-y ‘Sleep In’ the most surprising song on the entire LP crosses Joni Mitchell with Pentangle and then adds a faux-reggae gait. Vocally (on occasion narrated and half-spoken) the sibling dynamic is entrancing, softly yearning and brilliantly harmonious. Catherine’s voice especially sounds like a Nordic bent version of Sandy Denny or Christine McVie.

A considered placeable debut of both enchantment and forlorn, Feel It Go Round is gently stirring and quite lovely. Indeed, a “hushed reverie” as the PR spill puts it; a better description than any I can find for this magnificent album.



The Cosmic Dead ‘Scottish Space Race’
(Riot Season Records) 20th September 2019



Letting the kaleidoscopic imagination lift-off, Glasgow’s head music astronauts, The Cosmic Dead, blast off from a Central Belt vision of a futuristic spaceport into the void on their latest interstellar overdrive, scoring the “Scottish space race”.

The recently modified line-up (the group’s first LP to feature the propulsive drumming of Tommy Duffin and quivery evocative lap-steel of Russell Andrew Gray) pierces the stratosphere and astral plane in opiate symmetry over four live-recorded performances from the summer of 2018. Sucked through the ‘Portal’ the Dead begin their ascendance in communion with the Kosmische leviathan sculpting of Tangerine Dream, the eastern esoteric acid-psych of the Acid Mothers, mantra incantations of the Dead Skeletons, Native Indian pow wow and sorcery. By the time they reach the “Great Bear” constellation we’re in space rock and acid country; funneling dawn emergent transcending Ash Ra with Xhol caravan, Guru Guru and Rhyton.

The air is heavier however on the album’s title-track, melding Sabbath with Hawkwind on a stomp punctuated by the doom-rock “can you dig it!” refrain, and the galactic chorus, lap-steel waning and bashed out ‘The Grizzard’ feeds The Dead Meadows, Birth Control and Ten Years After into the Hadron Collider.

The Dead set a course for a stoner-doom ridden Krautrock cosmology of sonic possibilities on a sprawling, pulsing epic. Strap yourselves in tightly, the stars have aligned; the Scottish space race now has its own unofficial ‘head music’ soundtrack.





NEW MUSIC ROUNDUP
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA


Featuring: Colours Of Raga, Der Plan, Esmark, Ippu Mitsui, Pop Makossa, Roedelius, Chaplin & Heath and Revbjelde.


 

Welcome to the 50th! Yes 50th edition of my most eclectic of new music review roundups. This latest collection is no different in selecting the most interesting, dynamic and obscure of releases from across the world, with the invasive dance beat billed compilation of Cameroon “pop Makossa” from the Analog Africa label, a curated collection of raga recordings and a rare film from the archives of the late Indian music ethnomusicologist Deben Bhattacharya, a phantasmagoria of folk, psych, prog, jazz and beats vision of an esoteric troubled England by Revbjelde, plus electronic suites both diaphanously ambient and equally menacing from Esmark and the triumvirate Roedelius, Chaplin & Heath, and vibrant quirky electro from Ippu Mitsui, and the return, after a 25 year absence of Germany’s highly influential cerebral electronic pop acolytes Der Plan.

Various  ‘Pop Makossa – The Invasive Dance Beat Of Cameroon 1976-1984’
Analog Africa,  16th June 2017

 

Pop goes Makossa! Makossa being, originally, the traditional rhythm and funeral dance of Cameroon’s Sawa and Essewé peoples, later transformed in the country’s cities as it collided with everything from merengue and rumba to Highlife and disco. Urban meets folk, Cameroon’s traditions given a transfusion of electromagnetism and fire, inevitably went “pop” in the latter half of the 1970s. Makossa, which means, “to dance” in the Cameroon Douala language, is a highly loose and adaptable style: as you will hear on this twelve-track collection of hits and rarities from the golden era of pop makossa.

The latest in a tenure adventure of excavating lost treasures from the African continent; Analog Africa’s main man Samy Ben Redjeb once more digs deep, sifting through a daunting mountain-size pile of records and recordings. As with many of these projects, Samy’s expeditions turn into lengthy travails: this compilation being no exception, the label originally putting out feelers and surveying the country’s music scene in 2009, and only now finalized and ready for release. And as with these projects he’s helped by equally passionate experts, in this case DJ/producer Déni Shain who travelled to Cameroon to tie-up the loose ends, license tracks, interview the artists, and rustle through the archives to find the best photographs for a highly informative accompanying booklet.

Honing in on the period when makossa rubbed-up against funk and disco, this balmy dance beat compilation’s pulse is luminous and fluid and most importantly, funky. This is in major part down to some of the most smooth, bouncing, slick and relaxed but constantly busy of bass lines – Cameroon’s bass players rightly revered as among the best throughout the world – and the constantly shuffling hi-hats, tom rolls and splashing drums.

Imitating their western counterparts but going full on in embracing the technology, especially production wise, of the times, in their own inimitable way, Cameroon’s great and good weren’t shy in using the synthesizer. The Mystic Djim & The Spirits use it for instance to glide along on their girl-group chorus beachside disco Yaoundé Girls track, whereas Pasteur Lappé uses it to create a bubbly, aquatic space effect on his 80s tropical disco vibe Sanaga Calypso. Everyone is at it more or less, using wobbly and laser-shot synth waves and gargles that were, very much, in vogue during the later 70s and early 80s. That or the Philly soul sound – check the tender electric guitar accents and sweet prangs together with smooth romantic saxophone on Nkodo Si-Tony’s jolly Miniga Meyong Mese hit – and odyssey style funk. Devoid of this slicker production and de rigueur electronic drum pads and cosmic burbles, the opening blast of pop makossa, an “invasion” in fact, by the Dream Stars is a much more lively and raw recording; closer in sound and performance to the J.B.’s than anything else. The most obscure and rare record in this collection – a real gritty shaker of Afro-soul – the Dream Stars turn makes its official debut, having never been released officially until now.

Every bit as “invasive”(and infectious) as the extended album title suggests, the classy pop massoka sound – once considered the unofficial national sound of Cameroon – is waiting to be rediscovered and let loose once again. In what seems like a recent shift in direction at the Analog Africa label, with the emphasis on the late 70s and 80s – from last year’s Space Echo collection from Cape Verde to reissues of Trinidad & Tobago star Shadow’s Sweet Sweet Dreams and the Benin solo singer Vincent Ahehehinnou’s Best Woman – this latest survey continues to unearth musical treats from the same era, albeit in different geographical settings, yet sharing many of the same production and trends traits. As classy as they come, this sun-basked music scene exposé arrives just in time for the summer.





Der Plan  ‘Unkapitulierbar’
Bureau B,  23rd June 2017

 

Though the heralded return (after a 25 year wait) of the cerebral German trio was prompted by a special reunion performance for Andreas Dorau’s 50th birthday, the momentous changes triggered by Brexit and the election of Trump must have had some effect in galvanizing Der Plan back into action. That recent party gig did however remind the trio of Moritz Reichelt, Kurt Dahlke and Frank Fenstermacher that making music together was fun at least. And so with encouragement they coalesced all the various scrapes, fragments and sketches that had been left dormant in the intervening years and shaped them into a dry-witted soundtrack for the times in which we now find ourselves: in Europe at least.

Of course, they hadn’t all been encased motionless in stasis of hibernation during that quarter century absence. Reichelt, know by his trademarked moniker Moritz R, designed covers and visuals, and alongside his comrades co-founded the influential indie label Ata Tak: releasing albums of varying success by DAF, Andreas Dorau and Element Of Crime. Dahlke meanwhile, no stranger to the Monolith Cocktail, has and continues to programme and produce electronica and techno music under the Pyrolator title; in recent years finishing or “re-constructing” archival material ideas from the vaults of the late kosmische progenitor Conrad Schnitzler. Fenstermacher has also been busy releasing solo material but is also recognized for his contributions to the Düsseldorf band Fehlfarben’s iconic Monarchie & Alltag LP.

Back together again; assembled under the hijacked Delacroix painting of Liberty Leading The People, defending the EU barricades as the American flag lays in tatters underfoot, in an iconic role reversal of the revolutionary spirit, Der Plan’s shtick is obvious in defense, and deference, of the EU constitution. Unkapitulierbar itself is a defiant battle cry, translated as “Uncapitulable” it denotes the group’s will of “continuity” and “unbrokeness” in the face of crisis.

One star poorer on the flag with further uncertainty (possibly my most overused but befitting word of the year) ahead for the EU, Der Plan consolidate and sow the seeds of worry on their first album together in 25 years. To show their scope of musical ideas and sounds, but also continue a link with there past as one of Germany’s most iconic and important electronic pop bands there’s reverberations of Kraftwerk’s Europe Endless synthesized symphony on the bouncy, elasticated sophisticated pop tracks Wie Der Wind Weht (As The Wind Blows) and Lass Die Katze Stehn! (Let The Cat Stand!); a hybrid of electric blue tango and reggae on the philosophical weary Man Leidet Herrlich (One Suffers Splendidly); and a mind-melding of The Beach Boys and Depeche Mode on the cooing expedition into space Die Hände Des Astronauten (The Hands Of The Astronaut).

The tone and vocals are however for the most part dour and dry even when tripping into the dream world flight of fantasy, which features an alluring but sinister female duet, Come Fly With Me (the only track title and song to be sung in English), and the near schmoozing, sentimental ballad Flohmarkt Der Gerfühle (Fleamarket Of Emotions).

Unkapitulierbar reflects both the band’s continued curiosity and development in song writing; their original process of improvising first and adding lyrics later is replaced with one in which ideas and lyrics act as a foundation for the music that follows. And with a wizened pastiche Der Plan prove that 25 years later the trio can at least be relied upon to produce the goods in these increasing volatile times.




Esmark  ‘Mãra I/ Mãra II’
Bureau B,  30th June 2017

 

The latest soundscape union between experimental artist Alsen Rau and sound architect Nikolai von Sallwitz, Esmark, is a disturbing moiety of minimalistic analog hardware manipulations and generated pulses spread over two volumes.

Rau, half of another duo the German partnership On+Brr, has released numerous recordings and is both a co-founder of and curator at the Hamburg based club Kraniche: covering exhibitions, performances and readings. Sallwitz meanwhile, as a vocalist and producer uses the appellation Taprikk Sweezee, and has composed music and sound design for film, theatre and a range of art and pop projects; collaborating at various times with the artists Chris Hoffmann, Andreas Nicolas Fischer and Robert Seidel, who as it happens has made a real time performed video piece for one of Esmark’s tracks.

Pitching up in the isolation of a Scandinavian cartography, where the impressive Spitzbergan glacier that not only lends its name to the duo’s name but also acts as a looming subject study, the Mãra recordings oscillate, hover and vibrate between the menacing presence of that cold landscape and the unworldly mystery of unknown signals from space and the ether. Moving at an often glacial pace, a build-up of strange forces penetrate the humming and drones that act as an often worrying bed of bleakness or ominousness. Subtly putting their analog kit of synth boxes and drum computers through changing chains of various effects and filters, feeding the results they’ve captured on tape back into the compositions, the duo evoke early Cluster, Phaedra-era Tangerine Dream, and on the Geiger counter rhythmic Krav, Can.

Acting as a prompt and reflection of the places and times they were recorded, each track title offers a vague reference point. Volume I seemly alludes to more earthly realms, naming peaks and points of interest, from what I can gather, though the atmosphere modulates and probes the spiked and flared communications of distant worlds and hovers like an apparition between dimensions. Volume II however, offers coded and scientific-fangled titles such as Objekt P62410 – which actually sounds like the warping debris from a UFO at times – and Tæller 3.981. The scariest of many such haunted trepidations on this volume, the supernatural dark material vibrations and hum of Lianen sounds like a portal opening up in the latest series of the Twin Peaks universe.

Something resembling a percussive rhythm and even a beat does occasionally form and take shape, prompting speedier and more intense movement. But whether it’s nature or the imagination being traversed and given sound, the pace is mostly creeping.

The Esmark collaboration transduces the earth-bound landscape and its omnipresent glacier into an unsettling sci-fi score and sound-art exploration that treads threateningly on the precipice of the unknown.




Ippu Mitsui  ‘L+R’
Bearsuit Records,  24th June 2017

 

Continuing to showcase relatively obscure (and bonkers occasionally) electronic and alternative music from both Scotland and Japan, the Edinburgh-based label Bearsuit Records has once again caught my attention. This time with the joystick-guided experimental dance music of the Tokyo artist/producer/musician Ippu Mitsui.

Since a self-produced debut in 2012 Mitsui has gone on to release a variety of records for different labels, before signing to Bearsuit in 2016. Flying solo again after sharing an EP with label comrades The Moth Poets last year, Mitsui now follows up his most recent E Noise EP with a full-on album of heavy, sharp reversal percussive layering and quirky electro and techno.

The colourful and vibrant L+R spins at different velocities of that quirkiness; from the flighty bubbly house style Tropicana in space Bug’s Wings, to the 32-bit, dial-up tone and laser-shooting skittish collage version of the Art Of Noise Random Memory.

Programmed to both entertain as much as jolt, Mitsui’s beats flow but also routinely shudder and trip into fits and phases of crazy discord or increasingly stretch their looping parameters until loosening into ever-widening complex cycles of percussion. Orbiting the influential spheres of Ed Banger – the transmogrified engine-revving accelerator Small Rider could easily be a lost track from one of the French label’s samplers – the Leaf label, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, 80s Chicago house, and the Nimzo-Indian, L+R is full of experimental ideas and sounds from whatever floats Mitsui’s boat. Some that work better than others it must be said, and some, which stem from drum breaks or synth waves that perhaps fail to go anywhere more interesting.

If you already know the Bearsuit label then Mitsui’s new-found base of operations proves a congruous choice to mount his dance music attacks from; fitting in well with their electronic music roster of the weird, avant-garde, humorous even, but always challenging.






‘Musical Explorers: Colours Of Raga’  Recordings by Deben Bhattacharya curated by Simon Broughton
ARC Music,  23rd June 2017

 

The inaugural release in a new series devoted to ethnomusicologists and the, often obscure, musicians they’ve recorded, Musical Explorers is the latest project from one of the busiest of “world music” labels, ARC. Championing the often haphazard art of field recording and capturing, what are in many examples, improvised one-off performances from all corners of the globe, ARC have chosen to kick start this new collection with music from the archives of the late renowned filmmaker Deben Bhattacharya.

Highly unusual for the times, the Indian born Bhattacharya was not only self-taught but one of the only ethnomusicologist to come from outside Europe or America. Moving to Britain in the late 1940s, he simultaneously worked for the post office and, as a porter, for John Lewis, whilst making radio programmes on Indian music for the BBC. He went on to produce over twenty such films and over a hundred plus albums of music, not just from the Indian subcontinent but also Europe and the Middle East.

Invited to “curate” and choose just six recordings from this extensive catalogue, Songlines editor-in-chief, author of the handy reference “rough guides” to world music series, and filmmaker, Simon Broughton hones in on the signature sound of India’s raga tradition; picking a concomitant suite of performances from Bhattacharya’s birthplace of Benara. Recorded in 1954, with the exception of Amiya Gopal Bhattacharya’s traversing and reflectively plucked and attentively gestured composition Todi, which was recorded much later in ’68, these tracks are sublime windows into a complex musical heritage.

Part of the western music scene for well over fifty years, embraced, appropriated, by Harrison and Jones most famously during the conscious shift from teenage melodrama of the early 60s to the psychedelic drug and musical quest for revelation and enlightenment in the mid to later part of that decade, the beautifully resonating harmonics and serenity of the sitar and the dipping palm and calm to galloping open handed tapping of the tabla have become part of the British musical landscape. Still representing the path to spiritualism and meaning, though also used still in the most uninspiring of ways as a shortcut to the exotic, the Indian sound and most notably ragas, continue to fascinate, yet are far from being fully understood.

Here then is a worthy instruction in the rudimentary: For example, framed as the most characteristic forms of Indian classical music, the raga derives its name and meaning from the Sanskrit word “ranji”, which means “to colour” (hence the collection’s title). Ragas also come in many moods (tenderness, serenity, contemplation) and themes, and must be played at particular times of the day in particular settings: ideally. To be played in the open air and after 7pm, the courtly Kedara not only sets a one of meditative optimism but introduces the listener to the lilting double-reed sound of the North Indian woodwind instrument, the “shenai”; played in an ascending/descending floating cycle of brilliance, alongside the Indian kettle drum, the “duggi”, by Kanhalyo Lall and his group – most probably on a prominent platform above the temple gate as tradition dictates.

Elsewhere Jyotish Chandra Chowdury eloquently, almost coquettish, radiates playing the more familiar sitar. He’s accompanied by the quickened rhythm and knocking tabla on the curtseying majestic Khamma – to be played between the very precise hours of 9-10pm. Swapping over to the zither-like “rudravina” Chowdury articulates the onset of the rain season, as the very first droplets hit the parched ground, on Miyan Ki Malhas.

Despite the hours and moods, which include a Hindi love song that goes on and on, these compositions are all very relaxing; submerging the listener if he wishes, into an, unsurprising, reflective but tranquil state.

Accompanying this audio collection is one of Bhattacharya’s introductory films on Indian music. Simply entitled Raga. Unfortunately most of his footage, originally commissioned by, of all people, Richard Attenborough, has been lost. And so this 1969 film remains one of the earliest examples left from the archives. Very representative of the times it was made, fronted by the stiff-collared Yehudi Menuhin, it serves a purpose as an historical document. Menuhin had it must be said. Little knowledge of the subject matter yet still wrote a script, which was replaced by Bhattacharya’s own to create a hybrid of the two, the focus being shifted away where possible from travelogue to technique and an endorsement of Indian music. The footage however introduces the viewer to a number of exceptional musicians, including a rare performance from the revered sitar player – one of the famous triumvirates of sitar gods alongside Vilayet Khan and Ravi ShankarHalim Jaffer Khan. It is an interesting companion piece to the main recordings, enhancing the whole experience with a visual record that captures a particular time in the development of Indian raga.

An illuminating, transcendental start to the series, Colours Of Raga acts as both a reference guide and gateway to exploring the enchanting beauty of the Indian raga further.


Roedelius, Chaplin & Heath  ‘Triptych In Blue’
Disco Gecko,  7th July 2017

 

Twenty years after first partnering with kosmische and neo-classicists most prolific composer Hans-Joachim Roedelius, ambient producer/musician Andrew Heath asked the legendary octogenarian to appear alongside him and the equally experimental composer Christopher Chaplin for a live performance in 2016. Part of a Heath curated concert at The Brunel Goods Shed in Stroud, this trio’s performances as the title makes obvious has a leitmotif, a fixation on the number three: three carefully chosen artists whose individual processes compliment and trigger each other so well produce three peregrinations of serialism to represent, or play with, three different shades of blue. It may also be a reference to the famous Triptych Bleu I, II, III paintings by the Spanish genius Joan Miró; a set of similar blue dominated works summarizing the abstract painters themes and techniques to that point in 1961, blue being for him a symbol of a world of cosmic dreams, an unconscious state where his mind flowed clearly and without any sort of order.

Heath’s previous collaboration of experimental ambience with Roedelius, Meeting The Magus, was recorded under the Aqueuous moniker with his duo partner Felix Joy in 1997. This proved to be the perfect grounding and experience for musical synergy, even if it took another two decades to follow up, as Heath picks up from where he left off on Triptych In Blue. Chaplin for his part has performed with the Qluster/Cluster/Kluster steward before. But as with most Roedelius featured projects, and he’s been part of a great many in his time, each performance is approached with fresh ears.

Self-taught with a far from conventional background in music, Roedelius has nevertheless helped to create new forms based on classism and the avant-garde. The piano has returned to the forefront, especially on recent Qluster releases. And it appears here with signature diaphanous touches and succinct, attentive cascades floating, drifting and sometimes piercing the multilayered textures of aleatory samples and generated atmospherics.

Tonally similar but nuanced and changeable each shade of blue title has its own subtle articulations. The meteorite-crystallized source of Azurite is represented by a starry-echoed piano notes, the hovering presence of some leviathan force and the synthetic created tweeting of alien wildlife. A sonorous de-tuning bell chimes through a gauzy melody of sadly bowed strings, distant voices in a market, and a moody low throbbing bass on Ultramarine, whilst Cobalt is described in gracefully stirring classical waves, searing drones, scrapped and bottle top opening percussion, and chilled winds.

Subtly done, each track is however taken into some ominous glooms and mysterious expanses of uncertainty by the trio, who guide those neo-classical and kosmische genres into some unfamiliar melodic and tonal ambient spaces. And all three in their own way are quite melodious and sometimes beautiful.

Not to take anything away from his companions on this performance, but the musical equivalent of a safety kitemark, Roedelius’ name guarantees quality. And Triptych In Blue is no different, a worthy collaboration and “lower case” study success for both Heath and Chaplin. Hopefully this trinity will continue to work together on future projects.



Revbjelde  ‘S/T’
Buried Treasure, available now

 

Flagged up as a potential review subject for the Monolith Cocktail by Pete Brookes, one part of the Here Are The Young Men & Uncle Peanut outfit, whose 2015 Gimmie! Gimmie! Gimmie! Peanut Punk diatribe made our choice albums of that year; the Berkshire-based Revbjelde’s self-titled debut for the Buried Treasure imprint is billed as an industrial-jazz-psych-motorik-folk phantasmagoria (that last word is mine not theirs).

Soundtracking a somber, spooky dystopian vision of England, the group and their guest contributors create a suitably Fortean supernatural soundscape. One that is inhabited by the ghosts of the past, present and future, and the nationalistic (whether in jingoistic poetic pride or as an auger against such lyrical bombast) verse and poetry of some of “Albion’s” finest visionaries. Relics and crumbling edifices of religion and folklore for instance, such as Reading Abbey and the non-specific Cloister, feature either stern haunted Blake-esque narrations, courtesy of the brilliantly descriptive Dolly Dolly – Lycan and cuckoo metaphors, blooded stone steps and the decaying stench of an inevitable declining empire conjure up a vivid enough set of images – or the spindle-weaved clandestine instrumental atmospherics of a place that’s borne witness to something macabre.

Bewitched pastoral folk from a less than “merry olde England” morphs into daemonic didgeridoo lumbering gait jazz from an unworldly outback; Medieval psychogeography bleeds into bestial esoteric blues; and on the lunar-bounding strange instrumental Out Of The Unknown, reverberations of 80s Miles Davis, UNKLE and trip-hop amorphously settle in as congruous bedfellows on a trip into a mindfuck of an unholy cosmos.

Communing with false spirits, as with the infamous 17th century poltergeist tale nonsense of the “Tidworth drummer”, and losing themselves under the spell of The Weeping Tree, Revbjelde traverse a diorama of old wives tales, myth and all too real tragedy. Retreating one minute into the atavistic subterranean, hurtling along to Teutonic motoring techno the next as ethereal sirens coo a lulling and spine-tingling chorus, time is breached and fashioned to the band’s own ends. An alternative England, more befitting of writers such as Alan Moore, dissipates before the listener’s ears, evoking the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Sproatly Smith, The Incredible String Band, Aphrodite’s Child, mystical Byzantine hypnotics and a myriad of 60s to 70s British horror soundtracks. “Supernatural perhaps; Baloney, perhaps not!” As Bela Lugosi once retorted on film to his skeptic acquaintance’s dismissive gambit. After all there is a far deeper and serious theme to this album, one that touches upon the very tumultuous and horror of our present uncertain times.





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