Albums Selected By Dominic Valvona and Matt Oliver.





Welcome to Part Two of our alphabetically ordered best/choice/favourite albums of 2018 feature. You can find Part One here…


The decision making process: 

Being the exhaustive and eclectic set of features our albums of the year are, we know you probably don’t need to or want to dally about reading a long-winded prognosis of our judgement process. But in short, here it is anyway.

Continuing to shy away from fatuous rating systems and ‘best of lists’, the Monolith Cocktail endeavors to offer a more visceral and personal spread of worthy ‘choice’ picks, with no album dominating or holding any particular numbered position – unlike most of our contemporaries lists, stuck with the ridiculous task, for example, of explaining why one album is more deserving of their numbered spot than another.

With no hierarchical order, we’ve lined our album choices up alphabetically; split into two features – Part One: A (Idris Ackamoor) to M (Moonwalks); Part Two:(Thomas Nation) to (Thom Yorke).

All of our favourite new and reissued albums and EPs from 2018 are of course considered to be the most interesting, vibrant and dynamic of the year’s releases. But the best? Granted, to make this list you have to have made some sort of impact, but we’d never suggest these entries were categorically the best albums of 2018: even if that might be true. Instead our list is an indicator of our amorphous tastes, rounding up another year in the life of the Monolith Cocktail, and we hope, introducing you to titles and artists/bands that may have dropped below the radar or got lost in the noise of more commercial better promoted releases.

All selections in PART TWO from me (Dominic Valvona) and Matt Oliver.

N.

Thomas Nation ‘Battle Of The Grumbles’ (Faith & Industry)


 

Fixed intently on the anguishes of identity in a post-Brexit voted England, yet bleaching his 1960s bucolic and 1970s lounge (erring towards yacht rock almost) imbued songbook with nostalgia, the lyrics themselves read as augurs yet embedded on parchment, Blue House front-man James Howard weaves a diaphanous if plaintively foreboding chronicle of the past and present.

Creating a whole new persona as Thomas Nation, his commitment to a hazy timeless sound, both rustic and ambitious, goes as far as using only his rough mono mixes; undeveloped and left in their most honest, purest form. You won’t be surprised to learn that Howard has also released his Nation moniker debut, Battle Of The Grumbles, on cassette tape.

Littered with references to this Island’s past (both at home and overseas), from the illustrated album cover scene of the 16th century ‘Battle of the Spurs’ (when the Holy Roman Empire teamed up with Henry VIII’s England) to more ambiguous stirrings and despondent yearnings that feature musical echoes from across that ages, Battle Of The Grumbles stands metaphorically at the precipice of the white cliffs of Dover awaiting Britain’s fate.

A gentle spirit, James Howard creates a pastoral nostalgic journey filled with augurs, despair and disillusion but always diaphanous. The first of what Howard hopes will be an annual ‘pilgrimage’, the Thomas Nation incarnation is a cerebral wonder through the essence of Englishness, questioning and probing the psyche as it meanders through the psychogeography and heart of the countryside. Full review…

(Dominic Valvona)


Tony Njoku ‘H.P.A.C’  (Silent Kid Records)


 

Bringing a very different perspective and life experience to the London avant-garde art and electronic music scene, the British-Nigerian producer with the earthy falsetto, Tony Njoku, articulates a most unique form of magical soul music on his stunning new album. Though undulated with an ethereal to malady suffused backing of sophisticated synthesized travails, Njoku’s vocals always seem to bobble and float above the choppy breaks and ebbing tides.

Adrift in so many ways, through his life experiences, transferring as he did at the age of fourteen to London from a life spent hiding his true personality in the toxic macho boarding schools of Lagos, the sensitive Njoku found at least one kind of solace; able to show a vulnerability and pursue the music career he really wanted having previously recorded a number of hip-hop albums (the first when he was only twelve) that proved entirely counterintuitive, but were completely in tune with Nigerian environment he grew up in. Yet in the arts community he joined in his new home of London, he found few Afrocentric voices or people he could identify with or relate to. From that isolation comes an album inspired by the ‘high art sonic’ forms of Arca and Anhoni, and by the metamorphosis nature of Bjork; Njoku’s own compositions feature a beautiful synthetic shuffle of Afrofuturism soul and more searing discordant synth waves that clash and distort on arrival but gradually sync and become part of the motion. From beauty to pain and release, and often back again, each track (and not in a bad way) seems open-ended; a constant flowing cycle of emotions, which can be healed during that moment, in that space and time, but will inevitably return: A calm followed by turbulence and hopefully the light.

Eloquently in a hymn like fashion between pained malady and the venerable, heavenly but also melancholic and turbulent, H.P.A.C is a futuristic soul album of delicate intellect. Full review…

(DV)



P.

Micall Parknsun & Mr Thing ‘Finish What We Started’  (Village Live)



“Mainstays trusted with hip-hop restoration…with all the answers for those exaggerating hip-hop’s downfall” – RnV July 18

Featuring “beats to make your eyebrow dip” and the flow of one of the UK’s most reliably disdainful when it comes to holding your own, Micall Parknsun and Mr Thing made the very good decision to turn 2017’s one-off ‘The Raw’ into a 40 minute non-apology for playing the game properly. With hip-hop mumbling its way to the dogs, this pair have fire in the belly for the unfashionable return to beats and rhymes designed to stick around and give a damn. Measured run-ups streaked with bluesy, soulful headspace occupancy (with drums front and centre each and every time), a crux of blockbusters and pure boom bap battery, all land like a two-footed tackle, Thing researching and sculpting ‘the real’ without making it a puff piece on nostalgia or announcing they’re here to save the world. Park-E does his utmost to remain an upstanding citizen, pushed to his limits by both Thing’s heavyweight kicks and snares and general scene lethargy. The emcee’s systematic, it’s on when I say so-flow, perfectly lands the elbow once the producer has left you staggering backwards.

(Matt Oliver)

Josh T. Pearson ‘The Straight Hits’  (Mute)


 

Changing his tune (literally) Josh T. Pearson, the lonesome blues Texan with a wagonload of baggage, heads out onto the range with a swag bag of more joyful, unencumbered ‘golden hits’ with his latest album for Mute Records.

Leaving behind the more apocalyptic gospel concepts of his work with the short-lived but acclaimed Lift To Experience, Pearson sets himself new parameters; adhering to a five-point rules system for transforming a “batch of tunes” he’d been working on for a decade. Earmarked originally for the ‘unrecorded’ Bird Songs album, the nine original songs on The Straight Hits are a lighter and as the title suggests ‘straighter’ attempt to change the mood.

Far from set in stone – the unwritten rock’n’roll law that all rules are written to be broken is invoked on the tender yearning A Love Song (Set Me Straight) – each song must at least try to follow Pearson’s self-imposed requirements: Number one, all songs must have a verse, a chorus and a bridge; two, the lyrics must run sixteen lines or less; three, they must have the word ‘straight’ in the title; four, that title must be four words or less; and five, they must submit to song above all else i.e. “You do as she tells you, whatever the song tells you”, “You bend to her, and not her to you.”

The Straight Hits is a most rallying rodeo that gives the Americana soundtrack a much-needed kick-in-the-pants; the themes of love, whether it’s the analogical kind, ‘take me right now’ kind, or lamentable kind, enacted across a varied but blistering songbook. Rejecting the stimulants and his demons, Pearson choses the good ol’ fashioned power and redemptive spirit of gospel ye-ye and country rock’n’roll. And don’t it sound just mighty fine and swell! Full review…

(DV)



Q.

Qujaku ‘Qujaku’ (So I Buried Records)


 

Occupying both the spiritual and cosmic planes, emerging from the gloom and holy sanctuaries of the dead, the brooding Hamamatsu-based Japanese band Qujaku wowed with their second album of operatic Gothic and psychedelic doom-mongering. Beginning as they mean to go on, the opening ‘Shoko No Hakumei’ suite, more an overture, is itself a full on Ring cycle (as conducted by Boris) that is dramatic and sprawling: running almost the entire length of a full side of a traditional vinyl album.

On a very large foreboding canvas, Qujaku build-up an impressive tumult across the album’s nine-tracks of prowling esotericism and galloping drum barrage immensity. Between crescendo-bursting three-part acts and shorter volatile slabs of heavy caustic drone rock, the group often evokes an Oriental Jesus And Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Spacemen 3, or Nine Inch Nails when at their most enraged. Psychedelic in the mode of The Black Angels, but also straying at their most languid and navel-gazing towards Shoegaze, Qujaku’s dark spanning cacophony of throbs and trembles bear many subtle nuances and becalmed breaks amongst the masses and maelstroms.

On an epic scale, dreaming big and intensely, Qujaku perform the most dramatic of daemonic theatre. Full review…

(DV)



R.

RAM ‘August 1791’ 


 

Considering the tumultuous bloody revolution from which an independent Haiti was born, RAM leader Richard A Morse‘s “Our existence is a political statement” mantra is unsurprising. Named after the initials of their road well travailed founder, RAM perform an entrancing spectacle of the ritualistic. Morse, originally born in Puerto Rico but brought up in Connecticut, spent the 80s rubbing shoulders with the polygenesis New York art and music scene’s Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol’s factory. His interest piqued by the new wave’s adoption of Afro-diaspora rhythms and world music, Morse decided to travel to his native homeland to study the Haitian sound.

The son of Haiti folk legend Emerante de Pradine, Morse was already well aware of his ancestral roots, but had yet to indulge in or absorb the rich history of the island fully. After an initial short trip, Morse found himself it seems so seduced and inspired by Haiti’s culture that he decided to stay for good. Marrying local dancer and singer Lunise, he kick started the frenzied, rambunctious troupe, channeling the ideas he picked up on in New York and merging them with the signature instrumentation and sounds of the local Vodou belief, mizik-rasin and the drifting currents of the Caribbean and Africa.

This year’s odyssey, guided by the spirits and with dedications to the marternel and those that have helped (including the pivotal film director Jonathan Demme, who prominently featured one of their tracks in his or award-winning Philadelphia movie in 1994) shaped the band over the years, springs from Haiti’s enslaved population’s struggle for independence from its European masters. August 1791, the year and month of revolution (inspired by their colonial masters own revolution), frames this tropical fusion of tragedy and sauntering joy. Returning to the legends that sparked this fight, such as the ill-fated former slave turned leader of revolt, Toussaint Louverture (driving out the Spanish and British but captured and imprisoned under Napoleon’s regime; languishing in a cell at Fort de Joux until he died in 1803), and first Emperor of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (assassinated by disgruntled members of the burgeoning administration), RAM evoke the spark that set in motion the first free republic of African heritage people in the Western hemisphere. Their seventh album not only pays tribute but features a musical accompaniment from that era; with a sound more or less, when stripped to its essence, that would be familiar to the Creole and African communities of the late 18th century.

Uniting in a busy percussive fusion the Americas with the roots of Africa, RAM bustle and hustle traditions to produce a paean to the Island they call home.

(DV) 



Soho Rezanejad ‘Six Archetypes’


 

Impressive in all its striking celestial and throbbing distressed staccato shimmer the experimental Danish artist Soho Rezanejad’s ethereal but equally futurist dystopian ambitious new LP, Six Archetypes, is a bold exploration of identity politics.

Interplaying six of the major character symbols (The Guardian, The Orphan, The Seeker, The Russian, The Idealist, The Prostitute) from the Tarot with Carl Jung’s Psychological writings on the collective and structured reality, Rezanejad weaves the complex contemporary themes of gender liquidity and self-discovery into an amorphous mix of electronica, darkwave and Gothic pop suites.

Though not always audible, Rezanejad’s untethered vocals – vaporous and often ghostly undulating in an aria style – whisper, coo, lull, pant, wrench and shout throughout the shard majestic and multilayered intricate backing of synthesized, programmed, modeled sounds. It’s a striking voice too. At times, such as the beautiful but serious stellar flight of the navigator, Bjork meets Chino Amobi, rotary opener Pilot The Guardian, she sounds like Nico. And at other times, such as the lush Bowie/Sylvian synchronicity, Soon, her vocals sound like a mixture of Jesus Zola and Lykke Li.

Returning to the soil, so to speak, Rezanejad saves her most heartfelt yearn until the end; lovingly but starkly impassioned, singing in her ancestral tongue of Farsi – Rezanejad is the daughter of first generation Iranian immigrants – the National Council Of Resistance Of Iran’s alternative national song in protest against the state’s heavy-handed ideology.

An ambitious debut opus of dark beauty and ominous despair, Six Archetypes is a highly impressive cosmology of gender, roots and futurism politics and narratives. Full review…

(DV)



S.

Sad Man ‘ROM-COM’


 

Haphazardly prolific, Andrew Spackman, under his most recent of alter egos, the Sad Man, has released an album/collection of giddy, erratic, in a state of conceptual agitation electronica every few months since the beginning of 2017.

The latest and possibly most restive of all his (if you can call it that) albums is the spasmodic computer love transmogrification ROM-COM. An almost seamless record, each track bleeding into, or mind melding with the next, the constantly changing if less ennui jumpy compositions are smoother and mindful this time around. This doesn’t mean it’s any less kooky, leaping from one effect to the next, or, suddenly scrabbling off in different directions following various nodes and interplays, leaving the original source and prompts behind. But I detect a more even, and daresay, sophisticated method to the usual skittish hyperactivity.

Almost uniquely in his own little orbit of maverick bastardize electronic experimentation, Spackman, who builds many of his own bizarre contraptions and instruments, strangulates, pushes and deconstructs Techno, the Kosmische, Trip-Hop and various other branches of the genre to build back up a conceptually strange and bewildering unique sonic shake-up of the electronic music landscape. Full review…

(DV)


Otis Sandsjö ‘Y-OTIS’ (We Jazz Records)  


 

Imbued as much by the complex language of North American and European modernist jazz as those who use it to riff on in the hip-hop and electronic music genres, the adroit Gothenburg saxophonist and composer Otis Sandsjö transmogrifies his own jazz performances so they transcend, or at least amorphously (like liquid) expand into polygenesis soundscapes.

Y-OTIS reimagines a musical union between Flying Lotus and Donny McCaslin, or better still, Madlib reconstructing the work of 3TM; the flow, if you can call it that, sounding like a remix deconstruction in progress as the rapid and dragging fills and staggered rolls of his group’s drummer Tilo Webber are stretched out, inverted and reversed into a staccato to dynamic bursting set of breakbeats and loops. Mirroring all the various cut-and-paste techniques of the turntablist maestros, Sandsjö and his dexterous troupe of keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, bassist Petter Eidh and Webber sound like a group being remixed in real time, live: And it sounds brilliant, as you’re never quite sure where each of these compositions is going to end up.

Sandsjö’s debut album, released via the Helsinki festival and label platform We Jazz Records, is a multilayered serialism suite of ideas and experimental visions. All of which, despite that complexity and blending of sophisticated avant-garde jazz, hip-hop, R&B, trip-hop and dance music, keep an ear out for the melody. If the ACT label, or ECM, ever converges with Leaf and Anticon, Y-OTIS might well be the result. Full review…

(DV)



Scran Cartel ‘Blue Plaque Candidates’  (Scran Cartel)



“A great, belt-loosening spread grilling you with much more than just a bunch of culinary one-liners” – RnV Aug 18

Brit grafters MNSR Frites (Granville Sessions) and Benny Diction (Corners) read you the specials for twelve fascinating tracks, packing foot-related rhetoric from the moment the dinner bell sounds. It’s quite an accomplishment to master such a particular angle without it being a gimmick, and easy to forget that ‘Blue Plaque Candidates’ is not specifically a concept album, just an expression of culinary love. These two really know their cookbooks and have a shopping list that you can’t check out quick enough, from cordon bleu menu toppers to bread and butter basics and young at heart sweetshop favourites, the Estuary English plating your three squares a day with the same near-apathy as they do exotic, forbidden fruit. The jazzy, funky beats are garnish to the duo cookery schooling everyone, indulging in one sub-grime moment on the E-numbered ‘Dundee’, and a cultural knowhow showing that greed isn’t always good, adds weight to their sprattish statement of “we write and record rap songs about food”. A chef fingers’ kiss for this one.

(MO)


Skyzoo ‘In Celebration of Us’  (First Generation Rich)



“Some of the smoothest psychology and concrete consciousness you’ll hear this year. One to be toasted over and over” – RnV Feb 18

Giving ‘In Celebration of Us’ the grown man rap label is a bit of a giveaway given Skyzoo’s opening skit of confiding in a pal about giving up the streets for the sake of his newborn. The Brooklynite and new father speaks a lot of sense, a flow that will express disappointment rather than anger and keep the titular celebrations modest, and attracts a captive audience when aiming at your head twofold, comprehensively ensuring the wateriness of neo-soul doesn’t just ebb away, or the dustiness of Detroit-style beats fugs your judgement. Picture a sometimes reluctant lecturer, as everyman as the tales you’ll familiarise yourself with, but giving you the full education once the mic in his hand. Not clinging to verse, hook, verse structure, Skyzoo doesn’t ramble, rather makes certain that he’s examined everything from top to bottom, very much schooled in knowing that if something’s worth doing, do it properly. Enough to make you feel warm and fuzzy – there are some undeniably slick, R&B moves crossing over as well – and rather more pensive when presented with the cold light of day.

(MO)


The Last Skeptik ‘Under the Patio’  (Thanks for Trying)



“An album simmering down the summer’s sticky restlessness: dusky beats that never fade to black, understated in their genre reach” – RnV July 18

Intense from The Last Skeptik, extremely well connected and arguably more well rounded since after a spell of paying extra-curricular dues. Surrounding himself with a boiling pot of hungry emcees gets a maximum return from teeth gritted, rapid fire, pound the road, witty unpredictables, all of whom casually playing down their iron mic grip. Synth-wired, at times spindly beats either host the back-to-mine session or storm the stage, perfect for its roll call – Bonkaz, Kojey Radical, Doc Brown, Scrufizzer but four headliners to pick from – to move through and dominate while playing the back, with motive or just willing daylight away. While originally noted for soundtracking summer humidity, ‘Under the Patio’ is decidedly not an album for office hours. Dabbling in shades of the exotic and skilfully soulful throughout for an album of rough edges, it’s the careful contrasts – the haunting ‘Hide & Seek’ featuring Matt Wills, the inexplicable but permissible ‘Calm Down’ inviting The Manor round for a knees up (there’s the versatility for you) – and Skeptik’s own version of ‘Deep Cover’ on posse cut ‘Oxymoron’ – that triumph in their cohesion to give TLS a massive W.

(MO)


Stella Sommer ’13 Kinds Of Happiness’ (Affairs Of The Heart)


 

In the vogue of an age-old central European malady, the dour romanticism that permeates the stunning solo debut album from the German singer/songwriter Stella Sommer is wrapped in a most beautiful gauze of melodious uplift and elegiac heartache.

Artistically, as the results prove, making the best decision of her career, Sommer steps out for a sojourn from her role in the German band Die Heiterkeit. Far from an extension of that group (though band mates Hanitra Wagner and Phillip Wolf both join her on this album), there are of course concomitant traces of it. Sommer however makes louder but also accentuates these traces and lingering relationships; her lived-in, far-beyond-her-years vocal more sonorous and commanding than before.

Possibly as perfect as an album can get, 13 Kinds Of Happiness is an ambitious, slowly unveiling album of diaphanous morose. Pastoral folk songs and hymn-like love trysts are transduced by a Gothic and Lutheran choral liturgy rich backing that reimagines Nico fronting Joy Division, or Marianne Faithfull writhing over a Scary Monsters And Super Creeps era Bowie soundtrack (especially on the galloping Northern European renaissance period evoking thunderous drumming ‘Dark Princess, Dark Prince’; just one of the album’s many highlights). I don’t use that Nico reference lightly: Sommer channeling the fatalistic heroine’s best qualities atmospherically speaking.

A curious Teutonic travail of venerable lovelorn despair and modesty, Sommer’s debut LP will take time to work its magic. But work its magic it will. A tremendous talent lyrically and vocally, serious and astute yet melodically enriching and lilted, her sagacious deep tones are starkly dramatic, but above all, rewarding. Here’s to a solo indulgence that I hope long continues. Full review…

(DV)


Station 17 ‘Blick’  (Bureau B)


 

With near enough thirty years of experience behind them and a changeable lineup of both musicians with and without various disabilities, the Station 17 collective once more shift their focus and sound; moving away from the all-out pop of the last album Alles Für Alle for a more improvised travail through the Krautrock, Kosmische and experimental electronica cannon.

Free of predetermined structures, lyrics and ideas they enjoyed an improvised freedom; inviting a host of German musical royalty to take part in what is a collaborative recording experience – something they’ve done in the past, having worked with icons such as Michael Rothar and the late Holger Czukay. And so each of the album’s tracks feature the signatures sounds and quirks of its guests: The writhing prehistoric Krautrock-jazzy Le Coeur Léger, Le Sentiment D’un Travail Bien Fait for example features the guiding avant-garde, ‘musique concrète’ presence of drum and bass partnership of Jean-Hervé Péron (the French title track I dare say his idea) and Zappi Diermaier; key founders of the reverent agent provocateurs Faust, who in recent decades have broken away to form their own iteration of the group under the faUSt banner. And, though only as part of its most modern regeneration, Tangerine Dream’s Ulrich Schnauss appears to gaze through a progressive Kosmische tinged explored ‘astronomical telescope’ on the album’s heaven’s gate opening finale.

From another generation, Dirk Dresselhaus, aka Schneider TM, appears both as an engineer, capturing these sessions and crafting them into a coherent album, and as a collaborator on the kooky bossa nova preset Die Uhr Spricht. Andreas Spechtl of Ja, Panik! infamy appears alongside Station 17 singer Siyavash Gharibi on the poppier, Der Plan-esque Dinge, and another Andreas, Andreas Dorau, joins the same upbeat, marimba like candour on what we’re told is an “enduring appraisal of post-capitalist perversion”, Schaust Du, whilst Datashock travel through the primordial soup into another dimension on the Acid Mothers-hitch-a-ride-aboard-the-Cosmic Jokers-spaceship Zauberpudding.

Turning the dial on an imaginary radio station, attuned to all the highlights from Germany’s most experimental if rhythmic decades, Blick confidently absorbs the influences and inspirations of its multitude of guests to produce social commentary and reflect on the here and now. Full review…

(DV)



T.

Rodrigo Tavares ‘Congo’  (Hive Mind Records)


 

The amorphous traversing post-rock and jazz travelogue from Brazilian guitarist/composer Rodrigo Tavares is filled with a sense of contemplation and meditation, and a yearn for the spiritual. The spiritual is represented in Congo’s genesis; the catalyst for Tavares soundtrack inspired, in part at least, by a visit to the controversial ‘spiritual healer’ John of God – a medium, psychic surgeon of dubious repute -, who lives in the remote central Brazilian town of Abadiânia. The meditative, in this case, runs throughout the suggestive instrumental passages and vignettes that ponderously drift, cascade and ebb across a real and imagined borderless global soundtrack.

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

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

(DV)


Samba Touré ‘Wande’  (Glitterbeat Records)


 

In a country abundant with guitar virtuosos, the highly genial Samba Touré still stands out as one of Mali’s most celebrated and accomplished; transducing the travails, heartache but also joy of his homeland through his signature articulate nimble-fingered style of playing.

His third album for Glitterbeat Records – the first, Albala, was the label’s inaugural release in 2013 – Wande is billed as a warmer homely songbook: previous releases were produced during the Islamist insurgency that swept aside and hijacked the Northeastern Tuareg communities’ battle for autonomy in the north eastern regions of Mali. Far from a complete break, the sadness endures on Wande; though Touré sadness is a most beautiful, cantering and lingering one. Especially when paying tribute to his friend and collaborator, sokou fiddle maestro Zoumana Tereta, on the spoken word with wavering drifty, almost dub-like echo-y effects tracks of the same name, which features the late musician’s spindly evocations from beyond the ether.

Recorded in under two weeks, allowing weekends for band members to scratch a living playing at weddings, sessions for the album were relaxed, performances captured on their first take with few overdubs. The lo fi production feel of the rocking blues ‘Yerfara/We Are Tired’ could be a lost inspiration for 80s period Rolling Stones with its almost transmogrified Start Me Up like Richards riff. ‘Goy Boyro/The Good Work (Well Done)’ even begins with a Taj Mahal, BB King reminiscent introduction hook, before dipping over the horizon. But whatever you do, don’t call this is a desert blues album, or even an African one; Touré correctly insistent that this is contemporary ‘universal’ rock music.

Not quite such a leap of faith or different to previous albums, an unpolished and laidback methodology has produced a slightly more sagacious, free-floating quality and another essential Touré masterpiece. Full review…

(DV)


Ty ‘A Work of Heart’  (Jazz Re:Freshed)



“Almost feels like a magic carpet ride over the capital’s skyline; come and spread your arms if you really need a hug” – RnV Mar 18

Soft focus viewed with the wisest of eyes cutting through life’s smokescreen: the eminent UK statesman preserves the essence of never getting too high or too low. Ty has long had that trustworthy delivery of a life coach who can pep you up – inspirational with quiet authority – and tell you to man up without raising his voice, any hints at vulnerability given the very British keep calm and carry on treatment (“when you smile with me publicly I’m wearing a mask, gritting my teeth, a wolf in a bundle of sheep”). The liltingly clean production is what might turn a few ears belonging to those thinking hip-hop’s not for them – right from the off it’s of a Ty-tracked, toasted cinnamon bun snugness, a concrete jungle paved with a yellow brick road heading towards promised lands, but with the plain sailing carrying some turbulence. ‘A Work of Heart’ sounds as good as when Jack Frost comes knocking, as much as when the summer’s hose pipes were forbidden fruit. And like the first blooms of spring. AND the first leaves of autumn falling too.

(MO)



U.

U.S. Girls  ‘In A Poem Unlimited’  (4AD)


 

Featuring most of the Toronto cast of collaborators that propelled the first U.S. Girls release for 4AD records, Half Free, forward, but stretched and lushly flexed into space boogie and other equally eclectic grooves by the city’s multi-limbed collective The Cosmic Range, Meg Remy’s latest cerebral pop revision tones down some of the vibrancy for acerbic, sax-wailing pouted-lips resignation and introversion.

Moving across the border from the USA with her husband and musical collaborator Maximilian Turnbull, aka guitar-slinging maverick Slim Twig, long before Trump reached The White House, Remy has broadened her postmodernist transmogrification of bleeding hearts 60s girl group meets tape-loops signature to accommodate femme fatale disco and funk since making a new home for herself in Canada.

The momentum of this album fluctuates throughout, and compared to Half Free, takes a lot to bed in and flow – and I’m still not sold on the two skits -, starting as it does with the aching ponderous slow burner Velvet 4 Sale – perhaps Remy’s most dark fantasy yet, imaging (just imagining mind) a role reversal of power, as she implores a girl friend to buy a gun for protection, impressing that the only way to change men is for women to use violence. An unsettling twist played out to a dragging soul fuzz backing track, the song’s central tenant imagines a world where women take up arms against men, though Remy ‘deplores violence’ of course. It’s followed by an equally sensually nuzzling sax and yearned vocal performance, and take on the Plastic Ono Band, Rage Of Plastic, before picking up with the album’s most bouncy weaponized boogie, M.A.H. – a chic Ronnie Spector fronting Blondie style diatribe broadside aimed at the democrats venerated saviour Obama, who Remy condemns for the charismatic charm seduction that pulled-the-wool over many supporters eyes, hiding the fact that he presided over a covert number of unsavory drone strikes.

Hardly disarming then, In A Poem Unlimited deplores the present hierarchy with a seething checked rage, set to a challenging but melodious soundtrack of yearning no wave, scintillating chic disco, Plastic Ono Band soul, vaporous 80s pop and even jazz. The patriarch comes in for some scathing poetic justice; played out to some of the year’s best tunes and performances. Full review…

(DV)



V.

Vukovar ‘Infinitum’ (Le Recours Forêts Production)

Vukovar/Michael Cashmore ‘Monument’


 

Among the most prolific of bands, Vukovar have released two of their most stunning albums in just the last quarter of 2018 alone. Keeping to the signature three-syllable grandly entitled Gothic statements of malcontent, melodrama, aggrandizement and melconholy, both Infintum and Monument romantically encircle the void better and with more sagacious quality than previous records. Though only in existence for barely three years, and perhaps already splitting up, Vukovar are improving on every release. Both are included because…well, I can’t make my mind up about which of these recent opuses of despair and hermetic exploration I prefer.  Hell….they’re both great. And here’s why:

The fifth LP in the malcontent’s cannon, Infinitum, pulls at the mortal coil of human misery in a murky quagmire. An endless backing track of reverberating delayed snare strikes, a rolling timpani bounding bass drum, esoteric stately sounding waltzes, unwieldy bestial guitar, resigned new romantic synth and escaped melodies muddily, and often amorphously, swim and oscillate around a combination of longing, if worn down and depressed, swooning vocals and Rimbaud-meets-Crowley-meets-Kant-on-the-edge-of-an-abyss poetic despairing narration, on what is a bleak if at times gloriously dark beauty of an album.

Bound-up in their own self-imposed limitations, these anarchistic dreamers go one further than the Hebrew code of law commandments by adhering to 13 of their own; each one a rule or restriction in the recording process that couldn’t be broken, at any cost. So strict were these conditions that even if the band were close to finishing the album, any infringement no matter how minor, would result in the entire sessions being abandoned. Mercifully they made it through to the end; releasing a troubled, bleak lo fi ritualistic romance of an grand opus.

Cut from the same cloth, but collaborating with an undoubted influence, the group’s sixth LP, Monument, traverses the void with Current 93 stalwart and producer/composer Michael Cashmore (appearing under the guises of his Nature And Organization nom de plume). A congruous in what is a melancholy harrowing romantic partnership with the morbidly curious Vukovar, Cashmore leads with a vaporous, industrial and often godly (whichever God/Gods they be) brutalist swathe of sagacious moodiness. Arguably inheritors of Current 93 and, even more so, Coil’s gnostic-theological mysticism and brooding venerable communions, Cashmore seems the obvious foil. Current’s The Innermost Light and Coil’s (and John Balance’s swan song as it were) The Ape Of Naples both permeate this conceptual opus.

From haunting melodrama to harrowing decay, unrequited love to radiant escape, the loss of innocence and youth to sagacious death rattles, Vukovar prove ideal torchbearers of the cerebral Gothic sound and melancholic romanticism. A meeting of cross-generational minds with both partners on this esoteric immersive experience fulfilling their commitments, Monument shows a real progression for Vukovar, and proves a perfect vehicle for Cashmore’s uncompromising but afflatus ideas to flourish in new settings, whilst confirming his reputation and status.

Whatever happens next, this ambitious work will prove a most fruitful and lasting highlight in the Vukovar cannon; one that’s growing rapidly, six albums in with a seventh already recorded; another ‘momentous’ statement that affirms the band’s reputation as one of the UK’s most important new bands. Full reviews…

(DV)



Y.

‘Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs Of World War II’  (Six Degrees)  


 

In light of the recent Tree Of Life synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, the increasingly uncomfortable language and hostility from the far Left, and the rising tide of European wide anti-semitism, this most tragic songbook of WWII Soviet Union laments from the Jewish community that joined Stalinist Russia’s defence against the Nazis, is a timely reminder of persecution from the graveyard of history. 400,000 men and women signed up to fight Hitler’s forces in one of the most bloody and apocalyptic campaigns in military history. If gratitude was ever warranted, the fate that awaited many of the survivors was anything but; mistrust and resentment instead led to swathes of the Soviet Union’s Jews being imprisoned, tortured and murdered by Stalin’s regime, their sacrifice for the mother nation all but airbrushed out of existence – almost.

Thought lost in the annals of time; suppressed, if not destroyed, the tragic but poetic WWII testaments, made lyrical prose, of just a small cross-section of Russia’s Jews is given the richly evocative and adroit production showcase it deserves by a collective of professors, producers and musicians. Originally unified in an anthology by an ethnomusicologist from the Kiev Cabinet For Jewish Culture, Moisei Beregovsky, alongside colleague Rovim Lerner, hundreds of Yiddish songs written by Red Army soldiers, victims and survivors of the Nazi’s massacres were gathered in the hope of being eventually published and performed. Unfortunately at the very height of the Communist Party’s purges in the decades that followed the end of WWII, both these well-intentioned preservationists were arrested. Subsequently the project was never finished, the work sealed up and hidden away. But as it would later transpire, not destroyed.

Transcribing these laments and firsthand accounts of endurance (many of which included testament evidence to various Nazi atrocities) would take patience, skill but above all respect. The results of this this most tragic desideratum are underscored by the musical director and violinist Sergei Erdenko‘s conducted stirring accompaniment ensemble of classically trained instrumentalists and singers; all of whom were brought together by the producer, and overseer (one amongst a whole group of people that have perserved, shared and made this project possible over the decades) Dan Rosenberg.

Songs of heroism, stoic belief, and even more violently encouraging prompts to machine gun as many Nazis as possible, are brought back to life. But despite the materials obvious harrowing and tragic heart-wrenching nature, the music throughout is a dizzying, waltzing mix of Yiddish, Roma, Klezmer, folk and even jazzy cabaret that’s often upbeat. The band does a sterling job in giving voice to those suppressed individuals and the songs that were believed lost forever, destroyed by a regime that would treat its loyal Jewish community, many of which made the ultimate sacrifice and wholeheartedly believed in the socialist doctrine, little better than the Nazis they so valiantly overcame. Yiddish Glory is not just a reminder however, or even just a revelation, but a beautifully produced and evocative performance. Full review…

(DV)


Thom Yorke ‘Suspiria (Music For The Luca Guadagnino Film)  (XL Recordings)


 

I’ve no idea of the inimitable Thom Yorke‘s methodology and process – whether he composed directly to a cut of Luca Guadagnino‘s remake, or, went away on the premise that…well, it’s Suspiria, and this iconic Gallo trip knows exactly what sort of a soundtrack it thirsts for, so I’ll just make it up in me head -, but whatever it is, his evocative harrowing soundtrack technique works; providing an eerie balance of spine-chilling tension and beautiful dreamy waltzes.

Elevating further the progressive and ritualistic treatment of the original 1977 Suspiria movie soundtrack by Italy’s revered Goblin, Yorke’s mirror-y hypnotised lingered vignettes and bestial guttural scares are treated with earnest seriousness.

If a film could be even more stylised than its original forbearers, this post-millennial disturbed take by Gundagino is an artistically knowing, conceptually aloof indulgence for the senses that receives the most stunning, richly esoteric of soundtracks. Compelling, alluring and plaintive; using many of the arty macabre’s signature tricks, atmospheric mood stirrers and prompts – from heightened Gothic choral aches to Carpenter meets Oldfield piano note and tubular chiming nerve tinklers – Yorke sets out his soundtrack somewhere between the perimeters of Kubrick, magic realism, psychological drama, Dario Argento, Francois de Roubaix and his very own solo work.

The proof is in the candle-lit shadowy mood induced eating of course, and sitting as I was in the daylight of the early afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel unnerved enough to check behind the curtains for murderous witchery dance troupe teachers, who’s intent was to embed a sacrificial knife into my skull. Yes I was spooked.

A frightful but often ethereal magical score, Yorke matches his Radiohead foil, Jonny Greenwood in the field of soundtracks: an artform all in itself. I’ve no doubt it will become a cult album; equal to the sacred Goblin score, if not, dare I suggest, an improvement.

(DV) 



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Album Review: Dominic Valvona




Moulay Ahmed El Hassani ‘Atlas Electric’ (Hive Mind Records) 30th November 2018

Returning to the stimulating landscapes of North Africa after a brief excursion to the visceral South American horizons of Rodrigo Tavares Congo, Marc Teare’s burgeoning tactile Hive Mind label rests in the shadows of the Titanic straddling Atlas Mountains with its third release, Atlas Electric.

Paying tribune to the atavistic folk music forms of the Amazigh people (the Izlan and Ahidous) of Morocco meets modern synthesized pop fusions of the celebrated Moroccan polymath Moulay Ahmed El Hassani, Teare’s latest labour-of-love repackages a double album’s worth of material that was originally released on Hamid’s own label, Sawt el Hassani, during a decade timespan between 2004-2014.

Relatively unknown outside his homeland, the prolific doyen of modern Moroccan pop music has knocked out over fifty albums (mainly confined to cassette tape and CD) during a thirty-year career. Though crate-diggers, samplers and admirers of cult Arabian music will know the name, this lavishly illustrated and compiled collection acts as an introduction for the rest of us: A showcase if you like.

A sprawling musical odyssey that immediately evokes the romanticized escapism and exotic fantasy of the Atlas Mountain landscape it was produced in, Ahmed’s swirling paeans and lyrical social commentaries trot and canter on air like a magical camel trail through the rugged canyon and desert terrains. Like the Bedouins, this electrified pop hybrid moves lightly and freely across an expanse, weaving the traditional with a taste of modernity: The dramatic, sauntering and gliding mirages of tradition, in this setting, are countered by Casio keyboard pre-set rhythms, fizzled drum pads and warbled auto-tune. This melding of forms, a bridge between generations, gives it a twist. Though undoubtedly the technology is lagging behind a little, elongated thumbed strings and psychedelic, Tuareg-like, blues guitar are undulated by 1980s style balladry synth and programmed drums throughout.

Joining Ahmed on this adventure is the richly voiced trio of dueting Arabic and Amazigh language sirens, Karima, Hind and Khadija, who lull, trill and accentuate the heavenly and romantic gestures of these delightful sonnets: Often sounding like the Arabian equivalent of a Bollywood musical.

Electrifying the landscape with a strange beguiling fusion of R&B and pop (the sort of sound clash M.I.A. soaks up), yet staying true to tradition, Ahmed’s Moroccan musical fantasies soar and flutter above the travails and toils of the modern world; representing, even if plaintive at times, the beauty and dreamy lovelorn desires of those who live in the shadows of the Atlas Mountain. It’s a marvelous release and an education.




DOMINIC VALVONA’S ESSENTIAL REVIEWS ROUNDUP 





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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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






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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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






Flights Of Helios  ‘Endings’  Available now

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

 

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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





REVIEW
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA

Maalem Mahmoud Gani   ‘Colours Of The Night’
Hive Mind Records,  September 8th 2017

Adding its name to an already crowded but all the same welcome market of world music reissues and contemporary undiscovered obscurities, Brighton based label Hive Mind Records announces its intentions and presence with an album of Gnawa trance recordings from the late great Maalem Mahmoud Gania.

The near-exulted star of the Moroccan honed Gnawa – a style of traditional Islamic dance, music and poetry with roots spread across the sub-Saharan crescent of Africa; considered by many to be one of the origins of the “blues” rhythm – and artisan of the genre’s key instrument, the camel-skin covered three-string lute like “guimbri”, released an extensive catalogue of recordings for labels such as Tichkaphone, La Voix El Maaraf and Sonya Disques.

Colours Of The Night however, the final studio recording by Gania, will be the first solo release by the artist outside his native homeland to be released on vinyl: six performances spread over four sides of vinyl to be exact.

For the uninitiated, Gnawa is a highly hypnotic experience based around the repetition of a musical phrase, a few succinct lines of poetic devotion or a communion with the spiritual for a duration that can last hours. Performances tend to bleed into each other, and so what can seem like one uninterrupted piece of music are, often, three or four different songs strung together. Building up an entrancing rhythm of spindly plucked vibrating guimbri and metallic scratchy percussion (courtesy of the iron castanets, the “krakebs”), call and response vocals in paean and lament break the instrumental monotony. Though there’s room for nuanced fleches and riffs to add variety, intonation and intensity. These are all the key components then; of a style that evokes both the sound of Arabia and desert blues traditions.

Equally influencing others whilst, it seems, also embracing and exploring sounds from further afield himself, during his illustrious career Gania worked with artists as diverse as Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Laswell and Carlos Santana. Enriching his own recordings perhaps, the suffused mirage-like synthesizer that hovers over the horizon on this album’s Sidi Sma Ya Boulandi track shows a late penchant for electronic keyboards and ambient waves of atmospheric soundscaping: though this is the only time the instrument is used on these specific recordings.

Stringy, wiry, occasionally a tone or two lower and played like a quasi-bass guitar, Gania’s playing style is raw, deep and always infectious: from blistering solos to slower and lighter ruminating descriptive articulations; this is equally matched by his atavistic soulful voice and the chorus of swooning, venerated female and male voices and harmonies that join him on each track.

As an introduction, Colours Of The Night would be better experienced in sections – a side at a time perhaps. After a while it can all sound a little tiring. Gania advocates will however find this a worthy addition to the legacy.

Hive Mind start as they mean to go on, with the full sanctioning of the Gania family and artists who appear on this album, releasing a most brilliant set of recordings that could so easily have disappeared off the radar. As inaugural releases go, this one is definitely a winner.

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