Review
Words: Dominic Valvona




Ustad Saami ‘Pakistan Is For The Peaceful’
(Glitterbeat Records) Album/9th October 2020


The only living master of an ancient Sufi devotional form in transcendence, the seventy-six year old Ustad Saami lives in hope that his transportive blessed “Surti” music may yet bring peace to a most turbulent and dangerous Pakistan. In a region in which fundamentalism holds a powerful grip of fear on the population, most forms of music that don’t conform to a strict Islamic code are banned or at the very least pressured to go underground.

The danger is all too real and prevalent, and in venturing to Pakistan a few years ago to record the great adorations of Saami, the in-situ American producer Ian Brennan (no stranger to this blog) was taking a huge risk. Brennan is of course used (to a point) of luring out forgotten, ignored and obscure voices from some of the most inhospitable places and warzones in the world. The Hidden Music series for Glitterbeat Records, of which this is the second Saami album to be appear, has seen the Grammy Award winning producer already travel to both a post genocide Rwanda and Cambodia, and also to a mine-riddled Vietnam to coax out the most striking emotional of open and frank recordings. Now capturing for posterity, he once again facilitates the most intimate conditions for another deeply immersive liturgy of heavenly Surti adulations.





Pakistan Is For The Peaceful is, considering the geopolitical tumult and violence, a hopeful title. But then the exalted master has spent a lifetime in the service of his music; learning the forms 49-note microtonal system of vocal prayers since being singled out for the pathway to devotion. It has been a harsh learning at that; the pupil Saami forbidden by his master from speaking or communicating verbally, instead guided towards lyrical expressions. He wouldn’t even get to step on stage to perform this eight centuries generational hand-me-down veneration until the age of thirty-five. And then, until only in recent years, more or less confined to his home of Pakistan. Now in his mid seventies, a more worn Saami still manages to rise every morning at 4am to practice and perform his drill exercises until dawn.

Following on from the well-received 2019 album God Is Not A Terrorist this second brassy resonating, concertinaed and bellowed magisterial rich suite of incredibly hypnotic lengthy performances is even better.

Joined by his four sons (Rauf, Urooj, Ahmed and Azeem), who both vocally respond to Saami’s paeans and provide an assortment of dipped, purposeful and reverberating harmonium, tambura and tabla, the master conjures up a holy out-of-body experience. Performing from Saami’s rooftop home in Karachi, this ensemble entrance and send the listener off into the inspired heavens.

The leading voice of Saami comes from the gut, but isn’t so much guttural as aching in its reverence and otherworldliness. Those shimmering nodes of resonance and sorrowed drones meanwhile stir up a spiritual epiphany: something extremely special.

This album is why I started this whole damn blog; a search for those uncynical real performances that get lost in the daily hubris of incessant noise and divisive outrage. This is music from another dimension in comparison to all that. And thanks in part to Brennan; it will now exist as a recorded testament forever, even if it this form of Islamic spiritualist music is set to die out with its leading light. As sad as that sounds, that dying art has never sounded so ethereal and yet alive. So I say: soak it up; bathe in the glow.





Also…

Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’ here…

Glitterbeat Records 5th anniversary special here…

The Ian Brennan interview here…


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 Galore
Words: Dominic Valvona





An eclectic array of reviews, Dominic Valvona’s long-running Tickling Our Fancy column aims to cast the net wide, choosing a diverse collection of recent and upcoming releases for your perusal.

This month’s selection includes two special reissues, the first, the cross-pollinating “Azerbaijani Gitara” music of the late Caucasus legend Rüstəm Quliyev, the second, a beatific Gnawa set of recordings from the late esteemed Moroccan master Maalam Mahmoud Gania.

I also have a gander at the fantastical anthropologist ambient tape from the shrouded Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony, and a new album of sun-dappled affirmations from the Beach Boys imbued pastoral recluse Mike Gale. There’s the American three-piece Pons, who launch a torrid of punk and indie-dance mayhem on the unsuspecting public with their debut album, Intellect. From the prolific Hamburg label of experimental electronica, there’s a new reggae-imbued techno suite from Schlammpeitziger, and a very special project from the renowned producer Ian Brennan, his most personal yet, the Sheltered Workshop Singers (perhaps the first recording of its type anywhere). And finally, Esbe takes us on an Egyptian and Sufi India fantasy with her new synthesised album, Saqqara.


Pons ‘Intellect’
(Stick ’n’ Move Records) Album/17th September 2020




A volatile chaos that is remarkably tactile in places, the blossoming erratic American trio of Pons throw everything into their debut album Intellect. The culmination of various mischievous bombardments and jerked dances on a slew of EPs and singles, from a band that first formulated their blueprint in North Carolina in 2018 before relocating a year later to Virginia, this paranoid hectic and ridiculous fully realised long-player whips up a torrid of unhinged energy.

Reminding me of that first White Denim album, yet coarser and heavier, Intellect is full of ideas in what, by now, is a worn cross-section of post-punk and garage related genres. From the off though, you know this is going to be something else; a diy friction of scuzzed garage/skate/doom punk that creeps as much towards the Gothic as it does towards indie-dance.

They set us up with a reverberated, eerie lead-in of “we got a winner” samples and bird squawks, then roll pendulously into an harassed vision of The Stooges ripping it outta the Talking Heads before speed-freaking style riffing on Liquid Liquid, Ludus, Essential Logic and The Black Lips: Phew! Suck that up.

An ennui of rhythms, time changes and moods flip constantly between intense mania and more limbering no-wave downtown NYC Keith Herring doodled electro-funk. ‘Primal Urge’ is just that: a primal doom quickened, kettle rolling grunt of 80s Californian punk. ‘Jimmy Two-Dimes’ fucks up brilliantly The Strokes, and even, smashes up the NY Dolls and Suicide. But if we’re talking of real concentrated madness, ‘Dick Dastardly’ runs that cartoon scoundrel through a gruff free fall of James Chance, Ornate Coleman (yeah imagine that!) and space rock.

Funhouse Teenage Shutdowns, Nuggets garage gets roughed up on ‘Fabrication’, and Black Randy fights it out with The Electric Eels on the paranoia enclosing ‘Polly’s Hotel’. Single ‘Subliminal Messages’ takes a different musical route entirely; the advertiser slated consumerist nightmare limbers onto a dancefloor occupied by Disco Drive, Gang Gang Dance and Juan MacClean. ‘I See My Name In Lights’ bastardizes Electric 6, DAF, the Italian proto-punk dance miscreants Halleluah!, Renegade Soundwave and Death Grips: perhaps a touch of a synth-punk Beastie Boys.

What a record. I’m not sure I could really argue that the Pons are doing anything particularly new. Yet Intellect has quickly enthralled and excited me. Subtle meets the hardliners, as the bonus of youth drudges, sludges and drums up a vortex of generation X and boomer credulity. Nothing short of a brilliant noise, energy directed for the benefit of all, a glorious skewered and deranged indie-dance album of punk snot petulance and fun.




Mike Gale ‘The Star Spread Indefinite’
Album/25th September 2020




The former Co-Pilgrim and Black Nelson instigator Mike Gale may have retired from performing live some time ago now, but he’s still been highly prolific in recording. Using his trusty 32-track TASCAM cassette recorder, in just the last 18 months Gale has released the Pacific Ocean lulled sorrowed album, Summer Deluxe, a recent compilation of (far from) unfinished works and B-side paeans and breezes entitled B, C, D Side Volume 1, and a lockdown mini-album, Sunshine For The Mountain God. And now with this latest acoustic-led songbook, Gale furnishes us with the astral dreamy entitled The Star Spread Indefinite.

That cosmological title was found amongst his recent reading material, in Justin Hopper’s The Old Weird Albion. In one particular section, the uncovering of an ancient piece of artwork, scratched into the wall of a flint mine in Sussex triggered a beautiful starry-poetic response from the discoverer who found and named it. As a poetic prompt it brings Gale out of the melancholy of lockdown into a most dreamy state of reflection. And in his most lulled, drifting ruminating moments, balances a languid sense of yearning despondency with a peaceable message of positive affirmation for our near-miraculous existence.

The Monolith Cocktail was lucky enough to share the album’s precursor video-track (created by Jussi Virkkumaa) recently, ‘Go Help’: A tropical-lilted wistful tiptoe sauntering, and disarming disconsolate bobbing continuation of the plaintive beachcomber Beach Boys sound that has permeated the reclusive polymath’s output for a number of years. That means more of those lulled layered harmonies and the present lingering presence of a distant lapping tide. Though Gale lends an English pastoral bent to the Beach Boys California beach combing romanticisms. You can hear it clearly on the 70s AM radio dial wash ‘Stripped Sunlight’, which has an air of the SMiLE era about it.

Elsewhere in his harmonious gauzy hushed way, Gale evokes the Laurel Canyon dappled loveliness of Marc Eric, a beachside relocated epic45 and Roger Bunn on the sweetly synthesized golden ray affirmation ‘This Year’. The starry lush ‘Pastel Coloured Warm’, with its bahbahbah lilting chorus, hints at a meeting between the Go-Betweens and Prefab Sprout. Albeit a less sparse version, Gale also channels the spirit of Sparklehorse throughout this often-gossamer songbook. There’s also an easing into the Yacht Rock genre and the 80s phaser-effect and dry-ice cool of Phil Collins to provide a softened pop feel to some of the washes.

With soothing élan and shimmery dreaminess, Gale aches and wistfully fights through the disappointment, knock backs and anxiety to lift himself above it all with repeated mantras of “I’ll get my wish”, or, “This year I’m going to make it.” Let’s hope he does make it, as Gale is a fine musician and songwriter. The Star Spread Indefinite confirms that.





See also…

Mike Gale ‘Go Help‘ Premiere 

Sweet Marie‘ 

B,C,D Sides Volume 1

Summer Deluxe‘ 




Schlammpeitziger ‘Ein Weltleck In Der Echokammer’
(Bureau B) Album/25th September 2020




After previously unconsciously composing a kind of reggae and dub vision of Kraut-tronica over nine albums, Cologne stalwart of thirty years Jo Zimmermann has decided to now consciously meld those genres to his quirky lilt of electronic music on the tenth album, Ein Weltleck In Der Echokammer (for those needing a translation, that’s “a world leak in the echo chamber”).

It wasn’t, we’re told, until Zimmermann’s friend and ‘reggae expert’ Bettina Lattak remarked upon the composer, illustrator and performance artist’s oblivious use of those Caribbean flavours that it all suddenly clicked. And for this latest electro-fusion, fun, radiant, bouncing and sub-tropical suite, he, unabashed, tinkers almost effortlessly with a reggae sound stripped of context, history and religion: Just the feel, vibe and resonance. In practice this results in dubby warbled bass and echo, limbering gaited rhythms and a laid-back candour. There’s even a lilted saunter of steel drums to be heard, bobbing away on the tropical soulful electro-funk ‘Handicapfalter’.

That relaxed sound and sway – bordering on sun-bleached escapism – is counterbalanced by electro-cool starry synths, industrial metallic scuttles and a sophisticated layering of synthesized toms, kick-drums and polygons. It’s a sound that transduces label mates Station 17 and Clap! Clap!, a more languid Dunkelziffer, Holgar Czukay and Kraftwerk into a kind of Krautrock Compass Points Allstars, or, a futurist Marvin Gaye produced by a late 70s post-punk erring Eno. The itching percussive space-y tweeting ‘Tanzfußfalle’ seems to have invited Air, Psycho & Plastic and International Pony onto a dancefloor. That Kraftwerk namedrop evidently is a given. Zimmermann, trading under his longstanding Schlammpeitziger persona, references the Baroque harpsichord neo-classical Trans-European Express suite ‘Spiegelsaal’ (or ‘The Hall Of Mirrors’ as most of us know it) on his own mirrored trans-alpine refracted Oompah magic ‘Hüftgoldpolka’. Imbued with the Dusseldorf unit’s own spell-casting allusions on fame and image, Zimmermann leads a merry dance of his own.

There are of course some serious moments on what is essentially a tempered subtle pleasant soundtrack of understated techno, Kosmische and dance music. In what is a newish development, on this the second release for Bureau B, Zimmermann takes to singing; adding a cryptic whimsy and curiosity of half-narrated and humming, sighing and despondent lyricism to a number of tracks.

A warping, bended and sometimes crystalline, sometimes rattling, reggae-light sonic quirk, Ein Weltleck In Der Echokammer seems to offer a bright window into another world; a ladder out of the echo chamber towards a nice suffusion of Germanic electronic escapism.






Sheltered Workshop Singers ‘Who You Calling Slow?’
Album/18th September 2020




Used to travelling around the globe as the inconspicuous in-the-field recordist and in-situ producer, Ian Brennan has made a critically acclaimed career out of recording some of the most persecuted, ignored and neglected communities: from an Albinism refuge in Tanzania to the Abatwa pygmies of Rwanda and the victims of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. It’s a varied career; with projects as diverse as the Malawi Mouse Boys film score that never was to recording the prisoners of that same country’s maximum-security facility in Zomba.

Yet all of those projects share Ian’s overriding raison d’être, as laid out in his brilliantly engaging How Music Dies (Or Lives) tome: ‘My concern is not cultural authenticity, but emotional truth and uncloying performances. Purity, without baggage!’

The Grammy-nominated award winner’s latest project though, is his most personal yet. Collaborating with his only sister, Jane, who has Down Syndrome, Ian uniquely facilitates a platform for the Sheltered Workshop of diverse voices; spotlighting the ‘developmentally-disabled’ population in what could be the first ever album of its kind. In his notes Ian refers to a nameless “music expert” and his recent assertions that there was no such thing as a “virgin birth”, as he called it, left in music, that it was all based on “outside influence”. Ian however calls upon that “expert” to witness “what can happen when you hand a guitar for the first time to someone who has only partial use of their limbs.” As do some of the ensemble on this remarkable set of recordings. For this is a cast that have never before had that access or even opportunity to make themselves heard through the connective joy of music: the same one Ian enjoys with his sister Jane.

This album is far from an exercise in either charitable virtue or worse, exploitation. It’s more an overdue platform for those who have previously been ignored, sidelined and even patronized due to their needs and disabilities; especially vocally with most unable to articulate because of a reduced vocabulary and speech impediment. However, Ian finds that there are few more “expressive singers” than that are “non-verbal”. And the various pure emotions on display from this group of performers, who’ve previously never sung in front of a mic or played an instrument before, are deeply felt and resonating.

It’s a language that often sounds strikingly stripped of convention; often, to my ears, having more in common with Ian’s recordings from Africa, especially the incredibly vulnerable Tanzania Albinism community on the White African Power album. Sometimes almost ghostly and fragile, and at other times harmonic and utterly compelling, these voices can be as succinct as the performer Dan repeating his name with a raspy growl over a twanged guitar string accompaniment, or, as amorphous as the group effect of mourned vocals on ‘I Love You (Farewell Father)’. Incantation mantra meets the soulful and even fearless.

Accompaniments come in the form of the most expressive and unburdened of experimentation. The already mentioned Dan seems to channel both Medieval sonnet and primal blues-y-swamp rock on his opening turn, whilst Grace’s life story, with its guitar buzz, distortion and drone, hints at psychedelic grunge and shoegaze doom. Tom’s disconsolate ‘Sometimes I Feel Just Like A Zombie’ is so mysterious with its throat-singing snouts and hums that it could be some lost Tibetan malady. Glass-sounding xylophone keyboard effects, trembled strings, slapped rhythms and choruses of kazoos all make appearances on this open and candid collection of unbridled and unreserved communication. But don’t ever think to buy this album just out of charity or compassion, or even as a novelty (even though proceeds do go to a great cause); instead buy it because of those purely uncloying and truthful performances. But buy it because it has personality and something important to say.





See also…

Ian Brennan ‘Interview’ (here)

Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’ (here)

Malawi Mouse Boys ‘Score For A Film About Malawi Without Music From Malawi’ (here)

Tanzania Albinism Collective ‘White African Power’ (here)



Esbe ‘Saqqara’
(New Cat) album/25th September 2020




Channeling a dreamy cast of ancient Egyptian characters (both fictional and historical), the diaphanous-breathed enchantress Esbe conjures up a most atmospheric peregrination on her fifth album, Saqqara. A musical odyssey of imagined reincarnated lives, the vocalist, producer and composer drifts down an atavistic Aswan, past the landmarks of Pharaoh dynasties: A musical traverse that extends from one civilisation to the next, past Arabia towards Uruk and then into the mystifying regions of Indian Sufi.

But firstly, more about the Egyptian allure that drew Esbe in. The album’s title Saqqara (or sometimes spelt as “Sakkara”) refers to the desert edge site of the awe-inspiring pyramid-tomb of the IIIrd dynasty Pharaoh Djoser; son of the dynasty foundress Nimaathap, who ruled sometime between the years of 2667 – 2648 BC. Not just a resting place but a show of power, Djoser’s impressive tomb was conceived by the even more famous polymath prime minister, high priest and royal architect (known by some Egyptologists as the Egyptian Leonardo) Imhotep. It forms part of the legendary City Of The Dead necropolis that extends across Giza and Dahshu, but is the only one still standing. As it inspired countless others before, this Step Pyramid now forms at least some of the storytelling poetry and atmospherics of this continuously hypnotizing electronic, real instruments and vocal mirage.

Under that monument’s shadow Esbe imagines an Egyptian woman dreaming of a lover, symbolically laying down with the revered Arabian leopard, to an entrancing, circling exotic menagerie and a shimmered procession on the album’s opening ambient fusion ‘My Love Knows No Bounds’. Esbe also evokes the torrid romance between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony on an updated vision of the sword and sandal soundtrack, ‘Carry Me Away’. Half Mills & Boon, half alluring lovelorn exotic camel trail; the two star-crossed lovers are cast adrift to a sound-bed of ponderous synthesizer vapours and cluttering drums.

The desires of escapism of a slave girl, seconded to laboring under the deathly heat on the pyramids, form the yearning sorrows of the Celtic-Arabian ‘I’ll Fly’. Subtle tubular Japan-esque synth percussion and sand dune jazz, dusky trumpet serenade and snake rattles converge to create the musical accompaniment.

Biblical augurs of doom are given a pining 80s synth dreamwave of crystal rays on the duel environmental and lunar phenomenon ‘Paint The Moon’, and low key acid-Arabia undulations permeate the caressed astral ‘Bedouin Prince’.

Moving further east to the subcontinent of India, Esbe lulls and coos melodious devotionals in the style of the Sufi music of Qawaali. Inspired by that forms doyen Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Esbe spindles an electronic spiritual version of Transglobal Underground on ‘Qawaali Dance’, and builds up a filmic drama of unfurled beauty on the epic ‘Qawaali Siesta’.

It’s a cinematic musical world that fuses tablas, zither and electronics with the sounds of the desert wildlife. Vocally Esbe draws on her eclectic Polish, Lithuanian and Jewish roots whilst embracing the phrasings, melodies of North Africa, the Middle East and mystical India. It makes for an ambiguous and impressive vocal that soars aria-like and chorally fills the space: A voice that even smolders.

Saqqara is a dreamy soundtrack that perfectly encapsulates an Egyptian fantasy: one that has a lushly performed lyrical and thematic message for the present epoch.






Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony ‘Prismic Passageways’
(Moonside Tapes) Album/11th August 2020




An ethnographical fiction, bordering on Atlantis myth, the shrouded instigators behind this latest experimental ambient peregrination for the always intriguing cassette label Moonside Tapes set sail for an imaginary land of shaman rituals and mysticism.

With a backstory mined from the annals of real historical anthropology and the field recorder’s archives, those mysterious forces of the Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony build up a half-convincing soundscape catalogue of fantastical atmospheres from the missing geographical link of Maitrii, a South Pacific realm that could have been part of another fantastical dreamed-up sunken continent, Aninomola. Because it never existed, it acts as an inspiration and blank canvas for an atavistic soundtrack of quasi-tribal primitivism and spiritualism.

The back-story goes that the only remnants, evidence of this obscure place and civilization are to be found in the notebooks and recordings of the anthropologist Dr. August Maynard, who it seems disappeared; his belongings in turn, found by villagers on the shores of that equally mystical, though very real, abandoned oasis, Easter Island.

Split into two lengthy recordings of grouped together themes, Prismic Passageways is divided into Trance and Meditation suites. “Presented here unabridged” and in “stereo”, the trance quintet of seamlessly strung-together tracks swirls around in Shamanistic communion, whilst the meditation sextet of dreamy esoteric atmospheres ventures past the misty coastline holy places into the interior. That first side of the tape feels like a misty ether veiled rowing boat drift to Skull Island. Summoned forth into a strange landscape, obscured creature calls and the haunted presence of the Maitrii spirits lure the weary travellers into an ambient sound world. A sorcerer’s crystalline ray reaches out to break the omnipresent foggy mirage at one point, and later, those so far feint rolls across a frame drum and lightly woody beaten pallets are ramped up into heavily reverberating, echoed elongated rhythms. It ends in an intoxicant spiral of drug-induced hallucinogenics: a spiral wispy drowsy and unsure ceremony in the catacombs.

That flip side, which traverses a ‘dawn prayer’, the fabled sun eater, and references the Hebrew biblical place of the ‘Land of Beulah’ – a place somewhere between Heaven and Earth -, features a venerable resonance of South Seas ancient mantric voices, bobbing trickled wooden marimba and minimal ambient suffusions.

For those wishing something different from their ambient traverses, enter the strange anthropological mystery of the Maitrii Orboreal Ceremony.





See also:

Jimmy W ‘Midi Canoe’ (here)

Cousin Silas And The Gloves Of Bones ‘Kafou In Avalonia’ (here)




Reissue Features:


Rüstəm Quliyev ‘Azerbaijani Gitara’
(Bongo Joe) Album/18th September 2020




The history and travails of the fecund oil rich country of Azerbaijan are atavistic. This is a nation that has striven to gain independence from a string of empires: both Tsarist and Soviet Russia, Iran, Albania, and much further back, the great Mongol Khan Timur. Desired not only for its abundance in fossil fuels – providing 80% of the Soviet’s oil on the Eastern Front during WWII, and continuing even now to be a vital pipeline for the post-communist Russian Federation – but for its geographical corridor to its fellow Transcaucasia neighbours of Georgia and Armenia in the west, to the south, Iran, in the north, Russia, and to the west, the vast inland lake, the Caspian Sea.

Khanates, caliphates, communism and secularism – Azerbaijan’s first declaration of independence came in 1918 and with it the first secular Muslim state – have all made their marks on this fertile land that in recent years has attempted to make inroads with NATO, the EU and China, whilst shaking off corruption. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it Azerbaijan’s second declaration of independence, coups and counter-coups have hampered a smooth transaction towards democracy. Though the country remains stable, if governed for at least the last two decades by the Aliyev family.

 

Bordering as it does so many cultures, its no wonder that one of the country’s most celebrated guitar pioneers Rüstəm Quliyev absorbed and embraced such a diverse range of customs from abroad and far; from local modals, wedding celebrations and traditions to the regal music of the Persian court, Bollywood musicals and dreamy evocations of Arabia. Reissued by those tastemakers at Bongo Joe Records, this incredible sounding compilation brings together a smattering of eclectic guitar led tracks from the late legend’s expansive diy produced catalogue.

As with many of his forbearers and peers, Rüstəm would firstly master the region’s traditional instruments, the tar (an ornate curvy looking waisted long-necked lute) and saz (another long-necked lute instrument, shaped like a teardrop almost) before picking up the guitar; an instrument or version of which first trickled into the country from the Czech factory makers Jolana in the 1960s. But Rüstəm’s first introduction to the “gitara” was whilst serving in the Soviet military in Russia; an episode that soon ended, allowing the burgeoning talent to return to a civil war in his own homeland.

 

Hailing from the disputed mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, Rüstəm’s backyard was in the middle of a war. A convoluted history, but circumstances saw the autonomous Armenian ethnic-majority southern Caucasus area internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but governed by the Republic Of Artsakh. Both breakaway states locked horns in the wake of the Soviet implosion; old rivalries, disputes were bought to the surface and violence soon ensued, including ethnic cleansing atrocities. In 1994 Russia secured a ceasefire after six years of conflict. As a consequence of this upheaval, with populations dispersed in some cases, Rüstəm moved further west towards the country’s Caspian costal capital of Baku; a move that would connect the rural visionary’s formative training with the lakeside cosmopolitan city’s network of international visitors and students, one of which, a student from Afghanistan, would introduce Rüstəm to such Afghan luminaries as Ahmed Zair. Included in this collection, ‘Əfqan Musiqisi’ is inspired by a track on a mixtape his Afghan student pal made for him. As an honour to him this pining song includes the heartfelt lines, “Let’s meet each other again, my friend, because separating is like unexpected death.” It sounds, as does most of his music, like a cross-pollination of influences; a Silk Road lament of bobbed hand drums, threaded lute and synthesized moaning choral voices. That synthesizer patch work is an integral part of the music by the way; a cheap sounding keyboard theatre of misty gazing ambience, punctuation of bass and percussive rolls that accompanies the often rapid, if elegant, nimble guitar performances.

 

Imbued both by doyens of the country’s “gitara” scene, including fellow Karabakh legend Rafiq Hüsey (aka Ramis), yet experimenting himself by refashioning a Jolana Czech guitar, Rüstəm managed to craft a unique merger of the past and present, the traditional and innovative. It helped that he came from a family of engineers, and with his brothers was able to set up a home studio. You can, if inclined, read more details about his tweaks, tunings and such in the liner notes provided by the album’s compilers Ben Wheeler and Stefan William. But in short, his style incorporated a wealth of inspirations, even wider than those already mentioned. For example, you can hear that wealth of influences on both the scenic searching, rough ’n ’ready Persian blues and rock number ‘İran Təranələri’, and the misty-eyed classical, popular Iranian street number, ‘Fars Musiqisi’ – the former via a transmogrified Niles Rodgers. Looking towards India, a famous Bollywood song imbues the strangely windy, horn heralding Western gallop ‘Tancor Disko’: imagine Pino Ruches riding shotgun with Ry Coder and Link Wray. Rüstəm transforms the highly complex classical poetic and improvised folk traditions of the country’s Mugham culture with the silken courtly, echoed fret work of ‘Neyçün Gəlməz’, and replaces the saz for his rapid guitar riffing on the Baba Zula like psychedelic ‘Yanıq Kərəmi’ and 80s sheened wedding dance ‘Baş Sarıtel’.

A caucuses Dick Dale, Omar Souleyman, Hank Marvin, perhaps as some people have proposed, even a touch of funk Mardi Gras Eddie Hazel, Rüstəm was an extraordinary gifted guitarist; one that could riff and strangulate, wrangle a constant trickle of quickened notes and multilayering, resonating poetry. Often he mimics a voice, at other times the lute or saz, yet always sounds mesmerizing and untethered. A rich showcase indeed, it’s time to traverse the Transcaucasia, the Steppes and beyond for those bored with western guitar slingers. Dip your toes into a whole unique and heartening guitar landscape.






Maalam Mahmoud Gania ‘Aicha’
(Hive mind Records) Album/October 2020




After various cultural excursions in South America, Arabia and West Java, Hive Mind Records return full circle to the “Gnawa” music that launched them with a striking reissue package of the beatific Aicha album by the form’s late great doyen Maalam Mahmoud Gania. It was of course Gania’s final studio album Colours Of The Night that first kicked off the label a few years ago. Now, picking up on that saintly venerating Moroccan music again, and in collaboration with Gania’s family, the label have chosen this moment of great turmoil (you could say it was a calm, healing balm just when we needed it most) to release a previously shrouded 90s cassette tape of entrancing communion and invocations from an artist rightly celebrated for pushing Gnawa beyond his hometown of Essaouira to an international audience. For one thing, Gania is celebrated for, perhaps, releasing the first ever Gnawa record, but also for working with such luminaries as Pharaoh Sanders, Bill Laswell and Santana.

The Islamic spiritual devotional poetry, dance and music of the Gnawa ethnic group – a group of Sub-Saharan people descended from slaves – this trance like sound is said to be one of the roots of the “blues” rhythm. Though a scion of the Islamic faith, this music is less restrictive in paying devotion and paean to a host of earthly saints and supernatural “mluk” (or “melk”). These abstract entities, the mluk, are represented by seven saints and seven colours; colours that “entrancer” dancers can wear in the form of robes or scarves. On the album’s bluesy, even jazzy threaded ‘Assamaoui’, those trancers wear blue in reference to the song’s sainted “Sidi Sma” (or “Samaoui”) and their implied ascendant relationship to the sky.

 

Gnawa is, in short, a music, culture of displacement because of its origins, but taken hold in Morocco, especially Gania’s home the key port of Essaouira, a strategically important fortress trading port on the country’s western coastine with the Atlantic. Gania’s home is where this set of recordings was made with an intimate setting of musicians. Though information remains scant, Berkley scholar and curator of the Moroccan Tape Stash blog Tim Abdellah attempts to dig deep and uncover the details; invited as he was to write the extensive liner notes and context for this special reissue. In fact, I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from his writing and scholarly notes on the subject. There’s even a translation of the exonerating call and response lyrics, which are often short lines of veneration for sainted shrines and deities that can be both combined with or sung in any order depending on occasion and mood.

Aicha, itself a reference to “she of many monikers”, a powerful female entity with untold mythical origins, is rich with the anticipated quivery strums and throbbing tensions of Gania’s “gumbari” – a camel-skin covered three-string lute. Bowed, stringy and incessant, but gentler and deeper than his playing on Colours Of The Night, Gania’s signature instrument weaves a nice bluesy accompaniment to his soulful exaltations. As always Gania’s gumbari lead is joined by the scuttled, scratchy tin paddled percussive rhythm of the iron castanets, the “krakebs”. It makes for a lively but soothing liturgy of entrancing adulation and praise.

Hypnotizing as always, with the galloping kept to a minimum, this spiritual six-track album is a Gnawa highlight, and a great place to begin discovering this immersive and special music. The label’s done another first class job of bringing this to a wider audience.





See also…

Maalam Mahmoud Gania ‘Colours Of The Night’  (here)

Houssam Gania ‘Mosawi Swiri’  (here)

Moulay Ahmed El Hassani ‘Atlas Electric’  (here)

Rodrigo Tavares ‘Congo’  (here



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


Album Review: Dominic Valvona



Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’
(Glitterbeat Records) January 18th 2019


No-one quite sums up the dangerous lunacy of field recording in the world’s most hostile, often deadly, environments better than the Grammy award-winning producer, author and (very handy as it goes) violence prevention expert Ian Brennan. Self-deprecating with it, and candid, Brennan’s linear notes capture the cultures and locations of his many in-situ raw recording sessions with a stimulating honesty.

Probably appearing more than any other producer on this blog, including an interview, Brennan’s prolific career is as long as it is varied. Choosing an international cast (some more obscure and hidden than others; some more poignant and tragic too) drawn from forgotten, even, shunned communities. Whether it’s capturing the roadside roasted mouse sellers turn rustic otherworldly bluesmen Malawi Mouse Boys, or members of the persecuted Albino community in Tanzania, Brennan’s raison de terre still stands: “My concern is not cultural authenticity, but emotional truth and uncloying performances. Purity without baggage!”

And so, letting his subject naturally perform in the purest of settings – usually outside the confines of a modern equipped studio -, he travels to the remotest, hostile of places. Among his most enduring partnerships, the continuing relationship with Glitterbeat Records has taken him to quite a few of the most dangerous hotspots; especially for the Hidden Music series of albums. Previous editions of this series have found Brennan braving Rwanda, Cambodia and Vietnam. But the most foolhardy yet, and subject of Volume 5 of this healing music survey collection, takes him to Pakistan.

As he reminds us, “In the land where Osama Bin Laden last hid”, a “state so feared that the US government does not allow its staff to stay in hotels anywhere in the entire country”, Pakistan is a highly volatile, military heavy state: The most worrying concern being that they’re a nuclear state. If further proof was needed of the trigger-finger tensions, Brennan sets the vivid scene further: “Driving in from the airport I noticed a man cleaning what I thought was a musical instrument, but then realized was a machine gun. Weaponry is another visual motif throughout the city. En route, we passed celebrity-soldier sponsor billboards for house paint. Here, army officers carry a similar hollow cache to reality stars in America.”

Despite the evident dangers, he’s here to record for posterity the mesmerizing atavistic voice of the country’s much-revered classical singer, Ustad Saami, whose specialized Surti microtonal and multilingual expressions, accompanied by dipping buoyant tabla and long-drawn out harmonium drones, may very well die out when he does. Despite the somewhat provocative title, the beauty, serenity and sincerity of Saami’s music seems far from controversial. Yet to the more extremist sections of the Islamic faith, his spiritual yearnings represent a rebellious, defaming voice, an individual breaking with the hardline insistence of a myopic form of worship. For Saami’s blended form of Farsi, Sanskrit, Hindi, the ancient and dead language of Vedic, ‘gibberish’, Arabic and Urdu predates Islam. As the spread of a dogmatic Islam spreads across the globe, and as we’ve seen in Mali, a distrust but violently imposed break from anything outside the doctrine and history of Islam has seen the ritual burning of instruments and ban of most musical forms.


Photo credit: Marilena Delli





With all this in mind, the task of recording, in what was an energy-sapping all-night session – though the spritely vigorous 75 year-old maestro proved he could play all night, even into the next morning without a break, his companions were knackered – such afflatus magical music seems (to put it mildly) daunting.

Almost in a trance, the impressive Hindustani Khayál classical 49-note scale system Saami uses (deriving from the Arabic for ‘imagination’, this style was originally conceived by, we’re told, a mixed race royal whose lifelong endeavor was to make peace with duality through art) can hypnotize and draw the listener in. Though it sounds far from intense, it takes some concentration and endurance to play uninterrupted – at least two of the tracks on this collection run over the ten-minute mark. A predecessor to an even older form called Qawwal, Khayál it seems is more about feeling and atmosphere, the lyrics of the call-and-response performances almost incidental.

Sharing this divine music with the world before it disappears – the inevitability of a tradition only ever passed down possessively between family members -, the God Is Not A Terrorist sessions connect with a thousand and more years of encapsulating praise. Simultaneously uttering earthy deep longings and soaring tribute to a higher plain, Saami and his troupe pay amorphous service to the holy on ‘God Is’; “Om” and in phlegm voiced dedication ponderously elevate with a paean to romance on ‘My Beloved Is On The Way’; woo and yearn in the dusk of ‘Twilight’; and in a swirl of bellowed harmonium, lull entranced on the transportive ‘Longing’.

An incredible recording, thankfully in the hands (more hands-off) of an accomplished producer, Saami Ustad’s endangered music is safely shared to a global audience. As preservation goes, this latest volume in a much accomplished and surprising series of ethnomusicology is a mesmeric study in keeping a form alive in the face of persecution and fate.








Words: Dominic Valvona 

LP REVIEW: WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA




Malawi Mouse Boys ‘Score For A film About Malawi Without Music From Malawi’ 21st September 2018

 

The cheek of it, yet sadly all too common practice of the film and music industries I’m afraid to say, the authentic sound of the much-loved and acclaimed Malawi Mouse Boys was unceremoniously dropped from the first ever Malawi feature film; replaced by the music of an ‘experienced’ composer from outside the country. The location and story of impoverishment is one the Mouse Boys know only too well: a group if anything that after seeing footage from the film felt they were even poorer than the stories poverty-stricken protagonist, whom they felt was actually well off in comparison.

Though unconventionally discovered by the Grammy Award winning producer, instigator and field recording maestro Ian Brennan (no stranger to this blog) at the side of a Malawi freeway selling barbecued mice skewered on sticks as a fast food pick-me-up for passing motorists (hence the group’s, as it turns out, self explanatory if odd nom de plume), their earthy gospel blues vocals revealed, caught on tape and subsequently beamed to a global audience, the Mouse Boys lives changed it seemed for the better; the revenue from their first LP showcase with Brennan He Is #1 making things a little more tolerable; enabling them the fundamental comforts of an air mattress, as opposed to sleeping directly on the hard dirty floor, English lessons and a bicycle. Despite this they remain embedded in the same community, but resented by some of their compatriots for the little success they’ve had but destitute enough to have no access to a reliable electricity source or running water. And two of the core quartet that emerged out of an originally wider circle of mouse-hunters and coal-hawkers (slightly safer than catching mice in the snake infested dangerous wild bush) from the Sunday Church imbibed community, have through desperation fled across borders to find work in an increasingly hostile-to-incomers South Africa.

In a country where most of the population live on less than a dollar a day, the Mouse Boys have at least reached out beyond their impoverished state and received a small compensation for their unique gospel imbued talents: Not the first Westerner to discover this community of phenomenal rough-around-the-edges singers and players, the revered producer is the only one to keep to his side of the deal, returning to Malawi and handing over every cent they’re due.





Saving what could have been a major financial setback for the group after they forked out the money and time to produce the material for a soundtrack that wasn’t to be, Brennan, who’s done more than most to facilitate and bring the music of isolated communities to an international audience (often as part of a healing process after various traumas; see his work in Cambodia and Vietnam), has helped to salvage their spurned material; collating an alternative cinematic score, releasing it as the Mouse Boys fourth official album. Of course the title says it all; instead of abandoning what is a highly supernatural otherworldly but also earthy dusty sketchbook of vignettes, fragments and longer pieces of mostly stripped-down-to-an-essence vocal and Musique Concrete – the real sources used to create an almost esoteric sound environment deriving from water buckets, a broken spoke, beer bottles, an alpha monkey’s call, shovel scrapes and a machete – that fateful ghostly soundtrack lives on.

Raw and atmospherically in-tune with the film’s premise, it would have been great to experience the audio and visuals together. But we are where we are. And we are asked to experience the sounds and music in isolation; our imagination left to fill in the blanks.

Track titles describe what would have been the film scenes; from the distant sonorous booms and crackle of the opening ‘Power Lines’ to the tool-clanging and ad hoc rhythmic patterns that emerge from clambering over a ‘Tin Roof’. Those celebrated gospel choral vocals, when they do appear (spread out between the more experimental environment soundscapes), are transcendent, plaintive and venerable. Making an afflatus call on the beautifully yearned hymn ‘Hunger’, or, tongue-clicking and soulfully gathered in ‘Hope’, the vocal chorus is as heavenly as it is earthy and sad.

Experimenting like never before there’s plenty of strange, sometimes eerie, sounds being used to conjure up both the spiritually alien and all too real tragedy of survival in Malawi. ‘Dirt Floors’ for instance stirs up a spindly, twanging synthesis of rustic blues from striking, scraping and pulling at and running up and down the frets of a homemade amplified and distorted guitar, whilst ‘Ghosts’ appropriately features an apparitional looming scene, produced in part from a chirping chorus of jarred bugs.

The Malawi Mouse Boys first leap into cinema may have hit the buffers, but with Brennan’s help they manage to save what is a most unique soundtrack from total obscurity. Few albums will sound as raw, remote or strange this year as this truly haunting, as it is beautiful and experimental, score.





Words: Dominic Valvona


REVIEW/FEATURE
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA




Various  Artists  ‘Hidden Music Volume 4:  Abatwa (The Pygmy): Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?’
Glitterbeat Records,  18th August 2017

Renowned producer (and author of some note) Ian Brennan, yet again probing the furthest, most inhospitable and outright dangerous places in the world to record marginalized voices, journeys to the post genocide borderlands of Rwanda on the latest volume in Glitterbeat Records illuminating Hidden Musics series.

Taking the unmarked, haphazard, road (less traveled) to the edges of Rwanda, avoiding the animosity and embers of vengeance that still burn and remain between the country’s minority Tutsis and majority Hutu communities, Brennan visited and recorded for posterity the Abatwa tribe’s seldom heard lament, anger and incredible soulful, if raw, blues.

Though not directly involved in the ensuing genocide that followed on from the country’s apocalyptic civil war in the mid 90s – officially and despite much skeptical revisionism over the years, this genocide was started by the Hutu and carried out with terrifying savagery upon the Tutsis, the population of which, depending on the source you use, was decimated by up to 70% (that equates to between 500,000 to a million murdered, all within a matter of three months) – the Abatwa both lost around a third of its own tribe and carried out some of the attacks.

If the Abatwa name is remains mostly unknown outside Africa, that’s because, due to their limited growth, we know them better as the ‘Pygmy’. A derogatory name loaded with infamy, yet preferred by the very people it derides, the tribe rather that put-down than (as Brennan puts it) “the official PC mouthful/post-genocidal replacement: The people who were left behind because of the facts of Rwandan history.”

In part, those size limitations have were shaped and made worse by the fact that traditionally the tallest women in the Abatwa attracted outside attention, and were taken as wives by other tribes – one answer to the album’s rhetorical title, “Why Did We Stop Growing Tall?”


Local comedian Simbuvara photo by Marilena Delli




In this environment – described in linear notes with the signature frank, un-PC, highly informative and entertaining Brennan travelogue style – peppered with teenage breakdancers that ‘could out-battle any South Queens sidewalk challenger’, a enervated surreal ‘tag-team lounge duo playing an off-key Bob Marley medley’, and plenty of anecdotes to dispel a rafter of myths and assumptions – the hands-off field recorder finds both inspiring and veracious acts of endurance and survival.


Patrick Manishimine photo by Marilena Delli




There are a number of themes that run through both this, volume four in the series, and the previous three documentations, Hanoi Masters, Khmer Rouge Survivors and Paul Chandler’s phenomenal Every Song Has Its End: Sonic Dispatches From Traditional Mali (all of which made our albums of the year lists): including the saving of traditions and voices of communities under attack from the onslaught of modernism and erosion of cultures outside the mainstream; and drawing attention to the legacy of problems arising from war and insurrection. But there is also similarities sound wise between all four volumes; namely a form of atavistic, primal, and in my opinion the best kind, of blues, that is eerily echoed in what is one of the genres birthplaces, Mali, but can also be found ringing in the deltas of Cambodia.

Sitting in for, and one of the progenitors no doubt to the six-string, are the ragtag assembled instruments of tradition: the one-string ‘Umuduli’ and eleven-string ‘Icyembe’. Practitioners of these two stalwart attenuate instruments can be heard on the scratchy, tangled spring-y Rwanda Nzizza (Beautiful Rwanda) paean by the great soulful voiced Emmanuel Hatungimana, and the caressing, peacefully played Ihorere (Stop Crying Now) duet lament by the wife and husband duo Emmanuel Habumuremy and Ange Kamagaju.

A kind of boxed canoe turn surfboard with strings the icyembe stands almost as tall as those who pluck its reverberating, sharp spindly quiver. It’s umuduli counterpart, both far less cumbersome and mobile, does despite only having the one string and repetitive scratchy twang, provide a suitable, evocative rhythm.


Emmanuel Habumuremy (husband) & Ange Kamagaju (wife) photo by Marilena Delli




Make no mistake; this is performance in its most deconstructive raw form. Devoid of embellishments and overbearing production, recorded in situ with only the rudimentary elements and atmosphere for company, it sounds great.

And so you hear some of the most stripped and revelatory of performances that make their equivalents back in the West sound sterile and bloated in comparison. Artists such as the 19-year-old female rapper Rosine Nyiranshimiyimana who improvises vividly on the stylophone clickety-buzzing sassy, take-it-to-the-yard R&B Umwana W’umuhanda (The Child From The Streets), and the sublime but humble Beatrice Mukarungi, who leads her ‘sons’ on the spiritual chorus plaint Urwanikamiheto (War Song), perform somehow different and askewer fresh takes on the music we find familiar.

Battery powered electronics and rusty, ramshackle dusty instruments come together in hybrids that evoke ritual, the ceremonial but equally the blues, soul and hip-hop; all played with an undeniably emotional Rwandan verve and lilt.

 

Once again Brennan highlights the forgotten musical legacy and voices of a traumatized community – alcoholism and depression rife in their isolated communities; allusions made by Brennan that draw similarities with the pre-casino era American Indian reservations -, recovering in the uneasy truce of one of the 20th century’s worst genocides – and as we are all aware, it had some stiff competition in those stakes.

Hidden Musics has become an unmissable and equally important series; field recordings of hope and recovery in the face of despair.





ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona


 

Tanzania Albinism Collective  ‘White African Power’
Six Degrees Records, 2nd June 2017

If anyone is perturbed, fear not as the man behind this slightly ironically entitled White African Power album, guiding hand and producer extraordinaire Ian Brennan, puts us straight:

“As one of the most persecuted groups on the planet, when a member of the Albinism community in Tanzania – especially one who has been relocated by the government for his own physical protection – asserts his “power”, it should not be denied. And if anyone has earned the right for the use of irony, it is those that have suffered such atrocities and ostracism from birth, yet still manage to endure.”

In so many respects a “spiritual follow-up” to Brennan’s Grammy Award-nominated Zomba Prison Project and follow-on from the equally evocative and raw Hanoi Masters sessions, White African Power attentively and respectfully draws out the repressed voices of the Albino community in Tanzania. Brennan’s productions often serve as a kind of hands-off form of creative counseling and healing; helping people to overcome trauma, such as the survivors of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. He’s renowned for being the most inconspicuous of in the field and on location producers, letting the atmosphere and elements, the moment if you like, and even serendipity bleed into the performances he captures for posterity. And the production methodology used for this latest project, recording the songs of the standing Voice Community of Ukerewe, is no different.

As superstitions still prevail in many parts of east Africa, none more so than in Tanzania, the albino community are ghoulishly hunted down or ostracized. If they’re lucky, they make it to sanctuaries such as the Ukerewe Island retreat: dumped for their own safety by families and the government but also abandoned. If they’re unlucky than they will find a much more horrendous fate is in store for them, pursued, murdered and dismembered for their limbs by those who believe that an albino’s body parts have magical properties. However you look at it, albinos in Tanzania are shunned and persecuted: one of the most common insults being that they, “belong to the whites”, or worse, that they are demonic.

A safe haven, Ukerewe, where Ian travelled to in 2016 to document their plight, is the largest inland island in Africa, only reachable by a four-hour ferry ride. Its community is, hardly surprising, haunted by their experiences. Self-conscious, avoiding eye contact, it proved a difficult task for the producer to encourage his subjects to open up. But open up they did, and the results are often surprisingly melodious, poetic, and diaphanous if raw and emotional. Far from a harrowing catalogue of despair and pity, the 23 recordings on this collection prove illuminating.





Though sung in the “discouraged and censored” (following unification in 1964) dialects of Kikirewe and Jeeta, the English translated song titles will leave you in no doubt as to each one’s message and lament: from disbelief at their treatment, on the Casio keyboard preset backed alternative 80s, sweet but troubled, The World Has Gone Mad, and the double-bass trembled Stop The Murders, to the hope and calls for normality on the mysterious sounding electric-guitar blues I Will Build A Home, Someday, and the harp-plucked music box serenaded Happiness.

Another indictment if needed on those perpetrators and a population that have harassed and murdered them, other titles sadly reflect tragic insights into their lives: Stigma Everywhere, They Gossiped When I Was Born, Standing Voices (Once, I Was Abandoned). And as though any right-thinking decent human being needed it, there’s a jolting reminder that Disability Is Not A Curse.

 

Fitting no obvious style, these amorphous performances do however resonate both with the delta blues of Louisiana and the stark, stripped down and earthy blues of South East Asia. Touches of raw African dusty tradition do appear, ascending and descending alongside gospel and soulful voices, naturally echoed, sighed and open-heartedly sung with a pure vulnerability. They’re accompanied either by stark lo fi electric guitar performances, that range from scratchy, straggly proto-punk to slower scrabbly emotive twangs, or an acoustic backing of rubber-band and bottle shaking percussion. Standing out production wise though is the classical – imagine Brahms on harpsichord transferred to East Africa in the 80s – reverberating cradling deep soulful ballad, Never Forget The Killings.

 

Ian Brennan coaxes another startling, eye opening, set of recordings from the victims of trauma; one that proves every bit as impressive as it does plaintive and sad. The collective will astonish, if not surprise listeners, those suppressed voices, thankfully released and given an international platform, sound emotionally honest and revelatory.

Released just ahead of the U.N.’s International Albinism Awareness Day on June 13th, the voices of White African Power can also be seen at this year’s WOMAD festival this summer (July 27-30th).


NEW MUSIC REVIEWS
Words: Dominic Valvona

Baluji Shrivastav - Monolith Cocktail

Tickling Our Fancy 046:  Srdjan Beronja,  Nick Blackos,  Clap Your Hands Say Yeah,  Irk Yste,  IRL Remixes,  The Nightjar and Baluji Shrivastav.

In this edition of Tickling Our Fancy, Alec Ounsworth, under his famous Clap Your Hands Say Yeah moniker, returns with a brilliant new “cathartic” purging of an album, The Tourist; the inconspicuous but effective in spreading ever more eclectic world music sounds to a wider audience, Independent Records Ltd label, celebrates its first fifteen years in the business with an album of transmogrified remixes, entitled Terraforming In Analogue Space; ARC Music release two Indian music inspired albums, with a Best Of the legendary Baluji Shrivastav (who made London his home in the early 80s) and a new travelogue that straddles not only India, but also the Balkans and the Middle East, from the erudite Serbian multi instrumentalist Srdjan Beronja; The Nightjar unfurl their accentuated and stark contemplated post-folk debut, Objects; plus the inaugural release for the German label, GiveUsYourGOLD, from the Weimar Techno duo Irk Yste, and a new album of Nick Blackos hip-hop instrumentals from the burgeoning ONV blueprint.


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah   ‘The Tourist’
Released  24th February 2017


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Monolith Cocktail

 

 

Inimitably jump-starting a cerebral indie-pop scene in the mid noughties with his unique off-kilter melodies and quivered, yodeled vocals, the fiercely independent, Alec Ounsworth created major ripples with his nom de plume, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-released debut in 2005.

Every critics nightmare in the labored name department, and so abbreviated to save precious time (oh pity us poor feckless critic darlings!), CYHSY was instrumental in influencing and inspiring a rafter of artists and bands. Ounsworth’s peers have evidently caught up, and his fifth album, The Tourist, reflects this; suffused as it is with familiar echoes of The Parenthetical Girls, Les Savy Fav, Elliot Smith, the Arcade Fire, and on the askew r’n’b lite, A Chance To Cure, Chk Chk Chk.

One man’s vision, orchestrated in a solitary fashion, Ounsworth is self-confessedly “stubborn” when it comes to recording. However, though he writes and arranges everything he’s joined in the studio by a bassist and drummer, who offer a bright, expanded “band feel” to the material. These recordings were further embellished with additional back-up vocals, keyboards, guitars and percussion, tidied up by engineer Nick Krill and eventually mixed (and egged-on) by CYHSY “anchor” Dave Friedman – who previously worked of course on the Some Loud Thunder and Only Run albums. The results of this process are magnificent; the anxiety-ridden, rich challenging themes channeled through an airy and often breezy big sound.

Ounsworth stumbles and ponders through a “post factual” strewn world of challenging emotions trying, to make sense of it all. At times the album title could even be said to act as a metaphor for the artist’s own estranged and removed soul-searching: a tourist in his own country. As lyrically adroit as ever, he carefully crams in as many associated references and wordplays as he can, squeezing a lot out of every phrase and expression in a characteristic style that leans towards a more cheery disposed Thom Yorke. Despite some sad and profound pathos heavy lyricism, Ounsworth’s “purging” of thoughts is meant to be a cathartic experience. The anxieties of our times can’t help but leak from every other line, yet The Tourist is a fairly warm, jangly surprise package of lolloping and anthemic songs. Building and soaring to an emotive brightened crescendo of sweetness and yearning on The Vanity Of Trying; contorting and bending guitar textures in a Robert Fripp fashion on the psych-pop gnarled Down (Is Where I Want To Be); and, up close and personal (every breathe audible) to the mic, driving through an 80s nocturnal rock ballad on Better Off, the inimitable Ounsworth careers through a full gamut of moods and chaos in the most natural and energetically purposeful way.

Clocking in at well under the forty minute mark (bands and artists take note) The Tourist is an unlabored, near-perfect melodious album. It says all it needs to and more; free of indulgence, and despite its bombast, sophisticated suffused layering is incredibly lean and brisk. A most enjoyable if poignant experience, this album already sets the benchmark in 2017, and is without doubt one of CYHSY’s best.





Various   ‘Terraforming In Analogue Space  –  IRL Remixes 2000  –  2015’
Released  by  IRL,  24th  February  2017


terraforming-in-analogue-space - Monolith Cocktail

 

Celebrating fifteen years (the first that is) of “global music” transmogrification – transforming what are in many cases the most raw and basic of field recordings into stunning peregrinations and flights of internationally amorphous fantasy – Independent Records Ltd. have chosen label stalwart Nick “Dubulah” Page to curate a 100th release special of remixes, that once again, in-keeping with their “raison d’être”, offers an alternative sonic vision of choice tracks from the back catalogue.

Regular Monolith Cocktail followers may recall my review of Page’s Xaos mythical Hellenistic soundscape collaboration with Ahetas Jimi and a group of traditional musicians, which made the blog’s choice albums of 2015 feature. The multi-instrumentalist, producer and writer may also be familiar to readers for his work with Transglobal Underground and Dub Colossus. All three of which appear in one form or another on this reinvigorated album: that reimagined Greek tragedy Xaos, for instance, is represented with a David Sylvian flittering, and quickened rhythm and beats swaddled TJ Rehmi mix of Pindos Full Moon, and a subtle bounding timpani, 80s synth-horror soundtrack style treatment, by Stereo Mike, of the esoteric Byzantine evocation Processional – one part atavistic Biblical Aphrodite’s Child, the other, John Carpenter in the “fog”.

But before we venture any further, a little background is needed. The illusive IRL – not one to herald and pontificate loudly – have remained a highly influential purveyor of music from across the most wild, isolated and wondrous corners of the world, even if they remain on the peripherals; relatively obscure. Originally formed by a trio of artist/band managers, whose eclectic CV included managing at one time or another, Sinead O’Connor, Beth Orton, Rialto, Jah Wobble and The Wonder Stuff, IRL’s remit was to remain inconspicuous. Key figures in this enterprise, the guitarist and in recent years, member of Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters, Justin Adams, and field recording specialist extraordinaire and general polymath of distinction, Ian Brennan, have brought the goods, or at least help shape them. And it’s no surprise that they feature heavily, with both their own productions and songs receiving the remix treatment, but also appearing in their original form on a second CD. Brennan, who I interviewed for the blog last year, memorably introduced the sublime ragged and dusty gospel-influenced Malawi Mouse Boys to the label. The rodent kebab sellers and, as it turns out, gifted musicians/singers from one of the poorest of poor hamlets are given a galloping dubstep-lite flitter by The Dhol Foundation on the village serenaded and lolloping, Ndinasangalala (I Was Happy), and acquire a Teutonic electro affects package of drum pad lasers, modulating contoured synth and handclap percussion (remolded from the joyous clapping on the original) on Dalek Romeo’s horizon floating mix of Manja (Clap Your Hands). Other choice Brennan productions, reconfigured and taken off-course, include the Lunar Drive mix of General Paolino’s Congratulations South Sudan, which shifts between two-step accelerated shuffling and half-time dreamy lilting soul, and the Penguin Café Orchestra’s, as ever, lush and subtle scenic mix of Acholi Machon’s Convoy.

ahetas-dubulah- Monolith Cocktail


Making the most appearances however, the already mentioned Justin Adams appears in many guises, both as a solo artist and as a collaborator and producer. His own lo fi Desert Road trip is underlain with a percussive cycle of tight-delayed electronic snare and soft prodding synthesized bass by Dub Colossus, but keeps its original mirage-shimmering candor. There’s also a lunar whistling and quivering Radar Station mix of Adams’, with Juldeh Camera’s Ngamen, and a trio of, mostly subtle transformations of the French chanson group Lo’Jo, who Adams produced. Heavily intoxicated by North African musical influences, Lo’Jo in fact took Adams on his first trip to Mali, which as a result, led to them both producing the sublime Tuareg desert blues group Tinariwen’s legendary 2001 release, The Radio Tisdas Sessions.

Complementing Lo’Jo’s Arab-Franco signatures further, as if in some kind of dreamscape, Bernard O’Neill (comrade-in-arms of Page in Dub Colossus and other incarnations), appearing here under the Syriana banner, accentuates the jazzy seductive, liaison-amongst-the-Tunisian-sand-dunes, mood with a Holger Czukay-like evocation on the group’s Sur Des Carnet Nus. A Boyscout mix of their languid Yalaki reimagines them as Moloko, whilst album closer, Carnet US Vatican Radio, also mixed by O’Neill, lets the concertinaed, yearning lived-in French vocals and atmospheric crackles dissipate into the ether.

Broadening musical horizons, if politically and societally it seems many are retreating towards nationalistic introspection, IRL have released some superb albums. It was through the label’s 2003 Festival In The Desert LP that I first heard the mesmerizing Saharan transcendental blues of Tinariwen. And the “terraforming in analogue space” album opens with a suitably suffused desert contoured and Kraftwerk-like kinetic beats driven peregrination of their entrancing Oualahila by the world music and electronica fusion doyens Transglobal Underground.

Taking the LP title literally, “terraforming” describes the process of making a planet habitable for us humans, changing the atmosphere and life-giving properties to that of Earths. In this instance, IRL allow others to reshape their back catalogue in an attempt to introduce the listener to inhabit an ever richer and eclectic space. Despite drifting untethered into the galaxy, at times sounding almost alien, this remix appraisal seeks to bring the global community together in the spirit of human commonality.




The Nightjar   ‘Objects’
Released  17th  March  2017


The Nightjar - Monolith Cocktail

 

To the group’s credit, The Nightjar’s accentuated and stark contemplations on the human condition and the constructs that give meaning to reality itself, including the inevitable specter of death, couldn’t have sounded more peaceable and full of grace. Such heavy themes as these, inspired in part by both Eastern philosophy and the Catholic afflatus metaphysical quandaries, posed by the late venerable French composer Olivier Messiaen, usually promise a hard slog and grueling experience for the listener. Yet, despite the raw directness of this Bristol ensemble’s naturalistic, poised, songbook of “hope, loss and disaster”, every performance is beautifully and dreamily executed.

Referring to their debut album, Objects, as a collection of “songs for the end of time”, “concerned with transformation, transience and impermanence”, The Nightjar articulates the fleeting and sings of a time when nature reclaims the encroaching man-made landscape. Describing their particular style as “lo fi post-folk”, they do push and experiment with the folk genre, though the choice of themes, and even with the inclusion of the re-arranged traditional songs Hangman and Dle Yaman, summon up the atavistic. For instance, the age-old standard, Hangman, is a scion of over hundreds of variations on the same central trope; an unknown fated protagonist waits, hoping that out of a litany of visitors, from family members to lovers, someone will arrive in time with the right coinage bribe to free them from the hangman’s noose. The Nightjar hauntingly resurrect this morbid tale with a suitable lamentable vocal, paused, sighing electric guitar and a harrowed bowed drone. Albeit from what I can gather with little information, Dle Yaman is another standard, this time a plaintive Armenian ode, an exclamation of mourning, which the group furnishes with a divine sacrosanct ascendency.

Exploring the void, submerged under a amorphous gauze of diaphanous and ether atmospherics, The Nightjar recorded their album in rural Portugal on the most basic of equipment. Informed by such “interesting” locations as a dilapidated bar in the Old Town of Sertã, and the distressed run-down piano that came with it, they fluctuate between (what sounds like) a gramophone scratched transmission, from the great beyond, and a clearer, more evocative and resonated style or recording. The backing is mostly subtle and attentive: the electric and acoustic guitars erudite and drums attentive throughout, ascending, descending in the ebb and flow of the building drama. But most striking is the vocal work of Mo Kirby, who perfectly articulates the mood with a measured performance of sorrow, yearning, tumultuous lament and the ethereal.

Finding a passage through an allegorical “wardrobe” into an earnest, toiled world of cockleshell dredger inhabited coastal shorelines and riverbeds; swallowed whole by the soil into the psychogeography, The Nightjar waft through centuries of despair and meaning to map out an auger of unease about our future.





Baluji  Shrivastav   ‘Best  Of…’
Srdjan Beronja   ‘Sounds  Of  The  East:  Music  From  The  Balkans,  India  And The  Middle  East’
Both released by ARC Music,  24th  February 2017


Photo credit to Simon Richardson

Photo credit to Simon Richardson

 

Capping off last year’s 40th anniversary celebrations with a top three placing in the highly regarded Womex “top 20 labels” awards, the industrious world music label ARC Music starts the new year as they mean to go on, with a duo of congruous Eastern imbued musical travelogues from Baluji Shrivastav and Srdjan Beronja. The first of which is a “best of” collection and timely appreciation of the revered Indian music virtuoso – who was recently honoured with an OBE -, the second, is a collection of field recordings taken from a geographical triangle of India, the Balkans and the Middle East. Both albums overlap; Shrivastav’s polygenesis array of ragas and concepts chiming with Beronja’s own sitar and Indian redolent cornucopia of recordings. And coming as they do from different starting points and cultures, compliment each other well.

Highly qualified, gaining a degree for his vocal studies from the University of Lucknow, and a BA for tablas and an MA for sitar from the Allahabad University, respectfully, multi-instrumentalist composer Baluji Shrivastav has journeyed a well-travail(ed) road to reach his richly deserved status as one of India’s most cherished exports. Musically championed of course on this collection, he’s equally respected for his fervent campaigning as a cofounder, alongside his wife, the composer and songwriter Linda Shanson, of the London-based Baluji Music Foundation. Shrivastav, who was blinded at only eight months from glaucoma, and Shanson’s foundation has and continues to help further the cause of the blind and visually impaired, as well as disabled in music. Whilst this impairment hasn’t held the gifted and tactile musician back – if anything, inspiring experimentation and an alternative, sometimes original, way of doing things – it has obviously shaped him.

A positive extension of his foundation is the Inner Vision Orchestra; steered and directed by Shrivastav, the 14-piece ensemble is a melting pot of cultures, with members from the Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Japan, and Nigeria. This troupe can be heard on both the exotic Persian love yearned Chashma Sia Dari (sung in the Dari dialect, a spoken form of Persian used in Afghanistan), and the swimmingly reedy ensemble-vocal piece, Diggy Diggy Diggy Ya Rababa.


Photo credit to Simon Richardson

Photo credit to Simon Richardson




Making London his home in the early 80s, Shrivastav’s humble journey from the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to the streets of the England capital informs most of the material. Taken from his recording career over this four-decade period, some tracks make more obvious allusions to this than others. One of the earliest, Fruit from 1982, is a lilting sitar version of the Linda Shanovitch written South American-bound love tryst. Languid Cuban flavours and sauntering sway work well with the Indian instrumentation, in what is a fusion of styles we seldom hear. Reflecting, in a more grandiose manner, his attentive first steps in, and embrace of, London, there’s the instrumental trilogy of Discovering London & Friendship, Walking Through The Streets and Mixing With The Crowd And Spirit Of Joy. All of which tie together Shrivastav’s experiences, mixing classical British pomp and circumstance with the exotic reverberations of India across three various mood soundtracks. The rest of this collection mixes more traditional adaptations with contemporary arrangements; devotional standards such as the melodious Raag Shobhavari, and the spritely, full of life, Indian dance, Nartaki.

As highly complex and intricate as you’d expect, with countless forms, scales and “ascending’, “descending” notes of praise, adulation and contemplation, as well as guest appearances from not only Inner Vision but also the Egyptian master tabla player Hossam Ramzy, Andy Sheppard and Guy Baker, all these performances remain organic and fluid – there is a detailed inventory and backstory booklet however for those who wish to dip further into the finer details.

Though he’s worked with a dizzying cast of eclectic performers including tabla legends Anindo Chatterji and Ustad Fayaz Khan, and artists as diverse as Massive Attack and Stevie Wonder over the years, Baluji Shrivastav is now enjoying a welcome appraisal: On top of that OBE he received in the Queen’s birthday honours list last year, a GG2 Leadership Award for Achievement Through Adversity, there’s also a new documentary about the Inner Vision Orchestra, Colours Of Sound, from the director Marie-Cécile Embleton, and now this highly enjoyable survey compilation. An introduction and retrospective, this Best Of album will endear the listener to the prowess and multifaceted evocations of the sitar and its accompanying Indian instrumentation.


Srdjan Beronja - Monolith Cocktail

Imbued with a similar Indian sound palette, though one that has amorphously blended it with those of the Middle East and the Balkans, Serbian composer Srdjan Beronja takes the familiar buzz of the sitar and highly deft, rapid tapping rhythms of the tabla and merges them with a host of instruments from ancient Persia and North Africa on his latest album, Sounds Of The East. Drifting across a geographical triangle of influence, the ethnomusicologist travels between all three corners of his sonic map, recording both traditional and original field recordings and improvised performances. It is in short, a veritable odyssey of discoveries; moving seamlessly through the exotic landscape, capturing many unusual and surprising sounds.

Following on “effortlessly” from his previous 2015 album, Sounds Of Varanasi – the Indian holy town of the title appears again on this collection -, Beronja, again, spends most of his time in India. Recordings vary in length and drama; from the menagerie “morning chorus” of wild twirling, hooting and convoluted birdlife, found on the heat-sapping Alapana – recorded in Kerala – to the gunpowder explosion firework snapshot of the famous Diwali Festival Of Light, on Visphot – meant as a poignant reflection on the damage that this bombastic firework display inflicts on the environment. There’s also more performance-based instrumentals, including the improvised, joyful, Raag Jog Dhun, which partners Beronja on the tabla-like darabuka drum with maestro violinist Pt Sukhdev Prasad Misha (a revered ambassador of Hindustani classical music no less), and the more groovy but reflective, Raga Sitar-Daf Kirvani, which sees Beronja play the Persian frame “daf” drum and the notable Pt Dhruv Nath Mishra sit in on the sitar.

Leaving behind the scenery but not the music, those Indian sounds lingering on as Beronja journeys to the Middle East and the Balkans. The strangest recording, Nora Of Hama, captures the weird buzzsaw and motorbike revving sounds of a wooden water wheel in the Syrian town of the title. Disturbing, almost ominous, the scraping and creaking mechanics offer a surreal window into age-old apparatus; still in use; still providing an essential resource. In a similar landscape of musical influence, the Serbian composer invites the Sarajevo born oud player and multi-instrumentalist Marina Tošić to join him on the “open air” improvised liturgy, Maqam Bayati Oud Taqsim. Tošić also appears, playing the pan flute, on the live in concert recorded, Shepherd’s Love Song. Two musical spheres and traditions, one from (again) India, the other, the Balkans, entwine on this sad tale of the lonely shepherd pining on the hillside in wistful lament because of a former lover’s unreciprocated love. Another “virtuoso” (just one of the many) oud player, but also more than handy on the zither-like qanun, Stefan Sablić plucks away dreamily on the ethereal album closer lullaby, Maqam Ajam Qanun Taqsim.

As with many ARC Music releases, in depth notes can be found in the accompanying album booklet. Not that you need an extensive knowledge, and with so many different influences and ways of interpreting meaning from the highly sophisticated, centuries old traditions of specific scales, it’s better to let the music breathe unburdened. Of course it’s all interesting and informative, but it also shows the cross-pollination process and intricate blending of styles that makes this music so universally connected. Sounds Of The East is an intriguing, often surprising, musical travelogue; one that reminds us just how erroneous those musical borders really are, as Beronja finds the sounds that bind us.






Nick  Blackos  &  LOA   ‘No Reason’
Released  by  ONV,  available  now


Nick Blackos/ONV - Monolith Cocktail

 

Dropping releases surreptitiously without any fanfares or grandstanding, the burgeoning London-based hip-hop (and all it’s many congruous bedfellows) label ONV has in the last week, shinnied an eight-track instrumental showcase up the flagpole in the hope someone will salute it. Entitled No Reason of course, this latest collection of transmogrified 808 beats, tight kinetic drums, tetchy glitches, and warped languid samples is every bit as in line with the label’s signature subterranean and gritty London-soundscape style as previous EPs, LPs and odd tracks.

No Reason travails a strewn, strung-out sonic landscape, littered with cryptic chemicals (T88), vortex obscured utterances, speech and lulling voices (Four Horsemen, Get Away), languid vapours of dubstep and grime (Grotti), and the slow ticking away of time (Tranceforma). Lo fi and off most radars, ONV’s principle Nick Blackos, and the mysterious LOA, have produced another curious, underground and leftfield hip-hop album.




Irk Yste   ‘Wumpe/Stroppe’
Released  by  GiveUsYourGOLD,  3rd  February  2017


Irk Yste - Monolith Cocktail

 

The first release of the year from our friends at GiveUsYourGOLD – the artist-run Berlin label founded a few years ago by Alexandre Decoupigny and Thomas Tichai, of Psycho & Plastic fame -, the cool aloof Irk Yste debut is a sophisticated three-track techno transmission from the historically and culturally important eastern German town of Weimar.

Since bonding in the sandbox of their playschool in ’84, the Irk Yste’s Christoph and Benjamin (no surnames given) have shared a penchant for music, especially acid techno. Introduced to the style whilst in Denmark during the dawn of the noughties, the musical partnership toured the (as the bio describes it) “flattest of kingdoms” to ride on that inimitable acid wave. Via a number of projects, including The Zonnhaider’s Club and Norsal Flow, and a sojourn studying electroacoustics at the SeaM institute, in the city they now call home, the Weimar duo now release their inaugural explorations under their latest darkly melodic techno incarnation.

Informed by an “iterative” process of building sonic structure and harmony before dismantling and starting anew, the three-track Wumpe/Stroppe suite is a sophisticated, suffused mix of minimal techno, house and, even, jazz. The opening machine-age with soul, Wumpe, starts with a nauanced chain reaction of R&S and Basic Channel flavoured kinetic beats and a sonorous bass drum, but gradually builds to an ascendant, cinematic melody finish. From a similar mould but hinting towards a more lilting nocturnal escape, Stroppe is a metallic glistening slow ride into an unsure future scape. More a vignette, the final track, Pumps, fades in on a stirring pronounced synthesizer drone wave, before a serial accompaniment of warping, wobbling robotic and dial-up sounds interweave with the minimalist stripped-down techno foundations.

An impressive glimpse inside the machine, GiveUsYourGOLD promise that there’s more to come from their latest signing. Stay tuned for further techno explorations in the future-now.



Melt  Yourself  Down  to  Sam  Zircon

Monolith Cocktail - Cabo Verde

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

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

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




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

Monolith Cocktail - Melt Yourself Down

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


Mongrels  ‘Attack the Monolith’  (Invisible Spies)

Monolith Cocktail - Mongrels

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

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

Read original review here…


Melody Parker  ‘Archipelago’ 

Monolith Cocktail - Melody Parker

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

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

Read the full review here…


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

Monolith Cocktail - L'Orange and Mr Lif

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

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

Read the original review here…


Edward Penfold   ‘Caulkhead’  (Stolen Body Records)

Monolith Cocktail - Edward Penfold

 

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

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

Read the full review here…


Raf And O  ‘Portal’

Monolith Cocktail - Raf and O Portal

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

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

Read the full review here…


RAM   ‘6: Manman M Se Ginen’

Monolith Cocktail

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

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

Read the full review here…


Xenia Rubinos   ‘Black Terry Cat’  (ANTI-)

Monolith Cocktail - Xenia Rubinos ‘Black Terry Cat’

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

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

Read the full review here…


Noura Mint Seymali   ‘Arbina’   (Glitterbeat Records)

Monolith Cocktail - Noura Mint Seymali

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

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

Read the full review here…


Sidestepper   ‘Supernatural Love’   (Real World Records)

Monolith Cocktail

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

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

Read the full review here…



 

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

Monolith Cocktail - Si-Phili

 

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

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

Read the full review here…


Soundsci  ‘Walk the Earth’ (World Expo)

Monolith Cocktail - Soundsci

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

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


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

Monolith Cocktail - Teksti-TV 666

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

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

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

Read the full review here…


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

Monolith Cocktail

 

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

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

Read the Ian Brennan interview here…


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

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

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

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

Read the full review here…


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

Monolith Cocktail - Cabo Verde

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

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

Read the full review here…


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

Monolith Cocktail - Verbal Kent & !llmind

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

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

Read the original here…


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

Monolith Cocktail - WovenHand

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

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

Read the full review here…


Sam Zircon  ‘Anxiety Skits’  (Blah)

Monolith Cocktail - Sam Zircon

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

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

Read the original here…


%d bloggers like this: