Reviews Roundup: Dominic Valvona




Welcome to Dominic Valvona’s regular monthly roundup of eclectic pan-global recommendations and reviews.

This month’s edition includes the iconic Mekons debut release for Glitterbeat – a desert psychodrama of an album, the band’s first in eight years; the stunning sweetly despondent and woozy melodious new album from Blue House, ‘Gobstopper’; the poetic sound designer troubadour and composer Ben Osborn’s debut album for and in conjunction with Alex Stolze’s Nonostar imprint, Letters From The Border; a flight of analogue synth fantasy (literally) from the Cambridge composer Willie Gibson, with his aviation imbued homage to Saint-Ex; the second songbook of Anatolian and Kurdish imbued tradition from the soaring Turkish siren Olcay Bayir, Rüya; and a boxset oeuvre of the obscure but legendary late 70s and 80s Hanover cult band The 39 Clocks.

There’s also two recent unearthed curios of both psychedelic and improvisational counter-culture “head music” from the Spanish Guerssen label hub – the first, rediscovered nuggets from the English prog and pop-sike fuzzed Mandrake Paddle Steamer, the second, a blues odyssey of free-form jazz and Fillmore style West Coast acid from the Hasting’s Street Opera.

And finally, I also celebrate the 20th anniversary of Vinita Joshi’s most eclectic independent label, with a perusal of the special Rocket Girl compilation; a collection of mostly unreleased tracks from both artists that have featured on the label and admirers alike, which includes tracks from Dan Treacy, Silver Apples, Bardo Pond and Andrew Weatherall.



Mekons ‘Deserted’
(Glitterbeat Records) 29th March 2019

Removed by geographical distance and a general disinterest from the headline grabbing London punk explosion the infamous Leed’s outfit the Mekons enjoyed a wry, cynical at times, disassociation from their earnest over-preened compatriots in the capital. This distance allowed them to build up a unique reputation; the rambunctious gang of musical misfits more engaged with reality than myth, questioning the motives and authenticity of others with such barricade rattlers as ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Never Been In A Riot’.

Always on the fringes, drawn throughout their five-decade (and still going) haphazard career to the rough and ready origins of not only punk but also, and with this their latest album, country music, the Mekons have suffered as many setbacks as triumphs. One example of a Lazarus like rise in popularity being through the infamous Revenge Of The Mekons movie, which gained them new audiences and a new generation of followers in the US on its release.

Gravitating towards Joshua Tree in California, with all the various lore and history that iconic location holds, the Mekons rabble find all the space and landscape they need on their first album in eight years, Deserted. Recording just outside the shrine to counter-culture country – resting place homage of that visionary troubadour Gram Parsons -, at the studio of Mekons bassist and foundering member Dave Trumfio, the group explore the metaphysical and psychogeography of their desert muse: An open-ended stark landscape that’s, since the dawn of time, inspired a wealth of literature, music, film and travelogue.

Though entrenched in the “big country” desert panoramas of the USA, the Mekons scope falls wider, taking in the cultural isolation and self-imposed exile of a mournful Rimbaud – turning his back on poetry to leave his fated France to trade coffee – in the remote Ethiopian city of Harar on the slightly swaggering young poet channeled, wandering ‘Harar 1883’, and, at least, by referencing T.E. Lawrence’s Arab freedom fighter persona in ‘Lawrence Of California’, the deserts of Arabia. The wonder, awe and sense of isolation as a speck in the great expanse goes further than the sandscape and into space itself: Grains of sand as stars and galaxies; the Mekons mixing the desert wilderness with respect for the infinitesimal.

Gangly traversing this landscape without a roadmap, they have been pushed, successively, into new terrain sonic wise. Entirely self-imposed, the band showed up to recording sessions without any finished songs; just a few ideas exchanged over email. A continuation of the Mekons un-ended visions, Deserted certainly offers adventure, yet not so experimental as to lose the band’s signature rebellious streak and sound. Spikey, striding towards a mirage, sharing the camel-driven caravan with the Bad Seeds, Damned, Slits, Wovenhand, Radio Clash, Damon Albarn and PiL, they limber in a dub-y post-punk fashion or rattle through a hexed no-wave arid plain when in desert imbued mode, and channel ‘child-of-the-Jago’ old English romanticized poesy and Ronnie Lane gypsy serenaded folk rock when gazing upwards at the night skies.

Two of the album’s most distinctive tracks, ‘How Many Stars?’ and ‘Weimar Vending Machine/Priest?’ pose inquisitive and surreal open-ended titles, but also leave the sandy trail to go off-road into the past and plain weird. The former of these, which features the atmospheric atavistic Celtic swoons and haunting malady of Susie Honeyman’s violin, reimagines a sweetly, if fatefully forlorn, Georgian lament (“Father dig my grave, upon my hand a velvet glove to show I died for love.”), the latter, riffs on a drug-induced (no doubt) Iggy Pop anecdote from the hazy, heady junked-up days of Berlin – the sinewy maverick apparently coming across a peculiar vending machine that sold bags of sand. This madcap, or metaphorical dream, inspired tale launches the band on a suitably Kurt Weil – as bastardised by Iggy and Bowie – like strut that takes in Aladdin Sane at the drive-in, a disturbed Mott The Hoople glam doo-wop chorus and a subtle hint of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

To be fair, there is a hell of a lot going on sonically and texturally; the instrumental accompaniment featuring such exotic sounds as the saz and cumbus, but also violin and accordion alongside the standard wanes, tremolo and bendy heated vapour trail guitar and shared vocal duties.

Forty-one years in and showing no signs of fatigue, prompted to probe new sonic horizons, the Mekons inaugural album for Glitterbeat Records (easily one of the best, most diverse labels of the last five years) is possibly the Leeds troupe’s most expansive, deep and tactile albums yet: A distillation of all the group’s best assets. Without doubt one of 2019’s most impressive albums, Deserted reaffirms a legacy and status but offers a way going forward for a band baptized in the inferno of punk.







Blue House ‘Gobstopper’
(Faith And Industry) 29th March 2019



On a roll of late, the sweetly despondent songwriter-singer-musician James Howard continues to survey This Sceptred Isle with wistful melodious aplomb. Howard, under the guise of the Thomas Nation alter ego, delivered a minor historical-spanning album that metaphorically attempted to make sense of Brexit, and in turn nationhood, community and sense of belonging. That cassette tape chronicle, Battle Of The Grumbles – which rightfully made the Monolith Cocktail’s ‘choice albums of 2018’ features – never raised above a peaceable whisper and sigh, but through articulate melody and subtly worked its magic well enough.

The fruits of two-years labour, Howard’s latest appearance as principle writer, is with the Blue House collaboration; a group that boosts the talents of Ursula Russell (drumming for the brilliant Snapped Ankle, and soon to release music under the Ursa Major Moving Group), Dimitrios Ntontis (film composer and member of a host of bands including Pre Goblin) and Capitol K (the nom de plume of the ever-in-demand star producer Kristian Craig Robinson). Following up on the group’s 2016 acclaimed Suppose LP with another rich mellow empirical state-of-the-nation address, the Blue House’s Gobstopper is suffused with a languid disdain, as they drift through the archetypal bleak waiting rooms of nostalgia and the limbo of benefit Britain.

Gently stunning throughout with hues of a gauze-y Kinks, a less nasal Lennon, a more wistful Bowie and woozy Stereolab, Howard and friends perform a disarming mini opus that soaks up the forlorn stench of an out-of-season postcard seaside pub, air-conditioned gyms and quaint English motorways – ‘Accelerate’ in name only, the speed and candour of a hitched-up caravan that’s more ambling (with the radio dial set to Fleetwood Mac bounce) than autobahn motorik futurism.

Revealing its beauty and ambitious scope slowly, Gobstopper often soars with aria like ethereal warbles and dreamy filmic soundtrack panoramas: The soliloquy sepia tinged memory lane heartache of ‘Stay With Me’ marries Morricone with Lee Hazlewood and Richard Hawley, whilst the swooned ‘Delecta’ reimagines an English dancehall Lou Reed rewriting the introduction from the TV show, Jamie And The Magic Torch. Countless passing musical references linger, including the coach tour surrealism of The Magical Mystery Tour, the more serene elements of David Axelrod, Aiden Moffat and Serge Gainsbourg (if he worked on a minimum hours contract in Margate); a full ploughman’s lunch of cozy, if pining, 60s and 70s quality songwriting.

A snapshot of a lifetime, both misspent and blue, Blue House suck on the bitter aftertaste of the original peoples vote, whilst reflecting on the idyllic misrepresentations of nostalgia, yet also drawing forlorn comments on fleeting indignations and trends: Howard references a string of quintessential English preoccupations, from Abu Hamza to Coronation Street (which I never miss an episode of personally), reminding us of the inevitable nature of these obsessions that distract us, “When this is over, something else will come along.”

I may find plenty to discuss, even disagree with, but Gobstopper is without doubt a magnificent, beautifully crafted album; already a choice highlight of 2019.







Ben Osborn ‘Letters From The Border’
(Nonostar Records) 19th April 2019



For a number of reasons the poet-troubadour composer and sound-design architect Ben Osborn could be said to have found an ideal platform for his music, joining the German-based Nonostar label. Sharing both an East European Jewish heritage with its founder, the artist/producer/violinist maestro Alex Stolze, Osborn’s often majestic, sometimes mournful, quality minimal electronic undulated neoclassical compositions and lyrical pining also seem heaven-made for this label; at times crossing over and seeming almost indistinguishable (in a good way) from Stolze’s very own signature solo work. This is hardly surprising as Stolze also produced this debut effort, crafting this subtle gentle songbook at his remote studio on the German-Polish border, in the summer of 2018.

An idyllic sounding retreat that can’t fail to lend the recordings a suffused naturalistic feel, this border positioned studio allowed elements of the surrounding environment to bleed into the production. Aleatory to a point, helping to form a certain ambience, the wandering winds, distant birdsong and chatter, and creaking, stretching movements seem, alongside all the musical breaths, notes and melodies to be purposefully placed: almost perfectly so.

The award-winning sound designer and deft soundtrack composer of acclaimed “libretti” feeds a rich provenance into his debut, Letters From The Border. Drawing parallels with the lamentable diaspora of his ancestors heart-breaking displacement during WWII with the current flight of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, Osborn yearnfully finds a common ground. The heartache of isolation and alienation are beautifully swooned and felt throughout this tactile diaphanous album; the movement of people across, increasingly, hostile borders often hauntingly conveyed in the most emotive if nuanced of maladies; points made in a disarming series of venerable but poetically descriptive lyrics.

Reaching into the mystical profound etymology of that Jewish heritage, Osborn chooses to open his ethereal-charmed plucked album with a minor romantic instrumental overture, based around the atavistic Hebrew word for “joy”, ‘Chedvah’. As Osborn himself explains the reasoning behind this choice, the sad waning and earnest introduction represents “…the joy of connecting to something bigger than yourself.” Musicality wise this piece follows a numerical sequence based on the Hebrew letters of the same word: originally taught to Osborn as a breathing meditation by the artist Daniel Laufer.

Later on, coming full circle, he references the equally profound if lamenting, third section of the Hebrew Bible passage, ‘Psalm 22’, on the album’s dreamily nigh sky finale. This oft-quoted, if debated and trawled for meaning, passage features the famous “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” line; the words of a people in exile at the time; the distress, plight and search for some kind of meaning and purpose to their sufferings inspiring Osborn’s far less despairing but aching swansong.

The plight of refugees, a subject close to both Osborn and Stolze’s hearts, as they occupy the tip-toe piano and choral mood accompanied border soundscape of the Leonard Cohen meets T Bone Burnett like title track, or, wistfully cross a clitter-clatter train track motioned avian symbolic ‘Bridge Of Starlings’.

Osborn also shares, if under a veil of hazy descriptive metaphor, even more personable material amongst the border themes. The woozy, delightfully longing clarinet featured nostalgic malady, with tints of that imbued East European ancestry, ‘My Sister The Swimmer’, is elegiac like; Osborn tenderly cooing sepia toned pool side recollections and memories. No less personable, if meant to “examine” a “universal experience of grief and bereavement”, the dainty piano with quivered violin and gleaned wispy harp accompanied ‘A Guide To Gothenburg’ uses the city’s backdrop to find solace.

Beautifully conveyed at every turn, Ben Osborn uses an assiduous steady hand to evoke connection; a connection to nature; a connection to the plight of modern-day displacement; a connection to our shared roots. Letters From The Border is a delicate, yearning reveal of an album; an album that finds a fine balance between the classical and contemporary to soundtrack an accomplished suite of lyrical venerability and learning: Poetically sublime.







Various ‘Rocket Girl 20’
(Rocket Girl) 1st March 2019



Perhaps one of the most cherished of independent UK labels, Vinita Joshi’s Rocket Girl imprint has over the last twenty years attained an impressive legacy and loyalty from its artists. A mark of that loyalty and respect can be found by way of the contributors lining up to celebrate the label’s twentieth anniversary: some of who, never even released a record on it.

Vinita has come a long way, on a haphazard travail trajectory at times. The Indian lass from Rugby – called an ‘anomaly’ in a white male-dominated music industry by this compilation’s chosen linear note biographer, the Faber author (and super-fan) Richard Milward – gained one of many footholds in the business by managing the influential void-of-despair probing Telescopes. As a precursor to Rocket Girl itself, Vinita set-up, in conjunction with Nick Allport, the London-based Ché label, in 1991; borne from the ashes of the Chere label, intended as a vehicle for the music of Disco Inferno but expanding the remit to include the Tindersticks and the Detroit duo Füxa, who would later, join Rocket Girl, and feature on this anniversary special – a Congo Hammer remix of their acid-blurp Orb-meets-Cabaret-Voltaire dreamy goer ‘Sun Is Shining’ is featured on this most eclectic of spreads.

Despite personal tragedies and various setbacks, Vinita’s label has been both successful and prolific since its inception in 1998, the inaugural ‘rgirl1’ release a 7” single featuring the wonderful psychedelic cosmic electronic progenitors, Silver Apples. Long since a solo affair, the original late 60s founded duo sadly losing Danny Taylor in 2005, under the custodianship of Simeon Oliver Coxe III the Silver Apples brand continues to covet acclaim and attention as an experimental force of giddy nature. Now, as then, a whirly wiz-bang remix of the surreal culinary, chicken-dish mad, ‘Susie’, opens the compilation.

Both established icons and emerging ones appear regularly in the label’s back catalogue; this anniversary package that spans a series of special flexi-discs (a throwback to one of the first formats Vinita was involved with) collectable 7” singles, prints, a fully illustrated hardback book and 16-track compilation (a fuller digital version, which I reviewed, includes the flexi-disc tracks to make it 20), features just a mere smattering of them. The most poignant of which, the Television Personalities wry ramble through their maverick troubled leaders reputable back pages, ‘All Coming Back’, represents one of Vinita’s most enduring if turbulent musical relationships. The TV’s erratic treasured icon Dan Treacy has received plenty of prestige as an influence on everyone from Pavement to Pete Doherty, and released a string of comeback records, including 2006’s acclaimed My Dark Places LP. Volatile and prone to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Treacy has suffered badly for his art; addicted to drugs, battling mental health, adding up at one point on remand, the enigma has been off the radar since suffering from a brain injury in 2011, his legacy and blessing for the featured song on this compilation, taken from a small batch of unreleased tracks he recorded before these latest woes, coming from Treacy’s sister.

Another leading light of their particular sound, and again, major influence on those to follow, Robin Guthrie, co-founder of the ethereal vaporous Cocteau Twins, makes an appearance with the suitably echo-y heaven spindled track, ‘Flicker’. Joining him from north of the English border, fellow Scottish band, doyens of post-rock filmic panoramas, Mogwai, lend their fishing port earnest opus ‘Fight For Work’, as one of the flexi-disc specials.

A diverse roster is represented by artists as different and distinct as those earlier acrylates of (though they hate the term) the witch house phenomena, White Ring, and philosophical name-dropping no wave disco troubadour Kirk Lake. White Ring on their part offer a daemonic pulsing industrial skulk with broken-up salacious siren vocals on the brilliant darkwave ‘Heavy’, Lake, goes-for-broke parading countless symbolist thinkers (Lucan, Foucault, Barthes and the song’s own “Adorna”) as he limbers to a DFA meets Blurt NYC sidewalk shuffling ‘Go Ask Adorna’.

It’s telling that the Rocket Girl back catalogue and class of those who gravitate towards it is so immense with quality and diverse in breadth that I’ve not even mentioned the stoner anthemic Philly act Bardo Pond, or the Hazelwood dream pairing with Richard Hawley hymnal troubadour John DeRosa, or, even, the polygenesis producer/remixer extraordinaire Andrew Weatherall. And I could go on.

With discerning taste and strength-of-character to take chances, Vinita has built up a formidable if unassuming and assured label; one that has the depth and scope to keep on going in the face of ever uncertainty. The Rocket Girl anniversary package is a perfect encapsulation of that independent spirit. Go enjoy and celebrate one of the true individuals of the industry while you can. And let’s hopefully raise a glass to another twenty years of equally quality risk-taking.







Mandrake Paddle Steamer ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’
(Sommor) 17th January 2019

Hasting’s Street Opera ‘Slippery When Wet’
(Out-Sider) 17th January 2019



Via the “head music” and rediscovered musical nuggets channel of Guerssen two extreme rarities from the 1960s for fuzz freaks and progressive psych rock fans to drool over. The first, Mandrake Paddle Steamer’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, released by the Sommor imprint, collates a smattering of the Middle Earth Tolkien imbued Walthamstow band’s archived recordings (none of which were ever released), whilst the second, Hasting’s Street Opera’s Slippery When Wet, released by the most brilliant Out-Sider label, makes a previously private pressing (less than a hundred copies ever produced, and only ever handed out to friends and family) available to the great unwashed public for the very first time.

 

Formed by an art-school rabble of pals from an East End postcode, the Mandrake Paddle Steamer’s providence is most notable for the fleeting 45” they recorded at Abbey Road in 1967 for Parlophone. Though this fabled label, run by straights admittedly, launched The Beatles, the band was aiming for a deal with the more switched-on and hip Harvest label. Neither in the end took them on, and so what is a “lost classic”, the fuzz pop-sike ‘Strange Walking Man’ single remains their only shot. Still, in a short blossoming, they managed to support Floyd, The Nice and Vanilla Fudge (all three of which rubbed off on them sound wise), do a turn at the infamous salacious spit-and-sawdust Star Club, and set up their own club night (in honor of The Lord Of The Rings naturally) called Asgard.

The Pandemonium Shadow Show features nine varying tracks of bewitching esoteric psych, bordering on the progressive, from the key years of 1968 and 1970: The year they disbanded for good; even after dropping the river boat “paddle steamer” from their name to become just Mandrake. 1968 does seem to garner the lion’s share, with six of the nine tracks recorded in that musical pivotal year, as psych got real and heavy; the step-change being not just culturally but politically too; folk even more weaponised as the totems of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement across the Atlantic sank into the consciousness of the Boomer generation that kicked off the whole Hippie revolution. Still inspired on this side of the pond by the antagonistic post-mod rave-ups of John’s Children and Piper At The Gates Of Dawn Floyd, the MPS condensed these inspirations and the metaphorical language of Gothic Poe into the title-track that opens this album. Painting a vivid Halloween phantasm that stars a “moon shadowed witch” siren waltzing on a “fairground of fate”, the band go all out on a spooky acid trip. With the use of the funhouse organ and that quintessential Mellotron – part Procol Harum hymnal tripping, part mind-melting carousel – they evoke The Doors, sometimes, Family, and when the bell tolls and shit gets real, Deep Purple. On the ominous unhinged funny farm ‘The World Whistles By’ – a place where the melancholic and all-too serious themes of mental illness and isolation are highlighted – I’m sure I can hear the early genes of Genesis and even The Alex Harvey Band.

By 1970 they were knee-deep in the primordial, building from a mists-of-time like trudge towards a tavern-staggering-patron opus that consumes The Master’s Apprentice and Vanilla Fudge in a rolling crescendo of epic prog-psych rock lament on the sea-shanty fantasy ‘Stella Mermaid’. And on the waning shimmery wavy, with a polka-like merry-go-round gallop, ‘Simple Song’, they almost merge Focus with The Nice.

All the right ingredients, even ahead of their time as far as the progressive elements are concerned, the MPS story could be painted as a sorrowful tale of a band that were denied a shot – Parlophone putting the kibosh on that inaugural 45” launch after a general lack of interest. Yet, as good as they sound, certainly ambitious, they weren’t quite there and lacked the magic and personality (though luck does come into it too) of their peers who did. Still, the Pandemonium is a real discovery that’s worth investigation and a punt.







Willie Gibson ‘Saint-Ex’
(Gare du Nord) 1st March 2019



An electric glide in blue, maverick synth composer Willie Gibson sets off for an aerial traverse of the philosophical articulated horizons of the legendary pioneering aviator and author Antoine de Saint Expéry. Using the fateful aristocratic pilot’s poetic 1939 published memoir Wind Sand And Stars as a launch pad, Gibson channels the spirit and lament of romanticized adventure through his Eurorack of various iconic modular synths and plugins.

A famed French laureate, the author of The Little Prince novella found his own inspiration in the clouds; first as a commercial mail pilot, later as war drew near, joining the (as yet defeated) French Air Force. When Hitler’s Germany forced an armistice with France, Saint-Ex found himself demobilized. Moving soon after to North America for a total of 27 months, he bided his time writing and importantly trying to convince the USA to enter the war. It was during this imposed sojourn that the enigmatic polymath wrote three of his most important works, including the lyrical, elemental book that now informs this album. Far from grounded, he would travel to join the Free French resistance air force in North Africa. Spurring untold flights of fantasy, Saint-Ex went missing in 1944, disappearing after a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean: Neither his body or plane were ever found.

The stuff of adventure then, Saint-Ex’s fate and various exploits as chronicled by those memoirs make for an interesting concept; the passion for flying that underlines it all shared by Gibson, who has himself obtained a “private pilot’s license”. Finding “similarities between operating light aircraft and patching and crafting sounds” with his modular synth apparatus, Gibson composes a linear suite of various knowing library music and 1970s synthesizer imbued peregrinations. His first mini-opus of original music – the previous album, Seasons Change, being a Wendy Carlos like neo-classical riff on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – plays with the formula, inviting the Gare du Nord label polymath, founder and producer, Ian Button to drive along two of the suites’ five tracks on drums, and Deerful’s Emma Winston to woo the odd accentuate vocal line.

Following an arc, from takeoff to Bermuda Triangle mystery disappearance, Gibson’s fantastic voyage ascends loftily from Saint-Ex’s book cover to arch and loom across a South American, European and North African panorama to a Kosmische style accompaniment that evokes Tangerine Dream, Rick van der Linden and Moroder. Once-up, up and away the serene ‘Dawn Flight’ offers ‘time for reflection”; stirring idyllic memories of the artist’s childhood in Saint-Maurice with a Baroque-synth and Theremin quivery soundtrack that conjures up not only images of the past but some otherworldly, even alien, ones too. The next two desert strafing tracks allude to both Saint-Ex’s dangerous and awe-inspiring mail-drops; ‘Cap Juby’ a staging post on the hazardous Saharan route, where Saint-Ex and his co-pilot navigator crashed in 1935, the pair lucky to survive were rescued by a Bedouin, and ‘Black Pebbles On A White Plateau’, which features a paean to a desolate white stone mesa (tabletop) landing spot – the shiny black pebbles that covered this plateau having a philosophical profound effect on the aviator. The first of these uses a crystalized sandscape of ominous sounds to describe the jeopardy, whilst the second stirs-up the immensity of nature with cathedral and tubular grandeur, and ethereal wafted cooing.

A theatre of lament, ‘July 44’ marks Saint-Ex’s final ascendance into the history books. Gibson uses a stained glass Edgar Froese and Klaus Schulze sonic palette to convey a certain tragedy on this venerable soaring mission.

An odyssey of aerial balletic synths and more moody cascading arpeggiator elemental drama, Gibson’s homage to Saint-Ex is another curious oddity of retro-futurism and serious modular-synth based composing from the Cambridge-based maverick; a nostalgic trip that despite the addition of Button and Winston seems plucked from the pioneering analogue electronica age of the early 1970s. Interesting though, and a potential cult release in its right, Saint-Ex is worth the indulgence.







Olcay Bayir ‘Rüya’
(ARC) 29th March 2019



Marrying an Anatolian heritage with the polygenesis sound of the London metropolis, the multi-disciplined singer Olcay Bayir has injected a new energy and enthusiasm into the traditions and cultures of her homeland.

The daughter of a famed ‘ashik’, a musical bard of the Anatolian region, the purveyors of oral culture in the Alevi sect of the Muslim religion that follows the more mystical teachings of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, who ruled over the fourth caliph between 656-661 AD, and his twelve Inman successors – Bayir’s most formative years were imbued with the atavistic music of worship and social ceremony. Born in the ancient southern Turkey city of Gaziantep – among the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world; so old in fact that even the ancient Hittites were around to destroy it – her musical odyssey, from the very start, was steeped in history and reverence: That same city stands as both a “geographical and cultural counterpart” to the fated Syrian city of Aleppo, which lies just across the border.

The southern regions are where Anatolian Turkish and Kurdish cultures meet; forming the inspiration for Bayir’s own music alongside a belief that it’s “culture more than religion or nationality that provides identity.” It is an often frayed relationship; those that follow the Alevi tradition, whether Turkish or Kurdish, for obvious reasons, coming to blows with their Northern compatriots; the Kurdish question of autonomy and in recent years implosive civil war and ISIS insurgency in Syria enabling an ever more autocratic Turkish leader to ramp-up divisions.

Moving around the region every few years with her jobbing ashik father, Bayir was introduced to a cross-pollination of communities before the family’s eventual move to the London melting pot. A cultural shock, to put it mildly, for the sixteen year old who didn’t yet speak any English – though to be fair, Bayir is multilingual, her debut LP sang in five different languages. But through music the vulnerable burgeoning siren slowly opened-up; as the press release puts it, “music was the manner by which Olcay could best interact with the new world around her.”

Absorbing even more of the electric hubbub of her new city, Bayir, who began composing at the age of six, trained as a classical soprano. Those aria soars and vocal control are unmistakable when you hear those rich performances, adding a certain gravitas and expanding the range still further. Refashioned to reflect this providence, the folk songs of Bayir’s homeland were given an endearing, swanned lift on the 2014 debut album Neva (‘harmony”). An introduction to a highly skilled adroit vocal talent, this album showcase brought attention to the Anatolian songbook. Steeped more in that tradition, Neve provided the groundwork for Bayir’s new dream entitled album Rüya.

Still alluding, even referencing, the spiritual yearn and pining mountain steppe folk of that tradition, the afflatus Rüya showcases for the, first time, Bayir’s own original compositions. Taking sagacious romantic wisdom from both the Alevi and Sufi poets, she weaves the journey metaphor of the renowned bard Âşik Veysel Satiroğlu into the album’s serene opener ‘Uzun Ince Bir Yoldayim’ (“long narrowed road”), riffs on the tradition’s analogy for the folly of trying to separate those both destined and integral to each other, such as the honey and bee, on the album’s slinky swooned closer ‘Ari Oldum’ (“I become a bee”), and covers the “graceful” brooding Kurdish love song ‘Ferzê’.

Using a similar enriched lyricism to envisage a better world, whilst yearning wistfully about lost and found love, Bayir’s original lines seem almost indistinguishable from those written in lore.

Lifting those traditions with a sophisticated production and backing, Giuliano Modarelli and Al MacSween of the transglobal music collective Kefaya accentuate the timeless qualities of Bayir’s melodies with a nuanced swirl of jazz, bouncy backbeats, amorphous sounds from Arabia and North Africa, and on the 17th century homage to the asik minstrel Karacaoĝlan, ‘Elif’, a whiff of Ennio Morricone.

Livening up the Anatolian songbook once more, Olcay Bayir and her collaborators make those traditions relevant; stirring the melting pot with dynamic vibrancy, and pushing those enchanting, soaring but also earthly vocals even further.







The 39 Clocks ‘Next Dimension Transfer’
(Tapete Records) 22nd March 2019



Going it alone as the sunglass adorned leather clad beatniks, Hanover’s 1980s cult lo fi (with ambition) miscreants The 39 Clocks were always a bit of an anomaly. Alienating even their fans with a general attitude of indifference and antagonizing audiences with shambling performances more Dadaist provocation than musical (replacing guitars with cleaning appliances for one), even the duo’s identities were masked (well, barely), with chemical equation code, JG-39 and CH-39, replacing the human vessels of Jürgen Gleve and Christian Henjes.

Neither hardcore proponents of punk nor comfortable in the company of Germany’s emerging New Wave, the Clocks were an idiosyncratic bridge between the Lutheran Gothic drone of The Velvet Underground and primal garage band petulance of Nuggets; the results of which proved highly influential to the next generation breaking through: Their self-coined signature “psychobeat” can be heard driving The Jesus And Mary Chain and most of their ilk.

Delivered in the driest of tones with an almost comical heavy deadpan German accent, but with English lyrics, the Clocks, on paper anyway, read as a put-up job from the mischievous mind of Martin Kippenberger. Yet they were certainly committed, and had providence; the Clocks arriving via after two previous incarnations, the Killing Rats and The Automats; the groundwork done during the punk epoch. They even had a cheerleader, in the guise of that most archetypal German-named boffin of rock trivia and taste, Diedrich Diederichsen, who considers them to be the best German band of the entire 1980s.

They only released a handful of albums and singles proper during their tenure career, but left, as this oeuvre-spanning box set proves, quite the legacy. Over-egged in places and perhaps indulged, nonetheless Next Dimension Transfer collects sixty revealing recordings from the duo’s (though they could of course expand to accommodate extra band members when the occasion raised) official and unofficial back catalogue for the very first time.

Sanctioned by the band themselves and featuring a bundle of previously unreleased tracks, both studio and live, this behemoth eases in those that are unfamiliar with this group; the first 2 CDs in this 5xCD overview featuring the Clocks first two albums, 1981’s Pain It Black and the 1982 Subnarotic. The first of these introduces the Clocks’ punk hangover turned spindly jangly futurism rock; tracks such as the grueling cold-war chiller ’78 Soldiers Dead’ inhabit, phantom style, The Normal, Cabaret Voltaire and garage terrains, whilst ‘Psycho Beat’ lays on the flange and phasers, accelerating towards a sulk-in with both the Velvets and Hawkwind. Saxophone, neither jazz nor no wave, is added to a general broody deadpan Gothic stringy malaise; a highlight being a prowling Lou Reed on Mogadon live version of ‘Twist And Shout’ (‘Twisted & Shouts’) that reimagines a bastardised Star Club Beatles transported decades into the future, playing at family fun day event at the local social club.





Subnarotic is no less abrasive and strung-out, beating its junk to a psychodrama of Suicide, Nico, the Voidoids (again, check ‘Shake The Hippie’ from that last album) and Can. ‘Rainy Night Insanities’ though, with its whining nerve-endings violin, sounds like unholy communion between Terry Conrad and John Cale, and ‘A Touch Of Rot’ merges Johnny Thunders, Television and Eno.

Previously (probably for our benefit) unreleased, five scuzzed-up vortex indulgent live performances from the Clocks’ heyday make-up the entire third CD of this set. Met with mostly silence, the odd hand clap applause from either an indifferent or stunned audience, extended versions of ‘Shake The Hippie’, ‘DNS’ and ‘Past Tense Hope And Instant Fears On 42nd Street’ are caked-in reverb, fuzz and distortion – ‘Three Floors Down’ has an erratic avant-garde ring of the Beefheart about it. Shambolic in places, on the verge of collapse, wandering out-of-time, these lo fi deconstructions are heavy and experimental. As a warning, there’s plenty of screeching feedback to pierce the eardrums, so look out. As atmospheres go it is a dank, creepy and Gothic one, the quality of recordings raw.

Let’s be honest, this shelved “live” LP and the material missives that make-up CD4 and CD5 will be what fans and hardliners are craving. With the duo’s involvement, overseeing this collation of their material, there’s plenty of oddities and “what ifs” from the vaults to drool over. Tracks like the California punk, ala The Dils, ‘New Crime Appeal’ and Siouxsie Sioux flanged dreamwave ‘39 Progress Of A Psychotic’ are interesting, and the lion’s share of that 1987 collection 13 More Protest Songs is fantastic: all transmogrified acoustic and electric guitar Byrds and harmonica Bob Dylan, mixed with the Velvets.

If you haven’t heard of The 39 Clocks than wow, what a revelation this box set is going to be for you. They will undoubtedly soon become your favourite 1980s visionaries. For diehards there is something to get excited about in the unreleased 1981 live album and two collections, updated, which make up this homage.



Words: Dominic Valvona


Albums Selected By Dominic Valvona and Matt Oliver.





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


The decision making process: 

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

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

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

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

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

N.

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


 

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

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

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

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

(Dominic Valvona)


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


 

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

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

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

(DV)



P.

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



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

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

(Matt Oliver)

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


 

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

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

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

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

(DV)



Q.

Qujaku ‘Qujaku’ (So I Buried Records)


 

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

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

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

(DV)



R.

RAM ‘August 1791’ 


 

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

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

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

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

(DV) 



Soho Rezanejad ‘Six Archetypes’


 

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

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

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

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

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

(DV)



S.

Sad Man ‘ROM-COM’


 

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

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

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

(DV)


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


 

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

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

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

(DV)



Scran Cartel ‘Blue Plaque Candidates’  (Scran Cartel)



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

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

(MO)


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



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

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

(MO)


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



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

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

(MO)


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


 

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

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

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

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

(DV)


Station 17 ‘Blick’  (Bureau B)


 

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

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

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

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

(DV)



T.

Rodrigo Tavares ‘Congo’  (Hive Mind Records)


 

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

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

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

(DV)


Samba Touré ‘Wande’  (Glitterbeat Records)


 

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

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

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

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

(DV)


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



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

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

(MO)



U.

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


 

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

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

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

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

(DV)



V.

Vukovar ‘Infinitum’ (Le Recours Forêts Production)

Vukovar/Michael Cashmore ‘Monument’


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

(DV)



Y.

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


 

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

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

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

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

(DV)


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


 

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

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

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

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

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

(DV) 



LP REVIEW/ WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA


Thomas Nation   ‘Battle Of The Grumbles’    Faith & Industry,   1st June 2018

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

Creating a whole new persona as Thomas Nation, his commitment to a hazy timeless sound, both rustic and ambitious, goes as far as using only his rough mono mixes; undeveloped and left in their most honest, purest form. You won’t be surprised to learn that Howard has also released his Nation debut, Battle Of The Grumbles, on cassette tape: A gimmick in keeping with the trend in recent years to find ever more physically tactile, nostalgic and unique ways to gain attention and appeal to (I assume, as we’re the largest consumers of it) a pre-internet generation (which means the majority of the population). Though never a fan of cassettes (recording quality and durability most importantly) this one has been put together neatly, sporting as it does just one of the many references to England’s ‘green and pleasant’ legacy with an anonymous, almost cartoonish (like a stagey Commodore 64 computer game cover), illustrated scene from the 16th century ‘Battle of the Spurs’ – when Imperial troops (that’s the Holy Roman Empire teaming up with England) under the command of our very own ol’ Henry VIII and Maximilian I won a victory at the siege of Thérouanne after seeing off an attack from the, enemies at the time, French cavalry. Just a minor skirmish in the convoluted drawn-out Italian Wars that dragged most of the Europe continent into a sectarian vortex of violence, Henry, still at this point very much the able warrior king of his burgeoning reign, but soon to split from the Catholic Church to found his own, fought as part of the Holy League against the papacy and France. Included I assume for its links to the catalytic moment when a schism emerged at the heart of Tudor period Europe, but also the start of that move towards a separate church, the Church Of England, the vestiges, icons and music of which permeate throughout this album.

Recorded we’re told in just over four days, earlier this year at the home studio of label-mate John Johanna (as an aside, his latest LP, I’ll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes is brilliant and highly recommended) in Norfolk woodlands, Battle Of The Grumbles trembles and radiantly, if in a gauze-y veil, echoes the idyllic surroundings it was produced in. Intentionally achingly nostalgic, if resigned at the “unpleasant land” where “invasions seem to come from within”, Howard beautifully yearns like the Beta Band at the Tudor court and early Pink Floyd on the opening, sun-dappled parish orchid ballad ‘Turn And Face The Sea’. In a similar venerable setting ‘Hold My World’ merges a Reformation Popol Vuh with folk troubadour, and the chorister resonating ‘Tour Of The Grounds’ could be an English gospel version of The Byrds ‘The Christian Life’.

Changing the musical direction, ‘This Field’ features both a spoken word tour guide and Howard’s ghostly repeated chorus, wistfully making a point about heritage and ownership to a late 70s MOR like soft rock beat meets Aidan Moffat malady, whilst kooky subtle breaths of what sounds like synth, allude to White Town on the plucked ‘The Worry Men’. The grand finale, ‘Around The Corner And Down The Way’, is a hushed nine-minute poetically despondently opus rich in observational mini-dioramas of childhood experienced England and disillusion (“Fortune cookies that come free with the meal from The Dragon, hold a message that says: Believe that nothing is beyond your contempt whilst consider that everything is.”) that features wafting bending Harrison guitar lines, plucked from Polynesia, and again, that essence of country valley Englishness, a reverent COE of a stirring finish. This curtain call, with its repeating melancholic but beautifully cooed “times not on your side”, and almost evanescent follow on, “well not yet”, rings with certain hope that perhaps nothing is set in stone.

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




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