Dominic Valvona’s Reviews Roundup

The Movers ‘Vol 1 – 1970 – 1976’
(Analog Africa) 5th August 2022

Although it struck Samy Ben Redjeb (founder of the Analog Africa label) instantaneously, the impact that was felt on that day in 1996 when introduced to the neat, sunny-side-up Township soul of The Movers has taken more than two-decades to come to fruition. But now in 2022, finally, there’s a choice compilation of the South African band’s back catalogue to rave about and soak up: just in time for a sizzling, Earth-scorching summer.  

Possibly one of the most popular bands of the 1970s in their homeland – even breaking the Apartheid bonds of segregation as the first black band to get airplay on white radio stations -, The Movers have nevertheless left behind scant information, and a provenance riddled with holes. This is despite selling 500,000 copies of their debut LP, Crying Guitars, in just the space of a few months and in providing a peaceable (almost Caribbean in lilt) anthem (‘Soweto Inn’) soundtrack to the mid-70s student revolts and resistance. Yet it proved extremely difficult to track down anyone involved in this South African sensation.

However, what Samy did glean after help and introductions from Kaya Radio’s Nicky Blumenfeld was that the band first took shape in the late 60s, instigated by the two relatively unknown musician brothers, the bassist Norman and guitarist Oupa Hlongwane. To make this band a reality, the brothers approached the Alexandra township-based businessman Kenneth Siphayi with a proposal: if Siphayi would lay-out the money for them to buy some instruments in return they’d give him a cut from future live shows and record deals. In the end their patron didn’t just dole out the funds but took on a manager’s role, introducing them to the simmered, evangelical balm organist Sankie Chounyane. The ranks soon swelled however to accommodate the funky tight drumming of Sam Thabo and the relaxed reeds of saxophonist Lulu Masilela.

Initially they signed to the Teal Records label in 1969, releasing an instrumental record. But almost right away they worked with the vocalists Blondie Makhene (a fourteen year-old vocal prodigy we’re told) and Sophie Thapedi. With a great soulful voice Thapedi sang one of the band’s most popular, enduring hits ‘Soweto Inn’, and channeled Miriam Makeba on the Overton Berry Trio-esque organ suffused, cheek-popping and beautifully wooed ‘Ku-Ku-Chi’. Makhene for his part sounds far beyond his years on the infectious, stained glass township boogie ‘Kudala Sithandana’ and, in harmony with a heavenly female chorus, sounds a bit like Labi Siffre on the whistled fluty R&B turn ‘Six Mabone’.   

Unmistakably South African; blessed with that languorous sunny disposition groove, The Movers took a piece of Stax soul revue, Booker Ts’ organ, Steve Cropper’s effective but never overplayed licks, and a taste of The Meters and combined it with the indigenous Mbaqanga (also known as “township jive”) and marabi (a sort of ragtime, jazzy and bluesy style that evolved out of the mining communities, synonymous for its cheap keyboard-led sound) styles. This spills out into reggae, even rock steady, yet always sounds inherently relaxed: never pushed, hurried. Chounyane’s organ standouts, but it never overpowers nor seems particular showy: thin but very effective, a township Ramsey Lewis bathing in the Lord’s light. ‘Give Five Or More’ is an unpressured eased introductory like beauty that features a buzzy organ but also those Stax chops and some gentle drum sizzles –for some reason it reminded me, melody-wise of The Monkees.

A soul revue from the heart of South Africa’s politically explosive townships, The Movers delivered a light gospel-tinged fusion of ripe hotfooted, containable energy. It would be a sacrilege to miss owning a slice of those sweetened South African-lilted R&B, soul, funk and rock steady grooves, so do yourselves a favour and pick up Vol. 1 this summer.  

Claude ‘A Lot’s Gonna Change’
(American Dreams) 12th August 2022

Disarmingly wistful and woozy, the refined production and songwriting on Claudia Ferme’s debut album lays a gossamer veil over a litany of anxious quandaries and existential malaise.

Almost, to her credit, effortlessly dreamy, Ferme floats and drifts into a myriad of introspective roles, rooms and scenarios under the Claude alias. The Chicago-based artist nails the despondency of the times whilst giving a most languidly deadpan but essentially captivating voice to the growing pains of a “twenty something”: that first decade of “expectation”, of real responsibility, and yet in this infantile age, in which – especially my generation – we cling to youth and even childhood, you’re still considered an empty vessel and teenager with nothing to worry about and everything to look forward to. But Ferme offers up a certain emotionless face to such woes, troubles; even lightening the mood with the most diaphanous of laidback and aloof vocals, and a backing that is gently smoldered in a relaxed mix of 70s soft rock, synthwave, dream and art pop.

Featured a little while ago in one of my monthly perusals, the inaugural single and opener on this album, ‘Twenty Something’, sets out the vision and mood with its closed-eyes wispy saxophone motifs and perfectly dreamy reflections: “I’d rather be hurt by my own doing, then be let down by someone else. At least that’s what I tell myself.”

That’s followed by the most recent single, the Gabriel Garcia Márquez inspired ‘Roses’, which takes a line from the feted Colombian author’s famous Love in The Time Of Cholera novel and runs with all its metaphorical, symbolist connotations. The thorny prick of this flower’s stem and the book’s obsessive protagonist’s eating of it, bot alluding to themes of self-tortuous behavior. But what we take away from the song and lyrics is that we all need to be a lot more forgiving.      

Elsewhere the painful anxieties and mental fatigue hang like post-it notes attached to a bedroom mobile on the listless ‘I Think I’ll Pass Today’, and on the all-too realistic outcomes of a burst bubble of love naiveties, Chromatics vapour trailing ‘Claustrophobia’ – a longing if dry yearn for magic and something lasting in a cynical world of fleeting, vacuous feelings and connectedness. 

In contrast, the acoustically gorgeous ‘Meet Me’ has a slight air of Blonde Redhead and some kind of Spanish peppering. But the song that, softly, breaks the wafted, lush mold is the almost rocking ‘Oh, To Be’, which sets Ferme against a more electric spiky backing; adding a silent scream and edge to the synthesised suffusion. 

A Lot’s Gonna Change is a most wonderful, captivating and skilfully delicious debut that subtly evokes the worlds of Aldous Harding, EX:Re and Cate Le Bon. A coming of age songbook, a rebirth, in which the harshness of the epoch, the pressures both unique and synonymous with a generation finding its way, are snuggled in a relaxed balm.

Staraya Derevnya ‘Boulder Blues’
(Ramble Records)

The pan-Israel ensemble are once more on the move, recording another elevated and mystical ethnographical transportive work that takes in and transduces not only their native lands but also the UK, Germany and Mexico. Boulder Blues then is a geographical soundboard of history and the avant-garde; of evoked ancient nomadic tribes and primitivism made psychedelics, and a mantra iteration of a very removed form of what we know as the blues.

With up to eleven (could be more) band members involved, many of which drift in and out of this five-track assemblage of peregrinations and mental release, there’s a lot to take in: to work out. Like “what the hell was that sound?” Or, “where the hell are we?”

Scratchy nylon Beefheart and the Velvet’s guitar, hoots and erratic mooning voices merge with Širom-like (that’s the second time I mention them in this roundup) percussion, Unlimited E.F.S. series Can skits and Faust as fantasies of the Mongolian steppes, the Black Sea, Kabbalah mysticism and krautrock era Germany are invoked. At times it resembles a communion between the Red Crayola and Holgar Czukay; at others, 666 era Aphrodite’s Child share the byway with Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders.

Staraya Derevnya are totally out there with their “bubbling pelt” and “gallant spider” poetic descriptive wanderings, pains and blues abstractions. Still, they remain rhythmic, even melodious in places; dancing, marching and on the trinket ringed, shadowy ritual title-track, exhaustively repeating the same incantation for five-minutes straight.

I must confess. I really dig this collective. And I’ve even included them in the blog’s choice albums list before now. Boulder Blues is another incipient esoteric, magical album of post-punk, krautrock, psychedelic, far-out and primitive traverses.

Li Yilei ‘Secondary Self’
(LTR Records) 26th August 2022

Spanning the entire Covid epoch, so to speak, and a period in which the sonic sculptor-composer Li Yilei travelled from her London-based home to native China and to Shanghai, Secondary Self is a surprisingly (as the PR notes remark) cohesive album of hidden source material powered recordings, abstract hymnals and coded language.

Made up for the most part by pieces originating from a Café OTO commission, there’s also an omitted (due to time constraints) track from Yilei’s 2020 debut album Unabled Form, plus the more recent serene meditation ‘Melt’ from February of this year. That spare experiment, ‘Warmth Ageing’, was created during sessions for the inaugural album synthesis of the evanescent and tactile; an album that received a glowing review from me at the time. Not so much interchangeable this searing, buzzy winged metallic current is a congruous fit on both albums; neither of which particularly offer connective themes of concepts.

That main body of work continues Yilei’s keening simulations of transformed settings, rumination’s and repurposed white spaces; created from a number of obscured and experimentally stretched instruments: the reverberation of percussive bowls and a serial wrangle of echoed guitar tabbing, harmonics and improvised squiggles. There may well be some kind of stringed instrument in there, effected and smothered in reverb, but for the majority of the time the trace of anything familiar is synthesised, electronically morphed into something more abstract, stranger, and on occasion, diaphanous.

It’s something approaching the beautiful that opens up the Secondary Self as an affecting otherworldly siren is sustained across the near ethereal, crystallised freeze of ‘A Hush In The Dark’. A semblance of some kind of voice and almost tender notes provide a touch of the natural: the composer even. As the title would suggest, the second suite ‘Bird Box’ once again features the familiar: the whistle and tweets of birds. Only this avian chorus is given a lunar galvanised bouncy buzz; accompanied later by a drilled code, or, a pummelled Morse-coded read-out. And so a back garden bird box is pierced with the higher sonic register and transported to some place else entirely.

‘Mosquito Alarm’ seems to be slowly driven by a looped photocopier, but flits with deeper bass-y pitches and cosmic mystery. There’s a brief spell of dog howls and more bird communication amongst the dreamy, near psychedelic lapping reversals, incanted whispers and memory recalls of ‘Murmur’ however.

The remaining tracks burble, vibrate and oscillate, recalling vague signs of early 70s analogue experiments, Ambient Works Vol. 2 Richard James, the kosmische and the unsaid. Yilei’s square waves, acousmatics and ruminated efforts cannot be easily defined. Instead, this is a sound that fluctuates between the arts space, the outdoors, and an amorphous myriad of electronic genres. This third album will do much to reinforce what I already knew back in 2020, that Li Yilei’s visions are quite unique, and that the artist is constantly pushing at the boundaries to create both the challenging and meditative.

Foch/Delplanque ‘Live Au GRM’
(Parenthèses Records)

From the equally hallowed and chthonian atmospheric environment of the Maison de la Radio et de la Musique’s studio 104 in Paris, an extemporized performance recording now made available, nearly, six years after its initial transmission.

By 2016, the year of this Groupe de Recherches Musicales curated concert series, the drummer-percussionist Philippe Foch and his foil at the time, and subsequently, the multi-tasking electronic music composer, critic, author, teacher (the list goes on and on) Mathias Delplanque had already produced the collaborative Taarang album that led to a 2015 residency at the National Centre For Musical Creation in Reims, and the Secret album of material recorded from that performance. 

Pretty much accustomed to each other’s methods, by the time of Live Au GRM the synchronicity was at an apex, with Foch at the centre of a world percussive assemblage and Delplanque at his side sampling the results in real time.

Recondite empirical vibrations, scratches and stretches across frame drum skins and the resonance of cymbals are transformed further by Delplanque into otherworldly, mysterious forms of primitivism, mythology, musique concrete, the strung-out and cavernous. For we could well be in the incense chambers of Byzantium, the Minotaur’s maze, or, transported to India with a serialism burst of tablas.

Over the course of 26 minutes there’s bot spacious and sporadic passages of unprepared playfulness and exploration in an environment circled by scurrying bestial movements and noises from the darkness. Incipient patterns, traces across tubular metals emerge but are often shunted, shuttered and dissipated back into the shadows.

An alchemy of slapped and paddled physicality and shimmered reverberated trinkets, tinkles emanate from Foch’s eclectic ensemble of instrumentation on a polygenesis performance of hollowed and far denser bass-y tones. In places it reminded me of an entirely stripped of melody Širom, bits of Amon Düül II’s more experimental Dance Of The Lemmings and a little of Faust’s Werner “Zappi” Diermaier.

Scrabbled, almost clawed, and more singular beaten sounds, the hushed ssh-like whispers of a voice and galvanised buzzes appear out of nowhere on a transformative piece of treated and developing improvisation. There really is no telling where this sonic partnership will end up, or what atmospheres they’ll create, only that it will be both esoteric and in an avant-garde direction of percussive and drummed fascination.   

Shepherd Stevenson ‘Man Down’
THLTTLDBB ‘SeeUSearching’
(both on Somewherecold Records)

Taking on a filmic quality the multi-tasking L.A. musician, composer and actor Shepherd Stevenson’s inaugural solo effort is rich with the sound of placeable cinematic soundtracks.

Although starting out as and then becoming a stalwart of the alternative 1980s Denver scene (The Aviators, The Young Weasels, Crankcall Loveaffiar), and then going on to help found the L.A. rock band Pigmy Love Circus, Stevenson has also proved a considered hand at composing music for films – a recent list of which includes Erasing Eden, Doobious Sources and Mermaid Down.  This album debut, Man Down, was itself originally written to accompany Annie Sperling and Mason Rothschild’s Deep Map art installation, which was projected onto the side of the U.S.S. Iowa, moored in Long Beach; part of the Alta Sea’s Project Blue, a ‘digital port for content and education resources for the emerging Blue Economy’ (that is, exploration, preservation and regeneration of the marine environment). And whether it’s intentional or not, Stevenson often conjures up spells of fluted and dreamy underwater fantasies: ‘Submissions’ to these ears sounds like a Verne-inspired dive beneath the waves, with a touch of both equal enchantment and scuba-equipped Bond thriller.

Occasionally something more foreboding, alien emerges from the depths like some ancient Lovecraftian leviathan. This effect, evocation can be felt on the oppressive and crushing bass, shadowy ‘Old Legions’ – a mix of Jóhann Jóhannsson at his most ominous and touch of Bernard Szajner and Room Of Wires.

For the majority of the time Stevenson molds kosmische, techno and synthwave into various futurist and mysterious projections; stirring up a gently burbled and bubbled acid and fluttered progressive-techno suite of otherworldly sonar waves and cosmic noir on the opening ‘B. Whaler’, and channeling Cliff Martinez on the scalextric-set looping dystopian scares ‘Sadurday’. There’s also some strange Germanic classical fairground thing going on with the Wendy Carlos and Roedelius harped, heavenly ‘ode to toy’ ‘With Dots’. I also detect some lovely climbing Eno notes on the deeply felt and bass-stamped, but neoclassical ebbing, ‘Hoary Notions’. And just when you think you’ve got him worked out, ‘Way Down’ motors at a nice speed towards Germanic 80s synth pop.

Hymnal Western-twanged dives, sci-fi vistas and unknown entities await on a finely-crafted, cinematic quality debut. Stripped of its original visuals, it’s left to the listener to dream and be moved to the lilted and more feared aspects of the imagination.

Under what could just be the longest acronym ever, or a particular recondite sequence known only to the artists, the duo of Matt Greenwall and Phillip Andrew Lewis conjure up the both gently cooed and reverberated hauntings of various imagined transmissions and transduced whispers on their new album of wispy and soothingly effective ambient suites.   

Barely above that whisper, these quite but deeply stirring pieces seem to feed a collection of processed video and tape loops into the ether; the returning sound waves, broadcasts now sonic mirages, passages of the American strange, the waves lapping onto a cult 50s soft surf soundtrack, or, the breeze blowing gently across the Appalachian Mountains.

AM/FM radio signals crisply spark as glass birds sound and translucent bulbs ring in the resonance of a drone. The nebulous meets the ghostly; traces of a less fearful Twin Peaks and a haunted theatre are suffused in an ebbing ambient cycle. Voices come and go as movie dialogue is manipulated into echoes of the past. The dreamy spells linger as you catch some hallowed or mysterious presence drifting off into the empirical.

Elements of the semi-classical, trip-hop experiments, European library music, old film image reels and analogue ambient music can all be detected and felt on this both organic but artificially constructed, amorphous album. The opening ambient aria beauty, ‘Angela’s Light’, is worth the entrance fee alone.

Brown Calvin ‘dimension//perspective’
(AKP Recordings) 26th August 2022

Although split into “dimension” and “perspective” suites the latest elemental album from the Portland, via Philly, producer and composer Andre Burgos is an almost uninterrupted, constantly moving beat-making and cosmic expansive ball of energy.

Under the Brown Calvin alias, and uncoupled from his vocalist foil Brown Alice in the “intergalactic” Brown Calculus duo, Burgos’ Afrofuturist soundtrack transduces all the strains, stresses and rage of the last few years into a controlled chaos of universal proportions.

Traces of hip-hop, jazz, electronica, kosmische, soul and funk can be heard, morphed, effected, and warped as sporadic African hand drums spring into action and scrapped percussion add a sense of ancestral continuity to this ascension into space. Civility, society maybe a tinder box on Earth, but out into the cosmos lies possibilities; a certain escape and serenity, especially sonically, as this album can testify.

An ambitious, lengthy, infinity even, peregrination opens this album. What, in old money, would constitute the whole side of an LP is an astral and contorting vision of analogue-soundboard pulsating circuitry kosmische (ala Tangerine Dream, Moebius and Schulze), Afrikan Sciences oscillations and tangents of beats, ripples and purrs of Rhodes and progressive jazz.

The rest of the album isn’t so much broken up into demarcated parts as a number of symbolist, calculus numbered points along a flipped, staccato or churned journey of expressive freedom. All the shit, the despair and hate is fuelled into a spiritual quest for answers. A multitude of coded, infinity (that word again) suffixed ‘perspectives’ offer variations on the musical themes; some parts in that scope are more liquid, whilst others fracture off into to the psychedelic. Some float, others catch on a ball-in-the-cup loop or form a tumble of breaks. Shooting stars cross the great expanse and dancing translucent bulbs act as notation of a kind. There’s plenty of bending, arcs of distortion in those heavenly realms too; but also the threat of overload.

This is the soundtrack to the African space programme; an untethered energy of J. Dilla, Flying Lotus, slugabed, Don Cherry, Labelle and Floating Points. Burgos has a great capacity, hunger to try out many ideas and to take from eclectic sources; opening the way to free-form movements and a sonic alchemy. The Brown Calvin moniker proves a fruitful transition but also the vessel for a new cosmology and language with which to process our troubling times.       

Die Welttraumforscher ‘Liederbuch’
(Bureau B) 26th August 2022

It’s a novel way in which to reconnect with an enchanted world inspired back catalogue; a project that’s spawned at least thirty albums and a fecund of illustrative, multimedia works. But for this latest Die Welttraumforscher (translating as The Space Explorers) album a couple of concept characters look back over a forty-year multiverse and pick out their favourite songs to tell a different story.

Conjured up from the mind of Christian Pfluger, the part Dadaist, part Swiss maverick fantasist, this “pop-up book” of imaginative fairytales now puts the “insect twins” turn compilers Brtz and Brxl at the centre of a new songbook.

Although already receiving a two-part retrospective last year (the fortieth anniversary year) the Liederbuch album seems to reach back to titles from Ein Sommer In Der Wirklichkert (from 1991) and Binike (1986) and keeps up the character board from across the decades.

In this magical landscape we meet cosmic-travellers (Lia and Mira from the Northern Crystal realm), silent forest dweller Ohm Olunde, the mysterious dark pilots, crop-circle researcher Leguan Rätselmann and the Owlmaster Kip Eulenmeister. Reminding me a little of the same magical dioramas and cast that inhabit the musical world of Scarlet’s Well, albeit a both very Germanic and Transalpine version, these characters are often playful, childlike and sweetly placed within an eclectic soundtrack.

Fluctuating between musical moods, genres, Pfluger (who remains very much an enigma) skips through echoes of the German new wave, the bucolic and ambrosian, and more lo fi. From the acoustic, with a touch of some Spanish flair and the pastoral, to preset Casio keyboard synth wheezes, the musical scope is varied and large. Mooning through woodlands to cosmic Theremin-like aerial loons, the storyboard drums up a myriad of settings too.

As influential as he is influenced, touches of progressive idiosyncratic stars mingle with shades of the kosmische, Per W, The Incredible String Band, SFA, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Spike & Debbie and trip-hop. There’s also a bit in ‘Goldene Barken’ where someone blows their nose and coughs to a semi-post-punk, scratchy Velvets guitar backing.

Whimsical, cartoonish, and eccentric Pfluger’s imaginative cosmology remains a curio, a vehicle for escapism but the absurd and fantastical; the music, still after all this time, just as captivating and inviting. 

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
Dominic Valvona





Welcome to the inaugural reviews roundup of 2020 by Dominic Valvona; a cosmopolitan, expansive roundup of interesting albums and oddities.

For your discerning ears this month we have Verona’s caustic dancing punks, Hallelujah. The group pawn their guitars for a synth on the new album, Wanna Dance. The vortex dreamers Deutsche Ashram release their second LP, Whisper Om – club beats meet shoegaze, post-punk and dream wave in one intoxicating vacuum. Glitterbeat’s impressive tactile instrumental imprint tak:til continues to deliver the goods with a re-release of John Hassell and his West African foils Farafina 1987 “possible musics” collaboration, Flash Of The Spirit.

I stomp and roll down Alex Molica’s (the Seattle Stomp) garage-punk-country-blues-slacker on the lo fi acoustic rhythm guitar maverick’s debut LP, Maudlin Madness. Oxford-based Americana troupe The Epstein return with an anthemic epic, the band’s first album in years, Burn The Branches. And Mike Gale releases the first volume of B, C, D Sides.

Electronica wise we have the highly prolific electronic music boffin Andrew Spackman, who starts the New Year with his bestial spew of the weird and ennui, releasing yet another techno maverick LP under the lamentable Sad Man nom de plume. Debut wise, Chinese born and now London-based, sound sculptor Li Yilei releases a synthesis of the evanescent and tactile with her upcoming inspired ambient LP Unabled Form.

Deutsche Ashram  ‘Whisper Om’
(Wormer Bros. Records)  LP/24th January 2020


 

Brought to my attention just as the dream wave vortex duo grow more “spacious and immersive” with their second album, Whisper Om, the Deutsche Ashram have surprised me with their vaporous, druggy-hazed and intense qualities: And for that matter, their sheer audacity. You can’t mistake Ajay Saggar’s reverberating-heavy flange, phaser and resonating guitar chimes nor Merinde Verbeck’s wispy and ethereal vocals, but throughout this mixtape collage of gauze-y tunneling produced tracks you hear shades of Siouxsie And The Banshees, My Bloody Valentine, Strawberry Switchblade, New Order, Adult Net, Moon Duo, Grimes and even Jah Wobble. It’s psychedelic. It’s post-punk. It’s shoegaze. It’s C86. It’s all of these.

Saggar bends and wanes, sounding like a spindly Keith Lavene one minute, a tremolo-fanned Johnny Marr the next, whilst Verbeck’s lingering like tones of love, loss and desire, echo between the breathless, mysterious and ominous candy-pop mirages.

The opening ‘Stumbleweed’ sees the Ashram place a scatter-club beat beneath a shoegaze hallucination, but the majority of this album is an accentuate intoxicating neo-pop vacuum of veiled brilliance; a successful experiment in the “spacious and immersive” that is every bit as melodically dreamy as it is intense.




Li Yilei  ‘Unabled Form’
(LTR Records)  LP/28th February 2020


 

In her synthesis of the evanescent and tactile, the London-based (via sojourns in Tokyo and Vienna) sonic sculptor Li Yilei finds stimulation in the most transient and concrete on her debut album, Unabled Form. From the field recordings of recondite conversations on public transport to, what sounds to me like, the creaking of a metal gate swinging in the breeze, Yilei’s sounds flow in a natural motion through a serialism of both searing and understated ambient soundscapes. These are all of variations oscillations, tidal waves and vapours; piqued and shot through with more static buzzes, clangs, pulses and the barest of incipient humming beats.

Mixing real sounds with synthesized electronics, the familiar (even if removed from its source) with the mysterious and industrial, these atmospheric experiences are imbued with Yilei’s embrace of Buddhism and its values. The daughter of a Buddhist nun, the Chinese born artist embodies that belief’s concepts and ruminations of “emptiness” and “impermanence” (the state of fact of lasting for only a limited time, and the philosophical problems of change) on an album of amorphous, evocative immersions.

Track titles sometimes offer a vague sense of reference and mood, especially ‘A Star Without Guidance’, which fizzles and sizzles in the afterglow of a strange cosmos, and ‘A Filed Of Social Tensions’ – a much more chaotic matrix of warping and tape spool speed shifting that threatens to unwind itself. The ambiguous ‘1920’ – with its alien scuttles, repeated loops of reverberating distant voices, horsehair bows, hints of Tibetan bowls and tetchy electronic percussion – is a more mysterious exploration; a pivotal year of revolution and civil war that also saw the catastrophic earthquake in Haiyun county which killed over 73,000 people. Heavenly bodies seep into the traffic of an industrious city, and cyclonic drones hum and brim under solar winds on an ambient soundscape that is as airy, transparent as it can be shadowy and searing. Unabled Form is both unforced and considered. An album of keenly ventured moods, its an abstracted vision of transience from a merging artist with a more unique outlook and inspiration.




Jon Hassell/Farafina  ‘Flash Of The Spirit’
(tak:til)  LP/7th February 2020


 

Less a trumpet player composer absorbing various ideas from across the globe than a performer vessel capturing the empirical essence of a borderless, seamless ideal of new musical horizons, Jon Hassell is rightly hailed as a true pioneer of visionary ambient and entrancing soundscapes. Adroit pupil of Stockhausen, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Terry Riley and Le Monte Young on his way to creating a truly international language with a concomitant series of iconic and highly influential albums in the late 70s and 80s, the American trumpet maestro famously coined the terms “fourth world musics” and “possible musics” for his own experimental fantasies.

The timeless geography of his earlier Vernal Equinox meanderings would prick the ears of Brian Eno; embarking on his very own ambient peregrinations. Far too disingenuous to suggest Eno discovered Hassell (especially when his records with Eno as a collaborator would be filed in record stores under the Englishman’s name and not his), but they would indeed work together on that albums that helped define Hassell’s legacy. As an enabler processing and filtering Hassell’s amorphous microtonal trumpet blends and lingers, Eno sat in on both the first fourth world sessions (entitled Possible Musics Volume 1) and the Dream Theory In Malaya follow-up. A third manifestation, Flash Of The Spirit stands outside that series as an outlier of those minimalist peregrinations.

Re-released on Glitterbeat’s explorative instrumental imprint tak:til, Hassell’s 1987 partnership with the acclaimed Burkina Faso troupe Farafina is a continuation of that practice in polygenesis traverses, only far more rhythmic, tribal and, well…collaborative. Also the spark and roots of each composition on that dreamy voyage were initiated for the most part by the West African group: Between them, founder and balafon virtuoso and vocalist Mahama Konaté and principle drummer (using the ornamental djembe) Paco Yé are responsible for laying down the foundations. Fresh from working their magic on U2’s Joshua Tree Eno alongside his production partner of note Daniel Lanois, were back in the fold and favour; Lanois recording the original sessions and mixing half of the final album’s track list, Eno reshaping and transforming the rest.

Proposed and facilitated by Jazz In Sardinia Festival director Riccardo Sgualdini the, as it would turn out, fruitful union between Hassell and Farafina didn’t get off to the best of starts. The Farafina octet already seasoned having worked with such luminaries as the Rolling Stones and Ryuichi Sakamoto since their formation in 1978, were initially unsure, even suspicious of this Hassell collaboration. Thankfully something gelled and, settled in, the inspiration flowed; the results sounding like an otherworldly evocation of the familiar: African yet distant and vaporous.

Merging Hassell’s smoky and swaddling trumpet and array of sampled strings, harps with the Farafina group’s myriad of talking drums, percussion, flute and voices, Flash Of The Spirit is both spaciously entrancing and rhythmically tribal. Taking the title from Robert Farris Thompson’s book of the same name, the inspiration behind this often gauze-y communion taps into that book’s exposition of African immigrants experiences in the Americas and how they maintain (keep alive) and transform their traditions through creative adoption; harking at a continuingly fruitful, if forced, “collision of cultures”. And, in what is a congruous layering rather than collision, both histories evoke the atavistic whilst also venturing into an imaginary future of sonic interaction and flow.

Evocative individual track titles, accompanied by their parenthesis spirits, offer a theme or movement of direction on this album. For example, “laughter” precedes the gauze-y dancing title-track itself (a rippling, wafting and woody traverse that reminds me of 80s Miles Davis soundtracks) whilst “fear” permeates the nocturnal dipped and bobbing tribal drumming in liquid motion ‘Night Moves’. Surveying the vast Savannah, the almost sensual ‘Air Afrique’ is as airy and attached to the “wind” as its title suggests, taking off on a fantastical flight above the clouds into uncharted soundscapes. ‘Kaboo (play)’ might well be describing something entirely different, but to these ears sounds like a dreamy crawling caravan through the undergrowth, the resonating voices of unseen trilling poets calling out from the wilderness. There’s a crystal ball like mystery echoed in the shivering glassy materializations of ‘Tales Of The Near Future (clairvoyance)’, and an esoteric swirl to the increasingly intense speedy drumming flares of ‘A Vampire Dances (symmetry)’.

As “possible musics” go, this one is successful in creating an amorphous fusion; neither wholly African nor Western but something less tethered or beholden to any specific location and time. The Burkina Faso troupe add a far more “propulsive” rhythm to Hassell’s peregrinations; adding a certain weight to those signature ambient wisps and swaddled passages, yet still sounding as nuzzling and vaporous as ever. Three decades later and you could argue that Flash Of The Spirit is just as refreshing and novel today as it would have been in 1987; caught as it was on the cusp of a new epoch in ambient and electronic music, an augur of truly borderless sounds. Add this to the collection.




Sad Man  ‘The King Of The Beasts’
(Self-Released)  LP/10th February 2020


 

Starting the year as he means to go on, sporadically releasing albums of varying degrees in kooky electronic music mischief, Andrew Speckman, under his mooning Sad Man persona, unleashes the beasts with his first trick noise making experiment of 2020: The King Of The Beasts.

Like a Loony Tunes Cage or Stockhausen, banished to a makeshift potting shed laboratory, the Coventry boffin once more broadens his sonic horizons on an album that, in an ennui fashion, knocks about between a warped vision of d’n’b, techno and more avant-garde meanderings. Prepare to be thrown into a pinball flipper buffeting chaos as busy itchy electronic percussion and a myriad of mulching, whipping and speed shifting effects come up against a transmogrified Orb, Sakamoto, Major Force and Phylps.

In other words: expect the unexpected as Speckman merges dub techno with nocturnal tropical post-punk (‘Xylophone’), clandestine Howie B with a ghostly visitation soundtrack (‘The Pysician’), Les Baxter exotic lullaby with the Leaf Label (‘Nine’) and a buoying bobbing analogue bubble bath with cosmic sub-Indian alpha waves (‘Bus Swerve’).

Somewhere on the Venn diagram of sublime and ridiculous, the plaintive Sad Man steers a mixed bag of ideas into a constantly developing album; churning, squeezing and contorting plenty of odd and more cerebral mileage out of the experimental dance music genre.




Hallelujah  ‘Wanna Dance’
(Maple Death Records)  LP/21st February 2020


 

From the caustic, abrasive noise raises a limbering fucked-up no wave punk contortion you can dance to: within reason and with the use of heavy opioids and imagination. Having discarded the lead guitar for that most rudimentary but beloved of early synths, the Korg MS20, Verona’s disruptive Hallelujah put a real (di)stress on their main motivator; cranking up and pulling the dials until the lift off and scream into a vortex.

Pared down to a trio, after one of the troupe quit, this industrial unit collide with early Mute Records, DAF, Peter Kernel and The Pop Group on an heavy strength album of seedy scuzz and Italo-grime-y disdain. Sung, hysterically and with disruptive sneering petulance, in English you can’t mistake the reactionary spite and goofed erraticism of letting off steam. And if you do, a track title such as ‘Burka For Everyone’ will soon set you straight. Anyway, it forces its way into and occupies the brain, before leaving its scorched marks with a quick spasm of disruptive jerk-off punked and retro-synth dance chaos.

Rome might well be burning, but Verona’s disgruntled angst noiseniks just fucking “wanna dance”.



Seattle Stomp  ‘Maudlin Madness’
(Crush Grove)  3rd January 2020


 

In a beaten-up saloon, careering down a slackers rock’n’roll garage road map, Alex Molica as the Seattle Stomp channels a familiar musical palette of influences on a battered acoustic guitar with his idiosyncratic wanderers debut LP, Maudlin Madness. Fueled up on a millennial cocktail of self-loathing and anxiety, the self-deprecating lo fi roller in (mostly) languid dishevelment beats and strums about lost love, road trips and alcoholism on an album that threatens to disappear below the radar into obscurity.

Far too good escape attention, Maudlin Madness is a deceptively melodic and infectious minor works of both intense and loose gonzo-indie-beat-garage-punk-country-rock. Short enough to not overstay its welcome on repeat plays, the eight tracks really do grow on you. From the Bosco Delrey meets Jonathan Richman and Alan Vega on a psycho rockabilly bum ride opener, ‘Anxious Thoughts’, to the mid-60s period Jagger breaks bread with Sky Saxon and Wolf Parade nursery rhyme creeper ‘Little Red Ridding Hood’ and the country rocking blues flat beat of ‘Power Jam Situation’, there’s the permeating spirit of an outsider looking in.

Molica in his travels bears wintery blasts (in the mode of The Standells on ‘January’), driving towards Denver mooning over the one-that-drifted-away and gets agitated over the contents of a fridge. Strangely though, the last track (if you can make it past the repeating car alarm-like chirping) moves from rock’n’roll jitters to a Mellotron cosmic narration traverse; Molica talking about voyager and moon craters: escapism into the void. Hardly the most original of albums, Maudlin Madness is still a great little LP that bridges slacker indie with garage, country and rock’n’roll.




The Epstein  ‘Burn The Branches’
(Zawinul Records/Pindrop Records)  LP/14th February 2020


 

Ambitious in its quivered anthem rousing and rich panoramas, Oxford-based Americana troupe The Epstein take it up a notch on their latest album, Burn The Branches. With earnest parched yearning the group return after a long hiatus (releasing only their third LP in twelve years) with an expanded sound and dynamism that ratchets up those root country influences to venture beyond the homestead prairie for pastures anew. Don’t worry though; the alt-country vibe is still very much in evidence still, just grander and erring more towards the light and shade of rock and indie music.

They cement this new expansion with a couplet of loud anthems; the brilliantly stirring ‘life-affirming’ ‘That Voice’ and heavier punctuated, increasingly vocally erratic, epic ‘It Will Pass’. The first of which evokes (for me anyway) hints of Meursault, early Radiohead and Deacon Blue, and the second, the Fleet Foxes, Broken Family Band and Wolf Parade. In their more serene, becalming moments The Epstein shimmer towards the hymnal, even country gospel on the quivering with softened timpani rumbling ‘Grand Canyon’ – a faithful cover no less of The Magnetic Fields’ lovelorn hymn from the iconic 69 Love Songs suite -, and march in plaintive step to a crushed piano and a tender accompaniment on the album’s dramatic curtain call, ‘Funeral’. Elsewhere there’s more scenery building with the ethereal desert spirited forsaken ‘Red Rocks’ and mysterious seeking vision ‘Wandering’.

If Wilco, Richmond Fontaine and CYHSY improbably joined forces for the greater good, they might very well sound something a little like this. Heightened crescendos aplenty and grand gestures await on an album that is both highly commercial yet has a real soulful depth and dynamism lacking in so much more popular anthemic music. This could well be the band’s finest work yet.



Mike Gale  ‘B, C, D Sides Volume 1’
LP/2nd January 2020


 

In no way diminishing what is an actually quite good little album, but former Co-Pilgrim and Black Nielson honcho Mike Gale’s latest release is a stopgap between last year’s brilliant surf noir and Pacific ocean Beach Boys imbued Summer Deluxe and a, as yet, unnamed new LP in September. A gathering of material, left wanton in some cases, and just left off of previous albums, B, C, D Sides Volume 1 is a collection of tracks that somehow manages to work as a congruous album of quality romantic paeans, ruminations, breezes and more experimental ideas: some working better than others. However, apart from the odd starry satellite blinking Electronic meets The Farm pop-like early synthesizer tune, the Bs, Cs and Ds on show here sound anything but unsure or half-finished.

You can almost fit Gale’s music into two categories of influence and sound; the first, the more Beach Boys (with the onus on mike Love and Bruce Johnston) and Marc Eric kind of dappled harmony, and the second, harks back to both the C86 phenomenon and the 90s. Sometimes the two crossover of course; especially on ‘Something’s In The River’, a dreamy vocal track that places that Beach Boys lushness over Japan’s brooding synthesized pizzicato strings. In the former category, the opening beautifully be-jangled Donavan-esque ‘All The Traps Of Earth’ features Mike Gale as nature’s son, whilst the similarly acoustic, but with tambourine and more vigor, monastic haunting ‘Good Day, Doomsday’s Here’ has echoes of Paul Simon paling up with the Wilson brothers – possibly one of those tracks that didn’t make Summer Deluxe perhaps? In the latter camp, Gale places a harsher-toned lo fi rock guitar under a dreamy early Stone Roses vibe on ‘New Frontier’; goes all out epic45 and Casio pre-sets on the electro glide pop ‘Drive Ultimate Robot’; and puts an arpeggiator underneath the lilting lovely Cabinessence feel ‘Weather Patterns’.

Elsewhere on this collection, Gale rises dreamily again from the doldrums on the languid despondency ‘I’m Wasting All My Time’ and pens a romantic modern sonnet to a true love on ‘Your Smile’.

Occasionally you can hear the workings of Gale’s evolutions and mind, but these songs are nothing less than well executed; the songwriting as delightful as always. Far from second best, this first volume of tunes that never made the cut is another quality release that fills a Gale-shaped hole until the next album proper arrives in the autumn.




Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog the Monolith Cocktail. 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.

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