DOMINIC VALVONA’S ESSENTIAL REVIEWS ROUNDUP 





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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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






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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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






Flights Of Helios  ‘Endings’  Available now

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






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

 

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

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

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

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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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





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NEW MUSIC REVUE  WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA





Featuring another eclectic borderless roundup of interesting and innovative, and sometimes previously lost, treasures, this latest edition of my reviews package includes a fond and timeless quality collection of songs from the Irish folk legend John Dunhan; the second album from Oxford’s English tea dance meets Ottoman jig outfit, the Brickwork Lizards; a morning chorus inspired EP of homage covers from the adroit John Howard; Lukas Creswell-Rost transforms and remodels his soft rock triumph Go Dream into something more abstract, eclectic and dreamier; and a promising pair of debut albums from the ‘Celtic phantasmagoria’ inspired Irish harpist and songstress Brona McVittie, and the abstract sonic sculptor Anna Sonne. We also have, yet another blast of garage, doom, psych and this time Gothic mooning fun from the Stolen Body Records label, in the guise of the Portuguese boy/girl Sunflowers.

And if that isn’t enough already, I have a roundup of equally interesting and eclectic ‘shorts’ from as far afield as Canada and Paris too, with tracks, singles and oddities from the Parisian Anglo-French group Orouni, Toronto-based producer Luxgaze and the Leeds Psych pop electronic outfit Lost Colours.

Brona McVittie  ‘We Are The Wildlife’  Available Now

 

With the lightest, most deft of touches, Irish songstress and harpist Brona McVittie embarks on a voyage of ‘psycho-geographic’ inspired encapsulations of a mysterious, magical landscape and history on her debut album, We Are The Wildlife.

The title of this original and transformed traditional suite alludes to the premise that even people and the modern infrastructure (pylons for instance) that spans the land are just as important and intrinsic to the landscape as ‘spiders and cobwebs’; acting as they do throughout this album as both manmade and natural catalysts with which to bounce ideas and sounds from, or even off of – the inspiration for the pining bliss of the ethereal voiced and caressed bucolic, Under The Pines, arose from hearing the reverberation of a dog’s bark off the trees that stand on the edge of the Rostrevor pine forest.

Tracing the sonic contours of London’s urban fringes and the rural landscapes of Mourne, McVittie pitches her fluttery diaphanous harp-led songbook somewhere between post-folk and the cinematic – helped along in part by the drifting trumpet evocations of film composer Hutch Demouilpied, who’s contributions sound at times like Miles Davis Dingo transported to an Irish peat bog.

Her ephemeral harp melodies and phrases often feel like a breath or just the merest hazy lingering presence of the instrument, which – and I’ve never heard of anyone else doing this before – might in some ways be down to McVittie’s technique of playing them all on the guitar first before transcribing over. It certainly offers a different perspective and technique. And it certainly takes this heavenly traditional instrument into even more mystical, accentuate abstract realms, helped of course by an accompaniment of meadow flute (Keiron Phelan), sad bowed delicate strings (Richard Curran), searching fleeting slide-guitar and shuffling to full-on breakbeat drums (Myles Cochran). All of which amorphously pushes the often-ancient feelings and geography towards John Martyn and Bert Jansch one minute, towards the Incredible String Band or trip-hop the next.

 

As an additional running theme to that of a modern natural panorama, McVittie also draws deep from the well of Irish musical folklore and literature, borrowing as she does both titles and ‘the great Celtic phantasmagoria whose meaning no man has discovered, nor any angel revealed’ (interrupted on the yearning instrumental The Vast And Vague Extravagance That Lies At The Bottom Of The Celtic Heart) lyrical adage from W.B. Yeats to reinterpret her ancestral home’s legacy and hard to define feelings. Taking the And The Glamour Fell On Her reference to mean, in a manner, ‘away with the fairies’, and When The Angels Wake You, a reference to the ancient Celtic perception of death, from Yeats, McVittie’s quivering harp caresses and translucent vocals articulate a misty veiled dreamscape; both haunting and peaceable.

Transformed with a subtle undulation of electronic ambience, traditional fare such as the resigned death lament The Jug Of Punch (“When I am dead in my grave, no costly tombstone will I have. Lay me down by my native peat, with a jug of punch at my head and feet.”), and more obscure County Down love ballads, such as the greenery meandrous tip-toe Newry Mountain, have an eerie, elegiac echo, shrouded as they are in the haze of a pastoral adumbrate swooning soundtrack.

Played, as I said at the very beginning, with the lightest of touches, McVittie’s wildlife and Celtic inspired filmscape subtly crafts tradition into a cerebral suite of neo-classical and ambient folk. We Are The Wildlife is the most inviting and unique of debuts.






Astrid Sonne  ‘Human Lines’   Escho,  19th February 2018

 

Merging a background in the classical with a love for electronic composition, the Copenhagen-based composer/musician Astrid Sonne examines the balance between computer-generated and organic sounds on her spatial sonic debut LP, Human Lines. Conceptually minded, Sonne is know for her burgeoning work in creating site-specific compositions for a number of installations in Denmark, including the old ruins under the Danish Parliament and a stretch of the Copenhagen Metro – part of the Trans Metro Express for the Strøm Festival. Human Lines sounds at times like an extension of this: certainly informed by it in the use of space and depth.

Structurally and thematically exploring both the organic and mechanical, but also, as Sonne puts it, ‘the balance between repetition and renewal in various universes which responds to different emotional stages’, each piece develops from either its initial crystal sharp sonorous pings or tubular metallic twitches into interconnecting hovers or fissure stretching cyclonic warps.

 

Leaving it to the listener to interpret, each ambient, drone and transduced viola performance seems to spark or stutter into action on its own accord, as though Sonne gathers the elements together and once generated lets them fall, probe and encircle where and how they desire. There’s clean scattered nodes and seeping melody on the Kosmische style Also, gabbling crushed and warped percussive loops and a cosmic ethereal repeating choir on the heavier Real, and a hint of Japanese electronica on the abstract, arpeggiator A Modular Body; all of which, as does most of the album, ascend, marvel and encircle the celestial.

It’s left to the final and most achingly beautiful sad composition, Alta, to break free from the machine (almost) and find the humanity. Erring towards the playing of Tony Conrad and John Cale, Sonne’s last impression bows towards her classical learning, with only the subtlest of synthesized sound to accompany a touching, atmospheric, viola performance.

Still developing and searching ideas, Sonne’s debut is a very promising start; combining the conceptual with techno, darkwave and ambient. The balance suggests the machine element hasn’t completely taken over just yet.




John Howard  ‘Songs From The Morning’  John Howard/Kobalt,  Available Now

 

Probably more productive than he’s ever been, during a career that spans five decades, songwriter/pianist troubadour and A&R man John Howard has in recent years worked with a myriad of collaborative talent (the Robert Rotifer, Andy Lewis and Ian Button instigated, and most brilliant revival, John Howard & The Night Mail) and released a number of solo albums and EPs – the last of which, the stunning cerebral Across The Door Sill, made our choice albums of 2016 features.

Enjoying a calm and restrained renaissance of a sort since the feted days of his acclaimed debut Kid In A Big World, Howard’s status as a seriously adroit songwriter and assiduous tickler of the ivory is assured and proven beyond doubt with every subsequent project. His latest collection, a five-track homage EP of covers, is a welcome breather, even stopgap, between albums. Howard is set to release his eighteenth long-player this summer, with news of a nineteenth to follow – though this is purely at the writing stage at the moment.

 

Perhaps a reflection and circumstance of Howard’s approaching 65th birthday, Songs From The Morning muses at a leisure over a selection of favorite songs from the artist’s formative years in the late 60s and early 70s – a time when he was adoring fan, and not quite the confirmed artist. Highly influential, imbuing Howard’s own craft, a carefully chosen quartet of tracks themed around both the celebration and lament of the morning sun, have been subtly lifted and transformed with signature aplomb. Showing a great taste in music, he picks from the golden spring of both lauded and tragic songwriter artists.

Featured a couple of months back on the Monolith Cocktail as a taster, a Waterboys-esque, almost jangly version of the fated Nick Drake’s most touching pulchritude – which more or less lends its name to the EP title – From The Morning is given the venerated praise treatment by Howard. This is a leitmotif, an almost deep reverence that comes out as pastoral gospel. Sharing with Howard a certain promise that failed to crossover into commercial success, though of course the understated quiet figure spiraled into a mental abyss and tragically committed suicide at the age of only 26 – the year before Howard’s debut album release – Drake was renowned for penning the mournful and serious, yet he wrote this most uplifting of beauties, a favourite of Howard.

In a similar vein, Mike Heron’s – of The Incredible String Band fame –bucolic delight You Get Brighter is another glorious declaration of love for nature’s brightest life-giving force. Positively radiant, meandering as it does through a Baroque folk majesty, Howard subtly marks the original with his own peaceable nature and joy.

Wishing to hold off the morning’s rays, Tom Springfield’s lovelorn plea, Morning, Please Don’t Come – originally recorded with his sister Dusty in 1969 for his own LP Love’s Philosophy – playfully yearns for the dawn to never come; a signal as it seems for his love to leave his bedside, and maybe step out of his life forever. Howard rings out the tambourine, lightly caresses the piano and swoons a faithful tribute.

Once again drawn to the tragic, Howard also does justice to Sandy Denny’s complex woven lament The Lady and Tim Buckley’s equally troubled, but achingly beautiful, Morning Glory. Savoring the challenge of translating “rather a lot of chords” (as Denny herself puts it on a live recording of this elegiac delight) on to piano, Howard transposes the malady and bellowed heartbreak to sound like a lost Elton John classic. He turns Buckley’s rather ambiguous 1967 ballad into a 70s style epic that rolls on and on. Accompanying anecdotal notes of interest from Howard explain each song’s appeal and influence, with a mention about the ‘musical scholars’ debate over the meaning of Buckley’s “fleeting house” lyric; a reference that Howard himself believes alludes to a ‘house we only live in temporally, like the hobo the lyric mentions several times in the song.’ Whatever you decipher from this cryptic and great lyric, the song is somehow congruous to the collection, yet barely mentions the ‘morning’; just as easily conjures up an ambivalent atmosphere of time and the seasons.

 

A great songbook, lifted and subtly turned into a venerable homage, Songs From The Morning is an articulate often peaceable collection from an artist happy to spend a moment contemplating and celebrating those that inspired him, but also a pause before launching into a string of new solo work.






John Duhan ‘The Irishman’s Finest Collection’   ARC Music,  Available Now

 

With a certain earnest sentimentality and the Irish brogue of a “folkie” Springsteen, songwriting legend John Duhan’s five decade spanning songbook is for many of his admirers both a heartfelt hymn to life and love and an article of faith.

Despite penning highly popular peaceable anthems and the most romantic of love songs, Duhan’s music has mostly been brought to attention via international Irish icons such as Mary Black and The Dubliners. His most popular hit of all, the timeless Emerald Isle metaphorical seafaring paean The Voyage, was a much loved sentiment to overcoming life’s obstacles together as a couple and family (a recurring theme throughout), much beloved by Duhan’s local community but propelled to global success by Christy Moore, who covered it in 1989.

And so for many this latest collection come compendium musical accompaniment to his autobiography, To The Light (a title taken from the leading track of his album of the same name), is an introduction to the songwriter/performer who originally started out in the 60s as the fifteen year old frontman for the highly successful Irish beat group Granny’s Intentions, before going on to carve out a career as a lone troubadour.

Corresponding to each of the four chapters of that bio, songs have been ‘carefully’ selected from a quartet of his most ‘epic’ albums: Just Another Town, The Voyage, Flame, and, of course, To The Light itself. Self-confessedly never following ‘trends or fashions’, Duhan’s music remains timeless, accompanied as it is by gentle oboe, violins, cello, pipes, the accordion and his tender guitar. There is some room however for modernity, with the subtlest of technological advancements allowed to create synthesized atmospheres and melodies when wanted.

Following a toiled life story, it makes perfect sense to start at the beginning, paying homage to the town of his birth, Limerick. Featuring a diorama cast of locals and scenes that have obviously touched and been lived by its author, Duhan muses that his town is “just another town” like any other, but it’s the first of two occasions to include lyrics that reference his old dad – lyrically etched as a character, singing in baritone, ‘with the emphasis on the ‘bar’’ – on the track of the same name and on the rousing Don’t Give Up Till It’s Over, and paints a fond picture of home.

 

All the cornerstones of the family and the touchstones of a life well lived are drawn upon for material, including the offering of a steady hand of assurance to both his teenage daughter – in the middle of some tumult on Your Sure Hand – and to his son Kevin – on the immensity of the great unknown and our place in the scheme of things pondering Face The Night. There’s a coo-like bowed tribute to his mum in the form of a charming reminder from the past on Song Of the Bird; a tale of when Duhan and his Mum nursed an injured bird back to life, offering hope and a fond memory of his mum when she sadly passed away.

Through it all, from meandering family rifts to stargazing philosophically, there’s a deep sense of faith and the tender gesture of overcoming adversity. Mostly set in the here and now, though musically transcending any specific timeline, the only song that deviates from this is The Blight. A sad saga about the fatal disease that infected and destroyed as a consequence so many potato harvests in Ireland, known by its Latin name as Phytophthora infestans but named ‘the Blight’ by those communities it devastated, this obviously emotionally aching chapter from the Island’s history is turned into a tale of death and survival on the ‘blight’ riddled toiled fields and lands by Duhan, but it could so easily be an ode to the hardships of eking out substance on the American frontier as well.

 A perfectly pleasant guide to one of Ireland’s greatest living songwriters – who it must be said is also pretty deft and handy with the guitar too – Duhan’s Finest Collection gently explores his adroit magic and sincerity over time, and will remain one of the best encapsulations of his craft for years to come.




Brickwork Lizards  ‘Haneen’   Available Now

 

A beneficial creative exchange of musical backgrounds that blossomed from a chance meeting between Oxford stalwart Tom O’ Hawk and the Egyptian vocalist and oud player Tarik Beshir – of the town’s Arabic ensemble Oxford Maqam – into the fusion, the Brickwork Lizards, sprung from a mutual love for the 1930s harmony group The Ink Spots, but also a yearning for a, mostly, lost past.

Nostalgic reverberations from both the exotic Ottoman Empire of yore and 1920s English dancehalls seamlessly elope off together to create something fairly unique and congruous. This second LP to date, Haneen, is an often joyful bound across time, soaking up lines, melodies, riffs and the atmosphere of a shellac scratchy tea dance one minute, a lavishly decorated, carpeted seraglio the next.

The very definition of that album title in Arabic describes a longing sense of the past. And so timelines align as the two distinct backgrounds of the group’s founders harmonize with surprising results. You will for example hear a Tim Westwood style late night radio host introduce a wartime blitz era ballroom romantic crooned lullaby of sentimental assurance (Old Fashioned Song) and a creeping transformation of a traditional 16th/17th century ‘hanging song’ that takes in both the atavistic bucolic of merry ole England but also features an air of Latin American (The Hanging Tune).

 

Better when they evoke and redeem the exotic – reclaiming almost forgotten Ottoman pieces Hijaz Zeybek and Hijaz Mandira: the prefix alluding to an eclectic transformation that takes these traditional encapsulations out of their epoch into something more electric, from the Silk Road to cocktails at The Ritz – than the bohemian, the Brickwork Lizards most promising excursions are amongst the amorphous sand dunes and bazaars of a vague North Africa and Middle East panoply. Songs such as the mosey wagon trail western metaphor, Come On Home, – which as a tinge of White Album McCartney about it – and the cornet trumpet nuzzled cabaret swoon, Queen Of Bohemia, can sound twee and pastiche, but this is made up for with the album’s abundance of zeal and fun at fusing pastures new – Ottoman rap, anyone?!




Sunflowers  ‘Castle Spell’   Stolen Body Records,  February 9th 2018

 

In what is proving to be a busy year for the Bristol label Stolen Body Records – we must have featured at least four bands from the label’s ever-expanding roster in the last month alone – we have yet another garage-psych-stoner-doom backbeat propelled slice of international mayhem to wake-up the dead with. In the guise of a Portuguese Cramps embracing The B52s, Moon Duo and Black Lips inside Grandpa Munster’s cloak of Gothic looning, the Sunflowers, despite the name and fiery vigor, lurk in the graveyard of human metaphorical gloom.

Their second album, Castle Spell, is full of fantasy and voodoo, yet throbs, bends and whines with pantomime horror. Tongue-firmly-in-cheek, the girl/boy yahoo, mooning and wooing vocals and tumult backing of scuzz, fuzz, spunk rock and explosive blues suggests some fun. Though in no way does this mean it’s a cartoon imitation or joke, as the group do get very heavy and the lyrics echo a sort of inevitability, an illusion to death, grief and kool-aid enthused destruction.

Tumbling off-kilter on the tangled lunar-hopping, fretwork in space, opener The Siren, we’re introduced to the Sunflowers spikey howling energy, as each track careers and thrashes its way to a destination; be it Link Wray riding the big one down to the Mexican coast on the ole! tremolo-twanged Surfin With The Phantom, or creeping like The Black Angels in Poe’s cemetery on Grieving Tomb. For pure zaniness and what-the-fuck-is-all-that-aboutness, the barking scuzzed A Spasmodic Milkshake features the most bizarre boy/girl exchange of lyrics (“I’m a milkshake don’t disturb me, I don’t want to die!”), and the finale, We Have Always Lived In The Palace, is just…well, weird: a ponderous bass riff stride through the palatial palaces of the mind.

Still, a cracking great album, full of thrills; light and shade dynamics but heavy as fuck, Castle Spell is a real explosive blues, garage thumping, punky doom withering surfin’ cosmic psych blast.






Lukas Creswell-Rost   ‘Gone Dreamin’’  Plain Sailing Records,  Available Now

 

An Extension. A re-contextualization. A transmogrification leading to a concatenate yet new set of songs, developed from the English troubadour Lukas Creswell-Rost‘s 2014 Go Dream songbook, Gone Dreamin’ is a reimagined transformation of that original misanthropic tragedy, culled from Rock’s Back Pages. Taken off into more experimental realms, with ideas, scraps of dialogue, riffs and melodies ‘flying around’, merged with various effects and breaks, these original beautifully vaporous soft rock ballads and cruising songs are given a new lease of life.

Alluding to track titles from Go Dream and sounding at times like the Animal Collective remixing Michael Angelo and Paul McCartney, or 10cc fronted by Michael Farneti, this latest nine-track suite – described by Lukas as: ‘A pop soundscape road trip going through different radio stations that are all haunted by the same voice.’ – builds upon the sentiments and dazed recollected tales of fate, suicide and ego on rock’s highway, but drinks liberally from the woozy poisoned chalice of Kool-aid woe.

 

Championing Go Dream at the time, becoming a sort of cult album, Lukas has revisited that collection, which weaved such blissful, cursing visages on the fate of Bad Finger, the strange unnerving limbo of a transient life on the road as a touring band in the 70s, the detachment of star power, sipping cocktail aimlessly in Miami, and the tantrums of an air bound miscreant Yngwie Malmsteen. Though amorphous in dipping in and out of that album to conjure up something new, it’s difficult to recognize what bit of which song he’s used, echoed with effects or turned inside out. Gone Dreamin’ has just Cocktails, whilst Go Dream had Ten Dollar Cocktails. Gone Dream also has Patient Pilot, whilst Gone Dreamin’ has Air Rage. Yet neither particularly collate; just the essence and vague linger. Shimmery, shining with synth percussion, sauntering bossa rhythms, troubadour acoustic guitar and echoes of a sun-dappled Laurel Canyon Lukas’ music is now submerged and remodeled with ambient music, hallucinogenic and garish 80s pop production – Here In Hollywood signposts every signature buzz, drum-pad pre-set, vapours and electro boogie sound from that decade, sounding like Nile Rodgers on speed.

Lukas has done a great job too; loosening, bending, crystallizing and stretching his 70s blessed, Pacific Ocean Blue meets Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan crafted cerebral soft rock songs into something experimentally more colorful and, even, dreamier.







Shorts: curios, oddities, great sounds and tracks floating our orbit this month.

Orouni   ‘Uca Pugilator’   Taken from the Somewhere In Dreamland EP

Making a return visit to their 2014 musical travelogue album Grand Tour, this time with singer and flutist Emma Broughton at the helm – the previously admired from afar Anglo-French artist, provider of a rich, effortless timbre, is now a paid-up full time member of the band – the Parisian pop band Orouni recast a quartet of older songs on their latest EP, Somewhere In Dreamland.

The shape of things to come, Emma Broughton features as the lead singer on all of the reconfigured EP’s tracks, Somewhere In Dreamland will act as a bridge of sorts to an upcoming album, released later this year.

Blending world music instrumentation – usually picked up on their travels – with a kind of clever, air-y and breezy melodic style of lilting pop, Orouni glide amorphously between a myriad of French and English influences. Sounding at times like a French-African Belle & Sebastian, or a Breton styled New Pornographers.

Taken from their new EP – a taster if you like – the opening Uca Pugilator is described as ‘a two-chord pop song about Senegalese wrestling’ by the group. Formerly the first track from the group’s Grand Tour, this alternative version features a more up-tempo rhythm guitar pick-me-up – part Bowie, part Kate Bush, part Postcard Records – and of course now features Broughton on lead vocals. Dreamily conjuring up the well-traveled tourist’s observations – imagine Goddard on a road trip with Paul Simon across West Africa – about a Senegalese pugilistic ritual, this beautiful light but sophisticated song promises the most glittering of African adventures. And it’s very, very nice indeed: swimmingly so.




Luxgaze   ‘Pretty Eyes’

Vaporizing before our ears the latest electronic track from Toronto-based music producer Luxgaze (Natalie Veronica) is a dreamy instrumental of slow beats, mirror rippling and reverse effects entitled Pretty Eyes. This glass-y abstract trip-hop meets electronica track meanders; swirling gently and indolently in its space like a chilled mystery.

It follows on from a trio of similar previous singles and also acts as a guide towards the upcoming full-length debut LP. Keep a lookout on the site for more details in the future.




Lost Colours  ‘One Space Left’   12th February 2018

Splashing a range of dreamy kaleidoscopic ‘colours’ on their celebratory, almost life-affirming, universal pop psychedelic spectacular One Space Left, the Leeds paint a most ambitious canvas with their debut single. In what will be a busy year going forward for the band, ahead of both their Different Life EP and Talking In Technicolour LP releases (to be released consecutively over the next two months), One Space Left is open invitation to soak up the band’s expansive, even transcendental, ambitions.

Alluding to the Indian subcontinent, this flight of fantasy features the ethereal calls of Rebekah Dobbins (of Nouvelle Vague and The Living Gods Of Haiti fame) drifting over subtle hints of sitar and the echoes of an undulating exotic voyage, as a constant bloom and cycle of drums and stargazing opulence – not a million miles from MGMT or Snowball II – materialize like ether.

A Ty Unwin remix of that same song – one of the three versions on this three-track release that also features an instrumental – strips the song back, sending it towards a dreamscape trance. Unwin reweaves the original threads and vocals, untethering what are already quite float-y and light voices until they become translucent, as samples of those Indian sounds waft in and out of a most vaporous, celestial, atmosphere until reaching the final section of the remix, which introduces sonorous bass and glassy shard percussion.

Lost Colours aim to put ‘huge smiles on peoples faces’ with their cinematic electronic and pop psychedelia, and One Space Left, I can thankfully conform, does just that. I’ll be keeping an ear out and hopefully will bring you more news and a possible review in the near future.




 

ALBUM REVIEW – WORDS: AYFER SIMMS



Ouzo Bazooka  ‘Songs From 1001 Nights’   Stolen Body Records,  Available Now

This is the music of our mothers and fathers, I mean, if you are Turkish and were born around the 70s. If you were, then you were probably melancholically eyeing the crowd of that gathering: wedding, circumcision ceremony, wedding, circumcision, wed…etc. looking for the perfect match. You were not rich – they danced to ‘European valses’- but whatever you did your heart was already bleeding, call it a social mal- être linked to poverty and the inevitable dreamy state that comes with it, when you do what you can do and be yourself and survive without even thinking about it (and your elbows have patches and your carry that Victor Hugo-esque honor in your soul).

 

This is the music of the millions who poured in a city not equipped to receive a great many, the crushing hope that the injustice will be made obvious one day, the rage, the thirst that comes with the hardship of coming to the shores of the Bosphorus and try, with olives, bread and endless teas to set up a “good life” for yourself. This is the music that entertained the masses for the growing monster of a city. The music of the workers chanting while pushing the wheels, while they fall in love, and gather in yellow lit rooms, hunched over their glasses of raki, drowned, dispersing a million tears, laughing of a million laughs while getting married.

 

It is not surprising that these melodies have stayed with a whole generation, inspiring bands from here and there. These tracks are not how our fathers heard them: they are how some of the next generation have dreamed of hearing them, with a psychedelic twist scented with freedom, this is the music of their dream come true – we buried them and their fathers already-but we shed a tear every time the nostalgia strikes. Ouzo Bazooka has managed to restore that vibe.


CHOICE  ALBUMS/EPS  OF  2017  PART  ONE:  A – L
SELECTION/WORDS:  DOMINIC  VALVONA  &  MATT  OLIVER





The decision making process: 

Continuing to shy away from fatuous rating systems and ‘best of lists’, the Monolith Cocktail endeavors to offer a more eclectic 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 fatuous number 32 spot than another.

Lined up in alphabetical order then, our favourite new and reissued albums and EPs from 2017 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 2017, even if that might be true. Instead our list is an indicator of our amorphous tastes, rounding up a year in the life of the Monolith Cocktail, and we hope, introducing you to titles and artists/bands that may have dropped below the radar or got lost in the noise of more commercial better promoted releases.

 

The Context: An Age Of Hysteria. Dominic Valvona

The silent majority to the wrath and often derision of a mouthy, louder, minority carried on defying and surprising the establishment on both sides of the political divide in 2017. The ‘outraged’ of Tunbridge Wells in the letters pages of yore has been replaced with the ‘outraged of social media’, as the year’s unofficial collective anxious end times tagline #losingourshit replaces moderation, distance and analyses: comment before taking it in fully and reading without prejudice.

Context is thrown out the window when the instant gratification of outrage surfaces.

Despite the rolling news miasma of events feeding into the social media vacuum that has now, more or less, become impossible to ignore or leave; despite the encroachment on every facet of our daily lives by technology and the progressive zealots augurs of a complete matrix like synchronization with our gadgets and tech, the fact that people can be bothered to release music on vinyl still, let alone cassette tapes, is heartening, even if the naysayers bemoan that it’s a gimmick, mostly repackaging old material and reissues or an excuse to charge a lot of money for the tactile and physical. The death of everything physical – from books to newspapers, vinyl to CDs – has always been exaggerated; fueled in hope more than actual demand by the camarilla of Silicon Valley.

Still, streaming is fast becoming the most popular model, even though hardly anyone is benefitting – even Spotify, whose business model is particularly hostile towards the artist, is branching out into other industries, including makeup, because though their value is constantly marketed as high, they have failed to make a profit. Soundcloud, running ads now, is constantly teetering on the edge of folding. And the high expectations, glossy launch of the artist love-in Tidal has failed likewise in changing that model, currently languishing way behind its rivals. Bandcamp meanwhile remains the best choice for artists at present, and gives more control to those who use it. Yet, Bandcamp have recently moved into marketing those who frequent its site, writing roundups and blog posts, moving into a promotional critic’s role. How far this will go is anyone’s guess, I’m a little uncomfortable myself with its implications, its method of choosing the worthy from its vast catalogue, and what incentivizes them. How any of these platforms will hold-up going into another uncertain year politically and economically is anyone’s guess, yet despite the constant harping and expectancy of one of these sites and many like them to close, they’ve all managed to limp on regardless.

A teetering stasis between the physical and the digital exists for now. Writing anyone off at this stage would be foolish.

 

History is a marvelous scholarly pursuit. Yet anything past the year dot of social media’s conception is either revised to fit contemporary fashions or discarded totally. And so a sense of perspective is needed more than ever, especially up against the worrying diplomatic and military developments taking place throughout the Middle East, Europe (both at the very heart of the EU, including Brexit and with the unfolding independence row in Catalonia, but also Russia’s continuing moves and baiting in the Ukraine), Central and South America and Asia.

We also have the march of the robots and automation to consider, the impact of which will take a little time to filter through but will eventually change all our lives, not necessarily for the better – the most repeated mantra that it will only replace the most monotonous, labour intensive and under resourced job roles shtick is evidently untrue, as automation, bots and the programs being designed and rolled out are coming not only for the middle class occupations but all our creative roles too.

Unsurprisingly much of the music that has been released in the past year reflects the ‘fake news’ obsessed, Trumpism, post-postmodern era in which we find ourselves, some brilliantly, others whining and melodramatic – the cyclone of #metoo and the mounting charge sheet of sexual assaults and misdemeanours stacking up against men in, it seems, most industries is live, but yet to filter through yet on record (well there are few exceptions of course). Not many artists offer answers, certainty or solutions though. And some would say that we’re missing the venom, bite, and the rebellious streak that defined the spirit of rock’n’roll, punk and hip-hop.

And so below, the albums and EPs chosen by myself, Matt Oliver and Ayfer Simms reflect the concerns, protestation, lament of the times in which we live: for better or for worse. And not just from the myopic view of the UK, Europe and North American music scenes, but also from Africa, South America, Australasia and Southeast Asia. The Monolith Cocktail has always done its utmost to draw our readers attention to what’s happening outside the Western dominated music industry, and this year’s two-part feature includes artists as diverse as the entrancing Algerian/Tunisian Bargou 08 and Moroccan Gnawa legend Maalem Mahmoud Gania.

So without further ado…here is the first part of this year’s ‘choice albums’ feature. Part two will follow in a week’s time, and our final Quarterly Revue Playlist the week after that.

A.

Yazz Ahmed   ‘La Saboteuse’   (Naim Records)

Encapsulating the dreamy enchantment and exotic peregrinations of her Bahrain heritage with the polygenesis jazz scene of her London home, soloist, collaborator and composer extraordinaire Yazz Ahmed takes us on an evocative, transcendental at times, voyage with her new album, La Saboteuse.

Working with everyone from Radiohead – who’s Bloom track is covered by Yazz on this imaginative Arabian suffused suite – to These New Puritans, from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to Amel Zen, trumpet virtuoso – though she seems to be proficient with most wind and brass instruments, including the flugelhorn – Yazz steps out to lead her own small troupe on her first solo album since 2011’s Finding My Way Home. With Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and Naadia Sheriff on Fender Rhodes piano, she lingers in an entrancing and often mysterious world of magical brooding vistas and dusky silhouetted sand dunes.

Isolated trumpet lingers and wafting meditations and traverse style vignettes are placed between longer performances of spiritual and Miles Davis sublimity, as Yazz guides us under the starry skies of Arabia and beyond. Dominic Valvona


Tony Allen  ‘The Source’  (Bluenote)

The divine rhythm-provider to Fela Kuti, trustee of the Afrobeat groove, Tony Allen has, and not before time, been recognized for his ability to transcend the style he’s rightly venerated for. Hardly surprising to find him furnishing the jazz tastemakers choice label, Blue Note, with an impressive hybrid album of both – though arguably Afrobeat and jazz have influenced and inspired each other over the decades.

Releasing a four-track homage earlier in the year for the same label, a nod to one of his inspirations, Art Blakey (A Tribute To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers), Allen traverses that Blakey swing and the sound of the Savoy label via Lagos and the Parisian joints of the city he has called home for years on the polyrhythm elasticated The Source. Joining him on this enterprise is a band of Paris jazz musicians and the Cameroonian guitarist Indy Dibongue providing the licks, as well as the odd guest spot, including Damon Albarn’s low key contribution to the heralding Kuti funk Cool Cats – a reference no doubt to ‘Sir’ Victor Olaiya’s highlife band of the same name that Allen was hired to play claves for in his early career.

As I say, it has the swing, it has the funk, it has the jazz, and most definitely it returns to the source. Allen bends morphs and pushes those rhythms beyond showboating to produce a remarkable fusion and synergy. DV


Chino Amobi  ‘PARADISO’  (UNO)

Looking out from the balcony of a crumbling civilization, reciting a chilling poetic melodramatic transmogrification of Edgar Allan Poe’s The City In The Sea, as tumultuous storms and waves, the sound of seagulls, the crashing of towers fallen into the sea and gargling howls conjure up all manner of Chthonian trepidation, Chino Amobi’s displaced stark and bleak electronic collage soundtrack PARADISO begins as it means to go on.

The Richmond, Virginia artist has dropped his Diamond Black Hearted Boy moniker in favour of his own name for this expansive plunge into the void. And what a dark world it is to discard masks and alter egos in.

A co-founder of the NON collective of African artists, and of the diaspora, Amobi’s remit is focused on ‘using sound as’ the ‘primary media, to articulate the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society, and in turn distribute power. The exploration of ‘non, prior to the adjective gives intel into the focus of the label, creating sound opposing contemporary canons’.

This translates in the short concatenate serialist style vignettes and passages of worrying trepidation, heavy thumping, bleak, chilling and uncertain twisted minimal electronica, concrete, post punk, Foley sounds and experimental dystopian vistas. A long list of NON collaborators make appearances on this disturbing, at times violent, end times suite, whether it’s through narrated passages, occasional erratic and gauze-y raps or radio show interjections.

A contorted reality awaits, a world without end. Are we circling the void or already in it? Meanwhile crows feed on the flesh, heralded fanfares sound and bestial cyclones blow us off course from Paradise Lost into a sonic chaos. Yet, we’re not so lost as to be totally incapable of redemption; and the ill effects, as the glimmers that do appear allude and Amobi himself has suggested, are reversible. DV


Austra  ‘Future Politics’

Imbued by, amongst others, the work of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and their manifesto for the end of capitalism tome, Inventing The Future, which calls for and envisions better days for all of us – an escape from the toxic neoliberalism that has defined that last twenty years -, the Canadian synth siren Katie Stelmanis creates a most encapsulating, pining and beautiful glossy synthesizer pop opus on Future Politics.

Written before the Trump victory of 2016 and the spiraling decay of both political and societal moderation that followed in its wake, Stelmanis, under her Austra persona, has inadvertently synchronized her angelical and suffused dreamy pop swooning airs, arias and coos to the anxious end times.

Stelmanis excels, as you will hear for yourselves, in evocative and cool glimmer-of-hope dreamy minimalist electronica pop. She strips away any excess this time around, going further than usual in producing a starker but highly melodious, trance-y and vaporous swooning melodrama fit for the club and heart. DV


B.

Bargou 08  ‘Targ’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Ahh…the sounds of a dusky reedy gasba flute; the tactile patted and burnished bendir drum; the rustic, earthy strung loutar, and the flowing, soaring scale vocals of the Bargou 08 project’s chief instigator Nidhal Yahyaoui, set an impressive atmosphere in the first couple of minutes of the album’s opening track, Chechel Khater. And that’s all you’d need, except there’s another eight equally evocative and thrilling tracks to hear.

The source of this sound derives from a relatively uncharted region that lies obscured between the mountains of northwest Tunisia and the Algerian border, called the Bargou Valley, which despite its barren isolation, has cultured a unique musical fusion, stretching back hundreds of years. Captivating and magical enough in its ancestral unchanged form, the songs of the valley, sung in the local Targ dialect (a language that is one part Berber, the other Arabic), are given a contemporary jolt that transforms the atavistic paeans, odes and poetry of yore into an intoxicating swirling rapture of electronic North African funk.

Filled with a legacy of turmoil and tension that goes back an aeon the album’s many themes, from describing a lover’s vital attributes on Mamchout to laments of alienation, resonate strongly with the growing unease of events, initiated six years ago by the Arab Spring. Tunisia itself is facing a struggle and teetering on the edge, with no guarantee that certain cultures won’t just disappear or be fragmented in the ensuing melee. Originally setting out to document his Bargou Valley home’s musical heritage before it disappeared, Yahyaoui has successfully and thankfully, with his musical partner, producer and the album’s keyboard player Sofyann Ben Youssef captured this rich mesmeric culture for posterity. And in doing so, produced a masterpiece that will endure. DV

Full review…


Beans  ‘Love Me Tonight’  (Tygr Rawwk Records)

 

Returning after a short hiatus with a highly prolific fervor, the founding member of the legendary Anti-Pop Consortium leftfield hip-hop troop Beans has made a sort of triple album comeback; putting out a triumvirate of bold, salacious, congruous and provocative records all within a few months of each other. It’s hard to choose but preference dictates that it is the middle of that trio Love Me Tonight that edges it.

A futuristic gleam of eeriness and trepidation hangs over proceedings as Beans travails Cliff Martinez meets Daft Punk club, torture chamber chiming gloom, Super Mario jazz acceleration, Exorcist organ and female led R&B. Changing moods convincingly each and every time, you think you’re getting a Kanye West style dancefloor disco rap album one minute, the next, a dystopian cerebral hip-hop ride into the abyss.

Reading out prose, narratives, scripts and passages like a rap ‘beat poet’ (as well as recording Beans has also released his debut novel, Die Tonight, this year) Beans spit is almost like abstract narration; lyrics broken down into compounds like chemistry and descriptive soliloquy.

In keeping with rap music’s provocative of featuring a roll call of collaborators and guests, Elucid and the Kid Prolific chide in on the hiccup scratching, “that dream is over”, – and perhaps my favourite track of Beans – dark chiming Waterboarding, and the darkwave R&B artist Prince Terrence adding the right soulful yearning tones to the Talons love-in, and pep to the club pumped opener, Apeshit.

Passing lyrical dexterity and abstract thoughts on all the ills currently spinning round in the tumult vortex of 2017, but also carrying on a theme of domestic abuse through a number of tracks, with a running forensic detailed commentary on a father and son crime scene on the disturbing V.X., Beans Love Me Tonight seems like a cry for help, or at least an attempt to make sense of it all. Though at times the lyrics are outright schlock pornographic, and accent hardly plaintive. In a manner it’s a tease, attracting certain condemnation as well as respect. DV


Big Toast & Ill Move Sporadic  ‘You Are Not Special’  (Starch Records)

“Blocking today’s culture of aspiration with dollops of common sense; a specialist subject for this year’s UK curriculum that won’t fail you”. RnV, Aug 17

In these troubled times we need assurance and support more than ever. Big Toast and Ill Move Sporadic are not the knights in shining armour the situation requires, rerouting British bulldog spirit by mapping out modern reality more genuine than a million so called keep-it-realists. With one of the great voices to dwarf the mic on his way to becoming his own protest march, Big Toast hammers home the black and white of life ten times over, a dismissive totem who won’t budge for anyone and will battle any life aspect until it’s crying back to its casting couch.

IMS has the cheek to throw in a couple of slow jams to tuck you in when Toast is tucking you up, otherwise coming out swinging from the first bell and landing tooth-loosening one-twos. Anti-motivational speakers who will get your arse in gear, and what the youth of today should be listening to. Matt Oliver


Black Angels  ‘Death Song’  (Partisan Records)

If you were looking for a creative musical reaction to Trump and the anxious times we live in then The Black Angels beautiful apocalyptic Death Song must be one of the most anguished and daemonic of responses. The Austin psych-rocking overlords first album in four years was written and recorded during the miasma of the US elections after all: and doesn’t it show!

An emotionally charged despair and anger with moments of catharsis, carried out to a Byzantine flavored soundtrack of esoteric Amon Duul II and Far East Family Band psych, a vortex of 80s Goth inspirations – including The cult and Siouxsie and the Banshees – and the tolling chimes of doom and drone, Death Song is, as the title suggests, a heavy, but most excellent trip.

Brooding romantically in Gothic tragedy as the world continues to turn, undaunted by the prospects of universal uncertainty, The Black Angels spread their wings magnificently on what is, perhaps, one of their best albums yet. The leviathans of the psych-rock scene have learnt much and after a recording hiatus return with something sharper, refined but just as mystical and hallucinatory. DV

Full review…


The Bordellos  ‘Love, Life And Billy Fury’  (Recordiau Prin)

Prolific, if haphazardly, dropping albums upon the unsuspecting, and quite frankly undeserving, public at a whim, St. Helen’s greatest dysfunctional family bring us one of their most ambitious collections of cynical derision and honest yearned anxiety yet: a kind of Joy ‘de vive’ Division.

More or less The Bordellos love songs collection, this latest lo fi affair – that makes even The Fall sound professional – is a raw opening of the heart, and in some cases, the veins. Transmogrifying Spector’s voices of the beehives (The Crystals to The Ronettes), the Spacemen 3, The Cure and, of course, The Velvet Underground, The Bordellos eulogize the nearly man of British rock’n’roll, Billy Fury, craft (perhaps) one of their most beautiful ballads, Starcrossed Radio, and pen a “speeding train” metaphor themed ode to breakups.

Romancing the stoned, the life, loves and failures of rock’n’roll are laid bear and as usual, ignored by an unsympathetic, disinterested public. But despite mostly alluding recognition and validation (because that seems to be all that matters in the social media age: affirmation from the echo-chamber of peers), The Bordellos mope and grind on, producing some of the most important diatribes and, in this case, scuzzy, dirge-y and primal garage band spirited love-pained grievances. DV

Full review…


Brother Ali  ‘All the Beauty in This Whole Life’  (Rhymesayers)

“A triumph of crowd gathering words to the wise meets devil’s advocacy, guaranteeing end of term honours”.  RnV. May 17

In these troubled times we need assurance and support more than ever. Comparing two of 2017’s most prominent protesters, Joey Bada$$ (on All Amerikkkan Bada$$) got you to show your colours while keeping it funky. Brother Ali on the other hand was there so a circle could form around him when handing out affirmative rhymes that wouldn’t sound out of a place around a campfire, promising the “type of love you can’t type with your thumbs”.

Without detracting from the former, it’s the latter’s warmth that makes him sound like he’s talking to you one to one, and where a rapt audience will follow, that gets the nod; a soft, grit-speckled delivery assuring everything’s gonna work out even when he’s recounting history lessons to the contrary. To a backdrop of blazing suns starting to dip and winter huddles taking shape thanks to great cleanse and polish from Atmosphere’s Ant Davis, it’s confirmation you should always put faith in Brother Ali’s hands. MO


C.

Dr. Chan  ‘Southside Suicides’  (Stolen Body Records)

Like some obscure French exchange garage band of students – the kind you’d find if it existed, on a European version of the Teenage Shutdown! compilations – hanging out in the 80s L.A. of plaid shirt and paisley bandana fatigue wearing skater-punks, Dr Chan are an abrasive and coarse mix of renegade petulant inspirations.

Essentially powered by garage rock and all its various manifestations, the group from the south of France hurtle through an up tempo and raging backbeat of The Chocolate Watch Band, The Standells, The Rationales, Black Lips and Detroit Cobras. The difference here is that they also throw in a miscreant Molotov of thrash punk, courtesy of Fidlar, and “death rap” – cue Florida’s $uicideboy$ and their dollar sign typeface indulgence – into the riot on their Southside Suicides protest. It gives the Chan’s brand of garage band mania a different intensity and drive: more screaming in a ball of flames spikiness than tripping psych.

Riled and obviously pissed about the current state of affairs both at home and overseas, Dr Chan’s rage and insolence is in keeping with the primal spirit of rock’n’roll: fun, fun, fun! It’s a blast. DV

Full review…


Oliver Cherer  ‘The Myth Of Violet Meek’  (Wayside & Woodland)

Set in the Forest of Dean, this lamentable concept album (billed as ‘part-fiction’ ‘part fact’) from the man behind Dollboy, Oliver Cherer, weaves the dreamy folkloric story of the tragic protagonist Violet Meek (a play on words of ‘violence’); mauled to death or not by the dancing bears of a visiting circus troupe in the twisted and, musically alluded ominous maybe magical, tree thickened woods. Based we’re told on a vaguely real event that happened in the 1880s, Cherer’s story isn’t just a vintage walk in the past and melodic indictment on the cruelty of Victorian society towards women, but draws parallels with the continuing issues of inequality, chauvinism and mistreatment still prevalent in our own times.

This is an unforgiving unflattering portrayal of England, a nascent nostalgic one with little room for equality and the presence of outsiders, but every bit as revealing about our present. As lovely, often dreamily so, as the music is the 70s pastoral accompaniment is often trembling and quivering, the fiddles distressed and bewitchery, enticing us into a esoteric psychogeography that features a languid brushed backbeat and Morris Dancers like flourish around the maypole on one song, but finds evil in the idyllic scenery on another.

In short, it is a most stunning, ambitious and beautiful minor opus. For those who like their folk and pastoral eerie and esoteric. DV

Full review…


The Church  ‘Man Woman Life Death Infinity’

To infinity and beyond, Australia’s stalwart alternative rock and pop guitar romantics The Church, nearly thirty years since their inception continue to breathily produce quiet masterpieces; continue to experiment and explore new sonic textures. Travelling into the ethereal, the sagacious Man Woman Life Death Infinity is a suffused glide and traverse of air-y vapours and misty mystery; beginning with the opening, soaring minor opus Another Century, sustained throughout, with each song materializing out of the ether.

Reflecting but an unconscious inspiration, The Church’s founding member Steve Kirby calls this album the group’s “water record”. Though all the characteristics of water, trickling chords, cascaded dripping notes and a sense of floating are all correct, this dreamy pop and transient songbook seems to leave the ocean floor and rivers for something more astral. Songs such as Submarine for instance seem imbued with a spirit of the Kosmische. Yet fans of the group’s staple of pop guitar swan songs and subtle psychedelic 80s lovelorn classics will love Before The Deluge and I Don’t Know How I Don’t Know: both of which show traces of that college rock meets garage riffage that arguably inspired or was picked up by The Stone Roses.

Still writing timeless anthems without lazily reverting to the back catalogue, still pushing forward after four decades, The Church can still illuminate and surprise. This, there 26th, album is anything but jaded. If anything it seems that The Church are still very much in the game, and able to balance familiarity with discovery.  DV


Clap Your Hands Say Yeah  ‘The Tourist’

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

Ounsworth stumbles and ponders through a “post factual” strewn world of challenging emotions trying to make sense of it all on The Tourist. At times the album title could even be said to act as a metaphor for the artist’s own estranged and removed soul-searching: a tourist in his own country. Despite some sad and profound pathos heavy lyricism, Ounsworth’s “purging” of thoughts is meant to be a cathartic experience. The anxieties of our times can’t help but leak from every other line, yet this album is a fairly warm, jangly surprise package of lolloping and anthemic songs.

Building and soaring to an emotive brightened crescendo of sweetness and yearning on The Vanity Of Trying; contorting and bending guitar textures in a Robert Fripp fashion on the psych-pop gnarled Down (Is Where I Want To Be); and, up close and personal (every breathe audible) to the mic, driving through an 80s nocturnal rock ballad on Better Off, the inimitable Ounsworth careers through a full gamut of moods and chaos in the most natural and energetically purposeful way.

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

Full review…



Anna Coogan  ‘The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time’

Not the easiest of bedfellows, difficult to love and often (rightly) condemned as indulgent and overblown, but the worlds of rock and opera do occasionally overlap in a congruous union. The unquestionably talented Anna Coogan for instance, mixes the two majestically, using her finely trained 3-octave soprano and classical background to offer fluttering siren-like arias that seem to surreptitiously manifest from, what is, an ever-changing metamorphosis of musical styles, on her latest album, The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time.

Inspired by scientific discoveries, a “childhood listening to Puccini’s La Boheme”, the fateful poet Sylvia Plath, the tumultuous grave mistakes of intervention in the Middle East and, no surprises, the 2016 US elections Coogan’s ambitious suite of songs and instrumental evocations is far from lofty and classical.

Spanning country, Ry Cooder desert meditations, Anna Calvi like trembled sensual emulations, PJ Harvey and even bubbly synth pop, Coogan together with musical collaborator Willie B – offering atmospheric Moog bass line undertones and drums – produces a ‘wave’ fixated lamenting and balletic travail and a surprise highlight of 2017. DV

Full review…


D.

Daniel Son  ‘Remo Gaggi’  (Crate Divizion)

“Toasting the high life and low lives, gangster rap bearing honourable intentions”. RnV, May 17

Canadian slick talker Daniel Son is the front for this, one of many Giallo Point heists that the UK producer ran during 2017. With the authentic mob experience evident in such titles as Flat Tyers, Car Seizures, Strippers Den etc and the kingpin adoring the sleeve, it’s instantly noticeable how dry GP’s noir-ish production is; sharply tailored loops of muted house band jazz that has seen nefarious comings and goings, but are gagged by confidentiality agreements and the fear of loose lips sinking ships.

Potent in what it doesn’t disclose, display one bead of sweat and you’re in trouble. Before you know it Daniel Son – “we the reason that the yacht insurance be going up” – has decked you with a leg sweep before disappearing back into the night. While it’s easy to apply Godfatherly stereotypes to Remo Gaggi, the style of this international union contrasting brash and diligent, compellingly separates the best from the rest. MO


Dope KNife  ‘NineteenEightyFour’  (Strange Famous)

“An absolute battering ram of four wheel drive blasting through the boggiest of boom bap. Big Brother would think twice about listening in”.  RnV, Feb 17

We’re not trying to discredit Dope KNife by saying that NineteenEightyFour is an almost unfashionable antidote to tween trap, happily, mercilessly fanning the flames of the very 2017 argument of what constitutes real hip-hop between upstarts and originals (and if there’s an argument abound, it’s only right that Sage Francis is tagged in as well). Far from an Orwellian vision yet probably something of a dystopia to some as he walks with an intimidating shadow, DK comes slathered in dirt, ready to punch you in the ear with a splattered larynx.

As a one-man steamroller on beats and rhymes it’s not an exact science, but that’s absolutely fine with us, the battle-hardened, bitter-as-blasé (yet also able to reference the Fresh Prince theme tune) Georgia emcee leaving competition standing (“I can’t help being a damn cynic, this damn planet got a fucking lot of wack in it”). MO



The Doppelgangaz  ‘Dopp Hopp’  (Groggy Pack)

“A drop of ‘Dopp Hopp’ a day will keep the haters away; will creep up on the button marked ‘repeat’ until it progresses to heavy rotation”. RnV, Jul 17

Despite the sub-Gothic sleeve looking like the NY pair are auditioning badly for a death metal gig, Dopp Hopp ranks high on this year’s list on the strength of its smoothness alone. “Live by the cloak, die by the cloak” say The Ghastly Duo; but the mystery ends once their views from West Coast low riders, developing a smoky lens that’s intoxicating but never fuggy, embrace the inevitable sunshine.

Also readymade for reminiscing as on E.W.W. and Strong Ankles, the ‘Gangaz have set themselves the relatively easy task of riding the vibes properly, and they oblige with a natty turn of phrase prepared to shift towards the nearest street corner at their leisure. Dopp Hopp is another feather in a cap looking more and more like the crown jewels. Beats and rhymes guarantee return visits to golden-edged climes, where you simply have to rewind the boast that “if ‘Dopp Hopp’ was a beer, it’d be an IPA”. MO


75 Dollar Bill  ‘Wood/Metal/Plastic/Pattern/Rhythm/Rock’
(Glitterbeat Records)

This album could have rightly qualified for last year’s feature, but re-launched, repackaged for Glitterbeat Records’ burgeoning new imprint tak:til, 75 Dollar Bill gets another shot: mainly because it slipped under most radars on its maiden voyage in 2016. Now in 2017 with a hopefully wider global release it will shine.

Adhering to Jon Hassell’s “fourth world music” blurring of the division between futurism and tradition the 75 Dollar Bill duo of NYC-based musicians Rick Brown and Che Chen, traverse the psychedelic desert rock and trance of the Maghreb, avant-garde, jazz and even swamp boogie delta blues in a most indolent but listless transient manner on W/M/P/P/R/R. Motivated by an interest in “compound meters” – meter involves the way multiple pulse layers work together to organize music in time; a compound essentially dividing the beat into three equal parts -, but playing in a fashion that feels natural and organic, the follow-up to 2015’s more “forward momentum, stomping and shaking” style Wooden Bag is a nuanced clever exploration of interconnected tonality and tactile responses to a wealth of harmonics and melodies from a pan-global array of influences: from modal jazz to Arabic modes and eastern scales.

What they produce is an often adumbrate, repetitive experience that builds gradually, slowly releasing various tangents of interplay between the principle duo and their extended backing group of friends; traversing genres and moods to evoke new expletory musical spaces. DV

Full review…


E.

Ester Poly  ‘Pique Dame’  (Ikarus Records)

Experimentally rocking the cantons of their Swiss home for a while in their respective separate outfits, Béatrice Graf and Martina Bérther unite as an unholy drum and electric bass alliance under the Ester Poly (a scramble of ‘polyester’ of course) banner.

Pitching generation X(er) Bérther with Y(er) Graf, this rambunctious vehicle for the duo’s feminist protestations and irony is hardly hampered by the limitations of their chosen drum and bass instrumentation, and hardly comparable to any of the many such similar combinations plying their trade. Instead, Ester Poly use a stack of effects and distortion tools to widen their sound spectrum; evoking hints and obvious homages to post-punk, art school, Jazz, doom rock, heavy metal, no wave and Krautrock in the process.

Recorded in more or less one-takes, both combatants facing off against each other in the studio with no headphones or click track, Pique Dame captures not only the lively, hostile and enraged but also the humour (even if it is dark and resigned) of this energetic union. Despite the raging tumults, dynamism and soundclash of ideas, this album is a steady and even showcase of festering ideas and moods. It’s also quite brilliant and encapsulates the ‘pique’ perfectly; arousing, curious and irritated! DV

Full Review…


F.

Faust  ‘Fresh Air’  (Bureau B)

Still banging the cement-mixer drum and manning the barricades after forty odd years in the business, the Jean-Hervé Péron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier duo version of Faust – at its most base drummer/percussionist and bassist-come-tormentor of sound – and their latest protestation Fresh Air is a sort of art-provocateur road trip of the USA, featuring an abundance of locals and internationalist artists and musicians, picked-up on the way through New York, Texas and California: A counter-cultural agitation travail from coast to coast.

Featuring the usual Faust totems and that workmanlike methodology of extracting sounds and evocations from machinery, found objects, debris and the architecture – even Péron’s front door hinges from home make an appearance – Fresh Air is an urgent gasp for relief from the polluted, choked, environment. It’s also a highly convoluted attempt at transforming geometrical forms and abstractions into a sonic score. Three of the tracks on this album take their inspiration from a faux-workshop at the highly regarded California Institute of the Arts. A session that includes the loony 23-second vocal exercise symphony Partitur – defined loosely as “a sort of Dadaist choir, a musique impressionniste” by Péron –; the loose Slits do souk jazz, camel ride Chlorophyll, which features Barbara Manning “sneaking” in word association sketches alongside Zappi’s own strange utterings; and the saxophone squalling, motoring Lights Flicker, which again features Manning, bridging the role of Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith, repeating an agitated mantra over a quasi art-dance backing.

Continuing with their signature agitation, often menacing, call-to-arms whilst also sonically turning the abstract into something audible, Péron and Zappi can still be relied upon to create provocative statements, five decades on from when the original Faust dynamic barraged audiences with the most confrontational and experimental sound ideas. Struggling like the rest of us, but finding a comradely with another generation of artists and musicians, they look for hope in the miasma. DV

Full Review…


Craig Finn  ‘We All Want The Same’  (Partisan Records)

Occupying a rich postmodern American literary landscape, channeling such celebrated chroniclers as Bruce Springsteen and Vic Chesnutt, former The Hold Steady, and prior to that Lifter Puller, front man Craig Finn has in more recent years carved out a career as a successful solo artist. In true Springsteen style, though with far less guttural bombast, Finn brings a certain levity and importance to the lives of America’s “ordinary folk”, building a highly erudite diorama to stage the unfolding, and to outsiders, the often inconsequential dramas that are acted out across the States on a daily cycle.

Subtly tapping into the “liberal” creative psyche of America, one that’s still in a state of shock, but also the so-called “blue collar” America that put Trump in the White House, Finn doesn’t so much point fingers or berate as reflect the resignation of a cast on the peripherals of society.

Enriched with the graceful subtle presence and soaring vocal harmonies of Caithlin De Marrais and singer/songwriter Annie Nero, the keys of Sam Kassirer, swaddling and lifting horns maestro Stuart Bogie and longtime contributor from The Hold Steady, guitarist Tad Kubler, the musical backdrop is a mix of rolling Warren Zevon piano psychodrama, bluesy rock’n’roll and Ashbury Park period E Street Band brass. A solid performance and assiduous edition to the modern American songbook, Finn’s third solo album shows a full-bodied, sagacious artist at his pinnacle. DV

Full review…


G.

Maalem Mahmoud Gania  ‘Colour Of The Night’  (Hive Mind Records)

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

Choosing such a revered icon with which to launch their inaugural new imprint Hive Mind Records, the Brighton outfit’s inaugural baptism is the legend’s final studio recording, the afflatus, entrancing Colours Of The Night. What makes it special is that this is the first solo release by the artist outside his native homeland to be released on vinyl.

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

Colours Of The Night is a highly hypnotic collection of performances both magical and transcendental, beautifully traversing Arabia and desert blues traditions. DV

Full review…


Golden Teacher  ‘No Luscious Life’

Seeming to just follow wherever the groove takes them, whether it’s ESG uptown/downtown Boho Noho Soho New York, electro Afrobeat, the griot traditions of West Africa or 80s Chicago House, the polygenesis influences of Glasgow’s sonic multilingual Golden Teacher sextet seamlessly entwine to produce the most solid of on-message dance music.

Flexing and limbering to a hip 80s heavy melting pot of sounds and references, the Glasgow troupe move like liquid through a soundtrack of polyrhythms, acid and tight drum presets, oscillations, clean and not so clean futuristic galactic house funk. Not many groups can inaugurate and move between both the Senegalese griot matriarch Aby Ngana Diop and Cabaret Voltaire on the same album, but such is the myriad of musical backgrounds, and they encompass every kind of genre you can think of, of the band members that make up this loose collective, you’re never quite sure what you might hear next.

Though rhythmically and melodically, pumping and sonically doing all the talking for them, there are succinct, atmospheric vocals from Cassie Ojay and Charles Lavenac to give either a certain sway and louche entrancing quality or, as on the opening Afro-funk meets pumping House Sauchiehall Withdrawal – a reference to one of Glasgow’s most, famous and popular main thoroughfares, with everything from the Glasgow School Of Art and CCA art hub of venues and galleries to shopping and nightclubs on its mile and a half long strip – a soulful austerity groundhog day political context: dutifully working the daily slog and for what?!

Moving to Glasgow, from about as far south of the border as you can go, a couple of years ago, one of the first gigs I saw was a sort of impromptu, diy style, performance from the group at The Old Hairdressers in town. Improvised to a degree they caught the wide-eyed excitement and dynamism of an earlier time as if it was fresh and new. A must-see live turn, the group has, unlike so many others before them, captured that free spirit and looseness on record. Yet production is really slick.

The city has always enjoyed a reputation for the eclectic, and Golden Teacher more than most, encapsulate that cross-pollination, borderless approach to absorbing music from across the globe – from The Levant to Compass Point – and making it funky. DV


H.

Happyiness  ‘Write-In’  (Moshi Moshi)

Ah…the sound of a band embracing the heartfelt warmth, accentuated dazed melodies and special feel of such 70s fare as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Big Star, Happyness evoke the hazy fond memories and subtle sophistication of these and other complimentary artists on their brilliant album Write In.

The opening Falling Down gambit, with its radiant phaser guitar, conjures up the Scottish indie supremos (and fellow Big Star acolytes) Teenage Fanclub, whilst the pastel-shaded saddened tone of The Reel Starts Again sounds like a lost, ghostly remnant of a George Harrison and Jeff Lynne malady. A touch of the Brighten The Corners era Pavement permeates the band’s weary slacker muffled Uptrend/Style Raids, but by the time we reach the halfway stage of the album the lads are back to thrashing out a languorous grunge-y grind on Bigger Glass Less Full.

Subtle and confident, Write In is a halcyon, beautifully executed album with real depth and personality. Happyness have found their flow with loose but perceptively well-crafted gentle pop songs of a timeless quality: to be played as the “credits roll forever”. DV

Full review…


Here Are The Young Men And Uncle Peanut   ‘This Is Standard Life’
(Musical Bear Records)

Unceremoniously released almost on the sly, though because we are inundated with 100s of releases every week it could be we missed this one, the brilliant cut price, and with far more humour, authenticity and irony than the Sleaford Mods (as if scribbled by David Shrigley) Here Are The Young Men & Uncle Peanut are back with a load more broadsides leveled at life’s most cunty personalities and foibles.

Not so much poetic, not really rap in the true sense of the word either, they make observational snatches of overheard misnomers, condemnations and Estuary patois on the modern toss life of a pissed-stained mattress society. Modern life isn’t so much rubbish as depressingly shite, as the group transmogrify a sort of Daft Punk ‘Teachers’ style litany of great influential bands into a council estate, backroom punk paean to the spirit of punk and good music; safe in the knowledge that Mark E Smith Is Still Doing The Fall, even after a hundred years!

Diatribes on outsourcing, hipsters (the Day The Hipsters Stole Our Look; those penny-farthing riding tossers), lads banter (“yes mate, yes mate, standard”), gentrification, “nobbers” (who are “fucking everywhere!” on the Underworld goes punk song of the same name) and pop stars abound, and there’s even collaborations with Art Brut’s inimitable Eddie Argos (on the and Billie Ray Martin (of S’Express and Electribe 101 fame).

It’s nothing short of fucking brilliant, short and anything but sweet. The use of swearing alone is commendable. A sort of vitriolic, generation X middle-aged series of rants on what we’ve lost, what we are set to lose and what we could do without. DV


I.

Ifriqiyya Électrique  ‘Rûwâhîne’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Capturing something quite unique, the collaborative industrial post-punk and avant-garde rock scenes of Europe clash head-on with the descendants of the Hausa slaves atavistic rituals styled group, Ifriqiyya Electrique, create an often unworldly chthonian conjuncture of Sufi trance, spirit possession performance and technology.

A film project and now immersive sonic experience, inspired by the important Banga music traditions and the accommodating, rather than exorcising, of spirits ceremonial wild dances and call and response chanted exaltations of the black communities – originally transported to the region from sub-Saharan Africa – in the oasis towns of southern Tunisia, this astounding meeting of cultures and history is anything but scenic.

Formed in the Djerid Desert, the idea forged by field-recordist and veteran guitarist of the politically-charged Mediterranean punk and “avant-rock” scenes, François Cambuzat, and bassist Gianna Greco – both of which occasionally join forces with that livewire icon of the N.Y. underground, Lydia Lunch, to form the Putan Club -, the Ifriqiyya Electrique spans both continents and time. For their part, Cambuzat and Greco provide the grind, industrial soundscape texturing, sonorous drones and flayed guitars, but mostly, the “electrique”, whilst, offering a dialogue with the spirits and the tradition, Banga musician Ali Chouchen – joined in the live theatre by an expanded cast of fellow voices, krabebs and Tunisian tabla players from the community, which includes Tarek Sultan, Yahia Chouchen and Youssef Ghazala – provides peripheral sounding evocative echoed and esoteric vocals and equally haunting nagharat.

Spiritual conversations transformed and realigned with the machine age turmoil of industrial noise, Arthur Baker style rock and hip-hop production, post-punk and even Teutonic techno, Rûwâhîne is a rambunctious unique force. DV

Full review…


J.

Jam Baxter  ‘Mansion 38’  (High Focus)

“Half cut, whip smart. Ultimate, grungy outlaw hip-hop, putting the trap in trapdoor”.  RnV, Mar 17

UK crown rulers High Focus reached new levels of cult when Mansion 38 became that creepy house at the end of the road that may be good for a heart-in-mouth laugh at Halloween, but not somewhere you’d venture to acquire a friendly cup of sugar.

Recorded and produced in Bangkok, Jam Baxter’s quotable cynicism is of an emcee breed that gets caught in a landslide escaping reality in a bid to keep himself amused, but whose focus is actually doing overtime. Seeming nonsense suddenly swoops down at you with lethal intent, most notably on the shrewd consumerist commentary on offer For a Limited Time Only. He of The Gruesome Features squats on Chemo’s production, and where there’s no such thing as a wrong turn, it’s alien, exotic, and worryingly comforting at once, slowly beginning sinkhole formation, and with Dumb demanding you take cover while running in slow-motion. Bugged out, bug-bombed, brilliant. MO


Jehst  ‘Billy Green is Dead’  (YNR)

“Showing the sort of word association and plain English penmanship that has long made him the UK’s premier emcee”. RnV, Jun 17

Whether the eponymous subject of Jehst’s sixth full-length is man or myth, a reflection on society or the High Plains Drifter letting his imagination run wild while disclosing clues from his own personal memoirs, you’ll be hanging on Billy Green’s every move, tic and confession.

It’s the album’s lost, tired soul trying to keep the walls from closing in, but then seeming to be at peace with any pending doom. It’s the human element, from the debilitation of an everyday Joe to referencing the Kardashians and when the most important decisions can sometimes boil down to choosing “the Snickers or the Mars, E&J liquor or the six-pack of the Stella Artois”. It’s Jehst’s delivery that even when close to succumbing to heat exhaustion, finds a reserve from deep down that’s of an improbable, impeccable sharpness. It’s the simmering sphere of wax and wane production whose highs and lows run a perfect parallel. ‘Billy Green is Dead’, long live Jehst. MO


Jonwayne  ‘Rap Album Two’  (Authors Recording Co)

“Personal struggle both poignant and unapologetic for showing its hand…watch its humble humanity become the choice of the open eared this year”.  RnV, Feb 17

 Rap Album Two approaches that long-standing hip-hop (and society in general) elephant in the room: the refusal to admit vulnerability. In laying crises on the line, Jonwayne becomes his own therapist and subsequently an outlet for the hesitant and anxious to claim as their own. At his most lo-fi, the times to think become deafening and don’t necessarily mean there’s a clean pathway to redemption.

It would take a kingsized about-turn for Jonwayne to become self-destructive on record, but it’s the legitimacy of his 20/20 vision and the potential of the what-ifs that sit kindly. Particularly on the beautifully dejected/accepting Out of Sight and Afraid of Us, bearing the powerful “look at these people, counting on me when I can’t even count on myself”, you can hear him fighting for his very survival. Also behind the excellent Black Boy Meets World by Danny Watts (who features here), Rap Album Two bridges the gap between cult hero and everyman icon. MO


K.

King Ayisoba  ‘1000 Can Die’  (Glitterbeat Records)

Sounding the klaxon call in defense of his native Ghana, and Africa at large, on his inaugural LP for Glitterbeat Records, the striking, lively King Ayisoba, from the roots up, uses his guttural earthy howl and atavistic kologo lute to great effect in demonstrating not only a raw anger but also a deep love for a much misunderstood continent.

From the very outset Ayisoba and his contributors Wanlov da Kubolar & Big Gad – just two of the many guest appearances on this album – rap, sing and stamp a slogan sentiment on the opening Africa Needs Africa of, “Let’s fight for Africa/Africa needs us.” Covering the North African diaspora, the boat people’s sorry saga, the colonial past and umpteen other issues that more or less shape the image that those observers from outside the continent believe is the only side to Africa – between a misplaced sentimentality and outright ignorance. There is protestation and indictment, but also a lively focus on the positives too; finding solutions through the medium of music and culture.

In-between the fiery, bordering on punk, clatter of guluku, dundun and Djembe drums and rambunctious electronic phasing beats there are more plaintive, yearning stripped-back moments: Grandfather Song, a toiled from the soil of tragedy lament, offers a more intimate knee-jerk from the full-on band sound, and Dapagara is sent off into a sweeping, wafting vista by the Nigerian legend Orlando Julius’ traversing, reedy accentuated saxophone.

Raw from the heart, highly evocative and rebellious, King Ayisoba’s songs of rage and vitality actually offer a kind of hope in the face of adversity. The future of Ghana’s music scene is in good hands at least. DV

Full review…


L.

L’Orange  ‘The Ordinary Man’  (Mello Music Group)

“An evocative performance capturing a concerto producer whose trick-from-sleeve ratio remains visionary”.  RnV, Nov 17

Another 12 months of might and magic on Mello Music Group, including must-checks from Oddisee and Mr Lif and Akrobatik as the reconvening Perceptionists. However, it’s the beatsmith with the knack from Nashville building up quite the back catalogue where Tenneseein’ is Tennebelievin’. Loosely based around the sleight-handed history of when illusionists were the rockstars of their day – on premise alone, L’Orange is out by himself – the mostly instrumental The Ordinary Man is described as “vaguely reminiscent of RJD2’s ‘Deadringer’”, where loops slip off straitjackets and straight up gallivant.

Reserving the mic for only a handful of guests after a starry stack of collaborative LPs, L’Orange offers jazziness with a spring in its step, even when its grainy monochrome quality appears to be suffering (perhaps reflecting his own personal health issues). Covered in a sweet patchwork of samples, the headnodding will rock your neck stiff (Cooler than Before soars like the plane on Raekwon’s Criminology), while placing it delicately upon a pillow. MO


Liars  ‘TFCF’  (Mute)

The confusing soundtrack to a musical divorce, the enduring creative partnership behind the Liars, Angus Andrew and Aaron Hemphill, finally fell apart after the release of Mess. Though confounding fans and critics alike on every release, the now streamlined version of the Liars sees Andrew at the helm of, essentially, a one-man band, churning up and lurching through what should by rights be another ‘mess’ of ideas to produce something quite vivid and experimentally sharp.

Chronicling what he felt was akin to a musical marriage, Andrew sitting miserably slumped in a wedding dress, left holding the bouquet on the cover of TFCF (Theme From Crying Fountain) charts a deteriorating relationship, with dysfunctional material – some of which was marked for the next Hemphill & Andrew Liars album – spun into a brilliant sulky, miserable melodrama of electronic, new wave, punk and cerebral pop.

Leaving L.A. for his native home of Australia, a dethatched Andrew transmogrifies those American influences into acoustic, labored drum break lamentable sneers (The Grand Delusional), Love style Mexican psych flare crossed with Medieval courtship (Cliché Suite) and disjointed daggered, The Knack meets Beck, lurches (Cred Woes).

Often resigned, hurt, pranged with pity throughout, it hardly sounds appealing, yet TFCF is full of reinvention, experimentation and lyrically, both dreamily and petulantly opprobrious. DV


Al Lover Meets Cairo Liberation Front  ‘Nymphaea Caerulea’  (Hoga Nord)

A meeting of exotic minds, San Francisco producer/remixer Al Lover (The Brian Jonestown Massacre to Goat) and the Tilburg collective Cairo Liberation Front set out on an evocative mesmerizing flight of escapist fantasy on the extended Nymphaea Caerulea EP.

 

Continuing a partnership with the Hoga Nord label and following up the previous Zodiak Versions, Al and his collaborators merge psychedelic dance music with a spiritually mysterious imagined vision of Egypt: Nymphaea Caerulea being the Latin name for the blue Egyptian lotus, a flower of the Orient.

Over six ‘levels’ they traverse and evoke entrancing Egyptian flute led feverish ritual, mysticism, sweeping desert winds, ancient kingdoms, belly dancing and cyclonic Afro-Futurist beats.

References to a new sonic deliverance, a musical Arab Spring, infuse the six instrumental tracks with a certain levity and theme. But rather than bang the drum of rage and protest in the land of the Pharaohs and old gods, Al and the Cairo Liberators create a moody mysterious, veiled soundtrack fit for the dancefloor. DV


NEW MUSIC REVIEWS
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA





Welcome as always to the latest edition of my reviews roundup. Meeting with my approval this month, there’s the (both literally and musically metaphorical) ‘laissez passer’ wandering TootArd from the Golan Heights making an international debut on Glitterbeat Records; the return, in a manner, of the enigmatic Brighton-based artist Matt Finucane; a stunning theatrical avant-garde meets Chanson and morose romantic pop opus from AUDIAC, waltzing onto the stage after years of inactivity; the pique soundclash of Swiss drum and electric bass combo Ester Poly; and the fourth album of ‘lower-case’ minimalism and ambient music from Andrew Heath.

I also take a look at the fanboy style resurrection of the obscure 80s Pennsylvania garage, punk, post-rock and psych outfit In Time, by thrift store digger Steve Krakow, who celebrates the fleeting and undiscovered group’s only album (found unloved by Krakow on cassette tape) and a number of unreleased attic recordings for the Guerssen label. Last but in no means the least of today’s selections, I take a look at the debut album from the Berlin duo of kooky and fun electronica and techno, Psycho & Plastic, Kosmopop. Championed from the very start on this very blog, it seems to have taken the duo – who to be fair are busy with a multitude of projects including the running of their label GiveUsYourGOLD – an age to finally release it.

Read on…

TootArd  ‘Laissez Passer’
Glitterbeat Records,  10th November 2017

 

Photo credit: Mercedes Ortego González.

Caught in, what might seem to them, a perpetual limbo, devoid of a recognized identity, the collective band members of the omnivorous Levant group TootArd are officially stateless: citizens in effect of nowhere. Growing up in the contested, bloodily fought over, Golan Heights the group’s mouthpiece, guitarist Hasan Nakhleh, articulates the predicament of a population stuck between two, once, warring factions – feeling detached with no legal representation; no sense of belonging – throughout the press notes that accompanied this, their latest album, Laissez Passer.

Carved up in two by the former warring states of Syria and Israel after the divisive Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the eventual ceasefire that followed – with the greater share by some distance given to the latter -, the Golan Heights has been uneasily observed by both parties for decades. Under an accord the following year, an international buffer zone – known as the UNDOF ‘purple line’ – was put in place to help keep a fragile peace. Before the apocalyptic civil – and proxy – war in Syria begun, both nations seemed to be approaching some agreement over the region. Israel however, following a policy of non-intervention, is in no hurry to secede ground to Syria.

Under the authority of Israel but without official citizenship, the native inhabitants of the western Golan Heights region are forced to carry the special situation, ‘laissez passer,’ papers of TootArd’s album title to cross borders and travel. Despite this the group have found a certain musical freedom; amorphously drifting across those imposed demarcation lines to adopt styles from across the entire Levant; from Africa and even Jamaica. Originally covering the Caribbean island’s most famous musical export, the group started out playing reggae covers before relishing a change in direction.

However, before settling on their recent traverse fusion of desert blues – finding a commonality and affinity with the Beaudion and, equally stateless, Tuareg -, Arabic modalities, rock and funk influences, the founding members of the group all left for Europe; all going their separate ways: Hasen Nakhleh moving to Berlin and then Bern, recalls that this sojourn period would split the collective up internationally, yet when visiting home they would all regroup for impromptu performances in their native villages, as if they’d never been apart. After a two-year hiatus Hasen and his brother, multi-instrumentalist Rami Nakhleh – missing their fellow compatriots – organized a reunion of a sort, preparing the way forward for a reincarnation of their band.

 

With a new enthusiasm, new material and new sound, TootArd’s second album – though billed as their ‘international’ debut showcase – Laissez Passer has much to contemplate and pine over; framed as it is in the ‘blues’ tradition. Themes of identity and the chaos that continues to engulf their homeland dominate the album. Yet far from lamentable and sad this latest effort is surprisingly relaxed, with controlled swells of more funky and soulful driven upbeat rhythms throughout, and even the odd saunter of swaying joy. The languid reggae candor, transmogrified into a Levant groove, helps to create a sort of Baba Zula souk gait, whilst hints of Tamikrest and Tinariwen’s camel gangly, handclapping, desert blues funk gives the music a drive on both the title-track and, almost galloping and spinning into Dervish territory, Bayati Blues.

But those bluesy ruminating and gazing ponderously inducing themes do often sound haunting; especially with the addition of Ams Mdah’s snake charming and romantically dusky jazz saxophone evocations, and Hasen’s modified oud sounding electric guitar – extra frets added to ape the synonymous dulcet tones of the short-necked lute-like string instrument.

Bringing people together under darkening skies or gazing out across the Golan Heights prism back towards Syria with a Rast scale composed travailing moody accompaniment, TootArd flow and spiral subtly across the region soaking up ancestral musical customs as they go. Though imposed upon them, the Laissez Passer status hasn’t held the group back creatively: forcing them in fact by circumstance to find a new musical freedom. They are, even if it sounds a tad clichéd, only limited by their own restless imaginations, and this album indeed dreams big.




AUDIAC   ‘So Waltz’
Klangbad Records,  20th October 2017


In the age in which the majority of recording artists and bands are struggling to survive on the mediocre, almost vaporous, earnings from their craft and graft, it could be argued that without a monetary reward (no matter how modest) and without security you may as well take risks; push the boundaries; never compromise, and in the case of the Tübingen and Hamburg straddling duo AUDIAC, concentrate your efforts on producing a ‘work of art’. And make no mistake So Waltz is an ambitious album’ bordering at times on the theatrical, but definitely art-y.

Knowing admittedly nothing about this duo, I can only assume they were lucky enough to have at least the time to pursue these artistic ambitions. Though as the press release is not entirely clear, I assume this latest album is the follow up to Alexander Wiemer von Veen and Niklas David’s 2003 debut, Thank You For Not Discussing The Outside World; marking quite an absence between releases, but nevertheless indicating that they certainly had enough time to create an epic suite. They also had one of the (infamous) original co-founders of Germany’s most uncompromising iconic groups, the mighty Faust, Hans Joachim Irmler on board to produce; his impressive skillset, shaped in a baptism of fire during the Krautrock epoch, and explorations pushing his chagrins further into sonic experimentation.

 

Remaining true to that debut album however, AUDIAC still sound inspired by Chanson, trip-hop, chamber pop, psychedelic music and Kurt Weill. Only they drop some of those more psychedelic pretensions this time in favour of melodrama and spectacle; dancing in malcontent and lament to a semi-classical avant-garde soundtrack, both melodically beautiful and elegiacally forlorn.

With all the limitations and pressures lifted, the duo is able to put forward their grandiose schemes undaunted by commercial success: or so they say. And so moving quasi-classical soul merges with Popol Vuh like divine choral atmospheres, and harsher, stark declarations of pained expression. Not quite in the realms of Scott Walker but sailing pretty close, the vocals and backing fluctuate the malady intensity and constantly restless plunging piano playing and voice combo of Diamanda Galas at its most harrowing – especially on the tumultuous, in a state of despair and rage, Doberman -, and the aching blue-eyed soul of George Michael and cerebral crooning accentuation of David Sylvian at its most romantic. Yet this concatenate pan-European songbook, mostly travailing the moody northern realms of Germany, France and the Lowlands, evokes a penchant for the UK too. Hints of Massive Attack, Thom Yorke, an enervated Underworld, early Queen and the Welsh maverick John Cale appear amongst the waltzing, gushing and graceful allusions of a spurned brooding European protagonist – probably sucking on a Gitanes; carrying all the weight of the world’s problems on his shoulders.

Returning with an impressive minor opus, So Waltz sounds like it took a lot of time and effort to create. Highly dramatic, occasionally indulgent, yet always quite moving they make quite the statement with this bleak but diaphanous and expressive tragedy.






Psycho & Plastic  ‘Kosmopop’
GiveUsYourGOLD,  20th October 2017


 

Guiding lights into the expanses of an imaginary galaxy, the Psycho & Plastic duo of Berlin dance music stalwarts, Thomas Tichai and Alexandre Decoupigny, search both inner and outer space with a suave funky and cosmic techno soundtrack on their new album, Kosmopop.

Previously releasing a string of EPs and videos, with the emphasis on fun and quirky electronic dance music experimentation – bordering at times on the goofy and cartoonish -, the duo have finally found time to produce a more complex, daresay conceptual, album; with aloof wondrous inspirations abound. Self-released through their burgeoning label GiveUsYourGOLD (Armour, AXLOTL, Irk Yste), their debut album proper dials down the more loony, bubbly and tropical kooky influences in favour of smoother, groovier rhythms. This isn’t to suggest they’ve suddenly become serious; the larks and optimism remain, with fond homages to the first and second summers of love, and a particular penchant for the unconscious organic flowering of the 90s rave scene.

 

Alluding to certain science-fiction ascetics in the artwork, the music is itself alien and mysterious at times, erring towards Kosmische influences like Tangerine Dream on the more enigmatic searching voyages – check the brocaded synth fanning, solar winds blowing and whistling satellite signally Superflare and Banco de Gaia does Mayan temple dub Entropy.

For the major part however, the music sounds like a Mir Space Station house band of Der Plan, Niles Rodgers, International Pony and Felix da Housecat beaming down a love-in direct to the berlin dancefloors. Expect to hear astral funk lightly entwining with early echoes of the electro hip hop compilations; echoes and specs of an alien presence reverberating and floating over Chicago House; sitar like brass-y meditations chiming along to pocket calculator algorithms; stoic Germanic tuned narration encouraging philosophical self-discoveries across the universe whilst also urging the listener “to get down” to tribal beats and 808 preset percussion – the four-to-the-floor disco punk Divine Loser even reimagines Depeche mode being born in Düsseldorf rather than Basildon.

Psycho & Plastic’s interstellar travels flow in a cyber boogie motion, gazing as they do into the wonders of a funky techno and as pop disco vision of space. Kosmopop is a cracking debut album and marks a small but significant sophisticated change in the duo’s style; more ambitious, smoother and sleeker.






Andrew Heath  ‘Soundings’
Disco Gecko,  3rd November 2017


 

Praised as a sort of progressive sound and ambient music torchbearer of a genre renowned for such luminaries as Brian Eno and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Andrew Heath’s own experiments in the field lean towards the reification of the fleeting, disturbed and ephemeral quiet traces of ‘people within spaces’. The self-styled composer of ‘lower-case’ minimalism evokes enigmatic, mysterious and occasionally mournful passages of evolving, passing time through the use of found and created sound manipulation and in-situ (a concatenate theme that connects to Heath’s site specific video art) field recordings.

His fourth solo album for Disco Gecko follows on from previous work, building up both synthetic and natural textural layers, drones, obscured broadcast voices and sonorous piano phrases. However, the main difference with Soundings is the atmosphere it creates; the echoing leitmotif of creaking footsteps pacing up and down a room and the almost heavy methodical concentration of memories pouring from the typewriter notation for me conjure up a writer’s garret: the author’s struggle, turmoil and thoughts represented by Heath’s serialism soundtrack.

Used subtly the neo-classical instrumentation that swirls and floats around the concrete sounds is used to bring melody, intrigue and sometimes, sadness. As well as Heath’s lingering, pondering classical piano notes and scales, there’s a touching twinkling and warmer Fender Rhodes offering lighter jazzy tinged, comfort and balance; a counterpoint interaction between the two instruments that began in the 90s when Heath collaborated with Felix Joy under the experimental Aqueous banner. It also resonates with similar piano explorations by Roedelius, who as it happens has worked with both Heath and Joy previously, most famously on the Meeting The Magus album, and more recently with Heath and fellow avant-garde composer/artist Christopher Chaplin on the live improvised recording Triptych In Blue. Roedelius could be said to have an open-ended collaboration with Heath, who it must be said can’t help but be enthused by the Kluster/Cluster/(and in more recent times) Qluster trinity steward of Kosmische and neo-classical exploration.

Another (on-going) collaboration with the Dutch ambient musician Anne Chris Bakkes continues on both the album’s winter moody traipse through the Dutch province of Noorderhaven, and the serene Happenstance articulation. Bakkes on her part performs a masked and fluttering guitar peregrination and plays with more unusual, mostly unidentifiable background sounds on the two tracks: described in the press release as ‘ephemeral’.

Breaking the veiled, swirling clouds hovering atmospherics, Stéphane Marlet and Bill Howgego are on hand to offer both arching serious, lamentable, and swooned jazz inspiration; the former enriches the cyclonic pondering Days In-Between with saddening cello, the latter tenderly sailing above the Tibetan imaginations of A Break In The Clouds with a striking clarinet flourish.

Pivoting between levitating above the heavens and space and counting the days in a haunted soundscape of captured movements and memories on Earth, Soundings hints at scenes and scenery alike; the traces of which make up this gently unfolding series of ambient descriptive passages in time.






Matt Finucane  ‘Threaten Me With Your Love’
Light Crude,  25th October 2017


 

Returning after what seems an age away from crafting some of the most understated moodily resigned and mentally fatigued indie, Brighton-based all-rounder Matt Finucane is back with an instrumentally pared down, but just as sophisticated, duo of EPs this Autumn.

Not that we wish to pry, and only knowing Finucane from a distance, it seems his travails and dysfunctional personal life has got the better of him recently and in the past: hence the absence; part of which was spent in rehab. Threaten Me With Your Love is the idiosyncratic troubadour’s first proper release since then.

Back doing what he does so well, with eight new songs split between two staggered EPs, Finucane has employed the talents of fellow Brighton musician Mik Hanscomb – one half of the city’s (via Southend) pastoral Laurel Canyon imbued folk siblings Junkboy – to accompany him both live and on this recording.

 

Once again channeling vague notions of Lou Reed, David Slyvian, Ian Hunter, Bowie and Bolan, Finucane’s more relaxed, even languid, acoustic heavy material has an unintentional but accepted ‘druggy malaise’ feel to it. Crooning with a certain drowsy but meandrous confidence, our swooning maverick also often channels the quivering moodiness and slick sneer of a 50s rock’n’roll performer – similar in style to Bradford Cox’s very own donning of the vestiges of a crooning 50s rock’n’roll balladeer on the Atlas Sound LP Parallax. Updated of course with slivers of glam rock and post punk, and with the concerns and sentiments closer in principle to the loss of innocence and the emotional wreckage of ‘dead man’s curve’ than the harmless High School melodramas of the genre.

Experimenting with delivery throughout, the vocals often trail off, swooning into the crevices of Finucane’s darkened room, or loosely hovering between both the high and low registers; tripping along in what sounds like an exercise in catharsis; releasing thoughts in a melodically enriching counsel session. The music echoes that mood, both rallying and accentuating the sentiment and evocations on the acoustic rhythm and electric guitar – Moon Madness for some reason reminded me of Mick Harvey. However, the final song of this four track collection, Self Possession Version Two, moves through a number of musical ideas; reverberating brassy guitar strings jangle through Gothic cowboy boot spurs rattling back beat, new romanticism and the Velvet Underground before pushing into a bent-out-of-shape Sonic Youth and ending on a haunting final waning dissipation.

Still finding his range with one of his most stripped-down recordings yet, Finucane thankfully makes a welcome return to the music scene, and once again defies categorization with a unique, if despondent lovelorn, style of delivery.






In Time  ‘Inside Your Mind’
Mental Experience via Guerssen,  13th October 2017


 

The, what seemed almost limitless at the time, pool of lost and obscure garage band treasures was drained a long time ago. Well, at least the halcyon days of the original primal punk, pop-sike, blue-eyed soul and psychedelic R&B back beat era in the 60s; the architects of the Nuggets-Rubbles-Pebbles-Teenage Shutdown compilations feast truly now exhausted. Drying up the reserves of every band and tenuous collection of misfits that ever recorded a single or had a whiff of a named – no matter how minor and obscure – record label or, managed to wow the locals in the provincial state scene for even the most briefest of moments, many crate-diggers and dewy-eyed salivating acid and garage freaks started dredging up the most amateur of home recordings and wannabe demos.

This process has been repeated for most genres, moving on to different more fertile ground in the following decades, and as with this obscurity from Pennsylvania outfit In Time, honing in on the 80s revival; though equally at the apex of both the raw indie and grunge fusions that were to come.

Skeptical about these finds ever since a musician I used to knock about with in the 90s – Spacemen 3 and Sun Ra enthusiast I recall – told me the story of when he and his band mates used to mischievously pass off mock garage band recordings of themselves as authentic lost ‘nuggets’ from the 60s USA hinterland; leaving these constructed recordings on cassette tapes in secondhand stores, or as the American’s would say “thrift stores”. Whether anyone was ever taken in or not, discovering such curiosities has always made me cautious and nervous. In the photocopied ‘ultra rare’ D.I.Y. mode, what might be a cunning ruse or by luck a damn good find, the only ever release by the In Time quartet, Inside Your Mind, was discovered in such circumstances in a Chicago ‘thrift store’. How it got there is anyone’s guess, but this discovery enthused the guy who found it, the Plastic Crimwave’s Steve Krakow, enough to set in motion a fanboy like zeal to track down the culprits responsible; leading to an official reissue style celebratory vinyl release of the boys only proper showcase: boosted by a number of unreleased raw and experimental detritus from the attic.

Krakow pinned down for long enough one of the original members of the shallow angst and knockabout youth punk-garage-psych for a terse interview; chronicling the little information he did obtain in the Ugly Things/Greg Shaw typewritten fanzine style accompanying liner notes. Surprised that anyone gave a shit, two decades on, Stephen Turk, Stephen Daly, Ed Keer and Anthony (AJ) Fischer nonetheless are now immortalized, in a fashion, by their champion Krakow.

 

‘Homespun’ indeed, In Time sound rough and sloppy, powering through a dizzy carnage of the TV Personalities, Subway Sect, 13th Floor Elevators, Swell Maps, The Dils, a thoroughly unclean version of The Clean, and The Gruesomes for starters. Growling and looning throughout, the often hard-to-fathom vocals change from a surly Yank version of John Lydon to a disheveled Dan Treacy; the music from primal rough’n ready Apache beat garage rock to indulgent shimmery meandering. Theme wise the band takes adolescent swipes at the elderly (Old Ladies) and those who meet the ire, or moon about isolation and detachment from the Outside world whilst reserving a special kind of malcontent and rage at a love spurned.

Whether its aping The Residents strangulating Paint It Black on the astonishing and lolloping Antonetta Perplexes Me, or sinking in the hallucinatory toxins of a vat of Kool Aid on the phaser messy experiment Many Are The Tears, the musical reference points are numerous and thickly applied. Despite sounding erratic, on the edge of distortion – the volume and cacophony constantly threatening to overload the sound – and about to fall apart, In Times spirited recordings and unfinished, rehearsal style ideas betray a melodious sophistication and decent performance dynamic. Too late for the original garage band phenomenon and for punk obviously, the band made sure they’d make, no matter how fleeting, some kind of mark on the 80s revival. And yet they are an augur for what was to follow, with hints of post-rock and grunge, and at times sounding like the forefathers of bands such as The Hunches.

 

Well there time has finally come, or at least a fanboy nod of approval in the right direction, a mark of respect. This collection is every bit as much about the obsession of Krakow as much as it is about the injustice that such a group could fail to catch on, disappearing instead into the ether…well, at least Pennsylvania’s attics and Chicago’s thrift stores.






Ester Poly  ‘Pique Dame’
Ikarus Records,  October 6th 2017


 

Experimentally rocking the cantons of their Swiss home for a while in their respective separate outfits, Béatrice Graf and Martina Bérther unite as an unholy drum and electric bass alliance under the Ester Poly (a scramble of ‘polyester’ of course) banner.

Pitching generation X(er) Bérther with Y(er) Graf, this rambunctious vehicle for the duo’s feminist protestations and irony began as a casual improvised meeting of minds a few years back, before blossoming and gaining traction with more structured, paced material. The spirit of volatility and avant-garde probing experimentation is no less diminished now that they’ve channeled that energy and ennui into nine, more controlled, songs: granted many fall outside the perimeters of the formulaic; amorphously clashing and flaying, dissipating and fading out between the loosest of vocal and instrumental performances and narratives.

 

Framed as a clash of styles and inspirations, with even the record label unsure of how exactly to position the duo’s new album, Pique Dame, Ester Poly perform with great dexterity and articulation as they thrash through brash Stilts bravado (Slutwalk); catch themselves in an overlap, churlishly antagonizing the 72 virgins myth to a Giallo paperback thriller soundtrack (72 Vierges); sultrily but with ominous overtones, apply trebly gangly Pylon throbbing basslines and a Raincoats reggae gait to a sinister Chanson cover (La Vie En Rose); and smash along to a bestial doom soundscapes (The Rise Of The Witches).

Not hampered in anyway by the limitations of their chosen drum and bass instrumentation, and hardly comparable to any of the many such similar combinations plying their trade, Ester Poly use a stack of effects and distortion tools to widen the sound spectrum; evoking hints and obvious homages to post-punk, art school, Jazz, doom rock, heavy metal, no wave and Krautrock in the process. The latter influence of which pops up a lot actually. Whether it’s the transmogrified inaction of a limping Mother Sky by Can on Dienstag, or the redolent constant rolling motion syncopation of the same group’s late rhythm provider, Jaki Liebezeit, or the prowling, growling bended bass playing of Faust’s Jean-Hervé Péron, that Teutonic influence be heard loud and clear: they even sound like a riot grrrl Neu! on the track Big Bang.

 

Recorded in more or less one-takes, both combatants facing off against each other in the studio with no headphones or click track, Pique Dame captures not only the lively, hostile and enraged but also the humour (even if it is dark and resigned) of this energetic union. Despite the raging tumults, dynamism and soundclash of ideas, this album is a steady and even showcase of festering ideas and moods. It’s also quite brilliant and encapsulates the ‘pique’ perfectly; arousing, curious and irritated!





Our Imaginary Radio Show Playlist
Selected By Dominic Valvona 





In danger of repeating myself, but for newcomers to the site here’s the premise of my playlist selections. Previously only ever shared via our Facebook profile and on Spotify our regular Monolith Cocktail Social playlists will also be posted here on the blog itself.

With no themes or demarcated reasoning we pick songs from across a wide spectrum of genres, and from all eras. Reaching a sort of milestone edition, selection #30, chosen as always by me, Dominic Valvona, features one of our favourite troubadours, Michael Chapman, all manner of explosive, spiritual and traversing jazz and soul from Arthur Lee, The Rwenzori’s, Abdou El Omari, Bobby Callender and Wayne McGhie, plus golden era Hip-Hop treats from The Jungle Brothers, KMD and D-Nice, and a tribute to the late great Holger Czukay who sadly passed away recently. Intermittent amongst that lot are tracks from The Hunches, R. Stevie Moore, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, East Of Eden, Jade Warrior and many more.


Tracklist:

Norma Tanega  ‘Treat Me Right’
Michael Chapman  ‘Landships’
Vanusa  ‘Mundo Colorido’
Paulo Diniz  ‘Piri Piri’
East Of Eden  ‘Ain’t Gonna Do You No Harm’
Arthur Lee  ‘Love Jumped Through My Window’
Arrogance  ‘Peace Of Mind’
Jade Warrior  ‘Telephone Girl’
Byard Lancaster  ‘Dogtown’
The Rwenzori’s  ‘Handsome Boy (E Wara) Parts 1 & 2’
Rene Costy  ‘Scrabble’
Idrissa Soumaoro et L’Éclipse de L’lja  ‘Nissodia – Joie de l’optimisme’
Abdou El Omari  ‘Raksatoun Fillall’
Jungle Brothers  ‘Tribe Vibes’
Intelligent Hoodlum  ‘Back To Reality’
D-Nice  ‘Crumbs On The Table’
KMD  ‘Who Me? (With An Answer From Dr. Bert)’
Metropolitan Jazz Affair  ‘Find A Way’
Lion  ‘You’ve Got A Woman’
Denis Mpunga & Paul K  ‘Funyaka’
El Turronero  ‘Las Penas – Las Canas’
Holger Czukay  ‘Cool In The Pool’
T. Rex, The Reflex  ‘Light Of Love (The Reflex Revision)’
Charles Earland with Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson  ‘Warp Factor 8’
Koen De Bruyne  ‘And Here Comes The Crazy Man’
The Knights  ‘Precision’
The Hunches  ‘Swim Hole’
R. Stevie Moore  ‘The Bodycount’
The Brian Jonestown Massacre  ‘Open Minds Now Closed’
Bobby Callender  ‘Shanta Grace’
Wayne McGhie  ‘Take A Letter Maria’
Little Ed & The Soundmasters  ‘It’s A Dream’


FEATURE
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA


 

Spearheading a reappraisal of Spain’s adventurous experiments and fusions, transforming and modernizing the country’s ancestral folk and Flamenco traditions during the decade of Studio 54 and a boom in Costa del Sol tourism, the Guersson label imprint Pharaway Sounds is reissuing a number of difficult to source rarities over the next few months. Starting with the double-bill release of Trigal’s Baila Mi Rumba and El Turronero’s New Honda albums next month, Pharaway will be unearthing a range of vinyl crate-digger favorites and novelty treasures from a host of artists and bands who embraced the fervor to reinterpret and inject modernity into Spain’s musical legacy.

Remastered from original tapes, with political, historical context and in-depth notes on the recordings, artists and material swelling the retro-chic packaging each album and compilation, which also includes Morena Y Clara’s No Llores Más and Dolores VargasLa Terremoto (amongst others) has more than enough detail to keep the listener busy and informed.

The first two albums, both originally conceived and released on the Belter label, offer an eye opening revelatory mix of dramatic Eurovision pop, cabaret, rumba-funk, laser-y synth disco, jazz, and above all, transmogrified Flamenco.

Receiving a similar showcase, Finders Keepers released a brilliant Belter double album compilation back in 2010; shining a light on one of Spain’s most important labels during the late 60s and 70s. Though neither of the artists/bands in this series – “the grooviest and funkiest band of the scene”, Trigal, and troubadour Manuel Mancheño, reinvented and rechristened El Turronero – featured on that purview, both are held in high regard and considered influential: especially amongst those obscure rare sample enthusiasts; the boogie hangover and yearned longing theatrical gypsy funk New Hondo (influenced as much by Saturday Night Fever as dreamy Arabia) even sent the LCD Soundsystem’s honcho James Murphy into a spin trying to source a copy a few years back.




Buoyed by an “adventurous in-house” team of producers and sound engineers at Belter – namely Josep Llobell, Jean Barcons and Lauren Postigo– the Andalusia trio Trigal pushed traditional rhythms and forms towards a mixed bag of genres on their gypsy-rock sassy dancefloor cavorting Baila Mi Rumba LP. Featuring the married coupling of Antonio “Tony” Carmona and Maria Victoria “Vicky” Cabrera, and Rafael Romera, the original set-up went under the Tres Del Sur moniker, performing Latin American classics in tourist nightspots during the late 60s. A new contract took them to the States touring Army bases and clubs, with a brief trip across to Jamaica. Bringing home the funk, soul and the current explosion in Blaxploitation soundtracks they’d heard during their American sojourn, the Sur on their return became the Trigal. Replacing Romera with the virtuoso guitarist and former Los Adams band member Manuel “Manolo” Gallego Carter and drafting in pianist/composer Ramon Farrán the band opened their minds and went eclectic: fully embracing a smorgasbord of 70s trends and fads.



The second of two albums for the belter label, Baila Mi Rumba is by fat their most adventurous: marking a brief inventive period for the group, who would only survive a few years more, eventually breaking up for good as the new decade dawned. Bright, lively and scintillating with cabaret-like slinky funk, Trigal did their best to sex-up the Flamenco and rumba. The trio’s soft porn “ahhhs” and brassy sassy horn heavy Med pop sound borders on San Francisco detective movie schlock, Vegas and a louche Santana in Harlem funk. Sauntering, fiery and just on the right side of being kitsch, the album has a certain infectious bombast and showbiz veneer. It’s also actually pretty good, and brazenly funky: even if it is aping, with a naïve spirit, the American music scene. Above all though, they do manage to drag Spain’s traditional forms into the glitzy, suave and sexy decade of disco and super funk.





Available on streaming sites already, though this is far from a satisfactory alternative to holding a physical copy, El Turronero’s New Hondo is another iconic “modernized” take on Spain’s earnest heritage. Though following a traditional route as a dedicated performer of atavistic toiled musical styles, the dramatic, longing voiced Manuel Mancheño’s reinterpretations for Belter upset the country’s cultural purist lobby: the self-proclaimed preservers of the country’s musical traditions weren’t averse to pouring scorn on anything new or experimental, epically in the heightened oppressive epoch of Franco’s last years in power. Going along with the changes in fashion and the yearning need to modernize, Mancheño proved a good sport in changing tact and performing to a contemporary and not so contemporary – flagging behind musical genres that were already becoming outdated – soundtrack.

With a name change to El Turronero the serious toned singer laid down his deep ruminations and lovelorn yearnings on a bed of Italo disco, pop, funk and boogie. Rather handy for the uninitiated like me, the original album came with plenty of notes and prompts, including the style of each song: from “tanguillos” to “malagueña”, all of which are given a 80s sheen and glossy production revamp.

Trembling with the theatrics of a requiem and Morricone spaghetti western score, the opening boogie Les Penas (a la cãna style of gypsy music that will challenge the skills of any adroit vocalist) sets the scene between cult kitsch and Euro pop extravagance. From then on in, countless instruments and sounds are thrown into the transglobal tapas; marimba and sitar on Si Yo Volviera a Nacer; Caribbean cod-reggae disco on Eres Lava de un Volcãn; and dewy-eyed condor strafing mountaintop pan flutes on Y La Raźon.

Despite being equally sentimental and daft, New Hondo has some stand out dynamic breaks and grooves. And it’s obvious why this record has been a collectors item for so long. This repackaged version gives us a chance to actually own a physical copy.



Following in this double-bill wake is a host of Balearic disco and hip cuts, though many don’t as yet have a release date. There’s the strange Spanish female duo Morena y Clara. Launched by bizarre flamenco producer Lauren Postigo, they released a string of 45s and three LPs (highly sought after now) for the Discophon label, a worthy rival to Belter. They mixed a heavy dose of breaks, fuzz wah-phaser guitar and Moog soundtrack with rumba, flamenco, psychedelic rock, funk and disco. This illuminating, cute album features their “psychotronic” hits No llores más, Dejé de quererte, Buscando alegría and many others.





Continuing the ladies first rumba disco and pop fusions, there’s also an anthology dedicated to the 70s period of Dolores Vargas, known as “The Earthquake” due to her wild and frenzied dancing style. In these songs, released 1970-1975, you’ll hear a killer sound and production mix of funk, rock and pop, and of course Vargas’ powerful vocal delivery. The collection will include the “gipsy-funk” numbers A la pelota, Anana Hip and La Hawaiana along with a bizarre cover version of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.








Lastly, Pharaway are set to release a couple of compilations, Rumbita Buena: Rumba Funk & Flamenco Pop from the Belter & Discophon archives, 1970 – 1976 and Tani: Disco Rumba And Flamenco Boogie, 1976 – 1979. Featuring as the titles suggest, a collection of tracks from two of Spain’s leading cult labels, the first comp features, “14 dance-friendly tracks taken from overlooked 45s and LPs”. And the second, “12 disco-rumba-flamenco bombs, a time machine to the “boites’ and discotheques of the late 70s and the perfect soundtrack to an imaginary “Kinki” cinema soundtrack.”

It is an extravaganza, marking as it does a serious attempt to bring some glory and reverence to a forgotten period of the Spanish music scene.





NEW MUSIC ROUNDUP
WORDS: DOMINIC VALVONA


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


 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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





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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

 

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

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

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

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

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






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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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



Revbjelde  ‘S/T’
Buried Treasure, available now

 

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

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

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

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





NEW MUSIC REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona




Featuring: Sergio Beercock, The Bordellos, faUSt, ANi Glass, Duncan Lloyd, Carlo Mazzoli and Mount Song.



Back from a recent sabbatical in Palermo and catching up with all the most interesting releases of the last month, this edition of my regular Tickling Our Fancy revue features an assortment of albums/EPs and tracks from both April and May. An unofficial sort of house band for the blog, St.Helens’ greatest lo fi, les miserable, export The Bordellos have featured on this blog countless times over the years, I take a look at their latest sampler EP, Debt Sounds. There’s also the latest art-attack protestation from the infamous faUSt, a vitriol extemporized road trip across the States with friends entitled Fresh Air, and the latest cathartic songbook from Jacob Johansson, under his latest moniker Mount Song, the second Duncan Lloyd outing, IOUOME, from the Maximo Park guitarist/songwriter, the latest EP from the Welsh siren of the most ethereal and danceable protest rousing electronic pop ANi GLASS, and two new showcase albums from Italian-based bards/troubadours Carlo Mazzoli and Sergio Beercock.

faUSt  ‘Fresh Air’
Bureau B, 26th May 2017


 

Belligerently sharing the Faust moniker, splitting into a moiety of founding member versions of the original group that so terrorized the 70s underground music scene, the glaring capital letter “US” in this incarnation is used by founding fathers Jean-Hervé Péron and Werner “Zappi” Diermaier.

Still banging the cement-mixer drum and manning the barricades after forty odd years in the business, the, at its most base drummer/percussionist and bassist-come-tormentor of sound, duo’s latest protestation is a sort of art-provocateur road trip of the USA, featuring an abundance of locals and internationalist artists and musicians, picked-up on the way through New York, Texas and California: A counter-cultural agitation travail from coast to coast.

Featuring the usual Faust totems and that workmanlike methodology of extracting sounds and evocations from machinery, found objects, debris and the architecture – even Péron’s front door hinges from home make an appearance – Fresh Air is an urgent gasp for relief from the polluted, choked, environment. It’s also a highly convoluted attempt at transforming geometrical forms and abstractions into a sonic score. Three of the tracks on this album take their inspiration from a faux-workshop at the highly regarded California Institute of the Arts. A session that includes the loony 23-second vocal exercise symphony Partitur – defined loosely as “a sort of Dadaist choir, a musique impressionniste’ by Péron –; the loose Slits do souk jazz, camel ride Chlorophl, which features Barbara Manning “sneaking” in word association sketches alongside Zappi’s own strange utterings; and the saxophone squalling, motoring Lights Flicker, which again features Manning, bridging the role of Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith, repeating an agitated mantra over a quasi art-dance backing.

From the east coast Jersey City leg of their travels, viola player Ysanne Spevack adds a stirring, Jed Kurzel like harrowed drone to the album’s title track. A seven and a half minute opus, building from the narration of a poem, written by a French school friend of Pérons, to a struggle for life, Fresh Air shows that the spirit of ’68 and hunger for transforming and tearing down the destructive political environment hasn’t diminished in all those years. It’s bookended with a soliloquy-like Péron narration on, among other tropes, the confusing, alarming change from childhood to young adulthood on the album’s curtain call, Fish. Tidal washes and suitable transitional analogies on the soul and growing pains profoundly roll over another viola drone and minimal bass drum accompaniment before entering a noisy cacophony of oscillations and sonic crescendos.

Passing through Austin, faUSt capture the Birds Of Texas, merging their crowing calls with a suitable enough mirage-y, Peyote-induced desert peregrination, and open up an interstellar box of tricks to create a space-funk, Teutonic swamp performance – not a million miles away from Can – on La Poulie.

Continuing with their signature agitation, often menacing, call-to-arms whilst also sonically turning the abstract into something audible, Péron and Zappi can still be relied upon to create provocative statements, five decades on from when the original Faust dynamic barraged audiences with the most confrontational and experimental sound ideas. Struggling like the rest of us, but finding a comradely with another generation of artists and musicians, they look for hope in the miasma.



Mount Song  ‘Mount Song’
Suncave Recordings, 5th May 2017

Previously garnering plaudits in his native Sweden for his debut album under the appellation of The Big Monster (no less heralded as the Swedish debut of the year in 2014 by the country’s biggest music publication), the longing singer/songwriter Jacob Johansson is back to contemplate all of life’s harsh lessons and trials on this latest venture, Mount Song.

This self-titled songbook of ambitious poetic campfire musings and inner turmoil spun yearnings is simultaneously both intense and intimate; mixing a catharsis of emotions with a soundtrack of acid-folk, country, psych and alternative pop. As the accompanying notes and music itself testifies, Johansson was “brought up on grunge.” And throughout the album this American export leaves its indelible mark with hazy languid lingering traces and washes of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. Far from slavishly recreating that grunge sound, our philosophical troubadour and his band merely hint at its presence and influence with a certain panache.

More to the point, it’s that 90s demigod of plaintive despair and torment, Jeff Buckley, who imbues Johansson’s vocals and sound the most. Most obviously and unabashed you can hear an unmistakable melody sequence three quarters of the way through the light and shade softened crescendo Here It Goes. As for that genius fluctuating vocal, from Latin choirboy to candid outpourings of grief, Johansson goes for it on the skipping backbeat psych-grunge Make Up with a falsetto and almost trembling howled vocal performance.

The opening melodrama Halo, which wells up from subtle jangled acoustic guitar to a deeply atmospheric synth and repeating thudding drum punctuation of sorrow, deals with one’s demons in the manner of a sober, more somber Jose Gonzalez and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – two more important influences for Johansson.

Though there’s plenty of sadness and even wallowing, Johansson can hardly be accused of drawing copious amounts of melancholy from the well of self-pity. There is hope after all. And a certain, if naïve at times, call for peace, even a protest song of disarmament in the fashion of the Thunderclap Newman does New Radicals protest anthem, All Over The World.

You can’t avoid, sidestep the multiple political storm clouds amassing overhead, and with all those “inner demons” in tow, not feel anxious and dare say despondent. Though whether the sun will shine through the miasma is another matter, but Johansson handles all this swimmingly, in a gauzy sound space of dissipated crescendos and attentive melodies. Mount Song will take time to unveil its, often languid, subtleties, but is an album with more than enough push and direction.





Duncan Lloyd  ‘IOUOME’
Afternoon In Bed Records, 26th May 2017

Seeing as I’d never previously had the inclination nor desire to listen to a Maximo Park record, finding not much of worth and interest in their second-generation Britpop with attitude sound, it’s hardly surprising that the solo career of one of the “driving forces” behind the Newcastle upon Tyne group, guitarist/songwriter Duncan Lloyd, has so far alluded me.

Cut loose of that band I’m happy to reveal that Lloyd has not only stepped out of the – if ever there was a poisoned chalice of validation – Mercury Music Prize nominated stars shadow but creatively blossomed on his own terms.

A fair weather friend, I’ve arrived late, Lloyd having already built-up a considerable catalogue of releases under numerous titles (Decades In Exile, Nano Kino) with various labels (Warp, PIAS, Crash Symbols Tapes). His latest solo outing (the second album released using his own name) is a melodic guitar led mix of gauze-y looseness and swimming longing.

With Maximo drummer Tom English in tow, the IOUOME album travels back further for its inspiration, recalling Postcard Records less fidgety and more hazy offerings, and the early 80s sound of Manchester. Candidly wistful nuanced twanged songs such as You Seem Confused’ bare traces of The Cure and even The House Of Love, underpinned with the limp gait of The Smiths, whilst the halcyon rays through a downpour Steel Pin Raindrops rumbles along to a Joy Division-esque toms beat and disheartened romantic synth. However, our cousins across the Atlantic can be heard on the loose but controlled enough and attentive Tomorrow Fires, as an imaginary Postcard era The Byrds share the melodic sonic landscape with early R.E.M and Midlake.

“Being Frank”, as one of the album’s song titles suggests, is what Lloyd is all about. Not so much a case of moping around in his softened layers and sprawling, relaxed but accentuated network of guitar riffs and lines, our protagonist faces all his emotional turmoil and strife with a songbook of composed observations and intimacy. Written on the road, usually at the end of the day, as ideas become less concrete and evolve instead into something more challenging, these yearnings on “ailing relationships, division and self-destruction” are executed well, both the songwriting and guitar playing subtle but memorable with a real depth of character.



The Bordellos  ‘Debt Sounds Sampler EP’
Small Bear Records, Available now

 

If sales and general acknowledgment amongst the masses is considered validations that a band is entering the general psyche, all my previous efforts to propel St. Helen’s greatest musical export The Bordellos beyond a small circle of appreciative followers and critics have failed dismally. Still mining the pit face of unashamed discordant lo-fi irritant indie after decades, The Bordellos is it seems fated to be forever ignored by the general public.

A hard act to sell granted; knocking out disgruntled low-key underground releases that barely register ad hoc style and keeping a creditable distance from the rest of the music industry. Like a band perpetually mourning the age before Spotify, plugged-in to a continuous John Peel session from a time when it seemed a group of miscreant family band members could take on the world, they seem totally adrift of the times they live in. And all the better for it: if “modern life” was “rubbish” the “tech age” is plain fucking awful.

Even cheaper than The Fall, the group’s tools of trade are usually brought from Cash Converters or Poundland. Their abundance of EPs and albums are created in a rush, often recorded in one take in the shabbiest of mockup home studios. Plucked from a 2009 LP, the group’s third full-length release, the four-tracks on this latest Bandcamp platform broadcast from The Bordellos demonstrate this method well.

Stripped down and raw, Debt Sounds originally vanished as soon as it appeared. Previously, for many obvious reasons, unavailable online, originally sold as a limited run on CDR and snubbed as unsalable by their label at the time, Brutarian, Debt Sounds is a 17-track encapsulation of moping romanticism fueled by late night drinking and whatever else did the trick sessions and self pity. Setting themselves the most restrictive and loony perimeters, including no overdubs and one-take vocals, each song on the album had to be recorded within the same week it was written – and at a nocturnal hour by the sounds of it.

A quartet of tunes, the strain of which helped to break up two relationships, are almost randomly taken from that album and collated under the Sampler EP suffix title; the first of which, Fading Honey sets the My Bloody Valentine on Mogadon, despondent love-sick, bordering on sinister, mood. In a late hour atmosphere of whining plugging-in amp socket hum and low emitting fuzzy static The Bordellos pour out their hearts.

A meeting of generations, the youngest member of this unhappy brood Dan was only seventeen at the time and elder statesman Brian considerably older and cynically wiser, Debt Sounds pits teen angst against a midlife crisis; both appearing to meld in the intimate shared, Inspiral Carpets on a budget, You Better Run and elsewhere.

Really flexing those “outsider” credentials, the next song, Seal Head, is a surreal melodica derangement that languidly emerges then submerges into a slumberous mad-hatter state of weirdness. The most ominous, stalkerish even, is saved until last. Honeypie is an unhinged, electric guitar thrashing and pumped-up bass line session on the psychiatrist’s couch, which features a druggy-drowsy female chorus that sounds like the protagonist’s girlfriend singing it is more captive than willing participant. A lost Jesus And Mary Chain grinder meets stoner garage punk malaise, Honeypie slumps over a sorry state of romantic affairs.

Re-released by the Isle of Man independent label Small Bear Records, you can now appreciate or ignore some lowlights from Debt Sounds album once again; a lost triumph from the band’s rebellious back catalogue that stakes a claim to the real spirit of rock’n’roll. It acts in any case as a bridge between new releases; The Bordellos threatening to release their next album this summer on the Welsh label Recordiau Prin. In the meantime get your lug holes around this underground lo fi down and out.






Sergio Beercock  ‘Wollow’
800a Records, May 2017

 

Quite by chance Sergio Beercock is the first of two artists in this revue to hail from Italy, or rather in his case the strongly independent minded Island of Sicily.

Enjoying a slow revival in fortunes; open for business and tourism after a tumultuous period of inter-war between the Island’s most destabilizing blot on the landscape and psyche, the costra nostra, a tough but fair mayor in the shape of Leoluca Orlando has over several terms in office transformed the capital of Palermo, putting away a huge swathe of Mafioso and funneling their ill-gotten gains into rebuilding the infrastructure and reputation of the city and Sicily as a whole.

Overshadowed for so many decades by this miasma, the capital of Palermo is enjoying a boom in visitors and interest, as I’ve seen firsthand myself after a recent holiday there. With much still to be done, the migrant crisis for one thing – Sicily’s position as a stepping stone between the north African coastline and Europe attracting record numbers – and the staggeringly high unemployment figures, especially among the young, there are still optimistic signs of a resurgence: culturally and musically. Recorded at the 800a collectives multipurpose Indigo Studios in the city, Beercock’s new minimal and bucolic switched-on folk meets acoustic-electro Wollow album is evidence of that optimism.

Half British, half Italian, the Kingston-upon-Hull singer/bard moved to his mother’s homeland at an early age. Working, quite successfully it seems, in both music and theatre the bi-linguist Beercock has built a name for himself in Italy. Wollow though has its sights firmly set on the UK market, with the troubadour presently promoting and showcasing his talent at a number of events and festivals across the country – only last week performing live on London’s Resonance FM and playing spots in Hull, Oxford, Liverpool and at the Wood Festival.

Almost entirely sung in English, except for the final stripped and stark a cappella version of the Argentine singer Pedro Anzer’s stirring Silencio, which is delivered in Spanish, the Wollow album is a pastoral, bordering on Elizabethan at times, and quaintly English “metaphorical journey” through the travails and sounds that have inspired Beercock. The opening gently-plucked entwining Reason – which introduces us to the bard’s impressive though peaceable vocal range -, reverent like misty veils of Canterbury Tor, guitar picked swirling beauty, Naked, and the tumble-in-the-fields-whilst-the-old-man’s-not-looking weary parable, The Barley And Rye, are all unashamedly submerged in the English tradition.

You could say the mix of song covers and original material is of a “timeless” quality. Redefining folk and the atavistic tales of forewarning and life in the manner of such artists as James Yorkston and many others.

Breaking it up however with more ambient instrumental soundscape passages and soaring evocations, Beercock also sails towards the Americas; using a Bolivian flute and the atmospherics of The Andes and Amazon to lift and elevate both An Exaggerated Song and Jester from the less than exotic and magical tempered atmospheres of Northern Europe.

Using a mostly acoustic range of instruments (and even his own body) and his voice – which sounds at times like a chamber-folk Jeff Buckley – our troubadour ups the ante on occasion with a few surprises, launching congruously throughout into energetic, twisting, stretching and straining cello and double bass slapping and avant-jazz like dance beat liveners.

Probably the first time many of us will have heard the Sicilian-based troubadour, Wollow is an attentively as any crafted showcase introduction to a burgeoning experimental folk talent.





Carlo Mazzoli  ‘Avalanche Blues’
Available now

 

The second artist in this revue from Italy, the founding member of folk-rock band Dead Bouquet, Carlo Mazzoli branches out on his own with this self-produced solo effort, Avalanche Blues. Billed as the most intimate of his releases so far, this ambitious songbook flexes Mazzoli’s talents as a yearning blues songwriter and performer troubadour; equally at home romantically flourishing and cascading through a Freddie Mercury like rousing ballad on the piano, as donning the mantle of Neil Diamond and Springsteen on a steel-pedal waning Nashville love tryst.

Singing in English, influenced by a UK/US axis of blues, balladry, country, folk and 70s songwriting inspirations there’s no reference, except a hint in the burr, or signs of Italy to be found. This is after all an international affair musically and thematically, full of the age-old tropes of sadness and joy that are common to all of us.

If there were, however, a leitmotif, an aching bond of familiarity, it would be in Mazzoli’s penchant for the dusty old west trail. There’s certain overtures made to the stoic reflective journeyman and cowboy of that old west lore on Steel Rail Blues, on the rougher-hewn King At The End, and on the Dylan-esque, tremolo twanged love-pranged Goin’ Astray. Flirtations, executed impressively with attentiveness and lyricism, with the mosey-on down blues, Nilsson, Grant Lee and even Elton John – on the closing gospel meets 70s rock radio piano anthem On The Horizons.

From the cynical wells of despair and pity (“It might be the darkest place but it’s not the bottom of the sewer.”) to mountain climb metaphors, Mazzoli flows between crescendo splashes of anguish and saloon dive barreling swank throughout. The field is crowded but there’s more than enough talent and a certain unique style to set Mazzoli out from the legions on Avalanche Blues. As I’ve said before, this is an ambitious album, but also expansive, delving as it does into a myriad of musical styles with a certain ernest elan.





ANi GLASS  ‘Ffrwydad Tawel’
Recordiau Neb

Credit: Ani Saunders

 

Part of a groundswell of artists and bands supporting the use, and by that preservation, of the Welsh language (and Cornish too, but that’s another story for another time), electronic siren, photographer and artist Ani Saunders, better know musically as ANi GLASS, uses what is a most phonetically poetic dialect beautifully. Even when it’s used as a rallying cry on the opening glassy-visage labour of love Y Newid, which weaves the lingering ruminants of a rousing speech by the Socialist activist and Labour councilor Ray Davis with Ani’s breathy defense of the trade union movement, her voice sails close to the ethereal. Echoing even the most amorphous exhaled sighs, utterances and vocal sounds alongside the pronounced, Ani’s Welsh protestations and longings for “change” always sound passionate but disarming.

The obvious impassioned themes of keeping the Welsh heritage alive, of reconnection with that heritage and country, and the hope of building a more stable fair society in the face of such hostile uncertainty runs deep throughout. Inspired by the use and mix of bleak colours and destruction by fellow Welsh contemporary artist Ivor Davis’ 2016 major exhibition at the National Museum Cardiff, Ani’s latest EP reflects that show’s despondent expositions of society in Wales. Later invited to perform with Davis as part of this extended vision, Ani’s resulting material can be heard channeled through the – perhaps most beautifully performed protest song of 2017 – lamentable panoramic closing track Cariad Cudd, which charts the “cruel” decline of Welsh industry.

Elsewhere on this six-track collection, she traverses Baroque new romanticism on the breathy echoing Y Ddawns – last year’s single included once again in this package -, Alison Goldfrapp whispery Dietrich candy strobe light meets Grimes on the cool reflective pulsing Dal I Droi, and a Valley-girl Madonna riding over sine waves on the Moroder-esque Geiriau. It all sounds quite Europhile – in fact Y Ddawns is a prime Eurovision entry in waiting – and glowing, straddling the serious with crystal synth pop.

Critics are always finding the most tenuous evidence and links for trends or movements in music, but Ani is the second former Welsh member of the twee doo-wop girl group The Pipettes to make the shift into electronic music, following her sister, the rising and critically lauded Gwenno, in honing a solo career. Both sisters arrive on a wave of a renaissance in Welsh electronica, with mostly unassuming artists and bedroom mavericks producing some of the best and interesting examples of the genre in the last five or so years; from the avant-garde and techno of R. Seiliog and the Cam o’r Tywyllwch radio show to the Ritalin-starved hyper sample electro-punk of The Conformist.

Ani Saunders is another impressive advocate of the Welsh spirit and artistic confidence, producing some of the most danceable and evocatively politically, socially charged electronic pop in 2017.





NEW MUSIC REVIEWS ROUNDUP

Words: Dominic Valvona


Roll Call: The Black Angels, Anna Coogan, Cotton Wolf, Happyness, King Ayisoba, Lake, Alex Stolze, Swamp Sounds/Uncle Pop & The Dumbloods, Vassals, Andrew Wasylyk.




A mega edition of the regular tickling our fancy reviews roundup this month, before the Easter Break and the Monolith Cocktail’s week long sabbatical to Palermo, we take you on a whirlwind trip through some of the “choice” most recent and upcoming releases. Pleasantries aside. Let’s crack on…

King Ayisoba ‘1000 Can Die’
Glitterbeat Records, 31st March 2017

Credit: Jacob Crawfurd

 

Sounding the klaxon call in defense of his native Ghana, and Africa at large, on his inaugural LP for Glitterbeat Records, the striking King Ayisoba, from the roots up, uses his guttural earthy howl and atavistic kologo lute to great effect in demonstrating not only a raw anger but also a deep love for a much misunderstood continent.

From the very outset Ayisoba and his contributors Wanlov da Kubolar & Big Gad – just two of the many guest appearances on this album – rap, sing and stamp a slogan sentiment on the opening Africa Needs Africa of, “Let’s fight for Africa/Africa needs us.” Covering the North African diaspora, the boat people’s sorry saga, the colonial past and umpteen other issues that more or less shape the image that those observers from outside the continent believe is the only side to Africa – between a misplaced sentimentality and outright ignorance. There is protestation and indictment, but also a lively focus on the positives too; finding solutions through the medium of music and culture.

Though Ayisoba advocates the “power of tradition” and the primal thrust of instrumentation is one passed down from generation to generation, 1000 Can Die features an eclectic and electric fusion of musical styles. The homegrown Ghanaian “hiplife” – a mix of rap, electronic beats and traditional rhythms – rubs up against ragga, dancehall and dub; a grandee doyen of which, the inimitable Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, appears postulating a herb-hazed wisdom on the album’s rustically plucked and enraged title track.

In-between the fiery, bordering on punk, clatter of guluku, dundun and Djembe drums and rambunctious electronic phasing beats there are more plaintive, yearning stripped-back moments: Grandfather Song, a toiled from the soil of tragedy lament, offers a more intimate knee-jerk from the full-on band sound, and Dapagara is sent off into a sweeping, wafting vista by the Nigerian legend Orlando Julius’ traversing, reedy accentuated saxophone.

Raw from the heart, highly evocative and rebellious, King Ayisoba’s songs of rage and vitality actually offer a kind of hope in the face of adversity. The future of Ghana’s music scene is in good hands at least.






The Black Angels ‘Death Song’
Partisan Records, 21st April 2017

 

If you were looking for a creative musical reaction to Trump and the anxious times we live in then The Black Angels beautiful apocalyptic melodrama, Death Song, must be one of the most anguished and daemonic of responses. The Austin psych-rocking overlords first album in four years was written and recorded during the miasma of the US elections after all: and doesn’t it show!

An emotionally charged despair and anger with moments of catharsis, carried out to a Byzantine flavored soundtrack of esoteric Amon Duul II and Far East Family Band psych, a vortex of 80s Goth inspirations – including The cult and Siouxsie and the Banshees – and the tolling chimes of doom and drone, Death Song is, as the title suggests, a heavy, but most excellent trip. It begins with one of the Angels heaviest productions yet; a dark arts pulsing bestial diatribe on the controlling influence of money, entitled Currency. From there we’re guided across choppy seas between brighter less cymbal crashing hypnotics and swaying macabre, through the metaphorical “killing fields” of the huntress (I’d Kill For Her); the enslaved intoxicant spell casting of enchantresses (Half Believing); and the upside down: the final Floyd and Amon Duul II-esque Orpheus-is-comfortably-numb-in-the-underworld opus, Life Song.

Brooding romantically in Gothic tragedy as the world continues to turn, undaunted by the prospects of universal uncertainty, The Black Angels spread their wings magnificently on what is, perhaps, one of their best albums yet. The leviathans of the psych-rock scene have learnt much and after a recording hiatus return with something sharper, refined but just as mystical and hallucinatory.









Anna Coogan  ‘The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time’
28th April 2017

 

Not the easiest of bedfellows, difficult to love and often (rightly) condemned as indulgent and overblown, but the worlds of rock and opera do occasionally overlap in a congruous union. The unquestionably talented Anna Coogan for instance, mixes the two majestically, using her finely trained 3-octave soprano and classical background to offer fluttering siren-like arias that seem to surreptitiously manifest from, what is, an ever-changing metamorphosis of musical styles, on her latest album, The Lonely Cry Of Space & Time.

Spanning country, Ry Cooder desert meditations, Anna Calvi like trembled sensual emulations, PJ Harvey and even bubbly synth pop, Coogan together with musical collaborator Willie B – offering atmospheric Moog bass line undertones and drums – produce a wave (whether the gravitational kind, as serenaded and alluded to on the brilliant opening title track or, the metaphorical high seas kind, as referenced throughout) fixated lamenting and balletic travail.

 

Inspired by scientific discoveries, a “childhood listening to Puccini’s La Boheme”, the fateful poet Sylvia Plath, the tumultuous grave mistakes of intervention in the Middle East and, no surprises, the 2016 US elections Coogan’s ambitious suite of songs and instrumental evocations is far from lofty and classical. The operatic, learnt at the prestigious Mozarteum University of Salzburg, elements are transduced through a background of rifling through her father’s record collection of protest troubadours, and busking on the streets of Seattle, to leave only traces that appear naturally.

Occasionally rocking, most of the music has a cinematic more expansive touch, with three of the songs on this album originally composed to accompany the Soviet filmmaker Jakov Protazanov 1929 camp alien invasion/Russian revolution analogy Aelita, Queen Of Mars (the title track) and the French director Jean Epstein’s 1928 interruption of Poe’s classic, The Fall Of The House Of Usher (If You Were The Sun, A Wedding Vow).

Almost uninterrupted with each track flowing or bleeding over into the next, the album moves seamlessly between its musical and thematic influences. I could probably do without the romantic twinkled space helmet vocal synth pop Meteor, but overall this is an impressive performance, Coogan’s quivering wah wah and tremolo articulations matched equally by that heavenly, soaring voice.





Lake ‘Forever Or Never’
Tapete Records, April 7th 2017

 

Meant as anything but disingenuous, it’s surprising what the experimental pop group Lake get away with on their latest and eighth album, Forever Or Never. Remodeling an array of 70s/80s influences with a 21st century spin, they can turn some of the stalest MOR vaporous blue-eyed soul synth ballads and soft rock melodramas into something melodically enchanting but very poignant; analogies channeling the political and social maelstroms of our times, as most of the music coming out of the USA does in 2017.

Celebrating a recent tenth anniversary with perhaps the most exhaustive of performances, playing every song from their ninety-track back catalogue in an Herculean ten-hour set, Lake continue to submerge themselves in the Pacific Ocean Blue waters of nostalgia.

Finely attuned, lean and devoid of the superfluous, Forever Or Never is a mostly gentle, wistful breeze through yacht rock, Belle & Sebastian daydreaming romanticism, shoegaze and pop. Shared male/female vocals duties offer a constant variety that bears traces of Blonde Redhead, Harry Nilsson and The Pastels. And joining the betrothed founders Ashley Eriksson and Elijah Moore, and long-term band members Andrew Dorsett and Mark “Markly” Morrison before she passed away, the artist/musician Geneviève Castrée (for whom this album is dedicated) lent lush coos and backing vocals to the tumultuous Gone Against The Wind and bright, easy-going finale, Magazine.

Sometimes it’s like hearing Fleetwood Mac if they’d formed during the C86 phenomenon, and at other times, a strange transmutation of Captain & Tennille, and a vague stab at a post Sunflower Beach Boys jamming with Hall & Oates. Disarming and emotionally sophisticated throughout, with subtle, warm but diligent songwriting, Forever Or Never is a melody rich harmonious meditation on inner turmoil, forgiveness and mourning, that can’t help but also comment on the recent political landscape.








Alex Stolze  ‘Mankind Animal’
Nonostar Records, 31st March 2017

 

Transforming the traditionally entrenched sound and indeed reputation of the violin, German composer/producer Alex Stolze attempts to reanimate the instrument, “preserving” it, as he states, “for future generations, without being a conservative classicist.”

No stranger to reinvention, recently performing radical deconstructions of Bach’s Kunst der Fuge with the Armida Quartet, at Berlin’s Radial System venue, Stolze has gained a certain exploratory reputation for his work with the electronica acts Bodi Bull and Unmap (amongst others).

Concentrating the mind, finding a certain solace, the Berlin urbane stalwart has relocated to the German/Polish borders for a more pastoral life of contemplation; spending time on rebuilding an old ruin in the countryside but focusing on the vision for his solo work. Nothing short of guiding humanity towards a less destructive, more empathetic spirituality, Stolze attempts to bridge classicism and contemporary amorphous electronic music on his debut solo record, Mankind Animal.

Less Roedelius neo-classical, or for that matter Tony Conrad Dream Syndicate, and more John Cale inspired viola distortions and that titan of the German avant-garde Stockhausen and his electronic processing of orchestral instrumentation, the five-track Mankind Animal suite is surprisingly fluid and melodic. Conceptual and avant-garde in influence certainly, but far from a grueling or challenging experience.

A chamber ensemble mix of electro-acoustics, ambient traverses and, at times, kinetic beat undulating soul, this pan-Europa soundtrack often evokes transmogrified traces of traditional scores and folkloric music from central and eastern Europe: The articulate plucks, quivers, wanes and yearnings that emanate from Stolze’s five-string custom-made violin often sounding a link back towards the past, and ghosts of an old continent. Tradition is very prominent, but an intricate bed of low synth, contained sophisticated beats and mechanics bring it into the present.

Over the top of this score, Stolze’s succinct campfire lyrics of profound prose make allusive references to the here and now though again these concerns are often age-old: from, “where to start if you want to change the system”, on the lyrical resigned meander through the universal condition The Crown, to the more personable inner sage advice of “don’t try to be someone else/otherwise who would be you”, on the opening Don’t Try To Be.

From the cinematic Eraser to the softened timpani minor-overture Stringent, Stolze and his ensemble produce a considered postmodernist suite, both experimental in merging the classical with the contemporary, and yet a pleasurable, even soulful and thoughtfully poised listening experience.






Joji Hirota & The London Taiko Drummers  ‘Japanese Taiko’
ARC Music, 28th April 2017

 

One of Taiko drumming form’s most prestigious of stars of the last forty years, Joji Hirota cements his sizable reputation with this latest collection, simply named Japanese Taiko. Literally, as is the case with most of these direct from Japanese translations, the ancient style of Taiko itself means “big, fat drums”, (which you can’t really argue with) and on this album features a number of these drum shapes and sizes, from the smallest, a “uchiwa tom”, to the behemoth sized “oh daiko” (again, literally a “big drum” that measures 140cms in diameter).

Inspired by the volcano piqued hot springs landscape of his native Hokkaido – Japan’s most northerly of main islands – Hirota, who started training at the age of eleven, merges majestic traditions with a unique modern approach: He was after all among the first of the Taiko practitioners to bring the style to the West, and has more recently lent his music to the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s latest martyrdom, Silence. Together with his four male and eight female strong London ensemble the maestro thunderously rolls through Taiko’s folkloric, Noh theatre, Kabuki, Buddhist and Shinto religious ceremony origins with agility and at times entrancing aplomb.

Building up pattering rumble evocations of the Spring Breeze or, stroking the drum skins to an atavistic Japanese flute accompaniment in ritual to a Harvest god (Kokiriko), this dynamic, though often monotonous, chorus of drummers is surprisingly melodic. A barrage yes, but the drumming wall of sound is often elevated by poetic vocals – usually in chorus, though there is a strange mix of call and response staccato rapping on Akita – and subtle mood and tonal changes; from wood clapping to finger bells and cymbal swells.

To experience live is something else: a synchronized art form of music and theater. But this showcase of tradition and experimentation, with half the compositions written by the man himself, is a great introduction to the form.


Cotton Wolf   ‘Life In Analogue’
Bubblewrap Collective, 28th April 2017

 

As technology’s ever-domineering progress takes over and algorithms creep into the creative process it’s a relief to see and hear that the Kraftwerkian dream of complete immersion between humans and machines, with all music created by a computerized brainiac, is still a long way off. And though by its very democratized nature and access electronic music is obviously wholly reliant on tech, which is getting ever cheaper and easier to use, there are many artists who wish to (and excuse my trite cliché) put the soul back into the machine. The Cotton Wolf Welsh duo of “super producer” Llion Robertson and classically trained composer Seb Goldfinch are among those, “living in the analogue”, who leave an indelible human mark on electronic music.

Their debut album is an often sophisticated, downtempo, merger of small, organic Leaf Label like synthetic drums and tight percussion and subtle atmospheric waves and suffused strings – part of the symphonic quality and melody the duo wish to emphasis. With guest vocals from the attentive soulful Alys Williams, on the gauzy veiled Lliwiau, and calm fluttering siren Lois Rogers, on the softened Massive Attack-esque Future Never, Cotton Wolf omit for a sense of performance and humility.

“Unapologetically” Welsh, Williams for example sings in the dialect, the duo is rightly proud of their heritage. And they are in some ways in the middle of a golden resurgence, with countless fellow Welsh electronic artists, from The Conformist to R. Seiliog and Gwenno Saunders to name just three, gaining critical attention and flying the flag. But, apart from the language, there isn’t a common identity in the music itself. There is no such thing as a “Wales sound” in the genre. Life In Analogue is if anything a global soundtrack, with traces as diverse as Kosmische, EDM, Bonobo and even mellowed South American electronica all under one roof.

More than a little classy, electronica with a human touch, Cotton Wolf weave the symphonic articulately into an album with depth but also commercial appeal.



Swamp Sounds/Uncle Pop & The Dumbloods   ‘ST’
Bearsuit Records, 24th March 2017

 

A split offering from the Edinburgh label of idiosyncratic experimental sonics and more lo fi indie pop fare, Bearsuit Records bring us an incongruous curious pairing of, mainly, electronic music mavericks.

From further up the Scottish east coast, Dundee artist/musician Douglas Wallace, under the strange Uncle Pop & The Dumbloods appellation, has fashioned an imaginary Hondo City futuristic soundscape that bares little relation to the track titles. With a backing of trebly crisp electronic percussion, tetchy cymbals, clean crystalized synths and trans mutated guitar wails, Wallace’s science fiction travails make ephemeral references to Murcof, Bowie’s Heroes peregrinations, Ryuichi Sakamoto and the sort of 80s vapour ice-misty synth soundtrack fare you’d find on the video-nasty, Shogun Assassin. Reverent at times, primordial at others (check the lost world of Song For Broken Singers), ole Uncle Pop’s contribution is a subtle, meditative counterpoint to his album companion’s ennui flitting Casio car-crash bombardment.

Hailing from Nagoya, Japan, experimental electronic music artist and founder of Sleep Jam Records, Yuuya Kuno flirts with a number of aliases including House of Tapes but for this label and in this capacity goes under the Swamp Sounds moniker. Chopped-up into a loopy soundclash of Casio pre-set schlock and drama, Kuno’s 80s meltdown collage is both ridiculous and yet full of interesting surprises. Tracks such as Skull Disco feed Daft Punk through a dial-up connection and grinder, and Houndstooth sends Atari Teenage Riot to a laser quest showdown.

Run of the mill for Bearsuit, who constantly release such curiosities, but for us the listener these experiments prove intriguing; bringing to our attention some unique artists, working on the peripherals of sonic reinvention and cut-up mania.





Andrew Wasylyk  ‘Themes From Buildings And Spaces’
Tape Club Records, 28th April 2017

 

The second artist in my roundup to hail from the fair city port of Dundee, musician/composer Andrew Mitchell (nee Wasylyk) pays a moving sort of homage to his home on Themes From Buildings And Spaces. With the onus on the psychogeography of the architecture in Scotland’s fourth-largest city, its history as the capital of Jute production features heavily as a recurring theme; the ghosts and lingering traces of Tayside mills and the people who worked the oppressive Industrial Revolution machinery within them making their presence known on the reflective Lower Dens Work.

Memories both haunting and meditative are made concrete, prompted by the iconic images of the late, “father of Scottish modern photography”, Joseph MacKenzie and a mix of architectural markers – only ever seen in Scotland – from across time: stoic granite beauty to hard-to-love Brutalism. The very evolution of Dundee, over eight instrumental evocations, is lent both a melancholic and romantic soundtrack of lapping piano tides, gentle swooning colliery jazz brass, synthesized choral voices and peaceable textures. Sounding unique, even pastoral at times, these suites conjure up a Caledonian Air, yet at other times errs towards the ether, conjuring up those old ghosts and spirits.

Andrew sheds a new light in many ways on Dundee with the most reflective of timeless scores.






Happyness  ‘Write In’
Moshi Moshi, 7th April 2017

 

Ah…the sound of a band embracing the heartfelt warmth, accentuated dazed melodies and special feel of such 70s fare as Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Big Star, Happyness evoke the hazy fond memories and subtle sophistication of these and other complimentary artists on their new album, Write In.

Having previously covered and absorbed tootsie roll Beach Boys idyllics and the Athens, Georgia college radio rock of the obscure Club Gaga on last year’s Tunnel Vision On Your Part EP – the title-track of which appears alongside the drowsy-sighed pop spankler Anna, Lisa Calls on this, the group’s second LP –, and often drawn favorable comparisons to Wilco and Pavement, Happyness find themselves liltingly tuning into a more eclectic array of influences for their most melodious, engaging songbook collection yet.

The opening Falling Down gambit, with its radiant phaser guitar, conjures up the Scottish indie supremos (and fellow Big Star acolytes) Teenage Fanclub, whilst the pastel-shaded saddened tone of The Reel Starts Again (Man As Ostrich) sounds like a lost, ghostly remnant of a George Harrison and Jeff Lynne malady. A touch of the Brighten The Corners era Pavement permeates the band’s weary slacker muffled Uptrend/Style Raids, but by the time we reach the halfway stage of the album the lads are back to thrashing out a languorous grunge-y grind on Bigger Glass Less Full.

Subtle and confident, Write In is a halcyon, beautifully executed album with real depth and personality. Happyness have found their flow with loose but perceptively well-crafted gentle pop songs of a timeless quality: to be played as the “credits roll forever”.





Vassals  ‘Halogen Days EP’
Post Fun, 7th April 2017

 

You have Audio Antihero’s indefatigable Jamie Halliday to thank for dropping this EP from Brooklyn misfits Vassals onto my radar. The backing band of Audio Antihero signing Magana, the trio’s latest release bandies between, as the press release puts it, a sort of “bleak beauty” and “chaotic minimalism” that strays into “slacker-rock ambivalence” and “post-punk cynicism”. I can confirm all of that, but would like to add the following if I may.

There’s more than a touch of the new wave on Halogen Days quartet of power-pop and grungy-romanticism. The slacker and grunge elements made brighter and indolently tuneful for it.

A run through of the EP then: We have the pendulous drum and echoed vocals of the opener Sea Spells, which sounds like a young Glenn Tilbrook fronting The Yeah Yeah Yeahs; the Moonless (“night”) build up swell of crescendos that evokes the Tokyo Police Club and Wampire; and the return to the source of inspiration with traces of The Pixies and Dinosaur Jnr on the stumbling SoHo. The finale meanwhile, Ghostwood, traverses Pavement and The Strokes (when they were something), on a peaks and lulls, heavy and accentuate crafted N.Y.C. indie resigned anthem, that literally spirals and pounds away until lifting off.

Bright hopes indeed and nowhere near as petulant as you’d expect. There is amongst that cynicism and effortless sounding despondency some real thought and musicianship, the lyrics actually far more aching and heartfelt than they might admit.






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