REVIEWS/Dominic Valvona

Amanda Whiting ‘After Dark’
(Jazzman) 9th April 2021

Gilded reminisces, meandered trains of thought and turbulent mood fluctuations provide the soundtrack for this harp-led nocturnal album of ‘after dark’ evocations. Bridging both jazz and the classical the adroit Welsh harpist Amanda Whiting,and her lightness-of-touch troupe of John Reynolds on drums and Aidan Thomas on bass, effortlessly seem to glide and skip between eras and moods on a nighttime flit. 

First of all let’s get the most obvious reference points and influences out of the way. Yes, there is indeed an air and touch of the lineage of those transcendental, transportive and diaphanous jazz-harpist forbearers Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane about these performances, but you can also detect a touch of Corky Hale and the much more contemporary and sublime Brandee Younger too. Whiting however seems to flow across passages of Savoy, swing, the conscious, the experimental, and the bluesy. There’s even moments of Latin saunters and cocktail hour jazz on happier, feet dancing on the sand tracks like ‘Back To It’.   

In Whiting’s hands the harp performs both spells of the angelic and melancholic; the plaintive and translucent. Like water being caressed and charmed, there’s both waterfalls and trickles of the plucked and accentuate. Yet also shorter, sharper more attacking stabs and grating on ‘Just Blue’ and the rumbling, hard-bop swinging ‘The Feist’.

Providing another musical tangent, Glasgow’s tastemaker DJ and burgeoning remixer Rebecca Vasement is given the task of reimaging the album’s title track; which she does by casting the original in a more meditative state of dreamy, vaporous slumber. The lulled soulful coos and airy hummed vocal utterances of Nadya Albertsson can be heard floating and caressing this lifted spiritual treatment. You can hear the moodier, reflective original version later on in the album’s running order.

A quick mention to the articulate, occasionally bursting and splashed drums of Reynolds and mumbling, down-low runs and phrases and punctuation of Thomas’ bass is called for, as they provide a perfect sparse and sophisticated bed for Whiting’s untethered glistening harp music.

The midnight hour proves an inspired choice for Whiting as she freely moves with grace and élan across a cocktail of moods, memories and inventive play, on what is a most experimentally pleasant and heavenly jazz album.

Der Plan ‘Save Your Software’
(Bureau B) 16th April 2021

For a German electronic group that’s made various conceptual returns over the last forty odd years – even making a fleeted comeback as virtual avatars at one point – it seems unsurprising that the Der Plan vehicle would have in its vaults a take on Kraftwerk’s robotic assimilation schlock: the Man-Machine manifesto that saw the ‘showroom dummies’ become increasingly sophisticated in erasing their useless human shells for automated cybernetic ones.

Framed as a ‘long lost album’ from their 80s oeuvre, the Dusseldorf formed doyens of the Neue Deutsche Welle (the New German Wave) movement have decided to release the kooky, playful and often ridiculous Save Your Software conceptual electro and synth-pop LP. More ‘DAFT’ than DAF, this take on Kraftwerk’s computer world and various robotic riffs has a whole backstory of Tomorrow’s World invention. Founding members Moritz Reichelt (known as Moritz R®) and Frank Fenstermacher, joined in the 80s by Kurt ‘The Pyrolator’ Dahlke, are said to have ‘initiated’ the ‘Fanuks’ project to make themselves immortal as ‘Mensch-Machines’. Fanuks, a play on the actual all-too real Japanese robotics producer FANUC, involves all kinds of technological as well as philosophical themes; hardware as well as software talk. A vessel it seems for the possibilities but also concerns, ethics of A.I.: especially its role in the creative process. There’s even mention of a mysterious Bavarian philosopher, Nigelius Senada, brought in to advise on the project: clues to the mischievous nature of this album cover story really start to drop when this character turns up, his so-called ‘Theory Of Obscurity’ pinched from an infamous documentary film on The Residents.

The whole tale is narrated in a twelve-minute audio-documentary; the concept, interviews with band members and their robot forms sound-tracked by passages of music from the album, and to denote international scenery changes, archetypal Japanese mood music. It’s unfortunately, for me, all in German. But you get the gist nevertheless, the drive but failure to fully converge with that robotic host.

Der Plan however, have used the data, calculations, silly android voices to construct a quite enjoyable cyber-pop Techno album that bounces around in a retro arcade of arpeggiator and ascending, descending lit-up fruit machines, or, goes whistling around the bend on a Bullet Train. Zerox copiers dance, legs akimbo to Herbie’s ‘Roket’, Arthur Baker’s electro and the Art Of Noise’s sampled scratch barks. A creature it seems of the times it was supposedly created in (though sounds like it was made last week), there’s all those influences plus Neuclaus banging on the proverbial door of Yello’s studio, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sparks and Populäre Mechanik. Oh yeah, Der Plan pull them all in on the retro-futurist computer belter that springs and rolls through the discothèque, art gallery and workshop.

Der Plan merge Kippenberger like deadpan with a prototype Fanuk in crisis – the randy rebellious machine of ‘I Want To Sing Like Ella’, caught in the middle of identity catharsis -, an L.A. disaster movie answer machine message with a transmogrified form of neon new wave Miami boogie; and turn Chris Montez’s ‘Let’s Dance’ twister into a futuristic dummies bop. 

A throwback to an era of rudimental robotics, when the utopian view of A.I. connectivity was in its infancy, this Kraftwerkian flip feels just as relevant now in the current climate as tech seems to be fast approaching the holy grail of ‘equivalence’. We’re also seeing the dystopian visions of that same 80s period, when this album was apparently recorded. Clever, sophisticated, arty, on-tech but playfully tongue-in-cheek, Save Your Software is the 80s new wave pop album that never was. And I love it. 

IOKOI ‘Tales Of Another Felt Sense Of Self’
(-Ous) 26th March 2021

Creating a total immersive experience for all the senses, sound artist, vocalist and composer Maria Micciché deconstructs what has gone before so she and her collaborators on this latest project can create a set of new ‘sensations’ and experiences in which to address the theme of digital age disembodiment.

Under the IOKOI mantle, Micciché has pulled together the resources and creative skills of the videographer Michele Foti, olfactory (that’s sense of smell) artist Klara Ravat and graphic designer Sarah Parsons to take on a full exploration: part performance, part installation. It’s a cerebral project that taken three years to put together, with its multidisciplinary strands which includes Foti’s video clip studies of structure, movement, nature and the human body; Parson’s 208 page accompanying booklet of condescend video stills and fragments of Micciché’s song lyrics; and Ravat’s specially made room scent – to be applied when listening to the music.

Tales Of Another Felt Sense Of Self is a search, understanding of the differences and multifaceted dimensions of the ‘self’, ‘other’ and ‘same’. But it’s also a highly personal, intimate inward journey for the artist who utters, expels and in hushed tones narrates deeply personal sensations of longing and understanding. Tracks such as ‘SOS’, as it suggests, seem to be a signal, call out for help in the midst of variously voiced repetitions of the albums leitmotif mantra: those layered vocal cycles sound like enticing ad slogans echoing from out of a sort of Blade Runner futuristic soundtrack.  Elsewhere the birds sing a sweet song, yet ‘Bloody Life’ is full of sad narrated gestures and a neo-classical like piano that plays on in a tinkled, out-of-time fashion. Micciché in an almost resigned, quiet voice yearns for the sensations of certain reminisced scenic caresses whilst addressing the question of harmonious balance in our lives: finding it, as the lyrics whisper, in our complimentary opposites.

The whole experience of strung-out phonetics, reverberating breathy airy and almost hyperventilated voiced phrases and lyrics that float and manifest in the middle of electronic currents, tubular-like didgeridoo echoed rhythms and the vaporous is akin at times to walking around in a radiophonics rich space, kitted out with surround sound.

Taken separately as an aural experience, Micciché’s soundtrack is evocative and immersive enough. When put together with the aromas and imagery it must be and incredibly full-on perceptive experience.

This is conceptual sound art brought out of the gallery space and into the home; an experience made all the more intimate and personal.  

Conrad Schnitzler ‘Paracon (The Paragon Session Outtakes 1978-1979)’
(Bureau B) 26th March 2021

Continuing to reveal, and in some cases rejuvenate, the previously lain dormant archives of the Kosmische and electronic pioneer Conrad Schnitzler, Hamburg label of quality and repute, Bureau B, has released yet another treasure trove of his interstellar space experiments. This time it’s a session collection of outtakes from the late 70s, created at the Paragon named studio of tangerine dreamer and solo innovator Peter Baumann.

For those unaware of Schnitzler’s prestige, the Dusseldorf-born visionary co-founded the infamous Zodiak Free Arts Lab incubator, helped put together the first incarnation of the Kosmische superstars Cluster (or Kluster as it was known back then; his foils Roedelius and Moebius dropping the ‘K’ for a ‘C’ on Schnitzler’s departure) and appeared on the inaugural Tangerine Dream suite, Electronic Meditation, before founding Eruption in late ’71.  A solo career with a host of collaborations on the way lasted until his death in 2011.

One such partnership was with Populäre Mechanik stalwart and artist Wolfgang Seidel (appearing under the alias of Wolf Sequenza, and collaborating in recent years with artists as diverse as Lloyd Cole), the co-author of these particular expansions of space and minimalist-techno probes. Seidal became a regular foil for years: especially on the two Consequenz albums. With no track titles, just an ambiguous numerical ordering of recordings, the Paracon tracks sound pretty much like finished works in their own right; all sharing a mysterious cosmic and alien sound that’s both almost ominous and yet playfully evolving. There’s much of that rich Kosmische dancing and searching Tangerine Dream sound in these starry visions; Schnitzler bound for galactic travels aboard a propeller engine craft hovering over lunar vistas and primal soups. Throbbing metallic leviathans and flapping, slithered entities move about in the deep space as sonorous balls of refracted light cascade and twinkle. Yes it’s that sort of trip.

At times Schnitzler creates a calculus of falling data and Library music like chemistry sets activity, and at other times, begins to bring in some base-techno rhythms. It’s a similar palette of synthesized square waves, presets and early midi-electronica that permeates, yet there’s some eerie, spooked uneasy engine pulsing tones of Bernard Szajner and more majestic moon dust kooky waltzing amongst the comets to be found too. It seems bot Schnitzler and Seidel had some vision of the future whilst producing these tracks, bridging as they do both the Kosmische with early signs of Techno music.

Not so much ‘outtakes’ as an extended album of congruous space excursions and metallic machine music, these sessions are a worthy edition to the Schnitzler catalogue of unearthed electronica traverses: A great, expansive cosmic-mining album in its own right.

Kirk Barley/Church Andrews ‘Parallels’
(Takuroko) 5th April 2021

Here’s an idea that you don’t really ever see, an artist appearing both as themselves and under an alias on the same split release. In what is a congruous experiment, and division of labour, Kirk Barley does just that.

Via the prolific in-house Café OTO label, Barley uses, more or less, the same sound palette and set of tools to create two complimentary but different outcomes. As Barley the placable light-of-touch creator of this EP’s first half section (‘Parallels A1 – A5’), tubular-like chimes of metallic marimba (or xylophone, or even something else like it) and detuned, duller sounded bells ring, shimmer, cascade and float across a cosmos of avant-garde classical Japanese scenes, a very removed version of gamelan and sparse kooky 70s electronic Library music. Reverberating with depth and shadowed on some of these parallels by a traceable echo of the main baubles and bobbled rhythms and repeated interplay, these diaphanous chimed experiments also feature a sort of transduced language of globules and retro glassy computerized data. A Kosmische Sakamoto contemplating the blooming blossom, these more tranquil, sparse suites are dreamy and playful.

The Church Andrews alter ego meanwhile transforms that apparatus into something heavier: to a point. It’s a mirage of sorts: a staccato trippy, wavy fashioning of Warp and Ninja Tunes Techno, and even House Music (‘Parallels 8’ could be a drunken groove meeting between Felix Da Housecat and Luke Vibret). Introduced into this section of the split are more quickened rhythms, enveloping and thrusting effects. At times it sounds like a remix, transformation of the first half: you can hear those tubular chimes, undulations when the tight delay and faster iteration loops slacken off.

It’s all about the ‘motion’ and ‘percussive patterns’ on this sophisticated spread of Techno ingenuity, as opposed to the trickled washes and untethered approach of Barley’s first five ‘parallels’. Both however prove dreamy and reflective; creatively springing forth from the same source and musically entwined. Barley and Church, or Barley Church; two experimental visions from the same mind.   

Violet Nox ‘Whispering Galaxy’
(Infinity Vine Records) 9th April 2021

Pretty much encapsulated in the title of the Boston-based synth group’s fourth album, Whispering Galaxy is just that; a dreamy, ethereal chorus of hushed, diaphanous whispery voices, emanating from and sending out siren’s waves across an expansive galaxy.

A reverberating apparatus of various synthesizers, machines, a turntable and post-punk flange-guitar manipulate and fashion a vaporous pink ether of various hymnal and more mysterious haunted heavenly vocalists to woo over on a cosmic cruise into the great expanses of space. Wispy, airy but with a lot of depth the album’s space journeys fluctuate between the dry-ice, breathy, cybertronic jacked-up Kosmische and subtle Techno visitations of ‘Shapeshifter’, and the more esoteric Banshee-dreamed ‘Selene’ – which reimagines a sort of synthesized neo-folk vampiric Velvet Underground casting shadows beneath a full moon. On the almost spiritual voiced ‘Haumea’, Violet Nox’s spacecraft hurtles through a trippy, warped sonic vortex towards a dwarf planet, located just beyond Neptune’s orbit. Named after the Hawaiian goddess of childbirth, and only discovered in 2004, Haumea inspires a suitable enough galaxy quest soundscape; one in which the Nox seem to turn off the engines and just drift towards in a suspended state of aria vocalized homage.

With touches, glimpses of mid-90s Bowie, Brian Reitzell and countless dreamy, synth-pop inspirations Violet Nox coo and woo sweet ‘somethings’ to the awe, mystique and trepidation of the galaxy beyond our reach.       

Federico Balducci/Fourthousandblackbirds ‘Anta Odeli Uta’
(Somewherecold Records) 9th April 2021

A return to the fold for the highly prolific adroit guitar sculptor of ‘dreamscapes for hope & the facilitation of enlightenment’ Federico Balducci, and a label debut for the experimental, abstract artist Albérick (appearing under the avian inspired Fourthousandblackbirds moniker), this drone, ambient and contemporary classical collaboration proves a most congruous fit and balance of the sparring partners musical art forms.

The two mavericks compliment each other on a most atmospheric soundtrack of paranormal like communications and drifts. I say paranormal, the opening ‘Wake’ seems to be tapping into channel ether on an esoteric TV set. FTB for his part produces a sizzle and crackled tuning of fuzz, flits and squiggles, and a sort of quasi-haunted organ as Balducci drops and lingers lightly administered guitar phrases and notes that hang on the edge of slight dislocation and even jilt a little: nearly in dissonance. A chill of the subterranean and the Gothic permeates the renaissance corpus ebb and tide of the next suite, ‘Ligeti And Gira Floating In A Pool Filled With Soy Milk’. A reference I assume to both the Swans’ instigator Michael Gira and the famous avant-garde, contemporary classical doyen György Ligeti, this haunted pool of gauzy mirages could be said to straddle their inventive influences: especially Ligeti’s signature ‘musical hallucination’. ‘Lux’ dwells in a sort of dank cavern, though the guitar parts, harmonically echo, ting and sparkle with a certain lightness of touch. There’s a repeating chorus of bird song on the next passage, ‘Toxoplasmois’, to balance out the title’s reference to a parasitic disease. You can hear the resonance of Balducci’s hand movements, up and down the tingled spine of his guitar; some movements, gestures, brushes of which sound almost harp-like.

Finishing on a communicative broadcast, ‘Queen Of Mars’ pairs FTBB’s Morse-coded dot-dashes and synthesized glassy bobs with Balducci’s woozy spirals and cyclonic whittled notes. That last track, and the album’s title too, are both reference points to the Soviet sci-fi film vision Aelita: Queen Of Mars, directed by Yakov Protazanov and based on Alexi Tolstoy’s 1923 novel of the same name. “Anta Odeli Uta” is the alien message beamed from Mars, which notifies Earth of their presence. A sort of Bolshevik version of John Carter Of Mars, it tells the tale of a Soviet engineer travelling to the red planet in a rocket ship, where he soon leads a popular uprising against the ruling Elders and falls in love with the planet’s queen. Except it all turns out to be a daydream, which in a way is where this visitation soundtrack heads. For this collaboration is an incipient dream state that lurks and drifts across an atmosphere of the spooked, hallucinating and strange to great success. Let’s hope both partners on this journey continue to work together in the future.

Sone Institute ‘New Vermin Replace Old’
(Mystery Bridge Records) 16th April 2021

From the as yet burnt-out ashes of previous ambient excursions, Roman Bezdyk pushes on into ‘uncharted territory’ with a newly fashioned quartet suite of the cerebral. Formerly a stalwart of the Manchester based Front & Follow label, Bezdyk has chosen to release this latest Sone Institute fronted production of ambient imbued, sophisticated simmering Techno on his own Mystery Bridge Records imprint.

Relating to but also casting adrift of past experiments, the opprobrious entitled New Vermin Replaces Old EP probes and ascends the astral with a subtle hand of guidance: not entirely untethered but free to roam and venture both the awe-inspired expanses of space and the more grounded, ominous ruins of our contemporary society.

It all begins with a most astro-nautical climb (nee glide) into the stratosphere and beyond with the opening ambient skying ‘Studded By Stars 1’. A light wind and square wave ease us into a most ‘starry’ atmosphere; yet subtly stirring in the midst of this cloud base is the resonating movements of objects and unseen forces. That’s the most ambient-esque it gets; from then on there’s added tubular metallic percussion, fluttering kinetic beats and threaded gnarled post-punk like traces of guitar.

‘Vulpine Smile’ may allude to something cunning and crafty, but the sonics reverberate and rattle towards the Germanic and echoes of labels such as Harthouse and R&S in the 90s. That same vibe of Teutonic propulsion can be heard on the Kraftwerkian (if they signed to Basic Channel), springy and bobbed cyber ‘Little Nurse’.

Dropping ball bearings in slot machines and spindling the transmogrified sounds of chimed bells, the twisting, almost clandestine ‘Dazzling Darkness’ seems to strangle the guts of a celeste on a near menacing and quite distinct experiment. 

The more you listen, the more you hear revealed from the subtle multilayering of descriptive sonics, rhythms and expletory strands. New Vermin Replace Old is a most intelligent, emotive immersion into the visceral: a highly conscious electronic journey into the unknown. 

Matt Donovan ‘Underwater Swimming’
24th March 2021

His short succinct bandcamp bio doesn’t do Matt Donovan justice, especially as (even if it’s to some degrees correct) his craft and reputation is foremost as a drummer, he’s branched out much further on previous projects before this latest solo offering. Formerly the motorizing Krautrock beat provider for Eat Lights Become Lights, and one half (alongside Nigel Bryant) of the now sadly defunct Untied Knot (two of their albums made our choice features of the year in the past), Donovan was already apt at extending his musicianship, composing and production chops.

Now venturing it alone, unheralded and just happy to share, he’s released a floatation, trippy wash album of hazed and quasi-nostalgic melody explorations: both instrumental and sung. Always full of surprises, Underwater Swimming is a dreamy recollection of C86, post-punk, Madchester, the rave era, spacy and industrial indie influences; refracted and molded to reflect Donovan’s search for melodious release in a time of great anxiety, tumult and uncertainty.

Songs and traverses (both utterly cosmic and more bruising, gnarled) seem to evoke various chapters, scenes and cathartic concerns: even studies. Many of which seem to be imbued by his formative years, growing up loving music in the 80s and early 90s. There’s furors into the baggy on the dreamed edge of the second summer of love ‘Mountain Missed’; an acid wash of The Charlatans, House Of Love, Stone Roses and The Essence. There’s a vibe, trace of the Hacienda years, and hints of Factory Records on the more pumped, bass rumbled ‘Wakhan Thanka’, and halcyon melodica-like plaintive Joy(ous) Division meets Spacemen 3 and The Church on ‘Lap Creature’. Donovan somehow manages to merge elements of The Tubeway Army, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Telescope and Popol Vuh on the motored, broody ‘Watch The Pressure’. It’s an album that takes in A.I. lamentable electro-blues, horizon gazing Kosmische, and a strange, magical Beach Boys (via John Lane) vision of oceanic ruminating. Under the light of celestial phenomenons, or around an Ibiza campfire with acoustic guitar, serenading, Donovan extends his portfolio and tastes and most importantly musicianship (going as far as to introduce subtle passages of piano and even prog rock into his oeuvre) on an exploration of ideas that all prove melodious. I’d say that was a success then. 

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

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