ALBUM REVIEWS ROUND UP
As you may have come to expect from the Monolith Cocktail, our latest regular assortment of current and upcoming new “choice” albums is as diverse as ever. This month’s selection includes a classic envelope pushing dub extravaganza reissue from On-U Sound’s Missing Brazilians, Vieux Farka Toure & Julia Easterlin’s “tourist” travails, My Autumn Empire’s hushed ghostly tales from the log fire, the many guises of John Brenton in a new collection of obscure lo fi, raging Benelux rock music from Grand Blue Heron and an Analog Africa compilation of previously unreleased Afro Cuban recordings from Senegal.
The Missing Brazilians ‘Warzone’ (On-U Sound)
Enjoying a critical appraisal of late the iconic On-U Sound label, bastion of the ingenious UK producer Adrian Sherwood and artist, keyboard player and co-founder Kishi Yamamoto, is continuing to re-release both classic masters and previously undiscovered treasures from the back catalogue and vaults in 2015. An inspired cross pollination of dub, hip hop, post-punk, industrial and roots all met at the Sherwood cross junction during the late 70s and through the 80s, the On-U template guided by the developments in Jamaican music but amorphously bending to absorb all the more interesting sounds and colours of the time.
Always highly sought after, selected titles from Sherwood’s roster are getting a second wind; in particular the recent Monolith Cocktail featured Singers & Players liquid dub protestation War Of Words album – the group’s follow up album Revenge Of The Underdog and a 10” vinyl EP War Of Version, made up of previously unreleased material, will have been released at the time of this post.
Generating the most boundlessly experimental dub plates, reshaping and inventing new sound clashes ahead of the curve, Sherwood and Yamamoto’s most “envelope pushing” project reflected the dystopian augur of Orwell, set against, what no one at the time couldn’t have foreseen, the final years of the Cold War. Dropped in 1984, the Latin American military junta commandeered football stadium world of Missing Brazilians (a great name by the way) alluded to the poor souls picked up off the streets for dissension, activism or just having the wrong face, that were subsequently tortured and left to rot or, chucked unceremoniously into unmarked graves. The stuff of nightmares made into a sonic landscape of ever-more discordant echoing dub, shrill drilling and bombastic cluttering industrial sounds, the duo produced the musical equivalent of a postmodern Guernica. More appropriately a Warzone in the studio, the countless escalating effects and modulations threaten to constantly overload the system and drown out the often more sauntering, melodic lolloping gaited rhythms. Traipsing across a barren, incredulous unnamed environment, unsettling discourse is always ready to stick the knife in what is an often-electric mix of early hip hop breakbeats, synthesizers and dadaist noise. It will come as no surprise that hip New York label DFA rave about it; after all it both picks up that city’s own extraordinary genre-splicing explosion of the 80s and yet also influences a new generation, especially cut-up doyens Coldcut and brooding Trip Hop conductor Tricky: you can even hear what must be some of the earliest precursors of house and techno on the pre-Massive Attack starring Shara Nelson ‘Savanna Prance’; Nelson channeling Donna Summer stuck in a subdued limbo, as she softly wails a soulful aria.
It’s dub, but not as we know it, the foundations traumatised, teased and bent out of out shape in countless ways as a sound collage of influences are added. Stretched beyond dub then, there’s the redolence of the Art Of Noise’s pre-sets on the subterranean scream of ‘Crocodile’s Court’, the Raincoats on the nervy vocalized Little Annie waltzing through a nuclear wastelands ‘Gentle Killer’, a E.F.S. series Can, of all things, on the thrashing caustic throwaway ‘Frequency Feast’, and the Yellow Magic Orchestra on ‘Igloo Inn’. Even Bowie’s Japanese sound gardens drift into view, wafting around the rebounding force field warped ‘Quicksand Beach Party’.
Despite the constant red limiter discordance and ominous signs, it sounds like everyone involved is grinning away as they turn those dials, switches and push the effects to breaking point. Re-cut at dubplates and mastered in Berlin for apparently “maximum bass pressure”, Warzone is obviously still part of its 80s landscape yet it sounds pretty revolutionary in its reborn contemporary setting too. The most experimental album in the On-U Sound cannon, Warzone is a highly influential obscurity, finally given a long overdue rework and spruced up.
Vinyl reissue copies will also feature, alongside a foldout poster insert and download card, a previously unreleased extended remix of ‘Ace Of Wands’, their contribution to the first volume of the long running Pay It Back series.
Vieux Farka Touré & Julia Easterlin ‘Touristes’ (Six Degrees Records)
30th October 2015
If the title conjures up images of whistle-stop package tours; fleeting cultural exchanges; a dipping of the proverbial toe-in-the-water absorption of the sights and sounds of a foreign land then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this harmonious partnership’s version of Touristes. No listless candour into vague territories here, even if it sounds so softly peaceable and effortless, the legendary Malian singer/guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and his vaporous beguiling vocalist, American performance artist/singer Julia Easterlin, fade in and out of the geography; blending their native homelands into a seamless global soundtrack.
Meeting last year in New York, Easterlin and Touré’s inspired recording sessions took no time at all to produce a “white-hot burst” of both original material and interesting covers: it would seem the duo was meant to be.
Touristes ambling, often drifting, gait sways without touching the ground, its head in the clouds, yet it always has purpose. The opener ‘Little Things’, built upon a classic West African song ‘Kaira’ that both Vieux and his late father, Mali Legend, Ali Farka Touré both covered, demonstrates this relaxed amorphous sound with its wistful looped country-esque Eddie Brickell vocal and wafting melody. Following in its shuffling fade, Touré takes lead whilst Easterlin sighs and “ahs” on the desert psalm ‘A’Bashiye (It’s Alright)’. The first cover, and first song the duo recorded, Dylan’s scathing ‘Masters Of War’ – called the “heart and soul of the album” in the official press release – proves a poignant reminder of recent tragedies: Easterlin coming at it from the perspective of not only her own anxieties and stress in the wake of 9/11 but as someone growing up near a military base in Georgia, knowing friends and families caught up in the events on the frontline, whilst Touré for his part comes to terms with the fallout of the conflict in Mali. A mournful arrangement, steeped in a ghostly malaise, Masters Of War is granted an even more despondent protest vision of despairing lament.
The duo shed light on Fever Ray’s “deep cut” ‘I’m Not Done’, taking the “pensive” original into Prince territory, backed by scuttling Malian drum rim percussion. Then there’s the somnolent Appalachian folk standard, as revised for there own sulky purposes by Nirvana, ‘In The Pines’, which features Touré weaving a Ry Coder travailed haunting backing to Easterlin’s coiled vocal take on Cobain’s sorrowful ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’.
Using her voice throughout to contextualize notions of place and mood, the talented Easterlin’s echoes, loops, studied exhales and suffused lulling brings an esoteric and experimental element to all these songs. It’s what she does best of course, at ease with adopting a country twang and singing in a more anchored fashion or as on the wafted veiled ‘Spark’, hinting at the wilder diction and accenting of Bjork. Her foil on this voyage is as mesmerising as ever; one-minute following the desert contours in a yearning nod to his ancestors, the next exchanging intricate noodling riffs with Lobi Traoré in a sweltering packed Bamako nightspot.
Serendipity may well play its part, the blurring of musical borders offering some pleasant hybrids and resonance. But don’t be fooled by its floating and easy manner, there is a deep driven swell of purpose and intricate musicianship at work, with a serious social and political mission statement of universal understanding lying at its core.
My Autumn Empire ‘Dreams Of Death And Our Other Favourites’
Inhabiting a darker space than previous albums, Benjamin Thomas Holton, aka My Autumn Empire, leaves the adolescent soft bulletins of his last record The Visitation fondly fading out in the background as he once again explores the psyche. A gentle intimate yet ambitious soundtrack to growing up in the 80s, dreamily transfixed and glued to kids Sci-fi adventures on TV, that album was a hazy series of recollections of memories not yet impregnated by the anxieties of the internet.
Stripping back the production even further Holton’s new songbook Dreams Of Death And Other Favourites, as its title suggests, reflects on mortality. Visited on eerily wintery nights by the various wraiths and shadow people manifesting from the weird stories of Robert Aickman and the ghostly tales of M.R. James, Holton’s imagination works overtime: unwelcome guests from the ether in the form of an ominous knock on the door and glimpses of something strange from the corner of the eye all prove unnerving. In attentively layered and hushed tones our troubled host muses on the things that keep him awake at night, though as with the apparition in ‘Black Shape’ I can’t help but feel he’s using it as a “black dog” like metaphor for depression. With not much more than his analogue circuitry props to filter/process and build up his articulate guitar lines, the former epic45 stalwart composes an impressionistic vision of psychedelic folk and progressive lo fi. A reminder of that previous “visitation”, the opening ‘The Following’ poignantly fades in and out of a cozily warped Tomorrows World as the remnants of that past ELO and Flaming Lips lulling influence starts to wane, replaced by Air’s Virgin Suicides and The Beta Band. You can hear the restrained intimacy of the Beta’s Steve Mason on the poignant second track ‘Death Song’; Holton in Edgar Allen Poe resignation reminded of death’s inevitable call: “I heard death tapping on the window frame, this morning/It left a note pushed through my door/I’m guessing it’s a warning.”
Like the ghostly echoes of a poor drummer boy’s fall on an unidentified battlefield in time, a softened military snare roll appears from the mists on ‘Forcefield’, and the same 17th century tapestry of supernatural England in the throes of civil war that so inspired Darren Hayman’s The Violence could also be heard in the accursed superstitions of the ‘Murrain’: an extended quintessentially pastoral soundtrack piece that features former epic45 band member Mike Rowley on drums; recorded for atmospheric qualities at dusk in a local village hall.
Handled with subtle finesse, Dreams will unfold its qualities and wonderful performances slowly but surely. And though it will hardly prove a comfort to an artist still relatively obscure and on the peripherals, this record has cult status written all over it.
John Brenton aka Metrotone, Landshipping, Ojn, Tonfedd Oren & Southville
‘AM FM etc.’ (Enraptured Records)
Marking in a chronological trajectory lesser-known songs from the Bristol maverick John Brenton, this unassuming collection begins with his breezier pastel-shaded early 90s material and ends with his quirkier Berlin electronic pop shenanigans in 2012. Already regarded as a bit of a cultish figure, Brenton’s lo fi existence on the peripherals has nevertheless been championed in the past by John Peel, Steve Lamacq and Gideon Coe.
His ever-changing cannon, spread over numerous small labels, usually limited to less than a 1000 copies on vinyl and often only available through mail-order, has taken many forms. Working alongside different contributors and writers over the decades or as a solo artist, he has, whether out of ennui or because he wishes to make a clean break each time, more or less coined a new band moniker for each experimental shift. Opening with a dirge-y malady that recalls a penchant for The Cure and floppy shoegaze, Brenton wallows intentionally in a muffled daze with 1993’s incarnation Southville, moving congruously to a no less under-produced lulling form of jangly collage radio indie as Metrotone during the later half of the 90s. On the cusp of the noughties he navigates an individual path through down tempo electronica, trance and ambient music; first with the Artic oceanic travails and intimate plaintive Landshipping – ‘Deep Water’ a particular highlight; what sounds like a meditation on a couple once footloose and fancy-free lamenting the inevitable loss of unbridled attachments on one last train ride – and then with the ebb and flow motions of Ojn – the vocal now all but disappearing. Brenton hits upon the later 70s developments of Kosmiche and Krautrock’s hangover period with Ojn, as he conjures up faint echoes of Cluster and Neu! on ‘Vingt Seconds’, Populare Mechanik on ‘Komquet’ and Kriedler via Kraftwerkian Stereolab on ‘Blue Eyes’.
His most recent incarnation, in collaboration with Rhys Williams, plucked from 2011/2012 has a Welsh bent to it. Translated as ‘orange wave length’ Tonfedd Oren is represented on this compilation by a trio of cryptic and obscure referenced titles that merge kooky combinations of pop and burbling moon base alpha, synth music. Those Teutonic influences continue but sound more like New Order and Add N to (X).
Summarizing the progressions and multifaceted changes, especially production wise from frail indie D.I.Y. to the cleaner sonic manipulations, AM FM appears alongside a duo of Brenton appreciation releases, with a re-issue of the Metrotone LP The Less You have, The More You Are and a singles collection, which features the original demos for his John Peel session, Amateur Astronomy. They may have started life in a low-key manner, transmitted from the bedroom, but the songs and compositions of Brenton and his comrades hardly lack ambition, no matter how lackluster those early attempts can sound.
Grand Blue Heron ‘Hatch’ (Jezus Factory)
13th November 2015
Re-ignited emerging from the long since extinguished flames of Belgium’s premier power trio Hitch, a new project surfaces to cast its irons in the fire.
The Grand Blue Heron’s egg has “hatched” spilling its content of melodic razor blade disconsolate rock, grunge and shoegaze onto a blunted anvil. A squall of incessant guitars and hissing trebly drums is shaped and handled with finesse, as the riff-slinger combatants go to work on their unwieldy material.
But first some background to this latest in a long line of Benelux heavies. Instigated by former Hitch turned soloist and Jezus Factory alternative rock pack contributor (a member of the label’s noiseniks and previously featured avant-garde A Clean Kitchen Is A Happy Kitchen) Paul Lamont in the aftermath of his previous band’s split, he wrote a series of demos. Uploaded onto the internet to see if anyone would bite, a (as the PR shtick puts it) “brave man in the city of Ghent” heard them and wanted Lamont to play these demos live. Who better to rope in to help meet the live challenge than fellow Hitch comrade and foil Olivier Wychuyse who joins the ranks alongside For Four Weekends band mate Arthur Verschaeve on additional guitar wrangling and, from previous recording work on Hitch’s Trails Are Ablaze LP, Pedro Demeulenaere on bass.
Those solo demos now replaced by a combined band effort see fruition on the Heron’s debut LP. Ten tracks of 70s and 90s imbued rock, angled by a layer of heavy power chords and intricate minor progressions, always on the move; the Hatch(ed) maelstrom is incredibly melodic. Handled not with an iron fist, though the band’s initials spell out G.B.H., but with a ‘Velvet Slap’ there is a surprising articulation to the thickset air raid warning, industrial wall of sound. And so despite the discordance of gnawing riffage, prowling bass lines and gluttony of fuzz, a tune always prevails.
Checkpoints of reference on this grand tour include post-punk Melbourne meets demonic spy thriller (opener ‘Call The Shots), red soil Gothic Cramps’ style rock’n’roll (‘Gay Is The Lord’), Earth fronted by Ian Curtis covering The Sisters Of Mercy (‘Drone Saint’) and a skulking Nirvana (‘Shout’). You can also throw in nods to Neil Young, Jesus Lizard and Motorhead: that ‘Velvet Slap’ indulging in a faithful chorus of ‘Ace Of Spades’ revved up rawk.
Recorded at their own rehearsal space and studio, the decadently entitled Chateau Rocque, the production is live and loud, capturing a band at ease with both their sound and camaraderie. A vigorous bruising start with much potential in not just underground but more commercial rock music circles, Hatch has got the momentum and spark to go further.
Various ‘Senegal 70: Sonic Gems & Previously Unreleased Recordings From The 70’s’ (Analog Africa) 27th November 2015
A return of sorts to where it all began for Analog Africa’s founder Samy Ben Redjeb, this latest collection of uncovered treasures from the African continent turns the spotlight on Senegal. Working as a diving instructor during the mid 90s in Africa’s western most tip, Samy decided that an upcoming re-location to Greece wasn’t for him and so he quit his job and stayed. Already enamored with the local music scene, he applied for a job as a DJ in a hotel in Mbour and never looked back.
Twenty years later and in partnership with Admantios Kafetzis of current leading Senegalese label Teranga Beat, Samy has picked some of the country’s most rare, and until recent years, left undiscovered and dormant, recordings. Kafetzis actually started this project back in 2009, collecting over three hundred songs originally recorded onto magnetic tape by the sound engineer Moussa Diallo. Never before released, this bounty of tracks now transferred over onto digital, featured all the bands that performed at one of the country’s most celebrated nightspots, the legendary Sangomar: a most revered hub for the feverish bands of the day. Just five of those tracks appear in this cooperation between the two enthusiasts, with the remainder picked by Samy from his archive.
For obvious reasons the Senegal coastline was a major entrance route into Africa from the Americas. Exchanging not just cargo but their cultures, Senegal became a melting pot of sounds; in the 40s with the Cuban sailors bringing the most popular and widely distributed Son Montuno, and in the 50s with the American soldiers bringing jazz and soul. Progenitors of a new fusion in the 1960s, the Star Band de Dakar absorbed all these influences and helped create the Afro Cuban sound, merging the Cuban and Latin American guitar and rhythm with African percussion and the local Wolof dialect. In many ways mirroring the countries recent transition to independence, with the poet, great intellect and visionary Léopold Sédar Senghor voted in as the country’s first president, the music scene flourished under his rule. A socialist but also a great pragmatist (opposed to Marxism instead opting for what he termed African Socialism, he kept close ties with both former colonial masters France and the West), Senghor brought stability to Senegal and created a ripe environment for culture to spread during the 60s and 70s. Until very recent upheavals, with a separatist movement in the south, Senegal pretty much enjoyed a relatively peaceful history; one of the only countries in Africa to never have suffered a coup, the transfer of democratically elected power was smooth. Encouraged to tour Senegal during Senghor’s blossoming premiership, a wealth of international acts landed in Dakar; the anointed king of soul and funk James Brown, The Jackson Five from the States both made the trip, whilst from Cuba came Celia Cruz and from Haiti Tabou Combo. But the African stars came too, the Congo’s Tabu Ley Rochereau, from Cameroon Manu Dibango and from Guinée Bembeya Jazz. And of course they couldn’t help but add even more flavours to the heady brew and swaying canter; taking the local music into even more inspired territories.
As you’d expect from the Analog Africa label there’s an abundance of wealth musically and visually to feast on. The driving force is of course that sauntering Afro Cuban rhythm and hints of Merengue, Mbalax and Pachanga, yet the opening ‘Mariama’ from the Parisian founded Fangóól moves to a quasi-reggae gait. Elsewhere it’s either the strains of raw R&B horns and staccato organ, humbled folklore, or shuffling funky backbeats that find themselves merged with the South American tropics. Compared to some of the previous compilations the riches aren’t always as immediate or bombastic but more languid and shuffling. Despite writing so much about African music over the last five years the Senegal scene is a complete revelation to me. The only name I recognize on this collection is that of Amare Touré – here in his role as the singer for a duration with the country’s celebrated Star Band de Dakar -, and that’s only because Analog recently released a selection of his rare recordings, which I reviewed a couple of months ago. But then this is an LP full of surprises, collated from some of the most obscure and long-winded processes, so many tracks won’t have found their way outside Senegal. In fact if you want to get an idea of how difficult and how much legwork Samy and Adamantios take on to get their finds licensed, read the accompanying booklet; especially the interview with the maverick “Senegalese superstar” Thione Seck, former singer of the Orchestra Bawobab who succumbs to striking a deal on two previously unreleased tracks from the band’s vaults. With interviews and notes on every track alongside the history of Senegal’s music scene – starting with the country’s brass cabaret bands and orchestras in the 1920s and ‘30s – you get a sense of just what an exciting time it was in Senegal and how the fever for the Afro Cuban fusion spread throughout Western Africa. It’s another great survey that will do much to lift Senegal’s music history from obscurity.
Words: Dominic Valvona