Sunday, 27 December 2009
Grab it here.
The second Steak House 12", a follow up from the first which featured Octa Push and Mr. Gasparov, is due for release in the new year and features three new tracks from the Monkey Steak duo (Atki2 & Hanuman). It looks set to be a good 'un.
Monday, 21 December 2009
Fennesz – ‘Black Sea’
Taken from Christian Fennesz’s latest and quite possibly greatest full-length, the title track from Black Sea neatly sums its parent up in ten gorgeous minutes. Shifting from an opening hum and crackle to a sudden burst of delay-drenched guitar, it conjures up an enduringly bleak landscape as suited to a darkened walk in the snow as to the quiet headspace of a midnight train journey.
Saturday, 19 December 2009
Highpoint Lowlife wunderkind 10-20’s self-titled debut album looks destined to wonder, delirious and confused, into the upper echelons of this year’s best ‘lost’ records. It’s a shame – his music is certainly worthy of wider appreciation, managing to cram into its awkward, lanky form elements of classic Warp electronica, folksy sampleplay and sudden glimpses of hip-hop influenced swagger. It’s a surprisingly complete record considering it came out of nowhere, marked by a devotion to peculiarly organic textures and claustrophobic closeness that reached its highpoint (heh) in the self-perpetuating ambient whorl of ‘Arcadeagle’. It’s also only four quid from the label’s website, which to these ears makes it the bargain of the year.
Following on from the full-length, he has turned his attention to the ‘Landforms’ series of EPs, beginning with the summer’s Island and now reaching its second installment. I’m not entirely sure to what extent mental projection is responsible, but Lake does sound distinctly more aquatic than its predecessor, each track drowning in limpid lakes of delay and sending hollow ripples outward from each burst of synthetic energy. The crunchy, static-infused ‘Overloam’d’ is certainly the least immediate thing he’s managed to craft yet, drawing attention to brief melodic flashes that burst suddenly outward to stain its greyscale backing in deepest green.
Out of the four tracks here, ‘Endzone’ is probably closest in spirit to his earlier work. With each release his fascination with texture over colour has become more pronounced, resulting in the hypnotic double blow of ‘Boat’ and ‘GolgothA’, both of which prioritise subtle shifts in pace and structure to create disorienting sonic environments in which to wonder. In this sense, 10-20 shares at least a little in common with sound installation artists – in particular a fascination with the structural integrity and architectural potential of music – but his sense of narrative arc remains a defining feature. These are still pieces, with defined temporal development, a beginning, middle and end, and are all the better for it. Roll on the subsequent landforms.
The column can be found here, avec lists and embedded videos - here's a text only reproduction of the main body of the feature.
There’s something so offensively bland about end-of-year lists that I’m almost loathe to curate one myself - yet given that this column only started in July, it seems almost churlish not to. At this point, the power to make music of such technical proficiency that it makes the work of Warp’s early pioneers sound lo-fi by comparison is encoded within the hardware of every single computer. This fact is not only responsible for the remarkable state of diversity that electronic music finds itself in at the end of this decade, but also for its lucid, shapeshifting nature.
The second half of the noughties has been the point at which the ‘net has really come into its own for distribution of information – musical, cultural, political or otherwise. Away from questionable government interest in filesharing and data availability (I’m looking at you, Murdochs), and valid concerns about our increased reliance on screens for survival, such enforced globalisation has without a doubt been the key shaping force in modern music this decade. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the musical landscape circa now would be far less exciting without its myriad charms and pitfalls.
Which leads neatly into the soca beats and tribal flex of UK house: 2009 was the year when our bass sounds fully woke up and ‘got’ funky – and began getting funky with one another. The last twelve months have been characterised by incredibly rapid cross-pollination, giving rise to a host of luminous, supple and deeply sexy hybrids spanning the links connecting two-step, dubstep and UK funky itself. It’s been an intriguing cultural and musical collision: at the end of 2008 all eyes were on the ever-expanding fertile zone between dubstep and techno, exemplified by the mechanistic and cyclical heart of 2562’s debut album Aerial and the music on Appleblim’s Dubstep Allstars 6. A year later, the sounds of Detroit and Berlin have become absorbed into the living whole, one of many influences permeating cutting-edge dancefloor sounds – lending Untold’s skeletal grime a cool, chrome sheen, and infusing Peverelist’s gorgeous machine soul with an intrinsically mechanical, hypnotic heartbeat.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his record for pushing things forward (FWD?), Kode9’s label Hyperdub has led the charge toward pastures new and flexible. One of the first traditionally ‘dubstep’ DJs to fully embrace the truly global permutations of funky, his own ‘Black Sun’ was something of a landmark release, its furiously acidic synthline as much a rallying cry to battle as a call for celebration. And, along with the swung futurism of the Blunted Robots crew, Geiom’s tropical bounce and Cooly G’s unique take on house, it was both: simultaneously declaring war on the stagnant cul-de-sac dubstep was staggering drunkenly into and opening the floor for a welcome return of an ‘anything goes’ mentality to the dance.
Elsewhere, the mainstream beckoned following chart-hogging and still-ubiquitous remix commissions for Skream (La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill', naturally) and Joker (Simian Mobile Disco’s ‘Cruel Intentions’). Next year looks set to be an exciting time for Joker and his compadres Gemmy and Guido, with their scorched melodies and future-shocked R’n’B perhaps arriving at the right time to court a mainstream increasingly excited by all-things synth-based.
Away from club concerns; though not strictly electronic, Broadcast & The Focus Group crafted a wonderful insular world of their own on their ‘stopgap’ EP Witch Cults Of The Radio Age, burying the occasional ‘proper’ song in the fuzzy detritus of a lifetime’s worth of nostalgia. It may have been the year’s finest example of what The Wire have recently been calling ‘hypnagogic pop’ – hazy and often beautiful music buried under the weight of its own past. Sounds as disparate as Leyland Kirby’s achingly beautiful ambience on Sadly The Future Is Not What It Once Was, Gold Panda’s sample-based travelogues and Nite Jewel’s uber lo-fi electro-pop tap into the same mindset. Whether such ideas differ in any way from Boards Of Canada’s kidulthood or the ghosts that haunt Burial’s spectral two-step - or whether they represent some more general social phenomenon - is up for more sophisticated discussion, the likes of which it seems excessive to go into here. Ultimately, each of these artists has enough character to last far beyond theorizing, and all are well worthy of investigation.
A similar atmosphere also defines the music of Highpoint Lowlife’s success story of the year (depending, of course, on how you define success), 10-20. He’s been startlingly prolific, releasing one of the year’s best records in the shape of his self-titled album, as well as two EPs from his new Landforms series, Island and Lake. His music itself treads a curious line between impossibly busy and warmly ambient, the tension between stuttering percussion and muted melody on tracks like ‘Hallows’ and ‘Arcadeagle’ creating an intense, hallucinatory sensory deprivation that finds its resolution somewhere between waking and dream.
Long term Highpoint Lowlife associate Ruaridh Law – The Village Orchestra, or TVO, to give him his official title – has had a similarly busy release schedule. His hour-long ambient improvisation I Can Hear The Sirens Singing Again was wonderful, but even better were the six-tracks of upfront, highly percussive techno that made up his The Starry Wisdom EP. Again treading the line between energy and introspection, ‘Aklo Cut With Saffron’ and ‘The King In Yellow’ drive relentlessly forward, even as delicate wisps of melody drift through the superstructure like smoke. Both intensely physical and almost intangible, it’s this delicious contrast that makes The Starry Wisdom the most rewarding techno record of the year.
To wind up where we began, in pleasingly techno-esque fashion, Highpoint Lowlife’s attitude towards swift releasing and digital distribution mirrors what I discussed in the opening paragraphs. In many ways Thorsten Sideboard’s label is leading the pack in terms of modern technology: each release is immediately available digitally at an almost comically reasonable price through the HL website. As a new decade starts and the debate about mp3 sharing continues unabated, it also posits an example of the internet’s largely untapped potential: here is a label unearthing as yet undiscovered gems and making them widely available, simply and cheaply, motivated by nothing other than love of music. At this point, that seems as inspirational an idea as any to take forward to the next decade.
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Since I relocated away from the Big Smoke for the second time, I’ve become increasingly aware of the hypnotic pull the city exerts; every time the coach pulls into Victoria station my identity immediately subsumes into the surrounding morass of ‘London’ as an entity. It’s a strangely safe and comfortable feeling. Ordinarily, traveling on a packed tube train is something to be dealt with rather than appreciated, but for at least the first half-hour post-arrival it takes on the rose-tinted sheen that comes from knowing you’re back in familiar territory.
When you grow up somewhere it’s easy to never stop and consider its effect on your psychology, attitudes and actions. I was only starting to appreciate the city for what it was when I left the first time, and that same experience has been repeated this year. A lot of people never leave – Ken Livingstone for one is proud of having spent his life in London. One of the people who first ‘properly’ introduced me to my home city, Nico Hogg, does an impresive job of photographically documenting some of its less obvious aspects. In focusing on events and areas oft ignored - or simply not noticed at all - by most bystanders, his photos manage to draw attention to some of the thousands of tiny stories that we swiftly pass by daily, creating tiny microcosms of the city's character as a whole.
Bass culture fiend Martin Clark is acutely aware of the city’s characteristic aspects, both conceptual and actual – London’s impact upon the evolution of post-garage music is a subject he has regularly discussed over the last five years of his Blackdown blog (which articulates everything I'm trying to say in this little piece in a far more coherent way). It was also the loose theme of his debut album with production partner Dusk. Upon its release, I initially found Margins Music to be an intriguing curio, delving deeper into the geographic and cultural boundaries and blends that have shaped UK bass music than any other producer’s music.
With a year or so’s retrospect, it’s one of the most complete albums to have emerged from the dubstep scene as a whole – shifting from tracks influenced by its progenitors’ love of early grime (‘Concrete Streets’ and ‘The Bits’, featuring Durrty Goodz and Trim respectively) to periods of swirling ambience and strikingly vibrant garage (‘Focus’). The album’s single most attractive character though is its unrestrained exploration of new musical modalities – droning tones and unusual scales taken from traditional Asian musics, which sound at once foreign and strangely familiar – London’s legacy. The thought of what we’d be left with if the BNP had their way is terrifying: London’s vitality simply wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for its inseparable blend of cultures, nationalities, geographies, wealth, ideas and aspirations that exist alongside one another physically yet often seem to inhabit entirely different spaces (the ‘glass walls’ Blackdown referred to in his interview with Nico).
At the tail end of last month Clark’s label Keysound Recordings released Grievous Angel’s Margins Music Redux, a reimagining of the original album in keeping with his previous Ableton mixes, which manage to highlight hitherto unnoticed aspects of other artists’ tracks. He’s done a stellar job on Margins Music, weaving its entirety into a single unbroken hour or so’s journey and futher focusing the original record’s cross-cultural blend into a hypnotic, delay-drenched drift through London’s astral plane. Vocal snippets are awash in oceans of aquatic echo and often oddly muted within the mix, as though reaching the listener from the far side of some invisible void. Themes ebb and flow across the album’s length, opening and closing with the first and last word from Durrty Goodz, and climaxing during ‘Focus’ with an eerily poignant line from Trim’s ‘The Bits’ – intentional or not, it manages to refer simultaneously to the city’s recent past and the dystopian nature of its near future, as CCTV cameras close in on our every move.
“1984/This was not the world I was born in.
I fell from the sky and was found and kept/But I’m still curb crawling with intent”
As well as drawing attention to the roots of the duo’s distinctive sound, Grievous Angel has also done an impressive job of making explicit their links with other artists across the globe who strive to create a similar sense of dreamlike wonder: the awkward, percussive stutters and asymmetric scales recall Gang Gang Dance as their most abstract, whilst the ghosts of a hundred different voices that rise and fall throughout create a hypnagogic feeling of dissociation – not a million miles from the Wire’s handily lumped together crop of ‘hauntologists’.
It may well be destined to be one of 2009’s ‘lost’ records, buried beneath the shards of its parent genre’s recent fragmentation and the increasing demands of the dancefloor, but there are hidden treasures to be found amongst the alleys and mazelike twists of Margins Music Redux’s cityscape.
Friday, 11 December 2009
Last Horse On The Sand
Sue's Last Ride
The sight of a Butlins camp – a by-word, as far as the majority of festivalgoers are concerned, for cheap and tacky holidays from a bygone era – during the winter is oddly emotionally charged. There’s a unique sense of bleak beauty that emanates from its rows of identikit one-storey chalets and maze-like sports complex, abandoned save the odd small group playing chilly football on a small five-a-side pitch. During the night it bristles with activity, as warmly wrapped individuals huddle and run from home to central complex and back; in the early morning’s emptiness it glows with a sad serenity and the slightly uncomfortable juxtaposition of the old-fashioned and the new.
Which goes some way towards explaining the appeal of ATP’s winter festivals – quite aside from the year-round draw of some mightily impressive bookings and the living, breathing hangover cure that is the pool’s lazy river. Recently though, I’ve been a little skeptical about the festival’s increasing reliance on indie nostalgia – if still unable to resist its draw. The My Bloody Valentine curated Nightmare Before Christmas is a case in point, as it takes all of an hour onsite to remind me of exactly why I keep returning.
There’s also the small matter of the bands. Friday evening sees Josh T. Pearson take his preacher/demon act to new levels of intensity, wringing squalling treble noise from his guitar on a stage bathed in deep blood red. Whilst his performances always tend towards the anarchic, the presence of a drummer and swelling walls of scorched distortion brings fire and brimstone bubbling through the cracks between Pearson’s baritone yelps.
Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs could almost qualify for lost album of 2009 status, disappearing as their records often do amongst waves of hyperbole for vastly inferior indie bands. In some ways their problem is that they’re simply too consistent. Friday’s show in Centre Stage acts as a reminder of how well pitched their precarious balancing act between pure pop and blistering feedback can be. ‘Periodically Double and Triple’ and ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ infuse sixties pop through a filter of keening Americana, ‘Autumn Sweater’ is beautifully understated and mind-bendingly intense fifteen-minute closer ‘Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind’ outdoes My Bloody Valentine’s performance later that evening for sheer acid-fried noise.
On Saturday, Lightning Bolt actually perform onstage, in an act of inclusiveness that turns the entire front half of Reds (myself included) into a seething mass of bodies. Every ATP seems to include at least one classic performance in the intimate confines of Reds – Be Your Own Pet’s scathing turn at Thurston Moore’s festival in 2006, my first exposure to Fuck Buttons in 2007, The Mae Shi’s glorious technicolour antics earlier this year – Lightning Bolt take the prize for the end of 2009. Later that evening, Bob Mould joins No Age onstage for a run through of three Husker Du songs. Yes.
As ever though, the Dirty Three’s performance on Sunday night acts as a reminder that, yes, they remain the finest live act in the world. Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White are probably the three most accomplished musicians onsite this weekend, yet Ellis’ wonderfully surreal and self-depreciating stage banter has the quality of making the huge Pavilion stage seem as tiny as a pub back-room. The sheer feral intensity of opener ‘Indian Love Song’ and serene beauty of ‘Some Things I Just Don’t Want To Know’ lift the sizeable crowd away from Ellis’ neatly observed “Disneyland for rednecks” and into hitherto unexplored regions of inner headspace. I could watch Dirty Three play every night for the rest of my life and find something new to enjoy every evening; such is the personality and dreamlike sense of wonder and loss they inject into their ostensibly simple instrumentals.
Which seems an apt way to describe each ATP really – each time the local bus rolls away from Butlins on a Monday morning an entirely different set of memories is left behind.
Thursday, 10 December 2009
It’s probably worth opening with a proviso – I’m a bit of a geek for Tom Ford’s music. It may have had something to do with the fact that his involvement in Bristol’s electronic scene runs deep – he manages the city’s finest record shop, Rooted Records – but even on his earliest 12-inch releases the music he made as Peverelist seemed to emerge curiously, precociously whole. Shorn of many of his scene contemporaries’ commitment to gritty analogue hiss and hard dancefloor edge, ‘Erstwhile Rhythm’ and ‘Infinity Is Now’ were all chrome sheen and stumbling, looped melody – aspects that immediately drew slightly overzealous comparisons.
Much has been made of his perceived debt to techno; indeed, along with Scuba, 2562 and fellow Bristolian Appleblim his music is regularly cited as being a major point of crossover. And its presence is indisputably felt: his slowly deconstructed themes and habit of taking a single idea through to its logical conclusion are hallmarks that define the nine tracks that make up his debut album Jarvik Mindstate. The dreamlike permutations of ‘Bluez’ and labyrinthine tunnels of opener ‘Esperanto’ both use melody as a basis for experimentation, creating a consistent rhythmic environment in which a fairly simple central premise can be thoroughly explored.
Ford’s music tends to be mentioned in the same breath as London and Berlin - incorporating as it does elements of both cities’ dance cultures - but strangely enough rarely with reference to his home city’s history. Yet if Jarvik Mindstate – named after the inventor of the artificial heart - serves to confirm a single fact, it is that his music falls effortlessly into a continuum extrapolated straight from The Pop Group through The Wild Bunch, Smith & Mighty, Krust, Massive Attack and on into the future.
Bristol’s musical credentials barely need repeating. The city’s unique cultural and social heritage gave rise to a neatly drawn lineage of artists fusing emergent US hip-hop influences and the restless, rebellious energy of punk – epitomised by The Pop Group’s seething debut Y – with the bass ‘n’ space-heavy soundsystem culture of the city’s sizeable Caribbean community. The resultant blanket term ‘the Bristol sound’ in turn gave way to the vague and far more irritating trip-hop label - and in doing so opened the floodgates to a seemingly endless stream of turgid post-club pre-bed chillout fluff. The ubiquitous coffee table beckoned, with predictable results.
All of which makes it fairly easy to forget how otherworldly and alienated Blue Lines, Protection and Maxinquaye actually sound even now, after a decade-and-a-half of overplay. The same can be said of the city’s earlier junglist material, even after the slow stagnation of an increasingly homogenous drum ‘n’ bass scene. Ford’s label Punch Drunk Unearthed has just re-issued Smith & Mighty’s (al)mighty classic ‘Bass Is Maternal’, which in four minutes pretty much manages to define the phrase ‘ahead of its time’, predicting the following two decades of UK dance music in its deft amalgam of delicately sliced breakbeats, clipped vocal samples and cavernous bass echo.
In many ways Jarvik Mindstate picks off where the city’s pioneers left off, and Ford’s intricate attention to percussive detail betrays his interest in its early drum ‘n’ bass scene. ‘Yesterday I Saw The Future’ is jungle deconstructed, stripped bare to its very essence. Here, the drums themselves are the track’s central facet, interlocking to form odd tessellated shapes before disengaging again and returning to diffuse forms, all in front of the most skeletal of melodic frameworks. Pinch collaboration ‘Revival’ gives dub the same treatment, further elevating the genre’s studio trickery and spacious atmospheres to high electronic art.
If the danger remains that all of this could sound soulless, an excuse for tech-head experimentation, the adrenaline shots of chromatic synth that ripple across the appropriately cyclical ‘Not Yet Further Than’ provide ample evidence to the contrary. Similarly, both ‘Clunk Click Every Trip’ and ‘Infinity Is Now’ are examples of shockingly emotive machine soul, their strikingly individual and weirdly beautiful aspects undiminished by regular play since their original releases.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Peverelist’s is a singular and fascinating ear for production - heavily stylised, instantly recognisable and relying on hypnotic repetition to generate eerie idiomotor responses. In spite of its modern exoskeleton, in addition to generating the same curious sense of urban dissociation common in his predecessors his music also maintains their distinctly human aspects. When all is stripped away what’s left is essentially the opposite of Robert Jarvik’s famed invention: a warm, beating heart, intrinsically mechanical but terrifyingly fragile.
Yes, it's just that good.
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Nite Jewel’s Good Evening, released on No Pain In Pop back in August, deals me a tiny pang of irritation at each listen, uncomfortable in the knowledge that I could have discovered this so much earlier. Loosely, its self-consciously lo-fi atmosphere and the delicately woven strands of free-association that make up each song’s narrative drive could fit neatly within the Wire’s incredibly smug ‘hypnagogic pop’ genre boundaries (or ‘glo-fi’, or whatever the latest term happens to be). Certainly all the elements are present and correct; primarily a curious sense of disconnection between music and listener, as though each song is emerging fully-formed from a separate temporal and spatial zone. Yet sticking a blanket term around a group of artists inevitably serves to set up invisible barriers, and there’s far more that attracts me to Ramona Gonzales’ music than to, say, Ariel Pink’s.
I’m sure most people remember times when the indistinct notes of a tune you recognise drift from someone else’s stereo, and you’re so sure you know what it is that your brain starts ‘hearing’ the vocals from the song in question. It doesn’t even matter if it’s not the song you thought it was – the mind is a powerful convincing tool. It’s an odd phenomenon, and one I can’t imagine has been given any ‘proper’ name as I’m not convinced there’s anything remotely tangible or scientific to it.
Anyway, on Good Evening Gonzales’ half-mumbled, half-sung vocals are buried so deep in a wash of hash fuzz that they sound more like half-recalled memories, an artificial, listen-too-hard-and-you’ll-miss-them construct of the imagination. As far as these ears are concerned it’s a major part of the record’s appeal, generating a kind of slightly wonky, off-key nostalgia that reaches its pinnacle on ‘Heart Won’t Start’. Like the entire history of indie/dance deconstructed and stripped bare to its basest components – addictive drumbeat, meaningful/less vocal slurs and blunted synth shimmer – it sounds a little like the early Factory bands might have, had they grown up in a sixties US hippie commune instead of the grey concrete jungle around seventies Manchester. Either way, it’s gorgeous and has barely left my stereo since I got hold of it.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
I've just published a short piece on threadme's fantastic 'Thoughts & Finds' blog about this week's Bike Bloc project at the Arnolfini, which has brought together a disparate group of people to work collectively and pool ideas to create an 'irresistable new machine of resistance'. The result has been a set of prototypes for the bloc, built out of old bicycles, which will be recreated and brought into operation in Copenhagen next week. It's been a worthy and interesting project for the Arnolfini to be involved in, bringing a living, open art project to a public art space and encouraging the generation of novel ideas.