Friday, 4 June 2010

May on my iPod!!

The election has now been and gone, and the hung parliament led to a coalition of earnest but dull people in charge. We've already had the first scandal, which was dull, and the first grumblings of discontent from Tory back-benchers, which amounted to sweet fanny adams. Indeed, the world goes on: comedy (Lembit Opik and John Prescott incomprehendingly exposing themselves to Hislop's cruelty by appearing on Have I Got News For You), tragedy and boredom. Same shit. And Richard Littlejohn continues to show how much of a revolting piece of ambulant dung he is by verbally slagging off murder victims rather than the perpetrator. Charming.

As always, thank fuck for music and art. In March and April, I actually caught two fabulous exhibitions that somewhat melded the two, with Florian Hecker using projected sounds to amazing effect in his solo show at Bethnal Green's hidden treasure, The Chisenhale Gallery. Powerful speakers were arrayed in such ways that the sounds they produced -digital noise, found sounds, disembodied voices- bounced around and over listeners (spectators?) creating the sonic equivalent of avant-garde sculpture. Meanwhile, at The White Cube near Green Park, Cerith Wyn Evans' Everyone's gone to the movies, now we're alone at last...' was a masterful sculpture show, notably his "S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E ('Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…')" where electrical towers unleashed searing white heat on the room. If these shows ever come to a gallery near you, I heartily recommend them.

A remarkable lack of hauntology or hypnangogy this month, or even dubstep, meaning the below selection may just be my broadest yet. And, with one exception, I am going to stick to albums from 2009 and 2010. Wild.

Starting in Africa, 2007 saw the release of one of the best (and least-heralded) releases from that continent in quite some time, Group Inerane's Guitars From Agadez (Sublime Frequencies). It's a great entry point for anyone curious about the music of Northern Niger's berber people, and I'll admit to having been a complete neophyte until discovering this marvellous release.

It's often described as a form of desert blues, although the connections to the music of Muddy Waters or even Ali Farka Toure, are tenuous at best. Rather, Inerane play insistent (even "motorik") percussion that serves as a platform for snaking, rough guitar soloing from the band's virtuoso leader Bibi Ahmed and the surreal chanted vocals and ululating screams of the female singers. It's music born from the Berber tribes' suffering under successive Nigerien governments, the guitars becoming metaphors for the slung rifles of desert combatants. I haven't heard an album this good come out of Africa since I first discovered Toumani Diabate's New Ancient Strings. I kid ye not!

Having been impressed by their set at ATP, I decided to grab a copy of Cold Cave's Love Come Close (2009, Matador Records). It's short and to the point (barely more than 30 minutes long), but it packs quite a punch. In many ways, it's rather referential, with hints of Joy Division, early Human League, Cabaret Voltaire and Suicide setting it firmly in the gloomier end of the synth-rock scene. But, as often with these new bands who love that early 80s scene, the actual resemblance is somewhat muted and has more to do with attitude than sound. In that respect, Cold Cave have few peers, with Wesley Eisnold's doom-laden voice being complimented by icy synths and a cold, detached haze lingers over everything. But these tunes are not lugubrious in a Joy Division sense, instead featuring pounding beats and driving tempos taking them close to dancefloor territory. An attitude perhaps best summed up by Eisnold himself: "I hate clubs, but love the music they play there". Love Comes Close is moody and dark, but also remarkably catchy.

And so to 2010, which had already kicked off in some style with the CD release of Indignant Senility's Plays Wagner and Eleh's Location Momentum, and looks set to get better and better with new albums by Rene Hell, Ital Tek, Sun Araw, Oneohtrix Point Never and Flying Lotus all to come.

Julian Cope alerted me to the motley genius of Excepter, former noiseniks who have been releasing off-kilter psychedelic drone rock since 2003, under the guidance of former No Neck Blues Band alumnus John Fell Ryan.

Presidence (2010, Paw Tracks) is their most ambitious album to date, two CDs-worth of delirious sound sculpted from live improvs into vibrant, experimental sound collages. It's nearly all synths, bar some rudimentary electro percussion, a cacophony of blurbs, bleeps, whoops and buzzes supplimented by warbly, incoherent vocal snippets and thumping, monolithic drum machine beats. It's one of the weirdest albums I've heard in a while, and a trial to sit all the way through in one go (two tracks, "OP" and "Presidence", last around 30 minutes!), but few are likely to be this rewarding. 

I also continued my obsession with William Basinski by downloading (from Boomkat, not for free) his latest opus, Vivian and Ondine (2010, 2062). Once again, the fucker takes my breath away! How does he do it? The premise, as always, is so simple it could be stupid in the hands of a lesser mortal - a foggy orchestral loop that repeats and repeats under subtly-shifting effects. The cover imagery is of a languid pool of water, and this album is warmer and less austere than works like 28982 or The Disintegration Loops. It's still blissfully melancholic and wistful, but there is a definite smile and sense of affection behind the ambient fog, as evidenced by the liner notes referring to the birth of Basinski's niece (Vivian) and second cousin (Ondine). As such, the tone is celebratory and exhalted, the weight of the passage of time, the notion of which is of course encapsulated in the ageing loop's very existence, offset by the joy of birth, of life renewed. Whether Vivian and Ondine matches the brilliance of Basinski's older work remains to be seen, but, as always, it's musical beauty at its purest.

Brian Eno's Music For Airports (1978) was the first in his legendary Ambient series, and the record that to this day probably best encapsulates the philosophy and essence of the genre. So, when I read that some electro upstarts were preparing to release a terse retort to Eno's masterpiece, I was pretty miffed.

But also a bit curious. And luckily, The Black Dog's Music For Real Airports (2010, Soma Records) is a stunning album, even (especially?) if you step back from the context of it being a riposte to Music For Airports. But, in essence, The Black Dog's Ken Downie objected somewhat to the idealised atmosphere of Eno's work, finding it lacking in depth in its elegiac tone, and dishonest for not highlighting that airports are places where social alienation, sleep deprivation and endless queueing are the norm, as well as being massive polluters. Fair enough, but Eno's work was much more a formal than metaphysical or philosophical effort, concentrating on creating an ambience that was as intagible as it was affecting, an aim that I think he succeeded in fulfilling. The notion of the airport as a  physical and socio-political establishment was secondary. It was music to play in an airport, not to evoke the experience of being in one.

Dispensing with any polemic means you can concentrate on Music For Real Airports on a purely aesthetic level, and here it is nothing short of a triumph. It's clearly and deliberately conceptual, with song titles like "Terminal EMA", "Wait Behind This Line" and "Passport Control", and the opening track, "M1", with its sounds of a car pulling into East Midlands Airport's car park and footsteps entering the terminal greeted by a disembodied recorded voice reminding us that smoking is prohibited, sets a scene that is tangible and real. These real life reference points crop up throughout the album, making the listener's response to the music all the more visceral.

In the main, like Eno's album, the music here is sustained, lengthy ambient electronica, with drifting synth lines and subdued melodies. But the tone is darker, more haunted, with a scope that is voluntarily cinematic, with a sort of stripped-down post-Vangelis spaciness inhabiting the soundscapes. Again, true to the concept, The Black Dog do not hold back on being illustrative of the airport experience's negative aspect and nowhere is this more evident than on "DISinformation desk", where the emphasis of the prefix is reflected in pulsating rhythm effects that build and build, heightening the sense of unease and irritation. "Wait Behind This Line" is similarly edgy, with moody sampled strings and more throbbing percussion. 

Like being stuck in an airport whilst in transit, Music For Real Airports is repetitive, cold and subdued. It's even tiring. And few albums these days are this conceptual and attentive to the thought process that went into their creation. Definitely the ALBUM OF THE MONTH.

Last up is Corrosion by Irish techno artist Anodyne (2010, Psychonavigation Records). Something of a mysterious figure, he was a popular underground act several years back before disappearing somewhat. Well, he's back with some style, as this dark and atmospheric electro record demonstrates superbly. Opener "When The Sky Fell Down" is evocative of The Field - pulsating and sensual beats driving forwards under delicate synth lines and a melancholic, minimalist style. But the second piece, "Close Your Eyes", pitches the album into something darker and more intense, cinematic sampled strings gliding over ferocious Venetian Snares-like beats whilst husky voices whisper at the listener menacingly. Corrosion feels caught between these two poles, managing to be both graceful and aggressive, mournful and vicious. It's a strong combination, perhaps not wholly original in comparison to the best of the two artists above, but a welcome sign that the revival of the best elements of vintage techno doesn't appear to be flagging.

In movies, Michael Haneke has been my celluloid William Basinski and, following on from Funny Games and The White Ribbon, I checked out 2005 Cannes Grand Prix winner Cache (aka Hidden). It's a tense thriller involving an ordinary bourgeois Parisian couple who get sent anonymous videos of the front of their house being filmed. As the husband (somewhat awkwardly played by Daniel Auteuil) delves deeper into his past to try and make sense of the increasingly disturbing events, his relationship with his wife (the excellent Juliette Binoche) deteriorates and his dreams become troubled. But, on the surface, everything remains normal. Haneke deftly refuses to give anything away. We are, like Georges, the protagonist, left guessing at what is going on and who is behind it. And every time we seem to have decided what the truth is, Haneke throws a cinematographic curve-ball, leaving us clutching at suspicions and doubts. It's expertly done, and he revisited these themes in even more style with last year's White Ribbon but, unlike that film, I'm still not sure what to make of Hidden. I love the sense of doubt, fear and mistrust, and the references to a grim colonial past that is these days anchored in the collective consciousness of all developped nations, but maybe too much mystery has left me feeling uncomfortable. Esteemed American critic Roger Ebert claims the key to the film could be hinted at in the 39th minute. I can't see what he refers to, and he admits himself it may be a smoking gun, but part of the fun -and fear- of this film is that we never get the full picture. 

Also playing with our perceptions of reality is the film 3-Iron (Bin-Jip) by Korean director Kim Ki-Duk (2004), which with the viewer wondering whether one of the characters is even alive. At its core, it's a love film, and an achingly tender one at that, in which a young vagabond breaks into people's houses whilst they're away, cleans and provides key repairs in return for their unwitting bed and board, before leaving as quietly as he arrived. One day, after breaking into a luxurious house, he find a young woman who has obviously been beaten by her possesive husband. The young man whisks her away and she becomes his companion in this weird ghostly life. 
The curious thing about 3-Iron is that this romance is played with barely a word of dialogue between the two protagonists. Unlikely, sure, but then as I said, this is a film that toys with our notions of reality and existence. Plus, these are two damaged souls, used to being alone, and their relationship evolves tentatively, awkwardly, as much love as it is a simple need to feel less lonely. In the end, the outside world catches up with them, but Kim Ki-Duk masterfully handles the romantic build up throughout, keeping things authentic and soulful despite the silences.
3-Iron doesn't quite match the other masterpieces of modern Korean cinema that are Old Boy, Peppermint Candy and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (the latter also by Kim Ki-Duk), but it's still and offbeat, peculiar and singularly affecting film. Recommended.

In music, 2010 is shaping up to be a vintage year. I've also got gigs by Ben Frost and Vindicatrix to assess, and am hoping to cram in another ATP and the Incubate Festival before 2011 rears its ugly head. Enjoy the sunshine while it lasts, and show your support for independent record stores by hauling ass to the Second Layer, Boomkat and/or Sister Ray websites for all or any of the above. Word.