Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Winter on my iPod!!

Time was when I used to love snow. Now I can't help but feeling properly fucking Grinch-like as I desperately try not to fall arse over tit on my way to work or stand shivering next to my smoker friends outside overcrowded pubs. Whatever happened to just enjoying rain? If you throw in Transport for London's overwhelming incompetence, the excessive cruelty of the coalition's cuts, ongoing nonsense in the tabloids about "Winterval" replacing Christmas, and the fact that my bank account is being decimated by my constant hoarding of CDs, Christmas presents and excessive consumption of alcohol and whatnot, then it is little wonder that my mood has been beyond sombre. 
But as I sit here consuming an entire bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and listening to The Cherry Point's immense "Harsh Noise Walls" album Night of the Bloody Tapes, I am reminded that, for all my grumpiness, there's a lot of pretty amazing shit out there. So fuck the snow, Daily Mail windbags and all the rest of the world's crap, and let's just get trashed and bleed our ears dry with great music!

And it's been a hefty one! First up, let me send out a "hail, hail" to the immensely talented British singer-songwriter Richard Youngs, erstwhile Jandek collaborator, whose brief but unforgettable album Sapphie (1998, rereleased in 2000 on Jajaguwar) has been serenading me to sleep pretty much every night for a month. Youngs' background in experimental music surprised me after I'd heard this, as, whilst it is a dense, peculiar and sparse album, it is above all wonderfully simple, captivating and musical. It's actually a concept album, a reflection in three tracks on the death of Youngs' dog, but despite such ambitions, only features the man himself on vocals and acoustic guitar. It's a brave and audacious move and full credit has to go to Youngs for being able to hold the listener in his spell with such simple means, thanks to the strength of the melodies and his desperately forlorn singing and guitar picking. The result is songs that are desperately sad and mournful, supremely troubling reflections on death, mortality and loss. 

 Perhaps it is down to my far-too-tardy recent discovery of the aforementioned Jandek, but lately I have become fascinated with the stripped-down aesthetic of solo guitar-and-vocals. Indeed, I've spent a long time listening to the vintage solo blues of Lightnin' Hopkins, whose influence looms heavily over many an electric and acoustic solo guitar artist, from Townes Van Zandt to Neil Young (indeed, this year's superb Le Noise could be seen as heavy electric blues) to my next "Winter fave", the great Keiji Haino, who was bound to get a mention here after he rocked my world so supremely at ATP. Right after his set, actually, I sped off to the merchandise stand and picked up a copy of Watashi Dake? (1981, Pinakotheca), his seminal debut opus.
Unlike the monstrous noise/metal miasma I witnessed in Minehead, Watashi Dake? is a stripped-down affair, with just a guitar and Haino's inimitable voice - that pained, harsh interlacing of high-pitched whine and terror-inducing roar. His guitar work is challenging, with brittle picking and fucked-up chords jostling for space and creating a dynamic tension, as if everything is one micro-second away from all-out collapse, something heightened by the live recording conditions. But, more remarkable still is Haino's use of silence, which increases the tension, the listener being at all times unsure of where the man's singular, insular vision will lead next. In this bizarre deconstruction of the solo singer-songwriter model, Watashi Dake? (roughly translates as "Only me?") demonstrates that Keiji Haino is as iconoclastic, inventive and experimental an artist as Jandek or even Derek Bailey.
As an extra little bonus, the PSF Records reissue of Watashi Dake?, from 1993, includes a bonus track featuring 29 minutes of supremely useful guitar pyrotechnics and monstrous electronic noise. Right the fuck on!

Recent readers will know that I hold Kevin Drumm in particularly high regard. What staggers me most about this prolific and mysterious avant-garde composer/noisician, is just how varied and impossible to pin down his music is. Even when he's engaging in a rather distinct genre experiment, as on 2002's seminal noise masterpiece Sheer Hellish Miasma, his approach is slightly out-of-synch with the codas of the genre he's toying with, as if he's staring at the music from behind a pane of glass in a studio-turned-laboratory. It may be vaguely impersonal to some, but to me it just encourages me to want to dig and probe deeper at his music, to try and get closer to the beating human heart behind these wondrous sounds.
His sophomore album, succinctly named Second (1999, Perdition Plastics) is a typically surprising and oblique record, again one in which the personality and emotions of the man involved seem to be dissolved into the sound. Far from Sheer Hellish Miasma's vicious noise, or the cold, distant drones of Imperial Distortion, the music on Second is resolutely avant-garde, evoking such minimalist icons as Charlemagne Palestine or Xenakis, as he uses distorted guitar, sound generators, synth and -fittingly- silence to create rich, impenetrable sound tapestries. The cover, depicting a foggy landscape captured from a distance, reflects the listless nature of the music, but once again there are hints of  the humanity hidden beneath all this sonic extremism (note, I mean by this in the sense of taking music into new extremes of abstraction rather than something noisy or violent - if anything this is the closest Drumm has got on anything I've heard to pure, Eno-esque ambient music). Notably in the track titles, such as "-...we both liked the view...-, the very layout of which seem to suggest a narrrative that Drumm only allows us a glimpse of. There's romance and sentiment in the grooves of this magical album, and if you have the patience to delve into it, the rewards are overwhelming.

Released the same year (1999), Otomo Yoshihide's renowned experimental drone album Cathode (Tzadik Records) actually has echoes of Drumm's opus, serendipitously, of course. Like on Second, the music here is almost deliberately restrained, yet still maintains an air of menace, as if Yoshihide is ready to burst into sheets of noise at any moment (again, knowing a bit about the Japanese maestro's back catalogue of free jazz and turntablist noise helps reinforce this tension). Intriguingly, the title tracks, "Cathode 1" and "Cathode 2" are, to my mind, the least interesting tracks, although both represent excellent examples of live-recorded modern-day experimentation, as Yoshihide samples his collaborators directly as they produce their music (including Sachiko M), toys with strings, voices, pianos and traditional Japanese instruments, and produces a Varese-inspired pair of unusual, jarring and post-modern compositions. But it's the two "Modulation" tracks that bookend the album which really elevate Cathode to avant-garde masterpiece status. On the first, a gently-plucked acoustic guitar duets subtly with a high-pitched sine-wave generator tone, creating a beguiling mix of the atonal and the melodic. Slowly, a droning sho, a traditional Japanese wind instrument, slides into the mix, and the result is something like the Taj Mahal Travellers jamming with Ryoji Ikeda. The final track is even more mesmerising, a perfect encapsulation of jarring drone. Often with minimal music like this and Second, the complaint is that "not much happens". For me, in so many ways, that's a plus. By refusing to kowtow to mainstream sensibilities, and by channeling such disparate strains as minimalist electronica and zen Buddhism, Yoshihide forces the listener to appreciate the music with a fresh perspective. 

As well as Keiji Haino, one of the big highlights of the "Nightmare before Christmas" ATP Festival was New Zealand trio The Dead C, veterans in their own right of the noise-rock underground scene. However, I am embarrassed to admit that I have paid scant attention to their recent output, despite falling head-over-heels in love with their seminal 1992 album Harsh 70s Reality years ago. Their wonderful improvised set at ATP convinced me to correct this and, at the recommendation of guitarist Bruce Russell, I bagged a copy of their latest release, Patience (2010, Ba Da Bing!) there and then. What a great choice (thanks Bruce!!!). Much like the live set, Patience is obviously improvised, and has a lo-fi, ramshackle vibe that instantly recalls such great underground rock/improv acts like Skullflower, Ramleh and even The Velvet Underground. The album's title is meant to be an ironic comment on the "difficult" reputation of The Dead C's output but if this is meant to require patience to get into, I must be pretty adaptable, as I was captured from the off. I love Robbie Yeats' insistent, wobbly back-beats, all Mo Tucker clatter and hints of Klaus Schulze's (circa the first Ash Ra Tempel album, natch!) elegant thrash. Michael Morley's deadened vocalisations are sadly missing from Patience, but that's the only quibble as he and Russell unleash a series of fuzzed-out solos, rampant feedback and stoned riffage. The last piece, "South" is a near-15-minute slab of blissful experimental rock, as trippy as it is fascinating, with weird sounds offset by unfamiliar jazz motifs. Patience is a very "structureless" album but, as with Skullflower's Exquisite Fucking Boredom album, it's also as heady as the Grateful Dead in full Fillmore flight. Bliss!

Talking of bliss, there is literally no other word to describe the album by Canadian doom-metal duo Nadja that has been spinning away on my iPod all month. Seems the band realised it as well, seeing as they named it Bliss Torn From Emptiness! Originally released on Fargone Records in 2005, Bliss Torn From Emptiness was given a remix and stunning new artwork by guitarist/effects bod Aidan Baker in 2008, and was quite simply one of the best albums released that year. Nadja have a familiar but stunningly effective formula, one that also has worked marvelously for "post-rock" acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mono, but which these guys have perfected to unrivalled levels, mainly by avoiding the ruts so many post-rock bands fall into (y'know "let's do quiet-to-loud-to-quiet over and over again"). Inspired by early-nineties guitar bands like My Bloody Valentine, Nadja build up walls of saturated guitar solos, so heavily distorted by effects as to create a weird, hazy total sensory assault. But where Nadja differ from the shoegaze crowd is that, where the latter's music feels urban, with a city-dweller's sense of disconnection and apathy, Nadja's music is anchored in the folk heritage of post-Sabbath metal, especially the droning, amped-up doom of SUNN O))) and Boris. Using crunching drum machines, and sub-Iommi riffs, with a bass that could bring on earthquakes, this music plods and thunders where MBV tried to soar, coming on like primeval forest spirits woken from centuries of slumber. At times, the guitars and synths rise heaven-wards like elegiac angels, but for the main, Bliss Torn From Emptiness is a dark, bleak and harsh epic. Along with SUNN O)))'s White2, Boris' Flood, Orthodox's Sentencia and Jesu's self-titled debut, it's surely one of the best metal albums of the last decade.

Another great treat this year has been the launch of noise fanzine 'As Loud As Possible', the first issue of which came out chock-a-block with interviews, pics, reviews and analyses in November. Among its many insights and great bits of info, there was a lengthy history of the seminal 80s record label Broken Flag, who were run by Gary Mundy, and proved a key player in the development of the "power electronics" sub-genre, releasing tapes and vinyl recordings by the likes of The Grey Wolves, Maurizio Bianchi and Skullflower. Reading through this great article (seriously, a big "hail" to the guys behind ALAP, as well as the lads at Second Layer Records for distributing it here - I honestly can't praise them enough!), I was predictably inspired to seek out the output of Mundy's own band, Ramleh, which led me to the essential album/compilation Hole In The Heart (2009, Dirter). Ramleh were a slightly different proposition to most of their contemporaries (hence, perhaps, their epic write-up in The Wire a while ago), often eschewing the blatant provocation of contemporaries like Whitehouse and Sutcliffe Jugend, to develop something more esoteric and mystical. Hole In the Heart was originally a tape release from 1987 on Broken Flag, but has been augmented in this superb edition to include other tracks from the same period, whilst maintaining a consistent atmosphere throughout its two discs. By the time of the original Hole In The Heart, Ramleh was pretty much a solo project for sustained guitar/electronic workouts by Mundy, who took the template of power electronics acts like Whitehouse and stripped it down, highlighting the drone and atmosphere whilst forgoing the theatrics. Other tracks on this CD edition include members of Skullflower such as Anthony diFranco and Matt Bower, and they therefore had echoes in that band's subsequent releases such as Form Destroyer, Xaman and IIIrd Gatekeeper, with a similar emphasis on a sort of primordial force that feels like it predates modern civilisation altogether. This is particularly prevalent on tracks like "Bite the Bolster" and "Do Not Come Near", where suspended, fuzzy guitar and organ drones swirl around the ether, whilst Mundy chants and moans in a forlorn, subhuman voice. Less directly "metal" than any of the early Skullflower records, with more frequent bursts of harsh electronic noise, Hole In The Heart feels ultimately more desolate and forlorn, and its influence clearly can be heard on acts like SUNN O))), The North Sea and Robedoor.

I can't really sign off on 2010 without bringing up a bit of hauntology, can I? Whatever you may think of the term, and its ubiquity in the pages of The Wire, and on blogs such as this one (I'll admit it - I love the stuff!), there is no denying the impact it has had on modern post-noise music, and the way it has opened even more horizons for modern-day pop/rock/electro artists as they play with new sound sources, effects and influences.

One of the most important acts in British hauntology at the moment is undoubtedly Demdike Stare, who released a trilogy of EPs and albums this year, of which Liberation Through Hearing (2010, Modern Love) is the big highlight (although both the EP that preceded it, Forest of Evil, and the subsequent LP Voices of Dust are also excellent). Differentiating themselves from many of their haunted peers, Demdike Stare have embraced the typically Northern English heathen undertones suggested by their moniker (Demdike was the pseudonym of a famous 16th-century "witch"), as opposed to distorted pop culture references or hints of rock archetypes. In many ways, with its arcane synths and shadowy textures, Liberation Through Hearing feels darkly nostalgic, like a horror movie director imagining sinister historical events the rest of us have long forgotten (which figures, given the witchcraft references, which even extend to a lot of the duo's artwork). Which does not mean Liberation Through Hearing is retro in any sense. If anything, for all its arcane synth use, it's soemthing of a cross-section of modern popular music, the synths at times evoking trance-electronica or ambient music, whilst there are scattered techno beats on "Regolith" and shades of spectral dub on opener "Caged In Stammhein". Such eclecticism harkens back to their 2009 debut Symbiosis, but Liberation Through Hearing is an altogether more coherent offering, with these individual elements getting swallowed into the swirling haze like echoes coming down a darkened passage in an abandoned factory or ruined castle on the Lancashire moors. It makes for an arresting and troubling whole, the elements pieced together like Frankenstein's music - yet another horror reference! Haunted by the landscapes of Northern England, Demdike Stare have managed to encapsulate the mysticism, darkness and beauty of their surroundings, and beyond, in Liberation Through Hearing. It's one of the best albums of 2010.

The North ("where we do what we want!") haunts the grooves of another important release this year, though in a much different way. Darkstar is made up of a trio of Northerners exiled in London, who, after a string of well-received singles and EPs, released their debut album, North on much-loved dubstep label Hyberdub in October. Sadly, it looks like the hype surrounding the aforementioned tasters has caused a backlash similar to that encountered by Salem with their debut King Night, also released this year. Part of this seems to be down to the label on which North has appeared. After all, Hyperdub is firmly at the forefront of the UK dubstep scene, seemingly able to predict every major shift and innovation in this increasingly overpopulated genre with each release. And Darkstar started out by being very much in a similar zone as their peers Kode 9 and Burial, before scaling back the dub, hiring vocalist James Buttery and moving into sparser and more electronic musical territory with their debut longplayer. Many have scratched at the reason for this shift, with nostalgia for their Northern "homeland", birthplace of electro pioneers OMD, The Human League, Soft Cell et al, seemingly the preferred explanation, meaning North is regularly dismissed as being retro-flavoured electro-pop, especially as one of the albums stand-out tracks is a cover of The League's "Gold". But to look at North as just an eighties throwback is a bit insulting to the guys behind this weird little record, and above all displays an inability to look beyond cliches and preconceptions: about dubstep, electronic music and even music labels like Hyperdub. In fact, I'd argue that the company's boss Steve Goodman (aka Kode 9) has once again shown how forward-thinking he is. It may sound very different to label mates Burial or King Midas Sound, but Darkstar's music still inhabits the same nocturnal fringe of isolated post-dance urbanness as they do, that no-man's-land between alcohol-fuelled sadness and the dancefloor. Darkstar's take on electro-pop is not crass retrovision, and honestly, apart maybe from the catchy "Dear Heartbeat", doesn't sound much like the aforementioned eighties acts. Their closest cousins are actually mournful Canadian popsters Junior Boys and, like them, Darkstar produce music that has hooks aplenty, but above all feels emotionally real and touching. As the dubstep wave wanes a tad, and the genre's producers scrabble around looking for new inspiration, it seems Darkstar -and Steve Goodman- have realised there will be a place among those left behind for simple, heartfelt and intelligent post-dance music. As Goodman himself says, music is a virus, and North is probably urban music's latest gorgeous mutation.

My, that's quite an eclectic selection I've gone through! Of course, it's only the tip of the iceberg, but I'd rather not bore the pants off anyone, including myself, by going on too long. But, if you like any or all of the above, I also recommend checking out Ouroborindra by Eric Zann (2005, Ghost Box), The Topography of the Lungs by Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink (1970, Incus), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Macropnympha (1995, Praxis Dr Bearmann), Philip Jeck's An Ark For The Listener (2010, Touch), 2 by Stephen O'Malley and Peter Rehberg's side-project Ktl (2007, Editions Mego), all the Skullflower and Noise albums I mentioned in my previous two or three posts, plus Blue Corpse and Ready for the House by Jandek, and Lightnin' Hopkins' debut album. All brilliant and all constantly in my ears this month...

Some people have said that I take music too seriously, that it can't possibly matter as much to the world as I seem to think it does. Well, maybe... But then I think of how hard so many people seem to find this festive period, myself included. For various reasons, the hype, jolities and constant glitter can seem to underline a sense of loneliness or despondency. Only last night, as I wound my way through central London from Soho to Charing Cross, I was hit by such a sense of sadness, despite the snow and bright lights, because my path frequently crossed that of homeless men and women, who were huddled under sleeping bags and old newspapers, on park benches or in shop doorways, bracing themselves against the freezing cold and biting wind. I'd already given money to support homeless charity Crisis (www.crisis.org.uk), but the sight of so many people suffering at this time of year was troubling. But then, as I reached Charing Cross station, the melodic, haunting sound of French horns playing "Silent Night" wafted its way to my ears. A brass band was playing Christmas carols, whilst a small group of volunteers were preparing to dispense warm soup to the homeless (might explain why there were so many of them, in fairness). Obviously, the food was the main comforter for these destitute souls, but I like to think that those forlorn, beautiful notes would have brought just a little bit extra warmth to their hearts, as most music does for me when I'm at a low ebb. 

Anyway, just a thought, eh? Whatever the truth in my assumption about "Silent Night" on a cold night, it helped reinforce my belief that music matters. Happy Winterval, everyone (fuck you, Daily Mail!!!) and I guess (hope) I'll be back in 2011.

- J. December, 2010

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