Wednesday, 7 September 2011

12 months of Rust: Summer 2011!

That's right, my monthly reviews section has had a name change! Not much will change, I guess (it's not like anyone will really notice), but I've always felt that I needed a name change. There's always been a whole lot more to the music, art, films and general musings I put up here every month than can be contained on an iPod. Summer having been mighty busy, between holidaying in gorgeous Dubrovnik (go there!) and making my first steps as a proper music journalist (get me:, this post coversJune, July and August. This seasonal formula may be the way I take things moving forwards, for time reasons. So brace yourselves!

Meanwhile, the world of British journalism has had its best news since Lucifer knows when, as the sordid red-top News Of The World has been forced out of business by allegations its journalists have been hacking the phones of abduction victims and people caught up in the 7/7 bombings. It's a shame it has taken something so heinous for people to wake up to the iniquities of our national press (I'd like to think The Sun and Daily Mail may follow soon, though I'm not holding my breath), but at least it looks like the woefully inadequate Press Complaints Commission is set to be scrapped, meaning we might have at last have a decent shot at proper press regulation soon. Fingers crossed. Of course, the ridiculous riots across England gave a lot of very intellectually-challenged journalists (step up Mad Melanie Phillips, Max Hastings and Richard Littlejohn) to write absolute drivel with some authority, so bad journalism is still, regrettably, alive and well on these shores.

Stupid: the London riots have given arsehole right-wing journos quite a few opportunities to spout nonsense this Summer. Still, the toff-looking chap in this picture is rather funny. "If I stand still, maybe they won't see me..."
 We also had to bid a sad farewell to the troubled Amy Winehouse. I was never a huge fan of hers, especially given the media frenzy she always seemed to generate, but I still think she had a lovely voice, and an undeniable talent for songwriting. It's a shame to have seen that talent dissipate so publicly. The music world has also lost the great Conrad Schnitzler and Akira "Joe" Yamanaka of hard rock giants Flower Travellin' Band this Summer, so it's been a sobering couple of months.

And RIP to the victims of that mad cunt in Norway. Some of the rhetoric emanating from the Right recently, from the hysterical nonsense of idiots like Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlejohn to Sarah Palin and her despicable cross-hair map, has been disgraceful, and, allied to economic meltdown and issues of immigration, not to mention an irresponsible press across the US, Britain and other supposedly developed nations, it has obviously helped to galvanise this stupid, insane and heartless man. Here's hoping lessons will be learned, although, if the initial way the incident was reported is anything to go by, I'm not holding my breath. A true tragedy, and a terrifying one at that.

Onto music. Periodically, I find myself getting so into a specific genre of music that it beggars belief. It doesn't have to be something new, and this month, it's been a genre I've loved for over a decade, but left to one side for most of the last 5 years: THE BLUES. Not many genres get the distinction of having "the" placed before them. Then again, few genres have transcended the decades with such primordial simplicity as the Blues. To be honest, I've been guzzling down too many different records to realistically be able to profile them all here, but the following albums must all be considered real classics of the Blues.
  • Muddy Waters - At Newport 1960 (1960, Chess).
In terms of electric Blues, this is something of a holy grail (should that be "an" holy grail? I'm never sure, and one likes to be as pompous as possible...). The Newport Jazz Festival was, by 1960, something of an institution among the American intelligentsia: smart, sophisticated and cool. Blues was, after a golden period in the '30s, not so cool, but who better to catapult the Blues back into the collective consciousness than the great McKinley Morganfield
Though, if I'm honest, this late-50s strain of electric blues has not, in my mind, aged as well as later variants. I know that many a Blues aficionado will be looking down their noses at me, decrying me as a philistine white boy too enamoured of the heavy rock guitar to really appreciate the Blues. Fair point, maybe. I'm a sucker for a high-powered guitar mania. But I still think that the blues presented here is still too linked to skiffle and r'n'b to really have the feel that Waters would crystallise on 1977's Hard Again
Having said all that nonsense, this album remains an essential document of the moment Blues moved away from its own unfortunate ghetto into the wider consciousness of modern music. Waters' solos are sharp, smart and gorgeous, whilst the harmonica work of James Cotton is genre-defining. A few tracks are rather similar, a leitmotiv style across Waters' oeuvre (seriously, the differences between "Hoochie Coochie Man" and later classic "Mannish Boy" are not that easily detectable, folks!), but opener "I Got My Brand On You" is a Blues masterpiece, soulful and moody at once, with some outstanding guitar work from Waters. As the audience falls in love with this titanic man, the future of Blues is being laid out on record for our lucky ears. Sometimes it takes one track...
  • Paul Butterfield Blues Band - East-West (1966, Elektra)
If Muddy Waters set the trend, it was taken up big time by a bunch of white upstarts, chief among them harmonica genius and singer Paul Butterfield. Marshaling a world-class band around him, including genius guitarists Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield (the latter an unparalleled genius in America at the time), Butterfield electrified the Blues beyond what even visionaries like Muddy Waters and John 'Lee' Hooker had dreamed. 
Before even John Mayall and Eric Clapton, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band returned the Blues to the forefront of popular music, bringing rock music into the fold (some of their tracks were fucking hard), whilst preserving the emotional depths and pathos of pure Blues. Tapping into the "revolutionary" zeitgeist, they even challenged rock stereotypes by being one of the few mixed-race rock bands in America at the time. So it's fair to say that the Blues was a crucial factor in the fight for civil rights. From Johnny Winter producing Muddy Waters to The Band working with New Orleans Blues legend Allan Toussaint, the Blues, and its relationship to rock, was crucial to popular music's embrace of social change.
And The PBBB were at the forefront of this revolution, never more so than on East-West, one of the most forward-looking albums of its era. To listen to it is to marvel that it came out in fucking 1966! Whether they're blazing through short, taut blues-rockers like "Walkin' Blues" and "Get Out Of My Life, Woman", or stretching out, in wild premonitions of the post-Sgt Pepper's musical landscape, all wondrous guitar solos, funky piano breaks (courtesy of the great Mike Naftalin) and Butterfield's sexy amplified harp, these guys are always on top of their game, as tight as a vice yet able to stretch out in ways that prefigure the heyday of West Coast rock by over a year.
This comes to a magnificent head on the title track, a gasp-inducing, 13-minute romp displaying all the virtuosity of the band, especially Bishop and the superlative Bloomfield, who had already by this point made rock history as part of the backing band on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and at his controversial 1965 appearance at Newport. Hearing him on "East-West", you can look past the blah, and appreciate his genius. If Butterfield was the brains and voice of the PBBB, Mike Bloomfield was the soul, and his guitar, taking in Eastern influences (we're talking a whole year before George Harrison and his sitar), and the pure, unadulterated bliss of the Blues. East-West is an unfettered masterpiece, a band at the peak of its powers and, almost literally changing the world. 
  • Canned Heat - Boogie With Canned Heat (1968, Liberty) 
If The Paul Butterfield Blues Band laid the groundwork, the American band that most capitalised on the resurgence of Blues in a rock context, even as they were overshadowed by their less authentic British rivals (sorry, that's another dig at Clapton, but fuck him), was Canned Heat. The Heat was formed by two musicologists, guitarist and harmonica player Alan 'Blind Owl' Wilson and vocalist Bob 'The Bear' Hite, experts in the Blues both. As such, the music of Canned Heat, whilst produced by a bunch of white guys, is about the most authentic of all the sixties Blues acts.
This was most prevalent on Boogie With Canned Heat. In many ways, most Canned Heat albums suffered, as did many Blues records, by being more a collection of songs than a cohesive statement. But my God, these guys were good! In fact, I'd claim that, apart from the aforementioned Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat were the best rock-blues band of all time. So, collections of songs or not, Boogie With Canned Heat shakes its mean ass!
Boogie With Canned Heat works like many a Blues album, especially of the post-PBBB type, mixing Blues standards with self-penned originals. Probably the stand-out of the latter is "On The Road Again", a sitar-driven folk-blues hit that catapulted The Heat into the charts, and making Wilson, vocalist on that track, the unwitting voice of a generation (more so after "Going Up The Country", the Woodstock theme, from their follow-up Living The Blues). "On the Road Again" is a pop/folk/blues classic, Wilson's fragile voice adding gravitas to a tune that, as a hymn to hitchhiking and busking, embodied the spirit of a generation.
Boogie With Canned Heat revels in the eclectic talents of the band, from the fierce Blues-rock classic "Evil Woman", with its driving tempo shifts, to the melancholic slow Blues number "Marie Laveau", which is dominated by some wonderful guitar work from Wilson and second guitarist Henry Vestine (formerly a Mother of Invention). But the cherry on the Mississippi Mud Cake is 11-minute jam "Fried Hockey Boogie", in which the band-members, introduced in turn by Hite, flex their improvisatory muscles and tap into the psychedelic zeitgeist of the time. The Blues, as with "East-West", was no longer a dwindling genre for nostalgic old-timers, but an art-form as modern, complex and adventurous as anything done by Grateful Dead or Quicksilver Messenger Service. Canned Heat would go completely overboard on follow-up Living The Blues, with some drug-fueled, over-long jamming, but Boogie With Canned Heat remains an unparalleled classic.
  • Albert King - Live Wire / Blues Power (1968, Stax)
One of the 3 "Kings" of the Blues, alongside namesakes B.B. and Freddie, Albert King was also, in this amateur hack's opinion, the best. Never as successful as B.B. King, Albert nonetheless deliver a bona fide classic in 1967's Born Under a Bad Sign, and it's wonderful, horn-powered title track, and then promptly added to his burgeoning reputation with this wonderful live masterpiece. Live Wire / Blues Power shows a master guitarist picking up on the "rock" approach white Blues fans were bringing to the genre and unleashing his fabulous vision on a truly delighted audience. 
Rock's ubiquitous love for the Blues come 1968 is obvious from the location of the concert: Bill Graham's renowned Fillmore West auditorium in San Francisco, a much-loved venue for rock and psych acts such as The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company. But there's no way a guitarist as fucking talented as King was going to be in any way intimidated by performing in one of rock's cathedrals. Instead, from the moment he is introduced via a blistering rendition of upbeat instrumental "Watermelon Man", something of a signature track of his, he doesn't let up, letting his Gibson Flying V sing and squeal and howl through tracks that are about as close to electric Blues nirvana as can be achieved. The slow burning "Blues Power" is a particular triumph, with King's hilarious spoken-word passages bouncing off some truly incredible and moving solos. If Albert King had a weakness, it was his lack of vocal talent, but as a guitarist, he knew few -if any- peers. This is a truly essential addition to the rock/blues canon, one that proved that Black Blues musicians could rip it up with as much power as their white students.
  • Ten Years After - Undead (1968, Deram)
Generally speaking, I'm rather unimpessed when it comes to the "British Blues Boom" with so-called classic recordings such as Disraeli Gears, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton and most of the early Stones' and Animals' material seeming rather derivative and puny in comparison to what Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat and Albert King were doing at the time. Until the advent of Free in the late sixties, it seemed only the Peter Green-helmed version of Fleetwood Mac could compete with the American Blues bands, and even then only live and on a handful of cool singles. 
The one exception circa '67-68 would have been Ten Years After, who had a sense of virtuosity and exploration that seemed to exceed that of most of their Anglo peers (although, admittedly, they would never really capture in the studio). The best example of this is Undead, especially the extended 2002 reissue (the original vinyl edition was woefully truncated). The biggest selling point Ten Years After had was leader Alvin Lee, one of Britain's premier electric guitarists (at one time, he was hailed as the "fastest guitarist in the world", a dubious honour if ever there was one, and one that totally overshadowed his inescapable talent), who was also blessed with a nicely sulky post-Jagger voice to boot.
Undead remains the band's crowning statement, an album mostly made up of covers, all expertly re-imagined in the TYA style in front of a very lucky live audience. Most notable is the band's interesting rhythmic approach, incorporating a definite jazz shuffle on extended workouts like "I May Be Wrong, But I Won't Be Wrong Always" and "(At the) Woodchopper's Ball", in which the insistent, skipping beats move at breakneck speed whilst Lee wrenches a series of hypnotic solos out of his axe. TYA were obviously refusing to fall into rock or Blues cliches, and their incorporation of unusual skiffle beats is testament to this.
In typical sixties psychedelic style, there's a lot of improvising here, including the odd testing drum solo, but for the most part the jazz anchoring allows each band member to showcase his talent without becoming tiresome (this includes some awesome bass solos), and there is a clear joy in the performances that reminds you just why improvisation in a rock/Blues format can be so wonderful. I consider Undead to be one of the great live Blues-rock albums, and the very best of British Blues by some margin.
  • Johnny Winter - The Progressive Blues Experiment (1968, Sonobeat)
Before I move onto something other than the Blues, I really should mention albino star Johnny Winter, whom I find to be rather underrated despite his status as one of the most popular guitarists of the late sixties and early seventies. In fact, he is undoubtedly a key figure in the late-sixties Blues-rock explosion, and would endure as such until being side-lined by heroin addiction and a subsequent decline in inspiration.
This album was recorded in 1967, briefly appearing the following year, only to disappear until after Winter's triumphant appearance at Woodstock and the release of his hit official debut album, Johnny Winter, in 1969. Yet, as a distillation of all that makes Winter such an endearing and exciting figure, The Progressive Blues Experiment, a blend of originals and rocked-up covers, may just be his most definitive and enduring statement. 
The most attractive quality of Winter's is that, whilst so many of his peers were trying to "modernise" Blues music for a rock audience, he hadn't, at this stage, lost sight of the genre's roots, making sublime use of slide guitar in particular, and echoing everyone from Muddy Waters (on the aptly-titled "Tribute to Muddy", easily as good as anything the master ever did) to Elmore James, somehow without ever seeming derivative. Partly I think this was down to his distinctive, countryfied croon (his ability to leap from snarling growl to high-pitched yelp is incredible); part of it is also the dusky, sand-swept tone of his guitar, which is, for all his influences, 100% Texas.
Like all of the artists mentioned here, Winter is a master of switching atmospheres and styles, from pacy rock numbers to aching soul-influences heart-breakers. And of course, he's a fucking mental guitarist, running his fingers up and down the fretboard like a man possessed, notably on his signature tune "Mean Woman Blues" and the anguished "It's My Own Fault". Just as on At Newport 1960, East-West, Boogie With Canned Heat, Live Wire/Blues Power and Undead, The Progressive Blues Experiment (what an apt title!) epitomises the variety, power and above all emotion, that lie at the heart of this most heart-felt of genres. Long live the Blues!

Somewhat on the other side of the popular music spectrum, I've also been bludgeoning my ears with a suitably abrasive avalanche of brutal, crunching metal, mostly courtesy of a number of Stephen O'Malley-related records. O'Malley is of course best known as one of the mind's behind legendary cowled doom-drone icons SUNN O))), but to my mind he is also one of the most progressive and forward-thinking geniuses in modern rock. His massive musical knowledge and sense of exploration are apparent both in his work as part of SUNN O))) (and indeed, we should also salute his supposedly more troglodyte-esque SUNN O))) cohort Greg Anderson in this regard, for both have a wide range of influences and inspirations), and via his numerous side-projects, which seem to take in just about every genre conceivable in modern music. I was already very familiar with his work as part of extreme metal act Khanate (one of the few truly peerless bands of the last 10 years) and with Peter "Pita" Rehberg in KTL. As with SUNN O))), both projects are pretty fucking amazing, so I was curious -nay, excited- to discover some of the other works and projects he'd participated in or been influenced by. What resulted was an increasingly tangential (in O'Malley terms) exploration of some of the more intriguing and extreme forms of modern music...
  • Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine - Rampton (2003, Southern Lord)
This is a truly excellent little collaboration between the twin heads of SUNN O))), Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley, and a pair of English doom-metal mongers in the form of Electric Wizard's drummer Justin Greaves and Cathedral's vocalist Lee Dorrian. As such, Teeth of Lions... are something of a transatlantic drone/doom supergroup, and have had to weather expectations accordingly. 
It would be easy to see Greaves and Dorrian as mere add-ons to a SUNN O)))-dominated project, but in fact, the greatest strength of Rampton is that it expertly blends the monolithic dirges of American drone metal, with the edgier, industrial strains of British doom. Anderson and O'Malley certainly make themselves present, belching out those subterranean guitar and bass riffs that they do so well, setting the very walls of your consciousness rumbling and your guts broiling. Played at full volume, opening track "He Who Accepts All That Is Offered (Feel Bad Hit of the Winter)" is equal to anything the duo have done on their own, the bludgeoning, never-ending guitar mess seeming to roar out of the very fabric of the earth, a truly seismic occurrence.
So far, so very SUNN O))). Except that very quickly Greaves asserts himself on the track, his supple, jazz-inflected drumming adding a funky undercurrent that rips the music out of its rootsy meandering and into a more urban context. They may be named after a track from Earth's second album, but Teeth of Lions... feel much more industrial than anything by Dylan Carlson's band. This feeling is compounded by Dorrian's misanthropic vocals, the ex-Napalm Death man coming on like Justin K Broadrick in his Godflesh pomp. There may be an earthier vibe to Rampton than on, say, Streetcleaner, but it's still a long way from the wide-open spaces that characterise much American doom and black metal. 
Although admittedly over-dominated by the aforementioned monolith of an opener ("The Smiler" is pretty fucking great, too, with Dorrian giving it his all), Rampton stands up as well as most of Khanate and KTL's output amongst the many SUNN O))-related side-projects. If you like your metal to be dark, angry, violent and heavy, this is required listening.
  •  Thorr's Hammer - Dommedagsnatt (1996, Moribund)
Long before they formed SUNN O))), Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley played guitar in a much more short-lived (we're talking about 6 weeks) black metal act, Thorr's Hammer. They only released one EP, Dommedagsnatt, recorded in Washington state in 1996, before disbanding, with O'Malley and Anderson going on to form Burning Witch from the ashes of the Hammer. Since this demise, the band has gained something of a cult following, namely on the back of its members' subsequent success.
And for once, the O'Malley/Anderson duo wasn't the focal point of the band's mystique. That honour has to go to then-teenage vocalist Runhild Gammelsæter, whose Scandinavian good looks, arresting make-up and singular vocals ensured that Thorr's Hammer would achieve legendary status, even among people who'd never heard the band. After all, a hot chick fronting a Norwegian-style black metal band? How cool is that?
Turns out not very, I'm afraid. The music on Dommedagsnatt is rather conventional by metal standards, and whilst there are times when Gammelsaeter's troll-like roar is striking, for the most part she sounds like just about every male black metal vocalist out there. The best track is "Mellom Galgene", a live bonus one on the recent Southern Lord reissue, but for the most part, this is a case of a once-forgettable band getting little-deserved recognition on the back of its members' posthumous achievements.
As an aside, if you want to really check out the talents of Runhild Gammelsæter, I heartily recommend her joint project with the great James Plotkin, Khlyst, and their debut album Chaos Is My Name. Much more challenging, interesting and vocally innovative!

Alongside his musical activities, with Anderson and others, Stephen O'Malley is also involved with a range of projects in different media, and has recently been given a curatorial role of Editions Mego sub-label Ideologic Organ, which is dedicated to exploring "acoustic" music in all its various facets.Typically, for O'Malley, the second release on the label sounds so subterranean it could have been recorded in Hades itself:
  • Phurpa - Trowo Phurnag Ceremony (2011, Ideologic Organ
Seriously, where the fuck did O'Malley find this phenomenon of oddness? Phurpa are a group of Russian former metal-playing "heads" who have dedicated their music to exploring the proto-Buddhist "Bon" religion. Like in Buddhism, the sounds produced are based almost entirely on vocal chanting, but if Tibetan Buddhist chanting is deep, then the rumbling mantras of the Bon religion are positively abyssal.
The formula for Phurpa's tracks is relatively consistent, apart from a couple of instrumental pieces where the clanging of metallic percussion and rumbling horns seem to bridge the gap between this most ancient of music and modern-era industrial rock. Each track starts with the clatter of a metal plate or the tingle of a bell, before the voices rumble into the ensuing resonance, either a single one or a terrifying avalanche of raw, gravelly tones that stretch over and supersede one another with pig-headed single-mindedness. These mantras seem to take the throat singing style made popular (read: palatable) by Tuvan acts such as Huun-Huur-Tu and drags into a netherworld of old gods and forgotten tombs. You can almost picture the incense smoke snaking across a dark, cavernous chamber in a temple buried under a mountain as near-mummified monks try to resurrect the dead. It's heady, chilling stuff.
As such, Trowo Phurnag Ceremony is not music that is "enjoyed". I doubt it even has the power of transcendence for most Western listeners. It's long, murky and intimidating, going beyond even what LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela have achieved in similar experiments. But if you are willing to quake in its heavy, spiritual wake, you will experience something quite unlike anything else currently available in modern music.

So, as well as being an artist and music-maker supreme, Stephen O'Malley can now count being a record label curator of exquisite taste among his many talents (the other Ideologic Organ album, Aestuarium by Jessika Kenney & Eyvind Kang is equally impressive, in a very different way, asTrowo Phurnag Ceremony, though I can't review it here). Here's hoping he (and Anderson) will be given a curatorial role by ATP sometime soon. I'd definitely head to Butlins to see Phurpa!

  •  Ezekiel Honig - Folding In On Itself (2011, Type)
William Basinski's opus The Disintegration Loops has left a deep impression on the musical landscape that has followed it. For sure, the likes of Fennesz and Philip Jeck were already playing with the intensification of the more discrete elements of ambience and turning them into ambitious, elegiac pieces; and of course Basinski owes a debt of gratitude to the great minimalist composers of the mid-sixties-onwards. But few pieces managed to be so spectacularly emotive using such spartan means. And since then, a veritable avalanche of artists have taken up exploring elements like the crackle of vinyl, minimal strings and synths or submerged electronic percussion and hoping to create something deep, intense and meaningful with relatively stripped-down means.
Which brings us to Ezekiel Honig. In many ways, he brings nothing new to this already sturdily-garnished table, yet Folding In On Itself is a worthwhile addition to the menu. Essentially, it's a moody and abstract soundtrack to Honig's home city, New York (something he also shares with Basinski), as the composer/producer grabs found sounds such as cars, conversational chatter, the subway and clanking machinery and then overlays them with subtle flourishes of piano, guitar, organ and synth to create a vivid mind's eye view of the Big Apple, albeit a deliberately foggy one.
In true ambient fashion, a lot of Honig's music is deceptively slight, with soft synth lines playing over scattered found sounds and wisps of digital fuzz. It may sound slight, but almost unexpectedly, Honig injects sub-aquatic techno beats into the mix, adding an uncertain edge to tracks like "Subverting the Memory of Your Surroundings" and "Between Bridges". The former opens with a bizarre clattering sound and a muted sample of the New York subway, which dissolves and reappears throughout the track, snaking around wobbly rhythmic pulsations. The track's forward momentum handily sets the public transport scene, but the hazy production and droning organ mean that it's a post-party hangover journey your on, fitful light from grimy carriage windows hitting bleary eyes. "Between Bridges" is techno for smackheads, insistent but slovenly, the rhythm almost as insubstantial as a heartbeat whilst disconnected mutter unintelligible snippets of non-song. They're the two catchiest tracks on the album, but they still set the tone for an album that is sad, detached and drowsy.
The general vibe of Folding In On Itself is of distant memories of living, even surviving, in a dense, grimy and crowded city. The faded photographs Honig uses for the cover give the game away: this is an album dedicated to the lost heirlooms of people's lives, the sounds we hear but never properly register, the memories buried in daily life.
From the aching piano on "Drafting Foresight" to the moaned guitar lines of "High & Low", Folding In On Itself is laden with this sense of loss and regret. Time passes and damages, and beauty hurts. If at times the album is almost suffocatingly maudlin, Honig's light touch and elusive approach mean it never becomes overbearing for long. It's a touching and resonant addition to the legacy of The Disintegration Loops.  

(A full version of this review can be found here:

  • Surface of the Earth - Surface of the Earth (2011 reissue, Utech Records)
By 1999, Phill Niblock, Nurse With Wound, William Basinski, Windy and Carl, The Dead C and others had brought drone into the latter half of industrialised (indeed, post-industrialised) 20th century culture. But, to my mind, few albums captured this better than Surface of the Earth's self-titled second album. It's just a shame that, apparently, no-one was listening at the time.
Because Surface of the Earth, for me, represents the apex of the urbanisation of drone. At its core, this is a guitar album: two or three electric guitars, fucked-up and fucked around with until they are barely more than noise generators, spitting feedback into the ether to dance listlessly with an even less coherent synth rumble. But out of this barely-palpable mess come weird and arresting sounds: the smash of metal upon metal, unholy crackles and seething sub-frequencies. It's as if a hundred machines and power plants are collapsing into your ears. This is, to somewhat join the dots with Brad Sanders' article, the point where drone (re-)connects with metal, as the whole of Surface of the Earth creeps out of the speakers like the kind of unsettling and beautiful murk you get on a Khanate album.
But it is intrinsically, unrelentingly, urban. No flighty dreams of lost gods and opened consciousnesses here. The music of Surface of the Earth is tight, nocturnal and oppressive, as if, as a listener, you've suddenly woken up on top of a ruined skyscraper, in a crumbling city at the end of time, and all around you buildings, railroads and monuments are crashing into a seething pit of nothingness. On the two longest pieces, "Causer Gird" and "Voyager", this almost paradoxically hits such levels of terrifying beauty that, in the manner of Radigue's best works, you might allow yourself to feel elated, transported even, as if on some tantric trip. Then a saturated blast of distorted guitar hits you, and you're plunged back into that ailing city at the end of anything meaningful. It's not often that music can make you feel like the world is ending. Surface of the Earth is one of those delicious moments.
Perhaps this is because it never allows itself to become detached from human existence in the way that, to be honest, a lot of "urban drone" (and, whilst I'm at it, Black Metal) does these days. Maybe that's because it was recorded in a wooden community hall in Wellington, NZ, on two lowly microphones and a cassette deck. Whatever the case, Surface of the Earth is a painfully humane album. Yes, it's deeply oppressive and relentlessly dark, but pay attention and sudden, aching blasts of emotion will emerge, like fleeting bolts of sunlight piercing a cloud-covered sky. On "Voyager" a warm synth line bubbles into the mix, fighting fitfully against the crumbling wall of melancholic distortion and noise. On the luminous closing track, "Sea of Japan", one of the guitarists embarks on a mournful solo, one that wouldn't be out of place on a Slowdive or Jefre Cantu-Ledesma album, full of pathos and despair, but also resolutely urban, as if a lone figure is miserably saluting the end of the world with a guitar from atop the roof of one of those crumbling buildings.

(A full version of this review can be read here:

  • Annapurna Illusion - Life Is An Illusion (2011, Rocket Recordings)
The two Wire-bolstered horsemen of the recent New Age revival are Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin) and the trio Emeralds. Whilst both have definitely produced tracks that expertly bridge the gap between twee old-school synth music and post-noise “noughties” culture, I have always found much of their respective outputs (with the exception of OPN’s latest, and excellent, album Returnal, I should mention) to be rather insubstantial and unchallenging, which was the main problem with New Age in the first place.
Above all, when it comes to synth-based drone and ambience, I can never shake the feeling that the Germans did it all a whole lot better decades ago. In the late sixties and early seventies, whilst popular British and American artists were cranking up the volume of their amps, or escaping to rural pastures to expand their minds and turning to folk or prog, several German krautrock and kosmische musicians and bands were using the drone templates of avant-garde composers such as LaMonte Young, Eliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros to stretch beyond typical rock and pop structures and into the musical cosmos. But where modern-day synth revivalists strain for similar objectives using retro-psychedelic synth melodies and faux-futuristic imagery, they simply cannot compete with the planet-sized, overwhelming sonic explorations of Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Popol Vuh or Ash Ra Tempel.
Which is where Annapurna Illusion, the “doom and dark” project of Not Not Fun alumnus High Wolf, aka “Max”, comes in. Because, even if you forgo the links to Hindu mythology and the Himalayas inherent to the name, Annapurna Illusion creates the sort of deeply enveloping and mystical synth music that was, up until now, the near-exclusive domain of the best of the kosmische acts. To put it in less wanky terms, Life Is An Illusion is simply one of the best albums released thus far in 2011. From the very first shimmering notes of ‘Entering Illusion’, you are given a sense that this music is meant to be huge, uncontrollable and all-consuming.
Throughout Life Is An Illusion, the synths are MASSIVE. On the album’s centrepiece, ‘Dizzy Vultures’, a pulsating, metronomic rhythmic line propels the piece forwards, whilst the synths dart and roar around it like some mad electronic tempest. The proof is here, should one need it, that wholly synthetic music can as heavy, to quote the Les Rallizes Denudes’ album title, as a death in the family. Forget the easy-going patter of Oneohtrix Point Never, the music on Life Is An Illusion feels as dense, unforgiving and mystical as the two great electronic drone albums of early-seventies Germany: Schulze’s Irrlicht and Cluster’s Cluster ’71.
Which is not to say that this is a vulgar case of a young disciple aping his predecessors, far from it. If Daniel Lopatin has one major quality, it’s that he increasingly uses his Oneohtrix Point Never project to inject shades of noise, rock and the avant-garde into mellow synth music, and “Max” does much the same on Life Is An lllusion, only better. ‘Entering Illusion’ may serve to ease the listener into the Annapurna Illusion soundscape, but it still bristles with uneasy electricity, ending in a crackle of volcanic hiss and noise. Throughout ‘Dizzy Vultures’, unsettling vocalisations and rumbles add extra tension to the mix, the track coming on like Cyborg-era Schulze blended with the deconstructed techno of Squarepusher or Aphex Twin. Meanwhile, flexing his kraut muscles to the full, “Max” then adds hard electronic percussion to ‘Crane and Bear’ and ‘Ambrosio’, managing to evoke not just the motorik grooves of Neu! and Harmonia but also the post-industrial clang of Skullflower or Ramleh. The whole album is a heady, subtle blend of approaches and styles, which creates a startlingly powerful and cohesive whole, a sum much greater than its collective influences.
What Annapurna Illusion has essentially lifted from the kosmische giants of 69-73 is not so much their sound as their overall approach. The music on Life Is An Illusion is gigantic and all-encompassing, conjuring up images of towering mountains, lost gods and swirling cosmos. At the same time, he elegantly suffuses his insistent and open-ended drones with touches of industrial noise and saturation that in less capable hands would seem out of place or clumsy. As such, Life Is An Illusion is one of the most accomplished synth drone albums released this last decade, and a welcome addition to the great kosmische canon.

(a full version of this article can be read here:
  • Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer - Re: ECM (2011, ECM)
ECM is one of the foremost European labels of any kind, releasing gorgeously assembled modern jazz and modern composition, and the genesis of this project can be traced to when the ever-curious Villalobos began integrating titles from the label’s catalogue into his live sets, notably the sparse works of Arvo Pärt and Alexander Knaifel (a great discovery for me - I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of him). Inspired by the results, he recruited Loderbauer and together they set about working on what almost amounts to an homage to the various facets of ECM’s prodigious output.
I say “almost” because these two operators are far too canny to descend into vacant plagiarism or pastiche. That said, fans of Villalobos’ unrote rhythms will probably be baffled upon first hearing “Reblop,” when it edges cautiously out of their speakers. Lifted from a piece by modern composer Christian Wallumrod, it is a stately, minimalist track, with atmospheric piano and harp drifting out of phases of pronounced silence. Techno, this is not. But Villalobos and Loderbauer aren’t content to sit behind others’ achievements, and, armed with their modular synths and mixing desk, they sneak in throbbing synthetic bass lines and fragmented ambience, rearranging the piece into something wholly new. “Resvete,” meanwhile, shifts and shudders between stuttering percussion and meditative ambience. Whether playing with the sparse compositions of Pärt, or the experimental jazz of Bennie Maupin (as on “Rensenada”), Villalobos and Loderbauer create tracks that take the essence of the pieces they’re working on, and re-imagine them in often unpredictable ways.
Villalobos’ night job still occasionally shines through. On “Reblazhentsva,” the pristine vocals and mournful violin lines of Alexander Knaifel’s “Blazhentsva” are married to restrained beats and swirling synth undertones, before segueing into crackling digital noise, creating one of the most exquisitely beautiful and surprising tracks on the album. Meanwhile, “Reannounce” toys with the Arabic music of Louis Sclavos’ “L’Imparfait des Langues,” looping its pulsating polyrhythms and submerging its warbling vocals in layers of waterlogged effects.
The deconstruction and subsequent reassembling of existing musical styles in a post-noise musical culture is an increasingly recurrent meme in popular and underground music these days. Re: ECM essentially takes the idea to its conceptual apex. Bold and exciting, the project demonstrates the infinite possibilities available to modern producers, if only they look in the unlikeliest of places.

(A complete version of this review can be found here:

Phew! I think that has to be a record. And yes, I'm aware the last four are cut-and-paste jobs from websites I contribute to, so sue me. They're there as a bonus anyway, and the points I make still stand.
But, for the record, other albums I've been enjoying this month include Barn Owl's excellent 2010 drone epic Ancestral Star (Thrill Jockey), which sees the Brooklyn duo go all Earth on us, with Morricone-inspired guitar rumbles interspersed among spacier, more kosmische pieces; and the edgy, minimal techno of Ricardo Villalobos' Vasco (2008, Perlon), not to mention his superlative recent collaboration with Max Loderbauer, Re: ECM (2011, ECM), in which they deconstructed and recombined pieces from that venerable modern composition/jazz/world label into startling and unexpected new post-techno experiments.
Switching to more sparse fare, I grabbed a copy of Loren Mazzacane Connors' The Curse of Midnight Mary (2009, Family Vineyard), a recently exhumed collection of old blues moans recorded by the guitarist back in 1981 in a cemetery in New England. Spooky stuff, and proof lyrics aren't always needed to convey a narrative of dread and mystery. His recent collaboration (again on Family Vineyard) with fellow avant-garde guitarist Alan Licht, Into the Night Sky, is also fantastic, and proof that time and Parkinson's disease have not dimmed Connors' power, talent and inventiveness. Speaking of collaborarions, I also highly recommend An Aural Symbiotic Mystery (2006, Sub Rosa), a live set from two personal heroes of mine, Tony Conrad and Charlemagne Palestine. Expertly melding the former's tantric violin drone with the latter's oddball chanting and minimalist piano, the duo creates a single piece that seems to evolve almost organically, hence the album title.
Finally, to satisfy my need for intense volume, I was blessed to submerge myself in Swans' latest album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (2010, Young God), an intense, angry record that sees the band's stalwart, Michael Gira, deliver some of his strongest songs in years without showing any signs of letting up on his trademark belligerence. It's not uniformly brilliant, with some weaker tracks that descend into near-Nick Cave levels of high camp, but opener "No Words/No Thoughts" is one of the best songs I've heard in months. Equally abrasive is the wonderful music of The Shadow Ring, the now-defunct band of experimentalist Graham Lambkin. Their second album, Put The Music In Its Coffin (1994, SIltbreeze) is one of the most startling releases of the first half of the nineties, a typically British underground experimental rock masterpiece caught somewhere between The Dead C and The Kinks, with oddball lyrics set to churning electric guitar and bonkers effects. Their 1999 magnum opus Lighthouse (Swill Radio) is even more outlandish, brimming with Lambkin's electronic noise and harsh spoken-word vocals in the fine tradition of Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse, only more peculiar. Connecting the dots between those acts and the current post-noise underground, The Shadow Ring deserve to stand alongside Skullflower, Ramleh and Richard Youngs as giants of the late-eighties/early-nineties UK underground.

Onto movies. I was able to get back to the cinema in July, and have also been splurging cheerfully on DVDs, from Artificial Eye's Andrei Tarkovsky box set, to the avant-garde shorts of Jeff Keen via My Brother Tom, Gus Van Sant's Gerry and a couple of John Carpenters. I was also rather nonplussed by Spielberg's Munich, but I shan't dwell on that. Here are some of the films that most pumped my nads over the Summer.

Have to start with the big one of the year, really - Terrence Malick's momentous Tree of Life, which won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes. It's a complex, yet also simple (I'll get there, I swear), film that initially had me rather cautious in my appreciation. Essentially, and being rather facetious, there is a phenomenal film at the heart of Tree of Life, but it starts about 45 minutes into it, and ends 15 minutes before the credits roll. Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn plays Jack, a man in the present day who recalls his childhood in Texas, in particular his relationship with his angelic younger brother (who, we learn, has since died), his doting and considerate mother and, above all, his domineering and bullying father (Brad Pitt). Malick's genius is the way he makes this superficially banal foundation into an enduring, emotionally resonant and universal story, and one that transcends its humble origins to reflect the lives, loves and lessons of just about anyone who watches it. If I have a grumble, to return to my earlier facetiousness, it's that he felt the need to underline this universality by book-ending the central premise with some CGI-generated references to the Big Bang, dinosaurs and the origins of humanity themselves. It all seems rather pompous, especially when compared to the heartfelt simplicity and beauty of the middle portion. But make no mistake, Tree of Life is a beautifully shot film, and one powered by the same ambition and vision that drove the great Hollywood films of the sixties and seventies, such as Apocalypse Now and Lawrence of Arabia.

Equally lauded, but much more discreet in its approach was Winter's Bone, a low-budget 2010 chiller by Debra Granik, which was a surprise multiple nominee at this year's Oscars. That it didn't win any is a travesty, because Winter's Bone is the sort of dark, powerful independent film that I'd started to think was dying out across the pond. Set in a remote "redneck" community in the Ozark mountain of Missouri, it depicts a world of methamphetamine labs, lawlessness and emotional isolation, aided by stark photography and a pervading atmosphere of dread and menace. Ree, played by the astounding Jennifer Lawrence, is a self-sufficient teenage girl forced to take care of her younger siblings due to having a disabled mother and absent father. When the authorities come looking for the latter, threatening to evict the family from their ramshackle home if he doesn't show, Ree takes it upon herself to track him down, even if it means confronting the shadiest and most sinister denizens of her community. Again, the premise is simple, yet so effective, and as you follow Ree's increasingly fraught journey through backwoods and trailer parks, the tension becomes nigh-on unbearable, culminating in a heart-pounding finale. Winter's Bone, like Boys Don't Cry, Happiness and My Own Private Idaho before it, demonstrates that it is possible to make truly resonant and powerful films on a tight budget, and in Granik and Lawrence, two new female stars have been unearthed. I can't wait to see their next works.

My wonderful boss Noreen very kindly lent me her DVD copy of Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010), which was released in 2010 to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the publication of legendary Beat poet Allen Ginsberg's seminal poem of the same name. Rather than simply doing a biopic of Ginsberg (well played by the mercurial James Franco) at the moment of writing the poem, it intersperses a re-enactment of the famous 1957 obscenity trial his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was subjected to, with Ginsberg's own first reading at the Six Gallery, interviews with the poet at a later stage, and animated sequences designed to illustrate Howl itself. The success of the film is that it brings into focus the genius and beauty of Ginsberg's poem, with the gorgeous animations doing just enough to conjure up its evocative images without distracting from Ginsberg's words. If Howl is perhaps lacking in real drama, it nonetheless succeeds in re-creating the climate and mentalities of the time the poem was released, as well as giving an insight into the mind of its singular creator. Above all, one hopes it will encourage more people to pick up the works of Ginsberg, for they are truly remarkable.

But, for all that the above movies captured my heart and min, the cinematographic figure who most powerfully dominated my summer was maverick British director Andrew Kötting, a true outsider of modern cinema. His 2001 fictional debut, This Filthy Earth can be bought from the BFI (they do pretty awesome DVD packages, I must say) and is well worth the investment, such is the way it stands out from the rest of British cinema, especially in these lackluster days of dull mainstream blockbusters and vapid romantic comedies (can someone please kill Richard Curtis?). This Filthy Earth, set in a remote rural community somewhere in the north of England at an unspecified point in time, is a truly nightmarish vision of country life, soaked in blood, cum, piss, mud and shit, in which nearly all characters are cruel, stupid, manipulative and bigoted, and where all decency is rapidly quashed. Eschewing the forced "realism" of his contemporaries, Kötting takes inspiration from contemporary art and sound manipulation, injecting bizarre archival footage and unexpected musics to create an imbalance between the grittiness of the action and these strange flights of experimental fancy.
He perfected his approach tenfold by the time he released his next film, 2009's masterpiece Ivul. If anything shows the flawed and unadventurous approach we have in this bloody country to our own cinema, it's that talented and innovative directors like Peter Strickland (Katalin Varga), Thomas Clay (Soi Cowboy) and Kötting have been forced to look abroad in order to be able to finance their films. In Kötting's case, he had to take Ivul to France, where he set his allegorical but also deeply personal coming of age tale, in which a teenage boy decides, after being chased away by his father, to live in the trees above their home. Again, Kötting uses his background in avant-garde art to transcend his simple storyline, creating a series of startling and troubling montages to intersperse within the narrative. Ivul is an oddly moving, intense and often amusing film, the closest this country has come to delivering a British answer to Werner Herzog's Herz Aus Glas. That Kötting had to go to France to make it speaks volumes, though sadly, I doubt any of our national tosspot institutions are listening. They're probably too busy wondering where the next Harry Potter-esque cash cow is going to come from. Dicks.

Before I finally bid farewell until the Autumn ends, I should just shout out to that wonderful British institution that is the Tate, once again. Their exhibition of the Vorticists at Tate Britain was excellent, shining a light on a rarely discussed, but phenomenal, avant-garde movement. Tate Modern, meanwhile, garnered deserved praise and success for their comprehensive retrospective of Spanish artist Joan Miro, and, whilst I'm not a huge fan, I certainly developed a new-found admiration for his iconoclastic, amusing and unusual works, which I wouldn't have acquired otherwise.
I'd also like to heartily recommend Rob Young's excellent book Electric Eden - Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, published by Faber, which gives an in-depth and well-researched history of British folk music (and beyond), from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst all the way to Julian Cope and David Sylvian, via Peter Warlock, Ewan MacColl, Shirley Collins, Fairport Convention, Davy Graham, Pentangle, Comus, Black Sabbath and a myriad other phenomenal artists. 
I also recommend Steve Roden's peculiar book of "music in vernacular photographs, 1880-1955", ...I listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, in which ancient pictures of long-dead musicians are given a new life, but also a new sense of mystery through Roden's intriguing study. Well worth tracking down.

I think I'd better end there, or it'll be December before I get this done. Until next time, whenever that will be, and with the hope the gormless Nadine Dorries' health bill dies the death it deserves, I bid you a happy, erm, life.

- J