About Me

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Online journal devoted to (un)popular culture's murkier regions. Began as Grim Humour magazine in 1983 and lasted eighteen editions until 1993. Took a break until 2000 when it was relaunched as Adverse Effect magazine (which continued with the old numbering system). Four editions published until 2005, then compromised into being available via the internet, where a barely maintained website exists. Grim Humour itself is presently slowly evolving into a book dedicated to various highlights and low points from the magazine, whilst two record labels, Fourth Dimension and Lumberton Trading Company, hover very closely like needy cousins. Send review material to: ul. Krolowej Jadwigi 133/5 30-212 Krakow Poland

Monday, December 14, 2009

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Well, for a number of reasons I have not been so active here recently. The main one being that I'm finally in the throes of putting together a new Fourth Dimension website, which'll in turn house Adverse Effect once again, too. Once this is ready, I will announce it here and will probably only leave this space running for a short while longer.

More reviews will follow soon enough, plus another interview or two.

Watch this space.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Short Note

Just to set the record straight about a few things, allow me to clarify what Adverse Effect may or may not be these days. Basically, I would like to see it exist in published form once again but, since barely anybody bought the final, fourth, edition of the magazine itself in 2005, I have had to consign material for this either to the now barely functioning website and, well, here ever since. I hope that the website will be replaced by something better in the near future. And I would one day like to collect some selections from here in a published compendium, following on from the one that will hopefully appear next year that's devoted to the eighteen editions of Grim Humour. In the meantime, I will continue to post reviews here, plus more interviews. I am not sure who I will interview next, but Thomas Bey William Bailey and Steven Severin are both on my shortlist. I'd welcome contributions and/or suggestions from others, too, but please do not expect me to include any unsolicited material.

Likewise, I will only review proper vinyl, CD, DVD, etc. releases. The same goes for books and, indeed, anything else. As such, please do not ask me to consider MP3 releases and suchlike. Whilst I can fully appreciate some of the effort that goes into creating music, or anything else, I do not have the time spare for the more, dare I say, hobbyist approach. If you believe in what you're doing, get it out there properly. The same as I do and everybody else whose work I respect. I am not here to support half-measures. And whilst on the subject, I would welcome more review material too, please. See the previous reviews for an idea of where the interests lay...

Thank you.

Reviews: Number Five

Unfortunately, there are still some older titles tucked amongst the review piles, but I think this lot sees the back of those from 2007. Please note that some of the reviews here are by old Adverse Effect contributor Ian Canadine, too. Hopefully more people will climb on board in due course...

KASHIWA DAISUKE 5 Dec CD (Noble Records, 2009)
The first track on this album wafts in with some gentle keyboard melodies pleasantly redolent of Daisuke’s countryman Ryuichi Sakamoto, while some of the later pieces combine piano and glitch in a manner very reminiscent of Sakamoto’s excellent collaborations with Alva Noto on Raster Noton. That would all be fine, if a little unoriginal, but Daisuke obviously feels the need to shit all over the mellowness elsewhere, by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink on the majority of the remaining tracks. With elements of drum’n’bass, cheesy Metal guitar and pounding beats elbowing each other aside for room, Dec 5 mostly comes across as a bit of an incoherent bombardment, or perhaps an exercise in cut up pranksterism that can’t quite wipe the smirk off its face. (Ian Canadine)

FAMILY UNDERGROUND untitled 7” (Quasi Pop, Ukraine, 2009)
New release from this Danish trio who’ve been furrowing their own path through a convergence of foggy drones and textures for a number of years now. Both pieces here maintain their interests perfectly well, offering up two instrumentals almost bordering on layered noise via the sound of electric shavers overheating whilst, on one, a hypnotic rhythm does its utmost to compete. Rather nice. Wouldn’t mind getting one of their albums now as this taster’s simply not quite enough. (Richard Johnson)

FRANZ HAUTZINGER & BERTRAND GAUGUET & THOMAS LEHN Close Up CD (Monotype Records, Poland, 2009)
I recently had a discussion about improvised music with a close friend who ended up contending that you only need to listen to it on a release once because, afterwards, it’s got nothing new to offer. Whilst I can see his point, I likewise feel that recordings of improvised music, as with any other form of it, can become valid documents in their own right which, for all manner of different reasons (subjective and otherwise) can be returned to repeatedly. Especially if those moments captured succeed outside their realm as, simply, improvised music. This team-up of these improvisers caught in, respectively, early 2007 and two separate occasions in 2008, illustrates this all too clearly. Utilising Gauguet’s alto and soprano saxophones and Hautzinger’s trumpet (and electronic devices) alongside Lehn’s analogue synth, the three untitled pieces caught here fall into that magical category whereby certain music or collections of sounds appears to reveal something new with every listen. Through some carefully mannered gloop positively rife with contours enough to sustain interest alone, breathy rasps, squelches, tones, unearthly mumblings and a subtle sense of distress and unease unfurl without once sounding either unnatural or uncontrolled. The fact these three players have played together several times and have a huge understanding of each other prevails heavily throughout. Nobody gets in the way of the others and the focus never once strays. What’s even more noticeable than the apparent chemistry, however, is the way the music pulls itself along into possibly the most atmospheric domain I’ve so far heard on a release of this nature. And whilst the music itself is not so obviously confrontational, it does at least sound like it’s challenging the notions of what can or can’t be done in improvisation. An achievement in itself. Highly recommended. (Richard Johnson)

MERZBOW Tombo CD (Fellacoustic, USA, 2008)
Three cuts of ear-bleeding howl the like of which Masami Akita made his name on before he began going both digital and into more rhythm kingdoms. Some of the sounds, as to be expected, are incredible, but I have to ‘fess this album’s not as dynamic as certain work I’ve caught in recent years. Track two, simply titled ‘Tombo 2’, nudges in some quieter moments but, as with the rest of the album, an all-out sonic lava-fuck tends to remain the main course. (Richard Johnson)

MIKHAIL Morphica 3xCD (Sub Rosa, 2009)
Morphica apparently represents an exercise in “morphing” an earlier Mikhail album, Orphica, from 2007, which was based on the Greek Orpheus legend. The triple CD set features a cast of thousands, including DJ Spooky and members of the Hilliard Ensemble, reworking material from the earlier project. It comes elaborately packaged, including a sizeable foldout featuring extensively annotated heavyweight academic essays, referencing Deleuze and Lyotard, which attempt to site the artist somewhere on the intersection of the postmodern and the Baroque. While it would certainly be easy to snigger at the preciousness of the whole thing, that would indulge a kneejerk anti-intellectualism which I tend to think is cheap, so I’ll restrain any cynicism here. The discs within are respectively entitled Electronics, Voices and Strings, although I wouldn’t say the distinction in sound or content between the three was that clearly discernible. The music itself comprises a dense and heady fog of layered and phased electronics, harpsichord and kettle drum, tabla, drones, whistles, squelches, and chamber strings, with a Gertrude Stein sample thrown in for good measure. Mikhail’s highly-strung androgynous vocals float in and out at intermittent points, to complete the febrile atmosphere. I was reminded at times of Antony and the Johnsons, at others of ‘80s 4AD supergroup This Mortal Coil, and occasionally of the queasy stylings of Nurse With Wound. Having not heard the original Orphica CD I’ve got no idea how Morphica develops or resembles it, but it nonetheless works reasonably successfully as a standalone experience. (Ian Canadine)

FES PARKER Side Room CD (Pressupable Recordings, 2008)
Fes Parker, “one of the real Blackpool legends” according to Simon Morris’s sleevenotes, was a local hero of the Fylde coast punk scene, who died of cancer in February 2009. This 2008 release delivers a full-on set of fairly unreconstructed, and sometimes pretty lo-fi, rock’n’roll ranting, with maybe a touch of Hawkwind kosmische in the guitar attack. Not really my scene, but the guy was obviously a man with a mission and he stuck with it to the end. (Ian Canadine)

GERT-JAN PRINS & BAS VAN KOOLWIJK Synchronator DVD (Cavity, NL, 2009)
Collaborative audiovisual project that commenced in 2006 by these two artists that can be perceived as some kind of assault on what’s typically spewed from our TV screens. Prins’ own digitalised sonic gush, wavering as it does between spacious crinkled workouts and towering temples ablaze with molten white-noise, provides the perfect accompaniment to images derived from often distorted magnetic signals found within the interference. The resulting ten pieces here amount to broken and barely snatched images cast assunder by violent waveforms or what may well be a test card transmission beamed from a planet so distant that it’s become a mere shadow of its former self in the process. It all works rather nicely but, I’m sure, would be far more effective on a massive screen than those to be found in most people’s homes, despite this being the original intention. The fact it also clocks in at 36 minutes total goes in its favour as well. Too much of this and I think these boys would have to get Nurofen sponsoring them… (Richard Johnson)

RAMLEH Switch Hitter 10” (Black Rose Recordings, 2009)
Since the late 1980s, Ramleh have been stabbing away at a tumultous rock approach that steers between a heavily anguished form of psychedelia and something more suitable to battering yr senses to fuck. Occasionally, they still dabble with their power electronics of yore, too, or even combine the two approaches. Whatever, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all pretty damn good and I can honestly say they’re one of the few groups who survived the early ‘90s UK noise-rock non-genre still prone to doing interesting things. ‘Switch Hitter’ opts for another all-out sensory bombardment of a punked-up and beefy Hawkwind In Search Of Space variety where some great rhythm pummel drives along the kind of guitars that could spill your innards. The distortion’s cranked to the red and Gary Mundy’s vocals sound like they’ve been stripped savagely from an early angry punk obscurity. It all, need I point out, works fucking great for me. The b-side’s ‘The Machines of Infinite Joy’, a title in itself which instantly conjures something from the late Ballard’s world, is an equally heavy instrumental belter. Neat. (Richard Johnson)
Write: srmeixner@yahoo.co.uk

SLOWCREAM and CD (Nonine, Germany, 2009)
Five pieces by Berlin’s Me Raabenstein which embark on a celebration, if you like, of the hand, in all respects from our physical dependency on it to its use as a symbol or metaphor, and everything in between. Beginning as a commission for a contemporary dance project, Slowcream’s third album stretches for around forty minutes and generally sways gently over a filmic hue imbued with a soft electronica approach itself augmented with strings and extra cellos and organs on three of the cuts improvised live by Greg Haines. Whilst the temperament remains refined throughout, some foothills at least take shape at certain points, adding an appropriate sense of subtle drama to the proceedings that sensitively reflect titles such as ‘Pressure’, ‘Vibration’ and ‘Moisture’. What with melodic keys likewise breaking through the symphonies at various junctures, it all feels like Me Raabenstein’s background in club music is ultimately shaking itself away into pastures more serious yet not so sober it may alienate previous listeners. I’ll resist the urge to round this off by saying we’ve either got to hand it to him or must give him a big hand. Instead, I implore you to listen to this incredible addition to a canon of work by a mere handful (sorry!) of contemporary artists whose vision rests outside the usual parameters. (Richard Johnson)

STEFANIE RESSIN/ASMUS TIETCHENS 3 Wishes split-7” (Meeuw Muzak, The Netherlands, 2009)
Another great entry in the ongoing series of 7” releases from Meeuw Muzak. Stefanie Ressin I know little about, I have to ‘fess, but here she proffers a nifty slice of dirty electro-pop vaguely reminiscent of Malaria!, which is fine by me. Tietchens, on the other hand, appears with a version of the same song which discards most of the rhythm and vocals in favour of sounds resembling machinery at war. Which also, needless to say, wins my vote. Fantastic stuff. (Richard Johnson)

MIKA VAINIO Black Telephone of Matter CD (Touch, 2009)
Being one half of the fantastic Pan Sonic, it’s no surprise that Vainio’s solo endeavours tend to adopt a similar approach to teasing often abrasive or uncomfortable sound structures into areas where they are tempered and far less black and white. When Vainio cranks things up, everything feels measured and almost surgical, yet these red-level workouts only arise in the first place from a mass of undulating and sometimes broken frequencies or what sounds like machine-noise having a coughing fit. At times, such as on ‘Silences Traverses Des Mondes Et Des Anges’, the proceedings even become quite subdued, like listening to an underground lake, before what sounds like a plane looming overhead then takes over in the next piece, ‘Bury A Horse’s Head’. Attention to detail and, in turn, to mapping out ideas that never betray a stance that feels wholly personal (without being completely detached from the listener) is what sets everything apart. Once more, the (perhaps obvious) analogy of the surgeon in the operating theatre springs only too readily to mind. Everything’s considered and executed with precision and care. Helped along by very occasional choice samples themselves given to some appropriate treatments, Vainio appears to be operating on a far superior level to most of today’s digital wanderers. Black Telephone of Matter pays testament to this fact in leaps and bounds. (Richard Johnson)

WICKED KING WICKER eponymous CD (Noiseville, USA, 2007)
Four lengthy tracks of slow-motion sludge and feedback by these US metal monsters. The very thing certain teenagers find themselves leaning on because they’re misunderstood whilst the rest of us splutter into our cognac, I suppose, although to be fair there are some pretty massive sounds afoot here that could make many a purported ‘noise’ artist weep with envy… (Richard Johnson)

JOHN YOUNG Lieu-temps DVD Audio (empreintesDIGITALes, 2007)
John Young is an electroacoustic composer from New Zealand, though currently based in the UK. In Lieu-temps he uses field recordings, narrative framing, radio samples and oral history, interweaved with drones, electronics, detuned piano and other tools of the electroacoustic trade, to relate the story of how his father, a soldier with the New Zealand army, first met his Italian mother, during the Second World War liberation of her hometown, Forli, by Allied forces. Young mixes his ingredients effectively and movingly to draw out his major theme of how personal and world-historical events are inextricably entwined, and how chance can play such a huge role in dictating the outcomes of human lives. The repetitive use of chimes from the belltowers of Forli, together with contemporary commentary from war reporters on the scene, works particularly well in evoking the feel of time and place which is vital to the project. Lieu-temps has something of the experimental radio documentary about it, but is none the worse for that, and repays repeated listening in bringing out the intricate detail of its montaged elements. I’m not sure if there are any real benefits in this having been released on DVD Audio rather than CD, but evidently all releases on the empreintesDIGITALes label follow this policy. (Ian Canadine)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reviews: Number Four

I keep unearthing more review material. Some of this should have been handled last year, but it unfortunately took me half a year or so to organise many things following a move in late 2007. Anyway, bearing in mind my apologies directed to those concerned are now firmly yet inadvertently cemented, here they are. Hopefully, the next round will see one or two others helping me out, too...

MYRA DAVIES Cities and Girls CD (Moabit Music, Germany, 2008)
Spoken word by this Canadian mostly fleshed out by music from Gudrun Gut but also, on one piece each respectively, by Alexander Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten) & Danielle de Picciotto and Beate Bartel. The stories, which are executed well and are infused with a salubrious modicum of black humour, range from being about resisting ‘stuff’, Berlin, hanging out with John Giorno, times of supposed innocence caught in a timewarped friend, family history and so on to one cleverly suffusing women’s independence with a need for a ‘drill’. The music backs everything up perfectly and arrives generally from haunting electronica indebted to its rudimentary roots in sound exploration, although Bartel’s employing a single-string Viatnamese instrument called the Dan Bau serves as pleasant a detour as the use of old Irish melodies in Gut’s accompaniment to ‘Goodbye Belfast’. Altogether, everything falls into place well enough for you to either listen to it in the manner in which it was intended, with all attention paid to the words at work, or to enjoy as a glorious whole where Davies’ passages can be treated as very much a part of the music. Fair enough, considering the music was composed around the words and how, well, the collaborations even witness Davies singing on the ‘60s pop-inflected ‘My Friend Sherry’. Whatever, a wonderful album irrespective of how you choose to approach it. (Richard Johnson)

GoGooo Long, Lointain CD (Baskaru, France, 2007)
GoGooo is, essentially, the name given to Gabriel Hemandez’s excursions to often melancholic frontiers. Using field recordings and voices alongside a wide range of instruments including guitar, melodica and piano, then aided by his laptop, he creates a warm and gentle setting more structured than so many others operating in similar areas. Sometimes, such as on ‘Affleurement’, the voices and delicately-strummed guitar are employed to dominate proceedings, but even these assume a vaguely pastoral quality in perfect harmony with everything else on offer here. Gently airbrushed textures and tones are augmented by little, unobtrusive swells of electroacoustic flotsam and jetsam, whispers, bells and clacking noises, while the guitar never once betrays its polite stance whenever it appears. Overall, it recalls the feelings generated by Pan American’s work and, well, if you’re partial to these hazy plains, you could do far worse than visit this album. Also included are videos accompanying the first four songs, but for some reason or other they don’t appear to work on my laptop. (Richard Johnson)

HEAL Supernatural 12” (Sound On Probation, France, 2009)
Laurent Perrier has been responsible for both producing his own music and releasing work by others for a considerable while now. Since the late ‘80s, he has recorded under his own name and collaborated with others in groups such as Zonk’t, Cape Fear and, indeed, this project, Heal. He also used to run Odd Size before ceasing operations and moving on to Sound on Probation, which has moved away from the former label’s concerns with post-industrial music to often dance inflected electronics. Heal themselves fit in perfectly well with this, too. On Supernatural, their third release, they merge a wide range of percussion and string instruments with electronics in a setting not far removed from the worlds Portishead and Massive Attack have operated in. Pinned into place by some great double bass playing, violins sweep over an alluring array of soundtrack-ish twilight swirls perfect for these autumn evenings. Only odd thing, really, is the fact the sleeve states there are eight songs spread over both sides when it appears there’s only actually one song each side. I wouldn’t have been averse to listening to those missing six. (Richard Johnson)

HURRA CAINE LANDCRASH Unanswered Questions CD (Split Femur Recordings, 2008)
Manchester guitarist Daniel Hopkins’ debut, offering six cuts whereby he creates glazed textural ‘scapes by dropping pebbles, shells and so on onto the guitar strings before shaping everything up on his, yes, you got it, laptop. It’s okay but like so much of this type of music just doesn’t navigate anything particularly new or interesting. Shifting banks of sound produced by objects dropped onto guitar strings has been done to death already. I need something more personal from such work. Something that may hold my attention enough to command repeated listens. It’s not a tall order. (Richard Johnson)

LEHN/SCHMICKLER Navigation im Hypertext CD (A-Musik, Germany, 2008)
These two established electroacoustic artists, Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler, first met in MIMEO in 1998 and began collaborating outside them together soon after. Over the years since their first album, Bart, released in 2000 and catching them at some synth improvisations, they’ve toured extensively and have recorded fifteen of the shows now used as the source material for both this album and the simultaneously released Kolner Kranz (also on A-Musik). Lehn uses an analogue synthesiser to Schmickler’s digital one and, together, they meld battery-assault-sized blocks of molten sonic disturbance to rather more refined bridges of static carresses all, of course, arriving from that same tempestuous lake so much contemporary electronic music is drawing from. Although some post-production work has taken place here, it’s still interesting to hear how much scope these two instruments have when placed side by side by two people whose chemistry and imagination evidently equal each other. The dynamics keep everything afloat but, besides this, the very fact there’s so much happening every time things either peak or are pared back to calmer levels really maintains the appeal. Sometimes almost industrial and at others akin to being snagged in some kind of parallel universe, Navigation im Hypertext is precisely where I enjoy being taken by abstract improv music. (Richard Johnson)

YOSHIO MACHIDA Hypernatural 3 (Baskaru, France, 2008)
Japanese artist Machida’s third part of a triptych, which began with a release in 1999 and has witnessed a gap of six years since the last, continues his interest in collaging field recordings with real instruments and treatments. Spread over seven cuts dedicated to the theme of oblivion (in being a positive thing as much as a negative, he explains on the sleevenotes), we get to hear lapping waves, lagubrious miniscule pulses, undulating tones, carefully woven crackle, birdsong, what sounds like a TV recorded ‘neath some frequency noodling, Aki Onda on “cassette recorder”, glazed chunks of static white hiss, Buddhist nun sutras, shuffling machinery and what may be either somebody walking on gravel or eating a wafer. Waves as an obvious reference point aside, it’s hard to see where all of this fits in with Machida’s overall concept for these pieces exactly, but there’s no denying that a lot of work has clearly gone into their being realised. This, and the fact the entire album sits together as both a beguiling and thoroughly engaging listen, renders it one to return to repeatedly. And every listen seems to successfully reveal more and more of its charms. (Richard Johnson)

MöSLANG/WEHOWSKY Einschlagskrater 7” (Meeuw Muzak, The Netherlands, 2008)
Just when I was beginning to think things were going quiet on the Ralf Wehowsky front, a package containing several singles including this one from Jos of Meeuw Muzak arrived quite recently. Good news for me as I’ve been collecting whatever I can by the German musique concrete artist for a considerable while now. My old group Splintered even collaborated with him on an album back in 1996 that I’ll still tell anybody who cares is one of my proudest moments. Here, of course, he collaborates with Möslang, from Swiss duo Voice Crack, on two cuts that are more accessible than most of his work, but I’m not complaining. Heaving drones that sound like they’re welling up from somewhere deep under the Earth’s crust cough out some electronic splutter and chattering sounds that’d sound agreeable enough alone. A great little record, from a great label dedicated to eclectic limited run 7”s deemed collectable almost as soon as they’re released. (Richard Johnson)

ZONK’T Beat Wins You and Me MLP (Sound On Probation, France, 2009)
Another release from Laurent Perrier, but this time presenting his solo material on what must be his sixth under the Zonk’t guise. As with previous material, Zonk’t is given to melding colossal chunks of industrial pounding to electronica and techno. The five cuts here see this approach scaling new heights, and it’d be fantastic to hear this in a suitable environment such as club or a blasted through a venue’s PA system. My own hi-fi, good as it is, has to accept the huge compromise known as neighbours, unfortunately… (Richard Johnson)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reviews: Number Three (Part Two)

Quite simply, a few more reviews started around the same time as the last batch that needed tweaking a little...

Photo: Office-R (6)

ALVA NOTO + RYUICHI SAKAMOTO with ENSEMBLE MODERN –utp_ CD/DVD (Raster-Noton, Germany, 2008)
Absolutely phenomenal team-up between Carsten Nicolai (aka, Alva Noto/raster-noton label big chief) and the multi-talented ex-YMO member that catches the former utilising piano works and other sounds by the latter in collaboration with film artists Ensemble Modern. Microscopic piano melodies and vague electronic signatures join hands with atmospheric tones, filmic haze and carefully woven flecks of digital debris to create an album where reflection harmonises with the very same visions of utopia hinted at by the title itself. The DVD features visuals from the original concert by the two of them as well as another dedicated to its process. (Richard Johnson)

APE SHIT Intravenous in Furs/Heavy Leather LP (Smith Research, 2008)
You pretty much know where you’re heading when you receive another slab o’ wax accompanying a hastily scribbled note from the Ceramic Hobs’ Simon Morris. The DIY/hand-assembled sleeve, complete with sticker proudly proclaiming that the record is one of 100 only, the photocopied insert that looks like it exploded out of prime ‘80s cut ‘n’ paste culture, and the white label record itself with stickers on all add up to something that instantly induces recollections of Amor Fati’s Body Without Organs LP via Rancid Vat and, more appropriately, the UK’s own ATV and, moreso, Blackpool’s The Membranes. The music, as with the Hobs before them, is of the homegrown, unadulterated and virtually self-destructive persuasion, all vitriolic poetry and cynical swagger bound to a load of live recordings that sound like they’ve been culled from a mixing desk stuck in some dingy pub’s backroom toilet. Beyond this, it’s all psychotic and drug-addled drum pummel, feedbacking guitars, audience shouts and quite possibly Speaker’s Corner-type rants about the general nature of things. It’s like a Bukowski story in sonic form. The sound of embitterment arriving from a heart with some passion.
Apart from the fact Simon sings on one side of the LP, it’s difficult to ascertain who’s involved exactly. Names such as Watson Lewis, Jim MacDougall, Errol Hunter and ‘Sir Nigger’ are all embroidered to the insert, plus The Wire’s Ben Watson’s name appears a lot…but I suspect as some kind of joke at the critic’s expense. Whatever, definitely not an album to be played if your biggest desire is to ward off evil spirits. (Richard Johnson)

KASHIWA DAISUKE 5 Dec CD (Noble Records, Japan, 2009)
Third album proper by this Japanese laptop artist who has been operating since 2004. Following a rather lush and almost filmic opening track that wouldn’t be out of place on Russia’s Electroshock imprint, Kashiwa throws us into slightly more haphazard territory, where piano melodies soon get pushed violently aside by drum ‘n’ bass, Fennesz-type electronic gristle, broken operatic vocals that wouldn’t seem out of place on an old Prog record, rock guitar and cut-ups. It’s okay but, combined with other songs that delve into downtempo territory and post-techno manoeuvres that are all perhaps slightly overcooked, reeks of someone trying maybe a little too hard to demonstrate his obvious abilities. From what I understand, Kashiwa is a huge Prog fan too, and I think it’s precisely this that governs his own music. The ideas are more about him showing what he’s capable of in the studio than expressing anything deep or personal. Everything’s too polished and, due to the lack of real orientation evident here, often quite clumsy or awkward sounding. Fifth cut, ‘Black Lie, White Lie’, would, I’m certain, soon clear out those club spaces in need of a reason to go home. (Richard Johnson)

IAN MIDDLETON Time Building LP (Entr’acte, 2009)
Arriving from a certain class of musicians and artists whose dedication to their craft pays absolutely no attention whatsoever to trends or the demands of the listener, Ian Middleton has been forging his own path in the often enticing world of analogue synth drones and related areas since the mid-1990s. Although he now employs a wider range of tools to help realise his work, such as a pattern generator, ring modulator, various effects units and occasional acoustic sounds and field recordings, it has always aspired to reach heights so many others who’re similarly-inclined completely fail to arrive even remotely so close. Sometimes Ian Middleton’s work may flounder slightly due to various limitations but, mostly, it succeeds in being extremely natural, beautiful and mesmerising simply due to his possessing a very clear idea about his objectives here. On Time Building, which arrives in an almost plain white sleeve and with an insert explaining some of the reasons and processes behind both this and his previous material, there are six pieces evenly divided over both sides which are not only dedicated to the repetitive outdoor sounds Ian likes so much but capture them perfectly. In the past, I’ve generally likened Ian’s work to those rather more obscure or hidden places either around the world, or on others, and whilst this may be true to a certain extent, it’s also very clear he’s catching nature’s cycles closer to home too. Layered oscillating tones that forever metamorphose form the main body of these pieces, yet other sounds glide in, make subtle and brief appearances, and occasionally take over altogether, overtly resulting in music that feels alive. Always engaging and never once afraid to explore all the available contours that present themselves, Ian Middleton’s work is up there with everything at once extraordinary and inspiring. Time Building’s only crime is that it comes in an edition of 250 that, I’m sure, will disappear fairly quickly. (Richard Johnson)

OFFICE-R (6) Recording the Grain CD (+3dB Recordings, Norway, 2008)
Improv is a form of music I’m, to be perfectly honest, rarely in the mood for, despite having enough interest in the medium to indulge in occasional concerts (of which there are plenty here in Krakow) and even pick up the occasional release. Mostly, I feel it’s music best caught live anyway, but there are plenty of justifications to it being recorded as well. In the same way as free jazz is best seen and heard sweated out in some flea-riddled bar, there are still plenty of times when those moments can warrant return trips…especially when, for instance, we’re talking about someone such as Albert Ayler, whose fantastic forays into his own soul-searching can now only be heard on recordings testifying his greatness. Improv falls into exactly the same trap, really, but some albums by these artists are more justified than others and, luckily, Recording the Grain, put together by six musicians otherwise found under the N-Collective moniker, happens to be one of them, especially in the sense it successfully bridges the gap between free jazz and contemporary improv like little else.
Over the course of five lengthy pieces, a couple of saxophones, clarinet and bass are all reduced to an appropriately subdued relationship to some electronics also carefully woven into the setting. Little reed instrument signatures are fed into this and kept to a level where they rarely become obtrusive, whilst the electronics themselves are spatial and measured and yet as fluid in their execution as everything they’re up against. Space itself appears to be the key to this music as well, as absolutely nothing is allowed to dominate or consume proceedings and there’s more than a passing nod to the minimalist end of electro-acoustic composition. Gently swaying bridges of peeps, parps, poots and fragmented melodies give way to an undercurrent of tinklings, taps, shuffles and knocks that rarely assume forms outside the purely oblique. Swells sometimes loom into view, but don’t stick long enough to detract from the overall sound, and we’re ultimately left with an album as rewarding and comfortable to listen to as such apparent disjointedness could possibly hope for. Time to check out the N-Collective releases, I would contend… (Richard Johnson)

UBIK Loop Finding… CD (Recycling Records, Poland, 2008)
Third album by this Polish artist, here joint-released with another from 2006 called Cut with the Blade that originally came in download-only format (see? It’s not a real album until it actually exists as something solid!). Featuring six tracks, it mostly hovers over loop-generated atmospherics territory not entirely original but still okay in an easy-listening kinda way. The downside of this type of music is that it’s not exactly hard to make these days, but it at least feels as though Ubik’s Mikolaj Trzaska’s heart is in the right place even if the execution of his expression isn’t quite there. Dunno though…I’ve always thought too much music is made by people who can make it instead of those who feel completely and utterly compelled to. Everything sounds fine on Loop Finding…, if somewhat functional and perfunctory, but it ultimately points to Mikolaj still trying to find his own voice in an ocean becoming increasingly deeper. Above all else, this album amounts to someone struggling to find exactly what he wants to do in relatively safe, and rather calm, waters. It’d be good to be knocked sideways from time to time, if nothing else. The very fact Cut with the Blade amounts to saxophone/electronics experiments absolutely nothing like the music on Loop Finding… compounds my point perfectly, although I must concede this music is more interesting. (Richard Johnson)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Reviews: Number Three (Part One)

Note: Part Two will follow very shortly. And, yes, I'd welcome a couple of others to join me in this. Please contact me if interested...

LUCIO CAPECE & MIKA VAINIO Trahnie CD (eMego, Germany, 2009)
Following a somewhat disappointing opening track comprised of nothing but vast, industrial-strength textures, this collaboration between Argentina’s improv/jazz musician Capece and Pan Sonic’s Vainio comes over like a perfect match. Sax blasts are hammered to the point of becoming new, almost alien, sculptures given to changing shape according to Vainio’s monolithic proto-rhythms and hints of violence, and occasional sonic tendons are exposed to reveal an intricate underbelly to the proceedings as beautiful as they are awe-inspiring. Track four, ‘Hondonada’, with its combination of subtle knocking sounds and sparse bellows, may well shuffle quietly towards some of Capece’s own background, but the majority of the album sounds exactly like what I’d want from two such artists being thrown into a furnace together. Fair to say I wouldn’t expect anything less from Vainio, though. Both his work as solo artist and in Pan Sonic rarely disappoints, and this collaboration, perfectly illustrating how the gap between such disparate artists can narrow when likemindedness is afoot, only adds to the canon. Fucking wonderful. (Richard Johnson)

ERDEM HELVACIOGLU Wounded Breath CD (AuCourant, USA, 2008)
Possibly Istanbul’s finest electroacoustic music export right now, Erdem here delivers his third album and proves precisely how much he’s made a name for himself by dedicating it to five pieces collected from a selection of prizewinning pieces performed at international festivals. Unlike a lot of his other material, the guitar is not a focal point this time, either. Instead, like electroacoustic artists such as Eric La Casa or Eric Cordier, a variety of sound sources (such as marbles, fire, water, etc.) are utilised and teased into forms far removed from their natural forms, mostly creating an unsettled yet atmospheric setting where what might be otherwise readily dismissed ‘noise’ is afforded a smoother hue. Although a lot of conflicting sounds are lulled into view, and the overall effect is one of an uneven, haphazard soundbed of opposing ideas learning to live with each other in a calm environment, there are still, however, elements of both surprise and foreboding kept afloat. This music is not all about being easily swallowed, or sweetness and light. In a number of ways, it bears similarities with some work by, say, Colin Potter or irr.App.[ext.], for example, as much as those operating either at the more comfortable end of things or purely in the world of electroacoustic composition. I think the fact Erdem’s background also takes in rock music may be partly responsible for this, and indeed the deeper understanding of dynamics necessary to keep his own work alive must certainly owe something to this school of thought. Whatever, I’m all for it. I far prefer those artists who can bridge the gap between different worlds than those who close themselves off in their hermetic bubbles. Erdem’s work succeeds completely here, and I hope he continues to maximise what I personally feel is an extremely rare and adept handle on such matters. (Richard Johnson)

KENNETH KIRSCHNER Filaments and Voids 2CD (12k, USA, 2008)
I have to ‘fess I’ve long loved the type of harmonic drone or tonal music evident on this latest release by prolific New York composer Kirschner. Throughout both these discs, fantastic and lengthy shimmering sound-drifts sweep and gently roll into each other, at once leaving room for each to breathe without losing sight of a clear objective to colour space and silence with a little meaning. All three pieces that make up the first disc assume a melancholic position where loss and absence are rendered positive via abstract forms, evoking a place where one can blissfully and peacefully contemplate the subjective and objective completely undisturbed, not unlike staring at a lake’s ripples on a remote planet. Kirschner’s main instrument, the piano, provides a clearer source for the fourth (and last) track, ‘March 16 2006’, but all 72.37 minutes prove themselves an exercise in a bleakness as healthy as one of Bela Tarr’s lengthy camera shots. Grainy and sparse piano chords rarely sound so downright absorbing and, if anything, the feel of this piece compares with some of William Basinski’s work; in tone and texture if not the actual execution.
Over the years, Kirschner has released a number of albums and collaborated with 12k’s own Taylor Deupree. I urge you to investigate. (Richard Johnson)

In a way, I suppose it was only a matter of time before these two artists amalgamated their respective interests in both field recordings and relationships between normally hidden sounds and their being taken to new levels of perception. Whilst, however, Australia’s Lawrence English usually transforms his own interests in such soundworlds to heights often melodious or at least accessible, Spain’s Lopez has long had a reputation for crafting pieces that one must strain their hearing as far as possible in order to derive anything from. On this album, each artist contributes a field recording piece and then adds an additional reworking of each other’s piece whereby the source material is hammered into new forms that at once remain respectful of the originals and delve into more musique concrete realms. Birdsong, drifting hiss, chirrups, a buzzing fly, near-silent textures, occasional swells and various studio-concocted sighs and creaks all add up to four pieces that shake hands firmly together on the conceptual soundmap. Interesting to the usual point with such releases, of course, but lacking the necessary emotional attachment I personally crave. (Richard Johnson)

IAN MIDDLETON Aural Spaces LP (Swill Radio, USA, 2008)
‘S funny how some things turn out. I relocate to Poland a few years ago, lose touch with a whole bunch of people (due, largely, to my now being heavily dependent on the ‘net in order to maintain contact) and then still receive the occasiional surprising package out of the blue by one of these very same people that’ll knock me for six. Ian Middleton is one such person. Used to be in fairly regular contact, traded records with each other and then, well, a protracted silence until this LP was handed to me by one of my handmaids. Nice though it was, I then couldn’t actually listen to the thing until now, due to my turntable having gasped its last breaths at the turn of this year (I can’t afford new turntables and handmaids, you know!). Thankfully, some waits pay off, however. Not that I honestly expected much less from anything by this Scottish artist whose music is as enriching as his paintings…
What we have are ten pieces spread equally over both sides of an attractive 180g slab perfectly matched for these sounds. With pieces either taken from the LP’s name itself (in three parts) or titled ‘Negative Space’, ‘Whirlloop’ and ‘Horizon’, etc., Ian successfully transports us to those places of wonder and magic so often missing in music borne of the lonely studio scientist. As with the previous work I have of his, Ian excels in crafting rich moraines of sound streaked with sparkling crevices and shimmering streams cloaked in mists of mysterious hues. Tones ripple with organic delight, oscillating hums take on the appearance of a language from another world, rhythmic flutters carress you hypnotically, and an overwhelming yet unspoken beauty forever breaks away from the nearby shadows.
When contemporary electronic music can sound this good still, there’s no reason in the world to abandon any hope. Sublime. (Richard Johnson)

NANA APRIL JUN The Ontology of Noise CD (Touch, 2009)
Five pieces by Swedish visual artist, composer and art magazine editor Christofer Lamgren intended to explore the “dark associations of post-black metal” via an entirely digital medium that employs no traditional instruments. As such, we are left with an array of cascading tones, frequencies and timbres that aim for a hallucinatory high yet aren’t quite well-formed enough to achieve this. Like so much of this type of listening experience, the result is too cold or detached and aloof. The filmic realms it aspires to are perhaps hinted at on the final cut which, as the title ‘Sun Wind Darkness Eye’ suggests, at least evokes a slightly warmer and more natural sound. Ultimately something of a misfiring, I feel, for the usually reliable Touch. (Richard Johnson)

THE NIGHTINGALES Insult to Injury CD (Klangbad, Germany, 2009)
Last time I heard this Birmingham-based group I was a teenager! John Peel used to play their records frequently and I once bargain-ought their ‘Paraffin Brain’ single (released in 1982 on Cherry Red, no less), although I think that went the same way as countless other records bought during this period. Whatever, it transpires that singer Robert Lloyd’s group have continued to remain active in one form or other over the years since then and reformed properly in 2004 with an assortment of others, such as members of pre-Nightingales group The Prefects, Aaron Moore of Volcano The Bear and Pram’s Daren Garratt, helping out or joining along the way. They’ve also released several singles since reforming and now, indeed, have this album both recorded by and on Faust’s Hans-Joachim Irmler’s studio/label. Although I’ve not listened to the group since their early days, I think it’s fair to surmise the twelve cuts here both perpetuate and expand on the ramshackle approach formulated then. Punchy-as-fuck rhythms cement an amalgam of cut-throat guitars, corridors of exploding melody, semi-spoken bridges of wry commentary, near-No Wave jazz-funk collisions, urban Country flourishes and deep dark delves into a kind of psychotic pop barely found these days. On ‘Big Bones’, both The Cravats and The Birthday Party spring to mind as meaty enough reference points but, ultimately, The Nightingales have skillfully embroidered their own sound, torn it violently apart and scattered it in several different directions. Fair play to them. (Richard Johnson)

MICHAEL PETERS Impossible Music CD (Hyperfunction, Germany, 2009)
Surely an album with such an inviting title should sound less downright ordinary than this? Composed of mostly piano fed through software this German artist himself devised called a Gumowski-Mira attractor (itself dedicated to an algorithim and named after the two CERN physicists who discovered it), the pieces mostly exude a faintly charming aura akin to a jaunty John Cage doing a drunken jig. Lopsided keys bounce off each other, then pare down for a more sombre embrace before stirring themselves up again. Meantime, Peters inflects them occasionally with live interaction that, it would appear, wasn’t taken far enough. Whilst the idea alone is worthwhile enough, the resulting sixteen pieces suffer for their not actually delivering on the excitement of the promise. (Richard Johnson)

REHAB Man Under Train Situation CD (+3dB Recordings, Norway, 2009)
Debut album by this new duo consisting of John Hegre (Jazzkammer) and Bjørnar Habbestad (N-Collective), with nine cuts of improv guitar and flute-led electronic works destined to pulverise your cranium’s toughest points. The guitar is as downright savage as anything old-timer Stefan Jaworzyn ever knocked us with, occasionally assuming almost rock forms before quickly spiralling into those unknown areas that are as alluring as the universe’s darkest recesses, and the accompanying bombardment of processed flutes and electronics weaves along with it all perfectly. Once in a while, the intensity subsides to make room for a little more breathing space. Track five, ‘Pankow’, in particular, sees everything whittled back to a more measured and subtle approach I’d personally have liked to have heard more of. As with so much of this music, though, I always feel it is best caught live. And if this release is anything to go by, I’m certain Rehab would make a commendable proposition. (Richard Johnson)

TECHIX Monosymphonic CD (AntiClock Records, USA, 2008)
Techix is the name given to Oklahoma-based artist Justin Jones, who has been dedicated to this project since 2001. Inspired by classical music as much as electronics and improvisation, the twelve cuts here appear imbued with a similar hue to Max Richter’s or some of Stars Of The Lid’s later delves into more heavily string-laden territory. Rich in atmosphere due mostly to the violins prevalent throughout, tempered electronic rhythms and textures likewise occasionally jostle alongside in an appropriate manner. It all sounds pleasant enough, but things generally tend to get slightly more interesting when, for example, other elements creep in. ‘Dead After All’, for example, with its guitar rhythm and synth whorls, and ‘Tear of Dust’’s being carried along by gentle folk-ish guitar strums and ghostly voices, add much needed moodiness to the proceedings. Ultimately, though, most of the pieces appear to suffer for their seeming to miss an ingredient or two. It would be good to hear Jones perhaps take his ideas into a collaborative setting. (Richard Johnson)
Note: The date on the sleeve states these songs are from 2004, but I only received this release last year. Either the mail from Oklahoma takes an exceptionally long time or this album simply collects work recorded from that year. Who knows? (Actually, a quick ‘net check has revealed this album was released at least a couple of years ago. Oh well…)

VIOLET Violet Ray Gas and the Playback Singers CD (Zeromoon & Sentient Recognition Archive, USA, 2009)
Violet is the name given to Washington DC veteran Jeff Surak’s latest guise. Operating since the early ‘80s and responsible over the years for a part in the homespun cassette label arena as well as collaborations with Crawling With Tarts, John Hudak, Frans de Waard, Kotra, Francisco Lopez, etc. and his own 1348, Sovmestnoye Predpriyatiye and V projects, Violet pretty much continues from where the V duo left off. Utilising found objects, prepared acoustic instruments, damaged discs, old record players and the like, Surak here heads for an exciting juncture where cinematic drones meet abrasive outbursts. Following the opener ‘All Records Collapse’, with its gliding metallic textures and spoken voices, we are treated to a good example of his capabilties. ‘Marionetki’, stretching for over 14 minutes, combines penumbric hiss the like of which The Hafler Trio are especially good at sculpting entire universes from with gentle whirs and flutters whose movements later fade away to make room for a savage machine attack. Afterwards, tracks mostly continue to work themselves around more dynamic gush, nods towards minimalism, carefully woven loops and enough attention to detail to keep things wholly engaging, but fifth piece, ‘Interior Ghosts’, makes way for a haunting violin drone-led setting that must rank as the album’s highlight. Whilst other sounds bubble away beneath the overlayed violins, visions of skinny black-clad types creating the perfect din in a New York loft hover ever closer, but it’s something that works sublimely when juxtaposed with all else on offer. An album I’ll certainly be returning to. (Richard Johnson)

JANA WINDEREN Heated: Live in Japan CD (Touch, 2009)
Using an array hydrophones, Norwegian sound-artist Winderen here collects material gathered from Greenland and Iceland as well as her native country to create a nearly 27-minute-long piece recorded live at Super Deluxe in Tokyo, October 2008. Concerning her work with the sounds to be found in lakes, oceans, glacial crevasses and generally beneath the world we see around us, she weaves together sonic blankets as haunting as they are beguiling or comforting. Mysterious underwater creaks, crackles and oozes converge with the atmospheric flowing and gushing to an effect as satisfying as that to be found on Nurse With Wound’s heavily criticised Salt Marie Celeste album. And, outside a limited edition 7”, ‘Surface Runoff’, released on USA-based Autofact label, some of her recordings appearing in Sigur Ros’ 2007 film, Heima, and a series of installations and collaborations (including a recent one with Chris Watson), Heated is actually her debut CD. I look forward to hearing more. (Richard Johnson)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Emotional Restraints: Martin Küchen live at Alchemia, Krakow, Sunday June 7th 2009

Not only afforded the pleasure of seeing Küchen for my first time live in Warsaw late last year, I’d also been introduced to him immediately before this particular night’s show by Marcin of AudioTong and was pleased to discover him extremely affable. Always nice to meet decent musicians, as I generally contend the vast majority are either dull or pretentious and, therefore, best avoided at all costs. Anyway, after grabbing a beer and heading downstairs to one of Krakow’s only venues dedicated to modern jazz, improv and related forms of music, I was surprised to find the place had several rows of empty seats available still. Good for me, of course, but not so good for those people who clearly had better things to do than join me in witnessing one of the best saxophone players I’ve personally caught for a long time. One of the best because, quite simply, his playing transcends all the usual barriers concerning the instrument.
Although having arrived from a freeform jazz background (and itself beginning, apparently, in a punk band many, many years ago), Küchen’s own work centres around a different approach to the saxophone. Each of the compositions played tonight, similar to his set in Warsaw, concentrates on a breathy, occasionally almost silent, type of playing given to more textural forms that are akin to utterances from beyond the space time continuum. If the wind could play jazz through the trees (and, heck, maybe it does!), it might come close to sounding like this. For all the obvious energy and exertion married to Küchen’s style, what comes out is a series of murmurs, melodious guff and near-impenetrable silence intent on perhaps picking at the notion of details lost to the everyday racket we’re generally bombarded by. It may be either a reaction to the latter or it may well serve as a reminder of those seemingly buried fragments of noise we at least think are obscured by those many bigger blocks of sonic debris, or it may indeed simply be open to subjective interpretation. In the end, it doesn’t especially matter when placed next to the music itself.
Playing five rather lengthy compositions in total, each related to the overall context by virtue of the stealthy playing at work, we were treated to music that made me think of hypnotic forms themselves occasionally conjuring all from strained cries of anguish to the internal sounds of a building collapsing caught from afar. Once in a while, more regular sounds associated with the instrument would make their pronouncements but, mostly, what Küchen does is create a setting where restrained yet dynamic enough movements flesh themselves out amongst babbling that’s more like electro-acoustic work than anything immediately related to freeform jazz or whatever. Quietly employing some kind of shaker to the saxophone’s bell on one of the pieces, the emphasis on detail becomes even greater. Outside of this, he also uses what looks like an electric toothbrush on another piece, sometimes taps out little rhythmic flourishes elsewhere on the instrument and is capable of working it up to resemble either Indian chanting or pipes being blown. Ultimately, his tool of choice, the saxophone, is pushed completely and utterly out of its context.
I bought a CD after the show itself dedicated to the material in the set. Sad to say that it’s not quite as good as actually experiencing this music live (although it's still good), but I’ve always maintained that such music is best caught being sweated out on stage anyway. If this man plays anywhere near you, push any reservations you may well have about improv or freeform music, or indeed a sax soloist come to that, and give yourself a treat. Küchen’s music is aimed at all open ears and can grease your mind’s tightest coils. Get to it.


Monday, May 25, 2009

Ulan Bator, Club Init, Weds May 13th 2009‏

I really should pay more attention sometimes. If it weren't for the fact that I randomly picked up a copy of Roma C'e (i.e., Time Out for the Italian capital), I would have missed the fact that Ulan Bator were playing at Rome's Init club. UB is the brainchild of ex-Faust musician Amaury Cambuzat, an amiable Frenchman resident these days in Milan. I first came across him when Richo helped organise Faust's first ever Polish gig a few years back (a phenomenal show, documented on the LTC release From Our Souls To Your Ears, or however the fuck it translates into Polish). Amaury had been great company on that occasion and kindly handed me a few Ulan Bator CDs, which turned out to be full of fine, muscular guitar rock of the type rarely found these days.

So arriving at Init (located bloody miles from my flat in the poncey boozwah part of Northern Rome) I track down Amaury and we catch up. He apologises profusely for a guest-list screw-up, but I assure him that I really don't mind paying to get in like everyone else. The rest of the band (including London's James Johnston - Faust, Bad Seeds, Gallon Drunk, etc) is relaxing with the homemade wine of the roadie's Southern Italian grandfather - such geographical specificity is important in this country. At 11pm they disappear off to perform.

It seems that Rome is infected with the big-city gig-crowd malaise that afflicts places like London - everyone stands around like statues, refusing to react, so it's left to roadie Diego and me to move around a bit. This has always annoyed me - apparently, you risk the fate-worse-than-death of looking 'uncool' if you dare to show any sign of being viscerally affected by the music you just paid 10 Euro to listen to. Jesus, shake your booties, people!

It's the least this band deserves, because they're a PHENOMENAL live act. I tend to see the guitar/bass/drums/synth setup as largely redundant these days, especially given what the disease that is Indie Rock has done with the format, but UB injected an intensity and ferocity into it that I haven't seen since Swans' final gig in London a decade ago... or since Faust in Poland for that matter. Working seamlessly with each other, each musician displays both virtuosity and - more importantly, perhaps - SHOWMANSHIP, throwing themselves fully into the gig, culminating in a 'musical orgasm' (a la 'Death Valley 69') that left me gasping.

The new CDEP, 'Soleil' (to be reviewed elsewhere here soon enough) is a fine piece of work (ta for the freebie, Amaury!) but it can't do the impossible and reproduce the potency of the onstage experience. UB gigs a fair bit in Europe these days; if they play in your town, do yourself a favour and drag your lazy arse out to see them. Their finely crafted sound-of-the-mountains guitar work will shake you up in a way that little else seems capable of doing these days.

Anton Black

New Continent of Noise: Cut Hands in Krakow, 5/5/09

Photo of Cut Hands in Lodz,
Friday 8/5/09

Despite the fact a cold had just begun to throw me into its turbulent waters, I dutifully broke away from the murky subterranean confines afforded by one of Krakow’s few venues, Alchemia, in order to meet William Bennett from the airport and get him there. In doing so, I missed saxophonist Ray Dickaty’s duet with Rafal Mazur, but such things cannot be helped. Half hour back from the airport and we’re in the venue’s vague semblance of a dressing room, nursing drinks and chatting whilst Alan Licht, Aki Onda and Noel Akchote take to the stage. Never having been impressed by Licht’s recordings before, I wasn’t so bothered about catching him live really, but what I could see and hear of his own improvisations in this trio setting from the stage’s wing seemed okay. Occasional plumes of textural glaze bombarded by shards of crystalline distortion and spiralling sonic shavings penetrated all conversation well enough, sustaining my generally good mood that was only otherwise dented by my losing the battle with the germs. Another Coke for William and beer for me later and it was time for the Cut Hands DJ set. Only the fact it had to happen after midnight and, as such, being a weekday, the audience began to thin out really betrayed everything once the line check was out of the way…

Of course, there were a few people around who clearly wanted some Whitehouse, going by the few song requests I heard being shouted out, but the entire Cut Hands deal is a world away from Whitehouse’s often overblown theatrics-led dabblings with perception via sound, language, ideas and, of course, an image supported by a rich history itself awash in notoreity. Only William’s obvious ability to create vast shifting torrents of electronic sound as dynamic as the best structures to be found in rock music furnish one with a link between the two platforms, really. Beyond this, whilst delivering what he has long called ‘afro-noise’, he’s onstage and bears more similarities to other DJs given to only focussing on their craft whilst performing. And by DJs I don’t mean the kind who play other people’s music, either. Akin to certain artists who’ve arrived from dance culture (I’m thinking Richie Hawtin, for example, here), William’s notion of Djing amounts to him playing around with, sequencing and live mixing sounds he’s mostly prepared himself via a laptop. Onstage, nestled amongst the darkness he’s insisted on playing in, there’s very little engagement with the audience or even, come to that, the drink carefully placed nearby. Full concentration is the order of the day, allowing the music to completely shout for itself. And shout it does.

Dashing all expectations, there’s greater emphasis on William’s (personally played and, as he points out later, non-looped) djembe drum workouts. These alone form incredible polyrhythmic soundbeds that instantly transport many around me. I notice people sat down nodding their heads with eyes closed, helplessly locked into proceedings, whilst others take to the limited area there is to dance in. Then there are the electronic washes of blissed-out sound weaving in and out, cascading over or replacing the rhythm segues. Peaks and troughs again commanding the listener and clearly indebted to both William’s own background in such music and, to a far lesser extent, those live house or techno DJs who cut their teeth creating music destined to become new genres. On one hand, the ‘noise’ at work appears fully controlled and as carefully hewn as anything presented so far by Whitehouse’s ‘second phase’, on the other it is poised to the brink of going all Mount Pompeii on us and leaving everybody drenched in sonic sputum in its wake. What’s likewise noticeable is how the music which constitutes a Cut Hands set doesn’t pander to those whose bodies are firmly glued to it, either (mine included!). Anybody can be thrown off the scent at any time before then having to rethink a route back into it. As many doors are slammed violently in one’s feet as are actually opened for them.

But then, well, this is neither ordinary dance music or ordinary music to begin with. If it appears to be about anything then it may well be the basic premise of elevation or at least taking listeners to that very point where its both in their grasp and could be as dangerous as exciting for them. The place where possibilities, in all their guises, exist. And, yes, this might also be something which can be levelled at Whitehouse. I personally wouldn’t expect anything less from William Bennett’s music, though. Which is precisely what sets it apart from so much else…

Richard Johnson

Footnote: I also caught the third of three Cut Hands sets here in Poland in Lodz a few days later. This time the venue was an art gallery and I am certain that the audience, much as some clearly wanted to, wouldn’t ‘allow’ themselves to move to the music for all the (supposed) inhibitions this brings. Behaviour can easily be influenced by the environment and all preset ideas one may have about that. Or maybe it was the fact William was backed by three short Jean Rouche films from the late ‘50s this time. Or the combination? Either way, I strongly feel dancing in art galleries should be encouraged. Well, to live music in them, at least!

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Fine Arts of Language and Sound: An Interview with Michael Begg of Human Greed

The following interview took place between Michael Begg and Kate MacDonald sometime during April 2009, a mere cluster of months after the release of Human Greed's third CD album, Black Hill: Midnight at the Blighted Star, released on Lumberton Trading Company and featuring a number of collaborators such as Julia Kent and David Tibet. During this same timeframe the duo (also comprising phenomenal artist Deryk Thomas) have also played their first ever live shows (in Poland) and plan to embark on more...

Photograph by  Carlo Giordani.

AE: Start with a basic: What was it that originally made you want to start Human Greed?

MB: To tell you the truth, I have no recollection at all of wanting to start it, probably because there was no real start. It just kind of grew out of what had been going on before.

 The start Start START was when Deryk and I met, aged 12, sat down in a room with my father's electric guitar plugged in to a hifi and tried to pick out the theme music from John Carpenter's Halloween. Fast forward through years of aiming two cassette recorders at each other to create primitive multi tracks, a few effects boxes, a propensity for sticking a guitar into the back of an amp then kicking the amp to make the reverb wires crash together in the midst of the beautiful howl of feedback and the recipe for disaster was pretty much there.

We were good suburban boys though and had no conception or notion of taking this racket out to the world. It just kind of hummed in the background while we got on with other things.

The whole brew I suppose began to surface in the late nineties. I was writing at the time, and had my own theatre company, and was looking to do a new kind of performance. I didn't quite realise at the time how far I was subsequently going to come into personal dispute with the act of writing itself. I was just feeling my way forward in the dark, as it were. I had these ideas of pure sound leading to pure emotional response, and arrangements of sounds that would lead to some form of direct narrative that somehow would evade the negotiated meaning inherent within language. It was as vague at the time as it is pretentious now!

I travelled to Morocco and I was lucky enough to meet Paul Bowles. We had some nice chats: about dogs and dentists mostly, but sometimes writing. He, of course, was a composer who was unsatisfied at music's limitation at presenting negative emotions. Which these days seems an extraordinary thing to say. We have come to appreciate music, sound, as being very well equipped to present negative feelings. So he turned his back on musical composition to address his negativity in poetry and prose. I turned my back on poetry and prose in order to face the same demons with sound.

Round about this same time a friend introduced me to audio applications on the computer, and so I found myself tinkering with early versions of Cakewalk, Wavelab, Cubase, Sound Forge, etc.

I was like a kid in a sweetie shop. I sunk deeper and deeper into a dark pool of delight, where I would swim around, shredding, stretching and twisting synths, samples and instruments. It took a while, but I soon gained a reasonable degree of competence and began arranging and sequencing the results. It was exactly what I was after. Purity of intent, non-negotiable emotional response. I never thought of it as music, or noise, or anything really. I just knew it was right: and that is a feeling that I rarely ever have.

It just so happened that a play that was being worked up at this time was called Human Greed: A Mortality Play in 3 Courses. When I heard that Steven Severin was, at that time, composing work for theatre I decided, more or less on a whim as I recall, to send him a cassette of these arrangements, and Human Greed was what I wrote on the side of the cassette. In retrospect it seems outrageous that this approach should lead to the first HG album, but there you go. Says something about Severin too. Either that he has great insight, or is more desperate than I thought! Ha!

AE: After your first album, you started your own label, Omnempathy and then moved back to releasing music through another label for the third album. How would you compare the experiences of releasing your own material versus having it on someone else's label?

MB: Omnempathy was just a word I came up with and I wanted it to be something - a nom de guerre, a website, a publication, a family motto. It just so happened that the way fate wandered from day to day it presented itself, at the right moment, as a name for a record label.

I am enough of an enthusiast to say that I really liked being involved and in control of the whole enterprise, but on the other hand I have enjoyed not having to put capital up front for the work that appears on other labels.

That said, the general level of incompetence that sits under the administration of the majority of boutique labels is quite astonishing to me. There's no doubting the enthusiasm there but the marginal audiences involved in this kind of enterprise seems to allow them to give up entirely on any will to market or promote the artists in any way whatsoever. You end up with this weird scene where label owners act like artists, and that just doesn't work.

AE: Your music has a very strong visual and literary component ("the musical investigation of a writer and a painter"- stolen from your website). How do you think the other artistic pursuits of the HG members shape your sound? Are there other elements you'd like to add to Human Greed for future recordings? (kabuki-style puppet shows during live performances, slow-moving can-can dancers, kazoo orchestras...)

MB: I'm not really sure how to answer that one. It's not possible to separate one element of your life entirely from another so there is always going to be some kind of bleed. It would be difficult to pinpoint a single source for a particular intervention. As a writer I have a good grounding in narrative structure and that certainly informs my approach to composition. But its questionable whether it has any more or any less impact than my response to the sound of trains in the morning, or the way that a road drill fills me with profound melancholy - both direct examples that have informed HG recordings in the past - I really can't be sure. Deryk is an illustrator and there is a similar formality to his approach in that work. But it also demands a huge capacity for patience that is also valuable in navigating the long gestation periods of HG recordings.

You have to think of it, and I'm sorry to go on about this, the purity of the emotion. What is the emotional impulse and what happens to it on the way to expression? Language distorts because of its need to negotiate meaning in its presentation. Sound and image are much more representative of the pure thought. The prerogative of expression. As an illustration, think of a child at a kitchen table drawing pictures. They seldom do this in silence. They make all these lovely sounds as they scratch out their lines. They are expressing the same little thought in two representative mediums simultaneously. We tend to lose that approach as we get older. Probably round about the time we begin picking up writing skills.

I have been quite down on the written word for some time now. Though the ongoing experience of HG seems slowly to be resolving itself back towards some kind of embrace of language. We'll see, we'll see...

But it seems to me that the written word in the 21st century serves only a single purpose: To take something from you. Your money normally, but increasingly, your trust, your faith, your mind. Oh, I could go on, and I do. But I am tiresome, and pretentious.

How about this? Deryk and I set up an idea for a live routine that would involve us standing on stage and opening a cardboard box brimful of puppies. Then amidst a blizzard of noise we would shave the puppies with electric shears and set them loose, pink, terrified and pissing themselves into the crowd. That seemed to be a good way of generating the desired emotional response from an audience - that heady cocktail of disbelief, horror, pity. Of course, we could never follow through on such a plan. Not fair on the puppies, of course. And you can't really get puppy actors to consent to perform it as a role.

You will have read about the artist whose work amounted to a stray dog in a room that over the course of the exhibition starved to death in a pool of its own ordure. Who was it, Vargas? Costa Rican, I think. There was a huge outcry. Its not art, its cruelty, they screamed. It was absolutely very cruel, but it seemed to me a perfectly valid artistic statement. Who's to say what is and what isn't?

To be perfectly honest, I am now familiar enough with the process of recording an HG record that I can safely say at this point I have no idea whatsoever will make its way onto the next record! There are certainly new elements that pop into my mind on a daily basis, particularly since undertaking the live shows in Poland late last year.

But if you do happen to have a can-can dancer among your friends, pass on my number.

AE: You have comparatively recently started to perform live. Have you been (generally) happy with the results? How does the live environment change your sound (if at all)?

MB: Very, very happy. It was so thrilling to be able to take it all out on the road. And I love Poland, so it was just perfect. Those doomed, winter-savaged flatlands, those beautiful, sad Slavic faces, those late night smoky basements under the mediaeval squares - and there, tangled up in the Christmas lights, little old us with our fistful of sounds. Quite, quite beautiful.

As you say, we have only looked at this aspect of our work recently. That's on account of three things I suppose. The advances in software, the experience of my playing with Fovea Hex all over Europe, and the introduction of the visual element brought in by film maker Neil McLauchlan. He is another old friend of mine who is based out of Galway, Ireland.

I'd like to do more. In fact, I am in London right now and I'll be meeting a promoter later in the afternoon to look at possibilities. A London show would be good. And I'd like to go back to Italy. I've played there several times with Fovea Hex. I think they'd go for us there. From what I can gather we have a bit of a following there - largely on account of a pirate copy of Black Hill leaking out onto the Italian bulletin board communities.

The live sound is, necessarily, I suppose, much less contemplative, much more immediate. There is little room for subtlety, but there is still a lot you can do with these soundbeds of ours, particularly at high volume, that shifts the material in a whole new direction.

It was always a concern of mine that a show of beat-less, melody free laptop generated music would be the most boring thing in the world. God knows the world is jam packed to the gunnels with duos staring intently at computer screens and indulging in the ludicrous practice of improvised electronica. Everyone we met on the road always seemed to say that same thing; "Ya, ya, I'm, like, into doing improvisational electronica right now, ya!" Fuck that!

I had to think in a very traditional way about what works on stage. Instruments. Visuals. Vocals!

So, I configured the set to afford Deryk as much time as possible to work with a treated guitar. Neil composed some very effective visuals to be projected behind us, and I invited Gosia (Warsaw's Brenda LeeDVD) to read some texts from 'Moonsuite' (a piece of writing that has been occupying me recently). It worked really well, but sadly she could not make it with us as far south as Krakow. We still had a mic on stage and at some point  during the Krakow show I picked it up and began singing, after a fashion. It was not so much catharsis as purgative. Kind of like what I was saying earlier about children making noises with their mouths because the gateway to the pure emotion wasnít being opened quick enough by the act of drawing. The surge needed to get out fast, and in this case it just came from my throat. I don't know if it will ever happen again. Its not something I can envisage working up in rehearsal or introducing in any substantive way to the recording process. But it worked on the night.

I am pleasantly surprised at how flexible the performance set up was in the end. I didn't expect there to be so much room for improvising. Oh shit - improvised electronica!

For more information: http://www.omnempathy.com

Saturday, April 18, 2009

ART OF DARKNESS: CocART, Torun, Saturday March 28, 2009

Long, long time since I last embraced a huge journey for any music. In fact, the last time it happened was probably for Whitehouse’s show at The Garage in London around a year ago, if I’m to conveniently overlook the fact I since happened to be in Warsaw for a Human Greed show there in December. But that doesn’t count. No, last time was the trip to London for Whitehouse although, similar to this particular instance, there were outside factors to the music concerned. In London, I not only had a chance to finally meet Kate MacDonald but also a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and faces hardly seen for a considerable while (years, even, in some cases): people such as good pal Steve Pittis, Stephen Meixner, Justin Mitchell and Jo, and many others. A good music event can often serve as a great social gathering, too. An ideal way to at least meet people not seen for a long time, if not the best way to actually catch up with them properly.

 Whatever. Fast forward. I’m ensnared by a similar circumstance as I travel to Torun by train. Alone. Following almost two weeks of deliberation during which my only friend from Malaysia, Yin, stayed with me for almost one of them. Whilst she was at my place, I made a decision to go to one day of the second edition of the annual CocART Festival in Torun and duly set about setting things up. A little groundwork conducted via old emails between Stefan Knappe of Drone Records/Troum and myself, plus my obtaining the festival organisers’ contact details, and I was in. With Yin on the plus-one. Only the train ticket and place to stay remained to be conquered, as well as the necessary finances for both, but Yin soon took care of the hotel situation and played her part in activating my otherwise latent decision. As such, several days after she left my place for Gdansk and following my usual couple of days teaching in a town 120km away from Krakow, I’m on my way to join her once more…

 …via a train journey that lasts over 7 hours and gives me a chance to not only catch up with some much needed sleep but also devour half of Ian McEwan’s incredible Enduring Love in fits and starts clouded by daydreams, idle contemplation and the occasional jotting of notes in a compartment that thankfully becomes my own after Lodz. If anything can justify travelling such great distances for me it’s the fact I rarely make time to relax or sit down with a book at home (most of my reading is done whilst away each week in the town I teach at, Polaniec). Even when I watch a film, I remain restless (at least at home).

 Anyway, I get to Torun at 16.40. Tired and laden enough with a bag full of CDs to give to various people. It’s raining, of course, and once I’ve got to the hotel with the aid of a taxi driver who forgets to put his meter on till 2 minutes into the journey (I notice these things…), I am left with all of 40 minutes to settle into my room, freshen up and walk around the very heart of the city that saw Copernicus become the person we all know him as before I have to meet Yin in the reception. I feel tired, but good and at least content. Well, quite content.

 Yin and myself meet and I’m pleased to finally talk to somebody who isn’t just a ticket inspector or a stranger attempting to make smalltalk with me on a train. We head for a restaurant and need a beer with our respective meals before heading back out into the downpour and a search for a venue which seems to magically and predictably evade its address. Fifteen, maybe twenty, minutes later, we find it. Opposite directions always seem to make the most sense in such circumstances.

 Whatever. Not too drenched and we are truly in. The venue is some kind of art centre and the festival itself takes place in its underground car park: a location perfectly suited to the first group for its notions suggesting escape. Yes, Column One are into their set as we arrive, and I’m instantly reminded of so many groups who think they’re something they are clearly not. I’ve never been really into such music a great deal, anyway, but their mish-mash of horror movie textures, farmyard sounds and intergalactic grunts coupled to a man strutting about in his underwear and a large cardboard tube over his head, plus others in Japanese masks, only succeeds in making me look for a viable alternative: another beer. I’m sure Column One spend time on what they’re doing, and maybe even take their slightly Dadaist performance art sensibility seriously enough to believe it means something beyond all the usual cliches, but their music moves in concentric circles to the point it becomes a powerless and insignificant dot. When it comes to music of this kind of faltering and wispy disposition, I am glad there are other things in life worth savouring far more.

 Such as meeting people. Luckily, one of the festival organisers, Rafal, from drone outfit Hati (who performed the previous night), is there to greet me almost as soon as I make my way for a glass of beer. CDs are exchanged, lightening my bag, and I thank him for letting Yin and myself into the show for free before we tentatively discuss the idea of collaborating at next year’s festival. This idea of some kind of Lumberton Trading Company spotlight has been simmering away for a while now, actually. Another flash in the pan mooted for only too long by various parties that must be realised at some point. No question.

 Also meet Agnieszka, a photographer who’s been in touch a lot recently. Always nice to put a face to some writing. We catch up a little, disagree over Column One and then watch The Magic Carpathians soon commence their set. When I saw this group in Krakow last year, I was mesmerised by their blend of folk and psychedelia strained with an avant sensibility, but the performance on this particular night started out like a hippie tea party in a church hall and ended as an excuse to get lost in thoughts so far removed from the proceedings it was impossible to return. I think I ended up surveying the audience instead, plus engaging in more beer and conversation with my various friends and associates. I’ve absolutely nothing against music drifting through pseudo-Pagan corridors smothered by the stench of lentil soup and slightly stupid yearnings for ‘a better world’, but it needs to be backed up by something that may actually pull you in, even if momentarily. These mountain folk just couldn’t do it, though. At least, not on this particular night. When it comes to so-called hippie music, I want Amon Duul or Can or whatever. Hippie music with bollocks (and, indeed, a yearning to evade the ghastly hippie trappings it may be attached to in the first instance). The Magic Carpathians may have been striving for that ‘transcendental’ level of music afforded by certain minimalist artists, such as Charlemagne Palestine or, better yet, Christina Kubisch, but nothing actually worked. When the female vocalist started playing around with her own capabilities, Yin remarked that it all sounded like Enya. Which just about encapsulated it perfectly. Hippie trance-out music for office workers isn’t quite what I want from my own listening experiences…

 Thankfully, Frenchman Richard Pinhas was up next to save the night. Although, perhaps to my shame, I’ve not kept up with his solo work since his group Heldon disbanded (and didn’t he collaborate with Merzbow recently, too? Mind you, who fucking hasn’t…?!), certain people over the years have often mentioned it as being pretty strong still. And the show here clearly illustrated this. Aided by two other musicians and, between them all, utilising a guitar, laptop and various electronic devices set to some suitably bright and tantalising abstract visuals, Pinhas moulded a molten soundbed of shapes and textures into focus. Sometimes jarring and taking on an almost quasi-noise approach, the music mostly, however, remained anchored to a palette owing as much to his background in Tangerine Dream-inspired ‘70s electronics as its then stretching its tendrils out to more filmic concerns. Ultimately, Pinhas’ psychedelia successfully honours his past without sacrificing its potential stakes in the contemporary arena. On top of this, the moods constantly shifted. With enough abstraction woven in to keep us transfixed, melodic swells crumbled into ominous twilight pools as enchanting and exciting as being reminders of our solitude. This performance was worth the trip alone, and I hope I will one day get the pleasure of seeing Pinhas again.

 More drinks, more talking, more lapping up the moment. All is good, and the combination of alcohol, fatigue and having perhaps not eaten enough during the previous few days send me reeling to a space where Oren Ambarchi’s set doesn’t do so much for me. During his 45/50-minutes solo show of electronics, I keep telling myself I should be enjoying it more than I am. Stitching drones and fragments together, Oren’s music once again assumes a psychedelic stance that at least worms its way through some interesting corridors, but I find it hard to get as excited about it all as Yin. I put this down to my own state of mind rather than the music, though. Maybe I’ve just had too much electronic music for one night?

 Once Oren finishes, I grab another beer and make my way to an adjoining room, where the smokers are allowed to indulge their habits, and catch up with Stefan and others a little more. My beer quota has reached the point where I need conversation rather than music, plus a little less noise disturbing it.

 When I leave this room to return to the main one where the concerts are, a Japanese guy is banging out some techno hopelessly muted by the seated audience and its sounding not only out of place and awkward but slightly out of date.

 It’s time to leave.

 Yin and myself are asked along to an after-show party at a nearby bar. We tag along for a while, walk into the new venue and decide, after only a minute or two in this smoke-choked and busy environment, that it’s time to head back to the hotel.

 I fall asleep knowing that my journey back to Krakow is going to be padded out by a monstrous hangover and that the notion of hell will once again consume me on it. But at least I've enjoyed myself, if not all of the artists on offer.

Richard Johnson