Sunday 23 November 2014

Playlist 11

I haven’t written one of these playlists for a while, preferring my sporadic music-based posts to take a slightly more in-depth form.  However, my recent listening has included a number of recordings that are too involving to pass without some comment.  Most of the items in this list are new to me, but there are a couple of old favourites as well.  For every new, experimental noise-scape, it seems there’s still the odd, evergreen rock anthem on heavy rotation too.  Sadly, I seem to have forgotten how to keep these entries concise, for which - apologies.  Perhaps you can just skip over the ones that interest you least.

Kemper Norton, ‘Loor’:

This is, (I think), the second full album to be put out in physical form by Kemper Norton, and a stylishly packaged artifact it is too.  It’s predecessor, ‘Carn’ is a nuanced and atmospheric electro-acoustic mélange, channeling the landscapes of Cornwall and Sussex, and eerie intimations of their previous inhabitants.  ‘Loor’ is billed as a nocturnal companion piece to that release, (translating as ‘Moon’ in old Cornish), and is a marvelous consolidation of everything that’s been interesting about his work to date.  Dark, folkloric or archaeological undercurrents run through much of this music, along with a definite sense of place, accentuated by the incorporation of field recordings into the overall sound. 

Norton’s signature sound involves ‘slurring’ acoustic and digital sounds, and layering sonic textures, hidden voices, and occasional, traditional instrumentation.  Beats sometimes intrude, but softer pulses or repeated phrasing more usually provide any rhythmic structure.  Key pieces are overlaid with passages of traditional song, intoned in an affectless and intimate voice.  On ‘Loor’ these include the familiar Welsh piece translated as, ‘All Through The Night’.

Like many current purveyors of haunted electronic music, Kemper Norton blurs the distinctions between the rural and the industrial, and actually deserves the clumsy ‘Folktronic’ label far more than many others.  Those of us happy to succumb to the marketing strategy of ‘Loor’ also get ‘Salvaged’, - a bonus disc of selected archival pieces, which display earlier facets of what is becoming an increasingly well-polished stone.

David Gilmour, ‘There’s No Way Out Of Here’:

Undoubtedly the most conservative choice here, - this is nonetheless something I often reach for when in a sentimental mood, after a couple of glasses of red.  By 1978 the tensions were really showing in the over-blown money machine that Pink Floyd became, so it’s no wonder that Gilmour chose to record his first, eponymous solo album at the same time.  I remember it, from a couple of years later, as a slightly patchy affair, but this song stays with me.

There’s no real mystery about how the emotional manipulation is achieved, involving, as it does, a solemn refrain with a dying fall, Gilmour’s beautiful voice and ever-reliable guitar work, those skipping extra beats, the break in the line, “the chance… you took”, soaring female backing vocals, etc.  My preferred version is this live promotional footage, found on YouTube.  I like Gilmour’s modest leadership of the band, and the fact that organist Ian McLagan is clearly having such a good time.

Concretism, ‘EP01 - Rabies Warning’ / ‘EP02 - Another Way Of Looking At It’ / ‘EP03 - Don’t Forget The Empties’ / ‘EP04 - Forewarned Is Forearmed’:

I’m highly attuned to anything using my current favourite building material as a referent right now, (although it’s no reason why a piece of music should be interesting per-se, of course).  Luckily, under the Concretism banner, Chris Sharp has produced music that suits me just fine on all four of these EP’s.  It clearly belongs in the Hauntology camp, amounting to, in his own words, a “grey world of sinister public information films, dusty archival sounds, Cold War Britain, and weeping analogue synths”.

Of course, the Hauntological checklist has become pretty standardised by this point, and certainly, there’s little here we haven’t already heard from Belbury Poly, The Advisory Circle, Pye Corner Audio, etc.  Nonetheless, Sharp’s music is a welcome addition to the canon.  I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, and do enjoy a little conceptual harking back to the Britain of my youth.  His new album is high on my next shopping list.

Concrete / Field, ‘A Theory Of Psychic Geography’:

Which leads me to this CDR, burnt straight from the kitchen table/workshop bench of the Hacker Farm-related 19f3 ‘nano-label’.  Again, it’s no secret why I took a punt on this, given the name and title attached.  The splendid press release on the 19f3 website didn’t hurt either.

Working as Concrete / Field, Mark Chickenf1sh (really?) sculpts drones, sine waves and abstract frequencies into textural soundscapes the listener can actually inhabit.  His back catalogue shows an enthusiasm for the electrical buzz of coal-fired power stations or heavily processed, mechanical noises, but also an appreciation of landscape and the immersive environment generally.  Here, the relationship to place is given free conceptual rein through layers of nuanced sound that envelop the listener, rather than simply strafing the ears.  Again, there is that eliding of the rural, industrial and digital dimensions and a thoroughly contemporary sense of the hidden infrastructure woven through all aspects of contemporary life.

Ship Canal, ‘Please Let Me Back In Your House’:

Also from 19f3 comes this from Manchester’s own purveyor of DIY Dole-core Noise Art, Ship Canal, A.K.A. Daniel Baker.  Baker affects a beg-steal-or borrow approach to his equipment and a don’t-know-what-I’m-doing approach to technique, but if the latter’s true he’s a bit of a natural.  Like the Concrete / Field album, this lies at the point where Noise meets Ambient Sound Design, (do these labels really mean anything?), and is involving and environmental far more than it is confrontational or abrasive.

There does seem to be a certain political, (or at least sociological), intent behind Baker’s work, as revealed through certain speech samples woven through his otherwise abstract sounds, and it’s no surprise to see his work being championed through Hacker Farm channels.  Ultimately though, the Ship Canal project feels equally like an individual survival strategy, and a way for Baker to find both stimulation and expression amidst possibly frustrating personal circumstances.

Extnddntwrk, ‘Just Tracks’:

Andrew Fearn garnered loads of attention this year as half of everyone’s favourite East-Midlands ranting unit, Sleaford Mods.  However, a visit to Bandcamp reveals an extensive back catalogue of solo releases under the Extnddntwrk name, much of which is well worth a listen.  Several of the others download for free, so I was happy to shell out for this one on CD.

These electronic beat-sketches may generally lack the punkish aggression that attaches to Sleaford Mods, but they still demonstrate the stripped-down, economical approach of those more famous backing tracks.  Fearn is adept at leaving his sound uncluttered, (‘simple’ wouldn’t be insulting), whilst retaining our interest, and each piece has a distinct character or specific mood.  Nothing really goes anywhere in particular, but there’s always some sense of development if you pay attention, and the tracks rarely overstay their welcome.  The same may not be true of the extended, experimental piece that appends the album proper, and I’ve heard Fearn play with found sound and film and TV samples to greater effect elsewhere.

The CD release of ‘Just Tracks’ also includes a bonus disc of music from the Extnddntwrk archive.  It’s a great introduction to the oeuvre in general, taking in wobbly bass workouts, busier rhythms, sung vocals and even Punk and Metal guitar sounds, amongst much else.  It also points to the greater attack of the Sleaford Mods aesthetic, but gives the lie to the chancer-having-a-laff vibe of his persona in that unit, through sheer variety of work achieved.

Flying Lotus, ‘You’re Dead!’:

I have a lot of time for Flying Lotus, which is ironic, given that he’s the epitome of a butterfly mind, - endlessly alighting on each dazzling new idea or trope without allowing anything to really establish itself.  I enjoyed his previous full-length release, ‘Until The Quiet Comes’, but can appreciate that some find it just too amorphous or insubstantial.  This new one is a slightly more focused affair, whilst retaining FlyLo’s defining characteristics.  It even features tracks with a coherent groove throughout their, (admittedly short), entire extent.

‘You’re Dead!’ comes on like a Jazz album, although Stephen Ellison throws all his usual Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronica, and even Prog. elements into the pot too.  In reality, nothing this artificially assembled could really be termed true Jazz.  Nevertheless, he’s clearly channeling his Great Auntie Alice Coltrane very consciously.  Thundercat’s ubiquitous, School of Pastorius bass work adds to the overall Fusion flavour, and Ellison’s even got Herbie Hancock guesting on there, for crying out loud!

He also plays with Alice Coltrane’s open-ended approach to Eastern mysticism, - not least in the album’s different thematic interpretations of Death and what might come after.  As ever, Ellison is unafraid to engage with big ideas, whilst creating music that is far from portentous, and even seems cartoon-like on occasion.  It’s a bit like the aural equivalent of Fiona Rae’s painting and, similarly, - never less than entertaining.

Swans, ‘To Be Kind’:

Swans, (Michael Gira: Third From Left).

This title also seems ironic given Swans were once responsible for some of the most alienating quasi-industrial racket ever inflicted on audiences.  I’d contend it was never just about pissing people off though.  The band’s long history shows considerable musical evolution, and Michael Gira may just be the most emotionally honest artist working in music today.  He’s certainly one of the most intense, I suspect.

This reconstituted, late incarnation of Swans has been a revelation, - applying various aspects of earlier band phases to an expansive sound that is vast in its overall scope.  It combines raw power, and a persistence that seems almost pathological on occasions, with precision of execution and as skilful a deployment of subtleties and musical spaces as of the grand gestures.  It’s nominally Post Rock in genre terms, but mostly just sounds like itself.

The previous album, ‘The Seer’, was breathtaking, but this one may even top it.  There are wonderful things from beginning to end, but it’s hard to ignore the half-hour epic that is ‘Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’.  The first half amounts to a mantra that I find properly transcendent, whilst the second goes deeper into the heart of darkness than even the Doors’ ‘The End’ managed, (and without the leather trousers).  For once, bigger really is better.

Bob Dylan, ‘Shelter From A Hard Rain’:

Bob Dylan: "Someone's Got It In For Me…"

I can’t afford the recent multi-disc release of Dylan & The Band’s complete ‘The Basement Tapes’, but this is some recompense.  It’s an unofficially released document of the once televised, penultimate date of 1976’s ‘Rolling Thunder Review’, and augments the official ‘Hard Rain’ live album from the period.  I’ve enthused about the earlier record’s shambolic, almost apocalyptic qualities in an earlier playlist, but this one fleshes out the story further and lends Dylan’s performance a more three-dimensional aspect in the process.

The stresses under which the whole venture was undertaken are legendary, with torrential downpours delaying the Fort Collins arena event for two days whilst Dylan kept a TV crew on expensive retainer and descended into alcohol-fueled domestic warfare with his estranged wife, Sarah.  When his road-weary musical troupe finally took the stage, it’s a miracle they weren’t all electrocuted as their canopy leaked in the persisting deluge, and instruments detuned themselves in the humidity.  Somehow, he fed on it all to produce a performance that transmutes an undeniably sloppy presentation into something else altogether.

This record demonstrates there was more to the gig than just some one-man-against-the world psychodrama, however.  There are socially conscious songs here, sung in duet with Joan Baez, that show plenty of commitment.  These versions of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Railroad Boy’, Guthrie’s ‘Deportee’, and ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’, are well worth their inclusion, and the last three are real rarities, (unavailable elsewhere, I believe).

The duplication of tracks from ‘Hard Rain’ comes at the end, but I have no problem in paying twice for these versions of ‘Shelter From The Storm, Maggie’s Farm’, ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and ‘Idiot Wind’.  The latter, being Dylan’s notoriously bitter divorce song, heaps insult upon insult on Sarah before finally mustering some shreds of empathy and remorse from the wreckage to accept equal responsibility for the mess they (he?) created.  That she herself looked on as he dredged up this startling performance is rather astounding.

Aphex Twin, ‘Syro’:

I'm Generally Cynical About Marketing, But This Is An Amusing Example, I Suppose.

Hurrah!  At last, - a new, proper, Aphex Twin record, (although Richard D James hasn’t been exactly silent during his supposed withdrawal).  ‘Syro’ isn’t particularly breaking any new ground, or ahead of anyone’s game, (including James’ own), and he’s not trying to poke fun or deliberately irritate anyone either.  It is, however, full of splendid things and deeply satisfying as a whole.  It makes me remember how much we once relied on him for all this.  Deep joy.

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