Sunday, April 05, 2009

Quarterly Stockholders' Report

With the first quarter of the year over, what does it say that the best thing I've heard so far this year was released in 2005? I'm very reluctant to go down the doom-monger route of claiming that all cultural activity is now moribund, but I find myself admitting that, of all the records I've bought this year (mostly new), almost nothing has struck me enough to stick in my brain the way Richard Youngs' The Naive Shaman has. Which in itself is somewhat ridiculous, seeing as there is more than enough music out there good enough for me to be willing to shell my increasingly dwindling cash out on. Increasingly, I get the perturbing feeling that nothing very much of this period, musically, will survive in memory - mine, or anyone else's. It's entirely possible that future generations will make myths concerning us - just as 'the Sixties' have lived on as myth far too long - but we certainly would never know it. It seems to me that the entire critical consensus, from musicians down to the print media, have their noses far too close to the canvas to make any sense of what is actually going on; there is simply too much activity carrying on in too many divergent areas; everything is now characterised by plurality, hybridity, the pull of multiple directions. This can, of course, be A Good Thing, except to the man poor in money and time (i.e. me), or anyone who doesn't use torrents or Spotify (i.e. me).

The first major excitements of the year, the Animal Collective and Antony and the Johnsons albums, seem largely to have been forgotten already. I meant to blog about both at the time, but never got round to it, and suppose I never will now. Oh well, no great loss. Both were, it should be noted, excellent pieces of work, save for the usual caveats about the oozy oversweetness of Merriweather Post Pavilion, The Crying Light being particularly poignant and incredibly well-crafted, free of any of the bombast that might emerge in trying to follow up a success like I Am A Bird Now. But it seems that thereafter I have largely steered clear of anything in even the borderline-overground area that those two sets of artists inhabit.

The next album I really found myself enjoying, and continuing to listen to, was Live At Cafe Oto by the trio of Alan Wilkinson, John Edwards and Steve Noble. David Keenan's jibe on the Volcanic Tongue site about "the dry stylings of the Steve Noble set" are firmly disproven here, as Noble proves almost the most volatile element in an often frantic shakedown. Wilkinson's tone, beginning with a high dying-animal shriek and encompassing torrents of rough-edged sound, grunts, low, menacing squeaks, dipping between registers, is aptly matched by Noble's assaults on the stripped-down kit, provide a shifting-sand ground of hurricane snare-rolls, cymbal flurries and alien tamped sounds, even resorting to whoops and whistles worthy of Andrew Cyrille. Edwards' position as the go-to man of British bass is reinforced by his performance here, forceful bowing and precision plucks underlining Wilkinson's explorations perfectly, and, on his brief solo spots, showing a mastery of colour, shading, contrast and an ear for the sheer weirdness of sounds. At 40 minutes of unrelenting tension and energy, it's just enough. A word to the otherwise spotless Bo'Weavil label: the liner notes are some of the stupidest I've ever come across. It shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of recorded music to call a record "a convenient form of storing and a flawed attempt at revisiting the ecstasy of the live experience". Some of us actually don't live in London, and hence cannot "experience this trio in all their live magnificence", and we don't need reminding of this fact.

Two releases involving another kind of saxophony, the work of John Butcher, have held strong: his solo album Resonant Spaces and Trinity, recorded with the rump of AMM, Eddie Prevost and John Tilbury. The novelty factor of the solo piece is given away by the title - that the improvisations were recorded in places with an impressive space and reverberation - but isn't really that important; the sheer strangeness of the sounds as they are morphed by their surroundings - and, indeed, the sound of the places themselves, melding with and being altered by Butcher's interventions - is the salient point. And although Butcher has ceased using computer manipulation, his use of electronic feedback systems in live performance, connecting the two resonating chambers of the sax bell and reverberant space, continues to provide not only conceptual fascination, but some quite astonishing sounds. His practice, on second track 'Calls From a Rusty Cage', recalls the overtone-layers of Evan Parker's solo soprano pieces extended beyond the bounds of human breath. The trio album is fascinating at least partly for the confluences of history in its sound: Butcher is very much of the generation of lowercase free-improvisers whose work was spawned by AMM's sibilant whisperings; but Tilbury and Prevost here betray how much said movement has affected them, as it affected their former colleague Keith Rowe. In its accumulation of gesture, it is quite astonishingly slow and low-key, occasionally breaking out into tiny explosions of exquisite movement, Butcher's metallic groans just barely crossing the threshold of audibility, Tilbury and Prevost's senses of touch and placement of sound as keen as ever. Especially when listened to on headphones, it is, at times, absolutely gorgeous.

The second (or is it third? Fourth?) Astral Social Club release this year, Octuplex, has also been the cause of much rejoicing. After the exceptionally annoying vinyl-only release of Toy Town In A Field of Mud, Neil Campbell's superlative duo album with John Clyde-Evans, it's excellent to see him deliver something so similarly wonderful on CD. The release represents possibly the culmination of Campbell's journey into hallucinatory techno: its constant forward drive is matched by an equal impulse to flounder in miasmic swarms of overloaded synthetics; it's music that absolutely revels in texture above all else. 'Caustic Roe' and 'Mugik Churn' coalesce rhythms that seem triangulated between Terry Riley, Ricardo Villalobos and Cluster out of fields of chattering bleeps, side narratives of tripping-rhythm squelch and laser-blasts always threatening to disrail the main beat, but never succeeding. 'Pilgrim Sunburst', a damaged confection of interference and swaying, rocketing synths, featuring the voice of Campbell's son, Magnus and layers of strings by Wire and Plan B writer Spencer Grady, becomes unexpectedly moving. 'Sweet Spraint', featuring the reliably fucked-up and hypnotic electronics of Richard Youngs, and an odd cameo on soprano sax by Spider Stacy, is similarly marvellous.

The No Fun debut of Emeralds, What Happened, is a considerably slower builder. It becomes, in the parlance, 'immersive', on a scale that even the much-cited Kosmiche bands they take after couldn't manage. Something like 'Living Room', which begins from just a few glowing, reedy synth-chords, builds into an enormous sound that is still far from static, monolithic - full of cross-currents, sub-events, layers, side-streams, haranguing fuzz offset by sweet swoops and lilts of synth and gently applied guitar that calls to mind a very abstracted, less rhythmically-chained Michael Rother. Served in deep, generous portions (although even the shortest track here, 'Up in the Air', has much to recommend it), it's pretty far outside even the cumuli of quote-unquote 'drone' artists currently drifiting around (pun intended) out there.

I meant, after hearing their last release, Eater of Birds last year, to write about Cobalt. That I didn't get round to it is no loss to them, I wouldn't think - Joseph Stannard's zealous year-end recommendation in Plan B was enough to tempt quite a few listeners, including me. The follow-up, Gin, recorded shortly before guitarist/vocalist Phil McSorley was deployed in Iraq, and it carries all the hard-against-it roughness you would expect from a band involved in such a life: the horror of routine everyday living in the certain knowledge of death is here turned up to a pitch-black nihilism. The oddest thing is its distance from both the corpse-paint theatrics of old school black metal and the orc-slaughter-fantasies of war metal. The vocals are almost entirely incomprehensible, but the sense of ravagement, of scoured, hopeless hurt, is absolutely audible. The package - with photographs of Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway alongside the eponymous beverage - suggests a familiarity with the Real of emotional violence laying at the bottom of these tracks: a sortie from the heart of life to "fuck the universe", as they put it. The relentless, paint-stripping guitar - which carries hints of the auto-destruct treble of Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks - is muscular, harrowing, a force of unnature; Erik Wunder's drums, swinging between the kind of atmospheric backing Neurosis might work on, and torrential blastbeats, drives it remorselessly onwards. I doubt somehow that there's going to be a more intense album this year.

Also, off the top of my head, Extra Life's Secular Works has been a highlight of the year so far (although it was released in America last year, I know - it's only come out in Britain in the last month), as has Caroline Weeks' Songs For Edna. By all means, check my review of the former, and interview with the latter in the new Plan B.

3 Comments:

Blogger Marcello Carlin said...

Re. the Wilkinson/Edwards/Noble album: there's always this fatal pre-emptive/unnecessary foot-shooting on the part of improv CD annotators that records are always a Substitute for the Inescapable Nowness (yes I know Derek B said/solidified that but he was the first to admit that his primary living was earned out of selling records) but ultimately, short of actually being the improviser there is by definition always going to be a shortfall, and in any case the point of records is to work as records (and not every improviser grasps this, it has to be said).

However, this is a fine record and John Edwards slips into Marcio Mattos' shoes effortlessly; he certainly seems to be the current reliably creative and interactive bassman of Brit improv (previous title holders: the late Harry Miller, and Paul Rogers, now in France).

Merriwether PP is OK but not arresting; the new Antony I need to delve into properly but how about Calvin Harris' "I'm Not Alone" as the other/opposing/mirrored end of the tunnel? Astral Social Scene - must investigate.

April 23, 2009 at 12:48 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I know the whole rhetoric of evanescence is very much part of improv; I suppose it's something we have to put up with for the sake of the records, but seeing as the majority of activity in that area is record-based (the sheer number of releases each year from the various camps is staggering), you'd think they could over these kinds of hang-ups. It's also annoying b/c Bo'Weavil are normally so good w/ the record-as-record - their vinyl reissue of Anne Briggs' 'Complete Topic Recordings' was v. beautiful just as an artefact.

'Astral Social Scene'? Massed orchestral indie + overdriven techno; it would either be very good, or very awful.

Considering it, I think I would probably have to add the Belbury Poly album and the new Hudson Mohawke mini-LP to this. Reading the new Wire and Plan B, I can see there's going to be a lot of good stuff in the next 3 months as well...

April 24, 2009 at 3:51 AM  
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