Update / Top 20 of 2010

I’m not dead and I haven’t completely abandoned this blog, but I’ve had little time to write anything and it’s just kind of slid for nearly three months.

To be honest, I’ve no idea whether it will be resurrected or abandoned in 2011 or re-emerge in some other form.

Anyway, for now here’s my top twenty of twentyten.

1. SHACKLETON – FABRIC 55 (FABRIC)
2. JOANNA NEWSOM – HAVE ONE ON ME (DRAG CITY)
3. STRAY GHOST – NOTHING BUT DEATH (HIDDEN SHOAL)
4. AUTECHRE – OVERSTEPS (WARP)
5. BJ NILSEN – THE INVISIBLE CITY (TOUCH)
6. FLYING LOTUS – COSMOGRAMMA (WARP)
7. THEE SILVER MT. ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA – KOLLAPS TRADIXIONALES (CONSTELLATION)
8. BLACK DOG – MUSIC FOR REAL AIRPORTS (SOMA)
9. AUTECHRE – MOVE OF TEN (WARP)
10. KINGBASTARD – BEAUTIFUL ISOLATION (HERB)
11. NATIONAL – HIGH VIOLET (4AD)
12. GIL SCOTT-HERON – I’M NEW HERE (XL)
13. SLOW SIX – TOMORROW BECOMES YOU (WESTERN VINYL)
14. PAN SONIC – GRAVITONI (BLAST FIRST PETITE)
15. MAX RICHTER – INFRA (130701)
16. CLOGS – THE CREATURES IN THE GARDEN OF LADY WALTON (BRASSLAND)
17. THESE FEATHERS HAVE PLUMES – CORVIDAE (TARTARUGA)
18. MASSIVE ATTACK – HELIGOLAND (VIRGIN)
19. GORILLAZ – PLASTIC BEACH (PARLOPHONE)
20. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN – THE PROMISE (COLUMBIA)

Old World Vulture

Artist: Old World Vulture
Title: Old World Vulture
Label: Self-released (Canada)
Details: DL/CD. 6 tracks, 24 minutes.
Links:
http://oldworldvulture.ca/

Instrumental rock / post-rock (call it what you will) has largely been disappearing up its own arse for years now. Most of it is a catalogue of tired clichés – predictable chord progressions, tiresome arpeggios, plodding tempos and quiet-loud dynamics so ubiquitous that they could be mass-produced in a sweat shop in China.

Toronto quartet Old World Vulture are very much a work in progress, but their debut EP manages to niftily avoid most of the obvious bear-traps. They keep a lid on the arpeggios for the most part, the tempos are largely reasonably upbeat, the keyboard is as much a lead melodic instrument as the guitar and although there are quiet bits and loud bits, they don’t follow each other in an obvious progression. Their musical DNA owes more to the likes of Grails and fellow Ontarians Do Make Say Think than to the rentapostrock crowd.

Destroyer is a dramatic and darkly operatic prologue to the main business. The remainder of the tunes all manage to accomplish their mission in under five minutes without letting the attention wander. The curiously titled Too Much Eye Make Up is perhaps both the best and the most typical of the band’s sound, with the bass providing the melodic framework while the keyboards and guitars both take their turn in the spot light before combining into a powerful finale that still manages to avoid the end-of-album-wig-out cliché. Another nice cover keeping up our birds of prey theme too.

Haz – Above the Treeline

Artist: Haz
Title: Above The Treeline
Label: Herb, Scotland
Details: DL/CD. 6 tracks, 23 minutes.
Links:
http://www.herbrecordings.com/haz.html

Haz is a Scots expatriate who lives down under. Above the Treeline was conceived and recorded on the South Island of New Zealand last year and immediately struck me as the sound of someone in awe and in love with his surroundings. The six instrumentals are all under four and a half minutes long, but nevertheless sound epic in scale. Haz combines electronics and live instrumentation (drums, guitars etc) to produce a sound that is upbeat, largely uptempo and melodic but not without a certain wistfulness. For comparisons, think of a sound somewhere between Eno’s classic seventies albums, Dif Juz, New Order and Haz’s labelmate Engine7.

It’s a lovely little set. It’s not often I hear mini LPs that I wished were longer, but this one falls into that category. Beautiful cover painting too.

Remora – Mecha

Artist: Remora
Title: Mecha
Label: Silber, US
Details: CD/DL. 16 tracks, 59 minutes.
Links:
www.silbermedia.com

This is a lot different to anything else I’ve heard by Remora. The guitars have largely been jettisoned in favour of early eighties analogue synthesisers. Mecha is a concept album put together by Remora (aka Silber head-honcho Brian John Mitchell) with an accompanying comic. It’s a tale of a dystopian future of robot freedom fighters in the grand DC/Marvel tradition.

Musically, this is deliberately almost simplistic stuff with the Normal, pre-Dare Human League and the non-pop side of OMD the obvious reference points. The tracks with vocals are given a dispassionate deadpan delivery that resembles John Foxx’s most mechanistic performances.

It’s obviously a deliberate move by Remora to make Mecha sound like something that could have been made thirty years ago at the pre-dawn of the synthpop boom. It works for the most part, but there’s a nagging feeling that a number of tracks overdo the two-note, one finger synth patterns and could use a bit more complexity. There are interludes that are more abstract and do help to break up the icy monotony, injecting a little dirt to the otherwise clean boing-boing-boing of the synth melodies. Many of these are the most successful pieces – the industrial metallurgy of closer 049 is particularly good.

I guess Mecha is an attempt to reconnect with the sc-fi tradition of albums such as Travelogue and Reproduction, and as a retro-future exercise it achieves everything it sets out to admirably. In some ways, in 2010 such a project is akin to the “Ethnological Forgeries” committed by Can where they created pseudo-facsimile versions of obscure tribal music or scratchy twenties hot jazz records – i.e. an exercise in musical time travel.

ArnAck – To Mars

Artist: ArnAck
Title: To Mars
Label: Breathe, Mexico
Details: DL. 6 tracks, 34 minutes. Free Download
Links:
http://breathe-comp.com

To Mars is a free six tracker of low-key analogue electronica put together by a couple of Liège-based producers, Arnaud Rosoux & David Schreder. It’s strong material but without being too distinctive. The looped voice sample of third track MusicBox is overused and gets irritating, but that’s the only misstep. The two parts of Evettes that open and close the set are probably the strongest tracks of a collection that has echoes of acts like To Rococo Rot and Errors.

Rats Live On No Evil Star

Artist: Rats Live On No Evil Star (Bernd Jestram & John Edward Donald)
Title: Rats Live On No Evil Star
Label: Gusstaff, Poland
Details: CD/DL. 12 tracks, 40 minutes. Released 18/10/10
Links: www.gusstaff.com

Rats Live On No Evil Star is a collaboration between Bernd Jestram of Tarwater and singer John Edward Donald aka Human Elephant. Donald has an appealing baritone that has echoes of Matt Berninger of the National, and a lyrical gift for absurdist philosophizing that reminds me of the late great Vic Chesnutt. Jestram’s musical pallet has a lot in common with Tarwater, unsurprisingly, but with a more stripped down and rough-edged feel to it.

These aren’t obvious songs, often sketched out in broad strokes, but there’s a wealth of inventiveness here and Donald draws you in to his strange world. There are plenty of highlights. Robert Johnson takes a recording of the bluesman’s Stop Breakin’ Down Blues and warps it into a weird tribal / industrial two minutes. BDI Circle the Number takes its lyrics from multiple choice depression questionnaires and bundles them into a stringball of contradictory statements. For the Time Being floats like a 67 Haight-Ashbury ballad. Indeed, there’s nothing on the record that lacks a kind of slightly off-centre charm. Definitely a grower.

Scanner / Zombie Zombie / Roy Book Binder – various venues, Jersey

It’s been two weeks since I posted but I’ve not been totally idle. I returned yesterday from a week in Jersey – a welcome break from distinctly autumnal Glasgow.

My visit coincided with the third annual Branchage Film Festival, a three day bash that encompasses not only cinema but also other visual and sound media events. On Saturday, Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner played three short afternoon shows accompanying Magic Lantern slides of the island, mainly dating from the late Victorian and Edwardian era. These slides are 10x10cm photographic plates printed on glass and often hand-tinted. Rather having their showing accompanied by a commentary, Scanner provided a mainly ambient soundtrack. The result was a bit like seeing your great grandparents’ holiday snaps whilst listening to some cool electronica on the stereo – ie not really in synch, but interesting all the same. With an audience that was definitely not a collection of Wire readers and electronica geeks, Rimbaud shied away from his more esoteric and experimental ouevre (no intercepted phone calls here) but still managed to do something that was far more interesting than bland background tinkling without doing anything to frighten the horses.

The festival closer was a screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Soviet agitprop piece Battleship Potemkin shown on the back of a tug in the harbour and accompanied by a live soundtrack by Paris’s Zombie Zombie duo (best known for their interpretations of John Carpenter’s fim music). The idea of showing a film about a ship on the back of a boat was genius in its simplicity and it worked really well, with maybe a couple of hundred souls gathered around the harbour’s edge to watch. Like The Man With a Movie Camera and Metropolis, Potemkin is one of a handful of classic silents that seems to have a real pull for musicians. The Pet Shop Boys did a fairly spectacular rendition a few years back. That was more like Socialist Realism meets disco. Zombie Zombie opted for a much more organic and subtle accompaniment that encompassed acoustic, electronic and musique concrète elements. They were especially good with the climactic final reel when the tension ratchets up as the battleship under its crew of mutinous revolutionaries encounters the Imperial Navy.

Roy Book Binder is a veteran blues guitarist and singer who continues to fly the flag for the pre-electric country bluesmen. Although he’s hardly a household name, his CV is mightily impressive. He was among the second wave of singer/guitarists who arrived in Greenwich Village after the initial brouhaha had died down and the likes of Dylan had moved on, but where Dave Van Ronk and others continued the tradition of old time American folk and blues. He played extensively with legends such as the Rev. Gary Davis and Pink Anderson, and continues to this day as a proselytizer for the music of folk such as Blind Blake, Mississippi John Hurt and many others of that era, some of whom are largely forgotten now. His show in an old church hall in St Helier was an informal affair of songs and stories both fascinating and funny, with a mix of original tunes in the old style and dusty classics both familiar and forgotten. His singing is functional and his playing a little rough round the edges, but this was a hugely entertaining portal into a forgotten world. He made the telling comment that him and guys like John Hammond Jr and Jorma Kaukonen are older now than most of the grizzled old country-blues veterans were when they were rediscovered in the sixties. It was a privilege and a pleasure to see this link to a long lost world.