One of the joys of the biannual Wire Tapper compilations is their unpredictability. This latest edition (number 20 – given away with October’s issue of the Wire magazine) is no different. A glance at the track list brought nothing but an expression of bemused ignorance (or ignorant bemusement – whichever sounds less gormless) to my face. Of the 19 acts compiled, I wasn’t even vaguely aware of around three quarters – and had heard precisely none. This feeling of virgin territory being trodden leaves the listener no option but to approach with a totally open mind, unencumbered by any prior knowledge. It’s a bit like the magazine’s Invisible Jukebox feature, except that you have little chance of identifying any of the artists.
As ever the byword is eclecticism, and the quality is all over the map. The balance is happily weighed in favour of the great over the not-so-great. The least interesting and most conservative tracks all come out of the jazz and improv fields. Mike Osborne’s “Pure” could have been recorded forty years ago. It’s a harmless enough fast bop tune, with echoes of those classic seventies Quincy Jones cop show soundtracks like Ironside. The solos, though, are just fast runs through scales – and the whole piece just sounds so crushingly predictable. Random Touch’s contribution is typical of so much improv. You know exactly how it’s going to go from the first bar. It’s self-indulgent, and yet as hidebound by convention as any production line teen pop record. Lothar Ohlmeier and Isambard Khroustaliov’s piece suffers from the same problem, although at least their track gets more interesting towards the end.
I’m not implying that free jazz and improv are somehow inferior to other types of music, just that their champions appear less able to sort out the run-of-the-mill from the worthwhile. Orso’s “Warm Up” is a pleasingly loose limbed, folky free jazz work out. A_Dotigny manages to combine a scratchy, improvised jazz sound with the squelching 303 of acid house. With blasts of baritone sax and a tinny electro-blizzard, it shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Rarescale’s flute-based improvisation is also good, helped along by its noir-ish setting.
On the rockier side of things, there is Formication’s “The Mountains are Machines”, which sounds exactly like the title suggests it ought – a pounding, granite-hard rhythm. Punck and Tertium Quid both contribute good examples of improvised rock. Punck’s is proggy, warm and melodic, with a lovely acoustic figure emerging half way through. It’s let down by a clumsy edit. Tertium Quid’s piece is more no-wave / post-punk guitar funk, with a dark groove and blasts of guitar noise. MoHa!’s machine-punk combines in-your-face riffing and staccato blasts of noise to great effect. It’s a startling, bruising track.
I like Grails’ “Reincarnation Blues”. It’s a piece of bombastic, arabesque prog – pleasingly gonzoid, but also quite atmospheric. The warped, symphonic weirdness of Paavoharju is a little unsettling. Crackle’s excellent percussion-heavy space-funk has echoes of 23 Skidoo, or ACR on amphetamines (with added sub-bass). Wounded Knee’s looped throat-singing, and repetitive nonsense lyric is bizarre, but oddly affecting.
The world of electronica is, perhaps, a bit under-represented. RJ Valeo’s click/pulse electro-minimalism is similar to Carsten Nicolai’s stuff. Micronormous’ “Rainland” sounds like Air tackling a spaghetti western soundtrack. Zavoloka add cello and drone to a template of Kraftwerkian elecro-pop. It works very well. “Ghost Signal 2” by Anthony Kelly and Dave Stalling is a fragile, distant piece composed around radio noise and static.
Best of a varied, and generally strong, bunch for me is “At Dawn (Vogel)” by Pantaleimon. It has a crystal-clear, sweet, slightly melancholy folk-pop vocal juxtaposed with dark, rumbling drones – a combination of innocence and menace. In the end, it’s just a stunningly beautiful song.
So another Wire Tapper, another bunch of new names, many of whom I definitely want to hear more from. Job done, really.
The magazine itself features an in-depth piece on cover star Richie Hawtin, and a fascinating primer on Neil Young’s less commercial ouevre by Joseph Stannard that makes you want to go back to the records. And loads of other stuff too.
1 ZAVOLOKA Inhale
2 CRACKLE Heavy Water
3 FORMICATION The Mountains are Machines
4 PAAVOHARJU Pimeänkarkelo
5 ORSO Warm Up
6 A_DONTIGNY Tatline
7 RJ VALEO Monday Night
8 RARESCALE Apparition and Release
9 MIKE OSBORNE Pure
10 RANDOM TOUCH Tripping So Fancy
11 PUNCK Piallassa (Red Desert Chronicles)
12 GRAILS Reincarnation Blues
13 MICRONORMOUS Rainland
14 PANTALEIMON At Dawn (Vogel) Andrew WK remix
15 LOTHAR OHLMEIER / ISAMBARD KHROUSTALIOV Scratch
16 TERTIUM QUID Early Disturbance
17 MOHA! Too Smart Enough to Think
18 ANTHONY KELLY & DAVID STALLING Ghost Signal 2 (Wire remix)
19 WOUNDED KNEE My Wooden Cupboard