XS Records of Lisbon have been one of the best netlabels around that specialises in what the Wire used to call ‘Outer Limits’ music. All of their recordings have been professionally put together, and all have been available for free. Now, after 72 releases, the label is to shut up shop as the founders concentrate on other things. As a parting shot, they’ve left the world three new albums of improvised music.
Karlheinz Essl has long been a mainstay of the label. His collaboration with soprano Agnes Heginger, Out of the Blue, was recorded at the Essl Museum in Vienna in 2009. The six tracks are comprised of three collaborations, two solo works by Heginger and one by Essl. It’s a distinctly mixed bag. Too much is random clatter (Essl’s solo piece) or irritating vocal tics and general arseing about. There are two tracks, though, that make the project worthwhile. The closing scat ‘n’ drone piece Groovin’ Out comes across as Phill Niblock meets Ella Fitzgerald. It’s Action Rituelle that truly stands out. It’s the one track where Heginger really shows what she can do with her voice. Essl provides a backdrop of loops and samples, including suitably angelic choral bursts that sound like they could have come straight out of an eighties Fairlight emulator. Over this, Heginger pulls out an extraordinary performance of astonishing purity. Like something beamed in from a fourteenth century Latin Mass, she creates an atmosphere of calm wonder and great beauty. Stunning.
Cage Cabarrett create a barrage of electrostatic noise, radio samples and random noise, often built around some distinctly non-musical theme. The three parts of Covil Radiophonic Worshop are dense with the sound of radio stations, static hiss and assorted ephemera. The first closes with an assault on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here that somehow emerges unscathed. The third accompanies a fascinating lecture on the rise of religion in early human society. I found myself listening to that, and found the accompanying sounds more of a distraction than anything else. Final track Persona is a starker thing of doomy recitation and deep drone.
Finally, the one I had the most hope for is actually the most flawed of the three. Hui-Chun Lin is a Taiwanese born cellist who lives in Germany and who specialises in improv works. The four tracks here were recorded with the accompaniment of pianist Dimitrij Golovanov and drummer (the aptly named) Beat Freisen. It’s an audience recording and has a slightly shrill sound, although the main problem is the constant inane chatter that carries on throughout the performance. It may be a ploy to counteract that, but Freisen barely leaves a space unfilled in a barrage of percussion that often sounds like a drum kit falling down a flight of stairs, and equally often bears little relation to what the other two are trying to do. Golovanov is more subtle, bringing in some jazzy flourishes, but at times he also seems to lose patience and start randomly bashing keys. Hui-Chun Lin often sounds like a gooseberry on her own date, but when she rises above the mess she shows her mettle superbly. I’d like to hear more of what she can do in a more sympathetic setting.
So, farewell then XS Records. Some of the releases over the past few years were a bit of a trial to listen to. Most were interesting, and some were terrific. What they all shared was a willingness to explore sounds and to always try to come up with something unique.