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.
Title: Optimo Tracks
Label: Display Copy
Details: CDR/DL. 4 tracks, 22 minutes
Laptop maestro Tom Scholefield aka Konx-om-pax’s first release for his label Display Copy is a pretty uncompromising and uncompromisingly unpretty four tracks of controlled noise. Entitled simply I, II and III, the first three tunes run the gamut to rumbling guitar drone and crushed drums to murky, menacing ambience to harsh cut-up and mashed feedback. While it’s not for the faint of heart, and has a real physical edge to it, it’s far from being noise-for-noise’s sake. Indeed, it is the placidity of II that gives it its menace. III’s sonic shenanigans ends at a point where it could be the slowed down sound of bat echo-location.
The fourth track is the No Fun Acid Mix of III by Carlos Giffoni who somehow conjours a Phuture-style acid track out of the sonic squeals and rumbles. Well, sort of.
The first three tunes were all originally composed as the soundtracks to short films which were first shown at Glasgow’s Sub Club in 2009, but all three work perfectly well in audio isolation. There are just 200 physical copies of this release although its also available as a download.
Artist: Shadow Orchestra
Title: Remaker EP
Details: CD/DL. 5 track, 26 minutes
Four years on from their debut LP, the Shadow Orchestra have re-emerged as a fully fledged quintet with laptop producer and cellist Chris Bangs joined by harpist Kat Arney, drummer Dave Oliver, guitarist Nick Siddall and singer and keyboard player Mary Erskine. The result is something that sounds very much like the work of an ensemble rather than a producer plus guests. In fact, something that started out as a laptop-based project has blossomed into something more organic, and at the same time more commercially minded – but still with its integrity intact.
The first three songs Time and Distance, Matilda and Pushing To Sea feature Erskine’s vocals, and each pursues a somewhat languid, chilled out atmosphere without resorting to blandness or twee. Matilda is the pick of the trio with a hiss and click vinyl loop providing the backing for a song of lush splendour. Sweet As A Nut is a kind of electro-rock instrumental that gives the EP a bit more vigour, whilst Matilda Reprise is a mainly instrumental coda to the aforementioned song.
Four years is a long time to follow up a debut release, but effectively this is a new unit raring to go. There’s a new full length album due out next spring. Until then, the Remaker EP is a good taster of a band remade.
Artist: Slow Dancing Society
Title: Under the Sodium Lights
Label: Hidden Shoal, Australia
Details: CD/DL. 7 track, 52 minutes
Links: http://music.hiddenshoal.com, http://www.myspace.com/slowdancingsociety
Slow Dancing Society is the recording alias of a guy from Spokane, Washington called Drew Sullivan. Under the Sodium Lights is his fourth album for Hidden Shoal since 2006. Broadly speaking, this is seven tracks of warm ambient music with watery synth drones providing the background for leisurely unfurling melodic lines. This is not music to set the feet tapping or the pulse racing, but there’s far more to it than background mood muzak.
Ambient music is possibly unique in the whole history of human musical endeavour in that it’s anti-communal. Song, dance and liturgical music through the centuries and across cultures has always been about sharing and connecting with others. Ambient music is aimed directly at the mind like hallucinogens and antidepressant / antipsychotic / antiemetic pharmaceuticals. Like those, it is a product of the last five decades and would probably have been unthinkable even as a concept a century ago. It is music of the mind and of introspection – a private and solitary experience. Which is why it is nearly always melancholic in nature.
Under the Sodium Lights has these traits, but unlike some ambient music that is cold, distant, almost psychotic in nature, this is music of a warm, fuzzy bent in the manner of Stars of the Lid and their ilk, only with less reliance on the drone aspect and a greater emphasis on melody. It’s the sound of quiet, still nights where all seems well with the world and the hurly-burly seems a long way away.
Artist: Dementia and Hope Trails
Title: Song of Masuka
Label: Pandafuzz, USA
Details: DL. 1 track, 15 minutes. Free download
New from the ever unpredictable Pandafuzz imprint comes a single track download by the oddly monickered Dementia and Hope Trails. Song of Masuka is a twisty turny cosmic soundscape full of clipped drones and glassy echoes, ringing guitar lines and percussive electronic pulses. There are hints of early seventies space jams a la Tangerine Dream, hints of Murcof’s shimmering ouevre and even hints of the bare-wired raw electricity of Pan Sonic. And it stops dead in one of the most ham-fisted edits I’ve heard in ages. Still, it’s quite a ride before the plug gets pulled.
I’m going to be away from my computer for a week so there’s going to be nothing doing re: the review pile for that period. I have got the backlog down to a dozen or so things.
One or two things I like:
Jamie Woon’s new single “Night Air” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in a long while. It’s a kind of mix between an R&B/pop tune and something far darker and ghostly. It’s a good song – definitely daytime radio material, but underneath there is something quite different going on with a haunted guitar strum and all manner of half-buried murmurings. It wasn’t really a surprise to learn that he’s a mate of Burial’s. There’s definitely that hallmark.
It’s been around a while, but James Blake’s CMYK still does the business for me.
Mary Anne Hobbs has her final show on Radio One on Thursday 9th. Let’s hope they fill the slot with something leftfield and forward thinking. She’ll be missed. She has a very special guest on her final show whose identity is shrouded in secrecy. Pure speculation on my part. But maybe it’s this chap (not Four Tet):
I can’t think who else she would be so mysterious about.
Artist: | □ □ | (GATE)
Label: Fluttery, USA
Details: CD/DL. 7 tracks, 72 minutes.
Links: www.flutteryrecords.com, www.lc.dds.nl/gate
Sometimes when an act changes direction radically it’s difficult to go with them. You feel like a stuck-in-the-mud conservative, but the new sound just doesn’t work for you. This is precisely the way I feel about Iterations. I was introduced to Gate via last year’s No Exit album on Fluttery. At that time it was a solo project of Lajos Ishibashi-Brons. While the album was pretty unforgiving, there was a lot to admire and enjoy amongst the harsh noise dished up by Lajos’s (largely) home-made instruments.
The same month that I reviewed the album, Gate became a duo with the addition of saxophonist and reed player Takahito Hayashi. And that, for me, is the underlying problem of Iterations. For most of its 72 minutes the record is subdued as Lajos’s rumblings take a back seat to Taka’s blowing. And the latter is simply uninspired, run-of-the-mill free jazz. Tempos crawl and tracks meander aimlessly past the ten minute mark without much in the way of development. Before you know it, an hour has passed and nothing of any note has happened. It’s only the final track 66x3e that provides any tension or appears to have any real direction. It wasn’t just the volume that made No Exit such a thrill, it was the way that there was always something interesting going on, even if it was buried deep down. For long periods of Iterations, though, nothing happens at all. Aimless and directionless – a real disappointment.