Nadine Khouri – Tomorrow

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Often, during lockdown, positivity has felt like it’s been hiding. We grimly fixate on daily statistics, obediently join queues outside supermarkets like it’s a breadline in the final days of Communism, and try not to freak out when people start talking about similarities with the Great Depression.

It’s possibly a vain hope to think that a song could single-handedly lift us out of our collective malaise, but London-based Nadine Khouri’s cover of Annie’s plaintive ‘Tomorrow’, recorded at home, certainly did much to raise my sagging spirits.

Delivered in Khouri’s warm, enveloping, reassuring tone, her version of ‘Tomorrow’ is rendered as a gentle, optimistic folk song, replete with dreamy, subtle layers and a profoundly moving essence. Taking a ubiquitous show tune and turning it into an anthem of fragile optimism like Nadine has done highlights her imagination and dexterity as an arranger.

To accompany the song, Nadine asked her social media followers to send in footage (much of which was filmed from their windows) which was then assembled into a video to accompany the song. “I really wanted to do something directly involving others,” says Nadine. “I found myself really moved by these contributions, which kind of helped me retain my sanity between my four walls. If it weren’t obvious enough, this pandemic has really shown how interconnected we all are.”

Nadine Khouri’s cover of ‘Tomorrow’ is released through Bandcamp today.

Words: Mat Smith. With thanks to Shaun.

(c) 2020 Further.

In Conversation: Blancmange

“I enjoy being busy,” says Blancmange’s Neil Arthur. On the day we spoke he’d written some new music, signed a huge batch of vinyl and CD copies of the new Blancmange album, Mindset, some gardening and some DIY jobs around his house. “I’m not very good at doing nowt,” he admits, in his lyrical Lancastrian accent.

Mindset is Blancmange’s twelfth album. That needs to be seen in the context of a prolific streak that has seen nine Blancmange albums appear since the group became active again in 2011, alongside two albums with Ben ‘Benge’ Edwards as Fader, another pairing with Gazelle Twin collaborator Jez Bernholz as Near Future and a mini-LP with Kincaid (his son, Joe). Stephen Luscombe, with whom Neil formed the band in 1979, was forced to leave the group after 2011’s Blanc Burn owing to ill health, leaving Blancmange as Neil’s solo project.

“I’m probably happiest when I’m being creative,” offers Neil by way of explanation, and it shows. None of these projects are wistful, nostalgic retreads of songs like ‘Blind Vision’ or ‘Living On The Ceiling’ with which Blancmange found initial success at the start of the 1980s. These are records that exist firmly in the here and now, that reflect back the current world we live in yet which are threaded through with personal reflections – on relationships, on situations, on life in general. Mindset finds Neil ruminating on everything from the playground recollections of his Lancashire youth, to calls for transparency and honesty, and onward to the darkest sides of social media. It is an album loaded with observation and dark humour – in other words, classic Blancmange.

Neil Arthur’s prolific streak has delivered more music into the hands of fans than Blancmange delivered across the whole of the 1980s. After he and Stephen went their separate ways after the release of Believe You Me in 1985, there followed a long stretch of very little music from Neil up until 2011, that silence being interrupted only by a solo album, Suitcase, in 1994. While his recent, comparatively frantic current release schedule might seem strange in the context of that silence, it helps to understand where he was spending his time in the years after Blancmange separated.

“I was lucky enough to be offered the chance to do film and TV music,” he explains. “You’ve got to work really quick when you do that stuff. You’ve got to be prepared to make decisions, and lots of mistakes as well. I think one of the disciplines that came from doing so much music, particularly for TV, was that the turnaround was sometimes so quick: if you were doing a pitch for a commercial or whatever, you’d go, ‘I’ve got to come up with this idea right now.’ There’s no point in pussyfooting around and getting all bloody precious about it – you’ve just got to get it down.” Right now, Neil is also working on another Near Future album, another project with Kincaid and is building up a collection of tracks with Erasure’s Vince Clarke (“He comes up with lots of ideas, he’s good to bounce stuff off and he’s fun to be around,” offers Vince.)

Neil also talks about feeling like he’s been “let off the leash” creatively. Supported by a loyal fanbase, he has been able to pivot the Blancmange sound in multiple varied directions, repositioning his vocal and distinctive outlook on the world alongside some of the most inventive use of adventurous electronics in the pop genre. Mindset is the third Blancmange album to have been crafted with Benge, and the record bears the hallmarks of the vast array of vintage analogue equipment to be found in his Memetune studio in Cornwall.

Given that there are two groups that see Neil collaborating with Benge – Blancmange and Fader – it begs the question as to what makes a Blancmange album, and what makes a Fader record.

“With Fader, Benge starts the ball rolling, and I think that’s crucial,” explains Neil. “He comes up with some instrumental ideas, some of which are more developed than others. They’re like thumbnail sketches – very simple some of them – but then some of them are more complex. That’s where it starts and then I add my twopenn’orth. On last year’s Fader album, In Shadow, Benge had done 95%, if not more, of the instrumentation, and I stuck to vocals, and then we mixed it and produced it together.” With Blancmange, the process is almost effectively reversed. “Blancmange is just me, and so it starts with me,” says Neil. “I write a load of songs, and then I offer them to Benge. We get together at his studio, we work on the structures, we change the sounds, add a few parts, and I add the lyrics.”

While both groups will eventually see both Benge and Neil meet somewhere in the middle, the different starting points gives Blancmange and Fader albums entirely distinct personalities. “The logic would tell you that,” agrees Neil. “For example, with Fader, I have the opportunity, on first hearing, to react to something that I have no idea what I’m going to get, and Benge has the same thing when I come up with ideas for a Blancmange record. Then we bounce ideas as we get closer to the point of it being finished. We get closer and closer to us both manipulating sounds on a synthesiser or whatever it might be, but the two projects have come from very different places, initially. They’ve come from different brains.”

If you take a look at the studio photographs on Benge’s Memetune website, what immediately strikes you is the sheer amount of kit available to bring to a project. I wonder whether that can be a problem, given there’s so much to choose from and potentially be distracted by, almost as if that might stifle the energy that comes with being prolific. “Well yeah, there’s a lot of lights flashing on and off and stuff like that,” laughs Neil. “When Benge and I work together, we’re pretty good at keeping it focussed on what is needed, and we don’t get too distracted. Of course, there are moments where you’re working on any project where you end up going slightly sideways, but we’re pretty functional when we work together. We’re very focussed on what’s needed.

“We have a hell of a laugh when we’re doing it as well,” he adds. “We have a lot of fun, even if a lot of the music’s quite dark. We spend a lot of time together in the studio laughing. You’ve got to, you know? Sometimes you can’t help it with electronic sounds – you’re sitting there gurning when you’re doing a filter sweep. It can be a real laugh.”

Anyone who’s taken a listen to a Blancmange record will recognise a particular strain of  humour, and Mindset – for all its explorations of heavy subject matter – is certainly faithful to Neil’s ability to use wordplay to lighten the mood.

Perhaps the best example of this on Mindset is the track ‘Anti-Social Media’, a song that takes a sideways look at the trolling and the sinister sides of apps that were designed to bring people together, not force prejudices and divisions. “Thankfully nothing in this song is related to anything I’ve experienced personally,” says Neil, with some relief. “But, from an observational standpoint of what’s going on, I’ve taken loads of stuff in. It’s quite easy for people to let go of some opinion – they just send something off, just like that. Press the button and it’s gone. But the receiver can pick up on it in so many different ways, if there’s any subtlety at all in the message, and can quite often be very, very upset. It’s been in the news all too frequently, and there’s been some horrific, sad and tragic cases. Even so, I had a lot of fun with the lyrics – things like the line ‘chastise me and baptise me’, or the idea that you can criticise me but please just wait until the end of the song. I’m having a bit of a laugh at the idiots who think it’s alright to behave like that and hide. They’re cowards, aren’t they? Bastards. It’s something I wanted to write about, and it seemed to fit with the groove I’d got going.”

Speaking of grooves, taken as a whole Mindset moves forward with a relentless momentum, the rhythms and sounds nodding squarely in the direction of clubbier electronic music. “I wanted it to move along with a pace,” he says. “Dark as some of the lyrics might be with twisted black humour, I still wanted them to be supported by something that kept the pace going, and Benge and I didn’t want too much getting in the way of that if we could help it. It definitely leans toward a faster pace, so you’d be able to, you know, move a leg to it if you wanted to.”

‘Insomniacs Tonight’ plays with that sense of momentum using a framework of sounds and beats that belong in minimal techno, beginning very sparsely before firming up into something more anxious, evoking the feeling of a sleepless night. “I don’t sleep very well,” confesses Neil. “It’s a very different world in the middle of the night. That song starts very simply, but once it gets going, it’s like a train of thought.”

Another standout track on Mindset is ‘This Is Bliss’, an exercise in keeping things defiantly simple, staying resolutely sparse and unadorned throughout. “One of the things that I’ve tried to do lyrically, and musically, as I’ve got older is that if something doesn’t need to be there, you don’t have to have it,” Neil explains. “Benge and I agree on this – there’s no point putting another part on top of something if the one that’s there doesn’t need supporting. With ‘This Is Bliss’, there wasn’t a lot in it when I took it to Benge, and we kept it that way – we just improved some of the sounds, and replaced the original rhythms with analogue drums.

“The idea of keeping things minimal is something I’ve striven for for bloody ages,” reflects Neil. “Less is best, but sometimes it’s difficult to hold your ground on it. Maybe on this one we were getting closer to that. We tried to leave as much space as possible.”

This starts to tap into the influences that have informed Neil Arthur’s approach to music, many of which are reverentially to be found on display across the breadth of Mindset. “One of the biggest influences on early Blancmange, from my point of view, was The Young Marble Giants. Although they never used synthesisers, they’re the epitome, for me, of minimalism, and they’re still one of my favourite bands. It’s perfectly executed, lyrically, structurally, and in their instrumentation. You simply didn’t need anything else. I saw them live so many times, and that’s definitely stayed with me.”

Elsewhere on the record you can hear the trace echoes of Neu!’s distinctive pulse on the album’s title track, fused with a small dose of the Velvet Underground. You also hear deferential – but never plagiaristic – nods in the direction of Roxy Music, Sparks and LCD Soundsystem, all within the same song. To wear those influences so vividly on your sleeve without ever sounding anything other than like Blancmange is quite the achievement. Elsewhere on the record, ‘Diagram’s direct call for truth and honesty finds Neil crossing the intimidating style of Grace Jones with the lysergic energy of vintage Cabaret Voltaire, whose Stephen Mallinder is one of Benge’s bandmates in Wrangler. Sticking with Sheffield, Neil plays me the snarling intro to ‘Anti-Social Media’ and intones Phil Oakey’s spoken word intro to The Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ over the top, accompanied by a dry and charismatic chuckle.

The album is also characteristically personal, though Neil is at pains to maintain some comfortable ambiguity. ‘Not Really (Virtual Reality)?’ transports us back to the Lancashire town of Darwen, his home town, the lyrics reflecting the moors of his childhood and the phrase he and his pals would use whenever someone was thought to be bending the truth – ’et wady’. There are also songs dealing with family and domestic issues, while ‘Warm Reception’ finds a detached Neil running through quotidian thoughts and ministrations, inspired by a painting bearing the same name by his wife. Not for nothing does he describe lyric writing as “like having a contact mic on the inside of my brain”.

The album concludes with the poignant ‘When’. “The chorus on that song really sums it up – ‘When is anything / About what it’s about?’ It happens to people all the time: someone can be on the receiving end of an emotive outburst that leaves a feeling of being distraught and empty. But then it becomes obvious that, in actual fact, you’ve received all this stuff because basically it’s the other person’s baggage, and you’re now having to carry that around yourself. What you may have had in mind when there was some kind of argument hasn’t been discussed at all. It’s like in a Woody Allen film when he puts the subtext underneath the dialogue – it’s nothing to do with what it’s really about.”

It’s a beautiful spring lockdown evening, and Neil, a keen cyclist, wants to get out on his bike near his Cotswolds home before it gets dark. There’s just enough time for one more honest reflection before he heads off. “I’m really bloody fortunate because we’ve got a very loyal fanbase,” he muses. “They want to listen to the new stuff, but obviously like the old songs. I’m very happy to play the old stuff – I thoroughly enjoy it, and I’m incredibly proud of the music Stephen and I did all those years ago.

“I completely understand that, when I go out on stage, it wouldn’t be a Blancmange show without those songs. That’s absolutely fine by me. I’ve got to say, though, I’m much more interested in the future,” he concludes before heading off, no doubt working on even more songs as he pedals his way through the countryside.

Mindset by Blancmange is released June 5 2020 by Blanc Check. Buy signed copies of Mindset at Blancmange’s website.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Sad Man – Daddy Biscuits

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In May 2020, Sad Man – the alias of Bournville’s Andrew Spackman – ran a Twitter poll to ask fans to suggest the name of his next album. The options were Sad Man 13, ISO-Nation, Wonky Heights and the winner, with a cool 50% of the vote – Daddy Biscuits. It arrived in my inbox, just three months after his last release, with the description that it was a ‘wonky banger’.

Spackman has done most of the legwork for me with that, to be honest, as those two words perfectly sum up the sound of the twelve songs on this new collection. These are pieces that jerk around like they’re being attacked with an electronic music cattle prod, all quirky beats, skewed melodies and sounds that feel like they’re splintering and fragmenting inside your ear canal.

The jazz influence that can be felt on other Sad Man releases is here suppressed ever so slightly, emerging in the background on pieces like ‘Fump’ or in the coda on the icicle-sharp ‘Illustration’; instead, the only way I can describe a track like the nine-minute title track, or ‘Wonder’, or the effervescent ‘So So’ is how I imagine it might sound in the nightclub of a ship that’s about to capsize in a storm. Or a ‘wonky banger’, I guess.

Buried deep here is the minuscule ‘Water’. It’s a track that seems to pack so many disparate ideas into its brief, sixty second existence, from muted house-style riffs, deep beats and a frantic jumble of melodies that sound like a stroll around a dimly-lit games arcade.

Daddy Biscuits by Sad Man is released June 5 2020.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Greg Nieuwsma – Travel Log Radio

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Travel Log Radio by US-born, Krakow-based sound artist and electronic musician Greg Nieuwsma arrives at a point where travel, either for work or pleasure, has become an almost entirely alien concept. Whereas there was a time before lockdown when you ignored planes in the sky because of their ubiquity, nowadays you see a pair of isolated vapour trails high above you and reflect on their rarity, as if we were transported back thirty years before skies were crowded and travel was commonplace ritual, not a privilege. Today, the only travel most people seem able to do involves switching their Zoom backgrounds for photos of somewhere far afield containing perfect vistas and idyllic, untroubled, virus-free sunsets.

Nieuwsma is part of Krakow’s vibrant music scene, primarily as a member of the band Sawak, and professes an interest in the ethnographical aspects of music. You can hear that creeping into the music he makes with Sawak, and it forms the exclusive concern of his new album, which consists of four pieces recorded in four specific locations – Italy, Morocco, India and the US – over the period 2015 to 2019.

These pieces are either constructed from straight, unaltered field recordings, or are subject to subtle processing and adornment. The effect is akin to sonic postcards, each one taking a dreamy, otherworldly resonance, like flicking through photos of trips and barely-remembered memories, made all the more poignant by the absence of specific location or temporal detail.

Even in the most joyous moments – snatches of choral singing in Italy, prayer calls or the bustling hubbub of a Moroccan souk – there is an inevitable poignancy here as you reflect on not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. There is also drama in these recordings – street sounds and radio broadcasts from India evoke the sensory overload that comes from finding yourself in an unfamiliar place; the interaction with an overzealous authority figure, or a series of hypnotic platform announcements in the US brings to mind the strange detachment and uncertainty that comes from jetlag; a recording of reverberating saxophone transports you to the serenity of a late night New York subway platform.

The sound of water features in several places. It is a strangely unifying, universal interjection, free of specific language or identifiable sonic provenance. It serves to remind you, in a way, that the borders we cannot presently cross are entirely abstract, artificial constructs that nature has no need to observe.

Travel Log Radio by Greg Nieuwsma is released June 5 2020 by TQN-aut.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Erland Cooper – Hether Blether

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At some point in May, a letter dropped through my letterbox with a handwritten envelope that stood apart from the endless clusters of bills that seem to be our only engagement with the UK postal service these days. Inside was a signed map of Orkney created by musician Erland Cooper containing walking routes and birdspotting locations. That delivery accompanied the imminent release of Hether Blether, the concluding instalment of Cooper’s trilogy of releases that celebrate the collection of islands where he grew up.

Where 2018’s Solan Goose eulogised the islands’ birdlife and 2019’s Sule Skerry the sea, Hether Blether turns its attention on the land. Sort of. The land in question is the mythological island of the album’s title, a folkloric, missing location that naturally does not appear on the map that Cooper sent me. What does appear on that map, however, are the likes of ‘Noup Head’, ‘Longhope’ and ‘Rousay’, all tracks on the new album, continuing the theme of the previous two albums wherein Cooper named pieces of music after specific locations.

Resplendent in lush, yet fragile string arrangements and choral texture, the tracks on Hether Blether are joyous, celebratory even, albeit in a self-reflective, muted fashion. The synth passages and field recordings that ran through Skule Skerry here take a backseat, emerging briefly on pieces like the stirring, slowly evolving ‘Skreevar’, one of the most beatific moments here. We once again eavesdrop on the local, distinctive Scottish / not Scottish accents on ‘Longhope’ and explore Orkney’s mythology through the strangely affecting poetry of John Burnside on ‘Noup Head’, each word in Kathryn Joseph’s narration containing a sort of gravity and poise that makes you yearn for the islandscape of Cooper’s youth.

Appropriately enough, it is Cooper’s own voice that we hear more prominently throughout Hether Blether, most notably on the album’s centrepiece, ‘Peedie Breeks’, where he is accompanied by poignantly seesawing strings, bells, and operatic vocals that drift in like an icy breeze. His is a lilting, tender voice, effortlessly tugging at your heartstrings as he delivers this song of innocence, playfulness and the unbridled, unshakeable optimism of youth.

Hether Blether by Erland Cooper is released May 29 2020 by Phases.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Various Artists – Latibula

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Latibula is Marionette’s first label compilation, offering a window into the eclectic artists who call the label home as well as providing a sneak preview of where the Toronto-based imprint might go next. All proceeds from the digital compilation will go to Médicins Sans Frontières.

Sans frontières is also an apt way of describing Marionette’s approach. The label was founded in 2013 and swiftly made a mark through releasing complex electronic music that was unafraid of borders, genre limitations or jaded notions of purism, with most releases given their own visual identity by label stalwart Benjamin Kilchhofer. The Basel-based electronic adventurer has released four distinctive solo and duo releases for the label over the past few years, each one characterised by his approach to fusing modular sound design with acoustic instruments. Kilchhofer’s ‘Kloen’ is one of the natural highlights of this collection, led by a synth sequence that feels more like a soprano saxophone line than something that might have emerged from a nest of writhing patch cables.

Elsewhere, musician and instrument builder Pierre Bastien follows up last year’s playful Tinkle, Twang ‘n Tootle with ‘4hands 1breath’. A collaboration with jazz drummer Steve Argüelles and pianist Benoît Delbecq, the piece includes Bastien’s pocket trumpet played through running water against a backdrop of abstract percussion and wandering piano. Another brilliant Marionette release from last year was Giraffe’s Desert Haze, which found the Hamburg trio tapping into German rock reference points from Can to Manuel Göttsching; the trio follow that up with the brilliant ‘Lines Across The Still’, a mellow exploration of wavering melodies, stuttering guitar and polyrhythmic percussion.

One of the most interesting pieces here is ‘Serpentina’ by another Basel-based musician, Marco Papiro. Papiro is a fan of vintage kit, as evidenced across the many albums he’s released to date, but he’s also a DJ, and that tends to mean his tracks are infused with a sense of motion and finely-controlled tension. The brief ‘Serpentina’ is perhaps the most outwardly electronic track here, rolling forth on springy sounds and simple chiming, expressive melodies that feel like they belong in a pivotal scene in an 80s teen movie.

Papiro’s piece slots in alongside other hidden gems from Twinkle3 (Richard Scott, David Ross and Clive Bell), MinaeMinae, Julian Sartorius, Soundwalk Collective and others, pointing to a vibrant future release schedule for Marionette.

Latibula is released by Marionette on May 1 2020 through Bandcamp. Find Marionette at Bandcamp here.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.

Rupert Lally – Visions

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I need to learn how to relax.

I know this because when I listened to the title track from Swiss-based electronic artist Rupert Lally’s Visions EP, I began to get very stressed and unsettled, and not remotely meditative. There is an irony to this – the track floats forth on beatific pads and dreamy harmonies while a soothing, reassuring voice talks you through the process of entering a hypnotic state. By rights, with the way that track is set up, you should – by the time the narrator has concluded his lesson – be feeling completely at peace, just in time for Lally to swoop in with a sequence of crushing beats that completely disrupt the peace and jerk you out of that transient state. Or not, if you’re me, but I’m working on that.

“My week beats your year,” lamented Lou Reed; in Lally’s case, his year undoubtedly beats your decade, since calling his output prolific sells him significantly short. Since I covered the Day Of The Triffids and Dune soundtracks for Bibliotapes here back in 2019, he has released albums on Spun Out Of Control and Third Kind, contributed to Wormhole World’s excellent Retrophonica – Aetheric Transmissions project, Patch Bae’s Help Musicians compilation, has an album prepped for Neil Stringfellow / Audio Obscura’s 20×20 imprint and another for Modern Aviation, as well as other albums completed and ready for release later in the year. Maybe the inclusion of the hypnotic voice on the first track of Visions is intended for Lally himself…

Visions consists of five tracks blended into one, each spinning on its own unique sonic axis. ‘Induced’ is among the more robust of Lally’s tracks, juddering forth on a grid of beats that seem to follow a restless, jerky, randomised pattern that isn’t dissimilar to how my mind was racing on the first track. ‘Veils’ occupies a similar space, only the brilliant chaos comes through electronic sequences, pulses and passages that feel like they’ve been sliced and spliced with a razor, creating a frantic sense of disquiet.

‘Mirage’ has the widescreen, cinematic grandeur that charcterised Lally’s fantasy scores for Day Of The Triffids and Dune, full of danger, mystique and unfolding drama, while closing track ‘Exit’ is less an exit and more an entry point into a glistening landscape of ethereal textures and somnambulant drifting.

Visions by Rupert Lally is released on May 1 2020 through Bandcamp, who will be waiving artist fees again on May 1 2020 to support their musician community worldwide. Access Rupert Lally’s Bandcamp back catalogue here.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Further.