Upon initial examination, the latest album from Isambard Khroustaliov (Sam Britton) is a sprawling, incoherent, fundamentally unnavigable mess of wavering sounds, tense discordancy and angry pulses.
Even after a few listens, Shanzhai Acid is nigh on impenetrable, enveloping you in a sticky latticework of cross-crossing sounds and faltering non-melodies that bounce, spin and agitate uncontrollably from ear to ear. I played this on a walk through London’s rush-hour streets and somehow the chaos of the ten pieces here felt like the perfect accompaniment to the rabid, focused, bloodthirsty commitment of thousands of commuters trying to get home.
These observations are not criticisms. Shanzhai Acid is intentionally presented thus. Britton’s latest work takes two disparate inputs as the basis for what is essentially a conceptually auditory study: the inventive Chinese manufacture of cheaply-produced electronic devices, and the cultural hyper-legacy left behind by acid house music.
Not that you will hear any metronomic beats or aggressively-filtered 303s here. What can be detected, on ‘The Hand Of Mutt’ or ‘Quixotic Algorithmic Hubris’, is a freneticism and restlessness, expressed through algorithms, homegrown artificial intelligence and overlapping parameters. If you squint, you can feel the loved-up embrace of late-80s club music atomised into splinters of uncompromising electronics, assembled together like a badly-soldered printed circuit board. Those sounds rapidly cluster like Instagram ‘likes’ on an advert for a piece of hotly-tipped electronic gadgetry from a brand that you’ve never heard of; they then fall away as quickly after said device arrives in the mail, doesn’t work, and is promptly discarded. Like, buy, receive, replace; like, buy, receive, replace.
This is not an album for those with a nervous disposition. It is an intense listen from the opening gestures of ‘A History Of Cybernetics’ to the sudden stop of ‘Meanwhile Cephalopods’. It reflects back the manic world we live in, our increasing device dependency and the twitchy, restless state of mind that comes with pixelated overstimulation. Another fine release from Britton which casts electronic sound as the only obvious vehicle for his anthropological observations.
Shanzhai Acid by Isambard Khroustaliov was released March 4 2022 by Not Applicable.
Tarbolton Bachelors Club is the latest album from Edinburgh’s Steven Anderson (Letters From Mouse). The follow-up to 2021’s An gàrradh, which drew its sound architecture from Anderson’s back garden, Tarbolton Bachelors Club again finds Letters From Mouse exploring localities. This time the connection is between the country park of Polkemmet near Whitburn and the village of Tarbolton, the common thread being Scotland’s Bard, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns.
The Polkemmet estate was acquired by the Baillie family in 1620, establishing a country house there which eventually became a hospital in the Second World War used by Polish soldiers escaping the Nazi occupation of Poland. The house was demolished in the 1960s but its grounds – including its mausoleum – were re-established as a country park.
Anderson included a track named after Polkemmet on 2020’s Proto Human. “The atmosphere in Polkemmet Country Park is pretty special, the history of the place is palpable and my family spend a fair bit of time there,” says Anderson. “I used to play at Polkemmet as a kid, and I was always mucking about in the river, sailing boats and stuff. I was too young to know or appreciate the history of the place and it’s only recently that I have really started to realise it’s significance. The atmosphere in the park is magical, especially in the woodland and it’s this I have tried to tap into with the music on Tarbolton Bachelors Club. I use a modular synth setup, which I think this can sound very organic, atmospheric and emotional. It’s perfect for a project like this.”
The album is named after the club, founded in a small thatched house in the village of Tarbolton, that appointed Burns as its first chairman when it was formed in 1780. Burns was then an unpublished poet and the bachelors’ club was intended as a place for local single men to come together, talk, dance and debate the issues of the day. The Tarbolton group would go on to inspire many Burns Clubs around the world, its membership observing one founding rule that stated members were not permitted to acknowledge the existence of the club, where masonic virtue was pre-eminent. In keeping with other lodges or clubs, the Tarbolton club issued ‘pennies’ to mark initiations or to celebrate members.
“The Masons are something I don’t know much about to be honest,” admits Anderson. “I can remember being in a hotel bar near Stranraer 20 years ago and the owner mentioned the Tarbolton Penny. At the time I had no idea what he was talking about but for some reason it stuck in my head. I remembered this when researching Burns for the album, and I even ended up buying a Tarbolton Penny on eBay.”
Anderson’s music is well-suited to exploring these sorts of narratives, something that shone through brightly on An gàrradh. “I’m definitely a bit old school here. I dislike the whole streaming culture and one-off songs or singles. I like to listen to an album from start to finish and a good story helps, I think. Telling that can be more challenging with instrumental music as opposed to using singing and lyrics which spell it out for you. Having a theme or concept just feels right to me.”
That being said, diving into the legacy and importance of Burns felt a little risky to Anderson. “I wasn’t sure how cool it would be,” he says. “However, I avoided bagpipes and Dan from Subexotic didn’t use any tartan in the artwork! I really only started to appreciate Rabbie later in life, and when I was putting this album together it has been amplified considerably. I’ve started to see what an impact he has had, not only in Scotland but across the world. Not bad for a cheeky chappie who was fond of the ladies.”
Stephen Anderson’s tour through the Tarbolton Bachelors Club
“Elizabeth Bishop (1785 – 1817) was Robert Burns’ first child, conceived during an affair with Elizabeth Paton. Elizabeth married John Bishop, factor to the Baillie of Polkemmet and I believe they lived in Halfway House which is situated on the edge of the estate grounds.”
“This is the grid reference for where Polkemmet House used to stand. The footsteps you hear at the beginning and end of the track are me and my daughter walking to that exact spot.”
South Church Beastie
“Elizabeth is buried in the grounds of this church in my home town of Whitburn. The first building here was in erected in 1658 and has had repairs and extension. The reference to ‘Beastie’ links to the famous Burns poem, ’To A Mouse’.”
“Burns lived for a while in the Ayrshire town of Tarbolton which is where he founded the bachelors’ club, just before his works started drawing attention. At this club he entered into Freemasonry. In orders such as the Masons, tokens – also known as pennies – were issued for a variety of reasons including signifying a pivotal part of the mason’s initiation, celebrating a particular mason, or as proof of membership to a lodge.”
“Following the war Polkemmet House became Trefoil School and was run by Girl Guides movement. The school was opened by the Queen Elizabeth (then Princess Elizabeth), who later became the school’s patron. The school moved to Gogarburn which is just outside Edinburgh. After its time as a school, the house was used by the Scottish Police College.”
“Contrary to the pictures in your mind that the term bachelors’ club may generate, the one started by Burns was a civil affair where gentlemen debated the latest issues of the day and learned to dance – all without alcohol. It all sounds most cordial.”
“Expressing warm tenderness to his love-begotten daughter and welcoming his child, Burns wrote the following lines:
Welcome! lily bonie, sweet, wee dochter, Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for, And tho’ your comin’ I hae fought for, Baith kirk and queir; Yet, by my faith, ye’re no unwrought for That I shall swear!… Lord grant that thou may ay inherit Thy mither’s person, grace, an’ merit, An’ thy poor, worthless daddie’s spirit, Without his failins, ‘Twill please me mair to see thee Than stocket mailens…”
“Burns was a known romancer and there is nothing more romantic than candlelight.”
“Carbon has the symbol C and the atomic number 6. Coal contains mostly carbon and it’s with coal that our connection to Polkemmet lies. The National Coal Board, who operated many coal mines in the area, bought Polkemmet House. My father was a miner back in the day. He hated it, and it was dangerous dirty work indeed. There is no getting away from the historical importance of coal in this area.”
A Man’s A Man For A’ That
“This track was added after the album had been completed. I’ve been working on a project with my brother-in-law Martin Gibbons, who happens to be a really talented musician and singer. I asked Martin if he’d like to record a reading and I was thinking that I could sample it and use it somehow. I liked what he did though so set about adding some music as backing and I thought it worked really well. I think it does a great job of rounding off the album. It’s brilliant to have family involved and hopefully it’ll be a nice thing to look back on in years to come.”
Interview: Mat Smith
Tarbolton Bachelors Club by Letters From Mouse was released January 28 2022 by Subexotic.
A batch of winter missives from the forever-wriggling Tapeworm label begins with Evan Lindorff-Ellery’s No Water Recordings 2011, taken from an extensive collection of field recordings for hydrophone and contact mics made in Ravenswood, Chicago. On ‘Fringes And Singing’, with a hydrophone placed under a bridge rather than in open water, the sounds are relentlessly squalling, tearing, violent and oppressively over-amped, as if made during a storm. In contrast, on the B-side (‘Meditation’), made with a contact mic, ceramic insulator and brick, we hear a comparative serenity, with undulating currents and the distant, calming sound of estuarine birds atop the water, but to this pessimistic listener it seems to embody the constant threat that unsettled waters could return at any moment.
Bill Thompson’s Black Earth Tongue originates from recordings made for dance unit In The Making Collective’s Edinburgh Fringe performance, Mushroom! (2016), created using laptop, field recordings, found objects and live electronics. With titles named after Japanese misspellings of fungi, Black Earth Tongue is an immediately absorbing listen, with ringing drones, gently oscillating tones, clangs, sepulchral non-rhythms, controlled distortion and earthy bass seeming to evoke the notion of persistent growth and spread. How you’d choreograph for this work of mycological genius I really don’t know.
Recorded in the summer of 2001 at Brighton’s Festival Radio Studios, Destroy All Monsters finds author and The Wire music journalist Ken Hollings reading from his book of the same name. His engaging, if dystopian, vision of a alternative / futuristic Los Angeles ravaged by actual monsters and abused technology is accompanied by sound design and production from Brighton-based Further. favourite Simon James, an electronic musician and Buchla enthusiast. James’s accompaniment to Hollings’ bleak, detached narration of principal protagonist Sprite’s movements emerges as a low, grubby rumble full of sparse sparks of electronic noise, delicately brushed cymbals and subtly wafting, bubbling tones that remain unswervingly tense and pensive, regardless of what horrors Hollings is detailing in intricate and vivid detail. A section involving a leatherette-seated car suddenly being brutally crushed reverentially evokes Ballard’s Crash, while a simultaneously spiralling arc of M&Ms around a stray puppy carries a sinister, psychedelic effusiveness.
“Goth ASMR Hardcore” is the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin description of Twister by London’s anonymous Opal X, consisting of sixteen tracks of extreme incongruity – quiet spoken instructions about moving toward the light reminiscent of a thousand guided meditation podcasts, only where you might expect soft pads and ethereal new age-y textural accompaniment what you get instead are dark, brooding synths, insistent detuned Autechre-y rhythms, arrays of sci-fi bleeps and bloops, faded rave beats, euphoric vocal stabs, fragments of suspenseful horror film noise and occasional moments of serene clarity. The muddled outlook should be distressing – panic-inducing, almost – and yet somehow its quintessentially delicate character is ultimately what stays with you.
Enjoying Nature is the third album in Strategic Tape Reserve’s Learning By Listening series, “an educational, instructive cassette series designed to bring the information of the world into your home, and your brain.” Previous volumes have focussed on obscure, un-Googleable, audaciously false topics: Orca, Attack! delivered an album about Course Management System Optimization and Simon Proffitt’s Instituto Bangara-Rossa Internacional offered up a sonic handbook for a purportedly widely-played card game.
If Learning By Listening has generally operated with its tongue placed firmly in its cheek, the pairing of Goodparley (Cardiff’s Oli Richards) and Poppy Jennings seems to avoid this, at least musically anyway. The album’s narrative describes it playfully as a “mystical guide to the art of experiencing nature… for both those comfortable with outdoor environments as well as beginners,” and Richards readily admits it was started in jest before eventually becoming more sincere.
Taking the form of a series of delicate and quietly uplifting pieces, Enjoying Nature operates authentically in resonance with the spiritual music oeuvre. Both Richards and Jennings offer ruminative spoken word passages that float on top of the music like guided meditation texts or naturalistic poetic reflections, while Richards’ choice of textures carry a questing, transcendent fluidity. On ‘Walking Each Other Home’, cascading zither melodies wrap themselves around the listener with tenderness, evoking spiritual music landmarks like Laraaji’s Day Of Radiance. The opening track acts as a tribute to the work of Ernest Hood, whose obscure 1975 album Neighborhoods evoked a pastoral quietude that has now been all but drowned-out by the clamour of the modern world.
Learning By Listening albums are puzzling affairs. They are meant to be enjoyed primarily through a suspension of belief; once you acknowledge the joke, they can be approached as intelligent, artistic collections. Enjoying Nature is, I think, different.
Heard with an open mind, its pieces can be soothing, helpful and restorative. I’ll readily admit that my mind has all too often been closed to spiritual music, and if you’d handed me this tape two years ago I would have found it a difficult listen. Things changed as the pandemic settled in. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that I experienced a breakdown that I never would have expected. In the hollow void that it left, I found myself urgently in need of something to help me get myself back on track.
The books that I’d tried to read but couldn’t find a way into (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind being the most obvious) and the meditation practice I’d always been too closed-minded and uptight to surrender to – these things suddenly became essential, necessary aspects of my recovery. I found myself in a message exchange with Richards where he recommended Be Here Now by Ram Dass, which I quickly bought and digested far quicker than any other book that I’ve bought in the last ten years. I found myself working with my good friends Gareth Jones and Christopher Bono, first on their Nous Alpha album A Walk In The Woods and then with Christopher on his monumental Circle Of Celebration album with Arji OceAnanda and Laraaji. I found myself open-minded for the first time in my life; more accepting; more understanding of my mind’s wants and needs; more prepared to find ways to heal myself outside of the coping strategies I’d used before.
I see Enjoying Nature as part of my toolkit of recovery. A greater personal compliment to what Richards and Jennings have created with this release I’m not sure I could find.
Enjoying Nature by Goodparley and Poppy Jennings was released by Strategic Tape Reserve on September 24 2021.
On Sunday August 22 2021 I flew for the first time since before the pandemic. A short flight to Edinburgh was something that I’d have done, before, fairly often, usually accompanied by things to review. It occurred to me a few days before that I’d need to plan what to listen to in the air, an active decision over what to listen offline after spending most of the pandemic period constantly online, with access to anything. It felt a lot like travelling as a teenager, where I’d pack my Walkman and choose a bunch of tapes to haul around with me.
I decided to trawl through recent Bandcamp additions – purchases I’d made or promos I’d been sent – and that formed the basis of my in-flight entertainment. While in Edinburgh I visited Nigerian sound artist Emeka Ogboh’s Song Of The Union at the Robert Burns Memorial near Calton Hill.
Take-off: CARL STONE – NAMIDABASHI
Carl Stone’s contribution to Touch’s brilliant Displacing subscription series translates roughly as Bridge Of Tears and was recorded for Radio Free Nakano in his Tokyo base. The 15-minute piece is one of fragile momentum, seeming to rush forth and build into a sort of suppressed motorik groove while retaining an effortless, dreamy levity. Released May 28 2021 by Touch.
In-flight: LISTENING LANDSCAPES – LL#1 (MUSIC FROM RIVER DERWENT) / RIVER DERWENT SOUNDSCAPES
Two 2021 releases from Dan Davies, both recorded using the sounds of the river Derwent in Derbyshire. Both illustrate Davies’ approach to taking field recordings and responding to them with additional composition for a diverse array of instruments, or leaving them poignantly unadorned. As such, these releases straddle the tranquility of listening to water and wind sounds (River Derwent Soundscapes) with delicately composed accompaniments (on LL#1) that are both mournful, vibrant and often noisy. Released March 28 2021 / May 6 2021.
Simon Proffitt’s work under the Carnedd Aur alias differs from his usual solo output as Cahn Ingold Prelog and The Master Musicians Of Dyffryn Moor by opting for more of an intentionally accessible output. Originally intended to be a body of work that his parents might recognise as something vaguely adjacent to electronic pop, the project instead became an engaging leftfield project whose titles were all inspired by different sub-species of beetles, with a sound that’s pure insectoid minimal acid-inflected techno. Released August 6 2021 by superpolar Taïps.
Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s contribution to Edinburgh’s Art Festival is a thought-provoking seven-channel sound art work installed in the Robert Burns Monument near Calton Hill. For the piece, Ogboh recorded versions of Burns’ poignant ‘Auld Lang Syne’ sung by twenty-seven Europeans living in Scotland, one from each of the member states of the European Union that the UK left in January 2021. His work has a subtle power as you sit in the Burns Monument and listen to the interwoven voices singing atop one another; being of Scottish descent, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has always had subtle, stirring poignancy for me; heard in the context of a political work swirling and echoing around the circular space, its maudlin outlook is deeply unsettling. The day after I visited, I found myself walking past the building again. I could hear the plaintive voices wafting sadly into the aether, like ephemeral vapours of what once was. Song Of The Union runs to August 29 2021.
Take-off / in-flight: JAMES MAINWARING – MYCORRHIZA
Saxophonist James Mainwaring occupies a sort of indeterminate zone between improvisation and composition. His latest album for Discus is titled after the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi and its 13 pieces carry a similar sense of integration between the instrumentation. The signature piece is ‘Komorebi’, which features Mainwaring’s sax alongside mournful strings and field recordings of birds made near the house where he grew up, an extra level of significance when you learn that the house is scheduled to be demolished as part of the HS2 construction project. On ‘Statues’, which begins as an understated ballad and ends as a free and urgent piece, Mainwaring’s playing nods reverentially in the direction of Paul Desmond; ‘Globe’, on the other hand, makes an unexpected left-turn into synthesiser minimalism and insistent post-rock, angular musings. Released Juy 13 2021 by Discus Music.
In-flight / landing: ANNA MEREDITH – BUMPS PER MINUTE: 18 STUDIES FOR DODGEMS
Bumps Per Minute was Somerset House resident composer Anna Meredith’s contribution to the London venue’s entertaining DODGE experience, which closed on August 22 2021. Though most people just went for the nostalgia of riding an old fairground ride after a few cocktails, every hour, Meredith and sound artist Nick Ryan would subvert the traditional dodgem ride so that every bump or collision would trigger a different one of her specially-written compositions. The companion album includes those 18 compositions played all the way through; it might lack the chaotic randomness of the ride experience, but it nevertheless carries a decent approximation of what it was like to laugh uproariously, half-cut on over-priced cocktails, as you careered around the track accompanied by a skipping soundtrack that felt like a malfunctioning player piano tackling Don Dorsey’s Main Street Electrical Parade music through an 8-bit computer. Released July 15 2021.
Conceived as an infrequent series of “borderland excursions into assorted strangeness”, Perception Report 3 continues The Night Monitor’s exploration of encounters and inexplicable events, presented as a sonic periodical of unfathomable Fortean mystery. The Night Monitor, one of several aliases employed by Blackpool electronic music Neil Scrivin, is here occupying territory that he has made entirely his own, featuring four tracks of spooky electronica that act as distressing anti-ambient music for unsettling phenomena.
Previous issues of the Perception Report series have concerned themselves with tiny winged Martians and the idea of bent spoons being allegorical for twisted realities. The main feature of Perception Report 3 concerns itself with an alien encounter that took place on Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire in 1987, in which a photographer had a run-in with an archetypal green creature that later disappeared in a flying saucer.
Scrivin has a way of presenting his pieces without hackneyed sci-fi or horror tropes. While it would be tempting to sculpt ‘An Alien On Ilkley Moor’ with brooding tones or wonky theremins, he instead imbues the track with something that falls between delicate edginess and wide-eyed curiosity. The piece opens with the sound of wind whistling across the moor, before pulses and shimmering, mystique-heavy tones take over, finally opening out into a stately, contemplative melody that feels like it belongs on Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame.
‘Raven In Tomb Land’ has a tidy jazzy swagger that slots in somewhere between fusion and wonky, while ‘The UFO And The Séance’ has a ethereal sparseness so gently terrifying that I found myself checking behind doors and generally getting freaked out by my several cats, who in turn were generally freaked out by me. ‘Pyramids Of The Year 3000’ delivers more of Scrivin’s slowly-building melodic sensibilities, affixing those to a stop-start rhythm that bristles with 1981-vintage electronic pop smarts.
Whether you find Scrivin’s subject matter credible or think it complete bunkum is irrelevant: his music tangibly exists in its own unique dimension, one that’s well worth believing in.
Perception Report 3 by The Night Monitor is released August 6 2021 by Fonolith.
Transhuman Harmolodics is the typically deep-thinking new album avant garde electronic musician and Radiophonic Workshop contributor Sam Britton’s Isambard Khroustaliov alter ego. Britton’s conceptual jumping-off point here is the notion of transhumanism, the idea that we can somehow upgrade our corporeal existence and eradicate ageing. If that sounds like heavy and pretty scary subject matter, consider that Britton has decided to amplify the complexity by using Ornette Coleman’s amorphous, ever-changing concept of harmolodics. We spoke to Britton about five of his favourite albums, from Coleman to Zappa.
Ornette Coleman – The Empty Foxhole
I remember seeing Ornette Coleman perform with his son Denardo in the early 2000s and being totally in awe of the connection they had musically. It was just a whole other thing, completely unexplainable, but totally tangible … totally ancient, but completely modern in its freeness. I came back to this album after I featured some recordings of my son singing on my 2019 album This Is My Private Beach, This Is My Jetsam. For me, The Empty Foxhole is just such a beautiful document of father and son revelling in new adventures together.
Kim Gordon – No Home Record
Those no bullshit, take no prisoners records are few and far between, but I reckon this has got to be one of them. I really hope that sometime soon I get the chance to see Kim Gordon up on a stage hurling out these tracks incredibly loud to a massive crowd who are all moshing uncontrollably, me included.
Carlo Gesualdo – Madrigals
I was introduced, almost by accident, to Gesualdo through the brilliantly geeky BBC Radio 3 programme Building A Library, where different recordings of the same piece of music are compared and contrasted. It was one of those moments when you just switch on the radio and find yourself completely caught off guard and totally blown away. Apart from anything else, how utterly different two performances of the same piece of music can be sent me down a wormhole of early vocal music ensembles, all of whose skill and dedication is awesome to behold.
Sun Ra – My Brother the Wind Vol. 1
When I first listened to this record it blew up all of the mystery and nerdiness that surrounds synthesisers for me. Right from the beginning a feeling of revolution is in the air, but once you reach the epic ‘Space Probe’, it’s pretty clear not much is going to be the same again. Apart from anything, the constant shift in sonority and the way Sun Ra uses it as a improvisational tool is mind-bending. The instrument he is using hasn’t even left Moog’s factory and despite everything to come, I think there’s little that touches the sheer breadth and vision documented here.
Frank Zappa – The Yellow Shark
I came back to this more recently after watching Alex Winter’s 2020 biopic on Zappa. Towards the end of the film there’s an incredibly moving portrait of him working with the Ensemble Modern and the concerts they did together before he passed away. I remember seeing the Ensemble Modern perform the same pieces at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall not long after and the mixture of euphoria tinged with tragedy it evoked. As the film brilliantly portrays, Zappa was nothing if not a walking contradiction, but also ultimately a tireless champion of liberty, independence and free speech. The Yellow Shark is a brilliant tribute to one of music’s great iconoclasts.
Transhuman Harmolodics by Isambard Khroustaliov was released May 28 2021 by Not Applicable. With thanks to Jim.
Sometimes in life you find yourself constructing walls around yourself, often subconsciously. Those structures form through the need for emotional self-preservation, retreat, a desire for safety or just through a need to fend off something that you feel bearing down on you. Some of those walls are temporary and as fragile as an ego; others are like a bunker, as permanent as a concrete cap on an atomic bomb-ravaged atoll.
As 2020 dragged itself without fanfare into 2021, I found myself building a few of those walls. I built those walls using sound – drones, soundscapes, textural ambience, deep listening – played loudly through earphones that allowed me to shut out the rest of the world. These listening sessions were like sonic screens, enclosed spaces that allowed me to breathe freely when life and relationships seemed to want to starve me of oxygen. They were both fleeting (the length of an album, the duration of a single piece, cut-off halfway through to attend to chores, teenagers, kittens) and enduring, often staying with me long after whatever I was listening to had finished; though these pieces typically lacked discernible rhythms, they allowed my mind and imagination to dance wildly in a cathartic nightclub, while also blocking out the incessant, relentless, repetitive sound of gloomy, compression-heavy YouTube hip-hop videos played at excruciating volume from our lounge.
Such was the case with Stardust, the sonic screen that seems to have provided the hardest exterior of all the things that I’ve listened to of late. Consisting of eleven pieces derived from dubplates of sounds recorded made by Faith Coloccia on Washington state’s Vashon Island between 2015 and 2018, these sounds were then processed and augmented by avant garde turntablist Philip Jeck in Liverpool last year as lockdown rolled its way toward the bleakest of winters. It falls somewhere between a collaboration characterised by an absence of direct collaboration, and a sound art call-and-response.
Not that Stardust is some sort of pastoral, easy-listening ambient fluff. Its architecture is characterised by a fretful, fidgety, wandering core, flitting between passages of wordless vocal murmuring and churning, antsy noise loops. And yet, for all its challenging adornments, as a whole this album is curiously soothing. Sounds and loops begin to slip out of reach, typically just as you’ve become comforted by their presence, and there is this continual sense of elusiveness, of sounds too fleeting to endure. It would be easy to be stressed by a piece like ‘Creosote’, which embodies all of these facets – and which moves seamlessly between the pretty and the pretty ugly – but instead it becomes weirdly peaceful; so much so that you drop this as a dirty sound bomb over a warzone and weapons would be laid down and ceasefires signalled.
Pieces like the title track have a gently swirling, endarkened motion, like listening to the sound of debris funnelled rapidly skywards after an explosion, yet a certain muted, choral stateliness seems to reveal itself as the piece progresses. ‘Archaea’ has some of the same qualities, its reverb-drenched fabric sounding like the dense throb of rush-hour traffic in a tunnel and a Latin hymn heard from outside a cathedral. ‘Mycorrhizae’ is the most wonderfully noisy and challenging piece of the collection, its distorted sonic core prowling into view like an incessant machine and staying richly grubby and enveloping throughout.
There are also moments of delicate levity – ‘Acquire The Air’ inches forward on held tones and brooding, looped spirals which give a sense of contemplation, while ‘Usnea’ has a ringing processed piano refrain that sounds like joyously peeling bells. Perhaps the most surprising moment here is also where Jeck’s presence is least felt – on ‘Speaking Stone’, which is essentially a vehicle for Coloccia’s beguiling, haunting vocal, here pitched somewhere between folk whimsy and dark nursery rhyme (Coloccia recorded while her newborn son was sleeping, so a nursery rhyme isn’t far off the mark). Jeck’s contribution is treacly rich reverb, giving Coloccia’s voice a displaced, otherworldly outlook. The same vocal appears again on the album’s concluding track, ‘Sun’, augmented by febrile sounds heard from an obliterated, broken point off in the distance, or from within the walls that surround me every time I play this captivating album.
Stardust by Faith Coloccia & Philip Jeck was released May 21 2021 by Touch. With thanks to the Minister of Names.
If there’s one thing that lockdown has taught us, it’s to appreciate the near-to. Whether it’s a wander through a local wooded copse, the discovery of a shortcut through your local estate, or perhaps a new-found love of ornithology, the last year has revealed hitherto unappreciated details of our close environment. It is the much-needed small bursts of joy that these can bring that Simon Klee celebrates in his latest album, Mandagora.
Like much of Klee’s previous output, this release on the Woodford Halse label showcases his love of nature. Inspired by walks along tributaries and nights spend under the stars in his native Thames Valley, the ten tracks all have their roots in the natural world.
So how does Klee introduce the listener to his paean to nature? Not for him the folksy nurdlings you might expect given the accompanying floral artwork. Instead we get space synths!
Album opener ‘Constant Velocity’ creates bows and arcs that eventually form delicious melodies from which the first squawks of bird chatter emerge, and we’re on our way.
After the first couple of tracks a more organic feel does start to come through. The woodwind sounds of ‘Sky Raider’ are backed by some lovely spacey melodies, evoking early Kraftwerk. And from there things become a bit more unsettling.
Across several of these tracks, we experience the slightly disquieting feeling of being alone in a forest –watched by unseen eyes. Echoey, haunting guitars give way to the chatter of birds and perhaps other, unknown creatures.
We then emerge from the woodland to the sound of wind chimes on ‘Phantom Energy’ and the album picks up pace. Klee likes to skirt the edges of the dance floor and this is also the case on parts of this album. The uptick in pace is enjoyable and is continued through some of the album’s final tracks.
‘Anticrepuscular Rays’ brings a proggy, trancey vibe, before things unexpectedly turn bouncy, fun and electro on ‘Endosymbiosis’. The album closes with its eponymous title track, taking the tempo down a notch or two as the tired traveler unlaces their walking boots and takes a well-earned sip from their flask of herbal tea.
So strap on that Walkman (this is a cassette and digital release) and head off for one more stroll though the countryside, this time with the sounds of Mandragora to accompany and inspire you.
Mandragora by Simon Klee is released May 7 2021 by Woodford Halse
“If you don’t listen attentively, openly, then you risk missing it completely.” – Eliane Radigue
Sisters With Transistors is a powerful exercise in redressing history. Subtitled “Electronic music’s unsung heroines”, the film does for the history of electronic music what Hidden Figures did for the space race, namely drawing out the role of women in a development that is seen, all too often, as exclusively male-dominated.
The film offers vivid character portraits of ten musicians, composers, deep listeners and instrument builders – Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Suzanne Ciani, Eliane Radigue, Clara Rockmore, Maryanne Amacher, Wendy Carlos, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros and Laurie Spiegel. Ten more different individuals you could not find, yet they are united by a common interest in going beyond the traditional sounds and timbres that they had grown up with, and pushing the potentialities of diverse electronic sounds. We see Derbyshire demonstrating the practical use of oscillators and tape splicing; we see Rockmore’s claw-like hand coaxing beatific, classical melodies from a theremin; we see Oram feeding painted slides into her Oramics machine to create fluid, sweeping sounds; we see Carlos painstakingly re-creating Bach’s intricate melodies, arpeggios and harmonies on a massive Moog system; we see Ciani mesmerising and confusing a gallery audience with her Buchla demonstration, and, later, prompting laughter from a bemused David Letterman with a howling, droning electronic tone during his prime time show; we see Spiegel demonstrating her innovative Music Mouse interface and feeding pigeons near her home in TriBeCa.
We hear the catalysts for each of these sonic revolutionaries entering the electronic music field. For Oram and Derbyshire it was the engineering opportunities arising in the wake of World War Two, where the absence of men during wartime suddenly permitted women to enter what had been a hitherto male profession. For Berkeley’s Ciani it was the anything-goes spirit of adventure that followed the Summer Of Love, her instrument of choice – the Buchla system – having previously found a use in Ken Kesey’s acid experiments. From each of the musicians we hear the same idea of being liberated from traditional music’s strictures and rules and sounds, about being switched on by alien sounds and seeing how their different colour palettes could take music in utterly new directions.
We find ourselves somewhere between the art establishment and popular culture throughout Sisters With Transistors. Ciani’s pivotal, but very often overlooked, commercial work for advertising is given prominence, while a narrator of a clip from a New York Sam Goody store drops the breathtaking fact that Carlos’s first Switched On Bach album was selling more copies than The Beatles. Patch cables abound, there are enough Arps and Moogs to satiate the most ardent synth enthusiast and the sonic backdrop is a treasure trove of discovery – from Oliveros’s meditative Deep Listening and Radigue’s Adnos II to Amacher blasting Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore with an unholy barrage of noise that has him putting his fingers in his ears at one point. Leon Theremin and Bob Moog put in cameo appearances, but their role is very much as supporting cast members – both may have created pioneering instruments, sounds and systems, but it’s what you did with them that really counted. We hear something similar about Louis Barron – he may have been in charge of the soldering iron in his partnership with his wife, but it was Bebe that gave his creations emotion.
Narrated by Laurie Anderson, herself stranded somewhere between the arts and the charts, Sisters With Transistors is a revealing, important, overdue and engaging film that offers a timely dismantling of the myth of the synthesiser boys club. Beautifully compiled and researched, Rovner’s film is also among the most accessible of the growing number of films attempting to chart electronic music’s storied history.