This is a blog devoted to music on the edge - experimental, underground, alternative, subversive, or just plain weird - new music that tries new things, or old music that broke old rules. It's a place to discuss ideas, share discoveries, to think about what makes music interesting and challenging but still good to listen to. Join in and have your say!!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Venus in Fur - Kira Puru and the Bruise

After the seductive, slightly sordid allure of The Velvet Underground a few days ago, it seemed only right to now devote some blogspace to some more dark and dangerous music - this time a little closer to home in Newcastle based femme fatale, Kira Puru: Australia's own Venus in fur.

If bitch blues was a musical genre, Kira Puru would be its undisputed queen. Her voice has that gutsy granite sound, chiselled out by wine and cigarettes, a voice that can tease and deceive you while it licks its lips at you, from somewhere way up in the sky and then, the moment you look in its direction, drag you down by the balls, down into the hell you deserve, crushing them and you as it takes you there.

If you get to see Kira Puru and the Bruise perform live, you won't regret it - as long as you go armed. She will stand and sing to you, glass of red in one hand, fur stole around her shoulders, telling you what will happen if you cross her. It is music that is borne of the eternal, but deadly, liaison of pain, bitterness and a capacity for revenge that knows no limits. Music that caresses you while it is twisting its knife into you. And yet you fill her glass for her, and then come back for more.

I have seen Kira Puru perform twice now, and have bought both of her EP length albums. The first of each was earlier this year, when her band was called The Very Geordie Malones; the second much more recently, when their name had changed to The Bruise. I'm not sure why there was the name change but there is, in any event, something much more bruised and bruising about their music now - music which, even back then, was hardly sweet and sentimental. Now the voice is a little darker, the music a little starker, the assault a little more fatal.

Compare, for example, the tantilising tingles, the little hint of innocence, with which 'One eye open' lures you to your destruction, the song with which her first self-titled EP opens, with the brutal, no prisoners-taken, attack of 'The liar', the title and opening track of the second album. "Make peace with Mother Earth" the first song advises you, at least giving you a chance to save your soul before your death; "Don't talk to me about anger when I've got a loaded gun" the second song warns, giving you little chance to do anything other than, perhaps, to run.

The music, like the voice that sings it, comes from the veins that are left over when a heart has been ripped out - music that sits by the bar, drinking, late at night, plotting not just how to even the score, but how to win. It's music that still loves, but loves fatally, like in 'Ragdoll baby' with its heavy beat, like a ravenous heart, crying out, "you excite me when you bleed". It's music that knows how to deal with pain, like in the final song of the The Liar: "what's it gonna be/the devil said to me/you can keep the pain/or give your soul to me/take your pick".

The red wine, the fur and the terrorisingly good music of Kira Puru leaves you in no doubt as to what her choice will be.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Softly, sumptuously subversive - the Velvet Underground

Velvet is one of those fabrics that always seems just a little bit naughty. It can be sensual, it can be sexual, it can be sumptuous: and somehow you always feel, before you let your skin rub against it, that you need to take a furtive look around you, just in case someone is watching.

It's not that the music of The Velvet Underground is always quite that smooth - it is music from the underground, after all - but it's music that, even when it is at its most ragged, its most sordid, has a lushness to it, softening the blows of the gritty netherworld, but never for a moment really protecting you from it.

Lou Reed's avant-rock band of the 1960s had a small output - but it was an output that was diverse enough to make pretty well every song on every album interesting; but also unified enough to leave a legacy that helped shape punk and post-punk in a way that the "Velvet Underground influence" is instantly recognisable, and almost always commented upon - the droning, monotone guitars; music absorbed in itself, narcissistic: the big bang of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

The Velvet Underground is sleazy and wonderful - whether it's hypnotically erotic, as in 'Venus in Furs', or whether it's shooting up and screeching in your face, as in 'Heroin', or outdoing Roald Dahl in grotesquerie, as it does in 'The Gift'; or whether it's buggering you with the big, bold, queer epic of 'Sister Ray', or seducing you with the disarming, deceptive, deluded simplicity of 'Pale Blue Eyes', it's all irresistable. It's all music to play loudly when you've got the house and the gin to yourself, music to win over the neighbours, and shock them, all at once.

I don't think Lou Reed ever did anything as good as what he did when he was with The Velvet Underground - or, at least, the really good stuff he did afterwards was mostly just elaborating on what he had already said here (except for Metal Machine Music - but that's going to be another story and another post).

In this music, Lou Reed planted a sumptuous, sensuous, subversive seed - deep, deep blow the surface. And it still grows, somewhere deep and dark in the forest of modern music. Cut your way through the quagmire of commercialism and you will find, hidden but thriving in the gloom, the fascinating fruits of what still lies below, deep below, in the velvet underground.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wishing you a very bent Christmas

I will admit, mostly only in moments when I am caught off guard, that I like Christmas carols. I like them in the way I like jelly beans and musk sticks and all those other things that you tend to enjoy in private because you don't want to admit that you've never really grown out of them.

But, even so, finding a new and interesting take, however freaky, on the old, the trusted and the familiar is always kind of nice. Like Mars Bars deep fried in batter. Or Christmas Carols performed by avant garde (mostly) Japanese musicians.

So, when I happened quite by accident to stumble across an album that opened with Japanese noise-punksters Melt-Banana doing an absolutely insane version of 'White Christmas' and closed with my revered noise icon, Merzbow, doing 'Silent Night' more creepily than anything even drug-induced nightmares could come up with, I just had to get it.

In between those two mad, mad bookends is a slimy, sleazy version of 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' by Secret Chiefs 3, a sort of psychedelic grindcore band from California; 'Here Comes Santa Claus' in a no-wave hip-hop fusion from Japanese indie rock band Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her; a few moments of almost ambient peace, so much needed after all the craziness we've had so far, when Gastr del Sol perform 'The Bells of St Mary' with a stillness that, for me, sounds almost like the serenely beautiful louanges in Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps.

But it's only a short respite and we get a totally trippy 'Sleigh Ride' from avant-noise artist Masaya Nakahara, aka Hair Stylistics, where odd bursts and blurps of noise are interspersed with creepy bits of sleigh music that fade in and out and displace everything, like a poltergeist. Then there's the 'Parade of The Wooden Soldiers', turned into a haunted, whispered piece of hardcore horror by SxOxB, a weird experimental band that pioneered grindcore in Japan; and, finally before the Merzbow, an unsettlingly childlike rendition of 'Marshmallow World' by God is my co-pilot, a New York gender-bending queercore outfit that sings flat and turns everything, even innocence, into percussion.

The album is called The Christmas Album - so, if you Google it, you are going to get lots and lots of links before you get to this - which, in any event, seems pretty hard to come by. But if you're feeling you've overdosed on seasonal sugar, and you want your musk sticks and jelly beans to freak you out a bit for a change, then this is worth hunting down. The whole thing is over in less than half an hour - but Christmas will never be the same again.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vale Captain Beefheart

It's sad but true, and always has been, and always will be, that we don't think much about the roots of trees. We notice and marvel at what we can see, but so easily forget, or even ignore altogether, the dirty, murky tangle that lies beneath the earth, giving life to everything above.

It happens in music too. And so, when we marvel and revel in the rough and gruff music theatre of Tom Waits, or in the savage disregard for convention and structure of no-wave sensations like Sonic Youth or of post-punk icons like Gang of Four, or in the wild and whacky rhythmic counterpoints of The Minutemen, or in the experimental free jazz of Naked City, it can be very easy not to realise that probably none of it would sound quite the same had it not been for the work of a strange, slightly disconnected, despotic musician called Van Vliet, better known - to the still sadly cultish bit of the music world that knew him - as Captain Beefheart.

Van Vliet died just a few days ago - on 17 December 2010, aged 69 - after living with multiple sclerosis for much of his life. He grew up with Frank Zappa as his school buddy, and their friendship cum rivalry cum animosity cum partnership weaves its way through the music of each of them, of both of them: music that splashes and bashes in the deepest waters of the experimental avant-garde, so that the casual passer-by might be a little concerned for its safety, but which the more observant musical lifeguards will see as the artful displays, and sometimes the showy tricks, of a very experienced, dexterous, athlete.

Surely the greatest, and perhaps also the most notorious, work of Captain Beefheart is his 3rd album - his 1969 classic Trout Mask Replica. It is weird, freaky, music that at first sounds like drug-fucked chaos: as if a slightly crazed lover of blues and free jazz had taken a cocktail of LSD and red cordial and, with a bunch of mates, drunk on a little too much garage rock, and a bundle of home made instruments, had been given access to a recording studio for a few hours.

But the trouble with music like this is that the first sounds are often the only ones people stick around to hear. So, overwhelmed by the bedlam, they miss what the crazies are saying. They miss the order of the chaos: the intricate interplay of rhythms, the counterpoint of guitars, the conscious scorn of traditional melody, where winds and strings slip and slide from notes to non-notes, as if the nuts and bolts of music have been melted down and turned to soup; they miss the way conversation and music are brought together, sharing and comparing little anecdotes; they miss the brilliance of a language that has its own rules, its own grammar, its own syntax, but which is a language nonetheless.

Trout Mask Replica was reportedly produced under circumstances that today would surely have landed its creator in prison - its musicians locked up in a house, with windows boarded up, in suburban Los Angeles, for eight months. They were, so some of the survivors allege, subjected to sleep deprivation, food deprivation, ritual humiliation and abuse, beaten and battered into submission, quite literally, to Vliet's artistic vision. Every note, and every thought behind every note, was shaped, iron fisted, by the Captain. They rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. Some tried to escape. The drummer was beaten with a broomstick for playing some Zappa in his spare time instead of practising Vliet's music.

We can be, and we should be, shocked when we hear stories like this - outrageous, disgusting stories of musical megalomania. But they are stories that have littered music's history and, unless we are prepared to dismiss works like Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen or most of the symphonies of Mahler, then we have to find some way of divorcing great music from the less-than-great circumstances in which it was created. And, while that might be a divorce for our own convenience, our own peace of mind, the fact remains that that violent, vile union produced, in Trout Mask Replica, a brilliant, precocious, genius child.

Trout Mask Replica is one of those albums that sounds like nothing else, and yet its influence can be heard everywhere - more than anything else in the permission it gave for music to break out of even its more unconventional parameters, and to allow itself to be crazy.

Craziness can certainly have its frightening side at times: it can freak you out, it can intimidate you and yes, it can even assault and damage you. But then so too can sanity. So it really comes down to a question of which adventure you'd rather try. Try Captain Beefheart - he's really no more dangerous than the straight and narrow and a whole lot more interesting.

RIP Captain Beefheart - you will be missed, but it's good to still have you with us.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Savage Love

There are some people who can tell the story of broken love so well that it almost makes you want to have your own heartbreak, just to see if that's really how it sounds. People who know how to wallow and rage, soaked in whisky, wrenching every entrail from their gut and heaving it into their throat, pouring out rough, ragged music, worn raw by the hard-living, fucked-up lives and loves of country-blues.

That's how Cash Savage sings her songs - music of the heartbreakers as much as of the heartbroken, and all of it is very, very good.

Her debut album Wolf, which she recorded with her support troupe, The Last Drinks, has only just been released, and it takes no prisoners. This music would kill you if it could get its hands on you - gutsy, guttural, unglamorous music, unsentimental stories of lost love.

Cash Savage has that rare and remarkable ability to start a song in the gutter and then keep taking you deeper and deeper into the depths, with her bleary, bluesy voice finding limitless stores of brutal, bestial energy.

I first discovered this album when the 3 PBS FM Breakfast Spread, my constant source of musical inspiration and the constant undoing of my bank balance, played 'I'm Doin' So Well' a few days ago - a track that, for me, is still the best on an album where every track is exceptionally good. It builds and builds its cries and its heartache, unrelenting, unforgiving, uncompromsing. But then listen, too, to songs like 'For the Goodtimes' or '19 Years', and you will see how consistent a talent this is - music that plies you with the very best whisky while it stabs you in the heart, over and over again.

And, for me, it is no small extra bonus that these are love songs sung by a woman about women. Same sex love songs still don't get anywhere near the airspace that they should. We are, after all, about a fifth of the population but our stories certainly don't seem to occupy a fifth of the love music. Yes, we know that Rufus Wainwright and kd laing are mainly singing about their same sex loves, but you know that from their biographies not from their songs. But these songs of Cash Savage are unambiguously, unfetteredly, unpretentiously queer, and this only adds to their strength.

Wolf is an absolute stunner of an album. It won't break your budget if you buy it from the Cash Savage website, but it might break your heart, and maybe even your balls.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

In tribute to the old and the new - Hendrix

A couple of weeks ago, the only child of my only sibling became a father for the first time and they named their son Hendrix.

It'd be pretty nice, I think, to be named in tribute to someone great; but, when it's someone whose very name is as recognisable as Hendrix, a name that everyone knows and in some way or other respects, it'd be hard not to grow up feeling at least a tiny bit cool.

But this is not a blog about names - it's a blog about music, and it's the music of Jimi Hendrix that I wanted to talk about today.

Jimi Hendrix is arguably the Luciano Pavarotti of the three big Js of the 27 club - Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who all died at the tragically, obscenely young age of 27 - all of them great, but Hendrix the one who, from where many people see things, still towers above the others. He was the one who, more than anyone else, seemed to take music in his blood-stained, sweat-stained grip, and twist and turn it into bits of barbed wire, into shapes that can slice your skin to shreds, yet leave you asking for more. He was the one who did things with music that anyone else could only have done with knives and shards of glass, and yet still made it sound like music.

The Hendrix guitar is unmistakably his. The way he slides to notes that seem to be aching, screaming, crying, to go one step further, leaving you on the edge, unresolved: sexual music that holds back its orgasm, music that makes you writhe with grief but then denies you closure.

There's not much that can be said about Hendrix that someone hasn't already said, but when someone can make an instrument speak with the passion and guts that bleeds out of the Hendrix guitar, it's worth saying things more than once.

And yet, despite the instant recognisability of Hendrix's music, there's enormous diversity there too, and you are left in that unique place where you can hear the screeching pychedelic rock of something like 'Purple Haze' or the Rhythm and Blues of his music with the Band of Gypsys, where at times he almost turns his guitar into an electric banjo, or the rock blues of his compilation album Blues or of his posthumous First Rays of the New Rising Sun; you can hear any of that, and still know it's Hendrix.

Perhaps that has something to do with the actual sound he gets out of the guitar, his attack on the notes, and the way he drips them in acid and emotion with the wah-wah pedal; perhaps it has something to do with the way he phrases things, with long lines of music that somehow manage to sound airy and breathless at once, music that hyperventilates on itself; or maybe it's because of the way he finds notes in places where you wouldn't expect them to be, and puts them exactly where they should always have gone, those flattened blues notes, those notes that seem to be contemplating something, hesitating, then rushing into a wild, harsh frenzy, rugged and ragged.

But like all great artists, Hendrix is so much more than the sum of his parts and, ultimately, it's his soul, his tattered, tortured, troubled, triumphant soul that we latch onto most of all when we hear his music. Hendrix is one of those unique and extraordinary musicians with whom you have the best communication, the best conversations, and maybe even the best sex, when you listen to his music. He's one of those artists who is never more himself, never more honest, never more passionate, eloquent or erotic, than in his music. It's not just that he talks to you through his music, but rather that he is his music.

That, I guess, is why Hendrix will always sound like Hendrix, no matter what you hear him doing - it's because he will always be there; because whatever colour he shades his music with, it's still him.

Insatiable honesty and musical brilliance is a pretty awesome union to have and, whatever tragedy may have befallen Jimi Hendrix's personal life, we can, thanks to that union, continue to have him live and love and lust amongst us even today, forty years after his death.

And to have a new life named in tribute to that honesty and brilliance is a pretty nice message, even to those who have not gone deliriously ga-ga at the birth of my grand nephew, that good things really do keep on keeping on.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The cool and trippy avant hip hop of Flying Lotus

If you could take a bit of DNA from Tricky, mix it with a bit from John Zorn and temper it with a bit from Marice Ravel, you may well end up with something pretty much like Cosmogramma. Not that the latest full length album from Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison, and great-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane) sounds anything like any of these, but their genes are definitely there.

There's the electronic trippiness of Tricky; there's the crazy, comfy experimental jazz of John Zorn; and there's the subtle, dappled, fluid blends of colours and rhythms of Ravel. I can't imagine those three musicians in the same room together, let alone in the same music - but then, by any rekoning, Cosmogramma is an extraordinary album.

It represents quite a leap from Flying Lotus's previous work, Los Angeles, and even that was a pretty amazing show of what can be done when you take music off the mainstream dance floor, and bend it and break it a bit with Latinish, Africanish, Alienish beats.

Cosmogramma, however, takes you into freakier territory - some of it quite dark, but always with just enough stability there that never feel you're losing your footing entirely. It's like looking out of a slightly scary trip onto a dance floor that still lures you, even though its lights and beats are not predictable anymore, and the cool blues and greens get broken every now and then by flashes of red, and the steady beat beneath you seems to rumble once in a while, as if there could be an earthquake stirring in its sleep somewhere down there.

With guests vocals from Thom Yourke, Thundercat and Laura Darlington, and a guest sax from Ravi Coltrane, this is a pretty star-studded piece of work - but star-studded in the way that a distant galaxy is, where it's not so much the individual points of light you notice as their combined brilliance. And that's becase of the way Flying Lotus fuses his sounds - sounds of winds and strings amongst the laptop electronics - the way the disparate worlds of his guests and his influences all come together, blended but still themselves.

Comsogramma seems to invite you into the future and, when you listen to it, you may begin to feel that it could be tricking you just a bit - seducing you with the familiar but then holding you captive in a place that is alien and strange. You laze back into the big comfy chair of its lush and luxurious sounds, while creatures with two heads and blue skin serve you your drinks. You're a bit freaked, but it's too late - the drinks were spiked, and now you belong to Flying Lotus for the night.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The OED of Noise - Merzbow's Merzbox

The Oxford English Dictionary is a pretty amazing piece of work. If you get the full thing, it's 20 volumes - 20 massive volumes telling you everything about the English language, the different ways words have evolved and have been used, and how they have come to mean what they mean today - all with copious examples, painstakingly collected and assembled, to illustrate the point.

Language is worth that sort of obsessive attention because it is, after all, a fascinating thing. But whenever you hear another language spoken - especially a language that is totally unfamiliar, a language that structures and expresses itself in entirely different ways to the one you speak yourself - it can be incredibly difficult to believe, at first, that it could possibly make sense. When you first hear the highly intonated languages of Asia, for example, it can be almost impossible to imagine that those sounds can really be saying anything - hard to see where words start and finish, hard to even imitate the sounds.

The complexities of a language can be fascinating, though, once you dive into it. And once you stop expecting it to behave and sound like the things you are familiar with you begin to discover its riches and that, ultimately, it communicates the same ideas, the same feelings, the same hopes and fears, the same banalities and profundities, the same crudeness and elevation - the same everything - that you do.

Music is the same. And yet, while in much of the Western world we have become accustomed to training our ear to hear new words, new syntax, new versions of old sounds, we have still, to a large extent, stayed within the territory we know and understand - like learning French or German or Italian in an English-speaking school.

It's not surprising, then, that to many ears, the music of some of the extreme Japanese noise artists comes across as pretty daunting and leaves many of us wondering how, with all that screeching and distortion and rasping and grasping, it can possibly be music at all.

Surely the greatest musician of this genre, the greatest linguist of the language of noise, is Japan's Masami Akita who, under the name of Merzbow, has produced some of the most diverse and yet unified body of noise music so far.

He is incredibly prolific too - and, while that's a bad thing for an obsessive completist such as myself, it's an incredibly good thing for noise music because, when you immerse yourself in what he does, and begin to hear the meaning, and not just the strangeness, of his language, you see what a massively rich and varied lexicon he has to share with you.

I have already posted here about his amazing 13 Japanese Birds. That enormous work is just the teensiest dot in his output so far and, from what I can gather, he is far from finished yet. But, if you want a pretty comprehensive survey of his work up until the end of the 20th century, and if you've got $500 or so to spare, then I think you should unhesitatingly lash out and buy his ridiculously massive MERZBOX. The MERZBOX is a collection of 50 CDs, plus a whole lot of slightly cool, slightly gimmicky, paraphernalia, such as T-shirt, a medallion, some stickers, some cards and a very, very good book - all giving you a fascinating tour of his evolution as an artist and of the diversity and variety of his art.

There is no pretence that the MERZBOX is any sort of "best of" compilation of Merzbow's artistry - anymore than there is an intention to make the OED an overview of the best words of the English language. Rather, it is a massive historical tour of its first two decades - covering Merzbow's first recording of 1979, through to the 1997 compilation Annihiloscillator. It is a glimpse of the music's its highs and its lows, its grandeur and its glitches, and explanation of how things now formed from things then, a presentation of the language as it is, a description not a prescription.

And music, like language, finds its meaning on its own terms. It moves from being incomprehensible to being eloquent when you let it speak to you in its way rather than in yours. That's why, if you expect music to come to you from guitars and keyboards and strings, and to speak to you in tones and semitones and quavers and semiquavers, then you will be as bamboozled by Merzbow as would someone who expects Cantonese to have a handful of vowels sharply bordered by a another handful of consonants.

So, if your initial inclination, when you hear Merzbow's distorted electronic feedback, his manipulated sounds of radios and drums and random objects being tossed in metal cans against a subtley shifting hum of white noise, is to think that this can't possibly be music, then try to make yourself listen to it a little longer, and then a little longer still, until you forget to look for the consonants and vowels and instead discover and appreciate this very new, very different, way of saying things.

Everything is there - the music has structure and shape, it has harmony and rhythm and melody and counterpoint: but just not of the things you are used to hearing harmonised, rhythmised, melodised and set in counterpoint. Here it's not violins melting into cellos, pitted against pianos, but rather screeching static entwined with scraped metal, hovering above a distorted, droning mis-tuned radio signal.

When you listen to this music, and listen for the ways themes build and blend, the way tension rises and recedes, the way the music confronts you, plays with you, seduces you, attacks and, yes, even at times comforts you, you will begin to feel that your initial inclination to dismiss it as unbearably harsh and uncompromisingly unmusical was way, way off the mark. It's just music in a different language.

This is not the place for me to go through the 50 CD  MERZBOX in anything like the detail it deserves and, in any event, that has already done by one of the most impressive labours of Merzbow love I have ever encountered, in a fantastic disc by disc review of the Merzbox that you can read for yourself. Still, one day, when I have lots and lots of time, I would love to write about every nook and cranny of this amazing collection, this uncensored, unadulterated survey of one of the most interesting emerging languages in modern music.

Merzbow's music is often seen as the music of the extreme. But, really, music is every bit as vast as the universe itself and, in something of that magnitude, the question of what lies at the extremes, and what lies at the centre, will always only be relative. If you allow Merzbow's music to become your centre for a while, as this MERZBOX invites you to do, then you may just find that it's the violins, the pianos, the vowels and the consonants that all start sounding just a little freaky.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rhythm driving melody - Beethoven, grindcore and PIVIXKI

PIVIXKI is unfortunately a relatively unknown duo of musicians, from Melbourne, who do some incredible things with a piano and a set of drums. Comprising avant-garde classical pianist Anthony Pateras and grindcore drummer Max Kohane, they have a pretty small recorded output - a self-titled EP and, more recently, a full-length album Gravissima - and seem, as far as I can gather, to perform a bit, but not a lot, in public. It's a shame that they don't get heard more often and more widely because what they do with music has captivated audiences ever since Beethoven started doing it at the start of the 19th century.

When you listen to Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, which he composed in 1804 and 1805, you might not recognise with today's ears how outrageous something like that must have sounded back then - the way he uses dense, pounding chords with such force and power, especially throughout its first movement and in the final moments of the last, so that the piano becomes almost more of a percussion instrument than something lyrical and melodic.

But it's not just about beat - it's about rhythm, too: about the way the beat grows into something that has a shape, a structure, a story, so that the narrative of the music seems to be told there first, with melody providing the embellishment.

The primacy of the beat in music is something that we find in a lot of modern music - especially, and most obviously, in some of the frantic and ferocious bashings and smashings of metal, industrial and grindcore. It can be awesomely commanding stuff and the fact that it might make you want to bang your head against something very, very hard and harmful is surely only testament to its power.

But it's less common for us to see rhythm in the driving-seat; complex rhythms, central to the music's drama - as it was for Beethoven in that massive, ground-breaking sonata - and it probably wasn't until Pateras and Koehne decided to bring together the innovation of the classical avant-garde and the frenetic belly-fire of grindcore that we could ever have expected it to have again come off so spectacularly as it does here in the music of PIVIXKI.

Pateras bashes the extreme ends of the piano's register with fists and palms, and races his fingers over the keyboard, in music that has one foot firmly planted in the wild and daring domain of composers like Messiaen and Xenakis, while the other foot stomps and stamps in perfect sync with Koehne's grindcore drum-kit.

Most of the music is muderously, mercilessly, fast. It has the energy and spontonaeity of free jazz and yet, in its chaos and its sense of improvisation, there's a discipline, of sorts, there too.

It's music that stops you in your tracks, makes you go "wow", and then leaves you thinking, in the way it melds so much together, spanning centuries and genres and techniques, how closely knit even the most diverse music can be.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The shattered, shattering tale of D

Probably there's a lot of people who know that experience of hearing a piece of music that grabs you, totally out of the blue, and makes you stop whatever you're doing and listen to it. I remember it happened to me once, driving the car, when I first heard Björk and Antony Hegarty singing 'The Dull Flame of Desire'. And it happened again, just a few days ago, albeit in a very different way, when I was once again driving the car, and Melbourne's 3PBS FM Breakfast Spread program played Melbourne-based indie rock group The Drones' lead, Gareth Liddiard, performing 'The Radicalisation of D', the massive 16 minute closing track from his debut solo album Strange Tourist.

It's hard to think of music that could be more shattered, more shattering, than this. 'The Radicalisation of D' is a long, unadorned story, loosely based on the life of David Hicks, told in music of voice and acoustic guitar, where neither strays hardly more than a few notes here and there from their half sung, half chanted monotone, both always ever so slightly off key, hard, bruised, achingly naked.

The story of a boy who grows from a hard childhood, through a hard adolescence, into an adulthood borne out of a ménage à trois of aggression, bitterness and loneliness, is told in stark poetry where the subtleties of its rhythm and rhyme are masked by the arrant intensity of its story. It's a narrative, starting as a coldly dispassionate chronicle of D's life, but then swelling with almost unbearable passion and anguish as D's hard, meaningless existance is juxtaposed with the glamour and glory of other people's success: success, where even black people, who had once bashed him in the streets of working class Australia, find an American brand of happiness in the credit financed luxury of Brooklyn. You can feel the hate stir and spin out of control in D as the line 'You are living in a nightmare' seems to pound and sound and resound in his head until suddenly all is quiet, and the story is cut short with the words, 'But now we interrupt this broadcast/To bring you breaking news/There is a building in Manhattan/And it's burning'.

And that's where the story, and the song, ends. But it leaves you hanging in the air, aghast, for a long, long time after that. You feel you have been immersed into the darkest of souls, and for a while it's hard to find your way out. And yet it has got there despite breaking so many rules along the way: over a quarter of an hour of music, without a melody; a bare, even ugly, voice; a guitar that sounds at times almost like it is going out of tune; a lyric that is stripped of even the hint of a shadow of sentiment.

It's music that reminds me of the song 'Der Leiermann', the devastating end to Schubert's unrelentingly tragic song cycle Winterreise, where a story of a lonely, decrepid man, grinding his barrel organ in the snow, is told with the fewest of notes against the barest of accompaniments.

And that's what Gareth Liddiard achieves here, too.  Every now and then, the unsettled quiet of the music is interrupted by a few bone-crushingly harsh bursts from the guitar, only for it to subside again into that incessant monotone strum, relentlessly tap, tap, tapping you with its music and its message, deadpan and doleful, until you are smacked in the face by all that raw rage near the end.

There are few times when I have been as affected by a single piece of music as I have been by this. Matt - half of the Matt and Jenny duo who bring us the PBS Breakfast Spread every Monday to Friday - said that this is one piece that really does deserve that now rather hackneyed word, 'epic'. And it does. It's epic not just because of the way it can hold you so totally in its grip for 16 minutes, but also for the way it shakes you so profoundly in the process.

When 'The Radicalisation of D' is over, you are left with a disturbing, different understanding of where the real horror of 9/11 truly lies - not in the rough and rugged sand of the Middle East, but much closer to home, in the carefully cultivated soil of the West, soil so rich and fertile for the growth of hatred, intolerance and terror.

The rest of Strange Tourist is pretty stunning, too, but it's this album closer that really is Gareth Liddiard's tour de force, showing just how powerful music's shattered, shattering bare bones can be.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The intimate beauty of an Antonyiade

In the early 19th century, Franz Schubert - who composed probably more songs, and more beautiful songs, than anyone else anywhere ever - used to occasionally gather with his friends, in his home or in theirs, around a piano, sometimes with another instrument or so, and share music. These wonderful, intimate evenings became known as 'Schubertiades' - a word that even today still conjures up images of music shared, softly, privately, lovingly.

That whole sense of music as community - music as a place where people gather and tell their stories to each other, gently, unadorned and yet infinitely eloquent, music that is spontaneous and personal - is something that we don't often encounter any more. Music is often so big that it feels like it could encompass everything, or else it is so small, so inward looking, that you feel almost voyeuristic listening to it.

But in Antony and the Johnson's latest album, Swanlights, we again have something of that feeling of music as a thing that people share with one another - something that is part private, part public, but always authentic, always growing, like a seedling, from something buried, tentative, from darkness into the light. Here the music wafts from moments that are austerely sad, like the the hesitating sorrow of 'The Spirit was Gone', to others that are playfully joyful, like a child discovering love for the first time in 'I'm in Love'. The music grabs a few fragile threads, a piano, a cello, a harp, the broken, shivering voice of Antony Hegarty, weaves them together, sometimes reinforcing them with the stark power of some brass, as in 'Thank You for Your Love', or underlining them with lush, droning strings, as in the title track, and builds it into a warm, embracing tapestry of beauty, frail and yet somehow strangely enduring too.

Joining that warm, intimate, sanctified community, on 'Flétta', the ninth song of the album, is Björk - she and Antony singing a strange, cold, wandering tale in Icelandic, so foreign and yet so at home on this album where everything feels like it is being improvised, but not just by musicians - by hearts and souls that have smiled and cried, loved and lost, lived and died.

And what they create is both simple and delicate - but not in the pure, perfect way of say, a snow crystal but, rather, in the heartachingly vulnerable way of a child born too soon, weak and defenceless, quivering, gasping for breath even when it is laughing and happy.

The 46 minutes of Swanlights felt like an eternity on the edge to me - music where you feel like you might be standing around that naked, broken, bent little child, silently sharing your hopes and fears for its future, your happiness and sadness for its life, your love, your loss, your wonder at how something this vulnerable could live at all: sharing it all with that special handful of people you love the most.

Swanlights is probably the least immediately accessible album from Antony and the Johnsons so far - but that's because the territory it canvasses is so uniquely personal: an intimate gathering that this album invites you to be part of. Listen to it a few times, and you will feel that same kind of privilege that Schubert's friends must have felt when they, too, gathered around a piano and listened to a great and fractured man tell them about love.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Making mountains out of molehills - minimalism in music

Like a lot of people, I first heard minimalist music long before I knew what it was. In fact, I suspect that minimalist music was composed long before anyone knew what it was, too. That simple phrase, repeated over and over through gently, subtly changing harmonies, in the opening Prelude of the first book of Bach's Wohltemperierte Klavier would surely meet pretty well any definition any modern musicologist might try to give for minimalism.

But, of course, like all musical genres, minimalism is not something you can neatly define because it describes an overall style in an art where the boundaries are never all that tightly guarded, and where little bits of one patch of land are always slipping through and leaving their mark on another.

But, insofar as minimalism involves taking just the barest handful of notes, or of musical ideas, and building them into something big and interesting, by making them multiply and grow, it is something which has featured to striking effect in all kinds of music, from all kinds of places, in all kinds of times.

If you don't find it in Bach, then maybe you might find it in Schubert, like in his creepy, haunting, song Eine Altschottische Ballade, where, against a stark, naked piano, with empty minor chords, cloning and mutating in a steady, horse-trot rhythm, a simple, barren, hollow melody, gathered together from just a few notes, is repeated over and over and over as a son and a mother talk about murder. It sends shivers down your spine - more than anything because the music moves so little, because it is so icy cold as the son tells his mother that the blood on his sword is not from his hawk, not from his horse, but from his father. It's a story which, told in nineteenth century music, you would expect to swell with passion and drama but instead it just repeats its cold, callous handful of notes, again and again, and you are left both horrified and awestruck by its chilled severity.

But, of course, minimalism is really a term that came into its own in second half of the 20th century, largely through the music of people like Steve Reich and Terry Riley - but, for me, I first noticed it, and found myself looking up dictionaries to see what it meant, when I saw a performance of Philip Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach in Melbourne in 1992. It was a staggering work - something like five hours without an interval with little phrases of music, sometimes funereal, sometimes frenetic, that seemed to be being repeated a zillion times and yet you couldn't even tap your feet to it for more than a couple of seconds because the beat was changing so constantly - three beats to a bar, and then four, and then five, and then six, and then seven - music that hypnotised you by the very same breath that it used to keep you awake and alert.

Since that time, I have slowly learned to develop an enormous respect for the ways in which musicians use this concept of minimalism - this concept, that is, of making much out of a little - in so many different and interesting ways. Like the barren austerity of Arvo Pärt's Passio where a single sombre Aeolian chant weaves its way, serious and sullen, through a 75 minute piece of music, building around you its vast landscape of unrelenting sadness and gloom. Or like the way The Beatles, in 'Tomorrow Never Knows', which closes their album Revolver, allow a droning, unshifting tonality to draw everything back to it, like a gas giant. Or the way Krautrock icons like Neu! and Kraftwerk produce music that takes the tiniest fragments of rhythms and notes, repeats them again and again beneath a slowly, smoothly, subtly changing soundscape, until you begin to notice that it is the journey, not the destination, that is fascinating you so much.

Or Terry Riley's iconic In C, where the score consists of 53 little phrases, each anything between one note and 25 notes long, and the performers play them, repeating each as often, or as little, as they wish. They can drop out for a while and come back in later, but everyone has to listen to what everyone else is doing, so that no one is ever more than two or three phrases ahead of, or behind, anyone else. It can be performed at any speed by any number, or any kind, of instruments, although Terry Riley himself suggests that a group of about 35 performers works best. The idea is that a couple of times throughout the performance, which can last anything beteen about 45 and 90 minutes, all the musicians will come together in unison, and then veer off again, as their own individual choices of the number of repeats of each phrase varies. The end result can be absolutely mind-blowing, a fantastic celebration of sound, a great testament to the way minimalism can take such teensy-weensy little bits of music, multiply them, throw them in the air, and allow you to marvel at the kaleidoscopic intersection of melody, harmony and rhythm they produce.

Minimalism has probably had more than its share of bad press over the years, where critics have seen it as lazy music for lazy audiences, music lacking in ideas, the music of the machine age. And yet that somehow belies the enormous influence minimalism has had across music genres, being able to touch on everything from classical to 1990s electronic dance. And it belies the endless variety, the million and one different ways in which minimalist composers and musicians take the tiniest of molehills and, throwing in a mountainload of invention, turn them into things with so many more sides and facets and colours and textures than you would ever have thought possible.

It's amazing how complex simplicity can be sometimes.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The ancient lure of drone

There is probably something sadly apt about choosing to write here about drone music on the first couple of days of Australia's new Parliament. Just as something primal and at times ugly seems to emerge from Canberra's House on the Hill, and just as our elected representatives turn it into hours of inept, inane, waffle, we can all be thankful that we can still rely on music to show us something great, powerful and eternally alluring in the ancient art of drone.

Drone has, indeed, been an underlying foundation to music for hundreds, for thousands, of years. You only needed to have noticed the awesome rumbles of the didgeridoo during yesterday's Welcome to Country ceremony to have seen that. Or the steady, unwavering purr and whirr, murmuring beneath the modal chants of the geat 12th Century composer Hildegard von Bingen.

It shows us how, even in the earliest music, from opposite ends of the world, drone was much more than just a steadying base - it was a foundation, a cornerstone, a landmark, in its own right. It didn't just help the other musicians stay on the line: rather, it gave the music a primeval core, the earth's very first call to life continuing to reverberate in music centuries, millennia, later.

I wrote about drone a few times in my earlier blog, focussing there especially on bands such as Sunn 0))), Boris, and Grey Daturas. Just those bands alone were enough to bear testimony to the enormous diversity of drone - the different ways in which they shape music upon, or around, those massive, earth tremoring, sustained bass notes, with instruments tuned 97 octaves below their usual pitch.

Then there are others, heaps of them, that I have discovered since then, like the sensational Melbourne-based band Whitehorse, which I heard for the first time only a few nights ago at Geelong's National Hotel, and was staggered by the way they were able to weave energy and urgency into the drone, giving the music a sense of direction and drive, reminding me at times of the grumblings beneath and above Mahler's inert primordial rock at the beginning of his Third Symphony.

Or the music of American noise artist Daniel Menche, like in his 2005 album Sirocco, which grows at first from formless static and then slowly, imperceptibly, takes shape, morphs into huge blasts of electronic drone, covering every level, every frequency, it seems, of the sonic spectrum, before it slips back again into the static, all through an incredible, single, epic arc of sound lasting over 52 minutes.

Then there are the English avant-garde experimentalists, Coil, and their fascinating 3 CD work, ANS, which I have already written about on this blog: music where the drone is not so much in the bowels of the earth as in its ether, eerie and alien.

All of this, of course, only goes to make a bit of a tip of the massive drone iceberg - an iceberg that is as old and as elemental as the earth itself. But it's enough to show that the mesmerising magentism of those long, sustained sounds can manifest itself in a whole lot of ways, producing music that, from the ancient sounds of indigenous Australia, to the avant garde of Japan, resonates with something deep and fundamental in us, and in our connection with music.

I am certainly loving this expedition into the many ways in which drone is used, both old and new, and would very much welcome any of your own stories or discoveries about this ancient, alluring element of music.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Balancing the extremes - noise and silence in music

We all need a bit of balance in our lives. But balance isn't created in the middle of the scales, it's created at the ends, and if ever I needed to learn the truth of that in music, it came for me yesterday when Hijokaidan and Morton Feldman both entered my music collection for the first time.

Hijokaidan is one of the earlier, and still one of the more extreme, Japanese Noise artists. His music is intense, ferocious, uncompromising - music with no gaps in it; music where white noise, black noise, distorted static, screeching guitars and screeching vocals, are hammered and bashed together into an insane cacophony which you would probably still hear, even with the mute button on.

His album Polar Nights Live was recorded over two January nights in Oslo in 2006. It's music that belts you between the eyes, knocks you to the ground, and leaves you winded, before its first minute is up. Yoshiyuki Hiroshige's demented guitar claws its way over the broken glass of ferociously loud hissing, sending out shards of electric light and blood in all directions, while his wife, Junko, shrieks noises that must surely leave my neighbours thinking I am torturing my dogs. It's brutal, like nuclear rain pounding on metal, falling from the black clouds that shut out the sun once the holocaust is over.

Morton Feldman is a 20th century avant-garde American composer, associate of John Cage (whose famous 4'33" changed everything we used to think about silence in music), and writer of some of the most quiet music you will ever hear. His Rothko Chapel, written in 1971 for soprano, choir, viola, celeste and percussion, moves slowly, imperceptibly, between still, static sounds, blending silence into the soft, seamless, fabric of quietness. Rhythm, melody, harmony all step into the background and instead the abstract, bare purity of quietness whispers its way through the music. There's not even the barren modal chants of Arvo Pärt here - just notes, growing unobtrusively from the silence and falling back into it again. It's music that leaves you almost afraid to breathe because you feel you might unsettle the perfect stillness of this music, music that takes you out of space and time and yet, for all its minimalism and silence, is never empty.

We so often forget to notice the power and importance of both noise and silence in music because, for the most part, music blends the two, watering one down with the other. But the music of Hijokaidan and Morton Feldman shows us that each of the elements is worthy of its own place in the limelight, and reminds us that balance is only ever possible because somone is prepared to place themselves on one end of the scales, and someone else on the other.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Does music have a shape?

I hadn't thought much about the shape of music until quite recently when I happened to stumble across an octagonally-shaped CD, with the rather puzzling name of xAj3z by a relatively obscure duo called Soisong. And then, when I played it, it did strike me that there was something oddly octagonal about the music, as much as the CD itself.

Of course, suggestion can be a pretty powerful thing, and maybe if the CD was triangular, or nonagonal, or in 3D, or shaped like a clothesline, that's how the music would have sounded to me too (presuming I could get my CD player to play it, which was challenging enough even with an octagonal CD). But, still, it raises the question about the shape of music - whether there is any and, if there is, how we recognise it.

xAj3z, even without the power of suggestion, seems to abound with straight lines and obtuse angles. Soisong is the collaborative work of Throbbing Gristle's Peter Christopherson and Coil's Ivan Pavlov - two artists who are well used to doing interesting things with music. Which is what they do here, but in a simple, rather beautiful, sort of way. More interesting, say, than a square; more jagged, say, than a circle; but somehow still geometric, balanced, formed. The music is the product a mix of electronic and acoustic sounds, strings and keyboards and percussion, with the occasional slightly alien sounding vocal; angular melodies, squeezed harmonies; all of it soft, pleasant even, and yet more than just a little bit creepy too, like a union between children and devils. Bach on LSD, perhaps.

It's a unique, irresistable sound and, even without seeing the shape of the CD, it's hard not to notice the bare, simple, startling lines that this music draws in the air.

The geometry of music is just one of the million and one things that make it so interesting - the angular music, the rounded music, square music, cubed music, music in symmetry, music that gets its shape and form from its chaos.

The seemingly endless shapes and sizes of music are created by the permutations and combinations of what is actually a relatively small stock-pile of elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, tone. There's only so many notes you can play to make a melody, only so many different ways of dividing and ordering their durations to make a rhythm. But, like the lines and angles and empty spaces that coalesce into shapes, there are so many more sums to music than there are parts. Music seems to be able to take on so many more forms than its rather lean skeleton would ever suggest could be possible.

But does any of this mean that music really does have a shape? Or is the geometry of music just another way that our minds, which always need to put everything in its place and space so as to make sense of it, play tricks on us - tricks that only serve to make people like me feel better about spending that few extra dollars on buying an octagonally shaped CD, because we think it's something profound, rather than just another marketing gimmick?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The art of dissection - Nurse With Wound's debut album

You could be excused for thinking, from reading this blog, that all experimental noise music is dark and creepy. But sometimes noise and sounds are interesting and good to listen to just because they're interesting and good to listen to. The question is, however, just what makes sounds interesting, and just what makes them good to listen to.

That question seems to be somehow crystalised, and maybe even to some degree answered, on what must surely be one of the most fascinating and daring debut albums ever: Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella, released in 1979 by British avant garde-industrial-ambient-drone-noisests, Nurse With Wound.

Everything Nurse With Wound does and did is interesting,  but probably nowhere have they been more prepared to take risks, and to take them confidently and convincingly, than here on Chance Meeting. The title itself conjures up some sort of strange union between Salvidor Dali and Oliver Sacks.

The story behind the album's creation rivals that of the drug-infused Eddie Hazel, being told his mother had just died, playing the guitar on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, or Mozart writing his Requiem because he thought Death had personally asked him to do it. Nurse With Wound came together because a relatively unknown songwriter, Steven Stapleton, bragged to his recording company that he had his own experimental band, which he didn't, but they thought he did, and so they booked him some recording time. He cornered a couple of friends, told them to grab whatever instruments they could get their hands on and, less than a day later, Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella was committed to tape.

Eddie Hazel's mother hadn't died, nor had Death knocked on Mozart's door, nor did Steven Stapleton have anything vaguely like a band ready to make a record - but sometimes some of the best things are born from lies, and this album is testimony to that.

Dissection really does seem to be much of what this music is about - pulling apart and pulling out sounds from the places where you usually find them, and allowing you to examine them bit by bit. So you hear guitars and pianos and electronic bleeps and blips, and bits of metal scraping against each other, and harmony pitted against discord, and notes against noise, and all of it thrown into some sort of food processor, where the blades are set at the point where all the bits are chopped up, but not beyond recognition - so what you end up with is not an amorphous stew, but a startling, fascinating, if utterly bewildering, degustation.

If you can listen to Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella without expecting it to sound like anything else you've listened to before; if you can let yourself wallow in its strange, strained sounds and without expecting them to make you feel this or that, or to see that or this, but rather to just let yourself listen to them, then you might just find that this album gives you a perspective on music that you hadn't had before - that, while much music is great because it is bigger than the sum of its parts, sometimes the parts themselves are what make it great.

This abum is a great tribute to the deconstruction of traditional music and  each of its three tracks, each more than doubling the duration of the one before it, creates its own sound-world, utterly disrespectful of every convention that has gone before it. So the freaked-out guitar riffs of 'Two Mock Projections' twist and turn, struggling and strangled, amidst weird electronic noise; and the wild spurts of distorted beats lash their way through 'The Six Buttons of Sex Appeal' without any regard for rhythm or order, interspersed with dismebodied, disembowelled vocals; and noises that grate like fingernails on a blackboard grind themselves into noises that haunt you with their emptiness in 'Blank Capsules of Embroidered Cellophane'.

This is surely the most confronting piece of work the Nurse With Wound have produced, even though nothing of their later work could exactly be described as easy either. But Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella goes beyond just being difficult or challenging - it pulls apart everything that once seemed neatly knit and, try as you might, you just know you'll never be able to get it back together again.

So what makes the sounds interesting and good to listen to? Ultimately, Nurse With Wound leave that question hanging in the air but, even so, this music leaves you feeling that it has much more to do with the bits and pieces than with the different ways convention has put them together.

Had it not been for Steven Stapleton's brash brag about his non-existant experimental band, we would never have had Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella.

But sometimes, to get what you need, you just have to bend things a bit.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Australian Krautrock - rediscovering early Hunters & Collectors

It was back in 1981, at a time when I thought myself broad-minded in my music tastes because I liked early Wagner almost as much as I liked late Wagner, that I was dragged along by some friends to an obscure pub in Melbourne for a gig by an obscure local band called Hunters & Collectors. In those days, my ears were closed to anything that didn't have a leitmotif and a few umlauts and yet, despite the fact that there were shadows of both in the early music of this krautrock-influenced pub-rock/art-funk band, the striking originality of their music was lost on me and, even today, I can remember my relief - and my friends' regret - when the gig eventually came to an end.

But now, as I listen again to their music - and especially to their early music - the even bigger regret is now my own: that I didn't give this incredibly interesting band more of a chance when I had all those opportunities, way back then, to walk into a pub and hear them live.

The early music of Hunters & Collectors was undoubtedly much more interesting and groundbreaking - although much less popular - than their later music. With a name that was inspired by a track from an album by German experimental krautrock band Can, Hunters & Collectors started their career with music that was characterised by the most unlikely mix of ingredients: the motorik beat of krautrock, the industrial clatters of metallic percussion, the nihilistic post-punk vocals of Mark Seymour, and the blazing brass of the Horns of Contempt, kicking into the music here and there to give even this sweaty pub music a kind of bold, blistering nobility.

The first two albums - their self-titled debut in 1982 and The Fireman's Curse, under the inspired guidance of German krautrock producer Conny Plank, in 1983 - are, I think, Hunters & Collectors' best. It's there (despite the comparisons my friends made back then, and my nephew makes now, to Talking Heads) that they were at their most original, their sound most distinctive and daring in the way it broke ranks with the more traditional rock that was playing in Australia's pubs and gig venues at the time.

Music like this had not been played very much in Australia at the time and even in other parts of the world it was heard much more on the fringes than in the mainstream. It was music that produced different sorts of sounds because of the instruments and tones it brought together, and because of the role it gave to percussion - not just to drums - and the way it let those unrelenting, ostinato beats drive things along. It was music that belonged, no doubt, to pubs - but to pubs where people came to hear interesting music, not just loud music.

It is, at least for me, a bit of a disappointment, then, that most of the work of Hunters & Collectors after these first two stellar albums, became rather more geared towards the popular market, albeit still with the band's original stamp very much there - rather like a rebellious idiosyncratic child who has grown up to be a quirky, but nevertheless compliant, adult.

I suspect it's the pressures of a commercially driven music industry, rather than any lack of original inspiration, that leads bands like Hunters & Collectors to trade the fascinating chaos of their underground origins to the more predictable safety of their careers in the limelight - and it's a shame, in both senses of the word, that they are commercial interests that so often end up dictating the directions of music.

I would love to be able to go back to that pub, wherever it was, and shout my approval for the fantastic boldness and innovation of Hunters & Collectors that night back in 1981. It wouldn't have made one iota of difference to the direction of their music, obviously - but it would have at least meant that I wasn't inadvertnetly contributing to the collective indifference to originality and innovation, and a love for the fringe, in modern music.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

13 (no, 26) birds - Messiaen and Merzbow

50 years is a long time in music, and for birds, and much has changed for both of them since Olivier Messiaen wrote his mammoth and amazing piano epic Catalogue d'Oiseaux in 1958-9. So when Japanese noise artist Merzbow (aka Masami Akita) paid tribute both to Messiaen, and to birds, in his own epic 13 Japanese Birds in 2009-10, the story that his music told us was a very different one.

Neither of these works sound in the least bit similar to one another and yet there is a lot that they have in common, too. First, and most obviously, both of them pay tribute to 13 different birds. Second, both of them are mammoth works, Messiaen's taking nearly three hours to perform, Merzbow's around 12 hours. Third, both are conceived out of a deep, passionate love for birds and both want to show you not only the birds themselves but also the world they inhabit. And fourth, both are immensely confronting in their musical language.

Messiaen's music is stark and atonal - its melodies and rhythms are shaped by nature more than anything else and, despite what the 19th century romantics would have had us believe, birds don't sing in D Major or to a tidy 4/4 beat. Messiaen captured the chaos of birdsong, stylised it with an almost obsessive precision, and, breaking away from everything traditional in Western tonality, harmony and rhythm, created music that converted into sound the raspness, the shrillness, the relentlessness, of birdsong; the granite of cliffs, the colours of ponds and of skies - all in the way notes are picked out, or chords bashed out, discordant and uncompromising, on a piano. But, even so, this is the music of birds in their natural habitat and while, even to 21st century ears, Messiaen's music can sound confrontingly modern, this is music about an idyllic time, set in an idyllic space - until, in the final moments of the final piece, 'Le Courlis Cendré' (The Curlew), a devastating chord that seems to bash down every note of the piano keyboard, ushers in the first human intervention of the whole cycle - a lighthouse siren that breaks into the peace and darkness like a hammer blow.

It's the perfect segue into Merzbow whose music, in many ways, picks up where Messiaen left off - telling us the tale of what happened to the birds after humans intervened. Merzbow's music, with its ferocious electronic noise, generated by distortion and feedback, and driven forwards by Masami Akita's insanely wild drumming, is angry and aggressive. It's music in revolt, and loud enough to blast even your neighbours' speakers. Here the birdsong is still there, but now it is crying out, screaming out, amidst all the atrocities that modern development has built around it. Here Messiaen's birds, and their habitat, have been brutalised, beaten and battered and Merzbow pours forth his rage in music that is harsh, savage, grinding.

Both Messiaen and Merzbow achieved incredible things in this music - music of titanic proportions conveying titanic worlds to us: one bright and full of hope, the other dark and full of disgust; both, in the end, overpowered by that unrelenting, underlying, force that keeps life and music going.

Nature and music have changed a lot since Beethoven wrote the gentle, although still eternally engaging, melodies and colours of his 6th Symphony - music that still makes me feel somehow at peace when I listen to it. Beethoven taught us how to bask in nature, how to lie back and doze off in its dappled sunlight. Messiaen taught us to respect its wildness. Merzbow taugh us to fear its vengenance.

Try to get hold of both of these pieces of music. The Messiaen is a little more easily obtained than the Merzbow - but both are worth whatever you have to wait, or pay, to get them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Searching for bent heroes

I’m going to do the unthinkable here and talk about two of my favourite artists in the one post – not because I can’t think of enough to say about them in their own right, nor even because I think they are even remotely alike in their music, but because I didn’t want to let too much time pass without paying homage to them both. But I also want to use their music as an excuse to ask you a bit about what YOU look for in new music.

Despite being poles apart musically, both Diamanda Galás and Einstürzende Neubauten have had a very similar impact on me – one of seeing musicians take the bare bones of their art, reconstruct it with their own raw energy, infuse it with their guts as much as with their soul, and shake you to the core in the process.

I have written about both artists quite a bit on my earlier blog and, while it was not usually my practice there to write about an artist more than once, with both Diamanda Galás and Einstürzende Neubauten it was unavoidable, so varied and yet so undisappointingly interesting their music always was.

My admiration for musicians who break out of traditional boundaries and try new things is, of course, the whole purpose of this blog and yet, even against the backdrop of that love of the new, I find that these two stand out. Which, inevitably, leads me to ask why.

It’s not that either Diamanda Galás or Einstürzende Neubauten are necessarily more outlandish in the sounds they produce, nor in the messages they convey, than some of the other musicians that will be discussed on this blog – although it would be hard to go past something like Diamanda Galás’ frenzied journey into madness in ‘Wild Women With Steak-knives’, or anything at all on her album Schrei X, for sheer visceral brutality; nor beyond the guttural screams of Blixa Bargeld on Einstürzende Neubauten’s ‘Armenia’ or the harsh industrial sounds of power drills and scrap metal in their debut album Kollaps, for unmitigated audacity in making music out of non-music.

But it’s not quite that. Maybe it’s something more about the honesty of their music – music which, you feel, they would perform exactly the same way, regardless of whether anyone was listening to it or not. Whether that’s authenticity or arrogance, I don’t know – and maybe it doesn’t really matter anyway.

Both Diamanda Galás and Einstürzende Neubauten performed an enormous wide range of music – some of which, in both their cases, was much more accessible than some of the examples I’ve mentioned here. But even when they were accessible, even when they were treading more known territory, like when Diamanda Galás sings more traditional music like ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’ or even ‘Gloomy Sunday’, or when Einstürzende Neubauten sing their gentler, later, work, like on their album Silence is Sexy, even there these artists are very much themselves. And so, when she sings the great BB King classic, ‘The Thrill is Gone’, Diamanda Galás starts it off with a wild, anguished, piercing scream, and takes you through the four octaves of her phenomenal voice; or when Einstürzende Neubauten sing something as gently melodic as ‘Morning Dew’ on their album Fünf auf der nach oben offenen Richterskala, it is still punctuated by hammers bashing on metal barrels, and by Blixa’s trademark screams.

But then it’s not entirely that, either. There are certainly plenty of other musicians – many of whom I hope to discuss on this blog – who always inject something of their inmost selves into everything they do, no matter how way out or way in it might be.

Maybe ultimately what makes these artists so great to me, so much my heroes, is something much simpler, and yet also much harder to define, than any of this – something beyond their amazing originality, beyond their passion, beyond their primitive energy, beyond their guts and their souls – something as simple and as complex as just sounding great.

These two heroes of mine – these two great icons of bent music – never stop sounding new to me: never stop sounding original, powerful, raw and wonderful. And it is probably that, as much as all the rest of it, that makes me admire them so much. But ultimately, I guess, that only brings me back to my original question – why?

I never stop being fascinated by the ways in which music speaks differently to different people – and, in some ways, new music highlights that fascination more than anything else does, if only because of the strange way that its newness somehow connects with something known and familiar too.

Sorry for the long ramble of this post – a post which is as much a call for you to write something here about what you look for, and love, in new music as it is a tribute to the new musicians who have impressed me, and made me think, so much as have Diamanda Galás and Einstürzende Neubauten.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Post-rock, post-apocalypse - Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Just to prove that not everything I write about here has to sound edgy and inaccessible, and that I am just as happy to write about music where the innovation is more in the edginess and inaccessibility of where it takes you, I thought today that I would write about Godspeed You Black Emperor! - a group of Montreal musicians who I discovered only a few days ago, thanks to the response of one of my musical mentors, Lucas, to my plea for something to listen to in times when the world, and its politics, seem to be falling apart.

Apocalyptic music can be immensely powerful if it is done well and GYBE! - with their long, sprawling tracks, built out of bricks of dark, tragic harmonies and melodies - do it very well indeed. Their music is characterised by massive, bleak landscapes of sound that open out before you in long, measured crescendos, until they are staring you in the face with their intense, dead eyes, before moving back into the distance again to the forlorn, lonely place from which they came.

The music itself is played on a blend of instruments that works perfectly to give the music its haunted, unsettled colour - strings that slide down from one note, from one octave even, to another; ghostly keyboards, like marimbas and harpsichords; and long, sustained electric guitars that play single notes that wobble and quiver and hang in the darkness. Sometimes the music is embellished with a vocal narrative, like the evocation of a derelict, dead city under the rule of a corrupt government, at the start of 'The Dead Flag Blues' on their debut album F#A#∞; or the ramblings of disconent on 'Blaise Bailey Finnegan III', underscored by long, desolate harmonies on Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada. But, more often than not, the music speaks for itself, or even not at all, as in the three and a half minutes of silence towards the end of 'Providence', also on F#A#∞.

The sense of a apocalypse of these first two albums blends in with one of melancholy, sometimes quiet, sometimes passionate, on the third, double, album, Lift yr. skinny fists like antennas to heaven!, such as in its majestic opener, 'Storm', where the music's pulsating strings and drums swell as much within you as around you, and the shifts from darkness to light, from harmony to sustained dissonance, and back again make you feel that all are there together, in the same place. It is like you are being confronted with a world in ruins, and every now and then being reminded of the things that once made it beautiful.

That sense of loss and desolation for a fragile, vulnerable world is perhaps strongest of all in the fourth, and so far latest, album Yanqui U.X.O. ( a name derived from the Spanish word for 'Yankee' and the acronym for an unexploded ordnance, or landmine). Here the shifting sounds and tensions and dynamics seem even more extreme than the earlier recordings: cello and violin blending with a phalanx of electric guitars and drums, to devastating effect, where you really do feel the horror and terror of a world tottering on the edge, like in the slow, fightening build up of what could well be the planet's funeral march in 'Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls'.

Sometimes some music's power, especially experimental music, lies in its courage to trust its strengths and stick to them - to resist the tempation to put too many ideas into the mix. In some of the music I've been discussing here on Bent Music over the past few days, that has been a readiness to rely on unique sounds, and let an entire album be built purely on that. For GYBE! the reliance is on the power of strong, measured arrangements of a few simple elements to create a sustained and incredibly potent emotional space - one that is able to rest where it is, rather than feel the need to take you from one place to another, because it knows it paints its landscapes so well, that you don't want to look away anyway. It's rather like a post-rock incarnation of the music of 20th century classical composers such as Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt, who built both emotional and musical richness out of just a handful of notes.

The easy harmonies of much of this music, and the simplicity of its melodies, which are given their character by the way the build and colour themselves, will inevitably draw comparisons with film music - and, while that can often be a disparaging, trivialising way to talk about music, in this case it's quite the opposite. GYBE! produce music that evokes its pictures - crying out, almost, for a film to accompany it, rather than the other way around. Here it is the music that creates the images, gives them life, dark as it is, and then ultimately lets them go.

This is powerful, hypnotic, unrelenting music - sonically accessible, yet still musically inventive and always emotionally confronting, draining even. It is grief writ large; grief made cosmic.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The quiet edgy noise of Kevan Revis - 'Sollicitudo'

Sometimes we discover new music in the most unexpected ways and, almost always, those unexpected discoveries are the best. It was only a week or so ago, when I was trying to hunt down some music of the freaky and ferocious Japanese noise artist, Merzbow, that I happened to stumble across a small on-line music store that had the best array of experimental music I had ever come across (including the Merzbow - which I hope to discuss here in the next few days). Its sole owner/operator, Kevan Revis, also happens to be a composer and producer of experimental noise and so I decided to add his debut, and so far only, album, Sollicitudo, to my order.

Sollicitudo is in two parts, each clocking in at just under 18 minutes. Each is built out of a kind of quietly unsettling mixture of sounds - sounds which Revis records and gathers and then electronically manipulates into his music. They are sounds that are a little other-worldly, and yet occasionally sounding a little familiar, too, like those indistinct, undefinable sounds you hear at night. They are sounds that often seem to come from different universes, like deep, droning rumbles from one direction, strange distant clatters from another, the sound of alien water from another. And yet Revis somehow manages to blend them all together into an amazing synthesis of sound, giving it unity, and leaving you wondering why someone hadn't thought to put those sounds together before.

But it's destabilising, despite all of that - music that leaves you on edge, unsettled, and more than just a little bit freaked, despite its almost deceptive quietness. This, at least as I see music, is an incredible achievment - music that can manage to shake you and shatter you, without needing to blast your eardrums or your speakers in the process. But, even so, play it as loud as you can, because it deserves to be heard and to be heard well.

The two parts of Sollicitudo belong very much together, and yet they are very different, too. One plays with a kind of gentle creepiness, as if you are frozen somewhere, listening to the sounds of a spectral night cascading around you. The other is more edgy, with short and sharp bursts of sound that never let you alone, never let you rest.

I very much hope that Sollicitudo is not the only work that Kevan Revis produces, because it's a great example of the interesting and engaging things that are happening all over the place in contemporary experiemental music. It's music that deserves to be encouraged and that demands to be heard.

You can visit Kevan's store, and get his music, at:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bending the straight and narrow - Throbbing Gristle and Trotsky

On a day like this, where, at least in Australia, we are all drowning in a soupy quagmire of political inanity and conservatism, a day where the mundane fights the mundane for its day in the sunlight, the need to listen to music that grabs the mainstream by the throat, and strangles it until it gags, is, for me, acute.

Britain’s Throbbing Gristle formed in the mid 1970s, performed mostly between then and 1981, and then reunited again every now and then since 2004 for the occasional retrospective on their music. TG are usually described as belonging to some sort of avant-garde industrial genre, but I prefer to think of them as the Trotskyists of modern music – fusing together different stages of musical development, leading change, forthright and aggressive, recognising the need for revolution in music to be permanent and confronting and international, like Trotsky believed it to be in politics.

And just as Trotsky saw the importance of co-opting the grassroots – the workers and the peasants – into his bigger picture, melding them into shape, taking them in the direction he knew they needed to go, so too do TG take the nuts and bolts of daily life – daily noise, daily conversation – and transform them into a formidable force that changes the way you think about how things were, and how they’re going to be.

TG intend their music to be confrontational, and it is. Whether it’s loops of distorted noise, with snippets of random conversation interweaving around it, punctuated by strange, haunted clangs and clatters, or the single, unrelenting beat of a note on a bass guitar, like much of the music on their album DoA: The Third and Final Report (which was neither their third nor their final album), or more mainstream music, with the lifeblood sucked out of it, and aggressive industrial acid injected into it, like much of the music on 20 Jazz Funk Greats (which has 13 songs, and none of them are jazz and none of them are funk, although the ghostly remnants of both are undeniably there), this is music that takes the straight and narrow, bends it and distorts it, in a way that unsettles and frightens you, but somehow still leaves you thinking that maybe this was how it was all meant to be after all.

The vocals, when there are any, are intentionally off-key; the beats, when there are any, are minimalist, driving, stripped down to their bare essentials; musical instruments appear almost in mockery of themselves - like the flattened, distorted brass that opens their fourth album, Heathen Earth; the sound is low-fi and unglamorous, harsh and unmusical. Nothing here is meant to be easy to listen to – but it is built out of the sounds and machines and music of ordinary life, beaten into a new shape, and even though the face it shows you is riddled with warts, it is undeniably your own, and so you keep looking at it.

TG’s debut album, The Second Annual Report (needless to say, not their second album) – which includes several versions of a thing called ‘Slug Bait’ and several of another thing called ‘Maggot Death’ (none of them sounding even remotely alike) – is a great place to start, if you’re brave and don't mind music where distortion is the anti-hero of the day. But 20 Jazz Funk Greats is probably safer, if no less confronting in the long run.

It’s hard to imagine what Trotsky would have thought of Throbbing Gristle – but, with his sense and breadth of vision, he might just have seen something powerfully symbolic in the way they take what was once ordinary and benign and turn it into something terrible and terrifying; the way they distort what was once comfortable and make it confronting and, in the process, somehow show it for what it really is; the way they take risks, even unpopular risks, because they, like he, know that’s what you have to do if you’re really serious about moving forward.

Friday, August 20, 2010

In the deep dark creepiness of election eve ... Coil ANS

Election eve is always an anxious time for me, as it probably is for a lot of people and, on a night like this, where Australia’s future rests on a knife edge, with the conservatives on one side and the ultra conservatives on the other, I can do little other than retreat into a dark corner and seek, Linus-like, comfort from my security blanket.

Which for me, of course, is music. And what better security blanket on a night like this than some creepy ambient drone music, played on a Soviet synthesiser that has been standing in the bowels of the Moscow State University since its construction began under the direction of the Red Army in the 1930s?

It is called an ANS (named, incidentally, in honour of the Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin) and, in a nutshell, involves images being painted onto a glass plate, inserted into the machine, which then converts the images into electronic sound waves. So it doesn’t play tunes, and it doesn’t have a drum kit, but instead omits eerie, long, slowly morphing tones, sometimes pulsating, sometimes not, generally high or highish pitched, in harmonies that are harsh and indeterminate, in tones that pierce you while they massage you, and with a deep, almost subliminal, bass that you feel rather than hear beneath it all. If you've got a decent sub-woofer, the floor will vibrate underneath you, while your ears seem to register almost nothing below middle C. It's a frighening, unnerving feel.

The music changes and takes shape, and loses shape, in the way that you might expect the colours of a nebula to do: slowly, imperceptibly, in the space where stars are born and die in far, far-reaching darkness. The only shape here is the shapelessness and, when you can learn to accept that, you find you are agog at the beauty, cold like the markings on a snake.

The ANS is being ‘played’ here by Coil, a British avant-garde group who formed in the early 1980s but who produced this amazing piece of work in 2003, when the Russian government allowed them access to their ANS for just a few days. The results are stunning. But they are by no means what everyone would like, or even what everyone would call music – sounds that you might expect to hear in the darker, deeper recesses of your brain, in the bits that are deep inside you but that somehow connect with the outer regions of space, too – which is exactly where the great Soviet film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, put them when he used the ANS in his film Solyaris, a sci-fi epic that takes you to a planet that reflects back at you the most hidden recesses of your mind.

Coil’s ANS is a 3 CD/1 DVD set – the DVD displaying electronic graphics that are every bit as weird and spaced out as the music they aim to express – and, from what I can gather, it’s a set that is generally pretty difficult to find, and sometimes pretty pricey when you do. But if you like your music to challenge not only your concept of what music is but also your sense of psychic stability, your sense of things being as they should be – and, after all, how else could you feel on election eve? – then this is music worth hunting down.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The rebel family of rock - music of the 1970s

It would take at least a book, rather than a blog, to do justice to the history of music – the ways it develops into new directions, and the reasons it does it at this time rather than that time – and so, at the risk of being ridiculously simplistic, I thought I’d kick off this blog with an observation about the incredible number of new branches that seemed to sprout from the musical tree trunk in the 1970s.

Once rock had so stormed the public psyche in the 60s, with the Beatles and the Stones blasting through every household and every car radio, and even the more alternative, more subversive musicians, like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, becoming commercialised and popularised, clearly music, and especially rock music, had to do something new and different if it was to survive. After all, Charles Darwin showed us, over a hundred years before, that things that don’t change, die.

Of course, music has always changed and grown but, in the 70s, it seemed to branch off into more directions, copulating with more genres, producing more diverse offspring, than even the most liberal-minded, sexually-liberated, drug-dazed, 60s psychic could have imagined.

There was rock’s romantic affair with high art, and the elevated invention of prog rock – listen to the sprawling sounds of King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, or the earlier albums of Pink Floyd with tracks that lasted a whole LP side without even one word being sung, for example, to see what an interesting, schizoid child that union produced.

It had its aggressive fling with blues, a liaison so driven by the need of both partners to vent their fury at the world, that its riffs and rhythms were battered and beaten into the distorted shapes of heavy metal, where bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath brought sex and death together in a way that only sadomasochists and Wagnerians would ever have thought possible.

And then there was its sordid one night stand with the disaffected rebels of America’s and Britain’s streets, and the raucous horde of punk rockers that ran amok in the rock household for years to come; or its doomed anti-affair with nihilistic youth in New York’s underground, and the morose, grumpy No Wave child that appeared in the work of people like Lydia Lunch and bands like Suicide as a result – a short and tormented life, but one that left us with ghosts that haunt us still; or its more cerebral encounter with German avant-garde experimenter Karlheinz Stockhausen, and their staggeringly precocious lovechild, Krautrock. Listen, for example, to Autobahn, and remind yourself that it was produced in 1974.

When you remember that all of this music emerged in the 70s, you can’t help but feel pretty amazed at what a fertile time it was. All of it, in one way or another, seemed to involve rock moving out of its own comfort zone into new territory, seeking new lovers and producing the most incredibly diverse and rebellious gang of kids you could imagine. It turned the home of music – which admittedly had never been entirely quiet and still – into a place noisier and crazier than it had probably ever been before.

All of those children, of course, went on to have their own lives, their own affairs, their own offspring. But that’s always a good thing – because to stay in your own boundaries, and to procreate only with yourself, can never really be more than a wank.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome to Bent Music

Thanks for dropping by this, my next and newest music blog. It is really meant to complement rather than replace my somewhat neglected, but not abandoned, other blog, where, wherever possible, I talked about whatever album was blasting through my speakers at the time.

It was in the process of that musical journey, described throughout that blog, that I began to marvel at the zillions of ways in which music rediscovers and redfines itself - new things being tried in new ways, basically from the day someone, thousands upon thousands of years ago, first banged a couple of sticks together and decided it sounded good.

It's the willingness to test the boundaries, to trip over the margins of the mainstream into uncharted territory, that this blog is all about. I'm keen to talk here about the things I discover, and hear about the things you discover. It's a place to discuss ideas, to put forward whatever your latest theory or observation about music.

Of course, music can be new at any time and in a whole myriad of ways. It's not just about modern experimentalism. The music that Bach wrote in the seventeenth century, when he first showed how harmony and counterpoint work, took as many risks as when some of today's noise extremists, like Japan's Merzbow, smashed all the traditional concepts of what makes music musical.

Some of the newness sticks, and some of it is forgotten. Some of it sounds dated little more than a decade after we were all bamboozled by it, while some of it seems fated to always sound new and radical, to always inhabit music's outback.

These are the things I hope we can discuss on this blog - not just a place for me to ramble on with my own ideas, nor just for me to write about the latest oddity to fill my music collection and bewilder my neighbours and fellow train passengers. Post your own comments whenever you can - whether it's relevant to what I've posted or not - or, if you like, email me with your thoughts and I'll hopefully be able to post them for you.

I'm looking forward to your involvement!