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!!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Getting inside your head on New Year's Eve - Yoshi Wada's 'The Appointed Cloud'

New Years Eve is a time when most of us tend to reflect on the year that’s passed. Usually that involves a mixture of thoughts and reflections – of happy things, of sad things, of successes and frustrations, of achievements and mistakes.

For me, I have for years sought to characterise that in music – to find some piece of music that somehow captures my year.

Probably there is nothing that could do that as well as music can – music, which is so good at expressing the contradictions, the heights, the depths, the trivia; the big, conglomerate mix and match that goes to make up most of our years.

This is not a blog about me – it’s a blog about music, so I’m not going to spend time here describing my year; but I will spend some time describing the music that I picked this year to portray it.

Yoshi Wada is a Japanese sound artist who is now mostly settled in the US, and his mammoth work for computerised pipe organ, The Appointed Cloud, was performed on 8 November 1987 in the Great Hall of the New York Hall of Science and recorded on EM Records.

It’s a work that plays as a single arc, a work where everything emerges from the single, quiet drone that opens it. It moves from moments of dark mystery, where you are not quite sure if the rumblings and murmurings beneath you are going to comfort you or destroy you, to moments where the whole universe seems to be blasting a doomsday trumpet at you. There are moments where sounds swell and recede, where celebration gives way to terror and takes it back again; where you feel embraced and held one minute, and then claustrophobically lonely the next. Everything feels new and old at the same time, as if you have always been in this place and yet are still discovering it for the first time, this place where chaos and order, emptiness and bigness, are one.

The music itself revolves around the sounds of a pipe organ, but one that has been electrically charged and produces an amazing array of colours and shades and noise, bashing like percussion or whispering like a dying day, whatever Yoshi Wada and his music ask it to do. There are sirens that could have been put there by Edgard Varése, huge Messiaen-like discords, massive explosions of apocalyptic bagpipes, and gentle, pulsating chords that may have Philip Glass punching them out at the keyboard.

The Appointed Cloud gives you the sense that everything, however disparate and odd and confused it might seem, somehow ultimately fits together – not so much in some great, predetermined plan, but just simply because that’s how it has always been – the happiness, the sadness, the comfort, the terror: they’ve always blended and morphed into one another and they always will because, ultimately, that cloud is nothing greater or less than what goes on within us. The world around us can change, for the better or the worse, but it’s still the same old you and I experiencing it all.

It is perhaps this introspection writ large that makes this music so compelling. It has to be played loudly, and you have to listen to it alone. And when you do, maybe you too will feel that, within its massive but all-too-short hour, that not just your year, but your life, has flashed before you, leaving you with that strange mixed sense of defeat and victory that life is, after all, all about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A journey through experimental Melbourne - The Shape of Sound, volume 2

There are lots of exciting things about new and experimental music, and not least is the way it always takes you into something uncharted. But it can be easy to forget that even uncharted territory has a history and a story to tell. And sometimes when we listen to new music we can become so absorbed in the moment, so engrossed in the strangely shaped tree in front of us, that we stop noticing the whole curious, amazingly connected forest around us.

But it’s impossible to do that when you listen to a new compilation of experimental Melbourne music just out on Iceage Productions, and being launched in Melbourne, at the Grace Darling Hotel in Collingwood this Friday, 9th December, from 9 PM.

The album is the second instalment of The Shape of Sound, and it takes you on an incredible journey through some of Melbourne most innovative creative new music artists.

But it’s not just that each piece on this album is fascinating in its own right. The Shape of Sound Volume 2 assembles its parts in a way that really does seem to tell you a story, the story of the beginning and end of things from the perspective of sound.

Arthur Cantrill opens the album with ‘Island Fuse’, a piece where the sounds of nature are blended with and mirrored in distorted noise, so the two worlds – the organic and the electronic – sit side by side, as if this is how they had always been. It’s a fitting start to the album’s journey, like a kind of rewritten version of Genesis.

Barney Oliver’s ‘Plutonium Theft’ keeps that journey moving, with its sense of vast, horizonless stretches of electronic space, built out of single notes that pulsate and echo into a boundless distance. It’s a short piece and yet somehow creates a feeling that it is bigger, and longer, than it is.

With ‘Toil’ by Penguins, things get heavier, where deep, pounding guitar driven blocks of metallic sound rumble beneath the earth that the previous track had only so fragilely created. This is no longer an empty barren world, but rather one teeming with dark, threatening creatures that creep and crawl, unseen, below the surface.

But then we move onto Galactagogue’s ‘Have Lawn Chair Will Travel’, and our journey is now airborne. A two-way radio dialogue is imposed on a noise loop that lifts you up and thrusts you forward. It’s breathtaking stuff.

There is then an almost krautrock sense of momentum to Mad Nanna’s ‘Just Before The Sun Hits Down’, with guitars that twist and drone their way over the motorik drumbeat. There are shadows here, with dark harmonies and notes that wince and whine as they are forced onwards, and yet you feel you are in safe hands.

The heaviness continues to hang in the air throughout Bonnie Mercer’s ‘Blau’, but here the pace is slowed down a bit, giving you time to look around you at the shards of electric colour with which the guitars and distorted noise are setting space ablaze.

Then comes Screwtape’s ‘The Fall Of Persepolis’. Persepolis is an ancient Persian city, destroyed by Alexander the Great a few hundred years BC and here, in this music of dense noise, you can feel its stones and sands crumbling to dust but somehow staying mighty, even in its destruction.

Dark Passenger’s ‘Ancient Extraterrestrial Pipe Organ Unearthed’ keeps us in that foreign, alien world, with its long drones submerged in a sea of soft, almost soothing, noise. After the destruction that has gone before us, this restores a sense of peace, a sense of hope that there is always something emerging from the ashes.

The pace is revved up again for ‘Nine’, the music of Admin Bldg. But we’re still in the Far East, with tribal winds and beats dancing in a frenzy with one another, like the music John Zorn might have played for Scheherazade.

But ancient history of another sort then takes centre stage with an extract from Undecisive God’s ‘At Uluru’. Here, atop long, primeval, drones, indigenous to the Earth itself, a guitar picks notes out of eternity, leaving you still, meditating on the enormity that is before you. If I was told I had to have one quibble with this amazing album, it would be that I could not get to hear more of this incredible piece.

There continues to be a feeling of connection with ancient things in Oranj Punjabi’s ‘They Thought That They Had A Purpose There’, where things start out with a kind of distorted pentatonic tonality, giving you the feel that you are in a some oriental dream, but it is soon invaded by Western banality, still distorted, as if to remind you that you are still in the same dream, but now brash and brazen. We have come a long way since the beginning of the album, where it is no longer nature and electronics sitting together, but cultures clashing and jarring.

It is a clash that then seems to bleed into the dark ambience of Monolith’s ‘Control Room’, sounding almost apocalyptic after all the bizarre, unsettled energy we have just had.

Things could have ended there, but they don’t. There is still Ernie Althoff’s ‘Jila 9’, and the percussive busyness of handmade sound machines, leaving us with a different, drier world than the one we started with, but one that still moves, one that is still vibrant – and one that we feel, thanks to the kinetic vitality of Ernie Althoff’s music, always will be. It’s a good note, an optimistic note, to finish on.

The Shape of Sound Volume 2 is a very, very impressive journey through some of the really interesting things being accomplished in Melbourne’s experimental music scene right now. You have a chance to see some of these artists – Arthur Cantrill, Ernie Althoff, Undecisive God, Oranj Punjabi, Barnaby Oliver, Dark Passenger, and Penguins – at Collingwood’s Grace Darling Hotel in just a few days at the album’s launch. The album itself is also available, in a very limited edition, from Shamefile Music.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Listening to the music between sanity and madness - Salvador Dalí's 'Être Dieu'

It is sometimes claimed that there is a fine line between sanity and madness, between reality and dreams. But when you throw yourself into the art of Salvador Dalí, and especially into his incredible but rarely known opera-poem Être Dieu – or  Être Dieu: opéra-poème, audiovisuel et cathare en six parties (Being God: an audiovisual and cathare opera-poem in six parts) to give it its full title – you begin to see just how all-encompassing that space really is. Être Dieu is a piece of surrealist theatre literature with music by French avant-garde composer Igor Wakhévitch in which the world is recreated by Dalí into a place where disorder, madness, perversion and illogic reign. It’s a place where all the elements of a once familiar world are rearranged into a new, sometimes alluring, sometimes terrifying, sometimes comical absurdity.

There is certainly a story to Être Dieu, just as there is a story to most dreams, and to most madness. But it doesn’t have a linear, logical narrative and that, really, is its point. There is Dalí creating the world but becoming bored with it; there is Brigitte Bardot dressed as an artichoke; there is Catherine the Great and Marilyn Monroe doing a striptease; there is Mao ruling the world from a united China and USA; there’s a Divine Dalí, an androgynous male Dalí and an androgynous female Dalí; there’s an angel destroying millions of religious paintings; there’s Santa Claus as a beggar and Niagara Falls invading the Vatican and the cardinals turning into sea fish.

The music of Être Dieu very much fits with all of this. Everything is thrown into the mix – banal tunes from musicals, electronic noise punctuated with improvised percussion, operatic melodrama, rock riffs, Gregorian chant: everything displaced and disconnected but then replaced and reconnected into the new world of Dalí’s dreams, delusions and designs.

You have to really immerse yourself in Être Dieu – much of it is spoken word, and much of that by Dalí himself, and almost all of it in French, with the music integrating itself into the world created by the poetry.  It helps to follow the words, and their translation, but then it helps even more to then let them wash into you, whatever they say and mean.

The music, like the poetry, shifts into every corner of imagined reality, moving from era to era, a collage of Western music, scrambled and delivered to you on an oddly shaped platter by a waiter who looks like an orchestra conductor one minute, a rock lead the next, and an eccentric avant-garde experimentalist the next after that. And you haven’t even finished the entrée yet.

Être Dieu has never been staged. In a sense, it never could be because its theatre is really in the mind rather than on the stage and yet, in another sense, that is exactly what would make it so sensational, so fascinating, to see – that special, amazing privilege of glimpsing into a mind not fettered by the strictures of logic or reason or sense and yet still somehow connecting with something that each of us can relate to, even hold onto.

To create a musical expression of Dalí’s creation is an amazing feat. Igor Wakhévitch achieves it here, remarkably. The job was first offered to Krzysztof Penderecki, who knocked it back. I suspect he probably wouldn’t have captured the spirit, the mish-mashed mind, of Dalí in the way that Wakhévitch has – the kaleidoscope of concepts, the smorgasbord of styles, the surrealism of the senses. And all of it feeling, even when it's banal and trivial, that something great is happening. Just as dreams do.

The whole thing goes for about 145 minutes. It is spread over three CDs or, if you are lucky enough to be able to get you hands on a copy of the original, three LPs. But that’s a short stretch of time in which to capture so well, to crystallize so perfectly, the bold, bizarre, barmy world of Salvador Dalí – a world which, thanks to Être Dieu, we can see is a whole lot bigger than what the sane and the rational would have us believe.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Attracted and repelled by Lulu - Lou Reed and Metallica

Ever since she first appeared on the stages of German theatres at the turn of the twentieth century, Lulu has created controversy. Frank Wedekind’s Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and its sequel Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), with their depiction of prostitution, lesbianism and raw sexuality, outraged their first audiences. As did W G Pabst’s silent film adaptation of the second of these plays in 1929, not just because it offended the morality of the day, but also because it seemed so disconnected and obtuse. Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, fully written but not fully orchestrated upon the composer’s death in 1935, but completed some forty years later from the very extensive sketches Berg had left, still empties auditoriums with its atonal attacks.

And then there’s the Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, released a few weeks ago. Neither Lou Reed nor Metallica are unfamiliar with bad reviews, nor are their fans unfamiliar with the feeling that their idols have abandoned them. But not since Metal Machine Music for Lou Reed, and never for Metallica, has the response, from public and critics alike, been so resoundingly negative as it has for Lulu.

It some ways, it’s easy to see why. Lulu doesn’t sound much like anything else that either Lou Reed or Metallica have done. Reed barks his way through the album’s ten songs, the lyrics sounding as haggard and hacked as the voice itself. Metallica deliver heavy half-formed jams from squalid basements rather than the gymnastic black brilliance that twists and turns its way through so much of their earlier work.

But Lulu is not Transformer, nor is it Master of Puppets. It’s Lulu – a cabaret dancer who femme-fatales and fucks her way through weak men and rich men, through high life and low life, through lesbians, artists, schoolboys and princes, until she meets her end in the back lanes of London at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Men see her as the source of their destruction but always, and ultimately, they are the ones who destroy her.  The world in which she lives, from her luxurious Paris home to her fetid London garret, is shabby, dim and dank.

This is the world in which you have to be ready to be immersed when you listen to Lulu. In fact, you would probably like it a whole lot more if you read Wedekind’s plays, or saw Pabst’s film, or heard Berg’s opera, or even if you wandered through the London alleyways or somehow found your way into the German nightclubs of a century ago, than if you tried to ease yourself into it through the more celebrated albums of either of its procreators.

Lulu tells its story pretty much in the third person – with Reed himself taking on much of her part throughout the album. It makes a kind of sense, given Lulu’s alienation from the world around her, and from the people who inhabit it. She is always seen through the eyes of others and that’s how this album tells her tale. It’s a brutal, unkempt tale, rough and unpalatable, unattractive and alluring, seductive even with its gaping sores and scabs. But the ugliness is not hers, it’s the people telling her story.

The feeling that we are being told a story begins with the album’s opener, ‘Brandenburg Gate’ with its acoustic, almost fireside introduction of scrambled reminiscences. But then the metal smashes in and Metallica’s wall of iron imprisons the story, letting in hardly a chink of light for the rest of the album’s almost 90 minutes.

But that’s where this story belongs – held captive, yet attracting and repelling its captors, to paraphrase ‘The View’, the album’s second track and its first single.

The result is that the music always has a kind half-stifled, half-defiant, edginess to it – a caged wild animal, subdued, yet wily enough to entice you to within striking distance.

While the heavy barrage of Metallica guitars is an imposing backdrop for Lulu, this is really Lou Reed’s album. Metallica are playing his music, not theirs. The lyrics’ bile is rooted in Reed’s rock noir much more than in Metallica’s powerful defiance.

But what Metallica do here is underscore that sexy, sleazy, violent vulnerability, giving it muscle, so that the deathly struggle with Jack the Ripper really is a battle to the end – but “in the end it was an ordinary heart”, as ‘Pumping Blood’ puts it, and one that ultimately only allows itself to mourn for all it has lost, for all that it never had, in the long, sad closing track, ‘Junior Dad’, a song of almost perplexing simplicity.

These are the contradictions of Lulu – the character as much as the album, and in many ways you have to understand the first before you can really begin to embrace the second.

Lulu might never win accolades from the long-time fans of Lou Reed or Metallica, or from many others for that matter. But somehow, I suspect, Frank Wedekind is applauding and maybe somewhere – god knows where – Lulu herself feels that at last someone has understood her.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The gritty lure of the dirt - Gravel Samwidge's 'Gas Girls Funeral'

Gravel.  It’s rough, it’s coarse – but it’s part of modern life and it makes the paths and roads that take us places. We might like our journey through life to be soft and downy and straightforward, but sometimes we need to take time out of life’s comforts and rub our faces in the things that lie in its guts. The bits where the edges are not smooth; the bits that get into your skin and stay there until they rub you raw.

Gravel Samwidge is a Brisbane based band that has been making music since 1989. Their original drummer died tragically while the band was on tour not long after their beginning and, since then, they have formed and reformed from time to time, producing now a kind of off-centre grunge, as on their latest album Gas Girls Funeral, where blood-stained guitars play razor sharp, atonal riffs and almost Lou Reed-esque vocals half sing and half declaim stories of sleaze and disenchantment, while raucous drums bash the music, and you, further and further into the dirt.

But it’s the off-centredness of the music that makes it so unique, that makes you so willing to let it rub its rough edges into you until you bleed. Like the way the guitar seems to waver in and out of tune on ‘Told You’; or the way you can feel the electronic wind howling through the garage in ‘Take it Seriously’; or the way guitars twist and distort themselves around wailing noise, rock solid squares getting spun inside out by the grimy, gritty stuff that crawls out from the underground.

There is always an incredible amount of stuff going on in this music so that you are never really sure if the stars you are seeing are from the psychedelic, spun-out whirlpools of sound or from the beats and riffs that pound you like a mallet.

You’ll come away from Gas Girls Funeral a little raw and sore – but you’ll go back for more because you will have learned that you can never have soft smooth roadways without the roughness and ruggedness of gravel.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

ADHD in music: John Zorn's 'The Bribe'

Brilliant music, like brilliant children, can have ADHD and can drive you spare and yet can still be awesome. It sends you running in all directions, chasing it, being chased by it, this way and that, and then, just when you think it has finally run out of puff and you’re going to have a chance to sit down and catch your breath, it runs off in a completely different direction again, and off you go, after it.

Welcome to the world of John Zorn’s The Bribe.

John Zorn has composed, performed and produced a truckload of music and it’s always, always interesting – drunkenly staggering between the boundaries of free jazz, classical avant-garde, experimental klezmer, and unmedicated madness.

The Bribe is in three parts and was created for three radio plays produced in 1986 by the New York avant-garde theatre company Marbou Mines. The music, for the most part, is in small bursts of restless, erratic energy – 26 of them, no less – over almost 80 minutes.

It utilises Zorn’s usually eclectic conglomeration of instrumental sources – in this case, Zorn’s alto sax, plus reeds, trombone, harp, guitar, piano, organ, turntables, bass and percussion.

Some tracks are less than a minute long. Most are no more than two or three. A handful are longer. But whether they’re short or longer, the music is always shifting its pace, never resting anywhere for more than a couple of seconds, one moment sauntering beside the sleaziest of New York’s street crime, the next marching alongside a carnival parade of visiting freaks.

Zorn subtitles The Bribe as ‘variations and extensions on Spillane’: Spillane itself an iconic sonic drama that John Zorn produced in 1987 in tribute to Mickey Spillane, the bad boy author of American hardboiled crime fiction.

It is that fast, fleeting world of sex and violence, of dark streets and smoky lights, where everything is in black and white, where forbidden fun and guns thrust their pelvises into one another, that world where banality is art and where nothing needs your attention for more than fifteen seconds – and thank god for that because in twenty you might well be dead – it is that world that is so brilliantly, so darkly, so uproariously celebrated here on The Bribe.

Whatever vices you have overcome, The Bribe will make you take them up again. By the end of it you will have a cigarette hanging out of your mouth, a glass of cheap booze in your hand, and you will be standing on a dark, dingy street corner waiting for your next fix – of sex, of drugs, of anything: it doesn’t matter really because, ten seconds later, you’ll be done and looking for, and lusting in, something else.

The Bribe is released, like all John Zorn’s music, on Tzadik.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The sound of silence - Nurse With Wound's 'Space Music'

Imagine, if you can, the enormity of space – not the stars, but the space between the stars: the darkness, the cold, the silence. And then imagine, if you can, something moving somewhere around you, rumbling at first and then crashing, exploding: flames and rocks hitting something dead and barren, somewhere in the middle of the nothingness. And then imagine, if you can, the cosmic debris catapulted, drifting endlessly and forever in the vast emptiness, and the silence returning amidst an infinite expanse of emptiness.

Imagine it, if you can. And, if you can’t, listen to Nurse With Wound’s Space Music – because that, like nothing else, will tell you what it’s like.

Often, when we think of space, we think of the billions upon billions of things that live and grow and die within it – stars, and planets, and moons. Galaxies, and asteroids, and comets. But, really, most of space is empty – incomprehensibly vast stretches of nothing, other than the distant glimmers of stars, or of stardust, that pulsate faintly now and then through the soft, strange hum of silence.

And that’s the space of Space Music. Nurse With Wound have almost always done incredibly interesting things with their music, right from when they released their surrealist debut album Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella in 1979. But Space Music, commissioned by the Melbourne Planetarium, came 30 years later, and is a very different piece of music altogether.

While Chance Meeting abounds with strange, disconnected sounds, with music untimely ripped from its mother’s womb, unsettled, on edge, Space Music spends most of its 55 minutes hanging in suspension, moving imperceptibly, infinitesimally, with only the subtlest shifts of colour and light floating across the cosmos.

The music is very, very cleverly structured. Its first few minutes, like most of the rest of it, are thin electronic drones – cosmic noise, if you like – but with the persistent hint of something breaking, cracking, beneath the surface. And then you get the explosion – asteroids assaulting a planet, perhaps – sounds that can and do destroy speakers if you’ve let the quiet of the opening minutes lull you, and your volume knob, into too much complacency.

It’s a shattering effect, and you never really recover from it. No matter how many times you listen to Space Music, no matter how well you know what’s coming and that, for the rest of the music, everything stays quiet with only the barest hints of disturbance every now and then – no matter how well you know all of this, the music leaves you nervous, waiting for the unexpected, utterly at the mercy of the vast and empty space around you.

And yet the music is somehow always on the move. Beneath it there is always an unsteady, unquiet, rumble. Above it there is always a thin drone that gives birth to another thin drone, and then to another, and then fades away.

Space Music needs your attention. You have to absorb yourself in it, listen to those subtle shifts of light and colour, allow yourself to be carried away by the subspace rumble, and let yourself be taken to wherever the ‘subliminal effects’, of which the album cover warns you, want to take you.

Otherwise, if you just listen to it casually, you might scarcely notice it, like when you glance up at the stars on a clear, cloudless night, and miss seeing all that deep and wonderful blackness in between.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A story in skin - Slocombe's Pussy's 'Tattoo'.

I got my first tattoo at 45. Tony Cronin, the one-time bodyguard and chauffeur of Chopper Read, got his at 13.  I now have six of them. He has more than it is humanly possible to count and, in fact, if you Google some pictures of him you’ll see that it’s pretty hard to say where one finishes and the next one starts.

But they tell a story, as tattoos always do – and it’s the story, the story of Tony Cronin’s tattoos, that has been captured and distilled into music and imagery in an amazing new CD/DVD release from Melbourne’s psychedelic rock band, Slocombe’s Pussy.

I first encountered Slocombe’s Pussy – Are You Being Served notwithstanding – just a couple of weeks ago when I heard their incredible improvisational collaboration with the Paul Kidney Experience. But Tattoo (or Tattoo: Slocombe’s Pussy Play the Tattoos of Tony Cronin, to give it its full title) is another thing entirely.

For almost an hour, it takes you on a journey into a darkened psychedelia – a kaleidoscope of blacks and greys, the restless beat of disenfranchised youth, the lure of disfigured art, the relentless drive of rebellion.

It’s all here in Tattoo, music that moves in and out of crowded quagmires of noise and wild riffs of psychedelic rock and plaintive laments of acid guitars: music that gathers energy, contemplates it and then releases it, and then gathers it all over again, all the while taking you on its journey through dingy tattoo studios, dingy streets, dingy lives, but always driven by an energy that unabashedly revels in them all.

You can experience Tattoo in either of two ways. You can watch the DVD, where the band’s performance is painted over with images of Tony Cronin and his tattoos, or you can just listen to the CD and let the music paint its own pictures for you. In either case, this music will take hold of you and drag you into its orgasmic sordid world, its explosive tribute to everything everyone respectable frowns upon.

But ultimately it’s the journey, and the story, that is the most compelling thing about Tattoo. It doesn’t rest anywhere: not in the yearning heartache of ‘The Land of Darkness’, not in the defiant resilience of ‘Je ne regrette rien’, not in the surly, sexy sax of ‘”O” Negative’ – always, this music makes you feel it has somewhere to go, somewhere to take you.

Tattoo is a unique melding together of music, art and a life – not just the life of one man who started to have his body tattooed when he was 13, but the life of any person who stands a little to the side of everyone else. There are times when you might feel more than just a bit unsettled by this music – but, really, it is only a mirror. And when you look into it, you see yourself, and you see that you are dancing to its beat.

Slocombe’s Pussy will be launching Tattoo at the Workers Club in Melbourne, Australia on 26 November.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The beat of different drums - Steve Reich's 'Drumming' and Daniel Menche's 'Concussions'

Drums, it seems, have been a part of music for as long as there has been music. There’s just something about the lure of the beat that has always resonated with us – summonsing us sometimes to the dance, sometimes to the hunt, but always connecting somehow to that bit within us that, no matter how young we are, is as old as the hills.

It’s perhaps a bit surprising, then, that there has been relatively little music devoted solely to the power of drums and drumming. But two musicians have done just that have, in doing it, unearthed the power of the language not only of drums speaking to us but, perhaps even more, of drums speaking to one another.

Steve Reich’s Drumming was written in 1970-1. Daniel Menche’s Concussions in 2006.  Both are amazing works that, with all their similarities, give us very different perspectives on the productive power of rhythm.

Steve Reich is one of minimalism’s most important composers and Drumming is one of his most important works. But don’t confuse minimalism for simplicity, because Drumming is anything but simple. Its four Parts are all structured around a single 12/8 rhythmic bar, which is repeated over and over and over by the music’s dozen or so percussionists, each varying the speed just a little, so that the rhythms are constantly moving in and out of sync with one another.

The instruments vary from one part to the next – small tuned drums in the first part; marimbas and percussive voices in the second; glockenspiels, whistling and a piccolo in the third; and all of them together in the fourth.

The effect is staggering, hypnotic.  From its very opening notes the music takes you to the edge of your seat, as you wait and anticipate the next shift in the players’ sync, and settle yourself into the new rhythm it creates, while waiting for it to change again and morph into something new: all the time the music’s core DNA staying steadfastly the same. It’s like looking at an image through a mass of mirrors – everything reflecting everything else.

The technique is called ‘phasing’ and Steve Reich used it in a lot of his music, but probably nowhere more compellingly than here, where you see a fascinating kaleidoscope of rhythm, where everything changes and everything stays the same.

While Daniel Menche’s work is the later of the two, it is also the more primal. Its incessant beats build and shift over and on each other with an unrelenting intensity, like the sounds of primordial rain pelting on the inert rock of a new Earth, before life had appeared – or perhaps of the vengeful nuclear rain that will fall when everything is destroyed and gone. The pulses cross each other and form new pulses, the echoes of beats bouncing off the echoes of others; electronic drums pounding, pounding in a thickly, densely harmonised chorus of rhythm. Sometimes the sounds are like the thump of hammers on drums, sometimes they thrash like the clang of metal on metal, but always, always, their energy is unyielding, uncompromising, driving the music onwards in an unstoppable frenzy.

The music is spread over 2 CDs, twenty tracks and almost two hours, but it plays as a seamless whole, as if each beat, and each chain of beats, grows out of the one before it and into the one that follows it. The album’s inside cover tells you to ‘flex your muscles’ – but, really, this music does it for you. You can feel your biceps tightening as you listen.

Both Drumming and Concussions are commanding testimony to the endless, fathomless power of rhythm – to the vibrant, towering life that rhythm creates when it is set free to breed from itself.  Those drums that have beaten since time immemorial are just the seed. Steve Reich and Daniel Menche have given just a glimpse of the tremendous, terrifying lushness of the fruit.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The comfort of loneliness, and the power of frailty - William Basinski's 'A Red Score in Tile'

One of the many, many wonderful things about music is that, even when it takes a long time to say something, it can seize you in its grip, stare you in the eye, and keep you there, while it says it. It can speak slowly to you, unfold its story in soft, drawn-out whispers, in breaths that brush against you; each whisper, each breath, a soft, tired shadow of the one that went before it, each one almost silent, all of them holding you spellbound.

It is this very special power of music that US avant-garde composer, William Basinski, exploits like no one else can or could in his amazing 1979 composition A Red Score in Tile.

Imagine, if you can, a little stretch of music, a few minimalist notes drawn out of a piano, a vague ghost of a drone cushioning them as they fall downwards and die, the whole thing recorded on an old tape, indistinct, fragile, no more than 20 seconds long. And then imagine the tape looping 136 times, at times the tape, and therefore the notes, stretching, distorting just a little, the tonality and pitch wavering now and then, as if at any moment the tape could disintegrate altogether and forever. It is as if those soft, drawn-out whispers are the breaths of an old and dying person who has just one more thing to say before they leave you.

This is the moment, the eternity, that William Basinski captures so sublimely in this incredible 45 minute composition. The tape itself seems to come to you from far away. It sounds old and tired but incredibly beautiful and at peace. And as it plays over and over and over, its subtle changes wash over you until, slowly, you can feel yourself sinking, drowning in them.

But the beauty of this music lies not so much in its astonishing stillness as in its heartbreaking fragility. You feel that you are listening not really to music, but to the memory of music – and a memory that could fade at any moment. It is music coming from far away, from long ago, from a place and time that hardly anyone knows anymore; and, as you listen to it, to its bare handful of notes, slowly everything else around you seems to die away and you are aware of nothing else – nothing other than this old, worn out tape, playing over and over, embracing you in its unfathomable loneliness.

There must surely be a vast, vast ocean between the ability to create something like this well and creating it badly. It could so easily be something that would bore the bejezzers out of you, or else make you think that all those narcotics you took in your youth have perhaps affected you more than you realised.

But here, in the hands of William Basinski, the effect is staggering. The music is quiet but it fills every corner of your room, your mind; it is slow, but it sweeps you up in itself and you can’t escape its unrelenting flow; it is still and almost unchanging, and yet you feel something within you has been shifted and changed forever after you have heard it.

There is really only one way to listen to William Basinski’s A Red Score in Tile, and, regardless of how you try to listen to it, the music itself will take over and make you listen to it as you should: it will make you shut out everything else, turn out all the lights, turn off all the phones and settle into its frailty – a frailty that somehow has the power to take you as its prisoner, and then to take you with it as, in its final seconds, it fades away into nothingness.

This is music that makes you feel, when it has finished, that if you hit the “PLAY” button again, it might no longer be there.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The chaotic cohesion of improvisation - Slocombe's Pussy Vs The Paul Kidney Experience

Many of us – maybe even most of us – like to think there’s a bit of a plan to things: our day, our grocery shopping, our future, our universe. But the reality is that most of these things happen in their own way and, more often than not, all of them surprise us. Things always seem to happen arbitrarily – the person who drops in for a visit without notice; the extra block of chocolate that we accidentally buy; the new job that comes our way went we’re not looking for it, the old friendship that finishes without us noticing it; the star that darts across the sky when we just happen to casually look up.

But what’s amazing is that, with so many big things and so many little things all happening so randomly, it all somehow holds together and, when we stand back from the chaos, it looks as though it might have all been meant to be that way all along, after all.

That’s how you feel when you listen to the music of the Paul Kidney Experience – a multi-coloured Melbourne band who improvises everything they do but whose efforts build themselves into the kind of chaotic cohesion of which only the very best music, like the very best universes, is made.

I have written about the Paul Kidney Experience previously on this blog, but their new album, where they are joined by members of Slocombe’s Pussy, is quite a different beast. Things are not quite as terrifying here and you get the impression, except perhaps for the final track, that it could be safe to listen to Slocombe’s Pussy Vs The Paul Kidney Experience reasonably close to bedtime without risking nightmares.

The music might be less scary this time, but it’s no less weird, no less daring. Still unidentifiable sounds mix with those that are, or have been, familiar; still instruments and voices push themselves in strange directions; still old worlds and new worlds clash and coalesce. And here, just as on Radio Transmissions, the incredible improvisation skills of these musicians take you everywhere other than the places you expect to go.

Things kick off perfectly with ‘Emulsion’ and its sense of unbridled, unrefined celebration – a bunch of primordial freaks waking up, unkempt, unclothed, and dancing the day to life. Nell Day weaves her half-rustic, half-medieval, violin through the pagan pounding of drums, guitars and Paul Kidney’s vocals-in-tongues.

The mood quietens down, and spookens up, for ‘Albuminurophobia’ – the sounds here are more dense, more drone-like, as dissonance swells and howls: an ocean that heaves to the choir of all the souls that have ever been lost to it.

A more solid, insistent, almost tribal, beat invades the music for ‘Wet Kidney’, and everyone else responds as they should – roused to the dance again, fuelled by blood pumped from the heartbeat of an ancient and angry earth, the vocals now animalistic, the guitars and electronics whirring and whizzing each other on. It is impossible to stay still to this music.

There is a contemplative, almost dreamy, respite with ‘Velocity Addition Formula’. The guitar sings you through a melody that is somehow searching, somehow yearning, and yet somehow at peace too, despite the bed of noise on which it seduces you, and makes love to you.

But it is only a respite. And the screeches and chaos of ‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors’, which closes the album, awaken you from any complacency, from any urge to see, in the old, old roots of civilisation, an opportunity for nostalgia.

In its 40-ish minutes, this album, in its amazing single arc of improvisation, takes you to many places in a universe where everything is happening for the first time and where nothing is every really at rest.

They are places where all the elements of creation are in harmony, but they are not the harmonies of a settled, civilised space – rather they are those harmonies where one bit does something crazy, and all the rest become crazy with it, in perfect, crazy sync.

Outrageously limited to just 100 copies, Slocombe’s Pussy Vs The Paul Kidney Experience is issued through Supercriticality Records.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Post-punk avant-garde Judaism - The Alter Rebbe's Nigun

While religion might have had a lot to answer for over the centuries, the millennia, one thing that it will always be able to put forward in its defence is the music it has inspired. Whether your mind’s centre of gravity is being shifted by the alien sounds of Hindu quarter-tones; whether your innermost self is weeping to a Bach Passion or leaping to some black American gospel; whether the history of everything you are is being wedded to the red earth by the drone of an Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo – whatever it is, the human search for something bigger, something deeper, something universal, has always found, in music, a lush fertile ground in which to sink its roots.

Judaism is no exception. It, too, has found a place for itself in music – not least (as I discovered in a fascinating presentation a couple of months ago at my local music group) in the Eastern European tradition of “klezmer”, with its sense, in its wavering ornamentation, of always searching for a home. It is music that somehow seems to give a voice the tradition of Judaism, and to the culture of the Jewish people, in a way that is instantly identifiable as “Jewish”.

But the voice that Australian avant-garde post-punk Hasidic Jews, Oren Ambrachi and Robbie Avenaim, give to that tradition, and to that culture, is something that surely no one could ever have expected. Their 1999 album, The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun, produced under the unfathomably creative oversight of John Zorn, brings together what feels like a world of irreconcilable musical differences – free jazz, punk rock, Japanese noise and, somewhere in the midst of it all, klezmer.

The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is in four parts, and is based on the philosophical and ethical compositions of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 – 1813) who was known amongst his followers as ‘The Alter Rebbe’. The parts correspond to the four main stages in the ‘tzimtzum’ – a sort of Alter Rebbe version of the Big Bang: Atzilut (Emanation), Yetzirah (Formation), Beriah (Creation),  and Asiyah (Action).

With ‘Atzilut’ – the highest, most God-like, stage – the music opens with notes plucked out of timelessness and spacelessness, and yet with a tired, old, vulnerability, as if the music is being played on an ancient, priceless, but dilapidated music box. It gives way to heavy post punk guitars and drums that drench the music, and you, in a dark, imposing density.

It’s an arresting start to this strange, eccentric, cosmic musical journey. From it emerges the chaos of an unformed mass, with ‘Yetzirah'. There is a barren darkness here, but within it, and around it, you can hear light flickering, pulsating, in its birth-throes. The music is minimalist – just electronic notes stretched and throbbing in the middle of nowhere – and yet it has a sense of bigness about it until, right near the end, you could swear that a lullaby is being sung to lull the baby earth to sleep.

'Beriah’ bursts into life with a fanfare of sonic madness – brass-like sounds blustering out as if the whole universe is caught in a traffic jam, blasting a million horns. It’s a rallying cry and, after a few minutes, we hear the empty dark cosmos again, breathing, stirring in its sleep, woken, in spite of itself, by the alarm, as dissonant guitars and drums at last pound it into shape.

In the final and longest part, ‘Asiyah’, we hear, for the first time, the voice of Rabbi Yankel Lieder, narrating some of the Nigun text, underscored and punctuated by rumbling, trembling noise that slowly creeps in on the spoken word, giving it life and strangling it at the same time. The voice gives way to a kind of spectral, choral chant, with drums beating and tolling within it, driving it forwards into the unknown, the unknowable, until everything suddenly stops and is unexpectedly put to bed by an almost unsettlingly gentle, homely, klezmer ditty.

The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is an extraordinary piece of music – earnest, passionate and daring beyond all boundaries, creating a uniquely Jewish universe: ancient, oppressed, but strong and formidable and, above all, enduring. It leaves you shattered but resolute, and full of all the contradictions that music, and religion, do so well.

The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun is released on Tzadik – one of those recording labels where you can pretty well pick anything, and it’ll be worth listening to.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The creaking sound of rigging on the Mary Celeste - Takehisa Kosugi's 'Catch Wave'

If you could hear  the sound the sea might make, when every living thing has gone from the Earth and nothing remains other than a few stranded ghosts; and grey water laps against abandoned shores under endless grey skies; or if you could hear, as Julian Cope describes this music, the creaking sound of the rigging on the Mary Celeste after all human life had vanished from it; if you could hear the last bird left on Earth, soaring through a measureless and sullen sky, you would find, I am sure, that it would sound just like Takehisa Kosugi’s extraordinary album from 1975, Catch Wave.

Takehisa Kosugi is a Japanese experimental composer and violinist, born in 1938 and and has worked with musicians as diverse as John Cage and Sonic Youth. His music, usually associated with the neo-Dadaist ‘Fluxus’ movement, a word that derives from the Latin word for ‘flow’, is liberated from all the conventional notions of structure and boundaries and instead flows, aimed nowhere but not aimless, in a limitless, timeless space.

Catch Wave is undoubtedly his most famous recording. Its opening piece, ‘Mono Dharma’, is built on a single, barren drone above which hovers a distorted, oscillating solo violin sliding in and out of notes that have no name. It is music that conjures up an unspeakably haunted loneliness, music that speaks of abandonment, emptiness, the end of things. There is a minimalist vastness in its textures, like you are hearing the trapped souls of things that have long gone – the cry of a whale from a hundred thousand years ago, still echoing from the cliffs.

The second of the album's two pieces is ‘Wave Code’. More unsettled than the earlier track, this music, too, is rooted in a long, forlorn drone; but what grows from it here are strange, alien groans and grunts and chants: voices in the dark – perhaps the new bud of grotesquery that grows, slithers, out of the abandoned apocalypse of ‘Mono Dharma’.

It’s that drone – that empty, thin, desolate drone – that brings these two very different pieces together and leaves you feeling that they are perhaps just showing you different sides of the same picture, telling you different versions of the same story.

The simplicity of this music is in some ways what makes it most remarkable, and most haunted. Stripped of every ornamentation, of every convention, of every bit of structure, you are left wondering, horrified, that this godforsaken place might be how things really are.

The whole thing goes for just under 50 minutes, but this music makes you feel that you have been immersed in something much more timeless than that. It is music which, despite its avant-garde experimentation, feels like it could have been dug up from underneath the earth, where it had laid buried – perhaps a secret, perhaps a prophecy – for millions of years.

Catch Wave is music that you feel has been around long before you ever were and will stay around long after you ever will be. Your place in it doesn’t even create a bleep on its endless, empty heaving sea.

Thanks to Paul Kidney at PBS FM's Ear of the Behearer for introducing me to this stunning piece of music.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The loving songs of hate - Boyd Rice's 'Music, Martinis and Misanthropy'.

There is a dark side to everything. We all know that. And most of us are at some stage or another fascinated by it, and at some stage or another we stare into it and take a sort of reassuring relief when we see how horrifying it is. It somehow restores our faith in the established order of things – good is good and bad is bad.

But what is much more unsettling is when we stare into that abyss and find a comfort, a peace, an embrace, in there – a sense, even, of coming home.

This is the side of darkness that Boyd Rice shows us in his classic, and very, very unsettling 1990 album, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy. It is a piece of terrifying musical blackness – the sort that presents you with hate, clothed in soft velvet, its ice-cold arms stretched out to enfold you. Here hell really has frozen over.

The music itself is a richly textured neo-folk, with lush guitars, opulent keyboards, and fertile electronic noise, all blending into a dark and alluring molasses of sound that, like quicksand, absorbs the nihilistic, hate-filled lyrics of Boyd Rice delivered, usually spoken, sometimes sung, without even a neutron of emotion. The effect is shattering, jarring, but irresistible.

This strangely evocative, deeply horrible, stage is set in the album’s opening ‘Invocation’, a grotesquely morbid cover of The Carpenters’ song of the same name. It’s a somehow fitting mirror – The Carpenters’ angst-filled lives clad in sunlight and roses, reflected here in songs of hate clad in a soft, Kashmir black.

Whether it’s the musings on killing all the weak and ugly people, to a gently strumming guitar and rich, comforting chords, as in ‘People’; or the haunted soprano vocals that sing, ethereal and lullaby-like, behind ‘Disney Land Can Wait’, where the fantasy funpark is a distant dream, and shooting all the shuffling soullessness of modern life with AK-47s and B-52s is the immediate mission; or whether it’s the ghostly toe-tapping rhythm of ‘An Eye for an Eye’; or the trippy, druggy, ditty of murder in ‘Down in the Willow Garden’; or the barren, deadpan, invitation to rape in ‘Tripped a Beauteous Maiden’, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy constantly draws us into everything we want to be repelled by.

This is not music you want to be left alone with for too long – and not just because it is so disturbing (and it is certainly that), but also because you just can’t trust it. And that means, when it takes you so totally into its embrace, you can no longer trust yourself either. Is the music trying to lure you into its lair of hate, or is it trying to warn you, arm you, against a world dressed in majesty but drowning in mediocrity?

Ultimately, at the end of its 50 minutes, Music, Martinis and Misanthropy leaves it for you to decide. It has made a big black bed for you, with soft silk sheets, but you’re the one who has to choose whether or not to lie in it. All that the music, in all its dark, lulling richness, has done is show you what a comforting, loving place hate can be.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

H P Lovecraft's Unnameable cosmic horror of the mind

H P Lovecraft wrote stories of cosmic horror. And they weren’t just stories of horrible things that happened in the cosmos – but, even more, they were stories of the horror of being part of it all: stories of the horrors of humanity, dwarfed by a big, bad, black universe. A universe twisted and distorted by alien malevolence, where humans are nothing and blackness, bleakness, are everywhere.

It’s the sort of universe that springs out of xenophobic paranoia – big and dark and full of foreign threats, but closed and claustrophobic too, where every breath is stifled and scared, endangered, alone.

H P Lovecraft wrote mostly in the 1920s. But, since then, his influence on literature and art and even on music has been profound, with traces of him popping up especially in bands like Metallica, Black Sabbath, the Black Dahlia Murder and Dream Theater.

But all of that plays just lip service to the real terrified, terrific, horror of H P Lovecraft. There’s something much more profound, much more disturbing, going on here than what a bit of black metal nihilism, however good it is, can show you.

And it wasn’t until Melbourne avant garde musicians Clinton Green and Andrew McIntosh released their 2001-2 album But of that, I will not speak …, under their moniker The Unnameable, that the real ghastliness of cosmic horror was, at last, captured and preserved.

Inspired by Lovecraft’s writing, the music of But of that, I will not speak … takes you deep into the dark and troubled regions the human psyche, the real place where his cosmic horrors were born and bred. It is the music of a haunted soul, much more than of a haunted cosmos.

The album opens with ‘This, no human creature may do’, where primordial groans and drones, chanting like an ancient ritual of the wind, draw you into the loneliest, most frightened crevices of your mind. The music is big, but entrapped, and there is no light, no escape.

It’s an uninviting place, but it is the right one for this music because, in this blackness, when you hear the lifeless, lumbering heartbeat of ‘You fool, Warren is DEAD!’, or the yawning, cavernous rumble lurking beneath ‘Life is a hideous thing’, you know that it can really be nothing other than your own blood, throbbing, congealing, within you. There’s nothing else here, other than you.

There is a grim megalomania in ‘Space belongs to me, do you hear?’, a sustained drone that seems to have every tone and semitone and quartertone drawn into it – like a psychic black hole that takes everything, every bit of light, hostage.

Were it not for where this music has already taken you, you might think that something really was hovering around you in ‘The Orbit of Yuggoth’, where a strange, sinister whistle dives down and creeps up again, in and out, backwards and forwards, like a spacecraft circling you, waiting to pounce – but, by now, you know that it’s not out there, it’s in here and, no matter how much you block your ears and try to hide from it, it won’t go away.

The first real hints of melody come in the album’s final track, ‘Only the most accursed rites of human blasphemy could ever have called Him…’, where wraithlike notes are plucked out of the gloom to make a little tune, a macabre lullaby, perhaps, singing you into the endless sleep of loneliness and paranoia to which you were doomed from the moment the music started.

The Unnameable’s take on H P Lovecraft is fascinatingly outlined in Andrew McIntosh’s liner notes essay, and brilliantly captured in this unique music, where Lovecraft’s bigotry and racism and conservative nostalgia for a fabled past are seen not as incidental deficits to an otherwise brilliant creative mind, but rather as the essential and only real way of understanding the dark and unfriendly universe that he created.

But of that, I will not speak … takes you into that universe in the most unexpected of ways: by turning out the lights, closing the doors and the windows, and leaving you alone.

Available, once again, from Shame File Music.