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, March 19, 2011

The shattering star of the night - Magdalena Solis and 'Hesperia'.

The final part of the trilogy of my great musical discoveries from the last couple of weeks, which began with The Gruntled and then was followed by the Paul Kidney Experience, doesn't come at all from my local musical underground, but from Belgium, in the form of an amazing and daring musical project called Magdalena Solis, who last year shared a Belgian jam with some members of The Gruntled and so, one thing led to another, and now their music, too, is being celebrated on this blog. This, too, is music built through the sheer energy force of musicians who connect and improvise and create, music made from the dregs and dross of organic chaos.

On their new album, Hesperia, Magdalena Solis create a wonderful world of pagan grandeur through music that feels rooted in the spirituality of everyone and no one. Its droning, often pentatonic, tonality at times sounds like an echo from the Far East, like in the album's opening 'Wake up and start to dream'. Hesperia's sounds come to you on a thick, unrelenting, unforgiving wave of electronic sound - the sounds of dense guitars, a spectral harpsichord, an apocalyptic organ, electricity stirring and groaning underneath the Earth - the notes sliding and dancing around each other in a hypnotic heathen ritual. It is mysterious, seductive - something to be feared in the way gods expect to be feared.

The music of Hesperia has an incredible sense of place - places that are darkly spiritual, places where Magdalena Solis plunge into black, gloomy chasms and then build monoliths of music, casting huge grim shadows on you and in you, as if you are standing alone and alarmed at the end of the world.

This is music that towers over you. It leaves you feeling small and frightened and, by 'Lunar Sunrise', at the album's haunted end, where a chilling, child-like tune is hammered out on percussion borrowed from another world, like an alien nursery-rhyme, you find yourself left hanging and helpless in a space that is huge and empty and where the only light is cold and grey, a dying sun reflected by a dying moon.

Hesperia is released on the Dying for Bad Music label and you can check out the album on the label's website, or have a sneak preview of the album's penultimate Prophetic Dreams. This is not music to calm or reassure you - but rather to remind you who you really are.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The spectral disgruntled night of the Paul Kidney Experience

After discovering the sensationally original sounds of The Gruntled just a couple of weeks ago, it only took a hop, step and a jump from there to find myself immersed in the vastly different, but somehow strangely kindred, sound world of the Paul Kidney Experience. PKE's centrepiece is, of course Paul Kidney, The Gruntled's sometime vocalist. Both projects share the guitar of Richard Walsh and both use the incredible improvisation skills of all their members to build their own unique universes of sound, were music and noise mingle, where colours clash and blend, where light and dark caress each other and then beat each other to death.

But the music of PKE is very much its own thing, light years away from The Gruntled, despite their shared ingenuity, despite the bonds that tie them across the universes. In PKE, we find ourselves dragged into a freaky, creepy world, a world where you are scared not just by the things that go bump in the night, but also by the things that don't. It is music that can be very quiet or very loud. But it is never music that goes unnoticed, nor fails to let you know that somewhere, somehow, sometime, it is walking on your grave.

The music is built out of distorted guitars, the freaked-out violin of Nell Day, the insane, guttural, grunting vocals of Paul Kidney, a screeching sax, the unsettlingly soft tinkling of a piano, out of sounds and noise: music that swells and recedes, never really relaxing, just moving its threats and menace around you, sometimes staring you in the face, sometimes lurking around a corner, breathing just loud enough for you to know it's still there.

Its quiet, haunted noises might build and surge, until they become a crazed, manic death march, stomping onwards and downwards in the night into an orgy of ghouls, as they do in 'Dustberries', from the 2010 album Radio Transmissions. Or there might be the irritated, unsettled slumber with which 'Tardigrades', from the same album, opens, as if it was the post-coital slumber following the Dustberry decadence. But it, too, builds into its own frenzy, almost like an Arabian bacchanal with its drones and middle eastern tonality, yet still spooked by the growls and grumbles of an alien night.

It is the daring use of sound in this music - pushing instruments and voice beyond their normal limits, distorting them beyond their normal comfort zones - that helps create its freakish other-worldness. But it is its improvised, unbridled soul, dark, chaotic, and yet somehow controlled too - the way it grows out of itself rather than out of a page or a program - that's what makes this music so authentic, so believable.

And that's what makes you not want to be left alone with it, late at night, when the lights are out.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Necks and Swans float into the murk and mud of Melbourne

Mahler's Eighth Symphony demonstrated, arguably more than anything else in the history of music, that white comes in many shades. It's a massive, prolonged explosion of blinding light and yet, even when you're blinded by it, you can't help but notice its shifting hues, the ways that shadows, as much as dazzle, go to make up the glare. It's a work that can at first seem pretty overwhelming, too bombastic, just too much noise. But when you get to know it, when you delve into its density, you can see that its blaze is really a million billion different specks of white.

And what Mahler did a hundred years ago in Austria for white, the Sydney based Necks and the New York based Swans did last night in Melbourne for black.

The Necks are a drums, bass and piano trio - but the drums are decked with bells and bits of metal, and the bass is a cello/double bass hybrid, and the piano is hit by fists as well as fingers, and nothing these musicians do conforms to music's usual rules and genres. Their music is always organic - improvised from the tiniest thimble-full of notes and ideas, and growing, always growing, into things bigger than any sum or product of their parts.

But if you can imagine a dark lake where ash and smoke mingle, and where bits of molten rock, black and red, bubble and gurgle, where imperceptible simmers of quitely brushed drums and tinkling piano notes have the savage beat of a disgruntled bass plodding beneath them; if you can imagine stasis and motion fused together so that stillness moves to chaos without you noticing that either of them started or finished; if you can imagine music tremoring beneath you, weaving around you, seducing you and smothering you with its single 40 minute arc of darkness, at first hypnotically fine and sensual and then, before you realise what has happened, impenetrably dense: if you can imagine all of that, then you might have a sense of what The Necks created when they opened proceedings at Melbourne's Forum Theatre last night.

But if you can then imagine that hermetic rock, and you, being pounded to dust by a black fist of unspeakably horrible beauty, of unrelenting manic force, pounding and pounding with titanic moodiness, as if every god and demon of history is collectively pissed off: if you can imagine that, then you might also have a sense of what Swans did when it was their turn on The Forum Theatre stage.

Michael Gira - the creator and centrepiece of Swans - once noted that swans are majestic and beautiful creatures, but with very ugly temperaments; and when you listen to his band, with its droning, pounding, guitars; its pummelling drums, knocking at you from inside the doors of hell; with the mad smorgasbord of unimaginable instruments that Thor Harris plays and the worn drone of Gira's voice, then you see those fierce, splendid birds writ large.

It was a night of loud, very loud music - a night where everything was in a minor key, where chords and discords hammered and hammered into you, and smashed the concrete of your brain. But this was music that grows out of the bowels of humanity - music that has its roots in murk and mud. So, despite its dark grace, it can never pretend to tread lightly.

But that is not to say that this music is monochromatic. Like Mahler's white, Swans' black has many shades. But they're all dark and so, even when Thor swings his hammer into his tubular bells, the shaft of light that streams into the music hits you like an axe. It never comforts you. It never brings you relief.

It was a wonderful thing - as wonderful as it was unexpected - that Michael Gira reformed Swans after some 13 years without them. And to be able to see this phenomenal band on stage, to almost be able to feel the old, regurgitated, black acid of Michael Gira's spit land upon my skin when he sang, was something that I never imagined I would come to experience.

But maybe in a world where we want to be able to so quickly and easily decide who is right and wrong, who is good and bad, it is timely for us to be reminded that ugliness and beauty are never black and white.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The old new feeling of being undisgruntled

It has been the lack of time, rather than the lack of great music, that has kept me away from this blog so much over the past weeks - but sometimes, even when there's no time, music appears that is so interesting and compelling, so original and creative, that you just have to make the time to write about it.

It's probably not an altogether good thing that we live in times when we are generally much more familiar with the notion of being disgruntled than being gruntled but, believe it or not, "gruntled" really is a word, and when you listen to the music of Melbourne-based quintet-plus-occasional-extras, The Gruntled, you wonder why so little is known of this very peculiar concept of being satisfied, content and pleased.

I first heard The Gruntled a few weeks ago on an amazing radio program of new music called The Ear of the Behearer, on Melbourne's perennially sensation community radio station, 3PBS FM, and it was one of those "wow, what is that?" moments, where you begin to at first feel a little intrigued, a little curious about the empty, droning, minimalist sounds you are hearing, drawn into them, even before they have taken you anywhere, just like the Earth must have felt when it was little more than inert rock and gas.

But then it builds, imperceptibly steady, beats and sounds from worlds past and worlds yet to come, bagpipes, a shawm, a hurdy gurdy, mingling with guitar and drums, rising from nothing into everything. That's when you sense the real magnitude of this music.

The Gruntled's music builds in massive swells of sound - improvised and yet remarkably formed and structured in a way that only happens when musicians are intimately connected with one another, taking their cues, it seems, as much from each other's souls as from each other's instruments. Its unique combination of new and traditional instruments; its weaving together of age-old drones and futuristic noise; its iron-clad grip, with one hand on the innermost soul of your innermost gut, the other on some remote, godforsaken nothingness; makes this music something that seems to span all the conventional notions of time and space.

The Gruntled's music is still very much on the fringes. The only way I could get my hand on more was by contacting the band directly and buying some of their absurdly cheap CDRs. Perhaps it's inevitable that music like this stays on the fringes because, after all, that's exactly the territory it explores so deeply, so thoroughly. But if being on the fringes means that it's not heard, then that can never be a good thing - because somehow, as you will see when you listen to the music of The Gruntled, the fringes is really where ultimately we all belong.

And ultimately that's a good thing; a satisfying, contenting, pleasing thing. A gruntled thing.