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!!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Another new blog

Well, with such slackness of posting lately, I decided it was time to do yet another blog revamp ... this time to link the blog with a new radio program that I will be presenting on 3 PBS FM.

The details, and the blog are here!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The psychedelic Big Bang - Paul Kidney Experience with Mani Neumeier

These days, we are pretty well used to the idea that the universe started with the Big Bang, and that before the Big Bang there was nothing, and the colour of nothing was black. But when you hear the latest release from Melbourne’s Paul Kidney Experience, their collaboration with legendary German krautrocker Mani Neumeier, you begin to wonder if that was right and if the colour of nothing was not in fact psychedelic.

Paul Kidney Experience with Mani Neumeier begins quietly, as if a cosmic orchestra is tuning up. But even here, in this empty space, millions of colours seem to be stirring. And then slowly, throughout the 11 and a half minutes of the opening ‘Ocular Orbit’, those colours emerge out of themselves into an inter-galactic light show, where everything from the primal groans of Paul Kidney to the alien squalls of a theremin, blend and blaze together, until they cool down and die out, leaving nothing but a solitary piano tinkling, hanging in the middle of nowhere. 

‘Phospheniac’, the album’s second track, is about half as long and goes in the opposite direction. It begins with an explosion of discordant vocals, drums, guitar, and electronic mayhem and then fades into and out of little snatches of a disturbed quiet – like a psychotic beast catching its breath before its next assault. But, given what’s gone before, you can’t help feeling that this beast isn’t just some wild thing prowling in the jungle, but that it’s the universe itself – furious and violent.

Everything settles down for ‘The Canal of Schlemm’ – a long, slower, almost elegiac meditation, gentler and yet still somehow unsettled, like the troubled dreams of the beast that just tore you apart in the previous track.

The album ends with ‘Chromatic Aberration’, where strange voices – part tribal, part warrior, part animal – quietly but frighteningly chatter amongst themselves. The cosmic beast, it seems, has grown grumpy and now stalks and skulks, muttering to itself, all around you. It is unsettled, unstable and ultimately only fades away rather than finishes.

You know that everything that sprung into being from those first psychedelic drones of the beginning, now totters on the edge, and you with it. Despite the album’s short 33 minutes, this music has taken you a long way and you are left with a strange sense that isn’t ever going to really leave you alone.

Paul Kidney Experience with Mani Neumeier represents the very best of improvised experimental music, where ideas grow and mutate out of, and into, one another; where diversity and unity, chaos and order are all just different ways of looking at, or hearing, the same thing.

The album is produced by Iceage Productions and is being launched in Melbourne on 1 March at Bar Open.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Solvent Cage - and the apocalypse within

Solvent Cage’s 2011 album The Day of the Locusts begins with a rumble. Not so much the rumble that happens underneath you when the earth is about to crack apart, but more the sort that happens within you when you begin to face your own dislocation from the world and from the things that people imagine hold it together – the beliefs, the hopes, the bonds. Here all of that is shaken and shattered by almost an hour of dark, harsh noise, taking you on a nihilistic journey that begins in those first moments of inner turmoil and finishes in a titanic battle between the inner self and the outer world and in which, you feel, both will be locked forever.

In The Day of Locusts, Peter James’s solo noise project, Solvent Cage, takes you on the journey in spite of yourself. You are drawn into its vortex long before you are even aware that you have moved at all.  What at first seems like a black, unshifting, void, dense with its own nothingness, is in fact always moving somewhere: the sounds dragging you along, drowning you and deafening you, like a tsunami might do, with all its garbage and debris. It’s aggressive, angry, always restless and yet the thickness of the sound can disorient from the movement that is happening within it. At first you feel perhaps a little unsettled, maybe even overwhelmed – but, before long, you realise how frightened you have become. And by then it’s too late to get out.

By time you have arrived at the album’s title track, its fourth, those sounds have grown into something much bigger than what the stifled, subliminal thunder of the beginning would have led you to expect. Now it seems like the whole of humanity, the voices of everyone that has lived, lives and will live, are clamouring around you. Or within you, if truth be told. You can’t help but notice the biblical associations of its title here – but here the apocalypse rages within, and the fire is the fire of internal combustion.

By the following track, ‘Swallowed by the Sun’, this sense that Armageddon lies within, rather than without, becomes even more acute, as you begin to notice that the music has become populated not so much with more and more sounds from outside, but with its own overtones. These ring and echo and pulsate throughout the music, everything bouncing off, and then absorbing, everything else. The sun that is swallowing it is its own destructive energy.

‘Insurrection’ is the album’s longest track and, not surprisingly, its most violent. Here the noise is at its harshest, its most dense – impenetrable and frighteningly defiant.

The album doesn’t really end. Its final track, ‘At War with God’, is an aggressive interplay between the right and left channels, each upping the ante on the other with snippets of noise, growing in brutality, but neither ever getting the upper hand on the other, until both are faded out, without really finishing.

The Day of the Locusts is grim, terrifying music. But it’s also powerful – strong and assertive and because of that, even with all its nihilism, finds its own way to be affirming. The music leaves you feeling that the war it describes is going to rage for a long, long time. But then it is, after all, a war of minds – because minds are the only place, in this music, where gods or apocalypses or locusts ever really existed.

The Day of the Locusts is produced by Iceage Productions, and you can get more information about obtaining the album by contacting its producer via email.

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.