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!!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

13 (no, 26) birds - Messiaen and Merzbow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Searching for bent heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The quiet edgy noise of Kevan Revis - 'Sollicitudo'

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bending the straight and narrow - Throbbing Gristle and Trotsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 20, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The rebel family of rock - music of the 1970s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome to Bent Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm looking forward to your involvement!