Monday, 30 May 2016

Bjørnstad / Darling / Rypdal / Christensen - The Sea (1995)

I've still got tons of 90s ECM to discover.  By the middle of that decade, an increasingly prolific release schedule saw Manfred Eicher's portfolio diversify more than ever into modern (and not so modern) composed music, world music, American and European jazz, and various hybrids of all of the above.  The Sea is one of the 'hybrid' ones - it's certainly not jazz - and it's an outstanding jewel in this era of ECM.

Norweigan pianist Ketil Bjørnstad captains us through this voyage in his simple, understated style.  More muso listeners sometimes dismiss Bjørnstad as a facile composer and techincally deficient pianist, but he sounds great to me - and people don't criticise the likes of Harold Budd for only playing a few notes (or do they?).  Anyway, as soon as we've left shore it's clear that we're not in for a bucolic, fairweather journey.  Cellist David Darling paints an overcast, gathering sky throughout, and ECM "house drummer" Jon Christensen supplies the rain by sticking mostly to cymbals, with the occasional distant rumble of thunder. Beneath these unforgiving skies, the sea itself is only periodically calm as Terje Rypdal whips up squall after squall of choppy, rocky waves of overdriven guitar.

It's often said that this album is a tad overlong, and to be fair it is 75 minutes of music in very similar textural terrain.  Helpfully, Parts I-VI are a neat 45 minutes in length, and VII-XII a compact half-hour: I've often dug this album out and just listened to half of it at a time.  If you're in the mood for it though, just go the distance and stay on board for the whole trip - there's nothing quite like it. (Well, other than 'The Sea II'(1998) by the same quartet, which I haven't heard yet but is very much on my to-do list.)

The Sea

Friday, 27 May 2016

Eliane Radigue - Transamorem-Transmortem (rec. 1973, rel. 2011)

There's a lot of minimal electronics on this blog (and in my life in general) and more to come, but this is in a league of its own.  Just over an hour of droning ARP synth tones, Transamorem-Transmortem was created by French composer Eliane Radigue in 1973.  A quintessential example of her vast, monolithic electronic drone work, it was used as an installation piece, played at The Kitchen in NYC and then largely packed away in its tape box for nearly 40 years before this reissue.

From those scarce early 'live' (well, the playing and mixing of an hour-long tape in a performance space) outings of Transamorem-Transmortem, Radigue archived this description of the ideal performance conditions, reproduced in the CD liner notes:
"This monophonic tape should be played on 4 speakers placed in the four corners of an empty room.  Carpet on the floor. The impression of different points of origin of the sound is produced by the localization of the various zones of frequencies, and by the displacements produced by simple movements of the head within the acoustic space of the room.  A low point of light on the ceiling, in the center of the room, produced by indirect lighting.  Several white light projectors of very weak intensity whose rays, coming from different angles, meet at a single point."
Although this might be a bit of stretch for anyone to try recreating, Transamorem-Transmortem still has a considerable effect however you listen to it.  What looks on the surface to be simply an hour of unchanging ambient hum soon reveals its depths.  The bristling, crackling high frequencies in the left channel (the CD version has been mixed in stereo) preclude any new-agey relaxation, and the low frequencies in the right channel periodically gather force to give your senses a proper pummeling if you're sufficiently engrossed in it.  As a perfectly succinct YouTube comment puts it, "this sound made my brain full".


Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Iannis Xenakis - Terretektorh/Nomos Gamma (1969)

Can't get enough of Xenakis at the moment, and all the different facets of his ouevre.  Whether writing for orchestra, chamber group, solo instrument or laying down to tape some of the stunning electroacoustic stuff that I've previously posted (links below), he was never less than powerful, fearless and unique.

This brief LP pairs two complementary works for large orchestra.  And by 'large', Xenakis means...well, just consider the full-length titles of these works, both commissioned for the Royan music festival in mid-late 60s France.  First up is 'Terretektorh for 88 musicians scattered throughout the audience (playing 4 percussion instruments in addition to their own)'.

Terretektorh actually starts quite subtly. A Scelsi-like drone slowly gathers momentum until the full orchestra erupts, the aforementioned percussion instruments sounding like angry crabs, and towards the end of the track everything explodes into a volley of air raid sirens.  The audience (both pieces are live recordings) sound appreciative enough - or perhaps just relieved to have survived the quarter-hour's racket going on in their midst.  They're in for more bowel-dislocating fun during Nomos Gamma, which ups the total number of audience-scattered musicians to 98, and makes full use of thundering percussion right from the off.  This is way, way up there in my list of 'wish I'd been there' concerts; what an experience it must've been.  All hail Xenakis.

Terretektorh/Nomos Gamma

Previously on SGTG:
 La Legende D'Eer

Monday, 23 May 2016

Tangerine Dream - Hyperborea (1983)

Mentioned this album a little while back as being my Tangerine Dream of choice, and been listening to it a lot this past week - so why not post it?

Hyperborea closed the book on TD's association with Virgin Records, and for me it's the finest they did in the 80s - maybe their last great album, although some solid live releases were still to come.  The late great Edgar Froese was at the helm as always, Chris Franke still on board; but relative newcomer Johannes Schmoelling really makes his mark on these four tracks - the culmination of a sleeker, harder-edged TD than the liquid, open-ended Moog/VCS3/Mellotron improvs that they'd arrived at Virgin with nine years earlier.

Froese on this album is often said to be looking back to his 60s psych origins and interest in Indian music, and No Man's Land is a fantastic opener, droning through nine minutes of electro-raga.  The title track's two distinct sections follow through the periscope of the album cover to perfectly describe the nightless Arctic expanses of the mythical Hyperborea.

After a short, poppy end to the first side of the album, we're treated to a good old side-filling epic in Sphinx Lightning.  Moving through different sections that always keep you engaged, including a becalmed middle that oddly reminds me of similar-vintage Vangelis, it's a fine summation of an underrated period in the history of a phenomenal group.  Rest up in Hyperborea, Edgar.

No Man's Land 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Charles Mingus - Oh Yeah (1962)

I came to Mingus by the route that most people of my generation probably discover him, through Ah Um's well-deserved place in the canon of essentials of 50s jazz.  And as eternal as that record remains, it's this one from 1962 that remains my Mingus of choice ever since getting hold of it and being blown away by its sheer driving energy.

Oh Yeah isn't a record that's driven by Mingus' bullish bass playing, though - he sticks to piano throughout, harking back to blues and boogie woogie whilst forging forward into some of his most avant-garde material yet.  Responsibility for the latter is shared by the main reedsman on this set - Roland (not yet Rahsaan) Kirk brings his collection of rare and bespoke horns to the table and launches the material, not least the opening and closing tracks here, into an arena of skronking weirdness that was at least half a decade ahead of its time, and still sounds as fresh and vital as ever.

I wanna eat that chicken

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Autechre - Confield (2001)

A massive watershed moment for one of my favourite British electronic artists.  We've touched on Richard D James' catalogue early on in this blog, and no doubt will again; but today, from the same stable of early 90s Warp-ed electronica comes an album from Sean Booth and Rob Brown at the time when they reached far beyond those roots to definitively stake out their cold, clinical universe of alien machine music.

Ever since Confield's 2001 release, Autechre have become notorious in some critical quarters for pursuing circuit-bending inaccesability for its own sake.  If Cluster's Qua was described as a sketchbook, your average latter-day Autechre album can be more like an afternoon-long slog round an art gallery full of giant, multi-faceted metal sculptures that take about 7 or 8 minutes on average just to walk round each one once, let alone take in a meaningful impression.  Whether this is actually a bad thing, or, if you're like me, something to be relished, is purely a matter of taste.

What actually strikes me about re-listening to Confield now for this writeup is that it's actually not nearly as difficult and unapproachable as a lot of critical reviews would have you believe.  There's a gentle start of sorts, with what sounds like lots of little metal balls rolling around, over which we do get an actual melody, albeit a minor-key one that floats around in aloof isolation.  For such a supposedly anti-melodic record, the second track, Cfern, has even more recognisable reference points, with a winding melody set over a loping groove.  From Pen Expers onwards, we're into the album's solid core, as the synths gradually become increasingly buried and twisted into the unearthly sculptures.  If you make it all the way to the end of Lentic Catachresis to exit the gallery through the gift shop, I highly recommend just starting all over again. And again.

"...a malfunctioning dishwasher or a CD jumping. Forever."
  - Fiona Shepherd, reviewing Confield for The Scotsman newspaper

Monday, 16 May 2016

Jack DeJohnette - Pictures (1977)

Jazz drumming legend Jack DeJohnette, still going at 72, has been an explosive partner to many great musicians over the years, and a masterful, expansive improviser.  Pictures, however, is a much more intimate record, that by DeJohnette's own admission was something to put on and listen to when you "wanted to be alone".  It's also an ECM gem that tends to get lost in the shuffle among the better-known masterpieces of its era.

In a succinct 37-minute tour of DeJohnette's Picture gallery, we're treated to six works titled only by numbers, half of which feature guitarist John Abercrombie.  We start out with DeJohnette solo though, layering a swirling organ drone over a funky drum track on Picture 1, then accomplishing one of the most engrossing and thoroughly melodic drums solos you'll ever hear on Picture 2, owing to his masterful percussion tuning.

Just under a year previous to recording this album, DeJohnette and Abercrombie had been in the ECM studio with bassist Dave Holland to record their legendary first album as the 'Gateway' trio, and we're in similar territory for Pictures 3 through 5, the latter creating a high point in the album through Abercrombie's switch to acoustic guitar.

Picture 6 is back to DeJohnette solo, on percussion and piano.  Opening with a gorgeous, subtly reverbed piano statement (it's often forgotten what a fine pianist the man is, as he's spent so long in the shadow of Keith Jarrett in the Standards Trio).  This is gradually replaced by ominous gongs, which are rejoined by the piano from about the halfway point of the track, becoming more fractured and haunting, taking us to a stunning, evocative conclusion to a great little album.


Friday, 13 May 2016

James Last - Träum was Schönes (1979)

So... how to round out a week in which I've been posting Luigi Nono at his most harrowing, and SPK at their most extreme?  It is, of course, time for Träum was Schönes (Sweet Dreams), a late 70s collection of Hansi's best work in his 'Classics Up To Date' mode.  Just look at him on the cover of this album, released outside of Germany as 'Classics For Dreaming' - he'll make sure your romantic reveries go undisturbed.  Or maybe he just likes to watch...

I promise I'll only be posting easy listening albums once in a while - for those who do want more, there's a couple of my favourite easy listening blogs in my blogroll down the right hand column.  But since music like this has been hardwired into my DNA from a very, very early age, I make no apologies for occasionally indulging it here - especially when it's top-notch stuff from the master.

What always drew me to James Last's pop-medley music was the texture of the sound; it's really difficult to describe, but it has a unique aural quality that gives a sense of time and place like no other - like discovering grainy, washed-out Super 8 footage from a 60s/70s holiday camp, or cruise ship.  The 'Classics Up To Date' stuff adds another dimension, and still sounds to my ears like some of the most transcendent, otherworldly elevator music ever recorded (without going into the exotica realm of course).  Just check out Schumann's Träumerei with the shimmering electric piano up front (might even be a Fender Rhodes).  The image I always get from this sort of stuff is of being a child, at Christmas, walking around a shopping mall whilst coming down off a dental anaesthetic.  Beautiful music indeed.

Träum was Schönes

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

SPK - Leichenschrei (1982)

As much as I love Throbbing Gristle, and can't imagine life without their records, I always feel like they'd peaked by 1979 (I realise I've previously posted a 1980 soundtrack by them, but that's a special case!).  It was around this time that SPK were working away on the other side of the world to progress from some interesting post-punk-noise early singles to  recording two albums that took the original archetype of industrial music to  its highest watermark.  The first, Information Overload Unit, was a vicious  blast of electronic nihilism, and the second, presented here for your, broadened the palette to produce one of most nightmarish records ever made.

Leichenschrei (corpse scream) was originally released without track titles, each LP side simply being named 'Lysso' (rabid) and 'Klono' (presumably a reference to the tranquiliser klonopin).  The first nine tracks on the album that were originally ran together as 'Lysso' show right from the start that the baton has been grabbed from TG, with Genetic Transmission sounding exactly like Hamburger Lady but even more disturbing, with echoing vocals about death and decay.  From there, the subject matter just gets darker and darker, taking in autopsies, napalm, and the paranoid delusions of a psychiatric patient.  Contemporaneous with Einstürzende Neubauten's early recordings, shards of metal percussion fly around everywhere, ending in a punishing lock-groove at the end of the Lysso side (or Chamber Music on the tracked version).

The five longer tracks on the Klono side sound closer to where the post-industrial scene was going to go, nudging towards EBM territory but never compromising the oppressive, suffocating atmosphere of the whole album.  As per the well-worn Dante quote that frequently crops up in online reviews of Leichenschrei, abandon hope all ye who enter here.

I've included two versions of the album in this download (in the same zip file). One of these is the straight 14-track CD version. In the other, I've tried to replicate something closer to the vinyl experience by taking out the individual track splits (apart from the break in the album sides), and I've looped the lock groove for a couple of minutes.  Just for maximum...enjoyment. Or something.
CD reissue cover

Monday, 9 May 2016

Luigi Nono - Complete Works for Solo Tape (rec. 1960-74; 2006 compi)

Been listening to Luigi Nono (1924-1990) a lot recently, and reading about him too.  One of the most fascinating and stridently political figures in 20th century composed music, if Nono were alive today he definitely wouldn't shy away from frequent Twitter beefs with anyone he disagreed with.  Back in the 1960s though, his main mode of expression (when not writing angry letters to his contemporaries, or knocking over their dinner tables) was to put together some of the most haunting electroacoustic music ever heard.

'Die Ermittlung' (The Investigation), a play by Peter Weiss about the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, premiered in 1965.  It incorporated 22 minutes of music by Nono, split into sometimes tiny fragments to correspond to the 35 scenes of the play.  On this recording, the electronic bleeps separating each section are left in, sounding like snippets of urgent morse code.  The music combines children singing 'Mama' with vocal phenomes performed by Stefania Woytowicz in 1959 (fittingly, given the subject matter, the Polish soprano would go on to feature in an 80s recording of Górecki's Third Symphony) and other suitably unsettling noise.  After the play, Nono condensed some of the raw material into a shorter, more focused piece to even more devastating effect, titling it Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz (Remember what they did to you in Auschwitz).  Presented in sequence on this release, the two recordings make for a stunning, spine-chilling half hour.

Also of note here is Contrappunto Dialettico alla Mente (Inner dialectic counterpoint - I think!) which takes shouted fragments of revolutionary poetry and political tracts to a uniquely weird place, especially when sped up into surreal unintelligibility as the piece progresses.  Fans of early Nurse With Wound will find a clear reference point in this one, and indeed, all of these pieces prefigure the menacing, dada-esque drift of Stapleton's early 80s work.  This 2-disc set is rounded out by material from two of the original radio programmes, taken from RAI's archives (as were all the original masters for the six pieces, mixed down for broadcast by Nono).  The 'Contrappunto' broadcast sounds particularly enlightening as to the creative process - unfortunately, you'll need pretty fluent Italian to appreciate it, as opposed the virtually nil Italian that I can speak!

CD 1
CD 2

Friday, 6 May 2016

Carl Craig & Moritz Von Oswald - ReComposed (2008)

Is this classical music? Is it techno?  That classic yellow banner/logo on the cover would suggest the former, but the two artists' names definitely point to the latter; a Detroit/Berlin clash of the titans.  As with the other releases in DG's ReComposed series, which ran from 2005-2012, the intention was (at least in the early releases) to meld some of the label's most famous recordings with 21st century electronica, with varying degrees of success.

After an ambient intro, the familiar rhythm of Ravel's Bolero creeps in as Movement 1 starts.  The obvious thing to expect next would be that long, winding melody, which in itself might have sounded great.  But in a masterstroke of less-is-more, the melody never comes.  Instead, we're introduced to little brass fragments, barely there at first, then a main loop that sounds distinctively off-key.  It soon makes sense, however, once intertwined with other similar loops.  The Bolero rhythm marches on, and by Movement 3 starts to morph fully into a techno track, which increasingly squeezes out all of the classical elements by Movement 4.

After a short interlude, where the beat gradually dissolves into another ambient haze, the rest of the album consists of two long movements that this time take Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition as the source material.  Again, only judicious sampling is done from the classical works, although these last two movements (where I gather Von Oswald is the one taking the lead) sound more lush and less overtly techno.  My favourite of these two is the final track on the album, where the orchestral sampling becomes more indistinct and distorted, as if Craig and Von Oswald were working from a crumbling cassette rather than the pristine masters on the album cover. The rhythm track here is less dancefloor-friendly and much more chillout room, winding down the album to a subtle finish.


Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Hirsche Nicht Aufs Sofa - Im Schatten Der Möhre (1987)

"I remember Steven Stapleton [Nurse With Wound] telling me he'd discovered this great new band that sounded like Faust. They're called "Moose Without A Sofa" or something like that in German - he went on. You're going to love them. He was right."
(Alan (or maybe Steve) Freeman, Ultima Thule Record Shop and Auricle label/magazine)
Whether you translate H.N.A.S.'s full name as above, or as 'Moose Not Allowed On Sofa", "Deer Not On Sofa" and so on, it was a great name for Christoph Heeman and Achim P. Li Khan to pick for such a surreal adventure in sound between 1983 and 1992.  As above, there's echoes of Faust from the decade before them, and their kinship with Stapleton is audibly clear as well. 

Im Schatten Der Möhre (In the shadow of the carrot) is probably their best album, and to my ears it actually prefigures the NWW sound of the 90s, especially Colder Still from Thunder Perfect Mind, or all of Who Can I Turn To Stereo - an icy sonic wasteland full of disembodied voices, wisps of clanking, clattering percussion, and occasionally a near-semblance of a song or at least an identifiable instrument.  A perfect example here is Die Nacht Der Grünen Götterspeise (The night of green jelly) - after bits of distant piano, some recognisable guitars appear.  The track threatens to resolve into a normal song structure but never gets there, and everything remains swathed in a fog of distorted electronics and other noises.

Mention must be made of Erst Geht Die Kuh..., the album's definite highlight for me.  Amidst sounds of running water and a Jew's harp, fragments of an ominous, Residents-esque call-and-response nursery rhyme keep creeping in, and the track ends on a mocking, laughing-singing rendition.  The title seems to refer to "First comes the cow, then the guest..."- a Black Forest-region aphorism about rural...tourism? overdevelopment? farming in decline?  For a self-confessed Germanophile, you'd think I'd make a proper effort to learn the language at some point rather than relying on various web translators that never quite agree with each other.

Im Schatten Der Möhre

Source for quote - a discogs comment on the album prior to this one.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Arnold - Hillside Album (1998)

Some albums are instantly evocative of a time and place in your life, no matter how much time goes by; the effect can be compounded if it was an album you remember being released at the time.  This is my 'leaving home at 18' album; posting it now as I recently dusted it off and was surprised how good it still sounds, and also as a bit of self-commiseration now that I'm officially twice that age.

Arnold, named after the bassist's dog, were a three-piece from London who came to my attention through a magazine compilation of Creation Records artists.  Fleas Don't Fly stood out a country mile from the more ordinary indie fodder surrounding it - sounding off-kilter and woozy, full of wistful regret but coated in gorgeous vocal harmonies (a big plus for a Byrds/CSNY-nut like 18-year old me) - it was like a hangover in a song.

Hillside Album (released internationally as just 'Hillside') came out mid-summer '98 and soundtracked everything I did for months afterwards.  Hearing it now for the first time in years, it's still undeniable what a solid album this is.  From a core of pastoral psych-folk-pop, there's constant twists and turns throughout; songs that start with a gentle twang and suddenly morph into full-throttle powerpop (Ira Jones), lo-fi minatures (Country Biscuit), and tracks that aren't really songs at all, but collages of studio weirdness (Rabbit).  There's two extra tracks tagged on the end of track 14 - in a pisstake of the 90s obsession with CD 'secret tracks', the album notes helpfully point them out with the advice that 'these can be found easily, just leave the CD running for a minute'.

And there is Windsor Park.  Oh yes, there is Windsor Park, all propulsive lead guitar, weirdly buried samples of conversation, and elegaic images of student girls in the rain; this clear album highlight still gives me goosebumps.  If pre-OK Computer Radiohead had lightened up a bit and spent a stoned afternoon with a frisbee in the park, they might've sounded half as good as this.

And if
I could go back to the start
I would live in Windsor Park
and laugh