Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Steve Hackett - Please Don't Touch (1978)

For the title track of his first post-Genesis album, and second overall, Steve Hackett gave the following directions: "For maximum effect this track should be listened to as loudly as possible with as much treble and bass as your system can muster - not to be played to people with heart conditions or those in severely hallucinogenic states of mind."  And the track in question definitely packs a punch, framed perfectly as the centrepiece of a three-part instrumental suite.

Please Don't Touch, the full album, is a curious thing - almost like a series of picture frames that don't quite make for a coherent gallery, but still form a satisfying collection.  I've been listening to this album for more than any other in the last six weeks, so seemed obvious to feature it here.  Hackett set out his stall here with a great mix of his strengths in playing, composing, and full-on songwriting, with a well-picked supporting cast.

The vocal talents of Richie Havens, Randy Crawford and Steve Walsh (from Kansas) gave the album an oddly transatlantic feel right from the start, as Walsh sings lead on the C.S. Lewis-inspired Narnia (specifically, Lucy and Edmund's respective discoveries of the land beyond the wardrobe).  This is followed up by another literary tribute, this time to Agatha Christie - Hackett obscured his own vocals à la Laughing Gnome, which grates a little, but the track is musically brilliant with its memorable organ motif.  You could imagine this more English-sounding, whimsical track appearing on a Genesis record (like the title track nearly did).  From then on, the gear shifts into Racing In A, a solid piece of AOR with Walsh on lead vocal again.

A heavy 'and don't miss...' quotient for this great little record: the brief instrumental Kim (Hackett's then-wife), showing the writer's debt to Erik Satie; the gorgeous soul ballad Hoping Love Will Last fronted by Randy Crawford; and Richie Havens' two great contributions.  Think I've now covered every track actually, so I'll wind up there.  I love this album.

mega / zippy

Monday, 29 May 2017

Hans Otte - Das Buch der Klänge / Stundenbuch / Face à Face (2006 compi)

German composer Hans Otte (1926-2007) penned his masterwork for piano, Das Buch der Klänge (The Book Of Sounds) between 1979-82.  It's been recorded a few times since by other performers, but this is the composer's own reference recording from November 1983.  A comparison for starters might be Philip Glass' solo piano work, but it's The Book Of Sounds that I keep coming back to if I want to drift away to minimal piano heaven - it's just so much more satisfying.

Otte was particularly interested here in rediscovering the piano "as an instrument of timbre and tuneful sound with all its possibilities of dynamics, colour and resonance", and pretty much does so for 75 gorgeous minutes.  If I had to pick an oustanding favourite, it's Part 10, but the whole thing is best experienced together, at your leisure.

On this 2006 compilation, not only was Book Of Sounds presented for the first time on CD at full length (Parts 2 and 10 were snipped on old discs, presumably to stay under the 74-minute limit on early CDs), but also accompanied by Otte's other major piano work, Stundenbuch (The Book Of Hours) (1991-98), four books each holding twelve little minatures.  Musically, they're not quite as accessible as the Sounds pieces, and none of the 48 pieces last long enough to make a great impression, but taken together Hours is still an interesting experiment in harmonics and texture, that I sometimes listen to on shuffle to try and land on sections that I might have previously overlooked.  And stick around for the bonus at the very end of Disc 2 for a fine example of Otte's early avant-garde work - Face à Face (composed and recorded 1965) is an engrossing 15 minutes of percussive piano noises and tape manipulation.

Disc 1 mega / Disc 1 zippy
Disc 2 mega / Disc 2 zippy

Friday, 26 May 2017

Tangerine Dream - Force Majeure (1979)

Here's some more Tangerine Dream, as I continue to take a voyage of rediscovery through their years on Virgin Records - and this is one of the most atypical albums they made.  Well, apart from the predecessor Cyclone of course, with its not-entirely-successful experiment in having a vocalist.  By September 1978, Steve Joliffe was gone, but drummer Klaus Krieger/Krüger was retained for this minor masterpiece of instrumental prog.

From the discordant intro onwards, Force Majeure is an album full of dramatics and forward momentum, and the title suite runs through its sections with grace and power, and an interesting neo-classical style of composition (particularly in the last five minutes) that saw TD move farther and farther away from free-floating improvisation.  Following this 18-minute masterpiece is the shortest track, Cloudburst Flight, a great guitar showcase for Edgar Froese (both acoustic and some of his most stinging electric lead work).

Lastly, the 14 minutes of Thru Metamorphic Rocks are essential TD as well, having the most in common with the sequencer-based electronic work they'd broken through with.  After a melodic four-minute intro, the sequencer quickly hits warp speed and doesn't let up - Chris Franke would remain justifiably proud of this as one of his favourite pieces the group ever made.

mega / zippy

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Vangelis - Soil Festivities (1984)

Often underrated, coming in after a run of legendary, indelible soundtracks (Chariots Of Fire, Antarctica; not to mention Blade Runner, which wouldn't get a proper album release til much later), Vangelis' 1984 release was this great album.  Soil Festivities conceptually put the natural world under the microscope, reflected in its artwork (rear cover below, not to mention the jumping beetle on the front).  Vangelis described it as just the album he wanted to make, "rather than sell a million records", and the result was a classic that I reckon ranks among his very best.

The five 'Movements' that make up the album open with the longest, at 17 minutes, as storm clouds give way to a rainforest teeming with life, centred around an insistent pulse as the track opens up to all the warm, melodic synth washes and odd little sounds you'd expect from Vangelis.  In the closing minutes, this gives way an elegaic electric piano section and more rain.  The second movement is similarly melodic and insistent; both of these tracks would be perfect documentary soundtrack material for a marching army of ants or suchlike.

The second half of the album is more dark and dramatic, especially in the very soundtrack-like Movement 3.  The most minimal track, like a trip back through time to life in a primordial soup, Movement 4 is based around a slow, repetitive minor-key sequence that would appeal to Tangerine Dream fans, but it's unmistakably Vangelis.  Lastly, Movement 5 is more lively again, led by an almost jazzy electric piano.  Soil Festivities is gorgeous, highly listenable 80s electronics of the highest order - recommended.

mega / zippy

Monday, 22 May 2017

Górecki, Satie, Milhaud, Bryars - O Domina Nostra (rec. 1992, rel. 1993)

Christopher Bowers-Broadbent's Trivium seemed to go down well the other week, so here's the organist's second ECM New Series release, again focusing on just three well-chosen composers.  The most striking difference with this album is that he's also joined for two pieces by Sarah Leonard, an English soprano with a particular interest in contemporary classical music, to great effect.

First up is the Górecki work that gives the album its name.  O Domina Nostra (1982-1985/90) takes inspiration from the iconography in a Polish monastery, and making stunning use of the deep organ drones set against the developing soprano part.  The organist is then featured solo in a vocal-less version of Erik Satie's Messe des Pauvres (1895) and a couple of Darius Milhaud Preludes from 1942, before Sarah Leonard returns for the stunning finale - Gavin Bryars' The Black River (1991), with its text from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Compared to the Trivium album, this collection is much more about subtlety and gradual shifts in atmosphere, making it a fascinating feast for the ears.

mega / zippy

Friday, 19 May 2017

Raum-Musik für Saxophone - Doubles (2005)

Raum-Musik für Saxophone, based in Karlsruhe, are a German-Dutch group of nine saxophonists who were founded in 1985 and like to play in large spaces to exploit their natural acoustic characteristics.  The first part of their name is also the preferred descriptor: spatial music. 

For their 20th anniversary, the group decided to record two concerts a week apart, firstly moving through the rooms of the Badische Kunstverein art gallery with both ambient and contact microphones.  These sounds were then used for the second concert in the ZKM Cube hall, with a 'loudspeaker orchestra' playing in Kunstverein recordings whilst the musicians played live again over the top.

The final results were released on this 52-minute album of 11 untitled tracks.  Whilst you clearly had to be there to appreciate the full spatial effects of all these sound sources interacting together, what you do get on CD is still an intriguing and highly-listenable document of the concert in the Cube.  No-one gets too overly noisy, skronky or free-jazzy (track 5 is about as lively as it gets); the players seem content for the most part to just enjoy the various live and recorded sax sounds wafting around in the echoing space, making for a recording that lends itself to repeat listens.

So what, then, was this CD of a 2005 double-concert of ambient sax trails doing sitting in an Edinburgh charity shop in May 2017, surrounded by piles of indie/chart/dance compilations?  Your guess is as good as mine, but I'm glad I spotted it.

mega / zippy

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Kaija Saariaho - Graal Théâtre, Solar, Lichtbogen (2002)

Some more Kaija Saariaho, as promised when I put up the other album of her music that I have.  This 2002 release was recorded the year previous.  First up is Graal théâtre (1997), a two-part violin concerto, followed by Solar (1993), an ensemble piece with small parts for two synths, one playing quarter tone metallic bells sounds and the other fleshing out the piano and percussion. 

Lastly, the highlight of this programme for me is definitely Lichtbogen, or arc of light, inspired by seeing the Aurora Borealis in the Arctic sky.  This one dates from 1986 when Saariaho was working much more deeply with computer software manipulations of sound.  It's a stunning, 16-minute haze of shifting light and texture, especially as it goes on and the sound gets more and more eerily transformed.  Recommended, as are the other two works on the album.  Another great example of this composer's unique sonic signature.

mega / zippy

Monday, 15 May 2017

la! NEU? - Zeeland (Live '97) (1997)

Second album from Klaus Dinger's loose, improvisatory 90s ensemble.  Despite the title, this isn't a proper live album like the Kunsthalle concert, but a live-in-the-studio effort.  Zeeland was the first la! NEU? album I bought, and it remains a favourite, with more than enough sweetness and charm to forgive the rough edges.

The album kicks off with To Get You Real, centred on a couple of riffs from Dinger's heavily reverbed guitar, and Viktoria Wehrmeister alternatively singing an insistent single line over one riff, and overlaying the other one with subtle, cooing vocalese.  Following that are two lengthy jams that focus more on electronics, the first one mellow, bouncy and gently melodic, the second more rough and uptempo.

After this, there's another rather sweet, if characteristically underdeveloped Dinger song, Satellite, before a bit of a grab-bag of odd inclusions: a thirty-second trailer for the forthcoming solo album by keyboardist Rembrandt Lensink, a rough demo of an elegaic performance by Dinger's mother, Renate, and six minutes of Insekt, an electronics and voice improv.  The final track, another long guitar-based song, is worth sticking around for though.  Silly Face is a wistful, closing-time gaze into an empty glass, like the Velvet Underground's After Hours slowed down to a sleepy crawl.  Wehrmeister's vocal is suitably slurred-sounding, but the affecting lyrics are still comprehensible, and the end result, set to a gentle tambourine tap, is quite lovely.

mega / zippy

Friday, 12 May 2017

Conlon Nancarrow - Studies For Player Piano, Vols. 1-4 (rec. 1977)

I'd been seeing the name Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) crop up for a while, and decided to take the plunge a little while ago.  What I've been struck by, perhaps to an even greater degree than with Harry Partch, is some of the most unique, single-minded music ever created.  There might be fewer instruments here than in Partch - just two slightly modified player-pianos - but Nancarrow's music is so stunningly original I could probably listen to it for the rest of my life and it would still sound fresh.

Starting from an early Art Tatum influence, but already with much more ambitious 'sliding' tempi, Nancarrow went on to develop an interest in the canon structures of J.S. Bach, taking them to the nth degree and far beyond the limits of human playability.  If you're interested in more detail on the theoretical side of this style of composition, the YouTube video below explains it beautifully - and/or you can just go ahead and download these four volumes of  Nancarrow's music that he supervised in 1977 and released one at a time in the next few years after.

The sequencing of each album is wonderfully effective - Volume 1 kicks off with one of the most accessible Studies, No. 3, aka the Boogie-Woogie Suite.  The sheer joy and exhilaration in this 15-minute stretch of Nancarrow's music alone was enough to get me hooked - and three hours worth, of wildly varying complexity, harmony, and breathtaking rhythm/tempo, is just sheer bliss.  Unreservedly recommended.

Disc 1 mega / Disc 1 zippy
Disc 2 mega / Disc 2 zippy
Disc 3 mega / Disc 3 zippy
Disc 4 mega / Disc 4 zippy

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Popol Vuh - Aguirre (rel. 1975)

Time for more Popol Vuh, in the form of the 1975 soundtrack album (of sorts) for Werner Herzog's 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath Of God.  I really ought to see the movie again sometime, as I haven't for years and suspect there's a lot more to it than just the memory I have of Klaus Kinski gurning menacingly on a river raft.  This album does get regular rotation of course, if not quite as often as the peerless studio albums surrounding it in the Vuh catalogue.

Aguirre the album, then, is not quite a soundtrack, more of a compilation/outtakes album; at least we get the most stunning piece from the film featured in two takes here, with 'choir organ' played by US organist Jimmy Jackson (who'd also played with Amon Düül II and Embryo). Besides this, Morgengruss from Einsjäger & Siebenjäger is featured in a slightly different mix, as is an instrumental version of 'Sohn Gottes' from Seligpreisung.  These two tracks might post-date the film, but they sit nicely enough on this album.  Apparently Fricke just liked having the wider exposure for certain pieces of his music.

And don't miss the final 16-minute Vergegenwärtigung, which dates right back to the In Den Gärten Pharaos era of Moog-synth dominated Popol Vuh in all its spacy formlessness.  If you listen hard enough, there's occasional bits of the main Aguirre theme buried far down in the mix - I missed this completely for ages until someone else's review pointed it out.

mega / zippy

Monday, 8 May 2017

Thomas Demenga / Heinz Reber - Cellorganics (rec. 1980, rel. 1981)

Staying in the ECM organ zone for today, and adding a cello.  That cello is the first sound you hear on this recording from October 1980, tentatively staking out its naturally-reverbed territory (in Pauluskirche, Bern) before the organ gradually fills the rest of the space.  From then on, these two Swiss composer-musicians create a perfectly-balanced dialogue, sometimes quiet and reflective, but able to work up to a full-on maelstrom when necessary.  A great combination of two unusually-paired instruments, that needless to say for ECM, sounds absolutely stunning.

mega / zippy

Friday, 5 May 2017

Arvo Pärt, Peter Maxwell Davies, Philip Glass - Trivium (rec. 1990, rel. 1992)

Time to crank up the speakers or headphones as far as they (and you) can tolerate, and enjoy an hour of total sonic immersion in the playing of English organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent.  He recorded this programme for ECM in 1990 on the organ of Grossmünster church in Zurich as a "performance about time and space", focusing on just three modern composers.

Four stunning pieces by Arvo Pärt are followed by two short palete-cleansers in the form of Peter Maxwell-Davies' arrangements of 16th-century Scottish hymns, before Bowers-Broadbent truly blows the roof off in two great Glass works.  Firstly, there's an organ arrangement of the finale from the opera Satyagraha.  Then finally, Glass' 80s organ piece Dance No. 4 gets the full-bodied workout in deserves.  If I knew more about how the musical structure of this masterpiece develops, I'd briefly describe it - but then that might detract from the sheer majesty of just letting yourself get lost in it for its 15 sublime minutes.

mega / zippy

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Roedelius - Lustwandel (rec. 1979, rel. 1981)

Hans-Joachim Roedelius' third studio album was very much cut from the same cloth as his second, Jardin Au Fou, and in fact they were both recorded in 1979 at Peter Baumann's Paragon Studio.  With its heavy focus on piano-led minatures, Lustwandel is even more lushly romantic than Jardin, and electronics take a back seat to provide only occasional colouring.  There's fascinating use of odd bits of percussion too, in tracks like the slight mood-breaker Wilkommen - but even the marching rhythm of that piece sounds more like it's heralding a medieval banquet rather than a march to battle.

Other than that, and longest track Langer Atem, Lustwandel, perhaps even more so than Jardin, is the pick of Roedelius' early records when it comes to pure mellow gorgeousness.  I'm writing all this on a Sunday morning with a cool spring breeze coming in the window, and it fits perfectly.

mega / zippy

Monday, 1 May 2017

Joji Yuasa - Piano Works & Tape Music (compi of works spanning '57-'72)

Joji Yuasa (b. 1929, Koriyama) is a wide-ranging Japanese composer, with a particular niche in pioneering electronic/electroacoustic work.  This handy sampler is preceded by a trio of piano pieces, recorded in 1973 by Yuji Takahashi, that are worth a listen, but the remaining 48 minutes of this compilation are mindblowing, and I'll definitely be seeking out more of Yuasa's tape music.

First up is Music For Space Projection, created for the 'Fiber Pavilion' at the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka.  A choppy brass fanfare announces the 15-minute hallucinatory nightmare of orchestral fragments and electronic sounds, like a much more striking, dramatic companion to Xenakis' Hibiki-Hana-Ma  from the same event.

Then there's two great examples of Yuasa's work produced in the NHK Electronic Music Studio in the 60s.  Voices Coming chops and mutates various snatches of telephone conversation, suddenly switching in its last four minutes to words of much more historical weight, focusing on speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr, this work coming from the year after his assassination.  Lastly, "Icon" On The Source Of White Noise from 1966 is fairly self-explanatory, and hisses with great clouds of processed sound for its 13 minutes.  A highly recommended introduction to a trailblazer in sonic manipulation.

mega / zippy