Thursday, December 8, 2011

The shapelessness of things to come: new ambient music

As I struggle to repair my computer, a quick roundup of some ambient albums that came my way recently. Thanks as always to Jeremy Bible for many of these.

Charlatan – Equinox (Aguirre)

Charlatan is actually Brad Rose, label head of Digitalis which alongside labels like Aguirre, Hippos in Tanks, Editions Mego and more has kept the synth fires burning this year. “Equinox” is actually his first release, dating back to 2009 where it came out on Canada’s cassette label House of Sun, supplemented here by two bonus tracks. “Equinox” soars like an eagle in honey, bathed in dawn’s golden light and flavoured with the slightest tinges of melancholy. The mood is close to science fiction, alluded to in the cover art and track titles like “Pyramids”, “Titans” and “Minus ten”. The often woozy bending of sound also evokes images of a spangled future in outer space as seen from a quainter past. Rose’s forms are not long form ambient or faux-soundtrack material, but pop, albeit pop distended and deconstructed with the absent mindedness of someone up all night or caught looking both forward and backwards in time. Support is supplied by the viscous textures which work against the body, comforting it and displacing the intangible elements of mind and soul into the immensity of the cosmos. However, any over the top idealism is restrained by the light undercurrents of sadness and nostalgia. “Delta”, which opens the second side, crackles and shimmers in a watery glaze like a Caretaker/Leyland Kirby track. Even the heroic chords of “Titans” have a sense of tragedy in the undertow. The overwhelming feeling from “Equinox” is, however, a sense of warmth and a sense of place and purpose.

charlatan - equinox (album preview) by experimedia

Refractor – Locus Suspectus (Under the Spire)

A mysterious release by apparent new-comer Refractor. The press release comes with no useful information, only two or three lines worth, one of which is “A Brave New World soundtrack to feed the connected one's insatiable appetite for distraction.” This pretty well sums it all up. Kinetic ambient music is how I would describe it. Peaceful chimes, bubbly underwater tones and forever shimmering waterfalls of synth glissandi populate this world. The sensation is one of tranquillity, but there is so much movement and indeed, distraction, that it doesn’t feel like music for sitting still. Another way to look at it would be as a mix between Oneohtrix Point Never and Dolphins Into the Future: an urban aquatic park for cyber cetaceans. Indeed, like Lieven Martens’ music for Dolphins, the album was all recorded on the fly, with special modifications of the synths to allow all the real time modulation.

refractor - locus suspectus (album preview) by experimedia

Innercity – Terrestreality (Aguirre)

Antwerp’s Hans Dens has had a busy year or so, releasing a handful of albums and singles on labels like Release the Bats, NNA Tapes and his own Why So Serious label. His latest for Aguirre is an interesting counterpoint to some of the labels other material in that the production style feels remarkably different, referencing more purely electronic techniques rather than coming from the more low-fi indie-referencing synth school. “Opiate vague” with vocals by Bram Devens is a good case in point, burying a kick drum somewhere way down in the mix and scratching a fractured synth rhythm with tabla percussion until it feels almost like a current incarnation of bass music. The albums penultimate track “baby food” also grinds down and irons out some prickly digital noise over nearly ten minutes with a clarity and attention to detail that could rival Machinefabriek. While “Terrestreality” impresses for its production and invention, it does at times suffer from lack of cohesion. Tracks seem to splinter and disappear rather than binding together to make a complete work, something not helped by their often short duration. Yet if 2011 has taught us anything about music it is that texture, weirdness and what Simon Reynolds calls “digital maximalism”  reign supreme and Innercity’s mix of vignettes and one extended piece represent another fine example of technology and imagination daring sound to excess.

innercity - terrestreality (album preview) by experimedia

Je suis le petit chevalier – L’Enfant sauvage (Aguirre)

French-born and Brussels-based Felicia Atkinson is both a painter, contributing the cover art, and musician. Her sound is like a heavier and at times darker take on the synth drone workouts of Grouper and Motion Sickness of Time Travel. Like these two artists, Atkinson contributes vocals, dreamy and wordless siren calls from the depths of the mix. However, whereas Liz Harris and Rachel Evans tend to lay back beneath the stars in gentle, pastoral folds, Atkinson searches for motion and conjures up dark, moving forces around her. Side one track “No talisman” builds and builds into a climaxing vortex of coruscating noise impregnated with demonic fury and damnation. The B-side “Love” also has certain gothic tendencies and a permeating, organic darkness. Her guitar chimes loudly while ghostly flutters shudder through the layers of haze. The claustrophobic darkness may be in contrast to the white spaces and bright colours of the cover image, but its sexual imagery is perhaps also one of the tortured themes inside the music. A wonderful contrast to more settling and sedative ambient music.

je suis le petit chevalier - l'enfant sauvage (album preview) by experimedia

Nova Scotia Arms/Motion Sickness of Time Travel – Crystal Anniversary (Aguirre)

Speaking of Motion Sickness of Time Travel, a split album from Rachel Evans and husband Grant under his Nova Scotia Arms moniker to close a fantastic year for the pair. That said, this is perhaps not the pinnacle of their work from this year, with MSoTTs outstanding “Luminaries and Synastry” and their collaborative project Quiet Evenings eclipsing the two sides here. That is not to say it is a dud by any means. NSA’s “Navigation (devotional)” feels at times like a lost Flying Saucer Attack track, but recorded with the higher fidelity of a laptop, something not available to Dave Pearce back in the day. There are the meditational vibes of Popol Vuh and the waves of guitar fuzz, but where “Navigation (devotional)” differs from FSA’s rock and folk core is in its slippery escape into more purely ambient skies, at least until the heavily processed and noisy climax. MSoTT’s side begins with the short track “Censer” a warm and vibrating ritual that like its name suggests, cleans and purifies the room for the longer “Lotus Flower” that follows. However, “Lotus Flower” is not a simple or passive meditation. It is deceives by working not through evoking immediate beauty or sustained tranquillity, but by offering a stream of restless noise and unsettling ambience, almost as if the idea is to contrast the sound with an image in the mind’s eye of a stable, harmonious and elegant flower. Grant Evans contributes the records packaging whereas mastering is by the celebrated Lawrence English.

Steven Hess and Christopher McFall – The Inescapable Fox (Under the Spire)

"The Inescapable Fox" is a richly conceptual album by two diverse artists. Steven Hess has worked with a great many musicians including Sylvain Chauveau, Christian Fennesz, Pan American and Robert Hampson of Main/Loop while Christopher McFall has released several solo and collaborative albums exploring sound design in relation to visual images and the use of decaying and treated tapes a la William Basinski. Indeed, the album was generated as a series of exchanges of analogue tape material sent by mail between the two artists. McFall goes on to explain that the idea behind the album is a study of the interface between light and dark. More specifically he invokes images of Greek mythology and the hound Laelaps that never catches its prey and the fox Teumessian which can never be caught, hence the title. Sonically this manifests as a constant focussing and defocussing of sound and texture. Field recordings and acoustic instruments are allowed to be recognised, then are modified out of all recognition as a contrasting element comes into play. Rhythm become drone, wind becomes steel, silence sinks into threat and remerges as gentle rain. The occasional presence of tape his and real instrumentation reminds us to think of the physicality of the media and music making while the buzz,  hum and silence do not let you forget the ethereality of sound and life. A fascinating and compelling collaboration for anyone who appreciates the modern classical elements of labels like Type and the more experimentally-minded music of labels such as Touch, Experimedia and Room 40.

steven hess & christopher mcfall - the inescapable fox (album preview) by experimedia

Willamette – Echo Park (Infraction)

Willamette’s “Echo Park” has been a long time in making and releasing. Apparently recorded between 2006 and 2009 it finally sees the light of day in 2011. The nexus of the group are the Chong brothers Davin and Kevin alongside Joseph Edward and guest cellist Danny Norbury. Not household names by any means, but nonetheless a fine album of neo-classical and treated electronics. The reference points are once again the Type label and in particular the sad strains of Deaf Centre, Peter Broderick et al. The music is perhaps not so dramatic, but still steeped in elegance and a soothing nostalgia. There are few melodic hooks to cling to, even when the cello does set sail. Instead, the music works best as a detached mediation, as a morning or evening suite of sounds and melancholy moods for quiet contemplation.

willamette - echo park (album preview) by experimedia

Hauschka and Hildur Guðnadóttir – Pan Tone (Sonic Pieces)

This is one of the better acoustic-ambient pieces I have come across in some time, being full of ideas, unexpected textures and the rush of spontaneity. The album is a collection of live tracks culled from a performance from Arctic Circle - Bubbly Blue and Green festival held at Kings Place in London on 26th of February 2010. The two performers are Volker Bertelmann and Hildur Guðnadóttir. Düsseldorf-based pianist Bertelmann is best known for his work with prepared pianos under the Haushka moniker and has released plenty of critically praised albums over the years, the best known of which is “Room to expand” released on Fat Cat in 2007. Guðnadóttir on the other hand has had something of a home on the Touch label over recent years, where she released her landmark album “Without sinking” in 2009. Together the two forge a strong alliance, able to generate abstractions and melodic rushes that are awash with pageantry and sensitivity. The basis of the album is the idea of the sea, one that is clearly romanticised and intimate, such as in the sad, melodic lines of “#294”, but also a sea that remains a great monstrous and unknowable force, such as in the opening of “Black 6”. The track names mostly use Pan Tone colour numbers in the range of blue and grey to evoke the sea in different moods and changes of light. This abstraction by scientific method contrasts with the intuition of the playing and also the longing and yearning for the water that the music seems to suggest to great effect. One of the other highlights of this album is that it is essentially anti-ambient, in that its textures, riddles and feeling demand active listening. This is not wallpaper music by any means. Outstanding.

Hauschka & Hildur Guðnadóttir - Pan Tone by sonic pieces

Air Texture Volume I: Compiled by Bvdub and Andrew Thomas (Air Texture)

Despite not being an album-proper, Air Texture’s compilation is still one of the major ambient releases of the year, especially given what seems to be the flagging interest in Kompakt’s Pop Ambient series. Joachim Spieth’s Affin label has their own admirable collection jockeying for more prestige, but Air Texture have probably bagged it for this year with this double CD set. Perhaps one curiosity then, is that all of Spieth, Brock van Wey (Bvdub) and Andrew Thomas have released and continue to release on Kompakt’s yearly collection. Disc 1 here belongs to Bvdub and disc 2 to Andrew Thomas. Both collections not surprisingly bear a strong resemblance to the sound of their selector. Bvdub’s choices are from generally lesser known artists and are full of sadness, tending to be longer tracks that slowly evolve. On the other hand, Thomas’s collection of more established names shoots for texture, shorter duration and mental calmness over emotion. Each artist also includes their own tracks on the collection, while Bvdub invites several artists who have worked with him or released on his Quietus label. This includes Arc of Doves (Tetsuya Nakamura) who closes the first disc, and Ian Hawgood who collaborated with Bvdub on “The truth hurts”, one of the many Bvdub albums to be released this year. Hawgood features on his own and in collaboration with Konntinent (Antony Harrison) while Thomas in turn includes two tracks by Oneohtrix Point Never and the under rated Markus Guentner (another Pop Ambient favourite), as well as tracks by Leyland Kirby and a lovely wintery piece from Biosphere. Perhaps the biggest selling point of the collection is that it brings the best of two worlds, pop ambient from Thomas and the richer emotional ambience from Bvdub.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

La Ruta Natural

A few finds from a recent trip to La Ruta Natural record store:

Newworldaquarium – Liberty Hot (Rush Hour)

One track that got away from the last post that features orgasmic samples is Newworldaquarium’s contribution to Rush Hour's "Amsterdam Allstars" compilation “Liberty Hot”. Hazy and disorientating as all good Jochem Peteri tracks are, and with an erotic twist. One of the additional rewards from listening to this is making the realisation of how much Newworldaquarium really predicted the new weird house/bass forms that have dominated the second half of the year. Up there with Actress and Kassem Mosse, and some of the highlights amongst the 50 Weapons and Hot Flush labels, this stuff is still the future and one of the few tracks on the compilation to openly capture the more naked side [sic] of Amsterdam.

Brian Kage – Bear Trax Vol 2 (Beretta Red)

Newworldaquarium is most noted for 2007’s “The Dead Bears” released on his own label. An ep from earlier this year featuring live bears or at least nature sounds from where live bears live was Brian Kage’s “Bear Trax Vol 2” ep on his own Beretta Red imprint from Detroit. But rather than a handful of techno bangers, the three pieces on the ep are all suave deep house tracks, with just a touch of techno production to give them a little more force. That said, on some levels the production here is almost too taut, too perfect and too clean, even for deep house, but the distraction of this unblemished sound is easily counterbalanced by the effectiveness of the music. The highlight is the sidelong “Migration Pattern” which also showcases a strength in arrangement with a patiently built and rippling melody line that resembles a deep house take on Mike Ink’s seminal remix of his own Love Inc track “R.E.S.P.E.C.T”.

Laak – The Fourth Space (Austere Recordings)

Very little is known about this US based producer, now on his third ep on his own Austere label. Here Laak serves up a generous four tracks all of which vary significantly, changing texture like skin, shifting pace or adding and subtracting vocal samples. The mood is decidedly jazzy and late night across all four tracks. My favourite is the last one “Hurt me so” which mixes melancholia with elegance.

B2 Hurt Me So (Austere 003 Clip) by LAAK

Also recommended is Laak’s recent podcast for the Northern Purpose  deep house blog.

Northern Purpose Podcast 13 - LAAK by LAAK

Handahófi Tíðni – Warm Ice (Handahófi Tíðni Musik)

A beautiful all round package this one from Iceland: unusual mustard coloured vinyl that captures perfectly the colour of melted snow and warm ice mingled with earth. The music also lives up to appearances, with two exceptional side-long tracks of forceful and yet richly ambient dub techno. The musical surprise here is the deviation from stereotype: on one level everything seems so obvious, sounding like dub techno with the hazy pads and riddling echoes, but there is also a heavier, slow burning Berghain aesthetic to the underbelly that wakes each track from slumber. Couple that to some sublime production that weaves and floats the mix in and out of focus and you have a genuine classic.

Handahofi Tioni - Musik 001 by Handahófi Tíðni - Musik

Sbtrkt / Objekt – Sbjekt#01 (Young Turks)

This one is actually two quite samey remixes of SBTRKT’s single “Wildfire” from his recent eponymous album. Here it is worth flagging up the original as well which features the gushing vocals of Yukimi from the wonderful Little Dragon.

The single is great, but it also highlights what many considered to be the albums weakness, which is its over dose of pop philosophy, a world away from SBTRKT’s experimental and more rougher sounding urban origins. Berlin based dubstep producer OBJKT restores some of the balance and then some. The two takes here are harsh and angular, stranding the remixes deep in IDM territory without leaving any trace of Yukimi’s lithe vocals. The release is also housed in simple packaging with the intentionally confusing mess of names, a little reminiscent of OBJKT’s own near-anonymous releases.

Photek – Closer (Tectonic)

Rupert Parkes has come into a lot of flak from some quarters this year for some reason. A lot of it has been based around the fact that he somehow doesn’t sound like Photek anymore, which is of course garbage. “Solaris” didn’t sound like “Modus Operandi” either. To be fair, the “Aviator” ep was a little flimsy, but “Avalanche” had some strong tracks on it. Maybe the criticism is really that he isn’t as ground breaking as he used to be, but one cannot deny a quality of production that separates good from great, even on lesser tracks. Regardless, his latest for Tectonic is certainly far from average. Its velvety and brooding production is like watching the city lights at dawn rush past through a taxi window. Pinch’s remix is more traditional and percussive, thinning out the midrange to let the drums wrestle control.

On a slight tangent, was curious to read a line about Photek in an old interview with David Bowie from the NME in February 1997 recently. The comment relate to a question about Bowie jumping on the jungle band wagon.
DB: “It’s difficult. I mean, Photek, I wonder how that kiddie got into it. Maybe he was a black kid born in the Caribbean…”
NME: Erm, isn’t he a white fella from West London?
DB: ”Yeah, but you know what I mean. He’s from Ipswich actually. But I’m not sure what my ‘beat’ is – if jungle is not my beat then what is? I don’t think you can be that territorial over a beat. In five years, six years it’ll be forgotten exactly what or who the roots of jungle were.”

A couple of things here, one is the slightly (or not) sarcastic attitude of the NME which became endemic in music press somewhere in the early 90s. It was as if the only way to entertain through media was to ridicule and turn everything into a self-deprecating joke. The other side is how much Bowie really was on the bandwagon or not. It is nearly impossible to imagine him in a club like Metalheads where the music really lived, but name dropping the likes of Photek suggests he might have been at least half-informed as to what was happening even if he didn’t sound like Photek. “Earthling” featured well-known collaborations with Trent Reznor, but there was also some more “legitimate” drum n bass remixes of the “Telling lies” single by A Guy Called Gerald and Adam F.

 “Earthling” is hardly a Bowie classic, but as with all the later Bowie albums, there is a certain jump of faith that is need to kick start the listening experience and reveal the rewards that many by then were not inclined to do. Sadly, he didn’t really continue working with “his” beat, suggesting a bandwagon-esque attitude, but you cannot fault him for listening to the right stuff and giving it a good try. By contrast, yesterday I had to listen to a best of compilation from Michael Jackson while watching a football match and you do not get anywhere near the risk taking or experimentation in his canon, despite being apparently as eccentric or more so.

But Bowie would not have been the first rock musician to toy with drum n bass. My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields was apparently hypnotized by the possibilities of jungle after making “Loveless”, but never quite made the cross over. Bark Psychosis’s Graham Sutton is another profile figure who did go further, making the still respected “Boymerang” album in 1997, the same year as “Earthling”. Perhaps it was the certain muscularity of jungle that seduced rock stars more than techno for example, but it is a big unanswered question of the 90s as to who, why how and where was the jungle crossover most active and where its legacy has lived longest. One wonders if and when drum n bass might make a return? Resident Advisor has been quietly sneaking in a few more reviews of DnB releases of late and one can imagine bass music’s hypermutation diffusing it too far and leaving a vacuum for exploitation or if not reversing it back to junglist roots. Several dubstep producers have even snuck the odd junglist track on their recent albums, such as Skream most notably. Indeed, DnBs often gruff sound might dovetail well with the resurgence of industrial techno and it’s more curious and nascent offspring found on the likes of labels like Blackest Ever Black and even Triangle et al. Stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The beginning of your last breath

Its funny how things sometimes fall into place and themes create themselves from the chance encounters of circumstance and situation. Only the other day I was belatedly listening for first time to Omar S’s album “It can be done, but only I can do it” at work. The appropriately titled track “Look Hear Watch” features an extended porn sample of a noisy woman making love to a silent man, quite a strange thing to have in one’s ears as you look around at your work colleagues. One assumes it is a porn sample, but one never knows, especially when coming (sic) under the umbrella of such a confident title. Is it actually Omar rubbing uglies with a fan in the studio while the mikes are running for example?

A day later and at breakfast I am reading a piece from Drew Daniel of Matmos in the Wire about sexual identity and music. By coincidence the same night I put in a DVD to watch a film called “Shortbus” which my friend has taped for me off the television in Australia (only SBS would put on a film like that). I had never heard of the film and there was no cover or information except for the year 2006 written on the disc. Needless to say after the incredibly controversial opening scene I was wondering exactly what he had sent me.



Shortbus - Uncensored Trailer
Get More: Shortbus - Uncensored Trailer

John Cameron Mitchell's “Shortbus” is most certainly one of the most ground breaking films of recent times. The frank portrayal of sexual identity issues scythes down in one blow all the decades of miserable Hollywood heterosexual romantic comedies, bad and/or censored sex and pantomime characters, especially the portrayal of gays. One reason for authenticity is the use of improvising workshops to cast the film and develop the characters, while the plot itself was also devised from scenarios and roleplaying situations arising during the workshops as well as a mingling of the real fantasies of the actors. When they step up in front of the camera and their characters begin engaging in real unsimulated sex, what they achieve goes beyond simply representing a melting pot of sexual possibility or a voyeuristic tapestry. The film transmits a genuine intimacy that exposes the frailty that is often behind sexual activity and questions of being. The cast and crew can also not avoid having a dig at the political situation that upholds the opposite side of their argument. The film was made during the Bush years and in one of the films best throw away lines, Justin Bond, playing himself and the transsexual head of the “Shortbus” avante garde sex club says “It’s like the 60s, but with less hope”. The references to Ground Zero also help to capture the certain despondency and uncertainty of post 9/11 life. But the film’s most poignant political statement must be the scene depicting an unsimulated homosexual threesome in which the characters start to sing to break the tension and, while hesitant at first, their voices soon give full cry to the “Star Spangled Banner”. Surely one of the most heretical scenes in cinema history.

There is a fascinating background story to the film that can be found elsewhere on the internet, but there are plenty of musical reference points as well. The three main artists of the soundtrack are/were all New York based. Yo La Tengo get the main billing and the inclusion of “Night falls on Hoboken” from the album “Nothing turned itself inside out” is a great choice since it by name evokes the fringe of New York, where Hoboken is located on the New Jersey shoreline, and thus the fringe of our supposedly well defined society where the characters dwell. The songs melancholia beautifully captures the doubt and searching of the protagonists.

Australian ex-pat Scott Matthew is perhaps the main contributor, appearing in the film and contributing several original songs. His folk tactics combined with his soft yet gravelly voice once more work brilliantly within the context of the movie to return the action inwards.

Animal Collective almost steal the musical part of the show at the final credits when the track “Winter’s love” lifts the spirits once more.

The proceeding final scenes of the film are dominated by Justin Bond and the Hungry Marching Band who together  put in their best effort to make a Spiritualized-esque redemption song that ascends from the mournfully keening violin and fatalistic lyrics to become a bombastic celebration of life and “la petite morte”

There are plenty of cameos in the film, one of the most noticeable being the appearance of Le Tigre’s JD Samson. Samson has been a consistent and important voice in gender politics issues for over a decade as part of Le Tigre, but also through various side projects and collaborations, including work in Peaches’ band as well as co-producing Christina Aguilera’s song “My girls”. Visually iconic for sporting a natural moustache, Samson’s inclusion in the film is a simple touch that compounds the film’s notions of sexual community and expansiveness and the importance of finding your individual mode of expressing self. Perhaps not surprisingly, Le Tigre even name-drop Justin Bond at the end of their track “Hot topic” which is something like a sexual identity politics version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing my edge”.

Musicians and artists also played an important role in supporting the film once the conservative backlash began against it. In particular, Canadian radio host Sook-Yon Lee needed the intervention of REM’s Michael Stipe, Moby and Yoko Ono, amongst others, to keep her job after the explicit nature of the film became apparent.

“Short bus” is film reclaiming sex and the orgasm for itself and for the right to express it as art and emotion. Drew Daniel’s piece in the Wire also looks somewhat long-windedly at the same theme. The short story is his entering a New York gay club for a night of debauchery with the “muscle-and-amphetamine set”. On entering, his posse are confronted with a soundtrack of Lil Louis’s track “French kiss” originally released on Diamond Records back in 1989 and famous for its breakdown featuring a female orgasm. Voyeurs should head to around the 5:00 mark if you don’t like foreplay.

Despite being something of an iconic gay track, Daniel’s is rightly somewhat confused and upset by the presence of the female orgasm, especially given his surroundings of Tom-of-Finland-like muscly gay men and then opens the question of sexual identity and music. His prose is a little leaden, but his point is a good one: how and why do we become bound by certain sounds and styles? When do you start hearing the world, as he puts it, or in other words hearing the sound of your sexual identity?

I remember when I was finishing my thesis in Perth many years ago, I was at home writing and living next to a gay couple who had just moved in for a short stay at least. One day in particular I was trying to write in the early to mid morning when they suddenly cranked the stereo and started blaring out a trance version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after time” (which one, I don’t know: the web is full of happy hardcore, Christian punk and other versions that confounds my memory).

They played it again and again as they waited for someone outside, just in front of my door a metre or so from where I sat, smoking and dangerously throwing the unextinguished butts on the roof of the building. At the time I equated this kind of trance sound, particularly hyper covers of kitsch commercial tracks, with a gay sound, probably to the chagrin of many homosexuals. One of the last conversations with them was outside, smoking, I mentioned a club or a place in passing and just happened to say something like “It was ok, but a bit gay”. In this case I did not mean to be derogatory, but merely to express an admission of style reminiscent of this track. I never saw them again by design or not, but the lesson was learned. “Gay” is thus at times a loaded word, necessary to evoke images of a particular style, or perhaps more appropriately, cliché, but also potentially inflammatory ion the same way as racist terms. The point is then to say that why should I associate a particular sound or style with gays or indeed my own sexuality? Perhaps one exists on a superficial level, but as Daniel argues, perhaps we can step away from that and not fall so easily in the shadow. The point is the same for gays. Daniel cynically writes “They’re playing our song” in reference to Lil Louis, but it didn’t feel like that to Daniel and his friends in the moment. What then is the sound of the world and the sound of sexuality as presented to us in music?

Unsurprisingly, sex in sound is like “Shortbus” and is as diverse as sex is for people albeit with the usual cultural bias of heterosexuality and of course the clichéd concentration of sexual energy in women in particular as objects of lust and prisms of pleasure.

Daniel in his article lists several tracks that include female orgasms including Donna Summer’s mythical “Love to love you baby”, apparently recorded in “authentic” circumstances in much the same way as “Shortbus”. The backing music with its slow disco groove and wah-wah grind is parodied many times in porn soundtracks of the era.

And who can forget Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s immortal and less challenging “Je t’aime… moi non plus” once banned by many media outlets, but now so iconic and common place as to almost (almost) lose its afterglow.

Prince not surprisingly also contributes with “Lady cab driver” amongst his many other dirty lyrics.

Detroit’s MC5 do not include sex samples directly in their music (would have been quite a feat even for 1969), but perhaps go closest to the heart of heterosexual sex music and achieve a genuine sonic of orgasm in their appropriately named “Come together”.

“Oh, God, it's getting closer
Oh and when it gets closer
Oh, God it's so close now
God it's so close, yes yes yes
Yes yes yes yes yes, yes yes yes, oh

Build to a rising
Build to a gathering, build to a quaking
Build to eruption, build to a peak
And fall gasping over
Together, yes, together in the darkness”

As well as attempts at genuine arousal, sex also gets rather perveted on many occasions on one level as extension of fantasy and on another as critique of society that could in turn criticise a fantasy as being pervese. As well as Omar S’s extended porn sample, other examples from Daniel include Throbbing Gristle’s “Catholic Sex”, a group who always had a closer relationship to most to sex (if you need more evidence check the previous issue of the Wire with some of the remarks from Cosey Fanni Tutti).

Venetian Snares and Hecate’s “Nymphomatriarch” shows a fractured and rather hostile and remote side to the sound of an orgasm from a producer who also has tracks like “Mutant cunt sniffer” which leaves little to be desired.

Hip hop legend Dr Octagon clearly gets the wrong idea with his track “Visit to the gynaecologist” which tries to sexualise a visit to the doctor or perhaps manipulating the power relationship of doctor-patient into the mundane “nurse” fantasy.

There are still plenty of questions though. Why does Omar S need to keep the porn sample going so long? Why cannot we hear a male orgasm sound instead of a woman? Is sex in music just bragging or does it really serve another function? How do we react on an instinctual or animal level to the sound of sex in a communal place and how are we manipulated by the sound of sex? Should we do more to install a more wide ranging pan-sexual sex soundscape in our music to avoid the limitations of simple heterosexual programming?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Recent gigs – In-Edit : Festival Internacional de Cine Documental Musical de Barcelona

Not quite a gig in the usual sense, but close enough. Now in its 9th year in Barcelona, the annual Festival of Music Documentary Cinema feels as big a part of the festival circuit as Sonar, Primavera Sound, The Mercè and the Jazz Festival. The cues tell their own story: around the block half an hour before entry in the pouring rain. I didn’t attend a single session that didn’t seem full and that is saying something for big cinemas like the Aribau Multisalas that pack in plenty. The concept is addictive even for many who would be more passive “users” of music. With a subscription you can go to a session for as little as €4, so why not see something a little more periphery or go on a whim with a friend? As it happens, the festival seems to highlight just how fertile the music documentary field is, showcasing an extremely broad range of themes, styles and of course characters. Record companies looking for new revenue streams might think more carefully about this aspect of the business in the future.

Queen: Days of Our Lives (2011. Dir: Matt O’Casey)

This film actually started life as a two part BBC TV series in the UK and was spliced together to make a full length film. It is not the made-for-TV aspect as such that facilitates the rushed feel to the film, but rather the number of details that must be addressed in the allotted time. Aiming for the global view necessitates a certain amount of skimming across the surface and while fascinating, it all feels slightly superficial by the end. Perhaps if aiming for a cinema release or DVD they can afford to add in a few more minutes, because at times the film skips from myth to incident to anecdote without indulging details and in rapid fire succession. For example, in 1982 around the time of the “Hot Space” recordings in Munich, Freddie Mercury came under supposed “bad influences” but no more is said of this or the real impact. Albums and tours come and go. There is also the slight sense of bias since bass player John Deacon does not appear in the film, and at times the voices of Brian May (still the worst hair in music) and drummer Roger Taylor seem a little too cosy. Space for a little more analysis wouldn’t go astray. Nevertheless, some new footage for die-hard fans and a fascinating story for the neutrals makes it a great primer of the band.

Two highlights were seeing some of the videos for the solo work that the members did during their bad tempered hiatus in 1983. Brian May’s “Star Fleet Project” featuring Eddie van Halen is totally hilarious, the video somewhere between Battlestar Gallactica, Transformers and Thunderbirds all rolled into one.

Freddie Mercury’s solo career was marginally more successful, better when it was remixed as this 1992 version of his 1985 solo track “Living on my own” from the “Mr Bad Guy” album shows.

Tangent: Lost in translation.

All of the films shown at the festival are subtitled in Spanish. An unusual, but useful side of this is that they also translate the song lyrics into subtitles, when it does not interfere with dialogue. So you get Bowie singing “Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles, I'm feeling very still” coming up as “Aunque he pasado 160 000 kilometros, me siento muy tranquilo” with the joke being the imperial to metric conversion.
But there was also more trouble with Queen. How do you translate “We will rock you” into Spanish? I have seen the verb “to rock” conjugated as “rockear” and it does exist on the internet and was indeed used in one of the films I saw in a similar context. But “Os rockeraemos” or “vamos a rockearos” doesn´t sound right. The subtitle used was “Vamos a estremeceros”. Google translator would interpret this as “Let’s shake” bizarrely, but a more literal translation would be “We will shake you”. I asked my work colleague today how he would translate the phrase and he replied “But what does rock you mean?” He suggested another possibility which is “Vamos a sacudiros” which is a similar verb to “estremecer”, to shake, but with more connotations of physically violence.
Returning to the previous post of La Balanguera: I cut the original poem at four lines, but after discussing with my colleagues in a similar vein of translation issues of rock lyrics I thought it worth to expand on that. The entire first verse is:

“La Balanguera misteriosa,
com una aranya d'art subtil,
buida que buida sa filosa,
de nostra vida treu lo fil.
Com una parca bé caviŀla
teixint la tela per demà
La Balanguera fila, fila,
la Balanguera filarà.”

The full translation would then be:

“The mysterious Balanguera
Like a spider of subtle art,
Emptying to empty her wheel,
Removing the thread from our lives.
Like a brooding Parca
Weaving the fabric for tomorrow.
Spin, Balangura, spin.
The Balanguera will spin on.”

The fascination here is Parca, which in modern Spanish would also be as in English, a parker jacket, but actually refers to the Parcae, the three women of fate. As Wikipedia puts it “They controlled the metaphorical thread of life of every mortal and immortal from birth to death. Even the gods feared the Parcae.” The three are (from Wikipedia):

Nona (Greek equivalent Clotho), who spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle
Decima (Greek Lachesis), who measured the thread of life with her rod;
Morta (Greek Atropos), who cut the thread of life and chose the manner of a person's death.

Note also the mathematical aspect to the names.

Not surprisingly given the description, one can also literally and figuratively substitute “Parca” with the Grim Reaper. The emphasis here is also on “distaff” which is also the literal translation of the Mallorquin word “filosa” in the third stanza ("rueca" or “wheel” in Spanish). While distaff would have been the most accurate selection, “loom” has a much more visual context in English, like “rueca” does in Spanish. Besides, who really knows what a distaff is these days anyway, whereas a loom at least comes to mind?

The Parcae are clearly identifiable with the three witches or three fates of Macbeth:

“I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:”

Here in Roman Polanski’s version of the opening scene starting at 1:10.

Macbeth forever struggles for his goodness and will to power, only to lament at the end “I bear a charmed life, which must not yield/To one of woman born”, but all too late. The emphasis on fate is played out throughout the tragedy whereas in Hamlet for instance, the ghost plays a different more eternal role. Macbeth’s refrain at the end seems to highlight is acceptance of outside influence, of the Parcae reclaiming his thread, and he is never drawn to Hamlet’s existential queries nor concerned with the haunting within. Akira Kurosawa reinterprets the three witches as a single entity in his samurai adaptation of Macbeth, “Throne of Blood” from 1957 with Toshiro Mifuni as the ill-fated Macbeth character Taketoki Washizu. Here the witch symbolically uses a loom (but not a distaff) to maintain the connection.

High on hope (2009; Dir: Piers Sanderson)
They call it acid (2009; Dir: Gordon Mason)

Piers Sanderson’s film of Blackburn warehouse parties won a prize at last year’s festival and for this reason was shown again this year where it worked well alongside Gordon Mason’s “They call it acid. The latter’s global view and galaxy of celebrity interviewees (narrated by none other than Robert Owens) complemented the more local and down to earth reality and characters of “High on hope” and yet both champion the same history.

“They call it acid” opens the story in Chicago, Detroit and New York, with only a teasingly short insight into the local cultures that fractured the original homogenous electronic disco sound into its three first schools of style. The story here is not the music anyway, but the culture surrounding it. The gay black and Latino discos of the US become the warehouses and clubs of England via their most tropical seed in Ibiza in the late 80s. There is a tip of the hat to Manchester’s Haçienda and far too much interview time with Noel Gallagher, while the Blackburn parties are mentioned in passing.
Sanderson film works then like a budding off of the main story, where the parties and the planning are shown in detail, courtesy of the archival footage of Preston Bob. The highlight of the film comes in the middle. Tommy and his colleagues describe how it all worked: finding the venue, heading off as both decoy and convey, breaking in, connecting the power, setting up the decks and letting in as many as possible before the police came so they couldn’t close it down. The frenzy of images and the clear enthusiasm from the various narrators as they retell their version of the story builds to a crescendo. Suddenly the lights drop and the music kicks in with Age of Love (I think). The collective sigh in the cinema was almost as big as it was in Blackburn up on screen. “They call it acid” then ends the show with the Freedom to Party demonstration in London, January 1990 as Margaret Thatcher’s years were coming to a close.

Age of love: proto-trance from 1990

Hardcore Uproar’s 1990 track “High on hope” features a sample of an angry Tommy saying “I’m not on anything I’m high on hope” in response to a mindless and obviously socially primed TV commentator during a live debate on the phenomenon back in the day.

The importance of both films is their reinforcing of the strong cultural significance at the roots of acid house and also the precursor sounds in the US and what it meant for minority people of race and sexuality. Tommy in “High on hope” in particular seemed hell bent on a revolution which in some ways bore fruit, although perhaps not as he expected it. But the importance is the climate of the time, with poor economy, unemployment and repressive social tactics from the government. There are several parallels that could be made with the recent “Indignado” movements in Spain, and similar protests elsewhere, including the protests against the London Stock Exchange  and the blockade of the Port of Oakland and the Stock Exchange on Wall Street.
Of related interest are two recent or upcoming releases. First up is Strut Music’s collection of dance remixes and assorted 12” obscurities from the Factory label called “Fac. Dance”. While historically interesting and collecting together some legends of the time, the collection somehow misses its own point. The dance in the title is the biggest problem. Many of the tracks here are arguably not entirely dance floor, like X-O-Dus’s 100% dynamite reggae track “See them a’come”. The following track is The Durutti Column’s dreamy “For Belgian Friends” which is more come down or wake up than “dance”. The confusion is compounded by the liner notes which say in the opening line “This is the story of how Factory Records shook off post-punk sobriety and found its dancing feet” as if you were about to enter an electronic compilation. And after listening to Section 25’s staggering opening, the megamix of “Looking from a hilltop”, you wouldn’t be a surprised if it was. That most of the compilation is actually “sober” post-punk funk or fringe dance floor then feels slightly strange, especially after reading the veiled barbs against this type of music in the notes. Royal Family and the Poor’s “Art On” is one of the better examples of this, with its toxic cut-up poetry intoned monotonously over funk bass and distance drum machine. Conceptually not clear, but a great collection of diverse tracks.

This year I have been a bit anti to the retro house craze that seemed endemic at times (see a great pair of recent posts  by Josh Meggitt on his blog about the interpretation of house in 2011). Not least when Steve Bug made a Resident Advisor podcast  in May (Mick Huckaby’s mix soon after wasn’t quite as bad). Before delivering a set of retro house Steve Bug (SB) had this to say:

“RA: Is house music revivalism here to stay?

SB: I don't know, it is around since a while now and it seems to become bigger, but usually every little hype is over after some time. The good thing about this is that these are the roots and somehow they will always be a part of modern dance music. Sometimes more, sometimes less.”

Steve Bug’s Poker Flat label will release a follow up to “Forward to the past”, called “Forward To The Past 2 - The Acid Flashback”. As the name suggests, the new volume pays tribute to Acid House whereas the first volume was a tribute album of sorts to Chicago house. Despite the derivative concept, the results are actually pleasing.

Various Artists - Forward To The Past 2.1 - The Acid Flashback by Poker Flat Recordings

Cracked Actor (1974; Dir: Alan Yentob)
The Sacred Triangle (Bowie, Iggy and Lou 1971-1973) (2010; Dir: Alec Lindsell)

Famed Bowie documentary “Cracked actor” also started life as a BBC TV show and captures the actor between the under recorded “Diamond Dogs” tour and the plastic soul of “Young Americans”. Bowie is clearly paranoid and suffering from cocaine-fuelled delusions and over work, being little more than a well-dressed bag of bones. The infamous scenes in the back of his limousine as Bowie was driven around LA and the US were a direct inspiration for Nicolas Roeg’s film “The man who fell to earth” that stared Bowie and even his driver as they sought to recreate the same alienation (see the mythical scene of Bowie high and drinking low fat milk starting around 4:30 in the video below). Apart from the uncomfortable proximity to Bowie that the film offers, the footage affords an impressive comparison between the Ziggy Stardust years and his newest stage incarnation which are remarkably different in visual aspect, but also in how they add layers of interpretation to the music.

"The Sacred Triangle" is potentially a critical film for fans of music as its subject is one of the most important stories of cross-influences and cataclysm in modern music. However, Alan Yentob’s film is somehow too starstruck and reverential to deliver a compelling argument and several conceptual leaps are not addressed at all. The focus of the film is essentially David Bowie, which is historically true as he was the centre of the relationship as, in the end, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop had precious little to do with each other. However, Bowie is made to look a mere copyist, incorporating The Velvet Underground’s street lyricism and Iggy Pop’s savage stage presence into his Ziggy Stardust character. But the reverse influence of Bowie on Reed and Pop is poorly addressed. For example, while Bowie’s and Spiders From Mar’s guitarist Mick Ronson are shown correctly to play a big role in the production of Lou Reed’s “Transformer” album, there is little mention of Reed’s somewhat discomfort at adopting glam’s tropes of eyeliner and bisexuality during this period.

Mick Rock’s famous album cover (and the related shot of the hammed up “Rock n Roll animal” live album) come from somewhere. Similarly, the cover of the Stooges "Raw Power" was shot at the same time in the same style. Bowie’s influence on Pop, who seems rather peripheral to the film at times, is left at his mix of “Raw Power” with no critical comment about its merits versus the final mix and, more surprisingly, there is no follow up to the Berlin period where Pop and Bowie worked so closely together. Moreover, Yentob’s reluctance to enter into this later period leaves Bowie seeming to be the imitator as his most influential and original albums per se are from this period and not from the two years addressed in the film. Worse is the short shift shown to Marc Bolan who could easily replace Iggy in the title since his rivalry with and influence on Bowie during the same period was critical. Finally, the film presents the often told story of Bowie being the first in the UK to hear the Velvet Underground’s first album and immediately copy its influence, most notably in the track “Little Toy Soldier” which literally lifts lines from Reed’s “Venus in furs”. But surprisingly, during all the talk of Reed, Warhol and the Factory influence on Bowie’s early work, there is never once use of his track “Andy Warhol” from “Hunky Dory”. One last criticism which is unlikely to be the fault of the director, but rather the triumvirate of stars, is that none of the three are newly interviewed for the film and only appear in archival footage. The narration and storytelling is left to knowledgeable journalists and managers which limits the primary source material of the film.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2010; Dir: Marie Losier)

This biographical film is at face value a simple love story between Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P Orridge and Lady Jaye (Jacqueline Breyer) as they attempt to become each other physically through surgery and performance. But once the film is over and the images and the ideas start to coalesce inside it becomes something more than the sum of its parts. The story telling has a lot to do with this. There is little recourse to names and dates and the whole story could be days or weeks when in fact is years. Sound from one scene is often overlaid with alternative scenes to create a sense of disorientation as a composite memory is generated. While the focus is on Genesis, Lady Jaye becomes more mysterious and mystical by her absence. Her death in the end almost elevates her to the status of phantom or spirit as well as muse and lover. The genius of the film is however, its tender portrayal of what are potentially brutal events: scenes of COUM Transmission shows become the violent force of TG live and then the intensity of elective cosmetic surgery. Add on to this buried ideas of pandrogyny, sexual fetishism and the potential stigma of social prejudice and it is a miracle at all that Losier is so easily able to suggest a path for your intuitions to so freely embrace all the possibilities proffered in the film

Miles Davis: A different kind of blue (2004; Dir: Murray Lerner).

Murray Lerner’s celebrated footage of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival was the focus of the homage section of the festival this year. I only saw the concert footage of the famed Miles Davis show given on August 29th 1970, but also on offer was The Who, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Hendrix as well as the festival overview “Message to Love”. What makes “A different kind of Blue” stand out is that the concert footage of around 40 minutes has essentially been doubled with archival and contemporary interview footage from all the players from the show and the different groups Miles used at the time. The story is fascinating and shows again the creative genius of Miles as well as the deeply ingrained prejudism against change inherent in jazz critics at the time, especially Stanley Crouch. Indeed, parallels should be made to the same problems facing Dylan at the time and Joni Mitchell is shown on stage earlier during the Isle of Wight festival remonstrating with the audience for their reluctance to embrace the new electric sound. “Isle of Wight is a masterpiece” says guitarist Carols Santana and indeed it is.

Check around 2 mins for percussionist Airto Moreira’s humorous and impressive homage to Miles Davis.