Sunday, July 31, 2011

Intrigue and Stuff

A strange musical week this week, as strange as the week itself. I had to contend with a certain lugubriousness in the face of too much work, over tiredness and little optimism about the future while the majority of my colleagues made their happy plans and their way to August summer holidays. The rest of the week was filled with diverse musical crystalisations on par with a sequence pf strange and seemingly random scenes and images.

Firstly, at one stage during the week I was called go the balcony of my fifth floor apartment by the drunken shouting of a man in the street. The man of African or French origin has been around a few times lately, always in the company of his beer and sitting tucked quietly away in one doorway or another. Our street is a rarity for down town Barcelona in that it has few shops and virtually no human or vehicle traffic, meaning it has been a convenient place over the years for people to step out of the rush and drink a few beers, roll and smoke a joint, or even hide from the police as many illegal street vendors do. The normally quiet man was this time surly, shouting racist comments against the Catalans. Many others had come to the window as is usual in such situations, including one neighbour from the building next door. He began retorting against the drunk in Spanish – perhaps an important consideration since if he was truly offended by the racist insults he might have used Catalan. As the man rained down his abuse, the drunk staggered to his feet and approached the neighbours balcony gingerly before grabbing his crotch and thrusting it at him

“Comme ça Catalan?… comme ça?” (Like that Catalan?... Like that) he yelled in French.

Needless to say the “Catalan” wasn’t impressed. Moments later he appeared on the street in sandals a pair of shorts and nothing else, but armed with a broom. He approached the drunk man and continued his own verbal tirade.

“Largate boracho de mierda. Fuera de aquí hijo de puta…. Vete ya…!” (Get  lost you drunk piece of shit. Get away from here you son of a bitch… go now!).

He pushed the drunk and when he staggered he used the end of the broom to knock the can of beer from his hands.

“No lo hagas Javier por favour. No lo hagas!” (Don´t do it Javier. Don’t do it!) came the cries of a woman from another balcony on the other side. Javier (a Spanish name with the Catalan equivalent being Xavier and pronounced differently of course) raised the broom several times and brought it crashing over the back and raised arm of the drunk. The drunk moved away and Javier, perhaps realising his folly, also stood back.

“Estoy llamando a la policía. No lo hagas más Javier por favor.” (I am calling the pólice. Please don’t do it again Javier).

The drunk clearly not hurt too badly staggered towards Javier and tried to push and continuing with his Catalan insults. The almost nude Javier easily side stepped him and prodded him back with the broom handle without wielding it fully against him.

“Basta ya boracho de mierda… vete o te pegaré de verded” (Enough you drunk shit, get out of here or I will hit  you properly). Javier abruptly turned and retreated to his flat while the drunk loitered quietly until all the faces had gone from the balconies and then started up again with his aggressive shouting.

I turned from this scene to my own flat where my girlfriend was watching the end of the reality tv show “Survivor”. The first thing I saw after turning from the fight was a helicopter landing in the sun somewhere near Madrid from out of out of which jumped four women in bikinis, three in their twenties or thirties and another pushing 50. All were excessively tanned and emaciated from being three months on an island scrapping for food with the only noticeable exception being their large silicone breasts which had survived the ravages of hunger.

This week I also saw a dirty looking man bend over to pull an ear ring from the gutter and almost be knocked over by a car in the process. What would he do with his treasure I wondered?

The contrast of images and image within image reminded me of J. G. Ballard’s book “The Atrocity Exhibition” which works like all the news reels you have ever seen distilled into one short novel of horrors. The contrast of “sexy” with “war machine”, “violence” with “decadence” and add to it  the whirling blood of fear from having been close to real violence makes for a disturbing combination.

“Take my hand and I will show you what was and what will be
This is the way, step inside”

Sings Ian Curtis in the last line of his famous tribute to the book.

Yesterday as well, was an unusual day: the forecast rains arrived, but not as a shower, but as the worst torrential down pour I have ever seen in person – and on the first day of summer holidays! The sky blackened to resemble night and the wind began to howl and tear up the trees. We were in the supermarket on La Rambla at the time and had to shelter there for 20 minutes with nearly a hundred others as the darkened streets became deserted. Some men entered and tried to sell the crowd stolen umbrellas for €1 each (how else could they be that price?). Eventually it began to ease a little and we took a chance. Running with 10kg of more of shopping was a difficult thing. All the drains had flooded and the street was submerged to the ankles and there was no avoiding it. Hours later the sun was out and the streets dried.

This episode at least reminds me of some music. M_nus is often a tedious label that all sounds the same and sometimes overly designed and/or intellectual, but with little freedom or feeling. Nonetheless, I am always drawn to it as there is usually something to be found. This is indeed the case with the new album “After the storm” by Argentina’s Mauricio Barembuem aka Barem. The track listing is like a vertical poem in the same way as Lucy’s “Wordplay for Working Bees”, reading “There is nothing better than a clear blue sky after the storm”. Barem’s production on the album emphasises the high end particularly. Sometimes it feels like half the mix or more is located there, squeezing out the midrange as is so common on minimal tracks, but especially on the first half of the album which is more jazzy with its heavy emphasis on intricate snares, high hats and other percussive noise that isn’t the kick drum. The best track in my opinion is the penultimate “Sky” which sounds both like M_nus and the rest of the album, but neatly side steps being trapped in either of these worlds. Droney, resonant and with a more balanced mix and equal emphasis on melodies and progression, and not siund design and texture, it easily stands above the rest, which is still actually quite good ofr a M_nus release.

Like many others I have also been appreciating the recent releases from James “Leyland” Kirby aka the Caretaker. However, I must confess tpo having been first put off a little by the title “Intrigue and Stuff” when the first volume came out. The title apparently comes from Martin Hannett who described the Factory Records operation in this way. It seemed a little cheap for the first volume, but it seemed only to make sense once the second volume arrived, with the intervening “An empty bliss beyond this world” album by the Caretaker also playing an important role. Putting on the second volume I was expecting it to sound like the recent Caretaker set, which in itself resembled the epic “Sadly, the future is no longer what it was” mega album from 2009. That nothing on “Vol. 2” resembles either the Caretaker or “Vol. 1” seemed to drive home the meaning of the title, that these releases were really a pick and mix collection of studio experiments that should not be interpreted to have any collective meaning.

I recently mentioned the Laurel Halo single as something completely unexpected for good reasons, but another recent  curiosity is the forthcoming/current Amon Tobin single for Ninja Tune called “Surge”. The RA editor informs me that Tobin was the highlight of the recent Mutek festival, but no matter what he plays live, it seems a strange choice to include a short, abstract electronic piece as the A-side to a new single.

However, whatever confusion the A-side might cause, you cannot fault the immense remix by 16-Bit on the flip-side which has some of the most evil sounds and heavy bass you have heard for a long time.

While on dubstep sounds, a rare 5/5 this week for an album from RA, for Machinedrums post-footwork mess up and mash down “Room(s)” that came out on Planet Mu. Much better than the likes of James Blake et el in my opinion, jittery and restless,

Seguing from dubstep to techno cannot be done in any other way, or by anyone better than Surgeon whose recent album “Breaking the Frame” has been number one on my personal radio of late. However, there are several things that many reviewers have not picked up on. On Resident Advisor, Michaelanelo Matos cleverly picked up the art gallery reference to the the title, whereas my good friend Josh Meggitt  intelligently picked out the anti-ambient feel to some tracks and the Basic Channel references. However, there are several other intriguing aspects to the album. One is that the vinyl version begins inside the run-in groove, especially for the techno track “The Power of Doubt” suggesting perhaps that it has “broken the frame” as it exists outside the physical space of the record. Careful nalysis of the track listing also reveals many references to darkness, doubt and negative concepts in true Surgeon style. However, it is “Radiance” that forms the middle section of the album and is the only track title to be written in capitals, suggesting that it might convey a special meaning. Finally, in the Sonar roundup, I mentioned Anthony Child has been fascinated with Alice Coltrane lately, but no one seems to have mentioned that “Presence” has some curious samples that sound particularly like a harp that might have been played by Alice Coltrane…

The new John Maus album “We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves” (in itself a very Leyland Kirby-like titlee) seems to be getting quite a lot of hyperbolic press which surprises me a great deal. I must confess to obtaining it by illegal download on a whim looking for “different” things, knowing nothing about it. Within days he seemed serendipitously everywhere, including the Wire (July 2011 Issue). However, I just cannot understand what it is all about. It seems just like synth waves hypnagogic retromania (sic) for 80s synth pop done by a guy brought up listening to indie music. “Streetlight” has some lovely synths, but the singing just isn’t up to it, while “Quantum Leap” (also known as “Dead Zone” is just a hidden cover of Mission of Burma’s “Academy Flight Song” done with a vocal delivery somewhere between Ian Curtis and Suicide.

The slow Demerol-like drawl of “Cop Killer” is perhaps my favourite track form the album despite its child-like lyrics inspired by too many B-films perhaps:

“Cop Killer.
Let’s kill the cops tonight
Cop killer
Kill every cop in sight
Against the law”

What is strange about John Maus in the Wire at least, was that while he receives a one page article and plenty of praise, the recent Joel Ford and Daniel “Oneohtrix Point Never” Lopatin  album “Channel pressure” was given a bad review the previous issue, despite proferring a similar style of synth wave pop.  Here, the vocals enhance the pop sensibility, while the inclusion of rawkus 80s rock guitar samples and licks really completes the retro vibe while adding contrast to the smoother synths.

Ask yourself why isn’t this on the radio?

For a hint of guitars, look no further than “Joey Rogers”

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recent gigs – Pierre Henry

This year’s Grec Festival had a French theme to the programming, and among the works to be performed was a piece by French musique concrete composer Pierre Henry. Sadly Monsieur Henry was not on hand to perform the piece as well and this task was taken over by Señor Carlos Gómez. The performance took place in the lower level of the Tàpies Foundation  building, a modern art gallery space dedicated to the celebrated Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies.

The piece to be performed was “Variations pour une porte et un soupir” (Variations for a door and a sigh), originally composed in 1963 and comprising sound made from only three sources: creaking doors, the breath (inhaled and exhaled) and a  flexatone, all further processed by tape manipulation. The entire piece is broken into 25 variations, some with just one of the sounds, other with all three. In this case, Gómez was using a laptop to reproduce the original taped sounds and a mixer to create complicated stereo effects. Gómez was seated in the middle of the room with the audience spread out in 360º around him with about a dozen speakers placed at regular intervals at the periphery of the circle facing inwards, similar to the picture.

As simple and as academic as the piece sounds, it was quite impressive the amount of variation that could be achieved with such limited source material. Some pieces were calm and gentle, one resembling the ocean, while others were heavy and aggressive. In particular, the last variation “mort” (death) recalled a gun battle with machine guns and explosions. The creaking door noises were amazingly plasticine, resembling scorching guitars, geese or especially jazz brass honking that you could almost jam over the top of while there was a certain industrial music quality to some combinations of breath and machine.

I had the pleasure of seeing Monsieur Henry perform in person in Paris in November 1997 at the Radio France building near the Eiffel Tower. On this occasion he performed his seminal tape collage piece “Apocalypse de Jean”. Although conforming to a more classical audience-stage set up, it was nonetheless a curious arrangement with nobody on stage, only a hundred or more speakers of differing sizes with Monsieur Henry at the back of the room at the mixing desk. The vinyl box set version of this work released on the seminal Prospective 21e Siècle label remains one of my most desired fetish objects.

Finally, while still on Pierre Henry, a book entitled “Pierre Henry’s House of Sounds” with an accompanying CDs of unreleased material was published earlier this year by  Gilka. The book is not, however, a standard biographical work, but instead a collection of Geir Egil Bergjord’s photos of Monsieur Henry’s house in Paris on Rue de Toul where he has lived and worked since 1971 and is thus an intimate visual portrait of the man with many clues as to his methods and thinking.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cover Versions – The Jesus and Mary Chain

As a die-hard Jesus and Mary Chain fan, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity presented by this one: a new quasi-electronic shoe gaze cover of the JAMC track “Teenage Lust” originally released on the “Honey’s Dead” album.

The group performing the cover in question is newcomers Les Demoniaques, who are comprised of Kristin Gundred of the Dum Dum Girls and Tamaryn. The release comes as a one sided post card sized flexi disc from True Panther Sounds and available from Kompakt , if not sold out. An interesting feature of the track is that the all-female group essentially reclaims the originals slightly misogynistic rock stance to sex in a disembodied female form.

JAMC are of course no strangers to cover versions themselves, having released a mountain of them as B-sides and more throughout their career. One surprise is that perhaps there haven’t been more covers of JAMC tracks themselves over the years.

Earlier this year there appeared a vinyl-only unofficial JAMC release entitled “Send Me Away – Early Demos” which was a fascinating collection of primitive renditions of JAMC tracks. Some of these have appeared before, such as on the 4CD set “The Power of Negative Thinking”, but most were previously unreleased. Perhaps the significance of the album is a clearer-than-ever snap shot of the band’s sound in development, as here their influences are still coming together, such that many tracks wear their influence on their sleeve as a single origin, particularly punk rock, before they became awash with 50s and 60s Americana and essentially fused together into the JAMC sound.

One of their most important and overlooked demos is the “On the Wall” Portastudio version that appeared on the original “Darklands” single and the “Barbed Wire Kisses” compilation. There is nothing in their catalogue that sounds similar to this and with its proto-techno beats and its ringing, repetitive and hypnotic guitar it feels like a whole other band that could have come from this sound, a band with eyes on the dancefloor. And of course its feedback-drenched rain finale is sublime.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Orakel - When time doesnt know itself

I have the dishonourable distinction of having written two consecutive reviews for Resident Advisor that received no comments. “Don’t worry”, the editor tells me, “readers are up, but comments are down.” Everyone is whiling their life away on Facebook apparently. Small consolation. Anyway, here’s hoping that people are still finding new things there and not just reaffirming their existing tastes. Otherwise there might not have been many discovering the Orakel album “When Time Doesn’t Know Itself”.

I first posted on this a few weeks ago  after a few listens at home. But in the process of preparing my review  I unearthed many interesting facets on the contributors to the album.

First up, there are several interesting guest musicians who make an appearance. Ritornell’s Richard Eigner plays toy percussion on several tracks, having also played drums on the track “German Haircut” from Flying Lotus’s “Cosmogramma” album, which also featured Steven Ellison’s cousin Ravi Coltrane.

Another Austrian musician Oliver Thomas Johnson, better known as Dorian Concept, plays on “After All”. A relatively unknown producer with a clear sense of humour, his weird synth experiments and bass mutations have lead him from the underground success of “Trilingual Dance Sexperience” to a recent 12” on Ninja Tune entitled “Her Tears Taste Like Pears”.

Also featured on the track “After All” alongside Dorian Concept is the Canadian vocalist Sacha Williamson who has made several profile guest appearances over the last couple of years. Amongst these has been a Robert Owens-like vocal for the Altered Natives track “Believe in Me”, Gene King’s equally Chicago classic “Changes” as well as guest slots with Basic Soul Unit, Martino, Opolopo and Kaje.

Most prominent on the album is the vocal talents of Finnish vocalist Vilja Larjosta

Larjosta has spent much time in Brazil and not surprisingly her main project is a 7 member Brazilian-styled orchestra called Echosystem, while she also sings in Portuguese on the Orakel album. Her other musical collaborations over the years include her work with the Austrian electronica collective Certain Subjects, who probably also have ties to Orakel , Turbo Rexxxa and most recognisably, her vocal contributions to Jeff McWllain’s Lusine project.

Something of a coup for the album was also the appearance of American jazz vocalist Dwight Trible who contributes to three tracks, the opening and closing tracks and one of the stand out pieces, “Recreation Song”

Trible is perhaps best known for his contributions to the Pharoah Sanders Quartet although he has had numerous collaborations within the world of jazz as well as hip hop and other electronic groups. His voice carries the resonant spiritualism of Sanders’ work as well as being malleable, taking on deep baritone roles or lighter flourishes. Particularly, his contribution helps the album lift towards a brighter spiritual plane that sets it apart from the imitation that often limits a lot of Nu Jazz releases.

Finally, something unrelated to the album per se, but a nice video of Marvin Gaye performing “I Want You” in a hotel room in Belgium originally posted on the Blog site of the 4Lux label. The naturalness of the performance is extreme, even as he lays back on the couch as the band jams around him.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jannick Schou - Act of Shimmering

More goodness from Experimedia, this time the album "Act of shimmering" from Dannish tape loop drone meister Jannick Schou. His latest lp comes off the back of several singles and a couple of self-released albums from last year. The press release describes this as "an ethereal dream using nightmarish parts and images". This is a more than adequate description of the coruscating and redemptive sounds on offer. There are certain similarities to the Black Swan releases from earlier this year in terms of the palette: darkly sculpted, but liberating washes of noise and quieter ambience, but the effect here is more poised on the balancing point. Whereas Black Swan dragged you down or ripped you apart from the inside out, Schou leaves you shimmering on the brink, caught between liberation and demise as the positive emotional sensations of the shadowy and negative sounds find their equilibrium.

jannick schou - act of shimmering (album preview) by experimedia

As well as praise for the musicians here, it is worth congratulating Experimedia for the quality of the audio on each release. Maybe it is the mastering, usually by Taylor Deupree, but this time Lasse Marhaug which gives the music such an enveloping and/or elemental quality.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Coda: Sonar Part 4 – Sunday: Come down easy

Everything comes to an end. Parties, people, friendships, love, empires, time itself. At some stage you have to come down and clean up. Reality is always waiting somewhere. In Barcelona at least, it was awaiting in the streets, where it had been omnipresent lately. Sunday afternoon saw massive crowds gathered in the city centre to protest unemployment, austerity measures and in particular the Euro Pact  which many fear will pass on more economic problems to society. It should not be forgotten that the ironic advertising campaign of Sonar this year was that Sonar was for sale.

How poingnant that message seemed in the cold light of day: while many nursed hangovers and tiredness, the streets filled with protesters, angry people, the unemployed and the inevitable clashes with police arose. Another day and more resistance to control and poor governance and little change. Dismay at the lack of progress in the Magreb after the so-called Arab Spring  is also turning somewhat negative these days and one wonders, where to now?

But like the revolutions and the governments, Sonar wasn’t quite finished yet either. At night was a special and semi-independent concert held in conjunction with the annual Grec festival  in the Greek theatre on the side of Mont Juic. Last year had seen Ryoji Ikeda’s “Test Pattern” show, whereas this year was also Raster Noton artists Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto performing the celebrated collaboration to promote their new disc “Summvs”. If you have heard the discs, you know what to expect live: clusters of notes from Sakamoto plucked from the air and flicked into quivering tones and drones and embellished with sparks of white noise by Alva Noto. However, there is an extra air of virtuosity in the live performance that is sometimes missing from the controlled environment of the albums I have heard. Particularly towards the end of the show, Sakamoto’s playing became more untethered, while Alva Noto’s palette thickened and unwove itself from the need to think so heavily. Graphics wise, the two musicians were accompanied by a narrow band of digital display, much more restrained than Ikeda’s show the year before, and less distracting from the music while obviously accompanying it beautifully. One down side was the audience’s impatience to clap after each song, effectively drowning out the tonal decays at the end of each piece, but nonetheless, their enthusiasm did inspire several extended encores from the performers. Bravo indeed, and bravo once more to Sonar.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sonar 2011 – Part 3 Saturday

Illum Sphere

One problem with Sonar by day is that you always think you are going to arrive earlier than you do. The necessities of sleep invariably take hold and the day starts later than envisaged. Besides, Jack and I, now also accompanied by his brother Lance paid a quick visit to the Miscelanea art gallery where M_nus had set up  with a small exhibition of relics, a shop and in-house DJs out back. Label boss Richie Hawtin had already played a little gig from a fruit stand on the side of the Boqueria market on Thursday afternoon.

However, even a short pit stop was too long as upon arrival, the crowd down in the Sonar Hall was capacity and there was no chance to get inside and see the reactivated and mythical Global Communication project of Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton. Instead we headed to the Sonar Dôme for Manchester’s Illum Sphere aka Ryan Hunn. My first and only encounter of Illum Sphere’s music up until the gig had been his “Titan” single from last year on Martyn’s 3024 label. Yet a few minutes into his set it was clear that this was nowhere near a good enough picture to pin down his style. Hunn seemed more like he was guiding the mercurial course of the music with a deft of touch rather than DJing. Roughly dubstep in terms of genre, yet the overall texture of the music was distinctly more electronica sounding and complicated, like fractured glass catching coloured lights, rather than being indebted to the rampant computer game overload of other brands of bass music. There was plenty of evidence of a signature sound emerging too, such as he showed on his latest 12” for Tectonic which is exceptional. My enduring impression from his set was that this was a guy to watch out for in the future as he clearly had mastered his craft and could entertain without resorting to extremes or to the silliness that sometimes undermines some streams of bass music.

Apparat Band

I must confess that Sascha Ring’s Apparat project has never done much for me. I reviewed their “Walls” album for Resident Advisor  back in 2007 and received a fairly hefty chain of abuse for panning it. My memory of the time was walking around and around Barcelona with it on my iPod and then putting it back on at home and just looking for a way inside that wasn’t via a safe middle ground. Watching Ring perform many of these same songs plus several new tracks on stage gave me much the same feeling. As much as I appreciated the show it just didn’t change the way I was feeling in any way. I was always watching and listening from outside, even as Ring and his band delved within themselves, apparently, to conjure forth their sounds. Something in the rehearsed playing, the immaculate non-improvised time keeping and the continuous pleading vocals (that sound like they want to be Sigur Ros but sometimes sound like Keane) just seems too artificial for me..and too safe. That is also to praise them for being technically faultless: a crisp sound, a set building to some slightly noiser tracks towards the end and a lot of feeling worn on the face. But like their previous album, it seemed like great music that doesn’t know how to let go from its creators and it belongs to them. Perhaps my opinion is tempered by decades of Indie rock and electronica/techno and Ring’s careful decision to stay on the cusp of both opens him to criticism from both quarters and there are perhaps better examples on either side, but perhaps none that dominate the centre ground so much.


Magnus had been with me back in February when we last saw Darren Cunningham perform a brilliant, but controversial set as part of the Micro Mutek festival. It was with some trepidation that Magnus approached the gig, whereas I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. In the end we all left overwhelmed and a little changed from the experience, just as we had been the previous time. It was hard to tell if there was some problem delaying the start with lots of fiddling around on stage, moving mixers and pointing to a blank screen behind, but once Actress started it was with sheer and inescapable force. Cunningham was only a silhouette, dressed bizarrely in a rice paddy hat with no lights on him and only the screen behind. Occasionally you would see the evil glint in his eye, even from the back of the room. Looking at those tiny lights in his eyes, especially during the monstrous opening salvo of pure noise techno, you just thought: this guy is only toying with us and he could fuck us up anytime he wants to. I could review forever the first ten-fifteen minutes alone there was so much going on there: a sound system pushed to the red, but unlike Tyondai Braxton the day before, never once getting painful; a relentless four-four beat that seemed to accumulate energy in repetition rather than lose it; and a milieu of fuzzy noise driving home senseless and evolving melodies that stuck in your head forever. Sometime near the end Kane screamed in my ear “This is the shit they should have had on the big stage last night”. The rest of the set was somewhat restrained by comparison, but never dull and always seemingly further afield. One surprise was the lack of vocal samples which only begun to appear a little before the half way mark, surprising given that "Splazsh" is subtlely, but totally dominated by vocal samples in almost every track. Some of Cunningham’s changes too, were not quite perfect, but given the complex nature of the music everyone was forgiving him. Comparisons could easily be made with Aphex Twin’s complicated set the night before and, of the whole festival, these two artists stood above the rest for overwhelming originality, innovation and entertainment. One final word was the use of visuals: I questioned my colleagues about it and they had said there were none. However, it appears there were: nothing but subtle shades of white in the form of the rings from the Splazsh album cover accumulating in intensity now and again and then nothing. Understated, to say the least.

Clara Moto

After Actress finished around 9:30 we met up with another new companion, the intrepid Belgian/Moroccan adventurer Jacques and took a quick bite, followed by the magical train journey to the Fira where the night gigs are held. This train ride always has the feeling of a time machine or a spaceship voyaging to another world; the return is the same with the added sense of culture shock returning to civilian life. On arrival it was time for orientation and then a stopover at the new Sonar Car stage for Infiné’s Clara Moto aka Clara Prettenhoffer. Super cool behind the decks she mixed a gently persuasive set of sometimes deep house and sometimes lighter house shimmering with more ethereal electric textures. Her changes maintained a disciplined sense of urgency, capturing the suave forces of her more club orientated tracks like “Hall”, whereas the overall selection maintained true to her more melodic interests, captured so extendedly on last years “Polyamour” album. It was a shame to have the interference of the bumper car lights and noise behind for what was ostensibly delicate music, and again, a shame to pass by so briefly, but to paraphrase the lyrics from her track “Deer and fox”, “At least I have been with you for a while”.


Then it was time for the most difficult moment of the night and the festival: Underworld. Why difficult? Because having been quite a big fan for years, especially “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” which is a hugely influential album and a soundtrack to one of my happier epochs, it was nonetheless a clash of programming with Shackleton about to emerge on the next stage. But more than that, below the surface I was scared of either getting sucked into their set for nostalgia reasons, looking too heavily for the past in the music and not the present or the future, whereas similarly and contrarily, I had not paid the group much attention since “Oblivion with bells” for a certain disappointment in what they were producing. To make it short: it was time to let Underworld go and this was a difficult thing to do for all the personal meaning they somehow embodied. For this reason, I am grateful they opened their set with a mix of “REZ” and “Cowgirl”, which for me could also have been an adequate closer too. This at least satisfied my masochistic urge to be in the past for a moment. The next few tracks were newer and I confess to not knowing them even while the crowd went mad around me. In any case, I was fascinated watching Karl Hyde twist and jerk on stage, much more the frontman than I imagined he would be, whereas Rick Smith and his companion at the decks where relentlessly busy. A spectacle without doubt, and resplendent with hits and communal gravity that I gradually removed myself from. I may have missed “Born Slippy NUXX”, I may have missed “Dirty Epic”, my personal favourite Underworld track, had they played it, but it was time to leave, time to say “adios”.


Shackleton was already underway by the time we left Underworld with Kane, Jack and Jacques; Magnus had stayed behind. We made our way down near the front of the Sonar Lab stage which was like entering into an energy field. The air seemed to vibrate differently, shimmering and bumping like little atomic waves as the bass frequencies and drones collided. Above this almost-hidden layer was Shackleton’s trademark percussive detail, with flickers of drums, distorted voices and the crash of electronics bursting all around. Something in the music put us all silent and refracted, bent inwards to hear closer and yet twisted outwards dancing, and looking up to try and catch sight of the humming air and the tangerine clouds streaming overhead. Shackleton’s music deliberately evokes African and Middle Eastern atmospheres, but burned into your mind in such a way, via advanced technology in such a primitive and yet modern environment, it somehow awakens something ancestral. Listening to Shackleton is to become elevated, to seek a kind of tribalism or an immediate ritualization of the present. The rhythms are built in such a way that you can quickly unravel them in your mind as he builds a counter-rhythm to challenge you and so on. Shackleton demands response and responsibility for your listening just as he delivers a total environment for this to take place. That is should be sparse and atomic does not mean to say it is empty. Within the arena of his sound, there are all the tools you need to build a new world in the mind. Immaculate, but once again, too brief in moving on.


Putting Lucy aka Luca Mortellaro on the Sonar Car stage was perhaps not the wisest act of programming from the organisers. It is doubtful if this influenced his set list, since he wouldn’t have known before-hand what to expect, but nonetheless his performance wasn’t the hour of dark, menacing and politically-motivated techno I had been expecting. Perhaps there was more of this kind of music than I remember, but a clear problem was again the make-shift location of the little stage, the mix of bumper cars and open space around it and the lights which seemed to take the edge off the sound a little. That said, it wasn’t a chore to dance or enjoy the choice of tracks, even if it seemed somehow more conventional, but it was still an experience that would benefit from the cover of darkness. Again, Lucy’s set design, much like his contemporaries Scuba and Surgeon, played little off tricks and gimmickry and focused instead on the drive, with almost immeasurable changes sweeping one track into the next. But next time I think I would prefer and need to see him play in a proper club environment to really “get” the music.

Magnetic Man

I wasn’t a huge fan of Magnetic Man’s eponymous album from last year, but I could see that its more commercial attitude might work on the big stage. Unfortunately I was wrong. Magnetic Man as a live act were simply abominable, pure hype and little substance. The bass was wielded without force while the beats scattered and disappeared in the mix all too frequently as if lost going in circles. In the big environment, the commercial side of the music seemed to show all its holes, rather than strengthen the forms. But perhaps most disappointing of all were the MCs P. Money and SGT Pokes who failed to form any centre point or stimulate the audience in any intelligent or cohesive way. Their big hit “I need air” should have dominated the crowd, but came across with a wimper, without even a decent bass signature, as a half hearted audience sang along to frequent interruptions and coaxing by the MCs. Sadly, the festivals lowest point.


By the time Anthony Child came on it was almost a godsend, but with so many people in our little group, things were getting a little difficult to keep together which meant parts of Surgeons long-ish set were spent meeting lost revellers, fishing for cigarettes for Jacques or generally holding ground while waiting for others to return. But Surgeon’s 90 minute set was one of the festival’s highlights, interruptions aside. Starting with Alice Coltrane’s “Isis and Osiris”* and then proceeding down a long torrid tunnel of sound, reminiscent of his Fabric mix from last year, but somehow less cluttered. A big contrast with Scuba the night before was Anthony Child’s closer ties to dubstep and bass music styles than Paul Rose seems to have now. Surgeon’s music as well, especially his exceptional new album, seems to follow this line, digging out syncopations and clashing rhythms with rolling low ends and smeared basslines that then jigsaw into straighter 4-4 beat chains. The effect is staggering, like listening to two or three tracks at once (which was probably also the case). However, the first hour of the set was more strictly techno, whereas a long run before the climax completely removed the techno foundation for a long respite in more abstract beat and dubstep terrains. Perhaps more so than Scuba, this was a set that made you want to stay out on the floor, but also sit back in an arm chair and listen to what was going on. Perhaps the only surprise, but hardly a disappointment, was the control and discipline on show: with such a big system on offer, Surgeon stayed well away from the red line and seemed almost polite to a point, a big contrast again with the final act of the night.

 * I think it was this track. Surgeon has been playing Alice Coltrane out a lot, particularly “Journey in Satchidananda” from the same album of this name, and the jazz piece opening his set was quite dark, with a slow, almost funeral atmosphere. At first I thought it might have been one of the last pieces John Coltrane recorded which have that “last breath of life” feel to them, but I couldn’t identify it on any of his albums.

Silent Servant

The final act of Sonar de Nit was Central American-born, but US-based DJ and visual artist  Juan “John” Mendez, also known for his contributions to the Sandwell District collective. His brutal and in some ways violent set was an appropriate and overwhelming finish to events. The fact that he could come on stage and make Surgeon look relatively gentlemanly (I mean relatively) says a great deal about his style as a DJ. His first thought was to get the soundsystem at the limit and then keep it there. The kick drum was simply pounding and unstoppable, barely dropping out at all. Mendez’s work then was to keep it interesting upstairs, working the high hats and upper frequencies particularly, while keeping enough space to desecrate the midrange with clashes, crashes and violence. A truly overwhelming force behind the wheels of steel with a huge soundsystem like Sonar’s and a brilliant foil for his more sublime work under the Tropic of Cancer moniker, that also deserves a lot of attention. When the hour comes close to 7am and the lights are coming on in the main room from the rising sun outside and with Silent Servant in control, you know you are in a good place.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Actress remixes Laurel Halo

Darren Cunningham aka Actress is currently very active finishing off his new album for his own Werk label and preparing some re-releases. One other activity has also been to remix the track "Constant Index" off the recent Laurel Halo ep Hour logic.

Laurel Halo - Constant Index (Actress Violet Mix) by theQuietus

Julio Cortázar and jazz

"Música! Melancólico alimento para los que vivimos de amor." - Rayuela
“Music! Melancholy food for those who live for love.”

The other night I started to read a novel by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar called “Rayuela” (Hopscotch). The novel is widely hailed as a classic of 20th Century literature, but also coincided with the so-called Latin American Literary Boom  that occurred around the time of its publication in 1963. The novel is complicated in structure and mythically so. It contains two books, the first part which is the central story and the second part, which is referred to as the “Dispensible chapters” (capitulos prescindibles). Immediately before “Chapter 1” is a brief instruction from the author which is essentially a suggestion of how to read the book. One way is to read chapters 1 to 56 directly and finish with a clear conscience. The other is to use the authors table (see picture) by which chapters from part one are intercut with more abstract passages from the dispensible chapters in part 2. That is, movement through the book is backwards and forwards, almost like one of those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. There is a certain irony at the end of the book too, as the penultimate chapter leads to the final, which in turn leads back to the penultimate, and so on.

In addition to this unconventional movement through the pages is the use of different styles and narrative points of view within the story, switching from first to third person and using stream of consciousness. The reference points are clearly writers like James Joyce, French contemporaries of the Nouveau Roman school, but more so Surrealism and perhaps not surprisingly jazz.

Cortázar was born in Brussels at the time of the German occupation in 1914, moving via Switzerland and Barcelona to Buenos Aires by 1919. He remained there during his formative years and beginning to publish his first writings until 1951 when he moved to Paris as a protest against the government and politics of Juan Domingo Perón. That is to say, that Cortázar was in Paris during the fecund years of the 50s and 60s when American jazz greats would tour and play at the heights of their powers to a receptive and respectful audience unencumbered by the inequalities in civil rights back home. “Rayuela” and many other works by Cortázar are influenced heavily by jazz and in particular their improvisatory techniques.

In “Rayuela”, for example, the characters form El Club de la Serpiente (the Serpents Club) to listen to music. Cortázar has also written articles on jazz such as “La vuelta al piano de Thelonius Monk” (Thelonius Monk’s return to the piano) based on a 1966 concert in Geneva, whereas Michelangelo Antonioni's 1967 film "Blowup" was based upon a short story entitled “Las Babas del Diablo” (The Droolings of the Devil").

Here is the famous Yardbirds scene from the Blowup film. Note also that the street in Soho, London where this was filmed is also the same location that appears in the mythical Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album cover by David Bowie that would appear a few years later.

Perhaps the most famous of his work linked to jazz was “El Perseguidor” (The Pursuer) which was first published in the short story collection “Las Armas Secretas” (Secret Weapons) in 1959. This story is based around the protagonist Johnny Carter, himself modelled on be-bop saxophonist Charlie Parker and was a turning point in Cortázar’s style and influence.

Here with subtitles in English:

Cortázar’s views on jazz and literature (in Spanish) are expressed here in this interview:

 “[jazz] era una música que permitía todas las imaginaciones”
“jazz was a music that allowed all the imaginations”

Not surprisingly, Cortázar has influenced many musicians and other writers. In 2004 a combined book and CD  called “Jazzuela” was published by the writer Pilar Peyrats Lasuén incorporating all the parts of “Rayuela” that refer to jazz and all the tracks referred to in  the book.

Tango-trip hop group Gotan Project also have a track named after and inspired by Cortázar featuring text from the mythical Chapter 7 about a kiss.

Whereas another track simply entitled “Rayuela” from  the “Tango 3.0” album also draws unambiguous inspiration.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mouse on Mars

Cologne's post-rock/electronica combo Mouse on Mars look to be reactivating. The group of Andi Toma, Jan St Werner and drummer Dodo Nkishi haven't released under the Mouse on Mars name since 2006, but have of course collaborated more recently with The Falls Mark E. Smith on the Von Südenfed project. However, the duo have several upccoming gigs planned and what may be several releases in the pipeline. Most notably, the group will play with the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra on the 10th of September while a  single track entitled "Paenumnion" is currently available with the media, but with no release date or format information yet available. The track is a long instrumental piece featuring the group in collaboration with the Cologne Philharmonic and is in interesting counterpart to the just-released Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer "Re:ECM" collaboration, only here, rather than reconstruction, the music is a live interaction.

In addition to "Paenumnion", the group also remixed the Popol Vuh track "Through pain to heaven", originally from the Nosferatu soundtrack, for the upcoming "Revisitied and Remixed" double CD due for release on SPV to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the death of founding member Florian Fricke.

Two of the remix tracks appearing on the release originally appeared on Editions Mego in 2008, whereas German producer Roland Appel will also contribute a remix of the same track.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Laurel Halo

Laurel Halo’s second single “Hour Logic” has been causing quite a stir. Recently released on Hippos in Tanks it refuses any easy classification. At times it sounds dubstep, others ambient, sometimes with touches of Detroit techno blended into an organic tapestry of video game sounds and geometric soundscapes. Complicated, slippery and compelling the success of the release has forced the Ann Arbor born musician (real name Ina Cube) into the spotlight, culminating in a recent profile on the Guardian’s exhausting New Band of the Day . It also happens that her boyfriend is Oneohtrix Point Never who also remixed the track “Metal Confection” on her debut single “King Felix” last year. The contrasts between the two releases are marked however, with the silvery synth pop of “Supersymmetry” contrasting beautifully with the more abstract planes of “Hour Logic”

Keeping in vogue with underground, Laurel Halo also has a slew of cassette releases and mix tapes available for those who need more.


Sonar 2011 – Part 2 Friday


More work trouble and the frustrating situation of watching the clock tick down while knowing that Agoria had already started. A mad dash got me there too late, with Minneapolis rap group Atmosphere already on the Sonar Village stage to promote their new album “The family sign”. I’ve seen only a handful of Hip Hop shows in my life and would never count myself an expert, but vocalist Slug (aka Sean Daley) and producer Anthony Davis aka Ant’s show was pretty compelling despite the all-too-familiar need to get the crowd clapping, putting their hands in the air and calls to make some mother fucking noise. Towards the end of the show they paid tribute to the Beastie Boys, by repeating an act they had seen at one of their shows: getting the crowd to hold up their Adidas in the air. The response may have been lukewarm, probably because everyone was wearing sandals and flip flops and not closed shoes, but nonetheless the music was hot enough to kick start the day.

DJ Raff

Out back in the Sonar Dome, drum and bass stalwart Zinc had already been and gone along with Agoria and a brief effort to catch his younger prodigy Katy B was met with resistance due to the overflowing crowd, the biggest I had seen at the festival. Meanwhile oOoOO had put in a miserly 30 minute set of Witch House in the new Sonar Comlex space between the Dome and the Village which meant it was over before it began and was thus another act to cross off the list without seeing anything. By default then, it was time for DJ Raff in the open air as we were also joined by Jack, a DJ for Perth’s RTR FM. DJ Raff is a Chilean born, but Spain-based, DJ and producer, who has contributed to a range of projects over the years including the recent release of the track “Latino and Proud”. Unfortunately he failed to impress with a messy set of bass music and the occasional 4-4 intervention that showed little logical continuity or cohesiveness to the style. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of his style was his ability to catch the crowd and lift them up with a great track or mix and then abruptly dump them by switching too quickly or too far afield with the next selection and then having to start all over again.

Four Tet

Kieran Hebden’s late afternoon slot was one of the first big surprises in a day of sets that exceeded expectations. While having perused his catalogue from time to time, I have never been an active fan of Four Tet’s music, but his set was heavier and much more driving than I would have expected. At times he crossed the threshold into techno, at others staying back in more break beat territory with occasional embellishments of cathartic noise, but always underscored by his trademark emphasis on funk and feeling. Hats off to the man as well for catching the crowd again after the relative disappointment of DJ Raff. There were plenty of big, long build-ups to drag the audience from conversation into contemplation and dancing, and then a lot of space to switch directions and start again. Almost effortlessly he was able to reinstate something of a celebratory air to proceedings that was exstatically received. In addition, while not part of the official festival, there was a screening of a documentary film called “Tongues” on the Wednesday night to celebrate Hebden’s collaboration with jazz drummer Steve Reid.


The first thing that took me about Sonar by Night was the sheer size of the crowd, much higher than I had ever seen at the festival before. Big cues for drink tickets and every stage rammed to capacity, especially early in the evening meant some logistics to get everything comfortable, but in the end, there was no detraction from the spectacle. Our first full show of the evening was also another that was more than I had imagined it would be. Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam’s debut album “Arular” from 2005 was a personal favourite of the time for its catchiness and its deceptive simplicity, but I never stayed in touch with her work. Several live reviews and recent reports of her poor professional attitude and negative response to some videos has led me to expect little. But an over the top stage show mixing all those catchy, blatant and of course, controversial elements of her persona, proved a hit. M.I.A. was sexy, violent, commercial, trashy, catchy and, dare I say it, entertaining. Her show made Magnetic Man the following night look lame. She opened with a long, almost ambient track of Sri Lankan traditional music before unleashing a restless barrage of both  newer material that I wasn’t as familiar with and some of the cracking hits off the first album like “Galang”, “Bucky done gun” and “Paper plane”. Helped by several guest MCs and screens showing images of sexy girls and sexy guns M.I.A. delivered a genuine spectacle and provided an astounding start to the evening.


Last time I saw Scuba play back in January he played a complete techno set from beginning to end with not a dubstep track in sight. This surprised me a lot at the time and was a big talking point amongst some others I knew who had also been at the gig. The fact that he did it again at Sonar wasn’t then such a big surprise, but it does suggest that he is now batting for the other team. The direction his label Hot Flush has taken (exemplified particularly by his own and Sigha’s releases) would also seem to suggest the same. Their recent label compilation Back and 4th was one half older tracks caught in the process of evolving from more traditional dubstep stylings into the newer 4-4 variations present on the second disc of new material. To be fair, Scuba’s change in direction may reflect as much dubstep’s restless mutation into UK funky and beyond, in addition to its earlier flirtation with dub techno, than it does any sell out from Paul Rose himself. Nonetheless, as a techno-styled DJ he still delivers a master class of track selection and set design. Crammed into an hour, his set had the feeling of being longer for its patient emphasis on detail and momentum over psychedelia and cheap tricks. It was only towards the end that he employed one or two bass-dropping breakdowns to make his point before finally setting down on his own track “Feel it” from the aforementioned compilation. Distinguished and egoless, Scuba commands for his ability to incite the dance floor and challenge you to listen closely at the same time, the only shame was he couldn’t play for longer.

Aphex Twin

Much like M.I.A. earlier in the evening, you never really know what you are going to get with Richard D. James, but perhaps more so. Would it be gabba, ambient, techno or breaks? Would it be ground breaking, irritating, mischievous, arrogant, reverent or irrelevant? In the end it was perhaps everything and more and was simply astounding, one of the best, perhaps the best live electronic set I have personally ever witnessed. At times disturbing and restless, at others serene and contemplative, Aphex Twin crossed boundaries, distorted genres and generated seemingly new combinations and bewildering juxtapositions at will. Most impressively, he stabbed and fractured beats to the point of arhythmia only to catch them again at the critical juncture and send them back in phase and the crowd mad again. Somewhere in between there was still time for some of classics to enter the fray. Another intriguing aspect was his minimal presence, reduced to pixelated images on the screen, without ever resorting to egotistical self-promotion, complicated videos or worse, an overdose of the Chris Cunningham-derived monster faces. An elaborate performance that was brilliant to the point of genius and satisfying to the point of gluttony.

Die Antwoord

After Aphex Twin and the whole night spent in the massive Sonar Club, it was time for something of a rest out doors in the Sonar Pub with South Africa’s Die Antwoord. For those unfamiliar with the group, they came to fame (or perhaps infamy?) for their ludicrous fashion and videos, purportedly representing a new style of gangsta rap and “next level beats” called Zef. Perhaps a joke, perhaps not, but from our sitting position at the back, certainly hilarious from the ground up, clothes, hair and that helium voice, but not anything to stay too long for or to willingly seek out again. Well done to them anyway for getting such a good gig.

Boys Noize

Last stop for us at least was German DJ and producer Boys Noize (aka Alexander Ridha) back in the main Sonar Club. Catchy for a time, Ridha nonetheless sold himself short and fell into the trap of many of the big acts to play the Club over the years (I am thinking of SebastiAn in 2009 and 2 Many DJs last year) who’s one trick is the breakdown. Decent enough beats and electro sounds for a time, but never a run longer than five minutes before the invariable breakdown and the bass which come slammed back in. The contrast with Scuba for example, or Surgeon the following day is markedly pronounced as their use of the technique was particularly restrained and concentrated more specifically on the narrative design of the set. While Boys Noize was ok to while away some time, it was still not enough to keep us there until the bitter end.

As an afterword, here is a video of said performances by SebastiAn, Ed Banger’s resident chain smoking DJ, which is musically poor, but interesting from the point of view of the stage design, reminiscent of an early 20th Century dictator (ala Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" or perhaps the evil dude from the original Battlestar Galactica tv show). Note the hand gestures to signal the bass drop.