Monday, April 30, 2012

Life is like a broken record

More regular posts soon to cover the Störung Festival, once up on RA, and this weekend past have been in Gijon in the north of Spain for the L.E.V. Festival.

Meanwhile, the last word about Albert Camus for the time being (I just finished reading his notebooks). This time it is Jean-Paul Sartre speaking about Camus that is interesting. After Camus’s death in January 1960, Sartre wrote a tribute piece in English for The Reporter that has also been collected in several places. Sartre writes:

“Every life that is cut off-even the life of so young a man - is at one and the same time a phonograph record that is broken and a complete life. For all those who loved him, there is an unbearable absurdity in that death. But we shall have to learn to see that mutilated work as a total work.”

The metaphor is a strange one, almost seeming to imply that a complete disc of music is now broken and we must learn top play it despite the missing pieces. But one senses he might also mean a record that was never fully finished, leaving part of a symphony unfinished, unrecorded, with it. But is this a broken record? Clearly Sartre also never imagined a world populated by Marcus “Oval” Popp, Christian Marclay and Yasunao Tone.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Shining the light on Spiritualized

Since the break-up of Spacemen 3 in 1991, the two main protagonists, Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember and Jason “Spaceman” Pierce have gone on to wildly different things with quite different degrees of success. Sonic Boom has quietly droned away as the prolific and ambient Experimental Audio Research (EAR) and his less visited, but highly loved pop alias Spectrum (who's first album has just been re-released on vinyl alongide the Sonic Boom "Spectrum" album). Yet somehow Kember feels confined to the outskirts of indie-dom and the more academic circles of experimental music.

Spiritualized on the other hand, have engrained themselves into British music history, releasing either one or two classical albums (depending on your point of view), headlined festivals and the Royal Albert Hall and still make the papers whenever there is some news. Pierce is thus a legend, although at times his music has been questionable, whereas the more consistent Kember is frequently overlooked.

There are some parallels to be made with another British song writing power house, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In the final days of The Beatles, McCartney was praised for his championing of experimentalism, like allowing William S. Burroughs to use the Abbey Road studios, and yet went on to produce a whole lot of dross for many years as if he had learned nothing.

Meanwhile, Lennon was holed up at home, drugged out and wondering where to go. In the process of finding out, he made several influential and enduring albums, as well as a lot of dross, before his untimely end. The enduring reputation of the two men, like Kember and Pierce is starkly different. The key word here is obviously “enduring”, that might also be defined here as “the functional myth of something”.

(This song even has many similarities to a lot of Spiritualized tracks)

McCartney of course bears some resemblance to Pierce who, despite all the posturing and the occasional brilliant track, has largely underwhelmed on disc recently, whereas Kember might not have a cemented classic in his solo discography, but he nonetheless has accumulated an unshakeable respect and his discography is less accessible, but nonetheless consistent. It’s a shame that commercial success doesn’t always mean credibility.

The problem for Spiritualized is really their supposed classic “Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space” (1997). While a fantastic album it nonetheless only served to roust Pierce into a corner from which he is still trying to escape: each album since then has, at worst, copied from the template (in particular the hit and miss follow-up “Let it come down”), or at least cherry picked from the same musical and lyrical ideas. But “Ladies and gentlemen…” ’s other problem is that it is also not a perfect album musically. It’s classic status comes from its importance to the moment it was released: a Britain savouring the first post-Tory days with Blair’s New Labour government as well as the thrum of being “Cool Britannia”  with both Brit-pop and the now infamous Sensation exhibition conquering the world. The album’s packaging both acknowledged this, in particularly the work of enfant terrible Damian Hirst who around the same time as the album release opened his chemist shop-inspired bar The Pharmacy in London’s en vogue Notting Hill, based on a 1992 work. But the second half of the album suffers somewhat from a lack of ”endurability” in songs and form, even while the sentiment and lyrics occasionally still run rich with Pierce’s sincerity. Without the epic “Cop shoot cop”, still probably Pierce’s best solo song, the album would easily fade away.

Indeed, the sincerity that made “Ladies and gentlemen…” so famous became the most obvious tripping point in the subsequent albums, with lyrics lacking poignancy as they searched for that same, intimate revelation, but often ended up sounding corny and, with time, repeated, thereby dulling the meaning. Musically as well, Pierce seemed to be struggling for direction, trying to rough things up on “Amazing Grace” for example, while playing stripped down as “acoustic mainlines”, or losing the once ubiquitous gospel choir. Even the artwork has become a little resurrected, with the stark green lettering of “Songs in A&E” very reminiscent of the new “Huh?” cover, or the inner photo of the bloody-nosed pierce resembling the pasty portraits of “Amazing Grace”. Finally, even the stories of ill health and near death start to sound weary. Pierce recorded the recent album in difficult circumstances, undergoing experimental drug treatment for a serious liver condition. The drug company Roche is even credited with thanks, alongside Haribo, presumably for his daughter Poppy who is also credited on two tracks. “Songs in A&E” was famously preceded with the story of Pierce literally dying of double pneumonia with his partner and daughter by his side while there is almost no point in mentioning the broken heart that inspired “Ladies and gentlemen…”. But go back to “Let it come down” and Pierce was bemoaning fake internet stories that said he had lost all feeling in his legs that, retrospectively, doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

But my argument is that “Sweet light, sweet heart” is one of the best Spiritualized albums for a long time, by both default and merit, but also that Spiritualized’s debut “Lazer guided melodies” is more of a classic than “Ladies and gentlemen…”. Not only is it genuinely psychedelic, unlike much of the new material, despite the frequent drug references, but it has more expressive song writing and Pierce’s exceptional level of detail in the production. Just as importantly it is sincere and fallible. One feels and relates to the uncertainty of the world that Pierce describes and transmits, perhaps inspired by the breakup of Spacemen 3? In particular the C-side double of “Take your time” and Shine a light” are perhaps the only true rivals to “Cop shoot cop” in intensity and perfection. Live versions delivered on the records potency while the rest of the album is just as perfect, as are the many singles that accompanied it at the time and eventually became the compilation-like "Pure phase".

(This live version of "Shine a light" that becomes the extended jam "Clear light/clear rush" is one of the other pinnacles of Spiritualized's output from the "Fucked up inside" live album).

The new album works better than predecessors by sounding a bit more earnest lyrically and musically. Sure, Pierce is still copying and pasting from old material, like the lyric “I got two arms that hold you but no mind for the road” from “Freedom” which recalls “I’ve got two little arms to hold on tight and want to take you higher” from “Soul on Fire”. What makes the difference here is the use of more 3rd person narratives whereby Jason becomes the observer and recorder of events, a bard, like a less dramatic Lou Reed. As well as the homage to Reed in the title, there are some Reed-like tributes to women like the lovely lead single “Hey Jane” and “Mary”, whereas the excellent “Headin for the top” and the aforementioned  “Hey Jane” have voluminous lyrics by Pierce’s standards.

The change in lyrical style may be due to age or being a father and thus the need to have a certain distance from the often seedy and/or spiritual subject matter. That said, Poppy does sing on several tracks including some weird lyrics on the closing “So long you pretty things”.

Curiously, the title and sound pays homage to the David Bowie track “Oh! You pretty things” from “Hunky Dory”

This is not the first Bowie tribute in the music of Spiritualized. The main riff from “Come together” is an homage of sorts to the finale of “Rock n roll suicide” from the “Ziggy Stardust” album.

One of the interesting features of this video is the lyric “Little Johnny’s all messed up”, sanitized for radio friendly air-play from the original “Little Johnny’s sad and fucked” that appeared on the slightly longer album version. Not the first time Pierce, or indeed Spacemen 3 censored lyrics. “Walking with Jesus” once sported the lyric “I can’t stand this life without sweet heroin”, occasionally sung live, against the official version of “I can’t stand this life without all of these things” from "The Perfect Prescription". Strange that such confrontational groups would see the need to tone their language down. At least in the "Walking with Jesus" case, the censored lyric has more universal interpretation.

(lyric around 2:30 in this demo version. Note the sound is also very reminiscent of The Cramps, one of Kember’s favourite bands at the time).

But while “Sweet light, sweet heart” is a good album, it still is not quite one that seems like it will endure like some of its predecessors. The trippyness of the third vinyl side, in particular the excellent “I am what I am”, gives way to an okay country and western finish, but one laced with far too many (more) lyrics about Jesus. Having been so close to death so many times, and so close to life with his family, you can forgive Pierce for the searching, but slightly redundant questions about the meaning of life and the need for salvation, but a little bit more diversity is needed to elevate the album to the next level. But the overall feeling is one of gladness to have Jason home and well again, but still hoping that he will get better still and make at least one more classic before he finally does go walking with Jesus.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Unsettled minds - Atonal music

Another quote from Albert Camus about music, this time from his "Note Books (1951 - 1959)" with this particular entry written in 1954.

"Atonal music, music for the voices, for the feverish voice of modern man"

Presumably he is referring to the second wave of atonal music, or more precisely the 12-tone serialist form pioneered by Schoenberg that was slightly more contemporary than the Second Viennese School that preceeded the first world war. In any case, it is nonethless a powerful insight from Camus to link the music to the voice of modern man at the time, a world still recovering from the war and in need of structure. But there is also a sense of rebellion in atonal music that must have resonated well with camus who had just published his celebrated novel and essay "The Rebel" that lead to his much publicised break with Sartre

In "The Rest is Noise" Alex Ross also takes up this theme of rebelion, linking the first wave of atonality with Thomas Mann's novel "Doctor Faustus". Indeed, this novel is perhaps the the most imprtant reference throughout the book. He quotes from another Mann story "Gladius Dei" about the effect of art on society which parallels the themes of "Doctor Faustus":

"Art is the sacred torch that must shed its merciful light into all life's terrible depths, into every shameful and sorrowful abyss; art is the divine flame that must set fire to the world, until the world with all its infamy and anguish burns and melts away in redeeming compassion!"

In this sense, atonality is pictured as a rebellion against "the bourgeois worship of art", or art purely as decorative form, a gold leaf covering, when more important social matters where stirring: the increase in inequality and the rise of national socialism. An important philosopher of the times, Otto Weininger wrote:

 "everything purely aesthetic has no cultural value"

a phrase that had much influence in one of the other principle atonal musicians at the time, Alban Berg.

One can draw parallels to modern music, but perhaps particularly electronica: is it all aesthetic now? Do we need something more rebelious to reflect our times or to wake us from our torpor?

It is also a curiosity then, that Russian director Alexander Sokurov has returned to the theme with his latest film "Faust" based in part on Goethe's classic work and also the novel of Thomas Mann.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Water sports – Nautical dub, dolphin islands, Scuba bashing, Monolake and deep sea dwellers

Porter Ricks – Biokinetics

"The nautical view evokes a clear vision, something freeing. The club as a diving platform, and techno as a nautical sound experience, a project that lies between clubs and art."

The Type label has just re-released the seminal Porter Ricks album “Biokinetics” for the first time in 16 years. The album by the duo of Andy Mellwig and Thomas Köner was originally issued as a series of 12”s and then as one of the famous self-destructing metal boxes on the Chain Reaction label. One curiosity of the re-release that has not been picked up on is the cover art, more so since a characteristic of the original Chain Reaction label was the absence of art, only a logo and track names all emblazoned in the labels trademark steely, cold colours. With so many watery track titles like “Nautical dub”, “Port Gentil” and “Nautical zone” as well as the group’s name deriving from a character in the dolphin TV show Flipper, you would think that Type might have gone for a more aquatic cover image.

The image chosen was a sepia tinted photo negative of the sky above peeling grey clouds, watched over by a black sun. Although the clouds can easily be induced to resemble the ocean, there is something a little stuck-on or last minute about the image, perhaps more so since after 16 years it is finally receiving a visual christening. But the choice is difficult since as well as the sea, there are also clear urban atmospheres within the album, particularly the train noises of the brilliant opener “Port Gentil”, still one of the all-time great techno tracks. Now all we need is a more focused Chain reaction release for the releases that have not yet received it.

Dolphins into the Future - Canto Arquipelago

Lieven Martens has just released his latest album as Dolphins into the Future entitled “Canto Arquipelago”. The album was apparently recorded by Martens in the fishing village of São João on the small island Ilha Do Pico in the Azores archipelago. “Canto” is a much less electronic outing than previous records and even resembles a kind of watery jazz at times. Nonetheless, fans will still find Martens particular musical tropes all over the album, from wind and wave noises, to imitations of dolphins and the evocation of the presence of people. There are two lovely videos to accompany the release, one an animation with text by Zahid Jiwa from the Dolphins official website.

And also a film by Martens under the name Lieven Moana that serves a trailer for the album.

Scuba – Personality

Scuba’s new album has been ruffling feathers as far as the eye can see. One of the biggest problems seems to be either the lack of commitment by critics to defending it or panning it outright, resulting in reviews with mixed messages. On the other hand, the public response is also confused with many upset by the perceived change in direction, something that actually occurred sometime ago as reported here, something that in the end should be taken as a good sign.

An average score seems to have been about 3-5/5 taken from the various sites, with Pitchfork giving it a more positive 8.1 via the words of RA contributor Andrew Ryce. Check out Any Decent Music for an interesting overview of reviews. But rather than letting the critics talk, it is perhaps more informative to look at the comments for where the album went right and wrong, albeit the language of comments is often a bit crude.

On Resident Advisor, rezerekted23 maybe gets the politics right, but says very little about the album itself:

“It's funny, I could tell that their score for the album wasn't going to be that good because they took so long to get it out. It seems like the longer they take to put out a review of a super-hyped album, the lower a score that it will have.

Also, knowing what we do about Scuba, when has he ever been content to stick to the same sound? Pure dubstep is so far gone that it isn't just him that's abandoning the sound. As for the forward-thinking-bass sound of Triangulation, while he could put another album of that out today... even that sound is starting to fade.

House and techno is what's in right now. Look at Pinch, Martyn, Instra:mental, Ben UFO, Pearson Sound etc. Everyone is making throw-back/ retro house, techno and breaks. Maybe he feels like he needs to keep up with this trend? Also, he's lived in Berlin now for four-and-half years, I'm surprised that he is only now just making 4/4 stuff on a regular basis.”

Still at RA, Adam420 addresses the musical pros and cons in a succinct way:

 "Also it feels a bit juvenile and naive, but the production quality is still almost as good as you'll get.”

This hits the nail on the head: the music is outstanding as ever and in some cases its colours and rushing floods of sound are quite exhilarating, but invariably there is a clumsy moment that undermines all the good work, particular the much derided vocals on “The Hope” and the spoken word opening of “Ignition Key” which is otherwise a fantastic track.

Funklestiltskin says on RA “What a nice, shiny piece of shit this album was.” Which is a tad harsh as well as crude. But taking the analogy further with the phrase “You can’t polish a turd” you can invert it to become “You can’t polish a great track with a crappy vocal”.

Over at FACT, JD says:

“What's unfair is critics bending over backwards trying to praise this album with half-assed platitudes like "fun!" and "honest" and "ballsy".” “I do suppose nothing quite says "fuck you" like making a tepid electro/prog-trance album and having no one (that matters anyway) call it out.”

It is hard to call out an album that is let down by only a few key moments, just as it is difficult to really stand behind it, but again the problem of JD seems to be that he/she/it is looking for another moody “Triangulation” and won’t let go. Anyone like JD still doubting the new direction should see the well selected, but strangely mixed DJ Kicks set from Photek which also showcases a certain big beat sound to see that Scuba is still up with the times.

The question is still why all this naivety? Why such a fun and dare I say it “teenage” album from Scuba? (There is a CD version and a poster of the cover art included in the vinyl by the way, if I needed to justify the teenage angle more – and is the cover really a hand in the air and a sun as I thought it was a burning match?). Is all this “fun” due to a reduced work ethic and a “that will do” attitude? The production quality and excellent sequencing doesn’t sound like it to me. Was it part of the big change that crystallised around “Adrenalin” and/or a new way to enjoy producing? Maybe. Dubstep has certainly been dour and paranoid at times, like drum n bass used to be (and maybe still is?). Scuba’s output has also been prolific for a guy who is also playing out a lot and running a label, so maybe something a bit lighter is necessary for state of mind if nothing else. But this also answers the question to some degree: a look at where Scuba has been playing will show his rise from dark and dank dubstep clubs to the big stage and now beyond. Last year he headlined Sonar in Barcelona and this year he will play indie rock festival Primavera Sound. Scuba’s audience has changed, his environment has changed, even if some of his fans didn’t move on. Finally, after so many years of hard work and making cutting edge music, I would not begrudge him commercial success at all. At least he has done it with a decent album.

Scuba himself can have the last word, posting on RA:

“Posted by Orbital316It: "honestly doesn't feel like a big radical departure from his other work to me, as some people are making it out to be".
Yup, people saying the opposite obviously haven't listened to either the old or new stuff in much detail. Adrenalin definitely was a departure, that was the point. There's as much continuity as there is difference between this album as the last one.”

Not bad, even for an Arsenal supporter!

Finally two curiosities. The squeaky chipmunk intro at the start of “Ne1butu” intones

“I’ve never heard you break it down like this”

There is a striking similarity between this and the end to the Mouse on Mars track “Polaroyced” from their new album “Parastrophics” when a similarly high pitched voice whines

“Jesus, what happened to Mouse On Mars? They’ve departed so far from their beginning!”

The actual vocal line is edited out from the end of this simple, but great video sadly, but the main riff of this track also sounds like it might be a homage to Manuel Göttsching’s "E2E4". But this micro-trend for self-reference is quite curious.

Scuba’s album has many trance elements to it, without quite stooping to stereotype, a genre I recently wondered whether it would ever surface into respectability again. Similarly, one of the last questions asked in my 2011 round up  was whether or not Drum n Bass might make a comeback this year. There are a few moments on “Personality” that hint at a more drum n bass direction, none more so than “Cognitive dissonance”.

As well as this Scuba track, there is the DnB sound of Monolake (see below), the widely reported news of the demise of Commix and reviews of their “Dusted” collection as well as recent positive reviews  of Kasra’s “Fabriclive 62” mix amongst others. Not quite enough to suggest a comeback, but maybe a few archival releases and a few more cross-over singles and we might be there.

Monolake – Ghosts

Speaking of DnB, and also of genre confusions, Robert Hencke’s brilliant “Ghosts” album for his own Imbalance Computer Music imprint has ruffled few feathers while simultaneously causing critics to drool. While it represents another impeccable release, one can’t help but feel more sympathy for Scuba given that “Ghosts” doesn’t really go much beyond “Silence”, or even the jittery sound of earlier Monolake releases, and yet is still lauded, whereas Scuba cops it for trying something different. Similarly, Henke seems to get away with appropriating maligned genres like DnB without negative consequences, whereas the audience is indifferent to Scuba.

Perhaps the difference between the two is the same issues as before, just a few crappy vocals makes the difference between brilliant and good. It is of note that the title track is the opening track and bears the unmistakable robotic lyric:

 “You/do not/exist – Get out of my head”

Somehow this opening seems like a portal: the rest of the album resembles as much literal landscape as soundscape, with the ghostly protagonist left to wander through the smoky, skeletal world, wondering if he/she is truly dead. It is tempting to try and interpret the text of the inner sleeve and the track titles, “Lilith” the first woman, “the existence of time”, “Aligning the daemon”, but the mystery only unfurls further, just like the music itself which slips further and further into textural detail with every closer listen. The cover images of the two releases are also outstanding. “Silence” converted what should have been the blue and white of sky and snow into pink and yellow, not so much sickly as vivid and more alive. “Ghosts” cover should be a spectral black and white, but shimmers with faded green and sepia tones as if blooming in reverse.

Drexciya – Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller

Clone Classic Cuts have just announced  the second instalment of the lovely Drexciya re-release project. While we wait for this, it is worth returning to two things brought up in The Wire issue 321 (2010) which features a Drexciya primer, but also a story about Turner Prize-nominated artists The Otolith Group who created a film work “Hydra decapita”  based around the mythology of Drexciya. No excerpts from the film are available, but there is plenty of other material and interviews available for the curious.

The Otolith Group are not the only artists to take inspiration from the myths of Drexciya. For the last few years, Ellen Gallagher has been exhibiting a series of paintings  called “Coral Cities” also based on the underwater world of abandoned slaves created by Drexciya.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Fall - Albert Camus at the disco

A lovely line from Albert Camus’ novel “La Chute” (The Fall) that may have some residence for clubbers perhaps?

“Sometimes, late in these nights when dance, mild intoxication, my fury, everyone’s violent abandon, would throw me into a wearied and full rapture, it seemed to me, at the edge of fatigue, and in the space of a second, that I finally understood the secret of beings and of the world. But the fatigue disappeared the next day and, with it, the secret…”

It is still a great shame that Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was never able to realise a film version of the novel.