Review: Various Artists – Clandestine Series Cassette #One

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Long-since sold out (though still available digitally), Northern Spy began a cassette series entitled Clandestine in 2011 with a  four-pack from Messages, Tom Carter (whose Eleven Twenty-Nine project with Marc Orleans is still in my review pile), Zaimph and Loren Connors (see also Haunted House: here)  in a duet with Margarida Garcia (who is also responsible for the artwork). As is the case with compilations, it is difficult – though not impossible – to review as a whole, so I shall begin by focusing on each track in turn.

It is an understated opening from Messages. Electronic and manipulated organic drones intermingle, before being joined by the slow, steady beat of tribal drums. The track does not go far beyond this for the most part, but there is plenty enough to sink into, even for its six-minute duration. Things start meld and merge into each other as the piece draws towards its conclusion, before passing like those long rumbling storms that never quite explode into a violent cacophony. This is a great meditative structure which seems a mere taster of something that might easily stretch out for longer.

Tom Carter provides further meditations, this time reflecting largely on the fret board as though it were a pond and his fingers  were raindrops. There is a lot of control and restraint in his playing and the result is a beautifully calming, but complex and constantly shifting, composition.

Things are a little less calm on the flip side of the cassette. It is as though in the act of turning the cassette over you had somehow altered the very fabric of reality. Here, chaos reigns. What might ordinarily lie in the background is here made foreground, where it sounds with constancy and a thrilling brashness. The guitar and voice refuse to be entirely subdued by this, however, and struggle to push through all the same.

Things do not relent any with the commencement of Loren Connors & Margarida Garcia’s contribution. As I have said before of Connors, he knows how to create a great sonic structure for others to play within. Here is no exception as he builds the foundation on which Garcia plays freely, thrusting into open spaces with strong, sharp bass stabs. There is a lot going on in both parts, however, and it would be impossible to hear all the subtleties in a single listen.

In conclusion, then, this is a neat early sampler from a label that has continued to make greater and greater waves in the more experimental side of contemporary music. Your $4 will get you a great cross-section of some of the major forces in drone, improvisation and the new avant-garde.

Go to Northern Spy directly to purchase and hear samples of this release.


Quick Classic Review: Kathleen Edwards – Failer

Friday, July 20, 2012

ImageQuite a break, as I have been doing exams, moving and decorating and writing a few video game reviews over at Indie Game Bundles (not necessarily in that order), but I really wanted to get something on here before July was out, so here goes.

Nick Horny published 31 Songs, a series of essays on what music means to him, in 2003. One of the appendices of this book was a list of “Favourite Recent Songs”, those he had enjoyed shortly prior to its release, posted without comment. One of these was Kathleen Edwards’ One More Song the Radio Won’t Like. Via my own Task Engine some 9 years later, I found cause to pick up the album on which this song can be found, her 2003 debut Failer.

Country rock does not feature heavily in my music collection, but this is not what you might consider your typical country rock (for one thing, Edwards is Canadian). In terms of sound aesthetic, the closest artists I previously had in my collection to whom Edwards can be compared would have to be English ‘folktronica’ artist Beth Orton and US singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, fluctuating on a spectrum between the two (which would actually put her firmly in the category of folk-rock, so I clearly need a extra point to triangulate her between, which – sticking to my own collection – Tom Petty would have to provide).

Musically, there is a lot here to love. Lyrically the songs are, whilst brilliant, largely a mix of genre staples; untrustworthy lovers, heartbreak, indecisiveness and all that drinking to forget, leading inevitably to either a decision to turn it all around into something better or to fall further still. This is not as much of a criticism as it appears. There is enough going on in each song such that this feels more of a thread of cohesion running throughout the album, loosely holding it together. It never feels hackneyed or clichéd and, if anything, the album feels like it could easily be longer without outstaying its welcome.

Happily, with the release of Voyageur at the start of this year, there are now three other albums to explore, which I am quite likely to do. It will be interesting, as a latecomer starting at the beginning, to see how Edwards’ sound has changed as she has had time and opportunity to develop her sound and been met, so it appears, with ever-increasingly popularity.

Watch below the video for the song that led me here, One More Song the Radio Won’t Like, which features some rooftop juicing and what must be the most thoroughly grilled food of all time:

Purchase: Webstore | Amazon (UK | US)

Kathleen Edwards: Official website

Review: Lux – We Are Not the Same

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Time to review something that has not been sat on my to-do list forever.

Lux’s quietly violent burst of lo-fi shoegaze fuzz We Are Not the Same was self-released early last month. Forged in Seattle in 2010, they quickly worked on a first EP entitled Disorders, which garnered them some attention prepared them for work on their debut album. In spite of the seemingly large gap between releases, they have been working pretty solidly on this, turning down a European tour (offered on the strength of their EP) in favour of continuing the recording process. Plagued by technical errors and lost data, they pressed on, embracing and incorporating these miniature disasters and imperfections into their work, allowing them to push them into different directions and trying things anew. The finished result is an album that happily does not wear this diligence over its true face as a masque, but proudly displays its scars.

The result is a tremendous accomplishment, with a wealth of ideas packed into its 45 minutes. Highlights for me are: The Window, which opens sounding not too distantly akin to New Order’s ubiquitous Blue Monday (which is admittedly a lazy and potentially dismissive comparison, where you could as easily argue that actually they sound like the distillation of the entirety of 1980s synth-pop; judge for yourself below) before pushing well off into its own stylistic territory; X, where Chandler and Rosen’s vocals complement each other most beautifully; and Blackout, a solid wall of bass that eventually dissipates into a heavy guitar riff that is itself quickly joined by bass and vocals just barely straining over the surface of all this activity.

There are, in my opinion, perhaps two throwaway tracks of the 13 on the record. These are opener Coroner’s Office and Candy Lux. Were it not for these, however, the record would lack a little of the sonic diversity it can stake a grand claim to. The former of these serves as a gentler introduction to the sonic aesthetic of the record, whilst the latter – the shortest track on the album – is a cyanide-sweet ditty before things get really dark and dirty in the second half of the record (but would perhaps have been better placed ahead of Cerebellar Ataxia). Here, A Study in Apathy (Drugs, etc.) has a lurking menace not dissimilar from that which is present through much of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral.

I could go on all night pointing at elements of the record and drawing out loose and increasingly contrived comparisons, but the fact is that Lux are not unabashed about citing their influences – Sebadoh and The Magnetic Fields in particular – and this “smorgasbord” (their word, for I cannot think of better) does a great job of taking all these disparate ingredients and crafting something that is very much their own thing.

Below is their homemade video for The Window. You can also stream and/or purchase the album right here:


Lux: Offical blog | Facebook | Twitter

Review: Bird Names – Metabolism: A Salute to the Energy of the Sun

Saturday, April 28, 2012

After a brief break away from my review station, I am back with plans to branch out and review more than merely music (certainly more than music from Northern Spy Records). With that said, here is a first review… of a music release from Northern Spy Records.

Living up to their reputation as being one of the most diverse record labels out there, this 2011 offering is an avant-pop charm which sees Bird Names (David Lineal and Phelan LaVelle) honing a DIY aesthetic into something roughshod yet delectable. Every moment is packed with ideas, but whilst two isolated areas of even a single track could on occasion seem almost irreconcilable, each idea flows so naturally into to the next there are no disjoints, showing this to be a true labour of love. This is a 41-minute guided tour on a dreamlike odyssey; during Dust You Came I felt the closest I have felt whilst listening to music as if I were indeed floating by those tangerine trees and marmalade skies of The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds since that very track. That is not to dismiss this as or to even imply that it bears any relationship to mere muzak, as that could not be much farther from the truth. When I say it is “dreamlike” I do not mean in that sense that is so often used to describe that sort of ambient pop that you find on chillout compilations. This is a dreamscape of the sort you might find on canvas in Dalî’s work, a bubble in which one can pass safely through a sometimes troubling, but always intriguing, environment.

Overall, this is an unapologetic burst of joy, embracing and incorporating its flaws to great effect, demonstrating that sometimes music, too, can be dirty and fun.

They have been busy and prolific for it. Metabolism was Bird Names’ fifth full-length album since 2004, with another six shorter-form recordings appearing here and there for good measure. A fairly broad collection of their work can be sampled at the Free Music Archive, should you wish to hear more than the handful of offerings below.

Phantoms & Fortunes on Soundcloud

Purchase: Northern Spy Records

Official website

Review: The Spanish Donkey – XYX

Friday, March 23, 2012

Historically, the “Spanish donkey” was a torture device at work during the American colonial period, consisting of what resembles a gymnastic vaulting horse sharpened to a pointed wedge at the top. The victim would be stripped naked and made to straddle this as one might a donkey, before having weights attached to their feet and… well, you can picture the rest (especially thanks to the help of the album cover, which sports an image of the device in action). It was not unknown for the wedge to slice through its victim. Brutal, no doubt, but with that special sort of ingenuity that people seem to have when thinking of creative ways in which to be abysmal to one another hidden within the seeming simplicity of its design. Such devices might even be beautiful, if they could be divorced from their purpose.

Whilst we are permitting this digression, I wonder if ever there were friendly arguments after hours between executioners and torturers over who had the harder task? The executioners of old – before the technological innovations of the late eighteenth century, when taking a life was often a far more intimate affair – might argue that to dispatch somebody cleanly takes no small degree of precision and mastery of their tools, but I suspect the torturers could retort that their career carried the same demands, only it is harder to hold somebody over the edge of the precipice without allowing them to fall than to throw them clean off of it.

I have spoken before on names, so we could (and indeed should, given the purpose of this write-up) take a moment to explore here how appropriate the name feels when applied to the band who have chosen to take this moniker for their own. The album consists of two long-form tracks (they offer a relatively short digital bonus, available for streaming below). Both offer demonstrations of both the capacity for animal brutality and calculated restraint one might expect of a technician of cruelty, yet one feels safe in their hands as they work. They take us as close as we can hope to get to the successful separation of such a machine from its original implication, taking us away from it, but never quite removing its shadow from our view.

Mid-Evil is the opener and, at a little shy of the 40-minute mark, the longer of the two. It is also, to my ears, the most energetic. It is impressive, the energy these gentlemen (Jamie Saft on guitar, Joe Morris on keys and bass, Mike Pride on percussion and nose whistle(!)) have. The title track is shorter and more (albeit only slightly) subdued, and where it seems Mid-Evil might never let up, the guitar sounds at its opening like it is playing the sort of lounge jazz you may expect from the sort of establishments we know from American film and television in the 1980s plainclothes law enforcers spend a good deal of their time, only with a more distorted bass to that which they might be accustomed. This lasts about five minutes, until we find ourselves being hauled back into their home territory, which is where that organ kicks in (all the more unsettling for my having recently watched The Abominable Dr Phibes – you can too, here). The beast here sneaks up on you, but once it has you in its maw it does not let up until it has finished its work.

There is never a dull moment. You can allow it the sound to wash over you, or you can tune in and try to penetrate its many layers and nuances (a point made far better by Paul Acquaro over at Free Jazz).

It is no less of the free-jazz freakery I have reviewed both positively and negatively in the past, but it feels somehow a little more harnessed. This is a good thing, which I shall attempt to clarify (but will instead probably wind up getting myself muddled and latching on to some other odd comparative that seems to make up the bulk of my writing). The complaints that I made in my previous review do not apply here. This is not the out-of-control vehicle with too many drivers described there, but more like Cerberus – a three-headed beast that, having been disturbed, has erupted into a wild fury, but, once the chase is over, simmers back down to its rest. The tracks might seem as though bursting with all the violence of Hades, yet things wind to what seems a very natural finish and, at last, we are allowed to capture our breath, ready – perhaps – to dive in once again.

Here are some samples; one visual, both audible:

The Spanish Donkey | NYC @ Death By Audio | 28 Jul 2011 from (((unartig))) on Vimeo.

Purchase: Northern Spy Records

You can read more about the individual artists here.

Review: Rhys Chatham – Outdoor Spell

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

We continue our exploration of the catalogue of Northern-Spy Records with Paris-based American post-minimalist pioneer Rhys Chatham’s Outdoor Spell, a body of work largely based around trumpet and voice, rather than the guitar pieces for which Chatham is more widely known. Indeed, the only guitar present on the album appears in only one of the four tracks and is not played by Chatham himself, but by French avant-garde guitarist and GRIM co-founder (Le Groupe de recherche et d’improvisation musicales) Jean-Marc Montera.

I get the impression – though I have no means of propping up this theory myself as yet – that having some knowledge and appreciation of Chatham’s prior work might make for a more complete and rounded experience. As it is, coming to it without, a feeling is left (and not merely by the reviews of the work, though these have cemented this gut response) that this perhaps reflects a side to Chatham that is not as usual. It makes it harder, perhaps, to appreciate in isolation. Of the pieces herein, the one I would return to second most frequently (in actuality, one of only two tracks here I would revisit with any great enthusiasm) would be The Magician, a 12-minute band piece also featuring Kevin Shea on drums, but even this can seem at points as a roughshod free jazz ride in which it seems the whole thing holds its course only because all involved happen to be on the same vehicle, even if there is some doubt as to who is actually doing the driving. This seems most apparent by its lack of cohesive conclusion, as the track disappointingly fades out to close off the album.

For a more controlled ride, you might prefer title track and album opener Outdoor Spell, a drone piece that sees Chatham utilising effects on his voice to create a field in which his trumpet is allowed to burst forth in moments of play. It creates an opening salvo that the rest of the album cannot quite return. I would go so far as to say that this track fades too soon. As it dwindles there are signs that there are more ideas that could work here. Instead, we are plunged into the chaos of Crossing the Sword Bridge, an untidy track that seems cut together not quite at random.

Perhaps I am denigrating this release in too off-hand a fashion and maybe a little aural research into Chatham’s history might assist in winning me over, but as a standalone introduction to an artist, this does not do it for me. The research undertaken in preparing this article has done more of this for me, so perhaps I might recommend starting with that and coming around to Outdoor Spell only after exposure to some of his other works. An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, a 3 disc set released on Table of the Elements seems a not too unreasonable place to start, if you can get it.

Rhys Chatham: Official Website

Purchase: Northern-Spy Records (see also for audio and video samples)

Review: Jooklo Duo – The Warrior

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jooklo Duo are Virginia Genta on tenor and soprano sax and clarinet and David Vanzan on drums, who perform what is termed “fire music”. As fire, this music seems to consume all in its path. It is unrelenting and each side of this now unavailable 7″ (digital downloads are still available) could not be more appropriately titled. Primitive Power opens with Genta’s wailing saxophone, which, though calling out for a response, seems in itself enough to occupy the senses, before Vanzan answers the call and all hell breaks loose. The two sides culminate in a little under ten minutes of live performance, which packs enough energy in it to fill an ordinary LP. Each side ends abruptly but for the crash of a cymbal that seems to indicate that this energy is restrained only by the limitations of the medium onto which it has been recorded.

Jooklo Duo are currently on tour in Europe. They are performing tonight in Germany, before doing a tour of Italy. Below is an example of a what at first seems a more restrained live performance, but gives an indication of what you might expect of a live show.

Jooklo Duo: Official site (where more samples are available for streaming).

Purchase: Northern-Spy Records