The latest reviews, by Richard Johnson and Steve Pescott. More coming soon.
BODIES UNDER THE WATERFALL eponymous LP (Forwind, Ireland, 2019)
Last time I heard this project of George Royle’s was a couple of years ago, when it shared a low-key cassette release with Serbia’s Svetlana Maras. Over the six cuts here similar ground is covered in that Bodies Under The Waterfall is given to dealing out hefty swathes of crepuscular electronics veering between those bound by direct rhythms and others poised for various vortexes of inner and outer space. Whilst such ground continues to be explored by all manner of artists what separates this work is a proclivity for moulding denser sounds from a scope that could all too readily be rendered more lightweight in lesser hands. The range is at once powerful, absorbing and fully immersive, possibly drawing as much from the post-industrial landscape as those more regular ambient shapes sniffed at by all from various modern electronics artists and post-rockers. The dynamism here is what makes it worth returning to as it unravels more with each listen. Another triumph for this label worth keeping an eye on. (RJ)
C.3.3. Ballad of Reading Gaol – The Cacophonietta CD (Cold Spring Records, 2018)
Test Dept.: an egoless, heavily politicised, metal-bashing collective hatched in mid-eighties Sarf London, after seventeen full lengthers and the still excellent ‘Compulsion’ 12″ incher…..Then nothing. I never saw the going of ’em and I don’t even recall any splinter groups forming in their wake. But, miles further down the timeline and like a steely bolt from the blue comes Ballad…; the brainchild of one-time TD founder Paul Jamrozy (electronics/vox), who’s aided and abetted the Roz Corrigan on various keyboards and one vintage (?) gramophone.
If you’re wondering about the project’s moniker, C.3.3. was the cell number where literary genius Oscar Wilde was incarcerated under gross indecency charges and was also the pseudonym for the publication of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which was based on the execution of one of Wilde’s fellow inmates. The curtains open with the superbly evocative tones of ‘Grassy’ Noel Macken’s ‘Prologue’, which guides us into the collection’s four-part centrepiece. ‘Blood and Wine”s oppressive faux orchestral samples merge into the relentless throb and distant earth-moving vibrations of ‘Iron Town’. While the fathom-deep cello-like drone of ‘Gallows Tree’ eventually descends into ‘The Devil’s Own Brigade’; a portal of industrial revolution-referenced hell, where a veritable storm of crackling electricity and curious whiplash sonorities threaten to almost leave the digital confines of the CD and invade your dimension in poltergeist form. At times, this anvil chorus of pounding/crunching jackhammer rhythms reduces its intensity to allow for more melancholic passages which perfectly convey the daily grind/inhuman treatment meted out by these Victorian places of correction. All in all, Ballad… captures more than enough of that brimstone-infused blood ‘n’thunder of yesteryear and, irrespective of the long time MIA, Paul’s creation can be thought of as a valuable addition to the T.D. family tree. (SP)
FALL INTO DRY LUNGS Buried in the Woods CD (Not On Records, Austria, 2018)
When my eyes initially fell upon the sleeve art, I thought that the group’s moniker might be a case of crossed wires in the translation department, but no, it’s simply a commingling of two record labels that are run by band members Christoph F and Petar F. And while we’re at it… one can’t fail to notice the skulls dotted throughout the digipak and disc. I make it forty-seven, which is enough for an ossuary, so Google that! Now, as Richo would almost certainly raise the drawbridge if he glimpsed the black metal fraternity coming over the hill, and as the sleeve’s typeface isn’t (a) spidery/illegible or (b) old English… the smart money then has to be on the ‘harsh noise’ sub-genre. When the beast is wrestled onto the CD player, and the blue touch paper is then lit… we hit pay dirt. Harsh noise it be.
Only drawback with this particular stylistic device is that it has surely seen better days. Those better days in question (during the ’90s, or thereabouts…) did see the advent of ‘Japanoise’, which received much froth and ravings from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, if memory serves. Masonna, Merzbow, The Incapacitants and Hanatarash, etc. all receiving the big thumbs up. But, as the ancient sages say, ‘that was then, this is now”. That initial shock of the new that I encountered with those noiseniks was, in essence, (with a few notable U.K. exceptions like Whitehouse and Ramleh…) a cul-de-sac with precious little opportunity to bust out of its self-imposed limitations. And now positioned at the end of A.D. 2018, F.I.D.L. seem to be a classic case of noise shock for noise sake. Though it does raise a smile to see that this barrage of blackened distortion and squealing oscillators is broken up into five nameless tracks. And save for the occasional cymbal splash or faux siren wail, are all roughly identical in thought and deed. Ahhh you guys! (SP)
MABEL KWAN Trois Hommages – Georg Friedrich Haas CD (New Focus Recordings, USA, 2018)
Being so used to a group dynamic, if I was faced with a ‘piano only’ release in days gone by, I would have made my excuses and quickly headed for the door marked ‘exit’. But in the intervening years, I’ve gently eased myself into this somewhat isolated discipline by listening to the solo pianistics of Brit avant jazzers like Howard Riley and Mike Taylor; a different kettle of fish to Trois… I’ll admit… but in hindsight that was the closest I ever got. Sorry.
But to merely reduce this CD into a two thumbs, eight fingers and eighty-eight keys scenario simply won’t do. As the three pieces here, written by Austria’s leading ‘Spectralist’ composer are for one pianist playing two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart. The ivories are still tuned in twelve equal notes an octave, and played together, sound a twenty-four scale. A sound that’s slightly at odds with western sensibilities, in which a slight disconnect occurs that you just can’t put your finger on. Tipping the cap to a trio of leftfield composer types such as Ligeti, Reich and the lesser-known Josef Matthias Hauer, it’s a case of dilated-pupil repetition with s-l-o-w-l-y evolving changes. The longest cut, the pummelling ‘Hommage a Georg Ligeti’, clocking in at 30:06, tells us in no uncertain terms, that we are in this for the long haul. A round of sandwiches and Kendal Mint Cake might be considered as a nutritional boost should you start to flag half way in….
I guess the question on a few lips (perhaps?) is whether the interpretations of American Mabel Kwan (of Restroy and experimental three-piece Uluuul), are faithful to the intentions of Herr Haas and that’s one I can’t answer (so shoot me!), as the Spectralist canon remains a tantalisingly elusive one to yours truly. I guess there might be a clue in the genre’s name? I will say, however, that those looking for new thrills originating from hitherto unchartered territories should find something of interest here, but gentle reader, it’s not an immediate fix… (SP)
SLEAFORD MODS Eton Alive CD (Extreme Eating, 2019)
The very latest album from this anomaly of a duo has arrived not only on the cusp of yet more turmoil on the political landscape but also at the same time as fissures appearing in the group’s own camp. No longer working with manager Steve Underwood of Harbinger Sound, who helped steer them from playing in rundown toilet cubicles to a bemused audience of two or three people to huge festival appearances and tours that take on large capacity venues, I can only guess how this will affect them in the longer term, but for now they have another huge tour looming and have once again produced an album brimmin’ with the very same allure that made them stand out so much in the first place. 2017’s English Tapas, the one and only album they did for Rough Trade, paid witness to Sleaford Mods’ return to a greater emphasis on the often grazed funk grooves also in the mix from the start, plus less in the way of Jason Williamson’s snarling through broken windows and more of his slightly ravaged soul singing. Yes, the spit-drenched approach was still intact, but from the very outset the man has made it perfectly clear there’s as much love in his affectations for Otis Redding or Al Green as there is for Johnny Rotten or The English Dogs’ Wakey. It’s a blend that’s always worked and on what’s the group’s fifth album ‘proper’ is pushed even further. If there’s any difference at all it is only in that there’s better control over the voice now and I’d be very surprised if he’s not had proper singing lessons over the past few years. It works well, anyway.
The wry commentary and snapshots of life in modern Britain (which can translate way beyond, of course, hence their continually growing international appeal), interlaced with often black comedic couplets beamed from the same place as Shane Meadows or Harold Pinter, also remain embedded firmly in their approach. A good thing, of course, as Jason has a way with words far outside the scope of many. It’s a fine blend of absurdity, presumably still snatched from overheard everyday conversation in mundane everyday situations, and seething frustration that has a more pronounced binding to the old delivery on songs such as ‘Top It Up’, ‘Flipside’ and ‘Big Burt’.
Andrew Fearn’s contribution, often overlooked due to Jason’s having slipped so easily into the role of charismatic (yet slightly unhinged) frontman prone to speaking his mind (which’ll always score points as far as I’m concerned!), has also been teased further despite barely deviating from the chewy yet seemingly simplistic slant the music is anchored to. Vacillating between the kinda 3am grooves Andrew Weatherall proved a master of and occasionally dirtier and nastier beats, tiny nods to widescreen tastes in music can be found more directly on a cut such as ‘O.B.C.T.’ and its Stooges’ ‘No Fun’ lilt into dancefloor territory. On this very same track what sounds like a kazoo also makes an appearance. Not only that but it works. It is almost a perfect metaphor for the group themselves because, when one breaks them down to their individual parts, they sound like they shouldn’t work. It is precisely this that lends them a punkiness not only firmly brought up to date but adds layers of charm to them not to be found so readily against the indie competition they’re now up against.
The entire album is richer than before, buoyed along by more subtle embellishments than usual, and whilst it doesn’t seem so instantly connected to the more boozy and class A-sodden work of yore, and isn’t punctuated by so much swearing, it displays a maturity that’s still in step with everything that led to this point without betraying the fact the group are now in a better place than all the concomitant nefarious baggage that arrives with some of the shit they’ve been through in order to get there. Playful and serious in equal measure, Eton Alive makes for a serious contender in the run up to the year’s many best albums…and we are only just over a month in.
Whatever happens in the aftermath of Sleaford Mods’ current situation, the music at least is strong enough to endure. Whether more D.I.Y. or housed on a bigger label this is what counts, after all. (RJ)
CHRISTOPHER TRAPANI Waterlines CD (New Focus Recordings, USA, 2018)
Waterlines comprises a handful of contempo/new music works by composer/NY resident Christopher Trapani, whose CV includes obtaining a masters at the Royal College of London, working with IRCAM, Paris, and also with spectralist types George Friedrich Haas and Tristan Murail. His scores, meanwhile, have been performed by the sinister sounding ICTUS, ZWERM and the more innocuous BBC Scottish Symphony Ork amongst others. The collection’s flagship opener and title track is built around the tragedy of 2005’s ‘Hurricane Katrina’ which, if memory serves, was largely ignored by the George Dubyah administration. A major catastrophe that wasn’t catastrophic enough obviously. As New Orleans was the focus of this storm, it only seems right and proper that the blues, the state’s first musical language, should be used in the construction of this piece. That involved Trapani sifting through pre-/post-war blues and country recordings for a telling couplet or a particularly meaningful stylistic device or two. Those expecting dreadful cut ‘n’ paste hackwork a la Moby’s hijacking of blues records some time back needn’t reach for the tranquilisers. Instead, standing centre stage is soprano Lucy Dhegrae’ backed by the twenty-strong N.Y.-based Talea Ensemble.
Now it’s not that tight-assed/overly formalised as that set-up might suggest as Lucy’s folk-shaded tones show a sure-footed empathy for the twelve-bar genre and that really comes to life with ‘Devil Sent the Rain Blues’ (with text by pre-war blues legend Charlie Patton and the Lonnie Johnson-derived ‘Falling Rain Blues’ with its perfect backdrop of digital haze and stray electric crackle. Being considerably more of a statement piece (as mentioned before…) the title track does put some of the other compositions in the shade somewhat. However, ‘Visions and Revisions’ has enough high-register neurosis to warm the cockles of Bernard (Psycho) Herrmann’s heart and then there’s also the ectoplasmic trails of ghostly piano on ‘Passing Through, Staying Put’. But it’s ‘Cognitive Consonance’ that easily secures this disc’s silver medal and again showcases The Talea Ensemble, conducted by James Baker. Employing customised and traditionally constructed Turkish zithers, elements of classic ethnic-tinged Krautrock, Limbus 4, mid-period Embryo and even Kalacakra crowd the mind, bringing this to a pleasing and somewhat surprising conclusion, all things considered… (SP)