alien currency: valuing stuart chalmers, robert ridley-shackleton, spoils & relics and the piss superstition

May 15, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 3 Comments
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Stuart Chalmers/Robert Ridley-Shackleton – Blunders (tape, Hissing Frames)

Spoils & Relics – Angels Trumpet Over Moonbeams (CD-r, Chocolate Monk, choc.252)

The Piss Superstition – Vocal Learning (CD-r or download, Kirkstall Dark Matter)

vocal learning frontvocal learning backspoils and relics - angelsblunders

Recently my heavyweight cultural commentator status was leaned upon by that talented noise scamp Duncan Harrison.  He wished to pick my brains in an email interview and then use my powerful insights to inform his MA dissertation, thinking, correctly, that my involvement would guarantee him top marks.  His subject, a fascinating one, is the construction of value in noise.  I won’t rehearse too much of what I said to him as a) much of it was culled from previous interviews and blog posts that can be found here or nearby and b) I don’t know what stage he is at in the project or if he intends to publish it himself.  Suffice to say it was a pleasurable business which got me thinking about a difficult subject that I’ve long been nervous about.

To put the question as simply as possible: when faced with two noise performances or recordings what, if anything, makes one better than the other and what allows the listener to make that judgement?  I have been mulling over the implications of this thought whilst enjoying these three releases.  I’ll use the excuse of the reviews to chuck in a bit of light philosophizing too.

A month (or so – sorry: taking care of a baby seems to shrink the calendar) ago, Stuart Chalmers generously sent me a copy of the split tape pictured above and his CD-r Daydream Empire on rock-solid noise label LF Records.  I was especially keen to hear the latter as Uncle Mark over at RFM’s sister blog Idwal Fisher had already lavished praise upon it.  Stuart’s blistering collages are constructed with care, dedication to detail, a dry wit and sense of rhythm.  There is an admirable fluidity to the craziness which suggests hidden narratives beneath the surface froth.  It is delicate and nuanced in places, gibbering bonkers in others.  The recording is immaculate, the package very smart.  In fact, I can’t think of an ‘objective’ measure of quality on which this release doesn’t score highly and yet…  I’m sad to say that I didn’t like it.  Over the course of several benefit-of-the-doubt re-spins I found my attention wandering, unable to latch on.  It is clear to me why others like it and why I ‘should’ like it myself, but knowing that doesn’t help.  Most perplexing – it feels like my fault somehow.

The split tape Blunders, however, despite being ‘less accomplished’ (and I realise that using phrases like that is not helpful when the nature of ‘accomplishment’ is the point being discussed but, hey, I’m not the one writing a dissertation) is great.  Stuart’s side begins with a groaning cassette player, low on battery power or suffering from finger-on-the-capstan syndrome which accompanies Stuart sorting out his recycling, clearly in a bad mood.  There is an appealing physicality to this section – I like to hear things chucked about.  The following sequence is simplicity itself: a short loop is augmented with various clatters and allowed to rise and fall as rhythms emerge and are subsumed in the growing crescendo.  This cuts abruptly and is replaced with some ghostly, chittering squiggletronics layered in overalpping spirals sat atop an uneasy moan.  Effective and gratifying.  Robert’s side begins with a tooth-loosening trebly whine.  This isn’t something I would usually warm to, but it is subject to occasional and semi-rhythmic disruption which proves hypnotic.  Like watching the cool, even flow of a melt water stream disrupted by a child bringing odd shaped muddy objects to wash in it.  The dreamlike atmosphere is continued with a strangely breathy middle section and compounded by a final sequence that feels like lying on a beach listening to light aircraft pass overhead, well, until a smearing of the sound suggests this may be something slightly more sinister – an imposed memory perhaps.  So what of ‘quality’?  Are there such things as objective measures?  If the attributes I list in the previous paragraph are examples then in a ‘tick list’ exercise the CD-r wins out over the tape.  However, as I far prefer the latter to the former, it seems that exhibiting all these virtues does not necessarily lead to a release being ‘good’.

Which brings us to the next point: is saying something is ‘good’ anything over and above saying ‘I enjoyed it’?  Is saying ‘this is better than that’ just a way of saying ‘I liked this more than that’ couched in pseudo-objectivity?  Can I get away with saying, for example, Angels Trumpet Over Moonbeams by Spoils & Relics, volume 4 in Chocolate Monk’s ‘The Well Spliced Breath’ series of releases, is better than all-but-one of the other items on the review pile?  Well, I’m going to…

Spoils & Relics are much loved here.  Their collages of found sounds, unfathomable scrapings, radio twittering and cultural detritus are superficially similar to many other releases that come my way but they seem to add an extra layer in-between their sources and results that others don’t.  Before being recontextualized, the causes they have collected get abstracted and uncoupled from their usual effects.  Elements are recognizable, of course, and some of the filters used are obvious (tapes sped up for humorous effect etc.) but everything is coated with an oily film of, for want of a better word, magic.  Perhaps because the group is a trio the sense that some kind of rite is taking place is more pronounced than it would be with a solo artist.  I dunno.  Never mind: this is 24 minutes well spent.  I was entranced, amused, fascinated.  It weathers repeat listens – the twinkling cragginess becoming more characterful each time around.

Whilst stopping short of claiming my judgement has an objective grounding, I might have a go at a kind of appeal to authority: my own.  I recognize this gambit has no logical force behind it but I have spent thousands of hours over more than two decades listening to and thinking about certain types of experimental music, and many of those hours/years have been spent engaging with this type of noise.  I’d like to think that I’ve developed a certain connoisseurship during that period.  I have a historian’s feel for context, and a fellow practitioner’s (I hesitate to call myself a ‘musician’) appreciation of the methods of construction.  Thus if some ne’er-do-well challenged me to justify my assertion that this CD-r is excellent I would put a friendly arm around their shoulder and calmly explain that I have put the hours in.  Experience allows me to appreciate depth, nuance, texture and/or take joy from immediacy and the unexpected.  Basically: if I know about anything, I know about this.

Which brings me neatly to the pay off.  For the reasons given above, I am well placed to appreciate and savour anything genuinely remarkable and unique that happens along.  Hang on a minute, the sceptic might say, didn’t you just assert that your trustworthy aesthetic judgement was based on a bedrock of accumulated precedent?  If so, how do you account for something unprecedented?  It’s a fair point.  I think I’d try and wriggle out from under it by saying that my experience has taught me that novelty has a value in and of itself and that finding something unclassifiable is usually a good reason for close further attention.  I love those ‘what the fuck am I hearing?!’ moments.  As I said to Duncan: in a scene where anything goes you have to be prepared for anything going.

The Piss Superstition, that is Julian Bradley and Paul Steere, is just such a proposition.  My bromance with JB is over-documented elsewhere on this blog so I won’t go into that again.  Suffice to say I cry uncontrollably whenever I remember that he has deserted Leeds for that Manchester.  Still, we’ll always have the music…

Vocal Learning comprises three tracks totalling approximately 26 minutes and comes on a sleek, black playstation-style CD-r in the nicely designed, minimal packaging pictured above.  It is the second release on Dave Thomas’s microlabel Kirkstall Dark Matter and effortlessly betters the inaugural release by yours truly.  I’m honoured to be in such company.  The music suggests systems gone wrong, like some guy pushed in a punch card upside down and then went to lunch leaving everything running.  Yet heavy, juddering electrics describe arcane symbols as they spiral through the iterations of this garbled instruction set.  Something truly wierd is being revealed.  The serrated buzzing suggests saw mill equipment escaping its moorings and consuming itself as one bladed machine vibrates into the path of another.  But again, there is nothing random about this movement.  All is being conducted by an unfamiliar intelligence for some unknowable purpose.  In the end though, all metaphors, similes, superlatives and whimsy just slide off this band or, at best, get caught in the gears and mashed – such is the beauty, mystery and power of their output.  They do not sound like anyone else and yet, somehow, it turns out that this sound is exactly what I wanted to hear.  Its value can only be calculated by fumbling with an alien currency, glinting strangely in my palm.

Thus: Vocal Learning is the best album of the year so far.  Why?  Because it is – I said so.

LF Records

Hissing Frames

Stuart Chalmers

Chocolate Monk

Spoils & Relics

Kirkstall Dark Matter

The Piss Superstition

3 Comments »

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  1. A monk asked Tozan, “What is the Buddha?”
    Tozan replied, “Three pounds of flax.”


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