documents of the golden age: new from ashtray navigations, aqua dentata and helicopter quartet

July 29, 2013 at 7:30 am | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 7 Comments
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Ashtray Navigations – Insect Descent (CD-r, Obsolete Units, OU-042, edition of 100)

Aqua Dentata – Ten Thousand Wooden Faces (CD-r, Echo Tango, etc02)

Helicopter Quartet – Where Have All The Aliens Gone? (self-released download)

ashtray - insect descentaqua dentata - ten thousand wooden faceshelicopter quartet - where have all the aliens gone

Musing on the quality of the releases above, and on the methods by which they found their way to me, led me to revisit some comments made by Simon Reynolds in that speech we talked about last year.  In particular, the bit where he seemed to champion the freedoms won by punk whilst being suspicious of the freedoms allowed by the internet.  He also bemoaned the lack of an audience for the avalanche of creative endeavour that is instantly accessible nowadays.  He worried that all this production needed validating by sufficient consumption and that the required level of consumption just wasn’t there.  Hence his reference to my notion of the ‘no-audience underground’.

Regarding the first worry, well, of course we should all be grateful to punk for wresting the means of production (partially at least) from the majors of the mainstream.  It showed that the music ‘industry’ could be run by and for fans and artists.  May I cheekily point out, however, that all the elements that made up the mainstream music industry were retained by punk: releases, tours, press, promotion etc.  Even, in some cases, old-school bullshit like management and contracts.  The fan/artist (stage/pit) divide was made more permeable but wasn’t eliminated.  That these means were co-opted by people who weren’t godawful wankers and who really cared about the music and the politics is not the same thing as jettisoning them altogether.  I realise that I am being naughtily revisionist in doubting the ‘Year Zero’ status of punk but you know what I mean.

In contrast, the freedoms offered by the internet are greater by orders of magnitude.  Via services like Bandcamp any sound at all can be made available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection, at no unit cost to either the artist or the listener, within minutes of it being completed.  Punk couldn’t compete with that: it’s as transparently democratic, anarchic even, as it is possible to be in a ‘music-related’ context.  Sure, engage with traditional elements if you like (running a label, for example, is a fun thing to do and still one of the best ways of organising a cluster of artists who share similar objectives) but you don’t have to.  The extent to which you commit yourself is entirely your own concern.  You don’t have to sound punk either, or cop a snarling attitude.  Simon Reynolds, betraying an old-fashioned punknosity, suggests the underground should define itself in opposition to the mainstream.  Quaint, eh?  In turn I’d suggest that it is far more radical to ignore it.  The machine loves to be raged against – what it can’t bear is to be shrugged off as irrelevant.  Which, of course, it is.

The second worry seems to be based on a misunderstanding of why we do what we do.  If we instead take as read that the primary purpose of most worthwhile creative endeavour is self-expression then this concern just dissolves.  ‘But where are the fans?’ Simon says, ‘what do you mean ‘fans’?’ I reply, looking up from the keyboard and glancing nervously over my shoulder.  It is lovely to have an appreciative audience, I understand this – I’m as vain and needy as the next guy, but this is a secondary concern.  In fact, aren’t we supposed to be suspicious of ‘art’ created with the audience in mind, that is, with an eye on the market?  Isn’t that what we call ‘product’?  Not very ‘punk’ is it?  Sure, I’ll settle for market-driven pabulum if I find myself in an undemanding mood but I’m equally sure that the stuff featured on this blog is created without any concern for how many ‘units’ it might shift.  We all appreciate the occasional reward – we work hard – but no one here needs a fist-pumping crowd to validate what they do.  A friend joked the other day that the ratio of artists to listeners on Bandcamp is 10 to 1, then was careful to add: which is how it should be.  I agreed, laughing.  The production of all this work is, in and of itself, a terrific thing.  What should we be doing instead?  Passively consuming CDs recommended by veteran cultural commentators presumably.  Ugh: boring.

So why rake over these coals again?  Well, these three releases nicely illustrate three choices about levels of commitment to the process, and give three crystal clear examples of the majesty that can be achieved by people following their vision irrespective of whether or not it will ‘sell’.  All are also expansively psychedelic, albeit in different ways, and thus suitable listening during the recent heat.

Ten Thousand Wooden Faces by Aqua Dentata comprises five untitled tracks totalling about three quarters of an hour.  They are presented to us by Eddie Nuttall himself via his ‘echo tango’ imprint on CD-r in the stylishly minimal, ‘wood grain’ print cover pictured above.  Once again I am impressed with his exquisite discipline.  This is electronic noise as tai chi performance: poised, muscular, subtle, focussed.

The first track features not much more than a tone hovering at midriff level whilst a rolling rattle seesaws to and fro around the stereo field.  I have no idea what the sound source for this liquid clatter might be but it calls to mind happy hours from my early childhood spent dropping endless marbles down a homemade run constructed from bits of cardboard and sellotape.  The six year old’s equivalent of meditation.  The second track is almost modernist in its austerity but I find this drone soulful and not the slightest bit academic or aloof.  It is like a Beckett play – formally minimal, intensely human.  The third track finds the gradual smearing of an early morning burglar alarm reconceptualised as the centrepiece of Eddie’s album.  Context is everything – sat here it is perfect.

The main event is the fourth track: an 18 minute stretch so magnificent that I feel compelled to coin a new sub-genre to account for it.  I used the phrase ‘tethered crescendo’ in the piece I wrote about Lucy Johnson but would like to flesh it out here.  What I mean is the type of piece that exists in an uneasy stasis and gives the impression that it could roar into chaos if it wasn’t being held delicately but firmly in place by the guiding hand of the artist.  I picture Eddie struggling with a sack full of drunken wasps or holding his hands stock still over a crackling, multipronged, malignant-looking, sentient Theremin.  We end with a short coda of dangerously wet electrics which, inevitably, short circuit and leave us in ozone-scented darkness…

Where Have All The Aliens Gone?, the new album by Helicopter Quartet also comprises five tracks totalling about three quarters of an hour, this time self-released as a pay-what-you-like download via Bandcamp.  It is fair to say I swooned over the first Helicopter Quartet album and I have been quivering with anticipation since hearing that the duo of Chrissie Caulfield (violin, synth) and Michael Capstick (guitar, bass) were recording their second (y’know, in a studio and everything, like a real band).  Expectations were high and I’m happy to say that they have been comfortably exceeded.

Their sound (‘drone rock’? ‘dark ambient’? I don’t know) is dense and rich, each element absorbing in its own right, all contributing to a mysterious but coherent whole.  It is like finding an ornately inlaid wooden casket containing a collection of exquisitely handcrafted objects: what might be a bear, carved from obsidian, a female form cast in an unplaceable grey/green metal, an abstract pattern, possibly even unreadable script, scrimshawed onto yellowing bone.  All irresistibly tactile, all fascinating, all revealing aspects of the character of the unknown and long dead collector who gathered them together.

It is cliché to describe simplicity as ‘deceptive’ and efficiency as ‘ruthless’ but both phrases are perfectly apt in this case.  There is no waste, no let up, the emotional demands of this music are unmistakeable.  Despite the jokes about torturing aliens on its Bandcamp page, this is a deeply serious music but, like Aqua Dentata above, it is epic on a human scale.  Allow me an anecdotal illustration.  The other day I found myself walking home from work chewing over some difficult news.  No need for specifics – suffice to say that aged 41 years old I find myself surrounded by young children, elderly relatives and am occasionally (still) shocked by mortality and frailty in my peer group. In short: I am now a grown up.  This album was playing on my walkman at the time and it resonated so perfectly with my mood that at one moment – it could have been the violin’s entrance in the title track, maybe the guitar in ‘Hunter Gatherer’ – it pulled at me so irresistibly that my mental jenga pile collapsed and I found myself crying, hard, whilst waiting to cross a road at Sheepscar junction.  Remarkable.  I think HQ can consider that a standing ovation.

Finally, we have Insect Descent by Ashtray Navigations, a pro-pressed CD-r in full colour digipak lovingly produced in an edition of 100 by American label Obsolete Units.  Yet another five track album but this one is a monster 73 minutes long.  The music herein was recorded by Phil solo (can I make the ‘on his todd’ joke?  Hah! – I just did!) back in 2008 but, mysteriously, has languished unreleased since then.  I don’t know the story but no matter – all’s well that ends well and we should thank Obsolete Units for doing their duty in making it available.

We begin with ‘The Trail Of The Long Wet Mystery Fruit That Dropped Into The Lion’s Mouth’, two minutes of scene setting psychic alarums – the kind that might go off in your head when you realise you’ve just taken twice as many magic mushrooms as you originally intended.  We are then launched into ‘Insect Descent Trajectory’ which is 12 minutes of orgiastic delirium.  Picture a neon-lit pit full of writhing, multi-limbed, demigods wearing nothing but day-glo body paint.  Every protuberance is for fucking with, every crevice and orifice is to be fucked.  Yeah, Phil uses the medium of the guitar overdub to paint a vivid scene.  The bip-bop, electronic percussion track that accompanies the squalling is hilariously strutting, bad-ass, daring you to laugh at its rinkydinkyness.

The wet electrics that ended the Aqua Dentata album resurface as the main component of ‘One Million Pleasurecards All Painted White’ – 23 minutes of guttural rumble, like the drainage system of a large, Northern, post-industrial city attempting to clear its throat before announcing something important.  This growling throb is leavened by guitar occasionally bobbing to the surface – giant fuzzy dice emerging miraculously unsullied from an oil-slick filled bay.

By the time we get to ‘Fake Aeroplane’ the mushrooms from earlier have well and truly kicked in and you find yourself fried and sitting on a park bench at 4.30am. “Up!” you murmur and the bench launches into the air, “vroomm!!” you suggest and the bench flies you towards the raspberry dawn.  “Somewhere nice please,” you politely request and, after fifteen minutes of blurred landscape below, you land gently in the setting for the final track. ‘Sweeping Song’ is a masterfully sustained 20 minutes of blissed-out heat, tropical but made comfortable by a sea breeze.  It is the aural equivalent of laying on your back, spread-eagled, on a beach and slowly working your fingers and heels into the sand.  The rhythm track that starts, somewhat surprisingly, at around 14 minutes marks the dawning realisation that this might be the most awesome afternoon of your life…

So there we have it: three album of the year contenders in one blog post.  One available direct from a terrific microlabel, the others direct from the artists concerned.  You don’t even have to pay for the Helicopter Quartet album if you have nowt spare (though please bung ’em something if you can – it is well worth a donation).  All done for the love of it, because the drive to do it is irresistible.  All created outside of any commercial concerns and with little, if any, reference to ‘the mainstream’ at all.  Never mind the music industry, here’s the life affirming genius.

Truly, people, we live in a golden age.

Aqua Dentata

Helicopter Quartet

Obsolete Units

7 Comments »

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  1. i think you’ve nailed it rob, great writing. this blog is the shit

  2. and not the first time that todd’s music has taken you to an erotic zone, if i’m not mistaken

  3. no denying that

  4. rob…you are the finest thinker on no-audience politics we’ve got. excellent stuff sir.


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