silvered dreams: airwaves and nostalgia for the future

July 19, 2014 at 6:08 am | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 1 Comment
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Airwaves – Ambient Tracks (download, Oracle Netlabel, ORE108)


In 2006 I gave up on science fiction. I had been a voracious reader (yeah, we’re talking about books here – I have some interest in SF cinema, none in SF television) for the previous 25 years and had taken it all in from the golden age of starships and robots, through the pyschonautical adventures of the new wave, skating over the gleaming surfaces of cyberpunk to the post-post-modern present. Ironically perhaps, my interest waned because of an increasing concern for the future. SF’s wave function collapsed for me when I finally measured it against reality.

At the time I was experiencing a kind of long-form political awakening. The build up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had pulled concepts like ‘resource war’ out of dystopia and into the reality I appeared to be living in. I read up on peak oil, on permaculture, on climate change, on the whole coming storm and, at the same time, novels about terraforming and interstellar travel which just ignored the difficult questions or glossed over them with macguffins. After an illustrious history of satire, prophecy and back-lighting the present by extrapolating into the future, SF seemed to be increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic. Like a know-it-all mate who might be entertaining in conversation, or good on a pub quiz team, but bloody useless at a time of actual crisis. I turned my back on it and used the time I saved to learn how to grow vegetables.

However, in the intervening years I have, on occasion, found myself nostalgic for the future. It is an odd, unmoored emotion that can range from a wistful yearning for a bucolic, post-scarcity utopia to a spitting rage at wasted opportunity. Those could have been the days, eh? I’ve had cause to re-examine the feeling twice in recent weeks.

Firstly, following a conversation with Dan Thomas and Kev Sanders in which Dan was lamenting the ballooning tendency for fans of popular culture to pick it to bits before even experiencing it. Thus: the dissection of movie clips released in advance to create ‘buzz’, the speculation that runs rampant between the broadcast of one episode of a television series and the next etc. Kev made the interesting point that traditionally backward looking attitudes and activities: appreciation, analysis, nostalgia and so on had been spun around and were now facing forward. It was a brilliantly useful notion and, like shoe shops when I need a new pair of boots, suddenly I’m seeing it instantiated everywhere. In fact, some forum posters seem to exist solely in this queasy, unwholesome fug made up of part thwarted expectation, part whiny entitlement. This is nostalgia for the future distilled down to an airless and wholly unsatisfactory mode of being. Ugh.

And then, in counterpoint, I heard this: Ambient Tracks by Airwaves released as a free download on Miguel Perez’s Oracle Netlabel.  Airwaves is the alias of Mexican musician Oscar Menzel, who sadly passed away in 2012, and these recordings date from 1994.  Before proceeding let’s take a second to applaud Miguel’s breadth of imagination in making this available.  Oracle is known as a borstal for punishing noise, flu-symptom drone and lizard-brain improv so to find this epic of retro-futurist synthtronica sharing a cell with these repeat offenders is, well, surprising to say the least.  It’s like the album asked for directions to Sanity Muffin tapes then got into trouble at the border…

The IDM/electronica boom was well under way here in the UK when this was recorded on the other side of the Atlantic and some of these tracks sound very much of the time.  I know I always mention 76:14 by Global Communication when I’m talking about this kind of music but it remains a favourite album of mine, a classic of the genre and was originally released in the same year.  Some of Ambient Tracks could be found brooding in the same car park.

The rest of the album harks backwards – to the electronic edge of Krautrock, to the high gloss of Vangelis, to the claustrophobic pulse of John Carpenter.  If I’d heard this in 1994 I might have thought it old fashioned but the ambition, sweep and sincerity of this music has aged considerably better than the more hip, knowing froth on Warp and RePhlex that I was obsessing over back then: all agitated surface and in-jokes.  Do I listen to any of it nowadays?  No.

Menzel’s music reinvigorates the notion of nostalgia for the future.  There is nothing kitsch or naive about the vision expressed here.  Its scope and scale are impressive, its emotional content earned and genuine.  The task of documenting the never-has-been is necessarily Quixotic but if done, as here, with heartfelt conviction the task has nobility and conveys – dare I say it? – hope.  These are silvered dreams in which we might just see ourselves reflected.  Think about that for a second, comrades – these could have been the days!


Airwaves on Oracle – also for write up by Miguel and further links to Menzel’s work.

P.S.  Yes, I was supposed to be keeping things to the point due to being frazzled but, hey, I found myself with something to say.  Pithiness to come next.

stuart chalmers and robert ridley-shackleton soothe a savage breast

June 19, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Posted in art, musings, new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Stuart Chalmers – Dreaming Butterfly (download, Open Sound Group)

Stuart Chalmers – imaginary musicks vol 1 (tape, Beartown Records, edition of 45 or CD, edition of 50, self-released)

Robert Ridley-Shackleton – Melting All My Years In2 tears (C46 tape, hissing frames, edition of 100)

Robert Ridley-Shackleton – Rebirth (A5 zine, 18 pages, edition of 100)

stuart chalmers - dreaming butterflystuart chalmers - imaginary musiks vol 1robert ridley-shackleton - meltingrobert ridley-shackleton - rebirth cover

On the walk home from work on Friday evening I got into an altercation with the driver of a car who had nearly run me over. I was in the right, of course, and this bloke was an odious knobber. There was plenty of shouting and swearing (mainly on my part) as my foe chose to goad me from the safety of his vehicle. He ignored my repeated requests to step out so the argument could be settled in a physical manner. It ended with me delivering this devastating put down:

You’re like something out of a sit-com, mate, you’re embarrassing. Why don’t you go fuck yourself, you dumb fucking cunt?

…worthy of Oscar Wilde, I’m sure you’ll agree, and him chucking water from an Evian bottle over me before putting his foot down and speeding away. What a shining example of manliness at its most impressive, eh? It’s like Froch versus Groves or something.

I spent the weekend mulling it over. The question wasn’t why it happened – I am mentally ill, highly strung, and haven’t slept properly in a fortnight: go figure. The big question is why did I enjoy the experience so much? Sure, I had that tight, sick, post-confrontation feeling afterwards for a short while but not much remorse. Perhaps doing something so undeniably stupid was an enormous, cathartic release of pressure because usually I am such an upstanding, responsible citizen. Hmmm… evidence of mid-life crisis? Better speak to my counsellor. Or buy a motorbike.

(Aside: I did write up the whole incident with a view to using it as a preamble but thought better of it. Any fans of two-fisted action out there for whom the edited version above is not enough can email me for the unexpurgated story.)

Anyway, as I always do when in need of succour or a contemplative aid, I asked music a few questions and listened carefully to what it had to say. It turns out that my calm, rational side had been sitting in the backyard eating an ice-cream and listening to the albums above. The steaming, bellicose me joined him, cooled off, and soon started nodding in appreciation. These guys are boss.

Each release I’ve heard by Stuart has been better than the last. Interestingly, however, I’ve heard his work well out of chronological sequence. Thus, barring the unlikely possibility that I just lucked out and accidentally heard these recordings in order of quality, my reaction does not run parallel to an artistic progression on his part. Rather, I think, I’ve come to appreciate his music more as I’ve become more familiar with the world it describes, with the vision that produced it. The same happened with Robert – I picked through a vast collection of his releases more or less at random and my enjoyment increased exponentially as I used them to map out the bizarre contours of Shackleton Island.

My reaction to Daydream Empire, a CD-r on LF Records and the first of Stuart’s albums I heard, was puzzling but, in the light of the above, now explainable. I didn’t like it. Weirdly though, especially as I’m a stubborn ol’ bastard utterly confident in the infallibility of my own taste, it felt like it was my fault that I didn’t like it, that I was mistaken. I could hear the quality – the time, effort and care that had been used in its construction – but I didn’t get it. I ended up in the nonsensical situation of apologising to Stuart for this lapse. I don’t do that very often.

Dreaming Butterfly is from the archives, imaginary musicks vol 1 is new, both are beautiful. Stuart’s trade is in collage, mainly warm and fluid but with mysterious currents running under the rippling surface. Any readers as old and snaggletoothed as me will remember the electronica boom of the early 1990s and once or twice I was reminded of experiments in sample-based ambient music from that time. However, close attention reveals that Stuart’s work is not so easily slotted into pre-existing categories.

The world his music describes is fully formed and the listener’s experience of it is immersive and ego-dissolving (relaxing into it I felt a thousand miles away from my road rage incident) but carefully placed ticks – a filter echo, a moment of dictaphonic skwee – bring you back to the surface by foregrounding its artificiality. It’s like a South Sea Islands version of Philip K. Dick’s Time out of Joint. Imagine walking on the golden beach, admiring the dancing palms, looking out over the glassy ocean to the setting sun only for it all to suddenly disappear and be replaced with a featureless white room and a scrap of paper at your feet with the words ‘tropical paradise’ typed on it. As with all the very best stuff: the more I listen to it, the more I want to listen to it.  One or both of these releases will make the end-of-year awards shortlist, f’sure.

I note in passing that Stuart shows an admirable faith is his own work. Rightly proud of imaginary musicks vol 1 he had it mastered by Denis Blackham, who has previously worked with Touch and Nurse With Wound, at Skye Mastering. Fancy, eh?

Regular readers may recall the hefty overview I wrote of Robert Ridley-Shackleton’s back catalogue last year. A super-sized parcel from the guy was emptied onto the kitchen table here at Midwich Mansions and I picked through the contents, fascinated. All together it formed a psychological jigsaw depicting a map of his mental landscape.

The interior of Shackletonia is as exaggerated and brightly coloured as the Arizona-ish rockscapes of a Road Runner cartoon. Coastal areas are more rugged and brooding as beaches of jet black sand fall away into an ice blue sea under sky the colour of spoiled milk. In-between the two you will find strange crystalline formations of uncertain origin and giant sculptures made of compacted landfill – think Wall-E does Easter Island. Offshore, an intrepid scuba diver can visit a submerged cathedral choked with seaweed, where ghosts of drowned sailors perform rites worshipping the Deep Ones. On the surface, the radio of the support ship picks up decades old news reports informing the world of tragic maritime disasters.

To be more specific: Robert’s music contains elements of snarling garage punk, of rinky-dink Suicide throb, of harsh noise wall, of clattering kitchen sink improv, of unfathomable oddness. It is all recorded rough and tinny – as if bellowed down a cardboard cone and etched to wax cylinder with a knitting needle. Best to readjust your acceptable sonic range a full knob twist into the treble.

So, the purpose of this particular tape is to be an answer to the age old question: ‘where do I start?’ Our man has woven together a seamlessly coherent and highly enjoyable best-of compilation from numerous previous releases. It is presented both as a culmination and an introduction and I think it is fucking great.

A few words about the zine/pamphlet, Rebirth, that Robert kindly sent accompanying this tape. I like Robert’s graphic work as much as his music. I think I have mentioned the possible influence of Art Informel before and these photocopies of mixed media pieces call to mind a Catalan womble living in the sewers beneath the Fundació Tàpies in Barcelona. In his lair he creates art from the detritus left by tourists whilst chewing up a copy of the massive Tàpies catalogue raisonné, stolen from the gift shop, to fashion a nest of glossy spitballs.


The one-stop shop for all things Robert Ridley-Shackleton is Hissing Frames, his blog/label/publishing empire. Dreaming Butterfly can be downloaded for free from Open Sound Group here or found on Stuart’s Bandcamp site here. imaginary musicks vol 1 is available as a tape from Beartown Records or as a self-released CD via the Bandcamp site where much of his previous catalogue is also to be found.  The picture above (second one down) is the Bandcamp illustration and is neither the CD nor tape cover.

quality baked goods part three: ron berry and odd nosdam on sanity muffin

December 8, 2013 at 9:45 am | Posted in new music, no audience underground | 1 Comment
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Ron Berry – Where Dark Forces Meet (C50 tape, Sanity Muffin, S/M #41, edition of 100)
Ron Berry – A Voice In The Wilderness (C48 tape, Sanity Muffin, #42, edition of 100)

Odd Nosdam – Le Ambient Mix (C60 tape, Sanity Muffin, Numero 46)

ron berryodd nosdam

In writing about the Sanity Muffin catalogue I have often mentioned the electronic music of the late 70s/early 80s, not to make comparisons as such but to clarify the vibe.  Krautrock, sure, the industro-clattertronix of Cabaret Voltaire, of course, but also less obvious signifiers like the film scores of John Carpenter, his straight-to-video imitators and so on.  It is clearly an era that Billy (Sprague – Sanity Muffin head honcho) feels an affinity with and here he is showing his respect by returning to the source.

Ron Berry is a veteran UK composer/performer of electronic music, often on instruments of his own construction.  Where Dark Forces Meet (1982) and A Voice in the Wilderness (1983) are the first two albums in his sizeable discography and these reissues return them to their original cassette format.  Everything an aficionado of the genre could wish for is here: cosmic synth washes?  Check.  Pitter-patter motorik rhythm?  Ditto.  Pitch bent keyboard virtuosity?  Natch.  But this isn’t ‘library music’ or a mere history lesson – both albums bubble and crackle with invention and energy.

Some great instrumental synth pop, pulsating with properly hummable riffs, is interspersed with some timelessly odd experimental tracks that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 3” CD-r released by Sheepscar Light Industrial (well, I say ‘timeless’ but that BBC sound effects LP thunderclap provokes a nostalgic chuckle whenever I hear it…).  The feel is more complicated than the relatively straightforward utopianism of the Pauline Anne Strom tape.  The look-to-the-stars futurism, all gleaming spaceships and tight fitting uniforms, is tempered with a grounded, realist introspection (maybe a result of its hand-crafted origin during a particularly icy stage of the Cold War?  I’m guessing).  This mixture of accessibility and depth means they are the sort of albums that feel like old friends within a handful of listens.

Ron seems like a cool guy.  He is still active and has run a website dedicated to his activities for over a decade.  His autobiographical account of his work is entertaining (love the tasselled leather suit) and shows a disdain for the music biz that will have readers of this blog nodding in approval.  The section on the necessity of building his own kit (due to being skint) contains enough detail to satisfy even the most perverted synth fetishist.  His essay summarising The Loudness War is excellent too.

Also of interest:  Odd Nosdam, that is David Madson – co-founder of Anticon, is a far ‘bigger’ name than would usually be covered by RFM but I’m happy to mention this mix from 2006 because a) Sanity Muffin has presented it to us as a beautifully packaged tape and b) because it is lovely.  Often endeavours like this can be tiresome exercises in hipster cock-waggling (‘hey kids, check out the low swinging girth of my record collection…’ – an urge satirised hilariously here.) but not a bit of it.  Yes, the selection is relatively obscure (and, should it matter to you integrity fans, sourced solely from vinyl) but every track adds to the ebb and flow.  Featuring RFM faves such as the aforementioned Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk and, most surprisingly, Nurse With Wound it feels more like the ambient collage LPs of the late 80s/early 90s than it does more obviously comparable recent efforts like, say, the Late Night Tales series.  It has the overall vibe of a half-remembered dream or the slow, glowing wind-down at the end of a day spent consumed by a satisfying physical task.  It can be heard (but not downloaded) via Bandcamp but really you should buy the object for the genuine mixtape experience.

All three tapes can be bought via the Sanity Muffin Big Cartel site.

quality baked goods part two: pauline anna strom on sanity muffin

December 2, 2013 at 11:28 am | Posted in no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Pauline Anna Strom – Trans Millenia Consort (C46 tape, Sanity Muffin, SM43, edition of 100)

pauline anna strom

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to the Moëvöt tape can be found Trans Millenia Consort by Pauline Anna Strom.  This is a limited edition reissue of a rare and sought after album originally released in 1982.  Aside from Scott who has an obsessive’s concern for, y’know, facts, RFM doesn’t go in much for ‘context’.  Usually we prefer to crank the impressionistic metaphor engine up to 11 and let rip.  In this case, though, a little back story may be instructive.

A few years prior to the recording of this LP, Pauline’s husband bought her an electronic organ which she quickly mastered, a trick she repeated with all the other equipment and instruments he then presented to her.  Pauline, blind (from birth I believe), used music as a way to illustrate what sounds like a rich fantasy life in which she saw herself as ‘a musical consort to time’.  From her comments in the liner notes:

My music is a timeless entity, clothed in the mists of pre-history, beautifully sensitive to the tortured and joyous emotions of the present, rich and voluptuously full of the glory and anguish of future worlds…

And so on.  What could be more Californian, eh?  Now, I love nothing more than heartfelt sincerity but it would be easy to snigger at this hippy silliness.  However, in combination with the music these pronouncements take on a rather charming loveliness.  It is also of great interest to anyone who, like me, is fascinated by self-taught, ‘outsider’ artists and the visions they express.

The music is a burbling, peaceful electronic soundscape augmented with sound effects – running water and the like.  The world depicted is a future paradise where Morlocks exist in harmony with the Eloi and both races work together to build a utopia as technologically advanced as it is spiritually satisfying.  It is a new age take on ideas being explored by Eno and various other European types in ambient music recorded around the same time.  Don’t expect it to be cool or knowing though.  It is odd, for sure, and has enough bite and weirdness to it to reward many repeat listens, but you have to leave any cynical hipsterism at the door.  This is an album cast from equal measures of calm, love and hope.  What could be more radical and challenging, eh?  It also has the honour of being one of only two submissions to RFM incorporated into the bedtime routine of Thomas the Baby.  Thus: a wholehearted recommendation.

Buy the tape via Sanity Muffin at Big Cartel.  It also appears that Pauline is still active – a website has appeared where more of her albums from the 1980s can be bought in a digital format.  Peace.

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