a balm on our viral souls: paul margree on john butcher, umbra, brandon lopez, lodz, black hat and elizabeth veldon

November 17, 2017 at 7:12 am | Posted in new music, no audience underground | 1 Comment
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John Butcher – Resonant Spaces (Blume)

Umbra – Unglued (Baba Vanga)

Brandon Lopez – Holy Holy (Tombed Visions)

Lodz- Settlement (Wild Silence)

Black Hat – Impossible World (Hausu Mountain)

Elizabeth Veldon – Laika and Other Works (Third Kind)


Sniffling through the universe seems to be a seasonal guarantee for me at this time of year, as regular as my pilgrimage to Gateshead to wallow in the freshly-minted outbound sounds at the always-fantastic TUSK festival. Fortunately, the sonic blessings documented here pour down like silver from across the no-audience underground firmament. These artefacts are a balm on our viral souls. Atishoo. Much obliged.


John Butcher – Resonant Spaces (Blume) vinyl LP

Originally released on Mark Wastell’s Confront label back in 2008, this is a welcome reissue for this astonishing work of improvisation. It sees Butcher visiting obscure parts of Scotland to play gigs in sites – including an old military fuel tank in the Orkneys with a 15-second echo, as well as an abandoned reservoir, a sea cave, a mausoleum and so on –chosen for their specific, idiosyncratic acoustic properties.

If Butcher’s response to these locations is frequently astonishing – witness the serrated foghorn blasts that moan across the void in ‘New Scapa Flow’– so is the way that these places seem almost to answer his forays. In ‘Wind Piece’, recorded at the Standing Stones of Stenness on the Orkney mainland, the eerie pitch-shifted coos that merge with birdsong and Butcher’s own gurgling breaths could be emanating from the rocks themselves. This is a series of duets, really, Butcher not playing the spaces as much as tussling with them, each performance existing in an ongoing state of modification as he negotiates the different sonic qualities of each of his unusual venues.

And, while there’s a sense of Butcher being nudged constantly out of his comfort zone, there’s an accompanying feeling that he digs the brinkmanship that this requires. Raw and hypnotic, time has only increased Resonant Spaces’ power.


Umbra – Unglued (Baba Vanga) cassette and download

Umbra ,aka Serbian sound artist Marija Balubdzic, weaves ghostly vocals over layers of abrasive electronics. Her work balances intricate, melancholy constructions with rougher-edged cuts, all created via a relatively simple setup of voice, laptop and a few pedals. ‘Unglued’ charts these opposing poles in Balubdzic’s aesthetic, casting a mysterious charisma that rewards sympathetic listening.

Occasionally, as on ‘Bear Bone’, Balubdzic resolves her disparate ingredients into a kind of quirky, jagged synth-pop. Elsewhere, her poetic monologues and growling sound design cast dark, nightmarish shapes (‘Self’). At the centre of the album is ‘Bone Madamme’, its overcast beauty like a Nick Cave murder ballad beamed through a cracked mirror. The folkish melody is half-Portishead, half-Blixa Bargeld as it shifts from despairing whisper to full-throated lament, “Don’t let him drown me down,” she implores, a thudding drum machine marking her recitation like the tolling of a funeral bell.

‘Unglued’ is another hit for the Czech Baba Vanga label, whose output encompasses dank, industrial crunches, Muscovite sound art collage and battered, head-spinning techno. Drawing most of their releases from the fringes of the eastern European underground, it’s essential listening for anyone into the global diaspora of weirdo sounds.

Holy Holy

Brandon Lopez – Holy Holy (Tombed Visions) CD and download

I first came across bassist Brandon Lopez as part of Amirtha Kidambi’s amazing Elder Ones band, lending his fluid licks to Kidambi’s ‘Holy Science’, an inspired mixture of classical Indian music and portal-opening jazz. Here, Lopez teams up with drummer Chris Corsano and pianist Sam Yulman to form a free music perpetual motion machine whose limber voyaging takes in abrasive furrows and airy melodic flights.

Although Lopez provided several composed melodic fragments for these pieces in lieu of a full score, which act as launch pads for the band’s expansive journeys, the trio is given plenty of freedom to take things in any direction they want. The fact that we can’t detect the points of transition only adds to the potency. A highlight comes two thirds of the way through the opening cut ’15.43’, when the trio coordinate in the higher register in a cascading, ululating wail, before hitting a surging torrent that recalls the maximalist swell of The Necks in full live force.

Corsano’s presence is generally an indicator of quality, and Lopez’s pedigree is assured post-Elder Ones, but it’s Yulman who’s the real delight here. His flinty clusters of notes shower ‘8.05’, the album’s closing track, in tough, glittering shards, opening up the trio’s frantic rhythmic glowers to let the sunshine in. His intro to ’21.21’ is dissonant and stately, initially restrained enough to let the other two drift by, then gaining pace to kick off a fractious knees-up. Holy jazz, Batman, this is really free.

 Lodz – Settlement (Wild Silence) CD-R and download

Like a photograph of beautiful countryside that on closer inspection reveals a hooded figure skulking in the woods, Lodz – aka musician and philosopher Pauline Nadringy – mixes pastoral calm with spooky unease. Piano and female voice, often signifiers of deeply-felt emotion, are transformed into affectless, skeletal chants that would be disquieting even before grumbling electronics and prickly guitar figures eat away at their frayed edges.

‘Settlement’ offers us 10 of Nadrigny’s otherworldly soundscapes, with several matching reverb-laden piano figures with poems from writers including Guillaume Appollinaire and Hilde Domine. Nadringy’s treatments of these poems is elegant and inventive, often double-tracking herself singing and speaking the lines as well as providing wordless backing vocals. The texts come to us as if through a labyrinth of voices, their exact meaning less important than the sonic qualities of the syllables themselves.

‘Kasper Hausar Lied’ sets the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet’s text among a subtle cacophony of prepared piano and squeaking electronics, John Cage meets Vashti Bunyan.

‘Que fait la mésange?’ by contrast seems to be aiming for a kind of chamber Troplicalia, with birdsong, children’s voices, toys and flutes cloaking Nadrigny’s murmurations in an agreeable hubbub. The whole thing is reminiscent of ruined Belle Époque ballroom populated by elegantly wrecked ghosts. Time for my quadrille, mon chere.

Black Hat

 Black Hat – Impossible World (Hausu Mountain) Cassette and download

As Black Hat, Oakland’s Nelson Bean sculpts gummy electronics into viscous, smooth-edged lumps. These glistening pulsations are beatific and mysterious, somewhere between Aphex Twin’s ravey wickedness and Autechre’s crystalline sierras in the firmament of nonconformist electronics.

‘Impossible World’ is Bean’s second release on Chicago’s Hausu Mountain, after 2014’s ‘Thought of Two’. Although ‘Impossible World’ papers over its predecessor’s scuffed mechanics with a dermatological sheen, both albums have a precision-tooled edge that reveals the intricate depths beneath their curvilinear shapes. It’s head music I think, and even the drum-marked cuts such as ‘Cucullu’ that punctuate ‘Impossible World’s’ sticky ambient puddles hold back from full on beat fury, their off-centre cutups setting a flight path for the head rather than the hips.

Bean’s secret is to balance his love of detail on tracks like ‘Headband’, whose spongy synth chords and pastel bloops lock together like the tiny gears of a dayglo wristwatch, with empathy. Thus the soft, beaming explosions that smatter ‘Heliotrope’ add a spacey lyricism to its growling arrhythmia, prompting ever more giggles on each listen. Maybe we aren’t the robots, after all.


Elizabeth Veldon – Laika and Other Works (Third Kind) Cassette and download

Digital services such as Bandcamp may be better at matching Elizabeth Veldon’s prodigious rate of release – an album every day or so, usually – but this lovely cassette package from Brighton’s Third Kind Tapes is a welcome reminder of the riches that lurk in this prolific artist’s back catalogue.

‘Laika and Other Works ’is a collection of drone based pieces, short piano improvisations and spoken word cuts that showcases both the diversity and quality of Veldon’s discography. It’s all very good, basically, although the two ‘Laika’ tracks (originally released in 2015) are the highlight for me, their slices of gravely, phasing drone coming on appropriately cosmic and ominous. On ‘Like Babies Who Cannot Speak’ a recurring metronomic pulse adds an extra element of tension, as if a squad of militant woodpeckers had taken over mission control.

That things never descend into retro-hipster-kitsch (Russians! dogs! Space! Communism!) is due partly to ‘Work With Animals’, a new spoken word piece. Veldon recites then loops a quote from Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, part of the Sputnik 2team responsible for Laika’s mission: “Work with animals is a source of suffering for all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it….We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”

The four sentences get more fragmented with each repetition, descending finally into a kind of heartbreaking digital gibberish. It’s short but powerful and shifts ‘Laika & Other Works’ from being a historical curio to a lament for the forgotten victims of the space race and a despairing castigation of the ways we treat those species with which we share a planet.


John Butcher

Baba Vanga

Tombed Visions

Wild Silence

Hausu Mountain

Third Kind Records


magnetic stones: joe murray on lost harbours and common objects

May 21, 2015 at 3:53 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Lost Harbours – In the Direction of The Sun (tape, Cruel Nature Records, CN040, edition of 50 or download)

Common Objects – Whitewashed with Lines (2 x CD, Another Timbre, at85x2)

lost harbours - sun

Lost Harbours – In the Direction of The Sun

Shove your hipster Mordant Music/Boards of Canada/Giallo soundtracks etc.  This is the real deal with a wryd feel: a skinned vole left on a post by the farmer, the lonely boom of the fells when a second set of shallow footprints appear next to your own.

Wind-blown tape-loops wobble over grey-sky synths and chilly field recordings.  The mood is respectful, not quite sombre, but with a doesn’t-suffer-fools gait; a rustic Culver in a Barbour jacket, the tang of rich dubbin flickering ’round the nostrils.

With no whizz, bang, look-at-me theatrics this is listen for a long haul.  I needed to take my time, to let it fill up my earholes with black moss.

And, of course, the rewards are many.  The super-deep richness is an almost tactile thing.  It throbs in and out of phase like a sleeping beast, gently massaging the air on either side of room, making things shimmer like slinky minx graphite.  ‘Rings’ even manages to open up a small tear in the hiss to let through a galleon drawing stars in it’s wake.

But it’s the vocal tracks that make this an essential release.  ‘Idumea’, written by Charles Wesley in 18th Century is sung in that gentle voice we reserve for the very young and the very old.  A natural and unaffected true-voice that meshes entirely with the loop/synth/electronic backing that, in an earlier time, might have been a barren fiddle, earlier still – the gush of the wind.

The final track, ‘The Lovers’, is a traditional Orkney tune.  This time the true-voice is overlapped and woven around itself, dubbed and floating.  The vocal lines get more and more intertwined and complex until a static machine tunes them out, and all we are left with is the huss of magnetic stones.

It’s no surprise this banger has sold out at source (although you may find a copy at Lost Harbours live shows) but that doesn’t mean you should stop reading right now.  The download lasts forever right?

common objects

Common Objects – Whitewashed with Lines

Hurtling through the Yorkshire countryside with my snazzy new headphones, the pre-breakfast sun is already sharp and hot.  Common Objects become my perfect travelling companion as I settle down for almost 100 minutes of gritty group-think.

There are two lengthy live sets from these Heath Robinsons offered here.  Disc One – ‘Cup & Ring’ is a composed piece, realised via a graphic score whipped up by Rhodri Davies – beard wearer, harp supremo and all round good egg – based on ancient cup and ring marks.  Carved by prehistoric peoples these gnarly scratches in the rock have no discernible purpose.  Could they be border markers, religious offerings to the wolf in the sky or early communications?  Hey, I don’t know… this is not that sort of blog buddy.  But what is clear is that they have formed a rallying point for Common Objects, a most singular group made up of the already mentioned Rhodri, Angharad Davies (violin), John Butcher (saxophone) and Lee Patterson (amplified devices).

This being a cadre of first-class improvisers the sounds are ingenious (sick whistles blend into viscous burrs to finish off crumbling varnish) and carefully placed.  And it’s the winding up and release that’s the thing; the slow shift and shuffle that conveys a compelling narrative arc.

I revel in the rich peaks, plump as a Ptarmigan – converging hiss, burr and bummmnnn nestled next to a haunted pause.  But as my train judders shakily towards Leeds I sink deeper into the genteel placement of texture: burlap sack, waxy candle and discarded orange peel.

My mind drifts to these hairy caveman carvers (my image of the caveman is pretty much based on 1950’s ladybird books so admittedly probably not 100% historically accurate) and I reckon they would dig this kind of music.  Why?  Well it sounds vital, honest and, in a very good way, obvious.

You can see how the music is made with lip and finger. A vibrating gadget attached to strings sounds like a vibrating gadget, a set of short, popping breaths on the reed sound like short popping breaths.  A solitary twanged spring sounds like…you get my drift yeah.  As I drift further into the city the pops and drones translate into blue-black clouds skimming over a full moon, bullrush rustle and a toad’s wet burp.

Disc Two’s ‘Repose and Vertigo’, a group improvisation, is fizzier and bubbling with ideas; rich like calligraphy and clever as Braille.

I’m listening at home now, covers pulled up to my chin, when the violin takes centre stage (about 10 mins in) the sloppy plops and trills, pings and scratches sound like hornets swarming, foaming with  life.  But this business is answered with a gong-like recess, all keening pipes and slack string sawing.  Pregnant drones start to push up from the seabed toppling hastily-erected cities constructed of coppery small change.

Later a Hong Kong traffic jam is felt through steamy windows, your fingers sticky with hot Pork Bun.  A librarian type plays that new Sunn O))) record high up on the 33rd floor and your strain your ears to hear above seabird caw-caw and TV static.

The final third of this disc is a dream sequence for some hardboiled detective. It’s obviously a stakeout scene (a dissonant background furze punctuated by sharp sound sprigs) and superbly matches that combination of tension and irritability readers will associate with overnight close surveillance.

Eventually the disc whirrs to a skittering stop and within minutes the vivid hallucinations have begun to fade. Good golly; Common Objects play music to look at.


Cruel Nature

Another Timbre

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