Tags: ali robertson, malcy duff, singing knives, usurper
Usurper – Monthly Series: Jan – Dec 2016 (Giant Tank) 11 x CD-R and a card
Usurper – The Big Five (Singing Knives) C45 Tape
You’d have to look, gosh, I don’t know where, to find a group more universally loved than Edinburgh’s Usurper.
Is it their high-concept but easily accessible approach; the media mix of what is strictly speaking, non-idiomatic improv, with goonish humour and fuzzy human warmth? Could it be that their self-depreciation makes the razor-sharp, radical politics more comfortable to hug?
My theory? It’s got something to do with their most excellent hair.
I know of no other N-AU group so popular with children and that, in itself, speaks volumes to me.
They label themselves as slackers but to my rheumy eyes they push harder than most, kicking across visual goofs and sonic adventures. It is no surprise they started 2016 with a promise, to release a disc a month, and have delivered on this promise (fairly) reliably and with minimal drama. That’s so Usurper!
So, into this swamp of ‘unreleased recordings, archival live jams and brand new bumf’; these twelve apostles of skronk, I dive into the dream…
January – Surprising noisy live jam breaks the fourth wall! Treated to a conversation about taping the damn show Usurper (with Grant ‘Muscle’ Smith) bollix an ironing board, drop tin cans and chuck a lapsteel into a free-form space. It’s tingly sweet, it pops and clicks. But there’s nae feart a NOISE with gutsy, rootsy string-wrangling whipping up an itchy hailstorm in an ice cream cone.
February – ALL GOB AND NAE TROUSERS it says and I get excited. Not what you’re thinking man? It’s a mouth jam alright. This vocal jizz is all about maintained pressure so it keeps things tight and vibrating. Fleshy lips and cheeks are pulled taut and greasy air passed through with force setting up unnatural hissing. Things ping, things pong. One ‘surper is a red-necked rooster, the other a mollusc with stiff bristles; at the 8.30 mark the duck call sound and I collapse…completed
March – Classic bric-a-brac approach on vintage Usurper jam. 19 minutes captured (live) at The Chameleon unravel like a good detective novel. Gentle shingle and rummaging, purposeful rattle and shake. Some n.i.c.e. close-miked wriggles remove this from the no-input category but place neatly in the matchbox marked ‘interlocking sonics / gristle rubbers’.
April – The primary-coloured clown car implodes with loud brassy honks. Twin verbal routines decay as massive shoes stand on little necks. But the drivel drones on as a young lady twangs a buttered 12 inch ruler off the edge of a desk, secretly she makes goo-goo eyes at the sloppy Oppenheimer. Kapow!
May – Fantastic Voyage! Ali & Malcy get shrunk to about 1cm tall and slide into a Euphonium’s sexy brass curves spraffing off their word-junk all the while. Through the bright tubes and metallic hollows you get to follow a narrative of indistinct chunder. A rare computer-glitch approach causes the kind of mille plateaux-shudder to make the beard-o’s sweat. An exceptional month!
June – Like Radio 4 got took over by a case of mumps. An inflammation of the glands live in London. Sleeve notes say the boys were unsure, then sure, then unsure about this one. I’m here to tell you it’s classic Usurper in the theatre-style. Pure gibbering and insta-poems. Pictures in sound and word become a menagerie (note: just noticed my copy gets to the 26th minute and then skips back to the 24th in a loop of dry clicks and sparse chair squeaks – it’s glorious!).
July – 11 minutes of fresh air. This ultra-minimal instalment mixes feedback peals with slow steel rubbing and rickety clicking. You could almost mistake this for one of those Improvised Music From Japan affairs such is the pure and innocent clunking. A checkers game of improvised sound structures? GO with added electricity; a puttering moped farts into dramatic fade…
August – Gadzooks! This isn’t a record at all! It’s a damn anniversary card. Previously known as the month of Sextilis, golden August marks the melancholic end of summer…but for our bonny boys it’s all positive memory vibes, this card marking the start of their twenty (yes twenty) years together. Bonding over the closing seconds of Twin Infinitives the like-minds hatch a plan: to throw over the traces of Britpop and Yankrock with sweet Scotjams. Perfectly non-input, non-linear and non-sensical. (Art by is by one M Duff ya Mr Saatchi)
September – These autumn leaves take The Ex’s ‘Scrabbling at the Lock’ to its ultimate conclusion with a symphony of jittering and creaking. All things bow to the metallic shamanic. So, at the 9 minute mark, it all clicks together like a Transformer reverting to its natural Gamelan status, stroking the bronze gong yet moaning like a Wookie. (featuring Grant Smith on Turkish Bong)
October – (Track 1) An altogether more darker rumbling taking us to Henri Chopin territory. Not so much in the gob-tronics but revealing a hidden world; pencil sharpeners phase in and out of reality, one set of keys tolls like a death clock. At one point an egg whisk shreds as hard as Slayer (\m/ \m/). Usurper’s South of Heaven? (Track 2) A general heaviness dissolves into rubber, faint electronics and a floppy Alice Coltrane. (featuring Grant Smith on ostrich feather)
November – A Usurper thought-piece in two rigid parts. Firstly: gloves off, cocks out! Honk & palaver. Duck calls trump free jizz all over the shop comparing notes like Dixie (80’s TV moustache – Magnum). Secondly: Adris Hoyos jams with an old school bell via the Tuvan Steppes. A mellow, yellow, fellow spins plastic pipes and drinking straws making an otherworldly ‘khhhaaaaa’ scrape. Usurper…never a jug band, more a fug brand from a chug land.
December – The true meaning of Christmas eh? Runny shite due to unusual food/zoned out on tinsel/greedy children/jingle bells ad nauseum/clattering crockery/overloaded sentiment/real cash poverty/anxiousness inflated by cabin fever/trapped wind/disappointment in general/creepy uncles/your favourite quiet pub is now full/kids gnashing, full of fudge. But when else would you contemplate eating a whole chocolate orange?
AND while we’re at it…another Usurper release parts the veil of mist between strict discipline and Steiner-school freedom. Room for one more readers?
Usurper – The Big Five (Singing Knives Records) C45 Cassette
Believe this – the Usurper deal only in bravery and truth.
While other dingbat-bands try looking cool with their loud and unpleasant noises and dark glasses these two wee brothers rummage the depths of a Scottish collective-consciousness to bring you a crucial entertainment.
These wrinkled sonic-pages make no mention of the modern distractions (internet memes, flat white coffee) that foul up too many young brains. And that’s important yeah as Usurper keep their focus exact on what makes us human-beans. It’s a real exploration of language; its meaning and our ability to understand.
So that pesky language eh? That mixture of invisible air and sore lips is dropped by Ali & Malcy like a Lancaster Bomber crammed with ‘meaning grenades’. Jerry-rigged for sure and improvised (of course) they explode slowly, freeing colourful shrapnel with the spark and fizz of a regular logophile. No bones are broken, no arteries severed. The aftermath smells of vague lavender and leaves a glowing smile on babe and parent alike.
You a toucher sir? A stroker madam? If you’re into the feel of things it all get fairly knotty with the soft buttermilk voices wrapping four cheeks around single syllables; twisting cadence and meaning without no interfering electronics. It’s just wonderful flesh and gas (and the occasional traffic shwish). A greasy mink has never been so slick.
Then Robertson and Duff employ outrageous simile-tennis that degenerates, quickly, into a game of (insert current culturally accepted good guys) versus (insert current culturally accepted bad guys). And even though I class myself as an athletic listener my neck needs a good old rub down with liniment after this routine.
Hear that rattle and pop of unamplified junk? It’s a classic Usurper tactic making a listener strap on an extra ounce of grey matter, all the better to get inside, move around this truthful music that rejects all the fripperies and fancy.
This essential tape comes pure from the inside of a twin soul. Usurper – insider art!
Tags: acrid lactations, ali robertson, andie brown, anja dornieden, bridget hayden, brighton, cm von hausswolff, colour out of space, dictaphonics, dieter schnebel, dylan nyoukis, electronic voice phenomena, enzo minarelli, evp, f. ampism, fordell research unit, free radicals, gen ken montgomery, gonzalez monroy, greg kelly, gwilly edmondez, ilan volkov, improv, joe murray, jooklo duo, juan david, karen constance, lovers ritual, m. stactor, malcy duff, maya dunietz, michael esposito, new music, no audience underground, noise, occult hand, pascal ansell, patrick goddard, posset, roman nose, sharon gal, sindre bjerga, spoils & relics, the handeye (bone ghosts), the y bend, thf drenching, usurper, virginia genta, vocal improvisation
COLOUR OUT OF SPACE / 6
INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FESTIVAL
Performance Weekend: 8th – 10th November, 2013, Brighton, UK
Editor’s note: RFM had two roving reporters present at this year’s Colour Out Of Space festival down in that Brighton. Regular contributor Joe Murray, who also performed, enjoyed himself enormously. Pascal Ansell, whippersnapper and occasional guest of RFM, ahh… not so much. Copious enthusiasm from Joe first, a more exacting response from Pascal to follow. Over to Joe:
Ahhhh Brighton…the sun, the sea, the squalor! I’ve had a soft spot for Brighton ever since I was a wee kiddie with a vivid imagination, trying to piece together the violent Mods & Rockers legend with the twin-set & pearls crowd that strolled slowly down the pier huffing camphor-scented liniments.
These days of course it’s all about the hipsters and Bubble Tea but I’m not complaining; I’ve got my freak on as I meet my gracious host Bod for a pint or two before we lurch expectantly to the main venue, The Old Market. Immediately adopting ‘Brighton time’ I missed the mysterious Occult Hand and outrageous Acrid Lactations who I both really wanted to see – please accept my apologies Occult Lactations, I was with you in spirit.
It was sometime around pint four I met up with my co-reporter Pascal Ansell and we immediately set ourselves up in a Hunter S Thompson style press-pack; silver-eyed Tuna darting purposefully through the flitting shoal. We rejected the usual journalistic conventions to move straight from gentle ‘forming’ to chaotic ‘storming’ within minutes, swapping war-zone anecdotes, snippets of esoteric record knowledge and the loudly proclaiming the relevance of Sammy Davis Jr. The result of such firm-calved bonding and reckless drinking resulted in a beery bonhomie for sure but also meant I pretty much missed every act to play on Friday. Oops…I did it again! The one that got away was the Enzo Minarelli. Dressed in dark jeans and tight black T shirt, his hair scraped back, there was an air of the ninja in his vocal guffings. Assisted with backing tracks of further mouth-chaff the precise and deadly Enzo sliced the air with steel-edged hissing and lippy smacks. This was no po-faced sound poetry lark but a right old hootenanny with his piece ‘Poem’ being turned into ‘PoemMacaroni’ in the curdled air. The rest of the bill was crammed with exceptional acts of legendary avant-gardary but to my shame dear reader I spent the remnants of Friday propping up the bar catching up with old friends and making new ones. I’ve never been a good mixer Midwichers but I made up for 43 years of insecurity and introversion with full-strength good cheer and love for my fellow travellers. You’re (hic) my best pal (hic)!
Saturday morning was an exercise in sickness, pain and remorse as I sheepishly ate brunch with family Bod and took the drizzly bus in disgrace to witness Gen Ken Montgomery in a Hove Oxfam shop. The steamy windows of the Oxfam obscured the ‘standing room only’ crowd as I inched in and stood, stomach lurching, for this exploration of the 8-track tomfoolery. Gen Ken, dapper in vintage Op Art shirt and tie manipulated old portable 8-tracks filling the damp air with warped 70’s AM rock all mashed and rotting. The warbles and trembles on the tape gave the Bee Gees et al a sepia fuzzed-out logic as loops were found and layered up into the consistency of dusty blancmange. He was a right card too, playing it up for the steaming crowd, making asides and throwing out hula-hoops of pulsating ‘waaahhhhoooosssshhhhh-voooshhhhhh’. After Gen Ken’s performance I wandered round Brighton for a bit, drank some peppermint tea (swearing off the demon drink for the rest of the weekend) and soundchecked with the great Gwilly Edmondez & THF Drenching.
At about teatime I found myself outside the very proper St Andrew’s church for some right high culture. Old-guy Produktionsprozesse composer-guy Dieter Schnebel was interviewed by Ilan Volkov about his approach to music and personal history. Dieter seems a game old bird, humble and gracious but with a sharp sense of humour…he somehow manages to call the audience stupid and make them love him for it…dude! A bunch of doofs play some Schnebel pieces: Maya Dunietz world premieres the ass off a beautiful and catchy piece for piano, voice and tambourine. Ilan and Maya throw some shapes in a gestural piece where composer and pianist struggle for supremacy like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Then Maya and Dylan Nyoukis get all serious and tackle a vocal piece for restricted mouthshapes and we end up with the most spellbinding piece of the afternoon. Like air hissing through naked ribs, dry and crackly. The pair, dressed in formal black, embrace at the end of the show, cracking hearts at CooS and letting pure love flow. The only way to follow such an intense and refined performance is of course with some chips so I headed to Bankers (Brighton’s best Fish & Chip shop) for sustenance.
Energised by hot potato and grease I walk into the Old Market to see the friendly and familiar face of Sindre Bjerga coaxing gentle tape loops out of his mess of wires and objects, polishing them up and floating them on the breeze like water-filled balloons pulling gruff-clouds out the air. Stepping round his desk he carefully wraps up a few people in abandoned cassette tape, hurls a miniature cymbal onto the deck and politely waves marking the end of a neat little set. Next up were a bunch of A-Band/Ceramic Hobs/Zero Map/Smell & Quim refugees calling themselves The Y Bend. The programme describes ‘no-mind sounds’ which pretty much sums up the Hawkwind out-takes vibe. Personally I’m transported back to the days of Anti-Poll Tax benefits as this jam band takes a note and jiggles it proper between guitar, keyboard, violin and eccentric hand percussion making incidental music for the revolution.
Roman Nose take the stage behind them and win the rosette for ‘best band of Saturday’. These days Roman Nose are very much a ‘band’ bridging the gap between rock’s looseness and tape/noise/jam’s love of overload. It’s almost funky with a pushing and pulling, a wrapping and un-wrapping of tape-fuff mittens across fluttering drums and breathy intrusions via flute and black-bamboo sheng. Throw some horns for the Nose!
Huge wineglasses are set up amid electronic doo-hickery for Sharon Gal and Andie Brown. These glasses are Jeroboam massive, pregnantly full; delicate but comprising a thousand potential shivs. Like an inverse Justice Yeldham the glass is thumbed to produce deep rasping drones. It’s great to watch the deft hand movement turn into such singing and bassy mulch. Gal uses her voice like some terror-choir re-enacting a trauma. Electronic squash makes a Black Metal grunt adding to the dungeon gloom. Wow…a Carpathian Forest sprouts from the floor as the thin rays of a dismal sun rise slowly in the East. The bald guy with all the pedals is M. Stactor; his mask is a composite of Her Majesty Betty II and Saddam Hussein. Slowed down speech goes ‘burrrrrrr’ and get shoved through a variety of whizz-bangs to come out ‘BURRRRRR’ anointed with contact-mic crackle and hand-palming crunch. Brand new CooS trio Edmondez/Posset/THF Drenching adopt the dual Dictaphone position like a crouching Judas Priest. Gwilly bangs his head like Halford. And seeing as I’m involved modesty prevents me for saying too much about this fine-legged beast.
I caught about 20 seconds of Bridget Hayden’s set but within that 20 seconds I heard the entire history of overblown fuzz-guitar from the Sonics to the Velvet Underground to the Dead C. Rusty chainmail began clanking out the walls; rolling thunder crashed from the ceiling. The very gods showed their pleasure in ancient, animalistic ways. Oh boy! I was still kicking myself when Greg Kelley & Dylan Nyoukis sat erect and purposeful on a pitch black stage. Side by side they were, with Greg’s tubes augmented with cold brass and Dylan’s with moist flesh. Snide hiss and scything tones crept almost guiltily from trumpet and gob, playing merrily between wet-mouth slappings and full jowl squelch. This was no dramatic, overwrought, performance piece nor academically apologetic. The “my voice, your voice” mantra summed up a lot of the days sessions in a simple repetitive phrase. Some jokers joined in on coughing and started a response group reflex (koff-KOFF-koff). The optimist in me thought the spontaneous outpouring would lead to a scratch feral choir but no…it was a piss take…yet troupers Kelley & Nyoukis toughed it out cackling and blowing the third eye till it blinked all yeasty. Lovers Ritual (Maya Dunietz & Ilan Volkov) used voice and violin to beguile, encouraging minimal and thin tones out the cracks in the light fittings. Not content with sticking to the stage both Maya & Ilan ended up on the floor, among the punters, stroking and keening their flexible bones in a tangled tableaux.
It’s Sunday. The Lords day. And me & Bod celebrate with a visit to a typical Brightonian Car Boot sale; he picks up some Colombian tapes, I nab a Fantasy Island fridge magnet and we both head happily to the Sallis Benney Theatre for the famous CooS film screenings. I really loved what I saw but I soon discovered it’s hard to take notes in the dark so am relying on musty recall only. Standouts…the bonkers The Handeye (Bone Ghosts) by Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy which coupled 19th Century taxidermy with digitized commands and the bumbling chunter from Patrick Goddard’s charming Free Radicals. As the films ended, us gaggle of cinema-goers milled around, checking maps and GPS systems to find the next venue, giggling over being able to genuinely say, ‘See you in church later man.’ A walk along the cold, crisp sea-front takes us back to St Andrew’s Church for a session of spooky Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) from CM von Hausswolff & Michael Esposito. I’m really excited about this one. Since I was a kid I’ve been in love with that flexi disc that came with the first edition of ‘The Unexplained’. Of course I never knew these supposed ghost voices were EVP but I totally dug the hissy weirdness. The two gents open with about 15 minutes of static tape hiss with the occasionally clunky ‘chump’ like ghosts dropping wooden marbles in a bucket. The fuff was pretty damn immersive and had some of the flagging hordes crashed out on the pews. CM and Michael then took us through some of their EVP recordings (cue demonic chuckle) made in this very church. What could have been (possibly should have been) spectral and creepy turned into a bit of a laugh as the particularly chirpy Michael introduced second-long sound-clips of the dead calling us ‘assholes’, urging us to ‘get out’, that they ‘are in love with married men’ and…to much hilarity…‘it’s all shite’. Wow the ghosts sound like angry jakeys!
Back in the Old Market I strained limbs to find my comrade Pascal. It was Jooklo Duo next and I was pretty sure he’d be right up the front for this. Some lazy sleuthing revealed Pascal had packed up and gone. He’d had enough and trekked back to Leeds earlier in the day. Oh Pascal…you would have loved what came next! Jooklo Duo were absolutely amazing. Now I know that’s trite, lazy journalism but I was too busy picking my eyeballs up off the floor to concentrate on clever words. This was a 100% lung-bursting blowout with drumming as agile as a crack-fuelled squirrel. I’m no jazz buff but I like my brassy honks and squeals. Jooklo one, Virginia Genta, plays like Pharaoh Sanders with some nifty Arabic scales quickly releasing that cheeky kundalini from the base of my spine. Woah boy, I said Woah! Not one or two but three casual acquaintances said this was ‘better than Brotzmann’. Heard that? Promoters…book ‘em now.
Brighton local f.Ampism loops and loops and loops domestic clunk, mbira tones and gentle sighing all engaging and releasing softly like the briny blue sea just 100 meters down the street. A film is projected behind his hat and beard; cut-up collage sourced from what seems to be the family Nyoukis archive and Martha Colburn’s paint splattered horror-core. I have to admit I’m a total fan-boy of Amp’s choogle-leech-warp but this was a whole new saltine! Fordell Research Unit sat like a couple of chess masters and manipulated a pretty damn heavy drone with micro-movements. So far, so good. In tiny, tiny increments the drone gets grunty and somehow slower and fuller until we’re faced with a monolith – a black slab, playing the theme tune for the world’s most evil super villain. There’s a growing feeling of excitement for the next set from noise-monkeys Spoils & Relics with Karen Constance. Faced with a table full of gizmos and wires the quartet sat in quiet contemplation building a Jenga house of quivering tones and darkly-twinkling steam. Like some giant engineering puzzle, pieces are interlocked; a spark starts a fire and is extinguished ruthlessly by the hobo fire brigade. After a time the factory klaxon calls and the workers down tools and melt into grease.
It’s no secret; I’m a little in love with Usurper. Ali Robertson and Malcy Duff have been making the most singular no-input music for half a decade at least. Writing about Usurper is always a tough gig; their total lack of any of the regular handholds makes the amateur pamphleteer work hard, busting chops to describe their occasional cutlery pings and tales of Auld Reekie. Tonight they are joined by Dora Doll, one half of the legendary Prick Decay, on scissors as a circular story unfolds on twin tape recorders. Narratives intertwine as a regular haircut turns into a meditation on the seaside and seaside ritual. A grumpy Ali gets wrapped in ribbon like a maypole, Malcy crawling on the floor streaming the red and white tapes behind him. Hairy objects are presented to Ali & Dora for snipping. A guitar FX pedal, a pair of glasses, a descant recorder are shorn of hair and (in some cases) indecently rubbed beneath the barber’s shawl. Apart from the taped stories, folding in and out of phase there is a rare skronk-interruption on contact-miked yard brush ‘Shussssh, shusssh, shussssh’ as Malcy coughs up hairballs. Any traditional ideas of what performance is are dashed. Any preconceptions of what underground art should be are delightfully roasted. Usurper are right out on a limb, doing their very own thing and making up a whole new set of parameters. What on the page seems like random vignettes has a strong sense of direction and pace…and most importantly fun. I’m laughing like a drain and looking round to see a crescent of bemused yet joyful faces. No one is really sure what they have witnessed but pretty much everyone agrees it was damn fine.
The tapes spool to an end, Usurper and Dora bow and grin, and my CooS adventure comes to an end. It’s been a trip and a half Midwichers. Brighton itself is a beautiful backdrop to this very psychedelic weekend, the bands/acts/performers have all brought their own slice of oddness with a spice and professionalism the naysayers often miss. But for me it’s all been about the people…the floating and transient chats, the laughs and the in-depth conversations. There’s that quote about the Velvet Underground isn’t there? They didn’t sell loads of records but everyone who bought one formed their own band. Well this weekend might have been an intimate affair but I wonder how many projects and plans were hatched, how many ideas were sparked and alliances formed. CooS brings the no-audience underground together like a giant think-tank…but what’s gonna occur? I can’t wait to find out.
Editors note: a comprehensive selection of band bios and links can be found on the COOS website here. Photos by Joe or Marc Teare.