are after the rain the best band in britain?

February 13, 2013 at 8:40 am | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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After the Rain – The Night Must Fall

(CD, joint release by ATfield, Memoirs of an Aesthete & Bang the Bore)

after the rain - the night must fall

…Phil Todd certainly thinks so and I suspect Seth Cooke agrees with him too.  Bold claims need striking evidence, eh?  Well, before I present my own findings you will have to endure a lengthy preamble.  Get that finger off the scroll button – I know the anticipation is killing but, as you can’t actually buy this yet, there is plenty of time for musing…

Sometimes it is embarrassing to think how little I know about music.  It has been a driving force in my life for 30 years and I have been recording, performing and promoting music for over a decade (well, on and off).  I can pontificate for hours about subjects within my area of ‘expertise’ – this blog tops 100,000 words in total – but if you were to say to me ‘yeah, and what key is that in?’ then all I could do would be to stare at you blankly and guess.  The black keys?  I dunno.  Despite years of experience developing a finely honed aesthetic I still know almost nothing about the technicalities of how this art form works.

My knowledge of musical history and the traditions outside of my field are similarly patchy.  Whilst I don’t agree with Noel Fielding’s Vince in The Mighty Boosh when he describes all music prior to Human League as ‘tuning up’ I certainly understand the joke and have a good, self-deprecating laugh at my own limitations.  With regards to ‘world music’ – if it wasn’t sampled by Cabaret Voltaire or encountered during the breathless couple of months I spent as a teenager trawling the libraries of West Sussex for gamelan CDs and listening to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares then it is lost on me.

I’m not proud of this, I’m just being honest about the situation as it has a bearing on the review to come.  I readily admit that a grasp of historical context, of critical theory and a proficiency in the technical and formal aspects of composition and performance can add a layer of nuance, detail and sophistication to musical appreciation.  Just as a grasp of allegory and technique are invaluable in deciphering masterworks of art history separated from our current cultural idiom by time and/or distance.  Those prepared to learn are rewarded for their effort.

But is this always necessary?  Can’t I just like what I like?  Just get my groove on?  There’s a story about how a collaboration between Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix came to naught because the latter didn’t read music and thus could do nothing with the compositions the former sent over.  ‘Aww, man, tragedy!’ I thought when I first heard about it, then, later: ‘what a ridiculous waste.’  To nix a possibility as mouth-watering as this because Hendrix had no formal musical education is criminally dumb.  What does it matter?  Get in the studio and improvise – play jazz for fuck’s sake.

Away from music one of my other interests, as alluded to above, is art history.  I have been lucky enough to stand in front of some of the most striking products of human creativity – say, for example, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, the most perfect man-made object I have ever encountered – and have found myself transported by an unmediated, awestruck reverie in which all ‘learning’ just falls away, irrelevant.  Can you imagine Titian providing the now ubiquitous ‘artist statement’ by way of explanation?  The idea is grotesque.

Thus with ground prepared – rock of theory on one side, hard place of intuition on the other – we come to The Night Must Fall by After the Rain. I want to convince you that it is wonderful but how to go about it? Well, first an infodump:

After The Rain was formed in 2009 in Southampton, UK, by instrumentalists/composers Hossein Hadisi (Iran), Ignacio Agrimbau (Argentina) and Joe Kelly (UK). They met at the University of Southampton, where they studied composition under Michael Finnissy. Originally emerging as the last mutation of The Hola, an eclectic ensemble founded by Agrimbau in 2005, After The Rain’s sound combines elements from electroacoustics, ‘free’ improvisation, and DIY aesthetics. More importantly, the group uses performance practices and creative methods derived from Persian classical music, which is at the centre of Hadisi and Agrimbau’s research projects.

This blurb accompanied the inclusion of the track ‘Distance III’ on one of those dreary compilation CDs that come with pointless snore-fest The Wire magazine – more on this track later. The description is as dry and cold as hotel toast but it will do to get the chronology and spellings correct. It also hints at the difficulties that lie ahead for an ignoramus such as me: “the group uses performance practices and creative methods derived from Persian classical music, which is at the centre of Hadisi and Agrimbau’s research projects.” Whoo boy – rumbled!

How much does this last point matter? Well, I don’t need to know (presumably) Farsi as the lyrics are helpfully translated into English in the booklet. Do I need to know anything about Persian Classical music or the band members’ research projects? Hmmm… it might help. I can get with the electroacoustic buzzing. That clatter-scratch is perfectly within my usual remit, but the ringing metal percussion, breathy, snorted flute (or flute-ish wind instrument) and guttural vocals – mellifluous or hacking in turn – are tricky. How much is rehearsed, how much improvised? I have no way of knowing. There is some exquisite violin playing on this but I find myself reaching for clichés such as ‘mournful’ to describe its beautiful, emotionally electrifying harmonics. I find myself humbled, discombobulated and wanting to learn.

But enuff of brains, what about guts? What does it feel like? Well, it feels great, thanks for asking. Whilst on the level of theory my ignorance is a hindrance, down here it is a positive boon. Never mind the subtle nuances and clever allusions of the musicologists, the alien nature of this racket is glorious and eye-opening. There is plenty of meditative content but nothing that can be slipped into like a warm bath, I’m kept on my guard, even when lulled. As well as the delight of being surprised I’m totally grooving on trying to figure this stuff out and then, when I can’t, just letting it carry me along. Like a wave washing me up on a shore full of unfathomable sea-worn objects and strangely knotted driftwood. Is it cheating to relish the rewards of not knowing what the fuck is going on? I hope not, because that is what I am doing.

So finally we come to the beginning.  The first track on this album is called ‘Distance III’ and is an indescribable marvel that works perfectly on both the levels I have been talking about.  It’s smart as a magic trick: a mysterious delight, a thrilling intellectual puzzle and it’s as visceral as a giant octopus attack.  It isn’t representative of the album as a whole (which, in general, involves a lot more percussive racket) but that is OK because it isn’t representative of anything, or at least anything that I currently understand.  Three minutes of genius.  No wonder that the band picked it for the Wire magazine CD, no wonder Seth Cooke used it to kick off Missing Nothing – his gargantuan, 6 CD-r, fund raising compilation for Bang the Bore.  On that website, which Seth co-curates, you can watch a video of the band performing this track live at a gig in Leeds that I was lucky enough to attend.  They split the audience – which you know is a good sign.

Sadly, this album is not yet commonly available.  Despite being completed last year it has been stuck in ‘development hell’ ever since.  If you’d like to find out more, perhaps help provide the finance so sorely needed to get it distributed, then email via Bang the Bore – bangthebore@gmail.com – and the caretakers there will happily put you in touch with the band.

wired for sound part 30: etai keshiki and castrato attack group

November 4, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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castratoattackgroupetaikeshiki

(split tape, C40, co-release: hypnowave 002/memoirs of an aesthete MOA K7 001)

The sharp tang of ferric oxide scents the air here in Midwich Mansions: at least two thirds of the teetering review pile is made up of cassette tapes.  I guess it is time to change the batteries in my walkman, clip it to my polyester short shorts, strap on my roller blades and catch up a bit whilst skating under the palm trees, wired for sound.  First up, as I pull on my fingerless gloves and head for the beach, is the awesome split tape by Etai Keshiki and Castrato Attack Group co-released by Etai’s own hypnowave and Phil Todd’s Memoirs of an Aesthete.

Ahh…, Etai Keshiki – how do I heart thee?  Let me count the ways.  The adrenal rush of these punk vignettes (five of the seven tracks clock in at less than two minutes each) is as focussed as toothache and as effective as a blow-dart to the neck.  They clarify the mind as shockingly as nearly being run over by a bus.  Kayleigh and Daria’s vocal technique is akin to what you might hear from a car that has left a jetty and is about to plunge into a lake, the music accompanying these screams is played with a loose-limbed fury.  Lyrics are reproduced cut-up style on the inlay card and document the struggle to survive intact in a world that is intolerant, ignorant and violent.  To an oldster like me the vibe calls to mind Flux of Pink Indians or Nation of Ulysses.  High praise.

The Castrato Attack Group side is just as good.  No songs this time, no lyrics, no message, just one epic, psychedelic jam.  It is a life-affirming, nostrils flaring, magnificent wig-out that demands multiple rewinds.  There are no lulls, no tricksy passages of noodling, no lumpy transitions.  This is, ironically given the name of the band, completely balls out from beginning to end.  In fact this track is bollock naked, standing in your bedroom, arms folded over its chest (cut like a freakin’ steak, of course), shit-eating grin on its face.  I realise that this description might sit a little uneasily with the militant sexual politics of Etai but this is not swaggering, jock machismo.  There is nothing unkind about this music – it just exudes fun and confidence.  Frankly, when a track has a cock like a roll of carpet it is hard not to stare…

Now the tricky part – getting hold of it.  A quick skim of the internet reveals that there isn’t an obvious ‘buy here’ link to offer you.  A page somewhere suggests it is sold out, a comment somewhere suggests that it is being reissued on CD-r etc.  The Etai side can be downloaded for a donation via their Bandcamp site but nowt similar seems to be available for the Castrato side.  I suspect you should try the hypnowave and Memoirs… links above first but be prepared to do a little legwork.  It’s worth it.

artifacts of the no-audience underground: recent human combustibles

August 10, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Ashtray Navigations – Three Spots Two Circles (Medusa, 014, 2 x 3″ CD-r with poster, edition of 50)

Human Combustion Engine V – Bible Whistle (Total Vermin, #76, cassette)

Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides + Human Combustion Engine = Human Horses (Memoirs Of An Aesthete, CD in digipak, edition of 250)

So, Phil and Mel hand me some new stuff, right, and it is well smart so I decide to write about it, yeah, so I look back through the blog to find my last piece on the AshNav axis to make sure that I repeat any running jokes or overworked metaphors that I’ve annoyed them with before and, to my horror, I discover that I’ve said nothing about Three Spots Two Circles!  Nowt!

I’m not sure how/why this dodged the review pile but I suspect it was because I thought it had sold out at source – Medusa – almost instantly.  I might have been wrong (please check) but I don’t like to risk upsetting my sensitive readers by singing the praises of an unavailable item.  Still, as a terrific release by my favourite band I have to at least note it in passing.  From the eye-opening, Pendereckish scraped strings of ‘Forced Orchestra One’, through the more recognizably Ashnavian tropical psych of, well, the rest of it, the level of humour, invention and groove is maintained at a knock-out pitch.  The package is exquisite too – a lovely foldout poster in Renaissance gold, black and white hides two individually wrapped 3″ CD-rs.  Double mini-CD-r = format of champions.  Let’s move swiftly on to two items that are (almost) definitely available…

Human Combustion Engine V – Bible Whistle, is a one-lengthy-track-per-side cassette on the surprisingly-lovely-given-the-name Total Vermin.  The cover features the enormously be-conked, perma-grinning plaster face of Mr. Noseybonk – a nightmare-inducing mime from 80s children’s television series JigsawPerhaps the less said about him the better.

Anyway, this be the fifth outing of Phil and Mel’s synth duo incarnation (hence the ‘V’).  As you might expect given the instrumentation, there are tangerine passages but it isn’t overly krautish nor does it feel at all like pastiche, or even homage for that matter.  If you want layers of low-end robo-dystopian rumble or epic synth washes then you can find ‘em – especially on side two’s ‘The Importance of Whistle Boards’ – but there is also plenty of agile tweakery going on which pushes things forward in an angular and involving fashion.  Let’s examine, for example, the opening to side one’s ‘Holiday Bible Week’ which begins in a spacey manner but this isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey spacey, more knitted-out-of-pink-wool Oliver Postgate spacey.  As the atmosphere surrounding the trilling and warbling darkens the new genre of electro-doom-clanger is birthed before our very ears.

An excellent companion piece to the stuff by Cloughy recently reviewed below.  At the time of writing this isn’t up on the Total Vermin blog yet but you could always drop Stuart a line at smearcampaign@hotmail.com and enquire as to what is up.

Finally, we have a proper pressed CD in a larily coloured digipak released by Phil’s own label Memoirs of an Aesthete.  Usefully, the project is explained by its own title: Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides + Human Combustion Engine = Human Horses so there you go.  Pascal Nichols (percussion) and Kelly Jayne Jones (flute, electronics and piano) join the HCE synthers for an improvised 40 minute performance recorded by RFM-chap-of-the-year-contender Andy Jarvis, Heathen Earth style, in front of a select audience.

I was very interested to hear how this was going to fit together.  Would the synths of HCE be mobile, reactive and spacious enough to accommodate, say, the delicacy and emotional potency of KJJ’s flute?  Would the remarkable, rolling, free drumming of PN really get its claws in or would it just skitter over the surface?  Silly me for even asking.  All the elements augment and amplify each other, creating a multi-faceted whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Imagine you are about to embark on a giant jigsaw (I’m talking about the tabletop time-killing activity now, not Mr. Noseybonk) of a tropical jungle scene.  The picture is always there, in prospect, from the moment you tip the pieces out of the box, before you even start to solve the puzzle.  However, it won’t resolve itself until you make some progress in assembling it, then it gradually becomes clearer and clearer until it is fully revealed by the satisfying placement of the last piece.

OK, now picture yourself as retired and therefore a fiend for jigsaws.  This is some distance in the future, of course, and now jigsaws are high tech things with shape-shifting pieces that change each time you waggle your iBrain implants.  Also, not only does the picture gradually take shape as you put it together but an immersive scene of lush plant life, strange insects, heat haze and exotic bird calls – stuff you can hear and see – is created at the same time.  Repeat listens to Human Horses is like that.  Buy here.

new midwich product! ‘cut flowers’ on memoirs of an aesthete

July 27, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Posted in midwich, new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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midwich – cut flowers (Memoirs of an Aesthete)

Ladies and gentlemen, RFM is proud to annouce the release of Cut Flowers on Phil Todd’s terrific label Memoirs of an Aesthete.  This was the first recording made by the reactivated midwich and follows the traditional midwich album pattern of squeaky-drone-bubble-drone.  It’s release has been delayed for the best part of a year due to a devastating crocodile attack on the caravan carrying the masters as it crossed the Zambezi river.  Luckily almost all of those involved have now recovered from their injuries.

A few artist’s freebies were rescued from the carnage and handed out around the time of the comeback gig I played in the snow in February.  This led to the following comment, edited from a very flattering review over at Idwal Fisher:

Having listened to quite a bit of Midwich material over the years I detect a game of two halves; one being the breaking apart head nodding trancelike repetitive melody as fingered on a tiny keyboard … and the other being the overhead passing prop plane drone with all manner of layered nuance for company. In both, subtle shifts in harmonics occur which act in a drug like fashion putting the listener into a soporific eye rolling stasis … A more detailed look at ‘Cut Flowers’ will see a 47 second opener that you might be able to dance to [First Impressions], a fourteen minute prop plane droner [Mitigating Circumstances], a seven minute head bobber [Queen Olive] and a bow out track [Sea Kale] that runs to twelve minutes worth of shimmering drone that drifts across your vision like fag smoke in a tap room.

Cool, eh?  Dying to get your hands on it now, I bet.  Well, off you trot to the Memoirs Bandcamp page (click on ‘further releases’ if you can’t see it in the sidebar).  A limited edition CD-r with the lovely colour cover shown above can be had for a fiver (shipping first week of August) or, should you shun physical objects nowadays, a download can be had for a pitiful two quid!  I’ll truck no excuse – buy here.

julian bradley and the piss superstition

April 15, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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the piss superstition – a themepark for whatever happened before

8 tracks, 12″ vinyl lp, memoirs of an aesthete, moa lp 5

As mentioned in previous posts, the best thing about writing this blog is that it has led to me rekindling contact with ol’ comrades from the no-audience underground milieu.  The latest is the chap above, although this was done in a lengthy and circuitous manner entirely in keeping with our later relationship.

Back in the heady, decadent days of fin de siècle Leeds, I saw a lot of Julian.  I trotted around after Vibracathedral Orchestra, loudly proclaiming them to be the best band in Britain, and at some point made the transition from fan to friend.  This ramped up when I moved into a slug infested hovel around the corner from where Julian was living.  He was spending his time recording, fending off burglars and recovering from a heart-rending change in his personal circumstances.  Understandably we were both keen to get out and spent a fair amount of time in pubs or at gigs together.  Our styles complimented each other – him: dryly comic, me: over-exuberant and ridiculous.

The solo stuff he was creating at the time, self-released on tape with hand crafted covers, is amongst my favourite ‘experimental’ music: a sparse, muddy cocktail of mechanical groaning and post-industrial hiss.  If you are imagining Alan Splet’s soundtrack for Eraserhead then you aren’t far off.  Very, very high end stuff with packaging that perfectly mirrored the off-kilter sensibility.  Covers below:

He was the one that convinced me to go ahead with the ludicrous/magnificent oTo tape project and ’twas he that travelled up with me and my then girlfriend to the legendary 2002 gig hosted by Lee ‘Culver’ Stokoe at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle.  A flyer he produced specifically for this gig contained the first mention I saw of his urinal credulity:

So what happened?  Well, our friendship faltered as I got ill and took a short break from music and music people that somehow stretched into years.  This falling away was not helped by the totally lackadaisical attitude the man has towards keeping in touch.  Seriously, if Julian hasn’t spoken to you in three years don’t take it personally – he’s just grooving his own way and will get around to it eventually.  Though you may have to wait until you bump into him at a gig – which is what I did a few weeks ago.  The meet-up which was mooted that evening took several more weeks to arrange but was worth the wait.  I was delighted to discover that Julian retains his place in the Leeds demimonde, drinking until closing time at the Brudenell Social Club and speed-smoking duty-free roll-ups.  We poked the embers of our bromance with a stick and it flared up nicely.

In a happy coincidence, the release of the record above (on Phil Todd’s label Memoirs of an Aesthete) fell between meeting one and meeting two.  First thought: wow, a vinyl lp.  I listen to vinyl so rarely nowadays that I almost have to make an appointment to do so.  Still, as I was saying about 12″ singles, it shows a faith in the work and demands a level of concentration that more portable formats can dodge.  This is wholly appropriate.

Norman Records have a decent stab at describing the sound:

…this gives the impression of somebody having turned the gravity off in a psychedelic garage band’s practice space with all their equipment turned on so all the effects, guitars and amps float around, collide, interact and feed back off each other in consistently delightful ways…

I love the image, and I think it gets across the idea of the space that Julian’s music contains, but I’m tempted to go the other way and focus on the heaviness.  For me, Julian’s work has always called to mind machinery, often on an unimaginable scale, working to some forgotten purpose, on the brink of being overwhelmed by entropy and halting altogether.  Listening is like being one of the humans sucked up into the vast, sentient machines in Pohl & Kornbluth’s classic novel Wolfbane.  It is an absolutely brilliant way of conveying the devastating effort it takes to feel something, anything in this alienating world we live in.

Repeat listens bring these structures into focus.  An example: the opening (title) track is, at first listen, pretty harsh.  This was a surprise as Julian’s stuff, whilst challenging, is rarely punishing.  The second time I heard it, and knew what to expect, I was so tuned in that it felt like a completely different track – I thought I’d put side B on by mistake.  Yes, the album works on a visceral level but is also full of layers and reveals to reward the careful consumer.

Have I said enough?  Do I even need to mention that this is a criminally limited edition sure to be sought after in future?  I would seriously consider acquiring a copy if I were you.

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