eat local part two: rfm tucks in to ashtray navigations, half an abortion and helicopter quartet

September 18, 2013 at 7:42 am | Posted in new music, no audience underground | 4 Comments
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Ashtray Navigations – spray (CD-r, memoirs of an aesthete, moa cd 1-800-55555, edition of 100)

Half and Abortion – Small Scale Demystification Quandary (tape, Angurosakuson, AS#008)

Helicopter Quartet – Refuge (self-released download)

ashtray navigations - sprayhalf an abortion - quandaryhelicopter quartet - refuge

The cover of the latest CD-r from blog faves Ashtray Navigations (this time being Phil Todd solo) sports a noteworthy boast: aside from ‘false starts with the percussion’ everything else therein is a first take.  It is an interesting prospect.  Despite being an accomplished improviser, Phil’s recorded output tends to be the result of much deliberation, overdubbing and editing.  The guy puts the hours in and the result is a consistency unique amongst those similarly prolific.  The slapdash should take note: no that won’t do, be more like Phil instead.

Anyway, in keeping with the vibe of the project I decided to review it in one take too.  During a lunch break I found an unused basement teaching room in the university where I work, spread my kit across a table – food, pencil, three sheets of A4 paper, mp3 player – pushed the buds deep into my long-suffering ear canals, pressed play and wrote the following.  Aside from some false starts on the punctuation, and some reconstruction following the disintegration of my sandwich and resultant beetroot stains, this is also a first take.

‘bubba o’meiser’: chimes, bells, calling the fairies to a gathering?  A wedding?  Getting heavier, maybe a mushroom vision of the forest, maybe the soundtrack to a 1970s documentary about jellyfish.  Hang on – here come the space bongos (obviously this release does contain overdubs – presumably Phil means each element was recorded in one take.  Some assembly was required)!  Now there is an epic swishing hiss – reptiles in sunglasses are eating the wedding party! ‘the awful backlash’: ah, the guitar.  A super-cool rhythmic shimmer underscores a sky-scraping psyche-rock wig-out.  Phil’s ornithopter flaps lazily over the dunes (at this point I stared at the wall for a minute, lost in the solo.  Nearby building work was making the floor vibrate nicely).  This is Phil at his most free and, ironically, perhaps at his most accessible.  I can imagine anyone whose tastes are guitar-led being won over by this to the shining path of AshNav,  Fun ending as one of the hip lizards from earlier croaks along to the dying seconds. ‘spray’: Business!  Initial bobbling sounds like an interlude in a modernist composition symbolising the rush of urban existence.  Picture ballet dancers artfully avoiding each other as they hail cabs, meet their dates, go about a stylised version of city life.  I’m expecting this to resolve, to clarify but the layers continue to slide over each other, breathless.  OK, now percussion is stapling it together and a low end is packing it away.  Second movement, change of scene.  Now the electrobibble seems like the chittering of nocturnal creatures, the wob-wob of the synth giving the impression of a tropical night that just won’t cool.  Act three sees the return our reptile friends.  As the engine of their super-yacht idles in the background, ready to depart, they enjoy a quayside performance of Miles Davis style vibraphonic space jazz then, ha!, that is it.  Blimey, for a 20 minute track that sure passed quickly.

Great stuff.

Next we have the first appearance on RFM for another Leeds based label, Pascal Ansell’s Angurosakuson.  Click through to find effervescent collage nonsense from the man himself and a couple of noteworthy releases by the (relatively speaking) ‘bankable’ names he wisely chose to kick off proceedings with (reviewed elsewhere).

My favourite item from the roster so far is Small Scale Demystification Quandary by Pete Cann’s solo project Half an Abortion.  Yes, I know the choice of band name is contemptibly gonzo but, as with all ‘extreme’ music, familiarity has made me weary/wary of complaint.  Anyway, I know he’s keeping it mainly because it annoys Pascal which amuses me as much as it does Pete.  The content is noise of the tabletop electronics variety but it is no mere exercise in meathead excess.  Pete’s work is artfully constructed, even when he is clearly making it up as he goes along, and contains levels of nuance and humour that reward repeat listens.

It sounds like this.  Imagine arriving on the space station orbiting Solaris.  Any attempt at communicating with home is scuppered by the roar of magnetic interference emitted by the planet below.  Following a racket down a corridor you find yourself outside Dr. Pete’s laboratory.  You need to pound on the door to get an answer and when Pete does come out – sweaty, preoccupied – he holds the door shut behind him.  His planet-created id creatures (track two is called Iddy and Jutt, so I’m presuming there are two) continue to crash about the lab.  Cut to inside.  They aren’t, apparently, just trashing the place but appear to be conducting their own clumsy experiments.  By the final track their project – to invent music from scratch – has been revealed.  A scribbly, uncertain refrain is dragged from their home-made stringed instrument, accompanied by the clatter of retort stands being kicked about.  The whole thing, then, could be heard as ‘tuning up’ for the one and only truly musical moment: one note, blown for a couple of seconds on (what sounds like) a melodica.  And then that is that – it’s the final noise of the album and an hilarious conclusion.  I like this very much.

Finally, a brief mention of ‘Refuge’ by Helicopter Quartet.  Regular readers will remember my unstinting praise for the two albums currently available by this fine band (for the uninitiated see here and here).  The track, a lately completed off cut from the Where Have All The Aliens Gone? sessions, is seven and one half minutes of melancholic beauty.  Nothing drippy or indulgent about this lament though.  It is coloured with the yellow-grey tones of weather-worn Yorkshire sandstone and has the soul-calming grace of a slate grey sky over Swaledale.  Highly recommended.

Ashtray Navigations

Half an Abortion

Helicopter Quartet

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

what does a dollar buy you nowadays, eh?

May 23, 2013 at 9:44 am | Posted in new music, no audience underground | 3 Comments
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Union Pole cassettes: UP01 – UP76

inca eyeball on union pole

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to draw your attention to something remarkable.

Jeffrey Fuccillo of legendary 1990s tape label Union Pole has made its back catalogue available to download.  Nowt noteworthy there, you might think, such is the way of the world nowadays.  The kick in the head is that digital versions of all 76 tapes can be had for the minimum payment of ONE DOLLAR!  To clarify: that’s not one dollar each, I mean one dollar in total for the LOT.  Somehow this is more exciting than the files being free.  Despite doing it all the time, I still feel a little shamed by putting ‘0’ in the ‘name your price’ box on Bandcamp and downloading stuff from sites like mediafire is a sordid, unsatisfactory business.  Make it a dollar, however, and it becomes a delightful bargain that everyone can enjoy.  I paid five – what the hell, eh?

Am I going to review it all? Am I bollocks (Scott?  Joe?  Fancy it?  I’m joking…).  I doubt I’ll even listen to it all, to be honest, but I am salivating at the thought of some of the dishes served at this feast.  There are tapes by ‘big’ names like Jackie-O Motherfucker and Trumans Water, vintage releases by Neil Campbell, Expose Your Eyes and Ashtray Navigations, more Phil Todd related oddities such as Inca Eyeball (with the inimitable Joincey), Dogliveroil and Dancing Test Tubes and other old favourites from back in the day such as  Cock ESP, Prick Decay and other acts with, er…, non-penis related names.

I  realise that the social networking world has already been a-twitter with news of this largesse, but for the other slow-pokes like me out there: consider yourselves told.

Union Pole

new from empire ashnav: recent ashtray navigations

April 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Ashtray Navigations / Pelktopia – split (vinyl album, YŌGOH RECORD, YGH001)

Ashtray Navigations – Cloud Come Cadaver (CD-r, Memoirs of an Aesthete, MOA 2013-2)

cloud come cadaverashtray pelktopia split

Comrades!  Sound the alarums and light the beacons!  Blow those long thin trumpet things with banners hanging off them!  Kill something and roast it!  For here we have emanations from the very throne room of Empire AshNav itself!  In summary: two new releases by Ashtray Navigations, at length: see below.

The split album with Pelktopia is presented on the heritage medium of 12″ vinyl as the first release from fledgling Japanese label YŌGOH RECORD.  It is packaged in a white-on-black illustrated sleeve that will infuriate collectors as it is impossible to keep free of finger marks, even if your hand washing routine is insane.  That quibble aside: lovely object.  Phil was paid for his contribution, apparently, as well as being sent plentiful freebies and has acknowledged this largesse by providing work of the highest quality in return.

The opener, ‘Soft Sculpture Mountain Machine’, is a brief, optimistic scene-setter.  Excited but laid-back, it acknowledges that cool things are afoot by pulling its sunglasses down its nose slightly and winking at our hero, the Faun.  Faun turns to the window and sees the bay, jewelled with sparkling sunshine, as the plane comes in to land at Naples International Airport.  The centrepiece, ‘Afternoon of a Yorkshire Faun’,  is part Debussy homage, part music concrete, part psych-ambient-mini-epic.  The Faun finds herself sunbathing on the deck of a yacht (the good ship ‘Marginalia’ presumably – heh, heh – a reference for the long-term fans there) as it sails purposefully along the Amalfi coast.  Phil is at the wheel, cap at a jaunty angle.  The lapping of the Mediterranean against the hull sounds suspiciously like the traffic on Kirkstall Road recorded on a microphone dangled out of a bathroom window.  But that can’t be right, eh?  Faun drifts in and out of sleep listening to the sounds of the boat, the sea, the blood in her ears.  The third and final track, ‘The Car Ears’, joins Faun in a Capri nightclub later, a 1960s-style psychedelic ‘happening’ in full swing.  Todd’s tropical guitar is frying the chemically augmented crowd.  Guys lean at louche angles, girls – including Faun – dance, ignoring their sunburn, abandoned in the ego dissolving rhythmic crackle.

The Pelktopia side is really good too.  Minimal, haunted, ambient guitar-scapes that could well be the dehydrated dreams of Faun as she sleeps off the night and rubs mascara onto her pillow.

Terrific stuff, highly recommended.  Details of how to get hold of it on the Ashtray Navigations blog (though ask before sending money – it may be sold out).

Cloud Come Cadaver is a four track album, self-released on Phil’s own Memoirs of an Aesthete label, available on the space-age medium of CD-r and/or download from that Bandcamp.  It is packaged in an attractively bling silver cover adorned with Phil’s unmistakeable cartoon artwork (of which I am a big fan).  The vibe is less sun-baked than the above.  The fuzz, whilst remaining thoroughly psychedelic, is more insistent, has more bite to it.  The blue here is not the luxurious azure of the warm Mediterranean but rather the grey-tinged shade of the morning sky.

The opener, ‘Mushfinger Cadaver’, starts loud, unignorable, like an alarm clock, but soon settles as we throw back the covers and adjourn to the balcony for breakfast.  The gathering pulse documents the waking of the alien city spread out below our vantage point.  Gulls eating yesterday’s scraps in the market square are chased away and fly over the walls towards the port.

‘Granite Phalli’ is driven and irresistible but has the lightness of touch you’d find in some of my favourite Krautrock.  It shares the retro-futurist vibe of that genre too: a sort of nostalgia for the idea of a technological idyll that we are now too old and wise (or cynical) to believe will ever come to pass.  Its groove suggests a journey towards this unreachable destination and we end up agreeing with Kraftwerk (‘fun, fun, fun on the autobahn’) that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.  The third track is the joker in the pack: ‘Like 12 Xmas Dinners Stacked On Top of Each Other’ could be the soundtrack  to a five-minute long claymation remake of Blade Runner.

Lastly, we have the appropriately named ‘The Final Hit’.  This track takes us back to the nightclub in Capri where Faun was dancing.  This time, though, we are in the head of one the guys propped in a corner.  The psychedelic guitar is still raging but it barely penetrates the pharmacological cocoon that this well dressed burn-out has spun around himself.  He looks like an extra from a Fellini film.  Halfway through the track the scene changes to an indeterminate but luxurious new venue.  Is this the hotel?  The hospital?  The after party?  The afterlife?  Who can tell?  It’s like a ‘Comfortably Numb’ for the psych/noise underground but defiant, without a trace of self pity.  It could accompany the ‘ages of man’ sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Did I mention that Ashtray Navigations are my favourite band?  This is why.

To acquire your copy, and to check out the swelling back catalogue now available via the same means, visit the Ashtray Navigations Bandcamp site.

new from empire ashnav: knurr & spell

April 3, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Knurr & Spell. being psychedelic sounds from Yorkshire.

(CD in card packaging, Smokers Gifts #14/Memoirs of an Aesthete moa CD 14/Noise Below, edition of 250)

knurr and spell

I hear that the process leading to the release of this compilation was as troubled and arcane as the Hellenic economic situation (which apparently caused part of the delay).  I needn’t go into too much detail – suffice to say that shit happened on an Augean scale and rivers had to be diverted to clear the path.  We should all be grateful for the Herculean effort and Stoic patience shown by its co-producers: Mel O’Dubhslaine’s Smokers Gifts, Phil Todd’s Memoirs of an Aesthete and noise, a few decks below – promoters of experimental music in Greece (formerly behind the great label Absurd).  Those waiting on this elephantine gestation have been richly rewarded: the album is superb.

The packaging is noteworthy (and getting it right was another cause for delay).  A round, card, three-petalled sleeve unfolds to reveal a CD adorned with a full colour cut up of some kind of rhubarb recipe.  But the Yorkshireness doesn’t end with these delicious stalks.  Also included is an account of the forgotten game Knurr and Spell which originated on the Yorkshire Moors and involves a small wooden ball, the knurr, being sprung into the air by a little mechanism, the spell, and then clobbered by a bloke wielding what looks like a snooker cue with a block at the business end, the pommel.  Thus: golf meets clay pigeon shooting.  Today you are only likely to see it played by the ghosts you encounter if you venture up onto Ilkley Moor without a hat, and having ingested a heavy dose of magic mushrooms.

So onto the psychedelic sounds.  Four tracks, each about twenty minutes long, by four different solo artists.  First is veteran Leeds scenester Shem Sharples, recording as his robotic alter ego Shemboid, who kicks things off with ‘myths of the prehistoric future’ – a Ballardian pun well suited to this blistering, splintering track.  Shem is an aficionado of the garage psych sound and his skyscraping fuzz/wah guitar illuminates the rubble like harsh Californian sunshine.  Whilst enduring some awful hipster nonsense in Wharf Chambers a few weeks ago I mused on the fact that I have been listening to bands tackling the garage punk/psychedelia/krautrock axis for 25 years – from Loop and Spacemen 3 in the late 80s to acts like Moon Duo nowadays – and almost no-one groks the vibe as comprehensively as Shem.

Next is ‘bontempi bastet’ by Ocelocelot, Mel O’Dubhslaine’s noise/drone endeavour.  The track is remarkable: an ectoplasmic gumbo, a thick electronic soup spiced and seasoned to make the corners of your eyes twitch.  Or is it an evocation of heaven?  Not the serene, tree lined avenues in the clouds that we imagine nowadays but instead the impossible floating crush pictured on an epic scale by Tintoretto in his painting of Paradise for the Doge’s palace in Venice.  Mel is a serious artist quietly and brilliantly re-purposing music to serve her own mysterious ends.  She does this with good humour and modesty and I think she might be my hero.

Third is ‘no forks’ by Moral Holiday, Phil Todd’s affectionate homage to first wave industrial music and its red-faced, politically embarrassing offspring power electronics.  It begins menacingly enough, all underground car parks and Sheffield in the late 1970s, and there is a little treated shouting to box the ears.  However it soon settles down into an intriguing mixture of deference to its sources and tripped out Toddiana.  The backing is brittle, unforgiving, stark.  The solos (both synth and guitar I think, though I’ve guessed wrong before) have a trebly, crystalline beauty.  Phil has taken the bucolic feel of the most utopian electronic Krautrock, frogmarched it to a grimly urban setting and then recorded it amongst the glass and concrete, mutating to fit its new surroundings.  It is a completely convincing Ballardian (that guy again) hybrid, greater than the sum of its parts.

Finally, we have ‘taser delerium’ (sic) from Paul Walsh’s foldhead.  This is a 20 minute extract from the dawn chorus in the Metalzoic era: a disorientating onslaught of trilling, squawking, grinding and fuzzing.  Perhaps you could imagine spiking the punch at a convention of shortwave radio enthusiasts then getting the fried participants to improvise a jam using nothing but the guttering warbles of atmospheric interference.  Life affirming stuff – joyful noise wall.  Like an intruder appearing at the foot of your bed, paralysing you with a swift injection to the sole of your foot, then draping his cock across your forehead as you lie prone and immobile, it is a perversely calming experience.

…and that’s your lot.  In summary: this album is damn near perfect.  Buy here.

new from empire ashnav: human combustion engine vi

March 28, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Human Combustion Engine VI: Games Without (CDr, Ilse, Ilse 34)

human combustion engine games without cover

When asked ‘Rob, what is your favourite band?’ I am happy to reply with frank conviction ‘Ashtray Navigations.’  I admit to being distracted occasionally by acts new to me – witness my fawning adulation of, say, Aqua Dentata or Helicopter Quartet or Spoils & Relics – but it is to Phil and Mel I always return.  Even the seemingly irresistible embrace of Culver can be shrugged off in their presence (aside: my devotion is just one of the many traits I apparently share with punk legend Henry Rollins, a fellow Todd collector).

So what a heady delight to be treated in quick succession to three new products from the extended AshNav Empire.  The compilation Knurr & Spell and the Ashtray Navigations / Pelktopia split vinyl LP – both excellent – will be dealt with in due course, as fatherhood allows.  For now we concern ourselves with a brief account of the release above.

Games Without is the sixth volume in the continuing saga of Human Combustion Engine, Mel and Phil’s krautrock/prog synth incarnation.  The package is entirely standard: pro-copied CD-r in jewel case with colour insert.  The content is one 45 minute track constructed from subtle tweaking and restrained knob twiddling.  The effect is to induce a maximal reverie just as involving as any of the preceding episodes.

I imagine it as a conversation between enormously powerful artificial intelligences.  The background buzz and throb being the sound of their daily planet-running business, the pulses being the information-rich exchanges between them.  Perhaps they are discussing the relative merits of the civilisations that created them, like demigods comparing worshippers.  The banter remains civil until at one point something offensive is said (“those Alpha Centauri twats smell of cabbage,” perhaps) and before tempers can be cooled a giant space rock is thrown at the Urals.  The subject is quickly changed and we finish more or less where we started.  Lovely.

Buy here.

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.

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