the 2013 zellaby awards

January 4, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | 4 Comments
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zellaby award envelope

Ladies and gentlemen, dear readers all, welcome to the hotly anticipated Zellaby Awards for 2013.  The show, in its third annual outing, is presented in association with Radio Free Midwich and hosted by the editor from his comfortably-appointed padded cell in the basement of Midwich Mansions.

In previous years the awards have formed part one of a two part round-up of cultural highlights.  However this year I can easily roll what would usually be part two into this preamble.  Why?  Three words: Thomas James Hayler.  The birth of our son in March was an epoch-defining, paradigm-shattering, life-forever-altering event for all of us – I’m sure you’ll remember the moon turning a fire red that evening – but looking after the kid (y’know: issuing orders to the nannies, sorting through the mountains of flowers, cards and teddy-bears left at the gate of the estate, that kind of thing) has rather cut into the time and energy afforded to culture in general.

It was interesting to experience how looking after a baby pares life down to the essentials.  I now do my bit to help with Thomas, I look after my wife Anne as best I can too, I keep up with my friends and family (more or less), I go to work (when healthy) and I think about music.  That’s all I have but, crucially, it is all I want.  Sure, we could do with more money and better health – who couldn’t? – but establishing this balance has been refreshing and revelatory.  I can sincerely state, all joking and archness to one side, that Thomas joining us has made 2013 the best year of my life so far.  By some distance.

Thomas at Xmas 2013

<stares wistfully into middle distance, wipes tear from stubbled cheek, returns to business at hand>

I did get to read a handful of books, of which HHhH by Laurent Binet, about a 1942 mission to assassinate Richard Heydrich, chief of the Gestapo, was the most compelling, original and intriguing.  I even stole a line from it to use in a review.  I think I read the entire of Museum Without Walls, a collection of essays and television scripts by polemicist, architecture critic and commentator Jonathan Meades.  I say ‘I think’ because it was mainly done in sleepy five page chunks in the middle of the night.  Otherwise I kept my membership of the bourgeoisie fresh by reading the London Review of Books and took my news mainly from Private Eye which, despite its many faults, holds power to account at least some of the time thus making it unique in the mainstream.  I pretty much gave up on film and television aside from using the boy as an excuse to watch Regular Show and Adventure Time on Cartoon Network.  Oh, and Game of Thrones series 3 was fun too if you like that sort of thing.

Down here in the no-audience underground I devoured, as ever, anything posted by Uncle Mark over at the essential Idwal Fisher blog and cover-to-covered the no-less essential Hiroshima Yeah! the moment it arrived in the mail.  Congratulations to the latter on reaching its 100th issue this year, no mean feat with one of its two editors in prison…  Also in the realm of the self-published, a pamphlet of poetry by my good friend and comrade Nick Allen has been on my bedside table since he surprised me with it at work one morning and has been well-thumbed and repeatedly enjoyed.

It has been another golden year for music, both live and recorded.  A couple of my all-time favourite gigs occurred in the last 12 months and my ‘long list’ for best album contained 34 contenders!  Never mind those bullshit ‘end of year’ polls you see in print magazines that you know were proofread over ice-creams in August, never mind those ‘best albums of the last fifteen minutes’ you see on internet based blogzine snore-fests.  This is the real deal: compiled whilst the New Year is still bellowing after being slapped into life.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we need to trot through a few methodological points, then the ceremony can commence.

Firstly, the music mentioned below may not have been released in 2013, although most of it was.  To qualify it had to be heard by RFM for the first time in the calendar year 2013.  Secondly, releases featuring the staff of RFM (me, Scott McKeating, Joe Murray) are excluded.  Modesty is not a virtue I can be accused of but awarding ourselves prizes is a bit much even for me.  Thirdly there are the same five award categories as last time (although one has had to be renamed…).  Should an artist win big in one of them they may appear overlooked in others.  This is deliberately done in the interests of plugging as much excellence as possible and thus no-one should get the hump.  Finally, I did invite the aforementioned Scott and Joe to contribute nominations but the final decisions are mine.  Think of me as a benign dictator listening carefully to his advisers before passing judgement.

OK, shush now – the house lights are dimming…  Time for the first category!


5.  The “I’d never heard of you 10 minutes ago but now desperately need your whole back catalogue” New-to-RFM Award goes to…

Lucy Johnson

smut - piano one

(with honourable mentions for Joe’s choice: WANDA GROUP, “the absolute master of steamy hiss and non-linear edit”)

Here’s a extract from the lengthy overview of Lucy’s back catalogue that I posted back in July:

One of the refreshing things about what I playfully refer to as the ‘no-audience underground’ is that it is not full of self-aggrandising blabbermouths.  There are a few – me, for example – and an acceptable level of self-absorption is common, but many artists quietly get on with producing excellent work mainly, it seems, for their own gratification and the pleasure of their circle.

This situation allows for the gradual discovery of that most mysterious of creatures: the unsung hero.  Names are pencilled in – an aside from the omniscient Scott McKeating, a credit on a Matching Head insert, say – then repeated until they become underlined in bold and further investigation becomes inevitable.  Such has been the case with Lucy Johnson.

I had, of course, already praised Space Victim, her duo with Mike Vest, to the hilt (they featured in RFM’s best of 2012 list) and more recently did the same for the Witchblood tape, her duo with Lee Stokoe, on Matching Head.  A comment from Miguel Perez led to me picking up her tapes as Smut and hearing those led to me finally paying some proper attention. Over the last few weeks I have been putting two and two together via Discogs, the Turgid Animal site and various other rune-casting activities and have been gathering up examples of her work.  She records solo as Smut and Esk, is half of the aforementioned duos, is the vocalist for black metal band Rife, and is also in the bands Obey and Dark Bargain (as reviewed by Scott below).  Her artwork adorns covers and T-shirts and has recently been made available to buy as prints.  Most of this stuff is available from the label and distributor Turgid Animal which (according to that same review by Scott) she co-runs.  Blimey, eh?

Can’t wait to hear what comes next.  There is at least one more Smut tape to pick up and the Obey album to look forward to as well…

Next is…

4.  The “Stokoe Cup”, given for maintaining quality control over a huge body of work making it impossible to pick individual releases in an end of year round up goes to…

Robert Ridley-Shackleton

r r-s - butterfly farm

(with honourable mentions for Kevin Sanders whose consistency proves awe-inspiring, Bjerga/Iversen’s album-per-month Bandcamp project, Joe’s choice Hapsburg Braganza and, of course, Lee Stokoe, who was also Scott’s choice)

Given that I went from not knowing who he is to hearing/seeing around 50 objects produced by him during the course of a few months Robbie was odds-on favourite in this category.  That said, I realise that it is a controversial choice as ‘quality control’ may not be an entirely appropriate concept to apply to this gushing, unstoppable flow.  I suppose one man’s drivel fountain is another man’s exuberant exploration of an outsider vision.  As I wrote in my first overview piece about his stuff:

Call it an ‘aesthetic’, a ‘vision’ if you like, but it becomes clear during the perusal of these artefacts that this is Robert’s world – a dimensionless jiffy bag containing a wonky, distorted universe – and that the rest of us are tourists within it.

For what it is worth, The Butterfly Farm, the tape pictured above released by Beartown Records, is as good a place to start as any.

On to…

3.  The Special Contribution to Radio Free Midwich Award goes to…

Joe Murray and Scott McKeating

posset - my hungry holesscott

(with honourable mentions for Dan Thomas and Miguel Perez who both understand what friendship is really about.  Cheers fellas.)

Obviously.  In May Scott offered to help out, I bit his hand off.  This gave me the idea of asking Joe, who bit my hand off.  Once these appendages had been sewn back on we shook them vigorously and got down to the typing.  I like to think that the house style at RFM sits somewhere between the jazzed exuberance of Joe and the more meticulous, journalistic work of Scott.  Thus between us we offer a comprehensive ‘three bears’ account of this remarkable scene.  Being able to lean on these guys has kept the porridge at a perfect temperature during some pretty distracted times, especially baby- and illness-related, and I am beyond grateful for their contributions.

Now we have…

2.  The Label of the Year Award which goes to…

Memoirs of an Aesthete

Half an Abortion - Drowsy Seepage

(with honourable mentions for, well, see below…)

This was a very, very hotly disputed category.  I was tempted to be perverse and, in the style of Time magazine’s mirror cover, proclaim label of the year to be ‘self-released’.  Certainly, in this Bandcamp enabled age the idea has to be considered seriously.  But that ain’t much fun is it?  Let’s have an argument instead!  Joe stepped up for Winebox Press:

Jon Collin’s labour of love has presented some amazing music this year (Vampire Blues, Lost Wax, and his own gorgeous schizzle)  all nailed to hand-sanded wooden chunks.  This extra detail might make things difficult to file but the soft hand-feel makes me return again and again to these loose spools of joy.

Scott proclaimed Matching Head, natch:

Same as every other year. Lee Stokoe keeps it prolific, adding new regulars to a strong cast of returning cassette-friendly noise/drone/wtf artists.

Both excellent choices, of course, but what of the Sheepscar Light Industrial, last year’s runner up, or Kirkstall Dark Matter – a blood feud between Leeds postcodes?  Or is the glorious return of Sanity Muffin gong-worthy?  Speaking of returns, was any more welcome or surprising than that of Union Pole which made a long-gone 76 item back catalogue available to download for the total of one dollar?  Or what about Hissing Frames or hairdryer excommunication, the content-pumps of Robbie and Kev respectively?

The choice seemed impossible so I left the scribbled lists and did a couple of those things that you only see people do in the movies: splashed my face with water then stared into the bathroom mirror, took a cold can out of the fridge and held it against my cheek etc.  Soon clarity was restored.  For not putting a foot wrong, for never having even a single hair our of place, it had to be Memoirs of an Aesthete.  Phil Todd’s label has released one belter after another this year and has probably clocked up more minutes playing time in Midwich Mansions than any rival.  If it has Phil’s seal of approval on it then you should buy it.  Simple really.

…and finally…

1.  The Album of the Year Award

Risking accusations of hyperbole, I have claimed once or twice over the course of 2013 that we were living in a golden age.  Revisiting the releases I heard during the year I feel absolutely vindicated.  Add my long list to the short lists provided by Scott and Joe and you have a total of over 40 titles without even counting much not-really-released-as-such-but-still-magnificent work such as the soundcloud presence of, say, ap martlet.  Scott mentioned…

Black Sun Roof4 Black Suns & A Sinister Rainbow (Handmade Birds) – Davies and Bower make noise ritual a rhythm thing.

Skullflower / MasterySplit (Cold Spring) – Black metal soundtracks.

Joe added:

Duff/Nyoukis/Robertson/ShawAcetate Robots (Giant Tank) – Soft Scottish mumble, sweet as tablet.

Poor MouthS/T (Total Vermin) – Stream of consciousness wonk-out in proud Estuary English.

Lost Wax – My Sore Daad Heap’d (Winebox Press) – Environmental sounds lashed into a bivouac as the sun rises.

ID M Theft AbleBabb’s Bridge (Veglia, King Fondue, Zeikzak, Taped Sounds) – Like Manson’s internal monologue as knives get knotty.

Blue Yodel & Lovely HonkeyPoppies & Cocks (Chocolate Monk) – Mooooggg, hummm…voosh. Boo-fffff.

Both lists pleasantly indicative of the interests of my comrades, I think.  Take note.  Right then, as I did last year I have whittled my choices down to twenty with the first half presented in no particular order, linked to the original RFM reviews.  Here we go:

Witchbloodspoils and relics - angelsplurals sli 018Ceramic Hobs - Spirit World Circle Jerkaqua dentata - ten thousand wooden faceshalf an abortion - quandarystarlite coffins - medicine eagleGalena - Buried Finchpeople-eaters - imprecate

Every one a winner.  Click on the above for further thoughts and for contact/purchasing info.  Now on with the top ten, in reverse order…

10. Xazzaz – Untitled (Molotov 20)

xazzaz - 'untitled' molotov 20

This was reviewed twice on RFM this year.  Firstly Joe said:

…a melodic pitch-shifting that recalls those tremolo-heavy vibes from MBV…except this time the jazz electricity comes via belt sanders, floor polishers and hammer-action drills rather than sappy guitars.  The crashing continues, churning up plankton and hurling it on the zinc-coated rocks until, at around the 11 minute mark a large rusty anchor is thrown overboard and is dragged nosily (sic – it was more fun to keep the typo than correct it – RH) across a rocky sea bed.  Grrrgrgggrgggrgghhhhhh!   After a while your ear hairs can bristle no more and I had to settle back to accept this Black Metal take on Frippertronics as an astringent lullaby…

…then I pitched in with:

Mike’s music causes my edges to crumble, then crevaces to open, then huge thoughtbergs to calve from my mental glaciers.  He isn’t averse to roar, of course, and can stamp on pedals if need be, but it is the subtleties and nuance that make it so compelling.  He listens patiently, he understands what is going on.  He knows what to do.

Check out the Molotov catalogue now distributed by Turgid Animal.

9. Shareholder – The Backwards Glance volumes 1, 2 and 3

shareholder 1

Joe turned me on to this one.  He wrote:

The Backwards Glance is ten god-damn years of recordings all wrapped up in beguiling drawings, elastic bands and creepy collage work.  Sandy has taken the Faust approach and jams are cut-up hard against each other so you lurch between approaches, styles, themes and moods … My advice is to block out a few hours in your schedule, settle yourself in your preferred listening area and drink this special brew in deep.  As in the dog-eat-dog world of high finance the Shareholder is always looking for a unique selling point.  This USP for these clever little tapes is their god-damn addictiveness!

8. Culver/Somália ‎– Split


Joe also beat me to this one too and came up with the best simile of the year, damn him:

Culver is a master of the dark art of static movement.  In the same way smoke will fill a room to the corners, too thick to see thorough but fragile enough to part with the wave of a hand, Culver plays that hard/soft, full/empty, maximal/minimal dichotomy like Erich Von Daniken’s  ancient astronauts. Always working on the edge of being there and not being there this piece, this relatively brief drone called ‘seven human hairs’ is like watching ink boil … Somália is some mysterious Portuguese music maker who, on ‘das cordas’ takes a melancholic Satie riff (Gnossienne No. 1 I think) and loops it over and over again with a grimy patina of tape murk.  That’s it.  No speeding up or slowing down. No descent into beats or basslines.  Just a gradual fade into the muck collected round the capstans.  Super simple and super effective.  It works at times (and I have to point out here I have played this tape a lot!) like dark canvas, swallowing the light but freeing up the subconscious.  This is dreaming music.

7. Seth Cooke – Run For Cover

seth cooke - run for cover

The spec is simple enough, a single track of about fifteen minutes in length, but its ingredients are tricky to separate out.  I suspect the noise that sounds like a swarm of angry wasps flying into a juddering extractor fan may be a vibrating implement set upon a drum skin.  The buzz is malevolent – like tapping the glass of a giant tank full of insects only to have them all turn in unison, give you a hard stare and then start working together to get the tank’s lid off…  Some abrasive electronics are then set loose in order to scour and gouge the source noise whilst a bucket of low end catches the swarf.  The concluding crescendo is visceral, tough and as sparkling as your peripheral vision after a sharp smack to the back of the head.  Yeah: awesome.

6. Yol – Four Live Pieces

yol - four live pieces

Joe is a true believer:

I think it was the mighty Stan Lee/Jack Kirby axis that came up with the Incredible Hulk to explore the untamed, brutish side to mankind.  The trick Yol has turned is to take this Yahoo Hulk and transplant it into the damp and bland world of Northern Britain – 2013.  This is no Marvel Universe magic realism but the dark perverted land of a bent cop, conflicted priest or overworked teacher.  It’s a post-Saville world where celebrity corrupts and no one can really trust each other.  Yol gives a voice to the bitter and bleak, the misplaced righteousness and revenge that most of us keep buttoned up tight.  The inner struggle is played out in vivid crimson, choked out, spat into the gutter and stamped on with spite.

5. Shoganai –  ショウガナイ


The fella behind this project, remaining semi-anonymous for his own reasons, has produced a piece of work so ambitious and accomplished that the fact that it is available to download on a pay-what-you-like basis from that Bandcamp left me stupefied … Some details: your download will contain nine tracks spanning 41 minutes.  These episodes are clearly the product of a single aesthetic but vary in construction.  There is computerborne surrealism, the programme code distorted by a horseshoe magnet ordered from the Acme catalogue, there is deep-fried tropical psychedelia the like of which wouldn’t be out of place on a Space Victim or AshNav album, and there is the cooing and squawking of an alien menagerie, recorded rooting and strutting about the forest floor on a distant, poisonous world.

4. Helicopter Quartet – Where have all the aliens gone?

helicopter quartet - where have all the aliens gone

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 it is epic on a human scale.

3. Various – Knurr & Spell

knurr and spell

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.

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?  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. The backing is brittle, unforgiving, stark.  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.

Finally, we have ‘taser delerium’ (sic) from Paul Walsh’s foldhead.  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.

In summary: this album is damn near perfect.

2. Ashtray Navigations – Cloud Come Cadaver

cloud come cadaver

Previous winners come oh-so-close once more.  I wrote a lengthy psychedelic ramble accounting for each track in turn which you can read by clicking on the title above.  For now I need only quote the final remarks:

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.

Absolutely magnificent.

…and finally, the RFM Zellaby Award for Album of the Year 2013 goes to…

1. The Piss Superstition – Vocal Learning

vocal learning front

Back in May I had a moment of prophetic clarity:

The music suggests systems gone wrong, like some guy pushed in a punch card upside down and then went to lunch leaving everything running.  Yet heavy, juddering electrics describe arcane symbols as they spiral through the iterations of this garbled instruction set.  Something truly wierd is being revealed.  The serrated buzzing suggests saw mill equipment escaping its moorings and consuming itself as one bladed machine vibrates into the path of another.  But again, there is nothing random about this movement.  All is being conducted by an unfamiliar intelligence for some unknowable purpose.  In the end though, all metaphors, similes, superlatives and whimsy just slide off this band or, at best, get caught in the gears and mashed – such is the beauty, mystery and power of their output.  They do not sound like anyone else and yet, somehow, it turns out that this sound is exactly what I wanted to hear.  Its value can only be calculated by fumbling with an alien currency, glinting strangely in my palm.

Thus: Vocal Learning is the best album of the year so far.  Why?  Because it is – I said so.

…and there we have it.  The End.  Well, not quite.  There is a prize should the winners wish to claim it: a release on the fabled fencing flatworm recordings.  Yes, in a tradition stretching all the way back to one year ago I decided to reanimate my legendary label to issue one release a year which could only be by the winner of the Best Album Zellaby Award.  So, JB & Paul, how about it?  Drop me a line if the idea tickles you both and we’ll talk turkey.

RFM’s ongoing account of the no-audience underground’s creative endeavour will continue shortly.  We wish you all a very happy New Year!

quality baked goods part five: starlite coffins and galena on sanity muffin

December 19, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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starlite coffins – medicine eagle (C15 tape, Sanity Muffin/Pfantone Labs, sm38/pl01, edition of 66)

Galena – Buried Finch (C54 tape, Sanity Muffin, #48)

starlite coffins - medicine eagleGalena - Buried Finch

…and so we come to the final pair of Sanity Muffin tapes to be reviewed in 2013 and, as is customary, I have saved my favourites (thus: the best) until last.

First we have medicine eagle by starlite coffins and before describing the music, a word about the medium and its part to play in the message.  The packaging is truly beautiful: lovingly designed (screen-printed?) inlay card, pink (!) reverse to the box and as for the tape itself, well… open the case and a slip of card falls out with the following printed on it in tiny letters (excuse me quoting at length):

This reel to reel cassette you hold in your hands is nearly thirty years old.  Any nuances or inconsistencies in the magnetic particle arrangements on this tape are entirely condoned as adding cohesion to this release.  An assortment of audio ailments such as dropouts, warble, pitch-bends, and hiss are to be expected.  Each cassette in this series has a unique magnetic print, and should be treated with the utmost care…

…flip the card over and, cue chuckle, there is a Bandcamp download code printed on the reverse.  Lolz.  Confusing times for high bias worshippers at the Church of Ferric Oxide, eh?  It might be tempting to dismiss this as fetishism or pretentiousness or both – like me boasting that I only write with quills on vellum and that any grammatical errors are welcome evidence of my painful sincerity, before I then copy it all out on WordPress – but there is enough evidence of love and humour in all this to conclude these chaps are totally heartfelt.

The two tracks, each of seven and a half minutes in duration, are multifaceted, restless drone.  Imagine a once-in-a-lifetime, three-week-long, candlelit ritual held in an enormous cavern, deep under a mountain.  Now imagine this ritual filmed using a time-lapse camera with a fish-eye lens and thus reduced to fifteen minutes.  The numerous followers and functionaries lighting candles, holding vigils, chanting mantras become a ceaseless baseline blur on the cavern floor.  The candles themselves are lit, glow, gutter and go out in a rhythmic wash – light as liquid.  The rock formations illuminated are eerily majestic: gigantic sheets of flowstone, buboes and sinews of delicate rock laid down over millenia though seemingly as alive as the flesh they resemble.  Yeah, like that.

It’s a highly disciplined label boss that can resist the temptation to self-release his or her own stuff on his or her own label.  I certainly couldn’t manage to keep that level of teeth-gritted distance and, I am glad to say, neither can Billy Sprague in his solo guise as Galena.  Fuck it, eh?  The work we do down here in what I playfully call ‘the no-audience underground’ is an odd mixture of the utterly selfless and the utterly narcissistic.  This stuff is produced for the love of it, often due to an irresistable drive to create, with no reward expected and no approbation sought and thus can be presented entirely, and definitively, on our own terms.  There is no such thing as ‘conflict of interest’ in our scene – if we don’t blow these trumpets then no trumpets will sound.

Buried Finch contains nineteen tracks over fifty two and a half minutes and is unlike anything else I have heard this year.  This is a very good thing, obviously.  Billy gamely admits to three ‘strong’ influences on the inlay card and these do provide clues: soft cell (the minimal feel of the early stuff, yeah, but had me looking up the career-destroying magnificence of This Last Night in Sodom.), Daily Fauli (impeccably hip rare synth from 1980s Denmark) and Country Teasers (1990s Scottish art-punk, a scabrous mix of elder-statesmen The Fall and current darlings Sleaford Mods.).

Tracks are short, self-contained affairs that create a world within a few seconds, drag you into it for their duration then, as you settle in and start grokking your surroundings, push you out to be grabbed by the next one.  Electronic squirming evokes a writhing pit of living patch leads, lo-fi scene setting tracks hold up a crayon drawing of a sunset.  Then we hit side two and things start getting seriously weird.  For instance, check out ‘cleanzing’ [sic] where Billy, in the first person, tells the story of an obsessively clean psychopath who kills his family: ‘now they don’t make a mess’.  Or the final track, ‘your silloette’ [sic, also], in which his character stalks an ex.  It has the menace of the final scene of Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (watch the whole film here – then go for a walk to clear your head) and leaves a similar taste in the mouth as various notorious tracks by Throbbing Gristle.  You know what I’m talking about.  I guess this brooding darkness can be found in Billy’s art should you wish to go looking for it but coming from, as I know him to be, a kind and gentle guy it is all the more unsettling.  Highly recommended.

The Galena tape can be bought from the Sanity Muffin Big Cartel site.  Medicine Eagle is sold out but can be downloaded (including bonus 10 minute third track) from the starlite coffins Bandcamp site.  Watch the skies for a planned reissue in physical form too…

quality baked goods part four: rich jacobs and bre’r on sanity muffin

December 15, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Rich Jacobs – The Tooth Lady (C52 tape with print and microzine, Sanity Muffin Artist Series, edition of 150)

Bre’r – Homes For Taipei Wifing (C42 tape, Sanity Muffin, edition of 100)

rich jacobsBre'r

OK, all the reviews in this series so far have been of reissues.  Enuff!  Next up from Sanity Muffin: two albums of guitar-led, instrumental, original material.

First is The Tooth Lady by Rich Jacobs (as it is billed on the Sanity Muffin site, the doc that comes with the tape suggests it could also be Turbulent Grains by The Tooth Lady – either way Mr. Jacobs is the sole featured musician).  This is the inaugural title of the ‘Artist Series’ in which multi-talented acquaintances of Sanity Muffin Captain Billy Sprague are invited to both fill a tape with their music and have a hand in its packaging.  The object is suitably lovely.  Each tape is housed in a neat, clear plastic presentation box (not the usual clacky cassette case) with a tiny Japanese Gocco print complementing the geometric design on the labels.  A twelve page microzine containing collages and credits is bound to this with a stiff card OBI strip, hand-stamped and numbered.  Most satisfactory.

The music is improv guitar.  Not desert, not cosmic – just simple, cool and with a pleasantly confident, infectious charm.  The guitar is slightly reverbed to give it that ‘recorded in a water tower’ vibe but otherwise appears untreated.  It is a classic rock ‘n’ roll/surf sound but bent here to unrock purposes.  I find it refreshing and sharp with possibility – like the first day of the Spring when you can leave the house without a jacket.  Also, unlike many art/music crossover projects, the art/music balance is well struck with each amplifying the other.  Mustard on your hotdog, man.

Homes for Taipei Wifing by Bre’r (solo project of D.A. Fisher – another artist new to me) is plenty desert and plenty cosmic.  Picture the shimmer of the new dawn sun tinting the sky a blood orange pink as it touches the horizon.  A bassy, resonant fuzz rearranges the sand (‘turbulent grains’!) as smooth-bottomed, city-sized spaceships land with a silent, gentle grace on the far side of the dunes.  This open ended drift, swaying to its own circadian rhythms, must be what the designers of my tape walkman had in mind when they put that little ‘keep it flipping’ button right there next to ‘play’.  It makes me walk around the house like an astronaut on the moon – long, slow, bouncy strides, arms out to my sides.  I could listen to this all day.  I have.

Buy from Sanity Muffin’s Big Cartel site.

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

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

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

ron berryodd nosdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pauline anna strom

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

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

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

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

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

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

quality baked goods part one: moëvöt on sanity muffin

November 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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Moëvöt – Best Of (C80 tape, Sanity Muffin, s/m #40, edition of 100)

moevot - best of

Long term readers will recall the time when this blog was basically a fan site for the marvellous American tape label Sanity Muffin, as run by that California-based Renaissance man Billy Sprague.  Our transatlantic bromance was the talk of the town before being cooled by some ridiculous increases in overseas postage costs imposed by the US Postal Service.  Long distance relationships are tough, especially for penniless artists like us, and it all went quiet for a while.  Thus you can imagine my delight when contact was rekindled back in the summer and shortly afterwards a parcel arrived at Midwich Mansions containing no less than a bunch of his most recent offerings.  I will be dealing with them in due course, in no particular order, and as my current illness allows.

First up is a compilation culled from the 1990s work of French cult hero Vordb recording as Moëvöt.  Take a look at the cover of this tape and have a guess as to what its contents will sound like.  What if I told you the inlay card also features a pentagram, a goat’s skull and a black and white photo of a shadowy forest?  Obviously, stereotypically Black Metal, right?  Well, not exactly.  This has the gothic, morbid vibe but does not feature the thrash instrumentation you might expect.  Instead we get funereal tempos, bowed strings, organ drones, treated sound effects and gurgled vocals.  These elements are dropped one by one into a bubbling cauldron and the result is a sombre hush that occasionally spills over into howled horror.

Some of this is very effective.  Imagine yourself a fey, 21 year old celebrating your birthday with an architectural tour of New England.  You find yourself in the town square of a small fishing port and, attracted by its antique cut-glass doorknobs, you enter a public building.  This turns out not to be the local library but instead is a temple dedicated to Dagon.  Against your better judgement you investigate and, as you realise what the rust coloured substance drying on the altar might be, you hear the congregation approach.  To avoid being discovered you have to hide under the altar itself.  Moëvöt soundtracks the ensuing ritual.

Some of it, however, not so much.  Allow me to draw a literary allusion.  When reading Edgar Allan Poe nowadays – The Fall of the House of Usher, say – the trials of his velvet-clad, melancholy decadents are more likely to get me sniggering than swooning.  Their woes are so overwrought as to appear camp and invite laughter rather than the sublime, discombobulating eeriness presumably intended.  Such is the case with Moëvöt too.  For example, when I realised that one strangely familiar chord progression was a ringer for the nursery rhyme ‘Three Blind Mice’ I lost my shit and it was hard to keep a straight face from then on.  I am prone to disrespectful silliness and thus perhaps not exactly the target market for music so earnest…

Sadly, and with apologies, this interesting historical document is now sold out – such is the length of time between Billy’s parcel arriving and this review appearing – but watch this space for further accounts of his peerless warez (EDIT: a few copies of this tape can be found for sale via Discogs.).

Sanity Muffin at Big Cartel

wired for sound part 36: geldings – in death’s pulp mask

March 21, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Geldings – In Death’s Pulp Mask (Sanity Muffin 26)

OK, whilst I am otherwise occupied with the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood (which I am loving – even in a perpetual state of sleep deprived fuzziness) I’ll keep things ticking over here by hauling out a previously unpublished review for your perusal.  This was written back at the end of 2011 (I think) then shelved at the request of Sanity Muffin head honcho Billy Sprague until the tape was officially released.  Fortunately (for Billy)/unfortunately (for you, dear reader) it sold out immediately and so the shelf was where this piece remained.  However, in a recent email Billy tells me that…

…we’re repressing soon… they have a new tape, its here on the bigcartel site and you can let folks know that the first one will be reissued very soon….

…thus, by happy coincidence, posting the below is timely again.  Here goes…


Answer as soon as you buzz, no conferring.  You are offered the opportunity to hear one of two pieces of music, piece one is already well known and loved by you, piece two is completely new to you – which would you choose?  I trust that most of the intrepid sonic adventurers that read this blog would, like myself, usually be unable to resist the lure of the latter.  One of the great pleasures of music appreciation, especially out here on the fringes, is the joy of discovery.  Very little is wholly new, of course – the story of all music being one of plagiarism and mutation – but, amazingly, it still appears possible for the elements to be combined into novel alloys, bizarre amalgamations.

You might be forgiven for thinking that an old war horse such as myself would be jaded and weary but not a bit of it.  Much to my surprise and delight, I find myself more switched on and enthused about music than ever.  I often find myself cracking a grin on the bus to work, or lost in whatever minor chore I happen to be up to – repeatedly washing the same plate etc., or just sat staring out of the window, pen in mouth or laptop humming ignored, whilst transfixed by the glorious thought: “what the fuck am I hearing?!”

Sanity Muffin, long-time RFM blog-fave tape label, run by Californian artist and general-all-round-force-for-the good Billy Sprague, seems to specialise in providing me with these moments.  His hit rate is spectacular – and what higher praise is there around these parts?

This tape, In Death’s Pulp Mask by Geldings, is a fine example.  First the cover: a really terrific fold out illustration in gold on black that looks like the plumbing or electrical schematic for one of outsider artist Achilles Rizzoli’s fantastical Y.T.T.E buildings.  There is something very pleasing in the way the organic shapes – tree branches, crows – both impinge on and are encompassed into the symmetries of the blue(gold?)print.  I’ve resisted the urge to scan it entirely in order to save you a treat after your inevitable purchase.  Secondly, the music provides many of those distracting and puzzling moments discussed above.

Some impressionistic highlights of side one: birdlike trilling, rolling waves of analogue crescendo tipping over into a froth of distortion, Numanoid off-key synth-line putting its hand on your chest and holding you back from glorious reverie.  Ultra compressed gabba beat slowed to the boom-tschik of late 70s electro-industrial, indecipherable chants and screams but this is not power-electronic thuggery – more like the Theatre of Cruelty of Artaud.  Looped warble, running water, an overnight field recording of a haunted mansion made by Whitehouse.  Some kind of wind instrument, horribly distorted (house band of the Overlook Hotel?) swamps the pitiful bleeping of ridiculous ghost hunting paraphernalia.  We end with teeth loosening shudder…

Side two has a more narrative feel – like the stages of an ill-advised rite being performed in an attempt to summon something from the depths of Lovecraft’s Nameless City, lost in the desert.  A hypnotizing heaviness settles early on and builds to the terrific title track which, playing as I type, has just caused me to stop, give it my full attention and nod my head, thus playing my part in the calling of the beast.  It has a close-up, brute sensuousness that is mesmerising.  Imagine plunging your arm into a crate filled with lightly oiled ball-bearings – a delicious, dirty action that leaves a residue on your skin.  The Skinny Puppyish pummelling with which we finish is a doomed attempt to scour it all clean again.  Too late, people, too late…



Visit the Sanity Muffin Big Cartel site here.

wired for sound part 19: naked lights saves rfm from a kicking

October 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Naked Lights – Chime Grove (Sanity Muffin 20)

At approximately 11pm on the night of Tuesday 27th September 2011 I was walking home through the leafy suburb of Moortown here in the beautiful city of Leeds, jewel of the North.  I was in high spirits after a trip to the Fox & Newt to see Phil & Mel’s hard-throbbin’ synth duo Human Combustion Engine.  Terrific stuff.

However, as I turned a corner not far from my house, a car – standard Japanese teen-mobile but not emitting any bass or chat – silently rolled up beside me and they looked me over.  I might have been unnerved by this had I not been distracted by my walkman suddenly cutting out.  Suspecting the tape may be a little ‘tight’, not unusual in a newly wound cassette, and that a ‘pull’ had stopped the mechanism, I took the walkman out of my pocket, took the tape out the walkman and banged the tape on my thigh in an attempt to ‘loosen’ it up.  This little charade took place in full view of the lads and, as the music got back into its groove, I looked up to see the boys exchanging glances with each other.  They pulled away.

I didn’t put two and two together at first but now I’m sure that had I pulled an expensive looking iThing from my pocket I’d have suffered a humiliating and possibly violent mugging.  My ostentatious display of techno-luddism may well have saved me.  Take note kids: downloading can be hazardous to your health.  Stay safe and listen to tapes! 

And who was it that saved the day?  Why: Sanity Muffin, of course!  In particular the tape above.  Now we’ve heard about its crime fighting capabilities it’s time to find out what it sounds like.  Well, for the first few listens I could barely hear the music due to the vigorous nodding-in-approval I was doing as I ticked off various influences and reference points.  “Ah – the unquantized synth-led soundtracks of straight-to-video early-80s John Carpenter rip-offs.  Boss,” I thought to myself, “ooh, now some angular post-punk agit-pop robo-funk.  Lovely,” etc.  After a while though I became able to appreciate this business as a whole. 

There are 19 tracks on the tape – many short sketches, some fully realised ‘songs’ – but the disparate styles are unified by two features: the production and, for want of a better word, the vibe.  The production is simple to the point of being absent: a track can start wholly in one stereo channel and then double in volume when the second channel kicks in, tracks can be swathed in the sort of fuzz generated when the sound guy has his feet up on the mixing desk and is concentrating on the cigarette he is rolling.  Don’t think for a moment this is laziness though, because it definitely is not; they could have aped the alienating 80s sheen so fashionable right now but have chosen not to.

I guess this could be for financial reasons (it must take a lot of time and money to make an album that sounds like Foreigner or Phil Collins – just ask Bon Iver) but this is more likely to be an aesthetic decision.  Naked Lights, as the name suggests, like to peel off the varnish and examine the interesting blemishes and wrinkles underneath.  Ignoring the unforgiving Californian sun, they remove their aviators and move in close for a better look.  I like this very much. 

Buy here (please note two tape minimum for orders outside the USA).

wired for sound part 15: the return of sanity muffin, part four

July 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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Galena – Through Veils (Sanity Muffin)

And last but not least, the solo project of Sanity Muffin head honcho Billy Sprague himself.  ‘Grave News For You’, the last Galena tape, was one of RFM’s albums of the year in 2010.  An emotional evocation of the process of dealing with grief, fittingly and touchingly dedicated to Billy’s late father.  If you didn’t get this can I politely suggest you pick up the lovely CD reissue on Darla?  Even if you did get the tape, the CD has an interestingly different feel and is worth having in its own right.

In person, and in our correspondence, Billy has the big, easy charm of the Californian dude – he is possibly the only person I know who can get away with using the word ‘stoked’ – but don’t let the demeanour fool you.  Here is a man attempting to address some very serious ideas: time, memory and the way that one distorts the other.  And when I say ‘memory’ I don’t mean the hazy, sun-soaked idyll imagined by, say, Boards of Canada.  Instead Galena presents us with the raw data of personal history, in all its complicated, uncomfortable tangle, and asks: “is that how it was?  Are you sure?”

Allow me to elaborate.  As someone who has been in and out of counselling for many years I am familiar with what the trade calls ‘door handle moments’.  This phrase refers to the client experiencing a jaw-dropping epiphany, or uncovering a revelatory connection, in the final few moments of a session.  It can feel like your rib cage has suddenly cracked open and that the therapist has reached in to give your feebly beating heart a good squeeze.  As you reel at the implications of your discovery you are being ushered out and breezily reminded of the date and time of your next appointment.  So off you go: numb, staring, wondering if the door that just opened in your head could (or should) ever be shut.  For me, this is the kind of primal stuff that Galena brings to mind.

Musically this tape is more guitar led than ‘Grave News…’ so the influences I suggested you could hear last time – early Cabaret Voltaire etc. –  are less evident, replaced by a surer voice.  Working on the assumption that I haven’t mixed up the two sides (label your tapes, man, goddammit!), the tape is structured in a sort of forty minute bell shape with the peak of the crescendo being the terrific tracks that end side one and begin side two.  They pull perceptions, feelings out of the dark: is that the shadow of favourite childhood doll cast on the bedroom wall?  Is it the shoulder of a former lover, turned away and trembling slightly?  How about the comfortingly revolting smell of your dog’s breath?  Maybe the aching guilt of it being too late to say ‘sorry’?

The sound palette – “synths, tapes, vox & baritone guitar” says the inlay card – is kept to a disciplined number of carefully chosen elements, all of which serve the purpose of the mix.  There are occasional vocals but they are unintelligible, sometimes near the surface, sometimes buried, like the name of that kid you spent a whole year sitting next to in school but now can’t quite remember…

A word about the cover.  This features a collage by Billy himself, in various shades of grey, emerging from a black ground.  It looks like a charcoal rubbing of a shale fossil of one of the strangest creatures of the Cambrian Explosion.  Or something from the unsettled dreams of a biologist who fell asleep flicking through a book of Cuvier‘s illustrations.  Suffice to say, it fits the mood.

I know Billy has been grooving on these reviews the last few days and enjoying me throwing out references to dinosaurs, ogres and spaceships in my descriptions.  However, I don’t need to reach for the Dungeonmaster’s Guide this time.  Galena’s music is about something more magical than magic and more terrifying than monsters: it is about knowing yourself and about dealing with what happens.  It is about how we process life.

To conclude: a few final points.  Billy tells me the title is a nod to his favourite Port Said album from the early 80’s as his friend Stefan Tischler from that band passed away from cancer whilst Billy was working on this tape.  Rest in peace Stefan.  I’m sure he would have appreciated the tribute.  Billy also tells me that this tape was put together for his recent European tour with Nadja where five of the tracks were recreated as part of his live set.  I am now grinding my teeth at the injustice of them not making it to the UK.  The practical upshot is that only a few of these tapes remain for sale.  Thus you should waste no time in clicking on buy here.

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