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

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

Umbra – Unglued (Baba Vanga)

Brandon Lopez – Holy Holy (Tombed Visions)

Lodz- Settlement (Wild Silence)

Black Hat – Impossible World (Hausu Mountain)

Elizabeth Veldon – Laika and Other Works (Third Kind)


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


John Butcher – Resonant Spaces (Blume) vinyl LP

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

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

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


Umbra – Unglued (Baba Vanga) cassette and download

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

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

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

Holy Holy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Hat

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


John Butcher

Baba Vanga

Tombed Visions

Wild Silence

Hausu Mountain

Third Kind Records


only the squad survives: wnns joins rfm, then squints at laurie tompkins, giant claw and dikeman / serries / aquarius

August 20, 2017 at 6:59 am | Posted in new music, no audience underground | 2 Comments
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Laurie Tompkins – 45thGeneration Roman & European Bob (Sacred Tapes)

Giant Claw – Soft Channel (Orange Milk Records)

John Dikeman / Dirk Serries / René Aquarius – Day Realms (Tombed Visions)


Hey. Nice to see you. Come in. Draw up a cushion. Relax. Have a drink.

We may not have formally met before. I spent some time writing a blog called We Need No Swords. You know it? No? Ah well. It happened, for a while. And then it didn’t. Have a look at it, if you have time. You might like it.

But I’m here at RFM now, sort of, for a little while. You’ll probably see me popping up every few weeks or so. It takes a while, y’see. To get the words out the murk and onto the screen.

So, well, if you’re settled, let’s begin. Are we rolling? Ok.

laurie tompkins

Laurie Tompkins – 45thGeneration Roman & European Bob (Sacred Tapes) cassette and digital album

It seems only fair and logical to start this new adventure in a spirit of continuity rather than rupture. Regular readers of RFM will have enjoyed Marlo Eggplant’s fantastic exploration of the recent output of the Slip label, in particular co-founder Laurie Tompkins’ Heat, War, Sweat, Law, which Ms. Eggplant described as ‘pure play, touching objects, feeling surfaces, and hollering at friends.’

45thGeneration Roman & European Bob is a companion piece to Heat, War, Sweat, Law, sharing the latter’s anarchic spirit, non-existent musicianship and gestural physicality to create ungainly lumps of intuitive, defamiliarized sound-making.

In reality that means showers of yelps and grunts accompanied by wandering organ lines and the clacking splutter of someone banging a flowerpot. The overriding impression is of Tompkins and collaborators Sam Andreae, Suze Whaites and Owen Roberts stumbling across a ruined landscape, picking at the shattered remnants of musical forms, their attempts to remake them hindered by the fog of some post-traumatic amnesia. The yowls, patters and parps are a kind of post-catastrophe music making in a territory for which the maps are long gone.

However, if that’s true, why does it sound so much bleedin’ fun? Heat, War, Sweat, Law, although similar in approach, was immersed in an ambience of frustration, Tompkins wrenching fragments of Heaven 17’s The Height Of The Fighting into a series of despairing modernist anthems. The reference point this time around is The Streets’ ‘Turn The Page’.

“Turn the page on the day/Walk away/Cause they’re sensing what I say/ I’m 45th generation Roman/But I don’t know ‘em.”

Not that you’d recognize any of Mike Skinner’s geezer melancholy in the lines of these cracked mosaics.

Yet although the aesthetic is similar the vibe is completely different, Tompkins and his mob enacting a bizarrely celebratory set of rituals, a prelude to a primitivistic bacchanal. The overlapping hoots and hollers of ‘Fifth’ are a bewildering rush, drama-school posturing mixed with Dionysian abandonment in a proper WTF mash-up. ‘ER’ goes even more dissonant, with faux-clumsy keyboard spurts and bashed flowerpots chiming a stop-start backdrop for Tompkins’ vocal fulminations.

Time to embrace the bonkers, flower children.


Giant Claw – Soft Channel (Orange Milk Records) vinyl and digital album

Giant Claw is the sound of your old Windows XP machine being sliced to ribbons by malware, opening up a backdoor for digital housebreakers to riffle through your iTunes library and Amazon wishlist in a vain search for anything valuable – or at least, ahem, compromising – before giving up in disgust and sauntering off leaving a pile of soiled wreckage in its wake. That all this digital carnage is strangely comforting when served up as safely packaged entertainment for lovers of electro-jolt everywhere is testament to Giant Claw mover and shaker Keith Rankin’s cunning ability to create joy from sonic catastrophe, shredding wholesome nuggets of technological capitalism into itchy blankets of enervated jitterbug soup.

This kind of byte-scrabbled mess won’t be unfamiliar to anyone versed in the Oneohtrix Point Never school of production, which recasts the artist as a kind of hyperspace flâneur  kicking through virtual junkyards until they’ve gathered enough glitchy detritus to hack together lumbering automatons of cyber-rusted manure. But Señor Claw is a bit of maestro at this sort of thing, his two previous albums of hiccupping abrasion – 2014’s Dark Web along with Deep Thoughts from a year later – wearing their compositional nous lightly, the fused nodes of their distorted bloops, vocaloid shards and attention-addled jumpcuts only gradually revealing themselves as the delicately woven threads jig insouciantly past.

And so it goes with Soft Channel, Rankin’s latest missive from his empire of blown soundcards. Released on Rankin’s own Orange Milk label, its frenetic asymmetry may well prompt much gnashing of teeth from those not down with the Giant Claw ethos. After all, if one wanted to hear one’s laptop melting down, one wouldn’t have renewed one’s antivirus subscription, eh? But stick with it and you’ll be rewarded. Those chunks of circuit board gloop transition gradually into gleaming, impossible shapes, like sculptures altering their dimensions each time you see (hear) them. Ineffable snatches of alien choirs nudge up against scrolling vistas of spontaneous composition, their fraggy soundscapes smeared with streams of machine lingo fresh from the droid-brain.

The trebly pixel bursts of ‘Soft Channel 02’ make for particularly refreshing listening, their irregular blurts morphing into a prickly ooze of anime moans and hard-panned stutters. Things get double-caffeinated later, with ‘Soft Channel 006’s’ cello plucks tessellating into modem babble like some Benny Hill hack into the traffic-light mainframe.

You’re only supposed to blow the bloody ports off.

Day Realms

John Dikeman / Dirk Serries / René Aquarius – Day Realms (Tombed Visions) cassette and digital album

David McLean’s Tombed Visions label continues to mine a rewarding seam of mutant sounds that combines fire music’s euphoric blowing with the protean spontaneity of free improvisation. Here he hooks up stateside exploratory reedsman John Dikeman with Belgian guitarist-cum-sound artist Dirk Serries and Dutch powerhouse drummer René Aquarius, for a transatlantic jam that sets a determined course for the far reaches of the universe, the trio losing themselves in gorgeously tangled chains of silvery honk and glassy deep-space glister.

Dikeman, Serries and Aquarius are part of a resurgent wave of free jazz that gathers up players from Europe, the US and UK in a cross–cultural throng. Tombed Visions released the first outing from this trio, Night Realms, in 2016 (it’s also provided on the flipside of this tape for any heads who may have missed it) – and players with a similar worldview, such as Andrew Cheetham, Otto Wilberg, David Birchall, Colin Webster and Sam Andreae, have also been represented, in various combinations, by McLean over the years. Of this lot, the ABC Trio’s two releases come particularly recommended, the threesome of Andreae (tenor sax), Birchall (guitar) and Cheetham (drums) locking together in an astringent yet weirdly groovy manner that’s sure to get anyone that’s interested in non-dogmatic free improvisation foaming at the gums.

Night Realms walks a jazzier line than the spittle ‘n’ leather of the ABC squad, its blissful candour creating a beatific cocoon of sound whose radiance doesn’t let up for the 40-odd minutes of its runtime. René Aquarius, whose muscular, arrhythmic chops for Dead Neanderthals are a major contribution to the duo’s seismic force, lets loose with flurries of cymbal and percussive snare and kick-drum jolts, driving forward his partners’ explorations in tidal surges. Serries is on good form too, with circling mantras whose textural sheen are evocative of In A Silent Way-era McLaughlin.

Together, Serries and Aquarius form a taut mesh through which Dikeman slithers with riverine guile. His playing is fluid and melodic, but tough too, his curling riffs building up into a brassy lung-busting cacophony that transforms Day Realms’ opening quarter of an hour into a joyful overture. It proceeds through a series of peaks and troughs after that, although the rhythm rarely feels contrived. At around 20 minutes, Serries drops out and Aquarius moves to toms, freeing up the higher register for Dikeman to blast out in a reedy, squealing tantrum. Serries edging back in with an extended single-note drone adds another layer of hypnotism, yet the tension is allowed to dissipate, oozing out in a series of desultory splashes and plunks, before the trip gird their loins for cathartic final-minute splatterfest.

Bring the cloths, you’re gonna need to clean up around here.

Sacred Tapes

Orange Milk Records

Tombed Visions


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