Archive for August, 2009
In its short life, this here blog has already developed an annoying habit of discussing albums that have previously been thoroughly picked over by Scott Mapsadaisical. Given this irritating tendency, it was only a matter of time before a review of some Richard Skelton LP or other appeared hereabouts.
So who is this Richard Skelton fellow and why does Scott love him so much? Well, Skelton seems to be a pretty singular figure, engaged in obsessively crafting an ever-growing discography of beautifully packaged albums released in a variety of formats under monikers including A Broken Consort, Landings, Carousell and Clouwbeck.
Marking Time is apparently Skelton’s first album released under his own name. Like all of his albums, it’s dedicated to his late wife Louise, who passed away in 2004. It was originally released on CD by Australia’s Preservation Recordings in 2008 and is now available on vinyl via the Type label.
Like a lot of Type artists, Skelton mixes avant rock methodology with avant classical instrumentation. The results, in this case, are rather like a free-form, drone-heavy take on early music – with ancient sounding cellos and viols gently swaying and creaking in the wind.
Less fancifully, it recalls Arvo Part’s graceful mix of the medieval and modern. It’s also recommended for fan’s of Max Richter’s electronica-tinted neo-classicism.
But these comparisons just don’t quite cut it. Skelton is a genuinely unique artist who is building a significant body of work that deserves much more widespread attention than it has thus far received.
He’s also an extremely single-minded artist, which is a polite way of saying that a lot of his stuff sounds kind of similar. Picking individual tracks to post is therefore likely to be a somewhat arbitrary task. “Fold” and “Heys” are the ones you’ll be getting today.
To hear the rest, buy Marking Time from Forced Exposure.
Normal service will be resumed.
During the course of a previous post on this here blog, Mountains may have been given something of a raw deal. The implication was that the Brooklyn duo is equivalent to but not as good as the Swedish group Tape. Time to address and – if possible – redress this terrible injustice.
Tape and Mountains are among the most interesting contemporary musical artists working at the intersection between digital electronics and acoustic instrumentation. But whereas Tape’s sound is delicate and somewhat pointillist, Mountains albums are full of rushing, gushing field recordings and tumbling cascades of finger-picked acoustic guitar. Not so much a wall or ocean of sound then, more of a river.
Released on the Thrill Jockey label, this year’s Choral is easily the duo’s most high-profile release. It doesn’t quite have the depth or breadth of the bands high-water mark, Sewn but it’s as good a place as any for newcomers to start the trip downriver.
The whole album flows beautifully (is this metaphor getting tenuous enough for you yet?) so it’s hard to pick a favourite track. “Map Table” is the one most commonly posted on MP3 blogs but the title track is even better, if anything.
Really, you need the full boat trip: buy Choral from Thrill Jockey.
Christina Carter is probably best known for her work as part of Charalambides – primarily a duo with her ex-husband, Tom Carter. Over the years, she has developed a uniquely intimate take on avant rock improvisation – one that powerfully evokes the kind of uncomfortable intimacy that must be inherent in playing improvised music with your ex.
To be fair, though, Christina’s highly personal musical language probably owes as much to the wide-open spaces of the American South-West as it does to the stifling confines of any dysfunctional personal relationships she might have been involved in.
So, throughout her work with Charalambides, Scorces and as a solo artist, Carter has developed a style of voice and guitar interplay that is simultaneously intimate and expansive. 2008′s Original Darkness may be her most fully realised expression of this style.
In some of her recent work, Carter seems to have made a conscious decision to channel the discomfiting naivety of legendary Texan outsiders Jandek and (to a lesser extent) Daniel Johnston. Original Darkness includes plenty of Carter’s familiar molten improv rock but it also occasionally switches to a much starker, almost didactic outsider mode. Observe the contrast between the oceanic bliss of “Hidden Man” and the stentorian tones of “Do Not Love a Woman”.
Both modes are equally affecting and Original Darkness is a considerable triumph. Christina Carter once again proves herself a force to be reckoned with. She also has pretty eyes.
Put a little darkness in your life – buy Original Darkness from Scratch Records.
BJ Nilsen is quite possibly the ultimate Touch artist: he mixes the exquisite field recordings of Chris Watson with the kind of melancholy ambience Fennesz has been producing recently, not to mention the icy Nordic atmospheres often associated with Biosphere.
The Touch label is to be commended for issuing Nilsen’s most recent album, The Short Night, on vinyl – albeit some time after the initial CD release. Touch is certainly showing a strong commitment to the greatest of all formats but you do have wonder what the label’s priorities are.
For example, why did Touch edit a couple of tracks out of Fennesz’s Black Sea, allowing it to fit on a single LP? The epic Black Sea is a double album in spirit, if ever there was one. Was Touch trying to save money on pressing and – if so – how come the album was packaged in an expensive-looking, full-colour matte sleeve? Seems like a slight case of style over substance or – dare one suggest? – a little vanity on the part of label founder and graphic designer Jon Wozencroft.
The Short Night, meanwhile, is pressed on extremely flimsy, far-from-180g vinyl, which makes the disc itself look rather like a 12″ single from the mid ’80s. But it seems a bit mean-spirited to do all this complaining when the pressing sounds absolutely fine and the music is utterly fantastic.
It’s hard to describe Nielsen’s sound without falling back on Scandinavian stereotypes and Nordic cliches – he’s Swedish, after all. Nielsen isn’t helping matters by giving the album a title that immediately evokes the midnight sun.
Let’s just say he’s an absolute master of counterpointing huge, monolithic slabs of sound with brief, delicate moments of near silence. The results are extremely dramatic and moving, throughout the course of the album but nowhere better than on “Black Light”.
If you’re a Touch fan, you really need the new record by the ultimate Touch artist, don’t you? Yeah, you’d better buy The Short Night at the TouchShop.
Bad news readers: the album is dead. But then you read the Internet, so you already know that. Seriously though, it should be clear to just about anyone that the full-length album is becoming less and less relevant to the way people consume music.
Some smart characters have been pointing out that the American avant rock underground pretty much abandoned the album (as we know it) some time ago. Today’s US underground acts eschew the annual “event” album in favour of constantly issuing new works in a variety of unconventional formats (cassette, CDR, lathe cut…)
So, it seems that the mainstream music industry and the indier-than-thou underground can agree on one thing: the album – as previously noted – is dead. It should come as no surprise that the music industry is maintaining its verve for trying to fix things that ain’t broken but you’d think the underground would know better.
The thing is – as a format for presenting music – the full-length vinyl LP simply hasn’t been surpassed. Nothing is quite as satisfying as two sides of thoughtfully compiled, professionally cut wax. Wouldn’t you prefer to release one brilliant album a year rather than shitting out a stinky stream of musical diarrhoea? All those lathe cuts and tapes? You think anyone wants to listen to that shit?*
On the surface, C. Spencer Yeh – aka Burning Star Core – pretty much typifies the US underground’s tourettic approach to releasing music. Doubtless there’s a website somewhere that will allow you to gaze in wonder at Yeh’s voluminous discography. Mark E. Rich claims to own a cassette featuring nothing but unadorned recordings of Yeh making weird noises with his voice.
The thing is, though, every now and then, Yeh releases a “proper” album. Take Challenger – which was released on CD last year and seems to have emerged on vinyl some time later. Everything about this release says “significant album”, starting with the prog pastiche cover and the opening title track, which rolls out some appropriately space-age synth work.
The space prog mood is not maintained throughout though. Indeed, what makes Challenger such an old-school full-length is the sheer variety of the tracks. By contemporary standards, this seems like a compilation – the summation of a long period of work, presenting the best bits and editing out the failed experiments.
There’s a kind of artistic arrogance inherent in this – one that doesn’t jibe well with the mood of faux egalitarianism and Gumpism that blights our culture. Who is C. Spencer Yeh to tell us which of his jam sessions turned out well? The bastard!
Well, at least he gives us plenty to choose from – thanks to the album’s aforementioned variety. Challenger moves between a number of abstract sound modes, deploying a wealth of analogue and digital noise-making gear. And while they certainly drift through some pretty deep space, the tracks are short and structured enough to count as songs, in the broadest sense. And the songs are compiled in a manner that creates an extremely engaging overall experience.
In other words, Challenger is an album – a great album. Turns out reports of the album’s demise have been slightly exaggerated. Stupid Internet! If the album was dead, you wouldn’t be able to buy Challenger from Forced Exposure.
(*Obviously, this is an exaggeration, used to make a point – the American avant rock underground produces plenty of perfectly decent music.)
Will the great outsider treat us to a version of “Come Through with a Smile”?
By any reasonable standards, the Moritz Von Oswald Trio is in bad shape. Group leader Von Oswald is still in recovery from a stroke, while percussionist Vladislav Delay is said to have had serious heart problems in recent years. Musically, though, the trio is in rude health.
Well, perhaps that’s a little misleading. This is Moritz Von Oswald we’re talking about here. He of the Basic Channel duo, legendary for stripping techno down to a feint, radiant pulse and (as Rhythm & Sound) reducing vintage reggae to its raw essence of hiss and crackle.
Vertical Ascent is as skeletal and challenging as anything in the Von Oswald back catalogue – and does a great job of transferring the BC aesthetic to a live, improvising band context.
In fact, this is such an austere record that you might find it somewhat hard to love at first. But – given the proper attention – Vertical Ascent induces a fascination that goes beyond the merely cerebral.
It might help if you start with “Pattern 4″ (in typically uncompromising style, Von Oswald leaves the most accessible track ’til last). Here, a dubby, downtempo beat cushions the blow of Delay’s clanging metal percussion and the sundry stark synth oscillations.
While it’s very recognizably a Basic Channel-related release, there’s nothing else out there that’s quite like Vertical Ascent. Unique and ingenious, it’s already looking like a good contender for record of the year. You are strongly advised to buy it from Honest Jon’s.
Tape is a Swedish post-rock trio featuring veteran “glitch” electronica artist Andreas Berthling. Luminarium is the band’s most recent album and also its best. Originally released on CD in 2008, it has subsequently been issued in a handsome vinyl edition by Chicago’s Immune label.
It’s easy to regard Tape as being a European equivalent of Brooklyn duo Mountains. Both Tape and Mountains run very dependable experimental music labels (Hapna and Apestaatrje, respectively) and both mix highly melodic live playing with grainy, glitchy electronic textures.
Recently, it has started to seem like the Swedish trio has been living in the shadow of its US equivalent. This year, Mountains released an album (Choral) on the relatively high-profile Thrill Jockey label, garnering noticeably more attention than just about any other record to have emerged from the post-Fennesz electronic underground.
However, while those flashy Americans have been conspicuously collecting plaudits, the subtle Swedes have been gaining both artistic and commercial momentum. Consequently, Luminarium appeared on a really quite surprising number of blogs’ 2008 top tens.
Really, it’s no wonder. Luminarium opens with the timeless melodic loveliness of “Beams”, moves un-fussily onto the equally lovely “Moth Wings” and steadfastly refuses to flag from thereon in. The Tape boys know how to leave just enough space between the notes. They also know how to add just enough ugliness and grit to their compositions to prevent these marvellous tunes from becoming mere decorative fluff.
Luminarium will work its way into your affections gradually. It’s not a needy album. It’s humble but confident and very very giving. Let Luminarium light up your life. Buy a copy from from Forced Exposure.