Marielle V Jakobsons: Star Core (LP, Thrill Jockey, August 2016)

I was first drawn to this because I was curious about Jakobson’s Macro Cymatic Visual Music Instrument, a homemade construction which transduces the vibrations in water into sound (I won’t try to explain it any more than that, instead you should just go see it in action). Certainly there are some interesting sounds going on here, although I must admit there’s nothing which sounds quite as sui generis as its method of production. There’s lots of smart analogue synth work here, including some excellent long wonky squelchy bass notes, some nice touches of flute, some breathy female vocals which inevitably remind me of Grouper. I must admit that there’s been a lot of very unadventurous music in this mould coming out for quite a while now, and I tend to have an instinctive “thank you, next please” reaction when I hear it (especially that clichéd vocal sound), and I probably only stuck with this because of the (surely reverse?) cymatics… If that’s a gimmick, then I guess it did its job. Still, there is plenty of interesting stuff going on with this record, sonically and melodically, and I’m pleased I took the time to get to know it.

I bought this from Boomkat. They hedge their bets and call it Electronic, Modern Classical / Ambient.

Mätisse: Kairos (CD, In Paradisum, January 2016)

Sometimes, I really don’t make life easy for myself. It’s very hard to know what to say about this record. There are two 18-minute tracks, but each is in several apparently unrelated parts. Along the way it incorporates (in no particular order) melodic synth music, sparse modern classical using a variety of different piano sounds (from the close-miked and intimate to the echoey slightly dissonant), abstract acoustic bass noodling, buzzy drone ambient, post-rock guitar, some weirdly resonant plucked instrument I can’t place, a combination of humming and bowed resonant chimes and throaty chanting seemingly suited to some kind of meditative ritual, jazz xylophone (!), aleatoric percussion, heavily processed chanting, and a dozen other styles and instruments which I either can’t remember or can’t name. Often, we get two of three of these at the same time, in frankly surprising combinations. Sometimes, things will seem to come to a climax and then peter out; other times, they’ll simply come to a halt. There’ll be a pause, and then something different will happen, with no obvious sense of progression. It’s all very strange, really. But here’s the strangest thing of all: somehow, they manage to make this all not just work, but sound quite natural. Not only are all the elements satisfying individually, but the whole thing manages to combine an elegant lightness of touch with a kind of almost devotional intensity, and I found myself keeping on coming back to it — and after four or five listens, I started to convince myself that there’s a sort of fractured subconscious logic to its structure. An early contender for the hardest-to-categorize record of the year, but an immensely rewarding one.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic (which is, frankly, a cop-out).

Harold Budd + Eraldo Bernocchi: Music For Fragments From The Inside (2xLP, Sub Rosa, December 2014)

Combining classical music and electronica sounds like a great idea in theory, but in my experience it’s often pretty underwhelming in practice. Not so this collaboration, recorded live at the Palazzo Delle Papesse Centro Arte Contemporanea in Siena, Italy, initially released in 2005, and here re-released on beautiful double LP. Bernocchi’s electronics — at times straight-up ambient, at others a kind of driven by a heavy thumping beat — provide the atmosphere. Budd’s piano — simple, airy, improvised melodies — provides the soul. Sometimes the two seem to work in concert, a minor-key piano line played on the beat; more often, the moody electronics thump darkly at the core of the music while the delicate curlicues of piano skitter over the surface. (I believe that Budd’s improvisations are largely in a pentatonic scale, although I’m no expert — this presumably contributes to the jazzy feel.) The result, from the piano study One to the slow-building epic Seven, is pretty wonderful. (They have one final trick up their sleeves, too: at the start, we hear the sound of the audience settling down; at the end, we hear them applaud, but then glitchy production effects start mutating the applause itself, playfully pointing out the ambiguity inherent in live recordings. No hay banda!)

I bought this from the Sub Rosa shop.

Fatima Al Qadiri: Asiatisch (CD, Hyperdub, April 2014)

This record opens rather arrestingly with a song whose lyrics are more-or-less nonsense verse in Mandarin, sung to the tune of Nothing Compares 2 U, accompanied by little more than a synthesized celestial choir. The effect is rather surreal, but the significance is clear: Al Qadiri (who is Kuwaiti, born to Russian-educated parents in Senegal, and lives in New York) has something to say about the exploitative exoticization of the orient, and oriental women in particular, in western culture. This theme dominates the album, which is mostly an intriguing mixture of dubstep and Chinese classical. The dubstep is there in the bassy whaaarp noises. It’s there in the skittering beats, although these are pretty abstracted and only present on about half the tracks. It’s there, I guess, in the way the tracks are structured. The Chinese elements are largely in the melodies, both in the (largely synthesized) instrumentation and the pentatonic scale. A couple of tracks have spoken, or maybe more intoned, Chinese vocal elements. Dragon Tattoo has vocodored English repeating “I’ve a dragon tattoo on my arm / and I mean to do you harm” and “Speak Chinese if you please baby / speak Chinese if you please”, presumably referencing Stieg Larsson and Disney’s We Are Siamese, and frankly a teeny tiny bit hammering the point home. I’ve previously encountered Al Qadiri as Ayshay for 2011’s Warn-U. Much like that record, this is both conceptually and musically interesting, but perhaps not as deep as it thinks it is. I like the sound, and I really like some moments here, but it doesn’t quite do enough to keep my interest over the length of the album.

I bought this from Sister Ray, an actual shop.

Egyptrixx: A/B Till Infinity (CD, Night Slugs, December 2013)

Egyptrixx combines rattling beats with a rich, dark, meaty synths and a fine array of squelches and clangs. It’s the sort of music that demands to be described as cinematic, but as something I find can be a positive or a negative, and here it points to the reason I have reservations about this record: it’s propulsive and melodic and I find it an enjoyable background listen but it feels like the kind of soundtrack which doesn’t work as well without it’s movie. (Those clever people at Boomkat suggest that he should have been asked to score the new Robocop movie: this perfectly invokes that darkly dystopian future.)

I bought this from Juno. They call it Bass.

Various Artists: An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music, Vol. 7 (3xCD, Sub Rosa, June 2013)

This is the final (sob!) entry in this fantastic series by the fantastic Sub Rosa label, which has been enriching my life regularly since 2001. As always, the range of music is phenomenal, and while not everything will be to anyone’s taste, there’s always loads to keep me interested. One standout track here for me is quietly brilliant electronic collage of Novi_sad’s The Insolence Of A Poppy from 2011. But the most striking has to be Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s recording of Au Clair De La Lune. This was made in 1860 using a machine called the phonautograph which predated Edison’s phonograph by two decades. It mimicked an ear, using a membrane, an arrangement of levers, and a stylus to scratch a record of the music onto a glass cylinder coated in lamp black. The tragic flaw was that there was no way to replay it (this may be why Edison is a household name and Scott de Martinville is not). So this, the first known recording of a human voice, went unheard until 2008, when clever scientists at Berkeley digitally recreated the sound from a high-resolution scan of the cylinder. It’s easy to get over-sentimental about the poignancy of all this, but it’s hard not to be a little bit moved by this crackly ten seconds. (More about this on wikipedia.)

I bought this from Juno. They call it Industrial / Drone / Noise.

Colleen: The Weighing Of The Heart (CD, Second Language, May 2013)

A warning: If you find the idea of a woman singing breathily over pretty tunes played on harps and chimes likely to bring you out in a rash from the twee, this album is probably not for you. Which would be a shame, as there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in terms of instrumentation and, in particular, of songwriting (I think this has really developed since Les Ondes Silencieuses back in 2008, my last encounter with Colleen’s work).

I bought this from Juno. They call it Experimental / Electronic.

Ellen Allien: LISm (CD, BPitch Control, March 2013)

Remember when Ellen Allien was a techno producer? For quite a while now, the original Berlinette’s output has had a pretty tenuous relationship with the genre, or indeed any genre at all, and has been none the worse for that (I’d take Dust over Thrills any day, much as I love Thrills). Still, I was a little thrown by LISm, because I was trying to understand it as a continuation of that arc, and it just made no sense: it was only when I gave up on that and accepted it on its own terms that I could appreciate it.

So. This was written as the soundtrack to a modern dance performance at the Pompidou centre (and just check out the artsy capitalization of the title). The first ten minutes revolves around a few notes repeated on a guitar, a skittering of percussion, and a vocal which says “falling, falling, falling”. It’s post-rock, essentially. Subsequent movements consist of floaty melodic ambient, dirty fuzzy ambient, and later on, occasionally, something with a 4/4 beat which could be considered a sort of überminimal techno maybe. There are some lovely moments in here, but on the whole, I kind of feel this isn’t what she’s best at, and for me it is a minor entry in the Allien catalogue.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Experimental / Electronic.

Raymond Scott: Soothing Sounds For Baby (3xCD, Rasta, 1963)

Raymond Scott was a band-leader turned electronic music pioneer and synthesizer inventor. In 1963, he released these three LPs aimed at babies of 1–6, 6–12, and 12–18 months. They were, apparently, not a hit with their target market at the time. Your loss, sixties-babies, because there’s some fantastic stuff here. It was clearly either influential or prophetic or both, anticipating the sounds which would crop up over the following years and decades in a wide range of genres. There are obvious similarities to both the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (who produced the Doctor Who theme the same year) and Steve Reich later in that decade. At times, it’s the resemblance to Kraftwerk that jumps out. Perhaps most striking (and, as far as I know, this is a rare original observation by your humble commentator) is the way that Toy Typewriter sounds almost exactly like a washing-up-liquid-bottles-and-sticky-backed-plastic version of Plastikman’s 1994 minimal techno classic Kriket: not only do both revolve around the same rhythmic loop, but both employ the same use of filters to make the sound drift away and jump forwards. There was something fragile and exotic about this type of music which I think is impossible to reproduce these days (just look at what’s happened to the aforementioned Doctor Who theme over the years, each version a little more pumped up, a little more professionally produced, and a little less magical, until we get today’s utterly charmless offering which has all the sense of wonder of Paul Oakenfold’s Big Brother tune). Admittedly, some tracks here stand up less well than others, but the best are gems.

I bought this from Amazon, having heard the track Lullaby on Tom Ravenscroft’s radio show.

Conrad Schnitzler reshaped and remodeled by Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer: Zug (CD, m=minmal, May 2012)

The last time we encountered master architects Villalobos and Loderbauer in reshaping and remodelling mode, they were tackling ECM’s back catalogue, and the results were a reductio ad absurdum of abstraction (which, incidentally, I love more now than when I wrote that). This time, they’re working their magic with Conrad Schnitzler’s Zug (itself a vinyl reissue of 1973’s privately released The Red Cassette, history fans), and the results are positively banging by contrast. This is especially true on the Aktion mix, which is propelled along by a relentless 4/4 beat — its start minimalism isn’t going to make it an instant dancefloor classic, but it’s certainly the kind of thing that Villalobos himself would work into a long set. The B-side on the vinyl is the Sorgenkind mix, which strips away the beats and immerses us in an intricately constructed sonic structure, altogether otherwordly. I suppose it’s not surprising that Schnitzler’s pioneering electronics should prove such rich subject matter for these two, but it’s very pleasing. The CD comes with two additional remixes: I don’t find Pole’s version adds much, to be honest, but Borngräber & Strüver’s takes the propulsive power of the Aktion mix and really brings out the darkness, creating something deliciously down-and-dirty.

I bought this in the Kompakt shop in Cologne (ooh, get me).