Oiseaux-Tempête: Unworks & Rarities (LP, Sub Rosa, June 2016)

Oiseaux-Tempête’s Ütopiya? was easily one of my records of 2015. So I was pretty intrigued to get hold of this. You never know quite what you’ll get with this kind of bits-and-bobs compilation, but this exceeds expectations. It opens with Eclipse & Sirocco, a number based around Christine Ott’s ondes-martenot work which starts of as ethereal as you’d expect from that but which slowly builds an ominous pulsing and ends up quite as dramatic. Not as dramatic as most of the record, which is typically heart-on-its-sleeve stuff, guitar led but drenched in effects and analogue synths, plus Gareth Davis’s familiar bass clarinet on the last couple of tracks. Other highlights for me include The Strangest Creature On Earth, in which G W Sok (who memorably provided the Nazim Hikmet readings on the last album) delivers a killer spoken-word political rant — I won’t attempt to gloss it, go check it out, but it’s a masterpiece of quiet sorrow and restrained anger — and Black As Midnight On A Moonless Night, a big swaggering bluesy number with some excellent work on the whammy bar, which could easily soundtrack the entrance of the baddie in a cheesy thriller, on which (whisper it!) I think ol’ Frédéric D Oberland might actually be having fun. All in all… okay, this record isn’t quite as good as Ütopiya?, but it’s almost as good, which makes it very good indeed.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Indie / Alternative.

Milan Knížák: Broken Music (LP, Sub Rosa, October 2015) + Milan Knížák / Opening Performance Orchestra: Broken Re/Broken (CD, Sub Rosa, October 2015)

I have a bone to pick with the normally impeccable Sub Rosa concerning their re-release of Broken Music. They describe these pieces as being “widely regarded as important sound art documents”, which suggests that they are of only historical interest, and risks obscuring the important fact that they sound freaking amazing. As a rule, I don’t buy records of only historical interest, because they end up just sitting slightly sadly on a shelf. But I’d have been sorry to miss this stuff because — and this bears repeating — it sounds freaking amazing. Fluxus-chappy Knížák started doing bad things to records as part of happenings in the 60s: he’d smash them up and glue bits of them together, stick paper over them, scratch them, paint them, and then play the results, often destroying the needle in the process. The results, judging by this 1979 release, were pretty astonishing. There are sub-second snatches of classical, rock, soundtracks, spoken word, jazz, and more, each just about recognizable for what it is but cut off before my ear can properly glom onto it. This constant teetering on the brink of coherence makes it wonderfully dynamic, and combined with the mostly propulsive rhythm of the thing, the overall effect is quite exhilarating. I won’t deny that it’s age is apparent, but it’s none the worse for being a bit lo-fi, and the aesthetic is timeless: the obvious descendents of this music are people like Christian Marclay, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to draw a line from this to, say, breakcore. More importantly, though, this still sounds genuinely exciting.

Having said all which… There’s no denying that it’s this modern release, of a 2014 concert, which is the one that really blows me away. The first track, and my favourite thing here, is a 45-minute updating of the original Broken Music concept by Knížák and Phaerentz using broken vinyl, CDs, cassettes, and a keyboard. The advance of technology basically makes this a fuller realization of the concept: the palette is richer, the sound denser, and the recording fresher. If Broken was exhilarating, this is a pure adrenaline rush, bursting with tension and rhythm and drama. The second track is a 33-minute “contemporary reinterpretation” by the Opening Performance Orchestra for “5 laptops & fraction music”, and it’s just mind-blowing. This is turned up to 11 throughout, and the source material harder to discern under a thick layer of howling, clattering noise — although several of the first track’s samples are recognizable. More than anything else, this reminds me of an Aphex Twin gig from about 1999/2000… and, while I think it loses something in the translation to home-listening, anything that can make me feel like that must be doing something right. (Spoiler alert, though: they don’t drop Billy Jean or Take On Me.) The two tracks go really well together add up to a stonkingly good, powerful, exciting album.

(Incidentally, I somehow suspect that Knížák wouldn’t really approve of my take on his music. He seems quite belligerently anti-pop — he rather sniff says that the Christian Marclay “sounded to me like pop music”, something which his own “definitely isn’t”… although oddly I don’t remember Marclay troubling the top-40 all that often — and he might resent some of my references and possibly even the implication that I find his music rather fun. Naturally, I’m not going to let that stop me responding to the records the way I hear them.)

I bought both of these from the label.

Oiseaux-Tempête: Ütopiya? (CD, Sub Rosa, April 2015)

Over the last twenty-odd years, there have been many heinous crimes committed in the name of post-rock. This, however, is unashamedly post-rock, and it is stonkingly brilliant. It has quiet bits, with echoey guitars and ominous pianos and field recordings (including the obligatory street chatter with distant siren). It has loud bits, with heavy drumming and noisy angular guitars. It has vocal samples of a general left-wing protesty nature. Yes, it sounds a bit like Godspeed! much of the time (I really like Godspeed! by the way) and occasionally even like Slint (I like Slint, too). It’s also bursting at the seams creativity and energy and technical skill and emotional intensity. It prominently features a jazzy bass clarinet, which is a nice touch. One highlight is Ütopiya / On Living, which centres on two readings by G W Sok of poetry by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who spent much of his life imprisoned or persecuted for communism, who I hadn’t come across before but intend to investigate further (the verses are the third stanza of On Living, and It’s This Way). The CD version finishes with a 22-minute live recording called Palindrome Series: the recording is a touch muddy, especially noticeable after the spot-on production on the album proper, but it still really makes me want to go see them live. I guess this isn’t a very fashionable sort of record right now, but who cares when it is this good?

I bought this from the label.

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.

Charlemagne Palestine: Strumming Music for Piano, Harpsichord & Strings Ensemble (3xCD, Sub Rosa, October 2010)

I’ve seen Charlemagne Palestine live three times. Each was a mesmerising, transformative, and unique experience. I’d never bought any recordings because I’d been slightly underwhelmed by those I’d heard. After all, how could it be the same without the ritual, the teddy bears and the bunting and the brandy, and how could it hope to capture the subtlety and strangeness of the throat-singing and the brandy-glass-playing? Then I came across this triple-CD of performances from the 70s. The first disc, and the main attraction here, is CP himself performing Strumming on a Bösendorfer piano: after a short melodic introduction, he starts hammering two notes, until subtle resonances and beats start happening somewhere inside the instrument, he adds those notes into his playing, more resonances appear, and over the course of 52 minutes the whole thing evolves and mutates while slowly building in its rhythmical intensity. You can hear that the playing is physically changing the piano, and you can easily imagine that it’s physically changing the brain of the listener. There are strange unearthly floating sounds which I’d swear are beyond the range of my normal hearing. Truly and quite literally stunning. The minimalism seems to work tolerably well on disc, too (though I’d love to go back in time and see it live).

The second CD is Betsy Freeman, under CP’s direction, doing the same thing on a harpsichord. I’ve read suggestions that this is a purer performance, because obviously the strings don’t resonate in the same way that a piano’s do, so what you are hearing is more the performer’s own work without a helping hand. It’s interesting, sure, but I actually miss the way the original is a collaboration between the performer and the instrument, and it lacks some intensity.

The third is played on strings by musicians from San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For the most part, they appear to be bowing as evenly as possible, often playing perhaps a note with its fifth and its octave. The equivalent, I guess, of the piano’s resonances is here in the fallibility of the players, as the parts shift slightly in volume or smoothness. There’s a certain beauty to that, although it’s not got the power of the wonderful sound of that big old Bösendofer.

I bought this from the Sub Rosa shop. It is part of their Unclassical series.

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.

Francisco López: Untitled #244 (CD, Sub Rosa, March 2010)

This is 55 minutes constructed out of “Original environmental recordings done at multiple underwater and abovewater [sic] locations in the Panamá and Paraguay rivers”. He even made it in his mobile studio on a boat. The effect is a detailed and immersive soundscape. It’s not all whale-song, though: there are spooky cavern-like episodes, all drips and echoes, and even some industrial sections, almost like the hull of a tanker scraping along a rock. There are long passages where all we hear is a distant rushing noise, or even silence (as far as I can hear). Somehow, this adds to the feeling of deliberateness, of every sound being in just the right place — there wasn’t anything that belonged here, so he just left us with the quietness. It’s utterly uncompromising (as I’d anticipated, having been lucky enough to experience one of his astonishing surround-sound live experiences at an All Tomorrow’s Parties) and although it doesn’t exactly command the listener’s attention it is the sound of someone completely in control of their medium.

I bought this at the Kompakt shop (again, yes, get me).