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.

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).

Margaret Dygas: How Do You Do (CD, Powershovel, November 2010)

Now, this is great stuff. I’ve not heard techno quite like this before. The beats range from dubby to a hard warehouse-style techno. The dominant instrument is the piano: dissonant stabs and abrasive jazzy runs — uplifting Balearic this is not. Occasionally, the beat drops out leaving only dark swirling atmospherics, which I guess is Dygas’s idea of a breakdown. This may all sound very abstract, and it is, but it’s not bleak. There’s a real driving energy through it, and a touch of funkiness, and I could see people getting sweaty at somewhere like Berghain to this. I’ll admit it took a couple of listens to get my head around… but now I love it. (The title is a reference to the album’s declared concept, a nod to Desmond Morris’s book Peoplewatching. Aside from a David Attenborough sample over the intro, I confess I don’t see the link.)

I bought this from Juno. They call it Minimal / Tech House.

People Like Us & Wobbly: Music For The Fire (CD, Illegal Art, June 2010)

This is a huge amount of fun. Vikki Bennett and Jon Leidecker have done something quite rare: they have dug up countless old records, films, radio and television programmes, and who knows what else, and done a massive cut-and-paste job, and ended up with a work of great musicality and humour, and one which makes sense — its own crazy hyperactive sense, sure, but sense nonetheless. Hell, it’s even quite emotional at times. It’s great to hear what I gather we’re supposed to call plunderphonics where the technique is much more than a gimmick. The quality of the editing here is astonishing, done with pinpoint precision, so the joins are audible without being jarring. There’s just one weak passage for me, where they descend into Cassetteboy-style crudeness (I love Cassetteboy, but the cheap sexual punning is out of place here). Otherwise, it’s hectic, smart, and very rewarding.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

The Caretaker: Persistent Repetition Of Phrases (2010 Gatefold Digipak Edition) (CD, History Always Favours The Winners, April 2010)

When I wrote about Leyland Kirby’s Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was almost a year ago, I mentioned his work as The Caretaker inspired by the haunted ballroom scene in The Shining. This is that record. It has to be said it takes its brief fairly literally. Snatches of old records, I guess largely swing and big band and the like (though I’m far from an expert), already probably muffled and cracked with age, are looped, and fuzzied up further, to create something a little bit nostalgic and a lot eerie. It’s hard not to picture Jack Nicholson wandering brokenly around the corridors, looking at the faded photographs of folks having a good time — and seeing himself peering awkwardly out of one. When it first came out in 2008, this would have been a pretty important release. It’s still very enjoyable, although it does lack the subtlety of the best of the work that came after it (not least Kirby’s own later material).

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal, somewhat confusingly.

Ellen Allien: Dust (CD, BPitch Control, May 2010)

I’m always glad to see a new album from Ellen Allien come along, and although it took me a while to get around to buying this one, I’m glad I did. It’s a more approachable record than 2008’s Sool, perhaps most obviously reminiscent of her collaboration with Apparat, Orchestra Of Bubbles, in its warm melodies and gently glitchy beats. There are lots of vocals, all gently and sympathetically processed (see, vocoders needn’t be instruments of torture). I can tell you just where this album got me: there’s a bit on the first track, Our Utopie, where she sings “We count 1… 2… 3… And we’re still here…”, and there’s something kind of magical about it. It’s the kind of moment that makes me feel “I am in good hands, I can just settle back and enjoy the ride”.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Minimal Tech/House.

Pan Sonic: Gravitoni (CD, Blast First Petite, May 2010)

Hold onto your hats, this is going to be a big one. Actually, forget your hats: hold onto your heads. This is Pan Sonic’s swansong, and they’re going out in style.

The first half of Ilpo Väisänen and Mika Vainio’s final (apparently) record offers brutal beats, immense buzzing and rumbling bass, and a selection of unearthly howls. I normally steer clear of such over-the-top pronouncements, but at times I can really believe that this music has erupted out of some dark abyss intent on eating my soul. It makes Come To Daddy sound like a novelty pop tune (which, of course, it is… if you had to compare this to Aphex Twin, the B-sides of the vinyl version of the Smojphace EP might be more closer, but they don’t have the intensity and they certainly don’t have the scale). Let’s start with those beats: there’s something blunted about them which makes them seem more violent, as each one lands with a sickening thud. There are bass sounds which seem to do things to my Mordant-Shorts which I’m sure the makers never intended. This is at once aggressive and sinister, and totally (and, yes, literally) awesome.

It would be wrong to say that there is no let-up in this. Track 7, Väinämöisen Uni / Väinämöinen Dreams, has no beats and no bass, just a noise like a blade being dragged across the rim of a glass accompanied by distant echoing drips and clanks. This really ramps up the sinister side of things, leaving the aggression all implied. The next couple of tracks are similarly largely free of beats, although the buzzing is back at times. Track 10, Kaksoisvinokas / Twinaskew, is mostly about a glitchy click track, supplemented by broken snatches of opera and the like (all faded and distant, and wobbling so much that the strings almost sound like fairground carousel music). On the last track, Pan Finale, a more conventional beat is slowly overtaken first by a buzzing sounds and then finally by a strangely meaningful sounding modulated sine wave.

I have left describing my favourite track until last. Track 6, Trepanointi / Trepanation, bridges between the raw violence of the first half and the implied thread of the second. It starts out with a barrage of crackling and one of the Finns’ trademark throbbing bass hums. There is a muffled beat, somewhere in the background, for the first couple of minutes, but it drops away in favour of an all-out bass assault. And what a bass. Each chord hangs in the air for several seconds, leaving you to revel in the sheer gobsmacking power of this wonderful noise.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Leftfield, whatever that means.

VA / Surgeon: Fabric 53 (Mix CD, Fabric, August 2010)

As you would expect, Surgeon’s mix for Fabric is highly skilled and inventive. It may be restrained by his standards (there is nothing like the moment in his This Is For You Shits mix on Warp where he drops Whitehouse’s Dumping The Fucking Rubbish), but for Fabric it’s pretty adventurous. It’s mostly good hard techno, with a sprinkling of moody dubstep, and occasional lighter moments (and even a melodic vocal at one point). If it’s intended to make me want to go out dancing, then it does its job excellently.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Techno.

Frank Bretschneider: Exp (CD + video, Raster-Noton, May 2010)

The audio CD consists of 35 tracks, averaging at a minute each (though some are longer, and some just a few seconds). Bretschneider has taken a very direct approach to the Raster-Noton template, centred around very simple clicks and pads, bassy hums, and sine wave tones. I wasn’t keeping score, but I noticed two tracks featuring something that sounded like a recognizable instrument: a fuzzy guitar sound and, on the final number, heavily processed human voices. They are put together with some flair, though. The set is inventive and spacious and at times, if I squint, I think I detect traces of funkiness in the rhythms.

The second disc is a data CD containing a QuickTime video. If some sceptics suggest that glitch music sounds like the CD player is on the blink, then I guess this looks kind of like the player is using the wrong video codec. Starting from a blank field, lines of noise appear, twitchily mutate, and gradually fill the screen. The patterns are obviously algorithmically linked to the sound, and the effect is intriguing, but I lost interest a short way into its 19 minutes.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Clicks / Glitch.

Jonas Reinhardt: Powers Of Audition (CD, Kranky, March 2010)

This is a good deal sillier than most of the records I talk about here. It’s tempting to describe it as a guilty pleasure, but I don’t really feel very guilty about it. Reinhardt is all about the synths, and creates wonderfully warm analogue music with layers of synths and drum machines, plus a good unpinning of bass and an occasional sprinkling of guitar. The instruments are vintage, and so is the sound, which is a defiantly proggy krautrock. But it doesn’t sound particularly dated: there are modern rhythmic touches, and the production is very fresh. There is a nicely even tone to the record, with a driven tempo like a heartbeat that races through the more up-beat tracks but still pulses insistently in the more laid-back numbers. Great fun.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Leftfield, whatever that means.