Steve Gunn & Mike Gangloff: Melodies For A Savage Fix (LP, Important, December 2013)

I recently made the case that Steve Gunn is best when he’s acoustic. I’d like to enter into evidence this little gem of a collaboration with Mike Gangloff (of Pelt and the Black Twig Pickers). The two share an interest in both Appalachian and Indian music, and on this record sees them spending a night in a barn in Virginia improvising on 6- and 12-string guitars, gongs, tanpura, singing bowls, shruti box, and “the banjo Gangloff sometimes plays at monthly square dances at a country store just up the road” (as the label helpfully tells us). Now, you’d be forgiven for suspecting that this is all god-awful hipster-bait… but you’d be wrong, ‘cos this is just ace. The music is at once swirlingly hypnotic and catchily melodic, and it somehow manages to balance the comfortingly familiar and the intriguingly strange in a way that seems utterly natural. I’m at a loss to explain exactly why I find the sound they create so pleasing. All I can say is that if you’ve ever heard the questing tone of a slide guitar, and thought that what it really needed in response was the quiet finality of a nice gong, then this is the record for you. I don’t think I had ever thought that until I heard it, but now that I have, I believe it fervently.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Rock, which says more about their genre dropdown than about this record.

Anna Meredith: Jet Black Raider / Black Prince Fury (CD, Moshi Moshi, October 2013)

At some point while I was listening to this, I found myself wondering: if Philip Glass wrote experimental synth pop, is this what it would sound like? Well, maybe so, maybe not. Anyway, it’s cracking good stuff. It’s mostly old-skool-sounding lo-fi synths (I couldn’t tell you whether they’re actually old analogue beasts or modern emulations). Compositionally, it’s pretty minimal, in the sense that it’s built up of short repeated phrases (with a lot of arpeggios, hence the Glassiness). Sonically, it’s gets pretty full-on, what with the often lush sounds and the complex building up of layers (which reminds me at times of In Sides-era Orbital). Some tracks have a fairground-like atmosphere, swirling deliriously like the organ on a carousel (with Unicron, in particular, putting me in mind of the hypnotic music played by the organ-grinder Marcello in La cité des enfants perdus). Elsewhere, there’s more of an intricate chiptune effect (Orlok, for example, is a sort of Nintendo Bach which is rather more carefully done than DJ Scotch Egg’s, although no less gloriously irreverent). All in all, it’s a great deal of fun.

Which makes it a little bit of a shame that, I suspect, many people are going to overlook all of this and focus on the two tracks here which could, somewhat uncharitably perhaps, be described as quirky pop covers. A trap which I’m blatantly and knowingly falling into right now. The first of these, also my first encounter with Meredith (on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on BBC 6music), is Never Wonder. This starts with a stabby synth phrase which made me think “hmm, that chord progression seems familiar”. A few little toots and finger-clicks come in. The beat seemed kind of familiar, too. Then there’s a cut-off fragment of vocal which definitely sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place. A few more layers of synth loops come in over the top, building to a climax — and in comes a processed vocal, the instantly recognizable chorus of… a certain 1984 number-one power-ballad by a certain big-lunged and big-haired ’80s singer (what, you didn’t think I was going to spoiler you, did you?). The whole thing is a triumph of don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus deconstruction: isolate a few key elements that make the song what it is, throw away all the gumpf demanded by genre, work it all together, and get the whole thing done in a minute less than the original. My favourite, though, is ALR, her take on Erasure’s A Little Respect. This one starts with a slightly fey lo-fi rendition of the vocal over a little plinky backing line (which could be the synth equivalent of a ukulele, really). A warm bass sound kicks in for the second verse, with a bit of a swell building towards the end. This leads into one of those Glassy arpeggios for the second round, and more satisfyingly rounded bass. Then the layers are stripped back a little as we approach the big euphoric hit on the “me” of “show a little respect to me”, at which exact moment a wonderfully woozy dissonant bass comes in as an awesomely pleasing counterpoint: this is, for me, the moment of real genius. And so it goes. I swear that, in its 3m40s, this version uncovers all sorts of wonderful harmonies and subtle changes of key which weren’t there in the original, or were over-produced beyond recognition. I have to admit, I’ve been slightly obsessed with this track ever since I heard it. And, yes, it does slightly overshadow the rest of an excellent album. Sorry!

This 8-track CD compiles 2012’s Black Prince Fury and 2013’s Jet Black Raider. I bought this from some random eBay seller, as it wasn’t in stock at any of my regular places.

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.

Ryoji Ikeda: Supercodex (CD, Raster-Noton, November 2013)

I got hold of Ryoji Ikeda’s 1995 debut album 1000 Fragments when it was re-released by Raster-Noton in 2008. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and I hadn’t really paid him much attention since then. That changed at the 2013 todaysart festival, where his test pattern performance tore the atrium of Den Haag town hall apart. Lying back in that fantastic space, it was like he’d filled the room with giant crystalline insects. According to my notes from the time (well, okay, twitter) it was like “Leafcutter ants snicking with their snippers and deathwatch beetles drumming”. This is obviously brilliant, and it was the highlight of a great festival. So when I saw he had a new record out, I figured I’d give it a go. And here we are. I am pleased to report that the insects are still in attendance, and in fine form. The effect on CD is rather less dominating, and certainly less physical, than his audiovisual live act. In fact, for music made pretty much entirely out of clicks and superficial resembling binary data on tape, it’s really rather playful — quite refreshing given how much doom-laden bass-heavy stuff is coming out right now. With 20 tracks making up its 65 minutes, it moves on at a fair lick, and he manages to do 20 recognizably different things, which is impressive. The effect of the interplay between the intersecting glitchy rhythm is always involving and often pretty catchy. It’s taken a few listens to really get into it, but right now I’m finding it kinda addictive. Now, I must go back and revisit 1000 Fragments.

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

Emptyset: Recur (CD, Raster-Noton, November 2013)

You have to admire Emptyset’s dedication to an ideal. That ideal is making big, chunky music almost entirely formed from clanking and buzzing noises. There are no beats, but the sounds are heavily rhythmical. There are virtually no notes at an audible frequency, but the bassy whirrs are forced through a tortuous tangle of filters there are often note-like things squealing out in the harmonics. It’s pretty much impossible not to use some kind of metallic metaphor to describe this, it’s industrial music in the most literal sense. It’s impressive, powerful stuff — but I have to say it’s a bit of a one-trick pony, the same rhythms and sounds keep (if you’ll pardon the pun) recurring, and by the end I find myself a little jaded. Maybe I’m overthinking it, maybe the idea is to lie back and blast this out at the kind of volume that obliterates critical thought… or maybe, just maybe, they didn’t quite have an album’s worth of material here. Good, but not quite great.

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

Akkord: Akkord (CD, Houndstooth, December 2013)

From the start, this record leaves you in no doubt what’s in store: darkly atmospheric, bass-heavy, righteous shenanigans. Things rumble and clank. There is distant howling and tribal chanting. The beats take a while to kick in, but when they do they are a masterclass in what you can do with not much more than a buzzy bass and a snare or two. It’s mostly a skittering, dubsteppy affair, although it does seem to switch from 2-step to four-on-the-floor from time to time. There’s an ominous, restrained power here. If I have one criticism, it’s only that by the end I wish they’d allowed themselves to really let rip just once.

I bought this from Juno. They call it Techno.

The Stranger: Watching Dead Empires In Decay (Modern Love, October 2013)

I guess that I was expecting James Leyland Kirby’s latest moniker to be doing something akin to the crackly nostalgia of his work as Leyland Kirby or The Caretaker. The links are there, but The Stranger is something altogether starker and more abstract, and it’s taken me a while to get my head around it. The dominant sounds are echoey clanks and groans. It feels a bit like we’ve left The Caretaker’s haunted ballroom and now we’re exploring the engine room of a beached and abandoned ocean liner, oil dripping from pipes and the giant hull sighing against the rocks. When there are rhythms, it’s the sound of a distant engineer absent-mindedly tapping with a spanner. Where there are melodies, as on the spooky closing track About To Enter A Strange New Period, they are odd affairs, as if a depressed pan-piper is wandering lost around the dank gangways. I’m intrigued and impressed by this record, but somehow I find it hard to completely love.

I bought this from Boomkat. They call it Electronic.

William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops (Special Edition) (5xCD+1xDVD, Temporary Residence, November 2013)

So, we have to start with the stories. Here’s the first story: In 2001, William Basinski came upon some tape loops of slowed-down recordings from radio which he’d made in the 1980s, back before he got (relatively speaking) famous in the ’90s. He decided to transfer them to digital, set the loops going, and hit record. Then he watched as the magnetic material flaked off the tape as it went round. The result is a work which is slowly but inexorably disappearing as we listen to it. Here’s the second story: He completed the work on September 11 of that year, and played it through for his friends sitting on the roof of his apartment in Brooklyn, watching the smoke billow over Manhattan.

And we really do have to start with the stories, because this is the kind of music which wouldn’t be the same without knowing the context of its creation. The first four CDs (originally released individually in 2002 and 2003) are made entirely from a few loops of music each a few seconds long. They have a gentle, ambient minimalism, the effect is pleasingly meditative. As such, they would be pleasing to dip into, but their combined running time of almost five hours would probably be a little much. As a complete work it’s something else again. Okay, so the metaphor isn’t exactly subtle, but this music is excellently suited for calm contemplation, and I find the effect rather moving. Its monumental scale makes it all the more powerful.

The fifth CD, new to this box set, contains two live versions of the first (and best known) track. These are rather strange propositions, both being painstakingly literal orchestrations, in which the performers play the same few bars over and over, the disintegration being effected by notes getting cut short or dropped from the melody. At first, it seems a somewhat pedantically literal effort, but on reflection it kind of works, and as part of this package it stands as a testament to the importance of the work. This is especially true of the first, purely orchestral, version, performed by The Wordless Museum Orchestra in a concert in the Egyptian Temple of Dendur as rebuilt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 (and so of the work). The second version is from the Venice Biennale in 2008, and is played by Alter Ego (who, like all right-thinking people, I love for the performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking Of The Titanic which they did with Philip Jeck), this time with the addition of an overlay of distant-sounding clangs and pops described as a “Field Recording Of Venice With Empty Cigarette Pack” by Basinski himself. Finally, we get a DVD of the track being played over video footage of the smoke over Manhattan shot at that first play-through in 2001. This is undeniably unsettling, but I admire its unsentimental attitude.

A delightful person bought this for me from Boomkat. They call it Dark Ambient / Drone / Metal.

Fuck Buttons: Slow Focus (CD, ATP, July 2013)

Ah, Fuck Buttons, it’s been too long. It has to be said, they haven’t exactly revolutionized their sound in the four years since their last long-player, Tarot Sport, but they might just have perfected it. The big, bold, bashing drumbeats and the big, giant, squelching synth sounds are all just spot on here. About one minute into the first track, I’m transported to my happy place. About four minutes in, the drums drop out and a grinding guitar line takes their place. About six minutes, everything comes together… and then, thirty seconds later, that squelchy melody comes in over the top, and that’s me done, I’m grinning like a loon and I don’t care. This is relentlessly propulsive widescreen psychedelia. There are somewhat similar sounds on some tracks of Jon Hopkin’s Immunity, but this has none of the variety of that record: all we get in the way of changes of pace are moments where it just closes in on itself slightly for a minute so that it’s all the more thrilling when it lets go again. Overall, I think that’s a good thing, this is the sort of music which benefits from a single-mindedness, and the effect is utterly transporting.

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