CD/Digital releases

Heavy radiance: Tu M’ – Is That You?

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Netlabels are a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, they’re rather like havens for creatives to inhabit, artistic agglomerations producing wildly (un)predictable output; on the other, their surprising dedication to giving music away free of charge seems to have abandoned any hope of remuneration for creative endeavour. It’s hard to see them as the future; for now, at least, they’re fascinating and very useful; a gift horse into the mouth of which i have no intention of looking. Some netlabels have made the mistake of becoming stylistically typecast (e.g. one – and a feeble style at that), while others seemingly vanish overnight (the most recent being Nikita Golyshev’s excellent Musica Excentrica, that one can only hope returns soon). The best, however, chart an altogether less predictable path through territory that is often radical and challenging. Crónica is one of my favourites, a netlabel combining physical and digital releases, some of which are free, alongside some curious accompanying paraphernalia (or, if you prefer, art) and interesting podcasts.

It was Crónica that introduced me to the Italian multimedia duo Tu M’ who, early this year, released a free EP entitled Is That You?, which quickly became—and remains—one of my favourite releases of 2008. It comprises three tracks, one for each word of that title, exploring markedly different sonic environments. The laptop—rapidly becoming (at least, ostensibly) a sine qua non for the budding composer—is the instrument of choice for Tu M’, but this is very far from obvious in the opening track, “Is”. It’s an organic, woody composition, with clarinets and marimba pervading most clearly through the warm fog that drifts stodgily for its 5-minute duration. Tu M’ have struck a critical balance here; the sounds are obviously treated and manipulated, but at no point lose that essential quality that betrays a raw acoustic origin. It’s beautiful and tragic, a dirge-like procession that is as moving as it is striking. Read more

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Quixotic risks: Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

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The week before last saw the release of Deerhoof’s new album, Offend Maggie. After the undiluted artistry and infectiousness of 2007’s Friend Opportunity, this was a definite highlight in the calendar, made all the more tantalising by the performance of half of the songs at their concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park back in July. i have to confess that the first listening was a real disappointment, and i feel sure this is because i was quietly hoping for “Friend Opportunity II”. From the outset, there’s a much more stripped away approach, which gives the songs a delicate, less rich texture than those of its predecessor. The opener, ‘The Tears and Music of Love’, for example, sounds for a while at least as though it could have been recorded in a garage, its drums sounding tinny, lacking weight. Although it develops into something more solid, this initially came as something of a shock, even more so when it leads into the light and playful—but very straightforward, even conventional—rhythms and structure of ‘Chandelier Searchlight’. All very catchy, but not the all-enthralling encounter i was anticipating.

It’s not until ‘Buck and Judy’ that they present something approximating familiar Deerhoof territory, piquant whiffs of distortion permeating its laidback rock trappings. The balance of elements is superb, as is the control over the song’s unfolding, which is given a certain leeway to meander, especially two-thirds of the way through; this kind of elastic structure is one of Deerhoof’s most interesting traits. Delicacy is laid aside in ‘Snoopy Waves’, which is dense to the point of being heady; a snippet of lyrics floating in an intoxicating blend of buzzing bass and cutting guitar motifs. It’s not surprising they don’t pursue instrumental tracks more often, as Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals have become so indispensable a part of Deerhoof’s signature sound, but tracks like this one hint at how interesting these would be, far more so than the majority of today’s dull instrumental post-rock offerings. Read more

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The ambient tradition: Implex Grace – a searing demonstration of ambient noise

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i said before that there’s more to ambient than washes of sound, but of course this kind of texture is, for better or (more often) worse, very closely associated with it. Thankfully, having spent too many years trapped in the saccharine world of (God help us) “chillout” music, ambient’s potential for drift has grown up into something very much more mature and meaningful. In no small part, it has been affected by what some might regard as its nemesis: noise. It might be fairer to call the constructions found in noise walls of sound rather than washes, but these two extremes have been drawn together to forge something utterly new. i suspect, like most ostensible “opposites”, they’ve had more in common than was immediately apparent; both noise and ambient tend to place emphasis on broad gestures within long durational expanses; both tend to occupy dynamic extremes; and, of course, like any extreme, both have fallen prey to the moronic mumblings of the talentless who have purloined the style in the hope it might bestow upon them the illusion of something approximating ability. As a texture, noise is unavoidable, so for it to lend anything of value to ambient, it is going to need to be softened and tenderised, in order to retain some semblance of Brian Eno’s “ignorability” (the inability of the listener to “ignore” noise (in Eno’s sense of the word), perhaps explains why poor music in that genre is so incredibly irritating, whereas poor ambient is a mild irritation at best).

An interesting blend of these worlds can be heard in the music of Michael Perry Goodman, otherwise known as Implex Grace. He caught my attention a couple of months back when his self-styled “debut release”, Through Luminescent Passages I, became available as a free download. i say “self-styled”, because in truth there’s been a number of minor self-releases dating back to 2004 (they can all be streamed via the vibr website; link below); nonetheless, this album is his most ambitious release to date, worthy of being regarded as his “Opus 1”. Even before listening, the track titles are highly suggestive: “Gorgeous Pale Light”, “Starlight: A Distant Shimmering Particle”, “Beyond The Cosmic Gates”; nonetheless, many are the composers who have made astronomical connections to their work, only for it to fail entirely to live up to such a lofty association; vivid titles like these are best approached with caution. But it’s immediately clear that Implex Grace is no ordinary, run-of-the-mill composer. and it’s clear too that the radiance alluded to in those titles is not merely present, but omnipresent, permeating—no, saturating—the music with incandescence, often composed in roughly equal parts of ambience and noise. “Twilight: Diamond In The Sky” is an exercise in simplicity: a delicate fragment of material (the “diamond”?) is placed within a soft harmonic bath (the “sky”?), wherein it loops merrily away, glitching here and there; it’s as though we’re watching it slowly draw nearer to us, allowed a few precious moments of closeness, before it passes us back into the beyond. “Gorgeous Pale Light” is a tough title to live up to, but the music succeeds, presenting a sonic landscape that feels by turns autumnal and/or suffused with rain (a different kind of saturation). Even longer than the first track, it opens up the scope of the album, widening the horizons still further; it’s an epic pronouncement, almost a statement of intent. Read more

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Throwing down the gauntlet: t.A.T.u. – Beliy Plaschik

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If i was to admit that my love for t.A.T.u. began the moment the video for All The Things She Said was first shown on MTV, it would possibly send out the wrong kind of message. i won’t deny that i found the video surprising and controversial (i was in the company of friends at the time, and our conversation quickly became dominated by it); but above and beyond any pseudo-sapphic high jinks, i was both enthralled by the song and genuinely intrigued by the dark content of both the video and the lyrics. Following my last post, i don’t think it would be fanciful to suggest that what Dubstar was to the 1990s, t.A.T.u. is to the 2000s, their songs bristling with energy and excitement, but often being the vehicle for lyrics that explore and express some very difficult ideas and concomitantly angry emotions. Where Dubstar focussed on the comparatively insular dramas of relationship trauma, however, t.A.T.u. face outward at the world around them, their words directed at society itself. Say what you like about them being yet another “product”, but their songs go way beyond such banal intentions; they’re popular without seeking to please—pop it may be, but not in the least bit plastic.

t.A.T.u.’s newest release, the first single from their forthcoming album, is “Белый Плащик”, transliterated as “Beliy Plaschik” and known in English as “White Robe”. Unlike their previous singles (due to record label upheavals), this has only been available for purchase direct from Russia, which explains its relative anonymity. It’s surprising, considering the incredible success they’ve had, that they’re releasing their music like this—i.e. from a single country only—but it’s not the first time it’s happened (the “Truth” DVD was—bizarrely—only available from Japan, to the chagrin of many fans). Anyway, so much for the (im)practicalities…. While the single was only released last month, the video has been available for some time (since last November i think), so the song can’t really be disassociated from it. It recently came to light that this video is a “TV version” however; the DVD accompanying the single contains a more lengthy version, which makes for a fuller experience. Both, though, use imagery at once striking and deeply provocative. Read more

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Conflicted and inconsistent: the mentality and detriment of Venetian Snares

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Through the last few years, my opinion of Venetian Snares has been in the descendant. But from the outset, let’s be fair; while Aaron Funk has, on occasion, produced music that rarely rises beyond mere drivel—Songs About My Cats, Chocolate Wheelchair Album—he has also achieved some mind-blowingly brilliant creations: Huge Chrome Cylinder Box Unfolding and the wonderful Rossz Csillag Alatt Született. Venetian Snares’ output often gives the impression of listening to someone with Tourette Syndrome plugged into a cluster of samplers and effects boxes. At times, a sense of control is lost, resulting in a miasmic, dull mess (Making Orange Things)—but when the control is maintained, it can focus into a beam of shockingly vivid, effluvial rage (Winnipeg Is A Frozen Shithole). Funk, it would seem, is not always sure where the line is drawn between being extreme and being excessive. i think it has a lot to do with the fact that, since 2000, he has released no fewer than seventeen Venetian Snares albums, and around the same number of singles/EPs. Astonishingly prolific but, of course, quality and quantity rarely coincide. In this sense, i’ve come to regard Aaron Funk as something of a latter-day Darius Milhaud: a vast quantity of music, much (perhaps the majority) of which is formulaic and tiresome, but nonetheless containing a few gems that reveal the hand of an absolute master. Into this highly ambivalent context comes Detrimentalist, the first Venetian Snares album of 2008. Read more

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Versions, versions everywhere (plus a red herring): Autechre – Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae

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Early yesterday morning, after a number of the wrong kind of glitches at Bleep.com, the final tracks of Autechre‘s Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae became available. Versions, versions everywhere: and with this—after 44 tracks, totalling almost 5 hours—i think one can assume that the Quaristice project is at an end. i, for one, have found it to be a fascinating and thoughtful journey. As a whole, the project poses the question of whether any of the tracks from the original release should be regarded as ‘definitive’, or instead that all of the versions are different but equally significant expressions of a common (or even an uncommon) idea. My impression is that both contain some truth; there’s clearly some connection intended to be made, as the track titles bear similarities that invite comparison. Like its predecessor, Quaristice (Versions), then, this album may be heard both in its own context, as well as the wider one encompassing all three Quaristice releases. Read more

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An archetypal journey on a road from nowhere: The Hafler Trio – Dislocation

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Pretty much all of the music that qualifies for the lame but vital epithet “interesting” is found among the fringes and shadows of most people’s perception. Unfortunately, these days a great deal of dross and detritus lurk there too (the kind of feeble fodder served up on blogs such as “Deleted Scenes, Forgotten Dreams”), but that’s usually music that has placed itself at the edges actively, with the intention of disassociating itself from the mainstream. The best (or, rather, the best of the best) is there because it simply cannot be anywhere else; in fact, truth be told, it’s not even here: it resides precisely nowhere, and makes its point with a beautiful intensity of thought and bewildering clarity of utterance. With the literal meaning in mind, such as this may be called ‘Utopian’ music. The output of The Hafler Trio could be said to reside in just such a “no place”.

Various parameters need re-thinking and re-shaping in approaching The Hafler Trio’s works: this isn’t, in any conventional sense, ‘music’—nor, indeed, could it be described as ‘art’; it is something ‘other’ than either of these things. This need is, literally, mirrored in the plethora of paraphernalia that accompany many Hafler Trio releases, where text and image are frequently shown back-to-front; it suggests many things: the need to look at things in a new way, and that what appears backward may well not be; the backward writing also suggests Da Vinci’s practice of secreting his thoughts and concepts. and yet, nonetheless, these works have qualities that can be said to be both artistic and musical, and as such they provide a ‘way in’. It’s certainly a better approach than to question the author, Andrew McKenzie, who chooses to hide himself behind layers of pseudo-arcana and quasi-esoterica; this doesn’t matter, of course (outside of religion, when has it ever been profitable to shift attention from the creation to the creator?), it is the work that must command our interest (not our questions) and, in turn, it is the work’s response (not its answers) that we must face; then and only then, we shall be provoked for the right reasons. Read more

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