Among the swathe of new releases currently jostling around the 5:4 jukebox, i want to start by flagging up two interesting recent releases, both serendipitous discoveries from the panning-for-gold approach to listening that is my modus operandi these days. First is Duologue, a five-piece from London whose latest EP, Memex, has initiated a host of earworms that are continuing to burrow around my subconscious at the moment. It’s an obvious place to begin, but their sound has more than a little to do with Radiohead, and not simply due to singer Tim Digby-Bell’s ululating vocals that often sound strikingly like a less defocussed Thom Yorke. Their songs share Radiohead’s interest in playing with the multiplicity of conventions associated with rock and pop. Thus, the EP’s title track melds dream pop and autotune to strange effect, crumbling into a hard-edged coda, while ‘Operator’ bumbles along at a fair old lick, with some nicely-judged harmonic shifts in a pair of softer episodes that break up the momentum—yet overall carrying a sense of ecstatic stasis, made manifest in the song’s energetic dancefloor-infused conclusion. But third track ‘Traps’ stands out way beyond either of these, evoking music from an earlier time while conjuring up a sense of balmy humidity; this is checked by the song’s regular structural shifts where major and minor tonality are superimposed (such a simple use of dissonance but still more-or-less unheard of in music of this kind) to delicious effect. Having also spent time with the group’s first album, Song and Dance (which i also warmly recommend), ‘Traps’ is definitely their strongest song to date, mature and subtle. The EP is available in physical formats (CD/vinyl) direct from the band and in digital from all the usual places, plus you can stream it below. Read more
Having recently examined the more interesting soloistic and orchestral new releases, it’s time to give an overview of the best of the rest, music that doesn’t fit quite so easily into nice categories. First, released today on the Innova label, is Sunken Cathedral, the new album from Korean-American composer and singer Bora Yoon. Described as “a sonic journey through the chambers of subconscious”, the collection of songs that comprise Sunken Cathedral are a testament to Yoon’s fascination with sound design, married to a vocal approach that evokes a kind of ecstatic mysticism (or should that be mystical ecstasy?). It’s a quality writ large at the outset, refitting Hildegard of Bingen into a soft ambient driftscape, but throughout the album it reveals itself in increasingly subtle and unexpected ways. Yoon’s ear is clearly very fine-tuned; a dreamy setting of the Latin In Paradisum text is encased in the sounds of a scrawling pen, dogs barking, gentle bow tappings on a viola, jangling chimes, the rustling of Bible pages, a pair of Buddha machines and — my favourite — “subwoofing spoons”. It’s heady, even intoxicating stuff, with absolutely no sense of novelty to any of it; each sound, literally, rings true. Read more
Alongside the collection of impressive soloistic new releases i recently reviewed, several new CDs of orchestral and ensemble music have emerged lately. One of the most surprising, from an aesthetic perspective, is the latest disc of Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s music released by LSO Live. The surprise is encapsulated in the titles of the two works on the CD, Speranza and From the Wreckage, both titles that are inherently optimistic in outlook. For a composer who has hitherto created countless works from mining deep seams of despair and desolation, this is quite the volte face, but as Turnage himself commented prior to Speranza‘s first performance last year, it’s all too easy self-indulgently to “wallow in misery and darkness”. That’s not to suggest Turnage’s tone in these works is chipper, exactly, but there is, particularly in parts of From the Wreckage, a spring in the music’s step of a thoroughly different kind from the grotesque forms of bounce and stumble more common in his output. Beyond this, there’s a quite deliberate move towards that most disquieting concept for the avant garde, accessibility. From the Wreckage—a work that’s by no means as blasted as its title suggests—conjures up majestic sweeping vistas, and even when it lurches into more violent territory, it’s more obstreperous than angry, smarting rather than wounded. Read more
Judging by the majority of CDs that have been sent to me recently, contemporary music is seeing a surge in recordings of works highlighting solo instruments. The collection i have received occupies different regions of the avant garde, from the most familiar and accessible to its forbidding outer fringes. Somewhere in between, yet the most impenetrable of them all, is James Erber‘s ‘Traces’ cycle for solo flute, released by Convivium Records. Erber has long struck me as a kind of non-mainstream Alexander Goehr, in that his music is always rigorously argued, its logic unassailable (a point Erber has always hammered home via his voluble essays and programme notes), yet never really opening itself up to allow the listener in. In short, its intellectual prowess crowds out its emotional potential, and in this respect the ‘Traces’ cycle is no different. There’s greatest interest to be found in the first of the three movements, where a low, increasingly rhythmic element makes incursions into the music’s ongoing melodic thrust (involving some nice fluttertongue writing and, after its fraught high point, some enigmatic ruminative finger tapping). But the second and third movements ramp up the intensity such that it becomes relentless, demonstrating an unstoppable, determined conviction that ends up nullifying both the effect and the interest. A curious extended stasis towards the end, involving soft high notes, is a welcome break, but the piece is no less inscrutable for it. In many ways, the trio of smaller works on the disc make a much stronger impact, but strongest of all is flautist Matteo Cesari‘s playing; it may be hard to decode Erber’s code, but Cesari does at least ensure its intricacies are presented with utmost clarity. Read more
Many’s the time i decide to write about a composer, group or artist & find it almost unconscionable that i haven’t done so already. That’s overwhelmingly the case with Man Without Country, a duo from south Wales whose unique brand of dreamy electronic pop has been doing the rounds for a little over two years. Indeed, it’s tempting to begin with an apology for not featuring them sooner. Still, definitely better late than never.
If you were to combine the heartfelt melancholy of Keane, the aloof, breathy detachment of Pet Shop Boys, the late-night wistfulness of Go West & the viscous, transcendent haze of M83, you’d begin to approximate the essence of Man Without Country’s music. Choosing their name, they say, as it “carries an instant intrigue […] it derives from ‘a sense of not belonging’ “, Tomas Greenhalf & Ryan James hit the ground running two summers ago with their first EP, King Complex. Both in its entirety & in just the title track (which remains one of their best) can be heard the duo’s predilection for a mode of expression that employs both the gentlest of soft edges as well as timbres & textures that cut like razor wire. It’s a dichotomy that works because it must, being the means to what is ultimately a very emotional end, declared with unflinching honesty in their lyrics. Read more
It’s some time since i’ve explored movie soundtracks on 5:4, but there have been three this year that have stood out from the crowd, all very far indeed from the conventions of cinematic swooshery. That in itself isn’t terribly surprising, as their respective films are, to differing degrees, at some remove from the generic Hollywood archetype. The first is from Franck Khalfoun’s striking remake of Maniac, the music being by French composer Rob (about whom i’ve been able to learn precisely nothing, although there’s an interview here). The film, featuring an astonishing performance from Elijah Wood as the titular antagonist (Wood is clearly at his best playing sick, depraved characters), is dark, claustrophobic, deeply unsettling & at times horribly unpleasant. Almost all of the action takes place at night—in downtown streets, car parks, subway stations, diners & bedrooms—resulting in a heavy emphasis on artificial light, both the garish glare of neon & the subdued ambiance of intimacy. Rob has responded to this with a wonderfully-judged electronic score, one that draws on the crude swagger of 70s & 80s synths, establishing a strong connection to cinema from that period, particularly the self-scored movies of John Carpenter. It’s not pastiche, though; Rob’s sources may be vintage, but his attention is in the present. Opening track ‘Doll’ serves to establish credentials & context; driven by an initially unclear pulse, its restraint & neutrality evokes the sense not just of a late night drive, but of a search, a hunt. Read more
My favourite album of 2012, Kreng’s epic Works for Abattoir Fermé 2007–2011, dove into the deepest depths of doom-laden, gothic, dark ambient. It’s not going to find an equal any time soon, but there have been two albums this year that have come particularly close. The first is by Paul Jebanasam, a composer born in Sri Lanka & now based in Bristol. Jebanasam’s debut album Rites is like a five-part liturgy to an unknown god or force. It opens relatively accessibly, founded upon a rotating chord sequence, brooding, flecked with grime, clipped at its edges. But it floats into a cavernous space filled with ominous, resonant bangs, whereupon it becomes less mobile but also much more complex. Noise develops into a stronger presence, the music building very slowly, ordered by increasingly heavyweight pulses, both in the form of punching metal & jets of steam.