Miscellaneous

Ivan Wyschnegradsky – Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony

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If composers have generally lost a lot of the romanticised mystique and puffery that used to surround them (no bad thing), there remains one area where compositional intent is still likely to raise eyebrows and/or hackles, and confine the composer to a box labelled ‘weirdo’: non-standard tunings. Due to the mental and physical reconfigurations it demands, the act of turning away from the haven of semitones and octaves in favour of alternate divisions of pitch still has a tendency to piss off performers and audiences alike, and despite the ripostes that equally-tempered semitones are only one way of subdividing the infinite gradations of the pitch domain, and are in any case largely irrelevant in electronic music, composers who indulge in microtonal machinations within the realm of instrumental music often continue to be emblazoned with a badge of the bizarre. Even such well-known and -regarded figures as Charles Ives and Harry Partch continue to sport this badge (in Partch’s case, being practically defined by it); time, it seems, can only do so much.

All of which makes the publication of Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky‘s Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony a welcome contribution to this area. In the same way as Partch, Wyschnegradsky’s name is synonymous with microtonality, and the few albums of his work that have been released all feature examples of his quartertone piano music. While i’m no Wyschnegradsky expert, this association is perhaps not an unfair one, as it’s abundantly clear from his Manual just how seriously he regarded quartertones and how earnest he was in his efforts to integrate them into conventional (i.e. semitonal) music theory. Simply but elegantly published by Underwolf Editions, this is the first English translation of the book, a painstaking process undertaken by Rosalie and Noah Kaplan (translator and editor respectively), incorporating later edits made by Wyschnegradsky in his own annotated copy of the book, which was originally published in 1932. At just 28 pages its length belies how significant the book is; it deserves to sit alongside any of the great 20th century compositional tracts, manuals and manifestos. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Laurence Crane – Movement for 10 musicians

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One of the awkward aspects of attending the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival arises from the fact that, when choosing which concerts to attend, there’s an unavoidable fear that one will inevitably miss something fantastically memorable and/or stunningly ground-breaking. The next piece in my HCMF revisitings is a case in point, from a concert i ended up kicking myself for missing in 2013. The work began life in 2002 as Movement for Ensemble, composed for Dutch ensemble Orkest de Ereprijs who presented it at that year’s Gaudeamus Music Week. The following year another Dutch group, The Ives Ensemble, commissioned a slimmed-down version of the piece for a series of performances in conjunction with Rotterdam Dance Works, whereupon it became Movement for 10 musicians.

The entire piece is made from just three very basic ideas:

  • three chords, rising up a scale, emphasising the interval of a 6th, over a sustained pitch;
  • two chords, falling a semitone, with shared pivot notes;
  • a two-octave rising diatonic scale, in octaves, over a sustained pitch.

It unfolds like a cross between Ravel’s Bolero and Howard Skempton’s Lento. Crane repeats the first two of these ideas numerous times in groups of 2, 4 and 6, but despite how obvious these repetitions are, and the structural blocks they form, the piece is not first and foremost about this. Harmony is what ultimately demarcates the work’s overall structure, which falls broadly into four sections. Crane positions the music at a cadential liminal point, founded upon a tonality of E – floating between major and minor – with regular suspended fourths and sevenths that push and tilt it towards the key of A. Three of the work’s four sections do actually end with this cadence, though the way the chord of A is rendered – enriched with sevenths and ninths, but lacking a major or minor third – lends it both a harmonic conviction and neutrality that are entirely in keeping with the tonal fluidity that pervades the piece. Read more

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HCMF revisited: James Dillon – Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’

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Scottish composer James Dillon is a regular fixture at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the last few years have included several of his larger-scale works. Of these, the performance of his Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’ at HCMF 2014 was one of the most striking, and has remained vividly in mind partly due to how difficult it seemed to parse, and as a consequence was a tricky piece to write about in my original review. The work isn’t performed often and no recording yet exists, so it’s one of a number of Dillon’s major works that remains in relative obscurity.

That’s unfortunate in any case, but particularly so because of the level of ambition Dillon brought to this piece. His long programme note describes the points of inspiration that led to the work’s subtitle, citing Greco-Roman mythology – Andromeda was the daughter of Celeus and Cassiopeia and personifies the dawn; like Prometheus, she was chained to a rock, eventually rescued by Perseus – and astronomy, referring both to the constellation (which was originally seen to represent Andromeda, and named ‘the chained woman’) as well as the galaxy – the nearest major galaxy to our own – that lies within it. Dillon also talks about the the legacy of the piano concerto idiom, describing the increasing emphasis on soloistic virtuosity that “remains one of its most attractive and repulsive features”, which perhaps explains why the pianist in his piece, save for a short opening cadenza, bears no resemblance to a conventional concerto soloist. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Morton Feldman – Piano Four Hands

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Not everything performed at HCMF is brand new, yet there are occasions when it feels as though one’s hearing a familiar piece for the first time. This happened last year with Morton Feldman‘s Piano Four Hands, a work that dates back over half a century, composed in 1958. One of a series of works experimenting with notation and interaction that Feldman composed during this period, it’s a piece that had hitherto left me entirely cold, a response that, having heard it in a variety of interpretations, i’d assumed must be something to do with Piano Four Hands itself. That belief was overturned on 25 November 2014, when Philip Thomas and John Tilbury began their afternoon concert with the piece, and finally everything coalesced. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Six Piano Études

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It’s been quite a while since my articles on the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin, but here’s an omission from that account, which was only broadcast recently. The day began with a piano recital given by Clare Hammond, featuring Chin’s Six Piano Études. It’s perhaps not surprising, considering Chin studied for several years with György Ligeti, that she should be drawn to the étude form, yet hers are very different both stylistically and collectively from those of her former teacher.

There’s a strong sense of unity running through the six pieces, even of continuity. Chin is drawn to filigree piano writing, which is present right from the start of ‘In C’; the diatonic progressions in the bass guide the étude rather than grounding it, the right hand sounding like streams of water magically cascading upwards. ‘Sequenzen’ begins at the other end of the keyboard, in a lugubrious preamble that swiftly gains momentum, a single pitch lingering within. Hectic passagework breaks out—the upper part filled with embellishment—only hesitating briefly in a moment of repose before launching into a torrential climax. One realises how closely-related these two études seem when the third begins; the tempo of ‘Scherzo ad libitum’ is all over the place, charging off unpredictably only to slow down again immediately afterwards, a juddering sense of motion that brings to mind the inscrutable mannerisms of Nancarrow’s player-piano studies. The étude ends in similar fashion, but its centre is a lengthy episode of unstoppable material, like a burning juggernaut, notes flying everywhere like sparks and flares. Read more

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Street Sounds special (BBC 6 Music)

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Last Sunday, the ill-fated BBC 6 Music broadcast a two-hour special focusing on the legendary Street Sounds label. The special is presented by Dave Pearce, in conversation with the persistently energetic Morgan Khan, who founded Street Sounds in the early 1980s, and is responsible for bringing so much early hip-hop, electro, rap and house music to England. Street Sounds’ seminal Electro series of albums featured heavily in my own life from the mid 1980s, and they’re discussed on the show (around 42 minutes in) alongside the plethora of other releases put out by Street Sounds in their relatively short initial existence (a cursory glance on Discogs reveals just how prolific the label was).

Street Sounds has recently been undergoing a renaissance, starting a new series of ‘Nu Electro’ releases (Vol. 3 comes out soon), as well as a new clothing line (i’m proud to say i’m writing this little article wearing the limited edition Electro tshirt). Even more exciting, though, is Khan’s tantilising statement on the show that the original albums will in due course be re-released on CD and digital download, an answer to the persistent prayers we fans have been making for over two decades. For a long time i’ve been wanting to do an in-depth retrospective of the first fifteen Electro albums, so this may well happen in due course.

Meanwhile, here’s the two-hour special; the full playlist is as follows: Read more

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Choral Evensong – Eve of Ascension Day (Lincoln Cathedral): music by Patrick Gowers and Messiaen

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Tonight is the eve of the feast of Ascension Day, so today’s broadcast of Choral Evensong explored this theme, coming from Lincoln Cathedral.

The anthem was Patrick GowersViri Galilaei, and regular readers of this blog will know of my love for this piece, having written about it on a number of occasions. It’s a superlative work, beginning shrouded in mystery and obscurity (and listen out for what sounds like the use of a highly appropriate zimbelstern stop tinkling away above the voices); at the first, rather soft, mention of the word “Alleluia”, the whole tone of the anthem shifts, quickly building up to a coruscating series of loud Alleluias from the whole choir. A toccata paves the way for the work’s climax, a vast but brisk chorale punctuated at each cadence with further Alleluias—it’s difficult to listen without tears forming, joy is etched into every note of this piece. The choir performs this challenging piece superbly, clearly enjoying themselves, as well they should; it’s pleasing to see that Gowers’ anthem has finally supplanted (or, at least, provided an alternative to) Finzi’s over-performed God is gone up. Read more

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Office of Tenebrae (Westminster Cathedral)

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This afternoon’s broadcast of what is usually Choral Evensong, was fittingly transformed for Holy Week into the service of Tenebrae, from Westminster Cathedral. Tenebrae is something of a curiosity, the legacy of a rather odd Holy Week practice of transferring the usual morning offices of Matins and Lauds to the evening before; the practice only continues today, if at all, on Wednesday, thus preserving the unique liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Having experienced a service of Tenebrae myself (it was included in Tewkesbury’s Musica Deo Sacra festival a couple of years back), i can testify to its beauty, and also to its symbolic power in this most black week of the year—especially the ceremonial snuffing out of candles. It’s an extremely long service; indeed, a quick glance in my copy of the Liber Usualis reveals that the combined offices contain no fewer than 16 antiphons, 13 psalms, nine lessons, nine responsories and two canticles. Clearly, this is far too long for an hour-long broadcast (typically, it would take around three hours), so today’s service was a kind of “Diet Tenebrae”, drastically slimmed down, using a selection from the complete liturgy. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – The Wells Service (first broadcast)

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Yesterday’s Choral Evensong came from one of our most beautiful cathedrals, Wells Cathedral, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The canticles came in the form of Peter Maxwell-DaviesWells Service, the first time they have been broadcast. The Magnificat is a dense and stodgy affair, briefly aerated with a treble solo; it’s a pensive, even an introspective setting, opting for restrained technicolour (the harmonies are sumptuously rich) rather than ebullience.

This is taken much further in the Nunc dimittis, that begins disarmingly simply before its phrases begin to become stretched out in deliciously poignant fashion, particularly in the doxology where, at “world without end”, the music halts as if to reflect at length on the closing words; it concludes with one of the most sublime settings of the word “amen” that i’ve ever heard. Read more

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George Benjamin – Viola, Viola; Three Miniatures for Solo Violin; Into the Little Hill

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George Benjamin is one of the first contemporary composers in whom i became interested, as a teenager. It’s difficult to pin down or articulate quite what i find appealing in his music, and in fact reasonably often i’ve found myself ambivalent about certain pieces. There’s an intensity and earnestness of intention that can be a double-edged sword; his works may come across as somewhat over-wrought and rather too cerebral, but personally i would prefer that to something insufficiently considered any day. Whatever; here are three works from a concert given by Ensemble Modern at the Bockenheimer Depot in November 2007. Read more

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Cut and Splice 2005: John Cage, Yasunao Tone, Signal (Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender)

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Returning to the archives, here’s an eclectic variety of electronic music from the 2005 Cut and Splice Festival in London, beginning with the archetypal cut and splice work, John Cage‘s Williams Mix. The piece sounds as wonderfully kaleidoscopic as ever, its fast-edit approach causing much the same effect as 4’33”, rendering no sound incongruous, and its all-too-brief duration still surprisingly modern after more than 50 years. In Paramedia-Centripetal by Japanese composer Yasunao Tone, the music emanates from Tone’s ‘performance’ on a graphics tablet of a number of calligraphic symbols, and i suspect this was more engaging to witness than it is merely to listen to; bereft of visuals, the material itches frenetically throughout, with occasional similarities to the sharp juxtapositions of Cage’s piece (and towards the end, to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango), but ever with the sense that something important was missing. Indeed, after a while, the comparative similarity of the material coupled to its relatively narrow pitch range (deep bass sounds are virtually non-existent), and lengthy duration (almost half an hour) lend the piece a dull, even irritating quality.

The festival included a focus on three composers associated with the German Raster-Noton label: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Olaf Bender (aka Byetone). An interview with Frank Bretschneider is illuminating, particularly when he speaks of the issues he and the related composers experienced when first presenting their music, and how it relates to electronic, contemporary and other traditions. Bretschneider comments on the disinterest shown by record labels towards their work, as it didn’t (he says) correspond to existing traditions in contemporary music; although why no-one felt the connection to minimalism is beyond me. With its emphasis on rhythm, and without depending on tired quasi-‘tonal’ harmonic ideas, it’s the kind of minimalism i can engage with; it’s “in your face”, confronting the listener with unavoidable glitches, blips and poundings, and all the better for it. Bretschneider’s untitled piece that follows is a superb example of this, exciting and irresistible, at times seeming to evoke the complexity of African drumming patterns. Read more

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Dark, scintillating gems: Johnny Hollow – Dirty Hands

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Mmelancholy, theatricality and an understated gothic darkness pervade the second and most recent album by Johnny Hollow, Dirty Hands, released last year. And it’s just as well that these qualities are understated; the authentic, original traits of the 1980s indie ‘goth’ have become so hideously contorted into the present-day big label ’emo’ fake that bands seeking to allude to these dark characteristics do well to keep them in check. But there’s not the barest hint of inauthenticity in Johnny Hollow’s output, which begs the question of why this Canadian group is not more well-known. Dirty Hands ended up 19th on my top 40 releases of 2008, and rightly so; it’s a splendid creation, blending instrumental sounds (piano, strings) and electronics into the indie-goth mix, resulting in a music with impressively broad scope. Read more

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Nine Inch Nails – The Definitive NIN

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Nine Inch Nails‘ music has appeared on here on a number of occasions. A couple of years ago, Trent Reznor unofficially released three compilation albums, each exploring a different aspect of his output. The three volumes of Nine Inch Nails: The Definitive NIN are titled The Singles, Deep Cuts and Quiet, and together they comprise an effective “Best Of” collection. These releases have previously only been available as torrents, but as they’ve now been around for a while, download speeds aren’t what they were; so below are links to download all three volumes much faster. All three are exactly as Reznor released them, including full high-resolution artwork and an HTML page with further information; the music is (sadly) in mp3 format, at (even more sadly) 192Kbps, but hey – it’s free. Here are the links, together with a complete tracklisting for each volume. Read more

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Approaching future pop perfection: Freezepop

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2008 seems to be drawing to a close with surprising alacrity, and already i’ve started to see a number of “Best of 2008” articles appearing. Rest assured i’ll be doing my own individual pick of the year’s highlights towards the end of the month. Meanwhile, let’s turn our attention to a group whose last album was one of 2007’s best releases.

Freezepop only came to my attention earlier this year, through an episode of the latest season of The L Word, a show that features a surprisingly eclectic (and high quality) selection of music. Since then, i’ve trawled their back catalogue, and it’s been an interesting experience. To be fair, their earliest output is decidedly hit-and-miss, with emphasis on the latter of those epithets, but—and it’s an important but—nothing really bad afflicts those releases. Their first album, Freezepop Forever, released in 2001, sounds like a fairly typical J-pop offering (a Japanese track title seems to confirm the allusion), a kind of music that achieves popularity principally through downright quirkiness. It also strongly betrays Freezepop’s affiliation with the realm of computer game music; all in all, it’s just too transient and bound-up in stylistic conventions to be terribly engaging. The following year’s Fashion Impression Function is, on balance, even less engaging, but demonstrates the makings of a much more individual sound, smoothly blending electropop trappings old and new, introducing interesting structural variety and bringing new intimacy to Liz Enthusiasm’s vocals. Read more

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Ancient and modern: Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto, Miroirs des temps; Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

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i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. At the end of last month, Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ featured Chin’s more recent music. The Violin Concerto is awash with invention; all the talk of open strings is simply an opening gambit, from where it departs into vivid and distinctly unfamiliar territory. Often, the use of open strings is redolent of Berg’s concerto, but it’s unfair to latch onto that association, as Chin really does operate in a world apart. It’s much more akin to Ligeti’s concerto, and Chin acknowledges this in her interview during the programme, where she refers to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She also speaks of a desire to avoid a conventional orchestral sound through the introduction of ununusal instruments; the final movement of the concerto features steel drums, which inject a fittingly exotic and unconventional twist to the work as a whole. Miroirs des temps, with dense multi-part crab canons, is a compositional tour-de-force, but also rather strange. It doesn’t begin in the most auspicious way, the singers sounding, frankly, drab against the gentle interest of the orchestra; and when it then lurches into pastiche, i admit i had to restrain myself from stopping listening. It broadens into more interesting areas, though, as it approaches its middle; the fourth movement, dark and indistinct, is especially exciting. But, of course, this is a “mirror of time”, and so the less interesting faux Machaut and drabness return as the work progresses; not her finest work, by any means, but equally not without some very special moments—it’s just a shame that they are only moments. This performance of the Violin Concerto was given bu Hae-Sun Kang and the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by James MacMillan. Read more

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A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind: Scott Walker – The Drift

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i avoid superlatives whenever possible. If people ask me (and they do, surprisingly often) to name a favourite composer or artist or album, i invariably either deflect the question away—”i don’t really have one…”—or reflect it back at them—”i’m not sure; how about you…?”). For the most part, the best one can hope to come up with, á la Paul Morley, is a list of favourites that is true at that moment, but would be different, perhaps entirely so (but no less true), at any other time. (Morley writes about this, and many other wonderful things, in his book Words and Music, which right now i might describe as the most brilliant book about music ever written, but tomorrow, who knows…?). Hence my aversion to superlatives, and their transient—and, in any case, subjective—character. Sometimes, though, one encounters something so incredible, so marvellous, so utterly different from anything else hitherto encountered, that superlatives become the only meaningful way to express anything remotely accurate. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t happen often, despite the large amount of music to which i listen, and so when it does, it’s a real shock, a gorgeous surprise, an ineffable thrill, a rapturous provocation of everything from confusion and disbelief to gasps and tears. And as i say, when the stun and stammering have passed, one is left reaching for the acmes of language. Read more

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David Briggs – Symphony in Four Movements

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A former Director of Music of Gloucester Cathedral, David Briggs has made something of a name for himself as a creator of large-scale improvisations. From a compositional standpoint, they’re generally contrived and unoriginal; Briggs—like fellow organist Wayne Marshall—has a penchant for creating music in the styles of others, rather than forging an individual style of his own. Also like Marshall, his musical personality tends toward the extravagant, but while in Marshall’s playing the results are reckless and repulsively showy, Briggs manages to focus this quality, bringing a breathless exuberance to his performances. Most remarkable of all, though, is his technique with the instrument, which is simply amazing. Read more

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Down with politics! : And One – Bodypop

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If you were to combine Leonard Cohen, Laibach and Aqua with just a sprinkling (dare i suggest it) of The Village People, the result would go some way to resembling And One. To describe them as ‘peculiar’ is not really to say anything meaningful about Europop, which has never borne much resemblance to the pop music from Britain and America. In recent years, this fact is proving to be No Bad Thing; through the late 90s and 00s, ‘English pop’ (to include both sides of the Atlantic) has collapsed into a generic, uninspired agglomeration of meaningless plastic, vacuous/misogynistic randb, and the woeful efforts of pseudo-rock bands, who arguably try hardest to be interesting, but for the most part—due to a ‘retro’ mindset—succeed only in producing pastiche replicas of something older, better and far more genuine. Against such a pitiful backdrop, the often tawdry excesses of Europop (and its Asian cousin, J-Pop) have come to be a powerful blessing, albeit a mixed one; individuality and originality, at one end of the continuum, become a questionable understanding of “quality control” and a habit of taking oneself too seriously at the other. And One’s particular brand of EBM has fallen into this trap regularly, and yet when they avoid it it’s with such panache and conviction that it renders their flaws entirely forgiveable.

They have a substantial corpus of albums and singles, all of which meander freely within the no man’s land betwixt egregious and enthralling. However, their most recent album, Bodypop, suggests that, finally, they are grasping what aspects of their musical personality should be pursued, and which can be ejected. Political issues have always mattered to And One, and this has been reflected in much of their work; however, Europop—like all the popular genres—is a weak instrument for political discourse; it may, and does, stir up feelings, but only in the most superficial and transient way; in any case, the majority of listeners to this kind of music, i would imagine, do not come to it with political opinion among their principal concerns. The title Bodypop immediately suggests a different emphasis, and indeed this is their least overtly political album, allowing their highly danceable tunes to move in a less fettered way (although with an occasional tendency to march). Furthermore, a striking lyricism is prominent here; lengthy, moving melodies that demonstrate just how superb Steve Naghavi’s baritone voice really is. And One wouldn’t be And One if palpable campery and kitschness were absent, and a couple of songs—’So Klingt Liebe’ and ‘Body Company’—will happily furnish the gay clubs of Europe with floor-fillers. They’re not so outré that they become silly, though; despite my allusion to The Village People earlier, Pet Shop Boys is probably a better comparison. Read more

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Messiaen’s Méditations – the greatest organ work of all time?

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Trinity Sunday, and an opportunity to share one of the most prized CDs of my collection. It’s a complete recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s organ cycle Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, performed by Messiaen himself on the organ of the Parisian church where he was organist for most of his life, the appropriately named La Trinité. The nine meditations (which i shall be hearing in concert in a month’s time) are among Messiaen’s finest creations—still controversial for some due to his quirky creation of a “communicable language” that he then uses to “say” phrases from Scripture. Nonetheless, the sounds and textures are unique in the organ repertory, bearing little resemblance to conventional—or, indeed, any other—organ music. Despite taking liberties with his own score, Messiaen’s performances are incredibly exciting, and the recording is marvellously vivid, capturing the timbres brilliantly (the deep bass notes are, literally, breathtaking). Read more

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Deerhoof: confounding & clever

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i detest the obsession to subdivide music into genres, and what excites me so much about Deerhoof’s music is that it’s absolutely impossible to pigeon-hole. i’ve seen them called “indie rock”, “post rock”, “avant rock” and “math rock”; but i don’t worry about such things, and choose rather to revel in some of the most confoundingly brilliant, unashamedly artistic and downright clever music i’ve heard in my life. There’s an omnipresent sense of anarchy lurking in their songs, the band often sounding as though they’re barely held in check by Satomi Matsuzaki’s simplistic vocals.

Their most recent album, Friend Opportunity, starts with “The Perfect Me”, the perfect album opener: fast, irregular, harmonically ambiguous, percussion everywhere; it’s also a perfect demonstration of Deerhoof’s approach to structure, veering between utterly different episodes with absolutely no attempt at smoothing over the joins. Play it loud, very loud! “+81″‘s opening trumpet fanfare shows a willingness to bring in unexpected instruments, which sound entirely at home; the middle portion of the song is them at their most obtuse harmonically, perhaps the most peculiar series of chords i’ve ever heard away from classical art music. Though i hate the term, Deerhoof exhibit a palpable ‘retro’ quality at times, and the opening of “Believe E.S.P.” is, dare i say it, the kind of thing one might expect to hear in a ’70s porn movie. But there’s nothing remotely embarrassing about it; it’s made to fit perfectly, melding among the laid-back percussion and dark guitar/electronic stings. Read more

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