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Best EPs of 2011

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Lists help you believe that there will be a future – by reminding you that the things you are listing have happened, in a time that was once a future, and that therefore there will be a future where things will happen that can then be listed and taken forward to remind us of a past where stuff was generated that made us believe there is a present and so, ultimately, a future. (Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here we go again, then, with my own series of lists summarising what i believe to be the best music of the last 12 months. As usual, i’m going to strew caveats all over them—these lists are only what i presently believe to be the best and if i made them again in a few months’ time things would likely have changed, and in any case i haven’t heard every release this year, and while we’re on the subject there are still three days of the year left and we all know how much can happen in just three days—but regardless, these lists, in all their provisional tentativity, are, right here right now, definitive. Okay, so bearing all that in mind, let’s get the ball rolling with the ten EPs that have stood out most through the last 12 months.

10 | Hecq and Exillon – Spheres of Fury
It’s hardly worth repeating Ben Lukas Boysen’s 2009 claim that “beat-science can’t go any further with me”—his unique take on the world of grime and dubstep through the last couple of years has been blisteringly exciting. Spheres of Fury lives up to its title, a sleazy track with indelicate beats and bass—the accompanying video, featuring a wonderfully over-dramatised waterfight is hilarious—but it’s the last of the four tracks that’s even better. The “Stochastic Process remix By Techdiff” goes way beyond the scope of regular remixes, turning Hecq’s masterly original into a flawlessly-executed glitch-fest that ends with a twist, the sedate pace abruptly doubled, ending up as a frenzied dance track. [Juno Download]

9 | Fovea Hex – Three Beams
Clodagh Simonds doesn’t mess around when she gives her music to other musicians to play with. Her 2007 release Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent ended up in the hands of no less than The Hafler Trio, and this time around her latest songs have been given to Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski. With its detail and surface filigree, it must be hard to know where to start reworking Fovea Hex material, but this fine little EP (available only as a bonus CD with her new album) proves what’s possible. Predictably, Basinski’s is the least inventive, but the other two “beams” are outstanding, Begg and Potter refashioning the material into soft, surrounding ambient soundscapes, reverently celebrating those aspects that make the music of Fovea Hex as unique as it is. [Janet Records]

8 | Pablo – In Hurricanes
i know precisely nothing about Pablo, and only discovered this EP by accident when roaming the iTunes store some time back. There’s something of the retro quality that pervades so much synthpop at the moment, but it’s not a throwback; analogue synths are only one colour in Pablo’s palette. Each of the three songs has a lightly cheeky quality that’s most endearing; second track “Rock Bottom” is a delightful encouragement to those facing hard times: “son, you have to fall face first, hit rock bottom, to learn in life”. Pablo’s voice is splendid, and his heartfelt lyrics never feel trite, the music keeping things light and airy. [iTunes]

7 | Yugen – Ae’shT’aT’aQ
David Sani’s Yugen project is hard to define or even to describe. To some he’s better known through the lowercase music he’s released as Shinkei, but i find this new departure of his to be far more impressive. He brings to mind the soundworld of The Hafler Trio in Ae’shT’aT’aQ, an episodic work that explores some utterly captivating and immersive textures. The title is Aramaic for “he stood in silence”, and Sani has used (in his words) “some old middle east archival recordings” as source material, but they have been so extensively worked on and processed that there’s barely any clear trace of them. Yet, while the origins are indistinct, the grain of the music is tangibly evocative, which together with the fascinating techniques used throughout, sets this album apart from the majority of experimental electronics. [Free download]

6 | Ex Confusion – Too Late, They Are Gone
Ambient music can’t always withstand being presented in smaller, shorter formats, but this is where Atsuhito Omori’s music is most at home. and it’s the miniature size of these tracks (reviewed back in March) that makes them as powerful as they are; while lesser minds endlessly play with loops dully repeated ad nauseam, Omori condenses his ideas into pieces barely three or four minutes long. Their short span blurs the nature of their content (is it a looping fragment? or is it a part of something much larger?) thus freeing one to focus entirely on the resulting music, which—in part, again, due to the duration—is imbued with real fragility, enhanced by such titles as “Too Late, They Are Gone” and “It Doesn’t Last Forever” (one of my favourite tracks of the year). The five amuse-bouches on this EP are like the last streaks of colour in fading photographs—beautiful and very moving—and i love how Omori leaves the start and end of each track rough and unfinished, which only adds to its authenticity. [Bandcamp]

5 | Uh Huh Her – Black and Blue
Uh Huh Her have been around since 2007, but don’t seem to have found their sound until this year. Their particular marriage of synthpop and rock is finally given perfect expression on this EP, almost every track of which is a winner. Leisha Hailey and Camila Grey bring a delicate lyricism to their music that’s very impressive, and songs like “Never the Same” (with its simply gorgeous chorus) and “I’ve Had Enough” somehow navigate through the tropes of ballad and light rock, emerging with real emotional power. The more electronic tracks are certainly infectious, but despite their pace are kept relatively low-key (Hailey and Grey often singing low in their registers) and always at the service of the words; definitely some of the best songs released this year. [UhHuhHer.com]

4 | Clem Leek – Home Outside
i must admit to having mixed feelings about Clem Leek’s music, which has had as many (if not more) misses than hits. But when he gets it right, as he does on this 17-minute, single-track EP, the results are breathtaking. There’s a lovely balance between the deep, omnipresent richness of the underlying drone and the mournful, string-inflected wailing above (redolent of Richard Skelton). There are all kinds of sound sources involved in the piece’s dense texture, but their details are kept hazy and they thereby become more able to hint and evoke, without the need to be specific. Leek judges the duration perfectly, and insodoing has crafted his best work to date. [Bandcamp]

3 | Tetra – Live at Gallery of Modern Art
Tetra is an offshoot from the Australian group Ektoise (comprising Greg Reason and Jim Grundy), focussing primarily on ambient atmospherics. This 27-minute live improvisation is the second of just two releases the duo has created so far, both of which are available free. Guitars are at the epicentre of the piece, but they’re suffused and surrounded with shifting layers and clouds of sound, creating a huge sonic space. Apart from the oblique beauty of the music, what stands out most for me in this recording is the restraint, Reason and Grundy keeping things moving but never pushing them along, drifting but always with a discreet guiding sense of purpose. [Bandcamp]

2 | irr. app. (ext.) – The Famine Road/Celestial Laminate
After a number of years seemingly in the wilderness, Matt Waldron’s irr. app. (ext.) project has gloriously returned in 2011. The focus this year has been digital, Waldron releasing a slew of new and remastered material via his Bandcamp site. i’ve been unable to choose between these two; The Famine Road, a collaboration with Diana Rogerson and her noise duo Fistfuck, originally appeared in 2008 in an edition of just one copy (auctioned on eBay). Waldron has now made it available to everyone, together with two revised versions; all three are devastating in their abrasive impact, pushing Waldron’s extreme and surreal experimentalism to its limits. Celestial Laminate is no less dense, but begins with a superb drone-based piece, around which large quantities of sound have accreted. [Bandcamp]

1 | Christopher McFall and David Velez – Credence
When it comes to working with field recordings, few demonstrate more innate understanding and technical control than Christopher McFall. In this remarkable collaboration with David Velez, McFall’s tendency to focus on the dark, amorphous nature of sound is coloured by overtly melodic material, seamlessly integrated into the sonic fabric. “Seamless” doesn’t really do it justice, though; Credence is, no doubt, a collage of elements, but the skill with which they are brought together, juxtaposed and intertwined is truly astonishing. Nothing ever feels remotely out of place; on the contrary, the way in which the piece comes across—as is usual for anything McFall is involved with—is like an unadorned field recording in its own right, such is the naturality of the result.

i dare say Credence won’t be for everyone; it’s gentle, yes—but equally it’s perhaps the most pitch black music i’ve ever heard. Like a cross between Twin Peaks and Lustmord, vast, yawning noises ponderously arise from unfathomable depths, emerging into an ominous nocturnal landscape. Evoking foghorns and organ pedals, deep melodic fragments circle like a funereal ground bass, at times made arboreal through the noises of birds and other creatures, othertimes aquatic with creaking boat wood. Although it projects an acute, vivid sense of isolation and even desolation, there’s much, much beauty to it all, which only makes it more moving. As only the best music can, Credence ultimately transcends words and communicates the immensity of its vision at an instinctual level. An absolute masterpiece. [Free download]

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Interrobang – works by Ryoji Ikeda, Simon Cummings/Charles Tournemire and Steve Peters

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Regular readers of 5:4 will know of my interest in the music of both Ryoji Ikeda and Steve Peters. Later this week i have the privilege of directing works by both of these composers, at the next concert given by my ensemble, Interrobang.

In the first half, we’ll be presenting the UK première of Ryoji Ikeda‘s gorgeous Op. 1, one of his only works for instrumental forces (alongside Op. 2 and Op. 3, also for strings). Op. 1 has been played by Ensemble Modern, but doesn’t seem to have been taken up by other groups, which seems strange considering how lovely it is. Also in the first half will be the first performance of my own L’Ensemble Mystique (Book One), a suite of arrangements of music by Charles Tournemire, for chamber orchestra. Tournemire’s music is all based on plainsong, and the original chants will also be sung at the concert, putting my arrangements into context. The second half is entirely given over to the UK première of Steve PetersThe Webster Cycles, the CD of which came almost top in my Best EPs of 2008. It’s a mesmerising piece that takes words from the Webster Dictionary and turns them into abstract melodic fragments, which overlap each other in aleatoric fashion.

The concert takes place at 7.30pm on Thursday 6 May, in the Recital Hall of Birmingham Conservatoire. There will also be a repeat performance of The Webster Cycles the following day at St Martin’s in the Bullring, starting at 12.30pm. It would be great to see any readers of 5:4 at these concerts—do make yourselves known if you’re there!

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Quality control issues: Steven Wilson – NSRGNTS↑RMXS

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Remixes are an entity about which i have long felt deeply ambivalent; experience has taught one to approach them with extreme caution. In musically imaginative hands, they can of course be spectacular, teasing out new aspects of the original, even redefining it, becoming worthy to stand equally beside it, a wholly new ‘version’. Outstanding examples include Nine Inch Nails’ Further Down The Spiral, that takes the material from The Downward Spiral into yet darker territory, and the plethora of fascinating remixes found on Björk’s CD single releases over the years. More often, though, they demonstrate a lack of either imagination or even competence, doing little more than tarnishing the original, damaging irreparably those elements that made it what it was. This is taken to extremes when the original is particularly excellent; i wrote a few months back about the shameful cluster of remixes inflicted on songs from Freezepop’s brilliant Future Future Future Perfect album, and more recently two superb songs—Lily Allen’s “The Fear” and Röyksopp’s “The Girl and the Robot” have found themselves surrounded by equally trivial, pointless remixes (the “Joakim Remix” of Röyksopp’s track is especially egregious, the vocals slightly out of tune with the backing harmonies). So i was very much in two minds about the CD that fell on my doormat yesterday, Steven Wilson‘s mini album of remixes from his truly outstanding album Insurgentes, titled NSRGNTS↑RMXS. Read more

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Size isn’t everything (but it is something): Sorabji – Organ Symphony No. 2

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“Too many notes”, complained Emperor Joseph II to Mozart in response to his opera Le Nozze de Figaro; quite how he would have reacted to the concert that took place a little over a week ago in Glasgow University Chapel—featuring the Finale from Kaikhosru Sorabji‘s Second Organ Symphony, a single movement lasting a little over three hours—is anyone’s guess. Having said that, the temptation into which many people fall when speaking about Sorabji’s music is precisely to get hung up on size. Much is made of the colossal time spans his works occupy, and the virtuosic demands of the material, in addition to the composer’s well-known reclusiveness and apparently disagreeable manner towards—well, pretty much anyone really. Such preoccupations do little to promote an active engagement with the music itself, seeming to regard mere quantity as a feature of merit, confining Sorabji’s fascinating output within a small, narrow and woefully inadequate box of clichés, half-truths and irrelevances. Read more

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Client is dead; long live Northern Kind!

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Take a large helping of electronica, add more than a hint of retro, a dash of attitude, and then bestow on the combination a northern accent. The result might have been Client, Sarah Blackwood’s project for the last 5 years—were it not for the fact that Client have proved themselves an increasingly boring and inept outfit, their last two albums (particularly this year’s Command) stultifyingly bad and a major disappointment to those who, like myself, feel that Blackwood still has one of the finest voices in pop. Nay, nay and thrice nay, the result now has to be Northern Kind, a duo who’ve been active for a couple of years, and whose second album, WIRED:, was released last month.

But let’s rewind to their first album, 53°N, which dates from 2007. It’s an extremely impressive debut, both capturing perfectly the synthpop sound of the early 1980s (think Erasure) as well as sounding thoroughly modern; it’s not simply an exercise in nostalgia. Having mentioned Blackwood already, i should point out that Northern Kind’s singer, Sarah Heeley, has a voice of similar range but different demeanour; while Blackwood is like a female Ralf Hütter (that’s a compliment), Heeley has a gentle vibrato that nicely shades her singing, and prevents her sounding aloof. The first few tracks of 53°N get the ball rolling, but it’s not until track four, “Millionaire”, that the album really takes off, the musical scope and horizons seeming to expand instantly. The tempo isn’t that fast, but an incessant, gymnastic bassline pushes the song along relentlessly, supplemented with assorted synth melodies, electronic drums all over the place (think Pigeon Street), and some really great singing from Heeley. “Thoughts of You” at first sounds remarkably close to early Client (that’s also a compliment), although far more melodic, and the chorus is nothing like them, poignant and softly melancholic (Client, like so many, mistake cynicism for melancholy). These two are the standout tracks; of the rest, “Home” is a great song, bringing to mind mid-’80s Pet Shop Boys (think Actually), Heeley even sounding rather like Neil Tennant. Also notable is “Sometimes”, a hard-hitting song, with abrasive sawtooths cutting the air in and around the lyrics; “Loser”, after it, is similar but more up-tempo and lyrically aggressive. It’s a splendid first album, effectively presenting Northern Kind’s credentials—and at this point one must mention the duo’s synth-smith, Matt Culpin, who’s clearly responsible in no small point for their distinctive sound. Read more

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When worlds collide: the dazzling, bi-polar explorations of Hecq’s Steeltongued

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It’s perhaps not too fanciful to say that music today has two ‘poles’: one characterised by the presence of beats (in whatever form), the other by their absence. Occupying each end of an impossibly wide continuum, these poles have both had their creative bars set extremely high, from the intricate, rhythmically irregular convulsions of Ryoji Ikeda and Autechre to the lush, elliptical driftscapes of Aphex Twin and Biosphere. Aesthetically, there would appear to be a infinitude of differences between the two—they could even, in fact, be called opposites—and it’s no doubt a symptom of this that most artists are emphatically one or the other; i did, after all, describe them as ‘poles’, and indeed the decision of whether or not an emphasised pulse is to be a feature of an album is arguably one of the most fundamental, even defining decisions for any musician. It’s not surprising, therefore, that examples of artists combining these contrary poles in their work are rare. Alva Noto’s collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto (particularly Insen) bring skittering glitched beats into a softly drifting context; Aphex Twin’s career has visited both poles, although never within a single album; and most recently, Autechre’s Quaristice project saw them to some extent attempting to forge a synthesis of the two. The attempt to combine pulsed and unpulsed musics would seem to be akin to pouring oil into water; the two can sit happily together, but never actually blend. Often, the result becomes a kind of aural illusion, the listener able to focus on one element or the other, but never both at once, suggesting some kind of fundamental incongruity. That is, until now.

For six years, and as many albums, sound artist Ben Lukas Boysen, better known as Hecq, has focussed on beats, creating in my view some of the very best beat-oriented music ever made (if anyone does, Hecq puts the ‘I’ in IDM)—A Dried Youth must rank as one of the most assured, successful debut albums by any artist. But from his second album (2004’s Scatterheart) onward, on tracks such as “Madison I” and “Midnight Generator”, he began significantly to deviate away from the glitching pulses into more amorphous territory, digitally stained ambient miniatures that do not simply sit cheek by jowl with the beats, but surround, penetrate and interconnect them, bonding the album together like electronic glue. Subsequent albums Bad Karma and 0000 continued to drop hints at Hecq’s ambient interest, hints that were abruptly writ large in last year’s Night Falls. Unexpectedly—and quite courageously—the album is almost entirely absent of beats, occupied by generously-sized quasi-watercolours, their canvases daubed in nocturnal ambient hues, at times (“Nightfalls”, “Red Sky”) touching on orchestral and choral textures. Sonically dark it may be, but laden with a profound and joyous light, the album was a clear statement of intent from Hecq, an assertion of the importance and value of beat-absent music in his output; and above all, it posed the tantalising question: what next? Read more

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Mix Tape #11 : Joy

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A very belated Happy Easter to you all! Following a hectic Easter weekend, and a few days spent in Cambridge, here’s a new mix tape for Eastertide, the theme being joy.

To start, a wonderful jazz-folk fusion number from Yellowjackets; Greenhouse is an album i’ve loved for years, and “Freda” is one of its most exciting tracks. It’s followed by the last movement from one of Michael Tippett‘s earliest mature compositions; strident and full of momentum, it briefly allows a moment or two of wistful reflection before culminating in an elated dance. Freezepop‘s latest album remains their one consistent release, and “Ninja of Love” is one of its most infectious songs. Continuing the pace like a runaway train is the opening track from Squarepusher‘s brilliant 2006 album Hello Everything, “Hello Meow”, filled with retro synths and riffs. Each album by Deerhoof has its share of instrumentals, and “Rainbow Silhouette Of The Milky Rain” bludgeons its experimental way along in rip-roaring fashion. The mix now enters a gentler mode, beginning with Imogen Heap‘s ravishing track “Just For Now”, all glorious (if realistic) optimism. And then Björk, who has surely composed some of the most unreservedly happy songs ever; “All Is Full Of Love” is here given extra treatment in the form of beats and strings, becoming if anything, more ecstatic than the original version. The “Communion” from Tournemire‘s Easter music shows him at his mystical best, placing the plainsong themes into complex, shimmering chords that hover and float in rapture. Julee Cruise, bless her, only knows extremes: her music is either abjectly mournful (“The Dying Swan”) or caught up in ecstasy, as she is here, in one of her most well-known songs. Read more

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