Bitter and strong: the legacy of Dubstar

Posted on by 5:4 in Retrospectives | 6 Comments

A few months back, the announcement was made that Dubstar were at work on a fourth album, due for release this year. This came from Steve Hillier, brains of the outfit, who has, in the intervening years since Dubstar’s departure from the music scene, continued to maintain webpages connected with their music. Perhaps Hillier’s prevalent nostalgia is what has kickstarted the Dubstar motor once again; or perhaps they just couldn’t help themselves (real musicians never can); either way, things are afoot. i think that history—with all the old-fashioned benevolence of a grandmother—has been kind to Dubstar; they are encased within a memory that finds playful melodies and darkly acerbic lyrics joined, a paradox perfectly encapsulated in the person of singer Sarah Blackwood, her strongly northern dialect colliding with her angelic, unwavering soprano voice. Dubstar, in short, are like one of Grayson Perry‘s ceramics, discreetly placing disturbing imagery within a context that at first seems familiar and safe. It’s been interesting, then, to revisit all their old releases, many of which have been untouched on the CD shelves for far too long; 10 singles (all long out of print), 3 albums, plus one or two other odds and ends, totalling a little over 7 hours of music—released over a 5-year period, this is a fair achievement. But how does the music acquit itself now? What is Dubstar’s legacy? 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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Ensemble Exposé: Brian Ferneyhough – Incipits (UK Première) plus Davies, Xenakis, Barrett, Dillon and Sørensen

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | 6 Comments

Here’s a real treat for those who prefer their contemporary music to be at the more intellectually rewarding end of the continuum. It’s music from a concert given at the ICA in London by Ensemble Exposé (plus violist Garth Knox), under the direction of Roger Redgate, who also discusses the music being performed. The concert explored works by diverse composers, from the relatively gentle and meditative soundscapes of Paul Davies and Bent Sørensen to the more densely intricate textures of James Dillon and Richard Barrett (Barrett originally co-founded the ensemble with Redgate); Xenakis, as ever, stands apart, uniquely indescribable. It culminated in the first UK performance of Incipits by one of the greats of contemporary music, Brian Ferneyhough, a fascinating work exploring different ways to start a composition. Also included is a lengthy interview with the composer including a number of other short pieces. 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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Joie de vivre in Bath: Bach, Dhafer Youssef, Messiaen

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 5 Comments

Last Wednesday, i and the Beloved were at Bath Abbey, for a “Messiaen Centenary Celebration” given as part of the Bath Festival. The highlight of the concert was Messiaen‘s rarely-performed Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, preceded by two works, a keyboard concerto by J. S. Bach, and the world première of Les Ondes Orientales by Dhafer Youssef. Thankfully, the concert was recorded by the BBC, and broadcast yesterday. Joanna MacGregor is the artistic director of the Bath Festival, so she was prominent in all three pieces. The Bach concerto is spirited and fun, with some lovely string writing, particularly in the slow middle movement; the solo part is highly florid, and almost continuous, but Joanna MacGregor tackles such things with incredible ease. In fact, she appeared so relaxed with the material that her communicative/reflective facial expressions seemed to become rather exaggerated (think Natalie Clein, but not so comic); all the same, it was a refreshing opener, a kind of musical sorbet. Read more

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Mix Tape #6 : Piano

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For years, the piano has been to me an object of fascination and awe; its range of capabilities, expressive potential and timbral variety are breathtaking. Also for years, these qualities were the very things preventing me from attempting to compose something for it. Listening to piano music is a supreme joy, and so this new Mix Tape is a concoction of some of the more interesting examples that have been occupying my ears of late. It also represents some of my favourite composers, all of them bringing something unique to the instrument. Read more

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Down with politics! : And One – Bodypop

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous | Leave a comment

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 Eastern 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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