Vitrolic, bitter and brilliant: Transvision Vamp – Velveteen

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When i was 16, i bought my first CD player. At the time—and i’m conscious how old i feel saying this—it was still a real novelty for anyone my age to possess their own CD player, and it was one of the (mercifully) few times when i was the centre of attention, everyone wanting to experience the clarity of digital music. At the same time, i bought 4 CDs, the start of a collection that i now have neither the time nor the inclination to count. Among those four was Transvision Vamp‘s second album Velveteen, that had been recently released (also among the four was Martika’s self-titled debut album, but we all make mistakes). My interest in Transvision Vamp began when their first single, “I Want Your Love” was released the previous year. Both the song, and its accompanying video, are breathtaking; it’s one of those amazing moments when you hear a song by an artist you’ve never encountered before, and the experience is totally enthralling. i can’t recall another female vocalist who was quite like Wendy James at that time: she snarled and screeched and screamed, she was the archetypal rock-chick, full of froth and feist, and she oozed sexuality (i admit i had many posters of her on my wall). One of the reasons why their sound was so refreshing, i think, is because it was at a time when the acid-house scene was reaching its peak, and the so-called “Madchester” bands were beginning to become really popular, a style of music that, with a few exceptions, i found bland, generic and—worst of all—eager to please. So Transvision Vamp’s combination of rock with (rather mild) punk was an exciting break from the norm. Read more

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Mix Tape #4 : Miniatures

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This new Mix Tape began life as one of my playlists on iTunes, which simply specified that it should only include tracks under two minutes in duration. Surprisingly, 815 tracks from my music library fulfil this criteria, amounting to over 15 hours of music. Not surprisingly, this playlist makes for an eclectic and surreal listen, while at the same time providing a kind of ‘distillation’ of the music that i love. Here then, is a selection from that playlist, with a slight emphasis on music i’ve listened to more recently; almost 70 minutes of music stitched together with the aid of a variety of delightful advertisement spots by the wonderful and very innovative Raymond Scott. What this lot tells you about my music collection is anyone’s guess…

Here’s the complete tracklisting: Read more

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Leave your high hopes at the door: Portishead – Third

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Engaging with music (or any of the arts) is one of the greatest, most edifying experiences life has to offer. Arguably the most insuperable barrier to this engagement is expectation. It’s a mistake that arises all too easily; our past experiences (pleasurable or otherwise) construct the likelihood of a similar future, resulting in a travesty of closed-minded thinking, masquerading as openness. But any encounter, afflicted with the weight of expectation, is distorted before it has even begun. Portishead‘s new album, Third (released on 28 April), causes this temptation to rear its head in a particularly powerful way. Their eponymous last release, in 1997, ranks as one of the most brilliant and original albums by any artist of the 20th century; that, followed by a 10-year wait for new material, makes the likelihood of expectations very high. But we must leave any and all such high hopes at the door; back in the 90s Portishead got our attention by surprising us, made their mark through a focussed, confident and innovative single-mindedness of expression. The most we can allow is to anticipate something of quality; anything more is an affront to their artistry—indeed it is the ultimate insult, demanding from them what we want to hear. Third—like any other release by any other artist (indeed, any encounter of any kind)—must be approached on its own terms, and be allowed to express itself in whatever way it needs to; our expectations can only stifle and obfuscate (or, worse, judge) what we are hearing. Read more

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Ryoji Ikeda – a retrospective

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It doesn’t seem to matter what medium they turn their hand to—film, fashion, theatre, literature, photography or, indeed, music—Japanese culture always seems to combine an intensity and honesty of expression with a forthright, futuristic vision. By contrast, we in the Occident—particularly here in England, perhaps the least open-minded, forward-thinking country on the planet—are often as distant from them conceptually as we are geographically. Over the years, i have kept finding what emanates from Japan to be an endlessly fascinating stream of inspiration. In a way, it’s easy to laugh at them, but only, i suspect, because we see in them an unabashed individualism we crave to possess. Musically, they demonstrate a freshness in their approach to sound and how it can be sculpted into different forms. i’ve written before of Merzbow, master of so-called “Japanoise”, the surface of whose work i feel i’ve only just begun to scratch. Just as capable of polarising opinion is Ryoji Ikeda, no less raw and elemental (although, i suspect, much more brilliant) than Merzbow, but preferring to look to the very heart of what sound is, precise and surgical, rather than dense and torrential. Equally precise is Ikeda’s output: a small collection of releases, each of which fashions music from the barest of fundamentals. and i choose that word carefully; Ryoji Ikeda uses bare sound waves as his raw material, constructing patterns that evolve and juxtapose themselves, often ordered, occasionally more chaotic. Read more

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Mix Tape #3 : Bells

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Being Easter week, it seems appropriate that this new Mix Tape should focus on the sound of bells. As usual, the following selection reflects my recent listening, with one or two old favourites thrown in for good measure; one hour of gloriously eclectic resonance and reverberation. Bathe in the overtones…

Here’s the full tracklisting: Read more

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Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | Leave a comment

If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and—more importantly—the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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Stark and unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | 6 Comments

Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! Read more

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