Wednesday, 22 June 2016

1013=2016/2: The First Six Months of 2016 in Music

Now that we're almost exactly halfway through the year I thought I'd present a quick rundown of my favourite releases of the past six months.

Anna Holmer and Steve Moshier – Breadwoman & Other Tales (RVNG INTL)

RVNG INTL reaches into the depths of 1980s cassette culture and pulls out a gorgeous ambient record of chanting and odd noises made by a woman who just wanted to wear bread.

Bill Converse – Meditations/Industry (Dark Entries)

Don't know too much about this one but Dark Entries put it out and I can only say it has everything about Aphex Twin in it – acidy squiggles combined with beautiful ambient pads.

Carla Dal Forno – Fast Moving Cars (Blackest Ever Black)

In a parallel universe this is at the top of the charts. F Ingers and Tar Car member puts out an emotive, aching pop 7” on Blackest Ever Black.

David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)

Need I say more?

Floorplan – Victorious (M-Plant)

Robert Hood returns as Floorplan, this time with his daughter in tow, for a set of ecstatic (and to Hood, religious) disco/house/techno hybrids.

Fox/Soper Duo – Magenta Line (NNA Tapes)

Liturgy Member and Ben Frost collaborator Grex Fox continues drumming the fuck out of everything he comes across, this time with accompaniment from a screeching modular. Not one for the faint hearted.

JK Flesh – Rise Above/Nothing Is Free (Electric Deluxe/Downwards)

Nothing is Free stamps to wax a barreling earlier digital release on Downwards with a Surgeon remix on the flipside and Rise Above gives us a full length's worth of noisy workouts for Speedy J's Electric Deluxe.

John Roberts – Six (Brunette Editions)

Beautiful little 7” flexi influenced equally by post-dubstep club music and Japanese sounds. Bodes well for the album to come.

Joseph Quimby Jr – Court (Tombed Visions)

Ambient strings, ambient strings and more ambient strings from a little-known artist on Manchester's Tombed Visions tape label.

The Lines – Hull Down (Acute Records)

Whilst it contained one fantastic song (“The Landing”) The Line's best known album Therapy doesn't touch anything on here, a 90 degree left turn of a record bought up from the vaults of the band's unreleased third album. Rock but the danceable kind.

Moderat – III (Monkeytown)

More soulful electronic pop gems from the boys from Berlin. The arenas they're now playing applaud.

├ôlafur Arnalds & Nils Frahm – Trance Frendz (Erased Tapes)

Those who have heard Nils Frahm's Late Night Tales mix will know that he's nocturnal. This set of improvisations with his Erased Tapes labelmate were recorded over the course of one late night and an early morning, surprising no-one. Previously released in DVD Video form.

Omar-S – The Best! (FXHE)

He's not modest but why should he be when he puts out glorious house/techno records like this that DJs will rinse for years to come. Not sure the wax version justifies the asking price though!

Regis - “The Boys Are Here” (Blackest Ever Black)

Birmingham's greatest/most terrifying musical export throws together techno, industrial and cabaret on this tape recorded live at Berghain, confusing everyone by including several artists with questionable/terrifying political views.

Robert Aiki Aubrey Low – Cognition/Observation (DDS)

A pair of bizarre and beguiling modular workouts on Demdike Stare's label.

Silent Servant – EGR45-00003 (Elektron Grammofon)

A typically solid pair of EBM-techno workouts from Juan Mendez on the a-side but the real draw here is the sinister, pummelling live excerpt on the b-side.

Surgeon – From Farthest Known Objects (Dynamic Tension Records)

Surgeon confounds expectations by putting out something viciously batshit enough that it could probably never be played in the club.

Tape Loop Orchestra – Go Straight Towards The Light Of All You Love (Facture)

There's only so much I can say about soothing ambience. And it's not much.

Various Artists – So-Low (The Vinyl Factory)

JD Twitch compiles the bizarre, the banging and the beatless on this compendium of 80s minimal synth and wave that has rocked his Glasgow night of the same name.

Vatican Shadow – Media In The Service Of Terror (Hospital Productions)

Dominic Fernow with more of the same, only better. Only Through The Window as Prurient from 2013 matches it to my knowledge. This one comes with a 100 page fake newspaper related to the Vatican Shadow project.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Bodily



Hinges, pulleys, strings,
This flesh architecture,
Residence for a tenant; rented,
This vehicle of ancestral conjecture.

A bold, brave vessel
where the selfdom dwells,
Or a vehicle for a cipher?
A web of nerves, a sea of cells.

Amor fati, the genetic fate.
Corporeal, animal, cerebral,
This nothing is what lends the weight
To this absurd dance of bones, blood and brain.
This carnal economy.

Grace and form to us now but soon carrion.
The romance of cells is born of frailty.
Meaningful because we find something in nought.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Sonorous

There's a song that I sometimes closed my ears to,
that's now a melody that drifts around my head.
Moving between major and minor keys,
as I know you did too.

Louder some days than others,
but always there.
Variations.

Though a sound remembered can never be the same as a sound heard
and I can't read or write music.

You should be in the air so loud that the windows break.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Twinkling Stars in a Polluted Atmosphere: Minimal Wave and Synth-Pop


Image: the cover of In Aetenam Vale's La Piscine.

By its very nature it would essentially impossible to write a history of minimal wave - any attempt to do so would inevitably be potted and incomplete. It certainly couldn't be described as a movement. Pre-internet, its purveyors were spread across time and space like twinkling stars in a polluted atmosphere (that overly-flowery description will make far more sense to those familiar with the genre). That's not to say, however, that it isn't worth writing about it. Far from it in fact. Although it is in some ways problematic, today's reissue culture is beginning to shine a light into the dark and dusty rooms where groups of sincere amateurs created some of the most forgotten and fascinating music of the 1980s. Now then is as good a time as any to take a look at the genre and where it sits in relation to the related, but infinitely more popular synthpop of the time.

Although no one really began making minimal wave until around 1980 or so, its roots lie a little further back. As with many other things, punk was certainly one of the starting points, although the sound is about as far away from the three cord thrash as you could imagine. The key to understanding the connection lies in the way that the punk groups approached making and distributing music. The old adage with punk was that you could “learn three chords and start a band”. Punk was proudly DIY, a profoundly non-musical form of music. Few, if any, practitioners had any formal training. Punk inspired the very literally labelled post-punk, which describes a far wider breadth of sounds than the term itself alludes to, and minimal wave is part of this broad continuum which runs between dub, industrial, jangle pop and a myriad other types of music.

Whilst most of the post-punk spectrum was still very much guitar-based, minimal wave relied more upon newly affordable synthesisers (though there were also some groups who incorporated a few six-stringers into their sound). These exotic instruments had once been the preserve of audio research laboratories and prog-rock bands, bloated by both ego and money, but as the 70s ended and the 80s began to dawn a raft of products for the home musician began to flood the market, fuelled largely by the mass production of Japanese manufacturers such as Akai, Korg, Casio and Roland. Minimal wave and synthpop practitioners took the amateurish and independent-focussed aspects of other post-punk groups and applied them to these new instruments. The difference between the minimal wave and synthpop groups was to arise later, when groups like The Human League, Ultravox and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark abandoned their earlier experimental roots for the yuppie pop sheen of the 80s, and met in charts and minds with the new romantics like Duran Duran and Japan. The Human League had in fact arisen from the same industrialist roots as Cabaret Voltaire, with whom they shared rehearsal spaces in the late 70s in their native Sheffield, and Throbbing Gristle, but a split in 1980 also resulted in the formation of Haircut One Hundred, whereupon both groups pursued a far more populist direction.

The minimal wave musicians, however, were ploughing a different furrow (quite literally in the case of Canadian Ohama, who worked and lived on a potato farm). Few of them truly had any commercial ambition, and stuck to distributing their scrappier, darker music with friends in the form of cassettes and cheaply pressed seven inches. Many of the musicians were Europeans who refused to kowtow to outside markets and sung only in their native tongues. Belgium in particular was home to many minimal wave groups (the Belgian label Walhalla Records now dedicates itself to unearthing long forgotten gems from the country), as were France and Italy.

The music itself is distinctly low-fi and dusty, a result of bedroom and garage studios, and the ferric hiss of tapes. One finger melodies rule, why even bother to learn three chords? Even with such simplicity human fallibility can often be heard in the records, but it's often the sincerity and the amateurism that makes them great; even when the lyrics fall on the side of cringe-worthy, it's still completely charming. Perhaps it is the amateurishness that most separates these groups from their more successful synthesis cousins, though thematic darkness is certainly also a factor.

Without further ado, a 14 song playlist below curates some of minimal wave's forgotten gems.

For anyone interested, this is a great place to start:
https://www.discogs.com/Various-Cold-Waves-Minimal-Electronics-Volume-One/release/2201621

1. Ratbau - Ordinateur


2.  The Normal - TVOD

3. Van Kaye + Ignit - Cool


4. In Aeternam Vale - Dust Under Brightness



5. Jeunesse d'ivoire - A Gift of Tears


6. Eleven Pond - Watching Trees



7. DZ Lectric & Anton Shield - La Place Rouge


8. Hard Corps - Porte Bonheur




9. Solid State - Recalling You


10. Ensemble Pittoresque - Artificials


11. Stereo - Somewhere In The Night


12. Twilight Ritual - Tears on the Wall


13. Ruth - Polaroid/Roman/Photo


14. Moral - Whispering Sons


Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Spectrum's Favourite Records of 2015: Part One

In no particular order...

Jenny Hval – Apocalypse Girl (Sacred Bones)



Norwegian Jenny Hval begins the third solo record under her own name with a track that includes, amongst other bizarre imagery, lyrics about four large bananas rotting in her lap. It's a strange introduction to a strange album and a track that, like Hval's live shows, performed from atop the large red gym ball that adorns the record's cover, blurs the lines between pop music and performance art. At first the track appears to be abject nonsense, but as the themes unfurl throughout the rest of the record it begins to become more clear; Kingsize, like the rest of the record is about domesticity, belonging, and a rejection of the myriad expectations placed on women in the 21st century. A record that is at once avant-garde and soulful (hear the gorgeous, stomach churning vocal inflections when she sings “Feminism's over, and socialism's over” on That Battle Is Over), Hval proves a master at using abstract imagery to represent concrete fears and grounding it all in a bizarre but melodious soundscape.

Helena Hauff – Discreet Desires (Ninjatune/Werkdiscs)



Though she's been a well respected DJ for some time, 2015 felt like a breakout year for Helena Hauff the producer. Having previously released a series of EPs and tapes that felt more like sketches of a musician finding her feet and learning her equipment, Hauff used Discreet Desires to present to the world a fully realised vision combining, much in the same way as her DJ sets, techno, electro and EBM. Hauff is an avowed synth and hardware enthusiast, and the machines that are used on these ten tracks are probably all around 30 years of age, but the sounds that she coaxes from them are timeless – as much Victorian gothic as sci-fi futuristic. From the cover art, to the track titles (L'Homme Mort, Piece of Pleasure, Tryst) and the music itself, this record is dark, smoky, ashen-faced and sexual.

Head High – House.Home.Harcore. (Powerhouse)



Rene Pawolitz is a man who executes simple ideas exceedingly well. As Shed and The Traveller, he releases thoroughly well respected breakbeat-laced techno albums on the likes of Ostgut Ton and the recently defunct 50Weapons. As Head High, WK7, and perhaps dozens of other aliases, he crafts hard hitting dancefloor bombs whose chords are as euphoric as their kick drums are distorted. House.Home.Hardcore. collects many of the weapons released by him as Head High and WK7 over the past few years. DJ sets usually incorporate peaks and troughs of excitement, so 60 minutes or so of pummelling Powolitz productions might seem intimidating to even the hardiest of ravers at first, but it's to his credit that the mix doesn't feel at all like an ordeal. It's certainly unconventional, but Pawolitz has spent his career embracing rave and techno conventions with one arm, and batting them away with the other. Ultimately, House.Home.Harcdore. is a fantastic distillation of what this supremely talented producer does best.

Regis – Manbait (Blackest Ever Black)



Regis and Blackest Ever Black are the perfect match, synchronising exactly in their bleak aesthetics and the tongue in cheek sense of humour that their output is presented with. Manbait collects Regis's productions and remixes for the label, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, as well as adding a number of previously unreleased tracks. It encompasses the whole of latter-day Regis's scope – from haunting (his remix of BEB signees Dalhous's He Was Human and Belonged With Humans), to paranoid (the Regis mix of Ike Yard's classic industrial Factory-released Loss), and beyond to pummelling (any of the galloping, percussive Regis originals). Manbait serves to deconstruct the myth of Regis as much as it does to build it; it showcases that he's long since moved on from the widely remembered and violently repetitive four to the floor classics of twenty years ago, but continues to work within the unknowable and acerbic yet facetious image he's constructed for himself. Ultimately the compilation paints a picture of an illusive character who, after two decades in the techno game, is as inventive as he's ever been, and is working with his broadest scope yet.

Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness (Domino)



Even though every album she's released since 2012's Ekstasis has seemed like a complete and accomplished statement, there is still a sense of growth between each of Julia Holter's records. On Have You In My Wilderness her orchestration is as straightforward and lush as it has ever been, while the lyrics seem a lot more grounded in real world problems than the lofty academic musings she's previously presented us with. That's not to say that this is simple music, far from it in fact, but it's certainly accessible, as elegant on the surface as it is deep. Whilst her live show is very much acclaimed, it's undoubtedly on record that Holter produces her best work, her style better suited to the freedom of inventiveness that the studio offers over the live setting. Have You In My Wilderness, equal parts unconventional and candid, perfectly encapsulates this.

DJ Koze – DJ Kicks (!K7)



There is only one person who could include a William Shatner monologue about the weight of one's own expectations on a landmark 50th instalment of a house and techno mix series and get away with it. That person is Stefan Kozalla. For DJ Koze there is no transition from the sublime to the ridiculous, and that's demonstrated by his ability to intersperse 70 minutes of supremely poignant and affecting music with genuinely hilarious skits, and somehow make it seem like the most natural thing in the world. The psychedelic imagery on the inner sleeve of this CD perhaps goes some way to explain the Koze mindset - the whole package calls to mind The Beatles' late-60s experimentation. It's worth noting that Kozalla is probably the only club DJ to have gone on a spiritual pilgrimage to India. As much as I'm loathe to admit it, most DJ mixes prize sheer functionality over anything truly affecting or transcendental. Here is a mix that does the exact opposite.

Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love (Sub Pop)



Comebacks by rock bands rarely yield anything that sits amongst a group's best work, but Sleater-Kinney have always defied conventions. Their first record since 2006's bombastic The Woods, which was as boisterous and loud as anything Led Zeppelin could have offered, No Cities to Love returns to the band's earlier scratchy sound and largely eschews their previous effort's confessions of love, instead mostly focussing on their classic tales of people (particularly women) fighting for their place in an unjust society. That's not to say that this is a set of songs that aren't specific to the band's situation; Surface Envy celebrates their two decades of subverting rock's cliches, and Fade focuses on Corin Tucker's struggle facing touring away from a young family. The melodies are still as angular and Janet Weiss' drums are still as punching, but most thrillingly Tucker's spine-tingling catterwaul is still very much in tact. In a world that's still unfortunately dominated by all-male lineups, Sleater-Kinney leave the men dangling in their wake.

Circuit Des Yeux – In Plain Speech (Thrill Jockey)



I first discovered Circuit Des Yeux at Birmingham's Supersonic festival, where, face hidden behind her pushed-forward hair, she throttled her acoustic guitar to within an inch of its life. Sole permanent member Haley Fohr has previously spoken about the difficulty of commanding a room alone, particularly as a warm-up act, but the audience at Supersonic was taken aback by the intensity of her playing and her deep, otherwordly voice. It's that voice which is the core feature of In Plain Speech, comforting the listener as much as disturbing them. Although it's hardly a walk in the park, it's significantly more bright than any of her previous work, that dramatic, doom-laden voice contrasted with lyrics of transcendence.

Holly Herndon – Platform (4AD)



Holly Herndon is in many ways a 20th century update of Kraftwerk. The Germans were amongst the first to bring the possibilities of electronic musicianship to the masses in the late 70s and were always keen to stress the positive side of the rise of the machines and the combination of the biological and the mechanical. Thirty five years later Herndon explores very much the same territory, creating keyboard patches from her sampled voice and utilising sounds from the vast bank on her laptop, the sonic output of which she is constantly recording for later use. She's also positive about technology, but has her reservations, using Platform to comment on the way our online relationships influence our face to face contact. Whilst the record is thematically and intellectually thorough, it's also fantastically enjoyable, as wonderful a listen as it is a societal analysis.