Category Archives: Music

Moo Sicks to the Ninth Degree – My Music Round Up 2009

The best, most exciting, arresting and fascinating track of the year. For me. At least. – ImagineIAM, Merry-Go-Round.
Right, so it’s a ludicrous review of the year round up. The main problem with which is that I have to work out what the hell I’ve been listening to in the last year.  I’ve got stats, thanks to last.fm, but due to an extended (three month?) offline period, and the fact that I listen to a hell of a lot of records, the results are somewhat skewed. Details are at the bottom of this page, or just diddle around on my last.fm profile until you’ve got the last 12 months.
Anyway, despite the statistical innaccuracies, Arthur Russell was definitely my most listened to artist (I should acknowledge, the reason for the number being so high for him, is partly due to a night when I had someone in my bed who I was trying to explain the magic of Arthur Russell too. This meant we ended up listening to a playlist of pretty much everything ever released through the course of a night. We were mostly asleep).
Of course, the numbers aren’t the point here, what’s important is that Arthur Russell seriously grabbed me. For an artist with such a varied output, from disco to proto-Hip Hop to classical experimentation, this was a man who knew how to touch hearts. His country album is somewhat patchy, but when it’s good, it’s miraculous, life affirming, tragic and upsetting, which I guess is what good country should be.  His disco is stripped back, unusual, perfectly produced and exciting. His Hip Hop is strange and exhilarating. His cello. His cello is just magical. His solo stuff can create new worlds that seem alien and perfect. And then he’ll make you cry with his delicate, honest lyricism.  He really is very, very good. And it isn’t just a crime that he died 15 years ago, but also that it took me (and many others) this long to give him his rightful place in music history.
Realistically, Arthur Russell was many years ahead of the game in terms of music. If you listen to the album Calling out of Context now, you’d think it was ahead of its time when it was released in 2004. To learn that it was recorded in 1985, is incredible. I mean, okay, the drum machines and synth sounds do have that eighties reverb thing, but listening to it in this particular year, that doesn’t sound out of place.  It is of its time, but it is also of now. It is an incredible album, that shifts out of grip constantly. I almost feel like I can’t listen to it directly. The oddness is at times jarring, but as it washes over me I find myself being roped into it’s romanticism.
I don’t have time to offer a full review of his work, and I doubt I’m capable of bringing together enough vocabulary to do it anywhere near justice (one day I’m going to write about the inadequacy of words, but it’ll depress me, so I’m putting it off). There’s so much going on, and so much of it is indescribable. Go and investigate him, I promise you won’t be disappointed. I’ll start you off with the track that started me off on the road to him. You may have heard it before. I beseech you to listen to it many times. It’s simplicity belies a depth that will haunt you and inspire you for months (if not years). At least if you’re anything like me.
If we look at my stats, next up is Radiohead, who are miraculous and fill my hearts with joy, but don’t deserve my attention right now, if only due to them already being huge. I would quickly tell everyone to make sure they’ve listened to In Rainbows as much as it deserved. And to never forget all the others. But you knew that, right?
The Kinks were another belated discovery. Obviously I’d already heard of them, and heard several tracks several times, and I loved it. But I didn’t realise how much until this year. They are everything I want from a band, and that is that.
Marnie Stern comes fourth on the Last.FM list, and deserves to be higher, but doesn’t have the sort of breadth of back catalogue to compete. Basically, with two albums, she has shown me that guitars have more voices than I thought they did. That is important and impressive. She also often manages to sound like she’s satirising 80s hair metal, whilst simultaneously producing incredible examples of it. My favourite track of the latest album was the immensely tumultuous ‘Vault’ which literally sounds like it’s tearing apart metal cliches and use them to inspire an escape into an imaginary forest. That may just be me though.
I wanna demonstrate her 80sness with her cover of Don’t Stop Believing, but I can only do it by linking to a video of stills of weird make up.  You have been warned.
The Books have once again touched me a lot this year. They have a very odd way of doing things. Cut and paste sampling techniques, grabbing found sounds that give them a sense of antiquity or datedness despite the fact that sonically, they are relatively cutting edge. Bizarre drum patterns and guitar loops that seem at times almost random but always focussed (the fact that they are fans of aleatoric music implies that they may be as random as they seemed) and most importantly affecting. The song above, Take Time, from the album the Lemon of Pink, never fails to make me feel incredibly inspired and positive. The odd, almost random structure, the pleasant uplifting non sequiters, the laughter. This is a simple song about people taking their time to enjoy life, and with no narrative, it still manages to actually not just sum this idea up, but also force you, as the listener to do so.
That’s pretty special.
So that’s the Last.FM top 5 covered, but it’s still missing some of my best picks of the year.
Probably my official album of the year prize goes to Micachu‘s Jewellery. This is an incredible and incredibly short album. Barely any tracks go far beyond two minutes long, yet she almost seems to fulfil Brian Wilson’s dream of creating a pocket symphony. There is SO much depth to this tiny little punky ditties. They are angry shouts and violent outbursts, but they are rich. Matthew Herbert’s production clearly helps, but it is definitely Mica Levi’s record. This is emphasised by the live show (probably my live show of the year, even topping my long awaited chance to see MH’s own big band), which was if anything deeper, richer and more exhilarating than the album.
The tone is perfect throughout this album. Machine gun clatters of words and percussion. Tiny toy guitars imitate classic riffs and then descend into violent noise making. It’s an aggressive album, but a welcoming one too. Mica’s heart is quite often laid bare and exposed, but she stands defiant. There is no vulnerability, only positive self expression. My lord that sound ridiculous.
What I’m trying to say is that this album is essentially a rich and deep and emotional punk record. It’s home-made but refined. It’s complex yet urgent. It’s contradictory and brilliant.
It’s nigh on perfect.
So we’re starting to notice that I do trend (and tend) towards the unusual in my musical tastes. Nothing excites me more than something that I have never heard the likes of before. I count one of the miracles of the musical world the fact that this actually happens at all. Especially considering the amount of music I listen to. Micachu was pretty out on a limb, as was Marnie (for me, I’m sure others have heard others that shred as well, metal is not something I’m deep in). Arthur was too, even despite the years that have past since, unique. He remains so.  There is no better compliment I pay to something than saying it is different, or unique, or strange.
So I hail what I think is the most different unique and strange artist I have heard this year. I heap and lavish praise upon something so out of the ordinary, and so immediately present, that I had to start this entry with him. If this isn’t enough, take a look at this live performance. It’s rough around the edges, but I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen anything like it.
That is how you play a fucking Swanee whistle.
ImagineIAM came out of nowhere this year. In fact, to be realistic, I suspect they are still there. With one single release on the excellent micro label Hand on the Plow, they instantly became my most loved new artist. The shock of hearing something so obviously dance music, but also so violently arrhythmic (well, poly rhythmic probably) and personal, was…well… Lets just say that I needed it the moment I heard it. I have played it every single time I have DJed since, and everytime I’ve enjoyed watching people smile, try to move in time, and then look quizzically at me or the speakers. It’s baffling, but it deserves to be listened to. This is exactly what mouth music should be about. It’s childish playground yelling, banging a loud drum and just showing pure excitement. The fact that it all hangs together into something real in interesting, that makes it genius. This is brilliant stuff, and I can’t wait to hear more. There’s an unnamed album (or fragments of it) available on the Last.Fm page I just linked to. It doesn’t have the single tracks though, which I recommend you buy, they are available.  They are also incredible, inspiring and really fucking odd.
Go and listen, I promise you won’t regret it. Though you may be occasionally confused by it.
Which is wonderful.
—-
Stories I’ve not got round to?
Dan Deacon’s thrilling excitement, Moondog, including the fascinating live show, Matthew Hertbert Big Band, who I saw live and got the album, from potentially my favourite ever producer. These are three of my favourite things and I haven’t mentioned them in this round up, apart from now, or slyly. Terrible. Despicable.
Ah well.
—-
Slightly skewed top 15 artists according to Last.FM (with notes from me):
1. Arthur Russell                   737
Virtuouso renaissance man. Sorely missed.
2. Radiohead                           315
Most important band of the last 20 years? Genuinely possible.
3. The Kinks                             291
Old school. Fun, rich and deep.
4. Marnie Stern                       290
Shredded guitars, passionate vocals, strange.
5. The Books                             215
Emotive, jerky and weird.
6. Masha Qrella                       212
Simple, lovely calming music with a sexual edge. Great voice.
7. Portico Quartet                  186
Divine ‘nu’-jazz. Though not utterly nu. Fantastic and engaging.
8. Matmos                                  176
Ultimate in filth and sound sculpture, but with soul. Of a sort.
9. Minotaur Shock                  166
Beautiful, optimistic and uplifting electronica.
10. Tomas dvorak                   150
Soundtrack to Machinarium, incredibly warm and lush.
11. Dan Deacon                         149
Turns me into an overexcited child.
12. Ferrante and Teicher      145
Nice old fashioned experimental piano covers.
13. Andrew Bird                       124
How to write indie rock and still be interesting.
14. Mice Parade                        121
Experimental percussion centric songs with guitars. Lovely.
15. Joanna Newsom                119
I love her rather grating voice. Makes my heart burst.
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Intense (No Tents) – Loop Festival 2009 and my body dichotomy (Somewhat)

So, it’s been a while. But lets not linger any longer, for there is business to attend to and I am stealing someone’s wires to send this out.

When I sat down, I wanted to write a review two acts that got me most wrapped up at the Loop Festival, held in the centre of Brighton this weekend. I’m doing that, but that’s not all.

Because I want to talk about my body.

Nothing new here then. Let’s start with the bands shall we.

Chronologically, we begin with Fever Ray, who headlined the second stage on the first night. They had lasers.

Fever Ray at the Corn Exchange, by EdwardFilm reproduced under a creative commons license.

I’ve never been enthralled by lasers before (though as a bit of a geek, I probably should have been at some point). But these had a magic in them. Well, that’s an exaggeration, there was just lots of incesnse pouring out of the stage and running through the lasers into the smoke, creating a slice of intricate chaotic patterns above us all as the band took to the stage.

Lets flip back a little. I hadn’t heard any Fever Ray before this evening, but it is essentially the solo project of one half of the Knife, famous for doing the filthy electro original of that wanky Jose Gonzales song that played in every trendy shop about two years ago…on loop…all the fucking time.

The original‘s better (and is forever wrapped up for me with Anders Loves Maria, where a particular sex scene takes place with the music in the background. I found a copy just so I could understand what Eggstorm was on about, and it was worth it).

Big fat anyway.

The point is that the band were shrouded in darkness, and the titular Ray of Fever, had the most terrifying mask on (well, I thought so), it was dark that you just got the silhouette of a huge mass of dreadlocks pouring out of the top of a ragged cape.

Back to the lasers.

Basically, the lasers were dangling just over the top of our heads, so near the front (where we were) the slice of smoke became a ceiling, and I suddenly felt as if I was in the living room of that terrifying ogre that lives around the back of the diner in Mullholland Drive.

It was somewhat intimidating. And it (possibly along with the heroic/foolish quantities of alcohol consumed) entirely overwhelmed me. I was wrapped up in the pulsing thick simplicity of the bass and drum being torn and lashed into by shrill piercing vocals.

It was quite good.

My companions for the evening seemed genuinely worried for me though.

And this is because of the effect to my body. I was rooted to the floor, unable to talk or communicate through anything apart from desparate, pained eyes, and subhuman grunts.

I’m not actually exagerating. I couldn’t control my movements apart from a kind of throbbing pulsing sensation, rhythmically tied to the music.

Now, dancing is a strange thing. I can’t get my head round it sometimes, but I love it. But why do we do it? Am I performing something? Or expressing something? Does my mind try to transfer the emotional intensity of the music into some kind of physical gesture, or do I just like moving in a vaguely out of control (but rhythmic) fashion?

Why do we do it, where does this need to express through movement come from?

For me, at the msot extreme times, it is rooted in the perineum and the pubis mons, and it feels like it surges outwards. The only way to exorcise this almost cramping building of tension is to flex and stretch and move.

I often bite.

Now, this is still married to when I hear something and I whoop and holler and then fling my arms and legs in time to the beat, but it is more. It seems more personal, because I am bursting, but I can’t express the feeling. I always try and I often fail (probably much like this here writing business, which again seems useless, almost more so because it attempts to in such a less subtle way, at least dancing keeps the abstract and immaterial from becoming too concrete and so trite…but that’s probably another story).

Anyway. That’s how I felt. Overwhelmed and ripped apart.

It was good. Though I suspect without being wrapped up in it and at the front then the music itself wasn’t strong enough. It was more about the phsyical and emotional experience that was built around you.

The next day, I got the same overwhelmed, but it was the exact opposite.

Múm were an utter joy to witness.

Múm at the Corn Exchange, by Prusakolep reproduced under a creati ve commons license

Here was a band with an utter lack of pretension, without even a sense that they were putting on a performance, so much as simply enjoying sharing their music.

The thing that stood out was the band looked at each other with genuine affection. They bounced and sang and laughed and chatted with each other, and infected the audience with a similar charm.

And that intensity overcame me again. The band did not play the sort of music I expected, instead of dark electronic atmospherics (with an uplifiting and inspiring edge) you had raucous, playful delightful romps. You had bird song recorders and childlike singing and roars of excitement. The vocal performances were outstanding, with a full range put to great use and intriguing use of harmonies. All wrapped with perfect drum and bass breaks and keyboard trills and everything else you can imagine. Instruments were thrown around stage so that everybody could join in, and, without that much inter song banter, the band seemed to welcome the audience into what genuinely felt like a family like environment. This band appear to genuinely love playing together, and love each other as close friends do.

If that’s all an act, then it’s an impressive one.

They topped off the set by singing the title track of an upcoming album ‘Sing along to songs you don’t know’, and encouraged the audience to do exactly that.

The song turned out to be about how much they loved the audience and wanted to take them home with them.

It was a sentiment exactly paralelled by something said by one of my companions.

And the affect on me?

Screaming and yelling and howling and bouncing and flinging and swinging and everything else imagine. I couldn’t stop moving. This positive energy oozed outwards and filled me with childlike glee. A regression back to simply loving being alive and the wonder.

To put it simply, it was the exact opposite of the rooted and internalised emotion I felt the night before during Fever Ray.

But it was the same. It was the same overwhelming energy passing through my body. The same building feeling reaching out from my sacral and basal chakras (if you want to get all hippy about it, rather than the clinical assessment already mentioned). And throwing my body around. Dominating everything that I feel.

Cackling with glee and squealing with delight, I am overwhelmed again.

——————

It’s incredible to me that two entirely different bands can do this to me. It feels as if these two groups of strangers reached into me and pulled something out, not to hurt or damage me, but to get me to show it to the world. To pour it out. Let it see the light of day.

I love self expression, though I worry that the extent to which I do it is egotistical and self obsessed.

But there’s a magic in the way the strands of performance, emotion, rhythm, environment and body plait together to create a (dare I say it) almost divine experience. A deeper contact with self, and a deeper expression of what you connect to.

Maybe I’m just an old romantic, but it delights me endlessly, even as I’m afraid of it.

—————–

Just to wrap up, for those still with us, my other big recommendation from Loop would be Portico Quartet, but we know that already. Judging by the proximity to tears on the second hearing of their forthcoming track LifeMask I’d say the new album is going to split my spirit in twain and glue it together in a more appealing shape.

I was annoyed by the number of only slightly more interesting that the middle of the road guitar bands present, but the pick of that particular crop was Plugs (though they are friends of mine, so I probably would say that), despite some technical problems (I couldn’t hear the drums very clearly, to the extent that I told the rather surly soundman who ignored me).

My favourite new discovery were Win Prizes, who sailed through my hangover with panache despite having a dreadful name.

Oh, and Mira Calix was absolutely incredible if you can handle that kind of abstract weirdness. I could, and I did, and it was incredible.

So it was a good weekend.

I Could Eat your Heart – Micachu & the Shapes @ the Freebutt

This is one of the most difficult things for me to write that I’ve written in a long time. I’m not sure if it’s better to leave the whole thing to settle before I write, or maybe not write anything at all. I went to the gig with Scatterheart only about 8-9 hours ago, and it kinda left us both speechless. Well. Not speechless, we talked a lot, but it felt useless.

So, is indescribable a terrible way to start a gig review?

Let’s get the basics out of the way. Micachu is girl with messy hair who looks like an eight year old boy and plays a kids guitar. The Shapes are two people, a boy and a girl, one with a very spare drum kit (more cowbells and less toms) and one with a couple of keyboards, a laptop, a few bottles and a few cowbells.

Apparently, the set up is a result of a conscious decision to simplify things back to proper instruments, after spending so long playing around with hoovers and bowed CDs and other homemade shenanigans.

(A quick break to mention that I can hear a cat in pain, or possibly just trying to get back in, out in one of the streets back gardens. Not sure what I can do about it but it’s really upsetting not to.)

Anyway, these three made more noise than I’ve heard in a long time, and it was entirely unique and different, and remember that I go out of my way to find weird music.

The irony of course being that the bare bones of everything they do is pure pop. Bouncy, catchy choruses, simple basic structures, memorable but sometimes meaningless lyrics, catch hooks and riffs.

But each of these elements is unlike anything you’ve heard before. The sheer invention with which Mica Levi (the titular Chu) hits her guitar is incredible. Her use of voice is nothing short of miraculous. She screamed a howl of pure emotion at one point. The impact almost tore me apart.

Then she did it again at the next chorus.

I felt broken afterwards. After saying thanks to the band I got anxious and hot and had to be outside, where I needed to get away from people and stand in the cold agog at the sensation of air on my body.

I can’t explain the music, but I could talk forever about it’s effet on me.

I got the torrents of pure physical emotion that I only get at the very best gigs. The music roaring out of my heart, expanding to fill my chest and then bursting out in the form of biting and pushing and general physical…I don’t want to say aggression, but outwardness isn’t a word.

There was an element of it that was so raw and passionate and sexually charged. Only it wasn’t just an element, it was the whole. And it wasn’t just sexually charged and passionate, it was passion, and it was sex.

Okay, that may sound a bit over the top, but essentially the rhythm and noise had that kind of dirty quality to it. And not even in the way that all music is sexy, because it uniquely captured the weirdness of sex. Or at least the potential for weirdness.

Afterwards I felt almost dead, but like everything was new. I also came home to have the best wank in the universe. My body was made sensitive and renewed, by the sound.

Baptismal?

When I played the album to a certain Monsier Ketaminsky, he told me it was a bit much, and he imagined it was what it sounded like in my head when I was going crazy (he knows my history of not being all there all the time). I would disagree, though I’d almost take it as a compliment.

Live though, it was almost like a mental breakdown. Like something being torn down inside of you. Bits of my brain that haven’t been excited for a while got woken up. The noise was incessant, Levi choosing not stop strumming between most songs so she could retune her guitar, which she did instinctively and instantly. The constant thrum of activity, like being in the heart of the city, only it’s music, like the noises are speaking to you.

Which is what my madness felt like at times.

Dangerous.

But the best side of madness. In fact, there was rhyme and reason to everything. The noises were carefully planned, intricate and confusingly dissonant, but all perfectly pitched. Also, the band were tighter than anything, the dummer and keyboardist working together on percussion, bouncing individual parts between themselves and sharing instruments with deft co-ordination. When Raisa Khan picked up a guitar and her and Levi faced off to play together it was incredible. Levi redefined the ‘rhythm’ guitar element to just one looped automatic arpeggio, while Khan tore her guitar to shreds.

The guitars were tiny. The band were intimate with each other. There was a naive joy in everything they said. Mica Levi was genuinely self effacing, and obviously really happy that anyone had shown up. The venue was rammed, everyone adored them. Even some of the pretentious indie kids danced.

Because I overanalyse, it’s worth noting that all the songs from the album were entirely different in person. The drums were new and fresh, melodies and rhythms changed as needed. The drums would grab beats from Hip-hop and techno, strip it away to the basics, and then layer as much noisy, sometimes melodic, percussive elements into it as possible.

Utterly unique.

But I’m still reaching for the impossible when I try to explain it.

It left me feeling raw and nude and unable to deal with the world. Me and my gig partner had a bourbon afterwards and realised we couldn’t manage to do any more. I came home and, as routine dictates turned my computer on. As soon as I saw it, I realised that I couldn’t engage with a screen.

So the lights went out and I was left with my body (don’t worry kids, I’m not gonna go into any more detail about that part of the evening).

I slept better last night than I have all week, and though I’ve woken up early, something about me feels differently refreshed.

If they are playing near you (and if you’re in Europe they should be fairly soon, for given values of the word near) you need to see them. They will scrub your brain and your soul and your heart. They will scour you and turn you into something newer and better.

They will make you dance. They will make you hear new possibilities.

And you can’t really get any better than that now can you.

Wander Lost – My Journeys with Björk

Bachelorette

So, the last couple of days I’ve been reacquainting myself with Volta, Björk’s latest album released a year or so ago. The most striking moment on the album has always been Wanderlust, posted below (we’re going to be pretty video heavy, because if there’s one thing Björk knows how to do, it’s collaborate, and so she has many of the most striking and unique music videos you’ll ever see).

Wanderlust

One of the most interesting things about this album as a whole, and exposited in this particular song, is how much it’s about travelling. On the video, the opening foghorn ensemble, a motif repeated throughout the album, is one of a sequence of short endtro/intro vignettes, that give the album a sense of place, but constantly different places. There’s a Shamisen (I think) vignette, several foghorns, and various different locations explored. The opening track is Earth Intruders, apparently about invaders from another planet (or simply a statement about the way we despoil our own planet), and you get this relentless sense of movement as she wanders from place to place, falling in love and pondering the morality of terrorism, collaborating with Konono No 1 and Antony Hegarty. It’s a journey, an exploration, constantly moving, and declaring it’s independance constantly. There’s a sense of freedom, as she blends crunk with traditional Japanese instrumentation. She goes everywhere and brings little souvenirs back.

This is the source of her constant reinvention and originality, the ability to grab disparate elements and throw them together, and her wanderlust, which means she’s constantly discovering new things to bring in.

Take the video from her last album, a complete reinvention of the album track using bellringers to locate it on some gravelly wasteland:

Who Is It?

I keep on using the word striking, because that’s the other thing that happens. You’re constantly travelling round with her, finding new places, and being smacked in the face with them. I just found the video to one of my favourite tracks, Triumph of a heart, in which she genuinely tripped and fell half way through the video, it’s left in, along with the nasty graze on her forehead. Literally striking:

Triumph of a Heart

Just for the record, the main theme at the beginning and the end is the original version, and then there’s a special version recorded with the people in the bar. Like I say, constant reinvention. This is the final song on an album of vocal experimentation, featuring the likes of Mike Patton and a Inuit vocalists. The whole thing is incredible, if a little less accessible than some of her other work.

Anyway, back to journeys.

If we look right back to the beginning, we see Debut, a very idiosyncractic and unique album, that wasn’t a touch on the experimentation that was to come, but still had a sense of…well..home. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I imagine this album relates nicely to what it’s like to live there. The following video should get across some of this, though it’s just one of those stills along with an uploaded song, sorry, but it’s the best way to get across my point:

There’s More to Life than this

The really engaging bit here is when she sneaks away from the supposed club performance (the album track is subtitled ‘live at the Milk Bar’) to hide in what is either a toilet or a very quite outside. She starts teasing us, inviting us to get on a boat and listen to her little ghetto blaster. It’s strikingly intimate (there’s that word again…I’ve gotta get me a thesaurus) and a really nice clever bit of production, it totally changes the song, and really captures that adolescent feeling of sneaking out of the party to have your own little special and intimate time.

The key is that sense of location and movement. The track Anchor song is the moving and affecting end of the album, and again it’s about living and losing and loving and diving into the ocean. It may not be just Iceland, but it’s certainly that sense of living in an island wilderness, but feeling like that is home.

Her second album, Post, started to travel out into the big wide world, with her real breakthrough It’s Oh So Quiet, we find an introduction to orchestras and big American musicals. The album has always been the one I least engage with, so I’m not even including a video…how cheap am I? But it’s a solid album, with some lovely tracks. I think it’s probably a simple next step. You leave home, and you feel a sense of amazement and fear, and go wild. This is what she does in Post, and it’s bold and…uh…striking. But not striking enough to ever really wrap me up inside it.

But then she made Homogenic. This album is even bolder, infusing similar structures with much more electronic elements (she started collaborating with Mark Bell at this point, aka Techno legend LFO). The affect is brutal and violent at times but deeply personal. Just listen to the majestic and melancholic strings of Joga, as they are joined by the crunching rolling inevitability of the drums. All layered underneath her almost operatic yet unique voice.

Joga

After the initial chorus, the video shows us worlds falling apart. Fault lines in the emotional landscape she’s built.

And this is where we spend this album. It’s an outpouring of emotion, it’s this kind of presented and display of an emotional interior. It explores the way Björk expresses herself. It contains everything, rages and screams and bitterness and a delicate, moving ending. She’s said herself, that the album is very much an outward focussed one, and we explore the landscape of her outwardly presented faces. The album is about emotional landscapes and fault lines. It’s a description, violent and detailed, of how a person declares the state of emergency. Emergence is importance here.

In the romanticised history of my life, which bares only  a passing resemblance to real life, I fell in love with one of my exes when she played the track Alarm Call to me, and kept on rewinding it so that I could hear the emotion in her scream. It’s the sort of thing I’d do, and it was special, but I didn’t realise I loved her until long after.

Anyway, the video version of the track is very different to the original, and censors, one of the most (you guessed it) striking moments of the album, Björk’s cry of ‘I’m no fucking buddhist, but this is enlightenment’.

Alarm Call

For those following along at home, I think the scream is around 2 minutes 20. It’s got a lot of passion. But it’s not my favourite moment on the album. That’s reserved for:

5 Years (another photo montage I’m afraid, though if you want to see her in the recording studio head here.)

Anyway, for me, it’s her statement of challenge, her roars and screams here, that really drive this album up to miraculous levels. She slaps you in the face with her duelling glove, and then tells you she’s bored. Fucking amazing.

But let’s carry on our journey.

The next step is inward, keeping with the emotional world though. Vespertene takes us deep inside of Björk, and into an inward focussed, intimate and details, almost lonely world.

It seems to follow on directly from the loveliness of the last track of Homogenic (All is full of love), and pick it up in mid relationship. The most intimate and sexual imagery starts off with Cocoon, which has always been one of my favourite songs, both lyrically and musically. There’s a sheer power as Björk beckons us into one of the most intimate moments imaginable. The gentle flickering percussion and the bright reverbing pads of the music act as bedding for a gentle song of love and closeness.

Cocoon

It’s all in the vocals here, Björk’s emotion is purely expressed, building to what sounds like a literal climax. The breath is thematic throughout the song, and then we hear her gasp and breathe more and more as the song pulls forward. It’s important that we hear this aspect, because it prepares us for the sheer physicality of the singer bursting through.

The piece is intensely erotic, without seeming voyeuristic, despite the imagery being incredibly and utterly sexual. The video shows a darker side to this though, as we end with the star of the show wrapped up and hidden in her own passion. Trapped, and taken away? Interesting choice.

Now, that’s certainly the most intimate moment on the album, but the whole thing, drenched in harps and intriguing samples, oozes this kind of intimacy. The journey here is inside someone’s mind, someone’s closest moment. But there’s a constant sense of movement, as typified by another of my musical heroes (M.C. Schmidt of Matmos), tramping through a little box of snow in white tie at the Royal Albert Hall for the performance of Aurora.

Aurora

Now. I’ve already included two tracks from the next album, Medulla, which I find hard to fit in. It’s the vocal experimentation album, and strikes me as being more about people than places. It’s pure collaboration, and makes perfect sense, teaming up her unique and striking (yeeha) vocals with a range of different textures and styles of voices. Pulling it all together and deconstructing what the voice can do. Sometimes it’s my favourite album, but it is definitely her most difficult.

And that brings me to something else.

What is it that’s so difficult about Bjork? I remember as a young teen not liking her, thinking her voice too eccentric and weird, but that was before my brain had broadened enough to accept anything other than what my brother told me to like. As soon as I developed my own taste, I started seeing something truly amazing in her. The song writing is brilliant, the experimentation wild and all over the place, but it’s all tempered by her vocal flair, ability to express emotion and general verve. There must be enough of her more accessible songs to provide a key to her more difficult work? Surely?

But apparently not.

Anyway, the fact is, what we end up with, back at Volta, is a world traveller. An explorer and wanderer. She’s almost kleptomaniac when it comes to influences, but is more than just some cheap tourist. She inhabits the places she goes, she lives them and then bursts out of them, bursting out with song and movement.

She’d be welcome round here anyway, and I can only dream of where she’d take me. But to be honest, it’s unnecessary, for I feel she’s taken me everywhere already, from deep inside her, to the furthest reaches of the world.

I’m hoping that her next album will be recorded from the surface of Mars, but I’m sure that whatever it is, it’ll be as bold and experimental (and no doubt striking) as anything from another world could be.

Sun in my Mouth

Political Emotions – One Life

New music at the weekend. I enjoyed the new Polar Bear and TV on the Radio albums, the new release of old Matmos is incredible and rich, Four Tet remixes are occasionally brilliant.

But none of them made me cry.

The Matthew Herbert Big Band Album on the other hand, made me cry.

This is a rarity.

Now, let me explain, for which I need your co-operation.

Here’s the liner notes section relevant to the track in question:

One Life includes the sounds of: one beep from the alarm system of my premature son’s neonatal special care unit. Each beep represents 100 killed in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003 to October 2006. Figures based on a study by the lancet. One 10 pound note being torn in to 3 pieces, where each part represents 1 trillion dollars.

Now, go listen to the track. It’s on youtube.

Anyway, I’m going to assume you’ve taken my advice and listened, because if you have, and you’re the kind of person who gets wrapped up in emotional experiences on this level, then you’ll be crying by now.

Maybe it’s just me, and it probably didn’t help that I was reading a comic about child abuse whilst listening to the album (One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot is brilliant also).

Anyhow, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

It’s incredible that a combination of a little nugget of information (the source of the sound and what it represents) adds so much to the record. If I hadn’t read the note before (which I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t know what to expect from Matthew Herbert) then I wouldn’t have taken it in, and the high frequency whirring of that beep, underlying the entire track, would’ve been little more than static.

As it is though, that static is so much more. That static became a wall of death in between my ears and the rest of the music. I found myself wrapped up in horror at even the thought of imagining one death per beep, let alone a hundred. The scale of the impact of these kind of events, so often just strings of throw away numbers, is hard to grasp. Above a certain point numbers effectively become meaningless, only relating to anything else in terms of proportionality (we know that three trillion is three times a trillion, but we don’t really have an immediate image of a trillion of anything, it’s too vast to comprehend).

But a beep. A single beep, multiplied however many times (I can’t bring myself to look up the statistics myself) necessary to represent the human cost of a war. Then by a hundred, because the scale needs to change even when it’s been pitched up to that whirring.

That beep, brings me close to people I’ve never met, who’ve been killed in war. It makes them real in a way I can’t comprehend. Nothing has bought me closer to visualising the scale of impact of this or any other war. (Lie actually, as soon as I write that I remember a school trip to Belgium, where I looked out across a field to see a row of about a hundred white crosses in a cemetery. We were driving past in a coach, and I’d looked up at just the right moment for the front row to eclipse the rest of the field. As my perspective changed, that single row of crosses turned into thousands in a moment. All exploding out from the back of the original line. It was shocking to say the least).

Just relating each beep to a hundred people just like the ones I’ve lost in my life. Just thinking about the number of people distraught and affected by those deaths. Families of soldiers, families of civilians. Friends. Communities. All torn apart by death.

And it carries on beeping. Constant, steady, and horrifically rapid.

I’d say that from a conceptual level, it’s almost a pinnacle of Herbert’s attempts at adding political messages to music through the sounds he’s chosen and the way he uses them. He’s not just added a political structure to the piece, but he’s engaged at least one individual with that political side on a purely emotional level. And that’s even before he adds a beautiful a heartfelt song over the top of it.

And the choice of sound to represent this?

A neonatal special care unit. His own premature son’s. This sound is deeply personal to him. I imagine, for him, it represents a period of personal fear and hope. If the beep is an alarm, then that means the sound was a warning that his child’s condition was critical. There’s a deep intimacy and impact to the imagery behind that sound. It’s a warning, but it’s, I hope, a sign of hope. That child will hopefully have been kept alive by the machinery producing that sound. Something is kept alive. With hope and luck and the hard work of people. (I’m not sure if his son survived, I pray and hope so, in the way that I do).

Birth and death, combined together in one symbol. Life is contrasted directly to suffering and death. Destruction is intertwined with a device of salvation.

The imagery is beautiful, and it adds such a rich layer of understanding to a beautiful song.

And it made me cry. Which doesn’t happen often with music. In fact, aside from direct moments of grieving (funerals and the depths of grief) I can only pick out three occasions.

All in a five minute song.

As I’ve said before, music is rich and powerful and overwhelming. Herbert once again shows us that it is also political, meaningful and deep. There is room for this kind of emotional and political expression in music, and there is in all things.

Don’t let your heart harden, let your heart feel the terrible and the beuatiful things in this world. Only then can you engage with politics as a full human being, and that is what we need to really change the world. At least I hope so. Possibly we have to stop crying first, but I have yet to work that one out.

Later this week (hopefully, but I am terrible at keeping promises) I hope to look into contrasts between the disengagement of music and general escapism in culture, and my own disengagement. It’ll be one of those self help, let’s see if I can work out how to make myself better posts.

Here’s to tears and the power to feel.

Radio Free Ambibath

I’ve just had a rather strange and awakening experience.

I’m currently reading The Divine Invasion, more of my ongoing obsession with Dick you see.

Anyway, I’m astonished by how much of a rollercoaster ride it’s been already. Normally when I read something by Dick I start of fascinated, and become increasingly so until I reach a point of complete bafflement that barely eases up.

Well…I’m starting to get used to it, the recurring motifs are easy enough to pick out, and I have read a lot now (coming soon is my dissertation essay on Dick and the Uncanny by the way…but first I need to proof it…which I probably should have done before I handed it in to be graded…but what the heck).

But this is the second in the mental breakdown/divine revelation trilogy, and it’s bat fucking insane.

I mean…it’s incredible. I feel like I need to read the Torah just to have a clue what’s going on.

But it’s deeper than just religion. There’s something grand here about a basic understanding of the universe. It really is a bit like taking your feet off the ground and realising that the ground isn’t there any more.

It is surprisingly coherent if you pay attention and remember to step back…but there’s a strange rhythm to the madness, and occasionally it’s terrifying.

My own experiences of mental breakdown start to flit into my mind as I read.

Brilliant and terrifying. Wonderful.

Anyway, so I’m stepping into the bath, tuning in my clockwork radio. I couldn’t find the French Jazz I normally listen to, and so fiddle around until I think I can hear something interesting.

I hear something interesting, but with the water running I can’t tell if it’s static or not. There’s some kind of irregular pulsing noise, a cat screaming and all manner of fuzz and lack of definition. I finally tune it in properly and get rid of the fuzz, only to find that the cat and the pulse are really there. The cat fades after a while and I realise that I’m sinking into the water to the sound of echoing abstract noise. Little bursts of strange eerie sound bubble around me. (Also I’m farting a bit…but you don’t need to know that).

Anyway, it slowly becomes clear that I’m listening to a new local community radio station, which is doing a programme full of ambient soundscapes and ‘sonic sculptures’. There was some great stuff there…including a really bizarre vocal harmony loop that was almost terrifying in its beauty. Then as it builds you start to get sound processing on the top end…little mechanical bubbles in the tone of her voice (mechanical bubbles…how in the hell does that work?). Really really amazing. (Brightoners check out Radio Reverb, apparently it starts broadcasting live tomorrow, though they’ve got recorded preview stuff playing already).

So I’m here, listening to frighteningly bizarre music and reading horrifically wonderful prose, realising that I’m a massive pretentious cock.

Either that or I just really love strange experiences. That noise was amazing, really makes you re-evaluate the way you hear. The book  to is so different to anything else. There’s a narrative and people and happenings, but there’s another level of wonder. A fear that you might learn something you can’t unlearn.

Okay…So I definitely am pretentious…but it doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful that this kind of stuff is going on. It’s great to stumble on that kind of weird and wonderful thing…especially when you’re in the right state to absorb it.

Live for the Weird Experience.

Yield To Total Elation

Indeed I will, I shall and I have been for the last hour.

The track (YTTE by Matmos) is only 9 minutes and seven seconds long. It is rare that I repeat a track this many times. But it’s just so damn good. Before I start talking about the music though..a bit of background.

Here’s what the artists themselves have to say, from their wonderfully detailed ‘discography’ 

Y.T.T.E.The title of this song refers to the imaginary city that visionary draftsman Achilles Rizzoli spent his life depicting. He peopled his city with skyscrapers, cathedrals and vast public buildings that symbolically represented the tiny group of friends and family members who supported his art and attended his occasional exhibitions. The letters Y.T.T.E. stand for Yield To Total Elation. We weren’t planning to copy it, but the opening synthesizer sound is a wee bit reminiscent of the synth intro to Madonna’s “Lucky Star”. Dunno why, but it is. Many people say the drums and bassline sound a bit like Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. Others point out a certain (Robert) Fripp-ishness to the guitar solo. Pop music=total elation. The freaky guitar solo was made through an elaborately layered process: Mark Lightcap played a screaming psychedelic distorted guitar line through a rack of pedals and wahs and whammies, which was then burned as a soundfile on a CD, which was then physically scratched; the resulting skipping CD was recorded and then further chopped up in SoundEdit16 and then re-edited and manipulated in Digital Performer. We were told (jokingly?) the other day that the German electronic music magazine De:Bug refused to review “The Civil War” at all because there was a guitar solo on the record. Ha ha!

http://outsider.art.org/01intuit/americanmasters/010.html

Which is cool in itself. Some of the links are dead. I found some info and pics by Rizzoli here. Go to the full page on the album as well. Just click on the links…there’s so much here even if you haven’t heard the music.

A little bit of background on the artists. This is a brief excerpt from their label site.

Matmos is M. C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel. They have toured with Lesser, Labradford, The Rachels and Bjork, shared stages with Terry Riley and Wire, remixed The Melvins and Otomo Yoshihide (and most recently Erase Errata), and are still working on an ongoing collaborative project with The Kronos Quartet. They have taught seminars on sound art at Harvard University and DJed at proms for homeless teenagers. They have had pieces in the Whitney Museum of American Art, and have scored the soundtracks for five gay porn films.

Bless ’em.

Anyway, know we know a little bit about them we’re almost ready to get on with the show. One last link though…if you don’t like music then just read this. It’s a wonderful bit of art talking by Otto Muehle, I’d never heard of him but they link a site from the discog excerpted above. Basically this made me laugh like a mule and at the same time I think it’s brilliantly intelligent…and covered in shit. What more could you want. I’m still touring the site…well, I will be once I’ve finished writing.

Anyway, it’s real time review time. I’m unlikely to be able to type fast enough to explain just how good this is. Really, there’s so much miraculous energy in this song. These guys have such a detailed ear for production. The subtlest things are lying around everywhere like a million little bits of magic hiding in a beautiful giant haystack. You dive in and enjoy the hay, then get hit on the head by a bit of magic and it turns you into a kind of primitive beast experiencing happiness for the first time and not quite being able to work out what it is.

Maybe.

Here goes…oh…and this is just one track of one of the best albums I’ve heard in a while. This is the one I think all of you should buy a thousand times. And I hate consumerism.

Get ready to Yield.

Tiny little toy box style noise. Just a little reverberating ting to start..then a couple more, then a magical floaty noise, some synth or other. Sounds like somethings being eaten by something large as well. Or maybe fireworks in the distance. Strum a guitar a coupla times. We’ve got a lot going on here…and it’s still just the intro.

Drums

Oh yes. Lovely drums, really lovely drums. Indeed the rhythm from lust for life.

But that’s not the point…it’s slower..its got much mroe energy though. Guitar part….looooovvvveeeeellllyyyyy riff. Like eating Love with your eaars.

I kind of want to cry at this point. Bass just adds to the drums. Occasional harp style glissando in the background. The guitar line is actually a coupkle of interlocking guitar lines at different levels. Finger picking style.

Then the electro guitar…drums constantly busying and building with this weird static guitar solo…sounds like someone beating up a really wanky guitar solo…but a good one.  Plus a noise I can’t even bring myself to describe, once a bar. It’s coming to the fore now.

The guitars are all fading out. We’re entering something new. The indescribable sound (like a kind of rich eating noise.. crossed with a snore…only made by organic robots…maybe not). is the main thrust here. High pitched noises rambling around. Loads of random sounds and bursts of weirdness in every direction.

THis is amazing. The tingling from the beginning is still there.

AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

The magical factory of noise just suddenly cuts out for just long enough for me to come disturbingly close to orgasm. Then back in…a little more rhythmic and regular now. Not just trying to assault you randomly. Some great percussion sounds here…like someone playing bongos with those big gas tanks you get on the outskirts of towns. It’s all fading already…lovely little tinkling from the intro back….filling up the sound..going left to right. All alone…lost in a lovely ice cave or something.

Keeps on going…reverberating…like prayer bowls. Very high pitched. Someone’s playing a guitar occasionally…just plucking their way around it. Now it’s come to the fore. (Right channel first). Just like someone playing a basic guitar thing….everythings faded out apart from it now. It’s just kind of sitting there. Lovely actually….such a simple thing to do …just sit and play guitar. Now it’s being edited by computers…it’s like a buzzing. As they say above..very minimalist. A buzzing made out of guitar shifting up and down.

And the track ends abruptly.

Fuck yeah.

The track after ain’t half bad either. (It’s great actually…but now isn’t the time).

Still, I’m going to go back and listen to that again.

Louder…with my eyes closed.

Wonderful.