Music Reviews

Annabel (lee): The Cleansing

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Sep 22 2017
Artist: Annabel (lee)
Title: The Cleansing
Format: 12"
Label: Youngbloods
After debuting on Ninja Tune two years ago, Richard and Sheila Ellis move to Youngbloods for this album “The Cleansing”, an eight-track, 36-minute album which, despite its short length, has two relatively distinctive halves. A fusion of jazz, ambient, and mellow folkish ballads, but with subtle production touches like repeating vocal sections more akin to dub, the first half is distinctly mellow while the second half ups the melodrama somewhat.

After the rich poetry and loose form of opener “Acquiesence”, it’s from “Move With Me” onwards that we meet the band’s main structure- soft acoustic guitar patterns with slightly bluesy female vocals lilting in and out. The purity and breadth of the vocal tone is the major selling point, with the long notes on “Paris, Room 14” an impressive feat of control. Often it’s the tone of the sound, rather than the lyrics, that really attract the listener’s attention.

From the opening piano of “The Cleansing” the extra tension is audible in the second half, but it’s never in your face. The sometimes multi-tracked vocal is cleverly done to add just a hint of alienation. “Far” is a good entry point to the album, on one level fairly conventional pop music but underpinned by odd theremin-like noises that give it a distinctive edge. The almost drunken strings and vinyl-style crackling on “See Her” coupled with a strongly Billie Holiday-esque vocal make it feel like a retro 1960’s dream gone wonky- a vibe which flows into the final piece “Autumn Requiem” that evokes feelings of melancholy in open woodland.

Overall it’s a silky and luxuriant bit of downtempo, spaced-out jazz-pop, not as soporific as its opening suggests, quite engrossing and musically very accomplished and confident.

For extra promotion, the track “Far” is also being released as a digital single on the same date, featuring the album version of “Far” bundled with a studio-quality live version of album track “Paris, Room 14” that proves that Sheila can certainly cut it live vocally as well.

Gabriel Saloman: Movement Building Vol. III

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Sep 15 2017
Artist: Gabriel Saloman
Title: Movement Building Vol. III
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Shelter Press
Gabriel Saloman’s recently prolific output continues with “Movement Building Vol. III”, a 55-minute 8-track work that has evolved and expanded from music composed for a contemporary dance, “What Belongs To You”, by Vanessa Goodman.

What’s most striking about this release is the variety of sounds used. A heartbeat theme pervades throughout most of the pieces but everything else is, for the most part, sonically very diverse. Opener “What Belongs To Time” is a gentle arrangement of long bowed string drones under which a heartbeat-style kick slowly and irregularly paces, with a strong sense of foreboding. “What Belongs To Bass” carries a similar atmosphere, but this time structured around slowly plucked, slightly twangy guitar steeped in echo. Key piece “What Belongs To You”- presumably the seed piece for the whole work- starts off again more sinister, but the heartbeat effect gradually begins to accelerate, then race, then… sort of peters away into hollow windy ambience, before looping back around and building it up all over again.

“What Belongs To Love” utilises distant sounds that may be music boxes or church organs before breaking out a fairly complex drummed breakbeat that’s very contemporary-dance-friendly. After the brief guitary interlude of “What Belongs To The Fire”, longest piece “What Belongs To The March” begins with a waspy, alienating ambience, then swaps over into a sparse arrangement of distant keys and the returning heartbeat, which sets the tempo for the arrival of a military snare drum pattern which suggests the arrival of a crescendo we may have been waiting almost an hour for- but it never arrives. It tapers away, leading into the slow gentle wooden hits of “What Belongs To The Line”. Final piece “What Belongs To The Sleep”, as the name suggests, closes proceedings with a calm somnambulant ambience.

There’s a fairly rich variety of instrumentation going on throughout this sinister and slightly theatrical soundscaping. While none of it really breaks new ground, and while at times you get a sense that you’re only getting 50% of the experience because you can’t watch the accompanying dance, it’s a very accomplished and dark collection.

Keisuke Matsuno, Moritz Baumgärtner and Lars Graugaard: Crumble

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Sep 13 2017
Artist: Keisuke Matsuno, Moritz Baumgärtner and Lars Graugaard
Title: Crumble
Format: CD + Download
Label: clang
A guitarist, an e-guitarist and a drummer get together in Berlin and record some raw and lengthy post-jazz workouts in a single day… no, it’s not the beginning of an avantgarde “walked into a bar” joke, it’s the background to “Crumble”. Guitars twang, reverberate and twist over some mostly organic drum sounds and rumbling subbasses and atmospherics. It has a fairly thick echo chamber treatment throughout.

Though relatively short opener “Surfing On Ramen Noodles” kicks off bluntly and at full pelt, things calm down by several notches when we reach “Unspoken”, a relatively sparse bit of guitar plucking over some ambient noises that are hard to place, and which seem willing to take it in turns to arrive, never really getting busy or over-layered. It gets progressively even more spacious, very barren by halfway through that 14 minute piece.

“Industry City” turns back into more chaotic territory, with glitchier cuts and miniscule white noise stabs forming something that’s almost relentlessly cacophonous. Final piece “This Against That” has a more stop-start attitude, bringing forth electronic tapestop-style effects into more distinct peaks and troughs, with an attitude that just begins to border on relaxed and funky, in relative terms. A final drop into much softer, occasional playing gives us a soft landing at the end.

A fairy hard-to-pigeonhole release with elements prog rock, avantgarde jazz, and electronica, “Crumble” is one of those instrumental works that can properly be described as a journey- a weird and at times slightly difficult one, but certainly an interesting trip.

Širom: I Can Be A Clay Snapper

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Sep 08 2017
Artist: Širom
Title: I Can Be A Clay Snapper
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Glitterbeat / tak:til
Slovenian three-piece Širom serve up five lengthy pieces with the gently repetitive rhythmic patterning reminiscent of Steve Reich, but with a spontaneous attitude and constructed out of a broad collection of acoustic, mostly ethnic and folky instrumentation. Alongside banjos, a bass drum and a viola, there are balafon, cünbüs, ribab, bra and mizmar- and I’ll admit I had to Google all of those (when you Google ‘cünbüs’ you mainly get links back to Širom, suggesting either a mis-spelling or they’ve just made it up!). There are vocal ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’ notes but this is essentially a 42-minute instrumental work.

Though each of the first four tracks is around ten minutes long, there are distinct sections, generally one to three minutes, ranging from near-ambient to chaotic, with sometimes abrupt transitions inbetween. This means that moods aren’t allowed to wallow, and pattern evolution is sometimes underexplored.

Highlight moments include the early parts of second track “Boats, Biding, Beware!” where everything revolves around the marimba-esque sound (the balafon I think) with a mesmeric, soft wooden resonance and some nicely engaging internal changes of pace. The interplay of different and awkward time signatures on different instruments is fascinatingly done at the start of “Maestro Kneading Screams Of Joy”, in one of the more consistent pieces which continues that juxtaposition with a gradually waning energy level as it progresses. Final short piece “Ten Words” sounds like a twisted, almost tongue-in-cheek rendition of a traditional folk tune.

The sonic quality sometimes feels a little raw, with the drum sounds in particular sounding a touch thin, and some of the vocal noises strangely low in the mix, giving the whole thing a very live, almost amateurish feel which slightly undercuts the dynamics of the performance. But for that sonic detail though, this is an attention grabbing and extremely enjoyable bit of avantgarde music with a rich, non-cliché cultural heritage.

Greg Fox: The Gradual Progression

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Sep 04 2017
Artist: Greg Fox
Title: The Gradual Progression
Format: CD & Vinyl
The press release for “The Gradual Progression” makes some spectacular claims that the music can “activate spiritual states through physical means” as we hear percussionist Greg Fox “externalizing his polyrhythmic virtuosity into non-physical realms”.

Prosaically, what it is in practice is a 32-minute mini-album of heavyweight, percussion-driven bit of avantgarde post-jazz, where the drumming is the centerpiece, with guest appearances from instrumentation ranging from synth vibes, improvised-style vocal ahhhh sounds, warm saxophones and bass plucks.

After the opening title track seems to put us in relatively familiar-sounding jazz territory, second track “Earth Center Processing Stream” brings with it slightly more prominent electronica elements that wouldn’t sound out of place on Warp or Planet Mu. “By Virtue Of Emptiness” with its long drawn-out sax notes is among the more melancholy moments.

“Catching An L” is an anachronism, a shorter and much steadier piece built around a funky, 70’s flavoured bass groove with some energetic twinkling production touches that really work. It’s bookended by some unusual and quirky soundscaping that could perhaps have been explored more extensively.

After the manic and slightly playful “My House Of Equalizing Predecessors” ends with what feels like an album wrap-up, final track “OPB” feels a little unnecessary, as though it feels obligated to push the run time above 30 minutes to qualify as an album.

The album also uses a couple of unusual software approaches- Sensory Percussion by Tlacael Esparza, and unnamed software that translates output signals from biological sources into virtual instruments (though it’s unclear from the flowery press release whether the latter was only used on Fox’s previous album and not on this one). It’s difficult to ascribe any of the sounds you hear to being direct results of these unusual generative approaches, but as with a lot of freeform jazz, there’s an organically loose rhythmical feeling underpinning it which may, in this case, have been at least in part generated directly from the body to the instrument, bypassing the brain.

It can’t live up to the pretensions of the accompanying press release- it’s doubtful any piece of audio ever could- but as a tightly-formed and unusual piece of post-jazz that drummers favouring complex patterns could pore over for many hours, it certainly has its merits.
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