Music Reviews

Artist: Soft Riot (@)
Title: When Push Comes To Shove
Format: 12" vinyl + CD
Label: Possession Records (@)
Rated: *****

Soft Riot is Jack Duckworth (JJD); a former Vancouverite who has clocked over fifteen years of musical output in various bands and projects. Moving from Vancouver to London, UK, in the late 2000s, Soft Riot came into full being, having released a couple of acclaimed albums and EPs and staging numerous tours around Europe. Soft Riot now has set up camp in Sheffield, UK; a city with a history of innovative synthesizer music.

While Soft Riot's previous album - 'The Outsider In The Mirrors' was a marked step up from earlier material (which often sounded amateurish and tenuously experimental), 'When Push Comes To Shove' is the first Soft Riot album that doesn't sound like it strictly came from Demoville. Now there are a few things you have to understand about Soft Riot if you haven't heard it before. This is much more "Cold Wave" than synthpop. Coldwave is characterized by its detached lyrical tone and somewhat minimal (and usually analogue) synthesizers, as well as drum machines and/or programmed electronic percussion. Think of (mid-to-late period) Kraftwerk, John Foxx ('Metamatic' period), KaS Product, Marquis de Sade, Lebanon Hanover, early (pre-'Dare') Human League, Suicide, and outfits along those lines. Of course, vocal quality of the aforementioned is quite variable, and perhaps less important (and consequently less "pop" or popular) than it is in synthpop. Depeche Mode, OMD, Camouflage, Erasure, etc. were never really Coldwave, always synthpop. This distinction is important, because as a synthpop artist, Soft Riot would miss the mark more often than not. In Cold Wave, Soft Riot is at the top of its game. While there's an unbridled enthusiasm on 'The Outsider In The Mirrors' it lacks that certain something that makes an album compelling.

'When Push Comes To Shove' starts off strong with "Taking Off The Edge" grabbing the listener's attention with a 'less is more' technique and a memorable synth riff. The galloping rhythm of "It's No Laughing Matter" reminds me of Telex (remember them?) and that's pretty cool. JJD's somewhat monotone voice is like John Foxx filtered through the spirit of Ian Curtis, and then put through Ralf Hütter's voice box; distant and remote, the way Cold Wave ought to sound. I couldn't help but notice that something sounded out of tune in "The Lost Weekend," and in places there's just too much going on. I don't know if it's too much compression, but it sometimes sounds a bit mushy and packed too tightly. Otherwise it's a decent tune. "Fate's Got A Bone To Pick With You" takes a more minimal approach which works well. Good no frills dance beat too. "By The Skin Of Your Teeth" reminds me of Bill Nelson's more experimental electropop, post Be-Bop Deluxe and Red Noise. The vocal could have been a bit more up-front in places on "Don't Get Yourself Bent Out of Shape" as the synths nearly drowns the voice out at times. The most promising potential (hit) single off this album would be "Heads Turn Around" as it's very simple, has a dynamite hook and a relentless beat. Shave a minute or so off it and ship it to college radio stations. I guarantee it would get plenty of airplay. Final track, "Your Work Is Never Done" tries too hard to breech the synthpop genre and gets caught up in its own ambition leaving the album on a weak note.

There is definitely some very good material on 'When Push Comes To Shove,' but I think Mr. Duckworth might benefit from a savvy producer for Soft Riot’s next effort. Definitely a must for Cold Wave fans, I'd recommend the vinyl format even though it is a bit pricey. Then again, what vinyl isn't these days.
Artist: Post Scriptvm (@)
Title: Variola Vera
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Tesco Organization (@)
Rated: *****
If there is one sure way to get my attention and have your release bumped up to the front of the review line, then send me vinyl. For me, vinyl has and always will trump other media formats. (Surest way to guarantee your review stays as the back of the line - digital only.) My prior experience with Post Scriptvm was on their 'Litaniæ Mortuorum Discordantes' (2016) split with Anemone Tube, an excellent album accorded an excellent review. Before we go any further,m I have to quote from the one-sheet to give some background on 'Variola Vera'.

"Post Scriptvm enters its third decade of marginal existence with a new full-length album of surrealist industrial—eight inexplicably obscure analog sound sculptures, created using antiquated electronics and obsolescent techniques, juxtaposing dark ambient, power electronics and electro-acoustic music. Titled after the outbreak of smallpox in the 1970s socialist Yugoslavia, unintentionally brought in by the pilgrims returning from a quest for divine illumination, Variola Vera is the soundtrack to the somatic and the metaphysical epidemics steering the human enterprise towards its termination. Adrift in the sea of narcotic synth textures, discordant recitations, contaminated laboratory noises, misshapen fragments of charlatan sermons, cannibal ceremonies, voices of dying children and speeches of the moribund Eastern Blok dictators, Variola Vera navigates its wayward course amidst the bitter nostalgia, ritualistic fervency, lethargic dejection, and frantic anguish."

Well, that about sums it up...No, seriously, this is one amazing experimental/dark ambient/noise release. Whether you buy into Post Scriptvm's concept for the album or not isn't important for enjoying this recording, but it does give some added intellectual depth, as well as its raison d'être. Opening track "Vuelos De La Muerte" finds heavy sawtooth low drones on the bottom, tremeloed harpsi-chords riding over them, echoed unintelligible voices, surrounded by a liquid plasticity. "Born into Trauma" conjures images of a Lynchian nightmare; imagine if the Eraserhead baby had a demonic twin!! It's semi-chaotic industrial, a real analogue noise-fest, inescapable in its intensity. "Chimera Of Conscience" is one odd track with a sporadic, semi-random noise-smacking rhythm, bleeps and burbles, an echoed foreign language speech, a wavering drone, and other odd electronic sounds scattered throughout. "Pathographia" introduces bells and bellish sounds into the electro-acoustic jumble and it gives me the impression of pranking chaotic spirits harassing the living. "Rat In The Crown" makes use of distorted, processed speech over echoed bleeps and industrial sonics. Even elaborate descriptions fail to capture this one as it peters out on a spiral of musical box memories. Now what would you think a track titled "Dusk In A Leech Jar" might sound like? Nearly anything you'd come up with would be wrong. This could easily be the most hallucinatory track on the entire album- a nightmarish dark ride through a severed psyche that only gets more bizarre as it progresses. "Storm Puppets" is my least favorite track on the album perhaps due to its lack of variation. It seems to reach a certain point of saturation, then stays there, with lots of repetition and little variation. Final track, "Fondamenta Degli Incurabili" turned out to be my favorite track, being sort of a mysterious funerary lament with spoken word in a foreign tongue in the background and high oscillating ringing tones. Midway through the piece low, thudding percussion emerges making the piece sort of processional. Something about this track really grabbed me; the perfect outro to the 'Variola Vera' experience. The album was mastered by Thomas Dimuzio, one of the most innovative avant garde sound artists, who has done mastering work for the likes of Negativland, Wobbly/People Like Us/Matmos, and GG Allin as well as worked on many remix projects, including the Art Bears.

Comparatively, I would rate Post Scriptvm's 'Variola Vera' as the experimental/noise release of the year. Few that I've heard in this genre seem to do it better, and this work is both magnificent and sublime. Limited to 300 copies on vinyl which I would highly recommend over the digital version.
Artist: Nate Trier (@)
Title: Palehound in a Sea of Color
Format: CD + Download
Label: self-released
Rated: *****
Nate Trier is a Connecticut-based composer and pianist who creates meditative and abrasive electro-acoustic ambient music. Dubbed a “Rosetta Stone” by the New Haven Independent for making atonal music accessible, Trier creates lyrical melodies with piano and accordion that alight on churning soundscapes of buzzes, hums, and crackling static. French new-music website L’Autre Musique featured his approach to music notation as an exemplar of “new forms of writing sound and music distant from the traditional Western scoring.” The 48th International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt distributed a recording of his music to participants. Trier also curated and performed 15 one-minute graphic scores as part of New York City-based Composer’s Voice “Fifteen Minutes of Fame” series. He credits his sound to La Monte Young’s prose score that instructs, “Draw a straight line and follow it.” Taking this as a compositional mantra, Trier unified his disparate influences in jazz improvisation, classical counterpoint, and noise music into a style of music that begins with a conceptual motive and unfolds out into a complete piece. At times it may remind the listener of Erik Satie, spectralism, and ‘90’s industrial hip-hop. Ultimately, Trier’s music embodies the spirit of improvisation within a framework free of tonality and, at times, pitch.

That all pretty much comes from his website, but it is clear that Nate Trier is an avant-garde/experimental composer of some diversity, but there's not much diversity on this recording. (I did however listen to some of his other compositions on his website, and I can attest to the diversity.) 'Palehound in a Sea of Color' consists of two tracks - "Palehound" (7:53), and "In a Sea of Color" (1:01:04). The idea here is just three notes, held for a very long time on piano and accordion. The result is ambient drone-tone(s) with variation in timbre, harmonics and resonance, but not really much in pitch. For those unaccustomed to this kind of minimalism, this can get boring, and even annoying pretty quick. For the drone connoisseur though, the fascination is how these pieces evolve over time, and they do evolve here. "Palehound" could serve as the appetizer for the main course of "In a Sea of Color," being the obviosly briefer work with a quicker evolution time. Nothing is really quick here though, as Trier introduces new sonics at a quite leisurely pace within a repetitive scheme. While "Palehound" seems almost basic and quite minimal, "In a Sea of Color" becomes rich with droney resonance before it even reaches the six minute mark. The intensity of this is not sustained for very long though, which may be a relief to the casual listener. (This actually happens several times throughout the track.) One does notice other sonic effluvia creeping in; various noises that could be a side effect of electronic processing, or "other sounds" introduced into the piece. I think these events enhance rather than detract from the main drone and help keep it from getting too static. While this lengthy piece isn't what I'd call "noisy," there are definitely elements of noise employed in it. Most of those are of the subtle variety. Keep in mind though that the source instruments aren't going to sound like any conventional piano and accordion. It is all in the electronic manipulation of those lengthy held notes that the drones one hears are achieved, having little to do with any performance technique on the instruments per se. "In a Sea of Color" passes through various moods and shades, from light tones to dark dissonance, dense drones to minimal atmosphere, always eventually changing and evolving over time. Probably best experienced at a low volume as too many decibels could spoil the soundscape.
Artist: Craven Faults
Title: Erratics & Unconformities
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: The Leaf Label
In the description of the first full Craven Faults album (after a series of EP’s and the excellent recent “Lowfold Reworks” 12”, some of which are bundled in full as bonus tracks on the CD edition of this), we are painted a series of florid atmospheric vignettes, ranging from canals in rural Nottinghamshire to studios in 1967 Manhattan. It’s a disjointed, abstract pitch and a classic case of a press release that gives you very little clue what it’s going to actually sound like.

Luckily though, the music itself is far far more consistent and single-minded. Pulsing warm electronic patterns are the order of the day, taking the analogue modular synth sounds familiar to electronica and stretching and thickening them into broad synthetic textures.

“Vacca Wall” owes more than a little to Tangerine Dream sonically, yet across its seventeen minute span it progresses relatively little even by TD standards, with relentless arpeggiation that seems to adopt the Philip Glass approach to mesmeric repetition- a brave move, but one it certainly succeeds at. Following track “Deipkeir” has such a similar make-up that it rolls into one 25-minute piece. “Cupola Smelt Mill” offers a gently different groove, a soft simple kick pattern and some sawtooth pad wishes making it feel substantially more optimistic.

It’s only in “Slack Sley & Temple”, filling the first side of the second disc in the double LP set, that we hear a small flourish of recorded environmental sound- but rather than being the opener to a new approach, it’s just a brief bookend to another elaborate and quite purist dive into electronica, this time slower, with an almost twangy low pulse note over an extra-rich bass. Slightly more industrial percussive sounds give a little extra grit as it goes along, a broodiness that’s interrupted by the generally chilled “Hangingstones” but restored in slightly funereal final piece “Signal Post”.

It’s one of those releases where lack of breadth or diversity has been adopted into a virtue- 72 minutes of fairly similar-sounding electronica, based on a fairly small set of ingredients, but unrolled with a confidence and steadiness that becomes quite intoxicating as you sink deeper into it. While it didn’t quite live up to the high expectations I had from the remix EP earlier in November, it’s still a rich and quality bit of deep electronica.
Artist: Laura Angusdei
Title: Laurisilva
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: The Wormhole
The debut album from saxophonist and electroacoustic composer Laura Agnusdei is a fascinating hybrid beast. With saxophone sitting frequently at the core, accompanied by a small ensemble of the artist’s colleagues who contribute trumpet, reeds and ancient flute sounds, at its heart this is light, almost traditional small ensemble jazz music- sometimes reminiscent of soundtracks to old black and white cartoons. But it’s presented in an experimental frame, with organic bubbling, atmospherics, synthesized sound and post-production work ever present throughout. It’s as though a small, fairly contented jazz ensemble have been plonked onto an alien planet, but have decided to carry on performing regardless.

It’s exemplified by the title track, which sums it up quite well, right down to the odd seagulls, gloopy fluid sounds and sorrowful sax. The production work often brings an extra level of uniqueness to the groove level of the pieces, such as on the dubby, reverb-laden walking patterns of “Jungle Shuffle”.

“Shaky Situation” stands out thanks to its life-affirming spoken word samples talking about how life should be fun, blended with a far more playful series of melodies that bounce around between popcorn synth, flutes and wantonly cheesy stabs. It’s almost pop music, reminiscent of the Art Of Noise in some ways, and though it doesn’t represent the whole album, hopefully it has the capacity to cross over onto some broader Spotify playlists and garner some attention.

In pieces like “Golden Kites” or the decidedly more abstract “Lungs Dance”, it shows off a more relaxed, mature and confident side.

I’m a big fan of this release, thanks to its bold character. It feels like it offers up a fresh recipe with known ingredients. It’s accomplished, sometimes virtuoso, but it absolutely doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also fairly concise, at only 30 minutes, and certainly leaves you wanting to hit ‘play’ on it again.
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