Music Reviews



75 Dollar Bill: Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Apr 07 2017
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Artist: 75 Dollar Bill
Title: Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern / Rhythm / Rock
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: tak:til
New York duo 75 Dollar Bill introduce themselves like an avantgarde version of Seasick Steve; at its core, a combo of harsh bluesy guitar and wooden crate playing, but instead of snappy blues vocals in a baseball cap, instead we go on an instrumental journey of looping patterns, evolving repetitions and off-kilter time signatures.

Unlike previous releases, the duo also have guest appearances here- saxes, contrabass, viola, trumpet and floor tom- but these are mostly cameos, and not a sign that 75 Dollar Bill is a larger band now. Though the press release implies that I should say, ‘a larger band yet’.

The limping ‘aksak’ beat of opener “Earth Saw” is steady and tightly measured. Second track “Beni Said” is more ambitious, with guests arriving and more virtuoso guitar playing that wanders at points almost into King Crimson territory; more prog rock than post rock.

The tonality of “Cummins Falls” is an interesting hybrid of American blues guitar and Middle Eastern chords, frills and flavours, also a hybrid between spontaneous simplicity and complexity- one of those pieces which sounds deceptively simple, yet which is probably unfathomable on paper.

Final and longest track “I’m Not Trying To Wake Up” goes back to sounding a little like King Crimson again, this time with saxophone added and a lovely, almost funky 18-beat stepping pattern that again sounds utterly natural and effortless in its groove, but which must be nightmarish written down. The sheer confidence of it is relaxing in itself.

At 4 tracks and 39 minutes this release sits somewhere between an EP and an album. It won plenty of plaudits on its American release, and its European release should appeal to European fans of post-rock and the more introverted side of Americana.

Frode Gjerstad & Paal Nilssen-Love: Nearby Faraway

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Apr 05 2017
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Artist: Frode Gjerstad & Paal Nilssen-Love
Title: Nearby Faraway
Format: CD + Download
Label: PNL Records
Gjerstad on saxophone and clarinet, and Nilssen-Love on a vintage set of Asba drums, have been playing together either as a duo or part of larger ensembles for over a quarter of a century. Such a familiarity breeds confidence and understanding, and with those, the duo can assuredly put together a 9-track, 42-minute collection of stripped-down loose jazz improvisations.

Gjerstad’s sax is often quite frantic, oscillating rapidly between two notes; when switching to clarinet that’s true to a lesser extent but there’s still a willingness to push the instrument towards the edge of screeching. On the other hand Nilssen-Love’s drumming is often more understated, preferring complexity of expression over drama. The drums are surprisingly raw in their recording and low in the mix, giving the whole release a slightly lo-fi, garage tone which does no favours to the virtuosity of the playing.

There’s not a great variety of styles between pieces. By and large it all has one single attitude. While “Flying Circus” is slightly more panicky, with the highest sustained saxophone note I can ever remember hearing, and pieces like “Funny Talks” are a bit more casual, things tend to stay within the duo’s comfort zone performance-wise. As such, forty minutes is probably just about enough. This album is an impressively accomplished performance with a raw and frustrated feel, that doesn’t perhaps stretch its wings as far as it might have.

VV.AA.: Anthology of Lithuanian Art Music in the 21st Century

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Apr 05 2017
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Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Anthology of Lithuanian Art Music in the 21st Century
Format: 2 x CD (double CD)
Label: Music Information Centre Lithuania
This is an extensive compilation of 18 modern classical pieces from the last 11 years, filling two CD’s. Released under the label of Music Information Centre Lithuania you’d be forgiven for expecting it to be somewhat dry and traditionally stuffy, and in its presentation, it is, slightly. The music itself however is anything but. It’s a diverse set, 18 different composers all bringing wildly different flavours, many of which strongly entice you to want to check out each composer’s work in more depth. Extremely extensive sleevenotes (almost 7000 words) make that easy to do.

Tomas Kutaviius’s “Triplum” is a suitably attention-grabbing opener, an abrasive stepping-note violin-led orchestral performance that commands attention, before the virtuoso violin solo of “The Wave Accompanies the Bird’s Flight”. The planned evolution between tracks is remarkably sympathetic and smooth, stepping into “Scratched Duo”, a slightly more folksy piece with some jaunty experimental interludes and many changes in tone.

It isn’t all fun and games. Vytautas Germanaviius’ “Crumbling Arches” is a macabre and disquieting piece for strings and piano. The harpsichord-heavy “Triglyph” at times doesn’t actually sound modern. Lukrecija Petkut’s “teleAgony” is borderline silly, wailing tubas, pitch-sliding breathing challenges for trombone players; Justina Repekait’s “REM” a similarly irreverent approach to the horn.

When compiling a collection such as this, it must be tempting to regard the most energetic pieces as the highlights- but as well as pieces like the playful, slightly Cinematic Orchestra-esque “Popcorn” (no, not a cover of the Hot Butter track), there are darker, more drone-like abstractions, such as the very Lygeti-like tensions of Raimonda ikait’s accordion-stretching “Chromatography”, and the scratchy, sparse “Octo 716” by Juta Pranulyt which is notable for featuring both a kankls (a Lithuanian zither) and the only credit for ‘electronics’, a sound source that’s otherwise absent. Elena Šatait’s striking piece “Eremos” also has a dark ambient drone layer under the gradual dawning swells of the St. Christopher Chamber Orchestra, though it’s difficult to tell where it’s coming from.

Tadas Dailyda’s “Nothing Happened Today” and Julius Aglinskas’s “The New Net In Two” herald the beginning of ‘the vocal section’, the former featuring a sweet mezzo-soprano performance of the most uninspired lyrics you’ve heard in a long time, the latter an extremely hollow-sounding slow choral setting of a Méret Oppenheim poem. “Blanche t’a vu” by Albertas Navickas sets a multi-tracked wandering choral solo voice among sporadic flutes to create something completely ethereal, a ‘response to surrealism’ which is surrealism in itself.

On paper, “Self-made String of Tiny Amber Beads Turned into Numbers” is a very simple proposition- a youth chorus counting English language numbers in the notes of (mostly) a C major scale- with a result that’s certainly very reminiscent of some Philip Glass works.

ibuokl Martinaityt’s “The Blue Of Distance” is the sound of the Volti Choir in San Francisco humming or singing just vowels, at different rates; again very simple as a proposition but powerful in its clarity. Finally “Non in commotione” by Rytis Maulis ends the collection with a note of suspense- a woodwind quintet and a string quartet all sustaining suspenseful notes for fourteen minutes to be precise.

This compilation is packed with so much material that it seems a shame to post such a cursory review. As an introduction to a wealth of modern classical music you may not already have been aware of, it’s a very well-formed and classy piece and a very strong advertisement for the vibrancy of modern classical music in Lithuania.

David Pritchard: Nocturnal Earthworm Stew

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Apr 04 2017
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Artist: David Pritchard
Title: Nocturnal Earthworm Stew
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Artoffact
Originally released in 1977, now re-released for its 40th anniversary, “Nocturnal Earthworm Stew” is a curious product of its time. With the avantgarde and Radiophonic Workshop sounds becoming more known in popular culture, and squelchy and sometimes odd-sounding synthesizers becoming more affordable, but prior to the real launch of electropop, this is an oddity, to put it mildly. Part music for kids’ TV, part melancholy 70’s pop, and part just out and out weird.

Many of the pieces are less than two minutes long- short, slow, slightly folksy instrumental themes, played on a variety of string instruments, often heavily processed and flanged. “The Harry Parchment Pieces” is literally pieces- several ideas abruptly cutting the previous idea off through tape editing that sounds almost petulant. Tracks like “Under The Palms” sound like they ought to be the theme music for childrens’ TV audio stories (“Cats and Cabbage” is as daft as it sounds), and “The March Of Mallory Bat” sounds like the isolated score from a 1970’s Doctor Who episode about demons in Cornwall (again). Yet conversely “Nash Metropolitan” is a delay-washed solo guitar groove that almost seems to predict U2.

There are a couple of much longer pieces too. “An Admission Of Guilt” is a thirteen-minute long track with strong prog rock flavours, the synth twiddling of Yes, the jazzy tempo of King Crimson, the synth builds of an excited Tangerine Dream, radio broadcast found sound and tape samples from music concrete- it’s all in a complex melting pot here. There’s a lo-fi quality throughout which slightly inhibits the scale of the whole journey in some ways but for musicality it’s high up there. Fifteen-minute long “An Admission Of Guilt” is a bleeping self-contained prog space opera that wanders into jazz in its second half.

“Thunderpeal” sounds remarkably fresh- opening like a piece of retro 80’s synthwave that could’ve been recorded in 2017, yet it’s from 1976, and then wandering into more Brian Eno territory as it develops.

It’s an impressive and versatile album, covering a lot of different moods and with a genuinely amazing musical breadth lurking underneath an initially slightly silly exterior. It’s absolutely deserving of a re-issue and anyone with a love of 70’s electronics should absolutely check this out.

Dans Les Arbres: Phosphoresence

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Mar 30 2017
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Artist: Dans Les Arbres
Title: Phosphoresence
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Hubro Music (@)
For their third album, Dans Les Arbres have taken their acoustic four-piece chamber music core and thrown it into what they’re calling a “more mixed economy of means”- a more electronic and processed environment, but still deeply ambient. The organic and digital elements play nicely together and it’s an expansion of their sound- but it may perhaps have taken away some of their uniqueness, because the result is a very familiar, experimental digitally-twinkling soundscape that’s arguably a little lacking in character. The grafting of tiny glitch noises and micro-samples

We’re a few minutes into the second track before we reach some distinct and fleeting percussive noises that border on recognisability. These are fleeting moments of proximity in what is otherwise just over 30 minutes of detached distance, and ominous quiet. It’s well tempered, an impressive exercise in restraint, but you can’t help but feel that you’ve been invited to a live avantgarde music performance- and you have accidentally gone to the room next door to the one the performance is in. You can make out some noises through the wall, but there’s a surprisingly alienating sense that this music is not being aimed at you.

The two short pieces “Sciure” and “Luminescent” are, relatively speaking, the brightest, wandering close to having discernible loops and a faintly more suburban feel. The two long pieces, “Flourescent” and “Phosphorescent”, are much more freeform to the untrained ear. “Phospherescent”’s use of woodblock-style noises makes it sound at points like a set of windchimes tinkling in a garden centre; but with a subtle drone underneath, like a distant hedge trimmer, to remind you that not all is well. And the drum-like sounds may be empty flowerpots falling over in the minute… wait a minute, this garden centre analogy may be stretching too far. But without meaning any disrespect, this ‘in the trees’ soundscape is more akin to the random sounds of a garden centre with no customers than to a wild forest.

Overall it’s a distant and surprisingly inaccessible half-hour of spontaneous but subdued noise stabs over a decidedly barren ambience. The lack of variety and the slightly over-familiar noise palette unfortunately mean that, for me, it’s a release that fails to stand out from the (very diverse) crowd.
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