Music Reviews

David Pritchard: Nocturnal Earthworm Stew

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Apr 04 2017
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
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.

1982: Chromola

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Mar 28 2017
Artist: 1982
Title: Chromola
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Hubro Music
After a couple of collaborative releases, the trio confusingly labelling themselves 1982 return to first principles for an improvisation-heavy mood album with an instrumental core of violin, fiddle, harmonium and drums, but an outlook which is closer to both drone and soundtrack than to the folk or jazz that that ensemble of instruments may suggest.

Over slowly shifting hums, sometimes warm, sometimes discordant, the string instruments of choice plaintively wail in an often structureless and melancholic meandering. Slow and gentle drumming provides the structure, sometimes in the region of 90bpm.

Though the ingredients remain the same, there’s a broad diversity of styles between the seven pieces. Sometimes, such as on second track “06:19” (all the tracks are identified only by duration rather than having names), the patterns drift closer to a verse-chorus form, albeit not very close, and when this happens it does have a faintly celtic folk lilt to it. “07:00”, by comparison, is a stripped-down and freeform alternative, with spontaneous percussive noises and a more reluctant smattering of bowed notes. More militaristic use of steady snare drums gives “04:03” an after-the-battle flavour, while “04:45” with its dafter harmonium playing in particular has a more playful, almost silly touch of the avantgarde about it.

It’s an accomplished set of improvisations from a trio with a clearly broad scope, and while it possibly wanders in so many different directions that it begins to lose coherence as a forty-minute listening album, it certainly has a lot of class.

Mike Cooper: Reluctant Swimmer / Virtual Surfer

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Mar 25 2017
Artist: Mike Cooper
Title: Reluctant Swimmer / Virtual Surfer
Format: LP
Label: Discrepant (@)
Rated: *****
Saluted as 'the icon of post-everything' according to Lawrence English's words, Mike Cooper returns on excellent Discrepant catalogue by a sort of aural documentary, collecting the recording of a live set this creative artist made at the Controindicazioni Festival of Improvised Music in Rome in October 2003. Ideally divided into four movements, which can be considered as two as it seems that Mike (now living his sixties) slowly prepared the sonic soil in the first half of each set for the cover song he performed in the second one, they belong to a moment where the seed of that agonizing and reckless exoticism sometimes evoked by his recent experiments on lap steel guitar were still audible. It's pretty amazing to notice that some sonic strategies in the slowly processed movements could vaguely resemble the ones that contemporary artists like Fennesz are spreading in our days; such an approach, combining electric scorch marks on guitar-driven melodies, diluted frequencies that could be matched to the scientific tracking of the dream activity of a drunkard who fell asleep on yellow fluffy pillows, field recordings that sound like coming from "yellowing" printed pictures and other sonic freaks appearing like ghosts here and there over an impressive combination of real-time sampling, digitally processed sounds and minimal guitar loops, is particularly evident in "Virtual Surfer", gently merged with the endearing dejected hug of the lyrics of 60s folk singer Fred Neil's "The Dolphins", looking like an interplay due to the way the slightly changed medley ("I’ve been searching/For the dolphins in the sea/And sometimes I wonder/Do THEY ever think of me") fades into a feast that could be matched to the imitation of some more or less telepathic chat between the smart mammals quoted by the song. In order to give you an idea of what you could listen to "Reluctant Swimmer", the other half of this release, you could imagine an American-folk song inadvertently performed by a medieval automata or by clocks in the lab of a clockmaker, occasionally oiled by flanger effects and wooshing sounds, before the track fades out in the cover of the raconteurish caress of the ode "Movies is Magic" by Van Dyke Parks. The cover I'm using here refers to "Reluctant Swimmer" comes from the mind of collage artist by Evan Crankshaw, but the one related to "Virtual Surfer" is likewise beautiful.

Zeitkratzer: Performs Songs From The Albums "Kraftwerk" And "Kraftwerk 2"

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Mar 23 2017
Artist: Zeitkratzer
Title: Performs Songs From The Albums "Kraftwerk" And "Kraftwerk 2"
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Karlrecords (@)
The music of Kraftwerk needs less introduction than almost any other, and has been reinterpreted in dozens of different ways by everyone from Rammstein to Fatboy Slim to the Cardigans- and more than a few classical and avantgarde reinterpretations as well. Does this release stand out as bringing something new? Not really. Is it good fun and surprisingly successful? Yes it is.

Focussing only on the earlier Kraftwerk albums which had a thinner and arguably more abrasive tone, the ensemble of woodwind, strings, a couple of brass instruments, piano and drums faithfully recreates the barren soundscape that was originally electronic, in an almost exclusively acoustic way. It’s admirable for its attention to detail and an excellent tribute.

In the parts with steady drumbeats, particularly the opener “Ruckzuck”, the tone overall is reminiscent of Jeremy Deller’s “Acid Brass” in some ways; live performance trying to emulate extremely quantized electronic patterns in a way that doesn’t kill off the energy required for expression. If this takes the ensemble out of their comfort zone, then for the rest of the first side of the LP- “Spule 4”, “Strom” and “Atem”- they are clearly on more comfortable ground with the sparse and experimental, occasionally concrète ambiences.

“Klingklang” is a highlight, becoming a jazz number at points with some lovely double bass and flute work. Final track “Megaherz” has utterly beautiful clarinet tones (I’m a sucker for a sad clarinet) over a distant bowed mood and is rather lush too.

While reworking Kraftwerk in a new context is certainly not a new idea, the very successful and faithful, restrained approach throughout “Performs…” makes it a welcome arrival and certainly worth hearing. Apparently a second tranche of reworked early Kraftwerk songs is imminent and will form a second volume to this work, and I’ll certainly want to listen to it.
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