Music Reviews

Frode Haltli: Avant Folk

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jun 25 2018
Artist: Frode Haltli
Title: Avant Folk
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Hubro
Composed by Norwegian accordion player Frode Haltli, “Avant Folk” is a sombre 5-part, dectet ensemble performance that sets out to deliberately span genres- it’s got the instrumental qualities of music that fits under the broad umbrella of folk, both familiar Western European aspects and some more Eastern and African tones in the rhythms and melodies. But in Venn diagram terms it also falls comfortably within the circle of jazz, particularly avantgarde and atmospheric, improvised-sounding and freeform.

“Hug” opens with a feelgood, almost Celtic-folk-dance-like arrangement that, over the course of seven minutes, dips into darker, more chin-stroking territory.

“Trio” and “Gratar'n” are both more sombre, properly melancholic affairs driven by plaintive, meandering violin work, inbetween which “Kingo” is a work in several parts that feels like it has an undisclosed story-telling element, soundtracking a relatively jovial journeyman fairy tale the details of which are undisclosed.

Final piece “Nied” gives things a more jovial twist thanks to the ambling accordion work and gentle guitar playing, and slow tempo variations that give proceedings an almost drunken flavour.

Save for the light touches at each end, it’s a very sincere work, highbrow and in parts quite low energy, often frosty in a manner fitting to the artwork. As such it’s a piece of avantgarde crossover that’s more accomplished than it is accessible, and is more likely to be appreciated than it is to be liked.

Christopher Chaplin: Paradise Lost

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jun 23 2018
Artist: Christopher Chaplin
Title: Paradise Lost
Format: 2 x 12" vinyl
Label: Fabrique Records
Christopher Chaplin’s second album is a truly curious beast, and probably the oddest setting of John Milton’s poem that you’ll have ever heard.

As the artwork suggests this is a properly theatrical work, merging sparse bits of English-language opera singing (Nathan Vale on the first and last tracks), beat poetry (Leslie Winer on the second track), sporadic and often very ominous-sounding string and woodwind orchestrations with some experimental percussive performance elements and an occasional smattering of modern electronica, drones and synth twiddling.

Sometimes meandering into abstract soundscaping, and at other times feeling more like an overtly staged performance piece, it seems to revel in the defiance of expectations on each level- including lyrically, being difficult to follow and inviting you to try and interpret that which may not actually be interpretable.

Personally I am more intrigued by the Nathan Vale-featuring “I Dread”, which has a greater sense of dynamic, than the sultry, smoky squidginess of Leslie Winer’s rambling lines on “Dave The Shoe”, on the grounds that the latter feels less distinctive. The shorter final operatic piece “Of This New World” feels somehow more conventionally vocally, but the offset of plaintive melancholic tenor singing against glitchy electronics is still a winning combination.

Although this work feels like it ought to make more sense in a live performance setting than on an album, it’s a properly unusual work that commands attention.

Extra Large Unit: More Fun Please

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jun 10 2018
Artist: Extra Large Unit
Title: More Fun Please
Format: CD + Download
Label: PNL Records
Pals Nilsson-Love’s Large Unit ensemble get a temporary super-boost, adding a whole host of other performers to create a 27-person ensemble featuring three grand pianos, multiple accordions and percussionists, and plenty of brass. Recorded live at a concert in Oslo in May 2017, it’s an ambitious task to scale up the compositional approach for this short-term surfeit of performers. And at first, from the piece’s title and the opening few minutes, it feels more like everyone’s been gathered together for a party rather than a performance- loose vibes and chatter abound.

But that isn’t true throughout. After a few minutes, stillness is imposed, silence becomes the majority part, and thus begins the piece’s core structure- that of slow ramping, in various parts, up from stillness into different flavours of cacophony that mostly, but not always, have a jovial and jazzy flavour to them. The energy comes in waves, sections building to peaks, dropping off and then a new wave comes with a different configuration of performers in the driving seat. The next bout of stillness is where the emotive stillness really resides- particularly in long, drawn-out string sustains and drone sections reminiscent of Lygeti.

It makes a pleasant change to hear avantgarde and impulsive music that wears its sense of humour with pride. There’s no suggestion that things are not being taken seriously, but it’s certainly reflections on a broader slice of life, including the lighter side, at play here. As such it’s quite welcoming, potentially even a good way of introducing new listeners to the genre. You won’t be blown away by its scale or its level of invention, but as an accomplished, relatively big-budget bit of experimental classical, it’s a premium product.

Debashis Sinha: The White Dog

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jun 09 2018
Artist: Debashis Sinha
Title: The White Dog
Format: LP
Label: Establishment Records
Toronto-based percussionist Debashis Sinha here draws on his South Asian-Canadian cultural heritage, taking a broad variety of acoustic and organic percussive elements and drawing them out into expressive and experimental pieces that blend jazzier Asian musical sounds with longer, more Western avantgarde soundscaping models. It reworks material from a live concert and previous work in audiovisual projects and film scores, though unless you’re already familiar with the material you wouldn’t know it, though it does help explain the diverse and arguably disconnected breadth of the material.

While some tracks like opener “Empyrean” and closer “Reverie” are quite thickly layered, textured and fairly jazzy, other pieces like “entr acte” are decidedly minimal, showcasing the live freeform percussion work by accompanying it only with gentle hums.

The English-language poetry that cuts in on “Thrum” is something of a shock to the system and not necessarily a welcome one in terms of atmosphere and meaning, before it unfolds into a really rather pleasant and glitchy pulsing electronica affair with an infectious and underused bassline that is reminiscent of some The Orb tracks. “Harmonium Part III” takes a minimal techno form in tripped-out directions, a direction which is pursued deeper and to great effect in “Part IV” which is a mesmeric track but does feel like it has lost sight of this album’s initial root.

It’s certainly a unique recipe of sounds, perhaps a little disjointed and confused in purpose at times but certainly an intriguing journey of a listening experience.

John Tilbury / Keith Rowe / Kjell Bjørgeengen: Sissel

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Electronics / EBM / Electronica
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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May 30 2018
Artist: John Tilbury / Keith Rowe / Kjell Bjørgeengen
Title: Sissel
Format: CD + Download
Label: Sofa
Recorded live in 2016, “Sissel” is a sombre, single 48-minute live performance from the trio who seem to avoid describing the instrumentation they use- to my ears it’s almost exclusively piano and analogue electronics, with hints of found sounds and atmospherics. Soft and very sparse piano notes and simple repetitive chords play both with and against hard-edged raw electric sparking, gritty rumblings and percussive noises. Prolonged periods of emptiness or near-emptiness, particularly towards the end, give rise to phenomenally awkward silences.

Performed a few weeks after one of the artists suffered a great personal loss, there’s undoubtedly a sense of eulogy and space here, with sorrow worn firmly on the sleeve. To the retrospective listener this gives it a decidedly cathartic function. It’s a properly sobering listen, and not altogether enjoyable from an emotional point of view. But it’s remarkably calm, never angry, and that’s why it’s likely to find a place in other people’s hearts as well. But it’s not for the emotionally faint-hearted.
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