Music Reviews



VV.AA.: This Is Frafra Power

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Synth Pop / Electro Pop / Synth-Electronica
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 25 2019
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Artist: VV.AA.
Title: This Is Frafra Power
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Makkum Records
“This Is Frafra Power” a fascinating highlight thrown on a music scene many will be completely unaware of, but which will be well worth your time and money checking out if you like your electronica, hip-hop-light and complex African rhythms all melted up in one pot. Gathering together eight tracks from different artists, but all recorded in Francis Ayamnga’s studio in Northern Ghana, it’s a polished set of what we might coarsely label as “Afro-pop”, but with strong rap elements and deftly light electronic touches that give it more character than that label may suggest.

Despite an apparently small geographical scope and the self-imposed small pool to compile from, there’s a good deal of variety here. There’s a raw electro-grime edge to tracks like Matala Ligiri’s “Ragazeer” and more of a party vibe to Bororiga N Lobema’s “I Remember Yesterday” and the quite 80’s sounding “Awudu Messenger” by Seero. Some Western-ish pop styles are reconstructed and given unique flavours in tracks like Ndaana Eera Ymah’s “Linda Ayupuka” and the bold opener “Fausty Amoa Mabila” from Nosanayine.

For the sake of trying to compare it to known European music, at its most electronics-infused it does occasionally bring to mind Major Lazer (but without the subbass), old M.I.A. or Two Culture Clash, but pieces like Sugri’s “Sugri Hajia Zenabu” are more traditional-sounding group-vocal-driven affairs that feel less modernised.

The sound quality is generally good, but with some slightly lo-fi and compressed elements, particularly on some of the vocals, which leave a little unsure whether it’s a deliberate effect or a lo-fi consequence of overloaded microphones. The consistency of production between tracks, grown naturally from the single studio source, helps the compilation hang together as a proper listening album.

It’s a fascinating and quite leftfield collection of a region and modern musical culture I was completely unaware of, and for that reason alone you should check it out simply as an eye-opener. The fact it’s nicely produced and good authentic pop music is certainly a bonus of course.

Paal Nilssen-Love: New Brazilian Funk / New Japanese Noise

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 24 2019
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Artist: Paal Nilssen-Love
Title: New Brazilian Funk / New Japanese Noise
Format: CD + Download
Label: PNL Records
For the Roskilde festival in 2018 Paal Nilssen-Love constructed two musical ensembles, with four Brazilian musicians in one and four Japanese musicians in the other, with his own drum and percussion work and Kiko Dunucci’s electric guitar the common factors between the two. Although reading deeper into the cast list does seem to reveal that many of the musicians are labelled ‘Brazilian’ and ‘Japanese’ as honorary terms, their actual nationalities vary and generally they appear to be pals from Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit work. Consequently, if you are expecting an exercise in contrasts here- fire and ice, yin and yang between the two ensembles- you will be very disappointed.

Both ensembles were recorded live, doing 45-minute sets on consecutive days, and the two results are now been released in parallel. It sounds more like the set-up for some sort of TV music talent content (“who will win? Vote now!”) but in effect what you get is a pair of noisy, impulsive, experimental live avantgarde-jazz-recordings, two for the price of… erm… two.

With a recording quality that’s very decent for a festival but not fully studio-standard and some quite traditional electric instrument set-ups, it’s got a strong flavour of 70’s prog rock wig-out, with long mostly-instrumental tracks in which the performers riff off each other’s both gradual and sudden changes in tone, holding each other in suspense and almost goading each other towards the eventual crescendo of furious slamming, crescendo and discord that the path of each track leads to.

In the Brazilian set-up, the shorter piece “Rural Rides” is notable for having a vocal- Brazilian language I assume- which gives just a little bit more structure and serves as a kind of mid-set plateau of sorts. The finale “Pick A Time”, beginning with an astutely long squeaky solo impulse before crashing into the full-on band maximum, is certainly a crowd-pleaser as well.

The resulting difference in the Japanese set-up is fairly modest, but if anything it’s a touch more insular, with longer pieces and longer build sections that value complexity slightly more and attitude slightly less. The charmingly titled “Eats, Shites and Leaves” exhibits a quirky and marginally more electronic tone, before the zombie impressions of “The Bone People” that evolve into strained threatening Japanese screaming somehow manage to sound both sinister and fun simultaneously. The cacophonous finale of the ironically named “Birdsong” strongly parallels the finale of the sister release as well.

Fans of the original wave of 70’s prog rock and its more extreme, noisy and cutting-edge moments will certainly lap this up, but people looking for something a little more progressive (in the 21st century sense) or expecting interesting or informative results from the Brazilian / Japanese parallel concept may feel a bit short-changed.

Ellen Fullman & Okkyung Lee: The Air Around Here

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Jan 18 2019
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Artist: Ellen Fullman & Okkyung Lee
Title: The Air Around Here
Format: CD & Vinyl
Label: Skovbolaget
This collaboration between American Ellen Fullman, playing her ‘Long String Instrument’ (a 26-metre string instrument spanning the whole length of the performance room), and the Korean Okkyung Lee playing cello, was recorded in February 2016 as part of the Edition Festival for Other Music in a former bakery in Stockholm. Although recorded live and in a large space, the sound is exemplary, allowing the long drawn-out notes from each set of strings to draw delicate patterns and envelopes across a relatively neutral space.

Across two numbered twenty-minutes-ish parts, there’s gradual changes in emphasis and attitude, but generally it’s the long string instrument providing a gentle and elegant drone, while the cello offers up a more speculative collection of sounds, sometimes also droning and playing second fiddle (as it were) but sometimes wandering towards more overt and abrupt performed sections with a dynamism that’s enhanced by a percussive approach to tapping and hitting the instrument. The character of the bowing is powerfully shown as well.

It’s a lovely texture, settled and mesmerising, where the strength is in the details.

W/V: s/t

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Ambient / Electronica / Ethereal / Dub / Soundscapes / Abstract
New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Dec 19 2018
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Artist: W/V
Title: s/t
Format: 12" vinyl + Download
Label: Silken Tofu
The ‘W’ here is James Welburn, on gritty electronic electric bass drone and feedback, undisclosed objects and effects. The ‘V’ is Juliana Venter, on lyricless wailing experimental-theatre style voices and further undisclosed objects. Together they’ve produced this half-hour long, two-part improvisational catharsis that grumbles, groans and whines in equal measure, a coarse-textured sonic bath of noise and reverb.

While the first fourteen-part has the raw energy of the single session it was recorded in, the second part is the product of three later sessions during which the collaboration has clearly begun to mature, with a greater use of lower dynamics and space that allows some of the more subtle atmospheric sound to shine through. However a lesser emphasis on the vocals ends up being to the detriment of the work, which is in danger of becoming run-of-the-mill drone when it loses that distinctness.

It’s a strong coming together of like-minded ideas with a gritty end product that deserves to be heard.

Populäre Mechanik: Hi-Fi Is Sweeping the Country!

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   New Music / Downtown / Avantgarde Jazz / New Classical / World
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Dec 12 2018
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Artist: Populäre Mechanik
Title: Hi-Fi Is Sweeping the Country!
Format: 2 x 12" vinyl
Label: Edition Telemark
Wolfgang Seidel was in a short-lived band PopulÄre Mechanik which disbanded in the 1980’s, then in 2005 formed a new band with the same name, but where he was the only member in common. This is a double LP compilation of material from between 2005 and 2014, from that incarnation of the band. However when listening to it, you could readily believe that some of these hard-edged prog and experimental pieces could have been recorded in the late ‘60’s or the ‘70s, with long wigged-out works coupling electric guitar, complex live percussion and evocative gritty vocals making this psychedelic prog rock writ underground or garage rock writ pretentiously, depending on how you look at it.

The apparently improvised vocals are mostly German, with occasional exceptions such as the English “Abstract Days” and “Blooming Carpet”, but it’s not for that reason that those track are highlights- the groove and progression on it is notably more engaging than some of the others. The ordering is unclear but it’s easy to assume from the listening order that you’re listening chronologically and that the move to English came towards the end of the period.

In some tracks, like the rather unrepresentative opener “20 Ways To Improve Your Home”, there’s a strong showing for samples, loops and tape trickery. At points it sounds a little like the tape-bending experiments of the 1960’s that George Martin helped to popularise, at other points it’s more structured and has some slight shadows of the 90’s bigbeat era of sample eclecticism. It’s across the minority of the tracks though, more’s the pity as it represents some of the most innovative elements of it. Again if this is a chronological collection, about which I’m unclear, it would seem that the band moved away from it- which is a shame.

The nearly-eighteen-minute long closer “Psychedelic Mechanics” functions well as both the end to the journey, and as a self-contained unfolding work in its own right, showing a defter sense of dynamism and melody than was exposed in some of the earlier, more raucous pieces.

With its title and artwork referencing the ‘50’s and since I’ve mentioned every other decade from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, this is clearly a release that crosses time- but does seem to be rather focussed on looking backwards. Lovers of psychedelic rock who want to hear something new that sounds old have come to the right place.
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