Music Reviews

Artist: VV.AA.
Title: Notes from the Underground. Experimental Sounds Behind the Iron Curtain, 1968–1989
Format: 2 x 12" vinyl
Label: Edition Iron Curtain Radio
Experimentation and progress doesn’t happen in a vacuum and it would be wrong to assume- as we maybe have- that while the West were experiencing an explosion of experimental composition, particularly electronic composition, that ‘behind the iron curtain’ remained a cut-off world still stuck in accordions, oompah brass bands and folk dancing. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, as this 2LP collection, consolidating no fewer than four different collation projects gathering together experimental music from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and East Germany demonstrates.

There’s a broad variety of styles here, all with electronic elements but sometimes only serving as bit players in more traditional band set-ups. There’s raw wave music with angry shouted vocals, courtesy of Der Demokratische Konsum. The track from Vágtázó Halottkémek has more than a shade of prog rock about it, while the catchy vocal proto-pop hook in A. E. Bizottság’s “Pek-Pek” is a proper earworm. Kilhet’s “Extract Of Concert Number 4” has the abstract soundworking, splicing and tape effect energy that sits it nicely alongside 60’s Radiophonic Workshop-style performance sonic mangling, while the short-but-sweet “Live in Petfi Csarnok” from Vágtázó Halottkémek is a bold and theatrical percussive workshop.

But the overriding mood for most of the tracks seems to be frustration, bubbling into genuine anger. In keeping with the underground, subversive nature of the music in its context, a lot of it feels decidedly punky in its make-up (though the notable exception of AG. Geige’s weird-kids-TV-music “Elektrische Banane” has to be mentioned).

Perhaps fittingly then, some of the sound quality is understandably lo-fi. “Krebs ohne Stuhl” and “Untitled” are examples of tracks with a decidedly tape-sourced sonic quality that no amount of high-quality mastering will completely remove.

Other tracks worth making a note of include the deep and sinister rumbling flows of Ziemia Mindel Würm’s ”Untitled” (the one track were sound quality really is a hindrance to overall effect). The industrial-pop of New Composers’ “Max-Industry” stands up well as one of the brighter moments, as does the quite forward-thinking (if oddly named) final track, Ornament & Verbrechen’s ”Der lÄchelnde Chinese”.

To be fair, it’s not without its weak moments too- Praffdata’s “Live in Remont, Warsaw” being an example of a track that perhaps didn’t warrant being exhumed.

It’s a fascinating collection and a great insight- more than a glimpse, a positive 86 minute extravaganza- into experimental sounds with strong connections yet also profound differences to what we Westerners might think of as a experimental music history.

Rimarimba: The Rimarimba Collection

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
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Sep 20 2018
Artist: Rimarimba
Title: The Rimarimba Collection
Format: LP
Label: Freedom To Spend
Reissuing three albums from 1983 to 1985, and adding an unreleased 1988 album (but only in the boxset, not available individually), this pack is a way of jumping your Rimarimba collection from zero to completist in one simple step- with a canvas carrier thrown in for good measure.

In chronological order, “Below The Horizon” is first up. The first half is a collection of shorter experimental numbers with quite a Radiophonic Workshop-ish attitude to sound layering coupled with a prog rock attitude, and quite a playful tone at times, that shines through in tracks like the excellent “Gone To Hell In A Small Bucket”. The second half is devoted to 21-minute work “Bebag”, a mesmeric and really well-rounded fusion of lo-fi synth and acoustic noises- including, as you’d hope from the artist title, a marimba- into something greater than the sum of its parts that brings to mind the idea of Steve Reich playing with a stylophone, but in a good way.

1984’s “On Dry Land” adds tape elements as its new key ingredient, maintaining the marimba and plucky endearing and off-kilter bedroom instrumentation but throwing in snippets of spoken word dialogue, presumably TV or radio extracts, to add variety. It’s full of energy and surprisingly fun- check out “On The Range” as a prime example. The irreverence turns dark occasionally- “Cacoughanation” and the discordant “Beyond Pain” are examples- but never truly sinister. Again the final track is by far the longest, “Not Enough Time” charting across long indulgent experimental territory to give the release further breadth.

“In The Woods” from 1985 is a slight evolution rather than a substantial change. The sound quality is notably improved, particularly in the guitar work, and there’s a slightly more earnest approach here, from the mesmeric and Tangerine Dream-esque opener “Spafft Moutafft Seeall + California” to the melodic synth drone of “Gone To Hell In An Even Smaller Bucket”. Tracks like “xit” exhibit more melodic confidence. There’s still spoken word samples, but fewer of them and more sincere, more akin to Negativland.

The 1988 album “Light Metabolism Number Prague”, previously unreleased for 30 years for undisclosed reasons, may even be the stongest of the pack. From the opening music-box-meets-Philip-Glass-meets-early-Orbital loops of opening track “Glass Abattoir” it’s a more matured and balanced sound, almost proto-techno in parts and very accomplished. With “Egg Foo Young” it’s aware, perhaps too aware, of the Asian-sounding results that are being generated by the stepping arpeggio patterns. But the sense of fun hasn’t completely evaporated either, as “Tom & Jerry” and bizarre vocal track “Why Do You Squeak?” both show in a way that will appeal to fans of They Might Be Giants’ early stuff.

This re-issue of Robert Cox’s work as Remarimba is a good move, and while it might not result in Cox’s retrospective addition to the experimental hall of fame (were such a thing to exist), it’s an enjoyable bit of mostly-lo-fi 80’s experimental that deserves to be dusted off for a new audience. And it is rather fun.

Downtrend Shapes Renewal: Dissonance

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
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Sep 18 2018
Artist: Downtrend Shapes Renewal
Title: Dissonance
Format: Tape
Label: Ferric:Flux
The first release on Andy Backhouse’s Ferric:Flux label is anti-pop, of a form. A generally lo-fi collection of guitar riffs, screams and drones, muffled synth arpeggios, lightweight drum machine sounds, barely audible vocals and low-bitrate twists and glitches, it’s a sometimes indulgent and temperamental musical deconstruction with a point to make.

Tracks like “A Buzzword In The Hype Cycle” are bordering on anti-synthpop, heavy on the plinky sounds, but perhaps not the true “anti X-Factor” political statement that the unironic hype accompanying this release would have suggested.

It’s cathartic and it’s a bold opening statement for a new label, but unfortunately the production at times, rather than being boldly anti-establishment, ends up sounding like a poorly mastered bedroom demo, most notably on “Sifting For Compliments Instead Of Seeing”. The attitude does work in its favour in the more sound-design moments like the short closing piece “Garden Siren”.

Bill Thompson: Mouthful Of Silence

 Posted by Stuart Bruce (@)   Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
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Sep 17 2018
Artist: Bill Thompson
Title: Mouthful Of Silence
Format: 2 x CD (double CD)
Label: Burning Harpsichord Records
After tendinitis interfered with his career as a jazz guitarist, Bill Thompson turned to experimental noise-making, drone and avantgarde. Adopting his ‘perfect instrument’, a Moog guitar capable of infinite sustain and foot-pedal-driven overtone blending, he is now producing single-take, super-long evolving sound experiments in which drones and metallic overtones slowly shift, twist and mesmerise over very long periods, with every track on this release around forty minutes long or more.

“Stillness” charts an ambitious curve, both starting and ending in a mellow, soporific calm posture, particularly with the sparkling plucking sounds at the end, but inbetween it plots a course into harsh, atonal territory that creeps up so smoothly that you don’t immediately realise how sonically uncomfortable it is becoming.

Second track “Solitude” doesn’t share the same grit, instead wallowing more languidly in hollow sci-fi feedbacks that hint at howl-round without ever escalating. Twenty minutes in there’s a growing hint of rhythm and gravelly pulse that weaves its way in, without ever really challenging for dominance.

“Shifting Currents Installation” is a bonus track, independently available as a tour merchandise CD and now attached as a close cousin to the main two pieces of this release. The structure and attitude is broadly the same, but this is a busier work, with several sonic layers overlapping and interweaving, including some slightly scratchier found-sound-ish noises and an electrical pattern that feels rooted in the sound of an incorrectly connected electric guitar that’s been worked, EQ’ed and live-processed into something more complex. It’s more sawtoothed and abrasive than the other tracks, sometimes decided squealy, but still traces the same arhythmic alien landscape.

Arguably a single idea writ extremely large at over two hours’ worth of music, Thompson’s work is bold and at times unwelcoming. But for lovers of electric drone and hum, it will certainly be welcomed as a luxuriant listening experience.

Tobias Meier / Dalia Donadio / Berni Doessegger: A Linear Thought

 Posted by Vito Camarretta (@)   Experimental / Avantgarde / Weird & Wired / Glitch / Noise / Field Recording
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Sep 16 2018
Artist: Tobias Meier / Dalia Donadio / Berni Doessegger (@)
Title: A Linear Thought
Format: 7"
Label: Wide Ear (@)
Rated: *****
Related somehow to the previous review (the one on Cold Voodoo), as for the presence of hyperactive musician and composer Tobias Meier, this release sees Tobias in the guise of composer or I'd rather say a voice director for a very unconventional project. The only performer on A Linear Thought is the vocalist Dalia Donadio, based on the explanatory words (in German) by Berni Doessegger. I said the role played by Tobias is more close to the one of a single-input orchestral director, as he seems to define the performative strategies for Dalia's vocals, each for one of the five parts of this composition, supercompressed in two short tracks (lasting 3 minutes and 20 seconds only). The most interesting aspect of this release (requiring two years to be completed, as it was reprised many times over this pretty long timeframe) is that is nothing but a sort of "act of awareness" on perception (in a certain sense, it could be considered as a sort of extension behind the surrounding concept of Wide Ear Records as well) and the importance and the uniqueness of human voice (as "an instrument common to all people" and as a primary "personal organ for communication and emotions"). Such a reflection got well explained by Berni's words and well translated into voice by Dalia for the fans of unconventional notations for music scores. Some sketches of Berni's words will render an idea of what I tried to describe: "...lungs, glottis, vocal cords, throat, tongue, lips. From the body's interior to the exterior and back into a hearing ear. This alone already explains the binding and touching power of the voice, its inner intimacy, its immense transference" - the text related to the first part. And again on the fourth part: "sound is the stretching of time. It folds time, in order to give time to time itself (this is what the ear does with sound). If temporality is the dimension of the act of sounding, this is because sounding defines itself as that which separates itself from there, from the other, from itself, so as to oscillate, to become itself and to become something else. Therefore, the voice, its inner and outer expansion, is an echo chamber, a body of time and space, a resonance that it places inside itself".

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