Saturday, November 28, 2020

Music Reviews

WERL3: s/t

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Artist: WERL3
Title: s/t
Format: LP
Label: Midira Records
“WERL3” is a recording of a one-off improvised set with Gareth Davis joining the regular WERL duo of Aidan Baker and Tomas JÄrmyr. It was recorded in the Christuskirche Bochum, as part of 2019’s Moving Noises Festival, but the sonic quality of it is so spotless that it certainly has all the tonal qualities of a studio recording.

After an initial ten minutes of more-or-less calm with soporific warm drone, the first part gradually builds up a sense of jungle adventure, and in turn, jungle danger- the clarinet at times sounding like distant animal calls, and the drums becoming more tribal. The third instrument of the trio is a guitar, though it’s largely so heavily effected and experimentally played that at times it is hard to recognise. This jungle-like business falls away towards the end of part one into a more open space, where the tone and texture of some of the instruments and in particular the echoing effects can be better appreciated.

This flows unbroken into part two, which is a marginally more tempered and structured affair. The clarinet edges into the foreground, politely, and a marginally more avantgarde jazz flavour is attained. As in the first part there is a gradual build, a gradual weathering increase in the frequency and menace of the drums, but the clarinet sails over it somewhat unaffected, lost in its own little world almost.

For a completely improvised live performance, the innate sense of shared expression on show here is extremely impressive. Whilst some my find it a little on the undramatic side, it is a rather entrancing experience and it would undoubtedly have been captivating to watch live.

Hand: Suburbaen

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Artist: Hand
Title: Suburbaen
Format: Tape & Digital Download
Label: Elli Records
With a background as a professional drummer, you might expect Sascha Bachmann’s work as Hand to be heavily rhythmic- but instead, “Suburbaen” is ambient music, but made through the filter of someone with rhythm in their heart. “How would William Basinski sound if he made music for the dance floor?”, it asks. Based on that answer, certainly nobody would be dancing- as this is ambient electronic music, with just the lightest of rhythm woven into it as soft pulses and waves of hums.

The press release asks questions like “what do we listen to in our mother’s belly during pregnancy?”, for which Hand’s answer appears to be evident at the beginning of the oddly titled “Two Drink Minimum”, with its steady heartbeat, sometimes calm, sometimes muddled alongside other abstract and unrecognisable sounds, reprised for the album’s closure “To Drink Maximum” [sic]. The urgency rises a little as the track progresses, but there’s always a fluidity- if this is meant to represent childbirth, it’s a remarkably smooth ride.

At its more upbeat moments, there are hints of Tangerine Dream here, particularly in some of the washy soft noise waves that roll over analogue pulsing, or the dark purposeful synth notes that open “No For An Answer”. But it is consistently amelodic, focussing on the hum and drone and never conceding to a tune. A darker side is more evident in pieces like “For Eliane”, where the drone is both noisier and more sinister- and yet again, notably a little womb-like.

The rhythm is a touch more prominent, but marginally so, in the second half of the release. “Note To Self” is perhaps what unborn babies hear when their mothers are listening to loud heavy drum and bass. Glitchy, damp rhythms are always present but never dominant. “Crescent” has a more foregrounded electronic bleeping set against an almost jazzy abstract series of drum incidences.

It’s a curious piece of deep electronic dronework, which adds just the tiniest smatterings of more mainstream sounds to an otherwise very familiar-sounding ambient framework. It isn’t an out-and-out fusion though, more of a regular ambient work with more texture, and as such, it does work rather well.

Chris Abrahams: Appearance

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Artist: Chris Abrahams
Title: Appearance
Format: CD
Label: Room40
Chris Abrahams has a track record of electro-acoustic works on the Room40 label, but “Appearance” offers up something different- his first solo piano work for the label. Comprising two pieces, each around twenty minutes long, it’s entirely constructed from the conventional playing of a reverberant, grand-sounding piano- no tricks, no effects, no scratching or interfering, just tinkling.

Much of “As A Vehicle, The Dream” arrives in waves, with moderately long pauses and breathers alternating with faster cascades of notes, though never truly fast. It’s gentle, relaxing and fluid, and for its duration, mostly undramatic.

“Surface Level” has a similar tone, and still plenty of undulating, but has a slightly more romantic leaning, with top line melody notes that feel wistful and more structured- balletic, and almost but not quite danceable at times.

Undeniably virtuoso and elegant, it’s a solo piano album with very few surprises up its sleeve, but which certainly still has plenty of charm.

PlanetDamage: Relapse Protocol

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Artist: PlanetDamage
Title: Relapse Protocol
Format: CD + Download
Label: self-released
Most of Planetdamage’s debut album “Relapse Protocol” follows an electro-cyberpunk formula that is, on the surface at least, very familiar. Pulsing synth lines and drum patterns are the bed on which are laid angsty, semi-shouted, mildly distorted monologues about politics and the state of the world, infused with frustration and determination. It’s the lyrics that are placed centre stage, while the electronics are mostly there to provide a frame and a sense of urgency.

“Kompromat”’’s assertion that ‘history is deepfaked’, and “So Is Europe”’s talk of ‘sandbox fuckery’ (I think) and the remarkably understated side question, ‘what about the US?’. “Hi Rez Lo Life” turns its attention to online and social media, talking about pays per clicks and demanding “got no need for engagement” (always a difficult claim for musicians trying to promote themselves online), while “Vex” resorts to naming a selection of multinational companies to be viewed with suspicion. “The Mark” resorts to the chant of ‘question authority!’, which I have to suspect is a message that will only reach those who already do. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with any of it, it does feel somewhat mansplained at times.

Unfortunately, despite being relatively short (40 minutes), it ends up being a little bit undramatic and one-note. The fact that the tracks are segued together seamlessly, sometimes a really interesting musical move, in this case unfortunately only serves to highlight the excessive similarities in tone and pace between each of the tracks. The vocal delivery is the same throughout all the tracks, which under-sells the message it’s trying to convey at times. There’s a decided lack of drama in the delivery, both lyrically and musically- the synths are mildly aggressive but never really given teeth, and fills and drops are sparse, curt and simple. The opening of “Regret Gunner” shows dramatic promise, then flattens out. And while not trying to bow to mainstream popular culture, a few stronger hooks or riffs would not have gone amiss.

There is some great techno work under there- “Firewalls” into the light acid tones of “The Mark” was a highlight area for me musically- but in the social-media driven industry that the lyrics complain about, I don’t think there’s enough distinct character, nor lyrical insightfulness, for this to really gain traction.

Swans: Children of God/Feel Good Now

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Artist: Swans (@)
Title: Children of God/Feel Good Now
Format: CD & 12" & Download
Label: Young God Records (@)
Rated: * * * * *
Well, here we go again, another Swans remastered re-release, this time of their classic 1987 opus, 'Children of God,' coupled with their lesser-known live album of their 1987 European tour made by the band's sound engineer on a Sony Walkman. While 'Children of God' got its first reissue in 1997 combined with 'World of Skin' (that's the one that I have), 'Feel Good Now' was only released in the UK (vinyl and CD) back in '87, but a remastered version showed up in the U.S. in 2002. In comparison to their prior work, Swans' 'Children of God' was nearly a new direction for them. Jarboe had only just surfaced on their previous album ('Greed') and certainly has a larger role on this album. Their previous brutal no wave approach had been tempered and Mr. Gira moved into more subtle realms of nihilism. That's not to say Swans abandoned their sturm und drang; there was still plenty of that to go 'round. Most Swans fans probably already own 'Children of God' in one form or another, but if you want an original 1987 copy on vinyl, that's gonna cost you plenty. As for the remaster, I've listened to both the original and the remaster several times, and I didn't hear a lot of difference; maybe a little brighter on the remaster, but not so much that I'd be compelled to buy it unless I wanted vinyl. For some, that ought to be enough.

So that leaves us with 'Feel Good Now,' certainly a title appropriate to these times even if it is 33 years old. For something recorded originally on a Sony Walkman (Pro), it sounds pretty good. I never heard the original, so I can't say how much the sound was cleaned up. Gira himself says, "The lineup of Gira / Kizys / Westberg / Jarboe / Parsons was a really good version of the band - one of the best live versions of Swans ever – actually much more intense and visceral in performance than in the nuanced takes of the songs on these recordings." Intense is really the byword here; it doesn't get more intense than Swans live. They do most every song on 'Children of God,' (but not in the same order) and it’s a good deal more forceful than the studio album. Not perfect, but still a worthy document.

Here's the thing though about the 'Feel Good Now' portion of the reissue- for the vinyl version of 'Children of God' you get a (digital) download card for the live album, and the CD version gets you an extra CD. What??? No double-LP? Nope. Sorry. Guess Young God wanted to keep the cost down. Too bad. A vinyl version of the live album would have been most welcome. For those that don't already have these though, this might be the best way to go.