Friday, June 18, 2021

Music Reviews

The Paradox (Jean-Phi Dary / Jeff Mills): Counter Active

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Artist: The Paradox (Jean-Phi Dary / Jeff Mills)
Title: Counter Active
Format: 12" + Download
Label: Axis Records
Jeff Mills needs no introduction, of course. Jean-Phi Dary is the keyboardist that Jeff Mills and Tony Allen worked with for the Tomorrow Comes The Harvest project. When soundchecking prior to gigs, Mills and Dary would find the most efficient way of setting up would be for the two of them to jam and improvise around grooves to check everything felt balanced. Out of that grew this six track project of real-time spontaneous and only lightly prepared tunes, giving us a block of leisurely, very light techno with an extremely jazzy and improvised, casual feel.

Opener “Super Solid” throws us straight back to balearic 90’s beach party afternoons, chilled yet confident, and sets the tone for an album dominated by piano and Rhodes-style keys that some might find a little on the cheesy side. This will sometimes meander off into pure virtuoso jazz like “Twilight”, while at other times, such as in “Ultraviolet”, the two varying-electro-factor versions of “Residence”, it sticks to narrower melodic ranges and more repeated patterns. Tracks like “The X Factor” (absolutely nothing to do with the TV show) add some more unusual and sci-fi sonic twinkles.

There’s a definite sense of indulgence here, but it’s handled with a nicely understated approach that doesn’t feel like showing off, or leaving the audience behind. Fans of classic Jeff Mills tracks who buy this expecting techno might be a little surprised to get jazz instead, but if you go into this open-minded and in the mood to relax, it’s an indulgence that’s refreshing, the sonic equivalent of aromatherapy and some bath bombs.

The Touchables: Svart / Hvitt

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Artist: The Touchables
Title: Svart / Hvitt
Format: 12" x 2
Label: ConradSound
“Svart / Hvitt” (“Black / White”) is for the most part a very extreme piece, and mostly as stark as its artwork. It’s a work for testing the quality and depth of your audio system, as it explores extremely low bass rumbles and drones, and sporadically toys with dog-whistle-high notes, but leaves almost nothing inbetween. People with weak playback systems might often think nothing is playing at all, it really is that extreme.

Across 52 minutes and four numbered pieces, it takes a while for the scale of this nine-piece outfit to reveal itself. Largely flat, long and low string notes and thick liquid drumming tones fill part 1. This is bookended well by the similar but thicker and more mid-range rich drones in part 4, while the bits inbetween are somewhat odder.

Part 2 feels more conventionally orchestral, with various instruments bowing and scratching at each other in what feels like an imitation traffic jam, before more aggressive and impulsive scraping takes over and it eventually unfolds into an orchestral street fight, then a long and discombobulating steady exercise in microtonal increase that, by the end, becomes a challenge to see at which point your ears stop enjoying the screeching and it becomes unpleasant.

Part 3 is a little more obtuse, with more emphasis on atmospherics and the imitation of them- growling engine-like noises from the strings, sea and wave crashing white noises, and hollow circular metallic motions a little akin to… erm… the sound of washing up. It feels at times like a series of different vignettes of a small orchestra imitating the sounds of everyday life, like some form of quiz.

It’s a captivating listen from an ensemble clearly in tune with one another, and while sometimes it feels like there is no longer anything new under the avantgarde sun, no thread of composition or decomposition that remains unexplored, there’s still enough intrigue and complexity of texture in here to keep things decidedly interesting.

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.

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.

Joana Guerra: Chão Vermelho

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Artist: Joana Guerra
Title: Chão Vermelho
Format: 12"
Label: Miasmah
Cellist and singer Joana Guerra’s “Chão Vermelho” (“red floor”) is a series of laments about the increasingly dry ground in the area of South Portugal where Guerra lives. It is part folksy, part tribalistic, part experimental, but in every case it wears its emotions on its sleeve- predominantly sorrow, but with elements of love and hope. Regeneration is the hope.Guerra herself, as well as cello and voice (mostly Portuguese, but English on “White Animal”), also plays Portuguese guitar, prepared electric guitar and keyboard, and is joined by friends contributing violin, percussion, “objects”, bass, and additional voice. The length of this list suggests a busy sound, or a party, but it is nothing of the sort. Most of the pieces are limited to only two or three performers at most, concentrating on one instrument each and with a focus on the space between the notes. Unnecessary virtuosity or complexity has been stripped back to concentrate on the texture and expressiveness of single notes and plucks- though there does seem to be at least a slight sense of enjoyment of the sound-bending process, exhibited for example in the rubbery bass tones of “Lume”.There’s either a discordant edge or an attitude to the bowing in pieces like “Onna-bugeisha”, and a strong theatrical sense that comes through in pieces like “Oasis”. It’s an unusual blend of somewhat longer pieces, five or six minutes, contrasted against tiny sketches such as the 26-second-long “Entropicar” or the frantic scratchy solo cello work of “Reducao”.There’s both a bleakness and an intimacy at play in “Chão Vermelho” that is at times uncomfortable, but there is a power behind it that makes it a very engaging and mood-changing listening experience.