Saturday, July 11, 2020

Music Reviews

Artist: Officer!
Title: Yes Yes No No Yes No Yes
Format: CD + Download
Label: Klanggalerie
The second album from Mick Hobbs’ Officer! (the punctuation’s part of the name) was released on vinyl in 1988. It’s been dusted off- or “remastered from the original reel-to-reel tapes” to give it the proper term- and released on CD by KlangGalerie with five bonus unreleased instrumental tracks from around the same time, as part of a rather prolific output.

It’s very 1988, in many ways- a lo-fi guitar-pop with a quirky, folky attitude and the occasional tilt towards the weird, backed up with a pleasant richness of guest string and wind instruments. The sound quality would have felt low-budget even then, and a bit of remastering doesn’t disguise the generally grungy feel. What carries it above that slight sonic problem is the fact it has a very strong ear for a catchy hook and a catchy riff, with elements like the chorus of “Coma” or the infectious opening riff of “Simone” undeniably strong pieces of song-writing.

Certain parts, like the Jethro Tull-ish flute of delightfully odd “r Tune” (a Simon Bates-sampling tune that Bates would never have played), feel both more eccentric and slightly older, harking back to a more experimental 60’s studio feel. “Remove Your Hat”’s first part has that barking mad avantgarde spaciousness, before the second part develops into a song that’s halfway to Madchester, while the Beatles-ripping riff of “Bright Star” seems like a more overt throwback.

“r Tune” is also an example of the unusual lyrical approach, which sits somewhere between straight-faced, wacky and ironic, without ever settling into overt comedy. “Simone, she leaves me accident prone, so I’d better leave her alone [...], keeping her body in tone, with food that’s organically grown” is poetry. The introverted but sweet love song parts, such as “(I’ve Got A) Nice Girlfriend”, never quite reaches Jilted John territory, but it’s not far off, while the simple and innocent approach stretches into wilful ironic pretend-dumbness in songs like “Hid It (‘Cos I Wanted You To Find It)”.

As quite a contrast, the five previously unreleased instrumental bonus tracks, rather than being the sparse pop-demo sound that I might have anticipated, are rich experimental pieces with analogue synths and complex time signatures that hint at a very different but equally interesting compositional approach. “Distal Interphalangeal”’s mesmerising counter-play of repeating plinky bell sounds with spontaneous growls is a particular highlight.

It’s oddly endearing from start to finish, and while the clanginess and sonic quality of the guitar does start grating over the course of an hour, it’s an interesting way to get introduced to Hobbs as an off-beat songwriter with some great tunes.

Artist: Deborah Walker
Title: Starflux
Format: Download Only (MP3 + Lossless)
Label: Elli Records
The concept behind Starflux is to play a cello in an unusual way. By laying it flat, and using one undulating hand to apply different pressures to each string whilst the other hand constantly strums, it becomes a staccato pulsing instrument, deep and broody and industrial and barely recognisable as a classical string instrument. The changes in tone forego the usual modal intervals of western music and are based on maths and fractions, and over the course of the three long pieces, the gradual changes in proportion caused by the changing weight on each string results in gradually shifting but subtle micro-changes in the tone.

The result in the title track is mesmerising, in a simple, direct way. What initially feels a bit like the sound of hammering gradually settles down into the feeling of rhythm- around 100bpm, give or take- and it’s one of those long sound effects that seems to normalise in your ears, so that when it eventually stops, you miss it, as though it ought to always be there.

Ostensibly, the second track is a reconstruction of the concept of the first, done digitally to avoid the natural limitations and inconsistent tonal dominance of a real cello. But the result is entirely different- long, sustained, pure sine wave tones arrive in sequence, unpredictable thanks to the unfamiliar range of pitches. The rhythm is so slow as to essentially be gone, and instead we have a near-ambient, glacial digital melody that could scarcely be more different to the first.

Final piece “Pharus Novae” essentially, to over-simplify it, brings together the sound of the two previous recordings. The simple connection between the low tones of the first piece and the exclusively high tones of the second feels like a natural fit, and rather than feeling like you are being fed the same sound on repeat, instead it feels like the natural conclusion to a triptych, with the ear-normalisation of the rhythm in the first piece returning like an old friend. It’s oddly satisfying.

This release is one of the sixteen in the now complete Elli Records “In The Room” series, and it’s in good company with some excellent other releases. It’s also worth getting all sixteen on Bandcamp, via a subscription maybe, because of the strangely satisfying effect of arranging all sixteen releases in a four by four grid so that the full original artwork can be seen.

Artist: Massimo Discepoli (@)
Title: The Right Place on the Wrong Map
Format: CD
Label: Depth of Field (@)
Rated: *****
This is one of those things you never knew you wanted. I'm a drummer, so it warms my heart when drums are at the forefront because it so rarely happens. But you know one place you don't expect drums at the forefront? Ambient music. Now I'm not talking about some hippies with a djembe playing new age music. I'm talking drum set with plenty of cymbals. But Discepoli delivers.

There is a lot of variety here. The opening track, Once In A Minute, is a peaceful track featuring the sounds of xylophone, drums, and cymbal, with a slow moving synth line. Contrast this with Phase Transition, which is a bit grittier than the previous compositions. Everything is coated in a light layer of distortion until a soothing piano line comes in, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the static. Eventually the static fades away and we are left with a calm piano and cymbal composition. In others, we have a liberal helping of heavy synth drone to go with our drums.

The album as a whole is well composed and demonstrates what can be done when percussion is not merely a means of keeping a beat. I also appreciate that the album was not processed into oblivion. The cymbals actually sound like cymbals (complete with overtones and decay) and the drums are raw and beautiful. If you love percussion, this is one to pick up. If you don't, then you will probably love it after hearing this. This album weighs in at around 57 minutes.

Artist: Alessandro Barbanera
Title: In the Middle of the Path: Five Sketches
Format: CD
Label: self-released
Rated: *****
This appears to be the first full length release from this Italian artist, and he has set the bar high for his next release. This is some solid work. The album opens with Time Bears Away All Things, which is a beautiful, slow moving synth composition. A Day Into The Planet Machine is a dark wall of ominous sound in the vein of Lycia. Submerged Mirrors keeps the heaviness in full effect with a lot of variety in the composition and some noisy elements peeking through. This is the scene in which the protagonists go into the forbidden forest as the ghosts of those who came before them try to warn them off in the low howling of the winds. Ghosts in Front of My Sleepy Eyes keeps the cinematic feel going, but this is the scene when they all lay dead on the forest floor, as a mournful spectral chorus sings over peaceful synth drone. Ataraxy closes it all off with more warm drone with a bit of a harsh edge to it. Once again, I am thinking of old Lycia. This is really good background music for working. A nice mix of dark and peaceful. Well worth checking out. This album weighs in at around 32 minutes.

Artist: Bart Hawkins (@)
Title: 21 Pulse Eclipse
Format: CD
Label: Spotted Peccary (@)
Rated: *****
I had not heard of Bart Hawkins, but the label describes it thus: “Using only patch cables, oscillators, and a host of modular sound shaping devices, Hawkins guides the myriad machines with skill and purpose, molding the unrestrained sonic energy into mind-bending journeys of creative expression. Sweeping tones and harmonic drones set moods that range from peaceful and dreamlike to edgy and bleak, while occasional chirps, squelches, and pulsing patterns call to mind transmissions from distant alien worlds or the soundtrack to a sci-fi classic.” Sounds like a good time, so let's get into it.

I had just finished listening to a stack of albums from Spotted Peccary, so I was expecting a similar sound. It is similar in that it is heavy on drone and synth, but this was miles ahead of most of the other discs I reviewed. Let's start with the opening track, Dream Meditation." This is beautiful. Bird sounds mixed with some of the loveliest drone this side of Troum. Layers and layers of sound keep it interesting and engaging. 21 Pulse Eclipse is a 17 minute excursion into sound. The first third is grinding, sawtooth drone, the second third is an exercise in repetition, as patterns shift and evolve, and finally it all dissolves together. The rest of the album continues on this trajectory, playing with sound to see what he can get out of it. The second half of the disc is a lot of experimental synth work that was pleasant listening. It concludes with Dream Meditation Part 2, which is more gorgeous drone with snippets of voice that evade recognition. Overall, this was well worth listening to fans of drone music, and I will be quite interested to hear what Hawkins comes up with next. This album weighs in at around 73 minutes.


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