Artist: Harmonia '76
Album: Tracks and Traces (Reissue)
Me on the the reissue of the Harmonia (with Brian Eno) record - Tracks and Traces at TLOBF. Reprinted below.
Just staring at the four names of the musicians involved in Harmonia ‘76 – Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Michael Rother and Brian Eno – is enough to summon an entire inner soundworld; and when you look at the constellation of albums that were released featuring these musicians, in and around the Harmonia ‘76 recording session, there is something almost illicit and disturbing at the thought of the crackle and hum of mental and physical processes that must have been at work in the brief studio time they spent together: Deluxe, Neu! 75 and Another Green World in 1975, Sowiesoso in 1976, Flammende Herzen and Before and After Science in 1977, not to mention Eno’s studio work with Bowie (he was on his way to work on Low when the first Harmonia ‘76 session was arranged). So it is, as stupid as it sounds, that by merely being very good, and not a full blown mystical experience, Tracks and Traces is somehow – however minor – a bit of a disappointment.
There are of course mitigating circumstances. The main one would be that these were only ever supposed to be studio sessions, and weren’t actually released officially until 1997 when Rykodisc in the States picked up the recordings after Roedelius had remastered them (they are re-released here with an extra three tracks). Harmonium had officially split after releasing Deluxe in 1975 and had only really considered reforming after the chance to jam and record with Eno had arisen (he allegedly called the band members asking ‘is now a good time for that recording session?’ He received the answer, ‘well, not exactly – we kind of broke up – but sure, as good a time as any.’). As such, Tracks and Traces does have rough edges, and is full of exploratory ideas that don’t always go anywhere. But when it’s explorations of this quality…
The other central factor here is harder to pin down, and concerns the directions the various band members were starting to take in their various other projects. As Cluster, Moebius and Roedelius, were moving towards a kind of new mode of bucolic ambience. Sowiesoso, recorded after these sessions, had a brighter edge than anything the duo had released before, an almost contented quietude; Rother in his work with Klaus Dinger in Neu had similarly moved towards a more inner-pastoral mode – in direct contrast to Dinger’s harsher motorik explorations. And Eno? Well Eno had recently released Another Green World, and at least with his solo work, had set something in motion that was to occupy him for a good portion of the next 30 years.
So what you have with Tracks and Traces is both a document of an uneasy communal recording session (admittedly this is a bit of a leap of faith on my behalf), and a document of transition, but considering the personnel involved, it was always bound to be some document. All that tension, all the bubbling creative clamour – it’s all there in the opening track of the original sessions, ‘Vamos Campaneros’: it’s built around a particularly filthy Rother riff, a thing of dirt and grime, and underpinned by a what sounds like a snare drum split into a thousand pieces. The track isn’t so much propulsive as fractured and damaged; and despite several other moments of ominous tone and portent (‘Luneberg Heath’, sections of ‘Sometimes in Autumn’) it’s not a sound the collective return to. It’s certainly gives the lie to Eno’s (apocryphal?) statement that Harmonium were the most important rock band in the world.
‘By the Riverside’, the second track of the original release, is much better indicator of the overall sound of Tracks and Traces – languid, bathed in washes of light, punctuated with near buried birdsong; and that title: pastoral, accepting, passive. ‘Luneberg Heath’ which follows is something of a red herring, as despite its nature theme it’s actually quite unsettling and bleak; it’s also the only track to feature vocals, with Eno intoing, blankly, ‘don’t get lost on Luneberg Heath’ over a woozy Rother guitar line. It gives way to ‘Sometimes in Autumn’ (the sessions were recorded in September ’76) the album’s sonic and thematic centrepiece – a 15-minute voyage out that amply signals the directions all members were seemingly taking at the time. It begins with pulsing synths riding an undertow of oscillators and sounds so current you could be listening to Fennesz or Keith Fullerton Whitman. When Rother’s haunted guitar appears, it sends the oscillators spinning wildly – almost to the point of sonic invisibility – and takes the track elsewhere, back to that impassive state. It isn’t until a great underthrum of organ drones at around the 10 minute mark that the track resolves itself, a resolution of quiet beauty.
The album seems to tail off somewhat from ‘Sometimes in Autumn’ with more of the unfinished sketches taking centre stage – the Tortoise-like ‘When Shade Was Born’ the dripping, lush ‘Almost’, ‘Les Demoiselles’ with its Lanois-esque slide guitar – but it is always engaging and beautiful, and there is always that sense of shock that this is 33 years old. And as a glimpse into the recording processes and creative lives of four such influential figures, and as a measure of what had gone before and what was to come (certainly with Eno who, with Another Green World, had already embarked on a still head-spinning purple patch) it’s a more than worthy release.
Download: Harmonia '76 - Almost
Artist: Dark Captain Light Captain
Album: Remix EP
This went up at TLOBF some time last week. It's perfect for these late days of summer.
Download: Dark Captain Light Captain - Questions (Hatchback Dub Mix)
Album: Pausal EP
Label: Highpoint Lowlife
As with so many things, I've come late to the wonders of Highpoint Lowlife, an independent label dealing in (mainly) electronic music, from ambient drones to glitch, beats and beyond. I've now heard a few releases and the standard is unfailingly high.
This Pausal EP was first released back in 2007 as a free download, but has now been remastered and expanded for a full release. The Hampshire two-piece deal in billowing drones, somewhere in the region of Stars of the Lid and perhaps even William Basinski, though there is less of the implied melancholy you get with his work. Even the Stars of the Lid mention might be a little wide of the mark as the Pausal sound tends to be cleaner, brighter - pastoral even.
'Song from a Cloth' is indicative: a simple pulse of cello melts into near feedback and is gradually met and glossed by a series of shimmering melodic drones. The track fades into still weather as much as finishes - the drones simply breathing their last. 'Place (Revisited)', the 11-minute centrepiece, is similarly built around a sustained delicate central drone, against which outer melodies breeze and drift. As that central drone swells, so the melodies rise and fall. Late one afternoon, I played the track at increased volume - the sound whilst remaining delicate gained a church-like quality with what seemed like a muted choir beneath everything, just out of earshot. Much like 'Song from a Cloth' the tracks eases out of existence, leaving vapour like residues in the ear.
It's a lovely EP and highly recommended - and you can get the mp3s or FLACs for £3 so...
Download: Pausal - Song from a Cloth Pocket
Artist: Steven R. Smith
More over TLOBF...
Steven R Smith’s back catalogue is a thing of bright wonder. Since 1995, as a solo artist, as part of the Jewelled Antler collective, in a number of groups (Mirza, Thuja) and under various pseudonyms (Hala Strana, Ulaan Kohl) Smith has been on something like 30 releases – all pushing at the boundaries of psych, folk, post-rock and drone music. With that amount of music behind him, exploring his stuff becomes like picking your way through a landscape, a theme that the material on Cities also naturally conjures up, albeit a wounded, decaying landscape.
The main sonic fabric of Cities is provided by Smith’s guitar – a mournful sounding thing whether treated, whining with a kind of suppressed feedback, or bowed and scraping. It provides the backdrop for most tracks, though in many places it is unrecognisable as an instrument, or is obscured by other washes of sound, be they flayed cellos, the ancient sound of a psaltery or otherwise unidentifiable organ drones. But where many other similar projects tend towards the epic in terms of song lengths, Smith – on Cities at least – is very economical, preferring painterly touches and lightly drawn motifs. As such, the album tends to have a mosaic effect, its quiet beauty coming through as a whole picture only after numerous listens.
Another artist I’m reminded of is Richard Skelton (who has recorded under various guises such as A Broken Consort or Carousell), who seems to treat his chosen subject – again, generally nature and landscape – with a similar reverence, and draws his aural sketches with a haunted, mournful brush. The fact that Smith’s chosen subject here seems to be the decay of cities – as opposed to the pure appreciation of nature – only adds to this sense of mourning. There is something of the return of nature here though, the continual recourse to bowed sound effects (as on ‘Black Paper Scrim’ for instance, or ‘The City Gate’) creating an effect of wind through ruins. There is also a cinematic quality to many of the tracks, as though you were walking through a nature-reclaimed post-apocalyptic landscape, the only remnant of civilization a tolling bell… This is particularly true of a track like ‘Distance and Passing’ where Smith sounds at his most Godspeed-like, sombre and vast.
‘All is One One is One None is All’ ends things with a dense fuzz, sounding close to some of Belong’s whiteouts – but this has the feel of a nascent song, and perhaps points new forms that Smith may be heading towards. On this, and past, evidence, whatever he touches will be worth hearing. Here’s to the next 30 releases…
You can get hold of this by contacting Immune Recordings.
Download: Steven R. Smith - The Paling Day
Download: Steven R. Smith - All is One One is One None is All
Artist: Jim O'Rourke
Album: The Visitor
Label: Drag City
More reviews up at TLOBF - Jim O'Rourke's magical The Visitor this time. What a record.
‘Nothing makes me want to disappear as when someone opens their mouth’
So there you are – you wait 8 years for a new Jim O’Rourke solo album, and when it arrives it’s a single 38-minute song, a symphonic sweeping thing that references damn near 80 years of music, is built from 200 tracks and what must be close to 40 instruments (all played by the man himself), and hangs together with such grace and delicacy you have to simply give in to it. Even if there is a touch of the ineffable about it…
So where has O’Rourke been exactly? Well he hasn’t been a workshy fop, of course – there have been numerous releases since Insignificance: ample drone workouts and experimental pieces, numerous collaborations (Loose Fur, Fenn O’Berg amongst others) and a slew of film work with the likes of Werner Herzog. (And yes, that was O’Rourke looking sheepish in the School of Rock outtakes – he was the music advisor). He also famously decamped to Japan in 2006, where he studies Japanese and watches movies, apparently. And of course pieces together minor miracles of neo-classical pop music.
There’s been much made of the fact that this is the fourth album of a quadrilogy – a cycle named after Nic Roeg films started by Bad Timing back in 1997 and moving through Eureka and Insignificance. By rights The Visitor should have been called Castaway then, instead this seems to be a sly reference to another Roeg film – The Man Who Fell to Earth. So why the change in tack? I wonder if O’Rourke ditched the Castaway title precisely because it was too suggestive and over-coded, too indicative of his current status as an émigré in Japan and to what the content of this opaque, and at times unknowable piece of work might mean? Is this further retreat inward? He – and his work – has always been the very model of enigmatic, and you often hear a kind of weary ‘oh, he’s just a post-modernist, all style and no substance’ reaction to his work, maybe it’s a response to that. Maybe. Whatever the reason, you get the impression this is a life’s work, a summation of something. It means a good deal.
And after all that waffly bollocks what does it sound like? The 200 tracks mentioned above should give you some idea. The scope of The Visitor is quite extraordinary – both in its execution and its ambition. It’s a voyage out and a self-referencing song cycle, a meticulously pieced together summation of everything O’Rourke has attempted to date. During its 38 minutes, through the use of everything from an oboe, and a piano to a Hammond organ and a flute (and of course his signature Takoma-inspired guitar playing) it references Gershwin, John Fahey, Todd Rundgren, Van Dyke Parks, Steely Dan, Bill Evans – and there must be a whole lot more I’m missing. There is so much packed in here – horizontally and vertically – that you’re as much controlled by an inner-orienting ear as much as your external lugholes, searching the intricate nature of the recording like it were a piece of baroque architecture. As such, talking of individual moments is kind if self-defeating as there are so many recurring motifs and oblique moments of self-reference that gradually reveal themselves, but particular moments do present themselves: the first time the tinkling glass-like piano motif appears around the 16-minute mark; a section of 5/4 wobble led by an Oboe and banjo that sounds like a weirdly Appalachian Steely Dan; the later descending piano figure that seems a direct reference backwards to Bad Timing…
All of which returns us to the central dilemma of The Visitor and O’Rourke in general – that sense of the ineffable. Is the album a pretty bagatelle, the shiny glitter ball of the cover, all reflective surface? Or is there a meaningful core to all this, a lasting body of work that will ultimately rank up there with the best? Or both? I suspect this dance is an elementary part of the puzzle of O’Rourke, and whilst we’re tripping over our awkward feet he’s quietly laughing, safe in the knowledge that he’s made the album of his life.
Download: Jim O'Rourke - Not Sport, Martial Art (from the Halfway to Threeway EP 1999).
Artist: Doug McCombs and David Daniell
Label: Thrill Jockey
This is up over at TLOBF. They have my soul.
Doug McCombs and David Daniell are two busy people – both members of fully functioning bands (Tortoise and San Agustin), both dabble in numerous side projects (Pullman, Brokeback), not to mention Daniell’s near infinite number of limited releases and collaborations. So it’s probably no real shock that these two met whilst moonlighting in Rhys Chatham’s mighty six-guitar Die Donnergötter band. A point which is all too relevant when you hear the depth and breadth of the guitar music they’ve made on Sycamore – this is the Big Music: room-filling swells of sound, at once obviously made from guitars, yet rising beyond the medium to scrape at something else.
Sycamore has a live sound to it – cavernous and humming; yet the record is actually closer to a cut and paste experiment in that it’s the product of two live sessions (totalling around 7 hours over 5 days) but the results were then chopped and edited with John McEntire at his Soma Studios in Chicago. This is the first of many nods to the pioneering studio work Teo Macero undertook on those glorious collaborations with Miles David that lit-up the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This is very apparent on a track like ‘The Deshabille’ – an eerie spacy track, falling somewhere close to Labradford, where Daniell sounds very like John McLaughlin circa In A Silent Way. The nod is also there on the epic ‘Bursera’ which could be something from the In A Silent Way sessions as conducted by Keith Fullerton Whitman.
‘Bursera’ is probably the centrepiece here – it’s certainly where the simple idea of two intertwined guitars is pushed to its seam-bursting logical limit. Frank Rosaly – a veteran of the Chicago scene – augments Daniell and McCombs here on drums and electronics, adding buried ride and splash touches (that In A Silent Way/Jack Johnson touch again). The track begins with some muted harmonics, the guitar sounding almost like a prepared piano; then Daniell’s huge McLaughlin sound takes the track skyward, with Rosaly adding some subtly layered drones. At around the 7-minute mark something cracks and there is a whiteout: Rosaly’s drums sound near magma-deep in the mix, the guitars a squall of noise. When the calm returns it’s blessed, sacred.
‘Vejer de Frontera’ is similarly epic in form. At fifteen and half minutes, it is an abstract exploration of muted rhythms (provided by John Herndon) and faintly treated guitars that seem to float and sway in some unseen sonic wind. Like ‘Bursera’ the track swells towards its end, the guitars spiralling together – but here there is no whiteout, just a sense of drift. The track falls away into silence.
Percentage scores for records are arbitrary at the best of times, but for stuff like this they become largely pointless as in many ways it’s like trying to score a canvas. But as it stands, Sycamore as a piece of work is a fine addition to the canon of experimental guitar music – and a fine addition to the extensive catalogues of McCombs and Daniell.
You can get this over at Thrill Jockey - it's a vinyl only release though and limited to 1000 copies...
Download: Douglas McCombs and David Daniell - The Deshabille
Tortoise (photo by chimpomatic)
This is up at TLOBF, with some ace pics by Valerio Berdini.
I hadn’t been to the Garage in years, that misbegotten charnel pit, dizzy at the top of Upper Street in Islington. I’d seen Neurosis here once – during the times of the IRA bombings – and on route to the venue had been manhandled by a stern copper with a gun; I’d also been deafened by the mighty Six by Seven here, who somehow suited the scuzz and dirt of the venue. My last visit must have been in 1995 or something – to see a buzz band Truly, out of Seattle. They came on, were beset by technical difficulties and left after 20 minutes. Tonight, in late evening heat, Tortoise arrive and immediately breakdown – Jeff Parker’s guitar refusing to cooperate. They fiddle and prod for the best part of 10 minutes. ‘I’m jinxed’, I think…
I’d not heard Pivot before tonight – an Australian 3 piece on Warp, who made a gorgeous racket, that was equal parts post-rock poise, Boards of Canada’s stuttering beats and a melodic sense that reeked of Eno. For a 3 piece they sounded wide – the sound as it built creating a strangely horizontal wash that moved outwards from the stage and gradually filled the room. The band’s drummer, Laurence Pike, was a huge presence and any other night would have walked off with the plaudits – except when you’re supporting Tortoise you’ve got not 1 but 3 other drummers to contend with…
It started well: ‘Prepare Your Coffin’ a wall of precision future-funk. Then Parker’s guitar started playing up. We stood in our clammy aeroplane-skin under great downdraughts of conditioned air as Tortoise noodled and poked at their faulty equipment; and from here it was like watching them through a glass wall in their studio. Or they looked alarmingly like a bunch of dads in their (ahem) garage. It’s easy to forget just how long the band have been around, and that they’re now starting to age – albeit gracefully: Doug McCombs, walrus mustachioed, pate gleaming in the blue light; John McEntire and Dan Bitney greying and balding; John Herndon, despite his hulk, having a ghost of a middle age spread…; only Jeff Parker looked barely a day over 25. His equipment however, tonight at least is positively geriatric.
Jeff Parker, and offending guitar (photo by mreh)
Thankfully the band get it sorted, but through ‘Gigantes’ and ‘High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In’ (especially the extended thud of the coda) there is still a gap in the sound and it isn’t until another break for running repairs (with Parker looking less and less happy with things by the minute) and the calmer ‘The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls’ that the band really settle. ‘Swung From the Gutters’ from TNT is given greater belly live, McCombs’ bass like a predatory beast. On ‘Monica’ too, with McEntire and Bitney crashing at the two drum kits at centre front of the stage, they are like a lumbering megatherium, a many limbed rhythmical beast.
The visuals made total sense in context too – a series of sweeping shots of building fronts, glass glinting in the sun, arms and elbows of bridge architecture, bone white against the sky. Tortoise give the impression of being an improv band but their sound is meticulously arranged and pieced together, hence the neuroses about the equipment, and hence the architectural presence of their live sound. They bruise for sure, but with elegance. As such, ‘Dot/Eyes’ (from It’s All Around You) is a clanging, flailing thing – and probably the closest they come to genuine dissonance – but it’s all immaculately constructed and delivered. Not to mention mesmerising. That they follow it up with ‘Crest’ one of their more plangent and sonorous songs says so much about what the band are still capable of.
John McEntire and Doug McCombs (photo by mreh)
I clamber to the front for the encore – a thrash through ‘Yinxianghechengqi’, the southern noir of ‘I Set My Face to the Hillside’ the chop and swirl of ‘Salt the Skies’ - and up close, through the gleam of the twin drum kits, the intricacies stand out sharp and clear – instead of a lumbering rhythmic beast, they become almost machinic, clinical and shard-sharp. Herndon hunched over one of the two vibraphones, Bitney stately over a bank of keyboards. And by this stage, Parker has obviously recovered his sound as there is a great broad fuzz that had so been missing earlier on.
By the time ‘Seneca’ has come and gone, a towering thing, and the band – smiling now – have exited stage right, we’re mostly punch drunk. All talk of age is useless – up there is a bunch of kids having the time of their lives and making some of the most vital music anywhere in the world right now.