Friday, 27 January 2012

Spacedog - Juice For The Baby

Juice for the Baby Cover Art

Link to Spacedog Bandcamp page

A disused and dismal music hall provides the setting for a music hall act that is playing to an audience of one. The audience member may have found they are present by sheer coincidence, or indeed, they may be present against their own free will. Each act that softly takes the stage has a story to tell. Each story is accompanied by the unearthly sound of the theremin, saw, recorder, handbell, glockenspiel and vibraphone. A young girl’s voice narrates a tale and an English gentleman tells another. Yet another passionate story unfolds sung in the sweetest of tones. Amid the darkest of long forgotten and misheard folk tales, a familiar tune by the French chanteur Jacques Brel, barely recognisable, breaks through into the dusty room. A variety of broken and long since forgotten about toys and discarded scenery provide the landscape, as each piece makes way for the next. The solitary listener, at first wary of the display unfolding before them, has, over the duration of the first few numbers, acclimatised themselves as each piece becomes more and more familiar.
Surrounded by the spectre of Edwardian music hall, the listener finally becomes at ease with their surroundings and is certainly unprepared for the violent repositioning of time that is “Ekranoplan”. The listener is temporarily transported to what they believe to be an East German bed sit in the mid to late 1960’s. The listener is most rightly confused, but has nowhere obvious to escape. The deeply troubling mood returns as passages from Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” are read aloud, and the listener cannot help but sense they are in some way contained by a play depicting a nanny at once soothing, at once disquieting their charge. The morbid, yet strangely alluring sound of the saw during “Hypnotist” unnerves the listener, who looks around the auditorium anxiously. The final act of the performance depicts the demise of the much loved, and much misunderstood English comedian Tommy Cooper, whose death on stage during one of his performances was misinterpreted as being part of his routine. The illustrious magician provides some degree of authenticity to the tale.
The listener, now realising they are free to leave this most unsettling of experiences, moves unhurriedly to the light at the rear of the auditorium, considering as they leave, their relationship to the spectacle. Hauntology has been argued to be the place where we can interrogate our relationship with the dead, examine the intangible identities of the living and explore the boundaries between thought and the unthought-of. The ghost, in these terms, becomes the focus for competing moral and epistemological deliberation. The spirit present throughout the duration of “Juice for the Baby” is Spacedog.

Eric Chenaux - Guitar & Voice review

Favorites-of ’12:: Eric Chenaux Guitar & Voice

In 2010 Toronto based musician Eric Chenaux (Phleg Camp, The Reveries, The Draperies and The Lifelikeweeds) released “Warm Weather” with Ryan Driver (Deep Dark United, The Silt, The Fake New Age Music band and mutant jazz outfit The Ryan Driver Quartet).  Since then Chenaux has been uncharacteristically quiet in terms of solo albums. This latest venture Guitar and Voice is precisely that, and yet a lot more. Nine tunes, many, featuring the plaintive, almost wraithlike, voice of Chenaux, accompanied by solo guitar, some, simple poignant instrumentals. Not to say that one should expect any ordinary album of guitar and voice based verse, Guitar And Voice features playing that is at once delicate and complimentary to the voice, the next searing tangentially into dissonance.

The opening track “Amazing Backgrounds” features vocals brimming with despair and melancholia, resting upon guitar lines that wrench any essence of romanticism from the piece, and leave the listener curious and slightly unnerved.  “Simple/Frontal” is an instrumental piece that despite displaying no obvious sense of melody uses the guitar to create a soundscape of unfinished, and in some way, not quite yet fashioned tunes. Whereas again “Dull Light (White or Grey)” is a more or less straightforward tune that still somehow manages to display the unique characteristics of Chenaux’s playing. There is a sense that the guitar lines throughout may be improvised, and the very strings themselves are coming to life and creating music of their very own.

“Sliabh Aughty” opens with sustained guitar lines that are distorted, bent and mutated and may be familiar to the connoisseur of improvised or avant guard guitar.  But again Chenaux makes these simple lines his own which should be regarded as a remarkable feat in itself. The lines gradually increase in intensity and distortion to finally envelop the listener who is still willing to pay attention. “Put in Music” has all the characteristics of the improvised guitar playing of Derek Bailey with scratched, bowed and scraped strings, alongside distant vocals that somehow successfully manage to complement the cacophony that those guitar phrases create. On pieces such as “However Wildly We Dream” those never ending, yet never really begun melodies are somehow immersed into the song as a whole, and it is not until one is prepared to deconstruct the song, that one realises how these should not be capable of being fused together. The great strength of this collection is that these disparate elements do combine to create some truly original and inspirational pieces.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Poison Idea - Darby Crash Rides Again: The Early Years review

Poison Idea were formed in 1980 in Portland, Oregon, essentially by vocalist Jerry A. Lang. Their music at the time was very much informed by hardcore bands such as The Germs and Black Flag, whilst their motivation and drive was very much influenced by the work of bands such as Discharge. Their anger and energy pushed the speed limits of contemporary punk to a level which, for the time, was refreshingly original.  2012 sees Southern Lord release a number of Poison Idea titles, including “Darby Crash Rides Again: The Early Years”. Most of the material that covers the 29 short tracks, is either previously unissued or long being out of print. Essentially the album comprises Boner’s Kitchen Demo from 1981, Darby Crash Rides Again demo from 1982, a 1983 KBOO radio show and outtakes from the sessions that made up “Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes”. The songs that come together to make up the Boners Kitchen Demo provide a fascinating document as to where the band were, and how the music was allowed to develop and mutate. The recording is one continuous piece that includes band conversation and mistakes. The tunes are satisfyingly brutal and immediate, and although not note perfect, give the listener access to an archive of material that is vital to any history of American hardcore in the early 1980’s.

The KBOO radio benefit show is remarkable, not only for the quality of the live recording, but again, for the opportunity to experience some of the between song dialogue which at times is rather tongue in cheek, “…if you don’t call in, we’re going to keep playing this fucking noise, until we drive you crazy”. Indeed. A number of tunes appear more than once over the duration of the set, including their insane cover of Hawkwind’s “Motorhead”, which gives Lemmy’s tune their characteristic hardcore pummelling.

Sadly, Poison Idea guitarist “Pig Champion” died in 2006 and drummer Steve Hanford was arrested in 2008 for a number of alleged pharmacy robberies. That Southern Lord are releasing these artefacts now is testament to their support of the hardcore scene and the need to make these recordings available as an oral history of the development of the scene over the past 30 years.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Earth - Angels of Darkness Demons of Light II review for This Is Not A Scene webzine

Earth - Angels Of Darkness, Demons Of Light II


“Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II”, recorded in the same two week session in 2011 as the first instalment, sees Seattle’s Earth delving further into the realms of folklore, and music that has at its essence the acid folk generation.

The album itself opens with ‘Sigil of Brass,’ a gently meandering interplay of delicate guitar lines that ushers the listener into ‘His Teeth Did Brightly Shine,’ where the interplay between the sparse sounding instrumentation moves onto another level. The tone is profoundly mesmerising and leaves the listener curious as to where these changes are leading. The pace of the piece builds laboriously over the next six or seven minutes, until finally ‘Multiplicity of Doors’ introduces percussion and cello to baleful effect. This is not to say that the momentum of the album is in any way fractured or non-linear, as each piece flows effortlessly throughout.

There is a striking sense of improvisational communication between the participating musicians which lends “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II” a strong sense that as each track passes, the whole is being developed organically.

The line up on the album, together with Dylan Carson is complemented by a remarkably diverse array of musicians including Adrienne Davies on percussion, Lori Goldston on cello (who has worked artists as divergent as David Byrne and Nirvana) and Karl Blau on bass. ‘The Corascene Dog’ follows on in the same vein of intelligent contemplative progression, and a common thread develops in that despite being the work of a particular mind, the pieces are now very closely informed by the participating musicians.

In many ways the album has brought together elements that have characterised Earth’s body of work over the years, from the lumbering, howling, distorted guitar lines that were such a feature of “Earth 2” we now have those similar lines again, but in a more restrained and subdued form. The familiar lengthy, repetitive lines are apparent, but whereas in previous incarnations those lines would have beaten the listener into submission with sheer volume and presence, those lines are now delivered with poise and grace and cagoule the listener into quiet contemplation.

The final track ‘The Rakehell’ adds yet another layer to the experience and, although still moving carefully forward, has a somewhat more tuneful, lounge jazz feel. Again, this is not to be derogative of the compositions on “Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II”, but to suggest a dramatic leap forward for the second incarnation of Earth, who forge ahead in style and content and should be thought of as an example of the creative spirit in progress.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

"Apollo: For All Mankind" Icebreaker with guest B J Cole live review

Link to Opera North blog version

Apollo: For All Mankind
Icebreaker with guest B J Cole
Howard Assembly Room Friday 20th January 2012

Formed by James Poke and John Godfrey in 1989, Icebreaker have grown to be one of the country’s leading exponents of contemporary music, performing and recording works by artists such as Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Philip Glass and Brian Eno. The unique array of instrumentation that Icebreaker employ assure them of their distinctive character in the field of contemporary music interpretation. B J Cole is a familiar name to anyone interested in music in general and may be considered as the pedal steel players’ pedal steel player. He can be heard on recordings from artists as disparate as Sting, Elton John on “Tiny Dancer”, Scott Walker, Joan Armatrading on “Down to Zero” and David Sylvian. After the interval at this evening’s performance, Cole explained how, through hearing the pedal steel playing by Daniel Lanois on the original album and soundtrack version of “Apollo: For All Mankind” he was inspired to release the instrument from the domain of country and western music and encompass the field of ambient and experimental avant garde music. Collaborations with artists such as Luke Vibert, Harold Budd and John Cale have proved his credentials in this arena.
This evening’s performance at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds, rapidly becoming one of the crucial spaces in the city for left field and experimental projects, began with Terry Riley’s “In C”. Anyone familiar with the history and development of minimalist music will be aware of the importance of this piece, which in many ways could be argued to be the template for the development of this type of approach to music. Essentially, “In C” is a series of 53 short musical phrases which are repeated by each individual player as often as they like, at any tempo or in any particular order. The piece itself develops organically allowing each participant the freedom to improvise within the given margins. The performance this evening which was built up of flute, pan pipe, keyboards, saxophones, clarinet, electric violin and cello, percussion, guitar, bass guitar and pedal steel guitar, perfectly illustrated how, through an almost telepathic sense of the occasion, Riley’s piece could simultaneously hold onto the attention of the audience whilst transporting them on a journey through the network of developing phrases.
2009 was the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, and to help recognise this occasion Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum in London, suggested the idea of producing a live version of Al Reinert’s film “For All Mankind”. The film in essence is compiled from archive footage of the Apollo missions, and was originally sound tracked by Brian Eno, his brother Roger and guitarist Daniel Lanois. The subtle blend of ambient sound scapes and pedal steel guitar was inspired by the knowledge that many of the astronauts took recordings of country music with them for recreation on the space missions. Woojun Lee was, apparently, personally selected by Brian Eno to transcribe the original soundtrack for live performance. This project was premiered in 2009 at the IMAX Cinema at the Science Museum by Icebreaker. The performance this evening, which made up the second part of the programme, by Icebreaker and B J Cole, synchronised with an edited version of the original film, proved just how perfectly the two media can come together to produce an experience of such sublime beauty. The take off sequences in particular were at once tense and heart warming, whilst the images of the astronauts walking on the moon’s surface and repeatedly falling, gave the piece a sense of humanity. The music perfectly reflected the sense of occasion and poignancy of the film and its narrative, and should be regarded as a template itself for how multimedia performances can achieve success. The Howard Assembly Room itself is a space which has both intimacy and a sense of grandeur and is the perfect location for this and, hopefully, future projects of this nature.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Coloured Lines - Machines for the New Dawn review for Alternative Matter webzine

Coloured Lines is the alter ego of Adam Greenhead, and in his own words, “Machines For The New Dawn” is a “…personal reflection of the current political and economic situation that the world has drove itself towards”. The album opens with a soundscape of minimalistic electronic patterns woven together with the vague disembodied female voice which puts the listener in the frame of mind of the confused paranoid citizen, bombarded with words and sentences they are unable to make sense of and anxious in the modern dystopia. “Scavengers” continues that theme with mournful vocal interspersed with the disembodied voices, over sparse drum, bass and keyboard patterns. The final line, “you’re not the only one”, repeats harrowingly into the subconscious. Some of the tracks, such as “Phobophobia”, are more upbeat in essence but are no less menacing and political in their vocal delivery and content, “maybe you should harm yourself, your filth clenches to my nostrils”, contradicts the vocal style to remarkable effect.

The feeling of paranoia and urban seclusion returns with “Feed Me to the Vulture”, again minimalistic, gossamer thin keyboard lines form the background to words that are barely attainable. The title track “Machines For The New Dawn” and “I Heart Guns” follow a similar theme, this time with a more obvious rhythm track which breaks the mood but not the message. “Happy Meal” is a lesson in consumerism for us all, “I’m so lost, but I’ll cling to my Happy Meal, Festering, I feel the filth”. The most upbeat and candidly funky track on the album “The Wire”, still manages to retain that feeling of menace and bewilderment that by now has come to be the thread running throughout “Machines for the New Dawn”.

It would be deceitful to make direct comparisons to the influences that are cited; Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Cinematic Orchestra and Radiohead. But there is confirmation throughout this release that techniques of layering uncomplicated, delicate passages, and gradually building each composition up to realisation, are evident in abundance, and credit must be given for creating a work of such originality from those elements. The album is available to download from the Coloured Lines Bandcamp site on a pay what you like basis, with a minimum of £4. In this respect too, Coloured Lines are at the forefront of a new model of music distribution for the twenty first century.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The DRX - The Deepening Hole review for Alternative Matter webzine

It has to be said that there are very few albums or EP’s that come to the listener as a genuine surprise in that they display that essence of originality. “The Deepening Hole” by the DRX, essentially the brainchild of Dan Romans, has that essence of surprise from the opening few minutes of “Love Has Lost the Meaning It Once Had”. Opening with roaring waves of abrasive guitar and guttural, barked vocal, one gets the feeling that this is another pedestrian post-rock symphony. Surprise then, when the track veers off into jazz-like passages with keyboard and horn sections that support a now clean, straight forward vocal style which, on paper, appears untidy and directionless, but in reality works well together to form a unique listening experience.

The second piece on this EP, “The Deepening Hole” is a mellow, yet harrowing song sung straight with nothing but lush instrumentation to support some frankly naked vocal emotion, which is what one might come to suppose as regards a song dealing with the subject of publicly disembowelling oneself. The final track, “Episode V”, seems to display elements of both its’ predecessors in that there are certainly passages of intricate riffing in complex time signatures, sliced through with aggressive and desperate, yet more confident, vocal.The piece ends with another turn of events as the pace is slowed right down to a dirge which ends the EP with some demonic vocal wailing, which, again, academically would not work, but in reality is perfectly in keeping with the mood and the tone of “The Deepening Hole”.

Dan Romans has a background in post-rock (Izzi Creo), post-hardcore (Faello Nor) and jazz, and these disparate elements help to inform the sound of the DRX. The variety of classical and electronic instrumentation involved in piecing together the songs and the complexity and diversity of styles present gives some indication that any future full length release from the DRX will be opportunity for further welcome surprises.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Steve Brand - Upwelling review for Alternative Matter

Steve Brand began work in the experimental music field under the working name of Augur, but in 2003 began releasing “ambient” music under his own name. Since that time he has released a number of projects within the field of profound sound worlds, including work on the Relaxed Machinery label. Upwelling consists of a collection of pieces, such as re-workings/remixes of Forgotten Feast and Morning Glory which were completed while working on previous albums, and Upwelling and The Web, which are remixes and reinterpretations of tracks originally available online as freedownloads.

As well as working in the field of sound creation, Brand is a Reiki Master and visual artist. He describes his work as “…more than being just an object for sale, as actually a fluid and transformative process that opens us up to new possibilities that create the potential for healing spiritually and physically, and connects us via its roots in our common ancient past with its wellspring in the depths of our larger selves”. This manifesto becomes apparent from the opening few moments of the first piece “Forgotten Feast” which takes the listener on a journey through delicate waves of ethereal sound which are both discordant and responsive, and spill over with a sense that although they are electronic in origin, the overall essence is that of an organic unit which matures throughout the duration of each piece. Elsewhere “The Language of Moon and Tides” is infused with distant, echoing wordless voices which at once seem to unnerve the listener but essentially draws them further into the landscape.

“Morning Glory” and “The Web” emerge as more heartening and compassionate, and are not, it could be argued, infused with the sheer iciness of many of the other pieces, which seem to float and drift forward with a machine like precision. With each piece given the time to expand and breathe, Brand intelligently allows the music to mutate and evolve. There is a sense in which each piece could at any moment become dark and solemn, and it is testament to the craftsmanship of each composition that the line is never crossed and each passage skims gently across the subconscious of the listener.  There is transparency to each of the pieces on “Upwelling” which demands the listener’s attention and respect. Words in a review such as “atonal” and “drone” can often be seen as warning signals to those unfamiliar with its possible permutations. Each piece on “Upwelling” is never static and if given the attention it deserves, rewards the listener with, as Brand would possibly argue himself, the space to facilitate expansion, perception, passion and ultimately, healing.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Ronin - Fenice review for This Is Not A Scene magazine

Ronin - Fenice

Ronin, essentially the brainchild of Bruno Dorella, formed in 1999 with the idea of fusing Balkan and Mediterranean folk, whilst at the same time being infused with the essence of Ennio Morricone soundtrack composition and guitar isolationism. Since then their music has been used to soundtrack a range of film and television projects, and they have toured extensively through Italy and the rest of Europe.

“Fenice” is their fourth full length album release and provides abundant evidence as to why the music of Ronin lends itself to the soundtrack format. The first piece ‘Spade’ is built upon elaborate lines that form the backbone to luscious landscapes of sound that bring to mind the dusty sets of some of the greatest Morricone films, whilst the second, ‘Beneveto,’ swings with excitement and joy and lifts the listener temporarily away from placid contemplation. ‘Selce’ brings the journeying listener back to the scorched horizon of ‘Spade’ and the Western motif, whilst ‘Jambiya’ displays many twists and turns of mood and pace, based largely on the sharp use of instrumentation and well crafted songwriting. The title track ‘Fenice’ slows the mood back down to create a space of perfect calm and relaxation.

Essentially, now Bruno Dorella on guitar, Nicola Ratti guitar, Chet Martino bass and Paolo Mongardi on drums, the album features a number of special guests notably the vocalist Emma Tricca who performs vocal duties on a breathtaking cover version of ‘It Was a Very Good Year,’ written by Ervin Drake and made famous by Frank Sinatra, and delivered in a surrealist expressionless manner which perfectly encapsulates the sentiment behind the lyrics.

As we near the end of “Fenice,” ‘Gentleman Only’ brings the atmosphere back to that of a festive swing, and features a recurrent theme which has the privilege of fusing itself to the listener’s brain. ‘Nord’ abruptly brings the mood back down to a virtual drone of other worldly mysticism before turning the corner into what could be described as the soundtrack to a mid 1970’s science fiction television serial. The album closes with ‘Conjure Men’ which is at once uplifting and evocative and features the horn section of Gabrielli, Raffaele Kohler and Luciano Macchia to bring the album to a stately and dignified close.

Listening to “Fenice” from start to finish there is a definite sense that the willing participant is being taken on a journey, and throughout that journey a number of stories and sideshows are on offer. Second guitarist Nicola Ratti, who specialises in other projects in ambient drone brings that essence to “Fenice” and colours each piece with a meditative and enigmatic tone. A collection of disparate tunes that can effectively tell a story and maintain the listeners’ attention is a feat of true craftsmanship, and Bruno Dorella and Ronin on “Fenice” display that craft with abundance.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Interview with solo bass player Steve Lawson for Alternative Matter

Alternative Matter’s very own John Toolan was very impressed with the latest album by Steve Lawson, entitled Believe In Peace. Steve was more than happy to share his insights on the remarkable composing and recording process of his latest project, musical improvisation in general and the use of social media platforms to get his music out to the masses…

What inspired you to record and release this particular piece of improvisation?

The recording part was easy – as far as possible, I record every gig, and most of my practice sessions. This is possible because my live and studio rigs are identical, so instead of using a mixing desk to pull all the various looped and processed elements together, I use a MOTU soundcard, which I can hook up to my laptop for instant multi-track recording! It’s made for some wonderful live stuff being captured that in any other setting, we’d have been lucky to get a tape from an audience member of.

Deciding to release it was just a matter of it being interesting enough, and feeling like it represented the art well – Geoff Bush has been very supportive of the idea, and was kind enough to invite us to play at his exhibition in the first place. The initial recording had some horrible interference on all the tracks, but computer wizardry being what it is these days, I was able to remove the buzzing sound without affecting and the music at all. It’s remarkable!

In my review of Believe In Peace I cited the work of guitarist Derek Bailey who has written extensively on the art of improvising, how important to a history of music as a craft is improvising to you?

I was really pleased to see the Bailey reference, as his work, and that book in particular were touch stones for me. As an improvising musician from London, the work of that original 60s free improv crowd – which included Derek, and Evan Parker, Gavin Bryars, John Stevens, Kenny Wheeler etc. – and that of their musical descendants, has been huge influence on me. Obviously, I don’t come from the same ‘non-idiomatic’ place when it comes to playing, but that’s partly because I never felt the strangle hold of jazz as something to react against. I also saw improv as being about ‘conversational music’ – saying the best thing that can be said in the moment. In conversation, I don’t feel any need to neologise, or say things that no-one has ever said before. I just want to say the right thing, the most useful and helpful thing I can, the most beautiful thing I can. Same with improvising.

Its place in music, for me is defined by the distinction between ‘right’ and ‘good’. If I’m playing a composition, my first question is ‘is it right?’ – have I correctly rendered the music in the way it was intended, or the way that the bandleader expects me to. Within that is the assumption that it exists because someone else thinks it’s good, but that aesthetic judgement is not necessarily my primary concern.

If, however, I’m improvising, then there’s no such thing as ‘right’. There is only good. I’m asking myself, ‘what’s going on? where are we, and how can I add something to this that will make it fuller or better realised than without me, how can I move this forward (if indeed it needs to move forward)?’ – I’ve often sat silent in improvised music situations for entire sections – 15 or 20 minutes – because what was happening around felt fully realised without my contribution. That’s not really an option if I’m playing in a string quartet, to spontaneously remix Schubert by deciding to mute the cello part for a while and see what happens… I mean, I guess you could, but it’d be a fairly dramatic turn of events in a gig where people have paid to hear the original!

So, that coming together of musicians in a democratic space where the main basis for playing is mutual respect and admiration, and hopefully a very high degree of trust, is a wholly different proposition. Of course, improvised music isn’t always like that, just in the way that performing pre-written music doesn’t always (often?) reach that ecstatic height of realising the artistic vision of the composer in its most transcendent form. But that’s the journey. And that journey is mirrored in the journey of the music itself. In some ways, improvising is a microcosm of a life in music, or a culture’s relationship with music, or indeed that of humanity and music!

In a sense improvisation may be regarded as “impulsive composition”. How true do you think that is?

I think that’s very much true, for me. I know musicians whose main ‘use’ of improvisation is to play LOADS of stuff in the studio and then edit the good stuff from it – to just blow and see what comes out, then cut out the rubbish. I’ve never done that. It’s always felt antithetical to my sense of the journey that’s happening in the moment to play like that. If what I’m playing doesn’t ultimately matter, I can’t feel like it has any value… I have to play as though each thing I’m playing IS that impulsive – or spontaneous – composition, that it has ultimate value, that it is the highest expression of what I’m capable of at that moment.

For me, being a musician is all about making great decisions, and then having the physical control to make the music that those decisions require for their fulfillment. That decision making process is in response to awareness. Awareness and control are the two poles that it all hangs on, whether I’m composing, interpreting or improvising. I still have to make wise decisions and then make a good noise.

How important is the audience reaction, either approval or disapproval, to the process of musical improvisation? Presumably recording improvised music in a studio environment denies the artist that spontaneous feedback?

I do love getting that instant reaction, and I’ve very rarely ever had a ‘bad’ reaction. Perceived indifference is about as bad as it gets – usually if I’m opening for another act and there’s little context for what I’m doing for the audience. But for the most part, I’ve actually got my head down, focused on the things that I need to do to make my music work – my fretless intonation, what’s going on with the various loop stuff, which sounds are on which track in my looper for future processing… The sense of audience appreciation usually comes at the end. But my own assessment of it can sometimes be at odds with the audience’s reaction. I’ve played things I thought were incredible, even when listening back, that the audience didn’t really seem to get, and I’ve had standing ovations for gigs that felt like I was wading through creative treacle… So it varies.

What are the specific challenges for the improvising musician, particularly playing solo bass, who is performing alone without other musicians available to stimulate or influence you?

Ideas. The hardest thing is having the gem of an idea to start with. Most of my practice time is spent building vocabulary – note sequences, chord ideas, phrasing options, sounds – that can be drawn on as a launch point for a particular improvisation. I often build things on very open ideas – pad or chordal parts that have harmonic content that’s not too restrictive in terms of what can happen against it. That means I can then react on an emotional level to how that first idea comes back to me in the room. Does it suggest something dark, something light, something rhythmic, something fluid? All are possibilities… Bass is a wonderful instrument on which to improvise because it has very little in the way of ‘baggage’ – there is no ‘Stairway To Heaven’ of the bass, it doesn’t pull you quite so desperately towards playing whole, conceived pieces. So improv starts from a place of possibility. That feels great.

If I’m playing with someone else, then you basically kick the ball to them when you start and see what they do with it – it’s like a game of consequences, only you can see what the last person wrote. So you add your bit and it goes back and forth, hopefully with a natural flow of attention from one of you to the other…

I must admit to being a lover of improvised music in many forms, but how difficult do you think it is to transfer that spontaneity to a permanent medium such as CD or download?

I don’t see recordings as ‘permanent’ in any sense other than the existential one. They are a memento, a snapshot of the experience of the music happening. Recordings aren’t music, they are recordings of music, so as a musician you let them go and they take on their own life. They get played through endless stereos of varying quality, in different environments with different background noises and distractions, so every experience of that recording is different. Meanwhile, I’m onto another thing, and more music is being created and recorded and those are being allowed to set forth into the world… I see recordings as narrative entities – they are part of my story, but they have their own story, and other people will use them for their own story telling quite apart from their origins. That’s a wonderful experience.

In the arena of purely improvised music, who would you recommend as a starting point for the listener who may be reluctant or apprehensive to investigate?

There are a few that I have found particularly inspirational over the years – there are three guitarists that have informed by aesthetic quite extensively – Bill Frisell, David Torn and Nels Cline – all of whom switch very freely between composed elements and freely improvised music. David Torn describes his improvisational approach as ‘pan-idiomatic’ which is one I’ve claimed too.

Beyond that, I’m a fan of Keith Jarrett’s improvised music, both the solo piano stuff and the trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. And finally King Crimson – I love the risks the various members of Crimson take with improv. If you listen to THRaKaTTaK – the album of improvisations that the double trio version of the band put out, there’s a lot of stuff on there that is the sound of them finding where to go next. That’s fascinating. It’s gritty and real and honest, and I like that a lot.

Using spaces to perform music in that are not traditionally regarded as concert spaces, such as art galleries or house concerts, has long fascinated me, how important are these spaces to you as a performer?

Hugely important! It wasn’t until Lobelia and I started playing almost exclusively house concerts that I realised just how toxic so many environments where music gets played are to both its performance and enjoyment. The sense that you as a performer are there primarily to get people to buy beer can stifle creativity a lot. A house concert is all about music, but it’s music stripped off the bullshit of fame and celebrity. No-one who thinks of themselves as a celeb is going to play a house concert to 20 people, unless they’re charging 5 grand a ticket and only playing to their equally wealthy friends. House concerts are a great leveler. You’re there to play music, but we all come together around that shared desire for the music to be made a priority, for the experience of it to be something of value, rather than something that provides a way to make money out of something else. I love that.

Making your music available on such user friendly and flexible sites such as Bandcamp appears to be such an efficient means now to build an audience for your music. How important are these sites to your model of how the music industry has developed over the past 3 to 5 years?

They are of such importance that the terminology of ‘the music industry’ is pretty much redundant right now. We have a music economy that is ‘post-industrial’ – or perhaps even pre-industrial. For me it’s no longer about the manufacture of ‘stuff’ but about an ongoing experiment in making music that I feel is meaningful available to people who share that sense, and then between us finding a way to make it possible to allow more of it to exist, and more like minded people to find it. The transactions are built on the listeners gratitude for the existence of the music and the story that it is the consequence of.

So there’s a financial component to that, but the notion of sustainability is no longer just about making a wage, or market share, or whatever. It’s relational, it considers artistic freedom and integrity as a factor, and it also invites in those who would otherwise be excluded due to the higher financial barrier to entry. When you’re  confronted with a ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ proposition, you have to make a decision. Do I take this seriously or not? I’m sure there are some people who lazily see that and go ‘great, free shit!’, but my guess is they are in the minority. By and large, the people who download my music for free do so as an act of discovery, or because they genuinely can’t afford to pay for it, or because they are in a part of the world where none of the only payment options are available to them. Those are all wonderful and worthwhile reasons for getting free music, and I’m glad to be able to make that possible.

The flip side is that a high percentage of my listeners pay more for the music that they would on iTunes or Amazon, or even on CD at a show, because they are serious about wanting to be a tangible part of the ongoing financial viability of making music. If they pay for it, I can spend more time making it. It’s a pretty healthy relationship.

As an artist trying to get people to pay attention to your music, how important do you think social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are now?

Twitter changed so many things for me – Facebook I largely tolerate, but Twitter feels like the thing the internet was invented for – open, friendly, inquisitive conversations happening across the globe with the option to share loads of great things. Sure, people use it to be horrible to each other, to spread lies and to talk about the x-factor too, but it’s so easy to avoid those conversations and not give them the oxygen of attention.

I spend about 9/10ths of my ‘music-talk’ time online pointing my Twitter friends to other people’s music. I’m responsible for far more sales of other people’s music than I am of my own – that stands to reason, I’m a solo bassist and that’s a fairly niche pursuit. But I’m also a solo bassist with a large percentage of non-bass playing listeners, and that’s mostly down to social networks, and a discovery mechanism that isn’t based on searching for keywords. It’s based on interestingness. So instead of trying to think of superlatives to describe what I do in adverts, I just write about things I find interesting, share the good stuff I’ve found elsewhere, and invite others in to be part of that conversation. The soundtrack to all of that is, of course, my own music so there tends to be a point where the people I’m talking to on Twitter will go ‘I wonder what this dude actually sounds like’, mostly with a wildly inaccurate set of assumptions about what a solo bassist will sound like! And then some of them go ‘that’s nice, but not my thing’, some actively dislike it, but still like me, and others think it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever heard. I’m happy with all those three outcomes!

Time for the final question. What specifically inspired you to donate the money raised from the online album sales to the human rights charity Reprieve?

The title of Geoff’s art show was ‘Believe In Peace’ – the onus being on peace as something worth believing in. Not an extant reality that we just assume exists, but as part of a vision of the future that we commit to. So I thought I wanted to do something practical, tangible, towards that end, and I’ve been a supporter of Reprieve for a long time. Their work pursuing legal justice for people whose human rights have been taken from them is deeply inspiring. They campaign on behalf of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo and against the inhuman horror of the death penalty. They’re great people, and I’m happy to be able to do something that raises money for – and awareness of – their vital work.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Final Frontier....

Latest "mixtape"....

The Tomorrow People (Bendix)-Raymond Scott, Star Trek-The Vulcans, Pot Head Pixies-Gong, Magic Fly-Space, The Tomorrow People Theme-Dudley Simpson, Exploring Radio Space-The Soulless Party, Space 1999 Year One Main Theme-Barry Gray, Masters of the Universe-Hawkwind, Space Oddity-William Shatner, Prelude/Outer Space/Radar-Bernard Herrmann.....

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Genesis - ...and then there were three: Music To Stop The Car...

One of the things I find endearing about music as an art form is how it means so many different things to different people at different times. Music can, taken totally out of context, evoke feelings that may be totally at odds with how the music was originally recorded and released into the media. An example of how this can manifest itself is the album "...and then there were three" by Genesis. Released in 1978, and following on from the albums "Wind and Wuthering" and "A Trick of the Tail", many argue  this was the album in which the band began to produce shorter, less ambitious tracks, which were to mark their direction over their final years together as a band. Arguably "...and then there were three" would not be part of many fans of Genesis' top 5 albums by the band.
Whilst driving our daughter to The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield recently, "Many Too Many" a track from the album was played on the radio. Hearing the track in this context immediately brought back memories for me of being 10-12 years old and spending Saturday afternoons in the car travelling to and from family days out, and particularly listening to the Alan Freeman show which was on Radio 1 at the time. The Alan Freeman show then specialised in the music which was forming my cultural ideology ("progressive" rock). The emotions and the feelings evoked by the music were totally disproportionate to the actual song, and, if asked prior to this experience, no connection could possibly have been made between the music and these thoughts. Listening back now to the album takes me back to those years in a way that would not have been possible prior to this moment.

Considering this, I look back at episodes in my life and consider music which helps to recreate narratives. The music on "...and then there were three" does not evoke these responses per se , but almost facilitates some form of conduit back to those childhood years. I am certain that I am not alone in experiencing this, and as I have described above, that to me is the true beauty of the musical craft. The music I have heard and consumed throughout my years has formed some sort of diary, which fluctuates over time, but is almost the tale of the subconscious me.

Steve Lawson - Believe in Peace review for Alternative Matter magazine

In 1992 guitarist and improviser Derek Bailey described improvisation in music as having the curious distinction of being the most practised of all musical activities whilst at the same time being the least acknowledged and understood. [i] Moreover, Bailey argues that any attempt to describe improvisation must be a misapprehension, for there is, for Bailey, something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is divergent to the aims, and contradicts the essence of documentation. Bearing this in mind it is truly challenging for the reviewer to depict the true spirit of a recorded improvisation, as by its very nature it is a “celebration of the moment”, the music is fleeting and any record after the moment can only serve to recall or anticipate it.
 “Believe in Peace” was improvised in the studio as a result of inspiration from an exhibition in Minneapolis by artist Geoff Bush, and the four long tracks on the album are named after hexagrams which were displayed on the vertical sides of a cube which formed one of the central pieces to the exhibition. The pieces themselves are performed solo using fretless bass through samplers, effects units and processors, to take the listener on a tantalizing journey through the mind of the player and the subconscious of the listener. The first section “The Creative” is built upon layers of intricately created feeling which at no time throughout loses the consideration of the listener, an achievement in spontaneous music in general which should be applauded. “Biting Through”, which follows, is layered through with repetitive motifs, which, hypnotic in nature, coax the listener further into the character of the piece before being startled back to reality with some stately, searing guitar lines. The journey meanders tentatively further on as “Grace” lures the listener into soporific contentment before being shot through again with rude and provocative lines of distorted guitar. The album ends with “Inner Truth” a gentle meandering blanket of warmth and kindness which bubbles intermittently with numerous ethereal sounds and effects, and serves to portray the true essence of what the album has been concerned with all along.
 The four pieces weave effortlessly into each other to form virtually one continuous journey which should be a credit to the craftsmanship and humanity that is palpable throughout “Believe in Peace”. Mere words here cannot convey the complexity of feeling that is aroused by solo improvisation that is based purely on the emotions and instinct of the individual, composing in real time and responding to their own playing in a way that can hold the listener engrossed. The album itself is available as a download from on a “pay what you like” basis with a minimum of £3, to allow a £3 donation to be possible to human rights charity Reprieve. If any album of improvised music will move the willing participant to tears, Steve Lawson’s “Believe in Peace” will.

[i] Bailey ,D (1992) Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, London: The British National Sound Archive.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Mr Bitterness and the Guilty Pleasures – Destined for Dust review for Alternative Matter

“Destined for Dust” is the latest release from Los Angeles based Mr Bitterness and the Guilty Pleasures, and available for download on a “name your price” basis, at the time of review, from the Bandcamp site, an innovative forum for artists to get their music heard and circulated as part of a model in which the artist gains maximum recompense for their craft. “Destined for Dust” opens with “Beat Down”, a remarkable electronically fashioned repetitive motif behind some crisp vocal lines which, delivered in their distinctive deadpan style underscore the theme of desolate electronic urban landscapes which are hinted at throughout each piece on this most recent release. That said the second piece “Lonely” is a surprisingly uplifting piece with jarring, recurrent lines that weave along the song to create an atmosphere of joyfulness with just a hint of menace. The title track “Destined for Dust” builds soothingly over the duration into a bouncing electronic pattern, and, as the title suggests, creates an unsettling feeling that, although the music is quite accessible, it hints at a gloomier message within. “Detour” brings us back to the barren urban tone, and unsettles the listener with discordant lines woven back into the mix behind the distinguishing pounding electronic percussion sound and production style which hints at a world yet to be encountered. An unfamiliar wailing guitar provides the introduction to “Tracey” which, although characteristically Mr Bitterness, slows the tempo down to a more morose, contemplative speed, and is saturated in despair and questioning, a listening experience reminiscent of the early 1980’s “goth” movement in the United Kingdom. That is not to suggest that the music on “Destined for Dust” is derivative in any way, as the production gives the music relevance to a contemporary audience in many ways. “The Existential Dilemma” closes the album, again, with a strangely discordant essence which fuses together with surprisingly pleasant melodies and vocal lines to give Mr Bitterness and the Guilty Pleasure their own distinctive sound and personality. Over the six tracks that make up “Destined for Dust”, Mr Bitterness and the Guilty Pleasure carve their own distinctive sound from disparate elements that may be familiar to lovers of a variety of electronically produced music. The difference here is that they are used to create a very distinctive resonance that soundtracks a possible future for our civilisation.

Monday, 2 January 2012

(EchO) – Devoid of Illusions review for Alternative Matter

“Devoid of Illusions” has that quality that is rarely found in an album that is attempting to fuse together elements of doom, atmospheric space rock, “progressive” rock and “post rock” and pure metal, in that it is successful and does the Italian band (EchO) proud. After the initial tantalizing introduction, the album faces these disparate genre elements and makes full use of them on “Summoning the Crimson Soul”, in equal part sensitive atmosphere and brutal snarling vocal, which on paper appears to contradict, but in practice makes for some genuinely exciting pieces. “The Coldest Land” again for the most part, ebbs and flows with the ambience of a desolate interplanetary landscape with soaring guitar lines and pulverising riffs breaking through the horizon, but at no point would the listener feel uncomfortable with the experience.
The use of the dual vocal style may be problematic to a few listeners as growling vocal passages are woven in with clean, conventional lines, but this can only add to the texture that these longer pieces are allowed to create. “Once Was a Man” is probably the one track on the album which gives the listener some stability and respite, and is, for the most part, six minutes of delicate whispered, other worldly vocal without the sense of impending hazard. A perfect example of how (EchO) have successfully fused psychedelic ingredients into the mix can be found on “Omnivoid” which utilises repetitive motifs and changes in direction and mood with ease and confidence. A standout track in particular is “Internal Morphosis” which steadily builds over its nine minute duration with true menace and anxiety, to eventually fall over the precipice into a maelstrom of powerful symphonic riffs and majestic vocal lines. Always a sense that, whilst the song is playing, imminent dreadfulness approaches.
The production throughout “Devoid of Illusions”, by guest vocalist Greg Chandler, is fresh and defined, and helps the listener through some of the more densely layered pieces. Mention should also be made of the albums artwork which, again, has that rare quality in perfectly capturing the atmosphere on “Devoid of Illusions”, part darkly malevolent and part enigmatic and unfathomable. There is authentic excitement in these tracks which lifts them above more pedestrian albums in this arena, and may be held up as an example of how it is possible to release truly original material without the confines of genre compartments. 

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Oceans of Night - Domain review for Alternative Matter magazine

“Domain” is the latest offering from two man project Oceans of Night featuring Scott Mosher on instrumentation (guitars, bass and keyboards), Scott Olivia on vocals and featuring Alan Smithee on drums. From the opening title track “Domain”, an ambitious seventeen and a half minute opus of keyboard led mystery, the listener is taken on a journey which, on first listen can appear sterile and clinical in delivery, but on further inspection reveals depths of musical atmosphere that reward the attention. The guitar melodies throughout the track never impose but are never merely there to add erroneous filler; instead they add a luxuriant landscape to the material which is a rare feat in music of this sophistication and intellect. When the guitar solo breaks through and the energy levels are taken up a gear, the track is fifteen minutes underway, but patience has been rewarded.
 Subsequent tracks such as “Don’t Look to Me” and “Seven Days of Rain” although similarly infused with symphonic keyboard passages and uplifting guitar lines, do not have the space to expand and therefore feel somehow crowded with instrumentation. This is not to say that the material is cumbersome because of it, but there is a lot of activity in these shorter tracks. “So Near Yet So Far” takes on a more grandiose approach and is a pleasure for the listener who enjoys being carried along on waves of expansive keyboard and guitar lines. The album continues in a similar vein throughout several more pieces until the listener is bombarded with “Instruments of Fear” which takes the instrumentation up a gear again and bombards the listener who is unprepared with unyielding guitar and bass that leaves the waves of keyboard ambience behind and is a genuine thrilling interlude to the album in general. “The Future Remembered” has a ghostly feel generally and is somewhat reminiscent of the soundtrack to a mid budget science fiction film until the vocals return us back to more recognizable territory. The album closes with another familiarly sounding “Ghosts of the Past”, which, despite the subtle change in vocal style, brings back the symphonic keyboard and guitar quality.
Overall, it has to be said that “Domain” showcases individuals who are well crafted songwriters and arrangers, who, when given the space to exhibit their craft, do so admirably. For listeners who are energized by multiple layers of precision sound, this album will truly be an indulgence.