Wednesday, March 28, 2007

EFTERKLANG: Under Giant Trees (The Leaf Label)

Under Giant Trees
The Leaf Label 2007
05 Tracks. 29mins11secs

Buy it: CD | LP
Efterklang | The Leaf Label

Copenhagen-based outfit Efterklang caused something of a stir as they deployed their elegant pastoral pop songs over the course of Tripper, their debut album, released in the autumn of 2004 on Leaf. In just under an hour, the quintet, formed of Mads Brauer (electronics), Rune Mølgaard (piano), Thomas Husmer (drums) and multi instrumentists Rasmus Solberg and Casper Clausen, the latter also assuming vocal duties, hung up beautiful crafted songs set in scintillating backdrops of pianos, strings and found sounds. The album followed a previous EP, Springer, originally published on the band’s own Rumraket imprint in 2003 before Leaf released it early again in 2005. Efterklang have since released a very limited one-sided vinyl EP at the end of 2006.

Under Giant Trees comes in a fold out packaging with stunning illustrations from Danish artist Nan Ha Hvass, who captures the spirit of the music particularly well here. The five tracks featured on this mini album were devised as additional pieces to be performed during the band’s 2005 tour and were recorded in the band’s studio when Efterklang returned to Copenhagen. Moving away from the naïve melodies of previous releases, these are sweeping songs for drunks and sailors, torn between the somber atmospheres of Matt Elliott and the cinematic melancholy of Yann Tiersen. Falling Horses and Towards The Bare Hill especially stagger over emotional melodies and appear to progress with no particular aim as melodies and orchestrations revolve unsteadily around each other, but they are finely tuned indeed and crafted in the most exquisite fashion. Himmelbjerget waxes and waning gracefully between soft string work and orchestral grandeur, while Hands Playing Butterfly reveals a much more nocturnal tone as a lonely piano snakes its way through sparse string work. The album concludes with the delightful Jojo, which somewhat fails in its mission to bring the listener gently back to reality, flourishing instead with increasing gleam and panache as the end nears.

For this release, the delicate sound formations which was at the heart of the band’s early work have largely been replace with ambitious melodic structures and rich orchestrations, but they are still heard furtively lurking in the background, emerging at the first sign of a calm moment, only to be buried under more ambitious arrangements again. As Efterklang push deeper into their magical sonic world, Under Giant Trees is a magnificent appetiser to the follow up to Tripper, due out toward the end of the year.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

VOLGA: Pomol (Lumberton Trading Company)

Lumberton Trading Company 2007
13 Tracks. 63mins35secs

Volga | Lumberton Trading Company

Moscow-based quartet Volga finely balance archaic overtones sourced from traditional Russian folklore and hypnotic rhythms with modern textures expressed through dense post-industrial electronics and processed acoustic instruments. This singular outlook gives the band a totally unique sound as they link past and present together with oriental and occidental musical forms. Formed in the later part of the nineties, Volga released their eponymous debut album in 1999, and have since delivered three albums and a number of live recordings and remix projects.

The voice of lead singer Anjela Manukian evokes the soft tones of Kate Bush and the many incarnations of Liz Fraser or Lisa Gerrard, yet there is a particular grain in her voice that is reminiscent of the spellbinding power of Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares. Tearing through hypnotic percussions and post-industrial electronic experimentations, she apposes ancient Russian texts, sung in a variety of dialects, that she has collected during years of researching Russian folklore. She is backed by multi-instrumentists Alexei Borisov, Roman Lebedev and Uri Balashov.

Pomol opens and closes in similar fashion, with Angela Manukian’s voice set very much as the main focal point of each song. Elsewhere, it is framed with tribal drums and harsh post-industrial electronic formations that are only softened by the addition of processed traditional instrumentation. All throughout, the music is deeply rooted in tradition, but the treatment applied on every single aspect of these thirteen songs places them at the heart of the contemporary experimental electronic scene. Tracks such as Corn, Sonnaja, Svaha, Tausen or Rubaha betray very little of their origins, but others, such as the title track, Kruchu or Detinushka, appear to bear the weight of centuries of history. The latter, with its exquisite guitar motifs and enthralling beauty, is undoubtedly the highlight of the album, but pieces such as the wonderful Pomol, the high octane Tausen and Ropes or Volga Mother, with its crystalised dub, all convey a great deal of emotions and prove very interesting offerings. The album closes with Manukian’s most beguiling vocal performance on the atmospheric and mysterious Sufi.

The album may originally be let down by the rather rigid and martial aspect of the arrangements, but the post-industrial approach adopted by the band, which contrasts greatly with the highly ornate vocals, actually serves to emphasise the sheer beauty and complexity of the melodies. Volga negotiate the difficult amalgamation of tradition and modernism very well here and manage to create a rather impressive collection of emotional electronic music.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

COCOROSIE: The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn (Touch And Go Records)

The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn
Touch & Go Records 2007
12 Tracks. 41mins06secs

Buy it: CD | LP
CocoRosie | Touch And Go Records

Toy pianos and human beat boxes, tiny bells and music boxes, dragons and butterflies, the world of Coco and Rosie, or sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady, relies heavily on fantasy, dreams and coded imagery. It is therefore not much of a surprise that they asked French artists Pierre & Gilles, who themselves have developed a very personal sense of symbolism, to shoot the cover of their latest effort, and teamed up with Michel Gondry for the video of the first single to be taken off the album.

CocoRosie first emerged three years ago with a stunning debut album, La Maison De Mon Rêve. Recorded in the bathroom of their Parisian apartment during a rainy summer, the album, collating acidic lullabies and pop vignettes too clever to ever be played on the radio, was wonderfully chaotic and unpredictable. With their follow up, Noah’s Ark, released in 2005, the Casady sisters relied on much more ornate instrumentation and deployed some increasingly widescreen melodies and intricate soundscapes. To further embellish their delicate pop songs, they recruited the services of oddball popsters Antony and Devendra Banhart and French beatbox artist Spleen.

The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn sees the Casady sisters wrap their surreal poetry in slightly less opulent and rich draperies, relying on just a few sound sources for each song. This gives the album a more minimal tone, but it also shows off the pair’s ability to write incredibly dense little vignettes in a much clearer light. Recorded in Island with Björk collaborator and Bedroom Community head Valgeir Sigurðsson, this third opus is somewhat less obsessed with dreams and tales, but this is not to say that CocoRosie have abandoned their toy box pop for more mature musical forms. The sisters’ mix of vocal affectation and elegance is intact here and weights heavily on the overall performance. Sierra’s classically trained voice contrasts greatly with Bianca’s rawer tones, as she goes from soft whispers to little girl’s blabber. As the sisters play off each other, a strange dialogue develops which is carried all the way through without ever failing to intrigue and entertain.

The album opens with the hip-hop infused Rainbowarriors and Promise before the sisters turn to more subtle and delicate song structures with Bloody Twins, on which their voices appear tightly entangled with melody and arrangements, Sunshine, with its clear melodic theme, or the cinematic Houses and Raphael. Elsewhere, CocoRosie playfully assemble pop songs out of minimal sound sources. On the magnificent Japan, the sisters voice their concern with political and social issues (‘everyone wants to go to Iraq / but once they go, they don’t come back / bringing peanut butter jelly and other snacks / we might have our freedom but we’re still on crack’) , while Sophia Lauren, orphans and baby dinosaurs cross paths on Animals. On the closing Miracle, Antony provides a delightful counterpoint to the acerbic verve of Casady sisters and brings this collection of imaginary pop songs to a rather stylish close.

While The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn isn’t quite as flamboyant, dense and dreamy as Noah’s Ark, Sierra and Bianca Casady continue here to craft wonderfully evocative poetic pop songs and subtle adult lullabies. If their work gains maturity, it still bears the touching innocence and naivety that made them so fascinating in the first place.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

ARVE HENRIKSEN: Strjon (Rune Grammofon)

Rune Grammofon 2007
12 Tracks. 47mins08secs

Buy it: CD
Arve Henriksen | Rune Grammofon

With fingers in more pies than humanely imaginable, it is a wonder how Norwegian trumpeter extraordinaire Arve Henriksen actually finds the time to work on his own music. An active member of formations as diverse as avant-garde improv super group Supersilent, Iain Bellamy’s Food, Audun Kleive’s Generator X and the Christian Wallumrød and Trygue Seim Ensembles to name but a few, Henriksen is one of the most adaptable and gifted musicians of his generation. His first solo album, Sakuteiki, released on Rune Grammofon at the end of 2001, introduced his sparse and beautiful soundscapes, while its follow up, Chiaroscuro (2004) vastly extended his sonic range. .

Recorded with fellow Supersilent members Ståle Storløkken (Keyboards) and Helge Sten (electronics), with the latter also producing, Strjon, the medieval name for Henriksen’s home town of Stryn, is once again a departure from previous recordings. While echoes of Sakuteiki and Chiaroscuro resonate throughout the album, the scope of this third solo effort is much more open and vast than that of its predecessors.

While the compositions remain largely focussed on Henriksen’s unique sound, Stroløkken and Sten often force Strjon out of its lingering semi-torpor and into the harsh blare of electric lights to reveal much more angular and abrupt tonalities. The album opens on traditional Henriksen territory with Evocation, but the abrasive textures of Black Mountain set Strjon on a different course as Sten wraps a recurring trumpet theme in coarse noises and processed electric guitars. Ascent is quieter, but darks shadows lurk in the distance, entangled in brushed rhythmic patterns, evoking in part a malfunctioning clockwork mechanism or a hypnotic tribal call.

On Green Water, Henriksen first applies gentle touches against a cluster of percussive noises, but as the background layers become more vivid, so is the increasingly deconstructed main melody. Set against the ominous and dense textural cloud of the title track, the wonderfully airy and light Glacier Descent, with its cascading layers of vocals ranging from deep guttural hums to mystical incantations, appears incredibly sharp and poignant.

Henriksen relentlessly drifts from conventional musical forms (the radiant harmonies of Alpine Pyramid and the delicate brushes of In The Light are amongst of the finest moments on this album) to uncharted experimentation (Black Mountain, Green Water, Wind And Blow). In turn raucous, croaky, vibrant or ethereal, Henriksen carves distinctive shades and tones out of his trumpet which Sten then places into context. Yet, unlike on Sakuteiki and Chiaroscuro, where Sten remained largely in the background, his electronic textures, combined with Stroløkken’s keyboard work give this album a much earthier feel.

At its most peaceful and reflective, Stjron is as spiritual and voluptuous as its predecessors, but when subjected to harsher soundscapes and processes, it becomes a haunting collection of dense organic atmospheres. Here, Henriksen continues to develop his distinctive lexical and challenge his work to deliver his most uncompromising record to date.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

AUS: Curveland (Moteer)

Moteer 2007
10 Tracks. 40mins08secs

Buy it: CD
Aus | Moteer

Despite being just twenty three, Japanese musician and producer Yasuhiko Fukuzono already has no less than five albums under his belt, including this latest effort, collecting music that goes from atmospheric electronic experimentation to unadulterated pop. He also regularly dabbles in composing and producing soundtracks, and co-run the Tokyo-based record label Flau.

On Curveland, Fukuzono slowly peels off layers of soft electronics and discreet glitches and statics wrapped around dreamy melodies and, on many occasions, the breathy vocals provided by Cokiyu, to reveal deeply emotional moments often reminiscent of early Múm or of Fukuzono’s compatriot Piana. Curveland is all half-tones and tempered ambiences, in turn shrouded in light or clouds, with treated acoustic instrumentation gleaming through cracks and tears affecting the surface calm to give each song a singular texture. Fukuzono works a very straight and narrow groove here, never veering far from his sonic template, and he does so with precision as he assembles minimal sound sources into complex and evocative soundscapes. Yet, Fukuzono manages to retain the fresh feel of his music all the way through. Beautiful melodies emerge almost unnoticed and dig their way through fragmented constructions until they evaporate, leaving just a vague after taste, helping create the overall eerie effect that lingers over the whole album.

All the way through, Fukuzono toys with lyrical atmospheres and vast narratives, yet he stops short of creating sweeping pastoral pieces, resorting instead to underwhelming ethereal themes and delicately assembled miniature pop songs. The result is simply stunning. It is difficult not to succumb to the fragile aspect of pieces such as Lied, With Rain, Curve, Tejina, Apt or Yoakemae and marvel at how they hold together with grace. Fukuzono applies gentle sonic touches to alter melodies without ever breaking their individual flow, and collates his compositions without much breathing space in between, as if the short silences separating each piece was as much part of the songs as any of his sound sources. Cokiyu’s sweet and sour vocals add to the ephemeral aspect of Fukuzono’s music and appear intricately woven into the sonic landscape of this album.

Although comparisons to both Múm and Piana are valid, Aus’s resolutely minimal outreach gives this album a singular relief and places Fukuzono’s work in a league of its own. Curveland is a truly enchanting and accomplished collection of ethereal Japanese pop with interesting scope and depth.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

THE BLACK DOG: Book Of Dogma (Soma Recordings)

Book Of Dogma
Soma Recordings Ltd 2007
22 Tracks. 109mins01secs

Buy it: CD
Dust Science Recordings | Soma Recordings Ltd

The year is 1989. Electronica is in its infancy. The rulebook is still being written. Ken Downie, Ed Handley and Andy Turner release their first EP, Age Of Slack, under the Black Dog banner. Blending classic Detroit techno and hip-hop, the trio are shaping the sound of their generation. A handful of EPs later, they get picked up by then budding Sheffield-based Warp Records and go on to release the highly influential Bytes, as Black Dog Productions, the name of their early label. The album, which is part of Warp’s seminal Artificial Intelligence series of releases, is assembled as a compilation, with the trio acting under a variety of aliases (Xeper, Balil, Atypic, Plaid, I.A.O.).

Fast-forward to today and Ken Downie is still heading his project. Following the departure of Handley and Turner, Black Dog has seen a few line-up changes, but in recent years, brothers Martin and Richard Dust have become permanent fixtures and the release pace has gained momentum, with no less than six EPs and an album issued in just over two years. Meanwhile, rare early records from the band’s first incarnation change hands for hundreds of pounds on auction sites and in second hand shops. After a lengthy restoration exercise undertaken by Downie and the Dust brothers, the band’s first six EPs are now collected here and released on Glasgow-based Soma Recordings.

The twenty two tracks collected on this album were recorded between 1988 and 1992 and formed the backbone of the emerging ‘electronic listening music’ movement which spawned the likes of Warp, Aphex Twin, Autechre, B12 and many more, all united under the ill-fated and long dead IDM tag, and still infiltrates electronic music today. The band’s use of odd time signatures, hip-hop samples and harsh electronics largely put them at odds with the rave scene of the time but made acceptable the notion that music with strong dance influences could be enjoyed in the comfort of a home, preferably on headphones.

The first of the two CDs collects the band’s long unavailable first three EPs, Age Of Slack and Virtual (1989) and Techno Playtime (1990), all released on Black Dog Productions. The band’s knack for infectious rhythms and grooves, which made Bytes one of the most compelling electronic albums of the nineties, is already clearly defined here, with tracks such as Virtual, Ambience With Teeth, The Age Of Slack, Techno Playtime or Seers & Sages showing the breadth of the band’s scope in their early years and the great maturity with which they set out through uncharted territories. Carving their way through complex rhythmic patterns, intricate sound formations and hyperactive melodic themes, Downie, Handley and Turner already demonstrate the kind of panache that later made Bytes such a phenomenal record.

The second CD features the Parallel Squelch and Vanttool EPs in their entirety, plus Virtual Hmmm and VIR2L taken from the VIR2L Remix EP. These three EPs were released on General Production Recordings between 1991 and 1992 and were compiled on an album, Parallel, in 1995. The progression from the earlier tracks is clear, with Parallel, Erb, Vanttool and Virtual Hmmm proving especially masterful upbeat and complex techno pieces. While the band’s sound appear more settled and focussed, the level of experimentation remains very high, with techno, acid, hip hop and ambient collide with insistent regularity.

Book Of Dogma doesn’t only document the rise of a band but also the genesis of a movement which, despite finding its roots in the US, is utterly British. The great majority of these tracks haven’t been available for years, yet they sound as fresh, modern and innovative today as they did then. Simply essential.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

RADICAL FACE: Ghost (Morr Music)

Morr Music 2007
11 Tracks. 47mins46secs

Buy it: CD
Radical Face | Morr Music

Radical Face is the song-based project of Ben Cooper, better known as one half of electronically subverted indie-pop duo Electric President, which he formed with Alex Kane in 2000. The pair released their self-titled debut album on Berlin-based Morr Music last year. While Cooper has previously recorded an album under his Radical Face moniker, The Junkyard Chandelier in 2003, Ghost, released on Berlin-based imprint Morr Music, home of B.Fleischmann, Isan, American Analog Set and Lali Puna, is his official solo debut

At the helm of Radical Face, Cooper affirms a more subtle and gentle personality than with Electric President, exposed through catchy pop melodies and brushed orchestrations. At times evoking the captivating world of Sufjan Stevens, especially on songs like Let The River In, Wrapped In Piano Strings or Homesick, or the offbeat pop of Merz, Cooper generally finds inspiration in the great American folk tradition, which he then enriches with discreet found sounds to bring it right up to date. Apparently recorded in a shed somewhere in Jacksonville, Florida, where Cooper has established his studio, Ghost is modern, fresh and elegant, with dense orchestrations washing over its naturally stripped down songs to give them substance and definition.

Based around the idea of houses collecting memories, with those having lived in a place still inhabiting it, albeit as ghosts, long after they have departed. This translates into very structured yet spacious song forms with instrumental sections given prominence all the way through, and found sounds, from wood cracking to empty footsteps, giving some compositions a particular relief. The voice is also pushed slightly in the background, as to preserve a cloud of mystery over Cooper’s often dark and claustrophobic lyrics. This gives Ghost a rather moodier tone than its upbeat songs could originally lead to think. Cooper works his way through beautifully written pieces, which repeatedly twist and turn unpredictably from delicate acoustic melodies to full blown orchestral grandeur and back, his voice, soft and sweet, contrasting with the overall mood of the record.

Cooper never settles on a particular theme for very long, but he retains a strong unity of sound all the way through, creating effects with anything from lonely banjo or accordion to sharp electric guitar incisions, dense synthetic waves and haunting found sounds. Although there is definitely a radio friendly aspect to these compositions, they would probably be best suited to the dead of the night, with only insomniacs and graveyard shift workers left to appreciate their universal appeal. Songs such as Welcome Home, Let The River In, Wrapped In Strings or Winter Is Coming all work on so many different layers that repeat listens tend to reveal new depths and meaning, from their apparent lightness to much murkier entrails.

Ghost shares with Electric President’s debut a taste for atmospherics and melodies, but with this album, Cooper exposes his music in a much softer light and candidly reveals its deepest cracks and darkest corners. The result is at once touching, enchanting and a tad disturbing but captivates all the way through without ever dipping in any way.

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