Tuesday, May 29, 2007

ISLAJA: Ulual Yyy (Fonal Records)

Ulual Yyy
Fonal Records 2007
09 Tracks. 39mins00secs

Buy it: CD
Islaja | Fonal Records

Islaja’s first forays into dysfunctional folk sounded like the wanderings of a little girl lost in a forest teeming with crooked trees, chilling winds and hairy monsters, with virtually no clear reference points for the listener to hang on to. Her short vignettes, paper-thin arrangements, acoustic guitars and found sounds predominantly, wrapped around matchstick-like melodies, were fragile and ephemeral affairs, the peculiar timbre of Merja Kokkonen’s voice, at times brittle to the point of breaking, at others almost accidentally falling in or out of tune, adding to the overall disjointed feel of her music

Crucially, for Ulual Yyy, Kokkonen has been raccorded to the electricity grid and relies on much more expensive orchestration, bringing in Rhodes pianos, synthesizers and electric guitars, and sprinkling them with saxophones, violins and various other noises. Right from the onset of opener Kutsukaa Sydäntä those fearing a much more polished results will be reassured though. The songstress has lost none of her acidic tones and knack for abrasive melodies, and these more elaborate sound collages actually appear much more vulnerable than those of previous outputs. The solemn piano and electric guitar backdrop of Kutsukaa Sydäntä only just supports Kokkonen’s saturated vocals and threatens to come crashing down at every twist and turn of the melody.

There is, much more than on Meritie or Palaa Aurinkoon, a quietly dramatic aspect to this album, which at times evokes the mournful tones of Portugal’s traditional fado music or the rampant melancholy of Argentinean, tango. Kokkonen’s voice at times drones and lingers, shying away from attention, or cuts through caustic curtains of sounds with sheer emotions. The music appears more desolate and tormented than before. Shards of saxophone, in turn soft or strident, tear the fabric of this record with insistent regularity on Sydänten Ahmija, Pete P and Laulu Jo Menneestä. On Muusimaa, Kokkonen is caught amidst a disturbing storm of tuneless chords, as if she was surrounded by kids hammering instruments without cohesion.

The last three pieces are comparatively peaceful and spacious, with reduced sound sources and more clearly applied melodies. After the earlier torments, these are welcome resting grounds. The album concludes in surprisingly bucolic mood, with the last four and a half minutes of Suru Ei being entirely constituted of bird songs.

With her two first albums, Islaja’s Merja Kokkonen charmed and intrigued with delicate folk songs. Ulual Yyy is a much more unsettling record. The fairytale ballads have been replaced with much more striking soundscapes, and Kokkonen herself is driven by stronger currents. This third album is a much more mature album, but it remains a mysterious creation which only fits these moments in life when reality is a too vivid option.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

ALOG: Amateur (Rune Grammofon)

Rune Grammofon 2007
12 Tracks. 59mins34secs

Buy it: CD | LP
Alog | Rune Grammofon

Thanks to tirelessly inquisitive minds and an unquenchable thirst for sound processessing, Norwegian duo Alog have, in just three albums, stretched their musical universe beyond recognition. In their hands, nothing ever sounds totally ordinary, and as their approach as become more experimental with each release, moving from largely electronic structures to much more delicate soundscapes built around acoustic instrumentations and found sounds, they have developed a truly unique semantic and continue to refine it. Alog deal with sound on a large scale, taking as much consideration perfecting elements of their tracks which are not directly within audible range as they do crafting overhead components, resulting in extremely detailed and complex pieces more fitting to avant-garde than to traditional electronic music.

Following last year’s excellent Catch That Totem! published on Melektronikk, which collected some rare and previously unreleased material, Eide and Haugan return to Rune Grammofon with their fourth album. With this opus, the pair do not quite revise their work ethic as drastically as they have done in the past, but instead refine techniques applied on 2005’s Miniatures and manage to produce a record which is at once more complex and more accessible.

Amateur, here used in the context of ‘person who appreciates’, was recorded in various locations on the west coast of Norway, especially in schools, where the pair, accompanied by Nicholas H. Møllerhaug and regular Nils Økland collaborator Sigbjørn Apeland, made use of the sometime rudimentary facilities at hand. At times, the quartet found themselves stranded in one location for days because of bad weather and passed time by building their own instruments, adding to the eclectic sources used across the album. The result is an incredibly dense tapestry of sounds and noises, at times used in their barest form, at others treated and processed beyond recognition. Opener Son Of King is a bubbling piece on which Møllerhaug’s vocal acts as a continuous thread throughout. Various phrases are chopped up and re-assembled in apparently random fashion, creating a strangely disconnected tale from which pretty much only the title can be heard intelligibly, over a backdrop of wood and metal percussions which sounds increasingly more like a trotting horse as the track progresses.

At times, Alog seem primarily concerned with the very musical essence of their work, bringing melodies to the forefront, while at others, the focus is much more on the rhythmic aspect of their compositions. It is when the two meet however, like on the fascinating The Beginner, which share with label-mate Svalastog a taste for acoustic loops, that the pair are at their most enchanting. As loops and patterns settle, the track becomes a haunting incantation. A Throne For The Common Man has a similar feel, but the context is very different. Eide and Haugan begin by defining the sonic space with bells and chimes before progressively building a dense layered structure from a variety of acoustic instruments. What results is a grinding groove that absorbs everything in its path. Sleeping Instruments questions of the notion of silence and whether it is a sound in itself. As its title suggest, this piece is entirely built around fragments of sounds sourced from instruments ‘at rest’, whether it is wood contracting or fingers running on the surface of an instrument. The Future Of Norwegian Wood works on a similar principle, but silence is not quite as intrusive here. As various wood sounds are processed and assembled, Alog create a surprisingly consequent piece which comes alive around the three minute mark as a rhythmic sequence is set in motion. The ten-minute Bedlam Emblem sees a dense cloud of saturated noises, which wouldn’t be out of place on a Spunk record, slowly materialise and become overwhelmingly oppressive. On close inspection, this constantly changing ball of sound is made of a multitude of entangled minute debris interacting with each other.

In comparison, Write Your Thoughts In Water or Turn Back. Undo appear almost too straightforward, but there again Alog play with lights and shades to create illusions and deflect the attention away from the painstakingly complex and extremely detailed assemblages that are these tracks and focus instead of the poetry that results.

After ten years, Alog continue to develop and refine their approach to sound, as they move away from recognisable musical forms. As their most abstract record to date, Amateur is surprisingly accessible and playful, and this is certainly what makes Alog one of the most compelling outfits around.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

SEEFEEL: Quique (Redux Edition) (Too Pure)

Quique (Redux Edition)
Too Pure 1993 / 2007
18 Tracks. 123mins41secs

Buy it: CD
Too Pure

Riding high on the wave created by earlier nineties indie luminaries such as My Bloody Valentine, Seefeel took the concept of cloudy guitar-led music, once labelled shoegaze, a reference to the recurring tendencies adopted by most bands at the time to never look up, and brought it to an entirely different level by confronting it with the ambient sound pioneered by Aphex Twin, Global Communication and The Orb. Formed of Mark Clifford (guitar, sequencing), Sarah Peacock (guitar, vocals), Darren Seymour (bass) and Justin Fletcher (drums, programming), the band develop a totally unique blend of processed guitars, rhythmic loops and hypnotic bass, with occasional hazy vocals textures.

Following two impressive EPs, More Like Space and Pure, Impure, both published on London-based imprint Too Pure, Seefeel delivered their first album, Quique in the autumn of 1993, and went on to release two more albums, Succour, for Warp and (CH-Vox) on Richard D. James’s Rephlex before apparently disbanding, with Peacock, Seymour and Fletcher forming the gritty pop combo Scala whilst Clifford continued experimenting with ambient as Disjecta and set up his own Polyfusia imprint. Following occasional outings as Woodenspoon and Sneakster in the late nineties, he reappeared a couple of years ago with Running Tapper, a collaborative effort with electronic musician Simon Kealoha.

Quique is considered by some to be Seefeel’s seminal record, and thirteen years after its original release, it remains a cutting edge record, sounding like very little else. Right from the onset of the cyclic Climatic Phase #3, the tone is set. Guitars are stretched, layered and looped over a groovy bass line and a slow moving rhythm pattern to form a dense sonic mass which seems to absorb everything in its path yet appears utterly delicate and eerie. This formula is developed over the course of the whole album with various degrees of intensity, from the warm waves that come crashing over the beat-less shores of Imperial, the fresh breeze blowing over Through You or the dark isolationist tones of Signals to the enigmatic fog of Polyfusion, Industrious or Plainsong, on which Sarah Peacock’s gossamer presence is rendered in delicate layers over the dense sonic backdrops of each piece as her voice is worked into the fabric of the music.

This new version comes with an additional CD featuring three rare tracks and no less than five previously unreleased songs and mixes all recorded during or around the album sessions. Clique, which opens this second part, displays some similar structures than those heard on the original album, yet the sound appears rougher and more angular, especially on the drums, which although placed in the background, emerge over the melting wall of guitars, bass and voice, and while Is It Now? and Silent Pool are dense and dark, in some way pre-empting the introvert structures of (CH-Vox), the blatantly ambient My Super 20, with its ever-changing drone, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Global Communication’s influential 76:14. Elsewhere, Come Alive (Climatic Phase #1) slowly builds momentum over its course, at times echoing the end section of Minky Starshine, featured on the band’s Pure, Impure EP. Time To Find Me, which originated on More Like Space, together with the Avant Garde Mix of Charlotte’s Mouth and the Overnight Mix of Climatic Phase #3 are presented in stripped down version, revealing the intrinsically dubbey structures of the band’s approach in all its glory.

Although they only released three albums and four EPs proper between 1993 and 1996, Seefeel have created an incredibly consistent and influential body of work. Quique captures the band at the turning point between the guitar-led abstract indie pop of their early days and the more textural sound of Succour and (CH-Vox). With this album, Seefeel combine ethereal guitars, which find its source in the work of the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, with technique used by the pioneers of electronic music to produced one of the most fascinating records of the early nineties, and one that continues to captivate and inspire. The additional material collected on the second CD only serves to underpin the importance of the band’s work and how visionary and unique Seefeel were.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Off again

You know what it's like, you wait for a holiday for ever, and then two come at once! I am not yet again fully back into London mode, but I will be off all next week as I go and soak up a bit more sun, this time in Portugal. As before, comments will not be posted until I get back, unless I find an Internet cafe and can be arsed checking emails, but please keep them coming... in fact, bring them on full stop!

For those interested, click on the picture below to check the photos of Mexico.

PANDA BEAR: Person Pitch (Paw Tracks)

Person Pitch
Paw Tracks 2007
07 Tracks. 45mins49secs

Buy it: CD
Paw Tracks

Person Pitch, Panda Bear’s third solo album, is a rather more luxurious and vibrant affair than its predecessors. While his 1997 eponymous lo-fi debut refused to decide between Casio-style knob tweaking and folk songs, its follow up, Young Prayer, released in 2004, dedicated to his recently deceased father, was much more sombre and atmospheric. In the last year, Panda Bear, real name Noah Lennox, got married, became a father and moved to Lisbon, where the album was recorded. On this latest opus, he lets loose and assembles a magnificent collection of uplifting and gently psychedelic avant pop.

Largely influenced by the vocal layering of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, especially on opener Comfy In Nautica and on the epic Bros, Noah Lennox is in fine form here, crafting beautiful melodies and arrangements which, while retaining some of the lo-fi essence that informed early Animal Collective albums, and his own, benefit from a more elaborate production. The rhythms are often tribal and the guitars hypnotic, with additional found sounds and electronics bringing unusual textures. The voice never appears entirely in focus and is often placed slightly at the back of the spectrum, making the lyrics slightly mysterious, as caught up in fog. This will be familiar sonic territory for Animal Collective fans, and it undeniably gives a strong hint as to what is Lennox’s contribution to the band, especially on their last two records. Yet, without the radical vision of Avey Tare, Lennox is free to let the music flow freely, and it shows. Not able to contempt with just one main theme for each song, Lennox changes focus halfway on more than one track. Take Pills, Bros and Good Girls/Carrots in particular seem as made of two or more songs welded together. In the case of the latter, it is perhaps because Good Girls and Carrots are actually independent songs, but they morph into one another in such a way that they become part of the same entity.

Beside the grandeur of these, Lennox also drops a couple of atmospheric pieces with the slow burning melody and kaleidoscopic backdrop of the moving Im Not and the introspective ambient sonic cloud of Search For Delicious. The album concludes on a delightful note with the slightly melancholic Ponytail.

With the next Animal Collective album due later this summer and Avey Tare’s collaboration with former Múm vocalist Kria Brekkan delving into much more experimental territories, Panda Bear offers on Person Pitch a series of beautiful songs. His music is much more confident than on previous solo outings, yet, he retains the innocence and spontaneity that have characterised his work to date, ensuring that this album is as refreshing and exhilarating as a summer shower at the end of a stormy day.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

BATTLES: Mirrored (Warp Records)

Warp Records 2007
11 Tracks. 51mins52secs

Buy it: CD | LP
Battles | Warp Records

The problem with such a stellar live act as Battles is that, whether they try to capture the energy of their performances or polish their music in such a way that it becomes a completely different entity, they are likely to ultimately disappoint. Battles are certainly in such predicament. Hailed as one of the best contemporary live acts around, the band’s fist three EPs, released between 2004 and 2006, never really sought to showcase their stage performances, yet they clearly informed the relationship between the four musicians, and consequently cemented the music. But Battles were still to demonstrate their ability to carry this onto a full length, which is now done with this debut album.

Labels don’t serve Battles well. The one that seem to have been created for them especially, ‘math rock’, being the most incongruous of all. As the quartet effortlessly dispatch mind-bending pieces one after the other, debris of rock, jazz, funk, metal and electro fly by without ever sticking up for long, clearly indicating that the point of the band is somewhat well beyond pigeonholes.

Nothing is quite as visceral and essential as the anthemic tribalism of first single Atlas. With John Stanier’s flamboyant drumming firmly at the centre of the piece, echoing the band’s traditional stage formation, the rest of the band massage acerbic guitar sections, rumbling bass lines and twisted electronics into a relentless groove, with reluctant front man Tyondai Braxton adding filtered vocals, at times reminiscent of early Animal Collective, over it all. Over the course of the track’s seven minutes, Battles fast-forward, slow down, pause, rewind and start all over again to create a true classic. In comparison, the incendiary Ddiamondd is abrasive and arrogant, as if the band had spontaneously combusted and were rushing to get through the track before going up in smoke.

The next three tracks are more subtle and show some restraint, starting with the surprisingly level headed Tonto, a magnificent slice of sturdy modern rock with enough balls to withstand a drastic change of pace in its second half without showing any sign of losing focus. Next, the short and sweet Leyedecker is refreshingly tuneful and damn catchy. This is the calm before the many stormy circumvolutions of Rainbow, an ambitious tale of avant-rock on which the quartet change direction almost constantly, juggling melodies and fiery arrangements with disconcerting ease. The piece concludes in somewhat subdued fashion as the band reach an atmospheric shore on which Braxton’s vocals resound with impressive magnitude.

On tracks such as the engaging opening Race: In, or the dramatic Tij, the band establish a clear groove from the outset and pretty much stick to its incandescent driving force all the way through. The album concludes with the brooding Race: Out, with Stanier originally forcing rumbling drums onto the scope before Ian Williams and David Konopka begin an exchange of phrases from their respective sides.

Battles is like an ego war in reverse. While each member contributes essential components to the overall sound, the sum of their collaboration is greater than any single intervention, which pushes the focus solely on the music. This is a state of affair with Battles live, and it is on this record too. Although Mirrored might surprise and disconcert, its impeccable cohesion and visionary perspectives reveal a band at ease with its experimentations and willing to push ahead.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Kraut Slut
Static Discos 2007
10 Tracks. 57mins37secs

Buy it: CD
Antiguo Autómata Mexicano | Static Discos

Hailing from Monterrey in North-East Mexico, Angel Sánchez Borges has been an active member of the underground Mexican scene for over fifteen years, releasing music under a variety of guises, but he only emerged on the international scene a couple of years ago when he released his first album as Antiguo Autómata Mexicano, Microhate, on Düsseldorf-based imprint Background Records. With his latest, song-based, project, Seekers Who Are Lovers, Sánchez revisits the work of The Velvet Underground and Will Oldham.

With this first release for Tijuana’s Static Discos, original home of Murcof and Fax, Sánchez returns to the refined minimal techno of AAM. With Microhate, Sánchez explored a series of organic spaces built around minimal grooves, intricate sound formations and vast ambient soundscapes. Kraut Slut continues on a similar path, but here Sánchez relies on slightly more straightforward track structure, driving beats and clean-cut atmospheric soundscapes, reminiscent of Mille Plateaux or Komplott, yet he retains some of the abstract angles of his debut.

Album opener Rother, Dinger, You And Me and Mille which follows, set the tone. While the former evolves imperceptibly from a linear beat and rarefied electronics into a more elaborate piece of techno, the latter is a much richer slice of progressive dance music, which, after a rather introvert intro, slowly gathers pace as Sánchez applies more layers. Reflect Ella, All Styl and Co Opt follow similar paths, each track progressively developing from just a handful of components into crystalline formations. On Malandre De Culto, Sánchez drops a subtle melody over a soft aquatic groove, while, on the sombre Extirpe and twisted dub of Ham & Jazz, he toys with much more introspective ambient soundscapes, echoing the vast textural accents of Microhate. The album concludes with remixes of Mille (Kampion) and Co-Opt (J. A. Berricochea). While Kampion offers quite a radical rereading of the original, slowing it down drastically and softening its edges, Berricochea exposes the atmospheric hues of Sánchez’s version and deploys them as sumptuous electronic drapes.

While it may be regrettable that Sánchez hasn’t explored further the raw organic ambient and cinematic soundscapes that characterised his first album, his take on minimal techno proves very enjoyable and masterful. His beats are sharp, his grooves relentless and his sounds clean cut, with delicate melodies flourishing unexpectedly, making Kraut Slut an effortlessly classy piece of work.

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