Autechre: Elseq 1-5
Warp Records (2016)
Autechre release an epic 4 hours worth of new music and all the Heads can do is complain about Elseq 1-5 being a digital only release. Who wants to listen to Autechre on vinyl anyway? The very idea goes against everything that Rob Brown and Sean Booth represent.
Autechre are the sound of machines taking over the world and Artificial Intelligence consuming analogue humans into obsolescence, cleaning their cyborg teeth with our bones. The buzz of neon sunsets setting the air alight with static. Data wars between malfunctioning cyber systems desperate for consciousness but damned by right wing optical fibre hardware with silver spoons for mouths. This is the sound of capitalism feasting on its own carcass, and eating 180 gram vinyl reissues for breakfast in a shower of sparks and smouldering wires. This is the soundtrack to every William Gibson novel ever. Privacy is over and your life is the property of some giant, faceless conglomerate that can’t even explain what its own purpose is.
But don’t spend too much time teasing these post-apocalyptic themes out of Elseq 1-5; you’ll drive yourself mad. Come to think of it, sitting through all four hours of Elseq 1-5 in a single sitting would likely push you over the deep end too. However, if you have the patience to gradually explore its digital terroir you’ll find moments of clarity within the malfunctioning madness. The possibility that perhaps the world could be a better place if it actually were ruled by machines.
Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
XL Recordings (2016)
I decided to let this one sit with me for a while rather than join the frenzy of posts that appeared online hours after Radiohead dropped their 10th LP. And what a joy it’s been to sink gently into A Moon Shaped Pool, giving it space to reveal all of its charms.
In the album’s opening seconds, as those cheeky strings ignite a staccato pulse it’s obvious there’s something different going on here. Radiohead sound relaxed, less agitated and more human than they have in years. The electronic rhythms have been dulled down to make room for analogue traditions. Everything sounds live and the band itself appear refreshed because of it.
Life, as in the reality of life and living, are a constant theme throughout. In a return to The Bends era there is something very personal about this record. The band’s politics have been replaced by Thom struggling to make sense of his relationships with those around him. It’s impossible to ignore the end of his 23 year marriage and its impact on A Moon Shaped Pool.
Sonically all 11 tracks are loose and casual. Born of a band jamming together in a room and slowly uncoiling compositions from their instruments. Songs like Daydreaming, Present Tense and Glass Eyes don’t feel like they reach any conclusion per se, which isn’t a negative. Rather they’re enigmatic, haunting and spacious. Daydreaming is particularly mysterious with its lonely piano, romantic orchestral flourishes, and digital debris swirling around Thom’s sweet falsetto before flickering out in a haze of eerily slowed down voices. This is heady stuff.
Deck’s Dark has a 70s soul vibe and a hot blooded outro like you’d never expect from such a serious band. While Ful Stop (sic) channels Krautrock into a 6 minute burner which approaches its crescendo so subtly that you don’t realise where you’re at until they throw you off the bus. Identikit shuffles around a weirdo contemporary-adult take on drum n’ bass, channeling twangy guitars and sparkly synths while Thom wails about broken hearts making it rain.
For my money, A Moon Shaped Pool will go down as a classic in Radiohead’s discography. It’s chill atmosphere and warm, dreamy vibes are a comforting new direction that already feels like home every time I revisit it. And I expect to visit A Moon Shaped Pool often.
Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool
Capitol Records (1957)
Number 991 of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Jazz is a mysterious, often esoteric thing. It has similarities to Metal in that its fans can be rabid, and its walls can be difficult to penetrate. My knowledge and understanding of Jazz is limited, but if the 1001 Albums list is confirming anything for me it’s that Jazz has been a huge influence on the evolution of popular music. And there probably isn’t a name more popular in the genre than Miles Davis.
I have to confess that despite being a seminal release in the genre’s history, Birth of the Cool is slightly lost on me. The record’s title in particular misleads my uneducated mind: this doesn’t doesn’t sound ‘cool’ to me. It sounds like Miles making music for elevators, cafes and candlelit dinners. It’s not bad, just inoffensive and safe. Birth of the Cool feels like your favourite t-shirt, all warm and familiar. And yet, each time the record finishes all of its melodies slip from my consciousness.
Scrolling around the internet I can read about the distinct lack of vibrato in Miles playing, and the use of multiple melodies played together at once which was considered unusual at the time. I can read long lists of famous musicians who played on this record. But the truth is I much prefer the 70s and 80s versions of Miles. Coked out freak-fests like Bitch’s Brew and On the Corner are much more exciting albums that illustrate the man’s talent for truly pushing the genre into new territories.
Perhaps I’m just too young to appreciate Birth of the Cool.
In comparison, I’m still listening to Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners (number 992 of the 1001 Albums). That record fascinates me and each time it finishes I want to hit play again. It’s melodies will be stuck in my head forever. Brilliant Corners’ odd time signatures and unusual tones are so fucking cool, suave, fresh and fearless in comparison to the casual comfort of Miles’ debut record. For me, Birth of the Cool bears few signs of what Miles Davis was to become.
Clara Engel: Visitors are Allowed One Kiss
self released (2016)
On the vast information highways of Twitter I found this stunning self released album. Clara Engel is a musician and artist working out of Toronto, Canada. Visitors are Allowed One Kiss is her 8th independent release, and it bears the sound of someone with a singular vision and total control over her art.
Her Bandcamp page describes these songs as avant-blues which makes total sense on listening. Each track is built around a slow, simple, repeating guitar line. Imagine this guitar as the sun with a galaxy of atmospheric noises, subtle percussion, synths, and stringed ambience trapped in its gravitational pull. The combined instruments provide gentle support for Clara’s rich and textured voice. She sounds strong and unwavering, with a subtle huskiness that calls to mind a far more mysterious version of KD Lang.
Her songs are filled with Gothic vibes and haunting romance. Tales of swans, owls, mandrakes, shipwrecks and frost. They are both literary and fantastical, aching with melancholy but not depressed. Like reminiscing over dog-eared photos of old friends and lost loved ones, feeling blue but alive with cherished memories.
Clara has collaborated with some interesting folk on these songs, some of whom share similar aesthetics. Aiden Baker provides a cloud of warm bass drones on a few tracks, and it isn’t a stretch to hear the dreamy moods of his Nadja project in Visitors are Allowed One Kiss. The enigmatic Thor Harris plays xylophone and percussion here and there, which did not surprise me because while completely different sonically, Clara’s atmosphere and use of repetition is a distant relative of late-period Swans.
However, both those bands are mere markers when attempting to describe the unique world of Clara Engel. I highly recommend visiting her Bandcamp page and showing some support. I’ll be be revisiting soon to dive into her earlier recordings.
Gerritt Wittmer: Unknowns
No Rent Records (2016)
I attended the Sound as Consequence symposium at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art over the weekend. Listening to individuals like Joel Stern, Eric Demetriou and Julian Day wax lyrical about non-cochlear sound, and auditory experiences in the institution confirmed that for me abstract sound is a powerfully emotive experience. And this experience is often overlooked.
Take this stunning tape by a veteran of both the Sound Art and experimental music scenes. Gerritt Wittmer sculpts an intricate trellis of field recordings, drones and ephemeral misamsa. Abstract in the extreme but firmly rooted in its own logic and narrative. Vague ticking builds into monolithic drones and jackhammers riding on subway cars through dusty tunnels and then expiring in a whir of malfunctioning machinery. Chimes ring-in demonic voices that talk themselves into near silence, a subtle hum. Suddenly feedback. A scream. Heavy breathing. Lonely footsteps.
Side B polevaults into bass driven walls of noise, grating metal and contact mic’d surfaces. The hollow hum of air conditioning units, scrapes and rattling builds into a full blown symphony of scree. Cut to air hissing out of tyres, or possibly the sound of some desolate landscape at 3 in the morning, no moon, no stars. Just a scratch that becomes a rhythmic itch that becomes a noisy pulse that dissolves into a soprano drone. One final ‘note’ that leads you home.
Confused? That’s where the excitement lies; teasing out the relationships between so many disparate sounds, allowing the waves to take you where they, and you please. You can’t have this sort of experience within an institutional context. You aren’t allowed to lose yourself when the white cube demands that you assess the social, political, racial, and gender contexts that each individual brings to the experience. I believe there is more to this than the cerebral.
Music as beautiful and mysterious as this deserves the undivided attention that comes with your own private experience. Headphones or loud speakers, darkened rooms and comfort. Dare I say that if you are willing to give in to recordings like this one by Gerritt Wittmer, there is potential for something akin to a spiritual experience. Discourse in a gallery context hasn’t focused on topics like that since everything became ‘post’ something else.
Sabu: Palo Congo
Blue Note Records (1957)
Number 991, of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before you Die.
Infectious is where I have to start describing this record. Palo Congo promotes unashamed booty shaking and pure joy. This record is a lot of fun.
Sabu Martinez was an American percussionist who played with everyone from Thelonious Monk to Charles Mingus to Sammy Davis Jr, at a time when ‘Cubop’ was all the rage. Palo Congo was his solo debut and to me it feels like the first recording made entirely for dancing.
This makes sense given Cubop’s roots in African music, which is highly rhythmic. Even Martinez’s shaman-like ranting and raving reminds me of African tribes dancing in ecstasy. I’m not well informed about the history of Afro-Cuban music, but the percussive vocal style sounds a lot like today’s Hip Hop MCs, and overall this record makes me feel as if I’m privvy to some retro rave. In fact it has the sound of Drum n’ Bass lying dormant in its syncopated, bongo rhythms.
Palo Congo is an amazing listen on headphones. The songs consist almost entirely of voice, percussion and simple guitar lines. The recording overflows with natural reverb which gives it an incredibly live vibe. The band are right there sweating on you. Parts of it are lo-fi and blown out in an intimate and charming way that many contemporary acts desperately want to replicate in today’s digital age. The guitars in particular sound spiky and post-punk, distorted and gritty as if they’re blasting out of cheap amplifiers cranked up too loud.
It’s unlikely that Palo Congo actually was the first record made to inspire dance. But I can’t help thinking that it has inspired plenty of musicians to explore rhythm over melody in the decades since.