Howes – 3.5 Degrees (Melodic album, 2016)


3.5 Degrees is the debut album from Manchester-based electronic musician John Howes, and it title says a lot about the approach taken on this compelling album. That implied measurement is opaque, divorced from context, an in-between angle, just left-of-centre, and it neatly encapsulates the amorphous quality of the music that Howes has assembled here.

This is an album constructed of layers, often overlapping and – as on the opener, ‘Concangis’ – running out of sync with one another. The effect is to create hidden warrens and alleyways of never-repeating sonic events, like a mash-up intentionally gone wrong, and those events are intriguing for their slightly disjointed, randomised quality. Unlike Brood Ma’s DAZE, which shares some of 3.5 Degrees‘s skewness, Howes’s album sounds calculated and focussed, as if any randomness was actually a composed act rather than mere consequence.

Although 3.5 Degrees is an album that relies on the depth and originality of its sounds, rhythm is an important contributor to the overall presentation. ‘Zeroset’ and ‘DVR 16’ are delivered through locked, unswerving but subtle beats, slowly evolving but broadly constant, while wandering synths and springy effects give this a wayward, malfunctioning quality. You can imagine this being the kind of self-generating electronic music made by circuit-bent artificial intelligence-led computers as they bide their time on some lengthy inter-galactic trip through space. That ‘Zeroset’ also takes in a deep, swelling euphoric quality toward the middle of the track might link back to Howes’s earlier house experiments, but it’s cracked and chipped enough to sound perfectly imperfect.

It’s not all warped – by which I mean misshapen as well as sharing characteristics with the fabled mid-Nineties roster of a certain Sheffield-based label. ‘OYC’, with its pretty melodic cluster and droning synth texture could have easily found itself on a Kraftwerk album like Ralf & Florian, where classical-esque tonality was then a more important frame of reference than roboticism for the group. It represents another angle altogether in Howes’s music and one that suggests he’s immersed himself in a whole array of detailed electronic research to assemble this album.

Above all else, it’s the jagged angles and blooming textures of 3.5 Degrees make for such an intriguing album. Nothing sounds the same twice, and the inner universe of each track continually reveals itself with each listen. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but I’ve not felt this drawn to the elusive, infinite possibilities and fractured beauty of ‘listening electronica’ since I bought Aphex Twin’s ‘On’ single way back in the mid-Nineties. This is a truly impressive debut.

Howes at Bandcamp: here

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Diamonds Galás with John Paul Jones – The Sporting Life (Mute album, 1994)

I’ve maintained a healthy interest in Diamanda Galás since hearing her vocal contributions to Erasure’s Erasure album in 1995, but I’ve always found her music a little too impenetrable. I fully appreciate her dexterity and range as a vocalist, but I’ve never really ‘got’ her, though not through lack of trying.

The Sporting Life, Galás’s 1994 collaboration with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones was my first real concerted effort to get to grips with her music, and as an entry point to an artist that Daniel Miller signed to Mute precisely because she was ‘challenging’, it’s not a bad place to start.

A lot of what makes The Sporting Life relatively accessible is the multi-instrumentalist Jones’s arrangements. This is a a form of blues, accented with the kind of aggressively brutal funk shapes that draw parallels with the likes of Rage Against The Machine, particularly on tracks like ‘Do You Take This Man?’ and ‘Devil’s Rodeo’, where his low-slung bass anchors the whole track in rigid, unswerving time. Rooting the music in the blues seems to encourage Galás to play down some of the histrionics for which she is known, finding her instead singing relatively ‘straight’, especially on stirring numbers like the soulful ‘Dark End Of The Street’ or ‘Tony’ which are just about the most plaintive and troubled, almost theatrically soulful, moments in Diamanda’s catalogue.

The organ-led ‘You’re Mine’, with its Louisiana gumbo of reference points is where wildness starts to creep in, descending into a cacophony of tongues that render the tail end of the track a swampy mess, with the music feeling like it constantly wants to wrap up but where Galás just wants to keep going. It’s a definitive example of why less is more.

And that again is what I have a problem with. I could listen to Galás doing gravelly blues songs like ‘Dark End Of The Street’ all day, but I run out of patience when the vocal histrionics – irrespective of how technically accomplished her range and technique might be – reach the point of complete and noisy surrender. Even the masterful Jones seems to give up somewhere on this album, and the music begins to play a very clear second fiddle to the dominance of Galás’s voice. The only time I can really get on board with it is during the closing track, ‘Hex’, and that’s mostly because of the Nitzer Ebb-esque riff that runs through most of the track.

I’m honestly not sure what it is about her voice that troubles me so much; perhaps it’s that it carries a level of base anguish and emotional openness that I’m not prepared to give in to, or perhaps it’s a specific aversion that I have to vocal improvisation. I get jazz improv, but I’ve never developed a taste for either scat singing or the wordless vocalisations of people like Phil Minton, and I’m not sure I ever will. Whatever the reason, my relatively modest Galás collection is now up for sale via Discogs.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Immersion – Analogue Creatures (Swim~ single, 2016)

‘Analogue Creatures’ is the first material by ImmersionMalka Spigel from Minimal Compact and Colin Newman from Wire – since a fabled performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2000 which marked the reformation of Newman’s group. The next decade and a half would see Swim~, the electronica label that Spigel and Newman had established, put on the backburner while the duo variously worked on the resurgence of Wire, live shows by Minimal Compact and the Githead group they formed with Robin ‘Scanner’ Rimbaud and Minimal Compact’s Max Franken.

Named for the organic quality of the synths deployed rather than suggesting that this new 10” EP is a product of the analogue renaissance that gets Big Bang Theory-esque synth nerds all hot under the collar, ‘Analogue Creatures’ is at once deeply ambient, while simultaneously Krautrock in its dimensions. ‘Always The Sea’ and ‘Shapeshifters’ blend together choppy guitar lines with slowly ebbing and flowing synth backdrops, it often being unclear when the synths stop and the guitars start. Despite the absence of any discernible rhythm, there is nevertheless a pulse – of sorts – running throughout the record, evoking the chugging motorik grove that characterised much of Krautrock; Newman sees ‘Analogue Creatures’ as being in the territory of a ‘beatless Neu!’ and it’s easy to see why he’d come to that conclusion.

The EP pivots on the track ‘Organic Cities’. That track saw the duo collaborating with local Brighton synth geek Guy Schneerson, and the track demonstrates a more harmonically full suite of arpeggios, plucked guitar lines and evocative texture. It sits somewhere between the churning linear lines of a Githead melody and a previously-unheard outtake from Vangelis’s Bladerunner soundtrack.

‘Analogue Creatures’ is a slick return to the drifting, expansive electronica that occupied Spigel and Newman in the Nineties, but it’s also yet another evolution of this stop-start-stop collaboration. It doesn’t necessary signal a return to the prominence that the duo gave Immersion in the formative Swim~ days, but despite a long period of absence during which they focussed on the classic guitar-bass-drums formation, the pair are showing that they’re every bit as intrigued by synth music as they ever were.

A full interview I held with Malka Spigel and Colin Newman about the new Immersion record will appear in the next issue of Electronic Sound. Electronic Sound is available at the App Store or

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound – Issue 18


Electronic Sound Issue 18 is now available, with a major focus on fifty years of electronic music, and as ever its delivered with the magazine’s usual depth of focus.

For the latest issue I reviewed albums by Africaine 808 (a crazy musical gumbo drawing from a whole world of sonic soundclashes), Duke St Workshop (a truly terrifying setting of horror writing by HP Lovecraft to electronics), Deux Filles (the long-awaited return of Simon Fisher Turner and Colin Lloyd Tucker), Wild Style Lion (dirty electronics with contributions from Sonic Youth‘s Kim Gordon and Dinosaur Jr.‘s J Mascis) and an improv set from Klaus Filip and Leonel Kaplan for trumpet and sinewaves.

Also in the magazine is a short feature I wrote on the acid- and Salinger-influenced duo The Caulfield Beats, and the third of my 2015 interviews with Erasure‘s Andy Bell, where he explains three of his foremost influences. Prepare to be somewhat surprised by what Bell was inspired by. I know I was pretty taken back.

Electronic Sound is available at the iTunes App Store or at

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Electronic Sound

Beacon – Escapements (Ghostly International album, 2016)

I reviewed the second album from New York production duo Beacon for Clash. ‘Escapements’ is a fragile, brilliant example of electronic pop subjected to brutal levels of reductionism. ‘Escapements’ is released on Ghostly International, an imprint that is fast becoming my new favourite record label.

You can read my review here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Clash

Tuff Love – Resort (Lost Map Records album, 2016)


album // Resort

Tuff Love – a duo of Julie Eisenstein and Suse Bear – hail from Glasgow and have caused a bit of a stir with their three EP releases, garnering praise from your usual dictators of all things hip and cool. The duo’s EPs have now been compiled into one tidy package, which possibly feels a little like a cheat’s way of releasing a debut album, but on the strength of the songs, we’ll forgive them for that.

This is guitar pop first and foremost, delivered with sweetly harmonising vocals and lyrics that carry a lighthearted, diaristic style. There also a delicately wry humour and a penchant for naming tracks after birds and animals. Songs like ‘Flamingo’, ‘Crocodile’ and ‘Slammer’ are curt, immediate and a lot of fun, while also carrying a deft, shoegazery shimmer. But listen closer, and what emerges is a much rougher, fuzzy quality that slices right through the pop exterior. Guitars whine and buzz with grunged-up angst and elegant restraint, recalling axe-wielding forebears like Dinosaur Jr., while Suse Bear’s bass playing on songs like ‘Sebastian’ brings to mind the melodic ominousness of Pixies. And while those vocals might suggest sweetness, there’s also a flat, detached sensibility direct descended from Glasgow’s finest, Jesus And Mary Chain. Melody and harmony ultimately triumph here, but it’s not necessarily a smooth ride to get there.

Though lining up mostly previously-available material for a debut is a bit of a cop-out for such a lauded outfit, ‘Resort’ also illustrates the impressive growth of Eisenstein and Bear across three releases. By the time closing track ‘Carbon’ wraps up, the earlier material feels positively naïve in comparison. These songs were all recorded in Bear’s apartment; we have to hope they stay there in the front room rather than moving to a studio proper and embracing a cleaner, more polished sound.

This non-Mute review was originally intended for publication elsewhere. Thanks to Frankie. 

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

David Bowie: Loving The Alien by Christopher Sandford (Warner book, 1997)

Everything I learned to love about David Bowie came from this book.

Growing up, a child of the mid-Seventies first exposed properly to music in the early Eighties, Bowie was clearly always there but he didn’t register with me. I still don’t know why. Music was always on in our family home but I don’t remember ever hearing one of his songs; I don’t recall watching Live Aid, though I can well imagine I did. I suspect my entire view of Bowie was informed by his ‘Dancing In The Street’ duet with Mick Jagger, and that view was that this was an artist for an older generation, and therefore not for me.

Like a lot of things – girls, guitars, passing my driving test – my appreciation of Bowie came very late. 1997 to be exact. By that time I’d had it drummed into my that Bowie was important, but I still figured he wasn’t an artist I’d ever fall in love with.

I was in my university bookshop one day when the arresting image of Sandford’s book caught my eye. Rather than looking at the words on the back, I instantly looked at the index to see who the book mentioned, and when I saw Erasure, I immediately flicked to that page it mentioned to find out why. In among various sentences I read that Bowie had influenced my favourite band. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but the notion that this artist who I couldn’t fathom of bring myself to appreciate had played a part in shaping either the music or imagery of Andy Bell in particular was compelling enough to make me buy the book.

In my quest to broaden my musical horizons it’s often been through academically studying texts or writings on the music before ever listening to it. If I look at my current passion, jazz, I know that this has come around twenty years after I first began reading about it, and I’d conservatively say it was ten years before I ever owned a jazz record. So it was also with Bowie, though not over such a long period.

I read ‘Loving The Alien’ avidly, fell head over heels in love with this man’s music, but never thought to go out and buy any music by him. Slightly ahead of him was the music of The Velvet Underground, another band who I had bout a book about before going out and buying The Velvet Underground And Nico. I thought it somewhat serendipitous that Lou Reed from The Velvets kept cropping up in the story of Bowie, either as a figure that inspired Bowie to create Ziggy Stardust, or on to when Bowie’s Belay Brothers pseudonym produced Reed’s Transformer. That convinced me, probably more than anything else, that I was going to go all out for Bowie further down the line.

I already knew I was going to head for Bowie’s Berlin period first. To someone schooled in electronic music, and who had already fallen for Brian Eno, and who already knew of the influence that this period had on Joy Division, that seemed like an obvious starting point. It also helped that I’d ready a great book about Berlin around the same time, and I thought that was another reasonable serendipitous matter, given how much I was interested in Berlin (I’ve still never been).

While I was reading the book, at my ex-girlfriend’s house, the BBC randomly broadcast a repeat of the Cracked Actor documentary. It seemed like too much of a coincidence. I’d built up a healthy interest in and knowledge of William S. Burroughs, though – typically – I’d never read anything by him, but I could appreciate the cut-up approach that Bowie was employing. To say I was by then enthralled by the man, his methods and his demeanour was an understatement. To my girlfriend’s father, the documentary was enough to make him leave the room in bigoted disgust. I sensed he wasn’t a fan. Too straight.

Rather than the Berlin period, it would turn out to be the song ‘Suffragette City’ that would provide the gateway to my Bowie collecting, specifically a live version from an Uncut cover-mount CD called Screenadelica, taken from the D.A. Pennebaker-directed final performance as Ziggy Stardust, a song delivered with punk-esque energy and sheer unbridled, antagonistic fun. That was May 1998 according to the date of the magazine, well over a year on from when I first started ‘researching’ Bowie. It hit my right between the eyes like Ziggy’s famous lightning bolt, and I was hooked. I played that track so many times, and at such severely loud volumes, that I’m surprised I can ever hear anything objectively today.

Since then, Bowie’s music has been a constant source of inspiration for me, and I find my youthful disdain for his music as somewhat risible now. My two daughters have grown up with his music, and Labyrinth of course, and, unlike I was at their age, are both well aware of just how monumentally important this man was, is, and always will be. I like to think that this has partially righted the wrong of me looking on him as too removed from my generation for me to like him.

Today ‘The Prettiest Star’ became the Black(est)star and music won’t feel quite the same again. I can only hope, as some surmised in the Sixties and Seventies, that he really was an alien after all, and has merely returned to his home planet now that his work here on Earth is done. I’d like to believe that.

David Bowie 1947 – 2016.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence