Daniel Blumberg & Hebronix – Liv (Mute album, 2018)

Milton Keynes Gallery, 11 October 2018: after meticulously setting up in front of the audience, and removing his shoes, violinist Billy Steiger is nowhere to be seen. He has disappeared into an antechamber to the left of where I’m sitting, coaxing sounds from a metal music stand that he moved there earlier. It is a curious effect, these naturally reverberating, occasionally uncomfortable metallic, unamplified resonances emerging from a place that isn’t where your eyes are naturally trained.

After a while, though these sounds are far from predictable, you find yourself adjusting to the noise, leaving you just with your thoughts. After his set concludes, he takes up position on the opposite side of the performance space from Daniel Blumberg and his headless black Steinberger guitar, the intense form of double bass player Tom Wheatley between them. The trio run through songs from Blumberg’s Minus opus and songs that are inextricably of the same source as Minus but unfamiliar, including one track – ‘Off And On’ – that they play twice, both versions as different from one another as they are similar. As is Blumberg’s preference, the audience is not given the opportunity to applaud between songs, and the only interaction discernible with those here to watch him comes when Blumberg lets his brass slide fall to the floor in response to someone at the back’s wine glass falling on its side, not once, but twice (it would turn out to be his out to be his girlfriend’s, something she embarrassedly admits after the show).

Afterwards, I find myself outside with Daniel. In the course of that conversation, he enthusiastically flits from one thing to another – the tour, the next album he’s already working on, the weird topography of Milton Keynes and the fact that he’s off to his nan’s care home the following day to sing traditional Hebrew songs

To the uninitiated, this is pure logorrhoea, a chaotic slew of seemingly randomly-assembled thoughts and subjects; I was fortunate enough to spend the best part of two hours interviewing Blumberg earlier in the year and you just kind of adjust to it after a while; it shows a mind always racing, always thinking, always processing, always crashing ideas together, constantly creating, never still.

‘Off And On’ and another track, ‘Digital’, that the band play turn out to be taken from Liv, recorded by Blumberg, Steiger and Wheatley at London’s Sarm West in 2014 with additional contributions from Seymour Wright (sax) and Kohhei Matsuda (mono synth). Minus was an important album, showing an artist operating at the furthest orbit from where he had been before with bands like Yuck; but, as important and complete it was, it showed Blumberg after his metamorphosis. Liv is an important album as it shows how Blumberg got there, and shows the impact on his affecting songwriting from his time immersing himself into the Café Oto scene with skilled players like those on this album. It illustrates the profound effect that that immersion had on his approach to songwriting: the noise-followed-by-calm methodology is there, but it is perhaps less absolute in its switches from one device to another; it is more interwoven, blurrier even.

Liv opens with ‘Liv’, containing layer upon layer of synth loops, distortion, and impenetrable clusters of compelling, intense noise that suddenly breaks into the enquiry “Who are you that I lived with?” in Blumberg’s distinctive, questing tone. The noise returns, ebbs away and Blumberg’s enquiry becomes “Who are you in my kitchen?” I’m reminded of my own time sat in his kitchen, and I briefly recall how uncomfortable and out of my depth I felt as we started that interview. The track then becomes beatific wordless harmonies, pitched over an antsy, restless bed of sonic shards.

The version of ‘Digital’ included here is more elemental; quieter and more reflective. You can discern a sort of hollow, inquisitive blues poking its way through, the model for the tender songs that would pepper Minus; synth noises whirr and ping around the guitar, as does fluttering violin. It is romantic yet uncertain. “How do I greet her when I’ve been thinking about the other one?” asks Blumberg, his words loaded with pathos. It’s rueful, fragile, uncertain, restless, and speaks to a rift, a crisis, viewed from an otherworldly, out-of-body type of vantage point. ‘Digital’ ends with Steiger’s violin sawing over bird-like sounds, either from Matsuda’s synths or Wright’s sax.

‘Off And On’ begins with hypnotic bass evolutions, tentative synth melodies becoming a stop / start blend of silence and fullness. It’s wonderfully pretty when all enmeshed together, only to become disrupted and expansive. Here you will find hope filtered through strangely uncertain ruminations. Steiger’s violin is here, at times, straight, unadorned, expressive without being taken into angular splinters. Wheatley‘s approach to the double bass is an entirely physical one, being less an instrument and more a box of toys for him to manipulate, pull, scrape, pluck and push its strings to the limits of their tension, and if you close your eyes you can imagine him doing all of that when the players are working their way through this troubled piece.

‘Caught’ is a a long, ‘Madder’-esque centrepiece, Blumberg’s guitar nodding less to inchoate freeform shapes but toward a kind of floating, droning post-rock suite of riffs bobbing up and down over fuzzy distortion and prowling bass. The effect is like drifting along on an uncertain, turbulent sea. It is unswerving in its progress, if a little frayed at the edges, staying there until a tentative vocal appears out of the fog around five minutes in. As ever, these words undeniably mean something to Blumberg, but to the observer, they are impenetrable, suggestive but never definitive; you can interpret the sentiment, but the true impression is elusive, like a fragment of a diary entry of an unknown writer. “Why is this happening?” might be a message of despair or a quizzical, offhand enquiry of some piece of equipment not behaving quite as it should. Around the halfway mark, as the music lurches into a comfortable dirge, Blumberg’s vocal veers toward folksy sung harmonies, a pretty counterpoint to the music elsewhere. Everything stops, falls away, sounding like the end of days in its absence, while the lyrics suggest some sort of harrowing interstitial space in which Blumberg finds himself. Toward the end, the piece lunges back toward a desperate, impenetrable wall of sound in which Wright’s sax bleats and whistles over everything else, briefly.

The album concludes with ‘Life Support’, an accomplished moment of lovely, early Velvets balladry. Here, Blumberg’s folk singer poise and Matsuda’s held tones and splintered half-melodies are underpinned by Steiger’s adaptable playing. Truly transcendent, ‘Life Support’ is a wonder to behold, a towering conclusion to a set showcasing a songwriter undergoing a major transformation and the minus-ing of his craft to where he finds himself today.

Liv is only available through Rough Trade. Thanks to Paul, Zoe, Joff and DB.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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The Buzzcocks – Time’s Up (The Grey Area album, 2000)

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“No-remix demos, all recorded live, no overdubs … October 1976, 4 track, cost about £45.”

For many, the Buzzcocks story starts (and perhaps ends) with their crossover single ‘Ever Fallen In Love With Someone’, a distilled pop-punk gem that was a deserved hit for the band. However, to focus on this single three minutes or so ignores the immense body of work that the band, largely fronted by seminal guitarist and singer Pete Shelley, who died yesterday, have accumulated over the years.

On the surface, Mute‘s decision to release this much-bootlegged collection of early Buzzcocks demos and studio sessions seems ill-advised – except that it really does make a degree of sense. The Grey Area sub-label originally developed as an outlet for re-releases of material that was held to have had a devastating influence on counter-commercial music styles; to this end, re-releasing tracks that influenced a generation of punks and launched the career of Howard Devoto (née Trafford, singer and chief songwriter with the band at this point, later frontman of Magazine and responsible for introducing Barry Adamson to the world) – is every bit as understandable as their re-releases of post-punk pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Wire and Throbbing Gristle.

I never held much of an opinion in my early years on the perceived greatness of the Sex Pistols, although after watching The Filth And The Fury, I’m prepared to change my mind. Not so my opinion of Buzzcocks, especially on this collection. Their sound, even at this early stage, was less prone to excess, and the songs are delivered with a precision and exactness that carried forward into live (documentary) evidence from the period – just check out the classic post-Devoto Live At The Roxy compilation. These are very much well-executed, catchy underground pop tunes, with only Shelley’s fuzzy guitar work and Devoto’s sneering vocals planting the band in the punk firmament. Other members at the time were John Maher and Steve Diggle.

Social comment is not prevalent here, Howard Devoto’s lyrics preferring to deal with the more pressing post-teenage issues – sex and lust (‘Orgasm Addict’ and ‘Love Battery’ being two of the more crudely obvious examples) and frustration (‘You’re Messing Me Around’, and the classics ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Boredom’). Devoto’s lyrical take is pretty raw here, unlike his studied poetry-like work with Magazine, while still hinting at his future greatness. Knowing his future direction helps understand why a song like the cover of Captain Beefheart’s ‘I Love You Big Dummy’ fits here so damn well.

Eleven historic tracks are presented here, bolstered by a collage of video footage of the first Buzzcocks gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976 – the scene of the Sex Pistols entrance into the Manchester punk movement. What’s worth the entry price alone is the inlay booklet, which is so fat with pages that you can hardly close the case. The content is an obsessive collector’s dream – photos, scribbles, concert setlists etc, as well as the original press release for the seminal Spiral Scratch EP, liner notes from Greil Marcus and a 1977 interview with Devoto. Overall, Mute have done an excellent job on this reissue, marking this out as the most comprehensive, definitive and hopefully final version to date.

Originally posted 2003; re-posted 2018 following the sad death of Pete Shelley at 63 years old.

(c) 2018 Documentary Evidence

Today: Alka – Combinations In Electronic Sound via Mixlr

Alka

VeryRecords artist Alka‘s Bryan Michael will be spinning an eclectic set of electronic tracks at 1500 EST / 2000 GMT today (7 December 2018) as part of DJ Steve Brown’s Combinations In Electronic Sound broadcast on Mixlr.

Tune in later at mixlr.com/touched_music/

Alka’s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal is available from the VeryRecords store / Spotify / everywhere.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for VeryRecords

News: Akiko Yano feat. Reed & Caroline – When We’re In Space (Speedstar Records, 2018)

Continuing the themes of their Hello Science album from earlier this year, VeryRecords artists Reed & Caroline have collaborated with Japanese pop singer Akiko Yano on a new track, ‘When We’re In Space’. The track is taken from Akiko’s latest album Futari Bocchi De Ikou, which was released by Speedstar Records in Japan today.

“Akiko and I are neighbours,” says Reed about the origins of the song. “Whenever we ride the elevator together we talk about music, space and Kraftwerk. She came to the very first Reed & Caroline show at a little club in NYC – our first fan!

“Earlier this year she asked if we could collaborate on this project. She played a beautiful melody and I asked what the song should be about. She said, ‘The International Space Station!’ All of the music – except for Akiko’s piano – was created using the Buchla synthesizer.”

Piano and vocals: Akiko Yano
Additional vocals: Caroline Schutz
Buchla: Reed Hays
Music composed by Akiko Yano. Lyrics written by Reed Hays.

Futari Bocchi De Ikou is available to buy from amazon.jp here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Reed & Caroline and VeryRecords

Klara Lewis & Simon Fisher Turner – Care (Editions Mego album, 2018)

Pairing two esteemed sound artists together, Care found Klara Lewis working in collaboration with Simon Fisher Turner across four long, painstakingly-created atmospheric pieces for Editions Mego.

These are pieces built from discrete sonic movements, never quite following any sort of predictable path or settling into formulaic ambient / soundscape familiarity. Opening piece ‘8’ is a case in point – 15 minutes in length and consisting of noisy interruptions interlaced with quieter found sound – conversation, birds, whispering near-silence – each gyration from one passage to another catches you off guard, typically just as you think the track has settled into itself. Electronics are processed into grainy distortion and rhythmic gestures are compressed into harsher shapes, often for the briefest of moments before being harshly cut into silence at seemingly randomised points.

It’s a conceit that Lewis and Turner use across Care without ever once feeling like they’ve settled into some sort of cosy familiarity, either with one another as collaborators, or with the material they’re working with. Far from it – these four pieces are alive with a continual tension and drama, never quite betraying where they might evolve to next, or for how long, or which section might suddenly re-emerge.

Each piece here is subtly different – ‘Drone’, despite its name, isn’t some sort of elaborate, dense dronescape but a piece filled with haunting textures and minimalist piano passages, along with an interruption from what sounds like a mediaeval folk ritual; ‘Tank’ utilises glitchy electronics that seem like they’re writhing out of control, fleeting voices and a processed jazz epilogue that feels skewed toward the point of Lynchian nausea.

The final track, ‘Mend’ starts out with genteel synth chords before becoming elaborately distorted over its full length, though it’s imperceptible at what point the piece lurches from nice to nasty. I was listening to this while descending through the clouds on the way into New York’s JFK. Its evolution from serene drift to noisy texture seemed the perfect soundtrack to the change in vista from uncluttered blue sky to the chaotic sprawl of Queens and Manhattan beyond.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mick Harvey & Christopher Richard Barker – The Fall And Rise Of Edgar Bourchier And The Horrors Of War (Mute album, 2018)

“With each year that passes there are fewer and fewer of us who have a direct connection to those who lived through the two world wars.” Those were the words of our town mayor at this year’s Remembrance service in Woburn Sands, before he solemnly read out the names of those from here who had lost their lives, leaving an indelible mark on this small community with whole generations of family members eliminated.

Over the years their short lives and contributions are reduced to an etching on a war memorial that few of us even notice other than at the annual Remembrance service. Upon the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War, the sacrifice of over a million British service personnel is – rightly – prominently back in focus, serving as a salutary reminder of war’s devastating consequences.

Edgar Bourchier didn’t serve his country in the First World War, at least not outside the imagination of author Christopher Richard Barker anyway. The poet and soldier Bourchier is a fictional character that Barker first created for his 2012 novella The Melancholy Haunting Of Nicholas Parkes, fabricating his Warwickshire birth and Passchendaele death and a vivid backstory of how his poetry took on an entire life of its own following his demise. That include a never-realised Weimar cabaret show, the re-discovery of his words during the turbulent Parisian revolution of the Sixties to ‘new’ realisations his (Barker’s) poetry with Mick Harvey. The Fall And Rise Of Edgar Bourchier And The Horrors Of War is thus a conceptual tribute to the endeavours of an Unknown Soldier that never actually existed, but whom speaks for a whole generation of conscripted boys.

Harvey’s experience as a producer, vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist lends these songs the requisite sensitivity, drama and horror to evoke the realities of life in the trenches, all seen from the first-hand vantage point of a contemporary observer. Veering from wistful, mournful folk on tracks like ‘Listen In The Twilight Breeze’ to distorted, feisty rock on ‘The Last Bastard Son Of War’, this is an album inevitably loaded with dramatic, thought-provoking moments. Harvey leads an ensemble cast including his long-time collaborator JP Shilo, vocalists Jade Imagine, Alain Johannes and Simon Breed across fifteen stirring tracks written collaboratively with Barker. Through these songs we hear the hatred of the footsoldiers toward their stiff upper-lipped superiors and their natural reluctance at finding themselves defending their country in spite of the hollow promises of glory and prosperity.

‘Softly Spoken Bill’ observes a callow young soldier thrust into the role of unwilling cannon fodder, losing the plot as he legs it toward the enemy and ultimately getting sent back to Blighty suffering from an early, undiagnosed, wilfully ignored form of PTSD. That effect on these young men can be heard again on ‘The Expressionist Tell #1’ and ‘#2’, describing the numbing, hollowed-out impact that barrages of mustard gas and incessant mortar fire would have on even the most resolute of individuals, reducing them to ghostly human shields in the name of a greater peace.

To call this harrowing would be a pointless understatement, even as Bourchier’s narrative moves from a sort of forced jingoism to the terrifying, cloying sound art of ‘The Messenger’, in which we hear of the falsehoods of life on the frontline that were forbidden from being reported back home.

As time passes and collective memories fade, we need such honest, unflinching descriptions of the manmade hell-on-earth of war to lead us not into the temptations of conflict as our only means of resolving differences. At a time when ugly, incendiary rhetoric between nations is at an all-time high, as peacetime defence spending is increasing, and as Cold War treaties and agreements are unilaterally scrapped, we need the likes of Bourchier’s posthumous words more than ever – irrespective of their false providence – lest we forget.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Art Brut – Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! (Alcopop! Records album, 2018)

“We’ve got a lead singer. Doesn’t really sing. Lives off his paintings. Got a flat in Berlin.”
– Art Brut, ‘Kultfigur’

Some seven years on from their last LP, much has changed for Art Brut. Two members from the original line-up, Jasper Future and Mike Breyer, have left, while enigmatic frontman Eddie Argos has various taken on the mantle of playwright, comic book writer, death’s door hospital patient, father and painter-for-hire.

Some seven years on from their last LP, much has stayed the same for Art Brut. Honestly, it’s like they never really went away. New drummer Charlie Layton, lately from The Wedding Present, and new guitarist Toby MacFarlaine have slotted so neatly into the Art Brut fold alongside original members Freddy Feedback (bass), Ian Catskilkin (guitar) and Argos that it’s like they always belonged here. The album was faithfully produced with Jim Moray, who also worked with Argos on his musical The Islanders, which was performed at Edinburgh’s Fringe in 2013.

Wham! Bang! Pop! Let’s Rock Out! is everything you want from an Art Brut record – the spiky, punk-informed, joyful guitar pop, the erudite non-sequitur-laden spoken observations of Eddie Argos, cheekily assimilated reference points (Lionel Richie, Phil Spector) and an ethos that’s simultaneously meticulously polished and chaotic by equal terms. In all of those many essential ways, the LP picks up precisely where Brilliant! Tragic! left off and that is a truly fantastic thing; sometimes you don’t realise you’ve missed something until it comes back, and that’s part of what this album charmingly represents, a continuation of something that should never have ever been allowed to fizzle out.

And yet, it also finds Art Brut somewhat changed. This is inevitable. We’re all seven years older, seven years wiser (whatever that is), seven years more experienced and probably seven years poorer. A lot can happen in seven years, and the turbulent upheaval of Argos’s personal life is unavoidably present in these songs. The album seems to pivot on the epic ‘Good Morning Berlin’. Here you find a Blur-ry swagger with antediluvian whistling and jangly ‘Country House’ guitar; it all sounds perfectly cheerful until there’s a slightly melancholy, wistful chord change on the bridge that coalesces into a concluding passage laden with regret, mournfulness and a sense of abject disbelief at the state that Argos finds himself in.

That sharp change in direction seems to reveal the catharsis at work on this album. The songs might sound as full of unbridled joy as they ever did, but here you find Argos working through everything from separation, coming to terms with sobriety, staring at hospital ceilings, watching someone you’ve spent intimate moments together shack up with someone else, and that heart-racing, sweaty-palmed excitement of falling in love all over again after years of comfortable coupledom. Yes, the delivery is unchanged, the wry humour is undiminished, but the content is infinitely more personal.

How you approach Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! depends on whether you want to spend too long thinking through the sentiment of Argos’s words; if you don’t, tracks like ‘Hooray’ or ‘She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like A Hit)’ or ‘Hospital’ just sound like fantastically refreshing power-pop tracks, replete with overamped guitars, glam handclaps, occasional Theremin-like synths, horns and dizzying levels of unstoppable energy. Spend a bit of time in their company and what you find is a band that’s quietly, subtly matured, but still capable of rocking out as if time stood still.

There’s a fire in my soul / I can’t put it out.” shouts Argos on the album’s irrepressible title track, and that says it all.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence