Electronic Sound 36

Electronic Sound issue 36 is available to buy / order now, and features a comprehensive overview of David Bowie’s 70s forays into electronic music.

This month I wrote a short feature on up-and-coming Bristol electronic musician Henry Green and major feature on James Holden, whose album The Animal Spirits was far and away my favourite record of 2017. The interview took place in Holden’s studio near Turnham Green and found us talking about maths, spiritual jazz, the complexities of trying to add electronics to the music of Ornette Coleman, how to shrink a modular synth down to the size of a cabin bag, and the complex algorithms that explain duo playing. The result was one of my favourite interviews and consequently one of my favourite features to have written.

On the reviews front, this month I covered a reissue of Coil‘s Time Machines, the beautiful guitar processing of Martin Heyne‘s Electric Intervals, explorations of the fading AM radio spectrum by Conflux Coldwell, a lovely pairing of pianist Tom Rogerson with Brian Eno on Finding Shore, a scarily good release by Espectrostatic on the fine Burning Witches imprint and Null + Void‘s Cryosleep featuring Depeche Mode‘s Dave Gahan among other guest vocalists.

Electronic Sound can be purchased here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 1. James Holden & The Animal Spirits ‘The Animal Spirits’

One album this year stood apart for me and it was this record by former progressive house DJ James Holden, an endeavour that the word ‘epic’ was presumably designed for.

Assembled by Holden as bandleader and with his own electronics as the backbone, The Animal Spirits was executed through improvisations that were faithful to the questing spirit of jazz, specifically the spiritual music crafted by the likes of Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and Don Cherry, and the similarly transcendent cycles of Moroccan trance music.

Electronics should act as a inflexible handbrake on pure improv, or at least that’s what we’re meant to believe, but Holden isn’t a typical electronic musician – not only did he build his own hand baggage-sized modular synth, but he also wrote his own software that was integrated with his drummer’s playing to ensure that he could keep up with the rest of the band. The fact that Holden would go so far as to work with a renowned physicist on the theory behind how a duo of musicians impact one another through errors in their playing, and then figure out how to program that, and then make it fit into a band concept, underlines just how different Holden is. There is a vibrant electronic jazz fusion scene going on right now, spearheaded by Holden and his Border Community imprint, Floating Points and others, but The Animal Spirits still stands apart.

I interviewed James for Electronic Sound. The interview took place at his studio near Turnham Green, a compact space filled with modular kit where The Animal Spirits was realised in what must have been an intense series of sessions. Holden is an educated, softly spoken, thoughtful individual. You get the impression when speaking to Holden that he’s only devoting part of his brain to the conversation – not because he’s disinterested, as he was perhaps the most engaging interviewee I sat with this year, but because he’s partitioned off the rest of his brain to resolve some new, complex algorithm simultaneously.

I’m convinced that, in years to come, people will consider The Animal Spirits to be a pivotal electronic music album, one that freed up synths from the linear shackles of rigid sequencers; don’t wait for everyone else to catch up – enjoy it now. Listen to The Animal Spirits here.

Buy Electronic Sound at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 2. Erasure ‘World Be Gone’ + Alka ‘The Colour Of Terrible Crystal’

“Effortless electronic majesty.”
– Electronic Sound

The release of a new Erasure album is always an emotional experience for me, but that’s what happens when you’ve been a fan for so long (nearly 30 years) and when everything else you’ve ever listened to can, on some level, be connected back to them.

However, even without that context – some might say bias – World Be Gone stands out. It’s the type of mature, bold pop that you’d want a duo like Andy Bell and Vince Clarke to make after this long in the business. It’s an album tinged with despair and disappointment at a world that seems to have turned backwards toward a more hateful, vengeful and intolerant version of itself; one that is occasionally hopeful but one that feels like all hope is gone.

None of this was a surprise to me when I heard World Be Gone for the first time, but some people commented to me that they thought the earlier demos for the songs would have been much faster and more uplifting rather than, as presented on the LP, slower and more thoughful affairs. That wasn’t the case – these songs were always intended to be thus, and World Be Gone is all the more coherent for it.

I reviewed the album for Electronic Sound, and I recall that the copy was all written during a flight to Miami with my family. A few days later I was told that a quote from the review would be used on posters to promote the album. I mentioned that to Vince Clarke just after the posters went up on the London Underground, and he refused to believe that there would be posters supporting the record at all. He also refused to let me show him the proof. Here it is (thanks Richard Evans).

Listen to World Be Gone here.

Buy Electronic Sound at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

I continued my work with Vince’s VeryRecords by writing the supporting press materials for Alka‘s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal album. This is truly a work of electronic genius by Bryan Michael and if you haven’t heard it yet, you should.

Given my involvement, albeit behind the scenes, I felt slightly conflicted putting it into my top ten, so I’ve grouped it in here with Erasure because Vince is the common denominator to both.

Listen to The Colour Of Terrible Crystal here. Buy it from VeryRecords here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 3. Ryan Adams ‘Prisoner’

When I started pondering what had been my favourite albums of 2017 I completely forgot about Ryan Adams‘s Prisoner. This doesn’t mean that it’s a forgettable album – far from it – but because, looking back, I couldn’t actually believe it was released this year. This year seems to have passed in such a blur that I would have bet my life that it had been released last year.

It took my Spotify Annual Report to remind me that, no, it was indeed released in 2017; and, just to reinforce its inclusion here, my Annual Report showed that I’d listened to this more than anything else this year. A bit like with The National, I find myself listening to Ryan Adams – when in a particular frame of mind – more than is necessarily healthy, and so it was during February and March when, according to Spotify, I didn’t really listen to much else.

Anyone who is similarly predisposed to Adams’s music will know the score and what to expect here; for any newcomers, expect heartfelt songs that never seem to fade with repeated listens with a introspection that makes The National sound like upbeat, chipper folks in comparison.

Listen to Prisoner here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 4. Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’

I think it’s rather sad that I feel I have to defend including Taylor Swift in my top ten albums of the year: it appears here with no apology.

I have two daughters, and I’m acutely aware of their need for strong role models – like Taylor Swift – as they navigate their way through the complexities, prejudices and injustices of the world. Even at the tender ages of 11 and 9, Swift speaks to them in a way that other quarters of the pop world don’t, and so they fully embraced the hype around Reputation when it was being readied for release with the same zeal as I would have approached a new Erasure or Depeche Mode album in my youth. As a father, that’s a wonderful thing to see, particular when the artist they’re excited about is earnest and on the right side of the tracks.

The second reason is simple – Taylor Swift’s music brings us closer as a family. This might seem like a bold, overblown statement, but it’s true. We listened to 1989 all the time when it was released – at home, in the car, on long holiday drives; we spent a week driving round Cornwall to the soundtrack of Swift’s Red, complete with all four of us singing along to ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and engaging in critical discourse on which of the two was the better track. We’ve done the same with Reputation, engaging in spirited debates on each track like we’re at a Vienna salon at the turn of the twentieth century rather than on the school run.

But what of the musical qualities of Reputation that means it sits so high in this top ten? Well, even a pop novice can hear that these songs are just a little bit removed from the traditional hallmarks of popular music, even if they are squarely framed in a pop context; they are personal, oblique, a little subversive, bruised, angry, disappointed, political, mature and only occasionally completely lighthearted. The album also benefits from the hand of Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, whose ability to bash out euphoric, massively transformative choruses – as is the case on ‘Getaway Car’ and ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ here – has made his two solo albums such wonderfully intriguing listens.

I could also start a healthy discourse here on where the electronic music I typically write about ends and the electronics of modern pop music starts, but in practice that’s futile. There’s very little difference, even if people desperately want to believe that’s the case. Synths and clever electronic structures underpin the entire breadth of Reputation and not in a way that suggests pop music is appropriating the best ideas from purportedly more serious endeavours.

It’s a great record, by a great artist. Deal with it.

Listen to Reputation here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 5. Moon Hooch ‘Live At The Cathedral’

“The trio of Mike Wilbur, Wenzl McGowen and James Muschler may well have just written a whole new playbook for modern jazz.”
– Electronic Sound

It’s warm, sunny evening in July and I’m in a quiet little hotel near the Champs Elysées in Paris, with the loud and uncompromising sounds of New York trio Moon Hooch blasting out at neighbour-bothering volumes.

This was one of those albums that hit my inbox and initially went straight into the trash folder, only to resurface later when my editor at Electronic Sound put it on my list of things to cover that month. I felt like such an idiot for deleting it. Loved by luminaries like Iggy Pop and recorded here in the cavernous environs of the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York, Moon Hooch make an unholy punk-jazz racket that is entirely in the NYC tradition of James Chance & The Contortions. It’s bratty, electronically-augmented and wildly inventive, twisting New York’s venerable jazz legacy into incredibly creative new shapes.

Electronic Sound can be purchased at www.electronicsound.co.uk

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 6. Depeche Mode ‘Spirit’

“Not an album to listen to if you are remotely worried about the state of the world right now… The kind of album that is necessary for shining a light on our basest traits and for encouraging us to think differently all over again; in that sense, for the first time in a long time, Depeche Mode have judged this just right.”
– Clash

Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about Depeche Mode‘s Spirit album. Partly it was because it was billed as being political, and I’m not an outwardly political person and nor do I especially gravitate toward albums with obvious political content. I was asked by Clash to write a piece explaining that Depeche Mode had always been political on some level, which seemed like utter nonsense until I started writing it. That piece can be found here; I won’t rehash it again but it’s a piece of mature analysis that I am particularly proud of.

‘Where’s The Revolution?’ did nothing for me when it was released, and I didn’t hold out much hope for the album. Being political had become trendy, with bands using music as a platform to make a political point, and I couldn’t get on board with it at all. But spending time with the album to write a review, also for Clash, unlocked something that I hadn’t especially expected to find.

My earliest drafts for the review were uniformly negative. I couldn’t reconcile lyrics about impoverished members of society with a band whose members variously live in Manhattan apartments and Californian mansions; it somehow seemed hypocritical on a very obvious level. But as I spent time time with Spirit I began to hear parallels with a very different album – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – and a certain similarity of poise began to emerge, especially in Martin Gore‘s lyrics for ‘Fail’ at the very end of the album.

Spirit did much to allow me to reconcile issues that I didn’t even know I harboured toward Depeche Mode, a band that have been part of my life since my teens. Consequently, I’m convinced that when, in decades to come, writers like me are asked to assess Depeche Mode’s legacy, Spirit will stand out as the band’s surprising yet defining late period statement.

Listen to Spirithere.

My review for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence