Electronic Sound Issue 49

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Issue 49 of the wonderful Electronic Sound is now available, with this issue focussing on how the Moog added its distinctive, malleable sound to the music of the 1970s.

For this issue I wrote a feature on Secession, another also-ran band from the early 1980s that should have been bigger than they were, and whose lead singer Peter Thomson’s potential was abruptly silenced when he took his own life in 2001. Secession were purportedly called “better than New Order” by the NME, and their early singles and solitary album are hidden gems in the post-punk / electronic music archives. Their album A Dark Enchantment will receive a timely reissue this year.

Elsewhere in this issue, I reviewed albums by techo-influenced saxophonist Bendik Giske, the Israeli electronic jazz collective Time Grove, a Buchla-led lost album by Ragnar Grippe, and a very clever sound work by Machinefabriek. I also reviewed a massive new boxset of American electronic music getting a lavish boxset treatment by Cherry Red (Third Noise Principle – Formative North American Electronica 1975 – 1984) and wrote a piece introducing the duo Sunda Arc, whose Warp-influenced electronica and jazz crossover album is probably going to be my album of year when its released by Gondwana in June.

The bundle edition of Electronic Sound, with an accompanying 7″ of Mike Vickers’s Moog experiments is now sold out. Head to electronicsound.co.uk for the non-bundle edition.

A short Spotify playlist to accompany my contributions to the latest issue can be found here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

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Rowland S. Howard – Pop Crimes (Liberation Music album, 2009)

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Listening, belatedly, to Pop Crimes, Rowland S. Howard‘s second solo album is hard to contemplate without considering that Howard was suffering with what would prove to be terminal liver cancer during its recording, passing away while promoting the LP. Nevertheless, that feeling of listening to a ghost aside, Pop Crimes stands as a strong final chapter in the musical career of an uncompromising musician whose work in The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and beyond marked him out as an inventive guitarist and songwriter.

Pop Crimes contains six new Howard compositions, as well as covers of Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin”. The album saw Howard working with JP Shilo (credited with guitar, violin and other general strangeness), bassist Brian Hooper (who also co-wrote the title track and appears on ‘Wayward Man’ and ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’) and saw Howard reunited with former Boys Next Door / Birthday Party colleague Mick Harvey (here on drums and organ). Pop Crimes was produced by Lindsay Gravina.

In spite of his ailing health, Howard’s voice had rarely sounded so interesting, containing a gruff tenderness and the barest trace of a sneer at the very edge of his delivery, while his guitar playing drew on the same style of layered anti-playing – skeletal notes that descend into howling static – that made The Birthday Party’s axeman such a thrilling proposition. The two covers are cases in point. Covering Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene’s epic Eighties hit ‘Life’s What You Make It’ was always going to be a brave move, but Howard / Harvey / Shilo give it an added edge of grungy nihilism, stalking bass and droning organs augmenting a defiant, reflective but bitter Howard, the spaces in his vocal allowing his distinctive, subtle guitar riffs to feed through. As with all the best covers, Howard takes ‘Life’s What You Make It’ into new, uncharted territory, taking Talk Talk’s optimistic original and turning it into a darker, somewhat sinister paean to individualism. Meanwhile the cover of Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin” showcases Howard’s strangled vocal style, a world-weary but mysterious quality with doomed blues backing from Howard / Harvey / Shilo that sounds like a nag sluggishly bearing its rider back from unspeakable horrors.

Occasionally there are small moments of levity which leaves you with the impression that this LP isn’t uniformly misanthropic, even though it really is. Opener ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Jonny’ is one. A duet with Jonnine Standish of Australian Blast First Petite band HTRK, ‘A Girl Called Jonny’ is an occasionally joyous, mostly dark Phil Spector-esque ballad with simple organ and drums, and gentle bass from HTRK’s Sean Stewart (who was found dead in the spring of 2010). Howard’s vocal weaves alongside Standish’s detached own while whining guitar drifts alongside. ‘Pop Crimes’ is another. The album’s title track consists of ponderous bass, guitarwork that straddles Howard’s punk-blues licks from ‘Nick The Stripper’ and the searing feedback / noise of ‘The Friendcatcher’ while Harvey’s drums contain a jazzy swing which has that effect of lightening the mood ever so slightly. I have no idea what the lyrics are on about, but it’s delivered with a sense of muted anger by Howard and so I guess he’s railing at the pop music industry somehow.

Elsewhere there is a sense of the personal drifting into the songwriting. ‘Wayward Man’, with its great wedges of metronomic bass and carefully-wrought feedback, has lyrics that find Howard resignedly accepting that he can’t be the wayward man whoever he’s singing to wants him to be. The whole thing hints at rage, at darkness, like an updating of Leonard Cohen’s sinister ‘I’m Your Man’. Likewise, ‘Ave Maria’, which is an introverted, quiet and sorrowful piece, all fragile percussion and gentle layers of guitar, organ and plucked bass. The piece has a filmic, emotional quality, marking it out as a low-key but tear-jerkingly moving highlight of Pop Crimes. As the music fades away, Howard closes the track with the words ‘we didn’t dance upon our wedding day’, singly the most regretful thing I’ve yet heard in a song. Then again, this is the man that wrote ‘Shivers’, perhaps the most beautifully depressing song ever written.

The album was supported posthumously by ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’, which is a wry, apocalyptic piece that is strangely cynical at times; white hot feedback is draped laconically across and through an bleak, sparse backdrop. It’s hardly the most optimistic way to close out an album, but if you had terminal cancer, with no liver transplant on offer, I wonder how cheerful you would be.

First published 2012; edited and re-posted 2019.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Camp Christmas (Channel 4 broadcast, 24 December 1993)

Title from ‘Camp Christmas’.

Twenty years BSG – Before Snow GlobeErasure‘s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke participated in Camp Christmas, an alternative Christmas show broadcast by Channel 4 on Christmas Eve 1993. The broadcast formed part of the British broadcaster’s New York-themed suite of programmes that evening, though what Camp Christmas‘s connection to that was now seems lost forever. (I only even remember that because the ident for Channel 4’s NY Christmas programming theme was to be found at the start of my VHS recording.)

Camp Christmas was hosted by Andy Bell and Melissa Etheridge and saw the pair shacked up in a log cabin amidst a seasonally snow-filled studio set, joined on their Christmas vacation by Julian Clary’s wisecracking wall-mounted reindeer head, director Derek Jarman (who died from an AIDS-related illness early the following year) and footballer John Fashanu. Christmas video messages were included from Martina Navratilova and Ian McKellen, the New York Gay Men’s Chorus delivered a humorous song from the Wollman Rink in Central Park while Lily Savage played the role of the party’s hapless caterer.

East 17 made an unlikely appearance – unlikely because they were more or less the only participants on screen who weren’t gay – and Quentin Crisp delivered a soliloquy based on an alternative version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In a programme filled with strange moments, Simon Callow (currently performing his own one-man Dickens show at London’s Arts Theatre) delivered a bizarre hybrid of Shakespeare and panto which is probably not the highest point in his career as an esteemed thesp.

Vince worked as the ‘musical director’ for the broadcast, aided by Martyn Ware and Phil Legg – essentially the team that worked on the I Say I Say I Say album that would get released the following year. The songs for Camp Christmas were recorded in the same sessions with Ware and Legg.

Andy sang three songs with Etheridge (‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and a very special rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound Of Music), a lovely solo rendition of ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’ from The Wizard Of Oz and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, joined by the assembled studio cast on the final chorus. It’s fair to say that the musical moments are the points where Andy seems at his most comfortable, and Vince’s accompaniment is nothing short of lovely, blending wintery chill with analogue wackiness as only he knows how.

Still from Andy Bell singing ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’.

Music to one side, Camp Christmas manages to work its way from sublimely daft to frankly cringe-worthy. One such audacious moment comes with Pam St. Clements – Pat Butcher from EastEnders – pretending to be a fairy on a Christmas tree, delivering a song I don’t recognise about farting. It’s ludicrous, naturally, but Vince somehow managed to work his magic effortlessly, even on such a ridiculous piece of over-the-top cabaret.

Channel 4 have always had a reputation for adventurous programming, and Camp Christmas was unlike anything else that had been broadcast up to that point. Adventurous as it was for its time, and despite some dodgy moments, Camp Christmas was also pretty funny in the same way as a pantomime can have you rolling about in the aisles. And that’s in spite of some appearances that are every bit as wooden as the shack they’re supposed to be holidaying in.

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My VHS recording of ‘Camp Christmas’, 24 December 1993, complete with neat teenage fountain pen handwriting.

Thanks to Martyn. Several YouTube rips of the broadcast can be found online, as can bootleg recordings of the Andy Bell songs.

First posted 2013; re-posted for the holidays 2018

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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

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

Berlin Blondes – The Complete Recordings (1980 – 81) (Strike Force Entertainment album, 2018)

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“Like most musical scenes, early synth-pop was littered with groups that didn’t quite make it; bands who should have been more successful than they were but who ultimately watched groups perceived as more deserving of acclaim have huge success and marketing energy bestowed upon them, while they were relegated to the role of mere footnotes – at best.

Such was the case with Glasgow’s Berlin Blondes, who wound up on the sidelines of the 80s synth dawn, already mostly broken up before their solitary album was in the can…”

I reviewed The Complete Recordings 1980 – 81 by overlooked Glasgow synth-pop group Berlin Blondes for the Cold War Night Life website. The album was released on Barney Ashton’s Strike Force Entertainment sub-label of Cherry Red.

Ashton is also the author of the Torsten plays which feature Erasure‘s Andy Bell as the troubled Torsten character. A third installment of the Torsten series is imminently expected.

You can read my review here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Cold War Night Life