Rupert Lally / Espen J. Jörgensen – Øde (No Studio album, 2017)


The work of Rupert Lally and Espen J. Jörgensen is a lot like a tabloid-friendly romance. The duo have consciously uncoupled more than once, only to reform again each time. There’s no animosity, no conflict, just a compulsion to continue pushing out albums and to keep collaborating whenever they feel like it, typically followed by mutterings that each will be their last project together.

The result of this on-off-on again approach is a series of interconnected albums where the only connection is a firm willingness to do whatever feels right at that particular time. The pair have traded in ambient soundscapes, touched on pop and even mucked around with guitars. From a distance, being so outwardly inconsistent in terms of style could be decried as an incoherent vanity or therapy project never intended to be heard outside of the duo themselves; the reality is instead a rich seam of new ideas and new approaches, largely arising as a result of never physically working together in the same place as one another.

The 25-track Øde’s precedent lies in Lally’s last two solo albums, Day One and Scenes From A High Rise, both of which made heavy use of modular synthesis in their rich sound design, and both of which found Lally’s music taking on a somewhat uncharacteristically dark hue. Øde pushes that darkness to an extreme, the result being a nervous, edgy, tense affair full of cloying atmospheres and a panic-inducing analogue buzz about the sequences.

It would be tempting to view Øde as being a sonic representation of the parlous state of the world right now. Lots of such albums have begun to emerge as musicians variously attempt to direct their anger and resentment through their music; being mostly instrumental, Øde can’t rely on lyrical gestures to make its point. Instead, the album does a commendable job of encapsulating what it feels like to be living through all of this: the feeling that there’s something in the air, something restless, something not quite right that could develop into something far worse if not kept in check. Not for nothing does the album open with a tone-setting piece of sound design – echoes, muffled feedback, a tired voice – called ‘Getting Darker’.

While a lot of Øde relies on modular synth work, the album’s construction from lots of short pieces allows for a multitude of brief ideas to flourish, ranging from orchestral arrangements to wonky hip-hop, filled out by glitchy static and borrowed atmospheres. The pair have always traded voraciously in the markets of eclecticism, but never quite so liberally as they do here. No idea is allowed to develop into repetition, and yet each idea is developed just enough to avoid feeling like a collection of unfinished sketches. The approach feels highly democratic, as if each idea is afforded equal airtime in the album’s debate with itself.

Whether this represents another final album among final albums remains to be seen. If it is, Lally and Jörgensen may have just delivered their definitive statement; if not, what you are listening to here is surely part one of the soundtrack to the end of the world, as realised by its self-appointed resident composers.

Øde is released via Bandcamp – rupertandespen.com

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

People Are People – The Politics Of Depeche Mode (Clash feature, 2017)

“If ‘Where’s The RevolutIon?’ is any sort of bellwether of what Spirit will sound like, it suggests that Depeche Mode are ready to stop dealing in vagueness, the cryptic and the shrouded, and instead feel inclined to go for a more direct approach to the message they’re trying to get across.”

Clash, 2017

Ahead of the release of the new Depeche Mode album Spirit, I wrote a feature for Clash that explores the political messages within first single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’.

As a rule, I try to steer clear of politics if I can help it, but in the last twelve months that’s been pretty hard to do. And rightly so; to say we live in interesting times is a huge understatenent, and if there’s ever been a time to take notice of politics, amid the chaos and uncertainty in the wake of the votes against the status quo represented by Brexit and Donald Trump, now is most definitely that time.

Even so, this was a piece that I felt ill-equipped to write, until I got started. The piece was written in the second week of a fortnight spent working in the US, initially on the East Coast, then in the Mid-West, then from the East Coast ahead of returning to the UK, and maybe a sense of proximity to what’s going on over there allowed the piece to come together slightly easier. That and taking the opportunity to trawl back through the entire Depeche Mode catalogue in a bid to see whether the political dimension the band were showcasing with new single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’ was really that new after all.

My feature for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Laibach – Nova Akropola (Cherry Red album, 1985)


Recorded in London in 1985 with, among others, Mute regular Richard ‘Rico’ Conning, the 2002 reissue of Nova Akropola is an excellently-presented special edition gatefold digipak from Cherry Red Records, and captures Laibach just prior to their Mute releases.

The album begins with ‘Vier Personen’ (‘Four People’), a veritable shot to the head comprising barked, parade ground orders and militaristic drumming, over which an electro-industrial drum machine pattern is repeated, slowly developing as additional banged pipes and other sonic detritus is introduced. A grim and slightly sinister track, this opener adequately sets the tone for the remainder of the album.

‘Nova Akropola’ (‘The New Acropolis’) takes the dark tone of the opener, but deploys strings (keyboards, judging by the repeat points) as the main carrier of its emotion. Horn refrains and a slow, reverberating drum pattern create a filmic atmosphere, with the trademark ‘devil voice’ vocals making their first appearance; the track feels mournful, funereal, conveying plenty of rage and sadness in its minimal sonic palette. Pounding Nitzer Ebb-style drums introduce ‘Krava Gruda – Plodna Zemlja’ (‘Bloody Ground – Fertile Land’), a percussive electronic and machinery-driven vocal track conjuring up memories of Einstürzende Neubauten‘s earliest experiments with air cylinders and heavy construction equipment. Unlike the previous two pieces ‘Krava Gruda…’ has several different themes, rather than a central, developed refrain.

Beginning with some organ discord, ‘Vojna Poema’ (‘War Poem’) quickly develops into an operatic piano song extremely reminiscent of some of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s compositions. Baritone vocals are mixed with what sounds like a full orchestra towards the end of this 1920s-styled piece of avant-cabaret. If ‘Vojna Poema’ was a departure from the earlier tracks on this album, ‘Ti, Ki Izzivas (outro)’ quickly returns us there – layers of stark percussion stalk through this short piece, fading out into ‘Die Liebe’ (‘The Love’), perhaps the closest to some of Laibach’s later Mute output: faster-paced and more aggressive, with those sinister vocals casting a dark shadow on the repeated phrase of the title. The track also features a wider array of electronic sounds, with one of the central melodies recalling Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, once again reinforcing the ‘extreme soundtrack’ atmosphere of this album.

‘Drzava’ (‘The State’) sounds like a twisted take on the electro genre, wherein Mantronix-esque drum programming is mixed with horn flourishes and orchestral-style loops (sampled, I presume), and also features some vocal samples that appear to be of political speeches. The track is one of the liveliest on this album; certainly not euphoric, the track is just one or two shades lighter on the colour chart than the black of the previous material. The accompanying promotional video with dancer and some-time Wire collaborator Michael Clark is fantastically bleak, perfectly rendered in monochrome colours. ‘Vade Retro’ is positively terrifying, its rhythm recalling some sort of alternative version of the Terminator soundtrack as conceived by Throbbing Gristle. The ‘vocals’ here are otherworldly, alternately wheezing and ghostly and scratchy and insistent; the ‘melody’, on the other hand, appears to be church bells mangled and heavily-processed to near oblivion. Perhaps the most aggressive and extreme track here, ‘Vade Retro’ is an exciting collage of sounds that pushes Laibach into electroacoustic territory.

‘Panorama’ ushers in on kick drums that appear to have been borrowed from New Order’s seminal ‘Blue Monday’. Extensive use of synths and percussive samples make this one of the more accessible tracks on the album – the rhythm is tight and the sounds are less obviously harsh. At around three minutes, the track pares back to some percussion loops and spoken word English reportage, before quickly reassembling itself. The final track (‘Decree’) once again begins with some sampled marching band drums, over which another electro break is layered. With the exception of some fairly random atmospherics and the odd sample, the track seems to be nothing more than a stop-start percussive experiment or remix of a more complete work. Despite its absence of more concrete ideas, the track is strangely captivating, although you do feel that this represents something of a filler, a space that would have been better filled with a track more in keeping with the extreme sonic soundscapes elsewhere on the album.

Originally posted 2003; edited 2017

Notes: this was a pretty important review for me, as it represented one of the first times I’d been sent a free CD just to be able to review it. I was amazed at the time that Cherry Red responded to my email at all, let alone that they would part company with a batch of catalogue stuff just so that I could write about it for a website – my own – that was just launching and which was so niche it was never going to attract any readers. Whenever I take the notion of receiving music in my inbox every day via various PR firms for granted, I think back to how fortunate I was that Cherry Red sent me this and other CDs, even though this one has now been sold out of my collection.

(c) 20017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Jonteknik – Skylines (album, 2017)

I have come to realise, as I get older, that if I had my time again I would have become an architect. The design and topography of big cities especially fascinates me; as I’ve argued (unsuccessfully) with my sister many times, an uncluttered Cornish landscape may well be beautiful, but take a look at the skyline of a city like New York and it’s no less breathtaking.

And so, with that admission positioned carefully upfront, I think I was always going to ‘get’ the latest album from Jon Russell, better known as Jonteknik, whose material I’ve reviewed here and for Electronic Sound over the past few years. Jon also kindly supported my 2014 MuteResponse project with the contribution of a very fine track, ‘Vincent’, which was an homage to Erasure’s Vince Clarke, even going so far as to use the same synth sound as Clarke used on ‘Phantom Bride’. It’s indicative of a considered, involved approach that Russell brings to all of his musical projects.

Skylines consists of tracks designed to evoke the architecture of various European cities, all of which are clearly unique, and all of which have made consciously unique design statements and additions to their individual skylines. Those statements range from the classical architecture to be found in Rome that set in motion an entire discipline based on the distinctive structural gestures of Vitruvius, the upward wrought iron thrust of engineer Gustav Eiffel’s initially temporary tower for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, or Eliel Saarinen’s National Romantic designs for Helsinki’s Central railway station.

Crafting music that evokes the unique character of a concept (in this case cities), without resorting to flippant stylistic stereotypes or whimsical parody, is an acquired skill, but one that Russell pulls off without breaking a sweat. A track like ‘Copenhagen’ has a bounce and vibrancy that entirely mirrors the energy to be found in Denmark’s über-hip capital; the atmospheres Russell creates for ‘Oslo’, on the other hand, have an unmistakeable coolness, but a little bit more grit, just as Oslo seems to be a somewhat more grounded and realistic compared to its much trendier Nordic rivals.

‘London’ has a cautionary creep to its development, with the comical / colloquial / embarrassing names of modern buildings like The Shard and The Gherkin delivered somewhat jarringly next to more acceptable, much less self-aggrandising forms of statement in the city – Nelson’s Column, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge. Russell manages to turn his ‘London’ into the perfect musical accompaniment to Rowan Moore’s recent book Slow Burn London, itself an objective appraisal of the UK capital’s many architectural successes and its much more pronounced failings.

This is electronic music that is, by necessity, highly evocative and broad in its vision. You can imagine the shiny, glimmering pieces here being used in capital city-surveying National Geographic documentary films involving lots of wide shots of city skylines or close-ups of iconic structures, while ‘From Madrid To Barcelona’ has a travelogue quality underpinned by an unmistakably train-like rhythm. Where electronic music alone falls slightly short of perfectly embodying the city he is trying to evoke the impression of, Russell deploys sprinkles of vocodered voices or found sounds – poetic sections about le mystère de Paris, a recorded announcement from Oslo’s Metro, lists of architectural movements to be found in that city, a taped voice detailing Berlin’s prime tourist traps, and so on. Elsewhere, judicious use of minimalism is used to evoke the feeling of space, fuller sections reflect the clustered density of buildings, complexity – of rhythm, of melodic interplay – is used to create the impression of moving at speed around a city like current through a circuit board or ideas around a neural network.

Even if you’re not an architectural nerd like me, and even if you’ve never travelled to most of the cities for which Russell has created a track, this is clever electronic music that deserves to be heard – and a brilliant retort to the hackneyed view that you can’t dance to architecture.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (R&S / Apollo, 1992)

I wrote a Spotlight feature for Clash about Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works 85-92, a release which still mystifies me to this day, some 24 years after I first encountered it.
Around this time I was to be found mostly to be listening to a bit of dance music, Erasure, Depeche Mode, New Order and Pop Will Eat Itself. Clint Mansell from PWEI retweeted Clash‘s link to this at the weekend, which is a curiously circular honour for me.

My piece for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Brian Eno – Reflection (Opal / Warp album, 2016)

I like to that that I was a very good student of electronic music history, all told. When I understood that synth music didn’t come into existence with the likes of ‘Tainted Love’ in 1981, or even with Kraftwerk’s experiments in the previous decade, I was fastidious about trying to absorb all of the points along the genesis of the genre. I’m still doing that.

At some point in the 1990s I went headlong into the work of Brian Eno, probably around the time of the the second Future Sound Of London album where they’d used some of Robert Fripp’s ‘Frippertronics’ on that record. You read up about Fripp, you get to Eno, but then again most electronic music roads at some point will likely lead you to Eno. As soon as I found out about his electronic music, my local library’s collection of his CDs was rapidly depleted.

I liked most of what I heard, but the one that jumped out was his 1988 album The Shutov Assembly. I remember renting this the same day as Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works II, and being surprised at how similar they both were; both being largely formed of weightless, serene pieces that seemed at times to border on the classical in their melodic content. Since then, The Shutov Assembly has become a go-to album for me at times when I need to chill the fuck out; usually this is at the start of an overnight flight back from the States, or a 4.15 train to St. Pancras before a Eurostar connection. I’m normally fast asleep by the start of the second track, ‘Alhondiga’. I know it’s a complete disservice to the album not to actually listen to it all the way through, at least not consciously, but I sure appreciate the album for helping me to sleep.

Over the years I’ve become an Eno collector, but not to the extent that I wish I could. Nevertheless, when the opportunity came up to review his new single-track Warp album Reflection for Clash, I was all over it. My review of this supremely beautiful record can be found here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Tycho – Epoch (Ghostly International album, 2016)

“At its best, Epoch has a delicate, introspective fragility via overlapping waves of sound and crisp, dependable beats.” – Clash

As I’ve said a few times here, I’ve become something of a fan of the music issued by the Ghostly International label. One of their recent big releases was Tycho’s impressive Epoch album, representing the fourth record from Bay Area sonic prodigy Scott Hansen and his musical accomplices.

My review for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash