Alka – The Colour Of Terrible Crystal – Interview (Very Records, 2017)

Earlier this year I spoke to, and then subsequently met up with, Bryan Michael to talk about the Alka release that is being released next week by Vince Clarke‘s Very Records.

The original intention was to have a brief telephone conversation to inform the press release, but the conversation ended up yielding so much detail and colour that I offered to put together a full interview to support the release. Over a couple of beers a month or so later at a nice, old-fashioned English-style pub in Philadelphia, Michael offered yet more detail that told a more complete story about how the album had come together, the presence of angels and his love of books. (We also spoke about the differences between American and UK traffic systems and the merits or otherwise of any project undertaken by the sundry members of New Order, but that’s not relevant for this.)

The full interview can be found over at the Very Records website. The Colour Of Terrible Crystal will be released on 13 October.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Very Records

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Vince Clarke’s Very Records announce Alka ‘The Colour Of Terrible Crystal’ album

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Very Records are delighted to announce details of their third album release, The Colour of Terrible Crystal by US artist Alka, which will be released on October 13th 2017.

“… and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. They move through the firmament which is the colour of a ‘terrible crystal’, and around a throne like sapphire, on which sits Metatron, suffused in the radiance of the rainbow.” – Peter Lamborn Wilson, Angels (1980)

The fact that the name of Philadelphia-based Bryan Michael’s third Alka album, his first since 2009’s A Dog Lost In The Woods, was named after a quote from anarchist philosopher Peter Lamborn Wilson’s vast study of angels says a lot about the diverse interests of its creator.

Bryan Michael is not an artist to be conveniently pigeonholed within electronic music, and The Colour Of Terrible Crystal showcases the many facets of its creator across 12 captivating tracks. “It happens with music in general, but specifically in electronic music – people get caught up in this strict need to identity something with a specific genre. That’s good in some ways, but I always prefer to hear a much larger cross-section of things,” he says.

Here you will find the same melodic sensibilities that coloured the two earlier Alka albums, but you’ll also hear the sound of a restless, mercurial musician unafraid of crashing together diffuse elements – faltering stop-start rhythms, glitches, drifting ambience, near-pop and crisp beats inflected with the boldness of early electro. The serene ‘Melancholy Lasts’ is the closest Alka’s music is likely to get to delivering pure vocal synth pop, while the paranoid textures of ‘Collusion’ feel like the nervous, fear-inducing synth horror score that never was. The unexpected upbeat disco-funk of ‘Truncate’ marries a robotic instinct with a human looseness that serves as a full revolution away from Bryan Michael’s IDM roots.

Amid all of that are two interlinked soundscape pieces, ‘Over Hills And Vales’ and ‘Under Waves And Seas’, taking the form of reverential nods to musique concrète and the early pioneers of electronic music, back when making machine music was much more of a science than an art. “I really wanted to get to the roots of what electronic music was doing back then, in the late Forties, early Fifties, into the Sixties,” says Bryan Michael. “It was more experimental. When Wendy Carlos released the Switched On Bach album, electronic music creators and aficionados at the time were pulling their hair out because the synthesizer, with this endless range of possibilities, was being confined to this classical music tradition. Those two tracks were a direct connection to that earlier electronic sound.”

The Colour Of Terrible Crystal is an exercise in electronic eclecticism; dark and moody, at times broodingly cinematic, at times carrying subtle layers of delicate optimism alongside edgier, experimental moments. Few can make albums where so many apparently incompatible stylistic switches appear so coherent, or make music whose clashing juxtapositions continually reveal themselves with successive listens. With The Colour Of Terrible Crystal, Alka just did it.

About Very Records

Very Records was founded in Brooklyn by Erasure’s Vince Clarke in 2016. We are a small record label dedicated to releasing very fine electronic music. The label was launched with 2 Square by Vince Clarke and Paul Hartnoll, which was then followed by Buchla & Singing by Reed & Caroline. Alka’s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal will be the third Very Records release.

Press release (c) 2017 Mat Smith for Very Records

Documentary Evidence 2016 Top 10 Albums: 4. Reed & Caroline ‘Buchla & Singing’ // Erasure ‘From Moscow To Mars’

I felt a little conflicted about including these two on my list, for reasons which I will attempt somewhat clumsily to explain. I then reasoned that this is my list, I’m kind of really proud of what I’ve done to support both these releases, and so on the list they shall remain. I’ve also linked them together for the purposes of convenience.

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“It might have the look and feel of a futuristic tombstone, but From Moscow To Mars, as its title from the oft-forgotten single ‘Star’ indicates, represents a thirty year journey – a journey that the duo are very firmly still on with a new album in the works and plenty more rocket fuel left in the tanks.” – This Is Not Retro

“What emerges here is a distinct sense of loyalty – from Vince Clarke and Andy Bell to one another, and to the enduring art of writing emotional pop music.” – Electronic Sound

First up, the mammoth and some would definitely argue long overdue Erasure box. This was finally released in December after production delays and I reviewed this – atypically for me – for two places: Electronic Sound and then a slightly more personal piece for This Is Not Retro. I am, and forever will be, a massive Erasure fan first and foremost, so my ability to be objective about From Moscow To Mars is one possible conflict of interest. Personally, I think I pulled it off, but you can judge for yourself. The review for This Is Not Retro can be found here. Back issues of Electronic Sound are over at www.electronicsound.co.uk

The second reason for feeling slightly conflicted came in November when I found myself in Birmingham as a guest of the Erasure fan club at the official launch party for the boxset. I was there nominally as a guest but found myself helping out in a couple of ways – blowing up some very sorry balloons (I apologise to anyone who attended and laughed at those) while listening to Vince Clarke and Andy Bell soundcheck their set (including a new song) and then helping out with three hours of meet and greets. It was a special, and slightly surreal experience.

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Second, Buchla & Singing by Reed & Caroline, a charming album of compositions for the Buchla by Reed Hays with beautiful singing by Caroline Schutz. The album was released on Vince Clarke’s Very Records back in October to universal acclaim. I didn’t get to review this one, but trust me, had I done so I would have called it out as very special indeed.

I wrote the press release for Very Records for this album and enjoyed a very pleasant Skype chat with Hays in order to prepare that. Of all the things I have done this year, getting handed that job and helping support the release of Buchla & Singing – in a way somewhat different from just scribing a review – was right up there as a major career highlight, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity.

One of the best tracks on the album is ‘Henry The Worm’. Reed and I spoke about that track at length but I just couldn’t find a way of fitting it into the press release, so here is that little off-cut. I thought it was a nice story. Music sometimes needs to take itself less seriously.

“Around the time my son was born, I wrote a song that’s on the record called ‘Henry The Worm’,” explained Reed. “We named Henry, my son, after a little caterpillar that was crawling around a Mexican restaurant. When we saw the first sonogram I thought he looked like a little caterpillar.”

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Vince Clarke’s Very Records announce Reed & Caroline ‘Buchla & Singing’ album

VERY RECORDS are pleased to announce details of the debut album by Reed & Caroline, Buchla & Singing, which will be released on October 14th. The album will be the second release on Vince Clarke’s Very Records label.

Buchla & Singing is just that – vocals and nothing but a vintage synth. The album was conceived by New York electronic musician Reed Hays using only a Buchla modular system, interwoven with the pure, angelic vocals of Caroline Schutz from the bands Folksongs For The Afterlife and The Inner Banks. With songs celebrating the humble electron and the equally underappreciated washing machine, Buchla & Singing takes in shimmering, spacey synth pop, tales of roadtrips, quirky bedtime stories, and pieces grounded in austere classical minimalism.

Reed Hays met Caroline Schutz while they were studying at Oberlin College. Hays, a cellist, had arrived at the school under false pretences, switching to their new electronic music programme just to be able to get his hands on the college’s Buchla synthesizer. Art major Schutz only discovered that she wanted to be a singer after graduating and schlepping round the States as a graphic designer for the touring Lollapalooza festival, before realising that she could sing better than some of the bands she was supporting.

Their first album together sees the pair delivering tracks like ‘Singularity (We Bond)’ and ‘Electrons’, whose electronic structures and lyrics fizz with scientific discovery. “I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is where they put German rocket scientists after World War II to work on the space programme,” Hays explains. “When I was growing up there in the 1970s and 80s, there was nothing there but scientists and engineers. Space and science were just what I grew up with, so they’re natural things for me to write about. I like those early OMD songs that sounded like love songs but were actually about science. Our stuff is pretty obviously just about washing machines and electrons!”

The third member of this duo is Hays’s Buchla. Best known as the go-to synth for producing crazy R2-D2 sounds, Hays has managed to coerce his system into producing a broad array of unorthodox styles here: whether classic analogue electro pop on ‘John And Rene’, rippling randomised arpeggios that nod to classical music, or the crystalline sounds of glassware being washed on ‘Henry The Worm’, a cute story that could have been conjured from the warped imagination of Lewis Carroll or Eric Carle that follows the adventures of a worm as it crawls around a restaurant. Buchla & Singing is the sound of a tricky synth being put through its paces in ways that its creator never envisaged. 

Buchla & Singing will be released as a digital download and as a CD available from www.veryrecords.com on October 14.

Reed Hays on the Buchla

Most people pronounce it wrong. It’s pronounced Boo-cla. It’s a Dutch name.

Don Buchla was out in Berkeley, California in the sixties, designing synthesizers at the same time that Bob Moog was over on the East Coast, but they never spoke to one another. Buchla worked for NASA in the sixties and he developed technology for fuel sensors on rocket tanks. He put those on the synth he developed. They respond to how your fingers touch them. There’s no keyboard, just these touch pads. For me, being a string player, it’s something I can really relate to, but it’s a really difficult piece of kit to use. Nothing’s labelled like any other synthesizer. Making this album just with that synth was a real challenge.

Buchla came from a crazy background. Some of the first modules he designed were for Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Those were all red modules. The rumour was that if you licked the red module you’d get high. I have some of those original modules. Did I lick it? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

On this album, I set up a lot of arpeggios, dialling them up on little sliders and having them addressed randomly. I was letting the Buchla do the work for me in writing some of those arpeggios and chords. It really is like having another collaborator.

Even though I’d set myself the challenge of making the album on the Buchla, I wanted to cheat. I wanted to use a Moog for the bass, which is what you’re supposed to do, but actually in the end I got a great bass sound on the Buchla. ‘Washing Machine’ has a Sennheiser vocoder, but the vocoding on all the other songs is done on the Buchla, so in the end I didn’t cheat really.

Vince Clarke on the Buchla

I had one once but I sold it. It’s way too difficult to use.

Press release (c) 2016 Mat Smith for Very Records

Vince Clarke & Paul Hartnoll – 2Square (Very Records album, 2016)


Erasure‘s Vince Clarke has set up a record label, Very Records. His inaugural release is a collaboration with Paul Hartnoll from Orbital, an eight track album called 2Square. I reviewed the album for This Is Not Retro and my review can be read here.

While in New York a couple of weeks ago I had the great privilege of getting to interview Vince in his studio, with Paul joining us from Brighton by Skype. That interview will be included in the next issue of Electronic Sound, available through all decent UK newsagents in July.

(c) 2016 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for This Is Not Retro