GUO – GUO4

Daniel Blumberg could well be seen as the most sonically challenging addition to Mute’s present-day roster. His prolific release schedule highlights both a limitless improvisatory imagination and also a huge amount of trust and freedom by the label that he joined last year with his Minus opus.

In parallel to his work under his own name as de facto band leader, his output as GUO with tenor saxophonist Seymour Wright represents an ever-adaptable framework that allows the pair space to collaborate with other like-minded musicians. After previous releases with friend and muse Brady Corbet, GUO4 pitches the Blumberg/Wright duo together with drummer Crystabel Riley, accompanied by a text from Fran Edgerley. The impetus for the session was a new short film by Peter Strickland concerning itself with an altercation between two men in a locker room.

Violence, then, is to be expected from this atypical soundtrack, which is, for the most part, led by Riley’s evocative, sheet metal-esque percussion. Taken as a sympathetic and wonderfully noisy response, Wright’s atonal squalls of upper-register bleating and Blumberg’s signature guitar un-playing – ranging from low distortion rumbles to metallic splinters to an undercurrent of angry note clusters – make the single 22-minute piece both expressive and beautifully uncomfortable.

To paraphrase what another of Mute’s noisier pairings might have dubbed it, this is easy listening for the hard of hearing. Whether it acts as a portent of what we can expect from Daniel Blumberg’s next LP under his own name remains to be heard.

Catref: stumm444
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Advertisements

2018 Rewind

Last year’s experience of assembling a simple list of what I considered to be my favourite albums of the year didn’t appeal this time around, so I’ve broken down my 2018 into four categories – concerts, interviews, events and albums. As ever, these are all chosen from personal (and often highly personal) vantage points; it doesn’t mean that other things aren’t better – it’s just that these things appeal to me more.

Concerts

Reed & Caroline, Pianos, NYC, May 2018

Last year I wrote gushingly – and, to some, perhaps offensively – about Reputation by Taylor Swift, and this year we saw Ms Swift twice, once at Wembley and once at the Raymond James stadium in Tampa, FL. Mrs S. cried throughout both concerts (I got emotional too, okay?) and, after Wembley, our impressionable eldest / almost-teenage daughter immediately asserted, via the medium of her WhatsApp status, that Taylor represented someone whose values meant a huge amount to her. I don’t even know how to use emojis, let alone add a WhatsApp status, but I will say this (again) – Taylor Swift writes fucking great songs, is an incredibly important role model for young females, and is a sensational live performer. Feeling the concrete vibrate under your seat high up in an American football stadium as thousands of people register their enthusiasm is pretty hard to beat. Weirdly, I was asked some questions about my unashamed love of Taylor Swift (among other things) for The Electricity Club, which you can enjoy here.

I go to fewer and fewer concerts these days, but GoGo Penguin’s strobe-heavy show at the Royal Albert Hall was incredible, as was Barry Adamson’s confessional / big band performance at the Union Chapel, as was Daniel Blumberg at our local gallery in Milton Keynes, as was Nadine Khouri at Rough Trade East. Having a rare dad-and-daughter night out with our eldest daughter to watch Erasure in Aylesbury was a treat, as was her watching me interview Andy Bell for Clash by the bins at the back of the venue during a fire alarm immediately beforehand; it gives new meaning to the fabled ‘bring your daughters to work’ day. Watching Reed & Caroline’s cosy show at Pianos on New York’s Lower East Side in May was another memorable event in so, so, so many ways. More on Reed & Caroline further down the page.

Interviews

Daniel Blumberg by Angela Beltran

As a writer, you always strive to get an opportunity to tell those stories which deserve to be told but which somehow get overlooked. This year I was fortunate to be able to write some really important stories for Electronic Sound, from the weird circumstances of Ciccone Youth’s ‘Into The Groove(y)’, to the still-unreleased synth-heavy ‘Rubberband’ sessions convened by Miles Davis in the 1980s, to Space’s ‘Magic Fly’, to the DIY recordings of Thomas Leer and Robert Rental.

The piece that I’m most proud of, though, was an interview with Daniel Blumberg for Clash. Blumberg’s Minus was one of the albums that caught my attention the most this year, situated as it is on the crossroads between improvisation and Townes Van Zandt-style balladry. Interviewing Blumberg about his creative impulses in his kitchen / non-kitchen for two hours, watching him drawing in front of me, and having the opportunity to piece together his disparate interests while tearing up every question I’d prepared was a profound experience, and one I will never, ever forget. A few moths later I rewatched an interview with David Bowie on the Dick Cavett show around the time of Young Americans, and some of Daniel’s mannerisms reminded me of that, convincing me yet further that I’ve been privileged to have spent time with an absolute artistic genius. The Blumberg piece for Clash is here.

Events

Andy McCluskey – Sugar Tax Interview CDr

April, 2018, an Irish bar in deepest Greenwich Village: not unlike the three witches at the start of Macbeth, Reed Hays, Vince Clarke and I are scheming intently, over, variously, pints of New York tapwater, Diet Coke and Stella. We are talking about how we might promote the new Reed & Caroline album, Hello Science, which would eventually be released in July of this year.

Other than profound enthusiasm, I can’t say I really brought anything new to the table (other than maybe a round of drinks) but it was a massive privilege to have worked with Vince’s VeryRecords on that record nonetheless. After lots of conversation among us and with Caroline Schutz about the song’s hymn-like qualities, at some point I managed to get permission to share ‘Before’ from the album with the music teacher of my my eldest daughter’s school, culminating in a mesmerising performance by the choir at a very special evening event in June which you can see below.

Another professional privilege was being asked by Mute to host a live Q&A with Barry Adamson at London’s Rough Trade East in early November to support his Memento Mori career-spanning compilation. This is the second such event I’ve hosted for Mute, and I can’t express how much of an honour it is to be offered the chance to support the label I’ve been a fan of for so long in this way, other than to say, humbly, and rather feebly, that I feel incredibly lucky. The Q&A, which I cheekily described as “Memento Mori Jackanory” (to the amusement of myself and one other person), was also a form of redress for an earlier Adamson interview I’d conducted just as he left Mute, representing one of the first Q&As I’d ever done, which I still cringe at today.

This year I interviewed OMD’s Andy McCluskey for the second time. The conversation, focussed exclusively on the album Sugar Tax, will never get written up, and the recording will never be heard beyond three people – myself, my mother and my father. The catalyst was my father’s January diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and the significance of Sugar Tax was that it was an album he and I would often listen to in the car on Saturdays while he drove around our home town working his own second job. I cherish those memories so much, and am so grateful to Andy for consenting so readily to sharing his own, highly personal recollections of that LP so directly with my family and I.

Alzheimer’s has made 2018 a tough year for our family, but music has often been the salve to the suffering we have all felt since his diagnosis.

Albums

The album I spent most time with in 2018 was O.Y. In Hi-Fi by Optiganally Yours, a duo of Optigan aficionado Pea Hicks and vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Rob Crow. By way of quick summary, the Optigan was a Mattel home organ / pre-sampler keyboard that utilised discs of pre-recorded loops that you could use to make your own songs. I’d have known nothing of this this duo were it not for the enthusiastic recommendations of Reed Hays, who used an Orchestron – a kind of grown-up, professional version of Mattel’s 70s keyboard project – on the aforementioned Hello Science LP.

For O.Y. In Hi-Fi, Hicks dusted down the original master tapes of the sessions that produced the various LP-sized discs of Optigan loops (hence the ‘hi-fi’ reference in the title), meaning – deep breath – that this album samples original material that would end up being used as lo-fi recordings on an early keyboard that sort of used sampling technology as its basis. Honestly, this album contains some of the best songs I’ve heard this year. Well worth investigating, as is a tinker with Hicks’ GarageBand-bashing iOptigan iOS app, just like I made Vince Clarke and Reed Hays do as we regrouped over drinks at that same Irish pub later in the year.

As I’ve said before, so much of album reviewing is, for me, inextricably linked to where I am at that precise point in time, whether mentally or geographically. Reviewing Erasure’s neo-classical collaboration with Echo Collective while sat in a hotel window overlooking Central Park in a reflective and lonely state of mind takes some beating, while listening to First Aid Kit’s Ruins while ‘enjoying’ a freezing cold work trip to Canada also can’t help but leave a mark on you (possibly frostbite).

Daniel Blumberg’s Minus is synonymous, for me, with taking apart and rebuilding our youngest daughter’s wardrobe as we relocated her bedroom in our house, while the fantastic debut Ex-Display Model LP just reminds me of an evening wandering the West End after work, watching while everyone seemed to be having a good time in bars and pubs while I seemed resolutely outside of pretty much everything.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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

Daniel Blumberg (Clash interview, 2018)

I have concluded that Daniel Blumberg is probably one of the most important signings to join the Mute roster in its entire forty years of releasing records. His debut solo album, Minus, written after immersing himself in London’s improvised music scene, towers above just about everything else around it, capturing a visionary songwriter and musician tearing up his own rule book for the sake of furthering his art.

To coincide with the release of ‘Family’, an unreleased song from Minus sessions, Clash have today published an interview that I did with Daniel Blumberg in July, wherein he explains the genesis of the album and the impulses that drive him.

In my humble opinion, it tells a story that needed to be told, and provides an insight into the mind of a prodigious talent; I am enormously proud of this feature.

Read the interview here.

Watch the video for ‘Family’ here.

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash