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

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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: 7. Floating Points ‘Reflections – Mojave Desert’

“Sam Shepherd seems set to become one of his generation’s musicians to watch, and a potential legend in the making.”
Electronic Sound

Floating Points‘s Elaenia was my favourite album of 2015 by far, and was responsible for me beginning to realise that fusing electronics with jazz wasn’t quite as naff as everyone had told me it was. Consequently I was ridiculously excited to get the chance to review Sam Shepherd’s latest album for Electronic Sound, an album where he had moved from solo artist to de facto band leader.

Reflections – Mojave Desert is a major progression on from Elaenia, where the addition of extra musicians has allowed Shepherd to more precisely express what he was clearly to do back in 2015 but couldn’t when his only tools were samples and electronics. To fully understand the exacting process Shepherd went through to create the five tracks on the album, an accompanying film showed the group performing and collecting sounds amid the breathtaking backdrop of the Joshua Tree National Park.

The result is an album full of finely-wrought atmospherics and complex arrangements that showcases Shepherd’s strong appreciation of jazz music history and his ability to push things in a thoroughly modern direction.

Listen to Reflections – Mojave Desert here.

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

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 10. BRZZVLL ‘Waiho’

“An album of genuinely memorable riffs on jazz’s essential spirit.”
Electronic Sound

I’ve had another year of getting to write about incredible music, and choosing my seasonal top ten albums this year was especially difficult.

To kick things off, I’ve selected BRZZVLL‘s stunning Waiho, the new album from a Belgian seven-piece group who take the infinitely flexible template of jazz and infuse that with everything from hip-hop to the edgy big-band funk espoused by Talking Heads when they’d more or less doubled their line-up.

I reviewed Waiho for Electronic Sound.

Listen to Waiho here.

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

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Electronic Sound 34

Issue 34 of Electronic Sound is now available. Focussing in on the world of soundtracks to coincide with the release of Blade Runner 2049, the latest issue includes an exclusive 7″ containing extracts from Louis and Bebe Barron’s genre-defining soundtrack to the sci-fi landmark Forbidden Planet.

My major contribution to the latest issue was an interview with Clint Mansell. Mansell was formerly a member of Pop Will Eat Itself, a band I got into in the mid-90s thanks to a friend at the after-school office jobs we both had, whereupon he plied me with each and every one of their releases up to that point. So smitten by PWEI was I that I did that very 90s thing of buying a t-shirt to show my allegiance, a lovely navy blue Designers Republic thing containing the cartoon band mascot. I was wearing that t-shirt the day I started university, which attracted the attention of another freshman who recognised the logo; we’ve been lifelong friends ever since.

This is a longwinded way of saying that Mansell’s music really matters to me, and so getting the chance to speak to him was a real privilege. Mansell’s inclusion in the Electronic Sound soundtrack issue arises because of his post-PWEI work as a composer for the films of Darren Aronofsky and Duncan Jones’s, developing scores for the harrowing Requiem For A Dream, Moon and the upcoming Mute. And speaking of Mute, which I often do of course, Mansell is pictured in a Mute ‘walking man’ logo in the photos accompanying my feature, and this issue includes a new interview with Mute founder Daniel Miller.

Elsewhere in this issue I wrote a short piece introducing the work of Lithuanian electronic producer Brokenchord, whose new album Endless Transmission is a robust, trip-hop embracing work of great weight. I also wrote short reviews of albums by livesampled piano duo Grandbrothers, the sexually-charged Blade Runner-inspired debut album from Parisian François X, a slinky 80s-inspired R&B album by Submerse, a thoughtful new LP from Aris Kindt and a grainy industrial / minimal release by Vanity Productions issued through Posh Isolation, one of my favourite small labels. To round the issue out, I reviewed the Front & Follow label’s fantastic ten year anniversary compilation Lessons, and surveyed the varied career of Auteurs founder Luke Haines through a new 4-disc box set. Having written the press release and an interview to support the release of Alka‘s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal on Vince Clarke‘s Very Records, it was pleasing to see the album get a deservedly positive review in the latest issue.

You can pick up a copy of the new issue at www.electronicsound.co.uk

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Electronic Sound 33

Issue 33 of Electronic Sound is now available, complete with an extensive cover feature on Gary Numan and an interview with the inimitable Sparks. The special print edition with 7″ includes a two-part Meat Beat Manifesto remix of Gary Numan’s ‘My Name Is Ruin’.

I wrote two features for this issue. The first was an interview with Sanaya ‘Sandunes’ Ardeshir about her Different Trains 1947 live collaboration with Liverpool’s METAL, Jack Barnett from These New Puritans and Darren ‘Actress’ Cunningham; Different Trains 1947 takes Steve Reich’s 1988 composition Different Trains but changes its context from being about American and European train journeys during World War II to being about the thorny topic of Indian independence and partition from Pakistan. You can catch Different Trains 1947 at the Barbican in London on 1st October.

The second feature was an interview with Graham Sutton about his band Bark Psychosis and their landmark post-rock album Hex. I love features like this and the Different Trains piece above, mostly because they cover topic areas I knew very little about before picking up the phone to speak to both Ardeshir and Sutton. Bark Psychosis were a band I was aware of from reading The Wire in the 1990s but who had never quite made it from my Long List – of bands I’ve read about, know I must listen to, but never have – to the Short List. The objective of the Bark Psychosis feature was to lift the lid on a band and tell its story, which I humbly think we did rather well.

Elsewhere in issue 33, you’ll find my reviews of new albums from Mary Epworth, Mute alumnus Zola Jesus, a remix compilation on Sheffield’s wonderful CPU imprint, Khalil and a lovely new record from Jaws Of Love, the solo debut of Kelcey Ayer from Local Natives.

Electronic Sound can be ordered here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Alison Moyet – Other (Cooking Vinyl album, 2017)

Other should be heard as a companion album to Alison Moyet’s The Minutes from 2013. Both carry with them a sense of freedom and experimentation thanks to the fluid working method Moyet has serendipitously developed with Björk and Madonna producer and classically-trained multi-instrumentalist Guy Sigsworth. Moyet herself believes these last two albums represent the best material of her career, and, in the case of ‘Other’ specifically, proves a contended reflection on what it’s like to be a middle-aged woman observing the world instead of being observed in the limelight of success.

Central to Other’s, er, otherness, is a deeply poetic approach to lyric writing and phrasing that means these songs are loaded with intrigue and complex, often impenetrable and highly personal ruminations. Moyet prefers not to explain the themes at play in her songs, and that somehow adds to the slightly curious way these songs appear to us as listeners.

However, we know that the languid, soulful trip-hop of ‘English U’ is a tribute both to her mother and the English language generally; that the stirring, towering ‘The Rarest Birds’ deals with diversity and the right to be whoever you want to be, and was a product of watching life go by in her adopted home of Brighton – the evocative line ‘navigate the city walks by gum-grey constellations’ coming after watching a woman walking along a gum-strewn pathway in the town. References to Brighton also pop up in the deeply affecting reflections etched into ‘April 10th’ and the opener ‘I Germinate’, itself a metaphor for new life, something which feels apt given the way that upping sticks to the south coast seems to have given Moyet something of a creative rebirth.

If Other showcases the many fibres and facets of Moyet’s voice – the raw, bluesy intonation, the complicated balladry, the West End-honed chanteuse – musically, we find Other delving carefully into electronics, atmospheric soundscapes and clever, almost glitchy beat structures which enrich these songs with varied textures and hues. For anyone desperate to know what a 2017 version of Yazoo might sound like, the skittering, dense, moody synthpop of ‘Reassuring’ or the angsty, stop-start disco euphoria of ‘Happy Giddy’ are about as close as one might ever get.

The talented Sigsworth, like, say, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, is adept at blurring the lines between the programmed and the organic, imbuing these songs with as many pianos, strings and guitars as he does carefully-wrought electronics. The vaguely dubsteppy ambience of ‘April 10th’ sets a spoken-word poem to an exciting tapestry of noises and non-rhythms, with cadences in Moyet’s delivery that would have made this a compelling addition to Rufus Wainwright’s recent collection of reimagined Shakespeare sonnets. The creeping, edgy ‘Alive’ that concludes the album nods to Sigsworth’s work with Massive Attack, setting Moyet’s aching vocal to a haunting, cinematic noir-ness that feels like it’s where her voice belonged all along.

With an album as deftly-executed as this, It would be all too tempting to see Other as Alison Moyet’s creative nadir; instead it has the feel of a new beginning, of an artist working furtively with a like-minded collaborator and approaching her unique talents – as a vocalist and as a songwriter – in utterly unexpected and enthralling ways.

This is the second of three pieces I wrote to coincide with the release of Other, but it is only now being published. The first was a full interview with Moyet that ran in the issue 30 of Electronic Sound. The third piece, which focuses on her influences, will be published in a later issue of Electronic Sound. The two feature articles were drawn from an interview with Alison a bar in Chelsea in May 2017.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Originally written for This Is Not Retro – previously unpublished