Swans – Leaving Meaning

How to interpret the title of the new Swans album? Is Michael Gira – the only consistent member of the group he founded with unassailable, blistering New York No Wave urgency in 1982 – asking what the meaning of the word ‘leaving is’, in the manner of a child unwitting asking aimless questions that take on a metaphysical hue? Or is he concerned with the idea of somehow leaving a legacy? One can spend too long trying, pointlessly, trying to decode such things, but if Gira is any way concerned that Swans won’t somehow leave an enduring impression after all this time, the bold grandeur of this LP should ensure that he needn’t worry again.

We throw away adjectives in this reviewing game with careless abandon, but Leaving Meaning is unquestionably stunning and justifies the following gushing praise, and more. It is redemptive; searching; uncertain yet confident; ruminates on mortality yet is unquestionably alive; both humbled and humbling; vast yet sparse; personal yet universal; occluded throughout yet as clear as crystal; quiet yet impossibly, irrepressibly, almost violently loud. It is everything that Swans have ever proposed to be and everything Gira has ever striven toward; faithful yet original. And so on.

Perhaps the only predictable thing about Swans is Gira’s insistence on changing the band’s line-up whenever he feels like it. Leaving Meaning is the first record he’s made after dissolving the group that was Swans from 2010 to 2017 – a comparative period of stability for the band. The new line up features old friends from former iterations of Swans, as well as members of Angels Of Light, the group Gira formed when he put Swans on ice between 1999 and 2010. Gira suggests that Swans will now just consist of a “revolving cast of musicians, selected for both their musical and personal character, chosen according to what I intuit best suits the atmosphere in which I’d like to see the songs I’ve written presented.” The cast this time includes Nick Cave’s keyboard player Larry Mullins, Mick Harvey bassist Yoyo Röhm, Mute labelmate Ben Frost on synths and guitars, Swans / Angels Of Light confidante and guitarist Kristof Hahn, all three members of New Zealand’s The Necks, both members of A Hawk And A Hacksaw, Baby Dee, Anna and Maria von Hausswolff and a supporting cast that would frankly make this sentence even more obscenely long than it already is. (An accompany press photo suggests a team of 32 contributors, with Mute founder Daniel Miller occupying the lower left corner.)

The musicians and vocalists assembled for Leaving Meaning are predominantly European, with many of them living in Berlin. Consequently it’s hard not to liken this record to those pivotal albums that emerged in the early 1980s as Nick Cave and a bunch of other Aussie waifs and strays found themselves in the Kreuzberg district, fusing together punk, noise and musicianship in a way that was entirely visionary.

This is a long album, filled with several songs that effortlessly break the ten-minute mark without ever losing interest. Some of these songs are genuinely, forcibly arresting – the rest are simply brilliant. ‘The Hanging Man’ issues forth on a low-slung, unflinching groove laced with menace and vivid, uncomfortable imagery, while ‘Amnesia’ carries a strange tranquility delivered with an uncompromising, unfiltered verbal panache reminiscent of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed at their most visceral. The title track is tranquil yet disturbing, reflecting on slipping away, its sparse, languid tonalities and gauzy fuzz akin to listening to The Doors’ ‘This Is The End’ while under the influence of heavy antidepressants. ‘The Nub’ – led by and written specifically for Baby Dee – is bewitching, theatrical and ominous as fuck, the line ‘I’m leaving by distortion’ presaging a coda of intense, heavy drone and rattling guitar and violin dissonance that the moody, haunting serenity of the the first eight or so minutes could never have anticipated.

The evocative ‘Sunfucker’ is a sort of ravaged punk blues centrepiece, like ‘Louie Louie’ recast as a pentagram for summoning all the devils of this world (and others) to cause utter, irreversible havoc. Honed yet frazzled, Gira’s voice here contains a control and even-handed resoluteness, even when the words seem turn to gibberish in his mouth.

Catref: stumm446
Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Alessandro Cortini (Clash feature, 2019)

“I was moving around Berlin a lot when I was listening to works in progress for this album. I realised that I was maxing out on the volume, and after briefly thinking about the damage that I might be causing to my ears, I also realised that I’ve never really found myself making stuff that loud before. I remember doing that as a kid – I’d push the cheap, crappy headphones against my ears to get more bass while I was listening to the version of Duran Duran’s ‘Save A Prayer’ from ‘Arena’ which I used to play over and over.”

Alessandro Cortini (Clash interview with Mat Smith, September 2019)

VOLUME MASSIMO, the new album from Alessandro Cortini and his first for Mute, is released tomorrow.

Ahead of its release, I spoke to Alessandro for Clash about his love of vintage synths, pressing headphones against your ears to get more bass and the enduring influence of guitarist Steve Vai.

Read the interview at the Clash website here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

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

Electronic Sound 53 – including my Mute STUMM433 feature

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The latest issue of Electronic Sound is now available in the usual high street retailers and as a bundle with an exclusive 7″ from their website. This issue has a primary focus on Berlin, featuring conversations with Alexander Hacke from Einstürzende Neubaten, Mick Harvey, Simon Bonney and others who recall the vibrant creative melting pot that the divided city represented in the late 70s and early 80s. The accompany 7″ features Berlin legends Malaria! while Gudrun Gut from band offers her take on sometime Berlin resident David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on the B-side.

My major contribution to issue 53 was a feature on John Cage’s seminal composition 4’33” and the incoming Mute STUMM433 project. For this feature I interviewed K Á R Y Y N, Daniel Miller, Simon Fisher Turner, Irmin Schmidt, Laibach, Pink Grease and Maps, each of whom explained how they approached their performance of Cage’s distinctive piece – where they recorded it, and what instrument they didn’t play. Each of the 58 versions on STUMM433 is wildly different from the next, each one includes its own individual story and accompanying visual, and only one of the inclusions is actually silent – just as Cage would have wanted.

This feature involved me diving back into Cage’s Silence book – something I’d first tackled in my late teens when I found a copy in my local library and studying the score. One took much longer than the other. It also awoke in me an interest in Zen after reading about Cage’s following of these ascetic Buddhist principles.

Elsewhere in this issue I reviewed Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss. by Maps; the score to Marnie by Bernard Herrmann; David Tibbet and Andrew Lisle’s debut Nodding God album; the latest Blow collaboration on Front & Follow by Polypores and Field Lines Cartographer; and a fantastic new Buchla-based concept album by Simon James.

(c) Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Apparat – LP5 (Mute album, 2019)

The recording of LP5 by Apparat’s Sascha Ring saw him unburdening himself of the grand, bold gestures that have become the domain of his Moderat trio. In doing so, and in trying to focus instead on the fundamental components of these new Apparat pieces rather than aiming after something anthemic, Ring has nonetheless created something where his quintessentially muted, restless power still offers an affecting, emotional dimension.

In the context of Ring’s other Apparat output, none of this is a surprise. However, compared to something like 2011’s The Devil’s Walk, there’s less of an emphasis on ephemerality. Tracks like ‘Heroist’ or ‘In Gravitas’ move forward on robust, clubby rhythms that give the piece an immediacy, even if Ring’s vocal and the unswerving synths in the background contain a mitigating, mournful quality. These are tracks where those offsetting gestures pull you in all sorts of different, competing directions at once, a dizzying, manipulative effect that leaves you feeling fully uncertain by the end.

The big departure for LP5 is its sheer breadth of vision and instrumentation. Ring has always operated at the more tolerant, eclectic end of electronic music, but LP5 finds him investing in a whole new sonic palette more akin to his occasional work for theatre – opening track ‘Voi_Do’ is like a cinematic free jazz experiment, an unshackled approach to sequenced structures and one where strings, guitar, piano and horns can co-exist with synths and processing.

The stand-out track ‘Caronte’ employs Philipp Thimm’s defiant cello where the temptation might instead have been to use a faltering, scratchy synth, giving the track a strident, expansive dimension, making its sudden lurch into buzzing electronics and urgent rhythms all the more thrilling. It’s those unexpected moves, those introductions of new sounds or sharp pivots in motion, combined with his diaristic lyrics, that once again means Ring has delivered another mesmerising album, and one whose vision allows it to stand slightly apart from everything else.

LP5 by Apparat is released by Mute on March 22 2019.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves Of Destiny – Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose (Mute album, 2012)

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Chances are if the weird naked-girl-with-animal-head sleeve doesn’t grab you then the anticipation would have already have got you: Beth Jeans Houghton is one of those artists, a bit like labelmate Josh T. Pearson, whose first LP was greeted with angsty expectation by the music press, that expectation cultivated over an extended period; in this case, that period is almost four years from when Houghton’s first music appeared in 2008.

It also helped that Mute kept the album under wraps far longer than reviewers would ordinarily tolerate; if this was a Hollywood movie, the critics would have already drawn the unassailable conclusion that the movie was a stinker, otherwise the studio would have readily let the journos in to watch. For some reason, not making this available to the press much earlier than its actual release seems to have just heightened the hype surrounding Houghton’s first album.

Produced by Ben Hillier, the inexplicably-named Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose finds Houghton, a talented lyricist and multi-instrumentalist judging by the sleeve, and her Hooves Of Destiny (Findlay MacAskill on violin, Dav Shiel on drums, Rory Gibson on bass, and Edward Blazey on trumpet and guitar) cutting a distinctive path through modern music’s more folksy places.

Houghton’s style appears to draw upon the weird mysticism of British folk groups from yesteryear blended with the downright unhinged kookiness of the likes of Tori Amos. A quick run through the lyric sheet provides few clues to what these songs are all about, almost as if Houghton was writing down particularly vivid and strange dreams, lots of strange imagery and oblique references. My favourite lines come during the spoken-word section of ‘Nightswimmer’, an early version of which first appeared on Houghton’s ‘Golden’ single in 2009, whereupon she mouths ‘And the cracks in the pavement sweat like the crust / Of a toffee pecan pie‘.

Hillier certainly wrings out an organic quality from the ten songs here, Houghton and The Hooves (and occasionally Hillier himself) laying down a multitude of instruments, giving the tracks a casual feel, almost as if everyone was content to grab whatever instruments were hanging about the studio and muck around while Hillier expertly captured the whole affair. A sense of warmth and often dark beauty seeps from every track, augmented on most tracks by a string quartet formed of Ian Budge on cello, Everton Nelson and Sally Herbert on violins and Bruce White on viola.

I said in the single review of ‘Liliputt’ (which I’m no closer to fathoming after reading the lyrics) that the song reminded me on some level of Dexy’s or their modern counterparts The Rumble Strips, and that same sense of joyful abandon colours all but the quietest tracks on Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose. I asked my music-loving, ukulele-playing daughter (then just five years old) what she thought; after the inevitable request to add the songs to her iPod, she described the songs as ‘jumpy’. I suspect if she knew what ‘jaunty’ meant, she’d probably have employed that adjective instead.

The track that was playing when I asked my eldest daughter for review input was ‘Atlas’, which is one of the strongest songs on the album, featuring pounded layers of intense drums, skinny funk guitar culled from Vampire Weekend or their antecedents Talking Heads. ‘Dissecting the atlas for places we’ve been / Your list is longer but you’ve got more years on me,‘ is one of the most evocative lines here, coincidentally echoing a conversation around our household dinner table a weekend or so before the album was released. Houghton’s voice here effortlessly shifts between the hyper-falsetto and warm, sweet tones that pervade many of the tracks here, while a spoken word section by Neesha Champaneria provides a dark counterpoint to the more joyously carefree sound elsewhere on the song.

Another big highlight is ‘Humble Digs’ with its rolling drums and plucked countrified ukulele, expressive strings and a chorus of Houghton and The Hooves that sounds like a miners’ choir or Annie Get Your Gun chorus line; ‘Humble Digs’ is upbeat and infectious. A couple of listens and it’ll feel like an old friend.

A sense of wry breeziness dominates tracks like ‘Franklin Benedict’ wherein Houghton offers up lines that evoke summery warmth (‘Roasting peppers in the back yard,‘) and the downright creepy (something about a unitard, singly the most unpleasant thing ever invented). This is in direct contrast to the album’s official closing track, ‘Carousel’, which is a short track with a weird, harpsichord and piano rhythm. There’s also gorgeous strings, scary cackling, crackling noises and bells. It should feel upbeat but feels unsettling on some level, as if it masks something dark and unpleasant; like a track from Poses by Rufus Wainwright. It also sounds like something from a fairground, and that’s always guaranteed to creep me out.

The new version of ‘Nightswimmer’ retains that track’s producer Adem’s spiralling synth curlicues, but Hillier polishes the track with a new depth compared to that tentative original, the enquiring bass in particular gaining a blissful prominence. While on face value it sounds as ethereal as anything else here, Houghton’s detached lyrics seem to indicate a metaphorical drowning. Of this track I have said previously that it reminds me of both Depeche Mode‘s ‘One Caress’ and ‘Trilby’s Couch’ from AC Marias‘s solitary Mute album, One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing, sharing a similar sense of dark Twin Peaks-style mysteriousness.

A sense of mysteriousness also dominates ‘The Barely Skinny Bone Tree’, which sounds vaguely like a traditional Russian or Greek dance song, all plucked violin and the sense that at any second it could accelerate into a manic and out-of-control fervency, only offset by Houghton’s floating, dark vocal. The chorus sees the plucking replaced by mournful strings and a sense of weariness and strained sadness. ‘The Barely Skinny Bone Tree’ has a deeply affecting quality, though it’s queasily unsettling at the same time.

As if to confound further still, once ‘Carousel’ winds down, an uncredited song suddenly snarls into view. This bonus track (I’ve been advised that it’s called ‘Prick AKA Sean’) sounds like Green Day’s take on grimy punk rock, Houghton’s voice barely audible underneath the Hooves’ ramshackle harmonies. Against all the odds, this song is angry, joyous, a little bit glam-rock and evidently a whole lot of fun after the more studied pieces elsewhere. It provides a fittingly baffling conclusion to a brave, adventurous and above all, well-realised debut album, and one that was truly worth waiting for.

First posted 2012; edited and re-posted 2019. This archive review was brought to you by the letter H, as chosen by Jorge Punaro.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Yann Tiersen – Skyline (Mute album, 2011)

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Yann Tiersen ‘Skyline’ LP artwork.

I’m almost ashamed to say that Skyline was my first exposure to the work of Yann Tiersen; for reasons that I barely understand, I’d managed to avoid buying Dust Lane, the 2010 album that preceded this one and which brought Tiersen to the Mute family. Prior to the ‘Monuments’ and ‘I’m Gonna Live Anyhow’ singles, the only Tiersen song I’d ever heard was ‘The Gutter’, included here, which featured on Mute’s Record Store Day compilation, Vorwärts. If my comments on ‘The Gutter’ were tentative, that was because I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to describe a track which seemed to contain so many inherent contradictions – was this low-key industrial soundscaping? The soundtrack to a particularly strange movie? Indicative of Tiersen’s work generally or some tiny experimental vignette filled with unexpected drama? All I knew was that I liked what I heard.

The album is packaged in beautifully oblique artwork from Frank Loriou which sees blocks of heavy black, monolithic colour pasted over more quotidian imagery, creating a visual contradiction which is the perfect expression of the nine very complex pieces – I refuse to call these songs, or even tracks – contained on Skyline; each of the pieces is laced with some sort of unexpected, unanticipated sonic event – a drum beat coming out of nowhere, harsh synth sounds, ear-pummelling guitar distortion, layers of chattering voices – which totally destroys your perceptions of the song up to that point. ‘My plan,’ says Tiersen, in Skyline‘s press release, ‘was to play with [the] contrast between electric and quite dense parts and more sober and minimal quiet parts including piano and strings.’

Skyline, his seventh album, was recorded by Tiersen in places as diverse as San Francisco and the tiny island of Ouessant / Ushant before additional contributions from an array of adept collaborators was added, including Dave Collingwood on drums and various vocalists including Efterklang on the closing track ‘Vanishing Point’, while Tiersen is credited with – deep breath – toy piano, bass, guitar, various synthesizers, vocals, drums, Mellotron, accordion, piano, strings, glockenspiel, vibraphone, bouzouki, mandolin and marimba. The album was then mixed in Leeds by legendary producer Ken Thomas, who also worked on S.C.U.M‘s Again Into Eyes for Mute.

That contrast between the noisy and the pastoral is showcased brilliantly in the opener, ‘Another Shore’, wherein tinkling bells, pretty acoustic guitar and a distant hip-hop style beat usher the track gently forth; only just as you’re getting comfortable with the chilled-out atmospheres, angry guitar and aggressively beautiful chord changes suddenly rip right through the mood, creating soaring waves of melodies. The track suddenly breaks down into quietude again, with rasping bass clarinets (played by Stéphane Bouvier) emerging from the background like they’ve come straight from the Screamadelica rehearsal tapes. ‘Another Shore’ is a busy, densely-layered track fraught with conflicting emotions, arranged around that midpoint between the harrowing and the rapturous. At its conclusion, the track just falls away, leaving nothing more than dirty drones before the seamless drop into the second single ‘I’m Gonna Live Anyhow’; that change of pace is somehow a welcome respite as ‘Another Shore’ could take your emotions too far.

Similar effects happen on ‘The Trial’, which begins with shimmering, pretty sounds, and almost cutesy textures, subtle horns, and tender vocal harmonies. It feels like the component parts of a raging Philip Glass sequence only taken apart with only the slightest essence of the original work presented for the listener. Halfway through, sharp noises prick the silence, euphoric guitars and droning synths arrive and a plaintive vocal drifts in over a distant beat, all of which reminds me of Neu! for some inexplicable reason.

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Yann Tiersen ‘Skyline’ – some of Frank Loriou’s original artwork

The album’s closer, ‘Vanishing Point’, displays a similar approach: the vaguest of motorik pulses, an essence of a much more obvious Krautrocking rhythm, over which nervous synths and tribal vocal sounds coalesce into a feisty, but not unpleasant affair. Rapturous, almost wordless voices loop over the top as typically clattering, disjointed percussion sounds drive a wedge through the very heart of the track. ‘The Gutter’ contains haunting, creeping evolutions, filled with delicate if ambiguous singing from Gaëlle Kerrien and a sweet organic quality which is only marginally offset by the grainy spoken word samples muttering away in the background. Crashing drums and mournful violin back the implied futility ingrained into the chorus – ‘try to reach the sea‘ – while Nineties techno synth sounds rise out of nowhere above plaintive piano echoes to take the track to an unexpected conclusion.

Elsewhere things get sonically threatening. ‘Exit 25 Block 20’ contains distorted shouting, yelps and very unfriendly industrial noise rising above music box sounds, folksy guitars, whining synths, chattering voices (including swearing from Third Eye Foundation / This Mortal Coil’s Matt Elliott) and a beat that spends the entire track fighting its way through the layers of sonic sludge and layers of sound just to reach some sort of crashing closure. Yet despite its howling, dark depths, pleasant melodies somehow find their way to the surface.

‘Hesitation Wound’ consists of echoing Spanish guitar, buzzing bass synths, and stuttering, disembodied vocals. It feels like an early wax cylinder recording picking up voices from the afterlife and recorded in a particularly cavernous cathedral. ‘Hesitation Wound’ is spooky, maudlin and unpleasant, and if it wasn’t for the layers of reverb and general air of strangeness, it would probably sound quite operatic.

A similar sense of feeling disturbed or uncomfortable comes through on ‘Forgive Me’ which rides in on grungy guitar strumming while plucked notes from what sounds to me like the neck end of the guitar ping away to themselves. Whining guitar textures cruise in over the jangly rhythm, and for a brief moment I can’t help myself and, despite not wanting to labour any sort of cheap point about Tiersen’s music being ‘filmic’, this feels like a soundtrack to some sort of epic moment in a Western they haven’t made yet. At that very point, the nucleus of the track is revealed, with a repeated request for forgiveness from a massed choir of voices, almost as if this whole longform, chaotic, hyperactive, shambling piece was just created to say the simple words ‘I’m sorry‘. There is a towering grandeur to this, one of the album’s longer pieces, and as the song progresses toward its conclusion that need for forgiveness feels ever-more desperate and insistent.

In addition to LP+CD, CD and digital formats, Skyline was released as a luxury 500-copies-only boxset available from Tiersen’s own website. The boxset includes a signed Skyline LP+CD, an exclusive T-Shirt featuring a Skyline ‘Monolith’ print in bright orange on white, a Skyline ‘Monolith’ stencil, a hardback photo book featuring an exclusive collection of personal behind the scenes photographs and Skyline artwork by Frank Loriou, and an A4 poster, all housed in a numbered box.

First published 2011; edited and re-posted on the occasion of reaching 444 likes for the Documentary Evidence Facebook page, 2019 (Skyline is stummm444).

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence