Electronic Sound Issue 50

The new issue of Electronic Sound is now available, and this one is rather special. Initially available as a bundle with an exclusive Karl Bartos 7-inch (now sold out), this month’s magazine marks Electronic Sound‘s 50th issue.

Pulling off a specialist print title at a time where most people seem to think the future is digital paper is no mean feat. Indeed, Electronic Sound started life as an iPad-only magazine before realising that there was a gap for a beautifully-executed, smartly designed item created by an editorial team with intense passion and specialist knowledge of the subject matter the magazine covers. If it seems vaguely oxymoronic that a magazine celebrating music made with technology should find its niche as a resolutely analogue offering is because it is, and it’s all the better for it.

I joined the writing team for Electronic Sound in 2014 with a review of Apt’s Energy, Light & Darkness, back when the magazine was still a digital title. That I wrote this review at all is entirely down to the magazine taking a chance on me when I approached them, and that chance arose simply because another writer had let them down that week; that left them with a gap that needed to be filled at short notice, and they trusted me with the job, for which I am unendingly grateful. I figured it was a one-off, but I have written for them ever since. It is both a pleasure and honour to do so every month, and to play a small part in this wonderful magazine’s success and it’s broad minded approach to electronic music and the many stories that deserve to be told.

For this month’s magazine, I wrote a feature on Mattel’s weird 1970s home keyboard, the fabled Optigan, an instrument using optical discs that was meant to usurp the humble organ but didn’t.

The impetus for this piece arose through my good friend Reed Hays, who used the Optigan’s cousin, the Orchestron, on last year’s Reed & Caroline album Hello Science. Reed introduced me to his friend Pea Hicks – the foremost expert on the strange birth, life, death and resurrection of the Optigan – and his band Optiganally Yours, whose amazing O.Y. In Hi-Fi I reviewed for Electronic Sound. My editor figured that this was another one of those stories that needed to be told, and I was deemed the writer for the task.

I can’t hope to tell the story as well as Pea can (and does), and I am forever indebted to him his help in putting the piece together. The piece involved contributions from original 1970s Optigan user Alan Steward, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, Tom Waits producer Tchad Blake and Sparklehorse collaborator and Nadine Khouri producer Al Weatherhead, each of whom have been drawn to the instrument’s curious and unpredictable charms over the years.

Elsewhere, I reviewed the fifth volume of Front & Follow’s Blow series, with a remarkable piece of mechanical music by Dunning & Underwood and their Mammoth Beat Organ; the return of Bill Leeb’s Frontline Assembly with Wake Up The Coma; Simon James‘s Musicity 003 Shenzhen / Shanghai cassette of Buchla and field recordings; Blood Music‘s inventive and dextrous GPS Poetics.

I rounded out my contributions with a review of Fond Reflections, a long-overdue compilation of unheard material by Rema-Rema on the 4AD label. The label’s founder Ivo Watts-Russell has oft said that it was the solitary Rema-Rema release, 1980’s Wheel In The Roses EP, that set the benchmark for his label, despite the band already having split by the time the 12-inch was released. The album is released on 1 March and I will be hosting a special Q&A with members Gary Asquith, Michael Allen and Dorothy ‘Max’ Prior at Rough Trade West on the evening of its release.

Buy Electronic Sound 50 here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

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Electronic Sound Issue 50

The new issue of Electronic Sound is now available, and this one is rather special. Initially available as a bundle with an exclusive Karl Bartos 7-inch (now sold out), this month’s magazine marks Electronic Sound‘s 50th issue.

Pulling off a specialist print title at a time where most people seem to think the future is digital paper is no mean feat. Indeed, Electronic Sound started life as an iPad-only magazine before realising that there was a gap for a beautifully-executed, smartly designed item created by an editorial team with intense passion and specialist knowledge of the subject matter the magazine covers. If it seems vaguely oxymoronic that a magazine celebrating music made with technology should find its niche as a resolutely analogue offering is because it is, and it’s all the better for it.

I joined the writing team for Electronic Sound in 2014 with a review of Apt’s Energy, Light & Darkness, back when the magazine was still a digital title. That I wrote this review at all is entirely down to the magazine taking a chance on me when I approached them, and that chance arose simply because another writer had let them down that week; that left them with a gap that needed to be filled at short notice, and they trusted me with the job, for which I am unendingly grateful. I figured it was a one-off, but I have written for them ever since. It is both a pleasure and honour to do so every month, and to play a small part in this wonderful magazine’s success and it’s broad minded approach to electronic music and the many stories that deserve to be told.

For this month’s magazine, I wrote a feature on Mattel’s weird 1970s home keyboard, the fabled Optigan, an instrument using optical discs that was meant to usurp the humble organ but didn’t.

The impetus for this piece arose through my good friend Reed Hays, who used the Optigan’s cousin, the Orchestron, on last year’s Reed & Caroline album Hello Science. Reed introduced me to his friend Pea Hicks – the foremost expert on the strange birth, life, death and resurrection of the Optigan – and his band Optiganally Yours, whose amazing O.Y. In Hi-Fi I reviewed for Electronic Sound. My editor figured that this was another one of those stories that needed to be told, and I was deemed the writer for the task.

I can’t hope to tell the story as well as Pea can (and does), and I am forever indebted to him his help in putting the piece together. The piece involved contributions from original 1970s Optigan user Alan Steward, former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, Tom Waits producer Tchad Blake and Sparklehorse collaborator and Nadine Khouri producer Al Weatherhead, each of whom have been drawn to the instrument’s curious and unpredictable charms over the years.

Elsewhere, I reviewed the fifth volume of Front & Follow’s Blow series, with a remarkable piece of mechanical music by Dunning & Underwood and their Mammoth Beat Organ; the return of Bill Leeb’s Frontline Assembly with Wake Up The Coma; Simon James‘s Musicity 003 Shenzhen / Shanghai cassette of Buchla and field recordings; Blood Music‘s inventive and dextrous GPS Poetics.

I rounded out my contributions with a review of Fond Reflections, a long-overdue compilation of unheard material by Rema-Rema on the 4AD label. The label’s founder Ivo Watts-Russell has oft said that it was the solitary Rema-Rema release, 1980’s Wheel In The Roses EP, that set the benchmark for his label, despite the band already having split by the time the 12-inch was released. The album is released on 1 March and I will be hosting a special Q&A with members Gary Asquith, Michael Allen and Dorothy ‘Max’ Prior at Rough Trade West on the evening of its release.

Buy Electronic Sound 50 here.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

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