Friday, 9 December 2011

An assortment of things that have pleased me greatly: part 1

As an old, old man (ish), I’m liberated from the societal pressure to keep up with the modern world. A shameful admission for a part-time music journalist, perhaps, but I mostly find myself listening to a lot of old(er) stuff. This year, as well as the daily Cardiacs fix (over the past decade or so they’ve become my favourite band. I consider the genius of Tim Smith to have few, if any, musical peers. And I will fight with clubs and spittle those who say otherwise), there’s been lots of Toru Takemtisu, Pierre Boulez, Zakir Hussain, Chet Baker, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Strapping Young Lad, Art Blakey, Naif Agby, Melvins, Arvo Pärt, Sammy Davis Jr, Circle, Tool, Philip Glass, Ravi Shankar, Olivier Messiaen, Alim Qasmiov and Oum Kalthoum – and a considerable amount of time spent with 2008’s Who Killed Amanda Palmer? (of whom, possibly, more anon).

However, in amongst all that, I have heard some new things. Not in strict order, but roughly numerical (the first three are my clear highlights), here’s the first ten of my favourite new albums of 2011. More to follow next week. Maybe.

Handy-dandy accompanying Spotify playlist: Onions for Eyeballs' Best of 2011.

Unless otherwise indicated, all reviews originally appeared in Rock-a-Rolla magazine.

After maritime travel and mid-western industry, the third loosely conceptual album from The Book of Knots deals with the endgame of space travel and the death of dream. Here, the band’s somewhat abstracted, subconscious art rock is more focused and fully realised than ever before. ‘Microgravity’, with an appropriate launchpad chorus from Carla Kihlstedt, even feels like a loose approximation of a pop song, albeit built from misshapen power chords and jury-rigged electronics. As ever, myriad guest vocalists and musicians colour the core members’ compositions. Blixa Bargeld offers a queasy narrative full of entomological nausea and jet lag. Elyas Khan and Mike Patton turn in two of the highlights, the former offering lysergic quasi-qawwali to the ether, the latter heading skyward over the album’s sludgiest sounds. Redolent of one of the Flaming Lips’ more cosmically outré moments, ‘Lissajous Orbit’ is a hyper-dramatic realisation of the terrors of intergalactic isolation. ‘Obituary for the Future’, which beautifully offsets Kihlstedt’s bitter-honeyed voice against a palm-muted metal chug, forms a final, tragic lament for humanity’s interstellar aspirations.

Comprising members of JR Ewing, Jaga Jazzist and No Place to Hide, Norway’s KILLL have been in existence since 2003, but solely as a live entity, never releasing anything until this live CD & DVD. Their self-described oeuvre consists of ‘stroboscopic avant-metal’, which is about as perfect and succinct a description as it gets. It’s at once maximal and minimal – ultra-lethal no-flab precision riffs, massive barbed sonics, cybernetic pummel and maddening repetition result in something quite shockingly intense, even for the most jaded of aural masochists. Factor in the DVD’s seizure-inducing op-art visuals, the effect of which is like using a heavy machine gun to fire every Bridget Riley print that ever existed directly into your optic nerve, and you’ve got a blueprint for total sensory overload. Absolutely stunning, in both the superlative and concussive senses.

Glasgow’s Tattie Toes are one of the more idiosyncratic bands to inhabit this flimsy plane of existence. In theory, their blending of elements makes little sense – a stridently proggy post-punk rhythm section, a richly mournful or exuberant violin, and an outrageously chameleonic Basque Country chanteuse, as adept at soaring operatics as she is mellifluous melodies and caustic animalistic shrieks. Imagine Yma Sumac and Lajko Felix jamming with the Dog-faced Hermans and you’re a quarter of the way there. Yet there’s nothing forced about this collision of styles – rather, it sounds like a respectfully edgy update of the centuries-old traditional music of an as-yet undiscovered Mediterranean island nation. Compared to the wayward raucousness and visual drama of Tattie Toes’ live set, their debut album is relatively spare and airy, but no less bold and sumptuous. By turns boisterous, sensuous, explosive and delicate, this is a unique and joyful experience from start to finish.

Asva III turns out to be both simpler and far more complex than its predecessors. Lineup and sound alike are pared back, the former doomy crunch largely supplanted by an emphasis on organs, texture and shifting modes. ‘A Bomb in that Suitcase’ features ecclesiastical reeds, sustained bass tones, vocals alternately liminal and choral. As the drone becomes all-enveloping, drums kick in, the chorale ascends, shapes are hewn from solid bass, dissonant horns join the fray and it unfurls like an embittered rose.
Continuing the bicameral Asvic tradition of offsetting impervious music against a vulnerable human voice, the delicate spell of ‘Birds’ is woven from Toby Driver’s withered, anguished falsetto. The 24-minute centrepiece, ‘Presences of Absences’ is built from organ drones so thick you could race rhinos on them, with intermittent doom stabs that recall Asva’s previous outings. Driver appears again at his most ethereal, floating above the music, harmonising with his own ghosts. The closer, the delicate, labyrinthine ‘New World Order Rising’, finds Asva at their most liturgical, ambiguous emotions ebbing and flowing as it inches towards a dynamic climax with all the haste of a glacier. Intricate, thoughtful and muscular, Presences of Absences is a pivotal album for Asva, one that sees them shedding some of their armour, but all the stronger for it.

The final instalment of MMOB’s triptych of ersatz ethno-drone is less oppressive than part I, not as pretty as part II, but the most immediate of them all. ‘Bardo Sidpa’ may consist of great washes of truculent gamelan-tinted doom, but this belligerent hum segues into ‘In the Twilight of Kali Yuga’, a beautifully bright, spry and wiry piece of virtuoso raga slink. With its New Age flutery and pineal-gland-caressing cultish chant, you might expect to find ‘Illuminating the Ten Directions’ playing as you stock up on Nitraj and crystal woo, were it not for the crushing guitars. ‘Prophecy of the White Camel’ hits a hypnotic Saharan blues groove – a welcome non-surprise to find Alan Bishop wailing here – and the sweet, quasi-medieval melodies of ‘6000 Years of Darkness’ are contrasted with ‘Reign of Quantity’s robovoices and bubbling body horror. Alas, this glorious and ambitious trilogy ends with ‘Failed Future’ – a miniature John Carpenter homage that’s little more than a throwaway gag. But then, as their name suggests, and as with their spiritual forbears Sun City Girls, self-defeating humour is part of the package, and doesn’t diminish their essential beauty.

After A Perfect Place and Crank: High Voltage, Patton returns with his third solo soundtrack project. Far closer in spirit and tone to the elegant, atmospheric former than the gonzoid latter, this score accompanies both Saverio Cotanzo’s film and the source novel by Paolo Giordano. Devoid of their cinematic and literary context, these 16 prime-numbered tracks – some melodic and beautiful, others murderously chilling – make for a subtle, impressionistic experience. There are certainly elements here that can be readily identified – a Mediterranean feel for melody that’s redolent of Mondo Cane’s source material, a Herrmann approach to lavish string arrangements, Penderecki-inspired looming discord, Carpenter synth pulses… But, as ever, it’s the way in which he draws on, manipulates and recontextualises his influences that makes Patton a distinctive musician in his own right.
What’s interesting about The Solitude of Prime Numbers is the way that a man known for his vocal abilities is gaining confidence in his other voice, as an instrumental composer. Where A Perfect Place was very much in the ‘main theme plus variations’ school of soundtrack composition, this is a more subtly woven work, in which narrative elements that recur do so by stealth. That makes for a less immediate work than his other two soundtracks, but at the same time a more accomplished and rewarding one.

Mombu: being the fusing of Zu’s Gondorian sax behemoth Luca Mai with serial drum abuser Antonio Zitarelli of avant-jazz types Neo. As you’d expect, it’s supremely heavy and outrageously adept stuff, mainly occupying the bowel-battering end of the spectrum. OK, so there’s no getting away from the fact that it can sometimes sound pretty close to Zu’s manic, jazz-infused prog-hardcore with the bass removed. However, here, Mai’s sax is often double-, even triple-tracked or more, giving Mombu more than enough dynamism, depth and sheer sonic muscle. And the duo are at their most distinctive and effective when their Ethiopian influence comes to the fore – present most explicitly in Zitarelli’s hand drums and other percussive varieties, but also in Mai’s forays into melodic lines redolent of Getachew Mekuria or Mulatu Astatqé. If Mombu’s self-description as ‘Afro-grind’ doesn’t make this connection explicitly and irresistibly clear, then the brain-hugging polyrhythmic assault of ‘Regla De Ocha’ will.

Mogwai’s seventh album finds them both delving deeper into familiar modes and exploring fresh ideas with inspiring confidence. The more traditional stuff is as big and beautiful as ever: ‘Death Rays’ is utterly lovely but comfortable, a sombre, yearning instrumental of the type that they can pull off while unconscious, while the sparse piano and mournful violin of ‘Too Raging To Cheers’ collapse into a vast, cascading riff worthy of Harvey Milk. But there’s a new energy here too. ‘Mexican Grand Prix’ is highly atypical, a dreamy Stereolab pulse with heavily processed robo-whispers. ‘How to be a Werewolf’ and the optimistic ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ also share this spry, motorik vibe, while ‘San Pedro’s entwined guitars rack up more BPMs than any other song in the band’s history. But the clear highlight is ‘Rano Pano’. It starts loud, gets louder, and has a peculiar melodic, pseudo-mystical charge, its fuzzy central riff a sublime, extended mantra that could have been lifted from a gamelan session. Mogwai albums usually end well, and this is no exception, as ‘You're Lionel Richie’ swells into a monolithic doom dirge that ends about 30 minutes too soon.

Formerly one man called Graeme, a loop pedal, a guitar, a glockenspiel and a box full of toys and trinkets, Remember Remember is now a seven-piece band. It’s not just the line-up that’s grown, but the breadth and depth of the music too. The Quickening builds on the debut’s strengths (grand melodic statements, lavish sonics, carefully woven patterns, slow-burn dynamics) and adds big live-band arrangements and considerable emotional weight. ‘Ocean Potion’ is the most perfect realisation of the new sound, a darkly magical nine-minute epic that blossoms into an unexpectedly proggy, rhythmically askew long-form riff. Elsewhere, the solo piano piece ‘A Larger Demon’ stands out by virtue of daunting bare-bones simplicity, while the achingly sad ‘One Happier’ culminates in some unbearably poignant flamenco-style strumming from acoustic virtuoso RM Hubbert. Wonderful, instantly appealing stuff, but for all its elevated ambition, still unmistakably the work of a guy who finds delight in overlaying sweet melodies with the utterances of a squeaky shark.

Exactly how Colin Stetson does what he does is a mystery for seasoned sax detectives. He proudly proclaims that his tunes are one-take live recordings, with no overdubs or similar studio shenanigans. Yet this one man and his horn are capable of sounding like a polyphonic analogue synth, a wailing vocalist, a bassist and a drummer, all at the same time. Percussive, multi-layered and supremely dense, his sound is utterly compelling – his perpetual motion breath control alone is enough to induce hypoxia in the listener. But it’s no mere technical flashfest. His compositions are as captivating as his playing, by turns aggressive, playful, sombre and exhilarating. The unforgiving wall of brass is occasionally accompanied by the larynxes of Laurie Anderson and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Woden – the former, authoritative, lyrical and imposing; the latter, wounded and crystalline. Stetson has created a uniquely involving sound world here, one that reconfigures elements of jazz, gospel, art-rock, heavy drone and even vintage electronica with just a single instrument and a herculean pair of lungs.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


Some music can be an endurance test for the listener, some for the players. Mick Barr’s is both.

For his part: “It can get exhausting. Having to warm up for a half hour before every show and not taking breaks while on stage can be a bit daunting at times. Every now and then I’ll have bouts of weakness in my left arm, but not too much else. There’s more of a mental toll.”

For ours: Hundreds of hyper-speed geometric guitar compositions, both vast and microscopic, scorch our synapses as we try to keep pace. Emotional resonances are bleached by inhuman technicality. Dialogue becomes impossible in the face of a horrifying clarity of vision. The only sane reaction is to let go, be dragged along, eyes wide, mouth gaping.

[A personal note: Several years ago, soon after I contracted RSI in my wrist, I saw Orthrelm play in London. Mick Barr’s relentless performance, displaying the kind of precision, speed and stamina of which only machines should be capable, caused a vivid and painful psychosomatic reaction in my already-tender tendons that still makes itself unpleasantly felt today whenever I hear him play. Talk about a visceral response. Pavlov has nothing on Orthrelm.]

Aside from an early appearance on cassette as Or Rathol Nok, Barr first surfaced in the mid-90s as half of Washington DC’s Crom-Tech, playing the screeching foil to the skitter and batter of drummer Malcolm McDuffie. Over a decade later, Crom-Tech’s two albums of jazz-inflected hyper-prog miniatures remain singularly harsh, thanks to their combination of frenetic velocity, a minuscule attention span, and shrill, treble-intensive attack. Never rest, never repeat.

Taken from a short story written by Barr, Crom-Tech was a prototype for language games to come. Titles such as Norildivoth Crallos-Lomrixth Urthiln, Asristir Vieldriox and Uppragan Srilimia Ixioor Ocrilim Nollfithes Mrithixyl signify a mind obsessed with making startling and complex new patterns out of old material – be it vowels and consonants or snatches of metal guitar-solo climaxes.

“For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable expressing anything artistically with English,” says Barr. “But words are necessary in the presentation, so I made up words that fit the mood to me. I attempted at one point to construct a language, but that seemed stupid right at the start. But having a lot of band names is kind of a fluke. I liked the word ‘or’, so I used that in Or Rathol Nok. Then I needed a name to continue the legacy of that band, so I used Or:12r3. In 2000, Octis came about, which was a Voivodian word to me – but more insectish, which fit the project. Ocrilim came as an extension of that, but with more meaning attached to it. Orthrelm is kind of a fusing of Tolkein's word ‘Orthanc’ and ‘realm’.”

Following the dissolution of Crom-Tech, Barr hooked up with a drum machine to form Octis, and the drafting of drummer Josh Blair completed Orthrelm. (Although, in truth, it’s never that simple, and the boundaries are often blurred.) Both perpetuated, exaggerated and refined the ideas birthed in Crom-Tech – the rudimentary, superfluous vocals were discarded, the brevity surpassed even Naked City levels (Orthrelm’s 2002 EP Asristir Vieldriox easily contains its 99 tracks within 13 minutes), and Barr’s already astonishing playing reached deep into the realms of the absurd. Though his skills are undeniably amazing on a technical level, virtuosic complexity is not the point – this ain’t no Guitar World onanistic fantasy, it’s just the way in which his imagination manifests itself: “There is no philosophy behind playing fast. To me, it just feels comfortable. But my life is not very speedy. Maybe my thoughts are speedy, but I am a calm human.”

In at the deep end: Orthrelm’s OV. Where their previous work exploited the microscopic scale naturally suggested by Barr’s refusal to repeat any phrase or hang on to a note for more than a tenth of a second, OV is Orthrelm writ large – 45 minutes of maddening repetition, minute variation, and dramatic statements that illustrate just how ridiculously micro-composed this stuff is. Think Terry Riley filtered through a grind aesthetic with a shredder’s dexterity. Fractal guitar patterns from the gut end of the fretboard, spiralling outwards into infinity, minute variations highlighting unexpected facets. Every detail is mirrored, anticipated and given physical form by Blair’s knackering dash around his kit. It’s both annoying and delirious, like having a desperate wasp inside your skull, constantly stinging your pleasure centres in its attempts to escape.

Barr’s assessment of his own work is as understated as his music is excessive: “It’s not really experimental…maybe a little. Extreme, sure, but I prefer the word ‘intense’.” But for all his quietude and humility, he has made his presence felt among speedfreaks everywhere. He’s there in the ecstatic math-pop of Marnie Stern, the thrash miniatures of Fantômas, and in every impossible time twist and audacious run by tech-metalcore outfits like Behold the Arctopus, Dillinger Escape Plan and Psyopus. He has also found time to collaborate with the likes of Nondor Nevaï, Quix*o*tic and the Flying Luttenbachers, and to record two improv albums with irrepressible Hella/Marnie drummer Zach Hill. These sessions with Hill have all the energy of Orthrelm, but less of the steely self-control. Both players perfectly complement each other – Hill’s freeform brutalist approach causing Barr to run along the very edge of hungry precipices; Barr’s desperate attempts to rein in the drummer adding a note of beautifully crisp tension. “Zach Hill is one of the only people I have felt comfortable improvising with,” says Barr. “It clicked really well. I prefer not to improvise very often. However, I do like to jam. Improvising and jamming are very different things to me.”

Speed remains the core, even as Barr is multi-tracking himself, weaving warm, welcoming and melodic abstracts. Whereas Orthrelm and Octis were all about shape, about carving tiny figures in sound, Ocrilim uses headlong motion to create texture, wearing it like chain mail. Move fast enough and the blur effect kicks in; you’re no longer a bullet, but a laser beam. Ocrilim is seemingly custom-designed for those who wish Glenn Branca’s music were faster, more varied, more intricate. It represents a considerable shift in the Barr aesthetic, though he himself is unsure how, when and why this happened. “I wasn’t paying attention. Honestly, I don’t really have the best handle on what I’m doing, and why I do it. It’s all very intuitive these days. Perfection is never a priority. Intuition is more of a priority. But Ocrilim’s Annwn is the music I am most proud of at this point.”

Barr’s latest incarnation is Krallice, an obscenely powerful and oddly poignant black-metal collaboration with Behold the Arctopus’s Colin Marston. “It just kind of came together,” he says. “Me and Colin were making some songs for a possible black-metal recording, but then it snowballed into an actual album and band. I was into metal right off the bat. I listen to tons of different musics, but my heart has always been with metal. I've always played music that I consider to be very metal-sounding.” Krallice is more obviously tied in to broader, more recognisable genre conventions than anything he’s ever done. But atop the corpse-painted bludgeon, the pointillist flood of sour sound, made from cascading specks of cold light, is all Barr.

For a man given to prolific and idiosyncratic artistic expression, Barr is somewhat reticent when it comes to exploring what he does in public. The vivid obsessions present in all his work, from the early days right through to Krallice, form a single concept that is very much alive and evolving – and to dissect something that still draws breath is to kill it. “It is much more emotional to me than intellectual,” he says. “However, I can’t really say what the content is, as it’s all pretty subconscious. But it’s also cold and technical, which invokes its own emotions. No one ever misses the point, as the point is all relative to the one thinking it.”

(originally published in Plan B, September 2008)

Monday, 28 February 2011



It's tough for me to be objective about Mogwai. It was they who almost singlehandedly* reignited my passion for music, which had been wilting severely amid the doldrums of the mid-to-late ’90s. (Turns out that sufficient ambient exposure to Oasis and Ocean Colour Scene is enough to make you lose faith in an entire art form.) The first I heard of Mogwai was John Mulvey’s review of Young Team in the NME, October 1997. It spoke of “sprawling, reckless music” that was “intensely beautiful” yet contained “searing riff-madness any self-respecting death metal band would kill for”. Who could resist such a prospect? It was alluring enough that, for the first time in my life, I shelled out for a record (on double vinyl, even) without tasting a note. The opener was tantalising enough, warm drones humming as a voice hesitatingly describes the band in almost absurdly glowing terms. Then the ominous rumble of ‘Like Herod’ loomed into earview, and before I knew it that ungainly, incongruous, bastard surprise of a RIFF punched my face right off of my head. Twice in a row. How could something so vicious be so gorgeous? Deep, instant love.

Over the next few years, many a live experience cemented our relationship. Their headline slot at the Astoria in 1999 was a seminal experience. They were beautiful, of course. But even after many years of metal gigs, the volume levels here were revelatory. Mogwai were unfeasibly, ridiculously vast, so much so that for a while everything just went… white… as my brain reeled from the sensory overload. The air itself seemed to be on the verge of friction-induced ignition. It felt like hot pink rain on my skin. Young kids next to me huddled on the floor, their hands over their ears (one of them threw up on my shoe). It was pure visceral pleasure from all-consuming sound – it was the first time I’d experienced this level of blissful sonic extremity, and it ensured that I’d later fall for the likes of Merzbow, Sunn o))) and MBV. And yet, even amid the extremity and brutality, Mogwai were unashamedly, nakedly emotional – romantic, even. Years later, my (now, still) wife and I used ‘Helicon 1’ at the start of our wedding ceremony.

But over the years, they changed. Or, rather, I did. In truth, Mogwai failed to be what they never were, but what my inner teenage metalhead wanted them to be: ALL THE LOUD BITS, ALL THE TIME. With every album, the gnarly passages were scaled back more and more. I kept up, but didn’t really understand any more. Their power seemed diluted by their countless inferior imitators. The words ‘Rock Action’ began to seem like a cruel tease. It was only with The Hawk is Howling, specifically with the way that ‘I’m Jim Morrison’ so subtly and inexorably blossoms, that I finally grasped what they’d been doing all along – striving for a certain form of nameless, profound human beauty, and doing so with increasing eloquence, even if they often whispered about it when the younger me wanted them to yell themselves hoarse.

After the slavish fanboy devotion and a period of mild disappointment/ambivalence, I’ve now entered a more mature and appreciative phase. The most recent encounter was at the Grand Ole Opry on their home turf. Turns out they’re older too. Whodathunkit? More assured and confident. Technically impeccable. Funny as fuck. It was wondrous, but still… they seemed smaller. The loud bits don’t seem to convey quite the same absurd world-ending/creating power that they used to. Have they smoothed out the ultra-dynamics? Or am I comparing the actual experience before me with an impossibly exaggerated memory? In all fairness, the unabated yen they gave me for extreme volume has probably left my gig-ravaged ears in no fit state to judge.

The prospect of a new Mogwai album is therefore a source of both quivering excitement and queasy trepidation. Hardcore… begins with a grandiose mid-paced opener a la ‘Jim Morrison’ or ‘Auto Rock’ – piano, broad dramatic strokes, slow evolution and stratospheric guitar climax, the main guitar line in polyrhythmic relief to the main pulse. Perhaps not 100% satisfying in itself, but an effective, if wrong-footing introduction. ‘Mexican Grand Prix is the first of several surprises – a lithe, sombre pop song with a krautrock pulse and android vocals. Blindfolded and handcuffed, you’d never guess this was Mogwai. Stereolab, maybe? Quickspace?

‘Rano Pano’ is extraordinary, one of their finest tunes yet. The hugely fuzzy central riff is at once alien and familiar, eternal but indefinable, complex but natural, somewhere between a lost Gallic folk melody and South-East Asian temple chant. It has the feel of a sculpture unlocked from marble, something that’s always been there but no one noticed it before.

The downbeat ‘Death Rays’ and ‘Letters to the Metro’ are typical of much of the band’s work since CODY. A sense of melancholy, expressed through pianos, guitars and measured restraint. Melodically beautiful and sonically rich, but ultimately Mogwai at a stroll. The pace hastens with ‘San Pedro’ – an uncharacteristically speedy instrumental rocker, zippier and less brutal than its precursors ‘Batcat’ and ‘Glasgow Mega Snake’, more wiry and sinewy, strewn with intricate guitar patterns. The most optimistic tune here, and not just in terms of its celebratory epithet (the first rule of Mogwai: the titles mean nothing), ‘George Square Thatcher Death Party’ revisits the motorik pulse with vibing synths and processed vocals. ‘How to be a Werewolf’ is softer, but no less redolent of the spirit of Dinger that courses through much of this album. Very pretty, very cheerfully sad, climaxing in some lavish, wibbly Robert Fripp phrasings and a pleasingly incongruous big arena-rock key shift towards the end.

The last two tracks are the most old-school. They pull the tricks that those who don’t really listen to Mogwai usually associate with them – quiet intros exploding into plesiosaur-bruising riffs. But they’re great examples of the form. ‘Too Raging to Cheers’ has a brilliantly ugly and brutal cascading payoff, while ‘You’re Lionel Richie’ is simpler, its melody extending into a glorious climactic, low-end assault. Both are over way, way too soon. But I would say that.

2011 finds Mogwai in undeniably great shape, exploring plenty of bold new ideas and refining old ones, with enough familiar territory to not scare away the faithful. They’re smarter, more proficient, certainly more subtle… in virtually all of the ways that count, they’re better, more fully realised than ever. The only downside is that I hold them to an impossible standard. At one time they saved my life with sound. But fourteen years on, they’re still enriching it – I can’t ask for more than that.

* See also The Monsoon Bassoon.