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.