29 January 2009

G SPOTS

"The Spacey Folk Electro-Horror Sounds Of The Studio G Library" proclaims the handsome sleeve of Trunk Records' latest rummage through the dusty vaults of vintage library music, focusing this time on one of the most intriguing, highly collectible British labels of all - John Gale's Studio G. Prized for their striking colour sleeve designs as much as their distinctive brand of ready-made moods, cues and jingles, the relatively small output of Studio G remains an elusive quarry for collectors. Which makes this new 26 track collection, spanning the label's two decades of active service, very welcome and indeed necessary, but at the same time frustratingly brief as it skims merrily across the surface of Studio G's considerable catalogue of audio treasures.

Library music is everywhere and nowhere. Practically everyone is exposed to it every day, via TV, radio, film and advertising, yet most never even notice it's there, remaining unaware of it's subtle powers of mood-manipulation. It's not generally available to buy outside specialised distribution networks, but filters down to the public domain when it becomes out-of-date. Collectors prize the early vinyl-only editions, particularly from the '60s and '70s, for various reasons. For some it's the ultimate in elitist/esoteric music collecting, for others a source of unusual samples, and then there are those, like me, who believe it is the great hidden soundtrack to the late-20th Century, and that by discovering these records we can learn something about the world we grew-up in. Most popular music of the past is constantly regurgitated, becoming merely cheap nostalgia or worse stripped of all it's resonance. As K-Punk so wisely wrote in a great blog post entitled "The Past Is An Alien Planet", "hearing T-Rex now doesn't remind you of 73, it reminds you of nostalgia progs about 1973". By contrast, once library records have fulfilled their initial purpose, they quickly become abandoned, locked away in a dusty store cupboard for years, and when they eventually appear on the second-hand market, the essence of their era remains locked within them, waiting to be released into the cold vacuum of our world today. To hear a really great library record for the first time can be a strange experience: at once fresh to the ear yet also hauntingly familiar. Sometimes you'll hear something that you can specifically remember, like an advertising jingle on heavy rotation in the winter of 1978, which can trigger a shuddering flash of memory (what I call a 'direct hit'), yet generally the feeling will be less specific, more like a tint of faded colour or a strong flava that you hadn't tasted for many years. By contrast, some library records turn out to be useless, overpriced piles of shite, which is why well-crafted compilations like this make for excellent, cost-effective navigational aids.

If it's 'direct hits' you're after, then listen to Cliff Johns' "Goofy", or Harry Pitch's "Elephants Dance", both quirky little cues that featured regularly in cult kids' TV show "Vision On" (and whilst I'm on the subject, a heartfelt R.I.P. to the late, eternally great Tony Hart). But for more indescribable sensations, check the minimalist synth-folk melodies of Douglas Wood, the melancholic woodwind and vibraphone of Paul Lewis' "Waiting For Nina", or the smokey Bontempi organ flourishes of Ivor Raymond's "Wild Cat Walk", a perfect soundtrack to the Testcard of the inner mind.

For me, the highlights of "G-Spots" are the really early electronic treatments, from that deliciously weird period in the late '60s through to early '70s, when the fine arts of tape-manipulation and electro-acoustic processing were rubbing shoulders with the early, unstable monophonic synths like the VCS3 - that's the kind of stuff I particularly covet when shopping around for library records. Hearing James Harpham's "Visions Of 2000AD 4" and "Voodoo Tronics", combining solo flute with jarring Musique Concrete, lashings of tape delay and vaguely psychotic laughter, you can almost believe it was 'Life On Mars' back then. Then there's Frederick Judd's "Sprockets" (from the legendary and frightfully rare "Electronic Age" album) a pure electronic realisation of ghostly mechanical rhythm that is as great as it is tantalisingly brief. I can only assume (and pray) that the reason for such a meagre example of Mr. Judd's music is that Trunk are holding the rest back for a proper anthology of this forgotten pioneer's work.

I subscribe to the theory that the 'Golden Age' of electronic library/soundtrack music ended when the technology started to get too good. As the synths became more stable, polyphonic and full of rich, 'credible' sounds (as opposed to incredible sounds) so the music gradually lost it's unclassifiably alien qualities and became orchestral muzak on the cheap. For hard proof of that you only need to listen to the recent two-disc Radiophonic Workshop Retrospective, where the strict chronological sequencing clearly illustrates this phenomenon of decline. There's evidence of it on "G Spots" too. Eric Peter's "Deformed Theme" is a mournfully atonal, almost crippled sliver of monophonia from the bowels of the early '70s, but by the time he wrote "Planet Travel" the sound had taken on an assured, grandiose richness of texture which, whilst perfectly pleasant, lacks that eerie spark of the arcane that I always crave. Or to put it another way, a bit too much Peter Howell and not enough Brian Hodgson.

But that's just my personal fetishes getting in the way. Trunk Records have set out to tell us a story from another time, long past, forgotten to all except those 'in the know'. And they have done so with considerable skill. I only hope this is just the first chapter.

"G Spots" will be released on vinyl and CD formats very soon. Check the Trunk Records website for further info and updates.

26 January 2009

MEEK TIGER - SYNKROTIK NEKRONIZATION

So I met this guy in a club a year or so back and we had a little chat about music and so forth. He was just visiting Bristol for the weekend and then returning home to Luton, so I assumed I wouldn't be hearing from him again. Then recently I get an email from him out-of-the-blue to tell me he's just released an album with a bit of a dubstep influence and would I like a copy? So I say sure, why not, bring it on, without having any expectations either way. The CD duly arrives and the first thing I notice is the packaging: the disc is sheathed in an unusual card envelope with the sleeve design glued on the front, a spray-painted Godzilla footprint and cryptic hand-written message on the back, giving the whole thing a distinct impression of hand-assembly. Clearly this is one of those limited-run, self-manufactured items that I always find so endearing. The package also contains a little booklet, with copious sleeve notes, perhaps more accurately described as a literary 'sub-text' - a fictional work with a heavy line in political metaphor. So it's a bit of a concept album too!

But the biggest surprise was the actual musical content. Opening track "Snares In The Surf" is dominated by clean, cyclic guitar figures that make me think of Vini Reilly's work in the Durutti Column rather than anything by, say, Skream. It quickly becomes apparent that this album is coming from the far-left of experimental dance music, where any influence from established genres is subverted to the artist's own twisted vision. So whilst "1868: Meiji Lumber Crisis And The Waking Woods" (hey, snappy title!) might have started-out from a skanky halfstep template, the end result is a fractured reverb-scape of decimated snares, distant chords and serrated feedback floating in a murky bubbling lagoon - the most literal interpretation of 'underwater dancehall' I've yet heard. Similarly, "Conveyor Belt Politics Prt.2" might have started life as a sort of techstep hybrid, but swiftly develops into something far more personal and unique. "Texan Coffee" is an improbable fusion of dislocated beats, guttural bass and twangy guitar licks, "Freudian Brain Surgeon" strips the beats down to a mere whisper, focusing on plaintive synthetic warbles and bursts of unclassifiably processed percussion, whilst "Karmic Adjustments" is a pure sound-bath of beautifully sustained melodic drones. Final track "Waltzing Godzilla" is almost post-rock in feel, with growling slabs of jagged guitar trailing across heavily echoed drums like early Tortoise in a really bad mood.

It's not a perfect album by any means - some tracks are less successful than others, and some tend to go on a bit longer than they perhaps need to, but the very fact that Meek Tiger is forging ahead, trying to carve-out a sound for himself in this age of sterile conformity and empty retrogressive posturing is something to be encouraged and, perhaps, cherished.

Now I don't normally post MP3s on this blog anymore but, with the artists' permission and encouragement, I'm making an exception here. So for a limited period you can grab the following track for 'evaluation purposes'...

Meek Tiger - Conveyor Belt Politics Pt.1

As I said at the start this is a very limited release without any proper distribution, so for more information about how to obtain this CD, check the label website or contact the artist direct- daniel@vstmrecords.com

23 January 2009

LONGPLAYERS - OPENING SHOTS

Struggling with a mountain of prejudice here...

Break - Symmetry (Symmetry Recordings)
Ummm dunno who it was at S.T. Holdings who decided to send me this, but I'm really the wrong man for the job. My first reaction was "christ, do people still actually make records like this??!!". Opening track "Last Chance" sounds like it could've been made anytime in the past decade or so - ultra-slick drum 'n' bass with nondescript soulful guest vocal, admittedly with some pretty good sub-manoeuvres in the bass end and some neat production touches, but ultimately very safe and predictable. Okay, so Break's been around for a while and he knows his audience demographic. This album is very carefully crafted to sustain a certain sound for a particular scene, unfortunately one that I'm not ever likely to be a part of. But let's take a look at the positives. You get 18 tracks on the CD (which, depending on your point of view, is either great value or utterly exhausting) and it comes in an attractive fold-out card digipac sleeve. The production is pretty much flawlessly professional throughout - some of the intro sections sound kinda cool, but then all the formuleric elements start to creep in and my attention starts to wander. Of all the d'n'b tracks I like "Symmetrics" best, mainly on account of the earthier breakbeats, making me a bit nostalgic for the old Metalheadz sound. Occasionally Break slips out of the genre-straight jacket and tries something a bit different, like "Too Hot To Hold", a moderately successful hip hop-style track with rapping by SP, or the mellow mid-tempo groove of "Recovery". Then there's "It's Coming" which has a trancier feel with the four-to-the-floor pulse, but it's all still a bit too polite for my tastes. "Thin Ice" is a brief attempt to do something a little more abstract, though its the final track "In The Blue" that's the real surprise, or perhaps I should say relief. A slow, ponderous instrumental with a very 'live' feel on account of the languid guitar lines and some pleasant tinkling electric piano. Obviously there's more to Break than just breaks, but frankly I think we're on different planets.

Gonken - Robot Vs. Zombie (Automation Records)
I struggle with this from the off, due to my almost clinical aversion to American snotty-indie white rap with eccentric lyrical themes, of which Mr. Gonken seems all too fond. But again, let's try and focus on the positives. It's got a nice cover design, with a classic pulp comic theme (in fact wasn't there a comic book awhile back actually called "Robots Vs. Zombies"? - I'm sure Doppelganger lent me a copy once) but unfortunately this is a download-only release, and only blaggers like me get special hard-format promo versions. But at least you can download all the artwork and make your own if you like (see website). And despite all the synth-pop-by-numbers of tracks like "Indie Rockstar 101" you get some strange collisions like "Brainbasher v2.0" with it's filthy oldskool breakbeats and pummelling distorted bassline. Mercifully there are a couple of instrumentals too: "A Study In Audiology" is a fairly enjoyable retro-electro romp, whilst "Taking It For What It's Worth" features a nice line in naive melodic IDM. But ultimately there's a geographical and ideological gulf between me and Gonken that's simply too wide to overcome. Best of luck, mate - you go your way and I'll go mine.

20 January 2009

PROMOS - JAN

Here's a bunch of quick reviews for things that have turned-up in my mailbox (both real and virtual) recently. Some are a bit overdue and a couple are a bit ahead of schedule, but I'm getting them done now while I have a bit of free time.

Narcossist - Sunblind (Mindset)
Hailing from the rural North of England but now relocated in Bristol, I'm really glad to see that Joe has finally got a release under his belt. He's one of those producers who started sending me beats ages ago when he first started out and I used to drop some of his tunes in my regular podcasts back in '06. He's been through several stylistic changes since then, and right now he seems to be exploring the still-fertile intersection between dubstep and techno, keeping the beats urgently propulsive over a very sparse yet satisfyingly complete palette of tones and vocal snatches - I particularly like that girlie giggle that crops up on the flipside "Frontier Dub". Looks like he's playing at Under_score next month. I might try and reach that one.

Mr. Messiah - The Dublab (Automation Recs)
'St. Petersburg's dubstep Christ', according to the press release. So what we have here is a Russian artist, released via an American label, purporting to make British underground music. I have no problem with that per se (in fact I would actively encourage such behaviour), but somewhere along the line the message has got a bit muddled. This 7" is nothing to do with dubstep. It's dark, minimal, downtempo breakbeat. Forensics would love this, I reckon. I quite like it too, though I think it could've done with maybe one or two more elements (a hook of some sort would've been nice). It feels like a backing track waiting for something to happen. More info at automationrecords.com.

Dissident - Society Of Silver Skeletons (Hotshore)
Also hailing from St. Petersburg, but Dissident gives us a very different take on what might loosely be called dubstep. This guy's been around for a few years and obviously knows his onions when it comes to production. It's an 8-minute epic driven by distorted kick drums (remember them?!!) glitchy, restless percussion and relentless, edgy oscillator arpeggios, which makes for a pretty pensive experience. I quite like it, though. Oh, and nearly forgot the other side is actually by Scuba. The track is called "Bruised" and it clearly gives a nod to the dubby/deep house scene, with it's comforting wash of block chords, but with much more spring in its step in the rhythm department. Pleasant, though not as good as...

Kontext - Convex Curved Mirror/Hometown Swamp (Immerse Recs)
Another Russian producer (in fact I think he's also from St. Petersburg, though I might be mistaken) releasing his second EP for Bristol's Immerse Records, coming out in March. I liked his debut record(s) and I like this one too. One of the things that caused me frustration with dub techno over the past year or two was its stubborn refusal to expand it's rhythmic horizons beyond the simple kick/hi-hat pulse of house. Such beautiful, deep textures locked in frigid rigor mortis. I pined for just a bit more detail in the drum programming, a hint of funkiness in the grooves, a slight increment in bpm rate to edge back into the 130s and a general move away from just being Basic Channel clones. And Kontext has been answering my prayers. Apparently there's an album planned for later in the year, which I have very high hopes for. Definitely one to watch. Info: immerserecords.com.

Spandex - Bermuda Triangle (Hand On The Plow)
Spunky, funky full-on techy house with a nice line in bouncy basslines and a knack for jittery, unusual vocal effects, a bit like some of the groovier stuff on M_nus, but with a bit more balls. It's not the sort of thing I'd listen to at home, but I can imagine the lead track setting a few dancefloors alight, which wouldn't be too difficult in yer average Mnml club, let's be honest. Spandex knows the power of a good hook. B side tune "Fourth Wall" is a bit more complex and experimental for those who like their shit leaning to the left, whilst "What's Wrong With You" is another straight forward banger featuring a woozy male vocal, subjected to much stuttery editing, and an unusual synth solo in the middle. If you're a jobbing house dj, you'll probably find this record very useful. Out mid-February. handontheplow.com.

Mount Kimbie - EP (Hotflush Recs)
Ummm, can't remember if I got a press release with this one, but I've lost it anyway so can't tell you much about Mount Kimbie or if and when this is coming out, or even if its actually on Hotflush or one of its sub-labels. But I really like this four-tracker. Definitely more in the area of 'home-listening electronica' than you might expect from a Hotflush EP, full of earthy clip-clop beats, making creative use of compression, reverb and delicately distressed timbres that give the whole thing a taste of the ancient and mysterious. Like an Aphex Twin b-side circa mid-90s, this stuff doesn't really fit in any particular dance genre, but it has a lot of charm, character and enough melodic thrust pack an emotional punch. Watch out for it, when and wherever it might be.

Martyn - Yet/2562 - Kontrol (Tectonic)
Yes, yes we all know Martyn can do no wrong, and here he is once again pushing all the right buttons on an irrepressibly groovy, immaculately produced tune underpinned by classy breaks and voluptuous b-line. Fellow Dutchman 2562, by contrast, offers a somewhat plodding halfstepper only slightly redeemed by the edgy 808-electro flava. I dunno, maybe I expect too much from the bloke, but this one sounds a bit old news to my jaded ears. I hear the unmistakable splosh of feet treading water. But its on Tectonic, so we'll all buy it anyway, right?

Hopefully have a couple of album reviews up soon...

UPDATE: Just had an email from a reader in the Ukraine who informs me that Dissident and Kontext are one and the same person. So now you know.

UPDATE #2: Alex from Hotflush emailed to say that the Mount Kimbie EP is released on 2nd Feb. Keep an eye out - it really is rather spiffing...

17 January 2009

TOTALLY WIRED

The first essential music book of the year has (almost) arrived. Having already caused a minor stir with "Rip It Up", his definitive guide to the post-punk era, Simon Reynolds follows-up with the essential companion: "Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews & Overviews" (Faber & Faber trade paperback).

As the title suggests, the main bulk of the book comprises in-depth interviews with some of the key figures in the scene, culled from the copious and exhaustive interview tapes used to research the first book, which never fail to be anything less than fascinating. Simon talks to many central characters, like Jah Wobble (PiL), Ari Up (The Slits), Green Gartside (Skritti Politti), Andy Gill (Gang Of Four), David Byrne (Talking Heads), not forgetting a few of my own personal heroes like Alan Vega (Suicide), Richard H. Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire), Phil Oakey (Human League) and Mark Stewart (The Pop Group). It was also a surprise and pleasure to see a few of the 'backroom boys' getting some attention, seeing things from the perspective of producers Martin Rushent, Trevor Horn and UK dub pioneer Dennis Bovell (of course Martin Hannett is no longer with us, but we peek into his working methods care of Factory boss Tony Wilson and Joy Division's Steven Morris). The late John Peel and writer/critic Paul Morley also feature.

Among the many highlights: Simon wrestling (figuratively!) with 'difficult' interviewee David Thomas (Pere Ubu) - a man with some frankly bizarre opinions and theories about music - and Devo's Gerry Casale describing in harrowing detail his eye-witness account of the National Guard shooting students at a demonstration at Kent State University in the early '70s. It's also interesting to note the recurring themes - almost everyone involved seemed to have come from an Art School background, almost everyone was a voracious reader (Penguin paperbacks were as de rigueur as records and trench coats!) and people like Bowie, Eno, krautrock and The Velvet Underground crop-up regularly as formative influences.

The 'Overviews' section contains a selection of previously published reviews and articles that touch on aspects of the post-punk milieu, the most essential of which must surely be "Mutant Disco And Punk Funk", the 'non-oral history version' of the 'NYC No Wave' chapter of Rip It Up that only appeared in the US edition originally (and incidentally, No Wavers James Chance and Lydia Lunch also get the full interview treatment). Finally, Simon Reynolds himself is interviewed, discussing definitions, inspirations and personal experiences/observations from the era, which is fascinating in its own right. I was particularly taken by his lucid invocation of the levels of boredom experienced by young people in the late '70s, deprived of so much of the music and media stimuli that we take for granted today everytime we log-on, and hence explaining the pivotal role of the music press during that time, which was still very tangible when I started reading the inkies in the mid-80s. Overall you really begin to appreciate the unique circumstances of the period that, as far as I can see, will never be repeated, and which gave birth to such a crucial swell of vibrant music and culture.

Totally Wired will be available from 5th February (pre-order at Amazon). Simon Reynolds will be in the UK to promote the book from 13th February, including a special event at The Roundhouse in Camden at 8pm on Sunday 15th, where he will be in conversation with a few post-punk legends.

In the meantime, keep an eye on Simon's new Totally Wired blog for updates and additional info.