21 January 2001
Two compositions of stunning beauty, on Robin Rimbaud's Sulphur Records label.
The first is the debut release for David Abir. The piece runs just over 20 minutes, and builds slowly, introducing at first cello (performed by Kirsten McCord), then a sort of wordless gentle vocal (by Rebecca Chamberlain) into the mix of what is probably composed of synths, strings and harpsichord sound sources. A rich, subtle and smooth-flowing cadence cradles the listener into a warm and comfortable zone; a landscape of quiet beauty, gentle colours and the sunlight dancing in the trees. I sincerely hope to hear more from David Abir, whose work is already so accomplished, promising great things to come.
The second piece is by Ashley Wales of Spring Heel Jack fame (he has collaborated with Thurston Moore and with the seminal indie group 5 or 6, among others). A shorter piece (just under 15 minutes), "Landscape" continues with the overall theme of tranquility and quietude already established by Abir. I found it strange to learn that this piece is composed of just two sound sources. (I can't be sure what they are, but maybe organ and strings?) Deep intonations, light steps, and ambient textures lend themselves to a gentle and slow rhythm.
Two wonderful pieces to captivate your attention and stimulate your imagination. [Richard di Santo]
This disc marks the debut for the Canadian based label :celo recordings, and offers seven improvised miniatures for guitar and percussion. With a total runtime of just over 17 minutes, the tracks were recorded live, direct to DAT with no effects or overdubs. Jeffrey Allport (percussion) and Tim Olive (guitar), both of whom are experienced improvisers with a wealth of collaborations and projects under their belts, create seven compelling sound environments full of subtle shifts and shuffles. The mood is sparse, the sounds are quiet and gentle, never abrasive or shocking, but always quietly shuffling here and there, as if the instruments themselves were trying to find a comfortable spot in which to repose. Then there is the ever present hiss from the microphones, which seems to intensify with each track (and admittedly I wondered if this was deliberate, or just the product of distinct recording techniques or a particular emphasis in the microphone's sensitivity). The disc ends rather abruptly, in mid stream, leaving me with a sense that this is perhaps a work in process (what is improvisation, otherwise?), unpolished, unfinished, and, more importantly, to be continued (?). Intriguing, and recommended for those who enjoy looking beneath the surfaces of unfinished yet strangely appealing objects. Limited to 200, packaged in a handsome sleeve. [Richard di Santo]
This collaboration came as a complete surprise to me. Hector Zazou has astonished me with every new release, commanding my growing admiration and amazement. His music is filled with subtlety, emotion, and delicate touches, and I count his records among my most treasured. In recent years, Zazou has been exploring his more neo-classical leanings, composing and arranging music full of delicate touches, elegant arrangements and sensitive emotions (see his explorations of Irish sacred song on Lights in the Dark on the Erato label, or his album with the Tibetan songstress Yungchen Lhamo on Coming Home for the most immediate examples). But if any artist should be known for his protean nature, versatility and a defiance of convention, Hector Zazou is definitely one of the greatest contenders.
Sandy Dillon, for her part, is one of the most bizarre and demanding musical personalities I have ever heard. Part Captain Beefheart, part Tom Waits, part demon, and part spectre from another world, her rough and abrasive voice, her shrieks and shrills, charge at you in full force and steal the carpet from under your feet. Her lyrics offer no saving grace, since they are just as bizarre, surreal and abstract as her vocalisations.
One of Zazou's particular talents has been his ability to match his arrangements with the tone and personality of his collaborators, but especially so with those of his vocalists. (Take, for example, the track "Annuka Suaren Neito" from Chansons des mers froides, where Zazou provides an organic rhythm that perfectly corresponds with the tone of Värttina's rapid vocal rap; or in "She's Like a Swallow" from the same album, where the tones from an electronic piano match up and synchronise with Jane Sibbery's moving finale.) Las Vegas Is Cursed is no exception to the rule. Zazou has produced an arranged this album to perfection; his music perfectly matches Dillon's uncompromising personality. The music is rough, abrasive and aggressive, full of sudden shifts and hard textures, yet still carries Zazou's distinctive mark in its wealth of detail and elaborate sonic structures.
This unlikely duo is joined by some of Zazou's regular collaborators (Renault Pion on woodwinds, Christian Lechevretel on trumpets and trombones), and also features contributions from Marc Ribot, Lisa Germano, Lone Kent and Porl Thompson among others. Lorenzo Tommasini and Peter Walsh share responsibilities on the mixing board. Walsh is probably best known for producing the more recent Scott Walker releases, but he had also collaborated previously with Zazou in 1997 on Made on Earth (with Barbara Gogan).
Las Vegas Is Cursed is unlike anything I've ever heard; challenging and difficult, it goes far beyond my expectations and preconceptions; it pushes my limits, my perception and my tolerance; it is like a maelstrom that devours any ship in its path. One of the most adventurous albums I've heard in a long while, this is essential listening for those "without fear of wind or vertigo". [Richard di Santo]
Music inspired by children's toys? At least, this is what the first few tracks imply. Bizarre, chaotic arrangements, bustling with activity, incessantly cut up, processed, chewed and spit out by a vast editing machine. Sometimes, a combination of sounds somewhat resembling a rhythm bubbles into the framework, but this rarely amounts to more than a glimpse, a suggestion. There are no notes to help me with an interpretation. I'm alone with this disc. Just me and the sound. What more can I make of it, and why do I feel so helpless with this music? The interpretation of sound and articulating my impressions of music are the very reasons I write reviews for this webzine, so what's the problem? The truth is, at first I found this disc to be largely unapproachable, as if I couldn't get a handle on it. It throws you around from side to side through its violent cut-ups and spontaneous shifts, and it never offers you a place to rest, if even for a moment, on solid ground. Granted, there is a handful of tracks (between 8-12) where things settle down somewhat, where the composition is more consistent, less spontaneous. Listening to it again over the past two weeks, I've begun to notice things hidden within these seemingly chaotic arrangements. Suddenly, this music seems more approachable than I had first imagined. It turns out that there ARE underlying structures, however complex and unconventional, created by a wealth of electronic sound sources and samples, that really turn out to be quite attention-grabbing, so long as you don't mind being bounced around an ever shifting sonic territory. Listening, you'll never be comfortable, you'll never be able to anticipate the next shift, but if you're paying attention, you'll find that the experience can be quite rewarding. Check it out if you're beginning to feel too complacent about the stability of your daily rhythms and the force of your everyday habits. [Cristobal Q]
Jack's back. But in a small way. This new limited-to-1000 EP on his own Tino label is his first release in over two years (his last being the full-length Actual Sounds + Voices). Here we have four big-beat tracks, in true and undeniable Meat Beat fashion. The beats are there, the breaks are there, the bass is there, and the samples are there too.
All four tracks are pretty simple in their setup and execution: lay down a groovy bass line, slap some big-ass beats over top, and fill in with lots of interesting sounds. Prime audio soup indeed. Don't get me wrong, the tracks are very big and brash, and nobody knows a good beat like Jack does, but still this release had me hoping for more. After two years, I thought his sound might have developed a little bit more. He is favouring a particularly "live" sound to his mix these days, but he did that on Actual Sounds as well.
Also included in this limited release is a 9" flexi-disc entitled Sounds Of The 20th Century no1, and here we find a lot of the Meat Beat humour and eccentricity coming out to play. Two short but memorable tracks here, the first, "Peristaltic Wave" takes us inside the bowels of some poor soul, all in the name of scientific research. The second side, "My Shorty" is a great track, full of radio static, shortwave de-tuning, ambient meanderings and other manipulative measures. Definitely the most interesting piece included in this release, and the most eccentric as well.
I would have preferred more eccentricity overall (especially given the title of this release), but perhaps I will be treated to that on a new full-length disc some time in the near future. [Vils M DiSanto]
Three mysterious compositions by Kurt Ralske, best known for his work as Ultra Vivid Scene and more recently as Cathars. The disc also contains a video for the title track "amor.0+01". The video is an eerie ensemble of grayscale digital images, darkened, blurred and pixellated, set against the unusual cadence of Ralske's music. Abstract frequencies pulse and mesmerise the listener, further lulled by the rhythm of visual images. (NB: I'm assuming the video will play on both Mac and Windows platforms; it plays fine on my Mac.) The second piece has a similar eerie feel to it, cold and isolated, suggesting the solitude and despair in the digital age. The third and final piece offers another sparse atmosphere, but this time there's more drift than pulse, more cloud and sky than concrete or computer networks. Stunning and contemplative, it is also the longest piece on the disc clocking in at a full 30 minutes. Ralske seems to be a master of the pulse; frequencies, muted beats, atmospheres and tones all move in calm, human rhythms - the pace of a heartbeat, or the pulse on your neck. This description is further supported by the liner notes, which consist of a passage quoted from James Gleick. The notes speak of linear versus non-linear systems, and conclude with a statement describing how biological systems use their non-linearity as a defence against noise: "The transfer of energy by proteins, the wave motions of the heart's electricity, the nervous system - all these kept their versatility in a noisy world". Haunting and beautiful, this music transforms your living space into a dark, dreamlike place, and isolates you from the noise of the world. Sit back, relax, and let this one carry you away for a short while.
Improvisation pioneer Keith Rowe presents what is only his second solo recording (after A Dimension of Perfectly Ordinary Reality in 1990). This is an amazing fact considering Rowe has been experimenting with electroacoustic music and (especially) guitar preparations for over 35 years. His influence on the state of improvised music (via his work with AMM, etc.) is undeniable (to site his protégés would be too arduous a task, I'm afraid), so it's great to see a new solo work by such an austere figure in the history of improvised music.
Harsh, Guitar Solo is, as its title implies, a series of explorations of harsh tonal soundscapes for prepared solo guitar. Accompanying the disc is a series of comic strip style illustrations by Rowe depicting various guitar preparations, and accompanying the illustrations is a series of question/answer style notes, in which Rowe explains a little about the drawings, their relation to his work and his general expectations of the project. I'd like to quote from these notes at length, since they summarise perfectly the ambitions of the work:
These last two words ring in my ears as I read them. There are three pieces on this disc, each marking an increase in harshness: "Quite" (1), "Very" (2) and "Extremely" (3). At first I wasn't sure whether this was accurate, since the second track seemed to me more harsh than the third. But Rowe's words above describe perfectly this work, so full of "unforgiving sound", pushing the listener's tolerance and expectations. Rich and diverse tones, rough grinding textures, scrapings, the distant sounds of radio voices. These are the sounds that constitute Harsh, made through Rowe's intense and unrelenting preparations for guitar (he uses radios, found objects, fans, electric motors, etc.). Dense and difficult, this record causes both my discomfort and my fascination. Music for the masochist? Hardly, but these sounds will definitely challenge your tolerance as it reflects and concentrates the world's harshness in its sounds. For me this record also raises questions about representation and meaning in sound. Is not all sound a form of rhetoric? If tranquil sounds make us forget about the "harshness" of life and of the world, what do harsh sounds suggest to us? Do they accentuate the negative and make us forget the positive? Are we any better off because of it, or is this representation of reality any more true? Important questions indeed, but this is all to digress from the issue at hand. Keith Rowe has created a harsh and difficult sound world that raises more questions than it answers, challenges you at every turn, and rewards the patient, thoughtful and constructive listener with a wealth of new ideas about sound and its role in the world. [Richard di Santo]
Based in Sweden, Mikael Stavöstrand has been experimenting with sound and electronics for some years. It only seems natural that he has drawn his attention to the arena of minimal electronic music (see his 1999 Degeneration CD on Staalplaat). The press release was sure to warn me that, even given some basic similarities between Stavöstrand's music and more conventional microwave, clicks+cuts, or whatever you choose to call it music there are some significant differences. But I'm not one to take these press releases to heart (marketing = rhetoric = persuasion = lies), so I thought I'd just better stop reading and start listening.
The first thing that strikes me about this music, right from the first track, is that some of the "clicks" don't sound electronically generated at all, but sound like a physical object (scissors, perhaps?). As soon as I hear that sound I think: wouldn't it be wonderful if we started making records of minimal electronics without electronics at all, but instead used household objects in imitation of these clicks, crackles and tones? Amazingly enough, this album by Stavöstrand seems to be a first step in this direction. Throughout the eleven tracks on this disc, what strikes me most is how some sounds just come out at you, as if they're not a real part of the soundscape issuing from your hi-fi set, but are vying for a spot outside of their confines. My instincts tell me these are not electronic sounds, but are rather sounds of household objects recorded with a contact mic (but maybe not - maybe I've deluded myself in thinking these sounds are other than that which they are?). Perhaps this description is misleading; let me clarify that this IS electronic music: yes, there are some sounds which seem "authentic", or, at least, not electronically generated, but they are placed within a context that is otherwise completely binary. When they appear, rhythms are commanding but minimal (as in micro-house), and yet are accompanied by a baroque arrangement of crackles which compliments the rhythms but also makes them more complex. Some very fine arrangements indeed. Rich tones and textures also appear, warm and yet submerged (tracks 3 and 8 reminded me in places of Vladislav Delay for this very quality), and here the submerged sounds conflict with the surface (or airborne) sounds in the foreground. A wonderful record, with a solid "rmx" in the middle (what is it a "rmx" of, I wonder?). It amazes me that the closer you get to this music, the higher the playback volume, the more details you find hidden therein. A cacophony of little sounds, crackles and pops, is the underlying foundation for these tracks. With such a wealth of sound and detail, this disc is sure to keep the keen listener busy for hours. And this is what's brilliant about this record: it keeps you guessing. Fantastic stuff, and a very fine album that should not be missed.
This is the inaugural release for Mitek, a new label run by Mikael Stavöstrand committed to producing, releasing and promoting new Scandinavian artists within the field of experimental electronica. Look for this name in the future, and let's hope that the label's distribution improves with time (potential distributors take note!) As of now it has only 3 distributors external to itself: Digital Narcis in Japan <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Sans Serif in Australia <email@example.com> and Nursery in Sweden <nursery.a.se>. [Cristobal Q]
This is the debut release for Uli Troyer, a Vienna-based sound artist who spends his time creating "soundtracks for imaginary cartoons using digital errors, combining them with organic sounds and rhythms of the kitchen", or so says the press release. But the description really is fitting. The sounds on this 18 minute disc are full of quirky, almost cartoonish personality and buoyancy, giving this music an admirable boost beyond the "microwave" clichés of sterile clicks and cuts. Listening to the disc's introduction is like watching particles at play: delicate and high pitched crackles and whistles, a brief and sudden bass tone, and then a bubbling and compelling rhythm develops. The tracks fold into one another, the rhythms are always developing or branching off into their own clusters. Troyer uses a very healthy and diverse sound palette which provides the listener with ample opportunities and sonic spaces for exploration. Sometimes quirky, sometimes more abrasive, but always fascinating, NOK makes for another very fine release from Mego, and comes highly recommended. Packaged in a cute 3 inch jewel case. [Richard di Santo]
Johan Hedin is a virtuoso on the nyckelharpa, a traditional Scandinavian fiddle. Angel Archipelago, released in 1998 on the Swedish Atrium label, collects twelve original compositions by Johan Hedin of stunning beauty and calm. Hedin is joined by a host of talented instrumentalists on this album, including Frode Fjellheim (from Transjoik), Jonas Knutsson (on sax), Ale Möller (flute and lute), Backa Hans Eriksson (bass), Maria Kalaniemi (accordion) and others too numerous to mention (on percussion, viola, cello, etc.). The music communicates both a compositional maturity and an excellence in production and recording techniques (the album was produced by Atrium frontman Manne von Ahn Öberg. The accomplished vocalist Lena Willemark (see her work with Ale Möller on the ECM label) lends her haunting voice to one track here, the beautiful "stenen" ("the stone"). Otherwise, the the tracks are mostly instrumentals, only two of which are for solo nyckelharpa. The musical themes suggested medieval and renaissance traditions to my ear, but I'm sure these compositions are also steeped in Scandinavian tradition as well. One of the finest pieces on this album is the title track "angel archipelago", which introduces, with the help of Ale Möller's mesmerising performance on lute, a classical Spanish theme. A darker, more threatening atmosphere, thanks to Jonas Sjöblom's dark percussion and Frode Fjellheim's vocals and electronics, officially concludes the album with uncharacteristic force and drama. However, there's a hidden track in the framework, which is an adventurous composition for nyckelharpa, electric viola and bass. This is music that looks both forward and back to musical traditions new and old, from all corners. Hedin is passionate about his instrument, as is most evident in these arrangements, but also from his liner notes, a quiet prayer of appreciation:
In Angel Archipelago Johan Hedin has created a most notable homage to his versatile instrument. This is music for quiet winter days, when the stillness of things inspires us to contemplate the beauty of the world in stasis. [Richard di Santo]
Five compositions by the electroacoustics wizard Randall Smith, composed and recorded between 1988-1994. As with Sondes (also on empreintes DIGITALes), a follow-up collection of Smith's works from 1995-1999, this record is teeming with activity and intensity. It's title, L'oreille voit, translates as "the ear sees", and as such these compositions can largely be seen as attempts to visualise sound - to create sound sculptures which present themselves visibly to the senses. True enough, Smith's palette contains many tangible sounds (or "sound objects" as he calls them) that are quite concrete and seem to manifest themselves physically. The first composition, "La volière" (the aviary), investigates the theme of flight and the gestures of birds. As Smith explains in the liner notes, "their movements of flight are retraced according to the dictates of a machine universe, which aligns them into orders of understanding, geometries of the visible". This composition, and the rest that follow it, are remarkable for their wealth of detail. A stunning world of sound and visibility where our senses are sharpened and our experiences of microscopic and "minor" events are intensified. Academic compositions are matched by more reactionary ones: "Ruptures", realised in 1991, documents Smith's angst regarding "worldwide unrest and instability" given a sudden influx of rapid social and political change in the world (i.e., the end of the cold war, etc.). The disc concludes with "The Face of the Waters", which is also it's earliest composition. Realised in 1988, it takes a close look at the sounds of water in a whole range of situations (a babbling brook, crashing waves, etc.). Arranged in four movements which build gradually in intensity, this piece is remarkable for how it transforms and amplifies these sounds, arranged on an unconventional and multifarious canvas. Randall Smith's work is an electroacoustic wonder. [Richard di Santo]
The Incursion Music Review was published and edited by Richard di Santo from 2000 to 2004. All 75 issues can be accessed in the archive. Please note that we are no longer accepting submissions or promotional material for review.
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