[Album Review] Gift Wrap – Losing Count

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Gift Wrap is the new solo project from Brendon Avalos of the Brooklyn-based punk band, B Boys. While the B Boys sees Avalos drawing influence from the near in-exhaustible canon of punk, Gift Wrap is a love letter to the 1980s-industrial England. “Losing Count” largely taking its inspiration from early Mute Records artists like Fad Gadget and Depeche Mode with a notable nod to the stark industrial futurism of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire.

And while “Losing Count” does manage to replicate these sounds rather successfully, it’s appeal is ultimately limited to those not already initiated into the world of early industrial and experimental synth-pop. Though these “stepping stone” records are appreciated, once the listener explores the source material, there is no need for them. Especially when they rely so heavily on their inspiration, for example, some of the guitar lines here are dead ringers for Bernard Sumner’s playing circa Joy Division/New Order crossover. It’s a style too often replicated.

Despite this, there are some utterly excellent moments, most notably the cover of Egyptian Lover’s ‘I Cry’. Although the idea of a “Cold waved up” Egyptian Lover doesn’t sound immediately appealing, upon hearing it, it is clear that this needs to happen more. It comes at you out of left-field, hitting you square in the face. This shock and amusement is something that needs to be injected into the post-punk revival acts. They fall into taking themselves woefully too seriously, ignoring the humour and transgressive nature of the music they are homaging.

“Losing Count” does do what it intended to in conjuring up images of the fabled murky industrial cities of 1970’s England – albeit with an American accent. However, it’s willingness to replicate rather than innovate unfortunately lets it down.

 

Words: Alex Weston-Noond

[Album Review] Mouse on Mars – Dimensional People

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Mouse on Mars’ Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner return with one of the most welcomed, and surprisingly innovative comeback albums of recent memory. Originally entitled ‘New Konstruktivist Socialism’, ‘Dimensional People’ employs a wide cast of collaborators including Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Zach Condon (Beirut), and Bryce Dessner (The National).

Perhaps ‘New Konstruktivist Socialism’ would be a more fitting title, the album employing spatial composition using object-based mixing technology – playing with the possibilities of sonic design and collective musicianship. Mechanical objects are combined into abstract mobile structural forms.

In an aesthetic move, away from seminal albums like ‘Niun Niggung’ and ‘Idiology’, ‘Dimensional People’ sees Mouse on Mars delve into acoustic and electronic experimentation – reworking ideas and finding new contexts for them. These recurring sounds, memories and ambiences create an otherworldly experience and wholly unique experience. Musical themes are split over multiple tracks (‘Dimensional People pt. 1 – 3’) allowing for a slow progression – a technique clearly inspired by the likes of ambient techno. This is again hinted at on ‘Parliament of Aliens pt. 1 – 3’, tracks interspersing all three parts – the final part being a denouement for the previous.

Locking the groove at 145 BPM, inspired by Chicago footwork, ‘Dimensional People’ is a multi-faceted puzzle – revolving around a singular harmonic spectrum and rhythmic scheme. It’s clear that despite the shift in tone, it is obvious that the dancefloor is not entirely absent. ‘Dimensional People’ offers up a satisfying singular mix of jazz and techno, unlike most contemporary offerings.
Words: Alex Weston-Noond

[Album Review] NSRD – The Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Feelings

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It is difficult to find much reliable information about NSRD, or Nebijušu Sajūtu Restaurēšanas Darbnīca, in English – there’s a short article on Wikipedia and an even shorter press release on their Bandcamp page. Anything else online about them is in forgotten corners of the internet, and in Latvian. However, what can be deciphered suggests that NSRD are one of the great undiscovered groups of the Soviet Union, sitting comfortably next to Kino. Led by poet and artist Juris Boiko and Hardijs Lediņš, a theoretician of architecture, they made truly singular agitpop. Unable to play any instruments themselves, Boiko and Lediņš recruited other musicians from the Latvian underground, along with various other non-musicians they knew, to contribute in whatever way they could to the NSRD ‘mood’.

This lack of musical ability and the dire social climate Latvia experienced during Soviet occupation fed the sense of hypnagogia – that state between wakefulness and sleep – that drifts through the music. This was a result, perhaps, of NSRD’s unconventional approach to making music – they recorded every six months or so in an intense 24-hour session. NSRD’s music exudes something specifically Latvian – a clash between electronic composition and the spiritual, the modern and the traditional, a clash between Soviet constructivist architecture and Latvian countryside.

The Workshop For The Restoration Of Unfelt Feelings is a collection of NSRD’s music covering 1982 to 1989, when Latvia experienced huge political change ending in the dissolution of the USSR and independence from Soviet influence. The music reflects this – a sense of dread hangs over the record. Political exclusion, cultural censorship and an uncertain future rumble under ambling lo-fi dub.

Tracks like ‘Pļava’ are almost a pastiche of Eurovision while ‘Quia Expedit’ is a meditative synth piece musing on an operatic voice repeating the track’s title. There’s a microcosm of popular music contained within the compilation, each track exploring different avenue. The lullaby feel of ‘Karstvīna Recepte / Uz Pirti / Garām Aiziet Vīrs Ar Cigareti’ enforces the idea of dreams, before ‘Kādā Rītā’ inflicts a hypnic jerk.

NSRD were multidisciplinary outfit. They used newly available computer and video technologies during their performances in Riga; their first film Cilvēks Dzīvojamā Vidē (Man In A Living Environment), released in 1986, was a document of Soviet apartment blocks and their effects on the inhabitants, including footage of NSRD members performing outside the apartments. NSRD were also involved in the highly illegal process of samizdat – the distribution of media banned by the state, copying music from different parts of the world and distributing it among their friends.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the group focused on solo projects and lost contact. Many former NSRD members fled to newly reachable west; Lediņš remained in Latvia and continued to make music until his death in 2004.
Words: Alex Weston-Noond

[Album Review] Laraaji – Vision Songs Vol. 1

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In new age and ambient circles, it is, quite rightly, almost impossible to avoid mention of Laraaji, from his solo output to the Brian Eno-commissioned Ambient 3: Day Of Radiance. As such, Vision Songs Vol. 1 is an unusual work. An album of sedative songs fading between each other, it feels more like a notebook than an album with a defining concept.

It is easier to tackle Vision Songs Vol. 1 as if it were a continual chant. Lyrical themes and musical motifs disappear and reappear, and Laraaji uses solely synth, drum machine, zither and minimal percussion throughout.

‘Hare Jaya Jaya Rama’, is a melding of the ‘Hare Krishna Mantra’ with the ‘Govinda Jaya Jaya’, a devotional chant often sung by the Krishna Consciousness movement. ‘Om Tryumbacom’ is a version of the ‘Tryambakam Mantra’, which in turn is a verse of The Rigveda, a collection of Indian Vedic Sanskrit Hymns. It is said to be beneficial for mental, emotional and physical health and indeed a ‘Moshka Mantra’, which is a chant which bestows longevity and immortality. Islam also plays a significant role on the album, most prominently on the track ‘Allah’. Featuring muses like “Allah, my brother. Allah, my universe. Allah, my healer,” it melds together to create tender music, reaffirming a love for life.

Similar themes can be found within the eminent works of Arthur Russell, along with the works of Otis G. Johnson, whose 1978 album, Everything – God is Love employs lo-fi synths and religion as a way of conveying ideas. Although Johnson’s album is largely influenced by gospel and soul rather than Eastern mysticism, upon closer inspection these influences can also be found in Vision Songs Vol. 1, specifically on ‘Who’s In Love?’ and ‘Laws Of Manifestation’. The latter takes a step back towards the Eastern mysticism influence by taking direct inspiration from David Sprangler’s 1975 book, The Laws Of Manifestation: A Consciousness Classic in which the reader is invited to “apply principles of attracting to oneself, through love, whatever materials, energy, or help needed to promote wholeness or further growth.”

These disparate influences, home recording charm and erratic mix of electronics allows Vision Songs Vol.1 to work as proto-hypnagogic pop. The album cover only enforces this, reminiscent of something Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s now defunct project Hype Williams would produce or, similarly, an early Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti cover. Specifically the latter’s tracks ‘Jesus Christ Came to Me in a Dream’ and ‘Girl In A Tree’ feel as if they could seamlessly fit into Vision Songs Vol. 1. The music being more concerned with feeling rather than direct message.
Words: Alex Weston-Noond

[Album Review] Nils Frahm – All Melody

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2011’s Felt was created when, Frahm glued dampening felt to the hammers of his piano, to avoid annoying his neighbours when recording late at night. Whereas Screws was written and recorded when Frahm had a broken thumb – music composed for nine fingers.

Frahm’s new album, All Melody, came into being when he was offered a new studio space in Saal 3, part of the historically East German Funkhaus building. Frahm spent two years stripping the place, and building his “dream” studio. As the press release states, “[Nils’] new album is born out of the freedom that his new environment provided, allowing Nils to explore without any restrictions and to keep it All about the Melody.”

The term “All about the Melody”, is obviously cringe inducing, but it does raise a good point – Frahm is obsessed with melody on this album.

Although it may seem paradoxical to criticise and album for being too melodious, Frahm takes it almost to the point of parody. He repeatedly returns to laborious piano “moods” (tracks like ‘Forever Changeless’ and ‘Fundamental Values’) and innocuous choral musings. These moments of supposed clarity end up getting lost in the album’s continually shifting atmosphere.

While Frahm’s previous records like Felt and Solo were indebted to Erik Satie’s furniture music in their repetitive nature and use as cerebral backdrop, All Melody embarks on a largely new direction for Frahm. Post-techno-cum Tangerine Dream, it unfortunately ends up resembling a mid-2000s car advert. Which is maybe what Frahm, like Moby before him, is aiming for with some tracks – marketability.

There are points of enjoyment scattered throughout the record. It is produced excellently and this is clearly the result of Frahm’s intense work into his new studio. And, All Melody is incredibly easy to lose yourself in. At around an hour and ten minutes, it’s an expansive work which encourages close listening, especially on its closing track, “Harm Hymn”, a meditative piece constructed of chords played on a harmonium. This is the best track on the album – harkening back to tracks like ’Plenty Harmonium’ on Aphex Twin’s Druqks – the employing of organic instrumentation, to such a large extent, by electronic artists.

It’s frustrating hearing these moments of excellence scattered throughout Frahm’s discography, never piecing themselves together for a fleshed-out project. The only consolidation being that Frahm’s might get it right on his next release.

 

Words: Alex Weston-Noond

[Album Review] Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto – Glass

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Both Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai) and Ryuichi Sakamoto seem to be on a trajectory of increasing success. From a sound track for the Golden Globe and Academy Award winning The Revenant to their recent critically acclaimed works, both solo and in collaboration, the two are showing no desire to stop anytime soon.

The duo released five albums and an EP over fifteen years of collaboration – until Sakamoto was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in 2015.  He returned to music after a year-long hiatus for recovery and performed live alongside Noto in Phillip Johnson’s Glass House, utilising the building not only as an instrument but as an extension of the icy notions the pair had hinted at on The Revenant.

The recording of this performance entitled Glass, forms a crucial element in the understanding of Sakamoto’s current musical trajectory. After recovering from cancer, he faced his 42nd year as an acting musician. On 2017’s Async, we saw how Sakamoto’s illness had affected him. With a now quiet and soft voice, Async was a reflection on morality producing one of the mot well received ambient works of the year.

Glass works not only as a stepping stone between Noto and Sakamoto’s future works, but also as a sister work to Async, prototyping many themes and ideas found on it. Drawing inspiration from the sound sculptures of Harry Bertoia, Noto and Sakamoto take an impressionistic delve into close listening. Dreamlike to its core sounds are amplified to their breaking point leaving them unrecognisable. Musing on themes of existentialism, Sakamoto utilises the Glass House to its full extent, scraping rubber mallets across it’s mic’d up glass walls, producing a dread-inducing wail through digital processing.

Glass is a calculated exercise in making music that is refrained. After years decades of producing some of the most important synth-pop in history, it is interesting seeing Sakamoto return to his experimental roots. From his continual contributions to modern music, it seems unjust that Sakamoto is still as unrecognised as he is in the West’s mainstream.

(You can watch the performance here: http://theglasshouse.org/media/alva-noto-and-ryuichi-sakamoto/)

 

Words: Alex Weston-Noond

[Album Review] East Man – Red, White & Zero

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East Man is the new project from Anthony Hart. His most recognised work prior to this, under the name Basic Rhythm, decimated jungle, grime and garage, distilling them into a new, fundamentally wonky sound.

While Basic Rhythm’s production on albums like, Raw Trax and The Basics, showed a restrained inclination of grime-styled production, Red, White & Zero sees Hart produce without inhibition. The beats are rudely physical, Hart dropping any musical counterparts he deems unnecessary leaving behind bass and drums. The music jerks and contorts – with notable space between each hit of a drum or blast of bass. Gracing this style with the name ‘Hi Tek’, Hart brings in further influence from dance hall, dub, drum n bass and techno – something he explored under the pseudonym Imaginary Forces.

This unique take on grime production cannot be overstated, being directly inspired by talks Hart struck up with theorist and academic Paul Gilroy, author of Their Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack. Hart himself had begun research into “representations of working class and mixed-race families.” The East Man album had a connection and soon Gilroy was asked to write an accompanying essay.

‘This is not zones 1 & 2 where houses and flats are capital rather than buildings to live in,’ states Gilroy, feeding into the theme of ‘outside-ness’ in the album, philosophically and physically. Red, White & Zero catalogues and gives voice to London’s marginalised youth, investigating its relationship with mixed, working class families.

The multiple MCs featured here aren’t from zones 1 & 2. Much like the rest of London’s marginalised population, they come from forgotten, or purgatory end-of-the-line tube stops.  This is an empowering characteristic for all of them, resulting in some of the most playful, yet damming and self-reflective lyricism in grime’s history. While we do have the laddy-fun of jokes about football manager Alan Pardew, (“I parred you like Alan.”) on ‘MMM’, we also have threats posed by Killa P like, “Late night massacre, kill a man when I’m out on a mission” on, ‘Mission’.

Interspersing these tracks, we get Burial-like abstractions; most prominently seen on ‘Drapesing’, where we hear the story of a failed mugging (or as the voices we hear make clear, “Official terms is ‘mugging’, slang terms is ‘drapesing’”) played out over the top of spectral synths and the jangle of key-rings.

The album closes with the massive ‘And What (Blood Klaat Version)’ calling back to, in both sound and name, Basic Rhythm’s ‘Blood Klaat Kore’. “Blood Klaat” is a vulgarity in Jamaican patois, referring to the cloth used to absorb menstrual blood, and it has become a catch-all swear word. This harshness of both sound and title is a mission statement; exposing the spread of patois to London youths, both black and white.

As Gilroy says, “We are always more than either this or that. We are more than either black or white.”
Words: Alex Weston-Noond

Taylor Swift Puts Her Reputation At Risk With Expensive Tickets

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Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation was released on the 10 November 2017 much to the delight of her avid fan base. It went to number one in its first week, selling 1.2 million copies, slightly less than her last album 1989 which sold 1.3 million copies. Although, it’s not yet available on Spotify or any other streaming sites, it seems to have not done too badly. Could it have sold more if it were available to stream?   We’ll never know.

She made an announcement last week that she will be doing a stadium tour for her album Reputation, the tickets go on sale on Friday 1 December at nine am. She’ll be playing in June next year for the UK leg, only three dates have been announced so far with fans showing their displeasure at the apparent prices.

According to one fan on twitter she was asked to pay £635, and that was just for one ticket, “your tickets are more than my car payment each month! #toopoorfortaylor”, says another fan. The system that she set up for her fans to get the tickets was a complicated maze of: following social media sites, buying multiple copies of her albums, buying her merchandise. And that didn’t even guarantee that you would get a pre-sale code for the tickets, even once you’ve gone through all that.

It seems to be a way to try to combat the ever growing issue of ticket scalpers, yet it has just come across as a money grabbing scheme. Compared recent artists selling tickets: Ed Sheeran for £50, Foo Fighters for £55, Swift has very much outdone all of them. Although, her fans appear to be disgruntled at the prices, it is most likely that she will not have any problem selling out the venues. Though only time will tell.

Words: Emily Bowles