Manafonistas

on music beyond mainstream

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2014 26 Nov

In Paris …

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… smoking kills. Maybe not as efficiently as a nuclear bomb, but easier on the wallet and a lot more fun. Only 7 Euro a packet from the local Tabac. Notice how the Marlboro name is now a ghost on the front of the box – it’s embossed there, but no black typeface. In the UK, the box says “SMOKING SERIOUSLY [line break] DAMAGES HEALTH”. Well, sorry UK government, but I have never smoked “seriously”. I smoke unseriously, with a smile. In fact some days I don’t smoke at all. But “Fumer tue” somehow sounds more threatening. Maybe I’ll stop. For a few hours, anyway.

 
 
 

fumer

 
 
 

In the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris this afternoon it’s not Marlboro that kills me, but a painting by Miklós Bokor. I noted the title mentally as “The Impossibility of Existence” but am now unable to find it on Google. I spent a full ten minutes staring at it. (The painting in the Musée, that is, not Google.). It interests me how an abstract work can have such an emotional effect when you know nothing about its story. Paris’s Musée d’Art is of course known for being home to Raoul Dufy’s La Fée Électricité, which is colossal in scale, but it was Bokor that kicked a hole in the cosmos for me today.

 
 
 
 

 
 

The Lowry gallery in Salford is part of a gleaming waterfront development that also houses what is probably the biggest agglomeration of media offices outside of London. From some angles you’d think you were in MedienHafen Düsseldorf or the London Docklands. Old Trafford is not far off though – whose big red Manchester United sign glowing in the northern dusk is a reminder that the waterfront here isn’t built on the banks of the Rhine or the Thames, but the Manchester Ship Canal.

Maybe it’s the contrast between this brave new high rise city-within-a-city and the content of Lowry’s art, but when you see this artist’s work in this location it would be difficult not to react emotionally to it. When I was there earlier today, one work in particular had me transfixed. A simple pencil sketch of an industrial landscape. (You can view it here. But it doesn’t translate to digital that well.) In the centre left of the picture are two cooling towers, and behind them, two chimneys – one vertiginously tall, the other not so tall. But the emissions from the cooling towers have blocked out the visibility of the middle section of both chimneys. So you’re left with the upper third of these structures looking like they float a couple of hundred feet in the  smudged grey air. The chimney to the right looks as if it’s wearing a stovepipe hat – like Isambard Kingdom Brunel used to wear. Like a captain of industry recast as smoke-spewing automaton. LS Lowry is, of course, known principally for his artworks having loads of people in them. This one is more like dispersal zone – everyone’s inside the industrial infrastructure, working themselves (probably literally) to death. So maybe when you view this work in the context of LS Lowry’s oeuvre as a whole, you anthropomorphise them chimneys. If you really study the picture, though, there are two discernible human figures in there – but they are ghostlike and faded, an almost cynical presence – but it’s your guess as to where the cynicism comes from, or whose it is. The sketch is a work of complete fucking genius. Just wow. Wow. Coincidentally, I’d been looking at some Piranesi etchings on the internet just yesterday – and I’m no art critic (as the above proves) but I see something in them that’s similar. Piranesi shows the mathematical workings, Lowry examines their effect on the 20th Century English soul. You cannot come away from either Piranesi or Lowry without feeling that art is – above all – loads of great fun.

Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave is the new album by The Twilight Sad. When I put the CD into the CD player, for a few seconds it sounded like the amp was fucked. I actually had to remove the thing and put it into another CD player just to check. There aren’t many records that make you assume your audio equipment’s fucked – and it’s always a good sign. It means that the recording’s been properly thought out, an optical illusion for the ears. Trompe l’oreille?

Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave is housed in artwork that isn’t dissimilar to the band’s previous recordings.Images that ask questions, showing narratives occluded by the snap of an imaginary camera shutter. Moments lost in time.  On this one it’s pictures that have the feel of comic strip frames, frames that depict moments on the periphery of heavy events. In one disturbing image, a figure falls backwards arms spanned, in a park. Not the bloody cross on top of Calvary or a dream home heartache in Malibu: some ordinary small town in some hinterland. Emotional impalement in a colourless everyday setting.

Musically speaking this – to my ears at least – is a heavy deal. The vocal treatments are astounding – it’s like listening to the regrets of someone that has recently died, in a swirl of tonality that manages to place the voice in a location where it never sounds like complaint. Grunge this ain’t.  And each successive listen reveals more. What we have here is a parallel universe – an audibly Scottish one. But it’s got no tang of Edinburgh Castle or Buchanan Street. It’s its own thing. Dark, half-rural, universal, monochrome, desperate, controlled, anguished – but invigorating and very alive. Like Lowry’s graphite industrial nano-cosmos or Piranesi’s metal mathematical ultraworld, this record is a black and white winner.
 
 
 

 

SYRO’s packaging (see picture below) is amusing. It looks like a lengthy supermarket receipt, and breaks down the retail price of the release into very small bits. Apparently, my 12 quid (or whatever it was, maybe a tenner) included these contributions towards the following:

£0.08256 for the disc itself
£0.00133 for journalist travel expenses between Paris and London
£1.0989 for royalty to Richard 50%

Among the 200+ things listed in the itemization, none of them appears to be a joke. But there is a sense of play here. Are we meant to guess the price of a Eurostar ticket from Gare du Nord to St Pancras, add in the expensive breakfasts served on the train, plus maybe a taxi fare from King’s Cross to the location of an interview? And then divide this by £0.00133 to arrive at the magical number of the initial print run? I know I won’t – but hey, that’s just me.

The record itself is immune to reviews. Words just seem to bounce off it. Some have valiantly given it a shot, though, and here are a few of my favourite bits from reviews:

 

Addictive surround-sound electro-funk
(Adam Workman, The National, United Arab Emirates)

 

The physical act of reviewing Aphex Twin has often been the sonic equivalent of describing a hitherto-undiscovered chemical element
(The National, UAE)

 

Almost plays like a greatest hits set
(Mike Diver, Clash magazine)
(Note: I like this quote as I have no idea – none! – what that actually means,
which is a good thing, I reckon!)

 

… imagine the world of music as a Gotham-like city with all its players and fakers, but now, here, instead of the Batman logo projected above the rooftops we have RDJ’s grinning face. A not exactly benign presence
(Amazon UK reviewer)

 

I love records that are impossible to describe, because it tests your abilities of description to the limit. It also means you have to dispense with trusty old standbys like comparison to another artist. Either you get it or you don’t. If you do, you can’t say quite why you do. And if you don’t you’re like “there’s nothing to get”.

This is how I would review SYRO.

On first listen it sounded dense. By the tenth listen (out of about 15 or 16 listens so far) it was making less sense every time I heard it. Compositions seem to start about a third of the way through. Old music making equipment sounds seem to have been recorded using old recording equipment, then had some (not all) of the dust wiped off with newer technology, so it sounds both retro and now at the same time, and neither. So far, so fucking weird.

Dense as in layered and detailed. Not dense as in inaccessible. I’m fairly sure four of the tracks are actually two versions of two tracks each. Maybe, maybe not.

A really, truly, great and amazing work is SYRO. Maybe in around ten years or so I will have a proper review ready. For now, this is a journey into synaesthesic sound, short-span time travel and strange corridor dreams that you don’t remember the next morning but instead form a generalised part of consciousness. And if that sounds pseudy, just wait for my review of the next one.
 
 
 

 

2014 20 Sep

2014

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Sorry Charcoal Owls, SYRO just first place.
 

2014 14 Sep

Robert Wyatt and me

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I’ve never bought a record on the strength of a press review, apart from a Kashif album that was so comprehensively slated by the NME that I thought “I have to buy this!”. So I bought the Kashif album, and it was totally great.

Any time music comes to me it’s through the ether. All of my biggest finds have been purely accidental. Switching on Radio Scotland one night and hearing Tinseltown In The Rain, and being transfixed. Managed to tape some of it but the DJ didn’t say what had just been played. It was only months later, in a record store, that I heard the record being played and was able to ask who the artist was.

All of the music I loved as a kid, I still love now. No idea where this loyalty comes from – but I can’t think of one single piece of music I have ever fallen out of love with after falling in love with it.

An example of this is Robert Wyatt’s “At Last I Am Free”. John Peel played it, I would have been 14 years old. I didn’t know it was a cover version – and an unlikely one at that. (Although I could now imagine Wyatt doing justice to a Kashif composition. Lol.) It was the bleakness of the rendition that got me. You could smell cold, mossy air off it, and yet, and yet, it sounded like weary catharsis. It sounded like things my 14 year old’s vocabulary had no words to describe.

The register Wyatt sings that song in, and the vocal timbre. Just wow. So I bought the vinyl LP out of the Virgin Megastore on Princes Street a few Saturdays later. I loved its uncompromising socialist stance, despite being then – as I remain now – apolitical. The record was a thing of beauty – its sleeve depicting a Rolls Royce bonnet with the mascot a production line worker. Such a great piece of art – the title Nothing Can Stop Us plus the Rolls Royce equals a great socialist pun. It also had a lyric sheet, which in those days was a sign of generosity, and something else to hold the attention.

But beyond the Chic song, it’s not an album I ever really got into – its experimentalism, artwork and sentiment are all great – it just didn’t press all of my buttons. The Wyatt album that did that is Rock Bottom. My copy of it has fascinating liner notes about the record’s production, and a picture of Alfreda Benge and Robert Wyatt that I think is great. Look at the expression on Benge’s face. That is the look of love, and no mistake.
 
 
 

 
 
 
On Sea Song, Wyatt’s voice is used as an instrument, counterpointing the synth lines – shoals of vowels shimmer past, and it draws you right in. Glaswegian humourist Ivor Cutler makes an appearance on the closing track. And in between you get everything from trumpets that have (to my mind) a tang of Spanish Civil War anarcho-syndicalism (or maybe that’s just me?) to otherworldly tropical fish jazz, and the wonderful wordplay in the song titles, like Alifib and Alife. Both are diminutives of Alfreda, of course. But Alifib, when you break it down, ‘fib’ is vernacular for a lie. And Alife is both ‘alive’ and ‘ a life’. The inference that I draw from this is that the two songs are about a kind of Doppler effect that love places on life. So, the ‘before’ is a fib, but then he finds love and it becomes ‘Alife’ – a qualitative difference. Or I may just be talking shit. Either way, I have my Kashif album, My Robert Wyatt albums – and some great Nile Rodgers productions in my collection too.
 
 
 

 

2014 20 Aug

On fandom, lists and SYRO

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On fandom. No, I’m not a fan (as such) of Aphex Twin. I’ve known and know people who are acquainted with celebrities as diverse (and sometimes remote) as Banksy (no, really) Benny from Abba (yep) Brian Eno (wow) and Boards of Canada (och aye). Oddly all those start with the letter B but that’s entirely coincimental. But anyway: I’ve never run into anyone, ever, who knows or has even met Aphex Twin. To me, being a fan means taking someone’s work at too high a level. Investing it with too much, like it’s sacramental. Probably easier to do if the artist is as elusive as Aphex Twin. But nah, still not a fan. Or rather, not a fan as such. I couldn’t give a fuck what the guy’s views on politics are, where he buys his insurance, or whether he shops at Aldi or Waitrose.

On lists. Lists are useful. They don’t seek to justify a career, or join the dots. They provide a useful set of reference points. Like this list below. You’ll see it doesn’t venture into the Rephlex releases. It’s just what I listen to most by the artist.
 
1. Xtal
2. Mookid
3. To Cure A Weakling Child
4. Btoum-Roumada
5. Mt Saint Michel + Saint Michael’s Mount
6. If It Really Is Me
7. On (mu-ZIQ mix)
8. Donkey Rhubarb
9. Flim
10. Bucephalus Bouncing Ball
11.Tamphex – Headphuq mix
12. #20 [this was, I think, untitled. It’s the 20th track on Ambient Works Volume 2]
13. Windowlicker
14. I
 
On SYRO. If it’s all great – job done. If everyone hates it – job done. Either way, I’m all ears. But if it’s all been a hoax? Well …
 
 
 

 

According to the record label’s website, Dalhous’ Will to be Well reflects the artist’s ‘continued interest in the life and arcana of R.D. Laing, but also alludes to more universal and enduring mysteries: the relationships between body and mind, illness and wellness, the physical and the metaphysical’.

If you’ve ever spent any time in an Edinburgh second-hand book shop (there are loads of them, and you can get lost for hours in these places, time itself stops in them, sometimes) then you’ve probably picked up and had a quick leaf through one of Laing’s books in Penguin paperback, its edges oxidised as if dipped in nicotine, an almost chocolatey dust aroma rising up from the pages.

Laing, like Freud or Jung or Wertheimer (or Sartre), always had interesting things to say. Whether you agree or not is entirely another matter, of course. “In [a human] seen [solely] as an organism, there is no place for [her or his] desires, fear, hope or despair as such. The ultimates of our expressions are not [her or his] intentions to [their] world, but quanta of energy in an energy system”. Indeed!

Moving away from inner space, much of what Laing says about the broader shores of human psychology (to my admittedly uneducated mind) echoes a lot of what Aleister Crowley had been saying decades earlier: that a viciously, pathologically normative society is the real aberration. “A child born today in the United Kingdom stands a ten times greater chance of being admitted to a mental hospital than to a university … This can be taken as an indication that we are driving our children mad more effectively than we are genuinely educating them. Perhaps it is our way of educating them that is driving them mad.”

Time has marched on since Laing’s passing, and the old Victorian asylums are now long since emptied. Some, such as the vast Friern Barnet Mental Hospital in north London (and it really was vast – one of its corridors was three quarters of a mile long) have been repurposed as middle-class housing. Others lie abandoned, their flaking and rotting inner rooms photographed and posted on urban exploration websites.

Listening to Will to be Well means at times visiting this territory, albeit in an indirect/thematic way. Track 5 Lovers of the Highlands evokes feelings of bricked-in darkness and oblique thought-forms rather than mountains and streams. Track 10, Someone Secure is one of very (very, very) few electronic compositions from the UK that you could place in a Detroit compilation and wouldn’t sound out of place. I doubt Steve Hillage/Derrick May’s System 7 collaboration is even a reference point here, but this just makes it even better.

Will to be Well is an involving listen. For more information on this release, go to Blackest Ever Black and have a read.
 
 
 

 

 
 

 
 
 

In the 20th century, this area was pulled down and rebuilt piecemeal around the motorway that now runs through it. But this one small bit of tenement still stands. Out of the once surrounding thousands of tenements that met the wrecking ball, why did this corner survive? Its sandstone almost glows, and why is its face not pale great from fumes?

Luc Besson and Bertrand Tavernier both set films in this city, and it’s easy to see why both of those films (Danny The Dog, La mort en direct) used this area of the city in particular. You are breathing the past and the future, walking through a space where the present is pulled into the ether by both, strongly. A liminal zone, a psychogeographer’s church.

2014 28 Jul

last.fm

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2014 19 Jul

The Afghan Whigs, live in Glasgow 18/7/2014

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