on music beyond mainstream




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

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… and then, every so often, a record comes along that reaffirms your faith in recorded sound, with a jolt. A record that makes your heart burst.

Diligent Manafonistas readers may remember my previous post about Varnaline’s Man of Sin, which was Anders Parker’s first record. Nearly two decades ago (… the LP, that is, not my post). How different could two records be? The debut, lo-fi and amateurish to the point of shambolic – and this: professional and miraculously un-jaded despite the passage of time.

Every single track on this record is a winner.





There’s a great review of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (Deutsche Grammophon C20 series reissue) on the Amazon US site, and it’s informative lucid writing. The writer of the review states that the some of the stories told in the work are rendered in a way that is unintelligible: ‘made so vague that only the phonetic properties matter’.

Phonetic properties is a great phrase. And Berio’s Sinfonia is genius. And Sinfonia‘s reviewer is right – only the phonetic properties matter. Much of the time. Words under water, messages in bottles, the tongue set free. Words appropriated and re- ( or is that ‘de-’?) contextualised are central to Berio’s Sinfonia in a way not dissimilar to Heiner Goebbels’ Eraritjaritjaka, Museé des Phrases. The latter is a stage production, of course, its words all Elias Canetti’s, and all discernible, but the similarity remains: words under water or thrown into the air, where they fly around overhead. Le Seagull, le trawler, le kung fu kick of language.

Unholy Soul by The Orchids was described by Ian McCann in the NME as “a Pet Sounds for the 90s” and is an unclassifiable work of wonder. (I’ve never listened to Pet Sounds so no idea if McCann’s comparison was on the mark). Much of Unholy Soul is straightforward guitar-based pop, but it constantly pushes at the form’s limits and what we have here is cathedral like in its invisible structure, when we’d have expected a shed.

Sung in a mumbled, diffident Glasgow voice, the songs phonetic properties are unusual and lend the songs a timelessness/ otherworldliness. It’s difficult to believe that this was a real band and not a portrayal from a work of fiction. Singer James Hackett’s vocal style means that much of the lyrical content is lost to me in terms of its meaning, but we can take this as a positive, like Berio’s words under water.

The LP starts off with a strong vibe of the oneiric, and (in a way) like the film Inception, never quite opens its eyes. Could these be dreams within dreams? From Me And The Black And White Dream:

Picture this. A thousand people with no eyes, staring at you
But you had a [...] and I had a [...]
It’s gotta be me
In the black and white dream

More dreams, this time from the song Peaches:

Dreaming dreaming dreaming, baby
Dreaming dreaming dreaming, baby
Dreaming, baby

A lot of these songs suggest the vibe of a place, but without the specifics that define it. They conjure a world of stone buildings, viaducts, rain and shelter, moss and lichen, a liminal zone between adolescence and adulthood. A slightly bleak urban landscape peopled by musical geniuses and machine elves. An almost – but not quite – monochrome world, where colour explodes  in unexpected places and in vividly weird combinations.

Things take a turn for the surreal during The Sadness of Sex Part 1. I dunno if it’s some production trick using stereo, but this track has that feeling you get when you listen to Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite – that the room has turned upside down and gravity has temporarily stopped doing its thing. More great, if not always audible lyrics:

There’s a cat in my window, where the light had been
And she’s telling me secrets, [...]
And the last time I saw, well it was a [...] time
Gotta stop gotta stop gotta stop
Stepping over you

The song also contains short phrases of sampled dialogue from diverse sources including the films Arsenic and Old Lace and The BFG. Part love song, part sound collage, complete fucking genius. But – maybe because of the diffidence thing – you get the feeling that The Orchids had no idea they were painting a late 20th century masterpiece with Unholy Soul.
unholy soul


Unholy Soul was reissued a while back and is easily available on CD.
The Orchids have a great website. My second favourite website of all time, in fact – What’s my first favourite website of all time? Why, of course!

2014 11 Jul

Lost Classics, #7: Burrell

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My introduction to the Burrell Brothers’ music was the way the best musical introductions happen – out of the blue and without hype. John Peel played a track from the N.Y. House’n Authority record Apartments on the radio one night. The track, Apt. 1b was – and remains – one of the best things I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Intended or not, when you payed the 6 quid for the vinyl, shrinkwrapped and bearing the intriguing Nu Groove records logo, it felt like you were buying a piece of art. Each track is named for an apartment, or rather its number: APT. 1A, APT. 2A, APT. 3A, APT. 1B, APT. 2B, APT 3.B. The record never quite captures a Manhattan feel, and has instead a vibe of the city being viewed from the second zone, from the bridge-and-tunnel surrounds: maybe from Jersey City or Long Island City. Real ambient. The river runs right through this EP like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock. N.Y. House’n Authority was a Rheji Burrell project (he’s the guy pictured on the CD inlay below, on the left, wearing a hat). Rheji Burrell was also responsible for the haunting, slightly disturbing $1.15 Please EP by Metro, another slice of deep, dark ambient that conjures a world of the old, highly dangerous NY, steam billowing up from the streets – a world of infinite possibility for those who can make it (if you can make it here …) and a sense of danger everywhere. Ronald Burrell (aka Rhano Burrell, to the right in the picture, the dude without the hat) was responsible for a number of equally memorable Nu Groove productions, like Aphrodisiac’s Just Before The Dawn, which sounds on the face of it like club stuff (which maybe it was intended as?) but also manages to sound avant garde. Avant garde in the best way, though: experimental and innovative without any tiresome left bank of the Seine weight bearing down on it or purist pretension burden. Complete fucking genius. The label of the Aphrodisiac’s EP also credits someone called Judy Russell as a “Finger snap co-ordinator” (good detail, good humour. Wherever you are, Judy, I hope you’re well). Anyway, the Burrell album is a record I love so much that I have three copies of it. A Virgin Records America vinyl LP (unplayed, mint condition) a Ten Records (UK associated Virgin label) vinyl LP played so much that its shiny vinyl is now matte and scratchy sounding, and after years of searching, and a Virgin Records America issue of the CD (pictured below). Much of the Burrell album probably only makes sense if you know the brothers’ later work for Nu Groove records (Apartments was released a year or so after this LP, after Virgin wisely dropped them, knowing that this stuff was too cool to sell in millions). What you get here is 10 tracks, the first side is mainly ‘dance’ numbers – and from the first bar of the first track, Trust In The Music, you do just that. Rheji Burrell’s percussive deployments – elemental, intricate, hypnotic. The uptempo songs on the first side of the album have dated, for sure. But they’ve dated like a fine wine. There’s just too much mathematics in this music for it not to have the longevity of the outlier, the longevity of true genius. Track 3, I Really Like, for instance, creates its own universe in miniature: the eternal and familiar narrative of romantic love’s vicissitudes, but with the flashes of light and darkness woven into the programmed base and its interaction with the dull thud of the electric bass drum and a vocal that spans octaves as the love weather changes. Did I say genius? Side 2 of the record – the entire second side – juxtaposes with the first. The first 4 songs – Sunshine, Let Me Love You Tonight, No Greater Love, and Calling are all variations on the same theme, with the last of these taking that theme to its apotheosis. And after that, the final track – if the preceding has been an amazing film, then One And Only Lady is that zone of comfort as the credits roll, and we stand up and shuffle out of the cinema, a brilliant parting shot. To untrained ears, Burrell might sound like your average R&B record. Believe me, it ain’t. It’s a classic, and no mistake. A fair number of the songs mentioned above are on Spotify and YouTube, so check them out.



2014 9 Jul


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Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues
And I explained that I had overpaid them
So overdued I went to the company store
and the clerk there said that they had just been invaded
So I set sail in a teardrop and escaped beneath the doorsill

Cause the smell of her perfume echoes in my head still
Cause I see my people trying to drown the sun
In weekends of whiskey sours
Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?

Rodriguez, Cause.


No breezeblock Babylon, old stairwell, just is. If Piranesi and de Chirico tumble down the staircase of the conscious mind, all they’re saying is: over-engineered old Glasgow buildings stand tall.

I love field recordings, but they have to be done in the right way for them to work. It’s not simply a matter of switching a tape recorder on and walking away. One of my favourite pieces of field recordings is More Hopes And Dreams by American Music Club. 5 separate notes sound falteringly, then repeat. Despite it only being an auditory work, you can tell that this recording was made at night – magnetic tape captures more information than you may think, and the brain picks these up. That is why recorded music and sounds are a form of magic, and why music is the most visceral of all the arts. Anyway, More Hopes And Dreams is a great 1 minute and 59 second listen. Apparently the weird noises on it were made by a power station near where the band lived in northern California. Local people would turn up just to hear it. Power stations have a weird forbidding magnetism. If you get a train from London Victoria down to Kent, you pass Battersea Power Station, and it’s one of the UK’s most fascinating sites (and sights). I wonder what its systems tests would have sounded like, had it been a modern power station? The Tate Modern was of course once a power station too – and within the almost oneiric proportions of its Turbine Hall, you can, if you settle the inner voice and forget the surrounding art works, just about feel its ghosts.

I love field recordings not out of a love for processed sound (though I love that too). Chris Watson‘s Stepping Into The Dark is a fantastic example of the art. Beautifully recorded, and full of detail, it takes you right to where the sound is (was). Recorded in various locations (among them England, Scotland, Germany. Venezuela) this record is inspirational. The artist on his website describes the recording of the first track in an intriguing way: “Wind wherever the sound recordist operates is an obvious nuisance. Just as it is with turbulent seas and fast-running water, it is relatively simple to make a recording that captures the generalised bashing and cashing of the elements, but this results in white noise that describes nothing of the detailed ebb and flow as witnessed. The remarkable thing here, in Glen Cannich, was that i could walk through the foci of these wind sounds within a few paces, as if being part of some great instrument. The blast here was so strong that it took some time to fix the microphones securely – I felt surrounded by the full force of the elements being channelled through this site, and wanted the recording to reflect the bent-double posture and sheer physicality I was experiencing.” Brilliant!

Janek Schaefer’s Lay-by Lullaby has an equally strong sense of location – while much less rural/ bucolic – being based (according to his record label 12k) “around location recordings made in the middle of the night above the M3 motorway, right at the end of the road where JG Ballard lived, a couple of miles from Schaefer’s studio on the far west edge of London. Ballard wrote his seminal works on car culture, as the motorway was being built past the front of his house in 1973; Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974)”.

I love field recordings, and I also love the work of JG Ballard. High Rise and War Fever, in particular. Ballard was, of course, as the above says, a resident of England’s ‘Edgeland’, deliberately basing himself in the suburbs as he felt this was a cultural vantage point, the right distance between the cultural epicentre and the boondocks. I say I love the work of JG Ballard. Not strictly true. I love the idea of it more than the reality of it.

It’s sort of, well, kinda difficult to talk about Janek Schaefer’s Lay-by Lullaby without making reference to Krafwerk’s Autobahn: the gleam of machines, the speed, the excitement, and the danger. Or that wonderful Black Box Recorder line: “the English motorway system is beautiful and strange”. There are elements of both here, but it’s not (to my ears) first person POV. Not all of it anyway. We’re not behind the wheel. Also much of the record is in slow- slowmotion, almost as if time has stopped. I guess the clue to all this is in the record’s title!

Anyway, I love field recordings and I love Lay-by Lullaby. My end of year top 20 is filling up nicely.
“I don’t care if it
Rains or freezes
As long as I’ve got my
Plastic Jesus
Ridin’ on the dashboard
Of my car”

(Cool Hand Luke)


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