Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Iannis Xenakis - Synaphaï (2013 compi rec. 1975 & 1992)

Nothing quite gets me through a long week like a nice slab of Xenakian mayhem - or four.  The first three pieces on this disc were originally released on LP in 1976, and the fourth is from a compilation from 20 years later, but thematically and stylistically, it's all good.
Original UK LP, 1976
Synaphaï, Greek for 'connexities', was written in 1969 as a piano concerto of sorts.  In Xenakis' hands, naturally, this meant a grinding, stabbing 86-piece orchestra being overlaid with a jaw-droppingly acrobatic piano part.  Aroura ('earth') (1971) is for string orchestra, and slithers and judders around nicely.  Both of these pieces are just under 12 minutes long.

The 20-minute Antikthhon, also from '71, was written as a ballet, the title being a Pythagorean term meaning 'counter-earth'.  It's textbook orchestral Xenakis, and my favourite thing here, with all of his usual staccato jitters, glissandi and percussive thunder making for a stunning experience.

As noted above, Keqrops (1986) is a kind of bonus track to this compilation, being the only one not from the '75 London recordings with the New Philharmonic.  It's a 1992 recording by the Mahler Youth Orchestra of one of the best orchestral epics of 80s-era Xenakis, and like Synaphaï, is a bit of a piano-concerto-gone-insane undertaking in its structure and sound - well worth its inclusion here.

mega / zippy

Monday, 11 December 2017

Tomasz Stańko Quintet - Jazzmessage From Poland (1972)

The 70s fusion-era Stańko Quintet recorded live in Iserlohn, Germany in May 1972.  Other than a change of bassist, this is the group that would go on to record Purple Sun the following year.  The music here is therefore in a similar trumpet-violin-flute-sax vein, if perhaps a bit more laid back and exploratory across these two side-long tracks.

AEOIOE/Heban settles into a nice shuffling groove for most of its duration, with Zbigniew Seifert's violin to the fore for much of it.  Things become much more free towards the end - presumably the 'Heban' part, for which Seifert is credited as the writer.  Piece For Diana/Wood's Music Serie starts off quite free and mellow too, with some extremely odd noises being coaxed from the reeds.  There's some nice flute, but again the star soloist seems to be Seifert for much of the track.  Not that I'm complaining - Seifert (1946-1979) was a wonderful musician, and I definitely need to give his solo work more of a listen sometime soon.

Perhaps it's a bit odd for a Stańko Quintet album to have the band leader taking a back seat so much, but to be honest I quite like how Stańko doesn't dominate proceedings here, but leaves room for everyone.  He does ignite properly about halfway through the second track, but even then it's as a contributor to a free-for-all rather than a full spotlight.  If you're wanting to listen to Stańko for his trumpet playing then, this is maybe not the ideal album to seek it out - but if you're after some great Eastern-European jazz fusion being played by an open, organic-sounding group, then this is a jazzmessage well worth receiving.

mega / zippy

Friday, 8 December 2017

Lumen Drones - s/t (2014)

Anyone for some nice wintry Nordic drone rock?  This collaboration between Nils Økland, specialist in the 8-string hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle), and Ørjan Haaland (drums) and Per Steinar Lie (guitar) of Norwegian post-rock band The Low Frequency In Stereo was recorded in November 2011 and released three years later.  Almost every review I've read of this album makes comparisons to an Australian band called The Dirty Three, who apparently have a very similar MO - I'm sure I'll get around to checking them out eventually (anyone in the know have any recommendations?), but for now, here's Lumen Drones.

Even by ECM's eclectic standards, this album feels like an odd thing for them to release - I'm guessing Økland's previous associations with the ECM stable helped.  In any case, the music is striking, driving and invigorating stuff that more than merited a release.  Skeletal guitar themes give way to grinding chords that move the tracks forward along with the pounding drums, overlaid with Økland's melodies, the extra drone strings of the hardingfele suiting this style of music perfectly.

The trio's sound is arguably at its most effective when they really stretch out and get lost in the groove, and the two longest tracks, Ira Furore and Echo Plexus, are accordingly my favourites on the album.  That's not to dismiss the more compact and subtle tracks in the album's second half, though (Lux, Husky and Keelwater), which show an equal talent for understatement and atmosphere.  Hope they make another one sometime.

mega / zippy

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Qluster - Tasten (2015)

For their fifth album as Qluster, Roedelius and Onnen Bock - by now expanded to a trio with Armin Metz - decided to forego the electronics of previous albums for this sublime album of music for three pianos.  Sound familiar?  What you get here, though, is first of all nearly twice as long, and as distinctly European as the Budd-Garcia-Lentz minature masterpiece was distinctly American/Latin American.  Tasten is also more sparingly produced, largely allowing that timeless Steinway resonance to speak for itself in triplicate.

As might be expected, the result of this setup - and one of course that involves Hans-Joachim Roedelius - is absolutely gorgeous both melodically and harmonically.  Picking standouts is difficult on such a strong programme of material, but I'll plump for Brandung, the longest track, with the perfectly evocative Spuren im Schnee a close second.

Here and there, little interesting touches flesh out the nine pieces on Tasten, such as the string plucking on Über den Dächern, and more subtly so on the following Il Campanile.  That track actually brought to mind for me Zeitkratzer's treatment of Kraftwerk's Wellenlange (see last week) in the way it takes the minimal material somewhere sublime.

mega / zippy
Previously posted: Fragen

Monday, 4 December 2017

George Crumb - Voice Of The Whale / Night Of The Four Moons (1974)

Vox Balaenae, better known as Voice Of The Whale, is probably one of the best known works by George Crumb (b. 1929, Charleston WV) - it's pretty accessible in its mostly languid, Debussyian drift, whilst still getting pretty far out there in its odd performance requirements.  Players are directed to sing into the flute, strum the piano strings with chisels, paperclips and glass rods... oh, and play under blue light whilst wearing black masks.  As the title suggests, the piece was inspired by recordings of actual whale song that Crumb heard in the late 60s, and the mysterious undersea world that it conjures up is beautifully absorbing.  Perfect for listening to whilst watching Blue Planet II with the sound off (which I've been doing for weeks with a wide selection of music).

The other work on this 1974 release was Night Of The Four Moons, which was composed during the Apollo 11 flight to the moon and is set in four sections, each taking a fragment of text by Federico Garcia Lorca (whose words Crumb frequently set to music around this time).  Musically it's as wonderfully strange as Whale, if not more, as the mezzo-soprano intones eerily over a fractured dreamscape of flutes, banjo, percussion and amplified cello.  Totally must get myself Crumbed up to the max, I love his stuff more and more every time I give it a go.

mega / zippy

Friday, 1 December 2017

Duke Ellington - Ellington Uptown (1952)

A stone-cold classic from the dawn of the LP era, and my personal Ellington of choice.  Ellington Uptown, and its almost-as-awesome predecessor Masterpieces By Ellington, were released in the early 50s as featuring, for the first time, "full-length concert arrangements".  And boy did The Duke  and His Orchestra know how to get the most out of the new format, recording albums like this that still burst out of speakers sounding fresh and vital today.

There's reinventions of (even then) old classics from the Ellington playbook like The Mooche, Perdido and Take The A Train, with the latter now featuring a great Betty Roche vocal, and freshly-minted material too in the stunning curtain-raiser.  Skin Deep had been penned by drum prodigy Louie Bellson, whose double-bass-drum attack punctuates the track with solos that could give your average death metal drummer a run for their money in an era before most of them were even born.

The three suites that comprise the remaining material on the album, as far as I'm concerned, makes Ellington worthy to be spoken of in the same breath as Gershwin in terms of writing and arrangement.  The Harlem Suite was commissioned by Arturo Toscanini, and in Duke's words depicted a Sunday morning walk through Harlem's Latin and West Indian neighbourhoods up to the business district, with the sights and sounds of civil rights marchers along the way.

The two suites at the end of this CD only appeared as part of the original album on certain releases, so this 2004 reissue was really the first 'complete' Uptown.  The Controversial Suite takes a sideways look at rival factions in jazz - traditional vs. modern - by making both sound equally out-there.  Lastly, the Liberian Suite is the oldest recording here (1947) with its gorgeous vocal introduction 'I Like The Sunrise', and was a tribute to the first African-American settlers in the Liberian Republic a century beforehand.

mega / zippy

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Zeitkratzer plays Kraftwerk, live at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (2017)

Berlin-based new music ensemble Zeitkratzer have been around since the late 90s, releasing numerous albums of work by Stockhausen, Cage et al, as well as two volumes of tracks by Whitehouse, and even a fully scored version of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.  Artistic director Reinhold Friedl jokes that "everybody thought Zeitkratzer is a cover band" following the success of the latter, which made a friend suggest to him that they should cover some early Kraftwerk, leading to an album earlier this year.

I don't have any of those albums at present, but I'm definitely keen to stock up on the evidence of this concert held on 18 November, as part of the 40th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.  How about this for a setlist, Kraftwerk fans: Harmonika, Stratovarius, Wellenlange, Vom Himmel Hoch, Atem, Ruckzuck.  Half of those didn't feature on the album, hopefully suggesting a second volume to come.

Friedl agreed with his friend that early Kraftwerk would be a good idea, and an important one, given the continued absence of their first three records on any official reissue - he wryly takes Ralf & Florian to task here for "a falsification of their history".  No disagreement from me there, but most importantly, how does it sound?  Pretty damn good on this evidence.  The material taken from the first Kraftwerk album is inventively arranged whilst sticking faithfully to the structure of the originals.  The stuff from Kraftwerk 2 however is in a different league.  Always Kraftwerk's most experiemental record, this leaves plenty of room for Zeitkratzer to take the sparse source material somewhere unique - in particular, the lazy jamming of Wellenlange being transformed into a thing of understated beauty (just listen to that piano part!) was a revelation to me.  Highly recommended.

mega / zippy

Monday, 27 November 2017

Ralph Towner - Solo Concert (1980)

Just before heading to Oslo to meet up with Azimuth for Départ, Ralph Towner was performing solo in Europe, with dates in Munich and Zurich providing the recordings for this spellbinding live album.  Sometimes known as 'Köln for the guitar', the comparison only really works inasmuch as they're both high watermarks in ECM's catalogue of concert recordings; there's no epic improvisations here, just seven perfectly rendered compositions, four of them Towner originals.

Opening with a flourish of echoing harmonics, Solo Concert grabs the listener right from the off with its longest and most spectacular track - the shimmering 12-string waves of Spirit Lake.  The rich, reverberating acoustics of these recordings also illuminate the nylon-string performances like Ralph's Piano Waltz (one of two John Abercrombie compositions here) that follows next.

Things get more intricate and spidery with Train Of Thought, one of the best explorations of Towner's virtuoso technique here, but to be honest that could be said of the whole record.  The Miles Davis standard Nardis hits a fresh new groove, and the closing take on Abercrombie's Timeless is just... timeless.  If you only own one Ralph Towner record, make it this one.

mega / zippy

Friday, 24 November 2017

Organum - Volume One/Volume Two (compis rel. 1998 & 2000)

(both Volumes have plain black covers)
Had you picked up an original vinyl copy of NWW's A Missing Sense in '86 (cover art below), on flipping it over your ears would've been greeted by what sounded like 18 minutes of close-miked dental work.  This piece was called Rasa, and its grinding, hissing and vocal swishes were the work of British drone artist David Jackman, aka Organum.
A Missing Sense/Rasa, split LP between NWW/Organum, 1986
After cutting his musical teeth in Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra in the late 60s, Jackman began releasing short cassettes under his own name a decade later, and went on to use the Organum name from 1983-2010 - he appears to have since retired from music.  The two Volumes in this post gather together LP and EP material from 1985/6.
In Extremis LP, 1985
It's pretty heady stuff too - I had the 'Ambient' tag on for this post, then removed it on deciding it wasn't appropriate.  Especially not for the 1985 LP In Extremis (as in, 'close to death'), which straddles the two CDs - the 20 minute Valley Of Worms was a collaboration with fearsome noisemongers The New Blockaders.  The EP track Horii is about as relaxed as the sonic terrain gets here, and even that one's a dark, droning vocal and flute piece that does a pretty good job of evoking some lost unspeakable ritual from ancient Egypt. (Amusingly, though, it does have a cheekily rockist 1-2-3 count-in.)
Horii 12", 1986
Elsewhere, the metallic droning, creaking and clattering that underpins so much of the early Organum sound brought to mind Iannis Xenakis at his most electroacoustic, eg Bohor or Persepolis.  Much like those grand slabs of sound, Jackman's work here, from the Tower Of Silence EP right through to the 1989 bonus track that ends CD2,  might seem on the surface to be a solid, impenetrable wall, but as soon as you get into it you're transported to its hypnotic depths.  Out-of-body dronescapes of the highest order.
Tower Of Silence 12", 1985
Volume 1 mega / Volume 1 zippy
Volume 2 mega / Volume 2 zippy

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Nurse With Wound - A Missing Sense (1997 compilation)

As promised on Monday's writeup, here's Steven Stapleton's 'tribute' to Robert Ashley's Automatic Writing.  Over to you, Steve:
"A Missing Sense was originally conceived as a private tape to accompany my taking of LSD. When in that particular state, Robert Ashley's Automatic Writing was the only music I could actually experience without feeling claustrophobic and paranoid. We played it endlessly; it seemed to become part of the room, perfectly blending with the late night city ambience and the 'breathing' of the building. I decided to make my own version using the basic structure of Ashley's masterpiece, but making it more personal, adding natural sound that I could hear in my environment. It should be played at very low volume."
What we get with the NWW take on Automatic Writing then, might be 20 minutes shorter, but is still a wonderful ambient drift that sits alongside the very best of Stapleton's work in that mode.  There's less focus on the vocalisations (I'd guess because they were very much Ashley's signature, and the best Stapleton could do was imitate them), but plenty of NWW signatures - electronic whirring and clicking, mutated smears of trumpet, and a highly atmospheric take on the Farsifa organ sound from Automatic Writing.  Far from being just a knockoff of a superior work, A Missing Sense is magical stuff in its own right - the influence from Ashley is obvious, but the NWW fingerprint is unmistakable.

On this compilation CD, A Missing Sense is followed by a work from a year later (1987) called Swansong.  Purportedly inspired by the anger and hopelessness felt by Stapleton after watching a documentary on the original A-bomb tests, it actually comes across as an oddly calming ambient work mostly comprised of electronically-generated rushing waves and eerie, distant synth melodies.  Near the end, the waves suddenly stop, and the remaining music introduces a bizarre interlude in which a girl (possibly the same one from the Homotopy To Marie title track?) talks about puberty or something like that.  The electronic waves then condense into a constant sea wall of static that gradually fades away.

Lastly, the disc is rounded out by a remixed version of Dadaˣ from Merzbild Schwet.  This mix originally appeared on Ostranenie 1913, released in 1983 to help a friend of Steve's launch their label, and is one of the few NWW records I've been lucky enough to get hold of on vinyl.  The LP cover was a monochrome version of what you can see above, that Stapleton used for the Missing Sense CD.  It's a good mix of Dadaˣ, but I think I still prefer the more spare and spacious original.

mega / zippy