Monday, 29 September 2014

Martin Archer - A man following his muse...

Martin Archer ducks the mainstream...
Some time ago - August last year to be more exact - I reviewed a strange and singular but nonetheless enjoyable release on Discus Records by the name of Juxtavoices - Just another anti-choir from Sheffield. My route to this odd record started with Combat Astronomy's Kundalini Apocalypse, an equally uncompromising but utterly different beast. Both these albums featured the talents of Sheffield citizen Martin Archer, and the Juxtavoices CD was one of a number of CDs sent to me unprompted by Martin following the Combat Astronomy scribbling for DPRP.

As I am constantly buried by my "to do" pile I have never found the time to write about the other CDs in the box. That, and quite frankly, I found the prospect of hour upon hour of challenging music that I had no frame of reference for a scary prospect. "Come on, ya big wuss, get on with it" the box kept saying to me, staring at me malevolently from the groaning shelf it sat imposingly upon. Now that what sounds like a rather good second album by Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere is on its way, that combo being another of Martin's projects, I thought it was time to man up and have a proper listen to the other CDs he kindly sent me.

Martin Archer has been part of the Sheffield jazz and improvisational scene since the late 1970s, starting the Discus Records label in 1993 as "a reliable platform on which to make (his) work available", and probably because other avant music outlets, if they existed, were very few and very far between. His work displays a true artist's vision and a questing intelligence, and thereby becomes something apart from the humdrum of the everyday.

There follows some brief thoughts on each of the releases I received last year, and rather than go to my usual OCD lengths with track listings etc, I have provided links to such information on the Discus Records website, which is also the place to obtain these audio oddities, should you be so inclined. The logical place to start then is obviously...

Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere
Discus CD40
This is the first self-titled album from this improvisational collective, released in 2012. A sprawling two and a half hour double CD, it features a vast array of musicians contributing electronic and acoustic instrumentation, including a string quartet, a wind ensemble, and appearances by the aforementioned Juxtavoices.

The sounds created take up a mantle passed on by Terry Riley and the looser improvisational end of Krautrock. I am also put in mind of Keith Tippett's Centipede. The end result is vast, loose, organic and thoroughly mesmerising. Prog fans will hate it!

The rest of Martin's postal surprise will be dealt with in order of release...

Martin Archer - In Stereo Gravity
Discus CD33
2008 saw this double CD unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Featuring longtime vocal collaborator Julie Tippetts (née Driscoll) in a relatively small nine-person ensemble in comparison to OUA, we are treated to Martin's unique take on rock improvisation.

Martin's home turf is reimagined as an agrarian Utopia in the drawing on the cover, and the wide open spaces depicted are reflected in the spartan space groove of the music, where avant skronking blends with motorik rhythms and sampling.

Inclusion Principle - The Leaf Factory Fallback
Discus CD38
Onwards to 2010, and Martin teams up with like-minded sound pioneer Hervé Perez for their second outing as Inclusion Principle. The pair use found sounds, laptops and saxophones to create strange dislocated ambient music concrète with a minimalistic bent.

No Soundcloud link for this one, but there are some brief samples in the attendant catalogue link.

Julie Tippetts & Martin Archer - Tales of FiNiN
Discus CD39
2011 saw the release of this haunting and evocative work. Julie Tippetts' rich tones tell tales of Gothic mystery over Martin's nine-piece ensemble that includes violins, cello, occasional fiery guitar, keyboards, electronica, found sounds, programming and a turntablist. The sounds they make are thoroughly modern and simultaneously ancient, and a contrast of tonal and atonal, resonance and dissonance. Deep and dark, this is a record that rewards studied listening. Oh, and it's another double CD, in gorgeous packaging, too!

Again, no Soundlcloud samples for this one.

Julie Tippetts & Martin Archer - Serpentine
Discus CD41
A 2012 release from the fearless sonic explorers sees their muse pack kit for all weathers, as no-one knows where they're headed.

Following the album title, Serpentine is sinuous and slinky. Completely unconventional in approach, the pair show a spirit of adventure that pushes the music into unchartered waters. For the most part it works, as Martin's combination of electronica, found sounds, rhythms and ethereal instrumentation weaves a Gordian Knot with Julie's strong voice to form an indefinable whole. Another one that rewards repeated listens. You will most likely not "get" it first time round. 

Martin Archer - Blue Meat, Black Diesel & Engine Room Favourites
Discus CD43
Fast forward to 2013, and a release by a band originally formed for a one-off performance.

You thought the version of King Crimson currently treading the boards in the USA, with its front line of three drummers was a new idea? Well, maybe in rock music it is, but here with his group Engine Room Favourites Martin Archer is one step ahead. "The concept of the group is to write music structured primarily around the four drummers / percussionists..." as it says in the information section. The brass, reeds, and piano of the rest of the band reinterpet scored music over the four-man percussion section. There are no guitars on this record - this is avant jazz band music like you never heard before.

Well, that wasn't so bad, was it? I found all that difficult music rather intriguing, to say the least. Anyway, that's it from me, and thanks to Martin for sending me all this weirdly intoxicating music.

There are many more releases to be found over at Discus Records along with biographies and sound samples.

Discus Records

Friday, 26 September 2014

Syd Arthur - Sound Mirror I understand. Having criticised Syd Arthur's debut album On And On not for its songs, but for the seemingly "bouncing in the red" production, it now makes sense. There are much improved production values on Sound Mirror, no doubt down in no small part to Abbey Road Studios where the mastering took place, and Electric Lady studios in NYC where it was mixed. It is now obvious to me that the band deliberately go for a fuzzy and murky production thereby enhancing their soul-deep psychedelic melange of sound. Add in the benefit of the ghosts of Hendrix and The Beatles floating around the studios, and the sound on this record is still the audio equivalent of looking through the bottom of the glass, but in a good way. Rather than the sometimes gratingly distorted noise that lurked in the grooves of On And On, the auditory experience this time round is akin to immersing oneself in a warm volcanic spa. Much as that is the case, I still feel the Syds would benefit from a cleaner production, as I consider that there is an overpopulation of sound within a narrow frequency band, which leads to individual musical voices getting lost in the sonic fog. The songs would gain considerably from a more defined separation of the instrumentation, although I appreciate that is a purely personal preference.

And so we arrive at Sound Mirror, Syd Arthur's second album. If you are the slightest bit interested in the world of prog, the name Syd Arthur must have crossed your radar in recent months. A band in demand, not long returned from a support slot on the USA leg of the latest Yes tour, they can boast Paul Weller amongst their more well-known fans, and they are signed to the iconic Harvest label. All in all, this band are about as trendy as you can get in the wilfully unfashionable progwelt. Oh, and they're from Canterbury too, as if you didn't know, and I won't even mention a famous musical family connection in the band. With all that going for them you might surmise that Syd Arthur have been blessed with a guardian angel in these early years of their existence.

Luckily, the meat and drink of being a band, namely the humble song and its delivering has never been a problem for this merry bunch of Cantabrians. One can tell that even beneath the "faders set to 11" of the first album there lurked tunesmithery of a high quality, and here on Sound Mirror better justice is done to their writing and arranging abilities. In any event both those attributes have improved in leaps and bounds from On And On.

A lot of the groundwork for the album was laid over in Ireland, at drummer Fred Rother's parents' house. The swirling mists so common in that land and the attendant centuries-old Celtic mysticism seems to have seeped into these grooves, lending Sound Mirror a distant and magical feel that is often pulled back into focus by the concise songwriting.

The album is a mere 34 minutes long but feels like a complete entity, as albums used to back in the mists of time when spinning a new Harvest Records LP was a guarantee of esoteric quality. Uplifting songs like opener Garden Of Time and the following Hometown Blues rub shoulders with the whimsical ponderings of What's Your Secret. The occasionally pastoral air is vibrated by increasingly psychedelic offerings, epitomised by the exploratory journeys into space of Autograph and Singularity.

Liam Magill is not your typical rock singer. His voice is a delicate thing and is as close to a croon as you would care to be, this side of Tim Bowness, although it is utterly different from the breathy menace of the Norwich heartbreaker. The striking, but never strident individuality of Liam's dulcet tones is another thing that marks this band out as different.

Back to the songs, and All And Everything heads for overdrive overload, particularly from the bass guitar, but I would have preferred less murk for it is another of those effortless romps into art-rock territory that the Syds do so well, albeit somewhat clouded by the fuzz. Forevermore borrows its title from one half of the inspiration for the band's name, and has a quite lovely summery and jazzy vibe. There are flowers in this song's hair. Singularity sees a free-form wigout by Liam and Raven Bush, backed by Liam's brother Joel doing his best fuzzed-out Hugh Hopper impression.

I still have some issues with the band's self-production, which if it is anything like self-editing must be damned hard work, as inevitably one sometimes struggles to see the wood for the trees. However, Sound Mirror is a great little album, and well worth just over half an hour of anyone's time. "Give me a reason to stay" sings Liam on Hometown Blues, and there are ten examples on Sound Mirror to stick with this band for a while yet. How about getting a producer in next time guys?

Garden Of Time (4:39)
Hometown Blues (3:48)
Autograph (3:49)
What's Your Secret (3:17)
All And Everything (3:00)
Forevermore (3:27)
Backwardstepping (2:48)
Chariots (4:11)
Singularity (3:03)
Sink Hole (2:38)

Total running time - 34:44

Line up:
Liam Magill - vocals & guitar
Raven Bush - violin, mandolin, keys
Joel Magill - bass & vocals
Fred Rother - drums & percussion


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Knifeworld - The Musician, Leicester, Tuesday 2nd September 2014

Well, "fit on the tiny stage of Leicester's The Musician venue" they did, just, if I may quote my own review of Knifeworld's wonderful The Unravelling.

The Sixteen-Legged Groove Machine (unseen to the drummer's right is keyboard player Emmett Elvin)

When my trusty gig-compadre Phil W and I arrived at the venue, Knifeworld were still going through their soundcheck. As a result, we were treated to disembodied near-harmonies wafting out of the door while the mixing desk guy manfully coped with setting up the heady sonic palette for the plethora of instrumentation and voices you can see above.

There were two local support bands; Amber Herd were a rather basic rock band playing an odd mix of Americana infused lyrics atop an odd melange of Pink Floyd and Waterboys dynamics. The Roz Bruce Infusion were better with Roz's psychedelic punk guitar sprawling all over a drummer and a rather fine young bass player who displayed much dexterity. for the sake of her nearest and dearest, I do hope Ms Bruce's vituperative lyrics act as anger management therapy!

Knifeworld did not get to grace the stage until well after 10pm, and there was me thinking a relatively local gig would mean an early(ish) night. We were to eventually arrive home after 1am.

There were 21 people in the audience by the time Knifeworld came on. Yes, that's right, 21! Chatting with the promoter I got the sanguine response "Well, if this was in Colchester where I come from, there would be no-one here at all". It must have been dispiriting for the headliners, who could only treat this as a kind of dress rehearsal for the full album launch gig in London on Friday. Professionals to the last, they still turned in a fine set despite hardly being able to move on the claustrophobic stage. I thought at the time that Chloe Herington's bare feet were an affectation, but thinking about it I reckon she had to take her shoes off or the microphone gaffa'd to the top of her bassoon would have kept hitting the low ceiling. They could have spread out into the audience area had they wanted some room to move, it's not as if they would be standing in anyone's space, after all!

One of this band just wasn't made to stand still...and look, there's Emmett!

They did a full set, including the encore, a set that got better technically as it went on. They gave it their best shot and Kavus put everything into it (I imagine he's one of those folk who make beans on toast with gusto and commitment!), but the rest of the band looked a tad glum unsurprisingly. Kavus showed his SOH was still intact by telling us at one point "Imagine we're someone famous like Sparklehorse" and letting baritone saxophone player and new member Oliver Sellwood know that his "crap wages" would remain so for the foreseeable.

Opening the set with the first three numbers from the new album is a logical move. The awkward and complex I Can Teach You How To Lose A Fight might well be taken literally if the opponent were the arrangement and the band had not paid attention in rehearsals. They coped with its writhing intensity rather well, and I can see that this is one number that will only get better the more times it is played.

As it turns out, the only number not played from The Unravelling was the bittersweet This Empty Room Was Once Alive, a song whose dark subject matter is maybe best left in the zeros and ones.

Introducing a stomping Pilot Her with "This is my year of going very fast", Kavus' energy alone would have kept the inwardly flagging spirits of the band from becoming visible outwardly, not that they lacked the professionalism needed to prevent that from happening themselves.

The other non-Unravelling highlight for me was the Henry Cow-cuts-a-rug-with-XTC that is The Prime Of Our Decline, a cherry of a tune from the no doubt criminally ignored 2012 Clairvoyant Fortnight EP.

On the way to the gig Phil and I were discussing the shrinking of the gig circuit over the last ten or so years, and how hardly any band of note ventures outside of London these days, considering that playing in the capital will suffice for the entire southern half of the country. With a turnout like tonight can you blame them? I would hazard a guess that if tonight's entertainment at The Musician had been a Genesis tribute act they would have had far more than 21 in the audience. Why are allegedly alternative music fans so conservative? Answers on a stash of unsold tickets to Knifeworld HQ.

A band as complex and as BIG, both in musical construct and in personnel as Knifeworld deserve to be playing similarly ambitiously sized venues where better acoustics and more space would do their intricate and fascinating sound a proper service. As it is they coped with the limitations of The Musician admirably given the "three men and a dog" audience. I can only hope that their undoubted talent and untrammelled enthusiasm, not to mention their progressive spirit in the true sense of the word is rewarded with a headline spot at The Royal Festival Hall at some point in the future. We can but dream!

If you can, go see the album launch gig at The Lexington in London this Friday (5th September). This fine band deserve your support, and not only that but support is provided by none other than that marvellous bunch of rabble-rousers Thumpermonkey. What's not to like?

I Can Teach You How To Lose a Fight
The Orphanage
Send Him Seaworthy
Don't Land On Me
The Wretched Fathoms
In A Foreign Way
Pilot Her
The Prime Of Our Decline
The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes
Destroy The World We Love
I'm Hiding Behind My Eyes

Me To The Future Of You

Knifeworld are:
Kavus Torabi - vocals, guitar
Melanie Woods - vocals
Emmett Elvin - keyboards
Chloe Herington - bassoon, soprano saxophone, vocals
Charlie Cawood - bass
Ben Woollacott - drums
Josh Perl - soprano saxophone, acoustic guitar, vocals
Oliver Sellwood - baritone saxophone


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