3 October

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Psanck – Psanck II (2019, Chocolate Monk)

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Buckle in — and prepare to slake yr Graham Greene allusions — as trio Psanck proffer Psanck II, their latest heaping helping of some tasty Brighton Rock! Errr Brighton free music. Right  —to The Heart of the Matter (couldn’t resist): Kev Nickells, Chris Parfitt, and Al Strachan deliver a 10 marvelously evocative tracks courtesy of Dylan Nyoukis’ Chocolate Monk label. Save for playful seven minute ‘Saith Cant Un Deg Un,’ nary a tune exceeds four minutes. Instead, the listener is treated to a series of hazy sonic vignettes. Though each tune varies in its approach and constitution, the album is bound by an overarching continuity: the listener revels in an auricular world that is equally reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s cerebral and slow moving cinematic ruminations and the spectral, sometimes indiscernible demarcation between waking and sleeping (maybe Tarkovsky also traverses this grey area?). 

Particular standouts include ‘Tri Cant Deg Pedwar’ with initial primitive percussive thumps that mix with what sounds like a low drone (possibly courtesy of a hydrophonic recording being looped?) before a somber violin takes centre stage lending an air of surreal fatalism. Elsewhere, noise of the breath, disjointed thuds, whispy (sometimes heavily reverberant) flutes intermingle and create a diverse sonic world that winds up feeling like Frances Bacon doin’ a Bruegel study (ya’ follow?). Whilst the combo of string and flute sometimes invokes an almost mediaeval primitivism or some other aesthetic essence from a bygone era, the group counterpose any notions of vulgar-nostalgia or derivation by injecting firmly-contemporary motifs: the collage-like construction, the improvisational approach, and electroniche (e.g. the oscillations in ‘Pedwar Cant Wyth’, which by my ears, recall early Cluster)… In all, Psanck II manages to ride the dialectic razorblade of old/new (or wake/sleep) and produce a work that is sure to be a hit amongst fans of confectionary ascetics, the AMM, or Francis Bacon (but probably not a hit for Bruegel-ites and definitely not for Graham Greenies).  

 

27 September

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Embla Quickbeam, Natalia Beylis, and Neil Campbell – House Sparrow Settle Back  (2019, Crow Versus Crow)

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As the end o’ summer malaise sets in and the engorged bleakness of late capitalist modernity™ becomes even harder to ignore – and just in time for all your Autumnal Equinox rites and rituals – West Yorkshire’s Crow Versus Crow bestows upon the unsuspecting another auricular assemblage aka a fresssssh C45 of tunes, containing concoctions by Embla Quickbeam, Natalia Beylis, and Neil ‘Don’t call me Neve’ Campbell. Two sides, two duos, two performances, in two different cities. Enter House Sparrow Settle Back. 

Side A, (‘Settle Sparrow’) features Quickbeam and Beylis extemporizing in Todmorden in early May of this year (2019). In their roughly half hour set, the duo generate a soundscape that would make an excellent sonic companion to Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Nights or act as a fine alternative to listening to Jez Riley French on LSD. One is engulfed in a swirling, fragmentary journey, encountering splintered bits of conversation, gurgling tape noise, flowing streams, and varying modalities of bird song along the way. Invocations of memory, the (sur)real, and (dis)location (both of the self and of the self amidst the vanishing ecologies and spaces not traditionally inhabited by humans…two for one!) all permeate a deeply engrossing performance.

Side B, (‘House Back’, also recorded in early May) features Campbell and Beylis tape slinging in Leeds in a performance that manages to come out feeling simultaneously more and less solemn than the number on the album’s reverse. Whilst Side A affords the listener with an opportunity to consider the body in space and to contemplate largely internal phenomena (memory and subjectivity), Side B dispenses with the contemplative ballyhoo and instead opts to examine extraneous stimuli: the body is acted upon, in ways that are both banal and unnerving. The listener is prodded forth by the lurching pulse of a phantom tempo, ever-present in the performance. The free-floating conversational fragments and sense of psychedelic eavesdropping are replaced by the act of dictation. The directive voice, ever at the ready to command, rebuke or advertise, is at the fore. One especially salient and humorous moment is audible when the artists employ a recording of a machine-like auctioneer –one of capital’s most wanton and yet most farcical appropriations of the voice. Curiously, Side B elects to include the crowd’s applause at the terminus of the performance, where the Side A does not. This listener’s immediate reaction interpreted this decision as a breaking of the fourth wall – and in making that fracture audible – an invitation to the listener to shatter the ‘homogeneous empty time’ (following Walter Benjamin) and fatalism implied by any sense of tempo, real or otherwise perceived.*

All the waxing feel-o-sofa-cull aside, if boney Sony didn’t have a vice fucking grip on the Clash’s work, Crow Versus Crow would be wise to expropriate the title of the group’s 1980 tune ‘Hitsville UK’ and swiftly endow this appellation on Halifax as the burg’s civic title. Another great release sure to appeal to lovers of everything from Crass (namely, ‘Reality Asylum’ from Feeding of the 5000 or Stations of the Crass) to Gabie Strong’s recent work (notably, Incantations, Vol. 1).

* A number of scholars, hacks, and observers have written on the radical potential of improvisation as an artistic practice.(See, David M. Bell, “Improvisation as Anarchist Organization,” Ephemera 14, no. 4 (November 2014): 1009-1030; Bruce Russell “What is Free?a free noise manifesto.” In Left-Handed Blows Writings on Sound 1993-2009, 21-25. Auckland: Clouds; et al.Regardless of a given artist’s (public) politics, an underlying radicalism remains manifestly present in the practice of free improvisation and in the rejection of formalism, structure, consonance, &c. As ‘House Back’ was recorded (ostensibly for posterity and/or dissemination) an additional recycling of radicality takes place. As aesthete extraordinaire and Deutsche-Francophile Wally Benjamin says:

‘mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility […and] the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics’. (Benjamin 1969, 6)

By making use of the radical potentiality of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and thus making the May performances accessible and contemplatable – errr just plain enjoyable – to a slew of listeners from Todmorden to Tikrit to Texas, these talented duos promise to send us careening towards that savoury jeztzeit which Benjamin believed art was capable fostering.

 

 

12 May

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Cravune — Figures (2018, Detriti Records)

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On the first listen through Figures, the latest release from Berlin-based Neapolitan artist Cravune, feels blisteringly short — a collection of electronic études and fragmentary ideas hastily put to tape. On the second listen, however, Figures begins to open itself to the listener and reveals an artist who is clearly competent and adroit in composing many variants of electronic music. One who can appreciate the brevity is generally rewarded; those who yearn for works which remain temporally without constraint or have more time for sonic exploration will struggle with this release. Even for those most attentive and/or patient, at times Figures feels tediously brief. Yet for all of its temporal foibles, the listener is treated to a release which coherently melds and explores sometimes disparate aesthetics of electronic music. Opening with ‘Vicarìa’, a downtempo piece of minimalist electronica which is at times reminiscent of Autechre, yet manages to bask in all the self-assured minimalism of Ghislain Poirier’s early work. At the album’s halfway mark, ‘Figure 2’ (the longest track on the album), the listener is treated to what is perhaps the most straight forward (house) tune on the release. With nods to Detroit techno and even momentary glimpses of Martin Rev’s work with Suicide, the track stokes a sense of late night nostalgia and truly feels like the album’s most developed, fully realized work. As the album winds to a close, the listener can find many of the album’s trademarks (both good and bad) on the penultimate and ultimate tracks, ‘Figure 6’ and ‘Etudes’, respectively. The former, ‘Figure 6’ is this listener’s favorite. Its alluring simplicity is hypnotic and recalls the brilliance of early Mouse on Mars, without decadence or gratuitous production work. The final track, ‘Etudes’, as its title suggests, has a number of étude-like detours, which diverge from a central trip hop theme. In many ways the final piece is representative of the album as a whole: a myriad of unique and intelligent, yet self-contained fragments briefly appear from a thematic locus, only to evaporate mere seconds later. In sum, Figures is a frustrating release: in listening, one experiences moments of pure bliss and can revel in late night introspection or youth-like nostalgia. At other times, however, the brevity of the tracks is stultifying (if not disorienting). This listener ultimately gets the feeling that Cravune is just getting warmed up and as the artist’s longest playing album to-date, Figures bodes well for future releases from the artist.

3 January

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Chicago/London Underground —  A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors (2017, Cuneiform)

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In the Chicago/London Underground’s A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors, the group’s hazy, playfully meandering performance recalls the convivial, unfettered spirit of 1960s free jazz. Whilst ‘breezy’ may not be the first word one has in mind when listening to free musics, the group swagger through the titular track and justify the performance’s title — they sound entirely capable of seamlessly walking through mirrors, perhaps unsurprising when one sees the strength of the players (Chad Taylor, drums; John Edwards, double bass; Rob Mazurek, cornet; Alexander Hawkins, piano). One hears definite reverberations of early Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry work, Archie Shepp’s late 1960’s BYG Actuel records, and Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador. The ensemble’s use of electronic treatments and/or guitar stompboxes — a technique that is thankfully under utilized in most improvisational circles — is tastefully and effectively employed here by Mazurek. Such effected passages provide a subtle nod to trip hop and at times recall British trumpet/drum duo Spaceheads. ‘Something Must Happen’ exposes the listener to the group’s sonic and textural range: at moments it’s positively Burrell-esque (perhaps not as tempestuous as Echo, but one can confidently utter the LP in the same sentence); the end of the track however showcases both electronic psychedelia and mbira(!). The recording’s fidelity creates no artifice: the album is well recorded, but not glossy. Audience reactions are not redacted. Mixed with the ensemble’s cohesion the listener could easily transport themselves into the low-ceilinged, cramped quarters of Cate Oto on a full night. Arguably one of the most exciting contemporary Free Jazz recordings we’ve experienced in awhile at Marginal HQ, A Night Spent Walking Through Mirrors, is indeed a night well spent.

 

14 October

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Luciferian Towers (2017, Constellation)

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Canadian symphonic rockers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor return with their first record in x years with Luciferian Towers. Having not listened to Godspeed! much since Yanqui U.X.O, this listener was taken aback by the collective’s drastic departure from the brooding and sparse compositional work littered with field-recordings, monologues, etc. Instead, the group’s modus operandi has evolved into one which is jubilant, airy, and fairly wide-open. The musicianship remains top-notch, as do the politics. Sonically, however, the results leave much to be desired. This release largely underscores that Godspeed You! Black Emperor operate almost entirely within the idiom of rock’n’roll —a fact, that their musicianship has long done well to obscure. The opening piece, “Undoing a Luciferian Tower” is a sprawling, cinematic piece, that while decisively executed, is at times almost humorous in its unabashed bombast. Again, noting that the group operate largely within the idiom of rock’n’roll, their sonic vocabulary often ends up coming off like an indie-version of Trans Siberian Orchestra. The instrumentation is never lost or bizarre (in a pejorative sense), but the aesthetic framings that the group operate within, coupled with the aforementioned bombast, comes across as fairly mawkish. The third track, “Fam/Famine” is perhaps the best of the LP. Structurally, less predictable than the multi-movement crescendo/apex/release employed throughout the rest of the LP, the album’s shortest tune instead opts to explore sensibilities that closely resemble the collaborative proto-ambient work of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp à la No Pussyfooting. Not a bad direction and one that the group pull-off masterfully. While praise for this release has been virtually unanimous, here at Marginal HQ, we’re a bit more skeptical. Despite the group’s well documented political stance(s), the adherence to convention and accessibility, again casts doubt on western music(s)’ ability to catalyze or embody substantive social change.

28 August

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Choi Joonyong and Hong Chulki — Balloon and Needle (2017, Never Come Ashore)

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A skronky, scratchy live release recorded at the University of Glasgow in the spring of 2017, featuring South Korean experimental artists Choi Joonyong and Hong Chulki. Named after their own experimental imprint, Balloon & Needle features the duo producing noise tempests without the usual bombast or predisposition towards electronically-based sound crafting. This is not to suggest that advances in modern technology are a hindrance to artistic vision nor are they absent on this release. Radiant beams of feedback are central components of this performance. Regardless, the duo demonstrate that they are also adroit in their abilities to produce jarring, provocative, and captivating sounds from found objects and resonant frequencies. Laptop junkies and pedal pushers need not apply.

1 August

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Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura — Weather Sky (2001, Erstwhile)

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Sure, this release is several years old, but here at Marginal HQ, we’ve been exuberantly waiting for the right moment to review this collaboration between free noise legends Keith Rowe (on guitar) and Toshimaru Nakamura (on the “no-input” mixing board). “Weather Sky #1” opens with a high-pitched sine wave fading in; around the :45 second mark, in fades electronic noise on the left channel. This makes way to alligator clips rattling strings at around the 2:40 mark and the duo really start to jive. Sci-fi soundscapes weave with sine waves, fizzing electronics, scrambled 8-bit gurgles, and the myriad other sonic oddities Rowe lures from his guitar. Nakamura provides continuity and a sense of (anti-?)rhythm with droning sine (or triangle) waves. There are large segments of the opening piece where little happens. When one of the artists diverges, it is often only a soupçon of sound. In the final third, things hasten. Mechanical humming (most likely emanating from Rowe) supplants nearly all else. When Rowe cuts out, Nakamura remains steadfast and enveloped in electronic bliss until the piece fades out. “Weather Sky #2” is much more accessible. Not only owing to the fact that it is only five minutes in duration, but many of themes and motifs lack the esotericism of the other pieces. Despite it’s short length, the piece does not feel forced or haphazard. The final piece on Weather Sky (“Weather Sky #3”) feels both tenuous and private. At times, the piece feels like a straight-ahead dark ambient piece; yet Nakamura and Rowe’s reinforcing of one another, creates a collective sea of sound, whose opaque and reticent surface conceals untold mysterious and captivates the listener. Whilst we prefer the din Rowe knocks out as one part of the AMM, Weather Sky is an excellent deconstructionist work by two heavyweights of experimental sound. Coupled with Rowe’s painting of an éclair on the cover, fans of either artist, Chondritic Sound, or the otherworldly racket of either the AMM or Dead C are sure to enjoy this release.