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.

21 July

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Catriel Nievas and Sergio Merce — Pampa (2017, Mappa)

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Argentine duo Sergio Merce and Catriel Nievas come together to record a tenuous, but captivating set of sonic explorations on their debut Pampa, released on Slovakia’s Mappa label. Forging a partnership after sharing a stage in their native Buenos Aires, Merce handles electronics and plays a microtonal saxophone (formed from an alto sax with the keys removed), while Capece performs on guitar. Both musicians claim to have an interest in harmonic overtones and sonic layers; as such, this release has plenty of breathing room, which affords the listener ample listening space to fully absorb and ruminate upon what is being performed. Merce’s saxophone melds seamlessly with the electronics, in doing so, creates minimalist soundscapes reminiscent of both early electronic works of Else Marie Pade or Karl Heinz Stockhausen and contemporary electronic artists Aphex Twin and Autechre. Though impossible to tell without seeing the duo live, it sounds as if Nievas remains primarily on the margins. Surprisingly, the guitar work is reminiscent of both later Fugazi and Tortoise, making the guitarist’s contributions memorable, especially within the context. Equally notable are Nievas’ quickness to duck out – a trait which is highly refreshing given the guitar’s demand to “stick out” for a better part of the last century. In all, this would make a great release for those who are just starting to explore sound art and the fringes of music, but is equally suitable for those who are deeply committed to marginal explorations. Also of note, is Mappa’s excellent packaging. Cardboard, letter-pressed sleeve. Hand numbered, + photograph insert. A great sleeve to accompany a solid release.

13 July

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Black Eyes — Cough (2004, Dischord)

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Around 2000, there was lots of talk about the future of Dischord. Fugazi’s 1998 long play, End Hits was interpreted by many to be suggestive of a pending break-up of the label’s flagship group. Speculation aside, Black Eyes and Q and Not U both appeared on the scene around the start of the new millennium and breathed new life into the iconic Washington DC label. The second and final LP by art punks Black Eyes, ranks among the most interesting material ever released by Dischord. “Cough, Cough” opens with sparse instrumentation, dub inspired bass lines, and layered, erratic vocals. Like a stick of buttered dynamite the segue into “Eternal Life” ushers in a new era of Dischord. Miles away from Minor Threat, Void, SOA, Beefeater, Nation of Ulysses or anything else the label has released. Bursts of free jazz horn playing, skronky and angular guitars, and psychedelic keys that recalls the Monks at their most agitated. On top, vocals that are crazed and wildly enigmatic. Underneath, tight, bass heavy rhythms, reminiscent of the mighty Fugazi. The vocals on “False Positive” are part reggae toasting, part hip-hip. “Commencement” features a saxophone line which recalls Mulatu Astake and bizarre spoken vocals. With Cough, Black Eyes depart from the danceable noise punk on their debut and in the processes dually refuse to be pigeonholed as “another DC band” and reject genre conventions in their totality. Black Eyes are the text book definition of an experimental rock band: impossible to nail down and never derivative. They’re brave in their approach, humorous (perhaps unintentionally), and wholly original.