This fourth album from Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malley finds the duo upping the ante considerably in terms of grim, hellish and agonisingly slow guitar- and electronic-led drones. Moonlighting from his day job as half of Sunn O))), O’Malley turns away from that group’s relentlessly sludgey twin-guitar attack in favour of more silvery, melancholy tones. Rehberg, for his part, makes scalpel-sharp electronic incisions to take the music ever deeper into uneasy listening territory.

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Nad Spiro, Tinta Invisible

Nad Spiro is Spanish electronica artist Rosa Arruti, and this is her third album. I was very taken with her 2000 début, Nad Spiro vs. Enemigos de Helix (reviewed in The Sound Projector 9), but Tinta Invisible is, I’m sorry to report, weak and uninvolving by comparison.

Arruti’s principal instrument is the guitar, which she subjects to heavy processing and sequencing. The resultant sounds tend towards the minimal and abstract, with occasional vocal interjections woven into the mix. Arruti’s voice is warm and seductive, but it can’t prevent many of the songs from coming across as sterile and cerebral exercises in sound manipulation.

“Soundhouse” and the title track both sound as though they have attractive melodies struggling to be heard, so it’s frustrating to hear them being denied room to flourish amid a plethora of deconstructive strategies. “Obauba,” meanwhile, is subtitled “Lullaby,” but if I wanted to soothe my son off to sleep I certainly wouldn’t play him this array of juddering bass sounds and twitchy electronic effects.

There are only two pieces here that recall the sparkling energy of Arruti’s début. “Interruptus” is quality IDM, with its shuffling dance beat energised by spidery scrawls of guitar noise. And the closing track “Eye TV” (featuring a guest appearance by American noise musician Kim Cascone) brings a welcome blast of harder and more livid electronic textures. Cascone’s presence seems to inject elements of risk and excitement that are in scant evidence elsewhere on the record.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Mary Hampton: Book Two, My Mother’s Children

Mary Hampton follows up her remarkable debut Book One with two further dispatches from the disquieting core of modern folk music. Book Two, as its title implies, is a kind of sequel to the earlier record, another self-released six-track mini-album. Where Book One carried the subtitle “six songs of refusal,” Book Two is labelled “six songs of hunger”: hunger as in desire, perhaps, an emotion which looms large throughout the record. Four of the songs are are traditional English folk ballads, while the other two are settings of poems by Yeats and Hannah Murgatroyd.

On these six songs, Mary Hampton again demonstrates her unerring ability to sing a centuries-old song and make it sound utterly, rivetingly contemporary. Sounding like the ghost child of Sandy Denny, she sings in a voice impossibly high and pure, yet possessed of great wisdom and the merest hint of evil:

“Well I had to tell him some things are secrets
All you can do is smash them to nothing” (“Silver Pebble”)

“Pretty Polly” is a deathly anatomisation of tragedy and betrayal, a murder ballad so epic and chilling it makes Nick Cave’s efforts in this vein sound like a night in the pub with Girls Aloud. Hampton accompanies herself on spiralling acoustic guitar and adds sinister threads of violin and cello, adding to the song’s unnerving sense of dread and loss.

Like the earlier collection, Book Two comes with a large lyric sheet that has been intricately folded down to fit inside the CD sleeve. Once you’ve unfolded it, it’s hard to get it back to the way it was. Likewise, Hampton’s treatments of these songs expose the listener to emotions and states of mind that run deep through history, but with that exposure become irrevocably closer and clearer.

The Drift CD is Hampton’s first “proper” album, a collection of ten self-penned songs. Inevitably, what impresses most is the way they sound entirely of a piece with the traditional songs on the earlier records, tracing bleak narratives of desire and longing. With more musicians at her disposal and, presumably, a larger recording budget, Hampton brings a richer, fuller band sound to tracks like “Honey,” setting a panoply of strings and percussion against her radiant, transported vocals. The witty “Ballad of the Talking Dog” strips things down to just acapella voices, handclaps and whistling, while on “The Bell They Gave You” Hampton turns to the piano to frame her dramatic, terrorstruck imagery:

“The eel cries out before it is skinned
A strange scream in the high night”

Throughout the album Hampton’s voice, her distinctive guitar work and the swooning rapture of her texts combine to produce an exquisite desolation that puts her far ahead of most contemporary acoustic music.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Gregg Yeti & The Best Lights, Heart Palpitations of the Rich & Famous

A denizen of upstate New York, Gregg Yeti once led a group called the Flashing Astonishers. Since they broke up in 2002 he’s been ploughing his own furrow, putting out five self-released EPs of which Heart Palpitations of the Rich & Famous is a compilation of bright moments, with a couple of new songs thrown in. Not nearly as scary as his Himalayan namesake, Yeti trades in generic lo-fi indie rock with enough distinctive elements to make this an album that easily bears repeated listening.

Vocal duties are shared between Yeti and Jessica Rudy, both of whom have attractive and listenable singing voices. Yeti’s is timbrally very similar to Gordon Downie, of Canadian alternative veterans The Tragically Hip. There’s a kind of bruised swagger to his voice that is nicely complemented on this record by Rudy’s earthier, lilting tones. She sings lead on two of the album’s highpoints, “Half On The Way” with its fuzzy, warm bed of 12-string acoustic, and the rippling Cocteaus-y atmospheres of “Colonize Your Eyes.”

Most of the other songs here are sharper than that, with chiming guitars bolstered by workmanlike, unobtrusive drumming. The music has a quirky, individualistic edge that is mirrored by the idiosyncratic song titles (“Laughter Be Your Slave,” “Body Like A Fever,” for example). This is a fresh, uncomplicated and enjoyable record.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Eyes Like Saucers, Still Living In The Desert

On the back cover of this release Jeff Knoch, the American musician who goes under the name Eyes Like Saucers, poses for a photo with the tools that he used to make the album. These consisted of a VW camper van, a harmonium, a glockenspiel, a four-track cassette recorder, a few other bits and pieces and, crucially, a dog. Knoch’s dog Parmalee, to be precise, of whom he was clearly very fond. His website carries the sad news that Parmalee has recently passed on, and also gives a quotation from the French theorist Hélène Cixous: “Meeting a dog you suddenly see the abyss of love. Such limitless love doesn’t fit our economy. We cannot cope with such an open, superhuman relation.” In many respects Hélène Cixous needed to get laid, but back to the photo: whether consciously or not, it echoes the one on the back cover of Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, showing the arsenal of touring equipment that the Floyd used to lug around. Knoch’s comparatively meagre set of gear is a nice reflection of the simplicity and directness of this record.

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Virak, Threads

I’m of that dwindling, unfashionable mindset that still rates Radiohead’s OK Computer as one of the best albums of the ’90s. As is well known, Thom Yorke was so confused and overwhelmed by the massive worldwide success of that record that he deliberately turned away from its epic, widescreen style and steered Radiohead towards a series of anodyne follow-ups, short on inspiration and long on anaemic electronica. Those who still hanker after the expansive, anthemic qualities of OK Computer and its predecessor The Bends could do worse than to seek out Threads, the début album by Danish trio Virak.

Of course, there’s nothing here to match the vast, glacial movement of “The Tourist” or “No Surprises.” But a song like the seven-minute “Something Strange Happened As We Stood By The Lake” possesses a real sense of unfolding drama with its layered, spacious guitar work and busy drumming; likewise, the slow incremental pulse of “Violence” makes an immediately strong impression. It’s a shame, then, that vocalist, guitarist and lyricist Martin Ejlertsen’s singing voice is so pale and undistinguished, rendering the instrumental tracks on the whole more satisfying than the vocal ones. The lyrics, however, manage to stay just the right side of bombastic. They’re printed as prose in the CD booklet, a nice typographical technique that I’ve also enjoyed on records by artists such as 10,000 Maniacs and Okkervil River. Take this, from “Desert Storm”: “When we rise, we fall to higher hopes than we ever thought possible, like a desert storm, we’re out of reach.”

Virak bear strong comparison, too, with the dusty instrumental post-rock of groups like Scenic and Explosions In The Sky. On the excellent “Song of Everything,” for example, Peter Dyring-Olsen’s furiously precise drumming intensifies the impact of Ejlertsen’s rippling guitar lines. There’s nothing startlingly original about Threads, but it’s still recommended for those who like their rock music dramatic and refreshingly free of bluster.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Cultural Amnesia, Press My Hungry Button

Hot on the heels of Enormous Savages, the first album of reissued Cultural Amnesia material, comes this second collection, a lavish double LP from the German Vinyl on Demand label. Enormous Savages was reviewed, and the group interviewed, in SP16, but in case you weren’t paying attention here’s a quick recap. Cultural Amnesia were a British post-punk/early industrial group, originally active between 1980 and 1983 (they have recently reformed). They were part of the underground cassette culture that thrived in the early 80s, releasing three albums on cassette and making several appearances on compilations. They were connected to the early industrial scene through their association with the late John Balance, who, prior to forming his group Coil, acted as CA’s unofficial manager and wrote a handful of lyrics for them.

Both Enormous Savages and Press My Hungry Button contain selections from the Cultural Amnesia back catalogue, but where the first collection was a tantalising glimpse, just nine songs long, the present collection weighs in with a whopping 30 tracks. Clearly CA are as serious about preserving their past as they are about working in the present, and why not? It’s their past, after all, and an artist has the right to establish his own canon. There’s something rather touching about the sheer enthusiasm and self-belief with which CA are going about this reissue programme of 25-year-old music that was only ever heard by a handful of people when it was first released.

Is it worth it, though? On the evidence of Press My Hungry Button, the answer is an unqualified yes. More varied than the earlier collection, this album shows what a daring, innovative and smart unit Cultural Amnesia were. Necessity breeding invention, they utilised the technology available at the time to its fullest capacity, and emerged sounding like a primitivist take on Tubeway Army, Throbbing Gristle and John Foxx-era Ultravox. Gerard Greenway’s vocals are arresting in the extreme; he sounds menacing yet wise, like an eccentric teacher convinced of his own rightness. It would have been good to hear him inject a little looseness, some light and shade, into his singing, but that would have lessened the impact of the lyrics’ dense, allusive verbosity.

Musically, the default CA position was a rickety synthesiser line hammered out against a skeletal rhythm track, often in the company of scratchy buzz-saw guitars. The ‘industrial’ tag is justified, though, not only because of the Balance connection but also because CA shared something of TG’s perverse pleasure in combining distinctively atonal vocals with uneasy electronic textures. Songs like “Hot in the House” and “Shiny Guitar Music” evoke a disconnected, dystopian aura that is as powerful as TG’s nightmarish visions of urban hostility and decay:

“Go down to the town, down to the town
where they never work all their lives
so they just lie about
lost until knives cut the skin from their backs”

Yet CA had more up their sleeves than that. “The Media Funk” sounds, well, funky, while “For All Your Needs” is a bright and perky slip of a thing, all the more striking for being sequenced after the distinctly queasy and primitive “Dialogue of Skull and Soul.” Another stand-out track, “Magic Theatre,” starts out with glistening Philip Glass-style arpeggiations before allowing warm and inviting reeds to kick in.

Elsewhere, there’s a bizarre deconstruction of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and a more faithful, but still distinctive, cover of the Human League’s “Being Boiled.” Interesting to note that by the time CA recorded their version of this song, Phil Oakey & Co. had ditched their early electronic experimental tendencies and had gone all out to conquer the pop world with Dare. Cultural Amnesia, on the other hand, never lost that sense of quest – their approach, like that of the early League, was marked out by an academic rigour that concealed a feeling of pure joy and a pleasure in experimentation for its own sake. It’s not a bad legacy, as legacies go, and it’s one that is amply illustrated by this beautifully made and lovingly compiled record.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

The Weird Weeds, I Miss This

From Austin, Texas, come these Weeds, a three-piece here presenting their third album. It’s a highly polished and confident slab of experimental pop, rising adroitly to the challenge of mastering the contradictions that description implies. For while the Weird Weeds certainly know how to explore unusual and disruptive instrumental textures, they also never stray far from the direct, communicative impulse that characterises great pop.

An indication of just how good the Weeds are is given by the fact that oddball loner artist Jandek chose their drummer, Nick Hennies, to play in his pick-up band for an Austin concert in 2005. Jandek, for all his wilful eccentricity, is meticulous when it comes to live performances, and his choice of Hennies is a testament to the latter’s skill and panache as a sticksman. On I Miss This, he’s joined by Sandy Ewen (guitar, accordion and vocals) and Aaron Russell (guitar, bass and vocals) as they skip their way through 14 short, perfectly crafted mini-dramas.

The album is a melting-pot of influences, but always succeeds in finding its own voice in the midst of them. I hear echoes of Low in the poised male/female duo singing of “A Goose,” and of REM in the crunchy swagger of the electric guitar in “Lies.” The Weeds also draw inspiration from the gentler and more pastoral moments of 70s progressive rock bands like King Crimson, Henry Cow and even Genesis. (It’s not a crime to sound like any of these in my book, by the way.) Ewen sings lead on most tracks, bringing a touch of 60s flower-child rock to proceedings. Russell’s guitar work, meanwhile, ranges from jagged riffing to twinkling melodic interludes.

Some of the songs are too short, alighting on ideas that it would have been intriguing to hear being developed at length. But this brevity is also a virtue, allowing the Weeds to demonstrate their undoubted skills as purveyors of winning, kaleidoscopic pop visions.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

Steven R Smith, Owl

Intriguing album of guitar-led weirdness from Smith, who is associated with the American Jewelled Antler collective. These folks, like everyone else these days it seems, exist in a netherworld of drones, lo-fi folk songs and field recordings, shared with their public through a steady stream of limited run CD-Rs and other non-standard formats, often in hand-made packaging. Owl, however, is a “proper” CD, nicely presented in a card gatefold sleeve. It’s one of many releases by Smith, but the first on which he sings.

There’s presumably no familial connection between Smith and the very similarly named Sterling R. Smith, a.k.a. Jandek, although there are moments here that recall the blasted, defiant isolationism of the man from Houston. Closer parallels, however, would be with the hermetic mysticism of Scottish psych-folk troubadour Richard Youngs or Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance. Over nine mostly short tracks, Smith plays electric guitar with bucketloads of effects and distortion. His voice too is wreathed in echo and delay, rendering the lyrics often inaudible but contributing all the same to a remarkable sense of space and shimmer.

Throughout the album Smith allows his distant, glacial voice to sit quietly and comfortably among the insistent, droning pulse of his guitar. Actively refusing to foreground the voice in traditional singer-songwriter fashion, Smith uses it instead as another sound source, adding to the sense of dispersed energy inherent in the music. All the same, there’s no lack of communicative impulse here; a song like “O, Blessed Night Your Sunrise Has Burnt Down” fairly sparkles with kinetic urgency. At times the mood is sparser, such as on “Whistling” (a song which, needless to say, contains no whistling). But Smith’s deployment of guitar effects is consistently inventive, leaving a strong impression of blissed-out creativity.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)

The Doozer, Sheet Music

Another bedroom artist and another arch alias (cf. Lonesome Jonesome elsewhere in this issue), The Doozer doesn’t give out his real name. Perhaps he fears for his safety, as well he might, for this is a hopelessly slapdash and contrived collection of songs.

The Doozer is one of those songwriters (Robyn Hitchcock is another) who is devoted to the psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett. He even comes from Cambridge, hoping perhaps to channel some of Barrett’s inspirations into his own songs. Now I yield to no-one in my love of Pink Floyd, but I’m a firm believer that they only really got going after Barrett left the band and Roger Waters took creative control. I don’t much care for Piper at the Gates of Dawn or for Barrett’s two solo albums, so I was unlikely to be swayed by someone offering up a pale imitation of him. And so it proves.

The Doozer sings with the same blank, affectless drawl as Barrett, but fails to impart any of the latter’s bruised artistry. The lyrics are crass: “You can have a brand new voice, it’s just up the road” is about as incisive as it gets. “No-one likes us here,” he drones on “Like Us Here,” and frankly I’m not surprised.

Instrumentation is uniformly inept, consisting largely of cheap synthesised rhythms and melodies, with occasional forays into scratchy and primitive electric guitar. Taken together with the rote and uninspired singing, the combination is pestilential. The overall impression of unhealthy amateurism is confirmed by the front cover artwork, which depicts a dopey-looking bearded bloke (presumably The Doozer himself) presiding over a landscape of jarring colour clashes and icky symbolism.

(originally published in The Sound Projector 17, 2008)