Unfolk/Kevin Hewick, The Venetian Book of the Dead

That title The Venetian Book of the Dead leads one to expect some kind of facile Goth travelogue.  It’s an impression not exactly dispelled by the cover, with its illustration of skeletons, shrouds and crucifixes.  Yet to dismiss the album on this basis would be a big mistake.  Yes, it’s about death, but it’s also a compelling album of contemporary protest songs, rooted firmly in modern history and driven by a sense of righteous outrage.

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Chris Connelly, How This Ends

Fine album of dark ambient weirdness from a veteran of the British and American Industrial scenes. The Scottish-born Connelly has been a persistent presence among these networks for over twenty years, having served time with Ministry and Revolting Cocks as well as racking up a not inconsiderable twelve solo albums. What I find most impressive about this latest effort is its unusual form, evidence of a distinctive musical intelligence at work.

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Roshi feat. Pars Radio, The Sky and the Caspian Sea

The Sky and the Caspian Sea is an enchanting collection of torch songs from a young Welsh-Iranian singer, Roshi Nasehi.  Roshi takes elements of Iranian folk song and blends them into her own, decisively modern take on the ballad.  Accompanying herself on piano and backed by a superb three-piece group, Roshi threads her way through these songs with swanlike grace and imparts a deeply moving sense of spiritual and cultural ‘otherness’.

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Viviane Houle, Treize

This is the kind of record that gives free improvisation a bad name.  In place of the passion, beauty and intensity that I associate with Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, AMM and other leading exponents of the genre, what we have here is an album mostly devoid of those qualities.  Academic from the title onwards – “treize” is French for ‘thirteen’ – there are thirteen tracks here, each one a duet between improvising vocalist Viviane Houle and a different musician.  The overall impression is of a series of cerebral voice exercises; it’s no surprise to me that Houle moonlights as a voice teacher when she’s not performing.

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St. Just Vigilantes, Pastor of Oaks, Sheppherd of Stones

Pleasant but underwhelming album of mainly acoustic moves from a duo apparently based in Vancouver and London.  The self-consciously rustic title and faux-medieval lettering on the cover might lead the casual browser to assume that St. Just Vigilantes lie within the presently ubiquitous “weird folk” movement.  And elements of that sound are indeed present on the record, although it’s plain that the group are actually closer in spirit to the goth-inflected apocalyptic folk of Current 93 and Death In June, with a dash of ethno-folk à la Dead Can Dance stirred into the pot for good measure.  Now I yield to none in my love for all three of those groups, but this is a case of the whole being rather less than the sum of its parts.

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Rational Academy, Swans

This is the second instalment in a series of mini-albums released by the Australian Someone Good label under the rubric ‘10 Songs In 20 Minutes’. The series offers exactly what the description provides – a punchy, ten-song introduction to a group’s work, clocking in at no more than 20 minutes. It’s an idea that’s obviously designed to privilege qualities of brevity and succinctness, but these are not generally qualities I value particularly highly in music, and they’re certainly not qualities to be cherished in respect of this particular release.

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Olivier Girouard, La nuit nous déconstruit par cœur

Brief, spooky and highly effective instrumental work from composer and sound artist Girouard. It’s actually the soundtrack to a dance piece, although you’d never guess so from listening to it, both because the music doesn’t sound remotely danceable and because, unlike many soundtracks, it’s capable of being enjoyed in its own right without any reference to visual imagery.

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Nicola Ratti, Ode

For the avoidance of doubt, this Nicola is a man – an Italian guitarist and pianist, formerly of Pin Pin Sugar. Ode, his third solo album, is a collection of quiet and gentle moments. Minimalist to the core, its timeless summery beauty is unfortunately undermined by a typical piece of new age flim-flam on the back cover: “This music is a day, a dream and a night at the same instant.” Whether you buy the truth of this statement or not, and I most certainly don’t, there is still much to admire here.

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Cardinal, Cardinal

This is one of those albums that really needs some kind of documentation in order for the listener to gain a proper understanding and appreciation of it. Regrettably, however, such information is almost entirely absent in this case. Cardinal are an Italian jazz quartet whose music walks the line between composition and improvisation. The sleeve notes to this, their first collaboration, make great play of the fact that most of the pieces on the record were realized through the use of graphic scores. Naturally I reached for the booklet, hoping that these scores, or at least extracts from them, would be reprinted as an aid to following the music. Yet with the exception of one poorly reproduced illustration, the four-panel insert contains no such extracts, leaving the listener completely in the dark as to the theoretical basis of the group’s work.

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Fennesz, Vienna Gartenbaukino, 5 May 2011

A rum evening this.  The occasion was the Austrian premiere of AUN – The Beginning and the End of All Things, a new film by Austrian director Edgar Honetschläger for which Christian Fennesz had composed the soundtrack.  Since the evening was advertised as a benefit for the Japanese Red Cross (the film being an Austrian-Japanese co-production), and since Fennesz would be there in person, attendance was a must.  But, strangely for a benefit gig, the organizers had announced that there would only be 100 tickets available to the general public, and those for free.  Since the Gartenbaukino, the largest cinema in Vienna, has 736 seats, that left a whopping 636 tickets reserved for people connected to the film.  And since those 636 would also be given away free, it was hard to see where the fund-raising aspect would come in.  Anyway, I expected there to be a massive run on those 100 tickets, and duly hammered my finger sore in a rush to call the reservations hotline.

In the event, I needn’t have worried.  There were large numbers of empty seats on the night, both for the screening itself and for the Fennesz concert which followed.  I would have expected the guitar/laptop wizard to generate the soundtrack live in real time as the film was shown, as is customary at such events, but it was not to be.  Instead he played beautifully for an hour or so after the film, his performance a shimmering and, I thought, unusually aggressive (for him) soundscape hewn from those endless silvery riffs.

As for the fund-raising element, the audience were asked for voluntary donations.  Fair enough, but I can’t help wondering whether more money would have been raised if the evening had been promoted as a regular film plus live performance under normal ticketing arrangements.  And the film AUN, by the way, was a stinker.  One of the most tediously incomprehensible art flicks I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through, it made Nostalghia look like Carry On Up the Khyber.