Short Cuts 3: Autechre, Russell Haswell, Jarboe, Modell Doo

The third in an occasional series of handy bite-size reviews of shows I don’t have the will or, more pressingly these days, the time to write more about.

Autechre & Russell Haswell, Vienna Flex, 30 March 2010

Mesmerising night of electronic wildness, at a venue whose pristinely loud sound system I love almost as much as the eye-poppingly beautiful nature of many of its clientele. Russell Haswell – at least one supposes it was him, although it was impossible to tell given the baseball cap pulled down low over his face – came onstage just before midnight and made a huge and inspired racket for just ten minutes. Crushing drones collided with sick frequencies in a synapse-cleaning curtain-raiser to the main event.

Autechre were superb. Their precise, mechanistic sound could so easily have descended into a dry, sterile exercise; not a bit of it. This music was endlessly vital, bubbling and, oh yes, hot.

Jarboe, Vienna Chelsea, 12 April 2010

An all-too-brief setting of Jarboe’s powerful, otherworldly voice against a churning Metal soundscape. The Chelsea’s murky acoustics couldn’t dispel the hypnotic intensity of this, less a performance than an invocation.

Neonbeats, Vienna Replugged, 24 April 2010

Fun evening of Austrian new wave and post-punk revivalism to celebrate the release of a new, extensive compilation of this stuff on Klanggalerie. Of the four groups I saw, the only one that made a really lasting impression were Modell Doo, a synth/guitar and drums duo who played with a sharp, brittle passion.

Nurse With Wound: Shipwreck Radio Vols. 1 & 2, Soundpooling

As Nurse With Wound approach their 30th year of activity, their public profile is higher than ever. A slew of new releases and reissues, a series of well received live performances and a collaboration with Faust have all served to raise awareness of Steven Stapleton’s formidably strange life’s work, once shrouded in mystery and anonymity. The famously eremitic Stapleton, who lives with his family in a remote farmhouse in Ireland, has even dipped his toe into the fetid waters of internet commerce, selling limited edition prints through his official Website.

Time was when Nurse With Wound consisted of Steven Stapleton plus whoever he chose to gather around him to help realise his surreal musical imaginings. In recent years, though, and coinciding with their emergence blinking into the realm of live performance, NWW have begun to take on the properties of a group. Long-time Stapleton collaborator Colin Potter, who releases NWW’s albums on his ICR label, is the other core member, augmented for live work by Andrew Liles, Matt Waldron and David Tibet of Current 93, whose musical journey is in many respects inseparable from Stapleton’s.

Throughout this period of increased activity, however, the music of Nurse With Wound has retained an enviable air of self-effacement and mystique. This aura of detachment stems from a willed refusal on the part of the music’s authors to allow their individuality to be imprinted upon it. It’s music that rigorously avoids the facile imparting of meaning through personality and association. Instead it communicates with the listener through a system of atavistic codes and signifiers, leaving a disquieting impression of dislocation and wrongness.

The two double albums comprising volumes 1 and 2 of Shipwreck Radio (a third volume was not received for review) are prime examples of this scrupulous working through of the alien and strange. Casting themselves in the role of sonic explorers, Stapleton and Potter ventured north to the Lofoten Islands in the Norwegian Arctic, winding up in the small village of Svolvaer, where they remained for two months. During that time they made regular broadcasts on local radio, some of which now form the music on these albums. Clocking in (with one double-length exception) at 15 minutes each, the predominant mode of these tracks is Isolationist soundscaping, with multilayered drones and frequencies piling up and shifting restlessly around each other. This being Nurse With Wound, however, there’s far more going on here than just ambient hum and flutter. Central to the concept of the piece was that Potter and Stapleton had to take all the sounds they used from objects and environments they found in and around Lofoten. The resulting source material is presented in various ways, from untreated field recordings to heavily processed interventions.

Volume 1 opens with a dose of just such heaviosity, “June 15”, as a tumbling rock riff locks itself inside your skull and refuses to leave. Distorted, looped and heavily percussive, this juggernaut opening is a fearsome statement of intent. When the onslaught subsides, some local colour is added in the form of cut up and looped spoken voices. These are familiar Stapleton tropes, and they act rather as filler here. It’s a relief when “June 17” arrives, a beautifully paced 30-minute chorale of birdsong, rainfall, running water and distant voices. Slowly, imperceptibly, electronic treatments are added to these atmospheric sounds, infecting them with strangeness. Finally, we hear the sounds of local festivities, including a brass band, mangled and pitch-shifted to the point of unrecognisability.

The remaining pieces on both volumes amplify and extend the sense of inhospitability that permeates the project. Stapleton and Potter turn for inspiration away from the village and its people, and towards the harshness of the sea that surrounds them. The sound sources move outwards and downwards, becoming deep, murky and clanky and recalling NWW’s earlier Salt Marie Celeste, a particularly sinister evocation of oceanic dread. On the closing piece of volume 1, “June 20”, a thick musical fog descends slowly around a succession of indistinct rattles and thuds.

Volume 2 is more varied musically, with “June 19” being especially enjoyable. Until the appearance of the long-promised NWW hip-hop album, this may be the most danceable thing Stapleton has ever done. Although it wasn’t the last to be broadcast, its placing at the end of volume 2 makes perfect sense, with its insistent percussive throb and its movement away from the hardships conjured earlier and towards some kind of resolution and farewell.

In a further indication of NWW’s reconstitution as a group, they have also dropped that most rockist of manoeuvres, the live album. Soundpooling is rather special, however – a document of the first NWW concerts in 21 years, which took place in 2005. Conceived and organised by Walter Robotka of Vienna electronic label Klanggalerie, the three gigs were held at the Narrenturm pathological museum in Vienna and were not actually billed as NWW concerts (advance publicity just listed the names of the group members). Wearing white lab coats in keeping with the medical setting, the group performed improvisations on the aforementioned Salt Marie Celeste, of which the recording here is the third. Another NWW piece, Echo Poème, is also blended into the mix, resulting in an hour-long, distinctly filmic narrative of disorientation. The looming drones and watery creaks that made the original Salt Marie Celeste a work of such ominous foreboding recur in abundance here, along with enough disembodied cries, moans and cackles to soundtrack any number of nightmares. A bonus studio track, “In Swollen Silence”, rounds things off in grandstanding style with calm instrumental textures and a brief, surreal song, punctuated by crazed vocal and electronic interjections. In the world of Nurse With Wound, something nasty is never far away.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)

Maurizio Bianchi: Elisionem

Maurizio Bianchi is an Italian noise musician who is perhaps best known for his early association with Whitehouse and their Come Org label. In 1981, Bianchi gave copies of his early noise recordings to Whitehouse’s William Bennett, who re-edited them without Bianchi’s approval and released two albums’ worth of material under the name Leibstandarte SS MB. Bianchi himself does not count these albums as part of his oeuvre, even though they are undoubtedly responsible in part for such public profile as he currently has.

He released at least ten further albums in the early 80s, before getting religion and retiring from music. Reactivating his career in 1998, he has been making up for lost time with an avalanche of recordings on a bewildering variety of labels, including this one on Klanggalerie, the leading Austrian label for avant-garde electronic and noise music.

The album’s presentation has a distinctly scientific bearing; track titles include “Proteic Suppression”, “Glutenous Dispositive” and “Histological Amalgam”, while the sleeve notes – possibly with tongue in cheek – attempt to elucidate the album’s title with a screed that begins “The ‘elisionem’, in the avant-gardist branch, is a sound absorbent course used to amalgamate various sonorous elements into one.” Feeling none the wiser, one proceeds to listen to the record.

Wholly electronic in origin, the music on this collection of drone- and loop-based pieces is dramatic and forbidding. The hypnotic, serpentine repetitions of “Proteic Suppression” are reminiscent of Zoviet France, while “Syllabic Microbes” is quieter and more mysterious, until a series of harsh metallic stabs upsets the track’s equilibrium. At 24 minutes, “Elliptic Iontophoresis” is the longest and most effective piece on the album. Microscopically detailed in texture, its soundworld begins with high and low end drones that give way to grating clashes, stricken movements and a gradual ratcheting up of tension. Finally, the drama retreats into a sense of relative calm, with swirling astral patterns and periodic bursts of activity. Whatever its scientific basis, this is a very fine album of dark ambient atmospherics.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)

Graf & Zyx: Trust No Woman Plus

Along strikingly similar lines to Cultural Amnesia’s Enormous Savages, here’s a reissue of another lost artefact of electronic pop. This time the Klanggalerie label has disinterred the very rare 1981 album Trust No Woman by the Austrian duo of Inge Graf and Walter Zyx, adding a slew of bonus tracks ranging from 1977 to 1986 for good measure.

The record is remarkably ahead of its time, and one wonders how it is that Graf & Zyx have until now been so under-reported – and, indeed, under-appreciated – in the history of synthesised pop music. It’s quite staggering, in fact, to listen to a track like “Sorrow and Sadness”, with its clipped, multi-tracked vocals, spacey synths and restrained percussion, and to learn that it dates from as far back as 1977. Those first Graf & Zyx songs – “I Look Out” and “Get Away Dark Side” also date from this period – have a rough, weathered feel that points to Cabaret Voltaire as being the duo’s closest peers at that stage.

Throughout the early ’80s, Graf & Zyx deepened and refined their approach and produced Trust No Woman, the album that forms the core of the present reissue. Building on the early work of Gary Numan – who, for all the critical opprobrium piled upon him, was a crucially important figure in the development of electronic pop – and the original Human League, Graf & Zyx designed their short, immediate songs around a barrage of analogue synths, rock-solid electro beats and controlled, low-key vox. From 1982, “I Use You” (the title sounds like something an early computer might have come out with) is simple, undulant and strangely moving, infused with the spirit of hopeful discovery that accompanied the introduction of affordable home computers and synthesisers at that time: “Empty room in my mind/they are talking from behind/but I use you/when I look away…” Graf & Zyx may not be as revered or, indeed, as important as Kraftwerk; yet their work shares the technological melancholy that suffuses through the music of the men from Düsseldorf.

With a total of 24 tracks on the album, there was always going to be the occasional clunker, and certainly Graf & Zyx were not always as sharp as they might have been. The cringemaking “Love Your Dog” is a very silly, faux-operatic piece of doggy do-do, while “Ciao Lucia” plods along for five interminable minutes without ever raising a flicker of interest. These lapses, though, are thankfully rare. And the album ends on a perfect flourish with a key track, “When Darkness Comes” – not only the last and longest song on the record, but the only one whose lyric is printed on the insert. Its extended instrumental outro is a bubbling, perfectly paced synth workout; bright, lively and profoundly tuneful, it revels, like the album as a whole, in its own formal boldness and innovation.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 16, 2008)

Bernhard Gal: Hinaus:: In den, Wald.

Bernhard Gal’s fourth album is a journey inside the mind of a disturbed, solipsistic individual. Adolf Woelfli (1864-1930) was a Swiss who spent a deprived childhood as a farmhand. He was imprisoned for sexual attacks on young girls before being transferred to the mental hospital where he spent the last 35 years of his life. While there he created a 25,000-page opus of detailed texts and illustrations. It is Woelfli’s status as an outsider artist that forms the basis for Gal’s enquiry into his life and work.

The disc consists of recordings of Woelfli’s texts, which he wrote in German and in an invented language, recited by Gal and by a young Taiwanese girl. (Some of the texts are reproduced in the CD booklet.) Interspersed with these are field recordings of a man making his way through a forest. The sleevenotes say that the latter are intended to express Woelfli’s ‘permanent creative urge’. The overall effect is disturbing, for several reasons. The girl has an uninflected, naturally pure voice, while Gal’s own often whispered voice ranges in timbre from the idle to the threatening. Together, the voices uneasily register the presence of victim and assailant. The forest sounds, whatever the intention, strongly evoke Woelfli’s estranged status.

Gal is primarily a sound artist, and Hinaus:: In den, Wald was originally the soundtrack of an installation – a dark, immersive sonic environment. It is easy to imagine how disorientating these recordings must have been in this context, and the sleevenotes recommend listening on headphones in darkness to approximate the effect. Without the full spatial awareness given by the installation, listening to the CD is a necessarily incomplete, yet still powerful experience.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 13, 2005)