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Monday, 27 July 2009

Atman - 'Tradition' (Drunken Fish)

"Featuring Anna Nacher", whose vocals are all over this thing, this Atman album buzzes and howls through the dark Polish woods, years before Dead Raven Choir. Where renmant ghosts of Nazi tanks still remain, melting voices from the spiritworld blend with rampant ethnoacoustics. There's a Hendrix cover and a bunch of crazed shoutingYELPINGmuttering, lotsa instruments you don't know the names of, and a general woodland vibe. Sixty-three minutes of it, too! But like future band the Magic Carpathians, that forest atmosphere is taken into a recording studio and all the tricks are in place. There's a funky electric bass, some synths, and a general layer of gloss over everything. This pagan approach to psychedelic music, with the rock all sucked out, surely influenced all those bands in Finland that came along later. Except that while those bands used lo-fi hiss to make their sound more otherwordly, distant, etc., Atman seem cool with the idea that music can actually be well-recorded; thus if you are so inclined (and have nice high-quality speakers or headphones and stereo audio equipment) you can really lose yourself in the joy of recorded instruments. The pure, inherent psychedelia of a reverberating string is on display here, though layered and with madcap vocals threatening to distract. The whole "other" aspect of the Polish language gives Tradition an air of exoticism to this native-English speaker, though maybe they're just singing about girls, fast food and cars. Ten years ago, when I got this CD, it was like discovering a new world of insane atmospheres, and from my ancestral homeland as well! But listening now, it feels less impressive; maybe because I've got another decade of hearing similar sounds, some predating Tradition by 20 years or more. But maybe I've just moved further into my own; the pagan thing carries nothing exotic anymore, I've been to Poland now, and my tastes have moved away from crazy folk-based psych. And maybe I demand something a bit more concise now; 63 minutes is a lot of Atman, where 40 might have sufficed. But not to be hard on this - as I haven't listened to this for a few years it was a pretty nice flashback.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Ashtray Navigations - 'Four More Raga Moods' (Ikuisuus)

Four tracks, four raga moods? Well a deliciously ornate foldout CD-digipak is a nice start. The opening track, 'History of Psychedelia', begins with a weird cut-up tape moment before Ben Reynolds starts to play the acoustic guitar in a Takoma-esque flowery style. There's some variable speedwarble and a few dips and then it creaks to a halt. I'm not sure if this covers the whole history of psychedelia in such a short time, but I guess it's a start. And then onto 'Hey Sunflower Motherfucker': Phil Todd solo, and it's a 10 minute "typical" Ashtray track, though that's not to denigrate it - it's a deep, dense buildup of drone and feedback with some drumming as well. As a venue for Phil to show what he can do on his own, he excels here. 'The Pete Nolan Effect' is Pete and Phil and Mel Delaney and Reynolds, and it opens with ten minutes of melodies buried under a ridiculous amount of tape hiss - before the proper "jam" comes in, with a flange-heavy distant recording technique. Said jam starts slowly - very slowly - and over the course of the next twenty minutes it moves little. Pete Nolan is on guitar so it doesn't come in with any thunderous rocking; in fact, it's difficult to determine what, if anything, is "the Pete Nolan effect". The final track is another twenty minutes of deep dense droning, this time featuring Chris Hladowski, Alex Neilson and Matt Cairns, from the Glasgow band Scatter. This weirdo hybrid is spooky and foreign-sounding due to the presence of dijiridoo and "magic bouzouki", but somehow true to the vibe of the record. Everything is still staticy and crackly, and it's actually quite a gem from the discographies of all of these gentlemen, yet one that is probably forgotten by being buried at the end of a 70+ minute Astray Navigations CD that no one will ever listen to the end of. Despite the deluxe gatefold CD packaging and the crisp CD sound, Phil Todd made sure to keep enough noise and static on here to show his roots. And despite having four different lineups on four different tracks, it feels coherent -- like a proper "album" done all at once, even though it's nothing but. But it wouldn't quite be Ashtray Navigations if the cellotape and band-aids didn't show on the outside.

Ashtray Navigations - 'The Love that Whirrs' (Last Visible Dog)

This trio lineup of Phil Todd, Alex Neilson, and Ben Reynolds stuffs this disc with guitar tones, decaying note ambience and stale cigarette-infused air. Despite the minidisc-style recording this feels quite slick - after all it's a "proper" CD and not the usual edition of 20 -- and though you can hear the general room sounds, it sounds great. Maybe this shows what some proper mastering can do for you. I had a discussion a few years back with someone, back when this whole underground noise/drone CD-r/cassette scene was experiencing a flareup, and they said that they still viewed full-length LPs and "proper" CDs as the major statements/albums -- and the tapes/CDrs as "singles". I've seen it that way ever since and I think a lot of artists affiliated with that scene do too, even if they may not articulate it as such. The Love that Whirrs is truly an album then, as it boasts a few 'big' tracks. 'Psychedelic Psamosa' is the centerpiece, beginning with Reynolds' acoustic fingerpicking while Phil and Alex build up a thick blanket of scrapes and drones around it. I love how spacious the sound is, yet you can tell it was certainly recorded in a tiny room or dingy Leeds basement - it's a false expansiveness, a cavernous facade on council housing. The acoustic guitar (also present on the final track) creates some distinct notes to poke out of the air, but it's quickly consumed by the all-encompassing sound blanket. The Vibracathedral Orchestra comparison is easy to make, particularly as they just live down the street and both groups indulge in thick minimalist psychedelia with acoustic instruments, but Ashtray introduce a great deal more tension into their interactions. Plus it's a smaller group to begin with, and Ashtray aren't afraid to branch out into harsh noise, musique concrete or straighter-folk forms - all of which are present, in glimpses, on this record. This came out reasonably close to Four More Raga Moods yet it's this one I tend to pull out most frequently, as it feels generally more cohesive.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Ashtray Navigations - 'ssssnares' (Memoirs of an Aesthete)

This 3" CDr was issued by Phil Todd in 2002, documenting 18 more minutes of Ashtray Navigations, though I have to say that listening to this now when most of my Ashtray collection consists of the sludgebucket years of 2004-2007, I'm quite taken by it. This is six tracks, some only seconds long but enough to catch you off-guard with their weird dissonances and hiss; and others are longer 'workouts' (an overused word, for sure, but one that I always think is applicable to the marathon-like Ashtray Navigations pieces). 'Discoversion of America' isn't really disco, at least not like fellow Leeds artist Astral Social Club, but does have a ringing tonal lead, probably guitar or cheap synth, that makes it into an anthem of sorts. 'Point thine ears' is the longest piece, with C. Jarvis' "rat guitar/electronics" - dense garbageman psychedelics that give a strong hint to the Ben Reynolds/Mel Delaney years that will follow. There's parts on the early tracks, particularly 'Irons' and 'Smoke & Mirrors Fucking Shit' that recalls Todd's earlier band, Inca Eyeball - ramshackle acoustic messes that are clean yet ragged. Definitely this is one of my favorites among the zillions of Ashtray CDs I own - well, it's more like 12 but most of them won't see the light of Elbow Cinderblock Glass Mastered Constructor Bags since none have spines. This, packaged in a sturdy plastic case with a nice thick spine, has always gotten to sit at the "big" dinner table with the other spined jewelcases, so there you are.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Robert Ashley - 'Automatic Writing' (Lovely Music)

I went on holiday in 2001 to Scotland, and visited a friend there. Among other conversational items, he mentioned that he had just purchased a secondhand LP of Automatic Writing but he wasn't "into" it and was going to sell it. Neither my traveling companion nor myself had ever heard it, so he put it on the turntable and we opened some beers. After ten minutes or so my traveling companion and I both expressed our amazement at what we were hearing and we both offered to buy the unwanted record from my friend. When faced with our enthusiasm, said friend re-evaluated his feelings and refused to sell it to us. So I went back to America emptyhanded, though as soon as I could get my ass to Twisted Village (or maybe it was Other Music in NYC?) I bought the CD reissue, which tacked on bonus tracks 'Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon' (1968) and 'She Was a Visitor' (1967). Some years later I found the LP for cheap but I never unloaded this CD, which means it's going to get reviewed immediately after this on Dislocated Underbite et al. But that's okay - I don't mind listening to this twice in a row, because there's something really amazing about this recording that still affects me as much as it did eight years previously. The CD liner notes, by Ashley, explain his mild form of Tourette's syndrome and his interest in involuntary speech, though he admits that attempting to do performances with involuntary speech results in 'fake' involuntary speech, since it's a performance after all, etc. you know. Anyway, he spent five years "composing" this, which consists of voice by himself and Mimi Johnson, Ashley's voice being electronically manipulated mumbling and gurgling and Johnson's being whispered French text. On that surface you have a brilliant, surreal low-listening mindfuck that wins points in sound poetry circles as well as the avant-text circuit; but what really blows my mind about this record is the "music" in the background. For at least part of the record, a distant booming rhythm loop is present, but it's recorded in a way that makes it sound exactly like your next-door neighbor is listening to some shitty groove/dance record. Now read those italicised words again and let them sink in. And if you haven't heard Automatic Writing you're no doubt asking yourself "So?" Which goes to illustrate how futile it is to convey the sound experience through language. Because this distant rhythm is what moves this music into the arena of something special and indescribable - I cannot explain just how good it is, or why, or what the big deal is. Certainly the whole package with the mumbling and the weird electronics ticks all the boxes of conceptual art, surrealism, outsider art, and electronic fuckery that is interesting. But there's also something extremely anti-musical about it, and maybe this rhythm is what makes me feel this way (because it's music being used to oppose music, or something). And another thing is that I think this succeeds enormously as the conceptual/brainy/avant-garde theatre piece it was composed as, but it also succeeds without all of that attached to it - as a pure piece of sound to lose oneself in and draw inspiration from. Now I should probably save my raving for the LP version and focus on these bonus tracks, but the truth is, they've never done much for me. In fact, nothing of Ashley's apart from this and In Sara Mencken, Christ and Beethoveen there were men and women (which slays!) has ever interested me. The benefit of having this on CD is that you don't have to flip the record, this making it the perfect record to fall asleep to and inspire your own involuntary speech - except you have to program your CD player not to play tracks 2 or 3 which is a bit of a drag. I've listened to this many times, usually at low volume so the French whispering is just static, but now I've noticed it seems to keep repeating 'Qu'est-ce c'est tu caché?' or something like that, which even my high school French can tell is 'What have you hidden?' (or something like that). And maybe that's just made this even better.