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Friday, 18 September 2009

Bark Psychosis - 'Game Over' (3rd Stone)

The dance music rumblings I expressed uneasyness with when they were hinted at on Hex are much more full-on here, but Game Over is the Pisces Iscariot/Incesticide of Bark Psychosis so it's easy to forgive the odd excursion into producing a club hit. It's most glaring on the opening track, 'Blue', and 1992's 'Manman', and while I like a good dance now and then, the beats and rhythms aren't particularly invigorating. 'Manman' has some great screaming guitar ambience which recalls A.R. Kane's best experiments but the drum programming is a bit, eh, weak. But consistency is impossible on a collection like this, so with that criterion tossed aside, Game Over can reveal some moments of true beauty. I think I like the longer tracks -- 'All Different Things' is 8 minutes of mid-90's ambient pop infused with a slow, elegiac drama that never gets to where it's going (a good thing!) and the 21-minute 'Scum' is a masterpiece that feels slighted by it's placement on this disc. 'Murder City' I find a bit less endearing - is this BP's 'Moby Dick'? (as in the Led Zep staple, yeah). As good as BP were, they really used the album form to stretch out so compromise is inevitable here. The palette is most inviting when the tempo slows. 'Bloodrush' opens with digital-delay jangle, and BP feels more "post-shoegaze" to me because every one of these notes is important. The Wire cover, 'Three Girl Rhumba', is a tossed-off gag that probably wasn't worth paying the publishing royalties for but I'm glad it's here for the potential of future mixtapes (or playlists or whatever people do now). There's some overlap with Hex ('A Street Scene' is exactly the same as the album version, I think) and no attempt at this being consistent, so its best to just revel in the highs. 'Scum' as I said above is the masterpiece, probably of Bark Psychosis's whole career, capturing a perfect moment of emotional psychedelia through an early 90s English gaze. (I mean, grunge was big in 1992 when 'Scum' was is a weird thing to think about, though I can't articulate why). There's a live version of 'Pendulum Man' to close this out, which is recorded well enough, but I'm left feeling like something is missing. And a nagging sense that I should dig out the ///Codename:Dustsucker mp3s and get to know that record better.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Bark Psychosis - 'Hex' (Caroline)

In the shadowy microscenes we all occupied in the 90s, a few albums had a special significance. Hex is one of these, though it was a microscene that I sort of skated around. Back when I used to find out about music through listserv recommendations and the occasional allmusic.com-esque resource, it gradually became apparent to me that Hex was going to be a somewhat 'mandatory' listen. I was continually enthralled by Talk Talk's Laughing Stock et al. from the age of 19 on, and Hex was promised to be either a worthy sucessor or a blatant ripoff, depending on who you heard it from. It was quite difficult to find for awhile due to Caroline's weird distribution but I remember the day I finally tracked it down (through some secondhand half.com-style store) and listened to it for the first time. Actually, this CD doesn't really sound much like Talk Talk, a truth which brought immediate disappointment back then; now years later, its individuality is probably what salvages Hex and makes me so appreciative of it. Most of the records that really do sound like Laughing Stock clones (such as that last Slowdive album, or that one Dean Roberts solo record) are too indistinct, like their soul has been sucked out. I know it's a long time til we reach the T's, but soul is what makes Mark Hollis's music so powerful and well, epoch-defining. I don't feel the soul in quite the same way here; BP's songwriting is no less serious but it failed to connect with me on any level. Again, that's not a bad thing, but something different. Bark Psychosis have the same lush organicism that Talk Talk got into, but there's something very on-the-mark about their approach. I listen to 'Pendulum Man', which is the longest track here, and there are some definitely gorgeous soundscapes in there but also the slighest tendency towards repetitive rhythmic structures. Whatever everyone was calling 'post-rock' in the 90s may have actually been, it was rooted in stuff like Laughing Stock but then split and traveled in various directions. Hex is absolutely gorgeous but it was a fork, and maybe along the way that road led through Radiohead, Hood, maybe Fridge or Four Tet -- and then back to Bark Psychosis when they finally released Codename:Dustsucker (which I surely would have jizzed over if I heard it in 2000 but it came too late to claim any of my already-ravaged attention span. Sadly). I know I'm not doing them any service to keep comparing Hex to Talk Talk, but BP also struck me as extremely British (like British Petroleum, another BP acronym?) and even though Talk Talk were British too, I think Hollis' influences were far more American. Hex was always a little disturbingly close to all of those scary things I associated with British music in the 90's: clubs, flashing lights, electronic beats, synthetic drugs and weird London slang. Of course that's mostly off-base because this is really slow, introspective music that makes grand gestures towards beauty, dissonance and texture. But I still hear it - this is a band that is making fantastic, powerful music with a pile of gear and expensive recording technology. This is not four guys in a garage with a few effects pedals. Some tracks, like 'Absent Friend', have parts that remind me of traditional/medieval folk music actually - even though it clicks into a more 'modern' sound. Throughout Hex, there are some lovely rhythms and the sounds of various instruments going in and out of phase with each other through their melodic cycles. The lyrics are there and the singing needs to be heard, but the words don't matter. I probably listened to this record at least 30 times back in the day, and it feels very familiar, although it still feels new. This is music that doesn't dig into my brain; it floats overtop and makes millions of synaptic connections each time I heard it, but has never quite become "mine". Maybe I'm just saying that it doesn't have obvious hooks, no hit song, nothing so obvious. Whenever there's the old debate about Appolonian vs. Dionysian sound, I wonder where Bark Psychosis score - they seem to be somewhat beyond such classifications.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Bablicon - 'The cat that was a dog, a flat inside a fog' (Misra)

For their final album (the swansong as the Rock establishment calls it) Bablicon are showing their compositional skills. Gone, mostly, are the haywire improv freakouts and the studio dubbery; we're left with a very organic collection of 16 tracks with lots of different instruments and varying personnel. Gone, mostly, is the excitement too. What's left is a too-long mess that is stretched thin; I could be even harsher and say "boring" and "inconsistent". The first half of this double album is The cat that was a dog but there's very little to thrill. The opening track mirrors Orange Tapered Moon's opening track at least in the sense of there being intelligible singing, though this is a much more mellow moonlight jazz number that is certainly inoffensive but hardly incendiary. The Duke Ellington fixation begins here and stays throughout this half of the CD, which would definitely have worked better as two single albums. 'Travelling' is a very lengthy piece constructed around some lovely piano runs but it adds up to nothing more than Muzak to me. The highlight of this half (and maybe the whole CD) is the lengthy 'Saumur/Paris/Teatowels' which has some tape manipulations and a strange, low-level murmuring that reminds me of Graham Lambkin and the Shadow Ring's recent output. It eventually falls into the jazzrockjam that would most identifiably be the 'Bablicon sound', but I liked the murky part best! The second half, A flat inside a fog, is an improvement, as the quirkier stuff is crammed here. 'Distant Morfonger' just sounds like a track for progheads but has some weird electronic gurgling under melodica, which flows into 'Arcdurwish' which continues the electronics before melting into a circular mess of sampled geese, tapes and spazzy drumming. Things at least get a bit loose here but it's too little, too late. Much of 'Bahamut' is unremarkable and 'AEther' takes the spazzy theramin playing from their first album and sets it against another piano ballad (albeit a bleak one). The compositional side goes into overdrive on 'Aphe hall' and 'Atlas' Cousin' with a full orchestral score; it resembles Varèse's work and is pretty excellent, but it just doesn't belong. Everything and the kitchen sink, huh? The drummer (who's the guy from Neutral Milk Hotel) lays out a "fuzz organ' solo track which is at least a bit of dirt and grit like this record needs, but it just feels like filler. 'Pigeon of Doom' is a title given to songs by bands like Bablicon and not bands like Motorhead; the vaguely Monty Python humour spills into the song itself which has some moaning vocals but is otherwise unremarkable. It all ends with 'An Odd Pear', another excursion into fake jazz-trio 'maturity'. I realise I may sound pretty damn harsh but this record feels especially difficult to enjoy because of its length and because it comes as a huge disappointment against the awesomeness that was their second album. So the stars maybe only aligned once over Chicago, for these three; at least we'll always have that 35 minutes and we can ignore these 65.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Bablicon - 'The Orange Tapered Moon' (Misra)

Ten years ago I was jizzing over this and it hasn't been any worse for the wear. This 'sophmore' effort is much more focused, with a significantly shorter running time (35 minutes) and pieces that, if not composed more tightly, at least feel more cohesive. Opening track 'Silicon)(Bucktown' is the pop song Bablicon hinted at with their first album, replacing the moaning with sharp, shouted lyrics that are still just a bit buried by dissonant string glissandos and thick-ass Wurlitzer piano. The funk-rock bass drives it along but this band knows exactly which side of fusion to stay sheathed in. Things get a bit more Zorn, before exploding on 'Anne on an Infibulus' where musical chops meet determination and momentum. The whole record has a nervousness to it, though it's able to take on a groove at the same time. Things start to fall apart despite the rolling medicine ball of rhythmic prog. There's a nice ebb and flow in the higher register, and by the time things segue into the flanged aggro-dub of 'Orange Moon' we've been on some sort of very weird journey. Side two (the CD booklet, though near-impossible to read, replicates the 'proper' style of an LP) opens with some tinny concrète piece that clatters about rather ambitiously, and in the hands of less skilled artists it may seem out of place. What makes Bablicon great is their ability to forge a balance between the collage aesthetic and more guttural jazz/groove-oriented music, yet with a flavor for fake neoclassical orchestration (heard a bit on the first album too, but more prevalent on 'ZIO(Z)'). The final track 'An Orange Pumpkin Glowing Moon Ensemble', takes the bigband minimalism of Vibracathedral Orchestra and injects it with a dose of 'Here Come the Warm Jets'. Triumphant, anthemic, or just easy? Again it's all in the balance, and this feels like a release to me - the crowning summation of what was the (now pretty much forgotten?) Bablicon's finest moment.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Bablicon - 'In a Different City' (Misra)

At the same time that the Azusa Plane were stretching tones across a cloudy sky in Philly, these guys were bashing away in Chicago, attempting to resurrect some 70's artrock/prog spectres but kicking it in the face with the mishmash of musical ideas the 90s taught us. Pretty much instrumental, In a Different City is fairly auspicious, bouncing from free rock to musique concrete interludes, sticking to conventional acoustics for the most part but not afraid to throw in some gurgling synths/electronics or some blasted, distorted electric bass. One of these dudes was a composery type, and I think he's the one squiggling about on the reeds - but probably also he's the one playing Charles Ives on 'Pictor's Metamorphoses'. Tracks like 'Francis Locrius' dance back and forth between aggro-jazz and Krautlike monotony, and if I have a criticism it's that the pieces don't feel like they are cut from the same cloth. Some really delicately arranged strings crop up a few times, though in 'At the Birthday Party' they're cut with electric piano and a Soft Machine-esque chord progression. I think it's the electric piano that makes this feel so prog, because the compositions aren't particualrly rooted in classical music or dungeons and dragons stuff. Being their first (of three), Bablicon have a 'kitchen sink' tendency here, but that's part of the charm -- we have two future albums during which we can hear them refine their approach. The liner notes, difficult to read as they are, are packed with all of the various instruments that each member plays. Did I mention they all use pseudonyms and only one of them has the balls to look at the camera in the inner photo? Maybe that's the one moaning on 'Rhinocerous', which shimmers like a wobbly elephant in ballet slippers until it runs onto a bobsled track (or is it the luge? Never sure what mixed metaphor is best for a theramin solo). Psychedelia can come from the old and the new; kudos to this band for trying to meet each hafway.

Azusa Plane - 'Tycho Magnetic Anomaly and the Full Consciousness of Hidden Harmony' (Camera Obscura)

There was a time in the mid-to-late 90s that the city of Philadelphia rose up from a beer and sports-fueled haze and began embracing cosmic sounds, rooted no doubt in the city's antecedents (Rundgren?) and some of the under-recognised pre-current that was happening there. Or maybe not - maybe this is just some shithead narrative grafted onto Philly by some desperate music critics at the time - anyone remember the awful term 'Psychedelphia'? But there appeared to be a definite momentum, at least to me, an outsider; and of these bands, many of whom have been forgotten, the Azusa Plane were an example of the most 'pure' and commited to the ur-drone, shredding any vestigal rock and roll in favor of Terry Riley's harmonic sunpulse. I know they put out a few records in their day but this one, their first (I believe), is the only one that ever really grabbed me. Here's an hour of guitar-based psychedelic music: slow unfolding drones, delicate tension, and subtle pulses. Of the four tracks, it's the last one that distinguishes itself the most (through steady repetition and a nice warm fuzz). Liner notes give you silly Germanic cosmicspeak for each track but I don't get much from that. This beat the rush of drone that came from the American underground - beat it by about a decade, but is it distinguishable? Back in '99 music like this sounded really exciting, like it had some vision and attitude and some higher calling. (At least to me - I was a young 'un!) But now I think about Satie and LaMonte and the VU and Heldon and Ash Ra and the Azusa Plane, and I try to find a place for all of this alongside, I dunno, a zillion tapes by Emeralds-related projects? Sometimes I just can't feel, like Lou Reed after his parentally-imposed anti-homo shock treatment; when I listen to this I try to sink into it, but I can't lose myself. Distractions, distractions. The one thought that I keep returning to is how similar these guitar bleats are to the sound of Lilys' Eccsame the Photon Band, as if 'High Writer at Home' is about to come bursting out of these tracks. Same city and maybe the same personnel or studio or equipment - is this the sound of Philly I hear, an aural cheese steak (or replace with vegetarian stereotype)? I think the main guy behind this band died under sad and mysterious circumstances. Or was he the entire band? This sounds suspiciously like a dense, one-man project. Nice art though (and kudos for thanking Corpus Hermeticum for inspiring it, though the use of System 7 "Chicago" font for that inner panel kinda wrecks the medieval theme.