Thursday, December 31, 2009

At the end of another year - remembering 2009

I’ve had a rather long-standing tradition on New Year’s Eve of picking out a piece of music which I feel somehow captures for me my experience of the year that’s ending. It’s a bit of a self-indulgent tradition, really, but it’s one that has always been kind of cathartic. A really bad year about 14 years ago felt just that little bit more bearable when it was summed up with the catastrophic tragedy of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony; the apocalyptic fog in the air that filled 2001, with its threats of world terror and its macho flexing of American muscle, seemed to take on a new perspective when I listened to Messiaen’s intensely spiritual Quator pour la fin du Temps.

For me, 2009 has been an especially good year. It has been a year where things seem to have gone well for me on a whole range of fronts but two events in particular have made it, even by high standards, a unique year. One was the discovery, at the ridiculously late age of 50, that there is more to music than what you find in the classical catalogue. And the second was the unexpected discovery of new love barely five minutes after I had stopped looking for it.

Two of my earliest discoveries in my new music journey were Björk and Antony Hegarty. I discovered them both in different ways – Björk mainly through the encouragement of my friend Marty R, and Antony through hearing his heart-wrenching rendition of Leonard Cohen’s If it be your will at a dear friend’s funeral earlier in the year.

So it is scarcely surprising that, when the two of them came together on a track on Björk’s latest album, Volta, I would be pretty interested. But when you add to that music of stirring passion, building in its intensity and fire into something that seems to fill the entirety of space, set to the words of Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev (used, incidentally at the end of one of my favourite Russian films, Tarkovsky’s Stalker), you end up with something pretty amazing.

The Dull Flame of Desire is a song about the innocence, the passion, and ultimately the power, of love. In the hands of Björk and Antony it becomes a piece that stretches beyond the limits of the human body and reaches into every corner of the soul. The two voices – each unique in their power and vulnerability – start off almost shyly, against music that is, at first, dominated by majestic, sweeping brass. But, as Björk’s and Antony’s voices curl around and entwine one another, building upon each other, soaring, subduing and then soaring again, each voice feeding and being fed by the other, the brass slowly, imperceptibly, recedes into the background and it’s the sound of the human voice, and the primal, passionate heartbeat of drums, that fills the air. It’s an incredible experience, overwhelming in its humanity and its intensity – a hymn to the all-conquering strength of love.

When I first heard this music I was driving in my car and was so taken by it that I literally had to pull over to the side of the road and let its power wash over me. And as I listen to it again today I am reminded, even more, of why this music affected me so deeply. It’s music that captures so much of what love is all about – love at whatever level, in whatever form, we experience it. It shows how love steps forward with shy, faltering steps, but then is nourished as much by what it gives as by what it receives and, through this, grows and ultimately dominates everything. It’s an incredible piece of music from two of the world’s most original and talented artists.

I hope that some of what is conveyed with such beauty in The Dull Flame of Desire has been part of your experience of 2009, and that it will go with you into 2010 too.

Thanks especially to Marty R, Greg and Scott for introducing me to so much wonderful new music and, of course, to dear Wayne for introducing me to new love. And thanks to anyone who has been dropping in and having a squizz at this blog from time to time. Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Summer testosterone - She Fuzz

I'm not going to pretend that I am able to identify too closely with a band that proudly proclaims that it likes singing about girls but, with the first few bars plucked out on the guitar of Geelong-based She Fuzz's self-titled debut EP, sounding a bit like a rusty old kombi hurtling along an unmade road, you knowcan't help but feel like joining them for the ride.

It’s music that instantly invokes sand, surf, beer and testosterone – energetic, full of life and with the kind of jaunty rock personality that makes you want to drop whatever you’re doing, call up some mates, and get down to the beach.

Each of the five songs on this disc seems to create its own unique take on the age old theme of summer and sunshine. There’s the feel of rolling wheels, the start of a journey, in ‘The Commute’, where the destination doesn’t seem to matter as long as it’s fun; the almost 60s-esque vocals from Tom Gibbs in ‘Holly’, against catchy instrumentals that seem to paint pictures of sand dunes and a shimmering blue ocean, morphing almost seamlessly into the groove and swing, and hint of shade, of ‘Lemon Tree’. There’s the 2/4 pub beat of ‘Mystery Man’, with its ridiculously good guitar work; and, finally, the more hard rock infused riffs of ‘Exposed’, where the music ends the day like all good summer days should end – sexy and sweaty.

If She Fuzz was a diary, you certainly wouldn’t want your mother to read it but, as it is, it’s only a CD and so chances are that even she will be able to bop along to its good, solid rock/pop vigour.

It’s great to see local artists creating such good music with such a local flavour to it – music where you can almost smell the salt in the air, mixed with the aroma of an ale or two, blowing from the shores of Torquay.

Thanks to Spinning Half Studios in Geelong for a great EP. It might not be enough to make me turn, but it's more than enough to make me wanna have fun.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Some Australian soul - Cookin' on 3 Burners

After all the hype and hullabaloo of the past few days, and all the manic rush leading up to it, it's kind of nice to be able to spend today lazing around, chilling, and grooving away to some great funk/soul. There can hardly be better music to do that to than an album that I bought only a few days ago but which I have heard promoted and praised on 3PBS a great deal over the past couple of months - Soul Messin' by Cookin' on 3 Burners.

Cookin' on 3 Burners is an Australian funk trio, with guitar and drums and Hammond organ, and their music seems to somehow capture the soul of a summer-sodden country - the sort of music that is impossible to listen to without reaching for a beer, and feeling that you have been catapaulted back to the 60s, where rhythms and melodies swing and groove and nothing that happens in the world seems all that bad.

Mostly instrumental, but occasionally joined by vocalist Kylie Audlist or Fallon Williams, the music of Soul Messin' has that sort of authenticity to it that always feels new and honest and vibrant. It would be hard for a bad day to not beome a good day when you listen to music like this.

I'm still not entirely sure where the boundaries between soul and funk and blues are drawn but, in any event, they seem to be deliberately blurred here, so you feel that you are indulging in all three at once - the flattened tonality of blues, the catchy handclapping rhythm of soul, the smoothed-out tones and harmonies of funk, all coalescing here into music that feels like it belongs to the summer and to a world where hustle and bustle just don't have a place.

Every track on this album makes you feel good. But, if I could only take one track with me to my desert island, it would be 'Dog Wash', where the Hammond organ is just so irresistably laid-back, the beat syncopated in a way that makes you feel that this is how rhythm was always meant to be and that anything different would be unnatural and distorted, and a melody line that could convince even my own dogs, who hate the bath, that a bath is fun.

The album finishes with 'The Proving Ground' - much more subdued than anything else, lulling you into a wistful, nostalgic sleep, with a steady uncomplicated beat, and some fantastic guitar work that seems to almost be weeping for a world that has been left behind, like music playing as a tribute to its own memory.

It's a shame, really, that we can't all spend our lives cookin' on 3 burners because Soul Messin' certainly puts a convincing argument for living life exactly like that.

Thanks, as always, to PBS for the excellent music!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas at the highest Altar of them all

It's pretty difficult to think of something to listen to on Christmas Eve that can somehow be linked to the theme of the season, but isn't too hackneyed or cliché. So, I thought an album with the title Altar sounded at least vaguely acceptable on the first count and the fact that it is performed by a collaboration of American drone metalists, Sunn 0))) (pronounced 'sun', I'm told), and Japanese noise trio, Boris, made me think it was a pretty sure bet on the second, too.

I first heard this album quite some time ago, driving home late at night, with the radio tuned to Julian Day's tremendously exciting, interesting and daring programme on ABC Classic FM, New Music Up Late. The subterranean drone of unfathomably deep bass guitars, garnished with percussion that gave the music a dark ambience rather than a beat was far too colossal a sound for my puny little car radio, but I could pick up enough of its earth-trembling vibrations to know that this was something as significant to music as black holes are to the cosmos. The electric guitars, drums, synths and occasional vocals all merge here into one intense, monolithic mass - ar once rich and sparse, thick and austere, impenetrable and yet sucking you into it, as if it were a vacuum.

But not everything on Altar is dense nothingness. Unexpectedly wedged between the thick, endless night of 'N.L.T.' and the groaning, sliding, haunted blackness of 'Akuma No Kuma' is the gentle, yet somehow still droning, minimalist airiness of 'The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)', where Jesse Sykes sings forlornly against a couple of guitar chords, and a lonely waltz beat, finding a sort of peace, some rest, within the dark.

In 'Fried Eagle Mind', Wata (Boris vocalist) does the vocals, spectral, ghostly, like mist rising from murky marshes, beneath which countless lives and secrets lie buried.

But the longest - and arguably the greatest - track on the album is the final 'Blood Swamp', where drone dominates everything, sparse and frightening, absorbing you into its oblivion. The droning bass seems to descend deeper and deeper into its own void, turning in on itself, while straggling guitars tiptoe ominously above. It's music that envelops you in darkness, no matter how many lights you have on while you're listening to it.

So does something as nihilistic as this have a place on Christmas Eve, when most of the rest of the Western world is listening to songs about reindeer and babies in mangers surrounded by lambs and gold? Well, at least for me, this music is big rather than bleak - its darkness is the darkness of enormity, not of desolation. It lets you look into the vastness of the universe, and to be somehow enshrouded in it, and maybe even to be comforted by the realisation that it is so much bigger than mangers, and sleighbells, and you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The things we really need

Wandering through Melbourne's jam-packed streets today, on my way to yet another Christmas lunch, in the midst of yet another Christmas shopping spree, I was struck by a man bustling along a little ahead of me, stopping people now and then to ask for some spare cash. Everyone seemed too busy to give him any attention, let alone any money and, before long, he was out of my sight and my thoughts. But then, a few minutes later, I caught up with him again. He was now sitting huddled on the pavement, almost foetal in a corner, head buried in his hands, sobbing uncontrollably, inconsolably. He was dishevelled, dirty, destitute - probably about 30, maybe even younger.

Of course, he was only one of millions who will be doing it hard this Christmas and, no doubt, the harsh plight of world poverty, and human suffering, will be discussed over many a roast turkey on Friday. But, for me, music is always the place I find myself wandering to when I try to understand and capture the things that happen in this world - the happy things, the tragic things, the brutal things, the silly things: they're all there in music.

So I began pondering what music would capture the plight of that man, weeping alone in the centre of the city, two days before Christmas. There's probably a lot - but the music that seemed most appropriate to play tonight as my little, self-indulgent (and, for him, totally useless) tribute to that man was Johnny Cash's final and posthumous album American V: A Hundred Highways. This was recorded when Johnny Cash was literally on the threshold of death - blind, ill, his voice trembling with the weight of the years. But it's a voice, which, despite its frailty, or maybe even because of it, is strengthened all the more by the consoling, resolved soul that has, after all, always been the real core of Johnny Cash's music.

Every song on this album weeps with that special, unique mix of loneliness and community, sadness and joy, richness and loss, with a resignation, a tired, weary farewell to life, that seems to acknowledge everything sad in the world, and yet still hold onto peace and hope.

The songs are unadorned with anything other than an acoustic guitar and the smallest handful of instruments. But everything is arrestingly powerful - like the dark and shattering 'God's gonna cut you down'; or the sad, mourning 'On the evening train'; the reassuring, comforting 'I came to believe'; the consoling, grounding 'Four strong winds'; and the liberating, full-stop of 'I'm free from the chain gang now'.

But the title of the album, A Hundred Highways, is actually a line from the Rod McKuen song, 'Love's been good to me', which Johnny Cash sings here in a way that makes you believe that its message of finding love once in a while along an unsettled, homeless life journey is, indeed, the real secret to peace.

And perhaps the lesson this album teaches us is that it's that love, even more than a home, or material abundance, that we need most of all - whether we are piling the next helping of roast turkey on our plate on Friday, or weeping, penniless, on a street corner in the middle of Melbourne.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The pinnacle of prog rock - Jethro Tull "As Thick as a Brick"

It must have been an amazing thing back in 1972 for a band to release a rock album that not only included a flute, a harpsichord, a lute, and strings, and adding timpani to the percussion, but that also had only one song, spread over two sides, and lasting almost 45 minutes.

And not only that but, at a time when music often stripped down to its rawest elements, Jethrol Tull's Thick as a Brick heaped theme upon theme, mixed them in with each other, stacked them on top of each other, turned them around, inside out and upside down, discarded them and then brought them back again, made audacious leaps from one key to another, and from one time signature to another, as if they were trying to outdo even Bach at his most musically complex.

So it could have been a complete flop - and probably would have been were it not for the way the music, with all its complexity and epic scale, draws you in by the simplest of approaches: by just sounding irresistably good. Its rhythms are hypnotic and catchy, its dry tonality is unadorned and immediate, despite all that's going on within it. It's music that feels like you should have heard it before, even if you haven't.

The music wafts between rock and folk and classical, at times sounding almost like Irish dancing, with its jaunty flute, at times like electrified Mahler, with innocent tunes transposed into minor keys and given a hint of grotesquerie, at times as uncompromising and dark as anything to have emerged from the heaviest and hardest rock, aggressive and dense, with guitars screeching and riffing against raging percussion.

And it is played just so incredibly well - listen to the precision of the drumwork, the tightness of the ensemble, the way nothing seems to pause for a breath, the way instruments poke their head in here and there, to just add a line or two at the right time, as we are taken through the strange tale of poetry and war, and of the falsehood of modern capitalist values.

Thick as a Brick is one of the earliest, but still one of the best, things ever to have emerged under the banner of "prog rock". It takes you on a whirlwind journey, so rich in music and ideas, that, when it finally comes to a rest at the end, you just want to go back to the start and do it all over again. And it's a journey worth taking many times because there will always be something in the landscape that you are sure to have missed before.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Red of Tooth and Claw - the raw sound of Murder by Death

You could be forgiven for not expecting a lot of subtlety from a band that calls itself 'Murder by Death' and, to be sure, their album Red of Tooth and Claw shows us a violent, hate-filled soul in all its rawness, where every song sounds rather like Nick Cave rubbed down to the bone by gravel and dirt. It's a cycle of songs that plays like a macabre post-punk parody of Schubert's Winterreise, where a man wanders, dislocated, connecting only with everything harsh, hard, hedonistic and hateful.

The music is driven along by rough, dark tones - a beat that drives forwards and never lets anything rest, aflame with a fire that burns rather than warms, and that gives out smoke rather than light.

But the thing that stops this album from being just a one-dimensional, if still potent, portrayal of the dark side of life, is the brilliant addition of cello into the ensemble. Against the harsh electric guitars, the rugged, rough baritone of Adam Turla, the cello sings and cries, shining an unexpected light of heart and humanity into the black. The music might be red raw, but with that comes pain, and hurt, like the way the cello wails with yearning and grief throughout 'Black Spot'.

You don't usually expect to hear a cello in music like this, and it's what gives the whole album a depth and a soul so that even when it is at its most violent and hateful, like in 'Rumbrave', or at its most hedonistic, like in the raw sexuality of 'Fuego!', or at its most arrogant and defiant, like in the opening 'Comin' Home', you can't help but feel a kind of empathy with the story, and the man, you are listening to, nor can you help but feel a sense of loss when, with the funeral-like beat of 'Ash', the music seems almost to be mourning the death of its own soul. Is there anything, other than music, that can give that many shades and levels of expression at the one time?

The closing song, 'Spring Break 1899', leaves us with a cynical, empty image of a man who, it seems, will always wander aimlessly and meanignlessly, through towns and "bars full of girls who all know me by name they all drink the same drinks and they all fuck the same". But, even here, things are not straightforward - where the question, "Is it you? Could it be you?", yearning and searching but not wanting to find, is ultimately answered by the cello in a song that, even after all that we have been through, sounds almost tender.

Red of Tooth and Claw is a brutal, even harrowing, album - but it shows us that even the rawest and roughest of souls feel pain, and the blackest of hearts still beat and bleed.

Thanks to Lucas for this recommendation.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An unholy holy alliance - Marianne Faithfull and 'The Seven Deadly Sins'

I tend to have a bit of an obsession with always wanting to listen to music in its original form and in its original language - but when you get Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht translated into English by someone of the calibre of W H Auden, and sung by someone of the Weillian credentials of Marianne Faithfull, it would be the deadliest of deadly sins not to give it some attention. Hence today's post is devoted to this absolutely stunning version of the absolutely stunning masterpiece The Seven Deadly Sins, originally Die Sieben Todsünden.

If you don't know the work of Weill and Brecht, you really should - and you probably already do anyway. Songs like Mack the Knife from Die Dreigroschenoper or the Alabama Song from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny tend to get covered left right and centre. Well, left, mostly - the savage satire of Weill and Brecht is deeply grounded in the principles of Marxism and anti-capitalism, which ultimately saw Brecht hauled up before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.

But nowhere is their attack on the evils of capitalism more severe, nor more savage, than in Die Sieben Todsünden, which tells the tale of a family sending their two daughters (Anna and Anna) out into the world to make money. Anna I is the practical one, Anna II the emotional one. Not surprisingly, Anna II doesn't get to say much - just to cry a little when she has to sell herself to make money in Boston, and to long for their return to their little home in Louisianna. But they are two sides of the one coin ("together we've but a single past, a single future, a single heart, a single savings account", Anna sings in the Prologue)

In each big city they visit, Anna and Anna encounter one of the seven deadly sins - transformed here into the horrors of capitalism and of the lust for money, always with the brilliantly cynical satire of Bertolt Brecht's lyrics, and Kurt Weill's unfrgettably bittersweet music, steeped in the traditions of Berlin 1930s cabaret and yet always with its nose turned in sneer at everything sacred.

The music flows along with a jazz-like swing in the opening Prologue; dances with an acerbic waltz in 'Pride', stabs along in a brutal march in 'Envy', and always with one foot on the opera stage and the other on the street.

The family, urging Anna and Anna on through their journey, chastising them from the wings for not making enough money, is sung by a fantastic quartet of two tenors (The Annas' brothers), a baritone (their father) and a bass (their mother - yes, their mother).

But Anna (and Anna) is (are), of course, the hero(es). Marianne Faithfull was already renowned for her Kurt Weill work before she recorded The Seven Deadly Sins and her voice, especially her late voice, is just perfect for this smoky music of the working class - declaiming as much as singing - and you can easily see her sitting on a bar stool, smoking a cigarette, seducing you into joining her journey through the sordid cities of America.

Although The Seven Deadly Sins sounds a bit like a cabaret-opera, it is in fact a ballet and so, even by Weill's standards, it has strong, hardy rhythms that sweep you along and sweep you up so, even just sitting listening to it, you feel a little puffed out at the end.

I tend to think it's the best thing Brecht and Weill ever did together - and for me, a passionate fan of both of them, that's saying a lot. If you want to hear it in the original German you should track down either the old Lotte Lenya, or the newer Ute Lemper, recording - but if English is your language, or if you just want to hear a sensational performance by a woman whose voice is as close as any to what this music needs, then go for this one. It's a stunner.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A crooked path back to familiar territory - Them Crooked Vultures

First, my apologies for yet another long delay between posts here. A new love life certainly plays havoc with blogging responsibilities and has even interrupted some of my CD/OCD purchasing behaviour.

But, even so, it doesn't take away from the thrill of new discoveries and today's was one that, judging by the sales figures, pretty well everyone else has already discovered over the past few weeks - the self-titled Them Crooked Vultures: a new coalition of Dave Grohl, Joshua Homme and John Paul Jones. With a trio like that - built from the remnants of Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, and Queens of the Stone Age - even I know enough to expect good things.

It's an album that certainly takes you back to the territory that these immensely talented musicians have traversed so famously and so well in years gone by - the solid, brutal sound of hard rock, where everywhere you look there are riffs and a beat and a tonality that keeps dragging you down a little deeper into its hard, granite-hewn underworld.

But this is not music where everything is left to its own devices - something which would be pretty easy to do with talents (and presumably egos) as huge as these - rather, it is crafted with a sense of precision and planning that nevertheless doesn't seem to lessen its gutsiness or energy. Just listen to the hooky pulse of 'Reptiles' to see how music can be contained and vibrant at the same time.

But perhaps most of all, it is the feeling of community that makes this album outstanding - a feeling that this trio have found a connection with one another, and that it binds them together like a musical umbilical cord, nourishing each other, giving each other life and breath.

The songs are unashamedly and squarely rooted in the traditions of hard rock. As my brother said, most of the tracks make you want to get out your old Led Zeppelin records and listen to them to hear what the original sounded like.

But that doesn't by any means make the music simply derivative. This is the rock of the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, all tempered and transformed with the electric, eclectic energy of the 21st century, where guitar riffs dance with primal drum beats, like they do in 'Interlude with ludes', or with cavernous, horror-movie vocals, like they do in 'Warsaw or the first breath you take after you give up'.

It's music that travels back to old, loved territory via twisted, crooked paths, all of which have their own share of treasure on offer. And Them Crooked Vultures do what vultures do best - they grab the bits they want from whatever they find along the way, and claim it as their own.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


After about two weeks of having bought no CDs at all, I somehow felt it was not completely wrong for me to lash out a bit today and, even though it was $73, and even though the bills are piling up around me, the fact that it was a 7CD set AND of the complete studio recordings of Creedence Clearwater Revival pretty much put paid to all other considerations.

As I write this, I'm only part way through Disc One - the debut self-titled album that opens with the cracker of a song, 'I Put a Spell on You', which already feels prophetic. There's a raw honesty to this music, like it is taking rock back to the place where it belongs, that certainly is mesmerising, and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if I were to play this thing backwards at half the speed I would find some subliminal messages there along the lines of "you are going to listen to this and not be able to stop until you've been through the whole seven discs and then you're going to go back and do it all again".

Of course, I grew up with Creedence Clearwater Revival - but, like so much else, my experience of it was mostly hearing it, and ignoring it, as it wafted through the house from my brother's record player. So to be hearing it anew now, wafting through the house from my own sound system, really feeling its earthy beat, and its easy but uniquely creative blend of rock and country and roots, all for the first time, is kind of like discovering a youth that I somehow let slip past.

And it's the way this music seems so grounded in the soil and toil of an earthy life that perhaps strikes me the most about it - the gutsy guitar riffs, the rough and ready vocals, the sweaty masculinity of the melody lines and harmonies. It all gives the music a sense of connection to people, a feeling of unpretentious humanity, a feeling that, while it is undeniably the child of the 60s and 70s, there is a kind of universality there, something that will always feel relevant and fresh.

I'm very much looking forward to continuing this journey through the catalogue of Creedence Clearwater Revival, punctuated here and there by those famous hits that even I, even in my early years of musical narrowness, could not help but be taken by - 'Bad Moon Rising', 'Down on the Corner', 'Proud Mary' - while still discovering a lot of unexpected treasures along the way.

It's never too late to rediscover your roots.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Lightning strikes Geelong - Lightning Bolt at the Nash

Now I realise I have been particularly tardy with this blog of late - and my apologies for that - and I may be exacerbating my guilt even further by posting here about Lightning Bolt for a second time (see 21st September): but their performance last night at Geelong's National Hotel (which is only ever called the Nash) was so stunning, so fantastically manic, that it would be a crime not to write about it here today. Not to mention the fact that it was so insanely loud that I am now too hearing impaired to be able to listen to anything else now anyway.

The thing that makes Lightning Bolt so amazing, beyond their music, is their presence. Not always, but usually, they set themselves up on the floor, rather than the stage, of their venues - with their audience crowded around them, pressed to within a bee's dick of their bodies. You can't help but feel a part of the music, as if the instruments that go to make up this frenzy of noise are Brian Gibson's bass guitar (tuned up to cello pitch), Brian Chippendale's huge battery of drums, and you.

Everything about this music - its speed, its density, its intensity, its volume, its frenzy - is extreme. It defies genres but, if you like exploring the fringes of noise, rock, metal and punk, chances are you will find something here to latch onto and, believe me, once you have done that, you will not, and will not want to, let go.

Last night's gig at the Nash was an incredible experience and there have been few times in my life of music where I have felt more part of the creation of things than I did there. You feel that your energy and hype, and theirs, runs intranvenously from one to the other, each cranking the other up a notch or two, back and forwards, in an orgy of musical mania.

It is well worth laying your hands on whatever discs of Lightning Bolt you can possibly find - and their latest release, Earthly Delights, is pretty easily available at the moment - but if you ever get a chance to experience this band live then you simply have to do it. It'll only cost you $30 or so, and your hearing for a day or two, but it'll be worth it, I promise.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A bit of balance - Behemoth

Anyone will tell you that you need some balance in life and, after all the sweetness and light of Susan Boyle yesterday, how better to restore equilibrium than with a bit of Polish blackened death metal? Behemoth, originally from Gdansk, and progressing from its original black metal to its more lethal blackened death metal (not that I really know the difference between the two), is a pretty full-on band and, while I found it's not too easy to make sense of any of the guttural, snarled lyrics on their album At the Arena ov Avion – Live Apostasy, I could decipher enough to know that most of it is unlikely to get through even a fairly liberal profanity filter.

With songs like ‘Slaying the Prophets ov Isa’ and ‘Christgrinding Avenue’ and ‘Christians to the Lions’, this is not exactly an album for people of deep Christian sensibilities. And yet neither is it entirely fair to dismiss Behemoth as just a bunch of crude hate-filled Satanists. Their songs might heap scorn and fury on what they perceive to be the hypocrisy and destructiveness of traditional Christianity – but when they sing of angels falling to the earth, of the death of god, and of the triumph of evil, they seem to be painting a picture of the world that is more descriptive than prescriptive. These songs do not encourage or celebrate hate – but they certainly portray it and, in the rage between good and evil that Behemoth captures so potently, the blackness and bile is very much going both ways.

But even when they’re as cleverly and poetically written as here, lyrics don't tend to be the main forcus for people who listen to blackened death metal. It’s the music that overpowers everything and everyone – music that pounds and stabs with a ferocity that would, indeed, knock angels out of the sky.

Behemoth, though, seemed to have resisted any temptation just to spew out decibels and nothing else. You can listen to any of the 17 tracks on this album and you will hear that is the work of real musicians who rip the intestines out of their instruments and themselves and, through the sheer brute force of their talent, coerce incredibly powerful music out of the carnage. Guitar riffs shoot out at you, fierce and dark; drums pound away like the sound of an unrelenting avalanche of boulders; and the lead vocals snarl and growl with such rhythmic precision and force that you can’t help but think of band leader Adam “Nergal” Darski as part of the percussion.

It’s true that there’s not a lot of variety in this music. There’s no soft, sweet interlude. Even the brief moment of haunting gothic-infused acoustic guitar at the beginning of ‘At the Left Hand ov God’ or the dance-like pluckings at the beginning of ‘Sculpting the Throne ov Seth’ are soon mercilessly swept away by the violent, tyrannical weight of metal, storming in and crushing everything in its path. And just as Susan Boyle transformed everything into light and gentleness, here Behemoth transforms it all into shadows and brutality.

At the Arena ov Avion – Live Apostasy is, obviously, a live recording. It’s probably the best way to hear this sort of music, where every stop is pulled out just that little bit further and where the music is pumped outwards and onwards as much by the adrenalin of the crowd as by that of the musicians.

I imagine that if Susan Boyle were to do some guest vocals with Behemoth, we would probably end up with something pretty bland, despite the calls we are already hearing for her to make herself more upbeat, and the calls we have heard for a long time for blackened death metal to tone itself down a bit. But fortunately we live in a world big enough to allow space for the extremes, whatever end of the spectrum they might sit on. And that’s where both should stay.

My thanks to Mirek for introducing me to Behemoth.

Monday, November 23, 2009

At the height of the hype - Susan Boyle

I am not going to pretend that I discovered Susan Boyle by accidentally hearing her on 3PBS while driving to the train station, nor that I happened to stroll past one of her gigs at some underground music shop in a Melbourne laneway. I freely admit that I was as swept up as anyone in the hype and publicity following her debut on Britain's Got Talent earlier this year, and that I watched the ensuing media debacle with every bit as much perverse voyeurism as anyone else.

It intrigued me, like it intrigued many people, how Susan Boyle received worldwide adulation when there seemed to be a sudden discovery that someone didn't have to look like a megastar to sound like one (something which for me, as a long time and passionate opera lover, was hardly news) and how then, five minutes later, the adulation turned to ridicule when a woman, exhausted and battered by the world's expectations of her, and by its unrelenting spotlights on her, needed a rest.

For those five minutes, everyone who was anyone was talking about what a phenomenon Susan Boyle was. None of us wanted to quite come out and say that we were staggered that a woman who "looked like that" could sound like that, so instead we hid behind slightly more politcally comfortable lines about how inspiring she was.

And so when our hype carried her along to the recording studios, it was perhaps hardly surprising that the more cultured corners of the music industry, the critics who know the difference between music that is performed well and music that is marketed well, would decide that enough's enough and heap scorn on her CD debut, I Dreamed a Dream.

So when I bought the CD today I knew that I was going to have a bit of a struggle listening to it on its own terms, and to be influenced neither by the temptation to be inspired, nor by the urge to show my musical sophistication by sneering at it.

So I played a few tracks tonight to Greg, my brother, to Inge, my sister-in-law, and to Scott, my nephew. The general reaction was shivers down the spine, goosebumps down the arms and overall comments along the lines of "wow".

I Dreamed a Dream is a wonderful testimony to a diverse, powerful and beautiful voice, doing incredibly creative things with an amazing range of songs, from her arrestingly beautiful version of The Rolling Stones' 'Wild Horses', through a stunning blues version of Tina Turner's 'Cry Me a River', a grand, noble take on Madonna's 'You'll See', a slow and beautiful transformation of The Monkees' 'Daydream Believer' to her more recognisable clear, pure soprano in traditional stalwarts such as 'How Great Thou Art' and 'Amazing Grace' and the admittedly obvious, but nevertheless beautifully simple, bid for the Christmas market in the album's closing track, 'Silent Night'.

There is no pretence that these songs are anything more or less than songs that show how wonderful, and how moving, the human voice can sound when it is singing good melodies in good arrangements. These songs are tuneful, they flow easily, they are easy to listening to. But the album is more than that, too. It takes songs from a whole lot of different genres, songs written in a whole lot of different colours, and reshapes them into music that calms you, moves you, excites you and, most of all, makes you think, "what a voice". It's a voice that is much more subtly hued than either Britain's Got Talent or the media hype would lead you to expect, always changing its tones and textures, at times crying and howling, at times gliding in the clouds, but always deeply musical, profoundly beautiful.

I Dreamed a Dream really makes it clear that it is time to forget the hype of Susan Boyle and to instead listen to her music. And that is, after all, all that she, and any other half-decent musician, wants anyway.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Mourning the death of Mother (Earth) - Funkadelic "Maggot Brain"

I don’t generally like picking out just one track on an album as my focus on this blog, but, after hearing the title track of Funkadelic’s 1971 album Maggot Brain on 3PBS yesterday morning, I was so blown away by the haunting, unbelievably brilliant beauty of the music that I thought it was worth a post all to itself.

Not that the rest of the album is anything less than brilliant too, mind you. It’s a great work of early 70s funk, and a superb show of just how diverse that genre could be. But it’s the ten minute opening title track that steals the show and has, arguably, stolen the show for guitarists ever since.

Whether or not it’s true that most of Funkadelic’s music, and especially ‘Maggot Brain’, is acid enhanced, and whether or not it’s true that guitarist Eddie Hazel was told to play this track as if his mother had just died, I don’t know – but there can be no doubt that this music comes from another place, far beyond the daily banalities of ordinary life; nor can there be any doubt that it is steeped in the most intense, heartfelt mourning – the sort which tears away at the very depths not only of your soul, but of the soul of the universe itself. Its anguish is deeply personal and eternally cosmic at the same time.

It opens with some spoken words about the earth being pregnant because we’ve knocked her up, and something about the universe’s maggots, and something about drowning in shit but, from then on, it’s the music that says everything. A simple quietly plucked acoustic guitar serves as the gentle, sad background for the moaning, crying, screeching, sobbing improvisations of the electric guitar. The music grows in its intensity and pain, rests for a while in the middle, desolate and deserted, and then re-emerges, even more passionate, even more tormented than before. But it never really reaches a climax – it builds and fades, leaving you with the feeling that it, and its suffering, is timeless.

Acid or no acid, it’s the work a fantastic genius, drawing us into the universality of music and mourning. But, in the long run, the only way you can really know what this music does, and how it sounds, is to listen to it, and to allow yourself to be absorbed into it.

Funkadelic Maggot Brain. It’s the sort of music people might choose to have played at their funeral – the sort of music that the Earth itself might pick to capture its final days.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Uncharted lands in a good winter – Volcano Choir “Unmap”

With the bank balance seriously depleted at the moment, and a lunchtime choice between some healthy food or a pretty reasonably priced new CD boasting a collaboration between Justin Vernon (the name behind Bon Iver) and Collections of Colonies of Bees (who I had never heard of, but with a name like that, who cares if you’ve heard of them or not?), the decision was pretty much a foregone conclusion. I resigned myself to a bag of cheap junk food, and grabbed my copy of Volcano Choir’s Unmap.

But if you’re expecting the Justin Vernon of Volcano Choir to produce another incarnation of the For Emma, Forever Ago of Bon Iver (see 7th October), then you are probably going to be disappointed. But if you are ready to hear him use his incredibly individualised and intimate high falsetto in new, and daringly experimental ways, then you are going to be pretty impressed by Unmap.

Justin Vernon’s voice still floats, soft and whispered, often richly harmonised with itself, but now it works more as a music instrument than as a teller of stories, fading in and out of the fabric of each song.

And each song certainly has its own unique fabric, be it gently hued through the faltering acoustic guitar of ‘Husks and Shells’, or darkly vibrant through the pulsating drum beat of ‘Sleepymouth’, or spacey and psychedelic through the avant-garde electronics and distorted keyboards of ‘Mbira in the Morass’. ‘Dote’ is eerily quiet, with long, echoing drones, while ‘And Gather’ is jaunty and bright, with its handclaps and softly harmonised vocals. ‘Still’ builds almost imperceptibly from motionless, sustained electronic chords to a vast, deep sea of ambient beauty, where soft cymbals, carried by Vernon’s gently windswept vocals, glide over the surface, and ‘Youlogy’, haunting and desolate, sounds like craggy rocks jutting out of a desert plain, with lonely discords pockmarking its emptiness.

It’s the way each piece picks its path through new, uncharted territory, groping about, touching new and unfamiliar clumps of sound, until it finds something to hold onto and guide it, that gives Unmap its sense of cohesion. And, of course, that’s also what gives sense to the album’s title – it’s music that finds where it’s going without a map, not unlike some of the later work of David Sylvian.

If you like your musical journeys to be secure from the first step, Unmap is probably not the album for you. But if you like the thrill of starting out without really knowing where you are or where you’re going, but trusting the skill and ingenuity of your guide, then you will find that Volcano Choir take you to some pretty amazing places on this album.

Well worth the cost of a decent lunch.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Taking soul and rock into the jungle with Florence + the Machine

It was quite some time ago that Scott told me to buy Florence + the Machine’s album, Lungs, which I did and I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty good but, back then, I was listening to new music at such a phenomenal rate that it somehow merged into the mix of a whole lot of other new things that I was discovering at the time. But, when I saw a video clip of ‘Drumming Song’ from the album on rage over the weekend, I was inspired to go back to it and give it a proper hearing today.

Florence + the Machine is, in essence, Florence Welch with a group of musicians backing her on guitar, drums, keyboards and harp. Her soul-inspired rock has a wonderful muscle to it, but, thanks to the magical tinkling of the harp, always with kind of gentleness not too far beneath the sometimes aggressive façade with which her gutsy voice always presents us.

Nowhere is this more potent than in the album’s opener, ‘Dog Days are Over’, where the plucky power of Florence’s voice sets things often and running, with its promise of things to be reckoned with. There’s a snarl in these songs that both frightens and entices you, like in ‘Howl’, with its hypnotic drumbeat; or in ‘Kiss with a Fist’ with its disturbing observation that “A kick in the teeth is good for some/a kiss with a fist is better than none” to screeching electric guitars; or the anguished blues in ‘Girl with one Eye’ where we really do believe her when she sings “Get you filthy fingers out of my pie/I’ll cut your little heart out because you made me cry”. ‘Cosmic Love’ is almost Wagnerian in its symbolism of love finding its place in darkness and death; but it’s a place where the wild heart of the music still beats with feral passion. It’s like Isolde’s Liebestod remixed for a rock opera.

But ‘Drumming Song’ is, for me, the highlight of this album, with its driving, tribal beat – a beat that comes as much from Florence’s fire-blazing vocals as from the wild drumbeat. This is music that stirs you and excites you, draws you into its ritual fire dance – you know you’re going to get burned, but you go in anyway.

Lungs is not tame music – the voice is gutsy, the beat is gutsy, the words are gutsy. Somehow, it manages to push the envelope of soul and rock and to take both into places that probably neither ever thought they would go – a place much more primal, where wild animals prowl the jungles, and where betrayal and loss lead to the shedding not only of tears, but of blood as well.

A belated thank you to Scott for this fantastic recommendation.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Something simple, something rich - Brian Campeau's 'mostly winter sometimes spring'

You would think, after a good thousand years of written music, and thousands more of aural tradition before that, that it would be pretty hard to find new and interesting things to do in music these days, without resorting to gimmickry.

But in his album, mostly winter sometimes spring, I think Australian musician Brian Campeau really manages to pull it off.

If ever there was an album that needs to be listened to as a whole, rather than in bits, it is this. Each track on the album uses only one instrument – sometimes with lots of over-dubbing and with unusual things done, like bashing a melodica, as well as blowing it, in ‘then came the sun’; or beating the back of a double bass with brushes to add percussion to its pizzicato melody line in ‘gone for you’; or not just hammering the keys of the glockenspiel in ‘denial’, but strumming them with fingers as well.

Listen to the lush cello harmonies in ‘throwing blame’, or the multi-dubbed vocals of the album’s opening track, ‘like this one’, or the way a simple saxophone line alternates with bizarre discords of noise in the closing track, ‘the roots to what’s been set’, and you will see how cleverly and lovingly Brian Campeau has built on such his simple one-instrument-per-song concept, and turned it into something rich.

The songs themselves are gentle, often understated, wistful – songs that you fall into, like a soft, warm bed: a place that seems to comfort and hold you, no matter how sad or happy you are. Even the haunted, abandoned flute of ‘anger’ seems to cuddle and caress you somehow.

Brian Campeau’s voice, high and vulnerable, but with its own hint of premature ruggedness, like a child who has already lived too much, inevitably reminds you of Thom Yourke without actually sounding like it, like in the simple, sad, unadorned beauty of ‘who cares’, where the vocal line is kept just that little bit off pitch, giving everything a raw authenticity that, even in music whispered as softly as this, makes you shake and shiver. It’s a voice that tends to hover high above the music of the instrument that meanders beneath it, floating like wisps of a cloud – thin and sometimes sounding almost as if it is about to break and blow away, but always holding itself, and its beauty, together.

mostly winter sometimes spring is the sort of album that could easily have become pretentious, or boring, or both. But because it has been put together with such loving creativity, and with music that is so quietly persuasive, it turns out to be both honest and moving.

It’s great to see Australia producing music as interesting and as effective as this. Congratulations to Brian Campeau for such an innovative, inspired achievement.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Abnormally attracted to Tori

There are few artists who I have come to know over the past few months who seem to divide the opinions of my friends more than does Tori Amos. There are some of my gay friends who would turn straight for her; some of my straight friends who would turn gay to avoid her.

I'm not quite sure why Tori's music provokes such passionate extremes. I've listened to quite a few of her albums now and, at least for me, there's little denying the wonderful originality of her voice - child-like and sweet one moment as she hovers in the stratosphere with her high, clean soprano; menacing and anguished the next moment, as she crawls along the ground in her gravel worn lower registers. It's a voice that changes its dress from vulnerable to strong, and from the purity of an innocent to the seductiveness of a femme fatale, and back and forth, and back and forth, line to line, bar to bar.

Nor is there much denying the richness and kaleidoscope variety of her backings - from the toy-like tingling of an upright piano here to the tribal excitement of primal drumbeats there.

But I can see, too, how these albums, often very elaborate in the way they build themes into concepts that shape and define the album; and often extremely polished in the way they are produced, is not what everyone looks for in music - music that is planned and crafted like a symphony, an opera even, rather than spontaneous and rough around the edges, like someone pouring out their guts with a guitar and a bottle of bourbon in the garage.

So naturally I was curious to see just what Tori Amos would do, left to her own devices, on stage in front of a live audience. And last night, at Melbourne's Regent Theatre, where Tori was giving one instalment of her Abnormally Attracted to Sin tour of Australia, I got to see what a phenomenal talent this artist really is. It was an incredible performance, and an incredibly generous one too. Singing an uninterrupted string of songs for nearly two hours, with one hand bashing gutsy rhythms out of the piano while the other hand coaxed sensuous melodies out of the organ, her voice roaming across all its registers, with never even a hint of getting tired, she had her audience captivated, where even cheering the opening bars of a new song, or applauding its almost invariably jaw-dropping end, seemed a bit of an affront, even if it intruded only for a second or two on the music. She made those two instruments sound like an orchestra, where, even playing both together, the music lines had the sort of richness and complexity that found you looking to see if there really were just fiver fingers on each of those hands.

While the tour is marketed as a promotion of her Abnormally Attracted to Sin album, she in fact navigated pretty well her entire output throughout the evening, as well as including some terrific covers – perhaps the best of which was her heart-wrenchingly passionate version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

It was a great survey of a career that has had a foot in both the popular and the alternative music camps, without compromising either and yet, ironically, perhaps for that very reason, managing to make enemies in both. It’s a shame, because Tori Amos is clearly an artist who stands in a very unique place on the modern music terrain.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reviving the big band blues with Brian Setzer

Maintaining my resolve to keep away from CD stores is never particularly easy when 3PBS FM keep playing such great and interesting music on their Breakfast Spread programme as I drive into the station each morning and today’s offender, Songs from Lonely Avenue by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, with its wonderful big band sound of swing and blues, had the all too predictable consequences.

Even since my Road to Damascus conversion to non-classical music a few months ago, I didn’t really think that big band music would grab me terribly much but hearing the album’s title track on PBS this morning, with its gentle swing, and its modern day spotlight on the darkened streets of a film noir set, made me think that this was yet another genre that I had perhaps unfairly prejudged.

Songs from Lonely Avenue plays like a soundtrack to a 1940s Hollywood movie – the sort where crime and sex and shadows mix and mingle as music swings seductively around every corner.

But, right from the chugging, rock-along music of the opening track, ‘Trouble Train’, you know that, while the roots of this album may have been planted half a century or more ago, its blossoms are very new and fresh, with 21st century electric guitar riffs weaving their way amidst a 1950s big band brass.

You get the devil-may-care passion of ‘Kiss Me Deadly’; the smooth croon of ‘Lonely Avenue’ with its swooning strings against downbeat blues-infused brass; the laid-back Gershwinesque blues of ‘My Baby Don’t Love Me Blues’. You get the cool groove of the purely instrumental ‘Mr Jazzer goes surfin’’ and the hint of a heavier jazz-rock in ‘Mr Surfer goes jazzin’’.

The whole thing leaves you feeling very nostalgic – but listen to the stunning trumpet work in ‘Passion of the Night’, or the dazzling guitar work in ‘Elena’ and you are sure to be comforted that the best things from the past never really go away completely.

As always, 3PBS FM never fails to deliver the really precious treasures of little heard music.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A new life for prog rock - Elbow, "The Seldom Seen Kid"

While my friend and colleague Marty W tried valiantly today to convince me that his comment that Elbow is great band was in no way meant as a decree for me to go out and buy one of their albums at lunch time, I did anyway. I had never even heard of them before today, but a few minutes of their soft, Radioheadesque sound through the iPod, with Guy Garvey’s seductively melodic voice and rich instrumental backings, was enough to convince me that it was worth putting off the phone bill payment for another day or two, and getting their album The Seldom Seen Kid instead.

Elbow is an English band that seems, at least on this album, to do some pretty amazing things with disarmingly singable tunes – melodies that actually have a melody, and then are given a sense of space and size by the way they weave into music that pulsates with an almost symphonic heartiness, throwing strings and brass and woodwind and even a small choir into the mix.

In a way, the music’s bringing together of the ordinariness of a good tune with the extraordinariness of creative, complex backings is very much what the songs on The Seldom Seen Kid are all about – songs that mix in the wonders and woes of love with the banality of daily life, like the way memories of a lost love come flooding back amidst “overdraft speeches and deadlines to make. Cramming commitment like cats in a sack” in ‘The Bones of You’.

From the big, epic brass chords that usher in the opening track, ‘Starlings’, you are lured in, seduced, into this rich world of deep, warm colours, but colours that are always in shades that you are not quite used to seeing, shades that seem just a little too valuable and rare to really belong in a space as accessible and inviting as this. It’s a bit like wandering into an open building to shelter from the rain and discovering that you’re in a large and beautiful cathedral, adorned with priceless art.

Not that these songs are exactly what you would call spiritual or even reverent, mind you. Their stories of love and loss are rooted very much in triteness of daily life, and the bigger things always take a back seat, like in ‘An Audience with the Pope’, where Garvey sings of his love for a woman: “I have an audience with the pope. And I’m saving the world at eight. But if she says she needs me. She says she needs me. Everybody’s gonna have to wait”. Or the way the glory of love is dressed in everyday clothes in ‘One Day Like This’: “When my face is chamois creased. If you think I wink I did. Laugh politely at repeats. Kiss me when my lips are thin. ‘Cause holy cow I love your eyes”.

So when all of that gets thrown together, you end up with a pretty terrific mix of clever lyrics, tuneful tunes, and fantastically rich, creative, generous arrangements, creating the sort of prog rock sound that shows that this is a genre that, far from burning itself out in the 80s, is still very much ablaze with all the vitality and enthusiasm of new life.

The Seldom Seen Kid is well worth postponing the odd overdue bill for, I promise.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A short post about a long piece - John Cage ASLSP

First, my apologies for a few days without posting. I think perhaps these blogs may become a little more erratic in the foreseeable future, with some significant, albeit very happy, changes in my life leading to some equally significant but happy changes in my daily routines.

But my love for music is still as boundless as ever, and so I still hope to attend to this blog whenever I can.

Today I wanted to talk about one of the greatest music experimenters of all time, and one who an amazing range of modern musicians count amongst their influences - American avant-garde composer John Cage.

Born in 1912 and dying in 1992, John Cage is perhas most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his work 4'33", a piece for piano, which is totally silent throughout. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Except, of course, that it's never really silent because there is always noise somewhere - amongst the audience, creaks within the hall, noise of traffic outside.

He has written a great deal, especially for prepared piano, and the effects he creates through distorting sound in hundreds of different ways, such as attaching bolts and paper clips to the piano strings, is always fascinating. You can pick up a disc of his music for prepared piano pretty cheaply, and it's worth a listen, both in its own right and also to hear what impressed and influenced so many of today's modern, experiemental musicians, rom Frank Zappa to Brian Eno to Sonic Youth.

The music that I wanted to mention today is his work As Slow As Possible (ASLSP), which is currently being performed on an organ in a church in Germany, where Cage's tempo markings of "as slow as possible" are being taken literally. The performance of the 8 page score will last for 639 years. It commenced in 2001, with an eighteen month pause, followed by the the first note in 2003, and the second note in 2004. The organ's keys are held down by weights, and a semi sound-proof wall has been built around the organ so as not to create too much distrubance in the local nighbourhood where, nonetheless, the community have become more or less used to the constant organ drone coming from the local church.

Now, in 2009, we are in the midst of a chord, which will lose one of its notes in July 2010 and have a new note added to it in February 2011. I gather it is almost impossible to get tickets for each new note but you can, in any event, listen to the whole thing live, online at:

I would of course, just love to have the CD but, presuming you can get 75 minutes onto a CD, that means 4,481,180 CDs which, even with nice packaging and a souvineer booklet, is likely to be a bit much, even for me, to pay for.

The performance is due to conclude in 2639.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The eternal and the ephemeral: Dead Can Dance "Within the Realm of a Dying Sun"

After Yoko Ono’s unique but spirited advocacy for the earth yesterday, it seemed somehow appropriate to devote today to an album which, at least for me, seems to both celebrate the planet and, at the same time, to grieve its ultimate death – the wonderful and haunting Within the Realm of a Dying Sun by Dead Can Dance.

More like an orchestra than a band, Dead Can Dance originated in Melbourne in the 1980s and recorded most of its music then and into the 90s. Their music, always rich in its beauty, its colours, and its majesty, fuses instruments and voices together, and spans nations, peoples, eras and, certainly, genres. It takes you to different places, to different times, always with a sense of timelessness and boundlessness about it but here, on Within the Realm of Dying Sun, all of those places seem somehow to be hued in the colours of sunset. Even when the music is at its most epic, there’s a weariness there, a melancholy, even.

Colours and tones transform into wonderful vistas of sound, hauntingly beautiful music that often starts simply enough and then grows until it envelops and overwhelms you. Hear the chiming chords that open ‘Anywhere out of the world’, and build into huge tolling monoliths and then into a wraithlike, driving song where bells jangle along, dancing beneath the voice of Brendan Perry, echoing as if from the depths of a cosmic temple.

‘Windfall’ sounds rather darker, with lumbering rhythms and a melody in the brass that creeps along, joined by chilling percussion, as if you really can see the dying sun’s embers, struggling to hold onto life.

Pizzicato strings in ‘In the wake of adversity’ provide a sad kind of comfort beneath a bleak, downwards crawling melody line of the vocals while a harpsichord pulsates its way through ‘Xavier’, giving an eerie crunch to the rich dark colours of a cavernous vocal line and trembling strings.

An epic wall of sound builds up in the relatively brief ‘Dawn of the iconoclast’, to a chant-like vocal line from Lisa Gerrard, taking us to vast plains in the Far East.

In ‘Cantara’ there is at first a gentle feel, as the music seems to almost tiptoe along, but it’s then taken over by pounding drums and oriental vocals. There is almost the feeling of a primal dance here, but the colours around it sound dark and foreboding, like a storm approaching in summer.

Listen to the grandeur of ‘Summoning of the Muse’, and the way it paints huge depths and heights through widely spaced harmonies and multi-hued instrumental colours, but remember that the greatness here is the greatness of the apocalypse, and nowhere is this more portentous than in the opening bars of ‘Persephone (the gathering of flowers)’ where heavy pizzicato strings quote the Dies Irae (day of wrath) from the traditional Latin Requiem, becoming a funeral beat not just, it seems, for the mournful vocal melodies and the sad string harmonies above it, but for the cosmos itself.

It’s these wonderful, endless blends of tonal colours, in spacious acoustics and with exotic, other-worldly melodies, that give Within the Realm of a Dying Sun such an astonishing sense of size, of timelessness and of infinite boundaries, like you are standing at the peak of a massive mountain range, witnessing the end of all things. The music never stops being beautiful, never stops being haunting, and ultimately seems to tell you that even the eternal will one day come to an end.

Thanks to Marty R for the recommendation!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

When I'm 64 .... no, I mean 76 - Yoko Ono "Between my Head and the Sky"

Getting a decent segue from day to day can often be a bit tricky on this blog so, after yesterday’s somewhat shonky link between Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Beatles it was pretty fortuitous that today I just happened to discover the Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band’s new album and so, of course, snapped it up straight away.

Between My Head and the Sky is full of so many interesting, innovative, fresh ideas, performed with such creativity and candour, that it is almost impossible to believe that Yoko Ono is now 76 years old. It brings together elements of rock, jazz, noise, ballads, pop, imbues them all with Yoko’s unique sound and colour, bringing even the most straightforward music onto the avant-garde stage.

Not that the music is difficult. Listen, for example, to the placid beauty of ‘Healing’, or of ‘I’m going away smiling’ with its bare piano and cello, and you will see that even new and experimental approaches to music can still sound pretty, and can still move you.

But there are other songs that are much more on the edge, where more bizarre noise blurts out of Yoko’s mouth, or from Sean Lennon’s guitar, like in the squawking vocals on ‘Waiting for the D Train’, or the weird electronics of ‘The Sun is Down’, or the distorted guitars of ‘Ask the Elephant!’, a weird, funky song about big elephants, tigers on roller skates and windows, or the odd mix of electronic noise and wailing vocals on ‘Moving Mountains’.

At times the album almost has a sense of departure about it, like in the heartbreaking nostalgia of ‘Memory of Footsteps’, with piano, trumpet, and Yoko’s voice, which even at this age and with such a limited range, can capture all the simplicity and depth of an emotion; and at times it has a sense of hope and renewal, like in ‘Watching the Rain’, with funny little darts of electronic sound poking their way through spacey, flowing keyboards.

There’s the buoyant groove of ‘Hashire, Hashire’, which, with its shoe-shuffling beat and bubbly trumpet, has an almost reggae feel to it and then, straight after it, there’s the avant-garde rock of the title song, with screeching guitar from Sean and screeching vocals from Yoko. There’s the minimalism of ‘Feel the Sand’, with scarcely more notes in it than you’d expect in a composition by John Cage; and there’s the almost Bach-like piano accompaniment to ‘Higa Nobura’, and then the completely freaky few seconds of ‘I’m Alive’ that sounds like someone accidentally left the microphones on when the tradies came in to dismantle the recording studio.

Between My Head and the Sky seems to do strange and outlandish things in amazingly unpretentious, at times almost understated, ways. Yoko doesn’t sing in the way singers are meant to sing, the music doesn’t sound like music usually sounds, and yet it still somehow manages to come to you, and to greet you, in the way that an old, if slightly eccentric, friend might do: odd, but oddly familiar, too.

I know that Yoko Ono is not everyone’s cup of sencha, but Between My Head and the Sky is well worth listening to, if only to see how creativity is something that doesn’t let a trivial little thing like age get in its way.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

And now for something (not really) completely different - Stockhausen's Helikopter-Quartett

It is not just the fact that avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen gets his face on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album that makes him interesting and important to the world of rock – it’s the way that, as a classical composer, he stretched the boundaries of music by endlessly daring uses of rhythm, electronics, noise and experimentation. And perhaps one of the most spectacular examples of his creativity is the album I have been listening to today – his famous Helikopter-Quartett.

The Helikopter-Quartett was written in 1992/1993 and I guess, technically, it’s an octet – written for two violins, a viola, a cello and four helicopters. Needless to say, performances of it are not particularly common and my recording of it, performed by the Arditti Quartet for whom it was written is just superb - which is good, because it's the only one.

Stockhausen had a whole lot of elaborate instructions about how it was supposed to be performed, with one musician in each helicopter, the helicopters circling the performance venue for about half an hour while the audience sits in a hall listening to the music of the instruments and of the helicopters, and watching the musicians, all being fed back to them via microphones and cameras and video screens.

It starts with the charging up of the helicopter turbines, the instruments fire up too, and, while they all whirl and swirl around, the strings racing through some incredibly fast tremolo passages, screeching up and down and around their registers, synchronised with the rhythm of the helicopter blades, the musicians shout out numbers in German.

It creates an amazing effect – hypnotic, exhilarating. You feel you are in the helicopters, in the air, in the music – all melded here into the one thing. Here the line between music and noise is totally blurred, with each merging into, and relying on, each other so much that neither really makes sense without the other.

Eventually the whole thing winds down – the helicopters land, their engines are switched off, the whir of the blades slows down, and the frenetic tremolo of the strings turns into a steady pulse, their pitch descends almost imperceptibly to ground level and then, eventually, everything stops. You get out at the end feeling giddy and breathless and, even though you're back on the ground, a big part of you is still very much on top of the world.

You are certainly not going to want to get up and dance to Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Quartett, nor are you going to find yourself involuntarily tapping your foot to it – but you will be swept up by it and, if you let yourself, you will become immersed in it. It's thrilng music - electric in its intensity and energy.

Like much in avant-garde classical music, it would be easy to dismiss the Helikopter-Quartett as gimmicky. But, if you listen to it on its own terms, and to the way it blends rhythm and melody and pitch and music and noise into one electrifyingly exciting journey through the sky, you might just find yourself wondering why it took so long for something so striking to be written.

It’s a shame that the way we put music into genres and pigeon holes so easily leads to us failing to open our ears and our minds to so many things. And, in the process, we not only miss out on hearing a lot of great music but also on seeing the links between it all, and how everything, ultimately, is informed by, and grows out of, everything else.

Maybe that’s what the Beatles knew, back in 1967, when they put Karlheinz Stockhausen on the cover of one of their best albums, wedged in between Lenny Bruce and W C Fields.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A disco at the edge of the world - The Phenomenal Handclap Band

The Phenomenal Handclap Band’s self-titled debut album featured as one of 3 PBS FM’s albums of the week a few months ago, and I’ve been meaning to give it a bit of attention for some time. With its quirky and boppy upbeat sounds, like some sort of indie dance music, it seemed just the perfect thing for me to pick today to round off a particularly great long weekend.

The band itself has been brought together by underground DJs New York DJs Daniel Collás and Sean Marquand, and comprises a mix of New York dissidents from the pop, indie and soul music scenes.

It results in something that sounds a bit like a dance album but, when you listen to it a bit more closely, you hear so many strange snatches of styles and influences that you begin to see what it’s like to be fun and original at the same time.

‘Journey to Serra da Estrala’, which opens the album, has a kind of spacey dance electronica feel to it, but one that really does make you feel it is taking you on a fantastic journey somewhere, with smooth floating synthesisers, full of exotic excitement.

It’s a pretty good indicator of what’s to come on this album. You feel you’re not just journeying through space, but through time, too – dabbling into the pop of the sixties, the disco of the seventies, the prog rock of the eighties, shamelessly stealing bits from everywhere, with neither apology nor permission, but putting all of it to great use, mixing all these elements of other people’s pasts, and making you feel that you are listening to someone else’s future.

And with the bringing together of different time worlds, other unlikely partnerships are made, too, like the way soft, cool vocals are underlined by hard rock beats and electric guitars in ‘Testimony’, or the way a barren, relentless beat are mixed with smooth 60s vocals, and little snippets of Philip Glass-like keyboard passages, in ‘You’ll Disappear’, or the way things seem so fresh and full of air in ‘Dim the Lights’, even with its coarse and grainy guitar work. Wild guitar riffs, straight from the 60s, are sandwiched between passages of epic metalesque doom and bright, boppy 70s pop, in ‘The Martyr’. Twirling psychedelic electornics dance around 60s soul in 'Baby'.

And yet none of this really sounds like a pastiche of things thrown willy-nilly together – but rather like a tapestry that has always been waiting to be made.

If it doesn’t exactly leave you feeling that you have been put into the middle of a cosmic, timeless dance-floor, it does make you feel you are a part of an electronic multiculturalism – the music of African jungles and Cuban streets played on the duke boxes of ritzy Western night clubs.

If The Phenomenal Handclap Band didn’t do such a masterly and clever job of bringing so many disparate things together, you might well think this album is made for the treadmill. But, as it happens, it’s so much more than that. It has shown us that you can take the passé and turn it into something pretty phenomenal.

Thanks once again, and as always, to 3PBS FM!!

Monday, November 2, 2009

The ups and downs of the rodeo with Dawn Landes

I really know next to nothing about rodeos, other than that they’re pretty wild and pretty American and that they have something to do with untamed animals jumping about with people on their backs. So I didn’t really know what to expect when I bought Dawn Landes’ new album Sweet Heart Rodeo, other than that, if it was anything life her earlier album, Fireproof, it was likely to be pretty good.

The rodeo theme keeps emerging and re-emerging throughout this album – an album that always feels a little wild, a little unsettled, a little restless. There seems to be an all pervading sense of transience, of someone uprooted – sometimes finding quick thrills here and fast excitement there, but never really feeling settled anywhere.

It’s an idea that is reflected in the music, too, which hops from genre to genre, always with a thread of rock weaving its way through folk and country, through music that swings and music that sways and music that plays. Each song seems to have its own upbeat face, covering an itinerant, wandering soul. There's some wonderful colours in the instruments - guitars, bells, wurlitzers, drums, congas, pianos, organs, bass, double bass, french horn, mandolin, cello, flute and, of course, Dawn Landes' beautiful clear voice binding it all together.

In ‘Young Girl’, the rodeo is a metaphor for time – giving its bitter message to the young about the things that will pass, and the hurts that will be dealt, all to a driving rock where the beat is everything, giving even Dawn's sweet, melodious voice a feeling of aggression to it.

The whirlwind world of the opening track is balanced in the second, ‘Money in the Bank’, a simpler, more gentle folk rock, with strumming guitar and an unpretentious celebration of the simpler things – the sun, the moon, sleeping outside and having a rose inside.

The music is always wandering and roaming between the search for stability and the experience of instability, like the wild country rock of 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo', ablaze with a rebellious spirit; or the childlike playfulness of ‘Clown’, where you can’t help but accept its invitation to “Clap your hands in the air/Play the fool, you don’t care/People gonna laugh and stare”; or the classic country road song that is ‘Wandering Eye’; or the deceptive innocence of 'Little Miss Holiday', a song about prostitution being brought to the screens of Hollywood.

Despite all the cheerful buoyancy of these songs, we always know that something less happy is not far below the surface – and, in ‘Brighton’ it finally comes to the fore in a wistful, slow song, with sad cello, that longs for home with the words “just want a place to be”.

The album’s short 32 minutes come to an end with ‘All Dressed in White’, a song without words, to joyous, jumping electronics – almost like a full-stop, maybe even a point of rest, after so much restlessness.

Sweet Heart Rodeo is certainly an album of ups and downs – it bucks you and chucks you but, no matter how rough the ride gets at times, you want desperately to stay on to the end. And that’s when you discover that this wild, untamed beast really, just like you, only wants a bit of peace.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Basking in the sun of The Middle East.

I’m not quite sure why Townsville-based band, The Middle East is called The Middle East, but their debut EP, The Recordings of the Middle East, would be worth listening to no matter what it was called.

I’ve found it hard to get much information about this band – it seems it has about six or seven members, playing a range of instruments that enable it to produce a seemingly endless range of sounds, all with chamber music intimacy, tinged with the colours of indie rock, folk, country and ambience. There’s acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, percussion, flute, trumpet, accordion, harmonica, keyboards, banjo, mandolin, glockenspiel and, of course, vocals – beautiful, softly harmonised vocals that give every song a quiet, placid poignancy.

The Recordings of the Middle East opens with ‘Darkest Side”, a rather enigmatic song, that seems to recall generations of the love and hardship of domestic life and death, in a quiet rippling melody.

Its images are, like many of the images on this album, sometimes a little hard to decipher – but, in a sense, that’s what gives them their magic: little snippets of pictures that, thanks to the intimacy of the music, seem to resonate and connect with you. These are not songs that tell you stories so much as present you with morsels of lives, hearts and hopes.

‘Lonely’ is filled with sadness, with weeping phrases from electronic keyboards and guitar – but it’s not a sadness so muc about loneliness itself as about the ways in which we allow our lives to become lonely, by caring about the things that don’t matter instead of the things that do.

All of these songs kind of wander between vocals and instrumentals, both working together, conversing with one another, carrying your heart away on the wings of gorgeous, close harmonies one minute, and massaging it with magic speckles of light the next. Listen, for example, to the breathtakingly beautiful postlude to ‘Blood’, where a choir of voices seems to dance on the clouds, while tingling percussion and guitars sparkle on the sea below.

‘Fool’s Gold’ is almost whispered to you, with its images of love and change, like a song that Bon Iver would have liked to have written.

‘Beleriand’ is full of darker, softly haunting tones, at times sounding like it’s coming to you from another world, frightening and menacing, until it thins out, and fades away, and leaves you with a feeling of comfort and rest after all.

The Recordings of the Middle East is only five songs – and is, I gather, a shorter version of an earlier release – but it’s more than enough to show you just how superb and talented The Middle East are, creating that very special sort of music that moves you, not because it grabs you and shakes you, but because it tiptoes on you, and makes you feel special and privileged to have been able to hear its whisper.

A beautiful recording from a band that certainly needs to be heard a whole lot more.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

End of the month music question - what makes music great?

I thought of introducing just a little bit of variety into this blog – partly for the sake of introducing a little bit of variety, and partly because I thought it might encourage a few comments, a bit of interaction, all in the interests of giving the masses a say.

And so I’ve decided, at least for the moment, to break with the usual album-a-day routine and, on the last day of each month, to pose a question and hopefully generate some thoughts from you … if only to reassure me that someone is actually reading this blog!! No, really, I am interested in what you have to say too.

Anyway, so today’s question is “what makes music great for you?” I’m actually always fascinated listening to people talk about music – and especially listening to what they like and why they like it. Sometimes people talk about how the music grabs them, creates goose-bumps. Others talk about the way this melody or theme combines with something else, and how cleverly it’s done. Still others talk about the way a piece of music brings together different influences. For some, it’s the complexity of the music that makes it great; for other’s it’s the simplicity. For some it’s what the music says to them that matters, for others it’s the ieas behind it, or, for others, it's simply how much fun it is to listen to. For others it’s the memories that music conjures up.

I guess mostly, though, it’s a mixture of these and any number of the million and one other ways that music has of being good, and of connecting with us.

I couldn’t begin to say what it is for me – I couldn’t even really tell you if it changes form one piece to another, and whether I listen differently to the noise rock of Melt-Banana than I do to the mathematical beauty of a Bach Prelude and Fugue.

In discovering over the past few months so much music that I had previously discarded as not my cup of tea (not that I particularly like tea anyway, really, but that's beside the point), I have come to the position where I am inclined to think that there really is no such thing as "bad music" – just music that I have not yet learned to enjoy. Maybe that’s taking it too far – I’m not sure. But, at very least, the enjoyment of music is a much bigger thing than even I, a long time passionate lover of music, ever thought possible.

So then ... what do YOU think?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Brünnhilde meets R2D2 - Klaus Nomi

Klaus Nomi is, by any standards, a bit unconventional. He sings mostly 80s danceish popish music, usually in a high dramatic falsetto, mostly in staccato, giving him the sound of some sort of cross between a diva and a robot. He is usually backed by synths and electronic beats, but sometimes there’s a classical backing thrown in, like a harpsichord tingling away with the chords of a sad, funereal song by Purcell, or maybe all of that is discarded and he sings an operatic aria as if he was really singing, well, an aria in an opera.

And that is how I would describe his debut 1981 self-titled album in one paragraph, if I had to. But, fortunately, I don’t have to do it one paragraph and certainly Klaus Nomi needs and deserves much, much more than that.

Klaus Nomi had a tragically short artistic career – dying far, far too soon, in 1983, only two years after releasing this, his first album. Have a little wander through YouTube and you will see what an amazing performer he was – pushing the boundaries of theatre, music and, not least, gender, but doing it in a way that showed brilliant artistry even more than an urge to challenge or provoke.

When he puts all those skills together onto an album you end up with something pretty amazing. It’s not quite pop turned into opera, and it’s not quite opera turned into pop, and it’s definitely not something in the middle. It’s something completely unique, sounding like all of that, and none of it, at once. It’s as if someone has taken the best bits of both music worlds, thrown them up in the air, captured the bits that fly the highest, and has put it all through the wacky, batty blender of Klaus Nomi.

He includes some clever little takes on his own name – like in his version of ‘You don’t own me’, where the title line sometimes transforms to “You don’t know me (Nomi)”. Everything is just a little bit naughty, a little bit silly, and a big bit bizarre – but, if you don’t mind things that sound zany, chances are you will just love the loopy kooky originality of these songs – full of electric energy that transports you to another world, where the sky is green and the sea is purple and clouds are crimson and everything is just different.

And it’s that electric energy, along with that striking operatic/robotic sound of Klaus Nomi’s singing, and the incredible theatre of his performance, that makes this album such a captivating one, rather than just an interesting one or just a fun one, even though it is all of that as well. So, after hearing his versions of things like Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ or Kristian Hoffman’s ‘Total Eclipse’, or anything else for that matter, you always want to hear just one track more, and just one more after that, just to see what he’ll do next. And inevitably you find yourself thinking of this or that song from your past and wondering, “I wonder what he would do with THAT!!

But you ultimately only get to hear ten, and the last starts out as a relatively straightforward take on 'Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix' from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns (the same aria, incidentally, that also appears on Muse’s latest album Resistance (3rd October)), but ends up in some strange orchestral implosion, turning all that grandeur to rubble.

It’s all very camp, of course – but it’s also very German and I suspect it was because of the latter, rather than the former, that Marty R recommended it to me. But, in any event, I’m glad he did, because Klaus Nomi, the love child of Wagner's Brünnhilde and Star Wars' R2D2, is just bursting with fun and flair.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Taking you through the streets of London - Editors "In this Light and on this Evening"

As with most of the music I have been talking about on this blog, I hadn’t heard of Editors until today, when I bought their recently released album In this Light and on this Evening and so have not been particularly swept up in the discussions, which I have been reading a bit today (in my lunch break, of course) about how this band is constantly reinventing and transforming itself, winning new recruits to its fan base, and losing old ones, along the way.

But what I have been swept up in is the music itself – an amazing album that pretty well took my breath away from the moment it started to the moment it finished. That, by the way, was only just under 45 minutes, which isn’t that long for an album – but it’s a decent amount of time to be breathless.

It starts with its title track, and with dark, ominous chuggings, like the sounds of a city in the night, raw and harsh but somehow enticing, waking you from an unsettled sleep.

“I swear to God/I heard the Earth inhale moments before it spat its rain down on me” we hear. And the rain certainly does come down – in torrents: a thunderstorm of electronic synthesisers and beats, dark and big, creating a kind of apocalyptic beauty. It’s an explosive track to open an album with – and feels like a night city springing to life.

The rest of the album takes you through that city, rushing you through its glaring streets, its clubs, its faces, its loves, its politics, its wars. The music blazes with a light that threatens as much as it allures. Everything moves fast here: love is aflame one minute and is being buried the next and, while you let yourself go, pumped with the music’s energy, you can’t help the feeling that there’s something more ominous watching you from the shadows.

Listen, for example, to ‘Papillon’, where you are immersed in both the thrill and the claustrophobia of modern life, with words like “when it kicks like a sleep twitch/you will choke, choke on the air you try to breath” to whirring dance-floor electronica.

At times you almost feel that the world this album shows you has already had its apocalypse, where you feel a dark, unsettled adrenalin rush through your veins, as you run “… with the dead today/through the cemeteries where ghosts still play” in ‘You don’t know love’, or as you watch as ‘A bruised full moon play fights with the stars’ in “The Boxer”.

All throughout, the music maintains its incredibly intoxicating mix of dark savagery, through a driving, chugging bass line, and a breathless excitement, though amphetamine-charged snyths – perhaps nowhere better than in the unstoppable build up of tension in ‘The Big Exit’.

The music is always rich and shadowy, and the vocals of Tom Smith add to the colour – a dark, even creepy, but strangely smooth, almost velvety, voice. It’s a voice that in another time and place might even sound tender but has now been through too much for that. Listen to the long floating notes in ‘Like Treasure’, his voice flying high through the night air, full of heart-torn passion, above the dark and relentless drive of the music, bemoaning a world where clichés have become the only way of saying anything.

The album closes with ‘Walk the Fleet Road’ which, even with the ominous darkness still there, has an almost lullaby-like sway to it, as if it is rocking you back into the unsettled sleep from which the opening track awoke you.

In this Light and on this Evening is pretty convincing evidence that there is still a lot that can be done with electronica – still a lot of colours for it to create, a lot of things for it to say, and that, even when the pictures it paints are dark and foreboding, it can still get you up on the floor and make you dance.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The sound of dolphins - Merzbow

After writing over the past several days about so many albums that delve into this or that nook or cranny of the human psyche, I thought it was time for a little bit of a gear change today and so decided to focus on an album about dolphins. Something with the sounds of the sea, the song of those gorgeous marine animals with all their grace and beauty and amazing intellect, and the way that humans interact with it all.

But, of course, that idyllic picture is not what the world is really like for a lot of dolphins, especially on the coasts of Japan, where the water is red with dolphin blood, the song is the screech of excruciating pain and fear and the interaction with humans is brutal, mercenary and deadly.

This is the picture that is portrayed in Merzbow’s 2008 album, Dolphin Sonar, just over an hour of grating, piercing, electronic noise that conjures up horrifying images of slaughter, and of a species and an ocean violated.

Merzbow is Japanese avant-garde music/noise artist Masami Akita. There is absolutely nothing on Dolphin Sonar that sounds even remotely like what you are accustomed to thinking of as music. The sounds are dense, harsh electronic distortions and the most musical things get is when every now and then you can vaguely detect a beat bashing away beneath the violent hissing and foam. But even the beat is not so much the sound of drums but of sea bed rumbling and bubbling in uneasy protest to the horrors that are happening above it.

Here the ocean is an angry, ugly thing. It hurts your ears to listen to it, but its anger and strength is too great for you to be able to turn it off. It sounds in some ways like a radio being tuned, distorted indecipherable noise, sometimes with the sounds of sirens whirring like air raid signals, sometimes with indistinct bashings and clangings that sound like bashings on massive rubbish bins, but always with a vehemence and a violence that only nature, displaced and angry, could muster.

Dolphin Sonar is in three parts, but none of them provide relief or contrast from the unrelenting turmoil and brutality. The last ends with what sounds like forlorn plucking on some electronically distorted string instrument – a stabbed, strangled sound against a sea that slowly, reluctantly, gurgles into silence.

This is not an album that you listen to for enjoyment – it is meant to confront you, disturb you and challenge you. And it does. But it also captivates you, and shakes you, if you allow it to. And while, at the end, you may well want to stick on a recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for a bit of comfort, and a more sanguine view of nature (not to mention the opportunity of a tune to hum along to), Dolphin Sonar is the album you need to listen to if you want to really know what nature, and humanity's interaction with it, is about these days.

And you need to hear it, what’s more, if only to see how music can move in such utterly unconventional directions to get its point across.

Another great discovery by rummaging through the racks at Missing Link in Melbourne.