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.