Saturday, 5 December 2015

Various Artists-Crossovers(2xCD) / 0.5 Releases (B16)

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Anyone reading diligently almost two years ago today will be familiar with the name of Ivan Antunovic, as I reviewed Issue V of his impeccable, inspiring and highly informative fanzine “Small Doses” back in November 2013. As I mentioned then, his energies are not just confined to the printed page but also musical endeavours, too, both in the form of his 0.5 imprint, which currently has forty-two releases by a host of artists listed on its Discogs page, and as a shape and guise-shifting musician himself who has clocked up countless releases over the last six years or so under names such as I/II, Iv/An, Split Personalities, Dissident and The Fall Guy. The list seems set to grow further, no doubt, as the man’s enthusiasm, bank of ideas and work ethic seem to know no bounds.

This November, though, has seen the release of one of his most ambitious projects thus far, “Crossovers”, a twenty-one track international compilation spread across two discs, a diverse yet unified collection of artists who huddle together, some more loosely than others, under the electronic / experimental umbrella, with the timely themes of migration, borders, communication and collaboration being at the heart of its ethos, and hence the title. As with anything Ivan produces, style and substance of the very highest order go hand-in-hand and, in this respect, “Crossovers”, in its multi-coloured sleeve which folds out to form a kind of triptych, or a book that works in two directions, one for each disc, is an absolute triumph of both aesthetics and function.

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The whole package is helped along by Philipp Hanich’s oil painting “I Lost My Heart To Varvara(2012) gracing one of the faces of the booklet, an arrestingly simple yet optically stimulating image which, whilst directly referencing the 1920s sportswear designs of Varvara Stepanova, also brings to mind Giacomo Balla’s Futurist Suit and the cabaret costumes of Tristan Tzara, all of which are highly apposite for an international collection with avant-garde leanings, such as the one we have here. A hand-numbered insert, for this is available only in a small dose of seventy copies rather than an unlimited supply, also features another of his works, “Bruch”, a mixed media piece from 2012, which shares its title with the nom de guerre under which he releases his solo musical outings, for he, too, I believe, is a polymath, a shape-shifter and collaborator, perfectly suited to this particular environment. Then, finally, before we get on to the audio content, Michael Giebl has to be mentioned as occupying a central position in proceedings, much as he appears to hold a pivotal, hub position in the seemingly thriving Viennese underground electronic music scene derzeit, his witty, thought-provoking liner notes and, I understand, ideas and encouragement during its inception and production also stamping his identity across the finished release.

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So, now to Disc 1, which begins rather atmospherically with “Guess Who Is Here” by Insane Eyes, which is a steadily advancing instrumental, previously released on a 2012 album originating from Serbia. Both stately and ominous in equal measure, the sound reminds me a little of the palette employed at times by Depeche Mode during the mid-eighties but augmented by some haunting, not quite comprehensible vocals, like a kind of irrepressible entity progressing determinedly through the night, an image and sound over which the opening credits of some mysterious, suspenseful film could convincingly roll. In this respect, Michael Giebl’s sleeve notes echo my own sentiments entirely, as he describes it as “an eerie, orchestrated tune of Murnauesque fright-quality, taking us back to the early days of the magical medium of cinematography.” It’s certainly a perfect attention-grabbing opener for what’s to follow.
Which begins with “Kaffeetrinkengehen” by The Vague Faith, effectively another instrumental piece, which now brings some highly infectious, gently building electronic jitter-funk to the table, over which fragmented, conversational mutters do battle with occasional whistles of electronic feedback, evoking impressions of the social activity after which it is titled. This is an otherwise unreleased solo offering by David-Kim-Hermsdorf who is from Hamburg, hence the reference to Holger Hiller and Felix Kubin meeting for coffee in a bygone era prior to electronic communication in Michael’s liner appraisal. My only criticism is that it is frustratingly short at just two minutes and forty seconds. I’m left wanting another cup.

By contrast, Bildplatte who come next with “Hollow Day” definitely mean business in the song stakes, their foot-tapping, slightly warmer than ice-cold wave, repetitively sequenced groove, which also comes served with what sounds like bass, guitar and real drumming, proving to be an infectiously addictive early highlight of the compilation. The group combine something of the electronic urgency of DAF and their ilk, with traces of an early recording by The Cure, over the top of which an intensely arresting vocal element is provided by guesting voice Violet Candide whose delivery brings to mind Yoko Ono in its disregard for convention and seeming desperation to let those feelings out. Unless my hearing is failing me, love is like a cactus. This is the first of the Vienna contingent whose presence is so strongly felt across both discs.
Next, though, we’re back in the realm of the atmospheric instrumental with Cornelius Berkowitz’s “Lichtspielmusik” which, for me, on a first listen, began with the invisible drones and sirens of approaching bombers and duelling fighter planes, flashing across searchlights in the blackness of night, this combining with the title to maybe suggest something redolent of Albert Speer and “Triumph of the Will”, too. However, a little short of the two minute mark, everything changes and a kind of restrained minimal surf track which won’t quite let rip cuts in, a little like the hybrid offspring of Die Haut and Young Marble Giants. This is only temporary, though, as progressively rising, spooky sublayers soon win out, combining powerfully with some quite heavy and, at times, discordant profundity at the piano, therein belying the piece’s true intent as an extract from a soundtrack to be performed live to Carl Dreyer’s 1932 film “Vampyr”. With this in mind, we’re then perfectly positioned in the terror zone, a poetic nightmare of classical proportions with piano, theremin, strings and guitar being just some of the startling ingredients which blow around in a beautifully unsettling maelstrom by the time the piece passes the four and a half minute mark. Combined with the aforementioned visual element, this must make for quite an amazing multi-sensory experience. I’ve managed to find a video clip of this very phenomena, filmed in Vienna, one year ago almost to the day, this being the city out of which Cornelius Berkowitz works, I believe. Here's the link.
“Nightmare Carpet”, which follows, appears to be both the title of the song and the name of the artist and originates from a self-released cassette, date of conception unknown, although geographically it, apparently, comes from the city of Belgrade. The medium here is minimal, repetitive and darkly atmospheric, suggesting a feeling of being in a dank, subterranean cellar, perhaps, yet also possessed of subtle arabesques which circle and coil out of the mix and combine with a simple, recurring and haunting melody to provide a certain exoticism to the track which, for me, is a little reminiscent of an early Cabaret Voltaire piece. I like how Michael Giebl sums it all up so I’ll quote him verbatim before moving on: “Music to play in the dark. When you’re alone. Lying on a medieval rug. This audio piece is woven out of a nightmare of some unknown dreamer.” 
Zastranienie also come from the Serbian capital and their contribution “Ritual” unleashes its energy with immediate force, such that any ambient abstractions left lingering from the previous two pieces are blown instantly off the field by a fierce whip crack of a beat, powerful sequenced electronics, which have something of the slightly off-kilter stridency of Liaisons Dangereuses, and a vocal element which makes me think that this would make an ideal soundtrack for a 21st century remake of “The Omen”. It’s apparently plucked from the sessions for an, as yet, unreleased album and, undoubtedly, has the makings of a floor filler at your local EBM discotheque any day soon.
My goodness, we switch territories most deliciously on this disc, as Kimekai whose “Sunland”, which follows, goes in for something a lot less intense, more light-infused and pop-inclined, the song’s title going a long way to describe the sonic components on offer. Synths shimmer and glisten and there’s a watery, natural element to it on which all the other ingredients, both dreamy and alert at once, seem to float downstream in a glow of absolute well-being. It has something of the positivity, hyper-magnification and brilliance I get from parts of Pyrolator’s “Wunderland” album, although sounding only slightly like it, whilst there is also something of the tranquil perfection of a Japanese zen garden to it, as well. Kimekai is the work of a twenty-two year old Croatian producer by the name of Marko Vuković, my research tells me.
With “Azinth” by Farbfelde, we’re back in the realms of the contemplative and abstract, again, the name of the artist going a long way towards describing what it represents, as increasingly intensifying tones of sound wash over and around one another or pulse repeatedly and reassuringly from a foundation depth, almost as though a painting by Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman has been temporarily granted a sonic dimension with which to express itself. Fans of people like Spectrum or Land Observations will find a lot to enjoy in this one and it is a very nice place, indeed, in which to find oneself located for just over four and a half minutes, a mandarine Traum. Their Soundcloud page describes them as Berlin School Kosmische Musik from Vienna, unsurprisingly.
Now comes the first of a small British contingent on the compilation, as “We’ll Kill Your Reason” by This is the Bridge, which originally appeared on a digital album called “Blood Runs Cold”, released earlier this year, is described as both a solo and collaborative project from Liverpool and London. It also marks the first sonic contribution on offer by Ivan Antunovic, too, as the track appears here in the form of a “Protest Mix” credited to Iv/An. In so doing, it makes me think of what Vice Versa might have sounded like were they still around today rather than changing direction so radically three and a half decades ago. The timbre is strictly electronic, metallically and acidically so, I would say, their combined intentions seemingly straddling both avant-garde leanings and a pop structure and sensibility. I love it, as it also takes me back a little to the livelier aspects of Fad Gadget’s “Under The Flag” album, both in the tones with which it is painted and the insistent groove which propels it along.
The first disc then closes with an old friend, Soft Riot, who appears here with a “First Version” of “You Never Know What Might Come Next” from the album of the same title, which I reviewed ever so recently below so I won’t say anything more about it here, except that it sits perfectly in this context and is another of the many highlights herein to be found.
Disc 2 kicks off with “Work and Velocity” by Crystal Soda Cream,  who are a trio, Philipp Forthuber, Theresa Adamski and Sebastian Ploier, and one of an impressive roster of artists clustered around the Totally Wired label in Vienna. They released their debut album proper in 2013, although this track is a remixed version of one which will appear on the follow-up, which is still forthcoming and, in it, although electronic elements feature, guitars dominate, sounding very familiar, as though from a dawn of the eighties Banshees album or the Cocteau Twins’ “Head Over Heals”. The vocals are male, though, and sound similar to Robert Smith to these ears, both in terms of the voice itself and the rhythm of the delivery. 
Next it’s the turn of Nöi Kabát with “Industry”, this being one of the sides of their debut and, to date, only vinyl release from a couple of years ago (see my entry from October 2013 for more details), although here it’s in the form of a subsequent “Sense and Understanding” remix by In Death It Ends. To this particular end, it’s been raved-up quite considerably and given that unmistakable Northern European sound which is both martial and commanding on the one-hand but achingly melancholy and cold on the other. Picture one of those old factories in Germany which get reappropriated as nightclubs for a while, until the authorities or real estate companies move in with a more bland, bourgeois agenda, blue and white lighting, swathes of dry ice, a metallic interior and several hundred revellers and you’ll probably get where I’m coming from. It’s brilliant! Rumour has it that this is an apéritif for something more substantial just round the corner, but I’m not one to gossip so shall say no more under these circumstances.
As we have come to expect from this compilation, “Kapusta” by Mo-Du then changes the mood most dramatically, back to something more serene and microscopic, after the gargantuan, stentorian statement which precedes it. This is the work of Jan Jiskra from Prague, who normally trades under the name of Moduretik and has been making music he describes as synthwave, minimal synth, darkwave and ambient since 2001. “Kapusta”, without a doubt, fits into the latter category and is described by Michael as an “otherworldly audio guide to outer space” and there is certainly a sense of floating freely or being propelled gently through something anti-gravitational when you listen to this one.
The gentle respite doesn’t last long, however, as Laker Herzog instantly reset the pace and intensity dials a few notches with their track “Driven To Silence”. Apparently, they use analogue equipment to make bedroom synthpop in Argentina, and sound very European in so doing, maybe because Iv/An is back at the mixing desk, having given this one a makeover in Zagreb prior to its inclusion here. As a consequence, it definitely would not sound out of place on one of those minimal / synth / wave compilations which have become increasingly popular over the years, and is rather typical of a genre which owes rather a lot to the likes of early Depeche Mode and their ilk. This is no bad thing, though, and I love it, especially the stinging beat, which sounds like electrowhips or gobbets of acid rain lashing against a window pane. Without a doubt, it’s one of the compilation’s poppier moments yet is still possessed of an uneasy tension which is a common, unifying thread running through many of the tracks on offer.
"Homage à F" by 1410, which follows, is another more atmospheric soundscape piece, an unreleased track by Mladen Đikić, who more normally records under the name NoName NoFame. He’s from Split in Croatia and the influence of his coastal location is possibly in evidence here, as there’s a sense of contemplating something quite expansive and unending when listening to this one. There’s not a beat to be heard, just bands of layered sound, some metallic and fizzling, others more expansive and filmic, like the soundtrack to some light-saturated, semi-abstract super 8 in which vague elements turn slowly in bright, glistening sunshine.
Microslav’s contribution, “Labin” occupies similar territory to 1410 and is, by far, the longest piece in the set at just over 10 minutes. In fact, even at that, it’s only a one-track recording excerpted from a longer live improvisation. His Soundcloud page describes him as a man with a computer and, in the liner notes for this compilation, Michael Giebl expands on this when describing the track as follows: “Modular analogue sequences from the synthesizer maniac of Zagreb who supposedly provides electronic equipment from his enormous collection to all the kids who fancy twisting some nobs.” I’m guessing that quite a number of prime examples from his arsenal got dusted down for this gently-building, multi-toned instrumental which has something miraculously evolutionary about it, whilst also putting me in mind of the intricate diligence going on inside a colony of insects. Like the toxic bite from just such a creature, it gets under your skin and gradually begins to seep into something hypnotic and slightly destabilising. I would guess that some people would describe it as noodling and, certainly, were the piece played on guitars I’m sure that it would be most revolting. However, here it works beautifully.
After a short intermission, sequenced rhythms, a succession of bleeps which pass by with the relentless rapidity of an express train, hissing beats and electric handclaps run amok in Position A’s “In Your House”. It’s squelchy and acidic and has a vocal element, too, slightly vacant and providing variations of phrases centred on the key concept of the title. Aside from this, Position A is a bit of a mystery. The track was recorded specially for the compilation and appears to be their only available output.
Next is the track which, for me, stands at the core of this compilation and as the greatest embodiment of its ethos of crossovers, collaboration and deliberately unstable identities, as “Panic Room, My Heart” is the product of the meeting of minds who are Ho/Pe + Iv/An. I’ve already said quite a lot about Ivan, who is here credited for synthetics and production, and anybody with a slightly more than vague appreciation for this kind of thing should be familiar with the name of Peter Hope, who provides vocals and lyrics, due to a back catalogue which stretches over three decades and is a seemingly endless pot-pourri of pseudonyms, collaborations and contributions to group projects, the most celebrated of which, I suppose, were post-Clock DVA almost pop stars The Box, as well as his intermittent crossovers with members of Cabaret Voltaire over the years. As Michael writes, “generations merge and energies multiply” and there is definitely a potency and intensity which results from this blend, as Ivan’s repetitively stabbing backing, with beats that sound like the clashing of swords, perfectly off-sets the vocal declarations about a suffocating, panic room and calls to “turn out my light, shut off my air”. I’m almost certain that this is a one-off joint venture but it would be nice to think that there are, at least, one or two other pieces from this association floating about for future consumption.
The polymorphism thread continues into the penultimate track, too, which is an untitled instrumental piece recorded specially for the compilation by Narg. This is the work of Florian Tremmel from Vienna whose solo outings are more normally released under the name Gran, unless he is collaborating with Philipp Hanich, of course, in which case it’s Bruchgran and, in so doing, he seems to be a figure seemingly at the centre of a lot of what goes on at Totally Wired Records. What’s on offer here is a highly purposeful, driving, electronic piece, possessed of much majesty and magnificence en route. It sounds a bit like a less chaotic variant of Add N to (X) and is another of the highlights of the compilation for me.
And so proceedings now end with “My Night Out Was Great Fun” by Dot Dash, which was written and produced specially for the compilation and is a title both valedictory and celebratory and, therefore, wholly appropriate to draw these proceedings to a close, as is the fact that this four piece feature both Florian Tremmel and Philipp Hanich amongst their line-up and so, therefore, it seems attitudinally suited to this role, too.  Although there is a garage-y feel here, with distorted vocals repeating the title and nothing else over and over and a slightly trashy guitars and drumming backing, I would say that this feels less ramshackle than much of their usual output and it takes me back a little to the wonderful days of the shamefully forgotten and underrated Echoboy who could be relied upon to come up trumps over and again, yet with such little reward. Unsurprisingly, Dot Dash are from Vienna and already have a couple of albums under their belt, released through Totally Wired. Here’ one of their videos with which to finish.

All that now remains to be said is that, provided you are a little possessed of a certain proclivity in the first place, there’s a bit of something for everybody here, and a whole lot more besides. I think you should get yourself a copy now, before you regret it. Es kostet 20 Euros, which is a snip for twenty-one tracks, two discs and the package itself, and it can be purchased from the web address below. Congratulations, by the way, to Ivan and all who sail with him.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Soft Riot-You Never Know What Might Come Next

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Soft Riot (a.k.a. JJD / a.k.a Jack Duckworth / Canadian born but living in the U.K.) last appeared on here about three years ago, when I reviewed his cassette album “Hyperbolic Masses” and, as predicted back in 2012, since then, things have come on apace. He’s released three more albums on an annual basis (well, one of these was essentially a reissue of the cassette and another also featured earlier outings), played out live with some degree of regularity and relocated to Sheffield, with its rich heritage of intelligent electronic journeying to which he now contributes. This month also sees the release of his new collection “You Never Know What Might Come Next”, which represents quite a momentous step forward, in my view, and is released as a vinyl album on the EXBTN label from France, a download and a strictly limited (50 copies) CD package, with four bonus tracks, available for the not-too-distant future from I received a version of the latter in the post recently and to say that I’m mightily impressed would be rather an understatement.
Before I offer any of my own observations, like last time, I’ll crib a little from the website and press release which accompanied the CD in order to set the tone:

“Soft Riot, coming from a more punk rock pedigree, often places more focus than the norm on his lyrical content, bringing in detailed pictures and sometimes even linear narrative storylines to subjects such as modern living, technology, surveillance, environment, overpopulation, enlightenment, life elsewhere, forewarning about catastrophic events, vain people in gyms, and not having enough time. The influences come less from other musical artists but more from written fiction and film – a future predicted by fiction.”

“You Never Know What Might Come Next”…further develops and fine-tunes Soft Riot’s evolving minimal, atmospheric sound that started gaining momentum on the 2013 full-length “Fiction Prediction.”
“The very title – “You Never Know What Might Come Next” is as threatening a warning, as it is a hint of a pleasant surprise; it raises questions, it makes you wonder, thus it’s succeeded in its mission to make you, the listener, a great part of it…”
Despite the disquieting uncertainty of the title and sleeve imagery - JJD on the front cover looking as though he’s standing atop a barren globe, a looming gaseous cloud behind him, his head full of skyscrapers, an over-crowded cityscape and densely populated space, all seen through his sculpted black hair, as well as an expression of not knowing where to turn next; the inlay booklet featuring him posed in a cheerlessly pensive gesture of irresolution before a table on which various instruments of divination rest impotently around the question of “What Might Come Next?” – this album, for me, stands out quite markedly from anything Soft Riot has released previously, due to it feeling a lot less claustrophobic and, to a large extent, lacking the menace and over-riding tension to be found on previous outings such as “Fiction Prediction” and “No Longer Stranger”, and that’s even with the inclusion of titles like “A Scene From A Dark Beach”, “You Are A Caged Dancer”, “We Are The Chopped” and “There Is Some Great Evil Out There”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from being laugh-along sunshine pop but there feels to be a bit more optimism and more of the wry amusement of a satirist at work than we’ve been accustomed to before. It’s also chock-full of often oblique and short-lived moments of catchy melody and, once listened to a handful of times (it’s been said before elsewhere that Jack’s music benefits from multiple plays to decode its initially baffling layers), infectious singalong qualities surface which I’d not previously encountered to such an extent on previous Soft Riot productions where the groove has seemed more like a pulse, the landscape been more bleakly filmic and the voice often a hesitant whisper (or absent altogether). All the familiar ingredients are still here, though, and you can never become too comfortable and relax into any one of the tracks’ direction or momentum; JJD is always on hand to cleverly upset expectations, subverting, collapsing and carefully rebuilding vaguely familiar pop structures throughout. As a consequence, “You Never Know What Might Come Next” has a magnetic quality I would maybe define as ‘perkily portentous’ and is, for me, somewhat reminiscent in this respect of our dear, departed Fad, particularly during his “Incontinent” days.
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So, to some of the music which lies herein, every track a gem, I promise you. Proceedings start extremely well with “For Your Entertainment”, its title a nod maybe to another song from the Steel City of yesteryear and presenting a bemused and alienated glance across a landscape of anguished singers on TV, payday loans, erotic moans, mobile communication and, ultimately, tombstones, a world into which everybody can escape and is a potential participant, and the tone is instantly set for much of what follows. I mentioned a particular Fad Gadget album before and it’s with this track that songs like “Blind Eyes” and “Swallow It” would make particularly suitable bed fellows. Meanwhile, behind this imagery, the bass line plods and thuds along, stabs and sparks of synthetic sound pierce and spiral through proceedings, a melody builds steadily before repeatedly turning back in on itself and reforming and then, about a minute from the end, an instrumental passage, both triumphant and ominous, breaks forth and carries us towards track two in a style which encapsulates in a short musical space what the album is trying to achieve overall. It’s as infectious as anything and what our friends in Germany might refer to as an ear worm, boring itself into the long-term memory and refusing to be dislodged. Next comes the album’s title track which is equally bewitching in its appeal and mightily impressive in its neat complexity and, rather than write about it and seeing as Jack has made a video for it, I’ll let readers experience its merits for themselves. Keep watching after it finishes, by the way, for an advertisement for the collection as a whole and in which you’ll get a brief taster of all that I write about here. Sit back and enjoy the next few minutes: here, right now, for your entertainment!

Track three, “There Is Some Great Evil Out There”, has the pace and urgency of a car chase, cascading and twisting like an interminable, out-of-control fairground ride from which there’s no release. It’s one of the album’s more narrative pieces, like a short film of high intensity, in which the heroine races through oblivious zombie-like commuters and confusing signs, drawn towards the city centre where she confronts the personification of what’s implied in the title and, seemingly, at the core of modern living. It’s mysterious and inconclusive but, bleak and hopeless as it may sound, carries forth the ambiguous optimism which is woven through track after track on offer here, its chorus (of sorts) repeating the same message several times over, “When it brings you down, it’s tough to get up but you do it anyway,” before the brakes are slammed on suddenly and it’s time to move on.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to be so tedious as to describe all twelve tracks but I will draw your attention to another couple of highlights before packing up, although, as I have already said, each one is a jewel in its own right and worthy of attention. “Your Back To The Stone” offers a similar alternative of resilience over world-weariness to much of what’s gone before and, musically, reminds me of The Human League at their very best with its solid beat, rich, deep vocal timbre, clear verse-chorus structure, passages of arpeggio-driven dynamism and gorgeous hooks and underlying chords. If I had to pick a favourite this is a definite contender, alongside “There Is Some Great Evil Out There”, although really this accolade switches between one track and another with repeated listens to the collection as a whole, such as “You Are A Caged Dancer”, another of the album’s more lively components and coming on instantly a bit like DAF in their more plinking moments or cut from the same musical cloth which underlies much of Depeche Mode’s “Construction Time Again”. Despite its title and the environment of “streets so frightful and crowds unbearable”, it bounces along most pleasingly and, in my view, the lines which conclude its chorus – “Like a great romantic, an idyllic vision in miles of decay” – could stand as an epithet for the entire album and JJD’s current double-edged vision encapsulated.
JJD/Soft Riot’s singular talent, confidence and ambition continues to grow quite staggeringly and in “You Never Know What Might Come Next” he has produced an album I have listened to almost exclusively and repeatedly since it first arrived a fortnight ago and which, on each new play, throws up something new and unexpected as it also settles into the psyche like an old, familiar and much cherished friend. At the risk of sounding cheesy, in terms of planet Soft Riot, I can only see the big question mark which hangs over current proceedings being resolved by even greater things to come, as I’m sure this trajectory is far from spent yet.
Soft Riot will be playing as part of the annual Sensoria Festival in Sheffield on Saturday 3rd October, there’s talk of a small UK tour being planned for later in the autumn, hopefully on a bill shared with Hausfrau and Nöi Kabát, and there’s to be a foray into continental towards the close of the year, too, I believe. I had the pleasure of seeing Jack’s one man, multi-synth, lightshow extravaganza in Newcastle a year or so ago and it comes strongly recommended. I’ll leave you with a rather crap photograph I took on my rather unsophisticated telephone that night. Squint and you might work it out.
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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Eric Random: 30th May 2015, Bede's World, Jarrow

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Eric Random played a rare and rather intimate live gig at the Bede's World Centre in Jarrow, near Newcastle, last night and, having missed the one he did last year at Manchester's Band on the Wall with Wrangler, I was keen to go along. He didn't disappoint in the slightest, either, as he was utterly superb.   

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Performing a lively, purely electronic and, for the most part, quite beaty and mainly instrumental set, with the addition of some vocoded and non-vocoded vocals in places, the key elements of the Random sound were still in evidence, the repetitive, circling electro-psychedelic layers and textures, magnetic and engaging, yet also slightly destabilising and unnerving, but given a thirty-five year update...and it sounded brilliant. 

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He was joined for his final number, on the slightly raised circular stage, in a small, white rotunda area of the museum, by Jez Kerr of A Certain Ratio, who supplied some quite abstract slabs of bass guitar to what Mr. Ramsden was by this point conjuring forth from his various pieces of equipment. Apparently, it was their first live collaboration since the legendary Certain Random Cabaret performance at The Beach Club in Manchester in 1980.

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Despite the lack of bodies present, there was no shortage of photographs taken and here's a small selection of mine to add to the pile.

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I should also mention that "the crowd" were warmed-up by Quarterlight (a.k.a. Gary Chaplin) who performed a short but equally enjoyable electronic set, a departure from the norm for him, I'm told, which included a slightly smothered, subtle cover of Sheila B. Devotion's "Spacer". A little bird told me, too, that it was the first time he and Eric Random had been in the same room since an event nearly thirty eight years ago to the day, when the former was playing guitar with Penetration at the Electric Circus in Manchester, on a bill which was topped by Buzzcocks and also featured The Stiff Kittens, who changed their name to Warsaw on the night, I believe, before changing it again some time later to Joy Division, this being their debut public performance. 

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It was a fantastic, highly memorable and, even historic, night. Well done to those people who stuck their neck out and organised it, even though they probably ended up sorely out of pocket, as a consequence.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Robert Marlow-The Blackwing Sessions: Demos 1982/3 (Vinyl on Demand Records: VOD131.4)

Thirty-one years ago, I think it was at the start of the school summer holidays, an initially mysterious envelope arrived in the post, containing a single sheet of photocopied paper, the majority of one side featuring the black and white image of a leather-jacketed individual, cropped a little below the shoulders, gazing confidently back out at my then not quite teenage self. Below it, in a couple of inches of white space, a few lines of typed block capitals spelt out the message: “Hello! Hope you’re OK! This is just to let you know that Vince Clarke has just produced a single for a new artiste, ‘Robert Marlow’, which is to be released on July 11th. It’s called ‘The Face of Dorian Gray’ – in both 7” and 12” versions. It’ll be released by RCA on the Reset Records label.” Everything became a lot clearer, however, when I looked in the bottom right-hand corner of the page and read the word “DEB” followed by four kisses, partially chopped off by the parameters of a photocopier, this being Deb Danahay with whom I’d corresponded gently for the previous several months, as I sent off my stamped-addressed envelope expectantly each month for the latest newsletter from the Yazoo Information Service which she, Vince Clarke’s other half at the time, used to run in just the same cottage-industry fashion that Dave Gahan’s girlfriend and future wife, Jo Fox, did the Depeche Mode Information Service for several years into their successful career, each of them willingly answering questions fans posed in cheerful, hand-written replies, all of which I still possess years down the line.

Anyway, back to Robert Marlow. As the days passed, his fizzog began to appear in some of the glossy music papers of the time, ‘Smash Hits’ and the less enduring ‘No.1’ most notably, in short inches of column space declaring the single’s arrival to its readers. An interview I read with Marlow states that RCA put quite a bit of promotional weight behind the single, assuming that a bit of the Vince Clarke magic was sure to rub off, simply by proxy.  In my memory, these were always accompanied by a triptych of facial close-ups, depicting the singer’s increasingly made-up visage aging to oblivion, just as Oscar Wilde’s anti-hero’s does at the end of the novel. The clipping I pasted away in a scrapbook all those years ago, in anticipation of a moment such as this, no doubt, certainly has these pictures in it, along with the words: “No, not the effect of repeated listening to positive punk records. This is in fact Robert Marlow – the first signing to Vince Clarke’s Reset Records (see singles) illustrating his debut single ‘The Face of Dorian Gray’. It’s loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s novel in which the nasty Mr. Gray stays young and pretty while his portrait gets old and rather horrible. Marlow, incidentally, comes from Basildon and has been in bands with Martin Gore, Alf Moyet and Vince himself.” I can’t vouch for the exact origins of these words but they will have certainly come from one of the two aforementioned magazines and I presume the reference to a single review matches another clipping I can find preserved on an adjacent page and which rather cruelly reads: “This is the sort of stuff I expected to hear from Vince Clarke after he left Depeche Mode, rather than the gems he produced with Alf...RM has got a bland voice and the song is probably a Yazoo reject.”  

Although I was partisan and probably outraged at the time, I wasn’t in a position to argue as I didn’t get to hear the song until about six months later when a 7” copy turned up in a ten or fifty pence bargain bin of singles the shop wanted rid of as unsalable at their full price, this being despite a promotional video being produced in which Marlow plays the role of a mad artist in a garret tormentedly doing battle with his creation, in a mise-en-scène which combines elements of Bowie’s “Look Back in Anger” and a BBC Sunday teatime adaptation of a Penguin classic with the over-sheened, over-lit style of many a pop promo clip of the time. Was this ever shown on British television? Blow-torching rather than stabbing the painting, Marlow’s tortured artist meets his demise in a car which explodes dramatically at the video’s denouement, quite the opposite, unfortunately, of the impact of the single itself. Apparently, he also performed the song on Channel 4’s short-lived Friday evening pop show “Switch” but I’ve never seen this clip, even though I was quite an avid viewer at the time. If anybody has it and fancies loading it onto You Tube that would be simply marvellous. Anyway, the record was right up my street when I eventually lowered the needle onto it, providing exactly the same vibe I enjoyed so much in Depeche Mode’s “Speak and Spell” and everything Yazoo had produced, albeit a little more thinly in texture, perhaps. Here’s the video so that anyone who has not heard it can see what they think.

A few months later, a second envelope arrived including a similarly photocopied A4 single sheet, this time with a little more white-space and with Mr. Marlow in profile, the swept-back hair and leather jacket, though, matching him undoubtedly with the image that had come during the summer. This time, bizarrely, the text began, “I am writing to tell you about my secretary,” these last two words struck through with hyphens rather than tippexed away, before continuing, “a great new single from Reset Records artist Robert Marlow. It’s entitled ‘I Just Want To Dance’ and it’s produced by Vince Clarke & Eric Radcliffe. ‘I Just Want To Dance’ is released on Friday 11th November and all the shops listed overleaf should have the record on the day of release. ‘I Just Want To Dance’  is an even better record than ‘The Face of Dorian Gray’ and it’s sure to be Robert’s first Top 20 hit!”  

Despite featuring the perennially popular Sylvia and the Sapphires on backing vocals and Marlow appearing on the weekday afternoon children’s pop and games programme “Razzmatazz” (which many of my generation tried never to miss, if only to see kids they wanted to kill out of envy run around the Pop Scotch board and then win a shopping trolley full of records, posters, promotional items galore – you name it – or open a similarly stuffed treasure chest if they successfully repeated the words “Peggy Babcock, Babcock Peggy” against the clock without floundering) this single flopped, too. Once again, a copy found its way into my record collection via a bargain bin about six months after its release, something which happened with every release from the ill-fated Reset Records I encountered at the time. I did hear this one on the radio when it was current this time, though, and wasn’t surprised, to be honest, by its lack of chart success. I always found it a little bit obvious and lacking in substance, a bit childish even, unlike the b-side “No Heart” which had a sophistication much more pleasing to these ears...but more of that in a bit.

That was it, then, for a number of years. A fellow Mute-head and pen-friend for a while (Jim Mortleman of “Mutations” fanzine, if you’re reading) told me of two more singles that were released, the first in 1984, then the second in 1985, but my never coming across them in the mid-eighties 50p and 10p boxes (where I found other Reset releases by Absolute and Hardware) made me doubt their existence a little, even though my source of information was impeccably reliable and trustworthy. That was until, several years later, a box of records shoved amongst some old shoes in a charity shop threw up a copy of single number three “Claudette”, an electronic ballad, lacking the bounce and fizzle of the first two releases, but telling instead a tale of French resistance love and separation in the streets of occupied Paris, the couple being reunited twenty years later on a platform of the Gare du Nord. Again, much as I like it for what it is, it lacks that something that makes you feel it was unlucky to chart. By 1984, anyway, it appears, RCA had lost interest in the label and Reset was backed by the Swedish company Sonet; hence distribution was even more sparse and sporadic than previously. Those old mailouts from 1983, which came with a list of shops which would be stocking the record, never  included any in places near to where I lived, anyway: Stockport, Manchester, Macclesfield. I think the nearest were places like Liverpool and Accrington, oddly enough. Anyway, I digress. With the internet, though, came the era of nothing being wholly elusive (except for “The Pepsi Cola Addict” by June Alison Gibbons, perhaps) and, true to form, the fourth and final single soon reared its head in this new era of consumer possibility. “Calling All Destroyers”, is a jaunty electro sea shanty, with a sleeve a bit like a tattoo, which would have had the front section of any Erasure concert jumping around and pounding the air only months after its release had it, in fact, been part of their Hi-NRG repertoire, rather than the recent progeny of their founding father. It’s a bit like “Captain Pugwash” or “Friggin in the Riggin” with the salty bits replaced by sequencers, synth-pop melodies and a slight whiff of poppers mixing with the sea air, and it's certainly a long way from the T.Rex cover version I expected it to be for years, that’s for sure. Unsurprisingly, given its obscurity, it was another non-hit.

Also, with the ever-expanding bank of information which makes up the world wide web, combined with the plethora of well-researched music books published during the last decade or so, previously elusive details and connections in people’s careers can now be easily traced and many of the gaps in the Robert Marlow story can, likewise, be plugged quite simply. So, here goes: as suspected, he is documented as having been Vince Clarke’s best friend on-and-off for many years, the two having met aged eight as members of Basildon’s Boys Brigade and there are also stories of the two of them buying 7” singles together on Basildon Market in the early seventies, Clarke initially plumping for Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Us” whilst Marlow picked “Co-Co” by The Sweet, as well as developing their interests in electronics and sonic effects from listening to Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” and Hawkwind’s “Space Ritual” with the lights out. They began making music together, too, around this time, meeting on Sunday afternoons to provide musical accompaniment to lyrics found in “Disco 45” magazine.

As if often the case in tales such as these, punk proved to be the catalyst for greater things with Alison Moyet persuading Marlow to provide guitar for The Vandals, the band she formed with school friends in 1978 ... and then came the famous Basildon Futurist scene, so well documented in Simon Spence’s book “Just Can’t Get Enough: The Making of Depeche Mode”, our subject allegedly being the first of the gang to buy a synthesizer, a Korg 300 acquired on hire purchase, which was initially used in the band The Plan (no, not the more celebrated Düsseldorf outfit with a similar name) which also included Vince Clarke and Perry Bamonte, who went on to be a member of The Cure from 1990 until 2005. Next came the all electronic band French Look, for whom, the story goes, Dave Gahan acted as sound man, as well as featuring Martin Gore, who was a shared member with rival group, Composition of Sound, who eventually turned into Depeche Mode at some point during 1980. In fact, both bands debuted on May 30th of that year at a party organised by the aforementioned Deb Danahay and a friend at a Basildon community centre called The Paddock, French Look’s repertoire including nascent versions of “The Face of Dorian Gray” and “No Heart”, alongside a cover of Sparks’ “Amateur Hour”, and an Ultravox number. Then, prior to the solo outing under discussion, came Film Noir, again featuring Bamonte, who filled the support slot when Depeche Mode played a hometown gig at Racquel’s on their “Speak and Spell” tour, Blancmange securing the role for the rest of the tour. 

Which now brings us to the matter in hand, “The Blackwing Sessions: Demos 1982/83” which were recently released as a vinyl album, limited to just 500 copies, on the quite phenomenal Vinyl-on-Demand label from Germany which is an absolute cornucopia of releases by just about anybody you can think of who comes under the umbrella terms of industrial, experimental and obscure electronic music, Frank Maier’s achievement in curating and anthologising these artists with such attention to detail being both incredible and invaluable. Have a look at his website, if you haven’t done so already (, and you will also see, amongst other recent releases, the entire early works of Val Denham, under such names as Counter Dance, The Death and Beauty Foundation and Silverstar Amoeba, being made available to a wider audience for the first time, as we speak. When I get time, and I receive my copies, I’ll hopefully say a few words about these, too. 

Back to Mr. Marlow, though, the earliest tracks on offer here date back to the Spring of 1982, when Vince Clarke was just launching Yazoo onto the wider world, and were programmed at the Gravesend home of Eric Radcliffe, whom Marlow was apparently “thrilled” to work with as a result of him being instrumental in the early career of Fad Gadget, someone whom our subject, according to one interview I read, “worshipped”. Well, didn’t we all? Produced and recorded at the now defunct south London Blackwing Studios, housed in the former All Hallows Church, which was partially bombed during the Blitz in 1941, the tracks included are mainly demos of those which went on to feature on the first two singles, whilst some were intended for inclusion on the album “The Peter Pan Effect” which was originally due for release through Reset/RCA in 1984 but was shelved, eventually being salvaged by and seeing the light of day through the Swedish label Energy Rekords in 1999. Some of the songs are familiar, such as “No Heart” which appears in two early versions, as well as “I Just Want To Dance” with alternative lyrics to those which made it onto vinyl, whilst others remained unknown at the time. And what of these latter tracks? Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Torch Team” is perky, springy and super-catchy, texturally reminding me of the theme tune Yazoo produced at the time for the Saturday morning children’s TV show “Data Run”, although with a stronger song-based structure. The boxes of tricks which produced it were probably very similar, if not the same. “When Sleep Was Easy”, which claims to be the same song but with different lyrics to “Ambition” from the proposed album, employs a similar palette, with strong sequenced backing which reminds me a little of an early Erasure track such as “Who Needs Love Like That”, although with darker, rich passages and elements which put me in mind of later Yazoo songs like “Good Times” - sorry for the continual comparisons but they are a bit inevitable. Nevertheless, in my opinion, it’s stronger and more sophisticated structurally than much from that which saw the light of day at the time and it’s a crying shame it didn’t. “The Kiss” begins more pensively, before adopting a more mid-paced tempo, complete with a beaty, bassy backing we’ve become accustomed to, bleeping layers and a simple, catchy riff which one assumes could have been played with one finger; a middle eight with appealing key changes and some barely audible “Are Friends Electric?” style mumblings add to its appeal and, again, make this listener question the decision makers at RCA in abandoning the project. With continued work, all three could have graced a 7” platter, which is most definitely the case with “Life in a Film”, too, which continues in the same Hi-NRG, ultra-synth pop vein which went on to earn Erasure such a lot of money over the years which followed, with a darker more mysterious current running beneath it, as well, which also brings to mind favourite moments from “Speak and Spell” and “Upstairs at Eric’s”. Methinks a little bit of poor judgement possibly went into the selection of singles at the time, based on these outings, and also makes me wonder if things may have panned out differently were alternative choices made back then.

Also included are the extended versions of “The Face of Dorian Gray”, “I Just Want To Dance” and “No Heart” which were released on the Reset 12” singles, and make the release a tad repetitive towards the close but are, nonetheless, essential to the collection. Now the question has to be begged whether “Claudette”, “Calling All Destroyers” and their b-sides emerged out of larger sessions and whether these, too, will one day see the light of day through Vinyl-on-Demand. Given their form, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Go on!