Underexposed Albums #2: Zoviet France – A Flock Of Rotations (1987)

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Io! (0:26)
Drive (6:26)
Skritha (0:31)
Slide (2:42)
Drifan (1:32)
Mandrel (2:55)
Skratte (3:53)
Irken (0:33)
Ions Collis (6:16)
Luh (4:10)
Luh Windan (2:52)
Dream Hole (4:23)

Number of last.fm listeners as of 9th Feb 2015: 851

Zoviet France make industrial music for the third world. Whereas Throbbing Gristle or EInsturzende Neubaten will place music atop the apex of mechanisation, echoing their live music with wails of machinery and steel, Zoviet France compose collages woven with wood, hessian, raw materials – and then they package their albums in them. 2014 was the recent peak for a trend of recording albums that imagine an alternative geography, usually a specific island. This covers a multitude of climates – look at Loscil’s icy Sea Island, Mark Barrott’s tropical Sketches From An Island and the exuberant Tayi Bebba by Clap! Clap! for examples of this phenomenon. Such albums are always an alluring listen but Zoviet France’s experiments from the 1980s are not just ahead of their time, but much darker and sharper. The materials of recording are inescapable in their output. Instead of painting a wide canvas of an imaginary locale, their settings come in fits and spurts through obscure samples, often severely compressed. The recent set of ‘island albums’ are a credible attempt to eschew conventions of nationalism – particularly relevant given the posturing by Putin and ISIS – into a pan-global, semi-fictional music (though Loscil’s album is more cold and survivalist, a reduction to essentials). Zoviet France concentrate on the frailty of the message, however, and it’s a theme which is just as applicable now as it was in 1987. Playing A Flock Of Rotations means letting spikes of Orientalism pierce through your speakers that infer a general otherness, snatches of sound; market patter, bizarre tapes from markets, a muezzin’s call.

The entire album is smothered by a cassette decay effect, and the template for the album, such as it is one, is an insistent, woody rhythm underpinning tortured samples of vaguely ethnic sounding instruments – what sounds like an ‘oud here, a tabla there.

As with one of my previous entries in this series, Hot In The Airport, the opening track, ‘IO!’ is jarringly uncomfortable – a call to arms or a call for help, untranslatable in any case – and therefore the best preparation for what follows. ‘Drive’ is the longest track on the album and lays the foundations for motifs to be picked up later on. A veritable bazaar of sounds collaged together, it leans on the edge of plunging into pure noise but always retains some semblance of melody and rhythm. ‘Slide’ is the fourth track and provides the first opportunity to take a breath and get some respite from the onslaught, though it forebodes a tone of imminent dread that is qualified when the second half of the album begins. Before that is an indication of the album’s emphasis on miscommunication across cultures as ‘Drifan’ is, in its title, a poorly echoed translation of ‘Drive’, completing the first of a handful of paired tracks which have names that exist in floating languages that cannot be coherently united. ‘Mandrel’ closes out the first side and gives the first example of something more populous on the second side; namely instruments that sound like instruments. The reversed melody matches the ironic theme of ‘Drive’ and driving – the promise of direction that is wholly incongruous. This is another facet of the album which makes it a good fit for our patronising perception of the Middle East in recent history, assuming it is progressing out of the Dark Ages that Europe abandoned in the 16th century. ‘Skratte’ sounds like the rantings of a psychotic prisoner, rocking back and forth in their stone cell. ‘Ions Collis’ is the most fear-inducing track on the album, an unbearably slow creeper at 6 minutes which steadily piles on echoic drum samples that hang around the stereo mix like chittering insects and invoke impending doom. ‘Luh’ arrives afterwards like a breath of fresh air, with (gasp) clean guitar playing, rather John Fahey-like, backed by initially pleasant reverb which is eventually dragged down into the oppressive dark ambient quagmire. ‘Luh Windan’ serves as a reprise from ‘Drive’ before the album closes with ‘Dream Hole’, which is like a soundtrack for the most horrifying film you’ve never seen. Given the ethnic flexibility the album possesses, it seems ironically apposite that it should end with a track based upon keyboard sample, the daddy of all instruments, the instrument capable of taking on any identity.

I can remember when I first listened to this album – it was an evening after having watched Egyptians mass in Tahrir Square during a free period at school with some friends. It instantly struck a chord as the album’s impenetrable mystery, with its sourceless samples, predicted the collapse of the Arab Spring and emergence of civil strife which subverted the expectation of peaceful liberal uprising along the lines of Western tradition(™). A Flock Of Rotations lacks the polish of Zoviet France’s later albums Shouting At The Ground and Look Into Me, but this is not an album about cleanness; it’s about muddied communication. It puts the ‘orient’ into ‘disorientation’.

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Underappreciated Albums #1: Masato Nakamura – Soundtracks to Sonic The Hedgehog & Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Game releases 1991 and 1992, album release 2012)

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(Please read here for an introduction to the Underappreciated Albums series)

Masato Nakamura’s work on the soundtracks for the first two Sonic games, finally receiving official release in 2012, is bound by tight technological restrictions; the compositions for each level are limited to four sounds playing simultaneously, 16 bits, and about 90 seconds of audio to loop. Such restrictions would suggest a music that is inevitably stilted and merely a product of its time, yet Nakamura weaves an evocative score which complements the speed at which the game is played, while also sculpting imaginative vistas. This is no more pronounced than in his score for the first stage of the first game, Green Hill Zone. The melody line is quite pastoral, which helps enforce the geographical non-specificity of Sonic the Hedgehog. Before it became established as a series and developed its own mythos, the story was as simple as “Dr. Ivo Robotnik, the mad scientist, is snatching innocent animals and turning them into evil robots!” (quoted from the manual). Compare this with the Mario series of games, which from the beginning creates the specific universe of the Mushroom Kingdom and has the triangle of Mario-Peach-Bowser at its core. Nakamura’s music turns the level into an abstract token for all green hills, instilling the player with a sense of freedom and beginning that is unusually direct because, in the absence of a detailed overarching narrative, setting the scene is not the main priority.This helps it achieve a monumental nostalgic power, particularly as it was the first video game played by many people thanks to Sega’s enormous marketing drive for its Genesis/Mega Drive console with Sonic as the official mascot. With no scene to set: the player is not concerned with entering into a specific location, but something more symbolic, simply trying to feel that they are on the beginning of a journey. And Nakamura pulls it off beautifully. Emerald Hill Zone in the second game carries on the theme, but it feels more confident, like reuniting with an old friend rather than meeting for the first time, the bass being much more melodic and the melody itself hitting its stride much earlier. In a similar vein, I’ve always loved the cheeky rustic harmonica style effects on the soundtrack to Hill Top Zone, cleverly imitating vibrato on a synthesiser.

There are harder elements to counterbalance though; it’s not always Japan’s green and pleasant land. Masato Nakamura worked with Sonic Team while working as bassist/arranger for Dreams Come True, and his background gives the game music a groove and an edge which the preceding 8-bit generation of games could not provide efficiently. The influence of sci-fi movies like Blade Runner is obvious on levels like Mystic Cave Zone, with the second Sonic game more willing to explore urban themes as it crawls through industrialised locales. There’s even a great interpolation of turntable scratching in Metropolis Zone. The homage to Blade Runner goes further on the game-ending Scrap Brain Zone music from the first installment, but it is innovative in a gaming context – different drum samples are used from the palette of conventional Genesis/Mega Drive samples. This gives that level an industrial feel distinct from the rest of the game, and it is preceded by the relatively laid-back and spacey Star Light Zone, showing Nakamura’s capability for restraint as well as detail within those four channels. He even has time to pull out a waltz within the special stage – a change in time signature being a clever little shorthand to emphasise how that stage of the game is separate from the main story.

Soundtracks are always a tricky business, because at their most successful they are inseparable from the visual element of the game/film, and video game soundtracks often do not see an official release – Masato Nakamura’s work only came out officially in 2011. It’s been said that the stigma of video game music has been symbolically removed with their admission to the Classic FM hall of fame. This isn’t true: the high ranking entries are from the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy series, which are composed in imitation of classical models. RPGs by their very nature borrow tropes from opera and symphony. The stigma will really be removed when we start to see blogger/curators bold enough to nominate a soundtrack like Nakamura’s into lists of significant releases from the 1990s (depending upon how you define release date, of course). Nakamura did take his inspiration from film scoring, working only from screenshots and storyboards, and his soundtrack is scenic enough, but the music should be considered differently. It is technologically bound, but aesthetically free to prioritise fleeting moments and feelings, a soundtrack not reacting to specific visual cues but emerging through impressionistic shades. The limited sound palette means that melody has to be exceptionally strong, because there is no orchestral range or depth of sampling to create a vivid feel. He starts with the same materials as a film composer, but he is reacting to very general ideas like ‘the green stage’ or ‘the volcano stage’, dropping little nuggets of pure sensation throughout the game. Nakamura’s soundtracks do not feel like a pale imitation of symphonic precursors, but a condensation of the simple, bright yet unimaginably profound manner that an unspoilt mind – such as a child’s – might experience the world.

Four London exhibitions reviewed: Astrophotography, Christian Marclay, Joseph Kosuth, Mary Ramsden

Astronomy Photographer of the Year @ Greenwich Observatory

Until 19th July

At The Feet Of Orion (C) Marco Lorenzi

‘At The Feet Of Orion’ (C) Marco Lorenzi, courtesy of Greenwich Observatory

Admission is normally paid at the Greenwich Observatory, though entrance to this exhibition is free. It’s a constant surprise to me just how much context can perception of visual art. The photographs on here are art, just as the wonderful recent exhibitions in the Science Museum were. Yet there is still an odd voice in your head which tells you that if it is in an educationally inclined museum, it is only a piece of documentary, and does not have the contemplativeness or multiplicity of art in a gallery. Granted, the presentation space is often limited (the photographs here are disappointingly small) but the field of astrophotography has common links with the conventional aesthetic world that we should not ignore. Astrophotography has a long and proud history, but it was a combination of the Cold War thawing (giving a new scope to space exploration, driven forward by Carl Sagan, outside of superpower competition) and the development of high-quality images, especially from the Hubble Space Telescope, which allowed it to become what it is today.

Possibly the most photogenic space object is the Horsehead Nebula, and it is rendered here stunningly by Bill Snyder. As the accompanying text suggests, it is a more distanced view of the nebula than we would expect, more willing to accommodate the cosmic dust which surrounds it. The revisitings of the nebula by astrophotographers puts me in mind of animal photography of the 18th century where animals were painted somewhat obsessively (Waldemar Janusczak mentioned in his documentary on Rococo that Clara the rhino was the most painted model of the 18th century), in particular horses. The most commanding painting of a horse to be found in London is George Stubbs’ painting Whistlejacket, which looms large even through several sets of doors in the National Gallery. The focus on the horse and its anatomy – rather than its (royal) rider – upsets the hierarchy of genres and thus Stubbs in the 18th century and Snyder in the 21st are connected by a willingness to see past the obvious iconography and accommodate peripheral or traditionally neglected elements of composition.

Sat at the top of that hierarchy was history painting, and I’ve often thought that the Hubble Deep Field image is like a modern corollary for the epic canvases of history paintings like The Surrender At Breda,The Ratification Of The Treaty Of Munster, or anything by David. We can’t look at our leaders in the way that those paintings suggest, so we choose different ones, putting together galaxies rather than kings, part of the Saganian endeavour to use our trivial position in space as a binding agent for humanity.

The famous 'Pale Blue Dot' image, captured by Voyager 2 in 1990. (C) NASA

The famous ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image, captured by Voyager 2 in 1990. (C) NASA

Exploration no longer has to be about colonisation, and by extension, militarism. The galaxies of the deep field hold the same power over us that mythical figures and semi-mythical leaders do in history painting, making us tremble and marvel at their sublime size and distance from us, while appreciating the harmony of their construction.

I should also give a mention especially to the ‘Young Astronomy Photographer’ category, as the wealth of talent on show from such young people is really quite something. My favourite photograph from that selection was not the overall winner but one called ‘Moon Behind The Trees’ by the 12 year old (!) Emily Jeremy.

Moon Behind The Trees (C) Emily Jeremy

‘Moon Behind The Trees’ (C) Emily Jeremy, courtesy of Greenwich Observatory

Understated but alluring, it’s a more humble effort than some of the panoramas on show but stands out for that very reason. A little shiny penny in a room full of silver.

Christian Marclay @ White Cube Bermondsey

Until 12th April

Christian Marclay: master of all trades, jack of none. Painting, sound art, video art are all on display in his current exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey. I don’t think I’ve ever left a gallery with such a big smile on my face as I did after this one. It’s split into three sections, with the first one you hear being Pub Crawl, a video installation consisting of the artist approaching detrital bottles and cans on a weekend morning and coaxing a rhythm out of them which, when multiplied tenfold, creates a unique array of different soundscapes as the videos run over each other. It’s cheeky, as are the other elements of this exhibition. The set of paintings on display build a surprisingly simple bridge between Roy Liechtenstein’s brand of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, so much so that you wonder why no-one has done it in this way before, though there is a debt to Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Ruscha’s combination of Pop Art with typography. An intriguing attempt to describe sound using purely visual stimuli, which is also the impression given by the final part of the exhibition, Surround Sounds. Surround Sounds consists of a video projection, approximately 20 minutes long, which occurs continuously over four walls of a darkened room. The walls are filled with onomatopoeia from comic books which act out what they indicate, e.g. ‘beeps’ and ‘boops’ flit across the walls quicker than you can follow them, ‘cracks’ tear asunder and reveal new ones before dismantling the entire wall, and ‘tics’ methodically progress around the room.

It’s a great space to simply be in, and if they can stomach the at-times intensive lights and choreography, then children will have a blast. There is something quite ghoulish about being surrounded on all sides though. Simply being in a 360 degree space puts you in mind of the postmodern philosophers like McLuhan, Baudrilliard and Jameson who discuss the ubiquity of the screen and how media impacts our perception of the world (if you do bring your children, probably don’t try and tell them this). Stepping into the room provides you with that latent dread of things happening around you that you can’t notice, which is a side effect of globalisation – of not realising how butterfly effects lead into catastrophic world-changing ones, as can be seen in the Middle East today. Added onto that, Marclay’s masterful employment of the After Effects software makes the onomatopoeia super-powerful, begging the question of how much reported events are caricatured like a comic strip, with triumphant ‘biffs’ and ‘boshes’ ringing out across the world.

PS: After some thought I realised there IS a precedent for what Marclay is doing in the gaming world – the criminally underrated 2003 FPS XIII is rendered in a cel-shaded style

XIII. Still mad fun to play.

XIII. Still mad fun to play.

which goes as far as providing the classic comic book sound effects at certain points. It works surprisingly well, given that they were originally used in comic books as a necessity given the staticness of the form.

Joseph Kosuth: Amnesia @ Spruth Magers

Exhibition now closed because I took too long to write this fucking review

While I left the White Cube grinning from ear to ear, my reaction to Joseph Kosuth’s exhibition at the Spruth Magers gallery was colder, despite the radiating neon lights around the gallery. Don’t get me wrong – I like some of Kosuth’s work. One And Three Chairs is one of the most important pieces of the last 100 years. But overall this is an exhibition that seems more concerned with importance than anything else. The text advertises the artist’s engagement with highfalutin ideas from Wittgenstein and others but there is no gateway, nothing to draw you out of your regular perception and into the artist’s vision. Without that, it comes off as a purely academic exercise. Kosuth’s contemporaries Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner have, in recent exhibitions, demonstrated how the tactic of pulling language out of context can have an emotive tug, but it is absent here. The ludic element to the display means that you’re scanning for something that isn’t really there – the art is supposed to be inferred from the elements’ relationship to one another, which never really happens. Kosuth appears to be trying to construct his art backwards, by creating works which fit themselves into a philosophical paradigm, but there is no organic growth from individual response, meaning it appears essayistic. In conjunction with that, Kosuth (inspired by a broad pessimism about language and statement-making) is constantly undercutting himself, as any position he seems to offer is quickly withdrawn and placed under another meta-position. It’s a persistent withdrawal, offering a statement and then thinking that a statement upon that statement is the real objective – a process which comes to no logical end. I also didn’t get any impression that neon was an essential medium for it – there was very little in the way of interaction with ‘public writing’ as promised, which Ruscha and Weiner carry off so well.

Mary Ramsden: Swipe @ Pilar Corrias Gallery

Until 28th February

Mary Ramsden, 2015, 'Lick 3'.

Mary Ramsden, ‘Lick 3’, 2014, Oil on board, 76 x 61 x 3.5 cm © the artist. Courtesy Pilar Corrias, London

Some concepts make you smile simply by reading about them, and Mary Ramsden’s choice of composition, of using smudges to represent the biological and digital smears we leave in our wake, made me want to experience it immediately. As well as that there are some pieces where the bulk of the canvas is blocked out, but these works pale in comparison to the powerful specimens at the Adventures of the Black Square exhibition in Whitechapel gallery – I did not get a sense of presence with Ramsden’s blocks, whether censorial or otherwise. The main ‘swipe’ pieces on the other hand are quite something, particularly with pieces like Lurid and Cute which create quite impressive accidental Expressionist volumes. The theme at heart of linking thumb swiping with the ‘impression’ left in a digital space – both in terms of handing over private information and digital personae – is incredibly zeitgeist and I hope Ramsden pursues it in more detail. In fact this exhibition fell slightly short of greatness for me, because I felt there was room to explore that dichotomy of the clean screen which hides all kind of fecal bacteria and nasty stuff you carry on your fingers alongside the ‘clean’, high brightness image of ourselves we use social media to project. Still, Ramsden is an emerging artist and I look forward to seeing what she produces in the future.

Introducing my take on underrated albums, and a recommendation

Music blogs and websites are never fully agreed on what underrated should mean – does it mean underexposed (which is true of most alternative music by definition), or underappreciated (e.g. saying that, god forbid, Beatles For Sale is the best Beatles album)? What I hope to do with a new series is split the two definitions in two and create a parallel series of recommendations: one of albums that are not as widely heard as they could be, and those that have been heard frequently, but are not considered ‘great’, particularly in relation to an artist’s other material.. This brings me to the other issue: how to measure it, as too frequently music blogs take on a subjective barometer which means they often end up preaching to the choir. I therefore propose that:

Underexposed = albums with less than 5000 listeners on Last.fm as of 9th February 2015

Underappreciated = average review score is lower than a certain mark, OR that average mark is much lower than a band’s mean average (so an album rated as a 5 when a band averages 8, for example). The protean nature of music magazines means it’s impossible to set a standard metric for this, so it will be dependent upon each album, though Metacritic will be used as a starting point.

So without further ado, here’s the first from my Underexposed albums series…

Underexposed Albums #1: Y Bhekhirst – Hot In The Airport (1986…probably)

Y Bhekhirst - Hot In The Airport

Number of last.fm listeners as of 9th Feb 2015: 319

We get so much insight into the lives of public figures at this moment that it comes as a real shock to find people like Tommy Wiseau or Y. Bhekhirst, whose past and even nationality is a genuine mystery. It’s not known how many people played on this album, whether it was a full band or one person with overdubs. The Wiseau resemblance is an uncanny one, given that if the theory that Y Bhekhirst is a Peruvian man called Jose Hugo Diaz Guzman holds water, then both men seem to have made a business importing clothes at some point in their lives.

The album is an utter shambles. ‘Dalmar’ is one of the least comfortable album openers, sounding like a hangover from some indistinct night before. There is never really a safe moment on the album because each instrument seems to be one step out of sync with the others, while Bhekhirst’s lyrics, such as they are, narrate experiences that seem clear to him but offer no explanation to an outsider. He keeps inviting someone to dance. It appears to be raining a lot. There are so few concrete references in the lyrics that it feels like being trapped in the singer’s head. When none of the instruments function together, there is no sense that anything connects to anything. Whenever he uses the 2nd person address in his lyrics it always feels like an interior monologue, caught raw before it has the chance to be constructed properly.

Yet within this, the songs carve their own rhythms – ‘Time Passing’ having about 4 going on at once. ‘I Run My Car’ has the most assertive bass on the album, chugging along like a backfiring engine. ‘Rain In Summer’ is the most rhythmically effective, with dispassionate cymbal action, a double-tracked guitar that falls with the chaos of precipitation, and a bass that doesn’t walk so much as it stalks. The centrepiece of the album is the title track, which features a drum machine and dance music stylings that, in its introduction, make it sound like a RickRoll for Blue Monday. The presence of the drum machine means the song is the only one with any sort of rhythmic anchor, helped by the restraint of the guitar in playing repetitive chords. The mysteries still pervade though. Why on earth would anyone go to the airport at night to party? The only guess I can hazard is something to do with the 1981 Air Traffic Controller’s Strike, but in the imagination of Y. Bhekhirst, there is every chance the phrase was just invented as a half-rhyming mantra. ‘Freshing Air’ is like ‘Rain In Summer’ in the way that its title and music give the idea of a pastoral ideal that has been warped somewhere, as the guitar tries to remember a coherent melody line. Is there an influence here from Bhekhirst’s obvious foreignness within New York? ‘You Dance’ continues the vein of humour from the title track (whether it is intentional or not is impossible to tell – yet another mystery to add to the mix) as Bhekhirst sings:

‘If you like, listen to this music’.

Which sums up the whole ‘Airport’ project: an attempt to make a clean pop record that is churned out as something far more rough and pockmarked, where notes and beats rarely follow each other smoothly.

‘I Will Sing’ bizarrely predicts Meatloaf’s ‘I Would Do Anything For Love’, which was released years later. ‘Everytime I’ is a strangely affecting closer, with some extra treatment on the guitar and a sense of things being stretched out, instead of nervously ticking along as they do on the rest of the record. It really brings out the untrained crooning quality of Bhekhirst’s voice, putting him up there with plaintive minstrels like Hank Williams and Harry Nilsson.

Many of the things I’ve suggested here come back to the idea of intention: if Bhekhirst is as amateurish as he sounds, can he really have meant it all? If he was such a great artist, why haven’t we heard from him again? Here, then, is a great case study to show how chasing after artistic intention is often futile. It is unlikely anyone will be able to track Bhekhirst down, much less correspond with him. The only thing that survives is this album. We won’t get a statement from Bhekhirst saying that I hired out a recording studio for a day and played some songs I didn’t rehearse and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. The first impression you get from this album is the hypnotic power lurking underneath the initially impenetrable mix. When music hits you in that way, it deserves to have an afterlife that the artist does not. Music is not there to be ‘explained’ by the artist, or anyone else for that matter. It matters as much, and means as much, as the listener is willing to put into it. And I’m desperate to tell you, if you haven’t got that impression already, that this is an album deserving of your attention.

Hot In The Airport has been gradually sneaking its way into my affections for a couple of years now, and deserves to be considered as one of the landmark albums of the 1980s along with Remain In Light, Daydream Nation et al. In fact, it is probably the ultimate in 1980s DIY/underground recording; more incoherent than The Fall, more cryptic than R.E.M and even more curious in its affective power than The Replacements. It’s easy to get caught in a wormhole of ‘shabbier-than-thou’ which decrees that the only authentic underground music is Steve Albini recording himself hitting trashcan lids with vinyl copies of Songs The Lord Taught Us while locked in the basement of an abandoned car factory, but little is going to beat a man of uncertain nationality wandering around New York record shops, handing over his cassette, never to be seen again. So enjoy the pièce de résistance, and I’ll meet you at the airport tonight. Toniiiiiiiight….