Underexposed Albums #8: Nicolette – Now Is Early (1992)

Underexposed Albums is a series devoted to uncovering albums lost, neglected, or forgotten by the wider music community. Albums must have fewer than 5000 listeners on last.fm to qualify.

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Last.fm listeners as of 29th November 2016: 3,608

No Government (2:09)
Dove Song (4:55)
Single Minded (Vocal) 3:12
I Woke Up (5:46)
Waking Up (Remix) 4:55
O Si Nene (5:56)
It’s Only To Be Expected (5:38)
Wicked Mathematics (4:09)
A Single Ring (2:09)

Some albums are destined to become totemic. Bjork’s Debut is such a totem. Experimental yet accessible, it’s heralded as a fulcrum moment where electronic music crossed over with radio-friendly female singer pop, and – gosh! – instigated by a powerfully creative woman too. But what if, in appraising her wilful magpieing of early 90s club culture in the UK, we missed something which was already there?

Nicolette is the performing name of Nicolette Suwoton, who is probably best known for her guest vocals on two tracks on Massive Attack’s 1994 album Protection, ‘Sly’ and ‘Three’. But her involvement with Massive Attack came about after they heard, and were suitably impressed by, her Debut, 1992’s Now Is Early. She didn’t start out with the Bristol posse, but the protojungle breakbeat sounds coming out of Hackney in the early 1990s from the Shut Up And Dance stable, a band-cum-label-cum-management team consisting of Philip ‘PJ’ Johnson and Carl ‘Smiley’ Hyman, which released a clutch of singles of their own dealing in staggeringly brazen sample-heavy breakbeat, alongside some by The Ragga Twins and Rum & Black. Their sound was arrived at almost by accident, as they started out experimenting with Brit-rap, but with the breakbeats sped-up to match the dance environment of the East London soundsystems. But within PJ and Smiley’s stable Nicolette’s releases stand out, thanks to her Billie Holliday-like voice, and the strange dynamic it throws up when placed over the breakbeat that was PJ and Smiley’s meat and drink.

As such, Nicolette’s record lifted off its immediate dancefloor environment and has aged very well. Her voice stops the music from descending into drum-and-bass muscle flexing, but at the same time the instrumentals are hard enough so that it doesn’t slip into insipid acid jazz. Nicolette’s partnership with SUAD wasn’t a fluke; she also contributed vocals to ‘Extork’ on Plaid’s Not For Threes album (to which Bjork also contributed, on ‘Lillith’). The album opener ‘No Government’ has a shuffling percussive start, sampled from Lou Donaldson, not dissimilar from how ‘Human Behaviour’ barrels open the doors to Bjork’s Debut. She sings ‘if everybody knew what they wanted/there’d be nothing, nothing left/people would do what they wanted/and there’d be no government’, an ostensibly anarchic sentiment shot through with doubt by Nicolette’s wavering voice. Amidst the white heat of the anti-authority slogans of the rave counterculture (Shut Up And Dance’s first record was called ‘Dance Before The Police Come’) it strikes a cooler, more considered tone.

She is one of the few English singers whose voice sags with lived experiences – when she adopts the classic blues opening on ‘I Woke Up’ to her ‘north of London town’ setting, listening to her neighbours having sex next door, she is eminently believable, and yet all is shot through with a childlike innocence. That song is one of a handful which, like ‘No Government’, are closer to Massive Attack style downtempo, with woodblock percussion and a see-saw bass which precipitates with menace, occasionally punctuated by a synthesiser stab. Then, at the halfway point of the album, the breadth of sounds on it are writ large when ‘I Woke Up’ is followed by ‘Waking Up’, where she declares ‘I’d like to wake you up/I’d like to eat you up’ and in a swirl of delicate Quincy Jones samples, the sound is lush, inviting, communal, dancey. Get involved!

Beyond Bjork, a more sensible point of reference might be Neneh Cherry, who released her second album Homebrew in 1992 as well. But that is coloured by a Bristolian inclination towards a jazzier, smoother sound. ‘Waking Up’ has the benefit of Nicolette’s voice mingling comfortably with the backing elements, but on some of the album’s tracks, her stylings are a clash with the protojungle ammunition from PJ and Smiley. This isn’t unsuccessful; in fact, Nicolette’s ability to inflect each note is a match for a broader sense of discohesion. ‘Is this a mysterious way?’ she asks on ‘Dove Song’, before it lurches into dark territory, with a fraught sample of someone breathing, dub keyboards and sub-bass. On ‘O Si Nene’, amidst a backdrop of Janet Jackson laughs, acid squelches, and deep, whistling synths, she sounds almost dumb to her surroundings.  ‘Don’t try to go back to that room’, she warns, with the thousand yard stare of someone who’s peered into Super Hans’ hurt locker. On these songs, melody is minimal and it is percussion and effects which propels the song in its stead. Nicolette’s vocal melody doesn’t work around any core, and, as a listener (not as a dancer, admittedly) you’re emotionally subject to her little darts and melismas. ‘Wicked Mathematics’, for example, has an 8-bit style riff which anchors her vocal line much more securely, and lacks the same tension. Not that it’s a bad song, though the maths analogy in the lyrics occasionally lags. In this writer’s opinion, the most perfectly put together of tracks in this mould is ‘It’s Only To Be Expected’. The percussion is knitted together from different sources with an impressive variation in timbre and solid meta-beat constructed from them. There are sung verses with classical swoops, and spoken word choruses with an understated yet penetrated deep synth sample. A motley collection, but greater than the sum of its parts.

The Bjork comparison did not escape Melody Maker, who described Nicolette as her black equivalent at the time Now Is Early was released. The reasons to do so are as tempting as they are facile: female singer, electronic sounds, writes own material. Nevertheless, in comparing the two, it does make you wonder about their divergent paths since the early 90s, with Bjork becoming an international icon, and Nicolette fading into obscurity (though still putting out respectable albums, including The Infinitive which is due to be released before the end of 2016). This is not to diminish Bjork’s singular talent, or her achievements despite coming of age in a decade where the mainstream music press was keen to diminish her work in favour of the male producers she collaborated with. But the question remains – could a ‘black Bjork’ be allowed to exist, to record, to work with who she wished, and be taken as seriously?

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Underexposed Albums #7: Dream 2 Science – Dream 2 Science

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Last.fm listeners as of 23rd November 2016: 734

 My Love Turns To Liquid (5:24)
Breathe Deep (5:35)
Mystery Of Love (5:17)
How Do I Love Thee (7:44)
Liquid (4:48)
Dream 2 Science (4:38)

Dream 2 Science is house music for the home. It’s music made in the bedroom, for the bedroom.

The mini-album’s creator is Ben Cenac, aka Cozmo D, formerly the brains behind the electro group Newcleus. A self-confessed free spirit of the house scene, in the late 1980s he recorded the song ‘My Love Turns To Liquid’ as an excuse to show off his wife Yvette’s previously neglected vocal stylings and, with the encouragement and collaboration of his friend Gregg Fore, he extended the theme into a full EP called Dream 2 Science.

Immediately obvious is the closeness out of which the project was created, as ’My Love Turns To Liquid’ is, in effect, a love letter from Cenac to his spouse, and it flows gently like drifts in and out of sleep with a bed-partner. All the necessary deep house boxes are ticked – unobtrusive, open chords, expansive stereo width, a bubbling bass line – but ‘Liquid’ has an unusually dominant vocal, more like R & B in fact, which takes it even further into soulfulness. Cenac had previous with this, as one of his first forays into making house music was with ‘I’m In Love’ for Sha’Lor, which span out of unsuccessful attempts to sell that group as an R & B outfit.

Anyone taken to a higher place by the enigmatic opening chords of Fingers Inc’s ‘Can You Feel It’ will find much to enjoy here. Though they have similarities, including sharing ‘Mystery Of Love’ as a song title, the live vocals distinguish the Dream 2 Science project from Larry Heard, with whom Cenac is frequently compared. Following ‘My Love Turns To Liquid’, ‘Breathe Deep’ has an opening which, with the right amount of overdrive, could have turned into an all-out banger. But it’s a tease, felt-covered, as with the album as a whole, the track is a push-pull of aggressive and laidback elements, all within a safe space of trust between two people.

Cenac commented in an interview with Test Pressing that his way of composing is to find a solid enough bass line, and build it outwards from there. In Cenac’s ‘Mystery Of Love’, the bass and melody lines are near mirror images of each other, just one of many instances on the EP where two musical elements have an intimate relationship. Even the album’s packaging works that way – the sides of the record are listed as ‘this side’ and ‘that side’, rather than ‘side A’ and ‘side B’.

‘That side’ kicks off with ‘Liquid’, a remix of the opening track which shows Cenac open his toolbox to show off the more spacey effects he employed with his earlier electrofuturist projects. ‘How Do I Love Thee’ has that give-and-take of aggressive and sensitive again but less successfully, as the song doesn’t really forge a clear identity for itself in its 8 minute running time. The closing track is called ‘Dream 2 Science’ as well (creating one of those fabled instances where the name of a song, artist and album are all the same), a title Cenac says was his estimate of the ratio involved in producing the album – 2 parts dream to 1 part science. And within that, there is the crux of deep house – using posthuman technology to create otherworldly experiences. The EP departs with the sound of Cenac playing jazzy solos with different keyboard timbres, a nuanced addition to a genre whose use of piano can tend to fall back on stabbed chords and riffs.

When listening to Dream 2 Science, it seems incredible to think that, while it influenced house luminaries like King Britt and Josh Wink, its limited pressing meant it that it slipped under the radar. Buying a copy online would cost you upwards of thirty pounds, until it was rereleased in 2012 by the Dutch imprint Rush Hour recordings. And none of this was the intention: Gregg Fore, Cenac’s collaborator, was badly burned when his distributors in Chicago and Los Angeles tanked. Dream 2 Science never had the wider release it deserved, and Cenac and Fore took an early retirement from the music industry off the back of it. In this age of renewed fetishism for physical media, it’s important to remember just how vexatious the vagaries of its production can be, and how prohibitive it can make accessing someone’s work.

Underexposed Albums #6: Rapoon – Tin Of Drum

Underexposed Albums is a series devoted to uncovering albums lost, neglected, or forgotten by the wider music community. Albums must have fewer than 5000 listeners on last.fm to qualify.

1. Not The Time (8:06)
2. Where Were You (2:22)
3. Beneath The Sky (8:16)
4. Between The Hours (8:31)
5. Arguing The Theological Toss (3:37)
6. Southbound (30.57)

Last.fm listeners: 1,534

A few entries back in the Underexposed Albums series I wrote about Zoviet France’s A Flock Of Rotations, and this time around I’m focusing on a former member of the mysterious group: Robin Storey, aka Rapoon. The album is question is Tin Of Drum, his 1998 release on the Dutch label Staalplaat. The album’s liner notes refer to Storey’s affections for the American ‘deserts and the stars in the deserts’, and this is the immediate location conjured up by the sonic journeys on Tin Of Drum. This record is spacier than his other, more Orientalalised forays on The Kirghiz Light or Cidar; the ambient dread which bubbles to the surface is agoraphobic with the desert night, rather than oppressive with the heat haze and sand storms of the East.

Rapoon continues the Zoviet France trait of manipulating esoteric samples; a post-apocalyptic mood is given greater gravitas by mysterious spoken word references to the specific date of 4th January 1958, which is never explained. The only event of note I can find for that date is the re-entry of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. Given that this album, in typical Rapoon fashion, is coloured by an aura of paranoia, that choice of date suggests the birth of the technoscape – 4th of January 1958 heralding the dawn of satellite surveillance, of constantly being watched, of a surrogate war, with the dread of the atomic bomb at the heart of it.

The album is a fragile centre between sonic forces. On one hand there is an ironic, corporate (and very 1990s) New Age vibe, as the album begins with a voice intoning ‘This is not the time for you to think about the past. Drift through your mind and away…” The same voice later repeatedly advises: “The longest journey starts with a single step”. The calm delivery is entirely at odds with the pitch-black, after-hours jungle rave backdrop, which momentarily lifts for the gorgeously ambient ‘Between The Hours’. The 90s vogue for the banally exotic (feng shui, anyone?) is undercut by a music which repeats with a violent intensity, subjugating you to its will.

As with most of Rapoon’s output, you shouldn’t listen expecting anything quicker than glacial progression in these tunes. But that doesn’t mean ethno-ambient noodling of the kind which people in Native American headdresses peddle to you on the High Street. It is easy to cobble Rapoon together with soundscapists and droners who lack the talent or know-how to use rhythm, but this would overlook his control over it which was evident as early as Fallen Gods. Tin Of Drum is a knowing pun, as its tracks rely so much on percussion. Kraftwerk’s ‘Metall Auf Metall’ is channelled via some ingenious ‘banging’ samples in ‘Arguing The Theological Toss’ – a show of strength from a hammer and sickle against the almighty dollar perhaps – and the 8 minutes plus durations of ‘Not The Time’ and ‘Beneath The Sky’ pass by in a flash as they are driven so propulsively. Both of those feature a steady crescendo of tribal drums and incantatory singing, like an uprising from the jungles of Guatemala, through the Sonoran desert, to the American heartland the liner notes evoke. Elsewhere in those notes Storey rails against how in revisiting the American landscape he found it more ‘homogenised’; his reclamation of homogeneity is a fusion of pan-American identity, drawing on the mystery of its land, its buried civilisations and religions.

The last track is the half hour long ‘Southbound’, a tour de force of Storey’s skills in sampling percussion. From echoic drums at the start, through woodblocks blowing up from the forest floor, to the tinny train track percussion at the climax (very reminiscent of the close of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘East Hastings’), ‘Southbound’ is reminiscent of Kraftwerk again, this time ‘Autobahn’, in its feeling of a journey underscored by devious sliding between different tempos and timbres. If I had one criticism of it, it would be that the beginning and are so strong that the middle sags a little, as if figuring out where to go.

Rapoon’s hybrid of world music, (dark) ambient, drum and bass, and the possibly nonsensical genre of ‘Isolationism’ is difficult to describe, let alone sell. So if you’re new to this game, try it. What you will be rewarded with is sound unlike anything you’ve ever heard, a much stronger sense of place than any other form of music, and one which is content to remain mysterious and defy easy explanation. I came to similar conclusions with Zoviet France’s A Flock Of Rotations, but it is worth repeating: in a globalised world (quasi-exceptional rainy islands like my own notwithstanding), where a Spotify user by the name of Kellz Charisma can hook me up with a playlist of the hottest Zambian jams, Rapoon is one of the few artists who preserves the essential mystery of geography through a sonic medium.

Underexposed Albums #5: Aybee & Afrikan Sciences – Sketches Of Space (2014)

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Last.fm listeners as of 1st October 2015: 42

Deep East Suite Part 01 (The Call) (14:58)
Deep East Suite Part 02 (Response) (14:58)
Deep East Suite Part 03 (Sunward) (7:45)
K-Fetisch 01 (Kosmo Bahn) (5:52)
K-Fetisch 02 (Vibes) (4:04)
Knew What’s Coming (Sculpture) (4:10)

As fast as the blogosphere and social networks operate, calling an album released only last year is still quite premature, I admit. But listening to this album gives you that sense of immediacy: most other recordings feel irrelevant as this sounds so fresh, so necessary. ‘Deep’ house is all too often incredibly shallow, a watercolour of apathetic sounds and effects which is not designed to be challenging or even danceable; rather, something to nod along to, something ‘agreeable’, something that floats along a mean value of cool across the Internet music sphere with no danger or experiment orbiting it. Sketches Of Space goes deep. Sketches Of Space penetrates to the abyssal zone of the oceans underneath Europa.

Devised through 3 different jam collaborations in Berlin and the US, Sketches Of Space sounds like Sun Ra’s Arkestra crashing into Parliament’s funk spaceship with Flying Lotus analysing the black box for samples. It is a collaboration between Aybee, founder of Deepblak Records, and Afrikan Sciences (Aybee’s ‘bredren’, according to the back of the sleeve), a jazzy electronic producer of South African extraction. The first three tracks form the Deep East Suite are far and away the dominating presence on the album, even though the other tracks aren’t too bad at all: it’s a bit like the paleness of the second side of Autobahn (one of the tracks here is even sub-titled ‘Kosmo Bahn’, suggsting an influence of the German quartet on Aybee and Afrikan Science’s cosmonautical road trip). The suite is a glorious cosmic soup of all kinds of instruments and effects being toyed around with, and that experimentation is just so joyous, so free – like the exhilaration of hearing Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus for the first time. Other dance music seems embarrassingly uptight afterwards. It’s all anchored with an offhanded two-chord sequence, a call-and-response between extraterrestrial worlds, which puts you in mind of the to-and-fro of Manuel Goettsching’s E2-E4. Yet even that groove is manipulated a different way each time, exploding over all sides of the stereo mix, sometimes syncopated, with stresses in different places: this is the closest I’ve found to free jazz within the often programmatic world of dance, an ambition Aybee admits to having on the sleeve. So many elements go into the mix but it’s not a case of finding which bits ‘work’ – the music is too carefree to evaluate it in that way; you just hold on and enjoy the ride. ‘Response is a bit less busy than ‘The Call’, as the mix reverberates much more and the central synth is adjoined to a serpentine bassline for a while. ‘Sunward’ powers the machines down as their spacecraft enters hibernation.

The second half approaches the loose improvisation of Miles Davis On The Corner: ‘K-Fetisch 01 (Kosmo Bahn)’ has a more conventional synth line, jerkily pulled from east to west by some spidery percussion and intermittent jolts of John McLaughlin-like electric guitar. ‘K-Fetisch 02 (Vibes)’ slows down the pace even more, to the point that the percussion drops out, leaving the other elements of the track almost staring at each other while figuring out what to do until they all exit. Some reviews see this as a revelation of the unfinished quality of the album, but Aybee & Afrikan Science’s triumph is to make the mixes sound so organic that the music dictates its own forms from the inside-out. The last track, ‘Knew What’s Coming (Sculpture)’ might be the most conventional of all, as it features a squelchy piano loop and vocal sample of the title. As with K-Fetisch though, the track feels like it has more legs in it but dies off before it can be realised. Part of that comes with the territory of improvisational jamming when releasing on physically limited vinyl (an intriguing choice – the music looks forward, but its format harks back) so hopefully there is extra material we will hear at some point in the future. Perhaps when the future sheds its affection for tracks designed to be shared, and hence diluted, across social networks, in order to catch up with the astronomic expansiveness embraced in Sketches of Space.

Underexposed Albums #4: Thirsty Moon – Blitz (1975)

Underexposed Albums is a series looking at music releases which lack the public attention they deserve, highlighting albums that have fewer than 5000 listeners on last.fm.

Last.fm listeners as of 13th July 2015: 526

Lord Of Lightning (3:40)
Riding In The Rain (3:11)
Magic Moon (4:37)
It Was Love (3:13)
Speak For Yourself (2:50)
Südwind (3:47)
Rainbow (5:06)
The Jungle Of Your Mind (7:24)
Crickets Don’t Cry (5:24)

It can be a blessing and a curse to emerge from a fertile musical crescent: observe the misfortune that affected Oxford band The Candyskins in the documentary Anyone Can Play Guitar, unable to capture the mainstream success which their peers Radiohead and Supergrass did. Thirsty Moon have the same problem in relation to German rock of the 1970s. Formed by the merger of two already disparate groups (one of which, The Shakespears, is usually labelled as ‘jazz-soul’), they have a chaotic and all-inclusive sound reminiscent of Chicago (Transit Authority). Even the Krautheads who do know of the band, though, will probably be more familiar and comfortable with their early experimental output, with most blogs throwing aside their work from Blitz onwards as ‘conventional’, poppy, lazy. Thankfully we live in a more enlightened era of music commentary these days, and the revolt against rockism is in full swing. While I won’t be staking a claim for Britney Spears’ Blackout to be the best album of the century so far any time soon, it’s vital we get away from the narrative that a turn towards pop music constructions is a defeat, by-the-numbers songwriting, too easy.

The album kicks off with ‘Lord Of Lightning’, hitting the ground running with some crashing Boston/Who style power chords, a dad-rock equivalent of Sonic Youth’s ‘The Sprawl’. The next track, ‘Riding In The Rain’, picks up the pieces from the lightning-rod opener but with a calculated funk groove on the bass which is one of the album’s defining sounds. Part of what defines rockists is their investment in rock’s essential seriousness, that rock music is capable of dealing with significant themes in a way that pop, with its fleeting pleasures, cannot. In Thirsty Moon’s case, this gives no account for the boldness in reclaiming the word blitz in the album’s title, nor for its use of lightning and storms in a manner similar to contemporaneous German artists in other fields. Werner Herzog and Anselm Kiefer, on film and canvas respectively, construct massive pieces which attest to the sheer enormity of nature, and use it to try and ascertain what lies at the heart of man when it is confronted by those overwhelming forces. Such a motivation in German culture comes from the trauma of war and post-war ruin, as well as an attempt to find a mythological underpinning that is free from Nazification. Unfortunately Thirsty Moon are often trammelled by the vocabulary of 1970s rock music which can lean into proggy cliche from time to time, a case in point being the sound effects of horses hooves in ‘Riding In The Rain’. It is more Conan The Barbarian than Aguirre, but it becomes one of the album’s strengths; a lack of willing to take itself too seriously.

Occasionally a dark current bubbles up from under the surface: ‘Speak For Yourself’ comes off as one of the darkest Bond themes never recorded, and the album’s culmination is the penultimate track, ‘The Jungle Of Your Mind’ with a percussive solo both dense and tense, a more equatorial version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ that peters out with no resolution. The title indicates that the lightning and humidity forbade by the beginning of the album has its roots in the imagination; a suggestion of self-awareness in what is often a pantomime album. Such moments are usually the album’s weakest, whether it is the too-earnest combination of plucked guitar and synthesised woodwind in ‘It Was Love’, or the cheesy guitar mixing in ‘Sudwind’. The latter track is rescued by its groove though, and the album rarely lets up from being oddly danceable. The final track, ‘Crickets Don’t Cry’ is something of a damp squib from the shamanistic rainstorm conjured by the album, but this is inevitable given that each track strives for an epic quality.

For all the necessity of a critical rehabilitation of pop music, we should be wary of dividing rock and pop into two opposing schools. Thirsty Moon’s Blitz is one of the finest examples of how middle-of-the-road rock of the 1970s (even from Germany!) could lend an ear to rhythm tracks being put down by bands like Earth, Wind and Fire or KC & the Sunshine Band. Even your Dad can cut the rug from time to time.

Underexposed Albums #3: Bob Ostertag – Sooner Or Later (1991)

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Last.fm listeners as of 25th May 2015: 459

Part One (29:12)
Part Two (14:25)

The journey this record takes you on is repulsive yet alluring. What starts off proceedings is a sample of a Salvadorean boy burying his father, a casualty of civil conflict, through floods of tears. That sample is then cut-up and rearranged beyond all recognition. In the beginning it imitates a string quartet, with the boy’s strangulated yelps, sobs and sniffs wavering in the air like vibrations from a taut violin string. It then gets funkier and darker – the boy’s tears and yelps bounce around the stereo mix in varieties of irrepressible rhythm, only being a rhythm track short of a fully-fledged dance tune. Knowing the heart-wrenching origin of the sample gives you a guilt that is at odds with the movement that your body wants to perform. By side two (this time in accompaniment with a sample of Fred Frith playing guitar) it has dissolved into an ambient soundscape

Sooner Or Later is far from a pleasant listen. But there is a coalescence with Wilfred Owen’s project to write about the poetry that may be found in the pity of war. Ostertag says  “if there is a beauty, we must find it in what is really there… the boy, the shovel, the fly… if we look closely, despite the unbearable sadness, we will discover it.” – therein lies the moral, and it is only increasing in aptness as time goes on. Sonic pollution, both of the background variety and the kind we use to deliberately cocoon ourselves from the world, can make us deaf to the emotive nuances of single noises before they blur into fridge buzz. Ostertag has described how his composition was engineered by taking 6 second snippets and focusing on the most powerful sound within that clip, such as a sniffle, or strike of the spade on the soil. The transitions to dance in part 1 and ambient in side 2 are a wry demonstration of how much more palatable sounds, and therefore events, can be made with an editor’s hand.

Sooner Or Later was released in 1991, the same year as the Amiriyah Massacre, the most egregious example of using precision technology to maximise death. The boy at the centre of Sooner or Later, though he is thousands of miles away, is annihilated by technology, ripped into sonic shrapnel as a symbol of his grief being overwhelmed by an anonymous conflict.

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’.