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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.

Why It Works: Kraftwerk – Computer Love (1981)

The song most relevant to our times was released 35 years ago. 1981 saw the release of the first IBM PC, MS-DOS (the precursor to the Windows operating system), Minitel in France (a videotex service, a precursor to the Internet) and Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the musical prophecy of that year which somehow managed to identify the still nascent field of computing and identify the emotional strands of our interaction which would linger even now.

The title track’s three note motif initially seems quite disappointing, after the band’s previous album kick-started with spiralling synthesisers cartwheeling through the continent on the Trans-Europe Express. But it is a masterclass of artistic efficiency, channelling the pips and notifications which have become more prevalent in the app-driven technoscape. ‘Pocket Calculator’ seems charmingly out-of-date until you realise that the choice of device is merely a springboard to explore the mix of giddiness and ignorance which accompanies interaction with portable technology, the kind which follows us around all of the time. The song tells us more about our relationship with smartphones than their subsequent effort ‘The Telephone Call’ on Electric Café does.

‘Computer Love’ stands at the peak of this album, and possibly on the whole of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre. It is irrelevant to think about whether the ‘proper’ version of this song is sung in English or German. Even though some critics fairly point out that the scansion of the vocals at least suggests that it was written in English in first, it wouldn’t be Kraftwerk without the vocals sounding a bit unwieldy and computer generated. The band was built to serve translations of their work – to English, French and even Japanese. Their work transmits freely through cross-national boundaries, underpinned as it is by the technocratic globe which their music describes. By singing bilingually, they also ensure that at least one version of their songs will sound remote and unhuman.

The subject matter is ideally suited to Ralf Hutter’s deadpan delivery. The image he invokes is striking in its similarity to a situation familiar to most of us in 2016. Nights spent alone in bed watching TV (Netflix), bored by choice, swiping left and right in search of a ‘data date’; a soulmate mined out of big data. Each vocal line is offered twice, an indictment of the abundance and repetition presented by digital media, which leads to apathy as data repeatedly scrolls past. In a counterintuitive move typical of the band, the second half becomes much more revealing and more human when the machines take over. The instrumental section can be admired from a distance, like filigree wallpaper patterns, but you can trace even more by analysing it deeply. The synthesiser which punctuated the melody line between the lyrics in the first half and the synthesiser played during the chorus begin playing call-and-response patterns at each other, like distant male and female voices. They echo, tantalisingly overlapping near the end but at a slightly different rhythm before disappearing from each other again as the song fades out. The two users never connect. This is driven with an increase in tempo and a bass line which sometimes withholds or spits out extra notes like an impatient loading bar; all of which cements this concept of technological progress dampened by human stasis.

The second half of this song is the engine room of the Computer World album, and it deserves resuscitating when it was savagely edited for a radio version to serve as B-side to ‘Das Modell’, when it was almost entirely cut. The full version is inspiring and caustic, emotional and robotic; it is the satisfaction of seeing a new device welcome you into its grasp, it is the ignored message you sent to someone whose presence haunts you from SMS to WhatsApp to Facebook timeline. If Coldplay’s pilfering of the riff for their 2005 single ‘Talk’ has achieved anything, it is to demonstrate how their emotionally incontinent output has the earnestness and robustness of a belated birthday card. Kraftwerk, the automatons, hardcode emotion onto you.

Even without the technology generating the music, the song would reveal a lot about relationships. But now our world is built out of data, and it is what cocoons connected, yet alien souls in the night.  

 

 

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.