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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.

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’.