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Bizarre And Beautiful: Mordant Music
jonny mugwump , October 30th, 2009 18:21

In the first instalment of a new column exploring the finest innovative music currently doing the rounds, jonny mugwump profiles Mordant Music and hears from its shadowy Baron

Welcome to the first edition of my fortnightly column. I’m jonny mugwump and the exotic pylon is my weekly radio experiment on Resonance 104.4FM on Saturdays at 9.30pm. So in collaboration with the unsurpassable The Quietus, I hope to cast a brief sideways glance at some of the stranger shores on the current musical climate. If anything piques your interest, then all the artists featured will be appearing on the show in one form or another — so you’re only a click away from being able to hear what I’m rabbiting about.

However, since this is the first edition, and to celebrate the release of new album SyMptoMs, I want to bring your attention to an artist and a label that have been responsible for some of the strangest, most innovative and downright beautiful music of the last few years. Welcome to the world of Mordant Music.

Three strands of sound have dominated the UK for the last few years: the paradoxical retro-futurist real-world mythologies of the Ghost Box label with related (Broadcast) and parallel travellers (Moon Wiring Club, Position Normal); the bass-virus mutations of Hyperdub, whose possessed meat-puppet Kode9 still invokes London as the point of infection despite the label’s astonishing international roster of artists; and by infinite loops, the strangest of this trinity, the warped and confusing secrets and lies of Mordant Music.

Mordant Music began to attract attention after the release of Dead Air, a massive highlight of 2006 which crawled out of what sounded like a vicious car crash between Saint Etienne and Throbbing Gristle with Sarah Cracknell regenerating into the warm form of Phillip Elsmore. Elsmore provided the spoken narrative through this sprawl: a Proustian madelaine to a generation if ever there was one, since Elsmore was the voice of Thames TV across the 70s and 80s. His instantly recognisable voice being dropped into this electronic hall of mirrors plays havoc with your brain. Combined with the concept of a dead TV station (alongside a fondness for artwork created by ex MMer Admiral Greyscale) that played with 70s iconography (bizarre wallpaper, the Magpie logo and so on) the album rose alongside the emergent concept of (musical) hauntology. And while that can’t have done MM any harm, the label is a misnomer for much that followed . . .

Transmitted in fits and starts via hard and virtual formats came The Tower, Carrion Squared, Travelogues and now SyMptoMs. The Tower (in three releases detailing 14 parts and remixes) is a gothic journey that features Sunn 0)))-like guitar interrupted by a huge analogue-sounding sequencers. The droney foundation constantly twists to textural shocks which fry genre conventions. The series of monthly Travelogues are contemporary musique concrète: download-only abstract pieces whose sounds are sourced from places as disparate as the pier at Southend, Bali, and the interior of a computer. Carrion Squared is a collection of grandiose short-form library sequences — the offcuts of work that MM contributed to a Boosey & Hawkes commission. Then on top of this slew of varied trap-doors, there is the Mordant Music label featuring Cosmic Dennis Greenidge, Vindicatrix, Shackleton, Mr. Maxted and now Brian Morant.

It’s incredibly exciting to see the MM brand appear because the immediate reaction is one of not knowing what the fuck to expect, whether it be a release hemmed by the shadowy Baron Mordant (Mr MM himself) or by one of its comrades. And the other enticing aspect of Mordant Music is the unreality of it all: who really is Cosmic Dennis, and do Mr Maxted or Brian Morant even exist? Or are these schizophrenic or just strange mythologies and emanations from the Baron himself? None of this matters of course, but it fuels the unique and strange identity of this most unwholesome of entities.

How would you respond to the notion that MM both as artist and label has managed to forge an identity out of disparateness?

BM: There is quite simply an abiding seam running through MM's catalogue that is born of a certain personality strain that has manifested over the years in relation to the particular spores involved...a grain that runs in several directions without knotting too incongruently...it's important to generate genuine stimulus and not foist MM on the public like a foetid ready-meal...discovery is an important trait too...MM might find you and you might find MM...there's nothing too grand about MM and you're unlikely to have a stroke if you miss out...passing like proverbial ships in the night is appealing too...not everything should be coveted and a nebulous presence is key to maintaining a degree of intrigue...since the turn of the C MM has not veered from sniffing its own arse and although I wouldn't make any great claims to genre-hybridization I do think that the path has displayed a certain integrity over coMMerce...in truth there's a certain relief in not being Ghost Box, although due to 'Dead Air' in particular MM is generally lobbed into the hauntological minestrone along with them and other affiliates of the 'h'...there's a decent graphical & musical cul-de-sac there that satisfies a narrow facet of MM's visions...Messrs Jupp & House [of Ghost Box] line up neatly on the hauntological horizon like brimming axolotyls whilst MM is basically a shed turning out the odd bronze medal...GB polish & cogitate like a finely honed Braun whilst MM flicker & gnarl like escaped voltage ...I would suggest that MM emit a genuine uneasiness & distinctiveness throughout the catalogue due to the lack of overall constraint...the MModest (r)udder is fairly sharp though the direction is generally uncharted.

There seems to be a strong vein of narrative in your recorded work. The Tower is constructed that way, Dead Air actually has a narrator and the Travelogues are literally sound journeys. On the new album SyMptoMs, the first line is “This is the tale of a town” and almost has the feel of a confessional story. Is this intentional?

BM: The narrative binds the ear & mind in a synaesthetic Gloy...tales, white lies, half-truths & facts can massage a questing mind...anchorage is not a consideration...transience must be harnessed in a way that allows the listener/twitcher to participate in whatever MMethod they see fit, be it rave or slumber.

Is there a conscious or conceptual rationale behind what you release on the label?

BM: There's no Wayans you could set out to perform such an act of artist collation...all of the MM collaborators have manifested mercurially somehow and that's how it should be...tendrils and residual echoes are always out there and I think MM just absorbs whatever feels right and proper...I have often thought about how the MM 'personnel' photo might look...real or imagined.

You’re from Northampton right? Since geography seems such an important part of your concerns, I was wondering if it had an impact at all?

BM: Yes...I lived there for a number of years in a superb village called Milton Malsor...mushrooms & lichen in abundance...I was forever hearing how 'shit' Northampton was both from its inhabitants and Londinium's 'hemian scree...personally there's something in that whole notion of ignorantly passing something or someone off without having a real handle that fucks my cogs...all you have to do is look further than your spleen and you will find quite an inspiring environ...I worked at Carlsberg for a while...drinking on site was allowed...I became cretinous for a few weeks imbibing raw hop juice through a forklift hose...heady times...sound-wise MM is very much like Northampton town centre insomuch as I'd liken us initially to the reaction you'd have upon arrival at the main bus station Greyfriars...blank...delve a little deeper and you might make it out to the Blisworth ear canal or end up taking a piss behind the wall of 'New Ways'...Express Lifts do a nice latte and you can skim for real hair at Billing Aquadrome 7 days a week...finding something decent takes effort but it is 'there' - everywhere....okay, maybe Gold Street's not exactly paved but I've never construed Northampton's chill wind as anything other than a corsair seeping.

As label and artist, MM seems somehow out of time. SyMptoMs may be technologically advanced for instance but the Baron paints a picture of a town marooned in time, heavy in existential despair. Cosmic Dennis is nowhere other than in his own private moment, and even the ‘now’ end of the label plays host to the most marginal and anonymous dubstep producers like Shackleton. Then there is the decayed broadcast of Dead Air or the gothic narrative of The Tower. What of the television event then - something that has died with an over-abundance of channels and the means to repeat and replay at leisure. I think the last true TV event I remember was Brass Eye - the sense that you knew this was going to be like nothing seen before and that there was the very strong possibility that it might not go out at all. And television of course is the most prolific medium that ties us into the now of news, politics and world events. So what of this sense of untimeliness?

BM: There has not been a television in the Nesst since the turn of the C...the cadence of old news and continuity definitely suits me...evolving generations are probably more at ease with today's media bombast but I find I've been left on the platform waving a snot-ridden rag before turning away to die in a hedge, my Aquascutum my casket...the white noise of current affairs makes me recoil...humans are having to evolve quickly to respond to a more defined set of daily frequencies...many I believe are slowly turning their backs...there's no seat any more to get up and leave from...everything is digested on the hoof...eventually sleep will be deemed a luxury only to be taken once a week and the criteria by which we've previously judged our lives will available in tablet form... I agree with your point about Brass Eye...Chris Morris has been a defining social catalyst on a unique axis that is pretty much unparalleled...the GP of the cathode, or whatever it is these days...Iain Sinclair (De Quincy's post-palmist) is a decent sort too...I'm at an age when time is foremost in my guMMy bonce whether I like it or not...the Mad Hatter to my left and Sekonda to my right...I'm extremely aware these days that everything drifts off into the memorial aether as soon as it's thought or spoken...my daily recall is non-existant...I'm just about extant...there's no time to lose and equally, with a deft sidestep, I've all the zeit in thee worlde...at present the former rules the carriage clock but I will adjourn at some stage to cut these protruding toenails...the spectre of Howard Hughes take note...I'm permanently teetering on the brink of becoming a 'fugueur' but somehow MM keeps heading me off at the pass…bring ohm MM040.

Some Mordant Music Highlights

Cosmic Dennis Greenidge

Folks, you ain't heard nothing yet. Cosmic Dennis utilises voice, two cassette recorders and the heaviest rainbow of enthusiasm you’ve ever heard. Once described as making Daniel Johnston sound like Bono (which is a trifle unfair on Johnston), Dennis sings songs titled 'The Amazing Colossal Cucumber Men', 'Mechanical Manifestation' and 'The Sandwich Giant'. He can’t sing in any conventional way, his music literally comes from the most rudimentary sampling imaginable (his two tape players criss-crossing, rewinding in real time with button-pressing noise and pauses intact) but while this all might sound like some big joke (and there can be no denying the disbelief that these recordings will provoke in some) this is to miss the almost tragic enthusiasm within. Those with an open heart will hear the sound of a man so joyfully in love with the creation of music and self-expression that you will lose your heart instantly. Dennis’ music has a purity in it that makes everyone after sound like an over-produced insincere joke. Little is known about the man and I have doubted his ‘reality’ but just to confuse matters, you can watch him at work below.

Mr. Maxted

'Lives & Privacy (89-94)' is the only (vinyl only) release so far by the anonymous Maxted. The nine-track compilation sounds like a decaying canister of primitivist techno and bleep ‘n’ bass — a parallel Sheffield maybe, or Burial reared on LFO rather than jungle and 2-step.

Pickin O’er The Bones

Another compilation, this time of MM singles and limited releases by dubsteppers Vindicatrix and Shackleton. This is where MM hover as close as they’re likely too to something recognisably NOW; but the Baron’s own contributions are typically wayward and include the masterful 'The Hauntological Song' (which sticks two sonic fingers up at those that would label his enterprise) while both Vindicatrix and Shackleton are anonymous figures whose work lies at the very eerie margin where bass music and voodoo meet.

SyMptoMs

The brand new second album proper from Baron Mordant and yet another twist in MM’s tale. Operating from a more restricted sonic palette than Dead Air, SyMptoMs is a collection of 13 (unlucky) songs with lyrics and the Baron’s warm but melancholy vocals. Sounding more like a darker than pitch Underworld than anything Hauntological these vignettes seem to be of a much more ‘personal’ nature than anything released under the MM name before, revealing a little of the Baron himself. The title track is the centre piece of the album and is the greatest thing to come from the label so far. Under harsh labyrinthian percussion, depth-pulse bass and an unresolved creepy melody the Baron unfolds a story of daily addictions flitting between ‘the good stuff’ and ‘the bad stuff’ and then pulls of a truly fucking astonishing structural breakdown midway through melody alone. It’s a bold, beautiful and strangely sad piece of work- a major highlight of the year and is once again typically untypical of a label that is a source of such strong strange magic that will light up your life like the darkest of lanterns. You have nothing to fear but fear itself. . . .

Baron Mordant will be a guest on this Saturday's show, which you can listen to here. All shows will be archived from the Sunday here. The Mordant Music Hub can be found here.

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