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Noel’s Foul House: Your New Weird Britain Hits For January
Noel Gardner , January 30th, 2018 08:59

This month, we celebrate the nefarious goings-on of Paper Dollhouse, the wobbly non-linear Chow Mwng and the throbbing drone of NoCorner

Paper Dollhouse photo by Patrick Stein

Welcome back to the first outpouring of 2018 for the column which, a little like Don McLean, saw a KEEP BRITAIN WEIRD sticker on a fully functioning 1970s kit car miniature ice cream van. Or would like to imagine that scenario. This edition will be going from cathedral-worthy ambient sound design to skullmunching powerviolent noise exhilaration to someone with a Wasp synthesizer singing about his favourite sci-fi shows, and still without honestly being too fussed if everything can be obviously chainlinked to everything else. It’s all sick and it all comes out of, and is fed into, some kind of tangible community.

Who are Paper Dollhouse, who funds their nefarious activities, where do they fit into the rabbit warren we lionise so? A duo of Nina Bosnic and Astrud Steehouder, resident in Suffolk and London respectively; past releases have emerged through Jane Weaver’s Bird label, Michael Kasparis’ Night School and unparalleled chroniclers of (Very) Old Weird Britain, Folklore Tapes, but The Sky Looks Different is on their own MoonDome Records; wherever unsettling cosmic synth moves, spaced-out postpunk and lissom ambient techno are allowed to swap sweat.

This, Paper Dollhouse’s third album, develops slowly both in terms of tempo and its effect on the listener – most of these 12 tracks are under three minutes long, and some seem slight and sketch-like on initial exposure, but have either a wicked hook (electro/IDM dazzler ‘Haze’) or deep tones to quit clockwatching and immerse oneself (‘Nuclear Alignment’, ‘Lullaby’). If you come to The Sky Looks Different for the enveloping warmth, and there is much of that in the duo’s smeary synths and crystal trills, it behooves you to stay for the sinister murk, such as the spoken word vocals of ‘Nothing Sacred’ and the rubber-rhythm bass thud that fuels ‘MountainEnergie’. For the closing ‘Meteor Storm’, we get a token epic – nine minutes – and, not for the first time in fact, Bosnic and Steehouder visit the same kinda deep-dream hardware drone places that US bands like Pocahaunted were at in the late 00s. Stirring stuff, strongly recommended.

The ambience generated by Cucina Povera on her debut LP may even surpass it. The artist behind it, a Finn living in Glasgow by the name of Maria Rossi, has dallied with a few lowkey projects related to the Optimo and Green Door Studios microcommunities, but Hilja (on the aforementioned Night School) is the first in-earnest showcase for her exquisite and genuinely original practice. Rossi’s voice is the most prominent instrument on the album, either given an unobtrusive backing track – sighing synths, dripping taps, clunked woodblocks and insect-skeletal drum machines all feature – or, more often, layered in multiples to harmonise with itself.

Deeply fine pipes they are too – equal parts hymnal and English folk for ‘Elektra’, somehow echoing the mead-swilling rollick of the Finnish equivalent on ‘Huhuilu’ despite it being near-inert instrumentally. ‘Kuparirumpu’ creates crisscrossing rhythms from vocal tics, mining the same seam of artistic inspiration that made Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ an improbable number one, and there’s a droll mischief to a track like ‘Mesikämmenen Veisu’, where Rossi’s stunning vocal is backed by what sounds for all the world like someone getting in and out of a car next to a river. Just to sabotage this jewel of an album’s chances of getting played on Radio 3 anywhere outside of Late Junction, like.

Chow Mwng is the current solo moniker of Ash Cooke, a north Walian whose musical arc has become exponentially wobblier and less linear over two decades or so. Derrero, his first band, were an effervescent indie group fairly typical of Wales’ late-90s Super Furry Animals slipstream; Cooke’s subsequent projects, such as Pulco, were more lo-fi and folky. Lately, he’s bunkered down in the UK sub-underground’s Dadaest Dadaist margins, including providing the music for the audiobook of David R Edwards from Datblygu’s poems (reviewed in this column).

Nunavik, a five-track EP, is his second release as Chow Mwng, and can either be downloaded for free or purchased as a CDr via an A5 experimental music zine called TQ (the name of which I would not for a second imagine to be referencing the tQ you are currently reading). It focuses heavily on the voice, which is why I’ve sequenced it after the Cucina Povera review, and is inspired at root by – not to be confused with ‘is trying to emulate’ – Inuit throat music from northern Canada. So among the shredded riffs, jabs of static and snippets of close-miced mundanity turned into unlikely rhythms, Cooke spreadeagles himself across the debris with squonks, yelps, surrealist poetry (on ‘Thinuit’) – and emissions from the lower reaches of his gullet, serving as a makeshift bassline. Uncompromising but colourful, and equally suggestive of Phil Minton and Stock, Hausen & Walkman.

NoCorner is a tape-and-other-things label from Bristol which shares both ideological turf and personnel with the city’s Young Echo crew. Their releases wander all over the shop, really, but collectively join the dots between dub, grime, techno and the bleak industrialisms that mushroom in the crevices of each. Which brings me to the first of their two brand new cassettes, Ominous Bath by Robin Stewart. This doesn’t sound much like Stewart’s other venture, noiserockin’ techno power duo Giant Swan, or like anything made with dancing in mind. Side one, ‘And Then’, is 29 uninterrupted minutes of throbbing, go-towards-the-light drone with bolts of springy percussion panning in and out and mating calls sampled from some colourful bird of the fourth world. ‘Ominous Bath’, over the way, is just under seven, but if the discrepancy might have you smashing the FFWD button in anger (okay, you’ll probably just play the MP3s instead), there’s bounty to be had in this mess o’ fizzy circuits, kosmische keys and persistent bass thud. Does kinda resemble a Giant Swan live set before they raise the pressure, actually.

NoCorner’s other newie is Corfe, a six-track EP by Kinlaw. Also a Bristol dweller, Hamish Trevis has been releasing music since the early 2010s, most of it fuggier and more downtempo than this razor-toothed salute to the hardcore continuum. I mean, it’s certainly not all bangers – ‘Good Court He 24’ is a build-and-no-release salvo of gloopy backmasking and thick drone chords – but the opening ‘2nd Cave’ is winningly OTT breakcore-meets-IDM like no bugger else makes any more, while the clanking, screwfaced ‘Gramrcylvl5’ (I assume this is a reference to producer Gramrcy, who’s from the same vague scene as Kinlaw, though to what end I couldn’t say) seems to look into the abyss of abstract 90s junglists like Source Direct.

Nick Edwards aka Ekoplekz – also Bristol-based, also Young Echo-adjacent and also dedicated to remodelling British club history in his own fashion, but probably old enough to be Kinlaw’s dad – released a shedload of strange cassettes before getting signed to Planet Mu in 2014. Not only has he remained on the label since, his latest album for them is a tape, Cassettera. Without venturing into format quarrels, which are generally very boring, it does feel like the right medium for Ekoplekz’s cloudy, rickety analogue constructs, ten of which feature here and are apparently leftovers from 2017 LP Bioprodukt.

The whole feels a bit more knobbly and bare-wired than what ended up on that release, but the motifs are recognisable, and whether Edwards’ take on modular techno leans, at any given moment, towards 90s ambient (the Rising High-on-hauntology ‘Tactile’), electro (squishy opener ‘Formative’), or all-levels-in-red industrial dubstep (‘The Outlook Is Bleak’, which couldn’t be better titled or better placed as the final track), he’s developed Ekoplekz into something singular and texturally satisfying. He also has a knack – going back to Young Echo, but also thinking of past releases on Peverelist’s Punch Drunk label – of getting courted by younger, more explicitly fashionable scene heads without making any apparent effort to do so, or switching up his methods as a result.

“Does it turn into Tolstoy after page 200?” Will Self once asked of Richard Littlejohn, explaining why he hadn’t finished reading the latter’s novel for the purpose of some on-air pissing contest between the pair. In similar – well, inversed – spirit, I gave the debut tape by Leeds duo Soft Issues 15 seconds’ streaming max before airing my squealing approval and firing up Paypal. Soft Issues (Concrete Block) does not turn into [spins enormous gameshow type wheel to decide which easy target crap band to use for illustrative purposes] The Wombats after its intro, instead staying locked in to savage, earth-salting noise steeped in hardcore and punk.

I can’t tell for certain if there are any ‘rock band’ instruments on this, but catch a hefty Man Is The Bastard feel whenever rhythm meets vocals – ‘BDC’ especially, ‘Degloving’ to an extent that’s shared by the bilious aftertaste of Whitehouse and gabber. The tape’s two longer, less systemically violent cuts maintain the quality, too. ‘The Thrill Of Seeing Your Friends Fail’ (alright Morrissey) is sickly, metal-toned dark ambience while ‘Hetchell’, notwithstanding its Japanoise seed-splat of an intro, is five minutes of horridly pulsing synth with an agonised humanoid making themselves progressively more audible until it’s back in noiseville’s roughest neighbourhood. Soft Issues aren’t the only band attempting to bisect power electronics and powerviolence, but I’m struggling to think of any others who got so good so fast.

ONE MORE TAPE! ONE MORE TAPE! bellows the readership, and Foul House would hate to disappoint. Here’s Perfume Advert, from Salford via Middlesbrough, with 002 (Hypermagic), near enough a C90’s worth of margin jottings and things altogether removed from the lo-fi house chug that graces most of their ‘standard’ releases. There are no track titles, just glassy-eyed shifts from humid ambience to whirring deep house to slightly brawnier Detroit-ish climes to a hissy old proto-house reel-to-reel spun backwards to peaktime kickdrum bizniz to loosely garagey keys to a man making some sort of announcement to a restless audience, possibly the results of a meat raffle, to a wash of morning-has-broken synth tones to the end. A spacious, immersive mixtape which justifies Perfume Advert’s Tom Brown and Aaron Turner rummaging through their castoffs, although a shame that I couldn’t pick out the “recordings of us eating crips” promised in the inlay card. Or crisps, for that matter.

As with the most dedicated fringes of any collector subset, some minimal synth collectors are mad bastards who’ll pay a king’s ransom for any shonky old tape of unsellable teenage Casio ticklings just because no one else has a copy. That’s not to say they don’t dig up good stuff, mind, and the long clamour for Solid Space’s singular 1982 release to be given a non-bootleg reissue turns out to be valid. Space Museum was originally a cassette on an experimental-ish label, In Phaze, and was reissued last month by supreme unearthers Dark Entries.

If ‘minimal’ is the right word to describe this record, and I suspect it wasn’t in the mix at the time, it ought to refer to the equipment used rather than the arrangements. Recorded in a bedroom and mixed in a garden shed, so legend has it, the London duo took advantage of the early 80s’ sudden availability of cheap synths and drum machines, mixing this artifice with occasional sampled dialogue and winsome, not wildly mellifluous vocals. ‘New Statue’ is their ‘sophisticated’ turn, incorporating both disco-punk staccato guitar and hyperbrief hip-hop breaks, but in essence Solid Space were firmly in the slipstream of early Human League and Cabaret Voltaire, along with a bit of extra Radiophonic Workshop whooshing and members’ status as big ol’ nerds. Lyrics are patchwork references to Doctor Who, Tintin and, it says here, airport bookshop colossus Dean Koontz, and boast couplets like “You slept for aeons in your tomb / You shaped it as a second womb” (‘Please Don’t Fade Away’).

If Space Museum isn’t quite as good as its biggest fans think it is, and I appreciate you could say that about anything, Dark Entries’ efforts are still valuable: giving new, legal, waxen life to an album which both typifies the cassette culture that spawned it and is idiosyncratic enough to elevate itself.

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