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New Weird Britain In Review For January By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , January 28th, 2020 10:01

Our chief New Weird Britain auger Noel Gardner gets busy with new cuts from Richard Skelton, GNOD, Lucy Gooch and a Black Country, New Road side project

Lucy Gooch

We start this edition of New Weird Britain, and therefore the ‘Boring Twenties’ (© me, in the pub last Saturday, roughly five seconds before feeling great shame over this coinage), with some radge old lags who are embedded throughout these columns like raisins in a plum duff. We end it that way, too, and in between there’s a phalanx of first-timers, the creatively promiscuous and some people you might know already, only wearing a different hat. Basically, much like it was before. Don’t let some numbers on a calendar mug you off, I beg!

Nothing mysterious about OZO, at least in their component parts: a guitar/sax/drums trio featuring Mike Vest and Karl D’Silva, who performed together in Drunk In Hell and have discographies I’d rather you spent time researching yourself, plus Graham Thompson, ex of a remarkably wide spread of north-eastern English bands.

It does, though, seem like a project that was intentionally conceived in private: one minute nothing, the next they’re recording an album and the next it exists, is called Saturn and is on Riot Season. No live performances yet, but this sick synthesis of psychedelic rock muckspreading and cosmic jazz outness would likely slay given sufficient wattage.

Trippy and snaky as these five freely associating pieces are, OZO feels like a logical progression for the two ex-DIH members at least. D’Silva’s approach to the alto sax has evident spiritual/cosmic jazz touchstones that warrant being able to freak out without bludgeoning, while the guitarist’s approach to improvisation, put to good use in doom and noise projects, more than holds its own when in a ‘jazz context’.

His essential tone is fairly similar to recent Vest ventures like Melting Hand, whose rocked-up cover of Joe Henderson’s ‘Earth’ on their last album is a precursor of sorts to Saturn. Expect oceans of phaser and wah; sax flipping ‘tween sustained ripples into space and stabby squeals; drums loosey-goosey but thumped with a rocker’s hairy paw; a really great record which avoids the many pitfalls of jazz/rock crossbreeding while not coming off like OZO had to try hard to manage this.

Drummer Tony Irving has been chiselling away at the noisier face of the UK improv scene since the early 90s, when he formed Ascension with Stefan Jaworzyn. His most recent projects have been more demonstrably jazz-shaped: a release last year on Chocolate Monk with violinist Adam Cadell which, listening now, I really should have repped at the time, and a tape on swish US label Astral Spirits with London sax man Massimo Magee. The latter duo did a few live shows in January 2019, parts of which have ended up on Vitriol And The Third Oraculum, fresh on another American imprint, 577.

Contra my observation in the previous review, Irving is definitely A Jazz Drummer, even if his background isn’t purely so. On three workouts of five, 17 and 26 minutes, he rolls chaotically, glowers in the background as Magee throttles out ecstatic fire-music tones upfront, and cymbal-taps with unseemly impatience. The label invoke “the free jazz tradition” in their promo spiel, and – leaving aside the question of whether creating a ‘tradition’ goes against its essential purpose – certainly you could bring up the multiple branches of the AACM, or the extremities of Peter Brötzmann and his 1970s European peers, or players who’ve emerged this side of the millennium like, say, Paal Nilssen-Love. A set of inspired babble in any event; hope Irving and Magee continue to team up.

Rurally-inclined ambient polymath Richard Skelton feels – to me – like an artist who has been around for much longer than he has. In fact, his first CDr release was a mere (!) 15 years ago, yet he has amassed such a body of work across music, poetry, film and art that the timeframe feels unfeasible. If you subscribe to Aeolian Editions, run by Skelton plus spouse Autumn Richardson and currently based in the Scottish Borders, you get compositions otherwise unavailable; the last, ‘Stadial’, was a 30-minute piece intended as a companion to the even newer LASTGLACIALMAXIMUM – eight shorter tracks released on the couple’s other imprint, Corbel Stone Press. Getting all this down?

The album title refers to the period in Earth’s history, 20,000 years ago or more, where the proportion of ice sheets covering land and water was at its highest. Accordingly, these compositions are extraordinarily sparse and austere, paper-thin layers of isolationist drone which I assume to have been created via synthesiser but which often have the feel of a scarcely-processed field recording one might find on the Touch label. LGM makes Skelton’s last album proper, Border Ballads, look equivocal and accessible by contrast: certainly, none of its agreeable ripples of piano are reprised on this effort. A sop to avant-classical territory does arrive with the penultimate piece, whose string parts sally forth with suitably glacial grandeur.

As someone whose imagery has drawn so heavily on the topography, fauna and lexicon of Britain’s outposts, there’s perhaps a dry wit in all these tracks being nameless, hailing as they do a period where the island was uninhabitable to human or tree. Is LASTGLACIALMAXIMUM an inverse/implicit soundtrack to the incremental atrocity of man-made climate change? Its soundworld is both blank and moving enough for that to work, I feel.

Any wealthy aesthetes reading may like to know that you can purchase the above album inside an LP-sized poetry book, which looks glorious… and costs north of £150. Hey, Richard has built an audience over several dozen releases. Rushing, meanwhile, is Lucy Gooch’s debut: she lives in Bristol, but label Past Inside The Present are from Indianapolis, and have pressed up 45 clear 10-inch lathes. Some come with a complementary slipmat, which could be useful to anyone who only plays 10-inch records. Anyway, you can just download it, indeed that’s recommended if you dig vocal-driven, loop-centric ambient pop like Ian William Craig, Katie Gately or Rachael Dadd.

Comfortable in their compactness, Rushing’s first three numbers are each around the two- to three-minute mark, be that the slab-like synth chords and churchily-treated vocals of ‘My Lights Kiss Your Thoughts Every Moment’, the meticulous layered voices of the title track or, on ‘Stalagmites And Helictites’, the way that fragments of Gooch’s singing are edited so as to be wordless, her sibilants functioning more like soft percussion. The final pair are slightly longer and more sinister, ‘Sun’ a drone-driven lament seemingly free of loops or edits and ‘There Is A Space In Between’ foregoing the vocals (her trademark, you might say if her oeuvre to date topped 20 minutes) to submit wholly to the space whirr.

Further Bristolian soloing in the form of Tisla, aka Tina Hitchens, although I think this is her first unaccompanied venture after 15 or so years of playing in bands and improvising units which are not ‘bands’ per se. Heck, she has four or five of those on the go presently, by my count, including Viridian Ensemble and Harpoon (who I reviewed a few columns ago). My Mind, In A Line, the debut Tisla tape, is released by Robert Ridley-Shackleton’s label Cardboard Club and comprises four examples of all-too-human electronic songcraft: hermetic and inscrutable but with much that beguiles. Looping one’s vocals is again a popular tactic, in this case positioned so Hitchens is harmonising with herself (‘You Say More’, ‘A Part’). The beats and basslines are, at points, distorted and toxic as those she creates in Harpoon, albeit placed in a very different context. “My body / It has shut down” relates ‘It Has Grown Wings’, while a foetal EDM kick persists underneath. I could imagine the songs on this tape being reworked into something much more lavish (get shades of Dirty Projectors in parts) but am more than happy with them in this homebuilt form.

Youthful London sextet Black Country, New Road are one of those bands who, before I’d even had the chance to ponder the (clearly very important) question of whether what they were doing chimed with my idea of New Weird Britain, whipped up enough fervour to make it a moot point. Go and read about them somewhere else! I am however fond of the self-titled cassette (on Blank Editions) by Black Country, New Road’s Lewis Evans, recording as Good With Parents – pointedly solo, albeit with minor aid from pals including BC,NR bandmate Isaac Wood. The actual tape has sold out by now, but seems to have otherwise gone unnoticed, which means I can talk about it.

Good With Parents is eight songs of sweet, impulsive lo-fi pop where Lewis croons, with odd and musicologically ill-advised stresses on syllables, over a simple keyboard motif and generally little else. Sometimes it works itself up into something approximating a groove, as on the Hot Chip-py ‘Take My Hand’; ‘Sax Guy’ includes a sax solo, Evans being BC,NR’s sax player. There are forbidden relationship issues, millennial anxiety issues, and mentions of Ubers and dad bods so archaeologists of the future will be able to more accurately date its composition. As per my mulling of this (or any other) release’s eligibility for this column… I wouldn’t normally clear space for things remindful of Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston and Ian Dury, but equally I don’t see why I shouldn’t, and am oddly charmed by Good With Parents’ declawed hooks.

Ed Upton is a quiet lynchpin of British electronic music, having now riffed on classic 80s electro for a quarter of a century: sometimes very strangely, sometimes very faithfully and sometimes so faithfully it’s downright strange. You’ll be most likely to know him as DMX Krew (in fact a solo project), under which name he chalked up nearly 20 releases for Rephlex Records alone. He’s another guy who just exhales music: two albums and a grip of 12-inches just in 2019, can’t pretend I heard any of it I’m afraid but can confirm his new album as EDMX, World Phaser (Queen Nanny), is a slinky treat.

A shifting of Upton’s usual stylistic parameters, too. It’s still built from the same drum machines and sound palettes he knows and loves, but the combination of loping tempo, springy reverb and envelopingly plump bass puts a majority of the album in the realm of digidub, or 80s dancehall. Listening to something like, despite the title, ‘Hip Hop’, you half expect him to whip out the ‘Sleng Teng’ riddim any minute. Sludgier turns – ‘Tron’, ‘Photon Annihilation’ – come off almost like a DMX take on vintage Digital Mystikz sides, which is not a hybrid I’d have expected him to be nurturing in 2020 but which is an aurally satisfying niche. Not primo ravers’ choice, I did wonder if this was much of a home-listening album either but it turns out to be a really good fit for all the lightbulbs in your flat blowing.

For the avoidance of doubt, this column does not prize authenticity especially highly, and holds that innovation is a kissing cousin of mutation, crosspollination and appropriation. That being said, there’s value in having a record like World Phaser counterbalanced with a dose of the real stuff, which in this case is Raw Dub Creator (Bokeh Versions), a vinyl compilation of self-released CDR-only dub reggae instrumentals by TNT Roots. By all accounts, you’ll have had to be properly locked into the British reggae underground to get wind of this stuff – hell, if you wanted it in analogue until now, you’ll have had to run a sound system and get given a dubplate – and I’m not gonna pretend I’m that guy, but Bokeh have performed a supreme public service here for all us earnest dilettante gadflies.

TNT Roots is a one-man operation, based in Northampton and named Tony (here’s where I do my occasional thing of congratulating someone for, as far as I can tell, entirely keeping their full name off the internet), who made himself into a cult name in the 90s as Earthquake and now records two or three albums per year and sells them over email. This is about the ultimate in autonomous UK DIY at this point: I’m struggling to think of anyone else operating purely like this. The eleven cuts on Raw Dub Creator, chosen by Bokeh’s Miles Opland, amount to a healthy mix of classic, more or less pre-digital sounding fare like the melodica-powered ‘Redemption’ and things that venture outside the genre’s established framework, for example ‘African Science (Mix 2)’ and its wicked syncopated drums. He can get seriously heavy, too, like the sonic colonoscopy that is ‘Guidance’, but even the selections that go hard as fuck invariably have delicious melodies, so you’re dealing with music that has Jupiter-strength gravity yet seems to be levitating.

The dub continuum… continues! Mike Steel, with his hardboiled detective by day/porn star by night name, is FUMU, a Manchester-based entity with a new 7-inch EP, Skinned, on the Youth label. Four untitled instrumentals (save for a bit of rasta proclamation, sampled I think, on track four) yield not an iota of finesse, dishing up midpaced breakbeats caked in echo and distortion. There’s shards of junglist stutter, borderline power electronics aggro and even an epic synth riff you might encounter in a laser-reaching big room techno set. All manner of dons whose objective was arranging rhythms to generate disquiet, as opposed to euphoria, are in the FUMU DNA: Dälek and Christoph De Babalon feel like prescient precedents, and I’d be surprised if Steel wasn’t a bit of a Kevin Martin head, particularly the Techno Animal / Bug transition.

One more 45 to finish, this one a split between Gnod and Zohastre on the latter’s label, Zamzam. Zohastre are a Franco-Italian duo living in rural France, much as they were when I reviewed their fine 2018 LP, but I’m consulting my cheat sheet and slipping ‘em in here to say thanks for the repeated cool shows and good times back when they lived in Bristol. So! Gnod are also in duo mode here, Chris Haslam and Paddy Shine under their Rhythm & Drone subheading, and their ‘Looking Suspicious Dub’ is indeed dub of the noisiest and most acidically oppressive type: faintly comparable, in Gnod’s own canon, to their Infinity Machines album, but with the abstraction of Nate Young and the thump of, to hell with it, FUMU. Zohastre’s ‘Tarantella’ is a drum freakout from Olmo Guadagnoli bolstered by a deep electronic bassline and hurdy-gurdy type synth that permeates the atmosphere like chemtrails. Two ever-questing units, perfectly matched.