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New Weird Britain

New Weird Britain In Review For July By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , July 15th, 2020 06:33

Noel Gardner is back with reviews of new releases by Laura Cannell, Charles Hayward, Ashtray Navigation and more

“In July, when this column’s next due,” I wrote two months ago by way of concluding the last column due, “there might be some fresh muck that’s both noteworthy, and created remotely.” As in, recorded at home under the grey yoke of British lockdown and released into the world with digital efficiency. Most of the class acts who are covered in New Weird Britain are well placed to do things this way, choice being the older brother of necessity.

So it is that a couple of releases specifically promoted by their makers (when I say ‘promoted’, I mean, like, flagged up on Facebook) as Lockdown-Era Recordings feature at the end of this month’s NWB. They’re digital-only, but that’s something we might have to accept as legitimate for now, and when I say ‘we’, I mean me.

There’s also a newie by Phil Todd’s legendary junk-psych vehicle Ashtray Navigations, taped during March and April in – I’d venture – much the same way as normal. In fact, I don’t think any of these summery (sic) selections used a recording studio in the sense our popular imagination thinks of one.

The Earth With Her Crowns, the latest album by Norfolk’s Laura Cannell and released on her own label Brawl, is a set of improvised pieces recorded in London’s Wapping Hydraulic Power Station last year. Cannell, a violinist and recorder player, is perhaps best associated with a kind of rural disquiet, so this starkly industrial setting feels off-brand in principle – although the building ceased operating as a power station in the late 1970s, latterly functioned as an art space and with the inevitability of death itself is soon to be converted into offices. The two-day session which yielded this album was a commission by The Wapping Project; lacking any prior familiarity with her surroundings, Cannell worked with its acoustics on the hoof, “the sound of the living city outside occasionally entering through porous brick, steel and glass” as she writes.

A glorious session is hereby presented, demonstrative of the musician’s depth of technique (and appreciation of the centuries’ worth of precursors to it) but giddy with potential. Cannell’s Hunter Huntress Hawker tape from 2017 has a comparable feel and range, although The Earth is more discordant, with ample use of overbowing – a method of violin playing which appears to be almost exclusively her domain at present. ‘We Used To Keep Bees In There’ bears closest resemblance of this set to early music, while the human voice drifts, as if in plumes, through the resonant minimalism of ‘A Space For Dreaming’.

‘Black Sleep Of Night’ deviates farthest from the mean while also utilising the space most audibly: the sinister, death sentence-slow percussion and bodily drone come courtesy of two guest musicians (both previous Cannell collaborators), André Bosman on “suspended staircase” and Jennifer Lucy Allan, a tQ columnist among her many attributes, on unspecified “horn”. For the most part, however, The Earth is a singular example of a consistently wonderful solo performer. Laura Cannell would – does – make great art without grant-based commissions like this, no question, but it feels distinctly possible that they may be scarce or eliminated in the near future, so ‘preciate ‘em while you can.

Charles Hayward’s inextinguishable creative vim has incorporated work with Laura Cannell in the last few years: Whistling Arrow, a group which also included André Bosman and spawned a late-2019 LP, and the hydra-headed live performance project Modern Ritual. Half a century after his first stirrings, as drummer in Canterbury proggers Quiet Sun, the big man drops another gem-studded puzzle: the six-song Hayward Versus Harmergeddon (God Unknown), a collab with the lights-and-noise London duo of Fae Harmer and Nathan Greywater. Not had the pleasure of Harmergeddon until now, but while live clips suggest their practice is developed with IRL experiences in mind, their fractious electronics relocate all fireworks to the ears, fusing with and melting into Hayward’s signature percussive approach.

‘Amoeba / Reverse’, kicking us off across nearly eleven minutes, is a shifting conglomerate of free jazz-derived click-clack beats, repurposed gizmo gurgle and eerie feedback sculpture. The horror electronics of ‘Grit / Salt’ eventually collapse into burbling abstraction, a bout of supremely itchy cymbal-and-snare work having heralded its downfall, and the briefish ‘Vertical’ (among others) could have emerged from that wormy world of British improv that thrived in university canteens and pub function rooms since the late 60s. What sounds like a violin – no such thing is listed in the credits – enlivens the Faust-ian ‘Helix’, while album closer ‘Spellbright’ gets the sound of an electric drill inserted into its middle, facilitating that classic ‘press pause to try and work out if the neighbours are doing DIY’ moment.

Although these live throwdowns were edited after the fact by Greywater, Hayward Versus Harmergeddon retains that crucial in-the-room/ in-the-zone feel: I can practically picture Charles’ unfeasibly chuffed ‘drumming face’ while I listen, making an already most enjoyable session still more so. Out on the same day (which seems to be a coincidence) is Crossfade Estate (Klanggallerie), recorded in 2005: Hayward assembled several guest musicians for 18 hours of genre-hopping fun, spent an inordinately long time digitally paring the results down to 55 minutes and then never released it. Until now!

Valentina Magaletti and Marlene Ribeiro’s respective charge sheets both include work with Charles Hayward, and both are rhythmites who can anchor an excursion while searching for space. Magaletti’s drumming turns in Tomaga, Vanishing Twin and Buttonhead have all been reviewed in past NWB columns; Ribeiro plays bass for Gnod and released two top tapes of tropical triptronics as Negra Branca a fair while back. Their first time working together came last year, at an artistic residency in Portugal (where Ribeiro is from) named Hysteria; Due Matte, a tape derived from those sessions, arrives on the Commando Vanessa label (from Italy, as is Magaletti).

The slithery hypnagogic dub peculiarity that results doesn’t come with a full credit list, so guesswork or imagination is required to figure the genesis of some sounds, but a photo of the duo sprawled among various drums, gongs, singing bowls, mixers and so forth feels like it captures a vibe. A (hand?) percussion motif locks in and is abetted by springy reverb and deep, questing woodwind; bells, or perhaps chimes, dance in and around their electronic imitators. Forbidding proto-industrial scrape gets partnered, almost comically, with the cheerful plinking of what I think is a marimba; vocals are sparse, but afforded clarity in the mix. Due Matte comes off as an impulsive dive into sound creation for enjoyment’s sake, and marks Magaletti and Ribeiro out as fine foils for one another, so I’d like to think that the Hysteria residency was merely the impetus rather than an essential backdrop.

Further adventures in obscurist sound sourcing come early on Reciprocate’s Yeah Well (Gringo): ‘Tascam’, which begins as a grisly spurt of cassette noise as per its title, and ends with 50 seconds of what appears to be Ian Botham’s autobiography. Neither half of this particular equation is representative of the rest of the record, whose position in the approximate nexus of blues, math-rock and indie is much stranger and more appealing than that brief description sounds. At least to me, who wrote it.

Two of Reciprocate’s three members, Stef Ketteringham and Henri Grimes, played in Shield Your Eyes, a London group who visited probably every sub-200 capacity venue in the UK without me ever seeing them; bassist Marion Andrau was in The Wharves, also a Gringo band of yore, and currently plays in Melting Hand. One of Yeah Well’s songs is titled ‘Marion Andrau’, which I find inexplicably funny, and is a mélange of boogie rock riffs, almost unnecessarily complex drumming and hoarse-voiced whooping that, in toto, reminds me a fair bit of Polvo. ‘Marble Arch’, which follows it, is closer to a midcard Britpop band imitating the wonkiness of Pavement – no I’m not thinking of Blur, if I was I’d have said – and not the sort of thing I’d have reviewed a whole album of, but an uptick in abrasion via the two-part title number, spiky prog followed by impressionistic solo guitar, is concluded with ‘Hold’, equal parts melancholy romance and tingly bent-metal riffs.

Dawdling until now before acknowledging the existence of Ashtray Navigations in these columns: highly remiss behaviour! Leeds’ Phil Todd, often in the company of fellow travellers, has been cranking out ltd. edt. treasure on home duplication-friendly formats since the early 90s, and his renown in this regard enjoys global reach. A quasi-retrospective compilation, featuring an LP of new stuff plus four CDRs of catalogue picks, is out around now and is (I’m told) getting reviewed in the main tQ albums section, so for now here’s the latest standalone AshNav joint, It Was The Start Of Another Strange Week (Memoirs Of An Aesthete). Most commonly operating as a duo with Melanie O’Dubhslaine these days, this finds Todd on his tod – presumably for lockdown-related reasons – and by his own fringe-bound standards has, at times, what you might call a pop sensibility.

Sputtering drum machine and on-a-budget Fourth World keys propel ‘Hold On Pixels’, while Todd’s guitar – often a bringer of feedbacking gnarl – is languid, almost gentle on ‘Cask Materia Bridge’. ‘Heavy Into Scenery’ is paranoid minimal synth and ‘The Expropriation’, where a dreamstate of leaden midrange drone is awakened by Sunday morning church bells and mounting anxiety, finally coaxes out Todd’s harsher tendencies, these then escalated during the punishing first minute of ‘Reverently Shutterland’. Another winsome keyboard melody claws back control here, though, with the help of plucked cello strings (semi-educated guess based on the instruments listed on the back cover), and an artificial wind blows us good for 38 seconds, titles itself ‘N-Tail’ and polishes off another fine Ashtray Navigations missive from a dude who wrote the book on musical self-suffiency.

Cash Only (Industrial Coast), a half-hour tape from London duo 1-800-ICEMAN, arrives wrapped in kitchen roll and placed inside a black card envelope secured with string. There are 50 copies, I can’t promise you’ll find one now, and you can hear side A at the link above but that’s your streamable lot at the time of writing. If this strikes you as rotten elitism, condolences, but quite frankly my enthusiasm for this raddled muddle of breakbeat science and ambient microbiology has outfought such concerns.

Although this is the first 1-800-ICEMAN release, the personnel behind the name use various others, Iceman Junglist Kru being the preeminent example. Henry Rodrick began his production career in his native Sweden, Luke J Murray is a DJ and ex-employee of the Warp and Finders Keepers labels: their authentic jungle bona fides appear scant, but they’ve bottled the messy essence of a rave in unconventional manner. Following the sampled invitation of an MC for anyone here for garage or funky house to go elsewhere, the trademark amens and hoovers begin in earnest – subject, though, to a truly discombobulating mix which replicates the experience of lurching between the main room, corridor and khazi while being pummelled by heavy air and bad medicine. Voices are timestretched horribly, or resemble a security request on a knackered walkie-talkie, while the source sounds decay to digidust before rising, zombified, as Remarc’s legendary ‘RIP’. That’s the first side. The flip is a beat-free, ambient thing that employs bassy rumbles and gong-like tones, building suspense with the craft of a club DJ, if a different sound palette. There’s no payoff in a pumpin’ dancefloor sense, but a fully worthwhile cassette to seek.

While the spectre of club culture may not be detectable on Leo Chadburn’s self-released The Subject / The Object, it too is a tape of two distinct halves: the first linguistically driven, the other wordless and unsettling. Chadburn has been making music (and sometimes writing about it, this website again included in that) for two decades or so: much of it in the field of modern composition, as well as a decade making arch pop as Simon Bookish. This new release feels fairly divorced from both those modes, although it continues his habit of titling releases with two rhyming words and a forward slash.

‘The Subject’ is a pensive-voiced reading of a single, epic sentence, its dizzying mix of naturalist imagery and magical realism equal parts Joycean and Biblical. There is actual music, but it’s deliberately low in the mix, murmuring like an extreme weather incident in the town across. ‘The Object’, like its predecessor exactly 20 minutes long, creates extended drones from stretched fragments of Chadburn’s singing voice and shares conceptual spirit with the Theatre Of Eternal Music crowd and other old-timey American minimalists. So that’s a for-all-practical-purposes a capella reading, and a piece with no (instrumental) music but no (fully formed) words either. Neato!

David McNamee’s third release as Cut A Lonely Figure was recorded on a Surbiton church’s organ, and uses that hypnotic pitch to considerable effect over 33 minutes. This is a particularly droney edition of this column, isn’t it – albeit one also featuring three certified demons behind a drumkit. McNamee has made music under a few names, as well as maintaining the Blue Tapes label (and – talking of recurring themes – being a Quietus contributor for a period), with CALF seemingly functioning as an outlet for his meditative, acoustic leanings. Sugimoto Seascapes, a tape on Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat Cuts label, is hardly the first recording to thread a conceptual needle between the ecclesiastical and experimental realms, but does so with poise and cavernous depth.

The chosen instrument, whose history and specifications are listed in exacting detail here, has its mesmeric potential amply harnessed, notes repeatedly held and isolated for 60 seconds or so. As per the credits, this piece (and it is a single piece, so you might prefer to listen to the MP3 to be honest) was composed rather than improvised, but McNamee makes incremental progression, veering off at oft-unpredictable angles. Again, the US ommmming old guard – Terry Riley, Charlemagne Palestine – are germane here, with Kali Malone’s The Sacrificial Code being a more contemporaneous ‘like that, try this’ go-to.

The lethargy intensifies! Forest Dwelling are a duo of James Watts and Chris Watson, whose collected trifles (Shrimp, Möbius, Lovely Wife and Snakes Don’t Belong In Alaska) have been covered by the NWB tent before. Based in Newcastle – he said, immediately spoiling the mystique of their name; it’s actually a portmanteau of their solo identities, Watts’ Dolmen Dweller and Watson’s Forest Mourning – this self-titled, two-track Bandcamp release was improvised at home back in late April, and its hour-plus evolution includes no trace of angry neighbours thumping the walls, or reason for them to.

The first piece is an intensely sparse meander comprised of singing bowls, chimes, throat-based drone vox akin to those Watts uses in Möbius, and the tone of the room itself. The second begins with the sound of a Bontempi organ being switched on, which is paired with harmonium and more esophageal vocalising to craft compellingly monolithic drone. Forest Dwelling appears to be a case of DIY servicing at its modern-day simplest – sit down, play, record, upload, announce – but the second part in particular hits the right notes (literally) with me like very little else this year, so I hope we get to hear more from this project soon.

Finally, New Weird Britain’s first foray into the world of dungeon synth! Or so Disgusting Cathedral would have us believe. Another lockdown-birthed baby, Mr Cathedral – real name Tim Drage, also trades as Isn’tses and Cementimental – notes that Adventurers Despised And Rejected, a self-released and currently digi-only album, was “recorded in the plague year,” referring to 2020 in case there ends up being more than one and future historians somehow read this.

If this gear is dungeon synth, which I feel is more of a ‘you’ll know it when you hear it’ kinda genre than one with fixed signifiers, it sits at its conceptual fringes, the opening track setting a stall out via glassy Casio and grisly post-Coil industrial ambience. Its title, ‘A Crystalline Cavern On The First Level Of The Barrow Of Arcane Secrets’, is – impressively – one of the least daft of the ten offered on Adventurers, which include some cod Middle English and a reference to The Fall. Keyboards sweep manfully ‘neath seething distortion, percussion rattles angrily as a pangolin locked in a wardrobe; if you told me that ‘Lord And Lady Stone Gnome Are To Expire’ (see?) was built around basement-psych guitar a la Ashtray Navigations (in fact), I’d believe you, although it isn’t. Two tracks are reworkings of something from a long-buried Cementimental release, composed by Luke Oram of grindcore band Atomçk say the credits, and as with Forest Dwelling, the present lack of a material item to clutch to my bubo’d torso is in no way diminishing my jollies.