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New Weird Britain In Review For June By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , June 21st, 2021 07:13

Noel Gardner marks the middle of the year with a solstice selection of wyrd music from the UK DIY underground. Main photograph: Ahrkh

Thinking back, naturally with unbridled nostalgia, to early summer 2020, my clumsy efforts to acknowledge the moment in this column comprised some loose chat about recording while locked down. Seemed for a minute like it could be a sound-altering situation in a wide and lasting sense – but was it? Not convinced.

Strict limits on the ability to congregate in studios certainly reduced the numbers of loud ensemble recordings being created, but if anything this probably just ensured more of them coming down the pipe. Then you’ve got your solo types who can record most of their business at home anyway: a lot of what I feature in here seems to fall into that category. Did you make a “LOCKDOWN ALBUM” or just blunder ahead like the hermetic herbert you are?

Alex Macarte says that Bliss Waves (From The Heart Realm) (ZamZam), his latest release as Ahrkh, was recorded in April and May of last year but is not a lockdown album. Wise move: the music on it, three instrumental pieces in just under 50 minutes, evokes open spaces and infinite realms and the unravelling of restrictions.

It’s perhaps less sinister, more beatific, than his other releases in this guise – a Salford resident best known as a member of Gnod, Ahrkh is where Macarte’s pursuit of meditative sound therapies such as gong baths most evidently informs his compositions.

Initially, he continues on the LP’s Bandcamp page, last spring’s unplanned downtime became an excuse to make less music, rather than more, until the loan of a cool new synth (if he wanted us to know its name I daresay he’d have told us) led to what you now hear. Bright melodies, swooping and cresting like Terry Riley or subsequent proto-new agers, are distantly clean but subtly scuffed on quarter-hour album opener ‘Bliss Waves’. Its A-side companion ‘Haze Cascade’ layers up a multiplicity of glassy keyboard patterns, decidedly busier than most Ahrkh pieces and taking me back to the late-00s golden run of Cleveland trio Emeralds.

Finally – running to over 23 minutes, droning astrally while also creaking and clanking organically – ‘Oceanic Boundlessness’ gets a little deeper and chestier, back towards the tonespace of his previous, self-released Beams From A Spiritual Panorama tape. These depths are delicious!

The debut album by Urwelt is a real pan-scourer, but short of diving in virginally blind you can’t say you weren’t warned. Urwelt feature Anthony Di Franco, a rusty wheel of UK noise with stints in the (later, rockier) incarnation of Ramleh among much other grot – I reviewed his excellent Nganga solo LP as JFK in a 2017 edition of this column – and Kevin Laska, an undersung branch on the Brummie industrial tree most recently employed as Godflesh’s soundman. The duo have actually recorded an album before, two decades ago as Novatron, but Urwelt’s Distant Galaxies Collide (Sleeping Giant Glossolalia) can be taken as a clean slate, in that it sounds like it’s been excavated from the side of a quarry.

There’s guitar and bass on this, played by Laska and Di Franco respectively, but your ears’d be forgiven for failing to isolate it amidst much of the roiling electronic scorch. Urwelt talk of inspirations from beyond Earth, tying these droning, throbbing entities to hypothetical concepts of star systems being born, and you can grok a spacerock vibe from LP opener ‘Pure Celestial Eyes’. This and the concluding title track, an oppressive fuzz-thugger that ultimately retracts its talons, sit either side of two shorter pieces, the punishing ‘Zephyria Thorus’ and borderline drone doomer ‘Ancestral Gaze’, amounting to 41 heroically draining minutes.

Bristolian label and New Weird Britain fixtures Avon Terror Corps hoy us a curveball with the release of Ecclesiastes, the debut album by Sophrosyne: industrial metal which, like the last review item, can be traced back to Godflesh but goes in a very different direction. Sporting high BPMs, devilishly processed vox and chestburstingly pompous synth sections, Sophrosyne is on something like a blackened cybergoth tip here – Mysticum meets Combichrist, mebbe, if that gives you an idea of what clumpy boots/mesh shirt fodder we’re fielding.

There’s a solid streak of EBM in cuts like ‘No Man Of God’, and an approach to drum programming that indicates a taste for still-weirder electronic boltholes. (The older Sophrosyne EPs on the Bandcamp hyperlinked above, are mostly instrumental and with less obvious metal influence, back this up.) “Written and recorded during the apocalypse of 2020” according to the liner notes, no-one’s currently identifying who Sophrosyne is, least of all the artist themselves, but I for one think Ecclesiastes’ ten songs would sound choice if banged out live in the attic of Bristol metal pub the Gryphon sometime before the next apocalypse.

When I reviewed a collaborative LP by Anta and Antoni Maiovvi two months ago, I recalled – briefly in writing, longer in my head – the early-to-mid-00s Bristol scene in which each party has roots. This is also germane to Vol. 1: Timbers, the debut album by The Flag Fen Project. Its two founding members, Adam Burrows and Keith Hall, both played in a group named Big Joan, who combined a sort of postpunky torchsong vibe with industrial percussion and a taste for the dub and jungle Bristol has produced in, well, industrial quantities. Such remains evident in Flag Fen, who enlist several guests over Timbers’ ten songs, although I’m familiar with few (Steve James, who played with Antoni Maiovvi in Geisha, is an exception).

Claiming the running theme of a “fugitive archaeologist”, it’s an eclectic crop of songs, though with psychedelia and folk as a consistent backbone even when breakbeats take over. A semi-acoustic two-parter, ‘The Dig’, borders neofolk in its twiggy sternness, while eight-minute album closer ‘The Burning Of Flag Fen’ is a Can-meets-Uzeda noisy melter with funky drums: Hall, a fine trapsman, brings a comparable groove to ‘A&E’ and ‘Cuckoo Spit’. I do find the second half of the album to be palpably stronger, which is to say that earlier, electro-rockier cuts ‘Shipden Bells’ (featuring James on Mark E Smith-y vox) and ‘Gather’ don’t quite do it for me, but overall Flag Fen teem with ideas and plenty are good. Their next release is likely to include a vocal spot recorded for them by Michael O’Neill, to boot.

I’ve written about the ever-great violinist and folklore vessel Laura Cannell here before, but the monthly EP releases on her Brawl label are equally-weighted collaborations with cellist Kate Ellis, so I’m calling it a brand new thing for the purpose of more verbiage. Ellis is actually Irish, having played in groups including Fovea Hex and Crash Ensemble; these recordings, which continue themes coined by both musicians and others on 2020 album These Feral Lands, cite the inspiration of locations in Suffolk and Essex, and myriad flora including the wild garlic growing in Ellis’ Dublin garden come spring. Released at the end of each month, so we’re up to May as I write: I’ll review the two latest EPs for reasons of brevity, and because the earlier ones are sold out on CD.

‘Gold Edges’, first of four numbers on April Sounds, finds Cannell in discordant, almost rocking mood. She adds some vocals, put through a filter to make the result seem like sleep murmuring, to ‘Where Wild Garlic Flowers Grow’, which goes bigger on both sustain and restrain. ‘Hollow Shields’ is a flurry of freeform plucking, dually improvised down phone lines by both parties if I’m reading this right, and ‘These Are The Birds That Return’ brings back the church-of-shoegaze vox. May Sounds features Cannell’s most self-evidently personal recording to date in ‘We Took Short Journeys’, featuring spoken lyrics about the recent death of someone close. ‘Earth Day’ evokes both early music and 1960s minimalism, while the two-part ‘Not Forgotten’ is where Ellis’ layered cellos shine most mournfully.

Rebecca Lee’s second release as Bredbeddle follows a 2017 tape on Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat Cuts, and what some might deem an extended absence has yielded over two hours of sound. Steps On The Turning Year is presented by label Bezirk as a double cassette; sonically, you could compare stretches of it to the previous item in this edition of NWB, familiar string instrument tones and folk music tropes respectfully taken apart. The major difference, though, is that Notts-based sound artist Lee has created these four lengthy pieces from pre-existing recordings.

Loops, layers and glitches coagulate into a dissociative ambient collage: sometimes, there’s enough acoustic clarity that you could believe it was in fact an ensemble performance (the fluttering woodwind of ‘Singing Knives’’ opening section), while elsewhere Lee works with unpolished chunks of distressed vinyl and a John Cage-ian zeal for studious crudity (the unnamed folk warbler of ‘Singing Knives’’ closing section). Sometimes the methodology can end up sounding like a locked groove you forgot was a locked groove, as on the midsection of ‘Bredbeddle Ballet’, but that comes with the territory, and contributes to a richly unpredictable epic.

Future-ish rave producer Morwell doesn’t appear to trumpet his ties to any regional scene, as many comparable peers might. Neither seeming a ferocious self-publicist (all his promo photos in fact depict a fibreglass bear head), it seems Max Morwell originates from Croatia, built a nest in London and recently moved to “the wild”, according to his YouTube profile, or northeastern England according to the press material for Souls, his self-released debut album. Kode9 is a longstanding advocate of his, Loraine James a more recent one via remix swapsies, and added to the eleven original tracks on Souls are three bonus rerubs including one by footwork nobility DJ Manny.

Morwell’s production tics are idiosyncratic, if not revelatory: take something like ‘Channels’, bringing steppy bassweight and airy jungle breaks but dropping in these fractional, too-short-to-categorise samples, distant voices which could be field recordings and a general sense of disorientation. ‘Delirium’ is an energy shot of IDM/vaporwave-adjacent cut-up vox, equally wistful and buoyant; ‘Disintegration’ a garbled reading of DMX Krew-style computer funk and ‘Biosonics’ unleashing a vocodered lullaby upon us. Plenty of heaters inside Souls, so hopefully it being difficult to pigeonhole will stand in its favour.

From and indeed still in London, J-Shadow is another one who holds back the details I crave, like his real name: Jason something, I believe, but probably not Shadow. He has a new six-strong 12-inch on Sneaker Social Club, and serious drum punishment lurks within if you fancy some mathematically precise darkside grime. His last vinyl release, last year’s The Astral Series, bordered on breakcore at points, but this followup is more screwfacey – which can of course be bags o’fun.

Still, there are layers, like an onion, and things can get emotional, like an onion – or the aqueous jazz-junglist synths that wash into ‘Atlantis’, or the droney keys tucked away at the end of ‘Diffraction’. Video game power-up sounds, misty r&b diva samples and syncopated reloading rifles are the order of the day elsewhere; I’m moved to consider moody grime instrumentalists like Etch, the sort of Detroit-inspired jungle you find on the UVB-76 label and classic-era techstep geezers.

This half-hour acid shower by The Doubtful Guest is part of what Industrial Coast, the label releasing it, call their Archival Series, so I have no idea how ‘new’ I should consider this stuff. It’s titled Acid Mixers Of BF2019, so… fairly? Maybe? What I can say is that it’s an outrageously hard sesh that betrays the Guest herself Libby Floyd’s migratory movements. Born, musically speaking, in the raves of Illinois, she’s a longterm Londoner who released a pretty much goddesslike album, Acid Sauna, on Planet Mu in 2008 and then more or less vanished for a decade. This new tape bears much more resemblance to that album than to the last Doubtful Guest release, 2018’s relatively chilled 12-inch Voyage To Blacklantis, in that it goes fully bananas on the Roland and swirls everything in a sea of distortion. Sounds like it’s being banged out live, with no formal beginning or end other than what the physicalities of cassettes demand, and if you concentrate gurn-hard you could be at either a 90s Drop Bass Network rave in the American Midwest or a squat party in London Acid City circa the same era.

The release of Leven SignsHemp Is Here on Belgian label Futura Resistenza is maybe the third time this 1984 LP has been plucked from obscurity, and with only 150 copies of this pressing reputedly on offer, don’t bet against it happening again in the future. It really is something special, though, as the late lamented Mutant Sounds blog and the similarly defunct Digitalis Records previously averred.

Leven Signs, aka Pete Karkut and Maggie Turner, recorded this album in a shithole London flat with hardly any equipment or recourse to supportive scenes. They would in time locate peers of sorts: Hemp was released on Cordelia, a label servicing the whims of transatlantic mid-80s wackos including R Stevie Moore and the mindfrying Rimarimba. Here, they slither through pastures of sampladelic DIY dub, electro-folk and ethno-dance without it ever being obvious who they were listening to. I get flashes of Muslimgauze, Normil Hawaiians, Young Marble Giants and Psychic TV at various points during this album, but that honestly doesn’t get us that close to the nub. It was the last Leven Signs release to date (although there’s several more recent bits and pieces on Soundcloud), but in a world saturated with goons telling you that all manner of inexplicable musical one-offs are special… this one actually is.