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New Weird Britain

New Weird Britain In Review For March By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , March 16th, 2022 15:29

Noel Gardner's guide to the best of New Weird Britain returns, with extraordinary bursts of melody from Margate-via-Maine, the Bristolian blurring lines between techno and noise, fizzy meteorites of party-smashing illbience and more

Mike Cooper by M Galante

The latest release by a fellow from Maine, titled What Does It Mean To Be American? and inspired by his internal quest for the answer, is how I wish to open this cusp-of-spring New Weird Britain column, and not just for contrary reasons either, although maybe a little. Robert Stillman lives in Margate, has been settled in England since the early 2010s, and while quietly operating outside commercial constraints creates rather extraordinary things.

WDIMTBA? (Kit/Orindal) comprises six instrumental pieces and an opening song, ‘Cherry Ocean’, sung with a distracted quaver by Stillman over slothful piano and opiated clarinet. It reminds me of ‘We Dance’ by Pavement and is arguably one of the more structurally conventional parts of this album, even while Stillman (who played and produced nearly everything here) tickles the belly of his birth nation’s 20th century popular canon.

‘It’s All Is’ and ‘Self Image’ are cheerful jazz pieces with, respectively, a big band lollop – like someone trying to emulate Van Dyke Parks based on memories of a decade-gone listen – and a smearily ersatz electronic sheen. ‘Acceptance Blues’ pits a nervy piano rag against an undercurrent of decaying found noise, the latter element effectively triumphing. The pure-hearted tenor sax early on the title track is a false signpost, its tumbledown free drums more representative; the changeover between this and the following ‘Deep Time, U.S.A.’, a 70s loft jazz-alike with its flurried stabs of woodwind and shaken percussion, isn’t fully obvious if you’re not clockwatching. To close, and in evocatively dusty fashion, ‘No Good Old Days’ features American Primitive-esque guitar by Anders Holst amidst Stillman’s multidirectional bursts of melody.

A culmination of several years of recording and editing, says Stillman, WDIMTBA? is only 35 minutes long but feels far greater in scope. It will not dictate the definition of Americanism to you, being largely lyric-free, but excavates parts of its greatest musical legacies to remake them in the image of one of its progeny. I suspect this’ll remain one of my raves of 2022.

Due to become an octogenarian later this year, Mike Cooper might just be the oldest swinger in New Weird Britain to date – which I note in unambiguously admiring terms. His career trajectory is something else: a child (teenager, specifically) of the early 60s British blues boom down in Reading, an interest in improvised music grew until, by the late 70s, it was his primary beat. Latterly, he’s fused his own playing with processed field recordings and travelled extensively with a long-term home in Rome. Cooper’s latest physical release, Oceans Of Milk And Treacle (Room40), is a loosely conceptual thing of unvarnished beauty whose title is a nod to the imagery in Hindu scripture – and colonialism’s mirthless zeal to quash its flights of fancy.

The list of countries in which Cooper captured sound for it imply subtropical temperatures and an island mentality, though his assembled guest musicians are all Brits, many improv-scene survivors like he. It’s an audacious stramash of tones and notions that references innumerable styles and idioms without any of its nine tracks being possible to boil down to any one genre, and remains whirling and energetic even when its arrangements emerge in low-key form.

Beyond the ‘fourth world’ mindset and too singular to be credibly accused of ethnocentric imitation, Cooper shares ground with folks like Spencer Clark and Sun City Girls – heads who pay respect to their favourite chanced-upon non-Western music by disassembling it. Still, he occupies a niche of his own in today’s underground, and seems to venture further out with age.

With Natasha Barrett, again we address an English sound artist permanently resident overseas: in her case, she studied in Birmingham but since the 2000s has lived in Oslo and honed her ambisonic craft. Latest album Heterotopia (Persistence Of Sound) features three compositions brought to us with the aid of yummy Norse art grant money.

The title piece, spanning 24 minutes and all of side one, springs from Barrett’s own personal evolution of listening, where she came to process sound as the product of spaces, as opposed to living beings. (Heterotopia is a Foucaultian concept relating to how people view and interact with spaces in society.) Its dissonant passages sometimes appear largely unaltered from their original source, on other occasions given extensive electroacoustic treatment. You might hear flora and fauna, aqueous gurgles, the tone of an especially resonant room… the recording tech is likely far in excess of most people’s home entertainment setups, although headphones certainly seem a smart move. For side two’s ‘Urban Melt In Park Palais Meran’, we get some rhythmically deft percussive work – recordings of a table tennis game, to be exact; anyone remember Kit Clayton and Safety Scissors’ Ping Pong? – melded with Foley effect ambience, followed by almost industrial bouts of alternating dread and squall on the closing ‘Growth’.

The Circle Of Days 5 is the latest addition to an intermittently topped-up series of releases by Andrew Chalk, purveyor of solemnly romantic DIY ambience since the 1990s. (His – more abrasive – origins predate this, in the industrial/noise axis whose orbit included Nurse With Wound and the New Blockaders among others.) Released on cassette via his own Faraway Press label, Circle 5 doesn’t, in its full wordlessness, reveal its conceptual link, or lack of, to other Chalk material, but the listener may find their own depth and poetics in these incremental swells of melody and dustings of distortion.

One number, ‘The Perfumed Light’, adds piano and snare from Tom James Scott and Timo van Luijk – a sort-of regrouping of Elodie, another Chalk project which features all three musicians. Elsewhere, synth pieces unfurl woozily, bright tones floating above moodier undercurrents and invariably with a church organ-type inexactness: sometimes it drones palpably (‘Ebb And Flow’), sometimes not (‘A Christmas Lullaby’ – titles tend to be as Windham Hill winsome as the cute polar bear drawing on the cover). Ideal bedtime drift-off fare, Circle 5 nevertheless conceals shivers in its delicacies.

Gary Mundy, trading here as Kleistwahr, also has his roots in the night soil of 1980s British noise – indeed, as the main figure to thank/blame for Ramleh and the Broken Flag label, it’s stuck to him (or vice versa) more definitively. In The Guts Of A Year (Fourth Dimension) is the 13th Kleistwahr album, and a typically full-on one, although possessing a strafing beauty of sorts.

The main sonic driver is an organ, with which Mundy whips up a variety of creepy commotions: ferally creaking throughout ‘For The Fallow Years’, overdriven to madness within ‘Fatigue States’, a blurred whirr ascending skywards on ‘Despite It All, We Still Rejoice’. The latter of those I could imagine being dug by fans of, say, A Silver Mt Zion; Kleistwahr doesn’t exactly ‘rock’, accessibly or otherwise, but there are riffs embedded in ITGOAY’s substrata, occasions of billowing crescendo, gonzo psych churn… As for me, I’ve enjoyed some latterday Ramleh releases, and other auxiliary projects like Anthony Di Franco’s JFK, but am pleasantly knocked out by the level of ENERGY coming from this one. Majorly recommended!

The Bristol-dwellin’ Kelan, who outside this album is generally referred to with his first name Max – and who I’ve previously reviewed as part of tekno noizers Bad Tracking and Anglo-Irish duo Salac – has his debut solo album Downtown out on the Bristol NormCore label. Like the recent Bad Tracking LP, this one has plenty of Kelan’s poetry gracing its seven cuts, and musically speaking is neither noise or techno, exactly – although sludgy midsection moment ‘Nodder’ and album closer ‘Pieces’ make with the sort of abrasive programming Kelan clearly digs.

Elsewhere, his rhythms are funkier, opening with precise, springy kicks on ‘Unpaid World’, deviating to a digital voodoo hoedown for ‘Cracked Reflection’ (on both this and the preceding ‘The Rag’, Kelan repeatedly sounds like he’s trying to hock a loogie in between lines). There are most particular – electronically treated, certainly – takes on wraparound shades rockabilly, ‘Factory Of Sins’ having similarly silly sass to that Leather Rats EP that emerged last year, and bootboy snotpunk in the form of ‘Towers Of Future Guilt’. “Oi! you! fuck off!” is the chorus in full, and bearing in mind Kelan isn’t really a ‘chorus guy’ on his releases he’s saved a doozy for us here.

A lotta old heads in this month’s waffle, and that’s fine, but in Soreab here’s a name new to me – maybe not to you, though, as his Perspectives EP (Accidental Meetings) comes after a few other twelves and comp cuts. From Tuscany and relocated to London, Soreab (Dario Picchi) goes straight on my hitlist with 16 minutes of frosty dubstep pressure, grime-y brockouts, drum-forward meditate-or-party? belters and broadcasts from a doomed icebreaker ship. So much sound design to talk up here!

The bassline on ‘The Sphere’ and the drums on ‘Maranza Percussion Ensemble’ each achieve that Raime thing where you can hear it as post punk or dub techno depending on your preferences – though why not both? – and ‘Done Everything’ is the sole MC feature of these four tracks. Logan is less ballistic than on a comparable recent turn of his, The Bug’s ‘Clash’, but equally prickly and chest-forward. Gleaming club steel right here – plus, the label are selling a 12-inch with full sleeve art for £8.99, which must make for some asphyxiating margins in this day and age.

The debut release by Emile Bojesen as F.eks is available as a 10-inch lathe cut record, naturally very limited but still purchasable at the time of writing for £12 from label Beat Concern. I’ve never quite established if lathe cuts really have an RRP but that definitely seems below the average. The two plated-up tracks are expanded to four on the digital version, making for a 24-minute EP of dreamy analogue techno jamming.

‘Failing To Restrict Your Mind’ starts us off with aplomb, and ladles of clappy hi-hats joined now and then by creepy background voices. About halfway in, it changes tack and introduces what could be a pep rally broadcast on a broken shortwave radio. Are we to assume that ‘Affirmations’ and ‘Negations’ have some sort of sibling status, or did Bojesen just have grammar principles on the brain when picking titles? The first is more breaks-y and bassline-driven, the second more spinout-worthy in its percussive gambits, so… inconclusive. That leaves ‘Return Me To The Night’, a suavely slow drawler with gothy electro rhythms and squealing synths. A strong introduction, moreover a thing I like, the migration of a musician from my other tQ column into this one: Bojesen was a vocalist in hardcore and noiserock bands (one, the shortlived The Good Wife, I reviewed way back in 2010) before ‘going electronic’.

The debut release by Soft-Bodied Humans x Swordman Kitala isn’t available on lathe or anything other than humble digital, but I certainly rate it enough to grant a rare pass into the column. Also, Swordman Kitala – aka Frank Amanya – is a Ugandan who may well have never been anywhere near Britain. Not a problem! It cheers my bones that he’s hopped on these four fizzy meteorites of party-smashing illbience at the request of David McNamee, a producer entering these realms for the first time. As Cut A Lonely Figure, he’s featured in NWB before, but his ability with mesmeric minimalism is far removed from what’s going on here as Soft-Bodied Humans.

McNamee clearly loves fuck-the-club up mid-00s grime riffs and late-00s dubstep kickdrums that gobble up all the air in the room. Then there’s the screeching brakes throughout ‘Ookondoru’, the distressed animal on ‘Core-Braver’ and the bizarre 1950s children’s folk song on ‘Bagan’ (disclaimer: my descriptions may not relate to the actual sound sources). As for Kitala, he’s one of a crop of great Ugandan rappers loosely or firmly linked to the Nyege Nyege scene, and with the magic of post-production enters into a call-and-response with himself across this EP, most engagingly on closing track ‘Giringa’.

Another hectic if overall very different face-off to finish off, with the highly welcome return of Betwixt & Between Tapes to this column. Maintaining the common factor of all its releases, the banjo experimentation of founder Jacken Elswyth, the eighth in the B&B series sees two acts debuting on the label. Sullow are a trio of Elswyth, Joshua Barfoot and Daniel Evans, all of whom play in Shovel Dance Collective; The Silver Field is the alias of Coral Rose Kindred-Boothby, who has a couple of LPs of avant-folk wonk to her extensive name already.

With ‘The Day Will Come’, Sullow fair tear out of the blocks, Barfoot spraying percussive wildfire a la Chris Corsano and the two stringspeople electing to saw, gnaw and pluck on their own respective tips – this music is free (as in improv) but each player reacts to the others’ wanderings with a sensitive ear. More Sullow soon please! Of the four Silver Field numbers, ‘Goddess/Doglegs’ is the smash: psych-folk vox, snake-thick drone undulation and crude string work that settles into a hypno-boogie pattern fans of 75 Dollar Bill should devour. Heady stuff all the way, though, and simultaneously a sharp turn and perfect fit for Betwixt & Between.