New Weird Britain In Review For November By Noel Gardner

Your guide to the most weird, wonderful and diverse sounds from the UK underground returns, courtesy of Noel Gardner

Dwellings & Druss, by Ely Grey

One of the by-products of a life frittered away reading bad prose is a strongly held set of views on what constitutes bad prose. For example, few things make my teeth itch like someone or something being described as “award-winning” right out the gate, like it’s the most interesting detail conceivable. Even if most awards weren’t a racket, and crap, this behaviour would still be a cowed appeal to establishment authority over one’s own powers of descriptive persuasion. Cut it out!

Alex Paxton, I learned swiftly on being presented with his second album ilolli-pop (Nonclassical), is award-winning. An Ivor Novello! Albeit their less glitzy Composer Awards. Which, whatever their overall merits, don’t feature a prize for getting your song played on the radio the most. So all is well. As for London-based Midlander Paxton’s new album, it’s fantastically bananas free-jazz-orchestra maximalism that uses studio editing software to push itself into unmapped technicolour territory.

Paxton’s primary instrument, the trombone, is given the floor at the end of ilolli-pop with ‘Mouth Song, Take 1’, a scratchy and fragile-toned solo piece lasting nearly eleven minutes. It could hardly be less like the album’s first half, ‘ilolli-pop’ parts one to five, which are fantastical sound collages created from the playing of skilled performers, the Dreammusics Ensemble. Frazzled, fractionally intelligible voices bounce in and out of irate brass babel and woodwind that careens like a cartoon rollercoaster and gesticulates like an inflatable-armed Italian. John Zorn enlisted Paxton to write for his Arcana book series, and if Zorn had been alive in 1940 to soundtrack Fantasia, it might have been something like this.

Two further pieces for duos complete the album: ‘Sometimes Voices’ is Paxton on keyboards with percussionist James Larter, and its approach to collage veers away from the classical world towards mid-90s Boredoms. ‘Corn-Crack Dreams’ pairs Paxton (on trombone) with a different drummer, the Lithuanian Dominykas Snarskis, for 150 seconds of unfathomable glitching chaos – imagine a Rock In Opposition Ōtomo Yoshihide, if you will. A release with as unique a vision as you might hear anywhere.

Adam Parkinson’s first solo tape as Dane Law for a few years is decidedly minimalist, ingredient-wise, but again embraces digital technology to create sound art analogue humans could not. Blue Forty-Six, Blue Tapes’ latest sequentially titled release, is an unaccompanied acoustic guitar album, but don’t tune in expecting any particular instrumental virtuosity. Rather, Parkinson takes microscopic samples of his playing, at home in County Durham, and uses a patch to reassemble these into new compositions – sometimes layered, as if you’re hearing a few musicians at once, and sometimes single-tracked.

At their most obviously computer-cut, these pieces share commonality with Rian Treanor or Lorenzo Senni, minus any appeal to a clubbing context. Often, strings sound pitched up from what we might expect of a standard guitar, or drones will ease to and fro, like an electric organ perhaps. Primarily, there’s a distinct cleanness and clarity to Parkinson’s sound design, reflective of the Arctic landscapes he claims part-inspired this album. A new age sensibility is latent during Blue Forty-Six, and had the genre’s cassette-culture exponents of the 1980s been able to record with the high-budget artifice of Def Leppard’s Hysteria, no doubt many would have. Decades hence, Dane Law’s suite is one of beauty and depth.

More solo guitarrings with NAQI Vol.2 by Mansur Brown from Brixton, and no external sorcery this time. Brown has manoeuvred around London’s spiritual nu-jazz scene in the last five or six years, with sessioneer spots on records by Yussef Kamaal among others, but releases under his own name tend to spotlight his liquid, meditative guitar style, as well they might.

This four-track EP, released on Brown’s own AMAI label – if you want it on vinyl, it comes as one side of a 12-inch, with NAQI Vol.1 on the other – pretty much jettisons his prior inclinations towards dance music, be that organic or electronic. I say ‘pretty much’ on account of the ten-minute ‘Meikai’, which folds plangent jazz guitar into ambient keyboard ripples and female/feminised vocal manipulations, feeling kinda like a beatless remix of a hypothetical Hyperdub release from the late 00s. The three things preceding it are more introspective still, approximating a greatly reimagined blues on ‘Naqi’, improvised quasi-funk on ‘Path’ and, for ‘Touch’, glass-noodle folk I’d have believed was an early Windham Hill release if you’d told me so. This EP will be way too tasteful for a lot of people, I imagine, but massaged my temples generously.

Wyped Out is Joe Howe’s second cassette on the Acid Waxa label, and its daffy parallax-scrolling electronic pop is, for me, an overdue reacquaintance with his headspace. In the mid to late 00s he was 50 per cent of Gay Against You, whose tartrazine-high electropunk was mightily ‘of its time’ but needed to be witnessed live at least once. Later ventures, including an album with Momus as Sunbutler, escaped my lazy eye, but Glasgow-located Howe’s outsider funk has crawled into my brain.

Lo-fidelity and slo-evolving, Wyped Out’s eight tracks drip with bedroom DIY vibes: if Howe takes inspiration from club sonics at points, like the clanky breaks on ‘Vertical Slice’ and the electro synapse-fires throughout ‘Suzuki Banks’, these aren’t exactly soundsystem bangers. A flirtation with tech-glossiness comes courtesy of a collaboration with Ryota Miyake (also of Japanese postpunk band Flash Amazonas), who adds tuffer MIDI beats and sunburst digital strings to ‘Plug’, and when Howe puts his keyboard at the front of the arrangement a sort of curdled NES soundtrack air prevails.

With a few shows and one debut tape under their shiny belts of leather, Findom haven’t yet gone big on the old self-identification (I believe one of them plays in The Birthmarks from Manchester, though they’re otherwise a London band). Their Instagram account, too, features less concrete info about the members than cheesecake erotica photos from financial dominatrices who’ve tagged the page by mistake. Titling this EP Pay, Pig probably hasn’t helped, yet Findom’s postpunk snakiness makes for a more wholesome experience than that suggests, and their label Gob Nation demand a mere, dignity-preserving £5 for the privilege.

A lot happens during these six songs without ending up exhaustingly busy. Findom can ‘rock’ in the broad sense of the verb, gesturing towards both Scritti Politti and The Gun Club during these 14 minutes, but step outside the confines of ‘rock’ the noun, notably on the wavey, clarinet-led ‘Exhume The Line’. Their politics, as expressed on Pay, Pig, are evidently correct, if unsubtle: see ‘The Only Good Tory’ (“…is a dead one”), punk-funk a la early-80s Bristol, and austerity paean ‘The Living Standard’, whose lyrics are two Prime Ministers out of date at the time of writing.

Championing this champion cassette collab from Jake Healy & Alfie Grieve takes us back, momentarily, to the nu-Brit-jazz landscape: Grieve, a trumpeter, plays with some relevant Bristolian outfits including Ishmael Ensemble and Snazzback. Healy currently features in Sugar Horse, who are something like post-metal and very unlike Eggs In Purgatory (Liquid Library), 30 minutes or so of delicious strung-out plains drifter ambience.

With Healy using a digital sampler alongside Grieve’s customary horn, and both playing through a bunch of unspecified pedals, the result has the feel of a live recording to me, though I wouldn’t confidently call it one. The trumpet’s tones are more muted on Eggs…’ earlier tracks, peering through an undergrowth of isolationist hum on ‘Memz’ and rising near-imperceptibly over ‘Creatures’’ xylophonic percussion loop. The relatively brief mid-album piece ‘AlfieSolo’ is a catalyst for change, though, as Grieve sounds out in clearer, if more funereal, fashion on the blood-freezing ambient dub of ‘Carriages’ and is at his most recognisably jazz-styled on ‘Jigsaw’. The concluding ‘Carpenters’, with its trip-hoppable vocal sample throughout, is probably the most pleasant-sounding thing Liquid Library have ever released; Eggs In Purgatory as a whole is my favourite thing in this column, I think. Hiding its light under a bushel, my copy has hand-Biro’d titles on its handpainted sleeve and looks like a mixtape made for a beau in long gone times.

Support & Resistance, a tape of two sidelong tracks on Barcelona label Zona Watusa, is the first collaborative release by Dwellings & Druss since 2015’s Level 3. They are, respectively, Chris Haslam from Gnod and Paddy Shine from Gnod, so that band’s output is outwith that stat, obviously. In their solo modes and as a duo, Dwellings & Druss have often occupied techno headspace; this, too, is machine music, and there are beats, but things most commonly move mollusc-slow, with bleak, bleached-out synth tones.

‘Support’ deftly reinvents itself over 18 minutes, its paranoid drone intro built upon by abstract technoise dub, grinding loops, granular static and some kind of necromantical screams apparent in the mix. ‘Resistance’ starts off distorted and intemperate and doesn’t scale that back much, though a relative sense of order is conferred by a long stretch of shit-fi electro (think Frak or Tuning Circuits). Underpinning it all, again, is a substratum of rumbling drone; Haslam mixed this release himself, in the Hebden Bridge art space where he and Shine now live, and I have to imagine Support & Resistance would be a deadly weapon through a big rig.

Not so long ago, Vasilis Sakkos and Tasos Stamou were two of the Greek diaspora’s dopest dinmakers in London: Sakkos uttering oaths in Casual Nun, Stamou making wicked solo sound art and avant-rebetika in Aman!!!, both repeatedly dogged by my endorsement. When I interviewed the latter musician last year, he was about to move to Essex, where Sakkos – who returned to Greece at some point during lockdown – visited him this summer. The music made during which became their first collaborative venture, Sakostamu, and has emerged through the Brachliegen Tapes label as Break Down, a three-track cassette.

Recorded with basic analogue gear, the stated instrumentation leaves a little to listeners’ imagination: Sakkos is credited with “objects” while Stamou handles “strings”, presumably including the bouzouki or similar which arises five minutes into the 17 that makes up ‘Sweet Oblivion’. Although the pair credit the Break Down sessions as a powerful reckoning with their shared heritage, this part is the only obvious recourse to trad Greek sounds. What we get instead – looped sonic detritus spun into thick psychedelic chunter, vocals rendered unintelligible (if they were ever otherwise) and esoteric by an FX arsenal – suffices in spades. ‘By The Raised Hair Of The Flesh’ is particularly discombobulating: one minute you’re in a squawking, burbling tropical netherworld, the next a dank cavern of hornets with only a crudely tooted flute to guide you.

Caught a live set by Jorim Cassidy aka Birthmark about six months ago in Bristol, where he lives, and was impressed by the thudding syrup’n’gauze hip-hop inertia of his music; likewise his stage presence, hard stares through heavy lids, and the steadfast refusal to offer no fucker party vibes at post-pub time on a weekend. A fair few songs performed there also feature on Lamentations (Cold Light), his debut solo EP following some scattered collaborative things, and it functions ably as a window into the Birthmark soundworld and worldview.

“Catch me out the front – I’ll be sipping rum and swaying with my eyes closed,” Cassidy suggests on Lamentations’ opener ‘Thorns On A Rose’, its resonant dub techno chords stemming from guest producer Eusebeia. “I’ve got yellow, green and black on my Union Jack,” he mutters, on the should-be anthemic ‘Black Sheep’, a mulling of his own imprecise racial identity. “Jamaicans call me white, English call me black / But I’m a fucking human and I couldn’t give a toss.” Located somewhere in the sprawl of Bristol’s Young Echo crew, Birthmark offers his own spin on that already spun-out sound – pitched-down soul, crackly ambience, emo rap if that wasn’t an invariably embarrassing concept. I hope it’s not boxing him in overly to say he’s the closest that extended scene has come to a latter-day Tricky.

Finally, a debut release by someone who’s been DJing, he says, for north of 30 years and whose varied credentials include founding and programming the Block9 sector of Glastonbury Festival. Is Glastonbury germane to a column about British underground music or is it in fact “commercial now” and “for the elite”? I would rather do almost anything than debate this – including listening to Ritmo, four raw house wreckers released on 12-inch on producer Gideön’s Homo-Centric label.

As per its name, Homo-Centric exists to uplift the queer ethos that’s been in house’s DNA since year zero, but which swathes of the genre’s listener base are scarcely exposed to. Titling Ritmo’s opener ‘Aaron Carl Lives On’, in honour of the late great Detroitian, helps to back this up, as does its volley of vocal cutups and 90s techno melodies. ‘Ritmo’ the track is ‘French Kiss’ meets Bam Bam – horny lady, android acid – and ‘It Does Not Burn’ plumps for more attitude in its vocal sample, twinkling keys and clapping hi-hats roiling below. ‘Over Back Then’ closes out with tweaked soul-singer pipes on a shuffling deep house bedframe that would have blissed out any decent club in the last 30 years, if not more.

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