A Dispatch From The Outer Reaches: Ramleh, Fursaxa & More

In her second Rum Music column, Frances Morgan discusses new music from Ramleh, Fursaxa, Mamuthones, Jonas Reinhardt, Yannis Kyriakides and Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides

One of the few bad things about the demise of two of London’s free commuter newspapers last year was that the Evening Standard, a Tory monstrosity previously available for 20p, decided to drop its cover charge and drip-feed the tired-eyed with fear, loathing, Brian Sewell and expensive property gratis. Just the other week, I was informed by its Fashion, Style and Sex section that spring 2010’s key look was psychedelia – for lo, “the windows of American Apparel heave with neon T-shirts and trippy prints” – with an accompanying soundtrack of ‘Homo Erectus’ by Orange Sunshine… okay, I made that up, of the “heady synth” of Australian duo Empire of the Sun and their Brooklyn counterparts MGMT. Of course, the writer, one Candida Balfour, is just doing her job: grabbing some current memes with one hand and some press releases with the other and speaking to a guy from Q for some backup. (“Kasabian’s current album is riddled with psychedelic influences,” he assures her, “and there are whole swathes of US alternative music rooted in it.”) Perhaps she has a point, and we do all need to tune into some alternate realities; certainly a world in which Urban Outfitters and fuzzy-faced chumps with Microkorgs are proclaimed, by a lady named after yeast, to be flinging open of the doors of perception is a world worth escaping.

Pitching me deep into the recesses of my own imagination, pretty much to the exclusion of all else lately, has been Ramleh’s latest, Valediction, released by Second Layer a few months ago – an album that has the mind-rinsing, enveloping quality of the best psychedelic music. Ramleh’s sonic universe is often at once both remote and oddly personal, sometimes searingly moving, especially in the current duo lineup of Gary Mundy and Anthony Di Franco’s electronics-based work. The band’s sporadic evolution, from their first power electronics incarnation in the early 1980s through a brutal, abject strand of dark psychedelic rock in the 90s, has not been a simple one, and their recent reappearance live and on record has, sonically at least, not been tinged with nostalgia or repetition of the past: the theatricality and aggressiveness of the scene that birthed them was never much in evidence, and now seems stripped back to a point where the sound stands alone, carrying its own mystery.

For me, Valediction really takes off about three tracks in, as a surging wave of white noise carries along with it echoed, atonal vocals and a high, keening electronic signal. The album’s suppressed energy comes to the fore in the following tracks, as howls of high-end ring urgently around the mix, the vocals take on a cawing, cavernous quality, everything swoops, shivers, shakes, and underpinning it all is a rolling rumble that culminates in a burst of distortion, repeated unrelentingly like a battering ram. A high, ring-modulated tone flutters out an almost-melody, a lone, strange voice in the chaos, like an inverse, alien relative of the woozy, piping synth sounds that crop up on current releases by the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never, and, oddly, also reminiscent of the distorted mbiras of Konono No 1. The more recognisably song-based track, ‘VI’ – a brutal 4/4 thud with a two-note bassline and spat-out vocals – sits oddly at first, but serves to complete the picture, adding in a human element that is in any case soon strafed by distortion and feedback. The alienated/alienating aspects of noise can fossilise into cliché, or be over-refined to a point where they no longer connect with the listener: almost 30 years after their first recordings, Ramleh work with those aspects in a way that is essentially communicative, each burst of sound an attempt to describe the indescribable.

There hasn’t been a noise release that quite matches up to Valediction this month, but some pretty far-out records have come this way nonetheless. I’m warming (in a sort of eldritch and clammy way) to Mamuthones’;Sator (Boring Machines), the solo project of Alessio Gastaldello from inexplicably popular Italian hippies Jennifer Gentle, which is soundtrack-like not only in its spooky timbres and incantatory vocals but also in the sense that some narrative is driving the action – which ranges from mutters, whispers, angular electric piano and scattershot drums into a loose, blustering motorik about five tracks in. The only real misfire is the final, gong-heavy track, which ticks too many creepy ‘dark ambient’ boxes to be fully immersive listening: seeing as the project is named for the hulking, black-masked carnival figures who dance through Sardinian streets with cowbells slung round their necks, some more clanking wyrdness wouldn’t have gone amiss. You’ll be more freaked out watching real mamuthones on Youtube.

Almost completely opposite in tone is the self-titled Bird Show Band album, on Amish Records, a typically light-filled, lively recording from Chicagoan multi-instrumentalist Ben Vida, formerly of Town & Country, then solo project Bird Show, and now at the helm of a five-piece band combining synths, acoustic bass and drums. Bird Show’s releases on Kranky are odd things, meandering from insectoid, acoustic noise freneticism to DIY minimalist composition and sap-sweet Animal Collective harmonies, but I would recommend them, and think Vida is something of an overlooked talent. This new one is a blast: it’s playful in an almost daemonic way, playful the way only analogue synthesisers can be, and reminds me of the analytical fun that characterised Matmos’s synth odyssey Supreme Balloon a few years ago. The group assembled by Vida – including Tortoise percussionists Dan Bitney and John Herndon – is muscular and flexible – no one really holds back, but there’s an assuredness that allows for restraint when required. Vida’s strong sense of melody shines through on his Moog playing, but it’s also a gorgeously, gleefully textured album, reminiscent of the ARP-embellished jazz of Herbie Hancock, circa Sextant and Crossings.

Tara Burke’s singing, playing and recording seems to become smoother with every Fursaxa album, which hasn’t always worked for me: I enjoyed the precarious quality of earlier recordings like Mandrake and Lepidoptera, their homemade, dissonant, underwater feel somewhat like a warped cassette of plain-chant heard on home-soldered headphones amid the rustle and chatter of a woodland; ancient music caught in the synthetic fibres of today. Mycorrhizae Realm (ATP Recordings) sees Burke’s voice framed by the production and playing of Espers’ Greg Weeks and Helena Espvall, and harpist Mary Lattimore, who are the kind of musicians skilled enough not to set their stamp too fully on others’ work. There’s a more ‘composed’ feel and less reliance on loops – again, not necessarily a plus, Burke’s singleminded way with repetition and looping is, like labelmate Alexander Tucker’s, very effective – which gives greater freedom to develop melodies and song structures, and tracks like ‘Sunhead Bowed’ and ‘Poplar Moon’ seem fresh and filled with wonder at what a song can be. 2007’s The Valerie Project, an alternative soundtrack to Czech New Wave film Valerie And Her Week of Wonders put together by Espers and musicians including Burke and Lattimore, is the most obvious precursor to this, with its hushed, modal tunes and slightly sinister delicacy.

Back on the synths, a new Kranky release from Jonas Reinhardt, Powers Of Audition, heads off on similar cosmic superhighways to some of Ben Vida’s Moog excursions, but is a less organic-sounding brew of straight-to-the-moon Space Music ™, and is highly enjoyable, as was his self-titled album of last year. However, where that one was sweetly tentative in places, with the warmth and sensitivity of Sowiesoso-era Cluster, Powers Of Audition comes with a dose of Goblin-style bravado and, in the stonking opening track, a lengthy guitar solo, big drum fills and triumphalist lead melody that is suited to the dancefloor, not contemplative listening, as is the cute motorik disco of the title track. More subdued, haunted numbers like ‘Near A Mirrored Pit Viper’ show Reinhardt to be one of the more versatile of the current ‘cosmic’ crew, but there is a certain passivity – I don’t want to say emptiness – to a lot of this recent komische-inspired music, from Lindstrom outwards, that it is hard to criticise right now without being accused of a snobbish adherence to the ‘original’. It is even harder, though, to get lost in something so pitch-perfect and self-aware. That’s not to say that under the right circumstances I wouldn’t give it a go.

Getting lost isn’t always the aim: in another sub-cortex altogether, I have Yannis Kyriakides’s Antichamber, a collection of the Cyprus-born and Netherlands-based composer’s electroacoustic chamber music of the last 10 years released as a lush double CD on Unsounds, the label that he co-runs with frequent collaborator Andy Moor of The Ex. Deserving of a lot more wordage than I can give it here, Antichamber showcases Kyriakides’s skill in working across different instrumentation and media, with string quartets paired with iPod, sine waves, record players…and yet there is nothing novelty-ish in these combinations. The understated compositions that emerge, full of silences and lone voices followed by coldly perfect convergences and clusters, show instead a preoccupation with how sound is perceived in a space, how sound alters or is altered by its locus. This is space music in the most architectural sense, and it’s quietly thrilling. 

Equally in the moment and starkly gorgeous – but completely different – is a short CD-r by Sheffield/Lyon duo Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides, Memoirs Of A Secret Metal Cave, on Bug Incision records. Kelly Jones and Pascal Nichols play drums and flute, and sometimes it feels as if they’re reversing the roles of each: the drums are fluid and responsive, while the flute is tough, tight and full of intent. Elsewhere, Jones intones melancholy, fragile melodies that are never affected or unnecessarily ornamental and Nichols goes all out with free-form rolls and rumbles; muted, echoing vocals contribute further to the slightly hermetic, ritual feel. If you can find it, hunt down their Singing Knives release Bataille de Battle for a great introduction to this singular duo, whose pragmatic, pared-down set-up makes for some brilliantly tense and surprisingly out-there sounds: this is psychedelic music with neither a “heady synth” in earshot or a tie-dye print in sight, just a beautiful, tense balance of hands, breath and magic.

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