Artist: Harmonia '76
Album: Tracks and Traces (Reissue)
Me on the the reissue of the Harmonia (with Brian Eno) record - Tracks and Traces at TLOBF. Reprinted below.
Just staring at the four names of the musicians involved in Harmonia ‘76 – Dieter Moebius, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Michael Rother and Brian Eno – is enough to summon an entire inner soundworld; and when you look at the constellation of albums that were released featuring these musicians, in and around the Harmonia ‘76 recording session, there is something almost illicit and disturbing at the thought of the crackle and hum of mental and physical processes that must have been at work in the brief studio time they spent together: Deluxe, Neu! 75 and Another Green World in 1975, Sowiesoso in 1976, Flammende Herzen and Before and After Science in 1977, not to mention Eno’s studio work with Bowie (he was on his way to work on Low when the first Harmonia ‘76 session was arranged). So it is, as stupid as it sounds, that by merely being very good, and not a full blown mystical experience, Tracks and Traces is somehow – however minor – a bit of a disappointment.
There are of course mitigating circumstances. The main one would be that these were only ever supposed to be studio sessions, and weren’t actually released officially until 1997 when Rykodisc in the States picked up the recordings after Roedelius had remastered them (they are re-released here with an extra three tracks). Harmonium had officially split after releasing Deluxe in 1975 and had only really considered reforming after the chance to jam and record with Eno had arisen (he allegedly called the band members asking ‘is now a good time for that recording session?’ He received the answer, ‘well, not exactly – we kind of broke up – but sure, as good a time as any.’). As such, Tracks and Traces does have rough edges, and is full of exploratory ideas that don’t always go anywhere. But when it’s explorations of this quality…
The other central factor here is harder to pin down, and concerns the directions the various band members were starting to take in their various other projects. As Cluster, Moebius and Roedelius, were moving towards a kind of new mode of bucolic ambience. Sowiesoso, recorded after these sessions, had a brighter edge than anything the duo had released before, an almost contented quietude; Rother in his work with Klaus Dinger in Neu had similarly moved towards a more inner-pastoral mode – in direct contrast to Dinger’s harsher motorik explorations. And Eno? Well Eno had recently released Another Green World, and at least with his solo work, had set something in motion that was to occupy him for a good portion of the next 30 years.
So what you have with Tracks and Traces is both a document of an uneasy communal recording session (admittedly this is a bit of a leap of faith on my behalf), and a document of transition, but considering the personnel involved, it was always bound to be some document. All that tension, all the bubbling creative clamour – it’s all there in the opening track of the original sessions, ‘Vamos Campaneros’: it’s built around a particularly filthy Rother riff, a thing of dirt and grime, and underpinned by a what sounds like a snare drum split into a thousand pieces. The track isn’t so much propulsive as fractured and damaged; and despite several other moments of ominous tone and portent (‘Luneberg Heath’, sections of ‘Sometimes in Autumn’) it’s not a sound the collective return to. It’s certainly gives the lie to Eno’s (apocryphal?) statement that Harmonium were the most important rock band in the world.
‘By the Riverside’, the second track of the original release, is much better indicator of the overall sound of Tracks and Traces – languid, bathed in washes of light, punctuated with near buried birdsong; and that title: pastoral, accepting, passive. ‘Luneberg Heath’ which follows is something of a red herring, as despite its nature theme it’s actually quite unsettling and bleak; it’s also the only track to feature vocals, with Eno intoing, blankly, ‘don’t get lost on Luneberg Heath’ over a woozy Rother guitar line. It gives way to ‘Sometimes in Autumn’ (the sessions were recorded in September ’76) the album’s sonic and thematic centrepiece – a 15-minute voyage out that amply signals the directions all members were seemingly taking at the time. It begins with pulsing synths riding an undertow of oscillators and sounds so current you could be listening to Fennesz or Keith Fullerton Whitman. When Rother’s haunted guitar appears, it sends the oscillators spinning wildly – almost to the point of sonic invisibility – and takes the track elsewhere, back to that impassive state. It isn’t until a great underthrum of organ drones at around the 10 minute mark that the track resolves itself, a resolution of quiet beauty.
The album seems to tail off somewhat from ‘Sometimes in Autumn’ with more of the unfinished sketches taking centre stage – the Tortoise-like ‘When Shade Was Born’ the dripping, lush ‘Almost’, ‘Les Demoiselles’ with its Lanois-esque slide guitar – but it is always engaging and beautiful, and there is always that sense of shock that this is 33 years old. And as a glimpse into the recording processes and creative lives of four such influential figures, and as a measure of what had gone before and what was to come (certainly with Eno who, with Another Green World, had already embarked on a still head-spinning purple patch) it’s a more than worthy release.
Download: Harmonia '76 - Almost
Mountain*7 - for the person with nothing better to do
Artist: Dark Captain Light Captain
Album: Remix EP
This went up at TLOBF some time last week. It's perfect for these late days of summer.
Download: Dark Captain Light Captain - Questions (Hatchback Dub Mix)
The harbour bridge, obscure
As a city that is so concerned with itself as a spectacle, the current dustcloak that is choking Sydney must be doubly disorienting. There have been some amazing shots of the dust storms - the above is probably my favourite (taken, I assume from the Rocks end of the bridge) - but there are some other jaw-dropping efforts contained in these two Flickr galleries.
Edit: A fantastic piece on this from Dan Hill of City of Sound. (Cheers to John Coulthart for the tip on this).
Album: Pausal EP
Label: Highpoint Lowlife
As with so many things, I've come late to the wonders of Highpoint Lowlife, an independent label dealing in (mainly) electronic music, from ambient drones to glitch, beats and beyond. I've now heard a few releases and the standard is unfailingly high.
This Pausal EP was first released back in 2007 as a free download, but has now been remastered and expanded for a full release. The Hampshire two-piece deal in billowing drones, somewhere in the region of Stars of the Lid and perhaps even William Basinski, though there is less of the implied melancholy you get with his work. Even the Stars of the Lid mention might be a little wide of the mark as the Pausal sound tends to be cleaner, brighter - pastoral even.
'Song from a Cloth' is indicative: a simple pulse of cello melts into near feedback and is gradually met and glossed by a series of shimmering melodic drones. The track fades into still weather as much as finishes - the drones simply breathing their last. 'Place (Revisited)', the 11-minute centrepiece, is similarly built around a sustained delicate central drone, against which outer melodies breeze and drift. As that central drone swells, so the melodies rise and fall. Late one afternoon, I played the track at increased volume - the sound whilst remaining delicate gained a church-like quality with what seemed like a muted choir beneath everything, just out of earshot. Much like 'Song from a Cloth' the tracks eases out of existence, leaving vapour like residues in the ear.
It's a lovely EP and highly recommended - and you can get the mp3s or FLACs for £3 so...
Download: Pausal - Song from a Cloth Pocket
Late August sunshine, the first walk for ages. I head out of the Victoria Inn in West Marden, trailed by a small cloud of chutney-maddened wasps, up a steeply inclining lane. There is a brief passage of unsteadiness as my feet arch over old stones and I wait for the muscles to remember. It comes, eventually.
I walk, no cower through a farmyard. No matter how many times I do this I feel like an interloper. These places hold a special, eerie power born maybe of old public information films, but also from something deeper, something to do with the fact that all this machinery – the ribcages of old ploughs, the fluted cones of grain dispensers – seems forever unused, hung in a state of paralysis.
I lose the path for a time and come across a pheasant enclosure. The first intimation is the small green feeders, arranged around the place like small, squat rockets; then the intense activity in the surrounding scrub, dense beneath oak trees: the odd frantic scitter here and there, the rising screeches of near by alarm calls. As I approach a huge fenced area, elaborate with pheasant-only gateways, the activity increases with literally dozens of birds emerging all around me, rushing for the impossible entrances, babble-shrieking into the air. The interior is thick with ferns and bracken, the torpid air alive with the movement of bodies.
Beyond the woods I enter a field of corn, its colour in the sun is harsh to the eyes. I pass across a sunken track, the shaded areas clagged with mud, pools of water lie in the great tractor wheel depressions. On a dim, clammy path with a broad swathe of young sweet chestnut poles on my right, a scraggy fox passes 10 feet in front me, following its twitching nose.
North Marden Church: the interior is thick with shadow, the walls white cold, heavy with memory. The chancel with its softly semi-circular rear wall seems to draw the light. You sit briefly, creak the pews and leave. Outside, a bench stretches most of the distance of the outer wall of the nave. As I lay back, I hear the distant roar of farm machinery; I catch a sharp stab of sun off a reflective surface. I awake to a top-heavy hollyhock I hadn’t noticed before, now swaying in a light breeze. The sky has thickened with grey.
North Marden barely exists – two farms, a collection of flint-clad houses. I hear my hollow footsteps as I walk along a newly tarmaced road. At a crossroads, a fresh cut field is alive with hundreds of rooks and jackdaws. Something spooks them and they rise as one – grakking and popping in high devilling swirls.
I come to Up Marden Church at the end of a pitted lane. It sits in a broad patch of bright green grass, a stand of yews to the right hand side, a knot of oaks to the rear. One of the church’s cold flint walls – giving way to planked wood and a squat, square tower - backs on to the field of corn I’d shielded my eyes from earlier. The interior is unlike any church I have been in before – spare, spartan even, the white walls of the chancel brilliant in the afternoon sun. That great reverential church-going weight is absent, instead there is a simple sense of shelter, of the sanctity of accumulated belief. I experience a kind of pain in leaving.
A good portion of the path back is a long slog up to Telegraph Hill. As I tire I think of the dead August air, absent of the piped silver of bird song, the only company the occasional explosive wren or the propulsive tick of an angry robin. The background hum is all of farm machinery as the long haul of harvest is begun; sometimes as I pass a field being cut, the air thickens, swarming with seed heads and crop debris. As I descend back into West Marden I come to a point where four paths intersect. Above is a great upright crescent of pillowed cloud. I stop to let a great clattering combine harvester cross, the driver, high in his cabin, nods a greeting.
There is an interesting piece on the downland churches by Simon Jenkins. It originally appeared in the New Statesman, this PDF version is available online.
Sunny Murray (w/ Albert Ayler and Amiri Baraka) - Black Art (from Sonny's Time Now 1965)
Cecil Taylor - # 504 (from Chinampas 1988)
Wu-Tang Clan - The Wu is Coming Thru (from Demo Unreleased)
Reggie Stepper - Under My Sin Ting (from The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture 2008)
Dandy Livingstone and Rico - A Message To You Rudy (from Mojo: The Dawning of A New Era 1967)
Susan Cadogan and The Upsetters - Hurt So Good/Loving is Good (from Trojan 12" Box Set 2003)
Toots and the Maytals - 54 46 That's My Number (from Pressure Drop 2003)
Alice Coltrane - Shiva Loka (from Journey In Satchidananda 1970)
Cluster - Zum Wohl (from Sowiesoso 1976)
Artist: Steven R. Smith
More over TLOBF...
Steven R Smith’s back catalogue is a thing of bright wonder. Since 1995, as a solo artist, as part of the Jewelled Antler collective, in a number of groups (Mirza, Thuja) and under various pseudonyms (Hala Strana, Ulaan Kohl) Smith has been on something like 30 releases – all pushing at the boundaries of psych, folk, post-rock and drone music. With that amount of music behind him, exploring his stuff becomes like picking your way through a landscape, a theme that the material on Cities also naturally conjures up, albeit a wounded, decaying landscape.
The main sonic fabric of Cities is provided by Smith’s guitar – a mournful sounding thing whether treated, whining with a kind of suppressed feedback, or bowed and scraping. It provides the backdrop for most tracks, though in many places it is unrecognisable as an instrument, or is obscured by other washes of sound, be they flayed cellos, the ancient sound of a psaltery or otherwise unidentifiable organ drones. But where many other similar projects tend towards the epic in terms of song lengths, Smith – on Cities at least – is very economical, preferring painterly touches and lightly drawn motifs. As such, the album tends to have a mosaic effect, its quiet beauty coming through as a whole picture only after numerous listens.
Another artist I’m reminded of is Richard Skelton (who has recorded under various guises such as A Broken Consort or Carousell), who seems to treat his chosen subject – again, generally nature and landscape – with a similar reverence, and draws his aural sketches with a haunted, mournful brush. The fact that Smith’s chosen subject here seems to be the decay of cities – as opposed to the pure appreciation of nature – only adds to this sense of mourning. There is something of the return of nature here though, the continual recourse to bowed sound effects (as on ‘Black Paper Scrim’ for instance, or ‘The City Gate’) creating an effect of wind through ruins. There is also a cinematic quality to many of the tracks, as though you were walking through a nature-reclaimed post-apocalyptic landscape, the only remnant of civilization a tolling bell… This is particularly true of a track like ‘Distance and Passing’ where Smith sounds at his most Godspeed-like, sombre and vast.
‘All is One One is One None is All’ ends things with a dense fuzz, sounding close to some of Belong’s whiteouts – but this has the feel of a nascent song, and perhaps points new forms that Smith may be heading towards. On this, and past, evidence, whatever he touches will be worth hearing. Here’s to the next 30 releases…
You can get hold of this by contacting Immune Recordings.
Download: Steven R. Smith - The Paling Day
Download: Steven R. Smith - All is One One is One None is All