Michael Chapman – The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock

Michael Chapman, The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock

It was at a Jack Rose tribute gig in Philadelphia that the idea for this album was first mooted – Ecstatic Peace approached Chapman backstage and asked if he would record a limited print run improvised album for them. He agreed, and The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock is the result – two tracks, a running time of 38 minutes, and a sonic adventure that comes from the far side of the experimental guitar underground.

The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock (a reference to the track ‘The Death of the Clayton Peacock’ on John Fahey’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death) is, unbelievably, Chapman’s first improv album to which the legitimate response seems to be, “where has this come from?” Chapman’s life and work, despite its scope of influence and its always oddly marginalised status, has been undergoing something of a critical reappraisal of late with the re-releases of some of his classic early albums and vocal support from underground figures such as the aforementioned and now deceased Jack Rose, Tom Carter and Thurston Moore; but still, none of that really prepares you for such a strange and other sounding album.

Inevitably, when confronted with a rupture of this nature, there’s an impulse towards investigation and speculation: to determine a piece’s provenance or examine the motivation behind the creation; to go looking in the artist’s catalogue for clues, or even delving into referenced source material – in this case the suppressed howl of the referenced Fahey original. Chapman’s work to date has covered a range of styles, but in the main he’s tended to concentrate on limpid finger-picked ragtime-inflected traditionals and originals, and more straight ahead folk rock and all-out rock. You might advance a theory that this improv space is the sound of the interstices between these forms, or is something like the sonic outfall of precisely these years of working with form.

And the two tracks that make up …Peacock are all about this notion of an improv space, creating a cavernous theatre into which Chapman threads tendrils of piped silver, or pours billowing contrails of feedback, the latter stages of which indelibly mark themselves out as bird calls, bird shrieks. All the while the inner ear searches for purchase, for familiar Chapman tropes and landmarks. And the truth is, they simply aren’t there. What you’re left with is a feeling that you’ve borne witness to a rite, an invocation.

The assumption is that Chapman must have been experimenting privately with this kind of sound for a number of years, or in the very least had been comfortable with the very idea of improvising in such a minimal yet abandoned fashion – the recourse to singing bowls and mbira in the second track (the ‘Revenge’) were presumably results of previous experiments. Listening to this in the dead of night, I had intimations of the occult, of a kind of spectral channelling – of what I’m not sure. But wilder flights led me to wonder if this was a comment on the end of things, the wasteland at the end of the tradition, or maybe the primal mulch from which it grew. It also felt as if it might be a glimpse into a musician’s fount or sacred space, the aural equivalent of peripheral vision, glimpses of sounds that may have drifted around Chapman for years, waiting exactly for this moment of channelling.

There’s an aside to all this and it’s around the usual rhetoric of age and creativity. Chapman has released upwards of 35 albums since his debut in 1969, which is a remarkable figure in itself; but to have suddenly found this new direction so late in the day, and to have inhabited it with such dexterity and force gives the game a whole different arc. If it wasn’t already so explicitly linked to Fahey you’d wonder if that most haunted and most haunting of figures had found some way of re-incarnating his damn(ed) self. The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock is an astounding bell peal, you should seek it out, now

Astrid – High Blues

Listened to this for the first time in ages today. It appears to have sunk without trace, which is unfair. I wrote about it a while back (for the Liminal RIP).

High Blues is such an apposite title for this collection of Astrïd tracks, it feels like any commentary does little more than circle around it, pointing great hammy arrows towards it. It perfectly encapsulates the sense of space that pervades everything they do, and gets to the heart of their tonal explorations of light and weight.

Astrïd, based in France, have been around in one form or another since 1997. The core of the band are guitarist and drummer Cyril Secq and Yvan Ros, and their early recordings explored the interaction between these two instruments. They’ve since expanded to include violinist Vanina Andreani and clarinettist Guillaume Wickel and their sound has correspondingly expanded – tonally and more literally in terms of the depth of the sonic fields they now traverse. The band exist apart, working between Nantes and Marseille, and as such their 15 year existence has yielded relatively little – just two albums before this. They don’t work fast, but that kind of makes sense.

‘High Blues’, the 21-minute opening track, is a narcotic lope of a thing, reeking of cactus and phosphorescence. Built around a subterranean bassline (that almost summons Charlie Haden) and a signature lambent guitar line from Cyril Secq, like Earth or Barn Owl at their most kosmische, it moves in a gradual widening arc, almost like a vast encroaching dust eddy. The movement is so gradual you barely notice the addition of squalls of clarinet and flute, the distant drag of violin. It doesn’t reach a crescendo so much as fatten at the centre and gradually dissipate again.

And from here, the album (the band’s first for Rune Grammafon) never really shifts gear beyond a graceful opiated sleepwalk. The second track ‘Erik S.’ is a quietly reverent cover of an Erik Satie composition, composed of little more than a beautifully understated clarinet figure and Secq’s deft fingerpicking. In its later stages it threatens to expand with some percussive clicks from what sounds like a kalimba, but it soon devolves once more. ‘Suite’ returns to the desert blues of the title track, introducing a deep piano line, beneath which sit Yvan Ros’s massive-sounding floor toms. There’s much more threat in Secq’s guitar here, though there is little in the way of resolution.

Which is the one criticism you might make of High Blues: that it doesn’t quite go far enough – the scope is huge and the detail always impeccably realised, but as a listener I occasionally found myself waiting for a release that never came. ‘Bysimh’, the closing track (another long track at over 11 minutes) does have a lighter surface to it, but the ingredients are largely the same. In the end High Blues is a study in atmosphere and a study in space; and given our collective clamour for room, for somewhere to escape, this is a welcome relief.

Richard Skelton – Landings

Richard Skelton - Landings

I’ve come back to this a few times recently, for various reasons. I have a suite of reservations now, but this is more due to what came post-Skelton – the channel he opened and what subsequently came through. In many ways he’s a direct analogue for Robert Macfarlane; and there’s a certain sense of mirroring between what happened in nature writing post The Wild Places and what came after Landings – the first time Skelton was genuinely uncovered. I suspect it’s the sheer weight – the avalanche – of similar work that followed, the shy coppice-clusters of earnest aesthetes suddenly given the confidence to share their inner geographies, their open-pored sensitivity to the pull of the land. But whatever the reasons for the about turn, it does pay to return to the source every so often; if only to be reminded that you were right the first time and that these things, however buried, still have the power to knock the breath out of you. This was first published in early 2010.

Thing-poems of the moor…

Landings was Richard Skelton’s second release for Type, after 2009’s Marking Time. He had behind him an array of releases, put out under various pseudonyms: Clouwbeck, A Broken Consort, Carousell, Riftmusic. All of these releases had been on small labels, or on Skelton’s own Sustain/Release imprint, and were invariably in tiny print runs. They were all constructed from comparatively little, and incredibly hard to describe – field recordings, a bowed string, a violin scrape, the arched wheeze of a concertina – yet they felt at times as grand as someone capturing the sweep of time, and the tiny movements of vibrating molecules. All of Skelton’s releases worry at similar themes: how we reconcile our self to place; how we track our passing through intimate and strange landscapes; how we cope with the climactic intrusions of grief. Landings followed these themes and with the accompanying text drew everything into sharp focus. It was the culmination of years of the near-obsessive recording of Skelton’s collaboratory relationship with the West Pennine Moors around Anglezarke. It is a conjuring, a chronicle of a disappearance, an insight into the process of healing. It felt like something of a summation. It is still extraordinary.

All of Skelton’s work to date has been an explicit response to the death of his then wife Louise in 2004. His body of work – both the recorded medium and the exquisite packaging each release comes in – is a memorial to her passing and an act of remembrance. Landings, and the text that accompanies it (which appeared online as an ongoing diary between 2005-2008) is direct and nakedly open response to this event. In his relationship to the moors around Anglezarke, he has forged a collusion with the land that has allowed him to explore the inner landscape of his own grief. There is a kind of projection at work here, an outward mapping of the traumatic space, in which Skelton has sought to lose himself completely. Instead over time- and without wishing to presume too much – what seems to have occurred in this collaboration with the brows and slacks of the land, is both an intimate knowledge of place, and an intimate knowledge of self. The sparse text of Landings, and the exquisite, gripping nature of the recorded music is our privileged glimpse into this sacred process.

Skelton’s method in exploring and cataloguing his experiences of the landscape around Anglezarke was to attempt to become a kind of conduit – both for his own responses, and in the more complicated space of interaction between place and self. Initially, he would make field recordings of the ambient sounds – the whine of wind through a ruined farm, the grakking calls of rooks – and then augment these with his own instrumentation. This gave way to him actually making recordings in situ, using the moors as an open-air studio. Occasionally he would leave a dicatophone in the trees, returning the recordings to their original source – what he called ‘returning the music back to its birthing chambers’; or he would secrete a diary beneath stones – a votive offering. Over time though, he realised his methods were obscuring and obstructive, as if this method of recording the intimacies were somehow mediating his ‘true’ experience of the landscape. Instead, Skelton trusted to his imaginative recall, and instead used elements of the landscape to aid this collusion at one remove: a bone plectrum, the scrape of tree litter on metal strings.

This gradual exploration and layering of experience, both sonic and actual, is a fundamental aspect of the music on Landings. It is mirrored in the accreted layers of sound, which at times become almost textural, tactile. On a track like ‘Thread Across the River’ (where Skelton comes closest to sounding remotely like anyone else, in this case Set Fire to Flames, another project that was set up as a collaboration with place, this time a derelict mansion in Montreal – though there is something of Eno in ‘Green Withins Brook’s broad chords, and if Landings has an antecedent, then Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land is probably it) there is a simple layering of bowed cello and violin but they are treated in such a way as to sound like natural phenomena. This effect is added to by the way the track gives out to the thin cries of meadow pipits and the haunted, bubbling uprush of curlew calls. The closing track, ‘The Shape Leaves’ – which refers back to a CDR release from 2005 – comes as if from behind a curtain of moorfog, a distant piano figure beneath bowed strings, eventually giving out to an eddying storm of cymbals before returning to the murk. In truth, individual examples are largely useless, as the whole record is so of its own sound world, and so wound into the whole act of its creation, that these qualities are suffused and implicit. If you were to try to figuratively pull up one corner of it, you’d find the rest attached.

With Landings, Richard Skelton has created something vast, resonant and timeless. The work and drive behind it has created a document that requires a new kind of categorisation. It has gravity in the very real sense of that word; indeed, at times it seems to possess its own geography. It is a Romantic document, a record of an intimate relationship with place and a minutely observed mapping of the local – it might come to be put alongside Richard Long, Gilbert White, Alice Oswald, Ted Hughes. It’s also an almost unbearably moving chronicle of a grief observed. Sometimes you just have to stand back and admit a certain privilege at coming into contact with something. This is one of those times.

Paul Jebanasam – Rites

Paul Jebanasam - Rites

This was first published on the Liminal back then.

I once saw a comedy sketch in which a cow was attached to a winch. The cow was winched up 200 feet, and for the first ten feet after it leaves the ground the cow is freaking out. And then above that: completely placid. Because it is no longer relating to anything. It has no fear, because it has no consciousness of what it is. Whereas a human would be freaking out all the way up. So I wonder if maybe that point at which a non-sentient animal stops freaking out, and we don’t, is where dread occurs.’ China Miéville

In 1958 Mark Rothko was asked to complete a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant housed in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building. It was quite a commission for an artist working in a field that many felt was obscurantist and practised by charlatans and mimics. Many questioned Rothko’s motives, and indeed Rothko himself eventually pulled out of the deal; but not before he was reported as uttering that he’d intended the paintings to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” and that he’d make “those rich bastards feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up”.

Anyone who’s seen the paintings – now in their own quiet reliquary in the Tate Modern – can see how inappropriate they would have been for a restaurant space, and apocryphal or not, you have to wonder at what Rothko was intending with such vast, imposing canvases – dense blocks of colour that have the feel of cave walls, of entoptic phantasmagoria, of portals. One obvious conclusion is to think that, however clumsily, he wanted them to do a kind of work, using dread to elicit a shift in consciousness. Dread as praxis.

Of course, in and of itself, invoking Rothko when discussing dread is completely relevant, but it’s not just a random signifier when it comes to Rites, the debut album from Bristolian and Subtext label-head Paul Jebanasam. For one thing, the cover is immediately redolent of Rothko with its hovering stripe of ever-reducing red between two dominant blocks of black; but there’s also the sonic use of dread that Jebanasam employs and the sense that he’s using dread in a particular way, and in the oldest sense of the word, as a kind of propulsive medium, a galvanising force.

Back in 2011 in a review at the Liminal, Andrew Bowman noted that dread was ‘back’. Dubstep, borrowing heavily from jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, had always invested heavily in the sonic possibilities of dread, indeed to the point that it became an empty signifier and lost any sense of wider cultural meaning and became invisible again. The likes of Demdike Stare flirted with similar possibilities, but the dread they invoked always seemed to be part of a wider strategy, more akin to outright horror – dread in this sense meant a kind of creeping menace, of something just out of earshot or ones field of vision. What the likes of the Haxan Cloak, Raime and other artists clustered around the fount of the Blackest Ever Black label seemed to be doing was something ‘purer’ – dread as end in itself. The key question was/is why?

It seems too obvious to simply state that the presence of dread is simply a temperature-marker of our times, but it’s the ‘neatest’ explanation, if you like. If you search back for dread-inducing music, you might alight on Bark Psychosis, 23 Skidoo, Throbbing Gristle, early Kluster – all music made in dread-ful times, but then couldn’t that be applicable anywhere, anytime? In The Long Revolution, Raymond Williams brought up the idea of a ‘structure of feeling’ – that most of impossible of things, to mark the felt sense of the quality of life in any particular period or time. His suggestion was that the structure was impossible to pin down, but that it operated in the most delicate and least tangible parts of our activity. With that in mind, dread in culture, and particularly in music, functions as a kind of collective emanation, a breath of doubt from our very deepest dreams. Going back to the question of ‘why?’, Kodwo Eshun, reviewing the same gig as the aforementioned Andrew Bowman, suggested that the dread invocations were a symptom of resignation – a sonic avatar of Romantic awe in the face of the impossible, the unrepresentable: listeners weren’t galvanised or even necessarily terrorised by the power of the music so much as willingly narcotized by it. Like much of dubstep this was stoner music, escapism, dread as lavender pillow.

All of which does beg the question: need dread make us submissive and powerless? Or more precisely, what is it about dread that renders us awestruck and dumb? In a recent interview with China Miéville, (by Juha van ‘t Zelfde, who is also curating an exhibition called Dread, due to open in September 2013) Miéville locates dread in the same affective field as the sublime, and ultimately in the same field as ecstasy – something he called a “politically and philosophically polyvalent condition”. His point was that dread, from a purely affective point of view, can quickly tip into something else, both into a kind of paralysis, something similar to what Eshun noted, or something more creative, subversive and powerful. Miéville notes that this valency is often seized upon by the right and can easily become something reactionary and politically dubious and that this might be an inherent tendency, but it need not be the case.

Now I’m not about to suggest that Rites is going to function as some guiding star for this re-figuring of dread, it’s too sombre for that, too damn heavy. But, but… there is something positive at the heart of it, something bigger than a mere ghosting of a series of tropes. Looked at purely sonically, it’s built from comparatively little – processed strings (viola, mainly), some processed guitar deluges, huge devotional drums and vast metallic drones, that sound scraped from the very centre of the earth, (which in the case of ‘IV’ they almost literally ‘are’, in that Jebanasam set up some ground loops – recordings of the earth-hum – which form the centre of the track). It’s possible to think of the drones as forming a kind of vaulted-chamber within which the drama of the individual tracks take places – like cathedrals of sound inside which vibrate the smaller details. The sound palette feels very new, unexplored; at times it brings to mind Locrian, at other times there’s a very ‘Subtext’ thing going on. ‘III’ and ‘IV’ in particular sound close to the forms Roly Porter explored on Aftertime, (released on Subtext in 2011) – the same brittle high tones, the clash of metal, and the fibrous, almost asbestos-like edge to the drones. There’s also the great looming presence of the Multiverse soundsystem, which gives the bass undertow a by-proxy subterranean gravity that in places shakes the recording to the limits of the possible. Overall, it is undoubtedly oppressive and decidedly brutal in places, in the way it wields a kind of industrial weight, but – and you have to hope you’re not imputing too much here, separating the curtains and inserting your own figures – the feeling of hope remains, of a force for some greater good.

All of this is complicated by the liturgical aspect to Jebanasam’s music. He’s spoken in the past about his appreciation for Korsakov and Arvo Pärt and the sense of humility it’s possible to feel when faced with the glacial beauty of some liturgical music, that raw sense of being in the presence of something numinous and eternal – figured in the almost process-like monumentality of the compositions. And of course, and this goes back to Miéville’s notion of the crossover between dread and the sublime, the response to this is nearly always passive, is passive in its very design. We bow, we retreat into our cells, godfearing and minuscule. Yet there are two other ways of thinking about this. One is to remove the religiosity from it altogether (which I think is Jebanasam’s view anyway) which leaves the awe and the awesome power of liturgical process music – and you’re close to something like John Gray’s notion of godless mysticism. The other is in the rasta conception of dread, which, in all its murky syntactic power, is also ultimately godfearing and humble and yet manifests itself in the wearing of the dreads, an accoutrement borrowed from the Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya – dread in all its humbling power, taken into the self and made concrete and given agency.

Maybe in the spirit of Ballard, we can take dread – this thing we suffer attacks of, this thing that we have no control of, that debilitates – and push it through itself to some unthought of conclusion: beyond torpor, beyond accidie, beyond non-engagement. Who knows. Maybe there is a source of untapped power. With all that in mind, Rites, which has the aspect of a beautiful requiem, might just as well be a call to arms.