The Birdman Of Islington: Stubbleman – The Blackbird Tapes

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Saturday March 14 2020: Pascal Gabriel is performing pieces from his Stubbleman album Mountains And Plains at the Union Chapel in Islington, as part of the Daylight Music concert series. He is accompanied by the various automata he built for live performance; they are an essential factor in realising the many complex layers present on Mountains And Plains, a diaristic album that recorded Pascal and his wife Pippa’s journeys across the USA.

It is a few days before London went into full lockdown. The audience is about half what it should have been in ordinary circumstances, but these are far from ordinary circumstances. That Mountains And Plains concerned itself with travel and the freedom of movement is perhaps ironic in the face of the travel bans and flight cancellations that characterised the coming days. From the stage of the Chapel, Pascal could see a smattering of audience members wearing masks, then still a rarity, but something that would become ubiquitous over the next three months.

Friday May 1 2020: Pascal Gabriel is at home, as we all are by then. He is livestreaming the debut performance of The Blackbird Tapes, a new Stubbleman EP from his London home studio. “It was weird,” he reflects. “From my point of view, I was really just playing to my wife and three iPhones. There was no way of knowing whether people liked it until afterwards. At the time you have no idea what the feedback is.”

By May, with gigs and concerts cancelled and venues shuttered indefinitely, the livestream has moved from the novel rarity to the only way that musicians can perform their concerts to fans. Seeing inside the homes of musicians has become a new normal, in an extended period of such new normals.

Another thing we have become used to is quiet. Noise levels in cities across the world have been reduced to a slight murmur. It’s as if nature is reinforcing its power on the world of sound that we have inhabited in urban environments for hundreds of years; if you pay attention, one sound you will hear more prominently than ever before is birdsong. It has become the unexpected soundtrack to life in lockdown, and it became the inspiration for The Blackbird Tapes.

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Pascal Gabriel (c) Pippa Ungar

April temperatures in London were unseasonably warm. It was a small consolation for the removal of our freedoms, but it was a consolation, nonetheless. One morning, with the windows of their bedroom open, Pascal was suddenly roused out of his sleep. “At about 4 o’clock I heard this blackbird talking to a friend,” he remembers. “I think the nearest blackbird was on our roof, and the other one was probably about 200 metres away. They were obviously having some sort of conversation.” Pascal sprang out of bed and grabbed one of the Hairy Guys – the portable digital recorders that captured the atmospheric field sounds that inspired Mountains And Plains – and he recorded the two birds chatting to one another.

“The blackbird has a beautiful song,” he says, “but I really didn’t think much of it; I just thought I’d record it.” Encouraged by Pippa, Pascal was convinced that he could use the recording as the starting point for a new track, which became the opening piece on The Blackbird Tapes, ‘4am – Conversation’.

Pascal took the recording and then began to manipulate it. “I recorded it straight, as a straight conversation between him and his friend, and then I copied the audio and slowed it down to half-speed. I then copied it again and slowed it down to quarter speed, and then slowed it down again,” he explains. “By doing that, you always have the octave lower each time, and obviously it’s really slowed down. Listening to the four recordings, at those different speeds, it suggested melodies to me.”

Sitting down at his upright piano, Pascal began to lightly compose accompaniments to the layered birdsong, gently augmenting the sounds he’d recorded but never overwhelming them. “I did it very quickly,” he says. “It probably was no more than a couple of days and then I was done.”

When I spoke with Pascal about the genesis of Mountains And Plains, he explained about his ‘Ten Commandments’, the rules that he sets himself at the start of a project which then guide its development. “I don’t think I had ten on this one,” he laughs. “I had only a few, and one of them was ’Don’t distract the birds,’ – basically, don‘t detract from the sound of the birds. I wanted to keep it really simple, to not distract too much from the conversation that was going on, and the magic and unpredictability of what the bird is going to do next. And so I kept everything very delicate and very simple.

“Another of the commandments was that I would only use one piano riff of five or six notes, which are then repeated,“ he continues. “The timings can change, and where the notes go can change, but that’s it – five or six notes, and they repeat, and that’s it.”

When Pascal sent the EP over, he counselled me that I needed to listen to the three tracks with decent headphones, and most definitely not laptop speakers. That was because of the bass sounds that make up the third element of each of the three pieces, made using an Oberheim Two Voice Pro. The synth provides a rich, resonant low end perfectly matched to the topline provided by the blackbirds and the piano melodies crafted in response. “On the bass sound, I just wanted two or three notes and nothing more,“ he adds. “There’s a real jollity between the bass synth, and the piano, and the birds. It really works.”

Having completed the first piece, Pascal then used the same approach for the EP’s two other tracks, ‘6am – Chorus’ and ‘8am – Soliloquy’, each time using the layered birdsong recordings, but leaving them largely unaltered. “It just created something that I couldn’t create myself,” he says. “When you listen to birdsong, you realise how precise it is. It’s random, but it’s also really controlled. I found it fascinating to hear it slowly. I’d just sit on my chair here in the studio, and listen to it over and over again and think, ‘What am I going to do on this? It’s amazing.’ And so, when I did the synths, for instance, I didn’t want them to change very much. There’s a bit of filtering, but it’s very delicate and very minimal.” The only other element that Pascal subtly weaves in from time to time is a sequence created using a GRP Synthesizer A4, its fluttering quality evoking birdflight.

Pascal is here tapping into a tradition in classical music of using birdsong as a motif within composition, something that extends back to the 14th Century, and which can be heard in works by Beethoven, Mahler, Handel and countless others. More recently, Olivier Messaien turned to birdsong many times during his career, basing whole pieces such as Réveil des Oiseaux on the specific calls of certain birds. Perhaps closest to The Blackbird Tapes is Ottorino Respighi’s I Pini di Roma from 1924. The third movement of Respighi’s suite, The Pines of the Janiculum, includes a recording of birds made on the Janiculum hill above Rome, with instructions that the recording be played specifically on a Brunswick Panatrope phonograph.

The EP takes us from the fragile unreality of early morning and concludes with the chiming of bells near to Pascal’s house, indicating that the day must begin. “There’s something sad about it,“ admits Pascal. “It’s like the magic is slowly ebbing away from that twilight morning moment. Early morning is a very special time, even more so because of the lockdown. We’re not going out for work. We’re not so keen to catch the Tube, or bus, or whatever, and we are much more aware of our surroundings.

“And there’s definitely a lot more birds around, and they can hear each other,” he continues. “I mean, this guy, on the 4am piece, was definitely having a conversation with another bird. You probably wouldn’t be able to hear it, or you just wouldn’t notice it at all, if it was as busy as it normally is.”

The Blackbird Tapes wasn’t supposed to be Pascal Gabriel’s next release. Instead, it was intended to be 1:46:43, a three-movement piece inspired by his best time ascending Provence’s Mont Vontoux, the punishing mountain leg of the Tour de France.

Those attending the Stubbleman show at the Purcell Room last year heard the premiere of the third movement, concerned with the final climb to the summit of the mountain; the Union Chapel audience was treated to the first performance of ‘The Green Cathedral’, the second movement, which focusses on the tree-covered middle section of the route.

We have lockdown to thank for giving us The Blackbird Tapes. Just as with the source material that led to Mountains And Plains, this EP would not exist without the confluence of a specific location, caught at a specific time, that would go on to provide the inspiration for a musical response. It provides us with a lasting, poignant memory of the stillness and quietude of the strangest moment in our collective personal histories, giving The Blackbird Tapes a profound, moving and universal significance.

The Blackbird Tapes by Stubbleman is released June 5 2020 by Crammed Discs.

Interview: Mat Smith. With thanks to Sally.

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Barnaby Ashton-Bullock – Café Kaput!

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“Viva l’assemblage of husked soul eggshells
Smulched to fag ashen grain
A jackbooted silty compresse in the pavement cracks of les grandes boulevards,
A slur of arid sediment waiting for rain…”
– Barnaby Ashton-Bullock, Odd Oeufs (de Saint-Denis)

Anyone fortunate enough to see any of three parts of the Torsten series will be familiar with the work of poet and playwright Barnaby Ashton-Bullock. As well as featuring an exceptional, career-defining performance from Andy Bell as the doomed, semi-immortal, polysexual lead character, Torsten’s writer Ashton-Bullock imbues each and every line, every lyric and every scene with an unrivalled wealth of language, from the most unadulterated erotic encounter to the most wistful, heartwrenching and nostalgic look back at Torsten’s past.

That same skill can be found in Café Kaput!, a poetry pamphlet published by Broken Sleep Books. Containing 24 poems running from first time sexual experiences to mournful trips to Cotswold country homes, Café Kaput! is a vibrant, colourful, unflinching trip through linguistic possibility, brutally updating the poetic discipline for the modern era. In these verses, nothing is hidden: everything is visible, little is off-limits.

“My influences from a very early age were Harold Pinter, Derek Jarman, Steven Berkoff, and the ability that they had in their writing to pattern the world and to be viscerally honest about things,” Ashton-Bullock explained to me last year, during the rehearsals for Torsten In Queereteria. “I could never read novels. I had to, for A-level, but the language just wasn’t concise enough for me. It was like I’m reading all of this to get this kind of hit, but I’m not getting it. From early on I thought that poetry was the most immediate and violent expression of language.”

“Wotcha m’putrid popsicle!
Sorry the sherbet pips got wet.
Was those lolloping licks at the ‘Welcome Desk’
Like the motel staff’s tongues all had palsy Slurping a rippling slurry of saliva into my knapsack”
– Barnaby Ashton-Bullock, Motel Strange

“Read it if you dare!” cautions Andy Bell in his opening endorsement, and these verses are truly not for the easily embarrassed. Whereas poetry may have a long tradition of obfuscating meanings under layers of calculated, deliberately impenetrable wordplay, with Ashton-Bullock’s pen you have the equivalent of voyeuristically pulling back the duvet covers on the most vivid liaisons.

Café Kaput! Can be ordered directly from Broken Sleep Books here. On Sunday May 17 2020 at 7pm, Ashton-Bullock will be hosting a live online launch party for Café Kaput! – book your virtual seat here.

Ashton-Bullock, his musical partner Chris Frost and Andy Bell recently uploaded a video compilation of songs from the Torsten series which can be viewed below.

Related:

Andy Bell – Torsten In Queereteria : Redux – Documentary Evidence feature, 2019

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Klara Lewis – Ingrid

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A couple of years ago, a cellist friend said to me, of his principal instrument, that “you have to be careful not to get too sad with it.” The inference was that it’s all too easy to make the cello sound mournful. Ever since he told me that I’ve become much more aware of that quality whenever a cello is involved; it may just be my general curmudgeonly outlook, but I often find it hard to identify something other than a nostalgic, wistful or maudlin dimension to music made with the instrument. It’s with that in mind that I approached the latest piece of music by Klara Lewis.

Ingrid is a single twenty-minute piece that uses a brief yet characteristically expressive cello segment as its foundation sound source. My cellist friend reliably informs me that it is “from the Sarabande movement of Bach’s fourth suite for unaccompanied cello”. Who plays the cello, whether this is a passage played specifically for Lewis or sampled from an existing performance are undisclosed details; neither is it apparent why the piece is so titled. Is Ingrid the person playing the cello? Is Ingrid the person this piece is dedicated to? Does it even matter?

These are the kind of questions you ask yourself as you listen to this piece. So focussed do you become on those questions that it isn’t immediately obvious that the cello loop is being subjected to – and placed under significant duress by – increasingly violent levels of distortion. It’s only after about ten minutes that the distinctive qualities of the cello get mangled fully out of shape, becoming growling, snarling, aggressive blocks of over-amplified noise: up to that point, it just sounds like the cello’s plaintive stylings augmented by hollow, distant electronic interventions.

By its denouement, the piece has morphed into loud, almost unbearably brutal sound, the original source passage unrecognisable; stretched, skewed and misshapen; reduced to elemental, metallic impulses on the most beautifully harrowing fringes of sonic entropy.

Ingrid by Klara Lewis is released May 1 2020 by Editions Mego – available here.

Words: Mat Smith. With thanks to Reed Hays.

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Easy – Radical Innocence

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“Their debut album sold more than Sonic Youth’s ‘Sister’. Nobody noticed.” – MuteBank Statement #1, June 1996

I wonder to myself: how many times did I play 1990’s debut Easy album, Magic Seed, after I found it in a second-hand shop in Colchester in 1997? Between that LP, singles by Foil and Technique by New Order, I don’t recall listening to much else for the duration of that long, endless summer at the conclusion of my second year at university; it was a summer of warm days at the beach, cycling to work across town and youthful abandon, and Easy’s Magic Seed became the de facto soundtrack.

At that point, MuteBank’s Statement #1 was my Bible. I had no idea, in those early internet days, that by then the Swedish band had released a second album (1994’s Sun Years) after things didn’t quite work out for them at Blast First. I had wrongly assumed until about two weeks ago that they’d essentially called it quits after Magic Seed didn’t set the world of punky, jangly guitars on fire as it should have done in 1990.

Easy 2 - photo by Eyleen Kotyra

Radical Innocence  finds the six-piece band – Johan Holmlund (vocals), Tommy Ericson (guitar), Anders Petersson (guitar), Rikard Jormin (bass), Tommy Dannefjord (drums) and newbie Ingvar Larsson (keyboards) – showing that the world may have changed immeasurably, we may well be living through extraordinary days, but Easy’s music is dependably unchanged. Matured they may well be like the rest of us, giving songs like the string-laden ‘Golden Birds’ and lead single ‘Crystal Waves’ a wistful, mournful and subtly uplifting dimension, but aside from Holmlund’s voice becoming stronger and less tentative, more confident and more strident, this is still the band that I fell in love with far too late far too many years ago.

These eight songs are poised with a delicate precision, full of their trademark guitar sound but also a vibrancy and energy, best exemplified by the blisteringly good track ‘Memory Loss Revisionism And A Bright Future’. Elsewhere, we encounter the beautiful sensitivity of ‘Day For Night’ led by Dannefjord’s thunderous drumming and atmospheric textures, a savagely open tale of loss and regret bordered by a stirring quality that is utterly heartbreaking. Meanwhile, the title track shuffles along upon fuzzy guitars, grubby bass and vamping organ tones, its lyrics foretelling the one-way street that is the loss of youthful innocence.

Radical Innocence by Easy is released April 24 2020 by A Turntable Friend Records.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Fad Gadget – The Best Of Fad Gadget

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The Best Of Fad Gadget was originally released in 2001 to accompany Frank Tovey bringing his Fad Gadget alias out of retirement for a support slot with Depeche Mode. It was a moment of electronic music history repeating itself, albeit in reverse and on a massive, stadium-friendly scale: Depeche had supported Gadget in 1980, back when they were all a bunch of callow, synth-loving young chaps, Frank Tovey being the first artist to join Daniel Miller’s nascent Mute Records.

Twelve months after the compilation was issued, Tovey was dead from a heart attack. It’s hard not to listen to these tracks, hand-picked as they were by Fad himself, without mourning the fact that he left behind such a brief legacy – a clutch of singles, four Gadget albums and a challenging performance art repertoire that was already honed back when he was fighting over Leeds Polytechnic’s studio space with fellow students Dave Ball and Marc Almond.

Mute’s pressing of the album on vinyl for the first time coincides with the fortieth anniversary of ‘Back To Nature’, Fad Gadget’s first single. Recorded with Daniel Miller, ‘Back To Nature’ nodded to the Ballardian tropes of Miller’s own ‘Warm Leatherette’ statement, but also highlighted Tovey’s wry humour: while its gloomy industrial electronics sounded like a post-apocalyptic world of extreme temperatures, it was in fact Tovey ruminating on sun-loving folk enjoying the beach at Canvey Island.

Its B-side, ‘The Box’, was yet more subversive, its desperate lyrics reading like the stage directions for a macabre one-man show with a performer stuck in a box. After the dry ‘Ricky’s Hand’ single – the sinister counterpart to Depeche Mode’s similar-sounding ‘Photographic’ – Tovey gently moved Miller’s producer’s hand to one side and forged his own path, his 1980 debut album Fireside Favourites dealing with everything from cosy nights around the hearth during a nuclear meltdown on its memorable title track to bedroom frustration, each track a symbiosis of Tovey’s synths and whatever potential sound-making objects were lying around the studio at the time.

Through his ensuing albums – Incontinent (1981), Under The Flag (1982) and Gag (1984) – Tovey developed his songwriting craft, initially through getting to grips with kit like an MC-4 sequencer and then developing a full-band aesthetic at precisely the same time as pop music was dispensing with traditional instruments in favour of keyboards and drum machines. But even as his music matured, anticipating the series of folk and rock-inflected albums released under his own name with the band The Pyros, Tovey was still covering himself in tar and feathers on stage, or stripping off his clothes and spraying shaving foam all over his body, memorable images of which Anton Corbijn captured for Gag and the harrowing cover of this compilation.

His songs never once lost that slightly disturbing potency that had made his earliest singles so insistent. ‘Lady Shave’ made a song about the quotidian act of removing hair a seedy, voyeuristic, perverted show; ‘Saturday Night Special’ dealt with guns and the right to bear arms; ‘Love Parasite’s sleek electronic shapes detailed a sexual predator; ‘Life On The Line’ and ‘For Whom The Bells Toll’ were dour pop songs that betrayed Tovey’s paranoia at having become a father for the first time; ‘Collapsing New People’ took industrial percussion and the looped mechanical sound of a printing press to offer a vivid anthropological assessment of the dispossessed, wasted, vampiric youths he observed while recording the track in Berlin. The compilation ends with the leftfield proto-electro and howling baby sounds of ‘4M’, sounding somewhere between clinical fascination and the soundtrack to the end of the world, but was in fact a tender piece of sound art using the sampled voice of his baby daughter.

It would, perhaps, be too easy to look back on Frank’s wild Fad Gadget years as a kind of grim novelty cabaret sideshow schtick, a product of an anything-goes, disaffected, post-punk British society, his effect on the development of electronic music in the early 1980s easily dismissible in favour of dark-hued works by Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Soft Cell and others. Observed in hindsight, no other musician managed to fuse art school theatrics and dystopian social commentary so fluidly within the emerging constructs of electronic technology as Frank Tovey did, and the likelihood of another artist like Fad Gadget emerging in these supposedly super-liberal times is unimaginable; we’re all trapped inside the metaphorical cage of ‘The Box’, and no one dares try – like he did – to break out.

Frank Tovey: 8 September 1956 – 3 April 2002

The Best Of Fad Gadget by Fad Gadget was originally released in 2001 by Mute, and reissued as a double vinyl LP in 2019.

Words: Mat Smith.

Note: this review originally appeared in Electronic Sound issue 57 and is used with the kind permission of the editors. Thanks to Neil, Zoe and Paul.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith for Electronic Sound

 

Leo Abrahams / Sølyst / Simon Fisher Turner – From Isolation 1

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This trio project represents the first in Trestle RecordsFrom Isolation series, wherein musicians are invited to collaborate with one another in the form of an exchange of sound files. The project is effectively a variation on their One Day Band programme, only with artists unable to meet and spontaneously develop a piece together for the foreseeable future, this is a virtual way of achieving similar results, quickly, efficiently and responsively. Arguably it’s way more productive than using the internet for Disney + and Netflix.

The first edition pitches together producer and ambient journeyman Leo Abrahams (guitar, FX, electronics), Kreidler co-founder Thomas Klein’s Sølyst alias (synths, sequencer) and Mute stalwart Simon Fisher Turner (field recordings, electronics). The three pieces here are built from sinewy synth sequences that pulse and shift with a purpose somewhere on the continuum between meditative and sinister, alternated with murky drones, impenetrable modular soundfields and vague ryhthmic passages.

Over each foundation pattern we hear Abraham’s processed guitar, occasionally formed as a meditative blues but more often presented as juddering, angular, discordant shapes that give the pieces an uncertainty and suggestion of imminent danger. Those highly textural guitar motifs are joined by Fisher Turner’s guerrilla field recordings, auditory ghosts of unknown provenance – traffic noise, maybe? Water washing onto a Cornish beach? Wind blowing through a bamboo screen? The hubbub of a station platform?

Perhaps unintentionally, those life sounds of real life give these atmospheric pieces a nostalgic quality, a sense of yearning for a time when we all had the freedom to experience all of life’s noisy treasures without restriction or fear.

From Isolation 1 by Leo Abrahams, Sølyst and Simon Fisher Turner can be streamed from the Trestle Records website from Friday April 3 2020trestlerec.com

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence

Daniel Avery / Alessandro Cortini – Illusion Of Time

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The first evidence of Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini’s collaboration emerged last year with a white label 7-inch single credited to DA-AC called ‘Sun Draw Water’. Only available at the FYF Festival, Mount Analog in LA, the two tracks showcased a perfect, symbiotic pairing between the two.

With ‘Sun’, you could discern Cortini’s trademark, bold synth strokes edged with a dirty, fuzzy industrial quality. Haunting vocal textures and submerged melodies created a brooding, dark ambience, like an alternative soundtrack to Terminator and every bit as dystopian. ‘Water’ was the inverse, offering a richness and depth of colour, an elastic sound occupying the foreground carrying an unpredictability while the background stayed resolutely focussed on clusters of pads and spiralling tones. The effect was not dissimilar to some of Robert Fripp’s experiments with triggered sounds and textures, poised somewhere between a meditative, reflective mood and a restless hopefulness.

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Illusion Of Time was completed in 2018, and cements the vision that ‘Sun’ and ‘Water’ hinted at. Like many electronic projects, Illusion Of Time began as a distance collaboration, the pair shaping and sculpting tracks over the digital aether before finalising the pieces together while touring with Nine Inch Nails.

The album’s title track opens with delicate, mesmerising synth cycles overlaid on top of resonant blocks of sound and white noise panned across the stereo field. The track has a poignancy and sweetness, a sense of optimism in troubled times, whether illusory or not. That approach runs throughout the record, sometimes with a glimmer of uncertainty; ‘At First Sight’ is probably the best example of this, delivering gentle melodies sounding not unlike uilleann pipes drifting across a turbulent, pulsing, bass-heavy sequence of tones.

Elsewhere, we come across moments of intense beauty. ‘CC Pad’ contains sparse, haunting, overlapping pads, creating an effect like gazing across a beatific, frosty Spring morning landscape. In the background you hear a feint clicking sound, creating a suggestion of rhythm or the scratchy rotations of an ancient gramophone. Two brief interludes in ‘Space Channel’ and ‘Interrupted By the Cloud Of Light’ have an evocative, ethereal quality, nodding to an ambient tradition but laced with crackling white noise sounding like the release of intense radiation from a distant star.

Among all of these poignant, brilliant vignettes is the standout ‘Inside The Ruins’, advancing forward on growling synth sounds moving from ear to ear, wrapped in cavernous echo and a sense of imminent, unresolved threat. On this piece it’s hard not to imagine the environment suggested by its title. In my mind I see myself standing in a destroyed ancient temple in Syria while drones buzz and criss-cross overheard, emotionlessly surveying the devastation.

Illusion Of Time by Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini is released March 27 2020 by Phantasy Sound. Thanks to Ellie, Naomi and AC.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence