“I sure could use a holiday, but I don’t know where I’d spend my stay. Can’t afford it anyway. That permanent vacation.”
Jim Sclavunos – ‘Holiday Song’
‘Holiday Song’ is the debut solo single from producer, early Sonic Youth member, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds stalwart and Grinderman co-founder Jim Sclavunos. A pretty rumination on getting older, realising your best years are long behind you and a reflectiveness on your character flaws, ‘Holiday Song’ is delivered as a plaintive piano-led ballad, somewhere between jazzy lightness and folky earnestness. Sclavunos adopts a resigned, weary tone, yet one that is laced with a wry levity in spite of the song’s weighty themes.
For ‘Holiday Song’, Sclavunos’s celesta and vocals are joined by Dave Sherman (piano), The Pogues’s Spider Stacy (tin whistle), Gallon Drunk’s Terry Edwards (flugelhorn) and Sarah Lowe (backing vocals). Nick Cave describes the song thus: “Beautiful and complex song and a sweet and generous offering. Really beautiful and true to the bone!”
Profits from sales of the single go to the Music Venue Trust’s Grassroots Music Venue Crisis Fund, established to provide financial support to venues impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. To read more about Music Venue Trust, click here.
Holiday Song by Jim Sclavunos is released January 1 2021 by Lowe Amusements Records. With thanks to Sarah.
It’s that special time of the year where the sounds of well-worn Christmas hits from yesteryear fill playlists and people begin to debate whether ‘Fairytale Of New York’ really is the best Christmas song of all time.
With some help from my good friend and Mute afficionado Jorge Punaro, I here present a trawl through the back catalogues of Mute artists past and present to deliver an alternative compilation of seasonal songs; songs that range from the traditional, the just plain festive and on to the downright tenuous. Jorge has meticulously prepared a Spotify playlist containing everything we could get our hands on (and many more songs than I’ve covered here). For your optimal listening experience, Jorge’s should be listened to while drinking one of the cocktails from Erasure’s Snow Globe box set.
I often think of Erasure at Christmas, mostly because I remember receiving a 7″ of ‘You Surround Me’ in 1989 in my stocking. The year before, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell narrowly missed securing the coveted Christmas number one slot with Crackers International, an EP which led with ‘Stop!’ but also included the moving ‘She Won’t Be Home’ (renamed ‘Lonely Christmas’ on the slightly dubious The Erasure Christmas Gift 7″); elsewhere on the EP, the duo delivered a spooky version of the traditional carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ complete with authentic choir-boy vocals from Bell, while two years before the pair did a relatively throwaway take on ‘Silent Night’ for the US Yulesville promo LP. The limited formats of the ‘Am I Right’ EP (1991) featured a festive Me Company design of Christmas trees with a photo of a young boy holding presents, while Andy Bell co-hosted Channel 4’s Camp Christmas in 1993, with musical accompaniment from Vince. Andy also featured in a short film called I Hate Christmas as a market stall worker.
2013 was the year that Erasure went all-out Christmas with the celebrated release of Snow Globe. The album collected a number of classic Christmas songs, including ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in updated splendour, as well as some of Vince and Andy’s own tracks. The limited-edition box – or should I say the obligatory limited-edition box, since if Mute did one thing in 2013 it was to ensure that their avid fans went without their turkey after spending out a small country’s GDP on ever more elaborate and expensive box sets – included a bauble, balloon, a packet of sweets and some Erasure-themed cocktail recipes.
Other artists who’ve covered Christmas songs include Echoboy, who released a special split EP with Six By Seven for a Christmas show in Nottingham in 1999 which included a very alternative version of ‘Silent Night’. Richard Hawley also delivered a very easy listening take on ‘Silent Night’ for a special one-track CD given away to people who attended his show in Sheffield in December 2006; during winter gigs and on radio Hawley has also covered ‘Blue Christmas’, made famous by Elvis Presley, but I haven’t heard a recording of that yet (if anyone feels charitable enough at this time of giving to send me one in the name of research, please get in touch).
In the wake of their 2008 album Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp found time to record a beautifully jaunty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ for a US Starbucks compilation, while former Blast First act Sonic Youth recorded a sketchy and somewhat unpleasant version of Martin Mull’s ‘Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope’ for a 1996 compilation, which is definitely one for completists only.
For Can completists, the veteran Krautrockers put out an ultra-twee take on ‘Silent Night’ way back in 1976 on Virgin in the UK. The Residents launched their audacious avant-garde music career with Santa Dog in 1972, a double 7″ single mailed out to various people featuring four tracks by various pseudonymous artists, all of whom were actually The Residents themselves (whoever they are). The band have released several other versions of Santa Dog since 1972 – in 1978, 1998, 1992 (‘Show Us Your Ugly’), 1999 (Refused), 2006, 2012 (SD12) and a fiftieth anniversary version in 2022. Way back in 1956, occasional Blast First artist Sun Ra co-opted the alias The Qualities and issued the doo wop 7-inch ‘It’s Christmas Time’. Backed with the sincere blues of ‘Happy New Year To You!’ this curiosity remains one of the most surprisingly accessible pop releases in the expansive Ra catalogue, and proof that they celebrate the holidays on Saturn just like they do here on Ra’s adopted home.
Einstürzende Neubauten stalwart F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann recorded an album called Merry Christmas which Paul Smith‘s label put out in 1994, but it isn’t at all festive and, besides, it was released in May that year. Still, the album’s sleeve of a hand-drawn tank reminds me of troops putting down arms during World War II, so maybe there’s a connection to the festive season somewhere on this album after all. Mute US duo The Knife recorded a song called ‘Reindeer’ for their eponymous album in 2001; as if the song wasn’t festive enough already with its lyrics about Santa, The Knife issued a version with Christmas bells (renamed ‘Christmas Reindeer’) in 2006 as a free download. Holger Hiller’s eponymous last album for Mute in 2000 included the track ‘Once I Built A Snowman’, while Ben Frost’s 2017 album Music From Fortitude opened with ‘This Is Not Christmas’.
Andreas Dorau, he of one-time Mute group Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, has recorded two Christmas songs. ‘Weihnachten Ist Auch Nicht Mehr Das Was Es Mal War’ is a bouncy electropop track that appeared on Staatsakt’s Santo Klaus sampler in 2016, and just over ten years earlier, he released the track ‘Weihnachten Im Wald’ as a limited-edition of 100 CDs for a Carhartt jeans promotion. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s 1992 Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inch paired together two excellent tracks – the wild rockabilly gestures of ‘Big Yule Log Boogie’ and the ‘Blue Christmas’-esque ‘My Christmas Wish’.
Josh T. Pearson became the first Mute artist to deliver a whole EP of Christmas songs, with his maudlin Rough Trade Bonus disc getting released in 2011 as a Rough Trade shop exclusive accompanying his Mute debut, Last Of The Country Gentlemen. This year, Pearson issued a new song, ‘2020’s Silent Night Hindsight’ straight to YouTube, and a more perfectly cynical take on a shit year you will be hard-pressed to find.
In 2012, Canada’s Ladan Hussein, variously known as Al Spx and later Cold Specks covered Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ‘Christmas Evermore’ for a Christmas compilation, complete with brass and obligatory messages of peace and hope and a bit of Diamanda Galás-esque tremulous wailing. The debut Cold Specks album, I Predict A Beautiful Expulsion (2012) also features the stirring track ‘Winter Solstice’.
Looper‘s 2003 album The Snare features the haunting and evocative ‘New York Snow’, while the ‘Intro’ track on M83‘s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has dreamy lyrics about walking in snow. Way back in 1982, Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric‘s included the sparse ‘Winter Kills’ and an orchestral version of ‘Only You’ was used in a Boots TV ad in 2017. A year before Upstairs At Eric’s, future Mute artists A Certain Ratio recorded the irrepressable long-form funk track ‘Winter Hill’ for their To Each album, while, some twenty years later, Nick Cave& The Bad Seeds released the wintery ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ in 2001, regrettably the closest the songwriter has yet come to recording a seasonal song. Surely there’s a Christmas album in St. Nick somewhere? Moby‘s never done a Christmas track either, though he did remix arch-crooner Tony Bennett’s ‘I’m Coming Home For Christmas’ in 2007, but the track was only ever released as a promo.
Maps, known to his parents as James Chapman, kicked off his pre-Mute career as Short Break Operator, including the haunting ‘Some Winter Song’ as the first track on his debut EP from 2003. In fact, of all the Mute roster, Maps is easily the most prolific Christmas-loving artists. He recorded the frosty ‘Sparks In The Snow’ for his second single, went on to cover East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ for a promo CDr and released ‘Merry Christmas (My Friend)’ straight to Soundcloud in 2013, which is among the most atmospheric things Chapman has ever recorded.
Later still, 2016 Chapman’s collaboration with former Mute artist Polly Scattergood, On Dead Waves, yielded two Christmas songs in the form of a cover of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and the track ‘Winter’s Child’ that closed the duo’s only album together. This year, Polly Scattergood released her own Christmas track, ‘Snowburden’, which followed this year’s career-defining and intensely personal album In This Moment. The new song found the singer somewhere between Laurie Anderson-esque sound art and sensitive balladeering.
in 2020, one of Mute’s longest-serving sons, David Baker – one half of I Start Counting, Fortran 5 and Komputer – released ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a charity single under his Joanna-tinkling alias Dave The Keys in aid of his local London boozer, The Lamb on Holloway Road. Dave (now working as lonelyklown) unwrapped another Christmas treat this year with the emotive ‘Winter In London’, the video for which can be found below.
Speaking of charity, here’s a shameless plug: in 2012, Documentary Evidence compiled MuteResponse, a double download charity compilation album intended as a tribute to Mute’s legacy, and also to rule off the first ten years of writing this very site. On MuteResponse #1, I was able to include one-time Credible Sexy Units act Vic Twenty‘s ‘Christmas In Korea (New Year In Japan)’. Angela ‘Piney Gir’ Penhaligon and Adrian Morris recorded the track years ago but it was never officially released until the MuteResponse compilation. I first heard this track years ago during an interview with Morris, and I always wanted to make sure that others would get to hear it, and so I was delighted to let the song see the light of day. Incidentally, Piney’s done plenty of other Christmas songs, one of my personal favourites being the lovely ‘For The Love Of Others’ in 2009. You can find MuteResponse over at Bandcamp.
So we’ve surveyed the traditional and the festive – what about the tenuous? Look no further than Mute’s most bankable act, Depeche Mode, whose only obvious Christmas connection was Dave Gahan delivering a festive message on the aforementioned Yulesville compilation. However, a year earlier, Depeche’s Alan Wilder and Martin Gore penned the track ‘Christmas Island’ as the B-side to ‘A Question Of Lust’; it isn’t remotely festive, it was released in May that year, it’s named after an island in the Indian Ocean, but it’s got the word Christmas in the title and so, dubious though it is, onto the Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas playlist it goes.
Christmas is supposed to be fun, and so here’s a version of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Bombshelter Brigade, re-titled ‘Merry Christmas’ and taken from the 1988 compilation Christmas At The Bombshelter.
“The lights of the pub are shining. Though we can’t be there to hear, in spirit we’ll all be singing, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”
– ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ by Dave The Keys
In normal times, if you were to head down to The Lamb on London’s Holloway Road on a Thursday evening, you’d be sure to find a certain Dave The Keys tinkling the ivories and playing popular songs at the piano. Said Dave is Mute stalwart David Baker, one half of I Start Counting, Fortran 5 and Komputer, whose prowess with the pub’s upright piano might come as a surprise given how every iteration of his pairing with Simon Leonard has been almost exclusively centred on electronic music.
Well, these aren’t normal times, and The Lamb, like so many pubs across the country, is on its knees thanks to two lockdowns and financially punitive – though necessary – restrictions. In response, Baker has recorded ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a beautifully evocative song where all sales go toward The Lamb’s crowdfunding campaign to avoid its metaphorical last orders.
‘The Lights Of The Pub’ is the singalong around the Joanna that never was, carrying a gentle sway like the last song before closing time. The song is led by Baker’s piano, around which a softly fluctuating synth meanders, joining up with festive bells and a beat as crisp as a frosty winter morn. Here you will find a wistful nostalgia for more carefree times, deeply rooted in a sense of a London community that could permanently lose the centre of its community. Poetic reflections of Baker’s North London locale abound here; an ambulance screams down the Holloway Road; a desperate man sits outsides the Tube station; he sings of an empty train, an ironic inversion of the movement of people across the capital that he sang about in Komputer’s ‘Looking Down On London’.
“I’d been wanting to do a Christmas song for years, but never got round to it,” Baker explains. “I had an idea of doing a London version of ‘Fairytale Of New York’. It started off as ‘The Lights Of The Thames’ but it evolved into ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ when I connected it to the plight of The Lamb and many other pubs around the country. The Lamb is a lovely pub on Holloway Road in North London where I’ve been playing piano for singalongs on Thursdays for a few years now. Unfortunately, it is closed due to the current regulations so they launched a Crowdfunder which I thought I’d try and help out with.”
Support The Lamb’s Crowdfunder here. Buy ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ at Bandcamp.
The Lights Of The Pub by Dave The Keys was released December 4 2020.
I first became aware of Coil through their remixes of Nine Inch Nails, initially on the singles from The Downward Spiral, and then going backwards through their work on Fixed; or, more precisely, that’s when I first heard them.
It felt like I’d always known about them, just like I’d always known about the interconnected web that incorporated them, Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle, that awareness somehow being imprinted on me through hours of reading The Wire, NME and any music magazine I could get my hands on in the 90s; like a lot of the stuff I read about, and which appealed to my sensibilities, at that time, I rarely actually got to hear any of it. Instead, I was forced to imagine it in my head based on the vivid descriptions of Coil’s music alone.
And, quite honestly, it scared me as much as it intrigued me; tempting, on all sorts of levels, but also terrifying. Somewhere along the way I read that they’d recorded a soundtrack to Hellraiser, and that was it. I’d grown up with my mother working in a video store. When I used to meet her after work, I’d stare at the images on the VHS boxes of films like Hellraiser and be gripped by an inconsolable fear, well before I’d even watched any of these films, and yet I couldn’t look away. And I guess that’s how I approached Coil – deeply, strangely intrigued, but also absolutely petrified.
Time passed. I got over my timid wimpiness about horror films and the darker sides of life and found myself absorbing myself in bands like NIN in order to develop a thicker, more robust exterior. But still Coil somehow didn’t directly come into that new weltanschauung – tangentially, for sure, through remixes and the odd track on a compilation or other, but the idea of diving into their catalogue was still nerve-racking, what with all the bootlegs, alternative versions and other recordings. Part of me wanted to keep the mythology intact about the core creative and romantic duo of Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson and John Balance, and part of me was just simply daunted by the exercise; it’s like when someone tells you, at around series ten of something that you failed to watch when it first hit the screens (e.g. Game Of Thrones), the idea of going back that far fills me with absolute and unimaginable dread.
Fortunately, in the case of Coil, a solution is at hand – though it wasn’t, for a long time. A Guide For Beginners – The Voice Of Silver and its counterpart A Guide For Finishers – A Hair Of Gold were released by the Russian Feelee label on the occasion of Coil playing their first show in Moscow in 2001, and have now been released as a double CD edition by the Cold Spring imprint. Calling the pair of collections a ‘best of’ seems utterly, utterly inappropriate, but what these two albums highlight are Coil’s panoply of diverse and outwardly incompatible concerns – dark ambient, twisted folk, skewed lysergic techno experiments, punishing industrial bleakness, psychogeographical excursions into oblique storytelling, magick, mushrooms, moon music and occult mystery.
The collections traverse the entire Coil back catalogue from 1984’s Scatology through to 2000’s second volume of Musick To Play In The Dark, but in a typically non-linear way. Here you’ll find deserved staples like the brooding Italianate operatic gestures of ‘Ostia (The Death Of Pasolini)’ and the nauseating sampleadelica of ‘The Anal Staircase’ from Horse Rotorvator (1986), or the svelte electro of ‘Further Back And Faster’ from Love’s Secret Domain (1991). You’ll also find more surprising inclusions, like the urgent, trance-like ‘A.Y.O.R’ from 1993’s Backwards bootleg and the low-slung paranoid dub-dread of ‘Scope’ from 1990’s ‘Wrong Eyes’ 7-inch. The discordant serenity of ‘A Cold Cell’, on A Guide For Beginners, was effectively a solitary exclusive here, a different version appearing on The Wire’s sixth volume of their enduring Wire Tapper series.
Across two hours, and when taken as a whole, these two albums make for a disturbing and trippy listen. Coil’s brand of ambient music has a rough edge, its outer fringes laced with dangerous temptations and a languid, savage latency which leaves you feeling ever so slightly unsettled. When in the mood, Christopherson and Balance could also produce sublime and beautiful music. The edit of ‘Batwings (A Limnal Hymn)’ from Musick To Play In The DarkVol. 2 is nothing short of devastating, its delicate, ephemeral, libidinal poignancy all the more striking when you know it was played at Balance’s funeral two short years later.
It is inevitably the darker moments, however, that prevail. ‘The First Five Minutes After Death’ (mistitled as ‘The First Five Minutes After Violent Death’, the name of a completely different version) from 1987’s Gold Is The Metal (With The Broadest Shoulders) has all the harrowing and unswerving brutality of one of Warhol’s Death and Disaster screenprints of car accidents. Long after the albums finished, I was still haunted by the chilling melody of ‘The Lost Rivers Of London’, originally recorded for the Succour -Terrascope Benefit Album in 1996. The song is a tumultuous ride through the hidden tunnels and passages of the pulsating, demoniacal London beneath London, finally arriving at a scene of dispassionate, detached horror not unlike Velvet Underground’s ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’; its melody is as chillingly insistent as Elliott Smith’s plaintive ‘Figure 8’ and a soft, conspiratorial delivery from Balance is like listening to someone gently narrating your worst nightmares. (Note to my younger self: you were right to be scared of Coil’s music(k).)
Cold Spring’s reissue preserves the vague impenetrability of the Feelee original albums. Like the Russian CDs, the new edition lacks any information, being intended for the Coil-curious novice but also directly appealing to the aficionado, the follower that can discern Stephen Thrower’s and Danny Hyde’s contributions to Coil from Drew McDowall’s and Thighpaulsandra’s. At first my instinct was to find this frustrating, a ‘deluxe’ package lacking the expected qualities of a ‘deluxe’ package – no credits, no liner notes – feeling like little more than a bootleg in an official release’s clothing.
As I turned the fold-out cardboard case in my hands, I slowly came to see this artefact as the precise embodiment of Coil: an elusive, unknowable proposition, where answers are fewer than questions, an evolution that took their music from post-Throbbing Gristle industrial reference points to a sort of electro-psychedelia, and whose inner impulses, motivations and secrets Balance and Christopherson took to their untimely graves.
A Guide For Beginners – The Voice Of Silver / A Guide For Finishers – A Hair Of Gold by Coil was released October 23 2020 by Cold Spring.
Words: Mat Smith. With thanks to Gary at Red Sand and Bryan.
Queereteria TV was last year’s third (and hopefully not final) part of Barney Ashton-Bullock and Chris Frost’s Torsten series. Starring Erasure’s Andy Bell, Ashton-Bullock and West End legend Peter Straker alongside a cast of bawdy accomplices, Queereteria TV imaged a post-apocalyptic (post-pandemic?) world of really, really bad TV and morals gone savagely to hell. It was a show of raucous, vivid brilliance featuring some of Ashton-Bullock and Frosts’ finest songs in the Torsten series and powerful, often heart-wrenchingly poignant performance from Andy Bell.
I watched the show at the series’ spiritual home of the Above The Stag Theatre in Vauxhall on April 24 2019 with Richard Evans from the Erasure Information Service, and it was one of the best nights out in London I’d had in a long, long time. Alongside some brilliant and truly memorable performances by the three principal vocalists, I remember alternately laughing uproariously and wincing uncomfortably at the antics of the show’s villainous Lady Domina Bizarre (brilliantly executed by Matthew Baldwin).
Etched in my memory those performances are, a convenient memento of the live Queereteria TV performances is now available in the form of an eight-song EP through Bandcamp, featuring recordings from the final three night’s of the show’s run. Here you will find stunning live versions of songs that appeared on the accompanying Andy Bell album, including his stirring duet of ‘Lowland Lowriders’ with Ashton-Bullock and his mournful, haunting solo piece, ‘A Hundred Years Plus Today’. The EP can be found at Bandcamp here.
“It’s so lovely to hear these songs again,” reflects Ashton-Bullock. “It made me very proud to be a part of such a pioneering, cult, theatrical production.”
For fans of Ashton-Bullock’s incredible vocabulary and borderless approach to poetry, two of his ruminative pieces on the topic of fame were recently published in Scottish periodical Dreich (‘Made in Scotland from words’). The ‘Fame’ edition can be purchased here.
I spoke to Margaret Hermant and Neil Leiter – the core of Belgium-based modern classical unit Echo Collective – in February 2018. At that point two albums featuring the Collective were about to be issued – World Beyond, a classical interpretation of Erasure’s World Be Gone that was the focus of my interview, and a classical reinterpretation of Radiohead’s complex, sonically challenging Amnesiac. Leiter had hinted at other projects, one of which was a collaboration with Maps, which surfaced as 2019’s outstanding Colours. Reflect. Time. Loss.
The other project Leiter mentioned is what became The See Within, the first Echo Collective album to contain original material. At that point in February 2018, The See Within wasn’t even written; it merely existed as an idea, something he and Hermant were keen to do, but its execution seemed relatively remote. Their publisher, on the back of performances of Amnesiac and the reception to World Beyond, suggested that they should be prepared to “clone themselves” as classical interpreters for hire. It was clear when talking to Leiter that the idea, lucrative though it may well have been, had limited appeal: the goal was their own music, and what became The See Within thus became a driving focus.
The See Within contains eight pieces for strings and magnetic resonator piano, an adapted piano that allows long, string-like tonalities to emerge. The album finds the core duo of Hermant (violin, harp) and Leiter (viola) collaborating with a third member of the collective, Gary De Cart, whose use of the MRP on standout pieces like ‘The Witching Hour’ or the lengthy ‘Respire’ gives the album its distinctive melodic character. Despite the emergence of strange, alien sounds and textures (for example, the opening moments of the evocatively-titled ‘Glitch’ or the gentle, evolving music box clusters of the beatific ‘Unknown Gates’), the Echo Collective mantra is to avoid studio effects other than subtle reverb. Theirs is an approach born of the concert hall, of live music, of being able to use instruments to their fullest potential, without resorting to the studio to achieve their idiosyncratic artistic vision.
The result is an album that stands out in the crowded marketplace of modern classical music; an album that also stands apart from their previous interpretative or collaborative work yet feels inextricably linked through the way that Hermant, Leiter and De Cart interact with one another. Here you find moments of improvisatory freedom overlapping with rigid composition, of traditional playing effortlessly overlapping with instrument adaptations, giving each and every piece on The See Within an acoustic personality and sonic resonance unto itself.
A more engaging modern classical album you will not find.
The See Within by Echo Collective is released October 30 2020 by 7K!Echo Collective are published by Mute Song.
Album released today via Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords. Watch the video for ‘Faito’ below.
Regarding The Auguries is the portentously-titled fourth album from Philadelphia electronic unit Alka. It is an album that reflects back our myriad concerns about the world; a teeming, restless work surveying global civil unrest, freak earthly phenomena and a sense that order is slowly being dismantled around us. Although it was recorded long before lockdown, its grim outlook makes it a fitting release during the grip of an existential crisis that has impacted us all.
After being a solo project of Bryan Michael since the early 2000s, for Regarding The Auguries Alka is re-imagined as a unit of Bryan Michael, visual artist Erika Tele and fellow Philadelphia electronic musician Todd Steponick, a line-up familiar from their recent, pre-lockdown shows.
The eleven tracks on the album were written in what Bryan describes as “slow motion” – he would start an idea; Todd would respond to it; Erika would add her distinctive vocals, which would then be woven through the track like another instrument. A track might then be disassembled, deconstructed and rebuilt, or its atomised components could end up as the basis for another track completely. What emerged from this evolving, morphing, shapeshifting sonic conversation is a body of work that could not have existed without the interplay between the unit’s three members.
From the outset, Alka wanted to make this an album encompassing human reactions to the times we live in. Fear, dread and unknowable mysteries might dominate its sonic architecture, but here we also find personal emotion and vulnerability on the tender ‘My Heart’, led by a delicate, emotive vocal from Erika, or a sense of being dismayed by an inability to decipher the fact from fiction on ‘Doubt’.
Here we also can identify with the feeling of life’s certainties unravelling around us on the album’s gradually-evolving opener ‘Fractured Time’. The bold, robust ‘Faito’ deploys a Japanese word used to inspire confidence and encouragement, while ‘Scrapple’ finds Erika’s vocal positioned with shouty insistence on a spiky electro track inspired by the gilets jaunes riots in Paris.
Throughout the album, we hear melodies that glitch and splinter into strange, unpredictable shapes. We hear sharp edits and off-kilter time signatures, horror movie samples and brief gospel interjections; on the widescreen ‘Earth Crisis’ we hear a chilling sample of unexplained natural atmospherics that sound like the earth foretelling of its impending final moments.
“An augury is like fortune telling that comes from looking at the patterns of bird flight,” explains Bryan of the album’s title. “Those patterns usually prophecy some sort of doom. I’d come up with the title a long time ago, but when we were working on the album, it seemed to become more and more connected to the world around us. In the end, it feels like it’s become a very timely album.”
More timely it could not be. Regarding The Auguries is a dark, contemplative electronic album made by three human beings staring fixedly at our suddenly uncertain futures.
Regarding The Auguries will be released as a limited-edition CD, download and stream through VeryRecords on 9th October 2020.veryrecords.com
Track list: 1. Fractured Time 2. Widthchild 3. Faito 4. Earth Crisis 5. Scrapple 6. Sourcery 7. My Heart 8. Solfège 9. Doubt 10. Dead Like Me 11. King Card 12. Solfège (Fujiya & Miyagi Remix) 13. Faito (Vince Clarke Remix) 14. Fractured Time (DJ Jekyll of Shelter Remix)
Credits Bryan Michael – synths, programming, vocoder, worry Erika Tele – vocals, werds, projections, fear Todd Steponick – synths, programming, treatments, doubt Vince Clarke – additional synths and programming on ‘King Card’ Elizabeth Joan Kelly – guest vocals on ‘King Card’ Starkey – mastering
Alka biography Bryan Michael started operating under the name Alka in 2000, tapping into the local IDM scene that centred around the city’s Broketronica experimental electronic music club night. With Principles Of Suffocation (2007) and A Dog Lost In The Woods (2009), he subtly railed against IDM’s restrictive covenants, offering a brooding, almost foreboding strand of electronic music. 2017’s The Colour Of Terrible Crystal was released through Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords, and found Bryan fusing together moments of broken electro beats and sparkling melodies, supported by stunning visual contributions from artist Erika Tele and sonic interventions from fellow Philadelphia electronic musician Todd Steponick. Alka is now a trio of Bryan, Erika and Todd.
About VeryRecords VeryRecords was founded in Brooklyn by Erasure’s Vince Clarke in 2016. We are a small record label dedicated to releasing very fine electronic music. The label was launched with ‘2 Square’ by Vince Clarke and Paul Hartnoll, which was then followed by releases from Reed & Caroline, Alka and Brook.
“Shaping up as a label to keep a serious ear on.” – Electronic Sound
I’m going to be completely honest here – I don’t get the maths and science behind this new EP from Jono Podmore’s longstanding Kumo alias. Here’s what Podmore has to say:
One of the many things that Euclid, the 4th century BC Greek mathematician and the Father of Geometry, left us is the first algorithm: a method to compute the greatest common divisor between 2 given integers. The algorithm is used in particle physics and computer science, but in 2005 Canadian mathematician GodfriedToussaint noticed something extraordinary when he applied it to musical rhythm. Using the algorithm to distribute beats and silences as evenly as possible in a bar generates almost all of the most important world music rhythms, from Sub-Saharan African music in particular. For example, if you have a bar with 8 pulses and you want to have 5 beats in that bar, the way the algorithm places the beats gives us the Cuban “Cinquillo” rhythm, which has its roots in West African music.
The examples are endless: 13 into 24 gives us a whole series of rhythms used by the Aka Pygmies of the upper Sangha. Euclid lived his entire life in Alexandria in Egypt, and Herodotus said that the basis of Greek culture was African. Maybe there’s another strand to that relationship we’ve only just uncovered.
The 3 tracks on this EP use all the Euclidean rhythms in bars of 9, 12, and 13, but going further, as the algorithm is used to generate the harmony too. Chords and modes can all be derived by spacing the notes across the octave, for example, 6 distributed evenly across 12 generates a whole tone scale.
See, it’s like I understand the words – individually – but when you put them all together into three paragraphs, that GCSE A in Maths from 1993 suddenly seems pretty useless. So I’ll do what I usually do and focus on what I can hear instead.
‘South African Euclid’ begins with a wiry tendril of electrical current which provides the constantly-evolving thread weaving throughout the track, sometimes keeping itself quietly amused in the background and at others rising noisily to the surface; there it vies with a squelchy, acidic pattern, breathy vocal samples and a juddering African rhythm developed with the Euclidean method. The EP’s second track, the wittily-named ‘Euclid On The Block’, carries a latent urgency that could be a restrained form of drill and bass, all frantic percussion and murmuring synth sounds that threaten to coalesce into a club-friendly synchronicity but which instead prowl edgily around a menacing, omnipresent bass tone.
The EP’s final track, ‘Thirteenth Euclid’, sits somewhere in between its two Euclidean siblings. Opening with overlapping organ tones, the piece opens out into what feels like a delicious electronic bossa nova, only with unpredictable synth interjections like alien transmissions issued from a distant galaxy where you might ordinarily expect to hear a Stan Getz solo.
It should come as no surprise that Podmore has chosen to infuse this EP with this type of intellectual exploration of the science underpinning rhythms. He currently holds down a job as the Professor of Popular Music at Cologne’s Hochschule für Muzik, whose professorial alumni include Karlheinz Stockhausen; one imagines that Stockhausen would have approved of the deconstructivist approach to applying these mathematical concepts to musical theory and the exacting precision with which Podmore has developed the three tracks included on the EP, while also leaving room for sounds to float free of their grid-like shackles.
Euclidean Patterns by Kumo was released August 14 2020 by Sound-Sense.
Savage Songs Of Brutality And Food. By The Extreme Angels Of Parody is an album by Simon Fisher Turner and his two children, Isabella and Jasper. Its release was prompted by a conversation between SFT and Charles Powne from the Soleilmoon label about a specific album of children’s music, which in turn gave Fisher Turner pause to mention a project he’d been working on using the recorded voices of his children, which turned out to be this album.
It is a deliberately personal album, but one that is faithful to an aesthetic that Fisher Turner Sr. has been employing for the last few years under the banner of Guerrilla Audio; the concept also extends as far back as you care to look in his back catalogue, right back to when he first alighted upon a Revox tape machine. It involves making discrete, covert recordings that find their way into later sound works, adding a naturalistic, unpredictable quality alongside electronic structures; they sit somewhere between field recordings and the wiretapped conversations of vintage Scanner.
In the case of Savage Songs…, the fifteen pieces included here represent the majority of the lifetimes of Fisher Turner’s two children, now deep into their teenage years. They are constructed from recordings that Fisher Turner made of them while they were growing up – little nonsense poems, overheard conversations, early attempts at French, the sounds of innocent young minds hard at work learning or playing or inventing fantastical worlds that they then inhabit, even if briefly. They are like tiny time capsules of Isabella and Jasper’s youth, otherwise lost to the mists of memory and age were it not for their father’s idea to recor them. The effect is both universally nostalgic for anyone who looks back with misty eyes on the all-too-rapid maturity of their children (and who wishes they’d preserved those memories better; more respectfully; more completely), yet also deeply personal for Fisher Turner who so attentively documented their growing up in this way.
Nostalgia might abound in the mournfully-arranged pieces like ‘Cream and Latin Odor’, ‘The Sad Skipping Story’ and ‘The Mighty Dinosaurs’ (the latter with The Elysian Quartet), which have a sweetness and poignancy in the musical accompaniments, but a sense of inevitable playfulness can also be found here. ‘OH YEAH, forget about it, YEAH’ judders along on fragmented electronic patterns like sonic hopscotch, underpinned by a dismissive refrain from Isabella that, from a teenage mouth, would sound cutting and hurtful; ‘BlahXBlahXBlahX’ is noisy and rambunctious, nudged forward by retro computer game chip sounds and a processed “blah-blah-blah” refrain that suggests young Jasper was completely oblivious to his dad following him around with a microphone; ‘Squirrel Song’ is a stentorian waltz set to springy synths that commences with some gentle harmonising from the two young Turners; ‘JAZZ JAM corner’ sounds like a short offcut from The Residents’ Commercial Album.
In his honest, truthful and tender press release Fisher Turner says that there will be no second volume, in spite of the hours of unused recordings that remain on his overflowing hard-drive. His children are now 17 and 15, and the idea of being trailed around by a doting father with sound intentions no longer seems as fun as it did when they were tiny. Savage Songs…, then, represents a loving gift; a one-off; a unique paean to unique childhoods and the unstoppable act of getting older.
Savage Songs Of Brutality And Food. By The Extreme Angels Of Parody by Isabella, Jasper and Simon Fisher Turner is released September 4 2020 by Soleilmoon.
An email to Simon Fisher Turner, 6 August 2020.
Thank you for sending this across.
I have to say, for all sorts of reasons, the press release moved me profoundly, and I confess to having shed a tear while reading it. Anyone with children who have suddenly grown up almost without you noticing – because it wasn’t sudden; never could be; you just didn’t see, or perhaps refused to accept, the signs – would recognise some of the sentiment in that. And that’s before I have even listened to it. My two daughters are 14 and 12. I don’t recognise them. I’m just some old fart whose music tastes they do not want to understand and who is boring because he tries to work hard to provide for them.
I remember once, probably in 2008 or 2009, sending you a text from St Albans. I was waiting outside a uniform shop where my now-14-year-old was being fitted out for her first school uniform. I have no idea why I said this to you, nor what conversation we were in the middle of at the time. You told me you could relate. It felt like her future and her sister’s future were starting in earnest. Now they try to customise their uniforms, skirt length, hair length etc to the limits of what might get them a detention and I’m still waiting outside shops while they try on clothes.
Strangely, too, something in your press release text made me nostalgic for my own childhood. It was the reference to Soleilmoon asking about an album of children’s songs. I had such an album as a kid. It was called All Aboard, a beautiful LP that had all sorts of classic songs on it, like Bernard Cribbins singing ‘Right Said Fred’. It also had ‘The Laughing Policeman’ on it, which got scratched on one of the policeman’s laughs, creating a locked groove that was utterly disturbing for this toddler playing nearby and might explain why the cut-ups of Burroughs and loops that I read about (before hearing them) fired up my imagination so much. I kept meaning to buy a second-hand copy while the girls were small, and now they’re not. And neither am I.
I look forward to listening to this and writing about it before release. You can probably guess the thoughts and nostalgia with which I will approach it. Think of this as a preview.
‘I do if it’s nice music in a nice world,’ I said.
‘In a nice workd there is no nice music,’ she said. ‘In a nice world the air doesn’t vibrate.’
– Haruki Murakami, ‘New York Mining Disaster’ (1980-81). From ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ (2006)
This is not a nice world. Everywhere you go you hear the vibrations of anger, disenchantment, disappointment, disillusionment and hatred. The world was in a parlous state going into this year thanks to populism, the rising spectre of authoritarianism, a disbelief in the ability of politicians to do the right thing, gross inequality and environmental disaster. The first reports of Covid-19 that arrived from China late last year suggested things would become further destabilised.
Scottish electronic musician Thomas Leer was fully aware of the terrible state of the world when he issued ‘Dark Days Are Here Again’ in 2019. A twenty-one minute brooding techno track, ‘Dark Days Are Here Again’ used a framework of rigid beats and menacing electronics as a bedrock for processed samples of Trump; like in a Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert political satire segment, out of context these samples sound almost laughable, but in their grim rhetoric you can hear the divisive catalyst for so much ill feeling around the world.
Thomas admits that he was “lashing out” with that track. It would prove to be the opening salvo in what would become his latest album, Emotional Hardware. Recorded in late 2018 and early 2019, it was created during a period of intense turbulence that has only become more turbulent since. It is unpleasant music for an increasingly unpleasant world.
Emotional Hardware couldn’t be more different from Thomas Leer’s previous album, Reaching Never Quite. “That was a kind of a tone poem to the Clyde,” he explains. “The music on that is quite restful and fairly easy to listen to.” The album found Thomas, who spent the bulk of his career in London, reflecting on his surroundings after moving back to Scotland. Now based in Greenock, not far from where he grew up in Port Glasgow, it seemed like he was set to use the local environment as the primary basis for his future material.
Thomas Leer doesn’t do what you expect, however. Throughout his career he’s made conscious, deliberate left turns, which means that the harder edges of Emotional Hardware almost feel expected after the relative serenity of Reaching Never Quite. “I do these departures all the time,” he says “I just don’t always bother releasing them. I’ve got a jazz album that I recorded about ten years ago, and I keep meaning to put it up online, but I just never get around to it.” He suggests that his next project will probably being a fully acoustic folk and blues album with no electronics on it at all, but reaffirms that his main love will always be electronic music, delivered in “whatever form feels right at the time.”
Irrespective of how they ultimately might sound, all of Thomas’s tracks start in the same way – as improvisations. “I usually start off with an idea,” he explains. “I have an idea for a sound, or a mood that I want, then I just mess about until I find something that I think fits. It could be a rhythm, a drum part, or it could be a drone, or just some kind of noise. It can be anything, really. I find the more abstract it is the better because it triggers other things more. It throws you off in different directions. I like to just chuck things into the mix to see what will happen, and to see if it fries up or not.”
The idea that emerged ahead of what became Emotional Hardware was a sense of negativity. “Over the past couple of years, I’ve just felt dark,” he says. “I’ve had really dark feelings about things, politically and socially, and I think that’s just what came out in the music. I wasn’t really intending to do anything like that, but that’s what happened.
“It really just is an expression of how I was feeling at the time,” he continues. “You could see the political situation getting worse and worse, but even so I didn’t expect it to get as bad as it has. I wanted this to be music that inspires thought, to some degree, that inspires you to think about things a bit. Without writing actual songs about it.”
When I last spoke to Thomas a couple of years ago, he expected that his next project would be much more song-based, and he’d rediscovered his love of playing the guitar. Thomas’s distinctive vocal hasn’t been heard since 2015’s lounge pop album From Sci-Fi To Barfly for Klanggalerie, a collection of tracks that sounded nothing like anything he’d released before, all light jazz and swung beats – but remember, Thomas doesn’t like to stay in any one musical lane. Around the time that Reaching Never Quite was released, he’d started singing again, mostly at gigs to support a gallery exhibition celebrating his pioneering work with fellow Port Glasgow DIY musician Robert Rental.
In the end, while he’s continued to write songs for voice and guitar, Emotional Hardware only contains one vocal song – the album’s title track. It is a voice that it almost completely unrecognisable from any of Thomas’s pop songs, processed into an angry, spoken word blues that sounds like late-period Iggy Pop.
“I’ve always loved the blues,” he says, noting that it’s the traditional music of resentment and oppression. “‘Emotional Hardware’ was meant to be a kind of electronic blues track. When I was writing it, I was thinking a lot about David Lynch, and I wanted to make into an aural David Lynch film, which is why the voice is the way it is. The music that Lynch produces himself is blues-based. So there was a kind of a connection there in terms of an inspiration, and influence.”
At first listen, the album’s title track could be read as some sort of comment on device dependency and how we’re so eager to express our feelings, demons and secrets to anyone who’ll listen through technology. “When I write lyrics, I usually like to make them have double-meanings, and there is a sort of double intent in that song,” he explains. “To me, ‘emotional hardware’ alludes to having to create a hard shell for yourself, and arming yourself up for what’s coming at you. Life is hard, for a lot of people, not just financially, but emotionally. We all go through hard times. You need to develop some kind of defence. I was thinking about that scene in Apocalypse Now, where Marlon Brando is talking about horror, and making fear your friend, because if it’s not your friend it’s your mortal enemy.”
‘Emotional Hardware’ sets the scene for the rest of the record, full of bludgeoning beats and angry synth sounds that continues into ‘Factory Ghosts’. From then on, there are few moments of respite, and any flashes of gentle melody sound vaguely uncertain when heard in the context of the feisty sounds that surround them. “There was a sort of shape to the way I sequenced the album,” says Thomas. “Those first two tracks put you right into the darkness – they’re pretty much hitting you on the head and telling you what this album’s all about.” The album then proceeds into an edit of the ‘Dark Days Are Here Again’ track that presaged the album, its central premise suddenly sounding more disappointed, jaded and sad at the turn of world events than angry. Thomas says that it was intended to lift your spirits after the onslaught of the first few tracks, but it’s hard to see precisely how – once you put on this album, you’re plunged into Thomas’s grim state of mind and it’s hard to escape.
On ‘Civilised Language And Thought’, Thomas uses samples of readings by the philosopher Alan Watts, among other things known for bringing the teachings of Buddhism to Western audiences. “That’s me trying to make some sort of sense of things,” muses Thomas. “On that track, Watts is talking about how we’re sort of programmed, pretty much from birth, by governments and the education system to be what we’re going to be, and how we’re sort of powerless to fight it. That’s a big thing for me. I feel that people don’t do enough to break their pre-conditioning. I’ve spent most of my life doing just that, or attempting to do that – making my own mind up, and making my own decisions.” Let us not forget, after all, that his musical instinct was formed during the punk scene that attracted him down to London; a scene that enabled people to become something other than what society expected of them.
By the time we get to the album’s concluding track, ‘Sculpted Modulations No. 1’, we’re squarely back in what Thomas acknowledges as “pretty depressing” territory. The track is a good example of something that has run throughout Thomas’s way of writing and releasing music – namely, not doing the expected. On ‘Sculpted Modulations No. 1’, after being subjected to more layers of uninterrupted electronic noise, a trip-hop beat suddenly presents itself, giving a completely unanticipated moment of levity before subsiding once more into a dangerous sonic swampland.
“I’ve always tried to be that way, all the way through my career, musically,” he affirms. “I was just thinking about that the other day. One of the very first things that inspired me to write my own material was when I was in music class in school. We were studying Haydn, and his Symphony No. 94, which is known as the ‘Surprise Symphony’. The whole idea was that he would lull you into a sense of security, and then hit you with these really big chords.
“That fascinated me. I thought to myself, ‘Well, if I ever make music, that’s what I want to do: make music like that that surprises you all the time.’ So there’s always that intent when I start to write anything. I always try to put something in there that will take you off in different avenues.”
In a way, the themes on Emotional Hardware are far from a surprise. They reflect back an undercurrent of what all but the most ardent optimistic – or maybe deluded – person is feeling right now, and if you look around there are more and more albums being released that tap into this undercurrent of anger and dejection. I suggest that Emotional Hardware is the perfect soundtrack to the state of the world as it balances on a knife-edge.
“I suppose you’re right,” concludes Thomas with a slightly nervous laugh. “If you enjoy atonal music, that is.”
Emotional Hardware by Thomas Leer is released August 29 2020 by Smitten Kitten. With thanks to John.