Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CATSCARS – Construction ( White Plague Records 2011 )

Issued back in March of this year, the economically titled CONSTRUCTION is the debut from one of the more interesting electronic entities currently operating in Dublin. Rough mixes posted on myspace a year or 2 ago pointed towards the evolution of a non-derivatave sound and this instantly sparked an interest. This is the result of 2 years of sporadic conjuring, or as stated by Catscars, “ a labour of love, but mostly pain ”. Whatever frustrations or hic-ups that might suggest, they’re not apparent in the completed work. Instead, CONSTRUCTION delivers a confident, colourful and eerie soundscape and an impressively developed approach to synthesised music.

The album’s opener, GOING DOWN acts almost as a title piece to the album, it’s brief and throbs to a marching beat with haunting layers of vocals and murmuring synths, hinting at the desolate playfulness to come. B-SONG is the nearest the album gets to bleak early 80’s electropop. This disguises itself like an obscure b-side but still manages to retain a disquieting air. NEW HOUSE reverberates with a wash of electronics, great haunting vocal tones and a tense building percussion towards the end, suggesting that something evil is about to jump out of a wardrobe. WISH I HAD is one of a number of tracks built around a driving beat that lies somewhere between an 80’s gothic rhythm and something which nods towards one of many experimental German entities from the previous decade. By now, a very apparent Catscars trademark emerges - the vocals sitting down into the synthesised layers rather than being up front. In many ways they’re treated as another instrument and not vocals in a conventional sense. Whatever the intention it works to the benefit of a very identifiable sound. MONSONG is built on the spine of another determined drum pattern with reverb heavy keyboard, randomly generated eerie electronic squeals and twisting tones rising throughout. The aptly titled TOYING WITH ME weaves screams in and out of a warbled tune that balances on the knife edge of playful and ominous. THIS EVENING OF BULL hangs on the suspense of a ringing single note signature with a distant voice and ebbing waves of sound and is one of the more free form pieces on the album. DROID is rigidly mapped out by a tribal rhythm, a monotone drone and suggestions of melody that seem to steer cautiously clear of the main drive. It’s evocative and playful and is over too soon... this marching droid obviously didn’t have far to travel. WOLVES is very different, building a minimal techno scaffold like Plastikman at it’s very best and rather than being in conflict with the rest of the album as you might expect, it’s louring resonance compliments the floating gothic tones elsewhere. The final track NO FUN starts in the same vein but evolves through a glitchy rhythm into a wonderfully creepy melody that plays on nightmarish unpleasantness. It’s a sublime and appropriate ending.

The strength of CONSTRUCTION lies in a minimal and eclectic approach to electronics. It’s a remarkably individual sounding album which effortlessly balances a scale of harrowing soundscape and sonic mischief. On top of this, it's a slow burner, taking a few listens to break the surface and realise what’s unique here, which only adds to the long shelf life it will have to many ears. And while it’s quite possible to ascertain where the inspiration for these constructions might come from, the Catscars sound ultimately succeeds by not trying to be anything other than itself. – Boz


Sunday, July 10, 2011

BIOSPHERE – N-Plants ( Touch 2011 )

A few years back, Geir Jenssen planted a diatribe on his webspace stating that Biosphere was no longer touring due to the general unhealthy lifestyle that comes with the trappings of endless crappy food, airports, hotels, air conditioning etc. Instead, he was simply going to stay in Norway, compose and breath clean air. This conscientiously low carbon footprint approach has always come across in Biosphere’s remarkable output. Everything has consistently sounded airy and clean, whether it was the acidy minimalism of MICROGRAVITY (’91) or the glacial ambience of the much lauded SUBSTRATA (’97). Aside from a live album in 2009 ( also on TOUCH MUSIC - run by various Hafler Trio personnel ), which didn’t really offer anything spectacularly new or different from the studio tracks, this is the first material from Biosphere since 2006’s excellent rhythm driven DROPSONDE.

N-PLANTS is a concept album in the purest sense. It takes it’s inspiration from the Japanese postwar nuclear power plant programme -  the vision, the futurism, the architecture and the context in nature ( the fact that many of these nuclear plants are built in picturesque coastline locations, but also on notoriously temperamental fault lines ) .. and all this was recorded before the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that led to the Fukushima crisis in March 2011, which just adds to it’s premonitory strength.

Each track is named after a nuclear reactor and the opener, SENDAI-1 is a gentle grainy sequence which evolves just under the surface, looping like Susumu Yokota at his most ambient. SHIKA-1 is very much in the DROPSONDE mode; downbeat and rhythmic with low breezy jets of electronic noise releasing sporadically as a sort of audio coolant. JOYO-1 is more abstract, sounding like an industrious ( rather than industrial ) machine part innocently doing what it was designed to do as an eerie backdrop of keyboards sneak up behind it. This is the first sinister tone leaking into the album. IKATA-1 is a sleepier soundscape with fizzing effects drifting in and out. MONJU-1, one of the album’s finest tracks sounds more like something Cluster would come out with, only for the whispery Japanese female voice that visits it. It’s all too brief but is revisited 3 tracks later with what sound like brief distorted fragments of emergency sirens ( Monju has been mostly suspended from action for the last 16 years due to a leak and subsequent attempted cover-up scandal ). GENKAI-1 has the air of 2nd generation Berlin-school synth about it ( think Rolf Trostel ) and OI-1; a reactor built in 1979 is given a minimal 70’s delivery. Unsurprisingly, It wouldn’t sound out of place on Kraftwerk’s RADIOACTIVITY. The final track, FUJIKO, powers it’s own delicate kinetic pulse in a minimal Germanic way and is also punctuated by a Japanese voice although it’s difficult to ascertain the context of this as it’s too soft to simply be the obvious - a news sample or eye-witness account of something foreboding.

The strength of Biosphere has always been the ability to remain extremely organic no matter what the sonic output. This is Biosphere moving forward with a very healthy curiosity for new territory and an understanding that there would be little bravery in returning to the freeform Nordic ambience of INSOMNIA or anything else from that period. Those albums were masterpieces that sealed Geir Jenssen’s leftfield reputation in ice, high above the melt water, but N-PLANTS displays a wonderful intuition for something new. The last time someone attempted a major work on the “Atomic Japan” theme it was Tangerine Dream with their commissioned, meandering and rather flaccid new age ATOMIC SEASONS series. By sounding like every other crap record they’ve made for 20 years, they got it very wrong. Here, Biosphere approaches from a different latitude and gets it very right - BOZ


Thursday, July 7, 2011

ESTEL - A Massive, Glorious, Uphill, Shit-Fight ( Little Plastic Tapes/Headwrecker 2011)

Dublin is by no means exclusive in it’s ability to be a harsh environment to that which sticks around for longer than the ever decreasing attention span of it’s troglodyte and subterranean music audience, but operating here is far from favourable. It’s an undeniably difficult tunnel to crouch through, with no promise of a pinhole of light ahead, if you accept it be that way. The other way is to be that thing from some apocalyptic movie that keeps coming no matter how many rounds are pumped into it... But what do you do when you long outlive your original phytoclimate? Like fungus, like cockroaches, like feral kids and like Estel, some entities feed on this. 
“A Massive, Glorious, Uphill, Shit-Fight” by name and nature, Estel’s hardball belligerence has been self-serving them equal dollops of longevity, antipathy, respect and obscurity all the way through to this, their 5th album ( excluding the recent Watt/Mackay collaboration ) in more years than most of their audience have been present to recall. Verily, they are the Anvil of the Dublin underground.

 The sprawling GANG OF MEN weaves an expansive mesh of cheap practice room spillover of 2 different bands trying to out compose each other through the plasterboard. One grinds out a dissonance of cascading guitar noise and the other loops incessantly   through a weird piano recital signature... this falsely relents after 9 minutes and then continues to build for a further 5, at which point it switches to a more familiar Estel mode with chiming keyboards leading a sludgy chugging riff which yields only when the every last dribble is spent. TEN TO TEN is very different territory. It drifts at a Calexico pace, although not quite rendering itself as sonically sedate, making excellent use of layers of   female vocal towards the end. Not dwelling for too long in a mood that could slip towards an uncharacteristic lightness of being ( TEN TO TEN is under 5 minutes, a soundbite by Estel’s standards nowadays ), the condensed psychedelic trudge metal of THE CONSUMPTION unfolds slowly alternating between a heavy gravitational pull and a teased pulse. In a welcome return to a structure that seems very old-school Estel ( with people who can approach the idea competently ) MONKEY KNIFE FIGHT is colourful, upbeat and manic, clocking in at a mere 4.34 mins. And just like a monkey knife fight would, this piece of music ends abruptly, the defeated monkey no doubt shrieking off at great speed through the mangroves. HEAD ON A STICK leads out like the Wurlitzer soundtrack to some innocent undulating fairground ride tweaked by evil carnies to mangle it’s patrons when least expected. This track is a very finely honed and progressive Estel, teasing out the menace without resorting to heavy dynamics or a final descent into 5 minutes of noise that nobody is going to listen to. Instead we are simply left with the closing statement from Ted Bundy’s trial to contemplate.

It’s been a huge gap since the last Estel studio offering and they are rumoured to have a queued stockpile of further noise awaiting release. In their definite favour, they recently slimmed to a more compact 4 piece, the size this band need to be to allow the music breathing space rather than crowding it, something they’ve definitely done in the past. “A Massive, Glorious, Uphill, Shit-Fight” drags an ever wider spectrum ideas into the Estel mincer and holds itself as a confident representation of a band with a lot of creative ground still to tread upon. For the Wretch’s ill-gotten currency, the final two tracks are the definite highlights.




Friday, July 1, 2011

BRIGITTE FONTAINE - L'Un N'Empeche Pas L'Autre ( Polydor/Universal 2011 )

This is the 17th album by the wonderfully insane old crone of avante garde, variété Française, chanson and unclassifiable whatnot ( I simply have her listed in my itunes as “Weirdo” along with Laurie Anderson, Scott Walker and Klaus Nomi ). Brigitte Fontaine has always radiated an undeniable charisma and durability and when I see interview footage of her growling and rambling like a bag lady, I have to remind myself that this was the same person who sounded so innocent and angelic on COMME À LA RADIO, the masterpiece she recorded with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in 1971. If a connection like that wasn’t enough to make her hip forever, even in the event of a descent into bilge ( which never happened ), her roster of collaborations and admirers is pretty staggering. The fact that she went off the radar during the 1980’s no doubt has much to do with the preservation of her creative oeuvre.

L'UN N'EMPECHE PAS L'AUTRE ( roughly translated as “one does not preclude the other” ) is as good as anything from her catalogue going back to the excellent GENRE HUMAIN in 1995. An overview in the context of her entire catalogue would make my brain melt so I won’t be attempting that any time soon. This is very much an album of duets, mostly with long term collaborators, along with retreads and a few new tracks. Everything kicks off with the promotional single Dancefloor, yet another collaboration with Grace Jones. Unsurprisingly, it sounds like a Grace Jones track as does La Caravane later in the album, but if that’s a bit too euro-disco for some ears ( and I did momentarily fear this was going to be a limp disco album ), what’s always been magnificent about Brigitte Fontaine soon splays it’s plumage through Supermarket, Rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Ile, Gilles de la tourette and a host of other gems featuring the likes of French pop fossil Christophe ( Mr “Oh!.. Mon Amour” ), Arno and Jacques Higelin and the not so ancient Mathieu Chedid and Emmanuelle Seigner ( the girl from Polanski’s FRANTIC ). Some of the retreatments of old tracks are pretty remarkable too – the innocent and flowery Je Suis Inadaptie from 1968 is masticated and regurgitated as Inadaptee, a barrage of sub-pop guitar noise in an abrasive duet with Arno. And of course it wouldn’t be a Brigitte Fontaine record at all without the presence of Areski Belkacem, her consistent musical sidekick since 1969. Their sparse duet on Le Grand-Pere closes the album and is a somewhat nostalgic reference to the bizarre VOUS ET NOUS album from 1977.

It’s a more downbeat affair that the guitar heavy PROHIBITION (‘09) or the electro driven GENRE HUMAIN (’95) but no less powerful for it. What’s contained here is everything Nico should have been, everything Marianne Faithfull wanted to be and everything Nina Hagen sometimes succeeds in being, but Brigitte Fontaine pretty much owns this musical territory. At a sprightly 72 and with all her female contemporaries either long dead or frazzled from drug abuse, she is an irrepressible presence that remains fresh and will probably be there croaking to the cockroaches when the rest of us are long vapourised!! - BOZ