Thursday, 1 September 2016

Broadcast's Use Of A Refracted Past

If venturing into the unknown is a central idea of the psychedelic ethos, then where do Broadcast stand within this picture? Their music is cluttered with references to all manner of different sources - some well known, though most cultish and largely forgotten. Their Psychedelia stems from a past which has been refracted and contorted, the original sources made into malleable sound, which can be stretched beyond recognition. This doesn't become a boorish post-modern pick'n'mix of trendy underground sounds, more a fully developed and singular world which can never be fully explored.

The fragmentary collage quality was something which slowly ebbed its way into the bands music. Beginning in the mid 90s the band were very much the antithesis to the hegemonic Britpop scene, which went hand in hand with the grim neoliberal reality of New Labour. Tony Blair gave the impression that capitalism was forever inescapable, despite his retreat from Thatcher's harsher policies and his implanting of some (though few) socially progressive ideas, he was a politician very much in the shadow of her ideology. Thatcher famously claimed that her greatest achievement was "Tony Blair and New Labour."

If politically the perception recalled Lydon's famous "no future" mantra, then British guitar music at the time offered little alternative. Unlike rave music which bravely surged onwards, splintering into dozens of compelling and innovative scenes, guitar music was intent on opting out of the present, and instead choosing to live in their rather dull fantasy of past. The whole scene also came with an ugly patriotic and laddish side. In response to the rise of globalisation (particularly America's rising influence) Britain became obsessed with its own musical ancestry - and with a very limited set of sources at that.

As much as I detest Britpop - a genre pretty much vapid in the ideas department - I should note that there were some who looked at the past in a far more exploratory manner, not bound up with the ridiculous idea that we need to restore things back to the way they were. The most obvious and popular example of this would be Pulp who excellently delved into the heart of the British psyche, exploring English identity in a frank - often hilarious - manner. A more underground example - and one entirely separate from Britpop - of using the past not just for the purpose of pastiche would be Broadcast.

The group were definitely voracious in their consumption of music's history. It would be daunting to list off all the different influences that feed their way into the bands music, either upfront on inadvertently. Archaic folk music, the avant-garde soundtracks of early Morricone, the radiophonic workshop, hip hop, contemporary electronic music, science fiction novels and the pioneering electronic psyche of the Untited States of America, are but a fraction of the whole picture which make up the Broadcast Universe.

Their signing to Warp provides a link - albeit a tenuous one - to dance culture, but really there isn't much you can do in the way of contextualising Broadcast among their peers, as clichéd as it sounds they were out there on their own. If Britpop's narrow set of influences meant it would inevitably become somewhat of a creative cul-de-sac, then Broadcast's eclecticism ensured they would not befall similar dead ends.

The groups early material can be found on the compilation 'Work and Non Work'. Their singular aesthetic becomes clear from the opening track 'Accidentals'. The backing lounge sample sounds weathered and worn down. The rough cut loops in a way which prevents any coffee table relaxation goals.

Trish Keenan's stunning voice - partially disconnected but always compelling - is the source of consistency within the bands music. Over the years the instrumental side would continuously undergo a process of metamorphism, her vocals remaining the binding force. She began playing music on the Birmingham folk scene, and an element of that can be detected in her voice, but like everything within Broadcast it cant be that simply codified or explained. Folk singing has certain implications to do with being 'down to earth', however in contrast with this connotation, Keenan's voice has a palpable sense of the uncanny.

By the time of their debut album 'The Noise Made By People' - released after the turn of the millennium - the sound had shifted towards almost Phil Spectorish proportions. The gorgeous pop of  'Come on Let's Go' could feasibly in some warped dimension be topping charts, but sadly this brings us to another grim reality. Broadcast struggled to produce and release their music, not due to a form of creative block, but largely due to financial reasons. They had a devoted following, but small in comparison to even other Warp artists like Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada.

On their 2003 album Haha Sound the group started to experiment with clashing forces. Beauty and abrasion were made inseparable from each other, the collage quality becoming all the more prominent. The albums opener 'Colour Me In' sets the tone for this newfound exploration of opposites, a nursery rhyme melody sits on top of maniacal and clattering percussion while snapshots of various synth tones attempt to penetrate the cacophony. Some tracks like 'Distortion' abandoned any pretence of traditional beauty, embracing the barrage of sound with a delirious and deranged grin.

What 'Haha Sound' started 'Tender Buttons' finished. The band were now stripped to a duo comprising of Keenan and James Cargill. On the album they shredded some of the unneeded excess, resulting in their most direct release. The delivery has a punchy motorik quality whilst the once lush musical textures are now scorched and distorted, often flirting with irritation. The confounding 'Arc of A Journey' manages to make the sound of faulty tech infinitely more moving than any tiresome dickhead with an acoustic guitar and trilby.

Around about the time of 'Tender Buttons' a theory started circulating. In an essay on the scene, Simon Reynolds coined the phrase Hauntology. This was in relation largely to the Ghost Box record label - run by the graphic designer Julian House and fellow music artist Jim Jupp. The idea basically cantered around a nostalgia for a lost future. A utopianism which was dreamed of but never realised. The music looked back to a time when the future didn't come with doom laden connotations but could be looked upon with a degree of wonder. This music was made by artists like Belbury Poly, The Focus Group and the Advisory Circle. The scene had a melancholic air - inevitable due to the theme of lost utopias - but also a playful sense of messing with the past.

Though not sharing the same sound a number of different artists were loosely linked to the scene. The dubstep of Burial was said to be a reaction to the reality of the rave dream not coming into fruition, Boards of Canada used warm analogue synths over contemporary electronics to explore ideas of innocence, childhood and nostalgia, whilst Arial Pink created a lo-fi interpretation of forgotten pop music. Broadcast are also a band which has been linked to this idea, and I think that there is some truth in that, however I still believe the band are not that easy to pigeonhole.

The link was made more undeniable due to the 2009 collaborative mini LP 'Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of The Radio Age'. The album seamlessly blends the worlds of both artists, creating possibly the most challenging release in the Broadcast Catalogue, but a fascinating evolution which was achieved through a collaboration with another fascinating artist. The collage component within Broadcast is brought even more to the forefront on the release - no doubt due to Julian House's influence - the songs themselves receding further and further from obvious viewpoint. What we're left with is series of fragments, clues and remnants. House is hugely influenced by the cut up styles of cult author William Burroughs. This album is very much a musical manifestation of this creative method, though not the easiest or best-loved release in the Broadcast catalogue, it remains endlessly fascinating.

Sadly aside from an incredible soundtrack album for the Peter Strickland masterpiece 'Berberian Sound Studio' - which delved into the strange world of 60s and 70s Italian Giallo cinema - the 'Witch Cults' LP is the last officially released Broadcast project (There is also the excellent compilation 'The Future Crayon'). In 2011 Trish Keenan tragically and suddenly passed away at only 41. The music left behind will no doubt be an endless source of cult fascination, after all the worlds which were created over the years that the band was active were genuinely apparelled. What musicians and artists can learn is that Broadcast were able to use the past for more than purposes of recreation. They managed  to uncover secrets, further blur the lines between styles and above all make some of the most astonishing and unique music of their generation.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Katie Gately (Interview)

The music of Katie Gately thrives in contradiction. The world of sound design and field recordings are known for a weighty seriousness, yet her sound cackles with a hilarious and absurdist humour. Experimental is synonymous with difficulty, but again Gately deviates from typical connotations, making her wildly experimental music as fun and instantaneous as it is challenging. Perhaps she has best described the coalition of seemingly incompatible elements herself when saying she wishes to make her songs "49% obnoxious and 51% fun"

Her new album "Color" will be available on Tri Angle Records October 14
Here's an old interview with Katie Gately:

Were you inspired to pursue vocal experimentation by contemporary artists like Holly Herndon or was it something you've been interested in to a while?

KG: I Was awestruck by Bjork's Medulla becuase it was so dynamic and based all on the human voice. I've kept that with me for the past decade on repeat. Inspiration for my own recording was also bolstered by the software Vst Melodyne, which can transform the human voice in supreme ways, less robotic than autotune.

Do you ever wish that you'd be able to perform your music or is composition ultimately the most important aspect?

KG: Composition is is my primary interest. If time and resources were not an issue, performance would certainly be a bigger priority!

On Pipes you restricted yourself by only allowing your voice in the composition. Did you find the process of limiting yourself helpful?

Yes profoundly helpful. I often will give myself 20 minutes and 10 samples and see what I can do in that window of time. The more options I have, the less I tend to care about what I'm making. It's almost as if the cramped space of limitation triggers more tension and emotion becaue I am trapped and have to build a way out with pre-determined tools.

Despite the more experimental elements in your music it is very melodically driven. Do you consider yourself a songwriter?

I consider myself more of a producer and vocalist than songwriter. Perhaps because I associate the word 'songwriting' more with traditional instrumentation and the folk tradition, but I am in love with melody and I'm always exploring it.

For a 15 minute song I thought Pivot was remarkably catchy. Do you think employing these melodic elements helps people to adjust to the stranger elements of your music?

Yes, for sure. I try to make things with my own strengths and weaknesses in mind. I find I have both a high pain tolerance yet also short attention span. So I like abrasiveness but not in long extended spurts, and I love catchy music but primarily if there is some darker element present.

Both Pipes and Pivot extend well beyond the 10 minute mark. What are the benefits as an artist of working on longer pieces?

I'm not sure ther are any benefits! It's difficult to succeed aesthetically and takes tons of time. Royalty wise its actually considers stupid. However it feels tremendous to try for. Long tacks can easily fall apart at any moment - I love that vulnerability. You get a more intimate peak into a person's mind.

How early in your life were you exposed to electronic music?

I had only really heard top 40 and classical until I was 18, but I read an interview with Thom Yorke around the time he was going on and on about Autechre and Aphex Twin, so I started listening to anything I could get my hands on.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Arca - Entrañas (Mixtape Review)

"Its ok to be a boy, but for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, because you think that being a girl is degrading, but secretly you'd love to know what it's like. Wouldn't you?"          

Gender and sexual identity has always been a crucial idea within the music of Arca. This sampled monologue from Charlotte Gainsbourg is the most explicitly it has been addressed. Amidst a relentlessly hostile environment, full of sudden ruptures and turbulence, this address is made clear and militantly upfront. Alejandro Ghersi's music under the moniker of Arca rarely allows for such an unambiguous message, it is widely known for wrestling with the complexity and fluidity of identity, offering few - if any - simplistic answers.

Arca, Lotic and Elysia Crampton are all part of a burgeoning scene, one which operates through a shared desire to make what is wrongly perceived as objective far more blurred. This stretches beyond the realms of topics explored in interviews, but to the very structure of the music itself. Nothing is fixed or solid within the releases by these artists. Any refernece is there to be mangled and contorted.

Entrañas is the most punishing and industrial of his discography, a weird contradicting mix of murky and epic, sounding like its writhing around in the mud with sudden flashes of... I don't think elegance is the right word, but something along those lines. A Cocteau Twins sample is unexpectedly used, Liz Frazer's voice - not the slightest bit ruined by the sea of boorish indie boys obsessively fawning over it - is imbeded amongst Arca's set of typical - or atypical - sounds. One trait being the strange warped note which has been compared to a digital harpsichord. In fact its fitting that the release features a collaboration with Mica Levi, as the sound of both artists are like a bent out of shape alien string section.

This exploration of sounds which are undeniably, well... let's just say on the grating end of the spectrum, could be mispercieved as shallow shock tactics. It's true that the mixtape has the capacity to make even the most avid Throbbing Gristle fan feel uneasy, but it does so in a genuinely cathartic manner (I know describing punishing music as cathartic is an overused idea, but it's one which is definitely applicable to this project)

If Helm's Olympic Mess is like an industrial music of the post-club climate, then Arca's may be percieved by some as the industrial of the post-human. I think claims which have been made relating to Arca's percieved inhuman sound are a tad fatalistic and reactionary, after all I've always thought Arca makes a mockery of the idea that technology makes us more distant. He uses the digital world to create a far more complicated and multi facated depiction of identity and emotion.

The mixtape culminates with the only identifiable song 'Sin Rumbo'. The lethargic, ponderous pace is interrupted with jerks of both natural and synthetic sounds, ending with the sample of fireworks, which remarkably comes across as melancholic rather than joyous. The track features what I believe are Arca's own vocals, resulting in probably the closest we'll ever see to a ballad. After finishing the release i'm reminded of Arca's continuous ability to bypass boundaries, bravely removing expected limitations on both sounds and ideas.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Laurel Halo - Quarantine (Album Review)

It's now been several years since the release of Laurel Halo's beguiling and misunderstood masterwork 'Quarantine'. Initially online commentators engaged in fearsome debates surrounding the most controversial aspect of the release, her vocals. Either seen as fearlessly upfront or unbearably flat, the vocal delivery throughout made no attempt to win over non believers. Unlike many underground releases, which hide traditionally not pristine vocals through pillow like layers of washy reverb, the vocals here cut straight through the mix.

I don't like to call the sexist card lightly, but there does seem to be an immense amount of leeway given to less than adequate male singers, as oppose to female. "Endearingly imperfect", or phrases of that sort, are commonly attached to male singers whose inability is somehow seen as more characterful than that of female vocalists. Perhaps the age old necessity for women to be only pretty, perfect and restrained persists. Halo makes no attempt to maintain her composure throughout this release, her vocals will often deliberately strain to reach notes, or stay flat to such an extent that they create a sort of monotonous drone.

To judge 'Quarantine' only on the vocal performance is to thoroughly miss the point. The album doesn't craft, so much as violently forge an alien landscape. Halo achieves a far more carnal and feral form of futurism, attacking the body as much as the musical form. When listening to 'Quarantine' you are constantly aware that it's her own beast, which is bizarre considering the albums inclusion of analogue synthesizers, something you might expect to create a nostalgic warmth or glow. However in this environment they perform no such function. The album is difficult to lump into any particular scene. Some link it to the hauntology or hypnagogic movement, due to it's use of analogue synths. However the album doesn't so much sound like the nostalgia for a lost future, more an ambiguous yet prescient prediction of a future yet to arrive.

Halo has said that "A lot of the tracks have this pressure-tank or recycled-air feeling to them-- when you're on an airplane and constantly breathing in the exhaust of your neighbours." Thematically there is a claustrophobic feeling persistent throughout. Simultaneously being suffocated, as well as isolated. The quote from Halo reveals a certain kind of paranoia of your surroundings. Many spend their entire day within the confines of minute office cubicles, breathing in copious amounts of artificial air. This record almost comes across as a soundtrack to this experience.

The song 'Carcass' musically embodies this feeling of walls slowly closing in, a hysteria caused not by any drastic or traumatic situation, just the sensation of being confined against your will in a synthetic environment. 'MK Ultra' on the other hand is named after a CIA experiment on human subjects. In an attempt to create the ideal soldier, they would force patients to take psychedelic drugs, as well as experiment with hypnosis, sexual abuse and sensory deprivation. This all adds to the ongoing feeling present on the record of either being mentally or physically trapped.

To characterise the themes as being devoid of the tactile, personal and human, would be an inaccuracy. Laurel Halo has said that "to me the bleak and raw was key, and I think people that have been heartbroken maybe get the record more." This adds another dimension to the album, but continues the idea of deprivation. However this time it is the feeling of being deprived from someone else, through rejection, betrayal or loss. The final track 'Light + Space', is an example of this other subject, which inhabits the record. The song is more sparse than a great deal of other tracks on the album, more hopeful and personal in tone also. It allows for a far more obviously beautiful vocal melody to play out over a weightless and directionless sonic surface.

The electronic musician-perhaps more than any other-is seen as a sonic architect. Someone who creates sound sculptures that draw little upon the natural noises which occur within our day to day environment. It's tempting to see Laurel Halo as an artists that embodies this idea. After all I used the phrase beguiling at the start of this review, and I really should stress this point. It's unlikely you'll find another album just like 'Quarantine'. Music should be a strange and unfamiliar experience. The dense theory surrounding much contemporary underground electronica, somewhat takes away from the raw pleasure of being plunged into rapid currents of jarring and unfamiliar sound.

What Laurel Halo has crafted is her own distinct form of digital psychedelia. This has been achieved through both her production skills and the use of her unedited voice. It's strange that the instrument responsible for some of most innovative sounds of the past decade is also the most primitive. What's more rudimentary than the human voice? The instrument appears to have a limitless capacity for generating as yet unheard of sounds. After all for thousands of years we have used it for all manner of purposes, from Gregorian chant and Mongolian throat singing, all the way through to rhythmic beat boxing.  A fresh wave of producers (including Laurel Halo, Holly Herndon and Katie Gately) have continued this trend by utilising and warping their voices as a thrilling new method for generating new sounds.

How this record will be looked back on in 20 years time is unclear. Sadly the likelihood is that it shall remain forever marginalised. Never appreciated to the extent it should be. The very vocals which condemn this release to eternal obscurity, are also the key driving force behind it's distinct vision. For now at least it can be seen as a startling reflection of a digital 21st century experience. It may not always be the most inviting record, but stands true to the obvious statement (but still one which needs repeating) that there are always exciting new avenues to explore within music. We don't have to listen to the bitter among us who proclaim musical creativity peaked decades ago. As Laurel Halo sings "Forward motion is the only answer".

Twitter - @eden_tizard