Friday, July 20, 2007

Journey To The Margins Part 2

Stars Of The Lid, Colleen, Fennesz Sakamoto, Led Bib, James Blackshaw

Much has already been written about Kranky label artists Stars Of The Lid, with the 4AD label boss making the particularly bold assertion that they were already making the most significant music of the 21st Century. Such hyperbole surely neglects all the minimalist composers who have so clearly influenced them, but there’s little doubt that there is something strange and beautiful about this percussionless, almost anti-rhythmic music.

It’s certainly physically and mentally relaxing, and for many listeners ‘Stars Of The Lid and Their Refinement of the Decline’ may be far more effective at inducing sleep than any tranquiliser. Yet there’s also something contemplative and meditative in its very stillness – a peace and calm that is decidedly absent from most popular music and also exposes most branded ‘chill out’ music for the vacuous wallpaper that it is.

Stars Of The Lid’s music is all about the lush combination of electronically generated sounds with the intervention of acoustic instruments. There is no percussion, no beat, and only the vaguest sense of time and rhythm. This is music that, as Jason Pierce might have it, floats in space. There are also no clearly identifiable themes – instead melodic ideas (always played at the most laconic pace imaginable) drift in and out of the ether at undefined intervals. Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride mostly avoid dissonance or uncomfortable sound clashes, but there’s still something peculiarly disquieting and odd about this music. It constantly leads the listener in expecting some form of climax that never arrives – there is never any release of tension. It also feels eerie and solipsistic. Even if it were being performed live to a stadium crowd, you’d still feel as if you were the only person listening.

There’s also something quite delicious and enticing about their dry sense of humour. This is clearly evident in their song titles, from the opening ‘Dungtitled (in A Major)’ to ‘Even If You’re Never Awake’ and ‘Another Ballad For Heavy Lids’. They’re certainly leaving an open goal for anyone who does wish to charge them with being soporific!

This is a double set, an undoubted indulgence, and I would find it quite a challenge to get through both discs in one uninterrupted sitting. This album is uniquely relentless in its adherence to one single idea, and some may even find it tyrannical as a result. Still, it’s beautiful music made with real conviction that rewards close attention.

Cecile Schott has been making tranquil, beautiful music under the name of Colleen for the Leaf label for a few years now. ‘Les Ondes Silencieuses’ may be her finest work to date. She has veered increasingly astray from her initial preoccupation with electronic loops in favour of acoustic instrumentation and cross-fertilising early music with a defiantly minimalist approach. The list of influences on her website is both fascinating and refreshing, running the gamut from Schubert to Terry Riley, Keith Jarrett and Derek Bailey. She also lists a whole range of ‘non-western’ music with which I am completely unfamiliar. It’s brilliant simply to find a contemporary musician prepared to admit to being influenced by a musical heritage (in my time in student radio I got so bored with interviewing pop musicians who claimed, absurdly, either not to listen to other music, or not to think about it). It’s therefore even better to find someone who is prepared to inform themselves from all angles.

Colleen’s last work saw her playing a number of music boxes, with impressively powerful results. On ‘Les Ondes Silencieuses’ she performs on a wider range of unusual instruments, including the viola da gamba, classical guitars and the spinet. The music is deliberately under-arranged, often revolving around repeating four note motifs. The playing is consistently delicate and restrained, and textural variety is achieved through very minimal overdubbing and the use of different playing techniques. It’s somehow both spare and elegant, and remarkably peaceful.

I’ve been an admirer of the work of laptop experimentalist Christian Fennesz for some time now, although I’m reliably informed that watching him live is much like watching paint dry. Whilst his early work tended to be abrasive and uncompromising, he has gradually steered himself towards something more accessible, but no less challenging. His greatest achievement perhaps remains the ‘Fennesz Plays’ EP, for which he radically deconstructed Brian Wilson’s ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’. The following ‘Endless Summer’ album, now something of an established classic, was his warmest, most inviting work, full of all manner of intriguing processed guitar sounds set against an all-enveloping fuzz. If anything, the follow-up (‘Venice’) was warmer still. His latest work is a collaboration with the legendary Yellow Magic Orchestra mainman Ryuichi Sakamoto, and it is decidedly intimate. Fennesz’s laptop processing is becoming increasingly musical – there’s much more variety in pitch and tone here than on previous outings. Sakamoto’s sustained piano chords meld with Fennesz’s backdrop with consummate ease, and, in leaving harmony hanging unresolved, Sakomoto adds elements of mystery and suspense (‘Kokoro’ sounds particularly creepy). The whole work seems to have a modern chamber feel, but also sounds vividly cinematic.

Along with Fraud, Babel labelmates Led Bib are another heavily hyped act in the new explosion of British jazz talent. Drummer/composer Mark Holub, although an American by birth, now lives in London. He has recently been heaped with all manner of acclaim and is the recipient of awards and funding galore. It’s not difficult to understand why Led Bib are incredibly hip right now – much like Acoustic Ladyland, their sound references punk and heavy rock as much as it does a jazz tradition. Their music is brash, noisy and blisteringly intense, and after several listens, I’m finally being convinced that there’s more to 'Sizewell Tea', their second album, than meets the eye. The compositional device of using two alto saxophonists (Chris Williams and Pete Grogan) to play the melodies in demonically dissonant intervals initially works brilliantly. The opening ‘Stinging Nettle’ is both fiery and nasty and ‘Battery Power’ is impressive in its willingness to embrace the tangential. Across an entire album though, the formula begins to reek somewhat of gimmickry, and the band work best when they veer away from this rather restrictive template (‘The Keeper’, for example, despite its rhythmic invention and playful quality, is really rather irritating). The improvising is mostly savage and untamed, but perhaps not especially musical. As a drummer, Holub is powerful, driving, heavy and furious, but rarely inventive or innovative. The group playing often seems more competitive than complementary, and the general dynamic seems to be simply to play hard and fast. This works well when Grogan and Williams battle against each other, but gets oppressive when overused. When other players are allowed more space, such as when keyboardist Toby McClaren blurts all over ‘Spring’, the results are emphatically more challenging. The uncharacteristically pretty ‘Shower’, the marvellously crisp ‘Manifesto For The Future’ and impressive refashioning of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ are standout moments that may well point the way forward.

James Blackshaw is a young self-taught guitarist from London who gathered rave reviews from well informed music writers for his last work, 2006’s ‘O True Believers’. He’s now back with another spiritual-themed work, again strongly influenced by the Takoma school of guitar playing instigated by the legendary John Fahey. His latest work ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ consists of five mostly long pieces that extemporise on basic themes. His layers of rolling guitars feel like undulating tidal waves, and the music veers between feeling meditative and overwhelming. It’s a powerful set with a very distinctive sound, suggesting that Blackshaw is not just a master instrumentalist, but also a master craftsman. This is an enriching work far removed from any underlying trends in British music.

No comments: