Thursday, May 20, 2010

Good Vibes

Dadawah - Peace and Love (1974, reissued by Dug Out)

Here is a little known gem, now lovingly reissued by Dug Out and Honest Jon's. I remember this record well from my childhood, the Trojan vinyl edition being one of the weirder selections from my father's wide ranging record collection. I remember bracketing it with Keith Hudson's 'Pick A Dub' as one of the weirder, more mesmerising examples of reggae. It's not as sinister as the Hudson classic, rather more spiritual and devotional, and it still sounds absolutely revelatory. The fuddled, murky sound of the record is every bit as intoxicating as whatever producer Lloyd Charmers and engineer George Raymond were smoking when mixing it. Apparently, they stayed up all night after the session to complete the job. It's rare that albums with such a powerful, characterful sound get made with such spontaneity nowadays.

'Peace and Love' is an example of the Nyabinghi Grounation sub-genre of roots reggae. Essentially, it's a form of Rastafarian devotional music founded on the use of nyabinghi drums. The Dadawah project was one of the vehicles for Ras Michael, whose imposing, resonant voice still dominates these recordings, in spite of the fascinating presence of the music. The traditional chanting and hand drumming form the foundation of the music, but these four tracks have sublimely extended durations - ebbing and flowing delightfully, and uniting Michael's nyabinghi expositions with bass, guitars, piano and organ and a small brass section.

Roots reggae remains little explored in music criticism and in the reissue market, perhaps because greater commercial value was placed on more accessible hybrids of reggae with other western pop styles. There's so much more to discover here though - for this personal and honest music still sounds deeply unusual and exciting. Do seek this out - as well as Michael's other work as Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. It's all tremendous.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Infinite Space

Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma (Warp)

It's very difficult to make a convincing written case for just how amazing the disjointed, disorientating, genre-spanning work of Steve Ellison is. Every rule that governs the operation of the music business, both in creative and marketing terms, Ellison breaks. His output as Flying Lotus has been lazily classified as 'instrumental hip hop' in the past, or, perhaps even more misleadingly, bracketed with the UK dubstep movement. Whilst some of the Flying Lotus work might share with the likes of Burial a compelling and murky atmosphere, Ellison's scope is considerably wider. On 'Cosmogramma', he seems to have inherited some of his Aunt Alice Coltrane's spiritual concerns. This is a work as indebted to the revolutionary jazz sound as it is to hip hop and electronica.

Initial promotional copies of 'Cosmogramma' were sent out as one long track, although the finished product is divided into seventeen largely brief segments. Part of FlyLo's approach so far has been, much like the work of Prefuse 73, a scattershot approach that makes rapid switches between styles and never allows ideas to outstay their welcome. This might be a major problem, were it not for the coherence and power of the overall vision and architecture.

To my ears, 'Cosmogramma' might helpfully be divided into three distinct movements. The short opening section, comprising 'Clock Catcher', 'Pickled!' and 'Nose Art' is the most electronic and funky section, mixing sinister undertones and playful humour. The opening gurgles and bleeps of 'Clock Catcher' offer the listener a false sense of security - it feels like we're in fairly predictable Warp territory. Similarly, the bass extravaganza of 'Pickled!' could have come from a Squarepusher record.

As it's title suggests, 'Intro/A Cosmic Drama' takes us somewhere else entirely. The longer, central section of this album is beautifully orchestrated and ferociously intense. Even so, this allows for FlyLo to veer from the delightful analogue electro of 'Computer Face/Pure Being' to the improvised drum solo that initiates 'Arkestry'. Again, the title is a giveaway - the sonic and spiritual outlook of Sun Ra is clearly a major influence. All the disparate strands are held together through the serene harp playing of Rebekah Raff.

Within this highly imaginative sound collage are some of FlyLo's most transparently commercial offerings to date. In his hands, however, they sound wondrous. The familiar murmurings of Thom Yorke make '..And The World Laughs With You...' sound eerie and mysterious. The wonderfully titled 'Do The Astral Plane' is a further reminder of Ellison's superb sense of humour. It's an irresistible slice of cosmic disco. 'Mmm..Hmmm', which features Thundercat, is possibly the most straightforwardly melodic thing Ellison has produced to date, but it also has its own unique slinky, cerebral and atmospheric charm.

Some critics have found fault in the final stretch of 'Cosmogramma', from 'Satellliiiite' onwards. It certainly becomes more impressionistic, hazy and distant at this point. To me, it is suggestive of the numinous - something unfathomable beyond the known limits of the universe. This is Ellison at his most expansive and abstract.

It's unlikely that there will be a more diverse, pleasurably confusing, radically unpredictable album in 2010. It's also unlikely that there will be another album with as convincing and exciting a vision. This is brighter, more celebratory and at times more accessible than previous Flying Lotus records - but it's certainly no artistic compromise.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Number One

Matthew Herbert - One One (Accidental)

Occasionally, it's easy to get a little too accustomed to an artist's signature sound, or perhaps more accurately in Matthew Herbert's case, his approach. We know about his radicalism and political activism, we know about his sampling techniques and his didactic, musical ideology. We also know that this approach somehow resulted in some of the finest music of the past decade - music of palpable relevance but with a reach much wider than its immediate context. His most recent Big Band record, on reflection, appears to have been significantly underrated.

It's probably unfair to judge 'One One' in isolation, given that it is part of a projected trilogy of albums all due for release in 2010. This will conclude later in the year with 'One Club', a work made from sounds recorded in nightclubs, and then with the highly controversial 'One Pig', made from sounds recorded from the life cycle of a pig farmed for meat. The latter appears to be a more specific extension of concerns Herbert has already tackled with the astounding 'Plat du Jour' (on which he showcased his own distinctive brand of musique concrete), whilst we might reasonably expect 'One Club' to be one of his more conventional house-influenced records.

The trilogy therefore starts with a total curveball. 'One One' is completely unlike previous Herbert records in both sound and approach. First, it's based less on samples and sounds and more on instrumental parts, all of which were played and recorded by Herbert himself. Secondly, there are no collaborators here - Herbert also sang all the vocal lines.

A cursory listen might suggest this was a rather reckless idea. Herbert is neither a gifted instrumentalist nor a powerful singer. Indeed, the vocals are conversational at best, and often out of tune. Yet the effect of this minimal, peculiar music is disorientating and surprising. This is not a confrontational record - rather, it's Herbert's most intimate and hypnotic work to date.

Although all the tracks are named after major cities ('Manchester', 'Milan', 'Leipzig', 'Porto' - and, er, spot the odd one out, 'Tonbridge'), the overarching concept here is that 'One One' supposedly details one night in its creator's life. Musically, it's largely quiet and unobtrusive, but it's also deftly nuanced, and it's precisely for this reason that it sounds like a journey and an adventure. Songs often threaten to build into something explosive but frequently hold back - 'One One' is full of tantalising promise.

The outstanding example is 'Dublin', built on the simplest of ostinato figures on a guitar, over which Herbert layers increasingly intoxicating vocal lines. 'Leipzig' is full of dark temptation, excitement and perhaps even threat, all concocted from the very simplest of ingredients. In the most part, the rhythms are simple and direct, but also delicate, suggesting vulnerability. Most confounding of all is the closing 'Valencia', which gradually fades to almost nothing, lingering in the memory largely because of its sheer weirdness and originality.

If it initially sounds tentative, 'One One' eventually reveals itself as a very carefully judged, superbly timed, logically and musically coherent statement. It will certainly confuse many of Herbert's long-term fans, although perhaps less so those who have followed the weird world of home-baked folk, electronica and bedroom soul released across his Accidental label. It's difficult to predict what the rest of the trilogy will sound like now - but it's already beginning to sound like one of the year's bravest and most surprising achievements.