Hand Of Stabs – Pagan Experimentalists of the Medway Sound

 

Hand Of Stabs - Seasonally Effected, live performance in RochesterHand Of StabsSeasonally Effected, live performance in Rochester, 30th November, 2016

On Wednesday, I took a trip into Rochester to witness Seasonally Effected, an irregular event held in the Medway Towns to promote local artists. This event took place at Dot Cafe in Rochester High Street. By the time I arrived, the small venue was packed with welcoming and friendly people. Hot chocolate replaced alcohol between acts, who each in turn stepped forward from the audience, performed and returned to their seats, promoting participation over separation and the essence of the original punk ideal – ‘anyone can get up and do this’. This is a shared experience. Though essentially, I’m not the only one who has been drawn to the event by tonight’s headline act, Hand Of Stabs.

With no fuss or delay the threesome pass the performance poet as they take to the front of the gathering while event organiser and musician Roy Smith stands to deliver a few announcements – other local events and that Seasonally Effected will be taking a short break after tonight.

Hand Of Stabs take their name from a cult fantasy children’s tv series, Ace Of Wands from the early 1970s. While American kids grew up watching Sesame Street and the Banana Splits, British children were subjected to some heavy shit. Ace Of Wands takes its name from a tarot card. The main character in the series ‘Tarot’ combines stage magic with supernatural powers. Think Adventure Time meets Paul Daniels. This is weird
The music emanating from Hand Of Stabs is experimental, avant-garde, anti-pop. Or as Stuart Maconie more pretentiously defines it, “progressive pagan skiffle”. No, I’m not sure Maconie knows what that is, either.

Hand Of Stabs are a three-piece that combine conventional instruments with the non-conventional, in every sense of the word. Tonight they mainly play electric guitar, percussion in the form of a drum-frame (something of middle-eastern origin akin to a large tamborine), and the spokes of an electrified bicycle wheel (with various effect pedals including pitchshifter and delay) beautifully played with a cello bow. According to their Bandcamp page, they go by the names of: Capt. Rex Standish (guitar), James Worse (percussion), Jocelyn Von Bergdorff (wheel).

As far as I can gather, each Hand Of Stabs performance is extemporaneous and completely improvised. Tonight’s performance lasted for approximately 40 minutes. Though I was so engrossed and moved, I cannot be sure. Like the accompanying film score to a gothic horror or a psychological thriller, the music is absorbing, dark, chilling and full of suspense and mind-thoughtfulness. It is indeed, quite possibly pagan. But there is absolutely no trace of Lonnie Donnegan or any association with skiffle.

I had seen Hand Of Stabs once before. They played, against their better judgement, and were lost amongst four other bands presenting a colourful spectrum of popular music in a sweltering venue pouring pints of piss-weak lager. That night belonged to Lupen Crook and The Parade who peaked with songs of love and hope. But tonight and the future of Pagan Experimentalism and the Medway Sound, belongs solely to Hand Of Stabs.

Classical minimalism, experimental, ambient – Deer Heart by Tilman Robinson

Deer Heart by Tilman Robinson
Tilman Robinson

Deer Heart was written, recorded and meticulously pieced together at various locations in Berlin, Melbourne, the Canadian Rockies and Reykjavík’s Greenhouse Studios, and follows Tilman Robinson’s debut recording Network of Lies.

Tilman Robinson releases his second full-length album in a haze of glitch cut ups, distortion and tranquil beauty. Deer Heart is multi-layered. One minute beautiful, calm and endearing like a summer lake or snow covered forest, before sliding into darkness and shadows enveloping the listener as it pulls you from one state to another. Innocence, harsh coldness, this beautiful music plays out in black and white. Little room for colour. The music is mesmerising. At times sounding like a soundtrack to a spine-tingling Stephen King thriller; at others, more at home hanging in a gallery alongside abstract paintings, rather than boxed into any ill-fitting music category.

Like all great experimental albums, it is at times challenging. Pushing at boundaries and the simple notion of static, one dimensional forms of music.

With Deer Heart, Tilman Robinson draws from a wide range of musical influences and is intent on testing the psychological impacts of dense sound. Mixed by Valgeir Sigurðsson, best known for his work with Björk, Deer Heart finds Tilman Robinson elevating his sound into an unlikely mix of optimism and nihilism via dark sonic crevices. It is an album of depth and complexity; a record equally at home on the shelves of the most avid post-rock fan as it would in the ranks of any modern-composer collection.

Tilman Robinson is an Australian composer, producer and sound designer, creating electro-acoustic music across a range of genres including classical minimalism, improvised, experimental, electronic and ambient. Academy trained in the fields of both classical and jazz composition, his diverse output focuses on the psychological impact of sound.

One of the best albums of 2016, Deer Heart by Tilman Robinson is scheduled for release on 14 October 2016 through Hobbledehoy Record Co.

Susumu Yokota: 1961 – 2015 R.I.P.

Susumu Yokota: 1961 - 2015 R.I.P.
Susumu Yokota: 1961 - 2015 R.I.P.

In the late 1990s while on a trip collecting CDs for review, I had the good fortune of meeting Tony Morley at the Leaf Records office in Brixton. The CDs he was releasing and promoting via his promotions company No.9 PR, helped to broaden my horizons with an eclectic mix of leftfield electronic and ambient experimental music. Of the many fascinating artists he introduced me to, Burnt Friedman and the Japanese composer, Susumu Yokota stood out as something very special. That day I received two of Susumu Yokota’s albums, Magic Thread (1998) and Image (1993-98), the latter being a compilation of earlier recordings.

Susumu Yokota – A Song Produced While Floating Alone on Christmas Day from the album Love Or Die (2007)
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xvvxLoCg_Q

Though both albums made a deep impression, I wouldn’t count them among my favourites today. But there’s plenty to choose from. Yokota’s output was prolific, releasing no less than 23 studio albums under his own name and more under pseudonyms such as Anima Mundi, Ebi, Prism, Ringo, Stevia, Ying & Yang; as well as another three released simply as Yokota. He also released an album with Rothko, Distant Sounds Of Summer (2005). See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susumu_Yokota_discography

Susumu Yokota – Genshi from the album Sakura (1999)
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4GRaVnFniA

I have eight of his albums including two favourites, Sakura and Symbol. These two albums are among my favourite albums of all-time and are rarely away from the CD player whether at home or in my car. They epitomise Susumu Yokota‘s music – beautiful, serene and at times thought-provoking. His music was experimental and at times avant-garde, but always it seemed interesting.

Susumu Yokota – Kodomotachi from the album Symbol (2005)
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5ZbGLzyqcQ

A death is always sad. But when someone so talented dies at such a young age it is of course, more tragic. Susumu Yokota was just 54 years old when he died on 27th March 2015 after “a long period of medical treatment.”. In these days of instant news across global social platforms, I also found it sad that Yokota’s death wasn’t reported until several months later. But this was apparently down to his family not knowing his music contacts until recently. His family released the following message:

“It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Susumu Yokota who passed away on 27th March, 2015 at the age of 54 after a long period of medical treatment. We are deeply thankful to the people who listened to and supported Susumu’s music during his lifetime. Please accept our sincere apologies for the delay in this announcement, as we were until recently unacquainted with Susumu’s music industry contacts.”

Susumu Yokota – Saku from the album, Sakura (1999)
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRGZLh3ZQOI

His last studio album Lover, was released in 2012.

Susumu Yokota also released techno and house music and was a renowned DJ too. But it’s his experimental ambient, electronic music that I will always love and so fondly remember.

As a tribute to Susumu Yokota, The Leaf Label and Lo Recordings have joined forces to release My Energy, a six track EP featuring selected highlights from Yokota’s varied and acclaimed back catalogue, most of which were originally released on his own Skintone label. The EP is available now on Bandcamp as a ‘Pay what you want’ release with all proceeds going to Animal Refuge Kansai. Yokota was a lifelong animal lover, and the charity was chosen at his family’s request.

DOWNLOAD MY ENERGY EP HERE

Susumu Yokota: 1961 – 2015 R.I.P.

Richard Skelton – De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

Richard Skelton
Richard Skelton

Over the course of three special events in Manchester, London and east Sussex last weekend, Richard Skelton headlined explorations into experimental sound as three artists each evening introduced music for the landscapes in which they live. The music was not serene, pretty or easy listening but full of jagged edges, thought-provoking sound clashes and reverberations; and artists intent on making their audience think.

The shows were promoted as part of Saisonscape, Art Assembly’s bi-monthly series of experimental music, inspired by the seasons. Given the title Landscape, these spring shows would accordingly reflect on sound born out of, or inspired by, the land. The second of the three events was staged on Saturday 21st March 2015 in the beautiful art deco seaside building of the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea situated on the south / south-east coast somewhere between Brighton and Hastings.

Joe Snape opened the evening with a 20 minute set played in almost complete darkness. It took me a while to a tune my senses. With no visual distractions I found most appreciation by closing my eyes. Rob St. John followed with a set of songs from his forthcoming album Surface Tension. He was joined on stage by another musician and an artist creating live projected silhouettes using water, exposed film and bubbles. Again, I found that closing my eyes allowed me to fully emerge into the music and flow with, what started as a picturesque spring countryside complete with birdsong, as it turned sharply midstream into something much darker and less idyllic.

Richard Skelton was using the three shows by way of introducing his forthcoming second album ‘Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation August 1st 1984’ under the guise of The Inward Circles and was due to sell advanced copies of the new album at the shows. However both Skelton and I were frustrated to learn that the delivery of CDs had been delayed.

Taking centre-stage, Richard Skelton quietly took his place sitting at a table to the front and centre of the large stage. He sat behind a laptop and other hardware flanked by his wife and creative partner, Autumn Richardson.

Skelton began his set of experimental electronica with a quiet looping sound. The sound became sounds as he began layering with each cycle of rhythmic noise patterns until melodies began forming. As the density of the track grew, so did the volume. The volume gave the bass reverberations depth, and the lowest of frequencies began burning their way into head. I kept my eyes closed, enjoying the trance-like cycles of this wonderful avant-garde experimentation into sound. The music became louder still and I wondered if the auditorium was going to survive the reverberating bass and metallic noises. I had thoughts of Matt Johnson’s Burning Blue Soul, the very best Plastikman AKA Richie Hawtin’s early minimal trance and as the volume increased even more, the sonic boom power and dark dreamy sound of My Bloody Valentine – all three references, all of the time with no hint of percussion or a rock guitar in sight.

When each piece had reached a crescendo it would begin its decent as Skelton slowly began dissecting the track layer by layer as the volume continued to decrease. But before the track completed its withering cycle, Skelton with seamless precision began sculpting a further wave of entwined droning sounds emanating and flowing from the hub that continued pulsating throughout. Skelton’s set was truly amazing, and one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen. He played for an hour with no breaks, no time for the audience to applaud or readjust their focus. The whole performance was an onslaught on the senses.

As the reverberating sounds became quiet for the last time, the silence was greeted with rapturous applause. I needed a few seconds to adjust. My eyes opened, blinked a few times and returned to normality; as did my head. After his performance Richard Skelton crouched on the side of the stage and when I spoke with him he appeared to be as overawed as me. The PA sounded good and played Skelton’s set at quite a volume, though we agreed this experiment in music could never be quite loud enough.

The 90 minute journey home went quickly and was worth every minute spent driving to the most beautiful venue and the most absorbing performance I have witnessed for a very, very long time.

For more information on Richard Skelton and stream ‘To Your Fox-Skin Chorusfrom Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation August 1st 1984, Richard Skelton’s second album as The Inward Circles

The Velvet Underground – probably the most influential group of all-time

The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground was the most inspirational group of all-time. More so than The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Sex Pistols. A bold statement to make, but there you go, I’ve said it!

Imagine stumbling across The Velvet Underground playing in a New York club in 1966 accompanied by an Andy Warhol lightshow and provocative dancers Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick. The Exploding Plastic Inevitable was like no other art / music collaboration. Art and film collided with a wall of ear-piercing feedback and noise, often ad-hoc, unrehearsed. While The Beatles were singing about love and The Beach Boys were singing about surfin’ and girls, The Velvet Underground sang about the darkest of underground themes – drugs, sado-masochism and death.

The Velvet Underground was made complete by a coming together of separate forces. The non-conformity and space the music created allowed Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison to experiment and bring individual ideas to an uncompromising table, while Mo Tucker kept a constant beat and Lou Reed delivered a poetic New York conversational vocal.

Andy Warhol introduced Nico to the group and together they recorded one of the most inspirational, seminal and classic albums of all-time; possibly the best ever debut album. Commonly known as ‘the banana album’ for its Warhol cover of (originally) a peelable banana, The Velvet Underground & Nico was recorded in 1966 and released in 1967. The album opens with the beautiful and serene pop song, ‘Sunday Morning’ produced by Bob Dylan’s producer, Tom Wilson. The rest of the album, was “produced” by Andy Warhol and takes the listener on a journey through the depths of depravity, the scum and wasters normally hidden in the shadows, drug addiction and sexual deviation. The music is at times soft and welcoming, and at others, the most shocking, absorbing and purposely difficult noise ever recorded.

I was introduced to The Velvet Underground in the late 1970s when they were regularly referenced as a major influence by many contemporary groups of the post-punk movement. But nothing prepared me for the screeching noise of ‘Venus In Furs’, the middle eight feedback in ‘Run Run Run’, and most of all ‘Heroin’ – one of the most important songs ever produced.

Listening to ‘Heroin’ very loud still gives me goose bumps and fills my body with an unexplainable tingling. It takes me on a trip every time. I feel the up and down nature of the rollercoaster rush and calm, rush and calm, eventually exploding in a crescendo of noise and beauty. No other song has this effect on me. Nothing comes close. The energy. The noise. This song is about shooting up heroin and was released in 1967 for fuck sake!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffr0opfm6I4

After two great albums, John Cale left The Velvet Underground, and with it went the avant-garde experimentation. The Velvet Underground, to all intent and purpose, became a backing band for Lou Reed. Though I love the latter two studio albums (‘The Velvet Underground’ 1969 and ‘Loaded’ 1970) the songs are soft rock / pop songs devoid of any confrontation, experimental fragments or noise – the three components that make the first two albums (‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ 1967 and ‘White Light White Heat’ 1968) so absorbing, appealing and original.

Lou Reed eventually left The Velvet Underground to pursue a solo career, and in 1972 he was responsible for another classic album. ‘Transformer’ (1972) is one of my favourite albums of all-time and is rich with perfect pop songs like ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, ‘Perfect Day’ ‘Vicious’ and ‘Satellite Of Love’.

It’s true that Lou Reed was a massive influence on thousands of aspiring musicians from the mid-1960s to present day. But that was as part of The Velvet Underground. A couple of weeks ago I had a great conversation with a work colleague. We share a love of The Velvet Underground but both agreed Lou Reed’s solo albums, ‘Transformer’ aside, are best described as poor at best. I was intrigued to hear ‘Metal Machine Music’ (1975) but have no reason to return for a second listen. Other albums such as ‘New York’ (1989) and ‘Songs for Drella (1990) with John Cale, may well be other people’s cup of tea; as are ‘Berlin’ (1973) and ‘Coney Island Baby’ (1975). For this, I believe, possibly controversially at this moment in time, that Lou Reed was much over-rated as an artist. But I thank him for giving me The Velvet Underground and Transformer; and for that I will never forget. Rest in peace Lou.

Originally broadcast in 1986 in the UK, The South Bank Show’s Velvet Underground documentary contains interviews with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker, Nico, Andy Warhol and lots of early Velvet performance footage.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AS7QnF6ieKY