This year’s darkest downers were brought to us by the forces of populist reaction, who closed borders, marched down streets like amateur stormtroopers, lied, threatened, trolled and generally behaved like the little insecure and pathetic horrors that they are. They also made us fear for the future of everything and our place in it.
We sought and found succour from this ugliness in beautiful musics from all over. We zipped across the planet hither and yon, and everywhere we went we found a treasure, and each treasure gave us a soul-expanding moment, also made us feel grateful and blessed for the diversity of the world and its peoples. Let us recapitulate some of our destinations.
We spent the longest time traversing Japanese ambient dioramas where every single sound has been carefully arranged to induce a sense of harmony and bliss. Music zen gardens caressed by the morning mist, a crane rises from the lake and above the trees, beyond which shadowy epiphany looms, could it be the mountain were the Gods landed, or one of the Gods even?
Hiroshi Yoshimura, Toshifumi Hinata, Yutaka Hirose, Satoshi Ashikawa Geinoh Yamashirogumi and Visible Cloaks (spiritually if not legally Japanese) were some of the inducers of such satori. Also Midori Takada, with her legendary solo album Through the Looking Glass, which was reissued this year, and especially her incredible performance at the Barbican in September.
We think of that show and are transported back to the wooden origami of the venue, a small lady wrapped in a science fiction cape slowly sliding into the stage, ringing a diminutive bell that with its tiny trembling ring transforms everything around it, casting a spell from which we haven’t yet awoken. The troop of drums she marshalled, the soundtracks for shadow puppet video-games she created with a marimba, her samurai duel with a cast of inert tambourines she endowed with the soul of sound, all these things are stuff for our future dreams, and those of the generations that come after us.
Where To Now never fails to grace our best of the year every year. In 2017, in addition to a surfeit of stranger techno wonders we covered elsewhere or will cover in due course, they also contributed to our Japanese cornucopia with H Takahashi’s Raum.
Welcome to H Takahashi’s room. The room is different shades of white, all its lines are clean and white but somehow neither stark nor cold, to the contrary, it is as if they curved to cocoon you like a caring mother. Inside the room you are protected, but not shut out of the universe. No, that’s not the purpose of the room. The room opens into the universe through specially arranged windows where light arrives to stage a photonic ballet through which you, your histories and qualia are reunited with the existence of entities and being very very far away, dissolving space and time and reintegrating you into a universe of loving grace.
This year we went back to wonderful Chile, and ahead of the trip we immersed ourselves in this country’s musical culture via two Spotify playlists prepared by a magical dipper. We particularly enjoyed this one, for dancing. It is an excellent showcase of the many delights to be found in Chile’s music scene, combining with promiscuity and gusto sweet pop, disco, hip hop, Cumbia, latin music tropes and many other things.
What explains this bounty of riches? The evolution of complex cultural systems doesn’t yield to simple explanations : we hear that the Chilean music market was too small for the majors so an independent scene thrived in its stead. As with the Spanish movida, there was civic society flexing its artistic muscles after the horrors of the dictatorship, and confronting prevailing bastions of intolerance, social injustice and economic inequality. Throw modern musical production tools and digital distribution into the mix and presto!, these magics happen:
Alejandro Paz’s new record, Sin Llorar is another excellent example of the twisted melange of pop bliss and mixed-up emotions that characterises so much chilean music.
Alejandro is a surly Donnie Darko possessed by the ghost of Patrick Cowley and Bobby Orlando. He creates stunning disco, hi-NRG and synth boogie bangers that he can’t help but infect with the darkest of moods. In Necesito Estar Mal, a glorious hybrid of Superradio prance-along Italo and EBM throbbery, he sings about how ‘I need to feel shit, at least for a little bit, so that I can feel better‘.
We find this pairing of 24k gold beats and strange emotional loops completely irresistible. It’s as if the ghost of Christmas Present paid you a visit you as you climb towards the peak of an MDMA high at some ungodly time in some iniquitous place. Skeletal fingers grab your sweaty shoulder, you turn around to confront this creature of the abyss arriving with gloomy tidings, and when you stare at its face, you see that… it’s you.
Listen to the rest of Sin Llorar in Alejandro’s Soundcloud.
Alejandro is also a banging DJ. Just checks this session at La Roma, which made us dance around the lounge quite a few times this year.
It has already been a couple of years since we visited Berlin physically but then Berlin is not just a place in space, but a state of mind. Parties and after-hours clubs dotting the land create (when sonic, chemical and cultural circumstances conflux) portals opening up into the ur-Berlin, a certain idea or concept of what a night out should be.
It ain’t healthy.
We travelled through that portal and into a platonic template for Berlin at least twice this year, and have listened to many records that would have provided the musical key for the portal had we consumed it in the right context, instead of in a commute up or down to London.*
One of these visits took place only a couple of days ago, from Madrid, thanks to a 3-hour drum-heavy, dissonant ‘Leatherface does a NEU! 2 number on Ozo’s Anambra‘ set by our old friend Capablanca at Cafe Berlin in Madrid.
The other was from London, at a Hydra takeover of Printworks, with Helena Hauff running the show.
Previously, we had only seen Hauff play at smaller venues, in sets build atop a foundation of brutal dark castle techno laced with EBM and cold wave. They were harsh, but they didn’t prepare us for the aural equivalent of an Imperial Sardaukar dreadnaught landing on top of our heads, which is basically what happened in Printworks.
At the risk of mixing cultural landmarks, we ask you to remember the prologue of the Exorcist when father Merrick briefly faces his nemesis Pazuzu amidst ancient ruins. Now, replace that demonic force with the vaguely glimpsed shapes of azteco-summerian-lovecraftian colossi illuminated by a grid of lasers, storm-bolt strobes and swirling clouds of perfumed smoke, gazing with indifference at the crowd of puny cultists dancing in oblivious worship at their stony feet.
Helena Hauff was the chief sorcerer choreographing this ritual with martial discipline and merciless tempo. Never forget.
There is no song or visual that can stand-in for the total bodily experience of being there so will not even try. We will instead leave you with ‘I Am A Strange Machine Sometimes‘ by Vox Low, which appeared in last year’s Correspondent Compilation 4. Its stomping beats and cybernetic spirit captures the Cronenbergian transformation of human flesh and muscle into the metallic components of a satanic dragster headed towards pan-psychic Berlin, over an autobahn paved with bad intentions.
O, pure Mediterranean beaches to lie in under the sun, to dissolve and flow back to primeval sources of life and civilisation, through forgotten migratory paths and trade routes! Could you think of a better place to be, as grandfather winter snaps at your ears full of malice?
Our obsession with Balearica and allied sub-genres of new age and ambient stem not just from their soothing effect and ability to dull the edges of an oft-painful reality, but also from a recognition of the kernel of ancient wisdom on which they are based, they are a palimpsest covered with the lore of a myriad forgotten civilisations that criss-crossed the Mediterranean, to live, love and fight, turning our animal emotions, reactions and impulses into mysterious symbols and timeless epics. As more layers are added to its surface, their words dissolve into drones that ring with a mix of spiritualism, Epicurean philosophy and mong.
Music from Memory were a primary source of these sounds in 2017, specially with Gaussian Curve’s second album, Garret’s Private Life, the Outro Tempo compilation of experimental Brazilian music (which single-handedly made Brazil a candidate destination for the journey we’re in today) and Suso Sáiz. Every release in MfM’s schedule is a paean to the wisdom of the ancients and their mysterious spells to commune with the sea and the sun and flocks of birds imprinting joyous glyphs in the Summer sky, and for this we are grateful.
Other honourable mentions in this leg of the journey include the New Atlantis ambient compilation, Caterina Barbieri’s Patterns of Consciousness (already picked up elsewhere in this year’s roundup) and Kara-Lis Coverdale’s Grafts (KLC deserves a special tip of the hat because her music and stunning live performance at Cafe OTO would have made her worthy of inclusion in any of the destinations we have covered in this journey – crazy, right?).
The release sequence for RVNG International and related projects reads like an itinerary through a collection of hidden Balearic beaches each of which hides a secret full of feeling. In Bing and Ruth’s No Home of the Mind* we faced a coterie of past loves rushing at us and through us leaving a wound of nostalgia we need to experience again and again and again; Michele Mercure’s beach was littered with derelict alien artefacts polished into infinite smoothness by fingers of cosmic dust; Pauline Anna Strom’s Trans Millenia Music was a vast sheltered ecosystem where whole provinces of Linnaean strangeness evolved, populating an experimental site that still awaits for a worthy Darwin; We can’t quite remember what happened in Palmbomen’s beach, whenever we try to access that place in our memories the vistas become slippery, the sounds vague and fuzzy like sensory quicksand. We think there was a party, we must have taken something.
Each of these beaches shares a geography, a climate and a history: our history, a history of space, a history of life, a misplaced history. Pep Llopis’ “Poiemusia La Nau Dels Argonautes” is the history of the journey connecting all these lost places and the adventures that ensued.
Look at the prow of the Argo breaking through the waves with eyes unblinking, aimed at the glow of the Golden Fleece that lures us from beyond the horizon. The argonauts row with Jason at the helm, all silent and steady and at ease with the lie that they are hunting for treasure rather than the idea of the journey, the sun and the truth inside themselves.
Off they go, atop powerful Mediterranean currents, vertiginous like Pep Llopis’ melodies, the Ray Harryhausen adaptation of a Philip Glass quest.
* We know this came out in 4AD but we will always associate B&R with the RVNG imprint.
We spent a lot of time in America, and thinking about America and hearing about America and fearing for America and fearing America. American artists and influences appear in all the destinations we visited this year for the obvious reason that America has itself been the destination for people’s from all over the world, and each of these visits links the world there, that is the history that the vandals would sever.
We close our world tour by celebrating this uniquely valid aspect of American exceptionalism, the sense of open skies and horizons and futures, a feeling of optimism as we continue down the dusty road, Brian John McBrearty’s guitar as trusty sidekick and companion.