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Training for hope

Featuring : Steve Reich

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Steve Reich’s Different Trains is based on the experience of travelling from New York to Los Angeles during WWII, and also a thought experiment: if he had been in Europe at that same time, he would probably have been crossing the continent in a different train, headed towards a Nazi death factory.

This chilling thought is reflected in the structure of the piece: one set before the War in the US, another in Europe during the War, and another one afterwards. In each of them, samples of human voices – including several Holocaust survivors –  provide the libretto for a drone hurled forward with the romantic sense of propulsion of a train journey across vast distances. Reich’s soaring motorik melodies run alongside, brimming with that sense of possibility, opportunity and hope we always associate with the best of the American spirit, and its humanistic foundations.

We listen to Different Trains and feel nostalgic for another era, of a confident America that welcomed victims of persecution and made them its citizens, a country full of ambition and élan, a country looking for the next frontier. Such a different picture from the dark mood and hateful messages we hear today!

But we feel hope too, how could we not feel hope for a nation that began with such high ideals, created creators like Steve Reich, and music like this?

Steve Reich & Kronos Quartet – Different Trains: America – Before the War

Buy Different Trains here.

Woman of the West

Featuring : Kelsey Lu

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Kelsey Lu’s stunning Churches EP’s been out for a while now.  You can get it on True Panther sounds right here.  Or listen to it on Apple Music or Spotify or whatever.  You really should.

We are gathered here today, however, to discuss the ritualistic, neo-western music video for the track on Churches, Dreams.  Here it is:

In it we see Lu riding into the blasted dreamscape of Joshua Tree.  The black and white photography draining the world of the monochromatic earth and monochromatic sky we know to be there from so many Cinemascope journeys into the West.  Now it is all monochrome and uniformly alien.

Into this Lu steps.  Her clothes: a dream of Western attire.  Snatches of looks as if pulled from a dozen broken reels of film.  Leather and sheepskin applied to leotards.  Heavy leather belts and fishnets.  The future and the past seemingly meaningless.  Symbols of sexuality fused with an  ancient utility that’s long been rendered obsolete.

She moves with grace, whether time is slowed, reversed or some approximation of realtime.  Her dance a physical manifestation of the stately cello that anchors the entire piece.

And when she sings, approximately half way through, her voice reaches through the screen and holds your face, forcing you to gaze within, to not avert your gaze from the tears that roll down her cheeks.

 

Dancing music in the C20: dancehall (1977-79)

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While our history of dance music in the 20th century has mainly focused on the musical works of African-American musicians – with occasional glimpses into what was going on in Africa – the Caribbean, and Jamaica in particular, was no stranger to dance innovation.

Calypso, soca, ska, rocksteady and reggae had all flourished on the island – and while not specifically dance musics per se – those genres had danceable elements.

Dub, the trippy, experimental, spiritual Jamaican music, crawled out of reggae in the early 1970s, courtesy of Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby. Dub was concerned with sonics over lyrics, space and atmosphere over dancing, mixing-board-wizardry over playing skill. Dub was heavy music – it could seem paranoid and full of dread or near-psychedelic religious epiphanies and it sounds particularly good while stoned.

Dub’s studio-based delay-maze was an important evolution in reggae and in music in general, but arguably it coaxed reggae fans away from the fun and frivolity of the dancehall sound systems, shutting listeners up in their own consciousness-expanding heads.

Dancehall was maybe a reaction to that stoned reflection. The clue was in the name, but this was party music! In dancehall, the singers were the stars again, not the producers. Pre-empting hip-hop by just a couple of years, teenage boys (‘deejays’ – note, the Jamaican equivalent of MCs, rather than ‘DJs’) would freestyle over other musicians’ records at dances, taking turns on the mic to impress girls.

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One of these teenagers, Barrington Levy – known as the ‘mellow canary’ of dancehall for his distinctive voice – would become dancehall’s first star. Levy himself considers himself as a reggae singer – the term ‘dancehall’ being usually applied to the early-80s stars like Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse – but in our Spotify playlist of proto-dancehall’s period of innovation, we can see that Levy is a clear leader of this new sound.

Spotify playlist: early dancehall (1977-79)

Levy was a sometimes-homeless kid who was taken in by a Rastafarian commune, and dreamed of being a musician, but lacked any formal training.

As he told Midnight Raver blog recently:

“Look boss, Barrington Levy only know one thing. I was at my mother house and dem send me to school and they say dem want me to be mechanical engineer. All I want is music. Seen? I was born in Kingston but my mom take me out to Clarendon and we live there where she is from. I run away from home and return to Kingston. And from when I was in the country I been saying to dem ‘I can be a singer,’ I can be a singer.’ We used to have this herring pan with strings and you could play two chords on it. I never see it as a herring pan, I see it as guitar. Dem all look at me play the herring pan guitar and I was so deep into it, into the music.”

His performances at local dances in Kingston impressed emerging deejays Dillinger and Trinity, and the 15-year-old Levy ended up recorded his first hit, Collie Weed, at King Tubby’s studio with gangster-turned-record producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes.

The other tune Levy had his back pocket from singing over records at dancehalls was a lyric called Shine Eye Girl.

Barrington Levy – Shine Eye Girl

“Things were changing in Jamaica, and it was a revelation,” Chris Cracknell, former head of A&R at the Greensleeves label told Red Bull Music Academy. “When Barrington Levy’s ‘Shine Eye Gal’ came along, it was like a whole new era had started in Jamaica… suddenly people wanted that new sound.”

This new sound was danceable and fun, but retained some of dub’s sonic trickery. Emphasising the connection between the two genres, the dub innovator Scientist – a protege of Tubby’s and himself just a teenager at the time – helmed the desk for Levy’s groundbreaking early recordings.

Before Yellowman, Eek-a-Mouse and the 80s dancehall stars, these 1970s records by the likes of Ranking Joe, Jah Thomas, Joe Tex & U-Black, Michigan & Smiley and – in particular – the London-raised Jamaican deejay Lone Ranger suggested a new type of reggae, one that hadn’t descended into pure ‘slackness’ yet and was still motivated by ganja, sounds and dancing more than the sex and controversy.

Lone Ranger – Natty Dread On The Go

 

 

Stab me with your laser eyes

Featuring : Cienfuegos + Enrique

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Today we bring you two releases from BANK Records, a new NYC label that recently blew us away with the formal, forward-pumping beauty of Bookworms. These are slightly different, mutant, vicious off-spawn of the Neue Deutsche Welle cyborg mafia, and therefore, in the lineage of Suicide. You can consider this post a tribute to Mr. Alan Vega.

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First, Enrique, who seems to have the same obsession with repetition and weird, aberrant, perversely head-bang inducing electronic noises as Green Velvet. Curtis Jones’ trance inducing techno-woosh has always made us think of Fritz Lang washing machines, and Enrique does something similar, but moving beyond the future into an apocalyptic wasteland of races in jury-rigged behemoths, catapult shoot-outs with Crash Course in Science and a Fallout diet of radioactive cockroaches. We imagine a gang of Giorgio Moroder Marauders of those Wastelands, and know for sure that Enrique would provide their  battle hymn.

Enrique – K-Town

Pick Please Shut the Door from Bank Records.

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Cienfuegos doesn’t shy away from the gnarliness either, but his proposition is in a way smoother, potentially more insidious.

As Alan and Gabi taught us, there is nothing sexier than drowning the gummy oscillations of a rockabilly synth-wave in a nightmare of noise. It is not wholesome, but what you gonna do, blinded by hallucinations, cruising down NYC night streets in a purple chevrolet, listening to some sassy chá chá chá thing while a squad of Wolf Eyes apes tear your world apart with chainsaws; disintegrating into the sulphurous atmosphere of Planet Suicide in a space capsule populated by dedicated followers of some abstract sex cult.

It’s just the way it is, it’s not like you had a choice.

Cienfuegos – Caminando

Pick up Lost in God’s Country here.

Image above by Vaka Valo via 50 Watts.

Dancing music in the C20: space disco (1976-77)

Featuring : Rockets + Space

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At some point, all cult genres visit space. Sun Ra pioneered jazz’s first astral expedition, and George Clinton bundled funk up into the mothership and blasted it out past Orion. New Age is ambient music with a Gaia complex in space. Even lounge, easy-listening and and elevator music has been retrospectively repackaged as ‘space music’ – a kind of Jetsons-chic kitsch retrofuturism.

It was inevitable that that shiny-shiny glitter music disco would grow silver wings and glide into the firmament. What is more, this transition towards cosmic wasn’t just a gimmick, it was a crucial evolution for what was previously a sweet, dancey soul music.

Spotify playlist: early space disco (1976-77)

The period in which space disco first flourished, 1976-77, is the period most observers link to the high watermark of disco. Usually this is because of Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack LP – maybe the pinnacle of white disco acceptance. In Europe, though, disco was getting so white it was alien.

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In France, Cerrone, Rockets, Space and Sheila and B. Devotion; in Austria, Ganymed and Supermax; in in the UK, Sarah Brightman and Dee D. Jackson. In Germany, Nightflights to Venus-era Boney M!

Rockets – Space Rock

All of these artists were unashamed to have a gloriously blunt tin-foil sci-fi gimmick. It should have been Eurovision-grade naff, but actually, even now it’s still kind of endearing. And although I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper is basic – but good – novelty pop fluff, there was genuine musical innovation here.

For instance, while P-funk tip-toed around the issue of synths for the first time in our 20th century dance music chronology, space disco embraced synthesisers with gusto. Those Philly soul strings were now replaced by futuristic spirals and swooshes of Moog.

But were synthesisers a convenient add-on to space disco’s marketable sci-fi gimmick, or was the spacey aesthetic suitably contrived to accompany the sci-fi sound of synthesisers? Space chicken or space egg??

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French musician Didier Marouani had heard early Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream LPs and was fascinated by their use of synthesisers. When he was approached to compose music for a 1976 TV programme about astrology and space, he applied some of these synth learnings to its theme, a piece he called Magic Fly.

Space – Magic Fly

Now, let’s make no bones about this, Magic Fly is a banger. It has that sci fi, ooh, drifting out into space psychedelic end-of-2001 vibe – it’s slightly menacing and a bit otherworldly, although its uncanniness is offset slightly by its Popcorn synth sounds – but Magic Fly is also a dance music monolith. However, because of contractual obligations, Didier couldn’t release the tune as a single, and the world outside at large looked set to be denied this bizarre French answer to disco.

His solution was to dress up as a cosmonaut so no one could see his face, change his name to ‘Space’ – because that was what the tune soundtracked duh – and pretend to be a band. The tactic worked, Magic Fly was a huge hit, and Space had a year of pop success before Didier returned to more sensible music. This was the start of space disco.

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Even as the appeal of space disco’s Blakes 7 get-up eventually waned, the sounds of space disco drifted on, into new shapes. It got harder, minimal, less cheesy. Giorgio Moroder used these sounds to make I Feel Love, The Chase, and the best of his 70s work. Italo disco was basically space disco without the space bit. Patrick Cowley took all of this – and gay porn – and fed it into proto-house.

These space disco derivatives still had funk and you could dance to it, but you didn’t need a James Brown-type figurehead anymore – this music flourished in anonymity – and increasingly you didn’t even need a Bootsy to hold down the bass line, or the best drummer in town to kickstart the groove.

More synths, less band. This may be first stirrings of dance music as we know it now.

 

Serpent Serpent Sliding Funk

Featuring : Jorge Velez

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In The Preserving Machine, one of our favourite short Philip K Dick stories, a scientist who fears for the survival of the world’s greatest music in the face of nuclear armageddon creates a machine that translates musical compositions into living creatures, and releases the results into the forests.

But he hadn’t reckoned with the savagery of natural selection. The offspawn of peaceful songs are devoured by the aggressive ones. Only those that acquire  offensive or defensive traits – claws, horns, sting and armor – can survive. After a time, the scientist rounds up some of these survivors and performs on them the reverse transformation that he used at the beginning, from animal to sound.  A barrage of dissonance, shrieking and wailing explodes from his speakers, the sonic representation of the amoral violence which defines the natural realm, red in tooth and claw.

In his latest release in L.I.E.S., Jorge Velez plays a similar trick, synthesising sound from animals, but with results that are anything that harsh. Each of the songs has an harmonious cadence, an organic order and a mysterious, elegant, simmer. It is as if Velez had started from the pure essence of each of his subjects, their image and movement in an idealised linnaean classification perhaps illustrated by Katie Scott, and turned those into music.

The uncanny sense of serpent-ness in the track below attests to his success, as if our aural space had been turned into the setting of one of those hypnotic Attenborough high-res documentaries; a pure wave of deadly intent undulates funkily through the forests of this night, headed towards us; we stay fixed in our spot, mesmerised with a cool appreciation of the pattern, and its beauty.

Jorge Velez – Boa

Buy Animals in Disk from L.I.E.S.

The Birds Fly Upward

Featuring : Mark Barrott

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Mark Barrott is back within the frames of this webzine, doing his regular public service of opening a portal between this northerly island and his southerly paradise.   His Sketches From an Island records — now surely a series — are psychic field recordings smuggled amongst Balearic tempos and actual field recordings.  They chart a sense of place (purely imagined in my case), like folk records: often hyper local in focus but revealing of a larger, more universal feeling.

Where previous records have seemed to look at the world and wonder why it rushes past so much beauty.  This one’s been born into trouble.  This one seems to be a sign-post to sanctuary.  A liquid distillation of calm, a vital elixir to draw in the true believers.

Mark Barrott – der Stern, der nie vergeht

Der Stern, der nie vergeht emerges in the last third of the album, all polyrhythmic North African drums and gentle, drifting melodies.  Like a magical excursion through Motorik.  A Motorik from a land without Autobahns where the road (and the rhythm) is formed both by the irregular movements of wildlife and the lost wandering  of man.

Der Stern, der nie vergeht is taken from Mark Barrott’s new album Sketches From an Island 2.  It came out on his label International Feel a few weeks ago and it’s (currently) still in stock on vinyl at Juno.