Saturday, February 24, 2018

Music Made Without Electronic Instruments


This was a good challenge for me as my tastes are primarily electronic. I like electronic music partly for it's versatility. With infinitely adjustable pitch, timbre, reverb etc electronic music can conjure any mood, any soundscape.

I chose two acoutic tracks that make use of less familiar instruments to create their own distinctive feel.

Greek band xaos (chaos) combine many different instruments from across the long history of the eastern mediterranean, such as the pontic lyre and greek pipes, to create an atmospheric, ghostly sound. Album opener Pontos Blues is a dirge for the ages, as the many dead and gone from the mycenean, macedonian, roman, byzantine and ottoman empires seem to float in and out of the room.

For my second track i chose a more straightforward mash up of styles from the middle east and subcontinent. A couple of years ago Israeli musician Shye Ben Tzur laid down an album with Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame and a group of North Indian musicians calling themselves the Rajasthan Express. The title track Junun is a straight up banger: sufi poetry and trumpet over exuberant drumming, making it impossible to sit still.


An Pierlé - Telephone (Mud stories, 1999)
This is a song from the first album of the Belgian songwriter-singer-pianist An PierlĂ©. She’s known for playing the piano sit on an exercise ball, and for always having some herbal concoction that preserves her voice at hand during her performance. On this album, she played everything on her own - it’s just her fabulous voice and the piano. She recorded this album in the attic of a theatre in a small Flemish town. Apparently, on some songs, one could hear the faint sound of cars passing by down the road. But this is not intentional and so does not disqualify the music for the theme. I also find it quite amusing that the song I chose is called Telephone:


Sandmountain - The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)
Someone had to play some bluegrass, so I picked this song that comes from the soundtrack of one of my favourite movies, The Broken Circle Breakdown, based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh. The movie is set in Belgium and tells the love story between Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a sensitive ‘cowboy’, fond of bluegrass, and Elise (Mieke Dobbels), a tattoo artist who joins him in his band soon after they’ve met. Their dream is shattered and their love challenged when their daughter falls heavily ill. This is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen. The song is a cover of a track originally played by The Stonemans (1977), and is about a plateau on a mountain in Alabama. Knowing this fact will the moment the song is featured all the more moving. Although this one fully instrumental, it’s worth noting that the actors portraying Didier and Elise did all the singing themselves in the movie, and that they have performed elsewhere with the band The Broken Circle Breakdown.



This should be simple enough. Since cave dwelling proto-sapiens were first found beat boxing around the camp fire, millennia have passed without even a whiff of the influence of electricity. The odd crackle of lightening that lit said cave wall might have added an improvisational woo to proceedings, and the accompanying rumble of electrostatic thunder a nice grime style sub bass backing to the song. However, considering that we are only one or two generations on from the introduction and proliferation of electric instruments, it's interesting that pre-electric already seems so twee and archaic.

Folk music rightly clings to traditions, sustaining cultural memes through time. The core of storytelling is they key to this musical institution and speaks of our highly develop communication skills that got us from beautiful cave painting to inane screen swiping. Sam Lee is one of those folk artists that truly understands the roots, traditional instrumentation and rich history purveyed in each song. He collects rare songs by travelling the length and breadth of the UK, transcribing oral memories from rural, coastal and traveller communities. He treats them with respect and turns them into poignant pieces, popular again in this digital age. I chose Phoenix Island from his most awesome album The Fade In Time.

I thought I'd go to Spain for my second offering. The visceral clap, stomp, shout and wild strum of flamenco is often pared down to a singer, cajon and guitar. I think it's the foremost musical style to provide such an emotional punch to the solar plexus. Weird counting and time signatures keep you off balance and lure you in, while lunatic finger picking, chord progressions and arpeggiated accelerations provide repeated crescendo. I've been a fan of Tomatito for years, so it was a great opportunity to listen to a couple of his albums again; I chose Al Mariyya from Aguadulce. It's what the English tourists in Alicante, eating chicken and chips, think they're hearing in their head while reading the Costa Blanca edition of the Daily Mail.


Bang - Shooting Star (on a Church Organ)
Matt Stokes - Sacred Selections

I came across a performance of Matt Stokes’ Sacred Selections in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin in 2007. Sacred Selections were live pipe organ recitals of experimental transcriptions of underground music, specifically black metal, northern soul and happy hardcore. This version, which I believe is a recording from the performance I attended, features Paul Ayres, organist of St. George’s Hanover Square, translating happy hardcore music into something recognisable and playable on an organ in a unique style. The project is described as showcasing historical aspects of the organ, its influence, music and position within both ecclesiastical and secular settings. Unfortunately I've only heard the happy hardcore adaptations, and am on the hunt for the full CD...

World in Union '95
PJ Powers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Well I mucked this one up, no two ways about it! This was a perfect example of my non-musically-trained brain being unable to pick up individual instruments or other subtleties due to the way I tend to enjoy walls of music as a whole. It was the first track that came to mind when I read the theme, and I stuck with it despite being unsure of the instruments used, and despite having a massive array of Irish singer-songwriters to choose from (Damien Rice is from my home town and Christy Moore is from my home county).

Regardless, this is a great take on the Rugby World Cup anthem by South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and solo artist PJ Powers. Some minor background electronics aside, the vocals are what really steal the show here, so I (kinda) stand by my choice!


Electricity is an unavoidable fact about recorded music. Even if the musicians are entirely acoustic and voice, since the 1930s electricity has been used in the recording as well as the reproduction of sound. This wasn’t always the case – the first format for recording and reproducing music was a hand cranked tinfoil cylinder, invented by Thomas Edison. Edison soon changed from tin to wax as the medium for recording, and turned the cylinder mechanically, and between 1877 and 1912 the cylinder competed against the disc as the format of choice for sound reproduction. Both the cylinder and the disc recorded music which was played directly into a large horn attached to a stylus, which cut the sound wave directly into the respective medium.

The wax cylinder had a few advantages over its rival. Chiefly, it could be used for home recordings, but it also had superior sound quality by some measures and at various points a longer playing time. Ultimately, marketing played a large part in the disc’s victory, and although production of cylinders didn’t cease until 1929, well after the invention of the microphone and amplifier that would infuse electricity into the records, the format’s fate was sealed before the Great War, long before the invention of the L.P.

As a consequence, only one studio album has ever included a track recorded on a wax cylinder. “I Can Hear You” was released on They Might Be Giants’ 1996 album, Factory Showroom. It was recorded on acoustic instruments in front of a small audience at the Edison Laboratories, played into a large horn which recorded it directly onto wax. The lyrics refer to contemporary technologies that reproduce human voices that are either novelties – car alarms, telephones in passenger plane seats – or barely reliable, in the case of the apartment buzzer and drive through speaker.

Italian composer Luciano Berio composed Sequenza iii as a way to explore the capabilities of a virtuosic female voice. Performed unaccompanied, Sequenza iii makes use of a number of the voice’s expressive modes, including laughter, clicking, and muttering. Over the course of the performance, a text emerges, but it is almost impossible to decode it from the texture of the overall performance. It goes:

give me                                a few words                        for a woman
to sing                                   a truth                                 allowing us
to build a house                without worrying             before night comes

The simplicity of the message is ironic given the aggressively technical and confounding nature of the score. If anything, the piece dismantles the idea that a pure voice (or purely vocal performance) conveys only words and truth as it uncovers the “excess of connotations” Berio said the voice was always carrying.

In some ways Sequenza iii feels like anti-music, especially as measured by the reactions of the Music Club. Berio was a modernist, avant-garde composer, and many of the techniques in Sequenza iii were developed out of studio experiments with electronic modulation, using it to reduce recorded voices to a kind of “objective physical reality,”  and setting various kinds of vocal expressions against sounds modulated to generate an “opposite timbre.”  Sequenza iii was thus a culmination of early experiments in electronic music disguised as an “acoustic” performance.


Oddly enough the first track I ever heard from The Penguin Cafe Orchestra was an electronic offering called 'Telephone and Rubber Band' used as a soundtrack for the Australian movie 'Malcolm'. The eponymous aspergers protagonist takes in a pair of dodgy boarders to cover the bills after being fired from his job with Melbourne Trams for building his own personal one-man tram out of spare parts and going for a spin on it around Melbourne one misty morning. The ersatz Bonnie & Clyde living with him soon recognise his unique talents and gift for remote control devices and use his naivety to convince him to help them to rob a bank... suspense ensues etc. 

The harmonium has metal bits in it but is wind driven instrument like the bagpipes, only nicer. Maybe. Anyway, to close off the movie theme reference, a variation of this track was used in the movie "Napoleon Dynamite". No idea why.

My second track uses heavy metal and is a staple of pretty much every military event where they can wheel the big guns out... the mish-mash of National Anthems, martial music and whatever came to hand could only be the "1812 Overture" 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Best of 2017

Image result for 2017


Ira Wolf - Sunscreen
I came across Ira Wolf when she played at Sofar Wellington in January 2017. She blew the audience away with this track from her (at the time) yet to be released third album, The Closest Thing To Home. I snapped that album up on Bandcamp as soon as it was released, and hearing Sunscreen always brings me back to that performance, sitting on the floor, staring up at this very talented lady. I believe she's still living a nomadic, musician life playing throughout the States and beyond, home being wherever she's put up at the time.

Igorrr - ieuD
Well, I had to pick something challenging as one of my tracks for 2017, and it doesn't get much more challenging than this! In actual fact, I'm not sure ieuD is the most challenging track on the album Savage Sinusoid by France's Igorrr, but it's as good an example as any of a chaotic mix of black metal, dub-step, avant-garde experimentalism and bonkersness. It's certainly something to get your teeth into, and while easy to dismiss as garish novelty, I definitely stand by it being one of my tracks of 2017. If you give it a fair go, with an open mind and a bit of perseverance you might find yourself getting lost in a trippy-dippy nightmare you never expected to enjoy! Listener and viewer discretion is advised!



Archspire - Remote Tumor Seeker
There was a lot of good metal released in 2017 but few that really stood out for me. However, every now and then, an album comes along that really grabs you by the balls; demonstrating that there are yet more innovative ways to bludgeon ears and neurons into an aurally memorable and enjoyable soup. It's one of life's paradoxes when something - on the face of things - seems impenetrable and gnarly yet becomes intoxicating and addictive. This is a song absolutely laden with phenomenally fast blast triggers, uniquely pneumatic vocals, pounding riffs, baroque guitar licks, and yet kinda manages to sound 'catchy'. It's a song that elicits an exciting primordial response. All hail the Remote Tumor Seeker!


Brand New - Millstone
This song was not released this year, so its cheating in some respects. I bought a Brand New album, called Daisy, many years ago and it has since languished on a shelf. This year I stumbled across its predecessor, called The God And Devil Are Raging Inside Me - which is a great title that sums ups a whole load of angst ably turned into musical form. That whole album is so bloody good that it made me re-listen and appreciate the CD I already had. And it got me very excited when I read that they had a new album being released in 2017, called Science Fiction. Many said that is was a return to previous heights. While I agree that it is really enjoyable album, I ended up selecting my favourite track off of the God and Devil CD, as it was this year's real revelation. 


In 2017, I mostly dug through my collection rather than seek out new things. Sad, perhaps, but good fun. I really piled on the live King Crimson, especially from the Eighties and Nineties, courtesy of and their massive archive and generous whole-tour discounts.

But I also found a really fun jazz band called Slivovitz. Seven Italian jazz cats who named their band after a plum brandy. A real gumbo of styles in every song - straight jazz, gypsy, funk, prog. And on this track, there's even a break of metal near the end, which always surprises me despite having heard the song a dozen times. If you appreciate the great FZ Roxy band from 1973, dig odd metres, or enjoy a bit of lyric-free musical humour... then you'll like these guys.

Also, my fave modern (and retro) psychedelic band was on fire last year, dropping a total of FIVE releases in 2017. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, from Oz. One release was seriously 60's retro, coulda been the soundtrack for the earliest Bond films. Another was a science fiction narrative with hard rock fills. This release was more experimental - there's a wider variety of song types and sonics. The unifying theme was using quarter tones throughout, thanks to extra frets on two guitars. Hard to enjoy as musical wallpaper, but worth celebrating the innovation (within Western pop music at any rate). This is my go-to song from the record. Sounds Balkan to me but it's apparently lifted from a well known Turkish piece - which is addressed in the YouTube comments.


Gas - Narkopop 4

As a young economics student I was taught an important distinction, between stated and revealed preferences. When netflix started out they allowed users to build a queue of movies for them to watch later, but netflix found that people would often add highbrow artsy movies that they never watched. Then they started recommending moves based on their data on what people actually watch, and use of the service increased substantially. People state a preference for highbrow movies, but when it comes down to it their revealed preference is for something more digestible.

Among the many amazing features that spotify offers, the annual review is perhaps the best because it reveals your own preferences to you (mine's attached for full disclosure). I may state a preference for intense noise rock, and indeed do enjoy this ocassionally, but the data shows that perhaps more than anything else I like the hypnosis-inducing strains of electronic music. The album I listened to more than any other this year was Narkopop by Gas. Insistent motorik type beats fade in and out of waves of distortion and drone in a disorienting, entrancing way. 

Super cat - Ghetto red hot

Another important economic concept is that of search costs. In a perfectly functioning music market we would know instantly all the possible bands and tracks and know exactly how much we like each one before we commit to purchasing or listening to anything in particular. But of course we don't live in a perfect market, so we have to incur search costs before we decide what to listen to. Before the internet search costs were high - you needed to schlep down to the record store and stand in those little booths listening through a cd or tape, or record (depending on your age - the distribution at music club is fairly wide). Because most of us aren't willing to spend a large amount of time searching widely, traditionally we ended up listening to a sub-optimal mix of music from an economic welfare perspective. The internet, and spotify in particular, has drastically reduced search costs and made it much easier to find gems in the long tail. LCD Soundsystem famously bemoaned this development in 'Losing my edge' as good taste has much lower barriers to entry than when James Murphy was a kid.

I have never had the time or inclination to be a music obsessive, so I love how easy spotify makes it to encounter new music. Every time I think I've heard everything and there's nothing new I find myself encountering some new corner of the musical universe. In 2017 I encountered the genre of dancehall for the first time. It's an easy genre to like, with an immediate energy that demands your attention. As someone who lives in Kingston, Wellington and works on crime policy at the Ministry of Justice, it's particularly easy for me to like a song with lyrics like:

Cause were dem dere when Kingston run hot?
When we look in di food for we pot?
Kingston we deh when Massop get shot
Kingston we deh when Copper get shot
Kingston we deh when Bird get shot
Man a, Kingston we deh when Cow get shot



First one –
Iggy pop with Jamie Saft trio “Everyday”   from Loneliness Road album
Originally I wanted to play the collaboration between The Jac and Black String, however the songs the two bands have created, have not been released. As Black Soul they have played twice together, NZ Jazz Festival in June and the Korean Jazz Festival in Oct-Nov. The Jac are a NZ jazz collective and Black String, a Korea group, using native instruments and a guitar to reinterpret Korean folk songs. Both are fantastic, together even more superb.
I digress…
To the song I eventually chose.
Earlier in the year, I had heard that Iggy pop was doing some collaborations, so I hunted it up. I think I may have heard him on Radio National. Anyway, I found the album, Loneliness Road. The band he worked with, Jamie Saft trio, Canadian. I love a trio, in any format of music. And I enjoyed the album, the combination of some restrained, pared back jazz at times, with Iggy’s voice, sometimes singing, sometimes speaking, the timbre interesting and emotional. Really enjoyable, late night, a digestive in hand type of music.

Second one –
Trombone Shorty “Laveau Dirge no.1”   from Parking Lot symphony album
I like Trombone Shorty, have for a quite a while. I like how he plays the Trombone, he plays a mean trombone, love to hear it.
This piece is a short instrumental, contained and full of emotion. It opens the album, a great opening, leads you into the album. When a dirge is not a dirge, but a piece of Louisiana, New Orleans music, up lifting and sad at the same time. Beautiful. The closing song for the album is Laveau Dirge finale, a fitting closure.


As much as breaking up sucks, breakup albums rule. In 2017, we were blessed with two classic breakup albums concerning the same breakup. The couple, Amber Coffman and David Longstreth, were both members of The Dirty Projectors, until they split following the release of the 2012 album, Swing Lo Magellan. Longstreth fired everyone on the band and had a hiatus, until 2017, when both Coffman and Longstreth released albums (Longstreth’s under the Dirty Projectors moniker).

The Dirty Projectors (s/t) is a brutal affair, largely electronic and emphasising the discordant elements of the Dirty Projectors sound even more than normal. The album also follows a classic breakup album arc, beginning with anger and accusation, moving through despair, into forgiveness and reconciliation. The first track, Keep Your Name, is a bitter affair, in which Longstreth attacks Coffman’s integrity, insisting that “what I want from art is truth, what you want is fame” as a line a song on Swing Lo Magellan, Impregnable Question, goes through distorted loops that make a mockery of its sweet, romantic sentiment. Longstreth’s own voice is electronically stretched and deepened to accentuate the despair, resulting in a gloriously self-pitying album opener.

Coffman’s own album to an extent bears out Longstreth’s accusation. Where The Dirty Projectors she was part of was a niche product, The City of No Reply is hipster r’n’b with mass appeal, in the best possible way. Where Longstreth’s album is suffused with anger, Coffman’s is upbeat, generous towards Longstreth, and much more focussed on rebuilding than tearing her ex down. The first single, No Coffee, is immediate and uplifting, and meshes post-breakup regret with a newfound confidence under the aegis of a classic pop hook.

Happily, the reconciliation that The Dirty Projectors ends with isn’t fanciful – Longstreth produced Coffman’s album, and the final track on each album is set to the same music.


I'm really happy to join this little community of music enthusiasts! Funnily enough, the songs I picked for today were also brought up to me via a community of music lovers, on The Internet. These are not songs from this year, but songs I've listened to repeatedly this year. The first one is by Gentle Giant and the second one by Rosemary Standley and Dom.

Gentle Giant, Proclamation (The Power and the Glory, 1974):

I grew up listening to discs by French crooners and various pop idols with my mum, but never to lots of rock. In recent years, I started to investigate the roots of the music that spoke to me much more later in life, alternative and prog rock, and fell in love with bands like King Crimson, ELP, or Yes. Navigating the infamous maze of YouTube comments to some of their videos, I followed up on the suggestion of a commentator to listen to Gentle Giant, the best band in the genre according to them. Their music immediately filled me with pure joy and satisfaction, as if I had known their chords for immemorial times. The explanation for that feeling is probably in video games I played as a kid in the 80's. I had discovered prog rock much earlier than I thought, inadvertently, on different kind of discs. Floppy discs. All full of games featuring master pieces composed in 8-bits by massive prog rock fans. I reckon this may have prepared my brain to be so receptive to that genre. I picked the first song of The Power and the Glory album. The sound on that video is not the best but it is worth watching just for the drummer's orgasmic facial expressions: 

Rosemary Standley and Dom, Duerme Negrito (Birds on Wire, 2014):

The second song is completely different, but I also stumbled upon it by chance. This time I followed a suggestion of my music provider app (?) to listen to this alternative band. I wouldn’t have labelled that album alternative but I love it anyway! Birds on Wire is a cover album of songs from all over the place. The singer has a lyrical singing background and is accompanied by just a cello. The result is beautiful! Duerme Negrito is a lullaby from Latin America about a child looked after by a neighbour while is mum is working in the fields. If he doesn’t go to sleep, his feet will be eaten by a white devil!