Rocktober! (Part 2): Bill Nace, Ferran Fages et al., Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis

Monday 25 October 2021

Closing out the month of electric guitars, of sorts, with a couple of reissues and two new items. I’m not sure how I got this first one as it got downloaded to my hard drive without any identifying marks in its folder, so I ended up listening to it blind like some oldtimer in a back issue of The Wire. Two electric guitar noise solos about 12 minutes each, but clearly superior to the standard random scuzz-fest. It’s probably lo-fi but the colouration varies enough to make me suspect that there’s intentional deployment of heavy mid-range in places for effect. Even amongst the outbursts of furiously articulated noise there are moments of stasis which are relatively prolonged, given the small scale of the recordings, which underline the the musician’s keen ear for tone, a kind of Lärmfarbenmelodie. It really shows who’s in control when the guitarist can summon up some truly thunderous sounds out of a nasty buzzing and then resolve it all neatly with an abrasive filigree. It’s only after playing it twice I googled the filename and found it’s a reissue of Bill Nace’s Solo Guitar 2 / One Note cassette from 2008, now on vinyl, possibly just as limited edition, I dunno.

The other reissue is one of two Ferran Fages compilations. Both are gentler, with a heavier emphasis on the atmospherics, than his two recent solo releases. For John Ayrton Paris was originally released under the name Taumatrop, his duet with percussionist Eduard Márquez. Recorded one day in 2013, the 25-minute piece pairs percussion with Fages’ electronic drones which had started out on guitar but on this occasion approach pure sine tones, combining in different registers to form harmony, timbre and percussive air. Low cymbals and tam-tam sounds augment the soft bass drone, with struck and electric sounds played like a slow, solemn guitar solo.

Cuhda is a duet of similar dimensions, assembled over a longer period of time and finished this year. The duet LLUMM has Fages back on electric guitar, with Alfredo Costa Monteiro on “resonant objects” and electronics. It’s described as “an electromagnetic environment”, which seems appropriate as plucked percussive objects are amped and reverbed against guitar drone. Struck and bowed objects produce sounds which merge with distorted guitar, each pitch distempered by upper partials that preclude clear harmony, with one or two startling exceptions. While it’s as portentous as For John Ayrton Paris, Cuhda shows a greater presence of the musician’s hand in performance, with sounds more clearly sourced in human activity. Where the earlier work presents sounds without complication, Cuhda disturbs the surface by introducing pauses, changes of mind and a fallibility in how each sound is made. It’s particularly unusual how this feeling-out process is preserved in what is the more deliberately constructed piece.

The other new release is Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis’s Redwoods Interpretive, which I think comes out this week. It’s a jam-packed little LP which throws together Alan Courtis‘ electric guitar with Thomas Dimuzio’s synths and samplers and Jon Leidecker’s digital doohickeys, all soaked in electronic weirdness. It opens with a succinct burst of abused amplifier fuckery that gets played out into a psychedelic vignette. This punk/prog crossover sets the queasy tone for the rest of the album, a phantasmagoria of electronic genres which morph and bleed from one cultural reference into another. The prevailing mood is that of one of the more outlying examples of 1970s German soundtrack album, but that in itself is a reflection of its eclecticism and otherworldliness. Guitar, modular synth and MIDI controlled devices ping-pong sounds back and forth over distorted loops of electronic chatter. Another three tracks each carve out a strange imaginary landscape, before the side-long ‘Old Man of the North’ blurs them all together. Starting out sounding like a desultory duet of detuned Fender Rhodes and shortwave, things steadily pick up until treated sounds are happily echoed and flanged in the best UFO epic style and then get whipped up into a densely analog-sounding morass before curdling into sour drones, finally resolving into something recalling a… church organ? It doesn’t make sense when you hear it either, which is the fun of it. Each listen so far has revealed new details, like a good trip should.

Telematic Concerts (with Pauline Oliveros)

Tuesday 28 April 2020

In these days of self-isloation I keep getting told that teleconfernced gigs held over Zoom are becoming a thing, only to be subsequently told that they’re not really a thing because the time-lag between participants makes coordinating the music impossible. I don’t know what technology was in play for this Telematic Concert from ten years ago, but synchronisation is neither a technical nor aesthetic issue. It’s an improvised duet between sometime collaborators Pauline Oliveros in New York and Reynols guitarist Alan Courtis “piped in digitally from Buenos Aires”. The two drag out sheets of sound between them with amped-up accordion and guitar respectively, each modifying their instruments until it can be hard to distinguish one from the other. When they do play acoustically recongisable sounds – never at the same time – their signal choice of sounds is instructive. Oliveros blasts a klaxon-like drone that jars with everything around it. Courtis’ feedback howls like Robert Fripp locked in a death-plunge with a Balrog. Whenever the situation threatens to settle into an ambient exchange, one goads the other into something more aggressive and sinister. Towards the end, both musicians suddenly crank up short, high pitched bursts until they create a chillingly evocative soundscape reminiscent of a dockside battening down for bad weather.

I think Spleen Coffin still has this on preorder for next month, coronavirus willing. I got sent a download which fades out halfway through to change LP sides, though it’s clearly a single piece.

It all just reminded me how much Oliveros’ presence is still missed today. A few years back I dischi di Angelica released another of her improv collaborations, but I’ve only heard it just now. We should be grateful for whatever we can get and, considering that Nessuno teams her up with Roscoe Mitchell, John Tilbury and Wadada Leo Smith, people should probably have gotten into this on the names alone. It’s a live set in Bologna from 2011, two large-scale pieces with a snappy encore. As with Courtis, all the players here know that sometimes it’s better not to play. There are moments when it starts to drift into something lugubriously spacey – a perpetual standby when keeping Jazz at arms-length – but the music constantly redeems and renews itself, with each member of the quartet deftly pushing anomalous sounds back and forth in an uneasy equilibrium; although, like this sentence, it seems more of a personal challenge than artistic necessity to sustain the structure for so long. It never gets outrageous, but it remains reassuringly strange throughout.

Debasing the Coinage of Popular Usage: Alan Courtis, Diatribes

Monday 1 April 2019

After hearing so many stripped-back works for solo guitar, it makes a fun change to get sent a guitar album that is cranked and processed halfway to heaven. Alan Courtis’ (bloke from Reynols) solo album Buchla Gtr mashes together one of those 80s-retro Steinberger headless electric guitars with a 60s-retro Buchla modular synthesiser into a seamless whole. The recordings were made over a week at EMS in Stockholm back in 2014 and then reworked over the next few years. As a double LP, each side presents a contrasting tableau of drones and buzzes that morph from ecstatic to sinister and from chilly to decadent. It’s a salutary lesson that the grey area between amplified guitar sounds and electronic oscillation is to be embraced rather than feared. If you were a spotty teenager who got off on Metal Machine Music, (No Pussyfooting) and Sonic Youth’s EPs then this album is a useful affirmation that your youthful tastes didn’t always suck.

Still speaking of guitars: I was at a Julia Reidy solo gig a while back and started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms. Reidy strummed a 12-string acoustic with live processing and drones provided by the laptop at her side. Chords were prolonged, removed from conventional structural function, sense or context. The point of focus became the tension between the sound in the moment enjoyed for its own sake and the potential for where it might turn next.

I don’t want to use the term ‘deconstructed’ to describe this style as it’s too often used as the smokescreen for ill-conceived pretentious food and even more pretentious music. I’ve just checked again and thankfully the blurb for Diatribes’ new release Echoes & Sirens doesn’t use it either. Here, the subject is dub, filleted and collaged into something that is decidedly not dub, however much one may be struck by a passing resemblance from time to time. No guitars here, except for the bass. A real horn section, with organ, drums and electronics that largely behave in the expected manner. The four tracks, each ten minutes long, imply that some other game is being played here, as does the fact that Diatribes is the duo of Cyril Bondi and d’incise, whom I have reviewed in various guises before.

There is a concept at work, according to the sleeve notes. Each track takes a classic of early 80s dub as a starting point and reworks elements of each by adopting techniques used on sound systems by MCs at the time. I have no authority to judge how successfully the album may be “considered as four imaginary moments of a sound system night” but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned. While the material and technical concepts may be borrowed from popular music, the method by which they are adapted and applied to a new situations sounds entirely original and the whole thing sounds fresher when heard free of expectations to be true to an imagined model. Or, perhaps this is less an act of collage or d-d-deconstruction and more a cubist representation, incorporating time and subjective experience to move beyond simple mimicry. Each track focuses on a different approach, building up a chorus of echoing brass in ‘Dub fire will be burning’, stringing everything along a line of hi-hats on ‘Tell me, what do you see’, or chopped fragments in stuttering loops on ‘Continually’. A lot of these manipulations sound like they were captured in performance with a lesser degree of electronic manipulation later on, which is pleasing.