Mountains in the Sky – ‘Electron Suite’

October 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, October 24, 2008.

Mountains in the Sky
Electron Suite

The presumption that electronic music is progressive as a result of its form alone is a misguided one. Whether an artist’s sound sources hail from instruments, samples or software, it’s the ideas and their articulation that give the music meaning, not the machines.

The early work of John Lee, the Melbournian mastermind behind the rambling electronic guise of Mountains in the Sky, is a case in point. His first two recorded efforts – 2005 debut Celestial Son and 2006 mini-album Accipio – were attractive and lush rather than particularly progressive. Indeed, it was perhaps the accessibility of these pretty, sample-shrouded psyche palettes that won Lee acclaim rather than any real extension of the language.

In this context, Electron Suite – the brand new Mountains masterwork – may well be Lee’s career-defining piece. From the opening volley of pulsing, psychedelically-minded sketches (the wondrous harp embellishments and driving grooves of ‘Synaptic Cleft’ and arcing synth wig-out of ‘Soundsistors’ for two), this record resounds with compositional vitality and vision. Over 11 cuts, Lee and his band of collaborators – in-house drummer Stuart MacFarlane, ex-Sodastream bass and saw extraordinaire Pete Cohen, Qua’s Cornel Wilczek and others – visit terrains as disparate as synthed-up prog and Kraut, orchestral pop and IDM-inflected psychedelia.

But it’s the underlying vision, not the reference points and evocations, which defines Electron Suite. It plays out as one continuous landscape, a tapestry of driving rhythm, ornate instrumentation, layered analogue and sample-splashed colour offering different hues and punctuations.

Lee seems set on deconstruction here. There’s no melody, motif or rhythmic structure that hasn’t been turned inside out, dismantled and stuck back together. The beauteous, euphoric swirl of ‘Mooglab’ and the flourishing melodics of ‘Spin Theory’, plus the swooping orchestrations of ‘Electrolyte’ and eerie dynamics of ‘Pons’ offer some of the most striking moments.

Wilczek (who mixed the record) leaves a real mark. There’s a kind of asymmetrical dynamism, a willingness to break with conventional structure and flow; textures and patterns clash and coalesce in full view.

Lee is dabbling in true feeling and impulse here and the results are far more expansive and captivating than the previous efforts. While the record points to countless recognisable genres and eras, it is beholden to none. Electron Suite resonates via its own unique syntax.

Dan Rule


Dan Warner – Cottage industry

October 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, EG, October 24, 2008.

Melbourne singer-songwriter Dan Warner tells Dan Rule he has made a life outside the music machine.

IT’S quiet up here. There’s just the wind and the distant sweep of highway traffic. To the east, the view stretches for miles. Mid-afternoon sunlight paints fields and farmland, and glints off the cars and utes and 18-wheelers snaking their way between Wallan and Kilmore.

It didn’t take Dan Warner long to get used to this. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he smiles, almost as if not believing it himself.

We make our way down from the top paddock to the quaint tin-walled shack – a self-renovated former hay shed out the back of a rambling farming property and vineyard about an hour north of Melbourne – that the veteran Melbourne songwriter and partner Kate have called home for about a year now. “I’m in my 40s and I’m essentially living in a shed,” he says. “But even if I was a millionaire, I reckon I’d be doing the same.”

It’s indicative of the 42-year-old’s musical life, which has stretched over the best part of two decades and multiple guises, and seen him craft a strain of narrative and character-based song writing that’s as insightful and evocative as any to come out of Melbourne in recent times.

Since the late ’80s, he has written songs and performed as part of the Warner Brothers, Overnight Jones, the cultish Dan & Al, Dan & Kev and as a solo artist, releasing 10 albums, including his new second solo record Night Parrots. He’s also toured America, Europe and Japan as a singer and instrumentalist as part of Jen Anderson’s live score for the 1919 Australian silent film The Sentimental Bloke.

His relationship with the music industry, however, has essentially been one of avoidance. Aside from a brief flirtation with a major label as Overnight Jones in the early ’90s, his approach has been as grassroots as they come. “I still do everything myself,” he says proudly. “I don’t have a manager. It’s not the Dan Warner international juggernaut, you know.”

Instead, he’s worked hard to garner a small but decidedly loyal legion of fans. “That’s what Al and I were always about,” he says of his long-standing collaboration with instrumentalist Al McInnes, known for their residencies at the Punters Club and Corner Hotel front bar.

“The thing about having a small community of followers is that it becomes like a club and people are very loyal to the club. When we did our record launch, we were still doing two free gigs a week and we got 800 payers at the Corner,” he says with a laugh.

Music was always part of Warner’s life. He began playing the guitar at five and as a child growing up in Perth adored John Denver. Neil Young and Bob Dylan soon took the mantle and by the time Warner was 11 he had written his first song.

“It was about Rottnest Island and it even had a line about a quokka in it,” he says.

“It was called The Island and it was so bad.”

Still, it triggered what has become a lifelong passion for unearthing and retelling people’s stories. Night Parrots, which was recorded and arranged by Marcel Borrack, continues the tradition. The record comprises a decade of Warner’s best-known narrative songs, many of which had previously been recorded in either a band or duo context.

“It was actually really nice to go back to those songs and help bring the story out and make it translate and give them a proper treatment,” he says, “which many of them never had.”

Pared back and wrapped in whispers of guitar and piano atmosphere, the record gives new perspective to some of Warner’s most poignant stories.

“We really set out to give this record a really nocturnal feel and make it kind of atmospheric. In some ways it feels like me singing on Marcel’s record. He was really generous with his creativity.”

Nonetheless, between dreaming up renovations for the shack and caretaking the farm and vineyard (which is owned by his in-laws), Warner is busy enough writing songs and planning regular American tours not to bother with too many grand plans.

“In lots of ways those small community experiences I’ve had with Dan & Al and stuff have well prepared me for the way the music world has gone,” he says. “The internet and MySpace is all about doing it yourself on a small scale, and that’s how we’ve always done it and it’s so viable.

“I love that I’m on a level playing field with young kids making beats on their computers and stuff like that. I feel a real solidarity with them. It’s like, ‘I do the same thing that you do and for the same reasons’ … it’s just through a different language.”

See Dan Warner discuss the album and perform songs from it at

He plays tonight at the Corner Hotel. Night Parrots is out through Croxton/MGM.

Oliver Mann – A song of subversion

October 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, October 18, 2008.

Oliver Mann brings disparate vocal strands into a beautiful symmetry, writes Dan Rule.

THERE’S AN UNLIKELY verisimilitude to the various musical guises of Oliver Mann. The 29-year-old’s tangential musical leanings often play out simultaneously – not only on the same album or song, but in concurrent musical phrases.

His bellowing, operatically trained baritone swoops against a whisper of skeletal acoustic guitar; a shimmering, textural drone rises amid a sparse folk melody; a bed of field-recordings underscores a loose clutch of rattling percussion. It is anything but unnatural – it seems innate, perfectly untreated. Like it’s meant to be.

In Mann’s world, formalism meets experimentation; poetic lyrical streams bleed into the classical canon; previously discrete modes and genres buckle and shift and coalesce with a rare, nonetheless beauteous ease.

But for the vocalist, chatting over a pot of tea and a cupcake or two in his Brunswick backyard, disparity and difference are at the music’s heart. “I feel like I respond to contrast and I find great beauty in contrast,” he urges. “I’ve always loved pastiche and just sticking things together.

“Like, I’ve always made my own posters for gigs by cutting stuff up and sticking it on a page in a different way, and it’s kind of like that for music,” he smiles. “I’m not afraid to cut and paste.”

It’s not the kind of assertion you would necessarily expect from a journeyman of the classical world. Canonical cliche would seem to predicate unyielding formalism as its raison d’etre. To unravel the form is to subvert, and in some cases, cease to be.

Mann – who will launch his stunning second album The Possum Wakes at Night at the Northcote Social Club next Friday – comes from such a classical cast. He began singing as a primary school choirboy at Christ Church Brunswick, later going on to study voice at Monash University. These days he sings with Opera Victoria and curates an annual Schubert recital.

Nonetheless, he always found notions of classical music somewhat troubling. “For the first year I was at Monash, I was just completely averse to anything associated with classical music,” he says. “I hated the apparent homogenising of the voice with classical singers.

“You become a baritone or you become a bass and you just become this tool or this puppet for Handel or Mozart or whoever is conducting, and you’re just thrown into boxes. I hated that and it really disgusted me in a way.”

His work as a solo artist certainly reflects this desire to transcend classical patois. His 2005 debut Oliver Mann Sings saw him sway between blues, storytelling and minstrel-like minimalism. The Possum Wakes at Night only sees him expand the palette.

But it would be reductive to consider his musical explorations in a context of youthful rebellion. With or without his folk, blues and experimental structures and inflections, Mann’s music gestures towards a celebration of classical form far more than it does a revolt.

“I guess I had this xenophobic little aversion to classical music,” he says with a chuckle, “but when you spend time with it, you realise that there are very beautiful intricacies to everything. There was this very beautiful coming around, in the same sense that you come around to anything that you’re scared of. I kind of got to a point where I realised that the classical voice didn’t have to be homogenous.”

He began exploring and drawing inspiration from more idiosyncratic classical vocalists like the late Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, whose interpretations were something to behold. “He does this song cycle … where he takes on this first person of a child in a cot, so you’ve got this massive bass singing like a little child and it’s kind of disturbing,” he says with a laugh. “But it makes you think that there’s someone who has got this amazing instrument but is using their mind and their creativity to engage it.”

Mann began honing his new-found instrument, writing songs and “building little nests” for his voice in the same way he had with his elder brother – Paddy Mann of celebrated folk ensemble Grand Salvo – in high school. “I kind of locked into this cycle of singing and fell in love with it in a way that I have with nothing else,” he says. “I immediately knew that it was a vocation.

“I was living in a share house and I would have to practise out in the shed, and I just spent hours and hours of the day out there just exploring my voice. I was making all sorts of disturbing sounds and it was like this beautiful process of introduction where I got to know everything about my voice. There were days when I was making noises like a siren or a cannon or something and the lady next door, who was quite interested … had guests around for a tea party in the back garden one day. I was just in the shed going off and I remember her shouting ‘Jesus Oliver, not now!”‘ He bursts into laughter. “I was like ‘Sorry!’ and had to run off inside.”

His joy for song is written all over the wonderfully layered arrangements of The Possum Wakes at Night. Employing collaborators from the folk, rock and classical worlds – including Dirty Three drummer Jim White, brother Paddy, celebrated songwriter Laura Jean, avant-guitarist Leif Svensson, harpsichordist David O’Brien and sopranos Monica Sonand, Fiona Clarke and Jordina Howe – Mann moulds his voice to fit all manner of song structures.

The shimmering harmonised balladry of Evie and the shuddering baritone and beautifully sparse arrangement of poetic ode By the Rock I Roll make for two stunning highlights, while the field-recordings, rattling drums and choir of Crackers Cracking and instrumental atmospheres of Slow Dancing see him explore fascinating, more experimental territories.

But for Mann, when it comes down to it, music is a fairly single-minded pursuit, no matter the guise. “Everything I do – this album, the album before, the reason for playing shows – comes to sustain this act of singing,” he says beaming. “So I can prolong it and extend it and do it as often as I can.

“You know, I can still remember one night at that share house all those years ago,” he says. “I was just singing in the back yard and I’d been out there for a couple of hours or something, and I was just dizzy on song.

“I remember just looking up into the sky and my head was spinning and I realised that I just loved nothing else like I did the very act of singing.”

Oliver Mann plays the Northcote Social Club on Friday, October 24. Doors open 8.30pm or phone 9486 1677.

The Possum Wakes at Night is out through Preservation/Inertia.

Interview – Because of Ghosts

October 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, October 15, 2008.

Brotherly Melbourne trio Because of Ghosts have been trawling the evocative depths of post-rock and instrumentalism for a good half decade now, leaving a back-catalogue of upwards of 11 self-released EPs and CD-Rs in their wake.

While their recorded material – including 2006’s stunning full-length debut The Tomorrow We Were Promised Yesterday – has traditionally drawn on a scattering of sonic artefacts and field-recordings, the group’s beauteous second record This Culture of Background Noise sees them focusing their ideas in the studio. Recorded at Canada’s legendary Hotel2Tango with Howard Bilerman, the album adds a whole new dynamic and tone to the Because of Ghosts palette.

We spoke to guitarist and middle brother Reuben Stanton about working with the production luminary, the idea behind the record, and keeping it all in the family.

Tell me about how the whole Canadian experience came about…

We’ve got a few fans in Canada, one guy in particular who has a bit of contact with the music industry who had lived in Melbourne for a few years and seen us there, but had since gone back to Toronto. He’s been asking us to go over there for years and years. So we finally got our act together and we had a bunch of tracks for this album that we’d been planning to record, but didn’t really know what to do with it. So we thought we’d kind of combine the two things. This guy had a contact at Hotel2Tango and we just sent them an email and asked them if they’d be interested in recording a post-rock band from Australia, and they said yes, which was really exciting.

But in particular we really wanted to work with Howard Bilerman, who had a lot to do with the Silver Mt. Zion stuff and the early Godspeed stuff, but we were also big fans of the Arcade Fire record Funeral in particular – not necessarily the music on that, but the sound quality. A few weeks before we got there, he sent us an email saying that Efrim from Godspeed was interested in helping out with the recording as well, and would that be okay with us. So we were like ‘Yeah, that’ll be just fine!” (laughs).

So we went to Canada and played a whole bunch of shows over the east coast of Canada. It was the first time we’d done any real serious touring, like playing a show every night for two weeks in a different city every time. At the end of that we played a couple of shows in Montreal and did our recording.

What about the songs? How did it come together?

We had a bunch of songs that were kind of halfway through, which we kind of developed live as we were touring. So each night we’d play them kind of differently onstage until we got them to a point where they were ready to be recorded. And then some of the stuff that’s on the record we actually wrote in the studio as well, just through improvisation or just playing with equipment or something fortuitously happening while we were recording, which always happens when you record.

Booking a big name studio and producer and travelling all the way over there specifically to record seems like a real departure. You’ve recorded most of your stuff in home-studios over longer periods of time and collected all these artefacts and field-recordings that were very much from your domestic environment…

It was pretty different to what we usually do in that way. We hadn’t really collected anything beforehand. We recorded the whole five days and most of the tracking was done in the first three days, which is a pretty fast way of doing things.

In the past, with our EPs and so on, we’ve done a lot of collection beforehand – like field-recordings and recordings of rehearsals – but generally, whenever we’ve had studio time we’ve done things really quickly. Our first full-length album was actually a bit of an anomaly in that it took as about six months to record. We’ve done something like 11 EPs and most of them have been recorded in a day or two days. If it we were doing it at a home studio, we’d just sort of go in there and do some live takes and pick a good one.

That’s actually how we did this recording too. We’d been playing for a month before hand and knew what we wanted to sound like, so we just played as a band in the room. And I think that’s how it comes out in the recording too; it sounds quite a bit more live than some of our other stuff.

Paying all this money and travelling over the other side of the world, did you really have to crystallise your ideas before going in there?

We had to come in really quite prepared – we had to know what we wanted – because there’s no point in working with, as you say, high-profile people if you’re going in there without really thinking about what you want from them. So we knew what we wanted, but we were quite willing to take advice and let things happen fluidly as well.

Was doing a studio record like this sort of reactive to having made so many smaller records in a domestic setting?

Yeah, I think you have to be a bit reactive sometimes. I don’t know if we’d consciously thought of it, but that was what happened. Spending so much time crafting the last album, it was a really rewarding experience but it was also very exhausting at the same time. In the end, to us, that record felt like it lost some of the live energy and dynamic that we have when we play together.

Tell me about some of the themes behind the record. The title, This Culture of Background Noise, for example…

It was sort of a comment on the world being full of noise, and noise that people don’t pay attention to. Our earlier recordings were quite noisy I suppose, because we were trying to bring out the beauty in the background noise or the sound of the tape machine or whatever it is.

But there’s another whole aspect to it that relates to this throng of mass media that floods us all the time. There’s so much out there and so much information to process that it almost all just become noise and it is very difficult to pick out what you want from that and what you think is beautiful and how you feel.

You must have a fairly innate bond working together for so long as brothers. Have you ever worked with other musicians in really meaningful way?

No, not really. This is the only real band I’ve been in and the only other musician I’ve worked with in a really meaningful way is our sister (laughs), which is pretty much the same thing.

Dan Rule

This Culture of Background Noise is out through Feral Media/Fuse


Melbourne – East Brunswick Club, Saturday, October 18
Hobart – The Venue, Saturday, October 25
Sydney – St Petersburg, Saturday, November 1
Perth – The Horror Shop, Saturday, November 22
Fremantle – Mojo’s, Sunday, November 23

Morgan Geist – ‘Double Night Time’

October 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, October 6. 2008.

Morgan Geist
Double Night Time

In many circles, the term “techno” has long functioned as the collective noun for a whole morass of dreadful, electronically inclined commercial music sub-genres. It’s a terrible injustice for genuine artists like New Jersey producer Morgan Geist. Over a career that has spanned the best part of a decade-and-a-half, Geist has built a masterfully subtle and sophisticated body of work both under his own name and with collaborator Darshan Jesrani as Metro Area.

Second solo album proper – the first since 1997’s little-known classic The Driving MemoirsDouble Night Time is another fine addition to the Geist canon. While his Metro Area work saw him delving into colourful, highly orchestrated post-disco gestures, this collection sees him paring things back to a relatively minimalist, purely electronic base.

Aside from the soft-focus vocal contributions from Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan, everything here comes from a box. Retro synth sounds wash and oscillate with crystalline precision; new wave melodies shimmer and skitter atop; compact bass lines and percussive phrases pulse and pop beneath.

But while it may be clean as a whistle, Double Night Time is anything but clinical or detached. Indeed, Geist’s set is riddled with very human resonance, not to mention a sophisticated pop nuance. The twittering melodic motif and noir-ish undertones of opener ‘Detroit’ arc between rhythm-giddy wonderment and ominousness, while the joyous pop melodies and propulsive beats of ‘The Shore’ and the gorgeously atmospheric melancholy of closer ‘Lullaby’ offer further evidence of this record’s nocturnal beauty.

Geist seems at one with himself here – more comfortable than ever with his purely synthetic mode of expression. It’s Detroit, it’s new wave and it’s camped-up dance-floor pop all at the same time. But it’s also something much deeper and more measured. Whether rock heads relate to Geist’s synthesised aesthetic or not, his quality and nous as a composer is unquestionable.

Synthesisers and drum machines may well be his tools of trade, but with good art it’s really what’s inside that counts. Double Night Time proves a case in point.

Dan Rule

21:100:100 – Shapes of sounds to come

October 23, 2008 § 2 Comments

Published: The Age, A2, October 4, 2008.

Melbourne’s 21:100:100 installation surveys the extremes of where music is going, writes Dan Rule.

JUST GETTING IN TOUCH with someone like Scott Walker represents an achievement. Persuading him to contribute to a large-scale sound installation in Australia, one might suggest, leans towards an absolute coup. One of modern music’s great enigmas, the lead vocalist and principal songwriter for ’60s boy band the Walker Brothers has led an increasingly reclusive existence since the ’70s, fashioning an ever more sporadic and uncompromisingly avant-garde body of compositions and albums in virtual isolation.

The achievement isn’t lost on Oren Ambarchi, one of Australia’s most celebrated sound artists and a co-curator for 21:100:100, an extensive survey of 21st-century experimental music and sound art that opens next week at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

“I really believe that what he is doing is very, very important,” says the 39-year-old. “I mean, it takes him 12 years to make a record because he basically has an existential crisis every time he creates, and he questions everything that he does.”

“He’s a serious artist, especially in the song context, and he’s really taking that to the extreme of where it can go.”

It’s a theme that permeates 21:100:100. Co-curated by Melbourne sound and visual artist Marco Fusinato, as well as Alexie Glass and Emily Cormack of Gertude Contemporary Art Spaces, the installation features 100 works produced by 100 sound artists in the 21st century and bills itself as Melbourne’s “first significant survey” to engage with sound art’s contemporary directives and explorations in a gallery context.

Alongside Walker sit prominent international artists of the ilk of US improvisational legend John Zorn, Austrian visual and multimedia artist Hermann Nitsch, Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino, and avant-garde turntablists Christian Marclay (US) and Philip Jeck (UK). Also in the collection are works from US doom metal ensemble Sunn O))), electronic composers such as Ryoji Ikeda (Japan) and Fennesz (Austria), French musique concrete artist Jerome Noetinger, German producer Florian Hecker, Jim O’Rourke and Sonic Youth.

In addition there’s a diverse Australian contingent, including Philip Brophy, electro-acoustic artist Natasha Anderson, Rod Cooper, Will Guthrie, Alan Lamb, Tasmanian pop experimentalist Francis Plagne, improvisational trio Pateras/Baxter/Brown and cult black metal act Striborg.

Fusinato, 44, who describes his own sound practice as involving “the use and abuse of the guitar”, says: “We are just trying to cover all aspects of people using sound in a progressive way.”

“It’s people who are extending the language of whatever genre or movement they’re in,” adds Ambarchi. “These are people who have put their own personal stamp on a particular genre or strand.”

Experimental music and sound art have long been something of a hard sell in an Australian music landscape polarised by popular rock-based genres and a largely traditionalist classical infrastructure. Despite the best efforts of recent events such as the inaugural Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music in March and April and longstanding sound art festivals such as Liquid Architecture and What Is Music?, Australian experimental musicians are still virtual unknowns in their own country, while renowned throughout Europe, Japan and parts of the US.

Ambarchi’s own reductive tonal guitar work – from which he’s released more than 20 records – has him touring internationally for much of the year (he just returned from co-curating and performing as part of the sound component of the Yokohama Triennale), yet he’s hardly even recognised in Australia.

For him and Fusinato, tendering sound in the setting of a major gallery installation is a way of recontextualising the art form as just that – art – rather than some distant, oddball cousin of live rock. “We used to have a What Is Music? stage at the Big Day Out for a couple of years,” recalls Ambarchi. “But that world can treat us like we’re some kind of freak show and that we’re not serious, whereas in Europe we’re treated a lot more seriously than stuff at some big rock festival.”

“Putting something like this in a gallery context doesn’t seem all that different to us within the scene,” adds Fusinato. “But I guess it’s a pretty big thing to have sound in a prominent gallery for a major Australian festival.”

Eight months in the making, the installation will comprise 100 sets of headphones extending from the gallery ceiling, each of which will play a singular sound piece on loop. “The headphones themselves will be quite spectacular visually,” says Fusinato. “It’ll be quite sculptural.”

The show will also feature a visual collaboration with award-winning graphic designer Fabio Ongarato – who is designing a publication to be released at the close of the exhibition – and what is sure to be a spectacular live concert at BMW Edge at Federation Square. It will include extremist Sydney performer Brendan Walls, a sound and laser show from Melbourne electronic artist Robyn Fox, Fusinato and young classical musician and composer James Rushford. “Expect smoke, sub-volume and scorched eyes,” jokes Fusinato.

Ambarchi and Fusinato see 21:100:100 as attempting to fulfil an important role for sound art of all persuasions, prominent or not. “I think it’s really amazing to have someone like Scott Walker or John Zorn sitting next to an artist from the Blue Mountains in NSW or from some Queensland border town who is self-releasing CD-Rs,” says Ambarchi.

“All these artists are linked and connected by that same sense of inquiry and, I guess, research. While one might be coming from an experimental metal world and one might be coming from extended technique improvisation, they’re all just constantly refining and doing the work, without any motives.”

Fusinato frames it in simpler terms. “I really see this stuff as … the new punk rock,” he says.

“A lot of this stuff really started to come to the surface – these movements have become more popular and more overtly influential on the mainstream. There are more people going to shows and more people going to exhibitions all over the world.

“People are actually thinking about what sound is, what it can be and the many directions it can take.”

21:100:100 will show at Gertrude Contemporary Arts Spaces in Fitzroy from Saturday, October 11, to Saturday, November 8. Free entry.

The concert will take place at BMW Edge, Federation Square, on Sunday, October 19, 9pm.

Ticketmaster 1300 136 166

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