Black Milk – ‘Tronic’

December 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, December 26, 2008.

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Black Milk
Tronic
(Fat Beats/Shogun)

Hip-hop is a long-suffering genre. A fresh declaration of its supposed demise is etched into pop-cultural discourse each every year. If we’re to believe the hype, 2008 was no different. Kanye’s vocoder pop no longer counts.

True, this year’s standout hip-hop releases – the blood-spattered urban melange of The Bug’s London Zoo and the skewed, shattered bass frequencies of Flying Lotus’s Los Angeles – were products of comparatively exotic experimentation and genre traversal. They weren’t the kind of records that spoke to the hip-hop heartland or its inhabitants. Tribe legend Q-Tip’s long-awaited joint The Renaissance changed that in November, but it seemed too little, too late. Where were the new comers? Where was hip-hop’s youth?

Enter 25-year-old Detroit kid Curtis Cross, aka Black Milk.  The precocious producer/rapper does everything right on Tronic, his second official long-player and follow-up to soul-fried collage of 2007’s Popular Demand. His layered tropes nod to the rugged electro-bass of late Motor City hero J-Dilla as much as the loose-limbed, smoke-hazed organics of Madlib. But Black Milk is definitely his own man.

Over 14 cuts, he not only straddles bouncing soul and spacey electronics – he does so simultaneously. It’s freakish. The further this record rolls out, the closer veers toward masterwork. Opener ‘Long Story Short’ explodes out of the blocks, gunshot beats and warped, squealing synth lines smashing apart a pensive piano line. The swirling horns and rattling snares of cuts like ‘Give the Drummer Some’ and ‘Hell Yeah’ follow suit.

But it’s where he piles on the electronics that he really scorches the ground. Like his Midwest contemporary Dabrye, Black Milk seems well versed in the deconstructive dynamics of IDM, though unlike his much-hyped counterpart, he never lets sonic verbosity weigh him down. The lurking synth lines and brilliantly nimble groove of ‘Bounce’, stabbing bass and laser gun beats of ‘Hold it Down’, and the dense frequencies and thundering boom-bap of ‘The Matrix’ pulse with rugged Detroit swagger. The spaced spaced-out atmospheres, soul-hooked chorus and bass-melted groove of ‘Repin for U’ and the raw Motown hook of ‘Try’ offer another whole palette of hues and nuances.

Like his chief muses, Dilla and Madlib, Black Milk is a producer ahead of a lyricist. Most of the verses on Tronic are relatively unimposing. That’s not to say that his skills aren’t impeccably tight. The gritty street story of tracks like the aforementioned ‘Bounce’ shows an MC on top of his game. The telling factor is that this kid has a head on his shoulders. While he knows he can rap, he leaves the big noting out of it; he realises the importance of his beats to the mix.

With The Renaissance, Q-Tip proved the latest call for hip-hop’s head to be overstated. With Tronic, Black Milk shows it be absurd. Welcome one of rap’s future leaders.

Dan Rule

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School of Seven Bells – ‘Alpinisms’

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, December 22, 2008.

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School of Seven Bells
Alpinisms
(Speak n Spell/Inertia)

School of Seven Bells come from a distinguished coterie. Comprising Ben Curtis of Texan indie rockers Secret Machines and sultry-voiced twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza of New York trio On!Air!Library!, the ensemble have shared studios and remixes with the likes of Prefuse 73 and Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins fame) among several others during their short reign of EP and 7-inch offerings.

Their dreamily hued full-length debut is a good explanation as to why. Alpinisms’ hazy, electronic phraseology and sun-drunk sleepiness evokes a wash of artists from both pop and atmospheric worlds. Across 11 densely layered cuts, the trio visit terrains as disparate as droned-out shoegaze, kraut-rock angularities, subtly rendered IDM and blissful pop. Suffice to say, there’s plenty of colour.

The arcing vocal harmonies, flourishing splashes of melody and shuddering beat patterns of cuts like opener ‘Iamundernodisguise’ and follow-up ‘Face to Face on High Places’ make for a stunning introduction. In other places, buzzing electronics feed off blunted guitar lines (see ‘Connjur’) and stark bass lines slink beneath angelic wafts of melody (‘White Elephant Coat’).
While the Deheza sisters’ hopelessly stunning vocal work is an obvious reference point during such moments, it’s Curtis’s negotiation of rhythmic, melodic and atmospheric counterpoints that really drives them. He manages to assuage both opacity and dynamics, density and inflection; electronics contribute to, rather than preoccupy, his tonal pop arrangements.

But while there’s no doubt that the group have their aesthetics in order, the further Alpinisms rolls out, the clearer it becomes that their song writing stocks are a little light on. The pretty sonics of much of this record – the 12-minute epic ‘Sempiternal/Amaranth’ included – fail to deliver meaningful, emotive or particularly resonant vocal lines. The experience is all too fleeting.

It would be overly harsh to phrase this attractive record in terms of style over substance, but it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. School of Seven Bells have a wonderful sound; perhaps they just need to grow into it.

Dan Rule

Oz Magazine – The Agitators from Oz

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Oyster, #79, December 2008/January 2009.

Having survived one of the most significant obscenity trials in modern history, the defiant, staunchly progressive legacy of Oz magazine lives on over nearly four decades since last going to print, writes Dan Rule.

There is a deception to any political or cultural epoch; a recurrent, reinforced narrative. It is the building block of the status quo; the way in which power is established, nurtured and maintained. It is the job of the era’s artists, writers and other culture-makers, you might suggest, to bring forward new ideas, to offer counter-narratives, to – as an all but defunct Australian political party once flaunted as their slogan – keep the bastards honest.

Today it may seem like a given, but there’s an amnesia to cultural norms. As Richard Neville – co-founder and chief editor of legendary Sydney-born counterculture magazine Oz – recounts, at the dawn of the 60s and the twilight of the Menzies era, the notion of an alternative voice didn’t exactly wash in Australia.

“The idea of being critical of authority just had become latent by the late 50s,” says the now 67-year-old. “You couldn’t do it at school, you couldn’t do it at your job and it was considered treacherous.”

Founded in 1963 by Neville (then the editor of the University of New South Wales student newspaper), Richard Walsh (his Sydney University equivalent) and cartoonist and artist Martin Sharp – and now the focus of an upcoming feature film Hippie Hippie Shake, based on Neville’s memoir of the same name – Oz rose from the Sydney art and libertarian movements to create a firestorm in the mainstream. By the time it eventually shut its doors in 1973, the magazine had helped catalyse monumental shifts in censorship laws and freedom of speech, as well as becoming one of the key voices in articulating the anti-war movement and leftist politics

“There was this emerging sense amongst students of the early 60s that we were kind of being defrauded, that actually, all wasn’t as it seemed,” says Neville. “Our fathers were marching on ANZAC Day and going on and on about freedom, but the reality of situation was that there were a lot of books that you couldn’t buy – they were considered obscene – there were the French movies you couldn’t see, the treatment of Aboriginals was starting to drift into the consciousness.”

“There were lots of rivulets challenging that – I don’t want to say that it was the Oz trio that discovered all this – but we floated through this atmosphere and actually had an instrument for pontificating, which was the magazine. Somehow the spirit of the time chose Oz to be that vehicle and we were almost like unwitting pawns in that.”

Oz’s pages spilled over with progressive art, risqué comics, nudity and highly politicised editorial, breaking new ground with investigative coverage of controversial issues such as police corruption and brutality, gay and Aboriginal rights, abortion and censorship. Both the first issue and the sixth saw the editors facing court on obscenity charges – the later for a cover photograph that showed Neville and his mates pretending to use an inner city building façade as a urinal.

After pleading guilty to the first charge and escaping with a slap on the wrist, they pleaded not guilty on the second charge, eventually winning the case on appeal. “I guess there was a sense of shame after pleading guilty the first time,” recalls Neville. “It wasn’t that we were born defiant, but we soon realised that the compromise wasn’t the way to go.”

It set an audacious precedent for the magazine’s move to London in 1967, where – with the help of contributors including Germaine Greer, cartoonist Michael Leunig, photographer Robert Whitaker, journalist Lillian Roxon and artist Phillipe Mora – Oz became an iconoclastic voice of dissent and satire within a cultural landscape entrenched in conservatism. It also, in 1971, became the subject of the longest and most high profile obscenity trial in British history, when the then editors Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson were charged with conspiring “to corrupt public morals” with their infamous School Kids issue.

The trio were found guilty and sentenced to prison with hard labour, sparking massive demonstrations, before eventually being acquitted on appeal. Suffice to say, it was a pivotal moment for culture at large. “It was epoch-changing,” recounts celebrated experimental filmmaker and Oz contributor Albie Thoms. “It focussed people’s attention on what was obscene and what was not and made them realise that the conservative values they had been pushing were terribly outdated. It opened up far more freedom within publishing.”

“It was the overreaction of a declining establishment,” reflects Neville. “If the judge had have been liberal, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. We would have got a really fair trial and been given a light sentence and soon been forgotten, many would say deservedly so,” he laughs.

But the magazine’s legacy stretches far and wide. “It was just a wonderful vehicle for Australians and non-Australians, and it still is,” says Louise Ferrier, Neville’s girlfriend throughout the Oz era. “It’s like a train that goes around a circular line an every four or five years it stops at a station and someone rings you up and wants to talk about it. So its had a real life beyond.”

While Neville is distinctly proud of Oz’s achievements in helping trigger change, as Australia rises from another extended period of conservatism, he is also realistic about the ongoing challenges. “There’s still a sense that citizens aren’t getting the whole story and I think you have to keep trying to break through that miasma of misinformation,” he says. “Maybe it’s just an eternal struggle.”

And that goes for the new film as well – the script of which has attracted its share of criticism from many of the Oz community. “I have absolutely no idea what it will be like to tell you the truth,” he offers. “I completely understand why people are sensitive about it, but I think the director should be given a chance to direct it and I think she’s really well-meaning in what she’s aiming to do.”

“Anything to do with Oz just seems to stir people up,” he pauses. “And I live with that.”

Golden Fur – Three out of the box

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, December 20, 2008.

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Young Melbourne trio Golden Fur are changing the shape of chamber music without forsaking its roots, writes Dan Rule.

FOR Judith Hamann, genre is neither intrinsic nor elemental — it’s imposed. “I never really experienced this concept of classical music being separate from popular music or experimental music,” she offers. “And I certainly don’t believe in it.

“When you go through a musical institution, you discover that suddenly there are all these walls up, and I found that incredibly frustrating. It’s kind of like if you are wearing a certain hat, you can’t try on others.”

The 25-year-old cellist’s part in new Melbourne chamber ensemble Golden Fur is one that transcends rigid musical discourses. The trio, who play their first major concert at Iwaki Auditorium tomorrow night, are happy to slip between worlds.

“I guess the thing that has always made sense to me is crossover,” continues Hamann, who is studying for a masters of music (performance) at VCA. “The walls don’t necessarily need to be up in the first place. If you’re just concentrating on the sounds and not the context of their creation, then the boundaries aren’t necessarily so clear.”

It’s this fluidity that seems to define the precocious trio — comprising Hamann on cello, voice and harp, instrumentalist and computer programmer Samuel Dunscombe on clarinets and electronics, and celebrated young composer and performer James Rushford on keyboards and viola. Billed as a new music project that “re-imagines chamber music in the realms of experimental music and the avant-garde”, the group’s approach to music is loose and agile, drawing elements from DIY and indie music.

But while the ensemble’s work departs from chamber music’s strict patois, it preserves its heredity. Golden Fur’s promotional sampler CD, for example, features three electrifying, highly abstracted improvisations, but also a pair of stunning, contemporary classical interpretations; the hauntingly beautiful pianissimo from Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ Das Buch and intermittent frenzy and calm of Olivier Messiaen’s Foullis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps.

“Our interest is in that real journey from taking these seemingly disparate things and synthesising them,” says 23-year-old Rushford, who is also working on a masters of music at VCA. “We want to see how much we can synthesise them and how much is already synthesised.”

The group formed in 2007, having met and worked together at VCA. But their binding connection was a desire to utilise their classical training outside of a chamber setting. Indeed, each member of the trio has made a name outside classical music. Rushford is recognised as one of the experimental scene’s rising talents, while Hamann and Dunscombe have each performed locally and internationally.

“I think being trained as musicians formally, it’s really hard to break down that sort of mentality of separating different kinds of genres,” says Rushford. “But the more we’ve worked outside of the classical world and the more we’ve worked on this project, the more we’ve come to recognise the similarities that arise.”

It’s a unique vision. While contemporary experimental music proposes an extension and reconfiguration of musical aesthetics and structure — a new language, if you will — Golden Fur’s raison d’etre rests in maintaining a connection as much as it does exploring new realms. Rushford eschews the 20-something cliche of outward rebellion against tradition. “We want this to talk to classical music lovers as well as all kinds of other music lovers, you know. We really want to bring the communities together.”

The trio’s Iwaki concert will include works by iconic American composer Morton Feldmann and German post-war composer Helmut Lachenmann. But they will include interpretations of visual scores by Dutch avant-gardist Jaap Blonk, Australian visual artists Robert Rooney and Marco Fusinato.

“They aren’t notated conventionally at all,” explains Hamann. “Like, the Rooney piece, he wasn’t musically trained at all, so it’s sort of musical directions that are constructed in a way that’s visually very beautiful. There’s no notation and no staves as such, but all these lines and connections.”

Fusinato, meanwhile, has created a 24-piece artwork that he will film the trio interpreting before going on to exhibit the individual works and the film in a gallery context. Dunscombe — who will perform using his classical clarinet, live sampling and electronic processing — phrases the group’s approach in terms of “unlearning”.

“A lot of the ways I love playing my clarinet involve things that I’ve been told by teachers to not do under any circumstances,” chuckles the 23-year-old. “But there are also countless ways you can draw on that classical training as well, as long as you don’t get too dogmatic about rules and so forth.

“You know, as a kid, all I wanted to be was a pop star — I was the biggest Prince fan you could imagine — but somehow I ended up playing the classical clarinet,” he laughs. “So maybe this project is sort of a way of dealing with that.”

Golden Fur plays tomorrow night at the Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank Centre, 8pm

Interview – Yo! Majesty

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Vine, December 16, 2008.

Proudly religious and openly gay Floridian booty-rap duo Yo! Majesty have been plying their brash brand of Southern crunk, classic, 80s electro rap and all-girl bravado on the underground for best part of a decade now.

Known for their script-flipping take on the hip-hop’s gender politic, their volatile tits-out live shows have become legendary. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until 2006’s Kryptonite Pussy EP that Shunda K and Jwl B – not to mention former cohort Shon B – came to the wider attention of hipster set.

But success hasn’t been kind. While last month saw the release of their long-awaited debut album Futuristically Speaking…Never Be Afraid, Yo! Majesty’s brief reign has been blighted by endless in fighting and conflict, with recent reports suggesting Shunda K and Jwl B were no longer on speaking terms.

On the eve of their first (and perhaps last) Australian tour, we chatted with an outspoken Shunda K about all things Yo! Majesty.

Hey Shunda, how are you?

What’s up Dan! How you doin’? Where you at man?

I’m down in Melbourne, it’s raining, you know, it’s okay. Where are you at?

I’m in Florida and it’s actually chilly outside, like 55 Fahrenheit, which to Floridians is like ‘Oh my god, I’m going to freeze to death’. Everyone’s got out their coats and shit. I just got off a UK tour and it’s very cold there you know, so I’m just walking around with shorts on and they think I’m crazy.

Didn’t you move to Brooklyn recently?

Yeah, well I went to New York for about a month. I started a weekly club night there at this spot called the OS Art House and the promoter kind of flaked out on me. It seemed like he had some mind relapse or some shit. I’ve been coming in contact with a lot of people who don’t seem to have too much mental stability, who’ve been fucking up what I’m trying to do and make me look bad, you know? Seems like this world’s full of them.

I just want to deal with leaders and people who know who they are, not people who are afraid and have got all these excuses why they can’t, you know?

Has it been a pretty unusual couple of years for you, having played around for so long, then to suddenly find yourself in this world of labels and PR and promoters and so on?

Yeah, but on another level, man. I mean, my background has been hip-hop, so it’s unusual for me to be coming through to the public through the indie world. Not this one genre but just indie, period, you know? In the world of record labels and shit, indie is considered to the lowest, right? So I’m starting at the bottom and working my way to the top, because the way I see it, I look forward to taking over the world like the Jheri curl, you know what I’m saying? I mean, this is what’s up!

I love the hood and, you know, I was saying this to someone the other day – no matter what’s happened, it seems like I’m always dealing with people from the hood. They’re not white-collar, you know? They’re people who work hard and when they spend money, they’re investing in something that’s valuable to them, so I appreciate them buying Yo! Majesty tickets and coming to the show.

So it’s unusual to see us come through that way, but it’s a blessing because I’m like okay, well, what if we got a million dollar record deal? Where would my head be at? Would it really be on the principles that I express and profess to live by, or would I just be fakin’ it to make it like every other motherfucker out there? So I got no complaints man. I just realised today that everything that I want to do, I’m going to have to do it myself first, so I can learn how to do it and then I can teach the people that I employ.

So you think of yourself as a leader?

Not trying to come at you with some ego or anything like that, but I’m just keeping it real man! I know that I’m a leader on this earth and I know that I have a responsibility. I’m coming through from being Shunda K of Yo! Majesty to just Shunda K, and Shunda K ain’t promoting smoking no weed or anything like that, because the main thing now is to handle my business! I got a president I need to be supporting through my music, you know what I’m saying? Because as a musician, you have the greatest form of media attention outside of being the president of the United States and I want to used that to do something productive. I’m changing man! Changing!

I’ve read a lot about the tensions between you and Jwl B. How are you guys at the moment?

I’ve got the same objective and when it comes to performing anytime, period, I’m going to put my name on the line. You’ve got to remember, Yo! Majesty belongs to me. I invented it. It was a name I had for myself before I even met Shon and Jwl, you know what I’m saying? I was Yo! Majesty by myself. So my main thing when it comes to dealing with people and being in front of people is to give them what they need. Just because Jwl might be enticing me onstage, y’all can’t see that because Shunda K keeps it moving professionally, you know. That don’t mean that I need to stop the show and whoop her ass and make everyone sceptical about shit.

I’m gonna just keep this shit moving professionally and grace the stage however I grace it because what’s for me is for me and ain’t nobody going to stop me. I’m destined for greatness, you know what I’m saying? So whatever’s going on with Jwl, I’ll be praying, because I was her friend, I was there for this chick – heart, mind, body, soul and toll – and all I got was her ass to kiss in return.

How do feel about still performing together then?

I feel free, as free as I can be, you know? I’m feeling solid, like concrete, that everything that belongs to me is mine and God’s. But I have a responsibility to the people and that’s why I was even blessed with the talent. God said that everything he made was good and very good, right? So then you have the so-called fall of Adam and Eve and all that kind of shit. Well what if the world was perfect? That would be some boring shit! Just through these imperfections we have all these personalities and creativity and shit we can watch on movies and real shit and all this stuff, just thought imperfection. Now that’s the good shit!

So what I can only do, in spite of everything I’ve been taught and everything I’ve been raised to believe, I just want to go forth and do what feels right and good to me. And what I believe is that if everybody went and did what they felt good and right for them, then we’d have a balance. We all are important as individuals and we all make up this world, and when shit ain’t on track, shit just ain’t on track. But if we all did what we believed was right for us and we all came to a place of personal balance, then maybe everything would be all right, you know.

A lot has been made of your sexuality in the press. How do you feel about that?

This is what I feel – I feel like when you call me you’ve already got a pre-written script and you’ve got your questions that you want to ask me. But man, more than that, I want to meet you as an individual and I want you to ask me what you want to ask me. Hell, they hired you for your talent, you know what I’m saying? They hired you for who you are. So ask me what they hell you want to ask me, because that’s what’s going to make this story man and make people buy this shit! You know what I’m saying?

Um…

It’s like this circle man. If it weren’t for me, your ass wouldn’t have no money because you wouldn’t have no talent to write about. I’m trying to reverse this shit! That’s where my head is at! I want all my money baby! And I’ll tell you how much I’m going to give you! You don’t tell me how much you’re going to give me when this is my shit (laughs)!

And you know, that’s what I told Domino Records. It was like ‘Look, if you’re not going to release me as Shunda K instead of Yo! Majesty, I’m just going to boycott your shit’. I’m going to get me some t-shirts that say ‘I am never wrong’, so y’all can read it because this is my vision. Y’all supposed to be the help mates and make it happen by bringing your resources to the table. You don’t try and take over my shit like you know where it is going to go. And when y’all sit there looking all shocked like you’re gonna have a heart-attack not knowing what the hell to do, and when I’m here trying to give you divine instruction from the Lord himself, you mean to tell me that you are never wrong and I just need to listen to you and just deal with the bullshit and take it for the pain (laughs)?!

I’m on some other shit man. Nobody’s going to make me feel bad for exercising the greatness I was born with.

People tend to talk about your music in social political terms. I get the feeling it’s more personal than that…

It’s totally personal man, but people see it as some revolution shit, when all we’re doing is being ourselves. Like, if you kept it real at least 50 per cent of the time, you’d be able to pinch a little bit of this too. But Yo! Majesty is telling you how it I.S. is. But yeah man, people were really onto it and inspired and shit. It was like, ‘I know some black bitches from the hood, they’re gay and despite what people say about them, they’re doing their thing – now I know I can!’

All of a sudden people are talking about us teaching people to rid themselves of hate and misogyny and all this other kind of shit. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know what this stuff was. For people to be writing that in articles about me, I had to be going to the dictionary when I was reading it. And you know, I’m inspired by that. You know, people are writing this kind of shit just from me doing what I do. Let me keep doing that, you know! That’s what’s up!

Dan Rule

Yo! Majesty – Australian Tour

Phillip Island – Wednesday December 31
Pyramid Rock Festival
More info: http://www.thepyramidrockfestival.com

Sydney – Thursday January 1
Field Day Festival
More info: http://www.fuzzy.com.au

Melbourne – Saturday January 3
Street Party Presents
Yo Majesty + Special guests Gameboy/ Gamegirl + M.A.F.I.A + Grouse DJs
Miss Libertine
34 Franklin St, Melbourne
http://www.misslibertine.com.au
Tickets available through Moshtix: http://www.moshtix.com.au

Sydney – Sunday January 4
Days Like This Festival
More info: http://www.dayslikethis.com.au

Futuristically Speaking…Never Be Afraid out now via Domino/EMI

www.myspace.com/yomajesty4life

Panoptique Electrical – Sleeping Pills

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Cyclic Defrost, #21, December 2008.

panoptique1

Features: Local
Panoptique Electrical
By Dan Rule

Having contributed to the Australian electronic landscape in countless forms and contexts, Jason Sweeney has now revisited and re-imagined a decade’s worth of solo ambient material.

It is a glacier in the night. A mountainous shadow, drifting and transmuting so languidly that it appears all but still. Moments come and go; shapes can be made out before losing themselves to the atmosphere and the ice. Echoes of piano call and resonate – partial melodies form – only to be swallowed, submerged, blunted in darkness and ambience and texture and drone.

There is an almost quixotic tranquility to this vista, but an ominousness too. Beauty and sadness and fears and memories intermingle and integrate and coalesce. It is lulling and alluring and narcotic; it is the instant before a dream. Buried neural activity at half sleep.

Let the Darkness at You – the stunning debut collection for Panoptique Electrical, solo ambient guise for Adelaide composer and electronic musician Jason Sweeney – finds its bearing in a nocturnal place, in the wanderings of the subconscious. Its title is no mistake.

“I wanted it to be a kind of sleeping pill in a way,” he says in his relaxed manner. “I wanted this album to be something that could help insomniacs like myself.”

According to Sweeney, who is best known for is roles in electronic duos Pretty Boy Crossover and School of Two – as well as his fellow Pretty Boy Cailan Burns’ collaboration with former Underground Lovers front man Vince Giarrusso in Mist & Sea – the record’s direction began to refine itself in the non-waking hours. “I was living in a basement apartment in the middle of Melbourne and was suffering very bad insomnia and having to work a day-job in an office, and was going a little bit loopy in the process,” he recounts.

“At the same time I was working on this record and it was pure joy to visit it every couple of days and just put the headphones on and lose myself in it. When it came time to sequence the record I was still having terrible sleepless nights and having to wake up at 7am to go to work, so I decided to create the track list early on and one that was very intentionally driven to put me to sleep.”

It’s quite a shift for the 37-year-old. While Sweeney’s work has always harboured an atmospheric leaning, Panoptique Electrical represents a far deeper and more thorough engagement. Over 19 tracks and 78 minutes, Let the Darkness at You shimmers with an enveloping palette of opaque, non-rhythmic atmosphere and beauteously melodic guitar, piano and computer-generated ambience.

“There’s no moment on the record where something pops up and seems weird,” he says, today chatting over the phone from his home in the South Australian capital. “I think I naturally always want to do something different, like, ‘Oh, we’ve had 10 minutes of that kind of feel, why don’t we throw something different in there.’ I think there are definitely ebbs and flows, but I didn’t suddenly want to bring in something with a beat just for the sake of change of pace.”

He puts the record’s aesthetic down to restraint. “It was almost like a kind of disciplinary approach; making myself work on the entire album with a particular feel in mind and not deviating from that. So it was kind of an approach of gathering a collection of this material, reworking it and then going to sleep every night with it on and seeing if it had that feeling that I wanted… The moment that I found myself being jarred into waking again I would make a mental note and re-visit, or take off, that track the next day.”

The source material at the heart of the Panoptique project has roots that extend far beyond Sweeney’s sleepless nights in Melbourne. Oddly for such a cogent body of work, the majority of the pieces that comprise Let the Darkness at You span a whole decade’s worth of separate projects and purpose-composed vignettes, originally commissioned for a string of individual performance pieces, installations and short films throughout Australia, North America and Europe.

But the collection represents anything but a passive retrospective. “All of the pieces of the album were chosen for their very specific feel or mood or type of composition,” he says. “It was a kind of rigorous selection process.”

“I spent a lot of time with different pieces that I’d written or had begun years before and set about the task of re-working or remixing them. Then I approached the album as a very individual project, something that could be built from scratch and be listened to as a whole, rather than a selection of various work. None of the material on the record is in its original form – as made for the dance, film or theatre productions – as a lot of this material was raw or very stripped back. It was like I had all of these starting points to work musically and then I could add, layer or subtract ideas as I went along.”

He prefers to think of it as new material. “Although I’ve really made the point that this comes from old material, in many way it’s actually really new because no one’s heard it before,” he says. “It’s only been heard in the context of a theatre performance or a dance piece or a short film, and usually it’s kind of hidden; it’s just sort of buried in the mix as a texture that’s not really all that upfront.”

“So I really wanted to bring all this stuff into the foreground and that’s exactly how I made the record – as a listener – as opposed to creating it from scratch. I could just listen to all this stuff and work out whether it would engage with someone as a record rather than as part of a live performance.”

Sweeney’s fascination with music stretches back to his childhood in Adelaide. He recalls hearing The Cure’s 1985 opus The Head on the Door as a pivotal moment. “I remember listening to that album over and over,” he laughs, “and thinking that I wanted to play the guitar properly.”

He began experimenting with various keyboards and guitars and began recording his meanderings to tape. He tracked his first demo as a 17-year-old in 1988 and remembers a lively Adelaide community radio environment as having a formative influence on his decision to pursue music. “With Three D radio in Adelaide, you could just submit demos and they would just play any old thing,” he says. “If you’d give them something, they’d play it on radio, so that was really quite motivating for musicians in Adelaide, especially in the early 90s.”

“You could make stuff and they’d play it and you’d just go ‘Wow!’ he laughs. “It was actually like this sort of strange training in itself for becoming a musician, because there was this validation to doing this stuff. I think a lot of Adelaide bands go through that. They might be really shy or something, but then their stuff gets played on Three D and their ego gets a much-needed massage and it’s like ‘I can do this!’”

Nonetheless, Sweeney went on to study theatre and performance, with his music filling the role of welcomed artistic aside. “Funnily enough, when I made my own theatre and performance stuff, I never made my own sound for it,” he muses with a chuckle.

It wasn’t long before music became the chief focus, and Sweeney’s rambling discography confirms as much. He has partaken in innumerable projects and collaborations over the years, including late 90s flirtations with Karl Melvin and Louey Hart in Sweet William, as Madeline’s Wreath with Louey Hart, as God Burning System with Rebecca Johnston, and in the early 00s with Janiece Pope as Par Avion.

Long-running projects like Other People’s Children with Nicole Lowry, solo pop project Sympatico and Pretty Boy Crossover have spawned nine full-length albums – including Pretty Boy Crossover’s luminous 2007 record A Different Handwriting – upwards of 20 EPs, splits, singles and cassettes, and countless compilation appearances. Recent work as School of Two (with Harry Whizkid), Luxury Gap (again with Lowry) and Mist & Sea (with Burns and Vince Giarrusso) has seen another full length – Mist & Sea’s stunning 2007 record Unless, and two more EPs.

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Despite his prolificacy on wax, it’s been Sweeney’s soundtrack and score work – which forms the basis of Panoptique Electrical – that has perhaps been his most enduring focus. During the last decade he has worked on films and performances in locales as sprawling as Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Wagga Wagga, Glasgow, Brussels and Los Angeles, whilst also completing an artist-in-residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada.

“It’s probably what I do most, and that’s been increasing over the last five years,” he explains. “I am pretty fortunate in that most people I work with – film or theatre directors, choreographers – give me free reign over what I can make. I usually get a kind of idea of what sort of music they’d like or, as with film, you get to see the rushes or edits and know (or at least think I know) what sort of music is needed to either enhance a mood or provide an unsettling feeling.”

“Sometimes, however, I am asked to make specific types of music for productions and to be honest, this music didn’t make it to this album because the instruction was ‘can you make a kind queer dance club track’ which I did but it was part of the job of soundtracking and not necessarily something I was passionate about making. I think I’ve been doing scores and sound designs long enough now that people who approach me to make music for their works know the kind of sounds or style that I make so they don’t ask for rock anthems.”

Indeed, the fact that the skeleton of the compositions that comprise Let the Darkness at You were originally commissioned for someone else seems irrelevant when listening to the record. In actual fact, the collection’s introspective qualities are such that it’s hard to believe the works rose from anything but Sweeney’s very personal musings.

“I guess everything on this album was probably the closest to me and had the most resonance for me out of all the stuff I had made for other people,” he says. “It’s the most personal collection of music that I’ve ever done and it does feel a bit vulnerable to put it out there. I’m not from a classically trained background, yet this record felt like I was undertaking a massive exercise in composition and pushing myself harder in terms of the way I would structure music and the listening experience. If this album was to say anything about me then it would be a kind of personal plea for stillness and reflection – to quieten things down.”

“Also, while a lot of the pieces were written for other people, at the same time I felt that they weren’t used to the fullest capacity they could have been. So you know, it was an opportunity for me to say, “I really loved this piece of music that I wrote for someone, I mean, some of the piano pieces on the record were mostly written for short film and the filmmakers ended up using maybe two notes from that piece. The composer obviously wants all his or her music in the foreground,” he laughs. And I love soundtrack composers whose music is used by the filmmaker in such a way that really does, not necessarily impose an emotion, but provide some other feeling that maybe wasn’t in the film beforehand. So it was definitely an opportunity to pull out the whole feeling of a piece.”

It’s a quality that’s written all over the album, which gently oscillates between moments of introspection and outright emotive beauty. The stunning piano arrangement and subtly fuzzed textures of It Rains Today (for Tanja Leidtke), the arcing, spectral motif and gently idling underbelly of Tingling Cheeks are Love and title track Let the Darkness at You are some of the most charming sketches. The shimmering dynamics of Glacier Show I, The Paws Before Entering and Falling Snow; the gently reverbed piano atmosphere of Albury-Wodonga, May 2006 and the haunting opacity of Glacier Show II make for further highlights.

One of the most striking qualities is Sweeney’s ability to render genuine, definable sonic dynamics into such pointedly minimalist compositions. “I think that comes from having a low boredom threshold,” he laughs. “It’s interesting because one of my favourite kind of drone acts is Stars of the Lid. The music – even though it’s kind of relentlessly or uncompromisingly minimal and somnambulistic and really kind of sleepy – there’s just so much going on. And because of the slowness of it and the pace, the variation in their music astounds me.”

“I like the fact that you can have something really minimal but have a lot going on. It doesn’t have to be upfront but can kind of come in and out of the mix. I guess it’s kind of an orchestration in a sense.”

Indeed, the classical world also played a role in fashioning Sweeney’s aesthetic. “I’ve been listening to a lot of early music by a composer Thomas Tallis, who did a lot of sort of vocal chant stuff,” he says. “I was just kind of listening to the different dynamics within, say, a 14-minute piece he’d written for 20 voices or whatever, and I started thinking that it would be really interesting to apply that to drone music or stuff that’s a bit more experimental. I kind of wanted to treat the album as if it was going through several different movements.”

The process behind the recording points to a much more deconstructive, contemporary patois. While most of the pieces grew from the piano, Sweeney fed the untreated motifs through various processes, adding delays, static and distortion and various abstracted field recordings, often creating another syntax entirely.

“A lot of the material is very raw piano phrases recorded in a shed in Albury or country SA,” he admits. “Some of it is re-processed string parts. Some of it is samples of machines or static or weird things I’ve collected from underground carparks and so on, and then set about the task of ‘tuning’ these sounds into musical material.”

“There is actually no guitar used on the record even though I think it’s been mentioned that there is. All that stuff is piano put through vast amounts of distortion and echo boxes… I usually obsessively record a lot of piano phrases whenever I can get my hands on one, which has either been on artist residencies or in a CWA (Country Women’s Association) hall on the road to somewhere. I just take a small WAV recorder and put it on top the piano and record stuff for hours, sometimes just drone variations on a couple of notes or chords, or repeated motifs. Then I have hours and hours of small pieces that just wait to be treated. There’s a few tracks on the record that are pretty much the piano piece only put through a slight amount of delay, but retain their original form. And then there are more expansive tracks that are re-worked in Ableton Live and lose their identity as a piano altogether.”

Panoptique Electrical extends far beyond the purely sonic realm. Sweeney speaks of the project – and it’s visual and thematic identity – in terms of collaboration. As he goes onto explain, the involvement of Sensory Projects label boss Steve Phillips was far greater and more personal than that of mere logistics.

“He’d intimated to me a few times that he had this collection of paintings and work that he’d done, but we’d never really talked about it at any great length until we were sort of thinking about this record,” recounts Sweeney. “Steve must have showed me some sketchbooks or something and everything he had done was strangely perfect. The artwork came from older material and, a bit like the music, he had gone back and revisited and reworked it for the purposes of the album.”

The same went for the song and album titles. “I’m usually a control freak and titles come before anything,” he laughs. “These songs originally had these really dry titles based on what they were made for, like Sequence One or whatever. But Steve had a whole lot of titles based on either things he’d responded to in the music or titles he’d just had sitting around in his notebooks, including the name of the album. So that became part of the collaboration on this record as well.”

“It just felt really nice to have that stronger connection to the label, rather than just one as Steve being the guy who puts out the records and does all that other stuff, but instead on a deeper, artistic level. It’s always been a friendship-based relationship rather than a business one. I kind of see Steve as a core collaborator in Panoptique Electrical- I kind of see this potential for even installation work with Steve.”

Despite its palette, Panoptique Electrical’s artistic objectives are nonetheless humble. “It has been incredibly heartening to hear of others who have said the album has helped them drift into a deep sleep,” muses Sweeney.

“I recently gave a close friend of mine the album who has been very ill the past half year and is on a very aggressive drug which causes chronic insomnia. She told me only last week that the album has been the one thing that has truly helped her with resting and sleeping and is now helping her through her treatment,” he says.

“So, for me, the album has succeeded.”

By Dan Rule, with additional reporting by Bob Baker Fish.

Let the Darkness at You is out through Sensory Projects/Inertia.

Qua & Mountains in the Sky – Collective Clarity

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Cyclic Defrost, #21, December 2008.

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Features: Local
Qua and Mountains in the Sky
By Dan Rule

The artistic journeys of Melbourne’s Cornel Wilczek (aka Qua) and John Lee (of Mountains in the Sky) couldn’t be further removed. Nonetheless, the two artists have come to develop are rare creative dialogue. Released simultaneously by the same label, their new records – Qua’s masterfully chaotic fourth album Q&A and Mountains in the Sky’s stunning third release Electron Suite – mark a new chapter in the pair’s artistic relationship. Over the last two years they’ve found each other as deeply involved in one another’s records as their own: conceptualising, counselling, troubleshooting, breaking down, mixing, even playing live. In the following dialogue, they speak to one another about inspiration, process and the importance of exchange.

On paper, Cornel Wilczek and John Lee are the classic odd-couple. They hail from polar musical pedigrees, employ entirely different methodologies and craft strikingly singular sounds.

Since crafting the shimmering ambient landscapes that comprised his debut as Qua, 2002’s stunning Forgetabout, 34-year-old Wilczek has created an electronic musical syntax unto itself. Crossing genre and stylistic orientation at will, the classically trained composer and instrumentalist’s hyper-fragmented, mind-bendingly intricate and densely melodic sound worlds utilise customised software patches, live instrumentation and an increasingly refined range of interfaces to render their strange beauty.

Conversely, the self-taught Lee came from a background in rock bands to plot a curious line through psychedelia and hip-hop, the 33-year-old’s sample-rich, beat-heavy instrumentals capturing both electronic intricacies and very human, band-like dynamics.

In person, too, they seem at opposite ends of the scale. Wilczek is already waiting at our meeting place – in the inner Melbourne suburb of Collingwood – when I arrive ahead time. Lee, meanwhile, rolls in half an hour late, a guilty smile on his dial. Even as today’s dialogue begins, it becomes apparent that the two engage in contrasting ways. Lee meanders through the conversation, taking his time to consider his explanations and posing as many questions as he responds to. Wilczek, on the other hand, speaks at a hundred miles an hour, his rapid-fire articulations both elaborate and definitive.

Nonetheless, over the last few years the pair have been charting an ever-closer course. Whilst contrasting heavily in terms of sound sources, methodologies and individual aesthetics, their two new records – the crazily crowded electronic pop of Qua’s Q&A and the vivid, colour-soaked landscapes of Mountains in the Sky’s Electron Suite – engender parallel, almost sibling-like qualities.

Indeed, as Lee goes on to posit, the records’ co-release on Love+Mercy in October signalled something far deeper than mere label convenience. “I think why the two records have come together so much is because during the last year it’s become this kind of joint obsession,” he offers. “We were both really thinking about what our next record was going to be and always communicating with each other about what we feel is important and all that kind of stuff, so they have ended up really informing each other.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” responds Wiczek. “I think both of these albums were very conscious albums in terms of what we wanted, and the amount of discussion we had before we even started, well, I think we talked about it for as long as we actually did it.”

“Which is weird for me because I’d never done that before,” says Lee. “I’d never really had the opportunity to talk about it like that with other people.”

“I think it’s really important to have peers in your life as an artist,” Wilczek continues. “If you don’t have peers in your life, it means you can’t discuss the most important things in your life at the time of creating something like this, which is writing the album. Six months ago, our conversations were based entirely around certain songs on our albums that we were struggling with, or certain elements, and it’s really important to talk about your creative process and the fruits of it and trying to work out how it can be better. We’d literally be writing a track and sending it to one another.”

“Just the slightest little comment can have a huge impact on a whole track,” says Lee. “When you’re sharing stuff with other people, it’s almost like you don’t even need their comments; you just need a fresh pair of ears. As soon as you sit down and listen to something with someone, you notice all these things that you didn’t notice when you were by yourself. It makes you more of a listener rather than a creator.”

Lee’s approach to music has always been intuitive. He grew up in the satellite city of Geelong, picking up the age of 15. His first real musical break came with indie-pop band Honeysuckle, but it wasn’t until he moved to Melbourne and began hanging around with the guys from The Avalanches – before they had formed the group – that he really began to explore music. For Lee, the turning point was hip-hop.

“It changed everything,” he recalls. “I had really moved away from music, but this notion of sampling just opened up a whole new world. I started buying records from op-shops that I never would have listened to, and I started seeing the value and the worth in all this great stuff that people were just throwing away. It was no longer about technique, but kind of about listening and learning, you know, and hat’s when I started getting into experimental music.”

“I kind of love that thing of playing any instrument – keyboards, drums – that I haven’t really learned, because I have a naïve approach to it and naivety – this sense of discovery – in music is really important.”

His debut record as Mountains, 2005’s Celestial Son, echoed with such wide-eyed sensibilities.  Filled with lush samples, farm animal grabs and flourishing orchestral dynamics, it proved as pretty as it was melancholic – its loose, flowing instrumentals weaving through a stunning array of minor key atmospheres and introspections. The more expansive, psyche-riddled tropes of Accipio arrived in 2006.

Wilkczek couldn’t have come from a more different backdrop. Hailing from Adelaide, he learned the classical guitar from early childhood and went onto play as a session musician in his early 20s. “I really took it quite seriously for a while and I made my living doing session work, but I really began to miss the compositional side.”

The Qua project began to take shape when he moved to Melbourne. “I’d never had a computer until I was 23 and then bought a one and was just blown away,” he smiles. “I just started really, really thinking about myself as a composer – what I wanted to do and what I could do that no one else did – and it was at that point that I found these old four-track sets that I’d had when I was 13 or 14. So I started listening to them and I was kind of blown away with how articulate some of these were and how I hadn’t heard anything quite like it and then used that as a starting point for the first album.”

“So I had my Mac Classic Plus, my guitar, my sampler and my Nord Mini Modular and I started creating all this stuff,” he continues. “It was based around recording performances and then cutting them up and restructuring them, then using synthesis to tie it all together. It’s really about performance cut up and abstracted and turned into something else.”

While Forgetabout fluttered and pealed with ambient texture and clicking rhythms, 2004’s masterpiece Painting Monsters on Clouds saw him merge more angular compositions and chaotic shudders of melodic and percussive material into a still largely ambient underlay. The record was celebrated throughout the experimental community and saw Wilczek sign to renowned LA experimental label Mush, who went onto re-release his first two records an internationally.

Wilczek and Lee’s musical worlds began to align on Accipio, for which Lee wired Wilczek as a mix engineer. He ended up playing synth and guitar on the record and helping Lee and live-collaborator Stu MacFarlane perform the songs in a live context. “Mixing is a really cool way to learn something,” says Wilczek. “It’s like suddenly you know it inside out.”

The pair began to discuss their future projects and directions only to find that their plans were all but parallel. The binding conduit was pop.

“Cornel and I are both into such a huge array of music and we really love so many different sorts of music that we sometimes get stuck trying to fit too much into one record,” says Lee. “We spoke a lot about the fact that we’re going to be making records for a long time and there’s a lot more time for making ambient music, like when we’re eighty and running marathons.”

“The big change in my album was when you were saying exactly that,” says Wilczek. “You said, ‘We’re not going to be young forever. Right now we’ve got a lot of energy so lets do pop-based albums and give it that youthful energy while you’ve got it’. That really turned everything around, because at one stage there were some tracks that I was going to throw away and I continued with them.”

“I was thinking about touring around and playing live, and you know, it’s not something that I necessarily want to do forever,” continues Lee. “So when it came to focussing my attention on what sort of music I wanted to make, I just thought that while I can still tour and travel around, it might as well be fun and be something I want to play live to people.”

Both records certainly fit this bill, both utilising an array of live instrumentation to expound their electronic accompaniments. From its opening volley of pulsing, psychedelic collages (the wondrous harp embellishments and driving grooves of Synaptic Cleft and arcing synth wig-out of Soundsistors), Electron Suite resounds with compositional vitality and vision. Over 11 cuts, Lee and his band of collaborators – MacFarlane, ex-Sodastream bass and saw extraordinaire Pete Cohen, Wilczek (who again mixed the record) and others – weave a tapestry of driving rhythm and ornate instrumentation, with layered analogue and sample-splashed colour offering different hues and punctuations.

For Lee, it’s been a huge educational curve. “I’m learning a lot more about sound,” he says. “The previous two records were sample-based and I didn’t know too much about how to adjust them or what to do with them. Plus I really liked that whole organic thing and I wanted to get a whole bunch of organic sounds and mash them together and do something entirely different.”

“Cornel has been a huge influence, not just musically but in terms of technology and learning how to use the tools that I’m using, which is really important, because if you don’t feel confident with the tools that you’re using, you don’t necessarily push them as far as they can go and you don’t know where they can go.”

“I’m your technology pusher,” giggles Wilczek.

“I knew that I wanted to make an upbeat record that was positive, and I thought that was what was important for me,” continues Lee. “A few years ago I made a decision to not listen to music that was depressing and it had a huge influence on my life. Not listening to Nico first thing in the morning made a big difference to my day,” he laughs. “So the idea was to inject something like that back into the world and not have such a negative and sombre influence.”

Q&A is similarly upbeat. The spiralling, top-end cacophony and thundering new-wave beat of manic opener Lapsang Souchong segues into a torrent of high-velocity pop playfulness – early 80s proto-computer contours and gleaming instrumentation trading nuances and phrases at will. The recorder loop-turned explosions of Goodmorning Sun and Dance of the Three Fours, and Laurence Pike’s extraverted drum assault on The Lion’s Flying Dream make for thrilling flashes, while the robo-break of The Magnificent Mister is one of the record’s most outwardly joyous moments. It’s hard to believe that it’s the same composer who in August released flowing improvisational mini-album Silver Red, let alone the comparative reticence of Forgetabout and Painting Monsters on Clouds.

“It was pretty much the simplest conceptual basis I’d ever come up with,” he says, “which was making the record really fun and really colourful. And I don’t want to sound vacuous but I didn’t want too much to be read into it. I just wanted to just exist and be fun. I really needed not just the music to be fun, but the writing and production stages of it to be really fun and really instinctive and free of all the stuff that I’d worked with in the past, which was quite laboured and quite emotionally draining.”

“This was really pleasurable to do and essence of these songs just happened so quickly. It literally happened in hours and I think by letting go of the shackles and trying not to do anything too deep, opened this very instinctive, very colourful world up.”

This sense of haste was something that informed both records. “One thing that we discussed a lot was working on our own the whole time and spending so much time isolated in the studio,” says Lee. “For me, using samples that are so labour intensive and Cornel’s processing  being so labour intensive, it was really important for both of us that we just knocked the records out. I was feeling very isolated, just being alone for hours at a time in a little room.”

“I think that informed the records that we ended up making. I think the stuff we’ve done before has maybe allowed people to enter their own sort of space, but these seem to invite people in.”

Wilczek agrees. “Both these albums sound like albums that you would listen to on speakers, whereas our last few albums sounded more like headphone albums. Both have amazing qualities, but yeah, I actually wrote these songs without headphones and wrote them quite loud and mixed them quite loud and it was all about space and vibration.”

“I think the other interesting thing is that both of us did a lot of the writing standing up,” adds Lee. “Cornel read this interview with Brian Eno, which was discussing that whole notion that if you stand up you write more positive and energetic music than if you sit down.”

“Instead of looking at that linear playback head move across a screen,” says Wilczek, “you’re focussing on an instrument and focussing on the sounds that you’re making.”

But that’s not to say that the process of creating pop music was without its troubles. “What I found about writing this music that was really upbeat and happy and fun and not too vacuous was that it’s actually really hard,” laughs Lee. “I think there’s a fine line between what we do, which is writing a pop song to try and facilitate good vibes and writing a meaningless pop song to try and make money.”

“It became a really valid challenge,” urges Wilczek.  “It offers a different focal point to the music you know. Everybody has that desire to hear something resolved in three or four chords.”

“I just found that so unbelievably liberating,” he says. “We all know the effect that good pop music can have on you – it can change your life.”

“All that said,” offers Lee, a cheeky smile creeping across his face. “A great deal of pop music just makes me want to vomit and doesn’t allow me to think of anything except how much I hate it.”

Q&A is out through Mush/Love+Mercy/Shock
Electron Suite is out through Love+Mercy/Shock

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