February 22, 2010 § Leave a comment
Published: Music Australia Guide #73, February 2010.
To suggest that Massive Attack’s 2003 comeback, 100th Window, arrived with baggage would prove quite the understatement. The once trio’s fracture and disconnect was there for all to see in the wake of 1998’s seminal Mezzanine. Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowels walked out on the band citing creative differences, while Grant ‘Daddy G’ Marshall went on indefinite sabbatical, which effectively left Robert ‘3D’ del Naja the new project’s lone pilot. If 100th Window’s serviceable, nonetheless gloom-ridden tropes showed anything, it was that group’s fraught personal and creative dynamics added a hue that del Naja couldn’t capture alone. Seven years on, and with Marshall back on deck, Heligoland arrests the slide. From lurking piano phrasing and euphoric resolution of Pray For Rain (featuring TVOTR’s Tunde Adebimpe), Heligoland feels nothing if not revitalised. All the hallmarks are here – the suffocating atmospheres, the menacing subterranean tones – but this collection really shines in its unlikely counterpoints. Cuts like Splitting the Atom (with Horace Andy) shrouds an ostensibly kitsch piece of dub-pop with epic, spectral atmospheres, while Psyche sees Martina Topley-Bird morph a busy, dominating acoustic guitar lick into an unfeasibly spacious sketch. Flat of the Blade’s shuddering static anaemic vocals (courtesy of Guy Garvey) are unlike anything Massive Attack have done before. It doesn’t all work – Rush Minute and Paradise Circus prove unconvincing – but what Heligoland does is illustrate that Massive Attack have a lot more to give. This may not be their third classic, but it suggests that del Naja and Marshall have definitely got it left in them.
February 10, 2010 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue #347, February 2010.
DaM-Funk is of another time. The LA boogie-funk maestro’s impeccably smooth, syrupy, bass-melted sound comes from an era of big sunglasses and even bigger hair; of synths and keytars; of space-age sounds and high romance. Spanning 70 minutes and five LPs, epic debut Toeachizown is a master class in Prince-influenced 80s funk and modern soul.
DaM (pronounced Dame) spares nothing for the groove here. The glimmering keys of ‘The Sky is Ours’, ‘Keep Lookin 2 the Sky’ and lilting melody of ‘One Less Day’ are about as realised as electro-funk gets. But his dizzying excursions aren’t a case of mere revivalism. While it may be rooted in the sounds of the early 80s, what makes Toeachizown so effective is its expansion and manipulation of its references.
DaM extends and abstracts what might otherwise be straight grooves into sprawling, intergalactic jams. The snaking bass lines, snapping beats and fluttering synths of cuts like ‘Brookside Park’ and ‘Mirrors’ stretch compact breaks into transcendent instrumental drifts. It’s freaking brilliant.
Perhaps what makes it all so convincing is DaM-Funk’s sheer earnestness. There’s not a fleck of hipper-than-thou irony here. “Come on outside, won’t you funk with me?” he croons. I’ll be there, baby.
January 26, 2010 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, A2, 48 Hours, January 23, 2010.
Spending time inside Mike Cooper’s Rayon Hula is akin to entering another world. The fact that the British blues guitarist and experimental composer’s lush musical terrains are in part derived from Australian field recordings and artefacts makes this glimmering piece of exotica all the more seductive. The infamous 2005 recording, extended and remastered in this edition, effectively recasts 1950s Western imaginings of Hawaii and the Pacific as a layered, postmodernist melange. Infusing lap-steel guitars, electronic textures and field recordings of Queensland birdsong into a palette of looped samples of late exotica artist Arthur Lyman, Cooper not only pays homage to the genre, but abstracts and expands its haze-riddled atmospheres. The results are intoxicating. Kokoke Nalu’s looped vibes, swirling lap-steel and shuffling rhythm are pure joy, while Paumalu’s sun-drunk ambience is so breezy you could drift away. Cooper’s alluring revision of the Pacific may prove more challenging than its precursors, but it’s all the more rewarding for it.
January 19, 2010 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, January 19, 2010.
Curse Ov Dialect
Although some recent auto-tuned evidence might suggest otherwise, hip-hop was always something of a colourful chameleon. Veering points of departure are in its creative DNA – from Bambaataa to the Bomb Squad, Kool Keith to Wu-Tang, Premier to Madlib, Arabian Prince to Anti-Pop. Rap’s first three decades, one might suggest, have seen the genre traverse the kind of musical and referential terrains that rock could only dream of.
On the other hand, Australian hip-hop has proven something of a thorn in progressive rap’s side. While the quality and diversity of domestic product has come on in leaps and bounds, it could be argued that a hefty proportion of the community are still bound be an overarching conservatism and defensiveness. Crews who have dared to expand on the Oz hip-hop aesthetic have found themselves out in the cold.
Costumed, multilingual Melbourne posse Curse Ov Dialect – MCs Raceless, Volk Makedonski, Atarungi, vocalist August 2nd and DJ Paso Bionic – are the prime example. Having existed for over a decade-and-a-half and released two out of their three albums – the abrasive mastery of 2003’s Lost in the Real Sky and the ethno-experimentalism of 2006’s Wooden Tongues – via celebrated US experimental hip-hop imprint Mush, their hyperkinetic brand of international sample collage, punk theatricality and intermittently political and surrealist rap-craft has taken them around the world and built rabid followings in Japan, France, Germany and much of Eastern Europe. Locally, however, their pluralistic, sans-Anglo take on Australian identity, costumes and general craziness has seen them all but cast from the largely white, suburban hip-hop vernacular.
Though it may not change anything, the renegade quintet’s fourth album, Crisis Tales, is unmistakeably hip-hop. And while it clocks in at more than 63 minutes, it’s also their most succinct. From the thumping kick-snare and Persian ritual samples of opener ‘Identity’, this is as much about compact boom-bap as it is worldly obscura. Crisis Tales’ gamut of samples and cultural artefacts belie Curse’s punchiest, neck-straining beats yet. The brilliant ‘Paradigm’ squeezes a Vietnamese karaoke hook and Chinese opera sample into a surging synth pop sketch, while ‘Honesty in Monasteries’ sees Volk spit a rapid-fire verse into a collage of splintered Mediterranean psych and fluttering Cambodian funk.
In fact, there are a slew of highlights. Volk again tears a blistering verse into the springing beat and various psyche flourishes of ‘Conscious Terror’, where the spectral folk of ‘Media Moguls’ offers a gently swaying reprieve. Some of the most engaging moments, however, are when Curse defy the ethnographic sampling for which they’re known, instead daring to delve into darker, more synthesised sonic palettes.
Atarungi’s brooding solo exploration ‘Connection’ is electric, while the subterranean frequencies and musique concrete abrasions of ‘Draindrop’ – which features freakish Japanese MC Kaigen and a black metal-layered, double-tracked verse from Volk – is one of Curse’s most brutal and brilliant statements yet. If that isn’t enough, 11-minute posse track ‘Colossus’ features 32 MCs from countries as far-flung as Poland, Switzerland, Indonesia, Japan, Bulgaria, Poland, Macedonia, Australia and the US.
A lot of credit has to go Danielsan of Koolism, who mixed the record. Curse’s arrangements have far more kick than previous material. While it’s just as far-reaching, Crisis Tales has a shuddering rhythmic consistency that entrenches it deeper into golden era boom-bap than anything Curse have managed before.
It’s an assertion that many in the Australian hip-hop community won’t want to stomach, but if we’re to take the sample-pillaging and socio-politics of Public Enemy, the deranged experimentalism of Kool Keith, or the collective mindset and genre defiance of Afrika Bambaataa as a guide – then throw in five different accents and five unique perspectives – Curse Ov Dialect seem about as legitimate and original as Australian hip-hop gets.
December 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Age, A2, 48 Hours, December 26, 2009.
Since he emerged from Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Martin’s rickety instrumentals have read like a personal chronicle of a decaying Midwest. The young composer’s beauteous 2007 debut Almond and harrowingly personal 2008 opus River Water were melanges of unlikely materials, approaches and place, drawing on children’s toys, household objects and field recordings as a foil for his cello, banjo and organ-based compositions. Third album Chautauqua sees Martin reduce his instrumental and compositional palette to its most elemental hues. Cello and organ take centre stage here; Martin colours his wiry motifs with a mere clutch of vocal drones and scenes from his family’s home movie recordings. The results are startling, affronting in their sheer personal candour. New Madrid is perhaps Martin’s most realised sketch yet; its squall of strings, textures and layered voices opening out into a lilting, shimmering drone. Located somewhere between contemporary composition, rusty American folk and postmodernist collage, Chautauqua isn’t always the easiest of listens. It is, however, Martin’s most exposing and perhaps rewarding yet.
December 17, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue #344, December 2009.
NikaSaya’s sparse, happily arcane pop will grate with some. Comprising Hiroshima songwriter Nikaido Kazumi and vocalist Saya (of Tokyo psych-pop outfit Tenniscoats), the duo deal in a currency of childlike vocal game play, call-and-response chants and skeletal, nonetheless blissful free-pop excursions.
But while new album One Summerheim may at times resemble the sound of two sherbet-giddy pre-teens jamming it out on the rumpus room piano, there’s far more to NikaSaya’s sketches than a kind of Hello Kitty acoustica.
Recorded on location at Guggenheim House in Shioya, Kobe by Brisbane composer Lawrence English, this compact collection glows with both innocence and experimentation. Beauteous guitar passages, field recordings and various atmospheric layers offset rudimentary hand percussion and plonking piano.
In ‘Ufon Taxi’ an impish vocal motif dances atop an otherwise an elegiac guitar riff and bed of incidental environmental sounds, while in ‘Ramadan’ (endearing pronounced ‘Lamadan’) a stunning vocal harmony rises from the most delicate of fingerpicked guitars. The angelic, choral vocal arrangement of ‘Osiro’ and the wraithelike decelerated flute and drum patterns ‘Oninawa’ prove further highlights.
One Summerheim won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who really listen will find a maze of artefacts, missteps, mischief and flashes of genuine beauty.
December 2, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, December 2, 2009.
The general chitchat around Why?’s shift from esoteric MC and occasional producer with oddball, exploratory hip-hop iconoclasts cLOUDDEAD, to solo cut’n’paste experimenter, to the leader of fully-fledged indie band has gained traction as something of a celebratory, coming-of-age story. It’s a discourse that has been circulating for years around electronic acts. When an artist makes a change from non-traditional instrumentation and compositional methods to a more conventional band setting, it’s more often than not trumped up as some kind of grand ascent.
In Why?’s case, it’s almost as if Yoni Wolf’s contributions to experimental hip-hop – both as a lyricist and a producer – have been framed as a passing phase on his journey to ‘real’ creative enlightenment as a nasally-voiced, fuzzy-haired indie guy. Truth be told, it’s all a little hard to take. The fact that the scant rap-related component of last year’s Alopecia – the brilliant ‘Good Friday’ – made for one of the record’s strongest and most convincing sketches didn’t seem to matter.
All that said, Wolf has definitely grown into melodic songwriter. There was evidence on 2005’s endearing, bedroom-stitched Elephant Eyelash, and it was written all over Alopecia (Why?’s virgin foray into a professional studio setting). Wolf had managed to retain much of his arcane knack for personal and familial detail, his brutally self-effacing humour, his almost unhealthy fascination with mortality and suicide, whether or not he rapped or sung.
Enter fourth long-player Eskimo Snow. Recorded during the same sessions that resulted in Alopecia, hip-hop it most surely ain’t. In fact, it’s the group’s most live, most instrumental and most band-like record by far. In many ways, it’s a huge progression. If Wolf wants to be the leader of band here, then he’s doing it; there are no tricks, few overdubs and swathes of beautiful instrumental detail and tonal shimmer. The musical references among this string of cuts veer closer to that paired-back psych and folkie Americana than Wolf’s once gritty, static-strewn collages.
There are some lovely moments. The glittering piano overture of ‘January Twenty Something’ and the swooping walls of guitars and keys that prop up the wonderful ‘Against Me’ have Wolf in vintage, perversely self-reflective form. “Will I gain weight in later life / And when will someone swing a scythe against me,” he posits. Later crooning: “Out of every woman on Earth who will I mate with / And will I spit empty threats until all that’s left / Is a million zeros printed on a role of tickertape.” Indeed, save centrepiece ‘Into the Shadows of My Embrace’, there’s a real darkness to Eskimo Snow. While Wolf’s interest in death has always been apparent, it’s unyielding here. It works in parts. The stunningly rendered ‘Berkeley by Hearsback’ tempers its subject matter with enough musical and humoristic nuances to offset the gloom (“Lay me down in a hearsback / it’s where my new best look is at”), while elegiac title track and closer ‘Eskimo Snow’ captures such an unfathomable sadness that you can’t help but get swept up.
But Eskimo Snow’s strengths also reveal its limitations. While Why?’s arrangements glow like never before, they lack the idiosyncrasies that made earlier material so dynamic. Meanwhile, Wolf seems to be digging himself a hole of dread so deep we can barely make out his ample crop of curls.
Why? may have come of age as a band, and Wolf as a songwriter, but his abstract hip-hop attributes were too damned good to be cast off as a cute, bygone chapter. If this often beautiful, nonetheless one-dimensional record is anything to go by, he still needs rap in his arsenal to remain at his most vital.