Equal Stones – Transgression (Hidden Vibes, 2014)

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The difficulty with revision is that you get so embroiled with stuffing endless pieces of information back into your head that you sort of lose perspective on real world things and start seeing meaningless things in innocuous places; “transgression”, in the case of Equal Stones’s new LP, I’m almost certain does not refer to a rise in sea level relative to land because that would make no sense. Rather it makes use of the word in a much older and meaner context, one that embraces defiance and disobedience and that comes through strongly in the abrasive music contained within.

The earliest moments of opener “Set Free” are genteel and almost soft as warm drones melt by and cyclical glitch ticks away gently in the backfield; time flowing consistently and we being aware of its ebb. It cant remain in this blissfully unaware, even naive, form for long however as it begins to fight back; thicker drone currents begin to ooze luxuriously and cyclically into the mix and we’re introduced to a character that begins to feel this cage and oppression, slowly mounting through the gently creeping crescendo of texture and intruding vocal moans. Unfortunately it peaks somewhere about 5 or 6 minutes in and then seems to remain content to sit in place for the remaining half, which is vaguely disappointing since one would expect something wholly more cathartic and satisfying to tie the piece together in its closing moments but there is only an inconclusive sensation of something unfinished.

“We All Fall” does something wholly similar to its predecessor as it introduces itself on a wash of distant drone and static, like a bleary television screen stuck between channels, hovering in limbo before some sense of purpose and direction is appropriated to it from some outside presence. And there is a disorientating feeling of weightlessness here, that sickening sensation of motion in your stomach following a plunge and a certain blinding panic as we go down, out of control and unable to make sense of our spinning, twisting surroundings that looked so steady and stable mere moments before. And so it goes, this terrifying instant of failure distilled and stretched out, time slowing down and prolonging the ordeal as we absorb the magnitude of our failure and resign ourselves to our swiftly oncoming fate. It fades away slowly as we’re not allowed to progress that far within the parameters of the sound but there’s a solid resignation still present.

So far there’s been a real sense of dangerous beauty coming through the music, almost a level of admiration, and that comes through even more strongly on the longest, 14 minute expanse of “Reject All You Have Learned”. Its span allows for an even more carefully plotted evolution that was not possible on the first two pieces as it revs itself up on soft and melancholic smeared vocal moans and shimmering, elongate synth drones. Its faux record player/lo-fi aesthetic also comes through with a sort of pseudo-organic cyclical glitching and clicking, turning over and over and keeping tab of time in the same way the opener did as the track unfolds. Its peak is brief despite its duration, culminating in a few moments of  briefly aligning textural  crescendo before becoming undone in tersely shifting, piercing synths in its closing few minutes.

Closer “Death At Both Ends” seems to embrace a certain long-form chaos that’s been slowly built up through the duration of this record, a head of steam atop this teetering pile of emotionally wrought drone. There’s more drive and more punch in the shortest track of the album as it runs itself down in double the time of the previous track. And there’s a real sense of rhythm and definable, oscillating motion here too, present as a tattered, stuttering mass of lurching electronica floating in a sea of whining and miserable drone before the whole entity just gives up the ghost and migrates back to darkness to draw the curtains on the album as a whole.

Whilst I appreciate the need for sparseness and minimalism, and see the necessity for the paucity of the evolution within each movement, it still doesn’t make the album any more compelling to me, emotionally or otherwise. I’ve listened to this a number of times now but there’s still some barrier to entry for me; there is an intimacy and there is a solid heap of introspection but it feels so distant and alienating, and the fact that every track has no conclusive finale and simply meanders to nothing is really disappointing. There’s not a whole lot of love from me here but the fugue it commands is worthy of a listen at least.

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Fennesz – Bécs (Editions Mego, 2014)

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Despite Christian Fennesz’s crucial role in the advancement of Electroacoustic and Drone, he has a surprisingly small solo discography that judders along with painful hiatuses for his fans. His last album, the incredible Black Sea, was released a whole six years ago in 2008, and so we’re long overdue new content from one of the biggest and most influential names in the genre. Said to be a spiritual successor to the seminal powerhouse of 2001 epic Endless Summer, Bécs has the same warm glow of the now 13 year old record but with a maturity and elegance that is thus far unmatched.

Wobbly opener “Static Kings” is perhaps one of the weaker tracks of the album for me, which says a great deal since it’s not bad at all. Arriving on a wash of both clean guitar lines and flanging distortion, it floats along merrily and with an easygoing attitude, in a way that has come to epitomise much of Fennesz’s work. It has a certain laziness and simplicity that is not necessarily matched by the myriad of textures we’re carefully assaulted with, cresting in waves of light noise and careful synth tinkerings as we fall into memory. It’s a far cry from pre-release behemoth “The Liar” that quickly follows it up, arriving on angry bursts of staccato guitars, warped and twisted angrily as they’re smeared into huge, maddened drones. It was a strange choice in retrospect, since much of the album still to come bears no resemblance to its coarse wails and ferocious noise, rising up in an obliterating crescendo of punishing sound, so intoxicating in its all consuming destruction that everything else seems to fall away and melt into obscurity. Its closing moments fall away rapidly and for a brief moment we hear the shining vocal lines of calm in the background before they vanish, a quiet voice of reason amidst the chaos.

“Liminality” arrives as a harsh juxtaposition, its 10 minute span far outstretching the other tracks. Those familiar with his 2012 EP with Touch Radio On Invisible Pause may recognise the riff that forms the centerpiece of the track, and my absolute favourite moment perhaps of anything he’s ever produced, this time slowed down and chilling in its clarity, the guitars just so impassioned it never fails to give me goosebumps. They slowly gain momentum and courage as the rare live percussion thrums out a rapid beat from somewhere deep within the gentle waves of the meandering background drone, growing into a fully formed and fully realised piece that’s overflowing with luminous and foaming syncopated guitar drone, new material slowly being brought in and adding to this overblown beauty of spiritual and emotional evolution. It slides out of view replete and content, pleased with the progress it’s made in its own life as the warm drones dial down and leave us in an extended silence to contemplate the journey just made.

“Pallas Athene” initially remains content to chase up the cerebral atmosphere generated in the final moments of its predecessor, with no hint of any original guitar sound making its way to the fore and instead hovering in an ethereal mass of shimmering, piercing synth that lives up to the mystery and omnipresent nature of the god of its namesake, Athena. The goddess of courage and wisdom is keen to let us simply soak in its golden hues and take things easy in this mid-album interlude, a welcome reprieve from some of the crushing and emotionally challenging music we’ve heard thus far. And rightly so, as the title tracks throws us right back into the deep end on abrasive jabs of some deeply distorted instrument that sounds as much like a piano as it does a guitar. Before long these uncomfortable initial blats have morphed and slipstreamed into something entirely less ominous and daunting, collapsing into those vast walls of dysfunctional but gorgeous melody that just engulf the senses, cycling over and over again as the ethos and feel of the capital of Austria are slowly learnt and impressed upon us. Every city has a specific something about it that is totally indefinable and the same is true of this track; we get a tantalising impression of Fennesz’s endless and repetitive love for Vienna in its cyclical beauty.

“Sav” turns down the excitement factor and turns into something that sounds entirely more like a love story in its jumbled and hazy glitch lines and soft guitar drone. It’s so hard to get a grasp on this piece, it really is; its evolution is practically imperceptible as it turns over and over, the shimmering and glitching miscellania melting into the slowly rising tide of melancholic drone during its main phase before its depressing cascade is ultimately abandoned in favour of dystopic electronic instrumentation once more. Finally, the brief “Paroles” seals the deal and what a closer it is. After the tumult of sounds we’ve experienced across the breadth of the album it’s refreshing to get a piece in which the guitar is almost wholly alone and it’s so romantic and heartfelt as a result. There’s just something so loving and intimate about his solo guitar; it’s a rare and precious thing and as it slowly strums out of view there’s just time for us to glitch and warp back to the real world, our nostalgic interlude done for the day as the floatacious guitars close for the last time.

I’ve grown deeply fond of Fennesz’s wistful music over the years and have dedicated a lot of time to plumbing his texturally intricate and emotionally wrought albums, so to say that in the short time that I’ve owned Bécs I’ve come to see it as one of his best works is saying a lot. I think in many ways it’s probably closer to the sound of similarly geographically-centred Venice as it mirrors the same intangible sensation of time and place resurrected from some Summery but faded memory fragment, but the sound is far bolder and far more evocative rather than transportative, mirroring instead the convoluted emotional maturation of some phase of his life. I love this release, I really do, and it will have a strong spot on the end of year list.

 

Geins’t Naït & Laurent Petitgand – Je Vous Dis (Ici d’ailleurs, 2014)

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Possibly the most characters in any of my review titles to date, I Tell You by Geins’t Naït and Laurent Petitgand has gone through the wringer a fair few times in the two weeks I’ve had the album sitting in my playlist. That being said, I’m still not really entirely sure I’m any the wiser on the record, but I do know that I’ve enjoyed its company immensely.

We’re opened into the weird and janky world of these two collaborators with “Balla”, welcoming us with warped vocals; “come on in” they say, amidst a slow burning background drone and wriggling synths. It’s pretty easygoing, content to sit back and let the languid percussion and MIDI samples carry it along to a relatively unsatisfying conclusion before slipping into the more interesting “Explo”. Intimate piano strokes fill the distant but noisy void as the title is repeated endlessly, menacing in their flat response and unfeeling presentation. It may lack the evolution and progression of the opener but it feels like there’s more to explore behind this soulless facade we’re shown, the origin behind those glitched currents and incessantly repeated vocals.

These comparatively more lifeless affairs are swept aside once the gorgeous “Iroshima” takes to the floor though. It’s got a stronger progressive electronic flavour than the more experimental preceding tracks; there’s a definable and consistent beat, delicate guitar work and enigmatic but absolutely crucial vocoder supplementing the careful melodies, melting into the assistant backing drone and hovering on the edge of coherence. Followup “Reste á la fenetre” seems to crush the pace somewhat with its jovial accordion-like fragments and fractured, crazily oscillating synth shimmers and impassioned but warped vocal cries.

So far then it’s relatively hard to get a pin on what it is they’re trying to convey with this album stylistically given its so far erratic nature, especially as the gorgeous title track comes into view off the back of that curious affair. Piano forms the mainstay of this track, tinkling away delicately and just making sure their stable riff continues despite the increasing textural overprint of miscellaneous instrumentation. Its evolution is careful and almost undetectable as it rises to a wonderfully expansive crescendo with distant saxophones(?) before crumbling away and returning to its primitive and minimalistic initial sequences. “Jm Massou” is eager to remind us that their experimentation is far from over in the rambling, incomprehensible snippets of French voices, radio fragments and crushed, heavily processed guitar lines. It’s a pretty mechanical piece in that regard, clicking and thrumming and grinding over and over itself repeatedly with just the merest hint of melancholic drone floating in from the background to give us a sense of space.

Enigmatically titled penultimate piece “kkkk” is a welcome reprieve from the claustrophobic confines of “Jm Massou” as it embraces an entirely more open and even “chatty” atmosphere, like we’re tidying up a café after hours or something as we hear the clatter and scraping of plates intertwined with the once more buried vocals and vaguely secretive and mischievous toybox tinklings and stuttering synth. This gossipy atmosphere seems to be the first time the album actually lives up to its namesake in its coy wanderings. And then, all too soon, we’re brought face to face with the insanely compelling closer “SMOSN”, really the greatest track of the album by a wide margin that you regret not appearing sooner. A strong beat is forged through the random clattering of some unnameable but elegant machine, driving the piece onwards through a myriad of evolutionary crossroads; pulses of big band instrumentation blaring intermittently through the mix, the growl of car engines, the obliterated wailing of Frenchmen as we speed by. Its vast 9 minute span far outstrips any other track on the record and it’s all the better for it, being granted a huge amount of space to sprawl its intricate and thickly layered textures into before finally closing on one cheeky surge of sound and car noise accelerating away into the night.

Honestly, I’ve done an absolutely terrible job of talking about this record and I know it; I’m absolutely knackered and revision is stifling my creative capacity, and that’s so unfair to these two with this album. While I do have a pretty hard time establishing the concept of this record or even if there is an underlying sense of order and overarching theme, I have listened to this a lot and I’m deeply impressed by their ability to forge seemingly random and oftentimes repetitive melodies into really involving tracks. Something about the circular rhythms and the way new textures seem to organically sprout out of the mix gives it a real sense of spontaneity despite being so deeply and carefully measured. It’s better than I’m making out, take my word for it.