Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Knife - Tomorrow, in a Year

Swedish electro duo Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olaf Andersson, better known as 'The Knife' have returned with an experimental collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock.'Tomorrow, in a Year' is not the usual pulsating Nordic electronica. If that's what you expect then you will be disappointed, or maybe intrigued as I was; an electro opera based on Darwin's ''Origin of the Species' will no doubt leave the more staid electro pop fans wondering what the 'noise' is, the more forward thinking weirdly fascinated by the 'evolution' of this quirky and eccentric merge of science and art.

This deeply experimental album evolved after Pro Forma, a Danish performance group commissioned 'The Knife' to create the music and libretto for their opera. If you listen and wonder what on earth it's all about, the thought 'watch it performed' springs to mind. The opera includes appearances from mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin, Danish actress Laerke Winther and Swedish pop artist Jonathon Johannsson. 'Tomorrow in a Year' is definitely a concept album you will love for its 'bonkersness' or get cross about it as you crave the 'Darlings of Electro's' 'Silent Shout'.

CD1 is full of birdsong patterns and feedback, a result of Olaf's field studies in the Amazon to record and watch life. The intro to this menagerie of nature sounds, in layman's terms, sounds like a tap dripping but more importantly the 'beginning of life'. The next eight tracks offer more of the same, playing around with sounds, you can hear the collaborative effort to seek out animals with musical qualities in a bid to compose new and interesting electronic sounds, clever if difficult to listen to at times.

'Variation of Birds' uses feedback sound to demonstrate how a bird learns to sing, starting with one note that evolves and changes, note the 'theme' but not one for your headphones. 'Geology' is music to portray the movement of lava apparently...and 'Letter to Henslow' uses the human voice as an instrument, all very intriguing but not the stuff of electronic hits, something which it would seem is not a priority of The Knife anyway.
CD 1 is the evolutionary process of music, of course, it is a Darwinist Electro Opera after makes sense that the more accessible is on CD2 for this album, a change from the norm when the preparation for the album usually turns up in the bonus CD.

Moving swiftly to CD2, the more accessible of the double album. It starts with 'Annie's Box' and ends with the same track but with alternative vocals, a haunting track about the death of Darwin's daughter, beautiful and sombre and after the science of CD1, the emotion of this is a relief. Both versions are mesmerising, the birdsong, the drumming and the spooky vocals are a shift away from the previous experimenting, but you can hear the continuity from the first CD as you recognise some of the sounds they created.

'Tumult', is the most operatic intro and leads into 'Colouring of Pigeons'. Taken from Darwin's study of pigeons, the title hints at the naivety of their approach and acceptance that you don't have to understand it all . The middle part of this track is the more recognisable electropop sound of The Knife, the familiar voice of Karin then returning to the operatic feel of the beginning, a clever merging of the two musical genres and the gem of this album.

In 'Seeds' again you can hear the beginnings of a more recognisable The Knife. The more traditional electro fan would prick their ears, hopefully long to stay with it until 'Height of Summer', the only vaguely possible mainstream success of the album, almost teasing in its familiar electro 'catchiness'. To some, the electronic glitches may lead to the conclusion this is a 'avant-garde' concept album disaster so make sure you put CD2 on first.
'Tomorrow, in a Year', released on March 1st is experimental, sometimes hard going yet interspersed with genius. The Knife's project is certainly interesting, bought as an album standing alone it might be hard to fathom out but with the ideas behind it makes some weird sense.

The Knife have been known for their darker art pop before, especially Karin as 'Fever Ray', so let's hope similar artists continue with the same musical curiosity and give us a much needed break from the universally loved but predictable bubblegum electro.

Crystal Castles II - Album review

Crystal Castles II

Crystal Castles have returned with a second album and their uniquely 'messed up' experimental electronica. They typically jump about with boundless energy from shoegaze to chiptune fused with some hypnotic trance and drugged up beats reminiscent of 90's rave.

The diversity of this band put in the mixer has resulted in something more cohesive, more poppy this time, not unsurprisingly for a second album, but only a little, which if you're a fan of their debut is good news.

Alice Glass and Ethan Kath have retained their identity as a band that don't quite sound like anyone, this album has the impressive Alice screech but some surprisingly soft melodic vocals on a few tracks.

It kick starts with 'Fainting Spells', lots of distortion and dark beats and plenty of squeal. 'Celestica' contrasts with its layers and melodic club sound. 'Doe Deer' wakes you up with its high energy, an electro crash and the most trashy on the album. 'Baptism' sounds 90's rave and has a touch of 'Vanished' from the debut album hiding in there.

All good so far and then 'Year of Silence' really stands out with a brilliant sample of Sigur Ros' track 'Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur'. This continues in 'Empathy' but with the odd electronic glitch; it wouldn't be Crystal Castles without it.

'Suffocation' is another stand out track and has to be a single, dreamy vocals and poppy if on the darker side. 'Violent Dreams' is chilled out techno and may take a few listens. Patiently wait for it to kick in and try not to be irritated with its unfathomable lyrics. Tracks like this often end up being my favourite a couple of months down the line.

'Vietnam' starts slowly after the last one but then tinkly synths wake you up to another goody on the album. 'Birds' made me want to cut my ears off but then there is always one on an album. On second listen, it was easier but maybe not one for the headphones due to abrasive beep throughout. With the curiously titled 'Pap Smear' there is a return to a sparkly pop synth sound and every now and then some strange noises rudely interrupt, definitely one to ask the band what the idea behind this was

'Not in Love' has a clubby feel with vocals that sound like they were recorded under water or six feet under, it works though. 'Intimate' sounds to me like a late night festival track, brilliance that leads to the finale 'I am made of Chalk' the worst hangover music ever and hopefully not how you feel after listening to the album.

 Crystal Castles have returned with some 'instant' pop, some characteristic screeching, some melodic and atmospheric moodiness, club sounds and festival feel electronica. A great release from them after a few mediocre comebacks from other electro acts this year.

Celestica finally has a video!

The first video released for 'Celestica' is set in a graveyard with, unusually, Alice, more glam than noir for a change, floating about in an 'almost' conventional 'frontwomany' way. No converse trainers, no stage diving and unpredictable dancing, this video almost looks choreographed in its atmospheric, moody and haunting way. It perfectly suits the eerie melody of this more accessible release from them...but don't think they've sold out or gone 'arty' just yet.

Every now and then the video shows glimpses of the duo in the more recognisably hooded up 'festie electro' way we recognise them and begs the question of reality and the haunting point they are maybe trying to make? The pretty graveyard, the oddball children and the deserted gothic building trapping Alice behind bars gives the perfect blur of ghost or reality. It comes across in this video and suits the track so well.

Susan Hill's 'The Woman in Black' is Alice, with the strange children catching glimpses of her in a very Henry James 'The Turn of the Screw' way...maybe that's just me but this video reminded me of the two ghost story classics. A great video for the first release off the album.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Fever Ray - Mercy Street

Fever Ray’s haunting interpretation of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Mercy Street’ is my current favourite cover. She’s been playing it live for a while and it’s now set to be released in September newly polished and with intense awareness in time for her UK tour. At her most eccentric, Fever Ray is an amazing artist and I am very much looking forward to seeing her live next month.

The signature sound of Karin Dreijer Andersson’s spooked up perception of this track gives it a pulsating, tribal and unearthly beat. Gabriel wrote the original in tribute to the ‘confessionalist’ poet Ann Sexton who is also worth checking out if you’re so inclined. His song writing fits in well with Fever Ray’s vocal ‘invocations’ giving visions of Nordic mystery in popular music with fresh supernatural appeal.

The marrying of this poet and music via Gabriel and now Fever Ray makes absolute sense and most especially when considering Karin’s lyrical ‘message’ which is often based around her experience of womanhood and feminist awareness. Coming from her perspective, most notably with her previous track ‘Seven’, you can see why this song would resonate with her; mundane details crafted so eloquently but with a tinge of madness.

Hopefully there will be an ‘art pop’ video to go with this intriguing publicity picture for the release very soon. It's very have a listen!

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Recommended many times, I have finally got around to reading, what most think of as, Atwood's cautionary tale of feminist dystopia, a disturbing but convincing window into the future which reminded me of the other dystopian classic 'Brave New World'. Set in alarmingly 'not so distant' future, the American Government have been overthrown and a totalitarian theocracy established in which women are categorised according to their fertility and men by military ranking.

Written in the present tense, the main character Offred gives us hints of the time before the Republic of Gillead in brief flashbacks; a normal life with a boyfriend, flat, credit cards, a cat, all of which are harshly taken reminding us of a lost normality. More importantly her young daughter who after a near snatching in a supermarket and clearly in the present missing, suggests at some sort of population crisis with desperate women. This is later explained by radioactivity in the new world that has rendered most men sterile and pregnancies that do come about ending in 'unbabies' or 'shredders' which have to be disposed of making healthy babies a precious commodity.

The social control is kept by threats of torture and death and in particular a 'wall' of executions to keep everyone in check, this wall hanging the most wicked on hooks for all to see as a warning; from adulterers to abortionists, the order is kept by fear. Although published in 1985, sadly around the world this still rings true, most notably in Afghanistan today with the Taliban regime. Bizarrely the handmaids have a dark curiosity to walk past this wall, almost as if it reinforces their 'choice', if choice is the right word when your only other choice is death.

Paradoxically the Republic of Gillead seems a woman's world if run by men; although kept in their various places, subdivided by rank according to whether they are wives, breeders, servants or whores; they are invaluable in the domestic ethos in right wing oppressive theocracy. Even the Commanders seem to have little to contribute in their own household; Serena Joy, the wife, seems to have the authority over a weak man who starts an affair with his handmaid by wanting her to play scrabble. In a world where books are banned, word games are considered wicked. The commander is a pathetic character, lonely with a hidden stash of gems from the old world to give as gifts to his handmaid, a fashion magazine, some handcream. Anything to make Offred's life easier, ironically as if caught out, she would be put to death and mostly borne out of his guilt at the suicide of a former handmaid.

There are echoes of various biblical stories of reproductive jealousy in that the fertile women are forced to be handmaids, basically surrogate mothers in a monthly ritualised rape as the handmaid lies on the commander's wife to be fertilised.

"The commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he's doing. Copulating too is inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose"

Obviously when your only other choice is death, this is questionable.

The old times are not portrayed as favourable for women even after thirty years of feminism in pre Gilleadian times, mostly represented by the flashbacks of Offred's radical mother, equality was never really achieved and this is the backlash.

Harrowing descriptions of women being punished for trying to escape and one that stood out for me, very early on in the book was the punishment of a woman who had aborted after a gang rape at 14 years old. The cautionary message seems to be that female emancipation is a new and fragile thing and could easily be taken.

The ending? Well read it and see what you think?

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

'Nocturnes' is a collection of stories with the linking theme of the fragility of love, talent and ultimately of fulfilment. Five stories narrated by struggling or 'about to get there' musicians showing the futility of perceived success; those who make it and those who don't and in some cases with these tales , we never find out for sure who had or who would eventually.

The most poignant for me of these is the 'virtuoso cellist' who never learnt to play for fear of 'damaging her talent' ; this surreality is what Ishiguro does best. These stories all link with physical references to hotels, the past and largely with bittersweet memories, stillness, regret and missed opportunities on all levels from the street musician to the old crooner.

The first story is narrated by Janeck, the Polish guitarist who notices the 'Crooner' Tony Gardner in a cafe in Venice. Tony asks Janeck to play for his wife and he is flattered as he remembers his mother listening to Tony Gardner when he was child. What Janeck thinks may be a romantic gesture turns out to be the tragic last holiday for the couple. Tony Gardner needs a 'come back' and this can only mean a divorce for celebrity purposes, even though he still loves his wife. His wife Lindy is the subject of a later story 'Nocturnes' after she's booked herself in to have surgery before her hunt for a new husband.

'Come Rain or Come Shine' is farcical at points, a man panicking about reading a diary entry of an old friend when he stays over for dinner. The story involves him impersonating a dog in order to get out of admitting he has read the diary. The story for me revolves around a 'lost' connection; both of them seem unfulfilled and it ends with his confession, both projecting each other's neurosis on each other and finally with them dancing. It's a nostalgic moment and a craving for lost youth and memories in their present dissatisfying lives.

'Malvern Hills' is the slowest of the five stories but still engages. Again lots of nostalgia as a young musician escapes London and goes for a break in the place where he grew up. Fuelled with a need to avoid his recent past and feelings of inadequacy, he runs back to his hometown and meets a couple of musicians from Switzerland who are encouraging if quirky and of course, tragic.

The fourth story revisits Lindy Gardner, newly divorced and reconstructing her face to look as she did 20 years ago. Again the bittersweet offering from the narrator, who has ended up next door to her in the Beverly Hills recovery 'hotel', is that his wife has left him and her new boyfriend has offered to pay for his surgery to help his career. Being a talented but 'ugly' saxophonist, he has to be grateful and the connection between him and Lindy becomes interesting as she is talentless but marketable with her looks, the opposite of him. Steve loathes everything about her, but a brief friendship develops even though both are wrapped in their surgery and neither really 'see' each other. This story is left with questions, a brief encounter in bandages. Did they ever meet again? Did Steve make it? Did Lindy find happiness? Again Ishiguro manages to leave you wondering but not frustrated as you know by the end, you've got his message.

The finale is 'Cellists', the story of a Hungarian musician who is befriended by a fellow cellist but a ' virtuosa' who never played beyond 11 years of age. Her talent is so much that no teacher would ever match her, so she never plays. This story I find the most tragic, she's either delusional or a lost talent in her own perfectionism.

This collection of stories probably wouldn't stand alone but linked together with the themes of missed opportunity, regret and bitter sweetness, they do resonate. Ishiguro has a talent for making you feel you've had insight, learnt something but also leaving you wondering, questioning the characters and probably yourself which can only be the result of a good read.