Monthly Archives: May 2011

1603 Hillcrest EP released today (written and recorded today too)

Today I saw an old friend, and met new people too.  After a couple of pints with my old schoolfriend James, at the least busy real ale festival I have ever seen, I headed across London and spent some time with a group of slightly older people.

Many of them had children, all of whom were around the same age. It made me wonder if a similar thing will happen with my friends soon. If so, how much will things change? I get the feeling I’ll discover just how selfish I can be. Everyone was so happy and well behaved. It was really refreshing, it also highlighted how little I see my friends who have children. It made me consider how so much of the socialising my group of closest friends does is based around sheer alcohol-based carnage. Having a child might be the healthiest thing we could do.

After eating enough barbecued food to kill a horse, I left early. I’ve been very concious of my lack of musical productivity of late. I had to record something.

And what better reaction to seeing one possible future? Why, a 15 minute drone track of course!

When I got home I switched my amp on and set the recorder off. I wanted to record something pure, clean and immediate. What you can hear now is the first and only bit of guitar I played today.

I wanted to make this an standalone EP, so made the decision to play for 15 minutes. The results  of that 15 minutes are what you hear. It’s going to totally ruin my surprisingly impressive ‘complete plays’ stats on Bandcamp, as I don’t think even the most pretentious noise fan will stream a 15 minute track, but I don’t really care. Kowa Axis has never been about trying to write a hit. It’s simply expression.

It is of course free. I hope you enjoy it.

**Competition time**

The first person to leave a comment with the correct explanation of the new track’s title gets £5 sent to them via paypal.

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Gelbe Musik and the Subsonic collecting starts.

When you walk down Schaperstraße in Berlin you could be forgiven for walking straight past Gelbe Musik. The leafy road looks just like any one of the hundreds of residential streets that sprawl across the city. But the apartment buildings so typical of this area hide a bit of a gem in Berlin’s already pretty good record shop collection.

Gelbe Musik doesn’t shout about itself. A simple sign just saying ‘Musik’ is the only clue as to the crazy shit you’ll find here once you follow the steps down; but ever since my first visit to the city eight years ago I’ve returned each time.


See if you can spot the record shop hiding on this road.

It contains an incredible collection of avant-garde and  experimental music. I can safely say I haven’t even heard the names of 99% of what’s in there, let alone what any of it sounds like, but that’s what the real joy of this place is; discovery.

The shop is clean and minimal. Ursula, the owner, sits in a little back room with her dog, smoking fags in an nonchalant way that only someone who was around to witness a lot of this music being born could. It was in Gelbe Musik that the Subsonic series actually became a collection for me.

My wife and I were in Berlin to see Einsturzende Neubauten play a special ‘supporter’ show  in the derelict and stripped-out Palast Der Republik. It was a joyous long weekend of spotting ex-Bad Seeds, saying hello to Blixa Bargeld in his massive fur coat, becoming one of 200 drummers, and getting ripped to the tits at the best aftershow party I’ve been to yet. In fact the poster for the show is hanging behind me as I type >>>

That weekend with my mind open and brimming with creativity and wonder, a trip to Gelbe was more than necessary; it was vital.

Now I should clarify something here. At the time, I probably loved the idea of Gelbe almost more than the reality of it. I’d yet to make the transition from Kerrang reader to pretentious Wire magazine reader, so visits could sometimes be like being in sweet shop without a mouth.

Flicking through the racks of CDs was akin to when I occasionally go through a load of dance 12″ records – not a fucking clue. But then my eye was caught by a green coloured cd case, I pulled it out and found a familiar font and design style.  There it was; Justin Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic’s – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories.

Ursula put the first track on for me and at first nothing happened, we looked at each other a bit awkwardly. The only Subsonic record I had at that time, Page Hamilton & Caspar Brotzmann’s ‘Zulutime’, explodes out of the speakers as soon as you hit play.  Slowly the track faded in, seconds later I was falling over myself to hand the Euros over.

And so now I had two Subsonic CDs, now it had become a collection, a challenge if you will. (Please check out this earlier post for a bit of background about the series.)

I haven’t visited Gelbe Musik for a couple of years now. I feel a real need to go back. If you happen to be in Berlin, and have any interest in a record shop that doesn’t choose to stock a load of pop records in order to pay the rent, check it out.

Next post I’ll talk more about the album in depth…

Bill Laswell & N.J. Bullen – Subsonic 2: Bass Terror

This second part of the Subsonic series is a bit of a wild card. Whilst sonically it can claim the right to be the most representative of the Subsonic name, it stands out in that there isn’t really much six-string action on here at all. What there is is added more as embellishment rather than being the main focal point.

The primary focus of both artists on this is the bass guitar.  Both are pretty well-known for their bass playing past, but each also shares a reputation for being exploratory musicians who deviate far from the traditional brackets that pop music often imposes upon its proponents.

Bill Laswell

Bill Laswell may well have the heftiest discography out there, almost certainly when it comes to bass players. Reading through his CV reveals his involvement in a number of records sitting on my shelves here at home that I’d never really noticed in the liner notes. Miles Davis, PiL, Last Exit, The Damage Manual…the list goes on. It’s also interesting to note that he would also pop up on Andy Hawkins:Azonic’s contribution to the next in the series – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories credited with ‘Guitar Production & Design’.

Nic Bullen is another highly prolific artist who emerged from the West Midlands in the early 1980s as part of the original Napalm Death lineup. This lineup soon added Justin Broadrick who contributes  the other half of Subsonic 3; making these two records the most closely linked of the series, by personal connections at least.

Nic Bullen

Bullen went on to work on a number of different projects.  One of these was alongside other Napalm Death alumnus – blast beat pioneer, and self-proclaimed ‘whirlwind’, Mick Harris in the long-term project Scorn. I feel it’s safe to say that Scorn is a much better indicator of Bullen’s contribution to Bass Terror than Napalm Death. In fact it was recorded while he was still a part of Scorn before his 1995 departure.

The most obvious thing about Bass Terror is that this is clearly the one you can dance to. Beats are essential to both these artists contributions in a way that doesn’t occur in the rest of the series.

Laswell only contributes a single track; the 15 minute ‘Tetragrammation’. What starts out as a very 1990s sounding ambient piece soon develops into a pretty rapid 4/4 beat funkathon. Laswell’s bass quacks through an envelope filter while vocal samples and monophonic synth lines splatter themselves over the rhythm.

Guitars crop up later adding a whammy bar manipulated drone that could well have been provided by the aforementioned Andy Hawkins; although he’s not credited as such. Theoretically the track is split into three different ‘methods’ which allows it to cover a lot of ground. My favourite is the third – ‘Evaporate’, which ironically drops much of the bass and brings it closer to the feel of subsequent records in the series.

Bullen provides two pieces here which, although they are also more rooted in beat culture than the rest of the series, have a distinctly darker tone than Laswell’s somewhat cheerful track.

The first; ‘Nocturnal Crawl’ brings to mind DJ Krush; with it’s speaker-threatening levels of low-end and ominous hip-hop beats. These sometimes give way to the relief of sampled tabla before pulling you back in to the grimy dirge of layered treated bass and drones. Towards the end of the piece the beats disappear altogether and it disintegrates into wobbles of sub-bass and reverb. In short…it’s wicked. Subsonic 3 and 4 are the albums I’ll listen to if I want to relax alone. This is the one I’d put on if I had company.

The closing track ‘Again & Again’ spends its first half riding a more up-tempo beat with spooky organ sounds and a floor shaking dub bass-line. The beats abruptly drop out at the mid-point taking things into ten minutes of some of the most atmospheric and unnerving sounds the series has to offer.

Bass Terror was the third record I bought in the series and I have to admit I was pretty disappointed at the time. Still obsessed with the more singular guitar sculpting of the third and fourth records; I found the more processed nature of both Laswell and Bullen’s tracks far less exciting. Subsequent listening over the past few years though has revealed a real depth and level of feeling in these tracks. I’m a bit older, perhaps more open-minded, and I really have grown fond of this record. Don’t get me wrong, nine times out of ten I’ll go for the guitar feedback, but at the right moment this record really delivers the goods. I do think Bullen wins out as Laswell’s bass is just a little bit too chirpy for my miserable tastes.

Bullen is soon to feature in a new exhibition ‘Home of Metal’ celebrating Birmingham’s contribution to metal which is organised by the people who run the rather excellent Supersonic festival. You can see him talking about it here.

I’m currently booking a trip to Birmingham to see the exhibition as well as return to the place where I studied at university for three years. Sadly, it seemed that I lived there during its least metal era – but I’ll check out the exhibition, hopefully catching Nic’s contribution, and report back.

Meanwhile, I suggest you find a copy of Bass Terror, and build.

Next in the series Justin K Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic – Skinner’s Black Laboratories.

Writer’s block and keeping things pure.

After I recorded the Waves album a few weeks ago I fell into something of a  slump. I wanted to pick up the guitar and play; it’s sitting in the next room, everything’s set up. But for three straight weeks all I felt was frustration. I tried to play a few times but ended up switching the amp off after a couple of minutes. There was no magic, nothing to latch on to. No colour. I was beginning to think that the month or so of relative productivity I’d had since I started Kowä Axis was a fluke.

Until a few months ago I was in a band whose rate of output could comfortably be described as ‘unfruitful’. We were pretty good, and everyone was very able, but it wasn’t the kind of outfit where each person would be bringing a new song to each practice – we weren’t  four Billy Corgan’s drowning in our own productivity. My preferred way of writing at the time involved composing wholly orchestrated songs with a drum machine, but this wasn’t a hugely popular method within the band.

When that band split up and I decided to go it alone I experienced something I’d never felt before – the freedom to create music without any consideration of what anyone else would think. It was a revelatory time. I didn’t need to temper anything for band mates or an audience as, frankly, I had neither.

I put more pieces of music to disk in one month than I had done in the last five years. Admittedly, this process is now much less complicated. The improvised nature of the music means that much of it doesn’t even exist as a concept until the microseconds it takes for the brain to calculate each note before it gets played. In turn though this has let me write the most expressive music I’ve ever played. I’m told you can actually relax to a lot of what’s on the Peripheral Vision record.  This is a first.

But after I recorded Waves this all disappeared. I was unhappy with my playing, my surroundings, my gear…and most of all I was unhappy with me.

[I have no doubt that some of my awkward feeling stems from the fact I’ve just spent £250 I don’t actually have on an effects pedal that seems to be malfunctioning and the rather large company  that produce it – rhymes with ‘Toss’ – are being less than professional about addressing my concerns . That and the fact that some patch-lead malfunctions are causing noise problems deter me from picking up the guitar. I like that shit to work properly. If the company at hand don’t man-up soon I will start being a little more vocal – it’s remarkably easy to get forum posts expressing your thoughts about a certain product to appear at the top of a Google search.]

The last few weeks have been quite mopey in general, and I sometimes wonder whether my lack of musical productivity is a symptom or a cause. I suspect it’s probably the former. I do seem to have been rather existential about work, money and all the other things that stress everyone out. The rather boring diet I’m on at the moment hasn’t helped although being a stone lighter so far is well worth it.

BUT….last night I had a breakthrough. I decided to try to mine creativity rather than throw a wobbler if inspiration didn’t dance its merry way in my direction. Luckily, it seemed to pay off – I’ve recorded two new songs for the Peripheral Vision record.

The composition method for these tracks was a little more traditional. The aforementioned fussy pedal lets me store loops and start and stop them at will. The one I used for the first four tracks of Peripheral Vision was a one-shot deal. If you stopped the loop it was gone forever. Whilst still stylistically fitting, the new tracks are a little more sophisticated in their structure.

I’ve been listening back to them and whilst good, they present a new theoretical and artistic challenge – should I re-record them? Because I have the basic parts stored  in a sampler I can go back any time and re-record a different version. The flaws that are contained within the improvised songs I’ve recorded so far have become just as important as the notes themselves. The more I listen to those songs, the less I hear the bum notes and fluffed timings. These two new tracks contain plenty of them, but now I have the option to go back and do them again.

This provides me with a real challenge. Do I go back and record more polished versions this morning and completely break my accidentally self-imposed rules that everything should be improvised and presented as is?

Can those songs really be considered improvisations if they are essentially  re-takes (even though those re-takes would  be very different). Does it actually matter? Should I be focussed on putting out the best music I can as opposed to the most raw?

Ten years since I bought it I’m currently re-reading Derek Bailey’s book: Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music, which I hope will shed some light on this matter.

Please do feel free to contribute your opinions in the comments section.

In the meantime I will listen back and see if the flaws can settle in to the music enough for me to be comfortable with them.

Let’s see what transpires…

Subsonic 6 has arrived!

Ok, it’s here. After eleven years the series is complete. Lou Barlow & Rudy Trouve‘s untitled record.

And my first thought is that what I mentioned in the last post about the artistic theme running through the whole series…well, I was talking rubbish.

This one looks really different. In fact the only thing that would give this away as the last in the series is the fact that it has ‘Subsonic 6’ emblazoned on the front (in a different font mind you). However, it’s still a nicely designed sleeve.

There’s no coloured case – which as the one that it came in is a bit cracked makes replacing it easier at least. The coloured case and distinctive design is what helped me spot them in shops in the past, but the fact that there was so much  more info online about this series than there was when I first started collecting it, meant that became less of an issue anyway. At that point I had no idea what any of the other ones in the series were called or even who they were by.

Just listening now. So far it’s very different, but really good too.

More soon.

Also, don’t forget that both Kowä Axis axis records – Waves, and the work-in-progress Peripheral Vision are currently free to download over at bandcamp. Neither of these recordings would exist if it hadn’t have been for the Subsonic series.

The family is finally together.

Subsonic 1: Fred Frith/Marc Ribot – Sounds Of A Distant Episode

In previous posts I’ve talked about Sub Rosa’s Subsonic series, and now it’s time to start looking at the individual records in more depth.

The first in the series brings together the talents of Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. Somewhat disappointingly, they don’t join forces. Like most of the records in this series the two guitarists turn out songs that don’t involve each other.

Purists will hate my classification, but this album is easily the most ‘free jazz’ of the series.

It’s certainly not a brilliant indicator of what the rest of the series  has in store, it does however get it off to a very good start.

Marc Ribot kicks off proceedings with what is predominantly a band recording. This is somewhat odd for the series as most of the material that came from it is based on unaccompanied guitar. Sure, Bill Laswell and Nic Bullen both employ a drum machine on Subsonic 2, but Ribot’s contribution is really the only one where you’ll hear a proper band playing (a band called ‘Shrek’ at that). They accompany Ribot on four of the five tracks here. Including him there are two guitarists, two drummers and a bassist. That said, at many points on these tracks it’s not clear to me what instrument, or player,  is making which sound. This is no bad thing and frankly is quite common with this sort of audio recording of improvisation.

Marc Ribot

Ribot’s part of the album is split into sections. Tracks 1-3 are the ‘Lobster Claw Symphonette’. The three different sections complement each other well.

Part one is all sweeps and swashes of treated guitar and atonal sounds. It sort of lulls you into a false sense of security before part 2 comes in like a massive Dada police chase with the instruments managing to mimic sirens and bells. This is an altogether more challenging listen that demands attention.  During the last 60 seconds the trail goes cold before part 3 explodes like a motorway pileup. Although not perhaps as frantic as something like 1969’s Nipples by Peter Brotzmann Sextet, the feel (to these untrained ears) is similar, all muted blast beats and  shred. It’s a colourful and energetic eight minutes.

Next up we get a bit of Ribot accompanying himself live on guitar and ‘EB horn’. The coordination is wonderful, and the guitar with it’s slight envelope at the beginning of each phrase creates a pleasantly seasick noise.

The last track from Ribot ‘The Rise and Fall of…’ brings back Shrek. This track is probably the most ‘jazz’. The pushed hi-hat creates a flow that would be more familiar to the uninitiated. It still goes ape-shit in the middle, but retains a curiously endearing path before subtly wandering away.

It leads nicely into the first of Fred Frith‘s two tracks.

Frith plays totally unaccompanied and it’s a very different experience. He put in two completely opposing tracks. The first, titled Solo Acoustic Guitar, instantly reminds me of Derek Bailey’s 1975 record ‘Improvisation’ but there’s more melody and frivolity. The guitar is dry and naked. When plucked hard the strings sound like jabs and scrapes. Frith throws in knocks on the acoustic’s body that make you jump. It’s a rarity in this series and a pleasant breath of fresh air before the 19  minute closer; Second Nature.

Fred Frith

Second Nature is  a solo track but it sounds like a whole room of musicians. I’m assuming it’s several tracks layered one at a time (if I’m wrong then it’s even more impressive). It brings together a number of different treatments of the guitar. I’ve seen videos of Frith’s guitar treatments and he doesn’t hold back. Straps, drumsticks, bows and a myriad of different techniques. In fact, there’s an excellent video here where Frith describes some of the right-hand techniques he uses.

During Second Nature, he manages to create a whole arrangement of sounds that bring to mind drum kits, double bass and other more obscure percussion.

As a fledgeling improviser myself, it almost makes me never want to bother picking up the guitar again such is the broad depth on display.

Frith was in London last week at Cafe OTO, unfortunately I couldn’t make the show. The video below does a great job of taunting me with what I missed.

Overall, Sounds Of A Distant Episode is a very fitting start to the Subsonic series. Although it lacks the sheer volume and brute force of later recordings it is a powerfully eclectic collection of tracks.

It also kicks off the artwork theme that would continue throughout the series. The coloured plastic case and sparse layout that opens up to crazy patchwork text fits the music incredibly well and in truth is probably a better indicator of the fact that this is a series of six records than the music contained on each disc.

Next in the series is Bill Laswell and N.J. Bullen’s ‘Subsonic 2: Bass Terror’.

Subsonic 6 is on the way.

The last intallment of the Subsonic series should finally be with me in the next few days. ten years after I got my first!

My write-up of the first in the series will (finally) be up tonight.