Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sleep among the circuitboards

(reposted because it was deleted somehow!)

VIII: in which a fanfare is blown across the stars for electronica's great pioneers

In 1974, two seminal albums of German electronic music were released. One of them, of course, was Autobahn, a concept album about driving on the eponymous German freeway, by Kraftwerk. Its style influenced subsequent electro and synthpop acts such as Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and the Human League, as well as Derrick May and a host of other early techno producers. Autobahn is undoubtedly a watershed moment in electronic and indeed popular music, a universally acclaimed release which connected Kraftwerk to a much wider audience. However, the other album had an equally profound effect on electronic music, but for different reasons. Its title track is arguably the most influential modern electronic piece ever produced.

The album in question is Phaedra by Tangerine Dream. It contains just four tracks, the whole thing clocks in at less than 38 minutes and it was improvised in the studio. To establish a context for the release of this unique and mesmerising work, I'll write a potted biography of the band's early years.

Tangerine Dream basically consists of Edgar Froese and a changing cast of other musicians. Froese, a musician who used to play at Salvador Dali's exhibitions and veteran of the Berlin art scene in the 1960s, initially formed Tangerine Dream with Conrad Schnitzler (a Stockhausen protégé and former member of Cluster) and Klaus Schulze, who went on to achieve success with Timewind in 1975. The band started out as a Kosmische Musik act, producing unnerving space-rock with elements of free jazz and "found sound". They were aligned with the Krautrock movement - currently influencing countless avant-garde and leftfield groups - the pioneers of which included Can, Neu!, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Düül II, Popol Vuh, Faust and Brian Eno. They began with acid-drenched feakouts, eventually putting out their primal, droning, unhinged debut Electronic Meditation in 1970. They followed it up with the gargantuan Alpha Centauri in 1971, which layered enormous waves of sombre organ lines over a thunderous and jaw-dropping barrage of percussion by the peerless Chris Franke - 16 years old at the time! Then there was 1972's Zeit (Time), which owed much to Ligeti and masterfully conjured up what, surely, it must feel like to float in space.

The following year, their fourth album arrived. It was called Atem and it drew together several strands of Tangerine Dream's music to create another strange and atmospheric record. It was more experimental than Zeit and combined wild percussion with electronics, organs, sampled voices and reverb and decay effects. At this point they broke with the Ohr label and singed with the fledgling Virgin Records, which at that point dealt in Krautrock and progressive music. Their newfound freedom and the vast array of cutting-edge equipment now at their disposal meant a sea change was imminent for the trio, and for the course of electronic music. Froese tried out the equipment in 1973 and the results were impressive; however, he didn't see fit to release his initial studio session until 1986, when after remixing it - and unfortunately steering the sound towards the 80s - he put it out as Green Desert. Although we will never know what it originally sounded like, it's still a lush and hypnotic collection. This signalled a move towards synth- and sequencer-based music and collective improvisation, and soon Froese, Franke and Peter Baumann gathered in the studio to record Phaedra.

When it came out, listeners were confronted with something truly original; overlapping, hypnotic electronic grooves, haunted mellotrons, ghostly organs, phased melodies, echoes of childrens' voices, classical structures, insistent pulses, crisscrossing time signatures and atonal crescendos. It was dark, bold, disquieting and unlike anything that had previously been heard. It was the sound of the "futurepast", of immeasurable distances and unmappable terrains. What it communicates is beyond language. This single 17-minute track is the solitary point we reach if we trace back from Autechre's organic structures and unusual time signatures or Aphex Twin's ambient works and spooked beauty (Aphex has cited Tangerine Dream as an influence on several occasions). Boards Of Canada's nostalgic 70s-inspired music, the minimal techno of Richie Hawtin and Robert Hood, Vangelis and John Carpenter's gorgeous soundtracks, the euphoric walls of sound on M83's debut, the interlaced melodies and polyrhythms of Plaid, Nine Inch Nails' sweeping instrumental work and the warm, textured lines of Thom Yorke's solo album owe something to this single piece, now 34 years old. Incidentally, the album is named after a character in Greek mythology who has her stepson (Hippolytus) killed after he rejects her advances, and finally, racked with guilt, kills herself. Heavy stuff indeed.

The year after Phaedra came out, Tangerine Dream released Rubycon and Ricochet - both classics in their own right - and eventually began to embrace prog rock and alter their sound, until they reached a point in 1982 when their peers had caught up with them. Peter Baumann left in 1977; he went on to release several solo albums and produced Cluster in 1979. The quality of Tangerine Dream's work diminished throughout the 1980s and they became that most hideous of things - a New Age group. However, in the first half of the 1970s, Tangerine Dream was probably the most important "band" in the world, releasing at least six genuine masterpieces. Their greatest work is Phaedra and its monolithic centrepiece is the peerless title track. Enough from me; turn down the lights and dive in.

Phaedra (from 1974's Phaedra)

Fly And Collision Of Comas Sola (from 1971's Alpha Centauri)

Ricochet Part II (from 1975's Ricochet)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

In an interstellar burst...

VII: a year in music

That's quite enough silence from me. I'm back, it's 2009, Harpooned Nightmares is open for business once again. To kickstart the year, I've looked back at the new releases, both songs and albums, that I enjoyed most in 2008...

Here is a list of the 25 new albums I enjoyed most, each accompanied by 3 easy-to-digest phrases or buzzwords which, when taken together, should produce an effect similar to the experience of listening to the album, without the need to spend time or money on it. (joking)


25. Rarely Seen Above Ground - Organic Sampler [drummer's one-man band/motorik/hypnotic]
24. Eine Kleine Nacht Musik - Eine Kleine Nacht Musik [70s electronica/krautrock/dancefloor]
23. Autechre - Quaristice [magnificent electronica/distant/cerebral]
22. Of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping [psychedelic/ambitious/bizarre]
21. The Bug - London Zoo [dark/urban/angry]
20. Flying Lotus - Los Angeles [fun/funk/freak]
19. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dympna [astonishing/fierce/boundary-pushing]
18. Fuck Buttons - Street Horrrsing [wonderful/lush/epic]
17. The Field - The Sound Of Light EP* [sublime/ethereal dance/blissful]
16. She & Him - Volume One [M. Ward + Zooey Deschanel/gorgeous/caramel]
15. Deerhunter - Microcastle / Weird Era Cont. [Bradford still rising/krautrock/kill yr. amps]
14. Nine Inch Nails - The Slip [especially its second half/euphoric/bleak]
13. Grace Jones - Hurricane [still peerless/dub/superb]
12. Clark - Turning Dragon [visionary/vicious beats/hyperkinetic]
11. Daedelus - Love To Make Music To [melting pot/unique/electronic virtuoso]
10. Sunken Foal - Fallen Arches [lush/experimental/shimmering electronics]
9. The Advisory Circle - Other Channels [forgotten ceefax glow/beautiful/ghostly]
8. Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling [post-rock masters/gigantic/faultless]
7. Dusk & Blackdown - Margins Music [urban/intense/hugely impressive]
6. Leila - Blood Looms And Blooms [electronica/layered/rich]
5. Fennesz - Black Sea [oceans/vast/atmospheric]
4. Atlas Sound - Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel [dreams/sorrow/drowsy garage]
3. Beach House - Devotion [singular/heavenly/nostalgic]
2. Pivot - O Sountrack My Heart [electrifying/Vangelis synths/angular Battles guitars]
1. Portishead - Third [masterful/pitch black/haunting]

Most of these albums are available from iTunes, Warpmart or Boomkat.

* qualifies as it's an hour long!

Other fine albums were released by the Dodos, Meshuggah, Jape, Max Tundra, Erykah Badu, Bonnie Prince Billy and DJ/Rupture.
The Hold Steady are still appalling and should just stop.

Incidentally, my favourite soundtrack of the year was Jonny Greenwood - There Will Be Blood.

Here's a "top 20" of songs from 2008. To coin an infectious phrase, twenty is plenty. Some of them were saddled with flabby, pointless, divisive or forgettable albums; some, including the top 3, stood out as the high points of superb LPs. I can't explain the abundance of glitzy electropop in the list (at least three separate instances), nor am I prepared to omit any of those songs. You may well hate everything I've chosen, but either way, a mixtape - with the #7 song unfortunately missing - is available to download; just click the links at the bottom of the list.


20. Nine Inch Nails - Head Down
19. Little Boots - Stuck On Repeat
18. Dan le Sac vs Scroobius Pip - Letter From God To Man
17. Lisa Hannigan - Lille
16. Kylie Minogue - The One
15. Grace Jones - Corporate Cannibal
14. Leila - Mettle
13. Kanye West - Bad News
12. Girls Aloud - Turn To Stone
11. Deerhunter - Nothing Ever Happened
10. Atlas Sound - Recent Bedroom
9. Crystal Castles - Untrust Us
8. Mystery Jets - Flakes
7. Sunken Foal - Of Low Count And Light Pocket
6. DJ Mujava - Township Funk
5. Beck - Youthless
4. Patrick Kelleher - Coat To Wear
3. Portishead - The Rip
2. Pivot - O Soundtrack My Heart
1. Beach House - Gila

Songs of 2008 (you'll need to download both parts): [ part 1 ] [ part 2 ].

WinRar is available for free here.
Save both parts to the same folder, then extract part 1 and the second part will automatically extract, resulting in a listenable end product, shorn of mess and unwieldy file extensions.

Remember, if you like what you hear, you can and should support the artists by buying these tracks on either iTunes, Warpmart or Boomkat.

Now that that's out of the way, I can begin posting in earnest again...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Inverted Bliss - a mixtape

VI: an unexpected surprise

Here's a mixtape I made. It's called "Inverted Bliss" and it's a collection of elegant electronica, beautiful instrumentals and haunted songs. Ideal for solitary listening as the night falls. Download links are at the end. Don't forget to come back and comment when you've had a listen!

1. The Knife - I Just Had To Die

This song, taken from The Knife's eponymous debut album, deals with typically dark themes, and unfolds in such a way that the sadness envelops the listener by the end.

2. Robert Wyatt - At Last I Am Free

Wyatt's haunting cover of a Chic song, taken from his 1981 album "Nothing Can Stop Us".

3. Atlas Sound - Recent Bedroom

Featured on Bradford Cox's debut album as Atlas Sound, cloaked in his trademark layers of reverb and melancholy, Recent Bedroom shimmers and floats.

4. Beth Gibbons - Drake

Gibbons' piece of Nick Drake-inspired magic from her solo album.

5. Aphex Twin - Hy A Scullyas Lyf Adhagrow

Treated piano loveliness from Aphex's "Drukqs" double-CD collection.

6. Pantha du Prince - Asha

A twinkling piece of minimal techno, simultaneously microscopic and vast, by Germany's Hendrick Weber, from last year's "This Bliss".

7. Spectac - Archangular

A formidable figure on the Irish electronic scene, Spectac released his debut album "Rabbid" in 2003. It was a unique, compelling, twisting, fresh collection of complex, wildly original tunes. This track just builds and builds.

8. Scott Walker - Farmer In The City

This just comes from another place entirely. "Tilt" is a staggering work by one of the world's great musical mavericks. This, the first song, is simply astounding.

9. Mogwai - A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters

Apart from its great title, this vibrates with intensity and emotion. The closing track on Mogwai's ferocious debut "Young Team", it's restrained, bleak and beautiful.

10. Van Dyke Parks - Van Dyke Parks

From his 1968 solo debut "Song Cycle", this is an unnerving experiment recalling the song that was allegedly sung as the Titanic sank.

11. Pivot - Fool In Rain

A great reflective electronic piece from Pivot's debut, one of the best albums released so far in 2008.

12. Nine Inch Nails - Right Where It Belongs

Sounds like a man who's been hollowed out by life, by fame, by self-doubt, the works. One of his masterpieces.

13. Radiohead - How I Made My Millions

A b-side from the "OK Computer" era. This proves conclusively that nobody else can do what Thom Yorke does. Just him singing and playing his piano, recorded on his minidisc player with his girlfriend washing dishes in the background.

14. Junior Boys - When No One Cares

A powerful Sinatra cover from Junior Boys' 2006 album "So This Is Goodbye".

15. Boards Of Canada - Sixtyniner

This opened BOC fine "Twoism" album. Indescribably sad and lovely. I see at a sort of companion piece to Autechre's "Nine" and "Bike" for some reason. Feel free to disagree!

16. Autechre - Nine

Nine is actually the seventh track on Autchre's classic album "Amber". Ghostly, magical electronica.

17. John Frusciante - 23 Go in to End

A gorgeous, brooding electronic instrumental from "Shadows Collide With People", one of the 6 albums Frusciante released in 6 months a few years ago. Vintage and deathly. What a talent.

18. Philip Glass - Prophecies

Heard during the final scene of Godfrey Reggio's seminal film Koyaanisqatsi, and taken from Glass's hypnotic score.

19. Tangerine Dream - Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares

Basically a solo piece by Edgar Froese. The second track from 1974's "Phaedra". Utterly compelling and magnificent.

Download the Inverted Bliss mixtape here (split in two, 1 hr 31 mins total):

Tracks 1-11
Tracks 12-19

You might need to download WinRAR (it's free) here.

If you like what you hear, all of the albums mentioned above are available through the major online stores.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Celebrated Voyeur

The language of frustration

IV: in which the world finally notices a Czech original

“I am a prophet of decay and a pioneer of chaos, because only from chaos does something new emerge.” - Miroslav Tichý

The Pompidou Centre in Paris is currently showing a retrospective of the work of Miroslav Tichý, an 82-year-old Czech photographer whose work was completely unknown until 2004. His photographic equipment is primitive, he shuns the trappings of modern life and he has the appearance of an ancient vagrant. He is a fascinating, defiant figure, cohabiting with rats in the dusty old house once used as a tailor's shop by his father, living on practically nothing among the scattered relics of a difficult life. He is a true outsider, and his work is a testament to his "otherness"; it consists almost entirely of black-and-white photographs of anonymous women in various states of undress, taken from afar with homemade telephoto lenses, through gaps in fences and hedges - for "hygiene reasons", he was not allowed into the local pool, so he spoke to people through the fence and took many photographs from the same viewpoint. The pictures are generally under- or over-exposed, out of focus, unconventionally framed and bleached out. The beauty and unease which coexist in many of his unsolicited portraits are functions both of the subjects and of the decayed, spectral nature of the images.

He studied art in Prague, after which he became an opponent of communism and, by extension, an outsider. He eventually suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1950s, leading to spells in psychiatric institutions and prisons, in which systematic abuse of those who did not share the state's ideals was practised under the oppressive regime of the day. Thereafter, he chose to work on his own, turning to photography when his studio was taken from him. He customised cheap cameras with cardboard, wire, elastic and the like, and taking up to a hundred photographs a day. Like the creatures inhabiting the nightmarish world of Jan Svankmajer (who I will discuss in greater detail in a later post), in which found objects such as bones and thread spools are reimagined as limbs and torsos, or David Cronenberg's organic interfaces, Tichý's camera is itself an unnerving piece of equipment, an extension both of his personality and of his aesthetic.

It is impossible to view Tichý's work without considering the moral or social implications of his endeavours: is it not true that people who go about with the express intention of secretly photographing strangers in a somewhat erotic context are generally hounded by society? What is remarkable about Tichý is that his photographs, the product of a lifetime of antisocial, compulsive, furtive, solitary behaviour, are now regarded as a great body of work, rather than simply a catalogue of obsession and frustration, the hoardings of an unhinged loner. If the artistic merit wasn't there, would he be seen as just another "strange local man", the unkempt ghost in the house the neighbourhood children avoid? Undoubtedly - it is difficult to imagine that the discovery of such a disturbing collection in, say, the United States wouldn't lead to some form of investigation into the owner's character, background checks, psychological profiling and the usual public knee-jerking. However, in this case, it could be said that the mere act of capturing the female form in an artistic medium was a rebellious and politically confrontational act; the communist government which took over in 1948 demanded that art students produce images of workers' solidarity - something which Tichý refused to do, resulting in his marginalisation and incarceration.

In both his methods and his subject matter, he reacted against progress and a stifling political climate; this would indicate there is far more to him than the decrepitude and filth which a casual observer might see on the surface. Neither can we discount his other crucial idiosyncracy: once his photos were developed, Tichý would mishandle, scratch, vandalise or simply discard them. There was no shrine in his home, no wall of nameless faces; instead, he left his pictures to decay in the mess of his dusty house. As he says, "The erotic is just a dream anyway. The world is only an illusion, our illusion.” As with any complex character, it is almost impossible to ascertain his true motivations, but accusations of voyeurism for the sake of titillation seem facile in his case.

There is no doubt that Tichý's work would never have been seen had it not been for the interest and dedication of his young neighbour Roman Buxbaum, who took it upon himself to conserve the man's neglected, cast-off images. Tichý himself doesn't seem to have cared about the images once they had been developed. It may be that for him, the process of capturing moments of beauty was the whole point, the thought that he had managed to briefly frame something tiny, mysterious and personally resonant. There is no question, however, that he has always been interested in the trace of what was once there. His photographs are filled with apparitions, equivalent in temporal terms to an image's residue on the inside of an eyelid, but universal, haunting and monumental just the same. His ephemera speaks profoundly about him and us. As the curator Harald Szeemann remarked on seeing Tichý's work,

“Intensity will always find its medium.”

The music for this post is provided by Atlas Sound, the solo project of Deerhunter's Bradford Cox. In case you're not familiar with his solo work, Bradford makes ethereal, reverb-saturated music at a prodigous rate, reflecting his experiences as a sick child, during which he began to make art and music with the outlook of someone very much on the outside of things. It's beautiful, mysterious music, hinting at decay and loss. I'm a big fan and hopefully these songs will lead you to seek out more of his stuff.

MP3: Recent Bedroom (from the album "Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel" - buy the album
MP3: You Belong To Me (from the "Altitude Sickness" EP)
MP3: Cold and Golden
MP3: April 13

Hundreds of free releases by Atlas Sound can be found on his blog: Deerhunter/Atlas Sound/Lotus Plaza


Friday, July 25, 2008

Voice precognition

A short piece about singing

III: in which we fly over Bulgaria

Here's something truly magical: Bulgarian folk song. The clarity of expression and intensity of feeling are nothing less than breathtaking, and the scales and harmonies are so gorgeous, they can make you forget your surroundings. These are country women who were chosen for the astonishing quality of their voices and their ability to produce intricate, shifting close harmonies. Powerful, spine-tingling stuff. Apparently, their music was sent into space as part of a Voyager mission.

Here's the phenomenal "Kalimankou Denkou (The Evening Gathering)":

MP3: Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares - "Kalimankou Denkou (The Evening Gathering)"

(buy the album)

And here is a 1990 performance from US television (songs: Ergen Daido, Polegnala E Todora, Oh Susanna) :

An introduction from Wikipedia:

The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir is an internationally renowned World Music ensemble that blends traditional six-part a capella repertoire with modern arrangements. It is most recognized under the recording name "Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares." First created as the "Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir" in Bulgaria in 1952 by Philip Koutev, "the father of Bulgarian concert folk music," the choir is now under the direction of Dora Hristova. Koutev also created and conducted the Ensemble of the Bulgarian Republic in 1951.

Singers are chosen from country villages for the beauty and openness of their voices, and they undergo extensive training in the unique centuries' old singing style. Influenced by Bulgaria's Thracian, Ottoman and Byzantine history, their music is striking in its use of diaphonic singing and distinctive timbre, as well as its modal scales and dissonant harmonies (abundant second, seventh, and ninth intervals).

Though the choir became widely known when the trend-setting English alternative record label 4AD released a pair of anthology albums in 1986 and 1988 with the now famous title Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, their recordings date as far back as 1957. The first pressing of the Voix Bulgares album was the result of fifteen years of work by Swiss ethnomusicologist and producer Marcel Cellier and was originally released in 1975 on his small Discs Cellier label. Ivo Watts-Russell (founder of 4AD) was introduced to the choir from a third or fourth generation audio cassette lent to him by Peter Murphy, singer from the band Bauhaus. He became thoroughly entranced by the music, and tracked down and licensed the recordings from Cellier. The group has since performed extensively around the world to wide acclaim and were honored with a Grammy Award in 1989 for their second album.

Three prominent soloists of the group have also performed together as the Trio Bulgarka, notably on the Kate Bush albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.

In 1992, the choir divided into two: one for radio, one for television. Bulgarian television signed a contract with the one half, which is the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir; the other half organized itself as a collective, and now performs as "Angelite - The Bulgarian Voices."

I'll leave it at that for the moment. Enjoy.

Zemanta Pixie

Monday, July 7, 2008


Welcome. Ah, I see you brought flowers. How kind. I'll be glad you came.

I: in which the protagonist begins by making an uncharacteristically lengthy statement of intent, in the vain hope that the reader will take a minute to read it

The narcissistic tooth-pull of personal webpages is all-too-familiar to anyone who's used the internet in the last fifteen years. Let's face it - 99% of them are of less interest to the discerning adult than the pebble which currently sits between the grooves on the sole of my shoe. Where's the passion? The originality? The basic literacy skills?

If you asked me to give a reason for the existence of this blog, I'd say that there are aspects of my outlook on life and its attendant agonies and ecstasies which I'd like to articulate, in an effort to map the stranger, colder or lovelier territories which exist on the fringes of the mind (well, mine at least). There'll be art and music and links to related writings and all the usual sensory crisscross which you've come to expect from modern life, and I'll attempt to tie all these strands into a somewhat palatable whole. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll glance at the clock and politely make your excuses.

Verbal onanism, self-indulgence, the pitiable wail of a fractured mind - call it what you will. At the very least, I would like to present a reasonable approximation of Life As I See It, without being insufferable, irrelevant and ignorant, and thus permanently reverse the polarity of the internet. Or something. One thing's for sure - every post will contain a link to download music which has burrowed into my brain and deposited something pure and true and wonderful.

With each keystroke, I seem to stumble further into some unfolding sentence, treading aimlessly over virgin ground, swinging a lantern in the dusklight. I don't quite know where I'm headed, but I'm sure it'll become clear with time. to begin? I suppose I could pluck something from the uppermost shelves, something which resonates, something with the scent of melancholy, the ring of awful and elegant truth. After all, you're stepping into my head, and you've already wiped your feet on the doormat without even being asked.

I know...let's start with a picture. Everyone likes pictures.

Something I made. There will be a lot of art on this blog, and it'll all bear the unique imprint of my soul.*

Well, this post has exhausted its potential. I'll do another one tomorrow - a flashier, more interactive, more emotionally fulfilling and (crucially) shorter post.

Thanks very much for reading. Do come back. There will be something new every few days and I'd like to hear your thoughts.

* imprint can be found on reverse of picture