10/08/2020 This week I have been mostly listening to…

Fennesz – Black Sea (2008). I find myself listening to much more ambient music these days, as an appropriate backdrop for days spent working from home. Austrian artist, Christian Fennesz is often lauded for the very unusual way he makes use of the guitar in his music: combining it with digital effects to produce something unrecognisable but distinctively his own. His 2001 album, Endless Summer is something of a classic…if you can consider something as niche as a clicky, droney, dreamy tribute to the Beach Boys by way of laptop noise and heavily processed guitar a classic.

Black Sea is a clear development of the sound Fennesz honed on that album. And as on Endless Summer, there are many moments that evoke the feeling of strolling along a beach with waves gently lapping beside you, as you’d expect from the album’s title. The soundscapes – which feels like a more fitting term than ‘songs’ – on Black Sea have a distinctly littoral feeling; the waves of noise ebb and flow like waves on the beach. 

The faint cawing of seagulls heralds the opening seconds of the album and track of the same name. Amidst the bird noise, a great fanfare builds up, along with ripples of static and noise which rises to a crescendo over two minutes until quite suddenly everything clears, like clouds lifting on a windy day, and you’re left with the sense of being out on a windswept landscape. The rich, warm sound of a plucked acoustic guitar is then placed front and centre to play out the remaining seven minutes or so, gradually rejoined by soothing drones and swirls of noise – it could easily sound like the wind on a beach, or a distant ship rounding the harbour, or the steady drizzle of rain – or all three.

The arc of most of the tracks on Black Sea follow a similar pattern, either beginning with tranquility and gradually building to climax, or beginning in noise and slowly fading into serenity. When playing this album ‘in the background’, I find it easy to just let it wash over me without noticing the details. And this is a perfectly fine way to enjoy – it but if you focus your attention and listen in, the texture of each track is richly detailed, for example the splashes of water on Perfum for Winter, which at first sound like pulses of white noise but gently transforms into the sound of someone wading through shallow water.

Having this as background music, it’s easy not to notice the melodies – but there are plenty submerged throughout the album, which on repeated listens embed themselves in your mind. Much like lying on a beach watching waves crash on the shore, or clouds floating overhead, you can focus your attention on the ever shifting patterns, or simply let the scene wash over you in a beautiful drift.

Black Moth Super Rainbow – Autumn Kaleidoscope got Changed (2001). Anyone expecting Black Moth Super Rainbow’s usual mix of dayglo synth-drenched psyche may be caught off guard by this collection. Initially released on an ultra-limited run of CDRs back in 2001, when the founding members of what would become Black Moth Super Rainbow were known as Satansstompingcaterpillar (and now available on Spotify, paired with the EP, Sing to us) it features fifty minutes of predominantly instrumental, super lo-fi, acoustic sketches. On the few tracks featuring vocals, instead of his usual vocoder effect frontman Tobacco’s voice sounds like it’s coming through a rusty metal tube or one of those telephones children make with tin cans and string.

Although it’s the antithesis of their usual technicolour sound, it does contain the seeds of that dreamy woozy vibe that runs through all their music. Black Moth Super Rainbow’s songs are very often themed around the environment and especially their rural surroundings (by all accounts they live in a cult-like community in the wilds of Pennsylvania) – with track titles such as: Lost, Picking Flowers in the Wood, They live in the Meadow, Fields are Breathing, etc. Such earthy subject matter might seem odd for a band where, judging by their normal sound anyway, it sounds like at least three quarters of them play synth.

Black Moth Super Rainbow – Cult Band (photo by Jae Ruberto)

The acoustic tracks on Autumn Kaleidoscope sound much more like they were written by a couple of dreamers sitting in a meadow. And this is definitely the perfect soundtrack for a drowsy afternoon spent under the shade of the tree, or in my case sitting in an urban back garden early in the morning and enjoying the peace before anyone else is awake. Despite the extreme lo-fidelity production of the record and very sparse arrangements the sound is still warm – and psychedelic. Rather than the creepy Jack-o’-lantern-full-of-acid-candy vibe of their later albums, this is a gentler, folksier kind of psychedelic which pushes the same childhood nostalgia buttons as Boards of Canada. 

Not something I’d recommend as an introduction to Black Moth Super Rainbow (instead for that try Dandelion Gum), but lovely for a late summer afternoon doing nothing much.

Bicep – Bicep (2017). Bicep were one of those acts that I was completely unaware of until one day where it seemed they were suddenly everywhere and being mentioned by everyone. I don’t exactly keep my finger on the pulse of new music, but I normally have a vague sense of where the wind’s blowing – either way I definitely missed the memo on these guys. I’m a couple of years late so it’s probably safe now to check out what all the fuss was about and give their self-titled album a go.

My default setting when approaching anything that’s particularly hyped or popular is suspicion, but honestly I’m struggling to find anything not to like about this album. Feel-good electronic dance music that incoporates elements from the last thirty years: rave, house, techno, breaks, jungle, etc. Bicep are clearly skilled producers and they know which buttons to press to get the serotonin flowing. 

In a similar way to Lone (and many others) they take the sounds of classic rave: the breakbeats, synth lines, vocal samples and give everything the glistening sheen of modern production. Unlike Lone, whose tracks err more on the dreamy psychedelic end of the ecstatic experience, Bicep play it more straight up. Most of the tracks on the album are still shot through with a feeling of melancholia – but then most of the best rave/dance music is – as the necessary counterbalance to the highs of energy and euphoria.

Glue is a clear highlight, with its lazy breakbeat, instantly evoking images of Ford Escorts with the windows down blasting pirate radio garage, which is joined by the lush synth line teasing a euphoric build-up that never quite hits, and then the classic diva backing sample and massive pads filling out the mix. The urge to let your head roll back and reach for the lasers is strong.

Having just sourced the YouTube video, I noticed one commenter put their finger on it as well as anyone could: “This song makes me feel “that feeling”. “That feeling” for me is when it’s past 4am at a party and the comedown has everyone, while you’re starring [sic] at yourself in the bathroom mirror drunk and high af, with your hair messy and your makeup ruined, trying to remember your name, hearing the party’s music in the background, and you’re just sitting there looking at yourself wondering what you’re gonna do with your life”. I don’t know whether YouTube comments are proprietary or not, but Kierra16 – I feel ya.

Rain is another highlight which takes its lead from Carl Craig and the sounds of Detroit Techno in the opening, and when the beat drops we’re treated to another perfectly chosen vocal sample. It’s very easy to imagine this – and practically any track from the album – absolutely killing at an early evening festival set as the sun goes down. (Though for this year, that can only be a dream).

The whole album is consistent throughout, and apart from the ambient Burial-esque interlude, Vespa, none of the tracks go particularly deep or experimental. Bicep are good at what they do and here they play to their strengths.

Unlike some of the greats who Bicep have clearly taken heed from (Underworld, Chemical Brothers, Moby, etc) I don’t get such a sense of their uniqueness as artists from this album. If there has to be a criticism it would be this, that this can sometimes sound like Identikit music – composed of all the right elements in all the right places – but lacking that individual essence. But that is a very minor critiscim, and probably not wholly fair – when music sounds this lush, why complain?

Shackleton – Devotional Songs (2016). “I am feeling ill and tired” repeats a wretched voice at the opening of the first track on Devotional Songs, Rinse out all Contaminants, first in a Withnail-esque lament which then intensifies to a strangled gasp. From the outset it’s clear this is going to be a strange listen: dark and unsettling, but not without a sense of humour about the overblown gothic camp of it all. 

The only release of Shackleton’s I’m familiar with is his Three EPs collection from 2009, when he was the toast of the Dubstep scene at the cutting edge where it blurred with Minimal Techno. Although ostensibly a Dubstep producer, his tracks even back then were much more tribal and meditative than something you’d ordinarily hear played out – more Heart of Darkness than Ministry of Sound. Clearly a musician intent on ploughing his own furrow, I thought it was about time to see where Sam Shackleton had got to. And it turns out he’s ploughed his furrow down a very strange and dark path indeed.

Devotional Songs consists of four extended tracks featuring guests vocals, not from Withnail as I initially imagined from those opening lines, but four octave opera singer, Ernesto Tomasini. The music is as far as possible from anything resembling club music: Tomasini’s vocals range from the aforementioned strangled gasp, to incantatory chant, to full on operatic, backed by a ritualistic symphony of gongs, chimes, bells, drums and organs.

Theres no denying this is very odd music, and my first listen nearly put me off completely. But context is crucial – this is definitely night-time music. It just doesn’t make sense to listen during the day (especially these hot sunny days of August). And unless you’re having a seance or performing an exorcism, it’s probably music to play alone. But the more I listen to this album, the more I’m coming to enjoy it.

You are the One begins with an array of ghostly mood bells, (think Pantha du Prince but more mediaeval), when the lyrics begin around two minutes in, they are about being locked in a cell for life, and “left to drown as the tide rose to our necks” – “We see the light but here we remain, a plague on your house instead”. Totally over the top but so melodramatic it’s actually quite funny, and I can’t believe Shackleton and Tomasini were completely po-faced when they wrote this. Then things really get going as rest of the track locks into a kind of organ-led trance psyche-out. And I mean trance in the sense of a hypnotic state rather than Tiesto euphoria – that it ain’t. If anything, it reminds me in a way of the organ solo in Light my Fire.

Elsewhere, Twelve Shared Addictions is a morbid twist on the Twelve Days of Christmas: “Twelve shared addictions, eleven filthy thoughts, ten relentless traumas (bring us closer to you), nine worldly afflictions, eight mindless words, seven deficient backbones…” etc. Like I said, it’s pretty funny.

With this release, I doubt Shackleton will win any new fans who aren’t already sold on his uncompromising musical vision. For the casual listener this will probably just be too odd, but if you’re walking home alone after dark, or having a quite night in with some candles and pentagrams, I’d recommend giving it a try.

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