18 July, 2009

Review: The Spatial Music Collective's '8.4'

There is a common misconception that electronic and electro-acoustic music is somehow less emotionally affecting than traditional acoustic music. The Spatial Music Collective’s 8.4, while pushing the boundaries of avant-garde music performance with its surrounding 8-channel speaker array, proved that any music can envelop and evoke. As a form of music that is by its nature not performance based, electro-acoustic music gives the composer a new scope for capturing the interests of their listeners. Spatiality is just one of those – while instrumental music can of course be transmitted through carefully placed speakers, electro-acoustic music can be written to incorporate the different speakers as part of the work itself, spreading sounds across the plane as another would spread ideas across parts. Electroacoustic music can be multidimensional in a way that other music can never be, and can effect its listener just as keenly.

The tight square of the NCH’s John Field Room was an ideal place for the set-up necessary for 8.4: the glimpses of sunset through the high windows amply compensating for the lack of a visual focal point, while the periphery of speakers acted like a barrier to the outside world. Opening piece, Brian Bridge’s Conduit, admirably exploited this set-up, using the spatial aspect of the work to draw the listener into an electronic world, though one in which sounds enter and grow organically before the whole structure decomposes. The effect is one of being part of a living electronic organism, beginning to go horribly, fatally wrong, leaving the listener almost gasping for breath. A nod to Douglas Adams in the programme notes betrays a humour evident mostly after the fact, and little felt during the piece itself. Sean Reed’s Imperishable Raptures, apparently not ‘requiring any point of arrival’, was a piece playing to a similar idea of enveloping the listener in an electronic world, but the effect is closer to tiptoeing around the insides of a computer rather than being part of one.

One other piece stands out of the seven as fully exploiting the possibilities of spatial composition: guest composer Eric Lyon’s Clusters demonstrates the possibility for extreme complexity inherent in electroacoustic music, unfettered by the need for the piece to be physically playable. Samples of piano are grouped, ordered and spun around the listener, dense passages alternating with sparse. Spatiality in this case is used to ‘create fundamentally different perspectives’ on the patterning of the samples depending on where the listener is situated in the room, as sounds swell and disperse around you.

31 January, 2009

2008 (a little late)

Best Album:
Portishead - Third

On its much anticipated release, this album was recognised for its excellence but also curiously criticised (or lauded, depending on which circles you move in) for being Portishead’s most inaccessible so far. True, this is a difficult album: difficult to write, difficult to make, even difficult listen to or understand, but to say it is inaccessible is to say more about us as listeners than it does about the band or album. Simply put, these songs are irresistible in a typically Portishead sirenesque way, attractive but always a tease: they wash around you, envelop you, but deny you access to their heart. Their restraint places a sheer glass wall between the listener and the performer, but it is in this restraint the genius and originality reside. To say it is inaccessible is to admit to our own inability to climb over this glass wall without the reassurance of easy hooks and footholds.

With Third, Portishead run the gamut between rock and dance/trance/rave, hitting all the spots in between, while still avoiding all the self-indulgence of hedonistic rock, the mindless adrenaline pushing of dance, even abandoning the emotional indulgence of their earlier ‘trip-hop’. They rock without ever rocking out, and rave without ever losing themselves. At all times, the central tenet of the decade-long-incubated creative thinking behind this album is control. Portishead exert complete control over every aspect of these tracks, making them smooth, confident and exceptionally original.

With this album, Portishead had to get over not only the long expectation built up from their ten-year long hiatus, but also the cult status albums like Dummy have gained in a new generation over those years. The result is an album that is inimitably Portishead, while being utterly different from any of their previous releases. Beth Gibbons has lost none of her raw emotional frailty, vocal strength, or ear for unexpected melodic twists and harmonic ideas. The stretched-out soundscapes, as well as Geoff Barrow’s abundant sampling, have been replaced with a new respect for guitar spacing, instrumental loops, doubling, echoing and creating an equally sparse but considerably more gritty and abrasive sound. They have mastered the diminishing and build-up of sound, consistency, aggressive bass hooks, depth and sparsity. Aggressive songs like 'Machine Gun', the exhausting 'Threads', the perpetual motion of 'The Rip', and the bizarre and unexplained throwback to Gibbons’ Out of Season, 'Deep Water' make up an album that is a new kind of unique, and Third, just like the other Portishead albums, will become an unassuming, unrealised classic.

Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer
Wolf Parade's second album deserves greater attention than it ever received. Like Portishead, they had to strive to follow their debut, and Apologies to Queen Mary is one hell of an album, definitely one of the best of the decade, if not the last twenty years.

At Mount Zoomer is different. Despite having slightly different production aim, they managed to retain their signature sounds without compromise. However, the album simply appears dull on first listen. The problem facing Wolf Parade is an unusual one: they are just too good a live band. Almost all the tracks on At Mount Zoomer, unlike those of Apologies... make astounding live events, throbbing with energy. If only they could have captured songs like 'Kissing the Beehive' or 'Call It A Ritual' the way they were meant to be heard, this would have blown a large Wolf Parade-shaped hole in the music world.

Honourable mentions:
1) Mogwai - The Hawk is Howling
To a certain extent, this album breaks the continuity of stylistic development of Mogwai's career. Just like Mr. Beast, it provides almost equal amounts of raucous anger and gentle swelling melody: in other words, more of everything that makes Mogwai Mogwai. While not their best or most inspired album to date, this is certainly an inevitable if not particularly forward-moving record. Beautiful and interesting, a danngerous mix.

2) Fight Like Apes - ...And the Mystery of the Golden Medallion
The most hyped album of the year, golden children FLA's debut album has yet to prove its longevity and whether it has made good on the band's warehouse-sized stores of potential. A good album yes, and a quirky one, but a remarkable one? Not quite.

3) Clinic - Do It

4) MGMT - Oracular Spectacular

5) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

6) Crayonsmith - White Wonder

7) Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles

8) Robotnik - Pleasant Square

9) The Duke Spirit - Neptune

10) Ham Sandwich - Carry the Meek

Who to Watch 2009:

1) Cuckoo Savante:
have just released their debut album Lennonstown Lies, a storybook of almost vaudevillian blues and gothica. Outstanding musicians all.

2) Villagers: the new project from Conor O'Brien, formerly of The Immediate and Cathy Davey's touring band. All folky and sweet pop.

3) The Butterfly Explosion: despite being one of the most obviously talented hopes for Irish music over the last few years, the band have changed line-up and style so often they don't seem to know who they are anymore. Let's hope they figure out (and remember) what they're best at.

4) Le Galaxie: can only get stronger.

5) Alias Empire: Dry County have returned under their new name, a renewed attitude and sound closer to their original work.

Currently listening to: Wolf Parade - Call It A Ritual