Look What I Found In The Field

Whatever it is that Axel Willner has been quietly doing on various CD-Rs under many strange aliases (check here and an autresdirections.net interview here) since 2001, he’s realized a stunning debut album as The Field with his impending Kompakt LP From Here We Go Sublime. With another artist such a title would be pure hubris, but Willner’s thick, coruscating tracks carry such a distinctive emotional gravity that the use of the word is nothing but apt. After stand-out turns on the Total 7 comp (”Over the Ice,” which opens the album wonderfully) and Pop Ambient 2007 (”Kappsta,” a sonic sponge-bath if there ever was one), we looked forward to a strong debut from the Stockholm resident.

But what he’s delivered is something else entirely - as bright and bracing as the early sun cut by a snow-capped mountain. From Here We Go Sublime is an hypnotic, driving masterpiece of cascading loops and scintillating, oceanic waveforms layered and arranged with the deft grace of a true humanist. Willner’s sensitivity to bodily rhythms and organic progressions marks him out as something special, even amongst an increasingly psyche-savvy crowd of young producers. If it hearkens back to anything in the past twenty years or so, it’s the early ambient washes of Aphex Twin and Seefeel, or the richly-textured work made by dozens of anonymous European producers in the first third of the 90’s before Trance became a dirty word. Still, these are minor touchstones - Willner’s sound is far from a borrowed one.

Despite the presence of the carved-in-water atmospherics of the best ambient music, there are series of constant, interlocking rhythms at work here that are distinctly house-derived. As joyful and danceable as it is though, you’ll still feel as though you’re being driven to do something far more than just jack your body. Perhaps Willner is more interested in jacking your soul- the repetitive cycling of certain sounds (the female voice makes a strong appearance throughout) carries such a warmth that it never jars or irritates, but always mesmerizes. The allure of his signature lies in this ever-present striving to massage all your pleasure centers at once, to tickle your senses to distraction. Not that mono-chromaticism is in evidence- (he’s absorbed the Nordic tendency towards the epic rather than the sustained) tracks like “Silent” ride a potent nitrous-rush that evoke all the majestic rise & fall of progressive house with none of the cheesy excess. Part of his secret is, again, in the warmth and thickness of his production - everything is wrapped in gauze and feelings, caressing before touching, breathing before kissing.

Check him out on MySpace here.

January 31, 2007. Uncategorized. 1 Comment.

Incredible Scenes

Y’all know I’ve spent a good deal of time dwelling in the Court of the Crimson King, so it should come as no surprise that in a recent bout of record rearrangement and filing, I noticed that I had two copies of perhaps their finest album, Larks’ Tongues In Aspic. OK, that’s fine, I thought - I’ll keep both. It’s Larks’ Tongues, for shit’s sake. As I was returning the second copy to the shelf, I noticed something that should have been obvious to me immediately. One of the copies (not the one I bought in Virginia before I moved down there, so probably from my Dad’s collection) bears a gold sticker in the upper right corner with the legend so beloved of any Fripp/Eno devotee-cum-audio geek:

EDITIONS E.G. COLLECTOR’S EDITION. HALF-SPEED MASTERED.

Bestillmybeatingheart. (My camera’s on the fritz or I’d provide a snap.)

I’m pretty far from being any kind of audio perfectionist (I’m not crafty enough with money and I like far too many things that lie in easy reach), but I’ve spent enough time in studios and clubs behind one set of boards or another to know what sounds good and what doesn’t. And sometimes (though not always) how to fix it.

THIS SOUNDS GOOD.

It’s a wonderful album to begin with, full of enormous dynamic leaps and shimmering, layered cacophony, much attributable to the pyrotechnic percussions of Jamie Muir. But in this transfer, the balance between silence and noise is so much more profound, enabling a listener to actually hear more shit. Previous to this I’d never heard a half-speed master, though I knew how prized they were by collectors. Apparently, the treatment was given to all the pre-Warners Crimso records.

Something else to keep an eye out for, I suppose. Sigh.

At any rate, once I can satisfy my ear with some transfers of these, I’ll post a couple of mp3s here for the curious. Perhaps with contrasting “regular” versions, because I’m an enormous dork.

January 27, 2007. Uncategorized. No Comments.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch, aw I can’t do it…

I know, I know… things have been a little slack lately. I’ve been in a semi-hibernation type state, but all that’s coming to an end and we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of we. Yeah, you love it.

First off, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to the new & improved “Other Stuff” sections. New & improved as in “now featuring actual content,” and soon to include a whole lot more. Next step is archiving some poems, which I’ll be getting to shortly, so please keep watching this space. If I upload an ass-ton, I’ll make a special post about it, but I’d love any & all feedback all 5 of you would care to give.

Also, I’m planning on putting the pedal to some serious metal in all walks of life here, so expect a whole lot more blogging, both here and at my other venues, and expect some heavyweight Stylus features and contributions. In other words, a whole lot more me. S’okay, you don’t have to thank me.

On a related semi-detached note, the brand-spanking glossy new incarnation of Teh Singles Jukebox is up and effing gorgeous. I’ll actually be contributing to it, too, now that my period of torpor has ended.

To make a slightly less-played out Bowie reference, “Watch That Man!”

January 27, 2007. Uncategorized. No Comments.

My Nightstand Overfloweth : Julio Cortazar’s Cronopios and Famas

Having a surplus of time and a lack of expendable fundage over the holiday season, I’ve been catching up on a good deal of reading and re-reading. Allergies and winter sicknesses being what they are, much of my laying in bed with the sniffles time has been devoted to a re-perusal of some pulp and sci-fi classics that I cut my teeth on in grade and high schools. When I haven’t been too foggy to dive into fresh waters, I’ve explored some new writers based on the recommendations of some co-Stylusites and the availabilty of said writers thanks to my glorious job in a used bookstore.

After spending some time with the Amis family (Kingsley’s already a firm favorite, Martin I’m still on the fence about), my interests have turned towards several South American authors, thanks mainly to a lucky cache of the outstanding Avon Bard paperbacks (more on this later). The pick of the litter thus far has been the astounding Julio Cortazar (1914-84) - an Argentine born in Brussels and raised in Buenos Aires who spent most of his latter life in Paris (he emigrated there partly in protest to the Peron administration). Much like myself, Cortazar spent his youth reading imaginative works, especially Verne - an influence that colored his prose, which interpolates the highly unlikely with the rather mundane to great effect. At this point, I’ve been stunned by his first novel, The Winners, and his Cronopios and Famas, a brilliant compilation of loosely-grouped attacks on consensus reality that nosedived into my consciousness sometime in November. I’m eagerly awaiting a full reading of his much-touted “experimental novel” Hopscotch, which is currently making its way to the top of my reading stack with all the impudence of a starving urchin.

My first experience with Cortazar, however, came in the form of a slim volume of short, pataphysical conceits entitled Cronopios and Famas. It’s rare that I come up against a piece of fiction that I find almost impossible to describe in terms of structure or relationship to other works, but Cronopios and Famas certainly falls into that small family. While this collection is not narrative fiction (at least in the normative sense), it flirts with narrative form at its most basic, yet the content is about as far from the traditional “short story” as one can get. A set of episodic pseudo-parables (which I read in a handsomely-printed New Directions Classic paperback, translated by Paul Blackburn), Cronopios and Famas is divided into four parts: The Instruction Manual, Unusual Occupations, Unstable Stuff and Cronopios and Famas. Each is distinct in intent and style, yet posits a similar bewildered response to the unveiling of our everyday lives - one of wonder, a disinclination to follow preset patterns, and a curious sort of (God save me from cliche here) naive wisdom.

The Instruction Manual is a shivering skinny-dip into Cortazar’s bracing waters - each of the ten short entries is presented as a literal instruction in how to proceed when faced with a common or not-so-common task: Instructions on How to Cry, How to Sing, How to Comb the Hair, How to Kill Ants in Rome… The sequence reaches its pinnacle with the two-parter of Preamble to the Instructions on How to Wind a Watch and the Instructions themselves. In fact, I’ll give the entire text of the Preamble below to illustrate:

Think of this: When they present you with a watch they are gifting you with a tiny flowering hell, a wreath of roses, a dungeon of air. They aren’t simply wishing the watch on you, and many more, and we hope it will last you, it’s a good brand, Swiss, seventeen rubies; they aren’t just giving you this minute stonecutter which will bind you by the wrist and walk along with you. They are giving you- they don’t know it, it’s terrible that they don’t know it- they are gifting you with a new, fragile, and precarious piece of yourself, something that’s yours but not a part of your body, that you have to strap to your body like your belt, like a tiny, furious bit of something hanging on to your wrist. They gift you with the job of having to wind it every day, an obligation to wind it, so that it goes on being a watch; they gift you with the obsession of looking into jewelry-shop windows to check the exact time, check the radio announcer, check the telephone service. They give you the gift of fear, someone will steal it from you, it’ll fall on the street and get broken. They give you the gift of your trademark and the assurance that it’s a trademark better than the others, they gift you with the impulse to compare your watch with other watches. They aren’t giving you a watch, you are the gift, they’re giving you yourself for the watch’s birthday.

Having established a sense of metaphysically-confrontational super-reality with the Instructions, Cortazar next applies his bent, episodic tale-telling to a first person explication of his rather odd family in the Unusual Occupations. A family living as others do on Humboldt Street, yet engaged in making untoward scenes of greiving at wakes (specifically wakes for deceased persons they have no knowledge of or relation to), attempting to lodge a tiger (”just one, for the sole purpose of seeing the mechanism at work in all its complexity”) and causing quite an uproar when briefly employed in the postal service (dispensing free balloons, veal, and vodka, not to mention covering parcels in tar and feathers as though they were convicted criminals). All these shenanigans serve mainly to prepare one for Cortazar’s unstated but readily-apparent view towards the ingrained mores of society: to cause trouble is its own reward, and if that trouble slips into discord or suspends the routine functioning of law and order, so much the better.

With the section entitled Unstable Stuff, Cortazar pulls a trick that’s uniquely his - he becomes more and more abstract and absurd, yet narrows his rifle’s viewfinder to increasingly tangiable and political subjects. Read in sequence, they resemble some of the avant-garde South American literature I’ve come across (for instance, the novel Zero, by Ignacio De Loyola Brandao) - surrealist broadsides on the state of the modern world, viewed in episodic flashes and broken bits of theater, non-sequential and indirect but clearly intended to draw one’s attention and ire towards the self-contended, the ignorant, and the abusers of power.

The final section, which shares the same title as the collection itself, I won’t spoil too much for you - suffice to say that Cortazar slips back into a more profound fantasia, creating an unlikely bestiary which plays out to the fullest all the implications of his deepest philosophy and most lucid dreaming. The dadaist elements of the first three parts make merry alongside the didactic, establishing a sort of alternate reality which overcomes the usual suspension of importance we inevitably place upon such constructs. The cronopios, esperanzas and famas of these vignettes carry a sense of familiarity, yet elude the eye when it lingers too long upon them - they are creations, but have been given enough mana to escape particularization by our critical minds. They are perceived, not yet known.

Whew. I had planned to spend some time here discussing Cortazar’s brilliant first novel, The Winners, which I read throughout the New Year’s Holiday / Recovery Period, but last time I checked this was a blog and not a student paper, so I’ll leave at this point with a simple emphatic injuction to you, humble reader, that you come to know and adore the works of Julio Cortazar. Or, as Pablo Neruda wrote in an aside which was immediately affixed to a million Cortazar dust jackets:

Anyone who doesn’t read Cortazar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder… and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.

January 15, 2007. Uncategorized. 2 Comments.

The Year of the Ghost (2006 Year-End Thoughts, pt. 1)

According to the 3000+ year-old system of divination developed by the Chinese during the Shang dynasty, 2006 (from January 29th on, at least) was the Year of the Dog, dominated by the force of Yang and the element of Fire. The Dog is defined by the positive traits of loyalty, honesty and diplomacy, leavened by the negative traits of hasty over-criticality, secretiveness and worrisomeness. Yang represents brightness, productivity and masculinity; Fire stands for dynamism and passion. The Dog arrived so late (11th of 12) to the Jade Emperor’s kick-ass party (with the naming of names and the dispensing of rank) because he couldn’t resist a quick dip in the pool, placing immediate sensual gains over winning a higher position in the cosmic cycle of animals and beasts.

Musically speaking, we certainly indulged our temporal whims in 2006 to overcome our tendency to hastily judge such pleasures (or at least some of us tried) - rushes were sharp and sweet, gratification came easily and rewards both deserved and unwarranted were handed out liberally to artists still rocking their training shorts. Synthpop acts such as Hot Chip and the Knife that would’ve been given short-shrift in a more rock-dominated year were critical faves, while the Arctic Monkeys (the one viable guitar band to emerge this year) had to satisfy themselves with the tawdry Merc and the fawning of some magazines of dubious merit (tempered no doubt with the more ephemeral thrills of massive record sales, sold-out shows and a swelling fanbase). On the whole, second albums were the rule - Newsom kept the indies moist, the Junior Boys and TV on the Radio fulfilled hope/hype with improved versions of their debuts, Justin excelled by emulating Prince at the expense of Michael, and Scissor Sisters and the Rapture proved the old saw that the follow-up to your hotly-tipped debut will be ignored whether it’s shite or excellent, respectively. We’ll just mention the Clipse with respect to how our loyalty of many years allowed us to overcome even the most tawdry of revivals.

The honesty and artlessness of the Dog also served us well this year - whether “Promiscuous” or “Crazy,” the 2006 singles charts played host to stripped-down pop of a elegantly-superficial bent. “As it was in the beginning, so shall it be,” natch, but the singles of this year seemed especially forthright in their demands for your immediate response, whether it be a cringing or a crab-dancing one. The gradually-widening grey area of what precisely constitutes a “single” aided the charm of the spread out to encompass not only tracks streamable or downloadable online, but also those whose only real access point was a YouTube video or a MySpace page. Adaptability and positivity, typical Dog traits, were the keys to appreciating the changes in the industry - at least, they were in the hands of the bands, listeners and critics. The main arteries continue to be clogged by dated-when-minted notions of ownership, rigid control of product complete with hard-drive damaging copy-protection and awkward group listening sessions for journalists reviewing key albums. Whether the powers-that-be can overcome these negative traits and move towards enlightenment will soon cease to matter - there will always be makers and consumers of music, but there need not always be a record industry.

As visible and pungent as the “hot song” was in 2006, our sharp tongues and sensitive natures made us question the wisdom of keeping all our bullets in the same snappy chamber. We compromised by embracing the elusive and jazz-damaged in unexpected arenas - the space-disco dreams of Lindstrøm, Booka Shade, Villalobos, Eulberg and My My, the hazy hip-hop of J Dilla’s parting-shot/masterpiece Donuts and the drugged-out cadences of a full clip of Houston rap singles. Psychedelia, freak-folk and prog continued to undercut the staid indie scene, presenting a welcome tonic for tiresome lo-fi pop, with the UK’s Guillemots and the US’s TVOTR presenting alternate rural and urban sides of a new brand of art-rock coinage. Elder statesmen of progressively-bent pop - Tom Ze, Sonic Youth, Momus, Jarvis Cocker, Yo La Tengo, Howe Gelb, Scritti Politti, Scott Walker, etc. - stepped in to remind listeners old and new of their place in the post-2000 refashioning of the popular music cosmos, with varying degrees of success and senseless repetition.

The drift towards keyboard-heavy, minimal electronic backing tracks continued in the world of commercial Rap & B (a development spearheaded, lest we forget, by Mannie Fresh’s Korg twiddlings of the 90’s), and though by March everyone had heard enough limp syn-string pads to last the rest of the year, ’twas but the prelude to a summer of heavy doom-laden chords and spare, echoing claps. Fine in small doses, wearying in large amounts, this trend was nicely enlivened by an unexpected return to live funk/disco-sounding and -sampling tracks, sparked by a couple of Neptunes tracks (”I Gotcha” and “Money Maker”), brought to a boil by “Kick Push” and Omarion’s butter-melting “Entourage,” and finally seeing LP-length fulfillment in Ghostface’s More Fish, unswerving and unrepentant in its debt to the funk. This was aided along quite nicely by the ridiculous quantity of excellent rare groove compilations on offer this year - Soul Sides, Volume 1, the Kashmere Stage Band reissue, the goodies-laden Kings of Diggin’, Numero’s triumphant Good God!, and the Journey Into Paradise Larry Levan set, to name but a front-running few.

Africa and Brazil, often hotbeds of dynamic, culture-blending music, played several outstanding trumps this year in the form of long-serving spokesmen - Thomas Mapfumo’s Rise Up applied his long-brewing stylistic template to a set of above-par melodies and boiling rhythms. Malian Toumani Diabate unleashed his large band Symmetric Orchestra project for an album of divergent styles and wild cross-genre pollinations. Though he’s sadly passed, Ali Farke Toure left a similar document behind him in Savane, a desert hymn remarkably lush and filled with movement despite its arid topic and solemn occasion. Across the Atlantic, two of the founding lights of Tropicalia returned to form in inspiring fashion. Tom Ze fulfilled a promise of thirty years and released his Estudando O Pagode, a startling record of contrasting modern and classic sensibilities, based on a novelistic concept which would have proved leaden in any hands other than Ze’s. Caetano Veloso, the long-serving Don of Brazilian pop, emerged from the mannered, overproduced shadow of his recent efforts and delivered a “back to basics” album with a renewed sense of immediacy and relevance. Soul Jazz helpfully provided a thickly-notated overview of some original Tropicalia recordings, reminding us that loyalty sometimes does pay hefty dividends.

But the one “career artist” that truly dominated the playing field in 2006 was himself a Dog, born Dennis Coles in 1970, a year ruled by the force of Yang and the element of Metal (strong-willed, self-reliant and unbending)- Ghostface Killah. Producing not one but two essential albums and garnering the praise of critics, fans of both indie and mainstream rap and a small but steadfast portion of the record-buying populace. Easily striding over a bridge others could barely conceive of, Ghostface dropped his heady, persona-redefining and overlong space odyssey of a main album while simultaneously stitching together a raw funk street-opera disguised as throwaway bonus-round material. Showing us both these sides in the same year of the cycle, Ghost freed us of the need to fret over which of his albums was the most “classic” (although I must admit, the fights have been a blast), allowing us instead to focus on who could contend with him as a classic artist. In 2006, Dennis Coles showed us not only his ability to stand tall in the hip-hop arena, but in the larger scope of things as well - and all simply by consistently honing his craft, getting weirder and better and more completely himself.

Henceforth to be known as the Year of the Ghost, the eleventh aspect of the cycle emerged as a time in which energy, forthrightness and vitality would be united with sensuality, emotionalism and selfishness, an era in which Metal would be tempered by Fire to forge a brilliant and terrible sword, striking deep into the hearts of those from all walks of life. The wicked and the just, the meagre and the mighty, the cultured and the worldly, all these and more united in fear and awe before the Son of the Dog, the one called the Ghost, as he strode across the battle-torn Earth and claimed his well-won inheritance.

January 11, 2007. Uncategorized. No Comments.