Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Michael O'Shea ‎– Michael O'Shea (1982)

Style: Experimental
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Allchival, Dome Records

1.   No Journeys End
2.   Kerry
3.   Guitar No.1
4.   Voices
5.   Anfa Dásachtach

Mó Cará, Guitar – Michael O'Shea
Producer – B. C. Gilbert, G. Lewis

In Albert Camus’ 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, he wrote of modern life: “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.” Bleak stuff—but the miracle of living in a bustling metropolis is that unexpected, life-changing encounters are possible, too. Take the example of Laraaji, just an unknown street musician busking in Washington Square Park in the late 1970s when Brian Eno dropped a business card in his zither case. Laraaji went on to become one of the luminaries of ambient and new age music. 
Not long after, a similar encounter happened at Covent Garden in London’s West End, where the busker Michael O’Shea made the acquaintance of Wire’s Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis. Spellbound by his street-corner performance on a homemade stringed instrument, Gilbert and Lewis told him to drop by the studio anytime. Nearly two years later, O’Shea showed up unannounced; they recorded on the spot. Wire put out the results on their experimental label, Dome, in 1982. It would be O’Shea’s lone release and quickly became scarce. Thanks to Dublin label All City’s AllChival imprint, Michael O’ Shea’s singular music returns, its mystery wholly intact. 
O’Shea, who came of age in London in the 1960s, got his start playing harmonica before traveling as a relief worker during the Bangladesh famine crisis of the early ’70s. While there, he contracted hepatitis and dysentery, teaching himself sitar during his convalescence. His nomadic lifestyle took him to Germany, France, and Turkey, where he brushed up against Algerian, Indian, and other strains of music. His travels also led him to sell off all of his instruments, but he came across an old door and set about festooning it with strings to craft a homemade instrument that variously evoked comparison to a dulcimer, zelochord, or sitar. O’Shea played its 17 strings with a pair of chopsticks and ran it all through a battery of effects. He called the thing “Mó Cará,” or “my friend” in Gaelic.

Odd as the man and the instrument might seem, O’Shea wound up with gigs at venerated London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. He brushed shoulders and shared stages with Don Cherry, Alice Coltrane, Rick Wakeman, The The’s Matt Johnson, and Irish post-punk Stano, and even opened for Ravi Shankar at Royal Festival Hall. Outside of a few tracks on Stano’s debut album, little documentation of these encounters survives. (Wakeman apparently scrubbed his contributions from their recording altogether.) 
Which leads us to this album, cut at Wire’s studios in a single session on July 7, 1981. The epic opener “No Journey’s End” puts us squarely in the no-man’s-land of O’Shea’s inner world. There’s little else like it. It feels at once orderly and amoebic, moving between chaotic density and calm. It brings to mind Laraaji’s music, but also hints at North African, Indian, and Irish folk idioms while not really seeming to resemble any of them. At best, they reflect how O’Shea might have encountered these styles in his travels, alighting on them before sallying forth into new realms. The piece gives the distinct impression of falling and rising way off the ground. Across its 15 minutes, the struck strings, gentle electronics, and intensifying patterns of the Mó Cará begin to mesmerize like a Spirograph. 
The rest of the recording offers up more succinct glimpses into O’Shea’s world, with Gilbert and Lewis switching up the atmospherics surrounding the strings. Cavernous echo and reverb make “Voices” and “Anfa Dásachtach” seem like they are emanating from a submarine, bubbling up from deep underwater. “Kerry” is perhaps the pop iteration of the A-side, a two-and-a-half minute air. “Guitar No. 1” finds O’Shea switching to the titular instrument and conjuring a dark mood on its six strings. One gets the impression that no matter what tool was within O’Shea’s reach, he was liable to set up on any given street corner and strike passersby in the face with cosmic profundity.
Andy Beta / Pitchfork

Laurel Halo ‎– Dust (2017)

Style: UK Garage, Future Jazz, Ambient, Experimental
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Hyperdub, Beat Records

01.   Sun To Solar
02.   Jelly
03.   Koinos
04.   Arschkriecher
05.   Moontalk
06.   Nicht Ohne Risiko
07.   Who Won?
08.   Like An L
09.   Syzygy
10.   Do U Ever Happen
11.   Buh-bye
12.   Who Won? (Acapella)

Drum Kit, Goblet Drum, Glockenspiel – Eli Keszler
Piano, Synth, Vibraphone, Idiophone, Vocals, Lyrics By – Laurel Halo
Written-By, Producer – Laurel Halo

Laurel Halo has taken a winding, unpredictable route to her third album for Hyperdub, and once again, her new record feels like a reaction against the last. The American-born, Berlin-based musician has consistently deflected interpretations of her music’s meaning, eluding attempts to classify her by genre, gender, or otherwise. While her club-focused EPs have been influenced by various foundational elements of Detroit techno, those same elements—jazz, funk, a certain sci-fi sensibility—have fused in entirely unexpected ways on her full-lengths. 
On her Hyperdub debut, Quarantine, her untreated vocals and intimate lyrics told a story which, though perhaps not entirely literal, seemed deeply personal. Yet on Chance of Rain, its 2013 follow-up, she abandoned vocals in favour of flickering, jazzy keys and iridescent synth baths—perhaps an escape route from being bracketed by gender. “People tend to heavily focus on female artists’ voices and define their work by it,” she argued in an interview with Truants last year, noting that her instrumental work had been interpreted as having “an ‘absence of authentic human presence’.” 
On the ferociously ambitious Dust, an album that feels like it was constructed in zero-gravity conditions, Halo has reached a kind of synthesis of all that came before. If, as she reminds us, her instrumental music is no less “authentically human” than her vocal music, then Dust sets out to show that the human voice is not much guarantee of  
The album opens with Halo’s voice on “Sun to Solar.” Over slippery rhythms and topsy-turvy keys (provided throughout by Shit and Shine’s Craig Clouse) she half-sings an adaptation of “Servidão de Passagem,” a 1962 work by Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos: “Stacked man, sacked man/Served and swallowed/Sun to salt, island man/Socko sick, who's hangman.” Halo processes her words beyond recognition, blurring them with the hyper-melismatic vocals of British singer and collage-pop artist Klein, one of the many guests on Dust. It’s a disorienting starting point on an album that revels in indeterminacy. 
The album’s graspable melodic moments come between longer expanses of confusing and chaotic sound; on “Nicht Ohne Risiko” and “Like an L,” instruments arrange themselves in abstract patterns, orbiting loosely like weightless space debris. “Arschkriecher” drifts toward mysticism as dissonant gong strikes are drowned in dub effects and ribbons of tenor saxophone float by. On “Koinos,” the gravitational pull is barely strong enough to hold the song together; a flurry of found sound is warped by transmission errors and Halo’s voice fades into a crackle, lost beneath percussion and glockenspiel from composer Eli Keszler, who contributes throughout the album. 
Concrete poets like de Campos were preoccupied with fusing text and image, often in purely visual or spatial ways, and their influence is tangible here. Halo treats her words in a similarly plastic fashion: dividing them between voices, breaking sentences into cryptic fragments, and using vocals to texture a broader lattice of bass, percussion, and keys. Rhythm, alliteration, and an ASMR-like sensitivity to mouth-made sounds seem to drive the lyrical content as much as any urge to tell a story: “Cancerous secrets like trails from Panama/Their thirst was once a mellow fantasma.” 
On the phenomenal “Jelly,” a surreal narrative is traced between Halo, Klein, and a third guest vocalist, the Warp-signed fantasy-pop artist Lafawndah. Their words seem snatched from the air, like an argument overheard accidentally: “You don't meet my ideal standards for a friend/And you are a thief,/And you drink too much!” Underneath, an oozing bassline recalls the hazy techno grooves of Theo Parrish, interrupted by tactile bursts of acoustic percussion from Keszler and cowbell from dreamy house producer Max D. 
“Moontalk” is the next most songlike track, fusing Latin percussion with highlife guitar and blinding synth bursts to build the album’s most addictive groove. Halo switches to Japanese for the chorus and heightens the mood of uncanny intrigue with lyrics served straight from the subconscious: “What if you slept/And what if in your sleep you dreamed/And what if in your dream/You went to heaven/And there thumbed a glasslit flower?” On “Who Won?,” she enlists artist and writer Michael Salu to deliver affectless phrasebook sentences like a gloomy male cyborg: “I'll call back later/I don't know/I'm single/No, this is the first time.” With this constant slippage between voices, Halo scuppers any attempt to read her lyrics as directly autobiographical—another way of wriggling free of “female songwriter” stereotypes. 
Far beyond a cut-and-paste collage of genres and moods, Dust is a thrilling attempt to escape all the usual points of classification, to collapse the primacy of the human voice, and to obscure and reveal at unexpected moments. It’s easy to feel a little lost in these conditions—Dust is a dense and heady record, and from certain angles can seem intimidating, even impenetrable. But between the clever track sequencing and a handful of irresistible outcrops of groove and melody, Halo provides plenty of footholds to cling onto while you acclimatise to her lawless universe.
Chal Ravens / Pitchfork

Brian Eno ‎– Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978)

Style: Ambient
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: EMI, Astralwerks, Virgin, Polydor

1.   1/1
2.   2/1
3.   1/2
4.   2/2

Acoustic Piano – Robert Wyatt
Voice – Christa Fast, Christine Gomez, Inge Zeininger
Composed By, Engineer, Producer – Brian Eno

Ambient 1: Music for Airports is a willfully perverse musical statement, one of unlimited contradictions and no small genius. 
Perverse? Well, it's an album that was released in 1978, but largely imagined at the whip centre of anarchy in the UK. At a time when music was undergoing a shift of seismic proportions, when punk in all its raw fury was changing the musical landscape -- when the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks was the most important new record released and when successive seasons of loud, vitriolic punk bands, post-punk bands, and new wavers were preparing to crash the music culture party -- Brian Eno was closeted away dreaming up sounds that were diametrically opposed to that ethos: if the whole point of punk was that it operated at gut level and was impossible to ignore, Eno set about creating music that was fully intellectualized and utterly translucent -- sounds that disappeared completely. 
With the series of 'Ambient' recordings made in the late '70s, Eno was exploring, among other things, the notion of 'passive' music. The sounds on Music for Airports possess an endless mutability of mood, which is to say that rather than inspiring a specific set of emotions, they instead reflect the inherent emotions of the listener. One of the ways we select music to listen to at any given time is by seeking out something that amplifies our emotions, our state of mind. We want empathy, so that when we're feeling spiteful and anarchic we listen to the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen"; or else we play Radiohead's "Creep" because we're wallowing, feeling a lack of romantic self-worth. When we're feeling bloody but unbowed, the world plays "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", or at least many people do. And the nature of these songs -- most songs, in fact -- is that they suggest the same emotions in whatever context you listen to them. Whether you're home alone, or packed like a sardine on your way to work on a rush-hour train, your sense of being as a result of the music is unlikely to vary significantly. The intensity of those feelings might shift, depending on circumstance (you just broke up with your girlfriend, you're more of a creep), but the essential core of that feeling won't change greatly. So it's fair to say that most popular music has a small, extremely finite emotional register, and one of Eno's great accomplishments was to broaden that register, not by suggestion, but by reflection. 
The success of Music for Airports can only be appreciated by listening to it in a variety of moods and settings. Then you are likely struck by how the music allows your mind the space to breathe, and in doing so, adapts itself to your mood. The notion of 'space' is key in these compositions, though it requires a musicologist of considerable virtuosity to break down the precise mechanics of how it works. Perhaps no other artist of comparable stature or impact has taken such a deliberately intellectual approach to music as Eno. 
In his original liner notes, he wrote: "Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting." 
Eno's vision of Ambient Music both suggests and accurately reflects the place of fine pictorial art in public or private space. When we hang a painting in a room, we are not focused upon it at every given moment whilst occupying that room. Sometimes we might pause to focus on the picture, seek out new and different ideas from it; other times we may glance at it in passing, or ignore it completely. But even when we block it out of our consciousness entirely, we have a subconscious awareness of it. The room and our feelings within that room would change if it were absent, and this is the effect that Eno imagined for Ambient Music. Present when present; present when absent. 
Eno has largely been given credit for inventing 'Ambient Music', most specifically through the release of Music for Airports. Certainly though, the likes of John Cage, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass explored similar terrain, and no one person ever invents an entire genre of music by themselves. And with the electronic music explosion of the late '80s and early '90s, Ambient gained a new and unparalleled currency, and by common consensus the greatest Ambient work of that era is Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, a confection produced by Dr. Alex Patterson under the moniker of the Orb. 
Yet the differences between Music for Airports and Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld are striking. Both are masterworks, yet the former is without question a more purely Ambient Music. By way of it's many samples, Adventures... offers an associative ambience. It encourages your mind to wander (the album is, quite literally, 'a trip'), but also provides suggestive direction as to where you should go. For example, the sampled sound of a car or motorcycle repeatedly passing from speaker to speaker automatically limits your field of reference and association. It grounds you in a contemporary civilization. The area of suggestion may still be vast, but it is clearly finite. In contrast, there is nothing on Music for Airports which is so specific. Not to suggest that one work is 'better' than the other, only to point out an evolutionary aspect of the music. 
One measure of greatness for works of art is whether they meet the goals set by their creator (providing, of course, the goals were meretricious enough to begin with). The English journalist Paul Morley, who has written about as well as one can write about Eno's Ambient works, suggests: 
"...the music can evoke deeply personal reactions in different listeners: a sense of alienation, an expression of pure energy, a feeling of panic, of being wrapped in warm blankets, of flying through heaven or a melancholy made even more touching by it's restraint and control." 
Which, again, confirms the intended effect of the artist. The individual pieces themselves are, by necessity, minimalist in composition (which is not to say that they are simple compositions), and Modernist in manner. But could there be a broader encompassing of emotion from a single source than that described by Morley? It is as though a blank page awaited only a series of authors to write upon it. 
And so to another measure of artistic greatness: how well a work ages. It's here that an irony reveals itself, since to most appearances Music for Airports began life radically out of step with its own time. As it turns out, this was simply a result of it being out in the stratosphere, waiting for time to catch up -- and who were we to know that? Not all of us are born music prophets. All that can be said with any certainty is that having passed its 25th anniversary, Music for Airports, as both an album and a concept, shows little sign of aging yet.
John Davidson / popMATTERS