Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Holger Czukay ‎– On The Way To The Peak Of Normal (1981)

Genre: Electronic, Rock
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Welt-Rekord, EMI, Grönland Records

1.   Ode To Perfume
2.   Fragrance
3.   On The Way To The Peak Of Normal
4.   Witches' Multiplication Table
5.   Two Bass Shuffle
6.   Hiss 'N' Listen

Drums – Jaki Liebezeit
Lyrics By – Holger Czukay
Music By – Holger Czukay
Producer – Holger Czukay
Vocals, Guitar, Organ, Vocoder, Bass, French Horn, Flute, Mouth Organ, Congas, Edited By – Holger Czukay

When ex-Can bassist Holger Czukay recorded the Les Vampyrettes EP in 1980, with acclaimed producer and occasional musical collaborator Conny Plank, Krautrock was defunct and Neue Deutsche Welle in its earliest, exciting and germinating phase. Holger Czukay, however, was arguably at the peak of his abnormal powers at this time, having just released the album Movies, whose sound collages and adventures in shortwave radio brilliantly anticipated the move towards sampling later in the 1980s. These vinyl reissues, however, aren't mere historical artifacts, stepping stones towards subsequent developments. They bounce with the same ingenious, cubic strangeness out of the speakers today as they did over 30 years ago.

That Czukay and Plank were cleverly negotiating a space between 70s experimentalism and 80s post-punk is evident on Les Vampyrettes' opener 'Biomutaten', whose ticking, reverberating bassline reminds of 23 Skidoo's 'Porno Bass', released shortly after this. Czukay says that he "intended a new series of special singles called 'horror with comfort," 'Biomutanten' is conceived as evoking a scenario where "a car driver got a motor problem next to a slimy garbage place from where he got attacked by yet unknown monsters."

Yet with its clanking bicycle chain effects and shadowy field of sound events, it and 'Menetekel' transcend such any potential horrorshow banality. As a producer, Plank was so vivid in his expert, improvised studio realisations that he singlehandedly added a sheen of timelessness to experimental German music in the 1970s and 80s. He does so here also. As for Czukay, he adds a Surrealist sensibility in the way he places elements – like Dali, recurring motifs (that French Horn) shimmer weightlessly in an ever-familiar, ever unfamiliar, vivid yet obscure dreamscape.

'Witches' Multiplication Table' (with Czukay on 'Cemetery synthesizer violin') also featured on Czukay's 1981 album On The Way To The Peak Of Normal, which he recorded with the new German group S.Y.P.H. Three of its tracks are reissued here on vinyl; the title track, plus 'Ode To Perfume' and 'Fragrance'. As the titles suggest, it is as if Czukay were somehow looking to break the bounds of the senses in music, create a somehow olfactory experience.

His bass buzzes aromatically on 'Fragrance', as spritely elements luxuriate and mutate, vanish and reappear in the mix, an on-the-spot new vocabulary for music-making which still feels untouched and barely spoken today. 'Ode To Perfume', meanwhile, with its opening volley of 'sampled' vocals tumbling into an enigmatic void, feels like the sort of thing Can might have recorded had they not become so jaded and disheartened in the late 70s prior to their demise – Jaki Liebezeit plays on these tracks as if to underpin the point.
David Stubbsa / The Quietus

Cleo Sol ‎– Rose In The Dark (2020)

Genre: Jazz, Funk / Soul, Pop
Format: CD, Vinyl, FLAC
Label: Forever Living Originals

01.   One Love
02.   Why Don't You
03.   Young Love
04.   Rewind
05.   Rose In The Dark
06.   When I'm In Your Arms
07.   Sideways
08.   Butterfly
09.   Sure Of Myself
10.   I Love You
11.   Her Light

Producer – Inflo

Among the glints of light in this overcast year, one particularly bright one has been the state of British soul music. Not just in the sense of good records released, although there’ve been plenty of those – but something significantly deeper: a contextualisation, an acknowledgement and a pride in the rich history and unique talents of these islands.

Among the glints of light in this overcast year, one particularly bright one has been the state of British soul music. Not just in the sense of good records released, although there’ve been plenty of those – but something significantly deeper: a contextualisation, an acknowledgement and a pride in the rich history and unique talents of these islands. This manifested in things like the BBC showing a long overdue documentary on The Real Thing, the announcement of Sade’s catalogue getting the full deluxe box set treatment, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock (re)schooling a mainstream audience in that particularly British blending of reggae with aspirational late Seventies soul.

All of this reminds us that this country’s black and multicultural acts are vital parts of our whole culture. The fact that the stories and art of Sade and Soul II Soul, Cymande and Nightmares on Wax haven’t previously been given as much weight as those of The Clash, Kate Bush, Radiohead or the bloody Libertines impoverishes us all. A clip that did the rounds this year of young Morrissey and George Michael – the latter a true product and champion of the British soul scene – talking brings home hard how much effort was put into reinforcing the fraudulent notion that Morrissey’s arch indie poise somehow made him a greater intellect and more serious artist than George. That accumulated weight of prejudice is what is having to be undone now.

As well as cultural documentation of the past, a wave of great, individualist new artists are fighting to be understood. Aided and abetted by a new generation of young jazz players as well as hip hop / grime / electronica production, Mahalia, Children Of Zeus, Evabee, Arlo Parks IAMDDB, Poppy Ajudah, [ K S R ], Lapis, Greentea Peng, Kay Young and more are letting their own voices and accents be heard, without having to play into standard industry categories like “urban” or “alternative”. This is music driven by the pleasure principle but with artistic, lyrical and political heft too; from major label pop stars (Jorja Smith) to the avowedly independent (Joel Culpepper) great records and powerful videos are being made expressly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, for example.

And rising unstoppably through all this has been the mysterious collective Sault and their associated acts, Michael Kiwanuka, Little Simz and Cleo Sol. With four albums in under two years, rich in diverse influences and fierce political engagement, Sault have deservedly topped many of this year’s best album lists. But Sol – who sings on both Sault’s releases this year – has also made an album that is easily the equal of either of them. It seemingly features the same personnel as Sault, notably producer Inflo, but it is absolutely an album framing a single personality and vision. Where Sault pepper their Seventies-inspired soul-funk with Afrobeat, postpunk and angry manifestos, mirroring a world in chaos, Rose in the Dark is a soul album through and through, with Sol’s meditative lyrics and voice reminding us of the individual trying to make sense of – or just getting by amidst – that chaos.

The heart of the sound, as with Sault, is the rich, string embellished psychedelic soul of Rotary Connection and Norman Whitfield era Temptations, though here there's more of a lovers rock pulse too. But it is distinctly modern; this is music distinctly in the wake of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Solange’s A Place at the Table. And the way other old stuff – kitschy Sixties movie themes and northern soul, say – is interpolated suggests both hip hop (A Tribe Called Quest, Lauryn Hill) beats and even Portishead’s arrangements. The grown up confidence in blurring the personal, the political, the sexual and the everyday in the lyrics is reflected in the subtle power of the music; there are no big choruses, and Sol’s voice is velvet throughout, but there’s absolute assurance that the hooks embedded and woven through the grooves are plenty to make it addictive. It is a masterpiece.
Joe Muggs / theartsdesk

Gigi ‎– Illuminated Audio (2003)

Style: Ambient, Dub 
Format: CD, Vinyl, FLAC
Label: Palm Pictures

01.   Abay
02.   Tew Ante Sew
03.   Mengedegna
04.   Kahn
05.   Sew Argen
06.   Nafeken
07.   Abet Wubet
08.   Guramayle
09.   Gud Fella
10.   Guramayle (Slight Return)

Credits: Remix – Bill Laswell Written-By – Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw

-- This is a very good record by one of the world's most innovative musicians . . . but that musician is not Ethiopian singer/songwriter Ejigayehu "Gigi" Shibabaw. Gigi's first album, which came out in 2001, was rather a masterpiece in its own way, with stirring songs in Amharic and an all-star cast brought together by producer Bill Laswell. Now, two years later, Laswell has recreated Gigi's record as a full-scale dub production -- or, as he calls it, a "reproduction and mix translation" -- and it manages to recast the beautiful sounds and textures of the original in a brand-new framework, an ambient dub album that actually swings.

-- I disagree. Not only is Illuminated Audio a mere shadow of the original record on which it is based, it is a work of cultural appropriation. Clearly, Laswell can't sell any records on his own, so he tacks on Gigi's name to move copies of what amounts to a vanity project for him, a tribute to himself, a record where most traces of Gigi have been erased, dubbed right out of existence. How can you have a Gigi album on which Gigi barely exists?

-- Oh, calm down. That's all part of dub tradition. When a dub version is approved (and this was certainly approved by Gigi, she's quoted in the press release and everything), the original version becomes clay for a new sculptor, raw material to be done with as the dub artist sees fit. And, considering that Laswell was the original producer and arranger of Gigi's record, it's not like he's just sailing in and messing around with someone else's work. Gigi was a record by Gigi, but it was also a record by Laswell, and Dereje Makonnen, Henry Threadgill, Herbie Hancock, Karsh Kale, Amina Claudine Myers, Tony Cedras, Hamid Drake, and a whole bunch of other people from a lot of different places in the world. What, are you mad because they weren't all listed on the cover too?

-- No, I'm just wondering why Laswell didn't have his own name on this. When King Tubby or Lee Perry did dub versions of other people's work, they released it under their own names. So why not here? Is it because Laswell's "mix translations" of Santana and Hendrix didn't sell as well as Gigi's album? Or is it because he feels guilty about jacking all her original ideas and taking out her vocals and calling the result his own? Either way, this should be called Bill Laswell's Illuminated Audio: Gigi Remixed, or something like that.

-- I'll grant you that; there's no way this should be called a Gigi album. But you're being far too harsh on Laswell with your mischaracterization of this project. There's still plenty of Gigi on this record: all the songs are hers, you can recognize the original melodies and grooves on every single "new" track, and many of the new tracks still have her vocals on them -- it's just that they are no longer the main focus of every single song. That's the way dub works; songs are remade by being broken and put back together in different ways. Look at "Nafekeñ": It's still the same song, but now when Gigi's singing comes through it does so in little sneaky ways, peeking around the corners of the song, as it were. But just because Graham Haynes' flugelhorn is now the lead instrument doesn't make Laswell some kind of cultural imperialist. Do we say the same about Tubby or Scratch or Mikey Dread?

-- No, but why is Gigi's voice the main subtraction from every one of these ten tracks? Without the voice, there are no lyrics; without the lyrics, there is no Gigi. Sure, it's all ostensibly based on her melodies -- but you know as well as I do that dub plays fast and loose with melodic structure. What I'm saying is that these "reproductions" are mostly just monuments built to Laswell's skill at arrangement. Check out "Abet Wubet", for example. The original was a clever allegory about how Ethiopians who wear simple shemma garments are actually being quite revolutionary, how it's a slap in the face of "Western" fashion. In this new version, Gigi's actual voice is gone (some backing vocals remain) -- therefore, the song is no longer about shemma or Ethiopian self-pride or anything. Instead, what we get is the big fat bassline (played by Laswell, naturally), snippets here and there of other instruments (arranged by Laswell), and dub effects (produced by Laswell). Talk about your Western fashions!

-- Okay, I have to stop you right there. If Laswell is such an evil scheming Westerner (and don't you really mean "American" when you say that?), then why is he even bothering with African or world music at all? Because he loves it, that's why. Bill Laswell is a brave soul, a traveler, a collaborator. It's not like he's Paul Simon or Sting, traveling the globe in search of a new form to rip off every few years -- he works with musicians, they create new things together. And it's likely that this dub version of Gigi's record will bring a few more people to the original; is that a bad thing?

-- Certainly not. But let me just say that to do a "new" version of an entire album implies that there is something wrong with the original. I know that Illuminated Audio is supposed to refer to the illuminated manuscripts that comprise the major part of Ethiopian art. Which pisses me off a little, because it's just kind of a condescending title. But let's look at the title a little more closely. What, exactly, needed to be "illuminated" about Gigi? Nothing! I admit that I'm just playing with conspiracy theories here. I just wish that this was a new Gigi record instead of a warmed-over version of an old one.

-- Well, that's your problem right there. There isn't a new Gigi record yet, so this will have to do. And yeah, it's not as "original" or as "authentic" as the original, whatever those two poor overworked words mean. But come on -- isn't it pretty nonetheless? Listen to the way those synthesizers float on "Gud Fella", only to introduce Gigi's soaring muted voice and those bubbling congas and talking drums and those guitar washes and (yes) the bass, throbbing portentously beneath it all. Check out "Tew Ante Sew", which is now officially the funkiest thing in the world, with its approximately 14 different rhythm patterns all intersecting with some acid-rock Afrobeat guitar! When a Wayne Shorter or Threadgill sax solo floats to the top of a mix, when Cedras' accordion line becomes the focus of a song rather than just another element, isn't that incredibly dope?

-- See, I'd just rather hear the original works. I guess I don't blame Laswell, ultimately; he's not evil or scheming or anything. I just really love Gigi's songs, and I don't see what was so wrong with them in the first place so that they needed to be all re-dubbed at all, especially when the result is (to my ears) excessively ambient, cautious to the point of not exactly existing, and just not worth that many listens.

-- Well, if we're talking about ears, mine dig this a lot. It's a new work of art based on another work of art (with permission), it's got moments of incredible beauty and moments of strangeness and fun, and it's really excellent music for long car trips and for the bedroom. In my universe, you can have both Gigi and Illuminated Audio. And I choose both.

-- And that's fine, but I don't. Wouldn't you rather just have a new Gigi or Tabla Beat Science record, with new material from both Gigi and Laswell?

-- Uh, yeah.

-- Me too. At least we agree on something.
Matt Cibula / pop MATTERS