Monthly Archives: April 2011

Battles — “Fantasy”

I have a curious relationship with avant-garde music, in that I prefer reading about it than listening to it. Steve Reich and John Cage may be jolly bright and conceptual people, but their playfulness operates on a different plane from my brain.

Battles, the math rock supergroup, now reduced to a trio after the sudden departure of sort-of-frontman Tyondai Braxton, are to release a long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Mirrored. It is called Gloss Drop, and it apparently shows a more accessible side of the band, unafraid of poppy hooks. This doesn’t mean it will get played on the radio. Back in 2007, when I first heard “Atlas” (it was iTunes’s free single of the week, as I recall), I thought this was exactly the kind of cybernetic glam-rock people outside of alternative music might fall for. I suspect I was mistaken.

Anyway, way before Mirrored, Battles were a pretty difficult band to get your head around. But if you gave them more than even the time of day, they repaid you with the most skilfully arranged barrage of bewildering time-signatures, insect-like guitar interplay, and exotic noises. And, at their most avant-garde, onto the end of 2006’s EP C / B EP, they tacked on a nine-minute bender called “Fantasy”.

“Fantasy” takes as its single building block, a sample of Braxton beat-boxing, but with it, it creates an entire black hole that turns nine minutes into a lifetime. The song is austere, and doesn’t fool you with red herrings or stems of melodies that dissipate. No, “Fantasy” is relentlessly rhythmic, pummelling you into oblivion, or an aneurysm. Occasionally, a snippet of the sample gets locked into a kind of feedback loop. At other times, there are microscopic fragments of real drum sounds. Eventually, you really don’t care. Strangely, as painful as it gets, you never want the song to stop, either.

This is the age-old custom of the drum circle, updated for the ProTools generation, and it’s unstoppable. More to the point, if you step back and forget that it was crafted by a group of guys who had spent the previous two decades making music in the basic tradition of rock, you could easily confuse “Fantasy” for a work by Reich or some other notoriously difficult avant-garde composer.


There is an excellent interview with the remaining members of Battles here, written up by Simon Jay Catling on The Quietus.

Jessica 6

I liked Hercules And Love Affair a lot, from the moment I heard “Roar”, right up until they released their second album, Blue Songs, when it all turned a bit rote. The best part of their first, self-titled, album was the sense that you were listening to a real-life band, making disco like it used to be made, to be played out in Studio 54. Come Blue Songs, and this sensation vanished, into the pulsating streams of Detroit.

Lucky, then, that three of the people who made their début such good fun have formed their own outfit, dubbed Jessica 6. Led by the transfixing vocalist Nomi Ruiz, this trio (flanked by Morgan Wiley on keys, and Andrew Raposo on bass) trade in a bleepy kind of house that’s equally indebted to P-Funk and disco. On teaser track “Prisoner of Love”, which also spotlights a guest turn from Antony Hegarty, the way the chorus vocals repeating the titular hook are stacked so high is straight outta the songbook of the greats. Think Chic, in a good way.

Maybe they don’t have the strength in depth that H&LA mainman Andy Butler displayed on the deeper cuts of his first album. Both “Prisoner of Love” and another teaser, “White Horse”, could perhaps be called skin-deep. But the unexpected breakdown a minute before the end of “Prisoner of Love” gave me second thoughts. And so I’m definitely considering the idea that their album, See The Light, could become this year’s Hercules And Love Affair.

See The Light is released on Peacefrog Records on 6th June; “Prisoner Of Love” can be downloaded here.

Via the Guardian, I bring you an uncomfortable video assembled by Friendly Fires for their new single and Pala-opener, “Live Those Dreams Tonight”.

Frontman Ed Macfarlane has combed YouTube for footage of nineties ravers chewing their faces off, padded it out with scans of naïvely-designed flyers from the same era, and has in the process probably kicked off the latest unstoppable internet meme.

But don’t forget, the substance of the day wasn’t all bad news. To quote James Murphy,

“Goodminton was invented, by LCD Soundsystem, in Ibiza, on MDMA.”

Gerard Smith — Epitaph

Yesterday, one of art rock’s most humble players passed away. Gerard Smith, who contributed bass and keyboards to three TV On The Radio albums, and toured with them from 2004 to 2010, fought a hard battle with lung cancer, which he appeared to be winning, but in the end he was overcome.

Smith was the last member to join the TV On The Radio family, and was discovered by frontman Tunde Adebimpe on the subways of New York City, where he busked. Unlike the average troubadour, Smith excelled in the studio too, and once said he was happiest when seated, tapping away at electronics. Indeed, on stage, he lurked in the background, playing a bass guitar rested in his lap when he was not fiddling with the keyboards that always surrounded him.

On the three albums to which he contributed—2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain, 2008’s Dear Science, and this year’s Nine Types Of Light—Smith’s presence was always felt rather than seen. An occasional rumble of bass; a twinkling piano figure: the sounds that completed the band’s tapestry of noise.

His most vital appearance must surely be his playing of the electric sitar on “Wash The Day Away”, which closed the band’s magnum opus, Return To Cookie Mountain. The song features rising flutes, raging percussion, and a mass of harmonising vocals, but everything is built upon Smith’s droning sitar, the only instrument which lasts the distance. As the song collapses in on itself amidst white noise and a shower of electronic rainfall, the echoing sitar finally expires.

I wish there had been a similarly exultant end to the Gerard Smith story—but the world has a way of being cruellest to those who have done it the least harm.

The fourth album from Arctic Monkeys has a front cover. And, you might say…

… it sucks.

Actually this is very clever, if you think about it carefully. The album’s title is inviting the listener to peer in, without preconceptions based on art production, photography, visual signals etc. In that context, such a pristine, unblemished design is probably perfect.

“I didn’t need to have the fanciest equipment but I knew what I liked and what was important for getting the sounds I wanted to get.”

I just finished reading an excellent interview about producing records, with Eric Broucek, who used to be the in-house engineer for DFA Records, at their Plantain Studio.

 “A lot of what I do here is drilling holes in really expensive things.”

By and by, through the breadcrumb trail, I also chanced upon this rather charming interview with Jared Ellison, who is the studio’s in-house tech, I guess supplanting the often-busy Gavin Russom, he of druidlike appearance.

Both pieces are highly recommended for anyone who, like me, enjoys dreaming about being a record producer, and enjoys vicariously living this very geeky life.

The National — “Exile Vilify”

On a list of unlikely pair-ups, The National writing a song for a video-game about teleportation must rank rather highly.

Then again, Portal is one of those games that even luddites like myself think is pretty mind-bendingly cool. The idea of being trapped in some kind of training facility/laboratory by a malevolent artificial intelligence, forced into beaming yourself across and between rooms, armed only with a gun that creates rifts in the fabric of space-time. It sounds like a concept for a Yeasayer video treatment.

What Portal, and by extension Portal 2, doesn’t really sound like is five-odd minutes of suburban piano moping, of the kind for which I love The National so much. This is a really haunting, beautiful song, with the odd burst of foreboding kettle drums, and a soaring, weeping string arrangement. Near the end, there’s a twinkly upward stream of piano in a higher register, which brings the song to a surprising conclusion.

I’m assuming the song doesn’t actually play during gameplay, because that would be super-odd, and somewhat out of place alongside the procedurally-generated music that the game is known for conjuring as you pass through it.

More surprisingly, according to Wikipedia,

The National had expressed interest to Bug Music, their publishing label, in doing music for Valve, which the label forwarded on to Valve in discussing other music opportunities for the game. Valve and Bug Music identified The National would fit well into Portal 2, as their “raw and emotive music evokes the same visceral reactions from its listeners that Portal does from its players” according to Bug Music’s spokesperson Julia Betley.

How bizzarre. Well, I don’t want to invoke the ire of gamers across the planet, but I really do find this perplexing. Are the Dessners on Xbox Live too? Does Matt Berninger set high-scores while on tour? Do the Devendorfs rule at Grifball? I find these propositions unlikely.

But what do I know—I don’t play video-games, after all.

From the archive: Sigur Rós — Westminster Methodist Central Hall (24/06/08)

A long time ago, on a previous blog, I wrote about going to see Sigur Rós in concert, in a unique venue. Looking back on it now, I reckon it’s due a re-heat in the microwave of the blogosphere…

Sigur Rós
Sigur Rós at Westminster Methodist Central Hall — Flickr user gideonb

Concerts coinciding with album releases are often filled with a special kind of buzzing atmosphere: for the band, there is a desire to please an obviously devoted crowd with some highlights from a stunning back-catalogue whilst also giving an airing to some new songs; for the audience, it’s always a thrill to see a band who have just spent most a year cooped up in a variety of studios, suddenly unleashing their magic once again, on the road. For Sigur Rós yesterday night, this special atmosphere was intensified by a beautifully intimate venue –Westminster Methodist Central Hall – where even those seated at the back of the balcony could be treated to a close encounter with one of the most emotionally raw and unadulterated bands touring today. With Radiohead performing on the other side of London in the detached environment of Victoria Park, it was clear that here in Westminster, we could be in for an evening’s entertainment that was alternately charming, exhilarating, deafening and heart-wrenching. Continue reading From the archive: Sigur Rós — Westminster Methodist Central Hall (24/06/08)

The two tracks released by Radiohead for Record Store Day have been uploaded onto Soundcloud by the enterprising ianbhoy. Both tracks, recording at the same time as the songs which made it onto The King Of Limbs, are pretty gloomy, electronic and shifting.

Jody ‘Fingers’ Finch — Jack Your Big Booty

Today’s unavoidably memorable older cut comes from 1987, and Jody ‘Fingers’ Finch‘s infectious “Jack Your Big Booty”, here enjoyed in its BHQ No Acid Vocal Remix form, which was released in 2009.

For over seven minutes, there is just one lyric, cut up and repeated. Under it, the beat is thumping and atavistic. About four minutes in, some spare squirking sound effects surface, after which the pace picks up fractionally, and the percussion begins to clatter away in a less restrained way. This soon lets up. Derrick Carter‘s minimalism is indefatigable.

The original version runs at a faster pace, and the vocal line has a faint plate reverb that gives the impression of being sung into a vast, but padded, chamber. If anything, the effect is even more rooted in Chicago—the collision and intermingling of voices that rises halfway through is unquestioning and unstoppable. As in the remix, the lack of any melodic instrument creates an empty ocean of negative space, which allows the 808’s hi-hat to really ring out.

As has been pointed out here, the eighteen-year old Finch wrote this song in honour of “his friend’s mother’s backside”.

The remix has found some fame, in the nether reaches of Friendly Fires‘ excellent Suck My Deck mix, released last year for the London club promoter Bugged Out!. On the mix, “Jack Your Big Booty” rolls inexorably into B.D.I.’s “City & Industry”, which is comparatively luxuriant, with its Siren-like octave-jumping synth, and warmongering percussion.

Even more recently, the remix is featured as the opening track on Derrick Carter’s Fabric 56 mix. Unfortunately, according to Resident Advisor, “this mix doesn’t work”, but it might still be worth a listen.

For lovers of Chicago house’s primal roots, Jody ‘Fingers’ Finch’s track is one to check out.♦