Tag Archives: steve reich

James Murphy’s Law

It starts with the crowd showing their appreciation. Slowly, a rhythm settles in. Then, a gut-churning bass line and a central instrumental motif guaranteed to make bodies writhe. It’s The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers”—the first DFA single, with James Murphy behind the boards.

And it’s pretty much David Bowie’s “Love Is Lost”, too, albeit spun out over a ten-minute remix masterminded by, yes, James Murphy. Continue reading James Murphy’s Law

Hebden’s pink patch

Loose-limbed percussion, creeping polyrhythms, cavernous bass. Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) has constructed an unexpectedly cohesive quasi-album from the string of isolated singles he’s released since 2010’s There Is Love In You. The lightly flanged guitars are back, with tasteful vengeance; new to the scene is the occasional foray into kosmische territories. These songs are long, but they don’t overestimate the listener’s attention span. New textures swirl in like migratory birds; on the closing track, there is even ersatz birdsong. Continue reading Hebden’s pink patch

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.

Scary monsters

People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.

Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.

Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.