Various Artists: The Rough Guide To Gospel Blues

When we think of gospel music, we tend to think of one of two distinct types: the shiny massed voices of European-style choirs, their too-perfect harmonies backgrounded by gentle and classical instrumentation, their clean and pure sounds an attempt at replicating the beauty of the celestial city; or the gGBrit and soul of African-American-style choirs, their voices full of life and edge, their instrumentation more ‘rock’ than classical, their atmosphere passionate and sometimes even raw. Even today, both types of gospel dominate our perception of the genre; just look at churchgoers singing mass et al, or the continuing popularity of artists like Mavis Staples and The Blind Boys of Alabama. But the good folks at World Music Network have shone a light on an obscure third type with the release of The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues (a type that seems to be undergoing a bit of a revival, considering the recent release of Alligator Record’s God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Will Johnson.)

And what amazing music they have unearthed for us – rough, dirty, soulful and heartfelt.
Of course, the blues and Christianity have had a long relationship: think of the legend of Robert Johnson, and songs like ‘Crossroads,’ ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ and ‘Me And The Devil Blues.’ And it wasn’t just country-blues artists who sang about God and the Devil – most of the pioneers of electric blues were Christian, even if they weren’t practising. But what makes The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues unique is that most of the music within is the antithesis of the traditional blues approach to the Christian god. The god that Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf et al sang about was more the Old Testament God – they sang about how he would punish them for their sins, or about the judgement that he had waiting for them. These were harrowing songs, the artists begging God to forgive them or cursing him for forgetting them. In contrast, most of the music on The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues is joyous and uplifting. The songs that make it up tend to praise God, to celebrate his love, despite the fact that many of the featured artists – Skip James, Bessie Smith, Blind Boy Fuller, Bukka White, Memphis Minnie and so on – were equally comforting making music that celebrated the more earthy side of life.

Reverend Gary Davis’ ‘I Am the Light’ is an up-tempo, ragtime-ish jig, with Davis’ typically complicated guitar-work acting as a one-man version of a foot stomping Southern congregation. Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Praying On The Old Camp Ground’ is a more subdued affair; the story of a campground preacher, Hurt’s weary voice and airy guitar make us feel like we’re right there with the preacher himself. ‘I’ll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)’ by Blind Roosevelt Graves & Brother is a more typical African-American gospel affair: call and response vocals, a simple and catchy melody, cyclic chords, train-engine percussion. These three songs set a kind-of template for the rest of the album: the 25 other songs (25! And by 25 other artists!) tend to be either ragtime-ish jigs, subdued narratives or something approaching what we tend to think of as African-American gospel. The blues is what holds these songs together, what makes The Rough Guide to Gospel Blues a cohesive whole. It’s the sense of a hard life well lived that’s invested in each song; the solo acoustic guitar and the gruff voice and the thin production; the sheer amount of real feeling on display. It’s a perfect record for blues and gospel fans alike.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 19/7/2016)


Rapoon: Songs from the End of the World

Song from the End of the World is a particularly apt title for this collection of ambient drones and soundscapes, so downbeat is its tone and so glacial is its nature. However, the end that we assume is envisaged by English sound-artist Rapoon is one that comes with a whimper rather than a bang – Song from the EnRPd of the World conjures a feeling of resigned acceptance regarding the apocalypse of all apocalypses, rather than one of furious denial, melodramatic pity or unhinged self-destruction.

What makes this record more remarkable is that Rapoon manages to convey the same sense of dread, wrongness and inevitably contained within the real-life story that inspired it: the recent decision by French scientists to revive a dormant mega-virus that had been found in the permafrost of the Russian Arctic, where it had sat undiscovered and undisturbed for more 30,000 years. Aside from the obvious terror that such a decision evokes in us, it also heralded further horrors: it opened the world’s eyes to the potential for climate change to awaken more dangerous viruses locked away in areas of the far north, where frozen soil or permafrost is rapidly melting. So far, so end of the world…

However, rather than tell this story through spoken word or lyrics, Rapoon takes a non-narrative approach and musically and sonically expresses our emotional responses to these nightmarish decisions and scenarios, and intertwines the results with heavily textured soundscape/soundtrack pieces that aurally paint a picture of the post-apocalyptic end-point of these decisions and scenarios. Sometimes, his oh-so-slowly evolving drones seem like the heartbeat of the world, the changing of the seasons, the passing of untold years – as if we’ve been taken to a place where time is measured in centuries and millennia, rather than hours and days, and the end of the world is actually just part of a cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

Sometimes, his pieces seem like audio snippets of the few survivors living out their days, the sound quality ragged and raw and grainy, as if overheard from afar or delivered via radio. Sometimes, they seem like field recordings of the empty cities, deserted lands and frozen wastes of this end-point, a place where synthetic sounds and industrial clangs and recordings of real-life wildernesses collide and comingle and create something unsettlingly new. Taking Song from the End of the World apart song-by-song is really beside the point – it functions as a whole, with each track bleeding into the next, and its moods and atmospheres seem designed to follow a plan. All that needs to be said is that if you’re after something that’s dark, down and nightmarish without being abrasive or noisy, then this is the thing for you.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 25/5/2016)

Faith I Branko: Gypsy Lover

Before we begin, a few disclaimers are necessary. Firstly, I’ll be using the term Roma rather Gypsy throughout this review, as Gypsy is often seen as a pejorative term for the Roma people (even though Faith I Branko include it in the title of their album). Secondly, having a little bit of Roma in my blood, FIBI am incredibly biased to the incredibly varied music that they make. With that out of the way, let’s just get on with it…

The story behind Faith I Branko’s Gypsy Lover is almost as beautiful as the music that they make. A collaboration between Serbian “gypsy violin maestro” Branko and English circus performer and accordionist Faith, this debut was born from the developing friendship between these two performers, in which, without a shared language, their music became their method of communication. As their friendship deepened and their musical simpatico intensified, so did their feelings for each other. Sadly, after months on end of playing and composing, Faith returned home to her separate life of touring and performing with the traditional English circus troupe Giffords Circus. But fate played its part: when Faith eventually returned to Serbia, she reconnected with Branko and, despite the problems that life tends to throw up, they eventually married.

Gypsy Lover tells the story of their meeting and their marriage, and how their love for each other helped them overcome every obstacle. If the music was rock rather than Roma, you’d probably call it a concept album, but such a word doesn’t do justice to the essential truth of their story and the perseverance they showed that finally delivered them happiness.
As for the music itself: well, wild is probably the closest word that sums it up.

Gypsy Lover has at its heart the swing-jazz style of Roma music, the style that is probably most familiar to Western listeners: think violin and acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and accordion, an up-tempo pace that borders on the frenetic, and a distinct lack of vocals for the majority of the songs. It is joyous, passionate, boisterous, fiery and spirited. Opening track ‘Bumbar’ sets the scene, Branko’s lively and scratchy violin something that Paganini would have been proud of, Faith’s nimble accordion accompaniment providing a beautiful bedrock, especially so considering that these are the only two instruments featured. ‘Fa Di Do’ messes with this format nicely, adding a drumkit and a fat horn section into the mix, so that the track ends up feeling like a hybrid of their style and that of traditional Roma brass bands that can be found all over the Balkans. ‘Sister’ (one of the few vocal tracks) tells in witty fashion the story of Faith’s friend Jannah, who crossed the ocean to attend their wedding, and is set to the same kind of breakneck accompaniment as ‘Fa Di Do.’

And so on it goes, each track more intense than the next, apart from the few obligatory tortured torch songs, all of which will break your heart and make you cry. ‘Valjevo’ is perhaps the most moving of these – it tells the story, both musically and vocally, of the troubles they faced prior to the wedding, and is as wrenching as anything I’ve heard and yet paradoxically contains a burning coal of hope. If you have a place in your heart for Roma music, then Gypsy Lover is a must. It even includes an oh-so-fashionable remix as its final track, giving the album the kind-of cross-cultural atmosphere reminiscent of other Roma-inspired bands making waves in the Western world.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 10/5/2016)


Various Artists: The Rough Guide To A World of Psychedelia

I’d wager that anyone with even the slightest interest in unusual music would have a soft spot for psychedelic rock. From the dark whimsy of The Beatles and early Pink Floyd to the freaked-out weirdness of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart; from the country-fried trips of The Byrds and the outer space explorations of Hawkwind to the melancholy strangeness of The Flaming Lips and the transcendWOPental intensity of Animal Collective; from the acid drenched blues-rock of Cream and Jimi Hendrix to the sheer grunt of Free and Led Zeppelin; from the roots-based jams of The Grateful Dead and The United States of America to the fuzz-rock funk of Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone; from the mish-mash of genres practised by our own King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard to the krautrock of Can; from the garage-influenced grooves of Grand Funk Railroad to the punk-inspired insanity of The Butthole Surfers and the stoner-esque rock of Dead Meadow and Endless Boogie; psychedelic rock covers so much ground and stretches itself so wide that it might best be described as an aesthetic rather than a genre.

However, there is something that the above bands and artists have in common: they all hail from Western countries, and the music they make almost always betrays the influence of Western musical styles. There is some good news, though – if you love psychedelic rock and its varied offshoots and yet have been hankering for something outside these Westerns forms, then World Music Network’s The Rough Guide to a World of Psychedelia will open your eyes and blow in your mind in equal measure.

This compilation, featuring 17 different non-Western artists and bands from almost as many countries, is the perfect introduction to global psychedelic rock. Some of the songs are almost like mutant versions of the style born in the West: the particular artists and bands operating this way feature a standard line-up of guitars, bass, drums and vocals, with the songs built upon a foundation of blues-rock. However, the overall effect is incredibly different, as the music they produce is typically filtered through a non-Western approach to rhythm, form and melody, with the vocals more often than not sung in the artists’ native language rather than English.

On the other hand, some of the songs are truly hybridised, the artists and bands in this case combining instruments native to their specific homelands with traditional Western instruments: think sitars and fuzz guitars; pan-pipes and flutes; tablas and drumkits; thumb-pianos and electric keyboards; timbales, claves and congas and cowbells, chimes and shakers. Songs of this style are the true gems, acting as a musical reflection of our multicultural, globalised and interconnected world. In the end, words can’t really describe the richness, weirdness and inspirational difference of The Rough Guide to a World of Psychedelia. You just need to get yourself a copy, turn it up loud, and lose yourself in its magic. You won’t regret it…

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 10/5/2016)


Birds of Chicago: Real Midnight

Let’s face it – we all love some kind of American music. You might hate their politics, their culture, their imperialist tendencies, their foreign policy or their sense of self-importance, but I defy you to look at the following list and tell me that there isn’t a piece of music belonging to one of these American genres that doesn’t move you: blues, jazz, rock, country, soul, swing, funk, hip-hBOCop, rap, psychedelic rock, r&b, disco, metal, gospel, rockabilly, punk. That’s right, each of these genres was either wholly created by American musicians or expanded and furthered by them, and each genre continues to influence the musical sphere. Instead of stagnating, they have evolved since their inception and still remain relevant to contemporary audiences – with the possible exception of swing, disco and gospel. This last is a terrible shame, because much of the modern gospel music that is out there is beautiful and moving, and can act as a panacea to our overstimulated, hyper-saturated, 24/7 times.

Real Midnight is an exceptional example of this. The latest release from Birds of Chicago – a collective centred around singer Allison Russell and songwriter JT Nero – the music contained within Real Midnight is what the band call a “new secular gospel,” drawing upon the influences of the gospel of yesteryear while eschewing any form of proselytising and preaching: think funky acoustic-guitar grooves, hand claps, minimalist drumming, tight harmonies, soulful vocals and earthy lyrics. Their sound, which has been slowly maturing since their first two albums (Birds of Chicago and Live from Space, respectively), has moved into new and transcendental realms on Real Midnight. This is no doubt because of Russell and Nero’s work ethic and developing rapport, but thanks are also due to the contribution of producer Joe Henry (who has worked with such gospel/soul greats as Solomon Burke and Bettye Lavette) and the lightness of touch that he has imparted.

As well, Real Midnight is that rarest of modern things: a proper album. While some of the individual songs are incredible, it is the totality of them that really impresses – the album feels whole and cohesive; it flows with a purpose, moving from gentle country-soul-gospel ballads to urgent and upbeat hip-shakers with a sense of purpose and structure. And what Birds of Chicago never lose sight of on Real Midnight are the true foundations of gospel music: connection, reflection and a sense of being grounded. Its mellow moments are never boring or down; its up-tempo moments are never overbearing or overdone. Instead, it brings about a feeling of calm and peacefulness, and makes the rest of the world quieten down a little. And that alone makes it worth the price of admission.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 26/3/2016)

Exhaustion: Phased Out

Unlike their last release – the sprawling and epic and thoroughly noisy Exhaustion with Kris Wanders – Exhaustion’s ‘Phased Out’ is a much more concise and focussed affair. In fact, on this new release they’ve almost completely moved away from the improvisational madness of …with Kris Wanders into more song-based territory, with ‘Phased Out’ even sporting that staple of coEX2ntemporary music: the remix. However, don’t think that this is a criticism or a negative; changing directions is a necessity in this attention deficient age, and Phased Out is every bit as good and as ferocious as their previous releases. And to be brutally honest, this tighter focus is actually a bit of a relief, and works to Exhaustion’s benefit – the shorter song lengths combined with the more reined-in approach means that we don’t suffer from a kind-of aural overload and hence find ourselves exhausted (boom-tish).

The two tracks that make up the original component of this EP – ‘Phased Out’ and ‘Colleague’ – feel like two halves of a whole, with the bare second of silence between them almost serving as a chance to catch your breath before the din kicks back in. Tribal-esque drums, hypnotically repetitive bass and guitar lines, half-spoken vocals that are almost buried in the mix, sheets of synthetic sound and squalls of feedback that float on top of the seemingly unending groove – these are the defining factors of Phased Out, and make it seem like a homage to Krautrock, Space Rock, Psy-Rock and everything in between.

On the other hand (and to be brutally honest once again), the remixes are a little bit daggy and seem a little bit superfluous. Mikey Young’s remix of ‘Phased Out’ strips the urgency from the original through the addition of a two-step synthesised bass-line and an abundance of electronic strings and sweeps, with the end result reminding me more of a New Romantic plodder from the 1980s than a genuine reinterpretation of Exhaustion’s own brand of craziness. Rites Wild’s remix of ‘Colleague’ is somewhat better, the delay-drenched vocals and slower tempo and droning synths and occasional moments of deconstructionist disintegration adding a sense of menace that truly seems fitting. But even then, the energy that makes Exhaustion so interesting and so unique is missing. These are, however, minor complaints – ‘Phased Out’ is worth the ticket price purely for the first two tracks: contemporary Kraut-Space-Psy-Rock has rarely sound so good.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 13/1/2016)

Various Artists: Sounds of the Pilbara II – Songs in Language

I SOTPfound this album to be very difficult to review, but not because it’s good or bad or somewhere in between (which is something I’ll return to). Instead, I found it difficult because, as a fairly typical left-wing white Australian, I wanted to be as culturally sensitive as I can – the lack of up-to-the-minute information regarding the various artists featured on it, combined with the tradition of not naming the deceased common to many Indigenous Australians, stops me from breaking it down song-by-song and artist-by-artist, and instead means that I have to review the album as a whole.

And what an album it is…

A collaboration between Celebrate WA and Karlka Nyiyaparli Aboriginal Corporation, Sounds of the Pilbara II: Songs in Language spotlights five of the different Indigenous Australian languages native to the Pilbara region (of which there are more than 30 in total), and features 14 contributing artists, as well as over 40 students from Warralong and Strelly community schools. The 25 tracks contained within range from traditional Indigenous Australian songs – typically just clap-sticks and vocals, which feature short introductions spoken in English for those unfamiliar with the language they are sung in – to more contemporary song styles, which are predominately country or rock and are mostly sung in one of the five aforementioned languages.

And here lies the second difficulty I encountered in reviewing this record: its ethnographic nature. The terms “good” or “bad” don’t really apply to albums of this nature. Instead, they are typically intended as an introduction to the kinds of music specific to particular ethnic and/or cultural groups (and therefore as an introduction to the groups themselves), and so they tend to exist outside the concept of judgmental and quality-based reviews – the ability to appreciate them depends on your interest in the ethnic and/or cultural groups that they showcase.

If you, like me, are interested in the culture and music of our Indigenous Australian brothers and sisters, then get your hands on it – you won’t regret it.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 11/1/2016)