Three nights ago I dreamed I was in a barn in rural Virginia filled with farm equipment with which Mark Linkhous was recording his new album. Wearing welder’s glasses and greasy white t-shirt he sang some demos and we were eager to hear how the addition of a hay bale maker and chainsaw would alter the tunes. I woke up devastated. I’ll never get to hear this album because Mark took his own life in 2010 after a lifelong battle with depression and addiction. What he left behind as Sparklehorse is remarkable, particularly in the depth of emotion that I wasn’t equipped to comprehend in the mid-late nineties.
Back then I connected with his noisy upbeat distorted vocals, and studio experimentation. Yet listening back now to 1995’s Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot and 1998’s Good Morning Spider all I hear is fragility and frustration. It’s spiritual outsider music, a personal artistic vision unencumbered by whatever was happening around him. We later learned that he laboured over his lyrics, agonised, doubted and dreaded his music’s reception. Linkhous may have re entered my subconsciousness because I recently began listening to the podcast S-Town from the makers of Serial and it’s impossible not to connect with the despair, frustration and humanity of those who can’t fit into the world around them. It’s such a waste. In Linkhous’ case he couldn’t even bring himself to record vocals on 2005’s Dark Night of the Soul because he though no one cared. Decades years later I feel like I’m only starting to understand his musical vision.
Last year’s Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, a Don Cheadle fantasy with car chases, and a fictionalised white Rolling Stone journalist isn’t entirely what Miles deserved, but it did highlight his electric period. Listening to this music it’s so forward thinking you can understand how earth shattering it was. Not just for the listener, but also for his collaborators many of whom would subsequently chase their own muse: jazz-fusion.
Keyboardist Joe Zawinul composed the title track and appeared on Miles’ 1969 album In A Silent Way, and would go on to much acclaim via the Weather Report. But his 1971 solo album, simply titled Zawinul, which features his own gorgeous, atmospheric take on In a Silent Way and contributions from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, is jaw droppingly soulful. Many consider it the unofficial first Weather Report album.
Keyboardist Chick Corea’s (Bitches Brew) fusion group, which also featured guitarist Al DiMeola, Return to Forever, is often cited as the premier fusion ensemble. Like many in the genre they would subsequently get a little too clean and impressed by their own dexterity, yet 1975’s No Mystery is the balls out Latin funk of four blokes strutting, on an album that is dedicated to L Ron Hubbard.
English Guitarist John McLaughlin (Bitches Brew), developed perhaps the most ferocious fusion in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, yet I prefer his 1977 ode to Indian classical music, Shakti, with tabla legend Zakir Hussain, which with acoustic guitar is almost an antidote to the aggressive spirituality of Mahavishnu.
In recent years Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman has captured the imagination of the west via incendiary live performances, albums released on Ribbon music, Sublime Frequencies and Monkeytown, production by Four Tet and collaborations with Bjork. His high-energy electronic dabke music is like nothing you’ve heard before, exotic, frantic and infectious, distinctively Arabic flavoured techno music over which Souleyman weaves his tales of love and revs up the crowd. Yet Souleyman has a secret weapon, the man responsible for these incredible sounds, synth player and fellow Syrian Rizan Said. If you’ve ever seen Souleyman live then you’ve marvelled at Said’s remarkable ability to organise chaos, within his synth is an entire Middle Eastern orchestra, and he is a maestro, his electronic percussion in particular is jaw dropping.
Last year Said released a solo album; King of Keyboard on the Beirut based Annihaya records. Annihaya is a fascinating label that specializes in the displacement, deconstruction and ‘recycling’ of popular or folkloric musical cultures. They’ve recently released the near hysterical psychedelic Shaabi of incredible Swiss/ Lebanese duo Praed, as well as albums from Sun City Girls, and Lebanese electronic artist Rabih Beani (Morphosis). Said however is a whole other level, it’s synthetic Arabic music on amphetamines, a hyperactive frenzy of artificial reeds, triple time beats and intricate exotic melody lines. Said ran a studio in Syria before the war and wrote Korg synth patches that he sold across the region. His music meanwhile is centuries old, traditional music gone digital -and it’s remarkable.
You don’t need musical instruments to make music. Possibly the most startling example of this is Alan Lamb, who recorded the sounds of wind on decommissioned power lines in outback WA, capturing the savagery and beauty of a giant Aeolian harp played by mother nature. He put out a couple of albums in the early 90’s, Night Passage and Primal Image/Beauty on the sadly defunct Dorobo label – there’s even a remix album featuring Ryoji Ikeda and Lustmord. More recently Melbourne experimental artist Tim Catlin has been working with aluminium rods. He’s created an instrument he calls the Vibrissa. These (12) rods are vertically mounted and then stroked using gloves and rosin. Sure it’s a little phallic, but it creates curious pitches and a harmonic complexity, as the tones just sustain and hang in the air – singing if you will. In 2012 he formed The Overtone Ensemble with Atticus Bastow, Philip Brophy and David Brown, and this month they’ll release their debut album on Massachusetts’ Important records (Pauline Oliveros/ Acid Mothers Temple/ Morton Feldman). The album is a remarkable suite of electronic sounding acoustica, with massed hand-bells, quarter-tone bells, e-bowed acoustic guitars, re-tuned glockenspiels, wineglasses and long wire instruments. It’s a whole new world and a feast for the ears.
I don’t know anything about Seymour based Tackle, other than him/her/it’s Benzedrine EP is incredible. It’s released on Australian/ Berlin label Another Dark Age, and between motorik percussion, hissing snares, dark rumbles, and forward pushing momentum, it’s bleakness you can dance to.
As a director Dennis Hopper had his flashes of genius, madness and self-indulgent foolishness. People always gush about Easy Rider or its follow up the near mystical cocaine damaged The Last Movie. And whilst I’ll tip my hat to 1988’s Colors, my favourite is the failed 1990 desert noir The Hot Spot. There’s a lot to like, Don Johnson as the smooth drifter looking for a second chance, who falls into bed with his car dealer boss’ wife Virginia Madsen, whilst simultaneously falling for Jennifer Connolly, the innocent ingénue. With bank heists, femme fatales and an amoral every-man searching for his soul, caught between his brain and his balls, it’s noir for the 90’s. And whilst the sun soaked ‘Last Tango in Texas’ failed to ignite the box office, Hopper did one thing right. He hired Jack Nitzchse to score. Nitzchse had worked with Neil Young, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, and everyone in between. His films included One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Performance and Cruising. Yet for the Hot Spot Nitzchse did something special. He hired Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahl, slide guitarist Roy Rogers and put them all in a room together. The results really defy categorization, lazy stripped back instrumental blues, with Hooker moaning periodically, Mahl strumming absently on his dobro and Rogers offering shimmering desert slide as Davis steps over the top and drops plaintive trumpet lines that sound like harmonica shimmering in the distance. It’s the soul of the movie, and it’s remarkable.
Right now it is ridiculous how much great music is out there. Locally we’ve got Melbourne avant hip hop outfit Curse Ov Dialect’s first album in 6 years, a frenetic culturally harmonious word splatter called Twisted Strangers, and Necks pianist Chris Abrahams’ remarkable solo album that veers between, synth and piano, textural chaos and sublime beauty, it’s called Fluid to the Influence (Room40). There’s Stina Tester and Cinta Masters with their catchy electro synth post punk debut Awake and Dreaming (Listen). Further afield UK weirdo Dean Blunt debuts his electronic project Babyfather, which destroyed minds at Unsound Adelaide earlier this year. Babyfather hosted by DJ Escrow (Hyperdub) is equal parts annoying and genius – possibly the album of the year. Adrian Sherwood is the master at the controls for cult Japanese trio Nisennenmondai’s NA (On U Sound) who provide hypnotic repetitive motorik rhythms that are almost anti music, bordering on rhythmic sound art or raw techno – a genuinely odd yet beguiling release. Canadian Tim Hecker has dropped Love Streams (4AD/Remote Control), where he has reprocessed, distended and manipulated the Icelandic Choral Ensemble, telling them to imagine they were Chewbacca with a saxophone who just drank 8,000 litres of codeine. Konono No1 meets Batida (Crammed) electronically treats, splices and dices the likembe (thumb piano) masters, with the Angolan/ Portuguese producer taking proceedings to the dancefloor, whilst kingpin of Lisbon’s underground electronic scene, DJ Marfox offers a raw banging new EP Chapa Quente (Principe). Overwhelmed yet? That’s not half of it.
Astor is Mark Harwood, who you may remember as DJ Quokenzocker or as the proprietor of Melbourne’s best ever record store, Synaesthesia – which was a haven for weird, wonderful and experimental practice for over a decade. Now based in the UK, Harwood runs Penultimate Press, which offers limited run music and literature such as Étant Donnés, Hour House, Graham Lambkin, and Matthew Hopkins. Whilst much of the music is pretty obscure, it’s characterised by artists pursuing their own obsessive vision down rabbit holes of their own making. Not unlike Harwood’s own approach. When considering Astor you wonder how a guy who’s heard a ridiculous amount of the strangest music in existence is going to settle on one approach, style or genre. The beauty is that he doesn’t. His previous two albums, released on Kye records, possessed a relentlessly indefinable musique concrete, with strange blurred unknowable field recordings evolving into amorphous yet beguiling sounds. It was atmospheric evocative music, the way you wished all sound design could be. His new album Lina in Nida (Penultimate Press), sees Astor take on a more overtly electronic aesthetic whilst maintaining his unique ability to transcend genres and transition seamlessly across disparate ingredients. The opener, The East, is his proposed anthem for a British invasion by Isis, though perhaps only if all Britians had been force fed early Mego recordings during childhood. Curiously there’s melody, even musicality here too. It’s still abstract and just out of reach, yet the key is its experiential and beguiling nature.