the lexicon

a writing portfolio by Alexandra Savvides

Nico Muhly – Mothertongue (Bedroom Community)

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Nico Muhly is now known as a prodigious talent – from his work both as composer and collaborator – thanks to several well-documented takes on his role working with Björk, Philip Glass and Rufus Wainwright to name a few, plus several profiles in publications such as The New Yorker and The Times.

So from the outset, Mothertongue may seem like an intimidating album before even taking in its ambitious description. Merging classical music with a study of the human voice, Muhly’s follow-up to Speaks Volumes is divided into three movements, linked stylistically through Muhly’s dissection and composition of the voice. The first movement begins with ‘Archive’, all cacophonous voices and disorienting sounds. Tone, intonation and resonance are all important here, as a rabble of voice snippets speak the remembered fragments of Muhly and singer Abigail Fischer’s childhood memories. Street addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers burst forth from Fischer’s lips atop a delicate string and woodwind section.

Fortunately, Muhly’s compositional skill never allows the voices to become overly dominant; there is still enough space for the classical elements to shine through amidst the various clicks, lip smacks and assorted mouth noises he chooses to build up along the way. ‘Hress’ is perhaps the most pertinent example – the voices are integral to the composition but they never compete for attention with the instrumentation. Muhly arranges the voice in such a way that regardless of the listener’s ability to understand or to make logical sense of the words, the emotion and non-linguistic meaning are articulated far more than would be expected.

Second movement ‘Wonders’ couples harpsichord and shifting time signatures in order to describe the experience of jetlag, exploration, temporal shifts – a “soundtrack for a cabinet of wonders”, as Muhly puts it. It’s a challenging field to try to cover over just three compositions, and doesn’t work as strongly as the first or third movements because of the scale of the material he tries to cover. ‘The Only Tune’ works better, exploring the sounds and patterns of folk songs in his inimitable style.

Mothertongue is an incredibly ambitious work, and its beauty is able to shine through from Muhly’s meticulous layering of complex voices, instrumentation and context.

Cyclic Defrost

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Written by lexstatic

August 19, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Near The Parenthesis – L’Eixample (n5MD)

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Unlike several electronic artists who happen to be blessed with prolificacy, Tim Arndt continually delivers incredibly polished and lush material on his instrumental releases as Near The Parenthesis. The majority of his previous work has been met with extensive critical acclaim and for good reason – it’s delicate, instrumental electronica interspersed with an incisive and thought-provoking approach that is as easy to listen to in the background as in the foreground.

L’Eixample is no different to his previous work in this respect. It’s self-assured and confident, without being brash. Taking inspiration from his travels through Barcelona and the modernist architecture around the L’Eixample district, the album is distinctly grounded by these experiences but never restrained by them.

Echoes of Seefeel are littered throughout, and Ulrich Schnauss also gets a look in with the dreamy atmospherics and shoegaze remnants that make up a fair amount of the album. However, Arndt has a voice all his own as he marries synthetic elements with acoustic instrumentation. He has such a way with melody that the two are never really distinguished as separate entities, which is a stunning achievement.

The emotional connection to the music is undeniable, particularly on tracks such as ‘A Brief Walk In The Sea’ which relies on a tacit collection of scratchings, squeaks and synths to conjure up the images that the title suggests. The intermittent scuttle of ‘Modernisme’ lapses into an effortless, languid melody while the divine moments on ‘Cerda’s Plan’ with piano and drum machine matched beat for beat provide lovely jump-out moments that Arndt may explore on future releases. L’Eixample is a release that will slip under the radar for many, but for those in the know it will sure to be one of the highlights of Arndt’s back catalogue, and a strong contender for one of the loveliest releases of 2008.

Cyclic Defrost

Written by lexstatic

August 12, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Alexandre Navarro – Arcane (SEM Label)

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Previous to his debut-proper Arcane, Paris-based Alexandre Navarro spent much of his career as a producer connecting with electronic and synthetic elements across assorted releases on traditional and net labels. Yet despite these initial forays, Navarro is first and foremost a guitarist – and it’s clear from the opening strains of ‘Time’. Delayed loops sashay across each other, their warmth and melody cascading into a melange of sheer beauty.

In a similar vein to Antony Harding (July Skies) and Robin Guthrie, Navarro highlights the fragility of common experience, memory and yearning in his otherworldly compositions. Pedals, valve amps, organ and flute create this discernible sound, with field recordings also entering the fray a little later on. At times, the fragility of Navarro’s instrumentation is eerily apparent, especially on ‘Awaken’ as effervescent static threatens to overtake the delicacy of his guitar progressions.

‘Flying in a Dream’ is resplendent in its duelling echoes, making light work of the intense fluctuations around the intermittent samples. Towards the end, the multifaceted title track acts as a reprise (of sorts) of ‘Time’, a ridiculously simple melody coated in lashings of reverb. It concludes with the immediacy of water running – a beautiful, if predictable way, to end the album neatly. So when the real finale ‘Bulles’ begins, the heaving tones almost scare the gentle tempo steadily built up over the album into submission, forcing it to scurry away across the temporal space.

However, the hidden track is the most peculiar of all, a dark, almost danceable number that collects a shifting melody alongside a scrunching jazz beat. Tantalisingly short, and at odds with what came before, it is immensely satisfying and makes the journey toward it all the more astounding. Arcane embeds itself into your consciousness, acting as a luscious bridge between visceral and cerebral experience, and cements Navarro as a truly gifted composer.

Cyclic Defrost

Written by lexstatic

August 11, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Flying Lotus – Los Angeles (Warp)

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Earlier this year, Flying Lotus – aka Steven Ellison – visited Australia to play several shows across the country. Before that, though, he gave a talk to producers and music aficionados alike at Sydney’s CDR night. In the darkness of Hermanns, Ellison talked about Los Angeles and his love/hate relationship with the city that provided the inspiration (and title) to the album.

Los Angeles is one of those rare achievements where the first listen through sounds as exciting and as gorgeous as the twentieth (which I’m sure, I must be up to by now). It is by no means a cathartic experience; it throws up much more than it could possibly hope to resolve, but by all means this is a part of its enjoyment and, we must hope, its longevity. Los Angeles has the sense of the external; a sort of hybrid somewhere between a sonic journey across the city itself mashed up with the soundtrack to the clubs at its very core.

1983 and even the Reset EP by comparison, were much more intimate – not at all domestic, but the sentiment and feeling behind them were definitely elsewhere. The shift in approach is evident in the first strains of ‘Brainfeeder’, phasing in and out a bit like the disorienting beauty of ‘Tea Leaf Dancers’. The furiously crafted, almost trademark Flying Lotus hip hop beat of ‘Breathe . Something/Stellar STar’ slams up against its own smooth groove, the first hint of the relationship between the city and the producer. Smaller interludes across the album take on a filmic quality, scratching their way into epic imagery.

Towards the end of the album, vocals kick in on ‘RobertaFlack’, as Dolly’s voice straddles across undulating percussion in a flawless progression that echoes the warmer moments on 1983. The unmistakeable squelch of ‘Auntie’s Harp’ – referring to his great aunt Alice Coltrane – is full of glimmering, arpeggiated hooks. It’s a near-delirious sentiment that harks back to the earlier feel of break-y ‘Comet Course’, tying in again another reference to Ellison’s musical heritage by sampling John Coltrane.

As tempting as it is to separate the tracks from their context, to do so is to lose a vital part of Los Angeles‘ vitality. For all the murkiness here, Ellison never loses sight of the brighter, shimmering side that is so fundamental to the Flying Lotus sound, and of course, to the city itself.

Cyclic Defrost

Written by lexstatic

August 6, 2008 at 2:50 pm

Various Artists – Steppas’ Delight (Soul Jazz)

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As with so many of the seminal dubstep releases of the past few years, the genre itself refuses to sit still; it keeps shifting by pulling apart and piecing together disparate sounds and influences. Steppas’ Delight intrinsically taps into this restless desire for innovation, a two disc collection that is aptly subtitled ‘Dubstep Present to Future’. Under compiler Emma Warren’s guidance, Steppas’ Delight is all about embracing the dynamic output of the genre’s producers, just as on Soul Jazz Records’ previous Box of Dub compilations.

Press play, and the bass of Kode9’s ‘9 Samurai’ begins to reverberate, a strand of familiarity pulsating with the momentum of a menacing steam train encroaching all the while in intensity and pace. Cuts from Benga plus The Bug and Warrior Queen follow on accordingly in a similar vein, fortunately never threatening to overwhelm the lesser known acts here. According to the premise the first ten tracks are, quite aptly, much more dubstep of the present. The latter end of disc one hints at what is to come – Martyn’s ‘Broken’ which fuses subterranean vibration with glorious, otherworldly synths, and Shackleton’s exquisite ‘Blood On My Hands’.

Considering Ricardo Villalobos’ hugely influential and much lauded remix of the Shackleton track, the original’s placement as segue to disc two seems very apt. It is dubstep’s evolutionary path towards minimal tech influences more than anything else that the second disc seeks to reinforce. From here on in, the feel begins to change; the glittery plinths of Silkie’s ‘Dam 4′ meet the bass-heavy undercurrents of the recognisable wobble, ‘Gullybrook Lane (Instrumental)’ by Joker flitters about, Quest’s ‘Hardfood’ has the feel of electronically messed up reggae, and Ikonika’s ‘Please’ has a superb introduction that plays like a video game bleeping its death throes from worn out batteries. Smatterings of soul and downbeat electronica also weave their way throughout, but the feeling is still all about space. Where this compilation succeeds is in highlighting the sheer range of sounds and frequencies that can be classified under one name without necessarily marginalising or excluding dubstep’s origins.

As with all Soul Jazz releases, the booklet accompanying the collection is almost as exciting as the tracks it documents – hinting that the music is as much for its observers as it is for its makers.

Cyclic Defrost

Written by lexstatic

August 3, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Leila – Blood, Looms and Blooms (Warp)

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Leila’s Blood, Looms and Blooms is like an invocation to the senses – a hand that reaches out from the complex, gnarled roots adorning the album cover to pull you into the realms of playful imagination. Leila Arab’s debut for Warp, her first release in over seven years, excites in its lushness and challenges in its diversity. A measured, perfectly crafted progression from fantasy-like beginnings through to a deeper, darker midsection is Leila’s key achievement, managing to tie in a range of guest vocalists seamlessly across a range of styles.

No aesthetic seems too far fetched for Leila; ‘Teases Me’ evokes a soulful, seductive hymn as Luca Santucci’s vocal rides along waves of bass, twitters and cymbal sparks. Further on, jaunty ‘The Exotics’ lapses into a mini-operetta whilst the cover of ‘Norwegian Wood’ is rather excellent simply because it so cleverly subverts the original without removing the key to its familiarity. Terry Hall’s vocal at first sits oddly beside the whimsical seaside feel of ‘Time to Blow’ yet sounds intrinsically at home after repeated listens. ‘Mettle’ is perhaps the most obvious link to the swagger of her mid-90s trip-hop origins, drenched in clanging guitars and heavy acerbic bass.

Leila’s sound is so incredibly full – which is in part due to the exquisite production. Every nook and cranny of the aural space is filled to bursting with intense detail. It is there with the faint sound of a piano reverberating through an expansive hall on ‘Young Ones’, a yearning that lingers long after it is enveloped by a rowdy applause. Again it rears its head on ‘Mollie’ as tweaks and twinges whirl their way to an exquisite climax. Finally, the delicate duet by Martina Topley Bird and Terry Hall on ‘Why Should I’ brings Blood, Looms and Blooms to a close, and with it, an intense desire to revisit Leila’s fantasy world all over again.

Cyclic Defrost

Written by lexstatic

July 2, 2008 at 10:19 pm

2562 – Aerial

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As a sound with its origins so utterly entrenched in the boroughs of London – as much by the media as it is by its musicians – it seems apt that a producer from the Hague should be able to translate dubstep into a far more universal experience. It is this translation that is the heart of 2562’s Aerial; adapting, mutating and absorbing a range of influences. Familiar dubstep elements are all here, transposed alongside a liberal smattering of minimal tech and bright, synthetic ambience.

Prefaced by the sublime ‘Kameleon’ and ‘Channel One’ from lauded 12″ releases last year, Aerial takes the aesthetic of these two tracks and imbues the rest of the collection with a meticulous sense of space. The role of silence in Dave Huismans’ compositions is pivotal – ‘Moog Dub’ in particular plays on this more so than any other by pulling the silence out from underneath the beat, making what is absent almost as important as what is heard. Reverberating bass collides with a snare, synth, and oscillating click, playing off one another, fusing together. The early harshness on ‘Morvern’ subtly segues into hints of warm Berlin house, peering through the thick dub fog as hi-hats kick in. Elsewhere, minimal electronica continues to emerge as undercurrents of static drop in and out, fizzling just underneath the surface.

Aerial’s confluence of sounds is most apparent in Huisman’s bass and low-end work. Remarkably, he is able to achieve a distinct heaviness without distortion or overbearing the rest of the sound; particularly on ‘Enforcers’ where it could have all too easily become cloying. This is one of the strongest individual tracks on the album alongside ‘Kameleon’ and ‘Greyscale’. The latter opens with a beat reminiscent of a heartbeat in its timing, before it segues back into familiar dubstep territory. Aerial might not be the crossover vehicle for 2562 like Benga and Burial’s offerings have been, but it is nevertheless an important step forward in thoughtful and brilliantly executed dubstep.

Cyclic Defrost

Written by lexstatic

June 26, 2008 at 1:53 pm