2016 — Top Five New Releases
Although Vinyl Connection managed a respectable bag of new release during 2016, less than half of them actually made it to these pages during the calendar year.
We were onto the new one by post-rock instrumentalists Tortoise back in February and rushed towards the release by local artist All India Radio in May, but then things slowed down. Perhaps it was those re-issues that always look so succulent or the intriguing archival releases that clamour for the music tragic’s dollar.
Still, in September we struggled to make sense of the collaboration between Jon Anderson & Roine Stolt and lavished praise on both Matthew Bourne’s solo synthesiser album and Comet Control’s contemporary psychedelic rock before we had to concede that we needed an extension on our homework. All well and good, except that the albums kept piling up.
Two LPs originating in the British Isles that I won’t be saying much about are contrasting offerings from Brian Eno and Teenage Fanclub. The latter’s Here has had several spins but stubbornly refused to engage this listener. Too cosy, too complacent. I love Teenage Fanclub, so hopefully seeing the band and hearing a few of these songs live in a few weeks time will inspire me to revisit Here and pen some more favourable words.
My respect for Eno is enormous. His creativity, intellect and diversity of interests are truly inspiring. Yet, thus far,The Ship has not engaged. The package is superb but the craft becalmed. Despite having plenty of context in both minimal composition and ambient electronics, I haven’t got this one at all.
So to the Top Five countdown. Nothing objective, of course, simply those albums that have brought particular pleasure to these ears. For those who like scores, I’d award all of these either four (#5 through #3) or four-and-a-half stars.
#5 Miles Brown — Seance Fiction
Miles Brown is the main oscillator of Australian theremin-driven prog goth electronic rock retro-futurists The Night Terrors. Seance Fiction is his first solo album and it is most enjoyable. With vocals and shorter ‘rock song’ structures as well as three instrumentals, Brown has fashioned a contemporary electronic pop/rock album that drips atmosphere (and theremin). If The Night Terrors are the ultimate horror-soundtrack band, Miles Brown’s album offers a mini-feature introduction to that darker world.
#4 Leonard Cohen — You Want It Darker
None of us knows exactly when the celestial barman will call “Time!” but sometimes we know the broad parameters. Leonard Cohen—poet, monk, painter, novelist, louche wanderer down love’s less affluent alleyways—seemed to have a clear idea that his days were numbered when he created his final album, You Want It Darker. In his excellent review, Jim Laugelli used the phrase “lush simplicity”, and that’s very apt. It is a rich, musical album redolent with shadow and spark; a fitting au revoir from the Canadian Renaissance man.
#3 Matthew Bourne / Frank Vigroux — Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited
The idea of re-imagining Kraftwerk’s 1975 classic Radio-Activity is either utterly brilliant or a profound exercise in futility. How could an album considered by many (including your correspondent) to be timeless, a work looking forwards and backwards with equal intensity, possibly be renewed?
To pose a different kind of question, what kind of dolt orders a limited vinyl edition of the ‘new’ version (complete with CD, thank you very much) at the beginning of the year, then waits almost an entire rotation of the sun to review the thing?
The only excuse I can offer for not posting sooner about this intriguing homage is that I had a vision of writing a post that linked the original Kraftwerk album to their later re-working of key track “Radioactivity” into an anti-nuclear electro-chant, with a segue into this contemporary performance by Matthew Bourne and Frank Vigroux. A fine idea, but with two problems. Firstly, I don’t think I could improve upon 1537’s fabulous review of Radio-Activity. If you haven’t read it in a while, do so now. The second impediment was that well-worn rationalisation: insufficient time.
So, excuses aside, what can I say about Radioland—Radio-Activity Revisited by Bourne (synthesisers, voice) and Vigroux (electronics)?
Obviously, simply going through both albums and noting the differences would rather miss the point. Bourne and Vigroux are trying to enrich our appreciation of Radio-Activity, not replace it. Having said that, the differences leap out immediately. The Geiger counter of the original is replaced by a sonar-like ‘ping’ and the first, key song “Radioactivity” is now wordless. Sehr interessant.
When I saw Kraftwerk live in 2005 (and indeed on the concert DVD) I was struck by how the German artists sinistered up “Radioactivity” both musically and lyrically. The repetitive chant really changes the tone and message…
Given that the writers backed away from the nuclear friendly message of the original, dropping the words is hardly radical. But it does add a physics laboratory tinge to the opening of proceedings.
The reverse is true for “Radioland”. Here, the contemporary version adds a frail humanity to the vocals and strips back the arrangement to absolute basics. It works, but I prefer the original. Ah, there, you see? I’ve started comparing. Better to simply share some highlights and leave the rest to imagination.
“Airwaves” drops the lyrics in favour of sampled snatches of voice; it’s edgy and slightly paranoid. Bourne/Vigroux have given themselves licence to play around with the short linking pieces of the original; for the most part I enjoyed their interpretations. “Antenna” is the other key song and the Bourne/Vigroux version is stunning: the vocorder vocals are there, but interrupted—no, violently disrupted—by buzzsaw electronics. It’s rather like having your skull reconfigured without anaesthetic.
If Radio-Activity was sitting in the dark listening to music created in a parallel universe drift outwards from the hefty 70s speakers in the corner, then Radioland could be likened to sitting alone in a brilliantly lit operating theatre with premium-quality earbuds plugged directly into your brain. Not everyone’s neurone-party, but full of electrifying moments if you dig it. And it’s 20% longer than the original.
After struggling for several weeks over the top two spots in this 2016 countdown, I was still prevaricating. The popular and emotive choice was obviously the final album by 20th Century icon David Bowie. Yet the invigorating energy of veteran UK progressives Van Der Graaf Generator was such a welcome and entertaining surprise that a ‘choose life’ vote would surely give them the nod. In the end, I have utterly wimped out, awarding a tie for the Vinyl Connection trophy: Do Not Disturb and Blackstar are my picks. Let me tell you a little about the Van Der Graaf first so that we can honour Bowie with the last word.
Gloom hangs about Van Der Graaf Generator like louring clouds, pregnant with portents and pierced by flashes of existential doubt. It is explicit in the poetry of co-founder Peter Hammill and underpinned by the minor-key textures that pervade the music. It has been thus since VDGG’s second album (1970’s The Least We Can Do Is Wave To Each Other) and continues throughout the catalogue. So, forty-seven years after their debut offering, how does the thirteenth studio album measure up?
Having spent most of their collective life as a quartet, Van Der Graaf Generator in 2016 is a trio. Sax and flute man David Jackson left unhappily soon after the twenty-first century re-union (or re-cruitment, perhaps. VDGG has often seemed like Hammill’s band). Given the age of the three protagonists, it is not unreasonable to see Do Not Disturb as something of a marker; a cairn or Celtic cross by the narrow earthen path, possibly even a headstone. There is a sense of reflection—something edgier than reverie—in songs like “Alfa Berlina” and “Room 1210” (both reference touring) and a thoughtful variety in the textures of the instrumental sections that should please long-time fans. Yet this is no pipe and slippers outing. “(Oh No I Must Have Said) Yes” is vigorous, virile even.
There are strong melodies, there are ideas, there is guitar and of course lashes of Hugh Banton’s organ. Changes of time signature and tempo keep interest high (anchored by the deft drumming of Guy Evans) and if one sometimes misses an occasional abrasive squall of sax, that absence may well make Do Not Disturb more accessible for those less familiar with the VDGG cannon.
Then there are Hammill’s words. Still probing, pondering, poking around in the crepuscular psychology of his inner world.
Do Not Disturb ends with the elegiac “Go”:
There’s the thing
for all you know
it’s time to let go.
And so we come back to David Bowie. Blackstar was on order when he died; I found it difficult to listen to it at first. And at second; and at six months; and at stillbirth, nine months later. But slowly it became easier, perhaps because of the sonic lushness and icy scintillation of the musical palette.
“Is it jazz?” some asked. No, it’s Bowie. Though, to be fair, there is a engrossing complexity of structure in the opening title track and some lovely fluid sax on the closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away”.
“Is he saying goodbye?” wondered others. Possibly.
The album is infused with a melancholy world-weariness pierced with moments of beauty. Often fresh, always crafted, more sculpted than edgy. “If I never live to see the English evergreens I’m running to” he sings in “Dollar Days”, a classic Bowie song. There are sparks too, often softened by use of the second or third person. In “Girl Loves Me” the singer barks, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” (the working title of this post). Where the fuck does life go?
Blackstar can never be fully liberated from the clammy raiment of death; that is the album’s hidden cancer and fluttering triumph.
Spaceman, hero, Duke, heathen; all ultimately mingle with Lady Stardust. But in the meantime, we have a legacy of substance and quality.