Monday, 28 January 2008

PJ Harvey - White Chalk

PJ Harvey’s latest album is a marked departure from what you’ve come to expect. White Chalk is filled with unusual instruments not usually dominant on a PJ Harvey recording such as piano the Zither, banjo, broken harp, cig fiddle etc and very little guitar. It’s probably the best album she’s made since Is This Desire. The songs sound very stripped back, very honest. It has a feel of a very personal album. Unlike previous albums you get no lyrics to read so have to try and guess what it’s about from the words you can make out. An almost a depressing album, it sounds bleak yet at the same time beautiful and compelling. You start to feel like you’re eaves dropping on a very private performance.

It’s certainly a world away from the loud brash and ultimately disappointing PJ Harvey by numbers that was Uh-Huh Her. I think at that point it seemed like she was almost just filling a contractual obligation and delivering what the label expected of her. White Chalk feels like an album that had a lot of thought put into it before hand. A new direction, a new sound, even with familiar faces such as Flood and John Parish helping out (though Mick Harvey is noticeably absent). This is the first time John Parish has been on a PJ Harvey recording since Is This Desire and you have to wonder how much of an influence he is here. This certainly has a lot more in common with the Parish/Harvey album Dance Hall at Louse Point (even though that’s still very much a “guitar” album) than it does with recent Harvey albums. I have to wonder if perhaps John Parish doesn’t perhaps bring out the best in PJ.

Highlights here are “The Devil,” with it’s almost Good Vibrations repeated piano/tambourine motif. “White Chalk,” an simple sounding acoustic guitar led track that is possibly one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard, short and sweet. “Broken Harp,” a track played on what presumably is a broken harp and sounds almost like a Nico outtake and the very lovely “Silence,” another piano motif led track accompanied by what sounds like some light brush work on a snare.

What I love about PJ Harvey’s songs here, and particularly the piano led pieces are the simplicity of them. I believe she only started writing on piano for the first time for this album and the simplicity of her piano riffs really makes the songs sound as special as they are.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Angel - Kalmukia

Angel is Ilpo Vaisanen (Pan Sonic) Hildur Gudnadottir (Lost In Hildurness) and Dirk Dresselhaus (Schneider TM). Ilpo and Dirk have worked and released material as Angel for a couple of years but to the best of my knowledge this is the first time they’ve recorded with Hildur (she also appears on the current Pan Sonic album).

I don’t have the proper cover for this as it’s a promo so I’m not sure how the cover relates to the sounds as Ilpo is credited with “story and drawings,” so I’m wondering if this is supposed to be the soundtrack to a story printed on the cover.

The sounds itself are nothing like either Pan Sonic or Schneider TM. The same elements are there but this often veers closer to modern classical than it does to experimental.
The whole feel of this album is very subdued and slow moving there’s nothing rushed everything moves along at it’s own pace. Even the first track with it’s use of loud heavy guitar still only moves at a slighter faster pace than say a recent Earth track. It wouldn’t feel out of place on Earth’s “Hex: Or Printing in the Infernal Method.”

The guitar takes a back seat for the middle of the album. Tracks two and three (Kalmukia and Effect of Discovery) are both led by the cello. Kalmukia is a very mournful sounding piece, the cello playing slowly as some background electronics very subtly start to take over the piece. It fades out to five minutes of a restrained collection of taps and ambient electronics. Effect of Discovery starts of sounding like Stockhausen’s 1950s Electronic Studies. Again very subdued and understated with the cello starting to make its mark a few minutes in. The whole track starts to get busier with more electronics and a slightly heavier feel to it. The last track Aftermath reminds me of Tangerine Dream around the time of Hyperborea. It has a similar range of sounds to that album with a slightly Eastern tinge to it. Sounds like lots of loose guitar strings going through some delay with some slightly discordant cello sounds behind it. For me this is the weakest piece on the album it hasn’t got the slightly sinister ambience of (particularly) tracks two and three and though it’s got a nice balance of light and dark it’s too uplifting in comparison with the rest of the album. Again I think maybe the cover would explain more and perhaps make it clear why this track sounds as it does.

On the whole it’s a good album it’s not what I expected having heard Ilpo’s solo album of a few years ago but after a few listens it’s certainly a grower and it’s good to see people step outside the box and surprise you.

Released by the EditionsMego label on the 21st Jan 2008

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Harmonia - Live 1974

Harmonia had a brief existence both in time and output. The sessions for Neu! 2 being rushed by a lack of finance for recording led Michael Rother to explore pastures new and in 1973 he teamed up with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius of proto-ambient band Cluster and together they formed (what has been described as a Krautrock supergroup called) Harmonia.

Two albums came out of this partnership. “Musick von Harmonia” in 1973 and “Deluxe” in 1975. Somewhere in between the two albums Harmonia performed live at the Penny Station Club a former railway station in Griessem in Germany.

What you get on this newly released album is 5 tracks none of which appear on the two albums (or the collaboration album with Eno that finally got released in 1997 20 years after it was recorded). All have the feel of improvisation about them and are deceptively hypnotic, the synth lines and basic electronic beats slowly dragging you along as they develop, swell and fall as guitar lines drift in and out. It’s not a million miles away fromthe minimalist worlds of La Monte Young or Terry Riley.

The audience is notably silent. Maybe they were too entranced to clap or maybe the means by which this was recorded has managed to record the music on it’s own. The cover doesn’t give much away. No information except the date it was recorded (23rd March 1974 and the track titles). It’s interesting to listen a track like Arabesque and see how much of an influence a band like Harmonia were on Eno at the time. The guitar sounds on the same track also bring to mind Steve Hillage. (Whether the paths of Harmonia, Neu! And Gong ever crossed I don’t know, might have made an interesting meeting).

The album flows incredibly well. Instrument wise you have synth, electronic percussion, electronic organ, piano and guitar. Starting with the mellow and understated Schaumburg and then drifting effortlessly into the slightly more energetic Veteranissimo (the longest piece at 17 minutes). Arabesque follows with it’s Eno and Hillage sounds. The album reaches it’s crescendo with Holta-Polta a far noisier affair with rhythm sounds that wouldn’t be out of place on a Throbbing Gristle album and some unsettling synth dissonances and ethereal noises floating in and out of the mix. The album then brings you gently back down to earth with the mellower trance like Ueber Ottenstein.

While this has only been my first purchase of 2008 I think it’s going to be hard pushed not to be one of the top albums of 2008. These tracks are over 30 years old but still manage to sound innovative and fresh even though the recording quality is not the crystal clear sharp digital sounds we’ve all become used to these days. A truly stunning album and I’d love to see more live Harmonia albums get released over the next few years.