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Geoff Leigh and Makoto Kawabata + Kamura Obscura

Iklectik, London, UK

Atsuko Kamura aka Kamura Obscura opens her solo set with pizzicato vocalisations and wind-like sighing. These sounds are quickly looped and layered, becoming rhythmic tracks that guide her compositions. Kamura’s various voices combine to create an indeterminate libretto in which bird song, ocean waves and white noise stand tall. 

The music is structured, though it may appear improvised at first. Stealing a look at Kamura’s score reveals a list of phrases such as “Frog Beat” and “Space Head”. This list refers to samples, presets and moods that she wishes to trigger or evoke in a certain order. 

Synthesised melodies shift the atmosphere from B movie horror, past New Age ambient, and onto playful children’s song. Her second to last composition is a Macedonian lullaby, the melody of which was fused with lyrics from a Japanese cradle song. As if to emphasise the playful music, Toni, the Iklectik house cat, wanders into the venue and walks around the stage as Kamura performs. 

Kamura’s previous work includes the Japanese punk band Mizutama Shobodan, Frank Chickens and a stint co-presenting Kazuko’s Karaoke Klub on British television in the late 1980s. Geoff Leigh and Makoto Kawabata, too, have colourful backgrounds and vast discographies behind them. Leigh has played with Henry Cow, Faust and The Artaud Beats, whilst Kawabata is the founding member of the Japanese psychedelic rock band Acid Mothers Temple. 

The first time that Leigh and Kawabata played together was in 2014 at the Urbanguild in Kyoto, Japan. The recording of that performance was released by the Acid Mothers Temple label two years later as ‘Spatial Roots’. This document of their first encounter as an improvising duo is markedly different from tonight’s performance. ‘Spatial Roots’ develops slowly and the players sounded much more uncertain of each other, with the guitar often fading in the mix. Having worked together on many occasions since then, tonight’s performance sees Leigh and Kawabata both confident and loud. 

The players start without hesitation. Leigh samples his flute, processing the arabesque notes through a laptop. Kawabata mirrors Leigh‘s fluttering notes with nimble dashes across the fretboard of his black headless guitar, approaching the instrument like a sculptor might approach clay. An experienced sarangi player, Kawabata then draws his curved bow across the strings to produce textures that are malleable and forever shifting. He tells me later that the size and shape of the sarangi bow allows him to easily alternate the tension of the bow hairs, which provides more control over the sound.

There is virtually no low end, but both players work hard to fill up empty spaces. Leigh’s close miked flute puts an accent on each suck of air, giving the impression that a vacuum is forming inside the venue. Because his set up is coming through the PA, but Kawabata’s guitar is not, an interesting spatialism occurs. The flutes bounce around the venue in stereo, while Kawabata’s controlled use of overdrive force the sound waves into different corners of the room, meaning that the reflections arrive with a slight delay into each ear. 

In the second half of the composition Leigh and Kawabata move onto soprano saxophone and electronics respectively. Kawabata’s Pocket Piano and effects chain bring additional nuance, whilst Leigh’s looped microphone taps and mouth clicks impart a syncopated rhythm track. The sound remains at a constant intensity throughout the concert. It would have been preferable to experience a greater dynamic shift between the two players – Leigh’s singing bowls and cowbells could barely be heard – but being hit by a wall of sound can be just as satisfying.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, May 2018

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Lydia Lunch and Weasel Walter: Brutal Measures + MoE

Corsica Studios, London, UK

The dark and cavernous Corsica Studios is a worthwhile setting for a night themed on violence. Hailing from Oslo, the no wave stoner rock trio MoE opens the concert with bursts of angular guitar, irregular war-like rhythms and a low end so brutal it hijacks the body. 

Guro Skumsnes Moe, the bass-playing lead singer, sports an incredibly controlled vocal range that oscillates between energetic guttural retching and piercing high frequencies. Songs like ‘Wild Horses’ exponentially build in volume and intensity, recalling the insufferable cruelty of early Swans. Lyrics are hard to pick out from the noise, but Moe’s theatrics (she beats her chest, traps wire wool in her hair and uses a silk scarf as a blindfold) bring to mind the ancient Greek prophet Tiresias and blind Lady Justice.

Moe dedicates a song to Valerie Solanas, the American feminist notorious for shooting Andy Warhol and authoring the ‘SCUM Manifesto’. Turning 51 this year, the manifesto calls for the extermination of men everywhere, arguing that they are responsible for all of the world’s problems. Although Solanas’s treatise shouldn’t be taken at face value, it’s an important work in the canon of western feminism and clearly informs tonight’s events. 

Much like Solanas, Lydia Lunch sees the world as parasitic. However, Lunch does not mark her antagonist as any particular person, group or sex. Reading from pages of free-association verse, her words dive in and out of irony, self-deprecation and accusations. The target of her discord is ambiguous and, it could be said, that she’s at once finding fault in herself as well as the listener. 

Lunch’s verses are punctuated with drums and electronics played by Weasel Walter, best known as the founder of The Flying Luttenbachers. The two musicians push and pull, often challenging each other for dominance. It’s an interesting dynamic to observe. Walter gets so involved with the beat that he appears to forget Lunch altogether. Lunch then corrects him by sternly hitting the rim of his kick drum with her palm, bringing Walter out of his rhythmically induced trance. 

Lunch and Walter have been collaborating together since at least 2012, when Lunch formed Retrovirus. This band, also consisting of Tim Dahl (Child Abuse) and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth/Pussy Galore), has a retrospective outlook, spanning Lunch’s entire career. It performs songs by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, 8 Eyed Spy, 1313 and her solo material.

In September 2016, Lunch and Walter released ‘Brutal Measures’ on Lunch’s own Widowspeak Productions label. Recorded in one live session, with no editing or overdubs, this single twenty-minute composition reflects much of what is going on this evening, with elements of jazz, abstract electronic noise and intense spoken word all being present. As players, Lunch and Walter are more generous to each other on the recording, probably due to their control over the studio environment. By contrast, tonight’s performance is in front of an audience, tension is evident and, inevitably, technical difficulties occur. 

Lunch’s monologue covers topics such as murder, madness and suicide. She invites us to enter her dark and violent world, at one point admitting that: “All of my songs are literary autopsies”. In spite of this invitation, you get the feeling that Lunch would prefer to keep us at a distance. Furthermore, she offers no solutions to the problems she lists (WWII, Hiroshima et al). We’re left to face our own apparent nihilism and contempt for each other. As if to emphasise this point, Lunch concedes that: “the moment that becomes unbearable is where I belong”. But if art makes you feel uncomfortable, then it’s probably doing something interesting. 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, April 2018

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Disintegration Loops

Swedish duo Neutral dig repetition with their reel-to-reel version of blasted psychedelia. Photograph by Erik Gustafsson

In 1843, Søren Kierkegaard published Repetition, an essay on experimental psychology that argued for the importance of recurrent actions and events. The essay opens with the Danish philosopher stating that “repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions”, but that, unlike recollection, which is symbolised by an ill-fitting garment from your youth, repetition is reality itself. Repetition is an imperishable garment: not too tight, nor too loose; serious and life-affirming. He who masters repetition, suggests Kierkegaard, is not only courageous and “matured in seriousness”, but also en route to pure happiness.      

Neutral, the Swedish noise duo composed of Sofie Herner and Dan Johansson, occupy the no man’s land between Kierkegaard’s existentialist polarities of repetition and recollection. Their work employs a reel-to-reel tape machine as the principal recording medium. The sonic characteristics of tape, for better or worse, are closely associated with notions of nostalgia, longing and domesticity. The sounds that Neutral commits to this tape, however, are layered and repetitive, sometimes looping until the tape disintegrates. They pull the listener into a constructive psychological space that avoids navel-gazing, but doesn’t dispense with existentialism altogether.

This idea is most evident on Neutral’s eponymous second LP, which has themes of repetition and return running throughout. Released in 2016 by Omlott, the Gothenburg-based free jazz and improvised music label, Neutral contrasts repetitive bursts of guitar noise, organ and industrial rhythms – what Johansson refers to as “deep listening difficult music“ – with esoteric field recordings and Herner’s hushed confessional vocals.

Taking into consideration the staunchy Sterling Morrison-like guitar weaving its way through Andas, the album’s first track, you could be forgiven for thinking that Neutral were attempting to resurrect the heady days of late-’60s psychedelia.

“It’s interesting that you hear it that way,” Herner tells me over Skype. “When I record more song-like stuff, sometimes it sounds like something I like. It just happens that way, but it’s not intentional.” Neutral’s influences are a combination of no wave, post-punk, Harry Pussy-style noise rock and Swedish electroacoustic music by composers such as Rune Lindblad, but elements of Kluster, Harmonia and Throbbing Gristle can also be said to exist in the mix.

Herner and Johansson met in Gothenburg in 2007. Together with a mutual friend, Matthias Andersson, they formed Källarbarnen, before releasing an untitled cassette on the Gothenburg Blood Cult label two years later. The thirty minute composition is duplicated on both sides of the tape, an early experiment in which the repetition of form mirrors the repetitive nature of the music. Although Källarbarnen produced only one release as a trio, the band’s members would continue to collaborate on various projects, including Enhet För Fri Musik, Heinz Hopf, Leda and Sewer Election.

In 2008, Johansson and Andersson founded Utmarken: a hybrid venue, rehearsal space and record shop housed in a former car repair garage. Utmarken served as the bedrock in which ideas for Neutral took root, being Herner and Johansson’s main hangout, but it wasn’t until late 2013 that the band made its first recordings. The result was the Neutral’s debut, Grå Våg Gamlestaden, a noise music ode to an area of Gothenburg where both Herner and Johansson lived at the time.

“When we record, we can do anything,” says Herner. “We have a very instinctive way of working. We don’t discuss concepts in too much depth. I have very clear conceptual ideas for all of our recordings, but since I don’t explain my ideas to Dan, he will work with the sounds and voice from his perspective. It’s a good way of making sure that we use what is good, instead of stuff that fits the concept, but doesn’t sound very good.”

Unlike traditional bands, Neutral do not use drums (save for a single track, A-B-C, which appears on their untitled 7” single, released by I Dischi Del Barone in 2017), rehearse or record their material in the same room. Even prior to Herner’s relocation to Malmö, in the autumn of 2014, the duo recorded independently. Ideas would be sketched out onto reel-to-reel tape, or audio cassette, added to, looped and amended before being mixed down digitally. “I only have basic computer skills, when it comes to music,” admits Johansson during our interview. “And we’ve been working with the analogue format for so long. [Tape] catches the atmosphere of the aesthetics that we aim for. We are not really interested in going into a studio.”

The sense of intimacy that seems essential to Herner and Johansson’s working relationship is apparent on all of Neutral’s recordings, but really comes to the foreground on their latest 12”, När. Released by Omlott last October, songs on this 8-track mini album, were crafted in Herner and Johansson’s home studios, in between one-off shows in the US, Belgium and a micro tour with Lydia Lunch.

Neutral prepared foundation recordings before taking the songs on the road. “We used to bring a reel-to-reel to our gigs, but we stopped out of convenience.” says Johansson. “The foundation [recordings] are put on another device that doesn’t weigh a ton.” Neutral then developed the compositions by layering improvised guitar feedback over the recordings, a technique that allows for deviation, but keeps the music firmly grounded.

Herner and Johansson have also collaborated in the guise of their respective solo projects, Leda and Sewer Election, most notably for the Maar LP. Commissioned by the Belgian B.A.A.D.M. label, and released in 2015, the record attempts to soundtrack a still photograph with two twenty-minute compositions. The image, which also adorns the record sleeve, shows a writhing dog fossilised in Vesuvian ash. The dog’s eternal pose, and apparent discomfort in the face of the inevitable, brings to mind the ouroboros: an ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. By way of its repetitive nature, Neutral’s music echoes this emblem of destruction and creation. It also suggests that, unlike the brittle and unfortunate canine, Neutral’s reality is solid and imperishable.

Neutral’s När is released by Omlott.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, March 2018