Exek – Biased Advice

[Another Dark Age; 2016]

It’s hard to believe Exek only really kicked off in 2014.  It’s harder to believe all the music on Biased Advice was conceived before vocalist/guitarist Albert Wolski had his hands on a band.  While the fierce mandate of the lyrics and their simpatico with the music surmises some individual conceit, Exek have some slick chemistry on display.   With it’s heart firmly rooted in the basement grooves of This Heat (complete with a few dabs of dub courtesy of TH offshoot Lifetones) and the night stalking tension of Bauhaus, the band execute their vision exceedingly well for a 2 year old.

But even thats a pretty basic description.  In reality we see a band consumed with all embodiments of musical greyness; the well-educated logical endpoint of 40 years of the relentless evolution of punk and unfettered access to the inestimable library of music we enjoy today.  By depicting coldness so broadly, Exek avoid easy reductive comparisons while retaining the spectre of familiarity.   

Opener ‘Submitted’ lashes with the demonic fever of the Birthday Party before ‘A Hedonist’ transitions into the gothic kraut for which the band is more commonly known, along with the Hex Induction-era Fall clamour of ‘Foreign Lesions’ and ‘Replicate’.  But it’s grand finale ‘Baby Giant Squid’ that takes the cake: a writhing fever dream of Iron Curtain despair with a virtuosity that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Necks record.  Its an impressively early career highlight, and like all career highlights, it transcends the worthy talent of its authors (all this for a tune that was directly lifted, unmolested, from a local release on the excellent cassette label Resistance/Restraint).

With all the effects and atmospherics Wolski’s words aren’t always easy to decipher, but the fragments you catch reveal a lyrical talent.  Wolski’s lyrics are terse and impressionistic, the interminable monologue of an overeducated malcontent inspired in equal parts by the Blake-inspired musings of Tom Verlaine and the dreamscape surrealism of David Lynch.  Where the caricature ends and the true thoughts of the author begins I’m not so sure.  And that’s the beauty of it.

In a post-jangle landscape dominated by romanticised depictions of the affable slacker, Exek put you deep in the slacker’s head after the party on the long stoned walk home.  It’s a familiar character, but a well earned foil to the halcyon hipster we’re told to relate to these days.

Download their record off Bandcamp for a neat $8.  Otherwise you can order the LP here.

Tackle – Benzedrine

[Another Dark Age; 2016]

One of my new favourite Melbourne acts on my favourite ex-Melbourne label Another Dark Age with a fucking belter of a name.  With titles like ‘Benzedrine’ and ‘Stung’, and much like kindred spirits across the pond at Diagonal, Tackle is direct and refreshingly unpretentious, merging acoustic samples with filthy square wave bass and a laissez-faire attitude to syntax – the sound of a skinhead pacing his dank quarters in a blind impotent rage.

Unlike a lot of Diagonal’s stable however, there seems to be a fair amount of the producer’s own involvement in the sampling process.  Although clearly processed for inhuman proficiency, the wet slap of the percussion on ‘Benzedrine’ carries the distinct signature of the space it was recorded in.  Its the most spacious cut on the EP, and what originates as percussive ambience uproots and transforms into unruly atmospheric drum and bass (think Muslimgauze making a Weightless record).

Taking a more playful turn after the sinister opener, ‘Stung’ and ‘AGR 803’, with their intersections of post-punk and dance music tropes, wouldn’t sound out of place on that first Powell record ‘Body Music’.  On ’Stung’, Tackle is again in good form as an instrumentalist, hammering slackline bass grooves over disembodied acoustic drums.  ‘AGR 803’, meanwhile, is the straightest dance cut on show here (as loosely as you can use the term); a symposium of acid lines anchored to the increasing urgency of the bass swells.

While each tune represents a departure from the last, Tackle keeps things interesting without detracting from the overall sonic cohesiveness of the EP.  Where many producers, particularly on aesthetic-heavy labels like Diagonal, define clear margins for their sonic ideas (at least on an album-by-album basis) it’s great to hear a producer put out a set so polished and eclectic.  The EP was apparently recorded in Berlin by way of Seymour, Victoria – and its exactly what you think that would sound like.  Definitely excited to hear what the guy puts out next.

You can order the EP on vinyl here

Is There a Hotline – Is There a Hotline

[Vacant Valley; 2016]

Released on one of my favourite local cassette labels Vacant Valley, Is There A Hotline’s self-titled debut is a fine articulation of the duo’s skills as improvisors.

The decision to go with a live album was an inspired choice for their first record, allowing us to experience the chemistry shared between Jens’ Tait and Calloway and their dizzying array of instruments as they interact within a natural space.   Juxtaposing the tedium of the every day with the existential abyss of space through a combination of musical objects both common and obscure, the duo embark on a pure exploration of sound that highlights the control they exercise over their environments.

Where most invoke the term loneliness in a musical context to convey a distinctly mental, insular form of solitude, ISTH evoke a decidedly physical sense of remoteness. ‘Live at Longplay’ is the more explicitly spacy of the two, placing satellite-like synth resonances over muffled deep-space correspondence.  Ever-present are ISTH’s drone-y vocal harmonies, the sort that could comfortably soundtrack the discovery of the Monolith.  The cover art of a shopping trolley floating in space is a perfect reference point in this regard, breathing stark isolation into the minutiae of every day life.

While space rock may have cannibalised its own ‘expansive’ ideas until it turned into the same series of tropes the genre tried so hard to transcend, don’t flinch, this is proper fucking space music to feel insignificant to.  For fans of Nurse with Wound and early monologue synth workouts by the likes of Susanne Ciani and Radiophonic workshop.

You can buy the album here on Vacant Valley.

Is There a Hotline at Aeso Studio

While their new album admirably captures the essence of an Is There a Hotline show, the best way to experience the band is in the room.  The Jens are active performers and while Tait nimbly navigates the garden of instruments arranged in front of her like a master chef, Calloway isn’t afraid to terrorise the audience.

At Aeso gallery on Brunswick st, which had been hosting a number of musicians every night of the week in conjunction with a new exhibition, Calloway at one point donned a pair of wooden boards and started clopping mechanically into the baffled crowd.  What at first attracted a few nervous laughs from the crowd soon assumed a nightmarish quality, as Calloway stared each audience member down behind a lattice of hair – daring us to find the display anything less than terrifying.  Where most audience interaction feels like tedious grandstanding, ISTH impose their presence thoughtfully.

They are also, from what I can gather, constantly experimenting with new ideas.  The sense I get is that anything goes – instruments, performances, band members.  At Aeso they invited a young girl on to the stage to jam along for their first movement, who with a keyboard and triangle displayed a precocious ear for expression and restraint far beyond her years.  A promising new voice in the avant garde for sure and, coming from a Pablo Cruise household, I can say for sure I’m envious of her early education.

If you get the opportunity to see this essential Melbourne band, don’t waste your 5 bucks elsewhere.

There’s no dates currently listed but you can follow the band’s Facebook for updates.

I also highly recommend keeping tabs on what’s going down at Aeso studio.  They’ve got great exhibitions and frequently open their doors to experimental musicians.  Sound Tsunami is on this Saturday the 15th of October, featuring Japanese noisenik Go Tsushima (of Psychadelic Desert).  

Laraaji at Musikbrauerei Prenzlauer Berg

After the 5-day drone fest that was the spectacularly bleak Berlin Atonal, I was a bit reluctant to enter the void once more with an appearance from drone-royalty Laraaji.  But that’s how I found myself one Sunday evening – the most drone-appropriate day of the week – at Prenzlauerberg’s ‘Musickbrauerei’, where I was surprised to find a brewery with music in it.  Laraaji would be joined by frequent collaborator Arjhiroula “Arji” Cakouros with Moscow pianist Dmitry Evgrafov opening.

Beginning solo on a gorgeous old grand, Evgrafov didn’t quite transcend the intrinsic beauty of his instrument.  He was later joined by an accompaniment on MIDI keyboard with the player carefully examining her cues on a laptop mounted on the piano.  But while the textures offered by the tape delay gave the set some much needed colour, the synth strings blurred into the slightly myopic beauty of Evgrafov’s compositions.  He is a nice player but i found the intersection of the digital and the acoustic (a la Nils Frahm) a little underdeveloped.

After Evgrafov we ducked into the adjacent room where the crowd milled around an upright piano.  Despite the clear strong presence of musicians among the audience, it was only after the room had cleared of all but the most fastidious pot-smokers that someone plucked the courage to have a tinkle – in the spirit of competition or just ‘in the spirit of’ I couldn’t ascertain.

Now a lot of opening acts complain (justifiably) that the volume goes up for the headlining act, making them appear more forceful by comparison.  But I can’t say I’ve been to a gig where the headliner had the benefit of better seating, and by the time we returned to the concert hall the venue had rolled out a bunch of foam pews.  The pews set the scene pretty perfectly, and as Laraaji began playing the eminently sinkable pillows felt like canoes down the river Hades.

Starting with the gong, Laraaji nimbly cast chasmic resonances to the idle caress of chimes played by Arji.  At this point all I knew about Laraaji was that he had the Brian Eno sign of approval and that he played the zither.  After wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of seeing him play what was clearly a gong and nearly forcing the conclusion that maybe I had no idea what a zither actually was, Laraaji started playing the zither.  Greeting his instrument of choice with a soft patter, Laraaji revealed yet another trick up his sleeve by supplying some gorgeous, aching vocal harmonies.

But before the room could come to terms with the immaculate control Laraaji displayed over everything he touched, the ruminative sparseness was swallowed up the growing momentum of the zither.  Suddenly the performance had gained a sense of playfulness, with the two performers conversing in psychedelic non-sequitur and the exaggerated laughter of a Greek chorus.  As the man said himself ‘”In the beginning was sound, words are our interpretation of.’  And so the two went, weaving words and expressions into the fabric of their sound collage.

Not music and words, just pure sound.  And, as a student of sound and its relationship with meditative practices for half a century, Laraaji reveals himself to be a master.  After the performers took their bow they were driven back to the stage by a very enthusiastic crowd.  “I could do this all night” said Laraaji, breaking out another bouncy zither number before pulling out the harmonica, yet another trick in the piece.  And indeed we all wanted him to.  What a treat.

Don’t see him coming down our way anytime soon, but get around this short doco where Laraaji reflects on his change of vocation from comedian to musician, working with Brian Eno and spirituality.