Seventh House Music ~ Exile / Murmurs ~ Review

‘Seventh House Music’ is a recent imprint of ‘Rattle Records’ and a portal into a specific sub-genre of free improvised music. The parent label, Rattle, occupies a unique place in the cultural life of Aotearoa. It is a natural home for innovative and predominantly Kiwi art music and the new imprint has emerged at an auspicious time. Rattle has just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. It is a taonga, drawing inspiration from many sources, including that of Aotearoa’s indigenous peoples, and due to the careful curation by Steve Garden, it maps a unique arc of creativity. Or to quote from the website: ‘music born of open-ended boundary-free creativity, new music for open ears.

‘Exiles’ is the first album from Seventh House Music, and presciently, it appeared in the week of Jon Hassell’s passing. It engages the psyche, much like Hassell’s music. Adventurous music like this has been around for some time, but until recently, unaccountably, it has mostly flown under the radar. In fact, this is the second collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Their first release, ‘Trouble Spots’ came about after a long collaboration and it finally appeared last year. I reviewed it in a post titled ‘Adventurous Spirits’ on this blog site. 

This album feels a lot bolder and it is as compelling as it is confronting. I would not categorise this as ambient music as it demands attention from the first. There is no equivocation here as the album hauls you deep inside its soundscapes and without preamble. You attempt to regain your equilibrium as you perceive the unfamiliar in the familiar. This is a world that Alice would have delighted in, a place where nothing is quite what it seems and where change can happen deceptively. You accustom yourself to a direction only to find that the moon and stars are not where you thought they were. 

There is a narrative flow throughout, but it is not dependant on the known. It laps gently at your feet in First Wave, then drops you unexpectedly into something utterly different. You strain to hear as a distant and disembodied voice urges, 

“you’ve got to stop dreaming at night’ (did I imagine hearing that?).  

Twenty-Three Fifty-Nine becomes a minimalist piano piece with crystalline chords dropping out of the ether. And there is subtle humour as well, as fragments of spoken word mess with your head. As in Collapse, which opens with percussion and delightfully so, and out of the rhythmic shapes emerges competing voices. 

  “I was close to my mother, (pause), in real life I mean”. “The twilight of the gods”

In times of upheaval, there is nothing more cathartic than a truly immersive experience, a place where the complexities of the world can be encountered, upended, then reordered. As always with Rattle productions, the artwork and booklet are pitch-perfect. Whomever UnkleFranc is, he/she should take a bow. Very few labels present such an attractive package and even fewer maintain such unerring consistency over time. If you haven’t checked out expansive psychedelic filmic music, this would be a great place to start. If you are familiar with adventurous music then you won’t need a second invitation. If you have noise-canceling headphones, grab them and push play: you will thank me, I promise.

The album was produced, recorded, and mixed by Garden and Zagni, with some mysterious others credited. It is available on Bandcamp or better yet on CD complete with a comprehensive ArtBook. Seventhhousemusic.bandcamp.com

‘Murmurs’ is the second Alan Brown album to be released in recent months, and like Alargo, it delves into free-improvised sound-sculpted music. While this is a solo album, it features many voices, shaped and curated by a variety of electronic means. One of the devices utilised is an iPad and this willingness to experiment and to push at the boundaries of technology is part of what makes Brown a trailblazer. 

Most importantly, Brown is a master of nuance and although he utilises an array of machines he humanises the effects and instruments at his disposal. There is always a keen acoustic awareness and he evokes a sense of the spaces he occupies. There is wizardry, but it is subservient to mood and texture. It is the continuation of an interesting and evolving journey and one we are lucky to share. 

The layering and looping effects on Murmur are seamless, as themes shimmer and shift. And because the changes flow so naturally, you are always inside the music. Transmission becomes Murmur and so on throughout. And because of these beguiling and subtle shifts, you lose your awareness of time and become more aware of space. I am unsure what the piece titled Halting Problem refers to, but it had me standing on a mountain top and breathing clear crisp air. In effect, these are engagements, and each invites the listener to become a participant. One will find a mountain top, another something entirely different. 

Our world is peppered by ugly social media outbursts, appearing to lurch from crisis to crisis. Because of that, our awareness of human shortcomings increases and we can easily become disoriented, angry or despairing. This album provides respite and applies a balm. It is a call to pause and reflect. It slows our steps and guides us to our better selves, and out of that, refreshed, we are the better for it. 

Listen and purchase from seventhhousemusic.bandcamp.com 

Adventurous Spirits

The Following albums are all adventurous in their own way. All reach beyond the strict confines of genre and while each approaches from a unique vantage point, they offer a cross-section of trans-Tasman pandemic era music. The music may or may not have been influenced by the lockdown itself, but the association resonates. We are on a long journey. Moving from isolation towards an unfamiliar landscape. We will inevitably cling to yesterday, but we will hopefully also take the braver step of jettisoning what has become superfluous. We do not need bankers and snake oil merchants to guide us, but we do need adventurous musicians. 

Dark Energy: Paul Williamson Quartet

A few years ago a visit to Melbourne coincided with the launch of Paul Williamson’s ‘Finding The Balance’ album at JazzLab. There was a lot to like about the album and I wrote a review after I had returned to New Zealand.  Now in the midst of the pandemic, Williamson has released a new album titled ‘Dark Energy’. This time he invokes different spirits and in doing so he taps into new and exciting realities.  

This is an edgy and forward-looking album and although it offers glimpses of the familiar, it quickly strikes out for freer air. Popular music seldom strays beyond the angst of loves lost, but Australasian improvisers increasingly move beyond the confines of gravity. In fact, astrophysics is often an inspirational touchstone for our down-under improvisers. In the early seventies, these themes were convincingly referenced by the likes of Bennie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. Dark Energy picks up the batten, combining galactic revelations with the discovery of wondrous interior worlds.

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On certain tracks, Williamson’s trumpet playing contains hints of Tomasz Stanko or perhaps the quieter moments of Kenny Wheeler. A wistful moody quality is evident and especially on tracks like Al-egance; his tone is especially gorgeous in these settings. On the more ethereal tracks, he utilises extended technique and skilfully embeds the instrument into the spectrum of the bands sound. In all of these explorations, his band is in lock-step. Letting the compositions speak with clarity, and understanding, that close confinement is unnecessary in space. 

On guitar, Theo Carbo displays a deft touch, clean and appropriate to the task in hand. Again there is a gentle moodiness and one which owes much to improvised Americana. The bass and drums also strike the right balance, never overreaching, and yet every voice and flurry is heard perfectly. 

Paul Williamson (trumpet, compositions), Theo Carbo (guitar), Hiroki Hoshino (double bass), Miles Henry (drums)

paulwilliamson.bandcamp.com

 

Wind & Wire: Alan Brown solo piano

‘Wind and Wire’ is a third of a set of solo albums that Alan Brown has released. His first two albums teased out the subtitles of an acoustic piano, and they did so in a setting which allowed the acoustics of the room to inform the improvisations. This album compliments the earlier albums while expanding the sonic possibilities. With keyboards and digital enhancements come fresh choices, and this is a logical progression for which Brown is well-fitted. He is an acknowledged master of the digital and analogue keyboard, and he understands how to judiciously apply enhancements. 

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The album is a set of 10 improvised pieces and the titles set up the mood for each. ‘Mood’ is an important ingredient in any ambient composition for it is the mood and not melody or rhythm which invites us inside a piece. Brown is always careful to establish this. His improvisational development follows a logic evolved from the preceding phrases. It is more than sound shaping as it flows like a river from start to finish, and this in spite of being unconfined by written charts or cycles of scales. 

In Wind and Wire, there are varying moods and not all are quiet or reflective. Where you start is not always where you expect to finish. There are surprises embedded within. While these are essentially interior landscapes they are no less real for that. They invoke vistas and engage with our ever-changing realities. Something we have hopefully learned to value in these days of inner reflection.

alanbrown.bandcamp.com

 

Trouble Spots: Ivan Zagni/Steve Garden)

A few days ago ‘Trouble Spots’ appeared in the Rattle Records Bandcamp catalogue. I listened and was captivated. Because humans are hard-wired to categorise I looked for descriptors. Among the tags were: acoustic instrumental, experimental, atmospheric, improvised. I listened to the rest of the album and then once through again. Wow, I thought, this is engaging but it studiously evades categorisation. How can something so enjoyable and so strangely familiar remain so elusive?  

The cover art was also mesmerising. So much so, that for a while I failed to register, that the album was the result of a long collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Garden, the local Manfred Eicher, the presiding spirit of Rattle Records (and what is often overlooked, a fine drummer and percussionist). Zagni is the co-leader and a significant figure in the music world, long acknowledged as a gifted multi-genre experimentalist. Born in London and moving to New Zealand many years ago where he soon became a significant presence on the local scene. The Rattle label grew out of Garden’s early work with Zagni and Don McGlashan. 

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Keen to get the low-down I contacted Garden and during our conversation, he suggested some additional tags for the album: absurdist, filmic, musical jokes, sonic circus, accidental improvisation, sonic collages and experimental music. Most musical disciplines have a vocabulary and the listener is therefore accustomed to locating fixed reference points; seeking out the elements that indicate genre. If a style is too rigid however, then that implies stasis and the improvising arts are the antitheses of stylistic inertia.

So this is an album that tells wonderful stories and the stories are best constructed (or deconstructed) in our heads. The music here facilitates that with its evocative but elusive cover image, it’s glimpses of Beirut or Nicaragua, of Punch & Judy, Cat & Mouse. Think of it as musical Dada or a Zen Koan. There is serious intent and good musicianship here, but that should not prevent us from laughing in pure delight. 

rattle-records.bandcamp.com