For various reasons it’s been a strange 12 months at The Liminal – quieter, more fractured, less focused. We wondered, collectively, if we were getting old and jaded, eyes squinting towards the narrow end of the night, strung out from too many years of listening closely. The End of Music was discussed in clipped, frightened whispers. But the putting together of this list, a counter to the crushing blandness of the yearly Mercury fandango, has been instructive: we found ourselves struggling to limit it to twelve, arguing over the contents, what should be included and what left out. It’s good to be reminded that there’s so much inventiveness out there, so much energy spilling out from under the flattening blanket of cultural inanity. This is just a sample of that energy, there is plenty more.
To keep ourselves aligned with the talent exorcism taking place over there, we’ll announce the winner on November 1st.
Actress – R.I.P.
Much of Darren Cunningham’s work to date has been glitchy and cut up, granular and atomistic. Splaszh, especially, had a stuttering quality, sections feeling like mental blips, interrupted neuronal messages. There was also a real sense of flair involved, virtuosity. R.I.P is ostensibly a much calmer affair, with greater areas of space in the fabric of the tracks and a real sense of completeness in form – it ‘feels’ like an album. In an interview with Dazed Digital, Cunningham said “even though music isn’t silence in itself, the actual process of doing it can be silence” and in that strangely contradictory statement is the truth of the album: it does feel as though it’s built from a base of silence, from the ground up as it were. The whole thing is full of this contemplative air, but it’s the later sections that have the greatest poignancy, tracks like ‘Tree of Knowledge’ with its deep waves of sub-bass and gritty cymbal clusters, and ‘N.E.W.’ coming on like a elegiac Ballardian waltz. All in all it’s quite a statement and a complexly emotional album.
Bass Clef – Reeling Skullways
Bass Clef may have started out as part of Bristol’s dubstep brigade, but like his peers such as Peverelist (whose label Punch Drunk released Reeling Skullways), Pinch and Kuedo, he has shown a wonderful knack of using that as a base from which to explore new, increasingly futuristic, styles and sounds. Reeling Skullways features very little of the deep, cavernous bass that characterises dubstep, with Cumbers instead focusing on repeated synth patterns and measured, powerful beats to pitch the album into territory that borders on a lot of electro styles without ever getting stuck in any specific (sub)genre. Perhaps the title of the second track, ‘Hackney-Chicago-Jupiter’ encapsulates Reeling Skullways best: this album was born in Hackney, but it takes the sounds of London and aims for space, Sun Ra-style, with a cool stop-off along the way in the US, just to absorb a bit of Footwork and Detroit techno for the spaceward journey.
Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland – Black is Beautiful
Hype Williams were always an oddly ephemeral prospect, with their time warping recreations of fugue states and narcotic reveries. With Black is Beautiful, their first release under the own names, and their first for Hyperdub, this ephemerality and fundamental ungraspability was ever more apparent. Beginning with a half-speed sample of the greatest cough on record (from Sabbath’s dope-ode ‘Sweet Leaf’) was something of a blatant signifier of what was to come: a series of half-there vignettes, glimpsed from the paralysing stupor of a ketamine fug or snatches of opium dreams remembered on waking. The centrepiece, ’10′ is as strange a thing as they’ve released to date, sounding like an escapee from a Craig Leon record, or a diseased outtake from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. They seem ready to do anything and go (steal from) anywhere. Whatever their methodology (and let’s be honest, their method is unclear – are the beats and queasy synth washes samples or original compositions? Does it matter?) the duo continue to intrigue and confuse in equal measure.
Helm – Impossible Symmetry
On Impossible Symmetry, Luke Younger seems to both flex his considerable muscles and broaden his scope in even more nuanced and subtle directions. The album opens in a fug of submerged drone, a creeping, creaking and groaning soundscape that taps into the collective psycho-geography of his London home. He has previously discussed hearing sounds on the underground and wanting to use them in his recordings, and in my mind’s eye this is a musical reflection of East London, where Overground trains, with their electric hum, rush past my balcony, and strange metallic sounds emanate from the garage across the road. At the same time, the piece works as music, the buzzing drones and whispers of noise combined expertly in the manner of Throbbing Gristle circa ‘After Cease to Exist’ or the time-distorting ambient works of Thomas Köner and SleepResearch_Facility.
Eddie Prévost, Sebastian Lexer and Seymour Wright – Impossibility In Its Purest Form
2012 has been something of a landmark year for the percussionist Eddie Prévost – and not just because it saw him turn 70. While his Meetings With Remarkable Saxophonists series showed him reaching back to post-bop roots (and sounding like he was having a lot of fun in doing so), other albums gave the lie to any notion that he was solely in reflective mode, revealing a musician continuing to press forward, and to explore new sonic spaces. On Impossibility In Its Purest Form, the trio of Prévost with prepared pianist Lexer and saxophonist Wright sound like they are working within the confines of the listener’s own cranium. Like craftsmen, they gently prepare and scrape at those bony surfaces, filling gaps, adding minimal embellishment. The more open-minded will find the restrictiveness paradoxically liberating, the trio ultimately carving out a door to a whole world of colour, shade and texture.
Rustie – Glass Swords
Glass Swords was the kind of record that seemed like it’d be all rush and no substance – a series of short bursts of serotonin that would fade back into the murk as quick as they arrived. But the album has a strange kind of staying power, the afterglow lingering longer in the memory than it has any right to. Rustie had hinted at this change of direction on the aptly titled Sunburst EP – but to see the hyperactive beats and managed ecstasies marshalled so well was something of a shock. Not to mention the inspired smuggling in of such disparate and seemingly mismatched sounds: proggy arpeggios, washes of video game pyrotechnics, Fairlight synths, slap bass… And despite all this, it’s so expertly crafted that Glass Swords still manages to sound like a perfect summation of its time.
Shackleton – Music for the Quiet Hour
If, as the man says, we are all David Toop now, then somehow Shackleton must be the neurons, or maybe the writing hands. There’s always been something of Toop’s style in Shackleton – the exploratory nature, the episodic open-endedness, the almost propulsive sense of stasis. And Music for the Quiet Hour is the very epitome of all this. On its 5 tracks, Shackleton has somehow stepped through the gaps between the beats and discovered a new Mandelbrotian layer of complexity and calm. He gives each track space to breathe and unfurl to a logical conclusion, unafraid, particularly on Parts 3 & 4, to allow for long passages of inertia. But even these periods of inertia are alive with a kind of crackling creative energy, an energy stirred and kneaded by the calm monologues of Vengeance Tenfold. The other word I keep wanting to use is ‘shamanic’ – it’s daft and overblown language, of course, but there is something increasingly mantric and psychedelic about the direction Shackleton is heading. He’s one of our most intriguing explorers at present, and Music for the Quiet Hour might just be the best thing he’s done.
Richard Skelton – Verse of Birds
Although far from rapturous, Verse of Birds is traversed by a spirit of elation, the work of an artist rendered speechless by his surroundings but committed to translating this feeling in sound. Skelton’s talent lies in how he recaptures the land’s openness, and a sense of space and air dominates the album: it lies between the notes of his violin and guitar, it fills the musical mind-image he creates with thoughts of endless skies, rolling seas and uninhabited greenery. These images are palpable, but at the same time elusive, and what you’re left with is space. Not emptiness, just space. One to fill with emotions, sounds and thought, from a delicately-plucked acoustic guitar (a welcome addition to his sonic palette) to those heart-rending, airy drones he’s become a master of.
Rob St. John – Weald
There’s a fractured, lost and ancient air to Rob St. John’s debut full-length release on the Song By Toad label. Ostensibly a folk record, aware of all that tag implies, the songs are simply arranged – delicate guitar work weaves around shuffling dreams beats as St. John’s anguished vocals creak over the top, while his voice sounds like its been around for years and lived a life that’s not, entirely, been kind. Stand out track is ‘Sargasso Sea’ which flows and moves like the currents that drive the real thing. The guitar riff, stripped back, raw and deep, reminds me of something Talk Talk would have used, an instrument in perfect harmony with the crooked vocals and jazz-tinged drums, John’s delivery so matter of fact that the words slam in your face: “I was an Island… a stripped and empty room”. This song sums up the feeling of isolation and desolation that runs through the album – a feeling of struggling through life by ones self, struggling to connect with people and places.
Andy Stott – We Stay Together/Passed Me By
Moving away from straight-ahead dub techno, Andy Stott created a singular new sound for himself on this pair of masterful EPs. Passed Me By plucked genre signifiers from dance music’s past and present – disco thump, soul swoon, the staccato twitchiness of popular R&B and hip-hop – and submerged them under abominable bass weight, before exhuming the tiniest traces of hooks and grooves. At once murky and exquisitely spacious in design, this was a sound that kept drawing us back in to uncover more of its curiously half-hidden riches. We Stay Together was arguably subtler and certainly denser with even less to immediately hang onto. Rhythms lurched and chugged away and the barely tangible fragments of its predecessor were stretched into drones and buried even deeper.
Chris Watson – El Tren Fantasma
The title of the sound recordist Chris Watson’s latest CD, borrowed from a Mexican film from the 1920s, translates as “The Ghost Train”. The name makes reference to the fact that the recordings were made while he was working on the BBC show Great Railway Journeys, where he took a ride on one of the very last passenger trains which ran from Mexico’s Pacific coast to the Gulf on the other side, a journey that since 1999 can no longer be made. However, as you listen to it while studying a map of the route, from Los Mochis in the west, through Chihuahua and Mexico City to Veracruz on the east, you begin to trace a number of branch lines which lead off from the main line. You find yourself making connections, hitching your wagon to a number of different trains, in order to chase down some fascinating – and very resonant – ghosts from Mexico’s history.
Richard Youngs – Amaranthine
The ever-prolific Richard Youngs delivered one of the most adventurous and audacious albums of his remarkable career in Amaranthine. Based around a vague focus on drums, but with Youngs’ trademark guitar mauling never far from hand, Amaranthine boldly vaults the gaps between rock, free improve and experimental drone. As often, Youngs’ lyrics are cryptic in the extreme, notably on the marvellous ‘State I’m In (California)’ and the gripping ‘Everybody Needs a Sword’, with vocal loops piling on top of one another to form delirious choruses of unhinged, oblique poetry; whilst the emphasis on layered percussion imbues each track with a furious, propulsive momentum. Untethered from recognised mainstream form, Amaranthine is worthy of standing alongside the best works of The Dead C, Sonic Youth and Skullflower as a monument of rock music at its most outlandishly forward-thinking.