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Showing posts by Jennifer Lucy Allan

Moving Parts

Jennifer Lucy Allan

The Mire ran from early 2008 until 2013, when The Wire's website was relaunched. The blog became defunct as the site expanded into new areas, and much of The Mire's remit was covered by other parts of the site, as it mutated into new sections: galleries, opinion columns, features and more.

In the name of completism and for the good of the archive, all blog content is archived here, right back to the first missive in 2008.

Deadheads, Doors and live supercuts

Jennifer Lucy Allan

Sounds that weren't meant to be recorded have an uncanny quality. It's these that superimpose scenes of animated yet soulless bodies on Oscar Powell's recent 12"s, Body Music (Diagonal), and an untitled 12" (on Boomkat's Death Of Rave). Sounds taken from live bootlegs of New York No Wave groups – like chickens jerkily strutting around the yard with no heads – pure motor movements minus autonomy and intention.

Talking to Powell for the March issue of the magazine got me thinking about these bits in between live sets. In Powell's music they are what makes his sound so uncomfortable – that which separates it, in terms of its construction, crowbarring apart beats and guitar twangs, and on a macro level, lifting it above the dense forests of hi-fidelity frequencies currently populating dancefloors. A trail of hyperlinks led inevitably to a series of live supercuts.

The first, a year of The Grateful Dead warming up: every single tune up on from 1977 spliced together in chronological order, in one hour and a half supercut. Far from being utterly unlistenable, (even for a non-Deadhead like myself) it's charged with audience anticipation, a giddy anticipation audible behind the endless meanderings, recast awkwardly as one long improvisation, scattered with rogue hi-hats and dribbling riffs.

A hyperlinked wormhole led to this, a shorter 15 minute supercut of sections in between live tracks by The Doors (by @JS_666). This is a different beast – a psychedelic wormhole of unhinged madness, false starts and MC Escher-like beginnings and endings, woven into the frayed ends of tassled carpets.

The Doors – Absolutely Edit

There's also this, 37 solid minutes of Neil Young & Crazy Horse descending into and ascending from a vortex of riffage. Here, the in-between bits are sonic manfestations of trains of thought, threads followed, and how long is a piece of string when you're talking Neil Young & Crazy Horse? They lose the thread, take it up again, follow tangents, but always loop back, to riffs on riffs on riffs. Arc was released on a major in 1991, bundled as a double pack with Weld.

These supercuts have an entirely different atmosphere than a) listening to any of these groups live or recorded, and b) listening to most other recorded music. You could compare these edits to improvisations, but that's not fair. The stuff here is a step before improvisation – these are run downs, shake 'em offs, and tune ups, the endless wind/whine down by groups that get lost – the sound of being in The Zone (or not).

As a signing off note: the difficult matter of stage banter. Joni Mitchell is rubbish at it. Fugazi were feral. And then there's this, a supercut of Geordie Venom frontman Cronos introducing tracks, squawking hoarsely about Newcastle Brown while an audience member screams "I WANT A DRINK!".

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A family affair (Wire edit)

Jennifer Lucy Allan



In April 2002 Jake Walters photographed Alice Coltrane at her home in Santa Barbara for the cover of The Wire 218. One of the extended family members hanging out at the shoot was Alice's teenage nephew, Steven Ellison. Ten years on, and Ellison is now better known as Flying Lotus, patron saint of downtempo beat makers, and now Jake has photographed him for the cover of the forthcoming October 2012 issue of the magazine.

So we couldn't resist a pose with a copy of that issue graced by the numinous presence of his late, great Aunty Alice, and here it is. The October issue, complete with more images from Jake’s shoot, will be on sale from next week and on its way to subscribers from the end of this week. The digital edition will be dropping in from the ether on Tuesday.

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Remix, remake, remodel

Jennifer Lucy Allan

Is the term remix redundant? Music has been begging, borrowing and stealing since day one. But does a remix denote more about the working process than the actual nature of the track? When so much is on long term loan, where's the dividing line between say, a prodigiously used sample and a remix? Is 'remix' just a label that's used top-down, from label to listener, to make sure you're accessing an audience efficiently?

Perhaps the trouble is that remixes are often half-baked, passed around on short deadlines to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a URL, touted as 'exclusive', when it's one from a bag of ten or more quick-fix mixes that add a lazy beat or beefed up production to give a track a longer shelf life. (The plague of bad blog-House mixes that were recycling Pitchfork-hits for desperate music bloggers got so bad The Hype Machine built in a 'no remixes' functionality.) It's the churnalism of music production.

Of course it's not always like that, but it can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. The good ones often catch you off guard by changing everything about a track, a drastic restoration or rebuild that changes how you thought and felt about something, a sweet vocal line looped into a frightening verbal tic, a tiny synth line scrubbed clean and brought to the fore, massive and shining.

From these thoughts I'm led to the entry-level philosophical puzzle of Theseus's ship. It asks: if you change every plank in Theseus's ship from oak to teak one by one, then at the end, is it still the same ship? Applied: if you replace or change every element of a track, is it still the same track? (...And if Theseus asks Wiley to change the planks, who owns the ship when the job's done? Theseus? Or Wiley? – Leaving aside the fact that Wiley would probably take the credit for it floating.)

From Ancient Greek puzzles there's only one small step to Mark E Smith, naturally: If you change every member of The Fall – is it still The Fall?

Talking to Nik Void for a feature in this month's magazine, I was struck by the way she talks about how Factory Floor pass on their records for remixing so readily (to Chris Carter and Stephen Morris, among others). For her it's about a continuation of ideas, giving someone what you've done and seeing what they will do with it – orphaning your own work so it might see something of the world, if you like.

Void said: "We like giving our stuff to other people to see how they develop it further, just letting it go."

"Just letting it go" – is this the nub of the issue? When you slap a bunch of names on something, notions of authorship, ownership, rights, and the ego of the creator all come into a power play. An artist gives someone a track and asks them to remix it. Is the track, as Nik Void suggests, a collection of ideas passed from one person to the next? Or (philosophically speaking not – God forbid – legally) does the original work belong to one person, passed on to someone else to be reworked (but not re-authored)?

And what about Tom Moulton mixes, Theo Parrish's Ugly Edits, and the rest? The waters are muddied, and in certain areas (the stuff that would once be tagged Ambient Techno for example), there can be a disjunct between what's called a remix and how a track has been constructed and reconstructed. Music is so tied up in ideas, concepts, and the sonic properties of equipment, that it might often be more correct to talk about something's continuing life cycle than it is to call it X's remix of Y by Z.

The term remix isn't really doing its job. In the same way that genre tags are in many ways redundant, maybe the term remix is limp and ineffective too. Genre tags act as vague signposts, but they can't draw a map. A remix can tell you who's been on the buttons, but won't give up the story of what really happened behind the desk.

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Last month a DJ showed me life: Hieroglyphic Being @ CTM

Jennifer Lucy Allan

A month ago a DJ set by Hieroglyphic Being (aka Jamal Moss) set my world on fire. It was in Berlin, at the CTM festival, and I can't stop going over it in my head, rerunning the maths to find the multiplying factor. It was the first time I'd seen Moss DJ. It started at 3am, following an impeccable set of tessellated Techno by Kassem Mosse. But Jamal Moss's set was a different beast entirely: loose, sloppy and incredibly ugly in some parts, but always giddy, impatient and unpredictable. It ran through pitched up and pitched down tracks, and too many genres and styles to count on one hand. At one point it got into a call and response dialogue between New York disco and Krautrock. The mixing was at times slick, incredible (an air raid siren threaded through three tracks, sewing them together). In other places it was a dirty hack made with a blunt instrument.

The constantly changing pace sent me nuts, for Hieroglyphic Being's disregard for the conventions of what constitutes 'good' DJing. In fact the performance capsized all the cliches that have built up around our idea of what makes a 'good' DJ set, ie that good mixing is a smooth segue between two tracks; that a set should move through styles in a gradual progression; that bpms shouldn't ramp up, plummet and shoot up again in the space of three minutes. Moss moved between sections full of sudden schizophrenic cuts from one track to another, and passages where he would let one groove run unmolested for almost ten minutes. Tracks were pulled after one chorus, played backwards, rewound. They were sped up to 170 bpm, then slammed up next to slow 80 bpm funk.

I laughed my way through it, half the time shaking my head in disbelief, frowning, puzzled. Admittedly, it pushed my buttons, that New York disco stuff always does. But it was done with such confident swagger – with Moss resplendent in Battlefield Earth leather chic – that it worked.

Some friends said they were finding it "very challenging". Why? Because what was expected (even given Hieroglyphic Being's diverse output) was not being adhered to. Descriptions of the mood in clubs and on dancefloors often resort to religious analogies, and this set required you to make a leap of faith, or find yourself at an impasse with regard to the sheer iconoclasm of it. CDJs are frowned on in some circles, but central to Moss's set was the way it foregrounded the sound of these tools – the fake scratching sound of the CDJs, the speed shifting (sometimes without pitch control), and brutal use of the fader.

Whereas Kassem Mosse's set felt like a perfectly calibrated clockwork model (not conventional, but certainly neat and tidy), Hieroglyphic Being's was the boss-eyed Frankenstein's monster you fall in love with precisely for his scars and club foot.

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Joshua Light Show and Manuel Göttsching: Berlin stage invasion

Jennifer Lucy Allan

One of the central events at the CTM and Transmediale festivals in Berlin just over a week ago was Manuel Göttsching with Joshua Light Show (whose line up now interestingly includes Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters). The show was introduced by three of the festival organisers. They asked in tense tones that people not move around the seated venue, and also that the audience resisted the urge to film the show on smartphones, as the intention was to attempt to create an immersive experience reminiscent of an original Joshua Light Show performance.

This immediately created a rift between the festival organisers and their audience, not because it was an unfair request, but because CTM and Transmediale had three cameras covering the event (one still photographer, one for the live stream and a secondary video camera). Of these three, the LCD displays of two were in the eyeline of around a third of the audience.

Before I get started though, I'd like to add that this post is not about the ubiquity of the smartphone at live shows, or the proliferation of the amateur documentarist. That's a knee jerk reaction I'm not remotely interested in. The truly uncomfortable part of the show was when two thirds of the way through a member of Joshua Light Show emerged from behind the projector screen onto the stage.

Picture the scene, it's a small-ish, reasonably low stage, in a sit down modern theatre. She's dressed in a black top and sequinned skirt, but wearing a giant cream and metal headset of the sort pilots wear, and is edging awkwardly further towards the spotlight, glittering in the halo from the spotlight focused on Göttsching. Her arms are outstretched, in them is a handheld video camera pointing straight at Göttsching. She draws closer, until she's obscuring the view of him, and circles slowly, like David Attenborough around a rare tree frog.

Göttsching ignores the camera, but the audience doesn't. In those few seconds the atmosphere in the whole room shifts, and there's a tension in the room. A couple choose this moment for a toilet/bar break. Others shift in their seats, whisper across to one another. The spell is broken.

The images she films are then sent back to the team behind the curtain, where they're altered and projected live, in glassy fragments among psychedelic lights and swirling ink flows. The effect is definitely not analogue, but it's also not what's making me antsy. It's her presence as a recorder, not the digital nature of that recording that's making me uncomfortable. I'm already trying to ignore three cameras. This puts it up to four.

This is the first time that Göttsching and JLS have performed together in Berlin, and the show has been two years in the planning. There's a large portion of the audience that wants to film the show and stick it on YouTube, or just people who want to get a photo with their smartphones, because this is an Event. Joshua Light Show, for those 15-20 minutes, are the ultimate spectator, in a crass display of how our modern recording habits disengage us and can ruin an atmosphere.

The filming also brought up another more philosophical issue, about the cultural currency of AV performance. It's often the case that even with reasonably 'big name' visuals, the musical aspect of a performance is the seller, and those creating visuals are subordinated on the bill. This can usually be explained by the bigger audience for music, and hence, the bigger name gets higher on the bill. But on these terms Göttsching and Joshua Light Show is a rare performance – a conjunction between an audio and a visual arts festival, with Göttsching and Joshua Light Show equal on the bill. In coming out from behind the screen Joshua Light Show are asserting their right to be on the stage (even if it didn't work, it was a legitimate part of the performance). It's uncomfortable. Joshua Light Show clearly feel they have the right to be out in front of Göttsching, but the reaction of the audience suggests otherwise.

What Joshua light Show are doing feels inappropriate because at an AV show, the V part of the equation is not allowed to mess with the music. The performer is centre stage, and the visuals are an accompaniment. But visuals can make or break a show (they definitely elevated Roly Porter's performance earlier on in the festival), but they're often treated with mild suspicion, as if really arresting visuals are some sort of distraction, or a bogus enhancer of the music. After Roly Porter, friends commented on the fact that they weren't sure if they enjoyed it, because they were worried they'd been sucked into the visuals and weren't able to asses the performance properly.

In Berlin this week that gap was boldly pointed out to me, and the fact that the digital processes jarred with the aim of the show only added to the discomfort. The way we experience music live is all about sight as well as sound. Great music is not diluted by visuals, and visuals do not cover up for part-baked audio. The two should work together. It's just a shame that The Joshua Light show misjudged their front of stage intrusion at CTM.

(Despite the requests, one audience member did manage to film sections of the show. Watch a section below.)

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Lou Reed & Metallica: Why all the #WTF?

Jennifer Lucy Allan

lulu lou reed and metallica

Sitting conspicuously at #9 in our 2011 Releases of the Year chart was Lou Reed and Metallica's Lulu, one of the most hated albums of the year. Reactions to its charting have ranged from noisy retching to charges of conspiracy. What's struck me, looking after The Wire's various digital channels, is the nature of these reactions - it's not the fact that hardly anyone likes Lulu that's unnerving, but that the response has been so over the top.

A few readers were bemused by the fact that James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual was our album of the year, but the reaction was rather more considered to say the least. As a result of Lulu's Top 10 placing, we have been accused of constructing the chart purely as a hyper-ironic statement, received an email (on Christmas day) that referred to it as a "piece of shit", and otherwise been variously slagged off. While every music magazine is used to receiving its fair share of beefs, the reaction to Lulu (and its appearance in our chart) has been uniquely venomous.

Interestingly, people seem to think the Loutallica album is objectively bad music; not just something that few people like, but something it is impossible for anyone to like, at all. It's a bizarre response to a record that is essentially a mix of overwrought beatnik poetry and overwrought Metal riffing, especially in the context The Wire - there's really nothing in it that's so shocking to modern ears it warrants the reception it's been getting. Why is it legitimate to react to it like this? What's the key difference between Lulu and other 2011 albums that people didn't like, the one ingredient that pushed everyone over the edge?

The obvious answer to that is Lou Reed himself, who has been (intentionally) whipping audiences into a hate-filled frenzy since at least the mid-1970s, and even once released a live double album, Take No Prisoners, full of obnoxious crowd baiting routines (sample line: "Give me an issue, I'll give you a tissue, and you can wipe my ass with it"). But that can't be the whole story. There's also the attitudes of Metallica fans to take into account. And of course, the ever present trolls.

Perhaps because there's been little consensus on what's definitively great this year, there's relief to be found in a consensus on what's terrible. In some ways that happens easier online – the balance of negative and positive in comments sections, YouTube and sometimes on Twitter tends towards the former. Add the objections of Metallica's more conservative fans to the group going way off message, stir it up via a YouTube preview and a set on Jools Holland, add some scathing reviews, and hey presto, Lulu's branded as safe to hate.

But not all zines, papers or sites thought Lulu was awful (although it garnered 1.0 ratings and "one of the worst albums ever made" type assessments). Ultimately, the reaction to it is a testament to Lou Reed's ability to still get up the noses and under the skin of even the most open-minded listeners. He's probably laughing his head off at it all this very minute.

(The above image comes courtesy of Rock Sound magazine, whose office is just across the corridor in the same building as The Wire's. They think Lulu is a joke too - obviously)

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Analog alchemy: Auris Apothecary and the anti-cassette

Jennifer Lucy Allan

Indiana based label Auris Apothecary is only a record label in part. A package sent from them recently contained cassettes and CDs, but also a small spice mix, a tin full of dirt, and a small wax sealed scroll printed on acetate.

Sitar Outreach Ministry's Spring Of 1970, a two track cassette, is wrapped and bound in a dried sunflower leaf. Unwrapping it made a dirty mess on the floor of The Wire's meeting room, and coated my hands in a dusty organic scuzz. Wrapped like it was, once I'd starting tearing layers of green leaves away, I'd never be able to wrap it up neatly again. I had to tear it apart piece by piece, and now I've got a plastic bag full of crackly old leaves that smell like earth, and a cassette in cardboard case, and I'm not really sure whether to chuck out the leaves or not.

This packaging challenge is something that's been explored by other artists and labels: Entr'acte's vacuum packs, and Dreams Of Tall Buildings's plaster cast William Morris box. The packaging must be destroyed for you to access the music, forcing the listener/owner to choose between the physical artefact and the cultural artefact, between being a listener or a collector.

But there's more than that simple dichotomy at work in Auris Apothecary's releases. The packaging that I find most compelling is the one I find most crudely titled. Unholy Triforce's Sandin' Yr Vagina is an "anti-cassette" (Auris Apothecary makes a number of different "anti-cassettes", including one nailed into its plastic casing). It's filled with black sand, the holes plugged with Scotch tape, and bound in black emery board. Silly? A bit. But interesting too: the sand poses a direct risk to your cassette player - play this tape, and you'll almost definitely ruin your machine.

This is all part of the plan. Dante Augustus Scarlatti, Auris Apothecary founder says: "We spend countless hours perfecting each fold and drop of ink on our releases, part of the absurdity in what we do is that we also promote absolute destruction – sonically, physically, socially, spiritually and mentally. If that happens to entail destroying part of the package we worked so hard to make, it was all part of the greater plan and should be considered an acceptable casualty in the pursuit of understanding.

"Anti-cassettes are our extension of that idea, promoting physical alteration to a degree that it would appear unplayable or damaging to perform in its presented state... They are obstacles designed to provide tangible insight into otherwise abstract concepts, and we encourage the listener to perform whatever tasks are necessary to hear the audio. They also represent a basic test of logical reasoning, serving as a mental measure of common sense. If you believe it will damage your equipment, why would you play it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to solve whatever is preventing it from playing correctly?"

The cassette is given an agency it doesn't enjoy otherwise. Playing this tape, it's your machine that becomes the transient, finite thing in the equation, not the music. It's a direct opposite to the current discussion about the direction of music consumption. This cassette leaves reminders of itself everywhere – there are still grains of black sand on my desk.

"I imagine folks view [the cassette] too often externally and write it off, thinking it’s created as an art-object that holds no audio value. We present a challenge, and we hope people attempt a solution. But that's not to say that we don’t entirely condone people destroying equipment by shoving a sand-filled tape into their perfectly-functioning tape players."

The music lives on to destroy another machine, and will (presumably) change from one play to the next, depending on the dispersal of sand on the tape and in the reels, and the hardiness of the machine you've chosen to sacrifice next. This cassette is put together to be a mechanical aggressor (which probably explains the title), hell bent on ruining your listening for years to come, as you hoover grains of sand from your Walkman.

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Korean internet broadcasts: Where silky pop ballads still roam

Jennifer Lucy Allan

Internet radios spider the internet for stations: algorithms track down broadcasts. Spinning a dial means I don't head for a particular target, I browse. Channel surfing by location, I stumbled (and stuck) to South Korea. Not regional or national stations, but ones that seem to be broadcast from a user generated platform a little like Fnoob, and are called things like Coffee, Music, And Emotion, Little House Under The Stars, and Lamp Of Love. I say seem, because I don't really know much about these stations.

What I do know is that these stations are solely interested in a type of seriously emotional manufactured pop: tales of teenage heartbreak, epic adolescent sagas, and intense melancholic ballads. At least, that's what it sounds like. My radio only goes so far in translating the Korean text (and Google hasn't proved much more useful), so ticker lines and track names get scrambled from Korean into Wingdings-like lines of symbols and letters, with only the station name staying intact.

Sung in my mother tongue I'd be far less interested in these cheesy ballads. Obscured by a language barrier the vocals are removed of the lazy romantic cliches I'm presuming make up the lyrics. Predictable, reliable, and stripped of potentially alienatingly bad lyrics, I really enjoy these stations - the warm intensity of the I-Really-Mean-It key change that suggests a statement of everlasting love; the same chord changes in every track, and a vocalist that always fits the same sonic box.

The tracks all sound the same, and in part it's this consistency that appeals. They wouldn't stand up to close listening, and further investigation might reveal an unsavoury production line of pop artists, or just a lot of terrible albums. I listen to this only in the context of my radio, because it's a mood I tune in to, not a collection of artists whose back catalogues I'm interested in. Even so, I don't seem to have a choice: Coffee, Music And Emotion is as impenetrable online as it is on my internet radio (unless of course, you speak Korean).

A little like Rollo Jackson in Tape Crackers (if you swap out the Jungle and inner city tower blocks for South Korea's bedroom broadcasters) I don't know the artists being played, and I don't know who's playing them, just the station name and when to prick up my ears for the key change, and that's the way I like it.

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Synthesthetic Illusions

Jennifer Lucy Allan

At this year’s Mutek, the series of A/V performances (as well as Amon Tobin’s bombastic stage spectacle) were notable for treating visuals with an extra gravity that isn’t often extended to VJs and A/V artists. Across the festival schedule, visuals were brought to the fore and rendered in pin sharp graphics.

Here's a clip of Purform, whose set was most collaborative, with the audio visual elements merged into a coherent package, where neither medium is the prime mover. It's this duo that got me to thinking about the effect of hi res visuals on the audio in an A/V show. Here, the monochromatic visuals were rendered across a three screen array.

The effect of these super hi-res visuals is a sort of synthesthetic illusion, whereby the audio is exaggerated because of the visuals. There's a phenomenon like this in consumer technology: people watching a higher resolution screen think that they are hearing better quality audio than those watching a lower resolution screen, even when the audio is identical. The same phenomena seemed to be happening in the context of the A/V shows too, particularly at Amon Tobin.

Tobin's stage set up was one of the centre pieces of the festival: 3D projection mapping onto a stage set constructed from giant white stacked cubes. The visuals run the gamut from abstract lights and animated graphics to Transformer-like robots and enormous spaceships in starry skies. The extravagance of this spectacle appeared to give the booming of the bass an extra dimension, and at the very least the sound for Tobin was noticeably better than for other artists in the same venue.

The AntiVJ/Murcof collaboration benefited from a similar synesthetic illusion: flexing, angular, monochrome noodles, designed to react according to the frequencies Murcof was pushing, stretched their vibrating coils into the foreground of the broad screen, gave the bass an extra dimension, feeling like it got deeper into my head. It reminded me of the the Lustmord show at Unsound Festival in Krakow last year (also performed at Unsound New York), where curling smoke trails spiralled into blackness.

Whether the brain's mixing up of good sound and good visuals is a real effect in A/V performances or not, generally speaking visual artists at Mutek were treated as legitimate acts alongside their musical collaborators. This doesn't happen often - one reason suggested to me has been that great audio visual shows are suspicious: the more paranoid among us immediately ask what the visuals are distracting us from in the music, like the card trick that distracts you from the fact you've had your wallet nicked. Are the bright lights just a diversion from what's going on somewhere else in our senses, or are we just too used to music being performed with little or nothing in the way of visuals to be comfortable with it being done really well?

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