Martina Bertoni – “All the Ghosts Are Gone” (2020)

Born and raised in Italy, Berlin-based cellist Martina Bertoni spent much of her career collaborating with other musicians.  Her first solo release wasn’t until 2018 and up to this point all of her solo work was digital.  All the Ghosts Are Gone, on Iceland’s FALK label, is both her first solo full-length album and her first physical release, FALK producing an extremely limited run of 40 cassettes in addition to making it available for purchase via download.

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While classically trained, Bertoni’s style is anything but classical.  Blending somber cello with electronics she creates musical canvases that slowly stretch against their own frames, creating a tension that threatens to tear the surface and rip the entire thing apart.  That’s not to imply that the songs are in any way frantic.  In fact it’s just the opposite.  The tension comes from an underlying stillness that is disturbed, gently at first but with steadily building pressure, the initial touch becoming firmer as spacetime stretches in response, membrane-like as it attempts to conform to Bertoni’s sonic exertions.  If asked to recommend entry points into All the Ghosts Are Gone, I’d go with “Blu” on the more ambient end of the spectrum and “Invisible Cracks” as the most tense.  “Notes At the End of the World”, the only composition with vocals, is tremendous in its flow and is one of the highlights of the album.

Cassette copies of All the Ghosts Are Gone, as well as downloads, are available on the FALK Bandcamp page HERE.  I also recommend checking out Bertoni’s own Bandcamp page (HERE) so you can listen to and download some of her other solo material.

Hatari – “Neyslutrans” (2020)

Man, less than three weeks into the year and I’m already writing about a 2020 release for the first time, and from one of my favorite bands no less.  With new releases by HAM and Gusgus on the horizon, 2020 is already shaping up to be pretty awesome.

Before we get into Neyslutrans I wanted to do some musing on Hatari and people’s perceptions of the band.  They’ve got 23K+ followers on Facebook and over 80K on Instagram, they’ve won some awards, and they were selected to represent Iceland in Eurovision last year.  Sounds great, right?  Well, they’ve also pissed some people off.

The pissed-off-ness seems to mostly follow two paths.  The most obvious is their vocal support of Palestine in the weeks and months leading up to the Eurovision finals, which certainly didn’t go over well with most people in the host country of Israel, though it was supported from plenty of other directions.  This culminated with Hatari recording a song and doing a video with Palestinian artist Bashar Murad (“Klefi”, which is included on Neyslutrans) and holding up small Palestine banners following their finals performance, resulting in much pontificating and rhetoric and petty retribution, such as employees of El Al separating the band members on their flight out of Israel and putting all three in middle seats in the middle row.  Which is kind of petty and stupid, but at the end of the day is only annoying and inconvenient.  Now, I’m not taking sides here – this isn’t a political blog, and I’m just summarizing what happened.  Some people thought Hatari’s support for Palestinian independence was a good thing.  Others did not.  And others still took third path of pointing out that political statements aren’t supposed to be part of the contest, so just play your music and shut up already.  At the end of the day, I enjoyed their performance, and I’ll leave it at that.

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There are also criticisms leveled at Hatari for what is perceived as their appropriation of various subcultures and for not practicing what they preach in terms of being anti-establishment and anti-consumerism.  Maybe these are really two separate issues, but I tend to hear them lumped together, so that’s how I’ve been thinking about them.  Hatari describe themselves in various ways – anti-capitalists, performance artists, an anarcho-syndicalist commune.  Their holding company is called Relentless Scam Incorporated.  Their merch is sold under the heading Consumer Products.  And yes, this anti-capitalist anarcho-syndicalist commune sells merch, both recorded music and clothing.  The media had used all kinds of words to describe their style – industrial, goth, dance, and my personal favorite the completely misguided “steampunk”.  So what are Hatari?

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Well, the appropriation criticisms are evident in both the visual and sonic aspects of their aesthetic.  Clearly their stage outfits draw from BDSM and some aspects of LGBTQ culture, blending it with fascist chic, cyberpunk, and small doses of pure absurdity – the first time we saw them live the two dancers on stage, dressed in black spiked outfits, were wearing straight-up tourist-style fanny packs from which they produced lollypops that they threw into the crowd.  The entire thing is brought together into a very intentional and choreographed stage show – Hatari put a lot of effort into establishing personas and an artistic image that they want to impose onto the audience.  Sonically they certainly draw from what were the extreme fringes of 80s and 90s industrial and electronic music, bands like Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly, adding some modern polish and taking something that was at one time frightening and intimidating and turning it into something, well… a Consumer Product, in a way.  Now, musicians have been doing this since, well, since at least Elvis.  Does this excuse it?  I mean, I don’t know if it needs an excuse or not.  More than a few things that are now quasi mainstream started as fringe subcultures.  I can understand why it rubs people the wrong way, especially if and when people who aren’t actually part of the subculture co-opt elements of it for their own benefit, which can certainly feel exploitive.  Especially when entertainment is created from it, entertainment that is marketed to the masses.

In the song “Ódýr” off the EP Neysluvara the singer asks, “Why did I sell myself so cheap?” (♠)  It’s a valid question.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think they shouldn’t make more money for what they do, though in this context “cheap” doesn’t just mean money – it means everything.  This… this is what I work for, what I give my limited time and energy for?  Just this?  This society that is teetering on the edge?  This life?  All this… stuff?  It’s a feeling I think most people can relate to at one time or another in their lives.  Some societies have attempted to form in ways that value the work of the individual, though people being people there’s always someone or some cabal that goes and ruins it for everyone.  Someone always craves more.  More stuff.  More power.  More, more, more.  And then, usually after some bloodshed, another path is chosen.  Rinse, wash, repeat.  What’s the answer?  Is it railing against capitalism?  Is this the crux of Hatari’s message, this expression of modern day anomie?

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I have no idea what truth, if any, drives Hatari.  I don’t know these guys, and from what I’ve seen and read they stay more or less “in character” during interviews.  Are they truly anti-system and anti-capitalist and just selling merch as a way to fund their message, as they claim?  Or are they simply performance artists, characters in a play of their own creation, one that evolves over time?  And if so, what is their ultimate message?  Remember, their company is Relentless Scam Incorporated.  My perception is that there’s nothing nefarious in their motives, nothing calculatedly exploitive, but that could just be because I like their music and shows so much and I don’t want to think about the other stuff.  Maybe I don’t care either way.  Maybe I’ve sold myself to cheap.

I will freely admit that I am a big fan of Hatari’s music and I’ve enjoyed both the live shows I’ve seen.  Neysluvara was the #1 pick on my Top 5 Albums list in 2017, and I stand by that.  And when I learned just two days ago that a new album was coming out, I immediately hit up their website and bought two copies, one on vinyl and one on CD, and since I didn’t want to wait for those to arrive next month before hearing it, I bought the download too.  So much for anti-capitalism.  Long live Consumer Products.

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Neyslutrans (which translates to Consumption Trance) is a 13-song journey, one featuring a supporting cast that includes the previously mentioned Bashar Murad as well as CYBER, GDRN, Svarti Laxness, and even violinist Pétur Björnsson.  While opening tracks “Engin Miskunn” and “Spillingardans” can be heard as continuations of the band’s debut EP Neysluvara, Neyslutrans also sees Hatari break new ground.  Klemens’ higher-ranged vocals get more space, taking an edge off the harshness of Matthías’ raspy, accusatory pronouncements, and their collaborations offer an opportunity to blend styles.  “Klefi / Samed” balances Hatari’s harshness with the Murad’s more pop approach, incorporating his clean and dreamy vocals in sharp contrast to the ragged edge of Matthías’ delivery, while the female hip hop trio CYBER team up with the guys to create the dance-floor-ready “Hlauptu”.  The most jarring track is actually the quietist, the classical, violin-only interlude that is “Spectavisti Me Mori, Op. 8” that acts almost as an intermission, or at the very least an aperitif to cleanse your palette before you embark on the album’s final five songs, blending seamless into the harshness that is “14 Ár”.

The conciseness of the four-song Neysluvara ensured it was a gut punch from start to finish, like being stabbed to death with a razor sharp exclamation point by a bondage-gear-clad version of The Joker.  Neyslutrans doesn’t offer that same type of consistent, defining experience.  If Neysluvara is the star that went supernova, Neyslutrans is the gas cloud that formed around it, a cloud that still surrounds that impossibly dense and dark core while reflecting light and creating an impressive, varied, and expansive display.  Which is a good thing, because if Hatari had simply given us another 13 songs in the vein of their debut the result would have been an album hard to get through in one sitting – it would have just been too much.

Neyslutrans is an enjoyable listen, start to finish, and I suspect it’s going to be on heavy rotation in the Life in the Vinyl Lane household for months to come.  The download is available in all the normal places, as well as on Bandcamp HERE, while CD and vinyl can be purchased from Consumer Products HERE with a scheduled ship date of February 4.  I don’t know how limited these will be – they should be more accessible than the physical copies of their debut.

 

(♠)  There’s a great page HERE that breaks down and translates the lyrics of this song (and others), and in particular this line.  The more literal translation would be something to the effect of “Why didn’t I sell myself for more”, which does have a bit of a different connotation.  Whereas “so cheap” implies that I basically gave away my time and myself as a choice, accepting little in return with a shrug of my shoulders, the more literal reading is about knowing I’m selling myself because I don’t have a choice… and since I don’t have a choice, I may as well get as much as I can in return.  

Omar Souleyman – “Shlon” (2019)

omarsouleymanshlonIt seemed weird that Shlon made my year-end list as one of the Top 5 releases of 2019 even though I hadn’t written about it yet.  It was mostly a timing thing – the album came out late in the year, and I was a bit later still in catching wind of it.  But that’s an easy enough situation to rectify.

I first became aware of Omar Souleyman in 2013 when the Syrian musician was scheduled to play at Iceland Airwaves.  There was something intriguing about the story of the wedding singer who found international fame later in life, a man who used electronics to blend traditional music with modern, an updating of Syrian dance music.  His show at Harpa (below) didn’t disappoint – Souleyman had the crowd eating out of his hands and the entire set was one big party.  I’ve been following him ever since.

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With only six tracks, on the surface you might think Shlon is a bit short.  But with five of the  songs clocking in at 5+ minutes you still get about 35 minutes of mind-altering, hypnotizing music.  I don’t know anything about dabke, but I know what I like when I hear it, and the blend of pulsing beats and the snake-like progression of the traditional instruments is captivating.  The most intriguing track is also the one least like the others, the slow and simmering “Mawwal”, the vocals carrying a depth of emotion in the absence of beats.

I could list to Souleyman for days at a time, letting his music take me away to a completely different world…

“God Bless America” Compilation (1985)

godblessamerica1I came across this copy of the 3 X LP box set God Bless America over at Easy Street Records when I was there for RSD Black Friday a few weeks back.  What first caught my eye was the packaging – a box set inside a bag made from an American flag.  A few searches later and I found out this compilation was put out in 1985 by RRRecords, a 31-song collection of experimental music.  What’s surprising isn’t that I picked it up and gave it a hard look, but that I put it back without buying it.  I even remarked to Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane that I showed some restraint not spending the money on something I’d probably only listen to once.

But because I’m an obsessive, I kept looking at it on Discogs, and when I woke up last Saturday morning I knew I was going back to Easy Street and buying it if it was still there.  And it was.  And it was marked down a few bucks, which was nice.  Which is how I find myself sitting in my living room on a Saturday afternoon and busting into this box.

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There were 500 copies of the vinyl release of God Bless America, with 200 of those coming in the screened flag bag.  The interior boxes are themselves artworks, with only 25 copies made of each version, meaning there are eight subsets within this group of 200, and in fact they’re even numbered to reflect this – mine is “16 / 25 / 500”.  The inside of each box is hand-painted as well, adding further to the uniqueness.  Inside are three record and a handful of flyers and inserts.  Based on the images on Discogs my copy might be missing a few, assuming that each box set contains the same inserts… which I can’t be sure of, though I do suspect that’s the case.  Oh well.  There are also some 2 X cassette versions of this release, though with only 21 songs the tape sets are 10 tracks shorter than the vinyl box set.

But let’s get to the important part – the music.  There is some wild stuff on God Bless America.  All of it experimental to a degree, but not all of it way out there.  Psyclones’ “Outta My Way / Food Stamp Dub” could easily have appeared on an On-U release from the same period, a funky, groovy dub made perhaps a bit absurd by the vocal subject matter.  That’s followed by the more disturbing Smersh and “The Good Life” with its discordant horns and strained, almost anguished vocals.  Clearly God Bless America is one of those collections that has you wondering what’s waiting for you with each new track.

A number of these compositions flirt with Americana themes and songs.  Dimthings’ “God Bless America” samples the song “God Bless America”, while Max + Mel’s “Parade With Baby” uses the “Marines’ Hymn” and, of course, Noizeclot’s “Star Spangled Strangled” uses the “Star Spangled Banner”.  I’m sure there are some others I missed along the way.  Plus America is specifically mentioned in the titles of a handful of tracks while others reference the Constitution (“The Bloated Constitution” by Screaming Dukduks) and phrases like “One Nation Under God” (by Blackhouse).  We even have audio from Ronald Reagan’s oath of office.  So there’s a definite political take here too.

I’m finding myself enjoying God Bless America more than I expected to.  I only recognized three of the artists (Smegma, Smersh, and Master/Slave Relationship), so I didn’t have much to go on.  In addition to the previously mentioned Psyclones, I’m also a fan of Un-Film’s “Rhythm of Fear” and Data-Bank-A’s industrial dance jam “Is God a Monster?”.  The first record was more chill and dreamy; the second more agitated and industrial (especially the closing track by Blackhouse – holy hell that thing is nuts); the third is, well… weirder than the other two.  I can’t full explain that last part, you’re just going to have to take my word for it.  I feel like I’ll play the first record from time to time, though honestly I’m not sure about the other two.

“The Elephant Table Album: A Compilation of Difficult Music” (1983)

What do we mean when we describe music as “difficult”?  I know I’ve done it before here on the blog, but I suspect it means different things to different people. Is it music with unusual timing signatures?  Disturbing lyrics?  Experimental work with sound that doesn’t fall into any kind of recognizable pattern or framework?  Genres you don’t personally care for?  Something that creates an unsettled mood in the listener?  Or maybe all of the above… or none… I don’t know.  When I use the term difficult, I usually mean something I find musically well outside of the norm, something I can’t quite wrap my mind around.  This includes non-music and noise, as well as experimental and avantgarde.  It’s music that challenges my preconceptions of what actually constitutes “music”, and I find it valuable in that it expands my mind.  I don’t always like it, and often I only listen to a given album once, but that doesn’t mean the listening experience wasn’t valuable.

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So I was intrigued when I ran across this record yesterday over at Easy Street Records, because it says right on the cover that it’s “a compilation of difficult music”.  I wondered what that meant to the label, and the first artist name my eyes fell upon was Chris and Cosey.  Hmm… I don’t normally think of them as difficult.  Is that because I’ve listened to them a bunch over the last few months?  A little further down is Coil.  OK, I sort of get that, at least some of their stuff.  Nurse With Wound.  Now this is making a bit more sense.  I only know a few of the other 17 performers (♠), specifically SPK, Muslimgauze, and Legendary Pink Dots.  That gave me enough context to know that this was an album I needed to buy.

The genesis of The Elephant Table Album was an article Dave Henderson wrote for the May 7, 1983 issue of Sounds entitled “Wild Planet!” (the text of which can be found HERE).  It was a survey of the more extreme music being made at the time, a listing of dozens of bands with blurbs on each.  Four months after that article appeared this double album came out.  I’m not sure how it was received at the time, nor do I know how I would have reacted to it back in 1983 (probably badly), but rough 36 years later in my living room it’s tremendous.  400 Blows’ “Beat the Devil” is a high point, along with the Chris and Cosey jam.

Styles mix on this album, though there’s still a general cohesion.  The Elephant Table Album opens with an industrial dance track, Portion Control’s “Chew You to Bits”, then takes a sharp left turn to Chris and Cosey, though their “Raining Tears of Love” is less poppy than their later sound, a methodical electro dystopian dream sequence.  From there we take another sudden swerve and find ourselves listening to horns and synths and piano and disconnectedly haunting vocals in the very avantgarde “Musak from Hawthorne Court” by Metamorphosis.  And it just keeps going on like that, song after song, surprise after surprise.

I can’t say enough good things about The Elephant Table Album.  It was re-released on vinyl in 1989 with a different set of liner notes, and that same year a CD version came out, though the CD only has 17 tracks.  It also sounds like the CD version was actually recorded directly from a vinyl copy and not from the masters, so buyer beware.

(♠)  The track listing on the reverse of the record goes up to 21.  However, Muslimgauze is listed twice, both times numbered 9.  So what’s the deal?  Looking at the grooves on that side it looks like the record only has five tracks, which would mean that despite Muslimgauze being listed twice there is in fact only one track devoted to him on the record.