Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Installment 16 / U-Cover 2008 Update

These days the act of blinking is undertaken at the electronic music writer’s peril. For between start of downward and end of upward eyelid trajectory, U-Cover will almost certainly have put out an album (or at very least a 3” mini disc). In the space of nearly a year since your U-Covering scribe last surveyed the field, with an eye in particular to the limited CDR series (www.ei-mag.com/profile0014.php and previously www.ei-mag.com/profile0010.php), no less than twelve releases have been sneaked out by fiendish label supremo, Koen Lybaert. This obsessive audio-subversive, operating out of a Belgium bunker, is evidently on a mission to subjugate the musical world with his minimal electronica, experimental ambient, and IDM masterplan. A proposed update on U-Cover’s recent release activity, originally casually envisaged as a brief visit, thus now requires an extended sojourn. Your plucky reviewer sees it as his duty to provide a public service to the long-suffering keeper-uppers with this estimable but not uniformly vital series to do some sorting work with sheep/goats and wheat/chaff.

First up is David Newlyn, a newcomer to the label with previous releases on his own October Man (as well as Symbolic Interaction and Boltfish) imprint. Another Day Gone is a collection of gentle solicitously crafted compositions comprised mainly of piano études and guitar pluckings with discreet digital embellishments, and the odd patter of soft downtempo beats. Field recordings from local locations in N.E. England are woven into uber-delicate electroacoustic settings, perhaps in the hope of adding some local colour to largely insipid material. This works well on “Grey And White Afternoon Light”, a quite beautiful study perched exquisitely in that sad-happy zone which has most resonance in this kind of music. A pity that this is the first time Newlyn seeks to prod his sonorities into a life less ordinary, by which time we are already halfway through the proceedings. However, the artist is nothing if not a proficient exponent of his chosen art, and if your boat is floated by wistful keyboard meanderings and soothing washes, you might find your day with Another Day Gone is a day at least partially reclaimed.

Austrian trio Peter Kutin, Daniel Lercher and Florian Kindlinger make up Dirac, who deploy an array of intrumentation to foment a kind of post-millenial hybrid between microsound, film-thematics and the chamber tradition of post-rock (distilled to remove rock traces). On Untitled, sombre drifts and muted minor-chord harmonics blend with audience laughter samples to render opener “Elysium” a surreal zone of twitchy ambience. The nearest touchstone would be to dwell on the quiet bits of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s quiet/loud template, as dirac do most mimetically on “Cherubim”, the resemblance accentuated by Ivana Primorac’s cello and David Knauer’s e-viola scrapes. Elsewhere “Tar De Mah” begins with a dirge-like reflection on what sounds like pipe organ before opening out from mournful to elegiac. The sixteen-minute “Lysis” is a solemn drone church built of tone balletics between key- and string-driven things, around whose haunted environs play the sounds of unquiet in abrasive communion. Being a reissue of the group’s debut, this offers Lybaert the occasion to bundle in one of his more warped and submariner Ontayso remixes. Like Kutin’s previous solo work in this series, Dirac’s Untitled eschews more conventional U-Cover prosaics for an intriguing, if somewhat gloom-laden, poetics.

Next up, Shunichiro Fujimoto from Tokyo operates under the Fjordne banner to cook up a delicate digitally-wrapped sushi comprised of freshly caught raw acoustics. Trailed as being based on two concepts of “sound texture” and “twisted time” (for which read "DSP"), Unmoving is a collection of contemplative and shimmering soundscapes, wherein piano swirls and guitar twirls find fellow-feeling with folds and rhizomes of digi-tritus. Most notably, 10-minute centerpiece “Tick Away From Awake” harnesses a pattering glitch-rain to drench its strumming acoustics, while hazy pianistics vie with marimba tonks and tinkles on “A Book to Read.” Fjordne, for all his Oval-shaped glitch fiddles, is no fierce errorist beast, but a warm-hearted pup playing gently with the aesthetics of failure to add some fizz to his otherwise docile sonics, sounding as if he’d be most at home on the twee side of the 12k tracks, close to kinsman Fourcolor, or perhaps his fellow-countrylabel, Plop. As if to defy such pigeonholing, the vaporous “Falling to the Ground” ends the album in an almost willfully blissed out ambient drone epic.

On to Dutch artist Fomatic, who started making music using C64-trackers, and was clearly raised on a computer-made music diet that, while providing sufficient sustenance for compositional efficacy, may have stunted his musical growth. Inflow is melodic pop-electronica of the downtempo variety that will have no doubt found its way onto the crib-chill last.fm playlist of graphic designers and young IT-boys everywhere. He may well have been “inspired by artists like Telefon Tel Aviv, Plaid, Secede, Boards of Canada, Autechre, Klute, Kettel”, but little has been done with his inspiration other than to channel its informing ingredients into a diluted miasma of negligible distinction that reminds that U-Cover’s niche was once not far from regulation issue IDM. Having graduated to more developed and diverse pursuits, the good Mr Lybaert would do well to guard against the easy lapse back into the Boltfish/Rednetic bargain basement school with facile purveyings of such nouveau easy listening fodder.

Tokyo-based Goro Watari has apparently been active in music since the 80s, though a documented background as guitarist in hardcore and metal bands is little in evidence on this assemblage of questing experimental minimalism, here simmered in post-rock stock, there drizzled with shoe-gaze glaze. Early on Hinode Tracks, with “Era”, Watari finds common ground in harmonic drone experimentation between early-12k micro-isms and late-Kranky space dust. Reinforcing this, “Revt” has something of the Christopher Willits/Giuseppe Ielasi approach to guitar wrangling, a tranquil chord progression caught in conflagrante by an Ocean Fire-breathing laptop-dwelling noise-monster, pulling you down into a fascinating vortex. “Joya C” hosts slow-burning smears of (guitar?) tones spreading-cum-squalling across the upper realms underpinned by a densely heaving bass rumble. “Joya D” surprises with an assertive 4/4 technoid thump to ground the liquefying metallics of its guitar folds and synth tucks, before giving way again to the drone-swathes and bloopery of “Palse”. The quasi-Muslimgauze excursion, “Tortoise and me in kotatsu”, finds Watari intriguingly pushing an opiate drone-haze into a clattering Arabesque percussion den and standing back to watch the fun. “Pix”, however, prefers to make a woozy Kom-pakt with the listener, allowing thick swathes of a distant relative of Markus Guentner’s infinite synth to drift densely across the soundfield. Hinode Tracks is easily one of the most impressive and texturally exploratory releases of this whole series.

Pausing only to draw breath before descending into the Phosphoresence of Koen Daigaku, known to his local postman as Shimizu Kei. There is no background available on this artist’s previous exploits, but let the record reflect that he dredges up the deepest of deep and abraded tones and choreographs them into a veritable nightsweat ambiance that reminds of the darker moments of Gas with loopy intimations of Basinskian disintegration. The sound fabric threatens to burst at times under the surge and thrum of its severely compressed and remodelled fragments, seemingly filched from classical music quietude and press-ganged into service as Kei’s dark materials. Think a smudged and smeared realisation of a similar concept to Andrew Deutsch’s Loops Over Land. Then think again. Maybe take Deutsch’s The Sun, and place it in a fathoms-deep rusty bathyscape. Maybe then you’ll get close to imagining its remarkably corroded sub-aquatic sound. Particularities are otiose as its ten untitled individualities merge into a compelling whole, one whose homogeneity is somewhat spoilt by the addition of a remix by U-Cover house band Ontayso, which strikes as incongruous in the context of what precedes it.

After the fog clears, it’s Marihiko Hara who appears, out of Kyoto but seeming to have let some Chemnitz air get into his circuit boards; it’s not so much the German articulation of the entire titling and track listing of Reflexion, und dann, Metamorphose, that suggests this, but rather the nature of his minimal audio-sculptures of glitchy drones with white noise bursts, some of which seem to lie in sputtering distance from Raster-Noton HQ, reminding of Ryoji Ikeda in particular. Hara choreographs processed piano and the like in sparse strata, introjecting reticent shards of buried half-melody, while whirrs and fizzes vie with skips and silences for brief entries onto the soundstage. The recording strikes, overall, as an episodic collection, resolutely electronically stamped with a machine-driven harshness. And for all its insertions of more human temperament, and inquiries into timbre and structure, its brittle and fragmentary ambiance is invariably more often ear-chafe than aural massage material.

And so to Oubys, nom de disque of Belgian Wannes Kolf, whose explorations are forged from a mix of live improvisations, electronic treatments and field recordings. Paths is his debut album and bespeaks a grounding in all things krautly and kosmischely beautiful, with ambient irradiations from the Blessed Brian’s brainwaves. There’s a pleasing weight and density to this recording, first evidenced on “Toweringwindtowering”, which treads endlessly (well, ten minutes of endlessnessism) over a deep carpeted corridor leading from a late-vacated Cologne-fragranced room with a buzzer-nameplate bearing the legend W. Voigt. On “Mem” he stunt-doubles as Harold Budd reeling woozily from a shot too many. “Oubys” itself has Kolf unable to resist returning to the earlier mentioned room, and finding its air swimming with a shifting drone-fog of buried melodies, before ghosting through “Blue Caves” to a psyched-out downtempo beat-loop lope. “Inside Cloud” blows out steepling billows of grainy Heckerian cumulo-nimbus before it clears to reveal a becalmed final path in the shimmering drift of “Silent running”. The sheer expressive heft of Paths marks Oubys as one of the stand-out soundscapers of the whole U-Cover bunch.

Phasen is Ryan Parmer, a 19 years old musician from Orlando. Though seemingly a seasoned campaigner on the netlabel circuit, the self-titled album under scrutiny here is his official disc debut. The most striking aspect is the extent to which the influence of Boards of Canada, Milieu and a legion of similarly calibrated wibbly chill-tronica lies upon its pedestrian precincts. Unfortunately, not much else of merit lies upon it, since Parmer’s endowment is possessed of little spark or distinction. So what you get is a largely invariate slew of (resorting to press blurb prosaics for want of a music sufficient to massage a limp muse to life) “dreamy, soothing pads, light melodies, and catchy rhythms”. And not just one, but two phases of Phasen’s negligible development are reeled out here with Quarterlife Crisis, a second full-length, following (not so) hot on its predecessor’s dragging heels. There is little pleasure and even less mileage to be had from documenting the smell of spent campfire headphases attending Phasen’s every tired step of the way through this loping synth-doodle and snoozing guitar-fiddle.

The Belgian Greenhouse label closed down after three releases, with Somni451’s album Probes and Prisms barely distributed so U-Cover have stepped in to reclaim it for contemporaneity, so posterity can get a look in. Those familiar with Bernard Zwijzen's project from previous U-Cover outings (A Phosphorous Spot and Vladivostok) will immediately feel at home in the big soft electronic listening blanket of its tranquil pop-microsound infused minimal ambient-electronica. Rich tones and nagging patterns lullingly recur, with the odd voice, field recording and percussive tics and tucks. The sonic touchstones are still the same: the Kranky musings of such as Chihei Hatekayama and Christopher Bissonnette and the 12k of (especially) Shuttle 358 (“Chrome Yellow” and “Porthole 104”), with occasional cadences redolent of a Kompakt pop ambient-lite (“Probe”). There are, though, sufficient departures in sound source, as on “Sidetracked”, with its jazz-tinged saxophone loop, and newly appealing tweaks of the old template, such as “Outer Shell”’s melding of the patter of sticks and stones with a gorgeous tumble and trill of harp plucks, to make this an engaging ride.

Finally, we have Ylomejja, by the Strom Noir project, under the curation of Slovakian Emil Mat’ko, who constructs flowing pieces of haunting, sometimes haunted, ambience from guitar loops and synths, adding detail with field recordings and sundry liminal sounds of otherness. Haunting, as in title track “Ylomejja”, a beauteous Enossified driftzone of resonating neon guitar plucks that outfold across the listening space. Haunted, as in “The Orbs”, which has the arcing lilt of a reverb-dripping motif slowly effaced by the cavernous resonance of overdriven echo. The same shadowy figures populate the psyched-out drone-blur that is “Nice to be here”. Ylomejja is strong on tenebrous atmospherics and a certain desolate drama effected by Mat’ko’s sombre poetry of movement and texture. Overall, however, a certain sameness of sound design means the album as a whole falls just short of attaining the heights initially promised, though it’s helped in this case by an addendum in the form of a 15-minute Ontayso remix, a slow and low trance-mission which sees “Planet Catcher” spirited away to a different darkside domain of shifting and tilting pitch-shifted soundplates.

Overall then, it’s what we’ve come to expect from U-Cover, a mixture of the totally compelling, the occasionally intriguing, the just so, and the ho-hum. The best is up there with the best of any major electronic label, and the rest is a question of sub-genre predilections. Oh...and I just blinked and yet more releases have leapt into being—seems you can never quite have U-Cover covered... ALAN LOCKETTwww.u-cover.com