Monday 27 May 2019

Sound travels: Raf and O's 'The Space Between Nothing and Desire'

What a pleasure it is to be writing about a new Raf and O album - roughly three years after their last, the majestic 'Portal'. Back then, I wrote about how that record so completely embodied its title, the duo finding an exact connection between acoustic, organic pop/rock and more abstract, avant-garde electronica.

Now, we have another perfect title: 'The Space Between Nothing and Desire'. This latest album, if anything more perfectly realised and brilliantly entrancing than their previous work, seems more about a sonic journey than a meeting point. It takes the listener on an audio voyage that seems to bridge the gap between cosmos and earth as the record develops.

It feels slightly awry to try to guess or detect Raf & O's 'influences' as such, because they only really sound like themselves - but in parts the album gestures towards inspirational figures, themselves all questing, visionary artists who, in some way, brought the leftfield and mainstream together: David Bowie, Scott Walker, Kate Bush...

At Kate Bush, it's worth taking a short detour. One of the activities keeping R&O busy in the last few years is their side project, 'The Kick Inside'. In this guise, they perform KB covers, with Raf on voice and piano, and O mostly on double bass. While the explicit intention, given the pared-down format, is to celebrate KB's early material, the live show in fact stretches out to include brilliant acoustic arrangements of tracks like 'Cloudbusting' and 'Suspended in Gaffa'. Raf's interpretation, too, 'represents' KB rather than simply imitates, her voice already a great match for the songs. So, rather than a tribute as such, it becomes a fully-formed re-imagining, of a Kate who may still have written all those incredible tracks at the same pace, but - perhaps undiscovered - kept gigging them out in the clubs. (I wrote more about this 'alternative reality' here.)

It's impossible to believe that so much time spent inside Bush's imagination hasn't in some way fed into this new album. But what's so remarkable is that, if anything, it isn't KB's own sound audible in the record, but elements of  'The Kick Inside' - in other words, the approach Raf and O brought to it. Two of the tracks are essentially piano and guitar only - more on these below - and throughout the album, Raf's vocals (always captivating) are, if anything, stronger and more versatile than ever, in total command of melody and mood. Whatever music and effects are happening around her, they are always placed with uncanny precision, to never get in the way of the voice. The inventive, seemingly infinite variety of sounds orbiting around the vocal make this a classic 'headphones' album throughout.

(Raf and O, 'A Bow to Bowie', official video)

The first three songs sustain a similar ambience - a stately, dignified pace, with an emotional resonance that's only enhanced by the sparse treatments and sense of otherworldly restraint. 'A Bow to Bowie' gazes explicitly heavenward, combining respectful, open sincerity with sheer intelligence and wit, absorbing musical and lyrical references to the song's subject into a structure all their own. The title track is almost a battery-operated torch song, Raf's sensual, almost swinging vocal conjuring up a kind of electronic chanson. With its shimmering synths, echoing chimes and vibes, and submarine pulses, 'Underwater Blue' is perhaps the closest the duo have come to a 'hauntology' track - theme music, but when the broadcaster's library is on another planet. It actually feels like the aural equivalent of diving/drifting.

After the cosmic glide of these opening numbers, 'Anger' subtly changes gear, spearheading the next group of three tracks where the intensity increases, and the album rocks a little harder. This song in particular is a great example of how the duo are able to make the music itself convey human feelings just as much as the voice: everything about 'Anger' bleeds tension without release, from its circular hooks and sirens to O's magnificent 'ghost in the machine' drumming: exact yet unpredictable.

'Your Gazing Stare' seems to bring Raf and O's module even closer to the earth's surface. One of my personal favourites on the record, it initially seems to return to the 'drift' of the early phase of the album, but above the glistening guitar, Raf's vocal moves at a pace through a hypnotic, circular lyric until O's drums kick in and the song hits an irresistible groove. The voice temporarily becomes part of the rhythm section, incantatory, before yielding to the beat - soon ramped up by 'A Mechanical Ride', with its lopsided fairground riff, O's fractured beats powerful and precise around Raf's intimate stage whispers, describing the science of falling in love. Again, the duo's attention to detail repays repeated listening - on the phrase 'music box', chimes enter out of nowhere to bring the song to a close.

In my mind's journey through this album, this feels like the point where I would turn the imaginary vinyl over to side two, and start the third phase of the trip. Perhaps more about inner space, this part of the record starts with a beautiful Scott Walker cover, 'Such a Small Love'. R&O's meld of 'old and new' instrumentation - here a subsonic synth rumble shares the arrangement with acoustic guitar and minimal brass - feels fitting for an artist who somehow symbolises both classic singer-songwriting and the outer-reaches of experimental rock. The existential cabaret feel continues into 'With Fatzer', based on a play fragment by Brecht (another Walker influence) about lost souls in WW1: here Raf's piano moves further into the foreground, but surrounded and finally overwhelmed by the suggestion of military or industrial machinery. Brief companion track 'The Windmill' seems to belong to the same world, this time with the piano accompanied by accordion/harmonium-style 'drone' synths that seem to call back to 'Such a Small Love'. For me, this section conveys a gorgeous unease, grappling with earthly concerns through alien music.

Then, for the album's close, the veil lifts completely and we reach the two acoustic tracks I referred to earlier: a cover of Bowie's 'The London Boys' and the original 'Haunted'. Particularly on the latter, O's spare, percussive guitar punctuating and then - at the very end - almost agitating against Raf's piano ensures that even without the electronics, this fourth 'group' retains the duo's unique atmospherics.

I know it might be slightly unusual for a write-up to go through an album almost song-by-song, but I think this record deserves that level of attention and description - I love the way it travels, the way the sequencing actually matters. Every second sounds like Raf and O. But as it progresses, the off-world electronics seem steadily to give more ground to sounds rooted in the real, and the space between nothing and desire closes. And as their music always has done, it points towards a fascinating future.


The album release date is 31 May 2019, and I strongly recommend you order it from Raf and O's Bandcamp page here.

(Please note that I have written about the full CD version of the album - the download option omits the covers.)

Photo from band Facebook page - could not see credit! Will add if / when known.

Thursday 16 May 2019

The lotus eaters: a Dead Can Dance playlist

I recently had the pleasure of seeing one of my most-loved bands of all time, Dead Can Dance, play a stunning set at the Eventim Apollo venue in Hammersmith, London. They feel to me like a band of miracles: a miracle they formed in the first place, a miracle they were able to follow their muse and release their astonishing run of albums, and a miracle it's still possible to hear them as a going concern in 2019.

I'll try and describe them as briefly as possible - they defy easy classification, for sure; and if they're 100% new to you, I don't want to delay your diving straight into the music. But here goes. DCD's 'first life' ran from around 1981 to 1998. At the start, they had something approaching a conventional band line-up, and made a debut self-titled album that, at face value, fitted into a certain type of gothic-indie genre. But something abnormal was going on. The duo at the centre of the sound - Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry - were both possessed of truly distinctive voices: LG's neo-classical timbre, keening power and vast range, alongside BP's baritone boom. It was like they were trying to sing their way out of their constraints.

Soon enough, they did. A brilliant EP bridged the gap to the second record, 'Spleen and Ideal' - one of my favourites - which established a kind of template for the future. Gerrard and Perry would be the only constants from that point on. The scratchy claustrophobia of the debut had gone - a kind of noble false start when, surely, the DCD sound is above all about openness, inclusivity, room for manoeuvre. Insatiably curious in their wide-ranging musical tastes and influences, future DCD albums not only absorbed styles, rhythms and instrumentation from all around the globe but ranged across time as well as space, harking back to folk and roots, Baroque and early classical. Often, it felt, at the same time - with those two voices and expansive production holding it all together, helping them to sound only like themselves.

Some of the individual records seem to capture a certain character. 'The Serpent's Egg' is an album of astonishing confidence and grandeur, like a statement of intent - can you imagine taking what is sort of supposed to be a rock album home and dropping the needle on opener 'The Host of Seraphim'? 'Aion' really does feel like stepping into a period instrument Tardis. 'Into the Labyrinth' finds the duo writing separately and, as a late-career record, feels with hindsight like a band growing apart demonstrating extraordinary skill in unifying the tracks.

DCD occupy a slightly odd place in my personal life. A few months after we first got together, the future Mrs Specs and I were in a long-distance relationship, as she had already taken up a job offer back home in Scotland before we met. She came down to visit in June 1996 and we had tickets to the London Dead Can Dance gig... which was then cancelled. And to this day I cannot recall why, when the band scheduled what then looked like a one-off reunion tour in 2005, my eye was so off the ball I missed those UK dates, too.

But luck has turned out to be on my side. After another seven-year gap - which, let's face it, is setting a breakneck pace compared to the kind of absences we've had from artists like Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush - they returned with the 'Anastasis' album and gigs in 2012. And now, there's a new concept record, 'Dionysus' with an accompanying tour advertised as spanning their whole career: in other words, as 'Dionysus' - a suite - resists breaking down easily into songs, we only hear a tiny part of it. The rest of the concert is really a fan's idea of bottled heaven - DCD have a formidable body of work but not 'hits' as such, so alongside the tried-and-trusted numbers, there's some real 'crate digging' going on: box-set only rarities including a couple of demo/session tracks; unrecorded covers. Now the band enjoy an 'on/off' existence amid their solo endeavours, it's of course possible that each record or tour could be the last. We're aware of this. But now the two of us have seen the 'revived' DCD several times, it's like snatching back those missing gigs each time, an extra thrill, an experience we still almost-imagine we'd never have.

For my playlist, I've resisted going quite down that route (and since some it isn't on Spotify anyway, it was easy enough to rein myself in). I have been partial. I've only represented that slightly wayward first record with the Peel session version of one track, which I feel opens up the sound more; and taking the band's lead, I haven't woven in bits of 'Dionysus'. As a result, a few of my most treasured albums have undoubtedly elbowed their way through to dominate slightly. It's a *cough* generous selection - I hope you can find the time to listen to as much of it as possible, and fall in love with the band the way I did.

Monday 13 May 2019

Inward journey: Seán Clancy’s ‘Ireland England’

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.


A fascinating work to review, this. A deliberate hybrid of artforms: the soundtrack element combines features of electronica, classical composition and sound art, while the video it accompanies is more verbal than visual, a series of facts and figures displayed over an unchanging, neutral background colour.

As Clancy is first and foremost a composer, I paid most attention first time through to the music. It is described as ‘drone-based’, so –repeating and sustained patterns of notes and chords, occasional percussion… here, all created on synthesisers. It’s an intense listen: the rhythmic taps near the start reminded me of Reich’s ‘Drumming’, and the flurries of ‘blips’ which follow increasing the sense of bustle, agitation. Even at its most stretched-out, there are often elements of dissonance or slight distortion that underline this unsettled vibe.

As this composer was new to me, I listened to some of his previous work, in particular the album ‘Small, Far Away’. In many ways, much of that record seems to capture – in bite-size tracks – an approach that Clancy is pushing to almost ‘concept album’ limits on ‘Ireland England’. The music suggests to me a grounding in an ambient, freeform soundworld, invaded by more industrial, hyperactive influences… where a Brian Eno recording might be respectfully – but not too reverently – taken apart by sonic disruptors like Aphex Twin or Shackleton.

I’ve now mentioned the ‘concept’ – and this is where ‘Ireland England’ in fact becomes a multimedia proposition, as you watch the text video while listening. Like art in a gallery, then, the interpretation is provided to us – we’re not left to our own devices. There are two key strands running through the piece. As ideas, they are linked, but as the music plays through, they run more or less in parallel without meeting.

The whole work represents the flight Clancy regularly takes from Dublin to Birmingham. He has divided it into seven sections (“safety announcement / taxi / take-off / cruise / descent / landing / taxi”). This is all explained in the opening stages of the video, which then pursues the second strand, detailing other journeys made by Irish travellers to England, and their reasons for doing so. My impression is that while the stages of his own commute have given Clancy a framework, his composition really takes flight with this second idea – as the intensity levels of the piece seem to increase at points where the migrations are at their most heart-rendingly stressful (fleeing unrest, seeking abortions).

I suspect that if the visuals had pushed into even artier territory – maybe found some way to illustrate the commuter flight alongside the statistics – the piece could have soared higher. But that is to review something the work isn’t, rather than focusing on what it is.

In the face of such emotive subject matter and such a strong folk tradition, it’s fascinating in itself that a composer has sought to express these scenarios through the ‘colder’ medium of electronics. There are ghosts in the machines.

I like to think that ‘Ireland England’ – outside its mission, so to speak – will find a future as an opportunity for electro-classical musicians and groups to experiment with levels of extremity across single, extended performances. The score Clancy has prepared for the work (some instructions and a single sheet’s worth of notation) seems to allow players to re-interpret almost every element, including its length. The composer’s own 35-minute recording is as precision-tooled as it gets, with the sheet music allowing for performance times of up to an hour or so. It would be interesting to hear a ‘cover version’ and see where someone else might take this blueprint.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking out with interest for whatever Clancy decides to do next.


You can listen to the audio-only version (and buy a download) at the artist's Bandcamp page here.

Video version:

Wednesday 1 May 2019

Art of darkness: Don McCullin at Tate Britain

I’m annoyed with myself for not managing to see this exhibition before its final week or so. Now I come to put my thoughts down, and there are literally a few days of the run left - it closes Monday 6 May (it’s a holiday weekend here in the UK). But all I can say is: if you’re reading this in time and you’re in the area, PLEASE try and catch this.

I think it’s one of the most important photographic exhibitions I’ve ever seen. By the end, I was a messy hybrid of admiration and emotion, close to tears. As with most gallery shows now, the exit door plants you straight in the shop - so I had to find a quiet corner and compose myself before facing the postcards, prams and public.

Don McCullin - surely one of the most renowned and distinctive photojournalists ever to practise the discipline - is not an obscure figure. Fortunately, for those of you who will miss this particular show, his images are widely known and circulated, not least in a number of celebrated books. (The catalogue for this exhibition, a relatively affordable Tate paperback, is as fine a way in as any.)

The chances are you will know many of his photographs even if the name had escaped you before now. Over a possibly unique career, relentless in its restlessness, McCullin has stared through his viewfinder into the abyss, over and over again. He has made a lifelong specialism of capturing conflict - with recognisably haunting shots from Vietnam, Cambodia, Cyprus, Ethiopia, the Lebanon and Northern Ireland - and crisis. His work depicting, for example, the victims of famine in Ethiopia, or the homeless in London’s East End reminds us that battles are being fought everywhere, whether or not there’s a war.

The cumulative effect of seeing this carnage-ridden career overview is almost enough to make you punch-drunk... and justifiably so, since McCullin’s work tells us, repeatedly, that these are the things human beings are capable of. Whatever part of the world you turn to, wherever there are people, there is suffering, cruelty and violence.

But to leave it there would be to do McCullin a grave disservice. A man of considerable eloquence and integrity, he has grappled with the moral dilemmas involved in his occupation - driven by a sense of responsibility to expose the truth of these horrors to the wider world - and openly discussed the toll it has taken on his mental health. The exhibition tackles these issues head on, mostly using McCullin’s own words in the accompanying texts.

But to the show’s credit, it avoids reinforcing the idea that McCullin has only produced visions of hell. The exhibition really brought home to me how he is clearly a naturally gifted, ‘born complete’ photographer, possessed of a genuinely unerring eye, right from the start. A room of early pictures contains the brilliantly inventive photo of his local gang, the Guvnors, framing each of them in a rogue’s gallery amid the collapsed rooms of a ruined house. The shot launched his professional career. Elsewhere, he captures a couple crossing the street in perfect step: each with one leg in sharp focus but with just a hint of blur on the other to inject the energy needed to give us the movement.

And later in life, drawing back from war zones, he has expanded his practice to include pure landscape photography, as well as creating still life compositions in his garden to take his mind away from more traumatic subjects. One of his recent projects assembled a striking series of images of ruins... only to have his strife-torn past muscle in on his new work as he covered the destruction of monuments wrought by IS in Syria.

Something about this final room prompted a visceral reaction in me, the crying I mentioned earlier. Was it the unflinching power of the body of work as a whole, catching up with me and demanding a response? Perhaps. But I actually think it was the realisation that this great man, who had risked his life repeatedly, forcing himself to visually capture the exact events that make the rest of us look away, is never truly at peace. His landscapes have the atmosphere of battlefields; objects gathered on his travels find their way into his still lifes. The past is always there. As he himself speculates, “the darkness is in me”.

One of the ethical quandaries posed by the show is whether ‘news’ photography should be treated as art. McCullin is pragmatic on the issue, musing that if newspapers won’t publish the photos, why not get the message across through gallery walls?

But McCullin is without question an artist. On one vitally important level, he is of course a one-man newspaper picture desk and historical archivist, changing the face of reportage. But that in-built compositional flair, an apparent inability to ‘see’ a bad picture; the way his lens seems to penetrate beyond the surface into some deeper statement of humanity; and on top of all that, sheer technical mastery, not least in his ongoing quest to improve the results from his negatives.

A projection room displaying McCullin’s magazine pages shows strikingly how colour actually manages to dilute the pictures. His decision to print all his own images in spectacularly dark monochrome gives the exhibition a sense of unity that confirms his life’s work as a single, vast project: whether it’s Beirut, Belfast or even the back garden, we are all the same, under the same, lowering sky.


(The three photos here are all copyright Don McCullin, taken from the Tate website publicising the exhibition.)