Thursday, October 25, 2012

interview - Woven Skull

Based in Leitrim for some time now, Woven Skull are one act that won't have to travel far for this weekend's Hunters Moon festival in Carrick-on-Shannon. Consisting of a core trio (but collaborative and open-ended), they deal in dark, mantric, acoustic-based jams and hypnotic ambient drones. Utilising field recordings (such as frogs mating in a pond), unorthodox instruments and above all a sense of spontaneity, the sound they create is at times wild and elemental, at other times quietly evocative and hypnotic; but always rich with possibility.

2012 has seen them release the excellent Moods Of The Hill People cassette on the Fort Evil Fruit label,  while further releases are available on their Bandcamp : Tenunan Tengkorak - which makes prominent use of Balinese Gamelan - and One Of Three, the first of a three-album set; each of which will feature tracks recorded, chosen and mixed by one of the three members. One Of Three is Natalia Beylis’ turn, and it’s her interviewed here ahead of the band’s appearance at the Hunters Moon festival.

First off, could you tell us a little about who the core members of the band are and how you came to meet/form the band? How long have you been based in Leitrim?

There are three of us that form the core of Woven Skull.  In our live set, that is made up of guitar (Aonghus), floor tom (Willie) and mandola (me), with other musical and not so musical objects banged around.  Willie and I met half a lifetime ago playing seven inches on a jukebox in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Aonghus I've known for long enough that I can't remember how or where from anymore.  We were all friends first and then the band came after. I wanted to start a band that was in my mind like a repetitive, droney, dark medieval rock band.  I had this idea where I'd play the same riff for as long as possible and get other people to create sounds around that.  It started there anyway.  Willie and I moved to Leitrim about six years ago, and that's mostly where Woven Skull has had its music base for the three or so years of its existence.

Is there an overarching theme or aesthetic with your records or a common thread that ties them together?

Our aesthetic has no planning and no plan.  We just get together and record and see what happens.  The aesthetic that comes out in the music and recordings is just how the three of us mix together in whatever space we’re inhabiting at the time.  We do have a collection of unusual junk in our music room which might sometimes influence us unbeknownst to ourselves; like cheap-o Halloween and Mardi Gras masks, pictures cut out of old National Geographics, abandoned art projects and discarded kids toys.

Field recordings are a prominent element of your sound. Do you find your surroundings have inspired your music/sound significantly? Would you say that the recordings are uniquely of- their-place?

We spend a lot of time in the music room in our house and since our house is set in the middle of woods it means there's no isolation from nature.  We might be in the middle of a track and then next thing I know one of the goats has escaped out of her field and has gotten into the house, and is in the living room munching away on some papers.  Or I'll listen back to something we've recorded and in the background you can hear the cats having a scrap outside the window.  Sometimes I'll go a few days and realize that aside from Willie's voice, the only other live sounds I've heard are the cows in the next field kicking off with something akin to an Albert Ayler horn section, or the drone of the cats purring as they sleep on top of my head, or the buzz of the wasps in the nest in the driveway.  

The nature sounds and field recordings weren't a planned or intentional part of the band but they fit well for the moment.  I just like the idea of whoever is listening to the music and sounds to be able to hear as much of the place in which they were created as possible.  I'd love to travel around and record music in places as I go along.  If I could do that then I'd able to look back and know for sure whether our current recordings are uniquely of their current place or if there's something else that connects them to us.

How do you generally approach recording? Improvisation and background ambience are obviously important. Is their much editing involved?

This is forever different.  We’ve recorded in the woods and in churches, by rivers and in abandoned houses.  Some of the recordings have been pre-pIanned and written specifically with a release in mind.  That’s the way Moods of the Hill People was done.  This meant a minimal amount of time editing (which is the most boring part of it for me).  Some of our recordings are improvised and then edited and mixed with other sounds I’ve recorded at different times.  This is what I did with One Of Three; I mixed music we’d recorded with nature sounds and other sounds I added to it along the way.  

Most often someone will have an idea and then we’ll start playing with the basic structure of the idea in mind and see where it takes us.  We’ll often end up recording for several hours straight without ever coming back to the same idea.  I just record everything we do and then try and get back through it all eventually.   I really like playing with Woven Skull and want to keep doing it for a long time.  Always mixing things up keeps the music we’re making interesting to play.

There’s a healthy number of experimental musicians based in Ireland who emphasise imperfection, a sense of place and physicality, unique, outside-the-box venues for gigs and performances; in many ways it’s a notable contrast to ‘clean’ digital music, or to the traditional gig circuit. Do you think that there’s a good community here in terms of musicians or acts along those lines? Do you collaborate with other musicians, or draw inspiration or influence from any?

I'm not originally from here and one of the things I like most of all in Ireland is the weirdness of the people I spend my time around.  So much of the art, writing and music is infused with a surreal darkness twisted with humor.  I love it.  In terms of experimental musicians in the country, it seems to me that in Ireland, like in the States (and other places for all I know), there are different groups of experimental people.  There are those that get recognized by grant-giving bodies and given well-paid gigs in museums and Arts Centres and then there's the others who congregate illegally in underground car parks and under canal bridges.   I like canal bridges.

Woven Skull collaborates with everyone.  If we're having band practice and you happen to call by, you'll find yourself playing a bowl of chimes into a microphone before you've even had time to pop open a beer.  We want everyone in our musical family, whether they’ve ever played music before or it’s their first time.  Lately we take Dave Colohan with us on all our outings.  Woven Skull and Raising Holy Sparks meld really well.   We’ve been really lucky to get some awesome people playing live with us over the years.

With Woven Skull there’s a compelling mixture of traditional influences and more experimental tendencies. What would be your own background musically? Any particular influences that led you to your current path?

My family is Ukrainian which means my earliest music influences are the 60s Russian synth-pop of my parents’ youth and Soviet children's folk songs that my parents sang with off-key nostalgia.  I don't know if there's any of that in Woven Skull but since moving to Ireland I have gotten into playing and listening to a lot of trad, and in terms of rhythms, structures and harmonies, that's in there for sure.  Aonghus used to hang out in my kitchen when he was 17 or so and sometimes I'd come home to him making a shit ton of noise with pedals by the sink, so I guess he's always had those tendencies.

More than by music, it seems a lot of our influences are the sounds around us mixed with bargains to be had at charity shops and car boot sales.  The majority of Willie's non-floor-tom set up has all been found and bought at the local junk market affectionately referred to by locals as “The Apocalypto Market” because it’s like a market you’d come across in that book The Road : broken junk that can’t seem to have much purpose.   For me, I like the things that cross my path.   My neighbor - who is a blacksmith - brought me over a sheet of metal recently and that's my main inspiration at the moment.

What’s next on the agenda, is there a new record on the way?

We made a video recently which was really fun so I think we’ll probably make a few more of those before the year is out.  The second two albums in the ‘One of Three’ set are almost done and we’ve got a tape coming out in the UK soon which is quite exciting!  Also, we were really lucky to get to spend a few days with Jorge from Core of the Coalman and get a lot of stuff recorded with him which will eventually get waded through.  We’ve also all got other musical projects on the go all the time so it means that we don’t always have all the time in the world for Woven Skull.

Woven Skull play Hunters Moon festival in Carrick-on-Shannon (Oct26-28)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A response piece to Andrew Stimpson’s ‘Alien 3 Reassessed’ article at The Quietus.

(In case you haven’t seen all three Alien films (there’s a fourth??) - SPOILER ALERTS!)

The following is a response to this article.

Everyone loves a bit of revisionism, but the problem with revisionists is that they tend to lose the run of themselves and fail to see the wood for the trees, to borrow a cliche. As a divisive sequel to two massively influential and widely-regarded films, directed by a man who would later be responsible for stunning efforts like Seven and Fight Club, Alien 3 has been subject to extensive reassessment more than most. When the earliest teaser trailers for the film emerged, they heavily implied that the film would take place on Earth - surely the ultimate nightmare scenario involving H.R. Giger’s terrifying, pointedly sexualised ‘xenomorphs’. When the movie finally did arrive, it was instead a grim, downbeat affair taking place in a dingy prison colony in space. The surviving characters of Aliens that we had come to know and love were brutally slaughtered during the opening credits (via a ridiculous and nonsensical plot contrivance that Stimpson completely ignores), to be replaced by a cast of foul-mouthed rapists and murderers. Who the (at times laughably-fake looking) alien proceeds to slaughter predictably and tediously.

The thinking with the revisionists seems to be that Alien 3’s bad reputation is a result of it being misunderstood, a result of philistines who wanted more guns and explosions and less ponderous religious imagery. It’s reflected in Stimpson’s article and in particular his incredibly condescending conclusion (basic translation: “look at me, I like a grim, nihilistic film that you plebs don’t understand! I’m going to pat myself on the back now”). The fact is that, rather than Alien 3 being a victim of its predecessors’ success, we simply would not be debating this film twenty years on if it wasn’t connected to the Alien franchise. If this was a film in its own right with no surrounding context, it would have been dismissed as the dreadful, misanthropic bait-and-chase monster movie that it is.

The article is so consistently off-the-mark that there’s no option but to deal with its arguments individually. A large part of his case seems to stem from his evident dislike for James Cameron’s Aliens: “In James Cameron's Aliens the threat from HR Giger's beautifully realised and nightmarishly sensuous bio-mechanoid is reduced to that of a hive of insects, suggesting that if one well-armed grunt with a bit of American know-how had been aboard the Nostromo there never would have been a franchise in the first place.”
First off, Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, described Giger’s design of the alien protagonist as being ‘like a rather beautiful, humanoid, biomechanoid insect’, while writer Ronald Shusett outlined ‘our idea that it would be the life-cycle of an insect. The way a wasp will sting a spider, paralyze it, and lay its eggs in the spider; its eggs grow off the living spider, like a surrogate mother...We thought people might pick up on it and say, ‘Yeah, an alien life-cycle can be like an insect life-cycle.’' So the insect-like implications were there from the start.

Secondly, the idea that the aliens of the sequel were gormless equivalents of the lethal ‘perfect organism’ of Alien is a persistent criticism that is pretty ungrounded when you actually consider it. Cameron produced a great rebuttal to this himself in a thoughtful, considered 1992 essay for Starlog Magazine intended as a reply to readers’ letters: “One, crazed man with a knife can be the most terrifying thing you can imagine, if you happen to be unarmed and locked in a house alone with him. If you're with 10 armed police officers, it's a different story”. And yet despite the Marines’ firepower, their whole squadron - with the exception of an incapacitated, acid-scarred Hicks - are wiped out. Even after the initial ambush, their escape route (dropship) is destroyed by an alien; while when the survivors barricade themselves in the complex, the aliens respond by finding a circuitous route in through a crawlspace, cutting the power and attacking by stealth. They may utilise kamikaze tactics at times, but to say they have no intelligence is to grossly oversimplify. The one thing you could say is that the disturbing sexual undertones to the xenomorphs were indeed toned down or overlooked somewhat - but this isn’t something that Alien 3 corrects in any case.

He goes on: “Despite every effort on the part of the filmmakers to portray them as finely honed military machines, the heroes essentially come off as a gang of idiotic yahoos.”
Yes, there’s some poor decision-making on the part of the characters in Aliens, but the same is true of the first film (Harry Dean Stanton running off on his own to chase a cat?) and certainly of the third. Their dismissive attitude towards Ripley changes as soon as they realise what they’re up against, and resourcefulness is evident throughout - Hicks manages to escape the initial massacre armed only with a shotgun and carrying an injured Hudson; Hudson overcomes his cowardice to go down in a blaze of glory; while Vasquez almost single-handedly holds the enemy off, and actually wrestles with an alien in the vents after she runs out of ammo. Idiotic yahoos one and all.

There may be a degree of caricature to the Marines in Aliens - not least Bill Paxton’s portrayal of the hysterical Hudson - but when they go down the audience actually cares, unlike in Alien 3 where you can’t even tell who is dying most of the time, let alone feel sympathy for the sociopathic sex offenders. “The ultimate peril is not the terrifying otherness of the unknown, but the damaged cooling system of a nuclear reactor, caused not by the conflict between humanity and a life form utterly extrinsic to our own, but by stray bullets from the marines themselves”, claims Stimpson, conveniently ignoring the thematically-loaded climatic battle between human mother and alien mother, Ripley in direct combat with the monstrous Alien Queen.

Indeed, he ignores or glosses over a lot of stuff about the film: its familial themes, Sigourney Weaver’s superb portrayal of Ripley (for which she was Academy Award-nominated, an unprecedented occurrence for a sci-fi/action movie), its feminist subtext or how a character like Vasquez inverted traditional Hollywood gender roles. Instead, he labels it as lightweight popcorn fare, a ‘Starship Troopers pastiche’.

                                "Do you mind? I'm trying to beat the clock here."

Alien 3 does have redeeming factors, but redeeming factors do not a misunderstood movie make. David Fincher’s visual flair and his ability to create an unremittingly bleak tone and atmosphere is evident throughout. Some of the imagery and camerawork is stunning: the shot of the EEV being towed in towards the prison complex; the juxtaposition between the funeral and the birth of the ‘dog-alien’; the frequent wide shots of solitary open spaces. The soundtrack from Elliott Goldenthal is superb - a dissonant, avant-garde score that enhances the religious themes and dark feel of the film with ominous choral snatches. It was recorded during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, and later sampled by Burial on Untrue’s opening track.

The opening credits are where this score is at its most haunting and effective: after a 20th Century Fox fanfare that intentionally and terrifyingly ends on a wailing high note, we’re shown nightmare-like snatches of events on the EEV as a facehugger causes all kinds of carnage. The choral segment featured is ‘Agnus Dei’ - translated as ‘Lamb of God’ ( Goldenthal would later explain that the characters seemed to be ‘very much lambs to the slaughter’). As well as these opening credits work on a visual and aural level though, they completely fail on a logical level: namely, how did an egg get on the Sulaco in the first place? It’s something that the combined forces of nerd-dom have failed to adequately explain in the 20 years since. The best theory proposed seems to be a conspiratorial one involving Bishop, but it’s still a massively far-fetched one that flies in the face of what we know about Lance Henriksen’s much-loved character. Of course all films involve a suspension of disbelief, but this plot-hole is so ridiculous that it cheapens the whole film before it’s even begun.

It doesn’t help that it also spells the end for the characters that survived Aliens - Ripley’s heroic battle to keep her motherly promise to Newt and protect her from harm is completely nullified in brutal fashion, Hicks’ upper body and head is pounded into a bloody mush by a ‘safety beam’, while Bishop is literally tossed on a scrap-heap. Cameron called it a ‘slap in the face’; novelist for the films Alan Dean Foster called Newt’s killing an ‘obscenity’. They were both right. Stimpson makes much of Aliens’ supposed disregard for the first film (something that a lot of fans of both movies  - including me - would strongly disagree with), but this blatant disregard for the second film - or indeed for logic - doesn’t seem to bother him as much.

The most interesting character in the film is slaughtered at the end of the first act, while the interesting religious and existential undertones gradually give way to a mind-numbing “It’s behind you!” sequence involving tunnels rather than the traditional air ducts. Stimpson continues: “When the beastie does emerge it has reverted to its original look with a few Giger-inspired twists, no longer resembles a humanoid insect, and is suitably terrifying.” - The alien frequently looks ridiculous, the ‘rod puppet against a bluescreen’ effect painfully noticeable at times. It’s a gormless animal hybrid that chases and butchers its prey - although in fairness, it came from a dog so this difference is logical.

Stimpson: “Throughout Alien 3 the players convey palpable angst and tension that is entirely credible based upon their dark, brooding environment and fraught interactions with each other.” Most of the cast spend the film cursing at each other. By the time they’re getting slaughtered in the tunnels you don’t even care. They’re fodder in the most literal sense; anonymous, low-life bait for the alien.

As for the full-length cut: it might add something to the film, but to claim a great transformation due to some further character exposition and some extra mood-setting camera-work is to exaggerate. It remains a mess of a film, its only resounding feature being its sheer grimness. In fairness, plenty of people have heralded the additional footage as making a great difference to Alien 3, but you wonder how much of this is to do with how sought-after this extra footage was for a long time. People enjoy certain scenes, or certain camera-work, or certain nuances, but ultimately lose the overall perspective of the film as a whole.

Basically, Alien 3 is a poor film. You can admire certain things about it, or about the vision of its soon-to-be vindicated director, without denying that. You can find much better examples of moody, existentialist fare in countless other films, whether mainstream or otherwise. To claim that it’s a better film than the superbly crafted, visceral experience of Aliens - or to claim that it’s “one of the best realised and most convincing futuristic movies ever made” is the kind of thing that should have you locked up in the infirmary with Golic. Game over, man. Game over.

"but why didn't the Marines think of the roof??"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

stream - Bass Clef - Reeling Skullways

Over at Resident Advisor you can stream the new album from Bass Clef on Punch Drunk recordings, Reeling Skullways. Following last year's superb 'Rollercoasters of the Heart/So Cruel' and the Inner Space Break Free cassette, this is a seamless, absorbing record; its house/techno-influenced tracks stretching out with warm melodic grooves and deep, smooth basslines. Excellent stuff.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Yawning Chasm - Whispered Sun EP

Aaron Coyne has kept a relatively low profile since the 2009 release of his excellent The Shadow Is That Hidden EP on Rusted Rail: there have been some impressive live shows (with DeclanQKelly joining him for live duties), but release-wise he’s been quiet up until now. 2012 so far has seen a gear-shift in activity. The Shadow... in its full glory (with the Rusted Rail EP being an edited version) as well as earlier lower-than-lo-fi album Snarl were first uploaded to Bandcamp for free download. That was followed by a small tour taking in unique venues in Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Galway, at which limited-run CDR’s of a new EP - Whispered Sun - were available. Now that that tour has been wound down with a well-received performance at Galway’s Bell, Book & Candle/Wingnut Records, said EP has also been made available for free download.

The extended version of The Shadow... adds three tracks: ‘Life Is Elsewhere’, ‘December’ and ‘When The Sun Dies’, and they’re very much of a piece with the rest of the material. Veering between non-linear psych-folk-influenced fare (‘Tumble River’) and twilit folk simplicity on tracks like ‘Your Bones Will Bleach White’ and the gorgeous ‘Monsters’; The Shadow... is also reminiscent at times of The Driftwood Manor: ‘Distant Fires’ combining weary-sounding folk with eerily chattering static and noise. Coyne’s vocals - wistful and often mournful-sounding - seem to chime with their musical surroundings so perfectly, in a way that recalls Sam Beam of Iron & Wine’s similarly weathered-but-charming tones.

The Whispered Sun EP is fuller-sounding, nodding to slow-core as well as folk. Now recording as a duo, plaintive acoustic strumming gives way to swelling, enveloping song structures, almost drone-like in places; but the feel remains lo-fi and homespun. Again, the mood seems despondent at times, as on the windswept ‘Moon Silver Ocean’, where a slow, sombre guitar figure is surrounded by wracked-sounding keys, the song gradually growing in intensity. ‘Before I Was Here’ is milder and mellower, bridging the gap somewhat, as ‘Your Blue, Blue, Blue, Blue Eyes Are Killing Me’ is somewhere between hymnal and haunted: beginning with melancholic guitar tones, the repetition of the title is reflected in the creeping, quiet intensity of the track as its lyrics and instrumentation become ever-more-insistent. A lament or a song of devotion? That’s up to the listener.

As outlined on Noiseblog, there’s plenty more to come from Yawning Chasm: three more 4-song EPs and a new album around autumn-time is the plan; while with the addition of a drummer to flesh out their sound further, there will hopefully be more chances to see them in a live setting. This is an essential part of their vibe: in common with numerous other like-minded artists (such as Brigid Power Ryce, or Raising Holy Sparks - who played a very well-received support slot to Grouper in Dublin’s Unitarian Church the other week), Yawning Chasm take an intentionally non-conformist approach to live performance: vocals are non-mic’d where possible, playing on a stage is avoided in favour of playing on a floor, and the preference is for small venues with a unique character: all, ultimately, in the service of breaking down any perceived barrier between performer and audience.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lapalux - When You're Gone

(for AU) review of the new Lapalux EP on Brainfeeder

LA-based label/collective Brainfeeder seems like a perfect home for Essex producer Stuart Howard, aka Lapalux: his ear for grainy textures, manipulated samples and loosely hip-hop-influenced structures marks him out as a kindred spirit of sorts to the likes of Teebs and Matthewdavid. Painting aural pictures with exquisite detail, When You’re Gone (the follow-up to last year’s Many Faces Out Of Focus EP) is reminiscent of James Blake in its expert use of space in the mix as well as its soulful, yearning vocal snatches. Highlights include the laid-back groove of ‘Moments’ (featuring London vocalist and Throwing Snow collaborator Py), the lurching, colourful-but-disfigured arrangement of ‘Gone’ and the gentle ambient hum of ‘Face Down, Eyes Shut’.

Also, stream last year's similarly impressive Many Faces Out Of Focus EP: