Zen Sounds 036: Ghosts in the Machines
Music by Paperclip Minimiser, Lamin Fofana, Joy Helder, Madeleine Cocolas, Jan Steele & Janet Sherbourne, Jacob's Optical Stairway and The Cinematic Orchestra
I had not planned to send another newsletter before the new year. But my last post has been received unexpectedly well, and I really want to say hi and welcome to all my new subscribers that have come onboard since last week. I am extremely grateful for your interest in my writing and the obscure music I am celebrating here.
If you don’t quite remember why you signed up for this, here’s my elevator pitch:
Zen Sounds is a highly subjective newsletter about experimental music, a lot of it coming from the ambient, jazz and electronica spheres. I tell stories about the artists and their music, how I discovered it, what it sounds like and what it means to me.
»Strange & Mysterious Electronic Music«
Peak Oil from Los Angeles has easily become one of my favorite labels for experimental electronics. Their name refers to a movement of environmental writers that heavily influenced Boards of Canadas’ last album »Tomorrow’s Harvest«, one of my favorite records of all time. The Peak Oilers represent a school of thinking dubbed »collapsology« (some might also call them »doomers«), as they believe that the Western society model, centered around consumer capitalism and cheap fossil fuels, is currently living through its final days. I do think they have a pretty valid point.
Aside from the intriguing name, Peak Oil put out a lot of high quality music. A recent Bandcamp feature written by Andy Beta gives a good rundown on the label history and releases. I discovered it through three amazing records by mysterious entity Topdown Dialectic, which has managed to stay anonymous despite releasing music for a decade now, and is producing extremely interesting dubby, textural electronic music, think early Vladislav Delay mixed with a bit of Actress and Autechre.
Another Peak Oil album I loved came from Russian producer Hoavi. In the first edition of this newsletter from October 2021, I wrote these short paragraphs about his LP »Invariant« that had just been released:
Hoavi hails from St Petersburg, but when I heard »Invariant«, inevitably I had to think of the images of endless soviet housing blocks of Moscow suburb Chertanovo, as captured through drone shots in this video by Russian producer Vtgnike.
Hoavi combines rolling jungle and footwork rhythms with shimmering ambient surfaces and glacial sound design. This trick, as Andrew Ryce correctly indicates in his Resident Advisor review, commemorates the atmospheric drum’n’bass of the 1990s; but on »Invariant«, Hoavi creates his own, unmistakable world. It’s the perfect soundtrack to roll past East Berlin tower blocks in the autumn evening dawn on your bike.
Since dropping »Invariant«, Peak Oil have re-released Topdown Dialectic’s first cassette from 2013 and put out a few more superb albums, the last two being:
Paperclip Minimiser – s/t (Peak Oil, 2022)
The self-titled debut by British producer John Howes reminds me of Topdown Dialectic, not only because of the weird project name and its featureless artwork and song titles. While Topdown relates to »a process, not a person«, the same thing can be said about Paperclip Minimiser, even though Howes decided not to be anonymous. But he produced the album on what he calls »an authentic 2006 studio, best listened to on Windows XP Media Player or Winamp«, and claims to be as interested in an artist’s methods as in the actual outcome.
As far as I understand it, he creates systems and algorithms that generate the music, which he then edits into final tracks. He also includes human elements such as deliberate errors (or, as he puts it, »ghosts in the machine«). However, the resulting music is some of the best ambient techno I’ve heard this year; it rolls and rumbles, bleeps and blinks, meanders and grooves and suddenly changes course whenever it feels like doing so. Thanks to Patricia Wolf for playing »B1« on a Noods radio show where I first heard it.
Lamin Fofana – »Unsettling Scores« (Peak Oil, 2022)
The most recent Peak Oil release is an untypical work by prolific New York based, Sierra Leone born producer Lamin Fofana. Fofana, who was involved with the last Duval Timothy album, usually works with rhythms derived from techno, house and UK funky. Here he focused on creating mostly beatless ambient music (except for the final track), but as the title already hints at, »Unsettling Scores« is anything but a blissful chillout soundtrack. Thematically, it deals with the human destruction of nature and the inevitable consequences of climate change.
Still, »Unsettling Scores« is a compelling, pleasurable listen, as Fofana takes the listener on a journey through his vision of a lost planet, not completely hopeless, but on the verge of drifting off into chaos. With its menacing drones, it’s not exactly a fun record, but similar to Eno’s last album, it invites the listener to explore their own emotions thinking about the poisoning of our planet. In that sense, the album sets an antithesis to the boring lean-back wallpaper ambient that streaming algorithms are usually rewarding. One for the deep listening stack.
Joy Helder – »Blurt« EP (2022)
This EP has been out since September, but until recently, it hadn’t crossed my radar. Joy Helder is a semi-anonymous musician from London who broke onto the experimental scene earlier this year with some strong tunes on Bandcamp. »Blurt« is their most recent EP, containing five tracks that span from piano ambience mixed with field recordings to more beat-driven electronics.
As the artist states on Bandcamp, »Blurt« »is about errors, glitches in life and in consciousness. Finding peace in the chaos, and drifting into dreams«. Recorded on modular and analog synthesizers, samplers and drum machines, it opens with one of the most beautiful piano melodies I’ve heard in a while (»Ooooooooo«), only to dive into glitchy, off-kilter IDM beats set against found sounds, before leaving us with another fascinating piece of analog ambience (»Moving Slow Through Hackney«). None of this material wears its influences on its sleeve – Joy Helder makes very original music that immediately positions them as a force to watch.
Madeleine Cocolas – »Spectral« (Room40, 2022)
See, the good thing about all those year-end lists is that it will bring records to the surface you might have missed the first time around. Case in point: this one by Australian composer Madeleine Cocolas. It’s a mix of ambient soundscapes, piano, field recordings and electronics – the typical ingredients of many records that make it into this newsletter. And even if it was released on one of the more well-known labels of the genre, I still managed to overlook it when it came out in July; probably because I was in the midst of my »Swedish summer«, renovating an old farmhouse and mostly listening to Balearic beats and birdsong.
Thankfully, »Spectral« works perfectly in winter as well. Cocolas built the tunes around sounds she recorded on her phone; this »aural diary« approach has recently been used by young »emo ambient« artists like Claire Rousay and More Eaze. Like them, Cocolas composed arrangements around these sounds and added several layers of instrumentation, mostly piano, voice and drones. This way, it feels like she is looking at the noise of her everyday life with a new-found sense of wonder. I can’t really describe it any better than the artist herself:
At its core, »Spectral« is about deep stillness, observation and perception underpinned by emotional expression. It is a subtle shift in memory, a recolouring of the world we think we know and a willingness to lean into that possibility.
I discovered this on one of my favorite NTS shows, Laurel Halo’s »Awe«, in a guest mix by Kranky composer Christina Vantzou and her husband, the experimental musician John Also Bennett. I love Vantzous’s current album »No. 5« and wrote about it in a previous issue of this newsletter, so I was eager to hear what she’d play on her mix. The opening song immediately caught my ears, with its quiet, ECM-like chamber jazz tone, hauntingly beautiful vocals and subtle guitar and percussion work.
»All Day… (I Hear The Noise Of Waters)« was recorded and first released in 1976, on the album »Voices and Instruments« that was published on Brian Eno’s short-lived Obscure imprint (No. 5, to be exact). Weirdly enough, it was a split record between Birmingham saxophonist/composer Jan Steele and the legendary John Cage. According to Eno biographer David Sheppard, »Eno was an aficionado of Steele’s work«, but why exactly he coupled it with some Cageian vocal pieces seems rather unclear to me. He probably just wanted to live up to his label’s name.
In any case, the heavenly voice on »All Day…« belongs to singer and pianist Janet Sherbourne, who is also Steele’s wife. They have collaborated over the course of the last four decades, and their joint material has been compiled on a 2022 release by Portland label Community Library, »Distant Saxophones«. It contains the three compositions from »Voices and Instruments«, »All Day…« being the only original version – ripped from vinyl, as the master tapes were lost –, the other two songs re-recorded much later. The rest of the music comes from rare 7-inches and compilations, some of it being previously unreleased. It’s all good and interesting, but to me, »All Day…« is the outstanding tune in this collection.
It was recorded in Brian Eno’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill, with Fred Frith on guitar and Steve Beresford (of Melody Four) on bass, and it had grown out of the repertoire of Steele’s former improv band F&W Hat – a group that »was directed towards playing a very quiet, repetitive form of improvised rock-based music, a principle which has to some extent survived in these compositions.«
The lyrics were lifted from a James Joyce poem published in his very first poetry collection »Chamber Music« (1907). Joyce, undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, wrote most of these poems while still in college. The poem does have a song-like lyrical quality, due to its rhythm and structure:
All day I hear the noise of waters
Sad as the sea-bird is when, going
He hears the winds cry to the water's
The grey winds, the cold winds are blowing
Where I go.
I hear the noise of many waters
All day, all night, I hear them flowing
To and fro.
»All Day… (I Hear The Noise Of Waters)« is a song of exceptional beauty, and it sits comfortably between genres. Sherbourne’s trained voice seems influenced by classical music. The quiet, melancholic instrumentation reminds me of some ECM records from that era – specifically Chick Corea’s proto-ambient jazz fusion on »Crystal Silence« (1972) and some of Gary Burton’s music. It is a recording that immediately sets a mood as soon as you play it. Sitting in my old farmhouse in rural Northeastern Germany with freezing temperatures outside, it is an adequate soundtrack.
Jacob’s Optical Stairway – s/t (R&S/Reinforced, 1995/2021)
A good friend, the artist Kabuki, compiled a playlist that I have been listening to on repeat. It’s called »Hectoseconds« and it works as an »audio moodboard« for one of his Web3 projects. Now I do remain skeptical about the wonders of Web3, but this playlist is right up my alley. It consists of music somewhere between IDM, ambient techno and atmospheric drum’n’bass, most of it produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When we recently visited a Werner Herzog exhibition in Berlin together, Kabuki told me that Photek’s »Kanei« was the starting point for the playlist – which makes sense, as it is such a singular track in the d’n’b don’s discography, a light and melodic take on the mid-1990s Warp/Mo Wax sound, more Headz than Metalheadz.
I am telling you this because a) you really need to listen to that playlist now, and b) it contains a song by Jacob’s Optical Stairway, which was one of the many aliases of London producers Marc Mac and Dego, aka 4hero. These two musicians from Dollis Hill, Northwestern London, have been instrumental in developing almost any interesting UK music style in the 1990s and 2000s – from hardcore to jungle to broken beat. In 1995, they dropped this criminally overlooked underground classic.
Why does this still matter today, you may ask. Well, first of all, »Jacob’s Optical Stairway« is one of the few drum’n’bass albums that actually make sense from start to finish and remains amazingly listenable to this very day – similar to Goldie’s »Timeless«, A Guy Called Gerald’s »Black Secret Technology« or Roni Size’s »New Forms«, it’s a record informed by the club, not made for the club.
Secondly, this album is a serious trip. It combines jungle breakbeats with Detroit techno vibes and an IDM/ambient sensibility. I first bought the CD in Kiel’s long-defunct World of Music store in 1995; that’s 27 years ago, but the album has aged so well it’s astonishing. I have just listened to it on repeat for one evening, and I still knew every melody, every rhythm, every single turn of arrangement.
Thirdly, the music fits with an underlying theme of this newsletter, specifically the aforementioned Hoavi album on Peak Oil, that referenced atmospheric d’n’b from the 1990s – and trust me, it doesn’t get much more atmospheric than this. With the recent, TikTok-driven jungle revival focusing mostly on the hardcore sound of the movement’s early years (circa 1991-94), I’d love to see the deep, atmospheric vibe of the 1995-97 era get more of a resurgence as well. That was exactly my type of drum’n’bass: Moving Shadow, LTJ Bukem’s Good Looking Records, Photek and, of course, 4hero. On »Jacob’s Optical Stairway«, Marc Mac and Dego showcased their deep roots in soul and jazz music, specifically 1970s jazz fusion. Seriously, this is unbelievably good.
Marc Mac and Dego’s label Reinforced re-issued the album last year – the 300 double vinyls are long gone, but you can still scoop up a digital copy.
The Cinematic Orchestra – »All Things To All Men (feat. Roots Manuva)« (Ninja Tune, 2002/2022)
I don’t have many words for this one. Arguably the best song on The Cinematic Orchestra’s best album, to be re-released in March in an expanded edition for its 20th anniversary. Roots Manuva, one of my favorite rappers of all time, spitting dark, abstract poetry over an 11-minute composition sampling a John Barry soundtrack, closing with a haunting harp solo. Just the right type of tune for this season.
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David Sheppard, »On Some Faraway Beach – The Life and Times of Brian Eno«, p. 475.
Jan Steele / John Cage, »Voices and Instruments« (Obscure No. 5, 1976), back cover.