Author Archives: Editorial

Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical: March 2017

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Metronome photo by nigel_appleton

The taxonomy of contemporary classical music—new music, contemporary music, whatever you want to call it—is a thorny issue. But every two months, we’ll take a look at some of the best composer-driven music to surface here on Bandcamp, making room for electronic experimentation, improvisation, and even powerful takes on old classics. Here’s a look at the latest.

Latitude 49, Curious Minds

This young Chicago ensemble has delivered an impressive debut, comprised mainly of commissions from equally young composers (the closing piece by Virgil Moorefield, “A Wish for the Displaced,” is the sole piece by an elder). I’ve never heard of Gabriella Smith, but her pithy “Huascarán” is bursting with ideas. An insistent rhythmic pulse—shaped by percussionist Chris Sies, pianist Jani Parsons, and cellist Jacobsen Woollen—supports the gorgeously overlapping lines played by saxophonist Andy Hall and clarinetist Jason Paige, who engage in some wild overblowing towards the end. Violinist Timothy Stevens’ rich interplay seethes and simmers with a jazz-like sophistication.

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Christian Scott’s “Ruler Rebel” Honors The History of Jazz While Pushing The Genre Forward

Christian Scott

Jazz has been up front in the struggle for social justice since the early 20th century, when Louis Armstrong turned Fats Waller’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” into a cry of pain. Nearly a century later, social issues remain a central force in the music—and once again, it’s led by a New Orleanian trumpeter. Christian Scott, aka Christian aTunde Adjuah, has spent his career addressing the issues that matter to him. It’s been known to cost him a gig, but he’s held fast to his principles.

Scott is a careful student of jazz history, and of its ability to absorb other musical traditions without losing its own identity. That history and adaptability form the core of his new project, The Centenary Trilogy. It’s a collection of three new CDs that mark the 100th anniversary of the first jazz recordings, made in 1917, and, as he explains, assess how the musical and political world has changed—and how it hasn’t—in the years since.

We spoke to Scott about the context of the Centenary Trilogy, its musical makeup and how Scott’s work has evolved to this point, and the tricky business of artists exploring social issues without making propaganda.

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Twenty-Five Years of the Brain-Melting Sounds of SKiN Graft Records

Skin Graft

U.S. Maple

In 2016, the St.Louis-based label SKiN GRAFT quietly celebrated its 25th anniversary. To commemorate the milestone, the label re-released the very first full-length LP it issued back in 1991: Dazzling Killmen’s impossible-to-categorize underground rock touchstone Face of Collapse. “That’s a band that changed my life,” says SKiN GRAFT founder Mark Fischer. “I really, really doubt that I’d be talking to you right now if that band hadn’t existed and we hadn’t found each other.”

That’s no hyperbole. Back in the late ’80s, Fischer and a friend, Rob Syers, were publishing a DIY comic-punk ‘zine called SKiN GRAFT that was popular in the St. Louis area. The irreverent art caught the attention of Dazzling Killmen vocalist/guitarist Nick Sakes, who asked Fischer to draw a comic for the band’s upcoming 7”.

Fischer, who had always daydreamed about starting a record label, ended up not only enthusiastically drawing the sleeve, but also releasing the single himself. “It went all right,” he says, “so I said, ‘Well, I guess I have a record label, so I’ll do more.'”

This sonic and aesthetic ambition would distinguish SKiN GRAFT in the coming decades, as it released albums that combined challenging music with elaborate packaging. For example: The label released a Chinese Stars EP shaped like the titular weapon—which actually got stuck in one customer’s car stereo, Fischer says—while Made In Mexico’s Zodiac Zoo LP boasts a pop-up band photo in the gatefold. “I always thought of SKiN GRAFT as a comic book company posing as a record label,” Fischer says with a laugh.

The label maintained this creativity-driven DIY ethic as it moved its headquarters to Chicago for a time and started releasing music by bands outside of the Midwest. However, over the years, SKiN GRAFT has amassed a loyal community of musicians and collaborators. In fact, Fischer still works with Sakes: The musician’s latest band, Xaddax, is set to release a new single this summer.

Having that enduring, supportive community means a lot to Fischer—it’s a trait he respected about other indie labels, like Dischord. It’s also helped SKiN GRAFT maintain momentum over the years. “It became easier to find stuff the more I went along,” Fischer says. “The people that were making the kind of music that was appropriate for the record label, we all just sort of found each other.”

Fischer, who now lives in Europe with his wife and young daughter, patiently and enthusiastically told us about the significance of select SKiN GRAFT catalog releases.

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Seven Artists Who Are at the Cutting Edge of Hi-Fi Techno 

Volte Face

Volte Face

In recent years, techno has turned to a rather dark place. Tastemakers such as Rødhåd have favoured bleak and brutal sounds, and labels like Perc and Ron Morelli’s L.I.E.S. have been in a race to the darkest corners of the sonic spectrum. This music is gritty and lo-fi, intense and unrelenting, and is completely in contrast—intentionally or not—to the inoffensive minimal techno sound that ruled before it.

But a growing number of producers and labels around the world are subverting things again: they’re moving away from these busy, physical, and harsh styles, back to a “less is more” approach. Their refined, academic take on deep techno might be traced back to artists like Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, and Planetary Assault Systems, but is made from more abstract parts. There are no vocals, melodies, strings, or pianos, but instead there’s a focus on spaciousness, deft sound design, and hypnotic grooves in a widescreen cinematic style. It’s still intense, just mentally absorbing.

Despite techno’s reputation for functionality, this more studious and mindful take on the genre would be poorly suited to your average festival, because it doesn’t have immediate impact. It is often decidedly linear and sparse, with no real edges. Because of its sonic subtleties and finely-sculpted design, this meticulous, hi-fi style demands patience, but rewards it with often insular, always mind-melting experiences.

Unlike, say, the Berghain sound, which is focused around the influential Berlin club of the same name, this strand of techno has no real geographic centre or definitive club to call home. Instead, clusters of producers in Rome, London, Berlin, and New York are quietly turning out this posh and artful sound of their own accord. What’s more, it seems to dovetail with a wider trend for audiophile listening experiences: places like Spiritland and Brilliant Corners in London—with their absurdly expensive sound system set ups dedicated to vinyl—and the popularity of turntable weights, rotary mixers, isolators, and customized high-end decks all bare that out. Maybe it means techno is getting old. But for now, it is an interesting divergence from the norm, driven and exemplified by the artists included here.

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Album of the Day: Pallbearer, “Heartless”

A sense of foreboding gravity is an essential part of doom, and on their first two albums, 2012’s Sorrow and Extinction and 2014’s Foundations of Burden, Pallbearer mostly embraced that attitude—tellingly, the latter was produced by Billy Anderson, a collaborator of Sleep and Neurosis. But the records also took enough liberties with that grim metal subgenre that the band seemed a prime candidate for crossover.

Those departures have grown only stronger on Heartless, the third full-length from the Little Rock, Arkansas, quartet. Throughout, Pallbearer moves even further away from easy definitions and constraining pigeonholes. Some may call it compromise; others may call it growing up.

The most intriguing thing about the self-produced Heartless is the constant tension churning within both the words and the music. Their lyrics, while still mostly bleak, now leave a little room for cautious hope (“A Plea for Understanding” even features the word “love”). And while still capable of of producing a crushing swing, the band isn’t afraid to unleash a confident, unabashed melodic sensibility; at times, Pallbearer sounds like classic Thin Lizzy, or even Boston (bassist Joseph Rowland wasn’t shy about his enjoyment of the latter in a recent interview). You can hear it in Brett Campbell’s agile singing, easing up into a high register free of the self-conscious “woe is me” despair of so many doom vocalists. You can hear it in guitarist Devin Holt’s mastery of both massive riffage and lovely, proggy lines that flirt with power metal. Heartless sounds like a band finally free to be itself. Let others worry about what to call it.

Elisabeth Vincentelli