The Regression of Nate Young

Regression Volumes 1, 2 & 3 by Nate Young

The past week or so has been a rather trying time due to various reasons. My recovery from flu has been painfully slow and not helped much by the freezing weather or a frustratingly heavy workload. Still, I always ensure that I schedule at least a few hours of music into each day as a means to fully unwind. I think that maybe the solitude of home-working, coupled with the recent snowfall has affected me in peculiar ways however. Recently, I’ve devoted a good portion of my allotted listening time to new acquisitions and the latest additions to my iTunes library but I’ve found myself returning to the eerie dread of Nate Young on more occasions than is probably healthy.

Nate Young is of course a founding member of US noise legends Wolf Eyes, but has also recorded under a variety of different guises in the past. His output under any moniker is always a pleasure to listen to, ever challenging and wilfully unpredictable. Towards the end of last year, I picked up copies of three LPs that he had released under his own name but never really got the chance to give them my full attention. I don’t know why I ended up playlisting these particular releases last week but I’m incredibly glad I did. 

Over the course of these three volumes, Young somehow manages to convey tangible feelings of creeping dread and claustrophobic isolationism perfectly. His machines sound impossibly ancient and probably damaged; synths, oscillators, tape loops, effects – by turns sounding like a dusty library LP or the soundtrack to a late 70s Italian horror flick. The cinematic reference is so explicit at times that some tracks even appear to have foley cues embedded within the tangle of abstract electronics and rhythmic pulsations. 

The overall effect is that of a tightly wound mesh of sounds and textures that seem to mimic the jangled nerves of some paranoid insomniac being blindly pursued by terrors unknown into the unblinking eye of a Stygian night. But then, what do you expect from tracks with titles such as ‘Sweating Sickness’, ‘Dread’ and ‘Sleep Anxiety’? The covers of Volumes 1 and 2 are also wonderful signifiers of the type of sounds contained within;

Nate Young Regression 1

Nate Young Regression 2

It’s strange that at times when I feel a little frayed and on edge, I find the edgiest of records the most soothing. Maybe they are holding up an aural mirror to my soul. The snow has gone now though and I think it’s time to go outside for some fresh air…

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Original Soundtrack

Last week, I wrote an article about the newly issued score for a film called Berberian Sound Studio by Broadcast (here) and casually stated that it was “probably the best soundtrack album ever released”. After listening to it several dozen more times, I stand by my somewhat hasty claim of greatness but it made me wonder if I hadn’t been a little rash in making such a proclamation. The obsessive in me has therefore gradually taken over and I have spent a good deal of time over the past few days playing a selection of other, much loved soundtrack LPs in a bid to reaffirm that initial statement – I do not take my opinions about music lightly! And so then dear reader, here is my pick of the best of the rest;

1. The Wicker Man – Paul Giovanni & Magnet (Trunk Records – 1998)

The Wicker Man Trunk OST

I might as well start with the soundtrack to one of my favourite films of all time; Robin Hardy’s 1973 British folk horror classic, The Wicker Man. If you’ve ever seen this work of cinematic genius then you’ll already appreciate what makes it such a powerful film, if not then you owe it to yourself to order a copy immediately with following caveat; make sure it’s the Director’s Cut edition which restores almost 15 minutes of vital footage which was butchered from the theatrical release. And so to the music, it’s hard to believe that the soundtrack for a film which uses music as such an integral part of the narrative was only released 15 years ago. Paul Giovanni succeeds in crafting a masterful collection of songs which take in gently psychedelic folk (Corn Rigs), nursery rhymes (Chop Chop), bawdy carousing (The Landlord’s Daughter) and various other lysergic treatments of traditional Scottish, Irish and English songs. There’s even room for a jaunty singalong featuring the richly sonorous voice of Christopher Lee (Tinker of Rye). In all, it’s a wonderful, deeply affecting collection of music which is essential listening for anyone who appreciates the strange and the beautiful.

2. The Andromeda Strain – Gil Mellé (Kapp Records, 1971)

Andromeda Strain OST1

Mellé Was an American jazz musician and artist who created iconic LP covers for such luminaries as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. He also constructed his own electronic instruments and used them to compose music for dozens of films and TV shows, including 70s classic The Six Million Dollar Man. The score for this futuristic thriller about the discovery of a deadly organism of extra terrestrial origin in a New Mexico town is my absolute favourite. Over the course of it’s brief 22 minute runtime, Mellé constructs a tense audio collage of electronically treated instruments, found sounds, white noise and tape manipulations. The soundtrack LP which was Originally released in 1971 deserves an article all of it’s own. It was issued in limited quantities as a hexagonal 10″ disc and came housed in a foiled, die-cut hexagonal enclosure which folded out to reveal stills from the film. Copies of this version of the LP now change hands for ridiculous sums of money amongst collectors.

Andromeda Strain OST LP

3. The Dunwich Horror – Les Baxter (American International Records, 1970)

Dunwich Horror OST

I have often wondered how the producers of this psychedelic 1970 adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s weird tale of eldritch horror decided that the king of 50s/60s exotica would be the ideal person to provide the score. Baxter had previously issued a string of albums with titles such as ‘Caribbean Moonlight’ and ‘Bongo Party’ which I can confirm are most definitely not the stuff of nightmares. The music to this decidedly grade-B effort starring a fabulously moustachioed Dean Stockwell is fabulously groovy however and features some lovely touches of Moog, Theremin and eerie flutes and amongst the menacing arrangements.

4. Possession – Andrzej Korzyński (Finders Keepers, 2012)

Possession OST

Last year, the Finders Keepers label issued this rather essential album containing the complete and previously unreleased score for Andrzej Zulawski’s surrealist 80s horror classic and former ‘video nasty’, Possession. The enigmatic Polish composer Andrzej Korzyński originally delivered a series of 25 cues for the film, most of which were unused in the director’s final cut, but all of which are thankfully included on this album. There are enough synths, clavinets, Rhodes pianos, drum machines and proggy guitars nestled amongst the sweeping orchestral miniatures here to make this an essential listen.

5. La Planete Sauvage – Alain Goraguer (Pathé, 1973)

La Planete Sauvage OST

This rather surreal animated French sci-fi flick is a little seen, altogether odd affair but well worth tracking down a copy if you get the chance. The soundtrack is by jazz pianist Alain Goraguer who provided the orchestration on several early albums by a young Serge Gainsbourg. Here, Goraguer develops a series of reinterpretations of the main theme along with a number of other pieces which didn’t appear in the final cut of the film. The LP contains a great blend of styles, a few of which sound like a cross between Barrett-era Floyd jamming with Issac Hayes! It’s always a pleasure to sit down of an evening and listen to an album which combines raw wah-wah funk with pastoral strings and the occasional harpsichord flourish.

The Music Library of Jonny Trunk

My postman is a rather surly chap. He’s never early, rarely speaks when I greet him and often delivers other people’s letters to my house for me to deal with. But despite all of these faults, I love him. I feel this way because even though he insists on leaving piles of bills and junk advertisements in my hallway day after day, he also brings me things that fill my life with happiness – music, books and DVDs. Yesterday, I managed to intercept him before trying to ram a package into my letterbox which was clearly a few inches too wide. I hastily rescued my delivery which was thankfully unharmed and as I rushed inside to escape the snow, my heart began pounding as I realised what the brown cardboard wrapping contained. Once indoors, I carefully split the tape holding the parcel together and removed the thick layer of bubble wrap protecting it’s precious cargo. Finally, I had in my hands a book which I had been searching for over many years and all but given up hope of finding a copy without paying a small fortune. My surly postman had made me feel like a child on Christmas morning once again!

The book in question is called The Music Library and is subtitled ‘Graphic Art and Sound’. It’s 208 pages contain a bewildering selection of cover artwork from some of the rarest and most beautiful library LPs produced during the 1960s and 1970s. It was conceived and compiled by a marvellous chap called Jonny Trunk (who also happens to run one of my favourite record labels – here) and features contributions from a host of library aficionados including The Specials’ Jerry Dammers (who also provides the Foreword). As if that wasn’t quite enough, the inside rear cover contains a little wallet which houses a CD compilation of tracks from some of the included LPs.

Trunk Music Library Book

I spent the whole of yesterday evening leafing through the pages of this incredible tome whilst listening to a playlist consisting of favourite tracks culled from my own personal collection of library LPs. As the temperatures outside plummeted and the snow continued falling, It all made perfect sense. 

The music contained on these albums was orginally produced exclusively for use by film and TV studios and never commercially released. Indeed, some of these fantastic records were pressed in such tiny quantities that only a handful remain today and are invariably snapped up for unbelievable sums of money by collectors when they occasionally surface. The artwork on these album sleeves cover all bases from the graphically utilitarian to the outlandishly psychedelic and all points in between. As Mr Dammers states in his foreword,  the sleeve designers appear to have received the same creative brief as the musicians – “Zero budget and complete and utter artistic freedom to indulge in your most disturbed inner fantasies”.

I really can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough and suggest that you keep your eyes peeled on the next visit to your secondhand emporium of choice. My thanks go out to the esteemed Jonny Trunk for sharing some of his library collection with me… and to my surly postman for delivering the goods!

Here is a small selection of my favourite LP covers from the book;

Music Library Covers 1Music Library Covers 2Music Library Covers 3Music Library Covers 4Music Library Covers 5

Music and the Art of the Zoetrope

Last week, I discovered a pair of fantastic albums by a duo called Sculpture and have had them both on heavy rotation ever since. Rotary Signal Emitter (2010) and Toad Blinker (2011) are the work of producer Dan Heyhurst and animator Reuben Sutherland. Musically, they’re both deliriously lysergic affairs, meshing flickering samples and found sounds with fragmented tape loops over all manner of lo-fi analogue electronics. There are elements of radiophonic tape music, freeform jazz, early electronics, mangled modular synths and pretty much everything else in between.

Sculpture Rotary Signal Emitter

Sculpture Toad Blinker

I was also incredibly intrigued by the artwork for both releases and decided to find out more. After a quick search, it seems that both of these fine albums were initially issued in limited quantities as picture discs. When played on a turntable and viewed from above they produce intricate concentric rings of illustrated frames depicting fragments of looping images. These beautiful pieces of art are not just records, but also act as zoetrope discs as the clip below demonstrates.

Sadly, the discs have long since sold out but both albums are widely available digitally and are highly recommended to those who like their electronic music on the challenging side.

Magpies of Sheffield

Yesterday morning I went for a quick stroll around the city centre in Sheffield before breakfast. It was bitterly cold and the streets were mainly empty, a good opportunity to take a few pictures. As I made my way down Devonshire Street from the car park, I came across this stencil of a magpie; Sheffield Magpie 7It was placed on the wall above a cigarette bin outside a bar and was marked with the number 7. As I moved on, I pondered the significance of it’s given number and the zipper across it’s beak. I didn’t have to wait too long for an answer of sorts as I discovered number 7’s sibling – number 8, who was perched outside another bar on Division Street; Sheffield Magpie 8After breakfast, I spotted yet another member of the clan – number 5, hanging around outside a store on the way back up Devonshire Street to the car; Sheffield Magpie 5I would have happily spent another few hours searching for the rest of the group* but it was still freezing cold and I didn’t think junior unsubscriber would have shared my enthusiasm so we headed for home. I shall return to the hunt another morning.

Postscript – After doing a little research about these intriguing stencils online later in the evening, I found a picture of yet another family member – number 6, on a rather fine blog called Little Bits Of Sheffield (here).

* The collective noun for magpies is a tittering, or so I’m led to believe.

Sounds, Vision and Art from the Berberian Sound Studio

How does an overworked, underpaid music obsessive like me spend a wet Tuesday evening? Why, listening to probably the best soundtrack album ever released, over and over.

The film that benefits from this magnificent collection of sonic cues and assorted foley artefacts is Peter Strickland’s equally magnificent Berberian Sound Studio. Set in the 70s, it tells the story of a rather ordinary sound engineer from Dorking who takes up a position at an Italian film studio to work on a new giallo flick called “The Equestrian Vortex”. The protagonist is slowly engulfed by the mundanity of creating sounds to accompany the onscreen images of sex, violence and satanism. As the film progresses, he slowly loses his fragile grip on reality which eventually culminates in a psycho-metaphysical implosion of anxiety and disdain for the world in which he now inhabits.

Watching this, it’s almost as if Peter Strickland had been told to sit down and write a movie synopsis for me personally. I won’t go into any more detail about the film here but you should most definitely grab a copy of the newly released DVD and experience one of the most original pieces of cinema produced in years.

Over the past thirty years or so, soundtrack albums have become the stuff of nightmares and the marketing man’s wet dream come true. A dozen chart ‘hits’ cobbled together with a few ‘themes’ and – bingo! Another few million quid in the bank for the big boys. But this LP is a different matter entirely. Strickland asked one of my favourite bands, the massively underrated Broadcast to score the film with original music created specifically for the project. It was the last music produced by the band before singer Trish Keenan’s untimely death last year and is therefore imbued with a palpable sense of poignancy for me.

Broadcast have never really tried to sell many records since their inception in 1995. In fact, their output has slowly become more assuredly odd and wonderfully out of step with anything going in the world of music at the time of each release. Their last album, a collaboration with the Ghost Box label’s Focus Group was the absolute antithesis of a commercial record – and sounded all the better for it.

Berberian Sound Studio

If this album didn’t have the word ‘soundtrack’ on it’s cover, it would easily stand amongst the very best of their canon. It manages to achieve that anyway both despite, and because of the fact. Over the course of thirty nine tiny fragments, James Cargill and Trish Keenan manage to capture the absolute essence of the film’s subject matter and it’s obsession with the minutiae of sound, suffused with a creeping sense of paranoia. It sounds like an undiscovered library music LP, recorded in 1973 and forgotten until being rediscovered and released forty years after the fact. The sleeve even looks like an old audio tape reel box, complete with faded tape holding it’s worn edges together. From the opening clunk of a reel to reel tape machine there are flutes, pipe organs, harpsichords and bucolic strings. These are punctuated by snippets of birdsong, a ticking clock, laughter, rain and traces of hushed Italian dialogue plus, a few rather marvellous screams! Trish Keenan’s voice appears fleetingly, a wraithlike presence amongst the tangle of sonic detritus. It’s an utterly beautiful record which works remarkably well as a whole, even when isolated from the visuals it was ultimately produced to accompany.

The artwork deserves a special mention here too. It was conceived by the very talented Julian House who’s singular sleeve designs have given his Ghost Box label an instantly recognisable, thematic identity. I read an article last year in which House stated that he’d completed dozens of different designs before submitting his finished piece to Strickland. A small selection of these amazing works are included below;

Berberian Posters 1Berberian Posters 2