Album cover for TNT by Tortoise

#102 Ten-Day Interval” by Tortoise, available on TNT, 1998 [buy on CD from Boomkat] [buy from iTunes]

There was a time in the mid-to-late 1990s when the term post-rock was virtually synonymous with Chicagoan noodlers Tortoise, such was the influence of the band’s second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996).

TNT, the follow-up, was probably the last major release before the post-rock axis’ centre of gravity shifted north towards Montreal, as Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their debut.

Dialling down both the density and intensity, TNT largely swapped out the Krautrock and dub heritage of its predecessor in favour of jazz and ambient influences. Let’s be clear, though: it is neither a jazz nor an ambient album.

Along with “I Set My Face To The Hillside” (a charmingly loungey latin folk number), “Ten-Day Interval” is the most accessible piece on the album. Its hypnotic, iterative, arpeggiated rhythms recall Steve Reich‘s Music For 18 Musicians, of course. But its suggestive quality also reminds me of the film scores of Japanese maestro Joe Hisaishi (Sonatine, Spirited Away and many, many more).

It’s this filmic feel that gives the piece its quiet impact. The portentous chimes and sustained bass draw you into a state of suspended anticipation, as if waiting for something inevitable but profound (whether for good or ill isn’t clear). That the stream of squeaks of burbles at the end outlast the musically straightforward resolution suggests it’s not a narrative with neat closure. Indeed, later on in TNT‘s tracklist, a companion piece, “Four-Day Interval”, reopens its themes in organic slow motion – night to “Ten-Day Interval”‘s day.

As such the two pieces provide the flâneur-hermit (it takes one to know one) with a conspiratorial spur to the imagination that hints at drama beneath the surface of the mundane – the perfect soundtrack to his solitary, headphoned experience of the city.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

 

Album cover for Permafrost by Thomas Köner

Thomas Köner: Permafrost (Barooni, 1993; re-released by Type, 2010)
£2.52 from [eMusic] (requires membership) – £5.94 from [Boomkat]

Originally released in 1993, Permafrost was the final work in sound artist Thomas Köner‘s seminal arctic ambient trilogy – the others being Nunatak Gongamur (1990) and Teimo (1992); both excellent.

The two earlier works (Köner’s first CD releases) sought to locate and reveal an underlying musicality in the frozen landscapes of the North Pole. Nunatak explored a sonic analogy between treated gong recordings and the crystalline, waterlogged drifts to sometimes disturbing effect, while Teimo divined meditative harmonies from the subsonic rumblings of centuries old glaciers.

Permafrost saw Köner going deeper into the ice to find its core, its essence. In it overt musical language is sublimated by an unrelenting sound climate that creates the eponymous permafrost: throbs, hisses, gusts and a strange kind of audible silence.

The effect, simultaneously unnerving and comforting, feels profound.

The music hasn’t been excised entirely. On “Firn”, for example, the crackling hum is joined by a distant, intangible choral harmony, and the final piece’s (“…”) drone resolves to a tantalisingly tonal state. But music is perhaps present only as a memory of what came before.

The album’s titular centrepiece captures its true form most persuasively – its overwhelming emptiness leads you to grab at any hint of musical sustenance as if your life depended on it. The sense it leaves behind, as it disappears like melting ice, is one of sublime hunger.

In Permafrost (and its companion albums) Köner manufactured the sound – the entire atmosphere – of a world perpetually frozen so utterly that it almost transcends experience of the real thing. (Though not quite; see my review of Chris Watson’s “Vatnajökull”.)

As a genuine work of art it requires silent, undisturbed contemplation and focus to fully appreciate it. Take the trouble to immerse yourself in its habitat and the rewards are substantial.

Long out of print, Köner’s trilogy was re-released on all formats last year by Type Records. Not only that, it is available to listen to for free via Type’s SoundCloud presence. Bitter, beautiful cold is but one click away.

close to 94 rating: ★★★★★★★

This review is part of close to 94‘s [emusic club], which reviews releases from the eMusic catalogue.

Album cover for In Sides by Orbital

#104 The Box by Orbital, available on In Sides, 1996 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

The Box is one of the relatively few 90s electronica tracks that, rather having dated since its release (15 years ago), still sounds not only fresh but inspired too.

Recorded by the brothers Hartnoll (Phil and Paul, a.k.a. Orbital) at the peak of their creative powers, its staying power in part lies with the retro feel it’s built around, harking back to 1970s thriller TV themes – John Barry’s The Persuaders in particular – but also its organic subtlety and coherence (bearing in mind the band’s rave culture roots).

It was initially presented as an EP in advance of fourth (and for many, best) album, In Sides, reaching number 11 in the UK singles chart, helped in large part by Luke Losey‘s (grandson of Joseph) iconic stop-motion video (here on YouTube) starring Tilda Swinton.

It was clearly conceived as more than a four-minute slice of radio, though: its four variations on the EP (including a vocal version sung by Alison Goldfrapp) were blended into a seamless 28-minute suite. But it’s the twelve minutes it occupies on In Sides that provide the optimal experience.

Opening tentatively with a hypnotic, chiming riff The Box builds, in increments, a quiet intensity, its music-box motif suggesting a kind of tainted naivety. The enigma is deepened by a melody improvised on that most enigmatic-sounding instrument, the cimbalom.

The pace quickens suddenly half-way in, evoking a frantic, deadly game of cat-and-mouse in a hidden urban underworld. The Box‘s acoustic drum & bass rhythms, clean synth lines and mysterious harmony and melody create the signature tune for the best spy drama never made – it was no doubt single-handedly responsible for Orbital being chosen to re-imagine the theme for the 1997 movie remake of The Saint, but is infinitely superior.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Album cover for Bossanova by Pixies

#111 Down To The Well by Pixies, available on Bossanova, 1990 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

This is another one of those times where I know this isn’t a band’s best song, but it’s the one that gets through to me – probably because it doesn’t have to carry the burden of being definitive. Down To The Well may not be the their best (fans usually ignore Bossanova and argue over their favourites from Doolittle or Surfer Rosa), but it is quintessential Pixies.

That’s because it was among the first tracks the band ever recorded – it was on the now-legendary ‘Purple Tape’ of demos they recorded in early 1987 which got them their 4AD record deal. It didn’t make the set for their first mini-album, Come On Pilgrim, but as with a number of songs from that session, Down To The Well was re-recorded for its official album release. It is the better for it.

Slowing the pace and intensifying the guitars and vocals compared the original version (which was eventually released in 2002, on the Pixies EP), Black Francis‘ impatience to reach the mythical, unexplained release/pleasure to be found down at the well is all the more powerful.

Whatever it’s about – drugs, sex or alien abduction (one internet theory tenuously holds it is about the infamous Betty & Barney Hill incident) – the torment is so palpable in the guitar line that you can’t help but take on Black’s urgent frustration. And that, of course, is what makes it a great song.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Album cover for Londinium by Archive

#119 Londinium by Archive, taken from Londinium, 1996 [buy from Amazon.co.uk]

Trip hop is one of those genres that largely failed to survive its arrival in the mainstream, its unequal merger with pop. Most of the groups that followed in the wake of defining acts Massive Attack and Tricky in the mid-1990s were indistinguishable, blending (or, more accurately, blanding) into one long, slightly morose breakbeat. I’m talking about you Morcheeba, Sneaker Pimps, Alpha, Lamb…

Originality did occasionally emerge, however. Archive‘s 1996 debut album, Londinium, added an intelligent and ambitious musicality to the genre template, making it one of the 1990s’ most successful (in artistic terms) pop records. A collective of musicians centred around Darius Keeler and Danny Griffiths, Archive’s career since has meandered somewhat with irregular flashes of genius for the most part buried by undisciplined shifts in creative direction.

Londinium‘s title track epitomises the album’s aforementioned ambition. It is not so much song as a suite, as though showcasing fragments of an epic but imaginary (hip-h)opera about the meaning of London, past and present. Its three distinct movements seem to describe a cycle of creation, reflection and destruction respectively, giving Londinium a universality beyond its city walls.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Album cover for Peloton by the Delgados

#121 Pull The Wires From The Wall by The Delgados, taken from Peloton, 1998 [buy from Amazon.co.uk]

Among the very best songs produced by the Scottish Indie scene, Pull The Wires From The Wall is the finest three and three-quarter minutes The Delgados ever recorded. It became a firm favourite of the late, great John Peel – topping his annual Festive Fifty in 1998, and making number 26 in his all-time list, compiled in 2000. I could leave my commentary here, as no further recommendation is needed.

I can’t help but mention, though, the enigmatic, (dis)enchanted world the lyrics create, their meaning tantalisingly out of reach, though just close enough to draw you back for another look. And as I’m here it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge Emma Pollock‘s wonderfully laconic vocals, ambling atop their chamber pop setting of guitar and strings.

Introspective, inscrutable, indie songwriting, Pull The Wires From The Wall is the perfect prescription for the lightly tormented. Take at least once a day “if you’re feeling fond of feeling wronged. Fully clothed.”

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

Album cover for Screamadelica by Primal Scream

#125 Movin’ On Up by Primal Scream, taken from Screamadelica, 1991 [buy from Amazon.co.uk]

The opener on their transformational – and still (rightly) revered – Screamadelica album, Movin’ On Up was Primal Scream‘s breakthrough track in the USA. It’s not difficult to see (or rather hear) why. The swinging-blues piano riff, the optimistic lyrics and of course the joyous gospel choir hit an American popular music sweet spot and made resistance futile for the rest of us.

This review is part of close to 94 ‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.