October 12, 2017

Music Review: Barbez - For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War

those_who_came_cover sm.jpg La plus ça change, plus c'est la mȇme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same) was first said by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849 and is often used in reference to the frequency events are repeated in history. So as the world descends into yet another period of political polarization it's not very surprising to see people reaching back into the past for inspiration. This is the case with the newly released album For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance From The Spanish Civil War from the Brooklyn based Barbez on Important Records.

In the late 1930s a group of Spanish generals led by Francisco Franco revolted to overthrow the elected government of Spain. Openly backed with equipment and money by Italy's Fascist government and Germany's Nazi government, the coup was far better prepared for war than their republican opponents. When it became obvious the countries of Europe were going to allow the Spanish government to be defeated, anti-fascist volunteers from all over the world travelled to Spain to fight.

Among those who volunteered were Americans who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. In honour of these soldiers, and to inspire those fighting against fascism in WWll, an album of music from the Spanish Civil war was released in the 1940s, Songs From The Lincoln Brigade. It featured songs in English, Spanish, and German (there was a large contingent of anti-fascist Germans fighting in Spain) that had either been sung by troops during the war or inspired by the struggle.

Now 80 years after the events in Spain Barbez's album commemorates those who fought with their renditions of songs from the original album and new recordings of other anti-fascist anthems from the same period. For those familiar with the earlier recording, these versions might take a little getting used to, as they are no longer being performed either as choral pieces or simple folk songs accompanied by guitar and banjo.

Barbez is made up of musicians who have played with everyone from David Byrne to the Philip Glass Ensemble and includes not only guitar (Dan Kaufman), drums (John Bollinger), and other instruments normally associated with contemporary music, but a theremin player (Pamelia Stickney) as well. The other major difference is the lead vocalist, Velina Brown, best known for her live theatre performances.

Her voice isn't one you'd normally associate with 'folk' music as its been obviously trained for performance on the stage. However, she lends the material a power and authority which makes them the calls to arms they were meant to be. When she sings "The International" (written in 1871 by Eugene Pottier after the fall of the Paris Commune and only later co-opted by Communist Russia) it is the anthem for the working class it was supposed to be, not the symbol of oppression it became. After years of hearing it performed by orchestras or massed choirs, this multilingual version, done by a small band with a theremin led intro, reminds us of the song's origins and who it was meant to represent.

Each of the songs on this album reminds us of a time when people of all backgrounds and political beliefs first began forming a common front against an seemingly intractable enemy. "Moorsodaten" ("Peat Bog Soldiers") was written inside one of the earliest German concentrations camps in 1933 and sung for the troops in Spain by the great American Paul Robeson. "Song of the United Front" - which calls for a coalition of people to unite against fascism - was written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his composer Hans Eisler echoing the cry for unity of Spain's elected government.

Brown and Barbez have done a remarkable job in taking these songs from early in the last century ( and older) and not only making them sound alive and vital, but in also making them relevant to today's world. By singing them in French, English, German, and Spanish Brown not only reminds us of their origins, but of a time when people from all over the world were united against a common enemy.

The album was recorded live in 2016 at the annual reunion of Lincoln Brigade veterans. At two points in the album, Barbez have mixed in the voices of two of the last surviving American veterans of the war (they've both dead now with the last, Del Berg dying at a 100 years old last year). On the first track, "Viva la Quince Brigade" ("Long Live the 15th Brigade") we hear Abe Osheroff explaining why he went to Spain, and then more tellingly saying: "Spain was where I learned I didn't have to know I was going to win in order to fight. It became the main theme in my life, and that is, you resist whether you win or lose - you resist."

Maybe this is a part of the world's shared history some would like us to forget. How people from around the world came together to begin the long resistance against those who preached hatred, who advocated for the rights of the few, and whose power was based on the exploitation of the many. However, aside from anything else, the songs on For Those Who Came After are beautifully executed and an amazing example of how music over 80 years old can not only be relevant today, but sound just as exciting and stirring as they did when originally written.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Barbez - For Those Who Came After: Songs of Resistance from the Spanish Civil War)

October 21, 2016

Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - We Are The Halluci Nation

Cover We Are The Halluci Nation - A Tribe Called Red.jpgWith their latest release, We Are The Halluci Nation on the Pirates Blend label, the three man DJ crew/producers known as A Tribe Called Red continue to redefine the music of the First Nations people of Canada. Already well known for their inspired work mixing traditional native drum groups with dance beats, hip-hop, and electronics, the latest release expands on this base by reaching out to international indigenous and rap artists.

Aside from incorporating the Northern Voice and Chippewa Travellers drums, the three man crew (Ian "DJ" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill, and Bear Witness) have used tracks contributed by artists as diverse as Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, rap stars Yasiin Bay (Mos Def), Narcy, Black Bear, and Shad, and the voice of the recently deceased poet/musician/Native American activist John Trudell. It was Trudell who provided the lyrics for the title track, "We Are The Halluci Nation", and the inspiration for the album as a whole.

So it's only fitting the first voice you hear on the disc is Trudell's. Before he died he sent the band a tape of him reading the words for both the opening track and the release's second last song, "ALie Nation". It doesn't take too much imagination to understand who Trudell is referring to when he talks about the "Halluci Nation" and the "ALie Nation". Yet it's not as cut and dried as the First Nations European division as you'd think.

While the lyrics of the former makes no bones about the fact the song is about how indigenous people are viewed ( "We are the Halluci Nation/We have been called the Indians/We have been called Native Americans/We have been called hostile/We have been called pagan/We have been called militant/We have been called many names/We are the Halluci Nation.") the latter implies the split between peoples is not necessarily along racial lines. Rather it's between those who see the world as something to exploit and those who see it as something to celebrate.

While even that might be too radical a thought for most to get their heads around (after all we've been taught we were given dominion over the beasts and the land) the band knows a message has to be delivered in a way to make it palatable. So on the majority of the tracks the bitter pill of reality is sweetened with a musical mix that is not only infectious but brilliantly mixed. It seamlessly blends elements of traditional drums with electronics and the contributions of the guests.
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"R.E.D.", the track featuring Yasiin Bey, Narcy & Black Bear is a great example of this. The core of the song's music is a drum group laying down the beat. (If you've ever wondered why its called the heartbeat drum you'll understand after listening to this song) Mixed overtop are the lead vocals and various electronic effects. However, what's amazing is that instead of this creating an impenetrable wall of sound making the music sound like mush, you can hear every layer distinctly and how they work together.

On "R.E.D." in particular you'll notice how the song is built around the drum. During a drum's performance there are various breaks from the heart beat, either when the drum stops altogether and there's only singing, or when the rhythm and speed are suddenly increased. On this track, we hear the same pattern, in both the drum and the other elements - from voice to electronics. It's a perfect merging of the traditional and the modern.

There are two tracks, four "BEFORE" and 15 "SOON", which aren't really songs. They are recordings of a phone conversation from prison. They are heartbreaking in their reality and pain and bring up topics which most people don't really want to know about: the damage suffered by First Nations people in Residential Schools and the unsolved murders of thousands of indigenous women across Canada. Simple and direct, they go to the heart of what's wrong with Canada's relationship with the original people of this country.

I was fortunate enough to interview John Trudell about 8 years ago. What I came to realize from reading his poetry and talking with him is how much your mindset is changed by living as a conquered people in your own land. I could barely even begin to get my mind around how that must feel. We Are The Halluci Nation from A Tribe Called Red explores similar territory while at the same time trying to show all of us there is a way forward from this state of mind.

Musically this CD will knock your socks off as it blows a hole in your sternum and gets your feet moving. It will do the same thing to you intellectually and emotionally if you let it. That's the power of great music.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - We Are The Halluci Nation)

September 27, 2016

Music Review: Moor Mother -Fetish Bones

Cover Fetish Bones Moor Mother copy sm.jpgWith the release of Fetish Bones, her first recording for Don Giovanni Records, Moor Mother, the music stage name for multidisciplinary artist Camae Ayewa, has announced herself as a musical force to be reckoned with. Not only do her songs push the envelope musically, lyrically she takes no prisoners. If Beyonce upset you with her tribute to Malcolm X at the Super Bowl, this album will give you nightmares.

Harsh, at times atonal and discordant, musically her songs reflects the anger and pain expressed by the lyrics; lyrics which deal with the African American experience in North America in the past and the present. The disc's opening song, "Creation Myth", let's you know what you're in for as it traces African American history from the so called emancipation of 1866 to the recent events in Ferguson Missouri. "The first time you heard the whisper of death/ the death that has always been lingering here with you since the day you were born/Heard it telling you, you must be both dead and alive/One has to be dead when a man wants to beat us/When they want to rape us/Dead when the police kill me/Alive when the police kill you".

This is harsh and brutal stuff. Stuff most of us don't want to know about or want to hear. The things we so blithely ignore when we skirt the inner city neighbourhoods with their cracked sidewalks and run down housing. The poverty and desperation we, who don't live it, can pretend doesn't exist. It's all here - 13 songs filled with things no media is ever going to report and no mainstream, so-called urban music video, is ever going to show.
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Moor Mother creates sound collages of spoken word, found recordings, electronics, and instruments which crash against the ear and echo throughout your chest cavity. You'll flinch at some of the sounds, you'll be scared and repulsed by some of what she says, but above all she will make you think and feel in ways most modern music can only dream of doing.

While comparing one musician with another in an attempt to define them is somewhat unfair, for those wishing to have some frame of reference for Moor Mother think of the late great Gil Scott Heron, Laurie Anderson, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago mixed together in one package. However, she is far more than just the sum of those parts. She has her own ineffable artistry which allows her to combine those seemingly disparate elements to create soundscapes which bring her ideas to life emotionally and intellectually.

Moor Mother continues the legacy of the great African American female music artists who have chosen to express the agony of their people through music. Her's is the same anger, sorrow, and disgust expressed by Billie Holiday in "Strange Fruit" and Nina Simone in "Mississippi Goddamn". Fetish Bones is a tough, difficult recording by an incredibly gifted and honest artist. Some people aren't going to like what she has to say and some are going to be offended by the album, but like other great works of art it will force you to have an opinion.

(Article originally published at at Music Review: Moor Mother - Fetish Bones)

November 10, 2015

Music Review: Kishi Bashi - String Quartet Live

Cover Kishi Bashi String Quartet Live.jpgEver since I heard the Kronos Quartet do a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" I've been a sucker for well performed string arrangements of popular music. So it's no wonder I was blown away when I heard my first track from Kishi Bashi's new live album from Joyful Noise Recordings, String Quartet Live.

Bashi is not only a gifted violinist he's also an incredible singer - think Rufus Wainwright playing a violin and you'll have a fairly good idea of what I'm talking about. Being completely unfamiliar with his work prior to this release I was taken aback by not only his virtuosity but the versatility he displayed with both his voice and his instrument. He has a wonderful clear voice which can soar above the music into a scale's heights without ever once becoming shrill.

As to his violin work, it's not the usual type of electric sawing you get with most pop music. Instead you have an obviously trained musician whose turned his talents to pop music instead of orchestral. His bowing, his touch on the strings and his ability to evoke a variety of emotions with his instrument are all indications of someone who has worked long and hard to understand its intricaciest.

The aforementioned first track I heard is the lone cover on the CD, the Talking Heads "This Must Bet The Place (Naive Melody)". As a long time fan of the band I'm not easily impressed by others doing covers of their music. However, Bashi and his String Quartet had me from the first notes. Not only did their arrangement sound magnificent, they captured the energy and the spirit of the song. On top of that Bashi's singing lent the song the air of wistful hopefulness it needs to make it work.

The other eight tracks on the disc are all original Bashi tunes reconfigured for string ensemble. The songs are all taken from his previous releases and are each tiny masterpieces of musical perfection. From the uptempo and fun "Mr. Steak", about the star crossed love affair of a steak dinner, to the beautiful and haunting "Manchester". Each song is a new adventure in listening as Bashi and the quartet remind us once again that anything electric instruments can do, acoustic instruments played well can do just as well, if not better.

However, this doesn't mean Bashi has ignored the potential for utilizing modern technology. The third track, "Atticus In The Desert", features his musical partner Michael Savino (aka Tall Tall Trees) on banjo. While you can hear Savino's contributions on most songs, here he comes to the fore. A duet between banjo and violin might sound strange, but don't dismiss it until you hear them together.

First of all, forget any preconceived notions you might have about what a banjo sounds like or what's its capable of doing. Not only does Savino coax sounds out of it, with the aid of foot peddles and electronics, you've never heard the instrument make, he also plays it like a drum. With its hide head the banjo is a natural drum and played with the flair, and subtlety, shown here it becomes an incredibly versatile instrument. The contrast between the sounds of Bashi's violin and voice with the ring of the banjo makes for a stunning aural display.
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As its title suggests String Quartet Live is a live recording. In the past live recordings have sometimes had inferior sound quality as compared to studio recordings. However, not only does this disc sound as good as anything done in a studio, it manages to capture the excitement and emotion of the live concert. Bash's enthusiasm and passion at playing with the string ensemble are obvious in both his playing and his comments in between songs. You can almost hear him feeding off the energy of both those accompanying him and the audience's reactions to the songs.

Kishi Bashi is a phenomenal talent and String Quartet Live is an amazing showcase for both his abilities as a violinist and vocalist. If you know his work already I'm certain you will be impressed by these new interpretations of familiar tunes, and if you've never heard him before this is an incredible introduction to the man and his work.

String Quartet Live will be released on Friday, November 13 2015 - make sure you pick up a copy.

Photo of Kishi Bashi by Bryan Bruchman

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Kishi Bashi - String Quartet Live - A Violin Virtuoso)

February 19, 2014

Music Review: Viggo And Friends - Aca

Some people say, "Politics make strange bedfellows" (Don't say it to Putin - he might take it the wrong way and have you thrown in jail) but the first time I heard Viggo Mortensen had collaborated on an album with the notorious, infamous, riotous, speed metal, punk, over the top guitar player Buckethead, I thought politics has nothing on music. The idea the actor, poet and painter could find anything in common with the man who had spent the majority of his career hiding his identity behind a mask and wearing an empty KFC bucket on his head strained even my ability to suspend disbelief. However, after listening to a couple of their collaborations I had to admit they had found their own version of common ground.

While Mortensen and Buckethead have collaborated on entire CDs in the past, the latest recording of the former's music, Acá (Here), from Perceval Press is billed as being performed by Viggo and Friends. As with the majority of his previous releases this one was recorded at Travis Dickerson Recording Studios, which also means Dickerson supplies some of the accompanying instruments on three tracks (one, "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted", four, "Summer's Here" and nine, "Acá"). Two of the tracks (four and nine) feature drummer DJ Bonebrake, of the band X (which is fronted by Mortensen's ex wife Exene Cervenka). Track nine also features Mortensen's son Henry sitting in on bass while Buckethead joins the ensemble on tracks one and nine.

However, in spite of all the interesting people taking part, this is still essentially Mortensen's CD. Aside from composing all nine tracks, six of them feature him performing solo on keyboards. Trying to define the music is a somewhat harder proposition than talking about who appears on the recording. For these are not so much "songs" as atmospheric creations. The title of the CD is a clue to its content. In their own ways each composition defines a "Here" for the listener. However, unlike the ambient music of earlier days (Brian Eno and Robert Fripp come to mind) which were more aural wallpaper than anything else, these pieces evoke the specific places and ideas their titles suggest through their musical content.
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From specific locations, track two's "Walking Up River", describing a specific experience, "Wind In The Birches" (track three) to the more generalized expressions of emotions in "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted" ("The Time I Went Away"), each piece manages to find a way to bring the audience into the moment suggested by its title. That this is done without lyrics, and primarily through Mortensen's solo piano work, makes the work even more impressive.

While track one's Danish language title (thank you Google translator) makes obscures its meaning slightly, when taken in context of the rest of material it has the feel of an overture or preface. While a traditional overture usually introduces the various musical themes and motifs that will be heard over the course of a piece of music, "Den Gang Jeg Drog Afsted" introduces us to the fact we'll be going on a journey into nature and the world around us. It begins with the sounds of a thunderstorm which gradually fade into the background while keyboards, guitar, percussion and bass gradually fill in the soundscape. The instruments move to the forefront, creating sounds suggestive of the faintly heard rain storm in the background. With Buckethead's guitar recreating the sound of rain falling leading, the others fill in the space around his gentle fingering to suggest the feeling and sensations of listening to a storm.

As the English translation of the title suggests, the song not only recreates the sounds of rain, but the sensation of being transported outside oneself that can occur when you become caught up in listening to a thunderstorm. You can almost picture yourself sitting somewhere listening to the swell of thunder and the sound of rain as it patters against glass windows, on the roof and hits the leaves on the trees outside your house. The piece triggers the sense memory of allowing yourself to drift away on the sounds; travelling beyond time and place without having to leave the darkened room you're sitting in.

"Walking Up River" is the first of Mortensen's unaccompanied piano pieces on the disc. Instead of doing the obvious and trying to recreate the sounds of a river with his playing, he has taken us to the path by the river so we can appreciate the sensations of walking besides it. He doesn't try to impose his own vision of the experience on us. Instead the music he has created allows us to travel inside ourselves and relive our own times spent by flowing water. Somehow his music manages to offer sufficient suggestion we can re-experience our own moments in time walking beside a river watching the current flowing opposite to the direction we are travelling.
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Each of the pieces between the opening and the CD's concluding title track take us to a specific time or place beyond ourselves through Mortensen's ability to suggest emotional connections to them with his music. They aren't always gentle and easy to listen to, but than again, the natural world isn't always the idyllic fantasy world some would have us think. "Summer's Here" reminds us of the power of the burning sun and how it can suck the life out of us while "The Yew" evokes thoughts of stately trees which are often associated with death because of the ancient tradition which sees them planted around grave sites.

As if he's reminding us of this, the disc's concluding and title track, "Acá", begins with the jarring sound of a piano's wires being forcefully and discordantly strummed. As the song takes shape we gradually begin to notice how elements from previous songs make appearances. However, the piece also serves to bring us back to ourselves by jarring us out of whatever reverie we might have experienced while listening to what preceded it. We are now back "Here". Yet, at the same time, the reminders of what we had experienced listening to the rest of the music tell us no matter how noisy and unsettling the world becomes we always have recourse to our memories of other places and times to help us combat any disturbance.

A number of years ago I reviewed a collection of Mortensen's photographs and poems and commented on how with either media he seemed to have the innate ability to capture specific moments in time with both his words and his camera. Maybe it's through his work as an actor where you have to be in the moment at all times when you're portraying a character in order for it to be believable to your audience that he has gained this ability. However he does it, this recording shows he's equally capable of bringing an audience into a specific moment in time with his music. Acá is a beautiful and evocative collection of music which will allow you to travel into your own memories of time and place like few others I've heard.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Viggo And Friends - Acá)

August 3, 2013

Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things

It was early in the 1980s I first heard compositions incorporating found recordings of the human voice. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by David Byrne and Brian Eno used everything from outtakes of a radio call in show to a recording of an exorcism played back at different speeds and put through a variety of effects to create a collection of odd and highly affecting music. They weren't the only musicians working in this field at the time and while I've come across a few other examples of this type of work since, not many have impressed me as much as that first recording.

Until I heard the re-release of Jocelyn Pook's Untold Things on Real World Gold, an imprint of Real World Records, I had pretty much given up on hearing anything in this style that would be as moving and inspiring as My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. In fact the pieces on this recording are far more than just manipulated vocal samples set to music. Each of the 13 tracks here are complete compositions where the vocals, whether found or recorded live, are only one of the instruments Pook employs to create her multi textured and intricate pieces of music instead of being the focal point.

In most forms of music where vocals are employed they are usually what the song or piece is built around. From your standard pop song to opera to choral pieces the music serves to accent the story or themes the vocals are expressing. Whether an electric guitar solo or a full orchestra the music provides an emotional context for the lyrics. The challenge for a composer looking to employ the voice in a different capacity is to find ways to overcome his or her audiences' expectations when it comes to the role of vocals in a piece of music. The majority of us are conditioned by experience to separate the voice from accompaniment to discern the lyrics being sung.
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When a composer inserts found vocal tracks from cultures and languages other than their own they redefine the role of the voice in the composition. Once they realize the lyrics are being sung in a language they don't understand the listener will lose the impetus to distinguish between voice and instruments. While this is one method Pook employs in this collection of pieces it's not the only technique she uses to make voice part of her sound pallet. On some tracks lyrics are reversed while on others she has made up languages for her vocalists to employ.

Pook is a classically trained musician and composer with experience in creating music for ballet, theatre and film; most famously the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. So these pieces aren't the slapdash creation of somebody just fooling around with a mixing board and tape loops. Each one is carefully constructed and arranged and works on both an emotional and intellectual level. For, while the various sounds might stir certain feelings within her audience their careful juxtaposition will also ensure they pause to consider what is causing the emotional reaction.

The opening track of the disc, "Dionysus", is named for the Greek god most often associated with unbridled emotions and generally letting loose. However as well as being the god of wine, he was also honoured with annual theatre festivals in ancient Athens. While some of these plays would have been ribald comedies the more serious tragedies with their moral lessons would have been staged as well. Still, the majority of listeners would associate Dionysus with his wilder aspect and be surprised by the subdued nature of the piece. With its close to ethereal vocals (Melanie Pappenheim) sung over muted strings (Jackie Norrie, Sally Herbert, Kelly McCusker violin, Pook viola and keyboards, Caroline Lavelle cello and Jub bass) and keyboards it makes one think perhaps there is more to this god than we first thought.

Emotionally the piece evokes a kind of wistfulness in the listener created by the note of yearning we hear in the combination of voice and instruments. However, if we stop and think about what we know about the god in question, instead of being carried away by the emotion suggested by the music we pause and wonder what it has to do with the song's subject. Why does a song about the most earthy of gods resound with echoes of loneliness? Pook is urging us to consider there might be more to Dionysus than we've been led to believe by popular interpretations.
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Previously when I've heard compositions which employ found vocal tracks it's been relatively easy to distinguish between them and the original music. That's not always the case with Pook's work. When you listen to track ten, "Calls, Cries And Clamours", you'll have a hard time telling the vocal sample from "Boat Song" sung by Hoang Oanh from the original material Pook created with vocalist Pappenheim. While in this instance the vocals are prominent in the mix, like all the other tracks on the disc they are simply one more instrument. Even better is the fact we don't even have the distraction of hearing something obviously "foreign" in the mix, and we can simply sit back and let the music wash over us and think about the implications of the title.

The three words of the title all refer to three types of sound. While the first two specifically refer to vocal sounds the third implies noise of a generally loud and confused nature. While the song isn't what you'd call loud by any means, it does create the impression of a number of different sounds being listened to at once. It's as if you were eavesdropping on a variety of conversations being carried on in different languages. What you're listening to may not be loud, but it's certainly confusing because you can't understand anything of what's being said. Even if you could speak one of the languages, the confusion of hearing more than one at a time would make comprehension next to impossible.

Yet in spite of this there is also a certain harmony and beauty to the way the different sounds being made by the voices and musical instruments come together. It's a very simple lesson in how diversity does not necessarily mean disharmony. Language is used to communicate ideas no matter if its French, English or Arabic. On the surface they sound different, but if we stop trying to discern meaning in what's being said we begin to hear how they harmonize.

The music on Unknown Things is both beautiful to listen to and fascinating to think about. Composer Jocelyn Pook has taken elements of Western composition and mixed it with both found vocal tracks and her own linguistic inventions to make intriguing and inventive pieces of music. While the songs all have an obvious emotional appeal they are intriguing and interesting enough to trigger an intellectual response as well. There are very few composers capable of doing both at once, and on its own this would make checking her work out worth your while, but the music is also a pleasure to listen to, which makes it twice as valuable.

(Article originally published at as Music Review: Jocelyn Pook - Unknown Things)

November 1, 2012

Music Review: The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground and Nico Super Deluxe Edition

Should we care about an album released 45 years ago? Specifically, should we care about The Velvet Underground and Nico, especially enough to buy a six CD set commemorating the forty-fifth anniversary of its release? Well the people at Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) feel the album warrants special attention as they are releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico: Super Deluxe Edition. Are they justified in their belief this album deserves this kind of treatment?

In 1967 the The Velvet Underground; Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker joined forces with husky voiced Nico for this, their debut album. With the infamous peel away plastic banana cover artwork (you could actually peel the yellow skin away to reveal a naked flesh coloured banana) by their mentor Andy Warhol and their association with his studio/workshop/performance space/ The Factory the band was assured a certain amount of hip cachet. However hipness is fleeting and doesn't necessarily signify the creation of something enduring nor is it any guarantee of artistic merit.
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As the saying goes, "the proof is in the pudding", or in this case, in the listening. One only has to listen to the album once to understand not only how different it was from everything else being recorded at the time, but how good it is. I say is, because even listening to it now one can't help but be impressed by its inventiveness and originality. From the lyrics to the music it still sets a standard which very few albums, no matter when they were recorded, can measure up to. In fact when you consider the technological advances that have been made since it was recorded, most of what's being made today pales even more in comparison.

Musically The Velvet Underground And Nico is a mixture of pop and experimental/avant garde. In fact this rather strange mixture of the familiar and the jarring is very much the musical equivalent of what Warhol was doing with his "Pop Art". Taking familiar cultural images and then reproducing them in either oversized, life like detail (think his infamous rendering of a Campbell's Soup can) or distorting them with colour and repetition (think of his pictures of cultural icons like Elvis and Marylyn Monroe). In the case of the album this came across in both the music and the lyrics. Familiar popular music motifs were played just differently enough to make them sound unsettling while in other cases the band left pop music far behind and entered into the realm of the experimental.

Listen to the opening track on the album, "Sunday Morning". While it sounds like your typical pop song of the day there are some very noticeable differences right from the start. First of all is the fact the lead instrument sounds like a child's toy piano. It plinks along overtop the gentle sounding rhythm and gradually becomes more and more disturbing. While Nico originally performed the song live, Reed recorded the lead for the record. He gives the lyrics an almost Bob Dylan like inflection with the slightest suggestion of a German accent and sounding very feminine, making them sound like nothing you'd ever hear in any pop song. Of course the lyrics themselves aren't what you'd call pretty."Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's just the wasted years/So close behind/Watch out the world's behind you/There's always someone around you/Who will call/It's nothing at all/Sunday morning/And I'm falling/I've got a feeling/I don't want to know/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's all the streets you crossed/Not so long ago." This isn't describing most people's idea of a Sunday morning. A hangover from Saturday night is one thing, but this sounds like a hangover of a life filled with regrets and failure - like the Sunday morning of somebody contemplating suicide.

While "Sunday Morning" is musically familiar the same can't be said for "Black Angel Death Song". It challenges listeners right from its opening notes. You're immediately hit with the sound of Cale's viola scraping across its strings playing the same few notes over and over again. Overtop of this comes the sound of Reed intoning/reciting, the lyrics to the song. "The myriad choices of his fate/Set themselves out upon a plate/for him to choose what had he to lose/Not a ghost-bloodied country all covered with sleep/Where the black angel did weep/Not an old city street in the east/Gone to choose".
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Sounding more like free form poetry with atonal accompaniment, its nothing like any pop song heard at that time. In it you can hear foreshadowing of performers like Patti Smith and Jim Carrol who a decade latter would set their poetry to music. While this song isn't what anybody would call accessible or radio friendly, it's a brilliant piece of work showing pop music's potential to be more than just inconsequential disposable and forgettable songs. While other bands might have been singing about love and peace or playing long and boring instrumentals which went nowhere and calling it experimental, The Velvet Underground were producing songs which would alter people's perceptions of pop art's capacity to be meaningful. Is it any wonder that famed composer and producer Brian Eno has been quoted as saying "the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."

The Velvet Underground And Nico Super Deluxe Edition gives you a chance to fully experience the band and the development of this very special record. Disc one of six is the original recording remastered plus the addition of alternate versions of four songs. Disc two is a copy of the original mono release that came out at the same time. While its mostly a novelty item, it is interesting to hear the release with the sound flattened and compressed into one channel. Disc three is a copy of Nico's Chelsea Girl which features all the members of The Velvets plus a seventeen year old Jackson Browne. You'll also notice that Browne wrote three of the tracks on the album while the others were written by members of either The Velvets or The Factory with one Bob Dylan cover, "I'll Keep It With Mine", rounding out the mix.

The material on disc four was recorded prior to the band making the record. The first nine songs are taken from tapes and acetate recordings made at Scepter Studios in April of 1966 while tracks 10 through 15 are from previously unreleased tapes of a rehearsal the band had at The Factory in January of 1966. While not all of the songs on this disc made it onto the album, it does give you an interesting perspective on the album's development over the course of the year prior to its release. Discs five and six were again recorded in 1966 and are taken from a live concert the band did at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus Ohio. Again this is an opportunity to hear the band finalizing the tunes and testing them out on a live audience. While they didn't do all of the song's from the final recording at this concert, and there are two which aren't on the album, "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song", listening to how the band and the music evolved over the space of the year these two discs and disc four represent is fascinating.

The answer to the question of whether or not we should care about an album first produced forty-five years ago is obvious - it depends on the album. When it comes to The Velvet Underground And Nico the answer is yes. Not only was it one of the most innovative recordings of its time, it is far more imaginative and creatively challenging than most of what is being released in popular music today. Listen to it and be inspired, confused, irritated, angered and moved - for like all good art even if you don't necessarily like it, it will make you feel something.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico. [Super Deluxe Edition] on Blogcritics.)

October 16, 2012

Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood

I've never been much of a fan of the use of electronics in popular music. Far too often they seem to be used to either cover up somebody's shortcomings as a musician or to replace live musicians with a machine. The thing is, I've yet to hear a machine which can duplicate the emotional nuance a human can bring to the playing of any instrument. Sure a drum machine can keep the beat, but that's all it can do. I don't know about anybody else, but I can hear a good drummer's heart in his or her playing even when they're just marking time. However, what's even worse, is the employing of electronics as short cuts in this manner shows a singular lack of imagination in the failure to realize its potential as an instrument and a tool for creativity. Most pop music barely scratches the surface when it comes to the possibilities technology represents.

This becomes glaringly obvious when you have the opportunity to hear how someone like John Cale puts them to use. His newest release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, now available on Double Six Records as either a single CD or double vinyl LP, should be required listening for anybody considering using electronics of any sort in a recording. For not only does Cale not use them for short cuts, his use of tape loops, synthesizers and a variety of other electronica is imaginative and exciting. Maybe its the fact he was trained as a classical musician which gave him a grounding in composition which makes him more inventive. Of course, it could also be the same spirit of experimentation that caused his teachers at London's Goldsmith's College to honour him with the "Most Hateful Student" award in the early 1960s that makes what he does so interesting. For as this album makes obvious, he's not one for shying away from taking risks.
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However I think it's probably a combination of the two. Just as really good abstract painters have to learn the basics of figure drawing and perspective before they can experiment with form and colour, modern composers need to understand traditional composition and musical notation in order to reject them. Cale has a wealth of experience working both in popular and experimental music either as a solo artist or as the member of a group starting from his days in The Velvet Underground and his associations with Andy Warhol's Factory. While he has never strived for recognition, the world is finally beginning to appreciate his talents as he was chosen to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale art competition and festival and was awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire - step down from a knighthood) in 2010.

Based on that history you'd expect some sort of very serious experimental piece which most would find inaccessible and breathtakingly boring. Well, Cale has been trashing people's expectations for decades and this disc is no exception. According to the press release issued with this disc the 12 tracks began life as rhythms and grooves and he built songs out of what they suggested to him. For example the bass line for the song "Vampire Cafe" reminded him of vintage vampire movies. The combination of viola, still Cale's instrument of choice after all these years, accordion and drums is not a mix of instruments you're going to find on many albums, be they pop or classical. However as they are employed here they manage to capture both the darkness we associate with vampires and something of the emptiness at the core of the undead creatures' souls. There's also something about the accordion and viola mixture which gives the song a decidedly Eastern European feel, the part of the world we most associate with vampires.

The fact that Cale has distorted his voice heavily with fuzz, making the lyrics hard to discern, only adds to the eerie atmosphere created by the instruments. In some ways the vocals are more important for adding another layer of texture to the piece rather than for what they might be saying. The desolate and isolated feelings created by the music are enhanced as his vocals feel like they have travelled a great distance to reach us. It's as if we're hearing a message transmitted by short-wave radio from somebody, or a group of people, travelling through mountains, or a snow storm, who may or may not survive the journey.
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With "Vampire Cafe" Cale creates mood and atmosphere with effects and the sounds of the instruments used in the piece. While that might not be what most of us are used to when it comes to popular music, it is still a fairly accessible and traditionally arranged song. However, earlier on in the disc, he shows us something completely different with "Hemmingway". Created with the famous author in mind the song seems to deal with the anguish of a creative mind which has run out of new ideas. There has always been speculation around the reasons for Hemmingway's suicide. Cale's song, both lyrically and musically, suggest it was the fact he had run out of things to write about that pushed him over the edge. "I always held on to the thought/ that if they loved you long enough/they'd find out what was missing/when they finally called your bluff."

Reading those lyrics I can only think my own fears of being a fraud. We all have doubts as to our abilities at times, and when we're going through a dry patch they grow even stronger. Not only does Cale capture those feeling with the opening lines to this song, but musically it also captures how these insecurities can eat away at a person until they push them over the edge. The song starts out with a regular beat and melody line and gradually descends into the chaos of madness. Discordance seeps into the piano playing and the vocals until Cale is pounding the keyboard and turning the occasional word into a primal scream. It's a stunning depiction of how the gift of creativity can be a two sided blade. When the well of inspiration dries up the creative mind turns upon itself. Imagination turns insecurities and doubts into pits of despair from which there is no escape.

Cale's real gift as an musician is he can not only recreate something this type of emotional journey, he does so in a way so the listener understands what's happening to the person in question. This isn't just some exercise in voyeurism where we are treated to the sight of a person's descent into madness. We hear and feel their pain and travel with them as they come to the realization suicide is their only means of escaping the anguish they feel. It's not pleasant, but it's a brilliant piece of music.

Not all the songs on this disc are quite so intense or moody as the two I've mentioned, but they are all equally well conceived and executed. He utilizes technology as if it were another instrument to be played. In much the same way that guitarist Dustin Boyer and drummer Michael Jerome make their contributions to each song, drum machines, tape loops and other electronically generated sounds become part of the overall sound. The video for the album's title song, "Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood", that I've embedded here is a sample of the amazing work Cale has created. It might not be what most are used to, but its what we should hope more and more are inspired to emulate. This a great album of music by one of the most inventive composers of our time.

Photo Credit: Picture of John Cale by Shawn Brackbill
(Article first published as Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood on Blogcritics.)

September 9, 2012

Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil

No matter how many different genres anyone wants to claim there are, when it comes to pop music everything's starting to sound pretty much the same to me. They should come up a new genre called "safe music for radio" and just get it over with. Sounds sort of like country, sort of like pop, sort of like dance, and nothing like anything really. However once in a while you get somebody like Amanda Palmer, better known as Amanda "Fucking" Palmer or AFP for short, who genuinely has no respect for conventions, genres or anything else that would make it easy to pigeon hole her into some sort of category. If you were to try and describe her music up until now you could say she's that ukulele strumming, keyboard playing cabaret style singer from The Dresdon Dolls.

Which of course doesn't really tell you anything at all about her. Just some facts. She was also in a production of the musical Cabaret put on by the American Repertory Theatre playing the role of Master of Ceremonies. Whether that makes her a cabaret style singer I don't know, but she does have an amazing voice. It can float between a caress and a battle cry in a second. She can charm the pants off you one moment and burn paint off a battleship in the next. She soars up the scale like a mezzo soprano at The Met and growls out lyrics like she learned how to sing at the knee of Johnny Rotten. On the couple of solo recordings I've heard up until now the music hasn't been very elaborate as she's been primarily on her own and there's only so much you can do with keyboards and ukulele. However that's all changed with the release of her new disc, Theatre Is Evil, on her own 8 ft. Records label (funded entirely by one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever) September 11 2012, as she's now Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. (A note on the release's title: she chose to go with the British spelling of the word theatre so it's not my Canadian chauvinism changing the spelling)
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I think I'm being quite honest when I say I've not heard anything like this disc before. I've only heard an online stream so far, so these are only my first impressions. It felt like listening to the sound track from some wonderfully anarchic musical. Something set in a basement nightclub in Paris during the decadent desperate period just before a war, any war. When everybody is living their lives to the utmost because they don't know what the world has in store for them. There's something slightly dark and sensual about the music while at the same time the feeling is of an unqualified celebration of being alive. A life being led on a knife's edge might be a little more dangerous but it also lets you know you're alive. Listening to Theatre Is Evil is far more dangerous than the music you normally hear, but it lets you know you're alive.

The album itself is laid out like a performance complete with an opening introduction to the Grand Theft Orchestra and a piece of intermission music at the half way point. Whether you want to get up and stretch your legs, take a pee break or go to the bar and have a cigarette the choice is yours. However it does give you a chance to pause the disc and digest what you've heard before proceeding onto the second half of the show. Believe me you'll be grateful for the break. Musically, emotionally and intellectually this is one of the most intense recordings you'll be listening to this year, or in any number of years to come. For these are multi layered and intricate songs with much more to them than meets the eye or ear.

Track 4, "Do It with a Rockstar", is at first blush an ode to the glam rock gods and goddesses of the early 1970s. You can almost smell the pancake make-up and hair spray. It's easy to visualize everybody wearing thigh high platform boots and metallic suits studded with rhinestones. Its brash, bold and brassy, yet there is an underlying note of something disquieting which comes through in lyrics like this; "And do you wanna go back home?/Check your messages and charge your phone/Oh are you, really sure you wanna go?/When you could do it with a rock star, do it with a rock star?"

From the title you might think the song is about the glamour of "doing it with a rock star". Yet the more you listen the more you hear its about the rock star looking for a little company. "Do you wanna dance?/Do you wanna fight?/Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?/Do you want to see all my cavities?/Talk about the criss in the Middle East?" She sounds desperate for company. The contrast between the lyrics and the flamboyant music makes for an extremely powerful commentary on the nature of fame and stardom. With so much of our media obsessed with fame and celebrity these days it's a relief to see someone saying anything that might make people pause and think about the reality behind the glitter.
Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra by Shervin Lanez.jpg
I could probably write a couple of paragraphs about each one of the 15 songs on this disc but it would end up reading like a PHD dissertation and bore the shit out of everybody including me. However I can't write about this disc and not talk about "Grown Man Cry" and "The Bed Song". Both songs deal with the dynamics of a relationship between a woman and a man in ways that you'll have never heard in a pop song before.

"Grown Man Cry" stands the whole sensitive guy thing on its head. "For a while it was touching/For a while it was challenging/Before it became typical/Now it really isn't interesting to see a grown man cry." Every time the woman in the song wants to have a serious conversation about anything, the man uses emotions to avoid the issue. My favourite lyric in the song though, and the one I think sums up the way guys use "sensitive" to their advantage, is her thoughts while listening to the radio; "I'm scanning through the stations/as the boys declare their feelings/but it doesn't feel like feelings/it feels like they're pretending/it's like they just want blow jobs/and they know these songs will get them". Guys have long used every angle possible to get into a woman's pants or to avoid talking. What better way to do either than by hiding behind "being sensitive".

"The Bed Song" is a different animal again. It traces a couple's relationship from their first bed, a mattress on the floor in what sounds like a squat, to their final resting place lying side by side under a tree. When the youthful romance of the early years has dissipated, their futon on the floor is replaced by an expensive bed and their squat with a luxury condominium, disquiet seeps into their relationship alongside the affluence and comfort. The woman wonders what the problem is. Lines like "And you said all the money in the world/ wouldn't buy a bed so big and wide/ to guarantee that you won't accidentally touch me in the night", are heart rending in their simplicity and implications. Yet for all the years of their life spent together she never once asks him what's wrong. It's not until they're both lying under their tombstone she finally asks him what was the matter; "You stretch your arms out and finally face me/ I would have told you if only you'd asked me." On that unhappy note the song ends, trailing off into the sound of alonely and desolate piano. I think we've all at least known of a relationship which seems to just drift along without either person saying anything of consequence to the other. What Palmer has done is manage to lift the mask and show the awful desperation that lurks beneath the silence. What makes this truly heartbreaking is she shows how easy it is for people to fall into this trap and the awful consequences.

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra (described as genius musicians/arrangers/programmers Michael McQuilken, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff) have created a disc of music unlike anything you're liable to hear anywhere else. While being unique is not necessarily an indication of quality, Theatre Is Evil is one of the most exciting albums of popular music I've heard since the first time I heard The Clash. It challenges conventions without being inaccessible and actually assumes those listening to it have a working brain. This is not passive entertainment that you put on and forget about or put into random shuffle with hundreds of other tunes. This disc will reach out and grab your attention from its opening notes and not let you go until the final chord drifts off into the ether. From start to finish this is a work of art with every note and nuance carefully crafted and presented. Be prepared to be amazed.

Article first published as Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Picture Of Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra by Shervin Lanez

August 26, 2012

Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories

Since most of us don't have access to grand pianos and the opportunity to see the instrument's inner workings they provide, it's easy to forget a piano is actually a stringed instrument. It wasn't a coincidence early keyboards, harpsichords, included the word harp in their name. For what were they if not the means to play chords on a harp? Like any stringed instrument when you depress or adjust the strings on a piano you change the tonal quality it will produce. While the idea of the prepared piano, a piano whose sound has been deliberately modified by attaching or placing objects on its strings, has been around since the time of Mozart, it was contemporary composer John Cage who, in the second half of the twentieth century, used the technique for more than just effect and created entire compositions for prepared piano.

Turkish composer of new music Erdem Helvacioglu has created music for a variety of modern and traditional stringed instruments that have been unique in their balancing of electronic recording techniques and acoustic sounds. Whether using computers to generate loops that allow him to build layers of sound through improvisation or manipulating the sound of a concert harp through processors he has always managed to both preserve the integral sound of the original instrument while managing to fully explore its potential for experimentation. So it seems only logical his latest release, Eleven Short Stories on the Innova Recordings label, would see him utilizing the largest stringed instrument around - a prepared grand piano.
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Each of the eleven pieces on this recording have been inspired by one of eleven film directors. Ranging from the relatively well known, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, to those who North American audiences won't be familiar with at all, Alejandro Goales Inarritu and Kimm Ki-Duk, the directors in question represent a broad cross section of styles and cultures. Each of them will have their own unique vision of the world they articulate in film. Yet film itself is an amalgamation of more than one art form as visual arts, music and literature are all utilized by the directors in the process of telling a story. So Helvacioglu is not simply creating soundtracks for each of the directors, but rather endeavouring to capture the essence of their overall creation.

Now, the only trouble is, what happens, if like me, you're not overly familiar with the works of the directors in question? Will you still be able to appreciate the pieces on the disc? While you may not be able to tell which was inspired by each director, and there is no mention in the liner notes as to who inspired what, these are still works of music and should be able to stand or fall on their own merits regardless of who or what inspired them. However, since we know they were inspired by films, we can use that as an avenue of approach when listening to them.

The average film soundtrack usually serves to accent what the viewer is seeing on the screen. Unfortunately this invariably leads to such cliches as swelling strings during moments of heightened emotion or other tricks designed to underline the obvious. Don't be looking for anything as trite as that from Helvacioglu, he's not scoring a movie for one thing, he's trying to capture moments that help sum up what a particular director's work means to him. If you look at the titles of each piece you'll see they all refer to either a rather striking visual image: "The Billowing Curtain", "Shattered Snow Glove" and "Blood Drops By The Pool"; a specific location "Shrine In Ruin" and "Bench At The Park" or an evocative phrase of dialogue; "Will I Ever See You Again" and "Not Been Here In Forty Years". The titles themselves are evocative and in some cases are enough to have us creating mental pictures in their own right. The music continues that process and fleshes out the initial image with an emotional context and spurs our imaginations to develop scenes built around the location, phrase or description.

"The Billowing Curtain", which opens the recording, is a good example of this and how Helvacioglu uses music to create layers of meaning and imagery. For not only did the music cause me to visualize a curtain blowing in a breeze as the title suggests, it went even further. Like a camera panning and pulling out into a wide angle shot simultaneously the music carries us from seeing a curtain in a window into the room behind it. The opening chords are the sound of a gentle breeze as he's altered the piano's sound to give it the slight buzz associated with a harpsichord. However this gradually segues from gentle to discordant so we begin to wonder what's in the room. The peaceful atmosphere suggested by the opening notes, say of a spring breeze causing the billowing of the title, is all of a sudden lost and the sound takes on a desolate tone as if the room is empty, devoid of life. The curtain all of a sudden becomes a dividing line between the pleasant feelings initially evoked by the music and the hidden world of the room.
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As one would suspect from its title "Blood Drops By The Pool" is an unsettling piece of music. While Helvacioglu picks out careful notes on the keyboard that create an eerie quiet he intersperses them with a series of sounds that can only be described as scrapes and scratches. Perhaps made by taking a bow to the strings of the piano prepared with objects that caused the strange vibrations, some of them sound for all the world like the noise of a saw while others the metal legs of a piece of furniture being dragged over the concrete beside the pool. It's a disturbing collection of sounds which jar and disturb while creating the feeling of unease you would have coming across drops of blood anywhere.

Prepared piano pieces are not music as most people are accustomed to hearing it played. In some ways they are more collages of different sounds designed to create an emotional reaction in the listener than a collection of notes within the framework of a song. However, the composer of any piece of music, no mater what genre, hopes to elicit an emotional reaction from his or her listener. The difference with these pieces lies only in the fact the sounds aren't ones we're used to hearing from a musical instrument. What I found most intriguing was how while the music on this disc created a sense of detachment because of its unusual nature, somehow this separation increased its ability to communicate.

Most of the time when we listen to a piece of music there are arrangements of notes which will automatically generate certain emotional reactions. That's not the case with these pieces. Not being able to rely on the usual comfortable clues you've come to expect from musical compositions you find yourself paying close attention to each note and its relationship to the ones around it. As a result, without realizing it, you become much more invested in the piece and your reactions are based on what you're actually hearing not what you've been conditioned to hear.

Helvacioglu's use of the various treatments and styles of playing prepared piano create moments through out the recording that have more emotional depth than most conventional compositions of the same length. On top of this, each one also manages to evoke images associated with its title. Instead of the music giving emphasis to images flickering on a screen, here each song creates a short movie in our head made up of a series of images and accompanying emotions. While it may not be what your used to hearing, this is some of the most stimulating and provocative music you'll hear. Its well worth making what ever extra effort might be required.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erdem Helvacioglu - Eleven Short Stories on Blogcritics.)