Archives for category: International Pop Underground

i e crazy 2017In a country where the Prime Minister said “our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks” our music heroes generally fare worse than our authors.

Claire Duncan, the person behind i.e. crazy, is a literary music hero I’ve respected for several years. I’ve been been waiting for – “Non Compos Mentis” for a while. Waiting in fear and trepidation mostly to be completely honest. And with good reason. Here’s “Closed Case” from the album.

“Closed Case” begins with a recording of the emergency call made by the surviving member of a Dunedin family murderded in 1994 about 500m away from where I’m writing this, looking out across Anderson’s Bay and the trees of Every Street below. It was the scene of “…events so bizarre and abnormal that it was impossible for the human mind to conceive of any logical or reasonable explanation” according the Judge in the original trial of that surviving family member charged with the murder of his two parents and three siblings.

The convicted murderer was later acquitted on a re-trial and freed after 14 years – the case found by a jury to not be proven beyond reasonable doubt (criminal law standard of proof). However a judicial review of his case for compensation for wrongful imprisonment found he was probably not innocent on the balance of probabilities (civil law standard of proof). It’s a case that still divides NZ, and also one that continues to cast a dark shadow, perhaps because of that dark and troubling “impossible for the human mind to conceive” aspect of the now unsolved and eternally unsolvable case; the only other suspect being one of the dead.

“Closed Case” does not seem to be specifically about that case, but a more abstract meditation on the kind of mind capable of conceiving of such an act. The song is brimming with dark Gothic unease, the sound of a scraping shovel adding a further nerve-jangling to the tense and chilly atmosphere. The arrangement shovels further layers of funeral melancholy upon the song, as woodwind and brass add their downbeat textures to the song.

The musical arrangements throughout “Non Compos Mentis” are another unconventional but very effective part of this album’s artistry. Utilising anti-pop collaborators Seth Frigthening and various members of Muzai Records label mates Girls Pissing on Girls Pissing, i. e. crazy finds the perfect off-kilter sea-sick uneasy-listening soundscape for these tales of everyday horror of the human condition.

While “Closed Case” is dark, it’s actually one of the more conventionally listenable songs on “Non Compos Mentis”.  Some of the album projects voices that are deliberately provocative… but the warning is in the i.e. crazy name and the album title (translating from the Latin as “of unsound mind”).  The words, as always, are powerful, rich with imagery, each song like an experimental short story in which reality and fiction are blurred, shifting things depending on the perspective of the narrator and their reliability. In other words, there’s a lot here to unpick, and that will take some time.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say this is a dark turn off the track that Claire Duncan’s previous musical vessel, the literate dream-pop Dear Time’s Waste, was taking. In turning off the track, she’s plunged down a steep bank into tangled undergrowth and a stream bed; the water putrid with dairy farming effluent, the ground littered with rusting discarded shopping trolleys and the odd dead body. Welcome to New Zealand everyone!

“Non Compos Mentis” is a difficult, challenging, sometimes confronting album. The history of music is full of difficult, challenging, confronting albums, the history on NZ music perhaps less so. Music, after all, is entertainment, something to sing – and drink – along to here, before and after another inspiring All Blacks rugby football match recharges our warped sense of national pride. Or shatters it when they lose.

The day before I listened to this album in full I played another difficult album, one I hadn’t played for years. Michael Mantler’s “Silence” is a Harold Pinter play set to music and featuring the voices of Robert Wyatt, Carla Bley and Kevin Coyne. You won’t be playing either record at your next party.  “Non Compos Mentis” and “Silence” share a lot in common – deeply unsettling and unconventional, dialogue between damaged minds, observations on everyday things through a different lens. Both present music as theatre, literature as lyrics, and music as the atmosphere to sustain the world created.

In a recent interview Claire described the new direction as a chance to agitate and pick at a scab. Disillusionment with the ‘industry’ and the over-riding value placed by NZ society on commercial potential of music and seeking solace in artistic expression instead is one aspect. Personal mental health challenges and the unhealthy state of NZ society at present for the young and poor is another.

I started this talking about heroes. Let’s not forget another musical hero – Muzai Records. Any label releasing All Seeing Hand, Girls Pissing on Girls Pissing and i.e. crazy is taking courage to a whole new level as a New Zealand record label (even if it is now based in Leeds, UK).

The LP of “Non Compos Mentis” can be ordered here. 


Cate Le Bon Rock PoolI first heard this fabulously psychedelic Cate Le Bon song a few months ago but it’s taken until now to discover it is on Bandcamp, the title track of a 4 song EP released at the end of January this year.

There’s much about the music on this EP that reminds me of the weirdness of fellow Welsh psychedelic adventurers Gorkys Zygotic Mynci and also a kind of sparse and folkish take on the playful astral psych of Super Furry Animals.

But in “Rock Pool” in particular Cate Le Bon somehow manages to (accidentally?) evoke the kind of whimsical surrealist psychedelia of the likes of early 70s Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers. Turns out the tracks are all out-takes from her recent album “Crab Days”. Or as Cate explains them: “”Rock Pool” is the killed darlings from the Crab Day sessions brought back to life on a classic 2-2 formation. Written under the same banner of the impossibly absurd and emerging to unimaginable bedlam.” 

Now a bit of exploration of the entire Cate Le Bon back catalogue is required…


Bitumen by Steve FuzzFarm

Bitumen – photo by Steve FuzzFarm

“Honey Hunter” is a thundering-great slab of hot-cold post-punk from Melbourne band Bitumen.

It’s one of 4 excellent tracks on a recent 4 song split cassette EP from Melbourne underground label Vacant Valley.

Thundering drums set the pace and volume, then a skirl of squealing guitar riffs and rumbling bass comes in and all hell is let loose. This is beautifully crafted post-punk – a hint of the ice-cold pummeling sound of Clan of Xymox and some Gothic touches reminiscent of Skeletal Family but Melbourne has been the home of this kind of industrial futuristic pop music for even longer than Germany or the UK. Top shelf sounds.

Listen to the rest of the EP here too – related entity No Sister are also worth your time. There’s a bit more information on both bands in this interview in This Is Not A Drill.

Ben ChasnyThere’s a new Six Organs of Admittance album out called “Burning the Threshold” and “The Adoration Song” is a fine example of what the album contains.

The album has very little of the soaring electric guitar explorations found on earlier Six Organs of Admittance albums. Rest assured there is plenty of the kind of detailed, intricate, ornate, interwoven guitar pattern-work as we’ve come to expect from Ben Chasny, the modern-day master of hexadic psychedelic guitar music, just delivered almost exclusively on acoustic guitars this time.

As a result the album’s intimate psychedelia and gentle song-craft is accessible and the pastoral, meditational atmosphere achieves a kind of cosmic music for the mind and body. Even when the heavy guitars are brought out for the sole heavy-psych piece “Threshold of Light” the hypnotic groove is build upon acoustic guitars. It’s an album well worth seeking out.

John HowardIt’s still Piano Day somewhere in the world (West Coast of the USA in fact, for another few hours) so here’s another song to feature piano as the only instrument.

“Preservation” is a track from a solo album released late last year by Spain-based English singer-songwriter John Howard.

When John Howard’s 1975 album “Kid In A Big World” was reissued to wide acclaim in 2003, it marked his return to writing and recording after twenty years of silence.  Whereas his previous most recent ‘comeback’ album – ” John Howard & The Night Mail” – was a band album, “Across The Door Sill” is very much a solo work, featuring just layered piano and voice, and songs investigating the process of dreams, inspired by 13th Century poet Rumi’s Quatrains.

The influence of John Howard’s own songwriter heroes – Laura Nyro and Roy Harper in particular – are often mentioned in reviews, because of the nature of the long-form, languidly organic compositions and absence of the usual verse/chorus/middle-eight song structure.

However, there’s also much in common on “Across the Door Sill” with the kind of territory John Grant claims today when he sits at a piano. In other words, some richly detailed storytelling (or reflecting on life, the universe and our place within the puzzle), and some elegant dynamic and ever-shifting piano playing.

While the playing here is a kind of classic lounge-pop style of piano rather than jazz, there’s a flowing, fluid, almost improvisational wandering feel at times during the album which reminded me of the playing of multi-instrumental jazz musician Alice Coltrane when I first heard “Across the Door Sill”.

The album – 5 songs stretching out to 8 or 9 minutes – is a late night listen for me. It’s not exactly ‘difficult’ music – it’s too approachable and melodic for that – but it does require a bit of attention and a few listens to reveal its full mastery.

And, because it’s Piano Day, here’s a video of a grand piano… played by a youthful John Howard in a 1975 TV performance:

Piano Day Nhung Nguyen Sleep Orchestra.jpgToday (29 March) is Piano Day for 2017. The 88th day of the year (88 keys on a piano, of course). There’s days for everything but the piano is as deserving as anything to have its day. And who better to celebrate Piano Day with than PopLib’s favourite ambient piano-loving sound creator Nhung Nguyen, who has collaborated with Sleep Orchestra to create this dark, mysterious and elegant piece “Disparate” –

Sleep Orchestra provides the electronics, and Nhung Nguyen the piano. The electronic sounds mix sombre, snarling ambience with a sense of dread and unease, behind which builds a pulsing, anxious beat. The piano’s ominous chime and alternating chords sound like the warning toll of a navigational buoy sounding in the fog. The soundscape created by this combination of the traditional (piano) and the new (electronic sound) captures perfectly the mood of 2017 so far…

If you haven’t already visited Nhung Nguyen’s Bandcamp there’s a superb back catalogue of EPs to get lost in. Some are built around piano sounds and loops (both Nostalgia and Winter Stories are recommended starting places)  while others mix street sounds with a variety of electronic sounds and treatments (check the dreamy For June EP).

wurldseries_2016_ben-woodsChristchurch guitar-botherers Wurld Series are back with a full-length album called “Air Goofy”, fittingly available on cassette. Here’s the second song “Rip KF” for you:

It’s ‘fittingly’ on cassette because it was recorded on cassette, via a Tascam 424 4-track cassette recorder, staple of a generation of bedroom DIY artists in previous decades, and it seems again today.

As we’ve heard from previous tunes and EPs and songs like “Orkly Kid” and “Rabbit” which are both included here, the spirit of early rough-genius Pavement is undeniably strong in Wurld Series at times – twisting fuzzed out guitars and stream of unconscious life lyrical flights.  But so is the spirit of the 3-Ds from closer to home, who arguably influenced Pavement with their eccentric lead guitar shapes and angles atop lurching fuzzed out guitar skronk-pop.

If “Rip KF” – complete with shared lead vocal between guitarist/ vocalist Luke Towart and guest vocalist Tyne Gordon – represents the more middle-of-a-rough-road-to-nowhere melodic guitar pop side of “Air Goofy” then there’s much variety on either side of that median. Check out the thrilling “LT’s Struggle” for an alternative example.

Another great addition to both the Wurld Series and the Melted Ice Cream label catalogues. Don’t just take PopLib’s word for it. UK music blog Did Not Chart has also been singing the praises of this rough diamond.