Electronic Sound: Reviews (Issue 84)

Reviews originally published in Issue 84 of Electronic Sound magazine, December 2021:

(Spun Out Of Control)

Retro-synth Cluedo, anyone? It was Tony Visconti! At the University! With the Stylophone! Thankfully, though, no crimes against music have been committed here. What could have been an one-listen exercise in amusing novelty has unexpectedly staked a claim as one of the most heartwarming, feelgood albums of the year.

The story so far: Visconti lends his name, reputation and no little time to a studio at Kingston University intended to give Actual Young People a flavour of old-school, pre-digital recording. Helming the desk is Australian producer (and Bowie nut) Leah Kardos who – on acquiring a literal car boot filled with vintage Stylophones – sets about assembling a bespoke orchestra of students to actually wrestle something listenable from them. In 2019, Visconti himself oversaw a recording of ‘Space Oddity’ that augmented Bowie’s homage to cosmic isolation with a welter of melodic buzzing and a genuinely beautiful vocal arrangement. Reaching across the decades, fresh-faced students breathed new life into 50-year-old oddness.

An album was inevitable. Kardos has rallied her Stylophone squadron to record a joyous selection of tastefully-chosen covers: ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Oxygene IV’ are present and delightfully correct, as is the closing theme from Blade Runner. There’s a whiff of those bonkers Moog covers albums of the late 1960s… or the mad, experimental 1970s LPs that school music departments would self-press in a state-funded drive to turn provincial fifth formers into Delia Derbyshire. But what sets it apart is the production. Kardos has created a warm sound that is both epic and intimate; an audio Proustian rush for those of us raised in the era of close-mic’ed Peavey amps and eggboxes stapled to studio walls.

And let’s look to the future. There’s original material here, too – and it’s wonderful. Polish MA student Zuzanna Wężyk pens opener ‘Akoustiki’, a hypnotic chant that becomes genuinely transcendent. And Kardos herself contributes ‘Olancha Goodbye’ – a haunting homage to Harold Budd – and the anthemic, stomping ‘Brundle Beat’. Visconti describes her as “a visionary in the Bowie tradition”, and a future collection of brand new songs for this joyous ensemble might just cement that reputation. In the meantime, let’s treasure an album with a delightfully daffy premise but an execution that is both unexpectedly life-affirming and really rather touching.

Album available here:

(Spun Out Of Control)

For all that is troubling about the modern world, it’s still a place where a former Radio 1 Breakfast Show host can meet a one-time Factory Records lurker on a dog walk in Knutsford and wind up making a record about Brutalist war memorials in the former Yugoslavian states. And for that we should be thankful, because Mark Radcliffe and Paul Langley have created a stirring tribute to these towering, abstract sculptures.

Spomenik is their third album, unashamedly built on the utilitarian foundations of early Kraftwerk, with every track – save for the opening and closing fanfares – named in honour of a prime Spomenik location. These outlandish obelisks were designed to turn wartime grief into state-sponsored optimism (“A new regime that dared to dream of bold extremes” chants Radcliffe on ‘Kadinjača’) and the music is suitably retro-futuristic. ‘Kosmaj’ weaves anthemic synths into a stirring march; ‘Tjentište’ is a lament for a future that never arrived, and monuments now “fading into time’s quicksand”. Both austere and melancholy, it’s an album of minimalist delights.

Album available here:

Crystal Shop
(Waxing Crescent)

“I’ve been particularly drawn to MIDI sounds recently,” claims Stephen “Polypores” Buckley of this, his fourth album proper of 2021. “The kind of cheesy sounds you’d find on a crappy home keyboard from 1995. I think they have an innate beauty of their own…”

From his secret Lancashire bunker, Buckley claims Crystal Shop is uncharacteristically concept-free… then admits to taking inspiration from the vintage fantasy RPGs that dominated his Amiga-obsessed childhood. His 2020 album Terrain was similarly console-influenced, but Crystal Shop feels lighter, more intuitive. Opener ‘Simulated Nature Trails’ boasts complex melodic arpeggios; ‘Soft Energies’ is evasive, bleepy New Age jazz. Then things get seriously lovely: the likes of ‘Garden Of What’ and ‘Dolphin Emoji’ see Buckley entrenched in a fantastical, pixellated landscape of soothing ambience… before the spell is broken by the bombast of ‘Wormscape 2’. It’s another thoughtful and transportative collection from a uniquely versatile composer who – like all the best console game heroes – seems to boast infinite lives.

Album available here:

Dead Air
(Castles In Space)

Truly, the White Album of early hauntology. In 2006, Ian Hicks and Gary Mills persuaded veteran TV continuity man Philip Elsmore to provide the chummy narration to this magnificent opus. With wonky techno beats, grumbling synths and mutated regional idents exploding around him, Elsmore keeps it delightfully straight-faced. “We seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties, which we hope to resolve as soon as possible,” he deadpans on ‘Thames Over Nijmegen’. “In the meantime, keep your nerve…”

Is Elsmore the only announcer to survive the apocalypse, broadcasting reassuring missives to the remains of humanity? Let’s assume so. Resigned to his fate, he loosens his tie on ‘Man On A Spool’, sparking a charming off-the-cuff discussion of his lengthy TV career. Fuzzy bleeps and clattering rhythms swirl around him, and Elsmore proves a delightful raconteur: his impersonation of Michel Elphick on some long-lost milk advert is worth the price tag alone. On vinyl for the first time, an essential purchase for those of us whose memories of daytime ITV are tainted by grumbling skies.

Album available here:

Worldly Noise And Electronic Atmospheres
(Cruel Nature)

During the Cold War, the sinister “golf ball” domes of RAF Fylingdales were on standby to provide the dreaded “four minute warning” of imminent nuclear attack. Implausibly, this remote moorland outpost now boasts an artist-in-residence, Dr Michael Mulvihill, here collaborating with Geordie sound wizard Chris Tate (of d_rradio) on an affecting evocation of the station’s dark ambience. It’s splendidly overwhelming: ‘Millstone Hill’ sounds like Tristram Cary in a darkened bunker, and the 18-minute ‘Electric Sea Warfare’ is the sound of actual paranoia sweeping through black, windswept heather.

Album available here:

Fanfare For Tonsils
(Woodford Halse)

“The crows chose dead branches to perch on / Every hire purchase gift was a let-down”, sings Anthony Dolphin on the heartbreaking ‘Save Yourself’. Faced with a gloomy cancer prognosis, Dolphin – accompanied by wife Kazuko – acknowledges the tenth Santa Sprees album may be their last. But this is a wonderful, defiant beast of a record, a riot of Tom Waits organs and twangy guitars. “Don’t hang around my grave like those other saps,” he growls on ‘Run Wild When I’m Gone’. It’s a beautiful punch to the gut: Love, loss and dark humour combined. The perfect summation of this utterly unique band.

Album available here:

(Spun Out Of Control)

That’s “Complete Logistics And Research Automation”, a “station tasked with studying and transporting a large suspended populous across vast distances in space”. It’s a bold project for a bloke based in Derbyshire, but Martyn Stonehouse brings an epic quality to this 2001-esque tale of computer systems gone psycho. ‘Docking Procedure’ has heart-pounding drums, ‘Airlock Apprehension’ is a darkly sinister synth workout and ‘The Ersatz Moon’ a splendidly cinematic piano ballad. It’s a long way from Chesterfield to the fifth moon of Jupiter, but he’s made the journey with aplomb.

Album available here:

(Third Kind Tapes)

Stuck in Paris lockdown, and clearly not a bloke to simply ask “U OK?” of the family Whatsapp group, Tunisian producer Skander Ben Yahia created 12 musical billets-doux for his loved ones. And what charming missives they are. ‘Kinematic Lights’ and ‘Music From A Friend’ have a fuzzy-headed Boards of Canada ambience, but Yahia also brings a jazz sensibility and some splendid skittering beats. ‘94’ boasts cool vibraphone sounds and the whirring of some ancient tape spool, and closer ‘All It Takes Is A Dream To Get To The Next Day’ is a hypnotic drum and bass workout. Eclectic and soothing.

Album available here:

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