Category Archives: ALBUM REVIEW

Sienná’s Q.o.S. : Powerful, Exotic World Beat Psychedelia

There’s something very exciting happening in new music from Oslo, Norway. Sienná, the singer/songwriter/instrumentalist/studio whiz and now DJ has gone solo for her fourth full length release, leaving her band behind, to create a new set of songs in the nu-jazz genre. She immersed herself in the studio for a couple years to create an album that’s difficult to define: jazz is really just the starting point. On Q.o.S. there are various permutations of techno, ambient, world beat, electronic psychedelia and avant-garde, and a powerful experimental impulse that makes it a joy to listen to.

From the first song, the esoteric, ambient “Yes,” Sienná’s masterful composing and mixing skills are evident; next is the electro-psychedelic jazz funk of “World Citizens,” which then leads to a set of synth-driven world beat tunes incorporating  her Japanese heritage in the form of samples of traditional instruments, primal beats and chants, and  top-notch keyboard work. The breathtakingly diverse songs are stunning examples of musical cosmopolitanism, and very unique contributions to the electronica genre.


Much like the tarot card that inspired the title, the release evokes mystical, powerful ideas. I admit I didn’t know what the title meant at first.

“It could be ‘Quality of Service,’ ‘the god of the Edomites,’ hahaha or whatever (your) interpretation  is,” Sienná explains. “But mine comes from an amazing tarot card reader from the UK whom I speak with a few times a year. She said a Queen of Swords represents my personality. And my music is a double edged sword, isn´t it? :)”

“I feel free like a bird and very happy about this. This is a completely new chapter for me. Sienná

Indeed, there is a duality on Q.o.S; many of  the songs have a strong  dance beat along with some trademark Sienná  moves like energetic funky bass and primal chant vocals — all designed to get your feet moving, while a handful of tunes represent Sienná’s reflective side in ambient, down tempo numbers that affect the heart and mind.  Both  varieties feature exotic instrumentation and intriguing samples of vocals and ethnic instruments along with mystical, wordless vocals by Sienná. I asked her if Brian Eno was a conscious influence.

“I guess so,” she says. “ I´ve been listening to Brian Eno occasionally, but I´ve been an eager fan of the next generation (like Ryuichi Sakamoto) who interpreted Brian Eno further  – so, does it make me ‘the third generation?’ I can absolutely notice where the traditional roots are originally coming from, though.”

Under Japanese Influence
As a Japanese expatriate living in Norway, who as a child rebelled against family expectations to become a musician, Sienná returns to her own roots on Q.o.S. with a series of songs that reflect her Japanese heritage. Is this nostalgia for home or an affirmation of her heritage? I asked her.

She explains: “Yes both, and the concept. Somehow I decided to make three songs relating to three major festivals around the major historical shrines around Kyoto (‘Iwashimizu.’ ‘Aoi’ and ‘Kasuga’). But I must admit, the inspiration of ‘Iwashimizu’came originally from a moment when I was in a little town named Lewes in East Essex, UK. But later, after I added some Japanese instruments etc, feeling of the song was something similar to what I feel about the place ‘Iwashimizu’- home (until I moved to Norway in 1995).”

This trilogy of tunes, as well as “Sixth Sense” (with its incorporation of traditional Japanese texts and folk melodies)  and “Eastern Plays” (which features a moving display of  taiko drums along with  vocal chants and cutting edge electronica) combine dance music with traditional Japanese influences, resulting in a long set of electronica that excites one’s dancing impulses and one’s mind at the same time. For example, the playful “Follow My Instructions” is just the kind of avant-garde dance number that’s ideal for club action.

The album is the result of years of experience on the stage and in the studio, to the extent that it represents a synthesis of music theory and performing skills that have become second nature. Sienná explains: “There´s no theory or conscious approach, except an  approach that I feel is good, true and correct for me, even though it wasn´t for most people/musicians. While I spend time with my unborn songs, I make many changes to make myself happy. So I guess you´re just listening to the result of a long process of my self-improving (if it wasn´t my self-centeredness – which I´m allowed to do so only in my music, not in reality.)”

Q.o.S . is a true solo album: Sienná is responsible for every aspect of its creation, a departure from the ensemble she had worked with on previous albums and in live performances. “Only me now,” she explains.  “We are all good friends. But the circumstances around us changed dramatically. It doesn´t make sense for me to be a part of the team anymore. I did all the work (songwriting, performing, producing, mixing, mastering and designing album cover) by myself alone. I feel free like a bird and very happy about this. This is a completely new chapter for me.”

Sienná’s setup includes heavy use of the Roland D-50, both for its sounds and as a MIDI controller connected to Logic Pro X software on a MacBook (which she also uses in her role as a DJ).  Her favorite plug-ins for Logic Pro X are the ES2 and Alchemy soft synths, and the Drum Machine Designer. Lots of samples abound. For example, the incredible taiko drums on “Eastern Plays” were achieved by using a blend of sounds from Drum Machine Designer and actual taiko samples Sienná recorded in Kyoto from 2005 to 2009.

finis

The Analog Girl’s Sweet, Elegant “Golden Sugar Crystals”

The Analog Girl returns after a five year silence with her most elegant set of songs yet. Titled “Golden Sugar Crystals,” the album features ethereal textures, sultry vocalizations, and tripped out beats, all coming together in a futuristic unity built upon synthetic foundations. There’s a unique brand of magic at work here, as The Analog Girl, aka Singapore’s Mei Wong, coaxes sonic bliss out of her Ableton-equipped Apple laptop and her microphone, using the studio as an instrument.

The one-woman band behind all this accomplishes an ethereal, moody mystique employing minimalist beats, dreamy analog melodic structures, and delicate, half-whispered vocals that leave room for the listeners’ interpretations. Elements of trance, ambient, 8-bit, lo-fi, and techno pop mingle in a sweet mix that sparks the listener’s imagination, prompting cinematic visions in the mind’s eye.

“I discovered that there is more to life than what’s harboring inside our minds. I was reminded that this universe is huge, and it gives us so much, and there is so much to be thankful for.” The Analog Girl

Building on the techno pop forms of her previous three albums, GSC adds more complex polyphony and richer, more sonorous textures without abandoning the charming style she is known for. The familiar minimalism that became her calling card is still there, as are the  mysterious vocal stylings and abstract lyric poetry, this time centered on themes of hope and discovery.

Mei explains: “For some of the more recent tracks on the album I turned to immersing myself in songwriting once again when I was living through some dark times, and in the process, I discovered that there is more to life than what’s harboring inside our minds. I was reminded that this universe is huge, and it gives us so much, and there is so much to be thankful for.”

While previous albums addressed love and friendship, gender politics, and the ever-important caffeine, GSC features songs portraying admiration for nature and appreciation of aesthetic experiences. The melancholy “Wonder,” and “Run,”  and the haunting “Monolith” flirt with disillusionment, but these songs are the exceptions. As demonstrated in a majority of its tracks, GSC is The Analog Girl’s most hopeful album, reflecting a move from despair to optimism. A big part of this journey is letting go of fear.

From “Mountains”
“As the sun begins to shine upon the earth you’ll start to know
The world beyond you
We can fly across the universe and wave our fears goodbye
If you know how to.”

The album is imbued with this sense of possibility. As The Analog Girl, Mei has traveled the world performing, and now has more than a decade behind her releasing music, and before that as a producer at MTV Asia. She’s been places. Perhaps that’s reason enough to pay attention when she shares her philosophy of appreciating the cyclical nature of change, of moving through heartache with no regrets and changing one’s perspective to change one’s life. She describes the following lyrics as “accepting life for what it is, and for whatever it may present.”

From “A Circle”
“And it’s moving out in pieces
As it goes through all the phases
Past and present in the future
Does it feel like it’s a circle?
No time for regrets
It’s starting to feel a part of me.”

Mei’s use of surreal lyrics and vocals that are nearly a whisper are captivating features of The Analog Girl’s music. Combined with the layered instrumental harmonies of her songs, the result is a mesmerizing,  hypnotic effect. “I think it’s because I am always writing from an organic place,” she writes, “trying to do as much with my voice as with the instrumentation. And I just like singing in repetitive phrases which creates that sense of hypnotism.”

The chant-like repetition interplays with the layered textures of the music and pulsing rhythms, portraying a musical union of the primal and technological. Questions are raised about the role of technology in society, and the union of woman and machine, as Mei’s seemingly vulnerable stage persona is contradicted by her expert control of the studio and its electronic devices. The answer: there’s a strong personality in command at the center of the elegantly harmonious structure of The Analog Girl brand.

“Happiness Is Precious”
Before The Analog Girl, there was Mei Wong. Before that there was Pamela Wong, music student, who as a child was inspired by her parents’ ’70s vinyl collection and the TV show Solid Gold, along with artists as diverse as ABBA, the Bee Gees, the Beatles and Olivia Newton-John. A piano student at 5, Pamela became fascinated by the possibilities of electronic music technology, experimenting with a Casio sampling keyboard and a portable synthesizer that allowed her to construct complete songs. At the age of 7, Pamela created her first “single,” a one-off cassette featuring the tune “Happiness Is Precious.” It even had a B-side; her dad contributed the artwork. As she grew, the charms of music continued to compel her. After graduating from university with a degree in business, Pamela landed a job as producer at MTV Asia.

By the early 2000s, inspired by the computer revolution and what it meant for electronic musicians, she embarked on her career as singer/songwriter, releasing her first album in 2005. Since then The Analog Girl brought her act to New York, Tokyo, and Paris, to name a few. As demonstrated by the uplifting nature of GSC, The Analog Girl hasn’t let the world get her down. And she still knows a good party when she sees one. The album’s quirkiest offering is the anti-anthem, “Weekends” with its melodic and thematic strangeness and upbeat tempo.

From “Weekends”
“Come and stay until the weekend’s gone
Stay until you are born
Come and stay until the weekend’s gone
Stay until you belong.”

After a couple choruses the tune derives into an electro-psychedelic dance tune that may be one of the most deliberate attempts ever to explode the dance music form. Fans of The Analog Girl’s quirkier numbers like “Caffeine” and “Hey Mr. G” will love it. Fun as it is, the tune is an outlier on an album packed with lush beauty and life lessons.

GSC features lovely textures and richer atmospherics than any of The Analog Girl’s previous three offerings, as the sense of hope that bubbles up from the mysterious sonic poetry works its entrancing, inspiring spell. It’s no surprise really, that this innovative techno pop artist should return to songwriting as a way to get through less than ideal times, and emerge from the darkness with a message of hope – hope for a sweet, golden future.

“Golden Sugar Crystals” is available now at iTunes, Amazon Music, Bandcamp, and Spotify.

The Analog Girl At Bandcamp.com
http://www.analog-girl.net/

finis

Slovenia’s KONTRADIKSHN: Hope, Cynicism, And The Eternal Drama

Thanks to technology,  the world is a smaller place today than ever before. A couple years ago I had a chance that wouldn’t have been available even 10 years ago, to report on a band called Karmakoma who are from Slovenia, a place many people hadn’t heard of (until they asked “where?” regarding U.S. first lady Melania Trump).  I loved the experience, and now I find myself with the extraordinary luck to report on another band from Slovenia – the electro-rock trio Kontradikshn, who are friends and stagemates with Karmakoma.

Kontradikshn’s debut album, Reframing, features intense, powerful electronic music worthy of attention. It’s industrial electronic rock, with an energetic sound that is at times macho, other times quirky, with aggressive synth riffs, pulsing synth bass, techno break beats, live drums, and fiery vocals. Kontradikshn is essentially a rock band with progressive drum n’ bass leanings that uses synths instead of guitars (at least in the studio), to create an effusive, passionate mix that’s as irresistible as it is danceable.

According to all sources, they’re a powerhouse trio live – their setup features the efforts of vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Petar Stojanović and guitarist/bass synthesist/computer whiz Matej Plešej, lots of live and sequenced synths, as well as live drums by Anže Kump that drive the beat. Their on stage setup features prominent use of the electric guitar, including amplification by the notorious Marshall Stack, while computer support is provided by a MacBook Pro sending and receiving MIDI data to and from Ableton Live.

“I have a small project studio in my home town, recording bands and artists around the country, with which we started to kinda get noticed, like a local scene that (got more and more attention) from other parts of the country. It’s kinda cool to work with different people and feel the cumulative spirit.” Petar Stojanović 

Since their 2010 debut playing clubs in and around Slovenia, their reputation grew and in 2016 they completed a tour through a number of former Yugoslavian states. The group has enjoyed radio airplay on Slovenian National Radio Program 2, including of the single “Memory Dump” as well as frequent airplay on smaller stations. Currently Kontradikshn is touring Slovenia and beyond, promoting the new disc. And wherever they go, they bring a party and lots of noise. These guys like to have fun.


Doubt and Discovery
Themes of cynicism are present on the album, but the underlying idea is one of hope, along with the irony you might expect from self-aware artists living in the shadow of political change.

From “Neverland”:
Slow down, think for a bit
World ain’t moving so fast, just listen.
Don’t you dare, leave her alone.
‘Cause you know how it feels in the dark, now.
Sit down boy, take a sip
Universe doesn’t need another prick like me
Work hard, do good, work hard do good
But be good to yourself (in the morning).

Stojanović’s life changed dramatically at the age of 11, when his father passed away. Friends, family and music were available to help ease the pain and doubt. Channeling the forces of loss and change in his life, Stojanović  found inspiration and hope in the study of various instruments, and found that the way out, as they say, is through.

“Music was forever a part of my life,” he says. “Although no one in my family was a musician, they kinda liked the idea of me playing an instrument. So I started playing clarinet when I was 7 years old. A bit of music school and orchestra until I was 13 or so. Then I quit the whole classical thing and went for the guitar – yeah, the guitar and a bit of piano. Started my first band when I was 15 and played in numerous bands until now. Then I quit university and concentrated only on making music and music production. Kinda went my way, rebellious in a way.”

In the song “027” Stojanović, who is 27, gets confessional:
Holding on, wanting my special line,
That keeps me back on track.
Keep it on, realizing, life is never ending,
So let’s keep sharing, baby.
When I hit the bottom, I miss that peak.
Must confess, that it makes me weak.

A journey of self-discovery is a frequent theme of rock artists (usually spread out over several albums) and it’s true here, as Stojanović  wrestles with hedonism to seek relief from pessimism and cyncism. Yet the album’s elements of hope and faith in human nature and in oneself and the importance of friendship dominate.

From “Free”
Inside of me, there’s a storm again
So I seek for release
Inside of me, I still believe,
That inside of me there’s no shame ‘cause I feel again
Inside of me the only one that lives, Inside of me.

That storm inside comes across in a very definite way, lyrically, vocally, and melodically. One particularly intense moment comes at the end of Evacuation, when the vocals and lyrics veer into decidedly frightening Trent Reznor territory. Stojanović’s favorite synth is another indicator. “My favorite piece of gear is actually an analog mono-synth (the Novation Bass Station II) that arpeggios and bass-lines are played on. And tweaking its filter section really gets the grit.”

An Emerging Kontradikshn
The members grew up in a medium-sized suburb of about 20,000 people on the outskirts of Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, not too far from the similar suburb where Karmakoma’s members were raised. In 2010, Stojanović and Plešej, friends since the age of 15 (they’re both 27 in 2017) formed a few bands until they settled on the current name and approach, playing 20 shows or so. With the addition of Kump as a permanent member on drums, things began to get serious.

“With previous members, we joined numerous competitions and battles of bands, just to get some gigs and our name out there,” Stojanović  says. “Then we got more and more known and made a tour with Karmakoma. After Anže came into the band,  things got more serious and better. He really brought fresh wind into the band.”

Around the same time the band was formed, Stojanović built a recording studio, the same studio where Karmakoma’s debut was recorded. He explains: “I have a small project studio in my home town, recording bands and artists around the country, with which we started to kinda get noticed, like a local scene that (got more and more attention) from other parts of the country. It’s kinda cool to work with different people and feel the cumulative spirit.”

The band’s sound was developed both in the studio and by participating in the robust club scene in and around Slovenia, including at Klub Kocka in Croatia, DemoFest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ChannelZero venue in Ljubljana, and others. The band’s diverse influences point to a cosmopolitan array of sounds, from Stojanović’s faves: TransAM, Cabaret Voltaire, Skinny Puppy, Turing Machine, Justice, Aphex Twin, to those of Plešej: Korn, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, Linkin Park and Marilyn Manson, to Kump’s influences: early on they were: Korn, Slipknot and Nightwish, and more recently Taylor Swift, Robbie Williams, and Prince. At 20, Kump is the youngest member of the band.

Clearly, Stojanović, Plešej and Kump relish their roles as musicians; perhaps it is necessary to overlook the few unfortunate drug references on their debut album to enjoy it. Still, the music is all one needs. For both audience and artist, music can combat depression and apathy; we’ve all experienced the lift in mood a familiar song can bring. Multiply that by 1,000 when hearing a band you admire play live, in an arena with a powerful PA and pulsing lights, along with other fans.

Musical tools are now readily available virtually anywhere. In a world ruled by capital, we are called to make projects of ourselves.  Self cultivation is a reasonable response to the challenges of an imperfect world. In times like these, artists are left to cultivate hope and optimism, in spite of adversity. For example, even on a relatively dark album like Reframing, Stojanović’s optimism overwhelms.

From the moody and mysterious “108 Hours”:
There’s no mistake from your past that you’ll forget, 
But why would you want to? Embrace the human in yourself.
There’s no absolute value when you feel, and you feel
The eternal drama is here to heal you. Just say:
‘I – I’m gonna be okay, I’m gonna be okay
It feels, it feels right.’”

There’s no denying that musical technology has been a positive force in giving a voice to artists around the world. Contrary to the dark dystopian view of machines taking over, the sonic art of Kontradikshn demonstrates that in the midst of loss, pain, frustration, nihilism (fill in the blank), electronic musical tools are empowering people. Writing, performing, listening and dancing to music and poetry is healing and cathartic. After all, music is an important feature of the eternal drama.

finis

From Brussels: Talented Trio Brings Music, Mischief

Among the various approaches to achieving creativity, dressing up for the occasion might work. The colorful clothes from British designer Tom Cridland just might be enough to inspire a creative writing session; certainly one’s stage presence will be enhanced. A tight pair of those trousers just might push your vocals into the next octave. And if you spend all of your wages on designer clothes, the resulting poverty could inspire you to write some really sad, beautiful songs. And sad songs say so much.

Others have tried intense cardio workouts, large quantities of caffeine, and other, more sordid approaches that aren’t recommended. Sometimes creativity comes along by unexpected means. Sometimes that means faking it. The much debated line between madness and creativity comes with enough social capital that artists sometimes assume crazed poses just to say they’ve been there (and of course, to drum up record sales). If blessed with resources and good luck, some performers have emerged from a meltdown unscathed, though they often return to the themes of their breakdowns in a theatrical way as a fount of ideas.

Faking aside, that serious mess that Bowie went through in the 70’s was the real deal, certainly painful enough to earn him the title of “tortured artist,” yet fruitful enough that the decade was his most glorious; a large part of the mystique of the massive “Let’s Dance” phenomenon was the vicarious enjoyment of the fact that he survived it and decided that he might as well celebrate. Syd Barrett’s persistent troubles were parlayed into a legend worth a million pounds a year, even up to the time of his death, thanks to his part in the creation of Pink Floyd and the royalties that came with it. Britney Spears’ current Las Vegas run could be titled “From Madness to Millions.” And Kanye West –who knows?

Now, About Those Fellows From Brussels
Point is, real or contrived, musical madness is good for business, a fact that is not lost on the three lads responsible for the innovative new music group Gianax. Named for the members – Gilles Snowcat, Ian Rigillo and Axel Dumont, the debut EP “Pass The Pill” features six tunes: three in their original form as previously released by each artist, and three of them creative permutations of the originals.

The project, which is labeled as avant-garde sound art and features jazz, drum and bass, electronica, and pop, has its origins in a playful interaction among the three talented comrades. It all started when Gilles asked his frequent collaborators Ian and Axel to perform one of his tunes, “Yanagigaura.” As Ian began to work on the song, he realized that its length and melodic complexity was an obstacle to commercial performance.

Origin Story
Ian explains: “By the time we reached the 4th page of ‘Yanagigaura’ during our rehearsal, I had realized that there was no way I would have been able to play this song without having to awkwardly shuffle music on stage. I also felt that an excessive amount of chord changes was getting in the way of the harmonic and melodic beauty of the piece.”

After the temporary experience of cold feet, Ian approached the piece again. “I therefore decided to try and rearrange ‘Yanagigaura’ to make it both more ‘commercial’ and easier to play live and asked Axel if he would help me out.,” Ian explains. “Having his own fully equipped studio and an incredible talent for music recording and producing, Axel was an obvious choice especially since he had shown he also strongly believed in Gilles’ talent for composition. This is basically how Gianax started.”

The object of their work was Gilles’ surreal, romantic homage to one of his favorite Japanese towns. The resulting three minute piece, called the radio edit, exaggerates the absurd poetic imagery of the original. Gilles’ initial reaction to the reworking almost sunk the project from the start. He explains: “’Yanagigaura’” was heavily edited to fit the radio format, which pissed the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be involved in such a butcher work, but the few parts they kept were so wonderfully played and arranged that it wasn’t a clear ‘no’ from me. It eventually became a ‘yes’ and I was in.

As the work continued, a creative tension developed which the group found inspiring. “It was a process of everyone trying to infuriate everyone else, which worked quite well, I have to admit,” Gilles says. To which Axel adds: “We don’t know if we hate each other as much as Pink Floyd’s members do, but we sure like to work together.”

As the work continued, a creative tension developed which the group found inspiring. “It was a process of everyone trying to infuriate everyone else, which worked quite well, I have to admit,” Gilles says. To which Axel adds: “We don’t know if we hate each other as much as Pink Floyd’s members do, but we sure like to work together.”

Judging by the input I got from these guys, they have all the creative chemistry of the Floyd with a bit of Monty Python and possibly the Three Stooges (it is yet to be determined if they will clobber each other with foam rubber implements).

As often is the case when combustible talent comes together in close quarters, the results were incendiary, at least in the short term. Ian explains: “Initially, Gilles was furious at our attempt to chop his 10 minute song in a 3 minute radio edit with absolute disregard of the lyrics, and went so far as to call me a ‘Scottish butcher’ when we first presented him with the new arrangement.” Slowly, however, his artistic ego started kicking in and as we progressed with the recording and discovered all three of us were having a good time together, so we decided to extend the experiment and rearrange one of Axel’s and one of my songs too.” Axel explains the overall concept: “It was more than just a remix, (it was) “a rework, a real creative flow.” he says. This approach led to all new parts being recorded for each tune.

Rules and Results
Ian continues: “To be fair to Gilles, we decided the original composer was to have no power of veto on the arrangement of his song, although he would obviously participate in the recording and he would be allowed to make suggestions.” The extensive performing experience of the three members results in some very satisfying tunes. Ian is an extraordinary guitarist who has dabbled in various forms of jazz in projects including with the group Individual Choice. His tune “Jungle Jazzin’” is fine example of jazz fusion with a jungle music vibe, which, though wild in nature, is relatively subdued compared to the manic departure of the new version by Axel and Gilles, which features weirdly attractive wordless vocalizations by Susant Bista, a Nepalese singer who had recently collaborated with the trio on other projects.

Axel is an expert bassist; his composition on the disc is “Jungle House,” and in its original form it’s a lush, jazzy piece propelled by lilting bass that supports stellar solos on Fender Rhodes, muted trumpet and sultry sax. It’s electro nu jazz at its finest. The permutation by Ian and Gilles is an esoteric adventure into ambient nu jazz with Ian’s fusion-flavored guitar at the center, and drenched with Gilles’ thematic electronic atmospheres and melodies. Sweet stuff indeed.

As for the future, the three would like to take the show on the road. “We’d like to bring the project on stage and get as crazy as we can,” says Axel. Gilles has even more elaborate plans: “Next step is to go on stage under a shape that I still don’t know; we might invite an Amazon tribe to sing, or have some ETs playing Morse code, or release lions from the zoo and bring them on stage with us, and they will eat some members of the audience, which might annoy the guitarist – and doesn’t everyone know that when a guitarist is pissed, the music’s better?”

Finis

Find out more:
Gianax: Pass The Pill. http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/gianax

Axel Dumont
Selected Discography:
Currents by Mister Dumont
Kitchen Diaries by Mister Dumont
http://www.misterdumont.com
Ian Rigillo
Selected Discography:
Make Your Choice by Individual Choice
Music Radiates by Jazz House FX
https://www.reverbnation.com/ianrigillo
Gilles Snowcat
Selected Discography:
Early tapes (various tapes, 1988 – 1992)
Phase 2: Scrappy by Awaken (tape LP, 1993)
Tales Of Acid Ice Cream by Awaken (LP, 1996)
Party In Lyceum’s Toilets by Awaken (2LP, 2001)
Wasabi Kiss by Awaken (single, 2003)
As A Start: Cà Phê & Pizza by Awaken (single, 2006)
Beppu Nights by Awaken (EP, 2006)
This Mouth… by Gilles Snowcat (EP, 2008)
Mokomoko Collection by Gilles Snowcat (LP, 2012)
Nama Time! by Gilles Snowcat (live LP, 2015)
www.gilles-snowcat.com

Gilles Snowcat, Raw and Unfiltered

Here’s something new: A man, his feline persona, exotic liqueurs, and a few musical instruments. This intoxicating combination takes shape as Gilles Snowcat’s new live-in-studio album, “Nama Time!” I asked him about the title, with its Japanese inflection:

“The word ‘nama’ has a range of nuances and meanings,” he says, “more less politically correct, though it all goes around the idea of ‘raw,’ ‘unfiltered,’ which perfectly reflects the way the live part was recorded. However, ‘nama’ is also a fine way to do pleasant things in the bedroom or in the back seat of the car, and when you know that ‘Nama Time!” is made to be listened to in a cozy bedroom, I leave things to your imagination…”

Throughout the course of the 16 track disc, Gilles gets a chance to show off his wide ranging songwriting and arranging skills –encompassing pop, progressive, classical, and jazz– along with his keyboard chops and earthy baritone. On most tracks, piano accompaniment is masterfully provided by Awaken veteran Nicolas Leroy, whose keyboard pyrotechnics enliven the disc, along with brilliant guitar work by other Snowcat colleagues along the way.

The live-in-studio approach presents a mood of quiet intensity that showcases the tunes in an exciting, theatrical way.

The live in studio approach presents a mood of quiet intensity that showcases the tunes in an exciting, theatrical way.

The songs, spanning a period of about 10 years and written at various places around the globe (no doubt on the fly in overnight hotel rooms, cocktail lounges, and European coffee houses) feature an array of topics, including romance, travel (trains feature prominently), food, hotels, and various suggestive situations. This brother of Baudelaire, this son of Serge Gainsbourg, lives life to the fullest and has the stories to prove it, packing a wealth of worldly experience into a very enjoyable collection.

Intoxicating, Magic Stuff

“The stuff on ‘Nama Time!,’” Gilles explains, “all comes from a time when the boundary between Awaken (his previous band) and Snowcat-solo was becoming so blurred that it doesn’t matter under what label they had been originally released. Awaken or Snowcat — is there a real difference anyway now?” The songs were written “mostly (in) Japan, Vietnam, and Belgium,” Gilles says. “I’d say the common denominator between all the songs are some places in Kyûshû, Japan, and the fumes in the street, that addictive smoke from the hot springs, they must pour something inside, it’s powerful and inspiring. They also have strange citrus fruits and make wonderful liquors from them – once you taste them you’re hooked. All those songs are intoxicated by that magic stuff, and it makes the music so special.”

In addition to working live in studio on the majority of the tracks, Gilles arranged the record to feature evocative instrumentals interspersed between the vocal songs. The contrast creates a theatrical mood, as the wordless tunes create a dramatic backdrop that sets the stage for Gilles’ playful vocals, Leroy’s piano pyrotechnics, and the guest guitarists.

Gilles explains: “Well, except for the opener ‘Continental Breakfast,’ ‘Nama Time!’ is purely a live album, raw as it can be. It features more or less what I play on stage since the release of ‘Mokomoko Collection.’ The live songs of ‘Nama Time!’ have been recorded like some radio sessions, or Peel Sessions, totally live but in a studio. The audience is 100% the one who listens to the album in their bedroom. It’s a bedroom concert, to summarize.”

And what a concert it is. As Snowcat fans know, Gilles’ lyrics often take the form of surrealist poetry, in the case of  “Nama Time!” with artfully concealed messages of romantic hope wrapped in a stylish melodic package. From “Beppu Nights”:

And finally when winter’s gone
His plane is landing at your door
A pearl wrapped in a pink box
Treasure love like this precious stone
Remember, there’s a morning coming after Beppu Nights
He could be me
As sure as tall cats come from the year of the dog
A Diverse Cast
In putting the project together, Gilles recruited a handful of musicians who have joined him on stage in the past, including guest vocalists Antonella Corrias (“not only a great singer but she brought brilliant ideas for the arrangements”, says Gilles); and Marie de Condé (“a master in singing complicated love stories and seductive songs”).  Each of these contribute vocals on a handful of songs, with Corrias on the spirited art-rock romp “Continental Breakfast” and the duet “Room 211”,”  and de Condé on the lovely duet “The Train is Leaving Kokura.” The band on the disc’s opener “Continental Breakfast” is  made up of performers from all over Europe, while the remainder of the album’s vocal tunes feature an individual performer paired with Gilles’ vocals.

Musicians featured include: Folk singer-songwriter Pat Lennon (“the audience is always mesmerized when she sings” ); drummer Sebastian Bournier (“I gave him a hard time playing on a single note of the gong on the studio track,”); Ian Rigillo on guitar (“a highly wild, unpredictable, yet fine guitarist,” ); bass by Axel Dumont (“a groovy French musician living in Belgium – he’s full of music science and tricks”); Benjamin Steegens on guitar (“his guitar playing is pure; you know you can feel the wood of the guitar when he plays”); and Vassily Rudenko (“he’s a bit mad like a true guitarist should be; he turns a Stratocaster into a firework”). This diverse cast of characters represents Italy (Corrias), Africa and Belgium (de Condé ), Scotland (Lennon), France (Bournier and Dumont), Scotland and Italy (Rigillo), Belgium (Steegens), and the Ukraine (Rudenko).

But there’s more: Herman Martin, (sound technician on the live tracks and some parts of the opening studio track) hails from England. “He gave some British spirit to the sessions and his incredible sense of humor made it easier for everyone,” Gilles explains. “He had such a strong input in the mix that he should be credited as co-producer.” Japan is represented by Itsuo Hyûga from the It’s Oh! MUSIC Label, as producer in charge of mastering and promotion. “He also mixed ‘Continental Breakfast,’” Gilles explains, “because my own mix was too rough; he just made everything sound better and more appropriate for Japanese taste and a relaxing moment.”

With its jazz sensibilities, the disc presents a view of the romantic side of this feline rocker, resulting in a product that’s highly accessible, both to faithful fans and new converts. From “The Train Is Leaving Kokura”:

The train is stopping everywhere
And the night is falling fast
We’re living our life in a funny manga
The paper is wet but can never melt
I’m wearing your baby ring
As a sign of love
The train is leaving Kokura
And I know what I’m gonna do
‘Cause I know my life is you

 

In addition to the singer-songwriter feel of “Nama Time!,” several tracks incorporate experimental keyboard sounds and funky electronic elements, presenting the most commercial Snowcat album so far. It’s a gentler, unexpected departure from a man who has made a career living at the limits, and producing albums as testaments to that lifestyle. As a whole, the subtle intensity of the vocal tracks compliments the experimental and jazzy tracks quite well, resulting in an energetic, inspired collection of tunes, and a fitting mid-career accomplishment in the Snowcat oeuvre.

For more information, visit www.gilles-snowcat.com

“Nama Time!” is available from Amazon.com, iTunes, Google Music, Spotify, and directly from It’s Oh! MUSIC.

 

Cutting-Edge Electropunk From Slovenia

Listening to Karmakoma’s debut album “Imagination and Mechanical Metamorphoses,” one gets the idea that life in Slovenia is tenuous and difficult. Slovenians have lived in constant uncertainty for centuries, with their tiny country at the mercy of invaders and imposed rule. Only in 1991, as the former Yugoslavia fell was Slovenia’s new constitution ratified; in 1992 Slovenia joined the United Nations and in 2004 it was the first post-communist country to join the European Union.

The album’s performances give the impression of authentic edginess, not the manufactured theatrical edge of artists who grew up in comfortable surroundings. An email exchange with the band’s leader Enej Mavsar does little to dispel this notion. Though amiable, he steered me away from political discussion other than expressing frustration with the status quo in the form of church scandals, and social and political corruption (though Slovenia rated a modest 35/175 at www.transparency.org , discussion of political misdeeds is common in the media and in gossip, according to “Culture Smart: Slovenia,” by Jason Blake, 2011 Kuperard).

But enough about that. Karmakoma has managed to package a madhouse worth of crazed energy into a ten song album that will rock your socks off.  Mavsar’s lyrics and vocal style convey a sense of desperate urgency, which the pulsating synth beat and big-sounding acoustic drums drive home. From the track “Ctrl-Alt-Delete:”

Karmakoma has managed to package a madhouse worth of crazed energy into a ten song album that will rock your socks off.  Mavsar’s lyrics and vocal style convey a sense of desperate urgency, which the pulsating synth beat and big-sounding acoustic drums drive home.

Protect yourself/Keep away from the windows/Defend your friend/From the leader/We are crazy animals, but better than to be a machine/We are lazy animals, but better than to be a machine

In 1979 when David Byrne of the Talking Heads sang in “Life During Wartime” about staying away from the windows, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that it was theatre. In the case of Karmakoma, you can’t be so sure, given Slovenia’s history of turmoil and because it’s a young nation still experimenting with modes of governing.

Formed in 2011 by Mavsar and his friend, drummer Benjamin Kovač, Karmakoma also features Miha Škafar on bass, guitar and synth bass when they play live. Their influences are for anyone to hear; it was British and American music that inspired Mavsar growing up:

“I prefer foreign music,” Mavsar explains.” Okay, there are songs and artists who made an impact on me as a child and later in high school, some Slovenian bands whom I still like today, mainly coming from the 80’s punk scene which was very strong and diverse here.” Mavsar’s favorite genre in high school was grunge, “and it stayed with me forever,” he says. “I have to say we are all into very diverse music, from classic to hardcore punk like Black Flag to bands like Can or Trans Am or dance music, which we also produce.”

What Karmakoma brings from the punk experience is throbbing beats, lyrical repetitions with shouted vocals that are expressions of frustration with the status quo, as well as the assertion of one’s right to be heard. The very definite dance music influence comes in the form of the pulsating electronic bass lines and poppy synths that are sure to inspire listeners to hit the dance floor. Members of the group also DJ, so this is no surprise.

The song “Cabin Fever” features a manic beat and Mavsar’s powerfully visceral vocals, and lyrics that depict life on the impossible-to-navigate edge of reason. It really has to be heard to be appreciated.

Leave me out (stir crazy) lack of luck (stir crazy) ghost for a friend (stir crazy) night and day (stir crazy) I’m late to stay (stir crazy) I’m not insane (stir crazy) Leave me out (stir crazy) not guilty (stir crazy)

The chorus features a repeated plea to a friend for the support that becomes a lifeline when things stop making sense.

I’m on fire/I’m on fire/I’m on fire/walk with me/walk with me

Commercial Barriers

After Mavsar and Kovač formed the band in 2011, they took the project name from a Massive Attack song at the last minute to join a competition. “Well, I had to find a name quick to apply for a show,” Mavsar explains. “I remembered a Massive Attack song title which I thought sounded good; there was no philosophy at the time. But I see how the name is applying to us in different ways.”

Since their formation, the group has played in “Belgium, England, Austria, and all over ex-Yugoslavia,” and plays frequently  throughout Slovenia.. Airplay support has also been strong, starting with Airplay on Radio Student Ljubljana in the nation’s capital, leading to airplay on the national Radio Slovenia and on national television, a program called Aritimija. Still, the barriers to reaching truly massive exposure are formidable. “We are like many other Slovenian artists ignored by other radio stations, which are all commercial,” explains Mavsar.

Analog Dreams

Mavsar spent a few childhood years in music school, and continued as a self-taught musician encouraged by his mom, who bought him his first guitar. In addition to guitars, Mavsar contributes keyboards and programming to Karmakoma. Drummer Kovač’s skills should not be underestimated; the presence of live drums (he plays to a click track in his headphones) is a powerful factor that sets Karmakoma apart from electronica artists who rely on programmed drum beats. Kovač is also largely self-taught, with a few years of music school as a child behind him. The duties of sound design for the group falls to both men.

Karmakoma’s sequenced sound is driven by a Mac laptop. “For now we just use soft synths, (samples) and a computer,” Mavsar writes, almost apologetically. “Real analog synths are pretty expensive for us but we would like to use some on the next album or in the near future.” To accomplish this, the band members balance day jobs with frequent live performances.

The album, recorded throughout 2013 and released in 2014, was produced and engineered by Petar Stojanović at his studio. The year in the studio was a deliberately measured approach to the recording process. “We wanted to have no deadline, to work slowly,” to allow for the members’  schedules and to create something they would be satisfied with, he says.

Like the music they take their inspiration from, Karmakoma’s lyrics feature impressionistic illustrations from the human condition, based on the responsibility of each of us to each other, as members of the human race. From the tune “Bona Fide:”

Oh man, heavy days, dead weight/I have almost lost my mind/you came, bona fide/nothing like a great heart installed, I am saved/why should I run, brave is the man who stands/I can only make you laugh and put you on a pedestal

Inspired by a love relationship, the song’s message is an optimistic note in an album that features a lot of lyrical realism, even cynicism.  When asked if the new songs he is working on now will be in this optimistic vein or focus on desperation, Mavsar replies “I guess I know (what you mean) when you say I am a man of despair,” he writes, followed by an emoticon wink. ” I still don’t know which songs will (be) on the album. As I see it now it will be very diverse.” The recent release, “Remiss” from earlier this year is a dreamy departure from their more aggressive sound (linked below at you tube).

Karmakoma represents the new Slovenia, of creative, peaceful dissent, of having the courage to be oneself in the face of stifling traditions, of reaching one’s potential through the power of music. The famously angry old school punkers that inspired Mavsar often let optimism and humor break through, a lesson that is not lost throughout “Imagination and Mechanical Metamorphoses.” Given the bands’ engaging sound and the ambition of the members, it’s easy to be optimistic about Karmakoma’s prospects. With the support of the right label and the right combination of the lyrical and melodic hooks they’ve already mastered, Karmakoma may well break through the barriers keeping them from making Slovenia less of a mystery to fans of alternative rock around the globe.

(A big “thanks” to Sienna for introducing me to these guys!)

http://karmakoma.bandcamp.com/
https://www.facebook.com/karmakomaband?fref=nf
https://soundcloud.com/karma-coma-1/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D25B9vkLUM
https://twitter.com/K4RM4KOM4

 

 

Cultural History: Sienna’s Romantic Vision For A Postmodern Age

A thousand years from now, historians will access musical recordings and videos of performances to understand what life was all about in the 20th and 21st centuries. Arguably, there’s no better way to vicariously experience the lunacy that was the 1960s and 70s than listening to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon,” or no more direct glimpse into the heart of a romantic than the latest disc by Passenger or Ed Sheeran. Put simply, musical compositions encapsulate passions and attitudes in a way that mere essays or news documentaries can’t.

Another romantic soul worth listening to is European electronica artist Sienná, who is busy traveling the globe and documenting a life in love with beauty. Her most recent release, the single “I Know Why” is the first on her “Anneis” label, and a departure from her previous releases. With vocals by Sienná and Hallvard Gaardløs, the lovely tune begins with an ethereal guitar figure and a sound close to dreampop before venturing into a more experimental style. The single is Sienná’s debut as producer and engineer as well. See and hear the video on you tube: https://youtu.be/pLMaMZNbcjs

Born and raised in Japan but now situated in Norway, Sienná rebelled against the conservative norms of her childhood to pursue music; since  launching her career she has toured all over Europe bringing alternate versions of her recorded music to audiences.  From the beginning,  Sienná  partnered with producer Abon to release an EP and three full length records.

About the differences between her recorded music and what happens live, Sienná explains: “We are three musicians on stage, and we always simplify them to the max, and also give a larger space for Hallvard (my bassist) and Vegard Lien (my keyboardist) to groove and improvise as they like. So, the audience may always expect something different than what they hear on the albums. I also experienced how much my music varies according to whom I perform with. ..I think especially house-music lovers tend to be surprised how groovy we are as a live band who does jazzy improvisations. It´s just like extra spices on the grooves they dance to. Live music lovers tend to be surprised how unique we are. Well, the world of music has become pretty much crossover, though we can still surprise people. I love it.”

Danceable, Cinematic Soundscapes

Sienna’s most recent full length album, Japonesque (2013) is true to her romantic vision, imbued with a poetic sensibility that celebrates the beauty in imagination, memories, and reflections on everyday life.

Sienná explains: “I had been trying to combine “European” type of music and Japanese music in my weird electronic way since 2008. What I tried to do on the album “Japonesque” was to do it much better. I guess ‘what one likes, one will do best’ as Japanese say. The word ‘Japonesque’ means something characteristically Japanese, with influence of something European – like my music, as well as my personality. The main concept came from me being nostalgic about my hometown Kyoto. I am far away from home, but I close my eyes and see in my mind what I used to see. Sometimes I start to hear sound added to it like a movie scene. So I take a note of what comes to my mind with any synths available at that point – that is probably why it becomes electronic-based music. I believe I am best at forming my ideas with synths.”

 The disc relies on a mix of sampled, digital and classic analogue synth sounds along with skillful guitar and bass, and features Sienná’s characteristically tasty dance grooves along with cinematic, sublime experimental tunes and Sienná’s exotic vocalizations. It seems ideal for play in many venues, from home to public spaces. In addition to drawing upon the wellsprings of imagination, Sienná is inspired by her travels, as is the case with the tunes “Gion” and “Fontabranda di Siena.”

It can happen wherever I am,” she explains. “I heard sound when I was walking down on the Gion district in Kyoto, or when I was sitting by the fountain in Siena (Italy) named ‘Fontabranda Di Siena.’ Timing is always unpredictable, but yes, I think travel is certainly a very good way for me to collect impressions. The sound I hear first can be changed as it processes later, but the basis and its concept usually stay unchanged. It´s interesting that you tell me about the medieval references. It´s nothing conscious about it from my side, though very very true! I am basically an educated cultural historian, so I admire things and places with long histories and stories. Also, I like to use my imagination and pretend stepping back in time here and there. That may be why people call me “an awake-walking daydreamer’ and ‘a contemporary traditionalist?’ I don´t know.”

 The album reaches a point where Sienná’s personal experiences intersect with universal experience in a cycle of four songs: “Tranquility (Black Tortoise of the North)”, Ascension (Azure Dragon of the East)”, “Rest (White Tiger of the West)”,and “Play (Vermilion Bird of the South).” These alternately soothing and danceable new jazz/electronica soundscapes combine atmospheric melodic elements with improvisation, resulting in sound paintings that engage the listener’s imagination.

Sienna explains: “The titles of the four songs represent what I used to do in each part of the town, combined with an image from the Four celestial guardians of Kyoto on the four compass directions – a kind of Feng shui concept the town was built upon. The northern part is a deep mountain area where I felt an endless tranquility. Sometimes I spent ‘rest time’ with my parents in the western part. I went to a school located in the eastern side, where I “ascended.’ And, I lived in the southern part. It was my ‘playground.'”

It’s the sense of play that permeates the album that makes it so much fun to listen to;  experimental but always melodic, “Japonesque” documents an artist at play, with the recorded medium as a canvas teeming with color.

The disc’s lovely final track, “New Day,” features lush pads, vintage analog drum sounds, tranquil piano and Sienná’s baritone/tenor voice urging listeners towards  “wonderland,” where “we keep the dream.” Like the rest of the album, it’s a gorgeous sound painting depicting the life of a dreamer. “Japonesque,” produced by Abon, features Sienna on keyboards and vocals, Hallvard Gaardløs on bass, and Abon on guitar. It has a lot to offer fans of jazz, pop and electronica who appreciate first rate musicianship and production, in a disc that engages the imagination and, at times, inspires you to put on your dancing shoes, or just chill out and enjoy. Get it on iTunes, Amazon, and hear it on Spotify. Find out more at www.sienna-web.com