on life, music etc beyond mainstream

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The Westway. London Fields. Battersea Power Station seen from the train on the way to Kent. Shadwell seen thru the window of a DLR train, under an indifferent sky. McDonald’s on the King’s Road, early evening in November. Powis Square in January sunlight. 3am „night safari“ around King’s Cross in mid July 2012, the madness and the law all around, dubstep vibe of the Subway restaurant at that hour, coffee and silence, Eurostar all the way to Avignon in 3 hours from St Pancras. Jamaica Road, Bermondsey. Trafalgar Square falconers: pigeon dispersal zone – 4 bronze lions, Spanish schoolkids climbing them, lion indifference under an indifferent sky. The Shard when it was still under construction. The Gherkin when it was still under construction. Electronics shops on the Tottenham Court Road. Turkish food in Dalston. Turkish coffee in Shoreditch. Chance meeting: outside LN-CC. I laugh. Coffee at Nico’s on Westbourne Grove (is it still there?). Weird dilapidated mansions at Kensington Palace Gardens sometime last decade, before the real money moved in. Brick Lane, graffiti on doors on Fournier Street. Getting off a bus at the wrong stop in the Murder Mile, Hackney and not getting murdered: it’s calm, hipsters walking past with „2013 beards“ even though it’s 2014. The Ikea advertising on the plastic wallet they give you for your Oyster card. The M&S food outlet that used to be Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant.

Before [Pharmacy]:

After: [M&S Simply Food]

I think I bought a cake there. Reduced price.

Karl Marx’s ridiculously extravagant grave in Highgate Cemetery, someone had left an orange on it. William Friese-Greene’s grave at the same skeletonyard. Ghosts. Ghosts in the cafe in Brockwell Park. Spirits. Everywhere, every day.

London, England, not a city I know, much: but I like the fragments I’ve seen.

2020 15 Jan

Belated best of 2019

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Fellow Manafonistas, and regular readers of the site: apologies for my prolonged absence. I am still alive, still kicking. And I’ll aim to post some stories here more often in this new year of a new decade. Forwards, onwards, upwards, etc.

But for now, though, a quick look backwards to my best of 2019. There’s not an awful lot here as I suffer from temporal dyslexia so date stamps on recorded music are nonsensical to me. 1988 may as well be 1899. Know what I mean? Either way, here’s what I believe may be my records of what I think may have been 2019:


Upon Reflection – Wretch 32
EDM Vol. 2 – Jodey Kendrick
Igor – Tyler, the Creator
Sonne und Wasser – H. Takashi
Komachi – Meitei
Forgotten Hill – Chihei Hatakeyama
Dreams Never End – Spangle Call Lilli Line
i,i – Bon Iver
Intoxicate – George Pannell
Quantized Angel – Alberich
37 Minute Workout Vol. 2 – Russell Haswell
John Luther Adams‘ Canticles of the Sky + Three High Places – Oliver Coates


Do have a listen. These weren’t picked for any critical reasons, they were picked because they are fun to hear.

2019 26 Mrz

The Coventry Campbell

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Short albums interest me. Not least because if they take you on a journey, then by the end of that journey you’re aware of distance rather than time. You’ve gone from point A to point B, no matter what speed the motor was running. Short albums are also interesting because of an obvious an implication: that the artist’s only saying what needs said. Same with novels. „Heart of Darkness“ isn’t a thick wedge of pages, but despite its concision, it’s a deep, deep trip. Shortness can definitely sharpen the artistic effect. I’m not sure the same could be said of fine art. But hey, I guess it would be interesting to do survey of paintings that were, say, less than a foot tall and less than three-quarters of a foot wide.

Among my fave short albums are Billy Bragg’s „Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy“ which comes in at a heroic 15 minutes. And „The Coventry Campbell“ by Charcoal Owls, which is a great way to spend 27 minutes.

„The Coventry Campbell“ appeared a couple of years ago, but I only discovered it two weeks ago. I guess it didn’t arrive in blaze of publicity on release, hence why I missed it. But its quiet appearance kind of suits its themes and general mood.

Proceedings kick off with the superbly titled „Hospice Pics“, which appears to centre lyrically on an abundance of card games in a hospice. „Games of whist on tap“ and „pontoon on tap“. There’s a desolate, choked jollity to the piano on this, and an interesting and oblique digression from card games: one inmate, an „ex go-getter“ who hoards letters. The song doesn’t go into the content of the letters except to say that the inmate’s nephew „has got into fascism“.

Next up is a jaunty acoustic number, „Housebound & Proud“. This isn’t a cheery one, lyrically: „I’ll be heading to cemetery if I ever head to town…“ This is a bit poignant as an opening line. I think we’re talking agoraphobia.

This isn’t going to be a track by track review. „The Coventry Campbell“ is an album that demands to be listened to without me trying to guide your thoughts on it. However, I don’t think I can post this without pointing out some other highlights, so…

„Cov Campbell“ – track 3 on the LP refers presumably the establishment that the album is titled for in full. It sounds like a large-ish pub somewhere in the Home Counties. Somewehere just beyond the full thickness of the commuter belt. The song’s chorus (such as it is) consists of the vocalist going „I got barred from the Cov Campbell“. But it’s the way he does it. It’s hilarious. There’s no anger, just broken defiance. And you kind of get the feeling that it’s for the best. The Campbell doesn’t sound too great anyway: „the whole building stinks“, a place where „dry ice rises for the indie kids“.

„Open Wide“ – track 4. Genius. What you have is a slow, plaintive studio-recorded piano (think John Cage) with a vocal that’s been recorded in open space, with wind noises intruding on the mic, the faint rush of a motor vehicle passing every so often, and birdsong. The lyrics hint at some kind of final departure: „We’re sending you away, open wide, on a little holiday. Open wide, open wide. One day you’ll be up there with Branson’s balloons, one day be out of sight“. There is something comedic about „Branson’s balloons“ and it just makes the song all the more achingly melancholic.

A work of genius, and no mistake. If you like Sleaford Mods‘ descriptions of the UK then you may enjoy much of this LP. There’s even a reference to Maplins. Maplins was a discount electronic store. The chain went bust not long after this record was released. And who couldn’t love record with a line like „I observe the fridge filth while the radio complains“. Or „All those shit springs and rubbish summers“.


2018 7 Okt


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„The Danish town planner Steen Eiler Rasmussen first popularized the idea of London as “a city of villages” in the 1930s, and the description long ago became a cliché.“ (Ian Jack, NY Review of Books, September 27 2018.)

Accretion, agglomeration. But at the quantum scale – time (possibly) goes both backwards and forwards. This is yesterday, and so is tomorrow. Psychogeography is alive, RIP psychogeography.

„And then, a bird of like rarest spun heaven-metal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my head.”

Two soundtracks I enjoy listening to frequently are White Bird In A Blizzard by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, and Le Grand Bleu by Eric Serra. The deep enjoyment of these soundtracks means that approaching the films isn’t something I’m in any hurry to do, because I’d be too busy listening to the music to concentrate on the film, and in any case, the music has already conjured up a kind of amorphous non-narrative film of its own for each of these soundtracks.

White Bird In A Blizzard is an astounding listen, every single time I hear it. The record’s compositions vary between those written solely by either artist, with only a couple that were co-written by both. The opening track (by Guthrie) sets the scene. If music could sound cold and luminous to the point of being able to see and feel it, then this is an example. But (perhaps counter-intuitively) the effect is warm rather than cold, not unlike watching snow falling outside, through a window: the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Le Grand Bleu is a longer record, with more thematic variety. Sure, there’s all the watery bits with all the mystery and danger you’d expect, but there are also moments back on dry land – the contrast giving the impression that neither state is ideal, even if one is preferred. Serra’s compositions are brilliantly textured – maybe a bit 1980s sounding, but in a cool way. Two killer tracks here are Homo Delphinus and Much Better Down There, both of which hint at an emotional depth I can only hope the celluloid actually provides.

As for films I have actually seen, well 37°2 le matin by Gabriel Yared is about as good as it gets. Or Blade Runner by Vangelis. Then of course there’s film music for films that don’t even exist – such as Brian Eno’s „From the Same Hill“ and The Durutti Column’s „For A Western“. But that’s a whole ’nother blog.

2018 14 Sep

Scarlet Nights

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Two records that I never stop listening to, records that get played on a daily or weekly basis. This is stuff that never loses any of its fascination. David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth and Prefab Sprout’s Jordan: The Comeback. It would be fair to say that both of these works explore the theme of death. What is death, to the dead? Fuck knows. And I’ll be too dead to care when I myself am over the waterfall. It’s one of life’s imponderable questions.

Anyway, both records go into this broad theme in different ways. Gone to Earth brilliantly contrasts songs with instrumental compositions, moving from the groundedness of language into something beyond it, over into a world of mysteries and doubts unlimited by the need to check for fact or do reason. Jordan: The Comeback is all songs, no instrumentals, and it hints at a beyond, stopping at the shore and looking over. That’s how I read it, anyway. The writer Philip Pullman has this to say about stories:


As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.

The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain.


And so here’s how I read Jordan: the Comeback. The word Jordan relates to Elvis (whose backing singers were of course The Jordanaires). It also relates to the River Jordan, a place of miracles. The song’s fictional, once-mighty singing star says (note: says, not sings) in the title track he is „biding his time“ waiting to make a comeback. He just needs the right song for this to happen. But you just know the character is on his deathbed, and that the comeback won’t be a Vegas thing but a trip past the pearly gates. The song closes with this:


End of the road I’m travellin‘
I will see Jordan beckonin‘
Jordan, sweet Jordan
Hand me any cup you find that’s lying spare
I’ve longtime been a-thirstin‘ for a share


At which point Jordan (the river) becomes the place where crippled horses heal, and where autumn is reversed, as well as Jordan (the character) being the one who can dispense some of the river’s miracleness. The second last track, Scarlet Nights, hints that, yes, it’s the end. But it’s also a beginning:


This is where your sleepless eyes will close
This is where the weary find repose
This is where a kind of bugle blows
This is where you’ll wake to find the River Jordan flows

It was great to read the recent post here on Manafonistas that referenced the inner goth in relation to Ocean Rain by Echo & The Bunnymen.

The idea of Echo & The Bunnymen being goth had never occurred to me before. I guess the French language, and French smoking influence got in the way.

I always imagined Echo & The Bunnymen lighting up Gauloises or Gitanes and digging Brel’s „La Valse à mille temps“ rather than reading Bram Stoker and sleeping in coffins. But it did kinda make sense. Look at The Royal Liver Building, its granite face. Liverpool’s most famous building – if it can be said to be representative of the city – isn’t exactly a splash of colour.

Anyway, the idea of the inner goth got me thinking about what is goth and what isn’t. And there’s no real answer to that, apart from the fact that Havergal Brian’s „Gothic Symphony“ is most definitely gothic. Inner goth though? That’s a subjective call. So here’s my Inner Goth Top Five. (Lifers, every one.)

BauhausThird Uncle (Beggars Banquet, 1982). Eno’s original is post-punk, but it was recorded and released before punk, in 1974. That is an achievement, of course – and a big one. Bauhaus are wise enough not to try and alter the style of Third Uncle too much. They just put it back out there, and remove any sunlight from the original, replacing the sunlight with moonlight.


This Mortal CoilKangaroo (4AD, 1984). Another cover, this one is a rendition of Kanga Roo by Big Star. It’s the singing style that makes this, as well as the bass and the strings. The overall effect is of moonlight turning ramparts and flagstones silver-blue under a midnight sky.


The Cassandra ComplexSecond Shot (Play It Again Sam, 1988). „All that glitters isn’t gold, but who cares, anyway? Let me bounce off your lens and into the trees.“ Goth with saxophones. A powerful and shattering listen.


The Royal Family & The Poor Art on 45 (Factory Records, 1982). „Vast emptiness, nothing holy“. This song’s words echo the writings of Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem, especially the 1967 book The Revolution of Everyday Life. With style.


John Maus… And The Rain (Upset The Rhythm, 2011). „And the rain came down, down down down down down.“


This week’s Lost Classics is Seventeen Stars by The Montgolfier Brothers. And what a fucking genius record it is.

Now, I’ve no idea whether the whole Heißluftballon thing is one of its themes, but it’s kind of inescapable for my ears. It’s a work that deals with vicissitudes, with contrasts, with ups and downs. Seems to me that the instrumental tracks on this are its moments of reflection, when everything’s (literally) up in the air. The album’s instrumentals are great – like miniature Eric Serra soundtracks that swap one Grand Bleu (the sea) for another (the sky). Meanwhile, the songs with words sometimes describe moments of upwardness and hope, and sometimes the opposite: a bump of earthwardness.

Seventeen Stars arrived by chance, by way of an automated playlist. The best records always come from nowhere, with no hype or announcement. One day you’re sitting there in your kitchen thinking you’ve heard all you’re likely to hear – then, boom: another classic arrives and renews your faith in music.

Listening to Seventeen Stars is a bit like going on holiday. Not a city break to, like, Bucharest or Vienna though – an actual holiday where there is space, time and sand. Here are the opening lines of the title track:

A trip down south
On the coast of France
An hour by coach –
Takes us from Bordeaux
To the middle of in-between
Arès and Arcachon
A mass of shuttered chalets
A stone’s throw from the beach

Stick Seventeen Stars on. Up, up and away.

Artist: The Montgolfier Brothers
Release date: 4 May 1999
Label: Vespertine
Producers: gnac, Roger Quigley
Genre: The concept of genre is what it is

2018 8 Feb

Defining ambient

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How do you define ambient?

The closest I could ever get wasn’t really a definition, more a kind of description of one of its occasional attributes: that it’s not easy music to hum along to. There’s too much space in it, and the space is where the magic happens.

So, reading this ambient piece on, a piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place:

The composer and the listener must recognise that total control can never be realised and the identity of the music is never wholly owned, but rather it is constantly becoming. Upon each re-visitation, in a different place, at a different time, through a different playback situation, the music evolves. It lives within the complexity of these relations and is primarily about, to use Eno’s initial provocation, “to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular”.

2017 top 20

  1. Kietsuzukeru Echo – Hisato Higuchi
  2. Take Me Apart – Kelela
  3. Wonderful Wonderful – The Killers
  4. Fatherland – Karl Hyde
  5. Moth – John Beltran
  6. Humanz – Gorillaz
  7. Elaktrac – Shobaleader One
  8. The Man Who Fell From Earth – Anders Parker
  9. Blade Runner 2049 – Hans Zimmer, Benjamin Wallfisch
  10. More Life – Drake
  11. Live at Iklectik – Philip Jeck
  12. True Care – James Vincent McMorrow
  13. Gang Signs & Prayer – Stormzy
  14. Narkopop – GAS
  15. Process – Sampha
  16. Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White
  17. Mellow Waves – Cornelius
  18. 13 – Indochine
  19. No Mountains in Manhattan – Wiki
  20. Fiction / Non-fiction Olivier Alary

… bubbling under:


  • As You Were – Liam Gallagher
  • Ctrl – SZA
  • Lifetime of Love – Moon Diagrams

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