Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 3, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – Denis Matsuev, Mariinsky Orchestra

  • Genre: Classical
  • Recording
  • Released: 2009 on Mariinsky

Very enjoyable, from start to finish. Chancing upon Denis Matsuev while searching for alternative interpretations of the Rach 3, I just, er, sort of jumped into it…

And we were not disappointed. Oh boy. With Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3, it’s fleshed out in all its brutal, bloody glory. The keys ripple with vigour like well-flexed muscles. In the 1st movement, we witness the ‘vision’, then the metaphorical tip-over and ‘fall’, accented excellently by Matsuev’s rendition of the famous cadenza. Instead of going all-out virtuoso, blitzing across the keys, he starts off wrenchingly slow, which speeds up and crushes the listener in a bear-hug of bleakness. At one point, it seems that we are almost looking into the void itself. Then the painful descent starts right down into despair and the ennui of the 2nd movement. Towards the end of the 2nd movement, Matsuev’s fingers retreat, then rear themselves suddenly like the devil possessed. The clarity of this moment here is always inspiring – like the whole piece decided to ‘wake up’ and pursue whatever it was pursuing so doggedly, over the entire course of the music, but with a hard-won joy that persists till the end.

This tour de force continues with Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Passion, emotion and grotesque joy take up their places to tango with each other, which is delightful to see, given both Matsuev and Mariinsky Orchestra’s seamless partnership at play in the entire album. For the more emotive passages, we get to see more of Matsuev’s introspective flair – and then, BOOM! Off again, on another roller coaster, with the orchestra and Matsuev running circles around each other, building suspense – until the last note, where all is drawn to an abrupt close.

Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3, Ravel: Piano Concerto No 2, Gaspard de la Nuit – Martha Argerich, Claudio Abbado, Berliner Philharmoniker

  • Genre: Classical
  • Live recording
  • Released: 1995 on Deutsche Grammophon Records

Today’s album of the day is a delicious trio of Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich’s passionate performances from 1967 to 1975, with Claudio Abbado as conductor, and the Berliner Philharmoniker. We are dealing with top stuff here. Known for her passionate performances and occasional disregard for the musical score, she much prefers to imbue every note with soul, instead of adhering staunchly to the composer’s wishes.

Her stunning performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 feels like zapping myself repeatedly by poking my finger through a live socket. Frisson after frisson, this wild electricity current running down the spine! It’s cheeky and exuberant, with some very unexpected poignant moments. Some parts of it sound like a drunken man lurching and falling onto the floor! Or galloping, mad horses…

Next, we move on to Ravel’s compositions, the first of which is Piano Concerto in G Major. The dramatic entrance of the 1st movement is interspersed with typical delicacy, all fluttery, swooning, weaving its melody beautifully with the harp…then the demented version of Argerich tosses her head and comes to life, ending on an explosion. Soon we enter the 2nd movement, an elegaic, almost funereal presence that tip toes in and out of the brooding silence, swelling into an awesome symphony, but which is only a mere breeze – we are treated to a boisterous 3rd movement that has a witty moment, where the wind section comically deflates, before gathering speed and ending on a thunderous note.

The last performance, Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is haunting but full bodied with light, the lower keys handled with such subtlety that they are reimagined as smoky, halluncinatory plumes, the shadows flirting exclusively with the corners of your eyes. It’s precisely this reason why her rendition freaks the shit out of me. I thought I’d stumbled upon the holy grail when listening to Alexander Tharaud’s version, but Argerich commands an ethereal sensuality that’s not present with Tharaud, which is especially fitting for the 2nd movement. Alas, she leaves the listener dangling desperately at the edge of the seat, wanting more, more, and more…

Siglo XX – Answer

  • Genre: Post-punk
  • Produced by: Antler Records
  • Released: 1983 on Antler Records, 2018 on Onderstroom Records

Siglo XX hail from Belgium, and is the unpolished diamond in the rough for the post-punk fan. The original lineup consisted of vocalist Erik Dries, guitarist Antonio Palermo, guitarist/bassist Dirk Chauvaux, drummer Klaas Hoogerwaard, synth player Chris Nelis and bassist Guido Bos. Both Nelis and Bos left to form other bands. They formed in Genk, Belgium in 1979, and were described as being heavily influenced by Factory Records and Joy Division. Indeed, Wikipedia lists them as the ‘Belgian Joy Division’, so I’m not alone in my sentiments.

Siglo XX’s namesake is an interesting rabbit hole itself – it’s both the name of a Bolivian tin mine that constantly saw unrest during its operation. A bloody massacre fnally erupted in the late 1960s, when government troops advanced onto the mine. In Spanish, it also translates to ‘twentieth century.’ These extra bits of information add a wonderfully dystopian touch to the band’s image. Think Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, The insightful notes to Siglo XX’s Answer in the website here are worth a read, and is also my way of badgering you (heh) to buy the album, if you enjoyed listening to it.

First track Answer throbs with the familiar menace and dystopian atmosphere aided by the monotonic synths and guitar strumming, and is the most obvious ode to the Mancunian band, while the short, sharp bursts of drums and stray, squiggly saxophone punctuate After The Dream. In Room, the unobtrusive bass suddenly gives way to a flourished synth, like someone pulling a velvet curtain open. The drums richochet across the vastness, with Erik Dries’s sparse lyric delivery filling up a space here and there. The synths mourn, flutter and glitter in the hotbed of the darkness. The listener is soon lulled into a comfortable numbness in observing this mutant beauty coming together…then a glass bottle shatters, and the song fades out with someone’s boots crunching over the fragments. Endless Corridor provides a welcome respite of sunniness, with sunny guitar melodies, whose mix of gloominess and upbeat poppiness is reminiscent of New Order’s Movement for me. The final track, Dreams of Pleasure, is where Siglo XX discards the Joy Division mantle and into industrial territory. Enter the associative tendencies of ominous radio broadcast samples, set against squalling saxophone and aggressive, sludgy drums. Yum.

On the whole, Answer is a meaty album, with some fascinating sonic explorations into the other aspects of post-punk. The only regret here is that the aforementioned sonic explorations aren’t properly explored and expanded upon. Sigh…

Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

  • Genre: Alternative
  • Produced by: FINNEAS
  • Released: 2019 on Darkroom/Interscope Records

If you’ve been trying to get away from Billie Eilish, have we at CVLTYOUTHS got great news for you! For this blog’s first post in 3 years (life intervened, unfortunately), we are extremely pleased to present you with this review of her debut album. If you don’t like her, you can eat my ass (ok, no, I was kidding on that). Before we begin, here’s some background info on her:

  • Born to actor parents as Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell, she’s also the sister of Finneas O’ Connell (known professionally as FINNEAS), who produced her debut album.
  • Homeschooled from young, she grew up singing early, and was also part of a children’s chorus group that she says helped her “learn the proper way to sing.” She started writing songs at age 11.
  • She and FINNEAS released single Ocean Eyes via Soundcloud in 2016, with the accompanying video’s choreography done by their dance teacher. The EP Don’t Smile At Me was released in 2017.
  • CVLTYOUTHS admits to being drawn to bitches’ broken eyes and bellyache. Oh, and Bury A Friend. Alright, this is not a fact, but still.

What stood out for me is Eilish’s chameleon-like ability to switch between different roles in her songwriting, but retain her hand-on-heart honesty and compelling vulnerability throughout, delivered with youthful flippancy. Her aggression is never overtly expressed throughout the album, but when it’s wedged between hip hop beats and sound effects that sound at home in a horror movie, it becomes curiously addictive. because a complex personality comes through. Musically-wise, she is highly reminiscent of Lorde, with the very minimal musical arrangements and her excuse-me-but-I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude, and Lana del Rey, queen of tragedy and her memorable, larger-than-life characterisation.

Bad Guy announces itself after !!!!!!!! with a thumping bassline, her hushed voice muted with a menacing subtlety. She plays with the amorphous theory of identity and gender, neatly tearing the lampooned version of the alpha male into shreds (So you’re a tough guy/Like-it-really-rough guy/Just-can’t-get-enough guy/Chest-always-so-puffed guy), then countering it with the typical roles of femininity (I’m that bad type/Make-your-mama-sad type/Make-your-girlfriend-mad type/Might-seduce-your-dad type/I’m the bad guy), before ending it with the outrageously dismissive ‘duh’.

bury a friend tosses the ball back into Billie’s court, where she examines the proverbial monster under the bed. Where do we all disappear in our sleep, when we are transported unconsciously to that mysterious tunnel without an end? For Billie, it tends towards the latter – a great, dark mire of insecurities, unfulfilled yearnings, a wry statement about fame and sleep paralysis. Again, we get a minimal drum treatment, her soft vocals hovering between a wide-eyed numbness and a strange pliability. In the video, she is roughly manhandled by numerous hands, with syringes stabbed simultaneously into her back. Billie has this to say about the video in an interview with Rolling Stone, which sums up the gist of the song perfectly:

“I had this idea where I’m naked. Like an abduction-type thing, completely not in control, just a helpless body, and people putting syringes up my arms and in my neck. That’s one of people’s biggest fears — needles — and that’s what I’ve been doing recently: honing in on people’s fears.

Rolling Stone

listen before i go stood out for me on the first listen, because of the way the piano lingered so prettily, and how Billie’s vocals drift haphazardly across the horizon. One reads the lyrics and is presented with an emotional render. The listener is treated to an almost comfortable numbness, the tender prelude that brushes one’s fringe away, before death (Sorry can’t save me now/Sorry I don’t know how/Sorry there’s no way out) before being punctuated with a barely audible ‘sorry’.

On the whole, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is an excellent debut, its often playful lens revealing an unsettling complexity, even in the most mundane of events. What are we truly, deeply inside, and why do we behave the way we do?

CVLTYOUTHS admits to not having an answer for this sudden, philosophical musing, but perhaps we can divert your attention to the video for bury a friend instead?

Fiona Brice – Postcards From

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  • Genre: Classical
  • Produced by: Fiona Brice and Julian Simmons
  • Released: 2015 on Bella Union

If you’re wondering who Fiona Brice is, you’re not alone. I had to admit, I had never heard of her until Berlin alerted me to her work as composer, touring musician and multi-instrumentalist for the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Midlake and Gorillaz, to name a few. And also, as the cool “sidewoman of Placebo”, which comes as a timely reminder that there’s still lots of music for me to discover. Besides, Brice’s description of Postcards From whetted my curiosity further. In this interview, she portrays the songs as auditory manifestations of her mood in a certain place at a particular time, as a result of her travels to unfamiliar territory while working for other musicians. These unfamiliar territories have turned up in the album as track names, the labels to these “moods”, and also as an appeal to the listener’s wanderlust: to fling their doors wide open, and embark on a mental trip with her.

Berlin opens the album with the silvery keening of the violins, and the voluptuous drone of the cello. Every note hangs heavy in the air, swollen with the surge of passion and wistfulness. Paris is the complete opposite of Berlin, lost instead in the luminous reverie of the dainty piano, with the occasional sigh from the violins. Unfortunately, the album tends towards one too many similar-sounding songs, at a similarly pedestrian pace. Fortunately, St.Petersburg provides some unexpected drama, the stabbing strings adding to an ominous feel in the music. You can almost feel the forbidding mood of the former Communist empire breathing down your neck.

On the whole, the album is still pleasingly decent to warrant at least a few more listens, although others may get frustrated with the benign nature of the record. Oh, me? I’m just saving this for another rainy day in the car. It sounds like the perfect soundtrack to daydream to.

 

 

 

 

The Libertines – Up The Bracket

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  • Released: 2002 on Rough Trade Records
  • Produced by: Mick Jones
  • Genre: Garage Rock Revival

Up The Bracket was the album that made The Libertines thrilling for all the right reasons, apart from their beguiling 19th century English romantic-wastrel image and the songwriting partnership of Pete Doherty and Carl Barât, before the drugs, internal politics and bad press forced the band into increasingly rapid decline. You probably already know the nasty gossip, so I’ll just skip those bits and head over to the review.

On their debut, the first half of the music is pure, anarchic joy –  Horrorshow is a blitzing feedback of scratchy, dueling guitars, drums, and bass that engage in a furious tug of war in the middle of the song, as if to pull the song apart into bloody bits of flesh.Then there’s the rickety, just-been-round-the-pub vibes of Radio America, with some equally knock-about acoustic guitar playing, and the Strokes-baiting commentary of The Boy Looked At Johnny…which is ironic in hindsight since they were getting lumped into the same category as these folks back then.

Unfortunately, the album just pans out into blank rock territory towards the end, which is a real shame. Begging lacks the sweaty, scumbag atmosphere that made the first half of the album genuinely exciting to listen to.

Still, it’s a lovely introduction to these boys, who have now reformed after spending various stints in other bands. Thank god for that – I think Doherty and Barât pretty much belong together, in terms of musical partnership!

Felt – The Splendour Of Fear

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  • Released: 1984 on Cherry Red Records
  • Genre: Indie Pop, Dream Pop

What I love about Felt is how Lawrence and Maurice Deebank shared the same spirit in aesthetics. Their song titles seem to have been carefully stringed together with the most ornate words of the English dictionary, with a dash of Lawrence’s eccentricity. Combined with Deebank’s classically-trained background, which allowed him to drop elegantly melancholic Spanish melodies against Lawrence’s acerbic poetry with ease, the early Felt line-up produced a tier of top-class albums that still sound pretty amazing some 30 odd years on.

The Splendour Of Fear is a pretty special album in the early Felt canon, mainly because of Lawrence’s magnanimous attitude towards Deebank’s guitar-playing ability. Indeed, four out of the six tracks are instrumental in nature. It isn’t a bad thing though. Out of their entire discography, this is the most elegiac-sounding record and the essential gist of the Lawrence/Deebank partnership. The World Is As Soft As Lace betroths Deebank’s pearly guitar line to Lawrence’s Verlaine-esque warble, which also features a favourite Felt line of mine:

And all my great plans get blurred
By the softest touch, the gentlest word.

In The Stagnant Pool, Lawrence’s obtuse lyrics take on a much more macabre feel with vague biblical references, delivered with Deebank’s guitar playing that borders on pathos:

The stagnant pool,
Like a drowned coffin,
Still as a deceased heart,
Haunting the ghost of the noble crusader

A Preacher In New England shimmers, blurs and melts into a blinding pool of emotion, with Deebank creating his own brand of wordless through his guitar. He recalls huge cathedrals of sound that twist and wind artfully at his fingers, making your heart skip a beat – and then finally leaps into wondrous oblivion, fading out like a receding dream.

It should be noted that Maurice Deebank left Felt shortly after recording The Splendour Of Fear, and also subsequently recorded his only record Inner Thought Zone in the same year. There are similar parallels to this and The Splendour Of Fear, so you might want to check out Inner Thought Zone as well if you liked this.

Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed

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  • Artist: Rolling Stones
  • Genre: Country Blues
  • Released: 1969 on London Records (US) & Decca Records (UK)

 

Records like this have a lovely, wide-eyed wonder to them. There is a subtle, organic harmony of the overlaying riffs with the drums and the bass, the way they’re allowed to breathe. You can hear Keith Richards just noodling along, and then thinking, “Hmm, what about if I play this?” and Charlie Watts rising to the challenge. Mick Jagger simply delivers. The best part of it all? They pull it off so perfectly. It doesn’t sound like a wankfest of instruments, or an awful overdone affair. There’s only the essential muscle and bone, with nary a trace of fat.

Its ragged charm also plays a major part in its allure – Keith’s guitar playing slowly unravels like a ball of yarn, while being accompanied by Ry Cooder’s pretty mandolin tremolos on a cover of Robert Johnson’s Love In Vain. Mick Jagger’s blissed-out vocals stretch like a lazy cat to the heavens, probably made possible by some tabs of acid. Live With Me brings the infamously debauched, wildcat side of Mick Jagger out, with him making a rather crass but irresistible proposal (“Don’cha think there’s a place for you/In between the sheets?”). Wild, huh. Then comes Let It Bleed. Practically everyone but me knows this song. It’s an eye-opener to the occasional enfant terrible methods of Jagger for me. The insouciance of Jagger’s voice and lyrics manage to infuriate and charm in equal amounts (“We all need someone to cream on”). You Can’t Always Get What You Want is an amazing wall of GLORIOUS sound, with the raw ululations of the London Bach Choir battling against Watt’s drums and sending goosebumps up your arms. It’s an uplifting anthem for the “live and let die/go” mentality, with an almighty shrug.

Here’s a sample: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

 

 

Glaxo Babies – Nine Months To The Disco

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  • Artist: Glaxo Babies
  • Released: 1980 on Heartbeat Records
  • Genre: Post-punk, experimental 

Ah, Glaxo Babies. They happen to make the same strain of mutant music along the likes of The Pop Group, and why wouldn’t they? They also happen to come from Bristol, the multi-cultural city that also spawned trip-hop in the early 90s’, and brought much more joy and mischief to post-punk in the form of funk/dub/jazz mashups. There’s another group that could be counted as the yin to Glaxo Babies’s sound: Maximum Joy, who made cheerier, raucous funk, along with fellows Rip Rig + Panic. But that’s for another review anyway.

Glaxo Babies formed in 1977 with original members Tom Nichols, Dan Catsis (current guitarist for The Pop Group) and Geoff Alsopp, and subsequently brought Rob Chapman onboard as singer. The line-up went through another drastic change (a completely new line-up, in fact, with Rob Chapman leaving after recording a few tracks) before they recorded Nine Months To The Disco. As a result of this, their approach to the record became much more experimental, throwing in liberal doses of jazz, sound-collaging, funk and dub and finishing the recording of the music within a day. Wow. Hats off to these guys, because it doesn’t sound shoddy at all. Glaxo Babies put out another album, Put Me On The Guest List in 1980, and continued to record music periodically until their demise in 1990.

In a nutshell, the closest approximation of Nine Months To The Disco would be something like the result of bringing bloodthirsty savages to a disco party. Tribal drums underpinned with tight, primeval bass riffs, sans the overt politicizing of The Pop Group – but with an ominous undercurrent.

Maximum Sexual Joy has oodles of orgasmic bass and funky scratching, with what appears to be a delirious masked orgy and neanderthals having some fun tearing people apart in progress, while Seven Days has the most intense driving bass rhythm ever, with the fractured piano improvisation fading in and out throughout. The eerie synths sweep in and out of the song like a pale spectre. Free Dem Cells finally sets the party alight, and sees trebly guitars face each other in a Gang Of Four-style showdown, with the drums and bass serving as the spectators instead, egging the guitars on with glee. I love the drums on this one – the high hats sound crispy enough, mmm. Album closer Shake (The Foundations) sees them ditch the genre-bending and go full out funk, which may come as a relief for some people, although it may also come as a disappointment to other people. Just saying.

 

 

Autechre – Amber

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  • Artist: Autechre
  • Released: 1994 on Warp Records
  • Genre: IDM

Where I live in Singapore (ha, ha), there’s this particular road in Malaysia that serves as the perfect place to listen to Amber in the car, which starts from the Tuas car checkpoint and begins again from the Malaysian side, through the Batu Pahat checkpoint. This is an inconvenient detour from where I reside, and we undertake this 30+ km detour only when the damned Causeway is jammed to the brim with cars.

There’s nary a single soul in sight, with lush forests full of deciduous trees lining the long, snaking road that has been fenced up to prevent unsavoury types from entering the area. This road is the most tranquil of places, but there’s an current of unease trickling in the background. It’s the weirdest feeling ever: an uncomfortable juxtaposition of the proverbial oasis of calm, with the wire fences that serve as a reminder of your presence in a restricted area.

So what do I do? I put on Amber, and snuggle comfortably in the backseat. I love the weird spacey, blissed-out vibes that Amber radiates in spades. It’s the most surreal experience ever. You’re half expecting someone to run out on the road but nobody appears. Even the shophouses to the right of the road are closed. How the fuck are shops closed in the daytime? It’s an apt avenue down H.G Wells, so I always imagine that the area has been evacuated in the light of an impending alien invasion. If you could see what I saw, you might have agreed with me anyway.

Album opener Foil sounds like aliens have beamed themselves down from their 60’s themed spaceships and Piezo is one of my favourites, where you get this quirky, bursting pogo-ing rhythm and a haunting synth floating somberly in the back. It’s like having a rave at the bleakest of funerals. Nine shimmers with an unfathomable beauty, with the keyboards unfolding their wings and pulsing like radars, spreading their indecipherable signals to the listener. Underneath it all, there’s this underground battle; a tug-of-war between harmonious melody and jerky, syncopated rhythm. It’s an essential pivot of Amber, which was probably why it appealed to me so much. I’ve tried listening to it in other places, but nowhere beats the surrealism of the fenced forests and deserted road.