In 2007, Robert Raths founded Erased Tapes Records on a platform focused on releasing avant-garde and experimental electronic music. Originally based out of London, the label has expanded and now has additional offices in Los Angeles and Berlin.
You look on stage to see a piano, bass, and drums and one might immediately expect the classic sound of your traditional jazz piano trio. When Dawn of Midi takes the stage this instrumentation is flipped on its head completely shattering expectations and pushing the definition of jazz. The trio pushes the sound so far that the freedom and fluidity typically associated with jazz music is completely restricted with robotic precision and incredible sequencing of varying rhythmic permutations flowing through the three musicians.
Dysnomia is the group’s second album and garnered great praise after it’s release in 2015. It's just under four-years later and every play through this album feels fresh and gripping. In order to fully appreciate the meticulous planning and composition that went into this project you need to carve out 46-minutes devoted to following the complex and hypnotizing journey through the entirety of this album.
The album has such a distinct pulse throughout, yet it is almost impossible to ever know where the downbeat of each measure passes. The looping in each instrument often subtlety shifts dramatically changing the pulse and underlying time feel.
Opening with “Io,” the bass creeps into the picture followed closely by the piano’s muted strings. While only a trio, the group finds ways to push the limits of their sound. Throughout the entirety of the project each instrument it can be heard as a drum. For the bass and piano to be used melodically is a rarity. “Io” morphs into a complex rhythmic cocktail that gives a feeling of heavy swing near its completion by shifting accents among the given loops.
While each track is a cohesive and complete thought, the album plays as one long seamless journey. It is an international journey–while based in Brooklyn currently, the trio with members whose origins are Pakistan (Qasim Naqvi, drums), India (Aakaash Israni, Bass), Morocco (Amino Belyamani, piano). The heavy utilization of polyrhythmic ideas feels as though it potentially stems from this cultural make up.
From “Io” the band maneuvers through four more tracks before “Ymir.” The beginning of this, the sixth track on the project, is the end of a first act. The band has gradually made their way to one of the more simple rhythms and certainly some of the most thin sounds thus far. The first 20-seconds of “Ymir are a deep breath in before a a new theme emerges introduced with ringing piano harmonics and an arpeggiated bass line. The theme of the high harmonic seems to carry through until we are met with a familiar deep, low, and wide piano attack that calls back to the opening moments of the album.
Dysnomia is unlike anything I have ever heard. The band is currently on a hiatus as the trio all pursue individual projects. The hiatus is on the heels of a 4-year span touring with this album and, from what I have read, the album can only hope to mimic what the live experience with Dawn of Midi is like.
I first encountered this album right after its re-release on Erased Tapes back in the winter of 2017, but took it for a brand new release. It wasn’t until I dug deeper into the history of the ensemble that I learned of their leader, Simon Jeffes and co-founder Helen Liebmann and this orchestra that toured and recorded extensively between 1972 and 1997. I was all the more intrigued as their sound, even in 2017, seemed fresh and beautiful in a uniquely simple form.
The concept for PCO came to Jeffes in a hallucination caused by food poisoning in France in 1972. A poem came from this hallucination with a message of embracing the quality of randomness in our lives. He translated this message as one of acceptance, and carried this message as the driving force of PCO.
Jeffes, a classically trained guitarist, composer, and arranger, saw similarities in the limitations that came with the classical music and rock genre tags but admired the freedom within the folk music idiom. Embracing a message of randomness and acceptance, the sound of PCO is often hard to label. Within their albums, certainly within Union Café, a laundry list of influences, cultures, and genres are explored. Most often this exploration is heard within the context of a minimalist and folk aesthetic.
Union Café was the avant-pop band’s final of five full-length studio releases before Jeffes death in 1997. “Scherzo And Trio” opens the album sounding like a boogie-woogie tune with an added layer of grit. Harmonically this open slides in and out of dissonance without loosing its “chug-a-chug-a” push.
“Nothing Really Blue” is one of the more tantalizing tunes on the album. Opening with pizzicato strings and piano, a soft vamp begins to grow. A melody is sounded from the piano finding a way to sound like a blues riff, pop song, and spiritual all melded into a single phrase. The soft energy manages to keep your attention for all five-minutes of the tune hinting at a crescendo at times, but remaining comfortably in a somewhat reserved pocket.
In “Organum” the presence of folk roots is strong with a clear influence of irish jig tradition. There is a nostalgic tint to the track that I attribute to the sort of neo-renaissance-sounding accompaniment to the melody. It is a polished take on an old-fashioned sound heightening the sense of timelessness that seems to come with every release from PCO.
The spirit of this phenomenal band is carried on with Arthur Jeffes, the son of the late PCO founder. Arthur was the catalyst behind the rerelease of Union Café viewing this final release as PCO’s “least exposed” album due to, perhaps, poor timing. At the time it’s original release it was only availbe on CD–the digital marketplace for music was not in-place and the vinyl renaissance was still some years from kicking in. Erased Tapes helped to spark a renewed love of this important collection of musicians from the latter half of the 20th-century. With help of Arthur Jeffes, the polished, eclectic, and unassuming genius of Penguin Café Orchestra remains strong today.
Originally published in On Queue December Pt. 1, 2018
It is closing in on its 1-year anniversary, but the rich combination of organic and electronic that takes the reigns of Nils Frahm’s first major release since 2015 continues to fascinate my ear with the incredible proficiency in both production and minimalist composition that Frahm brings to the table.
The quality of recorded sound is the driving interest for Nils Frahm and has been since his very early introduction to music. His father was a photographer designing record covers while Frahm was immersing himself in the music of classical and contemporary composers. This duality that tugged on him for his early development as a musician shaped his unconventional approach to the piano sound which features an eccentric combination of classical and electronic music.
After his 2015 release, Solo, Frahm embarked on a mission to create a studio room from his dreams. The location was in the Funkhaus, a well known 1950s-era recording complex that sat in East Berlin. For two years he outfitted this with the gear that was most important to his sound–an arsenal of pianos, synthesizers, strings, percussion, and even down to a custom bult mixing desk. Funkhaus became a place where Frahm’s interest with the quality of sound could blossom through the various natural reverb chambers and vintage gear available to him.
The result was All Melody. While it sits in one’s ear with a somber tone, there is never an overwhelming sadness felt. The rhythmic energy in synths and voices heard from one track to the next keeps the energy moving forward. Despite the seemingly disparate timbres for the main voices in the project, All Melody is a structurally sound and cohesive body of work.
The most killer track to my ear is “A Place.” For me, this represents the most effective and musical use of delay I have ever heard and I have a hard time believing it will be dethroned anytime soon. When played through a pair of nice monitors or headphones, the incredible sonic architecture is put into full perspective. The pulse of the track is an articulate synth chord that is panned right of center. As this chord progression continues the layers of delay grow to populate the rest of the sonic field in a rhythmic and meticulously charted manner. Vocal textures join the rounded tone of the synth as well as a harmonized and syncopated flute melody.
“My Friend the Forrest” recalls back to the impressive catalogue of solo piano works Frahm has released in his career. The piano, muted and surrounded by a subtle but expansive blanket of reverb, speaks with the voice of both the stings and the hammers and levers. It is a texture that gives a new and warm life to the piano. Melodically, this track is oozing with soul and a bluesy riff that repeats throughout the song.
The beauty of this album is in the fine details. Frahm knows how to used recording technology and the mechanics of his instruments to his advantage making somewhat simple musical ideas come to life with intense emotion and detail. Unrelenting exploration of space and texture have lead to this beautifully ambitious release that has aged well this year.