So it’s the fourth and final edition of this blog series which has been such a joy to write. Thank you so much to the superhuman Steve Harris who has coordinated all the work taking place on Fresh on the Net (as indeed he always does) and to Tom Robinson without whom this wonderful resource would not exist in the first place.
Part Four looks at the burgeoning experimental music and sound art scene currently gaining ground across the UK. Apologies if it goes on a bit but there were so many artists and events I needed to include.
I will begin by declaring an interest so that this is clear. I am part of this scene as artist (both as Neil March & Environmental Sound Foundation), label (Demerara Records) and live events promoter (Vanishing Point & The Music of Sound). But there are more than enough really interesting artists for me not to need to bang on about my own output.
It is especially exciting how a group of regular live events have sprung up around less fashionable parts of London. They include Noizemachin!! London run by composer, sound artist and sometimes broadcaster Dan Ross at the long-established music venue Amersham Arms in New Cross along with Sam Gillies and Jeremiah Spillane around the corner from Goldsmiths University of London where Dan and I have both been postgraduate students. The concept is a monthly experimental music and sound art night where about eight artists play short (five or ten minute) sets across two halves. Their aim is for each artist’s set to segue seamlessly into the next to create a unique musical experience. They also stress that their policy in terms of genre is very broad with electronic, acoustic, improv, sound art etc.
Skronk and Skronktronic are run by Rick Jensen at New River Studio in Finsbury Park, North London. Skronk takes place twice a month and is a free open mic improv event. The Skronk Facebook page makes it clear that this is not improv for improv’s sake. The goal is to create new music in front of an audience and attendees are encouraged to bring instruments they are competent to play.
The concept of Skronk dates back to 2006 when Rick arrived in the UK and lived in East Sussex. He developed the open mic experimental style whilst also forming and developing a variety of his own artistic projects. When Rick moved to London he eventually came across New River Studios having played gigs there and that led to it becoming Skronk’s permanent home. Over 200 people have subsequently joined the open sessions with multiple acts at each event.
Skronktronic is a monthly electronic music gig which evolved both from Rick’s involvement in ElectroAcoustic music (as The Oneirologist and Cojones Spirituales) and from the number of Skronk participants who used synths and electronics. There are also Skronkdance, the concept being about sound-related movement, and Skronkfest, the name being self-explanatory. Skronk artists have also released albums such as Live at Skronk enabling the ongoing legacy to spread its influence. Rick explains that ‘… the principle is [also] to keep the experimental music fun, and never boring, sets are short and each night has a great deal of variety’. Such a refreshing and non-elitist, non-judgemental culture is key to its popularity and success.
The sad closure of the long-running Montague Arms on the edge of New Cross in South East London and its takeover by owners with no interest in live music has signalled a temporary loss of home for Sonic Imperfections, the popular ambient and experimental music event run by The Untied Knot’s Nigel Bryant. There is still, in the meantime, a corresponding radio show on Resonance FM.
As I have previously mentioned we (Demerara Records) also have Vanishing Point, a bi-monthly (first Thursday of every other month from February to December) event held at the beautiful cooperatively owned Ivy House in Nunhead/East Dulwich which offers a wide spectrum of experimental, leftfield and contemporary art music and sound art and The Music of Sound at the For Jimmy Foundation-owned Cafe of Good Hope in the pop-up Ladywell Place in Lewisham which leans towards sound art and experimental music that can be represented with a minimal set-up. The opener is on Thursday 1st November and, if it goes well, we may make this bi-monthly in the months between Vanishing Point gigs.
There are lots of other cool events that I simply don’t have the space to cover but at the heart of it all is SEEM, also run by Dan Ross. SEEM (South East Experimental Music) is a not-for-profit newsletter and platform that enables fans of experimental music to have one central point where they can see all the events taking place in the London area and not have to worry about finding out about gigs after they have happened. All the venues and promoters involved in the scene are members of SEEM and have the ability to include their listings in the newsletter. The events also appear on their Facebook page where visitors can click on them and access tickets and details directly. It is a fantastic resource.
Aylesbury’s Jon Samsworth is a talented, eclectic and instinctively experimental composer and multi-instrumentalist who first came to my attention when his evocative piece of modal Post-Minimal variation Echoes on Cambridge Street landed in the Fresh on the Net uploader. The combination of delicate, impressionistic and open piano and strings chords, striking timbres and found sounds made for compelling listening and prompted me both to explore Jon’s music further and to write about him in Trust The Doc. Stuart Maconie recently played it on Freak Zone on BBC 6 Music too.
I also came across the fantastic Coconut Heralds with its contrasts of harmonic and rhythmic language, exquisite chords and appealing textures. Having now experienced Jon and his band playing live at the inaugural Vanishing Point @ The Ivy House in Nunhead, I can confirm that Jon’s versatile, inventive and progressive compositional style and his band’s musicianship and expertise in interpreting his ideas are quite stunning. The Without Words EP from which Coconut Herald is taken can be streamed as a playlist and offers further perspectives on Jon’s music.
Chloe Tennant, originally from Lincoln but now based in Bucks, is a member of Jon’s excellent live band but she is also making some exciting, original music of her own as Cholly. Her track Lonely starts off with a grainy quality, driven by her multi-tracked violin, cello and percussion but it is soon infused with electronic and found sounds, taking the track in an entirely different direction, all of which provides the backdrop for Chloe’s smartly interweaving and engaging vocal harmonies. The way this process develops and pans out is really impressive. It has a dark intensity too.
One a Day again showcases Cholly’s penchant for vocal harmonies set against fluid and fascinating textures. There are elements that remind me, in parts, of Black and Cocteau Twins (and yes I know those two artists are nothing like each other!). There are perhaps shades of Dead Can Dance, Virginia Astley and a host of other flavours drawn from across a range of eras. The Sage Art Remix presents a darker heavier take on the same track while Rinse, Repeat & Remix is funkier, more upbeat and has an industrial feel. The open fifths harmonies are haunting and appealingly unsettling and, at times, recall David Bowie’s Blackstar. It’s another great example of Cholly’s versatility and appetite for musical and sonic exploration.
Cholly is working on an EP and video. The end products should be well worth waiting for. And judging by the thousands of Soundcloud views she is picking up, there is clearly already an army of listeners out there who get her music. She also plans to go out live in the new year which is going to be seriously exciting.
Rothko needs little introduction. This band (or project) initiated over twenty years ago by Bass Guitarist, Synth player and composer Mark L Beazley has yielded a catalogue of fine albums over a so-far twenty-one year period and, with his latest set Blood Demands More Blood taking Rothko further than ever before down the road of intense ambience and a sound-driven methodology, there is no sign of any let-up in Mark’s thirst for originality and thought-provoking [subtle] statement as the titles of the tracks on this superb new album demonstrate (Famine Drought, Famine Floods, Famine Deaths. Repeat, There Is No End To War and The Peace Process among them). I spent an enjoyable evening with Mark recently and he confirmed that the decision to approach writing the album in a completely different way from past sets was a driving force in conjuring up such stark, hypnotic soundscapes.
Over a considerable and accomplished career to date, Mark has marked out a niche in his use of multiple Bass Guitars as a key element of the Rothko sound. That he is confident enough to release such a powerful album on which that element is reduced in influence underlines how far he has travelled and how hungry he remains for originality and experimentalism.
The only predictable aspect of Rothko is that you can never predict what he/they will do next though I am delighted that they will headline the Vanishing Point gig on 7th February 2019.
Gagarin (real name Graham Dowdall) is one of the most fascinating characters on the experimental scene. He is a member of the cult New York (now Brighton-based) Post-Punk band Pere Ubu, spent six years recording and touring with Nico and has worked with an illustrious list of iconic figures in leftfield music including John Cale, Stephen Mallender and others. He is also a sometimes member of Rothko who contributed to the Blood Demands More Blood album and he works extensively with Welsh-Iranian singer/writer Roshi ft. Paris Radio.
Gagarin is Graham’s solo project and has been for many years. He described it to me as ‘composed electronica’ which, of course, is accurate but nevertheless doesn’t do justice to the inventiveness and visceral qualities of his work. Listen to the way a hum and drone-like intro in Corvid Redux (a redux of his album Corvid) is first contrasted by a rhythmic divergence and then goes off at a completely unannounced tangent with electronic buzz and birdsong playing against resonant synth and spacey melodic figures. Admittedly it’s a compilation of excerpts but it still does a great job of representing the breadth and imagination in his ideas.
Autonomist is remixed and mastered by Rothko’s Mark L Beazley and is another outstanding piece. Clearly BBC Radio 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie agreed because he played it this month on Freak Zone when I was listening, funnily enough two days prior to meeting Graham for lunch at Goldsmiths where he too has a connection. Indeed. He works there!
Gagarin is a fantastic project which allows Graham the space and the blank canvas to paint his ideas all over his compelling music. If leftfield experimentalism that is essentially very musical is your thing, you will want to see Gagarin live and check out his extraordinary recordings.
One musician with his finger in several pies is Chester’s Luke Moore. One of these is Operation Lightfoot, already featured in Part 2. A fluid and varied project, sometimes involving singer Sophia Ben-Yousef, it is difficult to stick a convenient label on the music, some of which veers into Alt Pop territory but a great deal of which has a filmic quality, evocative soundscapes adorned with impressive strings such as on Aerial View.
Birmingham quintet Dorcha are an intriguing band who this month were the guests on the Freak Zone Playlist on BBC Radio 6 Music where they chose a beautifully balanced set of tracks. Their own music reflects their individual differences of influence and taste. The switches in mood, tempo and texture are unexpected and lift their music so effectively; minimal guitar-driven Alt Pop giving way to tremelo strings, harmonic dissonances and greater intensity and unconventional chords and musical interplay lending their poppier moments an edge.
Two Steps announces itself with unusual drum rhythm, broken up phrases, interesting guitar chords and harmonics set against calm vocals. This is leftfield pop that recalls the early days of Post-Punk when there was a real spirit of invention and experimentalism. Shades of the Raincoats perhaps. But influences come from a multitude of sources. It’s an outstanding track, a mini-symphony in its structure and contrasts.
Dorcha are certainly blazing a trail as a unique and exciting presence and one that has now got them noticed on a national scale. I can’t wait for an opportunity to see them live.
Precocious Mouse (real name Cal Wood) is a Sound Artist from Sheffield, now based in North London, who has been gathering a reputation as a regular at London’s leading experimental music and sound art gigs.
His tracks are mostly long and intricate, sounds coming from all angles in slow burning layers of creative noise. Non-Bio v Precocious Mouse is a collaboration lasting a mere 19 mins 19 secs making it one of his briefer tracks! But joking aside, it is testament to the breadth of ideas that Cal’s longer tracks never become boring.
His Live at Resolution set recorded earlier this year is slightly longer (around 25 minutes) and builds cleverly from more sporadic introduction of sounds towards a gradual crescendo of ideas. He achieves all this using just a laptop and mixer but this takes nothing away from the aura of his live performances.
Precocious Mouse is getting amongst it in terms of appearing at all the experimental and sound art nights and the reputation he is gaining is firm evidence of how well he is being received by audiences.
Bermondsey duo Far Rainbow are Emily Mary Barnett and Bobby Barry. They use drums and electronics to create imaginative gradually evolving soundscapes. Their unique aspect is their reliance on what they call ‘random objects’ such as electric toothbrushes, milk frothers and electric shavers processed through what Bobby describes as ‘… a junk shop daisy chain of cheap effects’.
A Disc of Rippling Mercury is a single in two lengthy parts which was released in May and reflects their patiently building sound art style. 2017’s Noon: 22nd Century is a limited edition cassette single in similar style.
London-based composer and artist Thomas Stone has a Soundcloud page which is described as dormant but it nevertheless contains the excellent ambient music Factors EP with its dark electronic hums, emerging textures and chords, echoing rattling percussive elements and fascinating nuances, mixing his trademark Contrabassoon playing with synth, programmed drums and electronic percussion. Thomas maintains a busy live profile across the UK.
His website shows he is getting out around the UK and playing some interesting venues including Centrala in Birmingham, Dronica in London and a live session for Resonance FM.
Crystal Palace is the home of experimental trio Rookery formed by George E Harris and Alison O’Melia. The pair have teamed up with David Rothon and they incorporate some intriguing sounds and instruments into their sound which is captured on a recording of their live gig in South East London’s Gypsy Hill Tavern in June.
The instrumental line-up consists of Alison on Clarinet, Piano and Accordion; David on Kalimba, Omnichord and Melodica (an instrument I have used periodically myself and which I have always felt was undervalued) and George on Spoken Word, Typewriter, Ether Pad and Harmonica. It makes for a rich mixture of ambience and drones with fluid improvised playing. It is also a very good advert for why you might want to check them out live.
I have reviewed Nottingham musician (now resident in Brockley, South East London) Ben Vince in Part 2 of this series but his incredible mix of improvised, virtuoso sax with industrial noise and crunching beats represents some of the most exciting music and sound on the scene. Check out his Assimilation on Soundcloud and look up the dates for his September tour of the UK.
I have also only just been alerted to a fascinating pair of brothers from London who record and perform as Soundspecies mixing up an incredible recipe of international and electronic flavours and collaborating across various fronts; marrying a live music ethic with the seamless continuity of the DJ set plus an abundance of rhythmic and sonic invention as this link to their hour-long Manana-Cuba epic amply demonstrates.
I promised not to bang on about my own music but it would be remiss of me not to at least offer a couple of links consistent with the rest of this article. So you can check out the new Sonic Sketchbook EP by Environmental Sound Foundation which is a contrasting mix of electro-world-futurism and musical sound art tracks.
And you can stream my Sounds Converge EP (as Neil March) which is closer to Contemporary Classical music [but does have a pure musical sound art track in the middle of the five] for free on Soundcloud too.
Also worthy of mention are artists who are not strictly part of the experimental scene but whose uniqueness has enabled them to be appreciated by the same audiences including the South East London duo Fenco for whom the contrast of singer Becca’s striking, engaging voice and Paul F Cook’s mind-boggling guitar loops, skilled intricate playing and strong harmony vocals is matched by fine songwriting. Check out the track Summer Again.
Paul has also composed and recorded one of the most under-rated Contemporary Art & Ambient Music tracks of the year in Mater Gloria, a tribute to his recently departed mum which kicks off with the bells of what had been her local church and builds through evolving ambience and beautifully written and played classical guitar. Paul
has added to this element of his diverse repertoire recently and I am excited to see what he does next.
Another artist who has wowed audiences is our own FOTN moderator Kerry JK whose breathtaking Punk-Jazz piano skills, rangey vocals, dark humorous songs and story-telling mark him out as both a first class entertainer and a unique one too. Kerry is a one-off, part jazz, part music hall, part alternative arts. The best way to get the full picture is to experience his compelling live set but in the meantime you can listen to part of his performance at Vanishing Point’s August gig.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find all the above artists on Spotify but if you are a subscriber please do give this playlist a listen as an attempted summary.
The problem with an article like this is I could go on for untold pages picking out interesting artists but for now I should give honourable mentions to Brent Jackson, Hwyl Nofio, Half Hour at the Hilton (see Emerging from the Mist – Part 1), Jenni Roditi & TIC, Iain Armstrong, Guy Avern (whose superb album As I float away was released by my Demerara Records label in 2015 and can be heard on Bandcamp), Joshan Mahmud, Kevin Buckland, Andrew Ford and Fivrel (aka Jostein Fretland). Joshan and Fivrel have both recorded for Demerara Records too and Joshan is likely to do so again in the near future.
There are, of course, scores of others actively involved in the scene, many of whom I am yet to come across and it would be interesting to hear from people involved in experimental music and sound art across the rest of the UK too so feel free to post your comments under this article and point out artists and events I should be checking out and writing about in the future. And there are radio stations like NTS Live which has lots of shows covering different areas of leftfield and experimental music including the amazing Chloe Frieda’s Alien Jamz and Resonance FM which likewise has a range of niche shows including Late Junction’s Nick Luscombe and his Flomotion Saturday evening show focused on the progressive end of the electronic music spectrum.
BBC Radio 6 Music continues to provide great support thanks to Tom Robinson, Stuart Maconie, Mary Anne Hobbs, Nemone, Cerys Matthews et al. Late Junction (BBC Radio 3) is managed these days by Reduced Listening whose production team are excellent. Regular presenters Max Reinhardt, Verity Sharp and the aforementioned Nick Luscombe are all genuine champions of new music. It is one of my great hopes that another new music champion Elizabeth Alker will be allowed to bring back her fantastic Unclassified which occupied the currently vacant space (on national radio) where classical, electronic, ambient and related music converges. The show ran for six weeks earlier this year late on Sunday nights and Elizabeth curated, produced and presented it herself. Give her a production team to support her and make it permanent, BBC!
We are in a time when a lot more people seem to be looking around for music that sits outside the popular mainstream and offers some clue as to how our art will evolve in the years ahead. The vibrant experimental music and sound art scene is one of those both offering potential answers and benefitting from this wave of curiosity. It is a diverse and flexible scene that veers into Contemporary Classical, Jazz, World, Electronic and Alternative music spaces and soundscapes. It can only be good for music if interest in and support for the scene continues to grow (although I would say that of course!).