Back in February 2011 I was introduced to the label Striate Cortex by Neil Campbell of Astral Social Club. He gave me a copy of a double CD-r compilation he was on called “The Trees Are All Blocking The Forest“. My head was turned both by the high quality of the music it contained and by the hand-made packaging that contained it. My mind boggled at the idea that some guy had made a hundred of these boxes, had given away most of them to contributors and was selling the remainder for what seemed to be a comically low price.
Intrigued, I had a look at the label’s website, which had a lo-fi, mid-90s, geocities feel to it and has now been replaced with a WordPress blog, and made a few enquiries. Striate Cortex is Andy Robinson of Grimsby, UK. A few years ago he discovered experimental music, in particular drone and kitchen-sink improv, and with the zealous fervour of the newly converted decided to start a label. He was aided in this by Sindre Bjerga, prolific and ubiquitous presence in the no-audience underground, who features heavily in the early catalog. His releases are all on CD-r, in editions of 50 to 100 and are wrapped up in a variety of striking ways. Now, some readers will have heard me huffing about the pointlessness of elaborate packaging in the past and will be wondering why I’ve gone soft on this lot. Well, none of this feels excessive – it just exhibits the refreshing care and attention of a respectful enthusiast. It helps that the music is uniformly excellent too.
We entered into a correspondence and my growing familiarity with his catalogue led to Striate Cortex being awarded the coveted Zellaby award for “label of the year” in my round-up of 2011. Shortly before the award season I finally met Andy face to face at a gig in Leeds headlined by the aforementioned Sindre Bjerga and the irrepressible Andrew Perry. In the flesh Andy was thoughtfully enthusiastic, quiet without being at all reticent. I was impressed. We did all that “thank you”, “no, thank you” business then I asked the obvious questions: “do you make all that lovely packaging yourself? Don’t you have a squad of elves to help?” and as he answered “yes, no” . I stood there marveling, once more, at his dedication to the cause. In a later email exchange I insisted on sending him a freebie Truant CD-r (an archive recording of a project featuring me, Michael Clough of PRP Group and Phil Todd of Ashtray Navigations) after he expressed some daft desire to pay for it. He said “but I’d like to contribute something.” “Dude,” I reminded him, “you do nothing but contribute.”
Various Artists – The Trees Are All Blocking The Forest
The aforementioned hand-made cardboard box, lined and sealed with a little Velcro button, houses a full colour double-sided insert on which are mounted two cdrs decorated with full colour printing. Also included is a separate insert which gives details of the artists and track titles. The set comprises six lengthy pieces, three per cdr, and will occupy the best part of two and a half hours of your time.
The music is mostly high-end drone, contemplative and enveloping, though a couple of tracks border on noise and contain enough changes of tone and pace to cause you to puff agitatedly on your pipe, reverie shaken. Leaving aside Astral Social Club’s inflation of Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” to twenty minutes of euphoric grind, the highlights are tracks by Max Bellancourt and Wereju. The former is as icy, beautiful and austere as a frozen lake. The latter has the cool, animal menace of a fox padding across that lake with a still twitching hen clamped firmly in its teeth.
Small Things On Sundays - Mass | Flux
I realize that to describe a piece of ambient electronics as “atmospheric” is about as informative as saying a plate of food is “tasty” but these tracks do have a certain climate to them. We hear models of complex systems, elements overlapping and feeding back. Patterns emerge, but as to why – well, the dataset is intriguing but the findings prove inconclusive. Only one of the five lengthy tracks proves predictable but even that one – the set closing “Floating In Space” – is an excellent example of the synth-wash epic an ex-girlfriend of mine christened “wob wob music.”
Orphax – A Room With A View
A full size plastic CD wallet contains a liner of apparently hand-made paper, a window in which reveals a glossy photo of a handsome moth. The music, a single track of about 20 minutes duration, is contained on a 3″ CD-r which comes nestled in its own wallet within.
The room in question appears to be the cockpit of a spacecraft shaped, for reasons too complicated to get into here, exactly like the moth on the cover. The view, at first, is the hanger where we hear it fuelled, prepared and launched at which point the view becomes the frigid nothingness of space. Once safely away, the pilot settles down to watch a video of a man leaving his family house and trudging up a hillside path. The pilot cracks its equivalent of a grin then busies itself with the process of landing. The view is now of sparks and the growing orb below. The sound is of the moth-ship manoeuvring in the heat of the thickening atmosphere. We land on the hillside that we saw on the video. The sound of crickets from outside can now be heard, slightly filtered, in the cockpit. The pilot issues a command which sounds unnervingly like the mewling of a domestic cat and a hatch opens. Some distance ahead the man from the video looks nervously over his shoulder…
Orphax – A Room With A View (Edit) (right click + save as)
And listen more here.
Joinedbywire – 48 Space Platform
What we have here is a 50 minute(ish), 6 track, CD-r housed in a digipack covered with what looks like hand-made yellow paper and spattered with red and green ink. It looks like a section of the floor of Mos Eisley Cantina following a violent argument between two species of clientele.
The set comprises several long tracks of drone and noise interspersed with short tracks of hiss and fizz. The opener is formed of several movements, each of which mutates from the previous. Some of these mutations are sudden and alarming – new limbs sprout fully formed and immediately lean their elbows on the keyboard – but this isn’t just a bunch of sketches cobbled together. Patience reveals a satisfying and surprising whole. The short tracks are little shards of broken mirror, reflecting a cloudless sky. The final track is the best as it builds to a glorious, cathartic roar, like dragons mourning the death of one of their number with the fire-breathing equivalent of a 21 gun salute.
Should you wish for musical comparisons, some of Astral Social Club might be near the mark and the first track isn’t a million miles away from the Eyeballs stuff I raved about elsewhere on RFM. The final two tracks call to mind the “lost generation” post rock of bands like Seefeel, and there is an achingly melancholic synth line that, dare I say it, evokes the Aphex Twin of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, albeit cruelly eroded and awash with static and distortion. In case you were still wondering: this is high praise.
Pink Desert - Recorded By Friends At Three Speeds
Clocking that I dug their track on the recent Concentric Spaces Vol.2 compilation Andy kindly passed on this full length album. Commenting on the comp track I praised its ‘subtle force’ and ‘elegant coherence’ and declared it to be ‘a lesson in discipline and structure’ for those working with long form drones. I’m happy to report that these qualities remain present in abundance and undiluted at a running time of 45 minutes.
Well, I say “drones” but that isn’t entirely accurate. There is very little fuzz; no comforting harmonic blanket to suck your thumb under. There is also little in the way of groove. Aside from one elongated cymbal crash and a few echoing snaps percussive noise is entirely absent. Leaving these easy ways of engaging our attention to one side, Pink Desert present us with some serious, focused electronics constructed with the sense-sharpening clarity of a frosty morning in the Dales.
This precision is not academic, however, nor is it politely “new age”. These tracks shimmer with a low-key but efficiently realised emotional resonance and Pink Desert are happy to let it drift into the red if appropriate, as on stand out track “For Dorothy”. Looking for something to put on after having listened to this I have, more than once, shrugged my shoulders and just pressed “play” again – it is an album that both demands and repays your attention.
Pink Desert – For Dorothy (Edit) (right click + save as)
Plurals – Six Eyes
The album comprises two tracks, “Replica Universe” and “You Are Horses” – both around the 20 minute mark, and is one of the most striking things I heard in 2011.
The “build” that is constructed in the first ten minutes of “Replica Universe” is terrific: a mournful wind instrument (clarinet? I dunno, could be way off) heralds a gathering swarm of drones. Underneath, a slow marching riff (which I might be partly imagining) drives things forward towards some grisly inevitability and above are curious percussive knocks and some spacey, gruff electronic trilling and squiggling. The wind instrument returns to honk the riff over a nodding-out-Todd guitar doing the same at half speed, the drones empty out and a swaying groove takes us up out of the clouds into a pink-orange dawn sky. Magnificent.
“You Are Horses” is perhaps a little more straightforward but no less impressive. The sound palette is similar, the pace is magisterial, the mood mysterious, the atmosphere allowed to coalesce in its own time. Here you are sitting outside a bar in the souk, again it is very early – or very late depending on how you look at it – and you are drinking sweet, syrupy coffee in an attempt to stave off the worst effects of insomniac exhaustion. Will the “contact” arrive at the designated time? Have the code words been changed since your source smuggled out the last set? The bar owner is on the ‘phone and keeps looking nervously in your direction…
Plurals – You Are Horses (Edit) (right click + save as)
Star Turbine – Equilibrium
To finish, Andy’s first release of 2012. Take note everyone: Striate Cortex has not only set the bar ridiculously high but also nonchalantly hopped over it whilst the rest of us were taking off our tracksuits.
A square, black presentation box – the sort of thing a piece of jewellery might come packaged in – encircled with a sash bearing the title and name of the band. Sliding this off and removing the lid (decorated inside with gold marbled paper) reveals a square of fluff. This secures two mini-CDrs decorated with inky abstractions and housed within their own dinky black paper wallets. There are also three card inserts decorated with similar patterns on one side and the details of the release on the other. It is a remarkable object. I opened it gingerly, with a slack-jawed sense of wonder, knowing that Andy constructed each of these packages himself. All one hundred of them. Fortunately, the care, attention to detail and beauty evident in the packaging is justified by the music.
Star Turbine is a long-distance collaboration between Sindre Bjerga and similarly busy multi-instrumentalist Claus Poulsen. The first of the two discs contains five shortish tracks of droning atmospherics augmented by guitarish scrapes and found sounds dropped in, looped and left to abrade each other. Whilst neither dubby nor minimal, these tracks contain a convincing evocation of space. Whether this is abyssal blackness or infinite sky depends, I guess, on the mood of the listener.
The second disc contains two long tracks that explore similar territory but do so in a darker, more circumspect way. The emptiness remains but the agoraphobia is pitched a little higher in the mix. Could that hissing sound be a leak in your spacesuit? As with many of Andy’s releases, the compelling depth and mystery of this music is revealed on repeat listens. It stands up to scrutiny, in fact it benefits from it.
The track titles invoke science terminology – ‘wave detector’, ‘molecular cluster’ etc. – in the same way that early techno used to do: to add a futuristic sheen rather than to refer to anything concrete. I suspect this is knowingly tongue-in-cheek as the game is given away both by the title of the track “Chromatic Underwear (Polyatomic Molecules)” and by the burst of muted “Jupiter Jazz” style joy-synth that makes a surprise appearance at its conclusion.
Whilst the track titles can be put to one side, the concept of ‘equilibrium’ has more interesting structural consequences. This is not equilibrium in the sense of the solid-state, unchanging drones championed by, say, the underrated band midwich. This is equilibrium maintained by the delicate balancing of competing forces, made possible by a combination of seemingly coincidental factors, the removal of any one of which would send the marbles crashing down like a game of cosmic Kerplunk. There are various “quantity theory” games that can be played by combining the elements of this release: are the two discs in equilibrium? The tracks on each disc? Each track within itself? Over the whole track length or does every moment have its own balance? It is an enormously impressive act, like a snail crawling up the blade of a knife…
Listen to that here.