Switched On – XAM Duo: XAM Duo II (Sonic Cathedral)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

XAM Duo’s second album is a nifty half an hour. Christopher Duffin and Matthew Benn have been working on their second opus for nearly five years, and their efforts pay dividends as they arrive at a structure of six instrumentals that tell a story. Some are beat driven, others not – and all are part of an effort to write what the duo call ‘emotional computer music’.

Duffin has spoken of how the record ‘can be used in a functional way while setting out on your day, doing chores’ – and while it fulfils that function, XAM Duo II deserves more foreground listening for the reasons below.

What’s the music like?

Rather wonderful, and as Duffin hints, ideally structured for a single listen. From the off the colours achieved by the duo are warm and luxurious, with big synthesized textures you can dive into. The first track, the single Blue Comet, would work well as opening credits for a slightly retro TV series, with a probing melodic line. LGOC proves to be the ideal foil, creating a golden glow with its shimmering tones and high register saxophone.

The saxophone is a leading feature of the album, adding richness to the treble lines. Lifeguard At Mohang Beach is particularly attractive, holding still against the breaking waves, though the slight variations in pitch introduce a bit of uneasiness. Cold Stones has a wonderfully wide scope, with those fulsome sax tones above a cavernous drum sound. It is a majestic epilogue, a bigger structure that is beautifully scored.

Does it all work?

Yes – the rich colours are ideal for summer listening.

Is it recommended?

Definitely. If you have a weakness for the more melodic side of Warp Records’ output, to use an example, then XAM Duo will definitely do the job for you.

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Switched On – Conrad Schnitzler & Wolf Sequenza: Consequenz II (Bureau B)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Consequenz was a low-budget collaboration in 1980 between Conrad Schnitzler, once of Kluster and Eruption, and drummer Wolfgang Seidel, aka Wolf Sequenza. Its aim was to liberate music from elitist circles, and it set about this with a refreshing freedom. A sequel was commissioned and recorded in 1983/4, and Seidel takes up the story in the record’s press release:

“Certain ‘secret devices’ had materialized in our ivory tower in the meantime. Conrad Schnitzler had purchased an 8-track recorder with money he had earned from ‘proper’ art. I borrowed various bits of equipment from my band – Populäre Mechanik – including a drum computer, so we could really let rip. The little songs we made sounded much more ‘professional’ than the cheerfully low budget music of the first Consequenz. I’d taken days off work for the sessions and after a week we had enough material to fill one side of an LP.’

He continues. ‘All we needed now was music for the B-side, but our enthusiasm for the borrowed drum computer had waned somewhat. It was always the first track we recorded, which meant that everything else had to follow its lead. The beat itself was singularly unimpressed by what came next. This was an unsatisfactory state of affairs for two players (musicians?) who had begun with free improvisation, with either of the participants able to change the direction of the whole thing. Unsatisfactory, in spite of the fact that I was able to play to the beat with perfect timing, which led Conrad Schnitzler to give me the nickname “Sequenza” (hence the Consequenz title). The natural division of an LP into an A-side and a B-side lends itself to a caesura when the disc is flipped. So we decided to return to free-floating sounds on the B-side and, listening back now, I’m glad we did. Instead of competing with each other, the two sides dovetail perfectly.’

What’s the music like?

A fascinating listen to two musicians playing instinctively, Sequenza II has a fresh and incredibly modern sound. Its division into two sides is surprisingly effective too – side A has the sharp shooters, packed with riffs and incident aplenty, while side B is one track alone, Kastilien evolving over nearly 20 minutes into a work of impressive gravitas.

Before that we have Von Hand, firing on all cylinders, and the ping pong exchanges of Zack Zack. There is a friendly charm to a lot of this music, subtle humour coming through in the generation and exchange of ideas, with some regimented beats that speak of the time they were written. Hommage a Gaudi bucks the trend with its squiggly formations, Windmill operates with obscure riffing, while Erotik has a funky profile dancing around its regimented beat.

España won’t be to all tastes, with its coughed up refrains likely to panic in its Covid associations. Just as well, then, that Kastilien follows. By far the most challenging track on the album it is also one of the most liberating, its freedom expressed through increasingly restless and agile synthesizer music as its 20 minutes progress, dissolving in a wall of noise.

Does it all work?

Largely. You have to be in the right mood for Kastilien, but it works really well as a complement to the first side and its chopped up riffing, which proves to be highly enjoyable.

Is it recommended?

It is – and lovers of Krautrock or German electronic music from the 1970s will want to hear it for sure. Conrad Schnitzler continues to prove his worth more than a decade on from his sad passing, and in Wolfgang Seidel he has the ideal foil.

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Switched On – Roger Eno: The Turning Year (Deutsche Grammophon)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Roger Eno has been recording music for nearly 40 years. We first heard from him in the form of a shared credit with brother Brian and Daniel Lanois in their Apollo soundtrack, after which he wrote a series of albums for the revered All Saints Records, either in a solo capacity, in collaboration with the likes of Kate St John or Peter Hammill, or as part of ambient supergroup Channel Light Vessel.

Now he has moved to Deutsche Grammophon, Eno is taking the chance to assess some of his solo work while making new compositions too. He describes The Turning Year as, “A collection of short stories or photographs of individual scenes, each with its own character but somehow closely related to the other”. It is an album of observation, describing a natural cycle but also effectively documenting his own musical evolution. For example the oldest work, Stars and Wheels, is a solo organ piece of 20+ years, but was re-imagined for this album as Roger worked with producer Christian Badzura.

What’s the music like?

Eno is a consistent composer, and his brand of pastoral ambience is very easy on the ear but surprisingly difficult to imitate. The Turning Year captures his voice beautifully, unfolding at an easy pace. The creation of mood takes greater importance than that of melody, but the two nonetheless work closely together, with simple phrases that undergo development to produce music of subtly powerful feeling.

It is to Eno’s credit that he never crosses the line into sugary sentiment. Right from the start, the evocative A Place We Once Walked is attractively coloured and slightly wistful in its contemplation. The title track has a greater sense of purpose, while Bells is deeply personal, its slow piano revealing intimate thoughts and designs. On The Horizon is notable for a really nice clarinet colouring, while a slight chill lies in store on the autumnal Something Made Out Of Nothing.

Stars and Wheels is rather beautiful in its new clothing, panning out with some remote sounds that at the same time are extremely comforting, recreating the feeling Apollo gave of travelling slowly through deep space.

Does it all work?

Yes. Eno really flourishes in this company, and the scoring really does his keyboard-sourced music a good deal of favours.

Is it recommended?

It is. Although arguably Roger Eno’s best work remains in his earlier albums for All Saints, the move to Deutsche Grammophon has really given him the opportunity to blossom, a chance he is taking with both hands.

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There are several options for purchasing and streaming The Turning Year, which you can explore here

Switched On – Erland Cooper: Music for Growing Flowers (Mercury KX)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Once again the Tower of London has played host to a major project honouring Queen Elizabeth II. This one, entitled Superbloom, is an installation running from June to September. It is named after a rare phenomenon that occurs only once every few decades, where whole landscapes can become carpeted with flowers thanks to favourable weather and the activation of previously dormant seeds.

Twenty million seeds were sown at the Tower in spring, and are expected to flower through until September, with colours and patterns set to change each day as you would anticipate in the wild. Accompanying this gradual change will be the music of Erland Cooper, who releases the first ‘side’ of Music For Growing Flowers to coincide with the Jubilee itself. The second ‘side’ – and complete LP – will be released in August.

What’s the music like?

As everything above implies, the music is deeply ambient, thoughtful and incredibly restful. It is ideal when experienced either end of the day or in the middle of a particularly busy pattern of events, where it is most effective as it would be at the Tower, right in the middle of the City of London.

Set in a pure C major, it begins with warm drones that act as a supportive bed to the more primitive evocations of bloom, which evolve slowly but sure. When the third part of four is reached the flowering is depicted through warm cello (Clare O’Connell), bright violin (Daniel Pioro), sonorous harp (Olivia Jageurs) and otherworldly voice (Josephine Stephenson)

The last of the four parts hangs on the air beautifully, pinned on a pure harmony, and the cello line takes hold again, its breathy tones lovingly sculpted by O’Connell.

Does it all work?

Yes – Cooper has a gift for stopping time in even the busiest scenario, so do put this on when you’re at the busiest point of the day. I guarantee your wears and cares will be realigned!

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. A beautiful and timeless piece of music, providing surprisingly sharp perspective from its slow-moving ambience.

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There are several options for purchasing and streaming Music for Growing Flowers, which you can explore here

Switched On – Etienne Jaumet & Fabrizio Rat: Etienne Jaumet & Fabrizio Rat (Bureau B)

What’s the story?

This is a collaboration from two trained pianists who also look to electronic music and synthesizers for inspiration. As the press release describes, Etienne Jaumet creates unusual sounds thanks to the rhythmic machines that accompany his piano, while Fabrizio Rat uses this classical and romantic instrument par excellence to explore the techno sphere.

What’s the music like?

There are seven intriguing tracks here, and they work as studies into the piano’s ability to create colours and tones well beyond its original design. The electronics complement the overall sound but are always in thrall to the main act, and while melodic interest is often at a premium, both musicians use what they have with impressive economy.

After a few listens those melodic cells start to plant earworms, while the different tones reveal more piano originated tones than first thought. Visione Pop, for instance, makes clever use of the higher keys as percussion, with burbling electronics providing the effective minimal riffs. Transmutazione also goes higher up the register, with a metallic timbre shifting over a constant pitch towards the lower end, but the ominous Rive Opposte, the opening track, uses the lowest end of the piano in a hollow study.

Soffiare Insieme is a longer piece, a really effective study in colour and texture that hypnotises through its regular patterns of contraction. In contrast Profondità uses the midrange piano notes like meteor trails, with a clever use of reverberation and a curious whirring in the foreground that sounds like the occasional winding of a clock.

Does it all work?

It does. The music has a darker shade to it but Jaumet and Rat clearly had a meeting of minds in the project, and the results are never less than intriguing.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Followers of both musicians will want to acquire what turns out to be an engaging and stimulating collaboration.

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