62. HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)

HOWLING BELLS – HOWLING BELLS (2006)
It’s been widely accepted for some time now that “indie” has become a completely meaningless term, yet still the notion and concept persist.
Leaving aside the factual definition of a small record company’s business model and distribution method, the idea of indie-as-genre first evolved from Stiff, Factory, Step Forward and unnumbered others taking the practical step of recording, financing and distributing their own music to maintain it on their own terms and to pre-empt likely, though by no means inevitable, rejection by the majors of sounds that were in the main untutored and untroubled by anxiety over chart placings  or courting the approval of a music establishment that was even sleazier and more putrid than had been apparent at the time.
At this point, the sound of indie labels was a loose, labyrynthine but endlessly rewarding aggregation of punk, electronics, R & B (another term to have since mutated beyond recognition), funk and myriad other items tipped into the soup.
Sometime around 1985, the definition was put on a far tighter rein – mirroring the retreat of the best mainstream pop from loose-limbed adventurism to lumpen, profit-chasing garishness – and indie came to mean guitar-based music in thrall to either the Byrds and post-Cale Velvet Underground on one hand or Captain Beefheart on the other. The former definition became preeminent and solidified at the end of the decade with the precipitous rise of the preposterously overrated Stone Roses, a good band – nothing more, nothing less – completely unequal to the ludicrous hosannas  made on their behalf.
With the arrival of those who haplessly aped the even more overestimated Oasis, what had previously set this music apart from the mainstream – adventure, openness, empathy, quest – had been whittled down to a proscribed set of approved sounds and postures which resulted in utterly unremarkable music and which  came to be known by the 21st century as landfill indie, though I crave the indulgence of offering my own coinage –  I called it Gumby indie, as its oafish grunting unavoidably reminded me of the same in the Monty Python creations.
By the middle of the millennium’ first decade, Arctic Monkeys were perceived as the stationery-shovers but while they were several cuts above the sludge, owing in no small part to Alex Turner’s lyrical dexterity, they still weren’t quite what was needed. Around the same time, the saviours indie didn’t know it had quietly appeared – from Sydney, Howling Bells.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why they grabbed hold of the essence of this music when so many others hadn’t even come close. It’s an indefinable quality- there may once have been a time when I’d have felt able to call it the X factor without blanching – but it involves things like style, panache, a sense of dynamics and, quite simply, a strong feel for songwriting and melody. The absence of these things isn’t necessarily a problem in itself – some of the greatest music ever made has had little tune to speak of – but if you’re just going to make a noise, you’d better have some substance to it and the sheer gormlessness of so much of what was peddled meant it held so few surprises and made so few demands on the listener that it barely seemed to exist.
And so Howling Bells and their dense, layered sound – which supports the songs rather than hanging around on its own – slotted briefly but perfectly into the formidable roster of Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union for their first album. The cover art reflects what lies inside – an illustration of an owl in a tree being pursued, with nefarious intent, from a ladder; it’s such an authentic French-and-American-revolution period pastiche that I was surprised to discover it was actually commissioned for the album and, similarly, Howling Bells grapple so skilfully with their largely ’80s/early ’90s influences that it seems of a piece with them, while still being unmistakably 21st century.
Take opener The Bell Hit, which has an almost stage musical feel, a doleful intro (curiously reminiscent of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days – or, if you prefer, Dorogoi Dlinnoyu, the Russian folk song it’s based on) giving way to a jazzy sashay which could support an unwelcome singalong in the wrong circumstances but, left to its own devices, casts a sunburst into the sorrowfil refrain “Promises are empty in a world of empty bliss.”
There’s palpable contrast in Low Happening – the first of the album’s four singles- where two of the more obvious Howling forebears, Pixies and PJ Harvey, swerve around each other in brilliant discord on the album’s most blatantly abrasive moment. It’s run close, though, by Blessed Night, where Juanita Stein sets out what resembles an abridged version of the non-credo of John Lennon’s God but still grasps for something, or someone, to take her belief to (“Don’t believe in the stories I hear/Don’t believe in the things you fear/Give me strength/Give me time/Give me you, now”) against a simple but inescapable Spanish/Moorish guitar figure from her brother, Joel, and Glenn Moule’s drum pattern spelling out a dire warning.


The nocturnal theme recurs on The Night Is Young,  where Juanita darts in a breath from desolate (“When I needed you to stay/Drove your car the other way”) to defiant – with a nifty mixed metaphor for good measure (“Oh,me – don’t you worry about me/Got a pocket full of wisdom up my sleeve) in one of the most expressive and affecting voices of recent times. She doesn’t quite sound Australian but neither does she sound Pom and definitely not faux-American; she sings in a human accent, with no need for subtitles.
Setting Sun, the first toll of the Bells I ever heard, is the most markedly commercial song here but still retains oddness in a rhythm that piledrives even as it’s hushed, a solo from Joel which as uncomplicated as the one on Buzzcocks’ Boredom yet still yields up subtletly, and Juanita capturing the frustration of running out of time while being resigned to it happening: “One more day’s not enough to change the world/But we’ll rise and fall beside the setting sun.” There’s probably a mathematical formula that can unravel why this wasn’t a hit; maybe there’s a generous prize on offer for another formula to make it the hit it’s not too late for it to be.
Four albums in now, that hit continues to elude Howling Bells but the definition of what makes a hit is narrower and more predictable than it’s ever been. The web-driven collapse of the conventional music industry should have cleared the way for uninhibited adventure but conservatism still holds sway. Howling Bells may not be avant-garde but they’re vastly inventive and stand as a reminder of what’s still possible, as well as the solar system of difference in music between being ambitious and having ambition. Howling Bells, like much indie worthy of the name – and like the best of any genre – are ambitious; Gumby indie merely has ambition, for sales, for ever-vaster venues, for heavy rotation – for tedium. Hear Howling Bells – hear the difference (PG).

61. JUDY HENSKE & JERRY YESTER – FAREWELL ALDEBARAN (1969)

imageI was never much of a Zappa fan – for me, ‘Freak Out’ was as good as it got – but I must give Frank some credit for overseeing the formation of Straight Records. It’s small catalogue of only 16 albums and a handful of 45s is amongst the most wildly eclectic distributed by any record label. Initially, Zappa envisaged Straight as an outlet for more mainstream artists, allowing it’s partner label Bizarre to focus on experimental/oddball LPs by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Wild Man Fischer and Frank himself. But somewhere along the line the script got mixed up. That the likes of ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and Tim Buckley’s ‘Starsailor’ ended up on Straight and not on Bizarre, seems to indicate that, despite honourable intentions, there was no distinguishable musical demarcation between the labels. It is nigh on impossible to imagine two LPs more audaciously ‘off the wall’ than those two.

Which brings us to Jerry Yester and Judy Henske’s ‘Farewell Aldebaran’, released on June 16th 1969, the same day as Beefheart’s magnum opus ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (catalogue numbers STS-1052 and STS-1053 respectively). The latter, regarded by many as the greatest and most adventurous album in rock history, has a far more enduring legacy than it’s comparatively neglected twin. In its own way however, ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ is as peculiarly eccentric: it is a brave record, not at all easy to fall in love with, and yet an utterly unique and compelling listen from start to finish. It is not strange in the same way that TMR is ‘strange’. TMR, if it sounds wholly impenetrable to some, has a singular vision which might defy easy categorisation, but it’s mixture of free jazz, wild delta blues and ecological concerns gives it a recognisable thematic unity. Not so ‘Aldebaran’, which has an insatiable eclecticism that makes it in many ways an even more challenging listen. It has oft been likened to one of those old record label sampler compilations – ten bands, ten very different sounds – but while this is a convenient analogy to draw, it is a little off the mark. It isn’t ten bands, just Jerry, Judy and a small host of guest musician friends. And if the album has an identity crisis, there are still patterns and motifs which lend it it’s own distinctive aura.

‘Snowblind’, a creeping bluesy howler with a fizzing lead guitar, finds Henske returning from the wilderness years of cabaret performance, wailing her heart out like Janis Joplin with some obliquely gothic lyrics: [‘Fallbrook Sedgewynd gave to Nancy/ringnecks for her coachmen’s fancy/Eggs and emeralds, shocking garters/Devilled prunes to stop and start her/Nancy gave to Fallbrook Sedgewynd/neither nods nor time of day/Love is nasty, love is so blind/Love shall make us all go snowblind.’] Upon closer inspection, it could be a proto-glam stomp, and stands in stark contrast to ‘Horses On A Stick’, a slice of pure bubblegum sunshine pop, reminiscent of The Association (Yester had produced some of their albums) or The Turtles.

After that schizophrenic pairing there are a few songs which are closer cousins, featuring both harpsichord and a theatrical vocal performance from Henske. ‘Lullaby’, sung beautifully in a vulnerable quiver, is a darkly melodramatic way to sing one’s child to sleep [‘The end of the world is a windy place/Where the eagle builds her nest of lace/I rock you asleep in the cradle of end/Listen, baby, to the wind’], while Judy’s instinctive comedic impulse gets an airing on ‘St. Nicholas Hall’. Over some bizarre background overdubs, her vocal reaches a near hysterical crescendo during this fiercely satirical attack on the Church [‘Blessed are the pure in heart
(We need a new organ by June)
Blessed are the merciful
(The old one’s badly out of tune)
Blessed are the peacemakers
(Please send us the money soon)
Sincerely yours in Jesus/Your Dean’
]

Vocal duties are shared on ‘Three Ravens’, one of two gorgeous psych-baroque outings telling tales of knights and maidens and featuring a string arrangement worthy of his friend, the late Curt Boettcher (Sagittarius, The Millenium). It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Left Banke album or even The Zombies genre-defining ‘Odessey & Oracle’. The final coda is sublime making it truly a song to treasure. The other, ‘Charity’, is glorious – it’s folksy guitar might recall once again The Association (specifically their ‘Goodbye Columbus’ soundtrack), but it’s orgiastic organ-driven ending is a masterstroke.

The lengthiest track on the album, ‘Raider’, is the strangest of brews, featuring bow banjo and fiddle, both unceremoniously knocked askew by a clunking harpsichord – if one can imagine a buoyant bluegrass version of the theme for The Ipcress File – a toe tapping knee-slapping classic with great harmonising at the finale. It’s followed by the album’s one weak point – the hazy jazz inflections of ‘Mrs. Connor’ mean it’s the only moment that feels contrived here. The rest of the album if stylistically disparate, manages somehow to feel remarkably organic.

Judy’s strident matronly vocal returns on ‘Rapture’ which once again is unashamedly poetic
[‘Lovers who lie/beneath the night sky/neither speak nor hear/in the perfect stillness/She is near/Her voice in the heart’s blood comes roaring/In rapture they die’] It features a wheezing harmonica and introduces  some Moog (but understated, cunningly rehearsing it’s centre-stage performance on the closing title track), all embellished by strange echo-layered vocal overdubs not entirely dissimilar to engineer Herb Cohen’s work on the aforementioned ‘Starsailor’.

Perhaps producing albums such as ‘Happy Sad’ by a star dancer such as Tim Buckley had opened up new vistas for Yester. The curtain comes down with the staggeringly ambitious title track, where he leaves his Lovin’ Spoonful days for dead with what is undoubtedly one of the very strangest songs of the 1960s. [‘See, she is descending now/Starting the slide/The comets cling to her/The fiery bride/She is the mother of/The mark and the prize/The glaze of paradise/is in her eyes/Her mouth is torn with stars/and brushed with wings/She cannot call to us/She does not sing.’] It’s so ‘out there’, at times I find it near excruciating – a mindbending space Moog prog monstrosity. When those Dalek vocal treatments gatecrash the party you’ll know what I mean. But for all it’s crazed nonsense, on most days I love it to bits. It’s the one moment on the album where Yester sounds possessed. Now there were stars – or perhaps asteroids – in his eyes.

I first read about ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ in Strange Things Are Happening, a brilliantly niche retro rock magazine active (pre-Mojo) between 1988-90. One issue contained a feature on Straight Records. I was intrigued, but tracking down the album proved elusive until I hit the jackpot at a record fair in 1993. At the same event I acquired two other Straight releases, Tim Dawe’s ‘Penrod’ and Jeff Simmons’ ‘Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up’. Collectively, this set me back about £50, a costly business, particularly as ‘Aldebaran’ was the only one of the three with which I was in any way smitten. I’ve long since parted company with the other two, but the music on ‘Farewell Aldebaran’ was different, bursting with ideas, brazenly ambitious, rich in gothic poetry, subtly sublime one moment and hysterically overbearing the next. It had one foot in the past and one in the future, and was maddeningly difficult to pin down…the kind of album you make your own, because you know no-one else is listening. Every collection – yours included – needs a few of those. (JJ)

60. CLUSTER – ZUCKERZEIT (1974)

clusterThe subconscious mind is a powerful entity. When I listen to ‘Hollywood’ the opening track on Cluster’s ‘Zuckerzeit’ LP, I can envisage it serving as a fitting theme tune for the BBC TV series ‘Tomorrow’s World’, studio presenter Raymond Baxter enthusiastically leaning over Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, to point out the latest technical features of their electronic equipment with his trusty Parker pen. I am then reminded that this ‘vision’ was actualised by Kraftwerk on TW in 1975. I have little recollection of their appearance on the programme. I suspect it must be a vague memory buried deep inside my subconscious since childhood. Nevertheless, one can only imagine how far ahead of its time ‘Hollywood’, might have sounded in 1974. While it’s synthetic drum patterns deliver an irregular asthmatic beat (like Mylar punctured with a razor), those synth lines begin discretely, buried low in the mix, suddenly springing to life in darting oscillating arcs of sound – like aliens weeping. If it is one of Krautrock’s most perfectly realised moments, ‘Zuckerzeit’ as a whole is one of the genre’s least typical albums. Perhaps rather, it is the sound of aliens laughing.

There was often a gravitas about German rock music in the early 1970s. There were many reasons for this (for a greater insight, I would recommend David Stubbs’ brilliant ‘Future Days’ book). The ‘songs’ said nothing, their wordlessness articulated everything that needed to be said, or perhaps left unsaid. ‘Krautrock’ bands were reaching into the future to escape an unspeakable past. If 1968 was German rock’s Year Zero, it set in motion a revolutionary explosion of music which in the UK and US, at least initially, was often misunderstood, even lumped in with the progressive rock bands of the era. One of the distinguishing musical features of Krautrock, what set it apart from the UK/US rock tradition was the lack of conventional storytelling in the lyrics (if there were lyrics at all). Characterised by a patient repetitive minimalism, most bands eschewed any trace of blues and traditional rock’n’roll, far less the climactic guitar solo. While often rhythmic and sometimes danceable, there was nothing to resemble the ‘drop’ used today by contemporary DJs to ignite a club audience. A new Germany required a new musical language, and not through imitating American and British archetypes. As regards Moebius and Roedelius, the only concession to things ‘Western’ was the anglicisation of their name (Kluster became Cluster). But on ‘Zuckerzeit’, sandwiched between the two albums they made with Neu!’s Michael Rother [as Harmonia], they broke the mould completely.

There’s a clue in the title of course. ‘Zuckerzeit’ translated from German means ‘Sugar Time’. The sleeve too, with the title emblazoned in garish bubblegum neon, hints at a prankish spirit. The late Dieter Moebius in particular seemed to embrace this newfound playfulness. There is an air of mischievousness to his compositions. ‘Caramel’ has an effervescent circular bounce and frolicsome theremin-style synth noodling, while on ‘Rote Riki’ we could be hearing some other BBC TV characters (this time The Clangers) hard at work in an iron foundry or some wheezing radioactive industrial plant. ‘Caramba’ has the sort of twang and clang that could be construed as Moebius’ electronic reproduction of the sound of Duane Eddy tuning his broken Gretsch, while ‘Rotor’ sounds like his attempt to create music for primitive computer arcade games.

It is interesting to note that despite what sounds like an almost telepathic musical binary on the album, Moebius and Roedelius actually recorded their tracks in separate rooms in the recording studio. Roedelius’ tracks have a deftness and lightness of touch that suggest he was rather more accommodating of Rother’s influence – but this yielded some extraordinary results. ‘Marzipan’ is the antithesis of ‘Hollywood’ – we could be in a tropical garden or an aviary – while he carves out similar territory on ‘Rosa’ and ‘Fotschi Tong’ which, while more conventional, are incredibly evocative of time and place. ‘Rosa’ in particular reminds me of Boards of Canada (possibly something like Zoetrope) demonstrating that Roedelius has been as much an influence on the music of the Sandison brothers as anyone else. Eno too, would lift some of these sounds for the following year’s ‘Another Green World’. Rother’s influence is clearest on the irresistibly elastic closer ‘Heiße Lippen’ (Hot Lips). Clocking in at a mere 2:22, it’s wonderfully infectious Motorik rhythm and breezy minimalist keyboard line, has one reaching immediately to return the needle to the beginning.

‘Zuckerzeit’ represented a change of direction for Cluster. It sounds as if the doors to a nursery crammed full of toys had been thrown open to 5-year old boys. Until then, their music had been like much of Krautrock, a disorientating kosmische exploration, spacious, proto-ambient, experimental. ‘Zuckerzeit’ trims the fat: while as pioneering as their earlier work, it finds Moebius, Roedelius and producer Conny Plank mastering a new electronic language, and with this little packet of sonic Spangles, having lots of fun along the way. (JJ)

59. EMPIRES AND DANCE – SIMPLE MINDS (1980)

EMPIRES AND DANCE – SIMPLE MINDS (1980)
Life on the road. Life in a band. By the mid-1970s these had become among the most prevalent tropes in rock music and the ones which demonstrated how remote and detached those making the music had become from their audience. Following the well-worn advice “write about what you know,” many were unable to see beyond the satin and denim-lined cocoon they now inhabited, often a world away from where they had started; understandably, many had no wish to go back there but those places were still inhabited by the majority who hadn’t got the break and whose daily lot remained heavy industry, characterless – literally and metaphorically – offices, or no employment at all.
The bands radiated indifference. All that they knew of, or cared about, was our majesty the road (for the first and last time ever, thank you Ted Nugent), its myriad temptations and The Business. And so we got ELP writing a song about their engineer; we got Grand Funk Railroad promising/threatening Good Singin’ Good Playin’ in an unsurpassably awful album title; and, in an unsurpassably awful title and cover, we got Mud  and their limo in the centre of an LS Lowry pastiche, cruising smugly past the suffocating factory gates and the downtrodden matchstalk masses pouring from them, in the service of an album entitled It’s Better Than Working!!!! (first exclamation mark theirs, the rest mine).
And this travel had no discernible impact on the bands or their music. Venue, hotel, venue, hotel, and possibly a couple of other unsavoury locations, in interchangeable towns, countries  continents. Not so in the case of Simple Minds. Emerging from Glasgow at a time when many of its citizens’ attainable horizons still stretched little beyond London, and from the far from prosperous area of Toryglen touring was, however banal it might sound, a real opportunity for Simple Minds – a chance for escape, not cruisin’ down the highway with the wind in yo’ hair but looking, observing, exploring other cultures which were unknown and, unless you actually went there, unknowable.
After two hesitant but ambitious albums which underperformed commercially, the crossroads they were reaching was not one Robert Johnson ever had in mind but was one which had everything to do with the mean, miserable music business they were magnificently failing to sing about. So touring Europe informed practically all of their third album, Empires And Dance, not from the point of view of a jaded, complacent rock ‘n’ roll band but detached observers of a continent where the divisions imposed 35 years earlier would start to dissolve before the 1980s were out but which, for now, were as rigid and impregnable as they had ever been.
It opens thrillingly with I Travel, where the first-person pronoun seems to mean not self-absorption but simply “I travel and wouldn’t have seen and learned what I have otherwise.” The obvious influences of Bowie, Kraftwerk and Joy Division are corralled into an unopposeable dance beat of the kind Giorgo Moroder set running alongside Donna Summer and Sparks. By this stage, the majority of the people who mattered most knew disco did not suck and Simple Minds produced, with respect to the Average White Band, the greatest dance song to have come out of Scotland at this point – and, bar the Sensational Alex Harvey Band’s cover of Jacques Brel’s Next,  one of the first tartan toe-tappers to look east rather than west for inspiration.
Along with Celebrate, which followed it as a single, I Travel saw them probing the dance path that New Order would take a year later. In fact, Simple Minds’ role as navvies for the dance of the late ’80s and the ’90s is often underestimated – this despite the later adoption of their vast 1981 instrumental Theme For Great Cities as a Balearic anthem and the sampling of New Gold Dream on Usura’s Open Your Mind (which was also blatantly – though no one’s ever seemed to notice – pilfered by the Charlatans for The Only One I Know).
Today I Died Again (we’d already had The Man Who Dies Every Day from Ultravox and Every Day I Die from Tubeway Army – pattern?) has a clear echo of My Tulpa by avowed influence  Magazine but, in place of the panic Paul Morley correctly identified as permeating Magazine’s Real Life album, there’s a weight of melancholy and the deeply evocative line “The clothes he wears date back to the war,” which acknowledges that, while Simple Minds were part of a generation looking unblinkingly, if not always enthusiastically, to the future, many of those who lived through one or both of the world wars had hardly seen their circumstances change – not while others had never had it so good, not while others were swinging, not ever.


Panic is in abundance – along with tension and foreboding – on the staggering This Fear Of Gods, which I believe still stands as Simple Minds’ greatest song. The rhythm is supple, the pace brisk but this is about the empires, not the dance. I always picture it as the soundtrack to a long drive in the dead of night to an undisclosed location which may never be reached – the discordant sax, a sinister three-note figure  recurring like a hovering shadow and Jim Kerr’s increasingly anxious and breathless exhortation “faster,faster” all conspire in a hymn to horror.
Over on side two (without meaning to sound flippant, the walls on albums also came down at the end of the ’80s) Capital City’s perpetual Kraftwerk-engineered motion arises as much from Radioactivity’s glide down the dial as from the more obvious source of Trans-Europe Express, Constantinople Line progresses in fits and starts in a way you’d hope the Orient Express never does, while its incantation of “These stations we love them/Newspaper, encounter, confusion” evokes the disorientation of cross border-travel and again positions Simple Minds not as a band on tour but a band of tourists. Room, strange in its brevity (two and a half minutes), stranger still in its puttering rhythm box, its low-key web of colliding melodies and its unsettling lyric (“The razor’s song…I only live here, a fragile man”) brings it all to a splendidly perplexing conclusion.
You may have noticed that I’ve made no mention of what later became of Simple Minds – the sharp descent into hollow, clodhopping stadium catnip which reaped enormous commercial rewards but was utterly bereft of the guile and legerdemain which had previously made them so enticing. No one has ever fallen so far, so fast but I don’t believe it’s strictly relevant here – it’s true that once you’re exposed to something like Alive And Kicking or the ghastly Let There Be Love, they can’t be unheard but at the time of Empires And Dance, they no more existed than  Little Fockers did at the time of Taxi Driver.
It’s tempting but fairly futile to speculate on where Simple Minds might have gone if they’d continued on their initial trajectory but for some indication, I refer you to Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. It’s entirely different in its construction to Simple Minds at their prelapsarian peak, owing to leader Mark Hollis’ visceral aversion to synthesisers, but is identical in its scope, ambition and texture. Empires And Dance, meanwhile, was a moment where the future was simultaneously confronted and embraced – never fled from or shunned (PG).

58. MICHAEL JON FINK – I HEAR IT IN THE RAIN (2001) – Guest Contributor: Alasdair MacLean (The Clientele)

I sometimes dream I’ve been given a chance to make a feature film. It’s a free-form adaptation of the children’s book ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper, nothing like the horrible Hollywood treatment it got in 2007. Maybe the film will run for days – maybe it will adapt only one image or element in the story and be over in minutes, but the opening credits always show a bus in South London, early winter, grinding to a halt at a terminus. The shadows between the bus and the wall, the movement of birds on the trees, briefly form the outline of a face, something gliding, fugitive, almost unnoticed, through the world. The whole point of representing ‘the dark’ –the supernatural, shapeshifting force described in the book- would be to depict it as a part of other, everyday things. Something briefly glimpsed in the corner of the eye in a shopping mall, rather than an obvious phantasm.

Michael Jon Fink’s ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ is always the soundtrack to this film. The ninth track, ‘Living to be Hunted by the Moon’ would play as the camera panned to a wall of trees at the edge of a field, fog slowly gathering and moving outwards over nineteen long minutes to besiege a house. ‘Echo’, the fourth: the movement of undulating river water as lost objects slip away under the waves. I still see these scenes when I listen to the record. Maybe they come from the record itself.

‘I Hear it in the Rain’ is a collection of spare and beautiful instrumental pieces recorded between 1986 and 1997 by classically trained musicians in California. Instruments used are celesta, piano, glass guitar (whatever this actually is, it does sound like a guitar made of glass), clarinet, samples, electric bass and percussion. It was released on the Cold Blue Music label in 2001.

Around the time it came out I was bored of the same old guitar bands and trying out other things I’d meant to get round to hearing one day: one CD each of Japanese noise, musique concrete, skronky jazz, dub, Detroit techno. Rough Trade Shop stuff. Officially, ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ falls into the ‘post-minimalist’ category. No, me neither. Amazon bafflingly lists it as ‘orchestral jazz.’ ‘Ambient’ doesn’t work – it’s too tightly wound, focussed and ominous. It perhaps shares some of the otherworldly mood of Alice Coltrane’s ecstatic, spiritual jazz, but is way less swaggering and full of itself. The titles of the tracks probably describe it best – it really is like music you would hear inside the rain: pieces called Passing, Mode, Fragment, Echo, and Epitaph.

I first saw it mentioned in a roundup of new releases on http://www.tangents.co.uk, described as:

“patinas of notes, near and far, heard and half-heard. It’s an astonishing, entrancing album, careful and considered, yet never too precious or conceited”.

I ordered the CD after reading that sentence.

When it arrived it had that odd, magical attribute of feeling like something I’d always been looking for, but hadn’t known I was.

As teenagers, we used to listen very closely to ‘The Pictorial Jackson Review’ by Felt. My friends and I admired the elegance and feeling for space and composition on that record; the way that side A contained pop songs and side B only spacey, mysterious instrumentals. The fact that the two types of music could coincide naturally on the same record was incredibly inspiring to us. They were different but united by the same austere elegance. I could suddenly see a link between my classical guitar training and the pop music I loved. ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ brought me back to that lightbulb moment; abstract music within my grasp again.

Years later, a friend asked me to make a soundtrack for an art installation he was putting together. I recorded the trees around Epping Forest and then the sound of a harp’s strings being vibrated by the wind, and combined them, edited them into waves of sound which ebbed and flowed for twenty minutes with the rhythm of air moving through the woods. It was an attempt to get on the same spectrum as ‘I Hear it in the Rain’. Unhurried, and at the same time bringing in something disturbing – some indefinable extra voice which came from outside, something from the corner of the eye (or ear). A new kind of music, at least for me.
And one which I have still not worked out how to combine with pop songs. I haven’t listened to ‘the Pictorial Jackson Review’ in years, it’s done its job for me and I’ve moved on. A lot of game-changing, transformative records eventually get worn out in that way. But I still listen to ‘I Hear it in the Rain’ and it still opens up new possibilities in sound. (Alasdair MacLean)

Click here for a link to our feature on The Clientele’s magnificent Suburban Light compilation:

https://thenewperfectcollection.com/2015/02/13/the-clientele-suburban-light-2000/