There are only four of us at Underscore, balancing busy lives, families, day jobs and the like with writing about some of our favourite music in the few spare moments we can snatch, usually right before bed. Naturally, this means more music than we would like slips through the cracks and falls into the void without us having the time to give it the attention it deserves – and that makes us feel bad.
The Inbox is aimed at giving everyone a chance. The reviews here will not be in-depth, but rather they will give brief overviews of the music we have received each month that just didn’t make it – for whatever reason – onto our full reviews pages. We hope it will provide readers with the opportunity to uncover even more new music, and artists with the chance to get heard where they otherwise might not be, because our mission statement when we launched was to welcome all comers and, y’know, maybe we kind of feel like we’re failing…
So, without further ado, let the godforsaken shenanigans commence.
Matt Emery, “Spotlight Series: Cello” (Injazero Records)
The first in a planned series of releases by UK composer Matt Emery, each of which will focus exclusively on building tracks around a single instrument. This one, as the title suggests, celebrates the aching, doomy grandeur of the cello, which Emery’s long-term collaborator Fraser Bowles mines and layers to soundtrack the composer’s tale of a samurai warrior heading out to battle. In places – especially with the sublimely intense opener “Anxiety Mist” – it makes me think of By The Throat era Ben Frost, but Emery is equally comfortable drawing on the cello’s more typically classical angles, as with the mournful and dramatic “Raindrops and Blood Spurts,” which mimics the plucked instruments of the early East such as the geomungo, shamisen and ichigenkin before soaring into an impossibly romantic enactment of combat from which quivering plumes of viscera are drawn and fire-forged swords are plunged. Later, “Bodies Become the Forest” grows heavenwards from the bloody earth and the closing track celebrates rebirth with the staccato bravura of a pre-fight muscle montage.
Toned, “Tricky” (1039 Records)
Oakland, CA jazz racketeers Toned have featured on this ‘ere site before, when they took us all aback with The Private Sector, a squawking rumpus of maimed electronics, throttled sax and paroxysmal percussion as humorous as it could be intense. Returning here with Tricky, the trio (Tom Weeks, Nathan Corder, Leo Suarez) spreads out a little (fitting in the socially distanced era) and lets in a bit of air, albeit laced with the kind of tooth-chafing hum that poisons Lynchian atmospheres. Broadly speaking, these tracks take their sweet time to develop, none more so than centrepiece “Black Ice,” which farts and sizzles like a squirming sheep’s corpse in the sun as myriad unsavoury arthropods peck and burrow into its leathered husk. Elsewhere, “The Calculus of Power” boils down a torch song until it falls off the bone in sleek, winking lumps, and “Helmet Up” demonstrates what happens if you squidge all your instruments into an AeroPress and apply max pressure.
Orca, Attack!, “C.M.S.O” (Strategic Tape Reserve)
God, I love this. I love the music and I love the idea, which is one of those you wish you’d thought of yourself and can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. It kind of maybe has, in a way, with that flash-in-the-pan (pun totes intended) series of recipe cassettes the late, lamented SicSic Tapes dropped back in the day when it seemed like that label could just do anything they damn well wanted. Maybe it’s a German thing, because here Cologne’s Strategic Tape Reserve is launching the new “Learning by Listening” series with New Orleans’ Orca, Attack! (David Rodriguez and Elizabeth Joan Kelly) providing soothing guidance through the complex world of Course Management System Optimisation. Airy vocals, mangled library music, robotic spoken word and sudden flights of electronic fancy guide the listener through what seems to be a pretty complex academic paper (tracks are titled “Abstract” through “Conclusion” with additional room for a critical survey of the technology in question and a final “Ethical Approval”). Whether you learn anything about C.M.S.O is probably beside the point – just let this wash over you and see what seeps in.
Yvette Janine Jackson, “Freedom” (Fridman Gallery)
This release has sat on my “to do” pile for so long now (it came out at the end of January), and it really does deserve a deep-dive because it’s just an enormous – not to mention important – achievement, as well as a genuinely covetable and potentially extremely valuable cultural artefact. Yvette Janine Jackson is a composer for operas and orchestras whose CV is truly something to behold: the owner of a Ph.D. in Music-Integrative Studies from the University of California, San Diego, and a recipient of numerous prestigious accolades for her sound design, Jackson is now making a serious waves as a bandleader and collaborator (her long list of projects ranges from her own Radio Opera Workshop and Invisible People Ensemble to work with filmmaker Ava Porter and recognition from the American Composers Orchestra). Freedom is no easy listen, and correctly so, for its dual subjects are as challenging as they come. Taking on slavery and the treatment of LGBTQIA+ people in Black America respectively, “Destination Freedom” and “Invisible People” both clock in at around 20 minutes, and both throw myriad conflicting elements up against each other to result in an auditory brew by turns violent, haunting, sickening and gripping. Woozy electronics, disturbing groans and nerve-shredding strings tell the A-side’s harrowing story, whereas spoken word snippets – played straight and mangled – pierce side B’s increasingly uneasy blend of off-kilter jazz wail, drum solos and tippy-toe bop slink. Jackson states her aim as being the creation of an “African American aesthetic for electroacoustic music that speaks to all people in order to foster conversation about contentious subjects.” We’d all do well to follow, and with urgency.