Feature: ATTN in 2015

In 2015, I wrote my first book. Storm Static Sleep is the first to be dedicated to the story of post-rock music, and stands as both my biggest undertaking and my greatest achievement. I spoke to several of my favourite musicians and discovered some of the strangest, most exhilarating adaptions of the rock template I’ve ever heard. I went through phases of self-doubt and overwhelming excitement, chiselling away at a single Word document – over several intense months – to remove every last falter and articulatory misfire.

My relationship with music underwent a complete role reversal. When writing for ATTN:Magazine, the music is my centre of gravity. The review dances around the sound. I speculate and contradict myself. I query the music and it doesn’t reply. As if via echolocation, the “shape” of the work emerges as I try to articulate it, albeit skewed and hazed by subjective understanding.

With Storm Static Sleep, the dynamic was completely different. I had to become a point of authority because post-rock is an absolute mess. It speculates and contradicts itself. It’s the reason we use the same term to refer to both Birmingham’s Pram and Reykjavík’s Sigur Ros. Over and over again, post-rock has been applied in error; journalists have cast the label around without the contextual comprehension to back it up, meaning that the original meaning has now splintered into several tangled strands of interpretation (and misinterpretation). I couldn’t afford to be overly scenic and speculative in my writing. I knew that I had to carve a distinct pathway through the overgrowth, and while the narrative of Storm Static Sleep is still powered by curiosity, it also accumulates a concrete understanding of its subject matter. There’s an expectation of conviction and solidity upon the printed word, and I knew that the book would only be worth reading if I fulfilled it. I feel like I managed it.

All of this only renewed my faith in ATTN:Magazine. It reminded me that, while it’s enjoyable to be concrete and declarative, I love to articulate the clunky process of comprehending sound: the hallucinatory mental imagery, the instinctive jolts of distaste (and the subsequent re-evaluations), the moments of overturned assumption. I let my mind run slack and I see what happens. Often I surprise myself with what spills out onto the page.

Storm Static Sleep in Waterstones

STORM STATIC SLEEP IN WATERSTONES

For this reason, I always have a great time reviewing new releases. I write quickly to capture the flashes of friction and impulse, where the music collides with my state of mind and writing environment. Most of my album reviews are written in the same conditions: in the lounge of my top-floor flat in the centre of Bournemouth, early afternoon (lights off, with the space illuminated by the sun coming through the skylights), a Chemex jug of coffee on the side. I can vividly remember the withered strands of tape loop coming out of my speakers when I reviewed Autumn Flowers by Black Thread back in January. One chord still haunts me: harmonically optimistic, yet covered with the cracks of analogue erosion. I also remember how Rosalind Hall and Ada Rave created a cramped, uncomfortably intimate space – super-imposed upon my comparatively spacious living room – through their split release on Pan Y Rosas (A Trail, A Texture). The snarls and mucus snorts of the two saxophonists dribbled out of my headphones and directly into my ears.

Where my reviews were written away from home, it’s been interesting to speculate how my mood and environment may have shaped my perception of the work. My review of The Last Train (a collaboration between drummer Roger Turner and guitarist Otomo Yoshihide) was penned in a café the morning after a week of night shifts, and reading back I can spot the sort of wonky imagery that only arises in the absence of adequate sleep. Similarly, my piece on Jon Mueller’s A Magnetic Center was both hindered and enhanced by tiredness, having spent the night before being thoroughly pulped by Mutations Festival in Brighton. As Mueller’s music splayed into a swirl of voices and then regrouped into a swarm of throbbing frequency, I was struck by a listening experience that was undoubtedly enabled by my looser consciousness. Ironically, I lacked the necessary mental clarity to articulate it properly.

DEAD NEANDERTHALS (PHOTO BY JAMES WELBURN)

DEAD NEANDERTHALS (PHOTO BY JAMES WELBURN)

Then there were the records I took to the beach: my review of B O L T’s ferocious drone work ( 0 3 ) was written from a deck chair on Boscombe pier – with the review’s reference to natural landscape undoubtedly inspired by staring out over sand and the sea – while my piece on Worship The Sun by Dead Neanderthals was largely formulated during an intense bike ride along the Poole seafront, during which the insatiable drumbeat seemed to align with the flailing of my legs. I remember stopping twice to jot down snatches of imagery on my phone, deciding that aerobic momentum would have to take a hit for the sake of the decent article. The sacrifices I make for my craft…

Speaking of the alignment between music and location, 2015 was an excellent year for performances and installations. Bloc Festival in Butlins was particularly surreal; taking breaks in between violent techno sets to eat chips with photographer Tom in the main foyer, mixing vodka with putrid energy drinks to stay awake for Lee Gamble at 4am, staggering back to our quaint flat in Minehead to sleep and binge-watch The Thick Of It. I took two drastically different visits to Brewer’s Street Car Park in London: once to have my eyes and ears prised open by Ryoji Ikeda’s remarkable Supersymmetry installation, and again to be quietly endeared by Ragnar Kjartansson’s beautiful multi-screen work called The Visitors. Other memorable gigs included Matana Roberts and Eric Chenaux in Brighton in October (during which Roberts’ impenetrable mesh of tape loops, saxophone, song and sampling aligned perfectly with my own sense of mental disarray that day) and Sun Araw’s elasticated improv bouncing off the walls of The Cube in Bristol. Of course, most of these events took place in darkness, meaning that my notebook is a pile-up of overlapping words and blind scrawls; the hooks of g’s cutting through vowels, words cut short as they fall off the page.

BEN CHASNY (SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE)

BEN CHASNY (SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE)

More than ever, I’ve tried to remain aware of the balance between personal experience and the instigation of reader empathy. I want to present the listening experience at its most ungainly and raw, yet I don’t want to alienate the reader in the process. It sounds like an obvious point to make, but I’ve occasionally struggled to hit this midpoint in the past. Some of my writing in 2014 was too self-indulgent to bear substantial significance to outsiders. That’s something I tried to rectify in 2015. Thankfully, my first interview of the year was with someone grappling with the exact same problem. Ben Chansy (aka Six Organs Of Admittance) had designed a new compositional method called the Hexadic System, which combines chance operations, special cards and parlour games to bring the music into being. As he stumbled over ways to make this meticulous process comprehensible to me, I became absolutely enchanted by the enthusiasm for his project. Chasny was clearly in deep, and had no desire to resurface any time soon.

Similarly, Massimo Pupillo from Zu seemed to be amidst his own creative awakening. Over a Skype call – which connected my Bournemouth flat to his home on the Peruvian Amazon – he told me about his shamanic studies and desire to cut the “bullshit” from the band’s sound (which resulted in the beautiful album, C0rtar Todo). Jennifer Walshe offered me a passionate introduction to the world of post-internet art. Mums on Facebook, frantically dictated Wikipedia edits. Many of these interviews were conducted either over Skype or over the phone, although even my email interviews went deeper than I could have ever hoped for: MacGillivray dug inside the process of crafting her new record, Once Upon A Dirty Ear, while Black Spirituals set our interview alight with some beautifully written responses, touching on everything from Javanese Gamelan to multi-aesthetic modular structures.

I often wonder whether it’s possible to convey the raw, personal sensation of listening without shutting the audience out. I’ve interviewed several people in 2015 that manage to articulate an immersion in their creative practice without alienating me, and they are my main inspiration heading into 2016. I’m still content with the fact that ATTN:Magazine thrives largely on failure – the failure to accurately articulate, the failure to fully understand –  but this year, I want to counter-act the presence of failure with an even more fervent desire to succeed. Thanks for sticking with me – here’s to a sweet 2016.