Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto: Insen, London Barbican Hall

This heavyweight collaboration between German sound artist Carsten Nicolai (a.k.a. Alva Noto) and Japanese pianist and composer Sakamoto was the live realisation of their second album as a duo, Insen. In previous collaborations with the likes of Ryoji Ikeda and Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio, and in his work as co-founder of the Raster-Noton label, Nicolai has built a formidable reputation for a rigorously formal aesthetic in both the musical and visual realms. Sakamoto, meanwhile, has essayed a number of compositional methods from widescreen soundtrack work to glowing minimalism. It was the latter of these approaches that was foregrounded at the Barbican Centre in London, with Sakamoto’s twinkling note clusters surrounded by Nicolai’s reverberant interventions.

Sakamoto sat at the grand piano, engrossed in the instrument, occasionally reaching into its innards to pluck at the strings. Nicolai stood to the right, the seriousness of his endeavour gauged by the presence on his table of not one but two Powerbooks. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, Nicolai bathed Sakamoto’s radiant tonalities in a shimmer of electronic haze. At the same time, a screen behind the performers displayed Nicolai’s video installation, its kinetic patterns matching the undulant shifts of the music.

Despite the nature of the collaboration, with the forbiddingly traditional grand piano lined up against the equally forbidding modernity of the Powerbook, the evening never took on the quality of a soundclash. Rather, the timbre of Nicolai’s interventions was coolly cerebral and reflexive. Wreathed in echo and delay, the raw material of Sakamoto’s liquid notes was bolstered by glitches, cuts and skeletal rhythms. All the while, the backdrop displayed ineffable visualisations of Nicolai and Sakamoto’s co-operative strategy. Circles, lines, bars and rectangles faded in and out, their lifespan determined by the attack and decay of the notes that had generated them.Initially etched in high contrast black and white, the installation later took on deep, saturated reds and blues.

The music’s predominant mode of gentle chromaticism gave way, in the final piece, to a thrilling ten-minute outburst of sustained aggression, with Sakamoto hammering away at the low end of the keyboard while Nicolai issued dense sub-bass rumbles and needling rhythmic stabs. The large and enthusiastic audience demanded, and got, two encores. For the second, Sakamoto played his famous theme to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, its exquisite melody emerging with sublime rightness from the glistening network of digital manipulations.

Organum & Z’ev: Tocsin -6 Thru +2

This disc finds sound artist David Jackman (aka Organum) collaborating with percussionist Z’ev on a collection of nine instrumental pieces. The sound sources are a grand piano and a steel instrument built by Z’ev out of materials found in a London scrapyard. Jackman and Z’ev recorded the tracks together, then mixed them separately to come up with two distinct pieces of work.

Occupying the first seven tracks of the album, Z’ev coaxes a range of scouring metallic textures from his custom-made instrument. These acoustic sounds are then subjected to sensitive electronic processing. The results are queasy and disturbing, as Z’ev sculpts and layers the generated sounds into a mire of industrial klang. There’s little variation over the course of the seven shortish tracks, save for a more energised percussive attack on “Tocsin -2.” Otherwise the combination of silvery shimmer, static interference and low end drones keeps the listener balanced perfectly between unease and restfulness.

David Jackman weighs in with two lengthier piano-based pieces, whose effect is sharper and just as disquieting as that of Z’ev’s tracks. Jackman issues gleaming, opalescent clusters of notes that disperse into needling, aggressive stabs. Z’ev’s steel instrument hovers ominously here and there, adding to the sense of foreboding that pervades this accomplished release.

Merzbow: Rattus Rattus

Merzbow albums are like buses – it doesn’t matter if you miss one, because there’ll be another one along soon. Unlike buses, however, they’re also reliable. Rattus Rattus never strays far from Masami Akita’s winning formula of blistering noise, squally electronics and an insane mix of high and low frequency drones.

There appears to be some kind of concept around the disc, from the title (the Latin name of the black rat) to the inclusion of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ web address ( on the sleeve. Resorting to his own theatre of cruelty, Merzbow wastes no time in setting mercilessly about the listener’s eardrums on the opening “155.” On the next track, “166,” ghostly shards of melody lurk amongst the juddering sonic attack. Nasty little loops burrow relentlessly inside the listener’s head.

Bolstering the traces of the album’s concept, the 37-minute “Rattus Rattus Suite” rounds off proceedings with a panoply of scurrying, microscopic effects. Stricken, the drones and frequencies stumble in pitch and density, before regaining their violent edge and rushing to a brutal conclusion.

Suicide: A Way of Life, Why Be Blue

These reissues, from 1988 and 1992 respectively, help to round out the picture of Suicide that was, until now, mostly derived from their eponymous 1978 debut and 2002’s hip-hop influenced American Supreme. Each double set contains a studio CD and a roughly contemporary live album. Marks are docked for the desultory nature of the packaging, with its total absence of the sleeve notes that should be a part of every archival release of this kind.

A Way of Life, from 1988, is the more interesting of the two. Martin Rev issues dark, undulant synth patterns and basic, pummelling drum machine rhythms, over which Alan Vega snarls, whoops, hollers and even occasionally sings. Suicide’s pursuit of this minimalist urban blues is dogged and relentless. Vega comes on like a grim, blasted Elvis on “Juke Box Baby 96,” his grunts and cries starkly animating Rev’s caustic synth work. “Rain of Ruin” is even harsher, with Vega at his most urgent and biting over Rev’s spitting electric currents. Relief comes only on the affecting ballad “Surrender.” The song, with its lilting female vocals and gentle mood of syncopated innocence, initially comes as a surprise, but makes sense in the context of Suicide’s twisted, visceral take on 50s pop.

There is nothing here, however, to match the overwhelming sense of threat that permeates the band’s debut. Ric Ocasek’s production smoothes out the jagged edges of Rev’s synths, which often sound flat and compromised as a result. It’s a criticism that applies even more to 1992’s Why Be Blue, a farrago of mostly weedy and inconsequential songs. The album begins with the confused, hectic stomp of the title track, and continues with a succession of ho-hum synth drills and faux-swaggering vocal workouts. A song like “Pump It” retains understated air of menace through Vega’s quietly undemonstrative vocal, but for the most part Why Be Blue suffers from a surfeit of ennui and routine.

The live recordings appended to each release have a rough, unvarnished appeal that thankfully undermines the polished sheen of the studio albums. “Dominic Christ” is livid and claustrophobic, while the rapturously received “Cheree” highlights the duo’s warped, yet strangely touching way with a tender love song. There is none of the confrontational aggression of the legendary “23 Minutes Over Brussels” recording, but plenty of the pose-striking and immersive electronic energy for which Suicide are known and, rightly, celebrated.

Sagor & Swing: Orgelplaneten

Sagor & Swing are a Swedish duo consisting of Eric Malmberg and Ulf Möller, and Orgelplaneten is their fourth and, sadly, final album. Expanding on their previous organ and drums line-up, this time the duo add Moog and accordion to the mix. Möller, meanwhile, is perky and effervescent on the drums. The result is a delightful suite of instrumental pieces teeming with sheer joy and boundless energy.

Things get underway with “Henriks födelsedagsmelodi,” in which an unutterably lovely accordion theme is propelled along by lively, inventive percussion. The duo barely pause for breath before slamming into “Äventyr i alperna,” the longest piece on the album, a widescreen panorama of funky intensity. From here on, Sagor & Swing deliver track after track of sustained melodic brilliance, the organ and synth swinging with infectious spirit.

Like all great pop music, Orgelplaneten assimilates its influences and makes of them something bright, shiny and entirely new. More than one track evokes 60s easy listening mood music, while “Smedjebacken by night” carries a hint of reggae skank. But Sagor & Swing transcend these influences and add their own, uniquely European sensibility, confounding the stereotypical image of Sweden as a place of Bergmanesque darkness and melancholy.

Malmberg, who writes all the music, is a gifted melodist. Time after time he alights on a distinctive phrase or motif and invests it with a ringing, persuasive charm. For all its surface exuberance, this is no light, throwaway confection. This music is urgent and blissful, built on a rock-solid bed of invention and appealing irresistibly to the listener’s head, heart and feet all at once. Orgelplaneten is a stone cold masterpiece.

Larsen: Play

On this, their third album, Italian quartet Larsen present a suite of blissed-out pieces apparently inspired by Autechre. The press release states that the band “spent a lot of time improvising around some of their favorite melodies from Autechre albums…suddenly songs were coming out of the air.” Without this information to hand, it would be hard to discern this influence. In the end, though, it hardly matters, since Play is an intriguing and confident work in its own right.

Titled for no apparent reason after letters of the alphabet, the six tracks immerse the listener in a sumptuous array of moods and textures. The opening, lengthy “C” and “E” are intricate, finely spun webs of harmonic tension, with spare bass and violin gradually overwhelmed by massed layers of guitar and drums. If Larsen wear their Swans and Godspeed influences a little too obviously here, there is still no denying the awesome, symphonic power of these constructions.

The rest of the album contains two further longish pieces and two quieter interludes. These may lack the swelling resonance of “C” and “E,” but still have plenty to recommend them. On “S,” waves of xylophone and harmonium merge with a spectral bass figure, until the serenity of the piece is tempered by processing and distortion. “G” is jauntier, its thin, angular percussion steadied by a burrowing riff and blissful accordion work. “J” and “P,” meanwhile, are unnecessarily brief. It’s frustrating to hear these tracks end after just two and three minutes respectively, when Larsen have shown elsewhere how magically they play the long game.

Re: Alms

From the back cover inwards, this second full-length from the Montreal duo of Aden Evens and Ian Ilavsky conjures the blasted paranoia of their Constellation labelmates Godspeed You! Black Emperor. A map of an unidentified Middle East region depicts a crazed network of oil pipelines, power stations and industrial buildings. Likewise, the music within draws the listener into a shadowy zone of covert movements and connections.

Although mastered very quietly, and consisting largely of electronic and instrumental soundscaping, Alms is in no sense an ambient recording. Play it loud or on headphones and a vast amount of sonic detail is revealed. Setting the tone for what’s to come, the opening “Golem” overlays livid metallic scrapes and interference onto an unnerving looped rhythm. The track merges seamlessly into the lengthy “Orientalism as a Humanism,” in which great arcs of noise swoop dangerously around clanking, machine-like beats.

Re: understand the unsettling effect of combining acoustic and electronic elements to create the impression of a world out of kilter. Like GY!BE, they lament the powerlessness of the individual in the face of overwhelming state and corporate control. This they achieve by way of light touches of piano, organ and percussion within soundfields of dank, scrabbling rhythms and squally metallic drones. “On Golden Pond” slouches by ominously, its creaks and splashes suggestive of a not-so-golden stretch of water. “Radio Free Ramadi” similarly undermines its title with buzzes of static interference amid the phased blasts of electronics. Only on the affecting “Pawk” is the organic brought to the fore, with a haunting piano melody and a field recording of what sounds like exotic birdsong. Otherwise, the sense of claustrophobic dread is palpable throughout this sinister record.

Propeller: Argento

Argento is the third album from Propeller, alias ex-Zoviet France member Mark Spybey. Although Spybey left ZF many years ago, there’s still something of that collective’s questing spirit about his solo projects as Propeller and Dead Voices on Air. Characterised by thick, insular loops and quietly insistent rhythms, Spybey’s ambient driftworks are cloaked in an aura of steely beauty.

These qualities are well to the fore on Argento, which was recorded in 1999 but is being released here for the first time. The opening “A Bucket of Tar in the Kisser” (one of the many fine titles among this disc’s 13 tracks) sets the scene with its coiled, menacing rhythm and subterranean bass rumbles. The loop shrinks away, leaving a low wall of feedback that merges seamlessly into the juddering metallic squall of the next track, “Bleating Sap.”

Spybey is joined on the album by Eric Pounder, who adds skeletal acoustic guitar to three tracks. Characteristically, on the second of these, “Karl-Marx-Stadt,” the guitar is clouded by livid interference. Indeed, there’s a pleasing textural variety throughout these recordings, reflecting both the list of Spybey’s collaborators (five in addition to Pounder) and the disc’s extended gestation period (it took a year to write and record). There’s spare, haunting piano on “What Is Seen Equals What Is” and the wonderfully titled “ ‘No Man Can Sing Another Man’s Blues’ – Charles Mingus,” while the busier “All Our Yesterdays Have Lighted Fools” sees shards of electronic noise overlaid onto delicate, spidery beats. Such is the range of approaches taken on this impressive disc.

Multi-Panel: Alone in the Field

A solitary hand reaches out from beyond the horizon on the cover of Multi-Panel’s debut release with a collage of a green field in the foreground. It’s an image that neatly sums up the music within, which consists largely of glowing acoustic guitar surrounded by swathes of layered digital effects.

Multi-Panel is 19-year-old Dutchman Ludo Maas, and his dual acoustic-electronic method continues the laptop folk approach pioneered by the likes of Four Tet. The disc begins strongly with “A Day For War,” in which Maas ominously intones the words “today’s a day for war” against a sombre backdrop of scuffed electronica. Maas’ guitar soon makes its presence felt on “The Old Times,” skipping lightly around an aerated mid-tempo groove and relaxing the mood considerably.

Most of the album follows this basic template, with pleasant folkish guitar and wandering electronic treatments. Maas adds frankly undistinguished vocals to several tracks. There are fine moments, such as the skittering techno surface of “Put-And-Take” and the weaving melody line of “Fondness,” but ultimately the disc fails to cohere. Too often the guitar and electronics seem like weak reflections of each other, with neither having the presence to bolster the insubstantiality of the other. There are, equally, structural flaws. “Escapism” cuts loose from its directionless drift with a rippling electro current, only to lose it shortly after; while “Alone in the Field” similarly casts aside what little momentum it’s gained in favour of a patchwork of inconsequential effects.

The addition of four remixes at the end does Multi-Panel no favours, since they tend to be more inventive and creative than the originals on which they are based. This is particularly true of Evil Mousepad’s loose-limbed take on “Traveling Places” and the crunchy, REM-ish swagger of Bambi Dexter’s version of “Night Stranded Drummers.” These remixers display an intuitive grasp of drama and interplay that is sadly lacking from the rest of the disc.

Black Moth Super Rainbow: Start a People

On this, their second full-length disc, Black Moth Super Rainbow present the soundtrack to an enchanted playground as experienced by a happy, inquisitive child. The disc’s sixteen short tracks are less like songs in their own right than snatches of music heard by chance as one explores this warm, sunny hinterland of trees, colors and wizards.

The sounds heard in this way are constructed from a basic template of analogue synths, easygoing beats and amiable, Vocoder’d singing. The all-analogue approach is what makes the disc so immediately arresting and listenable. The synth textures are reminiscent of Pleasure Principle-era Gary Numan, while the vocals recall ’70s Kraftwerk without the minimalist austerity. The lyrics, meanwhile, locate the disc firmly within an endless, summery present: “the sun came up late/tomorrow never came.”

Yet there is a dark heart to this playground that BMSR are frustratingly reluctant to explore. Among the many lyrical references to sun, sunlight and sunbeams, there are hints that all is not as it should be: “there is death and love and awful things/the sunlight takes away all that it brings.” One looks to the music to reflect this ambivalence, but in vain: BMSR are seemingly content to stick to the formula of solarised keyboard melodies, warm, engaging rhythms and lyrics that, happily, remain just the right side of twee. Only in one or two places do the beats approach the vigorous; otherwise the pace is either smooth and mid-tempo, or hazy and de-energised. The disc is an absolute treat – fresh, accessible and appealing – but some acknowledgement of the potential for clouds to blot out the sunshine would not have gone amiss.