Old Bicycle Records is a small label based in the small city of Piazzogna in the Italian canton of Switzerland, a relatively small region of an already small country. Nestled in the Alps, label founder Vasco Viviani is proud of the current scene of bands in his neck of the woods, typified by artists like Velma, Soft Black Star, and Icydawn (who just released a record with MB). Vasco was gradually introduced to interesting music in the classic way; passed down from his brother Luca, who plays in Soft Black Star. He began the label several years ago to release and co-release records from friends, initially the Mexico album by Sparkle in Grey. At the time he and his girlfriend were shopping for old bikes, and so the label was born, a mixture of friends, records, and used cycles. In fact, those two bikes carry the honorific first two catalogue numbers. This might give you some inclination as to the resourceful and happy mood that dominates the label’s aesthetic.
Though he maintains a blog, there’s no proper online store, no one-click shopping or even a bandcamp. But don’t distress, you just have to email him to make contact. As such, much of his activities still involve the Post and the Internet. Experimental music is by nature independent and niche, and depends upon communities and non-capitalist incentives to flourish. As is custom for tape labels, Vasco has continued to do lot of trading with other labels (like Geoduck and Koala, Sincope, Lepers and many many others). By eschewing an online store and encouraging trading, Old Bicycle perpetuates the old traditions of communications through correspondence and collaboration. (Not so unlike fixing up an old bike to get around!)
A recent show he organized featuring MUSSLE | MUSCLE (a group consisting of two of the guys from the split Eugenoise/The Lay Llamas tape reviews below) was greeted by an appreciative audience, and there are signs that this little scene is one to watch. But of course many of the artists he works with are from the fertile grounds immediately to the south, in the region around Milan. 2013 has been a real banner year for Old Bicycle, with some truly exceptional releases. I recommend you pick them up before they’re gone and you find yourself spending way too much for them on discogs! (Joseph Sannicandro)
Sparkle in Grey ~ Thursday Evening
First up is the most recent LP from Sparkle in Grey, who’ve been relatively quiet since the release of Mexico in 2011. Initially a solo project of Matteo Uggeri, Sparkle in Grey long ago expanded into a four-piece, rounded out by Alberto Carozzi, Cristiano Lupo, and Franz Krostopovic. This line up has been relatively stable, however the group has not been shy about pushing their sound forward. Mexico was one of their more (post)rock oriented records, featuring well-structured songs with memorable melodies, while earlier records such as Whale Heart, Whale Heart and Nefoldhis (a collaboration with MB) were less beat driven, freer in form, more melancholic and introspective. In the time since Mexico, Uggeri has released several solo releases and collaborations (see below), and so it makes sense that his work with the band would foreground that band-ness. Thursday Evening is the continued refinement of this concept, relying more on electronics and drum programming than ever before. And as before, their musical horizon is wide. The inclusion of these new elements is a pleasant surprise, though initially I had to confirm I was listening to the right disc. But of course, after a few tracks there is no mistaking it, this is Sparkle in Grey; accessible, friendly experimental music without pretension.
Thursday Evening is perhaps their most overtly political album (just check out that angry mob of round people on the cover), though the band have always been socially consciousness. In an interview I conducted with them in 2009 they established Mexico as an imagined home in exile from the ‘bad side’ of Italy. They encouraged their fans to vote against water privatization and nuclear power in a 2011 referendum. The samples and titles make reference to climate change, ecological devastation, materialism, over-consumption, indigenous rights. The CD itself is inscribed with the following dictum: “When Injustice Becomes Law, Resistance Becomes Duty. Change What You Cannot Accept, Do Not Accept What You Can Change.” But Thursday Evening is also a very personal- not unlike politics. The title refers to the day of the week the band gets together to practice, a form of affirmation and escape from those same realities. And like the fantasy of Mexico, their call to arms seems to focus as much on the level of the imaginary as in any literal sense. On the eponymous track, the dramatic violin build up is punctuated by a conversation about climate change and the problems facing the world, but the self-righteousness of the speaker betrays a slight uneasiness, as if he’s not quite sure what to do or where to focus. Well, back to practice then.
Adding to the personal touch that typifies both Sparkle in Grey and Old Bicycle, Thursday Evening comes with a small pebble, an actual bit of the group’s terra firma. Listener’s are encouraged to do something with the pebble, and write in to let them know what you dd with it in order to gain access to a bonus track. (I brought mine to Mexico.)
The term post-rock continues to be bandied about, but if that reference makes any sense here it is making reference more so to ‘90s UK artists like Bark Psychosis then any of the more recent crop of bands taking refuge under that umbrella. The album features three covers, though really these versions are quite radical departures from the originals. The choice of covers betrays the bands interests (and their excavations of the experimental and Industrial scene from the past.) There’s “Of Shift Flight” by Empyrical Sleeping Consort, “Soft City” by Bourbonese Qualk, and “Piano Song” by The God Machine. All fairly underground artists with cult followings, yet mostly unknown to me (perhaps some of my older colleagues care to shed some light?). This is something I very much enjoy about Sparkle in Grey, their great ability to mine the depths of their musical influence and share that with us, while also remaining utterly and indisputably themselves. Though serious in its aims, there is a quality of playfulness and lightness that permeates Sparkle in Grey’s work. The group are enjoying themselves, and they transmit that through their sounds. I’d compare aspects of the rhythms present on Thursday evening to Industrial music, and certainly their influences back this up, but their music has as none of the aggression, or at least it’s quite tempered by their insistence on always finding the silver lining.
Co-release, Grey Sparkle, Lizard Records, Old Bicycle Records and Show Me Your Wounds
Nuno Moita/Matteo Uggeri ~ Batalha
Easily one of my favorite releases of the 2013, this should absolutely not be missed. In fact, before you read any further, I insist you hit play.
Fresh on the heels of his beautiful solo disc for Fluid-Audio (Four Steps on Point, a stunning suite of compositions drawing on field-recordings and violin reflecting on a painful recovery from a spinal hernia on the eve of his wedding night) Old Bicycle and Grey Sparkle present Batalha, a collaboration with the Portuguese turntablish and laptip musician Nuno Moita. Moita sent Uggeri recordings made from various analog sources, electronic pulses and crackles. Italian field-recordist and soundscape master that he is, Uggeri re-worked that material with a variety of field-recordings.
Batalha means battle in Portuguese, in this case referring to the battle between nature and machine. Of course the relationship between man and nature and man and machine has been the impetus of a great many works, but Moita and Uggeri play with form here a bit. Our understanding of Nature is a relatively recent construction, emerging along with Industrialization as it’s other. Here natural sounds are cast as provoking anxiety, where as the mechanical sources are soothing and bring relief from the stress of the former. Barking dogs and buzzing insects, irregularly lapping water and other natural sounds remind us of the ways in which our image of the peacefulness of nature is often willful idyllic fantasy.
Stefano Di Ponti ~ Like Lamps On By Day
A series of seven cinematic microcompositions from one half of Passo Uno culled from many hours of improvisations accompanying live theatre, Like Lamps On By Day is a fine testament to Stefano De Ponti’s great talents. At just over 25 minutes, you might be tempted to call this an EP, but let’s not get tripped up by categorizations. There is plenty here to get lost in, and the material encourages repeat listens. Alessandro Bider, the other half of Passo Uno, contributes cello and flute, however Like Lamps On By Day is unmistakably a distinct work. Since Passo Uno has gone into hibernation, De Ponti has intensified his work in the theatre, and drew on over 10 hours of improvisations to craft this dense work.
The tape opens with lush cellos and tremolo guitar overdubbed with dialogue in French between a man and a woman (actually taken from a scene in Claude Lellouch’s Un homme et une femme). A trumpet begins to play a nice melody but then cuts suddenly to a tonal wash on loop against some static. This isn’t the only sudden cut, but the abruptness suits the cinematic quality of the material Each vignette comes and goes, establishing a sense of place and mood, but never lingering too long. The b-side opens with a sense of foreboding, a low drone and a hollow scraping in the distance, but as the side progresses the mood lightens, ending with some soothingly gorgeous guitar and flute meanderings. Overall a beautiful release, one that I’m certain to return to often.
Limited to 100 cassettes (on Old Bicycle), and 50 CD-Rs (released by Under My Bed Recordings)
The tape cover features one of various photographs by Raffaele Viti.
Tape Crash # 6: Eugenoise / The Lay Llamas ~ The Swamp Tape
Eugenoise kicks off with a loud, noisy form of tape music, a swampy mess of electronics and samples. Out of phase vocals create an incoherent mess, electronics sputter and feedback screams as a radio picks up a wave already dead on arrival. I don’t mind the flexibility at work here, but the quieter bits, the parts with more space, work better to my taste. Overall Eugenoise lives up his name, and does so without relying too much on Harsh electronics or Noise cliché. I’m not familiar with any of his other releases, so I’m not sure if there’s stronger work out there or if needs more development.
The Lay Llamas side is easily my favorite from these two tapes, really well arranged psychedelic compositions with driving bass lines and an array of sounds and effects. Rhythmic elements come and go, fading into whence they came while the Llamas seem never to run out of something new to throw in the mix. The group name recalls the Andes, certainly, but also an amateur priest, which is perhaps apt in light of the ambiguously deterritorialized ethnic rhythms and chanting. A variety of “ethnic” instruments are called upon, used in ways other than their traditional means but providing an air of unfocused exoticism befitting the trippy atmosphere of the tape. What makes this such a remarkable release are the extraordinary transitions and flow of the whole thing. A release that breathes with (weird) humanity, flowing seamless from one locale to the next. Really strong stuff. Highly recommended, keep an eye on this group.
Tape Crash # 7: Soft Black Star & Zeno Gabaglio / Mike Cooper ~ The Good Old Summer Tape
The Good Old Summer Tape begins with a collaboration between Soft Black Star(playing guitars, farfisa and noise machines) and Zeno Gabaglio (contributing cello and synths). With a backdrop of field-recordings of insects and animals, the two seemingly improvise a loose configuration of psychedelic inspired soundscapes, with occasional vocals from the Butar-Butar Gamelan Orchestra. It’s all rather abstract, but I suppose that’s the point. A lone voice crying out blends into a small chorus of moans, maybe infants, maybe hounds, who can say? An odd journey, to be sure, with some quite interesting moments. Even if it never coalesces, one suspects that was never the point. Interesting improvisational dialogue between “noise machines” and more traditional instrumentation.
Mike Cooper’s contribution kicks of with some field-recordings of crickets, over which he loops some guitar. Against this bed he builds a kind of folksy playing, gradually incorporating reversed guitar lines and layering further guitar flourishes. His tracks proceed in no rush, quickly establishing a sense of place and then meandering along. I can see this won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I rather enjoyed it as background listening. As the tape progresses the role of guitar is gradually obscured, used quite creatively through use of looping and effects almost as though they were created by a synthesizer and not a guitar. Each composition is quite evocative, with suggestive loops and subtle shifts throughout. The tracks on side B were taken from live sessions recorded in 2010 to MiniDisc (remember those? I wish I’d never sold my MD recorder). Those sessions were reworked into the cuts found on this tape.
Both evoke the lazy relaxed moods of a hot summer day, and though maybe not groundbreaking in relying on the use of summer field-recordings, it produces the desired effect. The confused weariness of the music certainly brings to mind recollections of my own hazy hot summer days. A fine pair.