MP3 Discussion Group: ‘Mirrorball’ by John Foxx & Robin Guthrie

This week, the MP3 Discussion Group returns to collectively given a listen to Mirroball (Metamatic Records/Universal), a new-ish album-length collaboration between two early figures in electronic pop music: John Foxx (b. 1947, original vocalist with Ultravox!) and Robin Guthrie (b. 1962, cofounder of Cocteau Twins). It’s a gauzy pop album, redolent with Foxx’s maudlin-romantic singing and Guthrie’s florid shoegazer lushness. As such, it’s a little off topic from the more abstract work generally featured on, but between its opulent haze makes it a peer to the kind of work that’s often cited on, and Guthrie’s shoegazer credentials played a role in the decision-making, too. For reference, the track listing is as follows:

  1. “Mirrorball”
  2. “My Life as an Echo”
  3. “The Perfect Line”
  4. “Spectroscope”
  5. “Estrellita”
  6. “Luminous”
  7. “Sunshower”
  8. “Ultramarine”
  9. “Empire Skyline”

Participating with me in this week’s MP3 Discussion Group are:

Julian Lewis: “I write much of Lend Me Your Ears, a UK/Spain-based MP3 blog that appreciates less obvious music.”

Alan Lockett: “I write music reviews and commentary on ambient/drone, the more adventurous end of techno/house, post-dub, and IDM. Based in Bristol, epicentre of the Dub-zone in the Wild West of England, I can mainly be read on and”

Joshua Maremont: “I record as Thermal and pursue my musical and other obsessions in San Francisco.”

The conversation will play out in this post’s comments section.

A little note on format: This is by no means a closed discussion, so do feel free to join in. Also, the initial posts by participants are all written before they have an opportunity to see each other’s take.

22 thoughts on “MP3 Discussion Group: ‘Mirrorball’ by John Foxx & Robin Guthrie

  1. Having been a follower of John Foxx since he and his still punctuated Ultravox were wild and beautiful and damned and of Robin Guthrie from those tantalizing first vinyls by the early gloomy lineup of his Cocteau Twins, I was quite excited by word of a collaboration between these two, and given both of their quite splendid work with Harold Budd I had a rough set of entirely high expectations for Mirrorball, by which, upon a first listen, I found myself not at all disappointed. For here we have Foxx in what I want to call his ecclesiastical mode, with the ruined church nave-echoed vocals we have been hearing, occasionally since his first ambient songs on The Garden, and more recently and recognizably from his Cathedral Oceans series of albums, chanting over a rarely roiling sea of Guthrie’s processed guitars and drum machines, familiar from any number of his solo records and from the quieter side of the later Cocteau records. First, I suppose I have to admit how hard it would have been for Mirrorball to fail to please, as I imagine that Foxx and Guthrie could probably stumble home from the pub, pass out on their respective mixing desks, and trip a felicitous enough combination of knobs and switches into action on the way to slumber to make something at least listenable, yet this is no “two great tastes that go great together” him’n’him record of the sort we heard (and, in the case of some of us, bought) in far too high numbers about a decade ago. Yet this is an album based, it appears, on live collaboration, and it does have some of the loose amorphousness one might expect from such a meeting, its energy springing from the spontaneity of its creation. But it is that energy of meeting, of creative collision and stylistic admixture, that finds both of these men at peak form, reminding me that both are the creatures of groups rather than of solitary toil, even if both have overseen exemplary catalogs of solo recordings. For even looking back to Foxx’s stunning run of solo records in the early 1980s, he has had a foil – Gareth Jones, the criminally underexposed Robin Simon, the boys of Shake-Shake who became Gardening By Moonlight – and there are peaks both he and Guthrie can reach only in others’ company. More than simply a sonic and generational match, however, this is an emotional blending, and just as there has always been something tear-stained in even the most euphoric moments of Cocteau Twins’ records, there has long been at the edges of Foxx’s various projects some hint of the ruined, the lost, the misremembered, and over the years this has become more than a simple hint, as noticed in his essay concerning the scarce My Lost City collection –

    • or in the appropriated memories of Tiny Colour Movies –

    Foxx’s distant introspection seems to have brought out the more melancholic side of Guthrie, with Ultramarine here reminding of the most sorrowfully drifting interludes from Treasure or Victorialand, and interestingly this falls in the penultimate position often reserved for songs of this sort on the albums of the Cocteau Twins, just as both Foxx and Guthrie have long reserved their closing tracks for their grandest and most beautiful statements, whether in Hiroshima Mon Amour and The Garden or in Musette And Drums and Seekers Who Are Lovers. Which is to say that these are men not only of groups but of albums, and Mirrorball is very much an album, with its title track as a fragile opener, the extremely suitably titled My Life As An Echo, as its driving first song, and Estrellita as its mid-album climax. As were Head Over Heels and Systems Of Romance, Mirrorball is something created as and to be heard as a full-length work, not a set of tracks to be set up on the shuffleplay of an anonymous digital music playback device, and for that I am thankful. Yet hearing Guthrie for what I believe is the first time with a male singer and Foxx for the first time in years with a guitar behind him, I wonder what these two could do as a band, and what a second album, with Guthrie’s exquisitely structured dynamics and Foxx’s beautiful lyrics, too far obscured here, might bring. Am I, perhaps, being greedy?

  2. ‘Mirrorball’ starts so well you’d almost call its opening magnificent. But its returns diminish rapidly.

    Even the title track – the album’s highlight, to these ears – surrenders its best qualities (an intense, hushed atmosphere of soft chiming, muffled thwacks (?) & distant voice, overlaid with a little sonorous guitar…) before its four minutes are up.

    Then we’re dumped into the, frankly, gruesome MOR of ‘My Life As An Echo’ & the ‘look, no hands’ self-conscious display of the ‘wordless vocal’ sequence that begins with the swollen ‘The Perfect Line’, having been prefigured in the title track. This continues uninterrupted to the end.

    I can see how a series of recapitulations, Foxx reworking his improvisations in subtly different settings, might have been interesting. That filtered voice at the start of ‘Spectroscope’ is quite effective in counterpointing the main performance, for example, while ‘Luminous”s faintly Cocteaus-ish touches soften its churchiness.

    But there’s little development in any of this. Sorry to be negative, but I’d need this music to be sharply restructured by less sentimental hands to feel any draw back to it.

    Odd title, too: a less disco-like album is hard to imagine. Indeed, a little of disco’s sass & shape would go a long way to leaven what by the end of ‘Mirrorball’ can feel like a lumbering portentousness.

  3. Feels a bit odd coming to this forum with an entirely negative response to the subject, but here goes. I approached Mirrorball with some trepidation, having got little joy from – admittedly limited – listening encounters with the likes of Foxx’s “Cathedral Oceans,” and Guthrie’s “Imperial” and “Continental.” Projecting a blend of the two, I felt somewhat queasy at the prospect of being hit by this ‘ball. And, sure enough, it strikes on first listen much as expected.

    In fact, first track “Mirrorball” has something of the air of a U2/Daniel Lanois ‘ambient’ outtake, as if The Edge unplugged – or in mellow mood – had noodled out a chord progression before taking it to rehearsal to band-y it about, only to have Foxx gatecrashing, warbling in a kind of mannered (he always was, after all) moaning somewhere between, OK, let’s go for hybrid reference gold: medieval-monk, Peter Gabriel, Morten Haken (sp.?) from A-Ha, and that Scots bloke from The Blue Nile. Sorry, you might do better. Anyway, this strained heaving quasi-devotional (Ultra)vox reverbed up to the heavens is already wearing by the end of the first track. Then there’s ripples of that familiar dully bright over-literal chorus-echoed guitar from Guthrie (oh, and a bit of nasty cheesy axe-bending from him midway through that title track as a… ahem… ‘bonus’). Grimace-inducing. Ironic, at a time when ‘shoegaze’ is being recontextualised in ambient in the form of ubiquitous drone-wash fuzz-haze textures, that Guthrie should choose to paddle about at the shallow end of safe and saccharine pluckery rather than launching out into frothing fizz and fuzz-blur depths. “My Life as an Echo” could be a cocktail band playing note-perfect instrumental renditions of non-existent Greatest Hits by Cocteau Twins – insipid, bland, staid are the most positive epithets I can summon up, I’m afraid.

    I’ve found this with just about everything I’ve heard from Guthrie in the last decade or so, even in Cocteau Twins (late-period, say, from around Four Calendar Cafe). His playing and compositions sound simply too pretty, too ingratiatingly winsome – kind of twee rather than blue… insufficiently unmediated in their articulation. I’m looking for some rips in the fabric of his over-polite prissy pluckings (Buddy Harold on last year’s double-CD collab helped a bit more than Johnny the Foxx here), but anyway that’s more than enough from me: Mirrorball isn’t really my bag, so I shouldn’t spoil it for others with an enthusiasm for um… sub-operatic faux-plainchant neo-romantic post-New Age. I have no idea in what spirit Marc proposed this to the party, but I offer no apologies for the preceding pooping.

  4. There’s a moment early on in the song “Ultramarine” where it’s so entirely clear that this is the Cocteau Twins — that is to say, a moment when it’s clear that it’s Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins (13 seconds into the song, thank you CD clock). It’s a chime, a chime that is as thick as Hoisin sauce, billowing like an ocean wave caught in high definition and reproduced in slow motion.

    That chime is not the chime of revisited 1960s tropes that marked so much of pop music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s a different chime, the shoegazed call-to-arms that is Guthrie’s stock in trade. After a few repetitions, what’s surprising is to recognize, to acknowledge, that the sound is a guitar. It’s like realizing (again, recognizing) that the Cure has as many guitar players as do the Allman Brothers.

    Foxx’s vocals are another story — they’re buried deep in the mix, and their use of glossolalia nonsense syllables renders them, at times, to a status less like that of a lead vocalist and more like yet another instrument in the mix. I enjoy the elegiac approach, though at times the sheer intense beauty of Foxx’s voice made me recoil, a bit like I do to the dramatic and pretty Thom Yorke in Radiohead. But the more I listened to the album, the more I realized how well-crafted the individual pieces are, the effort that went into having the vocals and non-vocal material meld.

  5. Well, we certainly have differences of opinion this time around — more than in some of our other recent discussions. I look forward to seeing where this leads us.

    As Julian pointed out offline, we’re somewhat divided geographically — the Americans in the audience (Joshua, me) showing more favor for the British musicians than do their landmass-mates (Alan, Julian).

  6. With the dancefloor rather empty beneath the mirrorball, perhaps I can pick up on Alan’s suggestion that the once pejorative epithet “shoegazing” has not only been rehabilitated but also recontextualized, or even diaporized. In a single day, for example, while key-clattering out my initial post, I played Matt Bartram’s Left To Memory, Keith Canisius’s Waves, and Simon Scott’s Navigare, the first of these being bedroom psychedelia by the leader of Air Formation in the way of the old Bristol lo-fi guitar bands with just a bit less of the cassette-deck overload of early Flying Saucer Attack (and less, too, of that alien strangeness), the next being half of Rumskib in an upbeat and almost danceable territory neighboring that of the Cocteau-indebted (and remixed) Mahogany, and the last being Slowdive’s drummer embracing the cavernous gloom one expects from the Miasmah label. For if shoegaze was once the sound heard by the mice in the hypothetical wall between the rehearsal studios of The Jesus And Mary Chain and Cocteau Twins, it is has now dangled its fringe across pop (Mew, Sigur Ros), dance music (Ulrich Schnauss, Julian Fane), laptop ambience (Fennesz, Tim Hecker, Konntinent), heavy metal (Jesu), and even progressive rock (Steve Wilson), to the extent that I rather doubt that many of the fans of its current purveyors (at least those under 30) have Loveless or Pyschocandy or Treasure on their shelves (or, sorry, in their iPods). Given that we have two daddies here – of synthpop and of shoegaze – it is curious that we find them here doing something safe and expected, unlike, for example, the dark and increasingly gothic dancefloor stormers Foxx has been sending forth with Louis Gordon, as if to say “let’s show these kids how it’s done” and doing just that, for example, on From Trash. Now the mossy darkness of Guthrie’s Garlands days blended with Foxx at his most militantly cybernetic – that would indeed be a new reason to stare at ones shoes. I wonder what mileage others are getting out of these new views of footwear.

  7. Nicely mused, Joshua. I remember raising an eyebrow around the turn of the millenium, reading Fennesz and Tim Hecker professing to have got their kick(er)s from (staring at) uppers and sole-searching, name-checking MBV when it wasn’t even remotely coming into, rather than like it was going out of fashion, as it increasingly has been these days. A few years later, and it seemed every other Tom, Dick and Harry in ambient and electronica was confessing to a long-suppressed footware-fixation, having been subliminally intoxicated during the late-80s/early 90s with a slow-release aural implant of Cocteaus, Lush, Ride, Kitchens of Distinction, Curve, et al.

    What has interested me too is to see The Downward Gaze even finding its feet (fnargh) in techno settings, initially creeping in with the likes of James Holden, Nathan Fake, and then stomping about a bit more with The Field. Most enjoyable, for me, anyway, has been Jesse Somfay’s recent articulation of it (for which those interested might sneak a peek here: for clip-ettes, and, not to indulge in self-promotion, purely FYI, y’unnerstand, reviewed here: Equally rewardingly we can hear its influence gloriously rippling through recent work by The Sight Below – Rafael Antonio Irisarri’s fusion of Gas’n’Gaze on Ghostly:

  8. The more I listen to the album, the less I am enamored of the vocals. This is probably inevitable for me, because I listen to less and less vocal music as time has gone on, and continues to go on, but it’s still a specific, album-related issue in this case.

    On the first few listens, three factors helped Foxx’s vocals, for me, come to be “less” in the mix — there was the mix itself, a deep morass I came to think of as a molasses of glimmers; then there’s Foxx’s voice, which seems to have lost any semblance of consonants, and thus melds easily with Guthrie’s fluid, sinuous instrumentation; and then there’s those words themselves, the apparently artificial vocabulary that Foxx employs.

    And yet, in each case, as time has proceeded, the vocals have become more and more prominent. The artificial words, rather than serve as a blank, meaningless string of syllables, have become a tantalizingly almost-perceptible manifesto that I feel I can almost … just … make sense of. And the fluidity of Foxx’s singing has become increasingly stalwart to my ear, more and more an exhortation — which is to say what appeared angelic on first impression has subsequently become weighty.

  9. OK, now Marc has put the spotlight on the vocals, I can come clean and declare an interest (or rather a disinterest) and say that I have certain uh issues with vocals in music – ok, make that in Ambient music. The few times I might listen to alt/indie rock, for example, I can take it – depending on the vocalist, of course, as I will confess to a weakness for a kind of baritone Big Bold Croon delivery that roughly adumbrates, say, Scott Walker, David Bowie, Ian Curtis, (some) Bono, Ian McCulloch, the guy from Interpol, that bloke in Editors. But that’s all over there {gestures vaguely towards a field with ‘Rawk’ scrawled on a sign at its perimeters), and this is here (pointing at an imaginary zone labelled ‘Ambient’), and, frankly, here vocals are Strictly verboten, out, out, out, out.

    Another thing impacting here, to be fair to Foxx and Guthrie – both of whose oeuvres (esp. that of 2-3 decades ago) are deserving of respect, irrespective of their location far from my particular alley these days, is a personal antipathy for stuff which taps into the religio-devotional in ambient music – maybe the same reason I’ve never been totally comfy with a range of dabbling offenders from oh (casting about for refs) Enigma to Dead Can Dance. So, it’s as if Mirrorball’s reflecting of neo-sacral light makes me screw up my eyes and look for something providing some grubby heretic shade.

    There you go – entirely personal, but I guess we’re not here to be paragons of rigorous critical objectivity.

  10. Alan, your list reminds me that Rafael Toral was also an early rear-window gazer toward the footware and footpedal exhibitions of yesteryear, going so far on his Wave Field album as to mimic the cover of Loveless. Similarly, your mention of The Field, reminds me that the man behind that project issued a trio of beautiful ambient records under the names Porte and Cordouan on the Subsource netlabel, foreshadowing what one can almost see now as an emerging realm of post-Guthrie guitar ambience led, it seems, by those of the Manual/Syntaks/Aerosol/Ecovillage camp, with ties into the armchair guitar-graced armchair electropop of Styrofoam, Guitar, and others in the land of Morr Music. But curiously, this misnamed genre (I feel it is more useful to consider it as guitar psychedelia, tying it back to the German echoplexers – Manuel Gottsching, Achim Reichel, Gunter Schickert, Klaus Bloch – and the layered post-punk sound out of which it evolved) seems to lend itself unusually well to the abstract, the ambient, the drift. As for vocals, it might be useful to make a distinction between voice as texture, as seen here and among the shoegazing diaspora in the recent work of Syntaks, and voice as lead instrument, as in Foxx’s and Guthrie’s earlier groups, for it is safe to say that neither Foxx nor Liz Fraser were lazy singers in the “reverbs on stun” mode we might associate with what passes too often for vocal ambience, despite Fraser’s usually impenetrable lyrics (until the surprisingly grim ones of the late albums). But it is possible for dramatic, captivating vocals to be added to ambient music, and here I think of Bowie on Low (rather well echoed by Tobias Lilja in recent years) and Martyn Bates as part of Eyeless In Gaza or with Mick Harris, or even, to go back a bit further, Nico over the harmonium drones of The Marble Index. I wonder, then, what Mirrorball would have been had Foxx stepped closer to the mic and unleashed the sort of lyrics for which I still hope from the man who, along with Howard Devoto and Ian Curtis, put arty 1970s post-punk most memorably into words.

  11. Alan, I recommend Aidan Baker’s metallic ambient-drone as an ideal source of “grubby heretic shade” – with nothing remotely devotional about it, other than a very intense, palpable commitment to his sound.

    Indeed, I strongly recommend Aidan Baker in all of his non-Nadja guises (I struggle a bit with the sludgey doomrock that Mr & Mrs Baker make together…) as a counterweight to ‘Mirrorball’. To me, the contrast between the depth of Baker’s often beautiful, always intelligent & entirely personal takes on shoegaze/dream pop & Foxx/Guthrie is quite telling.

    Besides his many fine solo pieces & the Whisper Room, ARC & Tim Hecker collaborations, the dauntingly fecund Baker’s extra-Nadja stuff includes some great music with thisquietarmy. Both of them (if you don’t know his stuff, tqa is a solo performer) are also interesting in the context of this discussion as – contrary to Alan’s prohibition on ambienteers – they occasionally use vocals.

    However, little could be more unlike the self-conscious display of Foxx’s ‘wordless vocal’ sequence than their throwaway style. I’ve not always enjoyed that diffidence, which can be pretty weedy (‘Chainsaw’ on ‘Green & Cold’ is an example off the top of my head; there are certainly others, though the only tqa vocal I can think of immediately is a cover of Joy Division’s ’24 Hours’…).

    But aside from making use of an extra texture that’s easily at hand, I put it down to a similar impulse to Foxx’s improvisations with Guthrie: that we don’t want to be distracted from very subtle musical constructions by meaningful language that the brain can’t help locking on to.

    The difference is Foxx’s plummy, mannered “exhortation”, as Marc rightly terms it, draws even much attention to itself than conventional singing – perhaps even more so with some of the passages seeming to recur in different settings after ‘The Perfect Line’…

    Combine that with what is usually a sadly plodding musical backing & you have a recipe, for my taste anyway, to disappoint.

    If anyone’s interested, some earlier LMYE pieces on Baker/tqa are, &

  12. Julian reminds of yet another branch of the shoegazing diaspora: those in the post-industrial, post-cassette underground perhaps most well documented by Maeror Tri and its offshoots, Troum and Drone Records. And indeed a few months ago I witnessed Aidan Baker perform a gorgeous solo ambient guitar set along such lines on a stage later taken by Troum, but not before his partner in Nadja (which I rather like) came out for a blast of the grinding and metallic. And I have to agree that his recent collaboration with thisquietarmy, A Picture Of A Picture, is one of the best pieces of guitar ambience since Side 2 of Evening Star was first cast in vinyl, although it is perhaps closer to the oneiric grit of Mountains than to the high gloss blur of Mirrorball.

  13. Apologies if I seem to avoiding the subject under discussion, but invariably it’s the spin-offs from these discussions which prove more compelling than close focus on the source. I’m going to run with the post-shoegaze ambient-guitar thread which both Joshua and Julian picked up on. In fact, it’s Julian’s mention of Aidan Baker and thisquietarmy that prompted me to point a little project I informally set myself between 2007/8. As a sometime-guitarist (actually more of an ex-guitarist), I’d become fascinated by an emergent number of artists who’d explored the possibilities of the guitar in such a way as to take it beyond its ‘natural’ sound, and decided to document as many practitioners as I could, the only criterion for selection being that vague element of’beyondness’ – plus, I guess, my actually liking of it (hence omission of certain candidates such as Sunn 0))) and Fear Falls Burning).

    Anyway having spent a couple of years engaged on this on-off archaeology-cum-ethnography of what might be characterised as guitar-driven ambient-ish, shoegaze-y and drone-inclined music, I decided to put together some sort of audio-document to represent my trawl through the annals of the wielders of the stretched-out steel-stringed thing. It ended up in a marathon 5-volume compendium (like a kind of ambient-shoegaze-drone version of a DJ mix!) that I made available for download or for streaming from players on a blog-type thing of mine.

    So, anyway, I realise this 5-volume axe-fest might be too rich for some people’s blood, but I hope (some of) you might be inclined to enjoy (some of) it. It’s here:

    In further defence of the pertinence of all this to the discussion, I might offer in mitigation that a Robin Guthrie collab (with Harold Budd) is represented here.

    For the record, artists include:

    A Lily, Aarktica, Adam Pacione, Aidan Baker, Andrew Chalk, Apalusa, Area C, Belong, Ben-Fleury Steiner, Brian Grainger, Brian Lavelle, Byla, Christopher Willits, David Tagg, David Tollefson, Devin Sarno & GE Stinson, Eluvium, Exuviae, Fabio Orsi, Fennesz, Fripp/Eno, Frost, Gareth Hardwick, Giuseppe Ielasi, Hakobune, Hammock, Igneous Flame, Jason Sloan, Jasper TX, Jeff Pearce, Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Kiln, Koda, Labradford, lovesliescrushing, Machinefabriek, Main, Manual, Markus Reuter, Matt Borghi, Meursault, Mike van Portfleet, Monostation, mwvm, Neon, Opn, Our Sleepless Forest, Paul Bradley, Peter Wright, Rafael Toral, Rain-cloud, Rameses III, Remco Helbers, Rim, Robin Guthrie, Roy Montgomery, Scott Cortez, Scott Solter, Seconds in Formaldehyde, Seefeel, Shirk, Sleep Robot, Slow Dancing Society, Solyaris, Stars of the Lid, Sundummy, Suso Saiz, Taiga Remains, talkingmakesnosense, The Azusa Plane, thisquietarmy, Troum, True Colour of Blood, Ultra Milkmaids, Wereju, White Rainbow, Windy & Carl, Zac Keiller.

  14. Alan and everyone, it’s funny (coincidence funny, not ha-has funny) that the guitar should become a focus of discussion, because as I’ve thought more about what I don’t like about Mirrorball, the guitar has come to mind repeatedly — not as a subject of inspection, but as a model/example.

    What Mirrorball has confirmed for me is that, personally, as a listener, the voice is sort of where the guitar was a decade ago or so ago — it’s an ingredient so prominent in music, pop and otherwise, that I’m eagerly awaiting some sea change. Wishful thinking, yes.

    With the guitar, it was kind of a three-step process: a substantial percentage of electronic music ignored the guitar entirely, then work like Fennesz’s assisted in re-introducing the guitar in a heavily modified form, and then as comfort with its recontextualization occurred the guitar became even more prominent/recognizable.

    There are musicians who mess with their voices, and what makes Foxx stand out so much on Mirrorball is that for all Guthrie’s artfully murky production efforts, Foxx remains almost sacrosanct.

    It’s the same sort of disappointment I had with recent David Sylvian albums — the vocal remains, by and large, apart from the rest of the music. In the end, the result is background plus foreground, a very traditional mindset with lovely window-dressing.

  15. Alan’s reference to Jesse Somfay this week as an examplar of shoegazed techno & last week’s kraut-y background to our Mountains discussion mesh in a new remix of his: (LMYE coverage, includes MP3 & a Somfay original).

    It’s probably to labour the point. But even with their lineage the Foxx/Guthrie of ‘Mirrorball’ could learn a thing or two from his Doubled Up Foldable Iona Rarity (whatever that is!) version – how to sustain impact across a long ambient group piece composed from fairly simple elements & one dominant ‘voice’, in particular…

    Otherwise, can only take my hat off to Alan’s oh-so-casual “5-volume axe-fest” (!), add Christopher Willits to my way shorter ambient-shoegaze-drone panoply (it’ll be lengthened by those 5 vols, no doubt…), & thank Joshua for the very welcome inspiration to dig out ‘Evening Star’.

    As for Marc’s very worthwhile question about voices in the kinds of ambientronica we’re generally discussing here, the Punkt stuff from Norway comes to mind. I don’t know it so well, but Sidsel Endresen & her co-conspirators seem to be getting somewhere with treating her voice as another instrument subject to their live remixing (though she does also offer some Bjork-ish wailing that seems as hyper self-conscious in its way as Foxx).

  16. Alan, your list is exhaustive and has enough of the unknown on it to make me quite curious. I had the good fortune to catch one of three shows presented here a few weeks ago by the Root Strata label, which has put out quite a bit of such stuff (including a few of the names on that list), and was struck by the sets by Barn Owl and Grouper, although the former may be a bit metallic for some, and the latter does have some of those reverberated vocals known to produce profound distress for others among our group, unless they have, as I do, a special fondness for the Windy & Carl and Amp schools of post-Cocteau dreamscape gardening from one of which she might indeed be a graduate.

  17. I must say I wonder whether the voice would do well to follow the path of the guitar in experimental music. To best get at my worry, I will recall a pre-laptop but already digital example in a very distant area of music: jazz fusion. I heard a gasp. As it happens, my bandmate at the time was a huge fan of Stanley Clarke, and his “Jazz Explosion” tour provided a good opportunity to see him with five other similarly seasoned musicians in the late 1980s. Yes, this was jazz fusion, at least fifteen years past its sell-by date, and predictably it was overgrown with solos. Most memorable, however, were the intertwined solos of Allan Holdsworth on guitar in one of the stage’s front corners and Michael Brecker on trumpet in the other, and I must hasten to add that what made these memorable was not their stunning technique but instead their indistinguishability: each player had routed his instrument through so many footpedals (back to the gaze at one’s shoes) and such formidable walls of effects racks as to sound exactly like the other, and because they played continuously the only way to indentify the source of the notes was to notice whose foot was forward and whose was backward on his respective volume pedal. Apologies, that was a rather dreadful spectre conjure here, but at times I am reminded of it when I see a guitar processed through a laptop to the point of unrecognizability, for at that point I feel it is the laptop I am hearing rather than the guitar, and as a guitarist I wonder why one would want to process the guitar to such a decharacterizing extent. I worry then that the guitar begins to be become little more than a stage prop – you cannot really “wail” on a laptop, can you? – with the laptop as a crutch for the player. When this tendency finds the voice, the hazards are the same; does anyone here remember, for example, those albums by The Hafler Trio based on the voices of Blixa Bargeld and Jonsi Brigisson? The gimmick was a nice one, but these recordings would have sounded about the same had the voices of Teddy Ruxpin and Snoopy been used instead. Reduced to a sound source, one voice is really not much more interesting than another, whereas I find some of the voices discussed here – Scott Walker, David Sylvian, and on other records John Foxx – quite fascinating on their own. Perhaps the problem with the voice in this context is not its nakedness but its discomfort with that nakedness around computers and other processors.

  18. Julian, I actually had already picked up on the two Somfay tracks via your links on LMYE, and d/led the high bitrate versions, following the trail to FACT magazine’s daily download. Thanks! Great stuff (“Bristlecone” too), which illustrates the extent to which Somfay has moved towards a sonic hybrid that draws less and less on ‘Techno’ (look, ma, I ain’t no 4-on-the-floor doof-us), and more and more on the shoegaze legacy; and that, incidentally, could be seen to adumbrate his main influence, Boards of Canada, who I recall acknowledging the influence of the Cocteaus in an interview. Before you pooh-pooh, think about it: all that warbly spangly detuned-yet-in-tune glaze of keyboards is partly a descendant of that lineage. Anyway, while we’re on it, if you’re looking for a serious Somfay fix, you really should hear his magnum opus, the 27-minute shoegaze-techno epic “Fricative White (From a Whisper to a Scream), at least once, preferably under optimal scuzzed-up 4/4 cumulo-nimboid bliss-out conditions:

    As for those Root Strata gigs, Joshua, I’m envious – though I’m not enamoured of the gruzzier end of things represented by Barn Owl, I can imagine they psyched up a dronebuzzstorm live. And I’m afraid I seem to be one of the few who have not ‘got’ Grouper – maybe it’s the vocals, maybe not, but I don’t ‘hear’ what others seem to have heard; then again I was never a lover of local (non-)heroes, Flying Saucer Attack, who wrote the blueprint for this kind of lo-fi bleary will-this-do-vocal + post-Popol Vuh strum-blur guitar-fog balladry. I’m thinking more of the the likes of Jefre Cantu-Ledesma – whose best album, incidentally, “Garden of Forking Paths” was on Spekk, rather than his own label, Root Strata – and Taiga Remains – whose best release, incidentally, “Ribbons of Dust” – originally 3 individual sold out 3” cd-rs on his own Students of Decay lebal – was reissued bundled together as a full-length on… yep, Root Strata. Anyway, did either of ’em play?

    As for the thread on vocals, it’s best I just nod in recognition at Marc’s and Joshua’s on-the-mark reflections/observations, and stay on the sidelines, as it’s really not, nor ever has been, anywhere near My Thing to pursue an inquiry on the voice in – ambient or otherwise – music. I would only point to Roland Barthes’ seminal exploratory essay on The Grain of the Voice, and retreat, hoping, once again, that this blur of verbiage and riot of reference might distract from my unconscionable failure to directly address the topic of “Mirrorball” (y’know, that thing up there {gestures up top} we were s’posed to be {ahem} discussing ;-))

  19. So this week I’m not just staggering away from our discussion with a bucket of musical connections to follow up, but with a Barthes extract to read too? It’s been a fair few years since my last encounter with him, so thanks for the inspiration (&, as always, the awesome breadth of listening suggestions generated here!).

    No takers for Sidsel? Then a mostly tongue in cheek coda – perhaps Foxx should work with extracts from ‘The Grain of the Voice’ for his next piece – possibly backed by representatives of Alan’s “5-volume axe-fest”?

  20. On the festival, no, we had neither a solo Jefre Cantu-Ledesma set nor a Taiga Remains set, although the former could be heard in both Alps and Tarentel in parts of the festival I missed, and I have to agree that his (and Alp’s) music on Spekk is splendid. Perhaps closest to our topic – yes, that reflectory thing spinning drearily above the empty disco floor as the assembled multitudes are huddled over a laptop running Guitar Rig and Max/MSP at the bar – on Root Strata is the CD by Good Stuff House named, quite amusingly, Endless Bummer, even if the guitar drone there veers toward the cavernous clatter of K-Group more than toward the amniotic comforts of the Cocteau Twins.

  21. I haven’t read that Barthes grain/voice piece in a long time, but I will as this conversation tapers off. This has been great.

    On the Root Strata tip, I went to the first of the three concerts mentioned above — my write-up here: — and three of the acts that day used vocals, two electronically futzed-with, and one a glossolalia mixed in with the instrumental noise. It was a definite theme to the show.

    I’m ultimately with Alan on the overall vocals subject — I was a child of rock’n’roll, originally heavily into vocals, but as the years have passed they’ve gone from neutral to active disinterest. A transition for me was vocal work that, unlike Foxx’s ultimately hearty and self-conscious efforts on Mirrorball, aspire to something ethereal, from early church music (Byrd, Palestrina) to more recent choral work (Arvo Pärt, John Tavener). Gavin Bryars’s first version of Jesus’s Blood is another important-to-me example of successful use of voice as a textural/instrumental element even when it retains verbal content (the original version, not the Tom Waits); ditto the oft-cited “Sitting in a Room” by Alvin Lucier.

  22. Oops, nearly forgot, in re: the 5 vols of axescapades, there was a 6th got added later! And this one ties up with the ‘ball thang cos of a Guthrie/Budd inclusion (from the overall somewhat wet “After the Night Falls” on drippy Darla – maybe would benefit from having Julian’s mate, Sidsel, spray some laryngeal fluids over it), so thought I’d lob it in here before the curfew on this discussion. ‘ere y’are:

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