“Little Appeal”, the latest release from Melbourne’s Lower Spectrum, is a night album. It was created at night and is best experienced at night. In the dark hours there’s less movement. Fewer people. The city is lit so dramatically, so…cinematically. I’ve taken a greater interest in such music over the last year, especially in the work of artists like Ensemble Enconomique, the blacker-than-black sounds of the UK’s Blackhoods, and local artist Angel Eyes.
Then of course there’s the music Alex Zhang Hungtai creates as Dirty Beaches. This years “Drifters/Love Is The Devil” is by far my favourite album of 2013, and this has a lot to do with it being a night music tour de force, a brilliant evocation of the nocturnal urban landscape .
To my senses, the sounds these musicians are creating share some relation to the strange and often violent undercurrents that exist in the films of Lynch and Winding Refn. The violence in this music is perhaps not as graphic as say, the scene in “Only God Forgives” where a man has skewers rammed into his ears (and many other body parts), but there is an inferred sinisterness in this music, a similar sort of tension that dominates such a film. A subtle sense of dread pulses through the electronic dominated soundscapes these artists create, contrasted with moments of disarming beauty. It’s music that may incorporate elements of drone, modern classical and ambient, though the important aspect is the creation of a certain atmosphere. Listen to the opening track of Ensemble Enconmique’s latest release – a split with Italian outfit Heroin and Tahiti – listen to it in the dark.
These are sounds to be experienced with only secretive night cats and indifferent street lights for company. With your breath billowing before you in a street shaped by shadows. Such music enhances the night and gives everything an intangible sense of cool. It may also make you feel like you’re on your way to some sort of illicit deal (and hey, maybe you are).
I recently had a drink with Ned Beckley of Lower Spectrum at Clifton Hill bar Some Velvet Morning (not at night but during bleary Melbourne daylight hours) and we talked about his new album, amongst other things. The creation of “Little Appeal” is a unique tale. It was conceived during a six month globe spanning trip that covered Asia, Europe and the USA. Equipped with a laptop, a zoom mic and two midi controllers, Beckley would take in his surroundings during the day and create music at night, drawing on inspiration from what he had seen that day. The album was then fleshed out upon return to Australia in rural Victoria. At night.
“Little Appeal” is an accomplished expression of self and place. We talk about the “pure creativity” that comes with travel, something that many experience but are unable to translate to actual art as successfully as Beckley does on this album. While the bustle of cities inspired elements of his compositions, he tells me how the landscape provided a greater amount of creative fuel – the sonic shapes of Little Appeal are borne more from “rolling deserts and deep forests” than from teeming cities. The contrasting and at times bizarre experiences also provided inspiration, from witnessing the peculiarity of Arab Idol, to playing a baby grand piano in a Tuscan castle, to the cultural cacophony of San Francisco and New York. Ned documented his experiences on Tumblr during the trip, pairing images of French vineyards and Berlin street art with these gestating musical creations that were posted to Soundcloud.
“It was such a good thing to do, being able to listen to the sounds and look at the images – it’s a nice sort of memory that’s concrete. You don’t often look at you memories and hear them too. Like the way you’d look at a video, or a moving image…it’s a special thing.”
A wholly different recording process, one that makes studio production look positively stale and, well, uncreative. The results are one of the finest electronic releases of the year. Each piece is lush with atmospheric layers of sound, mining deep sonic ideas that stretch beyond the time frame in which they exist. “Sanctity” is a fine example of this. Skittering beats are gradually introduced over layers of slowly building brass and piano and a strange tension develops, one that is both serenely cool and disconcerting. Make your way down that checkered hallway and close those red curtains behind you sir, there’s someone here to see you.
Elsewhere the manic rhythms of “Hollow” remind me of my own adventures through South East Asia though Ned points out that Little Appeal is not a travelogue. The dense rhythms and dark sonic terrain of “Little Appeal” are designed to evoke a feeling of night. This is reflected in the artwork for the album, a blackened scene of a service station that is reminiscent of the work of American photographer Will Govus. Says Beckley – “It is how I imagined people would perceive what the music would look like.”
It’s an interesting notion and something many musicians seem to neglect, the close connection between vision and sound. It’s a concept that many of these smaller labels that I’m interested in realise, providing the artists they represent with carefully crafted packaging that captures their sound and identity. Though interested in working with labels in the future, this has been very much an independent release for Beckley.
While Lower Spectrum did perform live as a duo for sometime, the project is now very much a solo endeavour and this independence informs the choices Ned makes in distributing his music online. A record label was interested in the new album after it was uploaded to Bandcamp, asking him to remove the album and organise a single launch rather than an album launch. Beckley declined, preferring to retain full control over how the music was released into the world.
“I don’t really like the conventions of doing a single and teasing it out. With this album I perceived it as a whole piece. I didn’t want to break it apart…I like the DIY approach.”
There’s no rules in online music, only what works best for you. Beckley is not fiercely independent, but merely independent – clear minded and aware of how he wants his music to exist in the digital space (loves Bandcamp, Soundcloud – not so much). Already he has seen decent returns on the pay-what-you want system of Bandcamp after just one week of activity. We sip our beers and concur that good music will find a way to be heard and that good people will pay money for it. It’s comforting to find affirmation of this notion as I sometimes fear I am becoming idealistic in my attitudes towards digital music. Clear eyes and open minds, friends.
Beckley brings up catching Nils Frahm while in New York and we discuss his interest in the modern classical movement. He describes his own music as sitting somewhere between this genre and the term “experimental”. “Erasing Form” is perhaps the best indication of the straddling of styles, with lilting piano giving way to what sounds like a futuristic factory, busy with laser driven machinery and pulsing neon light.
It’s music that exists within an exciting realm of sonic creativity, where artists conjure music that is not solely concerned with the act of listening, but also of seeing and experiencing. Perhaps this realm is “cinematic”. Or maybe it’s “nocturnal”.
Since I met with Ned he’s relocated to Perth to work on new ventures and be inspired by new surroundings. Not only do I identify with the music of Lower Spectrum as being part of this “new nocturnal” but in talking with Ned I get a strong sense of someone who is very much a modern musician, an artist who is revelling in the current state of music. He sees this as an exciting time to be an artist : not complaining about what digital music takes away but rejoicing in what it provides, seeking out new creative approaches, and moving forward, always moving forward. It will be exciting to follow his output while in Western Australia. I hear the night skies out there are incredible.
Lower Spectrum on Tumblr
Lower Spectrum on Bandcamp