Skillzy – 2004


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skillzy2004 was the year when the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra started to find its feet. Of the original cast, Tim continued to play with us for the duration of the band’s existence; Deo played with us for a few more gigs but as the band became noisier, amplifying his tablas adequately became more difficult and his frustration at getting heard caused him to leave. Jim didn’t play any gigs after the first one; his flight back from Cork was delayed and he missed the second gig, which was being organised by Mark Pilkington, who joined the band to fill his place. In a similar fashion, Al Robertson, who had put us on at Brixton Alive, became our regular bassist. Of the old Platform Five(5) posse: Richard and Seth were regular players in the Stellas. The other Richard, Richard Guest, was another regular, as was Giles Narang, who was mostly drumming with Now at the time.

Richard and I established The Drones Club at The Eye in Stoke Newington, and the Stellas became the house band, something which I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about. Then again Richard put in most of the hard work in organising these nights; I did little more than come up with the name, the ethos and the first poster. Many of the Stellas, both Richards and Mark, were also involved in the Kosmische club.

While the Stellas was an exciting project, I often had misgivings about the musical results of the experiment and I lacked the experience, and perhaps the charisma, to fully communicate how I would like the band to develop. So, once again, the Skillzy album, or to give it its full name, Skillzy Krishna & The Vorticist Bar Combo Featuring The Original Entropy Circus All Stars, became a vent for this frustration. Indeed one of the key tracks on the album, Raga Jalfrezi, would become the blueprint for my first solo gigs later in the year.

383607968_c1a6e6abb0_oThe key element of Raga Jalfrezi is the Jerry Jones Baby Sitar. This instrument is a high grade reproduction of the Danelectro Sitar built by the Nashville based luthier, Jerry Jones. It has a guitar neck and a jivari bridge rather than a standard guitar bridge. The jivari is lower than a guitar bridge and is angled to coax harmonics out of the strings; the sitar tone of the instrument is entirely mechanical. Raga Jalfrezi is a fake raga played against tabla loops from Cool Edit and electronic bubbles from the Red Sound Darkstar. It is the logical conclusion of many drone based guitar experiments that I had made over the years; I had the action on my Danelectro set particularly low to get some of this harmonic twang.

The Baby Sitar appears on three tracks on this album: Raga Jalfrezi, Baba Drone und der Mittlesex Fuzz and It Was The Day of the Dagenham Prawns. In addition, the humbucker sound of a Daisyrock flower-shaped guitar features on many of the rockier tracks here. The opening track, Lord of the Air, takes its cues from the proggier Sabbath Bloody Sabbath compositions by Black Sabbath, with a touch of Can in the mid-section. Lyrically it is a gnostic take on Paradise Lost from the viewpoint of Satan. It’s at least fifty per cent tongue in cheek.

There are also two reinterpretations of the motorik final section of Headkickers Revival Church here. These are both quite short and make a feature of tightly filtered frequency ranges in the mix, as well as surface glitches in the output from my laptop’s soundcard. There are two other instrumental rock-outs here: Riffin’, which is largely a set of piss-takes on pentatonic rock posturing, and Complex Heavy Place, which is a more serious examination of rock dynamics of the Mixolydian mode. Complex Heavy Place was named after a genius loci that Jim and I had discovered near the Lea Bridge Road.

The new version of Piece’o’Shit, originally from Paddington Hardstare five years earlier, is perhaps the key indication of my dissatisfaction here. There were things that I couldn’t do in the larger context of the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra, a band that was growing faster in terms of quantity of members than in terms of musical competence. I remember complaining at a band meeting that I wanted to be able to do “all that pretty shit” and the wall of sound, that the band had become, made that near impossible.

The title of the album was partly derived from my nom de guerre in the band. I had adopted the name Skillzy Stella after finding the word Skillzy sprayed on a wall near the river in North Woolwich. The implied multitude of players, The Vorticist Bar Combo and The Original Entropy Circus All Stars, was clearly an ironic comment upon the ever-expanding drone orchestra.

By the winter I would be playing Raga Jalfrezi solo anywhere that would take me. It was often a terrifying experience getting onto a stage without a gang behind me. Sometimes the results were unsatisfying but I was in a constant, rapid process of improvement, gaining confidence and experience so that I could feel that I had the authority to explain my ideas in a live context. For this and many other reasons, it would be another four years before I completed another album.

Skillzy Krishna & The Vorticist Bar Combo Featuring The Original Entropy Circus All Stars can be downloaded from archive.org.

Next: Nand Gate.

Royal Free Electric – 2003


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6835562290_f6907bc364_oAfter the first Stella Maris Drone Orchestra gig in September it was almost five months before we regrouped for another gig. Becoming impatient I decided to record another EP, or mini-album. Royal Free Electric, like Stella Maris before it, was not explicitly an Entropy Circus project. I had seen the three words adjacently to each other on my desk. They reminded me of the title of Gila’s first album, Free Electric Sound. Royal Free Electric was intended as a love letter to 1971: pushing the krautrock envelope, but not necessarily in the fashionable beat driven sense of the Kosmische Club.

The opening track Hekababa opens with a twelve-string and an electric guitar meandering around each other, exploring the Dorian mode and building up density. The second half of the track finds a military drum tattoo, borrowed from the first Amon Duul II album, accelerating ever faster as a synth tone howls higher and higher against fuzz wahed guitar. Gradual timestretching across the track allowed me precise control over the tempo change.

The middle track, Dieter Doppelwah & His Swinging Elektronische Pseudokraut Band Start Up, is a metronomic number built on the foundation of a blunt bassline with shifting repetitions. The dopplewah of the title refers to the use of a Crybaby wah and the autowah on the Korg Pandora in tandem, making the fuzz guitar break up into filthy glitches. This track probably epitomises the idea of krautrock adhered to by most critics, and the fact I heard it playing at the Kosmische club one time makes it even more certainly generic.

97995850_50294ee964_bThe final track however represent a sort of krautrock that was little represented by the club or by critics at the time. It is modelled upon Amon Duul II’s Sandoz in the Rain from the fourth side of their Yeti album. Herr Sandoza’s Plaint wails through delirium at a Strindberg-like knot of family anxieties. It is drenched with cavernous reverbs which it eventually dissolves into.

The cover of this EP is significant for several reasons. It is, for the first time, based upon digital photo; scanned images that been used for all of the previous CD covers. The mirrored abstraction of the front cover is merely iconic, a glyph to represent the contents; while the on the back cover Marx and Engels, against glitched Commodore 64 graphics on a television, vanish away into space. The inner fold shows a Photoshop recoloured view of the pergola at Golders Hill Park on one side, and glimpses of Telephonecomplex Studio on the other. Five years later I would move to Golder Green. Perhaps this was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, or the desired prize in a cave painting.

Royal Free Electric was recorded very quickly; in less than a week. Working quickly allowed all sorts of intuitive processes to take the foreground. The Stella Maris EP and Royal Free Electric, both recorded in this year, used more compact and direct methods of recording. I returned to this format several times over the years. The length of an album is in many ways a relic of historical carrier media; the standard length of the album being set by the capacity of 33rpm vinyl and then extended by compact disc. I found with these two shorter projects that working on the basis of limited attention span could be far more efficient.

Royal Free Electric can be streamed or downloaded from archive.org.

Next: Skillzy.

Stella Maris LP – 2003


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6835562204_76cb90df11_oBefore the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra was formed another set of recordings was completed. The Stella Maris LP, The Entropy Circus Present Stella Maris, brings the new recording techniques using Cool Edit to a more typical Entropy Circus album. The gliding dronescapes of the Stella Maris EP only really recur in the first section of the fifteen minute closing track Headkickers Revival Church, which is more notable for complex jump-cut edits in the middle section which brings in a fully motorik groove, which in spite of its Mixolydian major tonality employs significant chromaticism.

Elsewhere there are more songwriterly tracks occurring: Wah Wah Baker deploys a melodic structure reminiscent of Elizabethan madrigals during the verse part and during the chorus, which explicitly references Boney M’s Ma Baker, it crunches into what is possibly the most metal thing that I had recorded thus far.

The metal is back in two sections of Attar, here accompanied by Moogish riffing on the Red Sound Darkstar, in a groove which was clearly inspired by Kling Klang; I had met Joe Klang on KRMB and had seen them play several times when they came down to London from Liverpool. The other part of Attar is a loping 3/4 number, not unlike You Don’t Bring Me Fishes on Quails Are Given. It is a hazy, broken narrative of loss which cannot decide whether it is taking place during snow or a shower of roses. It is also in strong contrast to the Moog metal section of the track. The two halves are bolted together almost arbitrarily and the frame of the title Attar holds them in place.

9038931843_a1a72feded_kThe other song on this album, Juggernaut, is a chiming drone pop complaint: “every day is a juggernaut that’s bearing down on me”. There are hints of Indian folk music on here which suggest the Lord of the Universe, Jagganatha, who is etymologically implied by the juggernaut. The lyrics however reference CS Lewis and the Jehovah’s Witness kingdom hall in Stamford Hill. I’ve attempted to play this one several times live and some of the lines are difficult to sing in conjunction with one another; the places where one would usually breathe are sometimes absent. I suspect that I might have recorded the vocals in several takes and then patched it together.

The two other instrumental here are a mixture of old and new. On The Lighting Panels Are Full of Insects, the lead guitar is filtered through the Darkstar; a fast LFO fluttering its overdrive with strange vibrato. And The Last Overcoat Made in Walthamstow attempts to fuse bossa nova with the mood of Slow Plough from Paddington Hardstare. The playing however feels brittle on this. My technique didn’t feel up to the challenges of this piece. Either the way that I had played the original was no longer in my repetoire or some indefinable alchemy that had allowed me to record Slow Plough was now lost.

But there was a lot of good new material arriving, and there were new techniques developing as I got to grips with Cool Edit. And while drones were present, especially those generated by timestretching single notes, there was a lot of melodic material here which was a definite move away from the Stella Maris EP. So, by the time that the Stella Maris Drone Orchestra happened in the autumn I was already doing quite different things.

There is one hint of the sleevenotes which may account for the importance of engaging with live music: “this album is dedicated to the memory of Denise Fontenoy”. My maternal grandmother had died earlier in the year and my my grandfather would follow her in a few months. This had acted as a sort of memento mori. It felt important to do things and do them now, and going out into the world and playing music in front of people felt like one of those urgent things that I had to do. Unfortunately, at least at first, it wouldn’t develop quickly enough.

Stella Maris LP can be streamed or downloaded from archive.org.

Next: Royal Free Electric.

Stella Maris EP- 2003


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stellamarisThe new Warner Flat, this time on the ground floor, was quickly established with a new studio, Telephonecomplex. I acquired my first virtual analogue synth, a Red Sound Darkstar and a new, more powerful laptop, but it took around six months to settle to making any new music that I was satisfied with. There were odds and ends of experiments but nothing was completed until the early months of 2003.

Even though Stella Maris was only two tracks, it was a crucial moment. Using Cool Edit Pro on the new laptop, I moved away from quarter inch tape recording. Quite apart from the convenience of hard disk recording, tape was relatively expensive and not widely available. Cool Edit would allow me to manipulate loops with far greater sophistication than ever before.

Stella Maris One, is a relatively short drone piece, which is densely composed around a melody in the Sephardic Freygish scale. I had been toying with this riff for several years and here with looped tablas, Darkstar warbles and a drone constructed from two seconds of guitar, timestretched to several minutes, it turns into a potent machine.

The second track, Stella Maris Two, is a longer piece, more freeform and improvisational. Again it uses tabla loops, and timestretched drones, but here there is far more freedom. The wah bass and the brittle guitar dance around each other, while a tight synth pans on the beat from hard left to hard right.

In some ways these are not very different from things that I had recorded before, but the focus and the editing are far more controlled. The emphasis on drone was clearly something that was in the air at the time because I was asked by several people, including Mark Pilkington, about playing Stella Maris live. I turned them down because there was no band, this was a recording project. There is no clear indication whether Stella Maris was a new and distinct band from the Entropy Circus or whether this was just the name of the EP. I had seen the name Stella Maris on a church in Hastings one weekend, but it had also appeared in a piece from the 14th century El Llibre Vermell, that I was listening to a lot at the time. The whole editing process came to me during that weekend, and two stones I found on the beach became the cover images for the sleeve.

8661928029_f82163e913_oI had moved onto another set of recording, called Entropy Circus Presents Stella Maris, that autumn when Al Robertson, whose Brixton Alive night I was designing posters for, asked me whether I could put on Stella Maris live. This time for some reason I said yes. In Chewton Road my friends Gyrus and Grufty Jim were living over the road. Jim, Tim and Deo were enlisted into the band, playing acoustic guitar with a fan, jew’s harp and fiddle, and tablas respectively. I was playing twelve string acosutic Since there were already at least two bands called Stella Maris – one from Israel, the other from Bosnia – I decided to call the band The Stella Maris Drone Orchestra.

It was the first gig that I had played since Platform Five(5)’s cataclysmic debut at the Klinker in 1999. It was entirely acoustic and we were playing to a lively Brixton audience. We played an extended improvisation modelled upon Stella Maris Two. It was absolutely terrifying but somehow it came off.

Stella Maris can be streamed or downloaded from archive.org.

Next: Stella Maris LP.

p00 – 2002


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6835562022_d888a75e02_oBy mid-2001 I was becoming restless with my projects online. Radio KRMB had probably said everything about krautrock that could be said, the fictions on Narcotic Transmissions continued but with less of the urgency of the pre/post Y2K era, and my website often looked very pretty but was lacking in fresh content. In search of new directions I toyed with the idea of building a gallery site dedicated to the work of the illustrator Mal Dean, who died in the mid-70s. While trying to find his widow Libby Houston, I contacted various New Worlds writers from the period. Michael Moorcock put me in touch with M John Harrison.

As it turned out Mike Harrison couldn’t tell me how to contact Libby Houston but he did need help with building his website. In working on Mike’s site I came in contact with writers, editors and fans accumulating around The Third Alternative forums, where the originally discussions on the development of the New Weird took place. Amongst a host of people who I came into contact with on this period was the painter David Lloyd, whose covers appeared on the Night Shade books editions of two of Mike’s books. I visited David several times while he was living in Whitstable and one day he asked if I would like a cover for my next album.

The cover of p00 is an early iteration of one of his paintings. He sent me the photo, I scanned it and then pasted a photo from the grounds of the Milennium Dome into the background. By the time I was doing the cover, I had acquired my first laptop, a chunky refurbished Packard Bell, ostensibly for website work and writing.

However, while this machine wasn’t powerful enough for what we called at the time “hard disk recording”, it was powerful enough for sampling. I downloaded Madtracker, a PC descendent of the old Amiga tracker programs that I used in the 90s. There was something tentative about my early experiments with sampling on this scale. I could now sample whole riffs and loop them and process them to within an inch of their life. It didn’t feel quite legitimate. It was exciting but I was a little afraid of the apparent inauthenticity of the process. Making drum machine parts with Madtracker was fine but looping my guitar felt unmusicianly; it was a qualm that I would grow out of as time went on.

97992708_8cfab4ad06_oThe two tracks that use extensive sampling and looping on this album, Upside Down (Inside Out) and Inside Out (Upside Down) are perhaps the least satisfactory pieces on this album. The playing on them is fine and the integration of the technology works but I forgot to record anything particularly interesting. Far better are the tracks that make use of Madtracker in more a tangential fashion: Massy Palaiseau, Baby p00 and The Media’s Darling II.

The Media’s Darling appears in three versions on this album. It is a cover version of a track by Zebulldada, a collective that Ian Price was involved with. I knew Ian from KRMB and we were also doing a transatlantic recording project together called The M00nm0ths. The Media’s Darling was actually a Joe Baker number. I changed one line from the original: “local boy makes good on this threats at you” becomes “Ian Price makes good on this threats at you”. The first version of the track is quite delirious and ethereal, while the second is harder and angrier. Joe liked the second version better. I used Madtracker to construct a drum machine part for this but found that it sounded too clean when recorded straight to the Fostex A8 reel-to-reel, so I dirtied up the sound by recording the laptop speakers directly with a microphone.

The long track on this album, The Analeptic Kings Play The Bistro Californium, was a direct reference to M John Harrison’s Viriconium novels. Amongst other sounds on this track, there are emulated Commodore 64 and Amiga synthesizer programs. One of the other things that the laptop was good for was software emulation of older computers. One of the Commodore 64 tape emulation formats was called “p00” which was the first of the reasons for the name of this album.

After Bozz Bozz had died the previous winter, we had adopted another cat, from Judy, a colleague and friend from the library where I was working. This large, neurotic black and white cat was originally called Shadow, but we decided to rename her Qwertyuiop Poltroon, but she was also addressed by other names such as Trimphone, on account of some of her strange noises, and Poo. The album ends with a close recording of the cat purring and making one of her strange noises.

p00 isn’t an altogether successful album. There are many new techniques on there, and there are individual tracks that I like; the blowsy melodic shoegaze pop of The Trees feels very much in the spirit of a David Lloyd painting. But maybe the album is uneven because I wasn’t quite comfortable with the new technology and its implications at the time. The album was mixed down in early 2002 and a few months later we were forced to move flat when the landlord decided to sell. We found another Warner flat, nearer to Blackhorse Road, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I managed to complete any satisfactory new material.

p00 can be streamed and downloaded from archive.org.

Next: Stella Maris.