The month’s best reissues: Suzanne Ciani, the beginning of hip-hop and Algerian exotica
Thanks to the graft of reissue labels and canny collectors, there’s an embarrassment of neglected, forgotten or misunderstood material being unearthed week by week.
The volume of new-old music doesn’t outpace new-new music, of course, but it’s not too far behind either. With so many more archival releases turning up on shelves, we’ve worked though the stacks to pick our favorite reissues and retrospectives of the last month.
Mikey IQ Jones digs through this month’s best releases, featuring a lost synthesizer odyssey, Algerian and Tunisian film soundtracks, early hip-hop and electro, avant garde bagpipes, crucial no wave and more.
10. Glenn Branca
Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus)
Influential New York composer Glenn Branca’s first large scale symphonic work, Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus), was released in 1983 on noted NYC cassette label ROIR. Coming hot on the heels of his lauded underground classics Lesson No. 1 and The Ascension, Tonal Plexus was an epic wonder building upon Branca’s “guitar army” concept. The eight-strong guitar line alone includes no wave/post-punk figureheads like Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Barbara Ess of Y Pants and Theoretical Girls, Cuban music scholar Ned Sublette, and Branca himself, bolstered by a drummer, multiple keyboards, and a horn section.
They take cues from the pulsating krautrock of Neu! but multiply their minimalist approach to create a thick, near-impenetrable density, slowly building crescendoes until they’re practically piled atop one another. Tonal Plexus is one of Branca’s key early works and has been unavailable on vinyl since 1991, when the Danceteria label first issued it outside of the original cassette format. This is another important document of downtown NYC experimental composition, made during one of the city’s most fertile periods.
9. Ahmed Malek
Musique Originale De Films
The intriguing new Habibi Funk label offers up a platter of gorgeous film cues by Algerian maestro Ahmed Malek, a man who served as composer for a great deal of Algerian and Tunisian film and television projects in the 1960s and ‘70s. Musique Originale De Films is one hell of a crash course in his sound, blending Euro-Arabic takes on British jazz motifs with hand drums and cosmic synth splatter.
Stylistically, Malek’s style hovers somewhere between the lush DIY sound lab experiments of François De Roubaix, Roy Budd’s cop thriller exotica, and the madcap desert pop of the Tafo Brothers. It’s one of the best LPs I’ve discovered this year, overflowing with “classic” cuts as well as a number of previously unheard cues, along with an eight-page pullout booklet diving into the composer’s history and pedigree. Soundtrack collectors and global jazz heads would be wise to investigate this one post-haste.
8. Vivien Goldman
Resolutionary (Songs 1979-82)
British music critic and journalist Vivien Goldman was a key mover and shaker behind the scenes during the salad days of the UK’s post-punk/DIY boom. She was one of the weekly music papers’ loudest champions of reggae music and the sounds of the African diaspora, which were slowly working their way into the record collections of punks and art rebels throughout the scene. Goldman also recorded a scant handful of excellent singles during the period, made in collaboration with the likes of Adrian Sherwood, David Toop, Robert Wyatt, and members of Public Image Ltd, Aswad, and The Flying Lizards.
The eight songs collected on Resolutionary — which collects her Dirty Washing EP, her two contributions to The Flying Lizards’ 1979 eponymous debut album, and her rare 1982 EP recorded as Chantage — are mini marvels unto themselves, intimate snapshots of modern domestic and financial dissonance, police harassment, and the search for modern love in the punk era as viewed through an intelligent feminist lens.
Her charming girl-next-door vocals are intertwined by psychedelic exercises in dub technique, casting Goldman as Alice wandering through the looking glass into a world of musique concréte, reggae, French-Caribbean cadence, and spindly free improv. Sherwood and David Cunningham’s production is an excellent bed for her playful diva moves, and the collection works as a portrait of what made this era so magical, even during times of stress and sociopolitical strife. It’s wonderful to finally have these crucial releases compiled into one tidy, remastered package.
7. Suzanne Ciani
Buchla Concerts 1975
American synthesist Suzanne Ciani has had a much-deserved renaissance in recent years thanks to the tireless enthusiasm of Finders Keepers label head Andy Votel, whose numerous archival Ciani reissues have helped elevate her beyond her longstanding status as a founding mother of new age music. This newest archival dispatch, however, may just be the best and most important yet — two beautiful side-long explorations created solely using a modular synthesizer from Buchla, where, at the time, Ciani was an employee.
The album is unlike anything else in Ciani’s catalogue, and stands as an outlier in much of the analogue/modular synthesis canon of the era as well; her approach to and manipulation of the instrument is absolutely fluid, displaying an intuitive harmony with the device that few others were displaying at the time.
There’s a lush, dreamlike quality to these recordings, but there’s an undeniable authority to her performance as well — Ciani, only 29 years old in 1975, was already a master of her craft, and Buchla Concerts 1975 provides an intriguing slice of “what if” alternate history that, had it seen release at the time, could have led electronic music down paths it took considerably longer to reach.
6. Various Artists
Boombox: Early Independent Hip Hop, Electro And Disco Rap
Soul Jazz has a reputation for top-notch compilations that offer crash courses in a variety of styles and genres both beloved and obscure; they are, in essence, the K-Tel of the millennial generation. Their latest release is a lengthy investigation into the sounds of New York City’s early electronic rap productions, the records that soundtracked block parties and breaking competitions across the five boroughs between 1979 and 1982.
This is the underground rap scene’s early DNA, filled with legitimate post-funk bangers played by live bands, maintaining the party roots of the sound’s foundation records but transitioning into a more nuanced and fully arranged presentation. The compilation also shows clear vocal evolutions, with rhymes and deliveries growing increasingly complex with the rhythms, though the lyrical focus is still centered around social/party contexts.
There’s a heavy focus on sultry post-disco grooves too, with supple rubbery bass lines and polyrhythmic percussion arrangements, as well as some great synth and drum machine augmentation, documenting the shift into electro’s more aggressive future-shock palette. This is one of the best Soul Jazz sets in ages, a legitimate party in a box, overflowing with underground deep cuts that have seldom — if ever — been spotted on other collections.
5. Caroline K
Now Wait For Last Year
(Blackest Ever Black)
Blackest Ever Black do us all a solid with their new vinyl reissue of a key industrial underground release from Caroline K, co-founder of Nocturnal Emissions and the influential Sterile label, who first sent music by the likes of Lustmord, MB, and SPK out into the world. Now Wait For Last Year, her only solo release, is a sound portrait painted in sensual greyscale; evocative synthesizer textures and softly pulsating metallic rhythms underpin eerie whistles and ritualistic drones, creating thick clouds of menace and subtle tension throughout.
This is a gorgeous record in the bleakest sense, offering a more seductive context to a scene not known for its subtlety, hovering somewhere between dark ambient, sex magick, and post-Lynchian environmental recording. Having been reissued a few times on CD over the years, this is the album’s first vinyl reissue, and as usual, BEB does a masterful job.
4. Various Artists
Space Echo: The Mystery Behind The Cosmic Sound Of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed
This brilliant compilation of 1970s tropical Afrofuturism on the reliable Analog Africa label tells the beguiling story of the cosmic dance grooves of Cabo Verde, then an African-Portuguese island territory, off the West African coastline. According to legend, a boat with no crew carrying a cargo of state-of-the-art synthesizer equipment was discovered on a Verdean beach, a long way from its intended destination of Rio de Janeiro. After government involvement, the gear was distributed throughout Verdean schools, and suddenly the island’s traditional folk dances were thrust into the modern age.
Much of the stunning funaná and coladeira sounds heard on Space Echo were created by Paulino Vieira and his band Voz De Cabo Verde, and they offer dazzling displays of virtuosity, fusing the polyrhythms of Portugal and Latin America to silvery New York disco grooves and ample helpings of DIY space age keyboards, like Sun Ra fronting the Fania All-Stars during an extended Angolan residency. This is one of the most fun and spectacular Analog Africa releases to date, shining light upon a sound that almost didn’t happen.
3. Yoshi Wada
Off The Wall
Japanese composer and sound artist Yoshi Wada is a master of the extended compositional drone. One of the earliest co-conspirators in the influential Fluxus art movement with founder George Maciunas in New York City, and later a student of influential Hindustani vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, Wada’s large-scale sound works often incorporate his studies of bagpipe and vocal technique, usually via a series of monstrous mechanical “pipe horns” crafted from plumbing pipes, industrial tubing, and air compressors. These mutant devices elicit deep, reed-based tones which echo the bagpipe in their use of continuous and evolving tone clusters, and through his work with these remarkable instruments, Wada manages to fuse his Fluxus-based love of found materials as art objects with the rich raga meditations of his studies with Nath.
The majority of his scant few records have seen reissue in recent years on Japan’s excellent EM label. EM reissued 1985’s Off The Wall (which originally emerged on Germany’s influential FMP imprint) on CD back in 2008, but this new vinyl reissue, from Wada’s son Tashi Wada’s fledgling Saltern label, finally brings this important piece of sound art back onto record shelves for the digitally impaired.
Off The Wall features two side-long meditations performed by an ensemble, including Wada and Wayne Hankin on bagpipes and pipehorns, Marilyn Bogerd on an adapted pipehorn organ constructed by Wada, and percussionist Andreas Schmidt Neri. Together, they explore a sound that seemingly references the endless night flights taken by the Master Musicians Of Jajouka, the harmolodic free interplay of Ornette Coleman, and the medieval dirges of the Scottish highlands, yet never truly mimics them.
It was a singular work in the FMP catalogue, long known for its coverage of Europe’s free improv and avant-jazz communities, and even in 2016 Off The Wall stands alone, an outlier among outliers, forever droning to the art gods, ready to sing its alien song to a new generation of listeners.
2. The Lines
The Lines were a London group with a slim discography who dropped a slew of singles and albums on the Red Records label (best known for issuing early work by Bill Laswell’s avant-funk collective Material) before seeming to vanish without a trace. New York label Acute Records first recontextualized the band’s forgotten legacy back in 2008 with a pair of excellent anthologies, and now it finally releases the band’s “lost” third album, Hull Down.
Recorded among and shortly after the sessions for their 1983 swansong Ultramarine, the tracks collected on Hull Down are fractured cubist clusters of robotic synthpop and what could almost be considered pop-industrial, contrasting jagged machine rhythms with arid synthscapes and vaporous atmospheres. Eventually the band drifted apart and the recordings were shelved and forgotten as singer Rico Conning began a career as an engineer, remixing and recording the likes of Depeche Mode, Wire, Coil, and Swans.
While The Lines were indeed contemporaries of these groups, their sound on Hull Down somehow manages to blend many of each band’s best DNA strands, winking in the direction of the post-punk era’s most visceral styles but creating a racket uniquely their own. Dan Selzer at Acute has “create[d] a version of what might’ve been a third LP”, dusting off the original cassette sessions and in the process shining a bright neon light on a band that should be far more well known, exploring sounds and textures that resonate just as powerfully today as they could have back then.
Acute’s catalogue is filled with lost gems from this era, but they’ve really outdone themselves here, finally closing the book on one of post-punk London’s most thrilling acts. This is essential listening for any and all synthwave/minimal heads, not to mention anyone who digs the more esoteric strains of the art punk scene.
Long Players (92-99)
Luna was the band that former Galaxie 500 frontman Dean Wareham formed after that initial trio parted ways, with its rhythm section evolving into esteemed psych-folk duo Damon & Naomi. While Galaxie’s records were often delicate dream-pop meditations, in which a quietly tortured existential dread is surrounded by the druggish haze of a post-Velvets sound later dubbed “slowcore”, Luna were an altogether different beast, despite holding true to many of Galaxie’s initial tenets.
An expansion of the brainy, subtle urban philosophy lessons he initially explored with the Boston trio, frontman Dean Wareham (with the help of former Feelies drummer Stanley Demeski and Chills bassist Justin Harwood) made Luna a more confident, assertive older brother to the understated timidity of the Galaxie discography. Luna’s albums explore much of the same NYC guitar rock hypnosis explored by the Velvet Underground (whom Luna opened for when the VU briefly reunited in the early ‘90s) and Television (whose frontman Tom Verlaine is featured on the band’s 1995 masterpiece Penthouse), but these albums strip away the skag detours and superfluous technical noodling in favor of emphasizing each band’s key elements, strengthening them into a sound that remains unusually timeless.
Listening to any of Luna’s first five LPs, you’d be hard-pressed to determine exactly what year any of these records had been recorded, something one can’t often say about rock music made in any era. This gorgeous and long overdue vinyl boxset from Collected Tracks collects them all – 1992’s Lunapark, 1994’s Bewitched, the 1995 masterpiece Penthouse, 1997’s Pup Tent, and 1999’s underrated Days Of Our Nights – with a sixth LP of rarities, demos, and EP/single-only cuts.
Jazz-inspired chords, mesmerizing Germanic rhythms, nimble bass work, guitars blending the weightless chiming float of Nigerian juju with the curvilinear electric Bowery drive of Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, and Robert Quine, and ample doses of twilight atmosphere make Wareham’s songs both subtle and sensual. While much is said of the band’s dual-guitar interplay, the group’s rhythms sections are equally important and powerful throughout, despite their constant roster changes and evolutions.
I’m honestly not much of a rock fan, as many readers may have noticed over the course of my tenure on this column, but these records are, to my ears, sublime — perfect soundtracks to the quieter moments of urban living. With individual pressings to come later this year, Long Players (92-99) is a crash course in the music of the best rock band you’ve likely never heard.