Cuneiform Records – Thirty-plus Years of Essential Listening

1Of all the industry attributes that the vinyl resurgence has brought back into focus, the concept of Label As Tool You Can Trust is one of the most welcome.  There are, of course, any number of so-called artificial intelligences out there, bombarding you with “personalized recommendations,” based on your last few purchases, but what are they really, beyond the humorless successor to old major label inner bags… “if you liked this album, you’re sure to enjoy….”

So that‘s how all you Airplane fans got stuck with those Mario Lanza albums.

Boutique labels are coming back big time, and they’re usually staffed by so few people that the chances of the release sheet and your personal taste having a few things in common are more than coincidental.  At least for a time.

Sooner or later, though… you start to feel that things have changed; they’re not the way they used to be.  Your friends start murmuring behind your back; you’ve started growing apart.  Your label just doesn’t understand you anymore.  And you’re back to the singles bar, or at least the record store’s singles counter, looking to reignite the same flame elsewhere.

Occasionally, though… just occasionally… a label comes along and you know it’s there for the long haul.  Some of them already have been.

It’s more than thirty years since Cuneiform Records started up, time enough indeed for any first flood of youthful exuberance to have been swallowed in the mists of complacency.  But founder Steve Feigenbaum has been there since the beginning (before the beginning, in fact; he launched the associated mail order company Wayside Music back in 1980), and he’s still there today, overseeing an empire of 400-plus albums that, effectively echoes the contents of the record collection he’d own were he a customer instead.

Early Cuneiform releases came slow, but they already radiated certainty.  R Stevie Moore and However set the ball rolling that first year; 1985 delivered the Muffins, David Borden and, most impressively of all, Le Poison Qui Rend Fou, the second album by Belgium’s Present. The latter pair at least would both be returning to the catalog, and that quickly became Cuneiform’s modus operandi – fascinating one-offs on the one hand, sequential commentaries on the other.  Anyone who picked up that first album by Borden and his magnificently named Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company probably needs no introduction to all those that have succeeded it, and the same can be said throughout the catalog.

2Buy one, and the rest will follow, with the last couple of years proving that Cuneiform’s ears remain as sharp as they ever were.

It remains impossible to even begin to tire of Gary Lucas’s Fleischerei,  a collection of compulsive covers of music from old Max Fleischer Cartoons.

Soft Machine’s Switzerland 74 was exactly what it says on the tin, and accompanied a killer disc with a fabulous DVD of the show; Richard Pinhas’s Chronolyse gave renewed vinyl life to an album that Cuneiform first issued (on CD) in 1991, but which has been haunting the musical consciousness since 1978; the Thinking Plague’s third returned from 1989; and Robert Wyatt’s 68 (titled for its year of recording) is one of the loveliest albums ever made.

All of which, quite honestly, makes the label sound as musty a museum piece as the ancient alphabet that gave it its name.  But you’d be wrong.  The past may frolicking but the present (no, not the Belgian band this time) is as correct as it ought to be, and the future spools out from any number of releases.

Soft Machine and sundry spin-offs may rank among the catalog’s highlights (with the parent band represented by some stellar live material), but so do a plethora of lesser-known names, too, and lesser-feted genres, too.

Alt_4Cuneiform is most widely feted for its devotion to the more experimental fringes of jazz and jazz rock.  But an album like Ambit, the debut by New Jersey septet The Cellar and Point, kicks that so firmly into touch that any attempt at conventional categorization is ultimately rendered meaningless.  They describe their music as “garage chamber.”  They know what they’re talking about.

Organic ambience, the sound of Eno let loose in a room full of stringed things, Ambit is exactly the kind of record that he’d have released on his Obscure label forty years ago (which is, of course, another reason why it fits the Cuneiform catalog so well), but edgier, and more agitated.  Rougher around the edges, but not so much that it detracts from either the sheer musicality of the performances, nor the overall sense of creeping menace that permeates its eleven tracks.

Things do get a little noodly in places (the two part “White Cylinder” most of all), but not too much and not too often.  And even there, the door remains open for the things in the cellar, and Ambit slips easily up the stairs.  What it does when it reaches the top is up to your ears to decide.

It’s albums like Ambit that remind us how Cuneiform has kept atop its game for so many years – not because it pushes frontiers (which it undoubtedly does), but because it recognizes that the frontiers are there.  Too many labels, and too many bands, are content to hover in a musical middle-ground… always have been, always will be.  And too many others try too hard to sound different.  The best of Cuneiform reaches for the bands that fall between those two extremes, and again, you can trust their judgement.

eyesores_bookletJonathan Badger’s Verse is a couple of years old now, but it too highlights the label’s eye for mood over momentum, a series of heavily treated guitar effects layered over everything from saxophone to cello, flugelhorn to human beat box.

Melodies haunted by sonic extremes (or should that be the other way round?) and pastoral passages that change like the weather, the quote that maybe best sums it up is Badger’s own commentary on the softly spoken “The Bear”: “”Bears are cuddly but also extremely deadly.  Children like to sleep with them.”

Think about that, and then set it to music.  That is Verses.

Equally ear-bending, Boston’s Bent Knee formed in 2009, two generally acclaimed albums ago.  Their third (but first for Cuneiform), Say So, has just appeared, and the moment “Black Water Tar” kicks in on timeworn vocal hovering in the vicinity of an Appalachian Bjork singing Laurie Anderson, the rest of the album spools ahead like the best birthday party you’ve had in years.

1Songs are taut but not rigid; intricate but not complicated; arty but not avant-garde.  Lazily you could just label Bent Knee as “prog,” but that is to overlook the compulsive (but not fidgety) allure of the music; songs blend together like the movements in a Zappaesque symphony, twisting around moments… not even themes… that give the whole an organic feel, as though the proverbial blindmen are touching an elephant, and they’ve just started to realize what they’ve found.

The epic “Eve” feels akin to a King Crimson masterpiece, but that might just be the guitar patterns’ fault, and its seamless transition into the portentous-yet-eerie “The Things You Love” (via a 49 second passage that is indeed called “Transition”) is as heartstopping a sequence as any you’ve heard this year.

Another band whose label debut was not so long ago is Thumbscrew, the trio of Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara.  Thumbscrew in 2014 marked them out as a brooding storm in the world of jazzy improv, and the just-released Convallaria only ups the ante even further.

1Conceived during a two week stint at City of Asylum, an artist residency program in Pittsburgh that was originally launched as a refuge for writers in exile, Convallaria’s eleven tracks range from the foreboding percussive storm of “Cleome” to the itchy intricacies of the title track, from the gentle maneuverings of “Barn Fire Slum Brew” to the footsteps-in-an-empty-room of “Danse Insensé” – and all the while, this simple menage of drums, guitar and double bass scratches at sensations you never knew you could feel.

Equally adventurous, but strangely brittle too is X, the latest by Switzerland’s Schnellertollermeier – a band whom one could compare to acts as far apart as Laibach and Magma, but only if you dropped all the elements that render those others so instantly distinctive, and replace them with the relentless musical brutality that you could almost term “industrial” if it wasn’t so organic.

1Space rock, if it was made only by the engines that got the rock into space in the first place, X is crunching, harsh, occasionally discordant, often repetitive.  The title track is twenty minutes of relentless minimalism; other cuts are shorter, but you feel they didn’t need to be… somewhere, whether in reality or your nightmares, every track on this album once went on for hours, before the demands of the compact disc pruned them down to size.

But “Backyard Lipstick” is workers whistling as the machines pound out a marching beat; “Riot” is what you’d expect it to be; “Sing for Me” sizzles and seethes in a background that only sounds gentle, because you know it isn’t really; and “Massacre du Printemps” is almost pretty, in and around the interruptions.  And finally there’s the closing track, apparently titled “///\\\///,” and that’s pretty, too.  Or, at least, that’s what Schnellertollermeier want you to think….

More traditional tones are to be found on One Child Left Behind, the latest by the Ed Palermo Big Band – a familiar name in the world of Zappa enthusiasts (past albums include 2006’s Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance and 2009’s Eddy Loves Frank), now turning its frankly zapped attentions to a few other songwriters too.  Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” is rendered unflinchingly true to the most literal interpretation of the band’s name; Los Lobos’ “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” is transformed into a slice of sleazy striptease; and there’s a positively mood-inverting visit to the theme from Scarface, reinventing it as the greatest western you ever heard.

1Of course there’s oodles of Zappa here too, with former Frank frontman Napoleon Murphy Brock adding gloriously idiosyncratic vocals to “Pygmy Twylyte” and “Po-Jama People,” and Zappa’s younger sister Candy turning in a couple of tunes as well – that’s her on “Kiko,” and again on the brief but so intensely enjoyable “Evelyn, a Modified Dog.”  So, more of the same from Palermo and co, but since when was that a bad thing?

Out of the Blue is the second album from Finland’s Raoul Björkenheim eCsTaSy (following on from 2014’s eCsTaSy), and echoing exquisitely that set’s sense of vast, wide open spaces peopled only by the footprints of sparse guitars.

Wholly instrumental and largely improvised, it is nevertheless so tightly bound that structure is seldom far away, even when Björkenheim’s guitar is being tied down with alligator clips (“A Fly in the House of Love”), and the textures are less redolent of dark Nordic nights than they are the cluttered mysticism of lost Asian ritual.

It’s an intriguing album, then, but a moving one too; and while we are feeling somewhat Scandinavian, the Norwegian jazz quartet Pixel recently unveiled their third album, Golden Years, a vivacious blend that blurs so many musical boundaries that even when you’ve listened to the end, you’re still uncertain what’s coming next.

There’s more guitar, though darker and denser, across Behind the Vibration, the latest from jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi, in tandem with his new band Junction.  With keyboards, sax and drums his sole accompaniment, Abbasi is in fine, fluid form throughout, and if the album sometimes feels as though it is dominated by electronics, that only indicates just how far forward Abbasi is reaching.

1But if you’re searching for pure, unbridled fretwork, Dylan Ryan / Sand’s Circa is the sound of a subsonic power trio who’ve been compared to everything from Rush to Fugazi, but who defy you to figure out why.

It takes at least three listens to begin truly untangling the soundscapes that loop through each track, the sense that Ryan’s guitar is purposefully avoiding most of the instrument’s traditional comforts, at the same time as bedding you down on a mattress of its own design.

It is possible to argue Circa would sound even better if the percussion hadn’t been mixed so high – listening to “Pink Noir” is a little like switching on the stereo just as your neighbor begins rebuilding his shed.  But clearly Ryan and co disagree – and, besides, they make up for it elsewhere (“Mortgage on my Soul”), which is Hendrixy in feel, Satriani-esque in delivery, and as blinding a solo as you’ve heard in aeons.

1Guapo’s Obscure Knowledge, too, feels like the kind of album you know you need to return to regularly; imagine the soundtrack to an imaginary HP Lovecraft story, fed through ears raised on an unholy blend of Earth, White Noise and… Emerson Lake and Palmer?

Maybe not, but three epic tracks certainly flirt with the grandeur that was ELP’s own, at the same time as eschewing anything you could rightfully term an “influence,” in favor of simply letting rip… and halfway through, you realize that the three tracks are but one, with the divisions set in what might as well be random spots, simply because they could.

Twenty-one years of Guapo have passed through the hourglass, but Obscure Knowledge feels as fresh as it ought to, and as spellbinding as anything else in their catalog.

Certainly it’s a contrast with one of the most eagerly awaited releases in the recent Cuneiform catalog, an album’s worth of early (1966-1970) sessions by the legendary British sax wizard Mike Osborne.

Though he would never land the same degree of applause that greeted those contemporaries who moved into jazz rock and fusion, Osborne was nevertheless regarded as one of those “jazzmen’s jazzmen,” both as the leader of his own band and in tandem with the larger hybrids that were common at the time.

eyesores_bookletHis work with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, in particular, was an integral part of that band’s drive through the sphere of free music, although here we find him in more traditional mood, first across two 1970 sessions with the South African rhythm section of Harry Miller and Louis Moholo (the first, in fact, is the earliest known recording of that combo); then a 1966 recording with drummer Alan Jackson and fellow saxman John Surman, rough and raw but still raucous across favored Pharaoh Sanders and Carla Bley numbers.

More an historical document than an album that demands repeated listens, Dawn is nevertheless a vital addition to Cuneiform’s already long-praised examination of the British jazz scene of the sixties – and hopefully just the first of many more to come.

We can say the same about the remainder of the label’s output.  With new releases appearing at a rate of between fifteen-twenty a year, Cuneiform has as tight a focus on what it’s good at (as opposed to what it might think it’s good at) as it’s possible to have – particularly given the sheer breadth and variety of the music that falls into that category.

It’s not all easy to listen to; not every album is going to haunt your CD deck forever; and it would be nice to see the label give more attention to vinyl… just a handful of releases have appeared so far, including the aforementioned Jonathan Badger, Jason Adasiewicz’s Varmint, and a selection of catalog items.

But still, in an age when you can scarcely turn on your computer without being bombarded by “personalized” advertisements, and every other text you receive seems to be suggesting you splash cash on another unwanted bauble, it’s nice to know that there’s at least one place you can go in the knowledge that almost everything in sight is an album you ought to hear.

So go hear them….

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