Friday, October 15, 2010

Matt Elliott, "Songs" Trilogy; Third Eye Foundation, "The Dark"

Sometimes a genre of music gets named for the city in which the scene is based. "Seattle", "Philadelphia", "Munich" ... each of them is both a place and an adjective. The city of Bristol is synonymous with not one but two scenes -- which were happening simultaneously, no less!

In the early and mid-90's, Bristol was the trip-hop hub of the UK, with Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky all enjoying international success. The other scene was actually larger (in terms of the number of bands gaining prominence) and more of a proper "scene" (in terms of collaboration and cross-pollination between bands). The other scene was the Bristol lo-fi scene, and although its popular profile was far lower, if you were a fan of shoegaze, ambient, and the intersection between Slint and B-grade horror film soundtracks, then this was the Bristol scene better suited for you. And at the top of the quality heap was Matt Elliott's one-man act: Third Eye Foundation.

Unlike most of the other Bristol-based bands, who had their set style and tended to bludgeon you into submission with it (e.g. Flying Saucer Attack, Crescent, Movietone), TEF was always a bit more unpredictable. In 1996, a lot of people were buzzing over news coming out of the tight-lipped My Bloody Valentine camp that implied that new drum 'n' bass-influenced material would be released by the end of the year. As if on cue, TEF's "Semtex" appeared and seemed to have beaten MBV to the punch. Its opening track, "Sleep", belied its title by exploding to life in a swarm of howling guitars and furious breakbeats. But whereas a lot of shoegaze music was rooted in pop music (albeit pop music that was drenched in a beehive of high frequencies) and pleasant, singsong vocals (albeit vocals that were sad and sighing and often incomprehensible), none of those qualities were present in TEF's music. His version of shoegaze evoked feelings of fright and terror, with guitar noise that imitated howling, window rattling, gale-force winds. It was as frightful and unsettling as the black-and-white photo of a dead and decomposing animal that "graced" the cover of "Semtex". However, only the first third of the album sounded like this -- the first two of "Semtex"'s six tracks. In the middle third he toned down the noise and went for a more dubbed-out sound, and the final third was more or less ambient. TEF could have stuck to the easily classifiable vision of a DnB MBV (a sound which remains fairly unexplored and would sound fresh even today) but he chose to rapidly evolve ... so rapidly, in fact, that he'd moved on before his debut album was even finished. Why give up on a winning formula? Too much of a good thing? Going out on a high note?

My favourite TEF album was always the second, "Ghosts", whose opening track "What To Do But Cry" begins with a sample from Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" and just ramps up the noise and horror from there. He topped it with the second track, the endearingly-titled "Corpses As Bedmates", which is still one of the most frightening and overbearing pieces of music I've ever heard. It's as if Elliott knew that his music couldn't get more extreme than that, because he never attempted to make anything like it ever again. "Ghosts" quiets down from that point on, turning into "Semtex"'s spookier twin. Where "Semtex" tried to jolt and shock you, "Ghosts" was more about the suspense between the killings. Again, the cover sets the mood -- once again in black and white, it shows a glistening lake and odd, glowing lights hovering the mountains in the distance. Later TEF albums weren't nearly as heavy, both inside and outside -- the cover art turned toward a medieval church painting theme -- and although the music remained serious, it was no longer threatening.

By 2000's "Little Lost Soul", TEF had settled more comfortably into a kind of quirky, cinematic DnB (heavy on the cinema, light on the DnB). Then came his final, most unexpected about face. "Lost" is undoubtedly the emotional centrepiece of "Little Lost Soul". It opens with a sad, evocative acoustic guitar melody, which are easily the calmest and gentlest moments to appear on any TEF album. TEF's music had always been the antithesis of calm -- even the ambient moments brought out feelings of isolation and nervousness, they were never, ever calm. The drums are refugees from a smoke-filled smooth jazz club that somehow wandered onto a TEF record, and ghostly voices repeat nearly unintelligible phrases, looped ad infinitum. You wait and wait for the song to explode into a blizzard of crazy beats, but it never happens. "Lost" passes through a couple of achingly beautiful different phases, but the punchline never comes. "Lost" is the embodiment of the album title "Little Lost Soul". It's a lonely, disorienting, drunken sailor's lament. For the first time, there are voices on a TEF album that actually sound human, you feel sorry for whoever or whatever it is that is wandering around lost. For all intents and purposes, this was the moment when Matt Elliott became a folk musician, and one more time, once he'd hit on yet another magic formula, it was time to move on. The next year, he retired the Third Eye Foundation moniker, supposedly forever. However, "Lost" would serve as the template for the next ten years of Matt Elliott's career.


After a couple of years hiatus, Elliott returned in 2003 with his debut solo album, "The Mess We Made". It was a TEF album in all but the name, pretty much continuing on from where "Lost" left off. But it too refuses to run in place. By the sixth track, "The Sinking Ship Song", he's abandoned nearly all of the eerie weirdness that characterized TEF. The jaunty guitar playing and yawning, drunken chorus defy you to listen without swaying back and forth in your chair. The final (and best) track, "Forty Days", crystallizes the folksy undercurrents that had been lurking beneath the surface for most of the album. Close your eyes and you can see the Klezmer musicians tuning up and starting to play.

Now deeply entrenched in his brand of balladeering and Eastern European folk and, Elliott released the first album in what would turn out to be a trilogy, "Drinking Songs". Hardly anyone noticed, including me. I only heard "Drinking Songs" for the first time a few months ago. I love "The Mess We Made" -- it was on my best of the 2000's shortlist, getting cut once the list was down to about fifty or so albums -- but "Drinking Songs" is very likely better. The songwriting is tighter, with more creative and complex arrangements that frequently incorporate a richer spectrum of instruments that includes piano, strings and brass. In the early days of TEF, it seemed as though he was in it to stop your heart. Now, he'd come full circle -- his new repetoire of songs were more likely to break your heart. The final track on "Drinking Songs" is a bipolar throwback to the TEF days, a twenty minute largely breakbeat-driven megamix of a number of themes from "The Mess We Made". Somehow it fits together with the solemn mood of the rest of the album.

"Failing Songs" is Elliott going full-on Tom Waits. He relies more on his own worn-out voice to carry the songs, which feature the kind of odd, clanging instrumentation that Waits' music is known for. "Howling Songs" is mellower, easier to swallow, and Elliott's voice tends more toward the style of a Leonard Cohen. Supposedly this was the first album that Elliott recorded in an actual studio, and it shows because the music sounds noticeably slicker and brighter. Despite a number of brilliant moments, the latter two albums in the trilogy don't quite scale to the heights of "The Mess We Made" or "Drinking Songs". The three album set was rereleased in a single package earlier this year, entitled "Songs". Lumped together, it can be a bit heavy and wearying -- not the kind of box set you'll want to hear in one sitting. But the three albums make perfect sense as a trilogy. On each album, Elliott picked his vision and stuck to it from beginning to end, something he never managed to do (or steadfastly refused to do) as Third Eye Foundation. Until now.

Maybe we should have seen it coming when Elliott revived his old standby, the dead and decomposing B&W cover art, for the release of "Howling Songs". The unexpected return of Third Eye Foundation is accompanied by a new album, "The Dark", and from the first note to the last, there's no doubt who you're listening to -- it's unmistakably a TEF album. You could say the same about Portishead when they rose from the dead two years ago with "Third", and as was the case with "Third", the creator behind "The Dark" might be easily recognizable but the album is no simple retread of what worked in the past. What's strange is that TEF and Portishead headed up non-overlapping Bristol scenes in 1996 and couldn't have seemed more distant from each other. Fifteen years later, they actually might be converging toward a common ideal -- they don't sound alike, but they've never sounded more alike, if you know what I mean.

"The Dark" is the first TEF album that flows together as one piece, it's five songs bleed into each other as one long forty minute uninterrupted performance. "Anhedonia" rumbles to life with a slow, heavy dub reggae beat and a smearing of haunting noises in the background. What I always loved about TEF, post-"Semtex", was that you could never really pick out any source instruments. I heard noises that might be a grisly blend of guitar, voice, found sound, and who knows what else, all left outside to decompose into a unrecognizable mess like the the animals that were photographed on some of his album covers. "Anhedonia" is like trademark TEF -- "TEF: In Dub". But "Standard Deviation" is even heavier, slamming you with even thicker bass and even more horrifying noises.

"Pareidolia" reintroduces the breakbeats, and they are mad and furious, starting relatively slow, building in speed toward the middle of the track, and then gradually slowing again. Again, you can make comparisons to the likes of AFX's "Hangable Auto Bulb", but "Pareidolia" isn't a freak show. You can't possibly imagine hearing this music a bunch of grinning animated wooden dolls swirling around your head. "Closure" is even more intense, and for some reason I'm reminded of Brian Eno's "Hear Come the Warm Jets", with its thick palate of fuzzy instruments and arrhythmic, inconsistent drumming. I'm not sure what the story is behind that song, but it's as if the musicians played in really large field at super high volume but standing a couple of hundred metres from each other, with recording mic placed somewhere in the centre of their formation. Everybody strains to hear everyone else, and everyone reacts on a time delay to what everyone else is doing. Before I'd even looked at the song titles, I had a strong sense of finality when hearing "Closure", it really does feel like the sad end of something unspeakable, of something horrible and frightening.

The final track is the relatively brisk "If You Treat Us All Like Terrorists We Will Become Terrorists" and as an exercise in concocting a four-minute breakbeat song with an eye-catching title that could be released as "The Dark"'s only single, it's a good one. It doesn't really fit with everything else, but it's the last song so it doesn't interrupt the album's flow. This also means you cold skip it if you choose to, and pretend that the aptly titled "Closure" is the real final song, but you shouldn't because it really is quite good.

"The Dark" is relentless, it builds and builds and its cohesiveness are what separate it from every other TEF album. It takes on the heaviness of dub, the white-knuckle intensity of metal, and barely gives you any rest from its terrifying palate of sounds. Two years ago, who could have possibly guessed that Portishead would reappear from out of nowhere and make the best album ever to come out of the Bristol scene? And who could have possibly guessed that Third Eye Foundation would one up them in 2010, returning with an even better album that's not only the best album to ever come out of Bristol, but one of the best albums of the past several years?

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