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Kevin Tomkins, "Perfectly Flawed"

cover imageKevin Tomkins is probably always going to be known for his tenure in the early (and some would say best) incarnation of Whitehouse, closely followed by his power electronics project Sutcliffe Jugend and the rock-oriented Bodychoke.  This first solo outing from him completely defies expectations, being based only on sounds generated by an autoharp.


Between Silences

For such a simple concept, the tracks rarely resemble each other and are based less on the "playing" of the instrument and much more on using every facet of it as a means of generating sound and textures.  Only on "Fifth Flaw" and the closing "Twelfth Flaw" is traditional playing the focus, and even within those there is a fair share of abstract clatters and vibrations, the latter being front-loaded with a dense set of sounds, but closing into pure and beautiful tones.  "Eighth Flaw" takes the strums and instead messes with the tunings, allowing the loosened strings to rattle and create their own sense of percussion.

The percussive applications of the autoharp are spread throughout the album, sometimes being untreated, but consisting of what must be items bounced on the strings, such as the opening "First Flaw," which adds in extremely quiet swelling tones to balance out.  "Ninth Flaw" marries the percussive treatment of the instrument with some Eastern-like string plucks. It is a continuous, collage-like piece that is almost too abstract for its own good, never really locking in to a specific sense of structure or cohesion.  The too short "Fourth Flaw" is perhaps the only track where editing and sequencing seems to be a dominant theme, cutting the sounds of plucks and vibrations into a tightly mixed piece that resembles what would be labeled electronica if it was coming out of a laptop or sampler.

The longer "Sixth Flaw" is perhaps the best piece here, and is nicely sequenced right in the center of the album.  The layers of autoharp are shaped into insect chatters, tribal percussion elements, and an array of disorienting tones that would make the perfect soundtrack to going up a river into a dark jungle.  The following "Seventh Flaw" continues the jungle motif, autoharp being used as a gamelan, and occasionally l ike a fiddle, possibly moving the river metaphor from before out of Africa or Asia and into some of the less settled parts of the American South.

For an album that is focused solely on the use of one instrument, Tomkins has used what sounds more like old fashion experimentation more than technological processing, yet for the most part channels the creaks, groans, and vibrations of an autoharp into diverse and varied compositions.  While it lacks the brutality and aggression of his other projects, it retains the structure and composition that set Sutcliffe Jugend apart from many similar noise bands.



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David Grubbs

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Review of the Day

Ae trainspotters around the world are aware that it's been some time since new material has surfaced from Sean Booth and Rob Brown. In mid-1999 they released the difficult, confusing "EP7," which left quite a few people nonplused, others either irritated or delighted. Consequently, rabid Autechre fans (such as myself) are very curious about this new release: a second set of Peel Sessions to complement the first set recorded in 1995.
Describing the way Autechre sounds hasn't been easy since their mind-blowing 1995 release, "Tri Repetae." As far as anyone can figure, the closest Autechre get to occupying a genre is probably electro or detroit techno. But Autechre have a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks when it comes to sonic manipulation: blender-style waves of distortion, sliced-and-diced vocal gibberish, bursts of deafening static, too-fast spidery percussion, low-pitched hums and thumps — and occasional delicate, lucid-dreaming melodies made from synths or strings.
There's one of these right at the start of the 9-minute "Gelk," the first of four tracks on "Peel Sessions 2." Accompanied by a tentative tapping, it grips you by the hair and pulls you all the way down the scale into a pair of earth-shaking bass tones, then repeats itself, and after a few seconds of this everything starts echoing in the most interesting way. It's classic Autechre, straight off of "Chiastic Slide" or "LP5" — but then, three minutes in, the song shifts without a hitch into what sounds like a lunatic plucking at a detuned grand piano, those thick hums stuttering and twisting as the pace slows, does a pirouette, and turns itself into a blunted breakbeat. At the seven minute mark, the beat disappears, gongs ringing as a totally different melody is eked from the high strings.
Irritatingly, this masterpiece is followed up by "Bifil," a juddering, thumping juggernaut of a song improved only by the eventual inclusion of an alien whimpering and babbling behind all the noise. Hit fast forward and save yourself the mental effort of trying to make sense of it. Next comes "Gaekwad," which demonstrates Autechre's unique ability to fashion a groove out of the sound of a bag of marbles dumped out onto a glass tabletop. Synthetic chimes and bells ring in the background while the beats skitter all over the place, speeding up and slowing down, growing louder and softer at random. The track gets a creepy edge as warped samples of dogs barking and laughter filter in towards the end. Lastly there's "19 Headaches," another bit of unfathomable, or perhaps improvisational ("Quick! We need another track to round out the set!") Autechre jitteriness. Lots of finger-walking up and down keyboards and weird, shuffling percussion, completely bizarre and almost unlistenable.
For folks who already like the duo, this bargain-priced EP is worth it just for "Gelk" — fanatics on the other hand would probably something more from the other tracks as well. Those new to Autechre, "LP5" and the insane masterpiece that is "Tri Repetae" are waiting for you — buy one of them instead and save yourself the trouble of sitting through the filler.


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