Stereolab co-founder returns, Aziza Brahim speaks to the soul of refugees
Cavern of Anti-Matter
Void Beats/Invocation Trex
This writer wasn’t the only one who was deeply saddened by the news that Stereolab had gone on hiatus in 2009. Thus softly ending a remarkable 20-year run of frequently spotless recordings that used vintage analog synths and reverently lifted tunes, beats, and methods from decades-old sources, like German bands Neu! and Faust, library music, minimalist classical, avant-garde jazz and many more. Perhaps this writer’s affection shows a bias, but he believed that Stereolab never put out a bad album.
While Stereolab singer and co-founder Lætitia Sadier has pursued a solo career with three albums so far, the other co-founder, guitarist Tim Gane, assembled a Berlin-based (mostly) instrumental trio called Cavern of Anti-Matter with synthesizer player Holger Zapf and Joe Dilworth, who was an early Stereolab member and drummer in Th’ Faith Healers.
The group’s new double-album Void Beats/Invocation Trex is actually its second album, following the limited edition vinyl double-album Blood-Drums (hint: you can stream it for free from the Grautag Records website). Stereolab fans who have been itching for new material will find a lot to love here.
“Tardis Cymbals,” the album’s longest track, begins the album with a rhythmic momentum acting as a cozy yet firm mattress upon which numerous flourishes and motifs lay, channeling a strong mid-’70s Kraftwerk vibe.
Driven by a drum machine beat, “Blowing My Nose Under Close Observation” might be slightly surprising as an outwardly dance-oriented track, but “Insect Fear” reveals a strategy familiar for Stereolab aficionados, by hammering and lingering on a two-chord repetition, bolstered by chords on a variety of keyboards that gear heads dream about.
Tim Gane’s clean electric guitar timbre is heard on “Melody in High Feedback Tones,” and a repeated synth vamp and drum-momentum on “Hi-Hats Bring the Hiss” evoke a chase sequence in a film.
Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox provides vocals on the tight pop number “Liquid Gate,” with a non-detached delivery that perhaps tries a little too hard to pull off a confident pose, for this writer’s taste.
Although Cavern of Anti-Matter clearly leans toward favoring digital devices, it still can’t escape the legacy of Stereolab, and that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
Abbar el Hamada
When Sahrawi singer Aziza Brahim, who was raised in a refugee camp in the Algerian/Western Saharan frontier after the Moroccan invasion of Western Sahara, was asked about what drives her music, she stated that she could not separate politics, cultural and personal concerns. “So, the focus of my music is all of these areas at the same time,” she said.
The new album from Brahim, who has also lived in Cuba and currently resides in Barcelona, is titled Abbar el Hamada (“Across the Hamada”) which refers to the unforgiving desert landscape peppered with refugee camps, and indeed, it simultaneously merges her three main life concerns.
Brahim is not shy about being political, being critical of Morocco’s border fortifications on the track “Los Muros” which could also be applicable to a number of other such disputes around the world, and during the tumultuous times of her life, she went to music for comfort, personal expression and cultural meaning.
Abbar el Hamada is an album with smoldering energy, impelled by Brahim’s fluid voice, filled with both determination and discontent. The opening track, “Buscando la Paz,” demonstrates her cultural dichotomy, with an electric guitar playing flowing Saharan-style phrases while strums of a Spanish guitar play.
The brief ululations that begin “Calles de Dajla” are among the most emotional moments of the album, which is generally fairly restrained; sometimes the listener might wonder when it might break out into a full-on rock mode, but it never quite happens, with Brahim playing a call-and-response game with the lead electric guitar.
One of the highlights throughout the album is the electric guitar work like that on “Baraka,” which manages to sound impressively dexterous while modestly blending in. Brahim’s voice itself isn’t too showy, using an expressive tone and delivery rather than throwing vibrato into every note, and once the listener understands that the album is more about flow than dynamics, then it becomes more enjoyable.