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February 7, 2013

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Broadcast: Berberian Sound Studio (Warp)

British director Peter Strickland’s acclaimed film “Berberian Sound Studio” is partly an homage to Italian giallo horror films popular in the ’70s, so it’s fitting that for its soundtrack  Strickland called upon the British group Broadcast, known for crafting eclectic, modern electronics-enhanced pop music from various decades-old influences—including Italian soundtracks such as those by Ennio Morricone and Nicola Piovani. Set in 1976, the movie centers on a sound engineer’s mental breakdown while working on the audio for the depraved film “The Equestrian Vortex.” Broadcast created the album not only to provide music for the film-within-a-film, but also to fit Strickland’s vision for his psychological thriller.

Featuring 39 tracks in just 37 minutes, the album is more like a collection of themes than a traditional sustained soundtrack. Its dark, ominous moods are conveyed in snippets, often using the strategy of employing simple, childlike motifs swathed within sinister atmospheres to evoke a particular creepiness with the distinct sound of instruments such as the harpsichord and Mellotron.

Broadcast suffered the passing of Trish Keenan due to pneumonia two years ago as the album was being made, leaving co-founder James Cargill the sole member who worked with Keenan’s melodies and vocal recordings to complete the project. Fans pining for Keenan’s singing and expecting the band’s intriguing left-of-center pop may be disappointed, as “Berberian Sound Studio” features just a few tracks with vocals, which are wordless. One track, “Teresa, Lark of Ascension,” folds swatches of Keenan’s otherworldly singing into each other, atop celesta and organ. “The Equestrian Vortex” is another notable piece, employing a jazz swing and ghostly vocals.

Although it serves its purpose well, expressing a mysterious, unsettling feeling for a troubling film, it might not stand up to repeated listenings as well as other Broadcast albums.

Matthew Shipp: Greatest Hits (Thirsty Ear)

Intentional or not, there is humor in the notion of a “greatest hits” album for a jazz pianist such as Matthew Shipp, who has boldly stood outside the mainstream for his entire career having never once heard Casey Kasem announce his name on the radio. Shipp has his own immediately identifiable style, an extension of the kind of avant-garde jazz cultivated in the ’60s with incredibly dexterous yet forceful flights into the free-jazz stratosphere, with a willingness to experiment with beat-driven methods, genre-crossing and an embrace of electronics, particularly with his collaborations.

Shipp’s body of music is simply too complicated to capture with a single album, so the new compilation Greatest Hits, covering his material on the Thirsty Ear label over the last dozen years, is best considered to be a sampler for tentative newcomers, helping to reveal the breadth rather than depth of his catalog. To this writer, the collection seems to be more about Shipp’s vision than identifying so-called “hits” from his catalog or even highlighting the best moments that might epitomize his style.

“Cohesion” presents Shipp’s foray into hip-hop-beat infusions, although the rhythmic repetition at times seems to feel too constrained for Shipp’s methods. “Nu-Bop” works better with irresistible funk drumming from Guillermo Brown, matched with William Parker’s adept bass playing, concocting a groove for nearly four minutes before Shipp makes his appearance. The excellent solo tracks “Module” and “4D” perhaps reveal more about Shipp’s own musical personality than his genre-hopping collaborations, as the listener can focus on his idiosyncratic movements and turns. The final live track, “Circular Temple #1,” cuts off abruptly with no fade-out, as if to suggest that it’s not the real ending for the listener.

Greatest Hits should not be considered a stand-alone album, but instead it should be heard as a starting point for further exploration.

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February 7, 2013

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