Various Artists (Alasdair Roberts curated) “Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree”

It’s been a bumper year for Glasgow based folk aficionado, Alasdair Roberts. Between producing an album of Gaelic language music, adapting a puppetry show from a Scottish mummers play and writing his next album, he’s found time to sift through 45 hours worth of Alan Lomax’s Scottish recordings to curate a compilation of some of the countries finest field singers. Roberts is a tireless excavator of the half forgotten lore of his native terrain. Its language, imagery and melodies have indelibly branded his own songwriting. But where his songs configure all manner of esoteric flotsam, here the inherent otherness of the source material speaks for itself.
The titanic larynxes of Jeannie Robertson, John Strachan and Willie Mathieson provide a portal to the old, weird Caledonia, with tales of fratricide, incest and lovers press ganged into foreign wars. This vivid, irretrievable hinterland feels all the more tantalizing because it’s just out of reach- Waur the Pig Gaud on the Spree marks the 60th anniversary of Lomax’s Scottish field trip.
Standout tracks include Mary Cosgrove’s mournful reading of “The Collier Lad”, the eccentric bray of Davie Stewart on “McGinty’s Meal and Ale” and Hamish Henderson’s self penned “The John MacLean March”.Henderson is a towering figure in Scottish folk music. As a song collector, prominent socialist and articulate chronicler of the culture, he occupies a similar role to that of A.L Lloyd or Ewan MacColl in England.
While many of these singers have been extensively documented on similar compilations, there are some far from familiar song choices. It’s this unearthing of the extra canonical that marks Waur the Pigs Gaud on the Spree from similar compilations and Roberts song writing from many of his contemporaries.

Velvet Underground and Nico “45th Anniversary Edition Universal Music/ Polydor, 6CD”

The Velvet Underground were a phenomenon whose contribution to music is inestimable. Influencing everyone from Kosokuya to The Kills, VU were the nexus between the NYC avant garde of the Theatre of Eternal Music and the doo wop infused Brill building ephemera where Lou Reed first cut his song writing teeth. Add to that the Modernist meditations of Delmore Schwartz and Hart Crane and the trash, flesh and heat of Manhattan’s Lower Eastside and you come someway to understanding their mutant DNA. And then there’s Nico.
Anyone who’s reading this magazine that Velvet Underground and Nico hasn’t sound tracked some gargantuan formative revelation or other was probably supposed to pick up Wired instead. But to listen again to Black Angel’s Death Song (apocryphally, the song that got VU fired from their first resident gig for playing one too many times) reconnects you to the uncanny thrill of first hearing it. The cry of John Cale’s viola eternally eating its own tail, Lou Reed singing about “the cosy brown snow of the East” and his sibilant hiss close up to the mic where a chorus should be, gave the song a ‘snuff’ quality that’s profoundly exhilarating. These were degenerates playing out their psychosis to a primitive beat, so you could visit it in the cosy confines of your headphones on the school bus.
This six disk set marks the 45th anniversary of Velvet Underground and Nico and is an opportunity to trot out ‘the mono edition’ and compare it to ‘the stereo edition’, which increasingly feels like a redundant tussle for audio supremacy between nerds and pedants now that most people listen to music in the ‘compressed, tinny computer speaker edition’. There is also a remastered version of Nico’s Chelsea Girl (it would have been truly interesting to hear Nico’s remix of the album), Factory rehearsal tapes and the famous Scepter Studio sessions transfered from acetate. One thing that is clear is that this is a monolithic achievement whose licentious thrill is undiminished by the passing decades.
The rehearsal tapes are a revelation, akin to Lucciano Emmer’s profiles of Picasso in the studio. To eavesdrop on the VU aesthetic emerging fully formed from the centre of Reed’s skull, like Zeus giving birth to Athena- leather-clad, uptight and pneumatic- is an unspeakable privilege. “Now, the idea of this is constant repetition” he chides during “Walk Alone” and the idea grows from a stone to a statue as Sterling Morrison picks up on the riff and Moe Tucker finds the major artery. Elsewhere, stentorian classics like “Venus in Furs” are demystified with hilarious results as Reed impatiently dictates the lyrics to a befuddled Nico (“STRIKE. DEAR. MISTRESS…. CURE. HIS. HEART”….”Vot?!”). What is most striking about these rehearsal goofs is the force of Cale’s bass playing. The frequency range and the arbitrary positioning of the microphone can privilege traditionally non-hierachical instruments like the bass in these informal situations. He steers that inimitable VU engine with a style that is both melodic and menacing but always intensely musical. Occasionally he will slide down the neck, hitting a run of notes that overload the recording, as if the Factory walls are caving in. Elsewhere, his palindromic riff at the end of “European Son”, is interrupted by breaking glass that feels like the “smash here for emergency” panel for Rock music as we knew it.
Disk five features a previously unavailable live concert from 1966 in the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus, Ohio. They open with “Melody Laughter”- a 28 minute instrumental of torrential feedback, shamanistic drumming and squalling viola that shaves the top layer of jelly from the brain. This gloriously encapsulates many VU themes- sensory deranging durations, melding immersive atonality with classic R&B licks, monomaniacal drumming that acts as a launch pad for Lou Reed to frenzy in a style that reconciles Ike Turner and Henry Flynt. When Nico starts improvising wordless vocals after 18 minutes the whole room starts to levitate. The lack of audience response makes you think it must be recorded directly from the mixing desk, until a couple more songs pass and you can hear a drizzle of applause as the students try to scrape themselves off the ballroom wall. Its tantalizing to imagine Dylan and Ayler marauding across Europe in the same year that VU discover what the sound of one hand clapping is in the Midwest, as the goal posts of possibility shatter around the ears of unprepared audiences. But those were different times.
Though subsequent tensions created irrepairable fissures in the band, this anniversary boxset is a timely reconnection to an epochal creation by five individuals whom the world would never see the like of again.

Guillaume de Machaut “Messe de Nostre Dame”

“Messe de Nostre Dame” is possibly the best known work by the master of late Medieval polyphony, Guillaume de Machaut. Written in the mid 14th century while canon in residence at Rheims cathedral, “Messe de Nostre Dame” (“The Mass of our Lady”) is not thought to be an intact cyclical mass, but an assemblage of liturgical fragments, grouped together for the various annual festivals dedicated to the cult of the Virgin, to whom Rheims cathedral is dedicated. This might account for the range in style and tone throughout the eighteen movements which make up the mass as we know it today.
Primarily written as a choral piece, but sometimes accompanied by bells and organ to underpin the dramatically labarinthine root note changes, to modern ears “Messe de Nostre Dame” can feel like a fathomless gulf of voices eternally folding in on themselves. Single words are elongated to last for minutes in passages which allows the alto, tenor and bass parts to interchange the lead melody. Each part retains a highly individual character in terms of pitch, rhythm and melody while quickly inheriting and disinheriting the lead line and being masterfully blended to form one vast, organic ‘Eleison’.
This non-hierarchical employment of voices of all ranges allows the bass to shift from its traditional role as a supporting timbre and assume precedence as a melodic fulcrum with harmonizing lines leaping and receding around it in tiered, minor key quavers. The bass also acts as a key authorial voice as the mass progresses and the deacon invokes the words of the Apostles in a heavy monotone; ‘Like a vine I have born fragrant fruit….I am the mother of excelling love and of reverence and of dignity and of holy hope…He who reads my lessons rightly will posses eternal life’.
Here, stripped to the role of soloist, the bass assumes the profound gravity of religious authority with the choir providing italicized asides; ‘Hear o daughter. Consider and incline your ear, for the king has desired your beauty. With your grace and beauty be resolved. Set forth and with good fortune reign. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Some of the most startlingly beautiful passages in “Messe de Nostre Dame” involve the bass parts being doubled up by bells. This provides a clarity to the scale and intervals of the melody where it can otherwise feel overwhelmingly vast and unpredictable.

La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela “Dream House”

The 2004 Sons et Lumiere exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris displayed many works by artists and musicians I’d admired from a distance for a long time. The grainy hypnogenesis of Brion Gysin’s “Dream Machine” along side Harry Smith’s jazz fantasias and Luigi Russolo’s jabbering autonoma was synaesthesiac bliss for a precocious oik such as I. But the work that sticks most in the memory is a reconstruction of the “Dream House” by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela.
Stepping into a sparsely upholstered room bathed in a deep magenta light, some subsonic sine tone was causing every atom to quake at a frequency you couldn’t so much hear audibly as be left to wonder why your nose had started bleeding. The “Dream House” was a continuation of Young and Zazeela’s experiments with works of epic duration played at synapse-pummeling pitches that would infect the whole body. The longer you occupied the “Dream House”, the more it induced a wholly transformative neurological and physiological effect that transcended any mere art event and coaxed you into realms of pure sensory enema. Any slight tilt of the head would recondition the pitch so as to envelop the listener in a subtly different way. This created an immersive environment that assiduously permeated your very skeleton until you became a tuning fork for the room- hallucinating voices that emerged from the chemical wedding of deep, deep bass and all pervading purple light.