Third Eye by Monsoon

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You know an album is a cult item when you find yourself buying it for the fourth time. I’ve owned Third Eye in most of its previous incarnations—original vinyl, UK CD, US CD with bonus tracks—but this latest reissue from Cherry Red is the first to summarise the career of the group that recorded it. Monsoon were an Anglo-Indian pop ensemble who released just one album and a handful of singles in the early 1980s before disbanding:

Monsoon led by singer Sheila Chandra (best known for her role in the BBC’S Grange Hill) along with record producer Steve Coe and bass guitarist Martin Smith was a brave and pioneering pop trio that blended traditional music from the Indian sub-continent with 80s British pop. Additionally, they drew on the best musicians they could find from both East and West.

The band originated in 1980 when keyboard player and producer Steve Coe developed an interest in Indian music. Hoping to form a band to pursue this direction, he discovered Sheila via some demo tapes which she had recorded for Hansa Records when she was 14. Sheila joined Monsoon in March 1981, three months before she left school. Monsoon’s first EP Ever So Lonely/Sunset Over The Ganges/Mirror Of Your Mind/Shout Till You’re Heard had been distributed by Rough Trade. Their fresh Asian Fusion sound attracted the attention of label owner David Claridge, and Phonogram A&R man Dave Bates who signed the outfit to the Mobile Suit Corporation (Phonogram).

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In December 1981, the band re-arranged and re-recorded Ever So Lonely at Rockfield Studios with co-producer Hugh Jones, released by Mobile Suit Corporation (Phonogram) in 1982 and, though surrounded by synth-pop singles, and predating the term “World Music” by a full five years, was a smash hit around the world, reaching No.12 in the UK singles chart.

Two further singles followed; Shakti (The Meaning Of Within) and a cover of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows along with the debut album Third Eye but due to differences with their label, Phonogram, Monsoon dissolved later in 1982.

John Peel apparently played Ever So Lonely on his late-night radio show but I missed it there, hearing it for the first time on the Radio 1 chart countdown one Sunday afternoon. Surrounded by synth-pop hits, the song was strikingly exceptional, while the album that followed still sounds out of time, an infectious blend of sitar, tabla, pop hooks, the occasional drum machine and Bill Nelson’s E-bow guitar. The group’s cover of Tomorrow Never Knows gestures towards the sitar’s entanglement with the psychedelic 60s although you can’t read too much into this when it was Phonogram executives who insisted on a Beatles song. If you’ve never heard this version you may suspect Monsoon of creating a novelty confection like those that fill Sitar Beat (1967), Big Jim Sullivan’s collection of Indian-flavoured psychedelic pop. Monsoon’s cover is much better than Sullivan’s instrumentals, an arrangement that sits so easily among the rest of the songs on Third Eye that it sounds like something they might have written themselves.

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One of several Indipop compilations.

Monsoon didn’t last long but this was only the beginning for Sheila Chandra and Steve Coe who combined forces by getting married and following new musical directions with Coe’s Indipop record label. Indipop developed Monsoon’s fusion sound in a variety of guises centred around Sheila Chandra’s solo releases and The Ganges Orchestra, a Steve Coe studio creation. The label also established links with artists pursuing similar ends, groups like Manchester’s Suns of Arqa, and West India Company, a Blancmange spin-off who brought Asha Bhosle’s voice to European dancefloors. Some of Sheila Chandra’s early albums are a little uneven compared to Third Eye but the best of them, especially Quiet! (1984) and Nada Brahma (1985) are highly recommended. The expanded CD release of Quiet! is another cult disc of mine, a near-beatless suite of raga-like vocalisations. Quiet! foreshadows the paring back of instrumentation that took place on Chandra’s subsequent albums for the Real World label, one of which, Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices (1992) featured an a cappella reprise of Ever So Lonely a decade after the song had reached the Top Twenty. Four years after this, the writers at The Wire magazine voted her third Real World release, ABoneCroneDrone, one of their albums of the year. An interview in the same magazine showed how far Sheila Chandra had travelled in her evolution as a singer and musical artist, from the Top of the Pops studio to this:

The initial recordings for ABoneCroneDrone were made in a deconsecrated church in Bristol: tamburas, harmoniums and vocal tracks were laquered on top of one another, and her voice was also played into the body of a piano via a speaker underneath, to get the strings resonating. Further devices were added to bring character to different tracks, such as didgeridoos, bagpipes, ocean swells and birdsong.

“There was a very fine line to draw between how loud the vocals should be, so that people who weren’t tuned into harmonics could actually hear the subtle things going on, and how far we were drowning out natural harmonics that occurred. And the other kind of balance to be reached was that when I hear a drone as it’s played, unmagnified, untreated, and I hear all these harmonic dances in it and then play it five minutes later, I’ll hear a different dance. I’ll hear South Indian carnatic violins, I’ll even hear rhythm. This performance is going on, and I’ll hear it clear as a bell, very quietly, and it’s in this drone. So, to freeze what I was hearing magnified was also a dilemma, because I didn’t want to make it a static, dead experience. So what we’ve done is layer so many things that you’ll only hear some on different systems and some at different volumes or in different acoustic spaces. There are some things you’ll only hear on the twelfth listen. And it’s like a living experience then.”

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Essential listening.

The only drones on Third Eye are the resonating strings of the Indian instruments, but this is a pop album, after all, not an avant-garde composition. The new reissue is a 34-track double-disc set that contains enough versions of Ever So Lonely to satisfy the most ardent fan, including the Hindi version and a dub mix. In addition to the original album you get all the other singles with their B-sides, a handful of later remixes and six previously unreleased songs, four of which are sessions recorded for Capital Radio in March 1982.

This would be pretty much definitive if it wasn’t for one of those inexplicable alterations that often bedevil reissues. The final track on the album, Watchers Of The Night, is missing ten seconds or so of the drum-machine intro that you hear on the earlier CD releases. I no longer have my vinyl copy but I’m fairly sure this was the same; Discogs gives the original vinyl duration as 3:47, whereas the new reissue runs for 3:38. Anomalies aside, the mastering is much better than before, something that really benefits the bass and the percussive details. The album has been unavailable in any form since 1995 so this attention is long overdue. Now that Cherry Red have found their way to Indipop’s neglected archives I’m hoping further reissues may follow.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ravi Shankar’s metempsychosis
Tomorrow Never Knows

Weekend links 649

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Niijima Floats: Mottled Blue Black Float with Silver Leaf (1991) by Dale Chihuly.

• “Blue whale songs fall below the range of human hearing. If you want to listen to one, to actually hear its ethereal patterns of wobbly pulses and haunting moans, you have to speed it up by at least two-fold. But according to Hildebrand and McDonald’s instruments, the tonal frequencies of the songs had been sinking to even greater depths for three straight years. ‘This is weird,’ Hildebrand thought. To figure out if it was just an anomaly or something more, Hildebrand and McDonald embarked on a quest to find some really old songs. Eventually they got their hands on some of the earliest known recordings, created by the Navy in the 1960s and stored on analog cassettes. They were floored. The frequencies had declined by 30 percent over 40 years.” Kristen French on a mysterious development in blue whale songs.

• “She didn’t see it as a game, or for divination, but as a model of the universe.” Joanna Moorhead on the Tarot designs of Leonora Carrington.

• “A collection of blogs about every topic”: ooh.directory. (Ta to whoever added this place to the list.)

• New music: Pop Ambient 2023 by Various Artists, and Aeolian Mixtape by Quinta.

• At Public Domain Review: The Tanzmasken of Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine on mazes and labyrinths. (Previously)

• At Spoon & Tamago: Paper-cut cityscapes by kirie artist Hiroki Saito.

• At Smithsonian Magazine: The Unrivaled Legacy of Dale Chihuly.

• Mix of the week: Neo-Medieval Mix by Moon Wiring Club.

• Old music: Back To The Woodlands by Ernest Hood.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jacques Rivette Day.

Weyes Blood’s favourite music.

(Gorgeous Curves Lovely Fragments Labyrinthed On Occasions Entwined Charms, A Few Stories At Any Longer Sworn To Gathered From A Guileless Angel And The Hilt Edges Of Old Hearts, If They Do In The Guilt Of Deep Despondency.) (2004) by Akira Rabelais | The Private Labyrinth (2008) by The Wounded Kings | Labyrinths (2018) by Jonathan Fitoussi & Clemens Hourrière

Weekend links 648

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The Twittering Machine (1922) by Paul Klee.

• “Thinking of ‘writer Twitter’ as more important than writers themselves is an insult to the profession. People have been trading words for money for thousands of years. They will continue to do so after the death of a platform built on manufactured outrage, social hierarchy, unfunny jokes, stale memes, pornography, and spam. I mention this Atlantic essay only because it echoes what so many people are saying in the ether right now, not to pick on its author. The piece reads like a parody of how writers overestimate the importance of Twitter to their work and careers. It’s frankly a little embarrassing. Your work is the product you sell! Not the shitty jokes you tell with people you want to impress.” Freddie deBoer on the kerfuffle du jour. For “writer” see also “artist” or anyone else working at the intersection between commerce and creativity. From what I’ve read this week about potential technical problems at the pestilential birdcage I’d be less sanguine about its immediate survival. Since I retreated from the place as an active user two-and-a-half years ago all I get from it is the inflated subscriber number you see on the right-hand side of this page, a combination of Twitter followers plus email subscribers. The latter currently stand at some 270 individuals so if you’re among that number you can consider yourself part of a more exclusive group. And thanks for subscribing!

• “…the books of the past, besides adding to our understanding, offer something we also need: repose, refreshment and renewal. They help us keep going through dark times, they lift our spirits, they comfort us. Which means that I also strongly agree with the poet John Ashbery, who once wrote, ‘I am aware of the pejorative associations of the word “escapist,” but I insist that we need all the escapism we can get and even that isn’t going to be enough.'” Michael Dirda makes a case for reading classic, unusual and neglected books. Kudos for the mention of Anthony Skene‘s Monsieur Zenith, a character few of Dirda’s readers will have heard of.

• “While Haeckel’s paintings turn the floating phantoms into baroque spectacles of colour and flowing form, Mayer’s medusae are more sober, their tentacles subdued, their umbellate bells transparent.” Kevin Dann on the jellyfish and other “floating phantoms” described in AG Mayer’s Medusae of the World (1910).

• “The passing of time has added potency to the images, giving this interpretation of the Dracula story the feel of a distant fairy tale, a myth emerging from the mists of time, erupting across the world of cinema, its shadow reaching everywhere.” Martyn Bamber on 100 years of Murnau’s Nosferatu.

• At AnOther: Camille Vivier talks about shooting nude models in the treasure-filled home of HR Giger.

• New music: In Concert & In Residence by Sarah Davachi, and Anglo-Saxon Androids by Moon Wiring Club.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Kimono portraits were popular souvenirs for sailors visiting Japan in the 1800s.

• Mix of the week: Saturnalia: Deep Jazz for Long Nights, 1969–1980 at Aquarium Drunkard.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Clouds.

Dark Clouds With Silver Linings (1961) by Sun Ra | Obscured By Clouds (1972) by Pink Floyd | Firmament (Cloudscape) (1995) by Main

The teamLab experience

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One of the surprise pleasures of browsing Rambalac’s YouTube channel was finding two visits to his local teamLab exhibitions. teamLab is a Japan-based arts collective who use digital technology to create immersive artworks using light and sound. Rambalac’s main excursion takes you to teamLab Borderless in Odaiba, Tokyo*, a building-sized collection of the group’s past creations situated in interconnected rooms on two floors. As with other Rambalac videos, what you have here is one man wandering around the place with a camera, which in this case gives us the opportunity to see Borderless from a visitor’s point of view. teamLab also has its own YouTube channel but most of the videos there are promotional pieces, usually a few minutes in length and heavily-edited. Rambalac seldom edits his videos which generally run for an hour at a time.

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The Borderless exhibits variously resemble nightclub interiors, Yayoi Kusama installations, theme-park attractions and psychedelic lightshows, with some of the larger, projection-filled areas giving the impression of walking around inside the DMT trip from Enter the Void. Kusama’s infinite mirror reflections are obvious precursors, especially in The Infinite Crystal Universe, a room containing a mass of illuminated cables running from mirrored floor to mirrored ceiling. The main difference, of course, is that Kusama’s installations are as static as most contemporary art, whereas teamLab’s creations are continually in flux. Some of the change relies on viewer participation; there are touch-sensitive surfaces and phone apps that allow visitors to adjust the parameters of specific works. It’s not all child-friendly psychedelia, at least at the conceptual level. The titles of some of the creations remind me of the portentous declarations favoured by Keiji Haino for his doom-laden recordings: Life is Flickering Light Floating in the Dark; Continuous Life and Death at the Now of Eternity; Massless Suns and Dark Spheres; Matter is Void

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I find all of this fascinating and exciting, it’s just a shame that you have to travel halfway around the world to see the things in person. teamLab does exhibit in other countries but to date most of their external work has been close to Japan. Some of the musical accompaniment at Borderless is overly dramatic for my tastes, like extracts from an anime soundtrack, but elsewhere the exhibits have their own brand of generative ambient music which in this context is genuinely ambient, not the diluted techno that we’ve been burdened with since the early 1990s. A good example of this is can be found in the other Rambalac video which visits Resonating Life in the Acorn Forest, an exhibit in a wooded park at Higashi-Tokorozawa.

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In this installation the trees are lit with coloured lights controlled by the illuminated polythene blobs sitting beneath them. The blobs emit electronic chimes when touched; each chime affects the nearest blobs which in turn change the colours of the lights. An additional bonus in Rambalac’s video is the nocturnal chirping of cicadas. teamLab are big on rippling fluctuation, it’s a quality found in many of their other exhibits. The ripples have become physical in more recent exhibits which require visitors to get their feet wet. I’ve no idea how Living Crystallized Light has been created but whatever the technology behind it the end result is quite incredible.

I’m predisposed to enjoy this kind of thing when I’ve always liked art that involves coloured light and mirrors—I’ve a lot of time for the creations of James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson—but I’ve been wondering for a while now when we’d start to see the emergence of art that feels like it belongs in this century instead of yet more expensive (and inert) novelties sitting in blank-walled galleries. teamLab aren’t the only people using technology in this way, there’s an increasing overlap between art and sound among electronic musicians like Robert Henke and Ryoji Ikeda, while Brian Eno has been evolving his own abstract sound-and-light environments for many years. More like this, please.


* Borderless in Odaiba permanently closed in August but teamLab will be opening a similar venue in Toyko next year.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Light Leaks
Eno’s Luminous Opera House panorama
Infinite reflections
Yayoi Kusama
Maximum Silence by Giancarlo Neri

Weekend links 647

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A local dispute on the planet Mars. Art by Kevin O’Neill from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

• “…this image has puzzled enthusiasts of the scientific mystic’s works, both for its obscure provenance and cryptic symbolism. With its pastiche of Renaissance visual style and medieval caption — “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch” — the illustration was once thought to have originated centuries before Flammarion published his text.” Hunter Dukes on the enduring mystery of the “Flammarion Engraving”.

• “For Spare, radio, and the waves that carried the music he loved to listen to, were more than just a metaphor for the spirit world. They were an active mode of conveyance for occult energies and vibrations – the swirling, ectoplasmic tendrils from which odd figures emerge in some of his most dense and haunting work.” Mark Pilkington explores Austin Osman Spare’s influence on the world of music.

• At Spine: Design studio Milk & Bone’s designer Alicia Raitt re-imagines all 14 of Kurt Vonnegut’s book covers to celebrate his 100th birthday.

• Farewell to Kevin O’Neill and Nik Turner, both of whom headed to the Western Lands this week.

Mean, moody and magnificent: film noir studio portraits – in pictures.

• Mix of the week: XLR8R Podcast 773 by Roméo Poirier.

• New music: Evergreen by Patrick Shiroishi.

Brainstorm (1972) by Hawkwind | Hurricane Fighter Plane (1985) by Inner City Unit | Brainstorm (1993) by Monster Magnet