Stomu Yamash’ta’s Seasons

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If you’ve ever watched The Man Who Fell to Earth then you’ve heard music by Japanese percussionist and composer Stomu Yamash’ta. The opening scene where David Bowie’s duffle-coated alien stumbles down a hillside (falling to earth for a second time) is scored with the first few minutes of Poker Dice, the opening track on Yamash’ta’s Floating Music album; more Yamash’ta pieces are heard later in the film. Floating Music has just been reissued on CD by Cherry Red in Seasons, a box set which contains all seven of the albums Yamash’ta recorded for the Island label from 1972 to 1976, with each disc housed in a facsimile card sleeve.

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Stomu Yamash’ta’s artistic profile was very high in the 1970s, high enough to make his apparent disappearance in the decade that followed an unusual thing. Unusual for me, anyway. I only started to notice his name in the early 1980s, mostly in connection with feature films, and couldn’t work out why he was no longer mentioned anywhere as an active artist. In addition to the Roeg soundtrack he plays on the soundtracks for Robert Altman’s Images (1972) and Saul Bass’s Phase IV (1974); he’s also one of the performers on the Peter Maxwell Davies score for The Devils (1971) although Ken Russell’s film gets to be so chaotic I’ve yet to identify his contribution. Later in the decade Yamash’ta was the only non-Western artist to appear in the final episode of Tony Palmer’s television history of pop music All You Need Is Love, in a programme that explored new musical directions. Away from films and TV there were numerous concerts; Yamash’ta’s history as a percussion prodigy in the 1960s had seen him performing compositions by Peter Maxwell Davies and Toru Takemitsu when he was still in his teens. His energetic performances gave way to a frenzied recording schedule—in 1971 alone he recorded six studio albums—which culminated in 1976 with the founding of Go, a short-lived jazz-fusion supergroup whose lineup included Steve Winwood, Al Di Meola, Michael Shrieve, and (surprisingly) Klaus Schulze.

Yamash’ta’s “disappearance” in the 1980s was really a retreat from the spotlight after a decade-and-a-half of almost continual public activity. He returned to Japan where he continued recording but gravitated away from jazz and avant-garde music towards the spiritual side of Japanese culture. Most of his albums since 1980 have only been Japan-only releases, another factor contributing to his obscurity elsewhere. More recently he’s taken to playing the Sanukitophone, a bespoke percussion instrument made from a variety of volcanic rock unique to the Japanese archipelago.

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Freedom Is Frightening (1973), one of three Yamash’ta albums with cover designs by Saul Bass.

The albums in the new box set encapsulate what might be called Yamash’ta’s “Kozmigroov” period, although Yamash’ta’s name is absent from the generally thorough and wide-ranging Kozmigroov Index. This is also his most commercial period. Prior to 1972 Yamash’ta’s recordings were soundtracks, performances with orchestras or improvised freakouts; from 1980 his music seems to be predominantly meditational (“New Age”, if you must) but I’ve not heard most of it so can’t say much about it. Kozmigroov is jazz fusion at core, usually combining a variety of disparate influences, which is what you have here: extended arrangements of jazz, funk, soul, rock, electronics, and occasional moments of traditional Japanese music. The continually changing group names testify to a restless nature: Floating Music (1972) by Stomu Yamash’ta & Come To The Edge (a British jazz group), Freedom Is Frightening (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s East Wind, The Soundtrack From “The Man From The East” (1973) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s Red Buddha Theatre, One By One (1974) by Stomu Yamash’ta’s East Wind, and Raindog (1975) by Yamashta [sic]. Then there’s the self-titled Go album (with a cover design by Saul Bass) and its live counterpart, Go…Live From Paris. (A third and final album by the group, Go Too, was released on Arista so isn’t included in this set.) The sound evolves from semi-improvised instrumentals on the first few albums to songs and more rock-oriented arrangements on Raindog and the Go releases, with the Steve Winwood songs on the latter coming across as a step into more predictable territory compared to the earlier recordings. The Go live album is much better than the uneven studio set, a sustained suite of songs and instrumentals linked by Klaus Schulze’s synthesizers; Schulze gets a big cheer when the band is introduced. If you like jazz fusion there’s a lot to enjoy in this box, a third of which I hadn’t heard before. Dunes, the opening track on Raindog, unfolds over 15 minutes with an insistent groove that brings to mind the Mahavishnu Orchestra and early Santana, although Maxine Nightingale is a better singer than anyone on the Santana albums. And if you are familiar with The Man Who Fell to Earth then you get all of Yamash’ta’s music from the soundtrack scattered across these albums, most of which is only heard as extracts during the film.

With the recent reissue of Sunrise From West Sea “Live” I’m tempted to think that we might be due for a resurgence of interest in Stomu Yamash’ta’s music, but the prior availability of the Seasons albums as individual CDs doesn’t appear to have prompted a clamour for more. There’s a lot more out there, however, especially the rare Japanese releases from the early 1970s. Follow the links below for more detail.

The Infinite Horizons of Stomu Yamash’ta by Gregor Meyer.
The Strange World of…Stomu Yamash’ta by Miranda Rimington.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Devils on DVD
Directed by Saul Bass
Saul Bass album covers
Images by Robert Altman

Quay Brothers record covers

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Institute Benjamenta (1998) by Lech Jankowski.

Continuing an occasional series about artists or designers whose work has appeared on record sleeves. Regular readers won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve had this one in mind for some time but it’s taken a while to put together. The main problem has been the Quay Brothers’ habit of using a variety of different names when they were working as designers; variations include “Stefen” rather than Stephen Quay, the Brothers Quai, Gebr. Quay, Jumeaux Quay, The Quays, Atelier Koninck (or Koninck Atelier), and so on. The catalogue compilers at Discogs do a good job of keeping up with the alternate names of groups or musical artists but stumble over those used by anyone else associated with an album’s production. Consequently, this collection of covers shouldn’t be taken as complete or final. Some of the discoveries would have been impossible without the checklist of Quays ephemera that accompanied the MoMA exhibition in 2012.

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Blood, Sweat & Tears (1968) by Blood, Sweat & Tears.

This must be one of the earliest of the Quays’ commercial works. As with other covers from the first decade of their career, the credit is for illustration alone, graphic design came later.

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Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 2 In D Major, Violin Concerto No. 5 In A Major (“Turkish”) (197?); Zurich Chamber Orchestra, Zino Francescatti, Edmond De Stoutz.

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George Rochberg: String Quartet No. 3 (1973); The Concord String Quartet.

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Fiction Tales (1981) by Modern Eon.

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Serious houses: The Lud Heat Tapes, 1979

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Goldmark hardcover, 1987.

The old maps present a sky-line dominated by church towers; those horizons were differently punctured, so that the subservience of the grounded eye, & the division of the city by nome-wound, was not disguised. Moving now on an eastern arc the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor soon invade the consciousness, the charting instinct. Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of the fear; – built for early century optimism, erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud & dust. In this air certain hungers were activated that have yet to be pacified; no turning back, as Yeats claims: “the stones once set up traffic with the enemy.”
—Iain Sinclair, Lud Heat

A serious house on serious earth it is
—Philip Larkin, Church Going

“Serious” is a word with many meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one of these as “attended with danger; giving cause for anxiety”, a definition that wouldn’t suit Philip Larkin’s poem describing a visit to a moribund country church, but which is easily applied to a longer cycle of poems by Iain Sinclair. Lud Heat: A Book of the Dead Hamlets is the collection of writings that lifted Sinclair’s authorial profile out of the poetry ghetto in which he’d been situated throughout the 1970s. He published the first edition through his own Albion Village Press in 1975 but it wasn’t until the arrival of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor a decade later that wider public attention began to turn in Sinclair’s direction. Lud Heat set out for the first time a series of observations concerning the peculiar and sinister qualities of the churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in 18th-century London: Christ Church, Spitalfields; St George’s, Bloomsbury; St Mary Woolnoth; St George in the East; St Anne’s, Limehouse; St Alfege Church, Greenwich; plus those built in collaboration with John James: St Luke Old Street, and St John Horsleydown. The book separates the poetry with prose pieces—diary extracts, accounts of a film viewing and an art exhibition—that anticipate the author’s subsequent explorations of London’s margins and esoterica. Like many of Sinclair’s later writings, the texts in the early editions are accompanied by a variety of illustrations: engravings, contemporary photographs, and a map of London drawn by Brian Catling that posits a network of “lines of influence…invisible rods of force” connecting the churches with each other and with significant locations such as William Blake’s house, Cleopatra’s Needle and so on. Paperback reprints omitted the illustrations* but retained the map which was redrawn by Dave McKean. The new version gave greater emphasis to the Egyptian symbols that Sinclair and Catling had scattered across the city: jackal-headed Anubis as as the presiding deity of the Isle of Dogs.

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Photo by Charles Latham from London Churches of the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries (1896) by George H. Birch.

Lud Heat is a beguiling and potent book; it’s also a book that’s of its time in its suggestion of malefic “rods of force” scored across the capital. Sinclair’s map may be the earliest artistic development of a process begun in 1969 when John Michell published The View Over Atlantis, an elaboration of ideas set forth in his earlier volume, The Flying Saucer Vision. Michell’s free-wheeling speculations gave new life to the innocuous studies of Alfred Watkins, inflating amateur archaeological ruminations into full-blown Aquarian metaphysics. Where Watkins considered that “ley lines” (a term of his own invention) might have been ancient trading routes, Michell’s enthusiasm for the full range of Fortean phenomena transmuted the alleged paths into channels of unspecified “Earth energy”, flying-saucer guides, and the axes of a sacred geometry. Other crank scholars were eager to follow Michell’s lead, leaving an opening for Sinclair to adopt the conceit for its poetic resonances; the New Age trappings were inverted to reveal a darker pattern more suited to London’s history of plague, murder and mass destruction. (The Hawksmoor churches had been built to compensate for the devastations of the Great Fire of 1666; two of them were hit by bombs during the Blitz, with one being damaged beyond repair.)

This isn’t to suggest that Sinclair was borrowing directly from Watkins and Michell; in an interview he mentions an earlier precursor of both his map and Watkins’ ley lines in Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles (1914) by Elizabeth O. Gordon. But something was in the air in the 1970s. Lud Heat appeared shortly before the release of a pair of albums that borrowed heavily from Michell’s books—Green (1978) by Steve Hillage, and Blake’s New Jerusalem (1978) by Tim Blake—while two TV serials exploited the idea of ley lines as channels of Earth energy, Children of the Stones (1977) and Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass (1979). Lud Heat stands apart from these works by concentrating on urban structures rather than isolated monoliths and ancient pathways. The suggestion that the city of London could be home to mysterious “rods of force” is an especially intriguing one, hence the appropriation of the idea by Peter Ackroyd in Hawksmoor and Alan Moore in From Hell. Any church of a sufficient size or age is a kind of time machine, maintaining in its appearance and its grounds a pocket of history separated from the changes that take place around it. The churches in Lud Heat are also batteries of stone, impregnated with the unspent energies of the dead who lie in their crypts. These latent forces overflow their containers, spilling into the streets beyond the church walls. Sinclair has always been adamant that his Lud Heat map is a fabrication; the degree to which he believes in the rest of his thesis is for the reader to decide. It is a fact that St George in the East is close to the location of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 (Sinclair includes a illustration of the murderer’s corpse in Lud Heat), while Christ Church, Spitalfields, sits at the centre of maps of the Jack the Ripper murders; the fifth and most brutal of these occurred a short distance from that colossal porch on the opposite side of Commercial Street. “Dead Hamlets” also has many meanings.

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Weekend links 580

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The Collective Lie We All Live By, a cut-paper collage by Allan Kausch from Maintenant 15, A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing and Art.

• “It’s unusual that an album manages to be at once so much of its moment, yet so much outside it. Time was unmistakably a response to the electronic and synth waves that rose in the wake of punk. It was also a concept album about time travel, which couldn’t have been more pre-punk had it been focus-grouped that way.” David Bennun on Time (1981), ELO’s masterwork of science-fiction pop. The first song on the album, Twilight, is a thundering piece of synth bombast that prefigures Trevor Horn’s equally bombastic productions, and was used to memorable effect in the copyright-infringing animation made in 1983 for the opening of Daicon IV.

• New music: Disciples Of The Scorpion by The Rowan Amber Mill, and Shade by Grouper.

• “Psychedelic spirituality: Inside a growing Bay Area religious movement“.

• “It’s time to farewell this project,” says Ballardian.

• At Wormwoodiana: the seven greek vowels.

• A playlist for The Wire by Douglas Benford.

Norman Blake‘s favourite albums.

Astronomia Playing Cards.

• RIP Dusty Hill.

Time (1973) by David Bowie | Time (1976) by La Düsseldorf | Time (1992) by Lull

Solid Space: Jon Anderson’s cosmic voyage

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Jon Anderson’s solo debut, Olias Of Sunhillow, is reissued this week in a double-disc set comprising a remastered CD plus an audio DVD. I’d been hoping for some time that this album might be given a proper reissue, it’s one I like a great deal but my old CD has never sounded as good as it ought to. The album may command cult status round here but you don’t see it mentioned anywhere outside Yes forums or partisan enclaves like the Prog Archives. This post may be taken as a small corrective to the neglect.

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Olias Of Sunhillow was released in 1976, and was the most unusual of all the solo albums recorded by the individual members of Yes in the mid-70s, being a spin-off from some of the group’s early albums, or at least their cover art. Roger Dean’s first cover work for the group was on Fragile in 1971, for which he painted a miniature world rather like one of MC Escher’s planetoids. This was Dean’s idea, the band had suggested a broken piece of porcelain as the cover image. The back cover of the album showed the same planet in a state of fragmentation with a fish-like spaceship floating above it (see below). Another drawing of the fish-ship was added to the front cover before the album’s release, and it’s this ship, and the narrative it suggests, that leads eventually to Anderson’s solo album. Two years after Fragile, the planetary disintegration had turned into an exodus on the group’s triple-live album, Yessongs, the back cover of which shows pieces of planet being towed through space by a similar fish-ship. The other panels of the cover depict the arrival of these fragments on a newer, larger world. Anderson’s album takes this sequence of events then filters them through Vera Stanley Alder’s mysticism to craft a musical odyssey which Discogs describes as:

…the story of an alien race and their journey to a new world due to catastrophe. Olias, the title character, is the chosen architect of the glider Moorglade, which will be used to fly his people to their new home. Ranyart is the navigator for the glider, and Qoquaq is the leader who unites the four tribes of Sunhillow to partake in the exodus.

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For many years in British music circles it would have been a grave error to even acknowledge this album’s existence, never mind admit to actually liking it. This was partly the old animus against progressive rock, an unexamined prejudice that lasted well into the 1990s, but Anderson’s album had so many strikes against it that it might have stood as the winner of a disapproval lottery for the more ideologically rigid writers and readers of the NME. It’s Jon Anderson (strike 1), the lead singer of progressive rock (2) group Yes (3), whose album is a science fiction (4)/ fantasy (5) concept (6), littered with Tolkien-like invented names and words (7), and with a multi-page sleeve embellished with detailed fantasy illustrations (8) by David Fairbrother-Roe. The design was art directed by Hipgnosis, who subsequently designed the next two Yes albums. Anderson originally wanted Roger Dean to create the packaging, which would have provided a further strike of disapproval against the album, but Dean’s career had gone into overdrive following the publication of Views so he either didn’t have the time or didn’t want to be involved. In Views Dean mentions “another project” based on the fish-ship’s journey which may be a reference to Anderson’s forthcoming album, the credits of which thank Dean for “planting the seed”.

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Roger Dean’s original artwork for Fragile (1971). Another fish-ship was added to the final cover art.

Continue reading “Solid Space: Jon Anderson’s cosmic voyage”