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Various Artists - George Ferguson McKeating [Bells Hill - 2009]

This two disc compilation is named after music journalist Scott McKeating’s father who passed away in 2007 following a typically sudden and brief struggle with pancreatic cancer. All proceeds from its sale go to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund and all artists have donated exclusive tracks to the release that sewed the seed for McKeating’s Bells Hill label. The release largely maps out a loose family of free improv rock artists mainly based in Northern Britain, most of which orbit each other in a collaborative spirit encouraging experiments with noise and drones.

Arguably the most prolific artists from this fertile scene, Richard Youngs, Neil Campbell and Matthew Bower, are all featured before we’re halfway through the first CD. Richard Youngs duets with the precociously talented percussionist Alex Neilson on ‘It’s all Waves’, a folksy song full of subtle eddying currents played on a salty organ with splashing cymbals and irregular fills. Neil Campbell’s Astral Social Club builds a tunnel of raw, heavily distorted psychedelic rock barely contained by a stubborn piano, while Matthew Bower, appearing as Mirag, forges layers of fuzz guitar frequencies from a relentless furnace hissing and spitting as sweat hits its churning, hot liquid metal.

Another major presence here is that of the members of Jazzfinger, whose Hasan Gaylani closes the first disc with the chaotic ‘There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West’, which sounds like toy piano tones coated in a tinniness that merges everything into a cacophonous whole, masking a sad melody of low wailing. Elsewhere, the other members of the trio, Ben Jones and Sarah Sullivan, under the guise of ‘Mechanical Children’, also revel in tinniness setting the boiling whistle of a kettle against a swirling tone generator. The group come together to open the second disc with a similarly messy exercise that combines a short, repeating piano phrase with the scratchy, scribbled bursts of a faulty guitar lead while improvised vocals complain amidst shrill feedback. With such a loud mastering job highlighting the practice room ambience throughout, the narrow frequency range of these excerpts of improv can be particularly harsh on the ear dampening enjoyment of the spirited free play.

But this dense volume does provide both impact and definition to some of the compilation’s more minimal works like Culver’s dark, gravely bass guitar drone that subtly builds shadowy hues to form a stream of roaring traffic, or Hapsburg Braganza’s ‘Alley Collage’ whose mysterious, layered field recordings suggest a view of urban demolition. Best of all though is from Graveyards ‘Tone Clash’, which sees the Michigan trio of Ben Hall, Hans Buetow and John Olson, play around with a literally rolling sound, like a large ball bearing in a contact mic’d wok. The result is a room full of trembling deep frequencies, an amazing physical effect that describes a haunted concavity that dovetails surprisingly well with doomy passages of reeds skronking and wailing.

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

Russell Cuzner
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