The first Songbook from sound artist Mattin was released in 2005, releasing 4 "Songbooks" within the first year, then taking a long break until 2014, when Songbook 5 was released. Three years later #6 was issued, and #7, the latest as of this review, in 2018. The concept behind the series initiated as "improvisation as a way or exposing structural clichés in pop/rock music" and "song structures to demystify the so-called spontaneity and freedom of improvisation."
The series had rough beginnings, presented as collections of off-the-cuff songs with little treatment, raw and fully on display; the reception to those albums seems to have been equally coarse. Mattin persisted, 2006's Songbook Volume 4 presented as a 5-piece band performing live in Tokyo, with the lineup of long-time collaborator Taku Unami on bass, Anthony Guerra on guitar, Jean-Luc Guionnet on sax, and Tomoya Izumi "shouting". The Squid's Ear's writer Kurt Gottschalk, reviewing the album in 2008, declared: It's cool, it's raw - your parents wouldn't like it, and your kids probably won't either.
To back this assessment, Mattin issued the following manifesto to coincide with the release:
Mattin : Songbook #5 [VINYL] (Disembraining Machine )
1. Make up songs on the spot
2. The songs must have a beginning, a chorus, and an end
3. Record the songs directly into the internal microphone of a laptop computer
4. Use improvisation as a way or exposing structural and improvisational clichés in pop/rock music
5. Use song structures to demystify the so-called spontaneity and freedom of improvisation
6. Release the recordings on different labels and laugh at different peoples reactions
The reviews for Songbook Volume 4 were more positive, and the series seems to have taken a turn, so it's surprising that the next album took six years to come about.
On Songbook 5 Mattin recruited five musicians (Alex Cuffe, Andrew McLellan, Dean Roberts, Joel Stern, and Mattin himself) to record five spontaneous "songs" of five-minute duration, each in response to five different concepts of five different five-word song titles. Mattin then recorded vocals for each as a form of singing lecture at The Victorian College of the Arts, where Mattin heard the music on headphones but the audience does not hear the music; he subsequently superimposed the vocals onto the songs. One can only imagine the unique and perhaps maddening qualities of that lecture, but the unusual process provided results unlike any other rock album.
Mattin: Songbook #6 [VINYL] (Munster Records, Insulin Addicted Records, Crudités Tapes)
Songbook 6 from 2013 is performed with Farahnaz Hatam, Pan Daijing, Colin Hacklander, Werner Dafeldecker, and Dean Roberts, a vicious mix of essentially no-wave rock and experimental music, six songs at exactly six minutes each covering topics of the conflicts, confusion and frustrations of our modern age. The number theme continues here, and the songs become more articulated even if difficult to follow, the music more controlled but not polished, and certainly not predictable. Dean Roberts writes: "Yes, there is rock, but it's so deformed that not even no wave could help you make sense out of it." It's rock with an experimental bent, using plenty of electronics, and little indication of who is doing what. It's a far cry from Songbook 1, but it's still crying with angst, confrontational, and with a Berlin-backing band, hearkening a bit to Einstürzende Neubauten and similar bands of foreboding sound and word.
Mattin: Songbook #7 [VINYL] (Munster Records)
Which finally brings us to this review: Songbook 7, recorded in 2017. From its humble roots, the Songbook series has become serious, and Mattin is using his songbooks as a solid platform for social commentary with an incredible band capable of shaping his intentions in sound. As he states, if previous Songbooks dealt with the tension between improvisation and song structure, this Songbook explores the tension between the individual and the collective, while contrasting historic moments against modern politics, comparing the present with the past, and exploring issues like the rise of fascism.
In an impressive septet with Lucio Capece (bass clarinet & sampler), Marcel Dickhage (voice, sampler & German texts), Colin Hacklander (drums), Farahanz Hatam (computer), Mattin (voice & English texts), Moor Mother (electronics) and Cathleen Schuster (voice, sampler & German texts), Mattin uses this Songbook to contemplate two moments as historical inspiration: the first 7 months of the 1917 Russian Revolution; and Germaine Berton, the anarchist who in 1923 was accused of murdering Marius Plateau, director of the far-right organization French Action League.
To do this Mattin blends spoken words and electronics, shards of rock, noise, and otherwise inexplicable sound, all in an unpredictable amalgamation. Several of the pieces initiate as narratives, with intense musical accompaniment building, pausing at times for spoken asides, and then thickening like a chaotic clash, reflecting the events described. There's room for individual improvisation, and Capece, Mother Moor and Hacklander stand out in throttled and energetic cries, each eventually subsumed by the sonic tempest and overshadowed by statements that whiplash the listener, bouncing from speaker to speaker and modified by an array of treatments. Altogether it's an excellent work that fuses disparate musical and sonic forms in emphatics ways to create an enveloping set of sonic environments that support the themes of the album.
Each recording on the LP is named for a successive month, each distinctive in the layering and density of sound. "January" is foreboding and thick with a cloud of sound, effected and robotic voices guiding and rebuking; "February" builds thicker, demanding, driving but taking narrative pauses, twists & turns; "March" & "April" are reserved, instructive, mysterious; "May" experimental, filled with space and innuendo, whispered voices, fractured bits of sound and quietly aberrant and swelling electronics. The music's unpredictability is its fascination; at times the listener is overwhelmed, at times perplexed, at times startled, at times soothed into complacency.
We are led to track 6, "June", which is an audio discussion of the album's objectives and degrees of success; this level of self-awareness reflects Mattin's serious exploration of his themes--this is not an album to take lightly, and his subjects are non-trivial issues that have vexed society for decades. The album ends in "July", returning to the work of the album with distressed and desperate cries from Mattin. Is it frustration at the cyclical nature of these issues and their failure to resolve, for people to escape control and fascism, to transform society to something lastingly better?
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