The Southern Californian production team Michael Raymond Russell and Adam Douglas Manella (MRR-ADM), formerly known as MHE, have self-released one 10″ EP and a promotion-only CD. In the past, they have collaborated with the likes of Ghostface Killah, Malcolm Catto and Mike Burnham. They are currently working on their debut album for Now-Again – but they’ve been doing so for about eight years, so don’t hold your breath.
The Natural Yogurt Band first signed with Gerald “Jazzman” Short in late 2007. It didn’t take much – a mysterious UK-based duo that record brooding, beat-heavy, difficult-to-categorize demo, love Galt MacDermot, David Axelrod and Ennio Morricone’s 60s and 70s masterpieces and care most about releasing their music in the vinyl format? It was only natural, then, that Short and Now-Again’s Egon would hatch a plan for an expanded North American issue of the band’s debut – an album that had already been hailed as a fine release in keeping with the best “library music” issues of the same era.
Now, the Natural Yogurt Band are signed to Jazzman and Now-Again and plan release their sophomore album as a joint-venture between the two companies in 2010.
Chop made his recording debut for Now-Again with 2009’s visionary Lightworlds. Few had heard of Chop prior to this vinyl-only EP, and it was just as well: Lightworlds was a departure from all of that this Cheshire, England based multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer had created before. Gone were any traces of groovy funk and jazz, replaced with the punishing rhythms of the Heliocentrics’ Malcolm Catto (drums) and Jake Ferguson (bass), atop which Chop indulged more of his wilder impulses, riffing on the anthemic synth rock of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the jagged edge of Italy’s prog-monsters Goblin and French musique concrete pioneers inexplicably accessible results.
But the album that Lightworlds was meant to precede took a long, winding detour. Holed up in his Ape Studios, located off a dirt road adjacent to a 19th century pub alongside an estuary that abuts Northern Wales, Chop decided he would try his hand at the nearly fifty year old – and rarely successful – quest to musically merge the organic and the electronic. Three years later, surrounded by a host of musical material – long songs and short ones, sketches and finished ideas, drums on the road to anywhere and sessions awash in synthesized soundwaves – and reeling from the passing of his father, his music started falling into himself and Chop found himself in the center of spiral.
It was then that his friend Joe Fearon, A&R for the likes of Liverpool bands The Coral and The Zutons, came by the studio to hear what Chop had been working on that he realized how desperate a plight he was in. “I’m going insane making this record,” he pleaded, and Fearon took heed. He signed on and immediately dug into the pile of music Chop had created, picking out the tracks he thought could work as an album, while still encouraging Chop to search for the perfect additions to the raw tracks. Searching for voices, Chop found that his own voice – when processed through a WWII era bomber pilot’s reconditioned microphone or deconstructed via an early Texas Instruments computer – became an essential, ethereal element as likely to fall on the analog as the electronic side of his album. The need for a lead guitar lead to a call to The Coral’s Bill Ryder Jones, who leant a powerful 70s rock sound to the proceedings. And searching for the inspiration to tie the songs together took Chop and Fearon through the rest of Chop’s record collection – from hip hop to disco to new wave to minimal synth – but they really didn’t need to look further than across the estuary, where a 19th century power station still cackled with life, giving the pair a the nostalgia for a the past’s hope for the future – a retro-futurism, if you will – which pulled them through the album’s final stages.
In the end, Illuminate – cribbed from the title track “Illuminate All Voltages” – came into existence to help Chop silence an accelerating neurotic world and soothe the pain he felt with the passing of his father.
Chop makes sweeping yet intimate musical statement, ones which can pound with a jackhammer’s pulse at one moment, then slink into the dark serenity the next. He desires for a future in line with the past’s naiveté, hopes for a more perfect tomorrow and, more often than not, ends his musical declarations by flipping the switch, leaving his listener left in the black, until he chooses to start the cycle again. And when he does, he finds that calm in the chaos of a not so perfect world, and empowered to dream for a better tomorrow again.
When Poets of Rhythm founding members Jan and Max Whitefield traveled from their native Munich to New York to record their eponymous debut album, Sharon Jones was a name only known to the cult that bought her first, rare 45s, The Dap Kings didn’t exist and The El Michels Affair were teenagers gigging as the Mighty Imperials. Rough, raw, real funk music was decidedly out of vogue. Though the Poets had dutifully dozens of 45s and a few key LPs of their modern take on the funk sound over a decade, their recordings remained for a chosen few. Back then, “African influenced funk” meant “sounds like Fela.” The first American “real funk” label, Desco, had disappeared; Desco’s owner Phillipe Lehman searched for a new approach.
Thus, the idea that Jan and Max presented to him – to record an album chock full of funk music influenced by the African diaspora, an album as indebted to the Meters as to Mr. Kuti and his Africa 70, an album as psychedelic as those Ghanaian and Nigerian masterpieces by unknown psych-funk heroes such as Blo, Edazawa and the Psychedelic Aliens – sat perfectly with him. Desco co-founder Gabriel Roth (later the co-founder of Daptone Records and leader of The Dap Kings) brought his bass. Leon Michels, as in El Michels himself, wrote horn arrangements and played sax and flute. So did Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman. Jan and Max’s compositions came to life and the record was mixed, mastered, packaged, and quickly released. A 7” and a 10” followed, with exclusive tracks not released on In The Raw.
Now Again has since reissued In The Raw and Egon worked closely with Jan and Max to assemble the follow up to their first, crucial slice of the funk spectrum: Earthology. While they are currently on a recording hiatus, The Whitefield Brothers created two albums wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve, hypnotic, defiantly psychedelic funk music that is as modern as it is grounded in the great musical traditions from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s been some years since the first Karl Hector release, and it’s known now that Mr. Hector is indeed the German producer and guitarist JJ Whitefield, ne Jan Weissenfeldt. Whitefield is the visionary behind the Poets of Rhythm and the Whitefield Brothers, the ensembles whose rough analog sound and return to the funk archetypes of the late 60s to early 70s paved the way for labels like Daptone, Truth & Soul, Timmion.
Whitefield, along with Thomas Myland and Zdenko Curlija, founded Karl Hector and The Malcouns in the early 2000s. Their debut, Sahara Swing, saw release on Now-Again in 2008. The album swung with influences from across the African diaspora and set the stage for a cult, but influential following. A grueling tour schedule made recording a follow up album to Sahara Swing quite the challenge, and as a result, the band opted to release limited edition, hand-silkscreened EP’s, which continued to show their deft handling of musics from Eastern and Northern Africa alongside Western psychedelia, jazz and funk.
Unstraight Ahead, the band’s second album, found the band exploring territories even outside of the expansive scope of Sahara Swing. On this album, the West African sounds of Ghana and Mali meet the East African sounds of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian jazz and are tied together with the groove heavy experimentalism of The Malcouns’ 70s Krautrock godfathers: Can, of course, but also more obscure and equally adventurous groups like Agitation Free, Ibliss and Tomorrow’s Gift.
“We look to Middle Eastern funk and psychedelic fusions, and to various ethnic records for sound and phrasing,” Whitefield states. “We’re trying to combine the global experimentalism of Krautrock with the backbeat of funk.” This explains how songs in uneven meters – 5/4, 7/8 – always sound so accessible and natural on Unstraight Ahead. It’s mainly an instrumental affair, but guest artists appear throughout, from across the African diaspora to those from the worldly Krautrock forebears of their German fatherland: it’s Marja, daughter of Embryo founder Christian Burchard, whose vocals open Unstraight Ahead.
Theirs is music out of time, music that couldn’t have been made in the era its aural aesthetics reference, as its scope is so broad. But it’s music focused by funk – and an ambition to expand funk’s reaches.
Rodinia is a JJ Whitefield side project, quite different than anything that’s come from his oeuvre to date, but it follows in the line of the Poets of Rhythm’s great Discern/Define, as it reaches back to Krautrock’s experimental hey day and pushes its boundaries with a post-hip-hop approach.
The ambient sound Whitefield and his Rodinia collaborator – saxophonist and keyboardist Johannes Schleiermacher – reached for found itself morphing over the course of a year. What was originally recorded in a two-day studio lock-in, which found Whitefield and Schleiermacher hooking up “all our vintage synths (Korg MS-20, Moog Prodigy, Roland Juno 60, Jen SX 1000, Korg Polysix), triggering everything with a vintage Korg rhythm box, absorbing some mind altering substances and jamming out,” was later turned into two, side-long suites, with over-dubbed reeds, drums and guitar, and self-made Moroccan field recordings introducing the project on its Drumside, the album’s side-A.