California Dreaming: Cold Blue Music

If, like me, you're fed up with not being able to find anything to listen to in the high street record stores near you, then I recommend Sound 323, a record shop in Archway Road, Highgate, London. [They do mail order. Contact them via e-mail or telephone: 020 8348 9596.] I made a trip there on my last visit to the city, and well worth the time and energy involved it was too. Their small shop is well-stocked with contemporary classical, improvised, jazz and experimental music - most of which I hadn't seen, or even read about, before. They were helpful in playing stuff, happy to talk [intelligently, I might add] about their stock, and I came away with 4 CDs, three of which were by people I'd never heard of!

One of these was Aluminum Overcast by Chas Smith. It's been almost permanently on the stereo recently, and contains six tracks, all played mainly on Smith's homemade metal instruments and his steel guitar. The music is kind of organic-drone based, tough and clearly revealing the nature of what's being played [ie its metallic!], yet beautiful and subtly abstract - there's no cacophonous sheet-metal banging like Test Department used to indulge in. The nearest comparison I can make is Main, but the sounds are less 'electric', they are warmer and more welcoming in tone. I thought - since I liked the CD so much - I'd contact the record label and tell them how much I'd enjoyed the work and ask for some more information and review copies.

A few days later, there's a knock on the door, and a bumper parcel is in my hand - seven CDs, including another copy of the Chas Smith! All are beautifully packaged, and a little reading of the sleeves and information sheets reveals what appears to be a small community of musicians playing each others work, often guesting on each other's CDs, all stylistically circling a post-minimalist, quiet Californian school of music. It seems Cold Blue functioned as a record label back in the 1980s and has only recently surfaced again, after 15 years absence, as a CD label.

Of the seven CDs, Aluminum Overcast remains my favourite. Chas Smith's earlier CD, Nikko Wolverine, despite being interesting because it shows Smith's homemade instruments in the CD booklet, seems to have come from a totally different place to the newer CD. Here, the work is more rhythmic and percussive, very reminiscent of Harry Partch's simplistic compositions for his own instruments, and just as uninvolving to these ears. I guess I prefer the application of the metal instruments within the newer pieces of music, and welcome the addition of steel guitar and a few guest musicians and their instruments.

There are three other gems among these releases: Michael Byron's Music of Nights Without Moon or Pearl is clearly 'post-minimalist' - in terms of its repetition and dynamics - and comes with an endorsement from composer Richard Teitelbaum on the cover. He, rightly, describes the music as 'drifting' and also mentions 'the range and variety of emotion, tension, and activity among the three pieces'. I find the music awkward and slightly off-kilter, there's a disturbing set of nuances at play which I like; the 'drifting' never becomes monotonous or simplistic, there is complexity and layering, intrusion and change-of-direction, often when least expected. It is beautiful, enigmatic and involving, as is Michael Jon Fin's I Hear It In The Rain, a CD of compositions by Fink, who only appears playing samples on one track, and bass and keyboards on another. The CD starts with 'Five Pieces for Piano', a fragile, skeletal set of pieces in the Harold Budd/Brian Eno school of post-Satie music. After a brief celesta solo, there are a further 'Two Preludes for Piano', and then a 20 minute composition 'Living To be Hunted by the Moon', featuring clarinettist Marty Walker, whose playing here is offset by strange electronic samples of drones and tones. At times the effect is almost menacing, verging on industrial. The CD closes with what at first listen appears to be piano again, but turns out to be electronic keyboard and 'glass guitar'; the title 'I Hear It in the Rain' aptly sums it up: patinas of notes, near and far, heard and half-heard. It's an astonishing, entrancing album, careful and considered, yet never too precious or conceited.

The third gem is the release under Marty Walker's own name, although Dancing With Water turns out to be a showcase for the Cold Blue composers' [and a few others'] compositions for clarinet. Over the ten tracks, Walker plays in a number of different trios and duos, as well as solo, and is clearly a talented player. The composers are gifted too, and although there's a continuing overall mood of quiet and space, part of the CDs appeal - beyond the virtuoso playing - is the array of music on show, and the interaction of the varying instrumentation.

Which leaves two CDs I don't get on with, despite numerous attempts. Even the guest appearance of Jon Hassell and his trumpet, and Chas Smith's steel guitar, on Rick Cox's Maria Falling Away can't hold my attention. This CD of prepared guitars and saxophones simply drifts away pleasantly without doing anything interesting. Sure, there's an attention to sustain and echo, and one track introduces a rather leaden sampled chug of a rhythm, but, no, this one isn't for me. And the real let-down is Jim Fox's Last Things, which contains two long tracks. The first, 'The Copy of the Drawing', is an appalling post-ambient epic, which is reminiscent of both Sylvian & Czukay's collaborations and Pat Metheny's 'As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls'. There's long sections of drone and effects, [sampled?] instruments dropping in and out of the mix, and some muttering female voices in there too. It's very tired, very obvious and very dated. The second track 'Last Things' clocks in at only 20 minutes, features most of the Cold Blue boys, and is much better, but the damage has been done [although there's some lovely bass clarinet in there].

It's intriguing, isn't it? Is there really a movement in California of this kind of work, or is it just a good move to get together with a group of like-minded composers and musicians and at the very least, hint that there is? Well, all power to their elbow and sales figures. This is an intelligent independent label putting out well-designed and produced CDs of new music. Check out the Cold Blue catalogue online at or contact them at PO Box 2938, Venice, CA 90294-2938, USA

© Rupert Loydell 2002