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Jorge Velez - Roman Birds Music Album Reviews

Inspired by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, this five-track ambient wonder finds the New York producer letting pulses and motifs overlap until the tracks resemble the inside of a lava lamp.
Jorge Velez has long been prolific, but that’s been especially true in the past few years. Like many underground electronic musicians, the New York producer has taken advantage of the internet’s self-publishing opportunities—in particular, the direct-to-fans platform Bandcamp—to sidestep label gatekeepers, streaming services, and crowded retailers. (Velez’s Bandcamp page currently numbers 26 releases.) Velez first gained recognition a dozen years ago with blippy disco derivatives for labels like Italians Do It Better, but his output has gradually become more esoteric and inward-looking. He’s still capable of ebullient club tracks, as last year’s excellent Forza attests, but many of his long, undulating machine jams sound like late-night missives to himself.

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This Heat - Repeat/Metal Music Album Reviews

A set of reissues of the British experimental trio’s non-album work, including a Peel sessions EP, live LP, and posthumous anthology, reveals the group’s restless, radical openness.

This Heat’s music has always felt unstable and unsettled. The work that this London post-punk trio created between 1979 and 1981, over two studio albums and a lone EP, was a charged concoction made from equal parts dub, world music, musique concrète-inspired tape-loop experiments, and progressive rock. But perfection was never the goal: The records were rough, unpolished flashes of an ongoing, ferocious creative process, with nearly all the material starting abruptly and ending with either a hard edit or a slow fadeout. Listening to them felt like catching little snapshots when the studio door swung open for a few tantalizing minutes.

This aesthetic was born of This Heat’s working methods, which found the three men (drummer Charles Hayward and multi-instrumentalists Charles Bullen and Gareth Williams) spending hours recording jam sessions in their studio, Cold Storage, a former meat locker in a disused factory. They would choose the best bits from those experiments to build upon and refine, or use snippets of tape as samples during their live sets. That didn’t end once they got into a proper recording studio. The neck-snapping version of “Horizontal Hold” on their self-titled debut, from 1979, opens with a snippet of a lo-fi demo of the song, and “Graphic/Varispeed,” the 11-minute drone piece that serves as the flipside of 1980’s “Health and Efficiency,” is an unsettling flood of organ tones warped by pitch control. Nothing was left well enough alone. As the working motto for This Heat went: “All possible processes. All channels open. Twenty-four-hour alert.”

The evolution of their songs didn’t begin or end there, as proven by the three reissues out this month from Light in the Attic. Filling in the gaps of the six fertile, volatile years the original trio had together (Williams left in 1982 and, after one last European tour with a pair of replacements, the band dissolved), these collections of live recordings and radio sessions, as well as a posthumously released EP of material from 1979 and 1980, find This Heat feeling their way around this still-fresh material or attacking it from new angles as they stretched the music’s crinkled edges as far as they could.

While they had only been together a year when they entered Maida Vale Studios to record a pair of 1977 sessions for the tastemaking BBC radio DJ John Peel, that material, compiled as Made Available (originally released in 1996), reveals just how clear their collective vision was from the start. Hayward and Bullen were already veterans of the UK music scene, with the former having played in Phil Manzanera’s pre-Roxy Music prog-jazz outfit Quiet Sun. Williams, on the other hand, had never picked up an instrument before being coaxed into the fold. That combination of practiced abilities and naive playfulness was key to This Heat’s sound. On Made Available’s “Horizontal Hold,” Williams wrestles with rumbling bass tones and squealing organ chords while Bullen and Hayward settle into a jagged, stop-start groove; the three instrumentals unique to this recording (“Basement Boy,” “Sitting,” and “Slither”) fold droning tape loops in with clarinet swells and shards of piano, giving them all a grey pallor.

The four songs from these sessions that wound up re-recorded for This Heat and Deceit both gain and lose something in comparison to their later renditions. The Maida Vale recording of “Not Waving,” for example, suggests the sensation of being on a creaking ship with slowly yawing loops and clanking percussion—a fitting accompaniment to a song about drowning. The album version, with its emphasis on piercing organ tones and a more agitated vocal turn, feels like the aftermath, a call from the beyond. It’s far less affecting. Meanwhile, the impact of the oblique rhythms and convulsing guitar chords on the Maida Vale sessions’ “Horizontal” and “Makeshift Swahili” is even greater without the tape splices and unnatural BPM jumps of their later renditions.

Live 80/81 lacks some of the nuance of both the studio albums and Made Available, which could likely be blamed on the very rough sound quality. (According to the liner notes, this compilation comes from recordings made “to cassette using a stereo mic placed near the soundboard.”) But what shines through the murk is twofold: not just the way their experiments yielded such a sturdy framework for each song, but also the extent to which the band was willing to continue manipulating and stretching those forms. That could be something as simple as Bullen’s guitar solo on “Horizontal,” which slips East African-inspired phrases in with some piercing Sonny Sharrock-like flurries. Or it could be slightly more extreme like the more emphatic drumming on “Twilight Furniture” that takes a once-pleasant ramble into a tumble down a rocky bluff.

This Heat’s commitment to treating everything they recorded as raw material is most clearly represented on Repeat/Metal, a vinyl re-release of a 1993 CD (minus a 33 1/3 version of “Graphic/Varispeed,” from the Health & Efficiency EP). For “Repeat,” the band returns to the stunning “24 Track Loop” from This Heat, extending it out to a glorious 20 minutes. The effect was akin to a dub remix or an early hip-hop DJ juggling a perfect drum break, cutting between two records as the dancefloor reached increasingly higher levels of ecstasy. This Heat achieved the same effect through the mixing board and the use of Harmonizer, sending the undulating, narcotic grooves of the original even further into the infinite. The counterpart on the flipside, “Metal,” is another marvel of loops and edits, like listening to a wagon carrying scraps of sheet metal and lengths of pipes trundling along an uneven pass.

In a recent interview with David Grubbs, Hayward called the music of This Heat “a living thing that’s actually forty years old.” He and Bullen have returned to this material in recent years, performing with a gaggle of younger musicians as This Is Not This Heat. The footage of the band that’s available, including their set at this year’s Pitchfork Fest, bears out what Hayward, Bullen, and Williams were attempting to show in the late ’70s and early ’80s and what these reissues confirm: To create music that will remain alive for four decades, it needs to be pliable and open to transformation.

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