Music

Volcano the Bear: Golden Rhythm / Ink Music

The group clearly has a rock based rhythmic structure down pat, but there are tunes on this eight track long album that push well beyond the boundaries of rock music, incorporating elements of Middle Eastern music, American freak folk, jazz, and Dadaist literary absurdity.


Volcano the Bear

Golden Rhythm / Ink Music

Label: Rune Grammofon
US Release Date: 2012-05-08
UK Release Date: 2012-04-23
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Artist website
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Before plugging away at this review, a car alarm went off somewhere in the city streets outside of my apartment. Being the annoying nature of a car alarm, the thing went on for a few minutes, a horn honking in a steady, rhythmic beat that seemingly never would stop. It eventually did, much to the relief of my sanity, but the experience made me wonder: could this be a new form of rock music? There was an underlying, traditional structure to the alarm: one beat on, one beat off, upbeat, downbeat. It was also "experimental" and "boundary pushing" in that it went on for an indeterminate length of time – there was certainly an expectation of continuity, but I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the thing to stop and for the structured regularity of silence (or relative silence as being a resident of a bustling downtown core can muster) to seep back in. It was a weird feeling to experience this alarm before sitting down to review the rather out-there British band Volcano the Bear's latest album. In many respects, Golden Rhythm / Ink Music, the first studio album from the group in five years, is the musical equivalent of a car alarm – both familiar and punishing at the same time.

The group clearly has a rock based rhythmic structure down pat, but there are tunes on this eight track long album that push well beyond the boundaries of rock music, incorporating elements of Middle Eastern music, American freak folk, jazz, and Dadaist literary absurdity. There's both a sense of the well known here, and the sense of exploring weird new territories in equal measure. That shouldn't be a huge surprise to followers of this quartet, which has been around since 1995, as many reviewers bandy about comparisons to the likes of This Heat and the Residents, among others, when tackling this band head on. I'd like to add one more: I think Volcano the Bear shares an odd similarity to Pere Ubu around their The Modern Dance days. True, Pere Ubu were playing what was essentially punk music in new, experimental ways, and Volcano the Bear tends to come to the table through the opposite end of that equation, but both bands are plying both the familiar and unfamiliar, and use vocals as a means of expression – another instrument or colouring, rather than as a straight-forward guide through narrative.

When it comes to Golden Rhythm / Ink Music, Volcano the Bear is essentially operating in either of one of two modes. They're either playing music in an expansive and elongated way – a few of the songs hover around the six and seven minute marks, with one track, "Fireman Show", being 10 minutes long – or things are short and compact and generally pretty weird, particularly in the mid-section of the record – "Bravo" runs for a mere 43 seconds. Generally speaking, the longer tracks are far more the much more engaging ones, and you can get lost in them as they unspool their loopy sonic narratives. "Buffalo Shoulder", which opens the disc, starts off with a single keyboard chord depressed, against a buzzing sound and the fluttering of either recorded birds or manipulated tapes. But then it launches into an actual streamlined song, complete with vocals that recall that of a Gregorian chant, with some instrumental noodling that seems reminiscent of '70s-style prog rock. It's a bewildering track, but doesn't even approach the oddity of the follow-up song, "Baby Photos", which opens up with ghostly keyboards that feel dialed in from another planet altogether, before the song finally takes form and shape as regular rock instrumentation – guitars, vibes and organ – slowly get added to the mix. It's pretty strange a first, but then when you get to the chorus, with its sitars and screams of "baby photos" practically wailed, the weird turns pretty pro.

The weirdness quotient really gets ramped up on the aforementioned short mid-point of the record. "Bravo" just features that singular word chanted over and over against all sorts of tape loops, and you have to wonder if the band might have been better served putting it at the end of the album to emphasize the self-congratulatory nature of the track. The jazzy-meets-avant-garde two-minute "Quiet Salad" features trumpets that sound like braying elephants, harps or some kind of other stringed instrumentation being plucked against all sorts of slurping tape sounds. It's on this section of the album that things get pretty far out, but before Golden Rhythm / Ink Music threatens to lose its way, things get longer and a little bit more structured again. The six-minutes-plus of "Spurius Ruga" features that trumpet and a section of plucked instruments against the menacing sounds of held keyboard notes and drones, sounding almost exotic and otherworldly – but after about a minute-and-a-half of jazzing around, addictive hand claps enter the fore before, at the 2:34 mark, the song takes another sonic detour into something that might have come out of Ravi Shankar's discography. What's really of note is final track, and arguable album highlight, "Fireman Show", which features a repeated guitar line over two bars of music that are generally repeated throughout the song as a motif, until things turn almost free-jazzy with the presence of that golden trumpet yet again and yelped vocals.

Let's be frank: a band like Volcano the Bear isn't going to be to everyone's tastes, and there are certainly some "clear the room" elements to be found on Golden Rhythm / Ink Music. However, whatis surprising about the album is just how musical it can be at times, and how warm, inviting and invigorating it can be. Golden Rhythm / Ink Music isn't a groundbreaking release or will necessarily have the listener experience new music in resoundingly different ways all of the time, but it's musical enough to be enjoyable to some who are willing to come along for the ride over some uneven and experimental-for-the-sake-of-experimental tendencies that the band tends to take on. If anything Golden Rhythm / Ink Music really lacks, it's focus, though that might be expected considering the rather long gestation for the album: certain "songs" (if you want to call them that) were initially recorded in October 2008, and "Spurius Ruga" dates back all the way to August 2006, so there are times when the record feels very piece-meal in how it was put together.

However, Golden Rhythm / Ink Music is a record that offers rewards upon repeated listens to it. There's enough structure here to offer those who enjoy music to be as unchallenging as possible something to chew on, and there's enough freak out moments for those who want music to be more like a cheese grater being dragged repeatedly across one's face to shake a stick at. This has me questioning any comparisons of this music to car alarms: the latter is annoying and repetitive for the sake of scaring away would-be criminals and thieves, and the other is, well, repetitive to be sure. However, when you listen to Golden Rhythm / Ink Music, the feeling you get isn't of hoping that the record ends as soon as humanly possible: you might find yourself wanting to listen to it all over again, to tease out some of the surprises lying in wait that you might have missed the first time around. And there are lots of surprises to be had here. The only real non-surprise about the record lies in the fact that, like a repetitively honking horn, it eventually stops and, to those who don't like to be challenged at least, relative normalcy is restored.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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