VA AA LR: Newhaven (3-inch CD-R, Organised Music from Thessaloniki); Crackle Party (CD, Porta); Ping Cone (Cassette and download, Mantile)

Did you have to be there? That’s the perennial thought that hangs over all live records, particularly in the rock world, where such recordings are often viewed as ersatz souvenirs of the gig itself. More often than not, they end up sounding like a pallid note for note reproduction of what went down in the studio or, even worse, a turgid frug that puts the performers own technical inadequacies under the spotlight.

There are exceptions, of course, Metallic KO, Live Take No Prisoners, Totales Turns and the like – not to mention numerous bootleg recordings more attractive for their illicitness than their fidelity – but these records are, for the most part, to be avoided.

In the world beyond the mainstream, there are different concerns, free improvisation’s traditional distrust of anything not in the pure moment of playing and listening one of them. For the quieter stuff, the Wandelweisers and the reductionists, whether a recording of a live event works tends to hinge on the quality of the recording and the properties of the space itself. You need to hear what’s going on –  or what’s not going on – before you can listen.

None of this really applies to VA AA LR’s Newhaven, which, although it is a live recording of a performance at Fort Process festival in Newhaven, is nevertheless vibrant and stimulating.

For this performance, the trio – Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan and Louie Rice – let off a series with distress flares, and it is the tumbling sputters and whooshes of these objects that fill the sonic space of this disc.

I wasn’t at that performance and, given that flares aren’t usually renowned for their sound-making properties, this disc should be a damp squib. But it’s not. It’s great, absorbing and emotive and, in its own way, thrilling.

The gassy, ever-changing sonic emissions of the flares range from vaporous hisses, through to an almost seething, almost liquid intensity.

This Brownian motion of the sounds is punctuated by occasional hollow pops, which add a percussive sense of drama to the churning ether. Listening to it one almost feels a sense of being borne away on the winds, floating high above the earth, the red spots of the flares the only signs of life far below.

There are more flares on Crackle Party, the trio’s release from 2013, bursting into life on the second track, initially much more aggressive-sounding than on Newhaven. Those first blasts hiss like a welding torch, although that fierce energy soon subsides into a sequence of quieter pops and rustles, before it all starts up again.

This piece feels a lot more like a laboratory experiment than the carnivalesque of Newhaven. There seems to be more attention to process, in capturing the exact sonic footprint of the flare’s ignition, burn and slow decay.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments of beauty – there’s a point in each flare’s sequence where the hissy whoosh seems to fade into the middle distance, occasionally resulting in a Doppler-style phasing that’s quite trippy.

Want more whoosh? Well, you’ve come to the right place, as the closing track on the CD sees Vasco, Adam and Louie getting to grips with a fire extinguisher for our listening pleasure.

Letting off fire extinguishers usually summons up images of pissed-up hi-jinks on the college quad after last orders – it was bloody good fun, yeah? – But there’s no sense of drunken student japes here. Never fear, what this piece lacks in posh fun it more than makes up for with depth of detail.

The key here is restraint, what seems to be a gradual letting-off (opening up?) of the extinguisher yielding a lovely, hollow hiss and gurgle resembling a kettle coming to the boil, with all sorts of associated clicks and rustles.

The piece builds slowly into a rather nice, multi-layered composition, with gaseous drones of different pitches overlapping each other, although any convention sense of progression or structure is undermined – in a good way – by abrupt pauses and cuts. It’s absorbing stuff.

In contrast to two pieces that follow it, Crackle Party’s opening track is a minutely detailed electric-mechanical investigation, buzzes, hums, pops and, yes, crackles, as if the trio were shining a light (well, microphone) on the usually-screened-out background noise made by our gleefully purchased consumer goods. It’s hardly random, of course, rather a delicate, deeply thought out improvisational approach that enables these three players to work at the edges of audibility, defamiliarising these workaday sounds to make them impossibly exotic and alien.

Ping Cone is VA AA LR’s most recent work, issued on tape and download from Mantile. At first, it seems to be situated a more conventional electroacoustic territory, a microscopic hinterland of hums and whines, but gradually something more interesting emerges. T

Untitled #03 (all six pieces are labelled Untitled and then numbered) is a rather lovely mishmash, its itchy scuffs and crackles layered with some kind of folk music, which burbles on in one ear, while a slice of pseudo dubstep shimmers in other. It all sounds as I’m standing in a kitchen in some unnamed European country with the TV on in one corner, the radio on in another while in the middle of everything someone is desperately trying to mend their hi-fi on the table. Good times!

Elsewhere things are more understated, yet still precise and detailed, until #07 when things spark back into life with synth blarts, clanging bleeps and slowly decaying drones. I like the echoey stuff on this track, it casts a ghostly shimmer over the corroded electronic within it.

The radio is back in Untitled #09, this time adding a blizzard of shortwave noise to the textured of jumble, through which occasional music box pings and electronic bloops can be heard. The sonic stew is deepened by what seems like a power tool buzzing away in the foreground, all of which combines to give a touch of the heebie jeebies, if I’m honest.

Ultimately, this is a much gnarlier album than it initially seems. Occasionally it seems to churn with aggression, like a rusting steamer amid a rolling sea. Other times, it seems to cast a squint-eyed sideward glance at us listeners, as if to ask: what do you want? before moving us on with a surly shrug. Nothing to see here buddy. Oh, but there is.


Get Newhaven from Organised Music from Thessaloniki, here. Get Crackle Party from Portaaaa, here. Get Ping Cone from Mantile, here.



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