Reviews

Foreign Rules: Matthew Hopkins’ Nocturnes reviewed

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Nocturnes comes packaged with three prescribed listening events. They are activities you are advised to execute while listening to the record. You may read them as irresponsible liner notes, tasking you with fanciful and sometimes outrageously dangerous chores, and choose instead to enjoy the music alone. That is your decision as a passive or active listener.

At first the activities packaged with Nocturnes seem easy, but always there are steps among the simple instructions that are too elaborate to immediately pursue. It is easy to finger some bubble wrap and rub your forehead, but it is not easy to “craft an amulet from pencils, patch leads and dust”, and nor is it easy or advisable to “ingest elixir made from cicadas, sirens and strepsils”. Nestled among the simple commands, these are cultish, outlandish requirements. They are strange rules.

Matthew Hopkins, better known for his work with Naked on the Vague, Vincent Over The Sink and Half High, has long had an interest in setting down rules of engagement. His 2009 CD-R as Bad Tables, released through Spanish Magic, was composed under strict conditions. Entitled Lid Domestic Dome Bin, the record’s liner notes described the rules under which it was (presumably) recorded. A brief example:

“Only record when the following things occur:
You hear the big skip bin in the garage being emptied by the garbage.
When the bin in the kitchen is full and needs to be taken out to the big skip in the garage.
Whenever a mess is identified around the house.”

It’s tempting to assume that these processes are borne of a desire to show the inherent strangeness of rules themselves. When rules are decontextualised – shorn of their footing in the systems we abide by, unthinkingly, as humans – they often seem stupid. This is data we can never untangle, and untangling these is the pursuit of philosophy. At the root of Nocturnes’ ‘Listening Events’, which are packaged with the LP, are cryptic and cultish recipes that can only feasibly result in a speculation: a spark of the imagination. But to get there you must penetrate first through the mundane and the achievable. First you must fiddle around with what’s in front of you, or as Nocturnes prescribes, “shuffle cassettes strewn about [the] desk,” or “roll batteries, spin coins.”

You always begin “at a desk”.

Nocturnes always begins “at a desk”. Bad Tables begins when the garbage truck sounds, and then a series of events – tie the bin bag up, wrest it out of the bin, take it outside, put it in the skip, go back inside – happen. It’s a ritual.

Hopkins’ solo work seems fixated on the distanced absurdity of our systems and processes, but it is not admonishing. It is not cynical, it is not blithely critical. It is curious about the birth of these intelligences. It wonders at their foundations. Hopkins presents processes which seem mundane – droll as your plainest soup recipes – in a parallel dimension, and offers them in as blandly a matter-of-fact way as possible. We can never fathom their meaning.

Hopkins’ ‘Listening Events’ are torn straight from a world where these strange activities, executed at the desk, are as unfeasibly magical as pouring water into a glass and the glass managing to contain that water. They are just as logical as all of the other real world phenomenon we do not understand, and yet what percentage of real world phenomenon do we actually understand?

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Musically, Nocturnes is a more ruminative, elongated and generous version of Hopkins’ earlier work as Bad Tables and Lamp Puffer. It is not as sharp edged and demonstrative. It is calm, but haunted. It is music that you wonder at, or wonder with. A slow, two note undulation marks ‘Nocturne #1’, frayed by electric pops and breakages. It’s a serious piece of music that beckons you to imagine seriously ridiculous settings, poised sharply at the brink of reality.

It is not, at the same time, unfunny. It is not without an element of comical severity. Comical severity is one of Hopkins’ hallmarks.

The three Nocturnes are presumably meant to align with the three ‘Listening Events’ described in the liner notes. Strictly speaking – and to Hopkins’ credit – it doesn’t really matter whether you’re invested in the rules or not. You don’t need to enact them.

Significantly, Hopkins’ work as a painter (an example you can see above) seems to run parallel with his solo musical output. His latest exhibition, now running in Sydney, is entitled Passages. It evokes a similarly ultra-receptive, incantatory power that Nocturnes does. The lines in Hopkins paintings appear permanently to be melting into another, liminal world. They’re pouring towards a pole we cannot reach. They’re seeping towards a set of rules obscenely different to our own. They’re moving towards a state where these obscenely different rules are natural.

That, at least, is what this music and these rules evoke for me. Rules are what make us, and rules are still what make everything we do not know, because we rule them out. Rules also exist for things we do not know. Rules and prescriptions are the stuff of us. We impose them, and we fear them. We rarely understand them, and we daily take them for granted. But what if rules had imaginations of their own.

***

Matthew Hopkins’ Nocturnes is available through Vittelli.

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New Music

Listen: Matthew P. Hopkins – Nocturnes

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After years releasing solo material under names including Bad Tables and Lamp Puffer, Matthew Hopkins will release a full-length LP through Vittelli on January 27. According to the label, Nocturnes was recorded in late 2013 using “synth, cassettes, FX pedals, contact mic and random objects”.

Hopkins, who plays with Half High, Four Door and formerly (?) Naked on the Vague, released a few small run CD-R and 7 inch releases in 2013 including the Vent CD-R and the Small Entry flexi-disc, but both disappeared quickly. Similarly Nocturnes will be limited to 300 copies, so if you want a copy you’d best email the label. While the sample below won’t come as a huge surprise to anyone with a copy of Half High’s Suspension, Hopkins’ past solo works show quite a breadth of range so it’ll be interesting to hear the record in full.

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New Music

Listen: Lucy Cliche – New Directions

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Something to look forward to: Lucy Cliche, aka Lucy Phelan, aka one half of Half High, Naked on the Vague and Knitted Abyss, is releasing her own record later this year. ‘New Directions’ is one of the most texturally luxurious songs I’ve heard since the last Angel Eyes LP: listen to those ever-so-slightly clipping chimes, and the way they sound stuck somewhere between new age and the minimal score to a 1980s made-for-TV drama. That’s exactly the best sound you can make with any instrument. There’s a bit of an early 4AD mood here as well but it’s goth sans frills and lace, and with a disorienting, hall-of-mirrors wrongness to it. This record is gonna be great, I can feel it.

The record is called Picture Yourself. It was recorded in Belgium and will be out later in 2013.

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Reviews

Best Practice: Four Door Reviewed

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According to the artists, “civic banalities” is the theme on this Four Door debut, and it’s a topic they’re not taking lightly. Look at the song titles after all: ‘Meeting Rooms’ and ‘Claim’ both lock into ambivalent and hunched 4/4s with on-rails melodies and tempos that seem to poke fun at any kind of initiative. For the first half of this 12 inch, Four Door is slouched and mentally unapplied techno: it’s amusingly disengaged.

Four Door is Sydney’s Jonathan Hochman (Holy Balm) and Matthew Hopkins (NOTV, Half High), and it’s the culmination of a long term collaboration between the duo which yielded its first public release, It’s The Submarine, back in 2009. Whereas that release and a couple of ensuing cassette albums were typical of the Australian tape scene’s late ‘00s gravitation towards electronic music, Four Door sees the duo complete the transformation. There’s nothing designedly “rough” about this record: any semblance of lo-fi has been removed. In fact, Four Door’s central theme demands a fussy, neurotic kind of order. That’s exactly what you get.

Meeting Rooms

 With their pointed refusal to deviate and menacing singlemindedness, this EP’s opening tracks sound like music to control whole accountancy firms and call centre floors; functional ambiance designed to numb workers to the interminate processes of capital. These crisp but textually barren tracks prize precision, formality and working to the blueprint, even as they promise that shit will hit the fan if these principles aren’t adhered to. Listen to the end of ‘Meeting Rooms’ for example: the song appears to have gathered some courage towards its end but it ultimately just fizzes out, with Hopkins’ heavily affected “beeps” ringing like some hysterical alarm. “You can’t go there,” they seem to warn.

Four Door maintain fidelity to their theme both formally and through their vocals, which are drolly yet necessarily literal. The lyrics during ‘Claim’ sound like a list of tedious administrative tasks, and the music itself is even more neutral than ‘Meeting Rooms’. ‘Claim’ contains the embryo of a dance track, but its shorn of groove and lacks the requisite kick, resulting in dance that sounds composed on an austerity budget.

While this all sounds sickly – pleasureless even – Four Door doesn’t lack purely aesthetic charms, and these lay mainly in the music’s amusing positioning of corporate authority as some kind of inscrutable, Klamm-esque puzzle. Actually, Four Door’s central theme of “civic banality” feels like a direct nod to Kafka, particularly The Castle, where dedication to paperwork, bureaucracy and “best practice” far exceeds any material benefit. Here is a blandly neurotic world where processes, even while never completely understood, have us all on a firm leash and are accepted as indispensable.

Four Door feels like an analogue to James Ferraro’s 2011 LP Far Side Virtual, especially in the way that it shirks the “pleasure principle” central to dance music and attempts instead to capture a condition, or the culmination of various modern phenomenon. Four Door and Ferraro share an interest in the incidental but pervasive textures of modern life under capitalism, in the music’s implied acceptance that real pleasure and freedom is interstitial in our lives. And that’s where the comedy in Four Door is most apparent: in the fact that we know yet permit this. In the fact that we do it anyway. Isn’t that weird.

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Luxury Tax

But all this collapses when you flip the 12 inch, because ‘Moods’ and ‘Luxury Tax’ are an emphatic departure from “functional”. They’re leery, nauseating and vaguely freeform, lacking reliably ordered 4/4s and familiar synth lines. ‘Moods’ is what you could loosely term an ambient piece: six minutes of airy and tangential sax chintz dogged by echoed vocal effects. Meanwhile, ‘Luxury Tax’ is almost whimsical: it’s locked to a subtle grid but is nothing like the glazed-eye automation of the A-side tracks.

It’s a neat response to the A-side, because these tracks are basically Four Door gone recreational. It’s still not freedom or pleasure though. Hopkins’ vocals – the celestial corporate figurehead from side-A – haunts the periphery of ‘Moods’ like a bedside mobile phone vibrating in your dreams. Still, the incursions are more violent in ‘Luxury Tax’, working in concert with the grindingly bright and major key melodies. Here the voice – the authority, the administrator, the chief, the executive, the team leader – works harder to insinuate itself because it must: it cries beyond the cubicle.

Or maybe it’s merely the voice of recreation: the processes and systems we actively submit to in the name of recuperation. Budgeting, itinerating, purchasing, consuming, preparing. Four Door renders life as a feedback loop of banality. Work or play, it’s all interconnected and it’s all very, very banal. Unless you turn it into art.

**

Four Door’s debut 12 inch is available through Nihilistic Orbs. Purchase on Eternal Soundcheck.

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New Music

Listen: Four Door – Meeting Rooms

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Four Door is the duo of Jonathan Hochman from Holy Balm and Matthew Hopkins of Naked on the Vague and Half High. Together they create drowsy, uncomfortable techno that deals with “workplace relations, taxation, policy and procedures, and various other civic banalities”. The fittingly titled ‘Meeting Rooms’ does sound very grey, but it’s infused with a kind of workaday surrealism – the inherent strangeness of banal processes, the illusory concept of freedom. Indeed, the locked 4/4 rhythm here is very functional and plain, proceeding at a serviceable and unobtrusive tempo, but the modulating synths and submerged vocals offer a kind of drowsy menace. Stare at the grey wall inside your cubicle and realise why you’re really here, and why you’ll never leave.

Four Door’s debut 12 inch will release soon on Nihilistic Orbs.

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