by Ian Mann
January 11, 2023
Experimental music that doesn’t take it itself too seriously, but which is capable of appealing to adventurous listeners from both the jazz and rock camps.
“Garden Of Robotic Unkraut”
(Janka Industries JI001CD)
Chris Janka – guitar, Midi-Orchestra creator, Mark Holub – drums, Pamelia Stickney – theremin
with guest Nicola Hein – AI programmer, guitar
“Garden Of Robotic Unkraut” is the fourth album release from Blueblut, the Vienna based trio featuring guitarist, sonic experimenter and studio owner Chris Janka, theremin specialist Pamelia Stickney and drummer Mark Holub, the last named best known to UK audiences as the drummer and leader of the mighty Led Bib.
The American born Holub Holub left London for Vienna in 2012 and quickly forged links with local musicians, among them the other members of Blueblut. The trio was originally assembled in 2013 for a one off festival appearance, but such was the rapport that was generated that they agreed to continue their experiments, documenting their music on their début album, 2014’s “Hurts So Gut”.
In November 2014 Blueblut undertook a tour of the UK in support of the album and rather improbably played a gig in the small Shropshire town of Bishop’s Castle, where Stickney has family connections. As a long term admirer of Holub’s work with Led Bib and others I decided to check them out and was delighted that I did so. Blueblut’s blend of jazz improvisation, electronica and avant rock proved to be a heady brew, a sonic cocktail further enlivened by a refreshingly irreverent slice of musical humour. My review of that show, allied to a look at the début album can be found here;
The Bishop’s Castle gig remains the only time that I have been lucky enough to see the band play live, but nevertheless I have continued to follow their progress on record. “Butt Butt” (2016), which featured occasional contributions from other artists, was even better - leaner, more focussed and less self indulgent, but still brimming with attitude and irreverence (as its title might suggest). Review here;
As a guitarist, producer and the owner of his own Janka Industries studio Janka is involved in a myriad of musical projects, including the avant pop quartet Tankris. He is also something of an inventor, both musical and otherwise. The least known of the trio to British audiences he has been described as a “Viennese Caractacus Potts figure with a basement studio to rival Peter Blake’s”.
The band’s third album “Andenborstengurteltier” (2020) featured the sounds of musical instruments invented by Janka that form part of his “Totally Mechanized Midi-Orchestra” .
The curious are directed towards http://www.midi-orchestra.net to find out more.
Of these the Woodpecker added curious staccato percussive sounds to the track “Woodhorser” but the band’s latest album “Garden Of Robotic Unkraut” takes things a whole lot further and features no fewer than six of Janka’s invented musical instruments. The Woodpecker appears again alongside the Pink Noise Passive, the Stepper Organ, the Bottle Cake Organ, the Drumulator and the Xylocloud. These six devices form The Totally Mechanized Midi-Orchestra.
With the new album the trio explore the possibilities of working with Janka’s TMMO, or the ‘robots’ as the press release accompanying the new recording calls them. Blueblut deploy the ‘robots’ as a kind of ‘backing band’, creating programmed tracks that the human musicians could then play both composed and improvised music around. The initial results of this ‘collaboration’ were premièred live at FLUC in Vienna in the summer of 2020 but the album was not recorded until October 2021, the project having been inevitably interrupted courtesy of the Covid pandemic.
The album was recorded over the course of two days at Studio 2 in the Radiokulturhaus, the home of ORF, Austria’s national broadcaster. The first six tracks are compositions that feature the three members of Blueblut playing alongside Janka’s TMMO.
2021 also saw the band collaborating with guitarist and software experimenter Nicola Hein who developed a customized artificial intelligence software that enabled the ‘robots’ of Janka’s TMMO to respond to the live musicians, effectively allowing them to improvise. The last five tracks of the album are improvisations with the members of Blueblut interacting with Hein and the ‘robots’.
The following extract from Blueblut’s Bandcamp page offers an insight into the sessions;
The session was basically split into two parts, one full day improvising with the orchestra and Nicola Hein, and one full day playing the songs that Blueblut composed for the session. What you hear on tracks 7-11 is what happened on that day of improvising, there were no rehearsals for improvising with the robots, the band was in at the deep end from the start.
The question remains, can robots actually improvise?
Well, clearly yes, because they are doing it, but it’s different than a human to human relationship. The band needed to learn in real time how best to work with machines that they couldn’t ask questions to, so they learned to listen and respond. The resulting improvisations have that distinctive Blueblut mix of groove, soundscapes and noise, but the orchestra also moves the band into new directions. The session was made into a documentary by award-winning German film-maker Angela Christlieb (http://www.angelachristlieb.com) which is touring the film festival circuit at the moment, and can be seen in short form here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6rM7uShty8&t=284s).
The album kicks off with “”Pompeji”, a splendid slice of ‘prog jazz’ that variously embraces jazz, prog rock, minimalism and electronica, with the sounds of Janka’s ‘robots’ skilfully integrated into the fabric of the music. It’s a beguiling soundscape that blends the old with the new, the twang of Janka’s guitar evoking Americana style images that contrast effectively with the sci-fi sounds of Stickney’s theremin and of Janka’s ‘robots’. The ‘robots’ play an important rhythmic role too, supplementing Holub’s driving beats to create an intricate but propulsive web of rhythm. But there’s something old fashioned about Janka’s inventions too, evoking memories of Harry Partch (1901-74) the celebrated American composer, music theorist and the inventor of his own musical instruments. Indeed it’s tempting to think of Janka as a kind of 21st century Partch.
“Kamel” is less frenetic, but no less interesting, atmospherically blending colour and texture with ever unfolding rhythms, sometimes veering towards abstraction but also erupting into fleet footed melodic passages that replicate the sounds of the Middle East or North Africa and presumably help to give the tune its title.
“Geisterscheiße” is a sturdy slice of avant rock that ranges between gargantuan riffing and spacey, atmospheric sci-fi episodes.
“PJ” places a greater focus on ‘robotic’ sounds as the organs wheeze and the percussive instruments chatter, subsequently joined by the three humans of Blieblut. Of course Stickney’s theremin is very much a ‘sci-fi’ instrument itself, but as on Blueblut’s previous recordings she continues to avoid the clichés associated with the instrument and is very much an integral member of the band. As the piece gathers momentum and intensity the humans begin to assume a more prominent role on the proceedings as Janka’s guitar soars and Holub wield his sticks powerfully.
Musical humour has always been an important component of Blueblut’s music and this is in evidence on the quirky “Nummer 5”. This combines chunky rock riffing with Loony Tunes style whimsicality, via a more abstract and spooky theremin led passage in the middle, plus something of a drum feature for Holub.
The final item from the first session is “Petrov”, which mixes jagged rhythms, more of that trademark whimsicality and finally a generous helping of guitar and drum driven noise.
The first half of “Garden Of Robotic Unkraut” finds Blueblut placing a greater emphasis on composition than on their previous recordings. These are substantial pieces all lasting around six or seven minutes, there are no thirty second snippets or throwaways here. No doubt improvisation also plays an important role, particularly in the more abstract or atmospheric sections, but there’s a sense of structure and purpose about every individual track.
The remaining five pieces are also substantial pieces of work but in this case they are wholly improvised, with Hein also collaborating with the band. At twelve minutes in length “Garden 8” is the most substantial of these, building from an atmospheric intro featuring the sounds of brushed drums, theremin and the other worldly sounds of the various robotic instruments. It’s very much a sci-fi soundscape, though not necessarily a dystopian one. As the piece slowly gathers momentum there’s space for some serious guitar improvising / shredding above the polyrhythmic flow of Holub’s drums and the chatter and clatter of robotic percussion. Finally there’s a long, slow atmospheric fadeout and a segue into;
“Garden 7”, which introduces itself via the eerie sounds of Stickney’s theremin, this setting the tone for an improvisation that has a harsher, more unsettling feel about it, texturally darker and ultimately dystopian in feel.
“Garden 1” mixes robotic sounds with shards of guitar noise, spooky, wailing theremin and Holub’s march like rhythms. It’s the most “in yer face” of the improvised pieces thus far, until it shades off into something much more abstract and atmospheric.
“Garden 6” is also heavy on atmosphere, commencing with a study in soundscaping that may remind rock listeners of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. I’ve always advocated that adventurous rock fans should take the trouble to seek out Blueblut, and Led Bib too, come to that. The introduction of Holub’s drums in the second half of the improvisation steers the music in a more riff driven direction as the piece gathers intensity and momentum.
Finally we hear “Garden 5” a loosely structured improvisation initially steered by Holub’s drums but also featuring a passage that sounds as if the robots have been left to their own devices, although there may be some theremin in there too.
It’s almost impossible to believe that Blueblut have been working together as a trio for nearly ten years. During this time they’ve produced four fascinating albums with this latest release expanding their sound palette even further thanks to Janka’s inventions and Hein’s ingenuity. It all hangs together remarkably well and is very much in keeping with the Blueblut ethos, experimental music that doesn’t take it itself too seriously, but which is capable of appealing to adventurous listeners from both the jazz and rock camps.
With the focus on composition the first half of the recording is the more accessible but these six tracks clock in at around forty minutes and virtually constitute an album in themselves. Viewed in this way the improvisations, which also include much for the listener to enjoy, can almost be seen as a bonus disc. At around thirty eight minutes they basically constitute a second album.
The addition of the mechanised instruments makes Blueblut’s music even more difficult to describe but it remains eminently fascinating and enjoyable. The skill with which the various mechanised sounds are integrated into the music is extremely impressive and I’m sure that any live performance featuring Blueblut and the Midi-Orchestra would represent a unique musical experience for the listener.
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