[CD – Richter Collective / Little Plastic Tapes LPT008 – February 23rd 2009]
Printed on c.d. in a run of 1,000
Imagine for a minute that the Irish rock underground is a scary warren of tunnels. A bit like somewhere from the land of Mordor in Lord of the Rings except you can access it through a secret portal in the Lower Deck or the Boom Boom Room. It’s a cold, damp, labyrinthine place full of discordant, relentless, yet fascinating music. If bands like Adebisi Shank and Bats are the freshly-hatched spawn who guard the gates to this netherworld, chances are that Estel reside somewhere within it’s darkest vaults. They’d be a huge glowing maggot, or monstrous spider, an enigmatic creature that has resided beneath Dublin for ten years now, dreaming up dark, uncompromising instrumental music, oblivious to the fads and fashions of the world above.
The latest release to ooze forth (in keeping with the dodgy Lord of the Rings allegory) from camp Estel is an untitled album of tracks named after the four gospels, with a cover of The Stooges ‘Fun House’ thrown in for good measure. The album is a collaboration with Stooges saxophonist Steve Mackay and Mike Watt who played bass with practically every American hardcore band you can shake a stick at.
I know what some of you are thinking. “The four gospels? This stinks of self-important dreck.” I thought the same, until I saw the track-listing on my iTunes player. ‘Matthew’, ‘Mark’, ‘Luke’ and ‘John’ are punctuated, beautifully, hilariously and surely intentionally, by ‘Fun House’. This is apparently the gospel according to Estel. A reading where his great unholiness Iggy rubs shoulders with the four scribes.
The music itself was recorded in a short burst (perhaps because Watt and Mackay only had so much time on their hands), but as such, provides an engaging document of what happens when this sort of endeavour works. Rather than melting respectfully into the background, as others might do when working with their heroes, Estel are clearly the measure of the their collaborators. The first half of the album is more uneasy than the second. The band weave an urgent, undulating tapestry of sinister sonic matter on ‘Mark’ and maintain a remarkable piano refrain that not only supports Watt’s saxophone, but sounds like the product of months in the studio rather than an afternoon’s improvisation.
‘Luke’ and ‘John’, the two tracks that follow a respectful reading of ‘Fun House’, are lighter affairs. On ‘John’ in particular, the music seems to float endlessly upwards, and Mackay’s sax sounds like a balloon let loose from a net, drifting into rarefied spaces in the upper atmosphere. For an album recorded in such a short space of time, this is a remarkably expressive and coherent piece of work and testament to this band’s importance in the Irish underground.
KEEP IT FAST.COM-
I’m actually a big fan of improvisation. A lot of my writing stems
for just sitting down at the computer and just going for it, which is
why so much of it is rambling, boring and uses such awful analogies.
The feeling I have about ‘Untitled’ is further confirmed from reading an excerpt from Mike Watt’s tour diary, which has been scribbled in the linear notes. From what Andrew Bushe of Estel states in a very brief paragraph below Watt’s; Estel had gone in to record with Watt, only for Steve Mackay to turn up and ask to be in on what they were recording.
It’s essentially a jam sessions album, where a group of like-minded
individuals have been brought together, wandered into a studio and just
started playing and playing and playing and this is the resulting cut,
plus a version of one of The Stooges most famous tracks, ‘Fun House.’
I mean, this is all presumable: there’s a feeling that Estel, Watt and
Mackay had down what they were going to record and this was the result,
but to me, it has that air of unpredictability and awe that suggests
that it all feels like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm in its nature of creativeness.
The intro on ‘Matthew’ is a ghostly, crackling start that
smoothly slides into a warm saxophone flourish, like a malt whisky
being liberally poured into a crystal glass. Its gait is somewhat
plodding, yet picks up the pace into becoming a drunken march,
punctuated by the echoing keyboards and distant fuzz in the background.
‘Matthew’ is a strange opening track; it doesn’t seem to go
anywhere as such; yet builds on this solid repeated verse by adding
more and more instruments and sounds to create a silky, yet mellow
piece of instrumental rock.
‘Mark’ is suitably chilling and ostentatious; starting with
a sinister bass groove and steady drumbeat that is suddenly hit by a
strained saxophone drawl and the kind of keyboard effects that were
last heard in a Christopher Lee movie; involving a guy who has no reflection, doesn’t go out in the sun much and hates bits of wood named ‘Mr Pointy.’ In fact, it all sounds like something from Papa Lazarou’s Pandemonium Carnival – I have this image of Reece Shearsmith,
orchestrating the band in some mad-scientist/unhinged conductor style,
constantly cackling with glee over the pure circus of noise that they
are creating. Imagine the ‘Phantom of the Opera’
theme being played with the music sheets upside-down. Creepy doesn’t
even begin to describe it, but yet it’s easily the best and personally,
my favourite track on this recording, just for the downright
disconcerting feel I have about it.
On the cover of ‘Fun House’ I kept expecting lounge-jazz crooner Richard Cheese
to pop up with his distinctive twang and run through a suitably
hilarious version of the track. There’s not much to say about this, as
it’s pretty much a faithful cover, but with added keyboards making up
for the lack of Iggy slurring over the rambling
madness of it all and the scuzzy edge of the original has been shaved
off. Mackay seems to have been given free reign with his sax, dousing ‘Fun House’ with a thick layer of eccentric parping.
‘Luke’ is the only track to not feature the brass talents
of Mr Mackay and feels slightly alien compared to the other tracks.
Nevertheless, it cuts a sharp line in ambience, acting as a musical
wash of sound built on the same repeated drum roll and some trippy
electronic whirls that brings to mind Alias & Ehren. It kind of has a very placid, almost hip-hop vibe, without actually being hip-hop; bursting with wraithlike haze.
‘John’ equates to something you would hear over the top of
a piece of film running in slow motion; possibly during a ‘coming to
terms with’ scene or one where the lead character shoots up a load of
class A and blissfully passes into the world of dreams and confusion.
It’s a soft, ethereal piece of looping jazz that warbles and
reverberates in the right places to keep the listener interested
through its distinctly progressive ride. An interesting collaboration
that might seem strange at first, but with perseverance, is ultimately
rewarding – bloody freaky cover art though.+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
All of us are human, that much we know. We know not from whence we came, nor where we are headed, and so, we search for guidance. We seek that which is hidden, that which cannot be known. Our lust and desire is insatiable. From that desire, stems temptation. Temptation, if succumbed to, leads to ruin. So that we may resist those that tempt us, we must look to more nobler souls than ours to inspire and lead us. Estel represent such nobility, their decade long residence at the core of Ireland’s underground music scene has proven them to be worthy and indelible souls. Their staunch resistance of commercialisation, their virtuous commitment to the embrace of the new and inventive, and their lofty, higher purpose, all combine to make them leaders, warriors, and indeed preachers of goodwill.
On their latest record, Estel combine with two legends, Steve Mackay, famed saxophonist with The Stooges, and Mike Watt, veteran of the 1980s U.S. harcore scene, to create a mesmeric testament that cements their status as underground idols. The record is called, simply, Untitled, and was conceived and recorded in a blaze of creative opportunism in three hours in September 2007.
Matthew 5:16: Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works.
Estel’s first collaborative illumination with Watt and Mackay takes the name Matthew, and traces a winding, slippery path into some disturbed circus territory. Mackay’s saxophone is reminiscent of the more thoughful tracks on Bowie’s Black Tie, White Noise, while overall the track would sit competently in the company of the Thin White Duke’s 70’s exercise in minimalism, Low. For all its meandering tempo, Matthew exudes enthusiasm, and the raw energy that clearly went into the production has been caught and harnessed expertly. The sinister underbelly that permeates Matthew lends realism to the heavenly exploits of the woodwind, and inspires comparison with the world as it exists today: filled with glory on one hand, and tarnished with corruption on the other. In this case, the light wins out, Mackay lifts and wills one upwards, and the last haunting notes close the shutters on the cosy French café that houses such dreams and poetry that even Gods stand in awe of.
Mark 4:21: For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
The heightened frenzy of fairground lunacy takes a stranglehold from the first eerie refrains of Mark, the second track on Untitled. The thudding, stomping combination of bass and guitar bequething an otherworldly guttaral foundation on which the piercing of keys and saxaphone crests, revealing the almost manic spiral of intricacy that Mark descends into. As the pace gathers and quickens, the drum rolls become more frequent, beating with almost tribal rage, and all the while the twin treble sounds of synth and sax veer off eccentrically. But strangely, for all the eclecticism inherent in what is essentially an improvised work, there is a solidity, a bassline on which the whole is formulated, and that holds it together as a concrete entity within its own right.
Pat Sharpe: I get a lot of questions about the mullet and a lot about the twins. I didn’t sleep with either of them. In fact, my family and their families are very good friends.
Faced with 2 Stooges, Estel were no doubt delighted to play the third, and no better song could they have chosen to cover for fun than Fun House. This version is an altogether more syncopated affair than the original, and contains an agressive, jazzy streak. MacKay would have played on the original recording way back in 1970, and it’s delightful to hear the expressiveness in his lead role on this track. He makes it sound fresh still, and brings new twists and turns to a lick he’s probably played thousands of times. There is no debate, this house believes that recording this cover was probably the most fun these fine exhibitors had in their three hour recording whirlwind in Ashtown, and it most certainly comes across on the record.
Luke 9:34: While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.
Into the mist comes Luke, the only track on Untitled that features Estel solely. It’s a haunting affair, heavy on the Dirty 3-esque sweeps and swirls, and yet it’s curiously mellowing after the berserker stylings of Mark and the full-on party of Fun House. It’s 3 a.m., the kettle is boiling, you’ve left the heating on when you went out so the house is a sauna. That weird sick feeling you had on the NiteLink is fading, and the warm glow of that last drink’s embrace is bursting through your cheeks, but still, you can’t help feeling that something you said, something you did, some awful, terrible thing, is going to interrupt your peace. Luke says, it won’t.
John 4:37: For in this case the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’
MacKay and Watts return on the last gospel, John, a soothing, laid-back affair that speaks of open spaces and happier times. It’s a smooth, rolling ride along the coast, a dreamlike imagining of hangliding through perfectly still air. It’s all kinds of foolish, romantic images rolled into a eight minute long loop of peace and contentment: inconceivable how such calm was forged under such a highly strained recording schedule. Untitled closes there, with one last dischordant blast of every instrument, one last triumphant shout to the heavens, one last crash of free jazz.
“Instrumental improv?” is the question that will accompany the quizzical look when you mention this record, but it’s more than that. This is a whole, a whole that even the creators could not likely have hoped for when they embarked on this project. It is as complete as any record that may have taken longer to make, as complete as any recording that was achieved via militant perfectionism; and it is a true joy to listen to and feel yourself yielding to the infectious enthusiasm and excitement that must have infested those studios is Ashtown where this was birthed.
It says a lot about a band when they manage to get the legends that are Mike Watt and Steve Mackay to play on their album, or more than that, to actually record a full on collaboration with them. The fact that Estel have done just this is an indication of the quality of this band. Now going ten years, Estel have been very consistent with the quality of their music, and with that music being very unique and somewhat un definable. No matter how I try I never seem to be able to pin down their music, nor am I able to come up with any kind of accurate description of this music, there doesn’t seem to be any easy or clear definition of this music, sometimes it’s quite calm, atmospheric almost, only to burst into frenzy and all out chaos, most of the time it’s quite dark, and manages to be both playful and menacing at the same time.
While listening to their new album, the aforementioned collaboration with Mike Watt and Steve Mackay, it is clear that Estel have not let up on their quality, and downright off-the-wall sound, helped greatly by Watt and Mackay, most notably with the addition of Mackay’s saxophone adding yet another element to the sometimes circus-like madness that is Estels music. There is a somewhat different feel to this album than previous Estel releases, due, in no small part, to the participation of the temporary new members. The songs seem somewhat slower than usual, and on the last two songs, when they become drenched (more so than usual) in keyboards things become a lot more atmospheric, and at times almost psychedelic, in its own way. This is an interesting, and somewhat understandable, progression (in so far as anything can be understandable with this band).
In terms of achievements, both for the band, and for the Irish underground, it is great to see this band, who are in their own rights legends of sorts; what with a career now a decade old and considering the contributions made to the ‘scene’ during that career, now collaborating with two musicians who are undeniably legends, something which will no doubt bring Estel to the attention of a larger audience, assuming they want the attention, that is.
OFF HER ROCKER-
Keep your eyes peeled in coming weeks for the abso-brill Estel record featuring five spectacular, spontaneous songs recorded with Steve Mackay and Mike Watt of The Stooges in about three hours. It just misses this year’s lists with a release date of 9 January at The Lower Deck. I’m wearing in my fan t-shirt already!
On the 9th of Janurary Estel release their first volume of collaborations with Mike Watt (co-founder of The Minutemen and fIREHOSE, and as of 2003 bassist for the reunited Iggy Pop & The Stooges as well as many other bands) and Steve Mackay ( an American tenor saxophone player, best known for his participation on The Stooges’ influential second album Fun House)
And to celebrate this Estel are playing a few dates around the country (more about the gigs at the end), but not only are they releasing this quality collaboration they’re also marking Estel’s 10 years together as a band which in itself is fucking huge.
As for the CD itself, well I really fucking liked it and really shows what Estel can do. The album is dark and atmospheric, sometimes slow and then jumping into full on freak out with a touch of psychedelic in the mix, this is not a band trying to play along or keep up with two legends this is full on collaboration and don’t take my meandering word for it, listen for yourself.
OFF HER ROCKER-
EP : Estel
2009 marks Estel’s decade-landmark of personificating music in Ireland. It must give them great pleasure to move forward to even greater heights with the start of this year: volume 1 of their recordings with Steve Mackay and Mike Watt of The Stooges will be released this week: first in Freds in Cork tomorrow night, Sally Long’s in Galway on Thursday and then Friday 9 January at the Lower Deck.
I tipped this in my EP round-up as one of the first to watch out for this year: it’s a blammer, dark, heavy and strong. I never know how to write about music literally but get this:
Ponderous drums, steady, deliberate and filled with intent. Not dim or malevolent but deep as the hypnogogic state between awareness and sleep, taps of bright, lucid codes and slumbering diffusion to lull then jar as tempos kick and change.
Guitars like water-insects skidding across surfaces. They climb, they career, they clear to land. They sting, you slap and sigh with ecstatic itches.
Synths/keys ascending above rocky ground, providing lurid sonic-plumage of great colour, flying and filling boundaries’ furthest reach.
Saxophone, the most woefully under-used instrument in rock, hollow blasts of brass talons applied to great effect as a complement to the thinner ring of steel strings.
Untitled, known only as volume 1, four of five tracks are named after Gospels in The Bible and the fifth, a cover of Fun House, pays homage to Mackay and Watt. This record is not about The Stooges, however. It’s not just about Estel or their long-running dedication. This is about spontaenity, improvision, inherent quality of musical minds. This is about masterful instrumental control, imagination, insight. Recorded in a few hours with little reheasal or preliminary discussion, it’s about putting a bunch of talented fuckers in a room and pressing “Go”. Anything could have happened. Carnage even.
It’s grasping a handful of grass to find a single red blade of sound…and not a drop of sweat or blood in sight.
SUNDAY BUSINESS POST-
A collaboration between underground music luminaries and sometime Stooges Steve Mackay and Mike Watt, with cultish Dublin instrumental band Estel, the five-track Untitled is the result of an intense and uncompromising three-hour jam session; the band’s idiosyncratic experiments with melody and discord are laced brilliantly with Mackay’s sax and Watt’s bass.
Apart from an unsettlingly flamboyant cover of The Stooges’ epic Fun House, it’s the four gospel-titled originals which catch the ear. Matthew is all rumbling bass and menacing sax with a vaguely reassuring piano chime, while the more frenetic Mark leaps from the dark with its forbidding organ lead. The choice cut is John, a graphic novel-jazz piece with a triumphant marching rhythm, half-masking a nagging hint of malevolence. It’s a glorious fusion, and we await the forthcoming Untitled 2 with tremulous anticipation. ****
ESTEL UNTITLED [FEATURING MIKE WATT AND STEVE MACKAY]
features a collaboration between irish instrumental outfit and current stooges members mike watt and steve mackay. mike watt is also a former member of legendary punk rock outfit the minutemen. steve mackay played sax on some of the very early stooges releases. the album was recorded during a weekend jamming session at ashtown studios and features five improvised jams. features four original pieces along with a rather bonkers cover of the stooges classic track fun house. its a rather fantasic collection of jazz tinged post rock, scuzzy avant rock and thunderous post punk rumblings.