There are words that get thrown about recklessly within the music press; repeated with such regimented regularity that they stop meaning anything at all. Words like ‘Unique’ and ‘Fresh’ and ‘Daring’. They serve no purpose beyond fattening the beast of the machine and hitting that word count. Don’t get me wrong, there is genuinely brilliant music being produced all the time by genuinely interesting people; but the way the press talks about it you’d believe that we were in a perpetual state of messianic returnings. From a historical-realist perspective, any ‘new’ and ‘fresh’ gains we claim to make are minor and incremental. That’s not to say that you can only be considered a true artist if you relentlessly push the boundaries, as such talk leads you down a dangerous path toward British New Complexity (and nobody wants to go there). It’s just hard sometimes to balance the claims of the press and artists with the resulting music. Everything still sounds the same, even when in 7/8. So the assumption grows that there is no ‘new’ music anymore. The market saturated. Every combination tried, tested and commodified. We’ve literally heard it all before. Well, maybe not quite. Step forward John Wizards.
I came at this album through two entry points; the first, ‘Iyongwe‘ was shared to a mutual Spotify playlist by my buddy almost exactly a year ago. I found it funky cool and interesting but as the weeks wore on I thought no more of it. A month or so later (as if to make a point) my Spotify discover playlist presented ‘Muizenberg‘ and I was hooked. Regular readers may remember it as my stop-gap blog entry written in a Starbucks in central Seoul; a post where I waxed lyrical about how it saved me going mad on the long flight from Sweden. The album bought. The journey began. In all my wide listening and audio travels; in all my academic studies and popular performances, I have never heard anything quite like this album. Scary words for me to admit; a bit like the first time I told my girlfriend I loved her. Words like that still mean something to me because, unlike the mainstream media, I use them rarely. But it’s true, nothing does sound like this. It is unique, fresh, daring and endlessly superlative. I love it.
The most frustrating arguments I have ever had were with disciples of the aforementioned ‘British New Complexity’ school of thought who dedicated their musical lives to fretting over the position of the Avant-Garde, and how they can personally move it forward. The resulting work and arguments put forward were so inaccessible and reductive that they served no purpose beyond making the composer feel better. I see things differently; ‘difficult’ music (i.e. music that actively avoids any sense of traditional pulse, harmony and structure in favour of relentless abstractism) has been done. It is not new or unique and it’s cultural presence (which, admittedly, is a fairly negative one) is strong. To continue down that path is to rake over ashes. No, I believe that if there is a future of the Avant-Garde (and even music itself) then is in complex ideas within accessible forms. This is what I get from John Wizards and this is why this album is so, so strong.
Each song ebbs, flows and flatly refuses to go where we expect it to. Production veers between the clean precision of dub to the controlled hiss of lo-fi indie, with whichever blend being treated as an artistic extension of the music. The depth within each song is utterly insane; looped mbira samples begin ‘Lushoto‘ before an afropop guitar pattern makes way for a vitriolic saw-wave phrase that raises my eyes in happiness; before the arrangement changes again and sweeps me along with it. ‘Hogsback‘ similarly begins with a guitar pattern that shifts into an incredibly subtle and understated minute playing around with pulse before climaxing into summer. Literally summer. When I close my eyes and see the green apple orchards of a childhood July; I hear that climax. It is heartening to find such skill in arrangement and such playful presentation. It is empowering to be taken on such an unexpected journey. A talent that can balance complex ideas with accessible results is exceptionally rare. We should enfranchise it gladly. This is the future.