Edinburgh’s music scene has always been, to an extent, fairly eclectic. Trad-folk pubs stand adjacent to metal bars, and indie kids nod their heads to glitzy guitar pop before hard techno nights on the Cowgate every weekend. While this diversity is self-evident, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that within each genre or sub-scene, artists tend to adhere to certain ideas of musical safety or appropriateness at their respective venues. I am by no means questioning the validity or talent of any of these bands – there are a huge host of genuinely fantastic acts who fall into this description that I actively support – but I would like to direct attention towards some of the city’s more obscure and boundary-pushing music which tends to be ignored by the scene as a whole. By writing this article, I hope to present a primer for anyone interested in discovering more about Edinburgh’s incredible outsider and experimental musicians who are really stretching genre limitations and forging their own paths. This is not necessarily a definitive list; there is likely a myriad of under-the-radar performers who have escaped my attention so far, but I would like to stress that, as far as I’m aware, this group remains relatively small-scale and on the fringes of the scene. Consider my thoughts, listen to the music, go and see the acts live – supporting these people will not only benefit the individuals, but it will hopefully also foster encouragement and acceptance for artistic experimentation in general. Enjoy.
The experimental and the electronic always go hand-in-hand, as both ideas tend to strive for sonic and technological innovation. Josh Corkill’s output under the ‘Oharasix’ moniker perfectly embodies this approach: digitally manipulated samples and loops combine to create an unsettling landscape of warped club tracks, dominated by rhythmic glitches and pumping techno-inspired kicks. This stuff is an audiophile’s dream, as Corkill’s manic production is jittery, maximalist and wholly unique. The two live releases available on the Oharasix bandcamp page are the best examples of his skill, as both performances are rife with repetitive, glassy synth stabs which fly around and punctuate the underlying beat of every piece. Having witnessed Josh perform at Sketchy Beats last year, I can fully recommend catching him live whenever you get the chance – using just Ableton and a modest MIDI controller, he has a prodigious ability to sculpt industrial noise into a seamless and infectiously dance-able mix.
Serving as the aural antidote to the noise of Oharasix, Smiling Suns is an ambient project centred around organic instrumentation and minimal arrangements. The anonymous musician’s SoundCloud page is home to some truly compelling compositions where art music, post-rock and folk collide. Appropriately titled, 2017’s Quiet Songs II is a collection of tranquil musical sketches, constructed sparsely on acoustic piano, accordion, and slide guitar. Smiling Suns’ bio lists both Stars of the Lid and Godspeed You! Black Emperor as influences, and it is easy to observe their mark on the affective melodies of ‘Rhema’ and ‘Baby Steps,’ but an immediate sense of individuality underpins the form of every track. ‘Duror’ features a stunning chorus of reverberating classical guitars which float over a droning accordion, and the lo-fi warmth of ‘Falling’ is mesmerising. This really is one of the hidden gems of the Edinburgh scene (and with such expert concealment of identity, Smiling Suns may well remain hidden) – I’ll be keeping an eager ear to the ground for new material in the future.
To continue with the theme of anonymous ambient artists, Aamber Glass is an equally elusive creator of intriguing and understated soundscapes. Only one release has been issued under the mysterious handle – 2018’s evocative ‘a new year’ / ‘dithered dreamer doused in rays of sun cutting through the skyline of east finchley.’ This limited edition cassette consists of two separate “bodies of work.” The first is a series of individual compositions, in which ethereal synth loops are accompanied by echo-drenched field recordings. A personal highlight is the track ‘susanna,’ where a chopped-up, tremolo-laden chord trembles above ghostly background noise and continuously overlapping synth melodies. On the second side of the tape, Aamber Glass builds a mammoth 20-minute wall of modulating drones. We are guided through turns melancholic and tumultuous towards a slowly-fading finale. It is a grandiose, meditative effort which is unabashedly experimental. I genuinely mean it when I say that art of this scope and dedication sets the bar high for any prospective avant-garde composers.
Perhaps one of the best-known faces on the city’s scene is Mr. Harry Bongo: drummer for numerous noisy instrumental acts, contemporary classical composer and beloved cheese DJ, Bongo is Edinburgh’s diversity personified. Particularly arresting is his solo output, which sees Harry take complete creative control as he crafts an array of beautiful minimalist works. I use the tag ‘minimalist’ tag here with reference to the art music movement rather than production – while such comparisons are reductive, echoes of Reich, Glass and Riley are everywhere on his releases, as repeating mallet sequences evolve into rich climaxes of strings, guitars and percussion. Harry’s self-titled 2016 album displays the breadth of his oeuvre: centrepiece ‘Vessels’ begins with a pulsating groove (which isn’t too far removed from Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians), and this quickly morphs into an intense, cinematic swirl of computerised arpeggios and throbbing drums. Pieces such as ‘Prague’ and ‘Ashes’ are more restrained, with layers of lush strings and field recordings creating a warm sense of space. After an almost two-year break, Harry released ‘Three in Four’ in late 2018, a hectic single which twists and turns, weaving samples of Björk talking about her TV over frantic drum loops, distorted pianos and wild, echoing synth bleeps. Without giving too much away, I can recommend keeping an eye out for an imminent release – Bongo is back (and in good form, too).
According to a short biography on the Glasgow International website, Joe Coghill is “a multi-disciplinary artist, musician and experimental publisher,” and so he neatly represents a kind of avant-garde mindset that is crucial to a revitalisation of the scene. “His practice,” it goes on to explain incorporates “video, performance, social sculpture, facilitation and media distribution” (one example of this is his curation of an exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery inspired by no-wave composer John Margotti.) While it’s obvious that Coghill’s work isn’t limited to audio, the small amount of his works available online are incredible displays of experimental electronics. Fans of IDM bastions Aphex Twin and Squarepusher will be particularly at home with the material on his SoundCloud page, which closely resembles one of RDJ’s famed audio dumps: the mammoth collection of twisted samples and glitchy, granular atmospheres features esoteric track titles such as ‘bv,mt Eye’ and ‘Ae_frag.aef2dream’ (a cheeky nod to Autechre, perhaps?) Despite the obvious influences of these pieces, Coghill’s approach is far from derivative. His paranoid sequences and ceaseless folds of noise are refreshingly imaginative, and provide a welcome break from the monotonous tech-house of Edinburgh’s clubs. Dive in!
…And now for something completely different. Live double bass and laptop electronics form the crux of Mixed Signals’ sound, providing a base for a tapestry of sinister drones, eerie vocal snippets and chopped-up field recordings. Long-form, slow-burning pieces are the specialty of these local experimenters, who have concocted a special brand of “mesmerising doom.” As the ensemble tend to operate as a live unit, they don’t currently have a lot of material online – however, their Youtube channel is home to two intriguing examples of their work. ‘The Door to Desolation’ is a 16-minute jam recorded live at the Black Medicine Basement, and ‘Taster Sounds’ is “not polished, not prepared, just a bit of an improvised draft of a taster of a teaser.” Although both of these are presented as spontaneous compositions, they are impressive statements of unique musicianship and an unorthodox approach. Both videos display the band’s love of serpentine beats and menacing synth pads punctuated by swathes of maverick double bass. In addition to the striking music, the videos themselves are incredible – clips which seem to be pulled straight from Norwegian “slow TV” are juxtaposed with unsettling, handwritten phrases and abstract sprays of light. This fits in with the tendency of local avant-garde creators to foray into the world of multimedia, and adds an interesting audio-visual edge to the group’s vision. Keep an eye out for Mixed Signals on the local circuit, as their live show is one of the scene’s most immersive experiences.
On the subject of multimedia, Liam Baker is a prolific creator of harrowing music, stunning poetry and exploratory film projects. At first glance, Liam’s music isn’t perhaps as out-there as some of the others on this list, but both his subject matter and his approach to creation are more than deserving of the “experimental” tag; consider the self-made video for ‘Consumatum Est (It Is Over),’ in which Liam sings a funereal melody and accompanies himself on classical guitar from the comfort of his own bathtub. His dynamic live performances consist of spoken word and solemn acoustic ballads, which marry such gloomy subjects as death, drug use and gentrification with a healthy dose of black humour. I once had the pleasure of watching Liam perform to a room full of avid punks and metalheads, and you could literally hear a pin drop from start to end; the remarkably attentive silence was testimony to Liam’s enigmatic stage presence and the powerful delivery of his lines. As with Joe Coghill and Mixed Signals, Liam’s music makes up a small fraction of his overall creative output: he’s one of a select group of all-round creatives who are fully stretching their limits and showcasing the possibilities of being an “artist” on Edinburgh’s underground circuit.
[Header photo by Ellen Beskow.]
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