Thursday, 10 January 2013

In Focus: Labradford

Labradford are the perfect night time band. You need them just like you need a cup of tea before going to bed. Their sound floats, occupying every nook and cranny within your listening space. In the context, they make chamber music in every sense of the term. It’s dark, it’s atmospheric, it floats with serenity.

Labradford are one of the great mysteries in music of the past 25 years. They could almost be the pioneers of coalescing ambience, drone and rock. Over their six album existence, their collage of sound is indicative of exploring different avenues upon each release. Why does that make them a mystery? Doesn't most bands strive to achieve this?

Firstly, their success or lack thereof is nothing short of mind boggling. Bands such as Mogwai and even Godspeed You! Black Emperor could give a subconscious head nod in the direction of the finest act to emerge from Richmond, Virginia. Secondly, they stay in the realm of darkness and misery, but over their career Labradford created such a chasm that so many variations within their large boundaries were honed in on and delivered to full effect. Essentially, they’re a “niche” band; a band for us music geeks to salivate over.

They do say timing is everything. Had Labradford started their musical journey today they would be competing in a totally different landscape. Ambient music has reached far more people in these past six or so years and although they would have good company - plus the fact the Internet is such a customary presence - their exposure would be far greater. Still, considering this, it still amazes me as to the lack of name check action this collective receives from its peers. It’s quite criminal.

Although, not officially disbanded, two thirds of the trio that is Labradford are off doing various things. Frontman Mark Nelson is stilling making music under the moniker of Pan-American (which is also through the Kranky label), while Robert Donne is currently a touring member of the slowcore collective, Gregor Samsa.

Below is a little something in regards to each of their releases, starting from the band’s inception up until their final release in 2001:

Album: Prazision LP
Released: 1993
Label: Kranky

Prazision LP is like taking a plunge into the unknown. Retrospectively, it’s probably the album that best represents Labradford and their various qualities. The drone sequences break up the album making the whole experience eerie and quite uncomfortable just how good art should shift one’s soul. In saying that, ‘Soft Return’ is probably the most beautiful song the band penned, with a gorgeous guitar sequence taking centre piece over Nelson’s soft vocal delivery, as the paranoid narrative of “stepping back inside a wall” takes you into another stratosphere.

Favourite Tracks: Accelerating on a Smoother Road, Soft Return, C of People.

Album: A Stable Reference
Released: 1995
Label: Kranky

Collectively, ASR is arguably Labradford’s darkest moment. Opening track, ‘Mas’ is 4.32 of dark ambience that sounds like you’re in an aeroplane at high altitude with the window open. ‘El Lago’ follows with creepy organs that one associates with a funeral plan commercial. From front to back, it’s not the finest works from the band; I feel it’s almost a little too stark and gets lost in its own bubble of gloom. It’s an interesting projection as to where they go to next.

Favourite Tracks: Mas, El Lago, Star City, Russia.

Album: Labradford
Released: 1996
Label: Kranky

The self-titled affair is vintage Labradford. The opening track, ‘Phantom Channel Crossing’ has similar qualities to A Stable Reference’s opener, ‘Mas’. This time envisioning a lamb to a slaughter wouldn’t be too far from the mind. ‘Mid Range’ follows and with it, you can just feel a more focused energy. The violins are a welcome addition to a song that would easily stack up on a Labradford best of opus.  ‘Pico’ and ‘The Cipher’ follow with more solidarity while closing track ‘Battered’ is personally in my top three Labradford numbers. It’s debatable whether Labradford is the band’s finest effort. I’d say top two.

Favourite Tracks: Mid-Range, The Cipher, Battered.

Album: Mi Media Naranja
Released: 1997
Label: Kranky

 On the back of their finest album to date, Labradford followed up with – in my opinion, their finest work. It’s the perfect night time album. The funny thing is apart from closing track, ‘P’ there’s no real stand out here. It’s seven tracks clocking in at 43.14. It’s a proper “record”. Each song bleeds into another. ‘P’ finishes the album with a beautiful piano loop with a sliding guitar that has an effect that just hangs in the air waiting for the next piano note; stunning. Without sounding like a pretentious bell-end, close your eyes and imagine.  It really is that great.

Favourite Tracks: The whole 7 tracks on this album.
Album: E Lux So
Released: 1999
Label: Kranky

E Lux So is one of the few (and maybe the only one?) in the history to have recording and production credits listed as the song titles. Yes, seriously. Just to give you an example, so you think I haven’t totally lost the plot, the first track is call “Recorded and Mixed at Sound of Music, Richmond, Va”. And so on. The first track (mentioned above) is a post-rock meander that you would expect Mogwai to have produced during their Rock Action phase. The remainder of the album holds a compositional aura, as piano takes the lead, with drone and guitar playing more of a peripheral part. Guitar has one last hurrah, however, with ‘Let O’Steen Assisted by John Piper’ capping off the band’s “black sheep” album. If a Labradford album was destined for a film score, then E Lux So would fly the flag well.

Favourite Tracks: 'With John Morand Assisted by Brian Hoffa', ‘And Jonathan Morken’.

Album: Fixed Content
Released: 2001
Label: Kranky

Fixed Content is the final instalment in which the band drafted Steve Albini in to the recording helm. His presence is felt, as is often the case, as a scratchier more raw production graces our ears throughout this opus. The bulk of this album is taken up with opening track, ‘Twenty’ clocking in at 18.27. Final track ‘Wien’ almost feels like the end of a chapter for Labradford. Certain finality exists as a continuous sombre riff pulls this track into a murky realm. If ever there was a perfect candidate to nominate for your primary funeral song, then ‘Wien’ would be it.

Favourite Tracks: ‘Twenty’, ‘Wien’

Associated Acts:
Pan-American - Mark Nelson's side project
Gregor Samsa - Robert Donne's current band (touring member)
Spokane - Robert Donne's previous band
By Simon K.