Allen Ravenstine – ‘Waiting for the Bomb’ reviewed

❉ Pere Ubu co-founder Allen Ravenstine back in full effect, and his work has never been more alluring whilst never loosening its abstract grip.

The great beauty of Allen Ravenstine’s work is how someone so modest, almost to the point of invisibility, can be responsible nevertheless for such striking and singular art.  The notion of an individual working in a musical field yet remaining a “non-musician” has been perhaps over-used down the years but is entirely apposite in this instance.  Ravenstine has never created from agenda or with preconception, preferring to remain in service to sound, trusting in improv, instinct and inquiry, and furthermore has done so with little-to-no interest in musical theory.  “Playing notes didn’t interest me much, which you can kind of tell”, as he once put it (in a definitive 2010 interview with for Perfect Sound Forever).

“Modest” is a relative term here.  By modesty, I mean to suggest a deliberate ignorance of applause and a concentration upon a specific mode of expression; a quiet confidence as opposed to the arena desire.  Ravenstine was synthesist for Pere Ubu between 1975 and 1991, and an integral pillar of David Thomas’ solo projex during Ubu’s hiatus from 1982 to 1987, and Ubu-etc have always been a group of, uh… sturdily-minded individuals, in whatever incarnation, their push and pull often seismic and sometimes to their detriment.  They were territorial about their individual contributions, and Ravenstine was no exception.  Perhaps invidious to focus upon his presence, it’s however essential to note his pivotal role as somehow the bridge between the mind and body of the band.  Like the rest of Ubu, conventional notions of success and approbation didn’t really come into it.  That was never the point.  It was a long game played on short fuses.

Ravenstine’s textures were never merely noises-off or flashy fireworks, but instead another distinct voice in the melange, thrilling and uncanny, a wild azimuth filament which complemented and offset the band’s power and heft – recitative analogue tone-poetry, in keeping with his counter-intuitive but perceptive description of Ubu’s sound as “Folk music”. Well-meaning critical opinion often has his palette down as combative or bizarre; a misguided response. To anyone who grew up with B/W sci-fi movies and telly shows, or old enough to recall scanning the airwaves between radio stations, Ravenstine’s feedback-chanson seems quite of and in this world, still.  For those of lesser vintage, his pathfindings have evident tracers in the glitchier, rhizomatic end of machine music in the decades since.  Either way, description rather than alienation has always been the watchword.

Ravenstine retired from music altogether in 1991, swapping the trundling black boxes of rock for life in the cockpit as a commercial airline pilot, only tempted back to musical activity by accident, when invited by Robert Wheeler (Ubu synthesist since 1995) to partake in Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm’s 2012 documentary I Dream Of Wires, a celebration of the history of the modular synthesiser and its pioneering practitioners. An off-the-cuff duo recording session ensued, both this and the subsequent discovery of contemporary digital equipment commensurate with his old analogue set-up seeing Ravenstine find his chops reawakened, resulting in 2015’s album The Pharaoh’s Bee. He’s since gone on to record a putative three albums’ worth of material, of which this is the first release.

Imagine the surprise, then, when Waiting For The Bomb opens not with machine chatter, but instead a burst of woozy one-for-the-road honky-tonk, making it immediately obvious that Ravenstine has broadened his purview here.  In fact, he’s taken his basic modular home recordings in-studio for further production spin and polish (returning to Grant Avenue studios in Hamilton), and most notably, actual musical embellishment care of a trio ensemble of collaborators (Bob Doidge, Joe Sorbara and William Blakeney, the latter also acting as enginner and producer) – largely drums, piano and brass, with Ravenstine also revisiting the occasional use of woodwind he utilised in Ubu days.  Where previously there was cloudscape and meander, Waiting For The Bomb takes a vignette approach, with tracks mostly around the three minute mark and quite discrete in style; long-term fans will be pleasantly startled by the quasi-bhangra of Bombay Tar or the sleek technopop of Day Shift, for instance, while the touches of palm court and cocktail lounge atmos of Venus Calling or In The Ether prove a thoroughly edifying bedding to his electronics.

The effect is two-fold; first, Ravenstine’s work has never been more conventionally alluring and approachable, whilst never loosening its abstract grip, and secondly, it imparts real dynamic and contrast when the album in its later stages reverts largely to his signature style.  The 15-minute sequence of Out Late/Waiting/Spirits at the two-thirds mark of the album is a darkly exhilarating vertex of heathaze menace, absolute third-eye classic Ravenstine and all the more powerful for the tether to and twist against the more ludic and fanciful excursions around it.

Waiting For The Bomb is a deliberately-themed selection, intended to reflect upon memories of Cold War era youth as inspiration for its narrative (according to Ravenstine).  There are also apparently deliberate references to past glories; for instance, the title track occasionally swoops in a way that can’t but help remind one of Ubu’s debut 45 30 Seconds Over Tokyo from way way back in the day, & the beautiful gavotte of The Ladies In The Garden could quite possibly be a tribute to the late Lindsay Cooper, Ravenstine’s cohort in David Thomas & The Pedestrians.  But in the same way the gyre of history leads to recursion, so the path of the album folds in upon itself.  This could be a day in a life, with memory intruding upon the modern, or it could be a lifetime itself; we’re all of us still just getting by in mighty dread, after all (Plus ca change, etc).

Whatever one’s interpretation of the work, it’s superb to have Ravenstine back in full effect again, and expectations are raised for the remainder of his new pieces seeing the light of day in such imaginative formation soon.  Being so far ahead of the game so long ago has one distinct advantage; this is not nostalgia, just still utterly modern folk music.

❉ Allen Ravenstine – ‘Waiting For The Bomb’ (ReR Megacorp) released on June 29th 2018. Pre-order from ReR HERE.

❉ ReR also distribute 2015’s solo album The Pharaoh’s Bee and City Desk / Farm Report, the two 2013 disks of Ravenstine/Wheeler collaborative improvs.  Ravenstine’s grail-esque 1975 suite (with Albert Dennis) Terminal Drive was excavated by Smog Veil Records and issued on CD in autumn 2017.

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