June 11 – Matter is Alive
01/09/2009 § Leave a comment
Artist: June 11
Title: Matter is Alive
Label: EE Tapes
Genre: Ambient/ Experimental/ Jazz
01 By This River
02 The Picture
03 I Know The Moonlight
04 Matter Is Alive
06 The Luckiest Man
07 A Peaceful Vale
08 Harold Budd
09 You Pave The Way
10 Ta Bouche, Ta Peau
Unless you’re unfortunate enough to live in Croydon, most parts of London are devoid of trams. The 1950s heralded a new era of buses with pneumatic tyres that weren’t confined to the restrictions of rails. Apart from watching repeated clips in the 80s of Alan Bradley from Coronation Street dying in front of a Blackpool tram, my experiences of them were rather slim. Bradley’s death was hardly unrealistic since it’s bloody hard to hear the things coming. When I was dating a girl in Schiedam there were six different ways to get killed crossing the road from her house to the car park on the other side: the Eastbound bicycle/motorcycle lane; the main road; the tramline, and then the same three going West. More than a couple of times I was awoken from walking daydreams by the apathetic tinkling of tram bells only to watch the thing silently swoosh through the spot I had inhabited half a second earlier.
So when I was in Gent for the first time in 2004, I pretty much had to rely on my guide for anything from local bars to how to get about the town using the public transport system. On boarding the first and only tram of the evening I was told, “don’t worry about paying, there’s never once been an inspector on these”. The thing hadn’t lurched 100 feet down the road before it came to a stop and three ticket inspectors got on to harass everyone. Fortunately, playing the “I’m a foreigner and don’t know anything about your wonderful country” line worked perfectly and I only had to pay the standard €2 fare, unlike my friend who was unfortunately whacked with an uncompromising €50 fine. Needless to say, drinks were on our guide for the rest of the evening, and his extremely sheepish look of horror and shame as the inspectors boarded has gleefully remained with me for many years.
I dare say that June11’s Jan Van Den Broeke has by now well familiarised himself with how to get from Den Trollekelder and back without being taxed huge amounts by the Belgian transport authorities. I’ll admit I’m more than slightly jealous of him for hailing from Gent, a beautiful and historic town in the middle of Belgium, though somewhat overrun with tourists and corporate promotional events in the summer. Such a place surely must be a haven for inspiration, though not only for the musically-minded but for the rowdy, insulting teenage idiots who ruined my ex’s day after calling her a ‘Satanist’ in the local McDonald’s. That was a fun afternoon.
But it’s surely not only Gent itself that has provided inspiration for June11’s debut, but the works of Brian Eno. June11 is best described as an ambient project with a sprinkling of slow, experimental jazz. It’s all rather hazy, misty, mood music which is represented well by the packaging, with its grey, rainy artwork and blurry photography. June11 describe their project not only as an aural entity but a ‘place for music and images’, exploring – and exploiting – a fluid, slow, sensitive and righteous world. As nebulous as this initially sounds it’s actually a faithful description: a rare thing indeed when all too often bands describe their sound with pretentiously inaccurate adjectives.
June11 utilises a wide range of instrumentation from guitar and piano to saxophone and clarinet, the latter two rounding off the jazzy feel that a lot of the tracks have. But don’t let the ‘jazz’ element lead you into thinking you’re going to get a smoky, dark piece of 2am nightjazz to put on when your Bohren collection has run its course – June11 is more experimental than that, with the main focus being on light, dreamy ambient music with the odd experimental jazz section thrown in for atmosphere and variety. Such moments are at their most prevalent in songs such as Lahore, The Luckiest Man and the 11+ minute You Pave The Way, which does indeed have a tinge of Bohren to it in places, but it’s the only piece of the album that does. After all, according to June11, Matter is Alive takes most of its influences from Eno, Buckley, Holliday and the classical works of Glass, Satie and Grieg.
June11 do occasionally use vocal lines – which is a bit of a shame because the vocal work on the album is really quite poor. Both male and female singers don’t do the accompanying instrumentals any favours with their weak voices and in the case of The Picture, which has a wonderfully emotive piano track, they get sickly and embarrassing to listen to. The lyrics don’t really help much either with lines such as “what colour is happy? Is it black and white?” spoiling the intensity and seriousness of songs which are – musically at least – rather well-written.
Matter is Alive is an atmospheric and well put-together piece of work and it’s good to see an artist doing something slightly different on the ambient scene. All the playing and song-writing is generally of a high calibre and the experiential jazzy elements don’t feel too forced or unnatural. However, it’s yet another case of an ambient disc which would have been so much better without the vocals. I appreciate that Van Den Broeke et al have some emotional memories they want to cathartically share with us all, but maybe next time it would be better to express these entirely musically rather than haranguing our ears with poor vocals and absurd lyrics. I’ll be back in Gent in the next few months, so if Jan wants to take this up with me then, he’s more than welcome. Though I won’t be travelling by public transport.