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Saturday, February 22, 2020

1201 Alarm - Hello World (s/r, 2020) ****½

By Sammy Stein

What happens when a musician with a scientific bent and the understanding of how new technology can be applied to creativity decides to create something quite different? Hello World from 1201 Alarm shows us the answer. It is intriguing, different, unclassifiable and somehow compelling.

1201_ Alarm were named after an incident during the Apollo 11 Moon landing. They are led by Steve Thompson who has worked with Nigel Kennedy, Lisa Stansfield, Billy Bragg, Robert Smith ( The Cure) Eric Idle, Prof Brian Cox and D:Ream, Alison Moyet, Chris Hadfield (of the international Space Station), Tony Hadley, Rusty Schweikart (of the Apollo Missions), Madness, Jamie Cullum and many more. Steve was also one of only two people (to his knowledge) to play live at the opening and closing of the London 2012 Olympics , the other being Emeli Sande.

1201_Alarm create music inspired by science, technology, innovation and endeavour and their first album is called Hello_World.

Steve told me," the music on this album explores the gentrification of technology since the Apollo era and how we have welcomed and encouraged science into our daily lives over the last 50 years and importantly, what that has done to us positively and negatively".

In preparation for writing the album Steve spoke with prominent scientists and critical thinkers from around the world. They recorded interviews and each person they interviewed inspired a track on the album. The band has musicians with huge presence, including Tamar Osborne on sax and flutes - she has worked with Jools Holland, Dele Sosimi Afrobeat, Akram Khan and has her own successful project called ' Collocutor', Titch ( Alastair) Walker on trumpet - he has played with Paul Weller, Bellowhead (and happens to be Leo Sayer's nephew), Emma Bassett on trombone - she has played with major orchestras and toured with Adele and Tim Minchin and Ben Handysides on drums - he has played on TV and radio alongside many other musicians.

'Prologue' opens the CD with a soft, atmospheric sax riff ( based on a guitar riff from the Eddie Harris track 'Silver Cycles' from the album of the same name ( Atlantic 1968), before a fugue-like entry, beginning with the trombone, then the rest of the band so the music builds and crescendos into a full-on wall of sound. Heavy bass and drum lines emphasise the change to a weightier atmosphere whilst the trumpet soars above. That trumpet emerges to give a beautiful solo, underpinned by a 4 note repeat from the bass which is then left alone to finish the track. 'Hello World' was so named because the first computer program a new programmer writes is almost always a ‘Hello World’ program. The track also represents people interacting with technology for the first time and stepping into a bigger world. The track creates an incredible mix of live instruments with electronically-produced sounds which are used not to overwhelm but rather create a new chimera of complete beauty, energy, textures and deep, rich layers. Half way through the music stops indicating technology 'breaking' and there is a stupendous free flowing sax interlude and an unusual 7/8 section redolent of the Ozric Tentacles (an English prog rock band).

'Flim Flam' begins with bird song, buzzing sounds, bells, creating a pastoral atmosphere before it ascends a thematic musical stairway up towards the developing orchestral landscapes over decisive percussion from Ben Handysides. This track was inspired by an interview with author James Randi and uses voice recordings from an interview with Alek Krotoski (a Polish-American broadcaster, journalist and social psychologist, resident of the United Kingdom who writes about technology and interactivity).

'Bubbles' is an underwater adventure, inspired by the science of Dr Helen Czerski. (A British physicist, oceanographer and TV presenter). It sounds like arcade video music in some places and uses the rare and rather gorgeous tenori-on which ( as Steve Thompson explained) is a hand held screen in which a sixteen-by-sixteen grid of LED switches are held within a magnesium plastic frame. Any of these switches may be activated in a number of different ways to create sounds. Two built-in speakers are located on the top of the frame, as well as a dial and buttons that control the type of sound and beats per minute produced. The resulting sound is like a mixture of Hot Butter's 1971 track, 'Popcorn' and arcade music. However, this is soon ameliorated by the live instruments, bass, drums, trombone, sax and trumpet, which infuse reality into the music and develop a theme, something which the popping, jumpy little tenori-on finds difficult. Again, there is a fusion of electronica and traditional live instruments and it works.

'Surely You're Joking' was inspired by the Nobel prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman Amongst the science community, Feynman was up there with Einstein. A colourful character, he broke the stereotype of a stuffy scientist. He was a keen bongo drummer and Steve Thompson secured permission from his estate to use rare archive recordings of him on this track. Many contemporary scientists (who are also musicians) joined 1201_Alarm on the track. Physicist Jim Al Khalili plays guitar, Helen Czerski plays Theremin, Libby Jackson of the UK Space agency plays Oboe, materials scientist Anna Ploszajski plays trumpet, as does mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. Journalist Gemma Church also joined them on percussion, and Steve Pretty of the Hackney Colliery Band is on trumpet. There is a distinct throwback to Feynman’s heyday of the 1970s with a 'Two Ronnie's' feel but it is enjoyable. There are lovely bongo sections - all added by Feynman himself- a real tribute to someone Steve Thompson admired. And who knew so many eminent scientists played instruments so well?

'Qbit' was inspired by an interview with quantum physicist Prof. Winfried Hensinger who is building a massive quantum computer. For this track Steve Thompson used an actual quantum computer (in New York) to generate some of the music. It also uses the Audio Illusion discovered by Diana Deutsch in 1973. Oddly enough, if you listen to the track using headphones you should be able to hear words that are not actually being spoken. Yet another quirky little something in this album. It is highly electronic, popping and sparky at the beginning over an annoyingly repetitive monotonous 'flik flak' voice, which thankfully changes into another voice making 'doo' noises' but this too gets irksome. Then the flik flak voice comes back again and I was on the point of panic.

'Stuxnet' was inspired by a deadly computer virus and uses a 400,000v Tesla coil which shoots out arcs of lightning. The track is spacey, atmospheric and uses repeated 8 staccato notes which fade in and out. A theme emerges - which has 10 notes in the first half and 11 in the second and then the track gets seriously full of noise, heavy and energetic before the theme returns, both in electronic and real formats. Gorgeously challenging.

'Pripyat' is a thoughtful musical interlude, a questioning track about what happens if science goes wrong? Pripyat is the ghost town just outside Chernobyl which was abandoned after the disaster in 1986. Now, this almost forgotten town has its own tribute track and the poignancy is enhanced by the instrumentation and Slovak-inspired rhythms included . Guest artist Adrian ‘Woody’ Woodward of the Globe Theatre plays the hang drum on the track.

'ToastWife' is written as a symbolic call for help to bring technology and humanity together and make sense of everything. It was inspired by an interview with Dr Aleks Krotoski again and is about people wanting to be heard in a noisy world of social media. There are short motifs - not unlike 'Tweets' played and imitated by each instrument. After the 40 second mark, with the entry of different instruments, the track builds into something far more layered, deeply textured and with several distinct changes in rhythm over the set tempo. The sax soaring over the top is lovely. A great number.

'SkyLife' is a cover of the Turtle Island String Quartet number. It is a great interpretation and represents ( according to Steve Thompson) how great things could be if we work with technology and science. There is an anthemic quality to the piece and the arrangement around the brass is lifting and genial. The keyboard solo sits well in this arrangement and works with the theme.

'Flow ' was inspired by the interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (a Hungarian-American psychologist who recognised and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity). Interestingly, for this track, the band were not given any music, just a graphic score, and had never heard the track before. They were given just one take each - the idea being to induce a state of ‘flow’ in each member of the band. The result is a challenging and experimental piece, began with words from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi himself. It feels its way, each instrument finding different levels and lines as the piece progresses.

'Cycles' is a modified version of the opening track but with changes in tempo and a uniting of the electronics and acoustic instruments. There is a lovely harmonised section between trumpet and sax before the brass sections before the trumpet explodes over the top in a glorious, uplifting dialogue. The middle section of the piece was composed by a Raspberry Pi computer pet. Steve Thomas uses a laser harp - which incidentally uses a 5 watt laser, capable of projecting a beam over 5 miles. This track makes a lovely ending to the CD.

What makes this album work so well - and it really does - is not only the fusion of electronics and instruments but the arrangements. They are solid, often themed, and allow the musicians to interact and solo. Steve Thompson is using stellar musicians here and it would seem a shame not to use them fully - so he does. Many themes develop and these are given weight, life and depths by the musicians. If I am honest, I never expected to like this music half as much as I do but it is absolutely wonderful, beautiful and well worked in every sense. The science theme lends itself well to offering variety and thematic works and, whilst the input is heavy from electronica, there is also a satisfying portion of real - life, tactile, living, breathing instruments. The vinyl version has a unique double groove on side 4, which means you hear either one of the two tracks depending where the needle lands. The music is neither over heavy on the scientific or electro-music or artificially enhanced live music but an oddly beautiful and characterful mix of the two. Engaging, endearing listening.

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