Formed in 1993, Larsen are an experimental band from Italy. Their members have managed to keep a fairly low profile over the decades, but that didn’t stop their 2002 LP ‘River’ achieving critical acclaim in both Europe and the States. In 2008, the band were joined by Ann O’Connor (aka Little Annie, aka Annie Anxiety Bandez). Little Annie, a New York performance artist – formerly of Asexuals and known for collaborations with Current 93, Nurse With Wound and Kid Congo Powers – gave the band an extra dimension when adding spoken passages to their disjointed sounds.
Eagerly awaited by fans, their 2019 EP ‘Tiles’ ends a three year recording silence. Its four tracks teeter between darkly gothic and just plain difficult, but it’s often it’s more than possible to understand where this avant-garde/art rock collective are headed.
The best of the featured material is given pride of place at the head of the vinyl, with the prosaically titled ‘First Song’. A slow and repetitive guitar riff slowly sets a pace, never too far away from a ‘Henry’s Dream’ era Nick Cave era workout, which becomes almost hypnotic once the drums lock down a groove. Despite various plinking bell noises and other percussion breaking through, the tune barely deviates for its first third and even then, when change finally comes, it’s very slight. The listener has no choice but to lose themselves in Annie’s performance, which in this case is mostly spoken, augmented by a vague concession to singing. For the uninitiated, her voice is immediately disarming: its deep husk has the sound of Mercedes McCambridge, carrying an almost gender-less presence that goes about its business in a matter of fact way. Hints of a horror film’s narration appear to tease her delivery, but generally the words are far more mundane. Half buried by the music, we get glimpses into a narrative covering thoughts about isolation, theft and priests with either a sympathetic or deaf ear. It’s deliberately obtuse. By the mid-point, the cool rhythmic feel gives way to a wall of ugly keys and Larsen feel their way around a piece of drone rock that immediately offsets any goodwill that’s been created. Under the noise, the rhythm persists, but the arrival of keyboards that generate the kind of upsetting sounds first heard on Georgio Moroder’s ‘Midnight Express’ soundtrack ensure that this won’t be easy. Stripping away most of the music for a semi-spoken coda, things get even scarier once Annie sounds like Iggy Pop impersonating Nico…and while her voice sounds like it’s been put through all manner of filters, it actually hasn’t been…which only adds to the all round unease. Darkness abound, these near ten minutes have thrown in everything to entertain and upset in equal measure and could be considered one of Larsen’s best recordings.
Naturally, the rest of the EP – while often interesting – doesn’t quite reach such a high benchmark. ‘She’s So-So’ opts for deep electronica and an overall feel that comes closest to parts of Little Annie’s musical past. Sounding like a Kraftwerk remix of something by Ultravox, the music is heavy accented by drum beats, but wherever the music goes, it’s always the deep and troubled vocal that holds the attention. Taking a repetitive approach, Annie merely reads out a list of adjectives that this tune’s protagonist might be, while the rest of the band drone and clank, before everything descends into a collection of sharp, multi-layered vocal noises. It’s worth hearing once or twice, but has none of the interest of ‘First Song’ merely because it just doesn’t expect the listener to work out where the real interest lies.
The remainder of the EP is taken up by ‘Barroom Philospher’, a two part number that goes deeper into the spoken word. The first part is relatively short and like ‘She’s So-So’ presents some reasonably melodic electronica. The bottom end is deep enough to sound like a mechanical fault; the percussive beats sound like ping pong balls. This is simple, but very effective, especially considering a hard stereo split that’s been really exploited. Once the music is fleshed out with heavy drones it’s not quite as striking, but the left and right speaker channels continue to be worked to their fullest. Annie, meanwhile, just adds a spoken performance and it’s one that doesn’t give any consolation to those looking for something within the avant-garde. In keeping with the title, she takes on the role of someone in a bar whom feels like they just don’t fit any more. She berates Lynyrd Skynyrd, claims everyone in the cold North is stupid and even suggests the barmaid has a glowing cleavage. The second part replaces the dislike of Skynyrd with Eagles and has concerns with strangers being left outside and eventually – presumably as the protagonist becomes more imbibed – there are thoughts of the end of the world. While some of the words are better, the more interesting elements of the music are often replaced with piercing electronic blips, which become an irritant pretty damn fast and ir’s only with a very occasional Eno-esque drone that things seem to improve. At it’s best, this can be seen as a fairly crass homage to John Cale tracks like ‘The Jeweller’, especially in the way Little Annie delivers words in a relaxed and casual way, as if each syllable has been meticulously planned. In a polar opposite of Cale’s finest readings, though, don’t expect that delivery to be either rich or bewitching, since Annie’s voice drawls and drags with a twenty a day husk adding to any detachment. At it’s worst, ‘Barroom Philsopher’ is merely repetitive, but it’s to Larsen’s credit that this doesn’t ever feel like filler.
For the uninitiated, ‘Tiles’ is perhaps too disparate to be enjoyed on a regular basis – or merely any listening for pleasure – and yet it’s never quite out there enough to be considered truly avant-garde. Its pieces of music sort of occupy their own space and create their own bubble. While the EP isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch, ‘First Song’ definitely adds something striking to Larsen’s ongoing legacy and even with a very disjointed feel in terms of music and quality, there’s a feeling that long time fans will welcome this return.