Ramleh - Circular TimeIn our rather cursory review of Valediction, which at the time was their first full length release in 12 years we commented that we eagerly awaited a release when Ramleh would pick up their guitars again. We didn't think it would be a further 6 years and that Circular Time would be their first album in their rock formation in something like twenty years. Ramleh are perhaps better known for their electronic noise work. That early work as key instigators in the power electronics genre, along with associated Broken Flag label releases, was expertly documented by noise publication As Loud As Possible. Recently, however, it's been heartening to see the noise unit of Ramleh and erstwhile member Philip Best's Consumer Electronics project finally receiving plaudits for their work in the likes of Noisey and The Quietus. But truth be told, Ramleh have been doing this warped psych-rock thing for years. Between 1990 and 1997 there were sporadic singles and albums released on Broken Flag through UK labels such as Shock, Dying Earth, Freek Records and US labels including Sympathy For The Record Industry and Majora. I can't remember when Ramleh first started operating in rock circles but it was at some point around the Shock releases with the single 'Slammers' and accompanying Blowhole album I became acquainted with their mutated rock form. At one point members, Stuart Dennison, Anthony Di Franco and Gary Mundy, were flitting between Ramleh and Skullflower - who saw their first single and debut album appear on Broken Flag. But all that was over twenty years ago. Today the current electronic noise version of Ramleh comprise Broken Flag label owner Gary Mundy with Anthony Di Franco (AX, JFK) while this version, what Mundy referred to The Quietus as the "guitar-bass-drums version" additionally features Martyn Watts who manned the drums alongside Mundy in the indie rock outfit Breathless. Got all that?
Circular Time is a sprawling double CD set of their warped take on rock but it's been captured with such clarity and with a drive and forcefulness absent from their earlier recordings in this field. On those earlier rock recordings Ramleh often fixated on sustained monolithic riffing mixed with Mundy's distant wails and Best's aggro-shouts but Circular Time draws on drone, noise, and electronics throwing up some unexpected twists with sidesteps into post-punk and prog rock. In the main though Circular Time hovers around their psych-rock mutations best described as bleak psychedelia.
And yet they almost wrongfoot the listener with the acoustic strum of the opener 'Re-entry' before it bursts into blistering cacophonic layers of soaring guitar, distant hollered voices, with some muscular drumming. Each wave is directed towards the void. It's a precipice Ramleh have long looked over, but they've never been as powerfully intense as they are on 'Re-Entry'. The opener is up there with some of their finer moments like the 'Slammers' and '8 Ball Corner Pocket' singles. 'Incubator' surges with a psychedelic angle in its howling wall of sound akin to something like Robert Fripp fronting Hawkwind. The distant voices shrouded in echo, which appear throughout Circular Time, form another layer in the ferocious noise surge propelled by Watts's forceful rhythms.
While most attention will focus on the guitars, Watts's drumming on Circular Time is a joy to behold. His dexterity and expressive drumming certainly helps to propel much of this. The unfettered guitar squall of 'Renaissance Warfare', opening the second disc, is let loose over a swarm of buzz and guitar scorch with rhythms which take on a tribal drumming approach. Watts also provides some stunning cyclical drum work on 'Liberty Bell' which with its motorik sequences forms a mesmerising electronic meditation. Drenched in mystical drones, it highlights a prog rock influence with an atmospheric sound, honing in on Tangerine Dream styled German electronics.
Casting wide their influences and inspirations, 'Liberty Bell' segues effortlessly into the scratchy angular guitar mannerisms of 'The Tower'. "How does your ego structure hold up?" they ask over Di Franco's hypnotic dub rhythms. This is Ramleh channelling Public Image Limited channelling Can. Surprising? Maybe but it's as dark and despondent as Lydon's wailings from Metal Box. "Tell me what to think, Tell me what to feel" they chant, before continuing "Can you feel it through the meds?" Hardened Ramleh listeners will know that their vocals are usually mixed way down but here it's one of a few select tracks on Circular Time which sees the Ramleh styled vocals pushed uncharacteristically to the fore and it's another standout on Circular Time.
Watts is absent from a couple of tracks. On 'Entropy', Ramleh settle into shimmering guitar drone mannerisms akin to tracks on Homeless. Its restrained atmospherics miles apart, too many miles apart even, from the blissed out blast of bass heavy and feedback laden distortion of 'Weird Tyranny', found towards the end of the second disc, which creates an unremitting drumless wall of droning blurred atmospherics. It is closer in sound to the billowing drone noise of the third track of their previous noise album Valediction. Powerful and controlled its electrified sheets of dissonance are simply stunning.
Circular Time offers more surprises on 'American Womanhood' which unwinds from the start to some shimmering bluesy guitar anchored to distorted bass throb and rhythmic drum fill. It's more spacious and restrained, taking on a more prog rock influence as the guitar hovers and weave melodic layers around the bass pulse, before slipping into samples of an interview with a Richard Pacheco associated porn starlet. Those tapes are almost a throwback to their power electronics days, and certainly the first I've heard since their Be Careful What You Wish For album.
From an interplay of stuttering electronics and cymbals, 'St John Of The Cross' is sucked up into a vortex of searing blackened histrionics crafted from sculpted guitar against a blistering noise undercurrent more akin to the electronic onslaught found on Valediction while 'The Ascent' rather than set the controls for the heart of the void opts for an epic improvised workout where arcs of controlled feedback jostle with distorted bass and heavy handed rhythms. At points Di Franco's bass even recalls the limbering scale ascending tones of his solo project JFK on 'Sexodus'. While 'The Ascent' hits the spot the straightforward outré rock of 'The March' falters and 'Flamen Dialis', one of the other improvised workouts on Circular Time is less than impressive. It's unfocussed meanderings ensures it, along with 'The March' remain the only weak spots on Circular Time.
It doesn't really matter though. In an album just shy of a 2-hour duration mark, Ramleh are on top of their game with an album of drone infused and powerfully scorching psychedelic guitars and brutal electronics absorbing elements of post-punk, prog rock, and naturally noise. And it really doesn't get better than the closing 'Never Returner' which almost acts as a juncture between the noise rock of eighties compatriots Terminal Cheesecake, Splintered and Skullflower with the indie vocal fronted psychedelics of Loop, Spacemen 3 and My Bloody Valentine. Mundy's billowing arcs of blackened psychedelia slope around the rhythmic thrust of distorted bass and drums. "You're nothing" they intone in downer mode, as 'Never Returner' is furnished with a new found sense of melodiousness. As acoustic strum reappears towards the end it seems after years in the shadows Ramleh look from the void to stake their claim to their much deserved place in avant rock circles.
Circular Time is a timely reminder of Ramleh's sporadic sojourns into warped rock forms. Their influence in the power electronics genre is guaranteed but with regard to their rock formation this along with their earlier forays into the genre shouldn't be underestimated. Circular Time is by far their most intense release finding space to accommodate both melody and dissonance within their massively psych-drenched rock sound. What sets Circular Time apart from their earlier releases is the clarity and definition of sound; there's little here that is formless, unfocussed or muddied. Sprawling and stunning in equal measures, Circular Time is nothing short of essential listening. Circular Time is released by Crucial Blast. Recommended. For more information go to Crucial Blast or Broken Flag store