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Ramleh - The Great Unlearning

Back in 2012 Joseph Burnett writing for The Quietus questioned Ramleh members Gary Mundy and Anthony Di Franco on why the current formation existed in two guises; one a power trio operating in a rock mode and the other offering noise electronics. Mundy answered: "I like the idea that we could perhaps weave them together, with a bit of guitar-bass-drums and electronics, but we haven't really done it yet." The Great Unlearning is their first album to really combine the two musical aspects of the group, aided by an expanded line-up including drummers Stuart Dennison and Martyn Watts and recapturing former member Philip Best along with his fellow Consumer Electronics bandmate (and wife) Sarah Fröelich. We raved about their previous album, Circular Time, another expansive album largely based in their rock iteration so it's fair to say that The Great Unlearning has a lot to live up to. Initially released on double vinyl by the Egyptian label, Nashazphone, it's one we've hankered after but were put off by its exorbitant price, thankfully Fourth Dimension Records have rectified that by issuing it as a double CD at a more than affordable price. It's just as well, as while The Great Unlearning continues to operate in their rock mode it also blends in their more uncompromising electronics sounds, while throwing new things into the mix. And at this stage, with their name firmly entrenched in noise and industrial history, it's not as if Ramleh have anything to prove but this is a group committed to finding new sound forms.

The Great Unlearning unfolds to the expansive and near 19-minute 'Futureworld' swimming in a sea of sustained guitar drone over buzzing bass where drums tinker with a metallic clink and underneath synths threaten with a menacing edge. Even at this point this would rate as one of Ramleh's finest cuts of blackened ambient bliss. But halfway through as drums forge a rhythmic sequence it seems to speed up before it locks into open-ended psychedelic guitar riffing, casting off cascading swirls of sounds over lighter sustained synth drone. Soaring onwards and upwards, it sweeps up harsher blasts of synth noise and frequency. It's an opener of staggering proportions and one that reasserts the fact that Ramleh are more than a noise group.

The noisier synth fragments that appears towards the end are the first evidence of the noise and murkier elements Consumer Electronics contribute, along with electronics provided by Ramleh. You can hear it in the more abstract and instrumental ends of the Ramleh sound such as 'Blood Aurora' with its loose improvised structure of atonal guitar scrapings which snake through the din of whirring, throbbing synth noise and oscillating engine rev hum noise atop a rather perfunctory electronic drum rhythm. It's all rather unsettling and not nearly as furious as 'Racial Violence' another improvised jam exceeding the 10-minute mark. This one seems to be a hybrid of the different Ramleh styles mixing psychedelic scuzzed out guitar skreech and booming, distorted bass lines over Martyn Watt's muscular rolling rhythms saturated in unwieldy synth noise courtesy of Philip Best and Sarah Fröelich. It's a colossal wigged out noise jam, chaotic and demented, like a bad dream version of the Butthole Surfers on bad drugs.

'Religious Attack' offers a short outburst of synth squelch and frequency attack over pummelling electronic rhythm, far more frantic and furious than the intense noise assaults of their "power electronics" album Valediction but it's the ravaging and rampaging vocals delivered, like much of the vocals on The Great Unlearning, in unison which sets this apart from their earlier noise excursions. This is just right for societal discord. Anchored around crisp drum clatter is 'Procreation As An Imperialist Act' where knob twisting electronic noise flurries and insect chatter collide with wayward guitar histrionics emitting waves of cascading melodic embers. The rudiments of this one is closer to the analogue sounds of Di Franco's solo JFK project but Mundy's shimmering guitar which glides through the noise bursts reflects the gloomy psych-edge of some of their older material.

It is when Ramleh are reduced to the trio of Mundy, Di Franco and Dennison that they slip back into full-on rock mode and the, uh, musical approach they've been largely pursuing since the nineties. Circular Time included the spacious dubby punk-prog experiment of 'The Tower' seeping with a post-punk influence but on The Great Unlearning that (post-) punk aspect is pushed further with a directness and given a surprising twist in the vocal approach. The forceful post-punk rush of 'The Twitch' is fuelled by booming bass and thunderous drums topped off with a twinned vocal attack by Mundy and Di Franco. "It isn't real" they repeatedly holler in unison, as they vent about the veracity of social media and its ability to spark trigger reactions. Naturally it is given a Ramleh twist with atonal guitar mannerisms and crunching snaking and searing synths before breaking down into complete disarray. Even more direct is 'No Music For These Times' and I don't know if this one qualifies as punk or has it roots in something even earlier but 'No Music For These Times' features a prime slice of seventies riffing with energetic vocals pitched well high in the mix. You might even find yourself singing along with the catchy massed bawled vocals, and if it wasn't for the undergrowth of synth detritus I'd never guess this was Ramleh at all. Either way it's a strong track carrying some sort of critique of unbridled and unconstrained exercise of power. Pummeling to slow heavy riffage, over quieter synth work, 'Your Village Has Been Erased' is accompanied by Mundy and Di Franco's intoned chanting in a disjointed fashion, as guitars assume a slo-mo metal edge, before a short passage of unaccompanied vocals let loose a noisier end section slipping off in solid blocks of monolithic riffing, riddled with reams of electronic noise. All of these offer another facet of the Ramleh rock sound which I suspect may confuse some hardened followers of the group.

On Circular Time the closing 'Never Returner' drew from noise rock and the indie vocal fronted psychedelics of the likes of Loop and Spacemen 3, and on 'Natural Causes' they look further back with scuzzy spacey guitar flourishes strewn over buzzing bass tones and powerhouse rhythms and clatter rekindling the blackened sludge of their slew of late eighties singles. However, the vocals poised distant, twinned and melodic give a hazy psychedelic dimension with more than a nod to Pink Floyd in this downbeat expansive missive which closes The Great Unlearning in blackened arcs of gloomy shimmers with lyrics that offer a more optimistic tone culminating as they do on the lines, "you can wake up anytime, It's never too late."

Previously Ramleh's rock mode meant billowing waves of dark psychedelia or a warped take on rock but here it's given a more forceful post-punk edge filled with anger and discontent amidst improvised tracks where scuzzy guitars jostle with noise improvisations. The Great Unlearning doesn't disappoint but it does frustrate, especially on the abstract and lengthy improvisations. I must confess I love their rare moments of bleak psychedelia but this expanded version of Ramleh are out on their own doing their own thing. Combining their different musical approaches, The Great Unlearning is another strong entry from this long-running group and further evidence of why this group remain essential. Ramleh must have had a blast recording this. The Great Unlearning is available from Fourth Dimension Records or Broken Flag