Cyclic Selects: Mark Harwood (Astor)


I first met Mark Harwood in Prahran about twenty odd years ago. I’d heard rumours about this record store that only stocked the weirdest music around and I was determined to find it. You had to approach via a laneway, go up a flight of stairs behind a bunch of shops, and there wasn’t even a sign to let you know you were on the right path. I remember the music playing was very odd, and I didn’t recognise any of the artists as I flicked through the racks of compact discs. Harwood was sitting behind the counter. I remember thinking he could use some sun. I think I asked him about Squarepusher but then started talking a little too enthusiastically about some Austrian guy I’d never heard of, who turned out to be Fennesz, which he started playing along with other Mego releases. It was like the world had suddenly opened up for me, I’d never heard music like this. I left with Hotel Paral.lel. The store, Synaesthesia moved into central Melbourne and became a hub for local experimental musicians and music lovers with Harwood firmly at the core, providing the opportunity for others to experience their own musical epiphanies. Alongside the store he began a label, releasing the likes of Robin Fox, Pateras/Baxter/Brown, Snawklor, Francis Plagne and Phillip Samartzis amongst others.

About 10 years ago he abruptly shut down the store, packed his bags and headed for Europe, ultimately landing in London. Here he began Penultimate Press, a small run imprint of books and music, that has released works from Matthew P Hopkins, Jacques Brodier, Etant Donnes, Graham Lambkin, and Hour House – continuing his uncompromising curatorial approach. It’s the kind a publishing house that is the antithesis of hyped music, often delving into little known worlds and plucking out obscure musical geniuses and finally giving them the respect they deserve. I remember back in the Synaesthesia days Harwood saying to me that his dream was to discover incredible mind blowing music that seemed to have dropped from the sky fully formed, music freed from genres, scenes or signposts. With Penultimate Press it feels like he is achieving this aim.

Harwood also creates music under the name Astor, not surprisingly creating worlds that blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. His compositions are quite difficult to describe, warm obtuse sounds where the source is not easily discernible. It’s an abstract form of musique concrete that blurs field recordings, with the physical process of recording itself, electronics, and a variety of sonic techniques, particularly in regard to spacialisation. He released his first album Alcor (Kye Recordings) in 2012, and continued the following year with Inland (Kye Recordings), which was inspired by Gerard Murnane’s 1988 novel of the same name, and saw him using piano, bells, tapes, gong, autoharp, hammer, t.v., organ, and dry ice pellets. He is currently readying his third album, which is due in late October.

With such a wide breadth of musical knowledge we thought that a Cyclic Selects from Harwood would be pretty special. We were right…

Rocky Horror Picture Show – Time Warp
I can distinctly recall the exact moment I recognised music. It was this song that made me aware of it. Xmas 1984. I was given a train set or some such nonsense, when constructed this did not work but as it happened one of my sisters was given a radio. When my sisters gift was turned on this song came out. I freaked. Maybe the song itself, maybe the sound… no idea. Regardless this single moment altered me beyond reproach.

‘The song is both an example and a parody of the dance song genre in which much of the content of the song is given over to dance step instructions’ – Wikipedia

Frankie Goes to Hollywood Two Tribes (annihilation mix) 12″
At the far from ripe age of 13 I pretended I was sick so my mother would take me to the doctor. I was the only one knowing this a ruse in order to visit a record store in the shopping mall close by. It was by these means that I purchased this 12” – on cassette, The music on this cassette was a real mind altering experience for me, not of the psychedelic variety. Outside the visceral excitement of the punchy post disco bass heavy pop I learnt two things from this record. One was the idea of the studio as an instrument. I am aware this was accomplished previously by Faust, Eno and blah but to this young bean Trevor Horn opened all the doors which lead to my interest in exploratory musical forms. I also learnt about war, the cold war and what humans love to do with each other deep inside and how this is executed on the outside. All this coming from a ‘band’ that specialised in telling us not to relax.

“it’s enough to make you wonder sometimes if you’re on the right planet”

Sick Things – The Sounds of Silence (Shock)
Australia has produced many a jarring monster but none cuts the custard as deep as this distorted monster. My first ‘real job’ was at the distributor that put out this lp. There were 100’s of unsold copies lying around the place. I took one home on the recommendation of Dave ‘Dogmeat’ Lang.

”All tracks on this record were recorded in various household kitchens, bedrooms, parties and lounge rooms somewhere, sometime between 1980-1981 in the Melbourne”.

The bedroom / party / lounge room scene in Melbourne still thrives. Melbourne always has been and shall remain a hardcore music city. Where else do 10,000 turn up to protest the shutting down of a venue? A beautiful title for a beautiful record. This is music beyond any course but itself. Urgent and beautiful. Two words that always look handsome together.

The Shadow Ring – Lindus (Swill Radio)
The single reason I don’t go for overinflated kebab’s with massive back lines, VOLUME, heavy reliance on smoke machines, lighting etc… A load of puffed up noise with a means gain of nadda. Jarvis Cocker fodder *. Lindus on the other hand is top of the top shelf. Utter genius. Remember boys, ISIS also wear eyeliner.

“And at night, a ghost detector.”

* a reference to Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service radio show on BBC Radio 6 (you can live without)

Pierrot Lunaire – Gudrun (IT)
Near perfect record action. I have little idea what was in the blood of the Italians in the 70’s. Probably the same gear that has been coursing through their veins for centuries which, when all thrown in the pot, conjures up with something as strange, beautiful and bewildering as this tidy beast of a record. A plethora of styles folded together into beautiful crisp song/sound world. Equal parts massage and damage. I have never worked this record out. Only a good thing.


Farmers Manual
I never really understood or appreciated ‘computer music’ after Farmers Manual. They who set a benchmark so high and so early it’s truly bizzare no-one has come close since. Technology eh?

no link can do justice

Gerhard Rühm – Kleine Geschichte der Zivilisation (Wergo)
Rühm, in any medium, is always a cracker. More well known for his dismantling of text than music as such as musician he is always on the money. As a pianist he has the relaxed sly pacing I prefer. This one is prime and comes with a delicious audio ‘joke’ mid way. Elements so incongruous juxtaposed in a fashion that it borders on the intergalactic in it’s wit. Love the Rühm.

Peter Hammill – The silent corner and the empty stage (Charisma Records)
When my father passed away last year the pain onset was so unique and disorientating that I stopped listening to music. I was back in Australia and was staying at my sister’s house. We come from different angles but during this difficult period she drove me around in her car whilst playing Coldplay very low, yes that Coldplay. The one you all despise. I found it pleasantly easy music to absorb, comforting even. I told her I had not listened to anything since I received the news and the response was of sincere surprise: ‘I could not have dealt with anything without music’. Once returning to the UK and back to messaging Graham Lambkin, he pushed (not for the first time) the whole Peter Hammill / Van Der Graff Generator world on me and this time I accepted it with open arms and ears. Graham made up a series of period compilations. 3 volumes. I listened to these intently over a very long period and then I explored deeply the entire catalogues of VDGG and Hammill. To make things simple here as I am sure you have better things to do, I found the entire world positively shocking on every level, but in the best way possible. Every day I am surprised at the work this man has done. It’s bold, ambitious, deeply personal, moving, striking and utterly singular. I introduced to a friend recently and he wrote and asked ‘who were his influences’? This is a good question, a question so good I could not answer.

Full Fucking Moon – ST LP
I have been listening to this one a lot again of late. Sole release from pseudo mysterious New Zealand outfit. Well under any radar but well worth the energy expended. I really love the construction of this record. Side A comprises of a semi-harsh rich tone that slowly descends into a dirty horizon followed by a short trippy other world head phaser… The flip starts with a hum infused with all manor of close mic’d personal tickle and play. The remains of the LP shifts into the unmistakable sound of chip hungry seagulls and out of this an utterly unexpected and beautiful apocalyptic song springs forth. WTF? I do like the unexpected in music. Why do people not do more interesting things? Why is so much music of all variety so predictable, so genre based in it’s ‘exploration?’ No idea. But this is one of those records that quietly shits over your entire creative existence.

“Humans, what have you done?”

No link.

Jürg Frey – 24 Wörter (Edition Wandelweiser)

It was 2014. No-one has any idea what they are doing. There was nothing to grasp on to. All music has been warmly embraced by some kind of fashionable element. It’s wild. But not in such a good way. The there’s Jurg Frey. Many of the works of Frey’s I have encountered touch on a singular beauty that I find curious and captivating . Frey’s simplicity (not minimalism) has been very inspiring for me personally. It’s an age old trick but one that so few can pull off. The sparseness of this particular release is staggering in it’s power and effectiveness. Although associated with the Wandelweiser movement, I think, like the best of that bunch, Frey has really moved on from the initial Cage-ian tropes of the movement. Here we have a fairly traditional classical record which sounds nothing like a traditional classical record, an avant-garde record with few tangible links to the avant garde. This record, like no other really shows a signpost towards a real 21st century music for me. It’s old new and strangely new-old. It’s beyond. I don’t want to think about how many times I have listened to this recording. I never really need to think about that to be honest. I just listen to it, a lot.

no link for 24 Wörter online so taste this fruit instead:

Penultimate Press can be found here. And Astor’s music can be found at Penultimate Press’ bandcamp page, which is here.


About Author

Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.