Leven Signs' "Hemp is Here" really should be considered a classic of mid-80s UK avante garde, but it came and went in 1985, as both a cassette release (Unlikely Records) and vinyl release (Cordelia) in the blink of an eye. This duo of Peter Karkut and Maggie Turner managed to craft one of the strangest, most affecting albums of new wave experimentalism that I've ever heard. Due to the album's impossible-to-find status, it's been largely forgotten and continuously overlooked, but hopefully that will begin to change.
A chance encounter with the cassette version of "Hemp is Here" led me on an internet scavenger hunt before tracking Karkut down. Through the years he has continued developing his various artistic pursuits, recently having his short film Sunflower Supermodel in the London Short Film Festival. Turner 's path is a big foggier, though her collaboration with Karkut continues.
But what is it about "Hemp is Here" that makes it such a special record? At times it feels like a modern, electronic take on gamelan music with crashing rhythms and modal melodies corrupted via bewildering sonic manipulation. Karkut layers organ sequences over and over, constructing songs that have more in common tonally with music you'd hear in gothic cathedrals than any sort of school of electronic music. Think of a more diverse, Turkish-tinged "Flaming Tunes" and you might be getting close. "Hemp is Here" is a manic conglomeration of influences and ideas, ending up as a sensational playground of aural narcotics.
Leven Signs' music is full of tension and it's perhaps this element that makes it so memorable. On the surface, Karkut's complex compositions seem at odds with Turner's often-detached, stunning vocals, but it's the dichotomy of those two disparate elements that latch on and don't let go. This record is almost 30 years old and I'm still not sure what it should be classified is (other than brilliant, of course).
released 19 February 2013
Instruments, vocals, tape editing - Pete Karkut
Vocals - Maggie Turner
Thanks to Jayne Worthington for vocals on "Sedes Sapientiae" and Wilf for violin on "Iraj 11"