It was Charlie Rich who once famously sang: “who knows what goes on behind closed doors?” Everyone has probably thought that, as they make their way across an unfamiliar city. Often though, the weary traveller won’t even see the doors. Instead, doors are hidden away by privet hedges. Privacy in suburbia is valued.  Especially it seems, in cities like London. However, what many people forget, is the behind ever door there’s a story that’s waiting to be told.

That was the case behind the door of 147 Tower Gardens Road, London. At first glance it looked like an ordinary suburban house. It was hidden away behind a privet hedge, while the back garden was an exotic wilderness where a riot of wildflowers were allowed to run free. However, 147 Tower Gardens Road was home to artist, illustrator, musician and beekeeper Ian Johnstone,  until his death in the spring of 2015. It was a home that he was happy to share with others.

This included many people who had never met Ian Johnstone before. They had arrived in London, with hopes and dreams. Often these hopes and dreams hadn’t just been dashed, but left in tatters. For these people 147 Tower Gardens Road was akin to a sanctuary. Some of the people who passed through the doors of 147 Tower Gardens had been in relationships that hadn’t worked out. Other times, it was people who were priced out of the city’s property market. Sometimes, the people who arrived at 147 Tower Gardens Road were musicians.

Among the musicians who arrived at 147 Tower Gardens Road were Daniel O’Sullivan and Alexander Tucker. Daniel O’Sullivan recorded many of the sounds that found their way onto albums by Æthenor, Mothlite and Ulver. Their 2011 album The Norwegian National Opera, which featured an appearance by Ian Johnstone, was mixed at “Johnstone House.” Ian Johnstone was also responsible for the artwork on Mothlite’s 2012 album Dark Age. By then, Alexander Tucker had called 147 Tower Gardens home, as he and Daniel O’Sullivan began to record as Grumbling Fur. 147 Tower Gardens Road was a cultural hive of activity, and Ian Johnstone is remembered as a generous, witty and welcoming host.

Sadly, in the spring of 2015, Ian Johnstone passed away. For all his friends and former residents of 147 Tower Gardens Road, it was a sad day. They had so many pleasant memories of a place that was a welcome refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes of London. 147 Tower Gardens Road had been an oasis of calm. 

Gradually, though, the contents of this oasis of calm were gradually packed in cardboard boxes and packing cases. It took several attempts, before the myriad of curios and object d’art were safely packed away. It was around this time that Daniel O’Sullivan was visited by an old friend, Massimo Pupillo. 

The pair had been friends for several years. They first met when Massimo Pupillo’s group Zu shared the bill with Guapo, another project that Daniel O’Sullivan had been involved with. Straight away, the pair realised they had much in common. They both had a shared passion for the creative process. So when Massimo wasn’t busy with Zu, he joined Daniel in another group The Ex.

Since joining The Ex, Daniel and Massimo have been fortunate to collaborate with an eclectic selection of artists. They’ve improvised with artists of the calibre of Peter Brötzmann, Oren Ambarchi and FM Einheit. That’s despite spending six months of each year at his home in Peru. However, the rest of the year, Massimo spends making music.

This includes the music that can be found on Laniakea’s recently released album A Pot Of Powdered Nettles. It was recently released the House Of Mythology label, and is essentially a homage to, and celebration of the life of the late Ian Johnstone.

Before the death of Ian Johnstone, Daniel O’Sullivan and François Testory had planned to work on a piece of choreography that had the working title The Black Egg. However, following the death of Ian Johnstone grief gave way to thoughts of music, and a way to celebrate life and work of Ian Johnstone. What better people to create this music, than two of Ian Johnstone’s friends, Daniel O’Sullivan and Massimo Pupillo?

So work began on what became Laniakea’s debut album A Pot Of Powdered Nettles. It’s described as an album featuring a quartet of four cosmic hymns. They were written by Daniel O’Sullivan and Massimo Pupillo. However, the inspiration for these cosmic hymns came from a variety of sources.

Among the music that’s influenced Laniakea on A Pot Of Powdered Nettles, is the music of Hildegard von Bingen and jazz pianist Alice Coltrane. That’s not forgetting the monolithic bass sounds of Godflesh. This ensures that Laniakea are able to evoke and replicate the sense of an eternal vibration that signifies the living spirit in perpetuity. Laniakea do this on the four cosmic hymns on A Pot Of Powdered Nettle. They were recorded using a myriad of instruments.

As recording began, the two multi-instrumentalists began to set out their array of traditional instruments and technology. A bamboo flute, bass, cello, chimes, finger bells, viola and violin represented the traditional instruments. They were joined by an Elka Crescendo 303 organ, an M-Tron and a Jen Electronics  SX1000. Even a dictaphone and an Uber 4400 portable tape recorder were used to capture some of the sounds that found their way onto A Pot Of Powdered Nettles. They’re part of Laniakea’s attempt to capture the sounds, life and energy of 147 Tower Gardens Road. It was a quiet, forgotten backwater of the dog eat dog city that is London. Sadly, it’s no more.

Gone will be Ian Johnstone’s collection of curios and rest of his worldly possessions from 147 Tower Gardens Road. His old house will most likely receive a makeover, and be stripped of its character and down at heel charm. Even order will be restored to a back garden that was once was home to riot of wildflowers. That will likely please the rest of little people who live in this anonymous corner of London. They’ll no longer be able to complain of the overgrown back garden, or the cast of colourful characters who made Tower Gardens Road a more interesting place to live. Sadly, order will be restored to Tower Gardens Road. However, the many people who once called 147 Tower Gardens Road home will never forget Ian Johnstone, who is remember on A Pot Of Powdered Nettles.

The Contagious Magick Of The Superabundance opens A Pot Of Powdered Nettles. Waves of braying synths sound, and are joined by drones, while an ethereal vocal adds a contrast. There’s a spiritual quality to the vocal. By now, the arrangement is variously mesmeric, melodic and cinematic. What sounds like sirens and rainfall can heard. This adds to the cinematic sound. Meanwhile, a rumbling bass makes its presence felt. Later, synths quiver and shimmer, before dark, dramatic strings sweep in. Still, a siren sounds and the cinematic sound builds. This coincides with a slight increase in tempo and ergo drama. Distant otherworldly sounds can be heard, as the drama builds. All the time, the cinematic music paints pictures. This is fitting, given Ian Johnston was an artist. He would’ve enjoyed illustrating the music that he heard. As an organ adds a gothic sound,  washes of dark, dramatic music slowly unfold. They’ve been inspired by classical, avant-garde and industrial music. However, the music is still melodic, mesmeric, elegiac, cinematic  and captivating.

The sound of an aeroplane and wind blowing opens The Sky Is An Egg. Soon, sci-fi sounds and distant drones can be heard as the arrangement builds. Just like the previous track, there’s a cinematic sound to the arrangement. As the wind continues to gust, an organ plays and the arrangement builds and the drama grows. Especially when humanoid vocals delivers the cerebral and thoughtful lyrics. Sonically, there’s more than a nod to Kraftwerk with the vocoded vocal. When it drops out, the arrangement lumbers along, sci-fi and otherworldly sounds taking centre-stage. Sometimes, there’s a Pink Floyd influence. Other times, the Berlin School influences Laniakea. They become sonic adventurers, in this ruminative space symphony.  

Cooing, elegiac and ethereal vocals soar above the arrangement to Zone In Parallel Rose. Meanwhile, an engine splutters into life, and what sounds like a boat slowly makes its escape. Still the voices soar, as jagged, icy synths play slowly and deliberately. They add to the cinematic sound. Later, ghostly humanoid vocals join the cinematic sounding arrangement. Again, the vocals are best described as Kraftwerk-esque. Still, the boat continues to beat a hasty retreat as the drama builds. As a deliberate gothic organ drones, the vocals are tinged with emotion as the track heads towards its crescendo. All that’s left is the memory of a captivating mixture of music and theatre.

Calcite, a sixteen minute epic closes A Pot Of Powdered Nettles. From the distance, the melancholy arrangement drones, bubbles, jingles and jangles. It’s as if Laniakea are taking the listener on a journey to some distant land. During this journey, a myriad of disparate sounds play their part in an arrangement that’s variously wistful, ethereal and mesmeric. Listen carefully, and strings, chimes, finger bells and what sounds like a brass band playing can be heard. There’s even an industrial sound to the arrangement. Ethereal and otherworldly sounds can be heard as the arrangement builds. So can a recording of a child’s voice on an answer phone. Meanwhile, washes of synths drone and as the child says “goodbye” the arrangement buzzes and quakes, before taking on ethereal and industrial sounds. From there, the  arrangement soars, an organ, synths and ethereal vocals unite. They become an alternative choir, who pay homage to the memory of Ian Johnstone. Then with just over a minute, the arrangement dissipates. All that’s left are a series of interrelated sounds. They’re meant to portray death and rebirth. It’s a poignant and thoughtful sounding way to end an album that celebrates the life of Ian Johnstone, and his life at 147 Tower Gardens Road.

For many people, Ian Johnstone’s home at 147 Tower Gardens Road became their home. It was a place where people could go when relationships came to an end, or people were no longer able to keep paying the exorbitant London rents. 147 Tower Gardens Road was the polar opposite. Although slightly down at heel, it was a place where people were safe, made friends and sometimes, made music. 

Daniel O’Sullivan made music at 147 Tower Gardens Road. It became a makeshift recording studio. Ian Johnstone even featured on Ulver’s 2011 album The Norwegian National Opera; and was also responsible for the artwork on Mothlite’s 2012 album Dark Age. Even up until his death, Ian Johnstone was planning to make music. Sadly, he never got the opportunity to make that one final album. Instead, Daniel O’Sullivan and Massimo Pupillo recorded an album that celebrated the life of Ian Johnstone.

This was Laniakea’s debut album A Pot Of Powdered Nettles, which was recently released by the House Of Mythology label. It features four cosmic hymns, that are best described as cerebral, cinematic, dramatic, ethereal, melodic and mesmeric. To do that, Laniakea combined elements of ambient, avant-garde, Berlin School, electronica, experimental, Krautrock and psychedelia. These genres, plus the influence of Alice Coltrane, Godflesh, Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd and Hildegard von Bingen have all played their part in the sound and success of A Pot Of Powdered Nettles. This can’t have been easy.

Laniakea set out to create, evoke and replicate the sense of an eternal vibration that signifies the living spirit in perpetuity. They’ve managed to do so. This is the thread that runs through the album. Then as Calcite, which closes A Pot Of Powdered Nettles, draws to a close, the arrangement becomes understated. What to many people will sound like a series of disparate sounds. They’re not though. Instead, they signify both death and rebirth, and the sprit continuing to live on. This is how A Pot Of Powdered Nettles, Laniakea’s album of four cosmic hymns  closes. It’s a powerful and thought-provoking way to end Laniakea’s debut album. However, it’s one that will provoke debate. 

The subject of religion, and specifically life after death is one that has always divided the opinion of scholars. That is still the case. Even in Tower Gardens Road, some of the residents will have their doubts about reincarnation. I certainly do. However, I’ve no doubt that Laniakea’s debut album A Pot Of Powdered Nettles is a fitting celebration of the life of artist and musician Ian Johnstone. A Pot Of Powdered Nettles is cerebral and thought-provoking album from Laniakea.



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