Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Sunday, January 17, 2016
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
1. Blown Out –
Jet Black Hallucinations &
Planetary Engineering LPs
Planetary Engineering LPs
(Golden Mantra / Oaken Palace)
In some ways, my awarding the top spot this year to a Mike Vest bands is more of a token thing than anything else – an acknowledgement of the fact that my relationship with the voluminous quantities of music put up for sale by this modern day renaissance man of ear-splitting guitar noise is somewhat akin to that of Homer Simpson and the “lady, he’s putting my kids through college” hotdog vendor.
Maybe other listeners may beg to differ, but for my tastes, between Mr Vest’s work with Bong, 11 Paranoias, Haikai No Ku, Drunk in Hell, new outfit Melting Hand and numerous other more tangential/one-off projects, there is scarcely a weak link to be found. If not exactly reinventing the wheel at any point, Vest’s understanding and apparent mastery of numerous previously established modes of heavy rock/psych/noise guitar is a remarkable – and more to the point, hugely enjoyable – achievement, making his Visual Volume web store an almost inexhaustible resource for those of us who are more or less constantly in search of stuff that sounds a bit like Skullflower, Les Rallizes Denudes, White Heaven, Earth, Chrome, Burning Witch or whatever other specialised flavour of six string extremism you’re currently in the mood for, more than likely.
That said though, 2015’s two Blown Out LPs are nonetheless very much on another plain vis-à-vis their position as nigh-on perfect exemplars of the space-rock idiom. Building on the foundations laid by 2014’s Drifting Way Out Between Suns, both of these albums see Blown Out’s rhythm section (John Michael Headly / bass, Matt Baty / drums) coming to the fore, laying down a loose, muscular and thoroughly blissful backbeat, pitched somewhere between ‘Funhouse’ and ‘Jack Johnson’, that presents Vest’s perma-stoned, echo and fuzz drenched interstellar excursions to their best possible advantage (think maybe Dave Brock on ‘Space Ritual’ if he totally forgot to return to the riff and just went way out there).
Beyond that, there’s not really a great deal of point in picking out individual tracks or moments amid this morass of highly refined jamage, other than to perhaps advise potential consumers that whilst ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’ contains the heavier, more propulsive, riff-based jams, ‘Planetary Engineering’s first side ventures more into the abstract, favouring hypnotic, trudging tempos and enhanced by a plethora of overdubs and appropriately trippy ‘outer space’ studio effects (subtly applied, mind you), tempting me to add the first Ash Ra Tempel LP to my above roll-call of psych guitar heavies, whilst the B side returns to ‘the riff’ with great force and directness, sounding perhaps like the awesome mega-jam that a band like Nebula or Spirit Caravan might end their set with in an alternate world where they were considerably cooler and more daring than they are in our own reality. Then it goes into a kind of extended ‘breakdown’ section that sounds, inevitably, like something off ‘Space Ritual’, and all is right with the world.
And, that’s that really. No great emotional significance or existential revelations to impart here, just a reminder that, when I’m sitting at home of an evening doing whatever, I currently enjoy this kind of music more than just about anything else in the world of sound organised by humans. If you know what I’m talking about it the paragraphs above, get on it. If you don’t, or simply don’t care – no matter. Let’s get suited up, hit the escape pod, and see what 2016 has to offer. More of this kind of thing probably, but I’ll try not to bore you with it too much.
Listen and buy from Mike Vest/Visual Volume via Bandcamp.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Thoughts on Bowie:
Wretched Confessions of an Almost-Fan.
Well, what can you say? More specifically, what can I say?
I’ve set myself a precedent here for doing posts of this nature on the occasion of significant deaths, so can’t really bow out of this one.
Well, given the mountain of material we’ll shortly be chewing over from massive fans and self-proclaimed experts (for DB must be second only to BD when it comes to those guys) when the quote-unquote “music community” picks itself up off the floor over the next few days, I thought it might prove interesting to throw together a few thoughts from a… well, not a ‘non-fan’ exactly. Certainly not a hater or resenter or non-enjoyer, but just, well, y’know, he’s never been a big deal for me, the way he has for so many others. An ‘almost-fan’ let’s say. A ‘tipping-over-the-edge-into-fandom-not-quite-there-yet’ sort of deal.
Could such a piece be interesting? Well it probably wouldn’t be for most artists, but the sheer breadth and depth of Bowie’s hold over popular music is such that he still had an effect – dozens and hundreds of little effects, direct and second hand, all overlapping – on my enjoyment of music, and indeed yours too. Those of sufficiently wide listening who claims otherwise are probably either lying to themselves or playing an aggressively contrarian a-hole position for reasons best known to themselves. So…. Yeah. I have no particular conclusions to make here, but perhaps these formless reflections might amount to something. Let’s just see how it goes.
One thing you realise as you grow older as a music fan is that hating Bowie, like hating The Beatles, is a mugs game. The more time you waste bellyaching about their allegedly unjustified ubiquity, the more untenable your position becomes, as warm memories of melodies, lyrical flourishes, funny ideas and likeable images flood the minds of those you seek to convince, whilst your continued banging on rings hollow. Do us all a favour, leave it behind with the craftily rolled bedroom spliffs, UCAS forms and MOR emo-rock. ‘Suffragette City’ is on the radio. Drop your defenses and just smile, you twat. Life’s too short, etc.
Through teens & early’20s, I was disdainful of Bowie. I know that for many people (especially those raised in the ‘70s of course) he acted as a “gateway drug” in much the same way that Sonic Youth did for me, bridging mainstream-ish pop/rock and more challenging/underground concerns - but I came at him from the opposite angle. Already familiar with The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Iggy, Syd Barrett et al by the time I began consciously considering his music, I largely saw him as some kind of magpie-like art-rock Machiavelli, cherry-picking ideas from all my messy, misunderstood faves and watering them down for tidy public consumption, reaping misappropriated plaudits for godlike originality from the uninformed in the process.
The fact that, at the time, he seemed largely concerned with making decidedly iffy ‘cyberpunk’ drum n’ bass tracks and telling everyone how much he liked The Pixies a decade after they split up only served to fuel this narrative, and as such I closed the case.
When, sometime around the turn of the millennium, NME did a big thing voting him “the most influential artist of all-time” or somesuch, and someone sent in a letter the next week saying “Sorry, all we had him down with is fucking up the production on ‘Raw Power’, signed, The Kids” I not only found it highly amusing, but more or less agreed.
The thing that changed my mind, basically, was song-writing. Specifically, a scratched up double A-side of ‘Life On Mars’ b/w ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ that I pulled out of my Mum’s long-neglected record collection whilst bored and in search of interesting stuff one summer. Now, say what you like about the big picture, but you can’t argue with material like that. Both songs remain shiver-up-the-spine-inducing to me to this day, not due to any memories or associations or whatnot associated with them, but just in and of themselves, as compositions and recordings. He wasn’t copping anyone else’s moves (as far as I know) when he sat down and knocked those two out, and even the most embittered Bowiephobe would be hard pressed to deny that they display the touch of an exceptionally gifted writer/arranger/performer.
I further began to contemplate the idea that DB was pretty damn good at this song-writing lark when considering the credits and background to an album I liked (and still like) a great deal, Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’. What swiftly became clear upon closer examination was that this album was a Pop/Bowie joint through and through, with Dave’s generosity toward his troubled buddy being the only thing that allowed the Ig to take sole credit. In fact, with Bowie sharing a writing credit on every tune, producing, arranging, probably selecting and briefing the musicians and god knows what else, ‘The Idiot’ is arguably about 75% his gig, with Iggy merely contributing some lyrics, vocals and a slightly more nebulous sense of ‘attitude’.
Possibly not the most promising division of labour given the aforementioned flubbing of ‘Raw Power’s initial mixes, but somehow, it works splendidly. A perfect halfway meeting between Bowie’s consummate professionalism and Iggy’s feral wild man antics, ‘The Idiot’ presents a darker, more damaged and rockist take on many of the same tropes found in Bowie’s mid-‘70s output, and as such, it appealed more immediately to my punkoid sensibilities, further increasing my one-step-removed appreciation of Bowie’s talents.
The next step was a random VHS viewing of D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust documentary - a film whose visibility & historical significance has suffered hugely from the fact that it wasn’t widely released until over a decade after the events recorded within it (a particularly chronic failing where ol’ Chameleon Bowie is concerned). Taken on its own merits though, I think it’s an absolutely fantastic concert film, and one that I highly commend to fans of such things who may have overlooked it.
Although Bowie’s trotting out of songs by The Velvets and Jacques Brel (via Scott Walker) in his stage-show here does seem motivated more by an opportunistic attempt to steal their thunder than by a need to introduce his fans to the originators, I’ll nonetheless admit that the performances captured in the film still blew me away. Again, the feeling of grudging respect intensified. Well you can’t say he didn’t put on one hell of a show…etc.
Perhaps because some of the turns in the movie were so unexpectedly mind-blowing (‘Moonage Daydream’ with Mick Ronson contributing the most ludicrously OTT guitar solo I’ve seen in my life whilst the entire audience of teenage girls appear to lost in the throes of sexual ecstasy is pretty hard to beat as an absolute apex of never-to-be-repeated rock star ridiculousness), my subsequent belated acquisition of the Ziggy Stardust album felt like a bit of an anticlimax.
Well, I say that, but… mixed feelings, y’know? I mean, there’s certainly nothing anticlimactic about ‘Five Years’, that’s for sure. Jesus Christ. If he’d recorded that song and never done anything else in his entire life, I’d still be writing a generous old deathblog here today. Breathtaking. In fact, purely in terms of songwriting, most of the record is indeed the masterpiece people often claim it as. ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock N Roll Suicide’ of course, and the hilarious first few minutes of ‘Moonage Daydream’ (although the live version in the movie was much better). Oh, and ‘Lady Stardust’! My god, yeah, fantastic. Yes, there are five or six (or seven or eight) songs on there that are not to be messed with.
Nonetheless though, it’s not an album I’ve really felt the need to put on that often. I don’t know, it’s just…. something about the sound of the whole thing just bugs me. That oh-so-early’70s mixture of plinky-plonky pub piano, big ‘parody’ gestures and flat, “careful now, watch the levels” type production. It frustrates me in much the same way all those ‘70s Springsteen albums do. For all the rock n’ roll posturing, there’s just not a great deal of rock n’ roll happening here. Too much piano; too much saxophone; not enough guts. The material might be exceptional, the players might be great, but the performances sound way too neutered for my taste, dry and cold, and it’s no fun. You will disagree, of course, but what can I say?
To be honest, similar discrepancies between material and recorded sound compromise my enjoyment of most of the ‘70s Bowie albums I’ve taken the time to listen to front to back over the years. ‘Ziggy..’ aside, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is probably my favourite – some great songs on there, and quite a weird, tough sound, followed by about half of ‘Hunky Dory’, and after that he kinda loses me. ‘Aladdin Sane’ I couldn't hang with at all (although I like ‘Jean Genie’), and ‘Diamond Dogs’ gets WAY too overcooked / underpowered for my liking, much as I might love the artwork and concepts behind it. Never got that whole ‘thin white duke’/’Young Americans’ era either – I find it hard to get beyond the idea of it being a particularly contrived pastiche of a great form of music that really did not need his intervention.
Throughout all this, I suppose he just had an idea of what his records should sound like that was just a *little* too complacent and mainstream-acceptable for my liking, saturated as I am with what audiences at the time would have considered the real weirdy beardy stuff (Beefheart, Eno, Sabbath, Can etc.)
So then, I should love the ‘Berlin trilogy’, right? Well, I don’t really know, to be honest. These albums are so critically lauded and loaded with storied mythology of pre/post-punk gloom (of which I have little interest) I can barely even dare to approach them as an agnostic, uncommitted listener. Maybe one day I’ll finally put them on back to back and get the point? I hope so.
I mean, I’ll cop that if you’ve not heard ‘Heroes’ pop up unexpectedly on the radio and felt you’ve been hit in the stomach with a brick at least once or twice in your life, you must have a hard heart indeed, but beyond that… I dunno. They’re on the waiting list. Thereafter, I like ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ because they sound so weird, and… let’s cut the embarrassment and end this thing now shall we?
What this is all leading up to really is the horribly snide realization that, in the spirit of Alan Partridge, my favourite David Bowie album is probably ‘David Bowie’s Greatest Hits’ (yes, I do own it – I got it for DJing). Play that in isolation and you’d be hard-pressed to deny he was a real big fish in the small pond of chart-orientated white pop for most of his career, however much I personally might struggle with the deeper mysteries of his wider catalogue.
So where does all this mealy-mouthed hot n’ colding on the subject of Bowie’s recorded work leave me? I don’t know. An almost-fan? Is that an applicable status?
Actually, the more I’ve thought about it over the past few days, the more it seems to me that the veneration of Bowie is very much a generational thing.
As far as I know, most music fans in a vaguely similar age braket to myself take a similar approach to Bowie as the one I’ve outlined above. We like Bowie - maybe we even own a few of his records, and we’re happy when we hear his songs on the radio. But in no way can we comprehend the experience of really loving Bowie, the way that so many critics and musicians and DJs and pundits who were raised in the ‘70s clearly do (or did).
Growing up in the ‘90s, when the man himself was a bit of a has-been, headmaster-like figure, whilst the charts were frequently topped by ‘indie’ bands playing blatantly Bowie-derived material* and shops and libraries offered whole pantheons of ‘alternative’, non-mainstream music for us to explore on cheap CD reissues, we could take or leave his overriding influence really. His ‘meaning’ to us potentially didn’t extend much beyond that of some guy who did some good songs in the ‘70s.
For that older generation though, he was a BIG DEAL, a singular entity, an absolute game changer in a largely bland and stifling media landscape, where that particular combination of style, intelligence and transgression had no counterpart anywhere on the TV or in the mags. For a kid growing up in Britain in the early ‘70s, if you didn’t like heavy metal or prog or sensitive singer-songwriters, he must have been IT (T. Rex being unfairly dismissed by many as ‘kiddie stuff’, but that’s another story). And once you’ve got Bowie of course, you can find your way to Lou Reed, to Iggy, to Eno and Roxy Music and John Cale and Nico – inquisitive minds look further, doors to intoxicating new worlds open up. Like I say, a perfect gateway drug for that particular generation.
What percentage of early punks morphed out of an earlier identity as Bowie kids? Off the top of my head, I know members of bands as unlikely as The Germs and The Fall initially coagulated around their Bowie fandom… how many hundreds more did too? Of course, the best bands did not pass Go and went straight to The Stooges, but with three TV channels and the NME (or nearest local equivalent), many weren’t lucky enough to have that option. In short, the scatter-gun spread of his influence over those who defined half-decent music culture through the late ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s is incalculable, even if it is often unrecognisably diffuse.
Which leads me to wonder, if he was no great shakes for us ‘90s kids, how does he continue to figure for generations AFTER my own, who have largely grown up with him as a lauded cultural icon, curating festivals, wearing sharp suits and delivering ‘honest, disarming’ interviews left, right and centre?
Again, I don’t know. I suppose in the past few years, we’ve seen a big resurgence – led from the top of course - in the idea of the pop star as a kind of grand artistic visionary (witness second/third winds for the likes of Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne et al), and true to form, Bowie’s been all over this, meaning that it is likely to be in this mode that many obits will see him. Is this good, bad, appropriate, accurate, irrelevant? Will it mean anything to a 19 year old, a 90 year old, a 40 year old? I don’t know. I’ve said my piece, and just about run out of steam here I think.
R.I.P. David Bowie. He was never really my guy, but he seemed like a nice bloke, and he sure made some good songs.
Actually, you know what one of the best ones was? ‘Little Liza Jane’, by Davey Jones & The King Bees, 1965; I heard that on the radio yesterday for what I think might be the first time. Totally bad-ass! Sounds like Vince Taylor singing for The Yardbirds or something, brilliant rock n’roll….. and off we go again…..
*One thing that occurred to me whilst listening to about four hours of tributes on the radio yesterday whilst doing the cooking & housework was that, alongside his myriad of cooler innovations, Bowie’s ‘70s material pretty much wrote the book for what eventually became ‘brit-pop’ – something I’d never much bothered to think about before. Consider: four minute plus ‘big singles’ in which mild-mannered rock arrangements are beefed up by horns, strings, keys and what-not; off-beat/culturally resonant verses matched up with immediate, ‘anthemic’ choruses; conscious attempts to fuse popular and critical appeal. It’s all there right? Not just Suede’s more obvious imitations, but Pulp, The Manics, Supergrass, even second-stringers like The Boo Radleys, Sleeper etc etc… Bowie owned that shit, far more than he did anything related to ‘krautrock’ or ‘the avant garde’ or whatever else his more high-falutin’ defenders may claim.
Friday, January 08, 2016
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
2. Black Time – Aerial Gobs of Love LP
Never sell out, never turn down, stick to the plan, even when the engine’s gone up in flames. The world may not love you for it, but I probably will. Arguably the best album from arguably the best British punk/rock/whatever band of the 21st century. R.I.P.?
From the review I posted here in November:
“Like Comet Gain, The Make Up and no other popular music groups, Black Time ducked the all too obvious trap of ‘60s retro-fascism and saw how they could use its stifling vision to their own ends, stripping it down and reassembling the pieces in their own image – a protective shell against the contagious rot of 21st century disappointment, powering forward toward a bleak future whilst Out-Cooling the opposition at every turn.
Clattering, frustrated, chaotic and impassioned, wreathed always in an aura of mildewed tape decay and careless abandon, Black Time’s music certainly makes for a challenging listen, but there is a kernel of white-light awesomeness within it that further reveals itself on each new spin, like wallpaper stripped from brick, unveiling a blueprint for a whole new order of unfiltered, subterranean rock n’ roll, cut almost too raw for public consumption.
Listeners who express alarm at the thought of clipping levels, incomprehensible vocals and one mic drum recording are advised to avert their eyes and just keep walking, but, for those of us who still get unreasonably excited by moments on records when someone hits a fuzzbox and everything just goes beserk, Black Time are/were a god-send - a ‘for madmen only’ brew of trash, blare and discontent that makes me rue my repeated failure to experience it happening at close quarters just a few years ago.”
Listen and buy from Förbjudna Ljud, and don’t forget to check out this essential odd & sods tape whilst you’re at it.
Tuesday, January 05, 2016
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
3. Bong –
We Are, We Were and We Will Have Been LP
Another year, another untouchable masterpiece from Bong. Same old, same old, but if you’re waiting for my enthusiasm for this band to fade with time, seems you’re in for a long wait. I probably don’t need to tell you that they sound all better now that I’ve actually got SPEAKERS.
Following the tongue-in-cheek apotheosis of last year’s ‘Stoner Rock’, the aesthetic hand brake turn the band perform here is something of a stroke of genius, as the bulbous, mutant mushroom-filled sci-fi dreamscapes depicted on the former album’s artwork are replaced with a twelve inch square detail from J.M.W Turner’s ‘Thompson’s Aeolian Harp’ - gentle, rolling plains stretching out like some visionary recreation of the Thames beneath the band’s sigil-like logo. That it is my favourite album cover of 2015 almost goes without saying. (Fuck all these ‘portraits’ egotistically clogging up the fronts of contemporary LPs, you’ve got to love a band that’s into landscapes.)
Correspondingly, this time around Bong take their source texts not from Lovecraft or Dunsany, but from a few brief stanzas that I take to be of the band’s own composition; simple statements of cosmic positivity of a stripe rare in these dark days, and of course, they have to musical weight needed to back them up.
As I’m sure the Bong would appreciate given the previous fun & games they’ve had with genre signifiers and expectations, ‘We Were..’ expands their sonic palette to the extent that, by the end of side # 2, using the term ‘doom’ as a shorthand for this music seems utterly ridiculous. Indeed, ‘We Are..’ must be Bong’s least conventionally ‘heavy’ set to date, rivalled only by 2013’s ‘Idle Days on the Yann’ or their off-beat 2009 debut ‘Bethamoora’.
As I’m sure I must have opined previously in these pages, Bong’s ‘metal’ ancestry becomes distant indeed when they’re in this mood, setting sail instead for the realms of what I personally prefer to term ‘pure psychedelia’ – the same kind of non-denominational, maximalist ‘head music’ that served to take such prior explorers as Alice Coltrane, The Boredoms or Parson Sound well beyond the radar of their respective source genres.
On the A side here, ‘Time Regained’ does at least ground us with a familiar distorted rumble of sub-bass, decaying notes flat and placid as the gentle waters depicted by Turner, as a glacial locked groove rhythm from drummer Mike Smith keeps nerves soothed and clocks slowly ticking beneath. By the time Dave Terry’s magisterial proclamations enter at the half-way mark, sounding more assured and less potentially comical than at any point in the band’s prior catalogue, we been lifted to a mighty, head-nodding plateau of cascading, eternal echoes, room reverberating like a giant delay pedal, leaving us perfectly placed to chew over his words; “Friends, do not fear for the future / We are, we were, and we will have been / We are giants in time / Astride the ages”. Heavy in the ‘60s sense of the word. I think I hear Michael Moorcock knocking out there somewhere, if I could only but reach the door handle…
Suitably revived, we move on to the flip, where ‘Find Your Own Gods’ opens with an equally stark pronouncement from our narrator; “Find your own gods / not in dreary chapels and dismal shrines / but under the stones and streams / in faint mist on familiar hills / through soft morning light / behind the shadow of trees.”
For the track that follows, Bong dispense entirely with their conventional walls of amp roar, leaving the way open instead for a sprawling, open-skied jaunt down-river, conjured largely from phased string warble, crystalline synth drone, eerie cymbal swish and frail, woody, echoing tones wracked judiciously from Ben Freeth’s augmented Shahi Baaja set-up, before the drums eventually enter once again, like a bosun’s yelled instruction, pointing the way, ever forward, like the pulse that might have echoed through an alternative version of ‘Aguirre: The Wrath of God’ in which Kinski’s fevered quest really did lead him to a lost city of gold....
Another year. Another tax return. Another optician’s appointment. Another pay freeze. Another Bong LP. Life in the eternal now’s not so bad.
Listen and buy from Ritual Productions.
Friday, January 01, 2016
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
4. Kawabata Makoto –
Astro Love & Infinite Kisses double LP
No doubt you will be familiar with Kawabata Makoto from his indefatigable ‘speed guru’ guitar heroics in Acid Mothers Temple, and perhaps for his endless stream of collaborations and one-off live sets too, but solo studio recordings under his own name have proved both rarer and more unique propositions in recent years. (I believe that ‘We're One-Sided Lovers Each Other’ from 2013 was his last one?)
Like most Kawabata solo joints to see release on ‘proper’ record labels, ‘Astro Love & Infinite Kisses’ continues to explore the sensei’s propensity for crafting blessed out, devotional cosmic drones of exceptional beauty, and in my opinion in contains some of the best such material he has produced to date.
Stretching out across the first two sides, ‘Dos Nurages’ begins by building up short, harmonising guitar phrases and eerie sustained note drones into a Terry Riley-esque web of organic sound, densely woven as a psychedelic fairisle jumper, then expands into a vast open plain of extremely enjoyable meditational drift before succumbing slightly to the temptations of Leyland Kirby/’Carnival of Souls’ style shimmery organ paranoia through it’s second half.
On the second disc meanwhile, the title track proves absolutely gorgeous, building from a cyclical acoustic riff that could be a distant cousin of AMT’s ‘Pink Lady Lemonade’ and a nest of buzzing electric tamboura and chaotic string-scraping to create an extraordinarily potent stew of atmos, like a set of temple curtains eternally parting to reveal some unspeakably vast and ancient altar chamber of shimmering, golden dreams.
Closing proceedings, ‘Woman from Dream Island’ proves the darkest and least immediately intoxicating piece on the album, but still provides a winning twenty minutes of slow-burning sitar / shruti box hypnosis, sympathetic strings winding and grinding to the gates of infinity.
In conclusion, throwing around further superlatives about a release like this seems surplus to requirements really. I don’t feel a great burning need to try to sell you on it or anything, beyond merely reminding you that it exists. This kind of music plays an important and beneficial role in my life, and ‘Astro-Love & Infinite Kisses’ provides a particularly wonderful example of it that I know will remain in frequent rotation for a long time to come.
Available to buy or stream from VHF in the U.S.. Consult local dealers for hard copies elsewhere.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Brain dead, total amnesia,
Get some mental anaesthesia,
Don't move, I'll shut the door and kill the lights,
And if I can't be wrong I could be right,
All good clean fun,
Have another stick of gum,
Man, you look better already,
Motörhead, remember me now,
Fourth day, five day marathon,
We're moving like a parallelogram,
Don't move, I'll shut the door and kill the lights,
I guess I'll see you all on the ice,
I should be tired,
But all I am is wired,
Ain't felt this good for an hour,
Motörhead, remember me now,
Lemmy’s closeness to death has been a bit of a running joke for what seems like years now, but I don’t think anyone was expecting the hammer to drop quite so suddenly. So long, Lemmy the Lurch; Farewell, Count Motorhead.
In the period since he took on the mantle of mainstream celebrity’s token unredeemed rock n’ roll bad-ass a few decades ago, Lemmy memories and anecdotes have come thick and fast, too numerous to catalogue – easily enough to keep a pub conversation going through several full nights.
From the ‘Kerrang’ cutting we used to have pinned to the wall in my old student house, in which Lemmy’s thoughts on various armed conflicts (“that was a fucking horrible war that was… brother against brother..”) were crow-barred into a sidebar fluff piece under the title ‘Lemmy’s Top Five Wars’, to sitting in a balcony seat watching Motorhead play in the early ‘00s, noticing that I could see straight into the backstage area, and being astonished / faintly disgusted to observe various young ladies hanging around in obvious ‘groupie’ attire – in the twenty first century! In bloody Leicester! With a band of pensionable age on stage! (They were great that night incidentally, but then you knew that.) Throw in your own stories in the comments box below, should you wish, and we’ll keep it rolling.
Whatever qualms you may have about Lemmy’s lifestyle though, and regardless of how much he gratuitously traded on his ‘image’ over the years, he always managed to come across as immensely likeable – a straight talking, non-fool suffering sort of good bloke… if admittedly one who in an alternate world might have found his niche issuing commands from the top of a tank turret rather than from in front of a amp stack.
It was great fun to hear him presenting a one-off show on Radio 6 last year. He didn’t say much, but every strained declaration of “this is a bloody good rock n’ roll track” or “I always liked this bloke” carried more gravitas than hours of blather from most other DJs.
Enough of all that bollocks though, let’s get to the music – that being an approach I feel he may have appreciated, however efficiently reheated tales of boozing and whoring might have paid the bills.
I’m afraid I can’t contribute much here with regards to Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister’s early days playing in various hard-touring r’n’b and freakbeat bands through the ‘60s. My sole knowledge of The Rockin’ Vickers comes via the track ‘It’s Alright’ – a bare-faced rip off of The Who’s ‘The Kid’s Are Alright’ enlivened by a sloppy, rough-ass sound and a truly weird/wild guitar solo - and I’ve never got around to checking out Sam Gopal, with whom he played for a while.
As such, our default entry-point here is Hawkwind, for whom Mr Kilmister – in collaboration with drummer Simon King - acted as a veritable rocket up the arse, propelling them from their early hippie meanderings toward the genre-defining space-rock juggernaut heard on ‘Doremi Fasol Latido’ and ‘Space Ritual’, and thus essentially keeping the engine running on some of my favourite music of all time, his presence as indefatigable bass-monster and last-man-standing pace setter (not to mention vocalist on the odd chart-topping number the others couldn’t be bothered to sing themselves) providing an absolutely vital part of the legend of one of the greatest bands of all-time.
Lemmy’s assorted anecdotes and gripes about life in Hawkwind were priceless (look up the excellent BBC Hawkwind doc on Youtube for further details), but before we get distracted by those, let’s move on to Motorhead, formed of course in ’75 under the # 1 all-time best ever band name ‘Bastard’ (and only changed after somebody pointed out that they’d never get on Top of the Pops with a band called that).
Having previously only been familiar with the hits, I’ve actually been playing a bit of catch up with this unfeasibly mighty yet ever-eccentric band in the past year or so, and have been enjoying it a great deal. As a great aficionado of mid-‘70s British freak-rock, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that my favourite era is probably their embryonic period with Larry Wallis (ex-Pink Fairies and of future ‘Police Car’ non-fame) on guitar.
At this stage, with Larry also contributing quite a bit on the singing and song-writing front, Motorhead seem to have been torn two ways between the mechanized heavy metal blitzkrieg for which they would shortly become known, and what I can only describe as a kind of ragged, socially conscious, anthemic pub-rock, as exemplified on Wallis-penned tracks like ‘City Kids’ (b-side of their blinding first single; pick up a copy if you ever see one), ‘On Parole’, and the anti-music biz tirade ‘Fools’.
Fascinating though this period may be (it’s best heard on the early recordings comp ‘On Parole’, and crosses over somewhat into their superb self-titled debut LP), Lemmy’s unbeatable mission statement of seeking to produce “very basic music: loud, fast, city, raucous, arrogant, paranoid, speedfreak rock n roll ... it will be so loud that if we move in next door to you, your lawn will die” speaks for itself, as does the subsequent Motorhead catalogue, following the departure of both Larry and drummer Lucas Fox in ’76, and their replacement with ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke and the late ‘Philthy’ Phil Taylor shortly thereafter.
At this point, my fancy wordage grinds to a halt, because what can you say about Motorhead that a quick spin of ‘No Sleep Til Hammersmith’ won’t render blindingly obvious?
Thus far, my trek through the back catalogue hasn’t got much beyond ‘Iron Fist’ in ’82, but if ever a band was critic-proof, well…. here ya go. How many times is it worth restating that Motorhead rock to about the furthest extent that human endurance allows, that all three members of the aforementioned ‘classic’ line up are fucking legends, and that, from this point onwards, Ian Fraser Kilmister, whatever kind of human being he may have been at heart, took to his ‘Lemmy’ persona like a pilot with a freshly waxed moustache jumping into the cockpit of a Spitfire, never looking back.
Skip forward forty years, and earlier this month, I happened to follow a link on XRRF to this gossip piece, reporting that Lemmy was sick of rude journalists asking him when he was going to kick the bucket:
"I'm sick of the fucking, 'Are you going to die?' line of questioning. It's getting really old, that question. I’m alright. I'm going out there and doing my best.
I have good days and bad days but mostly I've been doing alright. The last tour of the States was very good."
"I don't do regrets, regrets are pointless. It's too late for regrets. You've already done it, haven't you? You've lived your life. No point wishing you could change it.
I'm pretty happy with the way things have turned out. I like to think I've brought a lot of joy to a lot of people all over the world. I'm true to myself and I'm straight with people.
Death is an inevitability, isn't it? You become more aware of that when you get to my age. I don't worry about it. I'm ready for it. When I go, I want to go doing what I do best. If I died tomorrow, I couldn't complain. It's been good."
It’s hard to argue with any of that. I’ll skip further superlatives, but he was a fucking good rock n’ roller, and he gave a huge amount to those of us who love this music. I’m glad he made 70. R.I.P.
Monday, December 28, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
5. With The Dead – s/t LP
Well I remember the fateful day, all those years ago, when I first checked Electric Wizard’s ‘Dopethrone’ out of the library. Returning home and putting it on through headphones with no particular preconceptions, I was reduced within seconds to a quivering mass of pupil-dilated, headbanging stupefaction, and a certain part of my life was changed forever. THIS is what heavy metal should sound like, THIS is what I want and need from it. It was (and is) beyond words. As the band themselves chant on their ode to Conan the Barbarian, as if pre-emptively carving their own epitaph: you think you’re civilised / but you will never understand.
When encountering vintage Electric Wizard for the first time, the things that will tend to immediately grab the listener’s attention will be Jus Osborn’s inhumanly fucked, super-saturated guitar tone, and the tormented, breathless rasp of his vocals. A full appreciation of the extent to which the other two guys, toiling away in the rhythm section, were responsible for the music’s power takes more time to acquire. As such, it was only natural that, when Osborn reconvened the band about a decade ago with what turned out to be a fairly fluid line-up subbing for the band’s original line-up of Mark Greening (drums) and Tim Bagshaw (bass), I was on board from the outset, hoping for the best.
Through an increasingly unsatisfactory new catalogue of increasingly mediocre material, I kept the faith and looked at the nice cover art, but eventually, the penny dropped. One dire trudge through last year’s truly dreadful ‘Time to Die’ set, combined with contemplation of a number of public feuds and disagreements and general childish, negative vibes emanating from the band’s press and PR, and I finally pulled the plug. Like many other fans I suspect, my good will is exhausted and I’m outta here.
And thus the question rings out: with the ‘Wizard disgraced and deposed, who now step up to claim the Dopethrone?
With perfect timing then, arise Sir Greening and Sir Bagshaw, returned from their respective campaigns in Ramesses and 11 Paranoias, and here to reclaim their kingdom, proving in the process that they never really needed Jus in the first place.
With Bagshaw handling both bass and guitar, and bulked up to trio / ‘proper’ band status with the addition of label boss and no-introduction-needed metal legend Lee Dorrian handling lyrics and vocals, With the Dead released their debut LP with little advance fanfare a few months back, and, whilst I admit I have not subsequently carried out a full survey of reactions from within the ‘doom community’, I can only imagine that, broadly speaking, they happily fell of their knees in supplication before their new masters. (I certainly know I did.)
From the opening blast of full-spectrum, gain-ripped sludge that tears across ‘Crown of Burning Stars’ following the inevitable creepy, sampled intro, ‘With the Dead’ is legit - a compromise-free, undiluted return to the kind of lumbering, punk-spirited and flat-out terrifying heavy metal carnage that Bagshaw and Greening previously helped to perfect on ‘Dopethrone’.
If Dorrian’s slightly more nuanced (‘professional’, perhaps..?) vocal delivery isn’t *quite* as throat-rippingly malignant as Osborn’s was at it’s peak, and if Bagshaw’s guitar doesn’t dissolve *quite* so often into blackened, producer-worrying noise, this LP still represents at least 90% of the unholy spirit that animated that aforementioned classic, retooled and reenergised as if the intervening fifteen years had simply been an extended fag-break.
A welcome point of human contact amid the cliffs of towering, sub-bass oblivion conjured by Bagshaw & Greening, Dorrian’s previous gig fronting Cathedral helps him invest the psyche-tinged Egyptian death-goddess anthem ‘Nephthys’ with a kind of arch, cosmic dignity, even as his plunges gamely into familiarly necrotic depths on ‘Living With the Dead’ and ‘The Cross’, unabashedly recall the kind of frenzied, morbid teenage scribblings from which the whole aesthetic of heavy metal was first born.
To hear a gang of middle-aged men indulge in such stuff is admittedly kind of ridiculous, but, wedded here to the genuine menace conjured by Bagshaw and Greening’s stygian wrecking ball grooves, sounding like the rampage of ‘Sabbath’s Iron Man extended from its pulp sci-fi origins into the blackness of a gruelling torture porn ordeal, it is also revealed to be actually kind of awesome, in much the same fashion that ‘Wizard’s gleeful, hate-filled excesses used to ring so true back in the day. By the time closing epic ‘Scream From My Own Grave’ whites out on a glacial, one-note dirge accompanied by plentiful samples of some, well, screams from the grave, even the most skeptical of doom fans will I think find themselves thoroughly satiated.
Direct, unpretentious and heavy as a planetary extinction event, ‘With The Dead’ is hands down the best post-‘Dopethrone’ music I’ve heard in years. It is exactly what heavy metal should be. If you like heavy metal (of the Sabbath lineage, at least), you will fucking love it. Simple as.
‘With the Dead’ can be obtained on vinyl & CD direct from Rise Above. They seemingly have no truck with digital releases, so we recommend you do the decent thing and take the plastic.
Thursday, December 24, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
6. BadBadNotGood & Ghostface Killah –
This one got a good airing here back in May, and my wholehearted enjoyment of it remains just as inexplicable as it did then.
When I wrote the review, I thought I might be on the verge of a full-scale immersion in Ghostface’s latter-day work, but unfortunately, tracking down both volumes of the ‘Twelve Reasons To Die’ series he put out in collaboration with Adrian Younge soon put paid to that idea. In short, they are… not good. As bloated, rambling and sluggish as you might fear from a washed ‘90s hip-hop veteran - a realisation which of course only serves to make ‘Sour Soul’ all the more remarkable, and increases even more my appreciation of whatever magic BadBadNotGood pulled in these sessions to get Ghost back on such whip-smart, mic-wrecking form.
From the aforelinked review:
“A couple of months ago, I was pretty flabbergasted when I switched on the radio prior to doing some washing up, and heard what appeared to be some 100% certified prime Wu shit blazing out, riding over backing that sounded like nothing so much as some vintage Italian movie music. Holy wow. Confused, I assumed it must be some kind of mash up or remix or something featuring some old verses I’d never heard before, but no – turns out this is Ghostface in the here and now, cutting loose over tracks provided by a rock-band-plus-orchestra unit called BadBadNotGood – a gang of slick cats who basically sound like they’re warming up waiting for Isaac Hayes to come in and start giving the orders.
I don’t know whether it is this unconventional backing that’s inspired Ghost to get off his arse and tighten things up (“got my swagger back an’ all that!”, he announces exultantly at one point), or whether, against all the odds, he has just remained really fucking good all these years, but basically, during the best moments on ‘Sour Soul’ (of which there are many), he sounds like he’s fallen straight out of a time warp, tone and flow nearly indistinguishable from the glory days of ‘Ironman’ and ‘..Cuban Linx’ - the same menacing webs of reflective, dual-layered imagery piling up left, right and centre as the ‘cinematic’ backdrop allows him to expand the scope of his gangsta vocab into surrealistic vignettes of twisted crime story excess, still spat out with the pure, break-neck viciousness of a dude half his age, leaving the kind of “respectability” that neutered so many of his comrades still kept way out on the distant horizon, despite the ‘class’ musicianship and tasteful b&w cover shot.
It may be a bit of a push to try to claim that Ghost approaches, I dunno, William Burroughs or Abel Ferrara in using deplorable attitudes and bad behavior as a jumping off point for excursions into the artistic unknown, but he’s certainly more on the same page with those guys than he is with the vast majority of his contemporaries in music, and beneath the surface braggadocio of his verses lies a whole world of the weird.
As in the classic Wu material, his talent for smacking you in the chops with off-piste cultural references faster than your mind can process them makes for a head-spinning joy on ‘Sour Soul’, adding a nightmarish undertow of clandestine paranoia to his crime-brag narratives, whether claiming his kilo-shifting kingpin “sent Ichabod Crane on his horse ride”, or warning would-be victims of CIA harassment that “pure alkaline and flouride’ll fuck you up / I seen spaceships flyin’ out of the back of a truck”. Meanwhile, we just try to catch our breath before the next allusion to some act of stomach-churning violence or abuse, fed back second hand like a grim, urban legend harbinger of the societal collapse-based apocalypse than all the Wu’s darker material seems to be pulling towards… assuming it hasn’t already been reached and surpassed, whether in inner-city USA or just the back alley graveyards of Ghost’s imagination.”
Available to buy directly from Lex in the U.S. Consult local dealers elsewhere.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
7. The Ethical Debating Society –
New Sense LP
My disjointed thoughts on this one were explored at length here back in September. The text in the extract below has been amended slightly for the purposes of clarity and grammatical correctitude.
“For all the glib comparisons I’m throwing around though, it’s worth stressing that there is absolutely no ‘imitation game’ business going on with EDS. Very much the polar opposite of the kind of band who exist primarily to launch reenactments of the members’ record collections, they seem determined to sound like no one except themselves, and their corresponding embrace of what for want of a better term we’ll call ‘the DIY ethic’ is crucial.
Though they’ve captured a fantastic sound on this record [..] such technical accomplishments are off-set by the band’s oft-stated belief that everyone can/should do this. Not an original sentiment by any means in the realm of punk/indie/whatever, but one that comes across here in the very bones of the recording & performance.
Like all good punk records, there is no mystery or unseen wizardry to veil the band’s methodology. What an eager young listener hears here is exactly what they hear when their own band goes into the practice room, overlaid with a few years worth of commitment and hard work. And what an older, more jaded listener (hi!) gets meanwhile is the renewed realisation that there’s no magic formula or secret code to the way guitar lines crash together and drums roll and stutter to light whatever fire it is that illuminates our favourite records; the magic is all just there waiting for some people with the guts to pick it up and run with it.
As noted, Ethical Debating Society won’t save the world, flay the greedy rich or tilt the tilt axis away from imminent self-immolation - just as no isolated pocket of individuals can, or can be expected to. But as small-on-global-scale gestures go, I think they’ve done their best, and for giving us one of this ugly new era’s first and most definitive blasts of a kind of music that speaks to a hope beyond endless benefit gigs for no-hoper splinter groups, and that might carry the potential to get us reasonable, everyday people stoked up with a bit of fire and excitement as we trudge through whatever travails face us day by day, they deserve all the ham-fisted plaudits I can throw at them. As far as punk rock goes, it’s just as it should be.”
This remains a great album. My second favourite cover art of the year too.
Listen and buy via bandcamp.
Sunday, December 20, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
8. Jack O & The Sheiks –
(Red Lounge / Secret Identity)
As you may recall, stepping out on a Sunday to see Jack Oblivian backed up by Memphis band The Sheiks proved to be my favourite night out of 2014, so when I caught a glimpse of this live LP from the same personnel, naturally I snapped it up. Thanks for the memories, Red Lounge and Secret Identity records.
Whilst the set within, recorded at their hometown’s Burgundy Ballroom, is unlikely to really turn the heads of anyone not already fond of this kinda spluttering, sweaty, easy-going deep south r’n’r, but what can I say? When the moon is up and the chips are down (or whatever), it hits me just right.
In part, this good feeling is minted by Jack’s newly minted persona, his gravel-crunching voice, shambling ‘aged’ demeanour and hat wearing tendencies all suggestive of some down at heel, garage punk Tom Waits – minus of course all the mountains of bullshit that surround that particular individual. This worries me somewhat, particularly on sticky moments like the slightly overwrought cover of Ronnie Love’s ‘Chills & Fever’, but I dunno – somehow he’s got enough charm to make it work.
Though the addition of some big ol’ vintage organ sound to the mix adds a certain ‘retro soul revue’ feel to proceedings, Jack’s cracked, uncouth demeanour and The Sheiks preference for grizzly Mudhoney-ish fuzz ensures that proceedings maintain an authentically raw, desperate flavour that seems to me far preferable to the more mannered moves of Jack’s fellow Oblivian Greg Cartwright with his Reigning Sound project. Without needing to say a word on the subject, Jack O’s very presence ties him to the dingier, more damaged side of his city’s rock n’ roll legacy.
In between slabs of goosy, half cut r’n’b (‘Old Folks Boogie’ is a particular ripper), Jack’s best self-penned songs here stand out as quiet masterpieces of kicked-out-the-door-at-closing-time American rock n’roll – fleeting gestures of futile majesty that, for a few bars here and there, hit a straight up bullseye on that particular, ineffible brand of accidental, fucked up grandeur that grabs my heart like little else.
A few ringing chords and a melodic grab at the sky, ‘Flash Cube’, ending side one, is little short of breathtaking. ‘Black Boots’ is a Brill Building-worthy stomper pulled through a hedge of Chilton/Falco grit. ‘Little War Child’ (a clear highlight from last year’s Oblivians comeback album) manages to mug Springsteen in a dark alley and steal that shit back for the people, whilst Jack’s apparent favoured theme tune ‘Honey, I’m Too Old For You’ stands out above all, bedraggled and poignant as you like.
One imagines Jack Oblivian would prefer to shrug off such achievements, feign embarrassment at such over-heated praise, but then, of course he would – that’s the culture, that’s what his elders and betters did, that’s the way to be. Where’s the fun in writing a good number if you’re just gonna spent the next six months just pointing at it, hoping someone notices? Pour another shot, fix that wonky G string, wave it goodbye and plough straight on into the next one.
After all, what is rock n’ roll supposed to be in essence, if not raw, heart-felt, cathartic and fun? The music herein is all those things, without any shills trying to sell it to you as such, and without its creators even needing to acknowledge it. The great thing about this Memphis/deep South rock n’ roll stuff is the feeling that, at it's best, there’s no put on whatsoever - it’s just what these guys do. And that’s nowhere so true as here, so if you can find it, dig in.
Buy from Red Lounge Records.
Friday, December 18, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
9. The Necks – Vertigo LP
So I like The Necks very much. That much we know.
Very much an ‘always the same / always different’ sort of proposition, this is a group who seem so consistently able to find new ways to wring extraordinary sounds from the guts of their basic piano / bass / drums set up, it’s almost frightening - but for ‘Vertigo’ at least, the novelty arises initially from something more palpable. Namely, the fact that, after several decades of functioning as a natural ‘CD band’, it feels strangely perfect to actually have a Necks album whose two twenty minute-ish ‘sides’ are designed to fit so nicely on a vinyl LP. They’re moving (backward) with the times I guess. Kinda weird when you think about it, but hey – as long as rubes like me keep happily dropping twice as much for forty minutes of big plastic disc as we would for eighty minutes of little shiny one, you can’t fault ‘em on the economics.
Anyway, side # 1 kicks off in notably sinister fashion, with droning bowed bass rumble, cascading dissonant piano chords and short outbursts of falling-down-the-stairs drums gradually coalescing into a kind of fugue that puts me in mind of dark, nocturnal alleyways - towering tenement shadows, a distant moon stuck between vertical lines, enlivened by the occasional shock of crooks knocking over trash cans [uh, that’ll be the drums then – down-to-earth ed.].
Only after a good ten minute or so do some beautifully complete, melodic phrases begin to creep into Chris Abrahams’ trademark ‘falling raindrops’ piano runs, suggestive of peace and normalcy, reminding us that, onerous and threatening though it may be, this state of mild anxiety is a constant - as natural as any rainforest idyll.
Gradually – always gradually of course with these guys – knob-twisting, siren-like electronics start to slide in from god knows where and the piece develops into some kind of long-form crescendo, an extended string ‘suspense chord’ ringing out as if The Terminator just materialised in that same alleyway, before things fall away again to leave what sounds like a frantic, rotorblade tremoloed tape loop, over which the musicians continue to circle each other as if waiting to be the first to jump out and shout ‘boo!’
And, basically, I could carry on like this through ceaseless paragraphs of blather, but I don’t know exactly what that would prove. Suffice to say that, for the attentive listener, there a surprise round every corner on ‘Vertigo’, and we haven’t even got to side # 2 yet.
For what it’s worth, the second half is an inexplicably calming experience, despite the prominent presence of a continually repeated sound –courtesy of some of Tony Buck’s array of homemade percussion devices, I’d imagine – that puts me in mind of someone digging a grave in the centre of a cathedral in the dead of night, to say nothing of what I assume to be additional effects processing adding drifting clouds of distortion and artificial reverb. Oh, and there's a killer locked groove at the end as well. (I swear, the first time 'round, I listened for over five minutes before noticing anything was amiss.)
Where 2013’s ‘Open’ was a masterpiece of calm, there’s a heavy feeling of unease about this one that never really lifts, surpassing even the rattling urban chaos of 2011’s ‘Mindset’ (one of my favourite prior Necks discs) whilst still somehow remaining rooted in the organic rise and fall that they’ve made a career out of perfecting, even amid the jarring jolts, handbrake turns and abrasions.
Possibly not so suited for getting yr ambient groove on and dropping off to sleep as some older Necks outings then, but I increasingly feel like the group are at their strongest when working in this slightly more risk-taking and aggressive (relatively speaking) mood, making ‘Vertigo’ another unmitigated aural thrill ride for us of the sprawled-on-the-floor-eyes-closed-with-headphones set.
Listen & buy straight from the band via bandcamp.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
10. The Heads –
Time in Space double LP
For many years, I waited in vain for The Heads to unleash a new, perfectly formed psychedelic masterpiece to rival their ‘Under Sided’ album from 2002, feeling routinely disappointed each time I picked up a new disc by them to find it filled with murky practice room jams.
Then I realised I’d been wasting my time. Rule # 1 of appreciating Bristol’s finest fuzz warriors is to realise they ARE those murky practice room jams, and to learn to love them for that, greeting all their output with the same idiot grin that a dedicated ‘Deadhead greets each new tour bootleg.
‘Psychedelic’ though they may be, cosmic transcendentalism and oneiric visions of Eastern splendour are not exactly The Heads’ bag. Theirs is a psychedelia of black-walled basements plastered with random bits of gaffa tape; of over-flowing ashtrays and never-ending cans of Red Stripe; of petrol fumes, melted 9V batteries and dubious smelling amp cabinets that you will no doubt have to carry up a fire escape at some point. Insofar as their records can be said to represent any aesthetic at all, they represent the craft and physical stresses that goes into actually making music like this in the first place.
No bullshit whatsoever from these guys – their creative process, random as it may be, is front and centre for all to see, most likely captured via a couple of roughly placed mics plugged into some portable four track in the corner of wherever the hell they’ve convened to work out a few riffs after work, and the results speak for themselves vis-a-vis their consistently high levels of scuzzy, head-wrecking brilliance.
Despite its status as an self-acknowledged ‘odds & sods’ collection from a band who deal almost exclusively in odds & sods collections, ‘Time in Space’ is actually one of their most varied and rewarding collections of such material to date. Culled from “studio outtakes, rehearsal takes, radio sessions and live recordings”, it’s a little bit like The Heads’ equivalent of Can’s ‘Lost Tapes’ perhaps, and verily, highlights abound.
The following come straight from my notes after I played both discs today:
‘Long Gone Live’ on Side # 2:, splattered noise jam of warped tremolo fuzz and knob-twisting, gradually acquires a weighty head-nodding rhythm before collapsing back into animalistic abstraction and duelling wah-wah laser blasts.
‘31st’ – a flattening, no nonsense riff rocker, up there with the band’s best.
‘World of Keys’ on Side # 3 starts off uncharacteristically with a brutal, lumbering fuzz organ / drums thing, like Satelliti or early Oneida or something, before ‘Coming Round’ is classic Heads gear, sounding like Mark E. Smith fronted Loop?!
‘Steak & Riffney Pie’, opening Side # 4, is just CLASS – an appropriately named rampage of head-banging stoner perfection, saved from collapse into the sludge-lake by some admirably enervated drumming.
And so on. You get the idea, I’m sure. Well over half the tracks here are gifted with in-jokey/self-descriptive titles that sound like they’ve been scribbled on a tape inlay card or file name as reminders for the next practice (‘Backwards Doom’, ‘DAD GAD’, ‘Poppy’), and there are, inevitably, some bits of self-indulgent weirdness that some may argue might have been best left in the drawer.
‘Bemmie Underwater’ for instance sounds suspiciously like the track ‘Return of the Bemmie’ from the ‘Under The Stress of a Headlong Dive’ album fed through some cheesy sounding phaser, but if you ask me, even the silliest bits here function as grist to the mill of The Heads overall epic/squalid vision, as demonstrated when even the aforementioned track starts to sound pleasantly demented once someone lets off a ripping (un-filtered) solo over the top of it as the effect on the backing track is ratcheted up into dub-like abstraction.
In short, there is nothing revelatory hidden within the grooves of ‘Time in Space’ to explain to the uninitiated why fans of this band continue to clamber over the prone bodies of their fellows to nab discs like this from merch stalls, or besiege online retailers in much the same manner, but.. what can you say, really? Basically this is just a load more of The Heads doing what they do, and by this stage in the game, if you’re in, you’re in, with no further explanation needed.
The old Heads website appears to be dead. They have a facebook page, and a bandcamp with a few random bits and pieces from their extensive catalogue. Rooster Records (operated by the band) has no web presence. Some UK shops & distros appear to still have copies of ‘Time in Space’ at the time of writing.
Sunday, December 13, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
11. Ashtray Navigations –
A Shimmering Replica LP&CD
Back in the early ‘00s, when I began freaking out over releases by assorted heavy hitters in the sphere of proper psyche / drone / UK underground / whatever, Ashtray Navigations always passed me by for some reason. I certainly remember seeing tons and tons of CD-Rs and the like by him/them doing the rounds via distros etc, but for whatever reason, I just never bit.
Then, earlier this year, I found I already had two other VHF releases in my virtual shopping basket, and, grokking the link for ‘A Shimmering Replica’ sitting next to them, I found myself pathologically unable to resist the label’s promise of “100 minutes of exotic fuzz raga moods”, and decided what the hell – better late than never.
So then – what delights are available for the Ashtray Navigations first-timer within this visually appealing and budget conscious LP plus CD package? Well, if they don’t exactly match up the press snippet above (I hear very little raga going on here), the tracks on the LP certainly do represent a rollicking compendium of jerry-rigged, punk-minded homemade frippertronics, which certainly does me nicely. Piled up, jammed out wreckage of fuzz guitar, eerily bright synth swooshes and chronic delay knob twisting all sit astride minimal, Suicide-esque drum loops, side #1 showcases a sound that resembles ‘No Pussyfooting’ recreated by a gang of MDMA-abusing unemployed garage mechanics, before side # 2 blunders into the realm of some kinda deconstructed mutant disco, like Peaking Lights hunkering down in the shadow of some druidic megalith.
So that’s all quite lovely really.
True revelation though came when I finally got tired of revelling in the glories of my renovated hi-fi speakers and slouched over to the computer to check out the tracks n the CD. Here it seems, Phil Todd and Melanie O’Dubhshlaine have stuck some of their slightly more unglued, less crowd-pleasing pieces, and whatdoyaknow, I liked them even better. ‘Quite Village’ and the magnificently titled ‘Seventies Concorde Proboscis’ in particular are some of the most enthralling, synapse-tickling psyche/noise tracks I’ve heard in years – strange collages of scruff and noise that sound, at least in part, like fragments of an audio diary of a trip to Kathmandu, a badly warped Amon Düül album and the soundtrack to an old BBC Quatermass serial, as chopped up and reconstructed by some dangerous yet visionary lunatic.
So that’s even lovelier.
With this all fresh in my mind when I was visiting Japan back in September, I found myself purchasing a limited edition Ashtray Navigations triple LP entitled ‘A Tribute To British Rock’ for the equivalent of about four quid, no doubt contributing considerably to the destruction of our suitcase’s wheels as I dragged the bloody thing back to its original home here in blighty (sorry Satori). And lo, the catch-up begins.
VHF are here. Ashtray Navigations are here. Your preferred independent record vendors may still be holding copies of ‘A Shimmering Replica’.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
12. Vibracathedral Orchestra –
Rec Blast Motorbike LP (VHF)
& Unnatural With Pain-Relief LP (Krayon)
So, gee whiz, it sure has been nice to discover this year that Vibracathedral Cathedral are back at full strength, and apparently as prolific as ever.
A few months back, my much-abused laptop keyboard had this to say about ‘Rec Blast Motorbike’:
“Thankfully, skillfully-wrangled chaos still eventually predominates, with waves of gnarled mystery soon piling up like jabbering goblin-spirits around the speaker cones. The start of side two throws us straight back in at the deep end of classic Vibracathedral intoxication, sounding like a Moroccan night-club being blasted through a space-hulk afterburner, coiled tentacles beating out a rhythm of pure noise, like a window into some sanity-challenging Jabba the Hut mushroom trip. Fans can chalk this one up as a solid gold bit of action for sure.
Side # 2 is a blast throughout actually; I absolutely love the last piece here (‘Precinct’) too – bold signifiers of ‘psychedelia’ (Doppler effect electronic whistles, rich splurges of fuzz, tinkling organ mess) splattered about like someone just took a knife to a Chocolate Watch Band master reel for some Jackson Pollack-inspired aggro – a spell-bindingly detailed & evocative blare.
Oh man, did I just type all that? Well I guess it stands as evidence of this record’s psychotropic efficacy, if nothing else. Because after all, this is Vibracathedral Orchestra, and they’re not going to let you down in that regard, any more than the London Philharmonic are going to forget to tune up one day and bugger up a Bach tracking session. ‘Rec Blast Motorbike’ is, as ever, proper psychedelia, taken straight to its ecstatic conclusion, and as such you should get on it whilst you still have the chance.”
‘Unnatural With Pain Relief’ meanwhile only turned up on my doorstep last week, so hasn’t had much of a chance to sink in yet amid all this end-of-year / pre-xmas palaver, but on first impression, it sounds sprawling, dissolute, elegiac and flattening, whilst the track on the B-side has an entire paragraph for a title. A glorious oppositional racket.
‘Rec Blast Motorbike’ can be sampled and bought straight from the (U.S. based) VHF, or otherwise can be sought out via your preferred local suppliers of such material.
‘Unnatural With Pain Relief’ represents the final release on the UK-based Krayon label, and can be acquired at an unbeatable rate directly from them. (As an aside, Krayon’s other releases are also going for a song prior to them shutting up shop for good, so do yourself a favour and dig in – there’s some great stuff there (I particularly recommend the Moon Unit LP) and you can get their entire discography for about the same price as one of those fancy Led Zep reissues [probably].)
Wednesday, December 09, 2015
The Best Records I Heard in 2015:
13. Noveller – Fantastic Planet LP
Though it is technically a solo guitar record, the sheer amount of outboard processing utilised by Sarah Lipstate on ‘Fantastic Planet’ means that for long stretches, the sound’s origins in wood and strings remains largely unguessable, as gentle electronic tone clouds rise and fall much in the manner of an Eno ambient record, or of feel-good drone practitioners like Growing or Windy & Carl.
Nonetheless though, the primary use of electric guitar is what gives the sound its guts, with the inherent aggression buried in the instrument always managing to awaken us from sky-gazing reverie, as reverberating low end twangs, echoed pick scrapes and sinister bursts of crystalline fuzz can’t help but break through the flashing LEDs now and then, shaking speaker cones, keeping us grounded where we belong.
Spaghetti Western-esque fuzztone menace cracks like thunder across the tranquil surface of ‘Into The Dunes’, and, from the bead curtain-swishing fragments of light twinkling through ‘No Unholy Mountain’ to the alien mothership roar of ‘Rubicon’ and the eagle-cam desert sky guitar heroics and Tangerine Dream synth shuffle of ‘Sisters’… well, you get the idea, I’m sure. Each cut here presents its own engrossing miniature universe - proper psychedelia, aiming at the micro-cosmic detail of the most unlikely hippie DMT boasts.
Though it veers dangerously close to po-faced post-rock tendencies for a moment or two here and there, ‘Fantastic Planet’ for the most part is an incredible achievement - a collection of brief, carefully wrought vignettes rich in both conventional melody and the kind of strange, beautiful, intricate detail that rewards full headphone immersion - like a movie close-up such as the one depicted on the album’s cover that just keeps getting closer and closer, clearer and clearer until a whole new abstract realm is revealed.
A precise and assured recording that throws off ideas and possibilities in all directions whilst remaining as comfortable and ingratiating as music can be, Lipstate’s work serves as proof positive that feeding your plank through several thousand dollars worth of electronic boxes doesn’t necessarily have to result in self-indulgence and sonic mud.
'Fantastic Planet’ can be investigated on Bandcamp here, and is available in the UK from Fire Records.
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