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Thursday, May 21, 2015
& Ghostface Killah –
(Lex Records, 2015)
If you’d told me a year ago that one of my favourite records from the first half of 2015 would feature an estranged member of the Wu-Tang Clan teaming up with a retro cinematic funk orchestra, I’d have been…. well, skeptical doesn’t quite cover it. But June is coming up fast, and guess what...
Reading this blog over the years, you might have got the impression that I’m not very big on hip-hop, and indeed, when it comes to the past decade or so, you’d be more or less correct. As a typical guitar-brained white man, I have no valid cultural connection to the more vital/underground aspects of the genre, and it would be foolish of me to pretend otherwise. Meanwhile, the more supposedly palatable, Pitchfork-approved examples of the form that have been intermittently spoon-fed to me in the internet era have almost all struck me as tedious, bloated, confused and generally quite dislikeable for any number of wholly subjective reasons. Thus, very little contemporary hip-hop has managed to hit one beyond my defenses since the days of… god, I dunno – Outkast? [This background should be borne in mind if anything I say below is, in fact, ill-informed bullshit of some kind or other.]
You may argue that such an attitude to music listening is lazy, defeatist, beneath contempt, and, again, you may well be correct. But I would counter-argue with the claim that much of my alienation from contemporary hip-hop stems from the fact that the stuff that hit me upon my initial exposure to the genre was so fucking good that I’ve yet to hear anything subsequent that comes anywhere near it. Which is to say that, in addition to canon of ‘80s NY rap and early ‘90s P.E./Ice T stuff that it’s obligatory for every honky born after 1975 to pay homage to (and rightly so), I remain a MASSIVE fan of the pre-’97 Wu Tang Clan.
Guess it must have been around the turn of the century that some considerate souls pointed me in the direction of the Wu, and all these years later, I still find myself pulling out those key albums every couple of months when the mood takes me, and even as I listen for conceivably the 250th time or something, I’m never less than totally floored by the pure, out of control inspiration to be found within.
Some music fades with repeated exposure, but other stuff just blows the cobwebs out of your ears, any time, any place, forever - and needless to say, we’re in the latter category here. The sheer potential that was on display as these guys moved from the lo-fi assault of ‘36 Chambers’ to the dark mastery of ‘Liquid Swords’ like an ever-learning, ever-growing ninja army remains breathtaking, and that’s what causes the subsequent betrayal of that potential to sting even harder, souring me on the thought of even bothering to investigate whatever mediocre, self-absorbed resource wastage RZA & co are half-heartedly trying to sell us on this year.
If I had been a bit more tolerant, paid a bit more attention, I might have heeded the call of those who maintained through the ‘00s that Ghostface Killah at least was still doing his best to live up to that original potential… but with the mediocrity of post-Y2K collective Wu endeavors and the sheer, repellant awfulness of the several live appearances I attended around the time fresh in my mind, I tuned him out along with the others; and they don’t play Ghostface Killah on the radio round where I live, so that was that.
Until now that is. 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 (which is plenty good enough for me, needless to say).
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.
If I remember correctly, one of the reasons I overlooked Ghost’s much-lauded run of albums in the ‘00s (‘Bulletproof Wallets’, ‘Fishscale’, etc) was that I had somehow formed the misguided impression that he was one of the less lyrically ambitious members of the Clan. “So what’s he rapping about these days?”, I remember enquiring (online) of those albums’ cheerleaders. Oh, the usual I suppose, came the reply – pimping, dealing, making Gs. I, like an IDIOT, responded with distaste and turned away, hankering after RZA and GZA’s pot-addled ruminations on chess and going into space and shit, when clearly someone actually should have sat me down on a hard chair in front of the stereo and politely pointed out that, in spite of the rest of the Clan’s high-falutin’ notions and Meth and ODB’s sundry eccentricities, it’s Ghost who always comes top of the heap on those early records I love, laying into the tracks like an attack dog, bringing a wilder, more imaginative lexicon than any of ‘em, despite his more, uh, ‘limited’ range of subject matter.
Now, I hope, I’m old enough to realise that great art relies not so much on what you try to say as how well you succeed in saying it, and that to dismiss Ghostface Killah for talking about little beyond pimping, dealing and Mafioso boasting is short-sighted in the extreme – a text-book example of the somewhat depressing phenomenon that can see musicians and song-writers hauled up before their peers simply for daring to approach unpalatable subject matter in anything other than an overtly judgmental and one dimensional fashion, making lyricists reluctant to exercise the kind of freedoms that writers and filmmakers have taken for granted since time immemorial.
(Whatever misdemeanors the Wu membership may have been party to back in the day is a matter for them and their lawyers, but I think it’s safe to say that by this stage in the game, their output, and Ghostface Killah’s pumped up crime epics in particular, has gone wa-ay out into the realms of mythic story-telling, no more subject to accusations of irresponsibly warping youthful morals than Nick Cave is of encouraging his audience to strangle preachers’ daughters and dump their bodies down wells.*)
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.
‘Gunshowers’ and the magnificent title track gleam like silver on the surface, but Ghost’s monster growl drags them down swiftly as possible into blue-tinted, censor-baiting horror movie territory, twisting snatches of stock gangsta machismo and misogyny into such nightmarish shapes, only a moron could mistake them for any kind of ‘glorification’.
‘Six Degrees’ sounds so much like a live band recreation of a classic RZA loop (paranoid kung-fu twang & drum machine bounce) it’s slightly ridiculous, but elsewhere BadBadNotGood’s tracks wisely follow their own dramatic path, working in parallel with Ghostface but never over-shadowed by him, as brushed jazz-funk drums, pulsing upright bass and washes of reverbed guitar help drag the aesthetics of our man’s unseemly fixations back in a slightly more, uh.. classical?.. direction.
On the beserkly comedic ‘Tone’s Rap’ – dark horse contender for the best cut here – he’s lumbering around like one of the cartoon pimps who harangued the aforementioned Mr. Hayes in ‘Truck Turner’, or perhaps the more pathetic specimens who pop up in Chester Himes novels, trying to keep their diamond-collared Dobermans off their fur coats in one room tenement apartments. Putting on his best Rudy Ray Moore shriek for an opening cry of “Yo bitch, fuck, I got lint on ma robes!”, he gets laugh out of my every time, but even as the track proceeds much in the manner of a lolloping, flared pants pisstake, the agonsied, soulful drag of Ghost’s delivery and the lonely, bug-eyed desperation lying in wait behind his closing declaration that “pimping ain’t easy, but it sure is FUN” speaks more eloquently of the futility and irrelevance of this way of life than any amount of socially-conscious “just say no” indie-hop could… (and the fact it hits alongside a just-perfect brass crescendo from the backing band is icing on the cake).
Another thing that helps make ‘Sour Soul’ such a great listen is – get this - it’s really short. Ten tracks, most of them under three minutes, wrapped up in a lean 27 minutes. Is that even an album by hip-hop standards? For all I know, some of Ghostface’s contemporaries are still making albums where they spend longer than that clearing their throat. Barely a second here is given over to bullshit and padding - no skits, no mumbling, no filler cuts or contrived call & response routines. Just the band kicking ass and Ghost on the attack, a few swift guest verses (all pretty good, but MF Doom gets man of the match), and we’re out. All fibre, no fat. Awesome.
It’s hip-hop for the boutique vinyl era really I suppose; why sweat it over your latest CD-filling ego summit knowing it's headed straight for dollar bins and Soulseek, when there’re kids (or more likely, geezers old enough to know better) out there ready to drop $30+ on a single LP w/ a nice cover? By weight, this shit’s probably pulling in more dough that one of Ghost’s mystical coke deals, but when the quality’s this flawless, it’s win-win.
Even better, turns out this us actually the *third* briskly paced record Ghostface has made with live instrumental backing in the past few years, whilst I was busy looking the other way. Once again, I hang my head in shame. And when I’m done doing that, I’ll be off to load up on everything he’s done since ‘Supreme Clientele’, and declare 2015 the Summer of Ghostface (in my headphones, if nowhere else). Chalk that one up as ‘unexpected’.
Lex Records live here, or alternatively, ‘Sour Soul’ is no doubt available from your usual local vendors.
* Full disclosure: I think I stole this joke / observation from someone writing in the NME about fifteen years ago, but it’s too good not to use again.
Monday, May 11, 2015
Auto-Compliment via Charlie Gillett:
‘R & B Cults’ and the
Transformative Role of Indie Snobbery.
“At first the number of white people interested in this music was not enough to have much effect on the sales of popular music. This portion of the audience probably consisted at first of college and a few high school students who cultivated an ‘R & B cult’ as most of their equivalents earlier (and even then) cultivated a jazz cult.
By a happy coincidence we happen to have some observations of remarkable insight made by the sociologist David Riesman on the popular music audience of this period, which illustrate the character of the specialist audience. In an article, ‘Listening to Popular Music’, Riesman noted that two groups could be identified: the majority audience, which accepted the range of choices offered by the music industry and made its selections from this range without considering anything outside it; and the minority audience, which he described with details which are relevant here.
‘The minority group is small. It comprises the more active listeners, who are less interested in melody or tone than in arrangement or technical virtuosity. It has developed elaborate, even overelaborate, standards of music listening; hence its music listening is combined with much animated discussion of technical points and perhaps occasional references to trade journals such as ‘Metronome’ and ‘Downbeat’. The group tends to dislike name bands, most vocalists (except Negro blues singers) and radio commercials.
The rebelliousness of this minority group might be indicated in some of the following attitudes toward popular music: an insistence on rigorous standards of judgement and taste in a relativist culture,; a preference for the uncommercialized, unadvertised small bands rather than name bands; the development of a private language and then a flight from it when the private language (the same is true of other aspects of private style) is taken over by the majority group; a profound resentment of the commercialization of radio and musicians. Dissident attitudes toward competition and cooperation in our culture might be represented in feelings about improvisation and small ‘combos’; an appreciation for idiosyncrasy of performance goes together with a dislike of ‘star’ performers and an insistence that the improvisation be a group-generated phenomenon.
There are still other ways in which the minority may use popular music to polarize itself from the majority group, and thereby from American popular culture generally: a sympathetic attitude or even preference for Negro musicians; an equalitarian attitude toward the roles, in both love and work, of the two sexes; a more international outlook, with or without awareness, for example, of French interest in American jazz; an identification with disadvantaged groups, not only Negroes, from which jazz springs, with or without a romantic cult of proletarianism; a dislike of romantic pseudo-sexuality in music, even without any articulate awareness of being exploited; similarly a reaction against the stylized body image and limitations of physical self-expression which ‘sweet’ music and its lyrics are felt as conveying; a feeling that music is too important to serve as a backdrop for dancing, small talk, studying, and the like; a diffuse resentment of the image of the teenager presented by the mass media.’
Riesman’s observation that no matter what the majority chooses, there will be a minority choosing something different explains how popular music continues to change, no matter how good – or bad – the dominant types of music are at any particular period. And because the minority audience defines itself as being radical within the music audience, its taste is likely to favor, consciously or unconsciously, music with some element of social comment or criticism in it.
During the early fifties, young people like those described by Riesman turned in increasing numbers to rhythm and blues music, and to radio stations that broadcast it. If the first listeners were those with relatively sophisticated standards for judging music, those that came later included many whose taste was more instinctive, who liked the dance beat or the thrilling effect of a hard-blown saxophone, people who may have found the rough voices of the singers a bit quaint and appealing as novelties.
It was this second group of listeners who provided the inspiration and audience for Alan Freed, who , with Bill Haley, played a crucial role in popularizing rhythm and blues under the name ‘rock n’ roll’.”
- Charlie Gillett, ‘The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock ‘n Roll’ (Dell, 1972), pp. 19 – 21
John Lee Hooker – This Is Hip
Frankie Lee Sims – She Likes To Boogie Real Low
TV Slim – Flat Foot Sam
Guitar Junior – Roll Roll Roll
Icky Renrut – The Rooster
Bunker Hill – The Girl Can't Dance
Thursday, April 09, 2015
2015: First Quarter Report.
Ack. What to say to explain away a two month plus dearth of blogging here. Well, no proper big excuses. Rest assured, I’ve at least not been frittering my time away on what we are reluctantly obliged to term ‘social media’, like so many other former bloggers (DESERTERS!). Instead, let’s just say that adult responsibilities (both ‘unspeakably frustrating & tedious’ and ‘rewarding & necessary’ sub-divisions) have accounted for pretty much all my waking hours recently.
As a result of this, the majority of the music I’ve ended up listening to has been wholly accidental. Bands caught randomly at gigs I’ve attended for social / organizational reasons, stuff randomly heard on the radio whilst working or washing up. For better or worse, that’s the way I’ve been keeping my hand in, as both the time for personal investigation and the money necessary for crazy excesses like buying vinyl records has vanished. In fact, free/cheap bandcamp downloads, £4 door charges and the odd marked down 2nd hand LP have been the sum total of my contributions to the, uh, ‘musical economy’ in 2015 thus far, BUT HEY, on the plus side, there’s so much good stuff going on out there right now, it’s difficult not to stumble over at least some of it from time to time, however little effort you put in.
Here, then, is a brief summary of new stuff I’ve seen or heard in the past three months that I’ve liked. You know the drill, I’m sure. After that, I’ve got some longer album reviews and stuff brewing etc, so rest assured, there’s life here yet.
The Sundae Kups
Circumstances at the gig my friends Charla Fantasma played at a Shoreditch vintage clothes emporium back in January were far from ideal; loud, disinterested punters, poor acoustics, outrageously priced beer and an outspoken sound-man who seemed quite intimidated by the savage noise-making potential of a 20W combo amp. Nonetheless, a varied and surprising line up of bands made it into a thoroughly rewarding evening, and foremost amongst them were these guys – a motley bunch of sure-I’ve-seen-him-in-some-other-band so-and-sos intent on playing instro/surf music and ‘60s-style pop with a welcome dose of chaos and good humour.
Thing about surf music y’see, is that, in it’s modern iteration at least, it is usually presented as very technical music, despite its primitive origins. Super-tight drumming full of monster fills and abrupt hand-break turns, sizzling high-speed guitar flash and exquisite, carefully manicured amp tone – these are the things upon which yr standard post-Los Straightjackets/Man or Astroman? surf combo is judged. Which is great as far as it goes, but nonetheless… given my usual preference for a good ol’ shambles, it was a joy to stumble across a properly SLOPPY surf band. Which is not to say that these guys don’t play well – on the contrary, they had a lovely groove and the lead guitarist knows his stuff inside out. But they just…. didn’t give a damn, y’know? They were having fun and messing around, the way a band should.
Tempos often stayed at the more relaxing end of the instro spectrum, but swung nicely,with some nice riffs and a good deal of twangy racket. There was a lot of instrument swapping, some oddball vocal numbers, and at one point the bass player took the mic for a hilarious rendition of Jacques Dutronc’s ‘Hippie Hippie Hourrah’. Collapsing equipment and random chaos was dealt with with an off-hand confidence that would’ve make Alex Chilton proud.
Oh, and I think the band’s gimmick was that they purported to be dressed up as ice cream parlour employees, the costume chiefly consisting of a set of disposable paper hats that looked like they could’ve been knocked up with some A4 printer paper and staples. Total class on every level.
Not much on the net from this lot yet beyond a few short tracks on soundcloud, but definitely keep an eye out for em playing round your way.
Also on stage during that fateful night were this peculiar prospect. A bassist sitting on her amp, picking out stoned and disjointed dub fragments with a bass apparently held together largely with gaffa tapes, a guitarist practicing worryingly ‘smooth’ amateur jazz moves, and a small table of presumably inexpensive electronic equipment providing clattering, off-kilter backing. Out front, a man in casual attire sings words from a pile of A4 print-outs (perhaps the same ones The Sundae Kups made their hats out of?) in a ragged yet heart-felt voice, and occasionally deigns to express himself via a trumpet.
If all this sounds a bit questionable, well, it was, frankly, but as I stood there contemplating the possibility that something other than the £3 in my pocket might lead me to another £5 bottle of Lowenbrau, I found myself very much drawn into the feeling this lot were putting across. I don’t know where Meat Raffle call home, but I couldn’t help thinking that, in some weird sense, their music sounds like a direct musical personification of the London Docklands - jerry-rigged signifiers of comfort and relaxation (a sound literally haunted by the Thatcherite ‘80s, as if reluctantly learning to live with it's legacy rather than crassly reviving it), barely concealing a reservoir of resigned, impoverished melancholia.
Sometimes sounding like a pound shop PiL, but also distantly evoking such unlikely comparisons as Robert Wyatt’s socialist hymnals, the more far-out end of the ‘80s Television Personalities catalogue and Lol Coxhill & Mike Cooper’s harrowing ‘Zombie Bloodbath on the Isle of Dogs’ LP under the name The Recedents (which I’m sure you’re all familiar with), I don’t really know where Meat Raffle are coming from or what they’re up to, but I found the sound they made on this particular evening quite affecting.
A few tunes online here, all sounding a tad more strident, aggrieved and headachey than I recall from the live performance.
Named, like Meat Raffle, after a food-based human / animal interaction that definitely exists but quite possibly shouldn’t, Dog Chocolate are without doubt one of my favourite bands to go and see in London at the moment. In fact, how have I somehow managed to not mention them on this blog thus far? I guess not bothering to post anything for months will do that to you.
So anyway: Dog Chocolate! Fucking brilliant! That just about says it all really, but unjustified superlatives don’t pay the bills, so let’s roll out a description para and see where it gets us. Dog Chocolate are four very likable fellas who are all to some extent associated with the more, uh, self-sufficient end of the Deptford visual arts scene (you know - doodles, strange expressionistic etchings, photocopied fanzines, that sort of thing). When together and suitably equipped with musical instruments, they succeed in making a riotous yet tightly-controlled cacophony of lop-sided DIY punk that embodies the very best elements of that concept.
Punishing noisy, wildy exuberant and possessed of a spirit of wanton unpredictability and ranting, caffeinated obnoxiousness, the feeling the band put across on stage (or more than likely, on floor) is nonetheless entirely lacking in negativity or awkwardness, instead evoking a spirit of unchecked inclusivity and shared experience that always proves a great deal of fun.
Rob plays a full size guitar plugged into a tiny amplifier and makes a load of racket, whilst Matthew plays a tiny guitar run through an excessive number of pedals and makes what might generously be termed a ‘subtle’ contribution to the sound. Jonno plays a small drum kit that he wheels around on a custom-made trolley and Andrew yells and sings and does keyboard and stuff, kinda like a young Lou Barlow with all that angst that made him such a bore happily removed from his shoulders. All of these eccentricities though, rather than studied devices designed to make the band members ‘stand out’, seem instead wholly practical solutions to problems unforeseen by most, allowing the band the comfort and flexibility to, uh, ‘do their thing?’ with maximum effectiveness and a minimum of site-specific interference.
In fact, having now witnessed a number of their performances, I believe Dog Chocolate actively thrive upon the kind of stress that might easily fell a lesser combo, dealing with time constraints, technical problems and audience/space-related strife with an ease that I find nigh-on awe-inspiring, ploughing all potential difficulties straight back into a free-flowing stream of racket and banter that no mere organisational hassles can quench. Oh, and their songs are really good too. Like I say: Dog Chocolate! Fucking brilliant! I think they like playing out, so book them for your own thing immediately. You won’t regret it.
You can listen to the split LP they put out on Upset The Rhythm, and some other stuff, on their Soundcloud page. ‘Strange Train’ and ‘Poisoned Eye’ are my favourites.
The Ethical Debating Society
Another London band who seem to get better and better each time I see them, EDS have a proper album coming this year from Oddbox, and I can only imagine it’s going to be a blinder. Sounding essentially like a big arrow heading in THE RIGHT DIRECTION, EDS infuse their politicised punk with a personal specificity and avoidance of didactic grand-standing that renders their message more refreshing and compelling than most such endeavours, whilst still remaining as practically applicable as that of the most dour Socialist Worker troubadour.
Kris’s brilliantly visceral guitar playing provides an effective contrast to Tegan’s more spidery, dissonant style, and it is perhaps the mixture of brute distortion and ideological purpose that always leads me to take a big ‘UK ‘70s punk’ vibe from the band’s performances. Whilst I’m sure they would deny any direct similarity, it is the spirit (rather than sound) of ATV, X-Ray Spex, Gang of Four and even early Crass that keeps coming to mind, and that keeps me wired and excited every moment they’re on stage. A really great group that you owe it to yourself to see as soon as possible if any of this sounds like your cup of tea.
Ok, so, not exactly a new subject for discussion on this weblog (I talked up their ‘Drifting Out Between Suns’ LP as part of my end of year run down), but nonetheless, I would to at least take the opportunity to inform readers that Blown Out’s new one, ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’, takes things to a whole other level. In fact it’s one of the best things yet to emerge from Mike Vest’s cottage industry of long-form guitar noise, and thus riding pretty high on the list of flat out awesome things I’ve encountered in 2015 thus far.
With John-Michael Hedley’s bass in particular taking on a more prominent role here than on previous records, ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’ sees Vest working more as an equal component in a power trio triangle than in a “guitarist plus backing” setting, and the results speak for themselves – a hypnotic space-rock groove monster crushing planets beneath its heels, and a heroic dose of exactly what I want to hear during about 90% of my waking life.
To be honest, there’s not much more I do say that won’t be patently obvious the second you click the link below and hit ‘play’, so fergodsake, don’t be a mug and just do that. If your tastes lie anywhere near my own, you’ll be reaching for your Paypal password within about 90 seconds, but there's nothing to be gained by being impatient. Keep streaming for some intense head-nodding and I’ll see you in forty.
Saturn Form Essence
Welcome evidence that at least some folks in Ukraine have enough good sense to turn away from proxy war pissing contests and meaningless ethnic strife, the gentleman behind Saturn Form Essence sounds, quite literally, as far away from such concerns as it is possible to get, locking the home studio doors and conjuring his own landscapes of limitless interstellar vastness from a covetous array of analogue noise-making equipment.
Released as a limited tape and hopefully unlimited download from Newcastle’s Invisible City label, his‘Stratospheric Tower’ comprises a veritable motherlode of deep space void exploration, touching upon Tangerine Dream’s synth limbo, Alan Splet’s landmark space drones, perhaps even a touch of Badlamenti’s sublime ‘Twin Peaks’ mind-meld on the epic closing track…. but, basically, always falling back upon the spirit of anyone who ever plugged a short wave radio into their mixing board in the hope of capturing something a bit creepy, and aspiring to leave all traces of human consciousness quadrillions of light years distant. (And christ, who can blame him).
Hmm, not much punk-qua-punk on this update so far, and no American bands either if you can believe that, so, let’s give this mob a shot. After all, they’ve been nice enough to put up their LP as a ‘name your price’ d/l, which dissolves geographical boundaries better than most things.
So: ripped slacker sort-of-hardcore (softcore?) from Atlanta featuring some guys I believe are/were in G Green (and my god, is it already three years since their album came out?). More straight-forward and aggressive than that band, incorporating only the most tastful of indie rock incursions, ‘Head in a Vise’ (that being the name of the album) is straight up aggravated, nowheresville budget noise, marshaled by a vocalist who’s a straight up nasal shouter (rather like New Bomb Turks’ Eric Davidson perhaps?), and smeared with that particular kind of reverb and pedal gak that makes punk bands sound like they’ve gone all rotten and mildewed or something. Bad mood, ‘why bother?’ sentiments channeled into a sound that suggests a more affirmative forward momentum, flooring the accelerator on the tour van as home town entropy disappears in the mirror.
Get it from Bandcamp, and hey, why not give ‘em some money, it might cheer them up and help cover gas.
Monday, February 02, 2015
2014: Mopping Up.
I know it is obscenely late to still be harping on about the events of 2014 (I mean, all music that happened before 31st December DIES on January 5the each year, every music-blog reader/writer knows that), but January was such a slog I literally haven’t had a chance to finish the few meagre paragraphs that comprise this post, that I was meaning to post just after completing the ‘records of the year’ run-down last month.
Before getting my shit together to move on to some actual 2015 listening then (to be honest, I usually find myself just listening to compilations and old records for the first grim few months of each year these days), time to finally close the bloody curtain on ’14 with some quick round-ups of other music stuff that pleased me during the year.
Amid a pretty wide variety of truly great live music I witnessed last year, the couple that stand out most strongly in my mind (not including the gig I attended in Japan, various performances by friends’ bands, my band’s own little tour etc), were, perhaps significantly, those relating to the Southern US garage-punk scene – a keen remember that those guys, collectively speaking, can still be untouchable in terms of live rock n’ roll, even they’ve arguably been slacking off a little on the “making awesome records” front in recent years.
#1 gig of 2014 then, to my surprise as much as anyone’s, was Jack Oblivian playing backed up by Memphis band The Sheiks, in a spacious and sparsely-attended Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club on an inauspicious Sunday night. What can I tell you – the group were, as the phrase goes, ‘cooking’, all ragged and good-humoured after a grueling European tour, and when they finished their allotted set and no curfew was called, they continued cooking, eventually playing for something like two hours, as the remaining attendees, last train home long abandoned, danced on past midnight. And when I say ‘danced’, I don’t mean “moshed” or "threw themselves about like drunken monkeys", I mean the people were actually dancing, to live rock n’ roll played by a well-lubricated band with a bag full of half-remembered r’n’b covers and very little idea what they’re gonna do next. If only that could happen every weekend. A really special evening.
Nearly as good were Tennessee band Natural Child, playing at the functional but always slightly dispiriting Shacklewell Arms. To keep it brief, going to this gig wasn’t my call, and I found myself feeling rather suspicious of the crowd, suspicious of the support acts, suspicious of the general vibe, suspicious of what I knew of the headliners via some quick googling. Then Natural Child walked on-stage and within ten seconds I was comfortable as a baby with a fresh bottle. What a fucking great band. If you follow my path of googling, you may find yourself unconvinced by copious weed-championing, dirty joke lyrics, some of the worst record covers of all time and a new album that sounds a little bit too much like The Eagles for comfort, but believe me – see ’em live and it will all make sense. These guys play like they were born with rock n’ roll in their bones – zero pretense, a warm, welcoming groove and a wicked good sense of humour too. Heroes to a man. (Intermittent testament to this greatness can found on their ‘1971’ LP from a couple of years back.)
Third best night out of the year was Shonen Knife, playing a short notice end-of-tour set at Café Oto. I’ve seen Shonen Knife quite a few times over the years, but this was by far the best. With the small venue, party atmos and fans-only crowd, the band seemed really comfortable, and happy to play whatever songs they felt like playing, dragging out some deep cuts and album tracks rather than relying on the same old fan favourites. The current line-up play magnificently, belting it out with the kind of world-beating, hyper-efficient positivity that does the stereotypical view of their country proud, and being able to stand right in front of them as they did so was a joy. The unusually varied set-list made for a great showcase of the strength & breadth of Naoko’s song-writing over the years, and anyone who has (perhaps understandably) written them off as a novelty cakes n’ kittens twee band really needs to check their head and hope they one day catch a set as good as this one.
Fourth best gig of the year was finally seeing Bong, playing at… what’s the name of that goth/metal pub, on a side street by Camden station..? I’ve forgotten. Seemed like a thoroughly decent place to watch bands and drink beer, anyway. I had taken some out some money with the expectation of buying a pile of obscure merch from the band, but as said merch was not forthcoming, there was only one solution: a quadruple whisky to sip as I stood front of the stage watching the band set up, and things went just swimmingly. Having built these guys up to the level of galaxy-bestriding gods in my mind, it was quite humbling to just see some young-ish, soft-spoken blokes from Newcastle quietly setting up their not-quite-as-elaborate-as-you-might-expect gear, but when they finally began…. the even-more-colossally-world-destroying-than-you-might-imagine maelstrom did the business. (Said business being an out-of-body noise-worshipping nirvana that no mere blended whisky could account for.)
Fifth and sixth best gigs of the year were the Static Shock events I wrote about here, with particular reference to the mighty Rakta (sorry – channelling Mary Anne Hobbs a bit there), and coming in at seven is the Makoto Kawabata & J. Francois Pauvros set I wrote about here. Catching Pelt in St Pancras Old Church a few months back made for an oft-challenging but ultimately rewarding number eight, pushing perennial number # 1 live act Chain & The Gang into a shocking NINTH place, even in view of them playing on the same bill as Comet Gain. Tenth? I dunno, my memory is all out at this point, but I’ve probably forgotten at least a few great things, so if you went to something unspeakably awesome and saw me there standing watching it, maybe write it in this space: _________________.
2. Comps & Reissues.
Here is a list of my eleven favourite reissues and compilations of old music from 2014. Really top year for this kinda stuff, and sadly I didn’t have the times or funds to check out even a fraction of the releases I would have liked to. I wish I’d found the time to write about all of the records below, because they are awesome, but those I did manage to squeeze out some words on are duly linked.
1. Bruno Nicolai - All The Colours of the Dark OST (Finders Keepers)
2. The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits (Night School)
3. Wayfaring Stranger: Darkscorch Canticles (Numero Group)
4. Crime – Murder by Guitar (Superior Viaduct)
5. Phil Upchurch – The Big Hit Dances (Righteous)
6. Francois Tusques - Le Reine Des Vampires 1967 (Finders Keepers)
7. The Fates – Furia (Finders Keepers)
8. Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop )
9. Susan Justin - Forbidden World OST (Death Waltz)
10. Inner-City Beat: Detective Themes, Spy Music & Imaginary Thrillers (Soul Jazz)
11. Frantix – My Dad’s a Fuckin’ Alcoholic (Alternative Tentacles)
3. Old Records.
Here, for no particular reason - context maybe? - are some of the old records I’ve been diggin’ the mostest last year.
Isaac Hayes – ..To Be Continued
Richard & Linda Thompson – Pour Down Like Silver
Hound Dog Taylor – Natural Boogie
Dr Feelgood – Stupidity
Hawkwind – Space Ritual (finally got a nice copy on vinyl!)
James Brown – The Payback
Manfred Mann’s Chapter 3 – Chapter 3
Neil Young – Trans
Skullflower – Form Destroyer, IIIrd Gatekeeper & early singles
Suicide – Second Album
Junior Kimbrough – God Knows I Tried
Roky Erickson – All That May Do My Rhyme
Dillard & Clark – The Fantastic Expedition of…
Canned Heat – Boogie With…
Fushitsusha – Live / untitled
Johnny Kidd & The Pirates – collected singles
Bo Diddley - Have Guitar Will Travel
Miles Davis – On The Corner
Atomic Rooster – Death Walks Behind You
Acid Mothers Temple – Mantra of Love
Motorhead – Motorhead b/w City Kids 7”
The Bevis Frond – Miasma
So, that’s it – END. 2014 is ovah! Look out for more scintillating, red hot coverage of 2015’s verdant musical marshland here whenever I can be bothered.
Sunday, January 18, 2015
(1939 – 2015)
Whilst we here at Stereo Sanctity are of course inconsolable this weekend vis-à-vis the news that Kim Fowley, father of some of the most wonderful and demented pop music of the past fifty years, has passed away, we are also, in the back of our minds, somewhat relieved that this slightly alarming character is no longer stalking the earth causing trouble – a dichotomy that I suspect Mr. Fowley might have appreciated.
Whilst one shudders to think of the outrages Fowley may or may not have been party to in his glory days as the youth-stalking vampire of the Sunset Strip, now at least seems a good moment to draw a veil over the uglier results of his uncheckable egomania and celebrate him instead as a man who pretty much walked into a recording studio with nothing except the change in his pockets and walked out with a #1 hit creating his own world out of nothing but dust, glitter and goofery and living there ‘til the bitter end, never once breaking character, and dragging in whatever talent passed his way like some kind of irresistible vortex.
From ‘Alley Oop’ and ‘Pama-Oow-Mow-Mow’ onwards, the results of Fowley’s shameless, wild-eyed productivity run deep in the DNA of American pop culture. For his own work alone he is a trash-culture godhead on a par with Russ Meyer, Stan Lee or whoever else, and for dipping his pale fingers into the careers of artists as diverse as The Modern Lovers, Joan Jett, Soft Machine, Gene Vincent, Slade, Kiss, Warren Zevon, Blue Cheer, Cat Stevens and The Germs, well… you be the judge.
Separating fact from self-promotional ballyhoo and rumour can be a pretty tough gig when it comes to Kim Fowley, but readers who have no idea what I’m talking about are advised to go and give his Wikipedia page a read for a full info-dump. In particular, I draw your attention to the rather eyebrow-raising list of albums he recorded under his own name, which is a work of twisted poetry in and of itself.
The last time I checked in on Fowley’s tumblr account a couple of years back, he seemed to be ranting at length about his apparent estrangement from his fetish model girlfriend, and obsessively promoting some songs he’d already produced in response by some other presumably ill-starred Hollywood trash-starlet types – the result being a sad head-shake and a decision not to bother checking his tumblr account again. Behind the increasingly ragged Public Persona though, I guess there must have lurked an actual human being, and, above and beyond the snidey tone of this obit, death by cancer is never something to sneer about, and it’s hard not to be touched by the final sentence currently sitting on his wiki bio.
By way of tribute to the Animal God of the Streets then, here’s a quick run-down of some favourite Fowley moments that have brought me joy over the years, and will likely continue to do so until the day I meet a similar fate.
1. The Rangers – Justine (1964)
Anyone still cheerfully clinging to the notion that fully fledged punk rock didn’t exist until the 1970s needs to get a load of this 120 second masterpiece - one of the greatest, fastest and most stupidly exhilarating rock n’roll records ever made, and a readymade blueprint for ALL the garage/punk ramalama that’s followed over the next five(!) decades, whether it’s makers are aware of it or otherwise. [It was a cover of course - of Don & Dewey's only marginally more laidback '58 original. - Ed.] Strange but true: if I stop listening to all music for, say, a week, this and Link Wray’s ‘Comanche’ are the two songs that inevitably end up playing in my head on a continuous loop.
2. The Rivingtons – Papa-Oow-Mow-Mow (1962)
So I know The Trashmen’s subsequent ‘Surfin' Bird’ may be rawer and punker, with no need of the vaguely contemptible ‘understandable’ vocal dubbed over all the mrr-mrr-pow-powing on this one, for my money the Rivingtons cut has a marginally better dancing groove to it, and if nothing else, the whole incident stands as proof that some strokes of genius are so potent they can work again a second time with almost no development/alteration at all, and suffer no diminishing returns. Swings and roundabouts, collapsing under fifty years of rust, but if you’re a DJ in a sticky spot, one is still as good as the other for filling the floor.
3. The Runaways – Dead-End Justice (1976)
The Runaways may have grown into a better and stronger band once they ditched Fowley, but nonetheless, their first, Fowley-dominated LP remains the one to go for, and this extraordinary closing track remains one of the prime documents of his genius: a lunatic heavy metal epic in which girl gangers Joan and Cherie are busted by the fuzz and confined to juvie (“Where am I?”, “You’re in a cheap, run-down teenage jail, that’s where”, “Oh my god!”), from whence they subsequently bust out with all guitars blazing (“Joan, lets break out tonite”, “Ok Cherie, whats the plan?”). Full of semi-improvised idiot-genius couplets (“on the planet sorrow / there’s no tomorrow”?), stomping, arena-worthy bombast and an appropriately nihilistic crime movie ending, it’s like Jack Hill’s ‘70s filmography compressed into a seven minute rock song, and it’s just about the greatest fucking thing you ever heard. Makes me smile just thinking about it.
4. Kim Fowley – Bubblegum (1968)
And speaking of exploitation, nobody squeezed a few bucks out of the psychedelic revolution quite as shamelessly or enjoyably as Kim Fowley (hell, he enjoyed it so much he was still doing it in 1998), and this immortal psyche-bubblegum mash-up is one of all-time best, perhaps marking the moment at which total cynicism finds itself consumed by genuine mind-blasting mysticism of some dazzling, peculiar kind.
5. Althea & The Memories – The Worst Record Ever Made (1967)
Oh my god, have you heard this thing? Straight up genius. (“Do you know how hard it is to yell in a microphone for two and a half minutes..? Pretty hard.”) I’m guessing that Althea & The Memories was neither the first nor the last time Fowley grabbed a gaggle of passing teenagers off the streets to serve as his ‘girl group’ for the day like some poverty row Phil Spector, but this “oh my god, we’ve got five minutes left to record a b-side and the tape’s due at the pressing plant first thing tomorrow” travesty remains a unique bit of presumably intoxicated self-indulgence that could only ever have mistakenly found its way onto vinyl via this particularly fruitful alignment of time, place and personnel – a combination probably never to be repeated, which is unfortunate for those as in love with the idea of rock n’ roll as a total shuck as I am.
6. Kim Fowley – The Trip (1965)
See notes on #4. Temporal overlap makes it difficult to judge whether this one is a an exaggerated piss-take of Sky Saxon and The Seeds or actually a key influence upon their style, but either way, most commentators will agree that it remains totally nuts. Pretty damn early on the psychsploitation drug jive front too in ’65, and is there anything more sinister in the annals of recorded music than Fowley drawling “you’re doin’ it right baby… just put your head back…” at the end, like a comic book amalgam of every abusive Laurel Canyon psycho who subsequently crawled out of the innards of the ‘60s..? BRR.
7. The Snowmen – Ski Storm (Pt. 1) (1963)
And speaking of a chill….. (see, I’m not just throwing this shit together at random you know)…. a classic demonstration of the Fowley thought process is the period when, after the craze for surf music hit in the early ‘60s, he single-handedly attempted to popularize the competing genre of SKI MUSIC, briefly flooding the market with cheap-jack instrumental singles by the likes of The Alpines (‘Shush Boomer’), The Rangers (‘Snow Skiing’, which preceded the aforementioned ‘Justine’ by a few months) and The Snowmen, whose ‘Ski Storm’ (apparently featuring Shaun & Danny Harris, later of The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, who by my calculations can't have been older than about fourteen at the time) is the only evidence I can currently find on Youtube of this short-lived but no doubt hilarious racket.
I don’t think any of these saw much chart action, BUT HEY, you’ve gotta laugh, and god knows, he probably ripped off the studio, paid the teenage musicians in smokes and broken promises, and even got a hit out of it in the end with the tangentially connected ‘Popsicles & Icicles’ by The Murmaids, which topped out at #3 in the US charts. Win-win!
8. The Runaways – Cherry Bomb (1976)
So I know you’ve banged yr head to it all too often at your local queer-punk/feminist disco, thrilled to it on the soundtrack of some movie or other, maybe even done it at karaoke, but were you truly raising your fist for the dream of an empowered teen-girl heavy rock band, or for the gutter-crawling psycho-hustler who probably scribbled the lyrics on the back of a porno mag or something? It’s a tricky tightrope, so let’s puul in the slack and embrace both sides. Brain disengaged, cake both had and eaten. It’s usually the best way forward.
9. The Hollywood Argyles – Alley Oop (1960)
The place where it all began! Ah for the days when a bunch of layabouts could convene in a back alley recording studio, lay down an ode to a cartoon caveman whilst, quoth vocalist Gary S. Paxton, “all participants were senselessly drunk on cider”…. and then turn it into a #1 hit, an oldies compilation staple, and presumably a lifetimes-worth of royalty cheques for some lucky sonofabitch. All that and it’s still a hoot to listen to too - like a record made by finger-clicking beatniks from a Hanna Barbara cartoon.
10. Kim Fowley – Animal Man (1968)
Like ‘Bubblegum’ above, this is one of many fruitful collaborations between Fowley and a guitarist who was perhaps his match on the eccentrictiy front, ‘Born To Be Wild’ composer Mars Bonfire, and also one of many Fowley solo endeavours that is likely to see your pets racing for the front door never to be seen again and your neighbours making anxious calls to social services, should you decide to rinse it too frequently or enthusiastically. Genuinely unhinged, I think it’s fair to say.
Tuesday, January 06, 2015
The Best Records of 2014:
1. Chain & The Gang –
Minimum Rock n’ Roll LP
(Radical Elite / Fortuna Pop!)
You could reasonably argue that Ian Svenonious has been making variations on the same record for at least the past two decades. But when the questions he is raising remain largely unaddressed, whether within pop music or in society at large, can we really say that his output has become any less relevant (or indeed enjoyable) in the intervening years?
NAY I say, and with Ian and his rotating cast of collaborators now comfortably settled into their Chain & The Gang identity, his core agenda (both aesthetic and political) felt more pointed than ever in 2014, and this, the group’s strongest LP to date, hit the sweet spot for me in a big way, needless to say.
I was actually quite pleased with the review I did of it back in June, so why not go and read that, if you missed it the first time around.
Listen and buy from Chain & The Gang on bandcamp, or get the vinyl from Fortuna Pop in the UK, Dischord in the US.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
The Best Records of 2014:
2. Bong – Stoner Rock
Well, you all knew it was coming, and the fact remains: if you’d told me five years ago that I’d spend much of 2014 engrossed in a record named ‘Stoner Rock’ by a band named ‘Bong’, I’d frankly have been a little concerned. The Newcastle group’s sly humour vis-à-vis their chosen nomenclature is easy to miss alongside the venerable seriousness with which they approach their music itself, so, before we move on, I will fall back on the words of bassist/intoner Dave Terry, as quoted in this album’s press release:
“It is a tongue-in-cheek dig at our usual classification as stoner rock and what the term has come to represent. The idea is to create our own definition of ‘stoner rock’ by creating an album so utterly stoned and repetitive to be a million miles away from the usual definition. Those who know Bong already will get both the humour and the philosophical redefinition… those who don’t know us will either get it when they listen or will never understand Bong at all.”
So there ya go. 2011’s incredible ‘Beyond Ancient Space’ and 2012’s sublime ‘Mana Yood Sushai’ may have been mammoth enough achievements for Bong, or so you’d think, but, fittingly given it’s emblematic title and scale (two tracks spread across over 70 minutes), ‘Stoner Rock’ sees the band striving for a whole new peak of sonic magnitude, seemingly setting out with a deliberate intent to make this one the ultimate, definitive Bong statement.
And do they succeed? Well… kind of. To bring in a totally out-of-leftfield comparison for no other reason than that I feel like it, you could say that if ‘..Ancient Space’ and ‘Mana Yood..’ collectively formed Bong’s ‘Electric Warrior’, then ‘Stoner Rock’ represents their equivalent of ‘The Slider’; pushing beyond their previous triumphs to create a record that is bigger, bolder and more ambitious in every sense, to the extent that it eventually finds itself staggering just over the edge into excess and exhaustion. Like ‘The Slider’, ‘Stoner Rock’ might not be the one that history will record as everyone’s favourite, but also like ‘The Slider’, that doesn’t stop it from being a bloody magnificent listen.
As far as uncompromising, glacially-paced drone-metal goes, I’ve always appreciated the way that Bong are a pretty listener-friendly proposition. By that, I mean that on most of their previous recordings, they like to get straight to the point and hit you with the good stuff (a result, one supposes, of their parallel antecedents in psychedelia and space-rock). The monumentally drawn out opening to ‘Polaris’ however signals a rather different ambition for this particular outing: ten solid minutes of distantly rumbling, Sunn 0)))-esque sub-bass drift, with percussion entirely absent and variation limited to near inaudible trickles of more crystalline overtones from Benjamin Freeth’s amplified Shahi Baaja. As the monolithic amp walls pulse and growl, Terry’s grandiose recitations from the Lovecraft story of same name almost dares you to either lose consciousness of the outside world entirely, to else call it out for the preposterous nonsense it is.
All this is mere build-up of course, atmos-building meditational stasis, bringing us gradually to the moment when the first, hesitant bits of hi-hat and kick drum filter in, falteringly gaining ground over the next ten minutes, as the guitars gain more mid/high-end and the drone twists into baleful, raga-like webs until finally, at about the 18 minute mark, the kick and snare start to coalesce, the beat gradually takes shape and, finally, we’re away! Think of a massive, vertical take-off Chris Foss spaceship; it’s already floating god knows how high up in the void, and now it is ready to MOVE FORWARD, commencing an epic, diesel-fuelled grind that spreads across a further 18 minutes of ‘Polaris’ and continues throughout the duration of disc 2,‘Out of the Aeons’, which forms perhaps the single greatest, most monumental stretch of slo-mo cosmic devotion that Bong have yet laid down (no small boast, that), the journey eventually taking us…. where?
Hopefully not to the Bong equivalents of ‘Tanx’ and ‘Bolan’s Zip Gun’, but hopefully you take my point. Wherever we end up, there’s no turning back at this stage. As a soundtrack to watching the solar system and milky way receding in the rear screens as your rusty craft sets forth towards glittering unknown vistas of Weird Tales pulp splendour, ‘Stoner Rock’ remains unequalled.
Listen and buy via Bandcamp, or get the vinyl from Ritual Productions.
(In other Bong news, it’s worth noting that 2014 also proved a great year for reissues of their work. New editions of early sets ‘Idle Days on the Yann’ (on Blackest Rainbow Records) and ‘Bethamoora’ (on Visual Volume) both provide a wonderful glimpse at the more overtly psychedelic side of the band, and the new vinyl edition of ‘Beyond Ancient Space’ on Ritual Productions is absolutely IMMENSE – all are recommended about as highly as it is possible to recommend anything. With the sheer amount of vinyl I end up buying off these guys each year, I’m probably putting their kids through college, but what can I say? The quality never slips an inch. One of the best bands on earth, no question.)
Thursday, January 01, 2015
The Best Records of 2014:
3. Leyland Kirby presents V/Vm –
The Death of Rave (A Partial Flashback) LP
(History Favours The Winners)
When I started putting this list together a few months back, I was unsure whether this album could really be counted as a 2014 new release. Appropriately enough given its creator’s methodology and general concerns, ‘The Death of Rave’ is a collection of sounds that, though first unveiled in their current form in 2014, nonetheless drag us back toward several previous temporal flashpoints, but hey, The Quietus had it on their new releases list, so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
So the story goes that, back in 2006, James Kirby (aka V/Vm, aka The Caretaker, aka… well, you know the rigmarole by now, I’m sure) produced and offered for download a total of 19 hours of raw audio, all of it generated from tapes & sundry recordings he had accumulated during his youthful immersion in England’s ‘90s rave culture. Reflecting on the sad demise of the naïve utopian spirit that fuelled that scene, Kirby had subjected these recordings to the same sinister processes he applied to 1930s ballroom music in his work as The Caretaker, with, it must be said, markedly similar results. Returning to this mammoth outpouring of undifferentiated sound eight years later, Kirby has, for reasons best known to himself, seen fit to issue a few selected highlights from the project as an LP, entitled ‘The Death of Rave (A Partial Flashback)’.
Whilst this aesthetic of mournful, depression-fogged middle-aged rave nostalgia has been a common trope for a good few years now (at least since all the palaver surrounding Burial and Tim Hecker’s similarly conceived ‘Ravedeath 1972’), you’ve surely got to give Kirby the nod for being slightly ahead of the game dropping this stuff in 2006, and, even if the whole concept arguably feels rather tired here on the first day of 2015, the beauty and resonance of the selections herein retains a more elemental power, untarnished by such fleeting trends.
Indeed, what we have here is some real Prime-era Kirby, reminiscent of the crushing, intangible poignancy of The Caretaker’s ‘A Stairway to the Stars’, but furnished with a set of personal/emotional ties that reject that project’s comforting sense of generational distance and historical enquiry, instead cutting straight to the quick in its examination of the way an era that lays safely within the lifetime of all of its listeners already seems as dead, dusty and far removed from the present as the ghostly manoeuvres of The Haunted Ballroom.
Sonically, the tracks here are often more abstract but also more concrete than the Caretaker material, as the maximalist approach of house music finds itself boiled down into slabs of pure, undifferentiated sound whose weight is sometimes over-powering. The Caretaker’s music, I suppose, at least allowed for the *recollection* of friendship and community, long departed and fading into the oblivion beyond living memory perhaps, but somehow graspable all the same. The scenes and feelings lurking behind ‘Death of Rave’ on the other hand are far closer to home, but already feel as if they simply never were.
Whereas the original 2006 recordings went unnamed, Kirby has here gifted his chosen extracts with scene-setting titles of great and touching specificness, the simple act of naming increasing the power of these largely abstract chunks of sound enormously, cementing them forever in a time and place whose human inhabitants have moved on, leaving their memory to ferment and rot in isolation. As buildings are torn down or repurposed, fields tarmacked, tarmac cracked & replanted, ghosts of the life-changing youthful revelry that once took place on the same spots are chained, buried and forgotten.
In ‘Monroes, Stockport’, Kirby’s slow-drag treatment creates a sound akin to a giant, dematerialising tardis, beating like a bubble through the brain of some doomed raver, as the faint echo of some intractably vast, transcendent melody line warps into a melancholy that suggests his fate wasn’t pleasant. ‘Machetes at the Banshee’ meanwhile is a dense and terrifying few minutes, full of gate-clanging boneyard dread and creeping, Eraserhead-like squeaky skree.
‘Moggy & Wearden’ brings a feel of epic, inhuman vastness, like some big reveal of a Giger-esque alien cathedral, or an accompaniment to a stage-play of Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’, drifting toward a more soothing, womb-like beauty in it’s final minute, whilst ‘Acid Allen, Haggis & Scott’ offers descending helicopters and the sound of an alien invasion blurring into the primeval hum of seaside video arcade.
The heart-rendingly titled ‘Big Eddie’s Van, Bowlers Carpark’ mixes busted speaker bass distortion with what sounds like the relentless churn of a giant subterranean waste disposal system, but ‘Marple Libradrome’ is perhaps the track that most clearly represents ‘The Death of Rave’s particular heart of darkness - a distant hum of crowd chatter just out of earshot beneath the threatening, subliminal buzz of electronic security fences and rotor-blade reversed percussion pulses, invoking the loneliness and lurking quietude of the empty, 4am carpark in which this entire LP seems to take place.
Do these feelings in any way reflect the experience of looking back on ones attendance of provincial early ‘90s rave events? Or one man’s foggy exploration of the emotionally-twisted emotions associated with such activity? Or simply nothing at all? As an outsider – young enough to have to rely on 2nd hand recollections of such events, if that - I have no idea. Maybe the conceptual aspect of this album may seem contrived or tedious or even offensive to some, but the depth and gut-level power of the resulting sonics is undeniable. An extraordinary record.
Listen and buy from Leyland Kirby via Bandcamp.
Tuesday, December 30, 2014
The Best Records of 2014:
4. Comet Gain –
Paperback Ghosts LP
So, this one has grown on me quite a lot since I wrote that review back in July.
In the cold light of day, it might not exactly be the strongest Comet Gain ever waxed, its missteps and indulgences may stand out bulbous and unflattering, but since when has this particular band ever thrived on clear-headed, “just-the-facts-ma’am” type critical listening?
More than ever these days, when their appeal lies in a woolly mixture of sentiment, personal nostalgia and cultural comfort, CG are a group whose music you’ve got to live with, and whose records must be allowed to interact with (your) life as it is lived.
Maybe I’m a tad biased, as disliking a Comet Gain LP at this stage feels like disowning a family member, but try throwing ‘Paperback Ghosts’ on in the background when you’re packing a suitcase for a long holiday, or after a few drinks when everyone else has gone to bed but you’re left awake with a bit of surplus energy, and I believe the virtues of even its ostensibly least successful songs will shine through loud and clear - a background burner, like all those lackadaisical classic rock albums you got frustrated with as a teenager, sitting there waiting for something exciting to happen, but that you now love dearly through some strange process of drunken osmosis, adulthood grit and emotional dust collection.
The virtues of the best songs here meanwhile are plain for all to see, and, due to the particular place they fell in my life, seem likely to always stay with me.
Listen to ‘Long After Tonite’s Candles Are Blown’ on Soundcloud, after which you will undoubtedly want to buy the album from Fortuna Pop.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
The Best Records of 2014:
5. Earthling Society –
England Have My Bones LP
Who the hell are these guys? I didn’t know when I bought this record, and I still don’t really know now. They’re based in Fleetwood in Lancashire, but that’s about as far as my knowledge extends. Under normal circumstances, I doubt that the album’s title or cover art would really have grabbed my attention. It sort of looks like a 2nd division metalcore album (that font), or else some angsty post-Isis kind of thing. Not my bag, man.
But, a few words in the Norman Records write-up piqued my interest, and a 30 second streaming clip later, the LP was on the way. Two days later I'm holding probably the best bit of proper psychedelia to have emerged from the UK in recent memory, wondering WHO? WHY? WHAT? WHERE?, the general feel of the music within laying a million miles away from the tableau of chilly industrial gloom implied by the cover. Sprawling, maximalist, potent and mysterious, Earthling Society quite unexpectedly veer closer to the webs of gold-leaf gossamer obscuring the entrance way to some subterranean opium den housing a breakaway sect of the Golden Dawn than they do to a bracing morning walk through England’s industrial heartlands. Needless to say, I ken dig it.
Opening with tamboura, tablas and a bit of gentle guitar meandering, opener ‘Aiwass’ gradually builds into venerable psyche-drone monster, multi-layered fuzz guitar skree, pounding toms and knob-twisting electronic distortion building into a rich fog of menacing black mass ambience to rival Belgium’s legendary Sylvester Anfang II, even as a distant, high-pitched vocal chant evokes a open-skied grandeur and sense of momentum rarely encountered in the work of those particular basement-dwellers.
Building on this more fresh-air inclined sensibility, ‘Tortuga’ opens with heavily chorused electric finger-picking, mysterioso reverbed vocals and a rubbery, Floyd-ish groove, as intermittently decipherable lyrics speak of spectral piratical adventures on the Spanish Main. A whole other variety of beautiful, distinctly British psychedelia is in evidence here, taking us back to the glory days of Flying Saucer Attack, and to my mind pretty much surpassing anything they ever did; an astonishingly evocative track, suggesting aerial views of glassy, Ballardian landscapes fading into an ultra-verbed storm of amp howl as the rhythm section ebbs and flows like the tides and the studio’s much-abused Space Echo starts giving off clouds of black smoke.
Amazing as it is though, all this is merely a build-up though for the album’s real centrepiece: a bold cover of one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, Alice Coltrane’s ‘Journey in Satchidananda’. Instant sale for me right there, pretty much. Therein, Cecil McBee’s indelible bass line is dutifully recreated and Pharaoh Sanders’ initial soaring sax riff is picked out on shrieking, overdriven guitar, whilst an electric tamboura stands in for Alice and thick blankets of heavy fuzz and apocalyptic, dive-bombing feedback cover all else. Further florid written appraisal seems surplus to requirements really, so let's just say if you think an endeavour like that wasn’t going to crack my annual Top 5, you clearly don’t know my music tastes very well. Total bliss.
Not sure how to conclude really, except to cattily suggest that if Goat’s much-talked up communal jamming sensibilities were half of what they’re cracked up to be, they might be, perhaps, say, one third as certifiably awesome as these glorious and learned Northern gentlemen – current wielders of the finest fuzz & astral incense on these shores, or I’m a dutchman.
Listen and buy from Riot Season, or visit Earthling Society here.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
The Best Records of 2014:
6. Haikai No Ku –
Ultra-High Dimensionality LP
Hey everybody – hope you had a nice Christmas! Ahem…
A darker and more driven descent into the abyss than Mike Vest’s Blown Out project, Haikai No Ku nonetheless stays true to the guitarist’s ideal of formless, eternal sprawl. Clearly very much informed by the pitch-black, ‘crushing nihilist white-out’ vibe of classic Japanese psych-noise, Haikai are wise enough to retain the ‘feel’ of Haino and Mitzutani’s work without directly imitating them.
Instead, ‘Dead in the Temple’ sets the tone here with an evilly plodding, lock-step groove, over which Vest drops a gargantuan pure doom riff that could have been lifted straight from his work with Bong, instigating a solid ten minutes of black-hearted head-nodding as multiple layers of echoing vibrato lead shred and carefully manicured feedback shriek-drones accumulate, occasionally pulling together into a deafening, primordial uber-riff of malevolent awesomeness.
Subsequent tracks march forth with little in the way of variation - dense curlicues of manicured feedback howling at the desert sun as thunderous clouds of bass-heavy mega-skree throb and bleed beneath, the rhythm section pounding away in the distance, regimented and swing-less as a military parade trudging from the centre of some chaotic, Elder God-infested black hole.
In spite of all this apocalyptic jollity though, the slightly ‘shiny’, reverb-heavy production here sat rather poorly with me during my first few listens to this one, sounding rather too distant and well-scrubbed to really do justice to this kind of sonic blitzkrieg. But, as Vest’s label name so clearly implies, volume provided the key. Rescued from laptop purgatory and whacked through a mono guitar amp on the upstairs turntable, this shit hit big-time – as devastating a dark-noise blissout as you could wish for. If it lacks the overblown, beyond-the-red clippage of ‘Heavier Than a Death in The Family’ or Fushitsusha’s ‘Live 2’, the sheer density of sound that is revealed here when pushed through some appropriate speakers is almost as mighty.
More than anything in fact, ‘Ultra-High Dimensionality’ reminds me of Birchville Cat Motel’s classic ‘Our Love Will Destroy The World’ set. The pace is slower maybe, the riffs gnarlier, the basis in power trio rock more tangible, but the same power is there; that same sense of being sucked through a giant, cosmic vacuum cleaner, that same exhilarating vision of every self-described ‘shoegaze’ band in the world cowering in abject terror as their matchstick sonic cathedrals crumble to dust amidst the hundred-stack hurricane of some proper fucking cosmic noise.
In summary then: 2014’s best headcleaner / ear-wrecker – no contest.
Listen and buy from Visual Volume.
Monday, December 22, 2014
The Best Records of 2014:
7. Rakta – s/t 12”
Unexpectedly blundering into two live sets by these guys during the Static Shock weekend last month was a bit of eye-opener, I can tell you. Without wishing to front-load expectation too much, Rakta are definitely one of the most exciting new bands I’ve seen/heard this year.
Basics you need to know, as pasted over from this post to save me repeating myself too much:
“An all-female Brazillian band playing moody, ambitious sci-fi-inflected punk with loads of harsh noise and extreme use of effects, […] with a solid base of relentless pounding from the rhythm section and a relentlessly imaginative skree from the guitar, bits of unidentifiable echoing racket whiplashing around the place, and just a hellish energy and sense of weird, unholy evocation going on…”
Though a somewhat murky / naturalistic recording somewhat lessens the full spectrum blare I witnessed live, this 45rpm 12”, recorded in 2012 and pressed in ’13 (again, complaints to the usual address if you care) does a pretty sterling job of capturing Rakta’s particular ‘thing’ on tape, and quite a trip it is too – forward-driving, late night joyride distorto-punk interlaced with early Zola Jesus-ish neon goth power-angst, frequently tipping over into full on descent-into-the-maelstrom noise freakout, rescuing those Boss delay boxes from the hands of tossers who like to just set them to 33% and stare at them hoping somebody notices, and twisting those fucking knobs like the Tech-priests intended.
There are big ideas at play here, ripped through with paint-stripping ferocity and a getting-shit-done DIY aesthetic that keeps pomposity firmly at arm’s length. Future-punk? Digi-psych? An early ‘90s 2000AD bad trip sequence recreated in musical form? I don’t know. It’s fucking brilliant, whatever it is, and I can’t wait to hear more of it.
Listen and buy from Rakta on Bandcamp.
Sunday, December 21, 2014
The Best Records of 2014:
8. City Yelps in ‘Cheap Psych’ tape
Like many records in my Top Ten this year, this tape’s title and approach raise an affirming two fingers to the flow of weak buzz-band fake-psych acts currently busy ruining the ‘P’ word for those of us who’ve been happily using it to describe actual, good music since time immemorial.
Unlike the other records in my Top Ten this year, this tape contains ten equally affirming songs by the most vital and self-determined bunch of chancers to hit the jangle/indie circuit in some time.
Back in March, I said:
“..dealing with the constituent components of this music, it’s difficult to put your finger on what makes City Yelps so pointedly removed from all the other nostalgia-nourishing jangly guitar types doing the rounds. From the 10th generation Byrds-y rattle to the strummy bass lines to the Hamish Kilgour type homemade-motorik drumming with that little ‘catch-up beat’ every four bars, it’s all here present and correct, all stuff you feel you’ll never, ever get sick of again when it’s banged out this splendidly. The playing is excellent & varied […] the recording is bright and the songs are simple and appealing, leaving only Shaun A’s parent-proof slurred bark (“thass not singing, I’m telling ya”, quoth some who should know better) and a strange, indefinable blanket of smudged, smothered otherness to explain why City Yelps sound so inherently separate from the mainstream, so alien to the streets of large population centres, so utterly and gloriously removed from anyone who deals in ego or money or music, so much of a potential OUR BAND (NOT THEIRS) moment for any/all scruffy, over-smart kids lucky enough to hear them.”
Nine months later, sufficiently calmed down, that questionable sense of identification with this music and its makers remains intact. My band, not theirs. Maybe yours?
Listen and buy from City Yelps.
Saturday, December 20, 2014
The Best Records of 2014:
9. Habibi – s/t LP
A much under-appreciated album this year I think, Habibi have unfortunately had the poor grace to release a neo-girl group guitar-pop record at precisely the point when that particular idiom has entirely fallen from favour amongst the indie-cognoscenti, and I fear they may have suffered from this poor timing, irrespective of the fact that this is the best example of the form I’ve heard since the great 2010-11 goldrush.
So, even if you (mistakenly, IMHO) cringe at your prior enthusiasm for the Vivians and Dum Dums of yore, and now listen exclusively to mogadon death-rave, obscure hardcore and compilations of African keyboard funk, I would still defy you, or anyone with the slightest love of pop and strumming guitar business for that matter, to listen to cuts like ‘Detroit Baby’ and ‘Sweetest Talk’ and not be touched on some level by their sweet, measured, bad-ass perfection. The Velvet Underground quotation in the latter makes for a particularly killer moment, I feel.
Minus one or two songs in the middle that don’t quite do it for me, this is just a great LP – proof positive that reverby guitars, stand-up drumming, nebulous Flying Nun-type influences and marginally ‘sassy’ American accents can still hit the bullseye when executed with sufficient class & panache.
I was going to dig up the bit I wrote about Habibi in that ever-helpful March blog post, but frankly it was rubbish, so we’ll just leave it at that.
Listen to Habibi’s stuff on Soundcloud, and buy the record from Burger.
On an entirely different topic, I can’t help but note that this – somewhat inappropriately – is the 666th post on Stereo Sanctity. Not much of a score when you consider I’ve been going since May 2004 or something, but hey. Maybe I should have lined up an Electric Wizard album or something. Thanks for sticking around.
Friday, December 19, 2014
The Best Records of 2014:
10. Blown Out –
Drifting Way Out Between Suns LP
If Stereo Sanctity were to award some spurious “musician of the year” award or somesuch, it’s safe to assume Mike Vest would be a shoe-in for 2014. One year ago, I knew Vest simply as the name credited with ‘guitar’ on the sleeves of Bong and 11 Paranoias records - which you’d think would be enough of a commitment to noise-making for most sane individuals, but Mr. Vest, operating primarily through his Visual Volume bandcamp page, seems to be on a quest to single-handedly colonise every conceivably corner of heavy guitar music.
As the prime mover in a frankly humbling array of currently active groups, Vest seems keen on maintaining a level of productivity that would be downright suspicious were the results not so consistently excellent, and the first of no less than three Vest-related records to feature in this year’s top ten comes courtesy of Blown Out - an open-ended psyche-rock jam band that sees the lad himself letting rip alongside a rhythm section apparently recruited from a band named Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs.
From the name on down, Blown Out’s sister band Haikai No Ku seem to be signposted as Vest’s most obviously Les Rallizes Denudes/Japanese noise-inspired project, but for my money Blown Out is the one that actually gets closest to the classic Rallizes sound, largely thanks to the valiant efforts of the bassist and drummer, who trudge manfully through these two 20+ minute extracts of endless, formless repeato-groove, swinging slow and loose like a particularly unthreatening rubber wrecking ball as Vest lets it all hang out on top, indulging all of his best/worst humbucker-mangling impulses in what appears to be an eternal rolling revue of wrecked, thug-psych fuzz-power.
In the hands of lesser players, this could easily have been a pointless mess, a “hey, let’s be Acid Mothers Temple this afternoon” piss-take, a complete waste of time. Thankfully though, these guys, in the parlance of our times, fucking rip, and four or five minutes of bandcamp head-nodding was all it took to get me on-board the star-freighter for good, and damn the consequences to my bank account if they keep sticking out every bedraggled live set as a limited edition release of some kind.
If space-rock can broadly be divided into music that aspires to take you somewhere, and music that defiantly DOESN’T, then Blown Out are definitely in the latter category, irrespective of their galaxy-travellin’ song titles. ‘Drifting Way Out Between Suns’ is nothing less than a sprawling, aimless journey to the bottom of the sofa, with guitar textures recalling nothing so much as early Bardo Pond, as sustained chords bend into raga-like dissonance as they decay and ghostly, sticky-fingered leads tumble across the top like sonic questions marks, banks of hissing, fuzzed out amp noise rising & falling in the background as Vest busts through every trick in his repertoire to keep things ticking over across a solid 45 minutes of formless drift.
Like all of Vest’s bands (with the possible exception of 11 Paranoias), Blown Out are breaking no new ground here, attempting no daring deconstructions of genre expectation, but no matter: for those of us who dig this shit, it’s pure bliss… one of the best blasts of utterly indulgent proper-psyche grue I’ve heard since Purling Hiss’s ‘Hissteria’.
Two thumbs up, raised v-e-e-e-e-ry slowly, and I hope you’ll all appreciate the fact that I got through this review without using the ‘S’ word, or throwing in any tired, haven’t-touched-a-joint-in-a-decade drugs references. Thirsty work, I tell you.
Listen and buy from Visual Volume, or get the vinyl from Riot Season.
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