The stars still shine, the museum's free.
Stereo Sisterhood / Blog Graveyard:
- 7 Inches ; After Sabbath ; All Ages ; Another Nickel ; Anywhere Else ; Aphid Hair ; Asleep ; Bachelor ; BangtheBore ; Beard (R.I.P.?) ; Beyond The Implode (R.I.P.?) ; Birds ; Black Time ; Blues ; Boogie ; Bull ; Dancing ; DCB ; Destination:Out ; Did Not Chart ; Diskant (R.I.P.) ; Dreaming ; Dusted in Exile ; Fog ; Flux ; Free ; Freq ; Garage Hangover ; Gramophone ; Grant ; Gunslinger ; Head ; Hopper ; Jonathan ; KBD ; K-Punk ; Kulkarni ; Last Days (R.I.P.) ; Lexicon Devil ; Lost Prom ; LPCoverLover ; Mutant Sounds (R.I.P.?) ; Nick Thunk :( ; Norman ; Oddbox ; Peel (John) ; Plan B (R.I.P) ; Prepared Guitar ; PSF ; Quietus ; Raven Sings ; Science ; Still Single ; Teleport City ; Terminal Escape ; Transistors ; Ubu ; Upset ; WFMU ; XRRF.
Monday, November 16, 2015
Believe it or not, I was planning to hit “publish” early this week on a post entitled ‘Collective Deathblog’, rounding up thoughts on the passing of several noteworthy musicians over the past few weeks. Needless to say, following certain tangentially music-related events this weekend, that title now hardly seems prudent.
To give the elephant in the room a good kicking then –
Whilst I am painfully aware that the events that put a damper on most of our weekends are directly comparable to those that currently hit a number of nations in the Middle East on a semi-regular (or indeed actually, definitely regular) basis (usually directly or indirectly supported by one or more Western or Eastern power blocs, and almost never accompanied harrowing eye witness accounts in Western media), it nonetheless hurts like a blow to the stomach to see such violence perpetrated within, I hate to say it, ‘our’ world - within a context that’s familiar to any of us who have spent time attending big-ticket gigs in capital cities.
As a friend pointed out to me on Saturday, we might not know anyone who likes The Eagles of Death Metal enough to go and see them in Paris, but, as people who have ended up drawing the majority of our peer group from among fellow music fans, how far do we need to go through degrees of separation before we find someone who does, or maybe did?
Complacent and over-protected as we – ahem - ‘young people’ on this side of the world generally are, the uneasiness and hollow-stomach feeling prompted by running such thoughts through our heads is not welcome, and the idea that said feeling may eventually become a pretty common one as the now-officially-noticeable slide toward global chaos continues is something I find very difficult to face.
There may be everything left to say, but there’s also nothing to say. Having no desire to add to the mountain of disposable chitter-chatter any more than I already have done, let’s just say that we here at Stereo Sanctity second the words of Simon HB at XRRF for rhetoric, and refer readers to Jeremy Allen’s piece at The Quietus for purposes of sobering personal context.
The post I was originally going to write today will hopefully be up soon.
Monday, November 09, 2015
Black Time –
Aerial Gobs of Love LP
(Förbjudna Ljud, 2015)
According to most sources, Black Time ceased operation in around 2011, despite sporadic rumours to the contrary. Word on the street is that no Black Time music has been recorded since the ‘More Songs About Motorcycles & Death’ EP appeared in 2010.
These being the facts as we know them, it comes as somewhat of a surprise therefore that, during 2015, I have seen Black Time play live on two separate occasions, and have taken delivery of a ‘new’ Black Time album, released c/o the Stockholm-based Förbjudna Ljud Label.
Could Black Time be the world’s first undead band? If so, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate for the position, and I for one remain extremely grateful for their continued half-life.
You see, back in the long-gone late ‘00s, when Black Time were alive and kicking and fully operational barely a forty minute tube journey from me, I, like an fool, ignored them – an idiotic decision that I now regret almost daily.
I recall streaming a few of their songs off Myspace, perhaps when contemplating attendance at an event at which they were performing, but, fickle bastard that I am, they did not fit fit my agenda at that particular juncture. Perhaps I even took a few moments to moan about the alleged drawbacks of “fake lo-fi recordings” or somesuch, missing the point by a fucking mile, as per usual.
I began to warm to Black Time a bit when aforementioned EP came out, and then, a little while after that, a wise lady came into my life bearing several Black Time LPs, which she had the foresight to leave in my flat for an extended period; planted like a timebomb, just waiting.
Predictably, the packaging, liner notes & cultural reference points plastered across the physical artifacts of Black Time’s music drew me in like a moth to a flame. Monochrome shots of brutalist architecture and ‘60s fashion; pulp detective novels, K-Tel guitars, biker movies and an apparently bottomless fascination with Godard’s Alphaville. Typewritten / photocopied inserts, mixing deviant beat poetry blather, alienating in-jokes and flamboyant cursing…. yeah, it’s nothing new, but it still hits the spot as far as I’m concerned.
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.
That their main man styles himself ‘Lemmy Caution’ might seem a bit ‘on the nose’ for crime fiction fans, but as I don’t know his real name, I guess we’ll have to live with it. I certainly can’t fault his taste in nomenclature, anyway.
Meanwhile, life having changed immeasurably in the interim since that ill-thought-out Myspace dismissal, the noise within these records – an unapproachable mixture of venomous, Sunglasses After Dark punk rock, n-th generation Link Wray-via-The Fall twang and assaultive, blown out noise shit - now appeals to me a great deal.
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.
And, well, apparently Black Time must have heard my cries of regret in their slumber, for here, suddenly, we have ‘Aerial Gobs of Love’, fresh from some Swedish pressing plant, delivered straight to our perverted English ears.
Ostensibly a collection of unreleased material recorded circa 2009-11, this LP sounds so much like such a cohesive, deliberate piece of work that frankly I suspect it might actually have been laid down in some sudden fit of unforeseen inspiration a few months ago… but who am I to speculate thus.
Either way, the blasted beauty of the opening title track coruscates like a brillo pad – a fantastic, wide-eyed sheet of sky-staring, optimistic noise, before ‘More Pricks Than Kicks’ follows, returning us to Black time’s more familiar discomfort zone of self-destructive urban frustration via a bad-tempered Cramps-ian fuzz stomp, retooled to reflect the violent, lip-chewing residue of a thousand shitty North London nights. ‘Black Chant’ covers similar emotional terrain, but expressed instead through a massed chant of defiance, a feedback spewing riff beatdown folding into a massed snare-roll lament, like a gang of EVP ghosts calling out the living for their oafish ways.
Like many a Black Time number, it’s over before you even know what to think about it, and on we march. ‘Industrial Anxiety’ is more fun than it sounds - Maps-ian rant and toothache distortion – whilst ‘No Expectations’ sounds like a lost ATV song channeled from beyond the grave via a payphone. Jams having thus been given a reassuring kicking, Side # 1 takes a sharp left turn to close with ‘Tarzan vs IBM’, a perplexing collage of sub-Suicide electro-primitivism and rogue 16-bit computer skree that still somehow ends up becoming strangely affecting, like some CCTV dance of the robots.
The album’s B-side will no doubt prove alienating for less adventurous rock n’ rollers, but you know what, fuck ‘em. Another frustration tirade, and a pretty epic one at that, ‘Flakes’ introduces – whisper it – acoustic guitar for a few strident verses, recalling the angry resignation of some of Comet Gain’s ‘City Fallen Leaves’ material in between outbursts of cathartic bombast. Blessed with a superbly abrasive, nasal roar, Mr Caution always sounds as if he’s straining against the leash of a restrictive, compromised world, striving to destroy his life as means of escape, and he has rarely sounded as unhinged as he does here. Probably I’m willfully missing a metaphor or two for the sake of comic effect, but it’s near hilarious to hear him apparently lambasting falling snowflakes for “wasting [his] precious time!!”. Eat that, emo kids.
Built around a slowed down take on the riff from the A side’s ‘More Pricks..’, ‘Winged Serpent’ feeds a ‘Grotesque..’-era Mark E. Smith answering machine monologue into a headache-inducing tunnel of aural grue, before the next few tracks take us further down the wormhole toward pure abstraction - dazed, disconnected chunks of cacophonous fake-dub racket that seem to have been recorded in a shower block in the depths of hell.
Before more errant noise ends the set, ‘Cave Paintings’ briefly busts through as elegiac and defiant as you like, again evoking Comet Gain via a rare example of flagrant self-mythologising that actually stands tall and works like it should; “Gonna lay it down / the bitter truth / we existed / and here’s the proof / Saturday gigs, European trips / and Dave he was / a first class cunt.”*
In a way, it is ironic that only on this apparently posthumous effort that we see what’s behind the curtain when Black Time ditch the comfortable necessity of being a “garage rock” band and let their wilder and more indulgent impulses run free, finally settling fully into the weirder corners of their own sound.
Pretty much entirely off the map, they’ve found a sonic Pitcairns Island located somewhere in-between the legacy of New Zealand’s Xpressway label, the obtuse genius of Jim Shepard and the holy legend of Swell Maps. Amid a distortion-caked compendium of misfiring ‘80s computers, poorly wired amps, degrading tape and early morning practice room blues, they’ve tapped into a septic vein of raw, weird, desperate emotion, hiding just below the shades of reappropriated cultural memory, scratching forever at the walls of what passes as “rock music” – and of everything they’ve ever done, this LP perhaps captures it best.
Black Time were one of the best bands in Britain, period. And since they've split up, they just keep getting better. Go figure.
Listen & buy:
• Since I’ve just about exhausted it in the review, it’s worth crediting Doug Mosurock for his role in first planting the now-seemingly-obvious Black Time / Comet Gain comparison in my mind.
Tuesday, October 27, 2015
The Eighth Annual Stereo Sanctity /
Breakfast In The Ruins Halloween Mix CD.
Cross-posted with Breakfast in the Ruins.
Here, as tradition demands, is this year’s All Hallows mix CD, presented for your listening pleasure, and hopefully allowing you enough time to incorporate its delights into your festivities, or dark and solitary rites, or whatever else you’re up to this weekend.
Rumours that I’m now running short of material for these mixes after eight years should be treated with the derision they deserve, and listeners may be assured that, if mainstays such as Roky Erikson, The Cramps and The Misfits are absent this year, newcomers like Bum and Vanilla Fudge should make for more than adequate replacements, and there’s even the world premiere of a new Skull Tennis track to get your pulse pounding too. Thrilling stuff and no mistake.
Featured movies this time around are ‘The Devil’s Nightmare’ (Jean Brismée, 1971 / soundtrack by Alessandro Alessandroni) and ‘The Psychic’ aka ‘Seven Notes in Black’ (Lucio Fulci, 1977 / soundtrack by Bixio, Frizzi & Tempera), with a little bit of ‘Gli Occhi Freddi Della Paura’ aka ‘The Cold Eyes of Fear’ (Enzo G. Castellari, 1971 / soundtrack by Ennio Morricone) thrown in for good measure.
Whatever you’ve got planned for Saturday night, I hope you can find some enjoyment herein.
2. Bixio / Frizzi / Tempera – Suicidio (Prologo)
3. The Raveonettes – Attack of the Ghost Riders
4. Thee Tsunamis – Haunted House
5. Clinic – Walking With Thee
6. Black Time – The Mummy
7. Alessandro Alessandroni – Devil’s Nightmare
9. Bixio / Frizzi / Tempera – Fuga
10. Lair of the Minotaur – The Wolf
11. Apache Dropout – Ghost Stories
12. Skull Tennis – Gorilla in the Castle
13. Ennio Morricone – Seguita
15. Bixio / Frizzi / Tempera – Tunnels
16. Affinity – Three Sisters
17. Bum – God of Darkness
18. Vanilla Fudge – Season of the Witch
19. Alessandro Alessandroni – Dark Dreamer
21. Bixio / Frizzi / Tempera – Strane Visioni
22. Loren Mazzacane Conors – Blue Ghost Blues
23. Haikai No Ku – Saltes of Humane Dust
25. Dawn of the Replicants – Fearless Vampire Hunters
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Vibracathedral Orchestra –
Rec Blast Motorbike LP
If you’ll forgive me for starting off with yet more inconsequential indie-spod war stories, I still rue the day I turned down the opportunity to see Vibracathedral Orchestra perform at some Sonic Youth-curated ATP back in the early ‘00s.
I recall they were the first band of the day, on at some ungodly hour like 1pm, and this impeccably hip cat from Brighton we were sharing a chalet with was keen to go and check ‘em out. The name wasn’t familiar to me at the time, and I couldn’t much be bothered with the idea of facing down an ‘orchestra’ so early in the day, so he headed off, and I declined, probably in order to do something stupid like have breakfast, watch TV, or wait for my friend to get up. My loss x 10.
It was probably a year or two after that that I first began to acquire some VCO CDs and CD-Rs through the usual sources for such things, and it’s subsequently taken a full decade for the realization of their import and singularity within the UK underground to filter down into my consciousness and become fully apparent.
Releases like ‘Versatile Arab Chord Chart’ and ‘Lino Hi’, grabbed at random from the band’s voluminous run of temporally uncertain (self-)releases, remain solid senders in my listening to this day, but my favourite was and still is a CD-R of live recordings named ‘Hex Hostess’, presumably taped during a European tour if the track titles are anything to go by.
A seething, 80 minute mass of densely-packed room sound, sounding like the work of four or five individuals working in perfect psychic harmony with each other whilst wringing sound out of a collection of instruments previously unknown to mortal man, this disc is an wonderful testament to the band’s power as an inspired noise-making unit, and stands as one of my favourite drone things of all-time. It could certainly do with a swish vinyl re-issue, if any sympathetic label owners with a few quid to spare happen to be reading.
I remember Vibracathedral main-man Neil Campbell once commenting on a long-departed online forum that the lengthy drone-jams on the Velvet Underground’s elusive ’66 Exploding Plastic Inevitable live recordings provided a key reference point for the sound he wished to achieve with VCO, and indeed, if you’re familiar with those tracks (now legitimately available on one of the endless reissues of the banana album I believe), they do indeed form a useful jumping off point for VCO’s trademark ‘sound’.
Whilst other early canonical drone-rock touchstones (Parson Sound say, or the early Tony Conrad/Dream Syndicate stuff) overlap with VCO’s agenda to a certain extent re: projecting the sense of a single, undifferentiated roar, it is the Velvets EPI jams that come closest I think to sharing the kind of tactile, for want of a better word ‘scrapey’, quality of VCO’s music, eschewing (probably more by necessity than choice) the ‘monolithic’ feeling that tends to dominate once feedback, distortion or electronic modulation is applied to a drone, instead building an all-encompassing racket out of a recognisable acoustic room sound – if admittedly a room whose contents sound entirely alien.
To this, Vibracathedral add a certain ritualistic, “inner rhythm” kind of feel that allows them to side-step accusations of being mere noise, their recordings often reveling in a sort of unhinged positivity that often makes me think of them as a mirror image of their fellow acoustic(ish) drone-mongers Pelt – reaching the same transcendent goal, but through a sort of beserk, enervated busy-ness, rather than through meditational calm. A kind of pulsing, tidal noise-raga that has you nodding along to a solid, unmistakable rhythm, until you stop to consider the fact that you have no idea who or what within the recording is actually generating it. Less than throbbing of a gigantic machine, more like the sound of a chaotic inner-city marketplace fed through the guts of an electric tamboura.*
If none of this is terribly relevant to your way of thinking, well, never mind – suffice to say, I like Vibracathedral Orchestra an awful lot, but, since missing out on that initial live exposure to their sound, their physical reality as a performing group remains a weirdly mysterious prospect to me. Living far removed from their Northern base of operations, I strongly suspect that many of their comings and goings over the years have slipped entirely under my radar.
I’m certainly not aware of them having played live anywhere near me, or released any records, for, I dunno – absolutely *ages*, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they haven’t. Somehow they strike me as the kind of band who could have played just down the road from me, last week, and I probably would have missed it. If you don’t read the right smoke signals, consult the runes, a Vibracathedral appearance could well pass you by – and to be honest, I quite like that feeling. [FYI, a three-piece line-up of the band played in Brighton in 2008, and they released three LPs on VHF in 2010. – Ed.]
After years of low level anticipation though, I now finally hold in my hand something very tangible from the reconvened and apparently reinvigorated group. It’s LP shaped, it was delivered to my house last month via the auspices of the unquestionably solid VHF label, and furthermore, it trumpets the return of what is more or less the ‘full’ VCO line-up – Campbell, Mick Flower, Bridget Hayden, Adam Davenport, and Julian Bradley, with one Jon Godbert along for the ride too.
So – ‘Rec Blast Motorbike’. Here goes.
The opening of side # 1 is certainly quite bracing, pitching us straight into a densely tangled sound world that sounds something like a cross between the echoes of a two-stroke engine battering about the walls of a cathedral, and an ancient church organ being ground into dust. Swiftly leavened by queasily gratuitous, AMT-esque sci-fi synth blarps, this is a disorientating experience that leaves our ears with no choice but to forcibly acclimatize to what their being assailed with, before the track restlessly mutates into something else entirely, like some ever-shifting sonic shoggoth (perhaps distantly related to the pleasing Lovecraft fan-art vibes of the album’s cover illustration?).
Despite its garbled collage title and familiarly mysterious methodology though, ‘Rec Blast Motorbike’ is notable for featuring a clearer recorded sound than I recall from previous VCO releases. Once we’ve rolled with the punches through the first few tracks (all of which are relatively short here, btw), we can gradually pick things out amid the blare, and sometimes those things are – whisper it – kind of normal.
Where once VCO presented an undifferentiated curtain of sound, source instruments unguessable, we can now sometimes identify different components, perhaps even the contributions of different members, where once an inscrutable hive mind predominated. A vigorously thwacked floor tom here, a bit of knob-twisting on a Korg there, woody fragments of otherly tuned guitar twang….. for a brief moments mid-way through side # 1, they even sound like a particularly way-out rock band staggering to the end of a last song jam…. a worrying lapse into the tangible, to say the least.
Thankfully though, 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.
* Whilst I have attempted to offer some pointers on VCO’s ‘signature’ sound in these muddled paragraphs, it should be noted that the stylistic range across the releases I have by them is actually quite a bit wider (perhaps reflecting the group’s fluid line-up). ‘Music For Red Breath’ for instance concentrates on minimal horror movie dread-scapes, whilst the ‘MMICD’ CD features some slightly more electronic stuff, bordering on muffled, DIY techno.
Thursday, September 17, 2015
The Ethical Debating Society
– New Sense LP
I really like this album, but I’ve been agonizing for quite a while over the best angle to take in reviewing it. (Award for “most completely inappropriate usage of a variant on the word ‘agony’” is now in the post, I’m assuming.)
Ethical Debating Society are a band I’ve seen play a lot over the past couple of years, and I become more convinced of their general great-ness every single time. They have played at several nights I have helped organize, and I have shared words and social spaces with all of the band’s members on numerous occasions. They’re probably skirting the edges of my “don’t write about bands you know personally” policy, but regardless, I’d be a craven chump to let a record this good pass by without acknowledging it in these pages.
Where to begin though? I don’t know. Aside from tediously comparing them to old punk bands yet again, I’m at a loss for a suitable hook to really hang this damn thing on.
Idea # 1: I suppose the one thing that is liable to hit even the most insensitive of listeners straight away when it comes to EDS is their political engagement. Born from a scrambled legacy of riot grrl-indebted DIY, UK anarcho-punk idealism and a dash of post-hardcore muscle, every element of their existence seems rooted in some kind of fury and opposition – which is just as it should be.
Indeed, I muddled through a fairly fatuous first draft of this review along those lines, before giving in and admitting that pigeonholing EDS as a ‘political’ band just won’t cut it. Certainly, rabble-rousing specifics of the Billy Bragg/Bad Religion variety don’t really enter into the equation here (which is probably for the best), with the band’s material instead tending to evoke a far more nebulous form of gnawing dissatisfaction that, needless to say, is a lot easier to grab hold of and embrace than either toe-curling, preaching-to-the-choir voting advice or obtuse Future of the Left style snark.
And, more to the point, EDS could probably have written twelve songs about banana milkshake and this album would still grab you by the throat and demand attention. As a musical unit of rare power and direction, it is the SOUND of their electrically augmented self-expression that is liable to hit the uninitiated like a brick-bat irrespective of any prissy notions of ideology or lyrical content. Indeed, it is the force of the music itself that helps place the beliefs of its creators beyond doubt - which is surely the acid test of any quote-unquote ‘political’ group.
In short, EDS could (and presumably do) sing about any damn thing they like, and it would still be obvious to all that they aspire to take a few bloody chunks out of the architects and unwitting proponents of the nightmarish Eternal Tory half-life within which our country is currently enshrouded - which sounds like success to me, more or less.
Idea #2, then: When in a particularly grandiose mood, I’ve often been known to claim that every good rock n’ roll band needs to place itself in opposition to *something* in order to effectively harness the spirit of the music. And, given that this pronouncement usually leads immediately to the listing of dozens of groups who have done perfectly well without a hint of opposition to anything in their DNA, it’s good to be proven right for once in the case of EDS.
Lurching about in search of some kind of tangible cultural opposition to hold on to in present-day UK, it’s all to easy to form the impression that what we’re obliged to call the ‘underground’ is dissolute, internalized, marginal - basically devoid of hope. Obviously, this is bollocks – a huge number of great punk bands still exist on these shores, doing what they’ve always done for an audience that’s always been there, as I hope they will come anything short of a nuclear holocaust. But what about beyond that though..? When it comes to reaching out beyond fenced off scenes and sub-cultures, what’s out there for people? If the best attempts at rallying points the quasi-lefty, semi-mainstream media can currently dredge up are the (admittedly diverting) diatribes of Sleaford Mods and the dire Dalston Birthday Party antics of Fat White Family… well, where does that leave us?
Apathy, negativity, escapism and insular sonic wall-building all have their appeal, but as they begin to consume the entire landscape of viable music, perhaps a tonic is needed. (Before we’re drowned in a sea of teeth-grindingly wrong-headed “why isn’t pop music political anymore?” think-pieces, at the very least.)
Are Ethical Debating Society an answer to these woes, hoving into view to load up the survivors? Can they provide an X-Ray Spex style crossover, troubling ears untouched by the more violent and desperate emanations of the current London punk scene? I don’t know. Probably not. Thankfully, their music is too personal and idiosyncratic for that kind of baggage. At the same time too, they are too modest, self-sufficient and good at what they do to bother the twitter feed of some fuckwit at The Guardian – which is just as it should be.
But they still sound bloody refreshing, that’s what I’m getting at, offering invigorating punkoid rock that feels direct, inclusive and unafraid to put itself ‘out there’ without sacrificing the carefully cultivated virtues of abrasion, cynicism, noise. A big arrow pointing forward, as I believe I said in some previous post on the subject.
Idea # 3 brings us to the observation of how rare it is in these slack, screen-staring days to find a band who really stand up and commit to the hard work needed to craft a full album that is actually worth listening to from one end to the other, each song offering a different spin on the material, a different spike upon which to impale one’s troubles.
So often these days, you can find yourself listening to some indie album, trying to *find a way to like it*, searching for something to buy into. “Hmmm…. Sounds pretty good I suppose…. Sounds like band X & band Y, and they’re good…. hmmm, production’s alright… hmmm….” – the hell with it. The way to support worthwhile independent music is tune out such mediocrity, not look for a way to justify it. If it doesn’t move you, cut it out. Life’s too short. It’s not going to get any better next week, or next month, or when you’re persuaded to spend £15 to see them play a support slot at some shithole with a battalion of security guards on the door. Forget about it.
No such problems here, needless to say. It has oft been remarked in these parts in recent years that the 12 – 14 song ‘album’ is often not a helpful format for purveyors of short-ish rock/pop songs to feel they have to adhere to, and indeed, listening to ‘New Sense’ serves to remind us how rare it is to hear an LP that sounds like it was actually subject to some internal quality control rather than just a desperate scrabble for material, comprising a set of battle-hardened songs honed into shape through years of playing before the band ever started setting up mics in a studio to get it on tape. Which is – altogether now – just as it should be.
Which leads us neatly onto Idea #4 – that being to just write about the bloody songs and see where it takes us.
‘Cover Up’ is one of my favourites – a driving, dramatic number that kind of puts me in mind of ‘Shot By Both Sides’ by Magazine. After I heard them play it live a couple of times, I was so convinced it was a cover of some well-known song I couldn’t quite place, I spent ages (positively MINUTES, I tell you) googling variations on “’cover up’ punk song” before concluding it must be an original that just triggered some odd déjà vu response in my mind.
One thing that keeps coming to mind the more I play the album is the possible influence of DC/Dischord sort of stuff on proceedings, whether conscious or otherwise. ‘Mission Creep’ certainly has a bad case of the Fugazis (in the best possible way of course – some sharp, fragmented lyrical venom going on here for sure), whilst ‘Exxxtreme Vintage’ plays with hold-and-release riffs straight out of Nation of Ulysses.
Generally speaking though, this is just muscular, non-denominational punk whose spidery guitar lines, sustained treble notes and chanted, a-cappella vocal bits (v. reminiscent of Crass’s ‘Penis Envy’, it must be said) often verge into ‘post-‘ territory, but thankfully in a way that’s more Gang of Four blare, Au Pairs spite and ATV stomp’n’stumble that it is Joy Div/Siouxsie miserablism.
That last point is worth dwelling on, as, contrary perhaps to what may be gleaned from my mutterings above, EDS aren’t all serious identity politics & state of the nation frowning. The great thing about stretching out across an LP is the opportunity to get weird, and heaven knows, EDS certainly do that on my black-horse pick for favourite track on the album, the irksomely titled ‘Riderrr’. Tucked in awkwardly toward the end of side 2, this number drapes the jerky roar of DIY punk over the bones of a straight-up Girlschool / Donnas party tune, its water’s muddied further by the inexplicable addition of a kazoo, emerging like some lost Slampt/Messthetics band suddenly taking a random swing at a ZZ Top-style feel-good stadium epic – a truly delightful concoction.
So, after all that palaver, looks like I’ve just reverted back to comparing EDS to old punk bands after all. Ah well. I bet I’m the first (and most probably last) to compare them to ZZ Top at least, so that’s something.
For all the glib comparisons I’m throwing around though, it’s worth stressing that their 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, the band’s determination 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 (drums are clear as day, the distortion on Kris’s guitar is a vicious roar, and basically it’s one of the most exhilarating ‘band in a room’ sounds I’ve heard in an age), such technical accomplishment of off-set by the band’s belief (oft-stated on stage) 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 here. 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; it’s 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 fucking 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, and for that alone, 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.
‘New Sense’ can be bought here from Oddbox.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Mongrel Hi-Fi Now in Operation.
As the backlash against the ‘vinyl revival’ gains momentum, fueled by crippling production delays, Record Shop Day hucksterism and increasingly eye-watering shop prices, another argument worth throwing on the pile is the sheer expensive and physical impracticality necessary in assembling the equipment and dedicated space required for the proper appreciation of music on vinyl.
As much as we lifer music-heads might see such a set-up as our god-given right, the truth is that, despite its hip cache, a vinyl habit is just as much a display of conspicuous consumption as a rich dad’s vintage motorcycle or golf club paraphernalia. Even the quickest survey of the outlay needed these days for a half-decent deck, amp and speakers, and a quick calculation of the weight and shelving requirements of anything more than a modest collection of LPs reveals the unhappy truth that, with a myriad of other options now available for the effective home reproduction of recorded music, only a complete obsessive would venture to undertake such an investment whilst stuck in the financially stretched renting / flat-sharing milieu that comprises life for most of us in modern cities.
Needless to say, I’ve been battling to keep my own ‘vinyl option’ open in such circumstances since before I left home as a teenager, and, when the dodgy light-weight USB turntable I’ve been pre-amping through computer speakers or a guitar amp for bedroom listening crapped out last month, I realised that a) I am now comfortably settled and unlikely to be moving any time in the near future, and b) there is absolutely no point in continuing to own and buy vinyl if I’m going to persist in primarily listening to it in this “sounds shit, but it’ll do for now” kind of fashion.
Like everyone else, I’m near-broke of course, so waltzing into Richer Sounds for a few demos wasn’t really an option. The alternative then? Well, personally I went straight for that vexed crap-shoot of selecting “nearest first” on an ebay search and hoping for the collection-only best. (Note that the fact I live in London probably helped in this regard.)
Three weeks later, and after a certain amount of unforeseen expense and a not inconsiderable amount of hassle, my new set up is finally operational. For those contemplating the ebay option, my advice is to be patient and be careful; to not rush into anything, and to not be shy about thoroughly checking condition or requesting a demonstration of functionality before handing over cash. All advice that I, like a moron, entirely failed to abide by.
Finished hi-fi accounting thus looks like this:
Gemini turntable ---------------------------£0
Replacement stylus for Gemini --------- £14
Moved upstairs from the living room when the aforementioned USB deck started playing up, I got this turntable as a giveaway from friends a few years back. Frankly, it’s the kind of thing that would make an audiophile wake up in the night with a cold sweat, cheaply manufactured and equipped with an arm that “..bounces around like a donkey ride over the Himalayas”, to paraphrase one post I googled up on a hi-fi forum. But what can I say – after years of somewhat careless use, it still plays stuff at the correct speed with no noticeable skipping, and, with the addition of a long overdue fresh stylus, sound quality sounds just dandy to my cloddish ears. So IT’LL DO.
Refurbed ‘70s Turner turntable ------------£70
Replacement stylus for Turner ------------- £12
Supplied w/ a one year warranty from a North London 2nd hand shop, this is a replacement for the living room deck (connected via pre-amp to my student era mini-system). I went for it because it’s quite small and light, but still seems well built (mmm.. ‘70s) - and that warranty helps too. No problems thus far, beyond the fact the stylus they dug out of a drawer for me is completely knackered. Still awaiting the replacement as I write (it’s a bit late… maybe I should chase it up?), so let’s see how it sounds then. Thankfully I at least clocked that they’d replaced the cartridge, so the stylus code prominently displayed on the unit itself is inaccurate – one pitfall avoided.
Marantz amplifier ------------------------------ £35
The first piece of equipment I acquired this month, this was a local pick-up (I carried it home in a couple of laundry bags to avoid the rain), and it's working like a dream thus far. Nice trouble-free transaction, and nice to finally have an amp on which I can adjust the bass and treble knobs as god intended, rather than just keeping them on ‘max’ all time as the only way to get an acceptable sound. I now think on this purchase like a happy, rose-tinted memory of the way ebay-type things should be.
Sharp FM/MW/LW Tuner --------------------- £0
I already had this knocking about, but thought I’d mention it since it’s visible in the photo above. Although rarely used (and then just for static), I have some funny notions about the importance of analogue radio. Ask me about it sometime!
Acoustic Research speakers (‘70s/’80s?) --- £20
Technics double tape deck -------------------- £6.50
Speaker wire ------------------------------------- £5 inc postage
Foam repair kit for AR speakers ------------ £25 inc postage
Now here things begin to get a bit iffy. Temporarily blinded by the sight of a set of big ol’ PROPER AUDIOPHILE BRAND speakers going for a song if collected from a South London district I’ll refrain from mentioning here, I bit, and the same seller had a double tape-deck ending at the same time too, so what the hell, thought I’d jump in on that too. (Love it or hate it, the trend for bands putting out their stuff on tape isn’t going to be diminishing any time soon (see opening para of this post), so might as well get one of those too, whilst I’m in hi-fi buying mode.)
Arriving to collect these and grokking the size of the speakers cabinets, my good sense was temporarily short-circuited by embarrassment at the possibility that there was no way I could get them home without help. The seller expressed astonishment that I hadn’t come by car, which didn’t help, but thank god – both speakers just about made it into my wife’s heavyweight traveling suitcase with a fraction of an inch to spare, and I figured I could probably manage to carry the tape-deck under my arm.
Now, readers – what did I forget to do whilst engaged with all this? Yes, that’s right – I forgot to take the speaker grilles off and actually have a look at the bloody things. What a fucking idiot. It’s like finding a rare record for an unfeasibly cheap price and throwing down your cash before checking it for scratches. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
It wasn’t until arriving home, sweaty and exhausted from dragging all this stuff home via three tube interchanges, that I hooked the speakers up, and, after a minute or two of quite lovely sound, began to notice an undertow of nasty, scratchy bass distortion that seemed to increase with each disc I tried out. Pulling the grilles off, the truth is revealed – the foam surrounds around the cones had completely disintegrated, leaving sticky black goo all over everything, and one of the cones hanging down, scraping the frame slightly.
I didn’t think it was worth complaining to the seller, even though he quite possibly stitched me up rather nastily here. After all, I bought these ‘as seen’ for a paltry price, and he made no great claims about their condition other than that they ‘worked’ (which indeed they did, after a fashion). Not worth the hassle of trying to argue it from a slightly shaky position, I reasoned, and frankly I’d probably pay £20 just to not have to lug the bloody things back across the pubic transport network again.
Hi-fi repair specialists I contacted by email quoted me £250-350 for a refit and advised in friendly terms that I’d be damned to hell should I dabble in the black arts of attempting a DIY repair. Ah. However, assorted voices I googled up on hi-fi forum threads were more positive about the possibility of replacing foam surrounds at home. Indeed, they linked to various companies who sell kits for carrying out such work, and step-by-step guides that, whilst exacting and ritualistic in tone, didn’t make the job look like something that would be completely beyond my abilities. So, long story short, after spending a few miserable hours contemplating the possibility of turning the damn things into a miniature coffee table or carving them up to sell the wood, I thought I’d give home repair a go.
Whilst it sticks in my craw somewhat to pay £20 plus recorded post for what turned out to be a small pizza box containing two thin foam discs and a tube of PVA glue, my advice to anyone in a similar situation is - go for it. Though a bit messy and time-consuming, it turned out to be a doddle to be honest.
Admittedly, I’m perhaps lucky that the design of these particular speakers allowed me to bypass the much ballyhooed process of ‘centering’ the cones (they seemed to centre themselves quite nicely thank you very much, insofar as I can judge from observing the tests suggested by the online guides), and, whilst I’m sure hi-fi fanatics would be aghast at my laissez-faire methods, use of cheap, knock-off foam and failure to fully test and balance and calibration of the repaired speakers’ output (or whatever), I’m going to cautiously say that, thus far, the operation has been a complete success.
I’m prepared to eat my words if the bloody things melt and/or burst in three weeks, but for now, VICTORY IS MINE. Twenty-four hours after applying the last bit of glue, I’m trying out ‘Marquee Moon’ and it sounds better than ever. One in the eye for the git who sold me these to me without pointing out the damage, I’d like to think, but whatever - finally having the equipment needed to accurately represent recordings made on much-abused four-tracks in London bed-sits, tin sheds in Memphis, suburban basements in Ohio and other such quality recording environments is certainly a weight off my mind, let me tell you.
The irony of the fact I spent my Saturday morning on my hands and knees gouging away at fiddly electrical components that are probably older than I am whilst listening to beautifully reproduced music from my laptop, wherein over 4000 digitally stored albums are available at the touch of a button, was not lost on me, and indeed, it is something I would urge any young whippersnappers reading this post to think on long and hard before taking the plunge into full-scale vinyl collecting / listening.
Surprisingly, the only real lemon I’ve ended up with in the course of this hasty ebay spree is that bloody tape deck. Again, the issue here is something that a mere cursory inspection prior to purchase could have alerted me to in time. Basically, it turns out this is one of a few hi-fi separates that Technics inexplicably failed to provide with a conventional power supply, instead leaving them with just a funny-looking four pin plug-in designed to connect with a particular model Technics amp. In other words, it’s a fine unit in great condition, but it’s impossible to plug the fucking thing in – no alternative AC jack, no slot for a kettle lead, nothing.
Googling exposes the travails of several people who have fallen into the same trap (I mean, you buy an electrical appliance, you just ASSUME it’s going to have a plug of some kind, right?), and unfortunately, it seems the methods that might be employed to rewire it for a regular power supply are the subject of much debate, involving the careful perusal of wiring diagrams in downloaded manuals, electrical engineer level soldering skills and limited potential for success. Ho hum.
I don’t want to pull the same nasty trick that was apparently pulled on me on some other buyer or charity shop, and, assuming I’m honest about the power supply issue, I can’t see the thing ever shifting even as a Freecycle item, to be honest. Having foolishly hoofed it across town along with half a ton of speaker-filled suitcase, I now can't figure out any way it’s going to be able to leave the flat again, other than as junk. Such a waste.
On the plus side though, the deck did come loaded with two interesting looking tapes of Indian ragas, which I suppose I might theoretically have paid £6.50 for in other circumstances, so there’s that. Now I just need something to play them on…. and so it begins again.
To conclude, I’m not entirely sure what my rationale is for banging out this fairly tedious, self-absorbed mithering as a blog post has been, other than perhaps to provide a helpful case study for anyone looking to set themselves up for half-decent analogue music-listening without spending a mint, to provide a few ‘consumer mag’ type tips, and perhaps also to inspire some reflection re: the deeply impractical financial & physical investment lying behind every single one of those hepcats who can be seen haunting record shops in ever-increasing numbers every Saturday afternoon, surveying their latest acquisitions.
How much of ‘vinyl culture’, we might ask, is actually just pure front – chauvinistic male hobbyism at its worst – and how much are unscrupulous record and equipment vendors currently benefiting from this, as poorer and less experienced young people increasingly feel the need to get involved?
I’m playing devil’s advocate here to a certain extent, but, much as I love vinyl (and record shopping) on a personal level (in keeping with my preference for things old, weird and dusty in most aspects of life), the way that music culture continues to perpetrate the idea that vinyl is the only ‘proper’ way to do business is something that I think is well worth questioning, especially in an era when so many more affordable, more practical, less resource intensive ways of obsessing over recorded sound now exist.
And finally: having got all that stuff out of the way, I’m hopeful that I’ll actually be able to crack on and finish some actual reviews of some actual bloody records to post here before I head off for a sojourn overseas in September. There’s been some GREAT stuff out in recent months, stuff that have no excuse for having failed to enthuse about here, thus far so… watch this space, etc.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
In Search of (Shelf) Space.
In lieu of any new content here, it occurred to me that readers might be interested in the somewhat music-related content of a piece I just put up on my other blog, telling you more than you probably ever wished to know about Hawkwind’s adventures in the field of paperback fiction.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Reasons to Love Radio Birdman.
BLOGGER’S NOTE: I began writing this as a thing about seeing the reformed Radio Birdman play in London in June, but, realising I didn’t have much of interest to say on the subject beyond “well, they’ve got a lot older but they still put on a good show… I liked the songs… it was fun”, I thought I’d rework it and instead just talk about how much I like the band’s ‘classic era’ stuff. Popsters be warned, much talk of a ‘rockist’ nature follows.
It may be somewhat of a minority position within non-meathead musical discourse, but over the past five years or so, I’ve increasingly found myself wanting to make the case for Australia’s Radio Birdman as a really great band.
This ties in rather neatly with the fact that, during the same period, my approach to music has become increasingly utilitarian. No longer as strongly fixated on getting a personal, emotional catharsis from music as I once was, I’ve increasingly been spending my time delving into the ‘engine room’ of what actually makes it work (rhythm, instrumental interplay, tones & recording techniques), enjoying stuff that just keeps said engine running, getting me from A to B with a certain amount of finesse. And, within the sphere of standard issue guitar rock, there is little that delivers on that promise with quite the vigour of Radio Birdman in their prime.
Though often characterised as ‘punk’ or ‘garage’ by vestige of the time and place from which they emerged, Birdman can more accurately classified I think as simply playing rock music. Whilst most bands playing rock-qua-rock from the late ‘70s onwards have found themselves adopting a stance of lunkheaded conservatism though (not necessarily a criticism in this context), I think RB are one of the few who succeeded in hitting all of that music’s allotted pleasure points whilst still tweaking the parameters enough to establish their own unique blueprint, creating a body of work that, whilst admittedly mechanical in its “getting the bloody job done” formalism, nonetheless remains refreshing, characterful, intermittently exhilarating and – what’s the word I’m looking for here? – ‘awesome’, yeah, I think that’s the one.
Factor in the group’s uncanny knack for producing memorable, stadium-ready rock songs at such a pace that their years of peak creativity in the late ‘70s yielded more certified, grade A bangers than can crammed onto 80 minutes of greatest hits CD, and, in my opinion at least, you have a band who deserve to be placed alongside such hallowed purveyors of post-’76 rock action as Dead Moon, Dinosaur Jr or Motorhead, rather than amid the ranks of somewhat less inspired Aus-rock pounders who followed in their wake.
As the aforementioned pounders frequently demonstrated, bands that adhere to the Detroit High Energy template that Radio Birdman understandably hold dear have a tendency to dissolve into lumpen parody pretty damn quickly if they do it anything less than brilliantly. Needless to say, very few of them do it brilliantly. Perhaps not even Radio Birdman do it brilliantly. Crank the MC5’s ‘Skunk (Sonically Speaking)’ on your headphones sometime and tell me, in all honesty, is there anyone left in the world who can do it brilliantly?
So: to my mind, the two quantifiable factors that helped Birdman duck this bullet and establish their own sound were *momentum* and *efficiency*.
For the former, and to some extent the latter too, we need to begin by offering thanks to drummer Ron Keeley, who I think ranks alongside Hawkwind’s Simon King as the most indomitable rock time-keeper of the ‘70s. To not put too finer point on it,, the main innovation that Radio Birdman brought to the Stooges/MC5 formula was SPEED. Refusing to fall back on an ol’ bluesy chug, the band adopted a post-’76 punk RPM right out of the gate and barely eased off the throttle for a second through their first few years of operation.
OK, so we’re not exactly talking Minor Threat here, but for a band playing this kind of riffola rock music, Radio Birdman are FAST, and Keeley just never lets up. No faux-caveman tom-tom bullshit or sub-Bonham bombast from this cat – even on the band’s occasional tough love ‘ballads’ and even rarer psychedelic detours, he keeps up a relentless chk-chk-chk on the hi-hat, elevating potentially sloppy material into a slick power-glide that sees potential bad ideas or moments of self-indulgence fading in the rear-view mirror before they’ve had time to really make a stink. (See their first album’s requisite ‘quiet number’ ‘Love Kills’ or ‘weird wig-out’ ‘Man With Golden Helmet’ for perfect examples.)
If there’s one thing that tends to torpedo yr archetypal rock band, it’s their tendency to HANG AROUND. You know the kind of thing - pain-stakingly drawing out each riff, each lyric, each decaying power chord and drum fill, letting it hang in the air as if they’re waiting for someone to pat them on the back and congratulate them on their genius before they finally move onto the next bit of their stupid song. Lord preserve us. There have been a few bands over the years who can muster enough leverage to justify this kind of bombast. Most cannot, and should not. It is an all-too-easy alternative to actually, y’know, rocking, and it was likely this sense of having their time as listeners WASTED (as opposed to the much-ballyhooed boogeyman of prog-rock twiddling) that likely drove so many fans away from rock-qua-rock into the arms of the post-’76 punk-qua-punk whose ascent Radio Birdman happily coincided with.
Not that the rest of RB really NEEDED Keeley’s golden kick pedal to save them from this sorry fate though I should make clear, and that brings us neatly to the second point on our agenda - the band’s *efficient* approach to the business of rockage.
Radio Birdman are remarkable as a six piece band whose performances betray no hint of star performer / ego trip issues. A band like the ‘5 may have thrived on one-upmanship and displays of individual virtuosity, but with Birdman, everything feeds into the whole. No ‘star turns’, no dominant personalities crashing against each other – even vocalist Rob Younger seems content seems content to step back, keep his Iggy-lite antics in check and enunciate clearly (CLEAR ENUNCIATION! Yeah, that’s what we want in our rock n’ roll!), playing his allotted part in a band that often operates like one giant rhythm section.
Beyond it’s obvious musical benefits, this gospel of efficiency could, perhaps, at a stretch, be extended to embrace the band’s entire philosophy.
“In the late '70s, I used to get highly criticised for being a medical student,” lead guitarist Deniz Tek said in a 2006 interview I happened to stumble upon this morning. “I was called out for not being committed to music, because I wasn't sitting around on a couch watching television, shooting up heroin all day when I wasn't playing. In the strange world that we lived in, that was commitment.”
Whilst I can’t speak for the other members of the band’s original line-up, this commitment to living a productive life and, y’know, DOING STUFF is definitely something that feeds into the momentum of their music. Radio Birdman's love for The Stooges and The ‘5 is not in question, but the unspoken question behind a listen to their definitive ‘Radios Appear’ album seems to be: well, yeah, but imagine how great those guys could have been if they’d dropped all the slovenly drug addict “it’s only rock n roll man” bullshit and actually tightened the fuck up?
If the result admittedly loses a lot of rough edges, and certainly can't hold a candle to the tormented genius of something like ‘Funhouse’, it still makes for consistently exhilarating rock music that’s liable to stay in circulation long after most of the more, uh, ‘lifestyle’ based Stooge imitators have crashed and burned.
I love the way that the band are arrayed on the cover of ‘Radios Appear’ - uniformed in black with the (brilliantly meaningless) band insignia stitched to their shoulders – an apolitical army assembled purely to aid the delivery of rock n’ roll. Tek may stand front and centre as main songwriter and nominal leader (not to mention the guy with the coolest looking guitar), but on the record itself, he wisely resists the urge to dominate. Keeping his Asheton-worthy Awesome Lead Guitar Shit concise and melodic, he only occasionally busts out into full-blown wildness, and rarely denies his comrades the chance to shine behind him. Vis-à-vis my point about bombast above, there’s something kinda exciting about a guitarist who’s confident enough to give you a bit less of what he’s capable of, isn’t there? It makes his short, controlled bursts of fuzz and wah all the more thrilling before he ploughs his energies back into the song.
Here’s a fun fact for you: when he wasn’t busy playing Asheton-worthy Awesome Lead Guitar Shit with the best band in Australia, Tek was (and presumably still is?) a fully qualified ER surgeon, specializing in “emergency and aerospace medicine”. This line of work led to him co-piloting experimental aircraft for the US Navy during the ‘80s - an assignment for which he used the call-sign “Ice-Man”, thus allegedly inspiring the character of the same name in ‘Top Gun’. Qualms re: toadying for the military-industrial complex aside, I think we have a pretty good example here if a guy who’s living the dream.
This dedication to an exciting lifestyle is perhaps reflected not only in Radio Birdman’s velocity, but also in Tek’s song-writing and guitar-playing, as his lead riffs and central melodies circle back again and again toward the kind of delightful, surf-derived stings that one can easily imagine soundtracking a particularly exhilarating car chase, or the opening credits of the best cop show you’ve never seen (probably featuring a speedboat).
Even more agreeably, the band’s lyrics tend to follow suit, building up fragmentary images of a kind of high speed action movie dreamland, in which oblique references to the glories of mid-west American rock n’ roll mix with vignettes of highway chaos, aerial dog-fights and criminal escapades – a kind of super-charged escapism that never quite cops out and gives us the full story, but just drops random images of stylized macho glory hither and thither to delightful effect, the way a good rock n’ roll song should.
Birdman’s signature tune ‘Aloha Steve & Danno’ – an extended tribute to TV’s ‘Hawaii 5-0’ – very much sets the scene in this respect. Anyone who still holding on to some kind of illusion regarding rock’s supposedly inherent radical / anti-authoritarian stance may feel a tad conflicted hearing a boisterous Birdman crowd chanting “book him Danno, Murder One!”, but it’s all in good fun, and happily the rest of their catalogue is scattered with some of the most fantastically unlikely declarations and stupid/genius lyrical non-sequiturs heard this side of Blue Oyster Cult or prime-era Misfits. Their use of numbers and technical specifics is particularly good I think – like Chuck Berry jacked up after reading too many spy novels or something.
“Feel my hand across your lip / got a P38 with a loaded clip”
“Seven four, taking me away / I'll never make it back to the USA”
“Sunlight flashing through the window nearly drove me blind / just like the light on the front of that twelve-oh five”
“Dark cloud of espionage / hangs over fair Hawaii”
“On the third day of the seventh month / we will ride the highway!”
“Walking in on rivers of sorrow / riding to hell on rails of fear!”
I could go on. Maybe opinions will differ, but what can I say - as a lifelong fan of pulp fiction and violent comic book nonsense, this kind of stuff just delights me.
Regarding band’s persistent lyrical references to Detroit and the American Mid-West, I had previously assumed that they were simply so infatuated with the mystique of Detroit Rock City that they’d started writing songs about living there, but the minimal amount of research undertaken for this post reveals that Deniz Tek was actually born and raised in Stooge ground zero Ann Arbor, MI, and only relocated to Sydney to attend medical college in 1972, presumably meaning that he got to experience the glory days of his band’s heroes first hand as a young man – a source of inspiration / nostalgia that he clearly drew upon heavily for some of his best grown up lyrics.
The aforementioned ‘Love Kills’ is a particularly pertinent example of this, a baleful, somewhat BOC-ish tune that may-or-may-not draw upon the legends of Iggy’s early relationship with Nico, spilling lines that are somewhat more troubled and evocative than the admittedly slightly daft concerns of the bulk of Birdman’s lyrics (quoting seems excessive, but read ‘em in full from Tek’s own typewriter here).
Taking a rather different tack, the height of Birdman’s Detroit-mania perhaps comes on another of my favourite tunes, the somewhat deranged ‘I-94’, whose peculiarities I’ll leave you to figure out for yourself, merely noting that I have rarely encountered such a fine set of brilliantly stupid rock n’ roll lyrics.
So what does all this add up to? I dunno…. seems like the time for a concluding paragraph, but I’ve not really got one to hand. Hopefully I’ve made my essential points clearly enough in all the rambling above, and my usual technique of ending with an ill-conceived, hand-wringing emotional entreaty of some kind doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill.
Radio Birdman won’t change your life. They’re not trying to. Like a custom car mechanic or electrical engineer, their intention is to take familiar elements that have rarely sat alongside each other, and combine them into a slick, streamlined package that delivers what it promises.
You want some rock music today? Forget those millionaires still creakily stomping around festival stages hawking their ever-diminishing legacies. (In fact, whilst you’re at it, probably best conveniently ignore the fact that cynics might accuse RB of doing exactly that of recent.)
I’ve got some rock music for you right here – it’s a CD called ‘Essential Radio Birdman 1974-78’ that Sub-Pop put out in 2001. It contains most of their best recordings remixed/remastered to great effect, and if you like listening to music whilst walking, running, driving and doing things, it’ll stay in your ears longer than most other stuff; wherever you’re going, it’ll get you from A to B with a smile on your face, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
Labels: Radio Birdman
Monday, June 22, 2015
If You've Got Some Time To Contemplate
A Bit Of Music-Write This Week....
A Bit Of Music-Write This Week....
...you could do worse than read Neil Kulkarni's concise summation of everything you need to know about mid-'70s Zambian rock. "Need" being the operative word.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
(1930 – 2015)
Looks like I’m pretty late to the wake on this one, but somehow I only discovered today that Ornette Coleman has passed away.
As seems appropriate given that much of his music aimed at transcending any sort of linguistic analysis or rational definition, I’m pretty tongue-tied when it comes to trying to find anything to say about the great man just at the moment, but I’d highly recommend taking a few minutes to read Stewart Smiths’s tribute, which gets it about spot on I reckon.
After that, as several obits I’ve seen today have commented, it’s probably best to shut up and listen to the music. This being 2015 and all, I'm sure you know where to find it without help from me.
A few random, prosaic observations whilst you’re doing that:
1. ‘The Empty Foxhole’, from 1966, on which Ornette plays accompanied by his ten year old son Denardo on drums, is perhaps / probably my favourite of his records. Just a really unique, weirdly accessible and beautiful chunk of ragged, open-hearted music; I love it. (Goes down particularly nicely stuck between some electric blues on mix CDs.)
2. ‘This Is Our Music’ and his super-aggravated soundtrack to Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’ take my #2 and #3 slots.
3. The former, as pictured above, is definitely my pick for one of my favourite album covers of all time. As with the music within, I can’t quite explain exactly why, but I’ve owned it on vinyl for years (bought it alongside tons of other cheap avant-jazz from a stall in Leicester market, I seem to recall) and I still love staring at it. The photo above isn’t mine (it’s sourced from Tumblr I think), but inexplicably, it’s the best representation of the artwork I can currently find online.
4. I wish that my memories of seeing Coleman perform at the Royal Festival hall in 2007 – sweating away in the cheap seats in my ill-fitting work trousers about a hundred miles away from the action – were clearer. Kind of a strange and rambunctious performance, big on shriek and clatter, featuring three bassists, I seem to recall. Between that and Cecil Taylor a few days later in the same room, it was all a bit overwhelming.
5. Having on numerous occasions used the word “harmolodic” as a high falutin’ synonym for “discordant” when discussing rock music in the past on this blog and probably elsewhere, I hereby publically state that that was pretty inadvisable and that I will do my utmost never to do so again.
6. I’ve never really dug into his ‘70s output, but Stew’s piece linked above certainly makes it sound interesting.
7. Covertly knocking this post out in the office as my colleague plays bullshit contemporary “indie” music on some streaming service has not been the most pleasant of experiences.
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
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