The stars still shine, the museum's free.
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Saturday, September 27, 2014
Slum of Legs –
Begin To Dissolve
b/w Razorblade The Tape 7”
(Tuff Enuff, 2014)
This little 45 is a monster. Within its two song / nine minute duration, there is more creativity, chaos, surprise, energy and innovation than can be found on the vast majority of full length LPs/albums I’ve heard this year. (And that’s not just mindless hyperbole either – before writing this, I put all my recently purchased records on the scales, just to check.)
I said of Slum of Legs’ demo tape earlier this year that; “..the three tracks [here] do function VERY MUCH as a demo […] giving only a fleeting, muffled impression of the kind of rampant creativity this unit is capable of”. This single then can be seen to represent the full realisation of this Brighton collective’s potential – a stew of wildly disparate (some might say contradictory) elements, successfully boiled down to a perfectly imperfect essence. A kind of fiendish, exploratory outsider pop music that recognises no limitations, imposes no boundaries upon its members’ divergent impulses, yet somehow works toward the same functional totality. It is a lovely thing to hear.
All this is rather abstract thus far, so let’s get down to brass tacks.
‘Begin to Dissolve’ opens with an overdriven Add N to X-ish analogue synth riff that is soon joined scraggly, chiming guitar, nervy, Cale-ish violin, martial drumming and vocalist Tasmin Chapman’s voice a clarion of assertive, post-punky anguish: “Inside the static I hear whispers, they say everything is dead!”. Thunking great X Ray Spex/ATV punk chords enter to emphasize what I suppose is the chorus part, before waves of Radiophonic/Oliver Postgate oddity and a few bars of poignant, doleful violin swing past over the uneasy, Mo Tucker-ish clatter of the gtr/bass/drums. Next a touch of roaring, doom-ish low end guitar enters the equation, closely followed by a storm of transistor radio static. “Is there anybody there? Can you tell me your reaction?” demands an unidentified interviewer/operator as muttering EVP voices crackle away in the corners. We’re at 2:30 of a 3:44 song by this point, and nothing we’ve heard sounds contrived, inorganic or at all out of whack with the elements surrounding it. The remaining 70-odd seconds becomes a drop into dream-time, a sort of grey-skied river-gloop narrative of decayed spoken word and DIY punk propulsion, concluding in a maelstrom of roaring gobbledygook.
‘Razorblade The Tape’ dials down the strangeness considerably, flying a lot closer to what journos are obliged to term ‘accessible’, which makes it’s placement on the b-side oddly pleasing. Beginning gently, like a long-lost Marine Girls off-cut, things quickly evovle into a quite wonderful bit of off-kilter, synth-damaged guitar pop, that drifts into a persistently catchy, Stereolabby song-drone over the course of the next few minutes. It demands less comment than the A side but is equally persuasive - a perfect flipside to the preceding song’s more menacing impulses.
Weird, dissident, homemade, different from anything YOU’D make – these are some of the key notion that spring to mind where Slum of Legs is concerned I think. I may have bandied around an unpalatable number of dubious band-name comparisons in the preceding paragraphs, but perhaps SOL’s true spiritual predecessors are – naturally - outfits that sound more or less nothing like them. In particular, I’m thinking the sort of feeling that can be found lurking in the obscurest corners of unacknowledged female creativity in the murkiest years of post-punk era. Androids of Mu, The Fates, that sort of thing. Basically, both this single and the demo tape sound like what pop music might have become in 1982 if William S. Burroughs had been writing the script and a stern regiment of well-drilled Raincoats/Au Pairs partisans had been carrying it out.
Even in 2014 – perhaps especially in 2014 - it is exhilarating to hear a band making such imaginative, evocative and open-ended music whilst still remaining ostensibly within the realm of song-based ‘pop’, trawling for thrills in the shallows of the avant garde whilst happily avoiding its tendency toward alienating abstraction. This is Weird Music, no doubt - taking risks, posing questions, demanding attention. But it is also very giving music - a lot of fun for creators and listeners alike.
Listen and buy from Tuff Enuff.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
October is shaping up nicely.
Monday, September 01, 2014
Murder by Guitar LP
(1976-80 / Superior Viaduct, 2014)
Crime are legend. A group whose rep cannot be fucked with. One of the all-time cult rock fetish totems. They’re that band you find via smoke signals, by following the clues. The one that, when you finally get to them, obliterates all else.
What The Sonics are to ‘60s American punk, Crime are to its ‘70s (pre-hardcore) iteration. The real deal; the undiluted, full strength dose; the wildest of the wild; the key that gets you entry to all locked rooms.
Unlike most subsequent US punk, image is all important with Crime, and, as locked via their most widely disseminated photos, just the sheer sight of them still hits harder than the actual music of many of their lesser peers. Gaunt, bone-thin motherfuckers, uniform greaser quiffs and flat-tops, dead blank expressions on the verge of a post-photo sneer; this isn’t just BEFORE Malcolm Maclaren ruined everything, it’s an alternate blueprint from a whole different universe. Style never goes out of fashion, and all that.
But the coup de grace, the element of absolute perverse genius, arrived a year or so into their sporadic recording & performance career, when the band took the decision to adopt full, neatly pressed police uniforms, complete with ties, badges of office and accompanying Ray-Bans. A simple move, but aesthetically devastating. As provocateurs, these cats knew exactly what they were doing.
Whether spectators were aroused by an instinctive, lizard brain hatred of the cops, by an unease at the sacred uniform being co-opted by sneering punkers under the banner of CRIME or merely by the cognitive dissonance that results from a confusion between cops and robbers, the band knew perfectly well that when they come out swinging dressed like that, no one is comfortable. Plus, it just looked fucking cool. I mean, watch live footage online and it looks like they actually got those uniforms *tailored*, y’know? Sharp.
And then of course, there’s the music, which at its best is just… incredible. Like Chuck Berry rock n’ roll tied to a chair and tortured with electric shocks and razorblades, rockabilly hip thrusts blurring into the lumbering spectre of grinding proto-Black Flag/Flipper noise aggro. Masking amateur imprecision with feedback and swagger until things got within waving distance of The Electric Eels’ avant-obnoxiousness, Crime spat out an unholy mess of brilliance.
Slicing out the influence of the ‘60s as if it were a tumour (a pretty radical gesture when you’re first on the scene in mid-‘70s San Francisco), what remains zeroes straight in on everything that the more subterranean rock n’ roll of the ‘50s achieved when it appeared, amped up for a nastier, even more divisive decade to come: frightening, incomprehensible, and exhilarating.
One of the most jaw-dropping and unnerving music vids I’ve ever found on Youtube is the Target Video footage of Crime playing a performance in the recreation yard at San Quentin prison - the same correctional facility where Crime’s sartorial precursor Johnny Cash was knockin’ em dead a decade or so previously.
Now, who in the hell thought that a militantly aggressive punk rock band named Crime would be the perfect fit for a morale-raising prison gig, I have no idea. And who the hell subsequently let them walk in WEARING POLICE UNIFORMS, I can’t even imagine. But nonetheless, that is what seems to be happening when the video begins, and, though no violence actually broke out to my knowledge, “uneasy” doesn’t even begin to do justice to the situation that resulted.
One of the great things about Crime I think is the way they knowingly took on the whole ‘bad boy’ cliché of rock n’ roll, but, rather than using it for nostalgia or escapism, they proceeded to push it right back in their audience’s faces as if it were the realest, most tangible thing in the world (a trait they shared with the early years of The Cramps to some extent, but I digress) - and that is exactly what you see in the San Quentin video.
Standing there in the uniforms of San Fran’s finest, the band face down a small army of motionless convicts, some sitting, grinning, holding up photocopied Crime promo posters as the camera pans across them, others standing, arms-crossed and surly. Exhibiting a complete disregard for decorum or good sense, the band launch straight into Piss On Your Dog – originally titled ‘Prisoner Dog’, until their fans started shouting the misheard lyric back at them - the heaviest and most threatening song in their repertoire. Refusing to dial down the kind of aggro-laden performance they might have presented to a crowd of college kid rock fans even a fraction, Frankie Fixx and Johnny Strike stalk the stage like dogs on a leash, giving it all of their best “come on you fuckers” body language, as the amp stacks roar with evil distortion and guards stationed on a raised gantry clutch loaded rifles to their chest as if they expect things to kick off at any moment. Then to top it all off, right in the middle of the no man’s land between the band and the prisoners, a lone woman dances enthusiastically, apparently oblivious to the brooding tensions being exercised in this otherwise all-male environment. What a scene. Love what they’re doing or hate it, it’s hard to deny that this is a band with balls of steel.
Like most people who weren’t knocking about in the Bay Area in the late 1970s, I first became aware of Crime via the cover of ‘Hotwire My Heart’ on Sonic Youth’s ‘Sister’. That was ol’ Thurston Moore hard at work of course – scanning and regurgitating anything hip like an art school photocopier. But as with so many other things, I’m still grateful to him for pointing the way, even if the vague attribution of the song to “Johnny Strike/Crime” didn’t initially mean a lot to me amid the Philip K Dick goofing mirror-message blather of ‘Sister’s sleeve notes.
And like many people (in the UK, at least), I first caught up with the original Hotwire My Heart (A-side of Crime’s first single) shortly after the millennium, buffed up and compressed for maximum impact on Rough Trade Shops’ epochal ‘Rock and Roll 01’ compilation. To say it sounded like the best thing on there is no small boast amid such a monolithic track-listing, and the song’s brain-melting, beyond-punk totality proceeded to launch a hundred over-excited mixtapes of the “fucking eat this!” variety.
Guitars flailing like loose electrical cables, vocals that sound like one of them just hit Gene Vincent in the ass and gave him brain damage, drumming so dismembered and lost in the mix it’s difficult to tell if the player is some kind of improv genius or merely incompetent (I suspect the latter), it’s a recording like no other; unhinged, accidental, psychotic and just impossible to unpack or compute on first listen.
Both then and now, the late Frankie Fixx’s lead guitar playing on these early Crime cuts is a total inspiration, and it’s at its very best on ‘Hotwire..’, ploughing straight in, needle in the red, with only the vaguest idea of what he’s doing, but with a total confidence and bravery that allows no quarter, riffing and screeching cack-handedly as if DARING some damn hippie to stand up and tell him he “can’t play”, slurring notes and letting feedback ring, revelling in the mess, like some moonshine-ripped rockabilly plucked from a one mic rural studio, now suddenly tooled up for the era of full scale noise. Just amazing.
A few years after that white light moment came sneaky downloads of Crime’s first two singles, plus the San Francisco’s Still Doomed compilation LP on Swami Records, a legit copy of which has sat conspicuously on my birthday/xmas present list for years. Frustration on the second single’s A is another work of genius, Baby You’re So Repulsive is as blunt & brutal a punk rager as the name suggests, and even the second 45’s lengthy b-side ‘Murder by Guitar’ has a certain kind of ballsy idiot charm to it, even if it is just an indulgent fuck up of a track really. And as to the comp LP, well that offered more of the same in greater quantities really, though I confess, the relentless aggression and relative tunelessness of Crime’s lesser known demo material wore my weedy senses down to the wire pretty quick, even as ‘Rock n Roll Enemy’ and ‘San Francisco’s Doomed’ took a seat aside the single cuts as firm faves. (Format note: a friend of mine has a vinyl copy of ‘..Still Doomed’ that sounded absolutely ferocious compared to the mp3s when he threw in on the turntable; I coveted it muchly.)
Much water under the bridge since then of course, and this latest collection on Superior Viaduct arrives at a time when the merits of relentless aggression and tunelessness seem a whole lot more appealing to yours truly, meaning that promises of a wealth of *previously unheard* Crime studio recordings (alongside all the material from the singles) had me jumping in anticipation.
So, now I’ve got it, how does hold up? Well, as is usually the case with these ‘complete recordings’ comps of obscure punk and garage bands, the LP played front to back is a bit of a mixed bag, but this more or less chronologically-ordered recap of Crime’s trips to the studio does at least succeed in presenting a slightly weirder and more interesting musical story than yet another “hmm, turns out everything else they did was pretty dull” styled addition to the KBD/Nuggets completest archives.
Obviously it’s great to hear ‘..Repulsive’ and ‘Frustration’ sounding better than ever, and if the somehow-previously-unreleased ’77 recordings of ‘Terminal Boredom’ and ‘Dillinger’s Brain’ perhaps aren’t QUITE as inspired, they still could’ve made for a respectably fucked up KBD-era single, the former song a surprisingly straight up punker that reminds me a little of The Zeros, whilst the latter delves into the band’s weird gutter-pulp crime obsessions with all the subtlety you’d expect (which is to say, none at all). Even ‘Murder by Guitar’ sounds quite nice as heard in higher fidelity here, with its repetition, idiot noise, and winningly dumb declaration that “I’m gonna drive this guitar straight through your heart!” just about winning me over.
Sadly, the newly exhumed studio version of ‘Piss On Your Dog’ turns out to be a bit of a bust, sounding hesitant and muddled, with weak drumming resulting in a flubbed riff that completely misses the fearsome menace of the extant demo and live versions, and the LP’s B-side opens with another bummer, in the shape of the long and uneventful drag of ‘TV Blues’, an ambitious attempt at a slower, more art-damaged kind of song-writing that regrettably never really gets off the ground, sounding, strangely, like a really rough demo of one of those dreary/dreamy late-era Sonic Youth songs that were putting us all to sleep through the ‘00s.
Thankfully after that we’re back in business with ‘If Looks Could Kill’ and ‘Lost Soul’ from ’79, which both fucking rip it, the former perhaps the clearest example of Crime’s re-tooled rockabilly mode ever captured on tape, whilst the latter builds around a metallic, Lou Reed-ish “strutting down the street” riff to brilliantly cool effect, even if the lyrics, in true Crime tradition, sound like they were written about twenty seconds after they started recording (an issue which starts to become problematic at this point in their career, when gradually increasing fidelity means we can finally hear what they’re going on about).
Those tunes catch us on the cusp of the point at which Crime like many mid ‘70s punk bands who staggered into the cold glare of the ‘80s, started to go a bit weird, and not necessarily in a good way. Signposting these changes pretty clearly, ‘79’s ‘Rockin’ Weird’ was produced by none other than Huey Lewis (yes, that one, etc), and the trad boogie piano slapped high atop the somewhat cleaner mix is a bit of a shock to say the least, even if some totally vicious riffing beneath succeeds in salvaging the band’s bad-ass cred to a certain extent.
It’s an odd cut for sure - perhaps an errant example of what might have happened if Crime had reined in their excesses for new waver-era public consumption? Thankfully, the band never really ventured much further in that direction, but it seems that by the dawn of the ‘80s they were heading into stranger waters altogether, as demonstrated on the swan song of their original recording career, the much maligned 1980 single ‘Gangster Funk’ b/w ‘Maserati’.
For years, those song titles have had inquisitive punks running a mile (myself included), and indeed their worst fears would only have been confirmed by actually listening to the damn thing, as it finds Crime apparently pushing toward what I can only describe as some kind of beyond-kitsch, retro-futurist groove-rock, fearlessly embracing such horrors as gated drums, phased fretless bass and random, panning synth swooshes alongside their by now rather contrived curled lip vocal sneer. Imagine the kind of music a neo-rockabilly band might make in some ill-advised ‘80s proto-cyberpunk movie club scene, mixed up with a bit of cut price “we are the future” methodology left over from Neil Young’s ‘Trans’, and you’ll get the idea.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say these songs are “good” (though 'Maserati' comes close), but it’s a testament to Crime’s basic talent for rock n’ roll that they could indulge in such nonsense and at least escape embarrassment, emerging with something reasonably listenable, their trademark strutting aggression left largely intact. It might have been interesting to see where they went next with all this, but, for better or worse, we can assume that a mixture of label poverty, bad living and audience disinterest put the nix on Crime’s planned future-rock utopia at this point, leaving that final single an intriguing oddity, an appropriately uneasy question mark at the end of one of the most relentlessly vicious and original recording careers in US punk history.
Just as ‘San Francisco’s Still Doomed’s ragged skree didn’t really succeed in presenting the whole picture of Crime’s work, ‘Murder By Guitar’s more clinical / chronological approach proves equally unsatisfactory [just two of the essential songs not included: Samurai, Rock n Roll Enemy]. But for providing the other half of the jigsaw, it is essential listening all the same. If you are at all interested in this band (and if you’ve heard ‘Hotwire My Heart’ and you’re not, then fucking hell, you’re in the wrong business), just do the decent thing and get them both. Then play them simultaneously in some kind of audio battle royale. Go on, do it. I’ll be ready in the corridor with a nice cup of tea when you stagger out clutching your bulging forehead. In conclusion: CRIME! YEAH! New songs by CRIME? YEAH!! CRIME! What are you waiting for, buy it already.
Buy from Superior Viaduct in the US, or try Norman in the UK.
Tuesday, August 05, 2014
Zig-Zags – s/t LP
(In The Red, 2014)
[N.B. - Just in case any real life friends happen to stop by, please be aware that this is a post I've had scheduled for a couple of weeks, and I forgot it was going up until today. Everyone else - please ignore that and read on... for reasons I won't go into here, it could be the last post here for at least a *little* while.]
So - a long, whiny, inconclusive and generally pointless post to reward anyone who’s dutifully continued checking this blog over the shaky empty patches this year. Thanks, you’re welcome! Here goes….
Last summer, I went to see that band Fuzz, with that fella Ty Segall playing drums. I held no pre-existing animosity toward the band or its members, but sad to say, I thought they pretty much sucked.
Not to sound like a musical proficiency nazi or anything, but the musical chalice of which Fuzz were knowingly partaking - that being ‘70s style heavy rock / metal - requires certain skills that are not easily acquired. Ineffable, time-worn virtues that we may term ‘chops’, ‘groove’, ‘instrumental interplay’ etc – that is where the heart of the music lies, and unfortunately these men largely failed to ‘bring it’, in the parlance of our times. Basically they sounded like what they presumably are - garage-punk guys who one day decided “hey Black Sabbath is totally cool, let’s do stuff like that”, and, lacking the walk-the-walk badassery of the musicians who have wrestled that quite demanding music into shape over the course of years of practice and dedication, their attempts remain just that – attempts. A well-intentioned goof, without much in the plus column beyond a truly monstrous guitar sound (achieved by means of splitting the signal between about nine different combo amps, much to the chagrin of whoever was in charge of hiring and transporting their tour gear, I’d imagine).
Their record is marginally ok, but for anyone with a love and understanding of this kind of music, that live performance (monumental racket aside) was strictly ‘local opening band’ level stuff, and seeing a capacity crowd going nuts for it when so many more convincing purveyors of ‘70s Heavy (Mount Carmel, for example) remain obscure was a fairly depressing sight.
Around the same time as that performance, I randomly purchased a 7” on the Mexican Summer label, because I liked the cover art. Returning home and throwing it on, I discovered a perfect riposte to that Fuzz show. “Now THIS is how you combine punk and heavy!”, I might have yelled, had anyone else been unlucky enough to be in the room at the time - and indeed it is. The single was ‘Scavenger’ b/w ‘Wastin My Time’ by Zig-Zags, and without descending into spittle-flecked superlatives, let’s just say that it’s a goddamn rampage, and that if you like this sorta thing, you should get a copy. Mixing a loose, live-in-a-cement-mixer recording and a fairly demented, fuzz-drenched atmosphere with a vicious, forward-moving swing and primo power trio bludgeon, the A-side in particular is like a showcase for everything Fuzz lacked. It’s really great.
Roughly a year passes, and I note there’s a new Zig-Zags LP out on In The Red. And guess who’s producing it? Ty Segall, no less! Boy, this should be fun. Again, I must reiterate that I have nothing against the guy, I’m sure he’s a lovely human being. But musically speaking? Myself and ol’ Jonathan Livingston (as I hope someone calls him) just do not see eye to eye.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem - I could just ignore him, the way I ignore the vast majority of successful contemporary musicians. But the fact that he keeps popping up and making waves within genres of music that I like, and working with bands that I like, keeps on drawing me back in - and thus the way he seems to keep getting everything just a little bit wrong (IMHO) proves quite irksome, with his production aesthetic on other people’s records being a particular bugbear of mine.
In this respect, the Zig-Zags LP may be the worst casualty to date, as the murky-yet-thrilling KBD basement splatter of the 7” is replaced by a militantly dry, over-compressed sound, resulting in the kind of rock record where it sounds like all the instruments have been recorded clean and separate, then dipped in fake, designer distortion, further marred by frequent use of a really regrettable cheesy phaser effect, whilst the vocals hang awkwardly on top, feigning the necessary ‘attitude’ whilst sounding isolated from the live-room roar that needs to drive and empower them. Not a good look.
BUT, as any Husker Du fan will tell you, there’s more to a record than the frrkin’ *production*, and the Zig-Zags single was so strong, they can rise above, right? At this point in our timeline, I’m streaming online (cos I don’t know about you, but the era of hopeful blind buys is over), and let’s see now… opener ‘Brainded’ [sic] is a rather ominous, mid tempo Sabbathian riff exercise – it’s ok, but track # 2, ‘The Fog’ - POW! Now this is the one! Fucking hell, this is BRILLIANT. Blasting off at pop-punk velocity with a full-spectrum power-chord churn and lyrics kinda vaguely inspired by the John Carpenter movie, what we’ve got here is a basically a classic-era Misfits song with Sabbath guitars on top. Not the most eloquent description ever penned perhaps, but ‘nuff said, I hope, and I’m pulling the trigger on ordering this LP RIGHT NOW. Third track, ‘Magic’ is just as good, hammering home that “anthemic horror-rock” feel as the lead overdub shreds and howls, and I’m filling in my debit card details over at Norman, ready to go.
Then I had to go and do something or other, so I put off previewing the rest of the album until the vinyl arrived. Bad move, as it turns out. Blasting through the guitar amp hooked up to my upstairs turntable, the aforementioned songs still sound great. After that, things take a slump, but we’re still motoring nicely. ‘No Blade of Grass’ is a snappy, light-weight number that gets by on a nice melody (no lyrical connection to Cornel Wilde’s movie adaptation of John Christopher’s ‘The Death of Grass’, sadly – I think it’s more of a weed reference..). ‘Tuff Guy Hands’ is an alright punker (‘pleasantly gritty’ say my tasting notes), and ‘Down The Drain’ ends side A on a minor highlight with a lengthy instrumental section layering firestorm guitars over relentless Lemmy bass, rather in the manner of something off that Drag City Purling Hiss LP from last year, evoking at least some of the spirit I enjoyed so much on the ‘Scavenger’ single. Nothing particularly breath-taking on the album’s second quarter then, but none too shabby either.
After spending a few minutes enjoying the droning locked groove that finishes the side though (nice touch), we flip to side B and, hmm, much of it is a bit ‘in one ear, out the other’, more or less… most of it’s pretty alright, and there are a few memorable numbers, but with music this short on subtlety, if it doesn’t hit you between the eyes the first time round, there’s not much point going back again to check.
In general, Zig-Zags seem to be moving away here from the gnarlier heavy rock moves evidenced on their single, ruthlessly cutting down on solos, fills and multi-part riffs in favour of a straight up punk chord-wall, ploughing forward with a a pure, plasticised brainlessness that often has them sounding like horror/metal orientated cousins of The Spits or Mean Jeans. Sometimes they’ve got a bit of a Kiss-captured-by-thugs fist-pounding glam/hair metal thing going on (cf: ‘Soul Sound’), other times they add a dash of Venom-esque thrash, pushing toward that same metal n’ roll nirvana achieved by Satan’s Satyrs on Wild Beyond Belief!. And they very nearly get there too, with only iffy production, middling song-writing and a faint whiff of ironic distance wiping them out on the last lap. A pity.
That said, I haven’t tried listening to this album whilst drunk…. maybe that would help get Zig-Zags over the finish line? It’s quite possible. Sobriety probably represents a poor lens through which to evaluate this kind of full spectrum ug-rock.
As mentioned, when the formula really hits good – on ‘The Fog’ and ‘Magic’, primarily – the results speak for themselves. Misfits, Fu Manchu, Roky Erickson… you know - happy times. For the most part, lyrics here are a hap-hazard collage of pure knuckleheaded horror / party dude cliché – sometimes bordering on the unwholesome, but more often just plain fixed grin stoopid. If for some unfathomable reason you’ve never seen all-time cinematic classic Psychomania on late night TV*, Zig-Zags have kindly boiled it down to its brutish basics for you on the their song of the same name; “I was buried alive / I was buried on my motorcycle / I’m the livin’ dead / I’m the leader of a biker gang / I don’t give a shit”. Yep, that just about covers it.
“Murphys law really is a bitch / find yourself dying in a ditch”, they reflect elsewhere. “In your dreams I’m the silver saviour / face to face, the exterminator”. Dumb to the point of haemorrhage, you’ve gotta love it, and the way they actually print all this stuff on the LP sleeve as if they expect us to pore over it like ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or some shit is wonderful too, complete with a range of spelling and grammatical errors that remind me of Billy Childish’s heroic disregard for the perils of dyslexia.
It is stuff like this that occasionally has me reassessing my initial evaluation of Zig-Zags’ pose as clever-stupid contrivance. Occasionally on the album, we find suggestions that this band is coming from a more damaged and brutal place than many of their peers. Indeed, the best song on side 2, ‘I Am The Weekend’, stands out by virtue of the fact that it is actually kinda disturbing - a bit like listening to ‘53rd & 3rd’ for the first time, realising that beneath the goof lies something a little more hard to shake.
It’s pretty far removed from documentary, I’m sure, but nonetheless, there’s something a little bit deranged about the way the song alternates darker-than-dark verses (“I tried to hold her down / make sure she was alive / her mouth began to foam / I saw dead in her eyes”) with a bellowing, Friday night idiot-chant of the title on the chorus, the connection between the two never quite resolved. “I would have stayed and help / but things ain’t goin' right / I am still on probation / this was my only night”, the song concludes. Jeez. I mean, I don’t want to make too much of it, but the shift in tone between chorus and verse here is just plain weird, and seems to take things a little bit beyond the usual comfort zone of the band’s jean-jacketed Burger contemporaries.
Elsewhere though, things descend all too easily into paint-by-numbers slop as the initial adrenalin fades. Aforementioned moments of jarring weirdness aside, it’s all too easy for Zig-Zag’s horror-80s-white-trash-skate-dude thing to become a shtick, and no listener of taste wants to scrape that kind of shtick off a record they plan on playing more than once.
Not sure quite how to put this, but when early ‘80s Danzig launched into a verse singing “demon I am / and face I peel!”, the great thing is that you believed him, or at least believed that he believed himself. Too often on this album though, Zig-Zags sound a bit “going through the motions”. The production and dumbed down playing doesn’t help, but somehow, despite vague intimations of hard times and learning difficulties, these guys aren’t quite engaging my monster-kid empathy circuits enough to break out the “gabba gabba, one of us”, y’know what I mean?
(Closing track ‘Voices of the Paranoid’ proves particularly lamentable in this regard – a goof-off Black Sabbath parody played so broad, complete with karaoke Ozzy vocals, that it sounds more like something cooked up for a radio comedy show than the work of a decent band paying tribute to their idols. A real low point.)
So, sigh, I dunno, maybe I just have unrealistically high standards, but what can you do with these things except follow yr instincts?
As much as I hate to conclude by circling back to the Ty Segall issue (because he was only pressing buttons on the desk for chrissake), this is just such a perfect example of the frustration I tend to get from everything he’s involved with. An all respects, this is ALMOST a great record. It’s NEARLY there, it has a handful of perfect, kick-ass tracks, but…. not quite.
More sympathetic production, looser/wilder performances, stronger song-writing – any one of these things could have tipped the scales and got them there, and I could have been bubbling over here with unchecked enthusiasm as I headbanged by way through the album for the twenty-eighth time. But none of those things are there, so that’s not gonna happen.
Truth is though, it usually takes a pretty special band to maintain top shelf quality across an entire LP when playing this kind of break-neck, subtlety-free rock, and the fact that these guys didn’t quite manage it is nothing to be embarrassed about.
Basically, I think bands like Zig-Zags are maybe just victims of the chronic over-saturation of recorded music that we are subject to in the modern era. By which I mean: you know all those times you’ve bought a newly reissued collection of material from some cult ‘60s garage band or Killed By Death punk outfit who did a handful of utterly sublime, mind-destroying compilation faves? And you know the way that those collections always front-load the ‘hits’, then follow them with about a dozen fairly average, business-as-usual examples of the band’s chosen genre that might have been better off left in the vaults, thus ironically succeeding in actually REDUCING the band’s reputation, taking a previously extraordinary unknown quantity and rendering them ‘normal’ – showing their workings, rationalising their influences and intentions..? Well, listening to the Zig-Zags LP could be seen as a similar experience, only here we get it hot off the press without a 30 year time-lag.
If they’d been around back in the dark days of the pre-digital era, when getting any kind of listenable recording to people’s ears was a bit of a challenge, maybe that wouldn’t have been a problem. Maybe a lot of these songs would have lived and died within their natural habitat in the band’s live-set (where they truly belong, and where I’m sure they all rule), rather than languishing in boxes of unsold product in In The Red’s warehouse after a brief wave of one-sheet regurgitating blog hype is cancelled out by the invisible cloud of “hmm, decent band, but the album was a bit of a let-down” word of mouth.
Imagine if none of that had ever happened though; imagine instead if some furtive collector instead passed you an ultra-rare acetate of the ‘Scavenger’ single in some darkened alley, and desperate internet searching eventually led you to mp3s of demos of ‘The Fog’ and ‘Down The Drain’, as laid down in the one afternoon the band could get near a studio, before they disappeared forever into local scene myth & legend. THEN we’d have revelation-time. THAT would be where an I-JUST-DISCOVERED-THE-GREATEST-FUCKIN’-BAND reputation would be born, not here, with the come-down of a basically alright but under-performing debut LP, quietly released on the same Monday as about 300 other such superfluous artefacts.
*Hey, wait a minute, am I really saying life was better, back in those terrible days when air-brushed major label schlock filled the racks, when men in white coats controlled the studios, and when incredible, life-changing bands like Pentagram and The Zeros and Mars subsisted for years without ever being given the opportunity to record a proper album..?*
Um… no, I guess I’m not suggesting that. And yeah, arguing that we should somehow head back in time is always a silly idea. We are where we are, and must move on from here. As usual, I don’t really know what I’m saying. I have no big point to push here. Just thinking out loud.
The Zig-Zags record is still worth a listen. I know I’ve taken a pretty negative tack in this review, but if you like this kinda music, you should still check it out, because about 50% of it rules, and that’s 50% more than most modern rock records. But if there’d only been a bit less of it, it could have been so much more....
Stream and buy from Zig-Zags via bandcamp, or get the vinyl from your regular supplier of In The Red product.
* Befitting its status as clearly one of the greatest motion pictures ever made, it is spiriting to note that ‘Psychomania’ has actually become a bit of a staple reference point in underground rock in recent years; from my own record collection, I count samples or lyrical tributes in the work of such diverse artists as Electric Wizard, Black Time, The Heads and Gunslingers, and I’m sure there are others out there.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Makoto Kawabata & J. Francois Pauvros,
live at Café Oto, 17/07/14.
Launching into a full, superlative-laden, free associative ramble on the subject of Makoto Kawabata & J. Francois Pauvros’s duo set at Café Oto earlier this month would seem surplus to requirements really, so instead let’s just say, it was a hugely enjoyable performance that, whilst it offered nothing particularly surprising or unexpected, nonetheless served to forcibly remind me of how much I love sounds make using electric guitars, and of how exhilarating and just plain fun live improvised music can be under the right circumstances.
Helpfully, Satori took some videos on her magic telephone, which you can see here and here.
If that’s not good enough for you though, randomly numbered ruminations follow.
1. Kawabata-san and M. Pauvros make a great duo, just visually speaking. Very much a “hey, you are your country's version of me” sort of pairing. Whereas Kawabata is quite a stocky gent, Pauvros reaches gangling, Joey Ramone-like proportions, with a permanently drooping head that one imagines developed early in life after the first few dozen damaged door frames. Beyond that though, they’ve both got the same mass of distressed black / grey curls piling over their faces, the same all-in-black combo of loose silk shirt, tight jeans (Kawabata favours flares, Pauvros drainpipe) and pointy black shoes that seems to comprise the internationally recognised uniform of the damaged guitar-god. Kawabata seemed to have raided Café Oto’s cellars for a nice bottle of sake (presumably a rare treat for a touring Japanese musician), and pre-set could be seen strolling around the vicinity of the venue, bottle and glass in hand, in search of a quiet spot in which to enjoy a few sips. I didn’t notice Pauvros drinking anything. Internet research suggests the two of them have been playing and recording together since at least 2000, if yr interested.
2. It’s a guitar thing. I can’t stress that strongly enough. Though much of this set leaned heavily on noise and drone, it is the physical presence of the instrument that keeps it real for me. Much of the time, electronic noise generated from computers or keys or non-input mixers or whatever leaves me cold, unable to connect. But somehow, when I aware that this or that mass of sound is the result of direct human manipulation of this electrified thing made of wood and wire, channelling physical movement and energy-release into what we hear, drawing arcs through that magical space between the pick-up and the amp speaker, it makes me incredibly excited. Even on a noise record, where the sound is likely processed to such an extent that its origin is entirely obscure, it is the knowledge that there’s a guitar (or, I suppose, other stringed instrument) in the mix that gets me hopping. You’d be hard-pressed to identify yr average Skullflower or Sunroof! Record as “guitar playing”, I suppose, but I’d still take Matthew Bower over Merzbow any day, just because, you know – guitar.
And when you can see that guitar, and follow the player’s journey physically as well as sonically, well… all the better! The more noise-inclined segments of M. Pauvros and Kawabata-san’s set proved a great demonstration of this, and their performance proved far more of a *performance* than is often the case when two people sit on chairs to manipulate a bunch of noise-making equipment. For those close enough to the action, watching the pair scramble and wrestle with their gear and props whilst hearing the results of their exertions shrieking all around was a pleasure that went far beyond mere “oh, he turned that pedal off and that one on” type guitar nerdery. It was closer in fact to the kind of enjoyment you might get from watching a real out-to-lunch free jazz ensemble… you know, physical. Dancing on the spot with buttons and wires and strings. Just with a hell of a lot more wah and fuzz and feedback and loop-ery and all that other good stuff that the jazzers don’t really care for, but that keeps pulling us meatheads back to the eternal mysteries of those little sweatshop-built 9V boxes and brand name amplifiers.
3. I get the feeling that those coming to this set from a more serious avant background may have been far more dismissive than I, via a vis issues of predictability and use of gimmicks. And indeed, the duo’s sets was very much factored around demonstrations of the players’ favourite tricks, split into pre-ordained segments of a certain length in a manner liable to bum out the improv heads. “Ok, first we’ll do the thing where I have that bronze disc underneath the strings for about ten minutes, then we’ll do a big storm of noise thing, then I’ll do the drone thing with the screwdriver for a while. Then we can both get our bows out and do some bowed guitar until that gets boring, then we’ll build up slowly to some more noise, then hit some wild shredding for a bit and we’re done. What do you think?”
I appreciate how such pre-fab technique demonstrations may seem inherently corny to some listeners, but from my own point of view, it was the fact the players were approaching things from a more bawdy, rockist perspective than is usual in this music that helped make it so much fun. I always appreciate musicians who level with their audiences and keep their machinations transparent, and the unspoken “hey, you thought that last bit was good, check this out” dialogue of Pauvros and Kawabata’s set chimed with me perfectly.
4. I’d never heard of Pauvros before. Sadly, the linguistic chasm that renders much French culture inaccessible to us monolingual dolts seems to have kept his work pretty obscure, but he proves to be a really great player. He has big hands, his guitar has thick strings, but he plays very soft, winding nets of slow, gentle, clean-toned twangs through this set’s absolutely stellar opening section, before, cued in by a sudden rise in the level of racket Kawabata is kicking up, he grabs the twang bar and hits hard, setting off an apocalyptic blast of Spaghetti Western fuzz-twang that knocked my block off. Intermittent problems with his appropriately battered looking array of pedals added interest and randomness to the set, and his elegant reaction to such setbacks – relaxed, slightly miffed, gently kicking jack plugs back into place with his cowboy boots – was a joy to behold. (English speakers can attempt to find out a bit more about Pauvros here.)
5. Tension was maintained throughout the set by the players’ refusal to really ‘bust loose’ on what we know (or assume) is their mighty shred ability. ‘Wanted Dead or Alive: SPEED GURU’ proclaims Kawabata-san’s merch table t-shirts (sadly they didn’t have one left in my size), but sound over technique is the order of the day here, concentrating largely on tone and noise, with Kawabata often falling back on his screwdriver drones as Pauvros occasionally breaks out shaky, clean-toned note scrambles here and there, whilst the closest to conventional interplay the pair get is trading dreamy, post-rock-ish riffs in one of the drifty down-times between noise outbursts. Until that is, at the height of the set’s third or fourth apocalyptic noise meltdown, they heed some unseen signal and GO FOR IT, diving into an absolutely breath-taking thirty seconds of high velocity macho free-shred so staggering it almost has me literally staggering, backward into the side of Café Oto’s long-suffering piano. Whoa.
6. LAST WORD: This was a seventy minute set of improvised music performed by two seated men who didn’t look up or engage with the audience at any point, but to me it felt like twenty minutes max. They had me captivated throughout, never even thinking of looking at my watch or wondering whether I fancied another drink, and they left me feeling energised, flipped out, happy. I don’t know whether this is something you regularly experience with such music, dear reader, but for me it’s been a while. It’s good to be back.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Comet Gain –
Paperback Ghosts LP
(Fortuna Pop!, 2014)
Since it began creeping in on 2005’s ‘City Fallen Leaves’, the “wistful look back at sepia-tinted past” approach has become one of the dominant modes of Comet Gain’s song-writing.
On that album, this nostalgia (of the personal rather than cultural variety, you’ll note) came spiked with blind anger, loneliness and despair – a kind of late 30s rage against the dying of an unfulfilled youth, pushed toward a bleak and equally distraught middle age.
By the time we reach ‘Paperback Ghosts’ a decade later though, things have obviously changed a lot. The band has settled into a far more gentle and contented brand of contemplation, repeatedly reflecting on the need to pull beauty out of life in the here and now without forgetting the past, and so on and so forth. And like the doting relative sinking into a big armchair in a posh pub after dinner, they are disinclined to leave this particular spot without good reason.
Whereas ‘City Fallen Leaves’ saw David Feck channelling a battered and bruised night-bus refugee from some hellish weekend of spiteful London disaster, feedback of some shit club ringing in his ears as he staggered off into the night, now his songs feel more like the musings of a comfortably settled former hipster [hopefully I don't need to tell you that I mean the older, more positive useage of the word], relaxing in his flat on a leafy street of a Sunday afternoon, as his wife potters about in the garden. Pulling dusty paperbacks off reassuringly wooden shelves, re-reading the sleevenotes on the back of old LPs, endlessly cogitating on memories of the triumphs and nightmares that have brought him here - the character at the heart of these songs has made good, insofar as such characters ever can. But where the hell does that leave his rock band, that’s the question.
Well rest assured, the opening track here, ‘Long After Tonight’s Candles are Blown’, is magnificent – a song that works so well, capturing the overall mood and message of this album so beautifully, it makes much of what follows it feel pretty surplus to requirements. This is stately, grown up indie guitar music of a quite glorious vintage, each lyric drawn out just right as it falls against the gossamer backing of overlaid guitar-tangle, lonesome violin and brushed drum shuffle, hitting a level of affirmative poignancy that matches the band’s very best moments from the past, as it mixes up the universal and the personal carefully enough to really hit us hard; “..from Beverley Road to Junction Road / and on the stage tonight / the guitars break / we make mistakes / freeze-framed in our own dawn light / we are holding on to life / because heaven, is a lie”. It’s like a happy ending to all the strife that’s come before. A real knock-out.
After that, it’s hard to know where the record can go really. ‘Sad Love And Other Stories’ and ‘Behind The House She Lived In’ jangle away in pleasant enough fashion (those who liked ‘An Arcade..’ and ‘She Had Daydreams’ from the previous album will enjoy them), and ‘Wait til December’ provides some sketchy, heart of sleeve meandering that seems of-a-piece with the slow, less successful songs on ‘Howl of the Lonely Crowd’. But with the first song having set out the album’s stall so powerfully, it’s hard to escape an “our work here is done” sort of feeling, as side one absent-mindedly wanders on.
Indeed, the album is so settled into its reflective, low key kinda mood by this point that the group’s sporadic attempts to rouse it into action begin to feel a bit forced (like that aforementioned relative painfully extracting him/herself from the upholstery when the dogs are barking or the children are making a mess). As such, the LP’s more lively excursions begin to just feel like character studies - curious tangents lifted from random page openings of those prized Oxfam finds, too distant to really foster much emotional engagement.
For ‘Breaking Open The Head (part. 1)’, I assume our hero is flicking through some decadent chronicle of ‘60s counter-culture psychonautic daring-do, as this direct cousin of the previous LP’s Velvetised psyche-punk beatnik biog ‘Herbert Huncke’ swiftly stomps through references to Philip K. Dick and Brion Gysin, dream machines and invisible universes. It’s perfectly good, but more “gosh, that’s quite interesting” than something that’s really going to put a crack in your noggin (or even lead you to reassess your plans for the afternoon).
The chipper indie-pop of ‘Avenue Girls’ fares better, with David turning back to some of his beloved British New Wave – a Penguin edition of ‘A Kind of Loving’ or ‘Georgy Girl’ perhaps - full of lost girls with blonde bangs in their mothers’ borrowed overcoats, staring out to sea after an altercation at the fairground - all that kinda shit. We’ve been here before, far too many times, but the sweet whirl of the song pulls us in, at least for a minute or two, reminding us that, actually, this kind of music is quite nice sometimes, isn’t it? When it's done well, I mean.
Somewhere within that organ swirl and jangle, I can feel that particular cultural anchor, forever pulling me back (because yeah, I’ve got all these books on the shelf too, even if I’ve not read them for a while). In the same category, the chorus to ‘The Last Love Letter’ invites us to embrace “the first words, that I thought of”, in the spirit of which I'll just say: lovely. No other word needed. Shut off your twee-deflectors for a while, and enjoy a really good song, nicely done.
The spirit of random shelf browsing spills over into the more mellow numbers too, as Feck’s apparent increasing interest in esoteric subject matter and disinclination to give a fuck now that his cult songwriter cred is firmly re-established sees all kinds of weird allusions popping up in the midst of what would previously have been the strict social realism of his more introspective moments. Pirate ships, minotaurs, John Dee, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and a rather torturous metaphor built around Blake’s ‘The Ghost of a Flea’, all get a look in, whilst the scarlet shadow of Marjorie Cameron herself is apparently evoked at one point (or so says the press release). The elliptical ‘Sixteen Oh Four’ meanwhile concerns itself entirely with Rosicrucianism, insofar as I can tell. Let’s hope that all this succeeds in putting the wind up at least one or two blinkered indie-pop purists, but to be honest it often stands out as pretty bulbous and peculiar within the neat n’ shiny, string-enhanced shimmer of these songs’ somewhat overwrought, wedding cakey production.
Even the dogged punk grind of closing track ‘Confessions of a Daydream’ – a noble attempt to send us off on a defiant eterna-groove, ala the title track of ‘Realistes’ - doesn’t quite spit and snarl the way it should, as a few bracing minutes of impassioned stream of consciousness wordplay trail off into a murky cod-psychedelic disaster (including a spoken word guest slot from that bloke out of The Yummy Fur) that would have been hilarious if they’d blundered into it on stage, but feels a bit ‘off’ when closing an otherwise obsessively scrubbed up & mannered long-player.
Well, at least I suppose it leaves us staggering off into the dark again, reassuringly unsure of ourselves, even if you get the feeling that this time ‘round, David’s just taking out the bins before returning to his armchair, rather than marching off headfirst into a troubled and tormented night. And good for him, and good on the rest of the band too – like the past 20 years’ worth of Teenage Fanclub records, there is a happy feeling at the heart of ‘Paperback Ghosts’ that’s hard to begrudge its creators.
Taking my “long-standing Comet Gain fan” hat off for a moment, ‘Paperback Ghosts’ is a not record that I can objectively defend or recommend to any great extent. In terms of sound and song-writing it is almost certainly the band’s weakest LP to date (which admittedly makes it the weakest in a very strong field), and, one or two stand-out tracks aside, I’d probably advise those who aren’t diehard CG fans to approach with caution. If you’re not on the bus already, this isn’t the best place to buy a ticket.
For those of us in for the long haul though, to feel disappointed at the relative failings of an album as assuredly warm-hearted as ‘Paperback Ghosts’ seems churlish by this stage - like receiving a holiday postcard from an old friend and complaining about the hand-writing.
Buy from Fortuna Pop!
Monday, July 14, 2014
Tommy (Erdelyi) Ramone
(1952 – 2014)
It’s not been a great year or so for The Best Bands of All Time, has it? No more Stooges left, even if it looks like Iggy is set to live through a nuclear winter, Lou Reed’s passing puts a big full-stop on the story of the VU, and now The (original) Ramones are 100% gone – the recording of that first album is now lost to living memory, secondary sources only, not much closer to us than the Boxer Rebellion or Napoleon’s exile. It’s almost eerie, the totality with which these four guys – of whom Tommy was the oldest, at 62 – have met their maker in untimely fashion.
Those scanning a canned obit in the Sunday papers and shrugging it off with “oh, drugs, rock stars blah blah blah” may wish to recall that DeeDee was the only Ramone to die from the results of drug abuse, and indeed the only one who ever suffered from such problems to a noteworthy extent. Tommy by contrast always seemed pretty healthy and sensible guy (I particularly like DeeDee's admiring comment in his autobiography, that Tommy was the only member of the band who was able to buy meat and potatoes and single-handedly cook himself dinner, as if that was some ability completely beyond the ken of the others), and he hadn’t even toured with the band since the late ‘70s. Bile duct cancer isn’t the kind of thing that zeroes in on bad boys in leather jackets – like the vast majority of cancer deaths, it’s just random, and sad, with no ill-informed talk of fate and lifestyle guilt needed.
Though he was only officially ‘Tommy Ramone’ for a few years, Thomas Erdelyi always seemed like a great guy. Here are but a few of the things he did, beyond setting the template for punk rock drumming for decades to come.
1. Like most truly great bands (I suppose?), each member of the original Ramones line-up was an integral part of the whole they created. Their contributions can be chopped up equally, more or less – 25% each – and I have no time for bickering arguments about who was the more or less important among their number. Remove any one of them and the entity we know as “The Ramones” would not have existed. Tommy, as those who even remotely care will no doubt be aware, was the *organiser* - the guy who did pretty much everything to make the band happen during their first few years together. Booking practice, getting equipment, convincing the others that their songs were actually good and that being in a band was worth doing, booking gigs, recording demos, recording the albums, random managerial duties… you name it. Seems likely the others would never have got past the ‘pissing about on a Saturday afternoon’ stage without his input.
2. He also wrote ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’, and provided the initial draft for ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’, so surely that alone makes his life worthy of celebration.
3. The production on the first album – what can you say in the face of such utilitarian rock n’ roll genius? Bass on the left, guitar on the right, drums in the middle – no worries. Back when I was a teenager and a friend first lent me a Ramones tape, he told me that they’d recorded it that way because that’s where the amps were placed in the studio, and they put all the mics in the middle. I don’t know whether or not that’s true, but it’s a good story. I seem to recall reading that, having hired this big, empty studio for the band to record in, Tommy and Craig Leon just figured it all out from scratch, doing whatever seemed to work. It’s definitely got that sound about it – a straight, functional document of the band playing, figured out piece by piece with no external meddling or extraneous sounds whatsoever, and the results will live forever.
Whereas other good ‘70s punk records tend to present a dense, mad racket or a riot of screeching blather (which is great, don't get me wrong), ‘Ramones’ has a pure minimalism to it that sometimes seems closer to ESG or Young Marble Giants, and that, at the time, must have sounded completely new in rock music – everything on show with zero flash, instantly understandable and copy-able to the kids back home. It is this sound, as much as the simplicity of the songs and the performances, that lent ‘70s punk its WE-CAN-DO-THIS-TOO, ‘levelling of the land’ effect. How many bands across all sub-genres in your record collection might never have been formed if teenagers across the world hadn’t put this on, and realised they could play along?
4. And, just a few years after he was scratching his head over where to put the mics, ‘Road To Ruin’, also recorded by Tommy, takes the complete opposite approach - a big, classic, professionally produced rock record that just sounds AMAZING. I have an original pressing of this one on vinyl, and I am consistently stunned at how brilliant it sounds compared to other records of its era – such a bright, bold, monolithic sound, exhilarating but also quite nuanced, with all these lovely touches on the slower songs. As much as I usually tend to fall on the side of the lo-fi in my listening preferences, this is a perfect example of a band taking a big step up in fidelity and totally winning. Purely from an emotionally neutral, audiophile POV, I think it totally buries the subsequent album they recorded with Phil Spector, which has got to tell you something.
5. By contrast, I continue to think that the albums Erdelyi later recorded for The Replacements (‘Tim’ and ‘Pleased to Meet Me’) sound absolutely *terrible*. In fairness, it’s difficult to gauge how much of this was his fault, as I can’t imagine that working on major label albums in the mid ‘80s for a notoriously unreliable and inebriated band was exactly the most conducive environment for quality music recording. At least he got his groove back for Redd Kross’s ‘Neurotica’ in 1987, which I seem to remember sounds pretty great.
So, there ya go. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to raise a glass to Tommy Ramone, but maybe raise another one to Tommy Erdelyi whilst you’re at it, and ponder what we might have missed out on without his contribution to the past 40 years of rock n' roll.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Chain & The Gang –
Minimum Rock n’ Roll
(Radical Elite / Fortuna Pop!, 2014)
“With CHAIN & The GANG there are no excursions, no diversions… no trip to the moon, no jaunt to inner space… nothing original, no new system to integrate… just SIMPLE facts & BASIC math. Fewer WORDS, fewer BEATS, fewer NOTES… you’re tired of hearing them, we’re tired of making them…”
Bravely defying the long-standing convention that sees rock n’ roll groups beginning their LPs with a call toward energy and motion (y’know,‘Get Up’, ‘Raw Power’, something like that), Chain & The Gang instead open their latest vinyl missive by declaring their intent to ‘Devitalize’ - exhorting their listeners to shut up shop, to “just go home”, and, most scandalously for the dyed-in-the-wool rock n’ roller, to “keep it down”.
In an era in which we are urged by our suppliers of electronic equipment and accompanying media content to ‘think positive’, to ‘move forward’, whilst the geopolitical landscape around us slides ever-further into the dark ages, Chain & The Gang offer a welcome reaffirmation of negativity in rock n’ roll.
They are, as Ian Svenonious was keen to remind us during a recent performance at London’s Tufnell Park Dome, the only group of their kind. Beginning their career in 2010 with a cry of “down with liberty… up with chains!”, they are the only group who seek to impose a limit upon self-expression, who acknowledge that “originality is the enemy”. They are the only group (in the entire history of Western popular music, more likely than not) who proudly declare themselves to be pro-censorship. They recognise, no doubt, that censorship is always with us – no more opposable than gravity - and that the real question is: who censors who? Only by engaging, instead of blithely disowning, can we stand a chance of moving from the second ‘who’ to the first.
As Ian S. might well cop, the key to writing an effective political pop song is to appear extremely specific in your demands, whilst remaining extremely vague. The Chris Hillman/Gram Parsons-composed country-rock standard ‘Sin City’ (as performed by both The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Mekons within my own record collection) provides a good example. A spirited diatribe on the subject of civic corruption within an unnamed town that may or may not be intended as a microcosm of wider society, the song purports to communicate a great deal of information, praising some participants in the struggle, whilst condemning others to a storm of divine vengeance.
In spite of such apparently clear sentiments though, further analysis of the lyrics reveal the songwriters’ message to be ambiguous in the extreme. Depending on each listener’s personal understanding of such nebulous concepts as ‘sin’ and ‘clean[ing] up this town’, the song could be taken to represent either an extreme left wing or extreme right wing viewpoint, or alternatively could be adopted as an anthem for just about any single-issue pressure group you’d care to name.
The way the song succeeds however is by distracting our attention from this chronic lack of specificity simply by offering a composition so compelling and apparently heart-felt that it is nigh-on impossible for us not to get swept up in its ‘message’, and thus map its generalities over our own specific concerns. In fact, when performed well, the song generates such a weight of righteous indignation that even a listener wholly lacking in political conviction will find him or herself forced to affect an opinion for the duration of the song, thus to temporarily share in the emotions the performers are conveying. Like a successful politician, the song sells the idea of an outsider’s struggle for fairness and decency against a greedy, autocratic enemy so well that the actual details of the speaker’s platform become irrelevant.
Chain & The Gang do not perform ‘Sin City’, either on this record, or anywhere else to my knowledge. I’m sure they realise perfectly well that such material would not become them. Discussing the song at length as part of an assessment of their work is an unwarranted digression on my part, for which I apologise.
Nonetheless though, I feel that the lessons we can learn from examining the song provide a pertinent demonstration of the machinations common to socio-political songwriting - the same machinations that Chain & The Gang seek both to exploit and to deconstruct, allowing us to enjoy them whilst also exposing their workings to plain view.
Masterpieces of opaqueness, the songs performed by Chain & The Gang, particularly those found on ‘Minimum Rock n’ Roll’, are built from apparently innocent snatches of associative wordplay and playful mutations of common phraseology. ‘Mum’s The Word’, they sing. ‘Crime Don’t Pay’. ‘Got To Have It Every Day’. By further investigating the logic of these apparently banal pronouncements though, the group seek to create a base-level dialogue on the language of confinement and freedom, need and surplus, free will and determinism, power and lack thereof, that will (one hopes) prove applicable to most potential situations.
Just as Chain & The Gang strive to offer a convincing vision of implacable ‘cool’ (both musical & sartorial) that transcends temporal and geographical boundaries, so their songs aim at addressing questions common to all systems and power structures. “I got to have it every day”, Svenonious chants during the song of that name. “I don’t care how I get it / I could get it from a tree / I could get it from a stone / it doesn’t matter at all to me”. But WHAT must he get, the inquiring mind will demand to know, even as the poised musical delivery soothes and reassures. What ‘IT’ are we talking about here? Well, that’s for us to decide. What do YOU need every day? And how do you get it? Chain & The Gang, their dedication to aesthetic minimalism firmly in place, are not going to provide any pointers.
“What are you in here for?”, Ian asks his hypothetical fellow inmates in the song of that name. And, more pointedly, “why are THEY out THERE?” He is “in here”, he conjectures, for “loving too much”, for his “tender touch” . They are “out there” because “their blood runs cold”, because they “do what they’re told”. Upon what scale is the metaphorical construct here supposed to operate? The musical ‘underground’, as opposed to the ‘mainstream’? The poor and powerless of society, as opposed to the enabled rich? The existential ‘outsider’, as opposed to the socially integrated ‘insider’? An actual imagined correctional facility? It really doesn’t matter. Wherever there is an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to contemplate, an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, the song is of use.
By leaving their statements so open to interpretation, wisely stripped of the didactic and retrospectively embarrassing specificity that so often limits the geographic & temporal worth of artistic expressions of discontent, Chain & The Gang are doing a great service to all of us who feel, or may in the future feel, disaffected from our society – maximizing the potential usefulness of their songs, whilst still appearing clear in their declaration of intent.
After experiencing a Chain & The Gang record or concert, the listener is apt to feel certain that the group is driven by strong guiding principles. S/he may even feel an immediate kinship with the gospel they are espousing. But, if questioned, the exact nature of their project remains elusive.
Like all successful producers of ideologically-inclined music, the group are manipulative. Like the writers of ‘Sin City’, they initially make us FEEL their argument, not consider it. BUT, there is a crucial difference at work here. As befits a combo led by a champion of “the responsible use of rock n’ roll”, Chain & The Gang’s manipulations are both transparent and benign. Beyond the ‘feel’ with which they hook us, we find not ill-advised generalities, but questions and challenges. By raising these questions whilst refusing to make so much as a scribble in the ‘answers’ column, the group encourages us to think for ourselves, to adapt the methodology of our own approach to life to the oppositional framework they provide. As quoted above, “SIMPLE facts and BASIC math” are the only building blocks they require.
Unlike many socially engaged musicians, Chain & The Gang are also generous when it comes to ensuring that their records and performances remain wholly entertaining, whether one wants to engage with their wider programme or not. Fervent refuseniks, or those who merely seek a good time - both are welcome, and both will leave satisfied.
In this regard, ‘Minimum Rock n Roll’ is arguably their strongest platter to date, the group’s new credo of minimalism allowing them to deliver tightly-wound, ecumenical doses of rock & funk elements, carefully selected to wring maximum effect from the barest of ingredients (that of course being the central aim of all progressively minded rock n’ roll, when you get down to it) – a perfect expression of Ian’s back cover manifesto.
Gently malevolent, the group’s self-defined “crime-rock” is menacing in much the same way that ‘50s Juvenile Delinquent literature or ‘60s ‘roughie’ sex dramas are menacing – a brew that consciously evokes the cynical yet romantic legends of outlaws and urban deviance in 20th century America, fashioned, of course, as a reflection of the alienation and confinement that the group feels in the 21st century.
Garage-punk churn, flick-knife funk rhythms, cyclical Link Wray/James Burton guitar figures and girl group call & response chants: all of these elements evoke a spirit wholly distinct from the Official Culture of the United States, and from those outside of that culture (beat poets, hippie artisans, indoor hat-wearers, indie bands) who would seek, consciously or otherwise, to be included within its comforting embrace. However much of a calculated fantasy it may be for the group’s membership, Chain & The Gang’s music presents a wholly working class conception of historical outsiderdom: noble, self-defined, growing from the bottom up and fighting its way to the top. Simplistic maybe, but EFFECTIVE. “Crime don’t pay,” they acknowledge, “but how can I live my life this way?” As ever, the question is left open. It will be your own answer that provides the next step.
Listen and buy digitally from Chain & The Gang on bandcamp, or get the vinyl from Fortuna Pop!.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Mystery Ships # 11:
The Endless Plain.
Time I think for yet another psychedelic mix-tape, and the general theme that emerged whilst I was putting this one together is a that of a kinda period spent in stasis (whether good or bad), a visit to limbo… y'know, that sort of thing; a journey across ‘the endless plain’. Interpret as you will.
The title comes from a John Cale song, and thus we finish with a selection from his damaged masterpiece ‘Music For a New Society’ (1983), a record that seems to sound more ominously relevant than ever today… if you’re in the mood, and I wouldn’t blame you if you’re not.
Anyway, track-list as follows:
1. Formosa Tiene Su Hechizo
2. Yasuba Jun & An Chang Project – Amagoi Bushi
3. Peaking Lights – Space Primitive # 2
4. Manfred Mann Chapter Three – Mister You’re a Better Man Than I
5. Calico Wall – I’m a Living Sickness
6. Seatrain – Portrait of the Artist as Young Lady
7. Dorothy Ashby – John R.
8. Wiliam Onyeabor – Better Change Your Mind
9. Vibracathedral Orchestra – 19/03 No.2
10. Ten Years After – The Sounds
11. The GTOs – Miss Christine’s First Conversation with the Plaster-casters
12. Mehrpouya – Soul Raga
13. Floating Flower – Shizuku no Youni
14. Pelt – Up the North Fork
15. Andrzej Kozynski – Opetanie # 6
16. David Crosby – Cowboy Movie
17. Etienne Jaumet – Through the Strata
18. John Cale – Thoughtless Kind
Link as follows: http://www.sendspace.com/file/bcjmwh
Saturday, May 31, 2014
Satan’s Satyrs –
Wild Beyond Belief!
(2011 / Bad Omen Records, 2013)
Hey everybody, Satan’s Satyrs have a new album out, entitled ‘Die Screaming’. That's not the one I’m reviewing here. Instead today, I want to talk about their debut, ‘Wild Beyond Belief!’, which was recorded back in 2011, and got a UK release last year on Bad Omen Records.
I’ll confess that when I saw the band’s name and the cover artwork pop up on record shop update emails, I did an “oh-for-gods-sake” eyeroll and moved on. I mean, theoretically it’s the kind of stuff I love forever without question, but I dunno… hitching a ride on all this exploitation/biker movie imagery just seems so *obvious* in this day and age, and I guess I’ve just been burned too many times by all these second-rate, shlock horror-themed bands. (Anyone want an Acid Witch CD? – you pay the postage.) I mean, maybe it was campy surf music, maybe it was sloppy metal, but if they’re gonna put so little imagination into their visual presentation, so little weirdness or mystery, I really just don’t care. NEXT!
Bad move on my part. Because as it turns out, ‘Wild Beyond Belief!’ represents an absolute riot in the middle of a fire-storm of total, heartfelt rock n’ roll of a rare and beautiful kind. The sort of record that rocks so hard, when you put it on you start to worry that maybe it’s speeding up your heartrate and making you short of breath. Like it’s all just a bit too much, like maybe you’re too old and unfit to safely stand in the presence of this level of rocking-ness? It’s been a while since music made me feel like that (at least not in a good way), but the A side of this thing is like being forced to ride a rollercoaster against your will, and that’s usually an immediate sign of quality when it comes to rock music, right?
The album title and cover art, which I initially took to be the work of cynical grown ups taking the path of least resistance, takes on an entirely new complexion when you reconsider it as the home recorded debut of a nineteen year old kid from the town of Herdnon, Virginia, who, according to this interview with The Quietus, tracked all the instruments himself and then mixed the whole damn thing at home on headphones, because ‘if you want something done right..’ etc. His oft-repeated twin inspirations: Electric Wizard and Black Flag. His available resources: a ferocious, perfectionist talent, insane reserves of teenage energy and (one assumes) a head full of raging, twisted hormones.
The result: ‘Wild Beyond Belief!’. Forty something minutes of pure heavy metal nirvana. If you’re listening on the computer, you’ll probably have to turn it up real loud because it’s really badly recorded with loads of compression and stuff, but WHY WOULDN’T YOU HAVE TURNED IT UP REAL LOUD ANYWAY, FERCHRISSAKE? What kind of a loser are you… ahem.
Anyway. Wow, just wow. This shit sounds like… well… I dunno. Imagine Motorhead or High On Fire or a band like that, if, instead of seasoned professionals, they were just a bunch of delinquent teenagers living in the middle of nowhere making lo-fi punk. And imagine that they drank a bunch of beer one day, and got really psyched up talking about horror movies and stuff, then scampered into the practice room to record a tape solely for the purpose of sending it to the guy from Electric Wizard, in the hope that he’d really like it and invite them to tour with them. So they filled it with MASSIVE RIFFS, and growly, strangulated tough guy vocals, and motorbike noise, shouting about Satan, and sickly, wah-wah covered lead overdubs, laughing and shredding all the way until they collapsed in exhaustion. Well yeah, that’s kinda what this sounds like. And in case you haven’t got the point yet, it sounds AMAZING.
Often, when it gets too ‘professional’ and serious, metal just loses me. When it’s all technical, and ‘conceptual’, and endlessly pummelling; boring and headache-y. I much prefer it when it’s like this, stuck in its most “primitive” stage of development - a raging cacophony of teenage lunacy, bluntly filtered through the most obvious and stupid signifiers of ‘rebellion’ that come to hand.
Even with the all horror movie stuff, I mean… there’s a *very fine line* between bands who seem to pick up on this sort of thing just for a shtick, so they have a readymade fanbase and don’t have to think too hard about their lyrics and artwork, and those who really *get it* - those who sound like they understand the mad, intoxicating power of these movies and really want to try to capture it in their music. The sort of people who, if they could, would probably inject the pure, distilled essence of Werewolves on Wheels straight into their veins. You can probably guess which side of that line I feel that Satan’s Satyrs come down on, in spite of this album’s amateurish cover art. His Satanic Majesty Jus Osborn obviously agreed, as he has now actually drafted Satyrs main man Clayton Burgess in to play bass in Electric Wizard, no less! When the aforementioned Quietus interview was conducted, Mr. Burgess was happily hanging out in Dorset, enjoying “..movie marathons at the ‘Wizard house”. High five dude - that’s what I call a result.
‘Wild Beyond Belief!’ isn’t a perfect record. As mentioned, the murky recording quality will prove troublesome for some, and it’s a very front-loaded album too. Whilst each track on the first half is an absolute ripper, momentum and quality control tends to slip *slightly* through parts of the B-side. It still rules though… actually, forget this stupid, nit-picking paragraph – on reflection, every cut here except maybe the self-titled last one is just completely fantastic, and even that one’s *pretty good*. Actually, who am I kidding, it’s BRILLIANT. Fuck this ‘critical balance’ business, this IS a perfect album. There, I said it. Chances are you’ll know within the first five seconds of the first track whether you’re IN or OUT, and if the former, after that it’s all just gravy. If you still want to hear the spirit of white, suburban delinquent rock music alive and well in the 21st century, refined right down to its stupidest, most degraded, most invigorating form, well… this is it, right here. Bang your greasy locks and gorge yourself ‘til your brain is gone.
Listen on Youtube.
Buy from Bad Omen.
Visit Satan’s Satyrs on Bandcamp.
Also, check out their 'Lucifer Lives' EP - Venom-tastic!
Saturday, May 24, 2014
Francois Tusques –
La Reine Des Vampires 1967 LP
(Finders Keepers, 2014)
As far as my own peculiar interests go, the Finder Keepers label has been absolutely on fire over the past few years, both with a swathe of choice reissues and, more importantly, first-time-ever excavations of impossibly cultish film music that has never previously seen the light of day anywhere except within the reels of the films that contain it (and sometimes not even there).
Best not even get me started on FK’s current series of releases concentrating on my favourite ever Italian film composer Bruno Nicolai, or their single-handed attempt to salvage the reputation of Polish synth maestro Andrzej Korzyński (maybe those will be the subject of future posts here?), but for the moment, let’s simply say that if someone had told me back in the distant past of, say, 2011, that I would be soon able to obtain an almost complete collection of the music composed for French director Jean Rollin’s wonderful surrealist vampire movies, all pressed on vinyl and delivered to my door for fairly reasonable prices from a UK address, I would have dismissed their suggestion as the fanciful delusion of a disordered mind – the kind of impossible, acquisitive fantasy that someone like me would quite literally dream about. I mean, what kind of record label would possibly engage in such a foolish quest? From the Herculean task of tracking down the composers, the rights and the tapes, to eventually dealing with the fact that probably only a few hundred obsessives worldwide would actually have any interest in buying the results of your labours, the whole thing just sounds like madness. But now, somehow, it has ACTUALLY HAPPENED, and we have those bearded dream-weavers lurking somewhere in the general direction of Manchester to thank for it.
As such, it is high time I got around to discussing some of these records, even though it’s sort of verging onto the aesthetic territory covered by my other blog, and as it happens, 2014 has brought forth one of the most interesting releases yet in the Rollin series – namely, a whole LP of the music recorded by avant-jazz auteur Francois Tusques for Rollin’s astounding 1968 debut feature, ‘Le Viol de Vampire’.
You will of course have noted that the name on this LP, ‘La Reine Des Vampires’, is different from the name of the film in which bits of the music appeared, so in brief, and trying not to veer too much into Other Blog territory, the sequence of events goes a bit like this: ‘Le Viol de Vampire’, as it eventually appeared in 1968, was actually a combination of two films, the first a stand-alone short made under the ‘Le Viol..’ title, and the second a mass of additional footage that Rollin shot when the producer Sam Selsky asked him to expand it to feature length, in spite of the fact that he’d ended the first half by killing off most of the characters. So, whilst ‘Le Viol..’ (the first half of the finished film) was scored with a few well-chosen pieces of library music (including the rather lovely ‘Profoundeurs’ by Roger Roger, which Finder Keepers also put out as one side of a 7” on their Kreep imprint), the second half, entitled ‘Les Femmes Vampires, had a little bit more money behind it and thus featured specially commissioned music from Tusques. The working title of this second act though was apparently ‘La Reine Des Vampires’, and Tusques seems to prefer that name (or perhaps wants to use it to differentiate his music from its use in the film?), so et voila, the title of this LP. To further confuse matters, Rollin also reused some of the music, without Tusques’ permission, in his second film, ‘Le Vampire Nue’ (1970), but… well let’s not get too bogged down in all that, eh, since we’re here to discuss the music itself?
And verily, it is music that is well worth discussing, functioning very well as a standalone release that often sounds entirely unlike anything intended to score a horror film. Though far from a household name (unless you live in a REALLY hip household, I suppose), Francois Tusques was and is quite a big figure in the sphere of European jazz and free improv, with a CV that includes oft-mentioned collaborations with such luminaries as Don Cherry and Archie Shepp, suggesting that our man was a regular on the welcoming committees whenever America’s finest undertook one of their “fuck this, I’m going to Europe” relocation plans during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tusques recently played a solo piano gig at London’s Café Oto, priced at £15 a ticket on the door, so for those in the know, he’s far from an unknown, that’s what I’m sayin’. And, outside of ‘the know’ as I may be in this particular instance, I can only assume that the music on this LP represents an important addition of his legacy, irrespective of its cinematic connections.
As far removed as much of it may be from anyone’s idea of a ‘horror score’ however, neither is ‘Le Reine Des Vampires’ a feast of the kind of honking, free jazz blowouts that the big names on Tusques’ resume might lead one to expect. As to what it IS, with these possibilities removed, well… I’m not sure where you might best file it really, but it certainly makes for engaging listening.
At a blind-taste-test guess, you could maybe say that it most closely resembles the kind of high-minded Free Improv that European jazz would involve into during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it is slightly more “lyrical” and conventionally musical, less technique-heavy, than much of that music tends to be, despite the presence of a great deal of abrasive, skittering and clattering hoo-hah. In part it even occasionally reminds me of the bass and string playing on some of Albert Ayler’s recordings, if you can imagine such a thing existing in isolation from both sax and drums.
In the main then, this is largely string-based music, alternately doleful and impatiently energised, that seems to distantly grasp at the ghosts of melody and composition, but otherwise has broken away entirely from notions of classical scoring, leaving a weight of absence and uncertainty in its wake – like some insane string quartet in an darkened theatre, fumbling blindly into the unknown.
The origin of this unusual feeling lies in the unconventional methods Tusques used to put this music together, as outlined in the sleevenotes to the FK release. Apparently, his first step was to record a series of piano themes he had composed for the film. He then played these themes back to his musicians - Barney Wilen (tenor sax), Eddie Gaumont (violin), Jean-François Jenny-Clark & Bernard Guerin (basses) - via headphones, and had them improvise over the top whilst the tapes rolled. He then presented these recordings to Rollin (and by extension, to the world) WITHOUT the initial piano tracks, lending the remaining music a unique sense of emptiness and uncertainty, with the central structure around which the other musicians were building rendered invisible.
As a result, I suppose you could even question Tusques’ authorship of this record, given that neither his compositions nor his playing eventually appear on it, but maybe that’s a dilemma best left to music theory students with a lot of time on their hands; the ‘Le Reine Des Vampires’ pieces very much feel like music driven by a sort of unseen guiding hand, and in this capacity I’m more than happy to give Tusques his due.
The complete lack of drums or percussion, usually an essential inclusion on even the most far-out examples of jazz and improv from this period, further emphasizes the music’s sense of absence and otherness, leaving brief patches of silence scattered throughout. The overall impression is that of a figure dancing with an invisible partner (a Rollin-esque image if ever there was one), rising and falling with a strange, mad kind of theatricality at the whim of an invisible, unheard beat.
Deep cello-like tones and mournful, muted horn reminds me a bit of Mile Davis’s classic soundtrack to Louis Malle’s ‘Ascenseur Pour l'Échafaud’, and in particular, I wouldn’t be surprised if Miles in this mode was a big reference point for Wilen on the sax, as he repeatedly launches into these conventionally beautiful passages of moody reflection that are largely responsible for lending the music it’s more ‘lyrical’/melodic flavour. By contrast, Gaumont on the violin keeps knocking out these snatches of sorta jagged, Eastern European flavoured almost folk-ish kind of themes that add a great uneasiness to proceedings, meaning that, if I had to guess what kind of a horror movie this music belonged to, I’d probably be more apt to imagine some ‘Repulsion’-esque Polanski sort of business.
The unused and rejected themes on side two of the LP are particularly good in this regard, less tetchy and scratchy than those on the A, and more inclined toward extended work-outs of pure atmosphere. Church-like reverb and slight variations in volume are used by the musicians to send tones careening off through space, and, despite the sudden shocks, unsignposted left turns and collapses into nothingness that inevitably characterise this sort of improv, the music’s consistent abrasiveness after a while becomes quite comforting; for such a wild and avant project, it makes for surprisingly good ‘relaxing in the evening with a whisky’ type music. Muchly recommended, if this all sounds even remotely like your cup of… something a bit stronger than tea.
Listen & buy from Finders Keepers.
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