Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Saturday, December 02, 2017
Some Other Good Comps/Reissues from 2017.
Because I just can’t get enough of these yummy, critically-acclaimed £40 gatefolds with the nice covers and promises of exotic, never-before-heard revelations, it seems.
World Spirituality Classics # 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda 2xLP
So I had always assumed at least, but, well, time to get wise folks, because there’s not even the slightest whiff of cheese about the extraordinary, unclassifiable pieces assembled here by Luaka Bop. Compromising dense, over-powering monoliths of ultra-compressed electronic textures, massed voices, bone-rattling hand percussion, occasional tambora drones and gospel/deep soul influenced reiterations of ancient Hindu mantras, this is music that determinedly refuses to ever fade into the background, informed by the same uncompromising approach to composition and arrangement that characterised such challenging discs as ‘Spiritual Unity’ in earlier years.
That each track here begins sounding entirely different from the last, yet swiftly engages us in exactly the same kind of sensuous, head-nodding fugue as its predecessor, is testament to both the power and the range of endless possibilities that Alice managed to channel from her spiritual beliefs back into her music.
Existing outside of any of the expected sonic clichés, these are evocations of a terrifying, beatific godhead that has no connection whatsoever to either the Cathedral-reverbed reverence of Western devotion or the mellow, cloud-dwelling man-god of post-hippie Californian spirituality. As with all of Alice Coltrane’s best work, this music feels like peeking through the gold-flecked bead curtain into the cyclopean throne room of a divinity who radiates such love it can crush you like an ant. An endless, throbbing kaleidoscope of sound crushed down to cassette-sized doses of pupil-dilating oblivion, it’s… quite the thing.
I dread to think what ‘World Sprituality Classics # 2’ is liable to consist of, but this is certainly one hell of a good start.
Tokyo Flashback PSF ~ Psychedelic Speed Freaks! ~ 2xCD (PSF)
Of course, hearing newly disinterred cuts from core PSF groups like High Rise, White Heaven, Fushitsusha and Overhang Party is worth the entry price alone (the latter in particular provide an awesome re-working of their classic track from the second ‘Tokyo Flashback’ comp, now pleasingly retitled for English-speakers as ‘Now Appearing! Naked Existence’), but, as was often the case with this label, it’s the more unusual, less rock-orientated stuff creeping in around the edges that often proves most beguiling; terrifying, Lynchian noir improv from .es, angst-drenched Korean psych-folk from Kim Doo Soo, minimalist industrial desolation from Reizen, beautifully gentle, heart-felt free-playing from Niseaporia, and the set even ends, poignantly I’m sure, with a Bach violin sonata rearranged for solo guitar by Hideaki Kondo.
All of these cuts are by turns furious, challenging, lyrical and enchanting, opening our eyes to rarely glimpsed corners of a relentlessly creative musical underground that continues to thrive in Japan and Far-East, much akin I’d imagine to the experience Western listeners brave enough to pick up those first imported ‘Tokyo Flashback’ comps must have enjoyed when they first appeared back in the ‘90s.
I’m not sure how widely available this new comp is outside of Japan, but it is accompanied by a lovely bilingual booklet, so distribution to English–speaking territories was presumably an intention, assuming any overseas distributors could be persuaded that anyone would still be willing to buy CDs. Anyway, should you see it on sale anywhere, please don’t hesitate to prove these hypothetical distributors wrong by snapping it up, it’s extremely worthwhile.
(It’s worth giving a shout-out at this point to the U.S.-based imprint The Black Editions, who have recently embarked on a programme of reissuing the PSF label’s key releases on vinyl for the first time. I don’t actually have their re-release of the first ‘Tokyo Flashback’ comp in my hands yet, but their noble efforts certainly threaten to do a great deal of damage to both my ears and bank balance in 2018.)
Coil – Time Machines 2xLP (Dais)
And, make no mistake, this is some hardcore drone going on right here. When initially dropping the needle, first time listeners may be irked by the idea that they’ve just paid top dollar for some blank oscillator tones, but their tune will soon change as things progress and the full weight of these pieces makes itself felt.
Though this is utilitarian music, created primarily to aid meditation and ritual, like the Alice Coltrane record discussed above, it is about as far away from ‘background’ music as it is possible to get, instead setting out to capture your ‘foreground’ with the relentless determination of a swarming nanobot army.
This is music designed to completely transform the atmosphere of the environment in which it is played. Each of the record’s four sides is named after a psychotropic chemical compound, and the Coil boys seem to have done their damnedest to actually try to create a corresponding physiological change in their listeners through the sound of each piece.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say they succeed, but they certainly got pretty close. Play this record at appropriate volume, and work or writing becomes impossible. Your concentration will disintegrate, your attention will drift from the screen/desk to some blank area on the wall. Your mind will eventually start to empty, as if someone pulled the plug, and Coil’s stated intention of creating “tones to facilitate travel through time” will start to sound a lot less fanciful. Then, about ten or twelve minutes in, when you’re sufficiently monged, they’ll suddenly twist a knob and drop the kind of bass frequency that will make you cack yourself wondering if a passenger jet is about to fall out of the sky above your house. The bastards.
Needless to say, in contrast to the vast majority of ‘drone’ records I own, this is not something to be thrown on casually, for a bit of relaxation before bed time. If you want to get down with ‘Time Machines’, you’d better cross your legs on the floor, fire up the incense, dim the lights - go whole hog with it and let’s see if we can’t make that clock start to go backwards.
Midori Takada – Through The Looking Glass LP
(We Release Whatever the Fuck We Want)
Suffice to say, both ‘Mr Henri Rousseau’s Dream’ on the A-side and relatively brief ‘Trompe l’oeil’ on the B are amongst my most-played tracks of the year - absolutely delightful vistas of nocturnal faux-forest ambience, guaranteed to promote relaxed breathing and a general sense of well-being just as surely as the aforementioned Coil record is to fuck with your head. Absolutely delightful stuff, even as the somewhat more baleful ‘Catastrophe’ proceeds to drag us into unsettling realms of pulsating, rhythmic unease.
This record’s extraordinary cover art – by Yohko Ochida – is also worth a mention. Click on the picture above to enlarge and spend some time looking at it. You will be a happier person as a result.
Maki Asakawa – s/t 2xLP (Honest Jons)
Originally a native of Iskikawa prefecture in Northern Japan, Asakawa’s devotion to the sound of American jazz/blues singers (Billie Holiday in particular) led her to begin performing in Tokyo and Yokahama cabaret clubs, where she soon fell under the wing of avant-garde film and theatre director Shuji Terayama (I mean, of course she did), subsequently picking up a record contract, a formidable reputation a s a live performer and a devoted following amongst Japan’s internationally-minded, left wing student movement in short order.
Truth be told, those anticipating hair-raising avant hi-jinks from Asakwawa’s music will be initially disappointed by the fact that the majority of the recordings presented here remain fairly conventional. For the most part, these are nice songs (a mixture of Terayama compositions, American folk/blues standards reworked for the Japanese language and some Asakawa originals) with strong melodies and pleasant, minimal arrangements, anchored by Asakawa’s defiant and heart-felt delivery, which, though never as gravelly or tormented as her blues idols, nonetheless sits within an unusually low register for a Japanese female vocalist of her era.
Though it would be easy for a casual listener to mistake these tunes for prime examples of enka (the oft-wonderful genre of melancholic, folk-derived pop ballads that dominated the Japanese charts through the ‘60s and ‘70s), in fact Asakawa’s fans and musical collaborators saw her at the time as standing very much in opposition to enka orthodoxy, rejecting the overwrought arrangements, melodramatic sentiments and implicit nationalism of the genre in favour of a more stripped back, “authentic”, Western blues/folk-based approach.
Certainly, the shimmering acoustic strumming, gentle fluting, brushed drumming, smouldering cocktail jazz and tasteful rock/soul jamming showcased here make a pleasant change from the squeaky trumpets and stabbing strings of more commercial enka, even as the uniquely sinuous, serpentine melodies of the genre are still very much in evidence, resulting in a rather beguiling hybrid form that undoubtedly proved very influential on later folk-pop performers such as Carmen Maki and Morita Doji.
Whilst these songs are unlikely to blow many minds in the English-speaking world in 21st century, they are nonetheless extremely fine performances – the perfect accompaniment to a glass of single malt enjoyed on a Sunday evening, and nectar of the gods for anyone with a particular yen for the hyper-specific, monochromatic aesthetic of Japan’s late ‘60s cultural new wave – and the rare occasions on Asakawa and her collaborators throw caution to the wind and get way-out-there (such as on the George Harrison-affiliated raga-rock behemoth ‘Govinda’, or the creeped out downer lament of ‘Onna’) are worth the entry price alone.
Emma de Angelis - Forgiveness b/w Trip/Plankton 7”
Monday, November 27, 2017
The Best Comp/Reissue of 2017:
Neil Young – Hitchhiker LP
Well, if you’re going to buy ONE new release LP on a major record label this century, you might as well make it one recorded in 1976, y’knowwhatImean?
I’ll freely admit I’ve been on a colossal Neil Young binge through the second half of 2017, after finally getting around to reading Jimmy McDonough’s biography (one of the best – and most epic - music books I’ve ever read, no jive) left my head spinning for weeks with thoughts, theories, ideas and anecdotes concerning the mercurial, flawed genius of Mr. Young.
And, as such, this much-ballyhooed release of the entire legendary one mic demo session that gave the world such sublime previously released cuts as ‘Campaigner’ (on the ‘Decade’ compilation) and ‘Captain Kennedy’ (from ‘Hawks & Doves’) felt like manna from heaven to me a few months back. After all the ludicrous new releases and questionable archive choices Neil has put out in the 21st century, I wouldn’t blame anyone for approaching new product bearing his name with caution, but take it from me: this is the real deal.
Although the records Neil actually released between ‘75’s ‘Zuma’ and ‘79s ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ may not be amongst his best-loved or – cough – ‘most iconic’, I nonetheless think that this period probably represents his all-time peak, artistically speaking, and we’re right on the cusp of it here. On the particular evening these tracks were laid down, it seems he sat down with his guitar and some, uh, refreshments, and - as late producer David Briggs quotes Neil as joking in the promo blurb for this record – he just “turned on the tap”.
Neil had certainly gone through a hell of a lot of “life experience” by the time the second half of the decade rolled around, and both the sometimes cloying naivety of the ‘Gold Rush’/’Harvest’ period and the corresponding gory nihilism of the ‘Tonight’s The Night’/’On The Beach’ burn-out had come and gone by this point, meaning that, whilst the songs here retain the sublime melodic gift and ineffable ‘spook’ that characterised his work throughout the decade, his writing has more depth, more cynicism and ambiguity, more variety and imagination, more flat-out *weirdness* to it than anything he did before or since – a mixture of raw autobiographical fragments and cosmic flights of fancy that never fully settles down into any recognisible comfort zone, mixed with a perfect, poetic take on America’s history and it’s lost, post-Watergate drift, with a steely-eyed hustler’s determination to not get fucked by it.
I could go on; I could give you a song-by song break-down, keep this going for four thousand words, but what would be the point? I recognise that Neil Young fans are one of those strange breeds whose tastes seem to function on a slightly different wave-length from the rest of humanity – as such, chances are you’ve either got this already and know exactly what I’m talking about, or you don’t care. If you are a Young-fancier and this release has somehow eluded your attention though, please rectify that immediately.
I hope readers won’t think it’s just some morbid retro fixation taking hold when I state that the best music pressed to vinyl in 2017 was recorded by some washed out hippie snorting coke in a shack on Maimi beach half a decade before I was born, but, what can I say – there it is, take it or leave it.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Dead Moon Forever.
(Blog resurrection coming soon, by the way.)
Thursday, September 14, 2017
R.I.P. Grant Hart.
I’m sorry for recent blog-death. Ideas for potential blog-rebirth are in progress, but in the meantime, I couldn’t let this one go by.
On those pre-major label Huskers records, Grant Hart is a force of nature, busting through your speakers like a hurricane. I actually cannot believe the sheer force with which he plays drums on some of the ‘Zen Arcade’ era material. With all due respect to Bob, the band’s “hardcore energy + heart-on-sleeve pop = ?!?” dynamic was largely down to him, and the intensity of his best songs remains undiminished.
Fans can/will argue long and hard about which songs those are of course, but for my part I’d advise you to click through to the following and play them as loudly as is practicable as soon as possible: 1, 2.
The first is one of the first songs I ever learned to play on the guitar, the second is as good a pick as any for the last song I want to play on the guitar, when some fantasy final encore comes.
I’ve had enough of cancer recently. R.I.P. Grant.
Friday, May 12, 2017
Fugues From a Darkening Island:
First Quarter Report (DELAYED).
Given my by now expected tardiness when it comes to producing new content for this permanently-on-life-support blog, I found it frustrating that, whilst I was slowly ploughing through that best of 2016 list earlier this year, the first quarter of 2017 was simultaneously hitting me with a wealth of great new(ish) music – all of which helped cheer me somewhat whilst trudging through one of the most dire and baleful winters this ship-of-fools planet has experienced within living memory.
Though my burning need to tell you about all this was forced into hibernation as a result of other life commitments, I’ve FINALLY found a few minutes to bang something out for you before a big trip to Japan later this month puts things on hiatus again, so let’s get cracking.
As it happens, what follows is almost exclusively gnarly guitar stuff, and exclusively from within the night-haunted shores of the British Isles, so if that doesn’t sound like your cup of teeth, well… sorry. Things are looking pretty grim around here at the mo, so if you’re looking for something a bit more laidback and nuanced, might I recommend, say, Philadelphia in the 1970s? I mean, those guys seemed to know how to put their troubles in perspective and kick back in style. Here in 2017 however, the clock appears to be ticking, so we’ve got to take advantage of all this electricity and sweat-shop produced ‘gear’ and moan about it whilst we still can.
Grey Hairs’ 2nd LP ‘Serious Business’, out now on Gringo, is the band’s best recorded statement to date. At this point, they can pretty much be considered national standard bearers for the virtues of keeping it real and making excellent rock music on a sustainable/local level, and I hope I will remain in the spirit of the “shit, suddenly we’re middle aged” aesthetic they have been rocking since their inception if I state that the pleasures of this album largely arise from the opportunity to hear group with enough of a collective track record behind them to know how to do things right, just doing things right.
A big, ol’ reeking mess of a record in the best possible sense, the essence of ‘Serious Business’ is difficult to capture in a few glib sentences (an undoubted strength, although a bit of a pain in the arse when it comes to writing this sort of thing). Swinging from Melvins/Black Flag level heft on the one hand to a cannier, more sprightly approach that puts me in mind of the much missed Eddy Current Suppression Ring on the other, the ‘Hairs strong suit here is a solid & considered approach to song-writing that matches painstakingly hewn-from-cliff-face riffs with imaginatively tangled bits of guitar-work, appropriately bludgeoning/dramatic production decisions and vocalist James’s fairly unique approach to rock band front-person conventions.
This sees him mixing scale-climbing alt-rock emoting with a desperate/oddball sense of humour that helps make his tales of collapsing/self-pitying austerity-era masculinity not only palatable, but weirdly enjoyable. A shrieked “Sick! / Sick of feeling shit! / Sick of talking it!” aptly sets the scene on the self-titled opener, whilst ‘Man is a Kitchen’ – a definite highlight in all regards – appears to concern itself with the daily torment of cooking dinner (“Meat! Takes! TIME!”). [I realise that, in the context of a rock song, such talk of meat and ovens could be taken as a precursor to some kind of loathsomely ungainly double entendre, but I can’t be the only one who would rather take it at face value in this instance.]
I’m talking a fair bit of shit myself here it seems, and could probably continue doing so for a while longer, so instead let’s cut to the chase here and just say that, in ‘Serious Business’, Grey Hairs have achieved the seemingly impossible by perfecting a form of all purpose, non-denominational “modern rock” that feels valid, exhilarating, non-embarrassing and GOOD. And they’re fucking great live too. Just have a listen, will you?
I somehow missed out on seeing Brighton’s Lower Slaughter back when they were playing with their former vocalist Max Levy (aka King of Cats), but I’ve been lucky enough to catch them twice this year with Sinead Young (ex-Divorce) on the mic, and I have found them to be bloody brilliant, bordering on hit-the-mosh-pit-if-there-was-one inspiring, on both occasions.
Like Grey Hairs, Lower Slaughter are an adaptable, non-retro-fixated modern rock unit that just works. I mean, what can you say? A wrecking ball rhythm section, a rad/inventive guitarist, a charismatic front person with a good set of pipes – it’s not exactly rocket science, is it? But rarely these days are the elements all in place just so. Go see them play, and witness some serious, original, yet exultantly rocking, rock music being made. It’s great.
Only one track featuring their new line-up out in the wild thus far, on a four way split 7”, but it’s a blinder, and they’ve got an LP on the way shortly, so I’m looking forward.
(The photo above is by Isobel Reddington by the way, shamelessly googled up and stolen from The Quietus to cover for the lack of any appropriate record covers.)
Another band sharing that split 7” with Lower Slaughter are Dublin’s Sissy, and I’ve got to admit that, whilst on paper they don’t sound much like a group that would pique my interest much these days, they absolutely “killed it” (as the kids may or may not be saying) when I saw them headlining a night at the DIY Space a few months back.
It’s difficult to really put yr finger on what separates them so definitively from every other ‘songwriter plus rhythm section’ pop-punk three piece in the world, but, after beginning proceedings with a concise “we’re from Ireland, but we don’t like the church”, Sissy played with a sheer… I dunno, ‘confidence’ is the only word I can think of, though it feels woefully insufficient… that is rare indeed, and worthy of celebration.
Lyrics on the band’s most recent EP (released in 2015 apparently… what the heck have they been doing since?!) are straight up feminist agit prop with a particular emphasis on the issues faced by women in the Republic of Ireland, aimed twist-the-knife style at any potential detractors and even getting down to the nitty gritty of such specifics as the lack of female sports coverage on TV at one point – pretty on-the-nose kinda fare, but, they sell it. The concerns are legit, the rage is real, the performance holds up.
Despite the clean guitar tone, watching Sissy put me in mind of what it might have been like to catch ‘Bleach’-era Nirvana, with a nice dose of first wave UK punk directness in the mix, and, at the risk of being hit with the comparing-female-bands-to-other-female-bands stick, a fair bit of first album-era Sleater Kinney too. (Oof, good luck shouldering those expectations guys!) Ignore at your peril, and so forth.
The Suburban Homes.
Speaking both of first wave UK punk directness, it actually took nods from as far away as Japan and the USA to point me in the direction of The Suburban Homes, an outfit based out of Crawley, West Sussex, who put out a splendid 12” entitled ‘..Are Bored’ late last year.
Sound here is somewhat akin to early Television Personalities if they’d turned away from their mod/psyche/cutie fixations and instead ploughed an ever-deepening furrow of punk rock indignation [as if to prove my point, a re-worked cover of ‘Part Time Punks’ is included with the download version], or Billy Childish’s Pop Rivets if they’d done, well, much the same.
To echo a notion that seems to apply to most of the bands I’m writing about in this post, it’s difficult to articulate quite what makes these songs so vital as they rattle through the familiar monotone, three chord Messthetics sweet-spots like an out of control mini-moke careering through a sink estate, but, heaven help us, they hit the spot.
The disgruntled Punk 101 sentiments of screeds like ‘Barbie & Ken’ and ‘iPhone Suicide’ should be any reasonable measure be considered hopelessly redundant – condemned to the realm of Mr Local Bloke, fourth on the bill at the Dog & Duck, who’s been listening to The Clash and decided he’s got a bone to pick – yet somehow here, they still ring true, caustic, disenfranchised and ready for trouble.
I think perhaps the key to it is that, in contrast to the vast majority of other punk rock bands, The Suburban Homes actually sound as if they’re coming from a place where the very act of making this music or expressing these opinions makes them genuine outcasts from the society around them – as lonely and embittered as a mohawked oik dodging rocks in some provincial bus queue back in ’78.
By adopting such a militant “back to basics” approach, The Suburban Homes dodge the retro bullet and instead succeed in dragging punk-as-genre back from the echo chamber of unreadable jacket patches and endless self-referential permutations of badly recorded caveman nonsense, and reminding us why it appealed in the first place.
Unless of course, they are actually just a bunch of urbane metropolitan elitos like myself, pulling this ‘provincial amateur punk’ shtick just to take the piss – which is always a possibility in these dark days.
Either way, my wife bought a copy of their record via bandcamp and the package arrived with “THE SUBURBAN HOMES HATE SOCIAL MEDIA” written on the back in biro, so - truly they are fighting the good fight.
I first saw Casual Nun supporting Bong a while back, and they were pretty good. In the past six months, they’ve released two separate LPs (both recorded on the same day), and they’ve evidently upped their game to the level of ‘pretty great’.
Of the two, Super Fancy Skeleton (hard copy released via Hominid Sounds) is the one I’ve spent most time with, and it finds the band expending on their palette of Heads-style rehearsal room riffola to incorporate distant groans of mechanised insectoid angst, “eastern-tinged”, the-Egyptian-gods-are-rising-to-eat-you style psyche-doom atmos, and even warped ancestral memories of Glitter Band stomp and Quo-ian boogie. It’s a pretty eclectic brew all things considered, with the album’s four tracks anchored only by the presence of a pair of guitarists who sound like they would rather die by the sword than dial down their fuzz. Nice one.
On first approach, Psychometric Testing by.. (Box) seems to venture even further afield, beginning, somewhat unexpectedly, with ninety seconds of punishing, pedal-warped hardcore before another mammoth doom plod gets underway, belying any “Bong on the cheap” accusations with a genuinely massive sound-mix, swallowing all light in the immediate vicinity, much in the way such things should. By the end, there’s what sounds like a whole cell full of unhappy prisoners wailing down a wind tunnel in the depths of the mix, as somewhat gives a distorted theremin a good seeing to in the foreground.
Raw electronic textures of the kind Hawkwind’s audio generators might have belched up get an outing on ‘Truth Machines’, before the track departs for stranger realms of malfunctioning/medicated improv freakout before eventually working its way round to a few minutes of the kind of head-nodding action Endless Boogie might sanction. Then some heavy duty effects plough in again and…. before too long, spoken word starts happening. Blimey. Let’s just say that, more so than its predecessor, this record is quite a trip – a rusty, soggy, dangerous, fungus encrusted, subterranean one, specifically speaking, but well worth taking nonetheless.
As long-term readers will be aware, when it comes to metal (as opposed to doom, for which I apply different criteria), I like it straight up, punk-spirited, unpretentious, beer-sodden and direct from the practice room. So when I saw that Manchester-based Aggressive Perfector had hand-drawn a scary demon on the cover of their debut EP and (anti)christened it ‘Satan’s Heavy Metal’, I figured I might be on to a winner, and verily, they did not disappoint.
Not much to say about this one, beyond the fact that it just fucking rips, with the opening ‘Infernal Raids’ standing out as one of the most kick ass metal songs I’ve heard in years. Though they prostrate themselves before all the expected altars (Slayer, Venom, Cryptic Slaughter, more Slayer, even a touch of Di’Anno-era Maiden perhaps?), Aggressive Perfector aren’t bogged down in nostalgia, and neither to they play like posers – this is a razor sharp, band-live-in-the-room mid-fi blast that as far as I’m concerned represents the spirit of heavy metal at its finest. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered the Blood Patrol demo. All hail!
Last but certainly not least, I’ve recently found myself reconnecting with the contemporary output of Skullflower [hopefully a no-intro-needed level prospect, but if you do need one, try here]. Still comprising a duo of Matthew Bower and partner Samantha Davies, it transpires that the band (if we can indeed properly deem them such) have recently been unloading a prodigious quantities of new material via their bandcamp page, and simultaneously holding forth on their mystifying yet beguilingly poetical take on spirituality on their blog,whilst, admirably, cementing real world connections in such unfashionable locales as Russia and Egypt.
It is the latter that leads us to the release I would particularly like to highlight here, ‘The Black Iron That Fell From The Sky, To Dwell Within (Bear It or Be It)’, issued earlier this year on Cairo-based Nashazphone label – one of the few Skullflower releases to hit vinyl within living memory, and deservedly so, for it is an astonishing piece of work.
Very much the kind of deal wherein trying to break the music within down to verbal descriptors feels both reductive and somewhat sacrilegious, let’s just say that ‘The Black Iron..’ finds Skullflower expressing the more expansive and less punishing (relatively speaking) side of the nature. I spent some quality time with it a few weeks back, sitting between the speakers with a glass of scotch, and I’ve not been quite the same since. The first side in particular is… something else.
The record is not currently available digitally and Nashazphone’s pressing was limited to 333 copies, but there are still some on offer via Discogs at the time of writing, so please – “don’t sleep”, as the collector bores say. (You can hear some of it on Youtube here.)
Thursday, April 27, 2017
Feral Ohms – s/t 12”
(Silver Current, 2017)
Just a few months back, I was griping about Comets On Fire/Howlin’ Rain guitar-lord Ethan Miller being relegated to bass in the wonderful Heron Oblivion, and lo and behold, my prayers are answered and then some, as he’s back to knock our fucking faces off with his most ferocious band to date.
Oh, but how shall I sing of my love for Feral Ohm’s self-titled debut 12”, as recently released on Miller’s own Silver Current label?
Well, let’s put it this way – you know how the music scene in any given city at any given time is liable to include at least one band who use too many capital letters and exclamations marks whilst claiming to play “TRUE, BALLS-TO-THE-WALL HIGH ENERGY ROCK N’ROLL!!!” or suchlike? And you know how (unless they are Guitar Wolf), those bands will inevitably kind of suck?
Well, Feral Ohms make no such claims (as far as I know), but they succeed in sounding like those bands must sound in the heads of their members, if you get my drift. Which is to say, they sound a bit like The MC5 in full throttle ‘Kick Out The Jams’ mode, bulked up on steroids and 21st century pedal board excess, comin’ at you like a hurricane.
When I initially listened to a bit of the band’s live album (which appeared before this studio effort, awkwardly), I was a little concerned to hear a guitarist as gifted as Miller largely relegated to playing chords in a by-the-book garage-punk power trio, but, thanks to the miracle of multi-track recording, he’s firing on all cylinders here, his trademark lava-spurting, orgasmic volcano freakout approach to the six string molesting almost every second of this splendid record with sweetly hysterical wang bar/fuzz-wah chaos.
Basically, this band just do everything right. ‘Living Junkyard’! ‘Gods of Nicaragua’! These are the kind of things rock n’ roll songs should be called! Admittedly, ‘Teenage God Born To Die’ sounds a bit try-hard, but when you hear the track itself….. you’ll buy it.
My god, I love this record. It plays at 45, clocks in at about twenty five minutes split between nine songs, and the whole thing is just an absolute rampage. It’s sad to think that in this day and age there is probably a limited audience for stuff that sounds like Rob Tyner and Kawabata Makoto guesting on a Supersuckers record, but if you are a part of that audience, I’d advise you to try to keep Feral Ohms off your headphones when passing a tattoo shop, lest you must go through the remainder of your life with a big baboon face inked on your anatomy. Remember: rock music this exuberantly rocking must be treated with care, or blood may go to the head, and decision-making may suffer.
I’d close with a snarky note about how this record eats Ty Seagull’s oeuvre for breakfast and feeds the bones to Buck Dharma’s ravenous huskies, but that would just be petty, wouldn’t it…?
In conclusion: please just get this, it rules.
This 12” can be streamed & purchased digitally via bandcamp, and the vinyl (supplied w/ download code) has gained distribution across the US, UK and probably elsewhere, so seek and ye shall find.
Monday, March 20, 2017
Thoughts on Chuck Berry
(1926 – 2017)
1. Real busy weekend on either side of hearing the news of Chuck Berry’s passing late on Saturday night. We were organising/playing a rare gig on Sunday night, so if he’d been considerate enough to give us another 24 hours’ notice, maybe we could have fitted in a cover. Well, no matter – probably a million feckless guitarists out there right now practicing their rusty little finger / fourth fret business in time for next weekend.
2. Chuck Berry – ala The Beatles – is one of those guys so ubiquitous that younger music fans are almost inevitably going to dismiss and kick against their influence… until they eventually grow up and realise who’s really the boss. Sifting through the “roots of rock n’ roll” biz, it’s all too easy to fixate on the more cultish, wilder figures, whose reputations can still be seen as in need of defence (Bo Diddley, Link Wray, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins), whilst writing off Big Chuck as a cynical middle-aged pervert who scrubbed up r’n’b to make it palatable to white teenagers, and proceeded to milk them for the rest of his/their lives with his sickly High School Prom/Ice Cream Soda kitsch crap.
Then, once you’re broadly familiar with the sound & expectations of American r’n’b/r’n’r cira the late ‘50s, you’ll unexpectedly hear one of his tunes when you’re out somewhere, and think….. holy shit. CHUCK BERRY – yes.
It is a process we’ve all been through. If you’ve not reached the final stage yet, don’t worry, it will come.
3. Just last week, we were listening to this random Chess Records archival comp whilst cooking dinner. It’s got some blues, some r’n’b, quite a lot of doo-wop. It’s all good, all worth hearing. The, towards the end of side # 2, Chuck Berry comes on (Let it Rock), and fuck “worth hearing”, it’s PARTY TIME. The impact of that sound – cutting through the competition like a knife through butter – remains absolutely hair-raising to this day, and, as much as we may dig his contemporaries, it is HIS vision of rock n’ roll – with the REALLY LOUD rhythm guitar, the relentless driving-down-the-highway 4/4 beat, the slurred, conversational vocals and of course the short, sharp solos – that has come down to us over the years through punk, garage and ‘60s beat pop, whilst alternative models (the pianos and saxophones, stuttering, Diddley-ish beats, extravagant vocalisin’) have all fallen by the wayside, applicable to post-’65 recordings only as quaint period touches.
4. Hearing ol’ Zimmerframe trotted out declaring him “the Shakespeare of rock n’ roll” yet again is profoundly unhelpful re: gaining an appreciation of Chuck Berry’s song-writing, which – though absolutely brilliant – tends toward the kind of no nonsense, rock n’ roll shit-talking that crumbles to dust as soon as you start throwing big, poetical claims at it.
As mentioned above, I’ve never really been into the whole High School and Cadillacs “celebration of capitalist American teenhood” shtick that people like Greil Marcus probably bang on about (indeed, it is this aspect of Chuck’s rock n’ roll hits that I like the least), but if you can get beyond that, his gift for casually brilliant lyrics regularly blows my mind.
As well as being a total, dancefloor-filling rave up, I think Brown-Eyed Handsome Man ranks as one of the slyest, funniest, most imaginative songs recorded by anyone in the late ‘50s – and that’s just the bits of it I can understand. For, in one of its final verses, it also provides a perfect examples of Berry’s inspired use of numbers, place names, obscure bits of slang to create stanzas that are pretty much meaningless to the vast majority of his listeners through different times across different continents, but that nonetheless just sound impossibly cool, hitting the rhythm of the song just dead-on, creating that “I don’t quite know what he’s going on about, but I love it” feeling that echoes through so much of the best rock n’ roll. I mean, “two, three the count, with nobody over / hit a high flyer into the stands / round the thirty he was headin’ for home / it was a brown-eyed handsome man, that won the game” – wow. I don’t know a damn thing about baseball (which this is presumably about), but it just sounds amazing – like the live-wire patter of some betting shop hustler immortalised forever on the beat.
5. Whilst we’re talking lyrics, I never been able to get over “..he could play the guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell” either. Absolute genius, especially when one pauses to reflect that a-ringin’ a bell isn’t quite as easy as it’s cracked up to be.
6. Though Berry’s trademark style coalesced in pretty quick fashion, some of the early ‘hits’ where he goes a bit off-message are just raw as hell and stand out a mile. Come On is one of my favourites. It’s just punk as fuck – the backing so minimal, the sentiment so furious, and it’s less than two minutes long too; “..some STUPID JERK tryin’ to reach another number – COME ON!” – a band could’ve played this pretty much identically in The Masque or CBGBs twenty years later and fitted in just fine. (It was also the last single he put out before being sent to prison in 1961, which may explain both its uncharacteristic sense of impotent rage, and the fact it sounds as if it was recorded in one take in an unlit basement.)
And on the other side of the coin, you’ve got Memphis, Tennessee – for all that Berry worked up the image of a perma-grinning Teflon showman, this is just so plaintive, so fragile it’s near heart-breaking – “Marie is only six years old, information please” – who else was singing stuff like this, especially in the form of what is ostensibly an upbeat dancing record..?
I find it very interesting that both of these songs sound so primitive and un-self-conscious – sort of like half-formed, embryonic takes on his slicker rock n’ roll style - despite the fact that they were actually recorded towards the end of his initial, pre-prison golden era, after ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ etc. Listen to all these songs in succession, and the chronological order of their release dates just feels wrong, as if his style was actually regressing into something more primal as debauchery and legal troubles took their toll… but I dunno.
7. Which brings me neatly onto the inevitable note that, once you look beyond the hits, Chuck Berry recorded loaded of really weird stuff; have you checked out all those wonky Hawaiian numbers? Or Crying Steel? Down Bound Train? That one’s spooky as hell – amazing track. Much in the vein of earlier black crossover stars like Louis Armstrong, one suspects that, beneath the safe “iconic” image he played up for his white audience, there was a really strange dude struggling to be heard.
8. Whilst “don’t speak ill of the dead” conventions allow us to some extent to gloss over Chuck Berry’s chequered history of sexual impropriety and statutory rape and instead concentrate on his music, it is my duty to at least note such matters and suggest that they do not exactly reflect well on our man, in spite of the charm and force of personality that comes through in his songs. Anyway, moving on…
9. Though some may see it as a late period (1964 for godssake!) rehash of his earlier successes, Promised Land is one of my all-time favourite cuts too. Kind of a knowingly concocted “best ever Chuck Berry song”, it never fails to get me going, and proves that Chuck can literally sing the phone-book and make it sound exciting: “Los Angeles, give me Norfolk, Virginia, Tidewater four ten-oh-nine” – again, practically meaningless lyrics to anyone not living in the Southern USA in the mid-20th century, but just check out how well they roll off the tongue. Maybe there’s something in that preposterous Shakespeare quote after all?
10. As I reflected in these pages a few years back whilst reviewing this brilliantly shonky Chuck Berry live album, I have nothing but admiration for the fact, after recording pretty much all the material that made his name prior to 1960, Chuck Berry spent literally the next fifty years living what I think must on some level be the ultimate revenge fantasy of every unfairly treated black American entertainment figure – putting in zero effort as he turns up five minutes before stage-time, probably after knocking back a fair bit of complimentary booze, shouts the name of the first song to the local pick up band he’d probably not even bothered to speak to before the how, and proceeds to grind through a set of gloriously cacophonous, half-assed crap – all for an audience of white folks who paid $100 per head to see him, and, hilariously, kept on doing so right to the end. Every time I listen to the aforementioned album, I had just hear his laughter as he pockets the cheque and jumps back in his Caddy, and it makes the shambling, pub band din within sounds all the sweeter.
Friday, March 17, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
1. Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura –
The Great Celestial Purge 4xLP
In a sense, perhaps it’s just as well that 2016 has seen me dragging out my “best of year” list through to the arse-end of the following March, because, in an all-time first, my # 1 spot belongs to a release that didn’t actually arrive on my doorstep until February.
I’ve been enjoying the mp3 version of ‘The Great Celestial Purge’ since I initially put my money down in September, so it definitely still qualifies as a 2016 release, but, given that (to my mind at least) this is vinyl music in excelsis, I’m really happy that my own tardiness has allowed me some to time to take it in on wax through the nice speakers before writing this review.
Mention of the box set’s late arrival is absolutely, totally not a complaint by the way. For a band who are still relatively little known, putting out a release on this scale is an example of Thinking Big that I really appreciate, and for the small label like Golden Lab to back them up on it is admirable. Producing a quadruple LP set of exacting audio quality and high aesthetic standards must have been pretty a pretty daunting task, and I’m extremely glad that they took their time and put in the necessary effort to deliver the goods, in the form of an end product that I suspect I will be keeping close at hand through many years to come. Well done everybody!
On to the music then, and, for the uninitiated, Manchester-based Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura are basically what back in the bad old days we used to term a “jam band”, perhaps cut through with hints of what in even worse days we called a “post-rock band”, but with enough shining talent and eminent good taste to ditch the negative connotations of both these pigeonholes.
Generally foregrounding the lyrical, clean-toned exploratory playing of nominal band leader Nick Mitchell, yr average Desmadrados cut features anything up to four or five electric guitars circling around each other, with delicately applied but defiantly weird effects turning one or two of them into pure atmos and smoke, as a loose, improvised groove takes hold, quite possibly featuring bass tone so warm you could hold your hands against it on a winter morn, and minimal, unobtrusive percussion grounding the tempo.
Working in an area of music that often overflows with ego, technical bluster and obscurantism, there’s something just so straight up, and… I dunno, inclusive?.. about the way Desmarcados do business, it’s just a wonderful thing.
I mean, what can I tell you: I’ve always loved the sound of electric guitars and their accoutrements, and I love all the things they can be made to do in the right hands. These guys, to my way of thinking, are very much the right hands, and ‘The Great Celestial Purge’ finds them doing all the lovely things they do on their guitars for literally hours on end, and I love it.
The Grateful Dead (in full-on ‘Live/Dead’ mode, not the country stuff, obviously) are an inescapable reference point here, but, if you’ve ever found yourself unwilling to struggle through endless minutes of baroque sing-songy bits and grunty Pig-Pennery to reach the transcendent ‘peak moments’ on a ‘Dead set, you’ll be offering praises to your dark gods the moment you cue up ‘Defixiones’ on the first side of ‘The Great Celestial Purge’ and find Desmadrados taking us straight to that peak moment from the outset and just letting it build and build across the entirety of the next twenty minutes, endless, nameless fragments of ungraspable melody cascading ever onward into an gilt-edged spider web of dreams. Or something. It was a random online play of this track that convinced me I needed to drop the best part of a month’s disposable income on these records, and I do not regret my decision in the slightest.
Another potential touchstone in the canon of non-embarrassing jam band shit is that of Swedish communal funsters Träd Gräs Och Stenar, whose spirit can perhaps be felt ever so slightly on the equally edifying side B jam, ‘Hogback Shingles’; a more subdued piece that sees the bass gradually taking the lead as flurries of exquisitely reverbed slide guitar detritus drift hither and yon through the mix, this one creates a dense field of valve amp detritus, melting like a snowdrift hit with a shaft of sun, and is perfect just before bed-time.
Completing the triumvirate of influences of course, we need to throw in a mention of electric-era Miles Davis and the wealth of cosmic fusion excursions that followed in his wake – a unbeatable blueprint for the production of long-form, improvised music that Desmadrados fall back on throughout this set, whether consciously or otherwise. And although the general vibe here is too chilled to engage with the live-wire tension and supressed aggression of Miles’s best dawn-of-the’70s sides, the relatively agitated ‘Red-Eared Sliders’ and the grimier abstraction of ‘Iluvia Radioactiva’ do at least hint at the possibility of darker currents within their work, reminding us of ‘The Great Celestial Purge’s loose concept as a memorial for assorted musicians lost during 2016.
The main thing I think Desmadrados take from Miles though is an inherent understanding of one of the key lessons of ‘Bitches Brew’ et al – namely, that the ‘slow-build’ is for suckers. Perhaps in fact, this is the key to what makes the music of Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura so much more mercurial and intoxicating than that of the majority of practitioners of the unpalatable genres I name-checked in the opening paragraphs of this post. Instead of treading water, holding back the pay-off, counting off the minutes just for the hell of it, each one of the cuts here sees the band zeroing straight in on what they want to do, establishing their M.O. for the piece, then building upon it, twisting it, demolishing it, rebuilding it, in a suitably ecstatic fug of group-mind creation, revelling endlessly in the gleaming, multi-faceted detail they can bounce off the walls of their magnificently appointed comfort zone. It’s a sweet place to be.
I know that rock/pop music is supposed to be all about innovation and confrontation and the wild energy of youth and so on, so perhaps I’m about to make myself sound like a worthless, irredeemable old white man, but fuck it. The music on this set is beautifully played and beautifully recorded, and it proves extremely edifying and relaxing whenever I get a chance to put a side or two of it on as I sit on my bed and read my book of an evening (perhaps with an occasional snifter of single malt to complete the idyllic picture). There is an awful lot of music to enjoy across these four discs, and I am looking forward to letting it continue to sink in for quite some time to come. Who knows, maybe I can bend the rules to have it qualify as #1 for 2017 too? If this what middle age feels like, bring it on.
‘The Great Celestial Purge’ can be heard and acquired in either physical or digital form direct from Desmadrados Soldados De Ventura's bandcamp page.
Monday, March 13, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
2. Haikai No Ku –
Temporary Infinity LP
Right, more Vestage (Vestism?) here, with what, for me, was Mike V’s best release of 2016, the third LP from his more noise-orientated three-piece, Haikai No Ku.
Far more of a studio project than Blown Out (they’ve never played live to my knowledge, which is unsurprising given the sheer density of guitar/noise tracks stacked up on their recordings), Haikai trades that unit’s head-nodding groove for an exultation of grim, cyclopean excess, and, for those who picked up on their previous LP (Ultra-High Dimensionality) the recipe here is not much changed, with the full-spectrum saturation of Vest’s Matthew Bower-esque guitar/FX conjurations sprawling across the baleful, stentorian lock-step of the rhythm section.
In fact, it’s easy to picture Jerome Smith (bass) and Sam Booth (drums) taking an early bus home from the studio whilst Vest works long into the night on these cuts, crafting an apocalyptic, city-levelling sound that mirrors (in feel, if not necessarily content) the likes of band-era Skullflower (natch), Fushitsusha and other extremist rock/noise outfits through the ages. (I’d also like to imagine the studio engineer staggering from the building after dawn, bleeding from every facial orifice, but don’t want to get too carried away with such fantasies.)
Opening track ‘Saltes of Human Dust’ – it’s title taken from the alchemical quotation that opens H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ (what is it with people from Newcastle?) – is, appropriately, an absolute monster, Vest’s queasy, scooped guitar tones suggesting a sickly green hue, even as the high end white noise torment that gradually envelops the low/mids drives things toward pure black on the synaesthesia scale, a terrifying conjuration of electric obliteration that at one point features a sound almost exactly like a biological electric guitar letting out a strangulated shriek. ‘Temple Factory’, which follows, is if anything even more relentless, the lumbering, two note doom riff presided over by the rhythm section propelling the accompanying FX white-out toward ‘Akira’-level visions of rubble n’ twisted steel demolition.
After the transitional ghostly tumult of ‘Blind Summit’, side # 2 is a somewhat less sadistic experience, reigning in the euphoric overload of the A side for ‘In the Garden of Eclipse’s somnambulant, depressive drift of decaying chords and amp debris, bass and drums treading water in a manner reminiscent of Vest’s comrades in Bong. And, in closing, ‘Sea of Blood’ picks us up again with an almost Rallizes-like bass-line and laser-blast lava-monster guitar, shaking up a monolithic, head-nodding grind before a disappointingly early fade – a brief palette cleanser preparing us for whatever the hell comes next…
I’m not sure at what point in my life I began using the word ‘sadistic’ in a positive context with regard to the critical assessment of recorded music, but, sometimes (and with increasing frequency in my case it seems), we all need an absolute noise-wall white-out - and when that time comes, it’s a god-send (though who knows which god) to have one as pungent and hypnogogic as this to fall back on.
Available to stream and download direct from Mike Vest via bandcamp; the LP still on sale from Box Records.
Thursday, March 09, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
3. Heron Oblivion – s/t LP
And so it came to pass that Ethan Miller and Noel Von Harmonson (ex-Comets On Fire), Meg Baird (ex-Espers, solo folksiness) and Charlie Saufley (of some outfit called Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound) got together at some point in the waning years of the Obama administration. Rather than merely reminiscing about the fun they had back at Arthurfest in 2004 or whatever though [how sad that such things are now a distant, historical moment, gone for good], they took it upon themselves to form an absolutely stupendous folk-rock/heavy psyche cross-over band under the improbable name of ‘Heron Oblivion’, and verily, people over thirty who like rock music did rejoice.
At least nine months late to the party, it now comes time for me to craft a written assessment of their debut LP, and to generally celebrate the existence of what is probably the best thing pressed up by the Sub-Pop label since before the birth of some kids who are now starting bands (or at least doing whatever ghastly things it is kids do nowadays in lieu of starting bands).
In short then: ‘Heron Oblivion’ sounds like a masterfully wrought combination of ‘Unhalfbricking’ era Fairport, ‘Everybody Knows..’ era Crazy Horse and a whatever-era-you-like motherlode of PSF-style amp-melting Japanese psyche…. and I probably don’t need to tell you that such a combination pretty much represents pure fucking zen perfection to your correspondent.
All the more so when, as here, the aforementioned antecedents are wrangled with such mellifluous ease as to allow the band to sublimate them into Their Own Style pretty much from the word go, dismissing potential buzzkill re: retro posturing or inter-generational plagiarism for the banal snarking it is, wiping such concerns from their desk with an authoritative sweep of sweet, sweet, indisputably rocking music whose spirit of communal interplay (if not necessarily its core ingredients) place it firmly within the Eternal Now.
One thing that should probably be highlighted here is the recording / production on this LP, which I think is absolutely fantastic. The quieter passages are hear-a-pin-drop glacial, with careful attention paid to dynamics and beautiful, unobtrusive reverb shimmering as if it were taped in a flooded concert hall; as soon as the guitarists hit their fuzzboxes though (which, praise be, they do pretty much constantly), the sound roars in maxed out and compressed like a jet fighter afterburner, the nuance of every string bend, amp shriek and wah-squelch captured in exultantly hair-raising fashion. The result is a fusion of genteel drift and no bullshit heaviosity wherein the two modes seem to be working in unison rather than in conflict – a rare and delicate balance that here works splendidly.
Another thing I should mention is how surprised I was when I checked in with some of this album’s press a few months after acquiring and listening to it, and discovered that Ethan Miller *isn’t* one of those guitarists. Instead, he remains way back in the mix on bass (which is near inaudible at some points) whilst Van Harmonson and Saufley let the sparks fly up front, one or both of them doing such an uncanny impression of Miller’s trademark wang-bar pummelling style from back in the Comets days that… well, I don’t know what to think, really. I guess great guitar players just think alike within the apparently blessed orbit of this band and their circle. Jeez, I dunno.
I just love this record, basically. It does all the things I like – simple as. The only thing that stops me in fact from sending Heron Oblivion to #1 with a bullet, tippexing their name onto the back of my jacket and hitchhiking across the Atlantic to see them play is a somewhat… I’m not quite sure how to put this.... a somewhat overly chilled, self-satisfied feeling hanging over the whole project?
I mean, Baird’s songs are flawlessly pleasant listening, with somewhat of an epic sweep to them, but I’m not sure they’d really make much of an impression without the electric pyrotechnics that surround them here, and, in contrast to my oft-stated belief that good bands should always at least pretend that they are kicking against some undefeatable opposition, Heron Oblivion sound like an easy-going group of professional musicians getting together to do the nice stuff that they do, safe in the knowledge that they are doing it well and that the results are headed for worldwide distribution on a nice label.
Which I realise is a spurious complaint that could reasonably be aimed at least half of the groups I write about here, but, listening to their records shouldn’t make us feel it, if you know what I mean – especially given that circumstances across the globe make it increasingly clear that this laidback/entitled approach to the creation of culture is one that – even for these guys – is increasingly looking like a luxury soon to be consigned to the past.
Never mind all that though - that this album is great is all you need to know in the first instance.
This LP is available in various iterations direct from Heron Oblivion’s bandcamp page, or no doubt from your local vendor of Sub-Pop product.
Monday, March 06, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
4. Blown Out –
Celestial Sphere d/l (self-released)
& New Cruisers LP (Riot Season)
As per the City Yelps write-up below, it is difficult to come up with anything new to say about Blown Out at this juncture, given that they seem determined to stick to a schedule of releasing a new LP every six months, all of them basically interchangeable, but each slightly more awesome than the last.
For my money, they’d already pretty much perfected their style back on ‘Jet Black Hallucinations’ in early 2015, but still the jams keep coming, as endless as the expanse of deep space en route to some nameless planet of space-rock dreams, with each release further tweaking the engine; John-Michael Hedley & Matt Baty’s liquid / telepathic rhythm playing becomes slightly more insistent and hypnotic each go round, as Mike Vest’s delay slathered guitar textures in turn become more detailed, more abstract, more exultantly otherworldly.
‘Celestial Sphere’ (a download-only release initially offered on-line to raise money for the band’s European tour) offers a slight dip in fidelity, as befits its practice-room origins, but the playing is superb, as the primacy of the bass is temporarily pushed back in the mix, giving greater emphasis to the gossamer web of Vest’s overlapping decaying notes and endless fried solos, particularly when – as now seems de rigour for Blown Out sets – things crash out into swirling chaos towards the end.
As signalled by the title and Anthony Downie’s magnificent artwork however, ‘New Cruiser’ sees the afterburners roaring on full-power once more for what at the time of writing stands as the supreme expression of Blown Out’s single-minded M.O. If you’ve listened to any of their other records mentioned above, well, suffice to say, this is more of it, sounding bigger, gutsier and more confident than ever, with Hedley’s bass back to the fore, even as the groove slows down to malevolent crawl on second side; engine burn-out dissolving into an ugly maelstrom of neck-scraping noise. Never mind that though. Just ease back in the big chair in the control room, light up a company-issue relaxation stick, drop the needle on side # 1, watch the stars roll by… and what more is there to say, really?
Back on earth meanwhile, I’m already dreading the moment when I’ll have to think up something new to write about Blown Out after they drop their next, and no doubt even better, LP. (That’ll be ‘Superior Venus’ then, out at the end of March.)
Downloads of both of these releases are available direct from bandcamp; the vinyl run of 'New Cruisers' via Riot Season appears to be sold out.
Thursday, March 02, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016:
5. City Yelps –
The City Yelps Half Hour LP
Regular readers (assuming I still have any) will recall me waxing lyrical about City Yelps’ earlier releases (see here, and here), and as such, I’m happy to report that this LP is objectively brilliant, and probably the best thing they’ve done to date.
Beyond that, it is difficult to think of much else to say that wouldn’t end up repeating the content of my earlier reviews, given that the ‘Yelps (if I may) seem on course to become one of those bands who, much like Motorhead, keep on doing that thing that they do, and keep on doing it well, with such exuberance that we will never get sick of listening to them do it, allowing them to continue doing it for the remainder of our (or at least, their) lives.
Further pondering the otherwise spurious Motorhead comparison, one hopes that a similar ‘heritage’ position within the rock canon will follow in due course for City Yelps, and perhaps a similarly ‘iconic’ sartorial style and lifestyle-signifying merchandising range too - but for now, those of us with the good taste to be in on the ground floor can revel in eleven more examples of that Good Stuff that we by now expect and demand.
Recorded once again under the auspices of Mick Flower (Vibracathedral Orchestra, etc) in what I like to imagine is a tinfoil-walled psychedelic dungeon of never-ending reverb, I think this is the best-sounding City Yelps joint to date, achieving a level of gloriously over-saturated analogue cacophony that few song-based acts would even be prepared to contemplate, let alone willingly embrace.
At the same time, Sean’s vocals are also easier to discerning here, easing the burden of ear-strain for those of us primed to enjoy his acid/stoic observational barbs. Subjects broached druing the Half Hour possibly include: walking the streets in the early morning (‘We Like The Hours’), insipid music industry careerism (‘Music For Adverts’) and a characteristic celebration of the power of cheapness (‘11.99’). Or then again, possibly not. It’s still quite difficult to tell, to be honest. Much like Lemmy though, Sean’s grizzled tones are a unique gift and a statement in and of themselves, and whatever he’s on about at any given point, you can be assured he is correct about it.
Also impressive here are the band’s increasingly successful ventures into eccentric, Swell Maps-esque freak-out territory, as exemplified half-way through ‘Canyons’, when an extended ‘solo’ is executed in the form of what sounds like a recording of someone taking a baseball bat to the exterior of a glass-fronted building.
Whilst I sincerely hope that said destruction was not visited upon Mick’s premises, this angry emanation from the streets of Leeds – thematically mirrored in the shattering skree City Yelps produce more conventionally using their instruments – is nonetheless liable to gladden the heart of any Southerner who’s ever had the misfortune walk past a Foxtons estate agents on their way to some grim, employment-related assignation.
Such is the rare reassurance City Yelps offer us that circumstances still exist in which buying a cottage industry LP of indie guitar music can feel less like a Sealed Knot re-enactment of past struggles, and more like an experience that is vital, invigorating, defiant and other such words that are more normally applied to shampoo or community theatre. Take a dose of this on the morning trudge, and get that bloody life affirmed in a shower of bullshit-rejecting, window-breaking dreams.
LP and download options are both still available from Oddbox.
Monday, February 20, 2017
My Favourite Records of 2016: Part # 3.
10. Chroma - Cuerpos Dóciles 12''
Of the assorted flash-in-the-pan fads that have increasingly been afflicting internet-era music subcultures over the past few years, one of the most irksome to me personally has been the sudden (perhaps already fading?) rage for “dark punk”/goth revival stuff that seems to have been swept through the world’s punk scenes like a particularly virulent stream of Dutch Elm Disease. I mean, ok - I realise that the world currently feels very much like an accelerated blockbuster re-run of the darkest moments of the 1980s, but does that really mean we have to sound like it too? If quasi-mainstream bands playing Siouxsie & The Banshees rehashes are still being hailed by what remains of the press as if they represent some exciting, new future, does that mean that the underground has to follow suit by launching tepid re-enactments of, I dunno, Christian Death or UK Decay or something? What gives?
Well, I don’t know. It’s just pure, unfettered personal preference speaking here, really. Let’s just mark the fact that it’s a sound I’ve never liked very much, and move on to say that, from my POV, the best thing by far to come out of this ‘dark punk’ moment has been Rakta (see below), and the assorted bands that have followed in their wake or move within their orbit – and chief amongst those is Chroma, a Barcelona-based outfit featuring (I believe) Rakta’s former guitarist, who has now relocated there and plays bass in Chroma. [Corrections to that largely pieced together pile of assumptions welcomed in the comments].
Verily, many ‘dark punk’ signifiers can be readily identified on this 12”, from the wanton abuse of phaser and chorus pedals to the grooveless, martial drumming and some high-end, Joy Division-y basslines, but Chroma’s application here is so searing and purposeful it almost redeems such gestures for all time. Far from snuffling about like not-quite-committed revivalists who got bored of all the other styles of punk music invinted in the ‘80s, Chroma wield their noise with an unflinching, 50 yard stare, as if just DARING the likes of me to fuck with them as they channel rage, resistance and forward momentum into some of the best punk rock I heard in 2016, no qualifiers or sub-categorisation needed.
Dragging riffs out of pure sheets of FX-filtered amp skree, the guitar here is genuine, shiver-down-the-spine exciting, but it’s Rebe’s vocals that are the main selling point here, standing out proud, feral, terrifying and awesome – war-cries from the side of the barricades that I hope I’m also on when our nightmare future fully kicks in.
Sadly I’m too much of a dunce to even figure out whether she’s singing in Catalan or Spanish, let alone understand what she’s saying, but it certainly sounds as if some heavy matters are being addressed, and I’m pretty sure she has my vote on them.
Behind her, the rhythm section Laura and Amy eke out a kind of scaly, dystopian gloom that certainly captures the best and most brutal side of post-punk atmospherics, those familiar snare rolls and eerie, melodic bass bits suggesting a slow march toward imminent, ghastly violence – with the ensuing image of Chroma’s fiery breath melting their enemies kaiju-style expressing everything that makes this great 12” such an enervating and inspiring listen. I may not be looking forward to much in 2017, but I’m certainly looking forward to more of this.
Variously available from different labels in NYC, Barcelona and Brazil, you can check Chroma’s bandcamp for details if you want to track down a hard copy, or get a download straight from the band.
9. Mule Team - tape (self-released)
At completely the other end of the rock spectrum meanwhile -- Mule Team are a great four-piece band from Japan (members split between Yokosuka, Tokyo and Yokahama I believe), who play cool, easy-going rock n’ roll with sweet guitar leads, catchy tunes, a rolling back-beat and a pointed disinterest in self-promotion or online presence, with the latter no doubt contributing to their music’s success in standing entirely outside of the petty concerns and demands of contemporary culture, whilst simultaneously not caving in to any overt retro posturing.
It’s good time music and they have a good time playing it; if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a good time listening to it, and this is all that matters. Over the course of the six songs on this tape (manufactured to cover costs for a Japanese tour supporting Nobunny and long since sold out), the band veer away from their base in Creedence-style choogle to embrace Dinosaur-esque neo-classic rock at some points, Big Star-ish power-pop at others, with just enough of the members’ backgrounds in garage-punk shining through to keep things fast, loud and slightly on edge.
A nifty Eastern hemisphere counter-part to bands like Tennessee’s Natural Child (only minus the stoner humour, Eagles infatuation and terrible album covers), Mule Team remind us that, when it’s done right, rock music doesn’t have to be anything more than rock music, because rock music is great.
One song from this tape can be streamed via Bandcamp (as per the D/i/s/c/o/s tape, please don’t buy it – the price equates to about £600), but otherwise you’re shit out of luck if you want to hear Mule Team’s recorded work just at the moment, I’m afraid.
8. Rakta – III LP (various labels)
The defection of Rakta’s guitarist [see Chroma review above] seems to have pushed Brazil’s finest future-punks in somewhat of a bold new direction if this release is anything to go by, with the slightly more outré sonic palette of vocalist/keyboardist/noiseist Carla now co-existing alongside the dogged, DIY punk beat-down of the band’s rhythm section, without the customary wall of guitar chug to fall back on.
Incorporating everything from ‘tribal’ floor tom pounding, horror movie organs and Indian war whoops to jagged bursts of white noise and masses of Rakta’s by-now-expected Boss delay pedal freakouts, the results are – miraculously - all served up in a manner that remains compelling rather than infuriating, and, as much as I miss the sheet metal distortion of Laura’s guitar, it’s safe to say that ‘III’ represents the band fully taking ownership of the more explorative, unmoored sound that their earlier releases have always hinted at.
Mixing an unsettlingly minimal, martial beat with outbursts of strangulated noise, mangled ‘satellite decay’ vocal fragments and fascistic soundtrack-to-a-barbarian-movie synth-strings, ‘A Violencia do Silencio’ sounds like something Cabaret Voltaire might have come up with in one of their fruitier moments, whilst both of the LP’s longer tracks (‘Conjuração Do Espelho’, ‘A Busca Do Circulo’) succeed in conjuring up the kind of electronic-atavistic sound-fog that puts me in mind of much-missed noise-witch covens like Pocahaunted or Double Leopards – reference points that it is very cool indeed to have the opportunity to throw around in relation to what is still ostensibly a “punk” record.
I guess you could say, much of the time, when a rock band let their yen for ‘creative expression’ hang out as shamelessly as Rakta do here, you’d be apt to write it off as a load of indulgent, difficult-second-album hoo-hah and wish they’d play to their strengths instead, but you could equally say that (certainly in terms of the still pervasive post-punk/’new pop’ critical mindset) successfully making such a leap is what separates groups who actually have something important to add to the equation from the mere chancers or genre re-enactors. As such, it is heartening to listen to ‘III’ and hear Rakta just making it, y’know - work.
It works so well in fact, I find myself willing them to go even further with the more potentially alienating or absurd aspects of their sound, for there is a self-belief to be felt and heard here that reassures me that this band are not messing around. Just as per their first 12” a couple of years back, ‘III’ is just about the most exhilarating and genuinely forward-thinking thing I’ve heard from the quote-unquote punk underground in donkey’s years, and deserves to be celebrated as such.
Variously pressed in different continents by (I’m quoting here) “Iron Lung Records (USA), Nada Nada Discos/Dama da Noite Discos (BR) and Dê o Fora (ES)”, ‘III’ can be purchased in various formats direct from the band, or check with local distros etc if you need it in hard copy but are wary of the postage.
7. Monoliths – s/t LP (Dry Cough)
An authentically mighty Nottingham-based doom outfit (ex-Moloch, Diet Pills etc), Monoliths here heroically reject any hint of ‘genre innovation’, instead doubling back on tried and tested veneration of Sleep, Earth, Burning Witch et al for some long haul, mountain flattening heaviosity that pretty much nails it as far as I’m concerned.
“Monoliths play heavy and slow”, they say. “No plan, no goals, just riffs.” As a few minutes playback of this LP proves beyond doubt, they ain’t kidding.
Whilst there’s nothing “new” here perhaps, doom is a genre that has always thrived upon stasis, and if it’s fair to say that, if Monoliths do indeed “nail it” here, they do so with an extremely large nail, hammered into the centre of an empty field, around which an amorphous black doom-dog circles on a length of chain, snarling and drooling as the cymbals crash, the feedback shrieks between each downtuned ur-chord and the sub-bass distorts so bad you worry for the future of your speakers.
Trad as fuck but still stretched to suitably – sorry – monolithic proportions, the b-side here (‘Omnipresence of Emptiness’) lays down an ‘eastern’ tinged riff that could have come off a Cathedral record at one end of the horizon, or a Bong LP at the other, and canes it to within an inch of its life, as lead overdubs, sweet death metal bellowing and 2016’s most crushing bass tones keeping monotony at bay whilst the band hit a groove so undeniable it should make all right-thinking advocates of this genre fucking weep. Sweet, slo-mo head-banging gnosis of the highest order – if you don’t like this, perhaps doom is not the genre for you, frankly.
Listen and buy digitally via bandcamp; available on vinyl from Dry Cough.
6. Rhys Chatham – Pythagorean Dream
Each year, I need a good drone or two to keep me going, and in truth this LP has spent longer sitting on my turntable than any other on this list.
Scaling back considerably from the intimidating 100+ guitar armies he was operating with a few years back, concerns re: developing a performance that could be toured more economically seem to have led Chatham in entirely the opposite direction, as he has realised that modern delay & looping technology allows him to effectively sit on his lonesome and layer sound to his heart’s content, as he happily acknowledges in the admirably straight-forward account of his aims and methodology that accompanies this release.
(In an area of music that often thrives upon abstraction and obscurantism, I can’t appreciate how much I appreciate Chatham packaging his work with what is essentially a nice little note to his listeners, explaining exactly what he’s up to.)
The results of Chatham’s solo performance endeavours fit this pre-written narrative for this release quite nicely by way of being much, much, much less epic and abrasive than the kind of sound we might have expected of him in the past, seeing him working instead in a far more meditative, self-contained manner, as he starts from near silence, slowly feeding careful phrases of guitar and flute into his no doubt impressive arsenal of boxes with flashing lights, gradually building up an ebbing and flowing tide of overtones and cascading, ever-decaying fragments of melody that, if it is perhaps not exactly burning the rulebook of modern composition and brazenly pissing in the ashes, is nonetheless an absolutely splendid listen for those of us who like to chill with a nice drone on a weekday evening.
And, I don’t have a great deal more to say on the subject to be honest, except to note that, whilst Chatham essentially isn’t doing anything here that any guitar player with a couple of hundred quids-worth of unnecessary pedals hasn’t done (or contemplated doing) in the privacy of their own home, what really shines through on ‘Pythagorean Dream’ is the care and deliberation that his background in composition has allowed him to employ in marshalling these sounds, instinctively honing his every string buzz and knob-twist to enhance the piece, and to add to the listener’s enjoyment of it.
It is an approach, I feel, that anyone approaching this sort of thing from a rock perspective (with its inevitable bias toward self-expression and indulgence) could very much benefit from observing, and one that helps make ‘Pythagorean Dream’ a fine listen that I have returned to frequently throughout 2016.
‘Pythagorean Dream’ is available in assorted formats at a range of attractive price points from the UK-based Foom label. (The LP is a lovely package, and hard to beat value-for-money-wise – three cheers, Foom.)
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