Wednesday, 21 September 2016

All the Madmen - Tape Recordings 1980-1983 (2016)


I ordered the Kevin Harrison album from Vinyl on Demand - who specialise in lovingly produced reissues of this sort of thing - but got this one instead due to a bit of a cock-up on the catering front.

All the Madmen were Neale James Potts, Michael William Richardson, Christopher Paul Bailey and Richard Roger Weston-Smith from Stoke-on-Trent, UK. They called themselves minimal synthesizer-punks. All the Madmen started in 1980 as an anti-rock group, believing that the way that music was played and produced should change forever. One track called Superior Life made it onto the LP Cry Havoc.

That's about as much information as I can squeeze out of my internet, although I notice with interest that the Cry Havoc compilation - which is another one I'd never heard of - came from the same label as Human Trapped Rhythms. So that's interesting.

Tape Recordings 1980-1983 and Kevin Harrison's Tape Recordings 1975-1985 are just two of an eight album box set called British Cassette Culture: Recordings 1975-1985 which I can't actually afford, so I figured I'd just bag Kevin's album seeing as Vinyl on Demand started selling a few of them separately. I was kind of pissed off when the wrong one turned up in the post, but the error was soon corrected, and it transpires that this is a cracker. I probably would have bought it anyway, had I heard of them.

Given that what little All the Madmen recorded as listed on Discogs includes a mere four tracks which failed to make it onto this single vinyl album, and four of these fourteen tracks are doubled up as different versions, I gather All the Madmen were either a fairly casual confluence of people or simply weren't around for very long. They seem to have occupied a point roughly equidistant between Vice Versa and the Human League, and specifically the Human League which covered Mick Ronson's Only After Dark. Science-fiction themes abound, but coming from a rockier, more populist angle than you might expect, unless of course you'd already noticed where the name All the Madmen was pinched from. A primitive drum machine pops and slaps as synths growl out something which might almost have been scored for guitar, and was scored for guitar in the case of a highly satisfying cover of Alice Cooper's School's Out. No-one is pretending to be a robot, although there are some great lyrics about the rat race and general sense of alienation of the time. This really was a punk band with synths.

This is almost certainly the best record I've ever been sent instead of something else by accident, and it really makes me wish we could have had All the Madmen instead of Howard Jones and half of those other synth-pop horrors of the eighties.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

LOX - We Are The Streets (2000)


That's LOX as in 'lox as in short for Warlocks who were some New York street gang, so I gather, although it might be an acronym for something as well, and it's a fillet of brined salmon of the kind generally served in a bagel with cream cheese. This particular LOX were once billed as Puffy's gangsta rap crew, Bad Boy's east-coast response to the existence of NWA or something of the sort, which says as much about the rap publicity machine as about the band itself. They had a minor hit with If You Think I'm Jiggy, which riffs on Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? and probably tells you more or less everything you need to know about the lads' time at Bad Boy.

By 2000 they had managed to get themselves out of the contract - after a bit of a fight - had ceremonially burned the shiny suits, and had a new album - the first one that counted, it might be argued. We Are The Streets did okay, but not so well as everyone expected considering the anticipation, and is seemingly remembered as decent but short of classic - even in interviews with the group themselves whose view of their own second album seems founded on how many copies failed to fly out of the stores.

I don't get it. Maybe it just caught me at the right time, but this one still sounds like a landmark - perhaps not quite anything new or revolutionary in terms of surly men explaining how much they enjoy a fight, but neither did it sound like a rewrite of anyone else's record; and so far as that gritty stuff goes, We Are The Streets is so hard it's almost ridiculous. The key is probably everything coming together in a near perfect arrangement.

Keeping in mind that Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch tend to share a certain lyrical focus on subjects relating to the legal system in one way or another, whilst their thematic range may not stray far from the familiar path, their collective verbal dexterity is dizzying, making most of their peers sound kind of slow and clumsy; so whilst you may not like what they say, the way they say it is breathtaking. This was equally true of the first album with Puffy jumping up and down in the background saying things like 1998 y'all and yeah pronounced yiiiih, but the big difference is the music of Swizz Beatz and a production which hasn't assumed it knows better than the artist.

I guess the millennium was when Swizz Beatz was at his most musically extreme, and his beats are really stripped down on this album - a vast dry space with all the atmosphere sucked out, a snare like he's just punctured the seal on a jar of instant coffee, cheesy Casio synth tinkling away providing notes without quite becoming a tune, and beneath all this weird artificial tinsel, a bass like Godzilla's footsteps. The parts don't even quite seem to fit together, and yet somehow it adds up to a unique, incredible sound even when you get the impression he's just pulling things out of the mix to see how much he can lose before it degrades into random plinky-plonky noises. Swizz Beatz probably invented vapourwave or something, or at least foreshadowed some of vapourwave's more airbrushed extremes, but even now - fifteen years later - this stuff sounds like something sent back from the future after the rules have all been swapped around; and because its great strength is its minimalism, these beats can only elevate the dense lyricism, allowing the overpowering undercurrent of menace to really flow. This is some intense shit - not lacking in humour, but it's pretty dark humour - and you can tell they felt they had some points to prove after all those years of Puffy spitting into a hanky and wiping their faces in front of the other kids.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Porcupine Tree - In Absentia (2002)


This review might come out a bit lopsided due to Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson being a friend of a friend. Specifically my friend Carl has worked on quite a few of the guy's record covers, and so I've met Steve Wilson around Carl's place at some point or other. I wasn't really sure what Porcupine Tree were supposed to be beyond assuming them to be something to do with everyone from Japan who hadn't been David Sylvian, and I didn't quite make the connection. Conversely, Steve knew of Konstruktivists - of which I was once a member - and had read a few things I wrote in The Sound Projector magazine, so that made me feel satisfyingly famous. I also knew he'd had something to do with remixing old Muslimgauze tracks, so he seemed an interesting if fairly quiet sort of bloke. I had no real idea he was some massive stadium-filling megastar until an old friend from school mentioned that Porcupine Tree were one of his favourite bands, thus allowing me to showboat with the I know that dude routine whilst experiencing simultaneous astonishment at how big this group actually were without my having had the faintest idea.

Porcupine Tree - my wife pointed out that the name suggests one of those bands formed by Andy Dwyer in Parks & Recreation: Mouse Rat, Scarecrow Boat, Teddybear Suicide and the rest; and for no particularly good reason I'd assumed they would probably sound a bit like Japan, which they don't; and Steve Wilson has supposedly been known to read my blog posts, so thank God it turns out that Porcupine Tree are actually decent. Admittedly, I probably wouldn't bother writing anything if In Absentia resembled Jonathan King out-takes, but all the same it's nice that I won't have to lie.

Eight or nine plays in and I'm amazed at how good this record sounds, and how it works very much like a single piece of music in an almost symphonic sense. Of course that's probably not such a surprise for something so obviously evolved from progressive rock roots, but the surprise is how the term progressive has been taken literally as a challenge so as to yield something genuinely new, genuinely forward looking - as opposed to twiddly fingered nostalgia for bands playing songs about Bilbo fucking Baggins. In Absentia retains the best elements of its tradition, the folksy acoustic morning dew sparkle of Jethro Tull and mathematically peculiar time signatures of such conviction and raw emotional power that you don't immediately notice the structural eccentricities. In addition, the contrast of crushing digital slabs of overdriven metal with the softer, more ethereal elements - not least Wilson's fantastically evocative voice - are captured with startling clarity, and so what might otherwise sound like an exercise in studio jiggery-pokery carries itself with a beautifully organic sense of pace.

Somewhere in that paragraph is probably a clue as to why the first comparison which came to me was Ray Davies of all people, not quite the same kind of storytelling, but a similarly wistful quality which goes somewhat further than Radiohead having a bit of a sad. In fact this is what Radiohead probably imagine they sound like.

It's not a happy album, and it in fact sounds like the anatomy of a breakdown in places, without quite invoking the sort of melodrama which needs to spell it all out in case you missed something. It's Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea rather than a self-harming character in a Neil Gaiman comic, and that's probably about as close as I can get it, which is why this is a piece of music rather than an essay. We've all had days like this.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

KMFDM - Retro (1998)


I always liked the idea that KMFDM stood for Kill Motherfucking Depeche Mode, and I seem to recall another version of the acronym positing a disgusting but faintly amusing allegation about Kylie Minogue; and of course that bloke from Brute! drew all their record covers; and there was the involvement of Raymond Watts who is credited with something or other on an early-ish Foetus album. I knew I'd probably heard something by KMFDM at some point, and they always seemed to turn up in the same places as a few other groups I've liked, and Retro is a best of compilation, so...

Kill Motherfucking Depeche Mode would probably be funnier if KMFDM were better, but they aren't. Let's think about that just for a moment - the band which isn't as good as Depeche Mode. Actually, I'm not even sure they were as good as I Should Be So Lucky era Kylie Minogue.

What we have here is grunting Belgian new beat with sampled metal guitars and the sort of growling effects heavy vocals you only get from really mean men who drink lots of beer and have massive penises and who get lots of nude women to kiss them and show them their boobs and that, the sort of mean men you wouldn't want to mess with; or I gather that's the intended impression. Unfortunately it all sounds like something knocked up for the demonstration CD you'd get when making purchase of an Akai S5000 sampler back in the year 1992, or whenever it was those things came out. It strives to pound and grunt and make you sweat - work pain obey blah blah blah kerrraaannnggg grunt work pain struggle thud thud thud... but the thing sounds so clean you could probably eat your dinner off it; and even if you enjoy the guitars, there's no earthly reason why you would listen to a KMFDM record in preference to the Young Gods or AC/DC or - fuck it - that Depeche Mode song which has a guitar on it. There's no reason why you would listen to this in preference to Front 242 or any of those acts who did this kind of thing properly. I'm not sure you would even listen to this in preference to fucking Ministry or - God help us - Pop Will Eat Itself.

Just to summarise, we're discussing a band who weren't as good as Depeche Mode, Ministry, Pop Will Eat Itself, or I Should Be So Lucky era Kylie Minogue. Let's just pause for another second so that we may properly acclimate to the concept.

I mention Pop Will Eat Itself because KMFDM were similarly inclined to refer to themselves in song - this is KMFDM you're listening to, KMFDM in the area, and so on. All that's missing is the sample of that guy suggesting we put the needle on the record when the drum beats go like this, or whatever it was he said.

This being their best of, I dread to think what the really shit stuff was like. I seem to recall KMFDM's name coming up as one of a number of potential scapegoats in the case of teenagers with guns going nuts at Columbine High School all those years ago. Whilst I personally suspect there's a great deal more to such tragedies than angry sentiments expressed on a noisy record album, it has to be said that this one really is unusually shitty.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Psychopathics from Outer Space (2000)


I'm cycling on the Tobin Trail just past Los Patios when I pass a young boy and his father. The boy looks to be about eight or nine, wears a red baseball cap, shorts, and there's something weird going on with his t-shirt. The precise detail only register a split second before I pass him. He has a cardboard sign hung around his neck by a piece of string. The sign reads I'M A LIAR in block capitals. The man I presume to be his father walks about ten feet behind, a fat shithead walrus-moustache type. What the fuck? explodes from my mouth quite loudly, but I'm already past the Walrus and his publicly shamed kid. I really want to turn back and point out that we're not living in Saudi Arabia, and that maybe the Walrus could have resolved the situation by actually talking to the kid, because I'm damn sure I'M A LIAR isn't going to make it better, and - aside from anything else - I kind of resent being made party to this mediaeval public shaming of a small boy who, let's face it, probably didn't rob a bank, commit a murder, or anything of that magnitude.

But I don't turn back, which is possibly for the best because no doubt even if I managed to say the exact right thing to aid the Walrus in understanding the full extent of his own shitheaded stupidity, it probably wouldn't help the kid; and the guy is clearly a bully so probably wouldn't be above kicking my ass.

Also, it seems peculiarly significant that I'm listening to Insane Clown Posse as I cycle, and as I pass the Walrus and his kid.

Insane Clown Posse are, for anyone who didn't know, a generally shunned rap act - at least so far as the mainstream media is concerned. They're a couple of white guys in clown paint performing novelty toilet humour raps about horror movies operating on roughly the same level as an episode of South Park. They will almost certainly never get to work with Sting, or be asked to drop guest verses on albums by Common, Lauryn Hill, or J-Live. They're not even a proper rap group because they weren't hanging in the park with Kool Herc in 1977, and their freestyles are fucking terrible, and all of their fans are white trash crackers; and white trash crackers don't count. That's most of the traditional criticisms, should you be unaware of any of them.

Personally, my only problem is that it feels like they've been treading water since The Wraith, besides which most of the criticism can be negated by simply bothering to listen to the music. They're not the greatest rappers in the world, but they're often genuinely funny, wringing every last drop of potential from what ability they have, and frankly I've heard worse; and the beats - at least when supplied by Mike Clark - were fucking great, fat and funky, as good as anything ever cooked up in a New York basement. The hypothetical crime therefore seems to be their enduring appeal to massive swarms of dispossessed white trash, so it's basically an issue of class - your traditional demonisation of anyone too poor, unsavoury, uneducated, or just plain stupid, the stratum below even those who at least look good in moody black and white photographs illustrating articles on either poverty or outsider art in culturally prestigious media.

This compilation assembles tracks from both Insane Clown Posse and their protégés, Twiztid - who occupy much the same territory albeit with a sharper, more lyrical edge. Specifically Psychopathics from Outer Space is a dubiously official bootleg assembling tracks burdened with uncleared samples and the like, but crucially this material derives mostly from a time at which both groups were at the height of their powers. What this means to you depends upon how much you enjoy axe murder gags mixed in with your fart jokes, which in turn spins upon the possibility that you may not be the target audience, and that this stuff simply may not be for you. You could probably argue that it's all terribly sexist and at least as homophobic as your average episode of South Park, but to do so would miss one important point, namely that delving below all the cartoon gore and the blow jobs, there's a surprisingly progressive morality to all this shit. The victims in these tales of comic horror are almost always bullies, shitheads, racists, rednecks, wife-beating drunkards, and other overprivileged types, and the underlying message of be ye not a fucking douche is delivered without a hint of sermonising, and most significantly it's delivered to massive swarms of dispossessed white trash, the people arguably most vulnerable to exploitation by forces with vested interests in their acting like bullies, shitheads, racists, rednecks, and wife-beating drunkards.

Anyway, on top of that, the disc rocks like nobody's business, and we even get Ice-T on one track. $50 Bucks alone might be worth the cover price - a peculiar combination of wistful country rock and fat-ass swagger that renders all those other shitty rap-rock crossover acts completely redundant; and then there's Twiztid's She Ain't Afraid which must easily rank amongst the most raucously pornographic tracks ever laid down, sort of like Smell & Quim without having to stick your fingers either in your ears or down your throat; and all with the sneer and frisson of a funky Sex Pistols. Of all the bands you need at your side when you've had a shitty day, there's something really cathartic about this bunch, which is probably aided by the music offering more than just straight nihilism.

So some of this was in my thoughts as I cycled past the Walrus, because the world needs less of his kind; and because - to paraphrase some conservative sociopath or other - either raise your kids the right way, or the music they listen to will end up raising them for you, although in the case of Insane Clown Posse and Twiztid, that may not be such a terrible thing after all.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Young Fathers - White Men are Black Men Too (2015)


As I may have mentioned on previous occasions, I'm old and fat and I don't understand modern music, modern music being more or less everything that's happened since about 1992 for the sake of argument. That was the year when it stopped making sense, roughly speaking - when the sort of things I disliked began to outnumber the good stuff, and the term independent took on a meaning other than that which exists outside of the mainstream - fey, jangly shite which wanted to be 1967 when it grew up, which - by the way - it had no intention of doing. I didn't stop listening, but my tastes had been forcibly marginalised by everyone deciding they had wanted to be glittery pop stars all along.

There has been the odd thing to catch my attention since then, but generally I've been pursuing my own avenues of inquiry; and in my absence, the means of production have changed, in turn affecting the basic function of music as a commodity, leading to post-music which has more in common with ringtones or memes than that stuff I once purchased as circles of black plastic back in the old days when everything was better than it is now. It's not that I have a problem with change so much as that change of style shouldn't be mistaken for change of basic function, so thinking I might get something from Lady Gaga comparable to that which I once got from a UK Subs album is like going to McDonalds and expecting them to fix your car. Even worse is when everyone gets all misty-eyed and tries to be my mate by digging out the old Joy Division or Wire records and having a go, hence all those heritage industry Editors types, musical analogies to Peter Kay asking who remembers Curly Wurly.

So it's really nice to be surprised every once in a while, which probably hasn't happened since I heard Austerity Dogs, although the Sleaford Mods, for all their brilliance, may as well be a couple of old codgers I met whilst working at Parcel Force. Young Fathers conversely derive from the generation which should be making music, and which should be scaring the life out of old farts such as myself. I had assumed the present state of the art to be seventeen-year olds channelling the Byrds at some shitty SXSW industry showcase, or trembling emo wank through two minutes of reverb decay on the Catfish soundtrack, but happily there is also this - whatever it is.

The music could quite easily be waveforms copied and pasted to and from different parts of the screen; and a live video shows four blokes on stage, one with an upright drum kit, one with a tiny keyboard gaffa-taped to some sort of fashionably archaic suitcase synth, and that's the instrumentation; so I don't really know quite who does what or how it results in what can be heard on White Men are Black Men Too, but maybe it doesn't matter because the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.

This was an attempt to make a perfect pop album - so it says on the internet - so I've no idea what they were doing before or how it compares, but perfect pop is justified regardless of initial impressions of something bolted together in a carpenter's workshop. It's musical, but there's a lot of drone, and a lot which sounds like it might not have originated with a musical source, and the whole sounds dirty like those old Motown records from the sixties. Stand it next to Peter Hope's Exploding Mind and you probably have a completely new genre, industrial gospel or something - invoked mainly in the hope that anyone reading this will be far too embarrassed to ever use such a term.

Yes gospel, leaning on the bluesier end of the scale with a distinctly African feel - two of the group having roots in Nigeria and Ghana to some degree or other - gospel in its celebratory rather than specifically God-bothering aspect. They're probably not the greatest vocalists in the world, but they're not bad and they have real heart, far more so than the overproduced histrionic vocalising that has been passed off as soul music for these last couple of decades; and yet somehow the record does all of this whilst sounding like Suicide in places, maybe even Joy Division at a stretch - according to some YouTube bloke, although I'm not too sure about that one myself. It's dark and introspective yet uplifting at the same time, just the sort of thing you need after a day of life punching you in the face. This one is astonishing - the best new album I've heard in a long, long time.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Crass - The Feeding of the 5000 (1978)


What with all that's happened since - all those periodic reassessments and David Beckham snapped wearing the t-shirt - it's easy to lose sight of just how extreme Crass seemed at the time. I was at school, and had acclimatised to, even embraced the punk rock maxim that all forms of authority were essentially bollocks and not to be trusted. It was quite unsettling to have this band come along and point out that all that spikey topped outrage in which we were now so heavily invested was just more of the same and that the Clash were about as revolutionary as The Black and White Minstrel Show. Youthful rebellion being what it was, the appeal of going harder, further, and more committed than anyone else was obvious, and so one version of the story has Crass seemingly ushering in a new age of frowning revolutionary puritanism wherein anyone not living on a self-sustained vegan commune was a fucking sell-out and essentially the same as Thatcher. This seemed to be the line taken by the band's most vocal critics. Special Duties clocked up about three seconds of fame with their novelty single Bullshit Crass, the central hypothesis of which was that:

Crass were first to say punk is dead,
Now they're rightly labelled as being red.
Commune hippies - that's what they are.
They've got no money Ha! Ha! Ha!

Similarly, Garry Bushell writing in Sounds thoughtfully opined that Crass were toffs and not kids from the street and that their posh music was therefore toff music for toffs rather than for the kids on the street, kids like Special Duties and the Cockney Rejects and that Nazi skinhead on the front of the Oi! album, although no-one knew he was a Nazi at the time, obviously. Bushell's thesis unfortunately seemed to be based on the premise that if it knows a lot of long words then it's posh and not proper working class like the kids on the street, which itself derives from a middle-class view of the working class as stereotypically thick Sun-reading cunts, which is about what you'd expect from a self-flagellating grammar school posho.

Personally I think the thing was that Crass just made everybody feel a bit uncomfortable, like we'd all been discovered with a Queen album naughtily concealed between Never Mind the Bollocks and Fulham Fallout, thus somehow conceding that our revolution really was just a couple of years of posing in preparation for settling down with a Ford Cortina and a pension plan; which of course misses the point that Crass had only ever been about getting us to ask questions. The idea that Penny Rimbaud might eventually come around to our houses and make us sit an exam was mostly imagination and misplaced guilt, and it all came from the severity of the aesthetic. This lot weren't playing around, and they weren't in it to hang out with Peter Cook, and if you didn't like that, your choices were either to make a bit more effort or piss off. Thus did Crass unwittingly launch a thousand seemingly humourless bands and fanzines of similarly austere tone - although to be fair, there were plenty of reasons to not be cheerful, and it was still more fun than the sludge of polite indie toss which eventually washed in to fill the void - and it is probably their singularity of vision which has posthumously endeared Crass to the right-wing noise community in recent years, which again is hardly their fault.

That's how you miss out when you assume it's all about you.

Crass were never humourless. It's just that the jokes were unusually pointed and on a scale over and above the odd telly chucked out of a hotel window - Our Wedding and the Thatchergate tapes to name but two of their more amusingly devious zingers; and the whole humourless thing begins to look a bit comical after Alexander Oey's excellent and informative documentary on the band, There is No Authority but Yourself.

Let's also not forget that the music was wonderful in its way, providing you accept that punk was about expanding ideas and breaking out as a principle, rather than reducing everything to three grunting chords and a dog barking in a half empty pub, with all of the fancy words taken out so as to avoid alienating the school bully seeing as he's our mate these days. It's a weird noise, an amphetamine hybrid of jazz drums and military percussion with a guitar like a jar of angry bees, and you can hear everything as clear as on any smoky old Blue Note recording; and no - it doesn't sound like the Sex Pistols because it was never supposed to. The Feeding of the 5000 didn't really sound like anything I'd heard back in 1980 - or whenever it was I borrowed it from my friend Crispin at school - and it was harsh but absolutely clear in what it was trying to say, and ten minutes of television viewed at random was enough to inspire the realisation that Crass were at least on my side, even if they seemed a bit scary; and God, right now I wish there were a few more with equivalent vision and an ability to express it so well.