Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Macintosh Plus - Floral Shoppe (2011)

I kept reading that this was the vapourwave album you need to hear before you die, and all of the usual shit, but every time I tried it was gone - removed from whatever platform it had turned up on due to uncleared samples. At least that was the thrust of the apology as I remember it, unlikely though it now seems given that the entire thing is nothing but samples and yet here it is again; and this time I managed to nab a copy before they all vanished.

Vapourwave seems to have been an internet phenomenon, popular amongst young people who spend way too much time playing computer games and talking about Chinese cartoons in chatrooms. I don't think it ever occupied any space formerly inhabited by the music biz as it existed in the days of physical media, so it's probably a bit odd that this vapourwave Never Mind the Bollocks should have been pressed onto vinyl. I'm not complaining because it means I can listen to it, although it seems equivalent to some ageing fifties guy rejoicing that they've taken the trouble to issue the songs of this Elvis Presley person on wax cylinder. Should anyone be grumbling about such parallels, citing the distinct absence of gangs of vapourwavers slashing cinema seats at their local picture house as evidence of it having failed to be a thing in any meaningful sense, then it's probably worth remembering that not everything is a repeat of some earlier form.

Perhaps ironically, vapourwave sort of is - or possibly was, given that I have no idea what the kids on the streets are up to these days so it may all be ancient history - constituting a repetition in so much as that it's mostly sampled eighties muzak, emphasising the slick, bland, overproduced and even corporate to the point of surrealism - swollen synth and MOR sax slowed down, cut up, processed, stripped of context and pulled back together without concessions to familiar structure or purpose; and Floral Shoppe seems to exemplify this like few other albums, so the legend would have it.

I haven't heard a lot of this stuff, although for my money, Blank Banshee do it better, further abstracting the source material before building it up into something new, weird, and shiny. Nevertheless, Floral Shoppe really is one hell of a record. The sampled material sounds almost familiar, something on the tip of one's recall which never quite gets there, heard through a codeine haze and repeating bars in rhythms which ignore the existing tempo and feel like fractal thoughts going through the mind of a console game with a hangover. The effect is weirdly hyperreal and is perfectly illustrated by the cover art. It's something bland polished up and put on a pedestal, presenting a juxtaposition of past and present so weirdly angular and shocking as to invoke J.G. Ballard - or what J.G. Ballard seems to represent to people who actually enjoy his writing, which I mostly don't.

Of course, it's supposed to be ephemeral - or that's the impression I get - but then maybe its having been immortalised on vinyl can be taken as simply another contradiction, just one of the many. Vapourwave, and particularly this album, demonstrate the impossibility of predicting the future - being absolutely alien while sounding familiar to the point of mundanity, and that's a good thing.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

+DOG+ - The Ship of Dreams (2020)

Just when you thought you had noise all figured out (or at least I did), along came +DOG+ to demonstrate just how limited so many noise artists have been over the years - the sound of a jet engine blasting your face off, balaclava helmet, and what else have you got? Usually nothing, except in the case of +DOG+ who seem to have moved way, way beyond such basic tactics; and just when you thought you had +DOG+ all figured out, they release another album.

Some of the above will inevitably be off centre because, there's nothing wrong with the sound of a jet engine blasting your face off, and I suspect there must almost certainly be a shitload of other equally worthy noise artists whose work I simply haven't heard.

Once again, there's nothing musical in the conventional sense - excepting possibly a few drum rolls supplementing the cacophony on one of the earlier tracks - and it mostly resembles someone poking a screwdriver around inside an old transistor radio and shorting everything out, but amplified and multitracked allowing different strands of grinding texture to work against each other, and in ways which become so relentless that the whole somehow crosses over and is actually sort of relaxing, or at least hypnotic. I suppose if you happen to be on a plane and in flight when the jet engine conks out, having been previously knackered during some power electronics performance, if you're plummeting to earth from several miles up and you somehow manage to make peace with the idea of your chips being well and truly cashed, then The Ship of Dreams is possibly how that sense of serenity may sound. I expect I've said it before but I'll say it again, I find it genuinely astonishing how this lot keep coming up with something new from what you might imagine would be very much a restricted palette.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

We Be Echo - Beat of the Drum (2020)


We Be Echo were one of a handful of groups who emerged at the beginning of the eighties in the wake of Throbbing Gristle removing themselves from the picture, specifically a handful of groups enjoying varying degrees of association with the same, even if just through members having met at some Gristle performance. Dave Henderson wrote about them in Sounds, and there's a reasonable possibility that you will have heard of at least Konstruktivists, Test Dept, Nocturnal Emissions, and Attrition. We Be Echo unfortunately never achieved quite the same level of relative infamy, releases being mostly limited to cassettes sold through the mail. By rights, some record company really should have been chucking money at Kevin Thorne, but it apparently wasn't to be.

Now - in anticipation of Darkness is Home, We Be Echo's first new album in a while - here's a reminder of what we missed, material dating from just after the Ceza Evi cassette which never really got a fair crack first time round. I've heard most, if not all, of these tracks on tapes which briefly did the rounds among friends of friends, and I've a feeling a couple of them may have been issued by the Mystery Hearsay label at some point; but Lordy, it's nice to have them cut into a big fat slab of vinyl at long last. A few of these feature a female vocalist rather than the taped voices which distinguished Ceza Evi, and so might be deemed, for want of a better description, what we all assumed Chris & Cosey would probably sound like before we actually heard Heartbeat. There's a dark edge, but nothing you could really call gothic, and the synths pump and pulse away in contrast to the moodier sort of ambient noise you may have associated with Gristle. Of all the Wild Planet bands, We Be Echo actually seemed to be the one you could just about play to friends who might otherwise shit themselves in the absence of anything recognisable as a tune. They might have seemed a fairly logical foreshadowing of Nine Inch Nails and the like, had anyone been listening; but were ultimately doomed to have become a sort of English counterpart to San Francisco's Deviation Social, among other names which should be better remembered.

Still, as Lenny Kravitz is my witness, it ain't over 'til it's over, and the new album is stunning. So here's a chance to get yourself up to speed - a pleasure which shouldn't be taken for granted given that for at least a decade it very much looked as though We Be Echo had fallen off the edge of the map.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Fad Gadget - Fireside Favourites (1980)


I can't help feeling that Frank Tovey never quite received his due or achieved the status he probably deserved, and I'm pretty damn certain it isn't going to be happening any time soon given that he's no longer with us. Fad Gadget didn't quite seem to fit anywhere even in their day, at least not with any degree of comfort - not quite independent in the sense of the Fall, ATV or Wire despite being on Mute, certainly not mainstream, too early and too weird for synthpop when that became a thing. Fad Gadget weren't even particularly or conveniently electronic, at least not as a way of life. I developed a bit of a fixation with them following something or other in Sounds music paper which brought the realisation that Fad Gadget seemed to be fucking everywhere, and yet I still had no idea what the hell they were supposed to be or sounded like. Then he was on the telly performing Coitus Interruptus with the help of a can of shaving foam and I became an immediate convert. I bought this one and Incontinent and played them more or less to the exclusion of everything else that summer. This was the summer during which I took up painting, left school, and first began to consider that the future might be different to the present, and that it might even be an improvement - at least for me. The possibilities seemed suddenly endless and Fad Gadget was somehow the soundtrack. I went for an interview at Maidstone College of Art half way across the country. I'm not sure I was even convinced an art degree was the right thing to do, but I turned up for the interview and was taken to the canteen which was in a bit of a state having played host to some event.

'Fad Gadget played here last night,' I was told, and that was enough for me.

Fireside Favourites still sounds incredible and like no other album, not even like any other Fad Gadget album. If synth-based artists were mostly pretending to be machines at the time, Tovey went further into weirder, more disturbing territories of the kind described by J.G. Ballard - something pervy and a bit damaged but with a pop sensibility that wasn't quite showbiz, unless we're talking the Iggy Pop end of things; something brooding and a bit reptilian - punk rock with a synth is probably as good a description as any. Fireside Favourites grinds and growls its oscillator driven hymns to consumerism, marketing and stupidity then winks to the camera like Val Doonican on the title track, paranoid, schizophrenic, claustrophobic, and yet somehow entirely human despite the sharp corners; and Arch of the Aorta may be one of the most beautifully epic pieces of instrumental music ever recorded.

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

World Domination Enterprises - Let's Play Domination (1988)

I hadn't thought about them in some time, then two days after I dig this out on a whim, they turn up on Bandcamp with Go Dominator, a new single, the first in a couple of decades - albeit a new single  which was recorded yonks ago but never released. It's as though the universe is trying to tell me something, something above and beyond that the time is right; because the time has always been right for World Domination. With each year that passes, these songs seem ever more relevant.

My first encounter was the phenomenal Asbestos Lead Asbestos, possibly one of the most wonderfully unpleasant songs ever committed to vinyl; although never really having had my finger on the pulse of anything, it was a couple of years old by the time I heard it and seemingly contemporary to the Acid Angels' Speed Speed Ecstacy which similarly named two substances in the title, and one of them twice, so Asbestos Lead Asbestos somehow felt like its dark toxic counterpart, at least to me.

I wasn't convinced by the album when first I heard it. I recognised the fucking horrible racket, but it seemed to lack the restraint which worked so well for Asbestos Lead Asbestos, taming the chaos just enough to suggest something in the vicinity of a funkier, noisier Public Image Limited around the time of Metal Box.

Anyway, I persisted. Initial impressions additionally suggested comparisons with the Pop Group, but where the Pop Group were overtly funky between the squalls of guitar noise, Let's Play Domination seems more like some primal rockabilly enterprise spinning horribly out of control. It's the bluesy inflections and the one foot somewhere in the Venn diagram with black music - dub, reggae, rap, disco and so on, hence covers of U-Roy, LL Cool J and Lipps Inc.'s Funkytown blasted out without any obvious trace of irony or sarcasm and so firmly distancing World Domination from fellow guitar noise merchants of the time.

You may notice I've already used both horrible and unpleasant as compliments, which is because it's hard to know what the fuck to do with that guitar sound. It's like a detuned power station throwing up, something with no equivalent in nature which has congealed in the grooves, a truly untamed beast which seems to contrast wildly with the tight but excitable rhythm and Keith Dobson's teen idol vocal, teen idol here meaning Ricky Nelson rather than Donny Osmond. The combination seems so perfect and simple that it's bewildering how no-one else thought to do it this way. There hasn't been much which has sounded quite like this album before or since, possibly because groups this violent and noisy rarely sound quite so happy about rubbing our faces in everything which is repulsive about human society right now, yet without simply adding to the shit mountain; and in Ghetto Queen, I'm not sure I've heard anything so beautiful which doesn't really communicate anything you would call a tune, just the jagged drone of electricity pylons fighting on the horizon in a world where the Cramps were actually the Swans, sort of.

New single available here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

The Beatles (1968)

I've no doubt that whole books have been written about the white album - as I'm not going to call it - but I haven't read any of them, have no plans to read any of them, and I'm not even going to do any internet homework with this one in the hope of coming to it absolutely fresh, as I suspect the lads would have wanted; and because I have a theory that this was the whole point of the album.

The Beatles were the first pop band I noticed when I was a kid, mainly because their music kept turning up on the telly and with such frequency that I began to recognise a few of the songs and asked my mum about them. The Magical Mystery Tour album turned up one Christmas in response, followed by Yellow Submarine, Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul all within the next six months. I planned to get the rest but I suspect the strain of saving up my pocket money month after month was getting a bit much; then I discovered punk rock, and eventually began to find everyone still banging on about the fab four two decades after the event a little exhausting. It wasn't that I'd had a change of heart so much as a change of focus, and it had become difficult to listen to the Beatles what with their music still getting heavy airplay on every radio station everywhere in the universe. You can only have so much of a good thing.

Eventually it died down so much that I no longer found myself subjected to Penny Lane on a daily basis, and I began to wonder what those other Beatles records had sounded like, and so I picked up where I'd left off as a sort of favour to my nine-year old self.

Happily, it's quite easy to apply fresh ears to the eponymous 1968 double because, of its thirty tracks, I count only three which have suffered from the same overexposure as Hey Jude and the rest. Dear Prudence I recognise mainly from the Banshees cover, and there are bits and pieces I recall as having been sampled on Jay-Z's Grey Album, but otherwise there's a lot here which I've never heard before. In case you missed the inference of that sentence, the significant detail is songs by the Beatles which I've never heard before, which seems pleasantly incredible in the second decade of the twenty-first century. More specifically, for me this means Beatles without baggage, without specific lines or riffs conjuring unwanted images of smirking regional television reporters introducing light-hearted news features about a foolish resident of a hill or a woman named Lucy who has her own jewellery business on the Isle of Skye.

What with the plain white cover and general lack of flash, I get the idea that the Beatles were trying to get away from being the Beatles, or at least from what the Beatles had become in terms of their fame - hence, I guess, the seemingly sarcastic revelations of Glass Onion which must surely have been addressed to those reading far too much into the back catalogue. To invoke what probably wasn't yet a clich├ę in 1968, it was just about the music, man.

Yet The Beatles is no reductionist return to basics, and is at least as progressive and experimental as the fab and swinging sixties albums which preceded it, arguably more so with the likes of Revolution 9, inspired doubtless by persons such as Pierre Schaeffer and actually much easier on the ear than its legend would suggest. Of course, they do return to basics on tracks such as the frankly still fucking incredible Back in the USSR which seemingly takes the piss out of the Beach Boys - something else I hadn't really noticed until now; but they were doing something with those basics - inventing heavy metal as some have argued, although I'm not convinced by that one - and they were doing it as the reinvestment they wanted to hear without intrusively commercial considerations. I'd say this holds true for most of the album despite that we're still talking about the Beatles rather than Arnold Schoenberg, so it pops but entirely on their terms; and as such comes across as a surprisingly intimate work compared with the more overt populism of the previous efforts. It's almost talking to itself with just one other individual in the room, that being yourself, the listener - which additionally provides, I suppose, some insight as to why Charles Manson believed the Beatles were sending secret messages specifically to him on this record.

It's become fairly easy to lose sight of why anyone ever liked this bunch, and I still refuse to believe that their legend deserves to eclipse any other legend you may care to name; and excepting Ringo, I found the solo material mostly underwhelming, but something about the combination of the four of them was genuinely wonderful and I'm impressed that an album of a full half-century vintage can still yield surprises, and so many.

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Neu! (1972)

My introduction to krautrock was Glenn Wallis selling me a massive pile of albums in one huge job lot back in the nineties - forty, maybe fifty of them incuding Neu!, Kluster, Kraftwerk, Conrad Schnitzler, Faust, pretty much everything. I hadn't actually expressed any real interest in the form beyond that some of it sounded okay from what I could tell, but Glenn was converting to compact disc, needed the money and was asking just a few quid per album. I guess he'd reasoned that it was better that I should benefit than for him to get a few quid per album from some shop which would then have them all in the window for treble figures the following week. Vinyl Experience in Hanway Street had a bit of a reputation for such transactions, for example.

Really, I agreed to buy the collection more or less based on the idea that what I'd heard sounded okay and might turn out to sound amazing on closer inspection, and if so then I'd already have a ton of the stuff and wouldn't have to go through the rigmarole of tracking it all down. However, the collection was such as to stop up a sort of mental bottleneck in my listening habits, meaning I never quite got around to giving any of it the attention it probably deserved because there was so fucking much of it and anyway, maybe I was busy listening to - off the top of my head - the first Denim album that week; which is probably why it's taken me nearly thirty years to get to grips with this one.

I'm a little weary of hearing about how everything can now be traced back to krautrock and how I was listening to krautrock when none of you lot had even heard of it and so on and so forth, not least because it gets in the way of the music, and the music is - in this instance - pretty great and a lot more accessible than might be suggested by its reputation.

Neu! was formed by two members of Kraftwerk who decided they didn't want to be robots, and continues the original, somewhat more organic spirit of the same, combining the machine with the music but without negating the human component. It's possibly not actually that far removed from either Pink Floyd or similarly flared psychonauts of the musical abstract of similar vintage, but my reference points are limited to Neu! essentially being Throbbing Gristle's Second Annual Report five years earlier but without either the darkness or Porridge's ego getting in the way. It's very much the same sonic exploration with effects transforming music to noise, subtracting nature from the sound, and predating Neubauten's road drills by at least a decade. As a whole, it really is a sonic sculpture, and it still works because I guess it was so far ahead of the curve that it could have been recorded yesterday. Where Gristle may have invoked castration and other unmentionables, here we have - pure and unalloyed - the sheer euphoria of strange new sounds which take our thoughts to places previously unvisited.

It wasn't to last, and Dinger in particular perpetrated some truly underwhelming stuff under the same name in later years, but this remains arguably as startling and joyous within its field as did Never Mind the Bollocks in its own; and the reputation is, for once, fully deserved.