Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Z'ev - Salts of Heavy Metals (1981)

Here's another one I bought, then sold so as to finance purchase of obscure Foetus records, having concluded it was a bit of a racket with nothing anywhere near so catchy as his hit single on Fetish, a faintly bewildering cover of Wipe Out by the Surfaris; and now I've bought it again because it felt strange that I should no longer have a copy; and I'm sort of glad I did, I guess.

Someone or other once described a certain band as the sound of metal dustbins thrown down a fire escape. It may even have been me, although if so I probably nicked the description from someone else. Anyway that's what Salts of Heavy Metals actually sounds like, mostly being Z'ev, who was a chap rather than a fully instrumented beat combo, kicking things he'd liberated from scrap yards across a stage, not even rhythmically. It's just a noise which seems slightly out of place on a record, which is why I still find it intriguing.

Coming back to Salts after a couple of decades, my first hunch was that it represents something like antimusic in the vein of the New Blockaders, but having boned up on the lad's interviews, it's clear his intentions were musical, and that all those lumps of metal hauled back from the side of the road were chosen for their tonal potential; and the more you listen to this record, the more sense it makes.

Needless to say, there's nothing particularly restful on here and there's not much variation in mood, but the tracks sound quite different to each other despite the brutalist method of composition; and the closer you listen, the more you find to enjoy, or at least appreciate. The best I can come up with to describe it is a sonic analogy of abstract expressionism, with the atmosphere - mostly a pretty tense one - formed from what are effectively random scrapes and slashes of noise.

My other hunch - other than the one about Salts being antimusic - was that the performance was surely the thing with this sort of stuff, and a recording will inevitably fail to pack the same punch as the spectacle of a seven foot skinhead swinging bits of tractor around his head on lengths of chain; and it's certainly a point, but then again a record is a different medium and probably shouldn't be judged by the same criteria. This still leaves us with the oddity that here the noise is nevertheless presented as music which, as I say, is probably what makes it so weirdly enticing. It's a sound you wouldn't expect to come out of your speakers, and is of such composition as to inspire questions about where the music ends and the random noises and fridge hum of one's own daily existence begins, or if there's even a division.

Salts of Heavy Metals probably isn't likely to become a staple at any of those Christmas parties I never host, but it's still really nice to have it back.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

23 Skidoo (2000)

I was warned off this one, and to be fair, I had my doubts. It was their first album in sixteen years, and the last thing I'd heard before this was Shugyōsha Step which appeared on the Funky Alternatives album back in 1986; and while Shugyōsha Step was all right, it had a faint tang of leaders having become followers, falling a couple of years behind with that there break dance music. These sort of comeback albums don't always work, and you had to wonder if maybe the lads felt inclined to cash in on having been sampled by the Chemical Brothers.

On the one hand, this eponymous fourth album doesn't seem to represent a significant sonic leap forward from 1984's Urban Gamelan; but on the other, Urban Gamelan sounded pretty damn fine to my ears, so at least we're getting back into the saddle on a good footing. 23 Skidoo were never really what you'd call popular in the Chemical Brothers' sense, but at the same time, either the extent of their influence has been disproportionately widespread, or they simply tapped into a certain groove before everyone else. It seems significant to see the likes of Massive Attack thanked on the cover, not to mention the appearance of Roots Manuva and Pharoah Sanders on a couple of tracks. This record might almost be seen - or I suppose heard - as a restatement of intent, maybe a reclamation of territory, particularly as 400 Blows ultimately turned out to be such a complete waste of everyone's time. It's unapologetically smooth jazz with a weirdly angular aesthetic, beautifully atmospheric, even hypnotic, reclaiming rhythm from all the usual robosuspects in their camouflage pants, and hopefully giving aneurysms to any industrial historians trying their durndest to shoehorn anything this organic into the Ministry backstory.

Nothing for sixteen years and then a double album which effortlessly made everyone else look like a complete cunt - not bad going.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Butts Band (1974)

I always had a bit of an uncomfortable aversion to the Doors. On the one hand I've never been particularly impressed by Jim Morrison, or at least I've never been impressed by the myth of Morrison as visionary prophet; but on the other it's difficult to deny the quality of the music, even with himself belching his sixth form poetry over the top. I'm not even sure why I'm bothered, given the high quota of shitheads already taking up shelf space in my record collection and how I can still listen to the Pistols without recalling Lydon sharing a trustworthy working class pint with grinning Nigel Farage; but never mind because I've just discovered the existence of the Butts Band.

I never realised that the Doors had recorded albums without Morrison, which is probably my fault for assuming that all music was shit prior to the Damned releasing New Rose. It turns out that just two Doors were involved, but crucially neither of them were Jim Morrison due to his having departed for that great sixth form common room in the sky, making it possible for me to appreciate the vibe without anything of a self-important disposition getting in the way; and they must have been doing something right, because this is some considerable distance outside of my comfort zone.

The problem I have with the seventies is that, contrary to the claims of nostalgic telly shows, it really wasn't all David Bowie and Marc Bolan popping around Twiggy's house to watch Doctor Who, and I know this because I was actually there, meaning I was actually there in the seventies rather than at Twiggy's house. Mostly it was young beige men with flares, beards and sunglasses wishing they were on a beach in California, and the music was horrible and earnest and twiddly in all the wrong places*; but in every shower of shite there's always some undigested diced carrot representing the form as it should have been, and should be remembered - something which sounds amazing even before Quentin Tarantino ironically stripes it onto footage of a sharp dressed man kicking someone's head off. I can think of about a million records that should have sounded like the Butts Band but didn't, but never mind.

They've retained that bluesy quality which made the Doors sound so powerful, dark and brooding without becoming ponderous; and on this foundation they've built a record which is actually sort of light without being fluff, and even pretty funky. It has a soulful edge without sounding like it's trying to prove anything, and which probably means we're long overdue Michael Gira feeling he has to cover I Won't Be Alone Anymore. This is a record which probably constitutes a postscript, and yet to my ears it sounds like a refinement of what they were doing before. Would that a few more seventies also rans had been this good.

I gather there was a second album with a different line-up augmenting Densmore and Kreiger, but they got it so right on this one that I'm a bit wary of tracking it down.

*: Relax, Daphne - I didn't mean ELP.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Frank Black (1993)

I seem to recall this being generally hated in the music press when it came out, something about it being nothing new, Pixies without the inspiration or somesuch. Nevertheless my girlfriend of the time bought it and played the thing until you could have used it to wrap sandwiches. Consequently I was afforded ample opportunity to become familiar with every last click and ping, and thus has it become well and truly ground into my consciousness.

I suppose there's an argument to be had in wondering why the big fat coward chickened out of that euphonium driven rap album we'd all been waiting for, but it's not a very good argument; and if you love the Pixies - as indeed I do - then there was never a good reason why this shouldn't deliver the same sort of kick, but with knobs on. I suppose it's arguably a smoother record, lacking the occasional squall of feedback or pounding kick drum, but otherwise it relates to the Pixies like those tiny concentrated cups of weapons grade coffee you get anywhere south of the Rio Grande when asking for the wrong thing - the same but moreso and somehow actually even a little bit fucking weirder. It's not just the songs about flying saucers or fixating on subjects so folksy that they come out the other side. It's how much more intense is the contrast of subject with the faint suggestion that Frank only ever really wanted to be in one of those bands named after a state - Boston, Kansas, Alabama, and I'm sure there are others. Somehow the interference pattern formed by these two seemingly disparate strands sounds like the Pixies fuelled by the same honking overdrive which powered early Roxy Music. At the risk of seeming contentious, I suspect you've probably got something wrong with you if you don't like this record. It really is one of the best.

This man is a fucking genius.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Link Wray & His Raymen - Jack the Ripper (1963)

I think this was probably the first vinyl record I bought in America, which hopefully you'll agree was a pretty fucking solid place to get started. I'd just arrived off the boat, head still spinning. Everything was in boxes and I didn't even have a record player. I stumbled into Hogwild, experienced extreme disorientation, and came out the door with this because, let's face it, you can't really go wrong with Link Wray.

Unfortunately it sounded shit once I got me a turntable, just a distorted twang; but thankfully, as I've subsequently realised, this was entirely due to a crap needle which has since been replaced. Weirdly, it's taken me a couple of years to remember I actually had the thing, but I'm glad I did because it's astonishing. The quality is such as to inspire the realisation that - actually - Steve Albini and Billy Childish were probably right: you simply don't need all of the audio-horseshit, just a microphone, a good ear, and something which captures the sound.

The Link Wray sound, as you will probably remember, is rudimentary but nevertheless pretty fucking tight, in case anyone can't tell the difference between primal and just plain hamfisted. We have drums, bass, and Link twanging away through speakers with holes punched in the cones so as to create a fuzz effect. You may recall it sounding a little like the Shadows, but frankly the Shadows seem pretty weak compared to this stuff. Listen to Rumble and it's really not too difficult to credit the fact of it once having been banned from the radio for fear of causing juvenile delinquency - and keep in mind we're talking about a fucking instrumental!

Wray's music has strong blues roots but you can hear that, even in 1963, it was forever reaching out, pulling in all sorts of strange directions, which is what distinguishes this from Hank Marvin's bunch of teatime entertainers. There are those uneasy pauses on Fat Back - how different parts of the tune seem to hang around a little longer than natural - the weird atonal squawks punctuating Chicken Run, what sounds like a basic monosynth on Cross Ties, and then the truly peculiar Big Ben with a jazzy bass wobble which wouldn't seem out of place on some dubstep number. It takes serious talent to produce something which not only sounds this fresh and this powerful half a century later, but which kind of makes you wonder why we've bothered recording anything since.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Nurse With Wound - Insect & Individual Silenced (1981)

It seems Steve Stapleton ended up hating this one, hence its patchy bordering on barely-happening reissue history. On the other hand, it's fairly dear to my own heart, or at least dear-ish - being the first Nurse With Wound album I ever bought, a purchase facilitated by a rare trip down to that London, and specifically to the Virgin megastore because it was a bit fucking tricky getting hold of this stuff if you lived out in the sticks. I had Homotopy to Marie on order at the short-lived Shipston-on-Stour record store for about a year before the proprieter eventually gave up.

I say dear-ish because clearly I didn't regard the thing with such affection as to keep me from flogging it to Vinyl Experience in the nineties along with a stack of Whitehouse albums when raising funds for early Foetus records - two albums and four singles which are great records, so I never quite regretted sacrificing my copy of Insect & Individual Silenced, although it would have been nice to have been paid more than twenty fucking quid for it, particularly when it was in the racks for eighty a week later. Twenty years pass, and I notice that I still have a tape of the album, because I used to obsessively tape albums as I bought them, and the tape is of such quality that, once digitised, it's pretty much the same as having the album back; so that's nice.

You probably already have a fairly good idea of what Nurse With Wound sound like, and that's what Insect & Individual Silenced sounds like, except more so to my ears because it was the first one I heard. This was my introduction to a whole new, seriously weird world. The most startling aspects of the record, at least to me, were the razor sharp edits chopping up disparate slabs of sound without the usual luxury of reverb to make it seem at least a little moody and romantic; and the way in which the next sound you hear is usually the last you would expect, and the one which makes the least obvious sense. Alvin's Funeral builds up around what are probably random notes pinged from the spokes of a revolving bicycle wheel, combined with unnerving bursts of feedback and worrying poetry in a little girl voice which I always assumed to belong to Danielle Dax, but I could be wrong. The other side features two tracks, first being Absent Old Queen Underfoot, a collaboration with Jim Thirlwell and Trevor Reidy of the Shock Headed Peters. It's mostly subdued noise and brushed drums serving more as irritation than rhythm, like flies bashing against a window; truthfully, it doesn't really do much, but works well as an uncomfortable respite after the barrage of Alvin's Funeral. Finally there's the six minutes of Mutilés De Guerre which closes the album with loops of dialogue, electronic noise, and a bit of Ludwig van himself on the old ukelele - again maybe nothing special in its own right, but powerful in context of the album as a whole by contributing to a peculiar sense of narrative progression.

Insect & Individual Silenced should be experienced as though it were a surrealist film, a cousin to the work of Man Ray, Maya Deren and others, but struck through with something equivalent to the uneasy mutterings of Hans Bellmer; and happily, being a musical recording, the album has sidestepped the cauterising effect of the art establishment and is thus able to present Dadaist shock without us having to watch Waldemar Januszczak wanking himself silly. Of course there are still the trainspotting twats who will tell you this was early industrial music, but as it makes Gristle sound like Pink Floyd I'd say we can safely ignore such bollocks.

Lord knows why Stapleton was so down on this one. Personally, I think it's wonderful.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Stereolab - Switched On (1992)

Music used to be much better than it is now, back in the good old days. Music is now rubbish. It used to be great, but now it isn't.

The debate, such as it is, rages on - if the term rage can really be applied to a discourse which chunders along with all the vitality of piss dripping from the leaf of a stinging nettle. My cousin or niece or whatever the hell she is opined as much on facebook a while back. People today don't know what proper music is, she boldy suggested. My dad made sure we only had proper music in my house when I was growing up, classics like the Jam, the Who, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene…

She's young, so I left it.

More recently, YouTube suggested that I might enjoy a twenty-minute sermon on the subject of why music used to be much better than it is now. The address is delivered by one of those YouTube pundits I generally try to avoid, a person identifying himself as Thoughty2. His avatar is a picture of himself scratching his chin, having thoughts, because that's what you do when you have thoughts. You scratch your chin and maybe raise one eyebrow a little. For a small fee, one can subscribe to Thoughty's private feed and gain exclusive access to what he describes as mind-blowing videos such as These Ancient Relics Are so Advanced They Shouldn't Exist or Who Was the Most Terrifying Pirate of All Time? The one about how music is now shit opens with Thoughty courageously flying in the face of the consensus by suggesting that Justin Bieber isn't as good as the Beatles - really going out on a fucking limb there, boy - before informing us that this has now been scientifically proven in a laboratory. I don't know what that scientific proof could be because I stopped watching after three minutes and I don't really care. I'm guessing it will be something about tonal complexity, harmony, and how the brain responds, which strikes me as different to saying that I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am by Herman's Hermits is objectively superior to World War 303 by Rozzer's Dog.

I have a problem with this sort of gormless nostalgia, which is after all only a variation on Peter Kay endlessly chuckling over discontinued chocolate bars - it's important because I remember it. Just like the ontological significance of Curly Wurly, music is a largely subjective experience which as such cannot be meaningfully quantified in any sense other than how it may do more or less of something done by some other piece of music; so it is therefore surely best judged in terms of how well it does whatever it sets out to do. Whether whatever it has set out to do was anything worth doing is another thing entirely, and there's probably not much to be gained arguing over it unless you're a complete fucking twat. Maybe Britney Spears is quantifiably more shit as an artist than, off the top of my head, Pink Floyd; but then ...Baby One More Time, still sounds decent to me, while Pink Floyd still sound like four hairy hippies having a really slow wank which they will later describe as amaaaaaaazing spelt with thirteen letters. The argument that Pink Floyd are quantifiably superior to Britney Spears makes as much sense as saying ...Baby One More Time is a better record than The Medium was Tedium by the Desperate Bicycles purely because it sold more.

The thing is that persons such as Thoughty and his ilk are people with no Elvis in 'em, as Mojo Nixon would have it. Their purpose is to commodify nostalgia and sell it back to us as a superior brand on grounds equivalent to the notion that it shifts 25% more grease than the products of leading competitors.

So nostalgia and the invocation of things past has always thrown me. I've enjoyed music which recreates some previous form, but I've never been entirely comfortable with the idea, and I still can't quite shake the feeling that Stereolab were only ever the krautrock Showaddywaddy - which isn't to say that I dislike them. In fact I have about seven or eight albums - Switched On, and then - tellingly - various things picked up at CD & DVD Exchange, because for some reason CD & DVD Exchange always has a ton of old Stereolab in the racks. I inevitably own albums by Neu! and La Düsseldorf and the rest, so I know where Stereolab were coming from; and I used to write to Tim Gane back when he was in the Unkommuniti, and that krautrock chug was already evident even on those tapes he recorded in his bedroom in homage to H.P. Lovecraft. Yet of all the albums, I've listened to Switched On a lot, and the rest only every so often when I'll dig one out and wonder whether it was as good as Switched On, which it never is. It's not even like the others are as repetitive as I tend to remember them being. Each album sounds a little different, representing some subtle variation on a theme, but the differences are such that it always feels as though someone found a previously undiscovered clip of 1970s Open University and a whole new seam of retrofuturism ripe for exploitation; and you begin to wonder if anyone in the band was ever told off for accidentally sounding like something which happened later than 1975. Maybe this sonic resuscitation of forgotten sound is justified as a one-off exercise in working within certain limitations, but an entire back catalogue?

Denim got away with it somehow, or got away with a variation on this sort of necromancy, but there seemed to be a peculiarly militant purpose there. Billy Childish justifies what he does by arguing that if something still works, then you may as well put it to use, which is after all why so many blues records still sound powerful half a century later; but I just don't know with Stereolab. There's a track on Sound-Dust which sounds like fucking Lily the Pink, which is just being cunty for the sake of it, if you ask me - which you sort of did by virtue of your having read this far.

It's all bollocks.

Switched On was the first Stereolab record I heard, given to me for my birthday by my girlfriend of the time, and I didn't really listen to it until a few nights before we were about to split up, nearly a year later. She was moving away and I knew it wasn't going to last much longer, which was probably for the best but it was a weird time. I was confused, upset, couldn't sleep, and I stayed up one night listening to this record over and over until about four in the morning; and it sounded perfect, almost happy with a profound twist of melancholia, a feeling which couldn't even be described in words. It's in the drone and the repetition, the contrast of the chug with sweet voices, and the key change which takes three or four minutes to build to a peak and then pulls your heart out when it flips over. None of their other records ever came close for me, not compared to this one; and that is what music is about - not some wibbling crap longing for the security of the familiar because it's scary out there, or mathematical equations supposedly proving that Bob Dylan is 87% more betterer than Stormzy because he doesn't need to say cunt or bollocks to express himself. I couldn't give a shit what Switched On does in terms of musicology or whether anyone else in the universe gets the same out of it as I do. I only care what it does when I listen to it.

See also all other music ever.