Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Cure - Faith (1981)

Here's another one I bought when it came out, albeit as a cassette because it had a film soundtrack for something called Carnage Visors on the other side, which seemed like a good deal. My dad bought a new family music centre that Christmas, and somehow I managed to persuade the folks to let me play Carnage Visors on it as we ate Christmas dinner, myself, my parents, and my granny. I still have the tape, although it's in a cardboard box full of other tapes presently on a different continent, but the memory was of sufficient strength as to cause me to shell out for this vinyl reissue when I saw it in Hogwild, my local independent record store.

It feels weird buying a Cure record in 2016, not least because I've hated everything they did since this one, pretty much. Love Cats was shit. That mega-twee Caterpillar song was wank served with a soupçon of shit, toss, and arse. Lewis Carroll through a flange pedal worked fine for Siouxsie & the Banshees who at least had the sense to move on once the affectation had done it's job. Since Faith the Cure have been a fat clown crying into his guitar, as Henry Rollins memorably, entertainingly, and accurately put it. I've heard Pornography but I can't remember a thing about it beyond that it failed to change my mind. Faith was the last good thing where the Cure are concerned. This was where it came to an end, but Jesus - what a record to go out on. Seriously, you should hear this thing.

This was the Cure as a Joy Division tribute act, so ran the generalisation, although listening to it now the differences seem too pronounced to take seriously. At most they were Joy Division without the Black Sabbath, and it's not exactly like the Divs were the only band placing this sort of stark emphasis on their rhythm section that year. Not even the mood is particularly similar. Without bothering to check, I vaguely recall reading that Robert Smith was massively depressed around the time of recording Seventeen Seconds and this one, and it shows; but it goes beyond boo hoo into near existential nausea, the numb, almost comforting feeling of understanding that there's no point to anything. The mood is as much to do with a distracted guitar jangling away and bearing no resemblance to anything on Unknown Pleasures, as Smith's disconsolate wail - a voice that became an unlistenable whine on later records but here works beautifully; and beyond the voice and the guitar there's all that space betwixt the twinned basses and percussion so dry it sounds vacuum sealed, and it seems like there's something haunting all that space between but you really have to listen closely to pick it up.

There's not a poor song on here, and at a perfect eight tracks it's too short to outstay its welcome, and - fucking hell - All Cats Are Grey is one of the greatest things ever recorded, working that sombre mood like not even Elgar managed. Lordy, the Cure were really something back then. It's a shame they couldn't have just called it a day after this masterpiece.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Irsol - First Contact / Half life (2015)

Irsol's debut was possibly one of the first independent tapes I bought way back when I were a lad, and certainly one of the first which wasn't a compilation of various artists; or it could have been We Be Echo's Ceza Evi - I could look it up in my diary of the time, I suppose. Anyway, the detail that matters is that I had a flyer for First Contact, having written to Alan Rider who was then running the Adventures in Reality zine and label. I hadn't heard anything by Irsol, so I had no idea what I would get for my ₤1.50, and that was the appeal.

First Contact, when it dropped through the letterbox, sounded amazing to me - clearly a self-produced effort, cover seeming a bit like it might have been done on an etch-a-sketch or whatever primitive 5KB computers were available at the time, and yet the music sounded beautifully expensive compared to what I had come to expect from cassette artistes, beautifully expensive and not really quite like anything else I'd heard up to that point. Irsol cited Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire amongst their influences, as well as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and other electronic acts of which I was then only dimly aware, and whilst I could hear some of these influences, none seemed to dominate or dilute. First Contact sounded like something really special, as did Half Life which appeared about a year later.

Now here they are again, the same tracks three decades later, lovingly pressed onto vinyl and still sounding as rich and - if you'll pardon me - darkly mellifluous as ever. Referring to the sleeve notes, I see we have an MS20, Roland TR606, the mighty Wasp, and a couple of Acorn computers, whatever the hell those were, so it's all pretty basic by contemporary standards; but the strength of Irsol lay in what they did with the tools at their disposal, how they managed to get the best out of each piece of equipment, forging wonderful, truly immersive soundtracks to imaginary films, half-remembered dreams, even the occasional Open University module. As with what little I've heard of Tangerine Dream, the magic is in the contrast of ornate melody with texture and use of effects, giving even the most innocuous ping of a 606 the rich faux-acoustic resonance of a live instrument. It may just have been three blokes with a load of wires and boxes, but to this day I'm yet to hear anything which does what the music on this album does quite so well.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Scientist - Scientist Meets the Space Invaders (1981)

To lay my cards on the table, I never fully understood reggae when I was growing up. Some of it sounded okay, but I never really got the appeal of - for one example - Bob Marley, whom I have since come to regard as the black Paul McCartney, give or take some small change. Also, hailing from a rural area, the people I knew who listened to reggae were all white, and there's something horribly self-important about those white reggae dudes, or at least there has been about the ones I've met. On the other hand, ska seemed to make a lot of sense, and there was a quality I enjoyed about those seemingly hour long dub tracks Peel would play from time to time. I think what held me back was a combination of funding - there only being so many records on which I could spunk away my pocket money every week, and not knowing where to start with this stuff, and fear of seeming like one of those self-important tea-cosy-wearing tossers forever referring to himself as I and I whilst banging on about de weed and mi woman and things being claat despite his being even whiter than me in all other respects.

I discovered this album because every single person I knew owned a copy at one stage, so it seemed, even white guys who weren't pretending to be Rastafarians and who just liked music. I couldn't escape from the thing and it wormed its way into my consciousness pretty quickly, slipping past all the weird conditioning and hang-ups detailed above - particularly De Materialise which arguably features the greatest bass-line ever committed to tape; and yet I never bought a copy because I didn't want to be the guy with just one reggae album; and it didn't even seem like I needed my own copy given that I could just go around someone's house and hear it; and I'd get around to buying it one day. Then suddenly it was no longer in every single record shop, and then there ceased to even be record shops, and old copies of Scientist Meets the Space Invaders cost a fortune on eBay, until just now...

It's been reissued. I saw it in the store and I bought it.

You all know what reggae sounds like. Here it's stripped down to just percussion and a deep, deep bass with a few other sounds drifting in and out of a mix - snatches of vocals bouncing off those twangy old springline reverb units, delay echoing against itself, forming new cross-rhythms from the decaying signal, sounds crunched through filters... Space Invaders is like a few moments of three in the morning drawn out into a blissful codeine haze of eternity. Possibly you may even know what this record sounds like - the purest form of a thousand other things you've heard which weren't as good - but whilst you're listening to it, whilst you're caught in the moment...

It's like a musical evocation of a single meandering train of thought and is as such absolutely hypnotic and enveloping, peculiarly duplicating the effect of listening whilst smoking one of those space fags even for those who aren't. Whilst this record is playing, you're in another place and you really have to wonder why anyone has bothered recording anything since. It's that powerful, and now that I'm older, fatter, and better financed, I really need to get me some more of this stuff.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Peter Hope & Charlie Collins - Destroy Before Leaving (2016)

This is another one of those download things which exists only as electric magic. I downloaded a couple by Blank Banshee last week and told myself I wasn't going to make a habit of owning stuff with no physical dimensions, but fuck it - it's Peter Hope and it was a quid - actually it was free but it seemed polite to make some sort of donation. Anyway...

Peter Hope and Charlie Collins will of course be remembered as vocals and saxomophone of the Box, who were in turn Clock DVA minus Adi Newton and somehow wound much tighter. You can still feel some of that legacy in these six tracks - dark, dirty, and kind of jazzy without any of the usual unfortunate connotations which have adhered to jazz since it was assimilated by the man. That said, it doesn't exactly sound like jazz beyond the noodling presence of whatever Collins is playing - some sax, some clarinet I think - and a few details of mood. On the other hand, what it very much does sound like is twenty-first century blues, meaning the genuine Robert Johnson deal updated as is appropriate to time and culture, as distinct from some Mark Knopfler heritage project; also as distinct from certain Foetus efforts inhabiting similar territory but sounding a great deal more mannered and studied than this raw outburst of noise, gravel and loathing. Were time travel a thing, you could take this back to the Mississippi Delta in the thirties and I'm pretty sure those guys would recognise it immediately. Of course, beyond Hope's characteristic growl and Collins' riffing, what you have might almost be Einstürzende Neubauten in sonic terms, but it should probably be remembered that whilst the original bluesmen had guitars and harmonicas, they really weren't in the business of making pretty music. So to dispense with most of this paragraph, Destroy Before Leaving is a blues album, and a powerful one, and that's everything you need to know.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Blank Banshee - Blank Banshee 0 (2012)

A couple of months ago, someone mentioned vapourwave to me, specifically wondering aloud whether it should be considered post-music in the sense of Lady Gaga and other ringtone artistes. Because I'm fat and fifty, and because I couldn't give a shit about computer games, incomprehensible Japanese cartoons, Instagram, most social media, or young people in general, I was embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of him, or it, or whatever gramophone records they may have recently sent scurrying to the top of the hit parade, there to dislodge Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. I was embarrassed because it turns out the thing had been around for at least five years without my having been aware of it even as a name.

Okay, so vapourwave was not only old news but also massive in context of its own self-contained microcosm of 4Chan types and people who post video clips of themselves talking about computer games on YouTube; so there's no reason why I should have heard of it, I suppose. Anyway, Wikipedia has this to say:

Vapourwave is a music genre and art movement that emerged in the early 2010s and spread over the next half of the decade among various internet communities. It is characterised by a nostalgic or surrealist fascination with retro cultural aesthetics (typically that of the late eighties and early nineties), entertainment technology, consumer culture and advertising, and styles of corporate and popular music such as lounge, smooth jazz and elevator music. Sampling is prevalent within the genre, with samples often pitched, layered or altered, sometimes in a classic chopped and screwed style. Central to the style is often a satirical but not necessarily critical preoccupation with consumer capitalism, popular culture, and new-age tropes.

I've also seen it claimed that vapourwave is over, and Blank Banshee is actually seapunk, but I don't care. I'm fifty. Fuck off.

Anyway, it's a file sharing, downloady thing, and I'm yet to sign up with the whole download culture because I much prefer physical objects and I've never owned an iPod - or equivalent device - that worked for longer than three months at a time; and like I say, I'm fat and fifty.

I had a root around on YouTube, it being a source of numerous vapourwave albums uploaded in their entirety. Most of what I heard sounded sort of interesting, if not startlingly unlike anything else I've ever encountered. As a genre it seemed to be making a virtue out of samples of unusually bland material - ringtones, game noises, television station idents, the little tune your computer plays when you boot it up. Some of it was kind of irritating, but some of it seemed to have something, and of all the stuff I browsed, Blank Banshee seemed to have enough of something to warrant a violation of my own personal code; so I threw dollars at the bandcamp page and bagged me some downloads, then immediately burned them to CDR so I could give them a proper listen.

Blank Banshee is supposedly a Canadian by name of Patrick Driscoll, beyond which I know nothing but for the music itself, which I guess is deliberate. It sounds very much like music composed entirely on audio editing software using samples of the general type described, so for the most part there's a weirdly smooth quality which actually makes me think of the blandly utopian seaside resort described by J.G. Ballard in Vermilion Sands. Some of it has the monged-out ambience of new-age motivational tapes, and is almost certainly sampled from something in that direction. Yet, as promised by the hype, there's something weirdly fascinating by this overpowering wash of airbrushed perfection, as though it's laid on so thick it becomes something new.

On the other hand, the music might not work so well were it purely as I've described, that also being more or less how Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus sounds to me, and which is why I didn't bother downloading it despite it apparently being the Never Mind the Bollocks of vapourwave. Blank Banshee works by taking the form somewhere else, bringing in material lifted from the crunkier end of southern rap - notably those crunchy handclaps and finger clicks - and this influence seems also to mold the music into something significantly funkier than whoever it was nicked from - possibly excepting Flash's The Message which is the only sample I've been able to identify. Regardless of sources, Blank Banshee 0 ends up as something new in its own right - nothing longer than your average television commercial and adding up to just over half an hour of what feels like a continuous piece, and one which definitely exerts a strange influence on the place you're in, cerebrally speaking. It invokes in passing certain quieter moments of Nine Inch Nails, Anne Dudley's Art of Noise, and Three-6-Mafia, but also a fairly substantial dose of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

I'm still not a fan of downloads, but this cost me a dollar and is pretty darned wonderful; and more than anything it's really nice to know that in terms of new things, music isn't quite over. This kind of thing may even be the first wave of whatever happens next.

Blank Banshee 1 from 2014 is also fucking great by the way, and apparently he has a new one out even as I write this.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Cravats - The Land of the Giants (2006)

I'm probably biased in vaguely knowing two Cravats through one former Cravat, namely Martin who was in the very first line up and whom I met on an art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education.

'Yes, chief,' he told me, because he addressed everyone as chief, 'I used to be in the Cravats.'

I was impressed but also embarrassed through not actually having heard any of their records. I'd seen them in Sounds, and had noted the one bloke's resemblance to the big-haired chappie from the Eraserhead poster, but that was all.

'That's the Shend,' Martin explained. 'He's all the previous members welded together into a single organism.'

The weird thing was that it didn't sound like he was joking.

I rushed to Discovery Records, situated on Regent Street, and made immediate purchase of The Colossal Tunes Out seeing as it had only just hit the shops. Later I met Robin - the guitarist - when Martin recruited him as second driver as we drove down to Maidstone in Kent. Later still, having moved to London, I found myself encountering the Shend in a variety of pubs, usually managing to squeeze out a bit of a chat on the strength of mutual acquaintances, and he always had the decency to pretend to remember me; and more recently he even played one of my crappy songs on his internet radio show. At various points I was in bands with Martin, meaning that had my name ever turned up in one of those Pete Frame rock family trees, I'd be connected to both the Cravats and the Damned by various not actually at all obscure means - which I still find exciting to think about. My point here - aside from the obvious showboating - is that what follows probably won't be particularly subjective, but fuck it...

This collection looked a lot like a farewell when it came out. Aside from a new track recorded with the bloke out of Orbital - a dark but ravey affair utilising samples of previous greats - the Cravats had remained dormant since 1985. Their not particularly secret identity floundered in 1987 when their label elected to throw money at the Sugarcubes rather than at the Very Things' Motortown - mistakenly in my view given that it pisses over anything in which Bjork ever had a hand, but never mind; so The Land of the Giants seemed like closure, and a thematic counterpoint to The Cravats in Toytown, their first album. Robin was recording with Hit the Roof and then Vivarama, and the Shend had his Grimetime and had begun to turn up as a scowling presence in episodes of The Bill, Merlin, and so on. Then suddenly it's 2016, and they're back. Not only playing the possibly inevitable punk festivals, but generating new material, slapping out a single here and there and with enough of the original line-up for it to amount to the same entity emerging from hibernation; so, time to remind everyone what's so great about the Cravats, seeing as a few of you apparently haven't quite got it yet.

The Land of the Giants comprises most of The Colossal Tunes Out - itself a collection of singles - choice cuts from Toytown, plus a few other bits and pieces. It's also one of the few double CDs I have which doesn't sprawl, owing mainly to the peculiar variety of the material. The Cravats were always a punk band even though the fact of it tends to be overlooked at times, but always a pretty weird punk band - sometimes a bit yappy, at others resembling free form jazz forced to hold a tune, and never quite sounding like any other group. Some of it's the saxaphone, but mostly its an aesthetic owing more to John Heartfield era Dadaism than to green-haired punk rockers saying bollocks on Top of the Pops. It might even be argued that the Cravats were the closest English music came to the Residents, or at least the closest without any hint of actually trying to sound like the Residents - as might be said of Renaldo and the Loaf. Always a punk band in regard to what any of it was actually about, so if low on slogans, the Cravats subversive message was their medium, hence the lasting association with Crass and others. If you thought this was mainly just a cartoon then you've missed the point.

I can't think of what else to say. The Cravats are one of the greatest groups of all time, and if you claim to have any interest in music beyond toes tapped to a natty Marty Robbins tune on the wireless yet know ye not the Cravats, then you really don't love music as much as you think you do. I keep writing was and were but of course I mean is and still are, and there still are a few copies of Jingo Bells to be had, and my copy of Blurred came just this morning, and they're supposedly working on a new album - so it's time the rest of you started paying attention; and if this won't convince you...

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cockney Rejects - Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (1980)

Why did it take me thirty years to get around to buying this thing? I suppose because I thought it was fucking stupid - four Cockney gibbons jumping up and down oo-oo-oohing to a Sham 69 b-side, and not even one of the good ones. This was the impression I picked up from reading Garry Bushell's gushing praise week after week in Sounds, most of which was additionally concerned with impressing upon me that the Cockney Rejects would kick my head in should they ever encounter me walking down the street. They would immediately recognise me as middle class because I read books, still addressed my mother as mummy despite being fifteen years of age, didn't like sport, did like art, and was terrified of the hard kids at school; and having identified me as Lord Ponsonby-Fortescue-Smythe III, the Cockney Rejects would kick my fucking head in and then go to a football match or summink.

Of course, I've since come to recognise this classification of the working classes as violent gorillas who can't read and who spend most of their spare time burping the national anthem as a romantic misconception perpetrated largely by grammar school poshos like Bushell, but I wish someone had told me sooner. I always liked Sham 69 - who were obviously something of an inspiration to the Cockney Rejects - but I somehow felt Stinky and the boys were just a little too far in the wrong direction. Whilst I never mistook the whole Oi! thing for anything inherently racist - as has often been claimed - there was doubtless some of that element in there just as Sham 69 experienced problems with a far-right bonehead following they couldn't seem to shake, and if nothing else, Oi! always seemed kind of slow to refute its jackbooted reputation, at least generally speaking.

Nevertheless, with regard to hooligan credentials, I've probably worked with postmen at least as mental as any of the Rejects ever were; and as you get older you begin to see through certain social constructs, like the notion that any expression of working class culture still waiting for a retrospective at the ICA is probably in bed with the National Front. It's all bollocks, as should be obvious from these comments by Mick Geggus I've nicked from Louder Than War:

When I heard that Channel Four had used a section of Oi Oi Oi in a programme including themes of racism, I was so angry I nearly choked... If the privileged, middle class twats had even bothered to listen to the lyrics, they would know that the kids they come from everywhere, the east end’s all around means exactly that - a rallying call to kids across the globe, from Athens to Zanzibar... My band and I have fought narrow minded people from both sides of the political divide for over three decades now, and we have the scars to prove it.

Further evidence can be found on YouTube, should it be needed, not least a particularly satisfying clip of Jeff Turner going postal on sieg heiling fuck-trumpets at a gig back in 2014; which I guess leaves us with just the music.

One thing Bushell got right was this album having that same explosive energy as Never Mind the Bollocks, or whatever it was he said. For some reason I've come to think of Oi! as a sort of 90MPH cement-mixer version of punk - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus and it's over, with more or less every line being yap-yap-yap bark-bark-bark yap-yap-yap (pause for a single beat) Oi!

I don't know how I got this impression.

Some of it's like that, but not the good stuff, and not on this record. Mostly the sound is loud and lively, but still sharp and clear as a cut-throat razor; and the tunes are even poppy once you get past the brick wall of noise, and surprisingly happy too. Of course, as you might gather, there's some righteous class anger on here, but it's a pumped up adrenaline fuelled anger. It leaves you feeling good, and even with all the fists flying and dispensation of good-natured violence, there's a friendly quality to the whole enterprise. This record was speaking for an entire terminally marginalised culture, and the sheer camaraderie is irresistible, once you realise that these guys aren't the enemy, and they never were the enemy.

Like I say, I wish someone had told me sooner.