Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Ghost - Opus Eponymous (2010)

You've probably seen the pictures - a sort of demonic skeletal pope fronting a band of five identically anonymous guys in devil masks known only as the Nameless Ghouls. You may have wondered what they sounded like, or not as the case may be. I didn't because I assumed it would almost certainly be some guy throwing up into a food mixer as a thousand overdriven guitars thrashed out grunting riffs at five-hundred miles an hour; but a regular reader suggested I might like to give this a listen, and so I did, partially due to feeling a little guilty about all the fun I've had taking the piss out of Al Jourgensen whilst knowing said regular reader to be quite the fan; and partially out of a slightly craven sense of gratitude for the fact of my now apparently having a regular reader.

Amazingly, aside from a general enthusiasm for Satan, Ghost sound nothing like I expected, and I mean not one single box ticked - not even the same ballpark. Death metal seems a little bit of a stretch, as does black metal when you consider the names ordinarily associated with the genre; really it's more like the sort of thing which would be arbitrarily labelled heavy metal back when Black Sabbath were still something new. Ghost seem to recognise the musical arms race which has resulted in bands like Marduk and other church-burning types as a bit of a mug's game. It seems to have begun with the pursuit of pointless widdley-widdley guitar solo virtuosity - the sort of thing which only a complete fucking bore could ever appreciate - then going from one extreme to another until you end up with what may as well be someone grunting whilst stood next to a cement mixer. Ghost have wound it all back to a time predating even the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, resulting in hard rock with a few proggy touches invoking the Glitter Band at least as much as Strapping Young Lad. The customary grunting and growling is eschewed in favour of a beautiful, clear voice, not quite so operatic as to be annoying but more in that direction than you might expect from a guy dressed as a demonic pope. Musically, it almost touches on Queen or even the Who from around the time of Tommy; and it really is pop - all the darkly chugging riffs and the vocal harmonies and the pseudo-psychedelic swirl of a church organ. Once you start listening to this thing, it's difficult to stop.

Of course, the raw pop appeal contrasts dramatically with both the subject matter and a bizarre image amounting to a metal equivalent of the Residents. Thematically, it's Satan all the way - Antichrists, Elizabeth Bathory, omens, witches, the black goat with a thousand young, and all that other good stuff which once kept Hammer Films in business. I'm mainly accustomed to Satanism as a sort of intellectual game played by slightly inadequate misanthropes who took Ayn Rand too seriously, so I've never given much thought to the possibility of it being an actual religion as an inversion of Christianity - as opposed to just kids flashing their arses from the rear window of the coach during a school trip. If it is an actual religion in some sense, then I suppose Ghost might be its representatives. They sound serious, but then they would do, I suppose. It could be the genuine thing or it could be Spinal Tap, and for me that's their great strength, thematically speaking - there's just no knowing beyond that we're clearly expected to have a blast listening to it, which we do.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Skids - Days in Europa (1979)

With hindsight, I wonder if it was this album which pretty much finished off the Skids. I don't particularly recall any widespread public reaction against the initial release of the record sporting a cover looking one hell of a lot like Nazi propaganda, but then I was fourteen at the time so maybe I wouldn't. The Absolute Game, the album which came after, sold better, but they otherwise seemed to have disappeared off the mainstream radar by that point. It can't have helped that Richard Jobson was clearly fascinated by the period of European history between the wars, and particularly the art. There seems to have been quite a lot of it around at the time, what with Bauhaus and then various New Romantic types invoking that whole cabaret thing. Jobson dismissed suggestions of Nazi sympathies as nonsense, as of course he would, and I have to say there's nothing on this album suggesting the sort of dubious nostalgia peddled by Death in June and the like. Mostly it seems to be about the contrast of the optimism and even idealism of that era - regardless of the thrust of at least some of that idealism - with how it all turned to shit, so far as I can make out. Thematically a lot of Skids material seems to have been about beautiful losers by one definition or another.

And the memory shall linger,
And the memory shall fall,
It was a day in Europa,
My regression recalls.

Hail to the mighty, the ritual begins,
Hail to Apollo, the cleanser of sins,
Hail to Europa, she always wins.

So far, so Von Thronstahl, but the key is probably - at least hopefully - in the delivery, which is more the ruined decadence of Diamond Dogs than Laibach. I suppose it's possible that someone might genuinely have been simply exploring contentious ideas and images, and given Jobson's parallel obsessions with Busby Berkeley and Wilfred Owen, I'm going to assume that was the case for the sake of argument; but also because we've all forgiven David Bowie, and musicians are by definition mostly idiots who do stupid shit without any appreciation of the consequences; and as an optimist I'm applying this to any subsequent records which may or may not have had the word joy in the title.

The Skids were musically a massive glam stomp scored to what seemed like the world's biggest guitar - the late Stuart Adamson's somehow characteristically Scottish riffing which can't really be described without mentioning bagpipes - big slabs of sound bisecting each bar like the abstract forms of constructivist art. It invokes a certain Celtic cultural identity although thankfully expressed without being at the expense of anyone else's cultural identity; and it's given form by Jobson enthusiastically hooting away like a big, happy modernist bloodhound - ever a champion of style as substance. Away from the Skids, Adamson's music donned a traditional fisherman's sweater then deteriorated into folksy homilies about women called Morag forlornly awaiting the return of Johnny from the wars, but let's not dwell on that.

Aside from the kerfuffle invoked by albums with pictures of Aryan sporting personalities on the cover, and the unfortunate patronage of national socialist wingnuts like Von Thronstahl, Days in Europa is actually not so good as it really should have been with Bill Nelson at the desk - amazing singles and then some other tracks, but really nothing like so convincing as either Scared to Dance or The Absolute Game. I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I dug out one of those for a spin, but never mind.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Placebo (1996)

This may have been the last decent vinyl album I bought before farsighted music biz Nostradami declared the medium dead and forevermore fit only for saaad mylar-bagged trainspotters with creases ironed in their underpants. I say decent vinyl album here to mean one which played fine and which hadn't been pressed on vinyl distilled from recycled squeezy bottles - as was the case with albums I bought by both Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls which sounded like they had been mastered on a Woolworths C60 found at the bottom of an old suitcase; and there's probably some kind of poetry in there somewhere, Placebo being a cross between Nine Inch Nails and the Spice Girls, a bit.

I understand Brian Molko to be something of a tool - according to the testimony of at least one friend - and I additionally have the problem of trying hard not to recall their subsequent transformation into one of those turdy indie festival mainstays beloved of Jo Whiley and similar vessels of corporate spontaneity, particularly with that fucking abominable friend with weed single, whatever it was called; so I'm restoring my ears to an earlier setting, back to when they played Nancy Boy on Top of the Pops causing me to flounce down to the record shop and nab this before the place was converted into a branch of Iceland. I may be remembering wrongly, but mainstream rock had spent the previous couple of years turning itself back into bumfluff heavy metal but without either the tunes or the sense of humour - an endless parade of shuffling Barrys wiping their noses on their sleeves and jangling out a few vaguely baggy chords during the metalwork lesson. Rock was succumbing to testosterone poisoning and this seemed momentarily like an antidote - not only joyously faggy, but joyously faggy with a terrifying attitude problem.

Placebo's strength was in wringing something so catchy and hooky from what, on close inspection, was actually kind of self-involved and cranky, a glam post-grunge drone of oddball guitar snob chords with more than a whiff of Albini about it; and doing it without the lumberjack shirts or BO. In other words it was the contrast between hard and soft - the bruised intensity of Albini's Shellac, yet unashamedly effeminate. As an album, this one feels like some sort of emotional breakdown with tunes. It's all over the shop and yet remains beautiful and elegant from start to finish.

It was downhill from this point on, from what I heard, but it probably doesn't matter. Not many bands start off this well.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Master P - Mama's Bad Boy (1992)

I have a facebook friend called Melissa-Jane. She's one of those facebook friends you have as a facebook friend because she's your friend on facebook. She works at some kind of community yoots place in my old hood, and thus occasionally posts slightly demonstrative status updates about hanging out with da mans dem and the most bangingest dubstep producer being a fourteen-year old member of her yoots group. I'm sure she's listened to a fucking shitload of dubstep in her time, so she should know. Her other notable facebook posts have included a few house exchanges, people with names like Toby and Jemima, owners of a cottage in the Lake District very keen to swap for a few weeks if anyone has anything around the Dordogne; and some crowing over Jay-Z speaking out against overuse of the word bitch, because it's sexist to call a lady a bitch and that's bad. He's probably read my blog post, she snorted brayingly, because she had written a blog post about Jay-Z's sexist song 99 Problems. How can he say bitch, she probably asked in the blog post, when he is married to Beyoncé who is a lady and bitch is a word for lady? I say probably because I only remember the general thrust of it, most of which was qualified by Melissa-Jane explaining how she herself only listens to real rap, like that nice J-Live dude. Apparently J-Live has a significantly more respectful attitude to bitches than Jay-Z. I tried pointing out that Jay-Z nicked 99 Problems from Ice-T, but she didn't seem particularly interested; so I unfollowed her because 1) I don't really like excessively middle-class people, particularly not those who bang on about being down with the kids, 2) J-Live is rubbish, 3) no good ever came of knowing someone named Melissa-Jane, and 4) bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks.

Anyway, to get to the point, if we imagine some sort of metaphysical realness sphere - for want of a better term - the kind of thing Plato might have envisaged had he grown up around Bedford-Stuyvesant, then this Master P album would be at the exact opposite pole of our hypothetical sphere to Melissa-Jane, everything she stands for, all her treasured J-Live twelves, and everyone she's ever known or met. Mama's Bad Boy be some surprisingly ig'nant shit, and that's why it's a classic. It might of course be argued that I'm just some ageing cracker getting his anthropological jollies from things which scare middle-class people, but none of y'all bitches be sayin' that shit to my face, and Mama's Bad Boy is still a great album.

As the millionaire entrepreneur behind No Limit Records, Master P should require no introduction, but Mama's Bad Boy dates from way back when he very much did require an introduction. Musically it's a bit rough around the edges compared to later No Limit productions - your basic north California variation on the g-funk of the day - although the bass is nice and it has a warm studio feel, predating beats written inside a silicon chip and all that; but it works because that stuff still sounds great, a touch jazzy, summery with a nice low boom-bap contrasting hard against the lyrics. Master P has never been the world's greatest lyricist, but he sounded reasonably decent back in 1992, although to be fair there was less competition back then, and as always he makes up for what he lacks with personality - and of course the enduring magic of ig'nant.

It's poverty, shootings, waiting on that bubble up and the usual. Women tend to divide into those conducive to sucking a dick and those from whom one catches a venereal disease; and I'm awarding extra points for the creative retooling of We are the World:

We are the world,
We are the dealers,
We are the ones that sell crack-cocaine,
So let's start selling...

It doesn't even rhyme! That's how much of a fuck Master P doesn't give on this album. We're a long, long way from Arrested Development.

We need the ig'nant shit because sometimes life can be so crap that it's the only thing which makes any sense and which doesn't sound like bullshit; and yes, there's a certain aroma of celebration in some of the judicious beatings and shootings described here, and it's very irresponsible, and I'm sure Melissa-Jane would give Master P a piece of her mind should he wander into a certain yoots club; but if it bothers anyone, there's a heapin' helpin' of context at the end when our man - I'm guessing about eighteen years of age when he dropped this record - shouts out to everyone he knew at school who didn't live to appreciate his success, and it's one hell of a long list. So as with most ig'nant rap, yes it's funny because this is the sound of kids entertaining their friends and making them laugh; and it's funny that the term ig'nant will probably upset those who feel we should know better; and maybe it isn't Shakespeare or Chaucer or Common or Doseone or any of those boring wankers; but unfortunately it is real, at least on its own terms. Mama's Bad Boy is what happens when you cram people into run-down housing between a liquor store and a gun shop, so just be thankful that one good thing came out of it on this occasion.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Pixies - Head Carrier (2016)

'Holy shit,' I exclaimed upon finding this in the racks, having failed to anticipate that they might have had plans beyond those reunion EPs which ended up collected as Indie Cindy. 'Is this actually a proper new album?' I asked at the counter, because obviously I had to buy the thing even if it turned out to be just forty-minutes of Black Francis farting into a bucket lovingly and puzzlingly pressed up as 180gsm vinyl.

'Yes,' they both said. 'It's the new album.'

'Is it any good?'

'Yes,' said the woman.

'Have you heard the last one? I mean it was okay, but...'

'Yes. Don't worry,' she elaborated, 'this one's much better.'

It isn't that Indie Cindy was bad in any sense, but it just wasn't amazing where their first four studio albums were. It was material from a band getting back together after years apart, and it was a compilation, and for all that it had working in its favour, it very much sounded like both of those things. It was an assemblage rather than a complete self-contained entity, whereas Head Carrier really is the new album and very much feels like it.

I'm still getting used to the notion of contemporary Pixies in the year 2016, trying hard not to recall what I thought of the Rolling Stones back in the early eighties, and whilst I'm still not sure this is quite up there with Trompe Le Monde, it comes pretty fucking close, and the more I listen the better it gets. This older, wiser Pixies initially seem to lack some of the shock of their younger selves, as expressed in all those asides to violent Buñuel-esque images, but the stories told are as peculiar and distinctive as ever, like a more visceral take on the Talking Heads in their folksy Americana period. This one fixates to some extent on the martyred St. Denis of Paris, commonly depicted carrying his own severed head - hence the title - but how it all works is probably up to you. Musically we're back with that fucking massive guitar sounding darker, warmer, and less digitised than on the Indie Cindy material, and with Paz Lenchantin as a perfect fit for Kim Deal without any suggestion of karaoke; and it does what a Pixies record should do given that Black Francis originally formed the band with the stated intention of their being the greatest rock band of all time. We sort of lost sight of that on Indie Cindy, but Tenement Song and the faux-Tejano of Plaster of Paris are as powerful and chilling as any of their past greats.

They've still got it.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Fall - Reformation Post TLC (2007)

Being any member of the Fall besides the obvious one must surely be one of the worst jobs in the world, or at least the most thankless, right up there with Jimmy Savile's damage control or the man Jeremy Clarkson pays to wipe his arse for him. I gather this album was recorded with a whole new line-up following Mark E. Smith sacking the previous lot because one of them looked at him funny or summink. I just hope the pay is good.

I find the Fall fascinating, although not sufficiently fascinating to justify my having bought anything since 1988's The Frenz Experiment unless it turned up in a bargain bin, as did this one. Actually I've a few since the last record for which I paid full price, and they're mostly decent providing you don't expect another Slates or This Nation's Saving Grace or Hex Enduction Hour. To give credit where it's due, this in itself is pretty incredible considering that most bands formed in 1976 were already shit by 1981, and yet Mark E. Smith's bunch generally continue to entertain even as they put out their five-millionth album featuring the great-grandson of the original guitarist. I say generally continue to entertain without much actual certainty. The ones since this might be fucking brilliant for all I know.

Reformation Post TLC starts well with complete strangers somehow managing to sound like everybody else who was ever in the Fall, yet bringing something of their own to the table - the usual country garage racket with a bit of a krautrock feel like La Düsseldorf or one of those groups, plus some nice growly synth. When I say it starts well I mean it sounds big, beaty, a bit angular, a faint aftertaste of piss and vinegar, and not at all like the work of a band with a back catalogue stretching back three decades; but an hour of this stuff goes a long way. After two or three plays I had the impression of an amazing four-track EP - everything up to and including the surprisingly tender cover of White Line Fever - and then er...

Well, there's a couple of instrumentals and one of them lasts over ten minutes, and the keyboard player sings on The Wright Stuff, and there are a couple of songs where the lyric just seems to be the title slurred over and over, and Insult Song is probably funnier if you're actually in the Fall, and there's an ambience of Smith having gone off for a piss, or another drink, or passed out in the microphone booth, and the second half of the album feels like 1960s Doctor Who with William Hartnell conspicuously absent every two or three weeks due to poor health. Repeat plays reveal that I've somehow imagined most of this, and the later tracks sort of hold up - excepting the one he sings in a funny voice - but still Reformation Post TLC isn't what it could be. Nearly four decades on and I still can't work out if he's a genius or just some nutcase having a fight with himself at the bus shelter, but I suppose the enduring ambiguity should be taken as a good sign.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Villalobos - Alcachofa (2003)

Here's another one which sounds all new fangled and fancy to me (assuming my ear trumpet is functioning correctly) and yet which came out thirteen fucking years ago; so this review will once again feature my fifteen-year old self trying to tell everyone about the amazing way out sound of Procol Harum. Well, maybe it's not quite that. I can hardly be expected to keep track of absolutely everything, musically speaking, and I'd have to wade through one hell of a lot of shite to do so. It hardly seems worth it.

Anyway, trying to decide on my next Scientist purchase, I noticed the lad had recorded an album with some dubstep dude called Shackleton. The name intrigued me because that's also the surname of my cousin, and then YouTube suggested I have a listen to Shackleton's Blood On My Hands, so I did. The track was fucking phenomenal so I investigated further, but found most of his work a bit dull and overly reliant on the conceit of Gregorian chants as powerfully atmospheric - as opposed to just a bit obvious when heard on any record other than one with a picture of a monastery on the cover. Close inspection revealed that the fucking phenomenality of Blood On My Hands was due to it having been remixed by one Ricardo Villalobos, so then I listened to Dexter by Villalobos, which seemed similarly fucking phenomenal and here we are.

My first brush with what I understand to be minimal techno was Anton Nikkilä's Formalist which I reviewed in an issue of Sound Projector back in 1999. I didn't like it very much:

The sounds and structures suggest this has evolved from dance music, just as Rachel Whiteread's art has evolved from art which could be enjoyed by folk who aren't smart-arsed post-modern sperm swallowers. This is not the sort of techno one might describe as bangin', or indeed be tempted to have it large to. Formalist as the title suggests, is somewhat sparse, and sounds to be entirely computer generated. Most of the sounds are essentially percussive, and oddly inappropriate. The only thing that defines the weedy pencil-banged-on-the-edge-of-a-table sound as a snare is where it occurs. The bass drum sounds aren't particularly bassy. Some of the rhythms had me checking to see if the CD was skipping. It wasn't. This was how it was supposed to be. Even those tracks which don't sound like the aural equivalent to a festival of experimental animation shorts from Canada, fare only marginally better.

Leaving aside my own somewhat boorish testimony, I'm sure it really can't have been that bad. In any case, Alcachofa seems to be what Anton Nikkilä should have sounded like, possibly.

We're now deep into the territory of sound with no acoustic point of origin, or at least which has been edited beyond recognition. Some of what can be heard on this disc may have come from something once labelled snare or hi-hat, but it's hard to say for sure. The sound is roughly like something audio editing software might dream about, sonic offcuts and slivers of signals tastefully arranged, tonal qualities emphasised, with graphic EQ deployed as an instrument in its own right. The repetition is intense and focus is drawn so fiercely to certain aspects of the composition as to fool the ear into missing everything else. It sounds minimal and a little dry, but the fifth or sixth listen will nevertheless reveal tiny hitherto unnoticed details. Approximations of melody come from combinations of dubiously musical sources repeated until something takes form, ticking and clicking on and on until the organic-digital divide comes to seem meaningless.

It's bollocks, but that's the best I can do. This music genuinely defies description, or at least my description. I'm not sure I've ever heard anything so weirdly abstract carry off such a compelling impersonation of banging dance floor populism.