Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Steroid Maximus - ¡Quilombo! (1990)

I was quite excited all those centuries ago when I first heard that Thirlwell had a new band called Steroid Maximus, because that was how it was described in whatever rag I was reading - a new band suggesting something streamlined and punky with some guy on bass and maybe a drummer. It was a bit of a disappointment when the new band turned out to be just another secret identity, albeit one making no direct reference to the Foetus brand. I'd been excited because said Foetus brand had begun to sound a little fat and bloated at that point, basically a man growling about doing you up the bum whilst drinking moonshine to the sound of a million heavy metal guitars. Thaw had been a massive disappointment and the psychotic badass schtick was looking a bit saggy around the ballbag.

¡Quilombo! at least suggested some returning interest in a varied musical palate on Thirlwell's part, but I couldn't work out why it needed to be its own thing. Wasn't it just Foetus instrumentals, maybe things for which he'd never worked out a vocal? Maybe it was his classical incarnation, although that doesn't really work when you look too close. Only the worst kind of arsehole technophile believes you can sample a bunch of orchestras and make your own classical music. Perhaps, for want of a better term, Steroid Maximus was his soundtrack work; or maybe this stuff had always been intended as instrumental, and the notion of putting out a largely instrumental Foetus record went against the grain, for whatever reason. Maybe the world would explode were there ever to be a Foetus album with a title of more than four letters.

Then again, there's nothing actually wrong with this guy's purely instrumental work, and Lilith from Sink - for one example - is one of the greatest pieces of music he's ever recorded; so with this in mind I listened and let the thing settle, let it build up some familiarity. A couple of decades later, my initial reservations seem crazy. Taken as a piece rather than just a collection of unfinished instrumentals - which I suspect it never was - ¡Quilombo! alludes to exotica, easy listening and big band. It's all quite obviously built up from samples, although has been done with real skill and so avoids any distracting attention drawn to the methods of its own composition. Essentially it's a Foetus record made using just mood and atmosphere to invoke the customary unease, a record which seems to deliberately avoid stating the obvious in musical terms - hence the absence of scowling heavy metal guitars. One of these almost sounds like a sea shanty, for fuck's sake!

Actually, a couple of decades later, and taking into account that nearly everything about the record is wonderful - not even just the cover art, but the quality of the printing of the cover art - and ¡Quilombo! feels like a masterpiece in its brevity, its singularity of vision, and all of the peculiar musical hoops through which it jumps in pursuit of that singularity. It's Thirlwell stretching out and enjoying himself again after a tough couple of years, mixing himself a cocktail, still keeping it kind of dark and unsettling, but doing it in style.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Sleaford Mods - English Tapas (2017)

I'm a bit surprised how long it's taken me to acclimate to this one, and my initial feelings were mixed. I wanted it to be amazing but had a feeling that it wasn't, but after a couple of months I've realised I'm probably just over-thinking it. English Tapas is the first Sleaford Mods CD which didn't immediately superglue itself into the player and stay there for at least a month, and for all that it maintains the standard of workmanship to which we've become accustomed, there's nothing which quite leaps out of the speakers and smacks you in the face like Jolly Fucker, PPO Kissin' Behinds, or even TCR.

Still, they're neither of them getting any younger, and they've a few albums under their belts now, and you have to wonder how much more mileage they can get out of the existing set up, Bontempi drum machine, two notes for a bassline, and Jason Williamson telling us about the worst job he ever had. I suspect the lads have themselves similarly pondered this question, and part of the answer may be why English Tapas isn't simply a retread of Austerity Dogs and the rest. The differences are subtle, and nothing so obvious or misjudged as the introduction of either ballads or guitar solos, but the differences are there.

The music, while staying true to a certain vision, seems more considered somehow, not polished, because those rough edges are still at least half of the point, but more considered and more directed, less arbitrary - if that makes any sense whatsoever. There's an added complexity, even if it isn't directly expressed as the usual technowank which might be implied by that description; and at times it borders on minimal techno - at least on BHS - which I knowledgably state as the proud owner of a single minimal techno CD. Also, Williamson's voice has turned distinctly musical in places, maybe not quite singing lessons musical, but you can tell he's making an effort, trying to keep things interesting, trying to move it forward; and lyrically, there may be less obviously quotable post-modern zingers, but no-one could possibly accuse the boy of mellowing - which is surely the main reason for listening to Sleaford Mods.

English Tapas seems to be a first for this lot in so much as that it's a grower rather than an album which burps in your face with quite the same vigour as the others, but times have changed, and the Sleaford Mods now somehow play headline gigs at Wembley stadium, so it would be stranger if this were just a straight retread of the stuff we already know. They may now be huge, and maybe they hang out with Leo Sayer and Jordan, but this one at least suggests it's going to be a long time before they get flabby.

I'd love to know who they're taking the piss out of during the introduction to Just Like We Do, by the way - if it's anyone specific. My money's on Edwin Pouncey.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Hula - Threshold (1987)

Sounds like Nine Inch Nails, suggested the handwritten sticker hopefully as I picked this from the bin at a record fair, specifically a record fair in Texas which, as you will notice if you consult a map, is quite a distance from Sheffield. It doesn't sound like Nine Inch Nails, but I suppose it sounds more like Nine Inch Nails than it sounds like George Strait, so whatever.

Hula somehow passed me by, although I always had at least a little curiosity given the presence of the bloke who bashed the skins on all those Cabaret Voltaire records. I saw Hula albums in the racks, but there was always something else I wanted more. Online wisdom seems to suggest that they were amazing live but the albums were weird and disappointing, although some of the singles were pretty good; and happily it turns out that Threshold is a singles compilation.

Hula sound roughly like I expected them to, being very much of their time and place, namely Sheffield during the second half of the eighties. There's the drum machine - a Yamaha RX15 I'd guess - pounding out its cold climate equivalent of a b-boy rhythm; and there's the slap bass, horn stabs, flat tops and crew cuts, sweaty young men grunting and frowning in those vests everyone used to wear. You can almost see the video as you listen, somewhere dark with chains hanging down, maybe some sparks flying and a whole lot of funky grimacing. It's the most eighties thing I've heard since the eighties, except even as I formulate the thought, I realise how unfair it is. Hula only sound so firmly cemented into their era because of the distance between now and then, and how record production has changed, not even necessarily for the better; and it doesn't even make sense when you consider that what replaced this sound was mostly jangly arseholes trying to recreate the sixties.

So I gave Threshold a few more spins than I might usually have done, mainly just to reacquaint myself with what all those college discos I always fucking hated used to sound like in between the obligatory bursts of James Brown and Smalltown Boy. It takes some doing, but it's worth it. Once you're past all the reverb on the snare and those congas pinging away in the left channel, distinguishing features begin to emerge - and lest we either forget or hadn't realised in the first place, Hula incorporated members of Clock DVA, the Box, and Chakk, so it's not unreasonable to expect at least some distinguishing features. Twenty or thirty spins down the line and it still sounds like a cross between at least two of the marginally more famous bands already invoked, and yet somehow they get away with it by virtue of just how hard those boys were straining and sweating at their instruments, and they get away with it because there's something brooding, genuinely soulful, and even jazzy buried beneath the pounding rhythms, particularly with Get the Habit and Black Wall Blue.

I'd say there used to be a lot of music which sounded like this, but it's an illusion of memory and not entirely true, because most of those cooking to this recipe usually sounded like Pop Will Eat Itself and were thus a complete waste of everyone's time. Hula were one of the few acts who got it right. Thirty years later, this still holds surprises.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Swans - White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

My first encounter with the Swans was hearing Time is Money on Peel, a track with which I became briefly obsessed. It suggested a New York version of Test Dept channelling Whitehouse, an impression which I guess might be considered fairly perceptive given Michael Gira citing the influence of Whitehouse in one of the music papers a little later. Naturally I owned everything I'd been able to find within the space of another month - Filth, Greed, Cop and a stack of twelves. I'd initially experienced some shock at just how slow that material was after the moderately jaunty Time is Money, but I got over it and played those records to death, fascinated by how such a racket could ingrain itself in my mind's ear so profoundly. Of course, it was more than just the noise. It was also the atmosphere, dark and genuinely unsettling without any of the usual pantomime by which music artists tend to summon a bad vibe. I'd been horrified by Whitehouse the first time I heard them, but the Swans seemed to go much further, much deeper, inverting William Bennett's psychotic abuse as something more reflective, closer to self-harm.

Then came Children of God which wasn't actually very good, so poor in fact, that ownership of the related Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" single - another one of those Joy Division covers which improves on the original - means there's no point owning the album given that Our Love Lies is on the b-side, that being the only decent track.

So that was the point at which I drifted away. I didn't hear anything about The Burning World or White Light which made me want to listen to them. They're very good, I was told a couple of times, but I'd already lost interest. The hypothetical Swans record full of jangly songs sounded like it would be about as much use as a one-legged man at an arse kicking competition; and yet, there I was in Rough Trade in Covent Garden in 1992, and I hadn't bought a record for a while, and the only thing which seemed worth a tickle was Love of Life, and how bad could it be? Curiosity got the better of me.

I got home, slapped it on the Dansette, and was startled to find that the Swans had turned into Big Country while I'd been looking the other way. It sounded nothing like their previous work, and yet had the same grinding quality, the same pensive intensity combined with an unfamiliar, more positive current, like golden rays of sunshine giving contrast to the shadows 'n' shit. I loved it immediately, and then bought nothing further because everyone had stopped making records - or vinyls as tosspots call them these days. Ed Pinsent slipped me a copy of the Swans Are Dead double CD when someone sent it to the Sound Projector for review, but it was clear that something had gone wrong. Swans had devolved to a slow jangly mess, the sleigh bell heavy soundtrack to one of those BBC Christmas idents with kids dressed as snowmen ice-skating around a giant Christmas pudding shaped like the number two, except in this case with the addition of John Kerry reading a speech about disappointment. I still dig out Swans Are Dead from time to time, and it continues to leave me unmoved.

Eventually it occurred to me that maybe I'd missed out with The Burning World and White Light, given that Love of Life had become one of my favourite records of all time. I found The Burning World on Discogs, which happily coincided with a vinyl reissue of this one; because I have all of the others on vinyl so that's how I'd like to keep it, if it's all the same to you.

The Burning World came as a shock, roughly being the Swans as the Dubliners doing songs with choruses and everything, and even that cheeky cover of Nice Legs, Shame About the Face. It's not amazing, but it pisses all over Children of God, and Can't Find My Way Home is pretty powerful.

Oddly, considering how it forms the jam in a sandwich of two distinctly song-orientated albums, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity somehow sounds like the intermediary stage between Children of God and The Burning World.

It's okay. I'll get to the point soon. I'm even starting to bore myself.

Technically speaking, I've waited twenty-one years to hear this record, and most of that time has been characterised by people telling me how much I've missed out; but then I'm referring to Swans fans here, and the worst aspect of anything will always be its stupid fucking fans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this band seem to have attracted an unusually joyless bunch of pillocks with not a chuckle muscle to share betwixt the entire sorry bunch. I'm sure you will have encountered one or two as they wend their wanky way to some yawnsome retrospective at the Barbican, fresh from sitting alone and frowning in an empty room whilst clutching a single rose. Did you see that piece on Derek Bailey in The Wire last month?

No, I fucking didnae.

Anyway, I play White Light from the Mouth of Infinity over and over and, month after month, it just won't stop sounding like the long, slow BBC jingle of an unusually depressing Christmas.

Love Will Save You eventually begins to resemble something half decent, suggesting the old Swans magic I remember, and Failure is okay, and some of the others seem all right; but contrast this with the direct celestial communication from God himself which was Love of Life, and it turns out that this was just another one of those intermediary records all along.

So now I know.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Public Image Ltd. - This is PIL (2012)

I picked this up when it came out, having considered myself a fan of this particular extension of Lydon's clever strategy of refusing to play the showbiz game by playing the showbiz game, thereby subverting the oh so predictable expectation of him refusing to play the showbiz game by not playing the showbiz game. It came out in 2012, and yet this is probably the second or third time I've played the thing, and only now do I understand why that should be.

It's because it's just not much good.

Over the years, I've extended the benefit of my doubt to such a distance that it now reaches out past Lydon himself, off into space, only tailing off somewhere beyond Pluto. All that crap way, way back in the day about being a limited company rather than a band didn't seem such a big deal because I was a teenager at the time and thus easily impressed. Then came PIL the wilfully awful cabaret act, and PIL the stadium rock band, both of which were forgiveable because of genuinely great albums, maybe even the best of Lydon's career - at least in my view. The Sex Pistols reunion seemed a natural if slightly sarcastic progression, and then there was I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and the butter advert, and still I remained untroubled by a man who had made his living from acting like a cock once again acting like a cock. It was funny, if anything; but as for Lydon the Trumpanzee, the man who admires Nigel Farage because Nigel Farage told Bob Geldof to get a haircut and it's such a wheeze when someone upsets a Leftie do-gooder - as for the Lydon who subverts our oh so predictable expectations of him not being a clueless reactionary tosspot by being a clueless reactionary tosspot: I can't get behind that.

Now he just sounds like a chimp jumping up and down, doing the trademarked popeyed leer and screeching look at me! Maybe he always sounded that way. It's become impossible to ignore that he never really had that much going on beyond two jokes and a funny story, an endearing ability to piss people off - usually those who deserved it - and the good fortune to end up in bands with Steve Jones, Jah Wobble, Keith Levene or John McGeoch. This time he's been lucky enough to end up in a band with Lu Edmonds, the drummer from the Pop Group, and a bloke who used to play bass for the Spice Girls; and truthfully, they get a decent groove going between them, something which sounds tantalisingly close to those Metal Box years, at least in spirit; but it's ruined as soon as Lydon opens his gob to wail the usual variation on yes, it's me, my name is John, and I'm here to defy your oh so predictable expectations, I rather think you'll find... Had he been mixed at about the level of an interestingly spooky sound effect - which I suppose is his strength, it could be argued - it might have worked, but no - he's here, he's loud, he's in your face as bloody usual, the man who makes fucking Porridge seem like a self-effacing model of restraint and nuance.

This could have been a great album, but it isn't.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Michael Jackson - Off the Wall (1979)

What the hell is he doing with his trousers?

No-one is more surprised than I am. There was some documentary about the making of this album on the television, and I'd been eating steak and beans and had thus become too fat to reach the remote, and as I watched I realised that I've always liked Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough and Off the Wall even if I'm only now able to admit it to myself. Punk rock is probably to blame. Whilst it felt great - even liberating - to at last be able to say actually, I think Gentle Giant are shit, we threw a whole lot of babies out with that bathwater back in the days of our Cromwellian haste to reduce our chosen grooves to just the good stuff - which was mainly the Damned, obviously. Unfortunately, as often happens with primarily honkeycentric musical subcultures, there was a certain unspoken resistance to some aspects of black culture which make for uncomfortable viewing with hindsight - not quite the full-on xenophobia of disco sucks, but something in that direction, as demonstrated in the punk preference for those realms of black culture most closely resembling itself - reggae and sound systems rather than that gay stuff which was always on the radio, beloved of casuals, soul boys, squares, and other unenlightened wage-slave losers who'd probably never even heard of Mark Perry.

Of course, you don't seem to hear much Jonathan King on the wireless these days, and it can be similarly difficult getting past what Michael Jackson became - some creepy white dude with the emotional development of an eight-year old; but it's a testament to the quality of his music, at least his decent music, that it still sounds great, a wonderful piece of what was, rather than simply the formative efforts of a man with an illegal hobby. So, relegating the beastliness to the dying days, the deeds of a complete fuck-up who regrettably no longer mattered in any meaningful sense, truly a victim of his own success, let's go back to when Michael was just a young black dude with a great voice and anatomically improbable moves.

Off the Wall is still hailed as a classic, despite everything; and it's a classic providing you skip past Girlfriend and She's Out of My Life - awful balladic landfill of the kind which continues to blight many an R&B album. I don't know why they do it. Maybe some producer suggests a couple of ballads shoved in there. Let's have a couple of softer numbers, he suggests in my imagination, otherwise everyone's going to dismiss our masterpiece as just another disco record, and no-one will take it seriously.

Girlfriend was written by Paul McCartney, and you can really tell. It probably would have sounded okay in 1964 with all the moptop woooh and yeeeah embellishments, but in 1979 on Off the Wall, it wasn't even as good as the Wings version, if you can imagine that; and She's Out of My Life is one of those sappy songs turded out by some balding New Yorker with a piano who also wrote hits for other major stars you couldn't pay me to listen to.

Continuing on the negative tip, Off the Wall kind of sags towards the end, even without the two stinkers. Whilst the last few tracks are decent, it feels almost as though they could just as easily have been above average b-sides, and this is partially the fault of the album opening with such amazing material. Of course it was just disco music, but Jesus - with hindsight it all sounds so live and sharp and tight as fuck, with only a synth bass having derived from any button pushing. You already know how the strings sound, and the horn section, because you've heard Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough a million times; as have I, and yet direct off the record it may as well be the first time - it's that fresh. It sounds so and new and positive that it has me all hopeful as I look forward to the advent of the Sinclair ZX81. I doubt any of them would have admitted it, but this was what all those white guys in German vests with trumpets desperately wanted to sound like.

It isn't a classic, but it sort of is if you squint a bit and we pretend there are only eight tracks on the record rather than ten. Also, it's nice to recall that Jackson's once legendary status was not entirely unjustified, and so it's probably better to remember him as he was than as he became.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Enhänta Bödlar - Akustisk Böldpest (2007)

Of all the noisy industrial weirdies who ever vanished into obscurity never to be heard from again, Enhänta Bödlar were always at the very top of my comeback wishlist, one of the few acts of whom it could be said with absolute sincerity that just one album and a few tapes really weren't enough. I've held this opinion since they dropped off the radar in about 1985, or at least since they dropped off my radar. I almost had to beg Uddah-Buddah to send me a copy of the first album, Ogreish Guttural Wounds. I was under the impression that he hadn't been particularly pleased with it, and he mentioned something about plans to bury what copies remained out in the forest somewhere. I also gather that it was around this time that he fell out with Roger Karlsson, the other half of Enhänta Bödlar who went on to achieve arguably greater notoriety with Brighter Death Now. Ogreish Guttural Wounds had a fairly crappy home made sleeve - photocopies glued onto the cover of something picked up at a charity shop, and it really was a fucking weird record - mostly chainsaw synth riffs spun from the arpeggiator of a Roland SH101, with Uddah-Buddah delivering what we may as well call sermons over the top. It was very basic and very dry with hardly any effects, but it was like nothing I'd heard before or have heard since. It sounded slightly insane, darkly surreal, brutal in an almost medieval sense, and yet somehow funny - all at the same time. The closest analogy I can think of is that Enhänta Bödlar were at an equivalent tangent to their peers as were the Bonzos in their day. Accordingly I nearly quacked my pants with excitement when I looked on Discogs and saw that I'd missed the memo about this comeback album.

The first major difference, aside from a fancy sleeve, is that it's completely different. Where Ogreish Guttural Wounds was all conveniently in English, most likely as a concession to the anticipated audience, Google translate cautiously identifies this one as a mixture of Swedish, Danish, and Afrikaans. Happily my friend Marianne Mandøe Berlev was on hand to fill in a few blanks regarding the track titles:

Acoustic Boils Plague, Amputate More, Cruel Pilgrims, Talium Tabernacle, Catacomb War, Torture is Freedom, The Edge of the Middle Ages... can't decipher the last one. It's slang, something about court jesters...

The music is likewise very different - at least in sound, possibly not in spirit if the titles are any indication - benefiting from production values and enough of a budget to justify release in an ostentatiously numbered edition. My first thought was, blimey - it sounds like Red Mecca, mainly thanks to whatever they did to the drum machine; but this impression is lost by the second play. Musically it's rhythmic, albeit occasionally double-jointed mutant rhythms with a dose of rickets, electronic, and er...

As with Ogreish Guttural Wounds, it's really not quite like anything else that springs to mind. Some of it sounds like mains hum copied and pasted across a laptop screen, or Saturday Night Fever remade either in hell or by Daleks, because there's a peculiar sort of nightmare disco element to some of these tracks, something almost glam rock, Heironymous Bosch atrocities with a glitter ball. There's a lyric sheet, of which I can follow just enough to appreciate that it's probably not the Beach Boys, lyrically speaking, and of course there's the skull with a big fucking hole in it; and then we have the typographic swastika and a Horten Ho 229 Nazi delta-wing on the cover, but I'm not getting into that fucking argument again.

Language barrier and musical evolution aside, I get very much the same vibe off this one as I did its predecessor. In terms of pretty much everything, Enhänta Bödlar made all those other supposed industrial noise chancers sound like wankers. This is a genuinely amazing album. If you walk past this to get to yet another Throbbing Gristle live reissue, you're an idiot.