Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Portion Control - Simulate Sensual (1983)


Unless I dreamed it, I'm still just about able to recall that brief couple of weeks when everyone thought Portion Control were going to be the next bunch of obscure industrial weirdies to hit the big time, although admittedly were we to enter discussion of just what I mean by everyone, we could be here all fucking afternoon. I seem to recall that Raise the Pulse got played by Kid Jensen or some other mulleted evening DJ, and then suddenly Test Department were on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and we all forgot we'd ever cared about hard rhythmic electronics.

Living out in the sticks with record buying habits dictated by what I could afford with pocket money and what I brought home from my paper round, I found it fairly difficult to get hold of anything much by Portion Control for the purpose of finding out what they sounded like prior to declaring them my new favourite band that you've never heard of; but the Raise the Pulse 12" turned up in a local record shop, and it seemed to represent what Depeche Mode should have sounded like - which was good - providing an appealing contrast of shouting, machine gun drum machine, and a tinkly little keyboard riff played on a child's novelty organ most likely shaped like a table covered in moulded plastic cupcakes with a smiling teddy sat opposite. I always enjoyed the pleasingly authoritarian name suggesting nutrient slop dispensed to worker drones by means of a spigot, and the rumour that it derived from all three of them being employed in the canteen at the Houses of Parliament; but more than anything they remained mostly a great idea, at least for me. There were articles and reviews in fanzines peppered with intriguing track titles and the notion that Portion Control existed as two distinct technological entities - AMAG and VMAG, respectively Audio and Visual Media Assault Group. It's like they were from the fucking future or summink!

Inevitably, whilst not actually disappointed, I was a little underwhelmed when I finally got my mitts on product a couple of years later. I suppose I'd expected some formidably growling dystopian cybernaut resembling what Front 242 sounded like at the beginning of the nineties, but it more closely resembled a supermarket's own brand version of Cabaret Voltaire. This is the problem with the fetishisation of music technology - as was - namely that you really have to have something creative going on besides access to a synthesiser and an effects pedal, otherwise the chance is that your music will date pretty quickly, in some cases before you've even finished recording it.

The thing which strikes me about this era of Portion Control, at least as I listen to it in 2017, is that I could have done it myself without too much huffing and puffing. I recognise all of the equipment and what is done with that equipment, leaving little room for that old industrial magic - which I state mainly for the sake of contrast with the truism of everything from the allegedly industrial eighties now being declared amazing and ahead of its time as a matter of course. I Staggered Mentally was a great album, albeit a great album which sounded one fuck of a lot like Cabaret Voltaire, and rebranded as Solar Enemy they were astonishing live, but this early greatest not actually hits collection is interesting mainly as a record of its time. It's decent, but I suppose the hype was better.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Art of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? (1984)


It was the timing which sucked me in, the timing combined with the novelty of a record made from replayed samples of existing sounds, something which then remained unknown outside the Fairlight CMI being put through its paces on an episode of Tomorrow's World. Back in 1984, I was obsessed with the Italian Futurists and felt they shared some sort of rebellious impulse in common with the music I tended to like; so when this lot turned up, openly acknowledging Luigi Russolo's Art of Noises manifesto and on a label named after one of Marinetti's concrete poems, it caught my attention; and yet something didn't quite sit right. It might have been some sort of misplaced proprietorial regard of Futurism on my part - these people were cashing in on the thing which only I knew about and only I really understood and they hadn't asked my permission; but also it was irritating how Trevor Horn, when asked about Zang Tumb Tumb, said only that it was an onomatopoeic percussive sound, adding I suppose it's rather Dada.

Next they seemed to be everywhere, and so much so that I heard every single track on this album long before I bought it, which was actually a couple of years later on a wet Saturday afternoon when I couldn't really find anything else in the record shop. By that point the thing had become so ingrained that it couldn't fail to sound good, as indeed it did, and as it still does. It's sharp, funny, and stupid, and it has all sorts of things going on, and it's beautifully produced as you would expect; but I don't know if it was ever important or even particularly ground breaking, as many have since claimed.

The samples were, so I am informed, mostly presets which came with the Fairlight CMI, so most of what Art of Noise did was in the arrangement, and presumably in Horn's ability to make it all sound as lush as a Ferrero Roche advert; because at best what we have here is what Throbbing Gristle would have been were they all nicely behaved Oxbridge graduates, which is why Paul Morley made for such a good fit. The clues are all over the place, not least in sampled bass lines playing what may as well have been Rock Around the Clock and so inadvertently foreshadowing Jive Bunny; and then more recently I rediscovered a tape of the Horn promoting the first Art of Noise record on the wireless, during which he opined:

I think the truth of it is that people don't learn how to play their instruments properly nowadays. They learn how to talk to the music press. They learn how to do their hair. They learn about what to wear and what to say, but the basic physical learning of - do you know of anybody in a group nowadays who is a good guitar player? Do you know if the guitar player in Duran Duran is a particularly good guitar player? In the old days you knew who was a good player, you knew that Eric Clapton [was a good guitar player].

Seriously, grandad, fuck the fuck off. Of course, Morley and Horn were only ever involved in the most negligible sense, at least according to J.J. Jeczalik, but it seems significant that they were able to hitch their wagons to the Art of Noise in the first place without anyone noticing a disparity. Morley dismissed later Art of Noise releases as novelty records, seemingly implying that this one should be considered high art, which doesn't really work. It's great pop music, but it was never art, which, considering how Art of Noise achieved a whole shitload of musical firsts, is quite shocking; but then you might also argue that Jive Bunny did a whole load of stuff no-one had done before.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Stephen Mallinder - Pow-Wow Plus (1982)


Somehow I always had the impression that Cabaret Voltaire was mostly Richard H. Kirk, musically speaking, which on closer inspection is obviously a ridiculous idea being as it relegates Mallinder to er... eye candy, cheekbones and mumbling, I suppose. It's taken me a thoroughly embarrassing thirty-five years to catch up with this solo album, but I guess it's never too late to find oneself standing corrected. My assumption of Cabaret Voltaire being mostly Kirk is based on how much his solo Time High Fiction sounded like them; so given that Pow-Wow could similarly also have been a Cabaret Voltaire release, I guess there was a point at which the two of them were musically attuned to an uncanny degree. Pow-Wow, here reissued and slightly expanded as Pow-Wow Plus, dates from roughly the same period as Red Mecca and 2X45 and could quite easily sit between the two as part of a set, with the only incongruity being that it's largely instrumental and maybe more stripped down in some respects. The new thing for me, or at least the thing which has been obvious all along but I hadn't really thought about, is how fresh this material sounds - even thirty years later - and how little it owes to rock music, or ever really owed. I know there were a lot of young men in vests bleating on about a dance influence at the time, but this really does owe most of its moves to the weirder reaches of black music, funk, soul, jazz, dub reggae, even bits of Parliament; furthermore, as with most of the music with which Mallinder has been involved, there's nothing demonstrative here, neither Bobby Gillespie wearing his influences on his sleeve nor Porridge jumping up and down yelling look at me, just a laid back groove quietly doing its thing without feeling the need to tick any of the traditional crappy industrial music boxes. I know Cabaret Voltaire are not without a degree of acclaim, but still I feel they remain underrated when you engage with just how good some of their music was.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Devo - Something For Everybody (2010)


I've always found the idea that anybody could have a single all-time favourite music artist a little weird, but if pressed I'd have to say mine were Devo in so much as that whilst there have been months, perhaps even years, without them being much of a presence in my headphones, there has never been a time when I've stuck on a Devo record and found I wasn't really in the mood for it. Setting aside a pre-pubescent fixation with the Beatles, Devo were probably the first group I really got into as a teenager, and got into with sufficient fervour as to get me buying the records. They scared the living shit out of me when I first heard that debut album, a red vinyl copy lent to me by my best friend Graham, but once I got past my suspicion of this music as something weird, unwholesome and mutated - which of course it was - I was hooked, and apparently for life.

A couple of years later I was hanging out with a former Cravat and we were talking about Crass, of whom we were both fans. Ideally, we concluded, Crass should make records which sounded like the Human League or Roxy Music by which to smuggle their message into the hit parade and reach people who might genuinely benefit from their perspective on society; at which point of the conversation I realised it had already happened, and that's what Devo were. Of course, whilst Devo may not actually have much to say about anarcho-syndicalism, like Crass, they've never been shy in pointing out everything which is wrong with our society and our forever needing daddy to tell us what to do. The main difference is that you can dance to the Devo version because it's fundamentally stupid and fun, and even though it was born from Gerald Casale's outrage at witnessing cops shooting kids at Kent State, musically it's the Monster Mash as envisioned for a future designed by John Waters and Hugo Gernsback; and it's like this because it's a satire on culture, not something removed from it and living by its own laws in Epping Forest - which isn't a criticism of Crass, by the way, simply an acknowledgement of different strategies.

Something For Everybody will probably remain the final new Devo album given the passing of a Bob, and a couple of those left behind supposedly no longer on the greatest of terms. Continuing Devo's taking the piss out of society, the music industry, and themselves, the album was supposedly written by focus group in response to questionnaires asking what consumers would like to hear from Devo. I remember filling in one online, and that's supposedly why we have the blue energy dome on the cover, as opposed to any other hue of headgear. We also got to pick which tracks made it onto this album which, tellingly, makes for much better listening than the collection of rejects and leftovers which was later issued as Something Else For Everybody. I say much better listening, but what I actually probably mean to say is that this is an unequivocally perfect album, illustrating as it does why there can never be a musical institution greater than Devo.

Yes, I know, and I don't care. There are people who don't get Devo. I've met them on internet forums sniggering about how Devo is like totally gay LOL before returning to the thread discussing which Judas Priest albums rocked the hardest, which sort of proves that Devo were right about a few things.

With Devo, each song is a puzzle in so much as that there is either a directly progressive message, or one otherwise implicit in the form, and it's usually communicated in terms which combine the novelty of the Archies with the mind-expanding strangeness of the Residents; and unscrambling that puzzle, you arrive at a place wherein it becomes impossible to sustain ridiculous devolved ideas, or so my theory goes. What this means, or what I think it means, is that if you get Devo, then you're probably doing something right; and you've probably never stood outside Planned Parenthood wearing an NRA t-shirt and holding up a crucifix; and you almost certainly didn't vote for the Annoying Orange. The music of Devo improves our world by making us better people, and if you need proof - next time you get your heart broken, eschew the usual soundtrack of miserable fuckers in favour of almost anything by Devo. I promise, you'll notice the difference in a very short time.

So yes, this will most likely be the final Devo album, which is a shame but - Lord - what a finale! Musically it's almost a summary of their entire career - the sharp, irresistible pop of Freedom of Choice, the synthetic grandeur of Shout, and the faintly disturbing mutant novelty of their weird primal phase - Fountain of Filth, Buttered Beauties and the rest, not even omitting the occasional Popeye-style ethnic caricature switched on its head as happens with Cameo. Something For Everybody rocks hard and dresses like the Jetsons whilst still managing to squeeze out a tear of more genuine feeling than anything Sting ever did in a rain forest.

In the bigger scheme of things
We haven't been around here more than a moment.
And yet too many, it seems,
Believe we are creating a brand new world around us.
We are creating a brand new world without us.
Maybe it really is okay.
Although we're digging our own graves,
At this moment.

I could write about how no-one really took them seriously because they were scared of the truth about de-evolution, namely that it was never a marketing gimmick like Adam Ant pretending to be a pirate or whatever; but some of us did take them seriously, and I guess we've been proven right because we're now living in the world described in Don't Shoot (I'm a Man).

This might be our very last chance. Let's not fuck it up.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Sylvie & Babs - The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion (1985)




Yes, I'm well aware of it being Nurse With Wound, thank you very much, but I'm pretty sure it was listed as above when released, the reason being that Steve Stapleton regarded the Hi-Fi Companion as something quite separate and distinct from the Nurse With Wound canon, which it sort of is, or at least was. So I'm sticking with the original version of the story, plus I seem to recall the United Dairies mail order list had this down as something other than Nurse With Wound, and listed under comedy for what it may be worth - along with Hastings of Malawi, whatever the hell that was.

Of course, it's now difficult to get through a whole day without having to hear some cunt's aspirationally humorous plunderphonic deconstruction of existing bits of music, but back in 1985, 'twas not yet so overegged a pudding as it has become, and possibly because no-one had a sampler so it was harder. Sylvie & Babs were principally Stapleton and the gang making music with bits of other people's records, and - so I gather - making it the extraordinarily complicated way by splicing together inch thick strips of studio tape and so on in the spirit of Pierre Schaeffer and those guys as opposed to just sitting next to the radio with one finger on the pause button and then selling the end result to people with a photocopy of your knob on the cover like Hamilton Bohannon* would have done.

To start again at the beginning, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as industrial, then you're a fucking clown; you wear big red shoes; you have a bowler hat on your head with a giant flower coming out of it; and when you drive your car, you honk the horn twice every few yards and the doors have usually fallen off by the time you reach your destination, which will almost certainly be a clown shop which you're visiting in order to make purchase of clown supplies. This description also applies, albeit to a lesser extent, if you've ever described Nurse With Wound as a noise group or - ugh - sound artists; although Nurse With Wound are very much about sound and the psychological and physiological effects it can have on the listener: so it's definitely music, but works more like a sonic analogy of the art of Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and other Dadaist types than does music with tunes, verses, a chorus, or which is made using musical instruments. The next sound you hear on a Nurse With Wound record may often be the last sound you would expect to hear depending on whatever has gone before, which distinguishes them from those acts more obviously reliant on repetition. It can be hard work listening to Nurse With Wound, but also very rewarding because it's never quite like anything you will have heard before, possibly including previous Nurse With Wound albums. They're not something you can listen to all the time, but every so often, you'll find there's nothing better if the time is right.

Well, that's the theory anyway, and I haven't actually heard the last five-hundred or so records so for all I know he may be cranking out handbag house with Nick Griffin these days, but for the sake of argument, let's just pretend it's still 1985 and that I'm right. I failed to buy this at the time because there was other stuff I wanted, and Nurse With Wound were an acquired taste even by my standards; also, it wasn't that easy to get hold of their stuff. I had Insect & Individual Silenced, which was fucking great, but apparently not so great as to keep me from flogging it when I decided I really needed those first two albums by You've Got Foetus On Your Breath. Millions of years later, I find this on CD and notice that I actually know three of the people who appeared on here amongst the lengthy list of collaborators, which is weird. In fact, I've been in bands with two of them; and one of them was Andrew Cox who was my bestest buddy for a while, and who is no longer with us, and who I still miss like crazy; so I couldn't really not buy it.

I suspect all those bargain basement cassette versions of Nurse With Wound have spoiled the real thing for me over the years, because in 2017 Sylvie & Babs sound drearily familiar rather than weird and surprising, at least on first listen. The key seems to be getting past the point of trainspotting where it all came from - snatches of My Boomerang Won't Come Back and the like, which seem intrusive whilst they remain familiar, although maybe that was the point. After a few spins, it picks up - which again is the opposite of what I expect to get from a Nurse With Wound record given how they seem so often reliant on shock and surprise; but this eventually settles into a sort of musicality suggestive of narrative which is almost certainly in the ear of the beholder. I suppose this could be what differentiates Sylvie & Babs from Nurse With Wound - unless it's just my lugholes - namely that increasing familiarity with the material brings some sort of pleasure, just like you get from Sting and Coldplay, beyond which, one is drawn to focus on the bizarre acoustics at play. That made sense in my head when I thought it.

The Sylvie & Babs Hi-Fi Companion is decent, and it's nice to hear Andrew's voice again - repeating the phrase it ain't necessarily so, in case anyone was wondering - but it isn't startling, and more than anything it makes me wish I'd found some other means of financing my purchase of those early Foetus discs. Time to get looking for another copy of Insect & Individual Silenced, I suppose.

*: Name changed so as to protect the annoying.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Limp Bizkit - Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water (2000)


Outside of this album, I find it really difficult to get past the off-putting impression of Limp Bizkit as having been a bunch of jocks - essentially what happens when members of the football team start writing poetry because someone told them it was a great way to up one's pussy-getting average. I also have Three Dollar Bill, Y'all$, their debut album, and I've tried to listen to the thing but it only seems to reinforce the aforementioned off-putting impression of dudes emptying cans of beer over their own heads whilst bellowing awesome! Maybe I need to give it a few more spins. I don't know.

So what's different here? Why does this one sound so good?

I wasn't going to buy the thing. I looked at their pictures in Melody Maker and understood them to be nu-metal - which sounded like a pile of wank to me, sort of like metal apologising for itself. I'd encountered Slipknot fans in Southend-on-Sea with their ludicrous black flares and eyeliner, the most harshly commodified rebellion I had ever seen - boutique punk rock at its most comical. I wasn't going to buy the thing, but I was curious at DMX apparently having turned up on one track, and there was some sort of poorly defined association with Eminem; and then my girlfriend's little sister gave me a freebie because she was working at the record company.

I've never quite taken the view of rap metal being inherently worthless - although most of it clearly is - or that white guys can't rap, but Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water falters on both counts and the strength of the album is paradoxically that it works because of that. It isn't that Fred Durst couldn't rap, but he was never anything amazing in that department, and this whole thing would have sounded fucking ridiculous as a rap record with samples or whatever replacing the guitars. Durst's rhymes are mostly average and with that whiny upper register delivery he sounds like an eight-year old kid who just had his gameboy taken away from him, which itself accentuates the absurdity of all the homeboy schtick about Limp Bizkit being in da house and picking a fight with Trent Reznor for some innocuous comment or other; and it's because what is basically an American Walter the Softy crying into his ruined homework contrasts so starkly with the crushing riffs that we get a sound much greater than the sum of its parts. The beats are hard with a deep pensive bass and Wes Borland's guitar alternating between sharply gated walls of fuzz and something sounding surprisingly close to U2 without the bluster; all of which is pulled together as would be a hip-hop production yet without the end result sounding even like it's considered the possibility of calling itself rap. A few tweaks here and there and it could have turned out like one of those horrible whiny teenpunk bands, Green Day or Sum 41 or whatever, but the big difference is how that stuff parades its angst as a selling point, whilst all Durst's dirty laundry sounds so awkward and horribly personal - and with a bizarre mix of bragging and self-recrimination - it comes closer to the vengeful shit muttered under your breath when you're absolutely certain of no-one else being able to hear you. So despite everything, it's pretty intense stuff, like the volcanically impotent rage of the bullied kid who half feels that his muscular nemesis might even be right about some of that stuff. I should probably also point out that Durst sports a half-decent moody rock croon when he's actually singing.

That's why it works for me, and because the music is great.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Bernadette Cremin & Paul Mex - Guilty Fist (2015)


Just to get the customary objections out in the open, whilst it isn't strictly true that I hate poetry, I probably hate enough of it to render the assertion more or less accurate; although, to break it down a little further, the specific sort of thing which brings me out in hives is poetry which knows that it is poetry and which introduces itself as such with either a wry Stilgoe-esque smirk or the sort of studied glacial nonchalance that can only be perfected by many hours spent gazing either into a mirror or up its own bumhole. It's the teenager who has somehow managed to have seen it all before and who understands just how shocking his words must seem to the audience at the - ugh - poetry slam, enunciating cock like the word might be new to us. It's my former housemate Steve poeting about how fucking her is like escaping from a drowning helicopter, when we all know he never even got close, and that the unlucky lady in question had more sense than to let that passive-aggressive little misanthrope anywhere near her ha'penny.

On the other hand, I very much like Charles Bukowski, Billy Childish, Bill Lewis and others whose work I tend to think of just as writing, because that's what it is. So my criteria seems to rest upon how much the work is involved in the mythology of its own self-importance. In other words I like writing which just gets on with the communication without having to tell us what form it's going to take; and getting at last to the point, the writing of Bernadette Cremin, whoever she may be, very much belongs in this second category.

On the face of it, Guilty Fist is someone reading poetry to the accompaniment of suitably atmospheric music, except it's nothing so mannered as the description might suggest. Bernadette Cremin speaks her own words with the sort of gravity which demands you stop whatever you're doing and pay attention, and her testimony is spot on - clear and straight to the heart of the matter with chilling precision, neither showboating anything too ostentatiously shocking nor necessarily reducing everything to its lowest common denominator. She gets the balance exactly right, perfectly blending the narrative with the mood of the music, dispelling the suggestion of either being mere accompaniment; and this syncretism is further achieved when she slips into song and turns out to have a pretty decent bluesy voice.

Her subject matter seems to be highly personal and quite intense, so listening is a profoundly psychological experience. The music, mostly arranged by Mex, takes a downtempo direction with bluesy, jazzy, even occasionally pseudo-classical inflections. I'd say it reminds me a little of Portishead, except I never really liked them that much, and this is better. At times I'm reminded of In the Nursery when they were slapping marble columns on the covers of their records and pretending to be French, or maybe even Cranes, if anyone remembers them. Certainly there's a gothic element, gothic as in reading Mary Shelley with a glass of whine rather than dressing up like Nosferatu. Anyway, whatever it is, it's very powerful.

Treat yo'self!