Thursday, 30 January 2014

Frontline Assembly - Hard Wired (1995)

I shouldn't really like Frontline Assembly, and yet I find them difficult to resist. They seem at times like just one of a million bands who watched Blade Runner and then tried to pass themselves off as a strategic futuristic entertainment delivery unit, as opposed to a bunch of blokes stood around frowning at a drum machine. I first heard them when Gary Levermore of Third Mind Records bunged me some freebies because I'd painted some of his record covers and he's a generous sort of bloke. Amongst said freebies was Disorder which was nice enough, but did sound a lot like an angrier version of mid-eighties Cabaret Voltaire - a ton of sequencers with added mysterious whispering. A few years later, Gary blessed me with copies of Caustic Grip and the Virus twelve-inch single, which were at least good enough to compensate for the unfortunate fact of my somehow having managed to quack my pants on the bus as I went over to visit him in Hackney - must have had a bad pint. Anyway, here I am with Hard Wired, the next album on from the stuff with which I am familiar and now, weirdly, of nearly two decades vintage.

One of the many things that irritates me about that which willingly terms itself industrial is the unspoken suggestion of boldly exploring new musical territory in contrast with how balls-achingly generic much of it turns out to be. In a past life I somehow ended up in a pub in Deptford with one of the less interesting members of Konstruktivists and that bloke from Lustmord. I sat listening as they discussed footage of tanks and missiles recently taped off the box for future use as visual material, comparing notes like a couple of stamp collectors. It was kind of depressing to experience such confirmation that all the industrial blathering on about mind control and conditioning was essentially just window dressing and of no greater import than goths pinning plastic bats to their clothes.

Frontline Assembly might appear to epitomise this tendency - all self-consciously darkly sciency song titles like Neologic Spasm, Barcode, or Transparent Species, and even the cover of this one is by comic artist Dave McKean, the absolute master of style over substance. The music itself is unusually formulaic even by the standards of the genre, almost every track being four or five minutes of the same pounding beat, overly busy sequencers, and some guy growling in the background, two out of every three songs punctuated with roughly the same three note minor chord chorus and a few distorted words.

Dying sensation.

You see what the artist is trying to say here? Me neither, but it probably doesn't matter. The message is perhaps intentionally impressionistic, the invocation of a dark atmosphere, something that sounds good if you're standing in a club sweating your knackers off in leather trousers and sucking your cheeks in.

And yet...

For all the ham involved, Frontline Assembly somehow manage to pull it off through holding back in just the right places. They suggest rather than shove it down your throat like all those shitty trying too hard bands that mostly turned out to be Alain Jourgensen under one of his many wearying aliases; and the music grows on you because there's a lot going on beneath all the grunting and groaning, tricky little sequences which get right under your skin which you may not even have noticed first time around. Oddly Frontline Assembly put me in mind of those 1978 garage punk bands formed when someone borrowed their big brother's guitar and taught themselves a few Sham 69 numbers. They have that same relentless quality, fevered grunty songs chugging along on a bare minimum of chords reborn fifteen years later as a sort of cyberpunk Ramones, or summink. It's too loud and you probably won't be able to hear the words, but it does what it has set out to do nonetheless, and is as such very toe-tappy.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Funky Alternatives: Best of Volume One to Eight (1996)

In case anyone has forgotten, 400 Blows were at least notable for citing their main influences as Chic and Throbbing Gristle, which made a lot of sense given their authentically funky yet oddly gritty sound and a handful of mostly decent records of which at least The Return of the Dog and Declaration of Intent should be considered works of true inspiration. When they started releasing the Funky Alternatives compilations through their own Concrete Productions label it seemed like a minor revelation from where I stood, at least in bringing together massive names like New Order and The Shamen with more obscure but equally noteworthy groups such as Nocturnal Emissions and of course 400 Blows themselves.

I kind of lost track after the first few volumes, and the last I encountered was the fifth one which I saw in a shop a few times but was never tempted to buy, probably due to the presence of My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. The eclecticism of the first few discs had given way to that late 1980s understanding of electronic dance music as a skinhead in one of those vests with a German eagle motif grunting along to a soundtrack of drum machine, sequencer, and a tape of a man saying Praise Jesus! It seemed like the game was up, at least judging by the fact that even Phil fucking Collins was making records with tapes of American televangelists.

Also, I suppose I had begun to wonder just what was meant by Funky Alternatives - alternatives to what exactly? It seemed like a vestigial hangover from the punky loam in which 400 Blows and others had at least some of their roots, dance music but not that disco shit like Tony Blackburn plays, oh no - an unnecessary bit of asceticism if ever there was, particularly as it unwittingly resulted in the formation of the Exploited, and Earth, Wind & Fire now sound like the Sex Pistols compared to Justin Bieber or whoever. That said, club-orientated white guy dance music - as something distinct from music you can dance to - was, with a few exceptions, pretty much a waste of time prior to the rise of DJ culture so far as I can tell, racist though that may well be. Whilst I have multiple reservations about DJ culture, or specifically about the DJ culture which ended up stood in fields in Somerset at 4AM waving a luminous stick above its head for six hours, it did at least engage with dance instead of just assuming anyone could do it because it's just a drum machine and some stuff innit. It sought inspiration from what was going on in Chicago, Detroit and other places, rather than that Work! Obey! music by bands with names like Efficiency Unit and the Funky Marchers.

From what I can tell, most of the tracks on the latter volumes of Funky Alternatives seemed to have derived from these wilderness years: plenty of those horrible roadies let loose in a studio and having a go bands like Pop Will Eat Itself, Meat Beat Manifesto, and the Revolting Cocks: thump thump thump thump - heavy metal guitar - thump thump thump thump - Praise Jesus! - thump thump thump thump - bit of rapping by someone who can't rap etc. etc.

Also featured here are Die Krupps who can piss off on the grounds of having named themselves after a German arms manufacturer who famously supported the Nazi regime and made use of slave labour during the second world war, although in their favour, their so earnest it might almost be a pisstake brand of stomping EBM at least fosters an appreciation of how Nitzer Ebb - unfortunately absent from this collection - were actually nothing like so generic as you might recall. Actually Nitzer Ebb sound like Led Zeppelin compared to half of these tracks.

The rest of the disc is okay I guess - some fairly good stuff, some steaming shite - although mostly it inspired me only to seek alternative listening, either those first three greatly more eclectic volumes of the original series, or some Front 242 who did this sort of thing with a lot more imagination.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Damned - The Black Album (1980)

There's an argument for The Damned's Machine Gun Etiquette being one of the greatest punk albums of all time, but I'd probably go further and nominate it as being potentially the greatest record ever made, which of course means it would have been something of a tough act to follow; and they almost managed it.

I bought The Black Album in the week it came out, but for reasons I no longer recall, got rid of it at some point - probably one of those ludicrous purges teenagers such as myself would impose upon their record collections from time to time. I remember liking the album too, but presumably must have concluded that it just didn't fit in; and by the time I'd begun to regret the decision it had been reissued as a single album which offended my collector sensibilities for reasons that no longer stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, buying it again as a double CD with a ton of extra tracks, I sort of see what the problem may have been, namely that both The Black Album and the band who recorded it really didn't fit anywhere; and this is probably why, of that generation, people are still banging on about the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and even Eater if you can be bothered to hunt around a bit, but where The Damned are concerned, not so much.

The Black Album was a bit of an oddity in 1980. First generation English punk groups were branching out left, right and centre, distancing themselves from that which they had inspired and which had increasingly taken to belching out yappy dirges about Thatcher in a studded leather jacket with the word BALLS painted on the back in Tippex. The Damned in particular took the opportunity to further pursue their increasing musicality into territories formerly populated by the quirkily English and whimsical, experimental prog rock types, and psychedelic garage bands of the 1960s. The Black Album actually sounds like a hell of a lot of different things, such is its variety, stretching even to the beautifully breezy-and-yet-sinister Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which Frank Sinatra probably could have covered without stretching a point too far. The problem with this, depending on how much you care about such things, is that for a short time it seemed to have left The Damned in an awkward place - the punk band who turned out to be Pink Floyd after all, but somehow weren't sufficiently po-faced to pull it off as they might have done had they all met at art school. I suspect this may be part of the reason why The Black Album doesn't quite seem to be remembered so well as it possibly should be, and maybe why I ended up flogging my original double vinyl - I couldn't decide where it appeared on the Joy Division to Splodgenessabounds spectrum, because clearly I was a fucking idiot.

Casting expectations aside, The Black Album gives very good account of itself once allowed to work on its own terms. Musically it is the fruit of major talents in regard to both composition and delivery, and Dave Vanian surely has to be one of the most underrated vocalists of his generation. The song writing is intelligent and yet still raucously funny, somehow managing to keep a hold on the energy which made Machine Gun Etiquette so exciting whilst doodling all sorts of baroque scrollery around the edges, resulting in the equivalent of Smash It Up played on a harpsichord, or summink.

I'm gonna be a lazy slob,
Stuff the folks and sod the job.
And tell the foreman that I'm ill,
And in a week I'll be here still.
Yes I will.

Take a look outside,
Those lively arts are on the slide,
And culture's just a bore,
When you're angry ,young and poor,
But if I got my way,
Those idle rich would pay,
When the discussion starts,
On the lively arts.

Oddly, as a whole the succession of the first eleven tracks almost seems to hint at a narrative at least of the kind The Who have turned into feature films, although this may be an illusion fostered by a passing resemblance to the same at a few intervals, or at least The Who with a superior vocalist and better songs; or maybe I mean Roxy Music, a sort of Addams Family revision of their first few albums, something in that general area...

That said, although the seventeen minute long Curtain Call is nice enough as The Damned doing Gong or one of those Krautrock bands, I can see why it was left off the initial reissue; and the same is true of the six live tracks which, on record, only really make you want to listen to the studio versions. This double also includes a stack of singles and b-sides which are nice enough, but really all you need are the eleven songs from Wait For the Blackout through to Therapy, the part which counts and which came so close to serving as a respectable follow-up to Machine Gun Etiquette without entirely repeating the formula.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Brighter Death Now - May All Be Dead (2000)

About a million years ago when I ran one of those DIY tape labels that everyone now regards as having been so cool but no-one gave a flying shit about at the time, I came across the work of a Swedish electronics duo called Enhœnta Bødlar, apparently meaning One Handed Tormentor. They were weird - scary and genuinely peculiar - and I haven't really heard anything quite like them since. Ogreish Guttural Wounds, the vinyl album they had pressed up only to, apparently, bury most of the copies in the Ljungby woodland out of shame remains one of my most prized and oddest possessions, and so quite naturally I always wondered what happened to the two of them after we lost touch. Many years later, I discovered that the individual behind Brighter Death Now - a band whose name I'd noticed turning up in fanzines for at least a decade - was one Roger Karmanik, or Little Roger, or X-Terminator as he had been identified in Enhœnta Bødlar.

Whilst I hadn't exactly avoided the work of Brighter Death Now, neither had I been drawn to it, having assumed it would sound much like all those other bands with whom they tended to be associated. They've recently been described as death industrial, which is I suppose sort of like death metal with oscillators instead of guitars. It's probably as good a description as any, although as a genre it's something I kind of gave up on back in the mid-eighties; and something for which I can't help but feel partially responsible as former CEO of the DIY tape label who put out the very first Grey Wolves C60, back when they were called Opera for Industry and sported a logo resembling a hybrid of the Psychic TV cross and that of Philips, the Dutch electronics company. The Grey Wolves' Trev Ward and I wrote to each other quite a lot, and my own crappy noise  band supported Opera for Industry and the Subhumans on one occasion. They were nice people too, but all that power electronics noise was beginning to depress me, and I felt a cut-off point had been reached when I received a speculative letter from one Mike Dando opening with the words I operate the extreme electronics unit that the world knows as Con-Dom. I had heard the music of Con-Dom on various tapes, and now he wanted to know if I would be interested in sticking some of his tracks on one of my compilation tapes. I wasn't, and partially because whilst the name may well have been a contraction of Control & Domination as claimed, it sounded ridiculous to me, and still makes me think of schoolboys tittering over rubber johnnies.

Couldn't you think of something just a little more convincingly offensive? I wondered.

Additionally I was irritated that he considered himself a unit as opposed to just a bloke with a synthesiser and a tape recorder; and by the presumption that the world knew him as anything.

So that was it for me.

Anyway, here I am years later, mystified that such a thing as death industrial can exist in the year 2013, and listening to May All Be Dead by the bloke who used to be in Enhœnta Bødlar. I think the problem I had with much of the music that evolved into this genre is that the entire point was almost always revulsion on a physiological level, hence the barrage of ear-splitting noise and repulsive imagery, which worked well in a live setting but was often fairly dull on tape or the very occasional vinyl record. In a music venue the experience can be genuinely terrifying and hence oddly cathartic, but the tapes so often just sound like someone swearing at their mum with the washing machine going, because shock doesn't have quite the same impact when there's no adrenaline rush or flight or fight response to distract from the basic absurdity of the situation. Brighter Death Now get around this by producing something that's sonically quite interesting compared to the work of many of their contemporaries. It's still a horrible fucking noise with some bloke screaming over the top, but good use is made of samples and loops so there's always some sort of rhythm going even if it isn't necessarily of the kind which lends itself to percussion; plus the production quality is wonderful, so even though it's a wall of noise, you get the full textural detail of every last grain of cement. If anything, a lot of this actually sounds like that point in a Throbbing Gristle performance at which the
three less-exhibitionist members of the group built up sufficient head of grinding electronic stream to drown out the sound of Genesis P. Orridge telling the audience about himself. It's expertly horrible, and utterly overwhelming, just as it's supposed to be.

To tackle the elephant in the room, this particular genre of music has often carried unfortunate associations with extreme right wing politics, which is probably thanks to most musicians and non-musician types generally being a bunch of morons who can't be trusted to put their leather trousers on the right way around without the aid of a diagram. The tendency to use shocking and violent imagery without comment by electronic musicians probably stems in part from Throbbing Gristle's documentary mode of expression; but shock relies upon presenting something unfamiliar, and thus only works for a while, requiring the sort of upping of stakes which gave birth to groups like Whitehouse and Ramleh; which in turn presents the problem of where there is left to go when all possible taboos have been transgressed in artistic terms. Unfortunately the only avenues that many musicians of this kind seemed to feel was left open for them were philosophical because - to reduce it to terms even a musician could understand - whilst records with pictures of Nazi concentration camps on the cover entitled The Really Fun Place may be shocking, and may challenge cultural hypocrisy and conventional concepts of morality blah blah blah, it's even more shocking if you're really into that shit; which is why so much supposedly industrial music has somehow ended up believing its own publicity, promoting a view which reinforces the most reactionary and authoritarian aspects of the status quo.

Although some artists - and some whom I fear Roger Karmanik of Brighter Death Now has promoted through his own label by one means or another - make no bones about pushing a racist or socially-Darwinian agenda, I would argue that there remains a distinction between those who actively admire Adolf Hitler, and those who need to think about whether they really want people turning up to their gigs in full SS uniform. You might not want either of them around for tea and biscuits, but they aren't entirely the same animal.

Because this sort of thing does bother me a little, I've had a virtual root around, although I can find nothing conclusively dubious about the politics of Brighter Death Now, if as a band they, or at least he can be said to have any political or philosophical drive. There is an interview - the link for which I seem to have mislaid - in which he made some comment about the preservation of Swedish culture which had the cadence of those who whine about immigration and foreign influence, and whom I generally tend to regard as clueless fucking wankers, but it seemed merely odious rather than actively suggestive of far-right sympathies. While Sweden maintained an official eugenics policy up until 1975, I'm going to assume its significant that the cover of May All Be Dead is so obviously inspired by those of the anarchist punk band Crass, and further assume that the raw horror expressed in the music of Brighter Death Now carries no overtly political or authoritarian agenda.

So if you've skipped the last two paragraphs, the verdict is: great and yet horrible music, and probably not a Nazi so far as I can tell. In fact, May All Be Dead seems thematically a great deal more personal than is common for this genre, resembling the earlier records of the Swans more than anything else, even if it musically echoes the more aggressive Throbbing Gristle material - a sort of acid enema for the human spirit; at least it would be nice to think that, and that there is at least one power electronics band of sufficient intellectual development to have risen above the customarily juvenile Nazi-goth bullshit, or so I would hope.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Ice Cube - Raw Footage (2008)

Generally speaking rap has a poor record in terms of consistent albums that work all the way from the first track to the last, and the average rap disc will usually contain at least five cuts that just didn't need to be on there. One exception to this admittedly general rule is Ice Cube, who has yet to release a truly dud album - the War & Peace discs could have been a little tighter, but I've heard worse.

As Ice Cube's eighth solo studio album, a good two decades into his career, Raw Footage probably has no right to sound as fresh and dangerous and just plain sharp as it does, but then I suppose it shouldn't be such a surprise. Ever since CIA's My Posse, O'Shea Jackson has been about moving with or even ahead of the times, never about recycling a formula. Lyrically he's always been a bit handy - to lapse briefly into something resembling boxing commentary - but these days he's fucking ridiculous, and I mean that in a good way. This becomes apparent with close listening, although clocking up all the double meanings, metaphors, riffs on themes or puns somewhat misses the point and effectively reduces the painting to just maths and pigment, particularly considering the apparent ease with which these narrative acrobatics are performed, flowing like a conversation he isn't even really thinking about that hard. Most impressive of all are those rapid switches in tone from one line to the next, gritty politics, black humour, then militant joy all woven together as one, and as ever doing the exact opposite of what gangsta rap is believed to do by those who don't listen to it.

You can go be a pimp, you can go be a ho,
But you only gon' get paid off what you know,
If you don't know shit then you can't work for me,
'Cause you read your first book in the penitentiary.

Raw Footage manages to sound simultaneously like an extremely eclectic compilation whilst remaining absolutely consistent to a single vision - painful truths about American society, black culture, and ghetto politics sharing airtime with tracks like I Got My Locs On and Jack N The Box which take the crunk back from all the tossers who've spent the last fifteen years ruining it; and music from a variety of producers rather than just DJ Crazy Toones, whom I wrongly assumed had contributed to more than just the one track here. This may even be Ice Cube's best album - uncompromising, absolutely independent, and sharp as ever after a quarter century in the biz, which possibly makes him unique.