Thursday, 26 June 2014

Ill Bill & Vinnie Paz - Heavy Metal Kings (2011)

It has been observed that a surprisingly high percentage of white rappers tend to blow it by trying too hard, overcompensating for low melanin content by being more dysfunctional than the next guy, with more harrowing lyrical content, and a sicker than thou attitude. As I generally refuse to listen to backpack types amiably mumbling away about playing chess and eating lettuce whilst spinning their vintage Main Source twelves, this means that most white rappers who've made it into my collection fall somewhere into this spectrum, because a bespectacled man in a Sesame Street hoodie telling you about his little book of lyrics is essentially quite dull. Ill Bill - much like Haystak and R.A. the Rugged Man to name but two - whilst not afraid to get visceral, or to horrify the living shit out of his audience, succeeds because his bow has always had more than just the one string, so he's generally kept it gritty and intelligent, despite the occasional lapse into tinfoil hat wearing territory; and he can reel it in when required, offering genuinely sensitive insight into his subject, whatever it may be. This is why The Anatomy of a School Shooting remains, for me, one of the most powerful rap records ever made - a rare ray of light shed upon a topic which has seemed otherwise almost impervious to sense or reason.

I'm not really familiar with Vinnie Paz beyond knowing I probably have something by his group Jedi Mind Tricks on some mixtape somewhere. Thankfully, he's not quite the gross-out angry white bloke MC either. On the other hand, although his Cookie Monster delivery is plentiful in terms of lyrical acrobatics, a lot of it seems to fixate on subjects such as what happens when you add up all the verses of the bible and divide them by Nostradamus, and that sort of thing. It's okay as texture, but you probably wouldn't want a whole album, and Heavy Metal Kings is almost half an album of Vinne Paz, which seems like a lot to me, but I suppose at least he isn't Necro.

In case anyone was wondering, or is even still reading, given both of these guys elsewhere fixating so heavily on black metal and the like, the title here refers more to atmosphere than what it sounds like, which is thankfully free of guitar samples and Rick Rubinisms. Mostly it's that grimy New York underground sound, with a bit more of a hard rock punch on the beats than you might expect. - not a million miles from Ill Bill's solo work or what he did with Non Phixion. Unfortunately though, as a whole the thing isn't really what you would call a landmark. The pissed off and grunting is turned up to ten on the first track, which is where it stays for the next fifty minutes, and whilst there may be many great beats here, they're all arranged to roughly the same pace and mood so it takes a good few listens before anything really stands out, which in the meantime leaves you stuck in an elevator trapped between floors looking at your shoes with two fat, angry white blokes who seem to think you're probably working for the Illuminati.


Thursday, 19 June 2014

2Pac - 2Pacalypse Now (1991)

This one didn't make much sense to me the first time I heard it - picked up from the library out of curiosity - although I'm still not entirely sure why. Possibly it was simply a case of a perfectly respectable debut album unable to live up to the hype which came in its wake. More recently I bought the thing, recalling how I'd found it initially underwhelming, but suspecting I probably just needed to give it more time on the grounds that I'd been unable to prise 1993's Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. out of the CD player for about six months.

There's been so much bollocks surrounding the posthumous legend of Tupac Shakur that reasonable persons could be forgiven for shrugging and walking off in the opposite direction in search of something which isn't surrounded by a cloud of angry nutters each claiming to be the only one to truly understand what He was trying to say. Firstly, in case it isn't obvious, he was principally a rapper rather than a messiah. He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy, as Mrs. Shakur probably never bothered pointing out to anyone. Additionally, much has been made of Tupac's revolutionary and intellectual credentials, the former coming from having been raised amongst various Panther types and representatives of the Black Consciousness Movement, the latter from apparent possession of a library card. Tupac's bedside reading lists can be found all over the internet, and whilst it's smashing that he loved to curl up with a good book, it's probably wise to not get too carried away on that score, given that at least some of what he read was pure crap, Linda Goodman's Sun Signs for example. Whilst we're here, I never thought his poetry was that amazing either; for instance, the N word as an acronym for Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished - seriously?

Nevertheless, as rapper and storyteller, the lad clearly had something, an effortless and athletic way with words and a compelling, punchy delivery that was a bit like having someone poking you in the chest with a finger for three minutes. His rhyme schemes were massive great colourful cat's cradles of images at a time when at least half of the rap world was still asking us to put our hands in the air and wave them like we just didn't care over some pingy cowbell laden children's TV theme tune; and whilst he may not quite have been amongst the first rappers to just come right out and say it, he was in there somewhere, and as such ended up as a founding father of gangsta rap, if we really must call it that. Typically, following the whole genre back to this particular source - which isn't such a stretch given how many careers have been spun from variations on the bald, angry, black man theme - 2pac, as with NWA and Above the Law, never really sounded quite like everyone seems to remember, and certainly had a lot more going on than guns, money, and hoes. Such gangsta staples turn up on 2Pacalypse Now as you would expect, but not to the exclusion of anything else he felt he needed to address, and you would have to be an idiot to mistake the angle for anything other than what it is. The don't try this at home, kids disclaimer is absent due to an assumption of the audience having at least half a brain and being able to tell the difference between reportage, protest, general complaints registered and an idiot waving a gun around exclaiming awesome! Chuck D's comment about rap being the black CNN strongly applies.

Musically this album was perched on the cusp of sampling and all the wicky-wicky DJ stuff, or at least the point at which sampling technology ceased sounding quite so corny as it had done at the close of the previous decade. So there are some nice chunky beats here, and very little cheese, and a palpable sense of the excitement of creating this sort of stuff and of hearing it for the first time, which has, against all odds, prevented its sounding particularly dated.

2Pacalypse Now wasn't his greatest album by some way, but it was a good one, and if he must be remembered as the voice of a generation, he is admittedly well chosen.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Nitzer Ebb - Big Hit (1995)

I never really bought the idea that Nitzer Ebb had only ever wanted to be The Groundhogs, as peddled by the lads when they started sampling guitars and doing Queen covers on As Is and Ebbhead; and mainly because up until that point they may as well have been a DAF tribute act, so far as I was able to tell, albeit a jolly good DAF tribute act. That said, they were always at their best when at their bluesiest, I thought, even if the vocals were the only obviously blues inspired element, the rest usually being a bunch of bleeping sequencers having a fight in a pub car park.

Ebbhead was pretty good, in my view, and certainly an improvement on the slightly disappointing Showtime which, with hindsight was I suppose the transitional album between the marching up and down whilst frowning really hard era and rocking out like Kiss; but that was it for me. I failed to cross paths with Big Hit because, as with the new material of almost everyone else I was listening to at the time, it failed to appear on vinyl, and I didn't catch up with compact discs until a good few years later when my friend Eddy gave me his old CD player in order to shut me up about being unable to buy the music I wanted to hear. My tastes had also mutated somewhat by that time, and so it never really occurred to me that I might go back and pick up where I'd left off in 1992. Andrew Cox told me he'd seen Nitzer Ebb on the telly, and that they had turned into Nirvana with a guitarist and everything, but it seemed too late to go back.

Happily Andrew's observation was very much a generalisation, and Big Hit sounds nothing like Nirvana. More surprisingly, nor does it particularly sound like either Nine Inch Nails - although that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing - or any of those horrible industrial metal wankers all pretending to be the Blade Runner Ozzy Osbourne over grunting Metallica samples. Big Hit actually sounds like Ebbhead done right, by a band who had at last found their feet. The blend of prog-rockisms, live instruments, and sequencers is so seamless as to render comment obsolete, and is probably done better than anyone has managed to before or since; so this really isn't industrial types pretending they've been into Richie Blackmore's Rainbow from the very beginning so much as just a great rock band sprung from an earlier somewhat different incarnation. Big Hit is probably what anyone who liked Led Zeppelin in the 1970s imagined music would sound like in the year 2000, and Flood Water in particular gallops along like some sort of biomechanical update of Immigrant Song. It's funny how at the time this lot sounded like one of many, but with hindsight it seems they were fairly unique.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Konstruktivists - Persona Non Grata (1997)

Here's another with which I may not be able to exercise absolute impartiality, having once been in the band. I'd left by the time this was recorded, although I should probably mention that I supplied some artwork for the cover of the original 1997 release, this iteration being a timely reissue from Klang Galerie.

For anyone not familiar with the name, Konstruktivists were formed by Glenn Wallis, a founding member of Whitehouse and a former Throbbing Gristle associate. I began writing to him around 1984 or thereabouts, having been impressed by A Dissembly, his debut album on the Flowmotion label. A couple of years later by fairly massive coincidence I found myself living around the corner from Glenn and his wife when I moved to Chatham, and so we became good friends and I ended up in the band for a while. We put out an album called Forbidden on the World Serpent label in the early nineties, and although it has its moments it was never something about which I felt entirely convinced. My contribution had been negligible, and I had disliked the rushed recording, and the fact that the other guy in the band, the one with the massive sampler and all the technology, would apparently have preferred to be in Front 242 or one of those stomping around in camouflage trousers groups. His ambitions seemed limited to making records which sounded like records which had already been made by other people, and he didn't seem to like me very much.

Tapes aside, this was roughly speaking the first Konstruktivists studio album since Forbidden, recorded by Glenn who by this time was working with Mark Crumby, former editor of Impulse magazine. Whilst Glenn has always been entirely capable of producing great works on his own, he tends to be at his best - in my opinion - when able to spark ideas off an inspired collaborator. So with Persona Non Grata it was great to see him once again raising up a din with someone capable of generating ideas, and who was himself bringing more to the table than just hands up if you like Nitzer Ebb.

Persona Non Grata samples from Konstruktivists' own back catalogue, although it's quite different in sound to any of those earlier works, and serves as an indication of what set this band apart in the first place. As ever, the aesthetic seems more in tune with the likes of La Düsseldorf, Heldon, and other European experimentalists than the usual industrial suspects, even if the sound is quite different. Percussion and rhythm are employed as texture rather than in acknowledgement of a beat, and it generally does all the things you wouldn't expect. Having worked with Glenn, it's difficult to guess at quite what inspires him to compose as he does. His preferred notation and compositions appear to have their own logic, and are unpredictable by familiar terms, at times seeming like they have slipped through from a parallel reality. They occur at right angles to what we already know in the same way that the music of The Residents seems to belong somewhere other than this Earth. A few tracks hint at the distant influence of the trance and techno that was knocking around in 1997, and yet this is like an angular cargo cult recreation that bears little in common with anything.

Persona Non Grata has none of the obvious industrial clichés, no wanky attempts to recreate the music of fucking Cassandra Complex, no ambient sea of digital reverb concealing a dearth of inspiration, and it sounds somehow composed on the cheap Casio keyboards of a world in which such things are made from cogs, pistons, and flywheels; and it's one fuck of a lot better than the one on which I played guitar. It was a pisser that the original edition suffered from such a limited run, so hats off once again to Klang Galerie for spreading the good word.