Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Virgin Prunes - A New Form of Beauty (1982)

My first encounter with the music of the Virgin Prunes was at my friend Graham's house. We'd already discovered Throbbing Gristle, Alternative TV, the Residents, Faust, Wreckless Eric and Cabaret Voltaire through raids made on his older brother's frankly astonishing record collection, and this time it was A New Form of Beauty 3, the 12" component of an album released as a series of singles and a cassette. I didn't really know much about the Prunes, but the cover was great, and Beast (Seven Bastard Suck) sounded impressively terrifying. Unfortunately my funds - a combination of pocket money and what I collected from a paper round - didn't really extend to adding yet another band to the coterie of those whose records I would purchase immediately upon release and without question, so I somehow managed to miss out on this lot. I have since seen it opined on some blog that the Virgin Prunes could be roughly considered the most criminally underrated band of all time, and that this is in part due to their music having been out of print for much of the last three decades, which is probably a contributing factor to how long it's taken me to get there.

For those who weren't aware, the Virgin Prunes grew up in the same teenage gang as U2, feature the Edge's brother on guitar, and bestowed upon Bongo his nickname. Listening to their music and considering their enduring obscurity, it's difficult to avoid seeing them as either the repellent
Dorian Gray portrait in Bongo's attic, or at least a sort of dark karmic underside to U2's rosy cheeked optimism. Where U2 once stood atop a picturesque crag of God's good Earth with their youthful locks flowing cinematically in the breeze of passion, the Virgin Prunes writhed about in poo, smudged their make-up, and screamed and wailed as the more conservative members of the congregation asked one another is it a boy or a girl?

Gothic probably doesn't really cover it. Not only do they predate the term as a popular signifier of frowny faced bands with tastefully back-combed hair, but they made most of that bunch look like Buck's fucking Fizz. Drums bang, guitars scream and screech, and it all sounds very much like a performance, something closer in spirit to a story than a song in the traditional sense. For a while I was thinking Brecht or maybe Hogarth - something consumptive you can almost smell - but the more I familiarise myself with this music, it begins to sound positively iron age - primitive and weird beyond reason, Old Testament even, the kind of music with which one might praise a golden calf. There aren't really tunes so much as, I suppose, grooves, compelling and slightly fetid, and delivered with the force of sermons promising that you are all going to burn in hell!

I have a hunch that this may actually be how Porridge always imagined Psychic TV would sound, except of course they never did through being hamstrung by the presence of the selfsame oat-based William Burroughs' autograph hunter. This is the violent pre-Christian noise all those awful Crowleyite bands promised but never delivered because at heart, they really just wanted to sell their droning records to each other and get to hang out with the famous Porridge. This was the real thing, definitely underrated, and as the name promises, very beautiful in its own way. This disturbing, caustic racket really was a new form of beauty.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Cosmic Rays - Cosmic Rays (2014)

I should probably own up to a certain potential for bias here, having known the drummer of this lot for the best part of the last three decades; so I'm favourably disposed towards their music before I've heard it. At the same time it may be worth pointing out that if it had turned out to be crap, I would probably have found the situation embarrassing and left it at yes, Charlie, it was just the sort of thing I like without bothering to either write or post a review here.

The Charlie in question carries the surname Adlard and will be known to at least some as the artist on, amongst other things, Image's Walking Dead comic. He's joined here by fellow comic artist Phil Winslade, known for various things amongst which was Vertigo's Goddess, as written by Garth Ennis. Wikipedia claims he landed the Goddess gig when he showed the aforementioned Ennis his portfolio at a comic convention in Coventry. Weirdly, I'm pretty sure both Charlie and myself were at that same convention. We too spoke to Garth Ennis - which was quite exciting - and I told him that the tone of Troubled Souls reminded me a little of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor, which he seemed to appreciate. What a weird, small world it has turned out to be.

Anyway, Cosmic Rays are two comic artists and two of their friends. I think the name may have been intended as some sort of vague pun - comic and cosmic - but anyway...

For the record, Charlie was a phenomenal drummer even back when his drawing ability was more village fĂȘte than Eisner Award, so it wouldn't really be fair to call this a vanity project, should one be tempted to do so; and it certainly doesn't sound like one. What it does sound like is heavy rock - as quite distinct from metal - which acknowledges no strong musical influence of anything since about March 1982. I picked that particular date because that was when Iron Maiden released The Number of the Beast, and my initial impression of the Cosmic Rays album leant in that general direction mainly thanks to the histrionics of the two opening tracks. Closer and repeat listening reveals this comparison to be pretty flimsy, not least because whilst there's neither rapping, drum and bass remixes, nor anything which would startle Tommy Saxondale to any great extent, Cosmic Rays manages to avoid sounding like an exercise in nostalgia, working perfectly well as its own entity. There are moments I'm reminded of the Who or maybe the Kinks, and there's Shoes which could have been recorded by one of the bluesier incarnations of Jim Thirlwell's Foetus, but there are too many individual subtle touches which dispel such comparisons, too much which varies from the standard rock template - the buzzing fuzz of the bass, the ornate keyboard noodling, and sharp as a knife production which keeps even the noisier flourishes sounding clear as a bell and definitively stamps the collection as belonging right here in the twenty-first century. The closest I've been able to get to any sort of general comparison is that I can imagine a lot of these songs being performed by the Black and White era Stranglers, which is odd as Cosmic Rays sound nothing like the Stranglers, so I suppose it's some subtlety of chord changes or composition or the general vibe - a sort of pulsing black leather Englishness for want of a less comical simile.

Having known Charlie for a while, and enjoyed at least one of the previous bands for which he bashed the skins, so to speak, I knew this was never going to be terrible; but it's a pleasant surprise how genuinely good it is, and how fresh it sounds for something which could be considered a fairly traditional rock album in many senses. May this be but the first of many.

Available here and now in a lovely double vinyl edition too.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Madd Rapper - Tell Em Why U Madd (1999)

...which brings us to skits on rap albums. Aren't they just the best!?

Sadly no, which is odd considering that rap as a genre generally has a fairly well developed sense of humour, and so much so that I would suggest that humour of one stripe or another is pretty much an essential ingredient of the form, unless you're Lauryn Hill or someone. It is therefore puzzling - at least to me - why skits on rap albums are usually so fucking embarrassing. The prize for the worst probably goes to C-Murder whose comedy turns have mostly been on the level of a hapless fan phoning him in the middle of the night to which our man quips suck my dick, punk ass motherfucker, with hilarious consequences. Ha ha. Even Ice Cube, whom one might ordinarily credit with at least a modicum of wit, has been known to shoot himself in the big red clown's shoe despite the assistance of Chris Rock who actually causes mirth for a living. I'm thinking here of the skit in which Rock plays some sort of punk ass motherfucker trying to get in on Cube's not unimpressive game, washing his car badly or something of that sort and with hilarious consequences. Rock is genuinely funny, but the effect is spoiled by Mr. Cube sneering punk ass motherfucker just in case we listeners were too stupid to realise that Chris Rock was playing the role of a punk ass motherfucker in pursuit of comedy chuckles. We might of course have misunderstood and thought that Rock's incoherently yelping character was a real cool dude, but no, Mr. Cube sets us straight by identifying him, as stated, as a punk ass motherfucker so as to make absolutely certain that we get the joke. Great.

Surprisingly, the oeuvre of Puff Daddy - which is what he's still called so far as I'm concerned - for all its faults, fares generally quite well in terms of wacky interludes, most of which manage to at least raise a chortle even if we're not exactly in the realm of crying whilst banging ours fist on the floor. The Madd Rapper, for the sake of argument, emerged as a running joke on various Bad Boy albums, a character brought in to complain about whoever album he was appearing on, to generally more amusing effect than you might anticipate. I could be remembering this wrong but I seem to recall reports of Bad Boy producer Deric Angelettie, usually trading as D-Dot, being pretty pissed off when someone outed him as the secret identity of the Madd Rapper. This seemed odd as I thought it had been common knowledge for a while, and it wasn't like he'd really gone to any great lengths to cover his tracks; and with the best will in the world, The Madd Rapper was never going to be the hip-hop answer to the Residents, because were there ever such a thing it would have been much stranger and would almost certainly have involved Kool Keith. But anyway...

An entire album from the Madd Rapper, Madd spelt with two Ds just to up the wackiness to the level of a bumper sticker reading don't follow me - I'm lost too! Just how good was it going to be?

Astonishingly, it's actually pretty decent. I suppose this shouldn't be too surprising given that D-Dot has been behind some of the crunchier Bad Boy tracks, but rhyming - as opposed to just gurgling angrily between numbers on a Puffy album - he's pretty tight and with a distinctive voice. The beats are doubtless very much New York at the end of the last century, caught somewhere between turntable and sampler - punchy kick drums, skipping pace and a nice deep bass kept simple, orchestral stabs and grimy piano loops promising that it will be a great day in the big city, but you should probably wrap up warm. It isn't jazz by any description, but it has some of that feel.

Anyway, last century or not, it still sounds great to me. This being a producer's album, there's a ton of guests, which keeps it moving along although probably wasn't strictly necessary as Madd holds his own with the best of them - Raekwon, Black Rob, Ma$e, Eminem when he was funny, and even the pre-fame-and-shooting 50 Cent whose How To Rob promises a hell of a lot more than he eventually delivered on albums comprising bank statements read out over sampled gunfire. That said, the assembled lyricists of D-Dot's own Crazy Cat stable are featured heavily for obvious reasons, and whilst none of them are exactly bad, most of them may as well be those members of Murder Inc. who weren't either Ja Rule or the lady with the nice hair, whatever her name was. They're okay, but nothing that shines too bright, although at least none of them are Jermaine Dupri, the stumpy capitalist who is called in to ruin only one of these tracks with the usual whiny voiced crap about his wallet and his penis.

Tell Em Why U Madd presents itself as the rap Barron Knights probably because no-one told it not to, but turns out to be a thumping good set for the most part, and not really a comedy album, or at least no more so than any rap album you care to mention is a comedy album. Come to think of it, it's probably a significant improvement on most of the records this guy has made for other people.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Box @Doublevision (2014)

It seems peculiar that the Box should have fallen so dramatically off the radar given how they were, roughly speaking, the best version of Clock DVA but with different people on bass and vocals; and by the best version of Clock DVA I mean the line-up which recorded Thirst. Even without the patronage of Cabaret Voltaire, that has to count for something, surely? Maybe they just weren't sufficiently industrial - whatever the hell that really means - or maybe their legend has endured in places other than those in which I've been looking.

For anyone who might not be sure, the Box refute the hypothesis that traditional instrumentation is necessarily a barrier to innovation, that guitar, bass, drums, and vocals recorded pretty much without perfumery or embellishment need yield prosaic results. Okay, so there's also saxophone, but the principal still stands. These are songs with verses and choruses, sure enough, but considering that this is the same basic instrumentation of Rock Around The Clock, this be some weird angular shit right here, lemme tell ya. There are touches of rockabilly, slide guitar, jazz, swing, all chopped up and stapled back together in screeching and yet nevertheless elegantly synchronised chaos, a spiky groove with tunes which get right into your veins before you've even noticed that there are tunes to be had. A slightly less wanky way of putting it would be, I suppose, just to say that the Box remind you just how great music can be when it's done right by people who know what they're doing; and who have the confidence to play without hiding behind walls of effects. The guitar is in particular beautiful and crunchy, funky and elastic, like a jazzier Steve Albini. The whole reminds me superficially of the Cravats at their wildest, although the resemblance isn't particularly strong, and I might find better examples were I to extend my listening habits back further than 1977.

You remember that glut of slightly sweaty new wave dance bands who showed up around 1982, always with some bloke in a fedora and a vest playing the trumpet and a flat-topped singer who had always been into Coltrane, presumably even back when he was the more conspicuously safety-pinned Simon Bollock of the Barking Toilets? Anyway, the Box were what those bands always thought they sounded like but sadly never did.

...and here we have some of the material they recorded for Cabaret Voltaire's Doublevision label, eight tracks and a couple of different versions bearing no resemblance to the work of either Mallinder or Kirk, and yet sounding somehow perfectly attuned to the general vibe of at least Red Mecca and 2X45. The remixes are, quite naturally, longer, pared-down versions with a ton of echo because it was the eighties, and yet they succeed where almost everyone else failed with the same tricks, again I suppose due to the sheer potency of the source material.

This is a fucking fantastic collection. Now all we need is a reissue of the material they recorded for Go! Discs.

Available here, but don't wait around as it may not be for much longer.