Thursday, 31 December 2015

Hawkwind - Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977)


I heard this very album played in the fifth form common room at school one lunch break thirty or so years ago, which is odd because I have no other memory of there having been a fifth form common room at my school. Similarly mysterious was the identity of the band. I assumed it was probably the Stranglers, although it wasn't a song I recognised and Hugh Cornwell's voice didn't sound quite right even though it was almost certainly him. I was surprised when I saw the cover, knowing Hawkwind to be a bunch of hippies probably sounding a bit like either Pink Floyd or Gong or one of that lot.

I'm kicking myself now of course. I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to this one, although I suppose everything has its time. I probably should have taken the hint back in 2000 when Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions wrote the following in issue seven of The Sound Projector:

If you look at the whole of that so-called industrial scene from Cabaret Voltaire to Marilyn Manson, the band with the most far reaching influence wouldn't be Throbbing Gristle, but Hawkwind! This is something that they rarely mention in the press, as Hawkwind have this reputation as a British hippie band who do science-fiction and theatrics and therefore must be naff. Whereas if they were a German hippie band... Zoviet France have told me they were very keen on Hawkwind; SPK were well into Hawkwind back in Australia; and what are Graeme Revell and Brian Williams doing nowadays? Making soundtracks for science-fiction films - I rest my case! I think it's about time Hawkwind were reassessed. I have long been tired of those outfits who cite influences no-one has heard of, or can stand listening to. Back in the early seventies, Hawkwind were the first band I was aware of to popularise the idea of sonic attack, infra and ultra sound as a weapon. Listen to Sonic Attack on Space Ritual. That of course has long since been taken up by that whole noise scene, but Hawkwind were rarely acknowledged. If you look at the information war thing, you'll notice that Hawkwind had the post-modern writers, Michael Moorcock and Bob Calvert working with them. Though Moorcock is best known for his very popular science-fiction and fantasy genre work, it's more accurate to call him a postmodernist or at least a modernist. Moorcock pointed many in the direction of William Burroughs and J.G. Ballard and - stone me, he even wrote for Re/Search. When Hawkwind's In Search of Space came out in the early seventies, it came with a booklet of very similar material to what the London Psychogeographical Society, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, Iain Sinclair, and Tom Vague have been doing more recently. Whenever I used to see Psychic TV, I thought Hawkwind. Whenever I saw Throbbing Gristle I thought Hawkwind without the lights and without the tunes. That combat clothing thing - Hawkwind! Which brings me to the point that I would definitely question the history of punk rock and weirdy music that overlaps it that media hacks have tended to spout. I remember that, apart from media darlings the Sex Pistols, the DIY punk scene in early '70s Britain seemed to be much inspired by the efforts of Hawkwind, the Edgar Broughton Band, the Pink Fairies and even Gong; and the context of the free festivals. Free festival, a self-organising proletarian cultural gathering often involving a bit of a knees up and maybe a punch up with the coppers, see also rave. Brian Eno, for example used to hang out with the Pink Fairies. The whole set-up and costuming of Roxy Music was a direct crib off Hawkwind; AMM - my arse! Eno's a popularist, otherwise why's he working with U2? In 1972 Hawkwind followed up Silver Machine - a million selling hit about a time travel machine built by the pataphysicist Alfred Jarry - with the single Urban Guerilla. It was pulled by the record company because of fears about an IRA bombing campaign in London at the time. They later re-recorded it with Johnny Rotten. Joe Strummer's 101ers and the Stranglers used to play on the same bill as Hawkwind in the free festival days, pre-1976. In interviews at the time, Strummer cited Hawkwind as an influence on the Clash's first album. Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks admitted he spent a lot of his youth listening to Space Ritual and derived a lot of his musical direction from it; and of course Lemmy of Motorhead used to play bass in Hawkwind. Anyway, I went to see Sun Ra and his Arkestra once and I got bored after twenty minutes of that jazz shite and went home. I've seen Hawkwind loads of times and they rock!

Listening to this now, it's clear that the above is not only on point, but arguably just the tip of the iceberg, even beyond that unearthly electric chug which worked so well for Throbbing Gristle. The fact of post-Britpop Blur sounding a hell of a lot like this album, particularly The Days of the Underground, is probably only great minds thinking alike albeit a couple of decades after the fact; but this is just one of many parallels which seem to difficult to avoid. Case in point being professional industrial music arseholes claiming to have invented acid house or rave, when the established knowledge of who actually innovated such genres isn't negated by their being black guys who never went to art school; but it has to be said that the rave dynamic of extended mesmeric grooves built on riffs of weirdly crunchy sound - guitar in this case - somehow replicating the effect of coming up on a couple of disco biscuits, is very much evident on Quark, Strangeness and Charm. It's a very trippy album - which isn't a word I often use - and euphoric without the usual attendant drippiness of having to put flowers in your hair as you head off in the general direction of San Francisco. Hawkwind were rave before rave, occurring as their own near-autonomous culture in a way which sort of prefigures Crass, amongst others. Yet culturally they have a fiercely urban quality which references mainstream society, as opposed to everything being based on the world as filtered through the spout of a pot of mushroom tea. The lyrics resemble science-fiction, but then science-fiction is as good a metaphor as any for the problems of urban society, and certainly no worse than anything associating lurve with the light of silvery moons.

As with many compact disc reissues, this one is a double disc stuffed with demos, live versions, and so on. Ordinarily this sort of thing annoys the hell out of me. I want the album as it was, a discrete unit of culture with the same beginning, middle, and end, and exclusively comprising the stuff which was considered good enough to release at the time. The worst example of this sort of tendency might be the reissue of Suede's Head Music on three discs including previously unreleased material so dull that I'm surprised even the band would want to hear it ever again - rare out-takes and demos for an album which was actually kind of shit in the first place. Anyway, Quark, Strangeness and Charm turns out to be the opposite of that unfortunate bloating, which is probably testimony to the general quality of Hawkwind as an institution - extras which actually add to the experience. This is a sublime album and I'm definitely going to need more of this stuff.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Nocturnal Emissions - Duty Experiment (1995)


I find it weird to consider that this album should be twenty years old, and that even in 1995 it served to collect material from more than a decade earlier. I'm pretty sure I already sucked its dick (figuratively speaking) in an issue of The Sound Projector, back when I used to write reviews for them, but it still sounds good so fuck it...

It being 2015, Nigel Ayers should probably be living in a mansion by this point, a mansion at the end of a long road worn to dust by legions of pilgrims come to seek the advice of the wise one, but I've a feeling this probably hasn't happened despite a back catalogue of albums as long as your arm - particularly if you have very long arms - and albums which have frankly made most of the competition look shit; but people don't want the real thing. They want cunningly packaged cybernoise which makes you want to watch Blade Runner and which fits nicely on the Ikea shelving unit next to all those issues of Re/Search. Sadly or otherwise, Nocturnal Emissions were always a bit too much of a square peg to ever fit comfortably or lucratively into the round hole which opened up in their wake. I suppose people just don't like their rebellion reminding them that they are themselves commodified.

I'm talking about industrial music, in case that isn't obvious. Ordinarily I would pour scorn on the term and those who adopt it as just another tastefully distressed sales technique, but for once it sort of applies. Nocturnal Emissions always denied ever having been particularly industrial, and whilst it's true that their sonic obsessions shared little in common with either SPK or Throbbing Gristle in terms of subject, this first phase of the band - the Sterile Records years - was about as industrial as it gets. Duty Experiment comprises demos and out-takes which never made it onto vinyl back in the day, almost a lost album I suppose, and at its harshest this music resembles an industrial process, the sound of machines shorting out and breaking down - power electronics before it went all black leather Benny Hill. In all honesty, Throbbing Gristle were the Velvet Underground by comparison.

The music of Nocturnal Emissions has undergone a few changes over the years, from this factory floor racket to the more recent foreground-ambient works, but the common factor remains a sense of sounds having coalesced without human agency. It's something almost organic, far removed from the indulgence of conventional musicianship or composition, and I seem to recall Nigel Ayres having described the recording process as akin to channelling.

Anyway, that's what you get here, or some of that because it's surprising how much actual variety is to be found amongst this hour or so of distortion and noise. Even the once ubiquitous tapes of speech which appeared on everything to the west of Pierre Schaeffer for most of that particular year hardly make an appearance. Nocturnal Emissions tended to avoid repeating themselves, and unwittingly broke quite a lot of newish electronic ground in their flailing about in search of the perfect noise. Whilst arguably industrial musicians of a certain vintage claiming to have originated everything from acid house to German death reggae have become legion in recent years, and whilst I can't really see Marshall Jefferson sat thoughtfully nodding his head and taking notes as he spins Tissue of Lies, it has to be said that the Nocturnal Emissions back catalogue does seem to have foreshadowed a hell of a lot in a general sense, even without considering the proto-house of Viral Shedding. Some of Duty Experiment sounds almost like dubstep or grime in places, and regardless of whether or not this just emerges through natural pattern recognition, the proof of this particular pudding at least leaves a better tastes than whatever Porridge has decided to take credit for this week. One day the greatness of Nocturnal Emissions will be acknowledged, and this is as good a place to start as any.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Godflesh - Streetcleaner (1989)


Funny how certain things send you straight off in search of a particular bit of music. This one came back to me through the reproduction of a Daily Mail cartoon likening Muslim refugees to a plague of rats infesting host countries, just as Nazi cartoonists once made the same analogy with Jews; and the first track here is Like Rats which, aside from the parallel title, pretty much summarises the shittiness of a world run almost exclusively for the benefit of horrible Daily Mail reading cunts.

I was introduced to Godflesh with Us & Them, but for some reason have only recently begun to venture further into their back catalogue. I'm not sure why being as I love the shit out of Us & Them; although with hindsight, it's weird to consider that it's almost their album of uptempo pop songs, at least compared to this beast.

Actually, I suppose I was introduced to Godflesh - or at least to Justin Broadrick - much earlier when he recorded tapes of electronic noise as Final, and a few of his tracks appeared on the same noisy cassette compilations as some of my own stuff. I don't recall much about the music, beyond that one track was called Belief, but the fact that I remember it at all suggests it had something going for it. Also, the transition from power electronics to this sort of noise metal makes a lot of sense, and whilst Godflesh weren't the only band to go down that particular road, they remain the most listenable of their kind for my money - possibly excepting Ramleh who were kind of going for a different thing anyway.

Where Us & Them seems to share some kinship with Killing Joke or even Joy Division, Streetcleaner is a different, more primal monster. This one isn't so much songs as power electronics with riffs and a drum machine. Ordinarily, much as I love Brer Drum Machine, I'd raise an eyebrow at his use under circumstances where an actual drummer would have sounded so much better - like on Big Black's otherwise astonishing Atomiser, for one example. Streetcleaner initially sounds like it could do with a human bashing the skins, not least because the drum machine here is clearly programmed to have more or less the same effect as John Bonham, but after a few listens the reasoning for the choice becomes clear. There's something about the impersonal quality of a drum machine and the very fact of it being a machine which works so well. Music reviews employing the term jackhammer in reference to rhythm seem a bit of a cliché, but this one really does sound like that. It rocks like fuck whilst nevertheless resembling some inhuman mechanical process occurring inside the meat factory, the sort of thing with a start button and that big red plastic mushroom you bash to shut the whole system down when some poor fucker falls in and loses his legs. Add to this massive riffs delivered like concrete blocks onto a loading bay from the back of a truck, over and over and over, and every single one of them landing on your fucking foot.

It's huge and brutal, possibly an heir to the Swans, except Cop seems surprisingly subtle by comparison despite equivalent soul-crushing weight. Extremity has become a bit of a minefield in musical terms as of at least the last decade, mainly thanks to too many industrial types coming to resemble the enemy in their relentless invocation of the violence of civilisation. In fact I'm surprised there hasn't yet been a pro-UKIP power electronics act coming through, but give it time. Godflesh at least seem to have remained true to the spirit of dissent informing earlier generations of noisy buggers, the Grey Wolves for example - whom I mention partially because they're about as dark as it gets and I know they're good lads, and also because I know one of them occasionally reads this stuff, and because for the sake of argument I suppose Godflesh are the Grey Wolves with tunes, just about, at least in terms of what they do to your ears, brain, and arse.

It's hardly pretty, but then neither is the world which has inspired this particular hour long howl of rage, and sometimes it helps to be reminded of the fact with no punches pulled.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Lady Gaga - Artpop (2013)


So far as I've been concerned up until very recently, Lady Gaga was just wossername who brought us Poker Face, a song comprised entirely of choruses which sounded like it had been recorded on an expensive phone. It came on the radio at work to bring pleasure only in the knowledge that we at least weren't tuned to the station which played Chelsea Dagger by the fucking Fratellis every seven bleeding minutes. More recently I joined one of those facebook groups you hear about, specifically one in which members post a piccy of the cover of whatever they're listening to at the time, then we all say how we like it too, or we think it's shite, or how our next door neighbour once bummed the drummer or whatever. It's fun, but not without its annoyances, one of which is provided by the doubtless absolutely lovely and well intentioned guy who posts a picture of whatever he's listening to embellished with photocopied paper dollies of famous pop stars stood around the record cover along with a tattyfilarious script of their conversation.

ELVIS PRESLEY: Hey guys, I see Dave's checking out the first Doobie Brothers album.
BARBARA STREISAND: That's a pretty ropey looking copy.
BRITNEY SPEARS: Yeah, I hope he didn't pay too much for it.
ELVIS PRESLEY: Well, the Clash told me it was something he found in his dad's loft, so I guess he didn't pay anything.
BRITNEY SPEARS: Is that right?
THE CLASH: Don't ask us. We were still in the pub.
JOHNNY CASH: I think you mean me. People are always getting us confused.
BARBARA STREISAND: Ha ha!

No. I don't know why either, but to get to the point, our man recently posted a photograph of this Lady Gaga album as subject of imaginary debate amongst cut-out pictures of top poppers. Fuck's sake, I muttered darkly to myself, even more disgusted than usual; and then went off for a listen to some of the album on YouTube just to confirm that it was as shit as I thought it would be. Somehow it wasn't, at least it didn't sound that way on that particular morning, and so I wondered if I perhaps had Lady Gaga all wrong. After all, of the musical artists I rate most highly, my initial impression of almost every last one has usually been what the fuck is this shit?

Weirdly, whatever that not actually terrible track may have been, it sounds completely different on the actual disc, and completely different to the point that I'm not even sure which one it was. More annoyingly, Artpop is Madonna for people who post videos of themselves talking about their top five favourite Manga characters on YouTube and is about as good as I had a feeling it would be, at least in so much as it probably sounds amazing if you're under thirty and fucking stupid...

Nope. Not apologising for that one, and I don't care if I've just turned into my dad frowning at the Sex Pistols - young people are shit. Theoretically they can't all be shit, but I don't seem to have encountered too many exceptions to the rule: useless fuckers forever fiddling with their phones and texting about how all music is pointless now, not like the good old classic rock days of Oasis and Muse, or Andrew Lloyd Webber and Elton John, and old people are always going on about books but you can't learn nuffink from books because that ain't life and there's nuffink wrong with games because some of them have got really good stories now blah blah fucking blah - fuck you, kids. All of you. Develop some fucking discretion.

Sadly, Artpop is post-music, just the sonic extension of a larger, more substantial memeplex incorporating visuals, ringtones, sneakers, YouTube, and marketing strategy. It means well and it tries hard to deliver an authentic experience, but even with the best intention, it remains a McDonald's Fruit Bag™ at heart. I'm trying to pinpoint just what it is that fails to work, that lets the side down, but there's so much going on, and so much which sounds like it should work without actually succeeding that it's hard to identify any one specific turd in the musical swimming pool. Of course, being post-music, it all sounds like it was recorded on a phone, full of flourishes which never could have arisen prior to our developing the ability to move waveforms around on a screen. I'm a huge fan of weirdy electronic techno, and yet what happens here all feels too smooth and easily achieved, and it might almost resemble the Severed Heads -  ordinarily a recommendation - but for the problem that musically it only really does one thing, and it does it over and over. Everything sounds like a crescendo, like a musical analogy of the worst of modern cinema - the tender interlude from The Fast and the Furious again and again and again, all soft focus and a single tear forming in the corner of an unnaturally enlarged cinematic eye whilst five orchestras shit themselves in unison just in case that blind guy living on Pluto missed the point of it being an emotional moment.

I could live with this if Artpop had some dimension other than the celebration of its own artificiality, its own failure to resemble anything occurring in nature, but the rest of the sentence, had I bothered to spell it out, probably depends on how much you care about Andy Warhol, which personally I never did. The sexuality is up front and lurid, better done than the perpetually gurning Miley Cyrus forever holding her flaps apart and inviting you to take a lick, but still ultimately as clinical and calculating as any vagina airbrushed and clean shaven in the name of selling beer, guns, or cigarettes. I quite like sexy music, but properly sexy music rarely spells it out, and Gaga doesn't have the voice to pull it off, in either sense of the expression. She's decent, but then doubtless so are many other X-Factor contestants, and she only seems to do two things, either gushing operatically over musical crescendos or that wearyingly stern now I'm going to shove this up your arse, you naughty boy voice; excepting some bluesy effort towards the end of the disc to which she just isn't well suited. For fuck's sake woman, put some clothes on. We've seen enough.

Artpop is an advert for car insurance, a soundtrack for people who think that the fashion industry is important, techno which misses the great innovation of techno having been its rejection of personality. Artpop probably isn't quite so terrible as I've made it sound, but for something which tries so hard, it's surprising how little it really does.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Lene Lovich - Stateless (1978)


I bought Flex when it came out, and it probably numbered somewhere amongst the first ten or possibly twenty albums I owned; and then it went soon after during one of my own very few nights of the long playing knives, either for failing to be sufficiently punky or not featuring enough synthesisers, or some other ludicrous reason which could only ever make sense to a sixteen-year old. I bought it again more recently, and mainly prompted by my having stumbled across a somewhat knackered copy of Stateless in a junk shop, a purchase in turn inspired by the realisation that Lucky Number is a fucking cracker of a song whichever way you look at it.

More recently in some neglected corner of the internet I described Lene Lovich as Devo with tits, immediately invoking the ire of someone failing to recognise this for the compliment it was intended to be; although on close inspection it's true that Devo with tits probably doesn't really cover it. Stateless has some of that same mutant angularity which characterised Devo at the time, filtered through a cabaret sensibility, the melodrama of yer Brechts and yer Weills and those guys - gothy jazz rather than retrofuturism. Listening to this for the first time with all of those years having stacked up since its release, it sounds briefly like the epitomy of new wave - skinny ties, tight dry production, and what's obviously a sound honed by a full band during a succession of live dates - but it turns weird pretty quickly, rising above whatever expectations one might have of something released on Stiff in 1978. It's probably something to do with the four note choral tourettes of the bridge of Lucky Number. It still sounds weird and upsetting even now. Most of the tracks on this record do the same thing to greater or lesser degrees, freaking you out a bit before proving relatively friendly. You'd happily let Mrs. Lovich have a cup of sugar, but there's no way she's coming in for a cup of neighbourly tea because there's just no telling what would happen - I mean she seems pleasant enough, but no-one knows where the fuck she came from, and then you have those twenty foot pigtails...

Yet Stateless nevertheless does what it does without any obviously scary faces pulled, and we even get I Think We're Alone Now before Tiffany got hold of it. Perhaps oddly, in terms of instrumentation and general mood, I can imagine Bowie singing on this, and had he done so it would have been remembered as a classic of such stature as to necessitate punching those who disagree in the face; but it really wouldn't have been as good, and so it's ended up as one of those albums known mainly to people who know the album, and that's apparently the story in full.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

The Jam - Compact Snap! (1983)


I fucking loved the Jam, but never felt compelled to buy any of their music at the time because pocket money was limited and I could usually count on at least three of my friends at school to have bought the record before I'd even heard it was out; and then four albums later it all turned to shite, and shite of such a powerful stench as to sour the thought of ever owning anything touched by the hand of Weller. Nevertheless, thirty years have passed, which has proven sufficient to dim vague memories of the Style Council and the Cappuccino Kid, allowing that earlier era of general brilliance to once again shine through, and specifically to shine a ray directly into my eye just as I'm stood in the CD & DVD Exchange on Broadway.

'Bloody hell,' I say to myself, because I haven't thought about the Jam in a long, long time.

Compact Snap! is the truncated CD version of a vinyl double album of greatest hits, and for the first sixteen tracks it's sheer bliss; well, maybe fourteen tracks, because Start! only really qualifies as okay, and I probably haven't needed to hear That's Entertainment since about 2002 by which point it was the only song being played on at least three London radio stations; let's say up to and including Funeral Pyre, the last truly great Jam single.

These tracks are the Jam as I prefer to remember them, a real band as opposed to just a vehicle for Weller's growing sense of his own genius, sharp and punky yet well-dressed both sartorially and musically, and angry without being a dick about it. There's something very uplifting about even horror stories such as Down in the Tube Station at Midnight and The Eton Rifles, and then there's Smithers-Jones which was just about the greatest song of 1979, possibly the entire decade. Essentially they were a soul band with a punky dynamic.

Of course it all went tits up as Weller slowly became his own Tony Hancock impersonation, indirectly encouraging a thousand horrible Cromwellian imitators like Dennis Greaves' The Truth, all desperately wishing it could be 1966 again and that we didn't have to endure homosexual drag clowns playing their synthesiser disco on Top of the Pops. There are a couple of songs I'd thankfully forgotten on Compact Snap!, mostly those sounding like every other record of 1982 to feature a sweaty bloke with a crewcut in one of those German military vests parping away on a trumpet; and Town Called fucking Malice from that film about big-hearted yet rootsy northerners overcoming Thatcherism and their own northernly shortcomings by embracing ballet, proper culture and listening to Radio 4 a bit more often. The last five hits on this collection suck so hard that they sound kind of lost isolated from their natural habitat of a Now That's What I Deem To Be Music compilation sandwiched between Charlene's I've Never Been To Me and Blue fucking Rondo a la Turk; probably best to think of them as early Style Council rather than late Jam; and then of course there was Weller refusing to speak to the other two for the next couple of decades...

Bollocks.

Let's just remember them as they were, as they still sound on In the City, All Around the World, and all the others, young and fucking brilliant.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Dr. Dre - Compton (2015)


I have this theory which I've been developing over the last couple of years; well, not so much a theory as a classification, and one which I'm trying hard to convince myself is completely different to representatives of my father's generation sniffily insisting that the Sex Pistols weren't music. The theory is that at some point during the last decade, or maybe a little before, music bifurcated into two distinct families with very little in common beyond mutual transmission by means of sound waves, the families being that which we already understand as encompassed by the term music, and the new thing which I'll call post-music; and yes I am aware how closely this resembles those Dizzy Rasclaats you listen to, that's just noise.

Music, as we already understand it is, for the sake of argument, immersive - we go to the gig or we sit listening to the record and reading the cover as it plays. These are broad generalisations, but the core point is that the individual engages fairly directly with whatever they are listening to, at least some of the time, regardless of what it sounds like or what its constituent elements may be. Post-music is generally anything released since about 1995 which makes you feel either old, or like grabbing the monosyllabic little fuckers responsible by the scruff of their necks and rubbing their noses in it so they know not to do it again. Post-music is often easily identified by a ton of autotune, arcade game sounds, a certain ravey quality synonymous with music which could only have been composed by moving waveforms around on a screen, a general sentiment amounting to awesome, dude, and compositions equating to weird flavours beloved of small children which don't actually occur anywhere in nature, bubble-gum ice cream and so on. There's also a certain inability to distinguish quality from shite leading to disastrous results when combined with a weird view of nostalgia as positive in and of itself, hence fifteen-year old laptop prodigies synthesising Elton John or the dynamic of the Electric Light Orchestra.

The thing is, to be fair, post-music isn't really about the music so much as a projected memeplex of which the music is just one minor component. Post-music is for playing on your phone through a shitty speaker, not so much for your direct enjoyment as for the pleasure you may take from visibly associating yourself with the music as others pass by; in other words it may as well be a t-shirt with an awesome logo. The music is unimportant outside what it says about you to others. Similarly, the music will, without exception, have a video accompaniment, and the video accompaniment and that which it communicates will be at least as important as the song, and often more so.

Post-music artists include, I would suggest, LMFAO, Lady Gaga whoever shat out that Cha Cha Slide shit, We Are Young by Fun, and about a million others I can't bear to think about. It isn't that it's all a big pile of useless shite, but that it isn't music by terms I recognise even if music is an element; and this is why anything involving autotune is nearly always bollocks.

Okay, maybe not always, but I'll come back to that.

I've lost track of what happened to Detox, the long-awaited and never to arrive follow up to Dre's 2001 album. I gather a load of the tracks have turned up here and there but the man himself was never really happy with it and so called it a day and just popped this one out on the spur of the moment, almost certainly inspired by all that was stirred up during the making of the film Straight Outta Compton, at least if the intensely reflective lyrical content is anything to go by. It's paid off too, in so much as this sounds like a record which someone enjoyed making, or at least enjoyed making presumably more than he enjoyed wittling away at Detox for the last fifteen years.

Most surprising I suppose is that it doesn't sound anything like the Dre with which we are familiar, or at least it doesn't until the initial shock passes and you notice it's actually not a million sonic miles away from some of the Eminem records he's produced in recent years. I suppose the surprise comes from my assuming those records sounded as they did because of Eminem rather than his producer. Then again, Dr. Dre's success is probably in the dramatic evolution of his sound, and it's a tough call thinking of anyone else in the music business who has endured so well, advanced so much, and yet remained pretty much true to himself. I mean The Chronic was twenty-three years ago. Can you believe that?

Compton is Dre doing what I've come to regard as post-music, and showing that actually you can pull that shit off if you just make the effort. It's not only the autotune, but the whole dynamic, arcade blips and subsonic bass, crunk snare, and For the Love of Money which could almost be Three-6-Mafia; but somehow it's done with a certain light touch which elevates it way above mere ringtone status, and then the more you listen, the more you notice the old school touches, and just how soulful this record is; and he's made Snoop sound amazing again, and Cold 187um and Xzibit are back; and even the Game and he's not just reading out a list of his fave albums for once...

Compton is an incredible album. In case anyone ever doubted it, the guy is a genius, not least for snatching that rinky-dink ringtone crap back from the kids and making it work as something real.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Nine Inch Nails - The Slip (2008)


It would probably be hyperbole to describe Nine Inch Nails as the last real rock band - not least because I wouldn't even agree with such a claim myself - but it's actually quite difficult to remember the others whilst immersed in a Nine Inch Nails album, or at least that's what I've found. I use the term rock band, because that's what either they are or he is now that all industrial music has been officially reclassified as Belgian New Beat. I realise not everyone loves Nine Inch Nails as I do, and they - or possibly he - often seem particularly subject to sneering from those openly declaring love for Coil, Ministry, or one of those other loser acts existing primarily for the purpose of giving angry loners something to declare themselves like really into so as to impress sheeplike Dorito-chugging job-having squaro-cuboid normals with just how deep and meaningful they really are; if you'll pardon my brief descent into ranting.

Nope. For all the funny noises and distortion, Trent Reznor is essentially a populist. He makes records in the hope of people listening to the fucking things and getting something from them, which actually isn't a crime; and he makes bloody good records, and fairly weird records for something having more in common with Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Pixies than fifty minutes of refrigerator hum put through a delay pedal while the bloke who used to play tambourine in Throbbing Gristle reads passages from a library book about Aleister Crowley or the latest issue of The Murder Casebook which builds week by week into a unique and comprehensive encyclopedia of homicidal nutters who aren't actually as interesting as you may initially suspect. Furthermore, The Slip is probably the least impressive of the NIN back catalogue, and yet it does the business regardless. I'm inclined to wonder whether Reznor just shits out top quality material without even thinking about it, or somewhere there's a vast mountain of all the stuff he never finished because it wasn't any good.

The Slip sounds very much like a live recording, meaning in terms of instrumentation and dynamic rather than ambient cheering and the sound of fans calling out for Nice Legs, Shame About the Face; although I may be influenced here by having watched the free DVD on which near identical versions of the same songs are performed live in studio by a full band. So it has a certain immediacy, lacking the prog rock multilayering of previous releases; not that it makes any difference because Reznor's strength is in what he does as much as how he gets there. There's something quite unique about his songs as characterised by bluesy riffs, masterful use of distortion, and a wonderful sense of tension allowing the harsh to coexist with the very fragile. In fact there's something peculiarly sensual, even sexy, about the way he pulls certain tunes together, and sexy in the same way Adam and the Ants used to be before they discovered Four Feather Falls. Discipline in particular feels like a clandestine rummage involving silk underwear of some description, regardless of all the metal, and then that bass comes in like a finger stuck abruptly up one's bumhole, but in a good way.

Just me then.

I mean seriously - Echoplex has the most 1982-sounding drum machine you've ever heard and lalalala Beach Boy harmonies, and it's still a fucking cracker. This man just doesn't give a shit, and that's what sets him apart from all those other clowns stood around pretending to inhale in the Charles Manson t-shirts their mums bought them for Christmas. I get the impression The Slip was more or less pooped out over a bank holiday weekend for the sake of something to do, but it's nevertheless yet another Nails masterpiece.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Black Sabbath - Master of Reality (1971)


Black Sabbath initially came under the heading of artists to be avoided on principal thanks to my having grown up in a rural Warwickshire town in which a preference for Joy Division - or indeed almost anything with short hair - over Tygers of Pan Tang revealed one as a bare bummer who liked men's cocks and to dress up as a woman and was definitely gay and liked gay men's cocks and liked to feel them and thought Boy George was an inspiration 'cuz you were into men's bums and arseholes and that and being as gay as possible and liking men's cocks and if someone had invented a men's gay cocks sandwich you'd be first in fucking line for a bite, you gay cunt. To be fair, it didn't have to be Tygers of Pan Tang. In fact it didn't really matter so long as it was NWOBHM and you weren't a gay bastard who liked gay men's cocks because you were gay. I'm sure you get the picture.

Despite all the aversion therapy, I eventually came to understand the distinction between certain bands - notably Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden - and all the other useless wankers with knockery vixen warrior women clogging up the covers of their shitty records - Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Krokus, Rainbow, and all that utter widdly-widdly axe solo shite. Paranoid was somehow one of the first things I learned to play on guitar, and I borrowed the single from Philip Cameron at school, and I couldn't help but notice that the b-side wasn't bad either. With hindsight I've come to realise that aside from the hair there was never that much difference between Black Sabbath and the Joy Division, whose music I enjoyed without reservation.

More recently I came across a spoken word routine by Henry Rollins in which the lad proposes that innocuously named tropical weather systems such as El Niño be renamed in ways more congruent with their terrible destructive power. One such rebranding would, he suggests, be the First Four Black Sabbath Albums. Weather reports would then warn us that if we should be anywhere up the east coast of Florida this evening we might want to take precautions because the First Four Black Sabbath Albums have been heating up the air down in the gulf and we're probably going to see some serious storm damage by morning. Personally I think it could work, particularly having now heard at least three of them.

Having further differentiated Black Sabbath from anything involving David bloody Coverdale, I am surprised at how simple they actually sound - very basic, just your straightforward blues rock with special emphasis on the more malevolent vibes. I vaguely recall seeing Ozzy Osbourne interviewed on some show, accounting for the formation of Black Sabbath by noting that all he heard on the radio were flower children singing about sunshine and happy times and San Francisco, whilst all he could see out of his own window was Birmingham - or words to that effect. Keeping this in mind, much as I loathe the term industrial music, I'd suggest Black Sabbath did it first. Throbbing Gristle may have aspired to being a noisier Velvet Underground or even Hawkwind, but the mood was more Sabbath than Lou Reed or anyone so self-consciously Bohemian; and as my friend Carl has pointed out, Joy Division were basically Black Sabbath - providing you ignore Closer, which should probably be a given because it was mostly rubbish - and then of course there's Swans, and all those goth bands.

The more I listen to Black Sabbath, the more I realise how difficult it is to find rock music without a trace of their influence to one degree or another. Whilst they may not exactly have introduced the bad vibe to popular music - that being an essential ingredient of the blues from which they drew one hell of a lot of inspiration - they may have been the first to pass it on without embellishment, without trying to make it sound glamorous.

I know the Paranoid album a little better, and I've only just got hold of Master of Reality, so it hasn't quite sunk in yet, but it's already very clearly on the same level, and there's a noticeable improvement in the lyrics - some of those on the previous one being decidedly ropey in places; and, as with Paranoid, it really makes you wonder how all those shitty NWOBHM bands could have got it so wrong given how the great strength of this music is its simplicity, how it made even those Sexy Pistols sound like fucking ELO in places. I wish it hadn't taken me quite so long to realise any of this, but never mind.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Codeine - Frigid Stars (1990)


Everybody loves Mr. Unpopular the manic-depressive outsider, the tortured poet, the guy who just doesn't fit in, and particularly if he has a square jaw, dreamy blue eyes, and that little boy lost quality which works so well for Johnny Depp in whichever version of Alice Tim Burton has recycled this month. That's commercial, as Borgia Ginz will tell you. This probably explains the success of Nirvana, and how their rise to power wiped less successful, less conspicuously Beatly but I think more musically interesting groups out of the picture like the saaaaaaad losers they all were with their hilariously awkward and distinctly un-hunky brainiac frontmen. Ha! What did any of their lot ever know about alienation, the retard n00bs etc. etc.

Actually, I have no idea whether Codeine would have been fucking enormous if not for the distraction of Smells Like Teen Spirit, and I suppose it seems fairly unlikely. I guess my point is that this was more like the real deal in some respects - awkward, not very photogenic, and not something you would have heard at a party. I first encountered Frigid Stars when my friend Andrew lent it to me back in the nineties. I played it maybe twice but couldn't really get into it, which was a shame seeing as Andrew clearly rated it very highly, being a somewhat depressive personality.

Andrew died in 2009, leaving me with a possibly vestigial pang of guilt that I never made the effort with this record, not that it would have made any difference; and so obviously I bought it when I happened upon this copy in the racks at CD Exchange.

I can see why it took so long. Codeine were well named. Their songs are glacially slow to the point of tunes only being apparent if you play the thing at 78RPM so as to artificially bunch all those dwindling notes together; but on the other hand, this material really does grow on you if you're in the right frame of mind, that being the same sort of mood which allows for a full appreciation of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea - another of Andrew's faves by the way. Frigid Stars is a little like early Swans in terms of pace and mood, but without any of the usual notational tricks generally employed to invoke doom; so the chords and the general structure is actually quite gentle and beautiful, if admittedly reluctant to pull on its dancing shoes. It's like being wrapped in cotton wool, and was - I suppose - one of many precursors to emo, except from what I can tell emo seems to have come from the marginally later generation whose first emotional crisis was experienced on the fourth level of Super Mario Kart rather than out here in the real world interacting with people who don't wear eyeliner. To get back to the point, I have an unfortunate hunch that Frigid Stars very much represents what it felt like to be my friend Andrew, and so I find this quite a powerful record in 2009 because I still miss him. I don't know if that's a recommendation or not, but at least I can see why he lent it to me.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Criminalz - Criminal Activity (2001)


Criminalz were an aspiring west coast supergroup; or would have been had Jayo Felony been able to commit. He was named as a member in the early publicity material but blew it out for some reason, although he guests on more than half of the tracks here. So the no-show left just Celly Cel and Spice 1, and whilst their aggregate fame may indeed be such as to pay for a fancy house and flashy cars which go up and down, I doubt either of them feature greatly in anything written David Toop, renowned hip-hopper expert and afficionado of rapper songs, so Criminalz' status as a supergroup probably depends on where you live, or more specifically on whether you live somewhere down the left-hand side of America.

So as to avoid too much repetition, the usual terms and conditions apply given the lyrical content and generally disgruntled thrust of this music; or, if you can't be arsed to refer to previous reviews of this sort of thing, please try to remember that just because a black man said it, it doesn't mean that he's dishing it out as recommended career options. If you have trouble with this concept, just try to pretend we're talking about Eminem or one of those nice, artistically erudite white rappers in the storytelling tradition of Chaucer, Kubrick and the rest.

Okay.

Well, you probably have some idea of what you'll get whenever a group spells its name with a Z where one might reasonably expect an S, and true to form that's what you get here; although for what it's worth, Spice 1 at least has always preferred to call it reality rap. Whether or not you regard that as a bad thing probably depends on how the previous paragraph applies to you, but Criminal Activity is nevertheless a pretty solid album to my ears. Neither Spice 1 nor Celly Cel have ever quite been headliners in the grand scheme of things, but both have earned their stripes over the years, so to speak, with work of consistent high quality, album after album, maybe nothing hitting the front page but giants within their own world; and both have highly distinctive styles of delivery and a certain shared hard-edge which made the prospect of this collaboration particularly exciting. The beats are about as west coast as it gets without actually falling into the sea - slow, hard, and funky with squelching bass and that regular crunch of rhythm timed to walking pace. It's music that makes the most sense on hot days, a sort of dirty soul which keeps smiling despite all the shit it has to put up with because what the fuck - the sun is out, like I said. Maybe you've been there, in which case Criminal Activity will make a lot of sense; and if you haven't, well this is how it is. Feel free to learn something.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Hero of a Hundred Fights - The Cold, The Remote (2001)


Having once played guitar in a band which almost recorded a Doctor Who themed concept album featuring tracks with titles like Travels in the Tardis, the proposal of which inspired me to discreetly make my excuses and exit said band, I'm ordinarily a little sceptical of this kind of thing. The Cold, The Remote probably isn't quite this kind of thing, although it's arguably close having taken chunks of thematic inspiration from Lawrence Miles' Doctor Who novel Interference which is expressed at least in the artwork and track titles. On the other hand, if you're going to take inspiration from a Doctor Who novel, then you'd be hard-pressed for a finer source than Interference - a book which failed to follow the rest of Who back to mainstream popularity partially, I would argue, because it makes the rest of said corporate entertainment franchise look a bit shit, quite frankly, at least in terms of its ambition. Matt Smith grinning and pointing at his fez is as far removed from Interference as is Flash Gordon from Gulliver's Travels, and yes I mean the chuffin' book.

Titles and images aside, it's difficult to work out quite how Hero of a Hundred Fights relate to the book which at least one of them has obviously read. Interference presents numerous satirical societies, mechanised and otherwise, as parodies of everything which is wrong with our own, and my guess is that this is what they're riffing on. The lyrics are ambiguous, seemingly presenting an emotional impression more than anything, but it's nevertheless powerful stuff.

I've a feeling this may be math rock and is as such a relative of the music of Tool, although I'm not sure I've ever heard Tool so I'm a bit out of my depth with such categories. Anyway, what we have are dense walls of knotted melodies twiddling over and over and only really sounding like music by virtue of repetition, all twisted up inside pounding, jerky rhythms of some sort of progressive constitution. Why this works is possibly because it was recorded by Steve Albini, and so while the whole improbably ornate edifice is tight as fuck, it's nevertheless hard, raw, loud, and threatening to spiral out of control at any moment, although it never does. In fact it's sort of like a skinnier, slightly more angsty version of Tad, and is as such wonderful.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Soundgarden - Superunknown (1994)


I'm not quite sure why but I didn't really get this one until I moved to America. Black Hole Sun always sounded astonishing, and is surely one of the greatest singles ever recorded, but initial impressions of the rest comprised mainly guitar solos and a long-haired man in silver trousers stood screaming yeaaaaaaah baby from the top of a speaker cabinet the size of Ted Nugent's rock 'n' roll shack out yonder. It may as well have been Guns 'n' Roses - and please note the correct punctuation of their name whilst we're here.

Then I moved to Texas, gave Superunknown another couple of spins and it all began to make sense. It's not so much that they were ever just another generic band of dudes rocking out in black leather, but that their strengths are subtle, elements you may not notice immediately, or at least I didn't. Black Hole Sun, for example, you could describe as a really bad acid trip given that it's the sort of description which tends to emerge from the Kafkaesque process of writing about music, but actually it's not really like that at all. It might be better to describe Black Hole Sun as an acid trip going somewhere you would rather it didn't go - if we can momentarily ignore the room-dwelling elephant of such descriptions being essentially ludicrous. What I mean to say is that Black Hole Sun, like much of this album, conveys a range of quite subtle emotions. It's nothing extreme in the sense of Killing Joke or whoever.

The more I listen to this, the more it occurs to me that Soundgarden are, or at least were, pretty much a psychedelic band in the vague tradition of Cream and related Woodstocky types. They make with that characteristic seasick psychedelic notation, the slight sense of disorientation and invocation of coming up on some substance or other whilst melting in a chair staring at your foot. There's an element of early Black Sabbath even, maybe without quite such a bad vibe, although still bordering on dark, like it could all plummet into brown acid hell at any moment; and it works because they eschew the more twee excesses of psychedelia, the boss-eyed claims of having just seen a pixie in the garden despite everyone knowing full well that you're talking out of your arse - or bollocks about third eyes having been opened for that matter. Superunknown is, I suppose, biker psychedelia, more pragmatic, more grizzled, and more inclined to shut up when it has nothing it wants to say, allowing the music to speak for itself; and the music is fucking beautiful, near symphonic in its detail and lightness of touch once you've heard past the walls of overdrive and fuzz.

This has possibly been my purplest ever testimony to a record, but fuck it - Superunknown is worth it.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Blaze - 1 Less G in the Hood deluxe edition (2006)


Blaze initially resembled just another fat white guy and reformed school bully in clown paint, pulling faces for the camera in an effort to sell an overcompensating Nightmare on Elm Street schtick as a substitute for the sort of actual experience from which less demographically blessed rap artists might draw lyrical inspiration; or that was how it sort of looked to me back in 2001 when the first version of 1 Less G in the Hood came out. On the other hand, I didn't entirely trust this, my own impression, being as it sailed a bit too close to the sort of bollocks I had read and sneered at in The Source. Blaze was obviously white, and for all I know maybe some law degree at Harvard hadn't quite worked out leaving just the gangsta rap and the misogyny, but then just about every other rapper out there has been subject to a variation on such accusations of dubious authenticity, and such Cromwellian reductionism ultimately leads down the road to people who will only listen to music recorded by someone you've never heard of who once cleaned Kool Herc's windshield at an intersection in 1978 and who never actually recorded or released any music because that would have been selling out. This leaves us with just the CD by which to judge the music.

Oh well.

As it happens, 1 Less G in the Hood is pretty damn convincing, whatever your reservations. Musically it's a long, long way from the rap metal one might expect, barring an occasional smattering of riffage, and most of these beats wouldn't sound out of place on a Westside Connection album, slow grooves swaggering along in the California heat - or I suppose the Michigan heat in this case - soulful and yet faintly menacing, roughly akin to threats made by a guy who is probably in too good a mood to carry them out right now. Lyrically Blaze sounds at least as pissed off as Ice Cube has ever been, although the subject matter verges into surreal territories given the living dead persona, which handily performs double duty as a metaphor for the general shittiness of life under certain economic conditions. So this be some cartoon shite, but it works because the guy quite clearly means it - is what I'm saying here, and it's hard to keep from being swept up in the angry bounce of the beats. It probably won't please those rap purists whose true school authenticity is of such burning vigour as to have been distilled down to just the essentials of that David Toop book and a Public Enemy album purchased for ₤3.99 in the Our Price closing down sale whilst feeling a bit edgy, but fuck 'em; or Blaze is Necro but better, if you prefer.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Nagamatzu - Shatter Days (1983)


When I first moved away from home I was sharing a house with one Reuben, a sculpture student from Ipswich. Happily we had similar musical tastes centred around shared appreciation of a cannily programmed drum machine, tastes which allowed us to present a united front against the third member of our household, a painting student named Kevin who was into jazz and real music, whatever the hell that was supposed to be. We all got on fine most of the time, but occasionally we'd argue.

'Synthesiser!' Reuben would spit as an expletive as Kevin shuffled back to his room and all that proper music he listened to, Pat Metheny or whatever.

Anyway, at some point Reuben slung me a tape of a group called Nagamatzu. I'd never heard of them. 'They're from Ipswich,' he told me. 'You might like them.'

I did, and I kept an eye open ever since, somehow missing them each time they resurfaced - not that they were exactly putting themselves about. So for much of the last thirty years, Nagamatzu have remained more or less that band which I taped off Reuben from where I stood, even as I'd seen the name of Lagowski - one half of Nagamatzu - crop up in numerous fanzines without realising there was an association. When Shatter Days was reissued on vinyl, seemingly out of the blue, I accordingly nearly quacked my pants with excitement. I hadn't even realised it was called Shatter Days.

It's just four tracks, supplemented by a few things contributed to compilation albums around the same time, but Lordy it's powerful. It's also of its time, as the unfortunate qualifier would have it, in so much as I'm pretty sure that's a Roland TR606 I can hear spanking out a typically android rhythm, and as a fan of both Joy Division and the Cure, these are probably the sort of bass lines I would have played through my flange pedal, had I owned a flange pedal; but before I present an impression of something which sounded like a hell of a lot of other backcombed material of 1983 vintage, Nagamatzu put vaguely familiar elements together in a combination which greatly exceeded the sum of the parts. It's not so much that they ever sounded like either New Order or the Cure as that this is what New Order and the Cure should have sounded like but didn't, because New Order turned into some sort of extended Trevor Horn remix and the Cure were always better as the Joy Division you could eat between meals without ruining your appetite, before it went all self-consciously Alice in Wonderland.

Anyway. Other bands - fuck 'em. Shatter Days still effortlessly strikes that fine emotional balance achieved on only a couple of New Order records, somewhere betwixt the sun bursting joyous from the heavens and a vague memory of once having felt like slashing your wrists at a bus-stop in Huddersfield, a sort of bitter-sweet euphoria for want of a less comical description. What seems astonishing is that they achieved such an effect by such apparently minimal means, chugging bass riffs and just a couple of notes with which to render something that essentially does the same job as Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam. This one really is a masterpiece.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

NWA - Straight Outta Compton (1988)


Still one of the greatest rap albums of all time, maybe the greatest, and still annoying the living shit out of people three decades later. Since the NWA movie came out a few weeks back I've experienced a huge and repetitive upsurge in the sort of complete bollocks people always come out with in proximity to this record and those who made it. Amongst the less contentious observations has been the traditional suggestion that It Takes A Nation of Millions knocks and will forever in perpetuity knock Compton into a cocked hat, alongside every other rap album which the person delivering the statement hasn't heard, which is usually almost all of them. Public Enemy were great, for sure, but this sort of thing always sounds to me like well, I'd rather support the work of responsible black people who know how to behave in polite company, in other words, I want to hear what you have to say, beleaguered minority voice, but within reason, and nothing I wouldn't be able to repeat in church.

It's my own fault for replacing all of my former social interactions with facebook. Mere days after the film came out, someone had politely befouled my page with an article about all the women Dr. Dre has beaten up over the years. I'm not sure if he expected me to apologise or something, but I'm disinclined to even discuss rap or its failings with someone who only gives a shit when there are censorious fingers to be pointed. The article was further embellished with the following response from another facebook person, one I've been ignoring since they shared one of those Muslims who don't like the flag should fuck off back to Russia type opinion pieces masquerading as a news article.

I have always wondered why so people enjoyed their music, and why now so many people want to go see their movie. There are a lot of people in the music industry that I just don't understand how so many people go crazy over. Why does society think it's okay to be hateful to some people, and make huge celebrities out of such hatred spewing forth from their "art"? There is so much more to be asked, but it has given me such a headache. It is not okay to be hateful and hurtful, and yet there society goes making hateful people rich and huge celebrities.

I know: person who doesn't like rap fails to like rap, which isn't what I find so aggravating so much as the notion that an opinion formed in general ignorance of a subject is now so often held to be as valid as actually knowing shit. I'm not a huge fan of that dancehall artist who used to advocate shooting homosexuals, but then I can't even remember who he is or what the record was, and I know fuck all about dancehall so my opinion, beyond a few basics, probably doesn't count for a whole lot.

Probably Dr. Dre is indeed a horrible cunt. The music industry is hardly lacking in horrible cunts, most of whom seem to get a free pass, and this specific focus on Dr. Dre as a horrible cunt seems significantly informed by how strongly we disapprove of his records, none of which - it might be pointed out - waste much time in trying to promote the image of Dr. Dre as a more caring amalgam of Bono, Val Doonican, and Deputy Dawg. I personally feel the relationship of artist as horrible cunt to his or her work is most eloquently expressed in this instance when Ice Cube asks do I look like a motherfucking role model? on Gangsta Gangsta, the answer to which is, most realistically, no he doesn't; and I think he would be surprised and disappointed with you if you said yes.

I'm not sure it's possible to make it any clearer than that. Straight Outta Compton was never meant to constitute advice, and if it upsets you, that's probably because it's supposed to upset you. Whilst this doesn't make Dr. Dre any less of a horrible cunt, neither does it necessarily invalidate his art or what any of them were trying to do with it, any more than Alice in Wonderland is a bad book because of the author's poorly quantified regard of little girls.

Musically it's sharp as fuck, one of those rare discs which makes everything else you listen to that month sound shite, at least while you're playing it. The rhymes are tight, brutal, absolutely on point, and often very funny because the album is a bunch of kids talking shit to their mates on a street corner rather than an earnest political address unto all the nations of the world; and if you don't think bunches of kids should be allowed to talk shit to each other on street corners, or that it's okay providing they first check with a responsible adult to make sure there's nothing that would seem out of place on the Disney channel, then fucking screw you because you're the reason people still need to make albums like this one.

The bottom line here is, I would say, that if you've ever been in the position of there being another person or group of people having so much power over you that you really and literally want to break their arm, leg, head, skull, or whatever it takes for you to shift that weight, then you will understand this album and why it was made and why there are sexual swearwords. If you've never been in such a diminished position then be happy because you're pretty lucky. Regarding those sections of human society still getting the shitty end of the stick in the twenty-first century, either you want them to have a voice, to maybe have some sort of say so as to be able to elevate themselves by some means, or you want them to shut up and keep making your trainers or serving your burgers; and if you want them to have a voice, you don't get to pick and choose what they say.

...then again, what the fuck do I know? I probably only listen to this because I think it's cool.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

New Model Army - No Rest for the Wicked (1985)


New Model Army were never obvious candidates for membership of my record collection, but they sort of came to me through a process resembling osmosis. I spent at least a couple of weeks of 1985 in proximity to Chatham's small but daunting contingent of New Model Army fans, wearers of leather jackets and clogs who regularly undertook a hajj to Bradford, presumably to camp out in Slade the Leveller's garden or something. Ordinarily I might have been a bit creeped out by such over-investment in the oeuvre of just one band, but as I came to appreciate, New Model Army were actually a pretty good band, and if you're going to join a cult, than it may as well be one with a few decent tunes to its name - thus disqualifying anything involving Porridge. New Model Army appealed to me for the same reason that the Apostles appealed to me, specifically that with all the anarchy, peace and freedom then so popular amongst the yoots of a certain social stratum, it was kind of refreshing to hear songs about kicking Nazi heads in or throwing insurance salesmen from the top of tall buildings.

In terms of their following, New Model Army seemed to be what happened once goths got fed up of townies taking the piss and duly started punching faces, presumably having come back from summer holidays spent lifting concrete blocks on some farm somewhere - kids with an inherent distrust of authority who might be a bit sensitive in certain respects, but nevertheless enjoyed the occasional punch-up of a Saturday night after the pubs had closed.

Musically - at least at the time of this album - New Model Army were sort of Crass or maybe Conflict crossed with Big Country, or something in that general direction. It was a huge, pounding sound designed to reach all the way to the back of the stadium, an anthemic cry by which rugged men would face the sunset with their long hair flowing majestically in the north wind like anti-authoritarian lions. It was the point at which Led Zeppelin crossed over with Steeleye Span or summink. I suppose what I'm scrabbling at is New Model Army playing folk music, albeit a face-punching variant drenched in patchouli and preferring snakebite to anything one might serve in a pewter tankard. In other words it's populist, perhaps even addressing the accusation that I've heard made of Crass and others that the harsh form taken by the music greatly limits the range of its audience, which is a contradiction when that music is specifically concerned with communication. New Model Army's music on the other hand gushes in positively cinematic terms. It's powerful and simple with obvious mass appeal, and such obvious mass appeal that I got away with buying my dad this album for Christmas one year, telling him it was a bit like Big Country or Thin Lizzy.

Of course, it might be pointed out that the direct simplicity of most New Model Army songs, the way in which they tend to reduce everything to black and white, isn't significantly different to what the Daily Mail does - all furrowed brows and mobs formed on the promise of how we're not going to stand for it any more. It might also be pointed out - as I'm sure that bloke from Conflict probably noticed - that New Model Army unwittingly represent commodified revolution, a low calorie upsurge of ambiguously directed anger and emotion when compared with those of their contemporaries who managed to put out records without signing to EMI. Whilst both points may hold some water, I'd say it's probably a question of degree, and even a Crass album is probably commodified revolution if you've purchased it through Amazon, so there's possibly not much joy in getting too puritanical given that even commodified revolution is better than growing up with nothing stronger than Peters & Lee.

Thirty years later, No Rest for the Wicked still sounds fresh, not even particularly dated - which is surprising considering all the flangey bass effects. This is probably because they've always seemed like they mean it, and they achieve that rare synthesis of sounding both uplifting and fucking furious in the same breath; and it can't hurt that their message of not letting bastards grind you down is unfortunately timeless.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Skinny Puppy - Cleanse Fold and Manipulate (1987)


Should there not be a comma in there somewhere? Anyway, none of it will really matter once I get my bill through congress, specifically my bill to have almost all industrial music officially reclassified as Belgian New Beat. If it wasn't actually recorded by a member of Throbbing Gristle or SPK in 1978 - excluding those who bravely vocalised their hatred of gypsies or else went on to bash the skins for Skrewdriver whilst insisting that music and politics should never mix - then it ain't fucking industrial and is therefore Belgian New Beat so far as I'm concerned. Once applied, the bill will float works by Whitehouse, Ministry, Cassandra Complex and the Neon Judgement on the open market where they will be obliged to compete with the musically superior work of TNT Clan, Lords of Acid, and the Confetti's. Record stores and mail order operations will be required to reorganise their stock and the categories through which it is sold; and Oxford University Press will be obliged to recall, revise and reprint all copies of S. Alexander Reed's Assimilate: A Critical History of Belgian New Beat - as will be its new title; on which subject, here's an excerpt from the first chapter:

It was April 5, 1991, and Gary Levermore was worried. He'd spent thousands flying the band Front Line Assembly from Vancouver to London for a concert he was promoting that night at the Venue, a seventy-year-old stone building in New Cross. 'It wasn't in the centre of town where you'd think it would be easy for people to get to. Instead it was a few miles further south; not on an underground line,' he remembers. The first time Front Line Assembly had played London, in July 1989, the turnout was disastrously low...

When Levermore arrived at the old theatre, though, it was clear there would be no repeat of 1989's miserable show. Wrapped in a long queue down Clifton Ride were some three hundred industrial fans, dressed in black...

I suspect he's referring to Clifton Rise, there being no such place as Clifton Ride. Additionally, the Venue is about three minutes walk in a straight line along a main road from New Cross station, which is on the East London Line in terms of the underground network; and I myself was present at that gig, and the place was conspicuously less than half full; and all of this on the very first page, which is one of several reasons why I've yet to avail myself of a copy of Reed's Critical History of Belgian New Beat. I'm also a little put off by the title coming from a Skinny Puppy track because - all joking aside - they really sort of are Belgian New Beat, apart from being Canadian.

I never really got Skinny Puppy, and this album, picked up for mere dollars with the idea that I may have been wrong all these years, goes some way to illustrating why this should be. I'm sure I've seen it turning up in a few of those dreary ten industrial albums you must hear kind of lists, invariably alongside Coil's CD of the humming noise made by their fridge and Sol Invictus gathering together a few entirely harmless songs about how the world would be a better place without certain kinds of people if you know what I mean, not mentioning no names or nuffink.

I'm actually not averse to a spot of Belgian New Beat. Front 242 have barely ever set an electronic foot wrong to my ears, and whilst Front Line Assembly are really just Napalm Death with a synthesiser, they've usually sounded decent to me; and then there's Nitzer Ebb, and the Severed Heads were pretty much one of the greatest bands of all time, but then I hear this...

The first thing you do when you buy a digital effects box is you select reverb, you whack the decay up to about two minutes - or as far as it will go - and then you tap your finger gently against the microphone and summon forth the screaming cacophony of the void as the black stars of the netherverse devour the fabric of reality. After another ten minutes you either get bored of this or else try to make a career out of it like that Lustmord chap. Whilst Cleanse Fold and Manipulate also has sequencers and drum machines to impersonate medieval armies smashing up your castle thanks to the magic of the two minute reverb, it kind of comes from the same place; and the singer appears to be auditioning for the role of wicked goblin number two in Lord of the Rings, and it really sounds to me like he's singing with an affected English accent because the English are always the bad guys in the movies; and there's a bloke called Nivek Ogre on this record, and Nivek is Kevin spelled backwards; and the whole thing sounds so cock-obviously digital it borders on being a Duran Duran extended club mix from when they were famous, without irony, right down to stabs of orchestral sound.

Nevertheless, after three or four plays I begin to hear past the above, and see at least some of the appeal which lays in Skinny Puppy having been - probably unintentionally - a sort of Belgian New Beat Virgin Prunes. There's nothing much you would call a tune, just grooves, a lot of scraping and scowling, and a texture emerging from the relative chaos which works by similar means as did those very early Throbbing Gristle tapes - unfamiliar noises and effects rendered familiar through repetition. Much to my surprise, I ended up  enjoying this in spite of it all having been a bit studied and obvious even back in 1987, and in spite of there being a million other things which do the same job better. It's still not feckin' industrial though.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

DJ Squeeky presents Tom Skeemask - 2 Wild for the World (1998)


Just the other day I happened to slip upon a patch of oil left over and not yet cleared up after stripping down and cleaning my numerous hand guns and assault rifles, and falling against the computer I found myself accidentally online and unintentionally logged on to a bulletin board dedicated to the children's television show Doctor Who. Naturally I made attempts to sign out but, already confused, I found that I had instead been drawn into a section of the forum dedicated to music, and specifically to a thread purportedly set up for fans of hip hop and rap, although it would be fairer to describe it as a thread for forum members owning one or two rap albums. It took only seconds to locate the first claim of there having been no decent rap music recorded since the first Wu-Tang Clan album, because it's all that Puff Daddy and commercial rap like Lil' Wayne, and Public Enemy were great, and in fact It Takes A Nation of Millions is probably the best rap album ever - and yes, I know I'm going out on a limb with such a bold, unpopular statement - and we don't like that commercial rap because we only like the underground stuff which you probably won't have heard of because it's underground and not commercial like Puff Daddy and that bass music, whatever it's called; the Fugees were good too, and that Will Smith is a great entertainer...

Luckily I had already returned my firearms to the rack in Junior's room, because I really, really felt like emptying a clip into the fuckin' screen, lemme tell ya...

This was about rap for people who don't actually like rap - rap deemed more adventurous and underground than the Puff Daddy commercial rap because it appeals to fans of Radiohead and really interesting groups of that sort, because it's progressive and exciting and not actually much like rap, which is all too commercial and made by angry black men talking about guns and money and saying some really sexist stuff too, like that so-called Fat Joe. Alex Petridis in the Guradian pointed out that Fat Joe has a song called Shit is Real which just goes to show what a stupid, uneducated fellow he is. Shit is Real - I mean come on, it's hardly William Blake now is it snurf snurf...

So that was how I came to experience a sudden and overpowering need to cleanse my soul with some real rap, as distinguished by its copious swearing, threatening behaviour, actual beats, and fixation on real shit of flavours rarely experienced by folks with fucking cLOUDDEAD records; and as is appreciated by people who listen to rap. This will undoubtedly resemble sneering, but fuck it - if you don't like rap just go ahead and say it, but don't claim otherwise whilst referencing some shit that came out a quarter of a century ago as representative of the last time it was good enough for you to bother listening. Piss off and take your friggin' Buck 65 twelves with you back to fuckin' Starbucks.

Tom Skeemask is, for what it may be worth, the real deal. He says stuff you really might not want to hear, but which might do you good to hear; and whilst he may not be the greatest rapper in the world, he really ain't that bad, and if there's any suggestion that maybe he doesn't mean it, or that he's just saying this stuff so as to appear like some commercial rap big shot - you know, like that Puff Daddy, well - he's probably not that hard to track down, so please feel free to go ahead and tell him to his face. It's violent and territorial because sometimes life is violent and shitty and unhappy, and territory is the only thing some people have at the lower end of the economy.

This is southern rap - hard words spat out at machine gun tempo and a hot, slow Memphis vibe timed to the pace of life in the hotter states, places in which the weather obliges you to move around real slow for the best part of the day. It's closer in spirit to Eightball & MJG than any Hypnotize Minds thing - electric piano, lush guitar licks, and a bass so deep you can only hear it in cars, it being designed to scare the shit out of whoever you happen to drive past at snail's pace with your window down. DJ Squeeky lays down the tracks and Tom Skeemask tells it like it is, and there isn't much more to say about it because it speaks for itself, what with being the real thing and all.

I feel better now.

Thank you, Tom Skeemask.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Terror Squad (1999)


Terror Squad are probably best remembered for Lean Back, a massive club hit taken from an album with at least one eye on said clubs, not to mention radio, MTV, sound systems within cars that go up and down, and the ears of men with diamond encrusted teeth drinking Babycham from the fannies of pole dancers. True Story of 2004 was, generally speaking, a decent album, an achievement in itself given that Terror Squad had more or less imploded following the death of Big Pun back in February 2000. Like I say it's a decent album, but the real stuff was always to be found here, on the first one. This version of Terror Squad featured Big Pun plus his trusty sidekicks Triple Seis and Cuban Link, with the three of them representing a lyrically solid - in fact pretty much unbeatable - core to what was, I suppose, the Latino NWA, if we really have to go there.

In all seriousness, whilst Prospect and Armageddon may not quite have quite been first division, it didn't really seem to matter so much with Fat Joe and those other three on the team. The sum of the parts was great, although it should probably be kept in mind that, with this being an album of six guys who had cut their proverbial teeth battling lesser talents, threatening behaviour was always going to be the arena in which they would excel; so what I mean to say here is that for all True Story being a decent album and one that didn't really sound anything like we expected it to sound, what you actually want from a Terror Squad album is less club, and more in the line of disgruntled gentlemen explaining what's going to happen when they catch up with you and you don't have the money right.

In case anyone missed the memo, Big Pun was a fairly generously built gentleman - the Big qualifier being in no sense either ironic or symbolic - who some have identified as the greatest rapper of all time. Personally I'm not convinced he had the range in terms of subject for such a title, but on the strength of being able to stick a load of words together in delivery of promises and threats simultaneously both terrifying and hilarious, I'm not sure there was ever anyone better, or that there ever will be; so yes, he was definitely a giant in his field, and his presence alone makes this disc essential listening. Accordingly most of the album sounds like it was recorded with sepiatone film in a barber shop in one of the scarier corners of the Bronx, probably with some guy called either Beansie or Jimmy No Nose hanging around in the corner and due to get it sometime during the next three minutes. The sound, pulled together by the Alchemist, various Beatnuts and others, resembles faintly claustrophobic loops of Godfather or Goodfellas soundtrack pinned to the carbonate with a pleasantly solid bass set to the pace of walking quickly away from a crime scene before discreetly tossing a firearm once you've wiped the prints. It really does feel like that, and as such it's sort of exhilarating, which would be something to do with adrenaline and a dense lyrical barrage that never really lets up.

Well, I suppose maybe it does sag a little towards the end of the disc, the point at which it sounds like someone noticed how all the songs had thus far been about punching, hitting, shooting, stabbing, or keeping your mouth shut and doing your time - all metaphorically speaking of course - so there was maybe room for a few numbers about shagging, about how much the lads enjoy a pint followed by a spot of how's your father. I don't know - rappers talking about sex has always been a bit of a grey area with me, and here it's just kind of boring, maybe even a bit creepy following the succession of pugilistically themed tracks. Still, that's only a couple of numbers, and the whole holds together well providing you enjoy shitting your pants. I seem to recall the mags of the time greeting this one with a round of non-committal shrugs, which I suppose is typical.

High points make up most of the album, but the stand out is probably the terrifyingly cinematic War, showcasing Triple Seis and with hindsight highlighting what a tremendous loss both himself and Cuban Link were, following their estrangement in the wake of Pun's passing. I don't really know what the beef was between them and Joe, but it's a real shame it had to end that way.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Lack of Knowledge - Grey (1983)


To launch immediately into this week's dubiously relevant preamble,  I seem to have developed a passing allergy to industrial music, or at least to some of that which tends to be saddled with the term for the sake of argument. It was a facebook encounter with one of those noisy cassette types of yesteryear. We used to write to each other all the time, and he now believes unions have too much power and that Margaret Thatcher saved the country - as he put it himself. This seems entirely consistent with an emerging pattern of former avant-garde oscillator-twiddling industrial types turning into the enemy in later years, although I'm beginning to wonder if the seemingly contradictory dynamic of this development results from a misconception on my part, having once equated experimental musicians with the tradition of artistic and intellectual libertarianism as once represented by the Surrealists, for one example; when perhaps it is more the case that so many sonic pioneers have been artistically out there and on their own principally because beneath it all they're mostly ultra-conservative, deeply misanthropic loners, and even more terrified of change and the big bad world than your average Daily Mail reading shut-in. The ironic posturing, mimicking harsh or totalitarian positions perhaps wasn't always so ironic as it seemed at the time. Perhaps that tape was called Face the Firing Squad because actually they really like firing squads, regarding them as an efficient and entertaining means of dealing with lefties and trouble makers blah blah blah Ayn Rand blah blah...

Well, whatever the case, this week I'm in the mood for something far, far removed from the realm of self-important fifty-year old men logging on to see how their Monsanto stock is doing whilst composing another whining I coulda been a contender missive on the subject of a thirty-year old cassette of mains hum with a picture of Peter fucking Sutcliffe on the cover; and Grey is a long way from that. It's also a four track 7" EP which is some way outside of my usual parameters, but I listened to the album, and although excellent, it just made me want to listen to this again.

Lack of Knowledge had a heavily industrial aesthetic - black and white photographs of tower blocks, gas stations, chain-link fencing and so on - but it was something with which they were grappling, artistically speaking - as opposed to just sneering about industrial squalor being texturally interesting whilst lounging around tossing playing cards into an inverted top hat. This came out on Crass Records and is as such as good a refutation as any of the notion of the label ever having peddled the droning monochromatic tedium for which it is remembered by people who probably weren't there.

Happily, there was never much ambiguity as to the nature or general identity of the enemy with anything on the Crass label, and Lack of Knowledge distinguished themselves by going at it from quite a different angle compared to at least a few of their contemporaries. Musically they weren't really about songs so much as pieces of music comprising different movements in an almost classical or progressive sense, so there's a dynamic, but nothing so commonplace as verses or even a chorus. Oddly, this structure isn't really the first thing you notice, or at least wasn't the first thing I noticed, because musically what you generally have are variations on a fairly intense, driving, and melodic sound somewhere between Joy Division's Dead Souls and New Model Army, but without all the fighting and burping noises. It sounds like nothing else released on Crass Records.

Arguably most unusual of all, Lack of Knowledge's shunning rock tradition extended to the lyrical content as much as to that which it narrated. The lyrics - if you really want to call them lyrics - are printed in the fold-out cover, reading more like short stories than anything, there being no concession to conventional song structure, rhyme, or anything of the sort; and these are nevertheless sung and with some passion. The stories - or scenarios might be a better term - are brief dystopian tales of life in an oppressive police state, borderline science-fiction but unfortunately nothing like so far-fetched as they should be given the kind of shite our governments tend to get up to when they know there's either no-one looking, or there are sufficient numbers of people like my former pal ready to cheer them on. The sum of the parts is astonishing and possibly unique in the history of modern music, sort of like what you might have had if Joy Division had been a bit less depressing and had recorded a talking book; and weirdly it works.

Doors burst open, and machine gun death rains in on the betrayed conspirators. The remaining few confess their crimes, and when justice is done, they die. They die but the hope lives on.

One criticism I've seen made of records on the Crass label is that they have a certain didactic quality which some find off-putting, a certain utilitarian naming of names, as opposed to slapping a picture of Peter Sutcliffe's garden shed on the front and saying oooh isn't it interesting and subversive how no-one realises that they're looking at Peter Sutcliffe's garden shed. Lack of Knowledge elude this pitfall by illustrating their anti-authoritarian point in cinematic fashion rather than spelling it out by means of the in-house style of having a dog bark at a swarm of angry bees. This gives their music a tremendous and raw emotional impact. In fact, thirty years later I still find it difficult to listen to these four tracks without getting a bit of a lump in the throat, because it's surprisingly uplifting to know that whilst there are some evil, manipulative fuckers out there running the world, we are none of us alone; and Grey represented the real thing, or as close to the real thing as a vinyl record gets - something political and genuinely revolutionary.