Thursday, 28 May 2015

Controlled Bleeding - The Drowning (1994)

Controlled Bleeding are one of those bands which somehow passed me by. I was vaguely aware of their existence at least as far back as the album they put out on Sterile Records, and yet I never really intersected with whatever it was they did until my friend Paul stuck a load of tracks on a tape for me - which apparently I liked, but not enough to inspire my rushing out and buying anything. I think I came to view Controlled Bleeding as just one of those many industrial bands seemingly formed so as to bulk up the page count of the review section in Music from the Empty Quarter: Toe Revision, Terminal Necrosis, Stymied Function, Balding Operator, Sexy Hippo - there were a million of the fuckers out there, all frowning away in front of electrical substations, probably distributed by Play It Again Sam or Wax Trax! and no real reason for me to listen to any of it, so far as I could figure out.

Years later, a Controlled Bleeding CD has come to seem one fuck of a lot more exotic when found in a second hand store in Texas, a store of the type which prides itself on stocking both kinds of music - both country and western; so of course I had to buy the thing.

The Drowning does actually sound roughly how I imagined it might, at least in places, but is significantly more interesting than I expected. Whatever it was that Paul taped on my behalf left me with an impression of Controlled Bleeding as being, very roughly speaking, the American Nocturnal Emissions - at least in terms of those early discs, the ones which made SPK sound like the fucking Archies; but this seems to be only part of the picture.

The Drowning actually sounds almost as though it could be a compilation album, such is the variety of musical styles - hard electronics, drifting film score, vaguely rhythmic stuff, pieces hinting at Muslimgauze or Cop-era Swans or the aforementioned Nocturnal Emissions. Ordinarily such eclecticism might seem to verge on lack of direction, or at worse, just plain not knowing what the fuck you're doing - like all those skinny trouser bands with the token unconvincing attempt at reggae on each album; but somehow this set hangs together quite well. My guess is that this would be thanks in part to a great opening track which seems to set up the sheer diversity of the collection as a theme, or at least seems to do so in my small world. It's the generic guitar rock which abruptly pulls the rug out from under the feet of our ears - so to speak - with its sudden transformation into eight minutes of seriously hard power electronics, horrendous noise so distorted as to entirely obscure the source and recorded with absolute digital clarity, so allowing the listener to become lost in appreciation of the texture; and the more you listen, the more it feels like there's some sort of non-verbal narrative here, something which clearly owes some kind of debt to Russolo's noise symphonies. The suggestion of narrative, with certain sounds appearing to respond to each other in some sense, carries on for the duration of the album as the story mutates and is scored to variant genres. What is further quite refreshing here, is that this isn't to say that The Drowning serves as a soundtrack to something, but rather it is the narrative itself; so jolly good.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Amerie - Touch (2005)

I have maintained for some time that some of the most intense music ever recorded is to be found on R&B albums of one stripe or another. All Saints' debut, for one example, grits its teeth and thinks about pain at least as hard as anything you'll hear on a Swans record, although of course, having been made by miniature girls who consume lollipops and giggle rather than by Ernest Hemingway, songs such as War of Nerves and Alone tend to be overlooked on this score, specifically due to the absence of grimacing men reading Nietzsche whilst breaking detuned guitars in half with just their teeth. Another fine example would be Amerie's 1 Thing, a demonstration should it be needed, that for the last decade, all the genuinely weird stuff has been happening in R&B - not simply because any of it necessarily outweirds Nurse With Wound, but because it outweirds Nurse With Wound to a beat, sells millions, and sells millions to an audience who wouldn't ordinarily give a shit about recordings of a man dropping paper-clips into a bucket. 1 Thing, in case you're unfamiliar with Amerie, is a drum kit dropped down a fire escape whilst someone kicks a guitar, and the biggest pop record you've ever heard. It's kind of like Rollins Band at their most forehead-vein poppingly intense without sharing any actual ingredients with Disconnect, Liar, Low Self Opinion, Shame, or any of Henry's other face-punching classics.

The only problem with a song as great as 1 Thing is sadly that it tends to make everything else you might have slapped on the album sound weak by comparison. Against all odds, Touch is mainly decent, courageously deviating from any formula evinced by the hit single whilst generally keeping it minimal and inventive without too much fuss. Musically most of it's a groove, restrained in all the right places with sometimes just a slight shift in the established bass coming in half way through to really throw everything into contrast; and there's plenty of non-musical elements sampled into melodic shapes; but all the hard work is somewhat undone when a remix of 1 Thing turns up near the close of the album to reduce the rest to filler material.

Well, not quite filler material, but much of the album has the feel of something serving as background to a lifestyle, something heard in the club, on the phone, or bulking out an episode of Empire. I've a feeling this may be an unfortunate consequence of success, namely that Amerie is - or maybe was - a high profile artist in one of the few genres which is - or maybe was - still shifting units; and music as a mass commodity has become something occupying roughly the same cultural bandwidth as ringtones and console games, imposing certain limitations on albums such as what we have here. It's difficult to quite pinpoint what the problem could be, why 1 Thing should sound so much more vital than the rest. Amerie has a pretty good voice, strong and clear without any of the bland technique-over-substance warbling of yer Maria Careys, but she only really seems to let rip on the aforementioned hit single. I've a feeling it may be the otherwise entirely serviceable production rather than her voice which is to blame. They should have got Steve Albini in, but never mind.

Also, there are a couple of horribly loungey tracks, as there always will be on any R&B album featuring a presentable looking lady on the cover; and there's the obligatory song about having it off produced by Lil Jon and sounding very much like every other track he ever produced. Maybe it's just my age, although I don't have any trouble with the subject matter of the rest of the album, very little of which seems directly tailored towards fat, white men in their fifties. Amerie explaining how I'm very much mistaken in my belief of her being a good girl whilst pouting, one finger to her lips and doing that ooh you'll have to punish me now face only brings out my inner Hank Hill these days, inspiring thoughts of mowing the lawn and whether it is yet warm enough to seed with bermuda grass. When she suggests what it is I really want is for him to do to me what he wants to I feel embarrassed on behalf of everyone involved. I mean what if what he wants to do is a cleveland steamer? Yuck!

Still, given the raw power of 1 Thing, it's hard to care about the album failing to pull quite the same trick another thirteen or fourteen times. There are maybe three tracks it could probably have lost, but I'm still not complaining.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Acid Trax volume two (1988)

I'm not sure quite where I first heard the term acid house, aside from that it was definitely absolutely nothing to do with fucking Porridge. The name intrigued me given its being such a peculiar juxtaposition of concepts, but made sense when my friend Carl played me a Serious label compilation album - a mixed DJ set of the Chicago-originated material which appears in full on this double. It was weirdly minimal, just a drum machine and a funny noise for the most part, and a funny noise which suggested diarrhoea or weird chemistry experiments, the sound we hear on that episode of Tom & Jerry where Tom is accidentally sucked into a mad scientist's labyrinth of pipettes and test tubes. Subsequent investigations in darkened rooms helped make the narcotic association, but I still believe that particular angle was somewhat overstated in terms of the actual music. Of course on the other hand, D-Mob's somewhat ludicrous defence of how you thought it was a drug, but now you know you're wrong probably stretches the point a little too far.

For anyone who has only just been born and who can't be otherwise arsed to look it up on their internet, acid house - the original Chicago version as spewn forth from the Trax label - was mostly based around a drum machine and the mighty Roland TB303, or else boxes pretending to be the mighty Roland TB303. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of using the mighty Roland TB303 - as is my own proud boast - will be able to tell you with confidence that it represents the very zenith of musical technology, if not actually western civilisation. Some of what we have here sounds like random patterns of squelchy notes, the TB303 equivalent of a keyboard smash given form by repetition alone. They're not even tunes as such, just hypnotic grooves which draw you in - something to do with the fascination of a form of repetition which constantly mutates as the lads twiddle those filters back and forth.

As with anything of electronic derivation, acid house attracted the usual criticism from music bores, namely that anyone could do it because all you had to do was press a button innit, and where's the fackin' talent in that, can't compare it to Clapton man naaaaah, my kid coulda done that etc. etc. - all erroneously predicated on the notion that any given art form must prove its worth by garnering the approval of those who actively dislike that art form, and would rather we all just sat around listening to them bang on about Jimi Hendrix.

The thing is with acid house, whilst anyone may well have been able to do it, not that many did, or at least not that many did with any degree of success, and mainly because everyone missed the point and assumed it to be mostly just variations on the template used for Acid Man by Jolly Roger: drum machine - bass, hi-hat, snare, hi-hat, bass, hi-hat, snare, hi-hat over and over, squelch squelch squelch and usually a sampled phrase in which someone uses the word acid, or dance, or makes some corny reference to taking a very, very lot of drugs. It maybe wasn't quite so dad gets down with the kids by wearing baseball cap twisted backwards as Porridge's bewildering cargo cult version of acid house, identifiable as such only by what was written on the record sleeve, but you listen to this stuff, and it becomes obvious how far off the mark everyone was in terms of this particular bandwagon. Out of the sixteen tracks here recorded by a handful of guys under different names, there are barely two which sound the same, and not one with that Jolly Roger beat that became so ubiquitous during the nineties; and they nevertheless all somehow sound like part of the same family. I think this is probably the key to why this stuff still sounds so good, namely that nothing quite like it has been done either before or since. Working with such a limited, minimal palette, you can really tell that no effort has been spared to get the most out of each groove, building up an atmosphere with hardly anything but a bass boom, a ping, and the sound of a farmer in wellington boots making slow progress through a muddy field; or the frankly breathtaking Jackin' Tall by Lidell Townsell which is the sound of a robot in wellington boots making slow progress through a muddy field on his way to a piano-smashing competition.

This is some of finest electronic music ever made.

Whilst we're here, I find it somewhat amusing to note the aforementioned Porridge of Psychic TV has somehow managed to insert himself into wikihistory as the man who invented this shit, as opposed to - ooh off the top of my head - just being some clapped out performance artist breaking out the drum machine in a desperate bid to appear relevant, the logic being here, let me have a go - I'm an artist you know, so once I apply my genius to this thing - whatever it may be - the results are sure to be ground-breaking. I will show these housey fellows what they were probably trying to do, but couldn't through lacking the vision. Why, I'll bet they've never even heard of William Burroughs - ha ha!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Manic Street Preachers - Generation Terrorists (1992)

I hated the Manic Street Preachers for a while without actually having knowingly heard any of their music; although I knew for sure that it would be rubbish. They turned up in the music paper every fucking week explaining how all other groups - a category which by default included a few groups I probably liked - were crap, and how they were going to be the biggest band of all time. This latter claim was at least ahead of the curve of all those other lolloping sideburn-having cunts promising to be the greatest rock band ever which, by the time we reached fucking Razorlight, had begun to sound a bit fucking comical. I think it was also that the Manic Street Preachers were Welsh, and militantly so, and yet sang in English - the language of the oppressor - quite unlike my beloved Datblygu, Plant Bach Ofnus, Traddodiad Ofnus and at least a couple of others.

Week after week I would read that the Manic Street Preachers had said this was crap or that was rubbish and I would grow to loathe them more and more, up to the point at which my loathing flipped over into a sort of masochistic fascination - as often happens with me and artists I have initially disliked - and I bought a couple of 12" singles because there they were on a stall in Greenwich market and there was nothing else I felt like buying. I was a little shocked when I heard what they actually sounded like, because I thought they had been joking when they named Guns 'n' Roses as an influence. They hadn't, and I was surprised at how the music really was nothing new, sounding if anything like an exercise in nostalgia, a return to the dynamic of a man in silver trousers stood on a box screaming baaaabbbbbbbbbyyyyyy yeeeeaaaaahhhhhhh!

It was like post-punk had never happened.

I played the records a few more times, and realised that I liked them, because after all, I hadn't stopped listening to the Sex Pistols or the New York Dolls despite Trevor Horn having invented the 12" club mix, so why the fuck not? The more I listened, the more I began to understand it. The ruthlessly traditional form the music had taken might almost be considered a protest in itself considering at least some of that which they had set themselves against, a reaction against progress rendered redundant by having become an end in itself; and the lyrics were fucking great, obtuse and angry, and most important of all, the whole schtick had no trace of career move so far as I could see. They meant it; and they really did love Guns 'n' Roses; and I would never have to listen to the sodding Wedding Present ever again if I didn't want to.

Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably, such ambition was doomed to fail, although this is probably acknowledged in the best of their songs, most of which seemed to be about doomed ambition by one definition or another. In practical terms this amounted to their failing to split up after releasing a brilliant debut album as promised, not least because although the brilliant debut album did absolutely everything it should to spectacular effect, it did it for far too long, presumably having been timed so as to fill one of those new fangled compact discs. The vinyl translated to a double album, sacrificing a whole chunk of immediacy, and letting in a few tracks which, whilst fine in themselves, should probably have been b-sides. In fact, thinking about it, neither Tennessee nor that bloody awful novelty remix of Repeat, nor a few of the others, were anywhere near as good as R.P. McMurphy or We Her Majesty's Prisoners or Soul Contamination. What with Methadone Pretty, You Love Us, Slash 'n' Burn, Stay Beautiful and others, this could have been a killer single album of such devastating force as to prevent the formation of Oasis, the Bluebells, the Boo Radleys, Catatonia, Space, Toploader, Travis, Dodgy, the Stereophonics, and a host of other bands who doubtless were already going but probably should have jacked it in anyway. Sadly Generation Terrorists was issued as a killer single album trapped inside the body of a slightly porky double, and then they failed to split up, and poor old Richey Edwards went missing, and they began their slow descent towards becoming one of those Jo Whiley bands providing soundtrack music for car insurance commercials and admitting that they'd always liked Happy Mondays.

Still, listening to this, that doomed magic is still there in most of the grooves, so it is what it is. You're probably better off with a stack of the early 12" singles in some ways, but as a quarter century vintage variation on we mean it, man, this still packs a decent punch.