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.


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.