Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Alec Empire - Generation Star Wars (1994)


I've always liked the idea of Alec Empire without really having heard much of anything in which he's been involved, I suppose excepting the Sham 69 cover, regarding which I much preferred the original. His name returned to me as I was reading Simon Reynolds' excellent Energy Flash, a history of dance music since acid house and techno; and a few days later I happened across a copy of this, apparently his first full length album.

The first thing that occurred to me as I listened was I could have done this. I own half of the equipment listed on the sleeve, have on occasion faked the rest, and fuck it - there are a few tapes I've done which sound a lot like this stuff so the process is no mystery. Just listening, I can tell exactly how it was done. I was expected to find myself confused, as I often am with the more labyrinthine and technologically baroque production of, for example, Front 242, but no matter; after all, Empire has always been very much in the spirit of punk - not just the aggression and the anti-establishment message, but the hard, raw sound and the DIY attitude - something anyone could have done. This shouldn't be taken as a criticism. There's nothing wrong with simplicity, with taking things back to the rock 'n' roll basics, and when someone curls a lip and sneers I could have done that, the salient point is usually that they nevertheless didn't.

Alec Empire's musical career seems to have been facilitated by the increasingly weird twists taken by all the subdividing strands of dance music in the early nineties, the point at which the disco biscuits ceased to pack a punch and as this particular stretch of the dance floor was getting dark and kind of nasty. There isn't even really a bass line anywhere on this lot because the bass mostly comes from a drum machine shoved through a fuzz pedal or equivalent effect. Consequently Generation Star Wars sounds one hell of a lot like one of those really noisy early Nocturnal Emissions albums - overdriven production line rhythms, distortion, and something more ethereal looping away in the background by way of contrast. I'm not even sure you could dance to this, or at least not all of it, although it would doubtless sound magnificent in a club.

This came out in 1994, somewhere within the general vicinity of my having a letter published in Melody Maker moaning about their lack of coverage of experimental types such as Konstruktivists, Nurse With Wound and others, cheekily informed by the fact of my being a member of Konstruktivists at the time. Their reply was something along the lines of how the musical future lay not with the cranky outsiders I'd mentioned, but on the dance floor. With hindsight, and particularly since having listened to this, I'm slightly embarrassed to realise that they were probably right.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Lil' Flip - The Leprechaun (2000)


I bought this one from Amazon, which offered me the opportunity to spread the good news of my having purchased a CD by sharing it on facebook. Being a good capitalist, I did just that because I like to keep my friends informed about my daily purchases. Thus did the album cover show up on my facebook page, inspiring my friend Eddy's comment of I'd hang onto the receipt for that one, if I were you.

Yes, I've also seen the cover show up in social media driven lists of worst rap album artwork of all-time, or Pen & Pixel's weirdest affronts to common sense or whatever; but I personally believe they have it all wrong, and that this might actually be one of the greatest record covers of all time. I mean seriously - look at the thing. Say you've just come across it in the record store. You take it from the racks and, having returned your eyeballs to their sockets, you stare at that cover, and somehow your brain fails to formulate a thought amounting to fuck - I gotta hear this shit right now!?

I should fucking cocoa.

I suppose The Leprechaun is old enough to be considered a classic. Classic might be a bit of an overstatement, but it is a great debut. Lil' Flip was dubbed the Freestyle King by DJ Screw - with whom he was loosely associated - which naturally he mentions once or twice on the album, thus giving the impression of having won formal competitions. It might be argued that the claim is undermined when, during the introduction, Flip promises to freestyle the first and last tracks on the record, because if he's that amazing, why not just freestyle the lot? His freestyles aren't bad - and in case anyone still didn't get the memo, freestyle means just making that stuff up on the spot - but there are probably a million more deserving of the regal title. He sounds kind of young on this album, and is prone to bigging himself up as the young tend to be, in contrast to which he's good but by no means the greatest rapper you will have heard if you've bothered to listen to anything since the Treacherous Three.

Yet, no matter what the objection, it's impossible to think poorly of the guy and The Leprechaun is still a great record. The beats are in the vague area of what you might expect given Flip's point of origin - smooth soulful sounds scored to stuttery rhythms of the kind No Limit were so good at before they blew it and ditched their best producers - and a leisurely southern pace in accordance with the climate. I've been to Houston a few times and that place is like the surface of the fucking sun for about half of the year.

What seals the deal is Flip's personality, at least as he speaks it here. There's a little gunplay but not a whole lot, and very little outlaw material. He's funny, not particularly prone to overuse of naughty words, and openly boasts of not caring for either alcohol or the ciggies - although this potential straight edgery is somewhat negated by the lad's stated fondness for purple drank, which the internet describes as a mixture of a prescription cold medication with a soda drink like Sprite or Mountain Dew, plus ice and Jolly Rancher candies often added for colour and taste. The cold medication should contain promethazine (an antihistamine) and codeine. There's plenty materialism, but I'm guessing Flip may have earned the right to get excited about occasionally getting milk on his cereal instead of tap water. The bragging comes with an unexpected self-deprecating undertone and doesn't even quite sound like bragging so much as a young dude astonished by his own good fortune.

In summary, Lil' Flip comes across as a genuinely nice guy and The Leprechaun is a summery kind of album which makes you feel happy when you listen to it. It's as simple as that. It isn't gangsta, and it isn't - ugh - positive rap. It's just good music.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Dandy Warhols - Come Down (1997)


My first brush with this lot was Every Day Should be a Holiday  getting a ton of playage on the wireless, and I assumed it was almost certainly the first Ian Brown solo single seeing as he'd just left the Stone Roses and apparently had something coming out. It was the combination of burping Roland 303 suggesting baggy's rave ancestry with harmonic sixtiesisms redolent of a certain familiarity with mood-enhancing substances; until I actually caught Robert Dougall introducing the record as being by a band I'd never heard of with a terrible name.

I never had much time for Andy Warhol and always found both him and his work kind of dull, which I suppose was the point.

The Dandy Warhols, thanks in part to the popularity of an advert for a kind of telephone you can carry around in your pocket, seem to have come to represent the corporate idea of a quirky independent band, the musical equivalent of That Seventies Show if you will; but having had entire decades without mainstream media, I missed most of that and by the time I found out, I already liked this album so it was too late. They probably are Jefferson Starship, but fuck it - this is a great record nevertheless, which I state as someone who is not ordinarily well-disposed towards anything which sounds like it might represent an exercise in nostalgia.

Come Down amounts to the Beach Boys fused with the Velvet Underground, maybe with a faint trace of either the Pixies or Sonic Youth, but with the considerable advantage of neither Lou Reed nor Thurston Moore being involved in any capacity. It isn't the most shockingly original thing you've ever heard, but it does what it does exceptionally well. In fact it probably does it better than anything it may or may not have ripped off. People wearing head bands and saying far out may be pure arseache in most contexts outside that of the decade upon which this leans so heavily, but I'd say the Billy Childish defence applies here, at least providing you ignore the advert for a kind of telephone you can carry around in your pocket.

The Billy Childish defence, from what I can remember, runs something along the lines of how the Milkshakes were simply playing the music they wanted to hear, the music which sounded the most powerful to them regardless of what anyone else might think; as distinct from rock 'n' roll cabaret acts in crepes and drapes doing their best to keep your mum and dad happy by reminding them of the good times. Not that there's anything wrong with nostalgia in itself, not beyond that I've scratched at least one jangly Beatles obsessive and found a hankering for culture before all those blackies ruined it with their thumpa-thumpa music, but revived forms of expression aren't always inherently necrophiliac in intent; and if any of that makes any sense whatsoever, that's why Come Down sounds so great to me. After all, no-one listens to Beethoven because they miss the 1820s.

So this whole disc is really just raw tunes and euphoria, and the pattern of wallpaper doesn't really matter; and if it's bankrolled by the man, it still doesn't sound like it on this with the soft psychedelia of the harmonies, uncluttered production, and those organ riffs worming their way into your subconscious. If only the Stone Roses had been this good.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Nocturnal Emissions in Dub (2010)


As I keep saying, I don't really do downloads, but I'd bought a couple by Blank Banshee and then there was Peter Hope so it seemed like I should at least give this a shot what with Nocturnal Emissions being one of the few bands whose work I've been consistently buying since way back even before I'd had sexual intercourse.

I'm something of a fish in only a small quantity of water when it comes to reggae, because yes, that is indeed what we have here, in case you were expecting old Emissions numbers with a bit of echo on them - which actually I was. I don't have much reggae, beyond one Scientist album and er... the Police, I suppose, but I'm familiar with the form having been exposed to a fair quota of it over the years - mostly around people's houses, the occasional club, and that slightly bewildering year when my own father - very much your archetypal truck driving Dire Straits fan - kept his wireless tuned, or possibly even locked, to some local Coventry station playing all that dancehall-digital rasta stuff that was around in the early nineties.

So yes - this is Nocturnal Emissions' reggie album, which could have gone horribly wrong but succeeds regardless because, let's face it, Nigel Ayers is probably the only person to emerge from that whole weirdy music scene who could pull off this sort of thing without looking like a complete wanker. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised considering Binary Tribe and Futurist Antiquarianism, to name just two, upon which he respectively appropriated trancey rave and jungle. The key to Ayers' success seems to be an absolutely genuine engagement with whichever genre he's dipping toes into, combined with a refusal to just churn out some faithful impersonation. So unlike certain clowns I'm not even going to mention, he always brings something new to the table. Also, he effectively lived in Brixton for at least a decade so it's not like we're talking Controlled Bleeding's zydeco album.

Nocturnal Emissions in Dub is woven from musical and non-musical sources, some not a million miles from what you will have heard on Fruiting Body and the like, yet woven into something almost resembling instrumental lovers rock crossed with the digital stuff of which my dad was such a fan. It has a bit of that high-definition television quality on headphones, doubtless having been composed as waveforms copied and pasted across different parts of a screen, but over speakers with the volume up loud, it's serious business - relaxing, atmospheric, a fair bit of arsequake, and characteristically inspired; so to commit what may seem something of a bland statement, it really does sound like a reggae album by Nocturnal Emissions.

My only criticism is that Bodmin Parkway unfortunately reminds me of that DWP television commercial from a couple of years back where Mariella Frostrup cheerily reminds benefits claimants that they could be penalised for claiming the wrong kind of family tax credits over some nice reggae riddums designed to put you at your ease. It's not so much the music as the combination of the music with samples of announcements made over a British Rail tannoy so plummily voiced that they may as well have been samples from a Richard Curtis romantic comedy; but it's one track on a great album that logically shouldn't have existed in the first place, so I'm not complaining.

Any chance of volume two?

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Cure - Faith (1981)


Here's another one I bought when it came out, albeit as a cassette because it had a film soundtrack for something called Carnage Visors on the other side, which seemed like a good deal. My dad bought a new family music centre that Christmas, and somehow I managed to persuade the folks to let me play Carnage Visors on it as we ate Christmas dinner, myself, my parents, and my granny. I still have the tape, although it's in a cardboard box full of other tapes presently on a different continent, but the memory was of sufficient strength as to cause me to shell out for this vinyl reissue when I saw it in Hogwild, my local independent record store.

It feels weird buying a Cure record in 2016, not least because I've hated everything they did since this one, pretty much. Love Cats was shit. That mega-twee Caterpillar song was wank served with a soupçon of shit, toss, and arse. Lewis Carroll through a flange pedal worked fine for Siouxsie & the Banshees who at least had the sense to move on once the affectation had done it's job. Since Faith the Cure have been a fat clown crying into his guitar, as Henry Rollins memorably, entertainingly, and accurately put it. I've heard Pornography but I can't remember a thing about it beyond that it failed to change my mind. Faith was the last good thing where the Cure are concerned. This was where it came to an end, but Jesus - what a record to go out on. Seriously, you should hear this thing.

This was the Cure as a Joy Division tribute act, so ran the generalisation, although listening to it now the differences seem too pronounced to take seriously. At most they were Joy Division without the Black Sabbath, and it's not exactly like the Divs were the only band placing this sort of stark emphasis on their rhythm section that year. Not even the mood is particularly similar. Without bothering to check, I vaguely recall reading that Robert Smith was massively depressed around the time of recording Seventeen Seconds and this one, and it shows; but it goes beyond boo hoo into near existential nausea, the numb, almost comforting feeling of understanding that there's no point to anything. The mood is as much to do with a distracted guitar jangling away and bearing no resemblance to anything on Unknown Pleasures, as Smith's disconsolate wail - a voice that became an unlistenable whine on later records but here works beautifully; and beyond the voice and the guitar there's all that space betwixt the twinned basses and percussion so dry it sounds vacuum sealed, and it seems like there's something haunting all that space between but you really have to listen closely to pick it up.

There's not a poor song on here, and at a perfect eight tracks it's too short to outstay its welcome, and - fucking hell - All Cats Are Grey is one of the greatest things ever recorded, working that sombre mood like not even Elgar managed. Lordy, the Cure were really something back then. It's a shame they couldn't have just called it a day after this masterpiece.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Irsol - First Contact / Half life (2015)


Irsol's debut was possibly one of the first independent tapes I bought way back when I were a lad, and certainly one of the first which wasn't a compilation of various artists; or it could have been We Be Echo's Ceza Evi - I could look it up in my diary of the time, I suppose. Anyway, the detail that matters is that I had a flyer for First Contact, having written to Alan Rider who was then running the Adventures in Reality zine and label. I hadn't heard anything by Irsol, so I had no idea what I would get for my ₤1.50, and that was the appeal.

First Contact, when it dropped through the letterbox, sounded amazing to me - clearly a self-produced effort, cover seeming a bit like it might have been done on an etch-a-sketch or whatever primitive 5KB computers were available at the time, and yet the music sounded beautifully expensive compared to what I had come to expect from cassette artistes, beautifully expensive and not really quite like anything else I'd heard up to that point. Irsol cited Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire amongst their influences, as well as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and other electronic acts of which I was then only dimly aware, and whilst I could hear some of these influences, none seemed to dominate or dilute. First Contact sounded like something really special, as did Half Life which appeared about a year later.

Now here they are again, the same tracks three decades later, lovingly pressed onto vinyl and still sounding as rich and - if you'll pardon me - darkly mellifluous as ever. Referring to the sleeve notes, I see we have an MS20, Roland TR606, the mighty Wasp, and a couple of Acorn computers, whatever the hell those were, so it's all pretty basic by contemporary standards; but the strength of Irsol lay in what they did with the tools at their disposal, how they managed to get the best out of each piece of equipment, forging wonderful, truly immersive soundtracks to imaginary films, half-remembered dreams, even the occasional Open University module. As with what little I've heard of Tangerine Dream, the magic is in the contrast of ornate melody with texture and use of effects, giving even the most innocuous ping of a 606 the rich faux-acoustic resonance of a live instrument. It may just have been three blokes with a load of wires and boxes, but to this day I'm yet to hear anything which does what the music on this album does quite so well.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Scientist - Scientist Meets the Space Invaders (1981)


To lay my cards on the table, I never fully understood reggae when I was growing up. Some of it sounded okay, but I never really got the appeal of - for one example - Bob Marley, whom I have since come to regard as the black Paul McCartney, give or take some small change. Also, hailing from a rural area, the people I knew who listened to reggae were all white, and there's something horribly self-important about those white reggae dudes, or at least there has been about the ones I've met. On the other hand, ska seemed to make a lot of sense, and there was a quality I enjoyed about those seemingly hour long dub tracks Peel would play from time to time. I think what held me back was a combination of funding - there only being so many records on which I could spunk away my pocket money every week, and not knowing where to start with this stuff, and fear of seeming like one of those self-important tea-cosy-wearing tossers forever referring to himself as I and I whilst banging on about de weed and mi woman and things being claat despite his being even whiter than me in all other respects.

I discovered this album because every single person I knew owned a copy at one stage, so it seemed, even white guys who weren't pretending to be Rastafarians and who just liked music. I couldn't escape from the thing and it wormed its way into my consciousness pretty quickly, slipping past all the weird conditioning and hang-ups detailed above - particularly De Materialise which arguably features the greatest bass-line ever committed to tape; and yet I never bought a copy because I didn't want to be the guy with just one reggae album; and it didn't even seem like I needed my own copy given that I could just go around someone's house and hear it; and I'd get around to buying it one day. Then suddenly it was no longer in every single record shop, and then there ceased to even be record shops, and old copies of Scientist Meets the Space Invaders cost a fortune on eBay, until just now...

It's been reissued. I saw it in the store and I bought it.

You all know what reggae sounds like. Here it's stripped down to just percussion and a deep, deep bass with a few other sounds drifting in and out of a mix - snatches of vocals bouncing off those twangy old springline reverb units, delay echoing against itself, forming new cross-rhythms from the decaying signal, sounds crunched through filters... Space Invaders is like a few moments of three in the morning drawn out into a blissful codeine haze of eternity. Possibly you may even know what this record sounds like - the purest form of a thousand other things you've heard which weren't as good - but whilst you're listening to it, whilst you're caught in the moment...

It's like a musical evocation of a single meandering train of thought and is as such absolutely hypnotic and enveloping, peculiarly duplicating the effect of listening whilst smoking one of those space fags even for those who aren't. Whilst this record is playing, you're in another place and you really have to wonder why anyone has bothered recording anything since. It's that powerful, and now that I'm older, fatter, and better financed, I really need to get me some more of this stuff.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Peter Hope & Charlie Collins - Destroy Before Leaving (2016)


This is another one of those download things which exists only as electric magic. I downloaded a couple by Blank Banshee last week and told myself I wasn't going to make a habit of owning stuff with no physical dimensions, but fuck it - it's Peter Hope and it was a quid - actually it was free but it seemed polite to make some sort of donation. Anyway...

Peter Hope and Charlie Collins will of course be remembered as vocals and saxomophone of the Box, who were in turn Clock DVA minus Adi Newton and somehow wound much tighter. You can still feel some of that legacy in these six tracks - dark, dirty, and kind of jazzy without any of the usual unfortunate connotations which have adhered to jazz since it was assimilated by the man. That said, it doesn't exactly sound like jazz beyond the noodling presence of whatever Collins is playing - some sax, some clarinet I think - and a few details of mood. On the other hand, what it very much does sound like is twenty-first century blues, meaning the genuine Robert Johnson deal updated as is appropriate to time and culture, as distinct from some Mark Knopfler heritage project; also as distinct from certain Foetus efforts inhabiting similar territory but sounding a great deal more mannered and studied than this raw outburst of noise, gravel and loathing. Were time travel a thing, you could take this back to the Mississippi Delta in the thirties and I'm pretty sure those guys would recognise it immediately. Of course, beyond Hope's characteristic growl and Collins' riffing, what you have might almost be Einstürzende Neubauten in sonic terms, but it should probably be remembered that whilst the original bluesmen had guitars and harmonicas, they really weren't in the business of making pretty music. So to dispense with most of this paragraph, Destroy Before Leaving is a blues album, and a powerful one, and that's everything you need to know.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Blank Banshee - Blank Banshee 0 (2012)


A couple of months ago, someone mentioned vapourwave to me, specifically wondering aloud whether it should be considered post-music in the sense of Lady Gaga and other ringtone artistes. Because I'm fat and fifty, and because I couldn't give a shit about computer games, incomprehensible Japanese cartoons, Instagram, most social media, or young people in general, I was embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of him, or it, or whatever gramophone records they may have recently sent scurrying to the top of the hit parade, there to dislodge Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag. I was embarrassed because it turns out the thing had been around for at least five years without my having been aware of it even as a name.

Okay, so vapourwave was not only old news but also massive in context of its own self-contained microcosm of 4Chan types and people who post video clips of themselves talking about computer games on YouTube; so there's no reason why I should have heard of it, I suppose. Anyway, Wikipedia has this to say:

Vapourwave is a music genre and art movement that emerged in the early 2010s and spread over the next half of the decade among various internet communities. It is characterised by a nostalgic or surrealist fascination with retro cultural aesthetics (typically that of the late eighties and early nineties), entertainment technology, consumer culture and advertising, and styles of corporate and popular music such as lounge, smooth jazz and elevator music. Sampling is prevalent within the genre, with samples often pitched, layered or altered, sometimes in a classic chopped and screwed style. Central to the style is often a satirical but not necessarily critical preoccupation with consumer capitalism, popular culture, and new-age tropes.

I've also seen it claimed that vapourwave is over, and Blank Banshee is actually seapunk, but I don't care. I'm fifty. Fuck off.

Anyway, it's a file sharing, downloady thing, and I'm yet to sign up with the whole download culture because I much prefer physical objects and I've never owned an iPod - or equivalent device - that worked for longer than three months at a time; and like I say, I'm fat and fifty.

I had a root around on YouTube, it being a source of numerous vapourwave albums uploaded in their entirety. Most of what I heard sounded sort of interesting, if not startlingly unlike anything else I've ever encountered. As a genre it seemed to be making a virtue out of samples of unusually bland material - ringtones, game noises, television station idents, the little tune your computer plays when you boot it up. Some of it was kind of irritating, but some of it seemed to have something, and of all the stuff I browsed, Blank Banshee seemed to have enough of something to warrant a violation of my own personal code; so I threw dollars at the bandcamp page and bagged me some downloads, then immediately burned them to CDR so I could give them a proper listen.

Blank Banshee is supposedly a Canadian by name of Patrick Driscoll, beyond which I know nothing but for the music itself, which I guess is deliberate. It sounds very much like music composed entirely on audio editing software using samples of the general type described, so for the most part there's a weirdly smooth quality which actually makes me think of the blandly utopian seaside resort described by J.G. Ballard in Vermilion Sands. Some of it has the monged-out ambience of new-age motivational tapes, and is almost certainly sampled from something in that direction. Yet, as promised by the hype, there's something weirdly fascinating by this overpowering wash of airbrushed perfection, as though it's laid on so thick it becomes something new.

On the other hand, the music might not work so well were it purely as I've described, that also being more or less how Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus sounds to me, and which is why I didn't bother downloading it despite it apparently being the Never Mind the Bollocks of vapourwave. Blank Banshee works by taking the form somewhere else, bringing in material lifted from the crunkier end of southern rap - notably those crunchy handclaps and finger clicks - and this influence seems also to mold the music into something significantly funkier than whoever it was nicked from - possibly excepting Flash's The Message which is the only sample I've been able to identify. Regardless of sources, Blank Banshee 0 ends up as something new in its own right - nothing longer than your average television commercial and adding up to just over half an hour of what feels like a continuous piece, and one which definitely exerts a strange influence on the place you're in, cerebrally speaking. It invokes in passing certain quieter moments of Nine Inch Nails, Anne Dudley's Art of Noise, and Three-6-Mafia, but also a fairly substantial dose of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

I'm still not a fan of downloads, but this cost me a dollar and is pretty darned wonderful; and more than anything it's really nice to know that in terms of new things, music isn't quite over. This kind of thing may even be the first wave of whatever happens next.

Blank Banshee 1 from 2014 is also fucking great by the way, and apparently he has a new one out even as I write this.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Cravats - The Land of the Giants (2006)


I'm probably biased in vaguely knowing two Cravats through one former Cravat, namely Martin who was in the very first line up and whom I met on an art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education.

'Yes, chief,' he told me, because he addressed everyone as chief, 'I used to be in the Cravats.'

I was impressed but also embarrassed through not actually having heard any of their records. I'd seen them in Sounds, and had noted the one bloke's resemblance to the big-haired chappie from the Eraserhead poster, but that was all.

'That's the Shend,' Martin explained. 'He's all the previous members welded together into a single organism.'

The weird thing was that it didn't sound like he was joking.

I rushed to Discovery Records, situated on Regent Street, and made immediate purchase of The Colossal Tunes Out seeing as it had only just hit the shops. Later I met Robin - the guitarist - when Martin recruited him as second driver as we drove down to Maidstone in Kent. Later still, having moved to London, I found myself encountering the Shend in a variety of pubs, usually managing to squeeze out a bit of a chat on the strength of mutual acquaintances, and he always had the decency to pretend to remember me; and more recently he even played one of my crappy songs on his internet radio show. At various points I was in bands with Martin, meaning that had my name ever turned up in one of those Pete Frame rock family trees, I'd be connected to both the Cravats and the Damned by various not actually at all obscure means - which I still find exciting to think about. My point here - aside from the obvious showboating - is that what follows probably won't be particularly subjective, but fuck it...

This collection looked a lot like a farewell when it came out. Aside from a new track recorded with the bloke out of Orbital - a dark but ravey affair utilising samples of previous greats - the Cravats had remained dormant since 1985. Their not particularly secret identity floundered in 1987 when their label elected to throw money at the Sugarcubes rather than at the Very Things' Motortown - mistakenly in my view given that it pisses over anything in which Bjork ever had a hand, but never mind; so The Land of the Giants seemed like closure, and a thematic counterpoint to The Cravats in Toytown, their first album. Robin was recording with Hit the Roof and then Vivarama, and the Shend had his Grimetime and had begun to turn up as a scowling presence in episodes of The Bill, Merlin, and so on. Then suddenly it's 2016, and they're back. Not only playing the possibly inevitable punk festivals, but generating new material, slapping out a single here and there and with enough of the original line-up for it to amount to the same entity emerging from hibernation; so, time to remind everyone what's so great about the Cravats, seeing as a few of you apparently haven't quite got it yet.

The Land of the Giants comprises most of The Colossal Tunes Out - itself a collection of singles - choice cuts from Toytown, plus a few other bits and pieces. It's also one of the few double CDs I have which doesn't sprawl, owing mainly to the peculiar variety of the material. The Cravats were always a punk band even though the fact of it tends to be overlooked at times, but always a pretty weird punk band - sometimes a bit yappy, at others resembling free form jazz forced to hold a tune, and never quite sounding like any other group. Some of it's the saxaphone, but mostly its an aesthetic owing more to John Heartfield era Dadaism than to green-haired punk rockers saying bollocks on Top of the Pops. It might even be argued that the Cravats were the closest English music came to the Residents, or at least the closest without any hint of actually trying to sound like the Residents - as might be said of Renaldo and the Loaf. Always a punk band in regard to what any of it was actually about, so if low on slogans, the Cravats subversive message was their medium, hence the lasting association with Crass and others. If you thought this was mainly just a cartoon then you've missed the point.

I can't think of what else to say. The Cravats are one of the greatest groups of all time, and if you claim to have any interest in music beyond toes tapped to a natty Marty Robbins tune on the wireless yet know ye not the Cravats, then you really don't love music as much as you think you do. I keep writing was and were but of course I mean is and still are, and there still are a few copies of Jingo Bells to be had, and my copy of Blurred came just this morning, and they're supposedly working on a new album - so it's time the rest of you started paying attention; and if this won't convince you...



Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Cockney Rejects - Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (1980)


Why did it take me thirty years to get around to buying this thing? I suppose because I thought it was fucking stupid - four Cockney gibbons jumping up and down oo-oo-oohing to a Sham 69 b-side, and not even one of the good ones. This was the impression I picked up from reading Garry Bushell's gushing praise week after week in Sounds, most of which was additionally concerned with impressing upon me that the Cockney Rejects would kick my head in should they ever encounter me walking down the street. They would immediately recognise me as middle class because I read books, still addressed my mother as mummy despite being fifteen years of age, didn't like sport, did like art, and was terrified of the hard kids at school; and having identified me as Lord Ponsonby-Fortescue-Smythe III, the Cockney Rejects would kick my fucking head in and then go to a football match or summink.

Of course, I've since come to recognise this classification of the working classes as violent gorillas who can't read and who spend most of their spare time burping the national anthem as a romantic misconception perpetrated largely by grammar school poshos like Bushell, but I wish someone had told me sooner. I always liked Sham 69 - who were obviously something of an inspiration to the Cockney Rejects - but I somehow felt Stinky and the boys were just a little too far in the wrong direction. Whilst I never mistook the whole Oi! thing for anything inherently racist - as has often been claimed - there was doubtless some of that element in there just as Sham 69 experienced problems with a far-right bonehead following they couldn't seem to shake, and if nothing else, Oi! always seemed kind of slow to refute its jackbooted reputation, at least generally speaking.

Nevertheless, with regard to hooligan credentials, I've probably worked with postmen at least as mental as any of the Rejects ever were; and as you get older you begin to see through certain social constructs, like the notion that any expression of working class culture still waiting for a retrospective at the ICA is probably in bed with the National Front. It's all bollocks, as should be obvious from these comments by Mick Geggus I've nicked from Louder Than War:

When I heard that Channel Four had used a section of Oi Oi Oi in a programme including themes of racism, I was so angry I nearly choked... If the privileged, middle class twats had even bothered to listen to the lyrics, they would know that the kids they come from everywhere, the east end’s all around means exactly that - a rallying call to kids across the globe, from Athens to Zanzibar... My band and I have fought narrow minded people from both sides of the political divide for over three decades now, and we have the scars to prove it.

Further evidence can be found on YouTube, should it be needed, not least a particularly satisfying clip of Jeff Turner going postal on sieg heiling fuck-trumpets at a gig back in 2014; which I guess leaves us with just the music.

One thing Bushell got right was this album having that same explosive energy as Never Mind the Bollocks, or whatever it was he said. For some reason I've come to think of Oi! as a sort of 90MPH cement-mixer version of punk - verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus and it's over, with more or less every line being yap-yap-yap bark-bark-bark yap-yap-yap (pause for a single beat) Oi!

I don't know how I got this impression.

Some of it's like that, but not the good stuff, and not on this record. Mostly the sound is loud and lively, but still sharp and clear as a cut-throat razor; and the tunes are even poppy once you get past the brick wall of noise, and surprisingly happy too. Of course, as you might gather, there's some righteous class anger on here, but it's a pumped up adrenaline fuelled anger. It leaves you feeling good, and even with all the fists flying and dispensation of good-natured violence, there's a friendly quality to the whole enterprise. This record was speaking for an entire terminally marginalised culture, and the sheer camaraderie is irresistible, once you realise that these guys aren't the enemy, and they never were the enemy.

Like I say, I wish someone had told me sooner.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Kevin Harrison - Tape Recordings 1975-1985 (2016)


I always get the impression that Kevin Harrison should probably be a little more famous than he is - fame here translating to people hearing about your music, saying nice things, then buying it so that you can keep on making it and don't end up having to get a job in Tesco. That said, I've never been quite sure as to the precise extent of his fame. I first read about him in Martin Bowes' Alternative Sounds zine back in 1981, so he's always seemed sort of famous to me. I don't remember if he ever got name-checked in Dave Henderson's Wild Planet columns in Sounds, but given the wackily eclectic mix of that which Henderson covered and the sort of records Kevin has put out, he really should have been. I suppose, if nothing else, at least no-one is calling him an industrial legend or asking what he thinks about Charles Manson.

According to his website, Kevin Harrison's earliest sonic experiments were performed at the age of twelve, dropping nuts and bolts into a bucket of water then manipulating the sounds produced on the family tape recorder, and all whilst the Beatles were still in lovable moptop mode; leading to art school, and then to a bizarrely varied if somewhat underpublicised musical career which never quite seemed to square with any established or conventionally marketable pattern. These recordings might be seen as roughly kin to that whole krautrock thing, but there's always been more to the man - soul-driven dance pop with the band Urge, collaborations with various Specials and other Coventry luminaries, hanging out with members of DDAA, This Heat, and Tuxedo Moon: the guy is interesting before you've even heard a note.

Tape Recordings 1975-1985 is, as you might surmise, mostly instrumental, but never quite ambient. The fifteen tracks cover a broad range of moods - and very little which sounds like bedroom recordings, if that bothers anyone - but more than anything seem to suggest a film soundtrack, specifically the kind of effects heavy 16mm freak out genre which prevailed at the hairier end of the seventies. Guitars chime and echo off into analogue eternity as a church organ lights the darkness, and other sounds creep in, mutated beyond recognition or just hanging in the sky like giant Zardoz heads.

This is a wonderful record, and if you're new to this guy's work, it should really be considered just the beginning...

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Public Image Ltd. - Second Edition (1979)


...or Metal Box or whatever you want to call it. I have a great many all-time favourite albums, and of their number this is the one I have probably heard the least. I'm pretty sure that at some point an entire decade has passed without my having listened to this record, quite possibly two decades.

Public Image Ltd. were the first proper group that I liked when, at the age of about twelve, I graduated from playing my trusty quartet of Beatles albums into flexidiscs to listening to the top forty countdown on the wireless and noting that I quite liked some of this new punk rock stuff, or whatever it was, and I found Public Image particularly hypnotic. It wasn't that I hadn't liked anything before that point, but it had mostly been Abba and that sort of thing - tastes which neither translated into vinyl nor endured beyond puberty to any great extent. Public Image expressed something I didn't even know required expression, a sort of alienation or sense of distance dividing myself from almost everyone else; and the weird thing - at least with hindsight - is that I discovered Public Image Ltd. before I'd even heard of the Sex Pistols and spent a couple of months doubting that there was really any connection.

Having discovered music, it still took me a while to see the benefit of spending my pocket money on something other than Doctor Who books or Micronauts, and it didn't quite dawn on me that there might be a Public Image Ltd. album until Dean Howe tried to sell me his copy of Metal Box. I think he'd found it disappointing. Conversely I thought it was great, but those three discs didn't seem to like my record player, and the needle jumped all over the shop. Looking closely at the vinyl, the grooves resembled little zig-zag lines presumably due to the deep bass frequencies. Dean sold it to someone else, and I eventually bought the reissue when it came out as a more conventional double album. Annoyingly I've found this version similarly difficult to play even now that I have a relatively fancy record player, and so the thing has just sat in my collection ignored more or less since I bought it.

I suppose the benefit of all this, if there is one, is how fresh it still sounds now that I've chanced upon a copy on compact disc. By means I don't even understand, I know the thing like the proverbial back of my hand - every last little scrape and clang - and yet listening to it in 2016 is much like hearing it for the first time.

The Public Image Ltd. debut album, which I heard after I'd bought this one, seemed a transitional affair - a great big noisy discordant fuck you with all of the Chuck Berry sucked out of the mix just in case anyone had been anticipating Sex Pistols part two. Rotten seemed on the defensive, very much resenting the mechanics of his own fame, and yet unwilling to quite disappear off the deep end like some spoilt rock star recording an album of his own farts, so for all the walls of noise, First Issue pulls back from rewriting Metal Machine Music and heads off in roughly the same direction as Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Metal Box was where everything really came together. Rotten no longer sounds like he's even thought about anything relating to the Pistols for at least a year, and more than anything they're making the record they want to hear. You probably already know what it does - lengthy jams which sound very much as though they were improvised live, repetition and a certain minimalism allowing one to fully appreciate the acoustics, and easily as hypnotic as that first single. Coming back to this, I've also been surprised at how much electronic sound is woven through the structure of the record - often barely within earshot - and also how much is entirely instrumental. It's a frosty affair succinctly encapsulating how Britain felt in 1978 without recourse to slogans - damp and conducive to death - born as a vague fusion of dub reggae and all the German stuff of which Rotten was a fan, but not quite sounding like either. Aside from my preferring Another, the b-side of Memories, to its instrumental which appears on here as Graveyard, this really is a perfect record, and it will remain a perfect record regardless of how many Country Life butter adverts he appears in.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Lords of Acid - Expand Your Head (1999)


I've been listening to this for a couple of weeks now, and all that time I've been under the illusion of the whole thing being the work of Praga Khan - who seems to be the Super Hans from Peep Show of Belgian new beat, sort of; but now I find out there were at least three Lords of Acid, and some of these tracks are further co-credited to other artists such as Richie Hawtin, Frankie Bones, Joey Beltram, Luc Van Acker, and even the ordinarily bloody awful KMFDM, so I don't know what to think. My initial feeling was that Praga Khan is what Fatboy Slim would have been in a better world, which I say as someone who does not necessarily hold Fatboy Slim in high regard. I think the problem is that I can't separate Norman Cook from the knowledge of his being Tarquin Ponsonby-Worsnip III, the Earl of Haverford who chose a more working class name for himself after watching Billy Liar and joining the Housemartins - who would have been the worst group in human history were it not for the Beautiful South; so Praga Khan is like listening to Fatboy Slim without getting irritated or having to work out whether it's actually the original sample you're enjoying.

Anyway, whether this be collaborations, remixes, or whatever else, it has the paradoxical quality of sounding like the work of a dozen different artists whilst remaining consistently true to the vision and standard of just one individual, or maybe three, or however many were involved. There's big beat, Todd Terry-style techno, the rap metal of Who Do You Think You Are?, traditional 1988 acid, drum and bass, EBM, and even fucking reggae, and not only does it all sound like the work of one person, but the work of one person who happens to be good at everything; by which I mean when we get to the token hip-hop number with some rap dude, it sounds consistent with the rest but also like it could have sat happily on some other disc sandwiched between Rodney P and Task Force. Bizarrely, none of the toes of Acid dipped into adjacent styles suggest the work of anyone who might have been better advised to stick to what they know, so there's nothing equivalent to those bloody awful token hip-house tracks which kept turning up on rap albums at the end of the eighties.

The only flaw with this collection - which is a load of singles clubbed together seeing as I didn't already mention that - is possibly the excessive sexual content, mostly delivered in one of those dominatrix voices customarily threatening to step on your pecker, you naughty boy, and which never really did anything for me. Topics covered, or at least thematically invoked, include inflatable companions, whipping, up the bum, rubber, and sitting on your face. It's fine, and kind of liberating I suppose, but I've generally found the great majority of sex people - as Alan Partridge termed them - to be a massive jaw-cracking yawn, and this collection goes some way in that same direction, lyrically speaking. I think it's probably overuse of the word pussy. I've thought about this, in light of the fact that I always loved all those fetishy Adam & the Ants numbers, and I suppose it's because it gets a bit relentless after a while - pussy pussy pussy vagina pussy pussy flange pussy pussy... I'd say the same were it seventeen songs about penises.

Then there's Rough Sex which suggest that love is illusory and for weaklings because having it off is what it's all about. The song accordingly instructs us to think nothing of holding hands, candle light, love letters, red wine, red roses, tables for two and:

Don't think about trifle.

Honestly, that's what it says in the song with sternly Teutonic intonation. It may be one of those deals where it just seems funnier when you're not from Belgium.

Still, so long as no-one slips Expand Your Head on at a wedding involving prudish elderly relatives with heart conditions, you can tune out most of the sticky bits should you feel so inclined, leaving just the dance music, which is mostly great and bizarrely eclectic. For a while there was an unspoken assumption of continental European music being identified by its wearing purple drainpipes converted to flares by yellow triangles sewn in below the knee, and the great misunderstanding seems to have come from the notion that this was a bad thing. Expand Your Head demonstrates that this is not the case, once it's finished bumming you up the wrong 'un.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

All the Madmen - Tape Recordings 1980-1983 (2016)


I ordered the Kevin Harrison album from Vinyl on Demand - who specialise in lovingly produced reissues of this sort of thing - but got this one instead due to a bit of a cock-up on the catering front.

All the Madmen were Neale James Potts, Michael William Richardson, Christopher Paul Bailey and Richard Roger Weston-Smith from Stoke-on-Trent, UK. They called themselves minimal synthesizer-punks. All the Madmen started in 1980 as an anti-rock group, believing that the way that music was played and produced should change forever. One track called Superior Life made it onto the LP Cry Havoc.

That's about as much information as I can squeeze out of my internet, although I notice with interest that the Cry Havoc compilation - which is another one I'd never heard of - came from the same label as Human Trapped Rhythms. So that's interesting.

Tape Recordings 1980-1983 and Kevin Harrison's Tape Recordings 1975-1985 are just two of an eight album box set called British Cassette Culture: Recordings 1975-1985 which I can't actually afford, so I figured I'd just bag Kevin's album seeing as Vinyl on Demand started selling a few of them separately. I was kind of pissed off when the wrong one turned up in the post, but the error was soon corrected, and it transpires that this is a cracker. I probably would have bought it anyway, had I heard of them.

Given that what little All the Madmen recorded as listed on Discogs includes a mere four tracks which failed to make it onto this single vinyl album, and four of these fourteen tracks are doubled up as different versions, I gather All the Madmen were either a fairly casual confluence of people or simply weren't around for very long. They seem to have occupied a point roughly equidistant between Vice Versa and the Human League, and specifically the Human League which covered Mick Ronson's Only After Dark. Science-fiction themes abound, but coming from a rockier, more populist angle than you might expect, unless of course you'd already noticed where the name All the Madmen was pinched from. A primitive drum machine pops and slaps as synths growl out something which might almost have been scored for guitar, and was scored for guitar in the case of a highly satisfying cover of Alice Cooper's School's Out. No-one is pretending to be a robot, although there are some great lyrics about the rat race and general sense of alienation of the time. This really was a punk band with synths.

This is almost certainly the best record I've ever been sent instead of something else by accident, and it really makes me wish we could have had All the Madmen instead of Howard Jones and half of those other synth-pop horrors of the eighties.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

LOX - We Are The Streets (2000)


That's LOX as in 'lox as in short for Warlocks who were some New York street gang, so I gather, although it might be an acronym for something as well, and it's a fillet of brined salmon of the kind generally served in a bagel with cream cheese. This particular LOX were once billed as Puffy's gangsta rap crew, Bad Boy's east-coast response to the existence of NWA or something of the sort, which says as much about the rap publicity machine as about the band itself. They had a minor hit with If You Think I'm Jiggy, which riffs on Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy? and probably tells you more or less everything you need to know about the lads' time at Bad Boy.

By 2000 they had managed to get themselves out of the contract - after a bit of a fight - had ceremonially burned the shiny suits, and had a new album - the first one that counted, it might be argued. We Are The Streets did okay, but not so well as everyone expected considering the anticipation, and is seemingly remembered as decent but short of classic - even in interviews with the group themselves whose view of their own second album seems founded on how many copies failed to fly out of the stores.

I don't get it. Maybe it just caught me at the right time, but this one still sounds like a landmark - perhaps not quite anything new or revolutionary in terms of surly men explaining how much they enjoy a fight, but neither did it sound like a rewrite of anyone else's record; and so far as that gritty stuff goes, We Are The Streets is so hard it's almost ridiculous. The key is probably everything coming together in a near perfect arrangement.

Keeping in mind that Jadakiss, Styles P and Sheek Louch tend to share a certain lyrical focus on subjects relating to the legal system in one way or another, whilst their thematic range may not stray far from the familiar path, their collective verbal dexterity is dizzying, making most of their peers sound kind of slow and clumsy; so whilst you may not like what they say, the way they say it is breathtaking. This was equally true of the first album with Puffy jumping up and down in the background saying things like 1998 y'all and yeah pronounced yiiiih, but the big difference is the music of Swizz Beatz and a production which hasn't assumed it knows better than the artist.

I guess the millennium was when Swizz Beatz was at his most musically extreme, and his beats are really stripped down on this album - a vast dry space with all the atmosphere sucked out, a snare like he's just punctured the seal on a jar of instant coffee, cheesy Casio synth tinkling away providing notes without quite becoming a tune, and beneath all this weird artificial tinsel, a bass like Godzilla's footsteps. The parts don't even quite seem to fit together, and yet somehow it adds up to a unique, incredible sound even when you get the impression he's just pulling things out of the mix to see how much he can lose before it degrades into random plinky-plonky noises. Swizz Beatz probably invented vapourwave or something, or at least foreshadowed some of vapourwave's more airbrushed extremes, but even now - fifteen years later - this stuff sounds like something sent back from the future after the rules have all been swapped around; and because its great strength is its minimalism, these beats can only elevate the dense lyricism, allowing the overpowering undercurrent of menace to really flow. This is some intense shit - not lacking in humour, but it's pretty dark humour - and you can tell they felt they had some points to prove after all those years of Puffy spitting into a hanky and wiping their faces in front of the other kids.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Porcupine Tree - In Absentia (2002)


This review might come out a bit lopsided due to Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson being a friend of a friend. Specifically my friend Carl has worked on quite a few of the guy's record covers, and so I've met Steve Wilson around Carl's place at some point or other. I wasn't really sure what Porcupine Tree were supposed to be beyond assuming them to be something to do with everyone from Japan who hadn't been David Sylvian, and I didn't quite make the connection. Conversely, Steve knew of Konstruktivists - of which I was once a member - and had read a few things I wrote in The Sound Projector magazine, so that made me feel satisfyingly famous. I also knew he'd had something to do with remixing old Muslimgauze tracks, so he seemed an interesting if fairly quiet sort of bloke. I had no real idea he was some massive stadium-filling megastar until an old friend from school mentioned that Porcupine Tree were one of his favourite bands, thus allowing me to showboat with the I know that dude routine whilst experiencing simultaneous astonishment at how big this group actually were without my having had the faintest idea.

Porcupine Tree - my wife pointed out that the name suggests one of those bands formed by Andy Dwyer in Parks & Recreation: Mouse Rat, Scarecrow Boat, Teddybear Suicide and the rest; and for no particularly good reason I'd assumed they would probably sound a bit like Japan, which they don't; and Steve Wilson has supposedly been known to read my blog posts, so thank God it turns out that Porcupine Tree are actually decent. Admittedly, I probably wouldn't bother writing anything if In Absentia resembled Jonathan King out-takes, but all the same it's nice that I won't have to lie.

Eight or nine plays in and I'm amazed at how good this record sounds, and how it works very much like a single piece of music in an almost symphonic sense. Of course that's probably not such a surprise for something so obviously evolved from progressive rock roots, but the surprise is how the term progressive has been taken literally as a challenge so as to yield something genuinely new, genuinely forward looking - as opposed to twiddly fingered nostalgia for bands playing songs about Bilbo fucking Baggins. In Absentia retains the best elements of its tradition, the folksy acoustic morning dew sparkle of Jethro Tull and mathematically peculiar time signatures of such conviction and raw emotional power that you don't immediately notice the structural eccentricities. In addition, the contrast of crushing digital slabs of overdriven metal with the softer, more ethereal elements - not least Wilson's fantastically evocative voice - are captured with startling clarity, and so what might otherwise sound like an exercise in studio jiggery-pokery carries itself with a beautifully organic sense of pace.

Somewhere in that paragraph is probably a clue as to why the first comparison which came to me was Ray Davies of all people, not quite the same kind of storytelling, but a similarly wistful quality which goes somewhat further than Radiohead having a bit of a sad. In fact this is what Radiohead probably imagine they sound like.

It's not a happy album, and it in fact sounds like the anatomy of a breakdown in places, without quite invoking the sort of melodrama which needs to spell it all out in case you missed something. It's Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea rather than a self-harming character in a Neil Gaiman comic, and that's probably about as close as I can get it, which is why this is a piece of music rather than an essay. We've all had days like this.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

KMFDM - Retro (1998)


I always liked the idea that KMFDM stood for Kill Motherfucking Depeche Mode, and I seem to recall another version of the acronym positing a disgusting but faintly amusing allegation about Kylie Minogue; and of course that bloke from Brute! drew all their record covers; and there was the involvement of Raymond Watts who is credited with something or other on an early-ish Foetus album. I knew I'd probably heard something by KMFDM at some point, and they always seemed to turn up in the same places as a few other groups I've liked, and Retro is a best of compilation, so...

Kill Motherfucking Depeche Mode would probably be funnier if KMFDM were better, but they aren't. Let's think about that just for a moment - the band which isn't as good as Depeche Mode. Actually, I'm not even sure they were as good as I Should Be So Lucky era Kylie Minogue.

What we have here is grunting Belgian new beat with sampled metal guitars and the sort of growling effects heavy vocals you only get from really mean men who drink lots of beer and have massive penises and who get lots of nude women to kiss them and show them their boobs and that, the sort of mean men you wouldn't want to mess with; or I gather that's the intended impression. Unfortunately it all sounds like something knocked up for the demonstration CD you'd get when making purchase of an Akai S5000 sampler back in the year 1992, or whenever it was those things came out. It strives to pound and grunt and make you sweat - work pain obey blah blah blah kerrraaannnggg grunt work pain struggle thud thud thud... but the thing sounds so clean you could probably eat your dinner off it; and even if you enjoy the guitars, there's no earthly reason why you would listen to a KMFDM record in preference to the Young Gods or AC/DC or - fuck it - that Depeche Mode song which has a guitar on it. There's no reason why you would listen to this in preference to Front 242 or any of those acts who did this kind of thing properly. I'm not sure you would even listen to this in preference to fucking Ministry or - God help us - Pop Will Eat Itself.

Just to summarise, we're discussing a band who weren't as good as Depeche Mode, Ministry, Pop Will Eat Itself, or I Should Be So Lucky era Kylie Minogue. Let's just pause for another second so that we may properly acclimate to the concept.

I mention Pop Will Eat Itself because KMFDM were similarly inclined to refer to themselves in song - this is KMFDM you're listening to, KMFDM in the area, and so on. All that's missing is the sample of that guy suggesting we put the needle on the record when the drum beats go like this, or whatever it was he said.

This being their best of, I dread to think what the really shit stuff was like. I seem to recall KMFDM's name coming up as one of a number of potential scapegoats in the case of teenagers with guns going nuts at Columbine High School all those years ago. Whilst I personally suspect there's a great deal more to such tragedies than angry sentiments expressed on a noisy record album, it has to be said that this one really is unusually shitty.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Psychopathics from Outer Space (2000)


I'm cycling on the Tobin Trail just past Los Patios when I pass a young boy and his father. The boy looks to be about eight or nine, wears a red baseball cap, shorts, and there's something weird going on with his t-shirt. The precise detail only register a split second before I pass him. He has a cardboard sign hung around his neck by a piece of string. The sign reads I'M A LIAR in block capitals. The man I presume to be his father walks about ten feet behind, a fat shithead walrus-moustache type. What the fuck? explodes from my mouth quite loudly, but I'm already past the Walrus and his publicly shamed kid. I really want to turn back and point out that we're not living in Saudi Arabia, and that maybe the Walrus could have resolved the situation by actually talking to the kid, because I'm damn sure I'M A LIAR isn't going to make it better, and - aside from anything else - I kind of resent being made party to this mediaeval public shaming of a small boy who, let's face it, probably didn't rob a bank, commit a murder, or anything of that magnitude.

But I don't turn back, which is possibly for the best because no doubt even if I managed to say the exact right thing to aid the Walrus in understanding the full extent of his own shitheaded stupidity, it probably wouldn't help the kid; and the guy is clearly a bully so probably wouldn't be above kicking my ass.

Also, it seems peculiarly significant that I'm listening to Insane Clown Posse as I cycle, and as I pass the Walrus and his kid.

Insane Clown Posse are, for anyone who didn't know, a generally shunned rap act - at least so far as the mainstream media is concerned. They're a couple of white guys in clown paint performing novelty toilet humour raps about horror movies operating on roughly the same level as an episode of South Park. They will almost certainly never get to work with Sting, or be asked to drop guest verses on albums by Common, Lauryn Hill, or J-Live. They're not even a proper rap group because they weren't hanging in the park with Kool Herc in 1977, and their freestyles are fucking terrible, and all of their fans are white trash crackers; and white trash crackers don't count. That's most of the traditional criticisms, should you be unaware of any of them.

Personally, my only problem is that it feels like they've been treading water since The Wraith, besides which most of the criticism can be negated by simply bothering to listen to the music. They're not the greatest rappers in the world, but they're often genuinely funny, wringing every last drop of potential from what ability they have, and frankly I've heard worse; and the beats - at least when supplied by Mike Clark - were fucking great, fat and funky, as good as anything ever cooked up in a New York basement. The hypothetical crime therefore seems to be their enduring appeal to massive swarms of dispossessed white trash, so it's basically an issue of class - your traditional demonisation of anyone too poor, unsavoury, uneducated, or just plain stupid, the stratum below even those who at least look good in moody black and white photographs illustrating articles on either poverty or outsider art in culturally prestigious media.

This compilation assembles tracks from both Insane Clown Posse and their protégés, Twiztid - who occupy much the same territory albeit with a sharper, more lyrical edge. Specifically Psychopathics from Outer Space is a dubiously official bootleg assembling tracks burdened with uncleared samples and the like, but crucially this material derives mostly from a time at which both groups were at the height of their powers. What this means to you depends upon how much you enjoy axe murder gags mixed in with your fart jokes, which in turn spins upon the possibility that you may not be the target audience, and that this stuff simply may not be for you. You could probably argue that it's all terribly sexist and at least as homophobic as your average episode of South Park, but to do so would miss one important point, namely that delving below all the cartoon gore and the blow jobs, there's a surprisingly progressive morality to all this shit. The victims in these tales of comic horror are almost always bullies, shitheads, racists, rednecks, wife-beating drunkards, and other overprivileged types, and the underlying message of be ye not a fucking douche is delivered without a hint of sermonising, and most significantly it's delivered to massive swarms of dispossessed white trash, the people arguably most vulnerable to exploitation by forces with vested interests in their acting like bullies, shitheads, racists, rednecks, and wife-beating drunkards.

Anyway, on top of that, the disc rocks like nobody's business, and we even get Ice-T on one track. $50 Bucks alone might be worth the cover price - a peculiar combination of wistful country rock and fat-ass swagger that renders all those other shitty rap-rock crossover acts completely redundant; and then there's Twiztid's She Ain't Afraid which must easily rank amongst the most raucously pornographic tracks ever laid down, sort of like Smell & Quim without having to stick your fingers either in your ears or down your throat; and all with the sneer and frisson of a funky Sex Pistols. Of all the bands you need at your side when you've had a shitty day, there's something really cathartic about this bunch, which is probably aided by the music offering more than just straight nihilism.

So some of this was in my thoughts as I cycled past the Walrus, because the world needs less of his kind; and because - to paraphrase some conservative sociopath or other - either raise your kids the right way, or the music they listen to will end up raising them for you, although in the case of Insane Clown Posse and Twiztid, that may not be such a terrible thing after all.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Young Fathers - White Men are Black Men Too (2015)


As I may have mentioned on previous occasions, I'm old and fat and I don't understand modern music, modern music being more or less everything that's happened since about 1992 for the sake of argument. That was the year when it stopped making sense, roughly speaking - when the sort of things I disliked began to outnumber the good stuff, and the term independent took on a meaning other than that which exists outside of the mainstream - fey, jangly shite which wanted to be 1967 when it grew up, which - by the way - it had no intention of doing. I didn't stop listening, but my tastes had been forcibly marginalised by everyone deciding they had wanted to be glittery pop stars all along.

There has been the odd thing to catch my attention since then, but generally I've been pursuing my own avenues of inquiry; and in my absence, the means of production have changed, in turn affecting the basic function of music as a commodity, leading to post-music which has more in common with ringtones or memes than that stuff I once purchased as circles of black plastic back in the old days when everything was better than it is now. It's not that I have a problem with change so much as that change of style shouldn't be mistaken for change of basic function, so thinking I might get something from Lady Gaga comparable to that which I once got from a UK Subs album is like going to McDonalds and expecting them to fix your car. Even worse is when everyone gets all misty-eyed and tries to be my mate by digging out the old Joy Division or Wire records and having a go, hence all those heritage industry Editors types, musical analogies to Peter Kay asking who remembers Curly Wurly.

So it's really nice to be surprised every once in a while, which probably hasn't happened since I heard Austerity Dogs, although the Sleaford Mods, for all their brilliance, may as well be a couple of old codgers I met whilst working at Parcel Force. Young Fathers conversely derive from the generation which should be making music, and which should be scaring the life out of old farts such as myself. I had assumed the present state of the art to be seventeen-year olds channelling the Byrds at some shitty SXSW industry showcase, or trembling emo wank through two minutes of reverb decay on the Catfish soundtrack, but happily there is also this - whatever it is.

The music could quite easily be waveforms copied and pasted to and from different parts of the screen; and a live video shows four blokes on stage, one with an upright drum kit, one with a tiny keyboard gaffa-taped to some sort of fashionably archaic suitcase synth, and that's the instrumentation; so I don't really know quite who does what or how it results in what can be heard on White Men are Black Men Too, but maybe it doesn't matter because the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.

This was an attempt to make a perfect pop album - so it says on the internet - so I've no idea what they were doing before or how it compares, but perfect pop is justified regardless of initial impressions of something bolted together in a carpenter's workshop. It's musical, but there's a lot of drone, and a lot which sounds like it might not have originated with a musical source, and the whole sounds dirty like those old Motown records from the sixties. Stand it next to Peter Hope's Exploding Mind and you probably have a completely new genre, industrial gospel or something - invoked mainly in the hope that anyone reading this will be far too embarrassed to ever use such a term.

Yes gospel, leaning on the bluesier end of the scale with a distinctly African feel - two of the group having roots in Nigeria and Ghana to some degree or other - gospel in its celebratory rather than specifically God-bothering aspect. They're probably not the greatest vocalists in the world, but they're not bad and they have real heart, far more so than the overproduced histrionic vocalising that has been passed off as soul music for these last couple of decades; and yet somehow the record does all of this whilst sounding like Suicide in places, maybe even Joy Division at a stretch - according to some YouTube bloke, although I'm not too sure about that one myself. It's dark and introspective yet uplifting at the same time, just the sort of thing you need after a day of life punching you in the face. This one is astonishing - the best new album I've heard in a long, long time.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Crass - The Feeding of the 5000 (1978)


What with all that's happened since - all those periodic reassessments and David Beckham snapped wearing the t-shirt - it's easy to lose sight of just how extreme Crass seemed at the time. I was at school, and had acclimatised to, even embraced the punk rock maxim that all forms of authority were essentially bollocks and not to be trusted. It was quite unsettling to have this band come along and point out that all that spikey topped outrage in which we were now so heavily invested was just more of the same and that the Clash were about as revolutionary as The Black and White Minstrel Show. Youthful rebellion being what it was, the appeal of going harder, further, and more committed than anyone else was obvious, and so one version of the story has Crass seemingly ushering in a new age of frowning revolutionary puritanism wherein anyone not living on a self-sustained vegan commune was a fucking sell-out and essentially the same as Thatcher. This seemed to be the line taken by the band's most vocal critics. Special Duties clocked up about three seconds of fame with their novelty single Bullshit Crass, the central hypothesis of which was that:

Crass were first to say punk is dead,
Now they're rightly labelled as being red.
Commune hippies - that's what they are.
They've got no money Ha! Ha! Ha!

Similarly, Garry Bushell writing in Sounds thoughtfully opined that Crass were toffs and not kids from the street and that their posh music was therefore toff music for toffs rather than for the kids on the street, kids like Special Duties and the Cockney Rejects and that Nazi skinhead on the front of the Oi! album, although no-one knew he was a Nazi at the time, obviously. Bushell's thesis unfortunately seemed to be based on the premise that if it knows a lot of long words then it's posh and not proper working class like the kids on the street, which itself derives from a middle-class view of the working class as stereotypically thick Sun-reading cunts, which is about what you'd expect from a self-flagellating grammar school posho.

Personally I think the thing was that Crass just made everybody feel a bit uncomfortable, like we'd all been discovered with a Queen album naughtily concealed between Never Mind the Bollocks and Fulham Fallout, thus somehow conceding that our revolution really was just a couple of years of posing in preparation for settling down with a Ford Cortina and a pension plan; which of course misses the point that Crass had only ever been about getting us to ask questions. The idea that Penny Rimbaud might eventually come around to our houses and make us sit an exam was mostly imagination and misplaced guilt, and it all came from the severity of the aesthetic. This lot weren't playing around, and they weren't in it to hang out with Peter Cook, and if you didn't like that, your choices were either to make a bit more effort or piss off. Thus did Crass unwittingly launch a thousand seemingly humourless bands and fanzines of similarly austere tone - although to be fair, there were plenty of reasons to not be cheerful, and it was still more fun than the sludge of polite indie toss which eventually washed in to fill the void - and it is probably their singularity of vision which has posthumously endeared Crass to the right-wing noise community in recent years, which again is hardly their fault.

That's how you miss out when you assume it's all about you.

Crass were never humourless. It's just that the jokes were unusually pointed and on a scale over and above the odd telly chucked out of a hotel window - Our Wedding and the Thatchergate tapes to name but two of their more amusingly devious zingers; and the whole humourless thing begins to look a bit comical after Alexander Oey's excellent and informative documentary on the band, There is No Authority but Yourself.

Let's also not forget that the music was wonderful in its way, providing you accept that punk was about expanding ideas and breaking out as a principle, rather than reducing everything to three grunting chords and a dog barking in a half empty pub, with all of the fancy words taken out so as to avoid alienating the school bully seeing as he's our mate these days. It's a weird noise, an amphetamine hybrid of jazz drums and military percussion with a guitar like a jar of angry bees, and you can hear everything as clear as on any smoky old Blue Note recording; and no - it doesn't sound like the Sex Pistols because it was never supposed to. The Feeding of the 5000 didn't really sound like anything I'd heard back in 1980 - or whenever it was I borrowed it from my friend Crispin at school - and it was harsh but absolutely clear in what it was trying to say, and ten minutes of television viewed at random was enough to inspire the realisation that Crass were at least on my side, even if they seemed a bit scary; and God, right now I wish there were a few more with equivalent vision and an ability to express it so well.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Pearl Jam - Ten (1991)


Pearl Jam probably mark the point at which I lost touch with the kids on the street and what was going down, having given up on mainstream music papers, radio, and bothering to go to gigs unless forced to do so. My girlfriend's younger sister had just moved in with us in hope of finding work in that London, and being younger she was still very much in touch with the kids on the street and what was going down, and she had this album by Pearl Jam who were massive even though I'd never heard of them. Each day as I sat waiting for Countdown to come on the telly whilst filling in my pension forms and having a nice cup of tea with some custard creams, Ten would be playing somewhere in the background, over and over until I began to appreciate it. So I bought this just because I remember Even Flow and Alive being pretty darned great.

Twenty-five years later, the record initially sounds so unfamiliar as to come as a bit of a shock, particularly having since picked up admittedly spurious associations with other, much heavier bands of Seattle heritage. In fact on first listen it sounds like Simple Minds, and not the good Simple Minds - the good Simple Minds meaning everything prior to but not necessarily including Live in the City of Light. It sounds like REO Speedwagon in a checked shirt with a bit more stubble than usual - big, fat stadium rock fronted by a man singing through a mouth full of Sugar Puffs.

Anyway, I persisted because Even Flow and Alive still sounded as good as I recalled, just about, and it once took me fifteen years to fully appreciate a Soundgarden album due to the fact that I played it once and then didn't bother after that. Thankfully, persistence paid off, and Ten began to work after three or four spins, even losing some of the stadium rock sheen.

I think the problem is that Pearl Jam are actually a sort of wholefood biker band - grizzled, leathery and existing on a diet of chicken and grits just like Steppenwolf and all of those guys, but thankfully minus all the back door woman, you set my soul on faaah crap. The songs are mostly folksy introspection for truckers - or at least people who don't necessarily have anything against truckers - sort of like how Nirvana might have sounded had they held back from writing songs about how they only want cool people listening to their music. Accordingly Ten really needed a bluesier producer, Albini or Jack Endino or one of those guys, just someone with an approach other than how much more reverb would you like? These songs don't really need to sound like the drummer is located at two miles distance from the guitarist because the scale is inherent to the material, which is surprisingly understated for having one of those gruff ol' teddy bear of rock guys on the microphone.

Very good, and better than I remember despite that initial bout of hiccups.