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.