Wednesday, 13 December 2017

SPK - Machine Age Sessions (2014)

I've seen SPK described in reverent terms defining them as untouchable pioneers of harsh electronic noise, and at the other end of the scale, as comical industrial chancers. On the one hand, those first two albums still take the paint off the walls like not much has done since, but on the other, SPK probably did more to inspire misuse of the letter k than even Porridge, and one of their early tracks was called Germanik, presumably on the grounds that Hitler had been German and that Germans like to march around and bark orders, so that's quite scary when you think about it. I suppose, there's also the fact of their signing to Elektra and turning into Level 42…

The way I heard it - as related by a friend who knew Graeme Revell through having spent his youth hanging out with Throbbing Gristle - was that Graeme Revell really, really, really, really wanted a sampler when they first came out, and thus reinvented himself as leather trousered metal-bashing popster so as to sign a ten album deal with Elektra for a ton of money, or something along those lines. He bought his sampler and recorded Machine Age Voodoo - which is the one that sounds like Level 42 - and then decided he wanted out of the contract; which he effected by recording the other nine albums in a couple of days. They were too shit to be released, and so Elektra let him go. That's what I heard anyway.

For what it's worth, I actually like Machine Age Voodoo. It's a bit too louche for its own good, could do with rougher edges, and is a lousy follow up to Leichenschrei, obviously; but aside from that, it's not a bad album on its own terms. In fact the worst thing about Machine Age Voodoo is that it failed to deliver on the promise of Metal Dance and those earlier forays into synthpop recorded for a John Peel session around the same time.

I've been waiting for that album for about thirty years, so it was a nice surprise to discover that it does actually exist, sort of, albeit as this bootleg - one side of Peel tracks, with a Kid Jensen session on the flip. The labels are black due to having been sneaked out of some naughty pressing plant in the dead of night, and the sleeve is minimal and underwhelming, but the quality of the pressing is wonderful.

This is the version of SPK which turned its metal-bashing to more musical ends, borrowed a sequencer from DAF, and pretty much invented all of those Front 242 types in the process. This was what Depeche Mode thought they sounded like, an adrenaline rush of frenetically grinding synth contrasting with Sinan's surprisingly beautiful, even ethereal voice while someone pounds seven shades of shit out of an oil drum. The Peel tracks are as electrifying as they were at the time of broadcast.

Then we flip over the disc to find the sessions recorded for David Jensen, or Kid as he liked to be known, the stuff which everyone seems to have forgotten. Jensen's show was broadcast exclusively on medium wave, and that's where these recordings come from, straight off the wireless - big fat muffled mono with a ton of hiss and Jensen talking over the fade out, channelling his inner Michael J. Fox like a good 'un. It would be a pain in the arse but the tracks are actually better quality here than on the thirty-year old cassette tape I still have somewhere or other, and they're also probably the worst thing Revell ever recorded so I'm not sure it matters. SPK seemed to be gearing themselves up for making a ton of money and were smoothing out their sound. The sequencers were a bit less frantic, more like something you would hear on a Karel Fialka song, the metal had been replaced with fashionable roto-toms; and yet somehow this material is difficult to dislike because it's the sound of SPK selling out as hard as they could, but not quite able to get there without sounding sarcastic. But, Can You Dance To It? - on which Revell raps like a jolly English master at a boy's school - resembles one of those local charity records which would occasionally garner five minutes coverage on a regional news show. The rest of the tracks patently represent a warm-up for Machine Age Voodoo, halting impersonations of bland synthpop hits, not quite achieving the balance and as such resembling some sort of Situationist appropriation which didn't quite work. The strangest thing is how, despite its peculiar blandness, the Jensen session is weirdly engrossing specifically because it's the very last thing you'd ever expect to hear from SPK. Strangest of all, despite its flaws, this album which never was is actually better than the soundtrack stuff he did later.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Cravats - Dustbin of Sound (2017)

The return of the Cravats with a brand new album in 2017, a full quarter century after the last thing you could describe as such - which I suppose would have been Grimetime's Spirit of Disgust, sort of - probably qualifies as improbable, but perhaps not so improbable as the possibility of said brand new album being as good as it is; and it's very fucking good indeed.

The Cravats revivification looks a lot like some old spiky tops getting back together for one of those nostalgic festivals of which there suddenly seem to be so many, working out how to play the old hits, and in doing so noticing that the spark is still there; except that I'm guessing, and that this isn't quite the Cravats as were. The Shend is naturally still present and correct, or as correct as he's ever likely to be; and there's Svor Naan, with the rest having been reconstituted from remnants of the Astronauts, the Bevis Frond, the Joyce McKinney Experience and others. At first the thought of the Cravats without Robin Dalloway seems peculiar, and given the passage of time it all adds up to something which shouldn't work; and yet work it does.

The new lads are so well suited to the job at hand that it feels as though they've probably been there all along, at least in spirit, and thus Dustbin of Sound could never, ever be mistaken for anything other than a Cravats record; and if the absence of Dalloway is discernible in any shift of emphasis, then it's only because this is a different record, just as Motortown was different to The Bushes Scream, and The Bushes Scream was different to Toytown. This one's less jazzy than they've been, more of a growling motorbike beat, but still taking your ears places few other bands will tread through the magic of saxophone squiggles, angular guitar, and the Shend opening up your brain to reattach the wires to all the wrong nodules.

I'd pick out the best tracks, but they're all great with not a dud in earshot, although I suppose All U Bish Dumpers deserves some special commendation as the one which brings a tear to my eye.

The squirrel's role was to goad idiots
toward an unidentified trestle montage.
Chemical biscuit in Neptune franchise,
oh yes.
The mud and worm college closed for good in the 1440s
with the loss of hundreds of jam jars
Look at that rocket.
Look at that rocket.

Yes, I know, and yet it feels somehow like a protest song sung with genuine feeling, the sort of thing U2 would have given their collective left bollock to have written, but which will forever be beyond them because they lack imagination. Like everything else on this record, it's - not even round, but a toffee-hammer-mammoth-bassoon shaped peg in a world of square holes. With the levelled playing field of homogenised juxtaposition as entertainment, with our ever-shrinking imaginations responding to Lady Gaga momentarily pulling a face as sooooooo random LMFAO, the Cravats remain very much a liberating cry of genuine unreason, something too weird to ever be sold back to us as a Happy Meal, and this may even be their finest album.

You should order this one from Overground Records. In fact you should probably order everything from the Overground catalogue because they're fab.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The KLF - The White Room (1991)

My suspicions were aroused way back in the eighties when an interview with the lads in some music paper revealed how they had taken to calling themselves Rockman Rock and King Boy D, just like the rappers you see on the telly, and which seemed to carry a faint stench of trying too hard. At some point I was slung a tape of 1987 (What the Fuck is Going On?) by someone who assured me it would blow my mind, which it didn't, and in fact I thought it was fucking awful. Then there was Doctorin' the Tardis which was also wank, unless you regard everything which makes a reference to Doctor Who, no matter how ham-fisted, as a work of genius. It was big, bold, crass, and populist according to theories set forth in their book about how to have a hit single, but it sounded exactly the same as their supposedly philosophically cunning underground material to me. Finally they became the KLF, most of which passed me by, excepting a version of What Time is Love? which I had on some compilation album, and which was okay, I guess.

Surprisingly, I didn't have high expectations for this record. To be fair, I didn't have any expectations, not really. The above impressions were fleeting, and there must surely be some reason for their popularity, I told myself. The White Room seems to be in all sorts of lists of best things ever, so fifty cents in a sale seemed like a risk worth taking.

Except I get the thing home and find I've bought me a fucking hip-house album, and whilst hip-house may not have been an entirely worthless genre because there are always exceptions to any given rule, it sort of was when you really think about it; and this is hip-house fused with whatever you call music recorded by middle-aged white guys utilising the voice of a black man suggesting we put the needle on the record when the drum beats go like this. Underneath it all are a couple of nods in the general direction of acid, trance, or whatever title it had been given that week. They're decent enough tracks, but as with everyone else who ever knew better through having been to art college, the KLF can't let anything simple work on its own terms and have to throw a shitload of once trend-setting tech at it as a self-conscious distraction from the fact that they might have felt more comfortable rocking out as a traditional Hawkwind covers band. Thus did we end up with stadium house, which in this case can be equated to Trevor Horn's idea of dance music, which can in turn be equated to the proverbial unidexter at an arse kicking competition in utilitarian terms. Naturally the KLF hired a bunch of marginally funkier helpers so as to keep the thing from bearing too close a resemblance to a school geography project, not least being Tony Thorpe of 400 Blows; but ultimately the best which can be said of The White Room is that it isn't quite as funny as Porridge's attempts at house music.

Excepting things involving Ken Campbell and the novels themselves, has anything good ever resulted from thematic overinvestment in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! trilogy? I'm struggling to think of anything. It might be argued that Drummond and Cauty eventually redeemed themselves with their worst artist of the year award and the spectacle of Rachel Whiteread puckering her mouth into a dog's bottom of disdain as she grudgingly accepted all that lovely lolly whilst loudly announcing that it would of course be given to starving artists, because it matters that they shouldn't have to get real fucking jobs like normal people; but that came after and as such provides little consolation as one struggles to get through the full, terrible forty-three minutes of this bollocks.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Boomtown Rats (1977)

Many years ago I was in the habit of regular posting on a Doctor Who forum, but packed it in because it got too depressing with all but a minority of fans apparently suffering from a form of arrested development leaving them bitter, surly, and tending to fixate on the things of childhood to the point of Fascism. Weirder still was how self-important so many of them could get about shit which just wouldn't matter to anyone sane, necessitating the forum imposing draconian rules - no pun intended - regarding personal attacks of such rigour that somebody was actually banned for insulting Adolf Hitler; and I really wish I'd made that up. Unfortunately this only inspired the membership to find ever more devious means by which to troll their fellows, resulting in what might conceivably be the most concentrated region of passive-aggression on the entire internet. Anyway, to get to the point, I held my ground in the music section for a while, that being where the people I've bothered to stay in touch with tended to hang out; but even that got to be a bit too much in the end, as each week brought a whole new selection of extraordinarily dispiriting thread titles hinting at the ruthlessly conservative psychology of the majority of the membership. There was Sonia's Back!, and Oh My Gosh - it's Mika!, and the one which still gets me, Best Boomtown Rats Album? presumably complete with a poll.

This last one bothered me partially because it belongs so firmly to that part of the world in which people haven't yet realised that Alan Partridge was a parody, but partially because it's hard enough liking the Boomtown Rats as it is without a bunch of hopeless wankers stood behind you wearing clothes their mum bought for them, grinning and giving you the thumbs up to show that you're one of the gang. Just half an hour ago I happened upon a YouTube clip of unexpected praise for punk rock from numerous establishment popsters of the late seventies, and there's Cliff fucking Richard heaping praise on the Boomtown Rats. I'd actually forgotten how much I hated Cliff Richard.

The Boomtown Rats came along at just the right time, at least from the viewpoint of selling records to kids of my admittedly impressionable age group. They were a bit of a mess, like a gang of Irish Bash Street Kids, and they pulled faces on the telly; but there was nothing to which one's parents could legitimately object because they were never really a punk band, despite spiky hair and one of them dangerously wearing his jimjams on stage. They were actually more or less a Rolling Stones tribute act and as such could be enjoyed on the strength of their musicianship and finely crafted songs by old farts, or indeed anyone who'd never quite understood the point of the Damned. Listen close enough and you have to wonder if someone hadn't been listening to Queen, what with the call and response and those vocal harmonies.

I didn't have a telly between 1984 and about 1993, and nor did I share a house with anyone who did have a telly, so I missed most of the stuff which might have tainted my already conditional regard of Bob Geldof, meaning I'm still able to listen to Boomtown Rats albums without too much baggage getting in the way, beyond their having been treasured amongst certain Doctor Who fans who really wish it was still 1973, back when everything was better than it is now; which is probably why this one still sounds pretty fucking decent, at least to me.

Of course, it's nothing surprising, nothing you haven't heard elsewhere. The Boomtown Rats debut album is essentially a Rolling Stones tribute act at the height of its powers, the right selection of familiar rock 'n' roll hooks, and a singer vaguely impersonating Bob Dylan, but doing it all in such a way as to enable suspension of disbelief, or at least as to enable the suspension of my disbelief when I was fourteen and Dean Howe flogged me this because he'd discovered either Iron Maiden or AC/DC or something which sounded a bit less like Bruce Springsteen; and it still sounds good, even exciting on more pumped up numbers such as Kicks, Looking After Number One, and so on. The one with the hairbrush allergy may have given his kids stupid names and pissed on his chips more than once in recent years, but he once made an album so good as to prove impervious to subsequent associations; and let us also take into consideration that he presently annoys the living shit out of Jonty UKIP Lydon, which has to count for something.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

400 Blows - The New Lords on the Block (1989)

It all seemed so promising when they first showed up with Beat the Devil, and then reviews hinted at influences taking in both Chic and Throbbing Gristle, and then there was Andrew Edward Beer's declaration of intent in the booklet accompanying Larry Peterson's Sudden Surge of Power compilation tape.

What I strive for in the confines of each piece of music is something which is best described by a term I apply to music and sound which can reach a level of perfection, and which I call universal sound and rhythm. It is rather like watching a tape level read out. I try to hit the peak of music and reach that same plateau of perfection which is so evident in the best of Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Steve Reich and Erik Satie; and similar is another type of music which has incorporated these peaks and perfected them over centuries of improvisation, the folk music of Great Britain and Eire.

Like much of the work above, it is more an atmosphere which is created about the piece than actually trying to get from A to B and back again, then quickly fade the song. As the composer Charles Ives said, 'individual notes do not matter so much as the spirit'. This is why we use tapes so much, for they can express in a word or sound experiences and things which would need much explaining in lyrical form before the listener would begin to understand the significance.

We do not only want to reach a musical purity, for individual sounds can mean as much; but we are wary of a perfect form of music, for nothing should ever be perfect, the ultimate, the masterplan...

Although we are still a small band, we record in large twenty-four track studios and use some expensive equipment because these facilities need to be there so that we are not restricted, and all channels of sound and rhythm can be at our fingertips. Even so we may end up using very few tracks and performing on maybe only one or two instruments. We go into the studio with a minimum of information, but with many ideas and begin from there. We are as much manipulators of sound as players of instruments*.

Then they released The Return of the Dog, still one of the greatest singles of all time so far as I'm concerned - beat driven, sophisticated, luxurious, and resembling nothing else I've heard before or since. 400 Blows were funky, but an entirely different concern to all those Sheffield dudes parping away on their trumpets in Bundeswehr vests. There was something legitimately jazzy about the Blows, and with hindsight their early outings make me think of a sort of northern soul equivalent to what 23 Skidoo were up to around the same time.

They followed The Return of the Dog with Declaration of Intent, a single which, if not quite so astonishing, nevertheless succeeded as postscript to a record which otherwise made everything else released that year sound shit; and then the album came out and it was all over.

If I Kissed Her I'd Have To Kill Her First, wasn't terrible, but it was massively underwhelming and as such the last thing anyone could have expected from a band capable of coming up with The Return of the Dog. It sounded like they were pissing about in an expensive studio, which I suppose was exactly what they were doing. It sounded as though they'd ran out of ideas.

The Return of the Dog seemed rich, exotic, and even expensive in 1983, particularly through vague descent from a parent genre then busily following the New Blockaders down an unusually noisy rabbit hole full of tape hiss and distortion. They achieved a reasonable impersonation of Shakatak and the like with the next few singles, and an arguably efficient cover of Movin' by Brass Construction, and then inevitably they discovered house music contemporaneous to every other white guy with a Yamaha drum machine deciding that it looked easy and that he could do that, no sweat. So by the time The New Lords on the Block came out, possibly as some sort of New Kids related pun, that once expensive sound was now churning forth from the bedroom or garden shed of every other midi-fixated post-industrial disco boy; and it seems not insignificant that Concrete Productions, originally their label, had taken to releasing Funky Alternatives, a series of compilations which - like 400 Blows themselves - began well before devolving into a series of generic orchestral stabs over sampled beats with tapes of American televangelists wailing away in the background. I mean, Pop Will Eat Itself were on one of the later volumes, for fuck's sake…

I owned a copy of If I Kissed Her I'd Have To Kill Her First at some point but got rid of it on the grounds of being unable to remember why I'd bought it. I still own a copy of this one, although I can't actually remember buying it, but I guess I held onto it because it never sounds quite as bad as I expect it to be. There are no less than two remixes of The Return of the Dog, nearly a decade old by this point, neither adding anything worthwhile to the original; and there are a couple of what I suppose were intended as atmospheric pieces, just tapes of film dialogue with a few effects which sound as though they were included mainly for the sake of using up some studio time which had already been paid for; and then there's the house music resembling everything else recorded in 1991. Listening close, it's possible to discern a few unique polyrhythmic touches which seem to recall the luxurient imagination of their glory days, or possibly day; and although the album grows with repeat listening, the best that can be said about it is probably that it gives a decent account of how good the record should have been, but wasn't.


*: This text has been fairly extensively edited for spelling, grammar, and an approach to punctuation which seems to have been undertaken in homage to Hugo Ball.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

23 Skidoo - The Culling is Coming (1983)

I have no excuse for not having bought this at the time, barring - I suppose - being skint due to having bought other records or paid rent or whatever. As promised in vaguely remembered reviews, it's nothing like Seven Songs, except actually it sort of is, but mainly in spirit. There was a period of about six months when 23 Skidoo were seemingly regarded as a sort of baby Throbbing Gristle, partially by association in a social sense, but also sharing some areas of interest. The Culling is Coming reminds me of Second Annual Report to a much greater extent than anything else they ever recorded, whilst also representing an affirmation of 23 Skidoo as very much a unique proposition in its own right.

The Culling is Coming comprises a couple of live improvised performances and, being awkward buggers, the lads punctuate one of these with a lock groove halfway through side one, requiring that the listener get up and move the needle on; so it's a little like having a three-sided album. The music derives from loops of rough sound - some treated, tapes, atonal thigh-bone trumpets, and Gamelan instrumentation - or possibly percussive objects found laying around in the days before anyone had heard of metal bashing. It should be a complete fucking racket in the sense of the New Blockaders being a complete fucking racket, and yet there's enough tonal contrast from dark to light, heavy to soft, that it has a definite musical sensibility, or at least a sense of progression; and this is why The Culling is Coming reminds me of Second Annual Report. There's not much you can actually hum on the way to work, but after a couple of spins it all gets ground into your inner ear in a way which sticks.

The album has the same sort of beauty one might find staring at a plate of rusted metal for a couple of minutes; and it's really not such a leap of imagination to recognise this as a relative of the same drone you will have heard in the undergrowth of Seven Songs and Urban Gamelan. In some sense, it's almost an inversion of what much allegedly industrial music has done, in that it goes beyond the powerplay of noise, texture, shock, and awe to reveal a delicate perfection in the detail; and apparently I've just turned into Paul fucking Morley. Still, this was one of the absolute finest records of its admittedly nebulous genre, and it should be remembered as such.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

J.J. Burnel - Euroman Cometh (1979)

I had some reservations. Much as I've loved the Stranglers, they had distinct periods of experimentation with being macho shitheads, and more recently I encountered Hitler salutes delivered in praise of Euroman Cometh on a peculiar blog constituting an assemblage of quotes of far right inclination. Mostly it was excerpts from interviews in which various members of Killing Joke proposed which demographic groups they would like to see sent to a hypothetical gas chamber, mainly referring to fairies, effeminate types, nancy boys, anyone who likes Boy George, people who listen to pouffy music, other fairies who have somehow eluded the initial sweep, over and over - what larks! It was hard to work out whether the author of the blog had compiled all of this material as evidence for the prosecution, or because he too wished to see fairies sent to some hypothetical gas chamber, but the suggestion of Euroman Cometh being cut from the same jackbooted cloth was troubling, particularly in the wake of certain fat folky fuckers who just happen to be stood on stage in black uniforms singing about how they quite like Europe.

Thankfully I was mistaken, as I probably would have realised had I bought this at the time. Burnel's Crabs sounded great on the Strangler's Christmas EP, but apparently not so great as to inspire me to buy the album, but never mind. Euroman Cometh is thematically a call for European unity as a progressive and essentially inclusive entity, a refutation of American influence and the more unpleasant episodes of recent European history; and even Burnel's motorbike fixation is turned to a restatement of this ideal on the cover:

The Triumph Workers Co-operative at Meriden have proved that personally motivated enterprise coupled with group interest is a necessary ingredient in successful socialism and the sham they call national socialism could only be suggested and perpetrated by enemies of the people.

See, Dougie - that's all it fucking takes, you goose-stepping wanker.

Musically speaking, Euroman could almost be a Stranglers album, albeit one with a subtle shift of emphasis in the direction of the European sensibility it strives to communicate, so it growls and swaggers just as you would expect whilst somehow invoking Metal Urbain, Grauzone, and other cold wave types who added grumbling bass to one of those primitive rhythm machines which was usually just a wooden box with a button marked rhumba on the side. Strangely, the only minor disappointment is that the studio version of Crabs isn't quite so convincing as the live version which accompanied the release of Don't Bring Harry; but this is otherwise a fucking cracker.