Thursday, 31 October 2013

MFH - 1979-85 (2012)

MFH was a duo comprising David Elliott and Andrew Cox, and I should probably confess that what follows is hardly impartial given that Andrew was a close friend prior to his horrible passing in 2009. I met Andrew and David through their recording as Pump on The Elephant Table Album, and my noticing how their contact address was about three streets from where I was living at the time. I knew of MFH from weirdy cassette fanzines although I'd never heard their music, excepting Andrew's excellent solo tape Methods. All the same, we had plenty in common and it transpired that we knew at least a few of the same people.

It's a little odd only now getting to hear MFH having known Andrew so well and for so long, particularly as he's no longer with us, but it's more or less what I expected given Andrew and David's appreciation of Cluster and others. Their music didn't exactly sound like Cluster, but it shared more common ground with the German avant-garde than with many of MFH's wilfully industrial contemporaries, all busily frowning as they twisted those VCOs and pretended to be the science-fiction Black Sabbath. What we have here are nineteen instrumental, or at least non-vocal tracks culled from the five cassettes released by MFH - all quite atmospheric and with a clear love of improvised sound composition which makes it quite difficult to identify some of the sources. I fully expect the next person who overhears me listening to this to declare that it isn't music, except actually it kind of is. Even at their most abstract and atonal, MFH made great use of repetition and texture to create something which draws you in if you're prepared to give it a chance. Being culled from a cassette source, it's lo-fi by necessity rather than as a virtue, but this isn't a problem. These pieces might best be approached as abstract paintings in sound, fascinating oddities which might have formed by means of some obscure geological or organic process, and the more one listens, the better they work. If it's any good to you, I listened to this today whilst out on the marshlands of Salado Creek here in San Antonio. It was warm and I spent a few minutes just watching swarms of dragonflies go about their business. This was a pretty good accompaniment.

The history of this kind of music is rewritten on a more or less yearly basis, and it's got to the point where people now use the term industrial music as though it ever really meant anything; and give it another ten years and the whole thing will probably turn out to have been invented by one of those saggy old groups of Joy Division covers Nazis, which is obviously bullshit. It's therefore definitely a good thing that MFH are now honoured and remembered by this wonderful retrospective. They may not have set the world on fire, but they are at least worth remembering.

Available from the Forced Nostalgia label.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Keane - Hopes and Fears (2004)

Excepting possibly post-2005 Doctor Who, root canal dental work, club culture, anyone who has ever used the term industrial rock, and a whole ton of other shite, there is little that I dislike with quite such bile as that which proudly proclaims itself to be indie music - the sort of whining crap legitimised by talent vacuums like Travis, Coldplay, and the rest of their vile and unnecessary ilk - bands apparently spawned when one of the more pitiful Radiohead numbers copped off with U2 at the height of their flag-waving indulgence. It is something which strives to approximate the sound of that which was once vital, commodifies whatever vague remnants of artistic expression have survived the process, then sells the resulting homogeneous goop as lifestyle enhancement consumer product. It is the sound of a man crying onto his Ikea furniture, and it's fucking everywhere.

Back in the days when I had a job I would be subjected to hours of such moribund shite courtesy of Virgin FM or Capital or some such radio station. It was like being stuck inside an advert for car insurance, but just as the law of averages dictates that even Coldplay had one half-decent song, some respite was provided by Keane who somehow managed to do the same thing as Snore Patrol and all the other cockmonglers yet without making me want to hunt them down, knock their glasses from their shared face and take their dinner money. Often sounds heard echoing around the inside of a noisy warehouse may prove entirely unfamiliar when subjected to closer examination, but the tracks on this CD actually resembled the version of Bedshaped that once howled amongst the rafters of our sorting office and worked its way into my music gland; in fact it sounded better if anything.

Aside from the obvious absence of guitar, I'm still not sure what sets Keane apart from the other tossers, so it's probably songwriting or one of those non-quantifiable elements which can be difficult to evaluate unless it's conspicuously bad. Hopes and Fears isn't perfect - in places a little too smooth for its own good and lacking in contrast, but after a few plays you cease wondering how much better it would have been with Steve Albini producing and just let it work on its own merits. It's overwrought and hilariously introspective, probably, but then the same is true of many, many artists, and whether or not they get away with it depends on a whole ton of shit of the kind which distinguishes Joy Division from Ha Ha Tonka and similarly mannered MySpace clowns who really should have spent a bit more time coming up with a fucking band name. Against all odds, Keane get away with it providing you squint a bit and pay no attention to the marketing, at least in so much as Bedshaped is thus far one of this century's wrist-slashing classics, if you ask me. I wonder if any of the other albums were any good.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Revolting Cocks - Big Sexy Land (1986)

I liked the idea of this band, if you could really call some guy hanging around in a studio with his mates a band. After all, there was the determinedly offensive name, and the involvement of at least two members of the greatly superior Front 242, and that they were obviously all just having a laugh; and of course Stainless Steel Providers was possibly the greatest single to ever feature a two-note bassline; but I found myself hugely disappointed that the Cocks didn't turn out to be those three shifty looking chaps they always had on their record sleeves, but were another one of those horrible industrial supergroups who, much like Journey, Pigface and the Traveling Wilburys, worked by the flawed premise that if you get enough famous people together in the same place, awesomeness will surely come to pass. I've never bought into the idea myself. It smacks too much of wouldn't it be amazing if they had Spiderman in an episode of Star Trek?

Whilst I would hardly wish to imply that Alain Jourgensen - the Jeff Lynne of Revolting Cocks - is in any sense bereft of talent, mainly because I thought Lard and Pailhead were decent enough, there looks to be an awful lot of poop in his back catalogue from where I'm standing.

Ministry were Depeche Mode who wished they'd ticked the box marked Slayer, and that was on their good days; the group who daringly brought caged titty dancing and rubbish tattoos back to rock because that's what we really needed - Whitesnake with a fucking synthesiser, although maybe not quite so poetic seeing as Ministry were seemingly aimed at people who hadn't cottoned on to Spinal Tap being a comedy. We already had Motorhead. We didn't need a version that was safe for consumption by fans of Psychic TV.

Of course, it has been said that Ministry's Twitch album was a significant influence on both Nine Inch Nails and everybody else, ever - although I've noticed this is said mostly in YouTube comments so I'm not sure if that counts, particularly as Twitch owes one hell of a debt to its producer Adrian Sherwood, as does much of the first Nine Inch Nails album; and the bottom line for me is that one of Jourgensen's four billion side projects was called Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters - I mean seriously?

How old was he at the time?


Okay Al, you're one scary guy and we're all terrified. You don't like going to church, but you do like to drink beer and watch bare breasts jiggling up and down. We get it now.

So maybe it isn't all the work of a gurning manchild pulling scary faces and saying ooga booga hail Satan to his mum, but mostly...

Big Sexy Land isn't terrible, but it's pretty damned average - distorted drum machine, noise, someone grunting the usual bad guy stuff in the hope of fostering tedious ambiguity regarding whether the song expresses condemnation or approval of death, murder, and stubbing your big toe; and the usual routinely shocking samples deployed in the usual way - tattoed penis tattooed penis tattatattatattatattatattoed penis, and I know it was 1986, but I was there too, and this sort of crap sounded balls-achingly obvious even then. The only element missing is the obligatory tribute to Charles Manson.

Perhaps through being no stranger to the business end of a drum machine, the problem is that I've done this sort of thing myself so I know how easy it is; but usually you return to your monsterpiece three days later and record something less predictable over it rather than slap it on an album and flog it to people.

To be honest, it's possibly not even the fact of Big Sexy Land being such a complete waste of time that bugs me so much as all those gibbering industrial rock baboons who seem to believe that Jourgensen invented bad-ass, plus paying three dollars for this at CD Exchange and still feeling like I've been diddled. I was expecting at least a few chuckles.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Nine Inch Nails - Hesitation Marks (2013)

Excepting remix albums and occasionally bewildering collaborations with lesser talents, Trent Reznor has never really put a foot significantly wrong to these ears, so I hoisted an excited eyebrow upon learning that he had not after all hung up his Nine Inch Nails costume for good. How To Destroy Angels had a lot going for them, but like supermarket's own brand cola, they just weren't quite the same. Fascinatingly enough, Hesitation Marks sounds very much a logical successor to Welcome Oblivion, particularly in its use of glitchy fragments of noise and pre-digital drum machine sounds resulting in something that could almost have come out in 1982 were it not quite so tidy.

I've always found this group - and I'm calling it a group for the sake of argument - more or less unique, and so much so as to make all those others with whom they are so often associated redundant. Listening to - for example - Ministry when you could have The Downward Spiral or With Teeth seems like choosing Green Day over the Sex Pistols, or Green Day over any group who aren't shite for that matter. Others may make similar moves with overdriven guitars, samplers and grunting noises, and it's certainly true that Reznor's songwriting is about as purple as it gets - not quite nobody understands me and it's not fair but not far short - and yet the way he puts it all together is genuinely inspired; although it's probably something fairly simple, a basic combination of imagination and actually meaning it, qualities I've never found conspicuously abundant on all of those Al Jourgensen records about being a bad boy who likes the devil and wants to do a poo on Jesus. Anyway, whatever is going on, Reznor still makes the rest sound like gurning industrial clowns; and still manages to turn out a record which could only be a Nine Inch Nails album without necessarily sounding like any of the previous seven - harrowing but catchy as some guy described them in Rolling Stone.

To narrow all that down to a single sentence, Hesitation Marks is the bestest best thing ever. It really makes me wonder why any of the others bother.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

We Can't Be Stopped (1998)

I gave up listening to rap fairly early on in its development. I had liked Grandmaster Flash, Whodini, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and those guys, but for some reason LL Cool J just seemed to represent a good idea taken too far in the wrong direction with all else following along like seagulls in the wake of a trawler. I can no longer remember why LL Cool J in particular should have represented my cut off point, but the whole enterprise just seemed to be getting too goofy, and I was tired of being asked to put my hands in the air and wave them as though viewing the act with absolute indifference, and that same fucking drum machine over and over...

De La Soul sounded interesting, although not enough to make me want to buy an album; and NWA sounded terrifying in a fairly interesting way, but by 1990 it seemed obvious that rap had become too wide and too complex to be understood at a glance by a relative outsider such as myself. Unfortunately this left me with very little fresh listening material as that with which I was more comfortable had, generally speaking, begun to turn to shit during the nineties with the refitting of proper music as a series of jangly consumer options. Where once we'd had Wire, Crass, Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bill Nelson or whoever - to name but five off the top of my head - now there was the Beautiful South, Oasis, Supergrass, Björk, the Levellers, the Boo Radleys, Primal Scream and a million other horrible box-ticking wankers all queueing up to provide the sort of mechanically reclaimed lifestyle soundtrack that shifted T-shirts and got crowds punching the air without sounding too dissonant when used to advertise car insurance. Suddenly it was okay to listen to ELO again, and I found myself increasingly driven into a corner desperately clutching a few albums by Foetus, Nocturnal Emissions, and the three other people in the world still doing something that didn't sound like the musical equivalent to an episode of My Family.

I needed a complete change, something as far removed from four white guys with guitars as possible. I didn't want to end up as one of those persons wistfully pulling a Simple Minds album from its sleeve and telling his guests I'm an eighties man. I wanted to be able to slap on a newly purchased record and find myself staring open-mouthed at the speakers wondering what the hell I was hearing; and much like the guy who sang the theme from Friends, rap was there for me. It probably helped that rap was what people at work listened to, not so much because they tried to bring me into the fold or bothered to lend me anything they thought I might like, just that they provided a precedent. I bought Foxy Brown's Chyna Doll album more or less on the grounds that it wasn't by the White Stripes - or the Shite Stripes as I call them hur hur hur - and looking at the cover in the store, I found it impossible to imagine what the thing would sound like.

It actually sounded pretty fucking great, and even better, it featured what I later came to recognise as a fairly typical quota of guest performers, others whose work I could chase up in my quest for aural stimulation; which led to a couple of CDs by Mia X, and in turn to whatever else I could find on the No Limit label.

No Limit were a revelation to me, a stable of New Orleans rappers sharing the same production team, and churning out disc after disc of stuff that wasn't really like anything I'd heard before, and all with these bizarre covers by Pen & Pixel graphics, sharp dressed photoshopped rap persons eating diamonds for breakfast cereal - designs perpetrated without concessions to taste or subtlety by people who probably didn't quite know what they were doing but still had one hell of a time doing it; and the records sounded like they were made in the same spirit, like the fruit of a journey that began with the words well, let's turn this thing on and see what the fuck happens.

We Can't Be Stopped dates roughly from the heyday of No Limit records and is reasonably representative - a uniquely varied line up of landmark rappers of whom at least three or four existed pretty much in stylistic fields of their own, notably Fiend and Mr. Serv-On; and the music is typically all over the shop, probably composed mostly in Cubase or some similar programme, disparate elements joyfully slapped together just to see how they'll sound, cheesy old Roland drum machines pinging away next to piano, brushed snares, pizzicato strings, and all sorts of things that just shouldn't be served on the same plate. One great thing about No Limit was that even when their Beats by the Pound production team were quite obviously responding to someone asking for a track that sounds like that song by so and so, the end result more often than not goes somewhere else entirely. There's an almost amateur feel, the outsider art of rap, but done with such enthusiasm that it can't help but sound weird and great and absolutely fresh - I mean fresh as in new, by the way, but the other meaning is fine too.

Sadly, it wasn't long after We Can't Be Stopped came out that Master P, No Limit CEO, made the grave mistake of listening to his critics and turned the label into a spent force more or less overnight, shedding most of the roster's talent in a doomed effort to keep up with the times and emulate those newer artists who had spent most of the nineties vainly trying to duplicate his success. Some of the artists here went on to better things - not least Fiend, the definitive bullfrog of rap and a personal all time favourite - but the golden age was over. It turned out some of them could be stopped, none of which changes that this collection still sounds great more than a decade later, still full of surprises. If this stuff hadn't come along at just the right time as evidence in support that there will always be new things under the sun providing you know where to look, my own listening habits would probably still be stuck back in 1989.