Thursday, 27 February 2014

Ceramic Hobs - Oz Oz Alice (2010)

Remember that slightly troubled kid at school whose parents forbade him to listen to records by anyone other than the Swans and Splodgenessabounds? Well...

No. No. No.

Let's start again...

So you've just purchased a brand new shit-throwing machine. You've followed the instructions, duly bolted down all the gaskets, and now you're out in the yard ready to give it a whirl. You throw the toggle and stand in admiration as a controlled storm of stinking effluence arcs across the path, and then fuck

In a panic you remember too late where you left all the groups last night, and now they're covered in it! The Birthday Party, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra - all dripping in reeking human poo! It's a disaster! You rush them into the kitchen, bundling them all into the sink and begin scrubbing away with a brillo pad, trying to console yourself with the thought that at least no-one will be able to tell with ELO. The dog comes in, brushes against your leg and you fall, for some reason, reaching out to steady yourself and accidentally hitting the control for the waste disposal. There's a disgusting gurgle as all the bands are sucked down the plughole - even though that isn't actually how a waste disposal works - and you know it's too late. You go outside for a smoke, then come back in and disconnect the waste disposal from the power supply, then set to work on clearing out the fetid gunk of what used to be the Birthday Party, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Pink Floyd, and the Electric Light Orchestra. You hold a gobbet to your nose and sniff, and if you're anything like me, which you probably aren't, it reminds you a bit of Oz Oz Alice; which is at least preferable to sounds like The Fall, as frequently opined by morons in reference to anything which, bearing no comparison to U2, must therefore logically constitute a Mark E. Smith rip off.


The mad have by some definition become the last minority upon whom it's still apparently okay to perform dubious medical experiments; and for the sake of clarity here, by mad I mean those of the United Kingdom who have had occasion to be sectioned under the mental health act, as opposed to folks who might wear a Marilyn Manson T-shirt and regard themselves as a bit edgy. Mad - a term reclaimed by the Mad Pride movement - describes those who may suffer from a variety of mental conditions to greater or lesser degrees, and is no more useful as a blanket description of a particular type of person than any other impersonal collective noun - black, white, gay or whatever. Being mad does not necessarily determine one's level of intelligence, sexual preference, creativity, employability, or how useful a person is likely to be in the wider context of society. Nevertheless the mad are the one group to whom an entirely different set of laws are routinely applied in contrast with the rest of us. Things can be done to the mad without requiring the consent of the individual, and any movement in opposition to this finds itself additionally in opposition to not only the legal system, but in some cases - so it has been argued - to the interests of both psychiatric and pharmaceutical professions.

Ceramic Hobs, a band comprising some who have themselves had dealings with representatives of the mental health profession, are amongst the more conspicuous of the Mad Pride bands, at least from where I'm stood; and perhaps unsurprisingly their music really gets in there, representing a uniquely fractured vision of much greater honesty and intensity than the usual Radiohead feeling a bit sad because they don't like working in an office type of deal. From certain angles, it's the more terrifying end of psychedelic garage - the kind with cartoons of evil mushrooms growing from murderous looking band members on the record cover - filtered through Smell & Quim or one of the more unpleasantly odiferous noise groups, and it rocks. It may initially sound like a wall of noise, or at least one of those jam sessions where everyone gets pissed off and the guitarist suddenly starts playing Pictures of Matchstick Men by Status Quo because he's bored - which does actually happen here on Toto In Africa - but the more you listen to Oz Oz Alice, the more sense it makes, or at least the more it takes shape; and by the third or fourth spin, every last distorted crackle and rustle of mangled master tape sounds like art, and good art, as in something that's been put there for a reason.

It's harrowing and bonkers of course, but nevertheless absorbing for representing such a raw and genuine vision, something that is clearly enjoying itself and doesn't give a shit as to the listener getting it in quite the same way as all those Oasis fans identifying with their idols. Also, it's funny and even somehow educational - funny not least during the deathly serious delivery of the when I'm pooing on your head section of the title track, amongst other things; and educational because sometimes it's a good fucking thing to get yourself some insight into how other people think, particularly when they think in ways quite different to whatever you're used to.

Oz Oz Alice is a mess but it's also quite brilliant; and it's the exact opposite of U2, Radiohead, and anything you will ever see on The X-Factor.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

DMX - Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood (1998)

Much like The Damned's Machine Gun Ettiquette, this is one of those albums that may not be the greatest record ever made, but sounds like it could be whilst you're listening to it; or it does to me anyway. In terms of brooding introspective menace, DMX always struck me as likely inspiration for the character of Omar Little on The Wire, but he was never a serious contender for world's most amazing lyricist. His strength lies in the power of his delivery, the screw-faced intensity of his artistic vision; and in any case no-one ever quacked their pants whilst listening to a Talib Kweli record. This was his second album, the one that moved things up a notch from It's Dark and Hell is Hot to form a near perfect rap album, despite this apparently being impossible for anything that sells triple platinum without containing at least one track about the joys of eating a delicious Harvest Crunch bar whilst doing a finger painting of that nice Bob Marley - criteria for perfect here being how close it gets to doing that which it sets out to do.

Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood sets out to psychologically profile the life of the artist from the inside looking out, capturing a filmic intensity which parallels the more harrowing moments of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now or any other widescreen quantification of life as both precious and yet unfortunately cheap. To rephrase that without the poor fit of my unimaversity edumacation, it's the blues with specific reference to Robert Johnson stood waiting at the crossroads for the man downstairs, or maybe the black New York Nick Cave; something that involves a lot of blood and not many smiles.

Whilst angry rap albums may not exactly be a limited resource, this one works because it resembles nothing that came out before or since - not even other DMX albums. For starters, Swizz Beatz who produced ten of the fifteen tracks was really firing on all cylinders when he built these songs up from those weird plinky-plonky beats - clipped snares that could have been lifted off an old Synsonics toy drum, Casio keyboard style pizzicato strings, and even that dollar store scratched record effect that probably came from some video game. The guy seemed to go out of his way to find cheap, artificial sounds, making them work in spite of themselves, pinning it all down with a measured bass throb; repeated keyboard smash notes turned into a melody, finally subtracting as many elements from the song as it can stand to lose without falling to incoherent pieces and so leaving us with this big empty space, like a cathedral made out of broken plastic toys and cheap Taiwanese electronics. DMX's violent, almost masochistic growl is thrown into sharp contrast against such a soundtrack, carrying a weight that's positively old testament. It's at least as intense as the cover implies, but nonetheless essential, educational and even inspirational listening, and - just so we're absolutely clear on this - DMX is not suggesting listeners try any of this at home. He already has quite enough of his own problems, in case you're a moron and somehow failed to notice the utter dearth of glamour or lifestyle tips.

Finally, it still astonishes me how something which - on close inspection - sounds quite so avant-garde, quite so unlike anything that had been before, managed to sell by the truckload and clog up the airwaves for at least a year; but of course, being a multi-million selling rap album means it went above the radar for many based on the idea that the musically adventurous must by definition be obscure and unpopular. It's bollocks really. Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood makes Godflesh sound like Haircut 100; most experimentalists may as well be Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen by comparison; and yet it sold so well they couldn't press the fucking thing fast enough when it first came out.

This record is a masterpiece.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Lagowski - Ashita (1997)

Several thousand years ago I found myself sharing a house with a sculpture student from Ipswich named Reuben Pinkney. This was my first time away from home so it all seemed quite strange, but happily it turned out that my housemate and I had similar tastes in music.

'Try this,' he said one evening, handing me a cassette tape of four tracks, no titles on the inlay card, just the name of the band which was Nagamatzu. 'They're from Ipswich. You'll like them.'

I did. They sounded a bit like Joy Division, but about forty or fifty times better than all those other bands who sounded a bit like Joy Division; Atmosphere era Joy Division without Ian Curtis singing one of those I'm referring to something spooky without telling you what it is songs; in fact they were what New Order should have sounded like, I decided, except instrumental. Fuck it - they were actually superior to any of the bands with which I felt qualified to draw lazy comparisons - driving bass, sharp rhythm programming, and the sort of panoramic cloud banks of synth that evoke spiritual revelations on warm summer evenings, but better than that and without lending itself quite so easily to my admittedly purple prose.

Years later I discovered that these tracks - which I still had on a tape somewhere - were actually from the recently reissued Shatter Days, and that the membership of Nagamatzu had included one Andrew Lagowski whose name I'd encountered on numerous occasions without my ever realising there was a link; and within about a week of learning all this, I happen upon a copy of Ashita in my local Half-Price Books. It's all connected, you see. Woooooooo!

To briefly swerve off in pursuit of yet another very loosely associated train of thought, many years ago, but not so many years ago as when I shared a house with a sculpture student from Ipswich named Reuben Pinkney, my friend Carl worked at a massive and fairly well known photography and design studio near the Post Office Tower in London. One afternoon I turned up to meet him from work as we were going to a gig, or to the pub, or to the Raymond Revue Bar or something or other. I went up a floor and into a studio space full of desks and light boxes.

'You see this lot,' Carl told me in sotto voice, a furtive glance to all the others working away at their computers. 'Every single one of them is a DJ.'

The information was not offered as something which might impress me. I looked around at all the heads close-shaven to circumnavigate the onset of male pattern baldness, the self-conscious hipster spectacles, the near identical clothes, and those zippy record bags left laying around stuffed with rare Bulgarian tech-stomp twelves picked up from Flabby's in Soho at lunchtime, records I probably hadn't heard of, but which they had.

I wondered how Carl could stand to work in the place, amongst so many people all trying far too hard, all labouring under the delusion that arranging a group of records produced by other people in a particular order is a profoundly creative act. It's not that the art of the DJ is entirely without skill or merit - and by DJ I refer to the phenomenon as it has emerged from rave culture as opposed to the whole cutting and scratching deal associated with rap and hip-hop - but things seem to have got out of hand, and media driven hyperbole has elevated the status of people who choose records to something far beyond that which they actually do. My guess is that this is because it can be sexy to rock a crowd with your two record players, to be seen to have it large, and to be recognised as someone who knows how to choose a jolly tune - if you'll pardon all the terminology - and much sexier than sitting in a studio scratching your arse and programming a drum machine like a saaad specky nerd who reads books and has never done it with a girl - or a boy depending upon personal preference. As with any sudden and popular shift in that which has caught the imagination of the general public, the past is either revised or ignored with Cromwellian zeal, and so thanks to sexy DJ culture, that which was once unpopular and even reviled is moved to centre stage with a new coat of paint, hence all the clueless fuckers who will swear blind that electronic music was invented by Aphex Twin or Daft Punk; and whatever that other stuff was, well it wasn't the same and it was saaad.; although this view apparently also makes me a hipster.

Due to my having records that you haven't heard of, but which I have heard of, the first track I came across by the apparently award-winning Burial inspired the thought that this sounds like Nagamatzu, but not as good, and oddly the same equation has worked with Autechre and Lagowski. It isn't that I feel I should necessarily be congratulated for having taste when everyone else was rolling up the sleeves of their jackets and listening to Climie Fisher - although it would be nice - but I sense an injustice in so much as it would be nice to see persons such as Andrew Lagowski and the rest getting some credit, or even wider recognition after all this time, and it seems a shame that people will happily miss out on some great and genuinely innovative music simply because it isn't wearing a backwards baseball cap and asking you to check out my jam, yeah?

Ashita is quite clearly tapped from the same inspirational well-spring that informed Nagamatzu, and as such still sounds about ten years ahead of the folks who haven't quite finished reinventing Lagowski's earlier records; and listening closely it serves as a lesson in how to do this sort of thing right, and how to keep it interesting. It's all electronic, roughly ambient or whatever you want to call it, but it feels organic in a quite fundamental sense, sounds and notation which seem to evolve and expand upon themes as though part of some subatomic process, the formation of cosmic strings or whatever. Nothing here sounds like something you will have heard before in quite the same way on another record, even down to snare and cymbal hits which don't ever quite repeat on themselves let alone on anyone else; and crucially everything is at the volume at which it needs to be, so some details remain half heard whilst others move slowly towards the foreground - might be worth noting just how many lesser producers can't mix and keep everything at the same flat level. All of this serves to invoke a space, pretentious as that will almost certainly sound, a great void defined by the musical elements cohered about its periphery, a subtle and pleasant differentiation of the more common result of just whacking the reverb up to 99.9 seconds and deciding fuck it - that'll do.

Ashita treads an impressively fine balance, achieving a sort of split second musical precision without exactly sounding composed, or trying too hard as I guess I mean. Rhythms build up from sparse throbs of deep bass, becoming hypnotic without ever quite sinking into simple repetition. As with the greatest of art, it's as much about what is left out as about what is used, and Andrew Lagowski is a true master in this respect; and as with Nagamatzu, the emotional impact is incredible and subtle, something falling between mournful and sublime without pulling any of the obvious tricks, the plinky plonky boo hoo piano notes that have probably just been reinvented for the umpteenth time by the latest whining incarnation of DJ Tosspot feat. Mercury Music Prize Fuckface.

Whilst it may well be true that I've heard of this record and you, dear reader, possibly haven't, it's not like I have all existing copies locked up in my basement, so the rest is up to you.

Go on, be a devil.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Spice 1 - 187 He Wrote (1993)

That massive supposedly complete history of rap that will one day be written probably won't be dedicating too much page space to Spice 1, for like MC Eiht, Celly Cel and a few other west-coast notables, he did his thing, and he did it well, but he never really made a massive splash in terms of sales, cult status, or whatever artistic criteria we're judging rap by this week. The nineties will probably end up remembered as the decade of Dead Prez on the grounds of their being responsible black men who rapped about vegetarian food, learning to play chess in coffee shops, and lighting up a few incense sticks before you knob your bird on a Friday night after the pub - with a few nods to Malcolm X thrown in just to show that just because a man is in touch with his feelings, it doesn't mean he's, you know, soft. Whilst it seems unlikely that gangsta rap will be entirely forgotten, it'll probably be remembered as something invented by Eminem, because when a white guy describes that stuff, obviously it's art or at least some sort of statement in the vein of a Scorsese or Tarantino, something of merit as distinct from that stuff which is just kids bragging about guns upon which we'd rather not pour too much scorn in case anyone thinks we're racist.

Just so we're clear, the music of Spice 1 belongs in that category which has thus far eluded sanitisation, reassessment, and subsequent reclamation as something you might enjoy over a glass of wine and a few injections of legal marijuana. It tells the sort of stories you almost certainly won't want to hear, which is a good thing because there's not much point bothering with rap if you're only interested in the more soothing end of the spectrum; and the closest our boy comes to moral responsibility is advising us that if we're really going to pop a cap in someone's ass, then we should at least make it count and pop a cap in the ass of someone we can rob. Wise words indeed.

There is of course a school of thought which states that albums like 187 He Wrote glamorise gunplay because that's what sells, and it must therefore be regarded as inferior product, although said school of thought probably wouldn't state it directly to Spice 1's face. Personally I hold to the view that this interpretation is only that, an interpretation, and is, generally speaking, bullshit which should be obvious as such to anyone attempting to engage with the music on its own terms. Whilst I'm sure Spice 1 never had a problem with the idea that he might be able to sell a few records, it seems pretty obvious that he's talking to his people, as in those who've lived the sort of horrendous crap described here, and whether Sting or C. Delores Tucker understand isn't really relevant; and similarly, ignoring this sort of thing isn't going to change the fact that there are people out there who live in the world described herein. Then there's also the idea that songs about gang violence tend to glamorise gang violence, an idea possibly derived from the occasionally filmic quality of much gangsta rap and the apparent absence of a don't try this at home disclaimer, the song ending with our narrator sobbing, wishing he'd stayed in school and studied to become a dentist. So think on, kids...

Bah, I say. Just get over it and listen to the music. I spent many hours listening to Spice 1 whilst pounding the pavements of south-east London as a postman. Contrary to the popular image of the job being much like that seen in Postman Pat - just wandering around with a few letters, happily spending an hour chatting to Mrs. Goggins at the corner shop and so on - it was often a miserable and deeply fucking thankless task, usually struggling to get five or six hours of work done in about four and breaking your back in the often pissing rain whilst doing so; and whilst I never found myself having to dodge bullets, listening to Spice 1 really helped get me through some truly shitty days, just as I expect 187 He Wrote helped members of its intended audience get through some truly shitty days - and I mean the sort of days in which you try listening to Killing Joke but give up because it just doesn't seem angry enough. In fact it's surprising how tame a lot of supposedly grumpy music sounds when compared to that produced by those who, like our boy here, have experienced real world problems more severe than dad forbidding the wearing of nose rings at the dinner table.

The great thing about the music of Spice 1 is that it combines all the reckless nihilism of its gratuitous violence with a surprisingly uplifting quality. You might almost say it's the blues - Robert Johnson taken to an extreme I suppose, but still very much a soulful and populist take thanks to a massive injection of g-funk with a big fat organic bass end emulating the experience of having your arse kicked by a really happy guy, probably; and whilst the man himself may be deemed lyrically limited by certain dubious criteria, he more than makes up for it with the sheer inventive relish of his delivery, and of all the rappers to engage in that vocal scratching thing that everyone was doing back in '93, he's significantly one of the few to record material that still sounds fucking great two decades later. This is probably what distinguishes his vocal style from being a mere gimmick, in that such tics and tricks were never the only thing up his sleeve, and were more to do with a debt to the toasters of Jamaican dancehall than a passing affectation. This, for my money, is probably also one of the reasons why Spice 1 is perhaps the only rap guy I've heard turning out the occasional full-on reggie tune without sounding like an utter cock.

Neither before or since, I would argue, has music quite this terrifying ever felt so joyful. Mine may well be a minority view, but Spice 1 surely deserves at least one album amongst the acknowledged rap all-time greats, and this one is as good as any.