Thursday, 27 November 2014

NATAS - Wicket World Wide.Com (1999)

Excepting possibly Whodini's Haunted House of Rock from 1983, rap as a genre rarely dipped its toe into any vaguely gothic waters until the nineties when certain artists apparently concluded that the only way to take it any place beyond Straight Outta Compton was to just go all out and get with the man downstairs. It's still an odd mix, served best by Three-6-Mafia in the south, and probably NATAS from Detroit in the north. NATAS was formed around Esham, sometimes Esham the Unholy, who released his first solo album at the age of sixteen and pretty much invented Detroit rap. Specifically he termed it acid rap, drawing inspiration and imagery from the weirder, more theatrical end of rock and metal, returning again and again to dark, supposedly Satanic images as metaphors for the shittier aspects of human existence, and possibly because it pisses people off. The short version is that there probably would never have been an Eminem or an Insane Clown Posse were it not for Esham. He did it first and best where this sort of psychologically warped stuff is concerned.

NATAS - standing for Nation Ahead of Time And Space - comprises Esham, Mastamind, and TNT, the man with enough game to make the Virgin Mary suck dick and stash cocaine, it says here. They're part of the reason why I can no longer take so many of those power electronics acts seriously. Stood next to NATAS or Three-6-Mafia - both of whom it should be noted transmit their horror by means of toe-tapping beats and tunes that even the most musically inept milkman could whistle with ease - Whitehouse and their kind sound like some testy art gallery installation, everyone stood around sipping fizz and congratulating each other on how shocking are their t-shirts. Stuck in a room with Whitehouse, one is left with a bit of a headache and the faint nausea of having scoffed too many vol-au-vents. Stuck in a room with NATAS, there's always the nagging fear that they might actually mean it. Even if it's all naughty words and exaggeration and comedic bragging amounting to a nutcase waving a gun in your face, and a gun that is quite clearly only a water pistol, the threat is voiced with such force that whether the weapon is real or not is probably the least of your worries. NATAS is fucking crazy; but in a good way, possibly.

Which brings us to Wicket World Wide.Com - wicket here being wicked shit as the term referring to acid rap or whatever you want to call it, as distinct from anything to do with cricket, or for that matter musical theatre, vodka-based alcopops, or the hearty endorsement of Sophie Aldred. I'm not sure if this is the best NATAS album, but it's the best I've heard, and it's difficult to imagine one better. Musically it has its own sound, existing at a sort of tangent to the rest of hip-hop, a crisp electronic production invoking the likes of Front 242 as much as any of the more obvious sources of inspiration. The rhythms feel like knives sharpened, contrasting neatly with a deep, warm bass and the sort of virtual arrangements that don't quite exist in nature, or at least didn't when this came out; and it rocks like anything recorded by the Rollins Band without much in the way of guitar or even anything resembling the dynamics of six-strings and an overdrive pedal. Also, it's convincingly terrifying for the most part, at least up until the last few tracks which begin to take a less screw-faced tone, coming as something of a relief after the first somewhat intense hour; and the nutcase with a water pistol factor described above means that even minor instances of dating - Cyberkill, WWW.COM and others which no doubt seemed pretty fucking futuristic in 1999 - retain their menace regardless.

All of this Wicket World Wide.Com does without sounding too much like anyone else, inspiring any skips towards the next track in line, or whilst standing in an art gallery wearing leather trousers and screaming. You've gotta kill us to stop us, they promise on Metropolis - the song that Godflesh probably would have recorded had they been young black males growing up in Detroit - and this album, exhausting and addictive as it is, leaves you in no doubt of the fact.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Hog Molly - Kung-Fu Cocktail Grip (2001)

As I've argued elsewhere, Tad were probably the greatest rock band of all time, at least for my money. It isn't simply that they sounded heavier than anything before or since; after all, any dummy with a fuzz pedal can usually manage that one, hence all those mystifying death, thrash, black, or whatever metal bands grunting their way through slabs of undifferentiated noise which may as well be Consumer Electronics for all the difference it makes to any milkman in search of something to whistle of a morning. Tad were different, having remembered to include tunes amongst all those crushing minor chords, and with some strangely bruised and fragile quality swaddled somewhere within the radius of the blast zone making the whole appear all the more extreme through contrast. Unfortunately they were also probably the unluckiest band in the world, as is evident from watching the excellent Busted Circuits and Ringing Ears documentary, from which it becomes clear why they might have felt like throwing in the towel, as they did in 1999.

Between 1989 and 1995, Tad released four frankly astounding studio albums without so much as a single weak track to be heard; and so left a substantial hole in the general rhythm of my listening habits once the well ran dry. Then in 2000, Tad Doyle - after whom the first band was named, in case that wasn't obvious - resurfaced with some new guys and released Kung-Fu Cocktail Grip. Unsurprisingly it's roughly the same territory as Tad, Doyle himself having a highly distinctive approach to composition, and with Jack Endino producing as he had done on Tad's Infrared Riding Hood and God's Balls.

Squint those ears and it could almost be the fifth Tad album, but not quite. I'm tempted to believe it may be the absence of Kurt Danielson that has shifted the emphasis here, but that's probably an oversimplification, if not just plain wrong. Hog Molly seemed a sharper, more streamlined animal than Tad, less given over to subtleties, and yes, I do maintain that there are subtleties to be found in something invoking the experience of a monster truck reversing over your head. Kung-Fu Cocktail Grip bludgeons, and keeps on bludgeoning for the full fifty minutes, but never becomes overwhelming, never sludges out into the usual big grey wall of grinding guitar. Even at its most thermonuclear, the recording is beautifully spaced, keeping even the squeak of a bass drum pedal intact as the band drop rocks onto your head, thus allowing one to appreciate every last sweating pore.

There's still nothing that quite tears out your heart and stamps on it like Stumbling Man or Glue Machine, but there are a few that come close enough and, as with Tad, there are still no duff tracks to be heard. Even so, this came out a while ago, and fifteen years has been a long time to go without fresh servings from this particular spigot. There's supposed to be a Brothers of the Sonic Cloth album out some time next year - that being Tad's current band - and it can't come too soon.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Mia X - Good Girl Gone Bad (1995)

It would be a huge exaggeration to say that this album was why I gave up on rock music about half way through the 1990s, but it was definitely in there somewhere as one of a number of reasons why there didn't seem to be much point in listening to noodling guitar wankers with floppy hair ever again. I'm not sure how far Mia X's fame spread beyond American shores, or even how much it spread beyond her native Louisiana. Mama Drama, her third and sadly final album at the time of writing went gold, but I'm not really sure what that means. Anyway, however big she made it, she almost certainly deserved to make it a whole lot bigger.

You could probably call this gangsta if you really felt the need, but you'd be missing the point, which in Mia X's case rudely underscored Chuck D's claim of rap being the black CNN. You might even say she took it a stage further to something bordering on counselling. If the black man in America so often tends to find himself with the shitty end of the stick, then it seems to be the lot of the black woman in America to wash his pants after he's wiped his hands on them. Mia X, clearly no stranger to tough times, tells it like it was two decades ago and almost certainly still is for all those trapped in that demographic which usually makes it onto the telly as either a crime or poverty statistic. I know it probably sounds a bit wank to say she tells it like it is, but she really does, or did - unscheduled pregnancy, selling illegal substances in a bid to make ends meet, boyfriend led astray by ne'er-do-wells, chaps declining to go south, keeping your hand on your ha'penny when himself is in the stripy hole for a while, how to deal with the death of your closest friend, and there's not much room left for the make-believe stuff everyone always seems to expect from a record of this kind. If the subjects mean little, then it's possible that you may not be a young black woman and that these tracks aren't specifically directed at you, although that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to appreciate them all the same. I can imagine there are a few young girls out there who really might have benefited from listening to this album at certain points of their lives in the absence of better advice or education. Come to think of it, the woman who lives across the road from me probably could have benefited from this one given her somewhat weird understanding of pregnancy and belief that contraception doesn't really make much of a difference.

All this hard-edged edumacation works so well on Good Girl Gone Bad because it's so obviously told from direct experience and without either sentiment, sermonising, or being blinged up as ghetto fabulous poverty porn; and because retired or otherwise Mia X remains one of the all-time greats of the genre, certainly one of the finest female rap artists ever to pick up a microphone. Furthermore, the album benefits from having emerged during a period when the No Limit label was still working with a low budget variation on that Bay Area sound - the tinny ping of Roland drum machines contrasting with the warmth of a deep, organic bass and that sort of understated electric piano that always seems to invoke slow moving vehicles, hot weather and raw menace. Every single track here is a killer.

Apparently Mia X herself now runs her own restaurant somewhere in New Orleans, so rap's loss is probably seafood's gain. It would be nice to hear her back in the booth, but I'm sure she's happy as she is. Not many people ever get to record a debut album quite so good or quite so enduring as this one.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Mex - Alternative Pop Music (1980)

A few months back I suggested that by rights some boutique vinyl label should be battering down Mex's door for permission to reissue his entire back catalogue. Well apparently that didn't happen, so here we are with Alternative Pop Music once again available from the label which first put it out all those years ago.

Older readers may recall my recently enthusing about Mex's current album -  Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde in case you haven't yet bothered to stop him and buy one - whilst waxing in a vaguely lyrical tone about its predecessors and lamenting the fact of my copies being presently stuck in a cardboard box on a different continent thus making it quite difficult for me to listen to them. When this turned up in the mail - in both shiny faux-vinyl compact disc and highly collectible cassette formats - I experienced a natural moment of fear that it might not be so good as remembered.

Mex was amongst a small number of DIY types whom I first discovered on home produced mail order cassette at the age of sixteen, a key point at which I suddenly understood punk rock, weirdy music, and all the exciting associated possibilities of the medium. Mex is distinguished as one of the people whose work I actually played a lot, like you would play that record you just bought, the one which had you wobbling with anticipation for at least a month in advance and which had just turned up at your nearest WHSmiths or wherever. I may have flapped my long coat and muttered darkly about the latest important recordings of Test Dept or Mnemonik Korpse Brigade, but at home I was hammering those Mex tapes.

Momentarily listening with an objective ear, I am of course fully aware that these songs appear to have been recorded on a humble four-track of some kind; and that the rhythm section alternates between what sounds like Bontempi organ presets and those tapes of studio-recorded drum tracks you used to be able to buy from the back pages of the music paper, and tapes which in this case had been played a few times by the sound of them; and that the keyboard sounds a lot like a Casio job; and that Mex himself never quite appeared to settle on a vocal style with which he was happy on this tape, so the singing sounds a little odd in places; and there are false starts, mistakes, bars where the guitar struggles to catch up with everything else. None of this comes as a surprise because I'm so familiar with this group of songs that it seems weird to consider how many years have passed since I last heard them. Even at the time it was obvious that Mex was finding his way on this first cassette, and that's part of what made it sound so great, at least for me. This was immediately recognisable as pop music, but it was our version, and therefore distinct from all that pastel coloured hairdresser crap on the telly. Whispers in the Night, Into the Eyes, The Valley of Mystery, Evil Creature and the rest - played with the wind blowing in a certain direction, they make Katrina & the Waves sound like Fudge Tunnel.

I've often thought of Mex as a sort of underground version of Haircut 100, which is partially the breezy acoustic guitar pop aspect of the Happy Life era songs, but is more just a coincidence of timing. Alternative Pop Music could be lazily compared to anything from a cheerier Joy Division to the less broody end of psych-garage with a bit of Motown thrown in there somewhere, played and produced with fewer basic amenities than such points of reference might suggest. It's probably just me, but for something that may as well have been recorded in the cupboard under the sink, Alternative Pop Music has a big sound, and if you listen closely, maybe you'll hear it too.

Now can we have Intense Living?

Alternative Pop Music is available here.