Thursday, 24 September 2015

Nagamatzu - Shatter Days (1983)

When I first moved away from home I was sharing a house with one Reuben, a sculpture student from Ipswich. Happily we had similar musical tastes centred around shared appreciation of a cannily programmed drum machine, tastes which allowed us to present a united front against the third member of our household, a painting student named Kevin who was into jazz and real music, whatever the hell that was supposed to be. We all got on fine most of the time, but occasionally we'd argue.

'Synthesiser!' Reuben would spit as an expletive as Kevin shuffled back to his room and all that proper music he listened to, Pat Metheny or whatever.

Anyway, at some point Reuben slung me a tape of a group called Nagamatzu. I'd never heard of them. 'They're from Ipswich,' he told me. 'You might like them.'

I did, and I kept an eye open ever since, somehow missing them each time they resurfaced - not that they were exactly putting themselves about. So for much of the last thirty years, Nagamatzu have remained more or less that band which I taped off Reuben from where I stood, even as I'd seen the name of Lagowski - one half of Nagamatzu - crop up in numerous fanzines without realising there was an association. When Shatter Days was reissued on vinyl, seemingly out of the blue, I accordingly nearly quacked my pants with excitement. I hadn't even realised it was called Shatter Days.

It's just four tracks, supplemented by a few things contributed to compilation albums around the same time, but Lordy it's powerful. It's also of its time, as the unfortunate qualifier would have it, in so much as I'm pretty sure that's a Roland TR606 I can hear spanking out a typically android rhythm, and as a fan of both Joy Division and the Cure, these are probably the sort of bass lines I would have played through my flange pedal, had I owned a flange pedal; but before I present an impression of something which sounded like a hell of a lot of other backcombed material of 1983 vintage, Nagamatzu put vaguely familiar elements together in a combination which greatly exceeded the sum of the parts. It's not so much that they ever sounded like either New Order or the Cure as that this is what New Order and the Cure should have sounded like but didn't, because New Order turned into some sort of extended Trevor Horn remix and the Cure were always better as the Joy Division you could eat between meals without ruining your appetite, before it went all self-consciously Alice in Wonderland.

Anyway. Other bands - fuck 'em. Shatter Days still effortlessly strikes that fine emotional balance achieved on only a couple of New Order records, somewhere betwixt the sun bursting joyous from the heavens and a vague memory of once having felt like slashing your wrists at a bus-stop in Huddersfield, a sort of bitter-sweet euphoria for want of a less comical description. What seems astonishing is that they achieved such an effect by such apparently minimal means, chugging bass riffs and just a couple of notes with which to render something that essentially does the same job as Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam. This one really is a masterpiece.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

NWA - Straight Outta Compton (1988)

Still one of the greatest rap albums of all time, maybe the greatest, and still annoying the living shit out of people three decades later. Since the NWA movie came out a few weeks back I've experienced a huge and repetitive upsurge in the sort of complete bollocks people always come out with in proximity to this record and those who made it. Amongst the less contentious observations has been the traditional suggestion that It Takes A Nation of Millions knocks and will forever in perpetuity knock Compton into a cocked hat, alongside every other rap album which the person delivering the statement hasn't heard, which is usually almost all of them. Public Enemy were great, for sure, but this sort of thing always sounds to me like well, I'd rather support the work of responsible black people who know how to behave in polite company, in other words, I want to hear what you have to say, beleaguered minority voice, but within reason, and nothing I wouldn't be able to repeat in church.

It's my own fault for replacing all of my former social interactions with facebook. Mere days after the film came out, someone had politely befouled my page with an article about all the women Dr. Dre has beaten up over the years. I'm not sure if he expected me to apologise or something, but I'm disinclined to even discuss rap or its failings with someone who only gives a shit when there are censorious fingers to be pointed. The article was further embellished with the following response from another facebook person, one I've been ignoring since they shared one of those Muslims who don't like the flag should fuck off back to Russia type opinion pieces masquerading as a news article.

I have always wondered why so people enjoyed their music, and why now so many people want to go see their movie. There are a lot of people in the music industry that I just don't understand how so many people go crazy over. Why does society think it's okay to be hateful to some people, and make huge celebrities out of such hatred spewing forth from their "art"? There is so much more to be asked, but it has given me such a headache. It is not okay to be hateful and hurtful, and yet there society goes making hateful people rich and huge celebrities.

I know: person who doesn't like rap fails to like rap, which isn't what I find so aggravating so much as the notion that an opinion formed in general ignorance of a subject is now so often held to be as valid as actually knowing shit. I'm not a huge fan of that dancehall artist who used to advocate shooting homosexuals, but then I can't even remember who he is or what the record was, and I know fuck all about dancehall so my opinion, beyond a few basics, probably doesn't count for a whole lot.

Probably Dr. Dre is indeed a horrible cunt. The music industry is hardly lacking in horrible cunts, most of whom seem to get a free pass, and this specific focus on Dr. Dre as a horrible cunt seems significantly informed by how strongly we disapprove of his records, none of which - it might be pointed out - waste much time in trying to promote the image of Dr. Dre as a more caring amalgam of Bono, Val Doonican, and Deputy Dawg. I personally feel the relationship of artist as horrible cunt to his or her work is most eloquently expressed in this instance when Ice Cube asks do I look like a motherfucking role model? on Gangsta Gangsta, the answer to which is, most realistically, no he doesn't; and I think he would be surprised and disappointed with you if you said yes.

I'm not sure it's possible to make it any clearer than that. Straight Outta Compton was never meant to constitute advice, and if it upsets you, that's probably because it's supposed to upset you. Whilst this doesn't make Dr. Dre any less of a horrible cunt, neither does it necessarily invalidate his art or what any of them were trying to do with it, any more than Alice in Wonderland is a bad book because of the author's poorly quantified regard of little girls.

Musically it's sharp as fuck, one of those rare discs which makes everything else you listen to that month sound shite, at least while you're playing it. The rhymes are tight, brutal, absolutely on point, and often very funny because the album is a bunch of kids talking shit to their mates on a street corner rather than an earnest political address unto all the nations of the world; and if you don't think bunches of kids should be allowed to talk shit to each other on street corners, or that it's okay providing they first check with a responsible adult to make sure there's nothing that would seem out of place on the Disney channel, then fucking screw you because you're the reason people still need to make albums like this one.

The bottom line here is, I would say, that if you've ever been in the position of there being another person or group of people having so much power over you that you really and literally want to break their arm, leg, head, skull, or whatever it takes for you to shift that weight, then you will understand this album and why it was made and why there are sexual swearwords. If you've never been in such a diminished position then be happy because you're pretty lucky. Regarding those sections of human society still getting the shitty end of the stick in the twenty-first century, either you want them to have a voice, to maybe have some sort of say so as to be able to elevate themselves by some means, or you want them to shut up and keep making your trainers or serving your burgers; and if you want them to have a voice, you don't get to pick and choose what they say.

...then again, what the fuck do I know? I probably only listen to this because I think it's cool.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

New Model Army - No Rest for the Wicked (1985)

New Model Army were never obvious candidates for membership of my record collection, but they sort of came to me through a process resembling osmosis. I spent at least a couple of weeks of 1985 in proximity to Chatham's small but daunting contingent of New Model Army fans, wearers of leather jackets and clogs who regularly undertook a hajj to Bradford, presumably to camp out in Slade the Leveller's garden or something. Ordinarily I might have been a bit creeped out by such over-investment in the oeuvre of just one band, but as I came to appreciate, New Model Army were actually a pretty good band, and if you're going to join a cult, than it may as well be one with a few decent tunes to its name - thus disqualifying anything involving Porridge. New Model Army appealed to me for the same reason that the Apostles appealed to me, specifically that with all the anarchy, peace and freedom then so popular amongst the yoots of a certain social stratum, it was kind of refreshing to hear songs about kicking Nazi heads in or throwing insurance salesmen from the top of tall buildings.

In terms of their following, New Model Army seemed to be what happened once goths got fed up of townies taking the piss and duly started punching faces, presumably having come back from summer holidays spent lifting concrete blocks on some farm somewhere - kids with an inherent distrust of authority who might be a bit sensitive in certain respects, but nevertheless enjoyed the occasional punch-up of a Saturday night after the pubs had closed.

Musically - at least at the time of this album - New Model Army were sort of Crass or maybe Conflict crossed with Big Country, or something in that general direction. It was a huge, pounding sound designed to reach all the way to the back of the stadium, an anthemic cry by which rugged men would face the sunset with their long hair flowing majestically in the north wind like anti-authoritarian lions. It was the point at which Led Zeppelin crossed over with Steeleye Span or summink. I suppose what I'm scrabbling at is New Model Army playing folk music, albeit a face-punching variant drenched in patchouli and preferring snakebite to anything one might serve in a pewter tankard. In other words it's populist, perhaps even addressing the accusation that I've heard made of Crass and others that the harsh form taken by the music greatly limits the range of its audience, which is a contradiction when that music is specifically concerned with communication. New Model Army's music on the other hand gushes in positively cinematic terms. It's powerful and simple with obvious mass appeal, and such obvious mass appeal that I got away with buying my dad this album for Christmas one year, telling him it was a bit like Big Country or Thin Lizzy.

Of course, it might be pointed out that the direct simplicity of most New Model Army songs, the way in which they tend to reduce everything to black and white, isn't significantly different to what the Daily Mail does - all furrowed brows and mobs formed on the promise of how we're not going to stand for it any more. It might also be pointed out - as I'm sure that bloke from Conflict probably noticed - that New Model Army unwittingly represent commodified revolution, a low calorie upsurge of ambiguously directed anger and emotion when compared with those of their contemporaries who managed to put out records without signing to EMI. Whilst both points may hold some water, I'd say it's probably a question of degree, and even a Crass album is probably commodified revolution if you've purchased it through Amazon, so there's possibly not much joy in getting too puritanical given that even commodified revolution is better than growing up with nothing stronger than Peters & Lee.

Thirty years later, No Rest for the Wicked still sounds fresh, not even particularly dated - which is surprising considering all the flangey bass effects. This is probably because they've always seemed like they mean it, and they achieve that rare synthesis of sounding both uplifting and fucking furious in the same breath; and it can't hurt that their message of not letting bastards grind you down is unfortunately timeless.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Skinny Puppy - Cleanse Fold and Manipulate (1987)

Should there not be a comma in there somewhere? Anyway, none of it will really matter once I get my bill through congress, specifically my bill to have almost all industrial music officially reclassified as Belgian New Beat. If it wasn't actually recorded by a member of Throbbing Gristle or SPK in 1978 - excluding those who bravely vocalised their hatred of gypsies or else went on to bash the skins for Skrewdriver whilst insisting that music and politics should never mix - then it ain't fucking industrial and is therefore Belgian New Beat so far as I'm concerned. Once applied, the bill will float works by Whitehouse, Ministry, Cassandra Complex and the Neon Judgement on the open market where they will be obliged to compete with the musically superior work of TNT Clan, Lords of Acid, and the Confetti's. Record stores and mail order operations will be required to reorganise their stock and the categories through which it is sold; and Oxford University Press will be obliged to recall, revise and reprint all copies of S. Alexander Reed's Assimilate: A Critical History of Belgian New Beat - as will be its new title; on which subject, here's an excerpt from the first chapter:

It was April 5, 1991, and Gary Levermore was worried. He'd spent thousands flying the band Front Line Assembly from Vancouver to London for a concert he was promoting that night at the Venue, a seventy-year-old stone building in New Cross. 'It wasn't in the centre of town where you'd think it would be easy for people to get to. Instead it was a few miles further south; not on an underground line,' he remembers. The first time Front Line Assembly had played London, in July 1989, the turnout was disastrously low...

When Levermore arrived at the old theatre, though, it was clear there would be no repeat of 1989's miserable show. Wrapped in a long queue down Clifton Ride were some three hundred industrial fans, dressed in black...

I suspect he's referring to Clifton Rise, there being no such place as Clifton Ride. Additionally, the Venue is about three minutes walk in a straight line along a main road from New Cross station, which is on the East London Line in terms of the underground network; and I myself was present at that gig, and the place was conspicuously less than half full; and all of this on the very first page, which is one of several reasons why I've yet to avail myself of a copy of Reed's Critical History of Belgian New Beat. I'm also a little put off by the title coming from a Skinny Puppy track because - all joking aside - they really sort of are Belgian New Beat, apart from being Canadian.

I never really got Skinny Puppy, and this album, picked up for mere dollars with the idea that I may have been wrong all these years, goes some way to illustrating why this should be. I'm sure I've seen it turning up in a few of those dreary ten industrial albums you must hear kind of lists, invariably alongside Coil's CD of the humming noise made by their fridge and Sol Invictus gathering together a few entirely harmless songs about how the world would be a better place without certain kinds of people if you know what I mean, not mentioning no names or nuffink.

I'm actually not averse to a spot of Belgian New Beat. Front 242 have barely ever set an electronic foot wrong to my ears, and whilst Front Line Assembly are really just Napalm Death with a synthesiser, they've usually sounded decent to me; and then there's Nitzer Ebb, and the Severed Heads were pretty much one of the greatest bands of all time, but then I hear this...

The first thing you do when you buy a digital effects box is you select reverb, you whack the decay up to about two minutes - or as far as it will go - and then you tap your finger gently against the microphone and summon forth the screaming cacophony of the void as the black stars of the netherverse devour the fabric of reality. After another ten minutes you either get bored of this or else try to make a career out of it like that Lustmord chap. Whilst Cleanse Fold and Manipulate also has sequencers and drum machines to impersonate medieval armies smashing up your castle thanks to the magic of the two minute reverb, it kind of comes from the same place; and the singer appears to be auditioning for the role of wicked goblin number two in Lord of the Rings, and it really sounds to me like he's singing with an affected English accent because the English are always the bad guys in the movies; and there's a bloke called Nivek Ogre on this record, and Nivek is Kevin spelled backwards; and the whole thing sounds so cock-obviously digital it borders on being a Duran Duran extended club mix from when they were famous, without irony, right down to stabs of orchestral sound.

Nevertheless, after three or four plays I begin to hear past the above, and see at least some of the appeal which lays in Skinny Puppy having been - probably unintentionally - a sort of Belgian New Beat Virgin Prunes. There's nothing much you would call a tune, just grooves, a lot of scraping and scowling, and a texture emerging from the relative chaos which works by similar means as did those very early Throbbing Gristle tapes - unfamiliar noises and effects rendered familiar through repetition. Much to my surprise, I ended up  enjoying this in spite of it all having been a bit studied and obvious even back in 1987, and in spite of there being a million other things which do the same job better. It's still not feckin' industrial though.