Thursday, 12 October 2017

Third Door from the Left - Face the Firing Squad (1981)


Face the Firing Squad really feels like it should be referred to in the same sentences as Second Annual Report, The Voice of America, Tissue of Lies and other brooding classics of the admittedly loose genre which I can never quite bring myself to consider industrial. It dates from roughly the same era and I played it to death at the time, but being released as a cassette, I suppose it's inevitable that it shouldn't be so well remembered. Third Door from the Left were Kevin Thorne and Raye Calouri, who met at Throbbing Gristle's performance at the YMCA in 1979, and Kevin's name appears in the list of those invited to the recording of Heathen Earth, alongside members of Coil, Konstruktivists, and others you will have most likely heard of; and you may recall Kevin's name adorning the covers of numerous Chris & Cosey releases in his capacity as designer.

Anyway, we might lazily characterise Third Door as occupying a sort of half way point between Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, or at least live Gristle. The comparison isn't entirely unjustified, or no more so than saying the Rolling Stones were just Charlie Patton for suburban whities; but there's a lot more going on than just strange sounds and dark moods. For starters, Third Door from the Left were never afraid of a guitar sounding like a guitar, and regardless of the pensive sense of menace, you might say they were significantly more accessible than anyone from whom they may have taken inspiration. The sheer emotional weight of It's Not Us still floors me thirty-five years later in ways that Joy Division never quite managed. Seriously, it makes New Dawn Fades sound like the theme music from the Generation Game.

This edition has been lovingly pressed up as a record by Vinyl on Demand, meaning no more coughing up hundreds of quid on Discogs for a Woolworths cassette which probably won't play. The quality remains as it was on the original cassette release, which isn't a problem as it was a fairly decent recording given the limitations of the equipment of the time. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a knob, I'd suggest that this one is essential.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Dr. Dooom - First Come, First Served (1999)


It took me a while to come round to Kool Keith, and what eventually swung it was a stack of his albums for a couple of quid each in a second-hand place in Camberwell. Without actually having heard the man's work, I'd received the impression of his being another one of those rappers for people who don't actually like rap. This came from recommendations by, amongst others, Shaun Robert, formerly author of weirdy sound art cassettes under the name factor X, who, having inspected my shelves of rap CDs, opined something like, I'm a bit surprised that you don't have any Kool Keith, which sounded faintly like sneering at the time. We'd probably just had a disagreement over the merits of Björk, my position being that there aren't any, so Kool Keith became rap for people who like Björk and who probably read The Wire, to my way of thinking; and of course I was wrong.

I warmed to the idea of the man when he released an album on Esham's label, Gotham Overcore - which is probably ass-backwards, but never mind; and then when he sang the praises of low-brow rap, as the journalist termed it, in the pages of Vibe or The Source or one of those, specifically No Limit and other labels keeping Pen & Pixel in business. I could have just listened to his records, of course, but that would have been too easy.

First Come, First Served, defiantly released with another eye-watering Pen & Pixel cover, was recorded by one of Keith's numerous personalities, specifically the one which really seems to focus what I like about the guy, although appreciate may be a better word than like. He raps like a nutter, lines spat out with just a hint of anger, like you've spilled his pint but the situation hasn't quite made it out into the pub car park; and he's about four-thousand times more eloquent than most rappers. It all spills out, even sluices out in a barrage of faintly queasy and upsetting images, and it's like that moment where you take out the trash and lift the lid of the wheelie bin and get just a whiff before you remember to hold your breath. Keith seems fixated on detritus and snack food and rubbish, anything with a bit of a pong, as a sort of combined inversion and refutation of just about everything else which has ever happened in rap. If he wasn't so fucking good at it, you could be forgiven for thinking he hates the genre. There's not a lot of gold, and nor are the fizzy millionaire drinks aflowing - just about every other liquid you might care to mention but probably wouldn't, but definitely not a lot of Alizé. In fact, the imagery of dollar store diapers, cereal, and egg shells is of such concentration that if you wrote everything he said down, I'm pretty sure it would read like a less alcoholic Bukowski.

What he's actually saying is similarly pungent, and with not very much that would have seemed out of place in one of the earlier, more harrowing John Waters films. This is because he's keeping it real, as we say, but really real, the sort of real which is customarily subject to a restraining order. His message to fellow artistes is You Live at Home with Your Mom, and once you compare this album with whatever else has been doing the rounds, you realise that they do.

Musically, it's a little basic, just hard atmospheric beats keeping a rhythm to the justifiably arrogant dispensation of bile, which is how it should be. Anything stronger would mask the odour and would miss the point, so instead we get hints of turd-strewn sidewalks, film soundtracks, and Peter Lorre on full ooze sliming his way around a backing vocal, knocking on your door at midnight to apologise for the smell from the apartment across the hall, and hey, you got any toilet paper?

First Come, First Served is a classic, no argument, and I think I need a shower.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Death Magazine 52 (2011)


The second proper gig I ever saw was Whitehouse at the Mermaid in Birmingham on the 27th of August, 1983 - here defining a proper gig as anything loud in a place selling booze and which wasn't my parents taking me to see Barbara Dickson, whenever that was. Whitehouse were supported by the excellent Family Patrol Group and D. Mag 52 / SHC - as they were billed on the poster - who were interesting but not as good, just a loud wall of noise, like Family Patrol Group but somehow lacking the dynamic. I struck up a correspondence with Colin of Family Patrol Group, who told me that the name of the other band was short for Death Magazine 52, and that they sometimes played as Spontaneous Human Combustion but still hadn't decided which name they preferred.

I'm not in D. Mag 52 / SHC, but the other two are. I'll give you the D. Mag 52 / SHC potted history if you like. Originally a large band of around nine members, fluctuating line up depending on who could attend, no rehearsals, just found instruments before gigs usually. Mainly metal bashing, drums, and other percussion, like Test Dept at times. Slimmed to five, four, or six piece - then mainly metal, tapes and vocals. Then down to two hardcore members - others thrown out or dissuaded. No gigs, but still fluctuating as people replace one another. At the Mermaid, Simon was helped out by a friend. The other hardcore member - Paul - was on 'holiday'. Truth is he was a bit embarrassed at supporting Whitehouse. I think he felt it was pointless trying to compete with them, as we all did, but nevertheless we didn't bottle out. After Family Patrol Group degenerated to nothing, mainly because of my absence at Sunday afternoon jamming sessions, Mike Grant, Family Patrol Group vocalist, was looking for gigs to play as D. Mag 52 / SHC, playing alongside Simon and Paul with Greg, our tape person. They got two, one at a pub which has a regular free spot on Monday evenings, and the second was at an all day festival where Nick Lowe was the main artist. They got ₤100 to play this, but I was told they used ₤80 in preparation by going into the recording studio to record backing tapes. I think it may have been Mike Grant's idea as he had not been into a studio before and was quite keen to do so. Anyhow, I didn't go to either of the above two, mainly due to Mike Grant falling out with me. Nothing serious, just once when we were in a pub he ignored me and he's never spoken since.

So they were watchable but nothing amazing, possibly having strayed from their sonic comfort zone for fear of sounding like a Level 42 tribute act when opening for Whitehouse. They made grating electronic noises with boxes and pedals, leaving me without much reason to remember them beyond just something I'd seen at some point. All the same, I was quite excited when I heard Harbinger had put out this posthumous collection on double vinyl, a release implying hidden or previously unknown qualities because otherwise, there would be no reason for so lavish a reissue of material by a group we'd all forgotten, even those of us who'd actually heard of them in the first place.

Now, thirty or so years later, Colin's description makes a little more sense, because it didn't seem to describe the group I'd seen at the Mermaid; and I suspect some of the studio material included here may be the very same as he described above.

What we have is a fairly early noise group, certainly pioneers in that whole Birmingham noise scene which yielded the likes of Final, Con-Dom, Smear Campaign, and ultimately even Godflesh and Napalm Death - and it's certainly significant that Mike Dando of Con-Dom was in one line up of Death Magazine 52. I've a feeling that may even be a picture of him on the back cover with the Tears for Fears haircut. This is a noise group before everything got caught up in the arms race to see who could be loudest, Naziest and most pornographic, back when we were all just fucking around to see what would happen; and amazingly, although I expected this to be a complete racket, it turns out that Death Magazine 52, left to their own devices, occupied a patch of weirdy musical hinterland roughly equidistant from Einstürzende Neubauten and 23 Skidoo - blowing, banging, some tapes, and plenty of rhythm. It was never anything unique, but this collection really captures the excitement of a young band trying shit out and seeing what happens, and even trying that shit out in front of paying audiences - as can be heard on the live disc which notably includes a gig at three in the afternoon at some girls' school, and then at the increasingly legendary Equinox Event with Philip Best, although I'm not sure if he was on stage or is simply the loudest voice shouting bollocks as the cops show up towards the end of the tape, yet again.

The quality is a little basic but decent for what it is, and Death Magazine 52 will never be remembered as anything particularly important or seminal, but nevertheless these two discs really capture something a lot more vital than whichever improvised feedback bore you paid fifty squid to see at the South Bank this week.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Wreckless Eric - amERICa (2015)


Wreckless Eric made a huge impression on me at an early age, and at least a couple of years before I actually knowingly heard any of his records. Most of my taste in music is fairly firmly rooted in me and Grez raiding his older brother's bedroom when we were teenagers. Grez's older brother - or Martin to his friends, that being a category which didn't include us - had all these amazing albums by people we'd never heard of, Alternative TV, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Faust, the Residents, Skrewdriver…

Well, it was All Skrewed Up which I believe predates the racist phase, but let's not get off the subject. Amongst Martin's records were several by Wreckless Eric, notably that legendary 10" album on brown vinyl; you know the one. If you don't, might I suggest euthanasia followed by reincarnation and then trying your hardest to get it fucking right next time around? How many 10" brown vinyl albums have there ever been?

Assuming we all know what I'm talking about, I maintain that the aforementioned 10" is blessed with one of the greatest covers ever. Eric looks like he's drunk, about to fall over, but really doesn't give a shit because he's having an amazing time regardless; and then there's that jacket, some funky print of eagles soaring across what probably isn't silk - all very New Faces or Opportunity Knocks and yet somehow so punk rock as to make most of those King's Road clowns look like ELO. Whether you ever regarded Wreckless Eric as punk rock probably depends on where you were stood at the time, but I guess it's okay if we keep in mind that the point of punk rock, at least according to some Sex Pistol or other, was not to destroy rock 'n' roll so much as to take it back to its roots, to take it back from all the bouffant hairdo fuckers who'd lost sight of what it was supposed to do in the first place, Geoff Lynne.

So, in accordance with my vaguely punky roots, I still find myself getting ready to sneer at the slightest suggestion of artists working past their sell-by date, but it's just a knee jerk thing, and it really doesn't apply to Wreckless Eric; because this isn't a comeback album, nor recapturing the glory days, nor sensitive sound recordings of all his new forest pals in Papua New Guinea, nor a true return to form as the perpetually misleading promise always has it, nor our man dabbling with ambient sludgestep; because amERICa is simply a new Wreckless Eric album and that's all you should need to know.

May as well cover the full distance and take the remaining few steps up my own arse, seeing as we've come all this way.

It took me a couple of years, but I chanced across the brown vinyl 10" in a second hand place in Norwich, and I bought it because Grez and myself had never got around to actually playing his brother's copy, for some reason. I bought it because I recognised the cover and I knew it would be good, as indeed it was. In fact it was more than just good. It was one of those greatest album ever recorded deals, or that's how it seems when you're in the middle of listening to the thing, playing air guitar in front of the bedroom mirror and miming along to Reconnez Cherie. It's difficult to pin down what made Eric seem so unique, and why I can't help bristling a little whenever I hear that pub rock song by Denim. He has an ear for a tune, and a weird little voice which sounds more like one of your mates than anyone you'd expect to hear on a record, and somehow it all comes together with such raw honesty that it would hurt if it didn't also have a decent sense of humour - it's something along these lines. Stand Wreckless Eric next to almost anyone you care to mention and the other person will look like a fake, a part-timer, an idiot with no idea what he or she is doing; and the crucial detail is that unlike so many rock 'n' roll hall of fame bores, Eric just gets on with it. He really is all about the craft unhindered by bullshit of any stripe. I had an argument with my mother about Shakespeare, her position being that the works of Shakespeare are the greatest things written in the English language because, whatever it is you wish to express, there will always be one particular way to say it which works better than all the others, and which is the most fluent; and so everything Shakespeare has said has been the best way to say that thing. I'm still not that bothered about Shakespeare, but I take the point and I'd say it applies just as well to the songs of Wreckless Eric. In terms of the heart, it doesn't get better than this. It speaks to me about my life, I suppose you'd say.

amERICa is Wreckless Eric's response to his having moved to the United states, which speaks to me about my life with particular resonance because that's what I've done too, and I know exactly what he's talking about. There's a faint country twang, but it still rocks like that bloke in the print jacket, and the honesty is both funny, painful, and even a little sad, just like on the best soul or blues records; and Transitory Thing nearly tears my fucking heart out each time I play it. Bloody hell. At the risk of hyperbole, amERICa might even be the greatest album ever recorded.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Bruce Woolley & the Camera Club - English Garden (1979)


Much like a newly hatched duckling, I fixated on Bruce Woolley's Camera Club at an early age, albeit briefly. Graham lent me his Devo album, heralding my realisation of there being bands which made good records that weren't played on the radio, and which sometimes didn't even get in the charts. Somehow I'd assumed that all records made it into the charts. This was around the time that Look! Hear! first aired on the telly, Look! Hear! being a regional BBC magazine show presented by Toyah Willcox and featuring the sort of stuff which the kids on the street were into, yeah? Look! Hear! featured a few of those bands who weren't played on the radio and didn't even get in the charts, and so I began compiling a list in the back of one of my school books. I needed to remember the names so I could look out for their records. I've a feeling the list wasn't actually very long, maybe just three or four of them. Neon Hearts were in there, having made a big impression on me, as was Bruce Woolley, but I don't recall any of the others.

So there was a bit of a gap between my taking down the name and finding the record - purely by chance - probably about thirty years. I couldn't remember what I'd thought was so great about the Camera Club at the time, and initial spins left me puzzled. It was power pop with a skinny tie and an overly ornate keyboard, really just like a lot of other stuff which had been around at the time and which had struck me as interesting mainly on the grounds that it wasn't ELO, that it hadn't been played by Dave Lee Travis on his smugly flabby show, and that it didn't sound like it would rather be in California; and yet, the more I listen to this record, the more I discern its own unique identity.

English Garden is of its era, more or less prog rock hopefuls moving with the times by incorporating a few jagged edges into their sound, but at least for the sake of an interesting record. In terms of musicianship, it has more in common with Genesis and that lot, which probably shouldn't be too surprising given the involvement of Thomas Dolby before he'd even started shaving, and that Woolley co-wrote Video Killed the Radio Star and Clean Clean with Trevor Horn and the other Buggle. Camera Club renderings of both songs are included here. Radio Star seems a bit too smooth for its own good, but the latter improves on the better known version. What makes the album is personality and good old fashioned proggy song-writing plucking all manner of esoteric subjects or angles from the ether. In this respect, English Garden makes me think of Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel with a noseful of speed - on which subject, I can't help but notice a parallel between the back cover of this record and the front of Harley's The Human Menagerie.

Considering this was the guy who wrote Video Killed the Radio Star, it's surprising how little of it you could really describe as immediate, but it really rewards the effort if you give it time - vaguely punky and yet lyrical with Queen style vocal harmonies. English Garden occasionally sounds like the theme music for regional news programmes of the seventies, and I'm thinking Weekend World rather than Midlands Today. This one really creeps up on you and ultimately it feels a more rounded, satisfying work than anything from Woolley's more famous writing partners.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

David Bowie - Let's Dance (1983)


Just to reiterate, I drifted away after the third or fourth album hailed as a true return to form by latecomer Bowie zombies who had discovered the bloke when he played a whispy Gandalf in Labyrinth. I longed for a return to greatness, but time and again those amazing comeback and this time I'm not joking records proved themselves unlistenable. After Black Tie White Noise turned out to be an improvement only in the sense that a B.A. Robertson album is probably an improvement on anything by ELO, I decided that enough was enough. Of course it turns out that he eventually did remember how to make a decent record, and weirdly I've come to regard the run of albums from Heathen through to Blackstar as his best work. So, all you gormless wankers who spent the eighties crowing he's back and he's brilliant at every lame Tina Turner team-up, every guest spot with Gordon the Gopher, thanks for fucking nothing, you stupid cunts.

Anyway, it seemed like time to take the plunge and get hold of this one on the grounds that I may have been wrong. Let's Dance was a great single, but I hated China Girl with its plinky-plonky something Chinese this way comes riff, and the album cover looks like a card you'd buy for a fourteen year old boy. All that's missing are the words on your birthday and a racing car in the lower right corner; but the problem wasn't just that Bowie, having grown tired of pretending to read Albert Camus, wanted to be a pop star again. The problem was also that with the best will in the world, Let's Dance was never going to sound great stood next to Scary Monsters.

I've now played the thing a million times so as to give it every possible opportunity to sink in and to work whatever magic it may have, and okay - I will grudgingly concede that it isn't that bad, generally speaking. I can see how Dave may have felt inclined to revisit his roots, specifically his rhythm and blues roots as heard on those Lower Third records, because the problem with the sort of introspection which had informed his previous four or five albums is that one eventually gets sick of the sound of one's own voice, and so I guess he just wanted to have fun making a record again. With that in mind, it's to his credit that he therefore made a vaguely decent record with Let's Dance in so much as that it goes back to his roots without sounding like an exercise in nostalgia, even moving things forward a little in trying something new with the big, live, occasionally even raw, sound of Nile Rodgers' production. I suppose then this is almost Bowie's punk album, at least in spirit, or certainly more so than the austere noodling of Low or Heroes.

I can appreciate this record a little better these days, particularly given that The Next Day sounds like him trying to get Let's Dance right in a couple of places, but it nevertheless remains a flawed album. This investigation has reminded me that Modern Love was also a great single, and that China Girl would be decent were it not for the Charlie Chan riff; but if you took away either Modern Love or the title song, you'd be left with a great single and six above average b-sides. I firmly believe there's a case for Let's Dance as a better album than Low, Heroes, or Lodger, but I don't know whether that's really saying anything.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Above the Law - Livin' Like Hustlers (1990)


I seem to have lost touch with what's going on right now, musically speaking, and particularly where it comes to rap. I'm aware of some dude called Chance because I think he was on a reality show which I didn't watch, and there was also some new guy pissing people off by suggesting that lyrical ability was never important. I think he may have been called Future, unless that was someone else. The reasons for my disassociation are, I suppose, that I buy most of my rap on CD from second hand stores and I don't really do downloads or YouTube. I don't have the patience. Also, I'm about two-hundred years old and I've never really given much of a shit about keeping my finger on any particular pulse. I like new shit, but I'm not going to seek it out purely for the sake of seeking it out.

At the same time, I've always found it kind of irritating when old people bang on about how everything used to be so much better than it is now and whatever it is you're listening to will never have the passion or musicality of B.A. Robertson in his heyday. That was some shit to see, I tell you what.

Nevertheless, listening to Above the Law really makes me wonder whether the old fart contingent don't have a point when it comes to that which rap once had, but which it no longer has - from what I can tell, not that I'm really qualified to comment; so I suppose I mean what rap once had which had begun to look kind of thin on the ground by 2005 when I was last aware of any of this stuff. I say rap, but I mean hip-hop, because that seems to be the element we've lost, possibly.

Above the Law were right there at the nativity of what has come to be known as gangsta. They were signed to Eazy E's Ruthless label back when Dre and pals were still talking to each other, and I always had the impression that someone somewhere hoped they would be the next NWA; and given that Above the Law's Cold187um was fucking about with Parliament samples long before The Chronic or even Efil4Zaggin, the landscape would have looked very different without them, and it seems fair to say that they never received the recognition they deserved. Where NWA were a punch in the face, Above the Law went for a jazzier, more relaxed vibe. Their commitment to telling it like it was is obvious from a glance at the track list with titles like Untouchable, Another Execution, Menace to Society, and so on, but the mood is uptempo, soulful and even kind of happy. It's a sunny day album, keeping in mind that the worst aspects of reality may choose to intrude even when the sun is shining. Most startling of all, at least as I listen to this in 2017, is that the lads were still rapping like the Treacherous Three - as Ice Cube once put it - an old school sing-song cadence breaking what was seen as new lyrical ground, at least in mainstream terms. Musically we're only just into the era of sampling, still staying true to the turntable aesthetic, and skipping along on scratchy old Motown loops, piano riffs and pounding bass; and it's this bounce - the very thing from which hip-hop took it's name, according to some dude in the Bronx - which was getting thin on the ground even by '95; and it's not just the sound. It's what the sound represents - kids making music out of stuff they found on the local dump because who can afford a sampler, a studio, or any of that fancy shit? Rap lost the hunger which necessitated the sort of inventive spirit which made albums such as this one sound so fucking raw and out there and dangerous.

Of course, I'm not suggesting it would be any better if everything had just stayed the same for the sake of it. There's no need for anyone to remake this album given that it already exists, but it should at least be better remembered. I don't know if rap is dying on its arse, or whether it just looks like that from here. Perhaps music itself is over as a medium, given the popularity of Ed Sheerhan, Mumford & Sons, and Imagine Dragons, artists I can't even be bothered to hate with any conviction.

I don't know.

I just don't know.

Livin' Like Hustlers is very, very good though. That's what you should take away from this.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Nitzer Ebb - Industrial Complex (2010)


I didn't even realise they had reformed until a little over a year ago, and this one is now already seven years old, or of equivalent vintage to the first Black Sabbath album by the time Never Mind the Bollocks hit the shops. It's thirty-two years since Nitzer Ebb's debut album, which in relative terms is the same span of time as divides the aforementioned Bollocks from the Andrews Sisters bothering the top slot with Rum & Coca-Cola, whatever the hell that was. The passage of time sure is weird, and I feel somehow obliged to scorn this with the same kind of disregard as was showered upon the Rolling Stones back in my days as a younger and at least thematically spikier man; but I can't because it would be silly, and good fucking God what a cracker of an album it is; besides I always liked Start Me Up.

My first impressions were something along the lines of chuckles over how they've once again dug out the sequencers, perhaps having seen the error of their Led Zeppelin impersonating ways, as heard on Ebbhead and Big Hit.

That's right, lads, I smirked to myself, give the fans what they want, because I am essentially a bit of an arsehole.

So they've gone back to the same basic musical recipe book we all remember from the years when they were that band who sounded a lot like DAF; and yet what they've cooked up from those recipes seems very much a continuation of where they were going on the aforementioned Big Hit. Industrial Complex comprises songs, and songs with all those complicated changes and linky bits people like Elton John tend to write, as you will begin to notice once you get past being pounded around the head with a pulsing sequencer. Furthermore, Douglas McCarthy's voice - always distinctly bluesy - sounds better than ever, wrenching genuine soul and pathos out of some of those lines. What this adds up to is, I suppose, that band who sound a lot like DAF making music which somehow feels like the Groundhogs or one of that bunch. Some of this may be thanks to the drums - massive, pounding, and certainly acoustic - pushing the music along on a muscular, organic surge in peculiar contrast to all the bleeps and squelches; and yet it doesn't feel in any way mannered, which I only mention in case I should have accidentally invoked Depeche Mode's self-conscious efforts to sound like a real band by having the one who looks like a poodle play harmonica during their CBeebies version* of an old SPK record.

Hit You Back, I Am Undone, and the white knuckle glam stomp of On the Road are as magnificent as anything this lot have ever recorded; and fuck it - they were always better than DAF. I don't care what anyone says.

*: I should probably thank Gary Robertson for this joke.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Steroid Maximus - ¡Quilombo! (1990)


I was quite excited all those centuries ago when I first heard that Thirlwell had a new band called Steroid Maximus, because that was how it was described in whatever rag I was reading - a new band suggesting something streamlined and punky with some guy on bass and maybe a drummer. It was a bit of a disappointment when the new band turned out to be just another secret identity, albeit one making no direct reference to the Foetus brand. I'd been excited because said Foetus brand had begun to sound a little fat and bloated at that point, basically a man growling about doing you up the bum whilst drinking moonshine to the sound of a million heavy metal guitars. Thaw had been a massive disappointment and the psychotic badass schtick was looking a bit saggy around the ballbag.

¡Quilombo! at least suggested some returning interest in a varied musical palate on Thirlwell's part, but I couldn't work out why it needed to be its own thing. Wasn't it just Foetus instrumentals, maybe things for which he'd never worked out a vocal? Maybe it was his classical incarnation, although that doesn't really work when you look too close. Only the worst kind of arsehole technophile believes you can sample a bunch of orchestras and make your own classical music. Perhaps, for want of a better term, Steroid Maximus was his soundtrack work; or maybe this stuff had always been intended as instrumental, and the notion of putting out a largely instrumental Foetus record went against the grain, for whatever reason. Maybe the world would explode were there ever to be a Foetus album with a title of more than four letters.

Then again, there's nothing actually wrong with this guy's purely instrumental work, and Lilith from Sink - for one example - is one of the greatest pieces of music he's ever recorded; so with this in mind I listened and let the thing settle, let it build up some familiarity. A couple of decades later, my initial reservations seem crazy. Taken as a piece rather than just a collection of unfinished instrumentals - which I suspect it never was - ¡Quilombo! alludes to exotica, easy listening and big band. It's all quite obviously built up from samples, although has been done with real skill and so avoids any distracting attention drawn to the methods of its own composition. Essentially it's a Foetus record made using just mood and atmosphere to invoke the customary unease, a record which seems to deliberately avoid stating the obvious in musical terms - hence the absence of scowling heavy metal guitars. One of these almost sounds like a sea shanty, for fuck's sake!

Actually, a couple of decades later, and taking into account that nearly everything about the record is wonderful - not even just the cover art, but the quality of the printing of the cover art - and ¡Quilombo! feels like a masterpiece in its brevity, its singularity of vision, and all of the peculiar musical hoops through which it jumps in pursuit of that singularity. It's Thirlwell stretching out and enjoying himself again after a tough couple of years, mixing himself a cocktail, still keeping it kind of dark and unsettling, but doing it in style.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Sleaford Mods - English Tapas (2017)


I'm a bit surprised how long it's taken me to acclimate to this one, and my initial feelings were mixed. I wanted it to be amazing but had a feeling that it wasn't, but after a couple of months I've realised I'm probably just over-thinking it. English Tapas is the first Sleaford Mods CD which didn't immediately superglue itself into the player and stay there for at least a month, and for all that it maintains the standard of workmanship to which we've become accustomed, there's nothing which quite leaps out of the speakers and smacks you in the face like Jolly Fucker, PPO Kissin' Behinds, or even TCR.

Still, they're neither of them getting any younger, and they've a few albums under their belts now, and you have to wonder how much more mileage they can get out of the existing set up, Bontempi drum machine, two notes for a bassline, and Jason Williamson telling us about the worst job he ever had. I suspect the lads have themselves similarly pondered this question, and part of the answer may be why English Tapas isn't simply a retread of Austerity Dogs and the rest. The differences are subtle, and nothing so obvious or misjudged as the introduction of either ballads or guitar solos, but the differences are there.

The music, while staying true to a certain vision, seems more considered somehow, not polished, because those rough edges are still at least half of the point, but more considered and more directed, less arbitrary - if that makes any sense whatsoever. There's an added complexity, even if it isn't directly expressed as the usual technowank which might be implied by that description; and at times it borders on minimal techno - at least on BHS - which I knowledgably state as the proud owner of a single minimal techno CD. Also, Williamson's voice has turned distinctly musical in places, maybe not quite singing lessons musical, but you can tell he's making an effort, trying to keep things interesting, trying to move it forward; and lyrically, there may be less obviously quotable post-modern zingers, but no-one could possibly accuse the boy of mellowing - which is surely the main reason for listening to Sleaford Mods.

English Tapas seems to be a first for this lot in so much as that it's a grower rather than an album which burps in your face with quite the same vigour as the others, but times have changed, and the Sleaford Mods now somehow play headline gigs at Wembley stadium, so it would be stranger if this were just a straight retread of the stuff we already know. They may now be huge, and maybe they hang out with Leo Sayer and Jordan, but this one at least suggests it's going to be a long time before they get flabby.

I'd love to know who they're taking the piss out of during the introduction to Just Like We Do, by the way - if it's anyone specific. My money's on Edwin Pouncey.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Hula - Threshold (1987)


Sounds like Nine Inch Nails, suggested the handwritten sticker hopefully as I picked this from the bin at a record fair, specifically a record fair in Texas which, as you will notice if you consult a map, is quite a distance from Sheffield. It doesn't sound like Nine Inch Nails, but I suppose it sounds more like Nine Inch Nails than it sounds like George Strait, so whatever.

Hula somehow passed me by, although I always had at least a little curiosity given the presence of the bloke who bashed the skins on all those Cabaret Voltaire records. I saw Hula albums in the racks, but there was always something else I wanted more. Online wisdom seems to suggest that they were amazing live but the albums were weird and disappointing, although some of the singles were pretty good; and happily it turns out that Threshold is a singles compilation.

Hula sound roughly like I expected them to, being very much of their time and place, namely Sheffield during the second half of the eighties. There's the drum machine - a Yamaha RX15 I'd guess - pounding out its cold climate equivalent of a b-boy rhythm; and there's the slap bass, horn stabs, flat tops and crew cuts, sweaty young men grunting and frowning in those vests everyone used to wear. You can almost see the video as you listen, somewhere dark with chains hanging down, maybe some sparks flying and a whole lot of funky grimacing. It's the most eighties thing I've heard since the eighties, except even as I formulate the thought, I realise how unfair it is. Hula only sound so firmly cemented into their era because of the distance between now and then, and how record production has changed, not even necessarily for the better; and it doesn't even make sense when you consider that what replaced this sound was mostly jangly arseholes trying to recreate the sixties.

So I gave Threshold a few more spins than I might usually have done, mainly just to reacquaint myself with what all those college discos I always fucking hated used to sound like in between the obligatory bursts of James Brown and Smalltown Boy. It takes some doing, but it's worth it. Once you're past all the reverb on the snare and those congas pinging away in the left channel, distinguishing features begin to emerge - and lest we either forget or hadn't realised in the first place, Hula incorporated members of Clock DVA, the Box, and Chakk, so it's not unreasonable to expect at least some distinguishing features. Twenty or thirty spins down the line and it still sounds like a cross between at least two of the marginally more famous bands already invoked, and yet somehow they get away with it by virtue of just how hard those boys were straining and sweating at their instruments, and they get away with it because there's something brooding, genuinely soulful, and even jazzy buried beneath the pounding rhythms, particularly with Get the Habit and Black Wall Blue.

I'd say there used to be a lot of music which sounded like this, but it's an illusion of memory and not entirely true, because most of those cooking to this recipe usually sounded like Pop Will Eat Itself and were thus a complete waste of everyone's time. Hula were one of the few acts who got it right. Thirty years later, this still holds surprises.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Swans - White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)


My first encounter with the Swans was hearing Time is Money on Peel, a track with which I became briefly obsessed. It suggested a New York version of Test Dept channelling Whitehouse, an impression which I guess might be considered fairly perceptive given Michael Gira citing the influence of Whitehouse in one of the music papers a little later. Naturally I owned everything I'd been able to find within the space of another month - Filth, Greed, Cop and a stack of twelves. I'd initially experienced some shock at just how slow that material was after the moderately jaunty Time is Money, but I got over it and played those records to death, fascinated by how such a racket could ingrain itself in my mind's ear so profoundly. Of course, it was more than just the noise. It was also the atmosphere, dark and genuinely unsettling without any of the usual pantomime by which music artists tend to summon a bad vibe. I'd been horrified by Whitehouse the first time I heard them, but the Swans seemed to go much further, much deeper, inverting William Bennett's psychotic abuse as something more reflective, closer to self-harm.

Then came Children of God which wasn't actually very good, so poor in fact, that ownership of the related Love Will Tear Us Apart 12" single - another one of those Joy Division covers which improves on the original - means there's no point owning the album given that Our Love Lies is on the b-side, that being the only decent track.

So that was the point at which I drifted away. I didn't hear anything about The Burning World or White Light which made me want to listen to them. They're very good, I was told a couple of times, but I'd already lost interest. The hypothetical Swans record full of jangly songs sounded like it would be about as much use as a one-legged man at an arse kicking competition; and yet, there I was in Rough Trade in Covent Garden in 1992, and I hadn't bought a record for a while, and the only thing which seemed worth a tickle was Love of Life, and how bad could it be? Curiosity got the better of me.

I got home, slapped it on the Dansette, and was startled to find that the Swans had turned into Big Country while I'd been looking the other way. It sounded nothing like their previous work, and yet had the same grinding quality, the same pensive intensity combined with an unfamiliar, more positive current, like golden rays of sunshine giving contrast to the shadows 'n' shit. I loved it immediately, and then bought nothing further because everyone had stopped making records - or vinyls as tosspots call them these days. Ed Pinsent slipped me a copy of the Swans Are Dead double CD when someone sent it to the Sound Projector for review, but it was clear that something had gone wrong. Swans had devolved to a slow jangly mess, the sleigh bell heavy soundtrack to one of those BBC Christmas idents with kids dressed as snowmen ice-skating around a giant Christmas pudding shaped like the number two, except in this case with the addition of John Kerry reading a speech about disappointment. I still dig out Swans Are Dead from time to time, and it continues to leave me unmoved.

Eventually it occurred to me that maybe I'd missed out with The Burning World and White Light, given that Love of Life had become one of my favourite records of all time. I found The Burning World on Discogs, which happily coincided with a vinyl reissue of this one; because I have all of the others on vinyl so that's how I'd like to keep it, if it's all the same to you.

The Burning World came as a shock, roughly being the Swans as the Dubliners doing songs with choruses and everything, and even that cheeky cover of Nice Legs, Shame About the Face. It's not amazing, but it pisses all over Children of God, and Can't Find My Way Home is pretty powerful.

Oddly, considering how it forms the jam in a sandwich of two distinctly song-orientated albums, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity somehow sounds like the intermediary stage between Children of God and The Burning World.

It's okay. I'll get to the point soon. I'm even starting to bore myself.

Technically speaking, I've waited twenty-one years to hear this record, and most of that time has been characterised by people telling me how much I've missed out; but then I'm referring to Swans fans here, and the worst aspect of anything will always be its stupid fucking fans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this band seem to have attracted an unusually joyless bunch of pillocks with not a chuckle muscle to share betwixt the entire sorry bunch. I'm sure you will have encountered one or two as they wend their wanky way to some yawnsome retrospective at the Barbican, fresh from sitting alone and frowning in an empty room whilst clutching a single rose. Did you see that piece on Derek Bailey in The Wire last month?

No, I fucking didnae.

Anyway, I play White Light from the Mouth of Infinity over and over and, month after month, it just won't stop sounding like the long, slow BBC jingle of an unusually depressing Christmas.

Love Will Save You eventually begins to resemble something half decent, suggesting the old Swans magic I remember, and Failure is okay, and some of the others seem all right; but contrast this with the direct celestial communication from God himself which was Love of Life, and it turns out that this was just another one of those intermediary records all along.

So now I know.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Public Image Ltd. - This is PIL (2012)


I picked this up when it came out, having considered myself a fan of this particular extension of Lydon's clever strategy of refusing to play the showbiz game by playing the showbiz game, thereby subverting the oh so predictable expectation of him refusing to play the showbiz game by not playing the showbiz game. It came out in 2012, and yet this is probably the second or third time I've played the thing, and only now do I understand why that should be.

It's because it's just not much good.

Over the years, I've extended the benefit of my doubt to such a distance that it now reaches out past Lydon himself, off into space, only tailing off somewhere beyond Pluto. All that crap way, way back in the day about being a limited company rather than a band didn't seem such a big deal because I was a teenager at the time and thus easily impressed. Then came PIL the wilfully awful cabaret act, and PIL the stadium rock band, both of which were forgiveable because of genuinely great albums, maybe even the best of Lydon's career - at least in my view. The Sex Pistols reunion seemed a natural if slightly sarcastic progression, and then there was I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and the butter advert, and still I remained untroubled by a man who had made his living from acting like a cock once again acting like a cock. It was funny, if anything; but as for Lydon the Trumpanzee, the man who admires Nigel Farage because Nigel Farage told Bob Geldof to get a haircut and it's such a wheeze when someone upsets a Leftie do-gooder - as for the Lydon who subverts our oh so predictable expectations of him not being a clueless reactionary tosspot by being a clueless reactionary tosspot: I can't get behind that.

Now he just sounds like a chimp jumping up and down, doing the trademarked popeyed leer and screeching look at me! Maybe he always sounded that way. It's become impossible to ignore that he never really had that much going on beyond two jokes and a funny story, an endearing ability to piss people off - usually those who deserved it - and the good fortune to end up in bands with Steve Jones, Jah Wobble, Keith Levene or John McGeoch. This time he's been lucky enough to end up in a band with Lu Edmonds, the drummer from the Pop Group, and a bloke who used to play bass for the Spice Girls; and truthfully, they get a decent groove going between them, something which sounds tantalisingly close to those Metal Box years, at least in spirit; but it's ruined as soon as Lydon opens his gob to wail the usual variation on yes, it's me, my name is John, and I'm here to defy your oh so predictable expectations, I rather think you'll find... Had he been mixed at about the level of an interestingly spooky sound effect - which I suppose is his strength, it could be argued - it might have worked, but no - he's here, he's loud, he's in your face as bloody usual, the man who makes fucking Porridge seem like a self-effacing model of restraint and nuance.

This could have been a great album, but it isn't.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Michael Jackson - Off the Wall (1979)

What the hell is he doing with his trousers?

No-one is more surprised than I am. There was some documentary about the making of this album on the television, and I'd been eating steak and beans and had thus become too fat to reach the remote, and as I watched I realised that I've always liked Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough and Off the Wall even if I'm only now able to admit it to myself. Punk rock is probably to blame. Whilst it felt great - even liberating - to at last be able to say actually, I think Gentle Giant are shit, we threw a whole lot of babies out with that bathwater back in the days of our Cromwellian haste to reduce our chosen grooves to just the good stuff - which was mainly the Damned, obviously. Unfortunately, as often happens with primarily honkeycentric musical subcultures, there was a certain unspoken resistance to some aspects of black culture which make for uncomfortable viewing with hindsight - not quite the full-on xenophobia of disco sucks, but something in that direction, as demonstrated in the punk preference for those realms of black culture most closely resembling itself - reggae and sound systems rather than that gay stuff which was always on the radio, beloved of casuals, soul boys, squares, and other unenlightened wage-slave losers who'd probably never even heard of Mark Perry.

Of course, you don't seem to hear much Jonathan King on the wireless these days, and it can be similarly difficult getting past what Michael Jackson became - some creepy white dude with the emotional development of an eight-year old; but it's a testament to the quality of his music, at least his decent music, that it still sounds great, a wonderful piece of what was, rather than simply the formative efforts of a man with an illegal hobby. So, relegating the beastliness to the dying days, the deeds of a complete fuck-up who regrettably no longer mattered in any meaningful sense, truly a victim of his own success, let's go back to when Michael was just a young black dude with a great voice and anatomically improbable moves.

Off the Wall is still hailed as a classic, despite everything; and it's a classic providing you skip past Girlfriend and She's Out of My Life - awful balladic landfill of the kind which continues to blight many an R&B album. I don't know why they do it. Maybe some producer suggests a couple of ballads shoved in there. Let's have a couple of softer numbers, he suggests in my imagination, otherwise everyone's going to dismiss our masterpiece as just another disco record, and no-one will take it seriously.

Girlfriend was written by Paul McCartney, and you can really tell. It probably would have sounded okay in 1964 with all the moptop woooh and yeeeah embellishments, but in 1979 on Off the Wall, it wasn't even as good as the Wings version, if you can imagine that; and She's Out of My Life is one of those sappy songs turded out by some balding New Yorker with a piano who also wrote hits for other major stars you couldn't pay me to listen to.

Continuing on the negative tip, Off the Wall kind of sags towards the end, even without the two stinkers. Whilst the last few tracks are decent, it feels almost as though they could just as easily have been above average b-sides, and this is partially the fault of the album opening with such amazing material. Of course it was just disco music, but Jesus - with hindsight it all sounds so live and sharp and tight as fuck, with only a synth bass having derived from any button pushing. You already know how the strings sound, and the horn section, because you've heard Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough a million times; as have I, and yet direct off the record it may as well be the first time - it's that fresh. It sounds so and new and positive that it has me all hopeful as I look forward to the advent of the Sinclair ZX81. I doubt any of them would have admitted it, but this was what all those white guys in German vests with trumpets desperately wanted to sound like.

It isn't a classic, but it sort of is if you squint a bit and we pretend there are only eight tracks on the record rather than ten. Also, it's nice to recall that Jackson's once legendary status was not entirely unjustified, and so it's probably better to remember him as he was than as he became.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Enhänta Bödlar - Akustisk Böldpest (2007)


Of all the noisy industrial weirdies who ever vanished into obscurity never to be heard from again, Enhänta Bödlar were always at the very top of my comeback wishlist, one of the few acts of whom it could be said with absolute sincerity that just one album and a few tapes really weren't enough. I've held this opinion since they dropped off the radar in about 1985, or at least since they dropped off my radar. I almost had to beg Uddah-Buddah to send me a copy of the first album, Ogreish Guttural Wounds. I was under the impression that he hadn't been particularly pleased with it, and he mentioned something about plans to bury what copies remained out in the forest somewhere. I also gather that it was around this time that he fell out with Roger Karlsson, the other half of Enhänta Bödlar who went on to achieve arguably greater notoriety with Brighter Death Now. Ogreish Guttural Wounds had a fairly crappy home made sleeve - photocopies glued onto the cover of something picked up at a charity shop, and it really was a fucking weird record - mostly chainsaw synth riffs spun from the arpeggiator of a Roland SH101, with Uddah-Buddah delivering what we may as well call sermons over the top. It was very basic and very dry with hardly any effects, but it was like nothing I'd heard before or have heard since. It sounded slightly insane, darkly surreal, brutal in an almost medieval sense, and yet somehow funny - all at the same time. The closest analogy I can think of is that Enhänta Bödlar were at an equivalent tangent to their peers as were the Bonzos in their day. Accordingly I nearly quacked my pants with excitement when I looked on Discogs and saw that I'd missed the memo about this comeback album.

The first major difference, aside from a fancy sleeve, is that it's completely different. Where Ogreish Guttural Wounds was all conveniently in English, most likely as a concession to the anticipated audience, Google translate cautiously identifies this one as a mixture of Swedish, Danish, and Afrikaans. Happily my friend Marianne Mandøe Berlev was on hand to fill in a few blanks regarding the track titles:

Acoustic Boils Plague, Amputate More, Cruel Pilgrims, Talium Tabernacle, Catacomb War, Torture is Freedom, The Edge of the Middle Ages... can't decipher the last one. It's slang, something about court jesters...

The music is likewise very different - at least in sound, possibly not in spirit if the titles are any indication - benefiting from production values and enough of a budget to justify release in an ostentatiously numbered edition. My first thought was, blimey - it sounds like Red Mecca, mainly thanks to whatever they did to the drum machine; but this impression is lost by the second play. Musically it's rhythmic, albeit occasionally double-jointed mutant rhythms with a dose of rickets, electronic, and er...

As with Ogreish Guttural Wounds, it's really not quite like anything else that springs to mind. Some of it sounds like mains hum copied and pasted across a laptop screen, or Saturday Night Fever remade either in hell or by Daleks, because there's a peculiar sort of nightmare disco element to some of these tracks, something almost glam rock, Heironymous Bosch atrocities with a glitter ball. There's a lyric sheet, of which I can follow just enough to appreciate that it's probably not the Beach Boys, lyrically speaking, and of course there's the skull with a big fucking hole in it; and then we have the typographic swastika and a Horten Ho 229 Nazi delta-wing on the cover, but I'm not getting into that fucking argument again.

Language barrier and musical evolution aside, I get very much the same vibe off this one as I did its predecessor. In terms of pretty much everything, Enhänta Bödlar made all those other supposed industrial noise chancers sound like wankers. This is a genuinely amazing album. If you walk past this to get to yet another Throbbing Gristle live reissue, you're an idiot.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Ray Reagan & the Rayguns (2009)


You may recall Stan Batcow from such acts as the Membranes, Howl in the Typewriter, Ceramic Hobs, Blunt Instrument, and the Def-A-Kators, but if not, here's another unfamiliar pie in which he's had fingers, a band which played gigs, garnered fancy-pants record company interest, and accordingly went into the studio at some point during the eighties; at which point the tale fizzles into either thin air or is absorbed into one of the other four-million bands in which the Batcow has been involved over the years. The story behind this collection is that it comprises those studio recordings, arguably those vintage studio recordings, dug out of a box in the attic and finally whipped into some sort of shape.

I have to admit, upon first listen it sounded a lot like just another Pumf record. Stan has a fairly distinctive sound and songwriting style, which I suppose can be a hindrance as much as a recommendation; but the strengths of the album really begin to come through after a couple of spins, once it's obvious that this isn't quite just another Pumf release. I think the point at which it clicked for me was where I suddenly realised how much Ray Reagan & the Rayguns remind me of Hawkwind - particularly on the chugging Dopamine, although a faintly crusty festival vibe informs the enterprise as a whole. I'd say it reminds me of the Levellers in places, except I never liked the Levellers, and this is better, and presumably predates them by a couple of years; which seems particularly pronounced on Salt And Pepper, a thoroughly breezy account of getting raided by the pigs, country tinged, and so fucking catchy you'd swear you'd heard it somewhere before.

After about the fifth play it occurs to me that this might even be the best thing ever released on the Pumf label. It seems to represent all the strengths of those involved, not least being Stan Batcow as Ray Reagan, woven into something much bigger than the sum of its bits, and which doesn't quite sound like anything else after all. It's of its time, I suppose, with touches of pub rock and maybe the Stranglers somewhere in there, and even passages of cod reggae which manage to not sound fucking ridiculous; and there's a wonderful Hammond organ, or something of that kind. With a bigger, more expensive production - maybe from Clive Langer or whoever it was used to work on those Elvis Costello albums - this could have been massive, which I suppose potentially makes it a lost classic.

I sometimes wonder if Stan Batcow doesn't release too much, spreading himself too thin in certain respects, so it's nice to be reminded of what he can come up with when he's firing on all four cylinders.

On sale here, although you may have to root around for a bit.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Toyah - The Blue Meaning (1980)


I fancied Toyah something rotten when I was at school*, knowing her mainly as the punky presenter of Look! Hear!, a Birmingham based yoots programme featuring weekly performances by local acts such as the Neon Hearts, Ruby Turner, and others. Then, following her turning up on an episode of Shoestring, I realised she also had a band so I made my own Toyah badge using Humbrol enamel paints, copying the logo out of Smash Hits. Then, when I finally heard the actual music, it was okay, but somehow wasn't quite so amazing as I felt certain it would be. I mean, it was all right, but, well - you know...

I never heard The Blue Meaning at the time, having drifted away by that point, so I'm only just hearing it now, and incredibly - against all expectation - a couple of plays in and it's actually pretty fucking great. To backtrack, I picked it up as part of a double disc package along with Sheep Farming in Barnet, the first album, but not really an album seeing as it was just a collection of EPs and singles. Sheep Farming in Barnet was mostly the stuff I heard which left me underwhelmed, even at the age of fourteen. Neon Womb was great of course, and Danced and Our Movie, but once you're past those, it all blends into one and the individual tracks really don't work together as an album. She has a great voice, but nevertheless rather than sing she started out overacting to the music, like a sexier William Shatner - whoops, whistles, comedy John Major voices, all manner of funny noises - the kind of sounds which traditionally accompany spooky expressions of surprise made as though trying to convince the audience that you really are subject to the influence of dark forces. Similarly the music of that first handful of discs seems to be some prog band's idea of punk, or at least - cough cough - new wave; so the enterprise steers perilously close to resembling rock opera. I know that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing every single time...

Anyway, I guess once she'd got it out of her system with the stuff on Sheep Farming, whatever it was, The Blue Meaning really comes together as sounding very much like an album rather than a series of weird squeaking noises bearing no particular relation to each other. She's reigned in the overacting, developed a convincingly pseudo-operatic bellow, and the music rocks pretty darn hard, like it really wishes it had been produced by Tony Visconti. In fact I had to look at the sleeve to check that it wasn't, and I can easily imagine Next Day-era Bowie vocalising over some of this stuff. It's not punk, and never really was, and as has been pointed out from time to time, lyrically it's mostly pseudo-mystical horseshit about pyramids, crystal balls, and sphinxes: it's a self-involved teenage girl spending five hours putting on her make-up, making it look as weird as possible just so she can pull a spooky face and make you think she's deep and mysterious; but fuck it - you know all those Beach Boys records? They were just about cars and girls, most of them! Honest! If you've somehow mistaken The Blue Meaning for St. Paul's letters to the Galatians, then you're probably missing the point. I know how these days we're all busily declaring that everything from the eighties was tittersomely brilliant, at least now that we don't actually have to dress up in any of that shit, but The Blue Meaning is a real cracker of a debut album.

*: I recently discovered that the children's show Teletubbies was filmed on the farm upon which I grew up as a child, and of course Toyah was the voice of Teletubbies. I suppose, it might be a coincidence.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

David Bowie - No Plan (2017)


What's the possibility of my being able to write anything useful or meaningful about this? Minimal, I'd say, but fuck it - let's see what comes out...

It's been a year since he went and it still feels wrong, or at least unnecessarily weird - not least with that whole idea of Bowie having been the glue holding the universe together, which is why it's all turned to shit since and we've got fucking Wotsits Hitler running the show; and listening to No Plan facilitates my appreciation of how his being gorn still doesn't seem to make sense. Here are four tracks recorded while he was in the process of dying - as are we all, I suppose - one from
Blackstar, and three I've never heard, which I guess must be the last things he recorded and which failed to appear during his lifetime. The new material feels very much part of the album and the direction it took, sombre without necessarily sounding depressive, overtly jazzy, and somehow seeming both luxuriously lush and yet a fucking tough listen at the same time.

I don't want to get too bogged down in what it all means, because that's why you listen to the thing so there probably isn't anything I can say which is worth saying; but the crucial point is that, like Blackstar, the record does its job, and does it exceptionally well, and at least as well as any of Bowie's former glories. When I Met You is, I suppose, the last new Bowie song I will ever hear, and it feels like he knew it in so much as that it's kind of up, almost as though our man had grown tired of cataloguing the minutiae of his own impending demise.

See - I told you it'd be horseshit.

Just listen to the record.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Wrangler - LA Spark (2014)


There's a new one out of course, but having grasped the possibility of someone from Cabaret Voltaire still doing something worth listening to, I realised I should probably catch up with this one first. Wrangler features Stephen Mallinder, but probably shouldn't be regarded as Son of Cabaret Voltaire given the patently significant involvement of Ben Edwards and Phil Winter, as expressed in the predominance of vintage analogue synthesisers, or just proper synthesisers if you prefer. That said, Mallinder's characteristic mumbling growl is pretty distinctive, and musically it's very much a groove vaguely in the tradition of The Crackdown - that same sort of pulsing James Brown workout with sequencers popping away left, right and centre. Weirdly, for a record which sounds like it doesn't even make use of anything digital, let alone sampling technology, for something which sounds very much triggered and plumbed in and even seems to utilise what I'd swear is a spring-line reverb, LA Spark manages to sound surprisingly new and squeaky - fresh even. Aside from those already mentioned above, I was occasionally reminded of Kraftwerk back when they resembled Open University lecturers - which is odd given how Florian and the lads weren't particularly electronic back then - but Wrangler otherwise very much resembles its own animal - not even the electronic equivalent of the rockabilly revival I was half anticipating. Not only is there yet life in the old dog, but this might even be one of the best things with which Mallinder has been involved - which is eye opening considering how he doesn't appear to have aged since about 1985; and that the other bloke is now reduced to solo karaoke performances as Cabaret Voltaire, which strikes me as extremely poor form, but never mind.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hard Corps - Metal + Flesh (1990)


The nostalgia industry really is bollocks, particularly since the eighties slipped back into territory viable for excavation. Slap this one on the deck and you might envision yoots throwing shapes in pastel clothes whilst declaring Metal + Flesh to be the most eighties thing evah with all its gated snares and octopads; but it isn't because the eighties, if you take the trouble to look closely, was actually mostly Dire Straits and nobody breaking Matthew Wilder's stride, and David Christie saddling up, and Karel fucking Fialka. It was shite, which is why Hard Corps sounded so amazing.

Whilst bands incorporating three blokes with synths may not have been particularly thin on the ground at the time, Hard Corps distinguished themselves by doing it better than just about everyone else and carving out their own identity at least a year or two ahead of the curve. It also helped that they really did sound fucking hard, kind of like what Portion Control probably aspired to with a drum machine that kicks you in the head as much as it shoves you out onto the floor; but instead of pretending to play army on the back of that crushing rhythm, Hard Corps built up a darkly layered sensuality from sombre melodies and the late Regine Fetet's heavily accented voice; so there are all sorts of forces pulling against one another in this music - dark, sexy, clubby, sad, solitary, icy, and yet somehow euphoric.

They sounded like one of those best kept secrets when I first heard them. It felt like a privilege to come across the occasional twelve in some neglected corner of the record shop - must have got there by accident and now it's mine! This is my fucking music. No-one else in the universe could possibly understand how great this is. I took Je Suis Passée around to John's house and tried to recruit him, but he just didn't get it, and I later realised that the man was a bit of a tit. Sometimes I wonder if my possessive fervour reached such intensity as to be to blame for why Hard Corps never really made it big. They couldn't escape from my devotion, such as it was, and how great I felt when I stuck Hard Corps on and wacked the volume right up. Fuck the Smiths - this is what it felt like to be young in the eighties.

All these years later I discover that Regine is regrettably no longer with us, and that they weren't even French. Some wonder has gone from the world, but this music still sounds so good it makes you want to either punch someone or have sex.

Shit.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Portion Control - Simulate Sensual (1983)


Unless I dreamed it, I'm still just about able to recall that brief couple of weeks when everyone thought Portion Control were going to be the next bunch of obscure industrial weirdies to hit the big time, although admittedly were we to enter discussion of just what I mean by everyone, we could be here all fucking afternoon. I seem to recall that Raise the Pulse got played by Kid Jensen or some other mulleted evening DJ, and then suddenly Test Department were on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and we all forgot we'd ever cared about hard rhythmic electronics.

Living out in the sticks with record buying habits dictated by what I could afford with pocket money and what I brought home from my paper round, I found it fairly difficult to get hold of anything much by Portion Control for the purpose of finding out what they sounded like prior to declaring them my new favourite band that you've never heard of; but the Raise the Pulse 12" turned up in a local record shop, and it seemed to represent what Depeche Mode should have sounded like - which was good - providing an appealing contrast of shouting, machine gun drum machine, and a tinkly little keyboard riff played on a child's novelty organ most likely shaped like a table covered in moulded plastic cupcakes with a smiling teddy sat opposite. I always enjoyed the pleasingly authoritarian name suggesting nutrient slop dispensed to worker drones by means of a spigot, and the rumour that it derived from all three of them being employed in the canteen at the Houses of Parliament; but more than anything they remained mostly a great idea, at least for me. There were articles and reviews in fanzines peppered with intriguing track titles and the notion that Portion Control existed as two distinct technological entities - AMAG and VMAG, respectively Audio and Visual Media Assault Group. It's like they were from the fucking future or summink!

Inevitably, whilst not actually disappointed, I was a little underwhelmed when I finally got my mitts on product a couple of years later. I suppose I'd expected some formidably growling dystopian cybernaut resembling what Front 242 sounded like at the beginning of the nineties, but it more closely resembled a supermarket's own brand version of Cabaret Voltaire. This is the problem with the fetishisation of music technology - as was - namely that you really have to have something creative going on besides access to a synthesiser and an effects pedal, otherwise the chance is that your music will date pretty quickly, in some cases before you've even finished recording it.

The thing which strikes me about this era of Portion Control, at least as I listen to it in 2017, is that I could have done it myself without too much huffing and puffing. I recognise all of the equipment and what is done with that equipment, leaving little room for that old industrial magic - which I state mainly for the sake of contrast with the truism of everything from the allegedly industrial eighties now being declared amazing and ahead of its time as a matter of course. I Staggered Mentally was a great album, albeit a great album which sounded one fuck of a lot like Cabaret Voltaire, and rebranded as Solar Enemy they were astonishing live, but this early greatest not actually hits collection is interesting mainly as a record of its time. It's decent, but I suppose the hype was better.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Art of Noise - Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise? (1984)


It was the timing which sucked me in, the timing combined with the novelty of a record made from replayed samples of existing sounds, something which then remained unknown outside the Fairlight CMI being put through its paces on an episode of Tomorrow's World. Back in 1984, I was obsessed with the Italian Futurists and felt they shared some sort of rebellious impulse in common with the music I tended to like; so when this lot turned up, openly acknowledging Luigi Russolo's Art of Noises manifesto and on a label named after one of Marinetti's concrete poems, it caught my attention; and yet something didn't quite sit right. It might have been some sort of misplaced proprietorial regard of Futurism on my part - these people were cashing in on the thing which only I knew about and only I really understood and they hadn't asked my permission; but also it was irritating how Trevor Horn, when asked about Zang Tumb Tumb, said only that it was an onomatopoeic percussive sound, adding I suppose it's rather Dada.

Next they seemed to be everywhere, and so much so that I heard every single track on this album long before I bought it, which was actually a couple of years later on a wet Saturday afternoon when I couldn't really find anything else in the record shop. By that point the thing had become so ingrained that it couldn't fail to sound good, as indeed it did, and as it still does. It's sharp, funny, and stupid, and it has all sorts of things going on, and it's beautifully produced as you would expect; but I don't know if it was ever important or even particularly ground breaking, as many have since claimed.

The samples were, so I am informed, mostly presets which came with the Fairlight CMI, so most of what Art of Noise did was in the arrangement, and presumably in Horn's ability to make it all sound as lush as a Ferrero Roche advert; because at best what we have here is what Throbbing Gristle would have been were they all nicely behaved Oxbridge graduates, which is why Paul Morley made for such a good fit. The clues are all over the place, not least in sampled bass lines playing what may as well have been Rock Around the Clock and so inadvertently foreshadowing Jive Bunny; and then more recently I rediscovered a tape of the Horn promoting the first Art of Noise record on the wireless, during which he opined:

I think the truth of it is that people don't learn how to play their instruments properly nowadays. They learn how to talk to the music press. They learn how to do their hair. They learn about what to wear and what to say, but the basic physical learning of - do you know of anybody in a group nowadays who is a good guitar player? Do you know if the guitar player in Duran Duran is a particularly good guitar player? In the old days you knew who was a good player, you knew that Eric Clapton [was a good guitar player].

Seriously, grandad, fuck the fuck off. Of course, Morley and Horn were only ever involved in the most negligible sense, at least according to J.J. Jeczalik, but it seems significant that they were able to hitch their wagons to the Art of Noise in the first place without anyone noticing a disparity. Morley dismissed later Art of Noise releases as novelty records, seemingly implying that this one should be considered high art, which doesn't really work. It's great pop music, but it was never art, which, considering how Art of Noise achieved a whole shitload of musical firsts, is quite shocking; but then you might also argue that Jive Bunny did a whole load of stuff no-one had done before.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Stephen Mallinder - Pow-Wow Plus (1982)


Somehow I always had the impression that Cabaret Voltaire was mostly Richard H. Kirk, musically speaking, which on closer inspection is obviously a ridiculous idea being as it relegates Mallinder to er... eye candy, cheekbones and mumbling, I suppose. It's taken me a thoroughly embarrassing thirty-five years to catch up with this solo album, but I guess it's never too late to find oneself standing corrected. My assumption of Cabaret Voltaire being mostly Kirk is based on how much his solo Time High Fiction sounded like them; so given that Pow-Wow could similarly also have been a Cabaret Voltaire release, I guess there was a point at which the two of them were musically attuned to an uncanny degree. Pow-Wow, here reissued and slightly expanded as Pow-Wow Plus, dates from roughly the same period as Red Mecca and 2X45 and could quite easily sit between the two as part of a set, with the only incongruity being that it's largely instrumental and maybe more stripped down in some respects. The new thing for me, or at least the thing which has been obvious all along but I hadn't really thought about, is how fresh this material sounds - even thirty years later - and how little it owes to rock music, or ever really owed. I know there were a lot of young men in vests bleating on about a dance influence at the time, but this really does owe most of its moves to the weirder reaches of black music, funk, soul, jazz, dub reggae, even bits of Parliament; furthermore, as with most of the music with which Mallinder has been involved, there's nothing demonstrative here, neither Bobby Gillespie wearing his influences on his sleeve nor Porridge jumping up and down yelling look at me, just a laid back groove quietly doing its thing without feeling the need to tick any of the traditional crappy industrial music boxes. I know Cabaret Voltaire are not without a degree of acclaim, but still I feel they remain underrated when you engage with just how good some of their music was.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Devo - Something For Everybody (2010)


I've always found the idea that anybody could have a single all-time favourite music artist a little weird, but if pressed I'd have to say mine were Devo in so much as that whilst there have been months, perhaps even years, without them being much of a presence in my headphones, there has never been a time when I've stuck on a Devo record and found I wasn't really in the mood for it. Setting aside a pre-pubescent fixation with the Beatles, Devo were probably the first group I really got into as a teenager, and got into with sufficient fervour as to get me buying the records. They scared the living shit out of me when I first heard that debut album, a red vinyl copy lent to me by my best friend Graham, but once I got past my suspicion of this music as something weird, unwholesome and mutated - which of course it was - I was hooked, and apparently for life.

A couple of years later I was hanging out with a former Cravat and we were talking about Crass, of whom we were both fans. Ideally, we concluded, Crass should make records which sounded like the Human League or Roxy Music by which to smuggle their message into the hit parade and reach people who might genuinely benefit from their perspective on society; at which point of the conversation I realised it had already happened, and that's what Devo were. Of course, whilst Devo may not actually have much to say about anarcho-syndicalism, like Crass, they've never been shy in pointing out everything which is wrong with our society and our forever needing daddy to tell us what to do. The main difference is that you can dance to the Devo version because it's fundamentally stupid and fun, and even though it was born from Gerald Casale's outrage at witnessing cops shooting kids at Kent State, musically it's the Monster Mash as envisioned for a future designed by John Waters and Hugo Gernsback; and it's like this because it's a satire on culture, not something removed from it and living by its own laws in Epping Forest - which isn't a criticism of Crass, by the way, simply an acknowledgement of different strategies.

Something For Everybody will probably remain the final new Devo album given the passing of a Bob, and a couple of those left behind supposedly no longer on the greatest of terms. Continuing Devo's taking the piss out of society, the music industry, and themselves, the album was supposedly written by focus group in response to questionnaires asking what consumers would like to hear from Devo. I remember filling in one online, and that's supposedly why we have the blue energy dome on the cover, as opposed to any other hue of headgear. We also got to pick which tracks made it onto this album which, tellingly, makes for much better listening than the collection of rejects and leftovers which was later issued as Something Else For Everybody. I say much better listening, but what I actually probably mean to say is that this is an unequivocally perfect album, illustrating as it does why there can never be a musical institution greater than Devo.

Yes, I know, and I don't care. There are people who don't get Devo. I've met them on internet forums sniggering about how Devo is like totally gay LOL before returning to the thread discussing which Judas Priest albums rocked the hardest, which sort of proves that Devo were right about a few things.

With Devo, each song is a puzzle in so much as that there is either a directly progressive message, or one otherwise implicit in the form, and it's usually communicated in terms which combine the novelty of the Archies with the mind-expanding strangeness of the Residents; and unscrambling that puzzle, you arrive at a place wherein it becomes impossible to sustain ridiculous devolved ideas, or so my theory goes. What this means, or what I think it means, is that if you get Devo, then you're probably doing something right; and you've probably never stood outside Planned Parenthood wearing an NRA t-shirt and holding up a crucifix; and you almost certainly didn't vote for the Annoying Orange. The music of Devo improves our world by making us better people, and if you need proof - next time you get your heart broken, eschew the usual soundtrack of miserable fuckers in favour of almost anything by Devo. I promise, you'll notice the difference in a very short time.

So yes, this will most likely be the final Devo album, which is a shame but - Lord - what a finale! Musically it's almost a summary of their entire career - the sharp, irresistible pop of Freedom of Choice, the synthetic grandeur of Shout, and the faintly disturbing mutant novelty of their weird primal phase - Fountain of Filth, Buttered Beauties and the rest, not even omitting the occasional Popeye-style ethnic caricature switched on its head as happens with Cameo. Something For Everybody rocks hard and dresses like the Jetsons whilst still managing to squeeze out a tear of more genuine feeling than anything Sting ever did in a rain forest.

In the bigger scheme of things
We haven't been around here more than a moment.
And yet too many, it seems,
Believe we are creating a brand new world around us.
We are creating a brand new world without us.
Maybe it really is okay.
Although we're digging our own graves,
At this moment.

I could write about how no-one really took them seriously because they were scared of the truth about de-evolution, namely that it was never a marketing gimmick like Adam Ant pretending to be a pirate or whatever; but some of us did take them seriously, and I guess we've been proven right because we're now living in the world described in Don't Shoot (I'm a Man).

This might be our very last chance. Let's not fuck it up.